Melody was first married at age nine in the Cincinnati airport. Her father smoked cigarettes and read the New York Times in the lounge, missing her vows then as he would again fifteen years later. Her husband, Tyler, was older (ten and a half) and traveling through to Miami with his grandmother. He made a ring for her out of bubble gum and they kissed on the lips with their eyes closed.
“What kind of house are you going to buy me?” Melody asked Tyler.
“What do you mean?”
Melody poked him just above the collar. “I’m your wife now,” she said. “You have to buy me a house.”
“Oh,” Tyler said and cast his gaze outward the departing planes for a moment and then back to her. “I don’t have any money,” he confessed.
Melody shrugged her shoulders. “It’s alright,” she said. “I guess you don’t have to.”
The marriage lasted just under three hours before Tyler’s grandmother came to tell him their flight was boarding.
“I’ll write you,” he said as she handed him back her address written in neat print on the envelope for his ticket just below his stapled baggage check receipt.
Melody watched his plane taxi down the runway, pick up speed and then fly away. She kept the bubblegum ring on her finger for another half hour before her father threw it in the trash and told her to wash her hands. Tyler never wrote her and she was always, even into adulthood, secretly disappointed.
* * *
In a reflection off the window in the subway Melody saw a smudge of cake flour in her hair. She frowned and spent the rest of the trip trying to get it out and then repositioning her blandly colored curls into something satisfactory. She strained to see herself clearly in the scratched and dirty window glass or in the metal pole that she held onto. She yawned and her head fell forward dramatically in surrender when the train reached her stop.
It was a cold Manhattan afternoon. The air was dry with a sharp winter wind that turned her ears and cheeks bright red. The sun was in a holding pattern above the dispersed gray clouds. A few minutes outside of the subway Melody’s cell phone chirped with a text message.
“on the train – c u soon,” it read.
Melody walked quickly to her building and once in the lobby directly to her mail box. She took out a stack of envelopes and glossy advertisements. She went through them all mechanically while walking toward the elevators.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” the man behind the front desk told her as she passed. It was an unfamiliar voice. Melody looked up from her mail and stopped to see him. He was young, probably just under thirty or just over with clean cut dark hair and an easy smile. He wore a suit that seemed a size too big for him and his sideburns were cut just barely unevenly so that she doubted he’d ever notice.
“Afternoon,” she said and then continued to the elevators. She hit the button and waited, watching the numbers slowly count down from thirty-four. “You’re new aren’t you?” Melody asked the man at the desk.
“Yes,” he said. “This is my first week.”
“What happened to Alfonse?”
“I heard he moved to Jersey to work with his brother. I’m Ray.”
“Melody,” she told him.
“Nice to meet you, Melody.”
The elevator doors opened up. “You can call me, Mel.”
Ray smiled at her. “Okay. Nice to meet you, Mel.”
Melody waved, feeling that she needed to do something. When the elevator doors closed she could see a smudge of white on her cheek looking back at her from the brass surface. Melody wiped her cheek with the heel of her palm. “Great,” she said.
Back at her apartment, Melody took her recyclables to the trash room and changed the sheets on Jackie’s bed. She considered making something marinated with side dishes for dinner but then gave up on the idea. She put a stack of take out menus on the dining room table and sat down on her sofa. It was new. Jackie hadn’t seen it yet.
Melody drifted off to sleep without wanting to and dreamt that she slept for a hundred years. In the dream, when she woke her hair was a mile long and her finger nails were twice as long as her arms. Her hair was so heavy she couldn’t lift her head and as she tried to use her hands to lift her chin the nails cut scratches into the walls.
Another chirp from her cell phone roused her.
“pulling n 2 grand central.”
It was dark in her living room. Melody turned the lights on and took a half empty cup of coffee out from her refrigerator. She drank it quickly, cold and leaned, half up on the counter. Her cell phone rang and Mel looked down at the caller ID. Whitney.
“Hi, Whit,” Melody answered.
“How are you doing, Mel?” Whitney asked her but didn’t wait for a response. “Is Jackie there yet?”
“Just pulled into Grand Central.”
“Okay then.” Whitney paused awkwardly. “She’s gotten terrible about calling, you know? I just worry too much, I suppose.”
“Do you want me to have her call you?”
“No, no,” Whitney said. “I don’t want her to know I’m checking up on her.”
