It had been three months since the breakup and Emily was reclaiming relationship landmarks. She arranged to meet her date at what had been her and Marcel’s second-favorite café. The forecast was rain. A pear-colored umbrella hung over the chair where Emily sat wearing a pear-colored skirt, drinking water and breathing. On a tree outside, two birds chased each other. It was a pursuit whose rules seemed to change at the end of each branch, when, with pointed tweets, the birds would reverse, the chaser becoming the chased.
Next to her, a voice said, “Emily.”
She was still looking out the window, so it was to his reflection that she bid hello before turning to the actual man.
“These reminded me of you,” he said, holding out a sleeve of daffodils. “Cheerful.”
“Marcel.” She placed her nose amidst the yellow heads and breathed. “How considerate and thoughtful.” He was not wearing jeans. She looked at his pants, where normally his cell phone perched, glowing. “No phone?”
He pulled his suit jacket aside to reveal an unencumbered waistline. “I left it at work. Answering your phone at the table is classless.” He sat down. “Tell me about your day. Leave nothing out. Did you interview anyone who reminded you of a childhood memory you’d like to share?”
Emily was a writer for Clef, a magazine for classical music aficionados. She had spent the day learning how a cello is made. “Not unless I was a cello when I was young.”
Marcel’s smile cracked. “I don’t follow.”
“A joke,” she said.
The waiter appeared. Marcel did not rush to order for himself but instead motioned to Emily. “What would you like, Buttercup?”
She ordered quiche. He said what a great idea quiche was, then ordered the same.
The waiter had a Southern accent. “I’m from the South, too!” Emily clapped. “Where are you from?”
“Macon, Georgia,” the waiter said. “You?”
“New Jersey,” Emily said. She handed her menu to him and he retreated, looking confused.
Emily slid her hands over her head to smooth any stray hairs. “You’ve never called me ‘Buttercup.’”
“You’re bright. Like a buttercup.” His smile opened. Not a grin, not biting. “I’m cutting down my hours at the gallery because my job has made me careless and impatient. I would have been a better boyfriend had I considered you more. I looked in the mirror, Buttercup, and I didn’t like what I saw. Do you think it’s possible to self-renovate? To self-correct?”
“How I do,” said Emily.
This Marcel did not put his hand between her legs. He did not glare at the family seated next to them, whose child had climbed onto the windowsill to yell “Water!” and “Gladys!”
The quiche came. They ate the quiche. They made comments to each other about the quiche as they ate it.
He said, “Let’s have a farm of children.”
Emily’s mouth was full. “Load me up.”
“I’ll commute to the gallery. You’ll tend our brood. We’ll have corgis. A farm of children and corgis.”
Emily paused, mid-chew. “You said people today use their dogs like designer handbags.”
“I’ve been too judgmental about people and their dogs.”
Emily stabbed her quiche. “Food for thought, I guess.”
A woman passing their table said, “Emily?” It was Willa, a childhood friend. She beamed at Emily—then, noticing Marcel, blinked several times in shock. “What are the two of you doing here? Marcel, are you wearing a suit?”
Emily cleared her throat. “What brings you here?”
“Dropping off a table.”
“Another Willa gem, I’m sure,” said Marcel. “Someday you will teach me to restore furniture. Stripping an old bureau to uncover its original wood sounds like heaven.”
Willa looked suspicious. “You said it was glorified trash-picking.”
Emily laughed. The child at the table next to them yelled “Gladys!”
Willa said, “That kid must be driving you batty, Marcel.”
“On the contrary. Emily and I were discussing the farm of children we want to have. And corgis.”
Willa’s eyebrow jolted toward the ceiling. She turned to Emily. “Come see my table.”
“I don’t want to leave Marcel. . . . ”
“Buttercup. See the table.”
Emily followed her friend to the empty dining room in the back. When they were out of earshot, Willa turned and, in a calm voice, said, “Who the shit is that?”
“Marcel, of course.”
