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"Is this about religion?" Renny asked.
Ali looked up from the New York Times and said, "It has nothing to do with religion, and you know that."
"Because I'll convert if it's that damn important to you," Renny persisted.
His large frame filled the door to the kitchen, cutting off Ali's escape route. She thought the conversation had concluded when they came in from their early-morning walk through Chinatown.
"When have I ever gone to temple since you've known me?" she asked. Some crumbs from her apple Danish rested on the table next to the newspaper. She wiped them into her hand and popped them into her mouth.
"You can take the Jew out of temple, but you can't take the Jew out of the girl," Renny replied. He didn't sound sarcastic.
"Oh, and Catholicism just disappears once you move to the Lower East Side?"
The scar that ran through Renny's left eyebrow crinkled in irritation. "This is no time to act all cutesy or belligerent, or even cutesy belligerent. Catholicism plays no role in my life whatsoever. I haven't stepped foot in a church since I can't even remember when."
"It was last summer, when we went to your friend's wedding in Yonkers and the mass lasted an hour and a half and it was un-air-conditioned and that woman in the hat fainted."
"Well, don't blame me," Renny said. "It wasn't a reflection of my religious affiliation. And please don't tell me you've suddenly started making judgments about the variety of my friends, because then I actually wouldn't want to marry you. I wouldn't even want to know you."
Ali went to the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk.
It was always a careful balance with Renny. So gentle and good-natured on the surface, he'd retreat into a quiet, unreachable anger if she pushed too hard. She decided to keep it light. "I think it's very generous of you to consider converting"she paused to take a swig of milk"but if you did, we'd never have any more children, because we'd never have sex again, because I've never once in my life been attracted to a nice Jewish boy." She took another swig and put the carton back.
Renny wasn't amused by any of it.
"Come on," she cajoled, "if you converted, our relationship would stop shocking my sisters, and shocking them is one of the great pleasures of my life. You wouldn't want to deprive me of one of my greatest pleasures, would you?"
Renny stared at her, the expression in his dark eyes flat. Then he said, "At the end of the day, you're exactly like them."
"Sticks and stones," Ali quipped, hoping he'd drop it. "Sticks and stones," she said again, wriggling past him into the narrow hallway where her suitcase sat.
"I just don't understand what you're waiting for." He followed her to the front door of the ground-floor apartment on Norfolk Street they had shared for the last two years. "I'm ready. You're ready. We're ready."
"You know what I'm ready for?" Ali did an abrupt 180. "I'm ready for one more apple Danish!" She gave Renny a peck on the cheek and returned to the kitchen. She didn't really want the Danish, but they'd been through the same conversation over and over and Ali couldn't stand to go through it yet again, especially when she was already running so late. The pastry wrapped in a napkin, she headed for the door.
"At least let me help you with your bag," Renny said, picking up her small valise. "Not bad for a J.A.P." He winked as she passed.
"Not bad for a mick." She winked right back.
They walked together down to Delancey and found a taxi quickly. After putting Ali's bag in the trunk, Renny pulled her in for a tight hug. "Call me when you get to Maine." He kissed the top of her head, her forehead, her cheek, her neck. He smelled like sweat and Tide. He smelled like comfort.
"Call me when you get to the market." She forced herself to pull away. "I feel like I might want you to pick something crazy up for me, but I can't tell what it is yet."
"Do you really have to go?" Renny looked so sincerely pained, it melted the all-business igloo Ali had put herself in. "I don't like the idea of your traveling right now. Didn't you say you felt some cramping last night?"
"Nothing's going to happen to me," Ali reassured him, even though no one had had faith in reassurance since September 11, when every New Yorker realized there simply was no such thing. "I'm only doing a two-day shoot. Let's just be glad it's paying so well."
Renny looked away. Ali knew she had touched a nerve, and she tried hard to soothe it. "Don't you want to start filming our Bosnian refugee project?" She caressed the side of his face. He hadn't shaved this morning, and the stubble tickled her fingers. "This'll fund it and another one. I'm not trying to be a downer, but things are about to get a lot more expensive. It's not like I'll be able to breast-feed forever. And then there's sitters and clothes and play groups"
"And a wedding."
