It had been a year since I had written the story and sent it to the computer bulletin board. I had had a severe bout of upload remorse after I pushed the ENTER key, but there was nothing I could do about it then without calling more attention to myself. The story, I hoped, was lost in the past and the ether.
I was coming home from work. Just as I had balanced all my groceries on my knee and inserted the keys into the lock of the door of my condominium, the phone rang. Shit! By the time I had hurriedly opened the door and dumped half the groceries I was carrying onto and over the kitchen counter, the answering machine had given its spiel, and I could hear the voice at the other end starting to speak: “I’ll, er, call back some other time,”
I quickly picked up the phone: “Hello! Hello!”
“Hello, Rob? Rob Ellis?” Though I hadn’t heard the voice in years, I knew immediately who it was. His rich voice was unmistakable. “It’s Jake Cantwell.”
I was stunned into silence for a few seconds before I regained my wits. “Gee, I knew a John Edward Cantwell III years ago, but apparently he had no friends that he was willing to talk to for, let’s see, 14 years. John Cantwell, did you say?” I asked in the most officious manner I could muster. “And you’re selling what tonight?”
“Dammit, Rob! At least I let my friends call me Jake, but, obviously, you’re not a friend. But you could be.” He remembered the words of our first exchange.
I paused. The telephone line was silent for a few moments, and I sighed deeply with warm feelings. “How the hell are you?”
“I’m good,” he said without enthusiasm.
Not excellent or great or happy or excited to hear my voice, but only a restrained good. Good means not good, I thought. “What are you up to? What’s going on?”
“I’m going to be in Seattle on a project for a few weeks, so I thought I’d look you up,” he said.
“That’s great! I’d love to see you. Tell me more,” I said. “What’s the project? Who are you working for? What part of the world are you living in these days? How long will you be in Seattle? Can I pick you up at the airport? Will you have any free time while you’re here? Etc.? Etc.?”
“Whoa! Can I tell you all about it later? I’ll be flying in from Boston on Tuesday. If it doesn’t put you out of your way, I accept your offer to pick me up.”
“It’s no trouble at all. Give me the details of the flight.” I wrote down what Jake told me. “Do you need a place to stay?”
“No, I’m staying at a hotel called...” and he paused, apparently to look at his notes, “The Emery.” I recognized the name as a (very) modest-priced hotel on the edge of downtown. As if sensing my editorial view of his hotel choice, Jake continued: “Our company is on a stringent budget.”
“See you Tuesday,” I said as we hung up. Little did I know that on Tuesday a set of events would begin that would forever change my life.
* * *
Two years earlier, shortly after the divorce, I had found a two-bedroom condominium that suited me on the south side of Queen Anne hill. It had a spectacular view of the bay, the downtown and the mountains beyond. It was about a mile from our—now Anne’s—house in Seattle. Our kids could easily walk or bicycle from Anne’s house to my condo and vice versa. That was important to both of us. We both wanted to be involved with our kids.
My almost-13-year-old son, Alec, stayed most weekends with me as well as, increasingly, some school days. The remainder of the time he stayed with his mother. Celly, as I call Celia my daughter, came over from time to time for dinner—about once a week—and I would take both of the kids to movies or to some other entertainment, but for the time being she was happier staying with her mother. She was going on 10-years old. In the summer, I would take the kids camping on weekends. And then, we would take a vacation together once a year. It wasn’t a perfect arrangement, but Anne and I thought it was the best we could do.
The condominium was comfortable. It had two floors, with the living room ceiling extending the full two floors. There was a stairway on the left as you came in the door to the living room, a small balcony/landing at the top of the stairs and a hallway that led off the balcony to a bathroom and the two bedrooms—Alec’s on the left and mine, the master bedroom, with its own bath on the right. The master bathroom was huge, with both a walk-in shower and a tub. Beyond the living room on the main floor was a dining area under the staircase and the second-floor bedrooms; a couch separated the eating and living areas. Through a door on the right side of the dining room there was the entry into the kitchen.
The wall beneath the stair was lined with built-in bookshelves, and I had placed Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask on a shelf where Alec was likely to find it, which he did, because I noticed it was getting a lot of thumbing. Maybe that’s why he liked to stay with Dad. I had given him the sexual-plumbing talk some months earlier, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him about advanced sex. Hence, the book method. I hoped he was getting some information in school as well. More likely, he probably was learning how to put condoms on bananas.
