“You were gassed? Far out,” said Brenda.
She leaned forward, the better to observe this hippie friend of David’s. David was Brenda’s teaching buddy at Montbleu High and having one of his frequent parties. The woman sported the hippie chic look Brenda wished she herself could achieve, but wasn’t the physical type for it.
“Yeah, the pigs gassed us. It was amazing. Everyone scattered, Susan and Terry ended up in jail. They met some really interesting people there.”
“I’ll bet,” said Peter, another friend of David’s Brenda had never seen before tonight.
David was gay and Brenda loved him. Not romantically; she wasn’t that dumb, but in a best friend way. He was always trying to fix her up, as if he had a mission to marry her off.
“Why?” she asked him once. “Are you afraid I’ll come on to you?”
“I just think you’re the marryin’ kind. So, I keep my eyes open.”
So why had he never fixed her up with this Peter?
Hippie chick tossed her long hair and shot Peter a contemptuous look. “Yeah, we did meet interesting people in there. We invited them to join us at the commune we’re starting up.”
Peter smiled in the manner of a jaded police detective. It was so convincing, Brenda wondered if he actually was a cop. But if so, he might have gotten pissed at the reference to “the pigs.”
“I’ll bet you’re a vegetarian too,” Peter said in his sly way and for a moment, Brenda felt torn, part of her sympathetic to the woman’s hippie culture, another part disdainful and enjoying Peter’s dig.
“Do you have a problem with that?” the girl snapped before turning away, dismissing someone so bourgeois.
Brenda looked Peter over. She could tell somehow that he hadn’t gone to college, or if he had, possibly on the GI bill. He had a different look from the preppie men she usually dated. His clothes seemed just a shade gangsterish.
As the party broke up, he approached her by the front door. She was staying to help David clean up. Looking down at her, he said, “You want to go out sometime?”
She wasn’t surprised. The whole thing seemed fated, as if she had no choice in the matter. Not that she minded. “Okay,” she said, writing down her number.
“Nice meeting you,” he finished before going out the door.
It seemed forever before the guests were all gone. Finally, she and David were alone. He said, “I caught that, girl. He asked you out, didn’t he?”
“Yeah. How come you never mentioned him? I thought we discussed all your friends.”
He picked up wine glasses, holding them between his fingers in the manner of a seasoned waiter. “I didn’t think he was your type, hon.”
“Yeah?” said Brenda. She ran the dishwater hot and sudsy
“He’s pretty blue collar. Moved here from New Jersey a couple of years ago with his wife.”
Brenda felt herself grow hot all over. “What? He’s married? That bastard!”
“No, no,” said David quickly, “he’s divorced now. She was a piece of work, ran around on him, stole drugs or something.”
“Wow.” So he was from New Jersey; that explained that difference in the way he dressed. She had a certain TV image of the state just across the river from her own.
“You sure he’s over her?”
“Far as I know, he’s washed his hands of her. Good riddance.”
“What does he do, this blue collar man?” she asked, grinning. Why was she grinning? Her facial expressions seemed to be out of control.
“Electrician. They do okay in the money department, but….”
“But…” she repeated.
“Well, anyone I know you’ve dated has had a college degree and that one guy from Philly was plain ole rich. So, I assumed…”
She was staring into space. “He seems so…I don’t know, dangerous and stable at the same time?”
David wiggled his arched eyebrows. “Dangerous and stable, oooo, I like that, honey. Gotta get one of those for myself!”
A short while into their first date, she understood that this was it – some kind of deep knowledge. The sexual attraction she felt towards him was mixed with a strangely familiar sense of ease. She had not experienced this before, when the men she was cozy with were never the ones she wanted to fuck and the ones she wanted to fuck made her sweaty with nervous exhaustion. How could someone’s hand be warm and comforting while simultaneously shooting electricity up your arm?
He was not fond of hippies. “Living on Daddy’s money while calling money dirty,” he’d say, and “Children pretending they know what’s real.”
She mostly agreed with him, except as she explained, “But it’s good to have a dissenting voice. If no one ever dissents, things keep going in one direction, narrower and narrower.”
