“Chlubs and losers,” Laurie Cohen’s friend Maddy Levine said, “that’s what you’ll find on JDate, schlubs and losers. Believe me, I’ve been there, I know.” Maddy recounted meeting on the Jewish online dating service a man named Larry Plotnik, a real-estate man in Flossmore. He was 56, divorced, with three kids, two of them out of the house, the youngest finishing college. After a number of phone calls, they went to see a play at the Goodman Theatre, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The play was a drag, Plotnik was maybe 40 pounds overweight, wore a comb-over, but was affable. That was the word Maddy used, affable, so when he asked her out again, she figured why not?
Their second date he took her to Gibson’s, a steak house on Rush Street, very expensive. The bill came to just under three hundred dollars, and they’d just had one drink each. Plotnik talked mostly about himself, his children; he mentioned his psychotherapist twice. He felt he was an inadequate father. Over Macadamia Turtle Pie, he teared up. Maddy was touched. The third date ended up in her bed. “Suffice to say,” said Maddy, looking away, “the heavens did not open up, the earth did not move.”
Still, when Plotnik invited her on a weeklong cruise in the Caribbean, Maddy figured why not? At a minimum, it was a chance to get out of a gray February in Chicago. First day out, at one of the shops on the ship, Plotnik bought her a Coach bag, four hundred bucks. But it was downhill from there. He didn’t dance, complained about the food, was untidy in all sorts of small but infuriating ways, talked endlessly about his problems with his children. “A schlub, a loser,” said Maddy, “but at least I got a winter holiday and a Coach bag out of the deal.”
Laurie knew she was less tough than Maddy Levine, more vulnerable. They were both 53, had gone to Highland Park High School together. Maddy had been through a rough divorce and brought up her two daughters mostly on her own. Sleeping with men was no big thing for Maddy, while Laurie could never think of sex as a trivial act. Maddy saw the world as a place to do business, to acquire what advantages for herself she could; Laurie felt there was something important in life that she had missed out on and for which she was still searching.
What Laurie Cohen had missed out on, specifically, was what Maddy called a “relationship.” She had never lived with a man, nor had any man ever asked her to marry him. She was, she knew, not unattractive. Small, slender, a brunette, she dressed carefully, her skin had held up, she felt herself still in the game—if not, like Maddy, on the attack. Friends fixed her up, men still occasionally asked her out. But at 53 she was now up to going out mainly with divorced men and widowers. Months went by when she didn’t go out with a man at all. Which was why she was thinking about JDate. Why not, she thought, give it a try?
Laurie went online. She set out her date of birth (2/9/60), height (5’3″), weight (115), hair color, marital status, synagogue attendance (Conservative, infrequent), interests (reading, jogging, design, tennis), and the rest of it; she included a picture of herself that was only six years old.
Soon enough men sent emails making their case. One claimed to be the last master Jewish plumber in the Midwest. Two siding salesman wrote, one to tell her that her photograph reminded him of his mother, whom he had lost earlier this year; the other to ask if she had any interest in extraterrestrial life. Three different dentists replied, one of whom loved folk singing, another still played in a rock band on weekends, as did a guy who had recently quit his job as a CPA to return, at 64, to do graduate work in communications. A man named Harry Rubin wrote to report that he had made his “pile” in the mail-order business and, though now 83 and long retired—he included a photograph of himself in aviator sunglasses and a tank-top—assured her he was still “sexually very active.”
Laurie had been teaching grammar school, fifth grade, at the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School in Skokie since graduating from National Louis University in the Loop. She enjoyed the kids, though in truth she had tired of the regular interference of their parents, many of them Russian émigrés and east Indians. Having been told that education is the key to success in America, parents regularly called or came in when their kids didn’t get all A’s.
