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The Same Woman (Maru)

Now and then over the course of his life, Andrew encounters a woman he feels he already knows, though he has never met her before. The first time was in 1955 when he was six-years-old, second time 1962, third time 1966, fourth time 1970, fifth time 1978, sixth time 1987, seventh time 1993, eighth time 1998, and the ninth time in 2002.

July 2006. Andrew and his wife Luisa are both fifty-eight, Andrew an attractive man descended from Ashkenazi Jews, his brown hair cut short, Luisa a beautiful woman with long black hair, her mother Quebecois and Chippewa, her father Afro-Cuban.

Writers and musicians, Andrew and Luisa have been married for nineteen years and live in a lovely house Andrew built thirty years ago near Vancouver, British Columbia. Their children Owen and Lily are both twenty-four, Lily an actress living part-time in Los Angeles and part-time in New York, Owen the new Drama teacher at a private high school in Vancouver.

Andrew has published six collections of short stories and written several plays, one of them made into a movie, four of them now staples of the small theatre repertoire. Luisa has published two collections of short stories and a novella that was made into a movie, and together she and Andrew have written two original screenplays that were made into movies. And though they are not wealthy from their writing, they are in good shape financially and continue to be of interest to publishers and theatre companies in Canada and England.

For the last four years, along with their writing, they have been composing songs and occasionally performing as a duo in various Vancouver venues, mostly living rooms and pubs, both of them guitarists and singers.

But the biggest news in their life right now is Owen being home after six years away. He is currently living in the other house on their property, a small two-bedroom place that was originally a dance studio Andrew built for his first wife Kiki with whom he had Owen.

Owen graduated from Julliard in Drama three years ago with great hopes of succeeding as an actor, though not in the way Lily has succeeded with roles in movies and television shows. No, Owen hoped to become a darling of the avant-garde theatre movement, and to that end he moved to Berlin with his girlfriend Sophie who graduated from Julliard with him.

To Owen and Sophie’s dismay, after two years of scouring the theatre scenes in Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, they found nothing remotely kin to the avant-garde theatre they had studied so passionately at Julliard. And when Sophie landed the part of a goofball cutie pie in a German television sit-com imitating an American sit-com, Owen and she parted ways and Owen moved back to New York where he failed to land a part, avant-garde or otherwise.

Tired of working as a bartender sixty hours a week to pay the rent on a sofa in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with three other people, Owen returned to Vancouver where Dessie, his friend since childhood, is the music teacher at New Foundations, a private high school, and touted Owen for the Drama teaching job there.   

A star among his Drama peers while at Julliard, and having lived for three years in Berlin and Amsterdam and London and Manhattan associating with theatre people and playing his clarinet in ensembles with other accomplished musicians, Owen is by turns angry and depressed about living with his parents again and preparing to spend at least the next two years instructing teenagers in the dramatic arts.

Andrew and Luisa have mixed feeling about Owen living with them again. On the one hand, he’s one of their favorite people in the whole world and they missed having him around. On the other hand, they want him to be happy, and he is definitely not happy being home and becoming a high school Drama teacher, something he and many of his fellow actors at Julliard considered the ultimate failure, especially if one fell so low before late middle age.

Hoping to engage Owen in something other than moping around and reluctantly designing his Drama program for the upcoming year, Andrew and Luisa decide to invite him to perform with them at their next gig, a living room concert at the home of Cal and Terry who live a mile away and have known Owen since he was in utero.

So on a sunny morning in July, Andrew cooking an omelet for the three of them, Luisa making toast and hash browns, Owen sitting at the table drinking coffee and perusing the New York Times, Luisa invites Owen to perform with them at their upcoming show at Cal and Terry’s.

“You know what I’d rather do?” says Owen, looking up from his perusal of the Theatre section.

“What?” asks Luisa, bringing the coffee pot to the table and refreshing Owen’s cup.

“Have a wooden stake driven through my heart,” he says, giving her a blank-faced look. “You could take turns wielding the mallet.”

“Was that a No?” asks Luisa, looking at Andrew who is just now pouring the beaten eggs into a sauté of zucchini and mushrooms. “Sounded like a no, didn’t it?”

“Definitely no-ish,” says Andrew, turning his attention to grating the cheese. “Though one never knows for certain when the reply is metaphoric.”

Owen puts down the paper and smiles falsely at his father. “I don’t mean to imply your music isn’t just the thing if one likes earnestly rendered tunes reminiscent of the simplistic folk music of the 1960s and 70s. In fact, I applaud you two for strumming your guitars and singing your cute old-fashioned songs for your friends. But I’m having a hard enough time adjusting to being back here and preparing to do something I vowed I would never do. Thus to stand with you in Cal and Terry’s living room noodling on my clarinet while you play chord progressions that make my teeth ache would be the last straw and I would then swim out into the ocean and drown. Does that clarify the meaning of my stake-through-the-heart metaphor?”

“It does,” says Andrew, abashed. “I’m sorry, O.”

“Well I’m not sorry,” says Luisa, glaring at Owen. “You’ve been home for two months, and a month from now you start your job at New Foundations, which, by the way, you are incredibly fortunate to have. As you are incredibly fortunate to have a house to live in and food to eat.” She takes off her apron, starts to leave the kitchen, stops, turns to Owen and adds, “The young man who left here six years ago was kind and thoughtful and resourceful and a joy to live with. The petulant little boy who came back is a self-centered, elitist, unimaginative, thankless pain in the ass.”

Having spoken her truth, she storms out of the kitchen.

“She’s right,” says Owen, looking at his father. “I’m a thankless shit.”

“You’re nothing of the kind,” says Andrew, shaking his head. “You’re having a tough time. And you’ll get through this with a new understanding of what you want to do with your life, teeth-aching chord progressions notwithstanding.”

“I didn’t mean that,” says Owen, getting up and going out the open door. “I love your music.”

Alone with his omelet, Andrew recalls the day Kiki said she wanted a divorce and was moving to Los Angeles and giving Andrew full custody of Owen, and how four-year-old Owen would shake his head and say No whenever Andrew tried to explain about Kiki leaving, until finally Andrew stopped trying to explain and a year later Owen came to him and said, “I know why Kiki left.”

“Why?” asked Andrew, gazing at his beloved child.

“Because she found out Luisa was actually my mother,” said Owen, nodding solemnly. “So she knew she better go away and never come back.”

Owen brings Luisa a bouquet of roses that afternoon, and while she stands at the kitchen counter arranging the roses in a vase, Owen thanks her for waking him up.

“I don’t remember exactly when it was I turned into the kind of person I’ve always hated,” he says, sitting at the kitchen table. “A closed-minded, self-centered, holier-than-thou cultural snob, but I did, and that’s probably why I failed as an actor. Because directors could see I was a phony.”

