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6. Future Life

Near the end of Stephen Ornofsky’s performance the audience is laughing so hard, Stephen has to wait several seconds for the laughter to subside before he can say anything else, and as he waits, he is aware he has never before connected so profoundly with an audience, a kind of super joy.

A charming fellow of thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen’s show of ever-changing songs and stories has been the Thursday night attraction at McCarthy’s pub in the coastal town of Melody for seven years now.

“As some of you know,” says Stephen when the laughter finally dies down, “I was in therapy for a year when I was a teenager. I was suffering from a crippling psychological disorder known as Being A Teenager.”

Stephen takes the microphone off the stand and crosses the little stage to a high stool where he sits and looks out at the audience, the pub filled to capacity.

“Fortunately I had a wonderful therapist, and what he loved more than anything was interpreting dreams. And being the kind of person I am, I very much wanted to please him. And because I didn’t think my actual dreams were all that interesting, I started making up dreams, really wild ones, and my therapist just loved them and said they were really helping us get to the bottom of my issues.”

The crowd roars with laughter.

“But then I started feeling guilty about misleading my therapist, so I said to him, ‘You know the dreams I’ve been telling you lately? I didn’t actually have those dreams. I made them up.’ And my therapist said, “It doesn’t matter. They still give us valuable information.’ And I said, ‘But they aren’t really about me.’ And he said, ‘Of course they are. Only you can make up those particular dreams, just as only you can have the dreams you actually have. And just as you made up those dreams, Stephen, you can make up your future life. You really can.’”

Stephen crosses the stage, puts the microphone back on the stand, and straps on his guitar.

“So I decided what I really wanted in my future life was a Thursday night gig at McCarthy’s where I sing songs for my friends and tell them stories I think they’ll enjoy. And my dream came true, and this song is for you.

I give to you, you give to me

We plant the seeds to keep the garden growing

You give to him, he gives to her,

she gives to me, I give to you,

we keep the spirit flowing

So now when those night winds blow

I want you to know I will always love you

I want you to know I will always love you

*

A good many people wait around after the show to give Stephen a hug or shake his hand, and one of those people is a woman in her mid-thirties visiting from Los Angeles named Nina Zubinsky. Stephen met Nina for the first time a few days ago, and when he found out she was a studio musician, a guitarist, Stephen asked her if she’d like to get together with him and play music. Thinking Stephen might be interested in her romantically, Nina made sure to tell him she was a lesbian, something Stephen never would have guessed.

Tall and slender, Nina has short curly brown hair, dark green eyes, and wears wire-frame glasses. She is dressed identically to Stephen in a black corduroy sports jacket, pale pink dress shirt, black corduroy trousers, and red running shoes.

When Nina’s father Abe, who is one of Stephen’s guitar students, finishes giving Stephen a hug, Nina shakes Stephen’s hand and says, “I am now officially in awe of you and would very much like to play music with you.”

“I’m thrilled,” says Stephen, ferociously attracted to her despite the aforementioned lesbian information. “Your father has my number.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she says, seeming reluctant to let go of his hand. “You blew my mind. You really did.”

*

Stephen gets home around midnight to the lovely old house he shares with Maya Johansen, an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair and for whom Stephen is the primary caregiver. To Stephen’s surprise and delight, he finds Maya’s other caregiver, Celia Flores, a beautiful middle-aged Mexican woman, reading by the fire in the living room.

Dressed in a dark blue nightgown, Celia has loosed her long black hair from its workaday bun and removed her copious makeup, which is how Stephen prefers her. She is usually asleep when Stephen gets home from his Thursday night gig—Celia lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday to Sunday every week—and Stephen guesses she stayed up to talk to him about Maya.

Stephen’s dogs Hortensio, a large black mutt, and Moose, a small brown Chihuahua, are in their beds by the woodstove, and they both briefly open their eyes to look at Stephen and confirm what their ears and noses told them. He’s home.

“How was your show, Esteban?” asks Celia, her Spanish accent quite strong.

