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Serena rises from the kitchen table, anything but serene, unable to concentrate on her students’ middle-school book reports. In the freezer, the quart of Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche is open, the cardboard cover askew. She grabs a spoon. “This will be my last time,” Serena says to the empty kitchen, although she knows it’s not true. “After this, nothing until dinnertime.”
In the dining room, Serena’s daughter Daisy and her friends work on their earth science project, an oral presentation on the history of diamonds. Daisy is fourteen and is ashamed of her mother. Serena knows the childcare books say it’s natural for teenage girls to hate their mothers. What makes it worse is that Serena is a reading specialist in Daisy’s school. Although Serena’s students tend to be the slow ones, and not Daisy’s circle, it sometimes seems as if Daisy’s calumnies, the secrets she spills in her spirited, high-pitched babble, have seeped down to them as well, to the other faculty, to the janitor and the security guard.
When Daisy and her friends get bored with their research, they look at an old photo album. Amanda says Serena was the prettiest of all their moms in “the old days” – even prettier than Daisy is now with her straight blond hair and sulky look. The young Serena had glowing cheeks, black curly hair and large blue-grey eyes that, even without makeup, seemed to be rimmed in black.
“She let herself go to fat,” Daisy says to her friends. “She’s turned into a curly-haired ox in a purple sweater and gray sweatpants. That’s why my dad barely looks at her.”
Daisy’s dad, Leon, most definitely looks at Daisy – and knows what she’s up to. He materializes in the dining room out of nowhere, under the guise of bringing the girls a book to help with their research. “I don’t like what I’m hearing,” he says. “I’ve told you before, treat your mother with respect. Period. That includes conversations with your friends.” Serena comes to the doorway. Although she can hear everything from the kitchen, she wants to signal to Leon that he doesn’t have to defend her. But – as Daisy has accurately observed – Leon doesn’t look at Serena. “Daisy, I spoke to you last night,” Leon continues. “Don’t make me bring it up again.” The night before, they had lamb chops, brown rice, and broccoli. Daisy barely ate the meat off her chops. After she pushed her plate away, her mother appropriated them, neatly, delicately, chewing the remaining meat. Daisy said, “Mom, what’s wrong with you, you’re eating pure fat!”
It wasn’t always like this. Once Daisy and Serena were the best of friends. Daisy loved the poems and stories her mother read to her from the time she was an infant. The images became a part of her. “It’s a misty, moisty morning,” she’d tell her mother when she was three, peering out the window of their apartment at a grey October sky. When the three of them ate at a Greek seafood restaurant, the ceiling festooned with fishing nets, she chanted, “Bobby Shafto went to sea, silver buckles at his knee; He’ll come back and marry me, Bonnie Bobby Shafto.” When Daisy was a bit older she and her mother wept together over Lad a Dog and The Yearling. They donned special goggles, leaned back, and gazed at stars at the Planetarium. They gave each other pedicures.
Serena’s sister tells her not to worry. “Teenaged girls are like that. Too bad you didn’t have boys, like me. They look out for their moms. Girls torture them.” Serena’s best friend at work said something similar. Serena is grateful for their words of comfort. She’s also grateful for the comfort of dark chocolate, Snickers bars, and – above all – Dulce de Leche.
Daisy appears in the kitchen. “Amanda and Jenna and I want ice cream. But there isn’t any more.” Serena says that she has to go to the store anyway, she’ll pick up ice cream there. Daisy shrugs, then adds, “We really appreciate it.” Serena isn’t sure whether Daisy is being sarcastic or simply obeying her dad – or both.
The leader at Serena’s first Weight Watchers meeting had said there were strategies to follow. Never shop when you’re hungry. Take a supportive friend or spouse with you to the supermarket. Avoid the aisle where the “trigger food” can be found. “Don’t go down that aisle,” she cautioned Serena and the others. “It sounds easy to avoid, but it’s not.”
“The Aisle of Temptation,” said a lifetime member, Trudi, a sixty-year-old woman with bobbed purple-red hair who had already lost forty pounds. “I think of it as the Aisle of Temptation and imagine myself being struck by lightning if I venture down it.”