“Sweetheart, you haven’t failed,” she says, setting the vase of roses on the table and sitting beside him. “You’re on a journey. I know that’s a cliché and probably makes your teeth ache, but you are. We all are. And sometimes we find ourselves in a situation we can’t see our way out of and we have to make the best of things until we do see a way out or we discover that what we thought was the wrong direction turns out to be the way we needed to go, if I may mix my similes or whatever they are.”

Owen nods. “My favorite teacher at Julliard, Sig Perlman, used to say if we communicate in any way to the audience that we know what the other characters in the scene are going to say, the scene will fail. And he’s right. Good actors play every moment as if they have no idea what might happen next.”  

At supper’s end a week after Owen and Luisa reconcile, Owen asks his parents if they would be up for hosting a small dinner party, the guests to include his friend Dessie, who got him the teaching job at New Foundations, Dessie’s husband Jonah, a bass player and software engineer, and Maru Stein, the founder and executive director of New Foundations.

“Maybe Cal and Terry, too?” says Owen, having done a complete about-face since Luisa deftly smacked him with the bamboo cane of her honesty. “And anyone else you’d like to invite. Maybe a theatre person or two.”

“Salmon on the barbecue,” says Andrew, who is now helping Owen design the Drama program to be unveiled at New Foundations in September. “Corn on the cob.”

“A fabulous garden salad,” says Luisa, who loves to cook. “And for appetizers, mini-falafels with cashew butter lime sauce and hummus and guacamole.”

“I’ll take that as a Yes,” says Owen, getting up to clear the table so they won’t see him crying, but they do.

The afternoon warm and humid, Andrew is out on the big south-facing deck tending the barbecue—salmon steaks and corn-on-the-cob—when Owen emerges from the house with Maru Stein.

Andrew’s first impression of Maru from twenty feet away is that she is a giantess emanating a brilliant golden light, but as she and Owen cross the deck to him, she shrinks to Andrew’s size and appears to be a lovely woman in her fifties with reddish brown hair cut in a boyish bob, her eyes dark blue. She is wearing a sleeveless magenta shirt, blue jeans, and hiking sandals, her arms muscular, a tattoo of a small red rose on her right arm just below her shoulder.

She shakes Andrew’s hand with a pleasingly strong grip and says with a slight German accent, “A great pleasure to meet you. I have been reading your stories since they first appeared in The Blitz those many years ago, and I must tell you my daughter fell in love with the theatre because of your plays.”

“I’m flattered,” he says, wanting to blurt I love you. “Where is your daughter now?”

“She’s in England, in Oxford, the artistic director of a small theatre company. They’ve done all your plays, most of them more than once.” Maru’s eyes widen as she senses Andrew’s attraction to her. “When I told her I was going to meet you she said to tell you she can’t wait to read your next play. Do you have one in the works?”

“No,” says Andrew, suddenly aware of how close the salmon is to perfection. “To be continued. I must tend the salmon lest I overcook.”

“A rare skill,” says Maru, winking at him as she moves away with Owen to meet Luisa. “Cooking salmon just so.”

Mosquitoes ferocious at dusk, the humans move inside for supper, ten of them around the big dining table: Luisa, Andrew, Maru, Owen, Dessie, Jonah, Cal, Terry, Electra Wickersham, and Mark Kane.

Electra is an actress Andrew has known for thirty-four years. Short and buxom with a gravelly voice, she played the droll sister of the main character in the world premiere of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, a play based on two of Andrew’s short stories—Andrew’s first adventure in the theatre world of Vancouver thirty-four years ago.

Mark Kane, a stylish dresser in his sixties with a silvery gray pompadour, wrote Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise and got it produced at the Kleindorf Theatre where he was and still is the stage manager. Following the success of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, Mark adapted two more of Andrew’s stories for the stage, but that play lacked sufficient oomph to get beyond a staged reading and Mark has never written anything else, though he loves to talk about what he might write one day.

At the height of the feast, the salmon cooked to perfection, the corn sweet and tender, much good wine consumed, Cal, a professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser, asks Maru what inspired her to found what has become one of the most prestigious high schools in Canada.

“My children,” she says, nodding. “Public high school was a disaster for both my son and daughter. Before high school they were excellent students and eager to play music and make art and build things, you know, and then they were totally shut down by the idiocy of the public high school system, so I got them out of there and homeschooled them. I would have sent them to the Waldorf High School, but lacked the funds, and when they went off to college I thought why not create an alternative school with excellent teachers and get the corporations to fund it so we could give scholarships to low income people, and those who could afford the tuition would gladly pay to give their children an extraordinary experience rather than put them through a system designed to crush their spirits.”

“Well I can attest to the efficacy of your school,” says Cal, raising his glass to her. “I’ve had several of your former students in my classes and they were head and shoulders above most of the other students.”

“I’m very glad to hear that,” she says, placing a hand on her heart. “Thank you for telling me.”

“And you will be teaching Drama there,” says Electra, looking at Owen who she’s known since he was a baby. “How exciting for you.”

“I’ll do my best,” he says, frowning and scratching his head. “If only I could remember what they taught me at Julliard. It’s all such a vague memory now.”

Mark and Electra and Cal and Terry and Dessie and Jonah and Maru all laugh, while Luisa and Andrew hold their breaths until Maru says, “Don’t worry, Owen. It will all come back to you in the heat of battle.”

“Be careful, Owen,” says Mark, who has been married three times to women much younger than he and is currently dating a woman forty years his junior. “All your students will fall in love with you, the tall, dark, and handsome Drama teacher just a few years older than they.” He looks at Maru. “How daring of you to hire one so young.”

“Young teachers are a vital ingredient in our system,” says Maru, aiming her words at Owen. “Because the kids don’t relate to the younger teachers as versions of their parents, but as slightly older friends who can help them with their struggle to become adults. And it is a great struggle for most of them because the last thing they want is to turn into their parents, and without someone like Owen to emulate they see no alternative but to rebel or withdraw into their shells.”

Crawling into bed at midnight, Luisa says to Andrew, “What a great mentor Maru will be for Owen.”

“Yes,” says Andrew, closing his eyes and seeing Maru gazing at him. “She’s a powerhouse.”

“She’s one of your special women, isn’t she?” says Luisa, embracing him. “Couldn’t keep your eyes off her, could you?”

“Is she one of your special women, too?” he says, growing aroused.

“Of course,” she says, kissing him.

In late August, a few days before Owen will make his debut as a high school Drama teacher, Andrew and Luisa and Owen throw another party, this one a big potluck attended by several New Foundations teachers, lots of actors and musicians and theatre people, and several neighbors.

Maru arrives at the height of the party with her partner Adriana, a stunning Brazilian woman in her thirties who is the Dance and Percussion teacher at New Foundations. Owen was unaware that Maru and Adriana were in a relationship and so did not convey this information to his parents. Andrew and Luisa are both surprised Maru made no mention at their last party of having a partner, and Luisa is not surprised Maru’s partner is a woman.