“I thought he defriended you!”
“Marcel doesn’t wear suits,” Willa said.
“He looked in the mirror, and he didn’t like what he saw.”
Willa’s mouth twisted as if it contained a piece of candy she didn’t trust. “Marcel doesn’t look in the mirror.”
“Pessimist,” Emily said. “Dour!”
“‘Butter,’” Willa said, “‘cup’?”
Emily faltered. “He’s more of an idea, I guess.”
“Emily! What are you doing? Having dinner with an idea?”
“I’m just eating quiche.”
Willa used Emily’s elbow to steer her to the door, where they could see Marcel, hiding his face from the Gladys kid behind a napkin. He showed it, hid it, then showed it. The Gladys kid yelled, “Peekaboo!”
“That is not Marcel.” Willa’s voice was sad, as if it held a wounded bird. “Some things can’t be refurbished.”
Emily cleared her throat. “Where is the table?”
“There is no table.”
They rejoined The Idea of Marcel. Emily sat down and Willa left.
“Everything copacetic, Buttercup?”
Now the name seemed forced, childish. So did the flowers.
The quiche was gone, and Emily did not want dessert, but he did not intuit her desire to leave. He ordered an after-dinner liqueur the color of turkey breast. As he sipped from it, she crossed her legs and re-crossed them. “Where is the real Marcel tonight?”
He twisted his napkin. “Out and about?”
They sat for a moment in silence.
“He’s with another woman,” she said.
He nodded. The force of this upended her heart. It swiveled and came to rest.
Emily said, “She probably likes soccer more, and pubs.”
He did not seem to want to co-conspire. “Why are you with me, if you still think about him?”
“Because I want to be with you. You.” Emily spoke with the aggression of someone who was no longer certain.
“I find talking about an ex during a date to be bad form.”
Emily thought of her first dinner with the real Marcel, here, at this table, in this café. He told her about his previous girlfriend in such detail they both cried. He had been honest and vulnerable and ratty and present and fucked up and attainable. He told a joke about a gynecologist and pretended to use his fork as a headlamp.
The check came. The Idea of Marcel paid, and they sauntered to the street like first dates.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said. “I’ll follow you up the stairs to your immaculate and tasteful apartment. We’ll play jazz LPs and say our opinions about them. Let’s start now. John Coltrane versus Miles Davis: go.”
“Come off it,” she said. “You hate jazz.”
“Then I will call you tomorrow. I won’t be able to get through twenty-four hours without hearing your voice.”
It was a line that sounded better in her mind. “I feel like scrambled eggs,” she said.
He didn’t understand. “We just had quiche.”
“I mean my head feels like scrambled eggs. I’d like to go home, have a cup of tea.”
“Green tea with honey is my favorite,” he said.
“No,” she sighed. “It’s not.”
The rain fell so hard it made the leaves clap. Emily walked to where she knew he would be, amidst the applause.
What was a friendship, anyway? A pile of leaves and some twine. A dinner every so often. Every so often, a long, shattering phone call. By defriending her, Marcel was saying: You are not worth my every so often. This bothered Emily more than the fact that she would never again smell like his soap.
She reached Café Diabolique, their favorite. Marcel and his date sat by the window. Emily was grateful for the camouflage of her umbrella so she could watch them from across the street. Seeing his face after months was like seeing a celebrity in her local grocery store: familiar and startling. He wore jeans and an Iron & Wine T-shirt. He had always listened to the music of a more sensitive man; she had let several relationship cruelties slide because of it.
The woman looked familiar. For a moment, Emily mistook her for a mutual friend and prepared to get gorilla earthquake crazy. Then she realized who it was.
It was her. Her her. Emily her. Marcel’s Idea of Emily.
Emily said “Ha!” out loud. Proof: He still thought of her. She could go home now and sleep, eat, brush her teeth.
At first glance, the other woman was an exact replica. Yet, as Emily looked closer, small differences emerged. This woman’s long hair was gathered in a loose ponytail. Soft strands fell in her face.
