Copyright © 2014 Matting Leah Publishing Company
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Pizzelle neared the last of the vegetable stir fry at her favorite Chinese restaurant and, with her two perfect Hershey Kiss cookie eyes, considered the two fortunes in the middle of the cheap Formica-top table. If she chose before Ryan did, then she might get the wrong fortune. If Ryan picked, then he might take the one that was intended for her. It was a prickly problem, so she resolved that the one of them who finished first would choose. Pizzelle maneuvered her chopsticks, cornered the last pieces of bok choy and rice, and swallowed without chewing.
“Are you going to tell me your fortune, Sweetie?” Ryan asked, but he already knew the answer. It was the same answer he got every Wednesday.
As she stood, Pizzelle’s reply was playfully serious. “You know I can’t. If I do, it won’t come true.”
“Do they ever come true, Zelle?” he asked as he opened the door and let her walk out in front of him.
“Only if they’re supposed to,” she responded and turned back toward campus. “You know that. But I know they won’t come true if I tell.”
Ryan indulged in an ironic smile as Pizzelle passed in front of him. He took his place and her right hand. He knew they’d make one stop at Hitham’s Supermarket on the corner of Manhattan and 116th, where Pizzelle would play a week of Win 4’s, using the numbers from the fortune. She wouldn’t show Ryan that ticket until next week when she got new numbers and a new ticket. During the nearly two and a half years since Ryan had known her, Pizzelle hadn’t won a nickel.
Ryan waited outside on the corner. Within a couple of minutes, Pizzelle emerged wearing a wide, hopeful smile, which made her even more irresistible.
“Wish me luck!” Pizzelle genuinely asked.
“Luck,” answered Ryan with equal sincerity as he took her hand and started again. They’d have just enough time for cardio and weights together at the law student gym before their 3:10 p.m. Civil Procedure class.
They’d have to walk on the street between Manhattan Avenue and Morningside Drive. Scaffolding is too much like a ladder to risk a walk-under.
Amaryan Burt, known to his friends as Ryan, knew right away that he’d fall in love with Pizzelle Bruguera. On that warm 8th of August day, he’d spied her outside the auditorium before the two of them, along with all the other first-year students, filed through the doors for Columbia’s law school orientation. It wasn’t an accident that he took a seat next to hers.
Like just about everyone else in the hall, Pizzelle was far from apprehensive about starting law school, but she was nervous. After the dean who tried to ease the tension had made a lame joke about knowledge as an aphrodisiac, Ryan discretely leaned inward to the girl who had the pretty eyes and the honey-colored skin and whispered, “You know, oysters aren’t the aphrodisiac everyone says they are.”
Pizzelle gave no sign of interest and kept her attention on the speaker as Ryan paused a moment before continuing. “Yeah. I ate a dozen of the things the other day and only three of them worked.”
Pizzelle laughed loud enough for the entire room to hear. Ryan sat straight-faced next to her.
A couple of months before their third year, by which time they’d become study partners, friends, and lovers, Ryan invited Pizzelle to his home in Warwick, New York, a little more than an hour’s drive by car from campus. On that June night, the charming two-bedroom house a couple of blocks from Main Street that he’d begun to renovate the summer before his undergraduate senior year had become reasonably habitable.
Ryan had spent most of the weekend with Pizzelle in Manhattan, except for a few hours on Sunday afternoon, when he had lunch with the Brugueras at their Bronx apartment. When Pizzelle left the apartment to get ice cream from the bodega with her younger married sister, Coquetta, at whose wedding a year earlier Pizzelle danced barefoot, Ryan decided to stay back with her parents and grandmother, Alfreda, whom everyone simply referred as Abuela.
“I love and respect your daughter, Mr. and Mrs. Bruguera, and your granddaughter, Abuela,” Ryan started as the four of them sat around the table in the small dining room. He took from his jacket pocket a small box and, while opening it, continued. “Because I also love and respect your family, I humbly ask your permission to marry your daughter.”
Each of the other three people at the table took the box in which glittered a perfect, one-karat diamond and platinum ring. Although Ryan’s words needed no interpretation, Pizzelle’s mother translated for Abuela, who spoke no English.
