The day after Lou moved to Chicago, Michelle pointed to a Tiffany’s magazine ad for a princess-cut diamond ring.
“This is the engagement ring I want,” she told him. “This would be perfect.”
He held onto that magazine ad. And when he brought it to Goldman Jewelers in Skokie, Lou told the man, “If you can design this, it would be perfect.”
The jeweler, who was only a few years older than Lou, took a look at it. His name was Art Goldman. He was the fourth generation working in the business of making girls squeal with delight when they received their blood diamonds. Getting the Goldman Jewelers business card was a rite of passage in Lou’s family. His grandfather gave it to him after Lou picked him up from another chemo treatment. It was yellowed and dog-eared.
“And you’re sure these guys know what they’re doing, Pop?” Lou asked his grandfather.
“Of course. You’ll probably work with Art,” Pop said. “You’ll like him. He’ll take care of you. His grandfather and I were friends from before the war. His great-grandfather sold me your grandmother’s engagement ring. Sold your dad your mom’s ring, too. Mazel tov.”
But congratulations were premature. Lou needed the money for the ring. The standard rule used to be that an engagement ring should cost a man the equivalent of one month’s salary. For Lou, that would have been barely fifty bucks. He called his father and asked if they could meet for lunch to talk about finances.
“How much do you need?” his father, Benjamin asked.
“I was wondering how much I had still in my savings accounts.”
Benjamin shifted in his seat. “That depends. Which accounts?”
“What do you mean which accounts? My savings accounts. The one you opened for me when I was born. And then the one we opened together when I turned eighteen.”
“How much do you need?”
“I only need what I have, Dad. How much is in there?”
Lou never saw his statements. As a kid he couldn’t care less, and as an adult they never crossed his mind since they were mailed to his dad’s house because Benjamin was on the accounts as well.
“Tell me how much you need, and we’ll find it.”
“No. I don’t want you loaning me the money.”
“I’m not going to just give you your savings account so you can blow it on a ring. If you clean out your savings, what will you do if you need it in the future?”
“First of all, I wouldn’t consider buying an engagement ring a blown purchase. Secondly, the point of savings is to use it when you need it. And I need it. Just give me the bank book, and I’ll close it out.”
“I can’t. Well, you can’t.”
“Why? Do you have to be there, too?”
“The full amount isn’t in the account right now.”
“Where is it?”
“I had to use some to help pay off your mother from the divorce.”
“Let me just write you a check. This way you’ll still have your savings for later.”
“But I don’t. You just said it’s not there. And I don’t want to just borrow the money. I want to spend what’s mine.”
“I think this is foolish.”
“Me spending my own money is foolish? Look, the sooner I get married, the sooner I can stop asking you for money—not that I’m marrying her for her money.” Lou took a breath. “How long do you need to get it?”
Lou returned to Goldman Jewelers to put a deposit on the ring and place the order. But when he turned the car off, his hands shook. His chest tightened and felt like his ribs were going to crush his lungs and heart into gut dust. He was sweating and had trouble breathing. He hadn’t felt this way in a while. Not since the Remerol and the therapy sessions began. He looked around the parking lot. No one was watching. He pulled his phone out and called his friend Neal.
“Hey, man! What’s going on?” Neal asked.
“I’m about to lose my shit.”
“I just pulled into the parking lot to order Michelle’s ring, and I’m having a panic attack. I can’t breathe. My chest feels like…”
“Okay. Relax. You haven’t bought anything yet, right?”
“All right. Here’s what you do. Turn the car back on. And drive away. Don’t look back. Just pull out of the parking lot and go home.”
“I can’t. I have to…”
“You don’t have to do anything but drive away. This is your chance to be free. Be free, Louis!”
As quickly as the panic kicked in, it subsided. Lou took a deep breath. “All right. All right. I’m fine. I’ll be okay.”
“Did you leave?”
“No. I’m just nervous, that’s all. I’m about to spend a lot of money. That’s all.”
“Exactly. That’s why you shouldn’t.”
“I’ll be fine. I gotta go.”
