Three Legs Are Better than Two


Elise was early meeting her son Aaron, thirty-five, for lunch in Manhattan, but she could see through the diner window that he was already there. She was surprised that Susie, blonde and delicate-looking, was with him. They’d overlapped at Harvard and now lived in the same Brooklyn neighborhood, but as far as Elise knew, they’d never been friendly. She vaguely remembered that Susie had split up with her girlfriend several months before, at around the same time that Aaron’s boyfriend had moved out.

“I used to call it the famous diner,” Aaron was telling Susie as Elise sat down, “because it was where my parents met for lunch on their first date.”

Elise ordered blueberry pancakes, which her late husband had loved.

She asked Susie, a lawyer, about her job.

“Actually, I’m thinking about taking some time off to finish a novel.”

Elise vaguely remembered she had a trust fund.

Aaron looked tired. He’d recently been promoted to assistant director of media for his advertising firm.

“Everything’s going pretty well,” he said. He liked his new assistant.

But something seemed...off about him.

“And how’s your quiet little suburban life, Mom?” he teased, because that was what she’d say when he’d suggest she move to the city.

“Actually, I have a new student.”

Several years before, she’d retired from teaching high school English and started her own business as a writing tutor.

“She’s—Julia’s—fine, but her dad, Bill, is one of those helicopter parents from hell.”

She smiled at Susie, but Susie seemed to be avoiding looking at her directly.

“Is he on the spectrum?” Aaron asked. “My mom thinks most people are on the spectrum,” he told Susie.

Elise smiled. “No. He’s just obnoxious.”

Aaron and Susie were looking at each other as if, Elise thought, they had some secret.

“Bill’s one of those finance types, a few years older than me, maybe early sixties. Slicked-back, graying hair. Polo shirts on even the coldest days. Not really fat, but tall and broad. He takes up a lot of space. Divorced, of course. Anyway, most parents just drop off their child and leave, but on the first day Bill announced he was staying.”

She worried she was talking too much.

“So Julia and I will be in the dining room and Bill’s in the living room, but there’s no door, so he can hear everything. Suddenly he’ll call out, ‘What’s your philosophy about using outlines, Elise?’ Or, ‘Elise? Does she need a thesaurus?’ It’s really annoying.”

“I would have been mortified if my dad had done something like that,” Susie murmured.

“Actually, Julia seems okay with him. She tends to be reserved, though. Of course, who wouldn’t be, with her dad sitting there eavesdropping.”

Aaron was looking at Susie.

“Just one more thing. I’ve told Bill—more than once—that he doesn’t have to pay me in cash, but every single time he makes me stand there while he slowly counts out the bills.”

“Maybe he likes you, Mom.”

“Believe me, I’m too old for him.”

At the end of the meal, although Susie said she loved the famous diner, she’d barely touched her salad. And Aaron, unusually for him, hadn’t wanted a bite of Elise’s blueberry pancakes.

Looking out the window on the train going home, Elise wondered what, if anything, had been going on. It was as if Aaron and Susie had some weird secret, like they were suddenly bisexual and were getting married.


§


Julia, twelve, had dark hair and a thin face that Elise thought would eventually be pretty. She had problems with spelling and with expanding her ideas. Elise found her quick to learn, easy to work with, and likable.

Bill stopped interrupting their sessions, but at the end of Julia’s hour, when she’d go to the bathroom (for so long that Elise suspected she was on her phone), he’d talk to Elise, blocking her path so she couldn’t escape to another room. After he found out that Aaron had gone to Harvard, he’d grill Elise about his courses and extra-curriculars. He’d comment on her furniture, asking where she’d bought something, as if he wanted to buy the same thing for himself.

At some point he’d always ask, “So what’s new?”

“Not much.”

He’d also ask more personal questions, like if she missed the classroom—“Not really”—or if she ever thought about moving to the city—“Nope.”

“When did your husband die?”

“It’s been a while.”

She found it amusing that she was as terse with him as Julia was in her writing.

It didn’t seem to bother him.

“I like that shade of blue,” he said about a sweater she was wearing.

Her friends were sure he wanted to date her.

She’d laugh.

He’d also talk about himself.

He was semi-retired—“Finance”—and worked from home. He loved being an older father. Before retiring, he’d made more money than his ex, a lawyer who still worked full-time.

One day he admired the small chandelier in the entranceway that looked like a hot-air balloon.

“Where’d you get it?”

“A friend gave it to me.” She hoped her smile looked mysterious.

Another thing that annoyed her about Bill was that she disliked the way she acted with him.


§


One afternoon when the bell rang at Julia’s scheduled time, Bill was standing there, alone. It was late April but chilly. He wore a polo shirt.

“Julia has a bad cold, but I brought her essay.” He took some papers out of a folder. “I think she’s done a pretty good job. It’s all her own work, by the way.”

“Julia’s not coming?” She couldn’t believe it.

