Miri sat for a while with the phone in her hand before she called Richard. She sat in the living room armchair and chewed her bottom lip and tried to think if there was anyone else, even though she’d already been through that; he was, inescapably, the right one. She knew it.
“Miri?” he said, when she finally made the call. “Wow. This is a surprise.”
“You have caller ID, don’t you?” she said. Immediately she regretted her tone; that was the very sound of the brusque dynamic of their marriage in the bad years, a blunt bantering that too easily turned combative, and that had helped them reach the end of their marriage five years earlier. It had been probably eighteen months since they last talked—now that the kids were grown there wasn’t much need—and within five seconds the tone had come back to her. “Just kidding,” she said.
“How have you been?” Richard asked, a little stiffly now.
“Good,” she said. It was more like a blurt. “I’ve been good. I’m good.” And then, after a pause, “How about you?”
“Solid,” he said.
“It’s terrible about Ben, isn’t it?” she said. After ten years of marriage to a lovely woman named Ellen, their son was in the midst of a divorce himself—an ugly one. Which was why Miri was calling her own ex-husband.
“It’s a shame,” Richard said. “That’s for sure. I wouldn’t have guessed it. I thought they were a great match.”
Miri suspected that he meant that as an oblique compliment to Miri for her role in getting the two together. “Listen,” she said. “I’ve been thinking. That whole thing is so bad, so angry. It’s terrible when it goes that way.”
“It sure is,” Richard says, his voice soft.
Miri felt the pressure of tears at her eyes, but she calmed herself. She said, “I was thinking. It’s been too long. Since you and I have seen each other. I’m having a dinner party in two weeks and I’d love for you to come.”
“Miri—” he started.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a little private laugh. “I’m not hitting on you. I just—I just think we could be friends. A lot of time has passed. I was thinking we could be friends.”
“Friends,” he said.
“There’ll be a lot of people here,” she said. “It’ll be an easy, casual thing. You know, folding chairs and plastic plates on laps. An early dinner. An afternoon dinner, really. You could bring a plus-one, if you want,” she added, with a question in her voice.
“Well, thank you, Miri. I don’t have a plus-one,” he said, confirming what she’d suspected, “but that’s very thoughtful.”
“So—can I count you in?”
There was silence for a moment. Then Richard said, “What’s the date, exactly?”
After Miri hung up, she had a pang of guilt for not being entirely honest with Richard. It would be nice to be friends, of course, but that wasn’t why she’d invited him. She invited him because she was taking Ben and Ellen’s breakup so hard. She couldn’t stop thinking about it.
She got up and went to the kitchen to wash some dishes. There was only a plate, a fork, and a glass. She washed them slowly, looked out the little window at the yard.
Miri had been the one to introduce her son to Ellen, who was the daughter of a friend. She’d just had a sense about the two of them. The way they listened, the even pace at which they talked. Something about their eyes, very clear in both cases. She was known for having that sense for matches; she had also made the introduction that led to her sister’s marriage of going on forty years, and had set up two friends in college who were still together very happily. The Ben and Ellen match was her third. The family had joked about that; Jewish folklore had it that three matches got you into heaven automatically, no matter what else you did.
And now the divorce—she was handling that very poorly. She could barely stand to talk to Ben about it at all. His suffering was palpable, for one thing; she could hear him pacing while he ranted on the phone, hear the sharp and splintery exasperation in his voice, ready to break into something more wounded. Worse still was her awareness that he didn’t want to be burdening her with this, given everything else that was going on, but that he needed her too much to stop calling. There in his voice was the mixture of desperation and guilt. She understood that mix. She was feeling it herself. When she lay awake at night, her body in pain even with the painkillers, she thought about her son’s feelings, certainly. But she also thought—obsessively, troublingly, bafflingly—about what this all meant.
Miri stood leaning on her wet hands on the edge of the sink, the dishes dripping in the rack.
What the divorce meant was that there were loose pieces in the world, that things were unmatched and disconnected. It meant that her most recent match, her third match, was dissolved. And though she knew it was ridiculous, lately she kept thinking about that old promise of heaven, and its disappearance with this divorce, and, lying awake, she found herself unaccountably scared.
