When Ben showed up in the store he was standing by a pile of table-runners. He
didn’t look like he should be there, partly because he is a man and most men in the store
look at the candleholders and woven rugs the way I imagine Frank looks at the quinoa
aisle or something when I’ve sent him to Whole Foods on the way back from work. I’ll
get a call fifteen minutes in and he’ll ask me about five different brands, comparing the
color and the description on the label, and I let him continue for a few minutes before
telling him to get any of them, they’re all fine. I like to picture him standing in the aisle:
his work shirt half-untucked from the train ride home and his hand in his hair, treating
this decision like the most important thing in the world because it might be, to me.
I guess that’s different from the way Ben was standing, though, by the table-
runners. I just meant that they both look like they have no idea.
The other week I was sitting with my thirteen-year-old, Lucy, on the edge of her
bed. She was hunched over next to the pillow we got monogrammed for her for
Christmas a few years ago, when she was ten and wanted her initials in purple. She was
holding her toes between her fingers, painted blue. “Mom,” she asked, “what were you
like in college?”
“Oh,” I told her, “I was pretty boring. Had some really nice friends. I studied a
“Did you have any boyfriends?”
“A few, but none of them were that serious.”
“What were they like?”
“They were fine, nice. Not your Dad. Why? Is there a boy in your life?” I raised
my eyebrows and shook her foot.
She kicked it away and wagged her red waves, smiling. “No. Do you have
“Of me? Or of my boyfriends?”
“Maybe somewhere. I can look.”
In high school, I loved catalogues, all kinds. L.L. Bean and Pottery Barn and
Williams Sonoma. I’d turn to the kitchen section and choose my future pots, then
imagine my life built around Le Creuset orange. Once one of my mom’s boyfriends
actually gave her a Le Creuset stockpot. It was heavy and beautiful and started a three-
month soup phase, but after the winter it went to sit alone among our uneven piles of
semi-matched dark gray cookware. In the catalogs I circled full matching sets, Dutch
ovens and skillets and saucepans and roasters with roasting racks included.
Somehow the same catalogs come to my door now, though we live in Katonah,
N.Y. and hours from where I used to sit with my pen at the dining room table. I don’t
have to read them anymore because we already have what we need. A hanging row of
Mauviel frying pans, which I bought partially because I liked the look of the copper and
partially because I thought it was funny that they’re from Villedieu-les-Poéles, a French
town whose name translates to “revered city of frying pans,” according to the catalog.
Tablecloths in seasonal colors. Matching sets of napkins and matching sets of napkin
rings. Le Creuset for bakeware, in that orange.
I’ve set up my shifts at the store so when Frank comes home there’s normally
something cooking on the stove. It will be ready in the twenty minutes it takes him to
hang his coat up, put his briefcase down, kiss the top of my head, and come sit for a little
at the island where the girls are doing their homework. They ask me what’s for dinner
and usually I tell them it’s a surprise, or to wait and see, and ask them to bring their
plates or bowls over to where I’m standing by the stove. Rose loves when I pull out
garlic bread from the oven, brushed with parsley and oil and steaming when she breaks it
apart with her hands. When someone’s sick I’ll make lemon chicken and orzo soup, or
carrot ginger if it’s cold season. In the summer I have three tomato plants in the
backyard, and there’s an apple tree that drops fat Winesaps on the ground. In all, I would
say that I am happy.
In the first year we bought the store, Frank took care of the girls while I spent
weekends there, holding sidewalk sales and getting friends to help hold promotional
events (First Monograms Free with Purchase of a Set! Get Scent-Matched!). I spent a
summer painting the walls a soft white and moving in rough wooden tables to hold
samples of napkins and sheets and tablecloths, all of which could be ordered in and
monogrammed in-store, however you wanted. We moved upstate from the city, and I
named it Ours, written in Baskerville above a hunter-and-white striped awning.
When he was not commuting to New York, and the girls were not playing tennis
or in dance classes, he brought them by sometimes—“to see Mom in action,” he would
tell them. Sometimes I watched Frank approach random women and comment on the
quality of whatever they were holding, tell them how he kept it in his guest bathroom
himself, and he’d wink at me over their shoulders.
We met working at the same firm in Manhattan. My office was on the way to
the water cooler, and for a few months he went to get water about five times every day,
tapping his fingers on the side of my cubicle wall as he walked by. That Christmas I drew
his name for floor-wide Secret Santa. At the holiday party he unwrapped a lime green
Nalgene with “Cheers, Norah” written on a taped-on card. He tipped an imaginary hat at
me from across the room. Then he asked me out to dinner.
For two years I was a little surprised to find his freckled forearm draped over my
waist every morning, his tall Ohio body string-bean curved around my side of the bed.
When I made him eggs he acted like I’d resurrected Jesus himself over the gas burner,
and I liked the way he absentmindedly scrunched my curls in his hands while we watched
Homeland on the bed. My mom was very happy when I told her we were engaged.
In college my roommate once said she believed one person in the relationship was
always going to love more than the other person, and it was better to be the one who was
loved. I never bothered to disagree.
I didn’t tell Frank that much about college. He knew most of the important things,
what I’d studied (Comparative Literature, big on the Russians), had met the good friends,
definitely asked enough questions. I just noticed the way he put his hand on mine when
we talked to other kids’ dads on the bleachers at soccer games, the way he let his fingers
rest at the small of my back when I met his friends. It was always light, never controlling,
but enough so that I remembered he was there. So there were things I left out of the
stories I told him.