Pizzelle’s mother cried as Mr. Bruguera, who appreciated the gesture, said, “It will be my pleasure to have a gentleman like you as my son.”
Ryan thought it only a little bit odd that Abuela exhibited little response as she looked at the ring and during the conversation, but he chalked it up to the cultural gap.
“I asked Pizzelle to come to Warwick this week under the pretense that we were going to work on the house,” Ryan continued. “I plan to work on the house, but I also plan to take your daughter to dinner tonight and ask her if she’ll be my wife.”
At that, Mrs. Bruguera wailed even more loudly in such joy and ecstasy that she nearly passed out. When Pizzelle returned with her sister and the ice cream fifteen minutes later, Ryan worried whether Pizzelle’s mother would keep it together or spoil the surprise.
A big yellow sun hung low in the sky behind Ryan and Pizzelle as they walked, holding hands, the couple blocks or so past the classic houses and shops on McEwen Street toward Main.
During a typical week, Ryan knew he wouldn’t have needed a reservation at Fetch, but it was a summer Sunday, and he didn’t want to wait. Besides, this Sunday wouldn’t be like any other Sunday. After he and Pizzelle had gotten back to the house earlier in the afternoon and gone for a run, Pizzelle fell asleep on the couch. Ryan left a note for her and took the opportunity to walk into the village, first to the new pastry shop he’d called the previous week and then to the restaurant to finalize a couple of special accommodations for the night.
An hour and a half later Ryan returned, crumpled the note he’d left on the coffee table, and stuck it in his back pocket. Then he quietly sat down on the sofa and gently rubbed her back and shoulders until Pizzelle opened her sleepy eyes. “We’d better get cleaned up. I’m taking you out,” Ryan whispered, smiling a knowing smile.
When he and Pizzelle arrived in the middle of the busiest dinner rush of the week, they were seated at one of the two window tables. They enjoyed cocktails and dinner as the combination of local and tourist foot and automobile traffic circulated on the sidewalk and street past their table.
After clearing the dishes, the server brought two oversized brown-sugar fortune cookies. Ryan noticed customers at nearby tables look up enviously as the server passed with the tray. Neither Pizzelle nor Ryan had asked for dessert, and, as Pizzelle looked up curiously, the server simply replied, “Courtesy of the chef.”
Pizzelle smiled excitedly and reached over and grabbed the cookie closer to Ryan. “My favorite,” she said. Ryan took the remaining cookie and held it appraisingly, but watched Pizzelle.
As Pizzelle opened the cookie, she didn’t immediately find the fortune. She took one of the fragments from the cracked half and put it in her mouth. She smiled again. “Wow, this is the best fortune cookie I’ve ever had.”
Containing his excitement, Ryan smiled back and didn’t say, “If you only knew.”
Pizzelle picked up the other half and split it. Before she could grab the fortune, it fell onto her plate with a delicate clink. She looked at her plate, saw the fortune, a small piece of paper pushed through what looked like a ring. Wrinkling her brow, she picked up the ring and held it in her left hand as she untethered the fortune. Pizzelle looked quizzically at the paper and ring and only vaguely noticed that Ryan had stood up and moved around the table. It wasn’t until she noticed that Ryan had knelt next to her that the fortune made sense to her: “Be my wife and make every day as sweet as this one.”
At her side, Ryan gently reached up for the ring she held frozen in her hand. “What do you think, Zelle? Will you marry me?”
Pizzelle shook her head, slowly at first, then quickly. “Yes! Yes!” she answered excitedly. She reached her arms around him, pulled him to her, and kissed him. “Yes,” she repeated more softly and started to cry.
When he slid the ring onto her finger, the entire restaurant, patrons and staff alike, began to clap and whistle. As Pizzelle and Ryan turned, blushing, they heard a woman call loudly out from a far table and to the considerable delight of everyone in the room, “That’s what I want for dessert!”
