The first time I saw Ray was at a car dealership. It wasn’t actually the first time, but it was the time that mattered. I’d gone with my mother to help her pick out a new car.
My mother is a single woman, which she reminds me of often, flipping her hair back and laughing maniacally. Whenever she does this – when we’re out to lunch, for instance – everyone stops speaking and stares at her. She thinks she’s getting their attention. No, I tell her, you’re stopping them cold. It’s not the same thing.
‘You don’t understand,’ she often says, ‘I’m not used to being single.’
I take this to mean I should be used to it.
It was at one of these lunches I’d agreed to go with her to get a new car. Normally, when she asks something of me, I tell her I’ll think about it. I need time to prepare my excuse. This time, I’d had an oyster sliding around in my mouth, threatening to slip behind my tongue. The oysters were her idea, a way of catching me off guard. I accidentally said yes.
Outside of the dealership, sunlight glinted across the roofs of new and used cars. They were parked in color-coded rows. A man I went to high school with was helping us. His name was Ray and he was bald, or rather his head was shaved. I didn’t know whether to trust a man with a shaved head, it seemed misleading – pretending the hair there had never existed. It depressed me sometimes, to think that this was my dating pool. When I caught my reflection in the glass of the dealership, I saw myself in my button-down cardigan, which was also strange. The cardigan was brown, shapeless. I looked like a woman in her thirties wearing a cardigan. It wasn’t a bad thing. I had just had other plans for myself, plans to lead the life of a woman who’d never be caught dead in a cardigan. I wanted to be the kind of woman I sometimes noticed from afar, leaving a show or laughing in a crowded restaurant.
Ray was flirting with my mom, and then with me, like a ping-pong game, one I wanted nothing to do with.
‘What do you think,’ she said, regarding me behind her large sunglasses. ‘A convertible for your mother?’ She laughed again. She pulled her sunglasses down low on her nose and said to Ray in a breathy voice, ‘She’s my daughter.’
‘And the two of you look like sisters,’ he said. ‘Beautiful sisters.’
My mother looks nothing like me – darker hair, darker eyes. She’s quicker to speak, which makes her look different too, as though she’s always in motion.
I wanted him to know he shouldn’t bother with me; he should concentrate on her. ‘I’m celibate,’ I said. ‘Get thee to a nunnery.’ I laughed, but it was a different laugh than hers – a dull, deadpan sound meant to shut things down, to close the door on the conversation.
Ray looked confused. My mom said, ‘She’s joking with the nunnery stuff.’
‘Shakespeare,’ I said, and my mother shook her head at me.
A small silence followed, refreshing – deep enough to splash in for a second.
‘Anyway,’ she said, turning away from me and toward Ray, ‘what about an SUV? Like the women in those rap videos.’ She made a small, tight shimmy. I blushed despite myself. Any sexualized gesture of hers and I still felt fourteen.
Inside the dealership, a woman was watering the plants. Her hair was piled tall on top of her head and she wore a collared shirt and held an official looking black watering can. I watched her through the window, passing each plant and dipping her can, slow and methodical. She paid no attention to the red Lamborghini which the plants flanked. The leaves were a glossy green. I wondered if this were her only job – a plant caretaker. It didn’t sound bad to me.
I almost asked Ray about it, but when I turned back toward him, he was opening the door of a used bug-looking car, those Beetles with the rounded, convertible tops. He gestured for my mother to sit down.
‘How do I look?’ she said. The door was open, and one leg was in the car and the other leg was out.
‘Ridiculous,’ I said.
She waved me away. Ray wrote furiously on his clipboard. ‘Great deals on these,’ he said.
Fall was coming; you could taste the tang of it under the air. I said, ‘Soon it’ll be too cold for a convertible.’
She tossed her lemon-colored scarf around her neck as though the air were whipping it back. She placed both hands on the wheel, arms locked in racing position, pretending to drive.
