HOW THEY MET
by Carole Glasser Langille
He knocks on the door and goes in. He was told the door would be open.
“Rachel,” he calls out. “It’s Henry. Just bringing dinner.”
No answer. He goes to the foot of the stairs and calls again.
“Shall I leave the dish in the kitchen?”
“That would be great,” a voice calls from the second floor. “Thanks so much.” Even shouting these words, her voice is pleasant, musical.
“My pleasure,” he says. He’s brought Moroccan chicken with rice pilaf that he’s made at his restaurant. He put it on a ceramic dish which he will have to retrieve. He is hoping to actually meet Rachel one day. As he is about to leave he calls out, “Shall I lock the door?”
“Thanks, yes,” Rachel shouts. And he does, but not before he calls back, “See you tomorrow.”
See you is not an accurate description. He has only seen Rachel twice, and both times she was on stage and he was in the audience. She sounded like Dionne Warwick and anyone hearing her on the radio would have thought she was black. The first time he was at one of her performances, four years ago, he was a bit disappointed to see how thin and petite and pale she was. But that feeling quickly passed.
My God, she’s amazing, he thought during that concert. And she has impossibly beautiful red hair. Back then he was married and admiring other women was a chaste pleasure. It never occurred to him that anything could go wrong between Nikki and him. Thinking of Nikki now he feels a sad nervous flutter.
It still surprises him that he is living alone. But many things surprise him. That he would be entering Rachel’s home and speaking to her, even through closed doors, is the last thing he expected.
Years ago when he’d asked his friend Erica to introduce him to Rachel, she shook her head.
“She’s very private,” Erica told him. “You wouldn’t know from seeing her sing. But after a concert she doesn’t even hang out with friends. She goes home with her husband.”
She didn’t give many concerts. So when she performed in the small jazz club at South Park Hotel a year ago and he couldn’t get a ticket, he was grateful to Erica for getting him in. Erica was probably taking pity on him because of his recent divorce. If this was one of the perks of heartbreak, he’d take it.
“I love that woman,” he murmured under his breath.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten you a ticket,” Erica laughed. “Rachel’s married you know. And she’s ten years older than you.”
She didn’t look ten years older. But he looked younger than thirty-six.
“Just because you’re so fucking handsome, you think you can do whatever you want,” his ex had accused him once during a fight. She said his not wanting children showed how self centered he was. She might have been right. He was scared of having a child. He’d explained all this before they married. Perhaps she thought she would change his mind.
He never thought of himself as good looking. Besides, looks fade. His hair is already turning grey. He is relieved he isn’t going bald; his parents passed on good genes in that regard. They were not so successful in the mental health department. But physically they’re both doing well.
Rachel is not as lucky. The doctors have found a tumour in her brain and it’s malignant. Erica and a few friends have organized a schedule to clean her house, do laundry, buy groceries. They want to make sure she has support, especially since her husband is no longer in the picture. Henry does not know whether the husband left before or after Rachel’s diagnosis. But when Henry learns she has cancer, he immediately volunteers to bring her meals.
Erica says she’ll ask if it’s okay. It takes her weeks to get back to him.
“Rachel says she loves your restaurant, and thanks so much. She asks if it’s okay if you leave the food in her kitchen. She’s not up to seeing anyone.”
Of course it’s okay. He doesn’t expect her to have tea and chat. She is recovering from surgery. But he hopes, after a few weeks , she might say hello when he delivers dinner.
Knocking on her door at five in the afternoon and walking in is what he looks forward to most each day. He gets a thrill thinking of her eating duck à l’orange, one of his favourite meals to cook, and duck soup. Erica said that was Rachel’s favourite.
And then one day, when he is thinking how much he would like to see her, he opens her door after knocking and there she is, at the top of the stairs. There is no hall light on, it is a grey day, and he can not make out her features well, though he sees she is wearing a knitted cap.
“Hello,” he smiles. “It’s so good to see you.”
“Aren’t you nice,” she says. “I just wanted to thank you in person for this delicious food. It’s saving my life. Literally.” She laughs.
“Well,” he says, “if I’m any help at all, I’m glad. Because when I put on your albums it always feels like you’re saving my life.” He wonders if he is overdoing it. But what he says is true.
“Are you feeling a bit better?” he asks.
“A bit,” she says. “I give all the credit to your duck soup.” She smiles, then turns and goes back to her room. He hears a CD turned low, of Ella Fitzgerald singing Ten cents a dance, that’s what they pay me, gosh how they weigh me down. It is such a sad song, but hearing it, he feels elated.