A good job for a spinster, teaching, Laurie had begun to think. Hateful word, spinster, but this might be her fate, to live and die alone. She knew that her father, a successful urologist, had been disappointed that she never married. Henry Cohen hadn’t any social or even financial ambitions for his only child, to whom he expected to leave a couple of million dollars, but, as he once told her, he wished she would find the right man, a companion in life and someone who would watch out for her. He wished to live to see her sail into safe harbor. That was the phrase he used, “safe harbor.” Well, the truth was, Laurie, in her fifties, hadn’t yet come close even to sighting land.
The one mildly interesting response to her JDate enrollment arrived two or so weeks later. A man in Milwaukee, 58 years old, a pharmacist at a Walgreen’s there, wanted to be in contact with her. He was a bachelor and lived in a condo along Lake Michigan near the Milwaukee Art Museum. He would be willing to drive to Chicago, a less than two-hour trip, if she were interested in meeting him. His name was Howard Klein.
He signed his emails “Howie” and seemed cordial enough generally. He told her he was a big sports fan, and joked that his being a Green Bay Packers fan and her coming from Chicago, home of the Bears, might make any relationship between them a little like that between Romeo and Juliet, though he hoped with a happier ending. He told her that he thought of himself as a serious reader, though he rarely read fiction, mostly biographies of scientists and books about World War II. He mentioned that he was a terrible cook, and ate most of his meals out, or else brought food in, and loved Chinese, which he called “the food of our people, meaning of course the Jews.”
In Laurie’s emails to him she brought up the joys and frustrations of teaching. She mentioned that her father was a Bears fan but not so rabid a one as to think her exchanging emails with Howie would constitute a betrayal. She brought up her addiction to running, and said that unlike him she read fiction almost exclusively, favoring 19th-century novels. She, too, was mad about Chinese food, and should he ever come to Chicago, she would be pleased to take him to Emperor’s Choice, her favorite restaurant in Chinatown.
Sex never came up in these emails. Nor was it even hinted at, which Laurie found a relief. Laurie had slept with three men—make that two men and a boy. The boy was Nathan Engel, with whom she went out her senior year at Highland Park High. When she thought about it later, she had had sex with Nathan almost out of boredom. They had been a couple for five months, and there was nothing else for them to do, nowhere else to go. They had sex in the backseat of Nathan’s father’s Mercedes, and it was awkward, quick, and, as Laurie thought back on it, vaguely gross.
As an adult, she had had two affairs, if they could be called that. One was with a fellow teacher, when she was in her late twenties, and lasted roughly four months, when he came to announce to her that he was returning to Seattle and planning to marry a woman he knew in college. The second was with a man she met a dinner party given by Maddy and Ben Levine. He turned out to be married, the pure type of the narcissist, or so she thought, less interested in pleasing her than in demonstrating that his power of seducing women was still intact. She saw him five, maybe six times. The sex in both cases had been less than thrilling. No open heavens, no earthquakes.
Laurie sometimes wondered if she was someone low in libido, or possibly even frigid. She even considered that she might be a lesbian, though not for long, for she often found herself looking at attractive men and fantasizing going off to bed with them. She preferred to think that her problem was that she hadn’t met the right man and that, if she kept up her standard and was patient, he would eventually turn up.
When Howie Klein came to take her out to dinner in Chicago, Laurie, on meeting him in the lobby of her Sheridan Road apartment building, was disappointed. He was 5’7,” 5’8″ tops. He had a slight paunch. His light brown hair was thin and substantially receded, and he was dressed in a blue blazer and khaki trousers and scuffed loafers. He drove a light blue Prius. He talked about the good mileage he was getting in it nearly halfway to Chinatown. He was still explaining how hybrid engines worked as they pulled into the parking lot on Wentworth Avenue off Cermak Road. Laurie thought her mascara might be running with boredom. JDate, she thought. Schlubs and losers.
Emperor’s Choice wasn’t crowded; people occupied only 5 of its 15 or so tables. On the walls were elegant imperial robes in large glass frames. At a small bar near the entrance, the owner, who recognized Laurie with a nod, was watching a White Sox game on an old television set.
