THE DAY AFTER Todd moved out, Francesca bought flowers for almost every room. She cleaned the kitchen, vacuumed the halls, and looked around the top floor to make sure that everything was in order, and by the time Eileen arrived at noon, the whole house looked terrific. She beamed as she walked in, and Francesca was ready for her. Eileen had four suitcases and several boxes, and three shopping bags of shoes. She pointed at them in embarrassment as Francesca helped her carry them up the stairs.
“Sorry. I went crazy over Christmas. I got so depressed that I went on a shoe binge. They didn’t fit in my suitcase.”
“No worries.” Francesca smiled at her. “I’m used to it. My mom has a shoe fetish too. I’m addicted to Nikes. My mother wears high heels that would give me a nosebleed.”
“I like them too,” Eileen admitted as they set her things down in the bedroom on the top floor, and Eileen went back downstairs for another load.
There was a whole different feeling in the house that afternoon. The day before she’d been in mourning, and today she had woken up with a sense of freedom. The other shoe had finally dropped. Todd was gone. She was sad about it, but not as devastated as she had felt watching him load his belongings into a truck and leave. The worst was over. His not being there wasn’t going to make a lot of difference, since their lives had been so separate for months, except that now she wouldn’t see him come and go anymore. But their lives had barely intersected for a year. And it was fun seeing a girl in the house when she saw Eileen in the kitchen later that afternoon. It was Sunday so the gallery was closed, and Francesca was hanging out at home.
Eileen smiled broadly when she saw her. She acted like a kid.
“I love my rooms. They’re so pretty. And thank you for the flowers.” Francesca had put a vase of pink carnations and roses in her bedroom. Eileen looked ecstatic. “I feel like I’ve finally come home. I’ve been living out of suitcases since I got here. It’s going to be great having my own place.” And she didn’t even mind the long hike up the stairs to the top floor. She noticed a computer on the kitchen table and looked hopeful. “Mind if I check my e-mail? I don’t have a laptop yet.”
“That’s fine.” Francesca didn’t mind. It was a laptop she always left sitting in the kitchen that she and Todd rarely used but it was convenient having one there. She had her own in her office.
“I’ll just be a minute.” Eileen logged on, and smiled as she read her e-mails. She laughed out loud at one, and Francesca smiled as she left the kitchen and went back upstairs to her own room. It was kind of nice having someone around. The house already felt livelier and happier than it had for months. She was almost sorry that she had to find two more roommates. It might have been fun just sharing the house with Eileen, but she couldn’t afford it. She had to find two more, and no one decent had turned up since Eileen. The freaks and crazies had come out in force again in answer to her ads before Christmas. There had been one decent-sounding woman who had just moved to New York from Atlanta, but she found another arrangement before she ever came to see the house on Charles Street. And Francesca had to find someone soon. She couldn’t make the mortgage payments with just Eileen paying rent.
Francesca took a nap that afternoon, which she rarely did, but she was still tired after the emotional drain of saying goodbye to Todd the day before. He had promised to call, but she didn’t know if he really would, or even if she wanted him to. She didn’t want to lose touch with him, but she didn’t want to be in constant contact with him either. They both had to go forward and make their own way now.
Francesca went back downstairs to the kitchen at dinnertime, and Eileen was there. She was eating a bowl of soup, and back on the computer. She apologized as soon as Francesca came into the room, poured herself a glass of milk, and grabbed an apple. The soup Eileen had made was her own-she had been careful not to help herself to Francesca’s food. Francesca thought it was a good sign that she would be a respectful roommate.
She sat down at the table, and saw that Eileen had logged on to one of the online dating services, and was looking over the photographs on the screen.
“Do you ever try it?” she asked Francesca with a look of happy mischief and then giggled. “I love it. It’s kind of like ordering takeout guys instead of takeout food. I started doing it in college. I met some great guys in L.A. and San Diego. I went out with one of them for almost a year, until he got drunk and joined the Marines.”
