t was always stress that sent her soaring.
It had been at least three years since Suzanna had floated to the ceiling, but there she was, bobbing among the porch eaves. She knew if she could just relax she might even enjoy watching over her tea shop below: customers sampling her famous epic scones and drinking a variety of classic and eclectic teas. But she couldn't relax. She never floated during good times. Nothing in the past three yearsâthe general stress of marriage, new motherhood, and running a thriving businessâhad so much as lifted a heel off the ground. Not even Zelda, the ancient exâmovie star who held court in the tearoom every Tuesday, ordering one scone and greeting other customers for hours, could get a (literal) rise out of her. But today, clearing the tables on the porch and looking out on the view that never got old, that of the Pacific Ocean, just past the Beach Walk where her tea shop and bookstore stood, she was sure she saw him.
Rio, the man who had once elevated Suzanna's self-loathing to a fine art.
He'd disappeared from her world without a word. He'd been not only her fantasy, but her dance instructorâthe dance being salsaâone incarnation seamlessly merging into the next. Rumor had it that he had taken off for New Zealand with a dance student named Lauren. Suzanna hadn't seen him since she'd gotten engaged, let alone married and had a baby. She never thought of him. Well, she tried never to think of him, which wasn't the same thing, but she always pushed him out of her mind as soon as he started dancing around in her head. The dreams, well . . . she didn't really have any control over them, did she?
Nothing had been good, let alone real, about Suzanna and Rio's relationshipâif you could call it that. It wasn't a relationship at all. The whole thing sort of boiled down to some ill-thought-out grappling at Rio's convenience. But she never hated him. If anything, she was grateful to him. The months of her obsession with him turned out to be the impetus she and Eric needed to finally admit they had been crazy about each other since high school. Love, marriage, and a baby carriage all fell right into place after that.
Suzanna carefully avoided the cobwebs clustered in the porch eaves as she tried to talk herself down. Maybe it wasn't Rio she saw Powerblading down the Beach Walk. This was Venice, after all. There were lots of fit men in their late thirties who were either so rich or so self-employed or so unemployed as to be skating in the middle of a workday. And besides, this guy didn't have Rio's signature ponytail. He wouldn't have cut that, would he? No, she decided, it must not have been him.
Then what am I doing up here?
She heard her husband's voice coming from inside the Rollicking Bun . . . Home of the Epic Scone, where he ran the bookstore part of things. That brought her back to earth. He was deep in conversation with someone, but she couldn't tell whom. Shaking from her float, she tried to calm her nerves and peeked into the tiny book area they had nicknamed the Nook. There he was, her darling husband, Eric.
She loved to tell people their story, about how they had finally admitted their love and now were living happily ever after.
Suzanna thought perhaps the phrase “The rest is history” might fit their story better. She was still madly in love with Eric and he, apparently, was still in love with her. They definitely had their passionate moments. But Eric had always been a man with a lot of interests, and he was very easily distracted by a good cause. Suzanna knew better than to think that would change, that he would be consumed with her . . . well, she knew it intellectually. But she had to admit his zeal for life sometimes exhausted her.
She peeked into the Nook. Eric was sitting at a table with Bernard and Mr. Clancy, two guys she and Eric called the Grumpy Old Men. Mr. Clancy was the owner of a brick courtyard a few establishments down the Beach Walk. It was full of shops that probably wouldn't find a clientele anywhere else in the world. If you were looking for incense, kites, fabric from Bali, or a nice henna tattoo, you'd probably wind up at the humbly named Mr. Clancy's Courtyard. Bernard, a photographer and general artiste, was one of his tenants. The two of them had battled over the years, mostly over little things such as how much merchandise could be displayed in the windows facing the Beach Walk without looking tacky, but now it appeared that they were in some sort of war.
Eric loved nothing more than mediating. When it came to keeping harmony on their block, Eric jumped right in. Suzanna and their little girl, Lizzy, hadn't seen much of Eric these past couple of weeks. She didn't know what the whole thing was about; she was sure he'd told her, but she got his causes mixed up and had stopped paying close attention.
