In contrast to Jake’s and Alec’s relationship, Jake and I were getting along better by the week. I would invite Jake over for weekends so he wouldn’t have to be alone in the hotel. He apparently even appreciated sleeping on the sofa in our living room. We would go biking as usual, play some basketball outside, take in a movie with or without the kids, or maybe just the two of us would go to a play. On those few rainy nights of summer we would play Scrabble, sometimes joined by Celly, who was a demon at the game. The score grew to 203 for me and 202 for him. I was pretty good at Scrabble as well, so that was worth some points. A closeness that we had enjoyed in Mississippi was slowly rebuilding.
Jake quizzed me persistently about my life over the previous 14 years, as if he wanted to know every missing detail between our time in Mississippi and now. In retrospect, though, I think it was partly his way of diverting attention from himself and from talking about his own life.
A typical exchange: We were sitting in the living room after a bike ride and dinner one weekday evening, Alec having gone upstairs to his room to read. “What happened after you left Mississippi?” he asked.
“I went home to Seattle, started graduate school in finance and met Anne working at the library and saving money to go to law school. We had a whirlwind romance and got married in November. Alec was born in July—I guess just after you graduated from college.”
It appeared Jake was calculating the months from our marriage to Alec’s birth. “Fast work,” he said, grinning. “Actually, I did the calculation when you sent me the birth-announcement card.”
“I told you it was a whirlwind romance,” I said, with a grin on my face. “And it wasn’t exactly what I would call work at that stage. Anyway, it was Vietnam draft time, so between graduate school and a baby, I managed to squeak through without being drafted.”
Alec had emerged from his room and had gone into the bathroom on the landing above the living room. “Then Anne and I talked it over and decided to have a second child, Celia—I used to call her Cilly, which turned into Celly—and our plan was that once I got my MBA and started work, Anne would go to law school. Anne is a very independent, organized and determined woman, so everything went right on schedule.”
The next thing I noticed was that Alec was sitting on the top stair. I looked up and acknowledged his presence. We had never discussed my relationship with his mother, but maybe it was time for him to understand some of what had happened—that is, if Jake pursued that line. I guess that if there had been any real rancor in our separation, I would not have involved Alec, but the divorce was amicable—to the extent any divorce could ever be amicable.
“What happened? Why did you separate?” Jake asked. “Don’t answer if you don’t want to.”
“It’s a long story. And I haven’t written the last chapters. Anne graduated from law school, first in her class, when Celly was 4 and Alec was 7. She got her choice of law firms and went to work—80 hours a week. Her work paid off in her career, she advanced rapidly at the firm, and I took up some of the slack at home, willingly. Actually, my obligation really wasn’t much different from when she was in law school—just as intense but less flexible in schedule. When she was in law school she could study at home.
“Anne became extremely successful. But our marriage began to drift irretrievably apart—Anne more and more to her new career as a lawyer, me to my job as an accountant and financial adviser. Anne and I also had moved slowly apart sexually over several years.” I looked up at Alec, deciding whether or not to go on. I kept on. “Our interests started to diverge. We didn’t argue or beat our breasts or scream at each other. Actually, we drifted into an almost brother-sister relationship. We replaced the queen bed with separate beds. How’s that for Freudian? Our sex life dwindled to nearly nothing.” Jake nodded. Alec, on the stairs, was listening intently.
“Near the end, our marriage was no longer an intimate relationship. It was more like peaceful coexistence. Both of us still were monogamous—I’m almost certain Anne was—but the joy of sexual encounters between us had dwindled. My right hand took over.” I glanced up at Alec again, wondering if I was going too far. I didn’t say anything about it, but I really thought Anne was prudish and unwilling to engage in sexual exploration. Sex with my wife became boring. Early on, I was unwilling to press the issue for fear of risking a marriage with the woman I and our children loved. Later on, I guess it was too late. My only regret, I suppose, was that I kept my frustration inside.
“When we started to drift apart in our interests, there was really not much left to keep us together, except our children.
