Graduation Night at Hearth and Vine

Photo by George Brassai
Photo by George Brassai

Something is going to happen; I feel it. I can tell that even from the kitchen where I’m held hostage by Father and the crew. I want to know what it will be, the surprise, and keep taking a look. I stand on tiptoe to peer out a small foggy window in the swinging doors but can barely see. He nabs me now, says never mind, keep your nose out of other people’s business, we have many things to do in here. As if I can do much. I do know how to just stack up and put dishes in the dishwasher, he says, and carry things. That’s true. I’ve been doing it ever since I could walk, the carrying part, even if just a wooden spoon or egg beater. That’s the restaurant business, he says, cook, carry, wash, repeat. I don’t cook yet. I’m only eleven and you have to be over eighteen to be trusted with beef fillet and trout and new potatoes and french green beans. And certainly desserts. As if these are rare and fantastic things. The last, okay, yes.

I’d rather be out there. In the dining room where the band is playing, people eating and talking all at once. It’s not the usual crowd. It’s my sister’s graduation party. Father closed the restaurant to all outsiders for the night. He says, No one can get in except for showing their invitations, not tonight and he told Mother to stand guard at the reception area by the sign in and seating book we usually keep. This time it’s a special one for Heidi, my big sister. I don’t know why it’s all that important even is she is leaving high school. Don’t we want paying guests, too? We’re in this by ourselves, paying for flowers and special lights, not just food but music, too. You’d think she was being crowned Queen of Something Remarkable. Mother purses her lips at me when I bring any of this up and shakes her head as if I am asking too many questions again.

But it’s not like we’re super rich or she’s a debutante, exactly. You can’t be a debutante in Millside, PA. I know, I read the New York Times that Father gets first thing every morning. I wait until he’s done on the week-end to snatch the good parts he ignores. Like sometimes the society page because I am nosy, Father is correct, but also gardening and crossword pages.

“What do you know, anyway, this is as good as any New York ‘Deb Ball’,” Heidi said last week, laughing at me. “But you’re just my kid sister, you have no real rights yet and little understanding of the important things. Go play with dolls a couple more years, Lissa.”

Which gets me, as she knows. I don’t play with dolls anymore but she doesn’t care, she’s so busy with “important things.” I play chess when Father has time, and I play piano when I can’t get out of it. I take dance classes, of course; who doesn’t around here? It’s okay, so far, especially the tap dancing part. I swim a lot at the river in summer; that’s soon coming up. But mostly I read, take care of Duke our black standard poodle, go to school and study and help when I have to at our restaurant, Hearth and Vine.

Like tonight. I carry a huge chilled glass bowl of fruit compote to Fritz, the head waiter, then quite a few empty water pitchers to Ann, my second cousin who works here for special events, and then I slip out, supposedly to check on the state of the white linens on two small buffet tables.

I see them again. Heidi and Rodney. He’s squeezing her awful tight and she giggles, her head back but then he steals a kiss on her neck and she pulls her chin down and looks to the side. She doesn’t see me. They’ve been going together for about eight months now. That’s just about how long she hasn’t much talked to me unless I distract her with a pinch on her forearm or a really smart question she wants to answer. I could get to know more about Rodney but the main thing is that he is an ace swimmer and he knows a lot about cards. And card tricks. He can entertain us for quite a while when he comes over. Then Heidi starts to tap her foot against the coffee table and Father says a lot of Hmmm and I need a smoke and then I almost got that one and then Rodney turns his attention to Mother but she just faintly smiles and shrugs and goes on with embroidery work and from time to time glancing at a gardening book open on a side table.

What the parents want to know is what is he going to do with his life? Besides go to  Penn State and study political science. Is he going to make a decent living, I hear Father say to Heidi, as if she could even know. She’s not thinking about anyone making a living, she’s thinking about what dresses she’s going to design and sew before summer is gone. Heidi has a heap of fabric and scraps. She ought to make me a quilt out of but likely never will get to it. Shes got the touch with the Singer.

