“The Doctor Who Tickled His Wives”
By Paul Saevig, ‘67
He first noticed her when they were five years old at a swimming lesson. She wore an air of natural authority that day, even as a thin little girl in a powder blue swim suit and matching cap, and he wanted to be her friend. They turned out to live on the same street, several doors apart, and their mothers became quick friends. They were thrown together, Matt and Loretta, and sent to Cotillion dance lessons together by their mothers, who believed the two made a handsome couple, and were a good physical match, even though Loretta was tall and reserved even then, and Matt had the easy grace of an athlete and relaxed nature of a born conversationalist.
Before too long they read the same serious books and discussed them, and watched old movies they analyzed and argued about. Loretta maintained a superior attitude to him and all their classmates, and with her quick wit, Matt founded her funny and endearing. Gradually when she insulted him tongue in cheek, he learned to laugh, and eventually she did it with a merriness on her eyes. She came to his football and baseball games to read in the stands and watch him at important moments, but if he hit a double or ran for a touchdown she ignored him, while if he struck out or fumbled the ball, she rolled her eyes and shrugged.
She babysat for his little sisters when his parents went out and he was busy with friends, and when he returned, they’d sit and talk for hours until the older people came home. She had ways of making it clear to others he was not her boyfriend, and although he sought out other girls by the time he was ten or eleven, everyone still believed they had a quirky friendship that might include kissing and indiscretion.
So when a boy broke her heart for the first time at the downtown junior high school, she depended on Matt to console and distract her, and to absorb her sadness and lamentations. This role he assumed with tenderness and dedication, for she was his best friend. She never spoke of him that way, but he could tell by now how much she cared about him, and how willing she was to help. Whenever a girl she found suitable evinced any interest at all in him, Loretta informed Matt with caution and advised him on how to proceed, with warnings about weakness and faults she already discerned in the other girl. He was already popular with girls, and had a typical taste for more and more of them. He accepted whatever insights Loretta offered him, pursued each girl she said liked him, and enjoyed a high ratio in success in being able to kiss them and later touch them in the preliminary ways girls then allowed. He was a gentleman, however, and kind, and understanding, so he escaped the censure received by most boys who played the field.
As he told Loretta once, “To be a real Romeo, you have to lie to girls and fool them, and I can’t do that. They’re the same as my sisters.”
“Aren’t you the noble prince?” she replied. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
He laughed and already at twelve years old he realized the two of them had a deep bond, and probably a unique one.
That year she went to an orthodontist for braces, and when they came off later, she had a more polished appearance, a more noble one, he thought, and now she looked like a young lady, not a girl any more. He struggled with his feelings until he had to conclude he had a crush on her. He’d always had the usual boy’s libidinal attraction and curiosity for girls. He watched her closely when she wore sleeveless dresses or short shorts, and wondered about her bare body. But Matt yearned to kiss her and touch her, too.
She gave no evidence of reciprocation, and to his mild horror, soon flirted with a boy Matt considered thuggish, a tall fellow who played basketball and lived somewhere close to a big packinghouse downtown. Matt watched the two of them at recess and dances, and when she told him about the fellow, he listened with equanimity. She liked the boy’s defiant attitude, the daring way he smoked cigarettes outside the school, his muscles, the sarcastic way he talked, and even the virile smell of him. Matt felt surprised to see her wrapped up in the same puppy love others girls embraced from time to time, and listened mostly without comment. He had a way about him that made others believe he was completely sympathetic and agreed with the other’s views implicitly, which was not always true. He thought this romance was bound to end quickly, and he was right.
Loretta had worn the other boy’s signet steady ring on a chain around her neck for six days, let him hold her hand as they walked, and indulged in closed-mouth kissing at a party in view of Matt, who watched through a patio screen door. Then one morning the other boy ignored her without explanation and began holding the hand of a busty blonde girl who lived south of the train tracks. Other kids had already said she was a whore, and unfairly, Matt thought, and after that, Loretta made no mention of either of them. She and Matt played Monopoly or Scrabble, and while they talked, she made a general reference to how “males were animals”. Matt let it pass and she beat him easily, as always.
She redoubled her efforts at scholarship and barely missed being number one in their class at junior high graduation. A week later her parents invited Matt to come along as they visited her mother’s sister who’d married into money and lived on a ranch in the hills west of Palo Alto. They had horses, so Matt was eager to go, and right away he met Loretta’s older cousin Jessica, who’d recently graduated from a coed private school described as “progressive”. He could tell Loretta didn’t like Jessica, but her curiosity drew her to the older girl’s bawdy stories, presumably autobiographical.
Jessica smoked marijuana on the walks they took along trails with ocean views, and made condescending but vague references to her own sexual adventures. Matt thought she was a little cheap, but he watched Loretta listen to her. His friend’s eyes widened and registered shock beyond her usual control and concealment. Matt couldn’t quite figure out what that meant. As far as he knew, Loretta didn’t plan to surrender her own virginity until she married, like most girls from their neighborhood, or at least until well into college. Her reactions to Jessica’s stories seemed to indicate lust, though, and somehow Matt found that hurtful.
The nights near Palo Alto were cool, and he preferred to sleep in a bunkhouse by the stables, to one side of the house and down a hill. He’d brought volume two of a biography of Winston Churchill, and read a chapter every night before falling asleep. Even with several blankets, he slept light and cold, aware of night birds, foxes, coyotes, probably wolves and maybe even mountain lions passing outside.
When he started at a noise and awakened, he decided to rise and get his blood flowing, so he pulled on his jeans, a T-shirt, a cable knit sweater, and a parka Loretta picked out for him at Bullocks, and stepped into his boots. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he walked out the bunkhouse door.
