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"What is that?" I asked the waiter, looking down at what looked like four giant gumballs floating in tomato soup. The waiter was young and had a nice smile, but I quickly realized that he spoke less English than I did Azerbaijani. Mom piped in before I had a chance to resort to sign language.
"Shelley, be adventurous," she said, looking at me over the top of her glasses-on-a-string. She stabbed a gumball with her fork and popped it in her mouth. I thought I detected an instant of shock before she gamely chewed . . . and chewed . . . and chewed. "Fascinating," she pronounced.
"Mother, if I want fascinating, I'll go see a foreign documentary at the Film Forum. I'm here to eat." Not that I'd had time to go to a movie in seven years, but I had a point to make.
"Eat? Nonsense, we're here to celebrate," my father said, leaning over, grabbing my face, squeezing it all out of shape, and planting a kiss on my smushed-forward cheek.
Which was true. My reward for finally finishing four years of college, four years of medical school, and three years of pediatric residency was this: a family party around an enormous round table at Queens's finest, and no doubt only, Azerbaijani restaurant. Mom had picked Baku Buffet because it sounded "intriguing." Intriguing, fascinating, and remarkable were Mom's three favorite words, and she was in permanent pursuit of new experiences that would allow her to use them. This had turned her into a Learning Annex junkie, obsessively taking courses on everything from "Folk Art Milking Stools" to "Insects, Eunuchs, and Euripides." I was amazed that one brain could hold the breadth of information that hers did.
This was a pretty typical gathering for my family. All around the table aunts, uncles, and cousins were shouting and laughing, eating off each other's plates, drinking out of each others' glasses, acting like we weren't separate people but a single-bodied behemoth: The Green Family. My brother Ira, a rugged individualist, was huddled in an alcove by the restrooms talking to his bookie on his cell phone. Ira had a little gambling problem-in the same way Orson Welles had a little weight problem. Ira also had a thing for marijuana-with his breakfast coffee. And did I mention the alcoholic binges in seedy motels with ladies you could rent by the hour?
I reclaimed my face from Dad's grip and looked across the table at Arthur, the man I'd been dating for two years. Arthur had been grinning for the past hour, and I wondered why he was in such a good mood. Actually, Arthur had been grinning for the past two years. It was one of his many charming qualities, but sometimes it got on my nerves. How could anyone be so endlessly cheerful, especially when dating me? He gave me a sympathetic look and mouthed, "I love you, pumpkin."
"Have you tried the gumballs?" I asked him.
"They're actually sheep testicles," he informed me.
"Well, that makes me feel better," I said, pushing my plate away.
I was hungry and exhausted and anxious and wanted nothing more than to be at home in my closet-sized Manhattan studio watching some mindless reality show and working my way through a pint of Chunky Monkey. More or less my entire adult life up to this point, all the years of education and training and sleepless nights, had been leading to this moment, and now, instead of kicking up my sensible heels, I just wanted a little peace and quiet to think things over and make some decisions.
Arthur got up and walked around the table to where I was sitting. He kneaded my shoulders with his warm wonderful hands, finding my familiar knots and rubbing them with a gently circular motion, working his two thumbs up the back of my neck. A deep, involuntary sigh poured out of me. The back rubs were one of his charming qualities I never got tired of. Arthur was an English teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn. He was kind, dependable, almost six feet tall with gray-green eyes, and an amazing kisser. But what I loved most about him were those magic hands. He leaned down and kissed the top of my head, "Just relax, munchkin."
"Oh, Arthur," I said, "I'm trying. You don't know the half of it."
I'd been looking for a position in a well-established practice in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Park Slope. There was a lot of competition for the few openings that came up, and so far I hadn't had any luck. And I was facing a quarter of a million dollars in student loans. That was the half Arthur did know.
The half he didn't know was that three days earlier I'd received a call from Dr. Marge Mueller, the head of Madison Pediatrics, one of the best practices on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Dr. Mueller, who had been forwarded my résumé by a doctor at a Park Slope practice, had invited me in for an interview. I'd asked her for a few days to think it over. I wasn't sure I was a good fit for the Upper East Side. And I hadn't told Arthur about Dr. Mueller's call because the job would mean working with the kind of overprivileged families that he disapproved of, and I didn't want him making my decision more difficult by cluttering the process with his guilt-inducing biases.