The one thing she did tell me around the time Rodney popped into sight was she doesn’t really want to teach English to “snotty nosed kids who just pick on each other and swap silly notes” even if she is going to have to get a practical teaching degree at Penn State.

“I wish I could start my own house of fashion,” she said, staring out her bedroom window at three colorful rugs airing on the clothes line.

“Are you kidding? Who’d buy those odd, sometimes boring dresses except people in Millside–because they know you and want to be nice?”

She fell silent for quite a while and I realized I shouldn’t have made fun of her. She was my annoying big sister and I didn’t think her dresses were awful, just not what I might wear, and she can be stuck up and has it out for me most of the time but this doesn’t mean she has no feelings.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.

“If you had a dream, you’d get what I mean–but you’re too young to know very much. But the true fact is, I so want to be a designer!”

The force of her words got to me. “I do so have a dream. I want to be chess champion of the fifth and sixth graders this summer at camp.” I fiddled with a pencil I’d been using for homework and it tapped the paper a few times, hard.

“Stop, you’re such a nuisance! And you will be, I suspect.”

“Anyway, I think you should design your fashions if that’s what you really, honestly, truly want.”

She lay back on my bed beside me and looked over. “You think so? You think I’m good enough to do that?”

“Sure you are.” I rubbed out the math answer I’d put down without thinking and out a new one down. “Anyone can see that. I just like to bug you.”

“Rodney can’t see it.”

“Well, Rodney’s a dimwit sometimes. Why do you listen to him?”

She stretched her arms above her head of thick, fluffy blonde hair. “Because. He’s my boyfriend, I guess.”

“Uh, not a good reason.” I started on the next monotonous math problem. “These are boring.”

“That’s your favorite word.”

She laughed and ruffled my just cropped red hair. It felt comforting, good, but I didn’t say anything. She sat up straight, then pushed herself off.

“You might be right, Lissa. I’ll think on it.”

“A first! One point, my side.”

I eyed her as she left my room, her deep green skirt following her like swaying summer grass with feet. It surprised me that she had said that last part, and I wondered how much she did want to do something different, how Rodney felt about it. He seemed to think they were teammates in all things. I thought he was nice enough, a bit tiring except for the card stuff. But it wasn’t any of my business.

So now I slink around and watch the best dancers, peek at my sister and her boyfriend.

And wait.

“Melissa Sue, back in the kitchen, I need you to help bring out more hard rolls and put them on the tables. Father is on a tear about the Bolognese sauce and the rest of us have to get ready to help serve.”

Mother is wide-eyed and flushed, typical at times like this. She yanks at my sweater sleeve. I pull it back but follow and steal another glance at the dancers. I’d like to join them. Heidi has her eyes closed. Rodney does, too, then opens them and glances at me and waves but I pretend I don’t notice, I don’t know why.

******

It is getting late. I know this without looking at a clock. I’m tired and so are my parents but they smiled in the kitchen last time I checked. Everyone has eaten the main courses, at last. The waiters–some extra family members, too–have cleared things away, the band is starting up with some quiet pieces. In a little while there will be coffee and our amazing burnt almond torte, nothing like it for toppers.

There are sixty almost-grown-up-kids out there, many moving away from tables to the springy outdoors for fresh air. I slip away from Mother’s reach, pause beside the French doors. The sky has cleared up; stars wink away. Earlier it rained enough that Heidi was up in arms about how no one would be able to enjoy the night on the best part of our scrumptious Hearth and Vine restaurant: the wide terrace that wraps around three sides. I see her and Rodney wedged between three other couples, a laughing circle of fancy dresses and dark suits, the guys patting their stomachs as if proud of something great they’ve done, the girls pulling out little mirrors from clutches to perfect their hair or lipstick. They are all talking a lot.

One girl pulls in her stomach as I walk by, presses her shoulders back so her chest rises up and whispers loudly at me.  Poor Leanne, always loud despite her trying not to be.

“Do I look five pounds fatter after your father’s meal? Gads. But it was so good, right? You look considerably prettier in that navy and polka dot dress, by the way.”