Suzanna went into the tea shop to get ready for the day ahead. She knew that she was the luckiest woman in the world to have married her soul mate. She knew that Rio was a missed bullet.
But her heart was pounding to a salsa beat.
taring into the kitchen cupboard, Virginia realized she was out of dog food. After several moments of trying to will a bag of Royal Canin Mini Chihuahua Dog Food into existence, she gave up and rubbed a fist-sized area of steam off the window. Squinting into the murk, she watched the snow clustering in the gutters and turning gray. Picturesque snow seemed to be in short supply this winter. Everyone in the city was wearing black, as if in mourning for the glory days of summerâthe pollen, the sweltering streets, and the humidity.
The kettle whistled, which startled Piquant, the teacup Chihuahua, as much as it did Virginia. As she made tea, Virginia stared down at the little dog, who looked like a miniature deer. He looked back at her with his wet black eyes.
Blink, damn it.
Virginia had gotten used to Piquant's disconcerting stare, although he had developed a wheezing cough over the last couple of weeks, which was starting to concern her.
When Virginia's kids were growing up, they always had dogs, often several at a time. In sprawling, casual Napa Valley, dogs just showed up and stayed. But they were, as her late husband, Martin, always said, “real dogs,” meaning that they were all mixed, usually unfortunate-looking, big animals that could basically fend for themselves. A little food and they were good to go. Martin would surely roll over in his grave if he got a look at Piquant, who not only needed special food, but also a coat for venturing outdoors on all but the most temperate of New York City days. Piquant had booties as well, per the vet's recommendation. Virginia followed the doctor's orders: that Piquant was not to venture out in the wintertime without shoes. But she only put them on the dog when she and Piquant were safely outside and no one in the building could see them. Virginia wasn't sure who felt more foolish, she or the dog.
Momentarily ignoring the dog food situation, she tried to get close but not too close to the radiator, which tended to whistle and spit if it sensed you were getting near enough to access some heat. The radiator was even more skittish than her dog.
Three years ago, Virginia had been a professor of history in Napa Valley in sunny . . . sunny . . . sunny California. Her late husband had taught English at the same university. They both loved teaching, but Martin lived and breathed it. She hadn't admitted it, maybe she hadn't known it consciously, but sometimes all those bright young minds wore her down, while Martin's enthusiasm for his students never seemed to ebb.
Virginia peered out the window again, remembering how her husband would gleefully challenge his students to defend the Oxford comma. He would write: “I walked down the street with a doctor, a lawyer and a stamp collector” on the chalkboard. He would then ask his students how many people were walking down the street with himâtwo or three? Was the lawyer a stamp collector in his off-hours or were the lawyer and the stamp collector different people?
No one in the history of the world got more joy from the Oxford comma than Martin Wolf.
It's funny that I seem to remember his work more than I do my own.
Virginia was initially horrified when thoughts like that invaded her head. She was of the hard-core feminist generation, clearing the road for younger women who could now take their professions for granted. Professor? Sure. Doctor? Of course. Astronaut? Why the hell not?
But when Virginia thought about Martin happily arguing with students, he didn't seem quite so far away, so she cut herself some slack. She had been as good as any man at her job and had nothing for which she needed to apologize. And so she thought whatever politically incorrect thoughts popped into her head about her husband and savored them. Once he was gone, the thought of teaching exhausted her, as much of a sad surprise to her as it was to her dean.
Virginia had been at loose ends since her husband died in a car accident and Suzanna and Erinn, her two girls, had grown and moved to big cities. The sting of irony was certainly not lost on her that she and Martin, who were both born and raised in cosmopolitan eastern cities, had decided to raise their daughters in bucolic Napa Valley, only to have both girls at one time or another pronounce the area boring. Virginia declared she would move to New York, where her husband and she and Erinn, when she was small, had spent a few very happy years. Her girls, both living in Los Angeles by this time, were shocked by the news. Virginia's goal was to shake things up, and her daughters' reactions just added a little extra zing to the entire idea.
