THREE'S A COMPANY
Most hurts are an issue of thwarted expectations. That’s why it’s nice to be old—I’ve learned to expect the right things from life. Some laughs, some cries, a whole lot of loss. Grief has become a comfort zone. What do the Buddhists say? Something about how desire is the root of all suffering. Well. People don’t call them wise for nothing. That’s not how I came up, though. I always learned that life without suffering is no life at all and anything worth having requires a struggle. Better to have loved and lost, they say, and I’ll tell you what. I’ve lost plenty. Two sisters, three brothers, parents, aunts and uncles, most of my childhood friends, a husband, you.
As far as I can tell good endings don’t exist. I’ve known that for a long time, but it doesn’t stop me from starting things. Today I feel an absolute need for something new. Maybe because it’s your birthday. Last year, when I was alone on your birthday, I looked desirously at all the knives and pills and cursed the stupid carport’s inability to enclose, to trap deadly fumes, because that’s how I’d have to do it if I was going to do it. Call me a coward. I don’t know. But I couldn’t go through with it then, and I’m sure I can’t this year, and I’d rather just avoid the whole ordeal, if you don’t mind. Ellen tells me that she has a nice friend she thinks I’d like, a recent widower, and I’ve agreed to meet him for dinner. If I had half a brain I’d lock myself in my room and meditate or watch nature documentaries. But no, seventy-six years on earth and my heart still wants.
Ellen lives in the condo next to mine. Her husband is alive, which is why she hands the single men off to me. Your father died two years ago. It’d been a long time coming—he had colon cancer that kept returning and, eventually, it got into his blood. We moved to Sunset Ranch after the cancer went into remission for the first time. Ten years ago now. It was sunny and full of golf carts, just like the brochures. Every hour was cocktail hour, every night another cover band did the greatest hits of 1955, and you could see the Phoenix skyline from the rooftop bar. Our family house in Iowa was two stories and five bedrooms. You remember that place. The heating bill alone was enough reason to leave.
My clothes are all loose except for my shoes. My feet seem to grow and grow while everything else shrinks. I don’t have much of an appetite, and when I do it’s for melon—all kinds, but usually cantaloupe. I have this one pair of pants that I got pre-Arizona, pre-the-weight-that-I-am-now-dropping. Actually, I got them for that trip we took to Disney World in ‘82. The one where you ate funnel cakes until you puked? They’re still a little snug, but they give me a waist. They are teal, and I’ll pair them with a white blouse and a necklace made of giant red beads. I’ve never been afraid of wearing color.
Dating, however. Sometimes I look at my hand, clutching a bag or a car door, and I think—who in their right mind would want to kiss that hand? Who would play with it, affectionately, like your father did all those years ago, placing one finger in his mouth, and then another? And that’s just my hands.
Ellen’s friend is named Larry and he lives in a different but adjacent active adult community. It’s called Mesa Delights, and it’s nicer, frankly, than Sunset Ranch. When your father was really sick, those last few miserable months, he used to joke. He’d say, Margaret, you get a little nip tuck, and once I’m gone you can sleep your way into one of those Delights overlooking the golf course fountain. The Arizona equivalent of beachfront property—you can’t do much better than that. That’s why I know that he won’t mind if I go out with Larry.
The clubhouse at Mesa Delights is the same taupe stucco as all the condo buildings. I meet Larry out front at 6 P.M., just before sunset. I can tell it’s him because he’s extraordinarily tall and thin, which Ellen told me would be the case, and he wears an oversized bronco belt buckle, which Ellen also warned me about. He was, she said, born and raised in the Midwest, but like so many of us he was able to cast aside his past life, using Arizona to reinvent himself into the cowboy of his dreams.
I myself made some concessions to this impulse when your father and I moved down here. I bought one of those chili pepper neck scarves that can hold an ice pack, and I wore a straw hat. Your father started wearing a blue bandana in his back pocket, which I tried to tell him these days was more of a gang thing than a cowboy one, but it made him feel new, I could tell, so I let it slide.
Larry has fully embraced the kitsch, though. In addition to the belt buckle he wears snakeskin boots and a bolo tie.
He gives me a hug and hands me a daisy, smiling. I know immediately the kind of guy he is. He’s just happy to have someone to smile in front of. You know the type. Richard was like that, but you never had patience for it. Poor guy. We sit in a corner booth, and he takes off his hat to reveal a surprisingly thick head of hair. He has wrinkles, of course, but his skin is tan and taut so that he looks more rugged than old. His eyes are blue, he squints like John Wayne, and I begin to wonder whether the cowboy thing is really such an act after all.
His accent assures me that it is.
“Ellen tells me that you’re from Iowa,” he says. “Well, that’s just great because I’m from Wisconsin.”
He says it Wiscaaansin, which I love.
“Yes,” I say. “We moved out here about ten years ago.”
“Impossible,” he says. “You’re much too young.”
I still blush over something like that. That’s how little I’ve changed since I was a teenager. I feel lucky.