“You look… really okay. Yes, the food is always great here.” I grin at her, then hurry past.

“Oh, there’s Lissa.” My sister steps out of the circle. “Can you go get my purse? It’s at our table, by the stage.”

She frowns. I hesitate, thinking she might say more but she turns back. Everyone seems gleeful, chattering, laughing, looking out over the half-acre of lawn that was freshly mowed this morning. I think the flowers on the terrace are especially good and pat a bunch of white and yellow daisies in a big blue pot as I pass. Every now and then I think about what I would like to do different here. I enjoy cooking but what I like more is this old stately building and lawn. I guess I can’t be a Hearth and Vine gardener, that would be strange and silly. Especially for The Future Chess Champion of All Time. But I feel happy I helped pick out new potted flowers and then watered them early this morning.

It was for my sister this time. For Heidi, who’s leaving in three months. And it all looks and feels entirely delicious.

I race in undetected by Mother, who is talking to a real waiter in his tidy white and black uniform. There’s the purse, a blue shiny number with a rhinestone clasp, Heidi told me, but it looks like diamonds. I snatch it and place it under my arm, step toward the terrace.

“What are you up to, dear?”

“Nothing, Mother, taking this to Heidi.”

“Is she still with Rodney?”

I look up at her face, see the faintest lines of worry deepen around her taut mouth.

“Yeah. Of course.”

She nods and sends me off with a little pat on the back. I’m relieved she didn’t say anything about bedtime yet. There are the tortes, mainly, but also some speeches, Father said.

I hand off the purse to Heidi and she tucks it under her armpit, presses her hands together as if she’s a Chinese lady. This time her circle is talking about colleges close and far and who is leaving the state. I notice Rodney has his arm around Heidi and she looks down at his hand on her shoulder as if, well, she might want to flick it off. But won’t, due to excellent manners.

From the long stone balustrade, I can see the piercing stars above and clumps of teenagers who already act like they’re closer to my parents’ age than mine, and also the innards of the restaurant. It makes a good number of pictures when I frame them with my hands, ones I’d like to keep awhile. The music ripples outward with swift notes and the crowd starts to dance even on the terrace, some cheek to cheek, lips whispering things special and secret. I wonder what it’s like to be held that close and the thought makes me squirm. I notice Rodney is trying to kiss my sister again.

Once Heidi taught me how to dance a waltz to a scratchy record Father has; we broke down giggling often but I caught on. Then we swooped about, the easy-to-follow rhythm and silky classical notes making us glide about as if we were ladies-in-training from another time and place. Then I started to tap dance like a maniac and that got her going, too, so we tapped our way onto the porch and then down the sidewalk to the drugstore on Tenth and Hale. Just for the heck of it. Because it was summer and we liked it and why not? Old man Jenkins clapped for us; he was smoking his pipe as he whiled away the afternoon on a bench under the store’s white and blue striped awning. Everything was shining. It’s one of the best memories I have so far.

******

Suddenly the music stops. There’s an announcement over the microphone for all to come inside. I can see waiters and even Mother serving the torte and getting ready to pour steaming coffee from silver carafes but I don’t want to go in. I notice Heidi smooth the waist of her slim grey-blue dress with its unusual cuffs and collar–it’s unlike other girls’ attire but several have complimented her. She pushes her wavy bangs away from her eyes. Turns to study the glowing emerald yard, eyes not even registering me. She opens her purse and takes something small and white out but I’m too far away to make out what it is. She stares hard at it. Rodney has gone on, his arm linked in a buddy’s. Just as I’m about to run up to her, she moves through a terrace doorway and into the darkened room alone as others gather stage front.

Father is saying something about how lovely it is that all could come together for this celebration of one door closing but the next leads to others even better, exciting to enter. He thinks he’s a regular MC, and maybe he does have flare because everyone is rapt as he gestures, smiles and gabs. He invites the graduating class to come on up and say a few words if they want to, nothing formal, just what they think of graduating or where they’re headed now. A half-dozen do and I close my heavy eyelids, lean back in a chair against a wall. I so want my serving of burnt almond torte but maybe it can wait until tomorrow.