He took that seriously and she appreciated it. He listened, in fact, with respect to anything she said. She got the impression that like any red-blooded, young male, he wanted to get her to bed, yet he was not pretending to enjoy her mind in order to do so. He was inquisitive, logical, and kind. She could think of little else but sex with him.
“Has it happened yet?” David checked daily at school. “No,” she kept saying, but then it did and after that, she would forget to call David, forget things he told her, and walked around aroused and starry-eyed. “Oh God,” she mumbled to him in the teacher’s lounge, “I am insane about him. Help me.”
David laughed. “It’s all my doing,” he said.
They did it in the car, in her apartment, in his, at his friend’s apartment, at his sister’s once, at her friend’s while baby-sitting and under a blanket in her brother’s backyard. She thought about doing it with him while teaching her ninth and tenth graders English, while eating a sandwich in the teacher’s lounge, driving to and from school, while food shopping, paying the bills, eating dinner, waiting for Peter to come over or to go to his place, while bathing, using the toilet or trying to sleep. Her body seemed to run on amphetamines; she lost six pounds effortlessly, her skin glowed, her ass tightened, she bounced when she walked. She was constantly wet down there and had to change underpants frequently. It was heaven.
One time he stared into her eyes as they were having sex and she felt it in her groin, her spine, her neck, her knees. God, she was in lovelust. Should they get married? Would he ask her? In those days, women had to wait for the man to ask.
“I wish I could learn to make a decent martini,” Brenda says, her expression that of a chemist about to mix the cure for cancer. “I probably use too much vermouth.”
It doesn’t matter. Whatever she concocts will relax her enough to forget she’s embarrassed by her aging body. Though she knows her husband loves her, she can’t quite imagine that he actually finds her attractive at this point. Boobs halfway to her waist, stomach thicker, sagging rear. Even her legs, once her strong point, have patches of varicose veins. Her hand, she sees, as she lifts her glass, remind her of her grandmother’s, the skin somewhat loose, the veins prominent.
Hell, she turns herself off. Yet he still seems to want her. In fact, since the kids have finally gone (and it took the last one long enough – thirty-two years old, for crying out loud), they’ve been doing it more.
Well, there’d been tension then, what with Peter making his feelings about Michael loud and clear. Michael was, in several ways, a disappointment, somewhat of a loser, but he was their son, and she had not forgotten her own parents’ disapproval of her and how that had made her feel. Unfortunately, he seemed to have turned out the sort of person Peter most disdained – lacking in ambition, “afraid of Manuel” as Peter calls someone who isn’t fond of doing anything physical. Brenda can sympathize with Michael on that part; she hates “Manuel” herself.
But the situation with Michael had been hard to take, considering how Chloe turned out.
And Brenda has to admit that Michael can be annoying. He does everything at slow speed and always had excuses for why his lukewarm attempts at supporting himself didn’t work out. Such a relief when he suddenly married Suzy Dudash, a woman five years his senior and head nurse in obstetrics at the local hospital. Suzy had never been married and perhaps was grateful to finally be. She doesn’t seem to mind Michael’s sporadic financial contributions to their household and Brenda hopes the relationship lasts. She often suggests to Peter that they sell their house and move to a small condo in order to prevent any sudden appearance of children toting heaps of suitcases.
“I like our house,” he replies, so she has temporarily given up. But privately, her foot is down. She is sixty-five and Peter sixty-seven and she is done cleaning up after kids, after people in general. DONE.
Now they can do as they please without someone running the TV loud, calling “Where’s that lunch meat you mentioned?” and “Can I borrow your car for the afternoon, my AC is out!”
They carry their drinks to the bedroom and settle onto the bed.
“How about Bill King at the meeting the other night?” Peter says, as he sips his wine. “Kind of carried away with the neighborhood watch thing, don’t you think? Acts like one of those home front guards during World War II.”
“Uniforms are next,” Brenda laughs. “Though I kind of like how those looked, so neat and sharp.”
“And air raids,” says Peter. “Maybe when some kid drives into the neighborhood with his music thumping?”
She watches his arm as he raises he glass, thinks how much she loves that arm and the body it’s connected to, that fuzzy bald head, those sweet brown eyes, that personality like no other within. And against her will, her eyes fill with tears as she considers the knowledge that she’ll lose him or he’ll lose her, sooner or later, to that mystery called death.
