By Sarah Earle Záhořík
I don’t have an appetite for the lamb shanks, too humid, but the vinho verde is delicious. I put down my fork. Joel pours me another glass; he’s procured the whole bottle, “for the table” he’d said grandly, placing it in reach of the tottering white-haired ladies to my left, and the three surely-lacross-players to his right, slugging beers. Joel smiles. He doesn’t even like white wine, but there it is. For me.
Everyone is wearing nametags, which is how we know when Geraldine ’57 and Kay ’58 beeline for the dessert table that it’s Mick ’71 who sits down. Joel, uneasy in a collared shirt, takes one look at Mick in a sweaty muscle tee and elbows me in the ribs.
“Finally,” he whispers. “A kindred spirit.” Joel, who can find commonalities with a department store mannequin, who can make small talk with a beagle. He turns and extends a hand. When Mick says he’s a music producer, Joel bobs his head in delight. No contest. This one’s a winner.
“Right,” I say. “I’m going to the bathroom.” Joel touches my arm, but he’s already deep in conversation, which is fine by me: I’m in reminiscence mode and it does not include my husband. I leave the bluster of the reunion dinner tent, the chit chat and the paper lanterns, and walk out across the soccer field in a twilight soft as alpaca wool. It’s muscle memory. Here, where I turned my ankle in a game. There, where our class lay and learned the night sky: Jupiter and Venus, Pollux and Castor. And over there, the tiny chapel, too small for services but where we left offerings nibbled on by mice.
A sliver of thumbnail moon is just appearing above the hill. I’m headed towards the school library, specifically the library’s screened-in veranda where English class used to meet if the weather was fair. “Heathcliff!” my eleventh grade English teacher had shouted at us. “The chimneys! Phallic symbols!” But I haven’t come to watch a class of ghosts. I’ve come because this is where Len and I used to sit. I’ve come because somehow I know that Len will be here now, his blond little girl—cheeks like cream—sitting on his lap, her face up against his polo shirt.
“Daddy,” I hear her whisper as I climb the porch stairs. “Do you hear the sheep?”
“Hey Len,” I interrupt, my voice just as soft, because surrounding us is a kind of countryside evening I never see anymore. The faint pink sky and the lambs bleating from the school’s barn mix so pastorally, I could weep.
“Abby,” he says looking up, and smiles. Len was my high school boyfriend. A boarding school sweetheart. My first. I sweep my hair off my face—so hot now, only June—and my name tag wobbles: Abigail ’98. “Come sit with us,” he says, and our eyes meet and for a second I imagine we’re sixteen again, and my heart lifts off as though it’s been yanked up by a hundred balloons.
I sit. The air smells of lavender and basil and everything good.
“Who was that roommate you had, the daughter of the state rep?” Len asks me.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Gerry—the elephant woman. She snored.”
“Hah,” he says, “Her.”
We can do this now because we’ve already gotten the reunion formalities out of the way. At lunch, I met Len’s wife, Violet, a decorator, her arms dripping with silver bands and cuffs.
“Just so wonderful to meet you,” Violet said without a hint of recognition, her Savannah accent glamorous, and I know that she doesn’t know who I am, or what I was. Len met Joel, my musician husband without any manners.
“OK,” Joel said, his big hand pumping Len’s delicate one. “You work in finance like everyone else here?” Joel only grinned wider when he saw Len nod his head, yes. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that—kids gotta eat, right? How many you got? Four, five?”
I’ve tousled the thick, dark hair of Len’s son, and cooed at this little beauty of a girl, who is now in his lap. Len has seen the empty space around Joel and me, and not asked any questions about the rest of a family.
The porch is now awash with nightfall, and from across the lawn, tiny fissures of gold: fireflies.
“Remember you wore ear plugs, because you couldn’t sleep with Gerry’s snoring?” Len asks. “And you lost one in your ear?” He’s smiling, that gentle smile all covered in groomed whiskers. “You had to get it removed by the nurse.”
“Really?” I gasp, too loudly. Len is smaller than I remember him, his eyes a different shade of gray-blue. He’s almost a stranger, really, but now this memory settles between us, intimate as a kiss. Len’s daughter turns her face to watch me, furtively, this new woman with the freckles all over. I’m thinner now then I was then, though just as hesitating.
“Well, I’d want to forget that, too,” Len says.
“Daddy!” The little girl whines, because she’s lost his attention. “Daddy! Bah bahhh!”
“My little lamb.” Len tickles her under the chin.
Len was my first, but I was his too. We have that together, him and me, if that is anything at all.
