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Here's to Us(8)
Elin Hilderbrand

And after seven or eight cups of Dr. Disibio’s double-dare dragon punch at their Mandarin-themed holiday soiree, Joel had led Angie by the hand into the dry pantry and charmed the pants right off her.

More than four months had passed. They had their “things” now: inside jokes, catchphrases, gestures. Every Saturday, Angie paid a Jamaican woman from the prep kitchen fifty bucks to do her cornrows, and every Thursday, Angie took them out and gathered her hair in a frizzed ponytail. Joel loved the ponytail. She was exotic to him, she knew, being half-black. Joel had grown up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; his parents had operated something called the Biblical Dinner Theater. Joel had escaped to Manhattan, which his parents thought of as a city of sinners.

“I have to go, Ange,” Joel said. She loved the way he said her name, she loved that he called her Ange. The only other person who called her Ange, was her brother, Hayes. Angie gave Joel a long, luscious kiss that made him groan but would not, she knew, make him stay.

After she closed the door behind him, she’d thought, I would give anything to make him mine.

Buck had called the very next morning.

Your father…? Buck had said. Deacon… your dad…

Angie said, Yeah, what’s up?

He went to Nantucket…, Buck said.

I know, Angie said. Harv told me. He went to fish. She had thought briefly of fresh striped-bass fillets marinated in a little olive oil and chili powder, thrown onto the hickory fire until just opaque, and then drizzled with lemon juice. Sheer perfection.

Angie, Buck said. He had a heart attack. He’s dead.

Angie hung up without a word, as though Buck were a crank caller.

Her eleventh night ended without fanfare. Or maybe there had been fanfare and Angie hadn’t noticed. The bandanna she had tied around her head felt like a crown of fire, her feet had turned to bricks in her clogs, and her stomach felt like a ball of rubber bands. She flung a salmon fillet onto the fire but was too distracted to savor the hiss, or the cloud of sweet maple smoke.

Joel was leaving. But maybe she had misheard him or misinterpreted the meaning of “leaving”?

“Are you okay?” Tiny asked.

“I’m fine,” Angie whispered.

Joel seemed edgy in the car, overhyped—he was probably coked up. He sometimes partook with Julio, the expediter, in the dry pantry, she knew, even though Harv had instituted a new, zero-tolerance drugs rule upon reopening. We’re going to clean things up around here, he said. But, as Angie knew only too well, people were going to do what they were going to do.

Joel said, “I’m telling her as soon as I walk in the door. I’m finished, we’re through, I want a divorce.”

“Yes,” Angie said. “Okay.” She tried not to think of the phrase “home wrecker.” Joel was miserable with his wife, Dory, who worked as a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney a few blocks south of the restaurant, a career that paid for everything, as Dory reminded Joel on a daily basis. Joel was ten years younger than Dory, and he had adopted her twin sons, Bodie and Dylan, who were now teenagers who played lacrosse on the manicured fields of New Canaan High School.

“We haven’t had sex in three months,” Joel said. “She’s never home. We have no quality of life.”

Three months? Angie thought. So… Joel and Dory had gone at it in bed, even after things had started between him and Angie? Angie touched the tender blister that had formed on her hand. Joel probably felt okay telling her now because it was accompanied by the news of his imminent departure.

“Why tonight?” Angie asked. “Did something happen?”

“She’s been acting funny,” Joel said. “Like she might already know. I want to leave before I get caught. There is a difference, you know.”

“I know,” Angie said. For the past four months, she had lived in mortal fear of getting caught, not only by Dory, but also by Deacon. Deacon would not have approved of Angie dating Joel, and that was the understatement of the year. Deacon would have gone profane Dr. Seuss—Apeshit batshit catshit bullshit—if he’d found out that Joel and his daughter were sleeping together. His first objection would have been that Joel was married. His second objection would have been that Joel worked at the restaurant, and if things went belly-up, it would be awkward for everyone. There would probably have been a third objection, that Joel wasn’t good enough, somehow. He was too old (at forty, fourteen years older than Angie)—and, Deacon might have argued, Joel was also a morally bankrupt snake charmer who had taken advantage not only of Angie’s youth but also of her naïveté in the ways of love. Deacon knew Joel too well; they had gotten drunk together too many times and revealed too many flaws. If Deacon had found out, he might have tried to punish Angie somehow—stopped writing her slush checks or, worse, taken her off the fire. Those worries were gone now, of course; they had been replaced by the red, raw sadness at his absence.

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