“When I tell people I’m a hostess, they always give me the fish eye. I know what they’re thinking. And sometimes, I’ve got to admit, they just might be right. When it comes right down to it, I am a people person. It’s what I tell people. And that can mean anything. Who am I to deny it? Mostly though, it is not what you might think. I get hired a lot to see that things go smoothly. I happen to be a great manager. That’s what a good hostess is. We greet people, make them feel welcome, show them where they are supposed to go. You’d be amazed. People walk into a social situation with other people and they can turn into idiots. They need to be shown who to say hello to, where the bar is, where the bathroom is. You need to do this while putting them at ease. I’m pretty good at thinking on my feet. In my job, you have to be if you are going to make a go of it. People who put on events or parties hire me a lot. There are what I’d call ‘corporate functions,’ and weddings. Stuff like that. There’s some show business to it. I love doing the weddings and family stuff. But mostly I do stuff you might call ‘diplomatic,’ for large institutions and companies. Usually small cocktail parties. Sometimes dinners. Training sessions. Company meetings. They can be very awkward for a lot of folks. They are a bit out of their usual element. And they can do and say things or do things they might not normally say or do. That’s where things can get a little tricky. For them. And sometimes for me too. There are men and, once in a while, a woman or two who are used to getting their way who want a little what I’d call ‘extra attention.’ Sometimes they get it. But for the most part, it’s nothing more than a conversation they try to steer me to “personal matters.” They start off by asking what I do for fun. Or about how it must be hard to fit a personal life into my line of work. They may touch my arm. Nothing too overt is the usual. But it’s all the same thing. What they really want to know is if they can get it on with me. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it. I can get them on another subject without them hardly noticing. But sometimes, when I want – and only when I want – they may just score. It’s always my call. I like being in charge. Fact is, I work very hard at being in charge. Things were different once and I’m not ever going back to that kind of crap. So, what goes on? Do I need to explain? We’re grown-ups. Say what you want, a girl has her needs. There’s always someone around for me. Never for too long. I might go out with someone maybe two or three times. We have a good time, enjoy one another, and, after a while, things move on. Usually, they spoil the whole thing by getting too involved or by telling me what to do with my life. That’s not why I’m there. That said, there have been one or two ‘steadies’ over the years. Right now, there’s someone I’ve been seeing occasionally, maybe a couple of times a year for the last few years. We have a good time. Casual. Good sex. Nothing wild but good. And he gives me good ideas about investing. I think he’s married but he doesn’t ask too many questions so I don’t either. I like him but it ain’t love. It’s never going to be. But there’s been a couple of times with other men when things got a bit hot and heavy on my part. Anytime I start having feelings, I run like hell. That way, I can do my job, live the way I want, and drive my car when and where I want, if you know what I mean. Do I ever get lonely? I won’t lie. I do sometimes. Maybe I should buy a cat.
“I am a special kind of trucker. Maybe you’re thinking I’m just a bozo behind a wheel but driving a tractor and trailer is not what you think. Especially the way I do it. I’m a long-haul trucker. I specialize in dangerous loads or very special loads. Corrosive and poisonous chemicals amount for about half my loads. Special mechanical equipment is another big chunk. Most are very heavy and very special. Rocket engines. Turbines. Machines for bending and shaping metals. And finally, there’s the tech stuff. Very delicate. And I own my own rig, including my own tank and a highly specialized flat bed. I am really good at what might look like a fairly low talent job, but, like a lot of stuff, it requires a special touch and years of experience. So, I have customers who will wait until I am available before moving their stuff. They could have real trouble if something went wrong with their load. Lawsuits. Places could be contaminated for years. People could die. They need not just a trucker. They need a trucking artist. So, they call me. I go by “Lenny.” Or “Len.” Actually, no fooling, it’s Leonardo. My folks named me after the artist. Oh, sure, you might think: that name, ‘Magliore.’ ‘Leonardo Magliore.’ This guy’s folks or maybe his grandparents are maybe right off the boat. Nope. My pop’s a dentist. His father, my grandfather, was a dentist too. Everyone thought I was going to be a dentist. But it wasn’t for me. I gave it a shot. Started college. Took the pre-dent courses. My grades were good. But my interest in dentistry – not so good. I couldn’t see it. So, I dropped out of school. My pop said, ‘If you’re not in school, you need a job because I’m charging you rent.’ So, I started driving for a lumber yard. Local deliveries. Plumbing supplies. Lumber. Cement. I liked it. And I was good at it. But it was no way to make a living. I went in the service and got to be a tank driver. That was a lot of fun. I was one crazy tank driver. The best they had. And I did my best to break those things. You can’t. I re-enlisted twice. But I had a couple of bad experiences in combat. So, I got out and went to trucking school, started out driving a six-wheeler on construction deliveries, moved up to tractors and then to specialized loads. There’s a lot more to this business than driving. It’s a whole world that goes on around most people without their having any idea. I love it and I am as good at it as it gets. I ain’t a millionaire but I make a nice living. We have a nice home, two great kids, and when I am home, my wife and I have a great time. Since I am away so much, I make sure I take two months off every year and as much as possible, get home for a few days at least twice a month when I am driving.
So, anyway, last year, I go to a high school reunion just for fun. I thought it would be great to see a bunch of old buddies. We talk about what we did after graduation and what we do now. Just like you expect, most of them looked at me like some kind of loser. They all have fancy jobs. “I’m a lawyer.” “I’m a vice president in a bank.” “I am a big frigging deal.” So, when it was my turn, I just said, “Well, I’m not nothing special. I drive a truck. What’s it to you.” I have to say, the looks on their faces pissed me off. But, you know, my wife – who happens to have one of those fancy jobs herself – just laughed. And a day after we got back, I was on the road again. Relaxed. Happy. Right on schedule.
Paula’s father kicked her out when she was sixteen. That’s when he found out she was sleeping with a Black piano player ten years her senior. When Paula called her mother, her mother was made it even clearer. She said, “You are dead to me, you whore.”
Paula moved in with the piano player and lived with him for two years or so. He taught her to be a jazz singer while she worked as a cashier in a supermarket to earn her keep. The piano player said she was a natural and he was right.
Paula never learned to read music. Didn’t have to. As soon as she heard a song, she knew it and started to put her own style on it. The first time Paula made up her own song, she was just a couple of months over her seventeenth birthday. The piano player wrote it down, went to an agent, and sold it as his own. He did this a few times, until Paula figured out what was up, tracked down the agent, and complained. The agent took one look at this punk-ass teenage kid and kicked her out. The piano player threatened to beat her up.
“You shut up, you little bitch or I’ll beat the shit out of you. And get busy writing more music or I take a coat hanger to your ass.”
Paula didn’t say anything. She got up, smiled and, then, punched the piano player in the mouth. Then, she took off. She went straight to her cousin, Seymour, who happened to be a cop. Even though they were just cousins and Paula’s father had banned everyone in the family from having anything to do with Paula, that didn’t apply to Seymour. He had always seen Paula as his little sister. So, he took her in and went to see the agent who was buying Paula’s songs. At first the agent wasn’t having any of the story. But when Seymour took out his detective’s badge, the agent got a lot more helpful, especially when Seymour started talking about “exploitation of a minor.” And when Seymour said there might be a few more of Paula’s songs ready to go, the agent got even more helpful.
The first thing agent did was get on the phone. He knew just who to call. There was a music director, a studio for auditions, someone to transcribe Paula’s music, some other folks in the business, He made one other call – to this big guy named Jackson. Jackson is a bouncer by trade and, when he can get an assignment, he’ll work as a bodyguard. When the piano player Paula had been living with showed up at the agent’s office, he met Jackson. Jackson suggested he leave by the fastest means possible. No one’s seen that particular piano player since.
And from that time onward, everyone who was anyone in the music business knows Paula and her music.
