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The Same Woman (Donna Again)

October 2021.

Andrew is seventy-three and a widower now for two and a half months. Having eaten little since Luisa’s death, he is thinner than he has ever been, his gray hair full of white.

He sits on the sofa in the cozy one-room studio where Donna, tall and buxom with short red hair and also seventy-three, conducts her business as rabbi and psychotherapist.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” says Donna, sitting in an armchair facing Andrew, her accent Los Angeles Jewish.

Andrew looks at his friend and counselor of the last twenty years and for a moment sees Luisa’s face instead of Donna’s.

“Talk to me,” she says softly. “Say anything.”

They have been sitting quietly for twenty minutes.

Did Cal drive me here? No. Cal lives in Hawaii now. Diana brought me.

“Tell me how you met Luisa,” says Donna, speaking of Andrew’s wife of thirty-four years, her suicide a terrible shock to everyone who knew her.

“Kindergarten,” says Andrew, remembering the first time he saw Luisa’s daughter Lily swinging high on the swings at the Montessori. “Owen and Lily…” He stops speaking, his language center shutting down.

“She brought Lily to your house for a play date with Owen,” says Donna, knowing the story well. “And you liked each other instantly.”

Andrew nods and begins to cry, which is what Donna was hoping for, to break the dam holding back his tears.

Donna has been a widow for five years. Her husband Howard was twelve years older than she. After suffering with increasing dementia for two years, he blessedly succumbed to pneumonia. Donna is currently dating a youngster in his sixties named Herschel, and is in the midst of passing the reins of the shul to another feminist rabbi. 

When Andrew stops crying, Donna says, “You need to tell a part of Luisa’s story every day. That’s how you’ll heal. Trust me.”

“Maybe I don’t want to heal,” he says, glaring at her. “Maybe I want to die, too.”

“Maybe you do,” says Donna, nodding. “But I don’t think so. I think you want to be alive for your children and grandchildren, and for your friends and for yourself.”

“I killed her,” he says, bowing his head. “Taking on Teo and Rosa was too much to ask of her.”

“That’s not true. You both wanted Teo and Rosa. And Jalecia. Luisa’s granddaughter. She asked of you what you asked of her. Am I wrong? I don’t think so. She confided in me for twenty years. She was adamant the children stay with you and not go with Adrianna.”

“But Teo and Rosa wouldn’t have existed,” he says, crushed by his grief, “if I hadn’t stupidly mated with Adrianna. Stupid animal me.”

“Beautiful animal you,” says Donna, calmly. “God gives us life in mysterious ways. You were a vehicle for God’s desire to bring your children into the world. And you and Luisa did a fabulous job bringing them up, and you will complete the job.”

“Or die trying,” says Andrew, who always eventually reverts to his Jewish self when he spends time with Donna.

“Watch out, bubalah,” she says, grinning at him. “We might start laughing and then how will we grieve?”

“Grieve schmeeve,” he says, laughing through his tears. “I need some good deli.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” she says, getting up. “Come on. I’ll drive us to Max’s.”

Donna pilots her electric car through the lunchtime traffic of Vancouver, the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, many of the pedestrians masked, though Vancouver and Canada have not been much affected compared to the catastrophe in the United States.

They sit by an open window in the deli and split an order of fries and a hot pastrami sandwich on rye with sauerkraut.

“I was starving,” says Andrew, hailing their masked waitress. “Could I get a cup of coffee, please?”

“Two,” says Donna, raising her hand. “I never think I want coffee until after, and then midway through the sandwich I crave the bitter.”

“My mother always said, ‘Save the coffee for the cookies,’” says Andrew, his eyes filing with tears as he thinks of his long-departed mother, “but I just can’t wait.”

The waitress brings two mugs of black stuff and says to Andrew, “You probably don’t recognize me with my mask on. Delilah Bernstein. I was in Moon In Leo. The deli scene. You are such a good director. In fact, I got this job because I was in that movie. Max is a huge fan. He saw the movie seven times in the theatre and watches the video all the time.”

“I see you now,” says Andrew, imagining her face without the mask. “You were great.”

“I hear Character Driven is gearing up to make another movie,” she says, nodding hopefully. “Can I give you my card?”

“Yeah, sure, but you should call my son,” says Andrew, starting to cry. “You know Owen. He’ll remember you.”

“Okay, I will,” she says, touched by his tears. “I’ll tell him you told me to. Thanks.”

Andrew weeps for what seems like a long time to him, but is only a minute or so.

“Good to cry,” says Donna, crying a little with him. “Why don’t you come again tomorrow? At eleven. Then we’ll do lunch again. This is good.”

Chauffeured home by Diana, Andrew gets out of the trusty red Prius and gazes at the house he built forty-five years ago, the place feeling lifeless to him with Luisa gone and the kids at school—Teo and Rosa fourteen, Jalecia eleven.

“I have to make some calls before I go to the store and get the kids,” says Diana, stretching her arms to the sky. “You need anything before I go?”

Diana is a beautiful Eurasian, fifty-three, British, with raven black hair, a poet and artist and inveterate wearer of T-shirts and blue jeans. She has lived in the other house on the property for ten years, helping with the kids and housework and cooking.

Andrew gazes at her, having forgotten in these last few months how much he loves watching her and listening to her speak.

“What?” she asks, blushing at being so intensely observed. “Something unzipped?”

“No, I was just…” He laughs self-consciously. “I guess I could use a hug before you go.”

“Always,” she says, coming to embrace him.

“I can’t ever thank you enough,” he says, relaxing in her embrace. “Couldn’t survive without you.”

“Yes you could,” she says, giving him a good squeeze. “But you don’t have to.”

Waiting for Diana to get home with the kids, Andrew wanders into the living room and sits down at the piano, an exquisite teak upright he and Luisa bought twenty years ago to celebrate the success of a movie they wrote—this his first time at the piano since Luisa died.

He plays the first notes of the tune he was composing when Luisa died and the music makes him cry, but he goes on playing until the phone rings and he hurries to the kitchen to answer.

The caller is his son Owen who is thirty-nine now and lives in Vancouver with his wife Miyoshi and their seven-year-old daughter Mimi.

“Papa?” he says, sounding like a little boy to Andrew.