“Went well,” says Stephen, flopping down on the sofa. “How was your evening?”

“Okay,” she says, putting down her book. “One day I’ll go to your show again. I’ll ask Josephine to come for a few hours so I can go. I don’t think Maya will ever go again. She so tired at night now. She wants to go to bed earlier and earlier.”

“She told me yesterday she doesn’t think she’ll live another year,” says Stephen, who has lived with Maya for nine years now.

“I don’t like to think about her going,” says Celia, looking at Stephen. “I love my days here with you and Maya.”

Stephen wants to say Then keep coming here after she’s gone, but he knows that’s not possible. This is Celia’s job and she and her husband depend on the income.

Celia smiles. “Maybe you’ll make a million dollars from a song you write and I can be your cook and housekeeper.”

“Nothing would make me happier,” says Stephen, a familiar sorrow taking hold as his performance high fades away and he feels alone in the world with no partner to share his bed and know his deepest feelings.

“Time for me to sleep,” says Celia, getting up from her armchair. “Hasta la mañana.”

“Hasta la mañana,” says Stephen, rousing his dogs and ushering them out to the garden where they pee and Stephen imagines Celia is his wife waiting for him to come to bed.

*

Nina calls the next morning while Stephen is doing the breakfast dishes and they arrange for him to come to Nina’s father’s house for some guitar playing and lunch.

Abe Zubinsky is sixty-two, a former movie sound engineer in Los Angeles who worked on dozens of Hollywood blockbusters and is now the owner of Studio Z, a small recording studio Abe built adjacent to his house overlooking the Pacific Ocean a couple miles south of Melody.

Abe moved here ten years ago with his second wife Carol, an interior designer. Six months after they arrived, Carol returned to Los Angeles and filed for divorce because, as she is fond of telling people, “I felt like we’d been exiled to Siberia and Abe thought we’d landed in heaven.”

Following a tour of Abe’s spectacular house and the surrounding meadows filled with purple and white wild iris, Stephen and Nina get situated in Abe’s state-of-the-art recording studio, and to humor her father, Nina acquiesces to Abe placing several microphones in the performance room to record the session.

“Something for me to listen to on long winter nights,” says Abe, getting his volumes set. “Two of my favorite people playing music together.”

“You can stay, Pops,” says Nina, tuning her father’s fine old guitar.

“I’ve got a bunch of calls to make,” says Abe, leaving the control room. “Carry on.”

Stephen and Nina are dressed identically again—black cotton T-shirts and baggy blue trousers—and Stephen says, “I assume you are aware of our uncanny tendency to dress alike, and not just alike but exactly alike?”

“I am aware and find it mildly unnerving,” she says, playing a lightning fast melodic run of notes up and down the neck of her guitar that makes Stephen’s jaw drop. “I’m what’s known in the vernacular as an L.L. Bean dyke, and you apparently shop there, too.”

“No, I get my clothes at garage sales,” says Stephen, playing an elegant chord on his small teak guitar, “though Celia recently knitted me a beautiful wool sweater.”

“Celia being?” asks Nina, searching for the elegant chord Stephen just played and quickly finding it. “Nice.”

“Celia is Maya’s other caregiver,” says Stephen, tuning his guitar. “She lives with us from Thursday evening until Sunday morning. An incarnate angel.”

“I was raised by an incarnate angel named Celia,” says Nina, figuring out four more equally elegant chords to go with Stephen’s initial elegant chord. “Celia Maria Gomez. My parents being otherwise engaged on movie sets around the globe, Pops doing sound, Moms a cinematographer, and they rarely worked on the same film.”

“Moms was not Carol,” says Stephen, having met the hyper-perky Carol a couple times before she fled Siberia and returned to Los Angeles.

“No, thank all the gods of all religions,” says Nina, playing the five elegant chords again. “Carol didn’t infiltrate my father’s life until I’d made my escape to the lesbian enclave in Echo Park where I live to this day.”

“Would you mind teaching me those chords you just played?” says Stephen, awed by Nina’s facility on the guitar.

