These women would give anything to have Ben Frye sending them roses. They’d say Gillian needs her head examined for sending them back. You’re lucky, that’s what they’d tell her. But it’s a perverse sort of luck: The second Ben Frye fell in love with her, Gillian knew she could never allow someone as wonderful as he is to get involved with a woman like her. Considering the messes she’s made, falling in love is now permanently out of the question. The only way anyone could force her to become a wife again would be to chain her to a chapel wall and aim a shotgun at her head. When she came home from Del Vecchio’s on the night she met Ben, she took a vow never to marry again. She locked herself in the bathroom and lit a black candle and tried to remember some of the aunts’ incantations. When she could not, she repeated “Single forever” three times, and that seems to have done the trick because she keeps refusing him, in spite of how she feels inside.
“Go away,” she tells Ben whenever he calls. She doesn’t think about the way he looks, or about the feel of the calluses on his fingers, the ones caused by practicing knots for his magic act nearly every day. “Find someone who will make you happy.”
But that’s not what Ben wants. He wants her. He phones and phones, until they all assume he’s the one calling each and every time. Now whenever the phone rings in the Owens house, whoever grabs the receiver doesn’t say a word, not even a hello. Each one of them just breathes and waits. It’s gotten so that Ben can discern their breathing styles: Sally’s matter-of-fact intake of air. Kylie’s snort, like a horse who has no patience for the idiot on the other side of the fence. Antonia’s sad, fluttery inhalation. And, of course, the sound he’s always wishing for—the exasperated and beautiful sigh that escapes from Gillian’s mouth before she tells him to leave her alone, get a life, get lost. Do whatever you want, just don’t call me anymore.
Still, there’s a catch in her voice, and Ben can tell that when she hangs up on him, she’s sad and bewildered. He truly can’t stand the thought of her unhappiness. Just the idea of tears in her eyes makes him so frenzied that he doubles the miles he usually runs. He traipses around the reservoir so often that the ducks have begun to recognize him and no longer take flight when he passes by. He is as familiar as twilight and cubed white bread. Sometimes he sings “Heartbreak Hotel” while he runs, and then he knows he’s in deep trouble. A fortuneteller at a magicians’ convention in Atlantic City once told him that when he fell in love it would be forever, and he laughed at the notion, but now he sees that reading was completely on target.
Ben is so mixed up that he’s begun to do magic tricks involuntarily. He reached for his credit card at the gas station and pulled out the queen of hearts. He made his electricity bill disappear and set the rosebush in his backyard on fire. He took a quarter from behind an elderly woman’s ear as he was helping her cross the Turnpike and nearly sent her into cardiac arrest. Worst of all, he’s no longer allowed into the Owl Café at the north end of the Turnpike, where he usually has breakfast, since lately he sets all the soft-boiled eggs spinning and rips the tablecloths off each table he passes on the way to his regular booth.
Ben can’t think of anything but Gillian. He’s started to carry a rope around with him, in order to tie and untie Tom Fool and Jacoby knots, a bad habit that comes back to him whenever he’s nervous or when he can’t get what he wants. But even the rope isn’t helping. He wants her so much that he’s fucking her inside his head when he should be doing things like putting on his brakes at a stoplight or discussing the influx of Japanese beetles with his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Fishman. He’s so overheated that the cuffs of his shirts are singed. He’s hard constantly, ready for something that looks as if it’s never going to happen.
Ben doesn’t know what to do to win Gillian over, he has no idea, so he goes to see Sally, ready to beg for her help. But Sally won’t even open the door for him. She speaks through the screen, with a distant tone, as if he’d appeared on her front stoop with a vacuum to sell, instead of arriving with his heart in his hand.
“Take my advice,” Sally suggests. “Forget Gillian. Don’t even think about her. Marry some nice woman.”
But Ben Frye made up his mind the minute he saw Gillian standing beneath the lilacs. Or maybe it wasn’t his mind that was so intensely affected, but now every piece of him wants her. And so when Sally tells him to go home, Ben refuses to leave. He sits down on the porch as though he had something to protest or all the time in the world. He’s there all day, and when the six o’clock whistle at the fire station over on the Turnpike blows, he still hasn’t moved. Gillian will not even speak to him when she comes home from work. Already, today, she has lost her watch and her favorite lipstick. At work, she dropped so many hamburgers on the floor she could have sworn someone was tipping the plates right out of her hands. Now, Ben Frye is here and in love with her and she can’t even kiss him or wrap her arms around him, because she’s poison and she knows it, which is just her luck.