Andrew is dizzied by the conflicting emotions arising in him—jealousy and relief and sorrow and happiness—when Maru introduces him to Adriana, an exquisite mix of Afro-Brazilian and Latino.

“I am so glad to meet you,” says Adriana with her Brazilian Portuguese accent Andrew could listen to forever. “I devour your stories and we watch your movies and now I feel like I meet a god.”

“As do I,” says Andrew, looking from Adriana to Maru and back to Adriana. “Goddesses.”

Adriana and Maru exchange mysterious smiles, Owen and Dessie come to greet Maru and Adriana, and Andrew turns his attention to the barbecue on which many foodstuffs are approaching doneness.

He is glad for the distraction of the salmon steaks, chicken thighs, slabs of zucchini, potatoes, ears of corn, hamburgers, sausages, and various shish kebabs because they keep him from gawking at Maru and longing to embrace her.

Why am I so ferociously attracted to her? he wonders as he looks down at the various sizzling things. Must have something to do with how open she is to me and how open I am to her. Only it’s more than that. It’s as if we are two parts of one being separated long ago, which is how I felt when I met Luisa, our attraction to each other a desire to be whole again.

“Honey,” says Luisa, putting her arm around Andrew. “I don’t want to tell you how to cook, because you’re a wonderful cook, but I think most of what’s on the grill now is done. Yeah?”

“Yes,” says Andrew, realizing he hasn’t been tending the foodstuffs at all, but standing at the barbecue appearing to be tending the foodstuffs while off in the clouds imagining becoming one with Maru.

Andrew joins Cal and Terry and Electra at one of the many tables arrayed on the deck, his plate heaped high, a cold beer just opened, and as he settles into easy banter with his tablemates, Maru and Adriana arrive and ask if there’s room for them at the table, room is made, Adriana sits between Electra and Cal on one side of the table and Maru sits next to Andrew on the other, her shoulder touching his, and Andrew is filled with a divine sense of completeness, a feeling, to paraphrase Stevie Wonder, of being exactly where God wanted him to be placed.

“Here we are together again,” says Maru, speaking quietly as she gently bumps Andrew’s shoulder with hers. “How are you?”

“Good,” he says, no longer afraid of how he feels about her. “You?”

“A bit preoccupied,” she says in a way he takes to mean she’s been preoccupied with him, “but otherwise excited about school starting next week.” She takes a deep breath. “Owen tells me you’ve been helping him with his course design. I love what you two have cooked up.”

“Well I got my undergraduate degree in Drama,” says Andrew, recalling those long ago days in California, “and I was hoping to get into Yale and leap from there to the professional stage, but instead I moved to Canada and became a carpenter and a writer. And now I’m sitting with you at the zenith of my life.”

“I know what you mean,” she says, watching Adriana listen intently to Electra talk about the current revival of Ah Wilderness. “This is definitely a peak experience for me, being with you.”

Supper is followed by pie and coffee and tea in the living room, and when everyone is settled somewhere, Luisa and Andrew enter with guitars, Owen with clarinet, and they launch into a lively instrumental Owen recently composed called My Teeth Ain’t Aching No More full of surprising chord changes to which Owen blissfully improvises.

They follow the instrumental with Luisa singing a love ballad she and Andrew wrote called The Thing Of It Is, Owen adding tasteful harmonies to Luisa’s fine contralto.

And lastly Andrew and Luisa sing a song they wrote called So Far So Good about a couple who keep being pleasantly surprised that no matter how old they get they don’t lose the knack for loving each other, the song ending with a stirring clarinet solo that brings the house down.

The day after the party, recalling the moment he and Maru sat beside each other and shared the feeling of being exactly where God wanted them to be placed, Andrew puts pen to paper and out flows the first scene of a play he will write over the next few weeks called Time and Again.

The play is about a man and a woman roughly the same age who meet eight times over the course of their lives, and whenever they meet—on a playground, at the beach, at a party, in a park, in the foyer of a theatre, on a bus, on the street—they are entranced with each other, yet always discover one of them is involved with someone else.

Each scene ends with the man and woman parting ways without making arrangements to stay in touch, save for the last scene in which they are elderly and meet at a neighborhood café. Over coffee and biscotti, they discover they live just around the corner from each other and are both free to unite.

When Andrew finishes the first draft, he gives the play to Luisa and she reads it in a single sitting.

She finds him on his knees in the garden thinning baby chard plants.

“It’s fantastic, A. I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written.” She smiles down at him. “Do you… will you want me to work on this with you?”

“Always,” he says, looking up at her.

“I wasn’t sure,” she says shyly. “You… we haven’t written a new play in a long time and I didn’t know if you still wanted to do our usual back and forth.”

“Of course I do,” he says, getting up and embracing her. “I’m always just cruising on the surface until you and I run the lines and find out what really wants to be said.”

“Oh, good,” she says, breathing a sigh of relief. “I think this will make a wonderful movie, too.”

“When we’re further along we’ll show it to Nick,” he says, referring to Nicolas Thorsen, the filmmaker who made their previous movies.

“You amaze me,” she says, looking into his eyes. “Just when I thought we might never write another play, you come out with this heartbreaker.”

“Is it sad?”

“Oh my God, yes,” she says, her eyes full of tears. “The sadness of missing their chance to be together over and over again when they’re so right for each other. It’s hilarious, too, and I’m so glad they get together at the end, but… I couldn’t help wishing they’d taken one of those earlier chances.”

“But maybe they weren’t ready for each other until the last scene,” he says, walking to the house with her. “Maybe the promise was not to be fulfilled until they learned whatever they needed to learn along the way.”

“Maybe so,” she says, taking his hand. “But I’ll bet lots of people who see this play will be emboldened to take a chance if they ever get one again.”

A month after school starts, Owen implores Andrew to help him cast and produce the first play of the year, a sappy television sit-com masquerading as a play he inherited from the previous Drama teacher called Don’t You Wish?

Knowing how overwhelmed Owen is by his daily teaching load, Andrew agrees to lend him a hand with the play and enlists Electra and Luisa to join them for three afternoons of auditions. Once the play is cast, Andrew shows up at the New Foundations multi-purpose room every weekday at 3:30 to assist Owen in managing the cast of fourteen and the especially rowdy crew of twenty-two.

Now and then Maru stops by to watch Owen directing the kids and to sit with Andrew and watch the play take shape.

Don’t You Wish? is such a big hit, the initial two-night run is extended to a second weekend with a Sunday matinee, the four hundred seats sold out for all five performances.

Fortunately for Andrew and Owen, no one blows the whistle on them for their extensive rewriting of the dialogue, the three entirely new scenes they wrote to replace those they found ruinous, and the new and completely different ending they invented—their creative tampering bringing them closer together than they’ve ever been.  

