The Good Life
Martha had not thought about him in years. It wasn’t that he had not played a pivotal role in her development, because he had. Her first boyfriend, first kisses, first prom, first dates in a car, first squirming around with tangled clothing. But so many years had passed that those events were pushed to the back of her memory, overlaid with the new, with the intervening forty-five years. Funny how memories could bubble up when triggered. Damn brain.
But the triggers linked with Sam were not the usual. Not music. Not brands of cars. Not destinations travelled together. Not dark cul-de-sacs where they had parked in their teens. No, his face rushed back whenever she saw a San Francisco Giants logo. It wasn’t that Sam was a big fan as far as she recalled, but it was linked with the last time she had seen his mother alive. Mary— she was a kind, hard working soul who had departed too soon.
Martha had been to a Giants game with her dad in September of ’91, home to celebrate his 65th birthday, and bought a souvenir cap and a funny pair of gypsy-like Giants logo earrings for Sam’s mom because she knew Mary was crazy about baseball, and the Giants in particular. Maybe they were having a great season that year— Martha had no idea now. Maybe Martha just wanted to bring her something, a gift to cheer Mary up, to ease the pain. But nothing would turn the tide of cancer which had metastasized. Everywhere. She was on her way out of this life and there was no stopping. It was to be last time they saw each other.
Martha had shyly presented the gifts to Mary in her hospital room, between ice chips and vomiting, and noticed the sparkle in Mary’s eyes when she opened the small package. She had put the earrings on immediately, and laughed at the size of the ball cap. Martha had loved Mary for her spunk and determination and her love for her youngest son, Sam, yet no amount of wishing could undo the years and their marriages to others and the children that now bound them to new partners. She had missed Mary terribly.
It was the biannual summer family reunion on her father’s side, and Martha was analyzing everyone’s weight gain, trying to match babies with their mothers, and noticing the greying of the women’s hair. The extended family had spread up and down the I-5 corridor from San Diego to Seattle (near Martha’s home), and some members were virtually unrecognizable now, but she listened to snippets of conversations trying to sort people out. There was an unconscious comfort being around genetically aligned bodies.
Not that they were homogenized folks. But family is family is family and the genetic bonds that held them were of interest. One cousin was taking a survey of common feet characteristics, webbed second to third toes in particular. Martha’s were not as joined as some. Another was tallying the frequency of bipolar disorder, and it appeared to be winning. Another cousin talked about the rate of alcoholism in her branch. Martha thought she should draw a family tree and tally the results, but feared it would be too horrifying to leave that sort of documented record of their failings.
Jay, her favorite cousin, was hosting reunion this year in his spectacularly sculpted Los Altos backyard. A vine-covered trellis near the south wall of the house caught her attention, then a hummingbird nest with babies ready to fly, a meandering stream ending in a koi pond, aggregate stepping stones arranged to contain the garden tour through the lemon bushes, blueberries, raised beds with green beans, tomatoes, and cukes.
His hair was a chestnut brown, not his original color, but not as fierce a color as the last time they were together. Still slim and muscular, maybe 5’ 9” if he stretched, he resembled Martha’s father. Another cousin told her he had been out of work for two years, although was just now working in the City for a start-up. An electrical engineer by training, who had worked years for the likes of ATT and Siemens and others at the forefront of computers and fiber optics, he was back to writing code for a company in the funeral services arena. Social media and networking and tracking people’s clicks he said. Martha and Jay were the same age, give or take a few months. She colored her hair too. He was wearing a San Francisco Giants jersey.
Sitting in the midst of her first cousins was confusing. Cousins who had all been named with the letter J at the beginning of their names by their mother, for a reason never explained to Martha. Joyce, Jay, Jill, Jan. Jay had three J daughters, Jan four J daughters. Martha’s kids called them the J families for short. No one could keep all those names straight. One would have thought they had exhausted the J possibilities, but the new grandbabies carried on the tradition: Jaxon, Jason, Julien. She could imagine it continuing for endless generations. The link to their past. Their legacy.
As she fought the sweltering California July heat, sipping a beer she split with her baby sister, she thought of Sam. Perhaps her cousin’s jersey had been the spark. A random thought, an image, a twinge. She traced the drops of condensation with her finger down the outside of the glass. They were both over sixty now. Old enough to file for social security benefits. Didn’t he live nearby? Where was Los Gatos? She reached into her bra for her smart phone and keyed in his name. Friends called her the Google Queen for good reason.
And there he was. Los Gatos. Not that she exactly understood where his town was in the glittering jewels of towns-without-defined-borders that flanked the Santa Cruz Mountains. But his web page included an address. And an email contact. And a phone number. The idea to see him began to ferment. As the family party wore on she began to formulate an email. She would explain her proximity and hoped he believed that the thought had just that minute popped into her head. Which it had.