“I didn’t think people still did that, got drunk and enlisted I mean. And no, I’ve never met anyone online. It sounds too dangerous. I’d be afraid of who I’d meet. There’s no screening process.” The idea of meeting men online really put her off. It seemed so desperate to her. She felt much safer meeting men through friends, although she knew many people who had met men, and even their husbands, online.
“You develop a pretty good sixth sense for who these guys are. I’ve only met one or two who were creepy.”
“Do you do it a lot?” Francesca asked with interest. It surprised her that a pretty, wholesome cheerleader type like Eileen would need or want to meet men online. She could have any man she wanted. But Francesca also knew that it wasn’t easy to meet single eligible man, which was why online dating services existed.
“Not really. It’s just a nice distraction when I have nothing else to do.” It made Francesca wonder if she needed to set some kind of guidelines about bringing people to the house, but realized she had no right to do that. She was her landlady, not the resident adviser in a girls’ dorm, or her mother. They were both adults with their own lives, and who Eileen brought home was going to be her business, not Francesca’s. So she didn’t say anything. She just went back upstairs munching on her apple, and left Eileen alone to her pursuits. If she met men on the Internet, it was up to her, whether it seemed wise to Francesca or not. All she knew was that it wasn’t for her.
Francesca hadn’t even thought of dating till then, and didn’t want to yet. She wasn’t ready. Eileen was full of life, and trying to meet people in a new city. Francesca was older and more cautious. Online matchmaking services had no appeal to her whatsoever. If she met a man, it was going to have to be the old-fashioned way, through friends, or at some kind of social gathering, or at the gallery. But she didn’t even want to meet a man right now, nor start dating. She didn’t have time anyway, and the only thing she wanted to find online were two more tenants.
It finally happened two weeks later, in mid-January. She got a response from a man who sounded sane. He said he was a graphic designer who worked from home a lot of the time, traveled occasionally for business, said he was solvent, and was looking for a setup like the one she was offering. He said he was recently divorced, had no furniture, and needed a bedroom and a small study to set up his drafting table and his computer. Her currently unoccupied second floor, where the dining room had been, sounded adequate for him. They made an appointment for him to come and see the house. He mentioned that he was thirty-eight years old, and when he came to meet her, he explained that he had a seven-year-old son who spent alternate weekends with him.
“Will that be a problem?” he asked, looking worried. He had already come across several similar arrangements, but none was willing to include children. Francesca hesitated for a long moment before she answered and then nodded.
“I think that’ll be okay, as long as he’s not here all the time.” Two weekends a month didn’t seem like a lot to her, and Chris Harley looked relieved. He was tall, thin, had sandy blond hair, gray eyes, and a serious expression. He was so pale he looked like he hadn’t seen the sun in years. He would have been good-looking if he hadn’t been so somber.
He said very little to her during their meeting, except his question about his son. He looked at the rooms, seemed satisfied, and said in a quiet subdued voice, “I’ll take it.” He didn’t
Eileen was in the kitchen when they went down to see it, and she was on the computer again, as she was a lot of the time, not just looking for potential dates, but usually doing e-mail. She looked up and smiled when she saw Chris. As she told Francesca later, he was “cute.” Eileen was beginning to seem a little boy crazy to Francesca. She went out a lot at night, but none of her potential suitors had come to the house or been a problem for Francesca. Chris Harley seemed like an excellent tenant, although she didn’t know anything personal about him except that he was divorced and a graphic designer who thought he could pay the rent. That was all she needed to know, and if his credit was good.
She asked for the same details that she had asked of Eileen. Francesca took his credit information, and as she looked at him, he had a familiar look. She felt as though she had seen him sometime, somewhere. Or maybe that was just an impression. In any case, they shook hands on their deal, and Francesca said that after she checked his credit in the coming days, he could move in anytime if everything was fine, the sooner the better. So if all went well, they had their second roommate.