There were outside balconies off both the kitchen and master bedroom. Alec said it was unfair that he didn’t have a balcony. Tough shit, I had said, and he had grinned, resignedly. I wanted an outside balcony to my bedroom for a special reason: the rain. I liked to listen to the rain through the window or, during mild weather, through the open sliding door as the drops hit the planks on the balcony deck. Ever since I was a kid growing up near Seattle, I would leave a window open so I could listen to the rain soothe me as it ticked on the roof and on the leaves of the trees outside. The sound of the rain was a massage for my soul. It was music for my psyche, especially as I was unwinding from the divorce.
Besides, if you are going to live in Seattle and be happy, you need to make peace with the rain. My method was not to shut it out but to let it in. Rain to me is a refuge—a reason for reading a good book at night or for going to the ocean when the winter wetness has chased all the tourists from the beaches. Or, I could listen to the soothing sounds for hours on end as I read my novels before I went to sleep. Seattle rain is rarely spectacular or violent like it is in Indiana, where thunderstorms reigned during visits to my grandparents, or like it was in Mississippi, where violent storms tried to crash our world. In Seattle, it is quiet and steady, like Seattle itself. Since the divorce, I particularly felt I needed to go to sleep with the sound of rain out the window. I needed the refuge.
The dawn on the morning of Jake’s arrival looked spectacular as I stood in my boxers on my balcony admiring the view, drinking my first cup of fresh-ground coffee of the day, feeling the cool, sea air against the bare skin of my legs and chest. In the background was the Cascade Range. The sun was about to rise through a narrow strip of brilliant-purple sky framed on the bottom side by the mountains with Mount Rainier standing high to the south—on the right. At the top of the view the sun colored the edge of a bank of clouds advancing from the west. In the foreground, the city skyscrapers glittered with the last of the night’s lights. I knew the beauty was going to be short-lived, because the silver, feathered edge of that cloud front rolling in portended a gray day. In the winter the front might herald a gray week—or month. But in the spring, the grayness might last only a day or two.
I could have stood there longer and watched the clouds erase the rest of the clear sky, but with a sigh I decided it was time to get dressed for work.
Alec was not up yet. He liked to sleep up to that very last minute that allowed him to get to school on time, and he somehow always managed to make it without being tardy. At least the school never complained to me. I left a note telling him I might not be home for dinner, and I put a $5 bill for him to buy something. I suspected he would buy pizza instead of something healthful like tofu or vegetables, but I wasn’t sure any more. Alec did tend to surprise me as he grew up.
I sat at my desk all day, with my mind half on my work and half on the arrival of Jake. When it finally became near time to go to the airport to pick him up, I grabbed my coat and left work a few minutes early—relieved that the wait was ending. I struggled with the afternoon southbound traffic on I-5, turned off on the Burien exit and up the hill going up to the airport from the Southcenter Mall, fought the parking battle at the airport garage and won with a spot only 100 feet from the elevators, crossed the foot bridge into the main terminal, then took the subway to the satellite terminal. I had left myself plenty of time for all this, and I even was able to pick up the Times to read the afternoon version of the Mariners’ sorry game the previous night.
About 15 minutes later, the plane from Boston approached the ramp, the muffled whine of the engines muted by the plate glass barrier between the waiting area and the nose of the plane. The whine ceased, the ramp was rolled up to the airplane and the doors were opened to the terminal.
I was getting nervous, apprehensive and excited at the same time. I have waited in airport lounges and bars to meet old college friends that I haven’t seen in a long while, but my wait has always been colored with some trepidation. You never know what the old friends have become. College can be such a world-opening interlude in life. For a short while, a good college can force young people away from the circle of their family and high-school friends, and it redefines them—for better or for worse—with a new set of friends.
Some of these college friends are able to grow from the base of their family values and traditions and to redefine them to fit their own individualized existence, creating something richer and more nuanced once they leave school. Other friends seem to retreat into the narrower family sphere, shucking the changes that college has offered them, letting their lives harden in old molds. The fork in their life road seems to occur somewhere in the early- to mid-20s. The fire of change lit in college either stays lit or it dies out. My college classmates either become people I want to know for life or people I am willing to lose touch with through neglect or by mutual choice, with only a brief hello as we might meet by happenstance.