Miri invited a number of people to the party: the neighbors on both sides, one set of whom had been there long enough to know Richard; some old couple-friends who hadn’t seen Richard in a long time—had perhaps chosen her over her ex—but who clearly had fond memories of him; a handful of customers, in married pairs, who had become friends and who didn’t know Richard; and her catering partner, Anne, who also didn’t know him, and who had no husband or boyfriend to bring. The stated occasion was the cherry blossoms; it was the season. She had a cherry tree in the backyard, and that’s where the party was going to be—a little cool for it, maybe, but she had a small, portable fire pit and she’d warned everyone to dress for outdoors in any case.
That afternoon Miri set everything up, aiming for a sweet spot between throwing it together haphazardly like an amateur and letting her caterer’s instincts blow the event out of proportion. Still, setting up the tables and chairs and getting all the food ready—a simple enough Japanese theme for the cherry blossoms, with sushi, tempura, dumplings, and even warm sake—all of that left her exhausted and, with an hour to go before the party, Miri found herself shipwrecked on one of the chairs, actually panting a little. That unaccountable fear gripped her tentatively, threateningly; any time she was short on energy the feeling returned. What if she couldn’t manage the party at all?
The phone rang a few times before Miri got herself up to get it. The caller ID told her it was Ben.
“Hey, sweetie,” she said, her heart going quickly for various reasons. She took the phone outside and sat down in the chair, looked at the bright cherry tree in the back of the yard.
“Are you okay?” he asked. He could hear it in her voice. And, lovely boy, even in the midst of his own problems he did still worry about her.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Really?” he said.
“What have you been up to?”
“Oh, just getting ready,” she said. “I’m having a little party. You know, for old folks.”
“That sounds nice,” he said, a little distracted.
“What are you doing?” she asked. She had her hand at her throat, feeling her too-wild pulse.
“Nothing,” he said. “I got some more papers from Ellen’s lawyer today. I guess I’m going to sit down and read those.”
“You don’t have the kids this weekend?”
“No,” he said. “And we still haven’t settled visitation.” She could hear him clenching his jaw. What a thing it was, knowing someone well enough that you could so easily recognize all the gradations of their unhappiness.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She felt afraid. “I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” he said.
There was a pause. Finally, he added, “I should probably let you go.”
“I guess I should finish up. I love you, kiddo. I love you a lot. You’ll get through this.”
“Okay,” he said.
After they hung up, she sat still with the phone in her hand, looking at the cherry tree. It was like a blinding cloud, a snowbank in dazzling sun. It made all the other trees disappear. Miri dug inside for energy.
Richard was not the first guest to show up, which didn’t surprise her. He had always been fairly punctual, but this was probably not a completely easy event for him to contemplate. First came the Browns from next door, and then Anne, and then some of the customer-friends, and some older friends. Many of the guests commented on the cherry tree; it really was at peak. Anne admired Miri’s work.
“I like the Japanese theme,” she said. “It’s clever but it’s not too loud.”
Anne didn’t know what Miri was up to that night, and so she had come dressed not to meet someone but to be comfortable—white Capri pants and a black sleeveless t-shirt that showed off her red hair but didn’t have much shape to it. Then again, Miri thought, at their age sometimes it was the body, not the shirt, that didn’t have much shape to it.
“I love your earrings,” she said to Anne. They were turquoise.
Anne smiled. “Do you? I just got them.”
“I do love them,” Miri said, reaching out to touch one. Anne’s face was bright and open, uncomplicatedly glad that something small she’d done had turned out well. Richard was sometimes that way.
Her ex-husband showed up as they were about halfway through the appetizers. The backyard was clattering with voices and laughter, enough to repeatedly startle Miri a little. He came to the gate and hesitated there for a moment; Miri realized he was unsure whether or not he could just stride into the yard the way he had countless times when he lived here, or even the way he would if he was a guest who’d never been here before. Miri waved him in and walked over to greet him.
“Hi, Richard,” she said, giving him a clumsy hug. “I’m glad you came.”
