The ride in the back of the van was very rough and we could hardly speak to one another over the sound of the engine and the rattling fenders. Oh, no, I saw that the kids' stuffed animals had been left piled on the hood of the van and they were bouncing off onto the side of the road! There went Oesha's black and white kitty! There went Owen's lion, Bing! The teddy bear in the frothy blue tutu flew high in the air and disappeared over the roof!
"Do we stop and go back for them?" I asked Adam.
"Nah," he said, waving a hand. "We'll just buy some more."
Finally we pulled into a parking lot by a scenic vista. We got out, stretching our legs, and I strolled over to what looked like a ski lift. As I got to the lift area, I was able to suddenly see that the edge revealed a drop of about forty stories, and I felt myself start to sway towards it. With a sickening feel of twisted innards, I dropped to the ground and began to crawl back towards the van, low to the ground so that the vertigo would not sweep me up and off the cliff like old oak leaves before a storm.
As I reached what I knew was safety, I felt panic set in, for the twins and Owen were under age five, toddlers with no sense of danger or restraint. I shouted for them desperately, praying that they would respond to my voice and come away from the dangerous drop.
I woke up, gripping the edge of the bed with my right arm. My feet were touching the cold wall on the other side of the bed, and Gabe had managed to spread himself over the lower half. I was dripping wet with sweat, and had probably edged myself farther and farther away from his doggy warmth. The clock said 4:30. Close enough. As I moved myself around to leave the bed feet-first, I nudged Gabe with my heels, making him say "Aarrhhh" and show his teeth in mock ferocity.
Leaning my head against the cool doorjamb of the patio door, I shut my eyes to recall and relive the dream that had awakened me. Rough ride, kids' treasures lost, fear of heights, worries about the kids. Gabe went out the open door like a dog with a mission. This October is never going to cool off, I thought, pouring myself a glass of cold water. I can't even convince myself that I'm having hot flashes.
Every day of the first half of October had been in the high eighties, and so still in the evenings that nothing cooled down much at night. I resisted the urge to set the air conditioner's temperature control to 65 degrees ... and sweated at night, and was growing increasingly short-tempered, although I knew that it wasn't really just the heat.
The stars were pointing to Friday morning, and my sister would be at my house by the time I was out of work, ready and eager to expect me to entertain the kids while she draped herself all over Bodie, my next door neighbor. Every other weekend since I first told her of Bodie's interest in her, Jesse came with the kids to visit me in my own house. "Oh, you shouldn't have to drive to the estate all the time," she said. "This is more fair, don't you think?"
While I dressed in lightweight sweats, I remembered the first time she visited after she learned that Bodie wanted to ask her out. Like suburban deer in the thick fog of morning, she and Bodie spotted each other in our respective driveways, and stopped still and poised, staring at one another. They met at the boundary of our properties and made an attempt at small talk, both of them with arms crossed over their chests, but the sexual attraction they radiated was obvious.
Jesse and Bodie got along as though they were made specifically for each other. I really wanted to be happy for them, but instead, I was annoyed, although I think I was able to hide the feeling. Her husband, Charles, father of her five kids, had only been dead for about four months. Her kids still missed him to the point of tears, I still missed him -- he'd been my sounding board and a dear friend as well as brother since before the first twins had been born. Jesse didn't seem to have any time for "loss" except as it might apply to her cursing at having to try to run the estate on her own.
As Gabe and I walked the streets of Riverton, I continued to examine my irritation, my sister's unwidowly and unmotherly behavior, and the dream I'd had that morning.
Really there was nothing about Jesse's attraction to Bodie that was unusual; women threw themselves at him all the time -- he just wasn't particularly interested. This time he was very interested: was I jealous? The physical reaction I had to that hypothesis indicated "No." I had never had any physical desire for Bodie, nor did I feel that he was some kind of mental soul-mate. We were just pals, just about siblings. His twin Andersol was comfortable -- okay, enthusiastic -- about Bodie and Jesse.
Maybe I just expected Jesse to be more faithful to her late marriage. After all, she had wed Charles and borne five children to him. Shouldn't she have wept and gathered her kids to her when he died such an untimely death? Shouldn't she have remembered him in a kind of cathartic grief and loved him all the more for the memories of what his life had meant to her?
My neighbor on the other side of me, Mary LeMay, talked about that at length with me, and how she still felt as though her late husband, Jack, was with her always. Obviously Jesse had a different experience of marriage.
Obviously I had a different experience of her marriage. Charles' death had injured me at a very basic level; he'd been my brother, my confidant, the person I trusted more than anyone else in the world. With his union with my sister, he and the children filled out the void in my world when Adam left me.
Why the hell had he been in my dream? Handsome and well-spoken (that denotes pleasure and agreeableness) he'd tossed off the kids' loss of their favorite toys with a "Who cares, we'll buy something better." But there wasn't a sexual component of feeling in the dream ... Adam appeared as a symbol of ...