So, I didn’t know whether Jake was going to emerge from the plane as the joyous young man that stepped off the bus in Mississippi or as a reversion to his stolid suburban Boston environment—where his life would be but a commuter distance from the stolid conservative life of the downtown finance houses where his father worked. Would Jake be a grown-up but settled-down version of the Jake I had written about in my story, eyes bright with hope and promise and joy? Or would he be a buttoned-down Boston businessman concerned with material things? How many of those reasons that took him to Mississippi would he retain as part of his being? As I waited, I considered the bookends that I had established.
Of course, he didn’t fit any of these molds. I sensed that both my bookend pre-conceptions were entirely off base when I spied him coming up the ramp from the 747, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt. This time it was different. He hadn’t changed in any of the directions I expected. For reasons I couldn’t articulate, my immediate impression encountering him this time was not joy or spontaneity nor was it conservative stodginess. My impression was of infinite sorrow. I don’t know if it was the quick, haunted downcast look that flashed across his face just before that smile or the way he carried his body. His smile was sunshine as ever, but it was like the dawn I had just watched, appearing briefly in the small patch of clear sky before a cloud bank brought a storm. He wasn’t button-down Boston, but he wasn’t the self-directed adult at the other end of my bookend. He seemed a bewildered version of the 19-year old who got off the bus in Mississippi, almost still a boy.
In actuality, his appearance was still the 19-year old in Mississippi. He had changed only a little. He was still trim and had kept his striking looks. His auburn hair still covered his ears in soft curls, but he now wore a beautiful head band made from what I was later to learn was a dyed cloth called batik. The crow’s feet around his eyes had etched their way slightly into his face, alas. His smile still radiated from his mouth as he spoke to one of the other passengers, but age had brought another line at its edges.
His eyes hinted at a sadder story. Between the brief smiles, I could see uncertainty and reserve where confidence once resided. It was something that had not been there 14 years earlier. It was something I didn’t expect to find in that once supremely confident child-man who I remember could talk virtually anybody into doing anything for him. Maybe it was how Tom Sawyer would have grown up if Mark Twain had let him grow up. I rationalized that maybe this was just the result of fatigue from the cross-country trip. I realized I no longer knew anything about him, but I sensed that something had changed profoundly in him.
Of course, Jake might soon think I was reserved as well, taking it from the nervousness that I felt about seeing a good friend after 14 years.
I started waving to him. As he spotted me, he broke into a warm smile that did reach his eyes—and that fetched me into his aura once again like the flash of light from a lighthouse pushing through darkness or fog. He threaded through the crowd of passengers and greeters and came up to me. I reached out with both arms and gave him a hug.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said, pulling back and looking me in the face. God, he had a great smile. His hazel eyes were just as beautiful as I remembered.
“Likewise,” I countered.
We looked each other head to toe. “Long time,” I said, then with a grin. “Your fault.”
Jake’s eyes misted over immediately. Oh, oh! It was not what I expected. I expected a snappy comeback. I was a bit stunned when it didn’t happen. He looked down quickly so that I could see only the top of his head. “I know. I’m sorry.”
He looked up, and I looked at him, and all my memories of our summer in Mississippi flashed past me—things I hadn’t thought of for nearly a decade and a half. The self-confident young man that I had seen climb on the bus was now 14 years older, but I saw him both as he was 14 years earlier and as he was today, my memories colliding with the perception of the person I saw in front of me. He looked surprisingly the same, but, of course, different. But something was missing—or changed, or wrong.
We had gazed at each other for what seemed like five minutes but probably wasn’t more than a few seconds. I finally broke the ice: “I didn’t really mean to screw up this moment. I’m the one who should be sorry! I’ll make it up to you. Let’s get you to your hotel, and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Great, you’re forgiven,” and he flashed me the contagious smile again that I remembered. “Well, I’ll let you bribe your way out of it, so you’re not forgiven until I’ve collected.”
We went to baggage claim and, after a short wait, picked up his bags. He grabbed the largest one leaving me with a small garment bag. There’s something seriously wrong with this picture, I said to myself, somewhat wistfully. Me getting the small bag? But it had been 14 years, after all. We hopped into my van, dropped down the hill and headed north on I-5, took the James Street exit and went through downtown to his hotel.
At a stoplight I turned and grinned at him. “For 14 years of silence and neglect, I demand compensation—at least one point.”
He laughed and marked a point in his air ledger. “God, you remember our game. And what does that make the score?”