He smiled. He had a beard now, almost entirely gray, the hair on his head still salt-and-pepper. “Thanks for inviting me,” he said. He handed her a bottle of pinot grigio, chilled. “I’m not sure this will go with the theme,” he said, looking around. “I just didn’t want to come empty-handed.”
“Grigio goes wonderfully with sushi,” Miri said. “Thank you. Hey—let me introduce you to someone.” Miri winced a little—she was being too eager.
But just then the Silbers, old friends, came over. Jack, the husband, said, “Richie! You old so-and-so—how are you?” The men shook hands vigorously.
“I’ll open this,” Miri said, slipping away with the bottle of wine. Richard did know a number of people here, people who’d want to say hi first. She could make the introduction later.
There were reasons that the third match had to be Richard. First of all, he really was a very lovely man—attentive, gracious, sincere. And she knew more about him than she did about any other man. She knew, for one thing, that she had a match for him. And then, too, there was the feeling that Miri had, ever since the divorce, that their split had left something broken in the world. Neither of them had remarried, and it seemed to her that the two of them were like loose pieces, rattling around in the box. It wasn’t right, the two of them alone. And if it were, perhaps, a little too late for her, it wasn’t for him. Along with the terror, Miri’s medical situation had brought her a desire for wholeness that, if it couldn’t be hers, she found she now wanted other good people to have.
Anne was mostly talking to the old customers Miri had invited—easy conversations. Miri, still quite tired, sat down with them and listened more than she chatted. They talked about plans for the summer. For the catering business, it was a busy season, but for the old customers it was a time for vacations, and they talked about islands.
During a pause, Anne turned to Miri and frowned a little. “Are you okay?” she said. She didn’t know Miri was sick—Miri hadn’t told anyone, though her kids clearly suspected something—so Miri must have looked as tired as she felt in that moment.
“Oh,” Miri said. “I’m fine. Just a little post-hostess letdown, I guess.”
“I’m sure,” Anne said. She turned to the others there. “Don’t be fooled. This looks like simple food, but it takes a lot to throw a party like this.”
“I believe it,” Eric Foster said.
“Those are hand-filled gyoza, for example.”
“Oh, you,” Miri said, flapping her hand. “I wanted to make hiyayakka, too, but it seemed too complicated to eat outdoors.”
Anne smiled. “Well, you should take it easy now. This party is running itself.”
Miri looked around at the yard. Everyone had arrived by then and people had their plates and their drinks. They were sitting in comfortable bunches, talking, saying funny things, all very easy and glad. Miri was aware that most people had at least a little social anxiety, a little awkwardness around gatherings and groups, but it had long been her experience—though it somewhat surprised and delighted her each time—that all you had to do was create the right conditions and people would soon forget their nerves and carry on together beautifully. There was a tipping point at parties, and this one had passed it successfully.
“I’d like to introduce you to someone tonight,” Miri said. The old customer-friends were talking amongst themselves.
Anne cocked her head to the side. “What are you up to?”
Miri shrugged a little tease of a shrug.
She didn’t rush it, however; Richard was still catching up with people. After a while, she laid the sushi out on the picnic table where the appetizers had been, and people, offering up their good-natured faux-remonstrations about the abundance of the meal, started to stand up, stretch, and gather around the table. It was then that Anne and Richard were in reasonable enough distance of one another for the introduction to be made.
“Richard,” she said, pulling him aside. “I wanted you to meet Anne. She’s my catering partner, since last year.”
Anne stuck out her hand. She was clearly aware now of what Miri was trying to do. “Nice to meet you,” she said. With her other hand she brushed her hair back over her ear. The turquoise earring hung bright there.
“And this is Richard,” Miri said. “You know about Richard.”
The understanding did register on Anne’s face—a little ripple of surprise that it was Miri’s ex-husband that she was meeting.
Richard shook her hand. “Very nice to meet you.” On his face, a little puzzlement: why the special introduction?
“I just wanted you two to meet,” Miri said. “You have a lot in common.”
One of Richard’s eyebrows went up. Miri continued, “Anne used to be in law, too.”
“Really?” Richard said.
“Before the catering,” Anne said.
“And,” Miri said, “you’re both theater buffs. Richard’s even done a little playwriting himself.”
“Well,” Richard began, protesting.