“That’s good advice.” The leader, Francesca (“Call me Frankie,” she said), gave the woman a shiny gold-colored sticky in the shape of a star with the word “Bravo” on it. Everyone applauded. Another member, Hal, whose stomach hung over his belt, but who had lost sixty-three pounds, said, “I thought you said, isle of temptation – like an island. Aren’t we all isles of temptation?”
“Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here,” said Serena, unexpectedly (even to herself). When the others turned in their chairs to look to see who made such an odd comment, another member, a serious-looking graduate student named Raquel with black-rimmed glasses and waist-length auburn hair, offered: “Dante’s Inferno. You know, the circles of hell.”
Serena hasn’t gotten any bravos yet. She joined Weight Watchers secretly, telling no one – not Daisy, not her husband Leon, nor her sister, nor even the colleague at work who encouraged her to join.
“Write down your first memory of food,” Frankie instructed them near the end of that first meeting. “Whatever it is.”
In the silence that ensued, Serena stumbled among memories, uncertain which was first. The time she was six and her grandfather slapped her for dipping her bread in the communal plate of roast beef? The arguments she and her sister had about bacon, flipping a coin to see who would get the fattiest piece? Sweet things barely came into it, except perhaps the family’s weekly trips to Carvel, where Serena invariably ordered a butterscotch sundae. But she can find nothing emotionally charged about Carvel butterscotch sundaes, only that the butterscotch sometimes burned her throat, which the cool vanilla would soothe.
Leon doesn’t care for sweets.
He works in the diamond district downtown. He is mild-mannered, with glasses, steady brown eyes, thinning hair, and a fleeting rueful smile. He stands very straight, making him look taller than he is. When it comes to diamonds and other precious stones, he knows and loves everything about them, from their respective uses as medicine and poison in medieval times to the latest technology for cleaning and polishing them. Serena privately thinks Daisy and her friends are taking an easy way out choosing “diamonds” as their earth science research project, since Leon has every book and article ever written on the subject. But Leon was pleased to be consulted by the girls, flattered by their interest. Why shouldn’t he be? Amanda, whose father and future stepmother had come to Leon for advice about a ring, said she thought Leon was cute, in a nerdy “Matthew Broderick-y sort of way.”
When it comes to people, Leon always looks unruffled. Women like him for it, Serena thinks – a kind of watchfulness that puts them off-balance. What is it that he sees when he examines a diamond beneath his glass? Something unknown to the naked or untutored eye.
It was that same unruffled quality that first drew Serena to him. It was comforting to be with someone so calm and circumspect – but also a challenge to get underneath Leon’s surface, to make him want her.
Then, a decade ago, when Daisy was four, Serena found herself in the arms of Daisy’s preschool music teacher, a twenty-eight-year-old Brit named Ben Flowers with spiky blonde hair and an earring. It was an affair that ended almost as soon as it began. But Dulce de Leche – which Ben introduced to her – that hasn’t left her.
It was the second time they had made love, she and the tantalizing Mr. Flowers, in his cramped and dingy one-bedroom apartment, which he shared with another teacher, above a pizza place in Morningside Heights. An unseasonably warm December afternoon. He left her side in the rumpled, creaky bed and returned with a pint of Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche and two spoons.
“There’s something in certain foods, some chemical perhaps, that makes you want more. In England, we say it’s moreish,” Ben said. “This ice cream is like that.”
“Moreish? Like Desdemona being ‘Moorish’ on Othello?” An ill-fated match, she thought, but didn’t say.
Ben was too into the ice cream to pick up on her wordplay. “This is one of their most moreish flavors. And ten seconds in the microwave makes it perfect.”
He fed her with his spoon, licking a drop where it fell on her collarbone.
“How can it be over already?” Ben asked when she told him she was ending it. “We’re just getting to know one another.”
“No,” Serena had insisted. “You don’t know me at all. The person with you, that’s not me. What you’ve seen is the aberration. That’s why it has to end.” He begged her to see him one more time (that would make it three times, in all), somewhere they could be alone together. Thinking of his warmth when they touched, his adoration when they were apart, she relented.