That was all a long time ago. Paula’s been talking about retiring. But she can’t help doing a weekly set at a local club and, last year, she wrote the music and some of the lyrics for a movie. She’s been married to the same guy since she was 25 and they have three great kids. Her family, Seymour aside, is another story. When asked about them, Paula says, “They’re all dead a long time ago.”
But she lives in the same town she grew up in. And every now and then, Paula tells her driver to go by the house where she spent her childhood.
“I’m just a guy who fixes cars” is how Ernie describes himself. On the surface, it’s a pretty accurate description. He started working on cars sometime in junior high with his older brother and cousin. They were pretty good at rebuilding engines and developed a reputation for making cars go a lot faster than they were supposed to go. But then, Ernie’s brother went into the Navy, got trained on nuclear power plants, and got a college degree in engineering. His cousin got into drugs and died of an overdose. When Ernie got out of high school, he took a job at a car dealership doing menial stuff like prepping new cars, oil changes, and, after a while, an occasional major repair. “I started out knowing crap. They were supposed to teach us stuff in high school. I took what they called the ‘commercial curriculum’ which included a lot of shop. It was a lot of nothing. Most of the kids in class with me were hopeless, stuffed in the ‘dummy’ part of the school because they couldn’t cut it anywhere else. And to tell you the truth, I wasn’t so good at schoolwork myself. I ain’t dumb but I ain’t all that bright either. But unlike most of the other kids in class with me, I like working with my hands. And I have a head for figuring out how things work.”
He’s right about that. What Ernie knew about cars and fixing them, he learned on the job or from his brothers. One of the dealerships he worked for took an interest in him and sent him to a training school but he didn’t he got much out of it. But something must have stuck because he always got involved in some of the toughest problems. He just seemed to know what would work and what wouldn’t.
So, he began to make a few bucks, enough to get himself a half decent apartment and to take care of his mother in the last couple of years before she died. He was a good son as well as a good mechanic. And, unlike his father, he stayed away from the booze.
By the time he was in his mid-thirties though, he had the feeling he wasn’t getting anywhere. He had a steady income. To make a few extra bucks, he moonlighted and took repair jobs on the side. All for cash, money he used for dates and for a little gambling. But he had no life. Or so he felt.
That’s when he got involved with one of the sales managers at a car dealership. There was sex. But there was also something more: ideas about how to get ahead in the world. An appreciation of some talents Ernie never imagined he had. How to act in business and in private. Even clothes to wear. And it changed his life.
The relationship was intense while it lasted. But it didn’t last all that long. A couple of years. Ernie still can’t figure out why it started. Or why it ended. But one day it did and its ending left him both devastated and open to more than just fixing more cars.
He had a few more relationships, none but the last one amounted to anything. They’ve been a couple for five years now. In business together as well as in love. And doing quite nicely.
A lot of people find Mina maddening. Her manner reminds them of their worst grade school teacher, the one most likely to keep them after school for what always seemed to be the most minor infraction. And there is her voice. Grating and precise.
Ask her husband. “If you have a sense of humor, there is no one better. She gets you through hell and high water. But when she has that tone in her voice, watch out. And don’t let her catch you laughing when she uses it. For me, it happens about three times a day. Sometimes more. We share offices and in a lot cases, clients.”
Mina’s husband, Roger, couldn’t be more different. Mina is what you might call “by-the-book.” For her, events have a certain chance of happening or not. Her sentences are carefully constructed, uttered only after a few sentences, sometimes minutes, of analytic thought. And once uttered, are not subject to argument or modification. Her favorite phrase: “When you are right, you are right.” Mina is always right. Ask her.
When she makes one of her declarations, Roger just smiles and says “Yes, dear.” He knows better than to argue or even to say, “Are you sure?” He’s not a wimp. He is a lawyer. And a very good one. He avoids adversity and confrontation whenever possible and selects his arguments very carefully. That is one reason his clients and his partners call him “The Wizard.” He has settled all but the most intractable law suits, gotten criminal clients off with the lightest possible sentence, usually involving no jail time, and negotiated some of the craziest deals on record. His wife may deal with a black and white world. Roger’s world is every color of the rainbow.
Mina and Roger have two children. They had them in the first three years of their marriage, both to please Mina’s parents and because Mina wanted to “get it over with” as soon as possible. She believed infants and preschoolers are career wreckers; once toilet trained, able to feed themselves, and are in school, it is possible for a professional woman to go back to her career. It is one area where she admits she was wrong. First, she loved being a mother. Second, both her husband and her made more than enough money to hire all the child-care help they needed. Third, she found her assumption that after they were toilet trained and in school, they would leave her free to pursue her career without hassle proved completely wrong. Mina always forgets: most people are not quite like her.
You’d think with parents so different; the two kids would have serious emotional problems. Not so. Gloria, the oldest, seems genuinely happy and amazingly level headed for a college sophomore. She majors in Art History with plans to go to law school. She wants to work in intellectual property, a goal so arcane and specific her friends would roll their eyes. Gloria said it sounded like loads of fun.
Roger, Jr. is on his school’s tennis team and taking advanced placement courses in Math and Physics. “Maybe a doctor or something. I’m a bit young to make plans but something in the sciences probably. Who knows?” Whenever Junior says something as indecisive sounding as that, Mina insists, “Of course you are going to medical school. Why wouldn’t you.” Junior says nothing. She should know he dreads the idea of being a doctor.
But that’s about as rebellious Junior ever got. Or as disruptive a thought as may have upset what Mina saw as a pleasingly placid and, most important of all, a predictable life. So, when Mina happened to walk in on her husband watching porn on his office computer screen, it was what you might call an event and then some.
He was totally absorbed and didn’t hear her behind him. She was just about to say something when she saw what he was watching.
Her eyes bulged. Literally. And she shouted. “ROGER!” He screamed and spun around in his chair.Then, she turned and left. She slammed the door behind her. Roger just sat there. He almost threw up. His heart was racing
He heard the car start and take off. She was gone for about an hour. He was still sitting just where he was when she had walked in to his office and saw what was on the screen. He hadn’t moved. He had no idea what was going to happen next or what he might do about it. Divorce? Counseling? Embarrassment? Shame?
But what happened next truly stunned him. Without getting into the details, let’s just say Mina and Roger are happier now than they ever have been. They laugh and giggle a lot more together. And their life together is not quite so humdrum or as predictable as it once was. When Mina saw what was on her husband’s computer monitor was not like anything either of them might have imagined.
Doris tells everyone she loves her job. She isn’t kidding. You might not think so. She works in cosmetics at an upscale department store. Weekends and three days a week. She gets a salary and a commission. Doesn’t add up to much. Rent for an apartment she shares with two other women, food, an occasional night out at a movie, and bus fare.
For Doris it is more than enough. “I meet such interesting women. I could never be like them. They lead wonderful lives, know so much, are so good and kind to me. I could use more money. That would be nice but I am happy with what I have. I do what I want and no one tells me what to do.
And she is being absolutely honest when she says so. In a very real sense, it is beyond any job she could have hoped for. And for her, it is the height of glamor. And that part she really loves. She also loves helping the kind of people she imagines her customers are like. She does not like trying to push customers into buying something they might not want or need. She hates her supervisors for making her do that. When they talk about sales goals, she gets anxious. So anxious that she sometimes goes into the ladies room to throw up. Despite all that, she always meets her goals.
Sometimes she goes well beyond what her managers expect from her. If asked how she does it, she always says, “I don’t know. People are nice to me, I guess.” There’s probably some truth in that. Over the years, Doris has attracted a loyal following of women and more than a few men who loved being waited on by her. When they come to the store, they call first to make sure Doris is there. And, if she’s waiting on someone else when they come to her counter, they quietly wait until it is their turn.
It’s not that she uses cosmetics much herself. What she knows comes from a short course she took, nothing very extensive. Here success, such as it is, comes from how she treats her customers. Obsequious, yes. Deferential. Of course. They love that. But it is more than that. There is something about Doris. When you talk to her, you get the feeling she is letting you in on some kind of secret, something between the two of you that no one else knows about.
