OCTOBER 2007 – NO. 18
Days of Overblown
The third and final short story selection by Guest Fiction Editor Michelle Wildgen
"I married too young," Lucia said. She sipped iced tea. "I didn't sleep with enough people before settling on my husband."
"I slept with too many people," Parker said. "Such a thing is possible." He drank down the rest of his beer, then stared at the bottom of the pint glass. She never drank with him at lunch; he wished she would.
They had met in San Francisco at the height of the dotcom insanity, when everyone said the world's rules had changed. While Parker and Lucia never believed their web company's marketing team when it insisted that they were all revolutionaries, some of the spirit of the era affected them. During their long lunches together in South Park, they revealed too much about themselves.
"What's the right number?" she said. "How many?"
He shrugged, uncertain how to answer. He wanted to see her eyes behind her sunglasses. Her carefully angled bangs revealed freckles on her forehead, while her straight, brunette hair halted abruptly at her neck. Most days she wore simple, handcrafted earrings she found in boutiques in the Mission, and she often reached for them to ensure they hadn't fallen off, or possibly because she liked the way they felt on her earlobes. She always sat with a straightened back in a way that announced confidence and formality. Who had taught her such a posture?
Workers from the other web companies crowded the other tables, lounged in clusters on the oval park's patchy lawn. They had the look of graduate students hanging out between classes at a mid-tier public university - everyone wore half-ironed shirts and worn-out jeans. No one wore a tie. They left plenty of room for the homeless transvestite sprawled out on one of the benches, his rogue shopping cart overflowing with broken-down birdhouses. The May sun had broken through the clouds and shined on the transvestite's tiara. Maybe he was dead.
Parker didn't want to think about the homeless transvestite, so he focused on soothing things like the flickering in his stomach sparked by all the talk of sleeping with people. Though he and Lucia flirted with each other, to his mind they hadn't yet done or said anything that would require an explanation to their spouses. As Lucia added two more sugar packets to her iced tea, Parker looked at her chest, the way her breasts rose buoyantly in her lace-fringed camisole. He wanted to kiss them both, every single morning. He looked away. His indiscretions over the span of his five-year marriage were mostly confined to martini-soaked kisses in bars, and a few - a very few, he told himself, less than a handful - unsatisfying bouts of sex. He never pursued anything with the girls after the vodka buzz faded; what would be the point?
They began walking back to the office. As they passed the transvestite's shopping cart, Lucia poked at one of the birdhouses. A bird - a live bird - was hidden inside; it popped its beak out of the house and chirped at her. The transvestite moaned, as though waking from a deep slumber.
"Yikes!" Lucia said, mock-frightened. She grabbed Parker's arm and pulled him with her.
"What's the saying?" Parker said. "Let sleeping transvestites lie, or something like that?"
"Let's come back soon, shall we, dear? This place is lovely."
When she joked about being coupled with him it made him want her more, and that was nearly unbearable; the excitement made him walk crookedly.
He looked at her, then made a resigned, play-actor's sad face.
"We're going straight to hell, aren't we?" she said.
"Afraid so," he said. They both laughed. Their cruelty, as a rule, was forgivable in his eyes as long as it was directed at those who never actually heard their wisecracks. He knew this also made them cowards.
Lucia and Parker worked on the editorial team at the company, an internet directory that listed and profiled pet-friendly hotels around the world, among other things. When they weren't editing copy or sitting in meetings, they were emailing friends, researching vacations in Myanmar or Cambodia, or floating about the web aimlessly while trying to appear they were earning their inflated salaries.
He played tuba in a funk-punk band in Oakland and on the nights he had practice he drove to the office rather than taking the bus. Lucia liked helping him bring the awkward instrument in its black case up to the third floor, where it sat next to his desk like a shiny, dark boulder. "I want to play that sometime," she said. One afternoon they took it upstairs to the rooftop. Parker held the tuba, positioning it, as Lucia arranged herself in the wrap of the brass. She licked her lips, puckered them to the mouthpiece. He felt that twinge again. She blew a few notes, loud and boisterous, badly off key. Her eyes bulged ridiculously.
"What?" she said.
"No, no," he said, laughing, "go on."
She kept going and he had to let her hold the instrument on her own. He was laughing too much, doubling over.
"You're a genius," he said, once she'd put the tuba down.
"You're impossible," she said. She pointed at the spiral of brass lying at her feet. "I hate that thing." She swung her foot at it, but then she merely tagged it with the tip of her boot.
