Her appearance was everything Margaret expected.
In a room full of goldtones and subtle creams, a place where the overall intention was to create a sense of understated glossiness—every fabric there appeared to take on the texture of the finest chiffon—Tina walked in, wearing a slightly faded sundress, red no less, with a pattern of huge anonymous yellow blossoms—a bargain basement design too cheap to represent a real flower—and an oversized handbag that hung awkwardly off her left shoulder, causing her to tilt slightly to that direction. She remained off-balance, her shoulder drooping noticeably even after plopping the monstrous thing on a spare chair at their table, a gesture which Margaret assumed was as close as she would get to a formal greeting.
“I’m Trish,” she said, ignoring the maitre d’ and seating herself, nearly tripping the poor man with a chair leg in the process, a course of events Margaret admitted to herself she wouldn’t have minded seeing.
Yes, of course, Trish. A “T” name. At least she remembered that much. It was the bra straps that caught her attention, thick and slightly discolored, completely exposed under the thin spaghetti straps of the sundress, a sight she couldn’t take her eyes off until the girl leaned forward over the menu to the point where the cups of the bra proved themselves to be no less shy than the straps.
Margaret felt an actual tingle at the tips of her fingers, found it hard to suppress a smile. This Trish—that was the name, wasn’t it?—had been the main topic of Margaret and Paul’s last conversation before the formal engagement. “I have a daughter. Grown, of course. Not to be a bother. Living on her own. But still, a daughter.” It was that word “still” that cued her off, that and the sigh that followed, the slight shrug of the shoulders. A daughter who was a disappointment, a disillusionment. Margaret sighed too, just to echo him, a suggestion that she understood. And even if she didn’t, she could at least imagine.
The next day they went through the formalities to make the engagement official. The ring was an emerald—more appropriate, he seemed to think, for a second marriage. She had never owned an emerald before. “More valuable, you know, than diamonds.” She had to keep herself from saying it when showing the ring off to her friends.
Paul was a good catch. There was no doubt about that. A decade and a half older, it was true, but a gentleman. A man of means. And if the colors of his clothing and the fabrics in his house and even the varieties he chose for his garden were never quite right—who else would try to mix the freedom of a gladiola with the structure of a zinnia—she’d be capable of balancing it all out.
And now, here was this daughter. She had assumed all along he was exaggerating her faults. Who would have guessed he’s been minimizing them with a father’s kindness instead. Well, that would be Paul. She felt a certain warmth toward him, was certain she was making the right choice. But still, there was this moment to get through. The one with the daughter.
“Well. Isn’t this nice.”
Trish shrugged her shoulders. “It seemed like something we should do.”
She paged through the menu a second time. Margaret watched her eyes linger now and then, knew she should probably offer an explanation of some of the dishes, at least the more complex ones, but had to admit a certain curiosity about what she’d come up with on her own. Plus there was the added complication that anything she suggested would probably disappoint. It was that sort of restaurant, one known more for its atmosphere than its menu. A local restaurant critic once wrote that it widened the eyes, narrowed the pocketbook, and ignored the tastebuds. Still, people came.
Trish tapped a fingernail absently against the gilt-edged goblet in front of her. “Guess I’ll give the Seafood Newport a try, though in all honesty I’d be happier with a nice chicken salad.”
“I’ll bet you would.” The words slipped out before Margaret realized it, but Trish showed no sign of having been insulted.
Still, Margaret vowed not to allow any more such slips. After all, there was no point now in negating what she and Paul both knew to be a very fine gesture of generosity on her part.
“Dinner with your daughter. In one of the best restaurants in town. We’ll do that in place of a rehearsal dinner. Really, it’s all right. Such a tiny ceremony, there’s not much to rehearse. Who would we even invite?” He had objected, hadn’t he? Offered to hold a dinner where she would be the rightful focus? “We’ll do it this way, just to make sure everything gets off to the right start.” It really was a fine gesture on her part. She was certain he had noticed.
Now Margaret looked around, still impressed by her own choice of restaurants. The buttons on the maitre d’s jacket shimmered no less than the crystal on the table, an ornate fountain in the center of the room was surrounded by orchids. Yes, orchids of all flowers, so delicate and hard to grow. There must have been a hundred of them. They themselves were seated so close, they could feel the fountain’s mist. There was only one other place she could have taken Trish that was more elegant, the restaurant Paul had chosen the night he offered up the emerald.
Trish looked over at the fountain and Margaret thought yes, finally, it’s starting to dawn on her. She’ll see that she really should be grateful.
