Their number was identified on her cellphone by the name Vivian Delmar, which was their first names combined, and Eleanor wouldn’t pick up their calls unless she was alone. “What,” she’d say in an unencouraging tone. They didn’t call on any particular day or time, and sometimes not for long stretches, so she always jumped a little when “Vivian Delmar” lit up the screen.
They called one evening when she was at a restaurant with a guy named Nick who she’d been set up with by a mutual friend. The restaurant was a fashionable spot, and the crowd at the bar was deep. She looked at her phone, set it to vibrate, and dropped it back into her purse.
“It’s just someone boring,” she said as she dug into her pasta. It was past eight and she was ravenous. She was always eating or thinking about eating; it was a miracle she wasn’t fat.
“Boring how?” Nick asked.
The question surprised her. “Oh, I don’t know.” She thought about an acquaintance who really was boring. “She just had a baby and can’t talk about anything else. Don’t you hate that?”
Nick raised an eyebrow. He had fabulous eyebrows, dark and full, and his eyes were truly green, not blue-green or brown-green; she would almost say they were emerald. He was handsomer than she was pretty by far, which she hoped he wouldn’t realize. “Don’t you like children?” he said.
“I adore children,” she said. “I mean talking constantly about any subject is a bore.”
Mostly what she felt about children was that she needed to give birth to one soon because she would be forty in only five years. Every guy she went out with was a possible mate; she wasn’t fooling around anymore. She imagined a dark-haired, green-eyed child, the product of Nick’s dominant genes. Her hair was blond by way of the bottle, mouse-colored in its natural state. Though her eyes were identified as blue on her driver’s license, they were as gray as an overcast sky.
She felt her phone vibrate where her bag touched her hip. She excused herself, went to the bathroom, and locked herself in a stall. Vivian Delmar had called three times since the day before. She sat on the toilet and listened to the voicemail.
“Eleanor sweetie?” Vivian’s voice sang with eagerness. “Call us, okay? It’s important.”
Eleanor had arrived at the opinion that Vivian was a twit when she agreed with Delmar that becoming a vagabond would be fun. She’d been a stay-at-home mom all of Eleanor’s childhood, family-centric and involved in the community. “I know Dad’s making you do this,” Eleanor had said as plans were made and possessions sold. “Maybe I’m making him do it,” Vivian had replied.
“What’s the matter?” she said when Vivian answered.
“Nothing’s the matter,” Vivian said. “We have exciting news.”
“Yeah? What?” Eleanor said. She examined her fingernails, which had been manicured that day, and was irked by a minute bare spot in the pink polish near the cuticle of her thumb. The last “exciting news” her parents had imparted was that they had traded in their RV for a slightly less run-down model.
“We’re coming to New York!” Vivian said.
“You can’t do that,” Eleanor said in a rigidly calm voice. “RVs aren’t allowed in the city.” This wasn’t true, but she thought it should have been.
“The RV isn’t going to be a problem. Wait, your father wants to talk to you.”
“Eleanor? We’re going to leave the RV in New Jersey and take the bus into the city.”
“Where would you stay?” Eleanor said. “Hotels are expensive, you know.”
There was a silence before Delmar said, “Well, I figured we’d stay with you.”
A toilet flushed and a pair of heels clacked across the tiles. Eleanor heard water running, then the rip of a paper towel. Occasionally she talked to her parents using Facetime, but it had been a decade since she’d seen them in person. Early on, she had made an effort to visit them, sneaking away to wherever they’d landed and staying uncomfortably on the narrow couch in their RV. Then one year she decided to use her vacation days to go where she pleased, and had such a good time that she never visited them again.
“I’m at dinner, Dad. I can’t talk about this right now.”
She hung up without saying goodbye. She flushed the toilet as if she had used it and washed her hands at a row of sinks beneath a long mirror. Dampening a paper towel with cold water, she pressed it to her burning cheeks. She thought of herself as a generous host: she had a pullout couch where her out-of-town friends often stayed. “No fucking way,” she said to her reflection. “Not in a million years.”