She thinks, irrationally, if there is no life after death and she cannot be with him forever, she will throw a tantrum like God has never heard.
She bends closer to look at his neck. “What’s that mark there? A new mole? I’ll make an appointment.”
“It’s a bug bite,” he says, shaking his head.
She smiles, her eyes still wet. “I love you so much.” She is so choked up, she sips at her drink to hide it. They don’t tell you this when you’re young, she thinks bitterly. That by the time you love someone exquisitely, your life or theirs may soon end. If they did and you actually listened, you’d be too scared to live.
“Get me the fucking epidural!” Brenda yelled at the nurse, whose wide back annoyed her to distraction. Big fat ASS, she wanted to scream at the woman, galumping around the room as if she had any idea how Brenda felt. Callous bitch!
“Honey, there’s nothing she can do,” said Peter, his big hand rubbing her arm. “They said not till you’re dilated four centimeters.”
Brenda turned her head to look at this male she had somehow gotten knocked up by. Her eyes, normally a lively brown, had morphed into two hard, black buttons, devoid of humanity. Never one to endure pain if she didn’t have to (give me all the Novocain you’ve got, she’d instruct the dentist), this childbirth business was turning out to be a visit to hell. And there the man sat now, all smug, he who’d enjoyed the smallest part of the whole thing, just shooting a sperm in, and who had to do absolutely NOTHING from then on – there he was telling her what to do, she who had to deliver an ELEPHANT out of an ITTY-BITTY HOLE with NO HELP WHATSOEVER!
She growled like a rabid dog and Peter jerked away as if burnt.
“You bastard,” she said. Then, even more coldly, “Get that fucking DOCTOR!”
Peter would tell her later how hurt he’d felt at the time, but fortunately, the nurse Brenda so hated had pulled him aside in the hall and explained. “She doesn’t mean it, it’s the pain talking. Don’t pay attention, she’ll be back after it’s over.”
And she was, though so exhausted her eyes fluttered then closed, a small snore issuing from her mouth. Once she had seen their baby girl and gone into raptures over her tiny rosebud mouth, Brenda had conked out and left Peter to hold the child against his muscular chest, her miniature fingers curling around one of his own.
A nurse tiptoed into the room to sit a plastic wrapped basket next to the flowers Peter had sent. Brenda’s eyes fluttered open for a second and in that short moment of consciousness, she felt that all was right with the world.
“She doesn’t appear to be coughing or wheezing. You’d think she would,” says Peter. He and Brenda head into the elevator to descend to the visitors café.
“I guess they have her drugged up pretty good,” Brenda says. “Once the hospice is set up, she’ll be on morphine.”
“Seems like just yesterday.” Peter shakes his head. “She was hopping around on that cruise with us. Up on the dance floor, going at it like a maniac.”
“My old, old friend,” Brenda murmurs. She feels a lump the size of Texas in her stomach. In the past few years, Brenda has spent a lot of time thinking about death. In her relentless search for comfort, she has read books on reincarnation, near death and out of body experiences and after death contact. Right now, a new book on the subject waits on her night stand at home.
“I can’t believe it,” she says as the elevator doors open to let in an orderly pushing a gurney. Some man with his mouth hanging open rests upon it, hooked up to an IV and a urine bag. The orderly is Hispanic and whistles under his breath.
“Believe what?” says Peter, looking a bit peaked himself.
“So many people dying,” she says. “Count them. David last June – that almost killed me, my father in October, the Clarence boy and that girl the same month, Victor last month and Susan’s sister out in California a week ago. That’s six. Wait, I forgot Mrs. Blakeman. Of course she was ninety-six, but still. And Toby.” Toby had been their cat.
“It’s a lot,” says Peter.
The doors open and the orderly pushes his charge out, temporarily catching the wheels on the door ridge. Brenda is silent until they reach their own floor. Peter take her hand and she curls her fingers around his.
After a lunch of dry tuna sandwiches and diet soda, they make their way back to Karen’s room. Her husband Gene has arrived and is sitting in a chair by her bed, staring at the sheets or possibly his wife’s shriveled hand lying so still, bruised from the needles. Their son Kevin stands by the window, adjusting the shade.
