The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.

When By the Sea

DSCN0484

When Elle pulled up to the restaurant she had already decided she was going to eat fast and head right back to her rented cottage. The weather was rough. Rain had pummeled her car so hard it was miraculous she could follow the white stripes on the winding road.

It slackened, turned into a metered rainfall as soon as she parked. Due to fickle coastal skies, her getaway had been shaped by many languid hours by a fire in the old brick fireplace, books and wine glass, a notebook and pen. The beach had been nearly deserted early that morning so she had walked without distraction, sifting through sea detritus the storms had left behind. It was like paradise, as always. Her thriving counseling practice had kept this beach escape too long delayed. 

She gave her name to the hostess, then waited by the door with a small group of women. They circled up, intimate conversation kept low. She looked out the windowed wall below the waiting area and was lulled by the Pacific Ocean. She wondered what kind of fortune it would take to buy a beach house. Peter, her husband of sixteen years, wouldn’t even consider it; he was citified start to finish. He would rather buy a large photograph of the sea and admire the idea of being there. He enjoyed his own vacation in Seattle or Vancouver, BC twice a year. She had her coveted beach spots.

The door opened and Elle’s eye caught two wing-tipped shoes, large and scuffed. An accompanying pair were stylish flats, black patent leather with a narrow crisscross of fabric at the instep. Mr. Wing Tips strode to the desk, long black wool coat shedding raindrops. He had a hat in hand and smoothed down neat white waves. The woman beside him turned and looked into the parking lot as though longing to escape. Her iridescent teal coat warmed a complexion that reminded Elle of old ivory. The woman’s eyes, blue and slightly tilted at the outer corners, were like still pools. Her shoulders seemed weighted, as if she found being there a chore.

Mr. Wing Tips bent toward her. ‘”Is fifteen minutes a wait alright?” His voice was solicitous.

She nodded, then sat on the bench with head held up, but her arms were pulled close as if she felt crowded. The man sharpened his hat’s crease. Even sitting at ease he was self-possessed. And tall. He half-smiled down at the woman but she was looking at her shiny shoes.

Elle told herself to not pay any attention, it was rude to stare, but then admired the woman’s hair, its silvery swath picking up light that sneaked in. It was wrapped into a chignon. Not a hair had strayed. Had they been to a church function? Perhaps going to a birthday gathering later? Maybe they had visited someone in the hospital and the prognosis was poor. Elle looked away when the woman shifted and her eyes moved upwards. The hostess came back and led Elle to a table close to a perfect view of the rain-swept ocean. She ordered what she usually ate there, grilled mahi mahi and thick garlic french fires.

She thought of Peter and his concerns about her visit. It had been stormy for most of three days and nights. He’d cautioned her to not go, citing landslides, high winds and the cottage being too far, over the Coast Mountains, stated as though it was all the way to Japan. Peter worried about many things; Elle journaled about things, then forgot them. But by now he had dived into his research on Chaucer, not giving any thought to Elle and her “wilderness streak” as he insisted on calling it, every room awash in Bach concertos. If only he could appreciate what it meant to nourish one’s self with nature’s unique array of offerings. With solitude. Without garish sensory bombardment of city life. The flash and dazzle of intellectual brouhaha.

A poem that had awakened with her at dawn came from a place she had neglected a very long while. She recalled it as she sipped her water.

If by the sea winds carry love,
my arms will be translucent sails, 

take my soul to the edge of the world so
we dance with anemones, sleep with stars.

DSCF4559

She had no idea where that came from but her next thought was: where had the romance gone? Not the brief, fun firecracker times she and Peter experienced in college and their first years together. She could manage–had done–without the surfeit of lust. And now they respected each other’s separateness, gave each other room. But what about the deeper romance that should hold them in tandem like the natural things on earth, easy but vital like flower and earth, water and river bank? She felt a lick of sorrow creep up. She backed away from it, returned to the current moment.

The man and woman from the lobby took a table across from her. The best one by the picture window above the cliff. He helped his companion take off her shimmery coat, pulled out a chair for her, then removed his elegant coat. Cashmere, Elle thought.

“Renee, I’m to the washroom. ”

Renee nodded at him, then put chin in hand and stared out over the cliff to uproarious waves and wind-tailored trees. Her eyes closed, then widened, as  though to re-focus on a distant place without and without. Her profile was classic, like an older Grace Kelly’s: no feature too pronounced, symmetrical, with barely lined, silken fair skin. Her lips were perfect even while pursed.

Elle’s meal arrived. She ate slowly, enjoying surreptitious glimpses of the captivating couple. The man had returned and was gesturing out the window. He sat, then caught Renee’s fingers in his. She didn’t pull away.

“You see out there past the spit? Yes, there, perhaps a harbor seal?”

