Volume of Greenstreet photo by Todd
Paul Windsor, late fifties, bespectacled, his longish gray hair turning white, is sitting at his customary corner table in Mona’s, the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.
Something causes him to look up from reading Kate Greenstreet’s The End of Something, and his eyes are drawn to the woman with silvery hair who just took her place at the end of the short line of customers. He wonders what made him look up from the poem he was reading. Was it the words I thought we might be friends or something about this woman at the end of the line? Or both.
Paul’s wife Elisha, her long reddish brown hair in a ponytail, and Alexandra, Paul and Elisha’s seventeen-year-old daughter, her shoulder-length reddish brown hair tinted with purple, are working behind the counter, both of them wearing white dress shirts and black jeans; and this woman at the end of the line is wearing a long gray skirt and a peach-colored sweater.
He can only see the woman’s backside, but her posture and shape are familiar to him, and when she looks to her right and he glimpses her profile, he realizes this is Maureen, his first wife whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in thirty-two years.
His immediate impulse is to sneak out of the café before Maureen can recognize him, but the impulse passes and he closes his eyes and remembers the moment he met her—the opening night of a group show at the Hawkins Gallery in San Jose. His friend George had four paintings in the show and Paul was there out of loyalty to George. Maureen was gallery hopping with her friend Lisa who knew George and came to give George a congratulatory hug. George introduced Lisa to Paul, and Lisa gave Paul a hug, too. Then Lisa said, “This is my amazing friend Maureen,” and Paul and asked, “What’s so amazing about you?” And Maureen said, “Take me home and I’ll show you.”
Paul opens his eyes and sees Maureen at the counter talking to Elisha; and he feels gut punched, which is how he felt every time Maureen confessed her latest infidelity to him. They married a month after they met, separated after a year, divorced a few months after that.
Maureen pays for her bag of pastries and turns to leave; and Paul sees her face clearly for the first time and realizes this is not Maureen.
He puts down The End of Something, opens his notebook, and writes Maureen was constantly unfaithful because deceiving me made life more exciting for her. She never expressed the slightest interest in my writing or music, yet I invited her to live with me, married her, went deep into debt buying her a new car and expensive clothing and taking her out to trendy restaurants. Why did I do that when I knew from the beginning she cared nothing for me? Was it because she was beautiful and I never thought a beautiful woman would ever want to be with me?
The café door opens and the woman who is not Maureen enters again. She buys a cup of coffee and a cinnamon swirl and looks for a place to sit—all the seats taken except one at Paul’s table.
“Would you mind if I sit with you?” she asks, her voice identical to Maureen’s voice.
“No, please,” he says, thinking maybe this is Maureen transformed by thirty more years of life.
“Thank you,” she says, sitting down with a weary sigh. “I tried to get my daughter and her friend to come in, but they have no interest in leaving the car.” She shrugs. “We’re driving to Portland via the coast because it’s so beautiful, right? But they won’t get out of the fucking car. Pardon my French.”
“How old is your daughter?” asks Paul, imagining a surly teenager.
“Thirty,” says the woman, nodding dolefully. “Going on twelve. My fault. Should have kicked her out long ago, but…” She glances at The End of Something. “That any good? Mystery?”
“Poetry,” says Paul, certain now the woman is not Maureen.
“Wow,” says the woman, wistfully. “Poetry. Boy does that take me back.”
“To where and when?” asks Paul, wondering why he thought this woman was Maureen, when she is nothing like Maureen.
“To Santa Cruz a million years ago when I used to get really stoned and read Emily Dickinson.” She smiles, remembering. “Heaven.”
“Would you like me to read you one of these poems?”
“Here?” she says, glancing around the room. “Now?”
“Yeah,” says Paul, laughing. “My wife is the manager and she encourages the out-loud reading of poetry.”
“Okay,” says the woman, blushing. “But tell me your name first.”
“Paul Windsor,” he says, loving that she blushed at the thought of being read to by a stranger in a café. “What’s your name?”
“Victoria,” she says, taking off her sweater and revealing a shimmering sleeveless red shirt and tattooed arms—mermaids and unicorns—and a necklace of turquoise stones.
“I did not expect tattoos,” says Paul, gazing in wonder at her.
“Oh I used to be a super hippy,” she says, remembering those halcyon days. “Before I got pregnant and had to get real.” She winks at him. “You know what I mean.”
“Not sure I do,” he says, imagining her as a young woman smoking a joint and reading Emily Dickinson, the words amazing her.
“Yes, you do,” she says, bitterly. “To pay the bills. When mommy and daddy wouldn’t anymore. Right?”
“Right,” he says, nodding. “I see what you mean.”
“Is the poem sad?” she asks, biting her lower lip. “The one you want to read me?”
“No,” he says, opening the book. “Not sad.”
69. BLACK SNOW
I thought we might be friends. Or we were friends but
who we turned out to be was disappointing.
She walks to the corner of the field. One of those cold
bright days you remember from childhood.
The past, nothing.
New people, nothing.
She sees him but she doesn’t know him.
She’s wearing his coat.
Victoria purses her lips and says, “I like that poem.” She sighs. “A lot. Would you read it again, please?”
He reads the poem again, slower this time.
She nods. “I feel like that all the time now. Like I’m outside what’s going on. Like when I’m driving my daughter and her friend and they’re plugged into their phones and I look out at the hills and the sky and the clouds and the ocean and I think how beautiful it is, and they’re not even aware of it, and I’m just driving through it, driving them through it to some motel on the way to some hotel in Portland where they’ll go to some dance club and take Ecstasy and then we’ll drive back to Palo Alto the fast ugly way. For what? Like the poem says. The past, nothing. New people, nothing. Why do I live like this? It’s like I’m only half-alive. I should sell everything and get a place around here. Near the wild ocean. Have a garden and a cat and volunteer somewhere. Help people. I’ve got enough money. Let my daughter take care of herself, though I don’t think she can.”
A silence falls between them.
Victoria tears off a big chunk of her cinnamon swirl, dips the chunk in her coffee, and puts the drenched chunk in her mouth, her eyelids fluttering with pleasure at the marriage of bitter and sweet.