When she first moved east, Virginia filled her days with museums and theater and other Manhattan-centric activities. She tried all the Chinese restaurants, bagel shops, delis, cafÃ©s, and cupcakeries in her neighborhood. Just being new to the city kept the pain of widowhood at arm's length for several months. But pain did show up. Sitting on a park bench, right in the middle of a fresh H&H bagel, the understanding that Martin was dead finally hit. Really hit. It felt as if she had just been acting the part of the devoted widow and now, in a flash, she was living it. She started to choke on the bagel and was grateful that she managed to swallow the dough before attracting attention to herself. How would she explain that she'd just realized her husband was dead, when his death certificate was already eight months old? Virginia closed her eyes, hoping her reality might somehow change. She was retired. She was three thousand miles from her daughters, and she was, at least for the time being, a New Yorker. It took a while before she could bring herself to open her eyes.
After the bagel incident, Virginia's love affair with the city started to wilt. She tried to keep herself distracted. On her daughter Erinn's advice she joined a book club and on her daughter Suzanna's advice she joined a knitting group. On her own she took up mosaics; she found an old table on the corner and lugged it into her apartment. She had to admit, she had done a pretty good job creating a blazing red, orange, and yellow sunburst, which she realized, after she had finished it, had nothing in common with any other furniture in her apartment. She looked for other things to divert her and now had Mongolian clay pot cooking lessons, jewelry-making, and stained-glass classes under her belt. But nothing brought her any joy. She couldn't admit it to anyone but she felt trapped and bored by everything.
She was a little sheepish feeling trapped and bored in what was touted as the most exciting city in America, if not the world. She had started putting out feelers to her girls. Her “girls” were now women in no uncertain terms. Erinn was in her forties and Suzanna in her thirties, but to Virginia they were still “the girls.” She would let a gentle hint slip out now and then in phone or e-mail conversations . . . wondering what they thought about her MAYBE moving back out west. She always tried to stress the word MAYBE . . . MAYBE back to Napa. MAYBE somewhere around Los Angeles; it was a big place; she wouldn't have to crowd them. Mothers know their daughters (like it or not) and Virginia knew that Suzanna would love it if they were closer, geographically. The MAYBE wasn't for herâit was for Erinn. Virginia's eldest had always kept her own counsel. Virginia didn't doubt Erinn's love for her, but she could always detect a note of exasperation in Erinn's voice when she felt Virginia was getting too close . . . either geographically or emotionally.
Piquant stood forlornly over his bowl, craning his head to peek passive-aggressively up at Virginia. Virginia sighed. She looked on-line and read that grains were good for Chihuahuas. She poured gluten-free Rice Krispies into the bowl. The dog's little charcoal briquette of a nose sniffed at it. He looked up again. Virginia poured some rice milk over the cereal, hoping that might help tempt the little beast into eating. The cereal lived up to its advertising and let out a loud SNAP, CRACKLE, and POP! Piquant leaped into the air and scuttled under the kitchen chair, shivering in that little-dog way that drove Virginia crazy.
“How do you even call yourself a dog?” she asked.
It was Virginia's doctor who first suggested she get a furry friend, on the theory that “older people need companionship and something to take care of.” Virginia was a tiny bit affronted at both implications, that she was an “older person” and that she was in need of “something to take care of.” Weren't raising a family and four thousand college students enough for a cosmic pass into sloth-hood?
She had not consulted her girls when she got the Chihuahua. Why should she? She was her own woman now, not a conscientious professor, a devoted wife, an eagle-eyed mother. With the exception of whisking herself off to New York City, adopting Piquant was her first solo decision. A nurse in Virginia's doctor's office announced that he'd found the perfect dog for her (she hadn't said she was ready to take on a dog, but in all honesty, she didn't say she wasn't ready to take on a dog, either). The dog had belonged to a socialite, who carried it around town for photo ops. Then named “Hotstuff,” he apparently was subject to red eye in photographs, and the starlet decided she couldn't be seen with an un-photogenic dog. Erinn, with her recent television and photography background, explained later that red eye in dogs could not be fixed with the simple application used to fix the problem in humans. The starlet put the word out that she was looking to retire her pooch and hoped for “a quiet home with an elderly woman.”