“Not today. I just want to get your overall reaction. I’ll take notes for Julia, and everyone can save time. I’ll pay for the full hour, of course.”

They were still in the entranceway. He gestured toward the dining room, but Elise didn’t move. He held out the papers.

“Wait,” she said. “You really think that I’m going to go over her report with you?”

She’d occasionally had to deal with sticky situations, like when a parent had clearly written the child’s essay. And occasionally a parent would want to give her an expensive gift. She had friends who tutored and had some bizarre stories, but she’d never heard of a parent coming alone.

“What I’m asking for, Elise, is maybe twenty minutes of your time.”

“Out of the question,” she said evenly. “Have Julia call me, and we’ll make another appointment.”

She opened the front door.

He didn’t move. She could push past him and run into the kitchen. He’d be right behind her. She’d grab the first knife she saw and, as if she were jabbing potatoes to keep them from exploding in the oven, she’d prick him all over his big, hairy arms.

Her heart was pounding.

“Okay. Okay.” He put the papers back in the folder.

She wanted to tell him to get another tutor, but it wouldn’t be fair to punish Julia.


§


To celebrate the end of the school year Elise went to the city, had lunch with a friend, and bought a flowery, delicate-looking summer dress. She was about to go into a bookstore when Aaron called.

They’d never talked about what, if anything, had been going on during their lunch with Susie, but since then he seemed happier than he’d been since his partner left.

“How’s the dad from hell?” he asked her.

She’d told him about what she called the infamous essay incident. (He’d been gratifyingly appalled.)

“Hopefully I’ll never have to see him again.”

An attractive young woman with curly red hair was looking in the bookstore window.

“At the end of Julia’s last session I told him that if she needs extra help in high school—which I’m not sure she will—there’s an excellent new writing center.”

“Mom? Remember that day Susie and I came to the famous diner?”

Something in his tone made her nervous.

“That morning she’d asked me if I’d be her sperm donor—she’d pay for the clinic that does the whole thing and afterward she’d be fully responsible. I’d be more like the bachelor uncle.”

Elise didn’t know what to say.

“So being a parent was never something I seriously thought about—and Steve didn’t want kids—but, I realized—I want to do it.”

Elise tried to calm down. She wanted to stop thinking of all the potential problems and be...what he’d call supportive.

“Anyway, so far, no luck,” he said.

She couldn’t bring herself to say she was sorry.

A young man walked toward the red-haired woman who was still looking in the bookstore window. He stood right behind her.

“I’m glad you told me,” Elise said to Aaron. “I just want you to be happy.” She meant it.

He had to get back to work.

The man put his hands over the red-haired woman’s eyes.

She screamed.

“It’s just me,” he said. “I got through early. I thought I’d surprise you.”

She turned to face him. “You really scared me.”

“I didn’t mean to scare you.”

He tried to hug her, but she pulled away.

He reached for her hand. “Sweetie?”

“Don’t ever scare me like that again. Ever!”

He looked so crushed, Elise wished she could tell the woman, “He loves you.”

Suddenly lonely and sad, Elise didn’t go into the bookstore but went right to the station and took the train home.


§


A few weeks later she was grocery shopping when Bill wheeled his cart into her aisle. She couldn’t pretend not to see him.

They talked about Julia, who was enjoying sleepaway camp.

He said he’d taken on a couple of new clients and was thinking about renting office space nearby.

“So what’s new with you?”

Elise had recently found out that Susie was pregnant. Although Aaron was excited and happy, Elise still worried about all the ways he could get hurt. Looking at Bill—in his usual polo shirt, but it was summer—she had a mean thought: even if Julia married young and got pregnant right away, Bill would be pretty old before he could reasonably expect to have a grandchild.

“I’ve had some pretty exciting news!” she said cheerily.

Telling him, she realized she sounded like one of those gloating grandparents she’d always been contemptuous of.

He seemed excited and happy for her.

“Gotta go,” she said. “Say hi to Julia!”

His cart was blocking hers.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to say to you,” he said. “Remember that day I came alone? Well, Julia was really angry at me. Anyway, I made a bad decision.”

Elise wasn’t surprised that he couldn’t just say he was sorry.

“Forget it. Really. Um, I need you to move your cart.”

She was so eager not to run into him in another aisle that she didn’t buy most of the groceries she’d come for.

When she got home and unpacked the few things she’d bought, she was ashamed of having used this child, who hadn’t even been born yet, for her own petty revenge. As she said to the few close friends she’d told about the baby, she hadn’t really felt like a grandmother. But now, in a way, she did.

A car was pulling into her driveway.

She knew it was Bill. Even though her car was there, she could just not answer the doorbell.

He rang again.

She’d get it over with.

He had a bottle of champagne.

“Congratulations!”

She took the bottle.

“So nice of you. I’m seeing Aaron this weekend, and I’ll bring it. Thanks again. Say hi to Julia.”

It wasn’t that hot, but he was sweating. “Can I use your bathroom?”

Sullenly, she let him in.

He was in there a long time.