A few weeks later Erica tells him that Rachel is going for a walk with her in the park. It has been a mild autumn and the leaves have not yet changed colour. She’s finished with chemo and is no longer nauseous.
He wonders if, in a month or two, she might agree to go to the park with him. Or, if that seems like too big an outing, perhaps sit at the kitchen table and talk. That might be a more realistic expectation.
He waits. He is patient. He wants to tell her about his ten-year old nephew Jack and the baseball game they went to last week. Before the game Henry told Jack he could get anything he wanted from the shop at the stadium – a Blue Jays jersey, a Red Sox jersey, a cap, a collection of baseball cards. He walked around the shop pointing things out but Jack went right to a pair of bright orange pom-poms that cheerleaders use, and picked them up. This is what he wanted.
“Are you sure?” Henry asked. He pointed to a few other items but Jack insisted on pom-poms.
Henry does tell this story to Rachel when he drops off the food next. It is the first time she has come downstairs when he’s been there, the first time she sits with him at the kitchen table. They both drink coffee.
“That’s wonderful,” she says when he tells her Jack’s mother was happy to see her son so excited when they returned.
“I don’t know what his father thought of my gift,” he adds. “My sister used to be such a wild card. Then she married an investment banker who is very conservative. It surprised us all. And they have a son who likes pom-poms.”
He smiles, but when he thinks of Jack he also thinks of Nikki’s son Eli. He tells Rachel that Nikki is no longer speaking to him and certainly would not let him near her son. Not that he’d be any good with Eli. He would be scared to hold him, poor little guy. He pushes food and milk out of his mouth and can barely swallow and he is so often stiff, his little arms and legs dangle limply when he’s lifted. The doctors tell Nikki he will probably never walk.
When he leaves, after he shared his happiness and also what weighs so heavily on him, he feels lighter.
“Your sister has a son who’s fine,” Nikki used to say. “Our baby will be fine too. Let’s be brave,” she’d begged. But he’d loved his brother. And his brother had jumped off a building. He could not risk bringing a baby into the world who would find it as difficult to live as his brother had. He could not take the chance of passing on the craziness that ran in his family. He was not that brave.
During one long talk with Rachel Henry finds himself telling her that Nikki was the one who was fearless, if that was the word for it. She’d gotten pregnant with a man she hardly knew, and moved in with him. When Eli was born with problems, the man took off. Clearly other people’s genes had not been flawless. He told Rachel he felt guilty for failing his wife.
“Really?” she said. She sipped her coffee. “Guilt is so boring, don’t you think.” Then she said, “I’m sure she is grateful for Eli.”
He looks at Rachel and suddenly he says, “Would you have dinner with me sometime? Anytime. There’s a great seafood restaurant by the water.”
“Thank you Henry,” Rachel says. Her voice is warm. “But I am just not going out these days.” He nods.
He doesn’t say, “I know for a fact you went to a movie with Erica last week.” He has to hold on to a little pride.
Rachel says, “Well, I’m going upstairs to rest.” They walk to the stairs together but just as he is about to leave, she gifts him with one of her smiles. “So what is it with Rachel?” he asks Erica. “Why won’t she have dinner with me?”
“She’s recovering,” Erica says. And then, “I don’t think she wants any emotional involvement right now.
“Oh, great. Really, what does that mean?”
“Her husband left her when she got sick. She has a few trust issues. The fact that she has coffee with is a big deal.”
A couple of weeks later when he knocks on the door as he always does before walking in, Rachel actually opens it. He is elated.
“Great to see you,” he says. “You look wonderful.” He is not just saying this. Her red hair is growing in, curly now, when it used to be straight. She has colour in her cheeks.
“Thank you. I’m feeling so much better. And I’m so grateful for your wonderful meals. But I’ve started cooking again. So, really, I can’t let you keep bringing me dinner. I just don’t need that much food.”
Henry doesn’t know what to say. Of course he is glad she is recovering. But he was not successful when he asked her out. If she no longer wants him to drop off food, will he ever see her?
“I’m happy I have energy to cook simple meals,” she continues. “You know, sautéd fish, steamed vegetables; I put a sweet potato in the slow cooker and an hour later it’s done.”
“It’s great you’re feeling better. But let me at least bring food on Sunday. I love cooking Sunday mornings in the restaurant. You can save the food for another day, if you’re not hungry. I’d be very sad not to bring you Sunday supper.”