“Hi kids, so glad you’re here. I’d like to say a few things, too.”

My eyes pop open. I stand up.

Heidi clears her throat. “First off, Father, this was a wonderful way to close my senior year, thank you! I wasn’t so sure at first, I mean, having my own party in my family’s restaurant seemed…a little tacky! I was thinking a gala affair would be far more ‘gala’ elsewhere.” She laughed and others joined in but some called out It’s perfect, the food is great and Father bowed slightly and walked off the stage. “I’ve been so lucky. I see that now. I have far better than standard parents, that’s for sure. And such loyal friends. And a little sister who is smart, good-hearted and a tad wild–“she points at me but I hang my head low so no one finds me–“just how I like her.”

I am getting scared. This does not sound like my sister Heidi; it’s like another person crept into her skin. She isn’t this straight forward about things and she never praises me, certainly not in public. I want to shrink into a dusty corner. I wonder if she stole some wine or if she’s feeling crazed by all the celebrating and leaving for Penn State before too long.

“Anyway, I thought this was as good a time as any to share something amazing.”

She looks over the crowd, locating Mother and Father who are standing mid-way in the clots of partiers, fully attentive. I look for Rodney and see him to the left of stage steps, one foot on the top step, one foot getting ready to join it.

“I have here–” she shakily opens something up in her hands and it is a creased piece of paper, like typing paper–“I have here a letter. It’s from a place that means a lot to me. It holds information that will change my life. It’s an admission letter. And more.”

Rodney steps forward, strides right up to her. She sees him but ignores him as he puts his arm around her shoulders as if he owns her so it’s his news, too. I feel her stiffen and wonder if others do, too, as they whisper among themselves. Penn State is old news, what’s the fuss here?

But I take a deep breath. Something is going to happen; there should be a drum roll.

“It’s from Pratt Institute. To study art and fashion design in Brooklyn, New York! I am not going to study teaching at Penn State. I have this letter right here that says I’m being awarded a major scholarship from Pratt Institute!”

She holds out the letter to the crowd, proof of a miracle.

Rodney gapes at her, then falls away as if a gust of wind tore him away. Heidi is smiling hugely, for her rose red lips have told a beautiful story. Our parents start forward, hands to mouths. The crowd murmurs. Some mouthy guy shouts, “You can’t do that, don’t be a traitor to Penn!”

So I head toward my sister. She’s standing there, her small face falling, and I am pushing and prying my way though dense globs of kids, trying to get to her before our Father does or Rodney says something bad or stupid or my sister faints from nerves.

“Excuse me, excuse me please!” I plunge on until I get to the stage steps and gallop up to be with Heidi.

She looks down at me with surprise. Then takes my hand. Squeezes it three times for I love you. I stand on my tiptoes to the microphone and shout into it so my voice rings and echoes.

“Hooray for Heidi! She’s going to be a fashion designer! Come on, give my sister a round of applause, ladies and gents!”

For a full five seconds I think no one will do this small, very necessary and kind thing. That my sister will stand there forever frozen, feeling small and let down, embarrassed and sad she ever had the courage to reveal so publicly–her friends and classmates, boyfriend and family–her surprising news. That she will fear she disappoints our parents, too. But I know better. Our parents will be proud of her very soon if they aren’t quite yet. How can they not know her?

Then at last applause amps up, the hoots and hollers and cheers. The re-energized band strikes up a peppy tune. That’s when my parents join us. They take hold of our free hands and lift them up. We stand there together in victory. Look out at our wonderful place with lights and food and friends. When they start to hug her, though, I try to make a getaway.

And then Heidi does it.

“I just want to say here and now that if it wasn’t for my little sister, Melissa, I wouldn’t have even applied. I had this crazy dream but she just told me to go for it. So thank you, Lissa. You’re truly the best.”