Renee considered the seascape, then extricated her fingers and tasted her salad with a shrug. He ate with relish, fettuccine noodles slipping between his lips. Renee’s brows bunched a little as she noted a slurp from him, then she looked to the sea’s sterling waves. Her expression enlivened.

“Putnam, wait, see that? You are so right about such things. Or a sea lion…? Is that possible as well?”

Elle stared at Renee, then her companion. The man’s name was unusual–she liked it, thought it might be a family name–but it was her voice that surprised with its throatiness. There was a frayed edge to the words, like that of a two pack a day smoker, and it was louder than his. Elle had expected it to be refined, sweet to match Putnam’s gentlemanly manner, his careful way of enunciating. They had seemed like minor royalty at the start.

“Sure, and those cormorants there? They’re so hearty. Adaptable in all weather, yes? As one must be to thrive here.”

“As we all must be to just live, my dear. Most certainly to live well.”

And with that Renee gave up tension, worry or sadness, whichever she had brought into the place, and she transformed, her eyes a vibrant blue, her smile dimpling soft cheeks. She barely laughed–a chirp, really–but Putnam tilted his head and winked. Then each gave full attention to their meals.

Elle tried to not stare further. She scolded herself for being so hyper-observant and letting her thoughts become meddlesome. It was a bad habit. She just loved to study people, wanted to know what made them yearn and hope and care. What motivated their effort to really live their lives. Or not. Was Putnam a retired small-town doctor who married this younger woman of good standing, both stylish and attentive, a few years after a first wife had died? Or was she someone who had long been independent and given in to his persistence only after he visited her numerous times at a classy lounge where she sang jazz standards with a sultry alto? Perhaps they had fallen on hard times lately and this good meal was a blessing.

Renee reached across the table. Touched the edge of his white shirt sleeve. Putnam raised his eyes. They said something indiscernible due to the shepherding of more diners to their corner. But Elle could see they had almost imperceptibly mended things, passed a hard turn and were moving on. Renee had given in to his warmth and consideration. Their conversations flowed to and fro and so, Elle suspected, did their silences. She wished the new diners would quiet down so she could hear the couple but knew she should stop. It was not her business, after all.

Her own dinner was finished. She signaled for coffee and a dessert menu. Why not tiramisu? She had never tasted the extravagant coffee-flavored, cheese and chocolate-filled cake. But tonight there was no Peter to caution her against sugar or calories. And no Peter to tempt.

The rain had stopped. Renee and Putnam and Elle all looked to the sea. Sunlight burnished mighty waves, sea spray like fine lace. Clouds fell apart, leaking cerulean sky though slate grey. The sunset would be noteworthy.

Elle turned her head slowly toward Renee, and the older woman looked her way. Their eyes rested on each other. Renee nodded once, perhaps to acknowledge her awareness of Elle’s scrutiny, then returned her attention to Putnam and the sea’s beguiling performance.

The next few moments were full of chocolate that lit up Elle with pleasure. She wondered if Pete would take a bite off her fork, just one, and admit its virtues. She looked at her cell phone, then dialed.

“Hello? Elle?” he said, alarmed. Bach was blaring.

“I was thinking. Could we take a vacation together this year? By the sea part of the time, by city another part. So we can hang out, share it all. For a change.”

Pete said nothing as Bach changed to Mozart. She licked the last of the tiramisu from her fork.

“Just when are you coming back?” he asked. “I’ve missed you. Yes, we surely can find a place we both want to be. I think…but how about home for starters?”

“Be there tomorrow night, early. Maybe Victoria?”

“Hmm.” He sounded pleased.

Elle paid her bill and left without a backward glance. The wind whipped and sang out, brought scents of sea creatures and sand and gnarled trees. Tulips, brave and bold, wore rain like jewels. She did wonder what Renee and Putnam were going to do but she longed more to leave them. She needed to make her way back home and just hold Peter.

DSCF4581

The Beauty of Another Country

yo30097-breaktimehudsonriver1973 Taking a break Along the Hudson River, NYC by Wil Blanche

(Photo by Wil Blanche, Break Time Hudson River, 1973)

The river flowed as if it had a plan, deliberate, strong-willed, slathering the banks and concrete retaining walls with dirt and detritus. Heat-powered scents were redolent of city life combined with ground beneath concrete and brick. Cass had biked there. She wished for a strong breeze. But it was a miracle to be resting, sunshine so easy on sore arms and legs. Honeyed light soothed her. She let go of a twig she had picked up and watched it bounce away on the Hudson.

Cass worked hard at the cabinetry shop her dad owned. The business was even better than last year. She knew how to do things that men older than she did not. There were four other women there, two in the office, two laborers. He liked to think himself progressive, but they were paid less than others. Only Cass made what the men did, with top overtime allowed. That was due to thousands of hours she had clocked since age twelve when she was a “go-fer”. Unpaid labor until fifteen.