Martha left the party at dark with her sister and her parents, all the hugs and goodbyes and see-you-in-two-years said aloud, with the initial email sent on its way. She checked her phone every hour and there was no response. Embarrassment flooded her cheeks, the sort of silly-feeling middle-aged women get when for a little moment they think perhaps their first love has kept a corner of their heart open, saved for them. Was that what she really thought? She kept turning over memories as they bubbled up, and felt repeated hot flashes. Her emotions were taking over. It had been years since that had happened.
She had arranged to spend the next two days with her old college roommate living close by in San Jose, now a professor in a prestigious private college, and she thought to work the old boyfriend into the visitation. Safety in numbers. A buffer from awkward solo conversations, a chance for Martha to stand back, listen and observe her old love. A safe harbor. She had a few regrets but thought she could keep them to herself. Her dear friend might remember Sam from late night conversations, around a pot of tea, near midnight in the days when their best work was produced after midnight. They had shared boy secrets.
When the text came she was startled. “I’d like to see you,” it said. She felt an involuntary tingle in her private parts, and marveled that a written message could provoke such a response.
The arrangement was made to come to his home, see his surroundings, his place of work, meet his wife. Martha debated what to wear, deciding finally to dress down, in an orangey-red-striped Indian shift over a pair of black capris. With flip flops. The color worked with her light brown hair that was twisted up and held with an alligator clip, which she hoped slimmed her face a bit. Hand crafted earrings, with gold orbs and centered peridots framed her cheeks. It would have to do. A little glitter blush, a little lipstick. A bohemian look.
The more conservative clothing rejected, she added an antique Afghani silver bracelet, purchased on travels to Istanbul with her cousin years before. Often she wondered about the previous owner, and hoped she had not been forced to sell the jewelry out of despair or to finance refugee status or to stave off her child’s hunger. Martha twisted the bracelet with floral etchings and wished for a positive encounter. Maybe the Afghani woman’s spirit would protect her heart.
“He said to come about one,” Martha said to her girl friend, “that maybe we could walk to some museum near his house and see a glass exhibition.”
“Am I staying with you?” her friend asked.
“Please. Remember Thelma and Louise? We are like Esther and Louise if we use our middle names,” Martha said giggling.
“But no robberies, agreed?” said her friend.
“He’s no Brad Pitt,” said Martha.
But he was like Brad Pitt she thought later, but taller. He had the softest voice and the gentlest manners of any man she could recall. His hair was grey and his curls were tamed by an excellent haircut. He carried himself with a relaxed grace when they walked, even on the uneven pavement between his home and the corner museum. He took delight in explaining techniques used in the glass manufacturing processes of several exhibiting artists and told them stories of the opening night party.
Martha realized Sam and her friend knew people in common—artists and writers and architects. She listened as they traded names of family friends and kids on their kid’s sports teams. They were of the same world. They had the new kind of ties, the adult kind, of place and situation and economics. They shared the good life.
She had not expected that. As they continued talking about places with which Martha had no familiarity, until they had covered the distance to Sam’s home, she fell silent. Inside again they sat for a bit in his calm, pale yellow-walled living room, on crème colored cushions and sipped ice water to cool themselves as the day was hot and still and Martha was not used to the dry climate of California. Sam’s wife joined them and she was graceful and welcoming and kind. Her name was Mary too.
As the women were taking their leave a young man rushed in, and it was the son, now 26, that Martha was startled to realize she had held as a baby in the hospital room when Sam’s mother had been dying. The little life that was replacing Mary. The light that came into that room of despair. Martha remembered holding the baby against her chest, cradling a child that might have been hers if they had remained entwined. She remembered the look on Sam’s mother’s face. A gift of love, a look of sadness perhaps. Martha was pleased she could hold Sam’s child in his mother’s presence. It felt powerful in a way she could not ever explain, but that she had not forgotten.
“It went well, don’t you think?” Martha said as the friends made their way to the car.
Her friend turned and said softly, “You let a good one get away.”
“He was never mine,” Martha said.
“I think he was. And he is the gentlest man I have ever met,” said her friend.
“Yes,” said Martha quietly. She twisted the bracelet. She felt the tears forming.
Martha pushed the old memories deeper and tried not to think. There was nothing to do, no change possible, no reason to consider. “I should have apologized,” Martha said quietly.
“For what?” said her friend.
“I’ll send him a thank you tomorrow.” And she did. But he did not write back.
Martha picked up her latest book club selection, a collection of shorts by Alice Munro. On page 48 she noted, “And she herself had ended up doing exactly what she must have wanted to do. You couldn’t say that they had chosen the wrong lives or chosen against their will or not understood their choices. Just that they had not understood how time would pass and leave them not more but maybe a little less than what they used to be.”
Indeed, she thought. Indeed.