By Ann Bodle-Nash
The two men could not have been more different. One kept a picture of Jesus over his bed, the other a framed photograph of a naked woman in his living room. Both lived in cheap quarters along South Tacoma Way, in the years C-130s routinely flew low on their approach to the McCord Air Base. Vietnam was winding down. Noise from the planes rattled windows and caused conversations at the law school, where they were both students, to pause. Even the lecturers at the law school, known to be verbose, obtuse and self-aggrandizing, paused mid-sentence, waiting. Helpless to overcome the power of flight noise—the only moment in the day when power shifted away from the faculty.
Stephen and Marty. She had thought about them over the years. Goggled them occasionally. Once she had left Stephen a note, or perhaps it was a scrawled postcard. She couldn’t remember now. She couldn’t remember in which city that might have been. Alaska somewhere she thought.
Martha called Steven on a whim. She was vacationing in his Great State of Alaska and, with a perverse sense of voyeurism, she Googled him, the man with the stripper photo. She recalled it was a black and white glossy, 8×10, framed. It had embarrassed her to imagine she was keeping company with someone who would hang such in a public space, even if it was just his living room. It did not resemble a Rubens or a Picasso. Who was the woman, she had wondered.
When Martha dialed the number she found on the web, his wife answered and said she would pass along the message and her number. Martha understood gatekeepers, and did not take offense. The wife might derail the message, or she might not. Either way was ok. Martha didn’t know if she really wanted to see him or just let him know he had crossed her mind. Former lovers were always tricky encounters.
She had followed his political rise, from Mayor of Petersburg, to Lieutenant Governor, to Commissioner of some state agency. An impressive resume by any standard. And yet, she had never physically seen him in forty-four years. She was curious. Once she had spotted his name in the Seattle Times Newspaper, in a story about the Alaskan gubernatorial primary in which, remarkably, Stephen was a candidate. They called him McPipeline, an alteration of his name McWinter. It was after the Exxon Valdez accident, she now remembered. She never forgot the jab. Maybe she’d ask him about it.
They had been first year law students when they met, each struggling with the heavy load of class work, loneliness, and geographic displacement. For Martha the loneliness was compounded by the proportional disparity between men and women, a 90/10% ratio. Each encounter with a male classmate felt predatory, as if she were prey, and yet she was as much in need of comfort as were the men. It was a hard thing to sort. She tried not to over-think the situation. They were all young then, making mistakes as they went. 1974 style.
She ignored the call when her cell phone chimed the next day, because she was sitting in a café downtown with her husband and a woman friend — not a confidante friend, but a fishing acquaintance. She could read Anchorage on the phone and knew it must be Stephen. It felt like dangerous ground; an earthquake tremor swirled in her gut. She would return the call when she could speak freely.
Later, after she tucked her husband in for a nap at the apartment they had rented, she listened to Steven’s message. She considered. She returned the call.
“Welcome,” he said with arms outstretched, and gave her a tight bear hug in the spacious lobby. “Come on up.” His chin was sharp and dug into her shoulder. He gave her a kiss on the cheek.
It was 2018. Forty-four years later, and she was in his office on the fourth floor of the Conoco Philips Tower on Eighth Street, Anchorage. She appreciated the territorial view, the leather barrel chairs, the great Seal of Alaska on the wall. An office of someone who had arrived. At least that was her first thought. The whole place made her nervous and she tried to find a comfortable position in the chair furthest away from him. There were no photos of strippers.
Light flooded his office — the expansive view of Turnagain Arm visible from the bank of west-facing windows. Heck of a view, she thought. How the hell did he land here?
“How long has it been?” he said.
“Awhile,” she said. She stared at his small wireframe glasses and his slightly greying hair. She remembered when his hair was longer and darker. In her mind he was still a young buck. Her hair had been long and dark then too. Now it was nearly-blonde and cut in a middle-aged bob.