“As our marriage was tailing off, we discussed staying together for the sake of the children and pursuing our individual, but by then less-intersecting, lives. We could easily have maintained a marriage charade—or, at least we thought we could—because there was not much animosity between us. We could be friends still, though no longer lovers.” I took a sip of wine. “Am I rambling too much?”
“No,” Jake said quietly. “I want to know you better as a person.”
“We finally decided that this charade life would be unfair to Alec and Celly, that they would be more harmed by the lack of a real marriage relationship between us than they would by a realization that the marriage was over. Maybe in our separate lives, we could begin new relationships that might blossom into something that would be a model for our children. That’s the theory.”
“So how have these new relationships gone for you?” Jake asked.
“Awful.” I admitted.
“That’s for damn sure,” Alec piped up from the top of the stairs, startling both of us. He was laughing to himself. I had temporarily forgotten him sitting on the stairs.
“Watch your language, young man,” I said, but Alec was almost 13 and it was probably too late to wash his mouth out with soap. “It’s awful because my children became so damned particular about my love life that they’ve absolutely ruined any chances I have had.” I said ‘particular’ with particular emphasis. “It’s all their fault.”
“Hah!” Alec retorted. “You have such unbelievably bad taste in women or bad luck or both, Dad. Remember Helen What’s-her-name?”
“She never would stop talking. For three hours straight one night she came over for dinner and babbled and babbled. Then she forgot what my name was, so she kept on talking to hide the fact. At least that’s what I think. She probably forgot what your name was, too. Then, she decided to call me Billy and never stopped even when I told her my name was Alec. Billy? I don’t look like a Billy.” I couldn’t help but laugh.
“One for me,” Jake announced, licking his finger and marking a point on the left side of the air ledger. Shit, we were tied again.
“Then there was Sally, the elementary schoolteacher,” Alec continued. “She would only speak to me—a teen-ager, or almost—not to Dad, an adult. To make matters worse, she talked to me as if I was 10 instead of almost 13. She must have thought the way to a man’s heart was through his children. Little did she know what a bottle of good wine and a candlelight dinner would have done.” I remembered Sally Reynolds, alas. “Then there was Valerie, she wore…”
Jake was laughing. “Another one for me. I’m ahead now.”
“Enough, Alec, I’m losing too many points!” I commanded. Commands usually had no impact on him, and this time was no different. He was about to start up again “I surrender. Okay? Well, my love life has been somewhat lackluster,” I admitted. “Enough about me. And what about your love life, Jake? Tell me more about it! Give me the details.”
Jake looked decidedly uncomfortable as he did with any questions about his past, which made me feel somewhat embarrassed. In the next few minutes, he told me little more than the tidbits he told me at the restaurant the night he came into Seattle.
“What love life?” he said. “A sex life, yes, but not a love life. I had relationships with five women in 14 years, but nothing serious, and nothing I want to talk about or remember. Okay? I’ll give you back your points. You’re up one again. And that’s where I want to stop.”
His tone of voice seemed intended to be the end of the discussion whether it was okay or not. We sat in uncomfortable silence for a while. Alec lost interest and returned to his room.
“I’d better get back to the hotel,” he said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. But he didn’t move for a while. “I’m sorry, Rob, but my life has been so fucked up. You wanted details? None of those relationships was worth anything except as a way to forget Vietnam and to get my rocks off. There was lots of drinking and partying, some hash and plenty of sex, but there was no joy. I could see that nothing was ever going to come of any of these relationships, so I kept breaking them off. Nothing in my sex life was going to stop the sad drift in my mental life. Does that answer your question?”
I nodded. “Look, Jake, I was just making conversation. I wasn’t trying to grill you about your life. I apologize if it seemed anything else.”
“Accepted, but now I need to go. I’ll walk. It’ll give me a half hour or more to unwind. See you tomorrow?”
“Sure. Same time, same place?”
He nodded as he pulled on his windbreaker. Then he did something surprising. He turned around and hugged me hard to him as if he didn’t want to leave on such an unhappy note. He turned away from me, opened the door and walked down the street.