She sat at her desk in the art gallery where she worked, eating an orange to keep from falling asleep, and wondering how long she and Nick would have to be together before she could rightfully call him her boyfriend. Like her, he was thirty-five, but that was still young for a man. He might be playing the field. Beyond the gallery’s front window, pedestrians walked past in the late afternoon sun. Vivian Delmar lit up her phone for the second time that day.
“Go away,” she said to the phone as she tapped “decline.” She should have turned if off, but didn’t want to in case Nick called. They had plans to go to a play that night at a small theater in the Village. Dinner before or dinner after? she wondered. She could never decide which was better.
“Why are you telling your phone to go away?” a tall, gray-haired gentleman said. Eleanor looked up. She hadn’t seen him walk in.
“May I help you?” She stood and smoothed the wrinkles from the lap of her skirt. She gestured toward the signage on the wall that read, Henrik Pitzer: Reimagining Dimensions, and said “Have you seen our latest exhibit?”
“Yes, I bought that painting over there at the opening,” he said, pointing to a large canvas that was smeared and splatted with various shades of yellow. “I was coming in to see it again. But now I’m much more interested in why you’re talking to your phone.” He smiled charmingly, a seventy-something imp. His eyes twinkled beneath the drooping flesh of his eyelids; he wore a dark jacket and tie despite the heat of the day.
“It’s not that interesting. Just my parents.” She shrugged. “They won’t stop calling me.”
“And you won’t answer,” he said.
“It’s not important,” she said. “Why don’t we go look at your painting?” She led him over to the wall where the canvas hung. “It’s the best one, in my opinion. My favorite, really.”
“I’m sure you say that to every buyer.”
“I don’t.” She did. They stood a while in silence, looking at the painting until Eleanor’s eyes throbbed. “They want to come visit me,” she said.
“Your parents,” he said. She nodded. “And you don’t want them to.”
“It’s hard to explain why, but everybody I know thinks they’re dead.”
“Because that’s what you’ve claimed?” he said.
She wrung her hands. “Yes. Is that really awful?”
“Pretty bad,” he said. “I’m going to assume they’re embarrassing in some way.”
“You have no idea,” she said.
He smiled. “Tell me.”
“They live in an RV – I mean, that’s their home– and take menial jobs to get by. They used to be perfectly normal. My dad was an accountant. My mom was president of the PTA. But now they’re trailer trash.”
“And here you are, their elegant daughter,” he said. “Living in Manhattan and working at a chic art gallery.”
He was mocking her. She stepped away. “Obviously you think I’m ridiculous for be ashamed of them, but I knew them when they wouldn’t have considered living this way.”
“Life is long,” he said. “If I showed you a film of your future you’d be surprised by the choices you’d see yourself making.”
“What does my future have to do with my parents?” She was impatient to be rid of him now.
“Very likely nothing,” he said. He tipped an invisible hat to her, then walked out of the gallery and into the street, where he disappeared into the teeming rush hour crowd.
Missy, Eleanor’s boss, came over. “Who was that?”
“The guy who bought this painting,” Eleanor said.
“This painting? It hasn’t been sold,” Missy said.
“You’re kidding. Then why would he come in here and say that?”
“People do all sorts of strange things for no reason,” Missy said in a world-weary voice. She was in her late fifties and had worked in art sales all her life.
“He was amusing himself at my expense,” Eleanor said angrily, thinking of her parents, who had never explained their wanderlust other than to say they were “having the time of our lives.” What about the time when they were raising her? What kind of time had that been?
Her phone rang. It was Vivian Delmar again. This time she blocked the number.