"And a new apartment. Did you hear those guys last night outside our window? It was insane how loud they were, which I wouldn't have minded as much if I'd understood them, but my teachers definitely never taught us those words in my high school Spanish classes."
"Maybe the baby will inherit my sleep genes," Renny said.
After fifteen years on film sets, Renny could sleep through anything and at any hour. The morning Renny and Ali got together, they were on their way home from a shoot that had started at 6:00 p.m. and ended at 4:00 a.m. Renny had been called in to sub for Ali's usual cinematographer, who had had to leave unexpectedly due to a death in his family, and the two had struck up a conversation on the drive back into the city from Newark, where they had been filming teenage prostitutes.
When Renny had arrived that night for work, Ali had seen only a tall, willowy guy with curly black hair cascading over slightly slumped shoulders that looked like they couldn't possibly handle the weight of a camera. It wasn't until much later that she noticed his hands, large and white, with bitten nails and ragged cuticles but with long fingers that fluttered gracefully in the air when he was trying to make a point or explain a camera angle he thought would work. He was wearing army fatigues and combat boots and from afar looked almost menacing, but up close it was obvious that his large brown eyes were gentle and perceptive and his pockets contained nothing more harmful than soy nuts, which he liked to snack on instead of "the toxic crap on the craft services table." Ali found this out in the car ride home when she mentioned that she was starving.
"Open your mouth," he had said. Then he placed the nuts, one by one, onto her tongue.
"Yummy," she said after she had swallowed. Her eyes never once left his.
"How'd you get the scar?" she had asked.
"Chasing after Marlene Fitzpatrick after Sunday school when we were both eight. Always have had a weakness for smart, attractive brunettes."
Neither of them had slept that morning. First they ate pancakes and eggs at an all-night diner on Delancey. Then they went back to his place because it was closer than her apartment in the East Village. They made love until noon, his white hands moving over her with slow, exhilarating skill, his lips finding places even she didn't know could be kissed; then they slept until four, ate again, and went back to work, a schedule they kept up until the shoot ended ten days later, by which time they were inseparable. They had decided to move in after two months, less as an expression of their mutual devotion than a necessity if they were ever going to see each other. Renny was on another shoot by then and Ali had her days free.
And so it went, with one or the other always working, sometimes on the same projects, more often not. It was an odd life, but somehow they made it work, especially because they both understood the demands of each other's schedules; and then there was the incontrovertible fact that they truly hungered for each other, not just physically but emotionally and intellectually, as well.
Good thing, that insatiable chemistry. They'd need it through the hard times to come. How could they have predicted that no one would shoot in Manhattan after September 11? How could they have imagined the independent-film world would come to such a halt? Of course it was only temporary, but it was a tough temporary, and Renny was working more parties these days as a bartender than he was working on films. Lately, he'd been looking for television and video work, which was lucrative but always made him feel like a sellout when he came home. He was even contemplating doing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
"I've got to get to the plane," Ali said, taking a step toward the taxi.
"Please," Renny begged, his hand catching her arm. "Think about it. You're hurting both of us right now. It doesn't have to be any big deal. We can hop down to City Hall one morning, or go to Vegas."
"Sounds classy," Ali said.
"Or we can do something big." Renny took his hand away in irritation, but his tone remained gentlehopeful even. "Whatever you want, hon. I'm sure your mother would love to throw one last extravaganza. You don't have to be afraid. Being my wife"his tone suddenly shifted"well, I don't want to convince you to do it." He started to walk away, muttering, "This is sick."
"Come on," Ali said, caressing his cheek. "I don't want to get on a plane with any tension between us." She gave him a kiss on the mouth, which he returned. "But right now I gotta go. I'm already late, and you know how my sisters get." She blew Renny one last kiss, tumbled into the cab, and told the driver to hustle.
"So glad you decided to join us," Robin said when Ali arrived at Teterboro Airport forty-five minutes later. Robin was her oldest sister and usually launched the attack.