“Hey O,” says Andrew, his son’s voice bringing up more tears—the session with Donna having obliterated his floodgates.

“Just spoke to Diana,” says Owen, who is also still grieving Luisa. “We were thinking of bringing pizza over there for supper tonight. Diana said I should check with you and see what you think.”

“Yeah, great,” says Andrew, making a supreme effort to sound positive. “I may not last long tonight, O. Haven’t slept much lately, but I’d love to see you and Yosh and Mimi.”

“Good. I’ll call Diana,” says Owen, thrilled by this first Yes from Andrew since Luisa died.

Andrew hangs up and has a good long cry, and on his way back to the piano, the phone rings again—Lily, Luisa’s daughter, calling from Los Angeles.

 “Hey Papa,” says Lily, who is the same age as Owen. “How you holding up?”

“Okay,” he says, clearing his throat. “Had a good session with Donna today.”

“Donna,” says Lily, the name not registering. “Tell me again who that is?”

“The rabbi.”

“Oh yeah, the rabbi therapist,” says Lily, sounding hurried. “Good. Great. I’ve been going to my therapist every day. Can’t believe Mama’s gone. Just can’t believe it. I feel so bad I didn’t get up there more often these last few years, but I’ve been so crazy busy with the new show and the new house and… still I should have come before the fucking virus ruined everything. I’m a terrible daughter and a rotten mother.” She waits a moment. “You still there?”

“I’m here,” says Andrew, startled to realize he has never fully forgiven Lily for leaving her baby with them eleven years ago so she could pursue her acting career unencumbered. “Please don’t think of yourself as a terrible daughter or a rotten mother. If I ever made you feel that way, I apologize.”

You apologize?” says Lily, stunned. “I’m the one who fucked up, not you.”

“Oh Lily, don’t think that,” he says, wishing he could hold her on his lap as he did when she was little and would come to him seeking solace. “You’re an adventurer. An artist. You gave us Jalecia who is the great joy of my life and was your mother’s joy.”

“Oh Papa,” says Lily, crying, “I want to come visit you and Owen and the kids, but the virus is still out of control here and if I came to Canada I’d have to quarantine in some hotel for ten days before I could even start my visit and I’m so busy with…”

“I know,” he says, seeing now that holding the vision of Lily as a defiant teenager helped her stay stuck in that idea of herself. “We’ll be together again. All in good time. We will.”

The next morning, Donna settles into her armchair, studies Andrew for a moment and says, “You look better today. How are you feeling?”

“I actually slept for a few hours last night,” he says, giving her a sleepy smile. “Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi brought pizza for supper and Diana and Rosa made a big salad. Root beer for the kids, wine for the grownups. Quite the shindig. We rioted until nine.”

“Did you dream?”

“I did, but I only remember a fragment. Owen was in the living room. He was maybe ten, searching for something. He looked under the sofa cushions and then he frowned at me. That’s all I remember.”

“Tell it again,” says Donna, knowing what the dream is about. “Present tense.”

Andrew closes his eyes and sees young Owen moving around the living room, searching for something. “He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Must be summer. He looks under the cushions, looks around the room, and now he sees me and gives me a questioning look.”

“What’s his question, do you think?”

“Where is she?”

Donna considers this. “Why do you think he’s a boy in the dream and not a man?”

“He seems like a boy to me now,” says Andrew, fighting his tears. “A boy who lost his mother.”

“So maybe he knows where she is. Maybe that’s not his question.”

“You think he wants to know why she killed herself?”

“Of course he does. Wouldn’t you if you didn’t know?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, shaking his head.

“Okay,” she says, nodding slowly. “Tell me about the last three years of Luisa’s life.”

“I don’t know if I can today,” he says, bowing his head. “I don’t feel well.”

“What are your symptoms?”

“Anxious. Achy. Dizzy. Miserable.”

“What was going on at your house three years ago?”

“The twins were eleven, Jalecia was eight, Luisa and I just turned seventy, Cal and Terry just moved to Hawaii, and Owen and Miyoshi were getting their company going with Moon In Leo and…” He grimaces. “It was all too much for Luisa. Too much to ask of her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Too much work. Too much going on. She was overwhelmed.”

“Were you overwhelmed?”

“Yes,” he snaps. “Of course I was.”

“I don’t remember you being overwhelmed. I remember you loved working on the movie and being energized by the experience.”

“At Luisa’s expense,” he says bitterly. “I was off playing at being a movie director while she was all alone dealing with the kids.”

“Alone? What about Diana?”

“Okay, yes, Diana was there, but I wasn’t. And it was too much for her.”

“You mean for the few weeks you worked on the movie?”

“What are you trying to say?” He feels like he’s about to break in half. “That it wasn’t too much for her?”

“I’m not trying to say anything.” She waits a moment. “I want you to tell me the story of the last three years of Luisa’s life. Which is your story, too. I want you to tell me what you remember, not what you think you did wrong. Just the story of those years.”

He sits up straight and rolls his shoulders to loosen the grip of his demons. “I had an amazing four months working with Sakura. And directing those scenes in Moon In Leo was one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of my life. And after Sakura went back to Japan, the plays and stories and songs just came pouring out of me and I was in heaven writing them.”

“You were reborn.”

“I was reborn.”

“And Luisa?”

“She was not.”

“Did she resent you?”

“No,” he says, remembering the trip they took after Sukara went back to Japan, the glorious train ride through the Rockies to Banff, their elegant suite in the Banff Inn, their long walks in the wilderness.

“Where did you go just now, Andrew?”

“To Lake Louise,” he says, seeing Luisa reflected in the ethereal blue of the lake. “Ten days without the kids. Just lolling around and taking walks and…”

“And what?”

“She said she didn’t want to go home. Said she was tired of raising children, tired of not having time for anything else. ‘Can’t we just keep going? Stay in Montreal for a few weeks and then fly to Europe. Please?’”

“What did you say?”

“I said we’d redesign our lives to travel more and I’d do more with the kids and she could do less, but I didn’t want to just abandon them.”

“So did you travel more?”

“Before the pandemic I tried, but she wouldn’t go.”

“So from then on you and Diana were the parents.”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“Were the kids confused by Luisa withdrawing?”

“Yes. Especially Jalecia. She was so attached to Luisa.”

