Wednesday, June 26, 2024


I met my old friends yesterday for lunch in Grit City.  The air was steamy, the streets abandoned.  The restaurant where we planned to meet was closed as were many of the Main Street shops.  A lone family sat on the sidewalk before the ice cream shop nursing quickly melting cones.  I arrived first.  As I began to text my friends, R called out my name.  It took a moment to recognize her.  She had changed, her hair now white, her body softer, rounder, her face now sporting a pair of large framed glasses.  We hugged our hellos and decided to cross the street to Heidi's, a German restaurant that has been here as long as anyone could remember.  We took a seat inside next to the big plate glass window and waited for V and her daughter to arrive.  The waitress came to take our drink orders.  I'd have a beer.  

"Oh, no," said R, "I've gotten to old for daytime drinking."

She ordered a peach flavored tea.  

When V arrived, it took me a minute to recognize her as well.  Her pitch black hair had turned entirely white, and she, too, had grown softer, rounder.  She introduced her daughter who was wearing a short, black, sleeveless dress that against her pale skin was quite stunning.  Her hair was long, thick, and dark as her mother's used to be.  She had her mother's wide face and large, sleepy brown eyes that sat under fashionably full eyebrows.  Her nose was pierced with a gold hoop that rather detracted from her beauty.  She, a twenty year old Oxford student, was majoring in English Literature.  She spoke in a low tone with a vocal fry common among her peers.  That and her thick British accent made her difficult to understand.  When she spoke, she would look directly into your eyes then immediately turned to someplace distant as if you had been suddenly dismissed.  She sat next to me across from her mother and R.  When she sat, her short, black dress creeped upward revealing most of her very long, pale legs.  

R, V, and I began catching up.  R's story was tragically similar to mine.  She had lived with her boyfriend, a horseman with a ranch, for over thirty years.  In January of 2020, she found out he was seeing a younger woman.  

"Of course," I said.  "Oh, she is so passionate about things, so alive and full of life.  She makes me feel. . . ."  I trailed off and laughed.  "It's a very old story."

"Yes, there is nothing new."

"What happened to your relationship," she asked?

"Oh. . . you know. . . I must have a stamped on expiration date.  One never knows.  She got sick of me, I guess. . . fell for someone else, or worse, no one else and just didn't like me anymore."

We talked about 2020 and all the things that were lost.  When she left her horseman, she bought a small house and, like me, spent the next part of life alone at home in her pajamas reading and watching television.  

"You had plenty of time to think about the sonofabitch, eh, and trying to figure out what you had done wrong?"

"I didn't think about what I had done wrong.  I just kept thinking about what was wrong with him."

"Ah. . . much better.  I was not that clever.  It was the doldrums for me.  Of course, every day, I went to see my mother.  Quite a life."

V's experience had been quite different, of course.  Married with two daughters, they were all in a bubble working from home.  The family would take trips to the country for picnics and hiking.  Her husband, older than she, had decided he didn't want to write any longer so he retired to collect his government pension.  Her oldest daughter, now 23, graduated from law school.  

"Here. . . let me show you a picture of her."  She pulled out her phone, scrolled a minute, and presented me with a photo.  

"Holy smokes, V. . . she's a truly exotic beauty!"

V laughed and pulled away her phone.  She had two fabulous daughters, she knew.  V had been working for Sky TV when I visited her long ago, but she now was working for the BBC.  She edited the online version's front page, part of an editorial team that decided on what stories made it, what was featured, etc.  She had done well, but she was over it, she said.  

"I'm just waiting for them to give me a big payout to leave."

She had been able to take off a year and go back to school for a graduate degree in literature.

"I was burned out.  I needed to do something else or I would go mad."

R updated me on her own four children who were all kids when last I saw them.  She was a grandmother now and loved it, she said.  Her health, however, had been iffy.  She'd had breast cancer many years ago which she thought she had beaten, but it came back in her other breast.  She'd had a double mastectomy and was doing well until recently when a cancerous polyp turned up on her kidney.  She'd had a knee replaced two years ago, but she said it hadn't really worked out all that well.  She still had pain and a bit of a limp.  

"I'm still here, but they are taking me piece by piece."

"Are you still traveling," V asked.  "You used to travel all the time I remember." 

"No, I haven't been anywhere since Covid, really.  My life is rather pathetic."

"What are your days like?  What would you have been doing today if we weren't having lunch?"

"I'd get up, read, write, have coffee, go to the gym, come home and have lunch, shower, nap, get up and go to my mother's, go to the grocers and come home, make a cocktail, sit out with the feral cat as she ate, prepare dinner, eat watching television, make another drink, read for a bit, then, eventually, watch television and go to be early.  Wash, rinse, spin, repeat.  It is pretty sad, really."

"It sounds lovely," V said. 

"Yes, that is what all my working friends say.  I usually throw in something like sitting by the pool playing canasta, but. . . . "

They all laughed.  

V's daughter didn't really speak much, and even when she did, I'd barely hear or understand her.  I was certain she spoke in this manner to a) make people lean in close to try to hear her and b) irritate old people.  I asked her about Oxford and sometimes got a two sentence response.  I, of course, had been my usual outrageous self with my friends and was sure I'd been insouciant enough to irritate her, but I really had no idea.  She often seemed somewhere else.  