“The dismalness of this place bodes good food,” Howie said.
He let Laurie order for both of them: hot-and-sour soup, Mongolian beef, Singapore noodles, Kung-pao chicken. He suggested Tsingtao beers.
“Forgive my going on so long about my car,” he said. “I know I talked too much. Truth is, I’m nervous. I’ve had a few JDate exchanges online, but this is the first actual meeting I’ve had.”
“Mine, too,” said Laurie.
Laurie told him that her father was a physician, that she was an only child. She told him that she had never been engaged, and regretted being too old to have children, but had by now learned to live with it. She told him that she loved Chicago, had lived here all her life, and had no longing to end her days in Florida, Arizona, or any of the other, as she said her father called them, “elephant graveyards.” She told him that she lived a fairly quiet social life, meeting a few women friends for dinners and a movie afterward and that she hadn’t been in a “relationship” with a man for a long while, without specifying how long. She said nothing about how comfortably off her father had left her.
Howie told her that his father, an immigrant from Romania, had a small grocery store in Milwaukee. His mother died when he was 16. He had two sisters, Evelyn and Judy, both married, one with two children, the other with three. He had gone to the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He said nothing about women or his social life. He did tell her that he had the world’s simplest résumé; he had worked only at Walgreen’s since finishing college.
“There’s something else I should tell you,” Howie said, “and this is that as I approach sixty I have the haunting feeling that I blew it. I’m starting to feel I missed out on life, or at least on its two most important things.”
“Which are?” Laurie asked.
“Family and interesting work. I wish I’d had the nerve to aim for something higher in life than I did. Becoming a pharmacist was a step up for a grocer’s son. But I could’ve done better. I was good at school. I should have gone to med school, maybe become a surgeon. When I see the jerks who have become physicians, and as a pharmacist I deal with these guys every day, I could kick myself. I should’ve had more guts.”
“I wish I’d had kids. They’d have given me a stake in the future that’s missing from my life. But you can’t have kids without a wife, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Doofus that I was in my twenties and thirties, I decided that I preferred my freedom to marriage. Thing is, I didn’t do all that much with that freedom. Didn’t have lots of love affairs, didn’t travel to Africa or the Orient, didn’t live in Paris or in Tuscany. All I did, I see now, was fail to commit myself.”
“It’s not too late,” Laurie said. “A younger woman could give you children.”
“I suppose she could,” he said, “but I doubt she could also give me conversation. The other thing is, why would a younger woman be interested in me. Besides, I don’t want to be one of those guys playing with his kids in the sandbox at sixty-three, or yelling at little league umps at seventy-two. No, the time for kids for me is over.”
“Which leaves you where?”
“Which leaves me kind of baffled? But I didn’t mean to start whining. Forgive me.”
“You weren’t whining,” Laurie said. “I’d call it a realistic appraisal of your situation. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Your situation is better, I hope,” Howie said.
“Well, it’s different,” she said. Fortunately she was spared going into details on the subject, for the hot-and-sour soup arrived.
They walked around Chinatown after dinner. Howie offered to buy her an exotic plant, a guzmania, with a red stalk, a souvenir of the evening, he said. But she said that her apartment was a place where plants went to die; she had a black instead of a green thumb, thanks anyway.
On the way back to her apartment, Howie remarked on the Chicago skyline. She told him that she had thought of moving downtown, in effect moving into that wonderful skyline, but that it would put her too far away from her school. She didn’t go to the theater much, but she loved the ballet and modern dance. He said that he knew nothing about ballet, adding that maybe someday she could introduce him to it. She didn’t respond.
When they arrived at Laurie’s building at Sheridan and Thorndale, she kissed his cheek in a grazing way and said she enjoyed their time together. She didn’t invite him up to her apartment.