"Easy now, missy," he said.
"I'll never be good at anything," she said, exasperated.
"Try it again," he said. "I'm sorry I laughed."
"You try it," she said. "I can't bear to look stupid."
"You didn't. You looked -" he paused, fighting the urge to laugh again. "You looked lively. Lively is good."
"Shut up," she said. She punched him lightly on the arm.
"Let's hug it all away." He reached for her.
"Let's get out of here," she said. She started for the door to go back downstairs.
At the company's holiday party one Saturday night in mid-December, Parker and his wife Jamie stood in the cabin of the charter boat as it angled toward the Golden Gate Bridge. They watched the costumed contortionists perform. Parker suggested they go get some air upstairs.
"When was the last time you saw someone walk across a room while twisted around like Gumby?" Jamie said. "You know how I like Gumby." He knew she liked to have something she could recount to her coworkers on Monday. Besides, she hated the chill of the wind and how it messed with her hair. Poised with a vodka cocktail in hand, she glanced approvingly at the party, looking as though she'd personally invited everyone and was satisfied to see them enjoying themselves. Standing at her side, Parker had the familiar sensation of feeling like her personal assistant and not her spouse, which was often how he felt with her in public.
"I'll catch up. Go on and have fun." She rather maternally kissed him on the forehead while simultaneously patting him on the rear end.
On the deck Parker found Lucia and her husband. "This part of the coast is a breeding ground for Great White sharks," Parker informed them.
"Great Whites aren't as dangerous as everyone says," Lucia's husband said, adjusting his angular glasses, architects' glasses. He was a reporter for the Chronicle, and apparently had a weakness for trusting statistics and facts over hype. He wouldn't want to hear that hype had its uses - it told people what to pay attention to next.
"When was the last time you heard about a swimmer getting killed?" the husband said.
Lucia and Parker looked at each other, considering the question.
"It's all overblown," the husband said, as though reassuring children there wasn't, in fact, a boogieman. Annoyed, Parker changed the subject.
Later they started talking about all the web companies going under, speculating on which ones would last.
"Salon is laying people off," Parker said. "I guess Garrison Keillor's advice column doesn't impress Wall Street suits as much as it does Minnesota retirees."
"At least Salon's not completely toast," Lucia said. "Kozmo is a time bomb, though."
"The whole 'new economy' thing is obviously overblown," the husband said. "It's a sucker's game." When the husband went downstairs to get more drinks, Lucia stood closer to Parker at the rail and threaded her arm into his.
"Oh dear," she sighed. The boat had circled under the bridge and was now headed back toward Alcatraz, cutting against the dark waters. He could kiss her now. And if he did, perhaps the world on this night wouldn't change much, but it would amount to something, at least for him. She stared down into the boat's wake. He studied her face. Her eyes, dark, small and determined, were set slightly too close together. A tiny cold sore at the corner of her mouth disappeared when she smiled. Perhaps his desire for Lucia was overblown, yet standing so close to her, smelling her jasmine perfume through the waves of salty ocean air, allowing his face to graze her neck as he leaned in to her, he wanted her more than he could say.
He kissed her neck, once, then again. He waited.
"Aren't you cold?" she said, leaning away from him slowly at first, then with more conviction. "It's freezing out here." She looked around at the others standing at the rail. No one seemed to be paying attention. She pulled her pashmina shawl around herself, covering her neck. "Let's go downstairs."
"I'd rather stay up here with you."
"We've had too many drinks," she said. "Let's go." She turned away and started toward the door.
By New Year's Eve, the wheels were peeling off the web economy, scattering the masses of workers. In January, Lucia told Parker that she and her husband were leaving the city, moving back to Dallas. "He wants to be near his family," she said, almost apologetically. "Who's going to help me pack up my desk when I get laid off?" he said. He was joking, yet they both knew a massive layoff awaited him and the others in the next few months. The company had already stopped serving high-grade coffee in the kitchen. What was next? Getting rid of the subsidized massage therapy?
The week Lucia left he organized a lunch for her, getting together half a dozen office friends. They drank several bottles of wine, Parker ordering the most expensive ones even though he'd never heard of them. To his chagrin, Lucia allowed herself only one glass and didn't even finish it. Once everyone was tipsy, he and the others went around the table reminiscing about their time with Lucia, saying nice things about her.