“It really spits at you, doesn’t it.” And then she giggled, her hand raising upward to half cover her mouth. It wasn’t the comment that caught Margaret’s attention so much as that motion, the hand raising and some hint of something else that she couldn’t quite define, an odd flash, unexpected and white.
“Spit, dear? Why I suppose it does.” Spit. She supposed she should have been annoyed, the cost of the restaurant and all. But instead she had to admit she found something almost enticing about these glimpses into someone else’s lapses.
Their first course, the soup, arrived and Margaret felt compelled to push the conversation forward. “So tell me. Have you seen any good films lately?”
Trish shook her head. “I’m not really big on movies. Guess I’m more of a reader. She looked up at Margaret then, and for the first time Maraget thought she might be showing some interest in her. “How about you? What’s the last book you read?”
Margaret felt her face flush. She had read hundreds of books. Probably thousands. Not recently, of course. Not with the preoccupation of the wedding. Still, for some reason, not even the name of a single one came to mind.
Trish laughed. “I thought so. You didn’t strike me as being much of a word person.”
Margaret was about to protest. Really, she was an avid reader. Just not for the last few months. But before she could say anything, Trish laughed again and this time she saw something—there was no denying it—an unmistakable flash of white. The girl’s teeth were slipping.
Dentures? In someone so young? She started thinking about Paul right away—some form of parental neglect?—then shook her head. He would never be like that, his own teeth growing in clean, straight rows. Poor living on the girl’s part, more likely, or perhaps some lesser-known side effect of drugs. Maybe that was it. She hadn’t thought about that before. Drugs would explain a lot.
And then the waiter arrived, placed their entrees in front of them. Trish stared at hers for a while and Margaret thought about asking, is it the fork, dear? Uncertainty about which to use? But before the words had an opportunity to be voiced, Trish raised her napkin to her mouth, opening up the cloth wide enough that it nearly concealed her face. There was a hint of motion underneath, and then the napkin was placed rumpled on the table. The teeth, with their bright pink gums, were sticking out between its folds.
Margaret felt her own face flushing, though with something other than embarrassment. To actually take them out. Here. In public. It was like watching someone shoplift, being there to witness the slip of the merchandise into a pocket. And to do it before eating, of all times. That pushed the eccentricity of the thing up a whole other notch. No wonder she had spent so long gazing through the menu. How many selections were there that didn’t require chewing?
They ate in silence, Margaret frequently finding her own fork hanging suspended between plate and mouth, so engrossed was she in watching Trish. She had to admit that even without teeth, there was an incredible delicacy in the way she handled her food, the wrist attached to the hand holding the fork slightly bent, her thumb rolled carefully inward, a motion that a dancer wouldn’t have been embarrassed to make. A more than casual watcher might detect a certain weakness about the mouth, the emptiness behind her lips causing them to gently quiver, but never, even with a prolonged stare, would they be able to detect that the teeth were missing.
She was so impressed, Margaret considered ways of complimenting her, but when the words for such an exchange failed her. Trish had stopped eating, seemed to be staring at her and Margaret felt her face grow warm once more. It was Trish who broke the silence. “I need to use the ladies’ room.”
Margaret wasn’t sure why she got up from the table as soon as Trish left. She could have simply waited for her to return, watched as she picked the teeth up the way another woman would have picked up her purse, and the two of them could have left, the whole incident nothing more than the beginning of a long list of eccentricities she could begin to accumulate with her new daughter-in-law.
But for some reason she felt a desire to actually look at the teeth. She thought of the dentures sitting there among the crystal goblets and fine china, quietly tucked between the folds of the restaurant’s linen napkin, maybe even next to its embroidered initials. Somehow imagining just wasn’t enough. She had to see it.
She stood up from her chair, placing her own napkin neatly along the side of her plate, and picking up her own purse, to give herself the impression of purpose, then walked to the other side of the table, her steps slow and discreet, as though a full set of teeth sitting alone on a table were something that had to be approached with care.
And when she made that final approach around the table and actually saw the teeth, they were absolutely everything she had imagined. White and glistening—the girl must have taken immaculate care of them—they lay not on the napkin but next to it, the fabric covering one corner as though the teeth were too discreet to fully reveal themselves, the part of them revealed, though, shining irreverently, their fake enamel reflecting the full color spectrum of the overhead lights.
Margaret couldn’t help herself. She found the teeth utterly and totally fascinating. And then, as she was still looking at them, just beginning to reach her hand out with just the thought of touching them, she heard footsteps approach. Trish. She was coming back. Margaret caught her breath. What could Trish possibly think of her standing there staring down at he teeth. How could she possibly explain?