‘Stop,’ I said. ‘Mom, stop.’ I shivered a little. I hated to see summer end. Even the fall was too cold for me, I could never get warm. I’m cold-blooded, I guess, reptilian.
‘Hunny,’ my mom said, reaching out of the car to hand me her cell phone, ‘take a picture of me in my new car.’
‘Mom,’ I said, ‘Come on. Get out.’
She held the phone out to me, steadfast.
‘Joy,’ I said, using her name. She ignored me. Ray kept watching, his eyes still ricocheting between the two of us.
‘Fine.’ I took the photo.
‘Sold,’ she said.
In Ray’s office, my mother signed the paperwork and Ray opened a bottle of sparkling cider to celebrate the purchase. Then he asked us both out to dinner. ‘My Uncle would be perfect for you, Joy.’ He was smiling at my mom, but I could feel the nagging interest in the corner of his eye, like a tiny, pale hand, reaching for me. I went back to staring at the faded diploma framed in plain, dark wood on his wall. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I couldn’t read it.
‘How could we resist a date,’ she said.
I rolled my eyes, exaggerating so she could see the whites – a thing she’d always hated. ‘Frailty thy name is woman.’
Ray laughed, but it was more like a shudder.
‘Shakespeare,’ I said.
‘He knows,’ Joy said, shaking her head. ‘Everybody knows. It’s not that hard.’
That Friday, my mother came to my apartment to prepare for our double date. After the trip to the dealership, I’d bought plants to set up around my entryway. It was just as I’d expected. The sight of them – and the fresh, damp smell – cheered me up. They’re harder than you’d think, plants, harder than fish to take care of. I thought maybe I’d ask Ray about the plant lady at the dealership, ask how she got those leaves so glossy.
I’d cleaned the place up for my mother’s arrival. An hour ago, my apartment had been strewn with discarded underwear from the past week, ripped open bills and magazines. Now the place looked immaculate.
Sometimes I stood at my refrigerator in various states of undress and tried different things out of cartons with a spoon, prodding the leftover Chinese noodles, my pulse quickening as though this wasn’t my food to begin with. I’d look over my shoulder like someone were about to catch me. Then I’d feel stupid, knowing there was nobody there but me. It was something I’d started doing right after my husband left, and lately I’d started doing it again – for the past month, I’d say.
I’d dressed for the date before my mom arrived, so she couldn’t make any suggestions about my outfit, couldn’t have a say in my choices. I wore a skirt, and traded the cardigan for an average, indiscriminate looking blazer. She, on the other hand, brought an overnight bag with toiletries, make-up and a few costume changes.
‘Mom,’ I said, watching her in my bedroom mirror as she twirled. ‘You look fine. Let’s not make this into something more than it is.’
She turned and looked at me pointedly. ‘And you, my dear, shouldn’t make it into less.’
We were going to a restaurant called Alfred’s, the type of place that used fancy cloth napkins but had silverware with permanent smudges. It cost too much for what it was, is what I’m saying. I’d insisted we meet them there – my mother’s only concession to me. She drove us in her new convertible. On the way, she said to the rear-view mirror: ‘This will be something good.’ She is a woman who believes in positive affirmations, in speaking what you want aloud.
When we arrived, the men were already sitting at the table. I saw them immediately. She and I both stood at the doorway, watching them, one of those rare moments – spying on somebody’s perceived privacy. Of course there were other people around, but I thought just standing there for a moment, observing them, could reveal something about how the date would go, if, let’s say, Ray had his feet up on the table, lounging, or was gnawing at his fingernails. Instead, Ray and the Uncle were talking quietly, laughing occasionally, other times looking serious. They had similar gestures – small, incremental ways of moving.
My mom whispered in my ear as we approached the table: ‘After dinner, we’re supposed to go dancing.’ She timed this so that she finished the statement just as Ray pulled out my chair. He smelled of antibacterial soap and mild, musky cologne.
‘Beautiful,’ he said, affably. ‘The two of you.’