I look at her sky-blue eyes filling up and that’s my cue. I can see the tortes sitting like regal sugar-stuffed creations on their white and silver plates and grab the mike and say with a flourish: “Guess what? It’s finally dessert time, a crowning achievement of our fab restaurant!”

Heidi bends down to me and says, “You should do PR work, Lissa.”

I don’t even know what she means, but I can tell it’s another compliment

Another cheer goes up and they chant my name along with Heidi’s. I have to say it’s a stupendous ending to one more successful night at Hearth and Vine. Rodney might not agree. But then, he left before the grand finale. He’ll never know the half of it, poor dope.

The Special

Photo  by Igor Moukhin
Photo by Igor Moukhin

They live a block apart, just down the street from the other but they hadn’t spoken to each other in years. For four decades, to be exact. It wasn’t something terrible, planned out like a vendetta. They didn’t acknowledge one another face-to-face after that summer, that’s all. I thought it was strange, but lots of things people do are unexpected. Since I knew them both, I was in a hard spot at first. They didn’t include me in it and it was better that way. After the first couple of years I got the point and stayed friends with them both.

But seeing them in the same places and not even looking at each other, not directly at least–that still throws me off. They telegraph a quick vibe that’s not so comfortable, step back and maybe nod at whoever else is nearby. Not too long ago Terry was behind Vincent in the drugstore before he realized it. I was with Vincent and turned to grab a couple of peppermint patties.

“Hey, Terry, how’s it goin’?”

“Marty, going great, you and the food business good as usual?” Then he looked a moment at Vincent’s profile and then away.

“Thriving. Come in and I’ll treat you to a steak. Even give you a doggy bag of scraps for your mutt.”

“Our handsome Rusty? He’ll love you for that. I’ll have to get out my good pants and shine my shoes, your place is jumping these days. I’ll stop by sometime with Janell.”

We moved on and when I turned to see if Terry was looking back at us as we exited, he wasn’t.

“Come on, slacker,” Vincent said, four paces ahead of me.

I kept a snapshot of our teen days stuck in a dusty album. I used to study it, thought I could figure us all out. Vincent is the one scowling, which he can still fall into off and on. Terry is the guy happy to have a girl in his arms. I think he’s looking at her friend but I’m not clear on it. I’m the one you don’t see, taking the picture with my Kodak, wishing the girl in front of me would turn around and see me. She was too swept up in conversation with the girl wedged between Terry and her so never did show me any favor. That picture is a tiny clue to a puzzle I have so far failed to solve.

It was the summer before high school and we were hanging out at one of our spontaneous street gatherings. Music was blaring from a portable radio. Fifteen or twenty kids usually showed up via word of mouth; there were blocks jam-packed with families. Everybody had the bead on everybody else, or thought they did. But nobody knows for sure what happened between Vincent and Terry, or if it was just one of those things. They had been buddies since kindergarten or before, same as me. By the time we started tenth grade, they had gone their separate ways and had nothing to say about it. Vincent shrugged and said, “Man, it’s nothin’ to freak out about, forget it, you and I–we’re good.” Terry told me, “It was a weird thing last summer. We had our own viewpoints, that’s all. Don’t worry about it, I’m cool.” So that was that.

Now we live in the same general neighborhood, better than our old district. Comfortable, a big step up. But it’s taken awhile. Vincent lives four blocks from me but close to Terry. A park divides their houses, though, and when you walk through it, you come out to a “little less” or a “more” environment. Vincent was the “less” but he did well, too. Terry didn’t have children so they never had to worry about their kids becoming bosom buddies.

I left in the seventies, hitchhiked out to California for a year. I got high too much, worked odd jobs, ate too little. It was an experience but I came back to my parents’ restaurant. Now it’s mine. Vincent couldn’t wait to work at the Ford factory, said he made great money and benefits and was proud to help build a fine product, then became a manager. He liked to play ball on week-ends, likes to attend games now and toss a ball with neighbor kids. He has a good family that is tight. Terry was a good student and liked school so he went to college, fell for the charms of Janell, a mixed race gal, got married, went on to become a veterinarian, as did she. He takes on quite a few indigent pet owners, which I’m all for. He can afford it.

