She opened the door to home. The fragrance of a burning candle greeted her. The living room was empty except for the burning wood in the fireplace.
She walked into the breakfast niche. On its small round table, a candle burned next to an open bottle of wine. The back patio glowed sunset orange through the glass door.
Two place settings of family china lay on the paisley patterned tablecloth. Wilco, their cat, rubbed against her leggings. In the center of the table, there was the old Happy Birthday honeycomb table centerpiece from all the kid parties.
“Hey,” her husband said. “Another year bites the dust.”
“Thank you Joe, this is so nice!” She sat down. He poured her wine and she savored the first sip. “Whats for dinner?”
“Your favorite restaurant.”
The wine in her glass winked through the crystal. She laughed and poured herself some more.
It was one of the few restaurants that still survived the pandemic, American style food, advertised as “locally sourced, organic and mostly vegetarian.” But after
She spooned kale salad into the bowls. He served her the strip loin.
“Grass fed,” he emphasized. “I’m just having the soy Thai curry.”
“Good for you,” she said, then changed the subject. “So, any word from Jake?” she asked about their son. “Barb already called me for my birthday.” Barb was their daughter.
“No word from our kids…but I ran into Alice…,” he said. “Poor Ada, to have Alice for a mother.”
Judy looked up. But he said nothing more.
Alice was a social acquaintance they had both known — for a long time through much drama. But she was also her patient. She could not talk about patients to his family.
Ada, Alice’s daughter, in her 20s, also her patient, had sent him an e-mail earlier that day:
“Dear Dr. Rivas,
Thank you so much for calling me about my blood work! I guess you knew to check my cholesterol because you know both my parents have high cholesterol. I made an appointment with a new doctor here in Philadelphia to follow up on it. But I don’t think I will find one like you. I will miss you. Otherwise, I am really happy here and like my new job, working the accounts at one of the hotels here. Take care and give Wilco a hug for me. Meena and I are also going to go adopt a rescue cat soon!
Finally, Joe said, “Oh, Alice told me she and Ada are your patients! Well, never mind talking about them.
” Alice told me Ada had moved out of the house to Philadelphia.” Joe waved his hand, “Ada says Alice is doing great, whatever that means. So you may know that already too that she moved. You don’t have to tell me … I can see it in your face.
“Anyway, I was happy to hear Ada moved, away from that family. She always seemed like a sad kid. She can now make a fresh start.”
“Yeah,” he finally said, his mouth full. “I remember when, as kids, Ada would come over and hang out with Barb.”
Joe pushed her uneaten salad closer to her plate. It was her birthday and no, she did not want to eat her greens.
He added, “She spent a lot of time here, when she and Barb were in high school. I remember the sleepovers. All the kids usually came to our house and went right away into that basement.”
“Yes,” Joe reminisced, “We spent a lot of money on that basement, the entertainment system, the pool table, the bedding, the bar, didn’t we? It was worth it. But I am not ready to downsize yet. Too many good memories in this old house.
“Poor Ada, she didn’t have much to go home to, though…Alice and Dan, the stepdad, and their little kids.”
Rina made a face. “Or her dad and stepmom and their rug rats. LOL.”
Rina stopped. “Sorry, I am being a Debbie Downer. OK subject change…”
He went on with a teasing smile, “This Thai curry is amazing! I can’t believe what they can do with tofu these days.”
She scowled, speared a piece of meat with her fork, and pointed it at his mouth.
“Wait, oh wait, I hear it!” There was a loud ringing sound and she ran toward the living room.
She bought her laptop over. Their son, Jake, was on the monitor screen. “Happy Birthday Mom!” he yelled.
“Thank you Jake!” she said. “This is indeed a very happy day. Your dad is giving me dinner, and now you call, and then your sister called me earlier!”
“Steak, I see, it looks good!”
“Yeah, Dad made it.”
“Ha…takeout from the Tibetan Tongs, right Mom?”
Judy laughed. Tibetan Tongs was a local vegan joint.
“How’s work?” she asked him.
“Good,” Jake said. “And I have another med school interview this Friday. I’ll let you know.”
Later, they took turns cleaning up after dinner. The wine bottle was empty. The candle burnt low. They linked hands.
“Sun,” he said.
“Moon,” she replied.
They played the game, back and forth, dark and light, death and birth, yin and yang…moving to the couch in the living room.
“It is sad,” he said, “you know that Ada never had what our kids had. I think about all the times she came over here and spent time with Barb. Do they still stay in touch, you know, Barb and Ada?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I will ask Barb next time. I never did like Alice, but poor Ada, it got worse for her when her dad remarried, her stepmother is really a piece of work.”
“Hmmm,” he changed the subject. “Love.”
“Hate…forgiveness.” She responded tenderly.
“Memories.” Yes, he was not sure when it began, maybe in couples therapy, this dance of words and touch.
Skin touched skin. It was dark except for ancient lights throwing shadows: fire and candle. He squeezed her hand tightly.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Thinking about Jake and him going into medicine these days. It worries me.” The cat jumped onto her bare leg and he stroked Wilco.
“Things are always changing, Art,” she said. “He’ll figure it out and we will help him. You know we are always going to look at every contract he signs, all the fine print, very different from my handshake days. You’ll help him too.
“And I get to retire soon from the Medical School, anytime I want, and have all the benefits, if I wish… .
“But I don’t want to retire,” she said. “Then they will plug some young person into my place with not even half of the benefits I had starting out. And he, or she, will have to see twice as many patients in half the time.”
She laughed. “Well, they can’t push me out.”
“No! But they can beat you with a stick until you leave,” he countered. “Gosh, Rina, we don’t need the money.”
“No,” she laughed, “I can be a kept woman, married to a rich lawyer who gets me the finest take-out.”
He pushed the cat off her lap.
Between embraces, she asked him, “What about that trip to the African coast with Art and Judy?”
Her cellphone on the table beeped. Rina glanced at it and said, “Its Barb!” She gently pushed his hand away and picked up the phone.
“I should have put that phone on silent. Kids still interrupt us, or it’s our cat…” he sighed.
She checked the text. “Barb says she hopes we are enjoying our birthday!”
Judy clicked and said into the mic: “Yes, honey, this is mom, love you, call you tomorrow and we will tell you more then. It’s late and we are going to bed.”
She paused. “Also, have you heard from Ada lately?” she added, then clicked again to send the message.
“Since we talked about Ada … , I thought I would throw that in,” Rina told him
“Hope she takes the hint, that you know, ‘we are going to bed'” he said.
But the phone lit up again. “Should I look?” asked Judy
“Hmmm, might as well.”
They both looked at Barb’s message together: “Ada is getting married to a woman, I am going to their party, so happy for her! Good night, Mom and Dad, go to bed or whatever (winking face emoji).”
“Well that was worth looking at the phone one last time tonight,” he said.
She remembered the solemn little girl who grew up into a quiet teenager, curled up on their couch in the basement, watching movies with Barb and their friends, and then finally, the last time she saw her, the anxious young adult in her office. Her eyes grew wet before she folded herself into his arms.