“Okay,” Melody said.
“You two have fun!”
“Any special plans?”
Melody looked over the take out menus. “I thought we’d do the displays at Macys.”
“Those are getting so complicated.”
“Okay, gotta run.”
Melody ended the call. Whitney was Stuart’s new wife. No, she corrected herself. She wasn’t new any longer. They’d been married three years. Jackie told her just before she left for school that she’d accidentally slipped and called Whit “Mom.”
“I’m sorry,” Jackie told her.
“It’s okay,” Mel said. “You can call her that if you want.”
They shared custody and they got along very well. Everyone said that they got along very well. Melody even baked the cake for Stuart and Whit’s reception. Jackie was the flower girl, at a blushing twelve and Melody stood along with everyone when Whitney walked down the aisle.
Melody and Stuart never fought. The marriage didn’t end in fighting. She had imagined to herself that he was having an affair for years and at first the thought of it was terrifying but she became accustomed to it. When he told finally told her about Whitney, she saw that he was in his face and eyes before he said it out loud. She held his hands.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Whatever it is, it’s okay.”
“I’m having an affair,” he told her.
Melody nodded. She smiled at him with reassurance. “I forgive you.”
Stuart turned away from her and pulled his hands free. His eyes got wet with tears. “I love her, Melody. I… I don’t love you anymore.”
Mel didn’t say a word. She didn’t move. In her silence Stuart packed his suitcase and left. They were divorced six weeks later and he got engaged to Whitney on their Jackie’s birthday.
Melody’s cell phone chirped. “im here.”
Mel crushed her coffee cup and tossed it into the trash. She scooped up her keys and headed out.
Jackie was just coming into the lobby when Mel’s elevator opened up. Ray was helping her with her bags.
“It has wheels,” Jackie told him like it was an original concept that he should know about.
“Hi there, kiddo,” Melody said and headed to intercept.
“Have you got everything?” Mel asked Ray.
“Sure thing,” he said and took the bags toward the elevators.
Jackie gave her mother a quick hug and kiss on the cheek. “I hafta call Isaac super quick, kay?”
“Home for the holidays?” Ray asked Melody as they waited for the elevator.
“Yeah. She goes away to school in Connecticut.”
“Isaac, I’m at my Mom’s. Call me,” Jackie said on the phone and then looked back at Mel with a frown. “Voicemail.”
“He’ll call you back,” Melody told her and kissed her on the forehead.
“Are you hungry?”
“Thanks,” Melody told Ray as he helped get the bags in the elevator.
Ray nodded and smiled at her and Mel self consciously blushed
“It’s cold out there,” Jackie said after the doors closed and pulled her gloves off. She looked over at her mother very seriously. “It’s excessive,” she said.
Melody took Jackie’s hand and rubbed it to warm her up. “Delivery for dinner. Anywhere you want.”
“Dumplings and soup,” Jackie said immediately. “Lucky Duck’s. I have dreams about the won tons, I swear. Clarice says I drool during them.”
“I’ll call when we get back upstairs,” Melody told her. “And you should call Whitney.”
“Did she call you looking for me?”
“No,” Mel lied. “It’s the right thing to do.”
“Uh huh,” Jackie said and turned toward her mother. “How do you know I haven’t already called?” Melody shrugged. “You suck at lying, Mom.”
“Well, you shouldn’t lie to people.”
The elevator stopped at their floor and Melody scooped up Jackie’s bags. “It’s not like I haven’t taken the train by myself a thousand times,” Jackie said.
“Call Whitney,” Melody told her daughter. Mel unlocked the door and took Jackie’s bags to her room.
“I texted her,” Jackie shouted from the kitchen. “Are you happy now?”
Melody walked back to the dining room and searched for the menu for Lucky Ducks’s.
“Cake,” Jackie said looking in Melody’s refrigerator. “Yum!” She took out a piece of a raspberry espresso chocolate sheet cake and tore off a chunk with her fingers. “I’m going to gain fifty pounds.”
“You don’t have to eat it, Jackie,” Melody said pulled the phone away from her mouth and then going back when the call was answered. “Yes, I’d like an order for delivery.”
“Isaac said I’d look sexy with a big belly,” Jackie told her mother and stuffed her hands under her shirt to create a fake paunch.
