The world didn't end in 1999 when the ball dropped in Times Square; indeed, life just rolled on and on, weaving around obstacles and clunking noisily into potholes, sometimes hitting a perfect smooth stretch that let it zoom by unimaginably fast.
The kids loved public school. Owen kept his promise and maintained an "A" average; Marca and Oesha discovered boys and makeup, much to Jesse's annoyance. Michel developed an overwhelming crush on his new teacher that was cut short in embarrassment when Kelsa "delivered" one of his secret love letters to his adored.
Jesse visited the principal of the private school they had previously attended and explained the circumstances which preceded Marca's pounding of the guidance counselor's daughter. "Since that unfortunate young lady saw fit to portray me as a slut and my children as bastards, I simply can no longer justify the annual donation to this establishment." When the rest of us sputtered in astonishment at her unilateral revenge, she said coldly, "You can't tell me that the faculty of PLA didn't know that my kids were being tormented. They let it slide because the instigator was the daughter of a staff member." In icy satisfaction she watched the school scramble for replacement monies by hastily organizing magazine sales and car washes and doubling tuition.
All spring the children's grandmother spoke only French to me, forcing me to remember my high school and college language courses, for I'd decided to take Claire up on her offer of travel and to accompany her to the Cote d'Azur. The prospect of the vacation of a lifetime prodded me into losing some weight and working out, too, which was an added benefit. My employers applauded my opportunity, the angels, graciously allowing me a leave of absence for the entire summer.
"All summer?" Andersol shouted. "You're going to be gone all summer?"
"It's already May! Dammit, we were going to rent one of those big houseboats up on Lake Shasta when John comes out in July!"
I felt as surly as an old mule. "Nothing's stopping you. I just won't be there." One of the reasons (although there were many) I accepted Claire's invitation to join her on the French Riviera was that I was very weary of the constant match-making Andersol, Bodie, Jesse, and Mary LeMay were obsessed with on John's behalf. I traded e-mails with John about every other day, commentaries about his mother and the kids and everyday life, and I valued his friendship, but I wanted for once to have a vacation when I was not being pressed into pursuing a pointless romance. The kids had told me in January that "Uncle John" was coming out to California from New York for an extra-long vacation this summer -- the kids told me, not my sister or my friends or my next-door neighbor. Obviously they were setting up for a major campaign. A house boat? Aha, the equivalent of locking two people in a room together to make them learn to get along.
My sister and my friends could keep secrets, could they? Well, so could Claire and I, which pissed the matchmakers off royally.
"Well, I think that's damned rude," Andersol admonished me.
"Really? No, no, let me show you rude," I offered. I stuck my thumbs in my ears, waggled my fingers, crossed my eyes, and flapped my elbows in the air as I stuck my tongue between my lips and produced a long, loud raspberry. Glad that we were not at the dinner table with the children so that I could indulge that heartfelt gesture, I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my sweatshirt, took another sip of my wine, and said, "See? Now that's rude."
"If you do that while you're in Cannes, you'll be deported," Jesse commented coolly.
Claire's tiny two-bedroom house on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean was perfect for a prolonged visit. The weather was moderate, not so hot as my home; not so cold as Port Laughton with its fog during the summer. I had the liberty to ponder all the days of my life, and let them roll by me in an extended film festival of my own. Trailers from imaginary movies made of my life played in my head as I basked in the rich sunlight on Claire's balcony. The lonely child, in pants with patched knees and a baggy sweatshirt who teetered across stepstones of a creek to climb a solitary hill. Sitting amidst the honeysuckle tangles she dreamt of a life in which no one ever shouted, "What were you thinking?!?" A life in which the parents laughed and danced together always, and there were no bitter accusations that belittled the father's instruction and entertainment of his daughters.