Our high school in the foothills of western Massachusetts has an intricate reunion schedule. Every year, a mix of classes from across the decades is welcomed back: the oldest clench wooden canes, and the youngest, hair hanging in their eyes, are only a few years past calculus and American history. So many are high-achievers—lawyers or actors. Two are in the Senate. One got a Pulitzer last year.
So far, reunions have not been on my To Do list. I’m really not up to snuff. I write poems, but people have rarely heard of even accomplished poets. This time though, Len had sent me a note. He said nobody from our classes ever came, too busy. He hadn’t written to me since his first year of college. It’d be fun to see you, he said. So I put it to Joel.
“Is it free?” Joel asked. He’d never seen my high school, but harbored a healthy skepticism.
“Two-hundred bucks,” I said.
“Of course.” He sighed. We operated on feast and famine times: me a freelance writer, he a sometimes-touring musician. It was a famine time.
“I’ll pay,” I said. “I want to go.” Joel looked defeated. It wasn’t exactly a compromise. For Joel, a lack of money was a challenge towards innovation. Who could make the most delicious spaghetti? Who could bike the farthest to save gas? Joel had been brought up by his grandmother in a railroad flat, so his was a well-sharpened skill. And me, well. I’d been to prep school. I still had room for improvement.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s a weekend of cultural activities.” And I read him the brochure that had come in the mail: a screening of an alumni’s documentary on the Japanese tsunami, a wild-flower hike, a figure drawing tutorial, a discussion about a new Napoleon novel, and cocktail receptions galore.
“See,” I said. “Bang for your buck.”
“No Met opera?” Joel asked. “If we’re paying, there should be an operetta at least.” He was crabby. He’d been out late the night before, playing a crummy show, and to be fair, I didn’t blame him. It’s no rock musician’s dream to play luxury hotels, taking requests for Sting from fat execs in expensive shirts. The hotel had forced him to take a background check in order to get paid.
“So demoralizing,” he’d said. “Don’t tell a soul about that.”
“Who would I tell?” I said, bored. I was trying to be sympathetic, but I’ve known Joel for six years, and Joel is always demoralized by something.
Like the other day, Joel wanted his back scratched. Joel often likes to have his back scratched: he lies on his stomach on the once-pretty rug in the middle of the mess in our living room, and calls to me.
“I’m desperate,” he says. “It’s driving me crazy, please.” The longer my nails are the better.
He talks while we do this, the red-rub I exert on his back like lava grooves coaxing the stories out of him. Like yesterday, I’d just submitted my latest article, “No Drone Zones: Where NOT to Fly Yours During July 4th,” to my content editor, who would, no doubt, be sending it back in an hour bloodied by track changes. There were more articles to write, more editing to do, but right then I was free. I had that hour! I’d peeled a cucumber and poured some gin, and then there Joel was on the carpet, pleading.
“All right,” I said, before I took a big swallow.
“This woman came up to me after the show,” Joel said, as I scratched. “She was maybe seventy, but all Stevie Nicks-ed out, you know, bangles and teased hair.”
I stared at Joel’s back. Another what-happened-last-night story. Lately, every time Joel opened his mouth, what came out wasn’t what I wanted.
Joel lifted his head. “Lower, lower,” he said. “Yeah, there.” I complied.
“So anyway, she tells me some new age stuff, like she saw my aura when I was on stage and it was turtle green—that’s what she said, no joke—like, am I ninja turtle or something? And that I had a psychic hurt somewhere, and I was like, thanks lady, and I tried to move on, but she got my hand.”
“Let me guess,” I interjected, because Joel always attracts the weirdos. “She read your life line and told you that you’d die painfully young.”
“Ha,” Joel said. “You wish.” He turned his head and looked at me. I blinked. The gold of my wedding band caught my eye and rippled like a tiny snake under a skim of pond.
“No,” he continued, “she yanked me with crazy strength and laid a big wet one on my mouth.”
“Well,” I said, “How was the kiss?” I was jonesing for another sip of gin.
“Like a swamp marsh—damn Abby! Stop. You’re scratching me raw.”
“Am I?” I said absently, and sat back on my knees. “I was just thinking, I’ve never romantically kissed someone so old.”
“Yeah, well, add that to your To Do List,” Joel said, pissed off, and pushed himself up. His back was a razor field of lines. He was handsome to me still, in an abstract way. Like a Rodin sculpture is handsome, like the new BBQ bots designed by Harvard students are handsome. A universal appeal.
I thought about my newest To Do List. It was on the refrigerator, held there by a strawberry magnet. #1. Learn to make a proper béchamel sauce #2. Visit Angkor Wat. Number three had been whited-out, but I knew what was under it: have a baby. Now, it was #3. Discover an unnamed star. Should I add “Make-out with a senior citizen?” I considered.