“I enjoyed it, too,” Howie said, as she closed the door of the Prius and turned to go into her building.
Later that evening, Laurie thought she had been wrong not to have invited Howie Klein up. He had driven all the way from Milwaukee. Not that she had the least intention of any intimacy between them after a single meeting. Perish the thought. But simple courtesy called for it.
In bed that night, Laurie couldn’t help thinking of Howie Klein’s telling her that he “blew it.” Had she, too, she wondered, blown it? Had she let life slip by, missing out on the central things? She used to tell herself that her young students were her children, but that of course was nonsense; they were just passing through her classroom. Many of them at term’s end were probably glad to be done with her, for she was known as a fairly strict disciplinarian, insisting on careful spelling and trying to teach grammar to 11-year-olds.
Laurie was critical, maybe hypercritical, about men, but she couldn’t help that. She recalled how earlier that evening she had rejected Howie Klein at first sight. No flair—that had been her first judgment. She might like to think she had high standards, but wasn’t such behavior really rather shallow? Was she superficial? A snob? In any case, her critical sense, her high standard, or whatever it was, wasn’t working; it hadn’t improved her chances of finding a man she could love and trust and could live with in intimacy.
While not exactly rude, Laurie’s treatment of Howie Klein was brusque, a word her mother often used to criticize her behavior as a girl. She regretted it, but didn’t see that there was much at this point to be done about it.
When she woke the next morning, an email from Howie Klein was on her smart phone:
hi Laurie, sorry things didn’t work out last night. hope I didn’t bore you too much with my car talk and, even worse, my self-pity. I’m usually better than that, or at least I think I am. anyhow apologies. it was nice meeting you, and I’m glad to know about emperor’s choice, which I hope to return to someday. meanwhile, best of luck in finding someone worthy of you.
best wishes, howie
Laurie felt herself moved by this, even though she had a thing about people who didn’t bother to use capital letters in their emails. She could of course ignore it, not answer and just forget about it. That, though, didn’t feel right. She felt she had already been cold enough to Howie Klein.
She tapped out the following answer:
No apologies necessary. I suspect we were both a little nervous last night. Why not? Online dating, after all, is more than a touch artificial. But I do want you to know that I enjoyed myself in your company, and if you wish to meet again, I’m up for it. Weekends are best for me.
A mistake? She wasn’t sure as she clicked the send button.
They arranged to meet on a Sunday, for brunch. Laurie thought a daytime meeting best, less entangling, less complicated somehow. This time when Howie rang from the desk in Laurie’s lobby, she invited him up.
“Spectacular view,” he said, as he looked out the large windows of the living room of her 16th-floor apartment that faced the lake and downtown Chicago to the south. “And you’ve furnished the place elegantly.”
“Thank you, Howie,” she said, suddenly aware that this was the first time she had called him by his name. Howie, a boy’s name, she thought, but not yet unseemly for a man his age. He looked like a Howie. In his seventies, he may have to start calling himself Howard, but for now Howie still worked.
“I thought we’d go to a place called The Bagel for brunch. Lots of older Jews there, but good food of the kind we both grew up on. If you like, you can leave your car with the doorman, and I’ll drive.”
As soon as they arrived at The Bagel, Laurie felt that it had been a bad choice. She expected an older clientele, but not so many older women on walkers. Sad old men in running suits sat before enormous salami omelets. At one point an overweight elderly man rolled in on a complicated electrical chair; tubes in his nose were connected to a small oxygen tank.
“I didn’t expect so dilapidated a crowd,” Laurie said once they were seated in a booth toward the rear of the restaurant.
“Not many sprung chickens, as an immigrant friend of my mother’s used to say. Don’t worry about it. These people make me feel young.”
Laurie ordered orange juice, an egg-white omelet with mushrooms and tomatoes, whole-wheat unbuttered toast. Howie ordered a bowl of kreplach soup and a corned-beef sandwich on an onion roll.