But they never know exactly what that secret might be. Myra’s sister, Zora, is always saying something nasty about Doris’s job. “How you put up with all that crap and those awful customers is more than I can imagine.”
Doris just smiles. No one knows and she is not about to let on.
Doris’s childhood was not a good one. She was a middle child. Denton, her older brother, was not a nice person. Nor was her mother, a genuinely nasty, self-absorbed woman constantly bossed Doris around and screamed whenever Doris, who was a bit clumsy as a child, dropped or spilled anything. Things got worse as Doris got older. By the time Doris was ten, her mother, who worked as a hair dresser, saddled her with most of the household chores. As soon as she got home from school, Doris washed all the lady’s breakfast dishes, made the beds, and vacuumed the front room. Then, she started dinner. She did her homework only after she’d cleaned up from dinner.
Doris never said much. And it didn’t matter whether she did or not. Her mother constantly told her, “Shut up if you know what’s good for you.” Doris became even quieter, after her younger sister was born. Zora became her mother’s pet. Doris was expected to clean up after Zora and to remain absolutely silent when Zora was sleeping.
One morning, Doris’s father left for work and never showed up at his job. He just disappeared. He was the only one in the family who seemed to show any interest in her. He would sometimes comb her hair or rub her back. After he disappeared, Doris seemed to disappear as well. She could go for days without saying more than a word or two. No one paid much attention. Certainly not her mother. This was made very clear when her breasts began to show. She was twelve the first time Denton raped her. Soon, it became a regular event – as often as Denton was able to buy a condom from a friend at school or to steal one from their mother’s supply – until Denton had an accident.
Doris’s mother kept a pistol in an unlocked drawer in her bedroom. “In case my husband, that bastard, ever comes back,” she said. “None of the kids knew it was there. Denton must have been snooping, found it, and accidentally shot himself.”
Two years after that, Doris left home. She got a job in a bakery, finished high school, and moved out with little more than the clothes on her back. Her mother was furious. “Who was going to do all the housework and cooking?” But there was nothing she could do. Doris was no longer a child and had found a place to live with a few other girls her age.
Then, Doris got married. Norbert was a good deal older, an electrician who thought he was the luckiest man in the world. “You may not think she’s gorgeous but I do. And she’s young and knows how to cook. She’s quiet though. I wish she’d laugh more.” That’s how he described her to Willy, his business partner. When Doris wanted to enroll in a cosmetology school, Norbert happily footed the bill.
But there were a few clouds on the horizon. One of them was children. He wanted them. She did not. A side issue was sex. After the first year with Norbert, she became increasingly unenthusiastic. And then, there was religion. He was deeply religious. Doris went the church on Sunday only because he did and he disliked that.
He drowned two years after they were married. They were on vacation and were out in a canoe in the evening. It was almost dark. She said he leaned over and the canoe tipped. She hung on to the canoe and called for help. He never came up.
It was hard to say just what happened. Norbert was known to be a good swimmer. He had been on the swim team in high school and had been a lifeguard at a local country club. It seemed that he may have hit his head when the canoe tipped.
Shortly after that, Doris got the job at the department store. She didn’t seem to mourn Norbert very much. A couple of people thought she almost seemed relieved. They didn’t know she and Norbert’s partner, Willy, had been meeting at least once a week for extended lovemaking sessions. Doris was terrified Norbert would find out. His death eliminated that concern. And no one seemed the wiser. Or interested.
That is, until they found her father. In a shallow grave in the woods near Doris’s childhood home. The axe was still stuck in the back of his skull.
When Dennis was twelve years old, he saw his first porn movie. His eyes just about popped out of his head. This was a long time ago. It was a videocassette that his friend, Dexter, found in the back of a closet when Dexter’s older brother went back to college. When Dennis got over his first reaction to what had up until that moment had been beyond anything he might otherwise have imagined, he said, “I just figured out what I want to do for a living.” Everyone in the room burst out laughing, including Dexter’s sister, Maddy, and her friend, Grace. Dennis was a short and pudgy kid with curly hair and thick glasses. He was laughing too. He was always coming up with stuff like that, sort of self-deprecating but in a confident way. He liked getting laughs and did what he thought he had to do to get them.
It did not hurt that he was not only short, pudgy, and bespectacled, but also very cute, at least in the eyes of some young ladies, including Grace. Both being twelve at the time of the “the great porn video” as it became known, she kept this to herself. And for his part, Denny wouldn’t know what to do with Grace’s interest in him in any case.
Anyway, the story about Dennis’s “career plans” got around. Dennis was and is one of those people everyone likes. Kids started calling him “Porn King.” Dennis would do a little hip wiggle and everyone would laugh. Dennis was not exactly class clown, his grades and his presidency of the debating society precluded that. But he loved entertaining and the attention that went with it. With little or no musical ability, he started a band with a couple of friends. They called it the Porn Kings. They weren’t very good and Dennis was the worst. It was clear from the start; Dennis and the electric guitar were never to get along.
And it was all great fun until Dennis’s parent got wind of it. His father was president of his synagogue, a highly respected executive, a philanthropist, and a pillar of the community. In Dennis’s adolescent eyes, this made him a “sell-out.” Lovable and caring but nonetheless, a sell-out. From Dennis’s viewpoint, his mother was even worse. She constantly talked about making a good impression and doing the polite thing. So, when his parents sat him down and told him this “Porn King” or “Porn Kids” or whatever, was to stop and right now, Dennis went from a kid enjoying a long-running joke into his idea of a revolutionary. He had no choice, of course, but to do as they said. He was after all a semi-pubescent twelve-year-old facing down a bar mitzvah, an event he saw as something like a freight train coming down a track with no one at the controls. And Dennis was no fool. He knew his range of options as a junior high school kid was severely limited. no matter how bright and brash. Or how revolutionary he imagined himself.
Most of all, though, Dennis knew the future would be his if only he had the patience to wait. And the brains to keep his ideas to himself. He’d be a good boy. He would do an outstanding job with the bar mitzvah and his parents would be pleased. He would get good grades and limit his jokes to more “acceptable” subjects, and more or less behave himself.
His immediate goal was to spend more time with an English teacher. After that, it was to soften up his parents for a car when he turned sixteen, a birthday that was almost four years away. The English teacher was a “hottie” according to Dennis, a viewpoint he would not share with anyone, as much for her sake as for his. His real interest though was her encouragement with his writing and interest in literature. She said she saw something in his imagination and in the way he expressed himself in writing. He was also intrigued by her reading suggestions. She would mention books most kids his age knew nothing about. They covered an enormous range, some classics, some obscure and very contemporary. Some had sex in them. And foul language. Dennis didn’t care about that, except to make sure his parents didn’t get wind of anything not quite acceptable. Reading what his parents might see as smut would dampen his chances when it came to getting a car at sixteen. Dennis might look like a funny, innocent kid but as friend said on national television many years later, “Denny is always figuring about ten moves ahead of anyone else. When it comes to covering all the angles, I’ve never seen anyone better. And I’ve known him since we were kids.”
The bar mitzvah went off without a hitch. The rabbi said Dennis was one of the best. His Hebrew was flawless and he spoke it with real feeling. His parents were thrilled. As Dennis described it, “That day, maybe only that day, I could do no wrong. It was great.” And there were lots of presents, including a small pile of cash.
Afterward, there was a party with dancing and a fancy dinner at a country club. It was there when Grace, the girl who watched the porn video with Dennis and a few pals, pulled Dennis into a side room and gave him a kiss he would remember for the rest of his life.
It was something he kept to himself for years. He didn’t know what to make of it, at least not for a while. He really didn’t know Grace that well. She went to parochial school and, at the time, she stood a good six inches taller than Dennis. He knew if his parents found out about it, they would be mortified and definitely would have told him to stay away from her.
He didn’t get kissed like that again for some time. Four years to be exact. He would never admit it, even to himself, but well into his teens he was scared of having anything more than most superficial involvement with sex. He worried about his height and about being a little too pudgy. He worried he would do something stupid. He was terrified of being rejected or worse.