During Covid, V said, she would take the kids to Christmas Commons which brought us 'round to remembering the visit my wife and I had made to London and the days we spent together.  I'd forgotten how much we'd done there, dinners with her husband, dinner in Islington, a trip to the historic Albery Theatre to see Cate Blanchette in "Plenty," and a drive to the countryside to see the bluebells at Christmas Commons.  

"I was just cleaning up all my photos the other day and came across all the photos we took on that trip.  I will send them to you."

I thought that I had digitized them, but I don't think I have.  I'm in for a whole lot of work now. 

We ate lunch and sat long after.  I was surprised when V suggested we go for coffee.  We were directed to a coffee shop that we never found.  Grit City had returned to it pre-gentrified roots, it seemed.  It was just a hot, dead, river city devoid of life.  

"The last time I was here," I said, "this town was fairly vibrant."

"My mother warned me it was rather redneck," said V's daughter.

"Well. . . it used to be pretty bad.  All these shops had stores that sold clothes by the pound if they were open at all.  My girlfriend used to live here, and it surely wasn't what you would call upscale, but. . . I don't know. . . this is weird."

I explained the history of the town, how it had once been one of the wealthiest places in the state as all goods had to be transported up river to the sea, but once the highways were built, Grit City was no longer the hub for transportation and it declined into poverty.  Now, however, all the old mansions were being restored. . . .  

"Maybe AA meetings here are on Tuesdays," I laughed.

After walking awhile, we ended up at a cafe near where we began and somehow the conversation turned to politics.  I knew this was bad juju and tried to stay out of it, but of course, I was asked what I thought.  

"Trump will win the election," I said.  "Nobody voted for Biden in the last election.  People simply voted against Trump.  But Biden and the Progressives have pissed too many people off.  Biden can't count on the Black vote.  He said he was going to be a one term president, that Kamala would be leading the next ticket.  That was a lie.  The Hispanic vote is leaning toward Trump.  Biden has lost much union backing.  He'll carry the urban areas, probably, but Trump will win the heartland.  I know this will be difficult for you to believe, but the majority of Americans are tired of having gender and diversity issues being the main agenda when they are hurting in the grocery stores and gas pumps.  People can't afford to insure their homes if they can afford a home at all.  The left is divided into liberals and Progressives.  No issue shows the rift between them more than the situation in Gaza.  No. . . I think Trump will win by plenty. "

Uh-oh.  Now we were on the whole Free Palestine thing.  V's daughter would certainly be supporting the Palestinians.  R, of course, being a liberal and more literate in her understanding of the repression of Jews in almost every time period and culture, was going to be on the other side.  Oxford educated (partially) as she was, I didn't have much faith in V's daughter's grip on this history.  I didn't want to get involved in this conversation, but I couldn't help myself.  

"If I surround myself with a group of children and start shooting your children, what are you going to do?   Call for peace talks?  That's Hamas."

"Well, I'm not for Hamas," she said, "but the suffering of the Palestinian people. . . ."

I was a fool to speak.  

By the time we finished coffee and began our slow walk to our cars, it was time for dinner.  

"Oh, we have to get a picture," R said, so we lined up for the usual phone pics.  

As we walked V back to her car, her daughter and I strolled ahead of the others, and suddenly she was chatty.  We talked about travel and favorite cities.  She asked me where I would suggest she visit in the U.S.  The conversation was easy.  We had been to many of the same cities in Europe and we both were wanting to go to Budapest.  

"I don't know. . . she is so alive and passionate about things. . . she makes me feel. . . ."

When we reached the car, I hugged my old friends and we all promised to stay in touch.  

"My aunt just died, and I have no relatives here anymore, so. . . ."

She was suggesting, of course, that this might be the last time we saw one another.  She said she would send me her email address, etc.  Then, just before we all parted, her daughter came over, hugged me, and gave me a kiss on the cheek.  I was completely taken by surprise.  

On the drive home, I ran through the day, mentally making notes and writing phrases in my head.  It was after six when I pulled into the driveway.  The cat was waiting.  I gave her some food and poured a drink, then I sat down to think some more.  The words and phrases I formed were more beautiful than anything I had written in a long, long while.  

By dinner, I was very tired.  After dinner, I couldn't keep my eyes open, and while the television played news stories, I fell asleep, woke up, fell asleep. . . . The sun was still up, but I was worn to the bone.  My energy was sapped.  The day had taken all that I had.  By the time I got ready for an early bed. . . I was feeling low.  Worse than low.  It was something else completely.  

I closed my eyes and tried not to think about it anymore.  

"Focus on your breath.  Don't think.  Listen to the universal hum.  Ohhhmmmmmmmmmm."

I woke up every two hours in a panic.  As soon as I could justify it, I got up for the day, made the coffee, read the news. . . but I had no interest in the news.  I would write, but I couldn't remember any of the things I had thought so eloquently about the day before.  My feelings, in fact, had changed completely.  What I've written here is not what I thought before reflection.  I should give up on reflecting.  I should continue not to think but to concentrate on simple things like breathing with no past, with no future.  

Me/not me.


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