Neither Pizzelle nor Ryan needed Johnson’s Equality & Disparity course to understand the meaning of “protected class.” Pizzelle’s Argentine heritage didn’t hurt when she applied for a job at New York County Defender Services, where she’d interned during the previous two summers. In spite of the notoriously low salary for a public defender, Pizzelle believed she needed to balance the scales of fortune that had provided her with so much. Besides, she and Ryan planned to open a criminal defense practice together, and her experience as a defender would be invaluable.
For Ryan’s part, he’d already accepted an offer from a criminal defense practice after graduation. He knew his time there would be mostly gophering, but the money would be pretty good, not that that necessarily mattered. His favorite uncle, who’d passed away a bachelor during Ryan’s junior year in college, left him a small fortune in Warwick Valley apple orchards and Black Dirt onion fields. He’d sold some of the Black Dirt and used proceeds both for the price of Columbia University Law School tuition, the fixer-upper on the west side of Warwick, and the one-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive where he and Pizzelle unofficially lived together.
They’d keep the place on Riverside while busting their backsides for five years learning the trade. When they’d have time, they’d coordinate their time off to work on their “country” house, where they’d “weekend” once they got their own practice off the ground. They’d figured five years for cutting their teeth, another two years for establishing the reputation and clientele for their practice, and then they’d trade up from the one-bedroom apartment to a place with space for babies.
Holding the other’s hand contentedly and walking with a beautiful view of the Hudson River opening before them, Ryan and Pizzelle’s last round of midterms loomed liberatingly only a week away, while their wait to begin lives together as husband, wife, and partners in life was just a scant season’s change ahead.
As they neared the end of the block, Ryan leaned over to kiss his fiancée. Pizzelle almost missed the stray black cat that leapt out from a basement stairwell and rounded the corner ahead of them.
Ryan sneezed as he opened the door for Pizzelle, who responded, “Dios te bendiga, Mi Amor,” and walked methodically to the spice rack. Removing the Morton’s salt container, she poured a pinch into her hand and threw it carefully over her shoulder into the sink. No sooner than she’d finished that her phone started to repeat the bridge from Hendrix’s Voodoo Child.
Ryan watched Pizzelle’s face as she answered, “Hola, Mami!” Her expression transformed from a smiling optimism to horror as she listened. Ryan only heard one half of the conversation, which was rapid, familiar, dialectic Spanish, which he could scarcely process in spite of spending nearly three years together with Pizzelle.
Minutes passed as Ryan waited patiently, picking up a few words here and there. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions, but it was clear that someone in the family was not well.
When she finally finished the call, Pizzelle started before Ryan asked, “Oh my god, Ryan, Abeula’s in the hospital.”
He walked over and opened his arms, “Oh, no. Is she going to be all right? What happened?”
“My mother said she was sick for a couple days, you know, fever, chills, cough, but she didn’t want to go to the doctor. She never goes to the doctor, the stubborn woman.”
Ryan considered the irony, but said nothing.
“Well, she got worse and they finally had to take her to the emergency room this morning. They didn’t give her a choice. I guess the doctors did some tests and they know she has pneumonia. That’s bad enough for a woman her age, but they also saw something else on the X-ray.” Pizzelle paused reflectively before tears formed in her eyes. With some effort, she managed to articulate, “They think she may have cancer.”
Holding her close, Ryan tried to calm her, “Honey, I don’t know what I can say to make you, or her, feel any better, except maybe, ‘Why don’t we go up to the hospital to see her?’ Want to go now?”
Wiping away her tears, Pizzelle nodded and, within minutes she and Ryan were riding the Number One uptown. Within an hour, they were in the two-bed hospital room with Abuela, parents, and sister. Before nightfall, a doctor stood in the room and confirmed the diagnosis: advanced-state metastatic lung cancer.
Pizzelle didn’t miss any classes or midterms, but traded studying in the law library or with Ryan at home for a chair in Abuela’s room. As her grandmother slept, Pizzelle read textbooks and cases. When she was awake, she and Pizzelle talked or watched Univision novellas on the tiny television that swiveled over the bed.