“Happy family dumpling soup for two,” Mel ordered and narrowed her eyes at her daughter. “Does he now?” She asked away from the phone receiver.
“Uh huh,” Jackie said. She sucked raspberry from her fingers. “And plus fat girls have bigger boobs.”
Melody hung up the phone. “Dinner will be here in forty minutes,” she said. “Don’t make yourself sick.” She walked over to Jackie and took the piece of cake away. The frosting had been picked clean and chunks were missing from her daughter’s slender finger tips. “You eat like a bird.”
Jackie laughed and covered her mouth to stop cake from coming out. She finally licked her lips clean and took a diet soda from the fridge. “New doorman?” She asked after washing the cake down with a swallow.
Melody took a fork from the drawer and took a bite from the cake. “Yep,” she said. She reached out and cleaned off a smudge of chocolate from Jackie’s wincing chin.
“What happened to Alfonse?”
“He’s pretty cute though. The new one. Not Alfonse. Alfonse always smelled like baby powder.”
Melody blushed again, an involuntary reaction she was ashamed of, and gobbled up a mouthful of cake. “Is he?” She asked.
“Oh my God!” Jackie said. “You like him!”
Mel put the cake down on the counter. “I just met him.”
“Ask him out.”
“I’ll go to Isaac’s if you want to have a night alone…”
Jackie took the cake front the counter and resumed picking at it. “He is cute. And you like him.”
“I don’t know anything about him.”
“What do you need to know?”
“He could be married.”
“He’s not!” Jackie announced with a bounce. “I checked the ring finger,” she pointed to her ring finger to demonstrate.
“You checked the ring finger?”
“Yep,” Jackie said. “There’s no ring.”
Mel decided not to press about the ring ringer. “He could have a girlfriend.”
“You want to ask him out. You do. It’s been like a million years since your last date.”
“It has not been a million years since my last date.”
“It’s been forever.”
“How do you know I’m not dating while you’re away at school?”
“You haven’t been,” Jackie said confidently
“It’s not really any of your business, Jackie.”
“Uh huh. I think he likes you.”
Melody opened her mouth to respond but was interrupted by the ring tone of Jackie’s cell. “Isaac!” She said and hopped. She took the cake and ran into her bedroom.
Melody licked the last bit of cake from her fork and then held it under hot water in the sink.
* * *
Melody had been on dates while her daughter had been away at school. She’d created an account with an online dating website. She posted a blurry picture of herself (from Stuart and Whitney’s reception) and filled out questions.
The website asked her how important fidelity was in a relationship. There were five choices from Extremely Important to Extremely Unimportant. Mel skipped the question.
She met a man named Roger and they exchanged emails for a few weeks before meeting for dinner at a small Italian restaurant she’d suggested. His wife had recently died from cancer. It had taken years. He told Melody that it was his wife who had filled out the profile for him, that she’d made him promise to move on and meet someone new. When Roger talked about his wife at dinner his eyes welled up and he said he was sorry.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Melody told him and took his hand.
They slept together twice, once that night after dinner at the Italian place and then on the following Wednesday while they were watching A River Runs Through It on DVD. In reality it was inaccurate to say they slept. The first time they began kissing in the elevator up to her apartment. He took her clothes off methodically one article at a time and became agitated if she tried to help. After they finished, an awkward, quick coupling, Roger sat on the edge of Melody’s bed and cried. She held him and told him that everything would be okay. He asked her if she would please put her clothes back on and then she held him while she was fully clothes until he fell asleep.
The second time Melody opened a bottle of wine to “lighten the mood.” She drank too much and he made love to her without eye contact, keeping his hand aggressively on her left breast throughout. Then he cleaned himself up in the bathroom and left. She got an email from him the next day saying that he thought he should just be alone for a while. Melody wrote back and said that she understood.
A month or so later she set up another date with a man named Walt after just a couple of emails and an hour of late night wine “lightened” instant messaging. Melody waited at a Starbucks for him and a half an hour late saw a man that resembled Walt’s picture look in the windows right at her and then walk away. She wondered what it was that he saw. Was she older than he expected? Was her face too plain? Walt sent her an Instant Message a few days later and apologized. He said he was busy and that they should reschedule. Mel didn’t call him on the lie and said that she’d be like to set up another time. He never contacted her again and for weeks when she saw the smiley face next to his name light up on her instant messenger buddy list she’d click to start a conversation and then just stare at the blinking cursor unsure what to say until he signed off again. Mel finally deleted her profile from the website.
