“I don’t know if I mentioned that we have a new doctor at the medical group,” Evelyn Rubin said at brunch one Sunday, a meal for which she regularly assembled her three grown daughters. She gazed down the table and addressed her words to her husband, who was methodically spreading cream cheese on a bagel.
He paused, sunlight glinting off the knife as he smiled his thin, skeptical smile. “The one you think would be just right for Alice? You mentioned it once or twice.”
“Oh, William, nonsense!” said Dr. Rubin, but a flush spread across her cheeks. She was an imposing, broadly built woman of sixty-one with a handsome face carefully made up to emphasize the fine dark eyes she had long considered to be her best feature. Her hair, too, had once been fine and dark and still was thick, if more gray now than black.
Alice, slicing strawberries onto her plate, blushed and concentrated on dividing each berry exactly in half and then in half again with her thin, steady fingers. At thirty-eight, the oldest child, she had passed through periods of shame as well as despair at failing to get herself married. Turning thirty single had been mildly painful, thirty-five more so. Lately, however, she had emerged into something like acceptance. She enjoyed her work, her apartment, her friends. She read Latin American literature in the original and Chinese literature in translation. And although she held out some hope that the right man might come along, she no longer went on blind dates or examined the personals column of the City Paper. She had put herself beyond the reach of such humiliations, and her current, mild embarrassment was as much for her mother as for herself. Looking across the table, she exchanged a glance with her sister Isabel. They had long been used to their mother’s plots, well-meaning, certainly, but irritating, especially as they never came to anything.
“He’s a very brilliant man,” Dr. Rubin went on. “A cardiologist, trained at Harvard and Columbia. He’s from New Jersey, but he’s been out on the West Coast for years. He moved back recently for personal reasons. I think his father’s ill.”
“The dutiful son,” Judge Rubin said, picking up the newspaper and turning to the editorial page.
“I think it’s very nice,” Dr. Rubin said. “Only it’s hard starting over in a new place when everyone else is settled. I invited him to the party, and Alice, I did hope you would be nice to him and make sure he doesn’t just wander around with nobody to talk to.”
“What about me?” Tina asked. “Why are the brilliant men always for Alice?” She was the youngest of the sisters, with a body kept in shape by StairMasters and Lifecycles and revealed through tight silk sweaters, Lycra tank tops, and form-fitting designer jeans. Tina was usually in the middle of a passionate romance with a young Aetna executive, or a handsome MBNA trainee, or the membership director of the Riverside Health Club, but none of these men ever turned out to be the Right Man. At twenty-nine, Tina had slept with as many men, more or less, as she had lived years on a vexing planet that hid its prizes— where? In the boardrooms of regional banks or the free-form office spaces of new-media start-ups? Tina was still looking. She was still waiting for destiny to open its arms.
“Oh, he’s far too old for you, Tina,” Dr. Rubin said.
Alice bent her head again over her strawberries so that her expression could not be seen. Tina nibbled half a bagel, held carefully in her strong, square hands with their fingernails painted the same deep mauve as her dress. The last man their mother had wanted Alice to “take care of” at a party had been a handsome, silver-haired radiologist who had asked almost immediately to be introduced to a woman across the room, who had happened to be Tina.
“Of course,” Dr. Rubin amended, “people said the same thing about your father and me when we started dating.”
“That’s why you should always listen to your elders, Tina,” Judge Rubin said without looking up from his newspaper.
Dr. Rubin smiled the tolerant smile that so nearly resembled a frown, meant to express long-suffering affection. She stirred her coffee and picked at a spot on the linen tablecloth. The silver and the tablecloth had belonged to her grandmother back in Germany, and she liked to use them when the family was together. One day all the things would belong to her daughters. Isabel already had the Royal Copenhagen dinner service for twelve. Dr. Rubin had given it to her when she got married. Isabel, watching her mother, knew what she was thinking as clearly as if she had said the words out loud. Sixty-one, and only one of her three daughters married! Sixty-one, and not a single grandchild to buy presents for, or to dandle on her knee, or to show pictures of to the other doctors. What had gone wrong?
“Are you done with the business section?” Isabel’s husband, Theo, asked Judge Rubin.
“Nice blouse,” Tina said to Alice. “Is it new?”
Alice looked down to see what she was wearing. “I got it last week at this little store, Larissa. They were having a sale.”
“Oh, Larissa, I love that store!” Tina said. “What were you doing all the way over on Twenty-second? You should have called me. We could have had lunch.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, knowing very well that she should have called her sister, which was doubtless why she had mentioned the name of the store when there had been no need to. Otherwise she would have felt she was concealing it deliberately to protect herself. She had been in a hurry, and Tina was always late, and she talked incessantly about the latest man in her life. Or sometimes, as if suddenly remembering the injunction not to talk too much about oneself, she offered Alice advice about meeting men.
When they were children, Tina had followed her older sisters everywhere. She would scream with rage if Alice shut the door to her room, tears springing from her eyes, her clenched fists looking like two curls escaped from her head. With the curls and her fat cheeks and her chubby, dimpled legs, Tina had been the kind of child adults fussed over. She had also been jealous and stubborn, trying to run as fast as Alice and Isabel, to read when they could read, to carry what they could carry. She was so frustrated by being the youngest that it was hard not to feel sorry for her, but Isabel’s sympathy was tempered with wariness. Once she had shown Tina a snakeskin she had found in the woods, and Tina had ripped the head off. She had let Tina play with her rock collection, and Tina had slipped the shiny ones into her underwear when she’d thought Isabel wasn’t looking. Tina never seemed to do things like this to Alice. Perhaps she sensed that her scrupulous oldest sister would simply turn her back to her and keep it turned. Isabel found Tina’s desire to be included harder to resist. “That child will push you over the cliff if you let her,” said Cicily, their babysitter, and Isabel had wondered, What cliff?