Biases or not, my relationship with Arthur had been the most serious of my life. He was just the sort of kind, generous, lovable man I'd always been told I would one day meet and marry. Just as I'd always been told I should get good grades, keep my head down, earn gold stars, be polite, do my homework, and finish everything on my plate, even if it meant eating sheep testicles. The problem was, I sometimes felt a little crowded by Arthur, the same way I sometimes felt crowded by The Green Family behemoth and its expectations.
It was as if I'd been living in a hermetically sealed bubble since I was about nine, a bubble marked 'good studious Shelley.' Inside, secretly, I'd always felt a certain admiration and envy of the more rebellious girls, the ones who blew off their homework, who dressed with flair and flirted with panache, who exuded an easy sensuality and confidence. Nothing came easily to me, especially fun. My only guilty pleasures were food and an obsession with celebrity and pop culture that took the form of E! channel marathons and InStyle binges. I dreamed of bursting out of my good-girl bubble, of going to glamorous parties and drinking too many mohitos and dancing with abandon and going skinny-dipping in the moonlight and making love in the dunes-just having some cut-loose bad-girl fun. My relationship with Arthur could not be filed under bad-girl fun-under lots of other, probably ultimately more important things, yes, but not guilty pleasure. And I felt I'd earned the right to a little fun before I settled down.
"Shelley, you're a wonderful wonderful doctor, you love kids-you're going to have a job in no time."
Arthur was always so reassuring, but I'd felt like I'd been holding my breath for the past three years, and before I could finally exhale, I needed to be settled and building my own practice.
"Thank you, honey," I said, leaning up and kissing him. The relationship was right on the cusp of seriously serious, but that was on hold for me, too. Before marriage and motherhood, I needed to be earning a good living. Dad was a mailman, a sensational super-mensch mailman, who'd had the same Upper East Side route for thirty years and was loved by everyone, but mailmen don't make a lot of money. Mom was a part-time grade school guidance counselor, and they don't make a lot of money, either. "We can't afford it," echoed in my ears all through my childhood. And Arthur's salary was hardly enough for the family we both wanted. Besides all that, I wanted to be able to stand on my own two feet as an independent woman. It was important to me.
"Oh my God, this is fabulous. You have to try it, Shelley," Mom said, pointing down to her plate, where a chunk of meat sat under a bright orange sauce. What kind of meat did they eat in Azerbaijan? Goat? Emu? Yak? Think I'll pass.
"I know how to cheer you up," Arthur whispered in my ear.
It was true, Arthur did know how to cheer me up-but I wasn't sure we should hop on top of the big round table and make love in front of God, the Green Family behemoth, the other diners, and the Baku Buffet staff, friendly though they were.
"Do you have something up your sleeve?" I asked.
"Actually, it's in my breast pocket," he said.
Just then my cell phone rang. "Duty calls," I said, and got up from the table. "Hello?"
"Is that you, Shelley?"
I could tell by the thick, cultured accent from somewhere on the overeducated fringe of Europe, that this was Dr. Marjorie Mueller from Madison Pediatrics.
"It's me, Dr. Mueller. Sorry about the noise."
"Where are you, Uzbekistan?"
"Good guess. One minute while I find a quiet corner."
I walked over to the restroom alcove, where Ira was barking orders at his bookie and sweating. As usual he was resplendent in what I called his Atlantic City look-a loose purple shirt made out of some shimmery material, way too much gold jewelry for a man, black slacks, and black leather slip-ons that looked like bedroom slippers. Knowing Ira, they probably were bedroom slippers. Ira was the yang to my yin and the fact that he was just so over-the-top yang is a big part of the reason I was yinned tighter than a drum.
"Ira, I need this alcove," I said.
"Shelley, I'm so proud of you," he said. "Can you give me something for my bunions? A Vicodin maybe?"
"Ira, I'm a pediatrician, not a podiatrist, now please."
"Love you, Shell," he said, before ducking into the men's room to continue his conversation.
"I apologize for the confusion, Dr. Mueller. It's just . . ."
"Please," she said, cutting me off. "Call me Dr. Marge; everyone does. I'm sorry to call you at this hour, but I was wondering if you'd made a decision about coming in to talk to me. We're become really shorthanded at the practice, and I was hoping that as a fellow alumna of Cornell, I could call upon our school ties to persuade you."
It was certainly flattering to be cajoled by the head of such a prestigious practice.