When he stepped outside, he saw Jessica walking toward him. The moonlight shined on her and she wore a sleeveless buckskin coat and a flannel shirt unbuttoned to reveal her breasts. She came forward to clasp her hands around his neck, and with wine-scented breath, she whispered, “I wanted to see you, Matty.”
Although she scarcely attracted him, Matt considered how a girl was a girl, and he might not have this opportunity to screw one, as the men said, not for a long time, maybe, not at home. He was eager to lose his own virginity once and for all, like the guys who bragged they already had. Jessica took his hesitation as approval to press herself against him and kiss him. Matt left his eyes open, then, and noticed Loretta watching from an upstairs window with a candle in the room.
He pushed Jessica away and muttered, “Not me. No thanks.”
She laughed at him and said, “I suspected you were a child.”
Loretta watched from her window on the hill, and Matt did not know how to make Jessica go away. He thought of pushing her, but knew he couldn’t. He could brush past her, but what he wanted was to go to Loretta and reassure her nothing had happened, and he hadn’t known Jessica would come to him. Next thing he knew, Loretta’s window was dark.
“Oh, have I embarrassed you in front of your little virgin?” Jessica mocked him.
“You’re probably promiscuous,” he told her.
“You’re funny. You wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman,” she retorted.
“You’re cynical, Jessica. I don’t think you’ve always been this way, have you? What made you change?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” she hissed.
“Somebody molested you?” he guessed.
She slapped his face before he could block her hand.
“I’m sorry. But was it something like that?” he asked her.
She turned silent and her nastiness vanished. When she turned back to him, she said, “Over there. Under the oak tree.”
She led him to a rock garden on a slope of wild mustard and bushes. There was an old oak and a wooden bench below it. When they reached it, Matt smelled Jessica’s Jean Nate lotion, same as Loretta wore. He shook his head in amazement and admired Loretta’s stealth. She might be somewhere near now.
“You see into people,” Jessica told him. “That’s a dangerous quality, Matty.”
“It might be. You’re unhappy, Jessica.”
“So what? I manage OK,” she told him. “I mess around a little, sleep around a little, smoke a little dope. I’ve already been accepted at Radcliffe, Wellesley and Barnard.”
He waited. She took out a cigarette and lighted it with a kitchen match. She’d pulled her jacket together and held her left arm diagonally across her chest.
“My aunt,” she said. “My aunt and her husband. The horse breeder. Every time when they came to visit from Marin County. Both of them.”
She looked into his eyes as if for forgiveness.
“And no, I haven’t told anyone. He’s a mean bastard, my dad’s business partner and best friend. His wife is a snake. She has cancer now and I’m glad. But they stopped when I went away to school.”
Matt waited and listened. He was out of his depth but he couldn’t leave her alone, not yet.
“What do you plan to study?” he temporized.
“I’ll try for medical school. Premed, I mean. I probably won’t make it, not with all the brilliant Jewish girls back there. The medical schools will admit them first.”
“Maybe not. Maybe being a California girl will fit another quota. There are medical schools here, too.”
“I’ll major in biochemistry. I really like it,” Jessica said. “I know I don’t look it, or look smart at all.”
“Don’t say that. You obviously are, to be accepted there.”
“You sure you don’t start high school until the fall? You seem kind of advanced,” Jessica told him.
“Well, I don’t know about that. I hold my own.”
“Hold your own what?” she said, and they laughed.
She said he reminded her of Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner.
“You’re brainy that way, and thoughtful. Are you doomed, too?” she asked him.
“Thanks for the compliment, but you’ve got the wrong guy here,” he told her.
He explained Faulkner was his favorite writer and Jessica said that was a coincidence. They discussed Faulkner’s novels and characters, and he gave her his parka for warmth. They talked until they were both too tired to continue, and fell asleep where they were until dawn when her father hiked down with a rifle to hunt quail.
The man shook Matt awake and told him, “You rascal! I won’t tell your mother, but run along to the house and get some breakfast.”
When the man drew Jessica aside to bawl her out, Matt saw how her eyes held contempt for him. She was smart enough not to let it show. Her father pointed his finger close to her face and she pushed it away with a sneer.
“Knock if off, Dad,” she said. “We’re more even every time something happens, you know?”
He cocked his fist as if to hit her but she only chuckled at him. When his wife joined him, the man turned away and said, “Let’s go.”
“You go ahead,” Jessica yelled at Matt, already fifty feet up the hill.
“No, you go first,” he insisted.
“Don’t be so much like Quentin Compson, Matty. Beat it.”
A while later, he ran into Loretta drinking coffee outside the kitchen door. She'd brushed her hair and looked especially fresh after washing and scrubbing her face.
“Have a good night?” she asked him deadpan, and naturally that made him laugh.
“She ambushed me, Loretta. Then we chopped each other for a minute and found out we both loved Faulkner. We talked until about 2 AM, it must have been.”
“Oh, really?” she said.
“You know it because you sneaked down to listen,” he continued.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Do you think it’s true, what she said?”
“I’ve read it’s much more common than we think. Yeah.”
“Poor girl,” Loretta said, and they dropped the subject.
She let him drink some of her coffee and wiped the rim of her cup with a napkin when he returned it.
“We’ll go riding after breakfast,” she announced. “My mom will drop us off on campus at Stanford and we can check it out, if you behave yourself.”
“You mean not spit on the sidewalk? Or pick up cigarettes stubs from the ground to smoke?”
“You’re disgusting. Let’s have breakfast.”
That September they started at Sunny Hills High School and already Loretta was widely known and popular. She would go on a date if a boy seemed innocent and harmless, or promising, and went with groups to the movies, to the beach, sometimes to home barbecues and pool parties. Matt developed his own circle of friends, with quite a few students from Loretta’s group, too. She was considered top level, though, and smart.
