Just for Now

by Lori Stone Handelman

“I’m having dinner with Ben,” she told the host at the entrance to the restaurant after he located her name on the reservation list. He nodded, a generic professional smile on his face, and led her to the smallest table in the back corner, almost too tiny for one person to eat comfortably, but it sat two for dinner. The restaurant was special in that New York City Meatpacking District way, where the food is good but the scene is the thing. You don’t look too closely at the edges of the floor, in the corners, where the very old tiles butt up against crumbling walls; you don’t crane your neck and look up at the ratty, discolored ceiling; you wedge a sugar packet underneath one leg of your wobbly, uncomfortable chair, and under the table, too, and you hold your purse in your lap. It was only seven o’clock on a Thursday night, so the restaurant hadn’t yet reached its place-to-be-seen stride for the evening.

Characteristically early, she was eager to see her son. They had always been close, sharing music and a sense of humor, spending hours walking through stores and trying on clothes and shoes, encouraging each other to try new things, and playing endless games of Scrabble, in her efforts to beat him just once. She moved to New York and, for his own reasons, he followed a year later. They didn’t see each other often—they both had busy lives and kept different schedules—but he sent her links to new music, they met on occasion for coffee or a drink, and they had bursts of text chats often enough to keep them connected.

The previous summer they had all returned to Oklahoma for a family funeral. They’d clung to each other and fought with each other, siblings squabbling over nothing, tense words delivered just to relieve the awful stress and pressure of their despair. They passed the terrible hours with gin rummy, favorite childhood foods she still remembered how to make, and old movies: the routines from their lives together. Too soon, they all returned to their lives and slowly the weeks dragged past with no communication from him, no responses to calls or texts from sisters and her, until the weight of his silent months became too heavy for him to lift and a year passed. His unexpected invitation to meet for dinner came with no unnecessary words, and she was nervous.

And then there he was, her beautiful curly-haired son, tall and thin and elegant in his black suit and white shirt. She spotted him in silhouette, in the far corner of the restaurant, but she didn’t need detail to know it was him. Everything about him was as familiar as her own skin: the curve of his back into the slump of his shoulders, the way he moved his hands when he spoke, the tilt of his head when he asked a question. As he came closer she saw that his jaw sagged more than it should on a 26-year-old boy. They hugged, her embrace more frantic than his, she breathed in the still-familiar smell of him, and then they sat. She had no awareness of herself, only of his face and hands, which looked so much like her own.

“That’s a nice suit,” she said as an easy entry into the awkward moment.

He’d been promoted to manager, he said, which showed up in a substantial reduction in his income and the addition of a black jacket. “The maître-d thinks you’re sweet,” he said, turning his body slightly away because he couldn’t cross his long legs underneath the low table.

“Ben, honey, it’s so good to see you. You look tired, are you OK?”

“I’m fine, Mom. Don’t worry about me.” Shielded, closed. Abrupt.

The host passed their table and said, “Ah, she told me she was ‘meeting Ben,’” air quotes, “and I thought ‘well good for you, I’m meeting Robert later.’” We all laughed, and the tension cracked a little. “I didn’t know she meant you.” He leaned down near Ben’s ear, and Ben turned his head away from her to speak in a low private voice, ordering wine and food for their table, the man in charge of things.

Perhaps the laughter softened him, or maybe he’d seen her face fall when he’d answered with such a brusque note. He reached out and put his hand on hers, his long fingers draping over her wrist. “So how’re things, Ma? You’re rocking the Amélie look. And really,” his voice softened, “you don’t have to worry about me, I’m OK. I’m sorry, Ma.” It always made her smile when he called her that; Ma meant love in a different way than Mom, and they both knew it.

Their conversation meandered from one impersonal subject to another, books and movies and podcasts, easy popular culture topics, as they both tried to navigate around the big dark question of his silence. They nibbled bread, drank Sancerre, shared her salmon and then a strawberry shortcake, and talked with stiff faces. Finally the rime melted away and he relaxed. They drifted closer to the words they needed to say and were anxious to hear, but they couldn’t get past the kinds of personal things you’d say to a new friend. They talked about problems at his work, they talked about hers. They talked about lightweight worries and easy anticipations. She finally told him how much she missed him, and their eyes filled with tears they blinked away.

Although he said no one would need their table, they decided to walk as a way to pause the approach. “Let’s hit the High Line, yeah?” he said, leaving his jacket with a passing waiter. “I’ve got a song I want you to hear. I think you’ll love it.” She smiled and noted his return to their history together, but she didn’t call attention to it. She didn’t want to spoil the moment.

They wandered in the soft night to the stairs that led up to the elevated park. The late summer humidity had turned the night El Greco velvet, dark and thick, distorting the lights in the windows overlooking the park. The air was heavy but the breeze off the Hudson was cool, and they walked uptown along the planked sidewalk. They passed people sitting on benches surrounded by billowy grasses, in pairs with their arms around each other, in small laughing groups, an occasional person walking alone. Ben pulled out his phone and a pair of cheap headphones. “Here, put this in your left ear,” he said as he put the other bud in his right ear, “while I get the song on YouTube.”

She linked her arm through his and let the rest lose its edges. Just for now, she thought. Just for now she would be in this moment with him and let her background worries hum a low rumble. She would ask him later, maybe he would tell her anyway, or maybe they would just move ahead and the lost year would fade, along with the pain of his absence.

“I found it. Hang on Ma, here it comes. It’s called Aruarian Dance, I really think you’ll like it.” He touched the play button and slid the phone into his pocket and their feet found the rhythm of the song, a swanky kind of sound, no words just a feeling, and she hoped they felt the same thing. They moved in sync, her eyes gentle and straight ahead but not seeing the lights or the ancient signs still visible in fading paint on old brick. She barely noticed the small clusters of people sitting at tables, eating ice cream, as they wound their way among them, or heard the cars and cabs crawling up 10th Avenue, to their right. Instead, she felt the heavy air pressing softly on her face, her long hair moving slightly in the breeze and giving her a shiver, and her son’s presence gathering her attention in soft focus. The music pulsed in their ears and wrapped them up like cotton candy, and they floated through the night together.

 

(If you are interested in the song, it is “Aruarian Dance [Homework Edit]” by Nujabes.)