By Eleanor’s reckoning, the theater held no more than twenty-five seats. The stage was tiny, a rectangular black box, and the only prop on it was an upright piano. Arriving late, she and Nick crabbed across a crowded row. An enormously fat man entered stage left, with an old-fashioned cassette recorder hanging from his neck by a cord. A woman wearing a tuxedo entered stage right, and primly sat down at the piano. Just as the man pressed a button on the recorder, she began to play a quiet melody. It was hard for Eleanor to understand what was coming from the recorder. Words, but not sentences; a background clatter; the keening of some sort of animal. The man lifted his arms and slowly twirled to the music. The woman changed to a honky-tonk sort of tune, banging her hands unnecessarily hard on the keys. The man stopped twirling and, opening his mouth wide, made a whale-like sound that was even louder than the piano.
“Why on earth did you choose this play?” Eleanor whispered irritably to Nick. It was hotter in the theater than it was outdoors. “It’s so weird.”
He turned in his seat and looked at her. She could barely make out his features in the dark. “I chose it because I wanted to see it. You’re kind of uptight, you know that? A little weird now and then might do you some good.”
Eleanor sat back as if punched. She had no idea he was so haughty. “I’m not uptight,” she whispered. “Today I told a stranger the deepest secret of my life.”
“Telling a stranger your deepest secret is easy,” Nick said. “Try telling a friend.”
“Well, aren’t you the judgmental one.”
The guy behind them leaned forward and said, “Pardon me for interrupting, but would you shut up?”
“You’re the one who passed judgment on this play less than two minutes in.” He turned and faced the stage. She had ceased to exist.
The fat man was talking about memory, comparing it to smoke. “Whoosh!” he said and clapped his big hands.
Eleanor closed her eyes. For the love of God, she thought. A tear of sweat trickled down her spine. Abruptly, she stood up and inched across the aisle – “excuse me...pardon me...sorry...” – and went out to the theater’s dank-smelling lobby. She waited a minute to see if Nick would follow before banging out the glass doors to the street. She stopped and stood, momentarily disoriented, and looked up at the sun’s final blue glow in the sky. The hot little theater and all that had occurred inside it seemed like a dream from which she had just woken.
She walked the few blocks to the subway entrance. When the train came, it was so packed that the doors opened to a wall of passengers. She squeezed in and held onto a pole. Near Times Square the train slowed for a minute, then came to a full stop. The lights in the car dimmed; the air conditioning shuddered and sighed. The conductor’s voice came over the loudspeaker and said something unintelligible.
“Sounds like he said ‘time minds the nutty rack,’” said a woman standing next to her.
“I heard ‘don’t throw the deal,’” Eleanor said. There was no indication they were going to move soon, or ever. As the heat in the car began to rise, she realized she was very hungry. She had decided on dinner after the theater because the performance wasn’t meant to be long. You didn’t tell me Nick is an asshole, she imagined saying to their mutual friend. What would he say about her? Uptight, judgmental, a bitch.
“Do you have anything to eat?” she said to the woman.
“Excuse me?” the woman said. “You want me to give you something to eat?”
“I’m starving,” Eleanor said.
“Begging is against the law,” the woman said, she flipped her long, beaded braids over her shoulder with toss of her head. She was so tall that Eleanor had to look up at her. “Not only that, you look like you can afford your own food.”
“I’m not begging,” Eleanor said. “I have low blood sugar. I was just wondering if you had anything like a bag of chips.”
“A bag of chips?” the woman said. “Do I look like someone who carries junk food around?”
“No, of course not,” Eleanor said. “I can’t believe I asked. Forgive me. It’s just been, you know, a really strange day.”
“Yeah, okay,” the woman said. “I can relate to strange.”
“I’ve been told I could use some weird.”
The woman laughed. “Have some of mine. I got enough weird in my life for the both of us.”
The lights flickered bright, and the air conditioner heaved back to life. Finally, the train moved. Through the windows, Eleanor watched the stations fly by, familiar and yet startling. She felt untethered and a little scared for herself, much as she had all those years ago when her parents drove away for what turned out to be forever. She took out her phone and unblocked their number. She half expected it to ring.