“187 for me now, 185 for you.”
“Well, you even remembered the score right.” So Jake had remembered the score as well. “So maybe 14 years wasn’t such a long time,” he continued.
“Yes, it was,” I said, before I could stop myself. There was silence for a minute between us.
Jake reached over and punched me lightly on the arm. “Thanks.”
I had never been to The Emery, but it turned out to be an old-but-clean hotel with potential for a nice renovation if somebody wanted to turn it into a luxury boutique hotel. Jake checked in, was given a room on the seventh floor, and we both loaded his luggage into the antiquated elevator. The room was small, reminding me somewhat of the elevator, but the walls appeared solid enough to keep out the noise of the neighboring rooms. The double bed left only space for a dresser, topped by a television, and an easy chair whose footrest had to be the bed.
Jake threw his suitcase on the bed, opened it and put his clothes in the dresser. “Do you mind if I take a quick shower to get the airplane grunge off?” he asked.
“Not at all. I’ll just sit here, loosen my tie and finish the paper.”
Jake took a shaving kit from where he had unpacked it on the bed and stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. I had read the sports page, but I had to read again yet another dispatch about the continuing Mariner misery. Maybe if I read about it enough it would go away.
I heard the shower turned on and after a few minutes heard it go quiet. In about five minutes, Jake stepped out, clean-shaven, a towel around his waist. He walked to the dresser where he had put his clothes. God, he still had a beautiful body. Facing the dresser, he dropped the towel onto the bed and started to put on his underwear. I looked at the back of his naked body and could remember him running naked into the water at the swimming hole in Mississippi. I admired how well built he still was—strong shoulders, still a narrow waist, nice butt globes and strong legs—a dusting of golden-red hair showed on his legs and under his arms. I felt an unexpected stirring in my groin. Jake pulled on his undershorts, turned around and put on some clean jeans and a burgundy-colored, long-sleeved shirt. He found a batik headband to match.
“Let’s drink!” he said.
We retrieved my van and took off for a nice quiet restaurant and bar that I frequented. I liked it because they had a good Northwest wine list and offered grilled salmon if we got hungry. Hell, when you’re in Seattle, you’re supposed to eat like the natives.
“Do you want to split a bottle of wine, or do you want something a little stronger? I’m going to have wine,” I said, after we had found a seat.
I saw Jake hesitate a bit, then say, “Wine would be fine.” I looked at him, a question in my eyes. As if to answer the question, he said: “I was thinking about sticking with water. Over the past 14 years I’ve had a few too many bouts with the bottle. Sometimes when I’m nervous or down, I want something harder, and sometimes I think I should just stop entirely. Tonight, I’m nervous—but good nerves. A couple of glasses of wine would be just fine.” The waiter came to the table and asked if we wanted menus.
“Just a bottle of chardonnay, please, and two glasses. What do you have?” I asked.
“I have a nice Tualatin ‘78”
“That would be great,” I said. The waiter moved off to get the bottle of wine, and Jake and I started a more-normal reunion conversation.
“So what have you been up to these, um, 14 years?” Jake asked conversationally. “I got the note saying that you had gotten married.”
“I’ve been sitting by the mailbox waiting for a reply,” I joked. Jake smiled politely, then waited me out. Finally, I went on. “I became a financial adviser, had two of my 2.1 kids, got divorced and have lived the life of a bachelor for the past two years—a somewhat ineligible bachelor, alas.”
“Technically, no, but practically, yeah. Alec, my son, stays with me most weekends, and now he comes over several days a week as well, severely crimping my love life. He’s almost 13, and between work and his and Celly’s activities, I really don’t have a lot of time to be anything but be a bachelor. Celly—that’s short for Celia, my daughter—stays most of the time with Anne, my ex, but even Celly will drop over from time to time unannounced and sleep on the couch. How can you have a love life with a revolving door on the condo and two critics checking out who I’m bringing home?”
The waiter arrived with two menus, our wine and two glasses; he pulled the cork and handed it to me. I checked it out, smelled it, and nodded my head. “I didn’t know if you wanted menus, but I brought a couple over just in case,” he said. He poured me a small amount of wine. I tasted it, and nodded my head in approval.
“Nice,” I said. He filled Jake’s glass, then topped mine off. Jake took a sip of wine, said “Mmmm” and raised his glass in a toast. The waiter asked us if we wanted to order anything for dinner. I raised my eyebrows to Jake, relaying the waiter’s question to him.