“So Luisa withdrew. What did she do all day?”

“At first she read and watered the garden and went on long drives and…” He strains to remember. “Then she’d suddenly re-engage with the kids and start cooking again and going to soccer games and say, ‘I’m back. I just needed a break. I’m fine now.’ And that would last a week or two and then she’d withdraw again. And every time she withdrew, she seemed to go further into her aloneness.” He looks at Donna. “Then you referred her to the psychiatrist who prescribed the anti-depressants, which seemed to help at first, but then she started forgetting things. She’d leave something cooking on the stove and wander out into the garden or she’d leave the hose running and flood the garden or she’d come into a room and say, ‘Why did I come in here? I knew a few seconds ago, but now I have no idea.’ So she stopped taking the meds and withdrew again.”

“And you were writing and composing and taking care of the kids,” says Donna, nodding. “Shouldering on without her.”

“Not without her,” he says, seeing Luisa in the garden lost in thought. “I spent lots of time with her during the day when the kids were at school and at night.”

“What did you do together?”

“We talked when she was willing to talk. I played the piano for her. We went to the beach. We worked in the garden. Or I worked and she daydreamed. I’d make us lunch.”

“Was she still going on long drives?”

“No, she stopped driving. She said it was too confusing. And by then we were staying home because of the virus, so…”

“So for a year she mostly kept to herself?”

“Mostly,” he says, nodding. “And she just got more and more depressed, so I arranged for her to have a thorough medical exam and they concluded she was clinically depressed and should be on meds. And when the doctor told us that, Luisa said, ‘Then I might as well be dead.’”

“How long ago was that?”

“Eight months? Seven months? Seems like years ago.”

“Did she ask you to help her die?”

“Yes,” he says, closing his eyes. “But I couldn’t.”

“You thought she’d get better.”

“I wanted her to, but I didn’t think she would.”

“Why not?”

Silence.

“Why didn’t you think she would get better?”

“She seemed more ghost than alive.”

“Then what happened?” asks Donna, moving from her chair to sit with Andrew on the sofa.

“She stayed in bed for a month and then she got up and made a valiant effort to be part of the family again, though it was incredibly difficult for her. And then one day she got very upset with the kids and threw a glass at Teo that shattered all over the kitchen and she said horrible things to Rosa and screamed at Jalecia, and she felt so terrible about what she’d done that she went on the meds, and for some weeks she seemed better and we had some nice suppers, the whole family, and some good days at the beach and then…”

“She took the car and drove fifty miles north and lay down on the sand and cut her wrists and died.”

Andrew weeps and Donna holds him.

When his tears abate, Andrew says, “She left a note that said burn my unfinished stories and tell the children and Diana I love them. You know I love you.” 

They have lunch in Donna’s kitchen—chicken soup and bread and cheese—neither speaking as they eat.

Donna makes coffee to go with their after-lunch cookies, and as she pushes down the plunger on her French Press she says, “I may have said this to you before, but it’s worth repeating. Many of us are prone to feeling we are responsible for the other’s happiness or for their suffering or both. We know intellectually this isn’t true, but as my great teacher Rabbi Orenstein used to say, ‘Our mighty unconscious laughs at our pipsqueak intellect and carries on as per usual.’ Unless we break free of our early programming, which very few people ever do, then that early programming will always be our default response.”

“I think the hardest thing for me,” says Andrew, who feels nearly weightless from shedding so many tears, “is… well, two things. First, I had thirty years with Luisa without a day of her being anything but happy to be alive, happy to be engaged in our writing and music and loving our children, so I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly she changed.”

“What’s the other thing?” asks Donna, pouring him a cup of coffee.

“I keep thinking I should do something to make things better for the kids,” he says, smiling sadly. “To ease their pain.”

“This is the illusion, Andrew. You are not responsible for their happiness or their suffering.” She looks at him for a long moment. “You were responsible when they were babies and little children, but they are who they are now, and they must suffer the loss of Luisa in their own ways. Of course you can help them deal with their sorrow. You can love them and listen to them and let them know you’re there for them. But you can’t keep them from suffering. And the best thing you can do for them now is to embrace life and follow your heart and know that Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Owen and Miyoshi and Mimi and Lily are all watching you and learning from you. Because if you can lovingly embrace life, you who lost the love of your life, so will they. And so will I.”

Every day Andrew feels a little less numb, a little less hopeless, and better able to hear and respond to what Teo and Rosa and Jalecia and Diana say to him.

On a rainy afternoon in November, Andrew and Diana and Jalecia and Teo stand on the sidelines of a soccer field, cheering wildly as Rosa outruns everyone and brilliantly jukes the goalie and scores the winning goal—Andrew falling to his knees and kissing the muddy earth.

A few weeks before Christmas, the kids at school, Diana finishes washing the breakfast dishes and carries her tea and notebook into the living room where she sits and listens to Andrew composing a piano piece, his search for what comes next inspiring Diana to write her first poem since Luisa died.

Five months later, in April of 2022, the first truly effective vaccine against the virus plaguing humanity is deployed around the world, and Diana and Andrew and Teo and Rosa and Jalecia are among the first to be inoculated.

On a sunny morning in June, Canada having successfully vaccinated seventy per cent of her population, the other thirty per cent soon to follow, Diana finds Andrew in the garden and tells him that Simon, her boyfriend of six years, has left her for another woman.

“He’s a fool,” says Andrew, giving her a comforting hug. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’ll be okay,” she says, lingering in his embrace. “I’m mostly worried about how to tell the kids. They love Simon.”

“Do you want me to tell them?”

“No,” she says, stepping back from him and smiling radiantly. “Thanks for offering, but I need to do it so they can ask me their ten thousand questions.”

Andrew laughs. “May it only be ten thousand.”

In July, after a good session in Donna’s studio, Andrew and Donna go to lunch at Max’s, the wait staff still masked, the virus not yet entirely eradicated in Canada and still going strong in the United States.

They split an order of fries and a Reuben sandwich and Donna talks about how relieved she is to be free of her rabbi duties and how much fun she’s having creating her book of mini-sermons.

“I’ve been reading through my old sermons,” she says, her cheeks reddening. “Hundreds of them. And I am both awed and chagrined at how confidently I spouted such well-meaning nonsense and so often missed the deeper truth. So this is my chance to not only be more succinct, but to right the wrongs of my erroneous clichés.”