"She plays a great tuba," Parker said when his turn came around. Lucia blushed, apparently not wanting to explain. Later that day while taking a break in the office kitchen he gave her one of his tuba mouthpieces, a silver-finished one.
"For good luck," he said.
She brought it to her lips and blew halfheartedly.
"It's kind of creepy, like you've severed a finger for me," she said. "It's lovely."
The next week Lucia was gone, her desk cleared, her office email address dutifully bouncing messages. She hadn't given him anything to remember her by, so he grabbed a red pin from her corkboard. He poked it into his thumb, watched the blood emerge. So long, imaginary girlfriend. For weeks he kept it in his pants pocket with his coins and now and then when he walked or sat a certain way it poked him. He roamed the Embarcadero boardwalk at lunch, looking to the water as though it might diminish the gutted feeling. He tried unsuccessfully to begin a jogging routine.
Remembering he was married, he started trying to meet his wife for lunch, but she often begged off, saying she was busy, overwhelmed by her slice of the advertising world. That they loved each other was a given - akin to a business deal that satisfied the major necessities of both parties. They never got bogged down in the specifics, and he assumed the arrangement would continue as long as it didn't become too inconvenient or burdensome. Weekly lunch dates, apparently, weren't part of the contract.
Occasionally, when his wife was working late and he couldn't bear the idea of eating dinner alone at the apartment, he would bring her take-out Vietnamese food. They would sit in one of the conference rooms and she would talk about the latest crisis with a client, how they were never satisfied with anything. "We constantly have to value add," she said one night.
He was stuffing his face with spring rolls. "You really use that phrase?" he said. "Value add. What the hell is that?"
"Shut up, you know what I'm talking about," she said. Though her hair was naturally chestnut, in the last year she had begun dyeing it. Every other month she had Parker help her dye her roots blond, supplementing a regular schedule of salon coloring. He caught himself staring at her hair sometimes. The color and the expensive cut was probably useful in the office, projecting confidence and power, but it also intimidated him - with blond hair she looked like such a no-bullshit executive, attractive but unreachable. The new hair both was her and wasn't her at the same time, as if she could simultaneously be two different women. At home, with her hair up in a ponytail, in jeans and a sweatshirt, she was his buddy, approachable and light-hearted. In their living room at night she occasionally - but not nearly often enough - danced to bad '80s music until her legs gave out and she crumpled to the floor, laughing at herself. But here in the office, in her tailored suit, crisp blouse and fitted skirt, she was sexy but unavailable, her mind elsewhere.
"Maybe, maybe not." He was trying to be flirty, funny.
"It's stupid advertising talk for making sure the client knows you're working for them, staying focused on them. Like a bitch in heat."
"I'm not sure that's exactly the right simile."
"Yeah, probably not," she said. She crumpled up a napkin and aimed it at Parker's face. He didn't move, wanting to give her a good target. It hit his nose, soft as a kiss.
"I'm exhausted. I should go home with you."
"Not yet. I'll be there soon."
"It's not fun anymore," his wife said to Parker late one Friday night. They were spread out across the sofa, shirts half unbuttoned, their bare feet propped on the coffee table. They stared at the red sediment into the bottom of their wine glasses, swirling it, unwilling or too tipsy to open another bottle. After several hours of drinking with friends, it was the first meaningful thing he could recall anyone saying that night. It wasn't fun anymore.
"What's next?" he said. The dotcom companies were evaporating quickly. His once-valuable stock was now under water, with no chance for resurfacing. The mudslide was in full swing.
"I've always wanted to get back to school," she said, a hopeful tilt in her voice.
Graduate school meant the party would officially be over; they would have to scrounge for a few years. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad. It could even be good.
"Why not?" he said. He slurped down the remaining wine in his glass, then poked his tongue deep into the glass to see if he could reach the dregs.
In the fall, about a month before Parker was certain he would be laid off, he and his wife moved to Seattle, the wet city of the north, where she would start an MBA program. They found a one-bedroom apartment with a balcony overlooking the west side of their Capital Hill neighborhood. While his wife went to classes, Parker sought work, browsed the stacks at record stores, and hit the bowling alley several late afternoons. It was while walking around in rented bowling shoes, hurling a banged-up ball down the waxed lane and watching it curve in the general direction of the pins, that he wondered when his days would take on an appreciable shape.