Adam was the symbol for what I was feeling about Jesse. She couldn't keep faith with her marriage for as long as it took her to get assigned to a dig; she couldn't keep faith with her kids long enough to stay home with them and see that they matured well. She couldn't, and had no inspiration to keep faith with Charles' family and be a part of it and its duties.
Good God, I'd subconsciously begun associating Jesse with Adam.
No wonder I was irritable.
Clouds had moved in to make an overcast sky by midday, and the humidity increased. Thank God lawyers like suits, I'd thought, feeling comfortable in the office air conditioning. Really, I had felt more than comfortable; I felt soothed by the cool, dry air, enough that I could rethink my cranky morning's intent to tell my sister what I thought of her. Some instinct or DNA strand gone bad kept trying to turn me into my mother and make me critical of everyone, determined that everyone should act as I expected, and disappointed when they didn't. I was not going to have any part of that attitude if I could help it at all.
"Batten down the hatches, Sully," said one of the lawyers, coming out of their regular Friday afternoon staff meeting, "San Jose is in the middle of a thunderstorm right now, high winds and hail, and it's headed right for us."
The rain didn't arrive until we were sitting around the dinner table, eating a meal comprised of a buffet of stir-fried chicken, salad, celery, olives, cheese, and potato salad. As the first heavy drops began to hit the patio, Kelsa looked at me with wide eyes. "Is this the first rain?" she asked.
"Yes, it is," I answered.
"Can we?" cried Kelsa, Michel and Owen.
"First Rain," I said to my frowning sister. To the children, I said, "I think we ought to."
The kids and I left the food on the table and ran out to the front yard, lifting our arms to the drops, which began to fall more frequently. "Thank you, God, for the rain!" we shouted together. The raindrops splashed on our hair and faces and clothing, making little spots of cool wetness, and then the heavens let loose. A downpour started, the drops dancing off the walkway and driveway. The children shrieked, waving their arms and jumping up and down. Jesse watched us, arms crossed, from the shelter of the front porch. Gabe poked his head out from the porch just a little, blinking at the spray of the rain.
Then a great peal of thunder rumbled, and the kids all squealed and ran to the porch, soaked. We stood there, wiping at our dripping faces and laughing; if we saw lightning flash, we pointed at it, and waited for the following roar of the thunder. When the rain settled into a steady rhythm, and Jesse had brought us towels to wrap up in, we went inside to change into dry clothes and finish our supper. Then the power went out and the kids applauded and cheered while I found candles to light in the kitchen. In the dim light of evening and firelight, the children told me about their week at school, and all the minutiae of their lives. The thunder had rolled on towards the Sierras by bedtime, and the kids were content.
The girls shared my purple bedroom, the boys got the front bedroom, and Jesse got the room that was right beside the water heater in the garage because she was an adult and could deal with the noise from its pipes. All the windows were open to catch the cooler air of evening and the sound of the blessed, unexpected rain.
"I can't believe you've taught my children to pray to the Rain Gods," Jesse said after we poured glasses of wine by candlelight. "I'm the anthropology expert but it never occurred to me that children in an industrialized society would be open to thanking a deity for the rainy season."
"They can do that here because they're not surrounded by critical peers," I replied, clinking my glass of white wine against her red one. "Here is different. Not only do they not have other children -- or adults -- thinking that they're 'bad' or 'misguided' or 'weird' for dancing in the first rains of autumn, but it just plain old feels good to play in the rain in a place that isn't as perpetually chilly as Port Laughton." I watched her check her watch in the scant light. "Jesse, he isn't going to be home from work until about 10:30, you've got hours yet."
"That sounded pretty sarcastic," she observed.
I decided to try to clear the air with her; the very last thing I wanted was to be at odds with the mother of my nieces and nephews. "I just wonder sometimes; you did go from one man to another in less than four months ... don't you think you needed to take more time to grieve?"
She looked at me levelly. "No."
Well, so much for clearing the air. What could I say?
"What, did you think I was going to turn celibate, like you? Sully, I'm not interested in a way of life like yours, especially when someone like Bodie is as interested in me as I am in him. You may be content to cut yourself off from male companionship, but don't try to lay that on anyone else. You could have been dating and having fun or even remarried by now. Seems to me the question ought to be 'Don't you think ten years is long enough to grieve?'" She finished the glass of wine. "In fact, you've turned into a regular nun, you know that? I know you haven't approved of me and Bodie, but you need to get over it."
"And the kids?" I asked. "They're being taken to Auntie's house so that Mama can tuck them into bed and then bolt next door and tuck Uncle Bodie into bed. Why can't you see the wrongness of that?"
"Are you afraid that they'll think their mother is a slut, is that it?"
"For someone who was willing to forgive a no-good rotter like Adam over and over and over again, you're pretty damn judgmental about people having sex."
"Maybe it was because of Adam's cheating that I finally figured out that the Church was right. There's nothing in the world that I wanted more than to have Adam faithful to our bed. All his affairs hurt me, the knowledge that he had lovers before me hurt me. And so where did that leave me, who had other lovers before him? He didn't care. But oddly enough, the fact that he didn't care hurt me, too." My lower lip trembled a little as though there were still unshed tears in me. "What happens to my best friends when my sister gets bored and dumps the brother? Who all is going to be hurt then?"