As our evening bike rides continued into dinners and conversation, Jake drew out the remaining details of my marriage, particularly how we dealt with our children.
“We decided early on not to make ‘possessions’ of our kids: Alexander was 11, and Celia, 8, when we split up,” I said one night as we finished a bottle of pinot noir. “We told them that they could stay with whichever parent they choose whenever they choose—no questions asked, no barriers erected. There was to be no formal custody or visitation rights—at least off paper. On paper was different, of course, but the papers are buried deep in our safe-deposit box. Either household was available to the kids; the telephone was steps away if they wanted to go to one place or the other. If they wanted to live with dad, they could just move their things to his place—and vice versa.
“Celly has tended to stay with her mother. Alec stayed with her when he was younger, but lately he has stayed more with me. And, candidly, I love it. The more he stays with me the happier I’ve been, despite the frustrations of my love life. I love that kid so much.” My eyes became moist as I reflected on our recent times together.
Jake noticed and kept quiet until I composed myself again.
“The only rule Anne and I imposed for our kids—and never truly have had to enforce—is that they couldn’t use one parent as a lever against the other. Anne and I agreed that the rules of discipline that we had established inside the marriage would continue outside the marriage, and we agreed to keep each other abreast of our relationships with Alec and Celly and to enforce the other’s rules as if we were still together.”
“And that has worked?” Jake asked.
“I think so, but who really knows? By and large, the kids have not abused our rules, but they are kids and they have their wiles, so I suspect we’ve been snookered a few times. Nothing important, though.
“What we feared most was making our children have to choose between the two of us. We decided Alec and Celly should not suffer because of the different directions taken by their parents. Alec and Celly appear well-adjusted, particularly as compared to the offspring of some of our—now my and Anne’s—divorced friends and even some of our not-so-divorced friends. But I guess only time will tell.
“I suppose the major drawback is with me. I miss adult companionship— except what there is at work, of course. But that is different and kind of formal or formula, if you know what I mean. It’s not close and personal.
“But, as you can gather from Alec’s presence, there’s not a lot of privacy around here. As I told you, the arrangement kind of makes me an ineligible bachelor.” I didn’t say anything about the bouts of loneliness that hit me from time to time, though infrequently, especially when Alec was not around.
“But you’re such a good-looking, ineligible bachelor,” Jake laughed. I didn’t know what to make of his comment—whether to thank him, ignore him or interpret it some other way.
Jake had been in Seattle a month, and his questions and my answers had pretty much exhausted the history of my life after Mississippi. I still knew very little more about his life, and I had only a few weeks left to pump him before he returned to Boston.
I mentioned the one-sided nature of our life confessions one day. “I demand a point, Sawyer, for telling you my life’s story of the last 14 years with nothing from you in return except a few crumbs.”
“Okay, one for you. Someday I’ll give you the full details and earn it back. I owe you the details, but not now, not yet. Okay?” There was not a lot of confidence in that statement. Maybe not ever, I thought.
* * *
I figured Jake was probably tired of staying in a hotel after a month, and, since he only had a short time left, I decided he might enjoy some home life. So I invited him to stay at my condo, particularly since Alec was going to be away with his mother on vacation for ten days, and Alec’s stay with his mother probably could be extended into a couple of weeks if need be.
As we finished our coffee, I said, “You know, Alec will be on vacation with his mother for the next few days, so I will have an extra bedroom. You’re welcome to it. I guarantee it’s better and cheaper than the Emery. Of course, there won’t be anybody to make the bed for you or clean your pubic hairs out of the shower.”
“Are you sure? That would be a great change, Rob. I really am getting so tired of that small hotel room and what they advertise as a continental breakfast, well… I’ll make it up to you some day.” Little did Jake realize how prophetic that statement would turn out to be. “Thanks!” he said warmly. “When do you want me to move in?”
“As soon as you want,” I replied, and Jake indicated he was ready anytime.