The winter play at New Foundations is A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast of (seemingly) thousands. Electra and Andrew and Luisa help again with the auditions, and this time both Luisa and Andrew assist Owen with the many afternoon rehearsals, which in the beginning resemble riots and eventually, miraculously, result in three acceptable performances.

Andrew and Owen severely edit The Bard to bring the running time down to ninety minutes so they can include three hip hop songs composed and performed by teenagers in togas and accompanied by energetic ensemble dancing choreographed by Adriana.

And finally comes the spring musical, Guys & Dolls, with Dessie conducting the student orchestra and coaching the singers, Adriana choreographing the numerous dance numbers, Andrew and Luisa again assisting Owen.

Dress rehearsal and Performance #1 are epic disasters, Performance #2 begins promisingly but quickly devolves into chaos, Performance #3 has a few startling moments of cohesion but is otherwise another catastrophe, and Performance #4, with only a few dozen people in the audience, is a stirring triumph from start to finish.

Summer cannot come soon enough for Owen and Andrew and Luisa, and when school finally adjourns in early June, Owen does nothing for a week but sleep and mope around while Andrew and Luisa fly to Montreal to attend five staged readings of their play Time and Again. The cast is stellar, several play directors from Canada and England and Australia come to hear the play, the audiences rave, and Nick Thorsen, who sits in the first row for all five of the readings, offers a pittance for the screen rights, which Andrew and Luisa gleefully accept.

As June becomes July, Maru and Adriana invite Andrew and Luisa over for supper at their spectacular new house in one of Vancouver’s ritziest neighborhoods.

After supper they retire to the living room, Maru pours a rare Spanish peach brandy, and Adriana says with her Brazilian Portuguese accent Andrew could listen to forever, “I know this will come as surprise, but we want to have a child and for you, Andrew, to be the father.”

Luisa purses her lips and frowns.

Andrew clears his throat and says, “We are speaking of artificial insemination.”

“If you prefer,” says Adriana, who grew up something of a wild child in Brazil and has few of the scruples common to North Americans. “Or we could make the baby, as we say in Portuguese, naturalmente.”

“Um,” says Luisa, scrunching up her cheeks, “I would have a problem with that.”

“Then artificial,” says Adriana, nodding. “Or you don’t do anything if this seems too…” She looks at Maru. “How do you say it?”

“Much to ask?” guesses Maru. “Too much of an entanglement?”

“Too big a commitment?” says Luisa, looking at Andrew.

“The thing is,” says Andrew, searching for the right words, “I can’t imagine knowing I’m the father of a child and not wanting to be involved with the child in a big way. Do you know what I mean?”

“Oh we want you to be involved,” says Adriana, nodding emphatically. “We love you. That’s why we choose you for the father.”

“Well,” he says, looking from Adriana to Maru, “I’m flattered, of course, but… we weren’t planning to spend our late middle age and elder years raising a child. Spending time with our grandchildren, should that ever come to be, yes. But not… co-parenting.”

“You would not be co-parenting,” says Maru, shaking her head. “We will be the parents and you would be uncle and aunt. Or grandparents.” She shrugs pleasantly. “We don’t expect you to say Yes. But we love you both and we admire you and so we thought we’d ask. If not you, we know a few others we may ask, and if no one wants to do this with us, we will go with the unknown.”

“Have you thought about adopting?” asks Luisa, who certainly understands why they would want Andrew’s genes in the mix.

“I’m only going to have one child,” says Adriana, gazing at Luisa who has become her dear friend. “And then we see. Maybe we adopt, maybe we don’t. But I know I want one child who comes from me.”

“There’s nothing like it,” says Luisa, tears springing to her eyes as she thinks of her daughter Lily. “We’ll let you know soon.”

“Thank you,” says Adriana, taking Luisa’s hand. “We are honored you even consider doing this for us.”

At midnight, neither Andrew nor Luisa able to sleep, Andrew gets out of bed and says, “Chamomile tea?”

On their way to the kitchen, Luisa says, “Who am I to judge them? I made Lily with a man I slept with once, a man who never even knew he made a child with me, a man I didn’t even like.”

“It’s not about judging them,” says Andrew, turning on the kitchen light. “It’s about marrying them without any legal right to the child.”

“What do you mean?” says Luisa, filling the kettle. “Marrying them?”

“I mean what if five years from now Adriana leaves Maru and moves back to Brazil or her next partner turns out to be a psychopath and by then we’re in love with the child and powerless to intervene? I’d be devastated and so would you.”

“Adriana won’t partner with a psychopath,” says Luisa, waving the thought away. “But you’re right, in a way we would be marrying them and I don’t want to be married to anyone but you.”

“The fact is, we don’t want another child. If we’d wanted another child we would have had one or adopted one. But if we had a child with them and fell in love with her or him, which of course we would, then we’d want to be with the little pooper every day, which would mean being deeply involved with Maru and Adriana for the rest of our lives and I don’t think we want that. Do we?”

“Might be wonderful,” says Luisa, anguished. “I love them. And I’d love to see the child you’d make with Adriana. But something doesn’t feel right about this.”

“I agree,” he says, terribly upset. “It’s… emotional extortion.”

“No, it isn’t,” she says, annoyed with him. “They said they don’t expect us to say Yes. How is that extortion? What doesn’t feel right has nothing to do with them. It’s about what we want, and we don’t want this. Right?”

“I’d be seventy-eight when the child is twenty,” says Andrew, smiling at the thought of mixing his genes with Adriana. “I wonder what Owen and Lily would think if we did this.”

“Maybe that’s what doesn’t feel right,” says Luisa, making their tea. “Complicating our already complicated life.”

In the morning, they continue discussing the possibility of joining their lives with Adriana and Maru and the yet-to-be-born child, and the more they think out loud together, the more they warm to the idea.

“But I would only go into the little sperm-catching room,” says Andrew, putting his arms around Luisa, “if you came in with me and inspired my contribution. If you know what I mean.”

“Then it would be our gift and not just yours,” she says, surrendering to the momentum of creation.

A few days later, Andrew and Luisa go to tell Adriana and Maru they are willing, and Adriana and Maru burst into tears.

“We just now check my fluid,” says Adriana, embracing Luisa, “and right now I ovulate. So because it will take some days to arrange things at the clinic for Andrew to give his seed, we wait for my next time to try.”

“Why wait?” says Luisa, surprising herself and all of them, too. “Why not now? Naturalmente.”

“We would love that,” says Maru, looking into Andrew’s eyes. “A sacred tryst.”

And before Andrew’s rational mind can rise above the fervor of the moment, he and Adriana go to the bedroom and Luisa and Maru go out into the garden and sit together on the bench by the lily pond holding hands and praying—this ritual of procreation enacted again the next day and the next.