“I might really add that,” I said, getting into the idea. “Why do you get to have all the fun?” But Joel was already out of the room.
On our first date, we’d had just that. Fun. Joel had driven me out of the city and into the woods, and I wondered briefly if he had evil intentions. But when I looked at him, about to ask “Are you taking me to die?,” he’d turned and grinned and it had hurt, that smile; it dazzled. I thought, this person could really love a girl. I couldn’t speak after that, almost didn’t until we pulled up at the abandoned sand quarry and he handed me a picnic basket. Packed inside were Italian subs from his favorite deli. Dill pickles. He’d brought a bouquet of wildflowers and a pint of bourbon, and we hiked the hill and set it all out on a blanket at the quarry’s top, just where the edge began to crumble. The late afternoon sun was a wall of honey. A meadowlark called. A cool breeze.
“Welcome to Mexico,” Joel had said. We’d only just met. “I mean, the quarry is called Mexico,” he said. “Don’t ask me why.”
“Have you done this before?” I couldn’t stop from being suspicious, a character flaw.
“Taken a girl to the quarry with a picnic?”
“God no,” he said, and looked hurt. “I got this idea in the shower today. You said you wanted to travel, so here we are.”
“It’s perfect,” I said. I wanted to fall in love but was afraid to. I’d loved other men who’d just loved themselves. But Joel was an in-the-moment type of guy, didn’t allow me time to think. Instead, he produced a piece of cardboard and we tobogganed down the dune, shrieking, the sand filling our socks. We ate the subs, delicious and slick with mayonnaise, Joel chewing loudly, and telling me the first of what would be a thousand off-color jokes. By the time we kissed, bourbon-soaked, I’d buried my suspicions in the sand.
We went back to Mexico every once in a while. Two summers ago, we went with beers and books and a Navajo blanket. I fell asleep, and when I woke, Joel pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket: one of my To Do Lists.
“Look,” Joel said. A thin veil of sweat hung on his upper lip. “The new number #1,” he said, and pointed to the top of the list where he’d scribbled Marry Joel.
“Wow,” I said. I rubbed the sand from my eyes and grinned. “Let’s get around to that!”
Because I loved him. Because he loved me. Marriage, I’d heard, is a logical next step. But now here’s the thing. Love—that big gorgeous feeling you got when you met someone and wanted to fuck them every second, and move into a grungy little house with them and have their babies if they were interested in that kind of thing—and they said they were, only just not now. Love—which made you sew up the holes in their shirts, and cook them pork chops from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and go to their shows to sell their merchandise to millennials who never had cash, only credit. That Big Love—bigger than Mexico could contain—had somehow snuck away, like it was tucked into the pocket of some old coat, and you couldn’t remember where you packed it, or if, in fact, you had sent it off to Goodwill. You can imagine a younger, cuter version of yourself buying the coat and unfolding the love from the second-hand pocket, and having it bloom out in front of her. But you? You’re out of luck. You’ve lost it. Or—and this is the more terrible question I thought about in our kitchen as I took down my To Do list and readied my pen—does everybody just lose it, and that’s the biggest joke of all? That Love is a firefly, trapped and held hostage, dazzling behind glass, only then to sputter and dim and die.
Kiss a man –or woman, really –with a walker. I wrote that down. Suddenly, the idea didn’t seem any more preposterous than sleeping with Joel for the rest of my life.
On the first day of the reunion, Joel and I drove up the tree-lined driveway of the school, our old Toyota groaning, in time for lunch. Joel powered down the watercress sandwiches and local chicken breasts, and needed a nap. His black t-shirt made the dark circles under his eyes stand out, and the widow peak under his frizz of hair looked so sharp in the sunlight, I was reminded that he’d soon be forty. Which meant I’d be thirty-six.
“Anyway,” he added conspiratorially, “I gotta check out these dorm cots they’re putting us up in. Gotta check out the springs.” He licked his lips and winked in a way that I used to find funny, and now just found crude. Which is when Len brought Violet and the kids over, and we did the whole reunion dance, my heart unexpectedly winging around like a butterfly in pollen.
Violet was as gushing as Len was quiet.
“Isn’t it all so quaint?” Violet said, breathlessly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so cute, except in the movies. All these little houses!” Her hair was secured under a straw hat with a floppy brim, and her dress was a scatter of roses. I looked down at my tired jeans and battered boots and breathed in the scent of her: feminine and well-cared for and probably Chanel.
“We didn’t know how lucky we had it,” I said, a bead of sweat down my back. It crossed my mind that Violet would never have survived at a school like this, all brambles and ticks.