I called Alec and asked him if he would mind if Jake used his room while he was gone—and maybe for these few extra days before Alec, Celly and Anne left for vacation. I detected an undertone of resentment—his bedroom was his private space, after all, and my request was somewhat sudden—but his words were correctly polite in recognizing a guest of the family. “Just leave your things in your room,” I said, “and come over and get whatever you need any time you need to. I’ll let Jake work around your stuff.”
“Thanks, Dad. That will make it a little easier. I don’t want to move everything out.”
With Alec away for a few days, I felt a bit freer to go out on the town with Jake after work to eat, to go to movies, to Pioneer Square for the jazz clubs, to a ball game without the worry of a child, though a teenager, at home. Hell, the Mariners even beat the Red Sox one game and earned me a point and a couple of beers from my die-hard, Red Sox fan companion. Slowly, Jake was continuing to become more like the self I remembered, and the dark moments, instead of always lurking in the background, would pass—like quick storms, intense, but soon over. Jake’s child-like wonder in the world was slowly, though, intermittently, reemerging.
I realized one day that I was thoroughly enjoying myself with him around. It was wonderful to have adult companionship again, though, I thought with a smile to myself, that Jake could never be fully an adult. In fact, he seemed to grow younger as the time in Seattle went on. He could argue politics or philosophy at one moment and, in the next moment, would vault over parking meters, recite J. Alfred Prufrock from the steps of churches, help little old ladies across the streets with Clark Gable panache, giving them his radiant smiles, his arm and his rich laughter to remember till their dying days. When the brief storms going through his head cleared, it was as if he were in love with the world once again.
I began to realize I would miss this when he had to go back to Boston. I would miss the laughter from his antics and the keenness of his thoughts during our serious discussions—and he was getting to be a damn fine Scrabble player. But his stay was coming to an end, and our lives would drift apart once again—I hoped not as far and so completely as they did before.
Besides, with the baseball games I was only one ahead in the score, and I needed a chance to build a lead.
A few days after I had asked Jake to stay at the condo, my work schedule turned hellish. For seven straight days, I had to be in the office until after midnight each night and be back there at 6 a.m. I had no time to take the evening bike rides, and I felt I was losing opportunities to be with Jake before his return to Boston. At least, he had the run of the condo, and Alec hadn’t gotten back from vacation.
Finally after a week, the project was done, and I was able to leave work. It was early, about 2:30 in the afternoon, and I was exhausted but happy from the accomplishment. I called and left a message for Jake. I got home at 3:00 to an empty condo and, needing to stretch out my unused muscles and my tense mind, I got on my bike to take a spin. I left a note saying I would be home that evening in case he didn’t get my phone message, but that I planned to ride again later with him if he wanted.
The ride was a great relief to the accumulated tensions of the long week. The decisions and problems of work that had haunted my mind slowly began to be sweated out as I rode, and I began to turn my attention to the scenery along the route. The temperature had warmed to about 70 degrees, and the skies had cleared as I rode up past Green Lake about 7 miles away, then sprinted around it twice on my way back.
I walked in the door about 6, hot, tired and sweaty, but ready for another ride if Jake wanted one. I gave a shout, then I noticed that something smelled oriental—ginger, garlic and soy I later learned—and the aroma filling the condo was marvelous. As I moved toward the kitchen, I saw the dining room table laid out for two with fine china, crystal glasses and my best silverware—my parts of the divorce settlement—and two candles.
I heard a champagne cork pop, and Jake emerged from the kitchen with an apron around his front and a bottle of what looked like and turned out to be French champagne—1976 Pol Roger Churchill Cuvee, no less. He was dressed in dark slacks and a white shirt with puffed up sleeves, like a Spanish dancer. He poured two glasses of champagne, handed one to me, raised his, clinked it against mine, and said: “This is to thank you for everything. I remember how much you loved this champagne that evening in Mississippi.” His eyes and smile flashed at me.