“This is my stop,” she told the woman as the trained pulled into her station. “I’m sorry about before.”
“Oh wait now,” the woman said. She dug into her purse, pulled out a small bag of potato chips, and handed the bag to Eleanor.
“What? No,” Eleanor said. She tried to return the bag.
“Pay it forward, honey,” the woman said in a jolly voice. The car doors closed and the train growled out of the station. Eleanor looked at the bag: Salt and Vinegar flavor.
Her building was in the middle of the block midway between two streetlights; she was always nervous approaching it after dark, careful to look behind her. She stopped several yards away: there were a couple of vagrants blocking her door. Get away from there, she almost cried out, but stopped herself when she saw who they were.
They sat on the stoop with two suitcases at their feet. Vivian was thinner, Delmar smaller. He looked, she thought, like a troll. Both had gone completely gray, which she’d known but hadn’t thought about. They wore tee shirts and shorts, and flip-flops, like a million other people at that time of year, but the clothes looked like cast-offs they might have cadged from Goodwill, one tee shirt advertising an adventure park and the other emblazoned with the word “whatever.”
“What are you doing here?” she said. “I didn’t say you could come.”
She stood before them with her arms spread, as if to block them from escaping her question. She thought of her neighbors stepping past them on their way into the building. She hoped no one had asked them who they were. But of course people had asked, or tried to shoo them away. “How long have you been sitting here?”
“Since midday,” Delmar said. “We figured you’d come home eventually.”
“I wish I’d known.”
“If you’d known, you would have told us to get back on the next bus,” Delmar said.
“I would have,” Eleanor said. “Why are you here if you know I don’t want you?”
“The RV is on its last legs. Basically, it’s dead,” Vivian said. “And we haven’t seen you in nine years, Eleanor. You look so different, so...urbane.”
Eleanor sat down between them and put her face in her hands. “Shit,” she said.
“Don’t cry,” Vivian said. “We can go to a motel.”
“That’s not it,” Eleanor said. She turned to her father. “You left me and you shouldn’t have.” She looked at Vivian. “I missed you, you know that, Mom? Did you miss me?”
“Sweetie, yes,” Vivian said, and stroked Eleanor’s hair.
“Then why did you go?” Eleanor said.
“Oh, that is a long conversation,” Vivian said. “Days, weeks, of talk.”
“I told everyone you were dead,” Eleanor said.
“Not far from it at this point,” Delmar said.
“What do you mean, are you sick?”
“He’s joking, sweetie,” Vivian said. “He just means we’re worn out.”
Eleanor sighed. She felt worn out, too. She leaned into her mother and breathed deeply. She smelled the same as she always had, like sugar and laundry soap. She took her father’s hand, freckled now, and ropey with veins, not the hand she used to know. It made her sad that they looked so old when they weren’t even sixty yet.
“I don’t forgive you,” she said. She reached into her purse and found the bag of chips, offered the bag to her parents before eating the chips herself. A cab drove by, then a bicycle messenger. The street was unusually quiet.
“There were times I needed you. Just because your kid is grown doesn’t mean you can disappear.”
“We didn’t disappear,” Vivian said. “You could always call us.”
“What good is calling you when you’re two thousand miles away?” Eleanor said. “I needed you in person.”
“Maybe we needed you, too,” Delmar said in voice clotted with emotion.
“Obviously you didn’t,” Eleanor said. “I’m not feeling sorry for you.”
“We need you now,” Vivian said. “But if that’s not okay, we understand.”
“I have to think about it,” Eleanor said. She wanted to punish them. She stood up and walked into the pool of light cast by the streetlamp. There were no cars coming, no pedestrians, only Vivian and Delmar and herself. She ate the last of the chips and crushed the bag in her fist. She was still hungry for something, she didn’t know what.