Chris Harley looked happy with the arrangement when he left the house on Charles Street that afternoon. And Francesca promised to call him as soon as she got the results of the credit check. But he didn’t look as though he’d have a problem paying his rent or his bills. He seemed solid, and conservative and well-spoken. He said he designed industrial packaging and had given her his card. Francesca had a good feeling about him. She trusted her own instincts. He looked like a wholesome, decent guy, who would be pleasant to have around.
She said as much to Eileen while they tidied up the kitchen. “He’s nice-looking too,” Francesca said casually, and Eileen shrugged.
“He’s too conventional, too boring. He’s not for me.” Francesca wanted to ask her who was, other than the scores of men whose photographs she perused on the Internet. “Besides, it would be stupid to get involved with someone living here. That’s a little too close for comfort.” They both agreed on that.
“If things go wrong, one of us would have to move. I’d rather go out with men I meet outside, or online.” She had half a dozen candidates going strong at the moment with whom she e-mailed, and Francesca had no idea which ones Eileen had met, and which she hadn’t.
Much to Francesca’s delight, Chris got an excellent credit rating when Francesca checked him out. He was good to go as her second tenant, although she hadn’t met his son and felt she didn’t need to. How bad could a seven-year-old be? And four days a month wasn’t enough to worry about. She called Chris at the office number he gave her, and told him that he was welcome to move into the house as soon as he wanted.
“That’s fantastic,” he said with pleasure. “I could move in this weekend. I don’t have much stuff. I’ll get what I need for the bedroom tomorrow.”
She was mildly curious about why he didn’t want an apartment of his own but she didn’t ask him. She was glad he didn’t. He made a comment after that that he had given everything he had to his ex-wife. He said all he had right now was his clothing, a stack of books, and two paintings. He had left everything else at his apartment with his wife and son, and was staying at a hotel. He said he’d been there for two months. And he liked the idea of being in a house and not an apartment.
When he moved in, Chris changed the whole feeling of the house again. He added something solid. He was so serious and so calm that Francesca was certain he would cause her no problems, and even be easy to live with. He was exactly who and what Francesca wanted as a tenant or roommate. And Eileen looked unimpressed when Francesca commented on it.
“He’s too quiet,” Eileen said without much interest. He was too old for her anyway. She said she liked boys her own age, most of whom were just graduating from college, as she had. Chris seemed very mature at thirty-eight, and in some ways even older than Todd. Francesca suspected that having a child had made him that way, or his divorce. Whatever it was, Francesca thought he seemed like a responsible adult, which was just what she wanted in a tenant.
He moved in the following weekend with his drafting table and art supplies. He set them up carefully, along with a set of barbells, a flat-screen TV, a sound system, and his clothes. His bedroom furniture had been delivered the day before, and she was startled to see he had bunk beds, which seemed a little odd. She assumed they were for his son.
He kept to himself once he moved in and Francesca didn’t see him all day, since she was at the gallery. And by the time she came home, he had moved in, made himself something to eat, and was back on his floor, working. And Eileen was away for the weekend. The house was orderly and quiet. She didn’t even see him until Sunday, when she met him in the kitchen, making a pot of coffee. She asked if everything was all right, and he said it was. He sat quietly at the kitchen table, drank his coffee, read the paper, poured himself a second cup, and went back upstairs. He didn’t engage in conversation with her, and she noticed that there was something sad about his eyes. Whatever his story was, he had no desire to discuss it. Chris seemed to have no interest in making friends. He was pleasant and polite, and as cool as he had been with her when they first met. It suited Francesca just fine.
She told Avery about his moving in when she called that night.
“He sounds like the perfect tenant,” Avery commented. “Good boundaries, good manners, good credit. Have you met his kid?”
“Not yet. I guess he’ll be here next weekend.”
“Let’s hope he’s not a brat.”
“Chris doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would tolerate that. He isn’t a lot of fun. There’s something sad about him. He’s very quiet.”
“Maybe he’s had a rough time. Or maybe he’s just that kind of guy. Not everyone is as charming and chatty as your father,” she said, and they both laughed. “Any prospects for the unit downstairs?” Avery was impressed by how easily the other two had fallen into place, and it sounded like Francesca had lucked out with two ideal tenants. One was pleasant and sweet, and the other serious and quiet. It didn’t get much better than that. “Any news from Todd?”
