Claire cut the ribbons. Missy tied the ribbons into bows. Jerry attached the bows to the scallop seashells using a glue gun. Missy insisted they make three hundred ornaments — one for each of the two hundred wedding guests plus one hundred extra “just in case.”
“Just in case of what?” Jerry asked. “Someone can’t make it through the reception without just one? They need a yin shell for their yang shell? An Abbott shell for their Costello shell? An Agnew for their Nixon?”
Claire laughed. “Agnew, what a corrupt prick he was. As bad as Nixon. Do you guys even remember Watergate?”
“Don’t encourage him, Mom!” Missy said, glaring at her, then at Jerry. “What if some of the shells break? Or what if someone really likes them and wants two or three?”
“I’m sure that any heterosexual male with a pulse will gladly relinquish his sea shell if one of your girlfriends wants an extra one,” Jerry said in a facetious tone. “Especially if they’ll be used as pasties later in the evening.”
Missy slapped her hands on the table. “That is sick. These will be a nice memento of our wedding. People will love them.”
“Miss, I think you’re shell-shocked. Take a break,” Jerry said, as he glued another bow to a shell and placed it in the small pile of finished ornaments.
“Come on kids. Let’s be nice. Just a few weeks and it will all be over,” Claire said as Missy got up from the table and stomped off into the kitchen.
Through the entire year-long wedding planning process, Claire had been the peacemaker and the voice of reason. And she found the hotel, the vegan caterer, the band, and most important, she convinced Larry, her ex, to finance the big event. They had had an amicable divorce — both openly admitted their lack of interest in monogamy long before they split up — and out of guilt they did the best they could to make Missy, their only progeny, happy. Though reluctant at first to lay down big bucks for a wedding because of the five-figure monthly alimony he was paying to Claire, Larry gave into her persistent noodging. “She’s you’re only child,” Claire had said. “Just don’t get any of your hot little paralegals pregnant — they are legal aren’t they? — and you’ll be able to afford it.”
Though in her early fifties, Claire still turned heads. She was a slender brunette with a long, regal neck and prominent jaw and cheekbones. She always wore shorts and skirts to show off her smooth, tanned legs. Her skin, even on her face, remained remarkably supple and blemish-free. Besides a few department store window modeling gigs after she graduated high school, Claire never held fulltime a job. She met Larry Hirsch at a party during his last year at Washington College of Law, and like so many guys, he was immediately smitten with her. He joined a DC personal injury firm, they got married, and soon little Melissa arrived on the scene.
Claire became a vegetarian to lose the extra ten pounds she couldn’t shed after Missy was born, and became passionately involved in volunteer shelter work for the Humane Society. The Hirsch’s Bethesda home soon became a halfway house for lost and abandoned animals, mostly cats, as many as ten at a time. Because of the attention always being given to the animals, and the obvious infidelity of Larry and Claire, Missy often felt insecure and wanting of control and attention.
Claire met Jerry after a presentation he made at an animal rights conference, and later set him up with Missy. Within a year and a half, they were engaged. Missy, like her mom, was a looker, and Jerry loved the fact that she was vegan, but not all that interested in dogs or cats. Finally, an attractive young vegan woman without the allergic hassle of her pets! For Jerry, it was hitting romantic pay dirt.
But ever since he put a ring on Missy’s finger, her issues with control had elevated to a whole new level. And the bickering over the production of the ornaments — a process that Jerry had dubbed “Shell Hell” because it would take several nights to complete — was just one example of the tension that had grown between them. Jerry found it sadly ironic that the engagement, and the decision shortly before it to move in together, had sucked the energy and spontaneity out of their romantic life. Headaches, bad days at work, inclement weather — everyday Missy came up with a new excuse not to have sex. The best days for Jerry were when she was tired and went to sleep early — that at least gave him some time alone to take care of business in the bathroom.
He wondered how they would be faring without Claire around so much; she served as a buffer, diffusing the tension. Claire was thrilled that Missy had found a vegan boyfriend — the first herbivore her daughter ever dated seriously — and did her best not to take sides in any of their squabbles. And the fact that Jerry worked for the Vegetarian Action Committee was just icing on the vegan cake for her. She was constantly bringing over food or taking them out to dinner. It was the best mothering she’d done since Missy was born, and she admitted as such.