“Yeah,” Joel echoed. “The rest of us were eating chop suey in public school trailers and you guys were talking Shakespeare in the arboretum or something.”
“I just can’t wait for our kids to be old enough,” Violet added, as if she hadn’t heard Joel. “I mean, they may want to go someplace different, but what an exciting decision.” She looked at me, her eyes warm brown, and if this hadn’t been Len’s wife, I’d have been cutting my own eyes at the ground. But this is who Len married and he looked happy, so I smiled back.
Joel took his cue to exit. I knew he’d bitch about it later—the whole reunion probably—a favorite, his bougie complaints.
“Oh how quaint,” he’d mimic, his eyes flashing. Joel, a self-made man, a talented guy. Joel, bitter towards those who’d had it easier. I’d had it easier. Sometimes he forgot that. But here, flanked by a new state-of-the-art theatre and a parking lot of BMW’s, he was having a hard time forgetting anything.
“We’ll see you at the wildflower hike,” I called after his receding form, a joke.
“Ooh, that hike looked wonderful,” said Violet.
On the library porch with the night falling around us there is no Joel and there is no Violet. Violet has gone to put their son to bed, and Joel is still deep in conversation with Mick. I sigh and know there’s no need to apologize for the privilege of this school to Len, the nostalgia so thick between us I can taste it. Together, we’re looking out at the field where a younger Len used to play Wynton Marsalis on his trumpet late at night until the dorm parents put a stop to it.
“You still play?” I ask him.
“Nah,” he says. “Hard to practice the horn in New York. Too many neighbors.” He pauses. “There’s a lot I did here that I’ve given up.” He puts his lips to his daughters’ head.
“I know,” I say. “We were renaissance. I learned to play the lute for god’s sake! You can bet I don’t play that anymore.” Len laughs.
“You were good at the lute,” he says.
“That’s very nice of you,” I say, “but untrue.”
At sixteen, I snuck out of my dorm every night to visit Len in his. He’d pull me in, kick his roommate out, and pour me contraband vodka. Then we’d pull each other’s clothes off and grope around until we got better at it.
“When we first started kissing, you were terrible,” he’d told me after we’d dated for a month. “Really bad.”
“It’s because I’d never kissed anyone before,” I’d said, crushingly embarrassed: everything I’d never done I’d felt I should have done already. I always felt so far behind.
“What a stereotype,” he teased. “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Nothing he ever said was mean.
Len graduated a year ahead of me, went to school in California, and wrote me hundreds of letters. I’ve still got them all—thin squares stacked up and tied tight—love-sick, but mostly homesick, so far away. I haunted the school’s P.O. for a new letter, and when one came, ripped it open and dove into his careful metered penmanship, only to find banal stories about his day: studying, hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, drinking too much again. He missed me, he said. He couldn’t wait to see me, he said. I searched each letter for poetry, searched for some deeper connection, but he was an eighteen-year-old boy in college for the first time, and the most I could find were Jimi Hendrix lyrics, transcribed for me painstakingly in full, love Leonard.
That winter vacation, Len and I spent a week together at my parent’s house—most of the time we spent on the couch, my face buried in his flannel shirt.
“I missed you so much,” I said. His body next to mine was ambrosia. I breathed in the fabric softener, the cologne. I couldn’t bear to think about him leaving again. My mother, exasperated by our mooning around, sent us out on errands. Groceries, hardware shop, post office. I bought stamps in preparation for more letters, and Len looked at me strangely.
When it was time for him to go home, Len avoided my eyes.
“I think it’s over,” he said. It was like he’d punched me in the face.
“It’s too hard, the long distance,” he said. “I think it will be better for both of us.” It was the first mean thing he’d ever said.
“So when did you and Joel get married?” Len asks me now. Len, the older version. Len, with a few gray hairs.
“Two years ago, justice of the peace,” I say. “We had a big party, and his band played, and we had these girls doing a trapeze show. It was a lot of fun.”
“Sounds it,” Len says.
“Our honeymoon was in the Poconos—not Europe or anything, but I always hate doing stuff people expect, so we rented a cottage and had our friends up for venison roasts.”
What I don’t say is how, since the wedding, I to-do-list obsessively. Newly minted is #5: learn basket weaving. I’ve added and crossed off “have a baby” three times—crossed it off because I am never sure. Joel isn’t bothered by our current life, doesn’t want too much to change. But now I’ve been wondering if it is the child, not the man, whom the Big Love sticks around for. Perhaps that’s the kind that doesn’t go missing, that continues shining past due dates or snuff dates or a lack of oxygen.
Len is rocking ever so slightly in his wooden rocking chair.