He adjusted himself in the rearview mirror, took a deep breath and walked into the store. Art, of course, was thrilled to see him. The deposit was a standard one hundred-twenty-five dollars. The total cost of the ring would be eight thousand-sixty-four dollars. It was more than Lou had, but it would be ready in one month.
Although both Lou and Michelle hated cruises and had just taken a Mexican vacation to celebrate her thirtieth birthday and their second anniversary, they were preparing to embark on a ten-day cruise to the southern Caribbean. Similarly, this trip was to celebrate both her parents’ sixtieth birthdays as well as their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Lynn and Barry Kaminski were married on Valentine’s Day, just two days after their shared birthday. The four of them, Lou, Michelle and her parents, would be traveling aboard the Royal Duchess.
Lou and Michelle loved boats. They loved seeing the world. But cruises had the ability to turn a great vacation into just a good vacation. They liked to spend time in new towns and immerse themselves in the culture. When cruising, the few hours in each port did not allow for that. It was just enough time to buy a shot and a T-shirt at the local Señor Frogs. But her parents were cruise enthusiasts—Duchess Cruises frequent sailors—and this trip was all about them. Which is exactly why Michelle didn’t give Lou a hard time about having to pay for him. Almost, anyway.
“I love my parents, but I don’t want to go on this cruise any more than you do,” she said to him. “Money is tight for me right now, too. I’m trying to save for a down payment on a condo. But I’ll pay your way because we can’t not go.”
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he said. “It’ll be fun. Just kind of a bummer that we have to celebrate Valentine’s Day on a cruise ship with thousands of other people potentially running around with the norovirus on their shit-stained hands. But I know how much this means to your parents.”
“Exactly. And so I need you to promise me something. I need you to promise me that you won’t flip out on this trip like you did in Cabo. Ruining my birthday and our anniversary is one thing; ruining them for my parents is something else entirely.”
“I know. I won’t.”
“Go see your grandfather before we leave if you have to. Say your goodbyes if you think his cancer is going to kill him while we’re gone. Do whatever it is you need to do so that you don’t lose your shit. I’m warning you, Lou. Do not.”
This trip was the perfect time for Lou to have the marriage talk with Lynn and Barry. He wasn’t worried about them not giving him their blessing. He just knew that it would mean more to them that he chose their celebration of love as the time to officially proclaim to them his love for their daughter. It would be one big floating fucking love fest.
The first night on the ship was Lynn and Barry’s birthdays. Instead of eating in the dining room, Michelle planned and paid for a private in-suite meal with a special chef-selected menu. Lou pitched in on the planning by decorating their door with photo collages of them he’d assembled before leaving Chicago.
“Me spending my own money is foolish? Look, the sooner I get married, the sooner I can stop asking you for money—not that I’m marrying her for her money.” Lou took a breath. “How long do you need to get it?”
After the private and delicious meal, the foursome made their way to the Crooners Lounge & Bar, where Michelle entered her vocal styling into the ship’s karaoke competition called Duchess Idol. Michelle had a great voice. She’d have told anyone if they had asked her. If she hadn’t become an attorney, she may have become a pop star. Not surprisingly, she advanced through the first two stages those first two nights. The third round—and the semifinal—was on Valentine’s Day, Lynn and Barry’s anniversary. It was also formal night aboard the ship, and Lou was in his tuxedo. This was the night he wanted to talk to Lynn and Barry. He just needed to get them away from Michelle long enough to ask. Michelle sang her song, Mary Wells’ My Guy, dedicating it to Lou, then headed off to the bathroom.
“I think I accidentally ate a piece of lettuce at dinner,” she said to Lou and her parents as she passed their table on her way out.
Lettuce was a trigger for her IBS. He knew she would be there a while. Lou watched her leave and waited a few moments before beginning, just to make sure she wasn’t coming back for anything.