“Get a barrette!” Emily said.
This woman wore a black T-shirt with a band’s insignia that Emily stepped in a puddle attempting to read.
Marcel was telling a story. He was no doubt expounding on his favorite topic: negative space, how what was not there was as important as what was there. The other woman listened with what looked like rapt attention.
The check came. Marcel in the restaurant and Emily on the street said, “We didn’t order this!” The other Emily laughed like it was funny. She produced a credit card, but Marcel wouldn’t hear of it—this was obvious in his wagging-head, hand-slicing-through-air, No!
So there is a woman on earth he will pay for. Emily sniffed. This woman is nothing like me! I would never wear a band T-shirt on a date! Me, she reminded herself. This me. In front of her, the streetlight clicked to green. It hit her: Marcel was not having dinner with his Idea of Emily, but the Emily he wished she was. His Ideal Emily. The Emily that Emily had spent four years convincing herself did not exist. Sure, Emily had conjured up an Idea, but an Idea was at least based on reality. An Ideal is wishing beyond reality. At least that’s how it seemed to Emily. She was confused and miserable and wet. She needed a cup of strong tea and a pad of graph paper to figure this night out.
Rain slipped off her umbrella and landed at her feet in large gasps. She envied her umbrella, because it knew its job and because it felt no pain. Because it had never dated Marcel and because it didn’t have to go around being human, pricing produce and feeling emotions. Because it had never fallen in love with the South.
Marcel was from Louisiana, so, for four years, Emily had been Southern by association. She insisted on Lynchburg Lemonades. She scheduled inter-views around the Gators. She championed gentility. Anyone at a dinner party who thought they could tell a joke making fun of the region encountered a faceful of Emily: quick and ferocious as a convert, as a woman who loved a man.
Emily now had no claim to the South. The region and its interests would proceed without her. Same went for Swiss cheese, drafting tables, being hypoglycemic, the movie Breakin’, and all of its sequels.
She looked back to the couple in time to see a picture she recognized: Marcel before a kiss. He straightened his shoulders and drummed his knees.
Across the street, the real Emily’s breath halted in her throat. She reached for anything that would stop the moment: a button to summon the WALK signal. She pushed and pushed.
Marcel leaned over the table to kiss the (WALK!) woman who also leaned in and (WALK!), before their lips met (WALK! WALK! WALK!), pulled away.
“Ha,” he said. A word easily gleaned through glass.
Emily narrowed her eyes. “Tease.”
The Ideal Emily anchored her falling hair behind her ear again in, Emily had to admit, a charming way. This woman laughed with her whole body. She made funny faces. Here was a girl you nickname: a soft fruit or a petite flying insect.
The moment was over. Marcel and the woman stood and vanished into the restaurant.
How dare he, thought Emily, invent this dime-store version of me in a band T-shirt! Emboldened by misdirected anger, the origin of which was muddy at best, Emily decided to cross the street and confront the couple.
The light was red. She waited for the WALK signal.
Marcel and the other woman reappeared, pushing through the front door of the restaurant. The rain had downgraded to a measly drizzle. Marcel held out his hand to test. Emily was halfway across the street. She was about to call out when the Ideal Emily jogged in place, yelled “Catch me if you can!,” and took off.
Marcel took off after her.
“Ballstein,” Emily said. Since everyone was running, she ran, too.
“Emily!” Marcel cried.
“Marcel!” Emily answered, but her voice was lost in the sound of a passing truck.
The Ideal set a fast pace, legs pumping and toned, ponytail beating behind her. The air was thick. The real Emily struggled to breathe, run, and hold her umbrella at the same time. How was chain-smoking, doughnut-eating Marcel doing it? She could hear his phone clacking against his hip a block away.
As she ran, Emily wondered what it would be like to have a slim pair of scissors as legs. She thought: Hummingbird, dragonfly, peach, pear, mango.
