Authors: Elizabeth Cohen
ALSO BY ELIZABETH COHEN
The Family on Beartown Road
Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Cohen
Some of the stories in this collection first appeared in
The Hypothetical Girl and Other Stories of Love in These Times
, published by Split Oak Press, Vestal, New York, in 2011.
Song lyrics on
from “Summertime,” from
Porgy and Bess
. Lyrics by DuBose Heyward, music by George Gershwin. Song lyrics on
from “Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime?” Lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney.
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
The hypothetical girl / by Elizabeth Cohen.
1. Online dating—Fiction. 2. Dating (Social customs)—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
In memory of my mother, Julia
who might not have approved. (And even if she did, would have said she didn’t.)
t was the time of year when the helicopter seeds twirled down onto the sidewalks like girls showing off at a dance, when the bee balm bushes wore their best purple frocks and the whole world seemed, to Chloe, tricked out for love. Contrary to popular sentiment, Shakespeare and all that, she thought autumn, not spring, was love season. Everything was overripe, lustily clad, luscious beyond luscious, ready to go. She thought of the speech of Proteus from
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
. She had read it in high school and, again, in college:
O, how this spring of love resembleth
The uncertain glory of an April day;
Which now shows all the beauty of the sun
It should have been an autumn day, not April! It is fall that inspires love. Or maybe spring is the season of love and fall the season of mad lust. Spring for flirting,
but fall for the untamed delicious wild thing. Such a line of thinking must have been what did it. Sped her on this frenzied mission, sucked her in on a sudden and surprising rip current of longing.
Each day she tried harder to solve the great search-and-find puzzle of love. She felt just like that; she was looking for men the way you might in one of those word searches, up, down, sideways, backwards, circling all the possibilities.
Could this one be? Could this one
So far, no go.
Since it was the beginning of the second decade of the new millennium, she was searching, as every modern girl should, on online dating sites, foraging among the pictures and self-described blurbs in the vast fields of the lonely. She had gone on marryme.com, loveforreals.com, and even flirtypants.com, which she thought did not really describe her well but might attract a more exciting sort of man. More the kind she wanted, perhaps. Someone who was ready.
“Fun-loving, nature-adoring, unfancy, smart, and tidy girl,” read her profile, after the ninety-seventh edit. It used to say “sex-loving,” but that had attracted all kinds of riff-raff, a thoroughly unpleasant herd and even a stalker, so she had toned it down.
“Well hello there,” she’d write, night after night, answering the clutter of seekers in her in-box. “Do you like hiking? Sushi? Do you closely follow the stages of the moon?”
And she would answer their many queries as well. Did she like to cook? Did she like to travel? What was her favorite music? All of which, she had determined, were thinly veiled questions about her marriageability and, ultimately, sex. A woman who can cook might like to roll around in whipped cream, for example, opening herself up to the ultimate food-sex experience for a man. A woman who likes to travel might be had on an ancient Roman aqueduct. A woman who likes Brahms likes it slow and steady, and without unnecessary flourish. She imagined men thinking these things as they asked her such mundane questions.
Or was she reading too much into them? She wasn’t sure. What she was sure of was that she needed to find someone, and soon. She was pushing forty, a number she thought she could actually hear, in her head, whispering to her. “You are ready,” it said, “ready for love.” Magazines she read at the nail salon where she went for her biweekly pedicure called it the ticking of her biological clock. But Chloe thought it was much more like the whispering of the season and perhaps, also, of her grandmother, Rebecca Tziporra Goldstein, from across an ocean, where she lay buried in a graveyard outside the Lodz ghetto. As a fair-complected blond, she had “passed” for an Aryan and managed to escape the ghetto with some falsified papers to obtain a day job as a seamstress. She was residing with a non-Jewish family who had known her father, and there she had given
birth to baby Solomon. Two days later, Nazi guards had appeared at the door of this family’s house, and they’d taken Rebecca out into the courtyard and shot her. The shocked family hid the baby and, after the war, found some distant relatives in Cleveland.
Baby Sol was spirited away by relatives to the new world, to New York and eventually to Cleveland, where he grew into a smart boy who shined shoes, delivered newspapers, and eventually got a job writing for one, until one day he was anointed editor. At that point, at age fifty-two, he impregnated Chloe’s mother, a cub reporter, twenty years his junior, one night when she was working late. Chloe was born to this young woman, out of wedlock, the following winter, and Solomon had appeared with a bouquet of white carnations the day following her birth, at the hospital. She would be his only child.