“Did you finally lose the itch?” he asks.
“You were so restless when I knew you. You told me you wanted to date other people. You were bored.”
“I did?” It’s incredible how our memories do not align.
“Yeah, you don’t remember?” Len cracks a wry smile. “Why do you think we broke up?”
“Well,” I say, miffed, “I think we broke up because you said, ‘I want to break up with you.’”
“Hold on,” says Len. He stops rocking. “It’s a long time ago now, but just for the record, you wrote saying you couldn’t do long distance. You said you wanted to go out and experience life. So the next time I saw you, I bit the bullet. I did say that. But you planted the seed.”
“Oh,” I say, and my heart hurts a little bit. I vaguely remember my letters back to him. And had there been somebody else, an artist crush? I seem to have forgotten what matters most. “Is that true?”
“Yeah,” Len continues. “I was at reunion five years ago, and I asked after you and I heard you hadn’t gotten married—not that that’s so weird—but I just wondered if it was still that itch, bothering you.”
“Well yeah, clearly I lost the itch,” I say defensively.
“I figured you would.”
I don’t reply, can’t think of a thing, and silence blooms around us like a moon flower, even though I don’t want it to. I don’t want to be the kind of woman other people understand more than the woman understands herself. Misguided, out-to-lunch, a fool.
“So, do you like being a dad?” I ask Len, trying to shift the focus, even though I already know the answer. The way he’s placed his hand over his girl’s tummy. The way he cut his son’s lamb at dinner, carefully separating the fat from the meat. And I watched Len with Violet, how he put his hand on the small of her back and asked her if she’d like more wine. How she put her head back and laughed. I’d looked at Joel who was deep in conversation with a dude half his age, and I’d sighed. Joel was too loud, too gregarious, too sloppy. I’d crossed “have a baby” off my list because I couldn’t fathom how you could bring kids into this world when you still had a big nasty voice in your head that was hissing “Is this it?”
“Sure,” Len says now, and he sees me watching, too intensely, and he breaks eye contact. “I mean, it takes some getting used to,” he murmurs. “It’s a lot of work. The crying, the diapers, the spit up. But once they’re bigger, it’s fun.”
At that moment I hear Joel calling my name. His voice is thick with beer. I don’t say anything, but when he calls again, Len says:
“Aren’t you going to answer?” And I realize that Len would never hide from Violet like this. I realize right then what Len would tell me if I asked him the secret to a happy marriage: no secret. You make a decision and marry one person, and you love that person and you don’t listen to the hungry voice—an insatiable locust really—which is always screaming for more.
“There isn’t more,” I say aloud, and Len looks at me like I remember him doing so long ago: uncomfortably, like he doesn’t understand what he sees. My cheeks go crimson like they did in high school.
This is more.
I have always been so far behind.
“Joel!” I say, and my voice is shrill. “Joel, over here!” There is a thud, like a flower pot has tumbled, and then heavy feet on the steps.
“Thank God,” Joel says, opening the door. “Next thing I was going to do was cuddle up to the sheep, no way I can figure out this god-damned place in the dark.”
Joel’s eyes adjust to the dimness, and he sees Len hoisting his daughter onto his shoulder. “Oh, hey you’re here, too,” Joel says. “A real reunion.” The clinking of plates and glasses from the tent outside means the caterers are cleaning up.
“Time for bed,” Len answers, pointing to the drool escaping his little girl’s mouth. I’m suddenly taken over by a desire to hold her, this drowsy creature made by Len and someone else. Instead, I take Joel’s hand.
“Of course,” I say. “We won’t keep you.”
“There’s a party,” says Joel, “a bonfire down in the woods. You should come out after you put the tyke in bed.”
“Thanks,” says Len, and there might be regret in his voice, but then I think I’m getting it confused with my own. And then I think it isn’t even my own regret, but rather a current of regret that zings around the world, poisoning your heart if you let it. “I’ll probably skip it this time. But you guys have fun.”
When Len leaves with his daughter, the screen door slaps behind him. A firefly blinks.
“Good party,” Joel says, uncharacteristically sanguine. “Nice people.”
“Really?” I say. “I thought you hated these types.” I can just barely see his face, a round of bone, two dark quarries for eyes.
“Nah,” Joel shrugs, and turns to survey the hill in front of us. “It’s a beautiful spot.”
“I always thought so,” I said. Joel pulls me to him and I let him. We stand close and still like that in the dark, the breeze wafting in lazily like it will after we’re all gone.
Sarah Earle Záhořík received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where she is currently a lecturer in English as a Second Language. Her work has been published in Bayou Magazine, and The Cobalt Review.