The three-person chase moved down, then up, the street.
Finally: simultaneous DON’T WALK lights. The Ideal Emily, the real Marcel, and the real Emily stopped on three different corners. Cars flew by. The real Emily, stooping to catch her breath, heard someone yell, “Buttercup!”
A block away, The Idea of Marcel was waving the forgotten sleeve of daffodils and working himself up to a jog.
“I can’t wait until tomorrow!” he said. “I must know your opinions on jazz!”
“Double Ballstein,” Emily said.
All lights turned green. All parties ran.
Emily, now pursued by The Idea of Marcel, chased after the real Marcel chasing after The Ideal Emily.
“Emily!” cried Marcel.
“Marcel!” cried Emily.
“Coltrane!” cried The Idea of Marcel.
The only silent party was The Ideal Emily, jogging beautifully, breasts bouncing in a compelling way.
Wasp nest; horsefly; rotted, maggot-ridden banana.
The Idea of Marcel yelled, “Buttercup! I will catch you if it takes all night!”
Like most strong women, Emily longed for a man to chase after her, screaming epithets of love. However, The Idea of Marcel ran like a giraffe, and his words sounded like they had been translated into Japanese and back to English.
“Exhilarate!” he said. “Brilliant chase!”
Running, Emily rolled her eyes.
Ahead, holding the slim bar of a baby carriage, a mother waited to cross the street. The Ideal ran past, cleanly. The mother pushed her carriage into the path of the real Marcel, who jockeyed around it, lost his footing, yelled, “Fuck, lady!” and kept running. The mother, disoriented, wheeled around into the face of the real Emily. Each dodged right, then left, then right, before Emily was able to shake her. She called out apologies as she sprinted away. When he reached the woman, The Idea of Marcel halted, escorted mother and baby across the street, then double-ran to rejoin the pursuit.
“Children,” he cried. “Glorious safety!”
Finally, after reaching some personal landmark of fantastic, The Ideal Emily stopped, pivoted, and performed a pretty jog-in-place while Marcel caught up. Gasping, the real Emily caught up, followed by The Idea of Marcel.
“Emily?” Marcel said, in disbelief. “Who the hell is that?” He pointed to The Idea, who used the base of a streetlamp to stretch his leg. “Capital night for a chase,” The Idea said.
“Who the hell is that?” Emily pointed to the other woman, who extended a dainty hand. “I’m Emily.”
“I’m Emily,” Emily corrected her.
“We have the same name!” said the woman. “Isn’t that bizarre?”
Marcel looked back and forth. Emily inspected her replacement, starting with the T-shirt. “Fuck a duck. Led Zeppelin?”
“I adore getting the Led out!” cried the woman.
“Why does she talk like an exclamation point?” Emily said.
Marcel lit a cigarette.
“I adore the smell of smoke!”
Emily’s eyes widened. “You made me dumb.”
Marcel said, “Sometimes you were a lot to handle.”
“This lady is weird!” said The Ideal.
Emily sucked in air. “Is that an accent?”
“I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina!” She made Carolina into an eight-syllable word: Ca-o-ro-ah-li-ah-na-uh. Then, she raised a knee to her chest and held it. “If you slowpokes are going to argue all night, I’m leaving without you!” With that, she took off again, jogging at a fast clip on a street that ascended in full view, so they could watch her run for what seemed to Emily like a long time.
On an inhale, Marcel said, “She was a track star in college. She quit to pursue modeling.”
“She can really haul,” Emily agreed.
“You don’t deserve her,” The Idea of Marcel advanced and stood next to his doppelgänger. To Emily’s surprise, The Idea was inches taller. “She deserves someone who appreciates her reticence to try new things. Who thinks experimentation in bed is overrated. Someone”—he made a dramatic pose with his chin—“who will floss with her. Someone”—he made fists and showed them to Marcel—“who will fight for her.”
Marcel squinted: his expression when he, mid-sell, stepped away from a painting to feign disinterest. “Is he serious?”
