When I opened my eyes, my first sight was John, propped on one arm, watching me. I blushed and covered my face with the blanket. He pulled it away. "Good morning, Sweetheart," he said, and I felt my face glow even hotter. I looked at the ceiling, trying to capture the butterflies in my chest and make them behave. He kissed my throat, making me gasp, and continued kissing my shoulders, my collarbones, my chest.
"No one in my entire life has called me "Sweetheart."
"Nobody? Are you serious?" He paused in his teasing play and looked at my eyes. I could see in his expression the question, Not even your ex-husband?
I shook my head. "Never. I think the word went out of common usage in 1965."
"Good. I've got something unique going for me, then." He nibbled gently on my jawbone. "It's nine o'clock, time to get your old bones moving again."
"Nine? Gabe's got to go out, John, stop doing that." I swung over John's legs to stand up. "Don't look, I'm naked," I said. Where had I left my robe the night before?
"Wouldn't think of it," John said, rolling over to keep me in sight.
I found my robe in the hallway, and let the prancing dog out the back door. John appeared, buttoning his shirt. "I'm gonna run next door and shower and shave," he said, "we're going to have to hustle to get there by lunchtime."
If I'd had any wits, I'd have set an alarm last night, I thought as I brushed my teeth and got ready to leave. But oh, I sure wasn't thinking about clocks and schedules. Muscles and passion and moans, yes. Duties and sunrise, no. My dream about the wonderful piece of furniture that I found but had no place for drifted through my memories, troubling me a little. To make room for the beautiful sink and cupboards, I'd have to tear apart my whole house, a symbol of my way of life. What elements of my life would have to change, to allow something new and beautiful?
Certainly I didn't have to worry about changes with Bodie and Jesse and Andersol. They were so disgustingly smug about the success of their years-long matchmaking that I could hardly look at them. If it wasn't for their obvious relief about John and their sincere attachment to him, I would have been tempted to follow my niece Marca's example of dealing with her siblings and pick a fight. Upon our arrival at the estate, John was mobbed by the children (children -- ! Owen was easily as tall as John already, and Marca and Oesha left lipstick marks on John's cheeks. Michel's feet were the size of pontoons, and Kelsa looked tiny compared to her twin, although it was she who used her body as a shield to John's injured side and shouted, "Don't hug him so hard!"
My sister surprised me by wading through her pack of offspring and hugging John familiarly, wiping at her eyes afterwards, which caused him to do the same. Andersol put her head on his shoulder when she hugged him, and then grabbed his face with both hands and whispered something to him. He nodded, and she ruffled the hair on the top of his head. In astonishment I watched Bodie wrap his arms around John, whispering something in turn. Whatever was said affected them both; John hugged him back hard, and Bodie put his cheek on the top of John's head, looking somber.
I was on the outside of this scene, watching, with perhaps just a twinge of jealousy, the strong bonds my sister and brother- and sister-in law had forged with John, while I had held myself more distant from them all. The change that would have to be made in my life to accommodate John-and-Sully as a couple was that I would have to re-enter my sister's life again.
And with perhaps a hint of shame, I saw them greet him in sheer love; he was a beloved friend to them. I'd taken a good look at him and gone from John, I'm so glad you're alive to Okay, you're alive, let's have sex in a matter of seconds. My chaste admiration of him had been charred to ashes by the electricity of his touch, and the baser nature of sexual hunger had kicked in. On the other hand, he didn't use his pale gray eyes on them the way he did on me, or show up partially clothed. I wasn't the only culprit under the bedclothes.
The kids were a different story. I left the downstairs study later to find the bathroom, and in a hallway, overheard Marca hissing, "Ask her!" immediately after which an aggrieved Owen was obviously shoved into my path. He sighed, and asked, "So, why aren't you and John spending the night? Are you afraid that my sisters will spy on you to try to catch you two in passionate kisses?"
"Owen!" I exclaimed, midway between annoyance and outrage.