He and the uncle, Frank, were dressed similarly, in brown blazers with a Houndstooth print, a fabric that made me picture old fashioned dens, the wood freshly polished, filled with books. Uncle Frank looked to be about my mother’s age. It was hard to tell, he was in that gray area of older men, the time when their aging seems to slow down while women’s seems to speed up.
In the restaurant there was the persistent, buzzing noise of a Friday night out, a kind of unfolding, and the dining room was dimly lit, flattering us all. Ray looked better than I’d remembered him being at the car dealership. Not great, but better. His shaved head looked sort of distinguished. But he had chapped lips that preoccupied him. He kept squeezing them together.
We ordered Caesar salads, all four of us, to make it easier on the waitress. She had a huffy, impatient way of coming and going, reminding us of all the places she would rather be. I jostled the ice in my water. I swallowed a sip. I did this a few times.
Our salad forks scraping across our plates, the four of us made polite conversation about my mother’s new car and the local high school Ray and I had both attended. I hated talking about that sort of thing, how close I’d stayed to home, how few places I’d been to or how little I’d done. I sensed Ray felt the same. He wanted to talk about my mother’s car, how she liked it, but not about his actual job – the selling aspect – and not about how he’d ended up doing it. I didn’t blame him.
The waitress came to ask what we’d like for our entrées. ‘Can I order for you?’ Ray asked. I wondered if he’d heard somewhere that women liked this. Then, I wondered if somewhere some women did.
‘Sure,’ I said. I didn’t know if this meant he was going to guess what I wanted or if I was supposed to tell him, and he would just repeat it out loud to the waitress. We both waited a moment.
‘The salmon,’ I said softly.
‘Sure,’ he answered. ‘Salmon.’ The waitress, blonde ponytail swinging, wrote it down.
Suddenly I wanted to ask Ray if he’d been married. He was the age for it, and he had that slow, careful demeanor, like he’d been considering someone else’s opinions for a long time.
I didn’t ask. Instead I said, ‘I’m separated.’ I spoke it like an exhale.
‘Me too,’ said my mother.
I looked at her as though she’d just appeared. Then I talked about her as though she’d left the room: ‘She was widowed, remarried, then divorced. Then, for a while, living with a boyfriend from whom she is now separated.’
‘I’m the most experienced of all of you,’ she said, in a singsong voice. She mimed checking off boxes. ‘Did it, did it, did it. But single now. Single and mingling.’ She laughed, throwing her head back as though it were a door opening. I looked around to see if people were watching.
When I looked back at her, she was staring hard at Frank, conveying something that seemed suddenly too vulnerable, or vulgar – too unclothed.
Ray looked as though he were about to speak. I cut him off with more car questions. It turned out I knew more about cars than I thought I did. After the waitress brought our entrées, the conversation moved smoothly along about nothing in particular.
Finally, I flopped my napkin on the table. ‘Are we all finished?’ I hadn’t meant it like that, in the job interview sense. I simply knew that nothing good came of sitting around, waiting to reveal things you might not have revealed had you just paid the bill.
‘Where now?’ asked Uncle Frank. I thought of my new plants, sitting in the quiet darkness of my apartment. I would have invented a dog, had my mother not been sitting across from me.
She pressed her hands together. ‘Dancing!’
‘Wait, Mom. It’s late, and we’re old.’ I gestured between Ray and me. He smiled, nodding.
‘True,’ he said. He turned toward me suddenly, jerking the table. My water almost spilled. ‘What about a compromise and we just go to a bar?’
‘Okay,’ I said, surprising myself.
We went to a place within walking distance. It was small and velvety-feeling, like the inside of a jewelry box. An older couple was dancing near the bar and the man kept knocking the edge of a barstool with his elbow. The man had a single, small hoop earring that gleamed in the light and I thought a long time about the earring afterward. Like when did he get it and why?
‘We could dance,’ my mom said.
‘Mom,’ I said. ‘Please.’