He had no idea what he’d do if he ever ran into Grace again. But there was no chance of that. When he asked about her, his pal Dexter said her family had moved clear across the country. And, anyway, she was going to go to a boarding school in Switzerland which his friend described as “a place for unruly girls.”
It never occurred to Dennis that most of the girls he knew or wanted to date were as scared of sex as he was. To him, they all seemed worldly-wise and totally disinterested in a him. That did not mean he stayed away from girls. Several were among his best friends. He was taking extra credit in creative writing and he was the only boy in the after-school class. He also joined his school’s Drama Club. He was just one of three boys who were members.
By the time he was fifteen, Dennis had formed an attachment or two. There was this one girl, Elinor, in the Creative Writing Club. She was also in his English Advanced Placement class. It seemed plain to Dennis she considered him an idiot. She never smiled when he tried to talk to her. When he expressed an opinion, she would ask where he got that idea, as if he had said one of the dumbest ideas in all of human history. She was also clearly the brightest kid in a class of very bright kids. There was this rumor about her asking to get full credit for French. It seems when she met with the head of the school’s French Department and two instructors, she spoke only French and refused to speak English. Her parents spoke French at home. Her mother grew up in France. They gave her the credit she wanted.
She wasn’t what you might call pretty but Dennis could not take his eyes off her. Most other kids thought her weird or “no fun.” They said she wore odd clothing – always dark stuff, long skirts or floppy pants. Her black hair covered her face. She did not hang out with any of the popular girls. When Dennis asked one of them about her, she said, “Elinor is always reading. She got out of gym with some doctor’s excuse. She never says anything except in class. The teachers all love her.” Dennis liked that she was different. He just didn’t know what to do or think about her. He tried to be friendly. He didn’t get much of a response. And so, he didn’t do anything. Not then, anyway.
Dennis turned sixteen during the summer vacation between his sophomore and junior year of high school. It was the summer his folks got him a car. They had to admit, he had been a very good boy. He got good grades, did what he was told for the most part, and made them proud. Instead of hanging out at his parent’s country club going nuts over girls at the swimming pool, he got a job writing a “High School Daze” column for the local newspaper. It didn’t pay much. But it was something. He had pitched the idea for the column on his own when he was in the middle of his freshman year and the editor bought it.
By the beginning of his junior year, Dennis had written at least thirty “High School Daze” columns for the local newspaper and interviewed dozens of people. He’d gotten a bit of a following and high marks from his editor. “Dennis, you are getting really good at writing and I happen to know you’ve increased our readership. Not bad for a sixteen-year-old punk!” In short, Dennis would continue writing for the paper during his junior year and, who knows, beyond. Right through college, it turned out, and until the paper folded.
So, a car. A job he liked and was good at. Dennis was feeling pretty good about himself. There were only two things bothering him. His father’s career concerns. And that girl, Elinor. Why did she think he was such a jerk?
His father was easy. He didn’t think the cub reporter idea was so hot. “This isn’t a career, right? Maybe next year you’ll get a job at the plant and learn about manufacturing management.” Dennis’s father said the same thing about the Drama Club. “You aren’t thinking about being an actor are you, Dennis? Not smart.” Dennis explained he had played just one small role and wasn’t very good at it. What he liked was making plays happen. All the financial stuff. And creating and managing the promotional program. “Nope, I like the business part. Figuring out what play will sell. The publicity, getting the tickets sold, making money for the Drama Club. That’s the part I like. Same thing with the newspaper.” Dennis didn’t say anything about dreading the idea of learning how to run a factory. One thing Dennis learned early in life: Don’t say anything about anything if you don’t know how the conversation is going to go.
And the Elinor issue turned out to be “no biggy” either. First chance he got as his junior year began, he asked her, “Why do you think I’m some kind of jerk?”
She looked surprised. “What are you talking about? Where’d you get that idea?”
“Well, when I try to even just say ‘hello,’ you look at me like ‘Go away.’”
“I do. I don’t mean to. I guess because I was reading or something and maybe that’s how I look. I shouldn’t. I like you. I like when you are around. I listen to what you say in class. It makes me think. So, if I did look annoyed, I’m sorry.” She gave him a little smile. And blushed.
Dennis was totally freaked out. All he could say was, “Oh, OK.”
That year they sat next to each other in Advanced Placement English. They sometimes talked after school. It wasn’t dating or anything like that. They shared an interest, books. A couple of times, they went to a museum together. Once, when a school play rehearsal ran long, Dennis drove her home in his car. But that was it. Anyway, Dennis was dating Henrietta, a girl his parents liked. She was pretty and bubbly. And very polite. As his parents saw it, Henrietta was the sort of girl Dennis should like. And one of his jobs in dating her was to help out her parents and convince her to go to college. She wanted no part of it. She wanted to go to secretarial school and get a job.
The last thing Dennis had in mind was to convince her to go to college. She was fun. She liked going out. She was a good kisser. She knew just how to twist her parents around her finger. While Dennis was pretty good about getting what he wanted from his parents, he was in awe of Henrietta’s ability in that area. She could get just what she wanted from her father. He was also in awe of her resistance to being serious about anything.
Certainly, she wasn’t serious about Dennis. She was dating other boys while she was dating him. He knew it and wasn’t bothered by it. It did not bother him much either when she dropped him. Dates with her were expensive. And, after a while, a little boring.
It was also a relief not to pretend to Henrietta’s parents – and to his own parents as well – about how he was convincing Henrietta to go to college. He always felt guilty about that. “What was I going to say? ‘I never even tried. But making out with Henrietta was fun.’”
His parents got it all wrong. They assumed the “breakup with Henrietta would leave Dennis heartbroken. Dennis went along with it. He told them, “it was hard but I will learn from it.” He did not say what he actually learned: Stay away from air-heads. Nor did he let on that on to no longer having to pretend about getting Henrietta to go to college, he would be able to spend more time and attention to his newspaper columns and to working with the Drama Club. And he did not let on it meant he could spend more time with Elinor.
Dennis knew his parents would not care for Elinor. She was too reserved. She was too intellectual. She was unconventional and very independent. And she was not Jewish. Some kind of Protestant. But since Dennis asked why she thought he was a jerk, they had become good friends. As the weather warmed towards the end of their junior year of high school, they’d go on rides in his car. Or sit after school and argue about a book or an author.
Another thing his parents got wrong; the idea Dennis was looking forward to spending the summer between is junior and senior year working in his father’s factory. To Dennis’s relief his father had left his job running the plant and taken a job with a large consulting firm. There had been some argument at the plant. The consulting firm had been after Dennis’s father for some time. There would be a lot more money coming in. When his father sat him down to explain the situation, he apologized about Dennis’s not being able to work at the plant during the summer. Dennis said he understood and would make do writing newspaper columns. He was getting very good at being taciturn.
When their junior year of high school year was over, Elinor and Dennis kept up the friendship. All very casual. They spent a lot of time talking about the columns Dennis was writing for the local paper. Could they become a book? They went swimming once. They visited bookstores. They traded books. They were pals. Dennis even told her about that porn video he had seen years ago and how his junior high friends back then called him “Porn King.” Elinor laughed so hard, she had a coughing fit.
And the summer sort of breezed along. Until the first week of August. It was on a Tuesday. Dennis and Elinor were going to drive to a picnic spot they liked. Dennis picked her up at her house. About ten minutes into the trip, Elinor said, “Dennis, instead of going to the park, why don’t we go back have our picnic in my backyard. No one’s home. My parents are in France. I’ll make lemonade. We can sit out back. It’s quiet and cool.”
So, they turned around. When they got to Elinor’s house and he was parking out front, she said, “No, don’t park here. Pull in the driveway. Go right in the garage. The neighbors can be nosy.”
They went in the back door of the house. Elinor made lemonade. Then, she and Dennis went back outside. There was a nice table with an umbrella in the backyard and they sat there and talked. Dennis still remembers that table and umbrella, even now, after so many years. And how nice it was to sit there talking.
