“Something extraordinary happened to me today,” says Delilah, twenty-six and strikingly beautiful with dark brown hair cut very short, housemate of Celia and Nathan for thirteen years now. “Of course being at Ziggurat Farm is inherently extraordinary, but today…”
Nathan, eighty-five, and Celia, seventy-nine, are sitting with Delilah in the living room of their small two-bedroom house on the eastern edge of the northern California coastal town of Mercy. Thanksgiving is four days away, a fire is blazing in the hearth, and their tummies are full of rock cod tacos and garlic potatoes and a big green salad.
“Earth to Delilah,” says Nathan, unused to seeing Delilah drift away in the middle of a sentence. “You were saying? But today?”
“Oh,” says Delilah, blushing upon her return to the present. “Today I met Thomas Darling. He arrived at the end of Drawing class, and the frisson between us was…” She muses for a moment without drifting away again. “The closest thing to what I experienced with him was when I first met you two, the feeling of…” She searches for the right word. “Recognition. Profound recognition. Only this time…” Her blush deepens. “There was a sexual component to the energy mix.”
“Is he handsome like his brother Michael,” asks Celia, referring to Michael who lives with his wife Daisy and their baby Jenna in the house adjacent to Ziggurat Farm, two miles inland from Mercy.
“I’m not sure,” says Delilah, sighing. “Every time I looked at him he was bathed in golden light, so who knows what he actually looks like.”
“Did he recognize you?” asks Celia, hoping Thomas saw more in Delilah than her physical beauty.
“He must have,” says Delilah, nodding, “or I don’t think I would have recognized him. Do you know what I mean?”
“I do,” says Celia, looking at Nathan and recalling the first time they met fifty-four years ago. “That’s how it was when I met this guy. I could tell he was really seeing me and not just looking at my breasts, so then I could really see him.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” says Nathan, returning Celia’s gaze, “but wasn’t there a bit of frisson between us, too?”
“Let’s not rush things,” says Delilah, getting up to put a kettle on for tea. “For all I know he’s living with someone back in Ithaca and thought I had nice boobs and didn’t recognize me at all.”
“He’ll have to move out here,” says Nathan, gruffly. “Too cold for us in Ithaca and we insist on helping with the children.”
“Stop,” says Delilah, laughing.
“She thinks I’m kidding,” says Nathan, winking at Celia.
“Bastante marido,” says Celia, pointing at him. “Let her have a crush and see where it goes.”
“I apologize, D,” says Nathan, grinning at Delilah. “You know me.”
Delilah is not a virgin. When she was twenty-two, she and her close friend Josh, who was also twenty-two, decided to learn how to have sex before they got any older. They felt their ignorance in this regard was becoming an obstacle to future happiness, so despite Delilah not being sexually attracted to Josh, they endeavored to have sex on three different occasions over the course of two weeks.
For their first try, they consulted a book illustrated with glossy black-and-white photographs of a man and a woman engaging in foreplay and then coupling in a variety of ways. They giggled nervously while looking at the pictures, disrobed, and after brief and wholly unsatisfying foreplay, Josh failed three times to successfully deploy a condom before finally managing to sheath himself. They then awkwardly assumed the missionary position, closed their eyes, Josh was way off target, so to speak, and consequently berated himself with shockingly foul language that put the kibosh on their continuing.
The second time they tried, they got stoned, took things slower, engaged in some satisfactory petting, and managed to couple ever so briefly in the missionary position before Josh orgasmed, withdrew, and fled.
Before they tried again, Delilah had a lengthy and enlightening coaching session with Lisa, Delilah’s dear friend at Ziggurat Farm—Lisa a massage therapist, mother, and sexually savvy.
Thus educated, Delilah took charge of her third session with Josh, expertly deployed the condom, positioned Josh in the proper position, and guided him inside her. And though Josh came a moment after entering her and immediately withdrew and wanted to leave, Delilah convinced him to stay and try again a half-hour later, at which time they were able to have intercourse for a few minutes before he came again and fled; after which Delilah felt she had passed her driving test, so to speak.
The day after Delilah told Nathan and Celia about meeting Thomas, Nathan spends the morning at Ziggurat Farm teaching a writing class and having lunch with his students, while Delilah and Celia spend the morning together walking the dogs, grocery shopping, and running errands, Delilah’s afternoon to be full of giving piano lessons.
Celia and Delilah are having lunch in the kitchen when the phone rings.
