“I’ve got the perfect man for you.”
Not another one, thought Frieda Schast, as she switched the phone receiver to her other ear. According to Ilene, her older sister by three years, the world was full of perfect men. Lousy with them. They crawled across the green earth like bugs. Just walk along a square patch of dewy grass, look down and find ten of them stuck to your shoe.
That Thursday morning in September, Frieda had walked ten blocks from her apartment in Brooklyn Heights to her frame store, carefully checking each man she passed for signs of perfection. Not a single specimen was within range. Within range of range. And Frieda had been trying hard to expand her universe of what she considered acceptable. She’d also been doing mental exercises to train herself to be more open and approachable (smiling, keeping eyes up, shoulders back, chest forward).
Frieda asked, “Does he twitch?”
Ilene said, “Not that I know of.”
“The last one twitched.”
“A tick is not a twitch,” said Ilene.
“A tick is when someone pulls his ear if he’s nervous, or twirls his hair. I’d even allow a tick to include incessant blinking or hand wringing. But that guy spasmed every ten seconds. His head shook so hard from the force that dandruff flew from his scalp. The larger flakes fluttered. ‘Flew’ might be an exaggeration.”
“Just as long as you’re not exaggerating,” said Ilene.
Frieda shifted the phone again, and sat down on a high stool behind the counter. She was working on a small triptych of a girl on a swing. The photographer had taken the pictures of his daughter, and had carefully selected a three-quarter inch cherry wood frame. The girl’s dress was red, pretty, and Frieda could image her on that swing, moving back and forth. She could only guess which sensation was more thrilling for the girl, zooming backward, her hair floating around her head, covering it protectively, or zipping forward, hair blown back, exposing her tiny round face to the world of the playground.
Frieda reflexively tucked some of her own brown curls behind one ear, leaving the bulk of it to hang down on against her cheeks. She said, “Have you met this guy? How many degrees of separation are we talking about here?”
Ilene said, “He’s the brother of Peter’s secretary’s best friend.”
Frieda calculated this information. “That’s four degrees.”
“Best friend, secretary, Peter, you.”
“I’m not counting myself.”
“Why not?” asked Frieda.
“We’re related,” she said. “We shouldn’t could Peter, either. You’ve known him for ten years. He’s like a brother to you.”
“He’s not like a brother. He’s like a brother-in-law.”
Ilene didn’t speak for a minute, and Frieda knew she’d said the wrong thing. She wouldn’t be called on it. Frieda was still permitted to make minor mistakes without reprimand. Ilene said, “Peter told me last night that he likes my fixing you up. He thinks it will distract me from the size of his stomach. Which is ever expanding. But let’s not get off point. Peter’s belly is too big a topic to get stuck on.”
“It is an immense topic,” agreed Frieda.
“It’s more than a topic,” said Ilene. “It’s practically a tropic. Like the Tropic of Capricorn. The one that spans the globe?”
“I’ve read the book,” said Frieda.
Ilene said, “His name is Roger. The brother of the secretary’s best friend. He’s an entomologist at the Museum of Natural History. You can go to their website and look at his picture. I’ll email you the URL. You’ll love him. The marriage potential is sky high. He could be the One!”
Frieda had already had the One. So Roger Bugman would never be that. At best, he could be the Two. Hard to get worked up about the Two. But nobody ever says, “He’s the Two, I just know it!” According to Ilene, Frieda wouldn’t be happy again until she found the Next One, and got married. Frieda knew from experience that marriage was a nice, secure place, while it lasted.
Frieda said, “It would be helpful, when we have these conversations, if you could shift the pitch from ‘He’s the One’ to something like, ‘You might have a pleasant dinner with him.’ Or ‘He’s good practice.’ Or ‘He’s easy on the eyes.’ Or just ‘He’s easy.’”
Despite her loss of a husband (which sounded like she’d misplaced him somewhere), Frieda hadn’t lost her sex drive. If anything, it had grown. One of the women in her online support group for widowed mothers wrote about how surprised she’d been by the dramatic spike in her libidinous appetite right after her husband died (car accident). Within a couple of months, she’d been comforted (repeatedly, to her satisfaction) by three of her dead husband’s best friends. Frieda was both horrified and envious of this woman’s “fuck the grief away” strategy. Frieda doubted it would suffice long-term. She would have loved to test that theory, but she lacked both the guts and unattached straight male friends.
Another online support grouper—a 32-year-old widow—wrote that the promise of new sex was the only thing that got her through her husband’s long illness (colon cancer). As she cared for him, gave him Procrit shots, schlepped him to scans, knowing he was going to die soon, she would cast her thoughts into the future, when he was gone. At his chemo sessions, she would daydream about going to a bar, meeting a man. They’d drink together, laugh. Flirt. He’s brush against her casually, his hand on her shoulder or knee, hesitantly to see if she were willing. Then she’d take him home. A new body. Different hands, sounds, stylings. She could not fucking wait. In the early months of her widowhood, she wrote that she spent hours each day fantasizing about new sex, imagining increasing elaborate seduction scenarios for the mailman, her boss, her dry cleaner. The woman hadn’t posted an email to the group in a while. Frieda assumed she’d gotten lucky. Her itch to write had been soothed.
“I’ll do it,” said Frieda.
