Two Dinners at the Turtle Café, by Larry Duberstein, 2012

“There were four of us in front of (and reflected in) the plate glass window of the Empty Café on Holyoke Street. Do you remember that much? It was one of those eateries which fail no matter how many times they get a new owner and a new name. Which is why everyone called it the Empty Café. Because it was always empty.

That’s how the conversation began. You were with some guy and I asked in confusion and wonderment if the two of you had just partaken at the Empty Café. You both laughed, in on the joke and clearly kind of tight with each other, though he wasn’t Ian, he was introduced as ‘my friend Keith’ or whatever.

I was with my friend Fitz, who would not have had much to say. He would have mostly exuded, and let his twinkling blue eyes imply the great good fortune of having such clear skies, such excellent marijuana, and yes, of finding himself in the presence of such a lovely lady. I would have done all the talking.

And you, by the way. Admit it, deny it, or pretend to have forgotten the day altogether; it remains the truth that we hit it off. We had the verbal spark from jumpstart.

Still, it was the pants that marked the occasion. They were characteristic of the times, certainly, not at all characteristic of you, as I would later learn. To me you had been the girl in the green jacket, now you were the girl in the Carnaby Street trousers. Circus pants, colorful bellbottoms, hence flared absurdly at the calf, yet also very snug in the seat, let us say. Those pants informed the world that Lara Cleary was in firm possession, let us say, of a world class — what? Ass, would have been the word back then, hence the egregious phrase that descends therefrom, a piece of ass.

You always said bottom, another of your genteel word choices. Jewish moms say tushy, spankers say backside, nowadays people say butt. In the ’70s one had a lovely ass, or didn’t, of course. You did.

This was out of keeping with the rest of you, or one’s perception of the rest. There was no sense of roundness, or protuberance about you. You had registered as a lean, fine-honed, modest-breasted lass, and fetching in your green jacket. Now you were the same girl, with the same attractive features, plus the new ‘insignificant’ detail, a frankly astonishing bottom. Which changed the equation. Though I say this retroactively, it seems that sex, or sexual appeal, had become a factor.

‘I hated those pants,’ said Lara. ‘They were a mistake and I never wore them again. I had no idea what the back of me looked like in them, all I knew was that the front of me looked ridiculous and that they were uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to take them off. Though I gather you couldn’t either.’

‘It wasn’t exactly like that. All of this coalesced gradually in my mind. I do remember being disappointed to see you in a dress a few weeks later, on the occasion of — let’s see — must have been our fourth meeting. At the Turtle Café.’

‘We never met there.’

‘Not us. You and Ian. Me and Winnie. It really was still a small town in those days. You would always bump into friends on the street, always take two hours executing a simple errand. So it was either that aspect or it was fate, but the pace at which our paths crossed by accident was accelerating. The backstory was building.’

Perhaps registering her clear impatience with the whole backstory idea, Cal held a palm up, then reduced it to an index finger: bear with me, one more minute. Surely she could not be so petty as to refuse him a single minute?

‘And the attraction, I might add, was obviously building too. It was hard not locking in on one another that night. Pretending to listen to Ian’s wine recommendations or participating in Winnie’s soup versus salad conundrum…’

He had it wrong again, one hundred percent wrong. Memory was surely a curious business. She did wear a dress (her angel dress, Ian called it, who knows why) and they both liked the dress a lot. Who really liked it was her father, probably because it reminded him of the ’40s or something. But he was with them that night at the Turtle.

Her mother was not there, so undoubtedly it was during one of her parents’ 57 varieties of separation, though the truth was that Lara had not a single memory of sitting in a restaurant with both her parents. Maybe it never happened. Maybe if you strung together the 57 separations (ranging in duration from one night to three years, before the actual divorce), there were scarcely any occasions when it would even have been a possibility.

In any event, they had just been fielding The Dad that night. He and Ian got along fine. When it came to ‘making conversation,’ the two of them were championship material. So it was their show, with Lara as moderator. Seeing Winnie come in did brighten her evening and surely it was a treat seeing Jake and Hetty. But whatever Cal thought of her, or the circus pants, or the angel dress, he occupied very little space in her consciousness on that occasion.

The funny thing, given what Cal relayed about Winnie’s mother, was that her father had a similar reaction, only more extreme. He was absolutely floored by Winnie. The Dad struck most people as this dry stick figure. ‘Buttoned-up’ is an expression that might have been invented just for him. No one would readily connect him to the idea of human sexuality, whereas in truth he was always a sucker for a pretty girl.

When her friends were fourteens, when they were in college, later at the wedding, The Dad reliably fell for the pretty ones. He could be charming, always prepared to trot out his courtly persona, but he tended to be very low wattage around women who struck him as homely, and something else entirely, beaming, upon the ones he judged to be ‘lookers.’

Had this ever become overtly sexual, he would have made a fool of himself for sure, like the character in the Marlene Dietrich film, The Blue Angel. Brilliant and yet utterly helpless before the force of female beauty. Professor Unrat? In any case, The Dad was safe there. He kept it in bounds, buttoned-up, and her friends felt flattered, not assaulted.

Lara, who knew all his tricks and disguises, was mostly amused as she watched it unfold that night with Winnie; as she watched Winnie knock him arse-over-teakettle. He would bring her up out of the blue months later. (‘By the way, how is your friend Winnifred doing?’) That night at the Turtle did it for him.