She put a hand up to stop me. ‘Don’t start,’ she said, though I’d been trying to end it.
I told Ray I wanted a glass of red wine and he ordered the same for himself. It was similar to the Caesar salads – making it easier on the bartender, and easier on himself, maybe, because he didn’t have to decide, easier on everyone I guess. The truth was he was growing on me. He had a nice way of speaking, and he listened to other people talk with a small, wise smile on his face. When I said something funny, he shook his head with that same smile, as though he were resigned to the strangeness of life. He did it especially when I talked about my marriage. I didn’t say a lot, just enough to keep the conversation moving – enough to turn subjects. I told him a story about buying a dog when my husband didn’t want one and calling the dog Husband.
‘Where is the dog now?’ Ray asked.
‘He has him,’ I said. ‘He’s got Husband.’
Ray was different than how I remembered him at the dealership. As far as high school went, I only recalled that he ran track and always looked a little too pleased with himself. It was strange, all of the wrong impressions you had about people, impressions that were usually never cleared up. I pictured all of those impressions walking around, bumping into each other, confused.
Ray and I were sitting at the bar. Frank and my mother were at a small, corner table with their heads bent forward, toward each other. She looked shy. Maybe she felt that way all of a sudden. She acted different around the men she liked – quieter and softer.
She is a romantic, my mother, in her own way.
After our third glasses of wine, Ray asked me if I wanted to go home with him. I thought of my own apartment; now immaculately clean with that fresh, wet plant smell in the air. I invited him over to mine instead.
While I fumbled with the lock, he said he usually didn’t ask this of a woman on a first date.
‘To come home.’
I said it didn’t matter; I usually didn’t go on first dates anyway. I had no way to know what was normally expected. We sat on my sofa, and I brought up the plant lady from the dealership.
‘Truthfully,’ Ray said, ‘I don’t know all that much about her.’ We were sitting side by side in the dimness, facing the television, as though we were watching something in the blackness there. He turned to kiss me so suddenly I made a noise in surprise – it came out like a whimper. I didn’t have time to position my hand correctly, so now it was pressed in between the two of us. For a while, it was just the sounds of all that stuff – the breathing, the squeak of the couch beneath us. The house was so silent that when we paused, and he rubbed his hand against his faint beard beginning to show, I heard that too – that soft, scuffing sound.
The entire time I was very aware of my body. My blood felt thick, clogging my veins. It might have been the wine too, slowing everything down. We moved the activity to the bedroom. Just like that – as simple as I said it. I thought it would be more complicated, and I’d be unraveling by now, thinking of a million things. My husband, for instance. But I wasn’t. I felt pretty clearheaded.
The next morning I made us both omelets, and then we went on a hike in a canyon near my house. I’d only been there once before.
‘That’s crazy,’ Ray said, leaning his head back to look at the canyon wall, casting segmented shadows over our path. ‘You have all of this around you and don’t use it.’
It was depressing when he put it that way. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, ‘Maybe I’ve been here a few other times.’ I didn’t want him to think my life was that small, that shrunken. We stood at the top and took in the view. It was getting chilly. We were high enough to be above the fog, so the city looked linty and opaque beneath the haze. Ray slipped his arm around my waist and I leaned into him slightly. It was new, that heat coming off of him, a person seeing you naked and wanting to see you again, the next day, clothed. It was definitely the beginning of something. During the hike, I had my hair piled under a stupid looking baseball cap. Now, when I took it off, my hair was sweaty, plastered against my forehead. Ray took my hand and brought it to his mouth. He didn’t kiss it; he just held it there.
‘This is happening fast,’ I said, when we neared the bottom of the canyon.
‘Well, that too,’ I said.
‘I’m kidding. Getting to know someone always does, at least when it’s going well. Feels fast, I mean.’
I nodded, though it wasn’t really what I meant.