He finally landed a gig copyediting catalogs of computer servers. It didn't pay well, no one invited him to lunch, and he hardly ever went to meetings, which he sort of missed, but now he had something to say when people asked him what he did. All day he pored over the names of obscure computer parts with strings of letters and numbers, codes that made sense only to the initiated: 4U, dual-core, Xeon, Operton, SDR-5500-T. The language was nearly as foreign as the nuances and dynamics of his marriage, a perhaps obsolete machine that had been functioning as expected for years.
He started practicing tuba again. Standing on his apartment balcony in the late afternoon, he rekindled the satisfaction he felt while playing the instrument, the weight of it on his shoulders, the way the deep booming sounds rattled his bones. He answered online ads for people looking for band mates. While they didn't reject him outright they were visibly at a loss about how to accommodate a tuba player into their line-ups. "A fucking tuba, man, what a trip," one guitarist said. "It's like someone playing a harp."
Now graduate school, rather than office work, ate up his wife's time. She was always in class or doing research in the library or going to interview executives at local companies, and she rarely seemed to be available for the everyday chore of grocery shopping or taking a Sunday morning to go hiking with him.
Late at night, after his TV shows were over and his wife snored in bed, he thought about Lucia, off in Texas. She was working as a substitute teacher at a private high school, a job she said she didn't completely hate. Occasionally he wrote letters, sent mixed CDs. She always replied formally, her tidy tone a disappointment to him. She usually signed off by saying, "With affection, L," like a lame greeting card. He wanted the smallest hint that she thought of him fondly, with desire. They could have a good life together, he imagined. Now that both of them had found themselves in notoriously low-paying fields, they wouldn't be rolling in money, but they would eat and drink simply, and well. Perhaps eventually they would find a way to travel, even work in Europe for a few years. At the very least, they would have phenomenal sex, he thought. You definitely didn't need a lot of money for that.
One night, after having several beers and losing many rounds of pool to coworkers he didn't care for, he went home to an empty apartment yet again. An unshakable feeling of loneliness washed over him. He drunk-emailed Lucia, telling her about his desire to be with her - and worse. In the morning he vaguely remembered the event. When he brought up the Sent file on his computer, it was all there. He'd gone so far as to tell her which Kama Sutra poses they should try first, second, third: Splitting the Bamboo, The Elephant, Lovemaking of the Crow. He'd even attached images pulled from the web. Holy jeez, he thought, leaning back into the sofa, massaging his temples. He'd really done it.
But after eating lunch, then dropping his head to his desk for a quick nap, he woke feeling less embarrassed. Now she would have to say something, take a stand. He was almost proud of what he'd done. In the meantime, perhaps he'd have to invent a sobriety lock on his computer, like a breathalizer device for cars.
He didn't hear back from Lucia for weeks, and when she wrote she didn't acknowledge the foulball of an email. Instead she talked about family gatherings she'd attended and a pie-baking class she was taking. Nice and safe. And dead boring.
Parker and his wife started trying to get pregnant - that's what childless couples steeped in their muddy mid-30s did, he came to understand. It commonly took more than a year to get pregnant, she told him, and so they may as well start. If they were lucky enough to make it happen sooner, she would gladly sit out a semester or two. He wanted to believe a baby would give him focus, patch up the potholes in their marriage.
Jamie highlighted photocopied pages from pregnancy books and kept them in a folder that became Parker's reading packet, like something he would get in an undergrad class. She also kept an ovulation calendar on the refrigerator, counting down the days to the prime times for intercourse. He didn't even have to ask her when they would have sex - the schedule told him everything! It was all so organized, like a vacation tour. He just had to show up at the right time in the right place. "Are you ready?" she would say when they were in bed a bit early. "I was born ready," he replied. He couldn't recall ever having such a pleasant chore. These sessions were no time for bed shenanigans - it was all business, but a satisfying business. Some nights, as she hovered over him on the bed, she smiled at him, gently placed her hand behind his neck. It got him caught up inside, made his stomach quiver.
Afterward Jamie hummed herself to sleep while Parker considered the state of the world. This was weeks after the terrorists hijacked the airplanes, destroying the Twin Towers while rattling people's sense of what was possible. Every building could collapse on top of them, bury them in rubble. Perhaps it wasn't the right time to create another human being. Every day seemed to portend a dismal end, and yet in an unexpected way this made him want to live more, do more, raise a child.