But what I really remember about being twenty and in college were the mornings
I woke up in Ben’s bed, yellow light coming through the window to land on where I fit
so well in the furniture of his sideways body. His hot breath on my neck until I turned
and the motion woke him up. The photos of him as a little kid, as a wayward middle
schooler, as a reformed teenage student, taped on the dorm wall. Huddling together on
backyard steps outside the party, while cold New England air bit at our knuckles and he
got my jokes.
We dated for just long enough for him to matter, but then he mattered a lot. Or I
guess mattered a lot relative to the ones who had mattered before him, who had been few
and mainly irrelevant. In retrospect it was probably because he asked me questions, and
when I answered he asked me more, and then when I told him more he would look at me
He was one of the first ones to really have that physical draw—when he was in
a room I knew, and my body knew. The skin around my elbows knew and my shoulder
blades knew. That was how I described it then, in my diary.
Once, before I ever left home, my mother was reading the alumni pages of her
college magazine while I sat with her at the kitchen table. She paused and said a name
with her eyebrows raised. “Tom Sheffield. Huh. He and his wife just had a baby.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Someone I knew in college. He’s someone I could have ended up with him.” She
turned the page.
“What do you mean?”
“I just think he’s someone I could have ended up with.” She shrugged and didn’t
look upset. “There aren’t a lot of people you can say that about.”
I hadn’t thought of Ben lately when he showed up in the store. It was October and
a long time since we had last seen each other. He didn’t come to the last reunion. I had
heard he was living in Montana with his family.
I was by the register and didn’t know what to do, because a monogram shop isn’t
the sort of place I expected to see him unless he had a reason. His shoulders looked out of
place, wide and housed in Polartec black that matched nothing in the room. There were
three other customers in the store and I was ringing up one of them, some L’Óreal blonde
in Lululemon and the kind of shirt you buy just for exercise instead of wearing something
old. She was buying candleholders.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched Jill walk up to him. She works for me. I
saw him ask her something and saw her nod and lead him over to where we keep sets of
the more creative napkins. We source them from women in Morocco and Bangladesh and
a cut of the profits funds girls’ education.
Women kept on coming to the register and keeping me busy. The way the store is
set up, my back was three-quarters to him, and I could have the excuse of not having seen
him come in until he was standing in front of me with a red tablecloth folded in his arms.
It had been hand-painted somewhere.
He opened his mouth to say something and then I saw him do a double-take.
“Ben?” I said. I tried to smile and look surprised at the same time. “What are you
doing here? Here, let me hug you.” I went around the counter and it felt like I was taking
too much time. My hip hit the corner.
“I can’t believe this!” he said, when I wrapped my arms around his middle. “Do
you work here?”
“It’s my store, actually,” I smiled, pulling back. “How are you?”
“I’m good! I’m really good. I’m just here visiting my sister-in-law for a few days.
They just had a baby. I wanted to get them a present.” He held up the tablecloth. “This is
all yours? Congratulations.”
“That’s great.” And then, “Yeah—yeah, this is mine. Mine and my husband’s.
“Right,” he said. “Do you want to get coffee or something? I’ll be here for a few
days. It would be nice to catch up.”
After he wrote down his number, I checked and saw that it was the same one I had
saved in my phone. Then he left and I texted Frank something dirty.
I made cookies that afternoon with the girls. Frank and I had sex after we put
them to bed and afterwards I went and got us cookies and milk from the fridge. We ate
them on the bed and Frank looked cute, eating and looking at me with half-open eyes
framed by his floppy red hair on the pillow. I was sitting cross-legged, facing him.
“What?” I asked.
“You just look really beautiful.” He grabbed the skin of my elbow and pulled me
closer. I laid down right next to him, on top of the crumbs.
I got to the coffee place ten minutes before Ben did and leaned against the counter
until he showed up. When he came in I didn’t know whether to hug him again, and was
grateful when he just went for it first. I waited for him to order something and then we
went and sat at a little table by the wall, near the windows.
There was too much energy in my body and I was grateful for the loop of
cardboard they put around my coffee because it gave me something to unfurl and re-
roll while we talked to each other, so I didn’t have to look at him too much and think
about how I hadn’t told Frank the night before. He is married in Montana. He and his
wife own and run a ski school. He has two kids, too. I hope he’s happy. He seems happy
enough. Yes, when our knees touched a few times—by accident, I’m sure and deciding—
I told him that I’d been looking at my diary that morning, the one from college.
He raised his eyebrows and said, “Yeah? That must be such a trip.” I said yes and was
about to tell him about some of what I’d written—about the dumplings in the middle
of the night and the time I got locked in the bathroom and he had to call security to get
me out—but then I didn’t. I was glad because he said then, “That was so long ago,” and
shook his head. I agreed and then hoped he couldn’t read my face as well as he could
When the girls climbed into the back of the station wagon Rose had glitter in
her hair from her project on Ben Franklin, somehow, and Lucy was telling me about her
thing on photosynthesis. I saw the glitter embedding itself into the beige suede of the
backseat, and it was okay, because we bought the car intending for years and I knew it
would get dirtier. I was right: there would be red Gatorade spilled on a road trip to Maine
and Goldfish crumbled into decorative powder, hair from the dog and tears from her last
trip to the vet. The smell of Abercrombie from Lucy’s preteen years and mud from cleats
and horse phases. A big brown stain on the floor from when my coffee spilled because
I almost hit a couple crossing the street, when I was arguing with Frank over the phone
because I was tired and he was right. Somewhere is the earring he bought me for our
anniversary. It fell out and I cried when I couldn’t find it. From his face when I opened
the box, I think it was expensive.