She wasn’t supposed to be alone, she’d think to herself when she lied in bed unable to sleep. Promises had been made and she had believed them. She could have forgiven Stuart for anything. She’d practiced in her head. The thought that he’d ultimately fall in love with someone else or that he’d stop loving her, never entered her imagination. She had imagined Jackie in a horrible accident. What she’d say, how she’d feel if her daughter died suddenly. It would destroy her. She’d never recover. She had imagined if Stuart had lost his job or if she’d lost hers at the bakery and they couldn’t afford to make ends meet. She imagined the way she’d ask her father to borrow the money. On the subway at three in the morning on her way to the bakery while Stuart and Jackie still slept, she’d imagined everything that could possibly have happened except what finally did.
In high school she’d always had a boyfriend. She wasn’t the most beautiful girl at her school and knew that she wasn’t but she was average or above average and she was loyal and kind. She only turned a boy with a crush down once when she was a junior because she was already dating one of his friends. She’d felt horrible about it for years and even into college would sometimes feel phantom guilt, would picture the slow way that he walked away from her, his head hung low and the way he never talked to her again the same way. They’d stayed up late at parties talking about old episodes of Star Trek (she’d watched them all dozens of times with her father) and how much they wanted to move to the big city when they graduated. Then she broke his heart. It had probably hurt her more than him.
Over the next few days after Jackie arrived, Melody thought about Ray. She confirmed for herself the absence of a ring on his finger and made an effort to engage in small talk. The thought of him grew, her interest building upon itself.
“They just send more and more adverts every year,” she said meekly after checking her mail and then felt weird for using the word “advert.” It was not a normal word for her to use.
“That they do,” Ray agreed.
It took a week before she got up the nerve to ask him out for dinner.
“How late do they make you work?” She asked him.
“I get off at 11.”
“Oh,” she said. “How many days a week?”
“I do Wednesday through Sunday,” he told her. “On Mondays and Tuesdays I stay with my gramps on Long Island.”
“Oh,” she said.
“You work pretty kooky hours too, huh?”
“Yeah,” Mel said.
“When you come back sometimes I can smell like fresh bread still,” he told her. “Maybe I’m imagining.”
“I mostly make wedding cakes.”
“You were married once, right?”
“I was engaged one time.”
“Did you one of you get cold feet?” Melody asked him.
“No,” he said. She saw that the topic saddened him and felt terrible for bringing it up. “That’s not the way it happened at all.”
“Nah,” he said. “Don’t be. Ancient history.”
“Hey,” she said. “This is silly… Would you like to go for a walk or something after you get done some night? Maybe get a drink?”
“I would,” he told her with a smile. “I would like that.”
“Okay,” Mel said. She blushed and tried to turn away so he couldn’t see. Her face always betrayed her. She wore her heart in her cheeks and every lie was given away by one of a dozen tells. “What night?”
“I’m free tonight,” he said.
“I’m free too.”
Ray laughed. “So, tonight then.”
“Yeah.” She turned around and stepped into an elevator that opened to let people out. She nearly crashed into her neighbors. She waved at Ray but then turned away from him. She snuck a look back at him just before the doors closed and he was looking at her back her. Her cheeks must have been on fire.
* * *
“I need a new Metro card,” Jackie yelled to her mother when she walked in the door.
“Okay,” Melody said from her bedroom. “Take twenty from my wallet.”
“Twenty.” Mel was standing in front of the mirror at her vanity. She could never seem to smile authentically at herself in reflections. She became easily embarrassed.
“Are you wearing my lip gloss?” Jackie asked Mel from the doorway to her room.
“I’m sorry,” Mel said and offered Jackie’s make up kit back.
“You can use it whenever,” Jackie said. “We have like the same complexion. I could be your complexion clone. You want to use anything else?”
“I asked him,” Mel said abruptly.
“I knew it. You do like him.”
“We’re going for a walk.”
“Way to go, Mom.” Jackie took the make up kit. “You shouldn’t wear too much though. You don’t want him to think you’re a prostitute.”
“What are you going to wear?”
It was not a question that Melody was meant to answer. Jackie already knew what her mother was going to end up wearing.
“I thought about it before when we talked in the kitchen,” Jackie said holding up her navy blue top. “You want to go for casual but sexy. You know?”