“They have this great dress at Larissa,” Tina said. “Indigo silk with spaghetti straps and slit halfway up the thigh! But all the stuff there is so expensive. I’m the one who can’t afford to shop there except when there’s a sale.”
“Alice has always been thrifty,” Dr. Rubin said approvingly. “She always saved her allowance.”
“And gave it away to homeless people on the street,” Isabel said, smiling. “When Cicily took us into the city.”
“I’m sure Cicily never let her do that,” Dr. Rubin said firmly. “Alice dear, I’d be happy to take you shopping if you need clothes for work.” Alice was a lawyer who worked with Central American immigrants at a small nonprofit.
“I’m fine, Doc,” Alice replied equally firmly. “My closet is full.”
“Alice’s clients don’t care what she wears,” Tina said. “Not like those rich guys Theo represents.” Her gaze rested on lean, heavy-browed Theo, frowning over an article about interest rates.
Judge Rubin, registering the snobbish remark, gave Tina a look over the top of his paper.
That was how it was at brunch. The men read The New York Times (although they lived in Philadelphia), and the sisters talked about clothes and squabbled.
“His name is Anthony Wolf,” Dr. Rubin announced, going back to the previous subject. “What’s the guest list up to now, Isabel? About a hundred?”
“One hundred and twenty,” Isabel said. Not currently employed, she had been drafted as her mother’s assistant for the Rubins’ fortieth-anniversary party. Dr. Rubin felt it would give Isabel something to do. She herself had worked nearly constantly for thirty-five years, and she worried that her middle daughter was languishing.
“Isabel,” she said, “I thought we could take some of the photographs from the wedding, get enlargements made, and hang them up for the party.”
“All right,” Isabel said. She looked up at Theo, and he smiled at her. It was the same warm, bright, sly smile that had once made Isabel feel chosen, golden, bathed in light. Now it seemed to her to be a reflex, like turning your head when someone called your name.
“We can go through the album Tuesday,” Dr. Rubin said. Tuesday was her day off. She loved throwing parties—giving orders and organizing people. A sentimental and tactless woman, she was also bold and determined enough not only to have gone to medical school in the 1950s, but to have pursued a surgical subspecialty. “There are some wonderful pictures,” she said. “Oh, the stephanotis!”
“I would have roses,” Tina said dreamily, her face expressing the same mixture of innocence and carnality it had at thirteen, contemplating the same subject. She had been planning her wedding all her life.
“The cake was from Zeidman’s,” Dr. Rubin went on. “Everyone loved it, but I couldn’t eat a bite. I was so nervous! Imagine, girls—just twenty-one, and not knowing all the things you know today. What innocents we were! We had only known each other six months. It was love at first sight, wasn’t it, William?”
Her husband put down his newspaper, folded it neatly, and set it on the edge of the table, creating a pause that gave weight to his words even here among the cluttered plates and spoons, the way his robes and gavel did in his courtroom. “We were a new breed,” he said, looking at his wife thoughtfully, as though she were a tricky piece of evidence. “My parents had had an arranged marriage, complete with a yenta and a dowry.”
Dr. Rubin’s smile attenuated. She deferred to him out of long habit, but in the rest of her life she seldom deferred to anyone.
“Our generation rejected all that,” Judge Rubin went on, turning his gaze on his children as though they were jurors, the two sides of the table the two rows of seats in the jury box. “We said: We are free, we were born in a free country, we will make our own choices! And they allowed us to do this. They thought we might know better than they did; that our ways were the right ways for a new country.” He shook his head slowly, smiling his thin smile, his wire-rimmed glasses catching the light and reflecting it back in brilliant shards.
“Your New York grandparents wanted your father to marry a woman who would stay home and iron shirts, girls,” Dr. Rubin said. “And my parents wanted me to marry a German Jew. A mixed marriage, they called it, because the Rubins came from Odessa! We had to defy them.”
And yet, Isabel thought, how upset Doc became if one of her own children defied her.
Judge Rubin nodded. “What chance did their advice have in the face of a bombshell in a canary yellow bathing suit? Girls, from the moment I saw your mother I couldn’t get her image out of my mind. I was wild about her—absolutely off my head! I wasn’t going to rest until I got my hands on her. And in those days, that meant marriage.”
“My mother told me that bathing suit would get me into trouble,” Dr. Rubin said.
Judge Rubin smiled and said nothing, but Dr. Rubin was moving confidently back to familiar ground.
“Your father was the handsomest man on the beach,” she said, as she had said many times before. “I saw him, and he saw me, and that was it! It was all over.”
Her older daughters looked away, knowing what was coming.
“Sometimes you just know,” Dr. Rubin said, her warm eyes glowing, in the same tone in which she had said, “It was love at first sight.”
When they were young girls, that phrase had the power to make Alice and Isabel melt. They had yearned toward a time when a glance exchanged with a boy would ignite a whole future. But by now they had heard the words too often, and experience had long since called them into question.
“Forty years,” their mother said, and Isabel, who had been married for twelve, felt a little ill. She didn’t dare think the faint nausea might be the sign she had been waiting for. She had taken the latest pregnancy test only the day before, and it had come out the same as the rest of them. Blue, the color of the great empty bowl of sky under which she was compelled to live and to try to be as happy as she could. The color of the pattern on her great-grandmother’s Royal Copenhagen dishes, which, she sometimes thought, would never be passed on to anyone. What unnatural silence underlay the talk at these family meals! Would there never again be children in this stark white room with its jade green vase of pussy willows? Children to cry, and spill their juice, and tease the dog as she and her sisters once had. To inherit ancient expectations and newer, but still venerable, dishes.