FORTY YEARS EARLIER
I sat at a well-lived, elongated maple table with chairs for many. It was hot in Boston that day, an early spring as I remember. Foundation people (I was one) and academics and museum administrators huddled in an historic house to discuss a matter of importance, of little importance now. I’ve forgotten the agenda.
Across the table and down sat a woman I had collaborated with recently. She wore a sleeveless dress whose folds concealed her slenderness, yet not the dark hair that floated down her back. She scanned the room with green-brown generous eyes, her expression alternately serious and laughing. No cynic, this one. She leaned forward with elbows lightly on the table, and I snuck peeks at the long bare arms.
I waited. The meeting not yet started, I headed to a second table steps away and poured a cup of coffee, then forked strawberries and pieces of cantaloupe onto a small white plate. I sensed fingertips on my back.
“How are you?” she whispered.
I smelled perfume, a touch of cinnamon. I turned, hoping to play down my delight.
“I’m good. And… and you?”
We had met at another gathering of professionals and she’d said, “I’m Martha Lyon. I direct the historic preservation program at the Mass Arts Council. Are you Kent?”
The delivery was tentative and polite, the voice fine-tuned at some white-glove school, or so I thought. She’s a kid, I also thought, and nice. Nice made me uncomfortable, nice a disguise for something people were hiding. I’d been fooled by such a disguise.
I lived with a woman partner who’d only just admitted to alcoholism. After three years of suspecting nothing, I felt deceived, and couldn’t acknowledge the deception. I was forcing down a gob I didn’t want to taste. I was cranky.
“What’s the perfume?”
My brashness startled Ms. Lyon. I’d hoped to cut the formality, catch a glimpse of the real beneath the nice. She and I had been asked to team for a presentation to a conference of local historians.
She stepped back. The chin dropped. She mumbled something I couldn’t catch. She knew brash men like me.
“It’s lovely,” I said, and meant it. I hadn’t wanted to scare her. “When can we meet about the conference?”
I didn’t know I was scouring for anyone I could trust.
She laughed continually when we talked a month later at my office, me the deputy director at my foundation. She was older than I’d guessed, though twenty-five, and no white glover it turned out, tall and graceful as a dancer, a glide in her walk, an easy physical grace.
We’d been asked to speak to local historians about projects our two foundations would fund. Conferences, we agreed, could be drags. Too much time inside, too much time on our butts, too many with eyes fixed on a cutie, too much meandering yak-yak. We’d force the audience to participate. That was our plan. The audience wanted money from our foundations. We decided we’d quiz each other about our institution’s passions and cue the listeners to join our jabber. Let their responses mark the way ahead. It wasn’t a spectacular idea, nothing dramatic actually. Even so, it might work.
We were slotted for after lunch: “That guy in the brown suit in row six,” she cracked, “will be taking a nap.”
They cancelled the conference days before the date. Too few registrants, they said. Maybe they’d do it later.
I telephoned Martha’s office and left a message on her machine: “We’ve missed our chance for fame.”
She was phoning me as I was phoning her. I like you, her voice all but said.
We made a date to go for a drink when we found each other again.
So here we sat days later in an historic house at an elongated maple table with too many others. And yes, it was hot in Boston that day.
I remember little about the bar afterward or the wine. We didn’t say much, nothing about our bruised histories or present tangled lives. She teased about my pink linen shirt. We walked to her place, a tight stairway up. Apartment was tiny: a sitting space with a fold-out futon and a weaving loom, a galley kitchen for one, and a single cramped bedroom with a brass double bed. After minutes, she grew quiet. She poured two glasses of water. The joint’s wine had made us wobbly.
This had to slow. I had a commitment to another. Time to leave. Martha’s lips parted and she studied me.
I wanted to say, I’m forty you know. My life has no room.
“I’ll see you again,” I did manage to mumble. “I had a wonderful time.”
I let myself out the door and down the winding stair. I felt alive and yet softened, deeply myself, the person I thought I was beneath too many harsher faces.