Rachel doesn’t answer right away and for a few moments he feels dread hovering. Then she nods. “Okay,” she says.
A few Sundays later they are sitting in her kitchen drinking Chai. It’s cold outside. He tells her about the walk he took earlier in the day.
“There are a few acres of forest behind the restaurant,” he tells her. “I don’t know who owns the land. It was beautiful going uphill, the path encrusted with hard snow. All around were ice trees from the recent freezing rain, shimmering branches coated with silver hoar frost. Have you seen the ice trees in the park?”
“Yes.” She is listening carefully.
“In the woods air smells clean. And it’s not as cold walking there, surrounded by trees, as it is on the road.” He describes how he tramped on the surface of ice and crashed into streams, that his boots got soaked but his feet stayed dry. On Sundays he always schedules the afternoon off, he explains, and he usually hikes. He tells Rachel about the walk he took with his nephew a few weeks earlier. It hadn’t snowed yet and light was green, shining on moss. “Just looking at the colour of moss made me happy,” he says. He explains that when they went off the path in the woods, Jack stopped and turned to him.
“ ‘What’s that?’ Jack asked . ‘Is it traffic?’
They’d heard a whoosh, and then a few minutes later, another whoosh and Jack thought it was a car passing far below on the road. ‘That’s the ocean,’ I told him. The air was so clear, the crash of the waves across from the restaurant echoed in the woods behind it. A beautiful sound.”
Rachel is looking at him with such, what is it, tenderness? It is hard for him not to say, “Come join me on the walk next Sunday.” Instead he says, “Jack’s father has agreed to let Jack take ballet lessons. Jack is over the moon. He hopes to go to Toronto to study when he’s older. What spirit that kid has.”
“Are you surprised your brother-in-law was okay with Jack dancing?”
“It’s hard to stand in Jack’s way. He’s a force that can’t be ignored.” Henry sighs. “And his father is not the stereotype I imagined. People can surprise you.”
It’s not Rachel but Erica who breaks the news to him a few months later, when they are having rice pudding in his restaurant. She tells him Rachel’s tumour has returned. “Her doctor did another biopsy weeks ago and told her he couldn’t operate. She just let me know now,” Erica says.
Henry feels as if he’s been sucker punched. It’s four in the afternoon and the place has not yet opened for dinner. He does not see how he can work that evening.
Erica says, “She’s doing alternative medicine: acupuncture, Chinese herbs. She is incredibly upbeat. It’s unbelievable. She said, “It may go into remission. Anything’s possible.”
It’s true that for a couple of weeks she hadn’t come down when he dropped off food. One week she called down to say she was resting. She’d apologized and he said not to get up. But he saw her last Sunday and she didn’t say a thing about the diagnosis. She looked paler, more tired, if he thought back. And she was wearing a scarf on her head. But she still looked beautiful with graceful face, her delicate features. How could she not tell him the tumour had returned?
When he goes to Rachel’s house with brisket she wants to eat right away. “It’s my favourite, but I’ll only have some if you join me.”
She has many favourite meals, he thinks. He does too, but in his heart he believes they are both hungry for the same thing.
“I love this,” she says, savouring the tender meat. “How long do you cook it?” To listen to her it is hard to believe she’s received bad news.
He tells her that Eli is in the hospital again. He learned this from his sister that morning.
“Poor little boy,” Rachel says, her face clouding. “Some people have such a difficult time.” She does not appear to include herself in this statement. She does not seem frightened or worried.
He tells her he knows about her diagnosis.
“The doctors don’t know everything,” Rachel says. “I’m not afraid, for some reason. I sort of believe and I don’t know why exactly, that I am going to be okay. I’ve already lived longer than the doctors predicted.”
Henry sighs and breathes deeply.
“It doesn’t look like you think I’ll get better,” she says.
He begins to protest.
“I guess the only thing I can do is show you,” she says. “Shall we go for a hike next week?” She pauses and looks at his surprised expression. “I’m able to walk, you know. I’m not the one in the hospital.”
“Yes,” he says. “We’ll walk in the woods.”
“A small hike. Say about twenty minutes. Can you shorten the route?”
“Of course,” he says, smiling. I know just where we’ll go.
That was six months ago. These days their walks last over an hour.
About the Author:
Carole Glasser Langille’s most recent collection of short stories, “I Am What I Am Because You Are What You Are” was nominated for the Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction. She is also the author of four collections of poetry and has been nominated for The Governor General’s Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize.