by Jack A. Urquhart
was an aubergine that launched Tripp on his last once-upon-a-time, that made him decide to marry the girl in the third floor apartment—that and the fact she was the third occupant in as many years. Tripp figured all that had to mean something since besides being a vegetarian and fond of eggplant, his life was rich in threes: youngest of three children, all born in March, third in his family to complete college.
Recent validations included his meteoric career advancement—three promotions in six years, something of a record for an insurance actuary, he’d been told.
Of course, there were less savory factors—the collapse of two relationships in the same period, for example. His latest romantic failure—Alice’s defection—had come weeks short of a third ‘anniversary’.
“Even so, I think this time’ll be the charm,” Tripp told his friend Thomas in announcing his amorous pursuit of the third-floor woman.
Ever doubtful, Thomas cited hard facts. “I hate to throw wicked stepsisters your way, but as a numbers man, you should know the stats don’t favor fairytales. Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce,” Thomas reminded him. “It’s sixty-seven percent the second time around, and seventy-three percent the third.”
“I’ve always been partial to fairytales,” Tripp countered. “And besides, I wasn’t married to Gretel or Alice. That should skew the odds.”
His friend wasn’t persuaded. “A technicality of civil ceremony,” Thomas persisted. “Sounds like you’re wishing on stars, betting everything on crazy odds—and a vegetable! Since when does a woman’s preference for eggplant constitute an omen?” he’d wanted to know.
Tripp dismissed his friend’s skepticism.
“According to your numbers, I’ve got even odds,” he retorted. “Besides, eggplant isn’t a vegetable. It’s a berry. Like tomatoes.”
Thomas wasn’t the only one with facts to dispense.
Tripp hadn’t mentioned the real reasons for his matrimonial quest. That was because his friend would’ve had a field day with the notion of fateful encounters.
No such qualms on Tripp’s part.
What else but numeric kismet had him hurrying into the lobby of his apartment building thirty minutes late on that portentous Friday? Wasn’t he famous for his punctuality, the man who arrived at work on the stroke of nine, who took lunch breaks at precisely 12:15 p.m., who left for home at 6:00 on the dot? Weren’t his business meetings assiduously limited to forty-five minutes, and never scheduled on Friday afternoons?
Yet somehow, he’d been put off on that fateful day.
An unprecedented Friday afternoon meeting (called to accommodate an important client), the number 21 bus breaking down on Broadway, the ensuing difficulty of grabbing a cab on a Friday afternoon—all had played a hand in determining his late arrival. And to think he’d simply been trying to get home in time for the evening news, romance the last thing on his mind!
Yet she’d been waiting for him in the lobby—the woman from the third floor—swinging her grocery bags in front of the elevator. Waiting to make his heart stop. Three minutes either way and the tale might never have been written.
There was no way encountering his future wife had been mere chance—ditto that one of her grocery bags should give way at precisely 6:51 p.m. Tripp felt certain that only a mathematical certainty could’ve accounted for that eggplant rolling to a stop against his saddle shoe.
Bending down to the runaway aubergine, he’d noticed the bar coded sticker right off—noticed the first digit of the PLU number was “9,” the square root of which was “3.” Plus “9” signified non-genetically modified, organically grown produce.
It was an omen.
“I’m partial to eggplant parmesan,” he’d offered, handing the aubergine back. “Meatless, that is. I’m a vegetarian, though I still eat dairy.”
A slender thing, waifish, she’d been wearing over-sized dark glasses, a leopard print stretch-pleated head-wrap, recalcitrant ginger-colored curls coiling out at her temples.
“Good for you,” she murmured, voice like old smoke. “You’re one-in-nine according to the numbers. But eggplant isn’t a vegetable.”
Base fiddle strings, her voice, strummed in a lower register.
“One in nine? I should’ve known,” Tripp mumbled.
It was the way she kept swinging her grocery bags—like a little girl playing grownup with her mother’s purse—that poked his memory.
“You should wash those reusable bags after each use,” he’d said before she could get away. “Research shows fifty-one percent of them contain coliform bacteria. And you should never place meat and vegetables in the same bag.”
“That so?” she replied, sliding her dark glasses down for a closer look at him. “I’m a vegetarian too, but I’ll keep that in mind,” she said as the elevator doors closed.
Tripp considered gratitude, however oblique, sufficient encouragement.
He allowed three days before his next move, enough time for a mail order delivery.