She plays the chords again a few times and Stephen imitates her until he has them memorized.

“Best guitar lesson I’ve ever had,” he says, playing the chords again and again.

“You’re self-taught,” she observes. “Whereas I had excellent teachers from the age of eight and graduated champion hot chick guitarist from the Berklee jazz factory. Yet you’re every bit as good as I am and easily seventy jillion times more original.”

“Nonsense,’ says Stephen, playing the five chords again in a steady rhythm and singing in his smoky tenor, “These chords put me in a melancholy mood, but that don’t mean I’m sad.”

“Hey melancholy is my middle name,” sings Nina to those same five chords, “but that don’t mean I’m bad.”

“Melancholy’s my name, too,” he sings, changing the third and fifth chords, “though I’m not always blue.”

“And I am really digging this song,” she sings, “making it up with you.”

They stop playing and smile shyly at each other.

“Not what I expected,” she says, shaking her head. “Thought you’d play a song from your show and I’d noodle along. Studio work. But no.”

“Speaking of noodling,” says Stephen, thrilled by her playing, “here’s a little something I came up with you might be inclined to noodleize to.”

“Play on, Ornofsky,” she says, feeling a glimmer of something she hasn’t felt since she was fourteen—sexual attraction to a male.

Stephen swings into a Gypsy groove with a run of jazzy chords full of surprising twists and turns, and when Nina has listened to the run three times through she begins to solo with a few choice notes, playing more and more notes with each iteration of the chord sequence until her solo grows complex and majestic and at last she takes over playing the run of chords and Stephen rips off a dazzling solo that ends on the last chord Nina plays.

Mutually astounded, Nina gawks at Stephen and says, “I’m not religious but I’m praying fervently my father’s recording equipment captured that amazing thing we just played.”

“I’ll pray for that, too,” says Stephen, looking into her eyes. “But it doesn’t matter, Nina.”

“It doesn’t?” she says, terrified to be falling in love with him. “Then what does?”

“What matters is we made that together,” he says, grinning at her. “And we’ll always know we did.”

Always Love

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5. More Than Genetics

Stephen Ornofsky is in shock. Two hours ago he thought he was embarking on a love affair with a woman he believed might be his partner for the duration, and now she is gone, her last angry words to him, “Please don’t try to contact me.”

A charming fellow, thirty-four, with short brown hair and wire-frame glasses, Stephen is a musician and poet. He lives in a beautiful old house in the town of Melody with Maya Johansen, seventy-seven, for whom Stephen has been the primary caregiver for nine years.

Maya, small and slender, a renowned dancer and choreographer paralyzed from her waist down, sits in a high-backed wicker wheelchair on the deck of her rambling redwood house and looks down at Stephen who is lying on his back on the deck, staring up at the sky.

The June day, a Saturday, is ending, fog rolling into the little northern California coastal town where Maya has lived for thirty years and Stephen has lived for twenty. Stephen’s dogs, Hortensio, a large black water dog, and Moose, a floppy-eared brown Chihuahua, are sprawled on the deck next to Stephen, both keenly aware of Stephen’s distress. And Harpo, an enormous orange cat, lies on Stephen’s chest in the pose of The Sphinx, Harpo’s whiskers nearly touching Stephen’s chin.

“So you’re walking on the beach, ecstatic to have found each other, and everything is going wonderfully well when…?” prompts Maya, who loves Stephen beyond measure and wants more than anything for him to find a good partner.

“We were walking along the shore, holding hands and talking about her moving here, living with us,” says Stephen, aching from head to toe, “and she said, ‘That will be fine until I get pregnant and then we’ll want our own place.’ And I laughed and said, ‘Pregnant? We haven’t even slept together yet and we’re already pregnant?’ And she let go of my hand and said, ‘You do want children, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘I’ve always thought I would adopt a couple kids after Maya dies.’ And she said, ‘You don’t want kids of your own?’ And I said, ‘Well they would be my own, only I would adopt them.’ ‘Then they wouldn’t be your own,’ she said. ‘They wouldn’t have your genes.’ At which point I said something like, ‘I think love matters more than genetics,’ and she said, ‘Then this won’t work,’ and she walked away.”