Every night Loretta and Matt met next to her mother’s pygmy lemon grove behind a row of eucalypts. They sat on lounge chairs and reviewed their days.
They still met in her den to practice dancing, too, which had been her idea since cotillion. She’d take the lead, and place Matt’s hands on her waist, or on the small of her back, or where she wanted herself held. He was good dancer, light on his feet and quick to learn, but she never said so. She concentrated on her own moves and made him repeat a dance until she got it right. Sometimes after two hours, she’d be perspiring and her mother brought them a tray of sandwiches with potato chips and lemonade.
She widened her appraisals of each girl he mentioned or dated, analyzed how much each one cared for him, and advised him when to hold on or get out of it. Most of the girls were ones she knew, or in the Lancelles with her. She briefed him on each girl’s family background, critiqued her taste in clothes, her table manners, and her level of personal hygiene. (She found most of the girls at least slightly deficient, and many worse, a few much worse.) When she approved of a girl Matt might date briefly, she recommended topics he could bring up to hold her attention, but he was on his own to cultivate her physical affection. He rarely took her specific advice, but her views fascinated him.
One evening during Easter Week in their sophomore year, Loretta stopped Matt cold when she asked him, “You want me to date you, don’t you, Matt?”
For once she caught him unaware.
“That would be nice. Why don’t you, Loretta?”
In mild exasperation, she explained, “First, that would ruin everything. Second, although you’re obviously a very handsome, charming, bright young man of impeccable character, with a terrific future ahead of you, you’re not my type at all. Shall I continue?”
“I guess not,” he said and willed himself not to look sad. Even her bluntness was endearing, though.
After that moment, he never considered asking her out, or indirectly inquired about the possibility, either. Soon he wondered if she regretted her decision. Now he watched her more closely ,and with an odd feeling, as if she somehow belonged to him, because they had a bond he couldn’t explain.
He watched her date a series of smart boys from their classes, and each one would bore her, he knew in advance. After every one of her dates — the next morning after a dance, or when she came home from a movie at night — he listened as she told him in candor, “He kissed me but it was nothing to write home about.” Or “He’s a fascinating fellow if you find homemade telescopes interesting,” or “He puts more tongue in his kisses than a delicatessen puts in their sandwiches. Next, please.”
He could not deny she was catty, and while she seemed to see girls her own age as a prettified race of numbskulls, she also had many girlfriends and cared warmly about most of them, as if she were their parents’ baby sitter and responsible for their well being. She herself ranked as one of the two or three most highly regarded girls in their class. She even ran around with several of the girls Matt took out, including one beauty he dated for two months before she finally pleaded unconvincing incompatibility and cut him loose.
When he asked Loretta to explain that girl, she revealed the girl was actually infatuated with him and had told her so, but feared her devotion to him would impair her own determination to succeed, and worried he’d get her pregnant in her moment of weakness.
“But we never even got beyond second base,” Matt protested.
“It’s better that way. She’s neurotic, Matt. She needs a mild boy who won’t excite her. Consider yourself lucky.”
When he felt better, he realized she was right.
A day never passed without a conference between the two of them. Boys asked him for introductions to Loretta, or if Matt could to put in a good word for them. But Matt refused the requests. He believed no one was really quite good enough for Loretta.
She wore her brown hair at shoulder length now, her hair with shimmering body and lustre. Her skill at applying her makeup had improved, so she looked even more natural and fresh, with her prominent cheekbones, hollow cheeks, a straight, delicate nose, strong chin and blue-green eyes of sophistication. She’d grown to 5’9”, with long legs, a small waist, a small bust line and elegant arms.
Her carriage, though, was what set her apart, and the way she held her head. While she was young, there was nothing girlish about her, except sometimes when she laughed in the privacy of her conversations with Matt, her unacknowledged best friend, or sometimes with her few close girlfriends. He’d reminded himself often and routinely that they'd never be romantic partners, and felt so convinced of it that he no longer consciously yearned for her.
He dated more girls for two months or so, cared very much for each one, and parted amicably, usually to remind friends.
When the time came to select a graduation marching partner, Loretta informed him, “We’ll march together and go along with my friends to the grad party. I doubt either of us will find it very enjoyable, although it might be interesting, and my mom will come at 2 AM to bring us both home.”
And so it happened. Then he spent that summer learning to make sails with a family friend in Point Mugu, and Loretta worked in lady’s shoes at Bullocks La Habra.
Every month they met for dinner in Beverly Hills and brought each other up to date. He’d heard Jerry Slayne liked her one month, and supposedly Norma Brierly would be having a rhinoplasty, and Mike Quarles' dad grounded him for a month for being stoned at Hillside. She informed him she’d heard Abigail Golding planned to hook a new football quarterback into Prom next year, although Loretta herself doubted it because Abigail was still over the falls on Denny Adair. She let him know Narlene Parmalee’s mom had a nervous breakdown and stayed at Brea Neuropsychiatric, and that Mr. Parmalee, the jerk, planned to divorce her and marry a younger woman. John Wahlquist’s dad the lawyer told Loretta’s dad. The gossip was a game for them, Matt and Loretta, and while they were sympathetic, most of it seemed like no more than a soap opera.
In late August, their families went on a vacation at the Royal Hawaiian. Loretta and Matt with his two little sisters took a chaperoned flight to Lihue, Kauai, where they explored the exotic gardens. They stayed in separate wings of the same hotel and shared meals. Toward the last few days, Matt felt melancholy at the prospect of leaving his best friend when college started. Finally in a rare show of affection, she touched his cheek and told him, “C’mon, don’t be weak. We’ll still be close friends.”