“He called at the gallery a few days ago, but I was out, visiting an artist, and picking up some new work.” To save money and keep their overhead down, she did all the menial work herself. “He left me a message saying that he hopes I’m okay. I hate to say it, but I miss him. I miss the way it was in the beginning, not the way it was for the last year. Life is pretty quiet. All I do is work, come home at night, eat, watch TV, and go to sleep.”
“Things will pick up again. You need to get out, go to some openings and some parties.” But Francesca wasn’t in the mood. She told Avery about a new artist she had found through one of the gallery artists, in Brooklyn. They talked about her father for a few minutes, he was working hard on his upcoming show, and Avery said his newest work was fabulous. She was his biggest fan. And after they hung up, Francesca turned off the light and lay in bed in the dark. She could hear the sound of the TV in Eileen’s room, and Chris moving around downstairs. It was kind of reassuring not to be alone in the house. She liked the feeling, even though she hardly knew either of them, and maybe never would. And as she thought about it, she drifted off to sleep.
Francesca opened a show at the gallery the following week. Openings were always hectic and stressful. She had to make sure she had the work in the gallery in time, which often meant harassing the artists to get it ready, right down to the last minute, getting the invitations out to their clients, begging art critics to come to the show to review it, and hanging and lighting the show herself. By the time they opened their doors for the opening, she was exhausted.
The artist she was featuring this time was difficult, and kept insisting she move everything around. They sold four pieces the first night, and for several weeks she was too busy to check for new responses to her ad. She kept meaning to but forgot. She needed another tenant but she didn’t have time to pursue it. And she never saw Chris or Eileen. The arrangement was working well. It was three weeks after Chris had moved in that she finally met his son. She was sitting in the kitchen checking her e-mail, when she heard a sound, startled, and looked up. It was a little boy in a red sweater and jeans, who was staring at her with interest.
“I like your house” was the first thing he said, and then he smiled. He had dark hair, and big blue eyes, and looked nothing like his dad. “I’m Ian,” he said politely, and held out his hand to shake hers. He was very cute and looked like a kid in an ad.
“I’m Francesca. Would you like something to eat?” It was eight in the morning, and there was no sign of his father. Ian had dressed and come downstairs on his own.
“Okay. Could I have a banana?” She had a bunch of them in a bowl on top of the fridge, reached for one, and handed it to him, and he thanked her.
“Would you like some cereal to go with it?” He nodded, and she poured some cornflakes into a bowl, with milk, and gave him a plate for the banana.
“I make my own breakfast every day,” he announced. “My mom likes to sleep late. She goes out a lot at night,” he volunteered and Francesca didn’t comment. She wasn’t sure what to say. She wasn’t used to kids his age.
“What grade are you in?” she asked as he took two bites of the banana, which puffed out his cheeks, and she smiled. It took him a minute to answer.
“Second. I changed schools this year. I liked my old one better, but my mom says it’s too far away.” As he said it, Chris walked into the room and took in the scene. He smiled as he looked at his son, and then at Francesca when he saw that she had fed him. She hadn’t seen him look that happy since he moved in. Suddenly he looked relaxed, friendly, and warm. It was obvious that he was crazy about the boy, and very proud.
“Thank you for feeding him. He got away while I was in the shower.”
“We’ve been having a very nice time,” Francesca reassured him, and Ian looked pleased. He’d been having a good time too. He seemed very self-sufficient and totally at ease with adults.
“We’re going to the zoo,” Ian told Francesca. “They have a new polar bear, and a kangaroo.”
“That sounds like fun to me,” Francesca said easily, as Chris made some of the eggs he had bought, and he fried one for Ian too.
“Do you want to come?” Ian asked her happily, and she smiled.
“I’d love to, but I have to work.”
“What do you do?” Ian asked her.
“I have an art gallery a few blocks from here,” she explained to him. “I sell paintings. You can come to see it if you like.”