“I take it you don’t go in for healthy eating,” Laurie said.
“I have no interest in getting to the age of ninety-five,” Howie said, “so that someone can bring me to lunch here on a stretcher. As a pharmacist I see so many people hungry for longer life. Where long life is concerned, truth to tell, I’m not all that hungry.”
“How do you suppose that is?” Laurie asked.
“I could tell you that Isaac Newton’s only sensuous pleasure in life was in roasted meats, and that if they were good enough for Newton, they are certainly good enough for me. I could also tell you that I believe in living for the moment, but you wouldn’t believe it, and neither do I. What I do believe is that it is probably a mistake to deny yourself small pleasures in a life that is fairly perilous to begin with. I mean I could go for my next annual physical and learn that I have three cancers, the beginning of Alzheimer’s, and all the signs of forthcoming ALS. If I did, after my initial disappointment, one of my first thoughts would be, damn, I should have had the kreplach and the corned-beef sandwich that morning I went to brunch with Laurie Cohen.”
Laurie, laughing, said, “I suppose that is an original if not exactly healthy point of view.”
“I might feel differently if I knew people were depending on me,” Howie said. “Since no one is, hey, bring on the rich food. But why do you eat so carefully? Why do you jog every day? What are you staying in shape for? I’m sure you’ve asked yourself these questions.”
In fact, Laurie hadn’t, apart from thinking that they might extend her life. “I feel good after my late afternoon jog,” she said. “I feel better for eating carefully.”
“When was the last time you had a corned-beef sandwich?”
“I don’t know. Maybe twenty years ago.”
“If I were to offer to donate a thousand dollars to your favorite charity, would you cancel that egg-white omelet and eat another one now?”
“I don’t think I could get it down,” Laurie said, with a smile. “The idea is too upsetting.”
“And what do you deduce from this?”
“What should I deduce from it?”
“Maybe that you don’t have to be so tough on yourself. Worrying all the time about what you eat or missing your daily run. On the subject of running I have always been impressed by the claim that running lengthens a person’s life but only by the exact amount of time he or she has spent running. It’s a wash, in other words.”
The waiter appeared with their food. Howie’s soup had two enormous kreplach. Laurie’s omelet, with a few red grapes, a large sad strawberry, and a slice of cantaloupe on the side, seemed rather pale.
“I have a friend named Eliot Rosen, seven years older than me, who still competes in triathlons,” Howie said. I told him that I thought he was in training for Alzheimer’s. Stay in such great shape, you’re sure to live long enough to make it to dementia, I told him. I’m afraid I ticked him off.”
“I think it does me, too,” said Laurie, dabbing at her egg-white omelet.
“In which case I take it all back,” Howie said. “But if you saw the pills I purvey every day to pluck up people’s health, you might not feel so differently. You know, Jews always say, ‘Just so long as you’ve got your health.’ ‘The main thing is you should be healthy.’ ‘What good is money if you haven’t got your health?’ True, all of it. But it seems to me one thing to have your health and another to be thinking about the damn thing nearly full-time.”
Laurie found herself giggling, which she ordinarily never did.
“Look, the main reason I went into this diatribe is that, with the size of these kreplach being what they are, I’m going to need your help in eating half my corned-beef sandwich. Can I count on you, kid? Whaddya say?”
“Maybe I’ll try a half of a half,” she said. “But if word of this gets out, I’ll know who told.”
“What happens at The Bagel stays at The Bagel,” Howie said.
When the sandwich arrived, it was enormous, the corned beef piled four inches high. Laurie ate not a quarter but a full half of Howie’s sandwich. He gave her the slice of pickle—“the only green thing in a true deli,” he said—as “a reward for her courage.”
“The awful thing is,” she said, “I really enjoyed it. God, it was good.”
“If you’d care to belch emphatically,” Howie said, “I’ll be glad to give you privacy and leave the table.”