“I have dressed myself before, Jackie,” Mel told her, feeling slightly like one of Jackie’s dolls long ago packed up in her grandmother’s attic.
“Do you have condoms?”
“You can’t count on him to have them, Mom. You have to think ahead. Do you want me to stay at Aunt Peg’s tonight? Just in case?”
Mel’s phone rang. “We’re not finished with this conversation, young lady. Condoms…” she said. “Hi Whit.”
“Hi Mel. How are things? Is Jackie being a brat? I can talk to her for you if you need.”
“That’s okay, Whitney. We’re getting along perfectly.”
Jackie took another twenty from her mother’s wallet. “I remembered I have to get Aunt Peg a present,” she whispered.
“So have you set your plans for Christmas?”
“Nothing spectacular,” Mel told Whitney. “I’ll make a ham and my sister and her family will come over.”
“My parents are flying in from Idaho this year. My Dad hates flying. He hasn’t been out since the wedding.”
“That’ll be nice.”
“I was thinking… I know that Jackie was with us last year but it would really mean a lot to my parents to see her. If it wouldn’t be the most horrible thing in the world for me to ask… Is it too horrible?”
Mel watched her daughter talk on the phone with Isaac, pacing in the kitchen. She’d taken her shoes off one at a time en route into the house so that they were staged five feet apart. She was scooping up frosting with reduced fat baked potato chips. They’d planned this in advance, Melody knew. They hadn’t told Jackie or asked Mel yet but they’d just expected that Mel would say it was okay. They organized the tickets for Whitney’s parents months in advance because Stuart thought that last minute air fare was unnecessarily expensive. It may have been setup before Thanksgiving even, while Mel was eating turkey and cranberry sauce with Peg and her flatulent husband that always told her to pull his finger with an uproarious laugh. Mel had taken the week off around Christmas. She’d gotten them tickets to the Nutcracker on Christmas Eve at a little theater just off Broadway.
“I’ll think about it,” Melody told Whitney.
“Thanks so much, Mel! It means the world to my folks!”
“I have to go, Whit.”
“Send my love to, Jackie!”
Mel ended the call.
* * *
“You look like a movie star,” Ray told Melody when she came down for their walk.
“I do not.”
“My lips to God’s ears,” Ray said. “I swear. Julia Roberts or something.”
“Thank for you saying that.”
“So do you have a particular walk you have you heart set on?” Ray asked, opening the door for her.
“I figured we’d just walk.”
“Okay,” Ray said. “I can walk. Can we talk too?”
Mel nodded. “I think so.”
“Tell me about being a wedding cake baker. Do you talk to all those young brides and grooms?”
“I talk to most of them face to face.”
“Is that weird?”
“Why would it be weird?”
“I don’t know,” Ray said. “It just seems like it could be weird. All those cakes, all those weddings, and well, it just seems like it could be weird. For you.”
The wind was especially harsh that night. Ray noticed her shivering and wrapped his arm around her. She’d imagined him as gentleman. Not just because he opened the door for her when she had groceries or helped Jackie with her bags. She imagined him sweeping her off her feet, finally being the one. She’d also imagined him hurting her in an infinite number of ways. She’d spent every moment since they talked that afternoon imagining what could happen.
They walked in roughly a circle, passing the building a couple of times, and each time venturing further away as if they were testing the limits of its gravity. They stepped over and around bags of garbage waiting for collection. They talked about Jackie and New York.
“What about you?” She asked him after a while. “How did you end up in my building? I mean… Shit.”
He laughed. “You mean, how come I’m a doorman? It’s a short time thing.”
“I have a cousin that runs maintenance for the building. I was between jobs so he put in a word for me.”
“So this is not what you wanted to be your whole life?”
“Nah,” he said. “When spring comes I’m going to take over this ice cream truck from a friend of mine in Brooklyn.”
“Ice cream man, huh?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You know that song? The ice cream truck song? That’s how you know I’ll be coming.”
“I do have a soft spot for the Choco Taco.”
“Who doesn’t? I’ll always have one or two saved for you.”
“I think you’ll forget.”
“No way,” Ray told her. “I couldn’t forget you.”
She blushed and laughed.
“That was a pretty cheesy line,” he said a moment later.
“Good cheesy, though?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Alright, I can live with that.”
