“So a couple of weeks ago they’re showing Bogey at The Strand—you know, that art house over on Lomas?—and you know me and Bogey, so I take Audrey to see it, double feature, Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon—she’d never seen either, can you believe it? And when we’re on our way home I ask her how she liked it and she says ‘Stan, you were soooo right. Bogey is absolutely fabu!’” He looks up for a second before dropping his eyes back to the Jack and Coke on the table in front of him. “She actually said that to me—‘Bogey is fabu.’”
He sucks air in hard through his nose and rolls back his eyes till only the thinnest crescents of blue peek out at me from beneath his top lashes and I ask myself how I'm supposed to feel about this. How, I think, does he expect me to feel about this?
“Not that it’s anything...” He stops, slides his eyes up to mine, gauging me, and I know then that it must be.
She was only 24. Stanley had just turned 27 that past March. I would be 30 in the fall. It was springtime in San Francisco.
I should have known better.
I figured she was new to the neighborhood because once she appeared she was everywhere, and she was like no woman I’d ever seen. It wasn’t her hair or her eyes or even her body, but it was palpable, a quintessence; a ripe, earthy tang that clung to her all over. Her hips were smooth and wide and her calves were thick and strong. She usually walked barefoot and her skin was lightly browned. She wore no makeup as far as I could tell, and I imagined she smelled like grass clippings. Her hair was brown, straight, and bluntly cut, tickling her bare shoulders in the breeze.
I saw her first one night in early May. It was unseasonably warm that year. Already everything was turning brown. I was walking home from the diner on Geary and she was standing, hands on hips, on a scrap of scraggly lawn. Her head was tilted toward the sky, lips parted. I followed her gaze. There were stars for miles.
I know there’s something big here. As soon as he calls I know. Judy knows too. It must be in my voice because she doesn’t ask when I hang up and reach for my jacket and keys. She stands and kisses me lightly on the corner of the mouth.
“We’ll talk,” I say.
On the drive over it’s nagging me. Why am I even meeting this guy? He got what he wanted. Not like me. Why call me? Why now? I don’t even have any hair.
I park in the lot. He’s in town, I tell myself. It’s been a while. When a guy gets older he starts to think, I tell myself. That’s why. He just wants to catch up.
The choice is deliberate. We used to hang out at this place—Mickey’s, now, but then it was called Delorio’s—when we were kids. He must need something. I walk in. The place hasn’t changed much but I feel—and this bugs me—that this is no place that I should be. It’s early yet and the crowd is small: just a few young suits and a couple of perky-looking girls hovering around the taps. I walk past them and head toward the seating area in the back. He’s already at a table, already ordered a round even. He hasn’t lost any hair and I think that he probably won’t, either. I’m sorry I came.
He waves a Hollywood wave and perks up the corners of his mouth distractedly. His eyes are a brighter blue than I remember and his hair’s a deeper brown. He doesn’t stand to greet me or move to shake my hand. Instead he scoots his chair back a few inches from the table and gestures magnanimously toward the chair across from him. I sit.
At this moment I think that there is no one who knows me.
“How are you,” I say.
“Gin and tonic,” he says, pointing at the drink sitting on the table in front of me. I pick it up and sip from the glass. I hope that the coil in my stomach will stop tightening.
He launches right into some thing about Bogart movies and I think what nerve this guy has. Fifteen years and not even a hello. I sip my drink methodically, watching his eyes slither around the room, avoiding mine. When his eyes finally land on my face, my skin feels oily.
After the story he rolls his eyes around in his head like one of the Three Stooges. When he rolls them back into place a waiter appears with fresh drinks. I hadn’t notice mine was empty.
This waiter is young and looks it. His hair is thick and dark and hangs in his eyes. His skin is smooth and lineless. He probably works out and has a pretty blonde girlfriend with pink lips who won’t screw with the lights on.
I take out my wallet and pull out a ten.
“Here.” I hand it to him. He looks at it and smiles, shrugging one shoulder.
“Thank you, sir.” He says this like we’re friends.
“Keep ‘em full,” I say.
The kid nods.