And then there was the one about the flashy young redhead meeting the handsomest man in the world, and oh, the heat as he leaned close to the heroine and she fell utterly under his spell, only to despise his infidelity and weakness even as she lusted for his physical form! What if, in the movie, he showed up here in Cannes, climbing up the vines that tangled in the balcony rail, shirtless, tanned golden and eager to sweep her off her feet and carry her into the bedroom? A giggle burst from my chest unexpectedly at the drama, and I spilled my iced tea onto my chin.
Claire lifted the wide brim of her hat and looked at me through her sunglasses. "What are you reading?" she asked.
"I wasn't reading, I was thinking about my life. Claire, am I the only one in the world who thinks that remarriage after divorce isn't an option?"
"Ah," she said, "you were thinking about the romantic policeman."
"No, I wasn't!" I resisted the urge to add expletives. "I was just thinking that my ex-husband has been gone so long that there really isn't a place for him in my life, but being married to him is still -- part of me, part of my history. As though it was an irreplaceable element in making me who I am. Sometimes it seems like everyone wants me to pursue an annulment, pretend it never happened. I know that I was a fool to fall for him, but ... "
"But you believe in your marriage vows." At my nod, she sighed and shrugged. "You believe in the old ways, the way your parents or your grandparents might have believed. My family has been Catholic as far back as we can trace, and I can understand your belief. I don't know when buying annulments became so acceptable, so easy. Perhaps it was when Mother Church realized that her children no longer understood what marriage was about, that spouses have to become the Face of God to one another."
"Did you know that?" I asked, astonished at her insight.
"After many years, I did," she said with a sly smile. "And that proved to me that God works in mysterious ways, because I married into the Reich family for the money."
"Shame on you. That's why you had such a tyrannical mother-in-law."
She shook her fan at me. "Nonsense! My parents ordered me to marry the wealthy Mr. Reich -- they're the ones who should have had to live with my mother-in-law!"
We laughed together, companionable women without husbands, without mothers-in-law, without children. The late afternoon sun sparkled on the incredibly blue water of the ocean. "It's time to get ready for dinner," Claire said. "I'll bathe first, if you don't mind. That will give you a little more time to think about your policeman."
"I wasn't thinking about the policeman. I don't think about the policeman."
"And why not?"
"Because he's not an option. I thought that's what you said you understood?"
She fanned herself. "Remarriage isn't an option for you. But what does that have to do with romance, or love? Do you think that sex and marriage contracts are the only relationships a woman can have with a man? Shame on you, and you should have had to live with my mother-in-law!"
She flounced away into the house, wrinkled and sagging, but still a beguiling and vivacious woman. I loved her. I wanted to be like her, independent and full of her own thoughts. As I picked up the napkins and glasses from our afternoon in the sun, it occurred to me that she was quite right. Somewhere along the line (perhaps when I was in college -- or was it when I decided to seduce Adam?) I'd bought into the modern American Dream to the hilt -- relationships of romantic love were for sex or marriage.
I hadn't had a romantic interest that didn't arrive with "sex assumed included sooner or later" since I was in college. I remembered dating a young man who frequently bought me books or flowers, but never tried to put his hands inside my clothes or convince me to have sex. I liked him (did I love him if I didn't lust for him?) better than any of my other companions because he was fun to be with. We could talk about anything, and never tired of each other's company. His family moved to Florida, and he transferred to the University of Miami. We corresponded for a while, but my heart just wasn't in it for the long haul. Not when I was surrounded by other young men who turned my head vying for my attention.
I could not recall when the idea of "love" metamorphosed into "desire," when "desire" became more important than "fun." Certainly I saw Adam first as a sexual titillation, and was simply relieved when he turned out to be an agreeable companion as well.
From adolescence I could remember love notes, carrying books, and doing homework together -- all without sex, but full of the knowledge of giddy attraction. Nowadays such a relationship might be called "childish," without questioning why all adults should mate with every other adult he or she was attracted to. Is adulthood a gonadal activity? "I can drive, I can vote, I can purchase alcohol and cigarettes, therefore it is a foregone conclusion that I have to insist on a sexual component if I like someone's company." Surely that doesn't have to be a truism.