The restaurant suddenly seemed unbearably warm, the lights overhead extra bright, making her feel a little faint. Trish was only a few feet away. What do you do, read teeth instead of books? She could just hear her saying that. She reached her hand out and used the napkin to pick up the teeth, slipped the two of them into her purse.
Then Trish was beside her. Margaret didn’t even allow her to sit, just rushed her on. “We have to leave. An appointment I forgot. Flowers for the wedding. There just isn’t time to explain.”
Trish turned toward the table, stretched her arm out as though searching for something, then looked confused as though she couldn’t remember what, looked at Margaret instead. “Isn’t it a little late to get flowers?”
Margaret rushed her on. “Not the real flowers. Those were ordered months ago.” She slipped Trish’s purse into her hand and turned her toward the door. “Other flowers. It’s too late to explain.”
There was some slight confusion at the door—the standard procedure was to pay at the table—but after just a few more heavy moments, they were outside in the musty night air, an evening full of the overwhelming scent of someone else’s roses. Margaret offered Trish a ride home, was relieved when she declined, saying she had plans to meet friends.
Finally at home, Margaret sat down at the kitchen table, her hands shaking. What had she done? How would she ever explain? She looked in her purse hoping that the teeth wouldn’t actually be there, that the whole thing was just some distorted memory from the heat of the restaurant, or maybe nervousness about the marriage or her own sudden fatigue. But there it was—the restaurant’s napkin crumpled against her wallet. She didn’t need to look and see what was inside.
Her first thought was to call Trish and see about returning them. But she had no idea where she lived and the search through the phone directory for a second listing under Paul’s last name came up empty. An unlisted number. Or perhaps a different last name. Really, she knew so little about Paul’s past, the people who had surrounded him up until now.
So she had to call Paul himself. There was a long silence while she tried to explain—a trip to the bathroom, a forgotten engagement, picking them up so that Trish wouldn’t forget them, then forgetting herself. When the silence on the other end lingered, she tied adding more, something about an inept waiter. Paul interrupted her with a long sigh. “You’ll have to give them back, of course.”
“Well, of course.” Did he think she wanted to keep them?
Plans were gradually made for returning the teeth. She would have to go to the church early the next morning. They set a time and then another long silence followed. Margaret waited for his last minute words of love, some sweet, endearing reassurance that this step they were to take the next day was right, that this time, for both of them, it would all work out. All he said was good night.
As Margaret put the phone down, she thought about what would happen next. He would call Trish, of course. By now she must have noticed that the teeth were missing. Of course she would have her own version of how the whole evening went.
Margaret arrived at the church at the prescribed time the next morning, her face slightly swollen from lack of sleep. In her dreams she had replayed over and over her previous night’s conversation with Paul, his tone becoming increasingly harsh, the questions and accusations against her stronger. She stood there on the church steps with the teeth in her hand, folded up carefully in the restaurant napkin, and looked for Trish, but didn’t see her. Finally some anonymous girl approached her and requested them.
Margaret handed over the teeth, napkin and all, and the girl carefully unfolded it, gave the teeth a thorough inspection, then handed the empty napkin back to Margaret. And that was it. Margaret turned and wondered if from there the day really could just go on.
Margaret entered the church and walked down the empty linoleum-covered floors to the room in the back where she was expected to wait. Rather than a single room, it was actually a small suite, enough space to accommodate a whole string of laughing bridesmaids and giggling flower girls. She sat in it alone.
As the time for the ceremony neared, she looked in the mirror. Such dark circles under her eyes. She pulled out her make-up to fix it, then with brush in hand just didn’t see how. She put the compact back in her purse and waited for whoever was to come and get her, to lead her to that spot from which all the good things she had waited for in life were now to begin.
Half-an-hour later she walked up the empty aisle. So few people. They hadn’t considered this. Even this little side chapel—there had been no question of using the main sanctuary—seemed vacuous. Still, the few faces that were there turned and smiled. All but Trish’s. She sat completely still with face forward, stiff-looking even from behind.
And as Margaret reached the alter, she saw Paul standing there wearing the face that went with his daughter’s back. She took a quick glance in Trish’s direction, but the girl just stared down at her lap. When she looked back at Paul, he smiled faintly, though more than anything he looked tired, as though he had spent a night with little sleep. The minister started in on the vows and a line or two before they were to share their I do’s, Paul leaned forward and whispered words of his own. “Why did you take them? Please, can’t you tell me why?”