Authors: Elin Hilderbrand
“It’s Sunday night,” she said. “When my aunt was alive, that meant Chinese food and an old movie on TV.”
They ordered from a place called Chin’s—egg rolls, wonton soup, spare ribs, moo shu pork, fried rice, Singapore noodles, beef with broccoli.
“And dumplings!” Mallory cried into the phone. “Two orders! One steamed and one fried.”
It was too much food, but that was part of the fun. Whenever Jake and Ursula ordered Chinese, Ursula ate only plain white rice and she refused to eat fortune cookies; she wouldn’t even read the fortunes. The fortune cookie, she claimed, was a cheap gimmick that diminished the complexity of Chinese culture.
Jake watched Mallory dip one of her golden-brown dumplings into soy sauce, then deliver it deftly to her mouth with her chopsticks. She loaded a pancake with moo shu pork until it was dripping and messy and took a lusty bite. Jake was so stunned by the vision of a woman enjoying her food rather than battling it that he wondered if he might be falling in love with her.
Mallory handed Jake a fortune cookie. He was about to inform her that the purpose of the fortune cookie was to dupe a gullible public and distort the wise sayings of Confucius, but before he could share Ursula’s skepticism, Mallory said, “Whatever it says, you have to add the words ‘between the sheets’ to the end.”
Jake laughed. “Are you serious?”
“My house, my rules,” Mallory said.
Jake played along. “‘A fresh start will put you on your way’”—he paused—“between the sheets.”
Mallory gazed at him. Her eyes were green tonight. “Damn. Was I right or what?”
“Read yours,” he said, handing her a cookie.
“‘Be careful or you could fall for some tricks today,’” she said, “between the sheets!”
He gathered up both fortunes. He would take them home, he decided. Along with his sand dollar. Things to remember her by.
They turned on the TV and found a movie that was just starting:
Same Time, Next Year
with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. It was about a couple who meet at a seaside hotel in 1951 and decide to return together on the same weekend every year, even though they’re both married to other people.
is something we could do,” Mallory said. She was lying between Jake’s legs on the couch, her head resting on his chest. “You could come back to Nantucket every Labor Day, no matter what happens. We could do all the stuff we did this weekend. Make it a tradition.”
he thought. He had to wait an entire year?
On Monday, pregnant, pewter-colored clouds hung on the horizon, and when Jake stepped onto the porch, there was a chill in the air. It felt like an ending—not only of the weekend and the summer, but something bigger.
Jake made omelets while Mallory pulled a Joyce Carol Oates novel off the shelf that she wanted him to read.
“One thing I like about you,” she said, “is that you’re secure enough in your masculinity to read female novelists. Who are, in case you’re wondering, superior to male novelists.” She winked. “Between the sheets.”
She was keeping things light, which made sense. She was excited about her substitute-teaching opportunity, and she got to stay here, in her beachfront cottage on Nantucket. The cottage had grown on Jake nearly as much as Mallory’s company. The wood paneling made it feel like the cabin of a boat and Jake liked that the cottage smelled like summer—a little salty, a little marshy, a little damp. He loved the single deep blue hydrangea blossom in the mason jar on the harvest table; he loved the table itself, how unusually long and narrow it was. He loved the wall of swollen paperback books and he loved the sound of crashing waves in the background. He imagined being back in Washington with the traffic and the sirens and thought of how his heart would ache when he thought about the sound of the ocean.
The end of summer was the saddest time of year.
Jake gave Mallory a long, deep kiss goodbye. “I’m happy the dog chased the cat that chased the rat.”
“I’m happy it ended up being just you and me this weekend. And I’m coming back next year. Same time next year.”
“No matter what?” Mallory said.
“No matter what,” Jake said, and it did make leaving a little bit easier.
It isn’t until the invitation to Cooper’s wedding arrives in the mail—on expensive ivory stock, printed in a script so fancy, it’s nearly unreadable—that Jake realizes he won’t have to wait a year to see Mallory.
But there’s a complication that our boy had not foreseen. He and Ursula have decided to give their relationship one last try.
“If we break up again,” Ursula says, “we break up for good.”