One evening during a contentious installment of Shell Hell, when Missy ran out to the store to buy more ribbon, Jerry decided to confide in Claire about his problems with Missy. “We’re just not having as much fun as we used to,” he said to her. “I thought Missy would get into the wedding planning, but it’s a lot of pressure for her. I don’t think it has to be. Honestly, Claire, I’m worried that she’s having second thoughts about the marriage.”
“Jerr, you’re a wonderful guy. I can’t tell you how lucky Missy is to have you as a partner, and I am to have you as my future son-in-law,” Claire said. “Even Larry says he likes you, and he’s usually more interested in making nice with Missy’s hot little girlfriends.”
“Don’t get me wrong, you guys are great to me. But it just seems that Missy isn’t happy with me or the situation.”
“Look, Jerr, Missy needs a little coddling. She likes to be taken care of. In case you haven’t noticed, she’s a little high maintenance. I don’t know. Maybe do something romantic for her. Flowers. Some lingerie. You guys used to go on fun dates. Take her to Wolftrap for music and a picnic or something.”
Claire walked quickly over to the Wolftrap calendar on the refrigerator. “Hey, James Taylor is there on Saturday! Heck, you can take me, too!”
Jerry stood quietly in thought for a moment. Maybe Claire was right. Maybe he should worry less about sex right now and just show Missy a good time. They’d have twelve days of cruising on the Mediterranean after the wedding — there would be plenty of time for some romantic action then. And all the pressure would be off.
“Goodnight moonlight ladies, rock a bye sweet baby James,” Claire sang as she swayed back and forth while looking over the calendar. “Wow, Judy Collins will be there next week, too. Send in the clowns!”
Jerry walked into the kitchen to check out the calendar for himself. James Taylor would be ok, Missy liked him, too. But he preferred something a little edgier. Wasn’t John Prine playing soon?
“It’ll be fine,” Claire said, smiling at Jerry with the same big brown eyes as her daughter. As well sculpted as the Hirsch women were, it was the seductive, mischievous glint in their eyes that made them irresistible. How many men had Claire left in her wake? A guy could do a lot worse. And the years had mellowed her, making her even more playful and carefree than Missy. With no husband and her only child grown, she had nothing at stake, except for time spent not having fun.
Claire opened the door of the refrigerator and took out a can of sparkling water, inadvertently spraying Jerry with a light mist after she popped the top on it. He didn’t bother to wipe it off his forearm. “Marriage is work, Jerry. I hate to say it, but what you guys are going through is kind of a sign of things to come. Larry and I didn’t have the desire or the discipline to make it work. But I think you guys will be ok. You’re good kids.”
Claire’s remark made sense to Jerry, but it didn’t assuage his unease. With just a month to go before the big day, his jitters were only getting stronger. At the same time, Jerry knew his fears were as much about him as anything else. He got the same feeling of doom before getting on an airplane or doing a presentation at large conference for the Vegetarian Action Committee. Once the plane left the runway or he stood in front of the crowd and started talking, he was fine, even exhilarated.
Claire looked at her watch. “I need to get going. The cats will be ravenous by now.” She walked over to the dining room table, picked up her purse, and then went back into the kitchen where Jerry was still standing.
“Thanks for listening to me, Claire. I feel kind of weird talking to you about it, because your Missy’s mom, but there really isn’t anyone else I can confide in.”
“Not to worry, Jerr. I am glad you feel that comfortable with me.” Claire said, lightly resting her fingertips on his shoulder and then kissing him on the cheek. Though she had kissed him before, she pulled away from him more slowly than motherly affection would usually warrant. He took notice of the warmth and firmness of her lips. Jerry felt a sudden burst of energy in his core. Claire gently squeezed his arm, smiled, and then left the apartment without saying anything more.
Jerry’s first stop at the mall was Victoria’s Secret. He’d never been in the store before, and surprisingly, the sales clerks weren’t all that hot. He was hoping for supermodels in bustiers, stockings and high heels — a quasi-porn experience — but the employees were mostly average-looking women dressed unprovocatively. One older woman was even wearing a cardigan sweater. That was just wrong to him.
Jerry wandered the store for a minute, too embarrassed to ask for help from the clerks. He knew what he would like to see on Missy, but what would she want? Most of her undergarments were simple — earth-tones and cotton. Would she even go for stockings and a garter? Or would she find it demeaning? Maybe something like a simple see-through teddy would be more her style.