“Oh dear,” says Maya, shaking her head. “How sad.”

“So I followed her back here, trying in vain to restart the conversation, she got in her car, rolled down her window and said, ‘I’m sorry I intruded on your life. Please don’t try to contact me.’ And then she drove away.”

“Stephen, I’m so sorry this happened to you,” says Maya, who thinks of Stephen as her son. “She seemed like a lovely person. Wonderful energy.”

“She is wonderful,” he says, frowning at a passing cloud. “And maybe I would have eventually come around to the idea of having a child with her, but not as a prerequisite for loving each other.”

“Of course not,” says Maya, exasperated. “Daniel divorced me when I was thirty-two because I didn’t want to interrupt my career to have children, and then when I was going through menopause at fifty-two, Gerald, who was twelve years older than I, suddenly decided he had to father a child. So he divorced me, married a woman half his age, they had a darling baby, and Gerald promptly died. We’re a species of irrational out-of-control baby makers who don’t have the sense to realize there are far too many of us on the planet now and we need to do lots more adopting and lots less baby making.”

Silence falls. The air grows chilly. The sliding glass door opens and Celia Flores comes out on the deck and says, “Time to come inside, Maya. Getting cold.”

Celia is a lovely Mexican woman, fifty-four, with long black hair. She is Maya’s other caregiver and lives with Maya and Stephen from Thursday evening to Sunday morning.

“Thank you, Celia,” says Maya, looking down at Stephen. “Get up now, dear. We don’t want you catching a nasty summer cold.”

Celia brings Maya into the house, parks her in the living room, and goes back out to encourage Stephen to come inside.

“I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck,” he says, looking up at Celia. “Just throw a blanket over me.”

“No Esteban,” she says, kneeling beside him and moving Harpo off his chest. “Come in and lie on the sofa. I’ll start a fire and make supper.”

“You’re so good,” he says, needing her help to stand up. “I’m weak as a kitten.”

“She’s an idiot, that woman,” says Celia, helping Stephen into the house. “You’re the best person I know.”

*

With the fire in the woodstove roaring away, the dogs sprawled on the hearth and hoping Stephen won’t wait too much longer before taking them for their pre-supper walk, Stephen lies on the sofa and says, “Why am I so void of strength? We were only together an hour. Is she some kind of psychic vampire?”

“She’s a bruja,” says Celia, making supper in the kitchen adjoining the living room. “A witch. She put a spell on you and stole your strength. Thank God you didn’t marry her.”

“I don’t think she’s a witch,” says Maya, staring at the flames visible through the glass door of the woodstove. “I think when we give ourselves completely to another and they leave, they take part of us with them.” She looks at Stephen. “You were ready to be with her forever, weren’t you?”

“I was,” he says, nodding. “Or I was ready to be with who I thought she was, but then she turned out to be someone else, which is why she said did I want to see about being in a relationship with her, which was smart of her and why she was angry rather than demolished when we came to our great divide.”

“If she’s not a witch,” says Celia, dropping spaghetti noodles into a big pot of boiling water, “she’s an idiot.”

“What do you mean?” asks Maya, frowning at Celia.

“How could she not want to be with Esteban?” says Celia, chopping tomatoes. “She’s thirty-four and hasn’t found a partner because she wants someone special. But when she finds someone like Esteban, she won’t be with him unless he promises to give her a baby? Idiota.”

Hortensio whimpers, wanting to go on a walk so he can pee and poop, and Moose growls a little to second the motion, and Stephen feels a little surge of strength and says, “I’m gonna take the dogs for a quick walk. Fear not, I’ll bundle up.”

*

Twilight, the town cloaked in fog, Stephen bends down to bag up Hortensio’s mountainous poop and Moose’s smaller offering, and he thinks This is love, too.