"You probably think I'm some pretentious Upper East Side doctor who dresses in Chanel suits and Manolo Blahnik heels. Well, I am. Although I'm developing a real taste for Jil Sander. But I'm also a dedicated pediatrician, and I'm not going to bite your head off, I promise. Could you possibly come in tomorrow around lunchtime?"
I knew I should stall, not sound too eager or desperate, make her wait.
"Yes," I said.
"See you at noon, Dr. Green." And with that she hung up.
I stood there in the steamy little alcove surrounded by the smells of sheep testicles and yak steaks and the babble of my boisterous family. I couldn't be sure-what with Chanel and Manolo and Jil-but it seemed like I was being very seriously considered for a position in one of the city's best and fanciest pediatric practices. Me, a schlumpy girl from Jackson Heights who was ten pounds overweight-oh, all right, twenty-and had less fashion sense than your average bag lady and the social skills to match. I was sure that when Dr. Marge de Chanel met me she would think I was a bad match for her patients. Then again, I was, I hoped, a damn good doctor, and I had finished at the top of my class in medical school and excelled during my residency. Maybe I would get the job. But I wasn't sure I wanted it. I didn't know if I'd be comfortable on the Upper East Side. More important, I didn't know what I'd wear tomorrow.
"Suss," Mom called at me from across the restaurant. In case you're wondering what Suss stands for, it's "Stand Up Straight, Shelley." Mom invented it so that she could correct my posture privately in public-I'm the only person I know who is admonished with an acronym. But isn't the intention slightly compromised when she yells it in a voice that could be heard in the Bronx?
I reflexively threw my shoulders back and raised my head.
"Much better, dear, now come and try these tiny eels. They were cooked on the way to the table. Isn't that intriguing?" she bellowed.
As I made my way across the restaurant, I noticed Arthur beaming at me like a spotlight on steroids. Then he stood up and clinked his knife against his glass. Unfortunately, Baku Buffet used plastic glasses so no one paid any attention.
"Quiet, please," he said.
No reduction in the decibel level. You've probably figured this out already, but shouting is the normal, accepted means of speech in my family. The only time people don't shout is when they have something really important to say, like "Grandma died today." Poor Arthur comes from a family of Ann Arbor academics who speak at a normal decibel level; because of this no one in my family ever listens to him.
"Quiet, please," he said again, a little louder. He looked beseechingly over at Dad-the two of them were crazy about each other.
"Everybody shut up!" Dad screamed.
The whole restaurant went dead silent and turned to our table. Arthur blushed bright red.
"Okay, you've got our attention, say something," Mom said, "The eels are getting cold."
"I just wanted to propose a little toast to Shelley for all that she's accomplished. We're all so proud of you," he said.
The whole restaurant turned and looked at me. From the baffled looks on their faces, I could tell that at least half of them spoke less English than our waiter.
"And there's one other thing I want to propose," he said. Then he blushed and looked down with that awkward shyness of his that I found so touching. The whole restaurant watched and waited. He reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small velvet box. He opened the box, and there inside, glittering and glinting, was a beautiful antique ring, gold filigree holding four small diamonds. I knew it had been his grandmother's, that she had left it to him, for his bride. "Shelley, will you marry me?" he said.
"What did he say?" one of my aunts shouted.
"Talk louder!" a cousin ordered.
"Shelley, will you marry me?" he said, loud and clear.
It was not what I was expecting. I cast a glance around the table at all those relatives I'd known my whole life and loved dearly, even if I felt overwhelmed and suffocated by them half the time. They were all beaming, grinning, and giggling. A perfect end to the perfect Green Family meal. They'd accepted Arthur about ten minutes after they met him. They'd been telling me he was the one, and now everything they'd said was coming true. I couldn't let Arthur down, not here, in front of his fan club. Maybe even more important, I couldn't let them down. And with a sweet, charming guy like Arthur, surely I wasn't letting myself down, either.
"Yes," I said.
The restaurant remained silent for a moment. Then Dad leapt up, made a big coming-together gesture with his arms, and screamed to the whole place:
"They're going to get married!"
Everyone in the restaurant applauded. Ira burst out of the men's room: "I just hit the exacta in the eighth at Aqueduct!!" Then he did one of his impromptu dances-he shimmed, shook, and sang: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. . . ."
"Remarkable," Mom said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Copyright © 2006 by Judy Goldstein