Miri couldn’t talk about the other similarities, the ones that had really struck her: that simple, open happiness they shared; their closeness in height to one another; the slow way they walked; their tendency to make the same observations repeatedly without knowing they were doing it. She couldn’t get into any of that. But law and theater was a good start.
“I’d better see how we’re doing for wasabi,” Miri said, slipping away again. There was plenty on the table, but she went up into the house anyway, watched the yard from the kitchen window, leaning on the sink. Her arms trembled a little. Anne and Richard were talking, standing fairly close; that was another thing they both did habitually. Seeing it from here, Miri did feel a little envy, and not just of Anne, who was there with her ex-husband, but envy of both of them, standing near to one another, perhaps starting something.
Miri came back outside and assembled her own plate of food, and when she was done she noticed that Richard and Anne had gone back to their original chairs again.
She sat down with Anne and the old customers, leaned over to her ear. “How did that go?”
“He seems very nice,” Anne said. “It’s a little strange, being introduced to your ex-husband like that.”
“I know. I just think you’d be good together. He’s really a very nice guy.” It had been enough years that Miri knew that her marital frustrations with him were particular to their peculiar dynamic; they didn’t disqualify him from relationships in general.
“It seems like it,” Anne said.
Anne shrugged. “Well, once I got over the strangeness, I sent some signals. I think it’s in his hands now.”
Miri looked across the yard at Richard, who was talking to the neighbors, two of whom he’d just met for the first time. He saw her looking and he raised an eyebrow at her again before she turned back to her food.
“The California rolls are just right,” Anne said. “And the tuna—you sure know your tuna.”
Miri ate one of the tuna rolls. It really was good.
After a while of nothing happening, Miri circulated a little and then sat herself down with Richard.
“So,” she said.
“Great party,” he said. “Thanks for inviting me. I’m sorry we haven’t gotten much chance to talk yet.”
For a minute Miri thought he meant him and Anne, but of course he meant him and her, Miri. She waved the comment off. “There’ll be time for that. Maybe you could stay a little bit after.”
Richard looked at his watch. Miri smiled inwardly; for some reason that move always used to infuriate her. At that moment, though, those fights seemed like a long time ago. He said, “That might work.”
“Are you enjoying catching up with folks?”
He nodded. “It’s really something. I haven’t talked to these people in years. Jack and Renee seem to be doing well.”
They were just a short distance away, leaning into one another as they laughed at one of Melanie Garrison’s jokes. “Yes. I think so. You seem good, too.” He did look healthy.
“I’m solid,” he said. “You’ve lost weight.” It was maybe a compliment, maybe an observation with a question. Either way it made her heart pick up speed.
She nodded. “Just a little.”
“Well, you seem good,” he said.
They lapsed into their own silence, which after a few moments perhaps became a companionable silence. Then Richard said, “So, what was that about, before? With…what’s her name, Anne?”
“That’s right,” Miri said. “Nothing. I just thought you two would have a lot to talk about.” She wasn’t going to be as explicit with him; Richard had never liked to feel manipulated, a recurring complaint late in their marriage. Even now he was eyeing her a little suspiciously. “I’m surprised you didn’t talk longer,” Miri said.
Richard looked off across the yard at Anne. It was starting to get dark out. He turned his eyes back to Miri. “What are you up to, exactly?”
Miri shook her head. “Nothing. I just wanted you to meet everybody. She’s my catering partner. That’s all.”
“Okay,” he said, his face hard to read.
“She’s quite lovely, in fact.” Miri stood up. “Well, I think I should see how everyone’s doing with drinks. Why don’t you circulate a little?”
Miri felt him watching her as she walked off.
The party wound on, at some point moving into evening, and it became a little cooler outside. People continued to talk and laugh and eat—she’d made some green tea ice cream—and here and there people began to stand up to go. Miri saw Richard and Anne talk a couple more times, as movements around food and the like brought them near one another. Nothing lengthy, though.
When it was clear that the dinner was starting to really break up, Miri said to Anne, “Hey—I hate to impose, but would you be willing to stick around a little, help me clean up?”
“Oh, sure,” Anne said.