“And before being a doorman?”
“I was a fireman actually.” Ray told her. “Here,” he said. “Look at this.” He took off his gloves and showed her the back of his left hand, covered in a scar she hadn’t noticed before. “Car fire,” he said. “Those mothers burn real hot.”
“You were a fireman here in the city?”
“FDJC. Right across the river.”
“That’s quite a job.”
“Yeah. I did it ten years. My brother Mikey is still in, my Dad retired about seven, eight years back.”
“Why did you leave?”
He got sad again and Mel wanted to pull it back and swallow it up. She remembered every time her mother cried it was because she’d said something and her father just shook his head and tossed a cigarette down on the asphalt or out the window of the car or into an ashtray with disgust. “Nevermind,” she said.
“No,” Ray said. “No. You know, if I was still in FDJC I wouldn’t be here with you.” He squeezed her a little closer. “Too much cheesy?” He asked.
“No,” Mel said and kissed him impulsively.
“Your lips taste like cherries,” Ray told her.
Mel could feel her cheeks competing with stop signs. “My daughter’s lip gloss.”
“I like cherries,” Ray said and kissed her.
They were nice kisses. Tender and not too aggressive. They reminded her of the kind of kisses she’d shared with Stuart during the good years. A kiss that just wanted to be a kiss and not foreplay or an accomplice in her ex’s guilt and deception. He’d kiss her before saying hello. That’s how she knew he was being unfaithful.
Ray held her hand as they walked the rest of the way back to the building. He kissed her again at the steps.
“You have to get ready for the bakery right?”
Mel nodded. “I have to leave in an hour.”
“This was nice, right?”
“I’ll see you when you come home.”
“If you want we could go for a walk tomorrow night too.”
“I could walk any night with you.”
“You’re pushing your luck.”
“Don’t I know it.”
She kissed him again. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He waved to her as she ran up the stairs and into the building, avoiding eye contact with Carlos, the night shift guy at the desk.
When she got back to her apartment Melody was disappointed that Jackie was asleep and wanted to wake her up. She considered calling Peg but knew she’d be asleep too. Instead she took a shower and got ready for work. She was ready early and sat on her new sofa for forty minutes before the alarm on her watch told her it was time to head to the subway.
* * *
“Where’s Ray?” Melody asked Carlos when she saw him at the desk after work.
“Didn’t come in today,” Carlos said with a shrug. “I been here for sixteen hours.”
“Oh,” Melody and rushed to the elevator. She hadn’t slept in over a day. She was crying before she got to her door. Jackie was on the phone with Isaac when she came in and Mel went directly to bed. She collapsed in a huff that was more fitting her teenage daughter. She kept crying until she felt numb. She’d imagined walking with Ray while she posed little plastic grooms and brides on three tier cakes. She didn’t know him much more than his cheesy lines and warm arms but she allowed herself briefly to cast her head into the future with him. She felt foolish and fell asleep, still smelling cherries somehow from Jackie’s lip gloss and with tears dried in her cake flour smudged hair.
Jackie woke her a few hours later. “Mom?”
“Are we going to go to Macys tonight?”
“Yeah. Give me a few minutes to get ready okay?”
Jackie stepped out her bedroom and Mel put on her shoes and walked to the bathroom to clean up. In her reflection she still looked like she was crying. Mel washed her face.
“Whitney says I’m going to be with Dad and her for Christmas,” Jackie said to her mother as Mel came out of the bathroom.
“We talked about it last night.”
‘ “You didn’t talk to me about it.”
“Get your coat. It’s cold.”
Jackie had either forgotten about Melody’s walk with Ray or just smartly chose not to broach the subject. They barely talked as they got their things together and headed for the elevator.
Down in the lobby Mel stopped in her tracks when she saw Ray talking to another man in a suit. It was Ray’s cousin, she realized immediately, recognizing the fit of the suit and one of the ties she’d seen Ray wear before. Ray’s right eye was blackened and his lips split. He had a splint on his wrist. He was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. The sadness that Mel had seen in his face when she asked about leaving the fire department and his fiancée had settled into his whole body. His shoulders were sloped and he was nodding weakly at everything his cousin said. Ray’s cousin had the suit Ray had been wearing slung over his shoulder.
“No,” Mel heard Ray say. “No, I understand and I appreciate it Bobby.” Ray’s cousin handed him an envelope and Ray gave his cousin his security badge and ring of keys.