In late January, as he emerged from a holiday funk, he met a girl named Kate in a weekly silk-screening class. Kate did self-portraits for all of her prints, yet none of them resembled her, and this troubled her. "Guess I don't know what I really look like," she'd said to Parker, who'd adopted a table next to hers as his regular work spot by the third class meeting. His eye was drawn to her. He stared too long, under the premise of appreciating her art.
Her shock-white hair fell straight along her face, and was cut severely at her neck. Her smile emerged slowly, tentatively, as she tucked her hair behind an ear. She was in her early '20s, short; pride showed in the way she sat so upright, her shoulders square. Five weeks into the class, Parker realized Kate could be a light-haired goth-girl stunt double for Lucia, but maybe 20 pounds heavier. Her hairstyle and the way she played with her earlobes and earrings reminded him of Lucia, but a younger Lucia, before she got married. Uncanny. After class they all went out to bars, where Parker tried to sit close to her.
The day they confirmed her pregnancy, Parker and Jamie celebrated at a seafood restaurant on Pike Street. He made himself play the part of the proud dad-to-be. That night, while preparing for bed, he watched her still-flat tummy, unexpectedly overcome by a genuine satisfaction in the new development. In the following weeks he wrote tuba songs to the fetus, and performed them when she got home at night. She would hold a tall glass of cranberry juice in both hands, smiling and lounging on the sofa. She kicked her feet to the rhythm if something sounded particularly catchy.
As the wet days of spring marched on, Jamie grew larger, more alluring. She'd stopped dyeing her hair for the sake of the baby, and her chestnut hair returned, highlighted by a short, boyish haircut that made her look playful and sporty. He couldn't resist spending time with her, willingly running errands for her or fetching tea. He couldn't remember wanting to be with her so much. She'd become more playful, mischievous, hiding behind doors, leaving him silly notes in his sock drawer.
"I love you madly," he told her, joking but also secretly meaning it seriously. His new state of mind wasn't a second wind, it was a second life. He couldn't keep away from her. They put on rain jackets on the weekends and walked around the towering industrial artifacts of Gasworks Park. Which relics would this era leave behind? He liked to think about how they would walk this same place in just a few months with the baby. They would be a fresh-air family, always taking walks, exploring parks.
"To think I almost dumped you," Jamie said one night. She was five months into the pregnancy. Parker was racing around the kitchen preparing pasta and a salad, happy to perform for her.
"You almost dumped me?" he said. They were so together now that the idea that she would leave him was almost quaint, as absurd as if she were talking about wanting to fly to the moon.
She ate carrot slices two at a time, one hand bracing her belly.
"Tell me you're joking," he said. He put down the wooden spoon he was using to stir the sauce. He leaned against the counter, as though he were at risk of falling over.
"You know how it is," she said. "Sometimes things feel so temporary."
"And you were doing your thing, messing around with whichever chick happened to let you get in her pants."
"Wait a second here. Hold up."
"I'm not blaming you, I am not blaming you," she said. "I'm just saying."
"Just saying what exactly?"
"It was me, too. I was unavailable - physically, emotionally. Hell, I wasn't home before eight o'clock most nights. I was out of town a lot. No one should have to put up with that. I thought you would leave me, too. And you know, at the time I just figured the fallout was something I could project manage, like an ad campaign for barbecue sauce or something."
"Wait, I'm like a 30-second TV spot for A-1 Sauce?" he said.
"I'm just saying this is a different time, a new chapter."
"That's a good thing?" he said. He'd always believed her eyes wouldn't lie, so he focused on them; they exhibited patience tinged with amusement. The marinara sauce bubbled.
"That's a great thing," she said. She held one arm across her chest, her hand massaging her neck muscle.
Her eyes weren't lying, and that was somewhat reassuring. But what had his eyes looked like all those years? Marriage could be such a weird game.
When the silk-screening class ended in the summer, Parker kept his one night a week for seeing Kate. They would cook a half-hearted dinner at her place, or go to bookstores or bars or cafes. He hadn't made a move on her, hadn't touched her, and didn't particularly want to. Just hanging out with her held its own satisfaction. Early on, the draw had been a curiosity, imagining what a younger Lucia may have been like. Later it was because she knew so little about him and still liked hanging out with him anyway. Parker got a parking ticket one night near Kate's apartment. On his way home, he decided definitively that he would sell the tuba to pay for the ticket. He hadn't touched it in months anyway.
