by Victoria Ludwin
“Is this place a mob joint?” Jeremy whispers to Ed as they stand across the street from Truman’s Bite. Jeremy pulls at the crook of his father’s arm, alarmed and fascinated by the dingy striped awning and soot-lined front windows. The block swarms with people pushing past them. Ed has never liked working in midtown, but that’s just the way it is.
“No, it’s a very nice restaurant. And you’d better act like it.” Please God, Ed prays, keep Jeremy quiet. Don’t let him bring up his mother, and if you have any mercy, God, keep him from performing one of his “burp songs.” Ed’s stomach flutters with nerves and a twinge of sexual thrill, feelings he’s not entirely comfortable having next to his fourteen year old son. Maybe he should have cancelled after all. Is it lunch? Is it a date? Could it ever be a date with his son in tow? He’s starved and wishes he’d combed his hair and brushed his teeth beforehand, but it has never occurred to him to keep a comb or toothbrush in the office.
Wedged between two modern office buildings in midtown, Truman’s Bite remains a holdout from a time when two-story construction rose sufficiently high for city life. Gold lettering in an old-fashioned typeface announces the name on the front window, which sits dark like a gap framed with wood plank siding. The brass plate on the front notes “President Harry S. Truman’s Favorite Bite In Town.” A green awning swoops down to shelter an old man in a thin three-piece pin-striped suit; he sits on a bench by the front doors and snoozes, his head rolled back and his hat tilted over his eyes.
Ed was here, technically, to have lunch with Gwen. They met about a month ago, when Gwen was asked to interview Ed for the firm’s internal newsletter; Ed won some corporate excellence award, really a plaque that meant, “Take this, instead of a raise!” Their meeting, which started at five-thirty, ended three hours later with the two of them sprawled across Ed’s desk, hands in each other’s shirts, breathlessly grasping everywhere but too timid to go below the waist. At least then. Nothing like this had ever happened to Ed. For the past month they’d made excuses for working late, trysted in the emergency stairwells, and sent tentative, seemingly conversational emails. They’d never spent any time together outside the office, however, nor had they exchanged even phone numbers.
Ed felt something was happening between them, though, something more than sex. He found himself dreaming about pouring her coffee at home in his favorite mug, imagining her asleep on his couch, where he gently drapes an afghan over her shoulders. In his dreams, they walk through Central Park together. He sees himself calling her from the grocery store, asking what kind of ice cream she’d want. In his mind, he touches her cheek with two fingers. He’s almost ashamed of these dreams, as they seem too intimate, infused with a care too deep, perhaps, for what was going on between them.
“This is a sort of business lunch, all right, Jeremy?” Ed says. He leans toward his son as they cross Sixth Avenue and smells cigarettes on his son.
“Has your mother started smoking again?”
“No. I mean, yes.” Jeremy wrinkles his eyes the way Donna did when she was twenty-five and Ed feels the stones of memory pulling down on him. The divorce, which seemed like a good idea at the time, scrapes at Ed even now, leaving him with little more than scattered memories of how fantastic his life was with Donna when they first married fifteen-odd years ago. Whenever he let his brain sit still, images of shore picnics they’d taken together before Jeremy was born would drift into his mind, weekends they spent together in her parent’s cabin in the Catskills, playing with Jeremy as a toddler. In some ways, it’s a relief to remember the good parts while blocking out the rest; in other ways, he just feels old. What’s slowly killing me, he thinks, is the nostalgia for youth.
Ed scrutinizes Jeremy’s face and reaches toward him, thumb first. “What’s that schmutz on your-“
“It’s not schmutz,” says Jeremy, jerking his head away, but Ed’s thumb is already rubbing Jeremy’s upper lip. He stops when he sees the little black hairs sprouting up like broken filament.
“God, Dad!” Jeremy says, turning away from his father. Jeremy glances at the crowd on the street to see whether anyone has seen them. His mortification has never been stronger; it appalls him that his father could mistake the start of a mustache, or whatever, as dirt. Of course it isn’t dirt. Of course he’s been pilfering cigarettes from his mother for the past year. His father knows nothing about him. No one does.
Ed flusters and tries to recover. He must deny the existence of those sprouts. He is by no means ready for that. No hairs. None. He clears his throat and envisions an afternoon not so long ago, when he played catch with Jeremy in the backyard, when his son was four. Much better.
“I don’t want you looking like a mess. It’s serious business, you know.” Ed looks around to see if anyone he knows is nearby. “You can’t act like a kid in there. When you’re with me at work,” he says, “you’re not just yourself, you’re an extension of me, of the Silver Family.”
“I’m practically an adult,” Jeremy whines. “Besides, you don’t have to bring me to work; you can just leave me in your apartment.”
Ed imagines Jeremy standing in the living room of his crappy, suffocating bachelor apartment, with its dim light bulbs and dark windows.
Jeremy pouts. “Mom leaves me alone all the time.”
Ed considers it for a second and says nothing. He will not be pitted against his ex-wife by his son. Nor does he want to fight during the short stretch of time he does have with Jeremy. Especially now, especially at this age. At fourteen, Ed began to despise his father, despise the very air he breathed, just because he existed. There didn’t need to be any more reason than that.