“Barry, Lynn. Can I talk to you a moment?” He tried to whisper loud enough for them to hear, but not so loud that it disrupted the other performers. He took a deep breath and began his spiel. “I’d like to talk to you about Michelle.” The parents looked at each other knowingly. “You know, I love your daughter very much. And though we’ve had some bumpy moments since my moving to Chicago, we have stayed together through all of it. And I think that says something about us. I know that it’s important to Michelle, and to you, that she marry a man who can provide for her and the children they have together. I’m still having a hard time finding work while this recession is going on, but I have plans on becoming a teacher, which will allow me a steady paycheck in a secure environment with plenty of benefits and perks our family can take advantage of. In the meantime, if I have to, I’ll go to work at my dad’s sheet-metal company. What I’m saying is that I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure that your daughter is always taken care of and happy. I want Michelle and I to be a family. And while I’ve always felt like a part of your family, I want to make it official—if you’ll have me. I’ve gone ahead and commissioned a ring to be designed especially for Michelle, and I am asking for your blessing to use that ring to propose to her and ask her to be my wife.”
It was a mouthful. A well-rehearsed sales pitch. If only he could have rattled off pitches like that when he was suffering through that short-lived inside sales job.
“I knew this was going to happen on this trip,” Lynn said as she wiped away tears. “You know how much we love you, Lou.”
“Seeing you and Michelle get married… nothing would make us happier,” said Barry who also wiped away tears. “But if you break her heart, I’ll kill you.”
“Of course. Thank you both.” Lou stood and hugged each of them.
“It means a lot that you would talk to us about this tonight. On Valentine’s Day. On our anniversary. It really does mean a lot,” Barry said.
“I’m glad her IBS has such good timing. And just so we’re clear, I did not spike her dinner with lettuce.”
Michelle arrived just then. “What are you guys talking about?” she asked.
“Your poop,” said Lou.
“Come on,” said Barry. “Drinks on me.”
Michelle was in the Duchess Idol finals. It came down to her and a younger, blonder girl who wore lower-cut dresses and sang songs from popular Disney movies. From the start of the competition, they all knew this girl was the only other real competitor. Duchess Cruises was known for attracting an older crowd to its ships; mostly because it was one of the more expensive cruise lines. Michelle and Lou were the youngest passengers on board by at least 20 years. Well, except for the Disney Girl, and that made her all the more special.
Lou encouraged Michelle to sing songs familiar to the judges and audience. This strategy worked well for what she had in her repertoire. And though Michelle had a stronger voice with far more range than the Disney Girl, ultimately, the title of Duchess Idol eluded Michelle.
“She only won because she is so young and cutsie, and she reminds everyone of their granddaughter,” Michelle mocked.
“If my granddaughter puts her rack out there like that, there’s gonna be trouble,” Lou said.
“Okay, their slutty granddaughter,” replied Michelle.
“Hey, it’s okay. Her strategy wasn’t much different than ours. She played to the crowd. She sang Disney princess songs; songs that little kids sing. And old people love little kids. I wish I’d thought of it before she went up that first night.”
“But all she sang were Disney songs. It’s so boring.”
“It’s a karaoke contest, babe. There are no points for originality.”
“Whatever. Maybe I should just push my boobs up to my chin and sing stupid cartoon songs.”
“All right, Michelle. That’s enough of that. Don’t be a sore loser,” her mother said.
“I’m getting a drink,” Michelle huffed.
At another bar across the ship, the four of them raised their martini glasses high and toasted to Michelle for a well-fought competition. “I should have won,” Michelle said. The other three agreed with formality.
“Are any of you interested in being in the Royal Duchess Star Search tomorrow night?” interrupted a member of the ship’s crew. She placed a flyer in front of them. Lou picked it up.
“What is it?” he inquired.
“It’s a talent show. Tomorrow night in the Royal Theater. You can do any talent at all. Sing, dance, magic, comedy; whatever you like. You can have as many people in your act with you as needed. The winner gets $500 and a trophy.”
“You should enter,” Lynn told Michelle.
“How do you sign up?” asked Lou.
“The list is outside of the Theater. There’s a mandatory meeting for all contestants at 11 a.m. tomorrow. It’s a sea day, so you should be aboard.” She paused for a laugh that never came. “So… Anyone here want to sign up?”
“Michelle,” her mother encouraged again.