"I'm coming to Seattle," Lucia said one day, calling Parker's mobile phone while he was at the office. He hadn't recognized her number on the caller ID. The call couldn't have been more out of the blue; in fact, his first thought was to ask how she got his number. But of course he hadn't yet updated his mobile phone number to the new area code. It was as though part of him, from that dotcom life, still trailed around after him.
"I need to see you," she said. She had a conference in Vancouver and would be in the area for a long weekend. Was there any way they could hang out?
"I'm completely swamped at the office," he said. Though his cubicle desk looked the part - piles of paperwork everywhere, several marked-up proofs waiting to be filed, the great effect being that coworkers saw the mess and figured he didn't have time to chit chat - he made time for things he enjoyed, like running home to have lunch twice a week with Jamie. But with the baby coming he was in the odd position of really needing a steady gig, a reliable paycheck. He sometimes looked around the office and realized he actually had to get to know these people, had to contribute to a nurturing work environment. They were mostly slackers going grey; they wore vintage eyewear and enjoyed recounting concerts from the early '90s as though they'd taken place last week. They would never accept him - for one thing, he wore contacts, which they seemed to find suspicious.
"My supervisor is a complete fascist about my hours," Parker lied, trying to keep his voice down.
"What? I can't hear you."
"It's complicated," he said. "There's a lot going on now." It wouldn't be appropriate to tell her he loved his wife now - really loved her, like spend-their-life-together-for-50-years sort of love, like, well, happily married people. They were having a baby in a few months.
"But I'm coming all the way from Dallas," Lucia said. "I'll be there in two weeks. See what you can do."
He thought about what he could do about it, and over the next few days he came to decide he would do nothing. She was the one who'd snubbed his subtle advances in that sullen city. Like so many of the start-up companies that got tossed about in the choppy waves of the stock market, Lucia had great promise and terrible timing.
The night Lucia got into Seattle, he didn't answer his phone. He furtively listened to all five voicemails in his apartment bathroom while Jamie did "Pilates for Pregnant Ones" in the living room. The messages had started out optimistic. "Really looking forward to spending some good days together!" she said. "Let's grab dinner!" Then these fizzled into "I just want to talk. Please." Finally, "Call me back, asshole." He'd never imagined a day when she would call him an asshole. It was almost endearing. If pressed, he could claim his mobile phone was acting up, or the network was down. A glitch, a failure in one of the servers offered in the catalogs he copyedited.
But in the morning, after a restful sleep next to Jamie and her wonderfully round belly, he listened to one last message from Lucia. Her tone was resigned, almost light-hearted. The desperation of the earlier calls was all washed out now. "I'm leaving on a train for Vancouver this afternoon. All I want is lunch with you. You still eat lunch, don't you? You must be one hell of a busy man these days. Anyway, call me. Soon."
He could give her that. It was a reasonable request. He liked to believe he was a reasonable man, and beyond that he liked that she needed him, even if it was just for an hour.
They met before noon in front of a bookstore off of South Main Street, not far from the water. After briefly hugging Lucia without looking too much into her eyes, Parker kissed her on the cheek, a kind of pseudo-European greeting they'd used on each other before. They also used to call out ciao to each other, but now it all seemed so phony and forced, like arguing about the superiority of sushi restaurants in the Inner Mission neighborhood over Russian Hill's. What kind of make-believe world had they created? As they walked side by side along the boardwalk, her perfume seemed familiar, like summer linen. She'd grown out her hair, tinted it so that red highlights showed in the weak sunlight when she turned to look at him.
Despite the chill in the air, they took an outdoor table at a café overlooking the water.
"Shall I get us beers?" she said. "You like stouts, right?"
"On the wagon," he said, lying. The recycling box in his kitchen told a different story. "Out of solidarity with my wife. She's pregnant these days - I mean, now. She's due in a few months. Give or take a few weeks."
"Congratulations!" Lucia said, seemingly genuinely happy for him. "Well I'm on vacation, sort of, so I'll toast to you guys."
When she came back with a pint glass, Parker regretted his lie. He wanted few things as much as a glass of IPA or the lighter stuff Lucia was guzzling. A couple of hundred yards away, a barge-mounted crane worked away at a barrier in the sound. Whether it was building or dismantling the structure, Parker couldn't tell.
"I left Harry," Lucia said. A token frown glanced her features, then a buoyant smile rose. "But I've remarried!"