And, suddenly, in mid-sentence, Elinor said, “Dennis, I need to tell you something. My parents are in France because we are going to move there. In a week, I think. Maybe sooner. And I don’t think we’ll be back. Not ever.”
Dennis was stunned.
He was stunned even more by what she said next, “So, I’m thinking what we should do, while we have the chance, is to go upstairs to my room and make love. Do you think we should? I think we should.”
And they did. When Dennis left it was late in the afternoon. They kissed and cried.
They did not see one another again until Dennis walked into a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He was with one of his authors. They were going to discuss the budget for an upcoming book-tour, the possibility of an appearance on a late-night talk show, and an advance he was going to pitch on the author’s next book. They were old friends. The plan was to do some business, have one drink too many, and have some laughs. And there she was. Sitting at a table toward the back of the restaurant.
When Dennis saw Elinor in that restaurant on a very ordinary and early afternoon, it was like nothing else he had ever experienced. He still can’t describe how he felt or recall what they said to one another or to those who were with them. “I never felt that way until that moment and I haven’t ever felt that way since. It was like, kaboom, my whole world started to spin. With joy? With regret? I don’t really know. All I know is I was so happy to see her.”
Elinor didn’t see Dennis at first. She was in a deep conversation with the people at her table, an older man, and two young women. The older man happened to look up and saw a short, slightly chubby, balding man, maybe in his early fifties, wearing a dark suit, striped shirt, and tie, staring at their table. He gestured to Elinor who turned around, took one look, and made a sound sort like a squawk.
Elinor stood up so fast that her chair fell backwards and took a step toward Dennis, one hand outstretched. He reached out. Their hands barely touched. Dennis said, “It’s been so long. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Did you get my note? I taped it on the front door. I didn’t know what to think when you didn’t try to reach me. I thought that you didn’t want to see me anymore.”
“Note? No.” Dennis explained how he stopped by Elinor’s house as soon as he could the next day, to say “goodbye” again and find out how to reach her and found the house being emptied out by a storage company. There was no note and the furniture movers didn’t know where anyone was.
Elinor said her parents had plane tickets delivered to her just after Dennis left on that late afternoon so long ago. They were for the next morning. A car would pick her up at seven o’clock. She said she called Dennis’s house and spoke to Dennis’s mother, saying Dennis should call immediately. Dennis said his mother never said a word about Elinor’s call.
Thinking back, Dennis said it was the most emotional moment of his life, even more emotional than the trauma of when they found his drowned wife’s body on the beach. Elinor had a similar reaction. She said she thought she might faint.
But there were people with them. Dennis’s author and Elinor’s three people – He was a professor; the two young women were graduate students. Dennis and Elinor explained they were high school friends who had been close a long time ago. And as the two of them explained themselves, some practicalities began butting in. Elinor’s party was supposed to be getting ready to leave the restaurant. The waiters needed to clear their table for the next party. Elinor had a train for Boston to catch. She had a lecture to deliver that night in Cambridge. And the next day, she was expected to fly home to France. She had two sons to attend to. And the only thing Dennis could think of saying was, “I need to talk. I could be in Cambridge tomorrow. I went to college there.”
Elinor explained her every minute was scheduled until she caught her flight. And she had to catch that flight. So, they did the only thing they could at that moment; they exchanged emails, street addresses and phone numbers. They hugged one another, and promised to get in touch. And then, Elinor was off for her train and Dennis for his author’s lunch. The author recalls Dennis as being completely distracted and promising to get a larger than expected advance for the new book they were discussing.
This time Dennis and Elinor were able to stay in touch. Reams of emails. Phone calls. But they were both busy people with very different lives to live. Dennis was transitioning into more senior management roles in his literary agency. There were trips back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. There were movie deals. Even a videogame deal. Elinor was teaching three courses in Comparative Literature. And writing her second book on Mallarme. She talked about what she called a “disheveled personal life.” How she didn’t seem to get along with either of her two former husbands. About the affair she had with a graduate student.
This went on for three years. “It would be great to see you again” was a regular comment. But something always got in the way. Much later, both admitted they were terrified, she more than he. So much time had passed. They really hadn’t spent much time together when they were kids. And, as Elinor kept reminding Dennis, they really had been kids when last they were together. “I’m an old lady now. I’m not so easy to be with. You won’t like me. Do you realize how many years it’s been? We have careers. We’ve both had lives. I’ve been through divorces. It wasn’t always the husband’s fault.”
Until, Dennis sent an email, “Enough is enough. I am going to be in London for a deal. And then, I am taking the train over to Paris. And when I get there, we are going to have lunch. I don’t care what you have going on. If I have to, I’ll hang around until you have some time. And then, we are going to talk.”
They had a lovely lunch. They talked. And laughed. And talked. Until late afternoon. And the next day. It took a while. And Elinor was right – it took some adjusting. But they managed. The conversation they restarted during a chance encounter in a crowded Manhattan restaurant kept going. They are still talking. And they don’t plan on stopping.
It hadn’t been easy. Laura had a lot on her mind in those days. The kids. The job. Sex. And it is all driving her slightly nuts. So, first things first. Laura lost her husband a while back. Heart failure. She’s got two kids. Back then, one was in junior high. The other was in her third year of an ivy league school. Each of them has their own way of freaking Laura out. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. That’s what she kept telling herself. Her shoes told her otherwise. Laura is a practical girl and never really liked high heels. And she walks heel first. Even the mid-height heels she wears take a beating and her shoes always have this squashed look as she often slips sideways in them. It didn’t help that she had to shlep a laptop and all these books in her bag when she visited clients – something she had to do at least twice a week. There was also at least one plane ride a week. Clomp-clomping around airports. Up-and-down stairs. It doesn’t take long for a new pair of shoes to look like hell and to give Laura the feeling that she looks a lot like her shoes.
Her sweet little daughter, Paula, never failed to drive the point home. At fourteen, Paula was very fashion-forward and troubled by her mother’s failure to measure up to her friend’s mothers. “Ma, you’re always wearing those boring suits. And those shoes. Not too cool!”
This Laura didn’t need. When stuff happens – and worse – she’s learned to take a deep breath, say to herself “What next?” Her goal was and is just gets things done without a lot of screaming and arm waving. Like when Paula announced her new dietary regimen, something her mother definitely did not need. Paula just decided to go on a nutrition kick with her friends. Not just vegetarian. Something else with almost no food at all except for these weird smoothies she made in the blender with celery and what she calls “detox oils.” When Laura told her, she will eat normal food, Paula was not very nice, even for a fourteen-year-old, “Do you think I want to grow up to be a pudge like you?”
And then there are Paula’s late nights with friends. One night, Paula came home after midnight, wearing an outfit her grandmother would call “next to naked” drenched in perfume. Laura thought the perfume smelled like cat piss and the outfit looked perverted. She was thankful her own mother, Glynnis, wasn’t there to see it. Glynnis was seventy then and hadn’t been well. But she still had a sharp tongue and had kept up her skill at making judgmental remarks. When Laura’s husband, a very successful architect, had his last and final heart attack, paid no attention to it, collapsed, and died on a job site, Laura’s mother’s idea of sympathy was to say: “Now, at last, you can find a real man.”
Glynnis never believed Laura’s husband was an architect. She insisted he was an interior decorator and therefore was “a man with no stones, if you know what I’m saying.” The only positive Glynnis ever said about Laura’s husband was, “At least he just didn’t come home one day and disappeared like my husband, the rat, did.” The day Glynnis said that, Laura had to run out of the house before she broke down in hysterical laughter. It was not a happy family.
It got less happy when Laura cleaned out her daughter’s closet and threw out Paula’s favorite party clothing. “You are fourteen and fourteen-year-old don’t have the brains to wear any of this stuff. It’s what hookers wear. And not even good hookers. Final. Done. And no more sneaking out or I call the cops.” Laura is pretty easy-going but when Paula came home obviously drunk or high on drugs and with a black eye, she decided some of this stuff has got to stop. Of course, it didn’t but it was a good try.