“Buenos,” says Celia to the caller.
“Hi,” says a man with a pleasing baritone. “My name is Thomas Darling. May I speak to Delilah, please?”
“Uno momento,” says Celia, handing the phone to Delilah and mouthing the name Thomas.
“Hello?” says Delilah, clutching the phone.
“Hi Delilah. Thom Darling. Wondering if you’re free any time this week. To do something. With me.”
“I… I… well… probably,” she says, flabbergasted. “Um… I teach at the farm three mornings a week and I give piano lessons three afternoons a week and on Saturday, and I’m sitting the Fletcher Gallery on Thursday and Sunday, but… can I call you back?”
“That would be great,” he says, sounding nervous. “Got a pen handy?”
“Hold on,” she says, taking pen and paper from Celia. “Okay I’m ready.”
He gives her his number, they hang up, and Delilah says, “I really like his voice.”
“So do I,” says Celia, who makes a prayer every day that Delilah will find a partner before Nathan dies.
“I’m overwhelmed,” says Delilah, going to Celia for a hug.
“Just remember,” says Celia, holding her. “He’s overwhelmed, too.”
“He’s actually quite handsome,” says Delilah, relaxing in Celia’s embrace. “To me anyway.”
An associate professor of Wildlife Biology at Cornell, Thomas Darling is, by most measures, a strange cat. Tall and broad-shouldered with unruly red hair, he is an authority on foxes, prefers animals to humans, lives in Ithaca in a commune with six other material minimalist Buddhists, and believes jet travel and the continuing manufacture of internal combustion engines are crimes against the biosphere.
He’s been in two one-year relationships with fellow Buddhist material minimalists, both relationships ending when his partners wanted to get married and have children, something Thomas couldn’t imagine with either of them.
“How did you get here if you don’t believe in flying in jets or driving cars?” asks Delilah, sitting opposite Thomas at a small table in Happy Day Café & Bakery in downtown Mercy, cold and rainy outside, the café toasty.
“I flew in a jet and rented an electric car,” says Thomas, blithely admitting his crime. “It’s not that I don’t believe in flying, I think it’s immoral, and to atone for my immoral behavior I will pay for the planting of five hundred trees to mitigate some of the damage I did to Mother Earth by coming out here in a jet instead of on the train.”
“The earth would be covered with trees if everybody who flew did that,” she says, loving the concept of people planting trees every time they fly or drive anywhere. “Wouldn’t it?”
“Alas, no,” he says, shaking his head. “We’re losing trees by the billions every year. But enough about the death of the biosphere, tell me about you.”
“I’m a musician and a composer and an artist,” she says, trying not to think about the death of the biosphere. “And I dance. For the first thirteen years of my life I was cloistered with a series of nannies in Manhattan or Malibu, depending on the whims of my mother who was a movie star and is now deceased. For the last twelve years I’ve been living in Mercy with Nathan and Celia who I plan to live with, or live very close to, until they both die, and I hope that won’t be any time soon because to say I’m emotionally dependent on them would be the understatement of the century. And I would rather not tell you my mother’s name.”
“Daisy told me,” says Thomas, referring to the wife of his brother Michael— Daisy and Michael part of the Ziggurat Farm collective. “I haven’t seen any of your mother’s movies, but a few winters ago I rented a cabin in New Hampshire and was snowed in for three days. I had nothing else to do but try to stay warm, so I read the few things they had there to read, including a collection of magazines with pictures of your mother along with the usual superficial interviews, so I know what she looked like and know she gave money to Planned Parenthood, which was good of her, but I must say, for my taste, you are far more beautiful than your mother.”
“You never met her when she was twenty-five,” says Delilah, loathing Thomas’s tone of voice and his false surety. “And to be honest, your summation of your knowledge of my mother strikes me as flippant, crass, condescending, and obscenely insensitive. Would you agree?”
“Yes,” he says, his bravado vanishing. “I guess I am crass and insensitive and flippant. I apologize. I don’t intend to be, but I often am. Pompous is another word people use to describe me, the entire expression being pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.” He closes his eyes. “I really don’t want to be this way, but apparently I am.”
“You weren’t the day we met,” she says, liking him a little more than she did a moment ago. “Maybe you think you have to be someone you’re not in order to impress people or not seem too vulnerable. Men, in general, seem to have difficulty being vulnerable and open to intimacy, the prototypical male pretending to know everything lest he seem weak for not knowing. And by the way, when I say open to intimacy I don’t mean sexual intimacy, I mean emotional intimacy.”