"Oh, that's great," Parker said, huddling into his jacket. "Really," he added for no reason he could think of. A feeling of relief rose in him, followed by disappointment. For the moment he wouldn't have to worry about fending off Lucia, but how was she going to maintain a crush on him while slogging through a second marriage?
"And I've become a mother of two boys," she said.
"Wait a second," he said. "That's crazy talk. How long has it been?"
"They're Ricky's kids from his first wife," she said, retaining a sheepish smile on her face. What the hell kind of name was Ricky? It sounded like someone you rode motocross bikes with in fifth grade. Parker suspended a fake smile on his face as long as he could.
"You know, this really throws a wrench into the plan of you and me running off together and having a brilliant life," he said. If he was going to burn down the house, why leave anything unsaid?
Lucia appeared amused. Perhaps she was tipsy. She tucked her hair behind her ear, grinned into her pint glass. "Yes, Parker, I suppose that's out, among other things."
They sat there not saying anything for a while. The crane continued lifting concrete blocks and swinging them back and forth, workers steadying them into position and then, as though rewinding, they lifted the blocks straight back out again.
He wished Lucia would say more, give him something to remember, but their talk meandered into discussing the tedium of work, mortgages and double-digit property appreciation, music, conversational balloons he could keep aloft without effort but with much annoyance.
In a parallel world he would have told her about the joy of anticipating his approaching fatherhood, that his days had become satisfying in an unexpected way. He'd gone from always wanting to go out - to bars, restaurants, movies - to always wanting to stay in with Jamie, who was now home all the time. But now, for the briefest of moments, he feared all of those worthy things were make believe, that they could be taken away from him. Jamie could die in childbirth, she could really leave him next time rather than just considering it. And that was the worst feeling. Life is fleeting, life is pain. Life is painfully fleeting.
As they approached the bookstore, Parker spotted a group he was certain must be the new husband and the sons. They were in front of the bookstore, playing what looked like a game. They kept dashing between a parking meter and a bench. The husband wore khakis, a wool turtleneck sweater and those Dansko shoes that nurses and restaurant workers raved about. Parker had always thought they made men look too sensitive and fem - they were the new ponytail for men.
From a block away he studied Lucia's husband. He wasn't a terrible-looking guy, but knee-deep in his forties. The boys, probably about five to seven years old (maybe older?), wore matching Polartec jackets, jeans and hiking shoes, and even had similarly parted, close-cropped hair. Lucia probably enjoyed buying clothes for them, putting together outfits, even for the husband.
"Here's something," Lucia said. She dropped a silver-finished mouthpiece into Parker's hand. "I thought I should give it back to you." In seconds the boys would recognize her, probably come running at her, ready to mash their faces to hers.
Parker mumbled something like gratitude. The tuba was gone, and so were the days with this woman. He stuck the piece into his back pocket. It hung heavily, as awkward and foreign as a chunk of petrified wood.
To Parker's surprise, the boys did not come running and their father didn't acknowledge Lucia.
"They're waiting for you," he said. He wanted to be rid of her immediately, to wash his hands of her and everything else he couldn't ever have.
"Who?" she said. "Oh, no, no. I guess my boys got sidetracked. Probably roaming the streets, going into toy shops. Let's say good-bye."
"I'd like to meet them."
"It would be awkward, don't you think?"
"I guess." He casually glanced at her hand, seeking a wedding ring, wanting to know how ridiculously huge the diamond would be. It would tell him something about the new husband. To his surprise, he found no diamond, but rather a simple band. Was it even on the correct hand? Strange, he thought. True, he didn't wear a band, never had. But she would be proud of a ring.
As they said good-bye, he reached out to shake her hand, but she pulled him in for a hug. Half-hearted on his part, not hers. With her, he never knew what to do. He went to make up for his tentativeness with a stronger embrace. They gave each other a peck on the lips, as though they'd been kissing like that for years. But then they were pulling apart. She wiped at her eye. A fleck of dust? A tear? Within half a minute, she was gone and he was walking the other way.
Two blocks away, as he stood waiting at a stoplight, he absolutely knew that she'd lied. About the new husband, the kids, maybe even about separating from the first husband. And what kind of conference did a substitute teacher attend? She'd come to Seattle to claim him, to work out something. That had to be the truth. His drunken email to her had been all too clear about his terms. He hurried his gait, wanting to get away from the scene, from her, from his words and how she must have received them: "Come to me anytime, anywhere," he had written. "I will give you everything. Come soon. Come now. I'm waiting. Come to me."
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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