This weekend when I’m trying out a new chicken dish, a special, Vincent comes in with Haley and their son, Jay. He’s all excited to see me, wants to tell me something, but I’m rushing around staying on top of things, greeting new patrons, hoping the dish will be as perfect as it was during trial runs. Otherwise, my new chef is gone and I’m going to send out an S.O.S. for help.

Friends always think you can do them a favor, make their visit extra special, more meaningful somehow. Not necessarily going to happen but I try. I seat his family by a large window that looks out over a creek.

“Got good news to tell you,” Haley beams at me after a quick hug.

“Can’t wait to hear it, but later, sorry. Try the new Chicken Roulade. A winner.”

Vincent settles back, keeps his news on hold while Haley sulks the barest amount as she scans a menu. Jay looks a little sweaty even though his polo is clean, so likely was dragged in from skateboarding. He’s already decided on T-bone, he always does.

“Glad you all came in, guys. I’ll check back when I get a chance to chat.”

“Sure, no worries.” Vincent waves me off as I head to the kitchen, on the way instructing a waitress to tend to them sooner rather than later.

A half hour later the place is crowded with people lined up at the door. I’m counting my lucky stars again. The Range and Sea has been updated and revitalized; it has paid off fast. I’m standing in the back, chatting with staff, watching folks come and go. The special was perfect as it could be, excellent wine is flowing, everyone is relieved it’s Friday and glad to be at my place. A swell of contentment fills me up and there’s a moment when everything that matters is clear to me, and I’m floating above the din and seeing how it all fits together. Except for Sara, my wife, soon to be ex-wife if she insists on having her way. The effervescence of happiness starts to go flat as I bring my mind back to the person who is asking me something.

Then I spot Terry’s head bobbing along as he jockeys for a spot to wait with Janell. Her dark, curly head leans against his shoulder. They’re a striking pair, he pale and angular, she caramel-hued, tall like him and vibrant in the sea of mostly white faces. She specializes in more unusual creatures, charges far more to examine paws and feathers, I’m sure.

I re-engage with the waiter in front of me despite wanting to welcome them.

“We’re running out of room, that line keeps lengthening,” he says, face ruddy, tinged with perspiration. He dabs his upper lip with a tissue.

“Good problem to have. Set up three more round tables on the side terrace if you can make the space without bothering diners.”

I glance back at Terry and Janell. They’re heading to a table as I go to my office to answer a phone call. I could hide out but prefer being on the floor of my establishment, absorbing the heady buzz of conversations while tantalizing fragrances emanate throughout the rooms.

It’s my wife on the other end. I close the door.

“Listen, I have thought some more and I think we should get counseling.”

I can hear her breathing and I know she is nervous. It throws me off.

“What?” I can’t believe she is calling me at rush hour.

“I mean, we might still try to make it work. Maybe I need to make some changes, too. I just don’t know what or how yet. I think we need someone one to help guide us…”

Her voice is thickened by threatening tears. I wonder what brought this on. But I’m not about to start questioning things. I have been hopeful and deflated before. Despite my passion for work, I so need and love her, too. “Okay.”

“Okay? Just like that?” She whistles, which sounds funny making its way between teariness and the serious tone. But that’s Sara for you. “Then will you come home earlier tonight? Please?”

I consider the restaurant, how much there is to do yet before I oversee closing up around midnight. But, yes, I could leave early.

“Is this for real? Don’t answer. I’ll do my best. Yes, I’ll come home earlier.”

When I open the door, I feel lighter even as my stomach quivers. I suck it in and head into the softly lit, navy blue and dove grey decorated rooms. I search for Terry and Janell, and remind myself I need to stop by Vincent’s table, too. I can see Terry’s balding head above others and make a beeline.

And slow down as I approach.

Terry is seated by the window, next to Vincent’s table. In fact, they are facing each other across a small space separating them. The women are looking from husband to husband, then back to each other. I approach with cautious friendliness.