“You don’t need to thank me. It was my pleasure, of course, and it was a joy to have you,” I said—and I meant it—as I tasted the champagne. My memory of taste was very good; the wine was like I remembered: wondrous. “I’m sorry your stay here is going to come to an end.” I smiled as I clinked my glass against his. I realized then how much I would miss that light in his eyes. “And, I want you to note, though, that we’re about even in points, but not quite. I am still ahead, and I intend to stay that way.”
He grinned a bit evasively. “Don’t count your points yet. I have some opportunities to get even coming up.” I could only respond with a bewildered expression. I suppose I would find out whatever he meant in good time.
“I found the china and glasses gathering dust in the cupboard,” Jake said, “I hope you don’t mind my pulling them out.”
“God, no! I just haven’t found the right occasion to bring them out. They’ve only been sitting there two years,” I said somewhat ruefully. “So much for the social life of a divorced man with two kids, any one of which may pop in the door at any time. However, I do need to take a quick shower. Be back in a few minutes.”
“As soon as you’re done, dinner will be ready.” Jake topped my champagne glass to take into the bathroom, then put the champagne bottle on the table, turned, and went back into the kitchen. I took my shower, pulled on some navy-blue shorts and a Mariner T-shirt and returned to the kitchen. I knew he would deliberately ignore the Mariner T-shirt.
“Sit down at the table and relax,” Jake said. I ducked out of the kitchen into the dining area. We chatted through the kitchen door. I groused about the hard work week I had just been through but told him how good it felt to get a project done successfully.
In a minute, Jake came out of the kitchen carrying a plate of crepe-looking things—which smelled wonderful. “I’m making a Chinese dinner for you,” he said with a slight formal bow. “I didn’t spend almost 14 years in the Far East without learning some of the finer things to eat—and how to make them. Or buy them. First, potstickers, then hot and sour soup, scallops in a rice basket, stir fried eggplant, and ti-smoked duck. Let’s finish this champagne and switch to Chinese beer—Tsing Dao.”
We sat down and started to dig into the potstickers. “I’m overwhelmed. Did you make all this during my bike trip?” I thought that three hours was a pretty short time for such a dinner.
“Yes.” He looked a bit guilty. “With the help of Uwajimaya and some other shops in the International District,” Jake said proudly. Uwajimaya is the Japanese supermarket that has just about anything available in Seattle in oriental food. “I made the soup, the eggplant and the scallops, though. The rest I bought.”
“Tell me more about this food.”
Jake’s eyes lit up—his extraordinary energy behind them. He described the differences between Szechwan, Hunanese, and Cantonese food. He described Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian cuisine. He told me about preparation and the importance of quality ingredients in the cuisine. He got all wrapped up in his explanations.
I noted how similar the philosophies were to French and Italian, my favorites. All of these very different cuisines, we concluded, had a similarity in the care taken in their preparation and the enjoyment people had in their consumption.
As we finished a course, Jake would hop up, disappear into the kitchen and emerge shortly with another plate of food. While he was in the kitchen, I would just sit and contemplate, Buddha-like, hands on my stomach, about the wondrous food that I was being introduced to. I had spent a year in France during college, so I knew French food, but my knowledge of Chinese food was somewhat rudimentary—almond chicken was as gourmet as I had gotten.
“I’ve never really tasted Northern Chinese food before. I’m blown away,” I said. “Point for you.” Jake looked pleased.
“Chinese food well prepared is as fine as French or Italian, don’t you think,” Jake said. I nodded my appreciation. In some countries one belches appreciation, but I couldn’t remember which countries, so I didn’t do it. Jake gathered up the dishes and took them to the kitchen.
“Let me clean up and I’ll be right back with you,” Jake said.
“You’re sure you don’t want any help?”
“Nope, consider it your lucky night.” As he stepped into the kitchen, I walked over to the couch and lay down—for just a second. Unfortunately, the champagne, beer and good food combined with the hellish week at work and the bike ride got to me and I fell sound asleep, my feet splayed beyond the end of the couch.
When I woke up, my world began to turn upside down
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