After lunch they left Laurie’s BMW convertible in The Bagel’s parking lot and walked east and then over to the Lincoln Park Zoo. They discovered a common affection for giraffes, for what Howie called “their goofy serenity,” and lingered for perhaps half an hour watching two giraffes and their baby cavort behind the fence in the open air. When they got back to Laurie’s car, it was nearly four o’clock.
“I better get back,” Howie said. “I have tickets to the Milwaukee Symphony. I have to change clothes and pick up a friend.”
Somehow or other Laurie thought he might stay on and they would have dinner together. And this “friend” he mentioned going to the symphony with. A man? A woman? Am I jealous? she wondered.
Laurie didn’t hear from Howie on Monday or Tuesday. She had expected one of his all lower-case emails, but nothing arrived. She checked her phone for emails first thing in the morning and just before going to bed, and twenty-odd times during the day. Nothing. Had she said or done something to offend him? Or had he had enough of her after two meetings?
And why was she worried in the first place?
Howie Klein was not in any way the sort of man she was hoping to meet when she joined JDate. What she hoped for was a tallish man, dark, a lawyer, an artist, maybe a physician like her father. She had in mind someone serious, authoritative, in command of the world. When her father spoke of wishing to see her in safe harbor, he meant, surely, that she would find a man who would look out for her, protect her from the sharks, wolves, and other beasts out there who might prey on a woman alone. The man would probably be a widower or divorced, or so she assumed. Howie Klein, as the old song had it, was not the type at all.
Laurie remembered reading an article that argued that the least suitable mate, the worse possible catch, was a man who had got to the age of 50 or beyond without ever having married. By that age, the article argued, they had locked in habits unlikely to be changed; they also figured to be too fault-finding, too critical, finicky in the extreme. No woman could possibly be good enough for them. A great mistake on the part of any woman to pursue such a man, or so the author of the article claimed.
On Wednesday, an email from Howie arrived. In it he explained that the Wi-Fi service in his building had gone out. He didn’t carry a smart phone and the only computer he had was a desktop clunker, so he had no way of getting back to tell her how much he enjoyed their lunch at The Bagel and their walk in Lincoln Park Zoo on Sunday. He hoped she enjoyed it, too, and wanted her to know he was ready for what he called “a rematch” whenever she was. The email, all in lower-case letters, was signed “best wishes, howie.”
The ball, Laurie knew, was in her court. She decided to return it with a heavy topspin forehand by suggesting that, if he was free, she wouldn’t in the least mind driving up to Milwaukee this coming Sunday, when he could, if he didn’t mind, show her the city. This would be their third meeting. Perhaps by the end of it, she felt, she could sort out her thoughts on Howie Klein. An email came zinging back:
Laurie, great idea. meet me at my apartment at 11:00 am. instructions on how to get here along with map attached below. fondly, howie
Well, thought Laurie, we’ve gone fairly quickly from “best wishes” to “fondly.” That was progress, or so she thought. She assumed progress was what she wanted made.
Howie’s apartment was on the 11th floor of a white brick building. Lovely light from Lake Michigan lit up the rooms. He kept the place simple and orderly. The furniture was mostly of black leather and metal, the tables of glass. A large television hung on a wall over a screened-in fireplace. Howie didn’t offer a tour of the place, but instead they went directly to the Milwaukee Museum of Art, with its dramatic Calatrava annex in the shape of a whale’s tail.
Once in the museum, Howie took Laurie over to a painting by a 19th-century Pole named Jan Matejko of Stanczyk, the King’s Jester. The jester is seated in a chair placed at the end of a bed in a darkened room. He is a small man in a red costume, with cap and bells, and in repose, the fingers of both hands entwined, looking as all jesters not on the job should, thoughtfully sad.
“I love this painting,” Howie said. “It’s nearly a perfect likeness of my dearest friend Marty Selzer, who may have been a genius if he hadn’t been so screwed up. Marty died at 42, of prostate cancer.”