“No, thank you. I think it’s best that I retire.”
“I’ll do it,” said Lou. His girlfriend and her parents looked at him, surprised.
“Great!” said the crewmember. “Sign up or just come to the meeting at eleven tomorrow morning, and we’ll get you registered there. But slots may fill up fast, so it’s better to get your name on the list tonight.” She placed another flyer on the bar and moved on to the next group of people.
“I should probably go put my name down,” Lou said.
“What are you going to do?” asked Michelle.
“I guess I’ll do some stand up.”
“Really? That’s great! Oh, you’ll do so well,” she said.
“I’m a little out of practice, but I’m just drunk enough tonight to not care. I’ll write something tomorrow and panic then.”
“Whatever it is, you’ll be great,” said Michelle.
The four of them raised their martini glasses high and toasted to Lou and a great show.
He regretted his decision to be a contestant immediately after he woke up. But he wasn’t going to back out. He and Michelle had some morning sex, and they headed to breakfast with her parents. The day at sea was set to be a beautiful one. Michelle and her parents were going to suntan their hangovers away. Lou, on the other hand, was going to lock himself in the stateroom, leaving only for the mandatory meeting at eleven.
He had two to five minutes of performance time to fill. For a singer or a dancer or a group of people doing a skit, meeting that time requirement would be a breeze. But two to five minutes of stand up—and good stand up at that—was far more challenging. Plus, he hadn’t written a new joke in two years. He considered the audience he’d be playing to—old people on a cruise ship—and started writing. He tailored everything to cruise humor. The food, the high prices of drinks at the bar that you don’t know you’re paying until you see your bar tab at the end of the trip, the ship’s manic focus on hand sanitization as a way to prevent a norovirus outbreak, which is openly admitting that someone on the ship has poop on their hands.
He memorized as much of his script as he could. He practiced it in front of the bathroom mirror over and over again. He was concerned that it was a little hacky, and not really his own style, but it was the best he could do with the time he had. His old stuff from two years ago would be no good. It was either outdated or too dark for the audience.
There were twenty-four other contestants. The show order was picked at random. The judges were a who’s who of ship personalities: the captain, the head chef, a showgirl from the dance troupe, the ship’s house comedian and the lead singer of the band that played on the pool deck. The ship’s social director, Darrin, emceed the show. Lou and a seventy-something-year-old man were the only two doing stand up. The other notable performances were a couple doing a waltz, a man juggling, a woman doing an operatic sonata and the Disney Girl performing Somewhere Out There—not a song from a Disney movie.
Lou killed it. Even the least funny of all the jokes landed: “The only thing more disappointing than the ice cream not being served 24 hours is when Darrin denied my request to watch Titanic in the ship’s screening room.” He was a finalist with—believe it—Disney Girl. The judges said it was close. But there could be only one. Lou had to win. With Disney Girl up there again, it was personal.
Darrin announced the winner, dragging out the suspense. “The winner… of the 2009 Royal Duchess Star Search… and recipient of five huundred dollars, and a beautiful trophy is… …………..Lou Bergman!”
Lou shook Disney Girl’s hand. He could see that she was crying. Suck it up, kid. Life only gets worse, he thought. A pair of showgirls brought out the foot-high trophy and one of those Publisher’s Clearing House-sized checks made out for five hundred bucks. The audience cheered. Darrin congratulated him and asked him if he’d like to say anything.
“Maybe say hello to friends or family in the audience?”
“I’m a little concerned this won’t fit in the overhead compartment on the plane back home,” Lou said holding up the novelty check. The audience roared. Jesus, these people will laugh at anything, he thought.
After a few rounds of drinks paid for by strangers who wanted to congratulate him and remark how they enjoyed his jokes, Lou and Michelle, and Lynn and Barry turned in.
“That was a lot of fun tonight. I miss doing that,” Lou said as he and Michelle undressed in their stateroom.
“Uh-huh,” she replied.
“You know that Disney Girl was crying when she lost. That’s what happens when you mess with my baby: I’ll make a bitch cry.”
“What is it you miss doing, Lou?”