Come to think of it, it didn't. My neighbor Mary LeMay had an attachment to a fellow at our church, and as far as I knew, they weren't sexually involved, but they certainly cared about each other.
What if I had a relationship with -- someone -- that didn't include sex or marriage?
I settled again in my lounge chair for the last bits of sun before the evening's social duties. One last Cannes movie, a deep one that no one sees beyond the festival because it isn't particularly marketable; this one shows a middle-aged woman whose life is overlaid with children and family and friends, but whose life is defined only by what she herself believes. I am who am, her God says. And in response she replies, I am who I became. Where do I go from here? In the movie preview, we see the heroine standing firm, abandoned but not defeated, overlooking the lush garden she nurtured. We see her standing firm, a veritable statue of an authority figure to five children. We see her standing firm, immobile and silent but strangely interested as a skinny cop in dark uniform offers her a bite of his chicken salad sandwich.
Cackling to myself again, I contemplated why John offering me a sandwich was so much more appealing than Adam climbing over the balcony wall to have sex with me. Because once you had sex with Adam, what would you do with him? Hide him under the bed? Tie him up under the bed because otherwise, the next morning he'd be out prowling the beaches for starlets and models? On the other hand, a nice chicken salad sandwich sounded very tasty compared to some of the trendy dishes served for dinner at Claire's friends' houses in Cannes.
By the end of August, I was ten pounds lighter than I had been in June, my fingers itched for the feel of the adding machine keys, I was dreaming about the children all night every night, and I wanted my dog. And my damned computer, paper mail being so incredibly slow that we'd had little contact from our friends and family in the States. Claire was also ready to return to Port Laughton. "These people are wearing me out," she said, looking at an invitation to breakfast. "I want to sit in my bed and have Redell bring me bacon and biscuits with an unhealthy amount of butter."
"I want a hot beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy so bad I'd commit highway robbery if I knew where to find some," I agreed.
On a cool September morning, Gabe and I returned to our quiet house on Carmel Street. He marked every shrub in the front yard and back with his scent; I threw open windows and threw out the stinky air fresheners that the cleaning service had left. I tore dust covers off the furniture, put clean sheets on my bed, and made spaghetti to infuse the house with the smells of garlic and oregano. Spaghetti for breakfast is greatly underrated.
There was a knock at the door, so I put Gabe in the back yard. Mary LeMay was on the porch, with a basket of fresh fruit. "Mary!" I shouted. "I missed you so much!" I pounced upon her and gave her a big hug, making her laugh like a witch. "Would you like some spaghetti for brunch?"
"Oh, a taste, I guess. I've missed your cooking! How was it? Did you see a lot of movie stars?"
I looked past Mary, startled by the throat clearing. Her son, John, stood on the walk with a small bouquet of saffron-colored roses and baby's breath. "John! I didn't expect to see you here -- I thought Andersol said you were visiting in July!"
"Something came up, and I couldn't be there. You too tired, or are you gonna tell us all about the Riviera?" His face was pink.
Flowers and conversation, I thought. The romantic policeman makes his first overt move. "I'm not tired -- I slept for two days at the estate. Tell you about it? I have so many pictures I almost needed a suitcase for them," I said. "And the first thing that I have to say about the Riviera is that I hate haute cuisine with a bloody passion."
Gabe barked frantically from the back door. "Gabie!" shouted John, spreading his arms in greeting, and the big dog jumped against the sliding screen door with excitement. His toenails ripped the screen open for a space of about two feet, enough to allow him to push his head and shoulders through. He shoved the rest of the way through, and ran to John in an excess of delight. "Sorry, Sul," John said, tussling with the dog. "We'll get that fixed right away."
"Why do we even let him visit?" Mary asked me, shaking her head as she picked up the fallen flowers.
Why indeed, I thought, and went to stir the spaghetti sauce. Must be because the dog likes him.