Laura’s older daughter, Joan, was different. Always a good girl. Studious. Thoughtful. Responsible. Helpful. Never got into trouble. A promising oboe player. So, her affair with a senior member of her university’s faculty came as a decidedly “what next” shocker. It was her junior year in college. He was married. Had two children, one about Joan’s age. It was clear to Laura that this was not going to have a happy ending. He was never going to leave his wife. If it got out, his career could be over. And Joan would end up looking like a jerk with little chance of getting the recommendations she’d need for graduate work.
And as smart as Joan was and as sophisticated as she thought she was, it was clear – Joan could be in way over her head. Professor Epstein’s wife was no match for her. A brilliant woman in her own right. Beautiful. An elegant dresser. She knew what was going on. And knew that one word from her and Professor Epstein would fold and come running home in terror.
When Joan came home for a weekend, gushing about the love of her life, Laura had just bought a new pair of shoes. She’d just been promoted and given a hefty raise. She’d been going to a trainer and had lost a few pounds. In one way, she was happy for Joan.
Joan had always focused on studies and music and avoiding getting involved with dating. Her only “outside” activity was running. She could do ten miles easy. And did it three times a week. It was about time for some adventure and romance. But, Laura figured, not this romance. When Joan went on about how wonderful and how right her love affair was, Laura listened without saying a word. It all seemed a bit artificial, as if Joan was trying to justify the whole thing, not just to her mother but to herself. So, when Joan stopped talking, Laura said, “Joannie, darling, we don’t need this.”
At which point Joan dropped the charade and agreed. “Ma, don’t worry, this is an experience. And it’s been great. But it’ll be over by Christmas break. I’m not the first undergrad Professor E had his paws on. And I won’t be the last. So, don’t worry. We’ve been as careful as we could be and no one is going to get hurt. He is very smart. And generous. He’s taught me a lot. And made sure I wasn’t really in love with him. In some ways, this has more about the reading list he keeps giving me than about romance.”
So, Joan went back to school and, just as she predicted, the romance with the great Professor Epstein soon drifted into history, another experience for Joan to add to her education. It may have also been an education for Laura as well. She had to admit, “Joannie is a lot smarter about this stuff than I was at her age. No tears. Not as far as I know.” She also had to admit, she envied her little Joannie. She could use a bit of that sort of excitement herself.
And one thing she knew for sure, there was not likely to be any excitement of any sort, at least not for a good while.
Looking back on that realization with the advantage of ten years’ distance, Laura had to laugh. Her job provided more than enough craziness and excitement for a lifetime. When she got a promotion, things got more challenging than she could have imagined. Somehow, her company expected her to become a very different person. They talked about Laura’s “great leadership potential.” The trouble was that Laura did not see herself that way. She suddenly had to manage a couple of dozen people and the politics that went with each of them. There were two or three of her “reports” who were real snakes. Laura put up with them for a year. She hated firing anyone for any reason. But in the end a friend of hers in personnel told her it was going to be her or them and she should get rid of them as soon as possible. “Do it for any reason or no reason whatsoever. Just do it.”
On top of that, Laura was expected to bring in business. She hated the idea of selling. She saw herself as an auditor, someone who handles data and finds and solves problems, not as some sort of huckster. But just when the pressure from management to “grow your business” began to get serious, she got lucky. One of her clients was recruited away from his company to a very senior position in another company. And he immediately hired Laura and her firm to be his accountants and advisors. Laura went from someone who might not have a bright future in her company to being a star performer.
And that’s where things began to go wrong for her. ‘I just wanted to be a good number cruncher. Not some hotshot. I like working with numbers. It is fun for me. I can figure out what’s kosher and what isn’t and how to make things right if it’s needed. I don’t want to go to fancy client lunches or boozy dinners with clients who might embarrass themselves by trying to put a hand up my skirt. At my age, I can’t believe they do it but just shows to go you on what a little booze will do to an otherwise sane mind. And I felt like a fraud in management meetings. I’m just not that kind of person. Bad at making tough decisions about people. Not that good at making nasty decisions about client’s companies or corporate raiding. Not for me. About a year in as a vice president, I knew it was going to be time to get off this train.’
It came sooner than I thought. The director of HR sleazed into my office and asked if I were happy. I told her I had a draft resignation letter in my laptop. ‘It’s nothing to do with the company. It has been wonderful to me. It has everything to do with me. This ain’t me.’ We worked out a deal for a severance. I still had my hooks into what turned out to be the firm’s largest client so they had to be nice to me. Down the road, I had a ton of money in my 401k. So, the only thing I had to worry about was what the hell was I going to do for the rest of my life? One thing was for sure: no more fancy shoes for me to destroy.
A couple of job offers came in right away. But I turned them down. I told them I needed time to cool off a bit and figure out what I wanted to do next. And then, there was this guy I’d met. Al was kind of jerk in a way. But the sex was amazing. He was fifteen years younger than me and did something in video production for one of the local TV stations. He also worked with a couple of local musical groups. When I say he was kind of jerk, I don’t mean he was dumb. He’s actually pretty smart. He was just immature and had some odd views about life. He had absolutely no notion of where he was headed. He’d been married, had a kid, and got divorced. He’d been bankrupt, maybe twice. He had one tattoo too many. All done without too much thinking. And what’s he doing with me, an older woman who had problems of her own and looked on him as sort of a pleasure machine?
At the time, I didn’t care. I was lonely. I needed a bit of fun. And one-night stands were not it for me, especially with men in my age range. They were having the same problems I was having. Who needed it? So, Al was going to have a good time for a while at least.”
It lasted for about six months, until about the time Laura’s mother, Glynnis died. It had been expected for some time. Glynnis had a long history of heart disease and paid no attention to it. Her attitude toward doctors (and her daughter as well) was, “What do they know? Bunch of pompous idiots!” It was hard to tell what finally did her in: the cigarettes or the booze. And Laura was not exactly sorry to see her go. Glynnis had always been nasty towards Laura. But, still, it got to Laura. A kind of wake-up call. The fun with Al could only last so long. They had nothing in common but the sex. What is she really going to do for the rest of her life?
The first thing she did was to drop Al. He wanted her to go into business with him. He called her at all hours with ideas for his new company. He would be the boss and run things and she would handle all the details like the bookkeeping and getting financing. That way, they would each take advantage of their respective abilities. It couldn’t lose. And he was beginning to manage her time. “Al, this is your idea of a life, not mine.” That was that.
She took some consulting jobs. It was a good way to fill time and make some money. She met some new people. She had dinner with some old friends. And she had grandchildren now. Paula, her wild teenage daughter, had in her last year of high school turned into serious student, got into a good college, went to dental school, established a thriving practice, gotten married to a fellow dentist, and popped out two adorable grandkids.
Paula’s idea was to have Laura look after the kids a couple of times a week and on the weekend. Laura loved the kids but that was not for her. The consulting work was a good excuse. “I have clients. They pay me to be available when they need me. And my time on the weekend is tied up with work. And, who knows, I could have maybe a bit of a social life. Paula, this isn’t going to work. And you have plenty of help as it is.”
Laura knew the “work excuse” would only go so far. So, she did something completely new. She and a pal went on a road trip, right across the country. About a week in, the pal dropped out and bought a plane ticket home. Laura kept going. She’d land in some little town, find a half decent motel, find a diner, and hang out around town until she had enough of the place and move on. It was fun. Laura had always been an East Coast, big city and upscale suburban girl and her business travels were always strictly business with no time for just nosing about.
She was just on the border of Colorado when her oldest daughter, Joan, called.
Joan had done alright. Professor Epstein may have been a molester but otherwise was as good as his word. He got Joan into a top-notch graduate program with a teaching assistant stipend to pay her bills, and, later on, paved the way for her to get an instructor spot at a leading English Lit program. And, after all that, he helped her get an assistant professorship in English Lit at a very exclusive and very hip liberal arts college on the West Coast. She would probably have done all this on her own but, as she put it, “A little help never hurts.”