"You dummy, I'm not going to dump him."
I blinked at her.
"We're just waiting for the right time. I understand about people's need to grieve and deal with death. But ol' girl, except for the ceremonies, you have a brother- and sister-in-law next door."
"You couldn't have told me when you decided this? Any of you?"
"No, because I knew you were still upset by Charles' death and wouldn't want to hear that I was going to re-marry as soon as possible."
"I absolutely do not know what to say." I said.
"Say 'Congratulations' and don't try to talk me out of it like you did when I married Charles."
"Congratulations," I repeated numbly. After a silent minute, I asked her, "Did you love Charles?"
"There is nothing about my marriage to Charles that I regret," she said, "and that's really more than you have to know. Except for the damned running of the damned estate, but soon enough I'll have Bodie and Andersol to help me."
A deep pang hit my midsection. Of course. If she and Bodie married, my neighbors and best friends would both be moving to the estate in Port Laughton. Leaving you behind, a ghost of abandonment whispered. I angrily thrust the thought away, rationally remembering that I'd had countless invitations to go live at the estate, too, and had firmly turned them all down for many good reasons. I turned the conversation to another subject, one I knew Jesse would enjoy. "How are you getting along at the University?"
"Oh! God! You would not believe what a troll runs the Anthropology Department! He's a total moron, and he's the rudest man I've ever met in my life! He managed to unearth a piece of bone at Olduvai, and he thinks that made him more important than anyone else on the campus. Fortunately his last name begins with an 'F' so there are any number of vile epithets the rest of the faculty can and do attach to his name ... " Off she went, and only a minimum of reflective questions were needed to keep her enthusiastically talking until it was time for me to head off to bed in my studio while she skipped next door to enjoy the company of her -- fiance.
I rolled myself up in a blanket against the wall of my studio, under the window. The rain had stopped and there was only the sound of the distant highway and the plops of collecting moisture aiming for the ground. The first night I slept in this house, Charles and Jesse slept here, too, expecting the first set of twins. I'd been a basket case that day, the divorce so fresh and painful, and Charles had tried to comfort me. Tears welled up and spilled over, this time not over my husband, but for Charles, who had loved Jesse so much, and whose love had apparently never really been returned. He'd never complained, never criticized her; indeed talking about how wonderful she was and his love for her was his favorite topic.
I've heard it said that God will never send anything into your life that you have not the strength to bear. I don't know if that is true, but that night was the first and only time that I was glad that Charles had died -- before he knew that Jesse didn't love him.
Hell, I didn't know if Jesse loved me. She was more demonstrative with Bodie than she had been with anyone since we were kids and she sat in Dad's lap trying to read his books along with him. She seemed almost practical in her attachments, affection following how useful will this relationship be? Her sister Sully had been very important when I had been available to be respectably at her husband's side at events while she was in Egypt, Turkey, China, Chile -- and in the midst of her children every week if not a couple times a week to provide a surrogate of motherhood. Had we become closer just so that I could be her stand-in?
What would happen to our relationship once she had Bodie and Andersol to entertain the kids all the time? Would I become an unnecessary piece of furniture while the Talles twins became the new decor? And the last question that was so ugly I did not want to speculate about it: did Jesse view marriage to Bodie as a means of gaining new freedom to set off on archeological expeditions once more?
Dear God! Was this what made my mother such an embittered woman -- letting suspicions of what might or might not be take over her waking mind like ants swarming on a picnic lunch? Recoiling from my dread-filled questions, I got up from my sleeping bag on the floor and went out on my back patio to sit in a wet lawn chair. I leaned back and looked at the clouds flying before the bright stars. The moon would peek down for a moment, then become a glow only in the running clouds. The sound of leaves dripping and the smell of wet earth told me what I needed to know. The rain falls, they told me, and therefore things become wet. All kinds of creatures change and grow after the rain. I let myself soak in the talk of the garden, and reminded myself again that life is beautiful and sweet and ephemeral, and it shouldn't be wasted in pointless misery. My sister and my friends would do what they decided they would do. In spite of that, the sun would continue to shine, the Big Dipper would maintain its figure, and there would always be flies to land and make specks on my white car.
Gabe and I made wet footprints on the kitchen floor as we returned to bed. "Please, God, don't let me turn into a bitter old woman," I muttered as I pulled the blanket around me. Gabe threw himself down in the hall where he could keep tabs on us all.
Still, I couldn't get my mind around the fact that Andersol and Bodie had not told me of the permanent nature of Jesse's and Bodie's attachment. A very fundamental protocol had been breached there: best friends aren't supposed to keep each other in the dark.
I fell asleep and dreamt of hidden rooms that I had forgotten existed in my house. They were musty and needed cleaned, and I was really annoyed that I had left the chore undone for so long.