In December, during the Christmas holiday, Adriana five months pregnant, she and Maru come to Andrew and Luisa’s house to tell them they have just seen the ultra-sound of Adriana’s womb.

“It isn’t what we planned,” says Maru, her eyes sparkling with tears, “but we are happy to tell you we are going to have twins. Fraternal twins. A girl and a boy.”

That night Luisa dreams the boy is named Teo and the girl is named Rosa, and when the babies are born they are given those names.

fin

Wedding Song

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Raymond’s Band

Raymond's Band

Raymond’s partner Tina will sometimes tease Raymond by saying he loves his guitar Susie more than he loves her, which Raymond doesn’t think is true, though he does love his guitar. He’s been playing since he was ten, and now he’s thirty-three, a superb guitarist, and he can’t imagine life without a guitar. He also can’t imagine life without Tina, and he knows she only teases him about loving Susie more than he loves her when she wants him to pay more attention to her, which is something he’s always happy to do.

A wearer of brown khaki pants, red high-top tennies, and colorful T-shirts, Raymond Chance is a sturdy five-foot-nine with short brown hair and brilliant green eyes, the brilliance somewhat muted by his wire-framed glasses, the lenses tinted light gray. The youngest of two children, his sister five years older than he, Raymond was born in Burlingame, California, his mother a first-generation Irish American, his father descended from pioneers who reached California in wagon trains a decade before the Gold Rush of 1849. From his mother, a high school music teacher, Raymond got his love of music and storytelling, and from his father, a plumber, he learned basic carpentry skills, an appreciation for baseball, and how to barbecue chicken.

A wearer of skirts, sandals, and embroidered Mexican blouses, Tina Ramirez is thirty-two, five-foot-three, with big brown eyes and long brown hair. The middle child of five siblings, Tina was born in San Jose, California, her mother Cuban, her father Mexican. A gymnast from the age of six until she was sixteen, Tina was an excellent student and received a full scholarship to San Jose State. From her mother, a seamstress, Tina learned to cook and make clothes and dance the Rumba and Mambo. From her father, a construction worker, Tina learned to work hard, how to grow tomatoes and chili peppers, and how to make killer guacamole.

Tina and Raymond have been friends for eleven years, lovers for nine, housemates for eight, and they both say they want to get married, but they haven’t set a date, nor do they talk much about marriage. They are both ambivalent about having children, not because they don’t love children, they do, but because they barely make enough money to cover their expenses, despite having an old car and sharing the three-bedroom house they rent in Oakland with four other people.

Raymond is a teacher’s aide in a private pre-school in Berkeley, his hours seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, though he often stays an extra hour until the last child has gone home. He loves his job, though it pays poorly, and he frequently searches the Want Ads for another job. He plays the guitar for at least two hours every day and has written hundreds of songs, seventy-four of which he thinks are really good.

Tina is a substitute teacher, mostly middle school, and makes twice what Raymond makes per hour, but she hates subbing and is taking online courses to improve her computer skills and enhance her chances of landing an Internet Technology job. Both she and Raymond have degrees in English from San Jose State where they met in a Creative Writing class. Tina hasn’t written anything since graduating from college, and Raymond mostly writes songs these days, though occasionally he’ll write a short story and share it with the household.

Raymond and Tina have a band called Pepperoni. Raymond is the lead singer and rhythm guitarist and writer of all the songs, Tina plays electric bass and sings harmony, and Derek, Raymond’s friend since childhood, plays lead guitar. They’ve had one regular gig for the last five months, every Sunday late morning to early afternoon at Calm Coffee, a popular café in Emeryville. Raymond has tried to get more gigs for the band, but the three songs on the Pepperoni demo CD they made in their living room reveal more of the group’s flaws than virtues. Raymond is a masterful guitarist with a pleasing voice, but Tina is frequently out of synch with Raymond when singing harmony and playing bass, and Derek is a sloppy player who uses the same seven-note blues riff over and over again.

Now and then, usually when he hasn’t had enough sleep, Raymond admits to himself that Tina and Derek are musical liabilities, but Tina loves playing bass and singing with Raymond, and Derek and Raymond started playing guitars together in Fifth Grade and Raymond thinks Derek would be devastated if he couldn’t be in the band.

Raymond landed the Calm Coffee gig by playing and singing solo for the manager of the café, Fiona Marconi, in her office adjacent to the café kitchen. Fiona, a professional dancer with expressive hands and short black hair, loved Raymond’s singing and playing, and she was more than a little peeved when he showed up with Tina and Derek for the gig; but she has such an enormous crush on Raymond, she can’t bring herself to fire Pepperoni.

One rainy Sunday in April, Tina wakes with a debilitating headache and Derek calls from Burlingame where he still lives with his parents to say he has the flu, so Raymond goes to play the Calm Coffee gig by himself.

When Raymond tells Fiona he’ll be playing solo today, Fiona wants to throw her arms around him and kiss him, but she resists those impulses and effuses, “Truth be told, you’re so good by yourself, I really don’t think you need those other two.”

Raymond nods his thanks to Fiona for her compliment, tunes Susie, plugs into the café sound system, and sits on a high stool rather than standing as he usually does when he performs with Tina and Derek.

He starts his first set with a swinging love song full of delightful chord changes and enchanting lyrics, and many of the customers stop talking to listen. At song’s end, the applause is boisterous, something that never happens when Tina and Derek play with Raymond.

The interesting thing to Raymond is, though he knows he sounds much better playing and singing alone, he misses Tina and Derek playing with him. And on this Sunday, for the first time in his life, he realizes he has chosen mediocrity over excellence because he is uncomfortable playing in public by himself. But why do I have to play with such lousy musicians?

By the end of Raymond’s third set, Calm Coffee is jammed with people listening to him; and when he finishes his last tune, the applause goes on for so long he is moved to play an encore, after which dozens of people put money in his tip jar and thank him for playing.

Fiona pays Raymond twenty dollars more than the usual fifty, gives him a big bag of muffins and cookies, and goes on and on about what a wonderful solo performer he is, but she stops short of asking him to henceforth play the Calm Coffee gig solo.

In his car, before heading home, Raymond counts his tips and can’t believe the total. So he counts the money again, looks around to confirm he is still on planet Earth, and whispers, “Two hundred and forty-seven dollars? Impossible.”

The following Sunday morning at ten, Fiona is gravely disappointed when Derek, a heavyset guy with long dank blond hair, and Tina arrive at Calm Coffee with Raymond. But despite her disappointment, Fiona decides not to tell Raymond about the dozens of phone calls she received during the week from people asking if Raymond would be playing by himself again this week.

The truth is, Fiona has only kept Pepperoni on the bill for as long as she has because she keeps hoping Raymond will either break up with Tina or wake up to his genius and start gigging solo, or both. But because Fiona did not call Raymond in the days leading up to this Sunday’s gig and tell him about those phone calls from people who love him but can’t stand the full ensemble, she decides to let today’s drama unfold however it will and hope her customers won’t boo the band, though if they do boo, she won’t be surprised.