It was incredible how everything about this man was always annoying.

When he came out she was still by the front door.

“Elise?”

She sighed.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

She just looked at him.

“By the way, I really like the way your chandelier looks like a hot-air balloon.”

“I told you, a friend gave it to me, years ago. Listen, thanks again for the champagne.”

“Elise?” He was still sweating.

“I’m sort of busy.”

“From that first day, I remember you were wearing that blue sweater, I couldn’t stop thinking about you. It’s not just that you were so great with Julia and she really likes you and her grades got so much better.” He took a deep breath. “I just really like you.”

How had she not seen this coming?

“I’m flattered. But...”

“I want to take you out to dinner. Can we do that? Have dinner together? Soon? Elise?”

“I’m sorry, but I’m really not interested in dating.” She could add something about how she’d dated a lot after Jed died, but now she really liked her quiet little life—but all he’d do was argue.

“One more thing,” he said.

What?

“I want you to know that when I came over without Julia that time it wasn’t so I could be alone with you.”

“It’s fine.”

“I really wanted to go over her paper.”

“I believe you.”

“One more thing, and then I’ll go.”

She waited for him to get the fuck out of her house.

“You know how I used to stay here and wait for Julia?”

She just looked at him.

“Well, that wasn’t just because I liked you. I mean, I liked you, but I also didn’t want to drive around for an hour doing errands.”

For some reason this annoyed her.

“It’s fine.”

“Elise?”

“Actually, I’ve got to go.”

Slowly, hunched over a little, he opened the door and left.

After he drove away, she looked up at the hot-air-balloon chandelier, which she rarely noticed any more, and she burst into tears.


§


Almost twenty years before—she was still teaching middle school—she’d been at a weekend conference in Manhattan, and at the hotel dinner she’d ended up sitting next to the band teacher, Nick, whom she hardly knew. In their early forties, they were both married and had children. She was surprised by how funny he was. He liked her perfume. They lingered over coffee and then decided to explore the hotel. They found a dimly lit, ballroom-like room, empty except for a broken chair and a piano. Nick played her a few Beatles songs, and she sang along softly. Then she sat next to him on the bench, and they talked until midnight.

He walked her to her room. They were thirsty, she invited him in for some water, and they ended up making love—the first time that either of them was unfaithful. In the morning they went out to find a place to have breakfast where they wouldn’t run into colleagues. It was snowing, big, fat flakes that made the city look beautiful.

By the time they’d finished eating, the sidewalks were slippery.

Nick linked his arm through hers.

“Four legs are better than two,” he said.

They walked in silence. Elise told herself that whatever happened, as soon as Aaron went away to college she’d leave her husband. (But he got sick and died while Aaron was still in high school.)

As she and Nick approached the hotel, Elise suddenly said, “Wait! Did you say three legs are better than two?”

For some reason he, and then she, found this very funny. And then back in their suburb, where they kept meeting secretly and fell in love, they’d joke about how three legs are better.

In the spring Nick’s wife got a job in California, and they decided to move. One sunny day not long before they left, Elise and Nick both called in sick and went for a drive, stopping for lunch at a town they’d never been to. Walking around slowly, arm in arm, they stopped to look in the window of a fancy antique shop. She admired a small chandelier that looked like a hot-air balloon, and Nick insisted on buying it for her.

§


Elise wore her new flowery dress to dinner at Aaron’s apartment. Susie was there, with a new girlfriend, Jessica.

They drank Bill’s champagne (Susie had seltzer) and toasted the baby.

“How’s the dad from hell?” Susie asked Elise.

“Out of my life. Long story. I’ll spare you.”

They all oohed and ahhed over the latest ultrasound of the baby. Elise was secretly pleased that Susie and Aaron didn’t want to know the baby’s sex.

Susie asked Elise about her own pregnancy. Elise enjoyed reminiscing.

Susie and Aaron talked about a pediatrician they’d recently interviewed. Dr. Verdy was born in Paris but went to Harvard (several years before Aaron and Susie). Although they liked him, they worried that the room for sick children in his Park Slope office was too small.

Elise couldn’t remember if Aaron’s pediatrician had a room for sick children. She doubted they’d interviewed him.

Aaron and Susie kept talking about Dr. Verdy’s room for sick children.

You think that’s a big deal? Elise wanted to tell them. Wait until your child doesn’t get invited to a birthday party. Wait until he gets teased for being fat or gay or having freckles.

She wished someone her age were there with her. Someone she could exchange “Can-you-believe-they’re-still-going-on-about-this?” looks with. Preferably a boyfriend.

Even someone who’s not the love of your life? she asked herself.

This time I won’t be so...what Aaron calls judgy.

Even someone like Bill?

That’s a hard one.

Well?

Maybe.

Even—she couldn’t believe she was even asking the question—even Bill?

Yes.


 

KAREN WUNSCH’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Literary Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. A collection of her stories, Do You Know What I’m Not Telling You?, has been published by Serving House Books.