In another room he stopped at a painting called Feast of the Trumpets showing Hasidim praying alongside a creek, the background darkly late autumnal, the sky overcast, small fishing boats in the background.
“These could have been my ancestors, or so I always think when I see it. I’m afraid I’m a pretty sentimental Jew. Not sentimental enough to belong to a synagogue, you understand. But sentimental enough to be unable ever to imagine myself as anything other than Jewish. I even like being a member of a minority. On my one trip to Israel, I was sitting in the Jerusalem Music Centre, listening to Shlomo Mintz, when I had the thought that everyone in the room might be Jewish. It made me oddly uncomfortable. I prefer not to be of the majority, no matter where I am. You figure that one out.”
This man, Laurie felt, was more interesting than she had at first thought.
Later Howie drove her past the neighborhood in which he had grown up. He showed her the location of his father’s grocery store, whose lot was now the location of a Taco Bell, which he joked was a good name for a Mexican telephone company. They walked the River Walk. He told her about the anti-Semitism his father endured in his early days in Milwaukee from the city’s then heavily German working-class population. He said that she didn’t know how lucky she was that he was sparing her a tour of the breweries.
He took her to an earlyish dinner at a restaurant called The Rouge in the old Hotel Pfister, where they sat next to each other on a banquette facing out toward the center of the room. They had an easy flow of conversation going, much of it about the snobberies of what he called fancy feeding. He ordered a cabernet sauvignon to go with their dinner. He waited until the sommelier disappeared after the smelling and tasting nonsense were done with to raise his glass to touch hers and say: “I think you’ll find this a promiscuous but ultimately responsible little wine, with ever so faint a hint of a Snickers bar in its aftertaste.” She giggled. Again.
After dinner they walked from the Pfister back to Howie’s apartment. In the lobby he asked her if it were possible for her to spend the night. Laurie looked at him, and heard herself say, “Thank you but I have to be up early for school tomorrow. And I didn’t bring a change of clothes.”
“I understand,” he said. “Don’t give it another thought.”
He walked her to her car in the garage of his building. After she got in behind the wheel, he leaned in and they kissed, lightly, on the mouth.
“Thank you for a perfectly lovely day,” Laurie said. “I really mean it.”
“I’m glad,” said Howie. “I enjoyed it, too.”
As Laurie got back on the freeway, US 41, back to Chicago, she wondered if she had lost her nerve in telling Howie that she couldn’t spend the night at his apartment. In fact, she had packed an overnight bag that was in the trunk of her BMW. Did she think it too soon for them to fall into bed with each other? Why was she nervous about it? And what, precisely, was she nervous about? She was coming to like this man, who met none of her expectations. Did she fear that sex with him would be a disappointment and kill everything? What was she saving herself for? Senior prom, which was already 35 years ago? These questions occupied her during the 95-mile drive back to Chicago.
When Laurie was back in her apartment, it was 10:38 p.m. She called Howie in Milwaukee.
“Glad you got home safe,” he said.
“The reason I’m calling,” Laurie said, “is to tell you that I regret not spending the night with you in Milwaukee. It was a mistake on my part, and I wanted you to know that.”
“I don’t know when I’ve ever had a nicer phone call,” Howie said, “and that’s no kidding.”
“I’m glad,” Laurie said. “We’ll be in touch soon, OK?”
“Sleep tight,” he said.
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” she returned and clicked off her phone.
The next day, at 4:15 p.m., coming out of school, Laurie saw a light blue Prius with Wisconsin license plates at the curb. Before she was able to walk up to it, she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Excuse me, lady, but you know anywhere I can get an egg-white omelet with half a corned-beef sandwich on the side?”
Laurie turned and hugged him. His lips grazed her cheek. Her heart jumped. Lots of details to be worked out, but land, she felt, was in sight, and she thought she glimpsed, off in the distance, a safe harbor at last.