Stanley looks at my face, gauging me.
I started following her around on evenings and weekends. I knew where she did her laundry and recognized two of her girlfriends by their hair and the cars they drove. Brown curly hair drove a blue two-door Saab; short straight black drove a white Ford. She rarely went out during the week and never stayed out late on weekends. She went to a place near Japantown for coffee Saturday nights. She bought pot in the Haight every few days. I was sure she knew I was following her, but she never showed it.
“So how’s Audrey otherwise?” I ask. I feel hot and I can’t stop looking at my hands.
Stanley clears his throat.
Two more drinks plunk down in front of us. As the waiter clears away the four empty glasses on the table I excuse myself to take a piss. On my way to the bathroom I see that the place is starting to fill up. I look at my watch. Right now Judy is probably eating a Lean Cuisine on the sofa in her robe and tube socks. Tube socks, Lean Cuisine, and kisses on the corner of the mouth say a lot about Judy.
Five years ago we went to the Bahamas for a long weekend. The first night at dinner Judy drank a lot of wine and then we went for a walk along the ocean. Halfway down the beach, Judy stripped off her shoes and socks and ran barefoot all the way back to our hotel room. We made love for the first time in weeks, the soles of her feet pressed hard against my ass. In the morning she complained about the sand in the bed and spent the rest of the weekend shaking out the sheets. She wouldn’t go on the beach again; she lounged by the hotel pool instead.
This is not a metaphor for anything. It’s just something I remember.
Four weeks and three days after I first saw her, something happened. She started going out more during the week and staying out on the weekends, sometimes all night. I was afraid I’d missed my chance. I decided to bump into her on Saturday, at the coffeehouse near Japantown.
I come back from the pisser and sit. Stanley’s eyes look strange. He’s drunk, I’m almost. The waiter comes back with two more drinks. Stanley accepts his but I wave mine away. The waiter goes and Stanley snaps his eyes up to fix on mine and he says “She’s gone.” At first I think: Who?, and then I think She’s dead!, and then I say: “Audrey?”
He lets his eyes drop and drains his drink.
I think: You miserable son of a whore.
“Ten days ago. An artist, some boho guy from New York City. She packed while I was out, left a note. It said: ‘I’m 39 years old. I still have time. I will not turn 40 in this fucking hell of a life.’” His eyes are bleary and he shakes his head. He looks suddenly old, even with all his hair intact. His tan-from-a-bottle skin seemed supple and healthy when I walked in. Now he looks creased and leathery, weathered like me.
I could only think of her hips.
There are two endings to this story.
In the second ending, I tell my brother I’m sorry about his wife. I sit with him for twenty more minutes. I turn my head modestly when he chokes up as we say goodbye. I tell him fifteen years is too long. I say that next time he comes to town, and he should come soon, I say, he should call ahead and come for dinner. I walk him to his car and watch him pull away before I get into my own.
I drive toward home but stop at the little park that’s on the way. I take off my shoes and socks and put them on the passenger seat. I pad across the soft damp grass of early spring and stand in the center of the small clearing, tilting my head toward the sky.
The first ending goes like this: the Friday before I plan to make my move, my younger brother Stanley flies in to San Francisco to visit me for a few days. Saturday morning he slips out for bagels while I’m still asleep. He sees Audrey piling her laundry into the back seat of her friend Judy’s blue Saab. Stanley knows a good thing when he sees one.
I wake up to news of a double date at a coffeeshop near Japantown.
They say it was love at first sight for Stan and Audrey. I decided Judy was the closest I would get, and at the time that had seemed like enough.
For what happened between Stanley and me I take full responsibility. I never told him how I felt, not then and not ever. Instead, soon after he and Audrey got engaged, I erupted over some unremarkable incident and a fifteen-year silence was born.
As for what has happened between Judy and me since, we both share the blame.
Maria Robinson has spent the past 12 years trying to shake her Philly accent. She's made significant progress but still pronounces "water" "wooder." Despite this obvious handicap, her fiction has appeared in NFG Magazine, Pindeldyboz, and The Duck & Herring Co.'s Pocket Field Guide.