“What a cheese ball,” I say.
“Where I’m from, the preferred term is Dairy Aficionado.”
I give him a little nudge with my foot under the table, and just like that we’re off. Gin and Tonics. Oysters. We’re off like a dirty shirt, your father would have said.
For dinner we order roast chicken with fingerlings and a bottle of Syrah. Larry starts in on a quick recap of his life—born in Milwaukee, war, worked in law, then government—even ran for governor in ‘76—married, divorced, remarried, five kids, Arizona, widowed.
The waiter puts down our plates, and Larry asks, how about me?
I tell him a little bit about Iowa, about my time as a botanist, about moving to Arizona and your father’s cancer, his death. I say. “I have two kids in Des Moines, one in Minneapolis, and one dead.”
“Sorry to hear,” he says. “My son died at thirty-five, almost twenty years ago now. Not a day goes by I don’t think of him.”
I don’t want to talk about you, really. About how I didn’t believe the officer on the phone until after I’d flown across the country, after I’d identified the body. Jumped in front of a train. I still don’t believe it, eyewitnesses be damned. You wouldn’t.
“My son died skydiving,” he tells me. “If you can believe it.”
“I believe it,” I say.
He asks how I lost you, but suicide is really not first date material.
“Do you ride horses?” I ask.
He says he does, although less these days as it’s increasingly hard on his back.
“Beautiful trails out here,” I say. “Annabelle loved to ride.” I’m talking about you anyway, by accident. “She says she wasted forty years trying to learn how to ice skate.”
“I didn’t know you had a daughter living down here,” he says.
I clear it up. I say, no, you’re the dead one. Died years ago. It’d make more sense if you’d been thirty-five. Who waits to kill themselves until fifty? I mean, if you’ve made it that far, you might as well see it through to the end. Your poor father. He just couldn’t understand. I couldn’t either, mind you, but life had given me a strong constitution. His cancer came back that year. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Just remember: even your most selfish actions have the ability to destroy others. Lose lose lose, I can lose, but a daughter and a husband in a few years—that’s a tall order.
Larry has his hand on my thigh. “We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he says.
“I don’t want to be a bad sport.” I say. “It’s just a little heavy for a first date.”
I do like his smile, though.
“What else do you like, aside from riding horses?” I ask.
Your father would have joked about wheelchair races or Alzheimer’s trivia league. Larry tells me that he’s an amateur genealogist. He’s been taking classes at Mesa Delights’ computer center in an effort to better navigate ancestry.com.
“The other day I found out that my great uncle abandoned his wife and kids in British poverty to become a treasure hunter in the Florida Keys.” He piles the last of his potatoes onto his fork.
“How entrepreneurial,” I say. Now I know where he gets it—the kind of genes that lead to divorce, money, and Mesa Delights. I know I’m lucky that I had your father who, come what may, out of loyalty or stupidity or both, stuck by my side for all those years. I don’t know if I would have done it except for the kids. When you’re a mother it really doesn’t feel like you have the choice. Not that you’d know.
“I had a great uncle who was shipped to Australia when it was still a penal colony,” I say. This isn’t true, but I’d like for Larry to think we share similar interests.
This gets him going on his daughter-in-law who is, apparently, an anthropologist studying the effects of colonization on aboriginal cultures.
I’d known an anthropologist. She had curly red hair for days and the same pair of jeans in two different washes. Her name was Clara and she died in childbirth. No. She had blunt-cut shoulder-length hair, brunette, and she died of ovarian cancer. No. Again. It was that woman you studied with. The semester I came to visit you down in Ecuador. You wore sundresses and braids. I can’t remember what she looked like exactly, but it doesn’t matter. She’s probably dead now, too.
“My daughter says the only self-respecting anthropologists are the ones who leave academia. Otherwise they’re just a bunch creeps with degrees, treating humans as specimens.”
“Did she study anthropology?”
“For a time.” You dropped that dream right after college. I didn’t blame you.
Larry asks if I’ve had enough to eat. The waiter has come to take our plates.
I lean back to suggest I’m finished.
“Are you feeling all right?”
“Perfectly,” I say. He must be referring to the thigh meat I shoved perhaps not so discreetly under my garnish. “I wouldn’t ordinarily waste such good food, but I’ve never had much of a taste for dark meat.”
I lean into him a little. “I bet you get all kinds of dates in this place,” I say. “The men usually die first.”
He smiles. “I like to think the ladies pick me for my intelligence and good looks. But if a pulse is what you’re looking for, I’ve got one of those, too.” He takes my hand, holds my middle and pointer fingers, presses them just below his jaw.
I can’t think of the last time I touched a man who wasn’t your father. I forgot how nice it is to be with another body. Whose body did you touch last? I hope not Daniel’s. I never liked him—too smarmy.
The waiter brings out a slice of chocolate cake, and I half expect him to start singing. How did he know it was your birthday?
“You shouldn’t have,” I say.
“Well, it’s a prix fixe deal,” he says. “But I’ll take credit if you want to give it.”