“You said that you miss doing ‘that.’ What do you miss doing?”
“Oh. Stand up. It felt good being up there again.”
“Because I thought you meant that you missed stealing the spotlight from me. Because I would have reminded you that you shouldn’t miss it because you do it all the time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t have to make such a big deal out of winning some stupid talent show on a cruise ship filled with the walking dead.”
“How am I making a big deal about it? I thought you were glad I won.”
“I’d rather have you win than anyone else up there, but do you need that big fucking check, too?” She pointed to the large cardboard check leaning against the sliding door to the balcony.
“Um, they gave me that check. What would you like me to do with it?”
“It’s not even a real check.”
“Obviously, but should I have left it on the stage? That would have been rude.”
“So what? And I suppose you’re going to bring it home with you?”
“No. I guess I’ll just leave it here.”
“You don’t think that’ll be rude?
“I’m really not sure what you’re upset about. Is it because you didn’t win the karaoke contest?”
“No, Lou. It’s because you always steal my spotlight.”
“What spotlight are you talking about? There’s no spotlight to steal. We weren’t competing with each other. Our two shows were a day apart and on different decks for fuck’s sake!”
“It’s not about the shows! It’s about you stealing the spotlight!”
“The spotlight, right. Okay. Then I have no idea what you mean.”
“I assume you know what five hundred dollars means. Because you can just give me your winnings to help pay for your trip.”
Lou stared at her. That five hundred dollars was the most money he’d made doing what he loved in a long, long time. Winning—just performing—was the best he’d felt in just as long. Was she really jealous of his win? And while he could have given her the full five hundred bucks to help pay for the trip, it wouldn’t have made much difference—not with what the whole thing cost anyway. Besides, he’d thought about treating himself to a new blazer since he hadn’t bought himself any new clothes in two years. He also thought he’d take Michelle out for a really nice evening, like the one where he would propose to her. This is bullshit, he thought as they engaged in a stare-down. He should have said something, but instead, he shrugged his shoulders in defeat and mumbled, “Fine.” Then he left to wander the ship’s decks drinking a glass of scotch until he had calmed down and figured Michelle had fallen asleep.
In the morning, she apologized. She admitted she was a little drunk and yes, a little jealous. But she was so proud of him and wanted him to keep the money. It was his, she said. Maybe he should buy himself a new blazer, she said. Or they could go out for a nice dinner. She was incredibly loving that day, completely smitten with Lou and beamed every time someone on the ship recognized him. She was so happy he was hers, she said.
And what choice did he have but to believe it?
After performing on the cruise, Lou was certain that he did not want to teach. He wanted to get back into stand up comedy. He was already writing a comedic play with Neal called The Greatest Recession Ever!, and he wanted to put even more of a focus on that. With grad school now out of the picture, he was going to have to get back to looking for work while building his comedy writing and stand up career.
At that moment, Lou had eight thousand-five hundred dollars to his name. Give or take the few bucks from his unemployment checks that would be left after trying to pay his credit card bills. Looking at the bank statement, it felt good having all of that money staring back at him. He didn’t want to ever spend it. But it was already as good as gone.
He had booked a reservation at Ginger & Homestead, the city’s hottest restaurant, which specialized in Asian–farm-fresh fusion. And although his gut was wrapping itself in knots and Neal’s words to him about freedom were still clanging in his head, Lou drove to Goldberg Jewelers in Skokie and bought Michelle’s eight thousand-sixty-four dollar engagement ring.
“Congratulations,” said Art, shaking Lou’s hand.
In the parking lot by his car, Lou threw up.
Michelle often sang in the shower and loved bouncing along to the radio while getting ready for a night out. This night, she was singing even louder and bouncing even higher because she was excited about eating at Ginger & Homestead.
“I’m so impressed that you booked this reservation all on your own,” she told Lou who was having trouble getting his tie just right.
“I know how to use a phone.”
“I know. It’s just nice to have you do this. I like being taken care of.” She bounced over to him and kissed him on the cheek, then helped straighten his tie while singing along to Kelly Clarkson’s My Life Would Suck Without You.