“Carnations?” asked Demetria Alejandra Lopez. “Aren’t they for the dead?” She was appalled by the inappropriate choice of flowers on the occasion of her daughter’s birth. In her family, such a thing might constitute a curse or even an omen.
“I didn’t know,” said Sol. “I am sorry.” His eyes teared up and it was clear he was sorry for that and for many things. The way he had courted her with a lame-ass invitation to see the full moon rising over the parking lot. The coffee cup rings he had left on her beautiful, organized, and clean desk.
“It’s okay, Solomon,” said Demetria, feeling suddenly sorry for him. He was older, after all, and would never be able to ask her to marry him, or anyone for that matter. He was a famous bachelor in the small Ohio town and drove a car that was flashy to the point of being unseemly, a silver Audi convertible. He had no taste in clothes. And he was balding. On the back of his head was a shiny crown of tanned flesh, like a yarmulke that had vacationed in Florida. She would never marry him, even if he asked. She had her hopes pinned on a man her own age named Marcos Eugenio Martinez, who owned an auto body repair shop that was known for its detailing jobs and the neat pinstripes and fancy flames they painted onto the sides of Camaros and Mustangs and Trans Ams. Demetria would marry Marcos a year later and have a succession of sons, Chloe’s three wild and adventurous brothers. But she would always be the special one, the mystery
, whose father was by then a wealthy Jewish newspaper publisher who paid for her to attend college at Barnard, where she had majored in art history.
“Your grandmother, my mother, Rebecca, would be so proud of you,” he said to his only child, on the occasion of her college graduation. He had taken her out to Applebee’s for a special celebration supper. He had ordered the Bourbon Street Steak, part of a new promotion they were having for meats cooked with liquor. She had ordered a Cobb salad. He insisted she order a second course, the roast chicken chipotle. “Indulge,” he
said. And when it arrived, shiny with glaze and steaming hot, he said to her: “Dig in.”
At the end of the meal he had given her the keys to her very own car, a shiny new BMW convertible with red leather seats, like a cousin of his own car. She thanked him profusely, for everything: the college education, the car, the peppery chicken that glistened in its sauce. But the comment he had made, it was curious. It was the first she had ever heard of this grandmother. She and her father had not spent much time together over the years and rarely talked about much beyond the weather and her grades in school.
“Who was she? What was she like?” Chloe asked. In her other family, the ones who had actually raised her, fed her, told her to take better care of her kitten and brush her hair, grandmothers were very important people. There was Abuelita Rosa, on her stepfather’s side, from Cuba, who made cinnamon cookies and could read palms, tea leaves, everything. “The sky says you will be a bride within six years,” she would chant. “The dandelions say you will marry rich and be fruitful.” And then there was Abuela Delilah, from Tijuana, who cooked and fed and cooked and fed, all her life, until she finally died, stirring a pot of her beloved red chili stew.
Who was this other
, this Polish woman, who might feel proud somewhere beyond this earth of her Barnard degree, freshly minted and pressed into its plastic and leather frame?
“I never knew my mother, but I know she would love you, as I do,” Sol said. Chloe blushed at this confession of emotion, so unusual for her father, who usually spoke only in guarded and clinical sentences, giving advice about money and life. Once, coming upon a drawer of change in her apartment while looking for a fork, he actually said, “This isn’t earning any interest in here.”
“Dad,” she said, “must you reinforce such tired stereotypes about race?”
“Alas,” he said. “I must.”
This was how they usually spoke to each other. In sentences full of ironic references and sardonic asides, which lightened up the sorry nature of their real-world relationship, the man who had never meant to be a father and the bastard daughter he had sired. A knack for playful irony is important in such situations.
With help from her father, and a micro loan from the government, Chloe had opened her own business and was quite successful. It was an art gallery with a companion shop, based on the theme of recycling. The sculpture she showed was art made of other things. A farmer who welded together old found farm implements. A woman who welded together egg beaters. On the other side she sold assorted items: ducks made of detergent bottles. A large wall hanging made of emptied tampon containers, painted black. It was called
But the secret to her success had been the opening up of a large back room for “art birthday parties,” which
had gone over well in her community. She charged twenty dollars a child, and each one could make his or her choice of a painting, sculpture, or tie-dye tee shirt, with her help. She had colorful smocks in every size hanging in the window, with a sign that said “Celebrate Art.”