Owen held up his large hands in defense. "This was not my idea; Marca said I had to ask. She may be shorter than I am, but she is more determined, more revengeful, and meaner-spirited."
"That's a good line, you should write that one down," I replied. Sidestepping his question, I said, "We're not spending the night because John is worried about his mother being in Reno. She might call her house or mine, and we want to be there if she does. And because we don't want to be watched every second to see if we hold hands or open doors for each other."
He waved a hand languidly. "Ah, but it's which doors that the girls are curious about."
I felt the blood drain from my face in shock. "That is absolutely out of line for all of you. I don't care how close family is, you don't suggest such a thing."
"Sorry. I, myself, would not have asked. Blame it on Marca and her baser nature. I prefer to accept your -- loftier explanation." He sketched a quick little bow, turned on his heel, and left me alone in the hall.
There, I'd lied to my favorite nephew. For the first time in his life, I'd lied to him. And by the way he'd averted his eyes, he knew I was lying to him, and had removed himself from my lying presence. Since he was eight years old, I had been his touchstone of trust. My reprimand to cover my own evasion stung him, put him out of 'my side.' His Aunt Sully toppled from her pedestal, feet of clay crumbling beneath her.
I was exhausted when we left the estate at three-thirty, a tension headache beginning. Owen gave me the most cursory hug he'd ever given, and Marca, when she said good-bye, gave me a glittering, knowing look.
In their lives the children had never known me to stop in for an afternoon and then leave. Aunt Sully always stayed; didn't she have a bedroom dedicated just for her, a study that was hers and no one else's? Even when I would visit in the middle of the week, for a school recital, or a rare Mama's-home-from-her-dig celebration, I commuted to my job in the morning. I never left after a short few hours. Never once, until now.
Nor had I reassured Owen that I would be at the estate the following weekend, to stay and visit and talk and immerse myself in his life and the lives of his siblings, because, of course, John would still be in California, and I might not be willing to give up chances of tearing his clothes off and continuing to sexually bond with him. After all, once he went home, it would be at least another six months before I'd get the opportunity again. When he was gone, perhaps I could get back on track with family, with the kids.
I took an exit ramp with a Wendy's sign off the highway because my head hurt so much I thought I might be sick. At Wendy's, we begged the staff for ice, which I wrapped in the light jacket I had brought along, and put alternately on the top of my head and on the back of my neck. John took over the driving, fretting about how I felt.
"Owen was so distant with me," I said. "We've always been so close, it just hurts like hell. He was unhappy that we weren't staying the night."
"Bet it was because of me," John said. "Because of you and me. Owen's always had a crush on his Aunt Sully, I've seen that."
"Do you think that's it?" I creaked, under my ice pack.
"Yeah, it's tough when you find out that you got no chance with your third-grade teacher, or the lady who drives the ice cream truck, or your favorite auntie. Breaks his heart when a kid understands he's just a kid."
My feelings of guilt tangled with John's theory. Maybe Owen was just adolescently jealous of my attachment to John. Owen had mentioned months ago that next year, he could escort me to formal dinners and save me from being paired with annoying politicians and businessmen, a solution I welcomed greatly. But he also had known that there was a connection between John and me, and had not been so affected by it before.
When we arrived back at my house, I emptied the impromptu icepack in the backyard for Gabe to nose around in, took a couple painkillers, and flung myself face down on the couch. John sat on the floor beside me, gently rubbing my back. "Jeeze, if I had known you'd be so upset about going up there, I'd have told them we couldn't make it."
"John, they needed to see you, touch you, know you were alive just as much as I did," I mumbled. "I think I'm just greedy and jealous."
"You got the green eyes for it," he said, massaging the back of my neck. "I used to go to the supermarket and look at the limes because they were the color of your eyes."
I turned my head to look at him. He was smiling, watching his thumb make heavenly little circles of relief at the base of my skull. "Really?"