“I see you’re all taken care of? Got your food already, Vincent, Haley. I hope it’s to your liking tonight. Glad you all came!”

“Maybe we could be seated elsewhere, Marty,” Janell suggests in an calm voice. “Not sure this was the best idea.”

“Well, why not?” Haley pipes up.”You and I are friendly enough. Let the men do as they do. The food is tasty, the creek view is lovely.”

Jay shakes his head, takes another bite of rare steak coupled with a roasted garlic potato.

Vincent is gesturing wait staff for more wine and not meeting my eyes. Terry is looking at his watch, as if to gauge whether or not they can get in elsewhere for dinner before fainting from hunger. They love to eat out every week-end. I want them to stay, and come again soon.

“I think we’ll manage. We’re about to order,” he says to Janell, then smiles widely at me–but his eyes are half-closed as if shielding what he really feels, a quirk he’s always had.

I step aside while my staff attend to both tables. I am wondering what the news is from Vincent’s camp but think better of that. “How about the Chicken Roulade?”

“Mine was very good. We’ll finish up in a few, yes, Haley? After another glass or two of wine. We’re celebrating, after all.”

Vincent is getting loose, just enough that we notice. He’s not a big drinker like his dad was, but it occurs to me he’s trying to deal with being so near Terry. How do you leave when it’s obvious? When you aren’t acknowledging someone in the first place?

Terry pulls his sleeve over the watch, puts his hand on Janell’s. They taste their wine as if discovering its virtues for the first time.

“So, business is fantastic. We haven’t stopped by for a couple months. I’m impressed. You’ve done a fine job at refurbishing things, and I bet you’re giving really good competition to the rest.”

Janelle smooths her hair back from her face and the movement is a tell, showing her attempt to keep things neatly under wraps.

Terry taps my shoulder as I lean in. “We need to have a barbecue this summer, invite the neighborhood, make it a big affair, even a pool party, what do you think?”

“I agree, we could use more fun. We all work way too hard. Maybe in  July? If we can just get everyone to agree on a date and time that suits all.” That would be interesting, everyone together, even Vincent?

“That’s the truth, we do work too hard for our fifties,” Vincent says from the half-slouch he’s affecting. “Anything else we need to state or overstate?” He sits taller. “In fact, anything we need to say that hasn’t been said before?”

“Dad, come on.” Jay pauses, fork in mid-air, puts it down. “Mom?”

His mother makes a little moue with her mouth, lifts her goblet, sets it down. She is done with her Cobb salad, waits to see what happens. She trades a look with Janell but it’s unreadable.

“Hey, I need to run, but I’m always gratified when my friends come by,” I say, anxious for this to blow over, wanting to keep the mood lighter, hoping to be home earlier than usual to see what else Sara has up her sleeve.

“Well,” Terry starts, his voice quietly commanding our attention, “let’s get it done. Tell me: why did your father say that to my mother that summer night we were barbecuing in our yard? In that way? With that look? Aye, Vincent?”

Vincent sits up straight, barrel chest out. “Of course. I supposed that was still it. That all this time you’ve labored over it, tried to make sense of something that had nothing to do with us. That was about stupid issues we didn’t understand. I didn’t, anyway.”

“‘Stupid issues’?” Spittle with bits of chicken falls from Terry’s lips and he wipes it away, then inflates with a steadying breath. “My dad was thinking of leaving her, you knew that. Not everyone did, but your family did. But they were still together, and I was praying all summer they would stay that way. The cook-out was going well, everyone was good, Dad was even being attentive to my mom. Then when Dad went inside your dad sidled up–”

“‘Sidled up’? Like it was something dangerous? I was there, too. He was just making conversation, they were all good friends!”

Janell puts her arm around the back of Terry’s chair as he continues.