Jake thought they already
broken up for good. In their last breakup, the one that took place before Jake left for Nantucket, they had been point-of-no-return honest. Ursula admitted that she valued her career
above everything else
. It was more important than her health (she’d lost twelve pounds since starting at the SEC and now looked severely malnourished—passing supermodel stage, heading for famine victim), more important than her family (her parents were back in South Bend; her father was an esteemed professor at the university, her mother a housewife, Ursula rarely visited them and she discouraged them from visiting her because it would require sightseeing trips to the Air and Space Museum and the National Archives), more important than her faith (at Notre Dame, Ursula had been vice president of the campus ministry, but now she didn’t go to Mass, not even on Christmas Eve or Easter. There simply wasn’t time). Finally, she said, her career was more important to her than Jake was.
“Really?” he said.
“Yes, really,” she said, leaving no room for interpretation.
Jake had wanted to say something back that was equally cruel—but what?
Jake had met Ursula in sixth grade at Jefferson Middle School. He knew her from his “smart kid” classes—pre-algebra, Spanish, accelerated English—and also because she was friends with his twin sister, Jessica. Ursula was the only one of Jess’s friends who remained steadfast once Jess’s health started to decline. When Jessica’s blood-oxygen level was too low for her to go to school, Ursula swung by with Jessica’s homework assignments, and she didn’t just drop and run, the way any other twelve-year-old would have. Ursula used to sit in Jess’s room, undeterred by the fact that Jess was hooked up to an oxygen tank, unfazed by the terrible coughing fits or the thick, gray mucus that Jess used to spit into a purple kidney-shaped basin, unbothered by their mother, Liz McCloud, who had taken a sabbatical from Rush Hospital in Chicago, where she was a gynecologist, so that she could care for Jess herself.
Jess was happiest when Ursula was around. Jess called her Sully, a nickname that Ursula didn’t tolerate from anyone else. Jess liked to listen to music, so Ursula would put on Jess’s favorite record, which she had ordered from a TV commercial. It was a compilation of novelty hits—“The Monster Mash,” “Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” “The Purple People Eater”—and the two of them would sing along. Jake wasn’t in the room but he suspected that Sully was also dancing, because he could hear Jess laughing.
Jake was always home when Ursula came over, stationed at the kitchen table, dutifully finishing his homework. Once Liz McCloud determined that Jess had had enough, and it was time for Sully to go, Ursula would pop into the kitchen to say hello and goodbye to Jake and their housekeeper, Helene, who was usually making Jake an omelet for his afternoon snack. Once, Helene offered to make an omelet for Ursula, and Jake could remember thinking,
Yes, please sit, please stay
—but Ursula said no, thank you, she had to get home, she had the same homework as Jake. As soon as Ursula left the house, Helene made a comment that had stayed with Jake all these many years.
“Sully is pretty girl, Jake. But more important, Sully is
Ursula had been an altar server at Jessica’s funeral. If Jake closed his eyes, he could still see Ursula in her white vestments that morning, her heavy, dark hair hanging in a braid down her back, her expression stoic in front of the coffin that held her friend.
Jake and Ursula had shared every single memory since that tragic year—right up until Jake went to Johns Hopkins and Ursula stayed in the Bend and attended Notre Dame. Over eight semesters of college, they had been broken up for only three, and as soon as Jake graduated, he moved to Washington so they could be together. He had taken the job lobbying for Big Pharma—possibly the most nefarious industry in America—because he wanted to impress her. Jake
working for PharmX. The best thing about breaking up, he told Ursula, was that he could quit his job.
She’d laughed. “And do
Maybe he’d teach chemistry at Sidwell Friends, he said, or maybe he’d go into fund-raising. He was good with people.