“I can’t wait to read them,” says Andrew, who has recently entered a sorrowful phase as the one-year anniversary of Luisa’s death approaches.

“If you will be my editor,” says Donna, smiling hopefully, “you can read them very soon.”

“I would be honored,” he says, immeasurably grateful to her.

“Speaking of honor,” says Donna, gesturing to their waitress for the bill, “I would like to have a ceremony for Luisa on the one-year anniversary of her death. Nothing elaborate. Just lighting a candle and saying a prayer and asking everyone to share a memory of her. Just you and I and Diana and Owen and Miyoshi and the kids and any friends you’d like to invite.”

“Could be hundreds,” says Andrew, his eyes filling with tears. “She was greatly loved.”

“Up to you, dear,” she says, crying with him. “You tell me who to invite.”

In August, twenty people gather in the garden at Andrew’s house to remember Luisa.

Donna lights a candle and says, “We have gathered here to kiss Luisa’s spirit with our memories of her. I will begin by sharing my favorite Luisa memory, which is that every time I came here to have a meal, I would find Luisa in the kitchen and she would give me a smile that meant, ‘Come here and taste this,’ and I would go to her and she would feed me as a mother feeds her child, something delicious she’d made, and then we would look into each other’s eyes and be one with each other in our joy.”

In October, the kids gone to bed, Andrew and Diana are saying goodnight when Diana surprises Andrew by saying, “How about we spend the night together? You and me. Just because.”

“You mean… share a bed?” says Andrew, who has lately been enjoying speaking with a Jewish accent.

“Yeah. Sleep together.”

“My bed or yours?” he says, trying to be funny.

“Either one. They’re both nice beds.”

“I would be afraid to do that,” he says, dearly loving Diana but considering her taboo.

“We don’t have to have sex,” she says, her tone suggesting she wouldn’t mind if they did. “I just want to be close to you. I’m tired of sleeping alone knowing you’re sleeping alone and we could be keeping each other warm.”

“If we got in bed together,” says Andrew, his heart pounding, “despite the fact, or because of the fact I haven’t had sex in forever, we would probably have sex. Or we would try. Or I would. Because… how could I not? And if for some reason whatever happened made you unhappy or uneasy or caused you to leave… I just… I don’t ever want that to happen. Not that I haven’t thought about making love with you. I have. I do. I’ve always thought you were… luscious. But I’m seventy-four. You’re fifty-four. We’re best friends. We raised the kids together. I don’t want to lose you.”

“It is a gamble,” she says, looking into his eyes. “A big gamble. But I still want to.”

“I’m amazed,” he says, fighting the momentum of his desire. “And flattered, but…”

“Come on, Andrew,” she says softly, knowing he would never initiate their first kiss, and therefore the initiation is up to her. “Gamble with me.”

fin

Tender Mystery

Categories
Uncategorized

The Same Woman (Luisa)

Over and over again in the course of his life, Andrew meets a woman he recognizes as someone he has known before. He met her in elementary school in 1955, fell in love with her briefly in 1962, had a relationship with her in 1966, and lived with her in British Columbia from 1970 to 1973. The last time was in 1978 when they became pen pals for six years until she broke off all communication with him.

1986. Andrew is thirty-eight and his wife Kiki is forty. They celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary, their four-year-old son Owen begins attending pre-school, both Kiki and Andrew get their first personal computers, and Andrew becomes Owen’s sole parent for long stretches of days and weeks so Kiki can pursue her burgeoning career as a modern dance choreographer.

Owen and Andrew are unhappy about Kiki spending so much time away from their home on the outskirts of Vancouver, and Andrew wishes Kiki was content to work with dance companies nearer at hand, but she is not and has signed contracts to create dances for companies in Montreal, London, New York, and Los Angeles over the next two years.

They had hoped Andrew’s success with his writing would continue and they could afford for Andrew and Owen to accompany Kiki on her various choreography adventures, but when a giant corporation took over the publishing house that had done so well with Andrew’s first two collections of short stories, his run of good fortune ended. His third collection was taken out-of-print a few days after the book was published, and then the corporation cancelled the publication of his fourth collection, after which his sales figures branded him an author who doesn’t sell.

Having spent the considerable profits from his earlier successes on doubling the size of their kitchen and building a spectacular dance studio for Kiki adjacent to their house, Andrew has taken up carpentry work again to pay the bills.

Kiki is unhappy about the situation, too, but creating dances for the best modern dance companies in the world has long been her dream and she doesn’t want to miss her chance. Knowing how quickly Andrew’s fortunes changed, Kiki is determined to strike while her iron is hot.

Andrew’s best friend Cal and Cal’s wife Terry and their children Felicia and Scott live a mile away from Andrew and Kiki and Owen. Felicia is ten and Scott is five and they are Owen’s best friends and idols. Their daily presence in Owen’s life, along with Terry as a willing mother substitute, makes Kiki’s long absences easier for the little boy to handle.

On a rainy Wednesday afternoon in April—Kiki in New York after a brief stint at home following seven weeks in Los Angeles—Andrew is sitting at the counter in the magnificent kitchen he built especially for Kiki, overseeing Owen and Scott and Felicia making oatmeal raisin cookies, when the phone rings.

Before he picks up the phone, Andrew prays the caller is his literary agent Penelope Goldstein calling from Montreal with good news, though he hasn’t heard a peep from Penelope in three years.

“Hello,” he says, imagining Penelope sitting at her desk piled high with manuscripts, her glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

“Hi,” says a woman with a musical voice. “May I speak to Andrew Ross, please?”

For a flickering, Andrew thinks the caller is Carol Savard, his great friend and correspondent who two years ago severed all ties with him because, as she wrote in her final letter to him, “The intensity of my desire to be in a relationship with you makes it impossible for me to sustain a relationship with anyone else.”

“This is Andrew.”

“My name is Luisa Morningstar. My daughter Lily is at the Montessori school with your son Owen, and she asked me to make a play date with him. Is that something we might arrange?”

“Probably,” says Andrew, struck by how much she reminds him of Carol Savard, though she sounds nothing like Carol. “Can you hold on a sec?”