You stumble into your life and the stumbles can seem reckless to a witness. You feel drawn to someone and can’t describe why. What pulls you? A smile, a glance? She leans your way when you speak, and you wonder what you know. Your body tells you, you’re warm. Your body says you might find a home here, move closer. She’s a mirror so you can see yourself true at last.
She’s not a mirror. She strides at a different pace, in different attire, with a different air, a separate silhouette. Yet you sense the road you walk with her might be yours.
It’s forty years later in Northampton in western Massachusetts where we live now. The universe made a mistake. How did I get this old? I sit downtown with the Mini running, it’s March, and I’m anticipating my wife Martha’s return. Memories surge back, as they do, about my former partner Jill in that alcohol recovery so many ages past.
I’d told her stories about my father and possibly that made it more difficult for her to own her own alcoholism. I’d told about waiting as a little boy for this giant man with the chest and huge hands while Mom peeled potatoes at the sink for dinner. I said I sat at the kitchen table, head hardly above the table’s surface, stomach churning. Who would walk in tonight? The angry drunk, or the other, my hero, the earnest one who dreamed a better world for Everyman? His proudest time had been the years in the Civil Conservation Corps when he’d helped build a state park for impoverished people like he had been. The uncertainty about him lived within me and ended in distrust. I didn’t know who he’d be at any given moment.
This night, like others, he stomped into the kitchen late with a liquor smell, a brown paper bag under an arm. My mother didn’t respond. What could she say? I festered inside and, without knowing, withdrew. Grew cold. I wouldn’t let him get to me. I wouldn’t. I armed myself against him and, it turned out, everyone else. What does a little boy fathom about such matters? I became a stone that wouldn’t shatter, a wary boy and a warier man.
Then Dad had died. I told Jill all this. I said, I trudged alone beside a ghost, and I hoped she would find a way to understand.
She came home a weekend afternoon in a police car. She’d totaled the Volkswagen. The policeman left, and she confessed she’d been drunk on vodka and the police hadn’t realized. They couldn’t smell it. She’d been drinking for days and knew she shouldn’t. It was painful for her to tell me. I saw it in the twisting hands, the face white with shame. The accident could have killed her. She loved me. We’d talked about marriage.
She would go cold turkey, she said, starting then. And she did. She meant the words. She tried.
Months passed, and I discovered that I couldn’t bear it. I anguished, and yearned not to. When would she stagger? She’d fall, I was sure. Drinking would start, the weary pattern etched in my bones.
There was no good way to say goodbye, no good way. Why do I keep remembering the end taking place miles from our home together, outside in the darkness on the side of somebody’s yard? Jill might have been pressing about marriage and the words spilled out.
I said what I at no time said before.
“I grew up with an alcoholic father and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life the same way.”
The words sounded wrong. Nothing sounded right. She stared at me in disbelief with that face. The words were cruel. The words were true. There must have been a better way.
Why do I keep remembering? Where is she at this moment? We lost contact those many years ago. She deserved a different man than me.
The March weather outside still blowy cold, the Mini warm, I spot a slender woman in a green, leopard-spotted hat. It’s too beautiful, too much her. Martha smiles as she approaches, expectant, the lovely walk, the dancer’s grace that doesn’t leave.
This life is possible, Martha seems to say. Her hope and care caress me. She opens the passenger door and presents a small paper bag: “Stay here, I’ll get the rest.”
Peanut butter cookies and Moroccan sandwiches—lamb and hummus and tomatoes. Juices ooze over my hands.
“How could a man not love a woman like you?” I say when she returns.
She grins. “Why, what do you mean?” She holds my gaze.
“I mean, I’m out here buying paper clips and picking up the mail. I know you. I know who you are. You’re out to make this a ramble, a noontime delight. Haven’t you learned yet, we’re not here to have fun?”
I have a psychiatrist friend. One night over drinks in a classy restaurant, he asked if I had regrets.
I said that I had plenty.
He laughed. He’d had more than a few to drink.
“Anyone who doesn’t is an asshole,” he replied.
“So, Joe, ‘asshole’ is a psychiatric term you use?”
But regrets linger. They don’t go away whatever we say. We wish we’d been better. We struggle to believe we may be.