“The great thing about breaking up,” Jake said, “is that it doesn’t matter what you think.” This landed; he saw her flinch. “I don’t fault you for putting your career first. I know how badly you want to…achieve.” Ursula had been without peer academically at John Adams High School. She’d gotten into Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, but Notre Dame was free because her father taught there, so she stayed. She had been resentful about this, but she continued to soar. She was valedictorian at Notre Dame and got a perfect score on her LSAT. She was editor of the
Georgetown Law Review
and aced the bar exam. She was recruited by the trading and markets division of the SEC at the start of her final year of law school. In another year or two, she could move into private practice, write her own ticket, name her own salary. But what did it matter? She didn’t enjoy the things money could buy; she never relaxed, never took a vacation, didn’t have girlfriends to meet for drinks. “Just be aware that what you achieve doesn’t matter as much as what kind of person you are,” Jake said in his final blow. “You know, I sometimes think back to the girl I met in sixth grade. But that girl is gone.” What he meant was that Ursula was no longer the kind of person who would spend even one hour with a sick friend. She was no longer the girl who would move the arm of the record player back to the start of a song again and again and again to bring someone else joy. She was no longer Sully and hadn’t been for a long time. “Your own parents”—here, Jake was venturing into dangerous territory, but if the gloves were off, they were off—“apologized to me over how gruesomely self-centered you’ve become.”
Ursula shrugged. “I don’t care what my parents think of me, Jake. And I care what you think even less.”
Those had been her last words to him—forever, he’d thought.
After Jake returned to DC from his weekend in Nantucket, he avoided any place he might run into Ursula; he even changed his usual Metro stop. But then, when Jake was home in South Bend over Thanksgiving, he bumped into her at Barnaby’s. They were both picking up pizzas.
“You’re here,” he said. “You came home.”
“Yeah,” Ursula said, her tone uncharacteristically sheepish. “I thought about what you said about my parents. And then Mom told me Dad has heart issues and is putting in for early retirement and Clint wasn’t coming home…” Clint, Ursula’s brother, five years older, was a rafting guide in Argentina. “So, yeah, I’m home for a few days.”
Jake hadn’t responded right away. Quite frankly, he was startled by Ursula’s presence
in the place they’d grown up. If he’d seen her running along the Potomac or at Clyde’s in Georgetown, he would have ignored her. But this was where they’d first kissed (at the ice-skating rink) and where they’d lost their virginity to each other (in Ursula’s bedroom their junior year in high school while Mr. and Mrs. de Gournsey were away on a research trip in Kuala Lumpur). After Ursula graduated from Notre Dame, it was as though she had graduated from South Bend, from the state of Indiana, from the Midwest. Jake couldn’t believe she’d come back of her own volition, without him prompting/urging/forcing her to.
It seemed notable.
Before he spoke, he noted how
Ursula was—way thinner than she’d been when they parted at the end of August. Her cheekbones jutted out, her wrists were as skinny as sticks, and her chest, beneath her sweater and parka, seemed concave. She was holding a pizza but Jake knew how Ursula ate pizza—she pulled off the cheese and the toppings until it was just sauce and bread and then she took one bite.
If he mentioned her weight, she’d get defensive.
“Do you want to get a drink later?” he asked. “At the Linebacker?”
“Sure,” she said.
One hour and four Leinenkugel’s between them was all it took before they were making out in the front seat of Jake’s old Datsun like the teenagers they had once been.
They ended up flying back east together and sharing a taxi from Dulles to Dupont Circle. Ursula debated staying with Jake that night but opted to return to her own apartment. It was as she got out of the cab in front of the Sedgewick that she said it. “If we break up again, we break up for good.”
Jake lived every day as though it might be his last day with Ursula. It felt a little bit like he was cheating death; he knew the end was coming, but when? It would have been a terrible way to live, except that Ursula was trying. She picked up the invitation to Cooper’s wedding from Jake’s desk and said, “Have you already RSVP’d to this?”
“Uh,” Jake said, “no, but I mean, yeah. I’m standing up. I’m a groomsman.”
Ursula tilted her head. In the two weeks since they’d been back together, she’d started looking better. Not any heavier, but she did have slightly more color. Ursula’s paternal grandmother was from a town in the French Pyrenees close to the Spanish border, and Ursula had inherited her looks—hair like sable and a touch of olive to her skin. When she was outside in the sun, she turned bronze in a matter of minutes, but since she lived almost exclusively indoors, her skin tended to look jaundiced. Now, however, there was pink in her cheeks.
“I want to go to this,” she said. “I like Cooper.”
“Ah,” Jake said. “Well…”