Can’t argue with that. See, it’s not all bad. You would have been fifty-three today. Years of chocolate cake and charming men ahead of you.
He pays and then says, “What do you think, Maggie? You up for a walk?”
I have never let anyone call me Maggie before, but tonight I don’t mind. “Sure,” I say.
There is a manicured nature walk that runs along the periphery of the golf course. Paved, and wide enough for a golf cart, it makes for easy strolling. I put my arm though his. I feel light in new company, but I want to feel lighter. I’m going to forget you for just a minute. I’m sorry.
We walk in silence. I love the smell of things out here—dry, sweet, the freshly mown grass, the warmth, none of the humidity and bugs I’ve always associated with this type of pleasure. We take a sharp right, and the path spits us out in front of a row of condos.
“Would you like to come up?” he asks.
The possibility of falling asleep with someone’s skin pressed against mine is too much. Arm draped over my waist, his nose tucked into the space between my shoulder and my ear. A kiss on my neck.
His condo is nice, clean. There is a lot of dark wood and leather. These mini-tapestries of home-spun wool adorn the walls. His wife was, apparently, an artist. There are pictures of adults and kids scattered around. Most of them vaguely resemble Larry. His wedding picture hangs over the mantle. There he is, same dopey smile, same dreamy eyes, tall as ever, fifty years younger. His wife looks wonderful. She is tall and thin, too. Her eyes are large and brown. She looks nothing like me.
Larry puts on some Frank Sinatra. He shows me his genealogy notes. I’m looking through them, trying to decide how interested I have to pretend to be in order to get what I want, when he kisses me full on the mouth. I haven’t been kissed so desperately since senior year of high school, when my boyfriend, Thomas, was shipped off to war. And he held me, and he kissed me like he was so scared. Like I was the only thing in the whole world that had a chance of saving him. He died too, of course, on a boat in the Pacific.
Before long we’re in the bedroom. I don’t know how this is going to work, or even if it can. I place my necklace on the nightstand and say a small prayer when he turns off the lights. I let him unbutton my blouse. He lays me back down on the bed, gently, and unclasps my belt. My body is waking up. Why won’t you leave my head? Haven’t you taken enough? I gave you life. You didn’t want it. I know. Well, I’m sorry. Some of us do. Just a minute’s peace for the some of us who do.
He helps me out of my pants before removing his own. Light from the parking lot makes me close my eyes, and when he crawls under the covers next to me I feel a wild excitement at his newness. He presses his body into mine, unhooks my bra. How easy it would have been, with a no instead of a yes, to have found myself alone tonight, in my chair watching TV and trying not to think.
Pressed together hard enough, I can’t feel the age of our bodies. My breasts flatten against his torso the way they would have at any age, and he pushes into me with desire—the desire to forget his own sadness, maybe, to replace his own losses with something physical.
His breathing grows louder and he buries his face into my neck. You probably think this is the first time I’ve slept with someone who is not your father. That’s not true, though. He was my first, but there were others over the years. I was alone in the house all day and it was easy. I know you know how easy, how instantly transformative those fleeting connections can be. When you were young, I worried that you jumped around too much. A different boyfriend at every holiday. But as you got older I convinced myself that the endless stream of casual relationships was a sign of liberation and self worth. You didn’t need to rely on something steady. I may have been wrong, but I admired you. I’m sorry that I never told you so.
He’s still on top of me, panting. The thought of you and my eyes are welling. There’s a pressure building inside of me, and I know that if I breathe I’ll cry. I’m suffocating under his body, all his vulnerability and earnest effort carving out a space for my pain. Finally, he rolls off of me. I turn over and use the pillowcase to wipe the mascara from under my eyes like I did when I was young.
“That was exactly what I needed,” he says, kissing my temple.
I smile but I can’t respond in kind.
He gets out of bed and pulls on his briefs. “I feel strangely energized,” he says. “Want to watch something on TV?”
I tell him I have to get home. That I promised Ellen I’d check in.
“Check in tomorrow,” he says.
“No,” I say. “You know Ellen. I don’t want to upset her.”
Of course, he does know Ellen, and he must know that she would not be upset. I can see that I’ve wounded him, but you know what they say, three’s a crowd and tonight I’m with you.
Pundits are arguing on TV. That’s always been the case, but at least they used to be smart. I tuck in my blouse, tidy my makeup, and join him in the living room.
“Well you can’t walk home alone,” he says. “Can I give you a ride?”
“I just got a message from Ellen.” I present my cell phone like a piece of evidence. “She insists on picking me up.”
I sit down in the smaller Lazy Boy. The one that must have been his wife’s. I tell myself that ten minutes is a believable amount of time. I can wait that long and then say that Ellen has messaged me from the parking lot. You’re the thing I live with more than all of the other things. You have been, you know, always. And I can’t even call you anymore. I can’t watch you get older. I can’t say happy birthday or imagine you eating chocolate cake, out with friends or a date. You’re impossible to reach and equally impossible to escape.