“Happy to. Or you can call me back.”

“Good idea,” says Andrew, flustered by the feelings arising in him. “He’s currently baking cookies.”

“So O,” says Andrew, speaking to his son at bedtime, “I got a call from Lily’s mother today wondering if you’d like to have a play date with Lily.”

“I’m playing with Scott and Felicia after school tomorrow,” says Owen, pursing his lips and shaking his head exactly as his mother does. “We already planned it.”

“Right, but there are lots of days when you don’t play with Scott and Felicia. Maybe you’d like to play with Lily on one of those days?”

“Would you be with me?” asks Owen with a touch of worry in his voice.

“If it’s at our house, of course I’ll be with you,” says Andrew, knowing Owen doesn’t like going new places without Mama or Papa or Terry or Cal. “And if it’s at Lily’s house I will definitely be with you the whole time for the first few times you go there.”

“Okay,” says Owen, nodding.

“You don’t have to have a play date with her. Only if you like her.”

“I love her,” says Owen, gazing at his father. “She’s so nice and she’s the best dancer you’ve ever seen.”

“Better than your mother?”

“Maybe a little,” says Owen, pouting. “When’s Mama coming home?”

“In two weeks,” says Andrew, fighting his tears. “And this time she’ll be home for a good long while.”

“How long is a good long while?”

“Lots of days,” says Andrew, his heart breaking. “Lots and lots of days.”

The next morning on his way to the beach house he’s building with two other carpenters, Andrew drives Owen to the Montessori kindergarten that occupies a former Methodist church four miles from their house. Owen puts his knapsack and jacket in his cubbyhole and he and Andrew wave to the head teacher Mrs. Chandler who is on the phone in her office.

A sturdy middle-aged woman with short gray hair and rosy cheeks, Mrs. Chandler waves back to them and mouths the words, “Good morning Owen. Welcome to school.”

“Want to introduce me to Lily?” asks Andrew as he accompanies Owen out the back door of the schoolhouse and through the children’s vegetable garden to the large playground.

“Okay,” says Owen, who is usually among the first children to arrive at school in the morning. “She’s always on the swings when I get here. Unless it’s raining.”

And sure enough, on the middle swing of three, the two other swings not yet taken, is a beautiful four-year-old girl with dark olive skin and big brown eyes, her long black hair done in four intricately woven braids, swinging higher than most children dare to go and singing Frère Jacques.

On the following Saturday at ten in the morning, the sky full of dark gray clouds, Luisa brings Lily to Andrew and Owen’s house for a play date.

Luisa’s exquisite face and her dark olive skin remind Andrew of the famous bust of Nefertiti. She is exactly Andrew’s height, five-eleven, and exactly his age, thirty-eight, and she wears her glossy black hair in a ponytail—her movements and gestures full of grace.

Following a quick tour of the house, during which Owen and Lily stay in Owen’s room to look at his stuffed animals and books, Andrew and Luisa sit at the kitchen counter and share a pot of tea.

“You have my dream kitchen,” she says, gazing around the splendid room. “This is bigger than the kitchen at the restaurant where I cook.”

“Which restaurant?” asks Andrew, mystified by how much she reminds him of his former friend Carol Savard, though she looks nothing like Carol and sounds nothing like Carol, and yet…

The Crossroads,” she says, looking at her watch. “I’ve been the breakfast and lunch chef there for nine years now. I drop Lily off at Montessori at 6:15 and pick her up at 3:30. I have a special arrangement with Mrs. Chandler.”

“I’ve eaten your delicious food many times,” says Andrew, who usually drops Owen at school a few minutes after seven, which is officially the earliest a child is supposed to arrive. “Do you pay Mrs. Chandler?

“Yes,” she says, nodding. “Only way I can manage.” She looks at her watch again. “Speaking of which, would it be okay with you if I left now and came back at two? I know I said I’d stick around for the first date, but I am so far behind on so many things at home, a few hours alone would be a godsend.”

“Sure,” says Andrew, disappointed not to have a longer visit with her. “If Lily’s okay being here without you.”

“Oh she’s used to me leaving her with people she hardly knows,” says Luisa, getting up. “But I’ll check with her to make sure.”

Andrew accompanies Luisa to Owen’s room where they find Lily and Owen sitting side-by-side on Owen’s bed looking through a big picture book of Australian marsupials.

“I’m going now, honey,” says Luisa, smiling at the sight of her daughter with Owen. “I’ll be back at two.”

“Okay,” says Lily, looking up from the picture of a mother koala and her two babies. “See you later.”

“Good luck with your catching up,” says Andrew, escorting Luisa to her little old Toyota station wagon. “We’ll see you at two. Or thereabouts.”

“You’re a prince,” she says, beaming at him as she gets into her car.

At three-thirty, while Owen and Lily are giving each other impromptu concerts on the piano in the living room, Andrew calls Luisa and gets her answering machine. He is more than a little peeved she took thereabouts to mean an hour and a half late, but when he hears her answering machine message, he’s glad he felt the need to call her.

She sings in her gorgeous voice, “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather,” and follows those words by saying, “but I do know I want to talk to you, so please leave a message and I’ll call you back.”

Andrew saunters into the living room, waits for Owen to finish his improvised piano piece, joins Lily in applauding and asks, “Is your mom a singer, Lily?”

“Yeah,” she says, taking Owen’s place at the piano. “I am, too.”

When Luisa finally shows up at 4:15, Andrew is too angry to accept her apology and she bursts into tears as she leaves with Lily.

“Papa?” asks Owen, watching the little station wagon drive away. “Why was Lily’s mother crying?”

“I don’t know,” says Andrew, still seething.

“Can we go to Cookie’s for pizza?” asks Owen, smiling hopefully at his father. “With Lily and her mother?”

“I think you’ve seen enough of Lily for one day,” says Andrew, fixing himself against the idea of asking Lily and Luisa to join them for pizza.

“What do you mean?” says Owen, frowning. “We weren’t tired of each other.”

Andrew closes his eyes and breathes deeply to calm himself.

“Please Papa?” says Owen, taking Andrew’s hand. “Can we ask them to come with us?”

“Okay,” says Andrew, opening his eyes. “I’ll call and see.”

