The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
I stated for the record—should anyone more senior be listening—“We have some true artists in the department. You could come up and look at the before-and-after photos. They’re quite reassuring.”
He waved away the whole notion. “I could die on the table, and then what? My obituary would say ‘Died suddenly after no illness whatsoever’? ‘In pursuit of a more handsome face’? How would my old man feel? It’s his nose I inherited.”
“General anesthesia always carries a risk,” I said, “and of course there’s always swelling and ecchymoses, but I doubt whether the hospital has ever lost a rhinoplasty patient.”
He smiled again. He tapped the back of my hand and said, “You’re a serious one, aren’t you?”
I confirmed that I was and always would be: a serious infant, a serious child, a serious teenager, a serious student, a serious adult.
“Not the worst quality in a human being,” Ray allowed.
I said, “It would help me in all the arenas of my life if I were a touch more gregarious.”
“Highly overrated,” said Ray Russo. “Any doofus, any deejay or salesman, or waitress, can be gregarious, but they can’t do what you do.”
It sounded almost logical. He asked if a cup of coffee was enough for dinner. Didn’t I want to move to a booth and have a burger? Or to a place where we could share a carafe of wine?
“My car’s in the hospital garage,” he continued. “I slipped into a reserved space, figuring most does must’ve left for the day.” He took from his pocket a fat wad of bills, secured with a silver clip in the shape of a dollar sign. After much shuffling, he said he had nothing smaller than a fifty.
“I’ve got it,” I said.
The $2.10 tab must have been viewed as a silent acceptance to dinner, because soon he was helping me on with my parka and leading me up a half-flight of stairs and through the door marked GARAGE. Parked under RESERVED FOR DR. HAMID, Ray’s car was red and low-slung. Its steering wheel was wrapped in black leather.
“Seat belt secure?” he asked. “Enough leg room?” He patted the dash and said, “Just got my snow tires on today and my oil changed.”
I said, “I never learned to drive.”
He laughed as if I’d said something amusing, and turned to the parking attendant, who announced, “Three-fifty.”
The attendant studied the fifty, handed it back, agitated it when Ray didn’t take it. “C’mon,” he snapped. “This isn’t Atlantic City.”
Ray said, “Can I pay you tomorrow? She’s a surgeon here. I pick her up every night.”
Snarling, the man waved us through.
When we’d pulled away, I said, “I don’t like lying. I could have paid.”
“He doesn’t care,” said Ray. “He gets paid by the hour regardless of how much is in the till when he cashes out.”
After a few blocks in silence, he asked, “Do you have a roommate?”
He grinned. “I’m making conversation. A guy has to start somewhere. I could’ve asked about brothers and sisters. Teams you follow. Astrological sign.”
“Do you have a roommate?” I asked.
“Me? I’m forty-five. A guy with a roommate at forty-five probably wouldn’t be out on a date in the first place.”
So I’d been right: date. His intentions were personal. I asked what made him call me up after all this time.
“It’s what people do, Doc,” he said. “Guys take a chance, because all of us have pals who met someone on a bus or a bar stool and asked for her phone number. So you think, Have a little courage. What’s the worst she could do?”
“But why now? Why wait until I can’t even remember who you are?”
“There were complications,” he said.
I might have asked what they were, if only I had been curious, interested, or less exhausted.
By this time we were in front of the restaurant. Ray waved away the valet and said he’d take care of it himself—this was a parking lot for the patrons’ use, wasn’t it? Had he misunderstood the sign?
He didn’t like the first table the hostess offered, so we waited until something with the right feeling opened up, the proper footage from the kitchen and the restrooms. It was an Italian fish and chop house with a Tiffany-shaded salad bar and beer served in frosted mugs. Without consulting me, he ordered the appetizer combo plate and a carafe of the house wine. He turned to me. Red or white?
I started to say that the sulfites in red wine gave me—
“Good,” he said. He smiled the way you’d smile for an orthodontist’s Polaroid, clinically, a gum-baring grimace. “Just had a bleach job,” he said. “I’m supposed to avoid red wine, coffee, and tea.”
The waitress pointed to the wine list, under the leather-bound menus, with the end of her pencil.
“I’ll let her pick,” he told the waitress. “She must have good taste. She’s a doctor.”
“What kind?” asked the waitress.
I said the Australian Chardonnay would be fine for me. One glass.
“I meant what kind of doctor.”
“Surgeon,” I said. “Still in training.”
“Not your garden-variety surgeon,” said Ray. “A plastic one.”
The waitress did something then, squeezed her elbows to her waist so that her chest protruded a few degrees more than it had at rest. “I had plastic surgery,” she said, “but I didn’t go crazy. Would you have known if I didn’t tell you?”
I said no.
Ray said, “Isn’t it nice that you can speak about it so openly.”
“She’s a doctor,” said the waitress. “I wouldn’t have asked otherwise.”
“I didn’t know you before, but they look great,” said Ray. “Did you feel that having larger breasts would improve your quality of life?”
“Yeah, I did,” said the waitress.
“And have they?” asked Ray.
“I like ’em,” said the woman. “I guess that’s what counts.”