“–sidled up to her and says, ‘If I were your husband, I’d be more careful. You have beautiful eyes of an angel.’ And he leaned down and whispered something in her ear, put his hand on her back for a split second. ‘Right?’ he said and laughed. I saw your mother flinch, saw my mom smile an embarrassed smile. And there was Dad, at a standstill with a platter of hamburgers as he watched your dad slink away, my mom stand alone with her arms wrapped around her. I’ll never forget her face, confused, anxious.”

I almost want to bolt. This is none of my business. I have other things to do, important things. But I can’t move.

“I told you what was what then,” Vincent says as he starts to stand, then is tapped on the arm by his wife. He sits. “My dad could talk too much, said things he should have kept to himself. But he wasn’t the sort of man you accused him of being, and he didn’t do anything bad then!”

“Like hell.” Terry seethes but with quietness, ever mindful of his surroundings. “You weren’t there later that night. You didn’t have to hear Dad and Mom arguing and watch my dad pack up a suitcase and leave the house. You weren’t me in my dark little room, watching out the window as he pulled out the driveway like a madman and then disappeared for the whole week-end. Your dad instigated all that.”

The waiter brings the orders to Terry’s table, speaks to me of a kitchen issue, then leaves. All is silent. I try to think of a way to call it a night on this topic. My wonderful special steams on the white and silver-trimmed plates. And isn’t touched.

“Wait a minute. Your dad actually left over that?”

Terry smooths the napkin on his lap. He picks up his fork and stares at it a long moment as if deciding if it is meant to do something else. “Yes.” He takes the knife and cuts a piece of chicken and eats, then cuts another. Janelle follows suit. Terry’s face reddens with each bite and he stops. “Yes, he left us, and that week-end felt like an eternity. All because your father made it look like my mother and he were in on something. It took a long while for our lives to re-settle when he got back Monday night. Too long. Alot was never the same for me.” He sets his fork tines atop the enticing food on its pretty plate.

Jay coughs, takes a long swig of ice water.

Haley sits up straight. “And neither was the friendship between you boys, once two of the best friends. How can that be?”

“He never took back the curse he threw at me, at my own father, Haley. I almost beat him up, it was so wrong. I couldn’t keep my dad in check, anyway. It was all a mess so we just never talked again.”

I sit down between the two tables. “I’m sorry about that, guys, but…Really, that was decades ago. Who doesn’t have parents who were foolish in some way? Ours were good to us, tried to do the right thing most of the time. They all stayed together, right? And we’re still here and have a lot of blessings to be thankful about.”

I think about Sara, how we need to talk better, argue less. That I can’t wait to see her this time. How we can lose someone over what is not said or finally said wrong.

Jay has finished eating, sits with elbows propped on the white tablecloth, chin in hands. “You know something, damn it? You two are acting kind of like teen-agers, like you got stuck there. Sorry it was rough on you both, really. But can’t we just call it good now, make up and so on? Can’t we just talk about the prize we won?”

I don’t mean to laugh but it explodes from me and in a few seconds the spell seems nearly broken as Vincent and Terry shift, relax. I stand up, roll my shoulders free of tension. “Just tell us the surprise.”

Vincent gets up and raises his wine glass to both tables, which might be a result of being tipsy but he seems relieved and excited. “We won an all-expense paid trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for ten days!”

“My gosh, Haley, are you still entering all those contests? And it finally paid off!”

Terry and Janell almost look glad for them. I try to envision them all going on vacation together but quickly let that go.

As I leave them, the women start carrying on about what resort wear actually is and fancy drink names they’d devise. Jay is enthusing about surfboarding and the girls he’ll meet. The two men, my old buddies, aren’t quite talking yet when I turn to look back but they aren’t in a big hurry to leave, either. They’re listening and settling. I figure it’s a start. At least I didn’t have to break up a fight. Terry and Vincent are far better than that, they just haven’t entirely finished up their old business. It can happen. I tend toward optimism; it’ll happen sometime soon.

But it wasn’t miraculous that they came to the Range and Sea tonight, were even seated next to one another. I put things in place. They won’t learn that piece. Vincent and Terry still mean that much to me.

 

When By the Sea

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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.

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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.

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