As it happens, the customers don’t boo, either because they don’t stay to listen or they stay and don’t listen, the café din all but drowning out the music; and Raymond feels terrible as Tina keeps losing the beat and playing the wrong notes and coming in late with her harmonies, and Derek keeps bending the same handful of notes exactly as he’s been bending them since he was thirteen.

Only a few people put change in the tip jar, and when the last song is sung, Fiona asks Raymond to come to her office where she pays him and says, “I’m sorry, Raymond, but we’re going to go with somebody else on Sundays from now on. It was great getting to know you. I love your songs. Good luck.”

“I appreciate you keeping us on here for as long as you did,” says Raymond, smiling at her. “Meant a lot to us. Thanks.”

Fiona takes a deep breath and says, “If you ever want to play solo, let me know. Okay? I’d love to have you gig here and I know I could get you gigs other places, too. But not with Tina and Derek. They’re just not in your league, Raymond. You know that, don’t you?”

“I hear you,” he says, waving goodbye. “Thanks again, Fiona.”

At the table in Calm Coffee where Derek and Tina and Raymond are having their customary after-gig coffee and bagels, Raymond is trying to work up the courage to tell Tina and Derek about the termination of their run at Calm Coffee, when a man approaches their table. He’s tall and good-looking with longish gray hair, wearing a black corduroy jacket over a green T-shirt tucked into black corduroy trousers.

He nods politely to Tina and Derek, smiles at Raymond and says, “Sorry to barge in, but I heard you playing solo last week and came back to hear you again today.” He hands Raymond a business card. “I’m very interested in your music. I have a recording studio just around the corner here, and I’m working with a couple of artists who would love to record some of your songs. If that’s of any interest to you, please give me a call and we’ll set something up.”

“Okay,” says Raymond, pocketing the card without looking at it. “Thanks.”

The man walks away, and now Raymond doesn’t have the heart to tell Tina and Derek about the end of their Calm Coffee gig, just as he didn’t have the heart to tell them about the two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips and the extra twenty he made last week.

That night, as they are settling down to sleep, Tina says to Raymond, “I felt pretty good about my playing today. I think I’m finally getting the knack of playing bass and singing at the same time. Don’t you think?”

Raymond clears his throat. “Yeah. You were fine.”

“Fine?” she says, with a touch of anger. “What do you mean fine?”

“I mean you were good,” says Raymond, unconvincingly.

“That guy who gave you his card certainly thought we were good,” she says, petulantly. “Why else would he be interested in our songs?”

“Honey, they’re not our songs, they’re my songs.”

“What?” she says, sitting up and turning on the light. “Your songs? Since when are they your songs and not Pepperoni’s songs?”

“Are you serious?” says Raymond, frowning at her. “I wrote them. I play them. I sing them and you guys play along. You didn’t write them. I did.”

Tina gets out of bed and glares at Raymond. “So does this mean you’re gonna go see that guy without me and Derek? Your songs are… they’re skeletal without us.”

“Skeletal?” says Raymond, sitting up and laughing. “Are you out of your mind?”

Tina folds her arms. “So this is what I get for playing with you for five years? This is how you treat Derek after he played with you for twenty years? You dump us the minute some guy with a recording studio gives you his card?”

“The guy is interested in my songs,” says Raymond, flabbergasted. “Not in our band. He wants the songs, maybe, for some people he’s recording. I’m a songwriter. You’re not, and neither is Derek. Can we please discuss this rationally? I am not dumping you. If I go see this guy, and I may not, I will play him my songs and if he wants some of them, we’ll figure something out. Do you hear what I’m saying? This is not about the band. It’s about the songs.”

“Yeah, but he liked the songs because of the way we played them,” she says, angrily. “Will you at least admit that?”

“No,” says Raymond, shaking his head. “What I’ll admit is last Sunday I played at Calm Coffee without you and Derek, and I made two hundred and forty-seven dollars in tips, and Fiona paid me an extra twenty dollars over the usual fifty. And today she told me she doesn’t want Pepperoni playing there anymore.”

Tina glares at Raymond. “I know why you’re doing this. Because you resent that I make more money than you, and you resent that I’m going to get a tech job and make serious money while you barely make minimum wage.”

“Tina,” he says quietly. “I’m happy you make good money subbing, and I’ll be happy when you get a job you like and make even more money. I work at the pre-school because I love the job and I love the kids, but my real job, the job I care most about, is my music. And I really don’t understand why you would begrudge me a little success with what I’ve dedicated my whole life to. I don’t get it.”

She sits on the edge of the bed and says, “I begrudge you because I’m jealous of you. As if you didn’t know. I was gonna be a writer. Remember? And you were gonna be a writer. But we ended up being what we are, and I don’t do anything creative except play bass and sing with you, and I know I’m not very good, but I love it because it’s something creative, something not just about getting money and surviving. It’s what we wanted to be. Artists. And you work at being an artist and I don’t. I could write. I could write stories and post them online. But I don’t because I’m not passionate about writing anymore. I don’t see the point. And I’m tired of just scraping by. You don’t seem to care that you don’t make very much money because you’ve got your music. But I don’t have music except when I play along with you. And now I can’t even do that.”

Raymond crawls across the bed and puts his arms around her. “Maybe we should move somewhere where it doesn’t cost so much to live. We don’t have to live in the most expensive place in the world. Do we?”

“No,” she says, relaxing in his arms. “I’m sorry I got mad at you. I’m glad that guy likes your songs. They’re great songs.” She kisses him. “Did you really make two hundred and forty-seven dollars, plus the fifty, plus twenty more?”

“I did,” says Raymond, excitedly. “Wanna see?”

Suite Chariot is the name of Zack Mathias’s recording company, Zack Mathias the man who gave Raymond his card at Calm Coffee. Raymond researched Zack Mathias on the Internet and learned that Zack, who hails from New York, has produced several albums for well-known singers and played bass on dozens of albums, some of them hugely successful.

Which is why, on the Saturday after Pepperoni performed at Calm Coffee for the last time, Raymond hesitates to press the brass doorbell button on the wall next to the large red door on the ground floor of a two-story white stucco warehouse, the sign above the door—magenta letters on a field of turquoise—identifying this as the entrance to Suite Chariot.

Indeed, Raymond is so intimidated by the thought of meeting Zack, he is on the verge of not pressing the doorbell, and returning home and sending an apologetic email to Zack retracting his offer to meet with him, when a woman runs by with a large menacing dog on a leash, and Raymond is startled into pressing the button.

And before his fear of meeting Zack can take over again, the red door opens and here is a striking African American woman with black hair captured in dozens of long slender braids. She is wearing a turquoise sweatshirt, purple sweatpants, and gold basketball shoes, her lips painted cherry red.