When he began at Berkeley, Loretta started at Stanford. They spoke often by phone, exchanged notes in the mail, and managed to see each other quite a few times during the year. They booked flights or drove home together on holidays, sometimes with new friends, but before junior year began, Loretta announced they’d end the practice.
“We have to. It gives the impression we’re sleeping together, Matt,” she said. “We can talk during the summer.”
He knew better than to object and wondered for the rest of his life if she had any idea how sad he felt about her decision.
He spent the whole summer without taking out girls and worked for Frank Caslin’s dad’s house-moving company. That job took him to Redlands, Pasadena, Hancock Park in LA, and the hills above Laguna Beach. He saw an accident one morning at 2 AM in Temple City, when a member of his crew got killed by a drunk driver who ignore the flashing yellow lights six blocks in front of the moving house. Matt never saw a dead human body before. When he attended the man’s funeral in San Pedro, he realized on his long drive home that he’d become a doctor.
At the beginning of their senior year, Matt met a girl from Oregon and within a few weeks, asked her to marry him. She accepted provisionally, as she said, and said they should stay together until they finished graduate school. He was disappointed but agreed, and when he applied to medical schools, she applied to the nursing schools nearby, confident as the Phi Beta Kappa she was.
When Matt introduced her to Loretta at a dinner in San Francisco, he could see his old friend disapproved of her — of Juliet, his fiancee. She was as tall as Loretta, slender, with a long face and a coltish manner, but her soft blue eyes owned his very soul, and for once he didn’t mind what Loretta thought.
Within a month Loretta began seeing a Stanford lacrosse co-captain, the scion of the family with the largest sugar production in Louisiana. He was a brawny fellow with rusty red hair and orange freckles, 6’5” and mean-looking, Matt thought. He had slightly cocked blue eyes that gave him an odd look, but he seemed nice enough and Loretta obviously adored him. So that was that.
In July, Matt reported to the Tulane University Medical School in New Orleans, and Juliet enrolled in their nursing school. They lived in a dormitory for graduate students for their first year, occupying a double room, and for the next three years, in a guest house behind an Audubon District mansion. She accepted a job in the Obstetrics Ward of Charity Hospital, and when Matt graduated, the matching system assigned him to a residency at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose. He and Juliet packed and moved to a rented house near the pediatric wing. She immediately became pregnant and gave him twin girls nine months later. In the bustle of the next three years, he seldom spoke to Loretta at all, although she sent the twins a series of expensive gifts, and now she lived in a mansion outside Houston.
When Loretta appeared often in Matt’s dreams, however, usually as a minor character, sometimes only a voice, he felt guilty and sorry for Juliet.
Juliet made a wonderful wife and their girls — Sally and Stacy — grew into uncommonly sweet toddlers, brunettes with dimples and little pink lips that turned up at the outer edges. Everyone said they were pretty. But the residence was grueling, and raising infants was exhausting for both Matt and Juliet, who missed nursing
Later when Matt accepted an offer to join an OB/GYN practice in Tiburon on San Francisco Bay, Juliet enrolled in a special accelerated midwife program at Berkeley and soon accepted a position at UCSF. When the twins turned seven, they begged to go with Mom to attend women in labor, and sometimes Matt met them because he was on staff. Those were the happiest times of his life.
A year passed and Juliet had a baby boy they named Stuart after her own father. He was a husky little fellow, a ringer for his dad, and soon Julia carried him to work in a papoose until Matt came with the twins to take his baby son home. Eventually both Matt and Juliet prospered, and when his father died, they used the inheritance to purchase a home in Pacific Heights, as much as an investment as a home for their family.
“Now we’re swells, bubba!” Juliet told him.
Already he’d missed his tenth year Sunny Hills class reunion with all his ladies in waiting that Juliet teased him about, but when the twentieth came, he made arrangements and took Juliet to the Newporter Inn in Newport Beach, where President Nixon, H. R. Haldeman and John Erhlichman often met to confer, she noted with hilarity. They arrived two days early to see old friends and Juliet’s brother, a stockbroker in Palos Verdes. Everywhere they went friends quizzed her on babies and she was happy to expound on the subject.
At the reunion, Matt was covertly intent on seeing Loretta and her sugar magnate husband. Would he be a good man? Would she finally like Juliet now, as he hoped she would?
He enjoyed the strange feeling of seeing so many familiar people yet not recalling more than half by name. Because he was a doctor and surgeon, just about everyone treated him with excessive respect, which he and Juliet found ludicrous. If they only knew, he thought to himself.
When a prominent Lancelle approached him with a question about her own endometriosis, he barely suppressed his own urge to goose her and yell “Bawanga!” just like those of the football players whose faces were already incarmine with Scotch whisky. Instead he heard her out politely, made a mild remark or two, and she thanked him as if she might also touch the hem of his garment and weep with sanctified joy. She embraced him as if they’d been dear friends since infancy, and a few classmates around them actually watched with tears in their eyes.
When they finally stepped away, Matt’s old friends Morty Thaler and Mel Silber harmonized in baritone harmony on “O Happy Day” by the Edwin Hopkins Singers.
When a handsome woman Matt had never met cornered him with a question about a breast lump she’d discovered, Julie intercepted her with a honeysuckle voice and said, “Darling, Dr. Matt’s faith prohibits him from discussing medical matters outside his examining room?” with a Southern uplift at the end. The woman left with a beatific smile.
The event wore on, and several men and women approached Matt to greet him warmly as old friends, people whose names he no longer readily remembered and a few whose faces seemed new. He said hello as graciously as he could and struggled to make small talk about school days, until Juliet interrupted to laugh and say, “Medical school stamped out the last of Dr. Matt’s memory, folks. Please forgive him. He does mean well!”
