Nora remembers wandering the aisles of the Trader Joe’s with Ethan, their fingers interlaced, the same way she remembers all her romantic endeavors before she came out. None of it seems real, and nearly all the memories have hazy edges, like a half-remembered fairy tale told by a faceless storyteller many years ago.
In this distant, mystical version of Trader Joe’s, Ethan and Nora stroll together, adding peppers, onions, and a package of chicken sausage to their shopping basket. They stop for focaccia at the small deli on the corner, the one that’s perpetually on the verge of going out of business. Next, the liquor store down the street for bottles of cheap wine.
Nora, newly twenty-three, strides confidently through the liquor store’s aisles, feeling wonderfully grown-up. This version of herself is from the era when she still drank, before life caught up, and she had to decide to either stop waltzing down the aisles of liquor stores or devote her life to nothing but.
At Ethan’s apartment, they patter around in their socks and underwear, playing Beatles songs from a wireless speaker and eating dried edamame by the handful. Nora sings off-key to “Eleanor Rigby’” as they work together to prepare the sausage and peppers. To the side, Ethan pauses his own singing to put together an anemic-looking salad. He furrows his brow with concentration while studying a recipe for salad dressing written by his grandmother.
The recipe is in her own handwriting, photocopied and given to Ethan a year before she passed away. He finishes early, but the stir-fry still simmers on the stove. Nora senses his nervousness and offers to try it right away. It’s perfectly adequate, but she raves over it as much as she can without overdoing it.
“It’s not right,” Ethan says, frowning. He chews on a mouthful of salad. “It’s not how she made it.”
“It’s perfect,” Nora, who has never tried the original dressing, says. “I love it.”
Before long, they’re talking about the grandmother who wrote the recipe, along with Nora’s own family, and stories from their childhood that seem to have occurred much longer ago than they actually did. By the time they eat the chicken sausage and peppers, they’re laughing so hard tears are rolling down Nora’s cheeks.
It’s these moments she loves more than anything, more than the inevitable fumbling in the bedroom that will come later, more than the apologetic words of reassurance saying they’ll figure it out in time, more than the ride home on the subway the following morning as Nora wonders what the hell is wrong with her.
Once, years later, Nora refers to this as the period when she was “pretending”. She regrets the words the moment they leave her lips, and for days afterward, she wishes there was a better way to describe that era beyond “pretending.” As much as Nora was never meant to be with Ethan, there was a tenderness between them, something that wasn’t make believe, something so real it gives her pause, even now.
After all these years, she still loves the kind-hearted, earnest boy he was, even if it wasn’t the kind of love their relationship called for. She’s also come to love the confused, closeted girl she was, and wishes she could hold her close and tell her everything she needs to know. These versions of Ethan and Nora exist in the back of her mind, silent and unseen.
Small things, such as the sight of dried edamame or the opening notes to “Eleanor Rigby,” trigger their appearance at the strangest of times, for the splittest of seconds. Nora and Ethan gaze at her, both smiling tentatively, before ebbing back into the hazy world from which they came. She can’t follow, nor does she want to, but her heart is filled with a yearning and sad and unnamable feeling, as she releases them, and watches them go.
For all the time she spent pretending, it doesn’t change the parts that were real.