Lou matched her excitement with nervousness. This was the dinner that Michelle had been waiting more than two years to have. This was the dinner that they fought about. This was the dinner that Neal warned Lou not to plan. This was the dinner that already cost him more than eight grand before they had even checked in with the hostess. This was the dinner that had to be the most perfect dinner anywhere… ever. And it would be. Everything was in order.
Lou had the ring Michelle wanted. He was taking her to the restaurant she’d been salivating over for months. He stopped by the place a few weeks before to let the manager know that he would be proposing to his girlfriend. He orchestrated a bottle of Michelle’s favorite champagne to be delivered when she said “Yes.” He even worked it out that the restaurant’s owner—now considered the celebrity chef—would personally deliver the bottle to their table and be the first to congratulate Michelle, as well as be the first to coo over her ring. The manager would dim the lights throughout the restaurant except over their table when Lou got on one knee. He would give her the spotlight she so craved. Yes, it would be perfect.
“Are you okay? You’re fidgety,” Michelle observed as they sat across from each other at dinner.
“I am? Sorry, I’m fine. Just taking it all in. Some restaurant, huh?”
The last dish of their main course had just been cleared. The time was nigh. But before he could start his proposal, he had to give the signal to their waitress, and she hadn’t been to the table since checking on them earlier in the meal.
“Something on your mind?” Michelle said.
To avoid any more obvious awkwardness, Lou lied. “Just thinking about writing a scene for the show with Mark. You know, this place is packed and it’s not cheap, and we’re in a recession, so who are all of these people and why are they hoarding all the jobs and money? I don’t know. Something about that.”
“Ugh. Your play. It’s not even a real play yet.”
“All you do is talk about your play. It’s just kind of annoying, that’s all.”
“I’m sorry? It’s just a big part of what I’m doing right now.”
“I wish you’d talk more about finding work.”
“Me, too. Unfortunately, there’s not as much daily news on that front.”
“Are you sure you’re not wasting your time with this comedy stuff? Maybe you could be spending that time sending your resume out and preparing for interviews.”
“I think I’ve got a good balance. I can’t network and email and job hunt and market myself twenty-four hours a day.”
“Because it’s impossible. One, I’d get burned out. Two, I only write with Neal after hours when hiring managers aren’t working anyhow, and three, if I did that, I’d have no time to spend with you.” He was trying to bring the conversation back to romance.
“You don’t spend time with me anyway. You’re always out doing stand up until like one in the morning.”
“A couple nights a week. So what?”
“So what? So what I think it’s doing is distracting you from what’s important.”
“The writing and stand up are important.”
“They’re important as hobbies, Lou. As hobbies. A hobby isn’t a job. These hobbies aren’t what’s going to get you to a place where we can start a life together.”
The perfect night was slipping away. Panic was sliding in.
The waitress approached with a big grin. She looked directly at Lou. “Are the two of you ready to take a look at our dessert menu?”
This was Lou’s cue. All he had to say was, “We’d love to” and the waitress would say she’d be right back. She’d tell the owner/celebrity chef to get ready with the champagne. The manager would put his finger on the appropriate light switches. Lou would tell Michelle how much he loved her and how he wanted to start their life together right away. He’d get on his knee. The lights would change. All of the other patrons would become silent the moment they realized what was happening. He’d reach into the side pocket of his blazer and pull out the ring box. Michelle would start crying. He’d open the box and reveal the ring of her dreams to her. She’d gasp and cover her mouth with her hands. He’d say, ‘Michelle Kaminski, love of my life, will you marry me?’ She’d say “Yes.” He’d place the ring on her finger and kiss her. The restaurant would erupt in celebration. Michelle would hold out her hand and admire her new jewelry. Then she’d raise the back of her hand up and display it for the whole restaurant to see. The owner/celebrity chef would come out with the bottle of Veuve Clicquot, congratulate them, open the bottle, fill their glasses and ask to see Michelle’s ring. The lights would go back to normal. Lou would go back to his seat. Some patrons would insist on buying the star couple drinks. Strangers would take photos of them with camera phones. Michelle, through tears of excitement and joy, would say that her makeup was probably a mess. She’d be right. But Lou would tell her she looked perfect. Because to him, at that moment, seeing Michelle that happy and knowing that he was the one who made her that happy, she would look perfect.