“Will you let me try to talk you out of breaking up when I see you?” He had always kept it light, from their first meeting, acting as if Leon didn’t exist. They’d met in the auditorium of the preschool, which was the first floor of a community church, when Daisy’s class was on stage, each child with an instrument. Daisy’s was the triangle, which she struck with great concentration and seriousness. After the “concert” Daisy proudly took her mother by the hand to introduce her to Ben. With his blue eyes glinting under unruly blonde eyebrows, he’d looked from Daisy to Serena and then, in a jovial enough tone so it didn’t sound like a come-on, said, “You’re so different, the two of you, but both lovely.”
“I should hope we’re different,” Serena had said, maintaining the same light tone even though she was flattered. “Daisy’s favorite book is Sam Who Never Forgets. Mine’s Persuasion, or maybe Bleak House.” She never intended to lead him on but he was so ardent he made Leon’s coolness, his absorption in his work, feel like rejection.
On the morning of what was to be the last time with Ben, over breakfast, she raised with Leon the possibility of moving Daisy to a different preschool. “She might do better in a Montessori school,” she said. “They’re actually the more academic ones these days. And Daisy is definitely better at reading and writing than she is at ‘making nice’.”
“Whatever you think,” Leon had replied, not paying attention. He was heading for a conference in Chicago and was absorbed with that.
Then the phone rang. It was Ben, always courteous, always excessively polite except when they were in bed, calling to say he would be an hour late because he had to speak to his landlord about something.
“Why are you calling me now?” she had whispered angrily into the phone. “Leon hasn’t left yet. I can’t believe you’re calling me here.”
What followed has taken on a nightmarish, unreal quality: Daisy’s departure for school that morning in a little red van, Leon taking a car service to the airport, Serena’s getting ready for Ben’s arrival, the doorbell. Serena thought it was Ben there early after all, but it was Leon, Leon who knew everything, Leon who spoke calmly but with more venom than seemed possible. He insisted he remain hidden in the bedroom while Ben fucked her there. He swore he would take Daisy away from her – if she were lucky, she’d see her every other weekend – unless she did what he said. He told her to greet Ben, to act as if nothing had happened, to have sex as they normally would.
“Do everything as if I weren’t here,” he said. “As if I didn’t exist, which is what you’ve been doing anyway.”
“I’m not going to do that,” she said. “I won’t.” She wanted to tell Leon that she wasn’t planning to take Ben in the bedroom, which even she viewed as off-limits, but she didn’t know how to begin. If anything, the hypocrisy of that would make him madder. She wanted to say she was ending it, but he wouldn’t believe her.
“Well, if you won’t do what I say, when you pick up Daisy from school today, give her an extra hug and kiss, because you won’t be picking her up after that. You’ll get visitation, of course – but who knows? Maybe supervised by the court.”
How did Leon come to know such things? Wasn’t he wrong? Mothers didn’t lose custody over an affair, not since the dark ages. “That won’t happen,” she said.
But what did she know about what would or wouldn’t happen? She was as ignorant of all that as she imagined Leon to be. She was a reading teacher, not a lawyer.
She knew Leon, and now Ben. And because she knew Leon so well, she understood that what he wanted was for her to practice a deception on her lover. A small thing, but enough perhaps, at least at the time, to satisfy him.
The doorbell rang.
“Now,” Leon said. “Go answer it.”
Serena tells the girls she’s going to Gristede’s for more ice cream. “Any requests?” she asks. Jenna and Amanda are silent and Daisy shrugs. “Whatever you want, Mom.” She gets up and hugs her mother, turning her face away when Serena, surprised, tries to steal a kiss.
Instead of Gristede’s, Serena goes to her Weight Watchers meeting, which has already begun. “Everyone has a trigger food,” Frankie is explaining as Serena takes her seat. Serena has stopped by the reception desk to be weighed and has lost one pound, which she knows Frankie will see as cause to celebrate. “As long as you’re headed in the right direction,” Frankie often tells discouraged weight watchers, “it doesn’t matter if it’s slow. It’s a process of baby steps, sometimes. Life teaches patience.”
“Here’s your homework for next time,” Frankie continues. “Go on the web and look up the ingredients for your trigger food. Come back next week with a list. The ingredients, the fat and carbs, the works.”
“My trigger food is everything,” says Hal.
“Pick one,” says Frankie, reasonably.
On the way home from Weight Watchers, Serena thinks of her last time with Ben. It was ten years ago but seems more recent than that. It’s part of her – of them – every time she and Leon make love.
And every time she eats Dulce de Leche.