So for Lara, there was The Dad, there was Winnie, and there was Hetty. That little girl was the one who bowled Lara over, and maybe she did envy Winnie her children. Winnie had changed all those diapers and now here she was, out the other side, with a quiet thoughtful little boy and a charming little girl who spoke in complete but very funny sentences.

‘You know something, Lara? I may have two separate occasions confused, or conflated,’ said Cal.

All through Lara’s disciplined silence, he too had been silent. Pensive, as though groping after some missing fragment, an unreclaimed detail. Now it had come back to him, or so he declared.

‘We didn’t have one accidental small-world encounter at the Turtle, we had two. There was that time before The Twoweeks, when Winnie and I did bring the kids, and there was another time when it was just Winnie and myself. And the second time was not only after The Twoweeks, it was literally the day of the Two Hours.’

He had this one right. It had been the night of the day of the second Two Hours, actually, which made it an absolutely brutal occasion. They had been together in bed that afternoon and then, too soon after, found themselves in the world’s tiniest restaurant, with their respective spouses.

How many tables did the Turtle have? Six? Seven tables, tops, plus the row of seats at the counter, because it used to be a diner. It was impossible not to make constant eye contact, impossible not to make conversation. Officially the smoke had cleared, outwardly there was peace in the valley, but nobody had bargained on dinner-for-four.

It was a scene right out of a French marriage farce, one of those excruciating situations where the audience takes satisfaction from knowing they weren’t the ones who had done this to themselves. Oddly, what made it slightly less unbearable was The Dad. He was there that time, too, to provide some comic relief.

He liked the Turtle, it was that simple. Given how persnickety he was, this was a great gift. In most restaurants, The Dad would study his menu, sigh extravagantly, order a cup of soup reluctantly — then leave it untouched. But he liked the pork chop at the Turtle. Sliced thin, well done, with grilled onions. It was almost like a dish from the children’s menu; you cut it up for him. Be he would order it without a list of special requirements (‘the asterisks,’ Lara’s brother called them), and damned if he didn’t eat it. So the Turtle was how they did him.

Nonetheless, Lara experienced ninety minutes of soft-core torture that evening. Never in her life had she felt so utterly stuck, or so wrong in so many ways toward so many people. Jake and Hetty may not have been at the restaurant, but they always ranked first on her guilt list. They were always present. Winnie was her friend, Ian was her husband. There was even Cal, by then; she could hurt him too. The Dad, for once, was not a problem. He had his pork chop and he had Winnie’s face to stare at. Hog heaven for him.

Lara kept her head down and picked at her salad with great concentration (really getting after the radishes) for what must have seemed an uncommonly long time. She tried leaving her body altogether, hopping onto some freight train of the imagination. Or a plane. She took a shot at picturing Paris, traveling back to Paris in her mind. Just get me outta here, man.

Of course, Paris had been spoiled too, in the late days of that magical summer, when she fell in step briefly with Guillaume. In the end, Guillaume was just someone else she had disappointed. You will come back, he had said, you must come back. ‘I will be checking every flight from Boston, waiting until I see your name.’

Which was nonsense, obviously, or perhaps (to give Guillaume the benefit of the doubt) metaphorical. He would not be poring over any passenger manifests. He was not another heart-shrunk existentialism-bleating Gauloise-gobbling Frenchman waiting for American lightning to strike him in a café. He was human, and quite sweet. When she boarded that plane, however, when she tried to escape from the Turtle Café on that imagined night flight, Guillaume blocked her way. In her mind’s eye, he was waiting on the ground at Orly, gazing up from the wet tarmac like Bogart knowing he had just lost Ingrid Bergman.

Like Bergman in Casablanca, though, Lara had the letters of transit. At the moment she might be stuck in a tiny restaurant where everyone present had reason to despise her, but it was in her power to change this and she resolved then to do so. It was over with Cal. She would never sleep with him again and that was flat. End of story.

Winnie (closely monitored by The Dad) was eating her flan and Ian was sipping coffee, as Lara arrived at the one outcome she could control. It was the easiest outcome as well, since it was what everyone believed to be the status quo: Ian and Lara, Cal and Winnie, period. The Two Hours was never a program, or a decision, it was an accident that happened and now it was over forever.

‘You’re right,’ she said, ‘about the two Turtle dinners. There were two.’

No need to walk him through the trivial agonies of that French marriage farce, and no need for further delay. Cal had introduced into evidence the green jacket, the silly pants, and the two Turtle dinners. Now end-of-story could translate into end of backstory. Decanting more bourbon into their glasses, she threw a meaningful glance up at the clock. ‘Are we all set now?’

‘Except for the business of February 22, we are. Though the story of that night does involve my coming to work at Gallery Allison. You got me hired.’

Lara shrugged. It was true, just not the truth. And certainly not grounds for an extension, when his ‘five minutes’ were already closer to an hour.

‘I am not claiming you campaigned for the idea,’ said Cal, as though to deflect the qualification he read on her face. ‘I realize it was mostly Winnie’s doing. She was constantly job-hunting on my behalf, something to bring in a little money until Broadway came calling. When you mentioned that the handyman got canned for showing up soused, Winnie said, Aha, they must need a new handyman, Calvert is handy.'”

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The Internet Archive, Kahle / Austin Foundation, “The twoweeks: a novel,” by Larry Duberstein, 2012. (top) Image courtesy of the Keene Sentinel, “Larry Duberstein — Literature,” by Justine Murphy, photo by Michael Moore, Aug. 20, 2020

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