“Hi, I noticed you buy organically grown produce,” he’d begun when the woman in the third floor apartment answered her door the following Monday evening, a bath towel wrapped turban-style around her head. “So I thought you could use this,” he said holding out the book. He’d been unable to stop staring into her eyes—eyes that absent sunglasses were the color of ripe avocado. She had a just-washed shine, her face sprinkled with crouton-toasty freckles. “I’m Tripp … from downstairs,” he croaked over the electric bee buzzing of the faulty overhead light fixture in her entryway.
He thought it a good sign that she wasn’t put off. Rather, she snatched the book from his hands so decidedly that Tripp wondered if she thought the whole thing a joke.
“That light fixture’s a hazard,” she muttered, eyes flicking briefly above his head.
“I’m Tress. Plain Tress,” she answered, giving him a blank page look.
Tripp felt chilblains along his spine. Surely there was nothing plain about her.
“I f-f-found the book online,” he stammered.
“The Earthbound Cook,” she sing-songed, voice ascending the treble clef in a single triad. “Thing is, I’m not pursuing earthbound relationships at the moment. No boyfriends. Just rid of one eighteen months ago,” she said, allowing an edgy smile.
“Me too,” Tripp countered. And then, realizing his error: “A girlfriend, that is! Fifteen months and counting,” he said conscious of the sweat beading on his brow.
“Good for you. Then you know not to rush, to wait for the right signs and signals,” she said, thumbing the pages of the cookbook. “But FYI, I haven’t delayed on what you mentioned the other day.”
“What I mentioned?”
“The reusable grocery bags?” she responded. “Fifty-one percent of them, ‘member? I laundered mine yesterday.”
Tripp felt the moment expand. “Right! You know, one of those bags caused an outbreak of norovirus-induced diarrhea and nausea in Oregon. One bag sickened nine members of a girls’ soccer team!”
“Imagine the odds,” she said, eyebrows arching. “Well, mine are clean now. Thanks for the heads-up … and for this,” she said brandishing the cookbook. “Catch’ya later!” And then, before shutting the door, “Your shoelace is undone.”
Not a bad second encounter, Tripp thought, rocking back on his heels. Not bad at all, he decided, stooping to tie his shoe. At least she hadn’t slammed the door in his face, and that cryptic “Catch’ya later,” implied a future. Best of all, her face looked honest—like she wouldn’t lie about not having a boyfriend.
Encouraged, he decided on step three—again, allowing three days.
Enough time to prepare.
Time enough to send his Nehru shirt to the cleaners, to locate his favorite string tie—the one with the silver and turquoise slide. Time enough to visit the greengrocer.
The following Friday, he left work ninety minutes early.
At six forty-eight, Tripp stepped out of the elevator on the third floor.
“I noticed you shop organic,” he began, holding out the Tupperware bowl the moment she opened the door. She wore a long flowered Mumu, pink puff slippers peeking out at the hem, a thicket of strawberry-blond curls hovering near the crown of her head. “It’s organic baby kale with almonds and a sprinkling of parmesan. I kneaded the kale in olive oil to make it tender.”
Again, she took quickly what he offered, as if he might be an Indian-giver.
“How’d you know I’d be home?” she asked. “It’s a Friday night. I could’ve been out.”
Surprised, it occurred to Tripp that he hadn’t considered the possibility. For a moment his confidence wavered.
“Never mind. You’re here. Dressed to the nines, it looks. Who’d’ve figured on pairing a string tie with a Nehru jacket,” she sighed, cocking her head. “Extra virgin, I expect?”
Tripp hesitated. “I’ve had … two girlfriends,” he stammered before realizing his mistake—much too late to avoid the niacin flush scorching toward the top of his head. Surely there was smoke.
“Oh! You mean … you mean the olive oil!” he stumbled, going for nonchalant. “Well, I get mine from Virgil’s … on the corner? He gets it … from Tuscany.”
She smiled, the dimple in her right cheek just deepening. Not a red-hot come hither smile. More like comfortable bath water.
And then the unexpected.
That electrical buzzing again, the sound amping up just as a scattering of loose screws rat-a-tatted onto the tile floor. Seconds later, a crescendo of sparks, a small thundercloud of ozone-infused smoke as the overhead light fixture gave way from its moorings. One-two-three Tripp counted as the plastic globe swung loose between them on a tangle of wires. Stunned, he watched the mechanism crash to the floor and roll to a stop against his foot, the various wires sprouting like stems and tendrils from the plastic orbicular casing.
“Well!” the third-floor woman named Tress exclaimed in the sudden darkness. “Talk about harbingers! I expect you’d better come inside. Besides, if this salad’s half as magical as it looks, I might have to marry you,” she sighed taking his hand to lead him past the wreckage. “You can set up the TV tables. The News Hour’s on in three minutes,” she said freeing Tripp to envision a trove of happily ever afters.