He leaves a message on Luisa’s machine and she calls back fifteen minutes later. “We’d love to meet you at Cookie’s,” she says breathlessly. “At six?”

“Six,” he says, resisting his impulse to add and don’t be late.

Andrew and Owen arrive at Cookie’s at ten minutes past six, the place jammed as always on a Saturday night, the din fantastic. Luisa and Lily are already there, Lily wearing a pretty white dress with red polka dots, Luisa wearing a beautiful turquoise shirt and a long black skirt and looking fabulous.

“We’re under-dressed,” says Andrew, sitting beside Luisa in the booth—Owen and Lily on booster seats across from them.

“You look fine,” says Luisa, watching his face. “Are you still mad at me?”

“About what?” says Andrew, studying the menu.

“Oh good,” she says, smiling. “I’m dying for a beer. Want to split a pitcher?”

Along with their extra large deluxe vegetable pizza with extra mushrooms, the children have lemonade and the grownups enjoy their beer.

 “So tell me how you came to be the renowned chef of The Crossroads,” says Andrew, enjoying Luisa’s company. “Spare no details.”

“I thought you might ask me something like that,” says Luisa, smiling shyly. “So I rehearsed my answer. The first part of it anyway.”

“How prescient of you,” he says, giving her his full attention after confirming that Owen is happily devouring his third piece of pizza.

“I was born in Toronto,” she says, exchanging smiles with her daughter. “My mother, who died seven years ago, was part-Chippewa, part-French Quebecois, and she was a fantastic cook. She worked in a hotel kitchen and had a brief liaison with a man from Cuba. He was an engineer working on a dam north of the city and was staying in the hotel where my mother worked. He was unaware he had conceived a child with her until she wrote to him in Cuba, and once he knew, he sent her money every few months for as long as I lived at home, which was until I was sixteen.”

“Papa?” says Owen, politely interrupting. “Can we go look at the fish?”

“Can we, Mama?” asks Lily, nodding hopefully.

When the children are safely stationed at the big aquarium and gazing in wonder at the neon tetras and swordtails and goldfish, Luisa continues her story.

“I started working in restaurants when I was thirteen,” she says, nodding in thanks as Andrew pours her a second glass of beer, “and I’d been playing piano and singing since I was a little kid, so… to make a very long story short, my life until I had Lily was always some combination of singing and working in restaurants. And now my life is entirely restaurant work and taking care of Lily, though we do sing together and I’m teaching her to play the piano.”

“And Lily’s father? Where is he?”

“He was a guitarist I used to perform with,” she says softly. “And after a few years of successfully resisting his advances, one night I didn’t resist and Lily was made, though I didn’t want to believe I was pregnant until I was almost three months along, and by then her father had moved to Seattle.”

“Did you tell him you were pregnant?”

“No, because I was planning to get an abortion. But then I had a vivid dream in which my mother came to me and begged me to keep the child, so I did and named her Lily after my mother. And then when Lily was two, I decided to contact her father and tell him, partly because I needed money and partly because I thought he should know, and that’s when I found out he had committed suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression.”

The children return from watching the fish, ice cream is ordered, and Luisa asks Andrew, “So your wife is a choreographer and you are a carpenter. How did you meet?”

“At a party in Montreal,” says Andrew, remembering the moment he met Kiki—love at first sight—at the height of his success.

“Were you living in Montreal?”

“No, but Kiki was. She grew up there.”

“So what were you doing there?”

“Oh… visiting friends,” he says, in no mood to rehash the rise and fall of his writing career.

She arches her eyebrow. “Why don’t I believe you?”

“I don’t know,” he says, caught off guard. “Why don’t you?”

“Because you looked away when you answered. As if you were ashamed to tell me.”

“Ashamed,” says Andrew, considering that as he finishes his third glass of beer. “Yeah maybe I am a little, though not about why I was in Montreal.” He makes a disparaging face. “It’s a long boring story.”

“I’m sure it’s not boring,” she says, splitting the last of the beer with him. “Maybe next time you’ll tell me.”

“Next play date?” he says, liking her very much.

“Yeah,” she says, liking him very much, too. “Next play date.”

That night, after Owen falls asleep during the bedtime story, Andrew sits at the kitchen table with the intention of writing a letter to Jason Moreau, the director of the Montreal production of Extremely Silly Ariel Gets Wise, a play based on two of Andrew’s short stories that was a resounding success nine years ago and helped launch Andrew’s writing career.

But instead of a letter to Jason, out comes a story about a man and his young son who spend a week at the beach one summer in an old falling down house, and the fascinating people and animals and birds and curious conundrums they encounter there.

He writes for five hours without stopping, uses up two Bic pens and most of the ink in a third, and finishes the seventy-page opus at one in the morning barely aware of what he has written.

After breakfast the next day, Andrew walks with Owen to Scott and Felicia’s house, and while Owen and Scott build towers of wooden blocks in the living room, Andrew has coffee with Cal and Terry in the kitchen—Cal a strapping fellow with curly black hair who has known Andrew since they were in high school together in California, Terry a pretty redhead who fell in love with Cal the day after he got to Canada seventeen years ago.

“What news of Kiki?” asks Cal, who is a professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University, his specialties Ethics, Skepticism, and Socrates.

“She’ll be home in a couple weeks,” says Andrew, weary from his long night of writing. “We spoke a few days ago and she said everything was going gangbusters and she loves New York and misses us, but she’s glad she’s doing this, and… like that.”

“How long will she be home for?” asks Terry, a fine art photographer who makes most of her money shooting weddings.

“Little less than three weeks,” says Andrew, smiling bravely. “And then she’s off to LA for seven weeks.”

“You gonna take some time off while she’s home?” asks Cal, who dearly loves Andrew and worries about him.

“No. She’ll be working seven days a week on the new dances for LA, so there’s no point in my taking time off.” He bounces his eyebrows. “But guess what?”

“You started writing again,” says Terry, nodding excitedly.

“How did you know?” asks Andrew, laughing.

“I can hear it in your voice,” she says, getting up to make a fresh pot of coffee. “What are you writing? A play?”

“A story,” says Andrew, having yet to read what he wrote last night. “First thing I’ve written in… God… three years.” He frowns at Terry. “What about my voice is so different?”