Lately she had thought about talking to him about moving on. Making it on her own. She watched seagulls wheel and dive. There was a loud girl chatting up one of the road crew; their talk leaped over the sound of barges. Cass shut her eyes tighter. She wanted to forget all the people who acted so special because they were desperate; the shop and its demands; the endless traffic din. It was the countryside she tried to conjure.

She had last been there three years ago. Hills were burnished with the glow of autumn. Emerald grasses, cows lolling and red weathered barns all seemed to her a part of a living art museum. Trees like bouquets of copper and jade. As a kid she had studied such scenes in a heavy library book of photographs and felt a stirring but to visit it was always like seeing a foreign land. There was a family reunion every five years at Great-aunt Dinah’s farm until she passed. She and her dad and brother had gone to her funeral, something her dad hadn’t wanted to do; it was an obligation. Cass didn’t recall the viewing (other than her hair, white as snow drifts against deep-lined skin) or the funeral (except for a cousin swearing he’d never put on a suit again no matter who died, the idiot).

Later, she’d sat on Dinah’s creaky back steps and drank in the openness of vast acreage. It was like drinking fresh water when she was parched inside and out. She had been needing something, She hadn’t fully realized it until then.

In the city there were weeds that struggled through sidewalk cracks and little parks bounded by streets crammed with people and vehicles. It gave her a headache. Their shop had a break area, a patch of dirt with a wobbly, splintered picnic table that Cass finally fixed up with a blue-potted ivy and a yellow checkered plastic tablecloth. No one said anything except for the office girls who liked looking at it from the second floor window. Her dad saw the modest improvement; he said so when she asked. But the workers often took a smoke and coffee break at the side door, ate lunch down the street.

Great-aunt Dinah had left her farmhouse to her son, Howard. He’d leased it and one hundred-fifty acres, then week-ended in a house he’d built on a pretty spot a few years previous. It was really a cabin, as though he’d dreamed of remote forest living. The majority of land was sold off. Howard was an ancient history professor. He liked to go to read and write, take long walks, he’d told them during a recent visit. He’d retire there soon.

mohawk_002

                    (Photo courtesy of Discover New England)

Howard had some business in the city, so called to see if they wanted dinner at the Zenith; he’d pick up the tab. Cass enjoyed his conversation as well as the food. Her dad, less so. They only saw each other two, three times a year, Howard’s idea.

He said, “You two should come out for a long week-end. There are beds in two rooms upstairs. The master is downstairs. It’s a nice refuge. People enjoy the peacefulness.” He cocked his head, raised his grey eyebrows. “Time is fleeing; family should gather.”

Cass recalled how comfortable it was and the gentle land. She had looked at her dad with anticipation but he shrugged and lit another cigarette off the butt poking from his lips.

“Not likely, Howie. Got a business to run and Cass is my right hand. Started to make great money again. Can’t risk taking time away. Thanks just the same.”

Howard wiped his lips neatly with the white cloth napkin, studying her. “Well, Cass, you’re twenty-one so decide for yourself. Savor some time away. Bring a friend, too!”

Her dad had grunted as though a) Howard had no business extending such a grand offer to his kid; b) Howard was too high and mighty–like he didn’t work for a living, too; and c) Cass wouldn’t consider a three-hour train ride for a week-end marred by “eau de manure”.

“I might do that,” she had said. But she had one week’s vacation, saved for Atlantic City with her best friend. Still, which sounded better?

The girl by river’s edge shrieked with laughter. Cass’ eyes flew open. She watched a man trying to grab her so he got smacked. They roared as if this was hilarious.

The strong waters churned but Cass imagined reclining on a pontoon, holding an iced drink. Coming to join her might be someone tall like her, with wiry brown beard and longish hair, a guy who appreciated women who knew machinery and wood and had a mastery of both. Who had some savings and a dream. They would sit and watch the world drift by. He’d also like a horizon far enough away that you had to travel a long time to feel any closer to it.

Cass’s shoulders slumped. She needed more beauty in her life, hard-core awesomeness, the kind that multiplied with each season and is valued for all time. Trees, bugs and creatures, dark rich earth, flowers among vegetables. The weather seen coming from the distance. The strange music of birds in the morning. She wanted kindness, enough so her hard work and restless nights finished well with interesting talk and a kiss that meant something. Her long, muscled arms stretched above her, soaking up sunshine.

Then she said aloud, “Dang, I want my own carpentry shop. Sooner rather than later.”

Wanted to leave this city, sit on grass by Howard’s cabin and learn about the things he knew. Figure out how she could start her own true life. She felt a frisson of energy slide upwards. That’s what she was going to do. It was amazing how easy it was to decide once she was ready.

As she rode her bike back to the shop, she looked long at the girl with pastel bell bottoms and bare shoulders, the bottle blond hair. It was not her destiny to be that way but she raised a hand  in greeting. The girl stared back and Cass wanted to call out, Don’t take what you can get, find what you want, but peddled on.

Hagg Lake outing 023