Wilson Ping watched as his girlfriend/lady-friend/partner, Elle Nakada, ate her bowl of pho: fill spoon with noodles, add broth, tendon, hoisin, and consume. It was an elegant routine. Wilson was of the inhaling school: slurp, splash, worry about the shirt casualty afterward; search the last bit of murky broth for a miraculous noodle. He could be patient, he prided himself on his patience, but it was nearing 8 p.m. and damn if Elle wasn’t taking her sweet time.
Elle (born Sachiko) had named herself after Elle McPherson, or so she’d said on their second date. She was barely five feet tall, worked at a Cambridge biotech lab, and was Japanese (his mother: “Remember Nanking”). They’d been together eight months and had no plans beyond dinner.
“Do you have time to go to the Rose Art Museum this week?” Elle asked over the din of the restaurant. “I hear it’s closing soon.”
“This week’s bad for me,” Wilson said. “Tink’s got two lacrosse games and I wanted to make dinner for her one night before she goes to her mother’s for the summer.”
“You’ve got to stop calling her Tink. She’s 14. She’s old enough to be an Ally already.”
“She’s my little girl,” Wilson said. “She’ll be Tink until I’m dead in the ground.”
“Poor thing,” Elle said.
Wilson watched as she started on a new construction. Her face was calm, assured, youthful for 39. She was not as beautiful as his ex-wife, and was abrasive at times, but he knew he could always depend on her honesty.
“So when does she leave again?” she asked.
“Two weeks,” Wilson said, trying to keep his voice steady. The day Ally left always ambushed him, and afterward he would feel disoriented, like the momentum of his life had run aground.
“Is everything ready?” Elle asked. “Can I do anything?”
“I’ve got it covered.”
Elle wiped her mouth then folded the napkin neatly on the table. “No need to get nippy,” she said.
“I’m sorry. This is always a tough stretch,” he said. “But really, Tink and I can manage.”
“Whatever you say.” She signaled the waiter. “You tried Elle,” she said. “The man’s just a stubborn ass.” The waiter dropped the check between them, and she slid her credit card down before Wilson could reach his wallet.
Wilson’s ex-wife, Jennifer Jeong, had left him three years ago. He didn’t know exactly when the feelings of discontent had rooted. One day he went to pour a cup of coffee and his Red Sox mug was missing; a few weeks later, his Northeastern sweatshirt. He asked Jen about it, though he had seen the broken cup pieces when he’d collected the week’s trash. She’d said she didn’t know. Before they had gotten married, his friends had joked, “She’s Korean, she’ll take you for all the Prada you’re worth, then dump your ass.” Afterward, they’d said similar things, but in different tones, and he’d tried to believe them. In truth, he wished it was the case—gold digger runs out on husband and daughter. Money is simple, it has remedies: sell the Camaro, give up skiing. There are ways to get money. Jen was missing something that couldn’t be bought. She and Wilson had been college sweethearts. They’d been each other’s only experience of love, physical and otherwise. It had been enough for Wilson; all his curiosities had wilted at her touch. But in Jen, one had survived, proliferated like a vine, and steadily hardened into resentment. It pained Wilson to picture her sitting at their kitchen table scrutinizing his used mug, how her kiss in the mornings as he left for the shop was nothing more than a courtesy.
She lived in Philadelphia now with her new husband, Ken Tanner, a malpractice attorney with a Wikipedia page, and took Ally on holidays and during her summer break.
Elle was less forgiving. “Don’t be such a good guy,” she’d said when Wilson had first described the dissolution of his marriage. “The crazy bitch destroyed all your things. She tore up your baseball cards.” He remembered finding Jen Indian-style on the basement floor, she and Fred Lynn’s decapitated head looking up at him. “Don’t make excuses for her, or yourself.” It was the type of obstinacy he’d gotten used to, the kind that roused Elle to get up at two, three, four in the morning so Ally didn’t see her scuttle out at breakfast. The kind she’d cultivated growing up with her own single father.
This Thursday night was no different. After they’d made love, their bellies full of noodles, Elle dressed quickly and collected her things before the short ride back to her one-bedroom in Allston. She gave him a light slap on the cheek. “You should try calling her Ally. Just try it. I’m sure she’d appreciate it.”
The window was open and the humidity had curled Elle’s hair.
“Didn’t your father have a nickname for you?”
She slapped him again, harder, and he smirked. “I know what you said, but if you need anything, if Ally does—”
She paused in the door frame, the tempered light of the bedside lamp carving shadows below her high cheekbones. He’d envisioned a certain life, not of picket fences, per se, but of establishing roots, of posterity; his parents, newly married in a foreign land by 18, had never been able to look to the future, always swimming against the day-to-day. When Jen was gone, he could no longer justify the thinking. He was a single father. There was no room for delusion. There were only he and Ally left to stem the flood.
“Thanks,” Wilson said. He wanted to ask her to stay. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Elle looked at him for a moment longer then turned away. He listened to her steps creak down the hall.