“Elderly woman” is even worse than “older person.” These people need a lesson in P.R.
Virginia arrived at the doctor's office looking as youthful as possible, thanks to a drawer full of ancient cosmetics. She had a half-formed hope that the doctor and nurse would take one look at her and announce that they had made a mistakeâanyone with Virginia's energy and vitality was certainly not the right owner for Hotstuff. The socialite was looking for retirementâand all the calm that the word conveyedâfor her pup. A life with someone as vivacious as Virginia would surely be too much for Hotstuff 's diminutive heart.
This proved to be another one of Virginia's miscalculations, and she left the office as the new owner of a Chihuahua. As hard as she tried, Virginia could not bring herself to introduce her new pet as Hotstuff, so she tried other variations: Spicy (too suggestive), Pepper (too common), and Umami (too obscure). She finally settled on Piquant, which at least nodded to the flavor of the dog's original name.
The first weeks of dog ownership had been rough. Piquant was the Smart Car of the canine world, so tiny he could hide anywhere. Virginia would come home to the apartment and the dog seemed to have evaporated into thin air. She'd put down her purse and listen for any sound. Nothing. Then she would start crawling around the apartment on all fours, looking under the bed and sofa, rummaging through closets. She never caught him in the act of hiding. As she crawled around the floor she would finally hear him crunching his dog food in the kitchen. She would leap up and run to see him, casually chomping away. He would look up at her, but not miss a bite of food. Apparently, Chihuahuas didn't go in for that adoration thing you heard about in dogs.
He never came when called and at first Virginia thought he just needed to get used to his new name, so she stood firm and never called him anything elseâwith one notable exception. One day, while walking him in the park, he escaped his collar.
“Piquant!” Virginia called as the little tail disappeared into some bushes. “Piquant!”
Virginia was close to hysteria, convinced she'd never find him. She frantically started calling out, “Hotstuff! Come on! Over here, Hotstuff!”
Two teenaged boys started snickering. She looked at them.
“Ain't you a little old for this, Hotstuff?” one of them said.
Showing perhaps a smattering of solidarity, Piquant crawled out from under a holly bush. Virginia scooped him up and walked away with as much dignity as she could muster while the boys catcalled behind her.
Virginia knew that Suzanna loved getting pictures of Piquant from “Grammy” (Virginia laid down the law that she would not respond to the harsher-sounding “Grandma”) and sharing them with her toddler, Lizzy. When Erinn, who was more of a cat person but was clearly trying to be supportive, found out Virginia had taken on the miniature pet, she sent a “pet's perfect potty,” a strip of sod in a tray that a dog could use instead of Central Park. Virginia remembered opening the box and thinking there would never be a need for this contraption (which was basically a dog litter box). Virginia knew she was starting to be a bit reclusive and one of the upsides of dog ownership was that she would now be required to get out of the apartment on a regular basis. At the very least she would meet other pet owners. This, along with most of Virginia's “becoming a New Yorker” schemes, came to nothing. Piquant hated other dogs and Virginia was reduced to holding snippets of apologetic conversation as she crossed the street whenever another canine approached, Piquant snapping ferociously, little needle teeth bared for battle.
She was now very grateful for the “perfect potty,” which saved her from hitting the mean streets on frigid February evenings or scorching summer days. Basically, Manhattan lent itself to dog walking about two months out of the year . . . and that was when you had a friendly dog.
Virginia rinsed out the dog's bowl. She opened the refrigerator and saw the only other “people food” in her house was a half-eaten box of lo mein. Even though the dog only needed three hundred calories a day to keep body and soul together, Virginia knew firsthand that she'd pay a steep price if she gave him leftover Chinese. There wasn't a potty on earth perfect enough to contain the carnage once Piquant's digestive system became aware that it had been served spicy noodles.
“OK, let's go out,” Virginia said to the dog.