As he rummaged through a table of crotchless panties — wondering why someone would even bother with panties at all if they were crotchless — a cheerful and effeminate male standing behind him asked, “Can I help you? Are you finding what you’re looking for?” Just Jerry’s luck — he’d been approached by Victor instead of Victoria. Jerry didn’t consider himself homophobic — he believed that any person should have the right to marry or screw whomever they wanted — but he wasn’t exactly comfortable around gay men, especially flirty gay men at a women’s lingerie establishment. It was a real buzz kill. Jerry said no thanks to the clerk without turning around, and then he headed for the exit. Maybe jewelry would be a safer, albeit more expensive choice.
But on his way out of the store, he noticed a mannequin in the front window adorned in stockings, a garter, pump-up bra, and a g-string — all in black. The dummy’s head was titled back, her eyes closed and lips slightly pursed, as if forever frozen in a convulsion of pleasure. Now that was a look. Missy would be so hot in that get-up. Jerry turned around, went back in the store, found Victor, brought him over to the window, and pointed at the mannequin. “I want everything she’s wearing. I mean, for my fiancée. She’s a size five, about an inch shorter than me.”
“Well, certainly,” Victor said, grinning knowingly. “Shall I wrap it all up in a gift box?”
“Yep, just make sure you take all the price tags off.”
“Well, of course. We don’t want the little lady to know everything.”
Jerry looked at the clerk curiously. What the hell was that supposed to mean?
As he walked out into the mall proudly toting a pink and white Victoria’s Secret bag, Jerry decided to reward himself for his shopping achievement by heading over to the food court and getting one of his favorite vegan splurges — a baked potato swimming in ketchup. A Thai family ran a little sandwich place that served baked potatoes, and they’d always have a long, drawn out conversation among themselves when Jerry ordered a plain baked potato. They’d laugh, seemingly bemused by the minimalistic request. He repeated his order to make sure they understood what he wanted. “That’s correct. No butter. No sour cream. No cheese. Yes, plain, but with ten packets of ketchup. Ten,” he’d say showing all of his fingers.
Jerry began to have second thoughts about the gift of sexy undergarments as he sat at a table in the food court and squirted ketchup on his steaming potato. Maybe it would seem to Missy like he just wanted to have sex with her — that the gift was more about what he wanted than her. Actually, there was some truth to that. But their physical attraction to one another was what brought them together in the first place — that and the fact that they were both vegan. So it did make sense to try to resurrect that aspect of their relationship. But just to be safe, he’d better get those James Taylor tickets, too. Maybe he’d wait until the cruise to give her the lingerie. He couldn’t believe it — in just four weeks he’d be married to Missy for the rest of his life.
As Jerry dug into the potato and watched the lunchtime crowd milling around the various eateries, he was shocked to see Missy and a familiar-looking woman, perhaps one of her co-workers from the Cancer Coalition office, standing in front of Chiki-Wiki, looking at the overhead menu board. At first, he was concerned that she’d see him with the Victoria’s Secret bag, ruining the surprise of his gift to her. But then he wondered why they were in front of Chiki-Wiki, a regional fast-food chain notorious for cramming birds in tiny battery cages and inhumane slaughtering practices. An undercover investigation had revealed that the franchise’s process was so sloppy, Chiki-Wiki’s chickens were often alive when they were thrown into boiling water to be cooked. In fact, the Vegetarian Action Committee had organized a protest last year in front of the busiest Chiki-Wiki in Metropolitan DC to demand more humane treatment of the birds.
Jerry was horrified to see Missy and her companion walk up to the register and order. Even if she only got Chiki-Wiki’s fries, they weren’t likely to be vegan, because they were probably cooked in the same oil as the chicken — a lard-based oil for all he knew. Regardless of what they ordered, Chiki-Wiki was the enemy. How on earth could she patronize those monsters?
Jerry watched a young clerk hand Missy a tray with two containers — the familiar orange boxes that Chiki-Nuggets came in — and two large drinks. A few minutes later, he watched the women sitting at a table, taking the fried pieces of chicken from the boxes, dipping them in containers of sauce, and then putting them into their mouths. The scene was horribly surreal. Missy didn’t give a second thought to eating what had once been a breathing, sentient creature. No fucking way.