Joan wanted Laura to visit. At first Laura wasn’t interested. Joan’s school was not on her route. But Joan made it sound interesting. “It is a gorgeous campus. I have a lovely house with a great spare bedroom. And anyway, I want you to meet Seymour, the guy who wants to marry me. We’ll do a little hiking. There are some great restaurants. And I have a cat you’ll go nuts for. We will have fun.”
Joan was right. They did have fun. Seymour, a molecular biologist, turned out to be a sweety-pie. Joan’s cat proved to be an expert at seduction. And Joan’s house and her college campus were not just picturesque but “out of a story book.”
Laura stayed for three days and got back on the road. Joan’s way of life was too inviting. Laura knew it was not her world and staying longer would begin to be an imposition. Three months later she landed back home and an old question started buzzing through her mind. “OK, smarty pants, what’s next?”
Back when she was a single mother, dealing with kids and work, she’d ask that question out of exasperation. And sometimes, desperation. Not now. It was something to think about. She wasn’t young anymore but not that old. She’d taken care of herself. Liked to have fun. And most important, after all those years working, raising the kids, handling one obligation after another, she was not tied down to anyone or anything, pretty much free to do whatever she wanted. But what about down the road? What if she got sick? It happens.
“I spent about six weeks getting back from my cross-country travel, putting everything I let slide back in order. Turned down another full-time job. I’d work for them but on a consulting basis. Nothing long term. Spent some time with the grandkids. And I kept wondering about the ‘what next’ bit. Anyway, about three months later, I headed for Nova Scotia. Why Nova Scotia? Sounded interesting. But a place, I discovered, was not for me. Maybe too many trees.”
“So, I came home again. The travel urge was over. Did some more consulting. Everyone seems to need a good accountant. It kept me busy. And I met someone. I’d been ducking that sort of thing but this guy was kind of interesting. He’s a package designer. Works when he wants. Older than me but still pretty cute. Good in bed. Laughs a lot. And most important, makes no big demands. But you know, if there was anything more than a nice night or a weekend trip with him, I’d have to make room for him in my world. I’d be tied down again.
It’s the last part that did it for me. Settling down with someone. Sharing a bathroom. Cleaning up. Not for me. At least not right now. Maybe the two of us should take a trip somewhere, like maybe in Europe for a couple of weeks or three. I’ll have to think about that. Maybe, I’ll see what he thinks. Who knows? I know my daughters would love it if I settled down. It’s like I’m the kid now and they are the adults. I mean, really.”
I am not a tour guide. I mean, I was a tour guide but that was a while back. And only because I didn’t know what else to do with myself when I was in my early twenties and supposed to have a job of some sort. I really had not education to speak of back then. Or at least I didn’t think I did. And I certainly didn’t have any professional training. Not any formal professional training at any rate. But I’d been around. My father was military. Flew planes for a while and then moved up the ranks to what he called ‘flying a desk.’ My mother drank. Not a lot at any one time. Never passed out or anything. Just enough as she used to say to get through the afternoon. We lived all over Europe and a lot of the Far East from time to time. My two brothers and I were pretty much on our own. School was sketchy at best. They had programs for dependents but they all sort of sucked. They never knew what to do with me. Every time Daddy was reassigned and it was a lot, there was a different school. And every time there was a different school, they were teaching something I had already learned or I had no idea what it was. And friends? Not really. I was always the new kid. But every one of the military kids was a new kid. We learned not to get too close to anyone. We could move tomorrow and never see them again. I remember just a few classmate’s names from my school years, none from the early grades and maybe half a dozen from when I was a teenager. I never did graduate high school. Not with the usual ceremony with the funny hat. Years later, when I wanted to get a college degree, I had to take a test to prove I wasn’t totally illiterate and then go to a junior college to make up credits. The kicker was: during my entire childhood, reading was my saving grace. I read anything I could get my hands on. Novels, textbooks, history books. Military training manuals. Anything. Whatever was at hand. I liked historical novels, some romantic novels – what you’d call ‘girlie books, books about different countries, and travel adventures. My mother was always worried that something would happen to me or to my brothers. We were usually living in foreign countries and were American nationals. She thought we would be kidnapped and held for ransom or worse. She wasn’t so worried when we were stationed in the States. But she was still worried. The good thing though – as long as we were in the house, we could do what we wanted or read what we wanted. My brothers played Monopoly endlessly. They combined five sets into one and a single game could go on for months. Every now and then, Mama would go on a tear about them not doing their homework or going their outside to play catch or ride a bike around the neighborhood. But she pretty much left me alone. I was reading. What harm in that? Mostly none. But I got into weird stuff, especially in junior high. In didn’t have a boyfriend but by the time I was fourteen, I’d read a lot about what to do with one if I had one. The other thing I did was, unlike my brothers, I always spent time with some of the locals. They usually found me a little strange and amusing. And I had the same view of them. So, it was fun. Almost by accident, I picked up more than a few languages: French, German, Japanese, Korean. I thought I was pretty sophisticated – a world traveler who had read a bunch of dirty books – except I was almost totally innocent. I found out just how innocent when my father retired from the Air Force, He was a colonel and it was clear he wasn’t going to go any higher. Suddenly, we were back in the United States living in a regular suburb, going to a regular school. Like no more moving. We were permanent. And I was a disaster. The thing about being always in transit is that you keep a certain sameness in your world, at least as best you can. It avoids getting disoriented. But landing at a large, suburban high school in the middle of my sophomore year blew all that away. None of the tricks I’d learned to avoid schoolwork and fitting in worked here. I mean I was totally lost. And American boys were nothing like the boys I’d run into overseas. To top it all off, my mother was in even worse shape than me. Daddy was home every night. No long deployments. There was no officer’s club when she didn’t want to cook. Restaurants were expensive. Daddy had gotten himself a job at a government agency, something to do with security so he couldn’t talk about work. And she knew no one. All the regimentation of life on a military base was gone. We were in our own country but felt a lot like strangers. My brothers, though, loved it, somehow fitting in as if nothing had changed. There were some bright spots for me. My teachers were amazed at my facility for language. At the time, I may have spoken four or five fluently, in addition to my native English – although with a slight midlands British accent. And they were equally amazed and sometimes appalled at the range of my reading. And some of the girls in my class were freaked out by my outfits, especially the stuff I got in Japan. So, all this overseas stuff might give you some idea why one of my first jobs was as a tour guide. But that’s only part of the story. I’m no beauty but I’m not too bad looking. Some say I am sort of sexy in an exotic way. Maybe. But standard-issue American boys tended to stay away. The word was, I scared them. That was fine with me for the most part. There were one or two cuties I could have gone for but they apparently didn’t go for this weird kid who wore odd clothing. Roger, on the other hand, was French, displaced and unhappy when he was sent to live with his mother and her new husband in the States, and, so, the two of us fell in with one another. We really didn’t know what to do with one another. But one thing led to another. When we finally made love (at his mother’s house; she was never home), we were aghast. What had we done? Fortunately, we knew enough to be careful. We had a long discussion and concluded we had gone too far, we shouldn’t do that again, and maybe we should try to stay away from one another to let things cool off a bit. And we did just that. For four days. We couldn’t stand it any longer. We were teenagers after all with no more self-control than squirrels. And over eighteen. Actually, I was a few months older than Roger. We thought we could keep our lovemaking a secret from everyone and perhaps we did. In both our cases, our parents were very busy. I know mine assumed that I was a totally innocent child who only knew about sex from the book my mother had given me when I was eleven or from hygiene classes at school. When they asked about Roger, I said we are friends and he is the only one around who speaks French with me. When June came around, Roger graduated. I did not. My scattershot education had left me with half-a-year credits short. So, I would need to finish up over the summer and into next fall. Roger, on the other hand, was headed for college. In Paris. He left in the middle of the summer. We promised to stay in touch by letter. The internet was a way off so it was hand-written letters. Our letters went back and forth fairly regularly but slowly, inevitably, they began to trail off. Roger’s courses were more challenging than