“I’d love some salmon,” Jake said, “What do you recommend?”
“I would recommend our alder grilled salmon filet and a Caesar’s salad to start,” the waiter said.
“Sold,” Jake said. “I’m easy.” He flipped the menu shut.
“Make that two,” I piped in. The waiter wrote our order down, gathered the menus and left.
“Skol! Or whatever they say in Ballard, it’s really good to see you,” he said as he clinked my glass with his. He must have been reading some Seattle history if he knew where the Scandinavian section of Seattle was.
“Likewise.” We remained quiet for a few moments, sipping our wines. Jake would grow serious and seem to be on the verge of saying something but kept getting distracted, whether from the waiter coming by to check on our table or from someone dropping a tray of dishes back in the kitchen. Something always seemed to intercede to pull the words back from his lips. The silence and the interruptions lasted a full five minutes. It must have been a bad night for broken dinnerware in the restaurant. At this conversational pace, I was beginning to think our reunion might not end too soon for me. “Your turn,” I said finally. “Tell me what you’ve been doing for the past 14 years.”
Jake looked at me, taking the time to choose his words. “I’ve been living in a holy hell,” he said, dropping his head again. I could see him trying to keep his emotions under control.
I was taken aback, to say the least. I wasn’t nearly fast enough to figure out what to say after such a bomb blast. His was not even close to any answer that I expected. Jake toyed with his wine glass, raised it to his lips and drank half of it in one gulp. I was now certain that this was not the same super-confident person I had lived every day with in Mississippi 14 years ago. This was somebody broken. This was a beaten man. This was somebody clinging to a raft. I wondered whether I was supposed to be that raft. I wondered if I wanted to be that raft. My instincts about the sorrow in his eyes, his uncertainty and reserve as he got off the plane had been right on. I was at a loss for words. Confusion must have shown on my face.
As if reading the consternation in my mind, Jake said “excuse me,” stood, and walked away. I saw him go through the front door of the restaurant and down the street. He had left his coat on a hook by the table, so I thought he would likely come back. But I wasn’t sure. I sat and sipped my wine, checked my watch a couple of times and wondered what to do. Five minutes later he reentered the restaurant and came back to the table.
He sat down, raised his face to me and grinned ruefully and said: “At least you know now why there weren’t any postcards. There’s no post office in hell.” There was redness at the edge of his eyes. An uncomfortable silence fell between us again. There was no explanation of why he had left the restaurant. “This is all too morose, let’s change the subject,” he said finally. We sat for a few more minutes in silence, Jake downing another half a glass of wine in one gulp. I had no idea what direction to take the conversation. I decided on baseball, then the stock market, but the conversation was stilted. We both twirled our wine glasses. The dinner was beginning to last too long.
“Anything special you want to do while you’re here?” I asked, trying to change the mood.
Jakes eyes lit up. “I really want to do some biking. Do you know where I can rent a bicycle till mine gets here? Bike riding lets me work off all my frustrations faster than walking,” he gestured toward the door, “and the hills will be a great challenge.”
A spark of enthusiasm. Hooray. And, happily, I had an answer for him. “Sure, I know where you can rent bikes,” I said. “From me—for the price of a beer. You can use one of ours. We have four and rarely, if ever, use them all at the same time, especially at this time of year. In fact, Anne doesn’t use hers very much at all, so I’d be happy to ask her if you can use it.” I was talking as if we were still an intact family, but it was almost certain I could borrow one from Anne or Celly or even Alec, my last resort.
“I would appreciate it—along with some recommendations on places to ride.”
“My recommendation is that you ride with me, and I’ll show you some of Seattle,” I offered, with genuine relief that there was something we could enjoy together. Jake seemed pleased with my response. “We can start tomorrow. How about if I come by the hotel about 5:30 tomorrow evening with a bike for you—assuming this rain blows through?”
“Great,” Jake said, visibly warming. I felt better, too. Some ice had been broken.
At that moment, our salads arrived and the conversation lapsed as we dug in. We talked about inconsequential thing, like the Mariners and the Red Sox as we were served our salmon. Jake toyed with his food for a while, as if he wanted to get something off his chest before he ate.
“Eat your salmon before it gets cold,” I said, forcing him back to reality—and a superbly cooked one at that.He took several bites. “This is really good,” he said. And he dived into his food with relish.
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