When Jerry first met Claire at the animal rights conference, she had proudly declared that Missy had never in her entire life eaten any animal products. Before he set eyes on her, he had put her on a pedestal of vegan purity. And when they made love for the first time a couple of months later, he delighted in smelling, tasting, and exploring her sweet vegan flesh. Though he’d never had a virgin, Jerry was certain that making love to Missy, a woman who’d never had anything animal in her body, was even better.
But a simple three-dollar fast-food order had suddenly changed everything. When Jerry confronted Missy later that evening about seeing her at the food court partaking in Chiki-Nuggets, all she said was, “I don’t want to talk about it.” It was as if her lawyer had advised her to take the fifth. When he told her about the gift he had bought, she looked at him as if he had lost his mind. She just got angry, told him she was leaving, and started packing a suitcase. In complete disbelief of what was happening, Jerry had no response. When Claire arrived to help make more ornaments, she, like Jerry, was stunned, unable to process Missy’s sudden digression.
Fifteen minutes later, Jerry sat at the dining room table alone with piles of shells and ribbons. Claire had left with Missy, and on her way out of the door, turned around and held a phantom phone receiver to her ear, silently mouthing the words, “I’ll call you.” But for the rest of that Saturday evening — exactly four weeks from his wedding day — Jerry was at a loss for what to think or do. What the hell just happened? Was the wedding off? Was Missy no longer a vegan? Had Missy snapped under the pressure of the looming wedding? Was she ok or did she have a breakdown? Where was she going? More than half the guests were coming in from out of town. Who would call them all to tell them that the wedding was off, if it was in fact off? All those non-refundable plane tickets! What would he tell Suzy who miraculously convinced Marty to run a two-page photo spread of the Zuckerman’s all-vegan blowout wedding in the Committee’s Action magazine?
Funny thing was, at that very moment, he wasn’t sure what he wanted. Marrying Missy, this beautiful vegan woman, had seemed like the right thing to do. It was the next logical step in his life. Who could be better? But marriage, having a family, and settling down had never been a conscious goal — not like it was for many women his age, including Missy. And now she was suddenly unraveling in an unpredictable way. The pressures of the wedding had been one thing — but to start eating chicken without explanation? Maybe he hadn’t really known her. Maybe the serendipity of seeing her at Chiki-Wiki had been a blessing. Maybe he should back out of the wedding regardless of what Missy decides. Who would want to commit their lives to someone so unstable?
Two hours later, Claire called. “Missy is ok, I think. I dropped her off at Monica’s, one of her co-workers. She’s going to stay there a while.”
“Ok, but I don’t understand what’s happening,” Jerry said. “We weren’t getting along that well, but it’s like she snapped. What did she say to you?”
“Not much,” Claire said. Jerry heard her sniffling. “Are you ok, Jerry?”
“Yeah, I’m just in a state of shock. Just trying to get a handle on things.”
“Of course, I am, too.”
“So….so did you guys talk about the wedding?”
“Yes, Jerry. When I asked Missy about it, she said she wasn’t sure what to do.” Claire paused, clearing her throat. “Jerry, I don’t think it makes sense for you guys to continue, not with the wedding. I mean, it’s crazy to go into marriage like this. I know you were going through a rough patch, but I thought that was normal, that you guys would work through it. But this is different.”
Claire waited for Jerry to respond, but he said nothing.
“Look, Larry and I can handle all the logistics, calling the guests, the hotel, the caterer. That’s really not a problem. You guys need to take care of yourselves.”
Jerry began to tear up, but held back his emotions as best he could. Neither of them said anything for the next several seconds.
Then Jerry took in a deep breath and let it out. “Ok, Claire. Ok.”
As the week progressed, he came home from work to find more and more of Missy’s stuff — mostly clothes, cosmetics, and toiletries — gone from the apartment. But on many of those days, he also found takeout packages from local restaurants in the refrigerator: vegan ravioli, crispy seitan in orange sauce, chana saag, a burrito with a side of nachos and guacamole. The comfort food helped to fill the vacancy in the apartment. He and Claire had exchanged voice mails a couple of times, and in one message, she said, “Let me know if you have any special requests. The eats are the least I can do. Call any time, day or night, even if you just need to talk. I’m here for you, too.”