“Go on to the subway,” Melody told Jackie. “I’ll catch up.”
“It’s night, Mom. I’ll get raped.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jackie left but turned back to see Mel before going out of view. Melody realized Jackie hadn’t been difficult; she had been worried. Her daughter’s face, while more practiced at lies was just as transparent to her heart.
“Ray,” Melody said as Ray turned to leave.
“Hey there, movie star.”
“Want to walk?”
“I’m not sure that would be a good idea.”
“Just a couple blocks to the subway?”
“Yeah, okay.” He had turned into someone completely different. He was quieter, defeated.
They went out into the city and Ray reached out for her hand. He squeezed too hard. His eyes welled up. “You were expecting me to smile and welcome you home today, huh?”
“No, it’s not.”
“Melody- you got such a beautiful name. It’s like music,” he laughed a little at the line but sniffed back tears.
“Do you need anything? Money or…?”
Ray let her hand go. “No,” he said. “Fuck no. Jesus, what the fuck do you think of me?”
“I don’t know…”
“I’m not just the fucking doorman, lady. I’m a goddam person and I have fucking dignity, alright?”
“Shit,” he said.
“What is it?”
“It’s that fire,” he said. “The same God damn fire.”
“The scar on your hand?”
“No,” he said. “Another fire.”
“You can talk to me.”
He shook his head. They weren’t walking toward the subway. Not really. “I don’t want to. I don’t want to say it. I’m disgusted with myself.”
“What happened to you, Ray?”
“I was feeling good last night and I went to a bar I used to go to and I got a drink, you know, to celebrate. We had a nice time right?”
“Some of the old guys from my firehouse showed up.”
“They did this to you? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“A man can’t always be good, Melody,” he told her. “He can’t always be a hero. Sometimes… Sometimes I get so scared.”
“I get scared too.”
“No,” he said. He shook his head. “No,” repeated. “No, no, no.” He stopped walking and boxed his ears.
“Ray, please, come on-“
He looked back up at her. “I quit the building.”
“I’m going to go stay with a buddy in Pittsburgh, I think.”
“Are you coming back in spring for the ice cream truck?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Look, Melody, I’m no kind of man.”
“I like you, Ray. I don’t really know you or everything that’s going on with you but I do like you.”
“It would be better if you didn’t. I’m a fucked up basket case. I’m no good for you. I’m no good for anyone right now. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
Mel leaned in and kissed him. It was different. She could tell from the kiss that there would never be another one.
“No more cherries,” he said.
“Melody, I’m sorry.”
She didn’t make eye contact. She turned around and headed back to the apartment building. She didn’t look back at him until he was already gone. She walked past the front desk and took the stairs up so she wouldn’t have to stop.
She sat on her sofa and dragged her fingernails through her hair, down her scalp and down her neck.
“Mom,” Jackie said as she came in the door. Mel realized she’d completely forgotten about meeting her at the subway. “Are you okay?”
Jackie got the frosting and potato chips and another piece of cake and sat down next to her mother on the couch. She hugged her mom and then scooped up a chip with lemon frosting. She handed it to Melody and she ate it.
“Sweet and salty,” Mel said.
“Don’t grow up and be like me, Jackie.”
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too.”
“There’s like a million fish in the sea.”
“Better fish. That go to the gym regularly.”
Mel looked over at her daughter. “What do you know about condoms?”
“Um, that I shouldn’t get pregnant or AIDS?”
“You’re really pretty, Mom. That guy is a jerk.”
“You’re fifteen, Jackie.”
“Shush, Mom. We’re having a moment.”
Melody’s cell phone rang. “Whitney,” she said.
“I don’t want to spend Christmas with Whitney and her parents. Her dad grabbed my butt one time and the said he was goosing me but it felt like molestation.”
“Come here,” Mel said and hugged her daughter closer. She silenced the phone. “You’re doing Christmas with me and Aunt Peg like we talked about.”
“I’m going to see if Rodney will put raisins in his nose for quarters again,” Jackie said.
“You are not.” Jackie’s cell phone rang and Mel saw it was Isaac. “And you’re not allowed to be alone with Isaac, Jackie. Ever.”
“You’re fifteen, Jackie.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jackie silenced the phone and scooped up another chip with frosting on it and fed it to her mother.