“Maybe we will,” Chris said as he set the egg down in front of Ian, and then sat down next to him with his own. And then Francesca went back to reading her e-mail while they ate. She’d had another response to the ad, from a woman in Vermont who said she was looking for a pied-?-terre in New York, and was interested in seeing the room that Francesca was renting. She had given her phone number, and said that she hoped it was still available and that Francesca would call. Francesca jotted it down along with another one, but the woman from Vermont sounded more appealing, and it didn’t sound as though she would be there all the time, which might be good. It was very comfortable now the way things were. And Ian seemed like a pleasant addition to the group. He was obviously a nice kid.
She chatted with him again for a few minutes, wished them a fun time at the zoo, and went back upstairs. They had already left by the time she went out.
She had a busy day at the gallery after that and sold another painting. They had been selling well for months-the problem was that their prices weren’t high enough to make much of a profit. She had been thinking of raising them again, and Avery insisted that she should.
It was midafternoon when Francesca remembered the woman in Vermont who had responded to her ad. She dialed the number, and a young woman answered. She sounded about Francesca’s age, and she was cheery and pleasant on the phone. Francesca told her the unit was still available and described it as best she could, without glorifying it. She said that the room was small, and it was a studio, had a pretty view of the garden, and was next to the kitchen, and it had its own bath.
The woman’s name was Marya Davis, and she said it sounded perfect for her. She didn’t need a lot of space, and she said she liked to use the kitchen a lot, and would that be a problem?
“No, I work till seven every night, six days a week, so I’m not home much, and neither are the other tenants. One works at home some of the time, but he keeps to himself. And the other tenant just graduated from college, is a teacher, and goes out almost every night. The house is pretty quiet, and none of us use the kitchen much. I’m usually too tired to cook and just make a salad, or buy something at the deli on the way home. And the others do the same, so the kitchen is all yours.” Neither of her tenants had cooked dinner since they moved in, and she hardly saw them.
“That would be wonderful. I could come down from Vermont next week to see it, if that’s all right with you. Do you think it can wait till then?” Marya asked, sounding worried, and Francesca laughed.
“No one’s beating down my door. I have someone else to call today, but I spoke to you first, so I’ll give you priority on it. When do you want to come?”
“Would Wednesday work for you?” she asked hopefully.
“That would be great.” They set a time, and Francesca jotted it down so she wouldn’t forget if she got busy. And then they hung up. The woman had sounded very pleasant on the phone. And the person she called afterward had found something else. It was already early February, and it had taken her all this time to find two good tenants, and maybe now finally a third. She hadn’t expected it to take this long. But she had been very cautious about who she showed it to, and no one else had suited her except Eileen and Chris, and now maybe this woman who wanted a pied-?-terre. She had mentioned that she was recently widowed and wanted to spend time in New York. And winters in Vermont were hard.
Francesca forgot about her then and remembered the appointment on Tuesday night. She had seen Chris’s son briefly again before he left on Sunday night. She had brought a lollipop home from the gallery to give him. She kept a bowl of candy there for kids. She asked Chris’s permission before giving it to him, and he didn’t object. Apparently their visit to the polar bear had been a big hit, and there was a new tiger cub at the zoo too. Ian loved the lollipop and waved goodbye to her when he left. He was a really cute kid. Seeing children like him never made her want one of her own, she just enjoyed the ones she met. She had fifteen artists to worry about instead of kids. That was enough for her, for now anyway, and maybe forever. Particularly with no man in her life. Crossing paths with kids like Ian was all the kid fix she needed. She didn’t need more. But she could easily see how crazy Chris was about his son. His eyes lit up whenever he looked at Ian.
Marya, the woman from Vermont, appeared at the house on Charles Street five minutes before the appointed hour the next day. She was wearing ski pants, snow boots, and a parka with a hood, and it was a cold day in New York too. She had gray hair cut in a stylish bob, and looked nothing like what Francesca had expected. And she was much older than she had sounded on the phone. She mentioned that she was fifty-nine, and had just lost her husband after a long illness. But she looked like a cheerful, happy person. She was lithe and had a youthful attitude and look, although Francesca was startled to realize she was nearly her mother’s age, but an entirely different kind of person.