“Hi,” says Brenda. Peter says nothing.
“Hospitals,” says Gene, not bothering to look up. “I hate‘em.”
They understand the whole paragraphs that sentence really means.
Brenda lays her hand on his shoulder. “Do you need us to do anything?”
He shakes his head, chin quivering.
Brenda knows for certain that something is wrong with the entire world. Any world in which people end up like this is not a good setup.
She says to Peter on their way to the car, “Whoever made it turn out like this is a sadist.”
He kisses her on top of her head before walking around to his own side of the car.
On the way home, she notices the spring, as if it hadn’t been there all along. Pink, purple and deep red rhododendrons crowding front lawns and porches, the trees lush with young leaves. Her eyes fill with tears.
“I used to get annoyed at the old ladies in my writing group,” she says. “Their poems about birds and flowers. How silly I thought, to write about that stuff when there were so many important things to go into, like passion, sex, the unfairness of things in general.” She pauses. “But now I see what they were saying. The passion is all around us out there, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed,” Peter says.
“But does it make up for the end?” she asks.
He doesn’t answer.
After the showdown, Brenda was sick for days. A relentless, dull headache, diarrhea, a sore throat, probably from all the yelling.
She couldn’t believe it. It was as if someone had died. Chloe gone all shockingly weird on them, leaving like that at one in the morning, just packing up and banging her suitcases out the door, her shoe coming off halfway to the car. The kind of scene that leaves you stunned.
Peter stood there, shaking his head. “Good thing Michael’s at college,” he said.
“That little bitch,” sobbed Brenda. She was shaking with her rage. “We did nothing but love her and what for? To get kicked in the teeth! And what’s with her refusal to tell us who the father is? Why the hell not?”
Peter snorted. “You know who the father is.”
She stopped short, stood perfectly still. “Oh my God,” she said finally. “How could I be so thick? I fail to see the obvious so often.”
Chloe had dropped out of West Chester after completing her sophomore year, claiming she’d “had enough of that kind of thinking,” whatever that meant. She’d gone to work for a religious doctor who ran a clinic in a rough section of Philadelphia. The doctor was black and married. He and his wife had two children.
“I don’t get it though,” she persisted. “Why wouldn’t she just tell us? And what’s with this culty, fundamental crap? We raised her to to question, to be open-minded.”
Peter actually chuckled. “If you’re right-wing, your kids will rebel and go progressive. If you’re progressive, where are they gonna go, Brenda?”
“It’s one thing to go a little Bible belt and quite another to go live in a cult! And that’s our grandchild in there; it’s ours as well as hers! What if we never see her again?”
Peter sighed. “Are kids supposed to bring joy? Do we actually know anyone who is getting joy out of it?”
“She’s going to be out there with a bunch of unwashed idiots. What if there are complications? What if it’s breech? She could die, Peter! Women do still die giving birth.” She paused a moment, then rushed on. “What went wrong with her mind? How could she fall for this narrow-minded bullshit?”
Peter seemed to consider. “Clyde from work. His daughter called him from school and told him he was an imperialist pig, completely blind to the world’s problems and an asshole for his voting record. He was heartbroken, especially when his wife agreed with the daughter.”
“Where did Chloe come from?” said Brenda. “Grandpa Wilson believed the Bible literally and that scientists made up the dinosaurs, but he was dead before Chloe was born. I don’t get it, Peter!”
He shook his head. “Well, it is what it is. I don’t like it any more than you do, but there’s nothing we can do about it. She’s over twenty-one.”
For a moment, Brenda felt like punching him. Taking it all philosophically, was he? Didn’t he fully understand what was happening? Chloe going off like this was like her dying in a way, meaner than dying though, since she was doing it on purpose, doing it hatefully. It was the hatefulness of the whole thing that ate at Brenda. What had they done to deserve this?
She cried for days, turned silent, then downright nasty, ending up on antidepressants. Why she was being cold to Peter, Brenda herself did not know. For a while, they weren’t certain their marriage would survive. But it did; somehow life goes on. And they still had Michael, who, unlike his sister, was loathe to leave.