Even though Ryan didn’t partake in watching much of the Spanish-language television, he empathized with Pizzelle and supported her as well as he could. Two out of three times Pizzelle was in the hospital room with her grandmother, so was Ryan. He read alone or talked encouragingly with the Brugueras or quizzed Pizzelle on cases and precedents and statutes and criminal code. He’d try to lighten the mood by telling a self-deprecating, innocent joke, and occasionally a guilty one.
In spite their efforts and to Pizzelle’s and her family’s alarm, Abuela’s condition rapidly deteriorated. Clearly, a distrust of doctors and hospitals had prevented the disease from being identified early enough to be treated. It seemed her caregivers were playing a losing game of catch-up. By the time they’d gotten ahead of the pneumonia, she’d gotten some other general infection. By the time the doctors figured out how to deal with the new problem, it appeared Abuela’s liver had begun to fail.
Pizzelle’s grandmother was admitted on the previous Wednesday. A week later, Pizzelle decided to forgo her regular Chinese lunch with Ryan at New Dragon and had lunch at the hospital instead. After their afternoon class, both she and Ryan walked straight from campus to the subway on West 116th directly to Abuela’s room.
“Hey Zelle, what do you think about me going out and getting some Chinese?” Ryan submitted. “I know there’s a place around the corner.”
Pizzelle may not have completely understood how relieved she was for the suggestion. “Yes,” she answered. “Yes, that sounds wonderful,” she said again as she sat down in a chair next to her grandmother, who was alert as he’d seen her during the past several days.
“See you in a few minutes,” he said to Pizzelle’s grandmother. Then, after a quick hug, he said more quietly to Pizzelle, “Back in forty-five. The usual?”
“Yeah,” Pizzelle answered. “That would be great. Love you.”
“Love you too,” Ryan whispered and he headed out the door.
In the hallway, Ryan heard Abuela call to Pizzelle, “Ven aca, mi Pecena Galleta. Necessito hablar.”
“Funny,” Ryan thought to himself, “I’d never heard anyone call Pizzelle, ‘Galleta’”
Pizzelle’s unresponsiveness upon his return to the hospital room was unsettling, but not nearly as much as the new serenity Pizzelle’s grandmother seemed to have acquired in the hour or so he’d been gone. Ryan waited to say anything until the two of them left to return to the apartment a few hours later. Pizzelle responded only, “I’m just worried about Abuela.” She didn’t elaborate.
The woman Ryan loved was no more communicative the next morning when Jimi Hendrix woke them from their slumber an hour before their seven o’clock alarm. Once again, the caller was Pizzelle’s mother, and once again, the news wasn’t good. Abuela died during the night.
There’d been too much to manage to have had the wake and funeral before Sunday, and the Brugueras couldn’t have had the funeral then. Some sort of conflict with the church or the cemetery or the funeral home or some combination of all three precluded a Monday wake, so Abuela wasn’t actually interred until Wednesday.
If anything, Pizzelle continued to withdraw from Ryan rather than to find comfort in him. While her parents were good people, it was clear that their eldest daughter was the responsible one and Ryan watched as Pizzelle consoled her mother and helped her father with the details of the funeral. Ryan even offered to help with the expenses. Pizzelle politely and reservedly declined.
Ryan attributed Pizzelle’s behavior to the loss of her grandmother, to whom she was obviously very close, and to the stress of handling the funeral arrangements in the context her emotionally fragile mother. His fiance hadn’t really had the chance to grieve her loss, and Ryan assumed their lives together would return to normal once she had a chance to do so.
It wasn’t until after the funeral and reception when they’d returned to the apartment that Ryan suspected that something in their lives wouldn’t change back.
“Ryan, we need to talk,” Pizzelle hesitantly began. She walked over to the sofa in the small living room and sat.
If nothing else, Ryan was relieved to hear Pizzelle initiate some conversation. “Sure, honey.” The respite would prove short lived. Ryan took a seat on the sofa next to Pizzelle, who moved away from him.“I don’t exactly know how to say this, Ryan, so I’m just going to say it. We can’t get
married,” Pizzelle paused, biting her lip. Then, in a torrent, she began to cry, “I’m so
sorry. I’m so sorry.”
* * * * *
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