And now he thinks of something he wants to share with Maya and Celia, so he tells himself the thing over and over as he walks home with the dogs, and with each telling he tries to be more succinct, so that by the time he gets home and takes off his shoes and unleashes the dogs to go have drinks of water from their bowls in the kitchen, Stephen has the thing down to a few sentences.

*

At supper—spaghetti, topped with sautéed vegetables from Stephen’s garden and a sauce rich with tomatoes and jalapeños—Stephen says, “I met Carmen at the precise moment we were both finally ready, biologically emotionally spiritually, to merge completely with another. And under the spell of that ideal moment, we imagined each other to be ideal, when, in fact, we are just two people who met, if you will, at a magical moment in our personal evolutions.”

“Sounds right to me,” says Maya, gazing across the table at Stephen. “Thirty-four is an age when many people who have not yet wed often do.”

“I got married when I was nineteen,” says Celia, who is having a rare second glass of wine. “But when I was twenty-four and already had my kids, I felt like I came to this moment you talk about, Esteban, and for the first time in my life I was ready to merge with another person, not only with my body, but with everything about me. Only I was already married and would not leave Miguel. But for some years I almost did leave because I wanted to be with someone who was also ready in their heart to be with me.”

*

Stephen wakes early the next day, as is his habit, his dogs waiting patiently in the living room for him to emerge from his bedroom and take them for their morning constitutional. He lies on his back and gazes at the ceiling of his bedroom, the gorgeous planks milled from the hearts of old growth redwoods, the house built seventy years ago when those ancient trees were still being felled as fast as the rapacious logging companies could fell them, until finally the tree huggers managed to save the last few thousand acres of the ancient ones.

*

Celia is in the kitchen, dressed for work in sweater and sweatpants, her heavy makeup applied, her long black hair in a bun, her husband Miguel due to pick her up in a few hours. She and Stephen confer about breakfast and getting Maya out of bed, and Celia tells Stephen her often-sore back is fine today and she will take care of Maya.

As for breakfast, Stephen suggests he pick up a pumpkin pie at Zeke’s, one of Melody’s two bakery cafés open early in the morning, and Celia smiles brightly and says, “I was hoping you would say something like that.”

“I so appreciate your help yesterday,” says Stephen, who loves Celia no end. “I’d still be out there on the deck if you hadn’t carried me inside.”

“You’ll find someone, Stephen,” she says softly. “But you don’t need to look for her.”

*

Stephen parks Hortensio and Moose in front of Zeke’s where another familiar dog is already parked—Abe Zubinsky’s Black Lab Tarzan—and enters the warm bakery where the smell of freshly-baked bread and pastries makes everyone happy.

He gets in line behind Abe Zubinsky, a slender guy of sixty-two with long white hair in a ponytail, Abe one of Stephen’s fourteen guitar students.

“Maestro,” says Abe, greeting his teacher with a hearty handshake. “Your show at McCarthy’s this week was spectacular. I thought I was gonna give myself a hernia laughing so hard.”

“I’ll suggest McCarthy put that on the marquee under my name,” says Stephen, gesturing to an imagined marquee. “Hernia-inducingly funny.”

“This is my daughter Nina,” says Abe, turning to a young woman exactly Stephen’s height with short curly brown hair wearing wire-frame glasses exactly like Stephen’s, and dressed identically to Stephen: turquoise Zeke’s Bakery sweatshirt over a white dress shirt, brown corduroy trousers, and gray hiking shoes. “Nina, Stephen.”

“I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” she says, shaking Stephen’s hand, “and wondering why my hair lost its curl.”

“And I feel like I’m looking in a mirror,” says Stephen, enjoying her strong grip, “and noticing how good-looking I’ve become since I last looked in a mirror.”

“Be that as it may,” she says, rolling her eyes and letting go of Stephen’s hand, “I must tell you how impressed I am by my father’s guitar playing. I tried several times to teach him, with minimal success, and you’ve turned him into a veritable Segovia. Albeit the very very young Segovia, but still…”

“I’m bringing her to your show on Thursday,” says Abe, having reached the counter where he turns his attention to ordering pastries and coffee.