That worked, albeit compromised Matt’s persona to some, and as the night continued under the chill black sky, several female classmates approached him when they thought no one else was looking, to ask him most intimate female health questions. Some were women he’d never met. He tried to answer genuinely, and in a way to limit discussion, but some of their questions needed extended, complex answers. Juliet noticed his plight and swerved in to offer her own perspectives, after explaining she was a nurse-midwife. She was precisely ordinary enough in appearance, plain spoken, and carried enough warm friendly authority to satisfy them all.
Alone with her, Matt whispered, “Let’s blow this joint!”
At that moment, unto this hour, Matt heard a commotion at the end of the entrance of the hall. Over balding heads and special coiffures, he saw flashes of Loretta’s proud cheekbones, her feline eyes, and the sparking magnetism of her smile. After a moment she broke away and stood in a Versace pajama outfit of soft emerald with thin canary piping, no jewelry except a small gold watch, and beside her a tall man of distinguished expression and respectful eyes, dressed in a fully cut white planter’s suit with a pale red tie and buttery brown leather slippers that Loretta had obviously chosen for him instead of the Western boots he’d emphatically prefer. She held his arm, smiled at those who greeted her, and looked over their heads for someone she wanted to see.
Matt took Juliet’s hand and dragged her forward so hard she laughed and said, “Wait for me, Wild Bill!” When they reached Loretta and her husband, Juliet held his hands and spoke first to say, “Loretta, you’re every bit as beguiling as Matt said you’d be. My name is Juliet.” Turning to the husband, Juliet smiled and said, “Welcome to California, sir. I’m so glad to meet you.”
“Matt, you look distinguished,” Loretta said, and told her husband. “Matt was my best friend from kindergarten to high school graduation. Remember? He’s an obstetrician-gynecologist outside San Francisco. He’s delivered more babies than any stork.”
She paused to take his measure.
“This is my husband, Maylon,” she concluded.
“Loretta brags on you something fierce and that’s the truth, Matt,” Maylon said with a grin.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that far,” Loretta murmured, her eyes on Matt.
“Loretta, you look terrific,” Matt said, and before he could continued, she replied:
“Don’t be simply absurd. I have crow’s feet and the laugh lines of a crone. My figure’s like a sack of potatoes. But it’s good to see you both.”
Right away, they saw Loretta could make her husband laugh without really trying. Matt’s eyes welled from happiness at how well she looked, how happy, and radiant.
“Did you bring the twins?” Loretta asked Juliet.
“Right here in my pocket! No, but they’re both first year medical students at Stanford now. With a twelfth grader lacrosse captain brother.”
“How perfect,” Loretta said.
They found a table and passed around pictures. The two husbands stood together and Matt said, “You know, I always worried Loretta might never find a man good enough for her. She was always so exacting. I’m relieved you two found each other and married. I know that sounds silly, but I am. She was head and shoulders all the other girls.”
Maylon chuckled and said, “Well, she still steps into her pantalones one leg at a time. Thank you, Matt. But you know, she said the same thing about you.”
The doctor had to turn away.
“Well, thanks. Please, tell me about your children.”
The late evening passed agreeably enough. When the band played on, the two couples moved into a quiet lounge off the lobby and sat on couches. Both old friends told amusing stories about the other, Loretta protested the ones about her were untrue, and Juliet described how women there threw themselves at Matt.
“Well,” Matt started, and named the four out of six of them he remembered the names of.
At each name, Loretta nodded as if she were confirming the identity of dangerous fugitive felons. When their conversation turned to Louisiana, she asked her husband to describe his family holdings. When he finished, she mentioned that Faulkner was his favorite writer, too, and his Uncle Fred had known him.
After that, the two men talk a while, and their wives strolled over the hotel grounds. Juliet revealed to Matt later that Loretta spoke about being relieved Matt had a good marriage with such a fine wife, a profession he enjoyed, and children so wonderful.
She held Juliet’s sleeve for a moment while she said, “He’s awfully special, you know.”
Matt remembered that all the way on their flight home. In the next year, Loretta and Maylon visited once in a while on visits to San Francisco and Palo Alto, and the couples went to dinner.
The next spring, though, Juliet found a lump in her breast and made arrangements for a biopsy. She had the juice as a nurse-midwife to request expedited results, and at seven the next morning her physician called to say her biopsy had been positive. Juliet put on her running outfit, tied her shoelaces, and went out to run ten miles in the rain. When she got back, she told Matt, who’d been reading the Los Angeles Times. He kept his composure, but the news jolted him. The newspaper slipped from his fingers to fall to the floor and he turned ashen white.
“No possibility of error?” he asked her.
“None,” she replied. She waited for his color to return and said, “We need to decide what to do right now, cupcake. Sooner the better.”
Later, he'd remember every detail of when Juliet was sick, including many he wished he’d forget. She had the ability to see her illness and body objectively, and the perspective to acknowledge her own courage, and as she put it, “The way I’ve held up.”
She’d even say, “Look at that sacral dimple! Outstanding!” or even, “Mound of Venus still like a sixteen year old girl’s, after three children and years of rough hard regular use by my robust, rambunctious husband!”, and he’d laugh as she planned he would.
When she felt sad she cried unashamedly, present with exclamations of, “I have nothing to complain about”, or “Just the way it goes!”
She even asked him, “Are you all right, bubba? Is it getting to be too much for you?” or more poignantly, “Will you be OK when I’m gone?”
He protested he would be, of course, but didn’t want to sound as if it were easy, and emphasized she’d regain her heath. The conversations depressed him but Juliet insisted.
“We have to keep our attitudes realistic. We can’t afford to get sentimental or we’ll start blubbering, and I refuse,” she said.