And she was much more interested in checking out the kitchen than seeing her room, which she had glanced at rapidly and said seemed fine to her.
“I take it you like to cook,” Francesca said, smiling at her.
“Yes, I do. It’s been my passion ever since I was a little girl. I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love. It never feels like work.” And then Francesca suddenly realized who she was, and how oblivious she had been. She was Marya Davis, the celebrated cook. She had written half a dozen famous cookbooks, and Francesca had two of them on a shelf. She was one of the most successful chefs, and specialized in French cuisine, made easy for the masses and people who were busy. She demystified some of the famous French dishes, and had written an entire book on souffl?s. And here she was in Francesca’s kitchen on Charles Street, examining the kitchen and sitting at the table. “I’m working on a new book,” she explained. “And I thought it might be fun to spend some time here while I do. It’s too quiet where I live, particularly now that I’m alone.” She wasn’t mournful about it, just a little wistful.
“Was your husband a chef too?” Francesca asked, curious about her. She had dancing eyes, and a huge smile, and seemed like one of the warmest, friendliest people Francesca had ever met. She was totally unassuming, and she looked completely at home in Francesca’s kitchen. And if she moved in, Francesca realized instantly that there would be some wonderful things to eat.
She laughed in answer to Francesca’s question about her late husband. “He was a banker, not a cook, but he loved to eat, particularly French food. We used to spend a month in Provence every year, while I tried out new recipes. We had a lot of fun together. I miss him,” she said simply, “so I thought it might be good to do something different and move here for a while. But I’ll need to go back to Vermont occasionally to check on the house, and it’s so pretty there in the late spring. But now that I don’t ski anymore, I’d rather be here in the winter months.” Francesca’s own mother still skied at sixty-two, and the two women were close to the same age, but they weren’t even remotely alike. Marya Davis was a woman of talent, substance, humor, and depth. Thalia was none of those. And Francesca was thoroughly enjoying talking to Marya. She was a lovely woman, and Francesca was thrilled to meet her and at the prospect of having her live at the house. She had been lucky with all three of her tenants.
They talked about the details a few minutes later. Marya thought the price was fine, and the room was all she needed, and she was delighted to be near the kitchen. It was the perfect setup for her.
“I hope you’ll let me try some of my new recipes on you,” she said shyly, and Francesca looked delighted.
“It would be an honor, Mrs. Davis.” Francesca smiled warmly at her. She was so sweet, she almost wanted to give her a hug.
“Please call me Marya, or you’ll make me feel very old. I suppose I am, I’ll be sixty next year.” She looked at least ten years younger than she was, and she was so simple and unassuming that it was endearing, and easy to feel close to her. Francesca could hardly wait for her to move in. She was planning to drive back to Vermont that afternoon, and promised to be back in a few days.
Marya hugged her in the doorway as she left, and Francesca was smiling as she walked upstairs and ran into Eileen.
“You look happy.”
“I am. Marya Davis, the famous chef and author of many cookbooks, just rented the downstairs room. I’m thrilled, and she said she’d cook for us whenever we want. We’re going to be her guinea pigs for the next year.”
“How cool,” Eileen said, beaming. “I hate to cook.”
“Yeah, me too,” Francesca agreed. It had never been her strong suit, and Todd had been a much better cook than she was. “Well, that’s it. We’ve got a full house now,” Francesca said, looking pleased and relieved. Her mortgage payments were fully covered now without Todd. And they were a good group. Eileen, Chris, and now Marya. She had been very lucky with the roommates she’d found, contrary to her mother’s dire predictions, and even her own fears, and Todd’s.
It was perfect. The house on Charles Street was alive and full. They were all nice people, and Marya was a wonderful addition. 44 Charles Street was teeming with life. They were even going to be eating great food as soon as Marya moved in. It didn’t get better than that.