New Leaf

“You know,” Jim says, studying the map, “we’re going right past Oberlin.”

“The Tates,” Elaine says.

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jim says.

“Can we? Can we? Please, please, please,” both children ask.

“I wonder if they’re in town,” Elaine says. “Let’s call them.”

At the phone booth, Elaine makes the call. Phoebe is jumping from foot to foot, crossing her fingers. Dee Tate, a year older, was her best friend in Toronto before she and her family left for the States too.

The Tates are in town, and they’d love to have the Gordons stop by. They must spend the night. It’s no trouble at all. A wonderful surprise! The phone is handed to Jim for directions.

How pleased they are with this turn of events. The visit will break up the trip nicely, not that things haven’t been going well, because they have. Elaine’s got the map, folded to the pertinent portion. Jim drives, his hands at ten and two, his green clip-on sunglasses down, the toll ticket tucked into the sun visor, coins lined up in the ashtray. Turning over a new leaf, Elaine thinks, retrieving still another way of saying what it is she hopes they are embarking on. For her part, what does this entail? She won’t speak of past mistakes, missteps, betrayals, won’t look back or criticize.

The Tates’ house is a big white farmhouse on a deep lot. Newer houses–ranch-style with aluminum siding and brick fronts, placed closely together–surround the old house.

As they pull into the driveway, Ed Tate, his hair longer, his beard bushier then when they saw him last, steps onto the front porch. “Welcome, weary travelers! Come in, come in.”

Stiff-legged, the Gordons tumble out of the car, up the steps. The Tates’ new house smells like their last house, which is to say, it smells like Nora’s cooking: onions caramelizing in olive oil, freshly chopped herbs, yeast and warmth. There is the happy clutter of family in the rooms–toys and books and papers, children’s artwork on the fridge and walls. This has the effect of making Elaine feel embraced and comforted, drawn in. She accepts the glass of wine she is offered, watches as her daughter runs off with Dee. Phoebe adores Dee, would follow her to the end of the world, though Elaine finds her a bit high-strung. Nat and Joey Tate have dug into Joey’s bin of matchbox cars and are driving them through the deep shag of the living room carpet.

“How are you?” Nora asks.

Elaine can’t tell from her expression how much Nora knows. The Tates left Toronto the year before, but they’ve likely been in touch with other friends in the history department. The men are in the backyard. Ed is showing Jim his garden, so Elaine could talk if she wanted. And she does want to. Nora is a good friend, won’t tell her, as others have, to get real, to kick Jim out, or offer up some other hard-nosed advice that isn’t possible, not really. But here’s the thing: Elaine needs more miles between her and the past. It’s still too near. “I’m great,” she says. “Excited about the new house, Jim’s new job. Chair of the department, did we tell you?”

Nora nods, pours a bit of wine into the pan.

Elaine is glad for the noisy splash as it hits the heat.

“What can I do?” she says. And Nora hands her a cutting board and some summer squash from the garden.

“Knives are there,” she says, pointing.