"You could have called," Andrea, next in line, added.
"You had to put purple in your hair for the occasion?" Mara said. "It's not even one of the team colors."
Karen got the last word, saying, "Lose the nose ring, Ali. We're not going to India."
"Nice to see you all, too," Ali said, laughing to herself at the uniformity of her sisters' appearance. It wasn't just their outfits, which were all similar versions of a floral miniskirt and pastel-colored tank top. They could have all been dressed head to toe in different national costumes and they still would have looked the same, since they each shared their mother's frizzy brown hair, their father's brown almond-shaped eyes, and each had had her nose done by the same doctor (a sweet sixteen "gift" from their parents, which Ali, to her sisters' disbelief, had resolutely turned down). Sure, Robin had the biggest breasts and Mara had recently added Japanese hair straightening to her list of hair manipulations. Sure, Andrea's nails were as long as an eagle's talons and Karen had a mole above her lip that made people liken her to Cindy Crawford. Beyond that, they were more or less interchangeable.
"What's wrong with my nose ring?" Ali said to Karen. "You're just jealous because my diamond's bigger than yours."
Of course it wasn't. No nose could possibly support the weight of a rock that was bigger than Karen's. Still, Ali chuckled to herself as she followed her sisters up the stairs and into the Learjet 35.
"You redecorated!" Mara shouted. "Uch, it's awesome. I love the chenille."
"This must have cost a mint," Andrea said, running her hands along the holly inlay in the mahogany walls.
"It wasn't prohibitive." Robin winked. "I just felt like the gray was too sterile."
"The pink is much better," Karen agreed.
"Please. We call it salmon," Robin warned. "Otherwise, David gets upset. Let's not forgettechnically, this is his corporate jet."
Ali took the plush pink seat closest to the bathroom, just in case she got sick, and pulled out her notebook. She hadn't prepared at all for the shoot she had been hired to do, and she wanted to write out a few ideas about how to structure the documentary. She wasn't worried. It wasn't much of a challenge, this job; nothing like her usual trek through urban jungles and juvenile detention centers. All she really needed to make was a commercialan hour-long promo attesting to the wonders of Willow Lake. That was all Faye and Ron Stein, the current camp owners, wanted. They just liked the word documentary because they thought it sounded important. But they didn't really want a documentary. Otherwise, they would have asked her to incorporate footage and do research, express a point of view even, which, given Ali's history, could only have been mixed at best, scathing if she was feeling vengeful.
"Something to help us commemorate Willow Lake's centennial" was all they had specified. It was ironic that they'd come to her. She and her sisters had all gone to the camp when it was run by June Simon, an elegant grandmotherly type who always wore pristine white pants, pristine white Tretorns, pastel-colored button-down shirts, and a matching neckerchief and spent her days wandering around campus in a golf cart, reminding the girls, "Always be a lady."
It was Aunt June, as the girls called her, who had first likened the Cohen sisters to the Kennedys; Aunt June who had said she had never known a family of such outstanding young ladies; Aunt June who had bestowed the Spirit of Willow Lake award on each one of the Cohen sisters, one after the other.
Of course, Ali had never won the award, but Faye and Ron didn't seem to know that. As usual, she had been lumped in with her sisters, who now had their own children attending Willow Lake and were once again the talk of camp as their legacy continued. The whole thing was vile, but with a baby on the way and Renny unemployed, really this trip back to camp was just a job. That's all it was. She'd film the reunion guests as they went about their activities, give a little history about Willow Lake, conduct a few interviews, shoot the lake in the morning as the sun came up, and again in the evening with the moon shining down on the waves, put it all together, and send it off.
As she scribbled down the idea about the lake, Karen asked what she was doing.
"Just making some notes for the film," Ali replied without looking up.
"Nobody bother Ali," Karen shouted. "She's working."
Her sisters giggled, and Ali saw Mara roll her eyes. Still, they did leave her alone for most of the flight. Ali was glad. The snippets of conversation that floated back to her were like a foul odor she instinctively tried to avoid.