“You seem calmer,” says Cal, nodding assuredly. “Happier.”

“You sound like you again,” says Terry, smiling fondly at him. “The old sweet you.”

Leaving Owen to play with Scott for the day, Andrew returns home and sits on the living room sofa reading the seventy pages he wrote last night.

When he finishes, he takes a deep breath and reads the whole thing again.

Now he gets up and goes out into the garden and lifts his arms to the sky and says, “Thank you. Thank you for coming back to me.”

That night Andrew writes for another four hours and produces another fifty pages. Again he has only a vague notion of what he’s writing, but he is filled with joy to be the conduit for whatever so urgently wants to come through.

Monday night, after a long day of roofing the beach house, Andrew reads the pages he wrote last night, and is again filled with gratitude for the story he has wrought.

Now he takes up his pen and writes for another three hours.

Tuesday night, pleased with the previous night’s creation, he finds the flow of words has ceased, so he takes up his guitar and plays a lovely pattern of chords he has never played before, and after playing the pattern a dozen times, he sets down his guitar and writes a chorus and four verses as if copying them from a page hanging in the air before him.

Now he plays the pattern of chords and sings the words, and loves the song more than any song he’s ever written.

Wednesday night, no words come, nor music, so he wanders into the kitchen to put a kettle on for tea and thinks I should call Luisa and set up a play date for Saturday or Sunday and the phone rings and it’s Luisa.

“I was just thinking of calling you,” he says, sitting down at the counter.

“Really?” she says, smiling into the phone. “Why were you thinking of calling me?”

“Well… to set up a play date for Owen and Lily.”

“Saturday or Sunday?” she says, her voice a salve for his lonely heart. “Either or both work for us.”

“Then Saturday,” he says, picking up a pen and writing on the notepad he keeps by the phone they called each other simultaneously and each got a busy signal. “You want to come here again or…”

“Yeah we like your place much better than ours. And this time I’ll stick around and we can have a visit.”

“Oh good, and I can tell you what I was doing in Montreal when I met my wife.”

“And I can tell you my Montreal story,” she says, her kettle whistling in the background. “When I was singing with a band from hell. Shall we do ten o’clock again?”

“Perfect,” he says, his kettle whistling, too.

The date made, Andrew brews a cup of chamomile tea, fetches his notebook, takes up his pen, and writes like a madman until well after midnight.

Saturday is a marvelous and scary day for Andrew, his five hours with Luisa confirming what he already knew but dared not admit: she is undoubtedly the inspiration for the best stories he’s ever written and the best song he’s ever composed, and most terrifying of all, he’s in love with her and she with him.

Yet neither of them makes the slightest attempt to seduce the other, and at visit’s end they both honestly express how happy they are to have found a new friend.

By the time Kiki arrives home from New York in early May, Andrew has completed and rewritten eleven long short stories, composed four new songs, and written two drafts of a play based on the longest of the new stories entitled Their Summer Holiday.

After a weekend of family fun, Kiki gets to work on her new dances, Andrew resumes his carpentry gig, Owen goes to preschool for six hours every day, and everything seems to be fine.

A Saturday play date is arranged for Lily and Owen, Luisa brings Lily over for the day, and Kiki and Luisa immediately hit it off, though a few minutes into the play date Kiki has to take a call from her producer in Los Angeles and Luisa has to hurry away to The Crossroads to fill in for the weekend lunch chef, and Andrew is left to supervise the children.

Walking with Owen and Lily in the nearby woods, Andrew thinks about Kiki leaving again in two weeks, and he is overcome with sorrow.

On a Saturday night two days before Kiki departs for Los Angeles, Andrew and Kiki throw a small party. Cal and Terry bring Felicia and Scott, and Luisa comes with Lily. The five dancers Kiki has been employing to help refine her new dances come with their partners, and Andrew’s old pal Joe Ganz and his wife Melinda come—Joe the editor and Melinda the art director of the free weekly The Weekly Blitz in which Andrew first published the seventeen short stories that eventually became his first and most successful book The Draft Dodger and other fables.

After much eating and drinking, the party goers move en masse to Kiki’s studio where Kiki and her five dancers perform several minutes of the two dances destined for the stage in Los Angeles—a thrilling display of strong limber people doing amazing things with their bodies in time to thunderous polyrhythmic music.

Following the dance show, everyone returns to the house where Joe Ganz requests Andrew read one of his new stories. Andrew is reluctant to comply until Kiki nods encouragingly, and Andrew says to the assembled host, “Well… the new stories I’ve been writing are all quite long, but I think the first ten pages of one of them makes a good little story within the larger story, so… I’ll fetch those pages.”

Everyone finds a seat and Andrew stands on the hearth and says, “So this is the first part of a story I’m calling Their Summer Holiday.”

Now for the first time since the collapse of his writing career, he reads to an audience and feels again the thrill of deeply connecting with others through his words, his final sentence eliciting loud applause and shouts of Bravo and Joe Ganz saying, “Oh please let me run that, Andrew. It’s so fucking good.”

Two days later, Kiki flies to Los Angeles, and this time her going barely disturbs Owen, perhaps because he has adjusted to the new reality of her coming and going, and no longer fears she might never return.

But for Andrew this is the hardest time yet because he knows that after seven long weeks without her, she will return for a scant few days before flying to London where she will stay for two months before returning for a few weeks before going to Montreal for seven weeks, and then to Los Angeles again, and New York again… on and on for another year and a half.

With her every success—and Kiki’s dances are most successful—more offers come, and when Kiki returns in mid-September after her two months in London she proposes they expand the two-year plan to a four-year plan.

“Are you serious?” says Andrew, aghast at what she’s suggesting. “What about Owen? What about me? We’re in the prime of our lives. Our child is about to turn five. Is this what you want? To live apart from us for another three years?”

“What I want,” she says, taking a deep breath, “is a divorce. And for you to have custody of Owen.”

They are standing in the kitchen when she says this to him—Owen and Scott in the driveway racing around on scooters.

“Divorce?” he says, stunned. “What are you talking about?”

“I met someone, Andrew,” she says, trying not to cry. “I never in a million years thought something like this would happen. I never ever wanted to hurt you. But it happened. And now I need to go this other way. I’m so sorry.”

