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The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
Elinor Lipman


He launched into a discussion of the rental market—about places I could probably afford that had health clubs, swimming pools, Jacuzzis, off-street parking, central vacs, air-conditioning, refrigerators that manufactured ice …

I tried to stifle a yawn. “I’m usually in bed by this hour.”

“Is she a good roommate?” he asked. “Considerate and all that?”

“It’s a guy,” I said. “Leo.”

“Gay?” he asked.

I said, “Not that I pay attention, or not that he’s flagrant in his dating habits, but when he does entertain guests, they’re women.”

This was what I deserved for agreeing to dine with a garrulous expatient. I asked if this was normal social intercourse for him—drilling virtual strangers about their home life and housemates.

“I’m getting to know you,” he said. “You’re welcome to ask me questions, too.”

So I asked, “Do you live in an apartment?”

“A house.” He bit his lip. “Alone. At least now.”

“Now?” I repeated.

He drained his whiskey sour and blotted his mouth with his big maroon napkin. “I was married,” he said. “And then I was widowed.”

The waitress was back with our entrées just in time to hear his declaration. After leaving the plates, she stayed, as if waiting for the next cold blast from my arsenal of bad manners.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to Ray. “How long ago?”

“A year and a day,” he said.

I said to the waitress, “I think we’re all set for now.”

“More bread when you have a chance,” said Ray.

I asked how his wife had died.

“Not from natural causes.”

“Automobile?”

“Yes,” he said. He raised his wineglass. “If you don’t mind, I’d just as soon not go into the details. It’s too upsetting.”

“Of course,” I said.

He scooped a littleneck from its shell and chewed it with something like rapture.

I dug in, too. My salmon was dry, but I’d brought that on myself.

“Good?” asked Ray. “Because I was hoping you’d really like this place.”

“Excellent,” I said.

And this is exactly how a woman agrees to see a man a second time after finding him neither interesting, intelligent, nor compelling: He announces that he is a recent widower, vulnerable, like a man without an epidermis. That you are his first plunge into the treacherous waters of the Sea of Dates. Thus, when he finds the courage to ask if you’d like to do this again sometime—try another place, maybe Chinese or Ethiopian, maybe take in a movie—you say yes or you say no, and you understand that the look on your face and the speed of your answer will harm him, help him, or possibly save his life.

3 Leo Frawley, RN (#ulink_c213572d-d358-512d-aef5-f7dda1e8a9a9)

IF YOU HAD seen my apartment, you would have guessed I was a clerk in a convenience store or a stitcher in a third-world sweatshop. I’m not bragging. I grew up in a three-story house with china and silver, a cleaning lady who came in every Thursday, and parents who sent me to college without financial aid. But four years later, I was sleeping in a bedroom that made me nostalgic for the claustrophobic shoe boxes I occupied in college. When I looked around my room and wondered why I said yes to the first place advertised on the housing board, I reminded myself of the extra twenty-five minutes of sleep I gained because of my proximity to the hospital, that I didn’t need a coat to run the three blocks to work if it was above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and that Leo Frawley was an exemplary roommate.

Leo would have said the same about me: I barely used any utilities. I didn’t watch television, play CDs, or touch the thermostat; my presence, especially in the refrigerator, the medicine cabinet, and the kitchen cupboards, was negligible. I was never around or underfoot; when present, I slept deeply.

Signing a lease was an act of faith on my part. I knew nothing about Leo except for the superficial impressions I gleaned in our one cafeteria meeting. He was pleasant, well-spoken, and apparently popular. Coworkers greeted him, juggling trays across a single arm to hail him from all corners of the room.

“You have a lot of friends,” I observed.

“You will too when you’ve been here as long as I have.”

I said I would be quiet, considerate, and neat. I wasn’t the liveliest wire he’d find in the city of Boston—quite the contrary, in fact—but I’d never disturb his sleep or monopolize the phone or be late with my rent.

“This could work,” he said.

I asked if he could give me references, and he wrote a half dozen names and phone numbers on a napkin. The only local area code belonged to his mother, who he later told me had been prepped not to sound tightlipped and disapproving if women called about the ad. Mrs. Frawley reported that Leo was the cleanest of her whole brood, and that was saying something because among her thirteen offspring she had one priest, one nun, one actuary, one pharmacist, two librarians, and a lab technician for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And while she didn’t know why a girl would want to share an apartment and a toilet with a man, Leo would be the one of all her boys whom she’d recommend for the job. I thanked her and said she should be very proud of him. We were colleagues at the same hospital and he was clearly held in everyone’s high esteem.

“He’s named for a pope,” she told me.

Not wanting to discuss anything too personal or too statutory with Mrs. Frawley, I asked Leo himself whether he walked around the apartment in states of undress or thought it was important to knock before entering a roommate’s quarters.

“I might duck from the bathroom to my room with a towel wrapped around my middle. Is that what you meant?”

I said that was acceptable, certainly. I had lived in a co-ed dorm for one semester in college until I could be relocated.

“A guy who grew up with eight sisters knows how to knock,” he said. “He also knows that a bathroom isn’t available the minute he wants it.”

I should have dropped it then, but I pressed on. Had any women—specifically former roommates or coworkers—ever complained, formally or informally, about his personal conduct?

Leo said, “Have I done or said anything so far that suggests that?”

I liked the way he answered, with dignity, and I liked the slight offense he’d taken. And in many ways, my initial rudeness has made me a better roommate. I knew as soon as I’d seen the look on his face that I had needlessly challenged a man who, after all, could bathe neonates and give breast-feeding lessons to their postpartum mothers.

Once I had moved in, I asked Leo why he needed to advertise on the community bulletin board, given the hordes of admiring fellow nurses and his geographically desirable apartment.

“I didn’t want to live with another nurse,” he said.

I asked why.

“You know,” he said.

I said I didn’t. I wasn’t great at human-relations nuances. Was it because there would be too much shoptalk? Too much bringing the work home?

“Not so much the work,” he said. “More like the extracurricular stuff. There’s quite the grapevine. Let’s say I had a visitor. And let’s say someone from the NICU observed that guest coming out of my bedroom in the morning. Word would get around.”
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