But Lou didn’t say, “We’d love to.” Instead he smiled and said, “Give us a couple minutes.”
The waitress’ face fell. He watched her walk back to the bar like she was the one who had been defeated. The manager was there waiting. Lou gave a small, awkward smile to them both. Then he turned back to Michelle.
“Don’t call them hobbies,” he told her. “These are things that will help my career. They are my career. This is what I want to do. Finding paid work right now is, of course, a priority. Please do not reduce my passions and my efforts to actually create a life I can be happy with to something as trivial as stamp collecting. Do not belittle me.”
“I’m not belittling you, Lou. I’m bringing you down to Earth. I’m keeping you realistic. You can’t afford the life we want by telling jokes in the middle of the night at dive bars in Chicago. It’s impossible. Why don’t you understand that?”
“Why don’t you understand that I won’t be in those dive bars in the middle of the night forever? This is how it starts. Bit by bit. Patience and persistence.”
“Persistence? What persistence? You’ve gone from wanting to be a writer to working in sales to wanting to be a teacher to wanting to work for your dad back to wanting to be a writer and a stand up comedian. The only thing that persists is the inconsistency.”
He was speechless, which was a good thing because if he found the words to say, he would have certainly made things far worse than they were. He didn’t know how else to explain the way of things to her. Some days she’d understand it all, and other days it was an alien language. She was right about one thing: inconsistency did persist. But that wasn’t on his hands.
“I’ll get our check,” he said standing.
“What about dessert?”
He started walking to the bar. “You don’t need it,” he said to himself.
“Is everything all right?” the manager asked.
“No. Well, yes. Sort of. Here’s the thing—she’d kill me if I told you this but I don’t know how else to explain. My girlfriend has irritable bowel syndrome. It can strike at any moment and, well, it has struck.” The manager looked repulsed and terrified. “Don’t worry,” Lou said reassuringly. “Nothing has happened. But she’s afraid something might if she doesn’t leave right now. So yeah, I don’t think it’s the best idea for me to propose and go through the whole thing when she’s on the brink of crapping herself. Not the most romantic memory, you know?”
“Was it something she ate?”
“No. It’s just a condition. One of the many things I love about her. I’ll just pay the check here and we’ll get going. Thank you for everything you did for us tonight.”
“I’ll let the owner know. I’m terribly sorry about this. Please let us know when you’d like to try again.”
“Great. Will do.”
Lou was balancing his feelings of anger and annoyance silently. Michelle took a cue from him and also kept quiet on the cab ride home. In the apartment, she put on her pajamas, popped a bowl of popcorn and parked herself in front of the TV. Lou fixed himself a drink and sucked it back, looking at the Lake Michigan from the windows.
“Do you want to watch some TV with me?” Michelle ventured.
Lou kept his gaze on the harbor below. “No thanks. I think I’ll go for a walk.”
“What’s with you tonight?”
“Just a little grumpy is all. No big deal. I’ll be back.”
He felt guilty for being so short with her because she couldn’t possibly have had any idea what should have happened at dinner. It was also clear that she had no idea of the impact the things she said at dinner had on him. She was business as usual when they got home. And that was a big problem for him, too.
Lou walked up the block to Caroline’s, his favorite neighborhood bar. He drank the well scotch until he was drunk enough to forget that he was carrying around an engagement ring valued at his entire life’s savings intended for a person he couldn’t stand the sight of.
A month later, Lou was meeting his father for lunch to talk about finances again.
“How much money do you need?” Benjamin asked his son.
Lou pulled an envelope from the breast pocket of his blazer. He slid it across the table to his father.
“I sold the ring. Got seventy-five hundred bucks for it. I want you to have it.”
“Mom is going to want more money. Take it.”
“This is your money. You need it.”
“Dad, I didn’t make the same mistake you did. I avoided my horrible divorce. You’re the one who needs this money.”