When she started chemotherapy, lost weight and her hair, he rebelled against his training and wondered what it was all for. His wife was only buying time and they both knew it. The certainty of her death was excruciating to him, no matter when it would arrive, in a few months or against the odds, in a few years. He didn’t know what to do.
Every night she calmed him while they sat talking in the dark. They’d never been as close, and she narrated stories from her life he’d never heard. She told him how a man up the street raped her when she was thirteen, and when she told her mother, her family ran him out of town and threatened to kill him if he ever came back.
“I tried as hard as I could to use that as a way to be strong. It was humiliating all right, but I taught myself the violation was only physical, and managed not to let it affect my spirit. I’d already seen other girls go to pieces when it happened to them. I pledged myself to help and comfort them whenever I could, and decided I’d go into nursing. I thought I could do far more good that way then if I’d become a doctor, innately superior to patients and one-up always. I didn’t want that, and personally hated it. I knew surgeons and physicians, friends of my parents, doctors who were pious frauds, ridiculous stuffed shirts, and small, weak men. As I grew older, I didn’t see the doctor-patient role that way. There was little enough the science of medicine could do for patients, and so much more the art of medicine could. I’ve always believed that, Matt. When women are healthy, pregnancy more or less takes care of itself, and even delivery, usually. What a woman needs is a skilled helper, someone who can guide her through it all emotionally, and make her as physically comfortable as possible. I would not allow C-sections on my patients, not unless absolutely, irrecoverably, unassailably necessary, and even then I regarded it as something of a failure, not personally, but in my approach and skill. No, I knew those babies could and would come out and be born as beautiful little angels, even if we had to wait what seemed forever. I was known for that, and not to boast, but there wasn’t a better nurse-midwife anywhere. I was the best, and I earned the title every day and every night.”
“It’s true, Juliet,” he said, and she added:
“Damned right it’s true. So who am I to complain? When the ghost calls your name, you have to hear him.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk that way, sweetie. Please?” he asked her.
She put her hands on his head and massaged it with her strong fingers. She said she was sorry and called him by his pet names she gave him.
“Now you know my perspective,” she said.
At other times, on her good days, she wanted to try new restaurants, even if she could only eat a little. She made lists of local places she’d never seen, and they’d get in the car with maps like tourists and track the places down while she shouted with glee. She ate a tiny cup of ice cream every day, worked her way through all the Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors, and made careful notes of how much she liked or disliked every one. She made lists of all kinds, including silly ones, ridiculous lists and reviewed them with Matt, who laughed in admiration of her spirit.
When she was sick as a dog, she barked comical orders she expected him to follow:
“Dip me in a tub of warm honey, Matt! I want to hang by my shoulders and hips. That’s good. That’s great. OK. Set me on the kitchen block. On a bath towel, I’ll wait. Ready? Let’s go. Now blow-dry me. Get a dozen huge Nubian eunuchs to wave palms for me! They should sing Four Tops and Temptations songs, too!Come on. It’s all right. Ooooh, what a sensation. Honestly, you ought to try it. Completely dry, hon. Easy. Wow! I’m going to remember that. Who knew? All right. Rub me all over with Heet. Come on. Goop it on heavy! Slop it around! We have more bottles of the stuff. Oh, ho, ho, ho! Boy, that’s great stuff. Under my boobs. Don’t be stingy with it. Ummm, I feel like a bipolar ice cube. Hold my hand. Both of ’em. Kiss me hard, darling. I can’t describe how good this feels. Bracing! Who knows from cancer? Let it seep in. Come on and sit down. Hold my hand, big fella. Your hand is strong. Tell me a joke. A raunchy one. Scratch me first. No, down three inches, an inch to the right. Warm, warmer, got it. Scratch harder. Got it. By God, that stuff tingles. I should make a TV commercial. Hi, friends! Want to get your ya ya’s out? Ha ha! How about some baby oil? I’ll be slick as a harbor seal. I got a big bottle. Industrial sized baby! Got it. Pour it on. Apply liberally, More! I want to feel it running and dripping. Soak me! Bend me, shake me, any way you want me! Oh, that feels good. Ooomph! Yeah. Ladeedy dadada daw, ladeedy dadada day! Go for it! Wild thing, I think you move me! Remember when we did it in Coit Tower! Ha ha! Oooh! Ummmm, steady as she goes. God damn, I hurt, Matt! Mmm-hmmm, mm-hmmmm.Digidigitdigitdigitsigiigit! No where to run, no where to hide! C’mon, lower, let’s go to the hop. Mach three! Hold me, hold me! Reverse! Don’t drop me! DIVE! Ooooomph .. yeah. Gotcha! Still ticklish? HA!”
When she was out of breath, she flopped onto his chest and breathed hard. He could feel every rib in her back now, her spine, all her major bones. They lay together that way for quite a while, until a final blade of sunlight on them said goodbye, stay in touch, and moved onto the refrigerator, working its way up to the meat compartment. When Juliet sneezed, her chest rattled so loud they both laughed from shock. She cackled and asked him to give her a whore’s bath. He took her to a bathroom, held her like a ventriloquist’s dummy, rinsed her, scrubbed her, and wiped her dry with a moist washcloth while she closed her eyes and enjoyed it. They both shook like wet dogs.
“Am I squeaky clean, Matt?”
“Clean as a whistle, Miss Juliet!”
“Good, Order a pepperoni pizza. I only want a bite OK?”
She put on a white Stanford sweatsuit with red letters, roomy enough for two of her, full white cotton panties, and sweat socks. She pulled a matching blanket over her shoulders and sat on her husband’s big leather chair in the living room where she could watch the harbor below. He came back and she snuggled in his lap. She seemed smaller every day.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than sitting in this chair with you. How many times have we done this, would you say?” she asked him.