“I know it’s bad form, inviting you to a party and then asking you to clean up.”
“No, sure—this is a lot for you to take care of by yourself.”
Miri said, “And I’ll see if I can recruit another pair of hands, too.”
Anne said, “Now, wait a minute—” but Miri was already crossing the yard.
“Richard,” she said when she’d reached him, settling down into a free chair. “So, do you think you’ll be able to stay a little?”
He checked his watch again. “Sure,” he said.
“I may put you to work,” she said.
He smiled. “Clean-up duty?”
“I know it’s poor form,” she said. “Especially given everything. But it’ll be a chance to catch up. Plus, you know where everything goes.”
“That’s true,” he said.
Actually, it wasn’t true; she’d rearranged just about everything after he moved out, as a way of reclaiming the kitchen. But it was all for the good. “Great,” she said, clapping her hands on her thighs and standing up. “And I’ll see if I can find us another pair of hands.”
Richard touched her arm. “Miri,” he said.
She stopped mid-turn. “What is it?”
“Could you sit down?” he said.
She did, feeling some dread in her throat, a quiet relative of that terror that held her at night.
“You’re trying to set me up with Anne,” he said.
She sighed, and then nodded. “She’s absolutely lovely.”
Richard leaned forward. There weren’t many people in the yard by then, and it was full dark, just the back porch light and the fire pit to see by. “I’m not comfortable with this,” he said.
Just then, the Silbers and the Garrisons came over to say their goodbyes, to offer their hearty happiness about the party and getting to see Richard again. Everybody stood, hugging and shaking hands. And Miri looked over at Anne, who was starting to gather up plates.
After the Silbers and the Garrisons left, Richard said, “How did this idea get into your head?”
“I just thought you two would be a good match,” Miri said, staring at her hands, pressed together between her thighs. They would have been shaking if she hadn’t pressed them there. It had been a long and very tiring day. “I think, if you gave her a chance—”
“Listen, Miri,” he said. “Even if it wasn’t strange, being set up by your ex-wife, I just, I’m just not looking for anyone right now.”
“Why not?” she said, a little desperate.
He looked off toward the back of the yard. “Honestly, since the divorce—I’ve dated a little, but it’s not really where my head’s at.”
“Even after all this time?”
“It’s not a matter of recovering from us,” he said, glancing at her and smiling. “I’m just fine on my own.”
She said, “I don’t like thinking of you alone.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” he said.
Miri felt a tear get past her defenses. There was enough light, she knew, for Richard to see it.
“Miri,” he said. “Are you okay?”
She sighed raggedly. “Ben and Ellen,” she said. “Ben and Ellen were my match,” she said.
Richard breathed in and out. He nodded.
“I’m taking it pretty hard.”
“It’s a hard thing to take,” he said, a hand on her knee.
There was a sound of running water; Anne was inside the house, washing the plastic dishes.
Miri said, “And I just don’t like thinking of you alone.” She was picturing it, him alone, from above. Like she was hovering over the yard. Hovering and then rising. The cherry tree like a low cloud. And him alone in his lawn chair, his hand on nobody’s knee. “I don’t like thinking of that.”
Richard hesitated a moment, and then he said, “Listen. I don’t know whether this is what you’ll want to hear or not, but the truth is that I like being alone. I do well alone. I have a very full life just the way it is.” He turned to her. “I’m glad we had our time together. And I think—I think that time was enough for me.”
She shook her head. She couldn’t speak or she’d really lose it. Richard reached over from his lawn chair. He put his arms around her. He held her, and she did start crying harder, and he ran his hand down her back, just like he used to do. Miri suddenly sat up straight, looking for Anne. It was her back he was supposed to be touching, not Miri’s; not any of her own traitorous body. But Anne was still inside, or gone. The only people in the yard were her and Richard. She settled back into her own chair, crying quietly. Richard continued to sit forward in his, all readiness. There were times when she had hated his stupid earnestness.
And then he said, “You know, that three matches thing is just a story.”
She felt his hand on her knee, but only very distantly. She wasn’t in the yard. She wasn’t hovering up over the cherry tree. She wasn’t anywhere.
“I know,” she said. “But you have to have something.”