He was very thin, dressed in a Tattersall-check wool blazer with light brown trousers and brown brogues. She stared at his hands as he typed at the keyboard. His fingers were thin and his movements birdlike as he pecked at the keys. She wondered what he was typing.
“When did you quit your maiden name?”
“When my daughter started school,” she said.
“I never could have found you, Martie,” he said.
Martie. She hadn’t been called that for eons, and only by a few in her life. He was one. There was a softness to it she had forgotten.
“Do you have children?” he asked.
“Three. And you?”
“I had a son. He died in a car crash when he was twenty,” he answered quietly. “His name was Jesse.”
The softness of his response did something to her heart. She grieved for him in a way she did not expect. The brash, bold man had been worn down by living and loss. She could see that clearly.
But hadn’t they all?
Her husband had suffered a massive stroke one-year prior that left him with garbled speech and confused thinking, especially numbers. Aphasia they called it. He was happy to travel -— to leave home and empty routines, as long as she led the way, made the plans, told him where to be and when. She was adjusting to this new life, this new companion. It was not the retirement she had imagined.
The problem with encountering an old lover was that it loosened memories. Memories were so confusing, so disconnected, so swirly — suddenly she felt very old, the memories too weighted. To think that so many years could have passed already. What was left? Mortality was calling.
Secretaries came and went, requiring a signature for various documents. Stephen introduced her to them all, spelling out her status as an old law-school classmate that he had not seen for forty-four years. She felt on display, and wondered at his effusion. He seemed to be doing that middle-aged man thing she had seen before, where a man feels the need to clarify a woman’s status in front of peers, so there will be no misreporting by anyone to his wife later. He left the office door open.
They talked in his office with the beautiful view — he in his swivel chair constantly in motion, she in the fixed padded armchair perched on the edge until he suggested they needed some fresh air. The day was sunny and warm as they stepped out. She noticed the sky was cloudless with salty freshness. They strolled the perimeter of a nearby park talking, stopping to clarify a point, and then continuing conversation until she felt it must be time to be getting back to check on her husband who thought she was at a museum. She wondered if her parking meter had run out, although Stephen had added quarters to it once to extend the time. He spontaneously hugged her several times. He seemed reluctant to let her go.
It had been such an emotional time when she knew Stephen. A terrible year really. Trying to learn the law in a setting so oppressive, that in the end she realized she could not continue. Something else would take her, some vista would open, some other life would be hers.
Now, sitting in his office she wondered. Had she loved him a little?
It was the other man she had crushed on more, the Jesus man. The man who was taller and more worldly; the man who had been a chef, although he never cooked her a meal that she could recall. The man who belittled her and told her she should go to legal secretary school after she left law school. The man who followed law school with seminary, married a fellow seminary student, had two girls and became a Bishop in the Lutheran church.
Sitting in Stephen’s office, his delicate hands with tended fingernails typing on his keyboard, entering her name, her address, researching her as she sat close by, had changed her heart. His voice was soft, recounting his bouts with cancer, revealing his struggles. The defibrillator in a blue, cloth bag on the floor meant something. He was glad to see her. She was happier than she had anticipated seeing him.
He asked, “Will you call me if you come back to town?”
She did not answer his question directly, but gave a half-smile, a little shrug and offered a maybe.
She had left the question hanging a few seconds longer than polite, unsure of the right answer. Unsure if she was willing to revisit the emotions that surrounded him like the full-body halo surrounds our Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. There are reasons we bury youth in our memories.
With each mile between them his voice faded slowly from her memory. She thought the good memories outweighed the bad, and felt a surge of human connection that was warm, if misplaced.
Maybe she would call if she were back in Anchorage. If they were both still alive. No guarantees. She wished they had taken a photo. It suddenly seemed important to have a tangible memory to replace the shards and shadows. She wanted to hold him close, to tuck him into her memory box, with the obituaries and wedding announcements — to tidy up her life. It was that time of life she figured.
Copyright Bodle-Nash 2020