“I’d estimate approximately 3,427 hours. 3,427.65, about. Me, too.”
They felt stranded together, like always, and close enough they could whisper.
“Did you ever wonder how many people are doing it right now in all those boats?” she asked him.
“Now that you mention it, from time to time, yes. One couple in ten?”
“Oh, at least two. I’d say three.”
“Can you see how the boats rock?”
“Oh, they have Carnal Stabilizers for that. You can buy them in the better marine supply stores. We’d need the extra large.”
He smiled, and she asked him, “Have I been good to you, Matt?”
“Of course, Juliet. No man has ever had as wonderful a wife as you.”
“Do I make you happy?”
“Always. Even when you’re coated with industrial baby slime.”
“Hey, don’t knock it.”
They smooched for a while and then she asked him, “Why am I acting more like a teenager every day?”
“Oh, I don’t know, honey.”
“No, really. Why? Will I start playing tetherball again, and want Frankie Avalon 45s? Seriously.”
“I think you’re pulling out all the stops.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
They sat together until the pizza delivery man rang the doorbell, glum-faced until Matt gave him a $20 tip for the small pepperoni. He brought two pieces, one cut into surgically neat squares.
“Feed them to me, will you? I’m tired,” Juliet said.
So he gave her tiny bits, waited while she chewed, and more until she’s eaten a share the size of a business card. When she turned pale, he carried her to the bathroom and waited while she was sick. He washed her face and hands with a baby washcloth, brushed her teeth, and helped her change into a plain white t-shirt that reached her ankles. He tucked her in bed and she asked him, “What if this time I don’t wake up?”
“Don’t be so morbid, Morticia!” he joked, and they both cried softly until they had to shrug. He smoothed her hair and told her he loved her.
“Whatever happens will be OK, Juliet. Rest now and we’ll do the best we can.”
“OK,” she piped in a little girl’s voice and for the first time, she looked like one.
He sat with her a long time as she slept, and then he went out to the living room and tried to read. It was no use because he wanted to be with her. He took off his clothes and climbed in next to her warm body.
She died three weeks later in his arms, and he saw to it her body was cremated, as she’d always wanted.
The children went with him on a yacht off Big Sur where she wanted her ashes slipped into the water. Matt her go, and watched the last of physical Juliet sink into the brine. Ashes to ashes ..
The boat brought them back ashore and for several months he waited to thaw.
Finally one day he woke up and felt clear-headed, and found he could mourn in peace.
By then, he’d had grown weary of his practice, and so much of it was repetitive work, even schematic in its general lack of actual complexity or challenge.
He had a close friend from college who became a professor of physical chemistry and taught at a medical school in Southern California part-time. Matt once heard him toss off the remark, “You don’t have to be that smart to be a doctor”, and it was true.
The best minds he’d known over the years never became doctors, except for a few in research. Matt had enjoyed his career and could not help but wonder if something else might have suited him better. He conceived of medical practice as primarily helping patients to achieve a balance of physical and emotional well being, and at that he believed he’d succeeded somewhat, and maybe better than most doctors he knew. Sometimes the profession shamed him, when doctors behaved like putatively superior beings and strove primarily for power and notoriety. When he could, he steered patients away from these practitioners. He was ready to retire, and stayed involved only to teach at the medical school, where he could mail in the information, teach it in his sleep, and his purpose lay in teaching young men and women compassion and dignified equality of all men and women, medically and in all ways. He met criticism with a kind smile and would not enter into debate. If his students practiced what he taught them, in due time they’d realize its value. Many had attitudes he deplored.
He deepened his interest in sailing, local history and horses, so he was active most of the time, although he never used the word “busy” with friends when they approached him by phone, email or in person. He made time because people were paramount in importance, and even more than that. He cringed at how so many claimed and in effect boasted of how busy they were, and used their excessive work or socializing to avoid other people and their own inner lives. In every instance fear drove them, and they usually worked to support lives they could not afford, He knew from experience they were typically in poorer health than they imagined, and would not see the fullness of their own lives. At the same time, he disliked what had become his own pessimism, for they all tried the best they could, no matter how weak or mistaken their decisions seemed to others. Matt never criticized them or judged their sincerity aloud, and encouraged them in simple ways whenever he could. All his friends had a standing invitation to visit his old ranch near Portola Valley that his son Stuart ran now, or sail with him, Matt, or call and visit for any purpose, including relaxation and conversation.
He learned a lot every day, and often said to himself, “Why, I should have known that by the time I was twenty!”
He was amused with himself when it happened. He met eligible women every day, as soon as they learned he was a doctor, or had been, and seldom for other reasons. In a sad way, that amused him, too. He did not lack typical human frailties and thoughts, because treating patients never rids a man or woman of those. When he met a woman who in effect offered herself to him, sometimes rather directly, he was tempted to send her packing with his best wishes. Instead he tried to talk to them as peers, except those who were young, and he cut them off in kind, respectful ways. He had coffee or lunch with women every other day, went on walks with them, took them sailing in the bay, and always he listened. More often than not, what he heard was familiar, and that made him feel like a doctor again. He could not solve their problems, or cure their loneliness, or even help them as more than an acquaintance. But he could listen, and listen without comment, advice or judgment. Most were pleasant enough women, well educated, sometimes university professors or attorneys, more often simply women whose husbands had died or left them for younger women. Matt empathized with them all, but they were mistaken in thinking he was a man for them, or that they’d be happy with him. What they needed was a better friendship with themselves.
And he missed Juliet every hour of every day and night.