“I have that difficulty,” he says, nodding. “Being open to intimacy. Either kind.”
“Do you know why?” she says, heartened by his willingness to be honest with her.
“Emotional intimacy wasn’t modeled for me by anyone when I was growing up,” he says with a plaintive shrug. “Quite the opposite. I was rewarded for being smarter than most of my peers, but never for being open to intimacy. I’m ten years younger than Caroline and twelve years younger than Michael, and by the time I came along they were too busy fending for themselves to teach me about emotional anything, though they were both tolerant of me and occasionally kind. My nannies were competent, and one of them was very sweet to me, though I was dreadful to her. My parents were busy elsewhere most of the time and I didn’t know anything about emotional intimacy or love or tenderness until I started studying animals when I was thirteen and audited a class at the university where my parents were professors. Foxes, for instance, are devoted and loving to their pups in ways that would be considered incredible if they were humans. In fact, foxes were my first role models regarding tenderness and devotion to others.”
“Nathan defines love as devotion to the miraculous nature of the other,” she says, liking Thomas more than ever now. “Whether the other is a fox or a dog or a person or a tree or a place or anything. What do you think about that?”
“I think I’d like to meet Nathan and ask him lots of questions,” says Thomas, in awe of her. “I think he’s right. And I wish somebody had modeled such devotion for me when I was growing up so I could have practiced that my whole life instead of practicing being a pompous self-righteous know-it-all asshole.”
“It’s not too late to change,” she says, deciding she’d like to try being in a relationship with him. “You’re still quite young, you know.”
“I’m going to try to change,” he says sincerely. “Whether you go out with me again or not.”
“Was that a roundabout way of asking me out again?” she asks, arching her eyebrow. “One might interpret it that way.”
“It wasn’t,” he says, shaking his head. “It was my clumsy way of saying I’m going to try to change, not just to please you and hope you like me, but because you’ve helped me see who I might become.”
“Well then I’ll ask you,” she says, wanting to kiss him. “Would you like to come for supper tomorrow night? Celia and I are making chicken enchiladas. Raul and Caroline are coming, too.”
“I’d love to,” he says, feeling he might cry, though he never cries. “What time?”
“We’ll eat around six, but come at five-thirty for hoovry doovries as we call hors d’oeuvres at our house.”
Raul is fifty-six, a famous chef with a world-renowned restaurant in Mercy. Until three months ago, all his many relationships with women had been purely sexual and none ever lasted more than a couple months. Now he has been involved with Caroline, Michael and Thomas’s sister, for three months and he is happier than he’s ever been, not that he was unhappy before he became involved with Caroline.
“Except for one year of therapy when I was in my twenties, I have lived my entire life on the surface of my feelings,” says Raul, talking with his kitchen manager and sous chef Maurice. “But with Caroline I’m often swimming in my feelings as they mingle with hers, and it feels divine.”
Raul is sitting with Maurice at a counter in the glorious kitchen of Ocelot, Raul’s restaurant housed in a large old Victorian overlooking Mercy Bay, the restaurant closed Mondays and Tuesdays, this a Tuesday afternoon. They have just made a list of food and supplies for Maurice to order, and Raul will soon leave for supper at Nathan and Celia’s.
Maurice is a big Frenchman in his fifties who has worked with Raul for seventeen years and lives in a large apartment above the restaurant with his partner Jerome, a choreographer who spends every other month in San Francisco and teaches ballroom dancing at the Mercy Rec Center when he’s in town.
“I’m glad you’re in love,” says Maurice, who expects Raul to dump Caroline any day now. “Jerome is thrilled, of course, but then he’s a romantic and I, as you know, am a cynic. Even so, it’s nice to see you so happy. The atmosphere in the restaurant has greatly improved because you are. I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“I have,” says Raul, who has long known his mood sets the standard for his staff, and this in turn resounds to the patrons. “We are not so somber and serious.”
“Though not yet frivolous,” says Maurice, laughing. “May we stop short of frivolity.”
Silence falls—the ocean roaring faintly in the background, both of them thinking about Raul hoping to buy out the wealthy couple who initially financed Ocelot and brought Raul and Maurice to Mercy four years ago.