“You need to go this other way,” he says, sitting down to keep from falling over. “Is that what you’re gonna say to Owen?”

“I will explain it to him,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Oh good for you, Kiki,” he says bitterly. “And of course he’ll understand because he’s four-years-old and a four-year-old can easily understand why his mother would abandon him because she needs to go this other way.”

Kiki leaves the kitchen.

Andrew bows his head and closes his eyes and hopes to wake from this terrible dream.

At the end of September, two weeks after Kiki asked for a divorce, she oversees the loading of her belongings into a moving truck to be driven to her new partner’s house in Los Angeles while she flies to Montreal. Her new partner, a composer of music for movies and television, is in his early sixties and has five grown children from his three previous marriages.

In the wake of Kiki’s going, Andrew takes a month off from carpentry work to be available to Owen all day every day, and during this break from work he has the idea to convert Kiki’s dance studio into a two-bedroom rental unit.

To pay for the conversion, he takes out a fifty-thousand-dollar loan on his house and hires two excellent carpenters to help him do the work, which involves adding a kitchen, expanding the bathroom, and putting up internal walls to make two bedrooms and a living room out of the big open space.

A month into the transformation of the dance studio, a few days after Thanksgiving, Andrew comes within a tiny fraction of an inch of cutting off his thumb with a circular saw, and this terrifying brush with disaster makes him realize he needs to take time off from carpentry and get some therapy.

In order to afford this, he does something he has never done before. He calls his parents and asks them for a loan of five thousand dollars. They are happy to oblige and do him one better by volunteering to drive up from California and stay with him and Owen for a month or two.

“Makes sense to me,” says his father Zeke, seventy-four and recently retired after fifty years of landscaping. “Why else did I stop working?”

On a rainy afternoon, two days before Christmas, his parents having arrived in early December, Andrew gets home from a revelation-filled three-hour session with his psychotherapist and finds his mother Gloria in the kitchen making supper with Luisa: spaghetti with a seafood sauce, sautéed vegetables, and a big green salad.

“Who knew she was a gourmet cook?” says Gloria, pointing at Luisa. “I invite her to stay for dinner and she turns out to be Julia Child.”

“Did we have a play date today?” says Andrew, sitting down at the counter and gazing at Luisa. “I completely forgot. I’m so sorry.”

“We didn’t have a play date,” says Luisa, filling a glass with cold beer and setting it before Andrew. “But your mother called and said Owen was pining for Lily, so we came over and… is this okay we’re here?”

“Of course,” says Andrew, downing the beer in a single gulp. “I’m delighted to see you. I never get to see you enough. And how did you know I was pining for a beer?”

“Maybe she’s clairvoyant,” says Gloria, stirring the noodles in a big bubbling pot. “And maybe you don’t see her enough because you don’t call her enough. Not that it’s any of my business.”

“I would have called her enough, Mom,” says Andrew, taking on his mother’s New York Jewish accent, “but I’ve been very busy having a nervous breakdown. So sue me.”

After supper, while Gloria and Zeke play Go Fish and Slap Jack with Owen and Lily in the living room, Andrew and Luisa do the dishes together, Andrew washing, Luisa drying.

“So how have you been?” asks Andrew, smiling at Luisa. “You never stay to visit anymore when you bring Lily for a play date, so now I’m hopelessly out of touch with you. Have you fallen in love with someone?”

“Yeah,” she says, drying a dish. “I fell in love with a married man.”

“Oh Luisa, don’t do that,” he says, wincing.

“Don’t do what?” she asks, stopping her drying.

“Have an affair with a married man. You’re fantastic. You’re beautiful and smart and talented and… there are thousands and millions of unmarried men who would love to be…”

“Who said I was having an affair with him? I said I’m in love with him. And until recently I have been studiously avoiding him because he was married and I didn’t want to… you know… be a home wrecker.”

“Oh,” he says, dropping the scrubber into the soapy water. “I see.”

“You do?” she asks, setting the plate down.

“I do,” he says, opening his arms to her. “Now I see.”

They make love for the first time in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1987, hoping not to wake anyone with their ecstatic communion.

But Gloria wakes and rejoices her son has found such a lovely partner.

Luisa and Lily move in with Andrew and Owen at the end of February just as Andrew completes his work on the rental unit and rents it to Chas and Betty Lowenstein, retired schoolteachers who become instant grandparents for Lily and Owen.

On a rainy Friday morning in early April, the kids at kindergarten, Luisa cooking at The Crossroads, Andrew is sitting at the kitchen table writing a new story when the phone rings.

Feeling certain this is Luisa calling to say she loves him, he picks up the phone and says, “I love you.”

“How sweet of you, Andrew,” says a familiar voice he doesn’t immediately recognize. “How did you know it was me?”

“Penelope?” he says, wondering if she still thinks of herself as his agent. “How nice to hear from you. I’ve been meaning to call you and see if you got the stories I sent. And the play.”

“I not only got them,” she says, pausing portentously, “we have an offer from Smith & Harte to publish the collection. And Jason has arranged for a staged reading of your play at the Ovid and possibly a production if the reading goes well.”

“We have an offer to publish my book?” says Andrew, trembling. “What about the data base that says I don’t sell?”

“Oh Smith & Harte don’t care about that,” she says, laughing. “They’re now the play thing of the wife of some incredibly rich computer person, and she’s desperate to publish your stories. They’re offering a ten-thousand-dollar advance, which is less than I’d hoped for, but that horrid database is a problem with most of the other houses so I think we should take their offer and hope for good reviews and a nice fat paperback sale. Yes?”

“Yes,” says Andrew, his tears flowing.

“She wants to fly you out here to meet you and introduce you to your editor, a young woman named Candace Wollitzer who looks like she’s not yet out of high school, but apparently she’s a huge fan of Draft Dodger and says Extremely Silly Ariel changed her life. You can stay with us or with Jason. He’s so looking forward to seeing you. He’s been terribly depressed since Freddie died, and your new play has revived him. Oh Andrew, I’m so glad you’re getting another chance. I think these new stories are your best yet.”

“I’ll be coming with my new partner Luisa and her daughter Lily and my son Owen,” says Andrew, looking out the window as the sun cracks the overlay of gray clouds and sends a heavenly beam to bathe the room in golden light.

fin

song