They would hear nothing from Chloe for thirteen years.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Brenda yells out to the garage. We have to leave for the airport in forty minutes!”
“I know, I know,” Peter calls back.
Brenda has the crock pot cooking Gabrielle’s favorite soup: potato-cheese chowder. Her favorite cake, orange-coconut-rum with buttercream icing, is tucked in the fridge to keep it fresh, along with homemade cole slaw and two packages of hot pepper cheese. On the counter sit the girl’s preferred brand of stone ground crackers and two jars of giant sized olives.
For a fifteen year old, Gabrielle’s tastes are explicit.
Humming, Brenda takes a quick bath, then applies her makeup. Gabrielle is coming!
She has been coming, two weeks every summer; this is her third year.
In the car, Brenda is jumpy. Anything can go wrong, traffic jam, accident, flat tire and what would they do?
Peter pats her leg. “Calm down,” he says. “We’ll get there. And if we’re held up for some reason, she’s a smart kid, she’ll know what to do. She’s got her cell, her grandmother’s credit card, we’ve got our cells, things are okay.”
“But what if we get killed on the way to the airport and she’s left there all alone?”
“I’m sure she would call Vera and they’d work out what to do.”
Which gets Brenda thinking. “Do you think Chloe would even come to our funerals? If she could, I mean. I’ve been wondering that.”
Peter doesn’t answer immediately. The traffic is thick. “Don’t know and frankly, Brenda, I don’t care. I’ve pretty much written her off. We’ve got Michael and he’s doing pretty well now.”
It had been a surprising and pleasing turn of events when Michael’s collection of sci-fi stories was suddenly published with his agent out promoting one of the stories to an independent film producer. Who knew he ever wrote sci-fi? Apparently, that’s what he’d been doing all those hours in his room. Why had he never let her and Peter read any of them then? But now he is out on the road, promoting the book while Suzy, his wife, is busy at the hospital and school where she is earning her credits to become a nurse practitioner.
Meanwhile, Chloe, the one who had once shown such promise, is in prison. Some scheme she’d gotten into, involving that cult in Oregon. The whole thing was a mess her parents never did figure out, involving embezzlement, extortion, skimming (whatever that is) and manslaughter. She was sentenced to twenty years with hope of parole. Gabrielle, only four when it happened, was kept by Chloe’s husband Jared, who had legally adopted her, then, though Brenda and Peter had not known it at the time, given to Jared’s mother to raise when he skipped town. This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the child. Vera Greene is a school principal – sixty years old and going strong. By the time Brenda and Peter found out what was going on and flew out to see if they could take the child, Gabrielle was happily ensconced in her first real and stable home, doing superbly at school and surrounded by relatives and friends. Wistfully, they had left her there.
“We’ve been lucky though,” says Brenda, not commenting on Peter’s remark. Unlike him, she had left a small window in her heart open. Should Chloe ever return…well, she hoped she would let her in.
“Lucky?” says Peter, making a scary turn left in front of a stopped army of traffic.
“Just lucky that Vera is so kind, that she has gone out of her way to keep us in Gabrielle’s life. Even to sharing the cost of sending her out every year. And letting us Skype with her, all that. Setting it up.”
“Vera is a good person,” he says.
They are approaching the first turn in to the airport. “Not this one,” says Brenda.
“Here’s United,” says Peter. He turns.
“I have butterflies,” says Brenda. She is crazy about her granddaughter.
“You do get excited.”
“She is turning out so well, it’s amazing. I mean considering. And none of that culty stuff. I guess she was too young for any of it to stick.”
“What is she now, what is Vera?” asks Peter. “Not Methodist.”
“Episcopalian. Vera is an Episcopalian. I can live with that.”
“I’m under the strong impression that Gabrielle is a free thinker,” says Peter, as they pull up in front of the receiving area. “Just like her grandma.”
Brenda leans over and pecks his cheek.
“You get out now, while I park. Gotta go find her first. Wait, isn’t that her there?”
“My God, it is,” says Brenda, amazed. She jumps out of the car and races over, waving her arms.
As she sets down her bag to receive the hug, the girl’s beautiful face lights up.
It has all been worth it, Brenda thinks.