“Where are you visiting from?” asks Stephen, finding Nina more attractive by the moment. “And how long are you here for?”

“I live in LA,” she says, inadvertently glancing southward. “And I’m not sure how long I’m here for. Have coffee with us.”

“I would,” says Stephen, grimacing regretfully, “but I’m bringing home breakfast for two others and myself, and they’re probably gnawing the woodwork in anticipation of my return.”

“You live with termites?” she says, arching an eyebrow. “Beavers?”

“My reflection is coming up with some great lines this morning,” says Stephen, a sucker for funny women. “When are you taking Tarzan to the beach? I’ll meet you there with my dogs.”

“I’ll ask my father,” she says, giving him a long look. “I assume he has your number.”

“He does,” says Stephen, having forgotten all about Carmen. “I’ll be sitting by the phone waiting for your call.”

“You don’t carry your phone with you?” she asks, curiously.

“I… no. I don’t have that kind of phone. I got one a few years ago and I started getting terrible headaches that wouldn’t go away until I got rid of the phone.”

“Oh my God,” she says, gaping at him. “That’s exactly what happened to me. I’m the only person in LA without a cell phone.”

*

Following a most delightful breakfast of pumpkin pie and coffee, Stephen and the dogs walk through town to the beach at the mouth of Melody River and find Nina and Abe and Tarzan awaiting them.

Nina has changed into brown shorts and a blue T-shirt, as has Stephen, and while Abe flings the ball into the surf for Tarzan, Stephen and Nina move a little north of Abe so Stephen can throw a similar ball into the surf for Hortensio.

“How’s life in Los Angeles?” asks Stephen, who has never wanted to live anywhere but Melody.

“Insane,” says Nina, captivated by a line of pelicans gliding mere inches above the waves. “But my work is there so I stay.”

“Your work being?” asks Stephen, guessing she’s an actress.

“I write a television show,” she says, watching the pelicans grow small in the distance. “And I’m a studio musician. Guitar and bass.”

“That’s exciting,” says Stephen, wondering why Abe never mentioned his daughter played guitar. “A super creative life.”

Nina makes a disparaging face. “Creative? I wouldn’t call what I do creative. Television writing is formula shtick and studio work is formula sound. I’m skilled at both, but it’s not creative.”

“Oh,” says Stephen, who hasn’t watched television since he was nine. “I always imagined studio musicians were fantastically creative.”

“Some are, most are not,” she says, shaking her head.

“My illusions are shattered,” says Stephen, sensing Nina wishes she did something else for a living.

“But enough about me,” she says, forcing a smile. “What do you do besides giving my father guitar lessons and performing at McCarthy’s?”

“I’m a caregiver for a woman who can’t live on her own,” he says, picking up the ball Moose just dropped and flinging the soggy orb into the surf for Hortensio. “And I write poetry and songs and have thirteen other guitar students besides your father.”

“What different lives we lead,” she says, sounding bitter.

“Hey while you’re here,” says Stephen, seriously smitten with her, “want to get together and play some music?”

“Do you really want to play music?” she asks, glaring at him. “Or is it possible you can’t tell I’m a lesbian and you’re coming onto me?”

“I can’t tell you’re a lesbian,” says Stephen, who has several lesbian friends. “But then I’ve never been good at guessing sexual orientation. And I admit I thought playing music with you would be a fun way to see if there might be a romantic spark between us, but now that I have been disabused of that notion, I’d still like to play music with you because you’re probably fabulous and I love playing with fabulous musicians, which I don’t often get to do.”

She laughs incredulously. “You really thought I was straight?”

“I thought you… I think you’re lovely,” he says, blushing, “and we feel nicely matched intellectually verbally sense-of-humorly, and, yes, I thought you were straight. Forgive me.”

“To be continued,” she says as her father approaches. “I’ve got your phone number, but don’t wait by the phone. Okay?”

“Okay,” he says, grinning. “I won’t wait by the phone, but I hope you’ll call me.”

If You Would Call Me