he’d expected. I got an after-school job and was taking an extra load of courses, mostly sciences, so I could finally graduate high school. And after a while, that was that. Except for an occasional note, we drifted apart. I am sure he was having other relationships; I did not, at least not for some time. My facility for language landed me the job I mentioned at a travel agency, booking trips for people who wanted to travel abroad. The language part of it was minimal. I did it for a couple of years. Then, moved to New York City and got a job as a tour guide for Europeans visiting the States. I got to meet a lot of people and became very good at having very superficial relationships. I was hit on a lot. And every now and then, when the mood hit me, I’d have some sex with someone. It wasn’t a very satisfying way to live but I was making some money and could pretty much run my life the way I wanted. But I was going nowhere. And that made me a perfect candidate for something that changed everything. I got a call one evening from my father. He said he had told a colleague about me and it might be a good idea to meet with her. “Could I take a train down to Baltimore? Someone would meet me.” He would set up all the details. The whole thing was strange, starting with getting a phone call from my father. We had been a bit distant ever since he figured out what had been going on between Roger and me. He had not approved. He told me he was disappointed in me and he and my mother were hurt by my behavior. I think he was also upset by my apparent aimlessness. After finally graduating high school, I was pretty emphatic about not going to college. I told him I was done with school and, if I wanted to study something, I’d do it on my own. I never told my parents about the courses I took at night. There was a three- or four-year period when we didn’t speak at all. I’m not sure they knew where I lived or what I did for a living. The point for me was to be independent. They didn’t give me much attention when I was growing up and I suspect I was pretty mad at them about that. I let them know I was moving to New York. And, after I moved, I would visit at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And sometimes at Easter. It was good to see my brothers. Beyond telling them I worked as a tour guide for a European company, I didn’t say much about my life. I suspected they would think I was some sort of aimless drifter, at best, and a wanton whore, at worst. And I didn’t tell them about taking some time off and getting a degree at Columbia. Screw that! Anyway, I worked out a time for an appointment with this woman he wanted me to meet, got tickets for the Acela in the mail and a form for recording travel-related expenses, and directions. It came by some kind of special courier. All very organized and a bit inscrutable. Just as promised there was a driver dressed in a dark suit and a red tie with a blue button in his lapel button waiting for me in the main lobby of the station. In thinking about it, he must have had a photo of me because he saw me before I saw him. He called me “ma’am” and introduced himself as Johnson, took my bag, and asked me to follow him to the car, a dark sedan, maybe a Ford. We got on a highway and drove to a very large and black, government building, somewhere between Baltimore and Washington. There’s not a lot I can say about the rest except having a feeling which must be sort of like the out-of-body experience you hear about. I was definitely creeped out. The woman I was to meet was pleasant enough, about twenty years older than me. She turned out to be a sort of concierge, arranging my filling out forms and meeting with maybe ten or fifteen people over the two days I was there. But they put me up in a very nice hotel with an even nicer restaurant. I was told to enjoy myself. And I did. One of the best shrimp cocktails I ever had. A very nice steak. And flan for dessert. I had just a sip of the martini I ordered with the shrimp and drank only half a glass of the wine I ordered. I was to be picked up the next morning at eight-thirty so I had coffee in my room for breakfast. I spent the whole of the next day in that large and black building, all of it in one room, meeting one person after another. They brought lunch in. And at the end of the day, I was on the train, back to New York, feeling turned inside out, and thinking only about getting out of these damn clothes and into a hot shower. A week later, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell was that all about?” Whatever it was, I had been told I was being interviewed for a job with a high-security government agency and not to tell anyone about my visit to that black building or whom I had met. I did as I was told. One thing for sure, they were dead serious. At the time, I was dating a really nice guy. He wanted to know where I’d been. I’d told him not to worry but I might be gone for a day or two. When I got back, he asked again. I said I was with my parents. A family matter had come up and I needed to be with them. He wasn’t buying any of it. “Was it your mother? Is she alright? Or your father? Everything OK?” And the vaguer I got, the more insistent he was. And that was when our otherwise rather nice relationship slipped downhill. It was one of those petulant, “Fine. I won’t ask anymore. I was just concerned.” followed by a long silence, followed in turn by no calls for a week. And when he did call, it was too late. We saw one another just once or twice afterwards. And then, only to wave at a distance. A chance sighting on a busy street in midtown New York City at rush hour. As for the folks in the large, black building, they didn’t call either. Not for a while anyway. So, there I was, back on the job, licking my wounds from a failed relationship, caused by what appeared to be a failed job interview, if that was what it was. Until there was a registered-return-receipt-requested envelope with a request for a meeting at some law firm in Rockefeller Center. It was a small office, no receptionist or waiting room. You rang a bell, gave your name on an intercom and were told to stand in front of a peep-hole before they let you in. That’s the very moment when I started working at the best and most all-consuming job of my life. I have to say I never looked back. And, of course, I can’t talk about it except to say it has taken me all over the world. Including Paris, where I met up with my high school love, Roger. It was great. And not so great. It taught me a couple of things. People change. Roger certainly did. He’d gotten married and he and his wife had a couple of kids by the time we met again. A paunchy, balding man with a worried look. He’d joined his parents in government service. They were diplomats. He was something in transportation. An administrator. Who knows how he sized me up. I told him I was a tour guide. We had a lovely lunch. Some laughs. A few unspoken regrets. A hug goodbye. It was a wistful look at a path not taken. Everybody who meets up with an old love, classmate, or friend has those feelings. But maybe not everyone has the stinging revelation I had. Not right away but a day or two later, getting off a plane in Warsaw. An almost staggering sense of sadness. I was lonely. There were so many people I knew and had lost. My parents were gone by then. I hadn’t seen my brothers in years. My relationships with men – and with women for that matter – were superficial at best. Mostly, I’d kept that way on purpose. In my line of work, you get a little paranoid. But of course, I wasn’t being celibate. If I were into that sort of thing, I could go into some of the more memorable one-night stands I’ve indulged in over the years. Don’t give me a look: sometimes you get a little lonely. You meet a guy in a restaurant or hotel bar. Sometimes it was great fun. Sometimes not. And sometimes it was really stupid. But mostly it was empty. And when it finally dawned on me how empty it all was, I decided it had to stop. And maybe more important, I decided to be a little less paranoid. And to think about my age and my future. About then, one of my old college teachers, a professor named Richmond, sent a note about how he was retiring and wanted me to attend his retirement dinner. So, I took a train up to New York to attend. It was very pleasant. There were one or two people I knew at the dinner. From my own experience, Dr. Richmond was a terrific teacher. Apparently, based on those celebrating his retirement, others had a similar experience. He had a very large following. He asked me to join him for lunch, maybe in the next month or so if it were convenient. He had some things to tell me. We ate at a restaurant somewhere in Bronxville. A cozy little place serving better than average French food. During the lunch, Dr. Richmond told me it was him, not my father, who had set up my initial interview in the large, black building. Back then, Richmond was a recruiter. My father was just a convenient conduit. An innocuous way to make an introduction. Why Dr. Richmond needed to haul me up to New York for what seemed an unnecessary but still rather pleasant lunch I am not sure. But after the lunch, we stayed in touch, emailing back and forth. I wondered whether he had something more in mind but there was never really a hint of anything, even though he was a widower – by that time for a few years. He died a couple of years later. I went to the memorial service and to the reception afterward. I met someone there. He was about ten years younger than me. It was an almost immediate attraction. It took me by surprise. Him as well. Two months later, we married. Two years afterwards, I retired. I figured I had enough of doing stuff I couldn’t talk about with anyone outside my agency. And another year beyond that, I found myself divorced and alone. Whose fault? Probably mine. It seems I really am a tour guide in a way – there with you during the trip, but gone once the trip is over. For the past few years, I’ve been living in a small town in New Mexico. The land is desolate and inhospitable. It seems to suit me.