The Lick

She’s way too young for him, so young that he never even thought of her “like that.” But then she invited him to dinner.


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As she does every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Jade floats up the rotting stairs with my lunch order.

“Knock-knock,” she says, passing the door I keep propped open on fair-weather days.

“Turkey sub,” I say.

“Turkey sub who?” (Our stupid little joke.) Her voice is as dry as a desert. A condition, but it comes off sultry and too world-wise for a college student.

Jade hands me my sandwich, a diet soda, and a few napkins. There’s a note stuck to the napkins. Come for dinner it reads, followed by a time and an address. I hand it back, but she refuses, her hands fresh out of plastic gloves, her fingers pale and wrinkled, as though they’ve been soaking.

“An admirer?” I say.

“It’s for you,” she says. “Will you come?”

I examine the note again. Inventing a previous engagement would inject a lie into our friendly association; Jade knows my schedule, my commitments, who my friends are and how I kill a typical Friday night (working through dinner with aspirations to exercise afterward, but not). I look up at her. She pulls at one ear, the little silver studs along her helix flashing in the light.

“Seven?” I say, and she gives me an old-fashioned smile I’m glad no orthodontist has conformed. Then she’s down the stairs, one-two one-two one-two, leaving me to think … dinner?

If Jade has been flirtatious these months I’ve known her, I’ve been as perceptive as a stone. I rule out a prank; she’s too earnest. And though I can make her laugh easily, can humor support a bridge between generations? I hold up well to interrogation (Jade likes to ask personal questions that a man could get into trouble asking of a woman), but conversation can’t be what college women are after. I’ve always assumed I am an excuse for Jade to take a cigarette break, dawdling on the steps while I sit at the little bistro table a previous tenant chained to the railing. Maybe she needs money. But she must know, from this hole of an office, that I’m not exactly rolling in it. Daddy issues? I hope not. Maybe she needs help with her taxes. Is it cowardly to admit I almost hope this is so?

Not that I’m dead.

I’ve imagined myself downstairs in the sandwich shop after closing time, putting my arms around Jade’s waist to untie the knot of her apron. I pull the neck strap over her head, then remove the gray-and-blue employee cap. At which point the chum and chaff of work intrudes: payroll deduction changes, forgotten withholdings, overdue invoices. Jade did appear in a dream once, dancing through the trays of sandwich toppings behind the sneeze guard. But what can I do with that?

Since Lulu and I split six years ago, I have found that intimacy brings no goodness that outlasts a couple of days: no follow-on relationship, no grand plans, just the lulling white noise of disappointment. I suspect it’s this way for most single people who’ve found themselves at my age without a fixed partner, without children of their own, without a mortgage nearly paid in full. There are women I have yearned for, naturally. Some are even my friends. But I lack the necessary allure to dissolve the relationships in which they remain stubbornly content. These are facts Jade has probably gleaned from me since she started bringing up my lunch orders. So again … why dinner?

Nevertheless, here I am home from work, shaving my evening stubble with a fresh blade, trimming the hair from my cavernous ears and mysterious nostrils. I take a shower so hot I empty the tank. I dress in jeans, a navy button-down shirt, an uncracked leather belt, my brown loafers over the good socks. Out I go, on foot, smelling like I’m up to something.

I wonder what Jade wears outside of work. I wonder if I should pick up a bottle of wine? (Does she even drink? Should I bring a dessert instead?) The note doesn’t specify, and because Jade’s always been the one doing the questioning — asking me what I like and don’t like, what I’m into or could possibly see myself doing — I’m in the dark as I stop at a market. No, that’s not quite right. It’s because I never asked enough questions of Jade that I’m in the dark. I should have been more interested in her as a person, no matter that I am far too old for her. Correction No. 2: No matter that she’s far too young for me.

The address on the note leads to a brick two-story house with a wraparound porch, a 20-minute walk from my condo. The place is run down, a rental no doubt, with white curtains and a worn welcome mat depicting a frog on a lily pad against which I shuffle in place for a moment before ringing the bell. I realize Jade must have roommates; there’ll be judgment from them. The thought makes me queasy. I hear her yell, then the quick tramping of stairs. Jade opens the door.

“Punctual,” she says.

She isn’t. Her hair is hidden within a turban of terrycloth, the rest of her wrapped in a silk robe that clings tightly to damp skin. A younger man with a better back would scoop her up and carry her to wherever the bedroom lies. The peculiar luxury of my age allows me to simply stand there and appear unperturbed.

Ah but after a few more minutes, the evening’s ploy is revealed. Jade had asked her aunt Dora (a woman even older than I am, and in whose house we stand) if she could bring a friend to dinner (moi). And now, introductions made, one of Jade’s friends has texted her about needing a ride (a broken-down car, something about tires). And so here I sit, eating eggplant lasagna with Dora, who I sense has been through this little setup game before. (There isn’t even a third table setting for Jade.)

We laugh about the situation, Dora and I, over the dinner and a bottle of wine — hers. The only other creature in the house is Dora’s deaf Dalmatian, who licks the walls slowly, as though to say: Don’t mind me. You don’t have to share your lasagna. I’m fine with this wall.

