By Julianne Paholski
An old boyfriend came courting. I was standing in Grandma’s breezeway, looking out over the yard, and he came walking down the side street from the cemetery. Everything was still and overcast, humid, as if there might be a storm.
He looked as I remembered, the one time I’ve seen him since high school: middle-aged heaviness, hair long and curly. He was wearing weird round little glasses, as if trying to resemble James Joyce.
He was tired, so I let him lie down on the bed I always slept on, at Gram’s, but I didn’t lie down with him. I sat in the corner, at the desk.
It was August, almost September. The second summer of COVID. He said it would be good if we got married.
Then I was outside again, walking down the driveway. I walked across the street and into the yard of Grandma’s neighbor, the shut-in, the hoarder. I held out my cupped hand, whether praying or checking for rain I’m not sure. I thought, he’s right, I should marry him, because I am fifty and he’s known me all these years.
But how dare he just assume. I understood that I had to stand up to him, because this was why he had loved me, in high school. Back then – when “boyfriend” meant shared intellectual interests in choir and piano – he was pompous, flame-haired, mortifying. He studied Latin and played Dungeons & Dragons. I had been kissed once (by a tall dark stranger, no less). I knew kissing was never going to happen between us.
Back in the bedroom, I asked what he expected. Did he think I would just up and marry him, perhaps in October?
He replied, Not in October. In the summer of 2022.
I turned away, silently enraged at his gall. A plan bloomed in my mind. In January of 2022, I would call him, for a booty call, to find out if we had sexual chemistry. We wouldn’t be able to marry, without it.
I smiled to myself. That would fix him.
The sky was still dark, with stars, which meant it wasn’t time to get up. At this time of year – back to school – six thirty comes when the sky is half light. Not like midsummer, when the birds begin screaming for attention at four.
I felt at peace, still floating in the sensibility and correctness of the booty call. My daughter was asleep beside me, her legs across my stomach. The animal warmth of body heat, in the hours before dawn, makes me sleep hard and dream hard.
Only with that thought did my mind start to unhook, and I realized: the booty call plan was a dream. I’d been dreaming about Cabot, again, for like the third time this summer.
I gently pushed my girl’s legs off me and fanned up the blankets, to dispel some of the heat.
Cabot was haunting me. He was haunting me like an ancient tale, though I had only learned of his death in that most modern way – Googling – two years ago at work, in a moment of boredom. The results brought up his memorial service, the year before that.
At that time, sitting stunned at my computer, I seriously thought I was dreaming while awake. Memorial service? It does not say that. I’m seeing things. It brought up the wrong person, and I am a drama queen.
But it wasn’t the wrong person. The announcement was on his work website.
I rooted around, electronically, and found out more. A rare and ravaging cancer. Friends had rallied around him and his lady, including friends from high school, but I don’t Facebook and thus no one had ever told me. I was burning offended anyway. Someone should have told me.
I emailed my sister. WTF. Cabot passed away.
I saw him once, in all the years after high school. I used to Google him about once every three years, just to see where his brains had landed him, to roll my eyes at his list of graduate degrees. Finally, approaching our mid-40s, I was going to have a layover at the airport in his city. I contacted him, said no joke, it’s me, would you like to have coffee? Then I reserved a hotel room. NOT – for God’s sake – because of him, but because I decided an overnight stay in an historic hotel would be more pleasant than a rushed layover. I could continue on home the next day.
I wore a black skirt and black blouse and my hot pink-framed glasses. Bobbed hair. I did want to show him that I was still smart and cute, no less smart than him (despite my modest B.A. in English).
We met at a fancy independent coffee place, ordered lattes and sat side by side at the street-side counter, so we could people-watch out the window, rather than looking at each other. I would have been content with that. I had my hotel room to go back to, a king-size puffy bed, brocade curtains, nice bathtub. I could have gone down to the restaurant in the lobby, if I got hungry.
But Cabot suggested we go eat, and I said of course. We walked a few blocks and got a table out on the sidewalk. It was sunset – somewhere, beyond the endless urban redbrick rows of houses – and getting dark earlier, but still warm enough to sit outside. I ordered a fancy burger and a glass of white wine; Cabot ordered a pork chop and broccoli. The restaurant had gaslights on its front, for old-fashioned atmosphere. We talked so long the gaslights came on, and it got dark. It got a little bit windy.
I asked him if he was married, and he said yes. Nineteen years.
I was impressed. Or rather I was surprised, but of course I kept that to myself. He had me beat, in that department. I had never married.
Then he said, “Well, nineteen years, that part’s true.” He looked noble, and uncomfortable, dipping into personal territory. “But actually we’re not married.”
“You’re not married?”
He shook his head no. “It’s like we’re married, but we never officially got around to it. We’re living in sin.”
How I laughed out loud, when he said that. Such an outdated and idiotic phrase.
I said, “Cabot, you dirty dog. I didn’t know you had it in you.”
I assumed we’d go dutch, but he wouldn’t let me pay anything for the meal.
I talk about Cabot, from time to time, on the phone with my sister. I can’t believe he died. I can’t believe the world no longer has Cabot, my arch rival, who hung over my psyche for so long, who was part of my history.
At some point I was talking about how Cabot had a partner, but they never got married.
My sister said, “They got married.”
“No, I remember, when we had dinner together. He told me they had never gotten around to it.”
“Didn’t you read the obituary?”
I had to think. “Yeah…” I think I read it.
“They got married.”
I kept shaking my head no. “He told me. They never got around to it.”
“Julianne. Read it again. They got married, while he was in the hospital. Because they knew he was going to die, and they wanted…”
I stopped her. “Okay, oh my God. That’s horrible.” A wedding in a hospital room. A bedside wedding. Unbearable. I didn’t know the woman; my heart dies for her.
I looked it up again, and my sister was right. I literally hadn’t scrolled down far enough to read about the wedding, once I found out that other people had known about his illness, while I had not known.
I did the math, according to the obituary. At the time when we had dinner together out on the sidewalk, unbeknownst to either of us, he had one normal year left, before the abyss of diagnosis cracked open before him.
My mother died long ago and, several times over the course of my life, I have gotten in touch with people in a way that later seems like premonition. Was it my mother, who was alive when Cabot and I were in middle school together, who guided me to not just Google Cabot but to travel to him and share our first and last meal together as adults? Julianne, go to Cabot. He’ll be leaving soon, and he was important to you.
I wonder if Google and the night sky occasionally cooperate.
Copyright Paholski 2022