“You’ll meet him?” Ilene asked.
“I’ll meet anyone you can find under a rock.” Frieda’s itch to write grew pricklier each day. She would have to do something about it, and soon. Before she was too old to try. Frieda met Gregg when she was 25. Now 35, she had a decade of experience under her belt, as well as laugh lines, random gray hairs and a thicker middle.
Frieda said, “Wait. Second thoughts creeping in.”
“Stop that now,” said Ilene. “I’m emailing you the URL. You will love him! Of course, I’ve never met him or spoken to him. I know hardly anything about him. But I’m sure it’s going to be great. He seems fascinating on the website. He is the nation’s foremost expert on dung beetles.”
“Just as long as he doesn’t look like one.”
Ilene said, “I’m hanging up. I don’t want to give you the chance to change your mind.”
She hung up at the same second the door opened. A woman entered the gallery. She wore black Capri trousers, a pink Bohemian shirt, flip flops, Prada tote, hair in a neat ponytail. Frieda acknowledged her with a friendly smile. She’d learned to leave the customers alone. Let them come to her with questions.
Nonetheless, as she watched the woman milling through racks of posters and photographs, Frieda decided to talk to her. She was going on a date soon, and she needed practice speaking to strangers.
The woman flipped through a series of architectural shots, barely looking at them. Frieda approached her and said, “The photographer lives in the neighborhood.” Frieda loved the black-and-white pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, capturing the eerie spider web effect of the criss-cross cables.
“Hmmm,” said the woman, not looking up or expending enough energy to open her mouth in response.
Message received, thought Frieda, and returned to her chair behind the counter. This woman was not a good candidate for launching her aggressive friendliness campaign. She focused her attention on the triptych and wasn’t surprised to hear the door shut moments later, the woman gone and good riddance.
Business was slow, but not dangerously so. At her small shop, the Sol Gallery, Frieda sold original photographs and did custom framing. Sometimes, she displayed paintings, too, but they took up a lot of wall space (she had little to spare). Photographs were mounted on cardboard, wrapped in plastic, and put in bins for customers to flip through. Frieda priced the photos according to size and subject matter ranging from $5 to $500. Her standard arrangement: The photographer would get 40 percent of the purchase price and she’d keep 60 percent. Retail photography accounted for about 20 percent of her overall business.
Framing was her livelihood. Rows and rows of L-shaped frame samples covered the walls by the back counters. They were grouped by medium (wood, metal, etc.), color and size (five-inch gilded ornate maple to quarter-inch fiberglass). Frieda often sold a photograph and then framed it for the customer. That was profitable. But she derived greater satisfaction from framing originals. When a customer brought in a picture, painting, old baseball card, antique needlepoint—whatever—and said, “What do you think?” Frieda knew just the thing, and the customers were always pleased with her choices. She saw borders everywhere, the white rims of stop signs, the black lead of newspaper columns, squiggly lines on restaurant menus. She had the habit of mentally reframing anything two-dimensional, believing that, with adjustments, she could make it better. Images without borders made Frieda feel unhinged, as if the words and pictures in a magazine, for example, would slide right off the page without a neat box to contain them.
The desktop of her iMac, which she’d just turned on, had gray stripes at the top and bottom of the screen. Not enough of a border to satisfy her particular compulsion, but she could live with it. She went online and got the URL from Ilene’s email. A bit of typing and clicking later, Frieda stared at the face of Roger O’Leary, Ph.D.. Color photo, thick black border.
My, she thought, what big ears he had. And teeth. And nose. His features seemed to burst from his small face. His hair, black, shiny, brushed back flat on his head only accentuated the effect. His neck was thin with a prominent Adam’s apple. His bio bragged that he’d gone to Columbia for his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D.. He was a native New Yorker, but has traveled the world to speak about his area of expertise. Apparently (who knew?), Scandinavians were way into bugs. Roger O’Leary had spent five years in Oslo, consulting on the production and construction of the world’s first and only Beetle Zoo. There was a conversation starter: “So tell me, Roger. Do the zoo beetles live in cages, or in a free-range habitat that resembles their natural environment?”
At a glance, Frieda knew this man would not be the Next One. Granted, you couldn’t really tell from a photo. And, naturally, someone’s personality could outshine physical repulsiveness. When Frieda looked again at the photo, she barely saw the features of Roger O’Leary himself. She saw Not Gregg. Every man was Not Gregg. No man could ever be Gregg. No man would ever be a father to Justin, her five-year-old son. Not a real father.
Frieda tripped into this hole every time she agreed to date (she’d tried twice, and both evenings had been disheartening). Frieda should forget the whole thing, blow this off, deliver her “Not Gregg” speech to Ilene again. Her sister would let it go for a few days or weeks, especially if Frieda cried. When Frieda cried, her sisters (Betty was the youngest) would move a mountain one teaspoon at a time to get her to stop. The crying, incidentally, had been under control lately. Early on, Frieda sobbed so hard and often, she pulled a muscle in her back and developed a chronic sinus infection.
Digging deep, Frieda emailed a reply to Ilene: “You can give him my phone numbers. He will be good for practice, but not much else. However—I’m optimistic! I’m hopeful! If nothing more, my questions about ladybugs will be answered. For one thing, they can’t all be ladies, can they?”