“Welcome Raymond,” she says, giving Raymond a wide-eyed smile, her voice deep and warm. “I’m Maru. Zack’s running a little late. Come in. We’ll get you set up in the studio. He’ll be here soon.”

Raymond follows Maru down a long narrow hallway to a small waiting room appointed with a plush sofa and armchair, one wall of the little room dominated by a large oil painting of Jimi Hendrix wearing the long curly brown-haired wig and sumptuous clothing of Louis XIV while holding an electric lute plugged into a classic Fender Reverb amp.

From the waiting room, they enter a large performance room with a big window in one of the walls looking into a control room where an African American man with short gray hair is sitting in a comfortable-looking chair at the recording console. He is wearing a white short-sleeved dress shirt, a red bowtie, and black slacks. He waves to Raymond, and Raymond waves back.

“Um,” says Raymond, looking around the performance room and seeing five microphones on stands, a trap set, and a large reddish-brown standup bass in a beautiful wooden box stand, “I didn’t think I was going to be recording anything today. I thought we were just going to… I was just gonna play some tunes for Zack and…”

“That’s right,” says Maru, moving one of the microphones, “but Zack likes to record everything because we never know when lightning might strike.”

“That’s true,” says Raymond, taking of his jacket. “We never know, do we?”

“Nope,” says Maru, taking Raymond’s jacket from him. “People call you Raymond or Ray?”

“Raymond,” he says, laughing nervously. “But that’s only because nobody’s ever called me Ray. I don’t know why, but no one ever has.”

“Raymond feels a little formal to me,” she says, pursing her lips. “Be okay if I call you Ray?”

“Yeah, I like it when you say Ray,” he says, blushing.

“How about when I say Ray?” says the fellow in the control room, his gravelly voice coming through a speaker on the wall above the window.

“Yeah, I like that, too,” says Raymond, smiling at the man. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Jerry,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “But everybody calls me Tap.”

“Tap’s a most excellent drummer,” says Maru, coming close to Raymond. “You like to stand or sit when you play?”

“Either,” says Raymond, feeling like he’s about to fall off a cliff. “Whatever you think is best.”

“Your choice,” says Maru, nodding.

“Well, I play a little better sitting down,” says Raymond, looking around for something to sit on, “but I sing better standing.” He shrugs. “I guess I’ll sit.”

“Chair, stool, or piano bench?” asks Tap, getting up from his chair in the control room. “I’m thinkin’ piano bench.”

“Yeah, that would be perfect,” says Raymond, getting Susie out of her case. “I’ve never been in a recording studio before.”

“Seriously?” says Maru, frowning at him. “You play like you were born in one, Ray.”

“Where… “ Raymond clears his throat. “Where did you hear me play?”

“At Calm Coffee,” she says, nodding. “Two weeks ago. Zack called and told us to get over there as soon as we could. And I’m so glad we did.” She looks into the control room. “Here’s Zack.”

“Hey Raymond,” says Zack, standing at the control console. “Sorry I’m late. Got stuck in traffic on the bridge. Madhouse out there.”

“You live in San Francisco?” asks Raymond, watching Tap wheel in a big brown piano bench on a yellow dolly.

“No, I live here when I’m in town,” says Zack, taking off his jacket, his T-shirt red today. “Upstairs. Couple bedrooms, kitchen, dance floor. I stayed in a hotel in the city last night. Stayed up way too late listening to a couple singer songwriters.” He sits down at the console. “And the whole time I was listening to them, I kept thinking about your songs, especially that one about the guy who goes next door to complain about the loud music and ends up falling in love. That’s a hit, Raymond.”

“Oh, thanks,” says Raymond, unconsciously fingering the first few chords of the song. “Glad you like it. That one’s called ‘Too Much Noise.’”

“Great song,” says Zack, nodding. “Would you play that one first?”

“Sure,” says Raymond, sitting on the piano bench and tuning Susie as Maru positions three microphones around him, one for his voice, one aimed at Susie’s sound hole, one aimed at Susie’s neck.

“You want headphones?” asks Maru, smiling sweetly at Raymond.

“For what?” he asks, innocently.

“To hear yourself playing and singing.” She laughs in delight. “You really are a studio virgin, aren’t you?”

“Let’s go without headphones,” says Zack, with quiet authority. “They can take some getting used to.”

Maru and Tap join Zack in the control room, and Zack says, “Any time you’re ready, Mr. Chance.”

Raymond closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and improvises a lovely opening for his sweet little rocker “Too Much Noise”.

In the unsullied quiet of the performance room, Raymond hears his voice and guitar more clearly than he has ever heard them, and he loves how he sounds.

When he finishes the tune, he opens his eyes and sees Maru and Tap and Zack applauding in the control room; and in the next moment they are with him—Tap sitting down at the trap set, Zack standing with his big bass, and Maru sitting on a high stool.

“Play that one again, Raymond,” says Zack, nodding. “That was fantastic.”

So Raymond starts the song again, this time with a different opening, and Zack adds a few quiet bass notes right on the beat, and Tap swirls his brushes on the snare drum; and Zack’s subtle playing and Tap’s tender drumming carry Raymond into the body of his song.

And as he plays and sings, Raymond knows he has never heard anything as beautiful as Zack and Tap playing with him, supporting him; and when Maru joins him on the chorus, her astounding voice locked in perfect harmony with his, Raymond is changed forever.

Too much noise, the walls were shaking

Too much noise, my heart was breaking

Too much noise, I just couldn’t take it,

So I went next door and fell in love.

 

Raymond plays three more of his songs, Zack and Tap and Maru join him on reiterations of each, and after an hour of musical bliss, Maru whips out her phone and orders Chinese food, and the four of them go upstairs to await delivery of lunch.

Zack gives Raymond a tour of his digs, and during the tour tells Raymond he has two other set-ups like this, one in Austin, one in London.

“The only actual house I own is in Hawaii, on Kauai,” he says, leading Raymond back to the kitchen. “I like to be warm in the winter.”

Tap comes up the stairs with the Chinese food, and when everyone has a full plate, Zack raises his cup of green tea and says, “To our great good fortune in finding you, Raymond. May this be the beginning of a marvelous collaboration.”

Glasses are clinked, tea is drunk, food is enjoyed, and Zack says, “So… Raymond. If you haven’t guessed already, I want to produce your first album. And your second and third and fourth, God willing.”

My album?” says Raymond, freezing. “I thought you were just interested in my songs for other people to record.”

“Oh other people are definitely gonna record your songs,” says Tap, nodding emphatically. “But you have to make a record, Ray. You have to.”

“I… I… well, of course I want to, but…”

A silence falls, Zack and Tap and Maru waiting for Raymond to explain his reticence.