The Idea of Marcel wound up and landed a punch on Marcel’s gut. Marcel cried out in pain and looked to where he had been hit. He threw his cigarette into the street and rose to his tallest height: five-foot-eight in boots. A moment passed. The mother and baby rolled by, one of the wheels on the carriage wonky, making a cackling sound. After they passed, Marcel lunged at The Idea, who reacted like a rag doll and was thrown around as such. They ended up on their knees on the sidewalk, batting against each other like crabs.
Good gravy, thought Emily. Neither one can fight.
“Bad thinking!” The Idea said. “Assistance, Buttercup!”
Emily was torn. She had always wanted Marcel to fight for her. To land a single, grounding punch on a sleaze at a bar. To be resolute and irrational on her behalf. However, enacted in front of her, she found the fight dramatic and unnecessary.
She said, “Stop?”
The Idea of Marcel released the real Marcel with a final shove. “Anything you say, Buttercup.”
“‘Buttercup?’” Marcel rubbed his arm in pain. “Shows what you know. She hates nicknames.”
“You never tried,” said Emily. “And my name is so good for nicknames!”
“Em-press,” said the Idea. “Em and Em, Em-dash, Em-16.”
Emily said, “Shut the fuck up, Marcel.”
Marcel added, “Dickweed.”
The Idea stumbled backwards from the force of their synchronized rebuke. “I just want to self-renovate! What’s happening to my arms?” He held one up. It was dematerializing from the elbow to his fingers; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. He held up the other, which was exiting the same way.
“Corgis!” he cried, as his thighs and belly vanished. His legs called it quits into the air. His neck sayonara-ed.
He was just lips. “Buuuuutttttttttteeeeeeeerrrrrrrcuuuuup.” Finally, he was gone.
Marcel and Emily stared at the empty spot.
She said, “This world is fucking crackers.”
Marcel grinned. “I missed your mouth.” He pointed up the street to where The Ideal Emily, still jogging to nowhere, flickered. A truck drove by. Her specks dispersed. Her long ponytail winked, the last to go.
The Idea and The Ideal were dead, leaving two real people on the street.
Marcel pointed to Emily’s umbrella. “You don’t need that anymore.”
She folded it. “There are disturbing psychological elements afoot tonight.”
“You can say that again,” he said. “I just fought myself and lost.”
Emily did not say it again.
“I would never wear a suit like that,” Marcel said.
He made a mean face. She made a mean face. This was something they used to do.
He said, “I call you by your name. The name your parents gave you. Because I like the name Emily, Emily.”
She said, “If your ideal is . . . ”—she pointed up the street to where her replacement had vanished—“ . . . and I am . . . ”—she showcased herself with her hands—“ . . . and my idea of you is . . . ”—she raised her hand to indicate a height level— “ . . . but you are actually . . . ”—she lowered her hand a few inches—“ . . . then doesn’t that mean . . . ?” She sat on the curb and covered her face with her hands. “I’m tired,” she said. “I feel like scrambled eggs.”
Marcel sat next to her. “Teatime.”
She uncovered her face. He looked at her.
“You are,” he said, “the genuine article.”
Emily, alone, walked home. The rain had let up: earthworms and homeless people were back on the street. She handed a quarter to a woman who wagged her digits through fingerless gloves.
“You’re an angel,” the woman said.
Emily said, “I’m just another person on the street.”
Emily passed the first café, where, four years earlier, she and the real Marcel had their first date. This night’s reality felt so loose and carbonated that she was certain that if she peeked in, she’d see them then, four years younger, bent over a piece of cake. He’d be holding his fork out, in the middle of a joke. She’d be wondering if the metal clasp on his jeans was a button or a snap: would it require wrenching or just a quick, satisfying yank?
Let them talk, this Emily thought. She walked by.
A shattering inside and dull laughter.
Light over the trees, a few stars.
Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of Safe as Houses, a collection of short stoires that received the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award.