“I made my offer yesterday,” says Raul, ending the silence. “No word yet, but Darlene did not sound displeased. I know she’s weary of making the long trek from Santa Barbara, and Frank has lost interest in coming here. The golfing is not good and he is too far from his mistress. And most importantly, their sycophants much prefer the warmer clime of Santa Barbara and the opulence of the palace in Montecito.”
“Fingers crossed,” says Maurice, who loves the Ocelot kitchen and loves living far from the madding crowd, his desire to be in the mix in San Francisco gone now.
Caroline and Thomas drive to Nathan and Celia’s together in Caroline’s little blue pickup, both of them staying at Michael and Daisy’s house along with their parents Marlene and Everett who are visiting until a few days after Thanksgiving.
“You seem tense,” says Caroline, uncharacteristically wearing a dress, a slinky one at that. “I’m not used to seeing you tense. Are you?”
“Maybe so,” says Thom, rolling his shoulders and feeling them ache. “I feel like I’m about to meet Gandhi.”
“More like St. Francis,” says Caroline, thinking of Nathan standing in the apple orchard directing the pruning of the trees, “with a sense of humor and a beautiful wife.”
Thomas looks at her. “I’ve never felt this way about anybody.”
“We are speaking of Delilah,” says Caroline, taking the curves slowly, rain falling.
Thomas nods. “Do you like her?”
“Hello?” says Caroline, giving him an are-you-nuts?-of-course-I-do look. “If I wasn’t insanely in love with Raul, and it is insane of me to persist in this doomed relationship, I’d be longing for Delilah, except she doesn’t seem interested in me that way. Even so, when we’re in the soaking tub together I can’t keep my hands off her.”
“I’ve never liked your boyfriends,” says Thomas, very much hoping to one day be in a tub with Delilah, “and I always like your girlfriends. I guess that says more about me than about you.”
“I’ve never liked my boyfriends either,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Until now. And this one is sixteen years older than I am.”
“Is that the main sticking point for you?”
“That and he lives here and not in New Hampshire where I have my career.”
“How funny we both came out here to visit our big brother and fell in love with people who would never in a million years move to where we live.”
“Ha ha,” says Caroline, pulling up in front of Nathan and Celia’s just as Raul arrives on foot, her heart thumping when she sees him—love, real love, not giving a hoot about age or location.
During supper Raul gazes intently at Celia and says, “Your enchilada sauce is impeccable. The balance of heat and the many flavors is fantastic. I would be most grateful if you would show me how to make this sauce.” He turns to Delilah who is also uncharacteristically wearing a dress and is too alluring for words. “And your guacamole is just how I like it. Bravo.”
“Gracias,” says Celia, giving Delilah a can-you-believe-it? look. “My grandmother is smiling in heaven.”
“Gracias también,” says Delilah, clinking her wine glass with Celia’s. “Celia taught me, though I tend to use a bit more lemon than she and a bit less onion.”
After more food talk, Nathan says to Thomas, “Delilah tells us you’re an authority on foxes. Seen any at the farm yet?”
“I’ve seen their spore,” says Thomas, tearing his eyes away from Delilah to focus on Nathan, “and paw prints in the mud near the chicken coop, but I have yet to see one.”
“Are the local ones the kind you’ve studied?” asks Nathan, who has a special love for foxes.
“I have studied Gray Foxes, yes,” says Thomas, who all during supper has been thinking he would gladly give up his academic career and be a grocery clerk or a house painter or work in a hardware store if Delilah would consent to be in a relationship with him, “though not to the extent I’ve studied Red Foxes, which are ubiquitous in New England. And you might be interested to know that Red Foxes and your Gray Foxes are only remotely related and cannot interbreed.”
“That is interesting,” says Nathan, seeing why Delilah likes Thomas. “I used to prune a big old plum tree that every few years attracted a mother fox and her pups when the fruit started to ripen, and I was amazed by what monkeys those baby foxes were, scrambling around in the branches, hanging from their paws as they knocked the plums to the ground and then scampered down to eat them. Amazing.”
“I’d love to see that,” says Thomas, beaming at Nathan. “Foxes are considered semi-arboreal, no doubt a saving trait in those times when large predators abounded.”
“Thom is also an excellent artist,” says Delilah, giving Thomas a loving look. “The drawing he did of Henri with his accordion and wearing a feathery headdress is exquisite.”
“Oh I’d love to see it,” says Raul, speaking to Thomas. “I need a drawing for a wall in my restaurant that could use some cheering up.”
“I’ll show it to you tomorrow,” says Thomas, his life as a person devoted to others unfolding before him.