“It’s the medication she’s on,” Dora explains, omitting the ailment.

Dora talks as much as her niece does, but declaratively. (I imagine Dora asks so little about me because she knows everything already, secondhand.) I learn that Dora teaches kinesiology at the college, where she also runs a rehabilitation lab. She inherited this house and the dog from her father.

The evening is — of course — a humiliation. Here I am, clearly a man who can be lured by a maybe-20-year-old, a man with some sort of intentions with a maybe-20-year-old. (I am grateful I showed up with dessert instead of a bottle of wine.) I feel embarrassed, but also misrepresented and oversold. Why does Jade believe I’m a match for her aunt? I sense Dora is asking herself the same question over the course of our dessert, my not-quite-thawed blueberry tart sitting beside her vanilla ice cream that I suspect is sugar-free. We power through. I help with the dishes while she changes out of a blueberry-stained shirt I can’t help but feel responsible for. I watch as her Dalmatian continues to smash her tongue wherever she can access the walls, the path of her obsession marked by a long series of damp ellipses.

Dora returns wearing an oversized gray sweater draped over the waist of an orange skirt. She is relaxed, warm, at ease, and acts as though she has known me for years. I wonder if she’s taken something upstairs, or perhaps had a quick text exchange with Jade where something amusing passed between them. We keep talking over coffee, but we have few commonalities beyond time and place. She is liberal and politically engaged; I’m a defunct fiscal conservative and may never bother voting again. Dora enjoys traveling abroad and learning languages; bliss for me is the association pool and the crossword puzzle. She’s into meditation and mysticism; I’m a long-lapsed Episcopalian who believes (and tries not to think about) inescapable finality. Dora was once part of a skydiving team that placed silver, twice; the upper atmospheres reached from the outside stairs to my office can give me vertigo. Dora makes use of a little dope every evening to help her sleep; I have always fallen asleep in seconds. It does turn out that we went to the same grade school growing up, though she was several years ahead of me and we only had one teacher in common. (She had Ms. Ginnons before her stroke; I had her, terrifyingly, after.)

It occurs to me now, staid as I am, that perhaps Jade didn’t misjudge the possible affinity between her aunt and me. Perhaps Jade sees me as ballast to her aunt’s high-flying nature, a man to guide Dora toward consolidating her credit card debt at a lower interest rate, a man to note the dry rot outside and suggest remediation, a man about the house for the things that need doing.

“Well,” Dora says, after we’ve exhausted ourselves with chitchat and are standing now by her front door, a cool evening draft blowing through the mail-clogged slot.

The old Dalmatian follows us, still licking the walls.

“I suppose we gave it a try,” Dora says of the evening, of us. She swivels her open palm back and forth against the newel post of the stairs. “Any interest in a roll in the hay anyway?”


Do I have agency? Doubtful. I’m ambivalent about the existence of free will. But Dora does look lovely lying asleep on her bed, one young-looking haunch exposed to the pre-dawn glow of a streetlight. I think I detect a smile, as though she is faintly amused in her sleep, but it’s too dark to tell for certain. As I dress, quietly, I reassemble the facts: I can almost imagine that this home belongs to the two of us, that Jade is our college daughter, that a lifetime of additional memories lies just behind a veil that a cup of coffee will soon pierce. But it’s the imagined life that buckles as I creep downstairs, knowing I have overthought the evening. All that was needed of me, perhaps from the very beginning, was that roll in the hay.

As I tie my shoes, the Dalmatian comes to me like a ghost. She wants out. I find a leash hanging from the coat stand and let her lead me up and down the still sunless street, tracing the path Dora must make every morning. After relieving herself, the dog turns and moves arthritically up the walk and indoors. I follow and replace the leash.

Before I leave, I find a spot between two framed photos and feel the texture with my fingers. I lean in, curious, and give the wall a long, slow lick. I taste dust, chalk, stale water, something faintly smoke-like, a tang I imagine must exist across all untasted walls. It spooks me.

Here I am, slipping out of my shoes and climbing back upstairs, now quietly undressing in Dora’s bedroom. Here I am, pulling aside the duvet and reclaiming the faint heat I left behind. Here I am, an hour later, as Dora stirs and opens her eyes and says, hey there, and I say hey there back. This is how a fling, a relationship, a friendship, a heartache, a reconciliation, a reprieve, a love, a loss, a Saturday, begins.

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  1. A really good short story with some definite unexpected twists, turns and a seemingly second happy ending. The opening picture of the beautiful Dalmatian in that split-second lick shot had me wanting to read it as soon as I saw it. I do believe this dog is much younger than the one in the story, but that’s okay. No objection here whatsoever.

    I like your thought process mixed with the conversation here, and enough information about the character’s backgrounds. I’m sorry the dog’s medication is probably the thing responsible for her licking the walls. I’d tell the vet, and see if a different one wouldn’t have that side effect. As far as aunt Dora goes, she’s a fascinating lady in her interests and talents. If a little dope every evening helps her sleep, then that’s just what the doctor ordered.


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