“As I told you, Zack,” says Raymond, clearing his throat, “I have a fulltime job at a pre-school. I’m a teacher’s aide. And… I suppose I could do some recording at night and on weekends, but…”

“You keep saying but,” says Maru, frowning at him. “What’s up with that, Ray?”

“I’m… well…” He laughs anxiously. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before so I’m just… I’m not sure how to do this.”

“May I propose something?” says Zack, smiling hopefully at Raymond.

“Please,” says Raymond, nodding humbly.

“I will sign you to a six-month recording deal with me as the producer of your album, and I’ll pay you a monthly salary equal to or greater than what you make in your current job. We’ll make an album, the four of us along with some other people we’ll bring in, and then I’ll try to make a deal with a label. I think Blue Note will go crazy over you.”

“Crazy,” says Maru, nodding in agreement.

“And if they don’t go crazy, somebody else will,” says Tap, pointing at Raymond. “I’d bet serious dollars on that.”

Raymond takes Tina out for supper that night to an Indian restaurant, and after they place their order, Tina says, “The suspense is killing me. How did it go today with Zack Mathias the famous bass player?”

“Went well,” says Raymond, nodding. “Went… um… really well. He wants to produce an album with me.”

“He wants some of your songs?” she asks hopefully.

“All the songs on the album would be mine,” says Raymond, finding it hard to breathe. “And I would be playing them and singing them with Zack playing bass and a guy named Tap playing drums and a woman named Maru singing with me, and other people, too, would play and sing on the album.”

Tina frowns. “I thought he just wanted some of your songs. Isn’t that what he said at Calm Coffee?”

“Yes, that’s what he said at the café, but after I played him a few songs, he got this other idea.” Raymond smiles, trying not to cry. “He’s a very nice guy, Tina, and he’s a fantastic musician and… and he really likes my music. So…”

“Wow,” says Tina, her eyes filling with tears. “So are you gonna do it?”

“Yes,” says Raymond, looking at her. “I think so. I want to go over the contract with you and…”

“You’re signing a contract?” says Tina, frowning. “Is he paying you?”

“Well… if I sign the contract, yes. He’ll pay me four thousand dollars a month for six months and cover all the costs of the recording and the other musicians and… I’ll be taking a break from working at the pre-school to just focus on the music.”

“Oh my God, Raymond,” she says, getting up and going to him. “It’s incredible. Hurray for you.”

“Hurray for us,” he says, rising to embrace her—their outburst inspiring several diners to clap because they think Raymond just proposed to Tina and she’s saying Yes.

They hold each other, crying and laughing, and Raymond says, “Thank you, honey. Thank you for loving me.”

“I love you so much,” she says, looking into his eyes. “But how are you ever gonna tell Derek?”

Raymond signs the contract with Zack the next day, and the day after that he gives two-weeks notice at the pre-school, and the following Saturday he takes BART from Oakland to Burlingame to have lunch with Derek.

For the entire hour-long train journey, Raymond is consumed with guilt, not about pursuing his musical career without Derek, but for allowing Derek to believe he was Raymond’s musical peer for the last twenty years, when in fact Derek reached his musical zenith in junior high.

For many years, Raymond assumed Derek was aware of the difference in their guitar-playing abilities, but one weekend during Raymond’s third year at San Jose State, Derek visited Raymond at the house Raymond was renting with four other college guys, and something happened during Derek’s visit that made Raymond rethink his assumption about how Derek perceived things.

One of Raymond’s housemates, Gino, was a good guitarist, and Raymond and Gino had worked out some fairly complicated duets of three Django Reinhardt tunes. The Saturday night when Derek was visiting, Gino and Raymond performed the duets at their house party attended by about forty young men and women, and the response to their playing was so enthusiastic they were compelled to perform their duets a second time.

Afterwards, Derek, who was very stoned, joined a group of people heaping praise on Gino and Raymond, and proclaimed loudly, “Yeah, they were good, but you should hear me and Raymond play. We’re amazing together.”

Several people responded to Derek’s boast by asking to hear Raymond and Derek play. Gino handed his guitar to Derek, Raymond took up his guitar, and Derek said, “Play that blues thing we always do.”

So Raymond improvised a pleasing progression of jazzy blues chords and Derek played the same seven-note riff over and over again, not quite in synch with Raymond, and when Raymond ended the song, a few people clapped, and that was that.

The next morning, before Derek headed back to Burlingame, he said to Raymond, “We should start a band. We were incredible last night. People were blown away.”

Ten minutes from Burlingame, recalling that moment in San Jose twelve years ago, Raymond thinks That’s when I should have told him. But I couldn’t because he didn’t have anything else in his life and I thought he would kill himself if I told him the truth.

After Raymond graduated from college and moved to Oakland, Derek would come visit for a day and a night every week, and in the evenings during those visits, Raymond and Derek would play guitars and Derek would play the same blues riff over and over again.

Raymond thought of these sessions as his gift to Derek for being such a loyal friend and because he didn’t have the will to tell Derek not to come visit, though he and Tina came to dread Derek coming because he seemed so lost and sad and he still lived at home with his parents and had never had a girlfriend and didn’t seem to have anything in his life except television and video games and his job delivering newspapers.

Derek and Raymond have lunch in a pizza parlor where Derek goes every day, his home away from home, where everyone who works there knows him by name.

“I think I could get us a gig here,” says Derek, looking around the pizza parlor. “They don’t have live music here, but I’ll bet I could talk them into it.” He nods confidently. “They love me here.”

“This is good pizza,” says Raymond, lying; and his lie irks him, and he blurts, “You know that guy who gave me his card at Calm Coffee?”

“Yeah,” says Derek, nodding enthusiastically. “He had a great belt. Did you notice his belt? It was like this amazing shiny dark burgundy leather. And very thin. And the belt buckle was silver and like a piece of modern art. I went online looking for a belt like that, but I couldn’t find one. I’ll bet it’s Italian. Looked very expensive. What about him?”

“His name is Zack Mathias and he turns out to be quite a well-known record producer and bass player.” Raymond looks away from Derek. “I’m gonna be making an album with him.”

“Really?” says Derek, amazed. “When?”

“Starting now and working for the next few months and then… he’s gonna try to sell the album to a record company.” Raymond forces himself to look at Derek. “He really likes my songs and my singing and… my playing.”

“Well he should,” says Derek, grinning at Raymond. “So will you be like… touring?”

“I don’t know,” says Raymond, his heart breaking. “Maybe.”

“Wow,” says Derek, beckoning to a passing waitress. “Hey Leslie, this is my best friend Raymond. He’s making an album with a big time record producer.”

“Congratulations,” says Leslie, with little enthusiasm.

“Thank you,” says Raymond, his eyes full of tears.

“So you gonna be his roadie, Derek?” asks Leslie, arching her eyebrow.

“No, he won’t need a roadie,” says Derek, gazing fondly at Raymond. “He’s great all by himself.”

         fin