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My year of mourning was over, and I decided to mark the anniversary by treating myself to a doughnut.
By my own choice, I had not had sex with anyone during those twelve months. I'm not sure why I did that. Maybe it was out of respect for the woman I had lost, though she wouldn't have wanted anything like that from me. My older brother is a monk, so maybe I was trying to prove I could keep up with him in the abstinence department. Or maybe I was just afraid I would meet someone I liked and sleep with her, then start to think about her all the time, then start to want to have children with her, and then she would be torn away from me and spirited off to some better world—if there is a better world—and that is not the kind of thing you want to go through twice in one year.
So on that wet September night my year of abstinence was finished, and I went out looking for a doughnut as a sort of offbeat celebration. That's all, really. A doughnut says: Listen, for your eighty-five cents I'm going to give you a quick burst of feel-good. No soul connection. No quiet walks. No long foreplay sessions in a warm one-bedroom. No extinction of aloneness. No jealousy. No fights. No troubles. No risk.
On that night, the risk I thought I was willing to take extended only as far as chocolate-glazed. Steaming cup of decaf next to it, little bit of cream, the shabby comfort of my favorite doughnut shop. It seemed a small enough thing to ask, after the year I'd seen.
The steady rain that had been falling during the afternoon and early part of the night had quieted to a light drizzle. The streets were black and wet, streaked with color from storefront neon and traffic lights. I worked my old pickup out of its parking space—foolish move, giving up a parking space in that neighborhood at that late hour—and drove to Betty's.
There is no Betty. Once there might have been, but at that point Betty's was owned by Carmine Asalapolous, a rough-edged, middle-aged man who had told me once that he wished he'd done something heroic in his life so he'd have a piece of high ground to fall back on when the devils of self-doubt were after him. Carmine, I said, just being a decent person, good father, excellent doughnut-maker—that's enough heroism for one life. But he shook his big head sadly and said no, it wasn't, not for him.
Carmine went to a two-hour Orthodox service on Sunday mornings. During the week he liked to make off-color jokes with his regular customers. He had some kind of mindless prejudice against college professors, a scar between his eyebrows that looked like a percent sign, and two young daughters whom he adored and whose pictures and drawings were taped up on every vertical surface in Betty's. He took his work seriously. If you got him going on the subject of doughnut-making, he'd tell you the chain doughnut shops used only the cheapest flour, which is why you left those places with a pasty aftertaste on your tongue.
I parked in front. The roof of Betty's was dripping and one cold droplet caught me on the left ear as I walked in. I remember that odd detail. In line at the counter I held a little debate with myself—how wild a night should it be?—then asked for two chocolate-glazed instead of one, a medium instead of a small decaf. Carmine was counting money in the floury kitchen. I could see him there through a sort of glassless window. He looked up at me from his stack of bills, pointed with his chin at the waitress's back, and made a John Belushi face, pushing his lips to the side and lifting one eyebrow, the expression of a man who had not a millionth of a chance of ever touching the waitress in a way she liked, and knew it.
I carried my paper cup of coffee and paper plate with two doughnuts on it to a stool at a counter that looked out on Betty's wet parking lot. In a minute a trim, balding man sat beside me, with a black coffee and the Sports section of the New York Times. "Nice truck," he said.
"I saw you get out of it," he said.
I could not think of any response to this.
He kept trying. He said: "You don't see many of them still around. Fifty-one Dodge?"
"Gorgeous," he said. "Like you."
I looked away. I was waiting for my coffee to cool, and was not really in the mood to talk, and though I understand sexual loneliness as well as the next person, there was not much I could do about this man's loneliness. Just at that exact moment—it was after midnight—a woman walked out of Betty's carrying a small bag and got into her car and she must have had a slippery shoe or been distracted by something because she put her new Honda in reverse and drove it across about fifteen open feet of parking lot and straight into the back of my truck.
"Whoa!" the man beside me yelled.
I took a good hot sip of coffee. I watched the woman get out, rubbing the back of her neck with one hand and looking as if she wished she had never been born. And then, very calmly, I went outside to talk to her.
From the Hardcover edition.