That morning with Ben in the bedroom, she was terrified Leon would emerge from his hiding place, would threaten Ben and make a scene. She kept listening for it, tense and unresponsive. But she also knew scenes like that were not Leon’s way.
Afterwards, Ben tilted her face up to him, and said, “You’re quiet.” She thought she heard movement in the closet.
“It’s the last time,” she said softly. She felt like a deceiver, far more than she’d felt in deceiving Leon, which made no sense.
“Then we must do it again,” he said.
“I can’t.” But then they did do it again, more violently this time, more roughly than ever before. At the last moment, she pushed him away and climbed on top.
She knew Leon could see.
Daisy at fourteen is both right and wrong about her parents. Leon doesn’t look directly at Serena but that’s not to say they don’t have sex. They do frequently, without him ever really looking at her or saying he loves her. Serena knows he has an image of her he can’t erase that spurs him to lust even when, intermittently, he hates her. But thankfully his hatred (is it hatred? she isn’t sure) comes and goes. Sometimes, in the dark, he strokes her warmly; sometimes when they drift together from sleep into wakefulness she finds herself wrapped in his arms.
When Serena gets home from the meeting, Leon and the girls are gone. The laptop is on the dining room table, surrounded by papers and books. “Myths about diamonds” she reads on one printed page. “The Greek myth about diamonds is that Cronos, king of the Titans, during a visit on earth turned a young man into a precious stone.” Then she sees another sheet on the table, with big block letters, also printed, “DAD TOOK US BOWLING DOWNTOWN!!!”
When Serena sits down at the computer in the dining room to research the ingredients for Dulce de Leche, she finds a series of emails that Daisy has sent to Amanda and Jenna about a boy named Peter. The re: lines are: Peter Miller; and then, “Peter!” And then “Peter said yes … maybe”. Serena thinks about opening the emails to check up on Daisy but doesn’t. Instead she Googles Dulce de Leche and Häagen-Dazs. She finds not only the main ingredients (cream, skim milk, sugar, sweetened condensed milk) but a series of odes to, and new ways to enjoy, Dulce de Leche. There’s a chat room with suggestions like “One step further”: “If you want to take it one step further, make an ice cream sandwich by putting some slightly softened Dulce de Leche between two oatmeal cookies. Wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it back in the freezer to harden.”
Serena is sure this is not what Frankie had in mind with her assignment. But in a way this discovery is comforting. She believes that, as addicted as she is, she will never take it “one step further.”
That’s when she realizes she’s forgotten to do the shopping.
“Visualize the way you would like to see yourself,” Frankie said.
Serena tries to picture it, she and Leon walking together into a store, heading for the produce, avoiding the Aisle of Temptation. She can’t imagine it.
She and Daisy there together? Unimaginable, too.
“Visualize what you want,” Frankie said. “Then do it.”
Serena wants her husband to love her and her daughter to respect her.
She tries to visualize that, but can’t.
Instead, she turns over the sheet on which Daisy has left the note about going bowling. She starts to write “Gone shopping” but stops after “Gone” and instead writes simply “out.” She closes the door behind her, welcoming the air on her face. She walks briskly in the direction of Gristede’s but keeps going. She knows the bowling alley Leon and the girls went to, near Union Square, but she doesn’t go there either. Instead she walks uptown, for over a mile. As usual, on Sunday, there’s a street fair on Upper Broadway, with the same wares one sees every weekend: cheap cashmere Pashminas (made in China), roasted corn on the cob, brand-name sheets and pillowcases, perfumes at rock-bottom prices, home-made pie. The last part is uphill and steep. That’s where she finds the half-street, with the bodega on the corner and the pizza place halfway up the short block. Only now the pizza place is a restaurant, wildly popular, known for its organic wines and excruciatingly long waits.
At three pm on Sunday, it’s empty; between shifts, surely. Serena is not there to eat, however.
To see his window, she has to cross the street. The square of blackness reveals nothing. She doesn’t expect to see him, doesn’t imagine he even lives there any more. Surely he’s gotten his own place, a better-paying job, a more stable relationship. Surely he has moved on, to something better. Perhaps, just perhaps, he has forgotten her completely. But she doesn’t really believe that.
Along with everything else she doesn’t know, she doesn’t know how long she’ll wait.