On Monday of the following week, Claire left a message saying that she wanted to stop by on Saturday evening and check in on him. There were a few last things to pick up — pots and pans, the coffee maker, some towels — and maybe they could have dinner together. The thought that Claire Hirsch could be on the make for the newly former fiancé of her only daughter did cross Jerry’s mind. Jerry believed that she was capable of such a deed. She’d even flirted with him while the wedding with her daughter was moving full steam ahead. But Jerry never felt he’d be a participant in such a scandalous sexual pursuit. No way. After all, he was just an average-looking Jewish herbivore, who when exposed to the right allergy triggers, could produce copious amounts of mucous.
And even though Claire arrived at his door on Saturday night wearing a low cut blouse and dark mascara, and smelling like a patchouli factory without proper ventilation, he still couldn’t believe that she wanted him. No way. So what if she wore her hair up in a bun, showing off her gorgeous neck? This kind of sexual encounter just didn’t happen to guys named Zuckerman — not unless they paid for it.
The meal that Claire brought from Bombay Palace was delicious, though the vegetables jalfrezi was so spicy it made Jerry’s eyes water. “I’m not crying over the wedding, it’s the food,” he explained, getting up to go into the kitchen for more water. “Not that I’m not sad about the wedding.” Claire laughed loudly, a little tipsy from her second glass of wine. “You know, we haven’t talked about Missy or the wedding the whole evening,” he shouted from the kitchen as he filled his water glass from the sink.
Though Jerry couldn’t see her, Claire just shrugged her shoulders.
As he walked back into the dining room, he stopped before reaching his chair. Claire grinned broadly for no apparent reason other than she was happy to see him return to the table. He noticed that she had slid down in her seat a little. But also, for the first time that evening, he realized she was wearing dark sheer hosiery. How unusual. Jerry had never before seen Claire’s legs covered, at least during warm weather. He instinctively tracked her left leg from calf to knee to thigh. A little metal clip attached to the top of the black stocking was barely visible underneath the hem of her skirt.
In mid-September, Jerry and a few of his friends rented a house for a week at Rehoboth Beach to send off the summer. He loved going to the ocean during the off-season when the crowds were smaller and the sun relented. He had kept himself busy with work since the engagement broke off in late June, and welcomed the respite. The fact that no one brought up Missy during the trip was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, Jerry didn’t want to talk about her for fear of the emotion it would stir up in him. On the other hand, the emotion was still very much there.
On the last afternoon of the vacation, after his friends went to happy hour on the boardwalk, Jerry stayed behind. He went to the trunk of his car to retrieve the box of more than two hundred seashells that had never made it through the ornamentation process. He carried the box about a quarter mile up the shore, away from the small crowd of the day’s remaining beachgoers. The surf was pleasantly quiet as it had been most of the week.
He set the box down, and one by one, tossed the shells into the water. He threw the first few as far as he could, but as his arm began to ache a little, he backed off and just lobbed them ten or twenty yards. As he threw the shells, Jerry thought about Missy and Claire, and what a trip he had had with them. He thought about what the wedding might have been like. All those guests dancing and eating, lifting Missy and him up in chairs while the band played the Hora. What would the cruise have been like? Did some lucky couple get to take their place on the ship or did their cabin-to-be leave the port empty? What would he and Missy being doing at this very moment if they were still together? Maybe they’d be out to dinner and a movie with Claire? And then he thought about all those fish in the ocean — billions and billions of them swimming around, eating one another, laying their eggs, doing whatever they could to survive. These shells were persistent relics of their lives, perhaps millions of years old. How amazing it was that despite their brief existences, the evidence that they existed lasted so long.
Jerry began to cry as he reached the remaining few shells at the bottom of the box. By the time he reached the last shell, he was sobbing. He stopped for a minute to catch his breath, noticing how relieved he felt to let go of all the sadness and pain. As he held the last shell in his hand, he thought about keeping it to commemorate the wedding that might have been — the last remaining vestige of it. But no, the shell’s rightful home was in the sea, back with all the other shells. And after it left his hand, he followed its arc over a wave and into the water, making barely a splash, never to be seen again.
Jerry stood for a few more minutes gazing out over the ocean. Then he looked at his watch. It was only five thirty. He could still make happy hour.