"In fact, I used to forget to go when I'd see the traffic light turn green sometimes, 'cause I'd just want to remember how your eyes light up when you're happy. You know what happens if you don't floor it when the light turns green? In New York, you right away get a hundred assholes laying on their horns to make you move. My pals at the precinct said they always knew when I was headed in. Turn your head the other way."
I did, with a little laugh. "And I suppose you bought green curtains for the windows."
"No, I just got Caitlin to do me an embroidery thing that has a tree and 'John + Sully' in a heart on it to hang in the hallway where I put my coat and hat. That way I see that going out and coming home. I was just waiting to see how we got along before I asked her to make one for you, too." He continued to work his thumb against my neck; I was glad my face was turned away so he would not see me blush. At first I had thought he was joking, but was it possible he could really be that romantically inclined? "She teases the hell out of me for not telling her you were a woman."
"Oh, did you tell her I had a moustache and big muscles?"
"Nah, I just didn't ever say 'she' when I talked about you."
"Now I'm really curious. Why didn't you tell her I was female?" I rolled onto my side to face him; the headache was abating gradually.
He leaned back against the couch and looked at his feet. "Pride, I guess. Didn't want her to know that I was crazy about someone who didn't even know I was alive."
"That's not true. I knew you were alive. I can tell by scent whether things are dead or not. I'd have let you know if you were dead. The way I'm letting you know that I know you're making that bullshit up about the limes and the traffic lights and the embroidery." I pulled a pillow from the end of the couch and whacked him with it.
"Had you going, though, didn't I?"
We took Gabe for a long, slow walk in the cool evening, holding hands or with arms around each other, always in touch, exclaiming over the fat rose hips in the brush along the river, the tracks of raccoons and skunks on the dusty levee road, Gabe's need to mark over the coyote droppings, the sound of the cottonwoods in the delta breezes that sounded so much like distant surf. I was at ease with him; I could not understand why I'd kept him at arm's length for so many years.
There was a brick house that we found abandoned in the woods. We had changed the inside, we'd done some fixing up, cleaned up all the rooms so that they smelled nice, painted the floors and threw colorful cloth rugs to cover the old boards. It was beautiful there, very cozy and earthy. The walls were made of brick, and their dark red crumbly surface compared to the green windowsills and floors made a forest-like contrast.
Then the owner showed up and said, "Hey! I own this place -- you can't live here!"
"We have no place else to live, I said, stepping in front of John to protect him.
The owner looked around and saw how much work had been done to improve the place. "Well, all right, but the foundation isn't too steady and I'm worried about one of you getting hurt. See, the floor is tilted a bit."
I had noticed the unevenness, but then I felt the floor shift suddenly, and move back and forth making me stagger. I fell to my knees -- it was an earthquake!
I tried to press up against the brick wall in a corner for safety as the foundations began to give way, shouting to John, "Get out! Get out!"
I pushed the door open as the quake continued to sway and warp the doorjamb. I could see the dirt in front of the house as a wide, brown plain, twitching in a slow spiral like the contents of a giant cake mixer, shaking the whole world. I dropped to my knees and crawled out of the house, looking for John.
The quake subsided.
Around the side of the house, holding a small child, came Owen.
Good job, I said to him, I knew you'd do a good job.
"Sully, wake up!"
I lifted my head from his shoulder in disorientation. "The house," I tried to say. "It was so nice."
"You kept saying, 'Get out' -- do you want me to go over to Ma's house to sleep?"
"No!" I wrapped my arms around him. "I just dreamt of an earthquake. It was going to knock down our house." I rubbed my face against his shoulder again, settled back in to the comfort of his touch.
I was always glad to see Mary, but when she returned on Sunday afternoon, I knew the honeymooning was done. She had to have known the sexual desires she was allowing free rein while she was gone -- I couldn't believe she had never felt the desperate drawing to celebrate Jack's life, while he lived. But we wouldn't throw our affair in her face. We didn't really have a solution to this whole thing, but at least we'd had a long, loving weekend together.
The weekend of September 9, 2001.