As it turned out, the hike was the beginning of something. We started doing more things together, falling into a relationship. I barely noticed it happening. Like slipping into hot water so gradually you think of it as warm. He’d show up in the evening without calling and I’d make him something to eat without his asking. He called to say hello, to hear my voice, to talk about nothing in particular. I stopped quoting Shakespeare. My mother could hardly contain herself; she loved the idea that she’d set the whole thing in motion.
One night, a few months later, Ray and I were sitting on the sofa thumbing through magazines when we heard a dog barking. The bark had a raw sound, like it was hurting the dog’s throat. It was a bark I recognized. It sounded like Husband, my yellow Labrador.
‘Did you hear that?’ I asked.
He looked up from his magazine. ‘What?’
‘That barking. It sounds like Husband.’
Ray looked confused, trying to place the name Husband with the word ‘bark’. He’d been so relaxed, his feet up on my coffee table. Now he looked like I’d woken him up from a nap. He glanced around my apartment.
‘Who?’ he asked.
‘Husband,’ I said, ‘my dog’. I was already up from the couch, moving toward the door. When I opened it, there was Husband – both Husbands, actually. The dog sat there with his head slightly tilted, the pink tip of his tongue hanging out. My husband was standing with his hands in his pockets, looking down at the dog. He looked up at me and asked how I was doing. The dog started to pace through the hall, his haunches shifting like machinery. I didn’t how to respond, so I didn’t say anything, I just watched the dog padding silently back and forth.
I hadn’t seen my husband, James, for about six months. This isn’t to say we hadn’t spoken. He would call, breathing on the line, and then I would say his name, and he would sigh hello. Usually, he pretended that he’d called for a specific reason. It was always something mundane – did I know how to turn on the humidifier? What was the name of the Chinese restaurant we loved in Vancouver? I hadn’t told Ray about the calls. I wasn’t trying to be deceitful; it just wasn’t something I thought he needed to know. And Ray had been married, so he might have understood the way these things continued even after they’d ended.
I was still staring at James and our dog. I thought around for something to say. Ray walked over and stood behind me. I could feel him breathing. I gestured toward the dog, now lying in front of the doorway, his paws crossed politely.
‘Have you met Husband?’ I asked.
Suddenly Ray moved past me and said, ‘Give us a second to talk,’ shutting the door behind him. I tried to listen, but I had no idea what they were saying. Their voices sounded steady and monotone, like doctors.
It felt like they were out in the hallway for a long time. I heard Husband yawn a low whine through the door. When I finally opened it, Ray was gone. James was on one knee, petting the dog. He looked up at me like he’d forgotten why he came. Then he shook his head a little. ‘So many plants,’ he said. He moved back in the apartment that week.
Anyway, all of that stuff was about a year ago. I still can’t seem to tell the story of my marriage without talking about Ray. That’s life I guess, all of those strange, stray threads get intertwined.
My mother is still dating Frank, though she still refers to herself as a single woman. Actually she calls herself a bachelor, pronouncing every syllable as though the word is peanut butter in her mouth. I never talk to Ray anymore. I go to the dealership sometimes to talk to Kathy, the plant lady, and when I see him, we smile at each other. It was strange, my husband coming back the way he did, all of those cardigans in my closet, the half-eaten containers of yogurt in the refrigerator. James and I just fit back together, like puzzle pieces, though the worn kind, after the edges are blurred with damage. It would have been hard to explain this to Ray, had he ever asked me to. It was hard to explain to anyone, really, the way things happened without me trying for them. Maybe when I stopped trying. Maybe it was Ray. Something he said that night, standing in the hallway with Husband and James. I never asked what they discussed, and nobody offered to tell me.
Any good-looking woman I meet, I still send to Ray at the dealership. I’ve sent about five different women there. I don’t know if he’s ever dated any of them, but I hope so. Something to do with karma, I think, the way I’m hoping for his happiness. Karma or guilt. Either way, there are things I don’t want coming back to me.
Image © Jeremy Segrott