For what seemed the umpteenth time in his life, he’d somehow gained a reputation as a womanizer in some circles, and that was preposterous. He whimsically thought there should be a way to register as a celibate with a badge and windshield decal, as someone still looking, but not very hard. He was happy the way he was, and Juliet had made him so. Furthermore, he chuckled at himself more and more often, at how his ways were set, his preferences ironclad and without variation. He wore only clothing styles he liked that were comfortable and became him, and only from stores where the salespeople knew him and sent him postcards when sales arrived. They were pretty much the same clothes he’d alway worn, anyway. To these stores he drove the same routes as in the early 1970s, and for all the changes since then, he was often lost momentarily but did not mind. He’d already regarded San Francisco as a maze, and that was part of her charm.
At one City store where he’d bought suits for decades, then, he arrived after foolish detours from his own refusal to update his street geography and what was gone, and what was new. Because his own salesman was out for lunch, Matt elected to wait on a comfortable couch by a window facing a major street, where he could enjoy the human parade on the sidewalk. He allowed himself to doze, and after a short snooze he awakened when a feminine kiss dampened his own lips. He waked with a start and looked into Loretta’s eyes, and her smile in a softer version then he’d ever seen.
She placed her outsized bags of purchases on the floor and sat in a position of leaning next to him, as if to cuddle frugally for the time being. He felt the warmth of her hips and torso and the refinement of her scent. She’d always taken good care of herself and looked lovely.
After they explained, as preamble, how they'd been shopping , she told him with concise efficiency how her husband had died two years ago of congestive heart failure. He’d long since sold his sugar holdings and they lived in mild grandeur on their investments, traveling often, settling in the Presidio and without debt. There was pride in her voice and lingering sadness, but Matt couldn’t determine what else. She’d never behaved that way toward him. He told her about Juliet, and Loretta expressed her sympathy by touching his face. They talked for a moment about their children and grandchildren, and he mentioned that their high school reunion would be the following summer, after fifty years.
“Let’s go together!” she said. “I’ll fly you down — Maylon taught me. We’ll have fun.”
She named a few friends they’d see, and comparing notes, they recollected nine who’d died.
“Of course there are more,” he concluded.
“Take me to lunch, Matt,” she said, and he protested that he needed two new suits.
“Come on, then,” Loretta ordered him, and rose to her feet. She led him to Men’s Clothing, where the junior salesman assumed she was his new companion.
He described what he wanted, and after Loretta considered it for a moment, she said, “Well, all right, but no brass buttons. You’ll look like a stodgy old banker at a USC Town Hall meeting.”
She helped him select a style and watched the tailor who came out to fit him.
“Give him an inch at the waist. He’s not a starving Hindu martyr,” and while the man complied, Matt burst out laughing. Loretta frowned at him.
“You don’t want to look like an old coot!” she reminded him.
With that errand concluded, Matt drove her to a trattoria in Hayes Valley. She seemed to like the decor well enough, and pored over the menu with the attention of a mean-spirited probate attorney.
When Matt laughed again, she quipped, “Would you please stop that? It makes you seem simple.”
“Oh, Loretta,” was all he could say. He reached to touch her hand on the seat next to his own and she held his hand when he did. She grilled the young waiter when he came and ordered in Italian with a passable Roman accent, slurring her consonants in the right tempo. When the young man left, she and Matt sat alone together for the first time in fifty years, and she wore the first vulnerable smile he’d ever seen on her face. An evanescent premonition came over him for only the duration of a hummingbird’s flutter, and vanished to leave only a suggestion.
They ate mostly in silence, the food was delicious, and they spoke only in coded reference to old phrases, names and conclusions they’d shared in Sunny Hills. He took her down to his ranch where he stocked fresh new riding clothes for guests of either sex, and on the third day she suggested they marry, or actually announced it. How could he possibly refuse?
At her suggestion, they bought a second home, a condo on Newport Bay where her mother now lived nearby in an elderly retirement facility. Every week they flew down for three days, and as he old lady worsened, four and sometimes five. Matt would sit with her, too, when Loretta needed to go outside so as not to cry. The old lady would say, “We thought for a long time you and Loretta would marry, but she wouldn’t see it. My daughter has always been stubborn. We wondered if you were a homosexual. Did the two of you have relations? You can tell me now, It doesn’t matter. Maylon was a dear man and he loved her faithfully, but he was so clumsy. Did you marry, Matt? You’re not funny, are you? I don’t abide with that. You were a handsome boy. You looked like Joel McCrea.”
He answered her questions every day, sometimes twice or three times, and hugged and kissed her. Sometimes she cried and sobbed, and he held her close. She might call him by her husband’s name, or even her brothers’. He smoothed her hair and called her “sweetie”. When he had to leave, she wouldn’t release his hand. He’d agree to stay a while longer as Loretta grew impatient and he’d hold her mother’s hand.
“You should have been a nanny,” Loretta said through her own tears.
He’d learned not to laugh and chuckle at certain things she said, no matter how endearingly, and settled with a warm smile. Sometimes she had nightmares that terrified her and she woke up shaking. He’d hold her and as soon as she resumed her normal breathing, he’d tickle her ribs and behind her knees until she threatened to kick him. He’d pretend to sleep while he held her, and place his own head where he could drool in his sleep to make her recoil in disgust so he could laugh. Once in a while he’d indulge a comic impulse and pretend to stand and walk in his sleep. She got so she’d trust him not to hurt himself, and watched him with her covers drawn under her chin. When he staggered back and picked her up in a fireman’s carry, she saw right through him and enjoyed the ride to the kitchen or to the patio in summer, she acted out an old movie scene where Barbara Stanwyck poured a cup of coffee (or hot cocoa or grapefruit juice) in a man's lap. Matt stayed in character as a sleepwalker, and picked her up as Tarzan carried Jane to go into the living room and sit that way in complete darkness. He could feel her trying not to laugh, and competing not to let him win their game, when he asked her in gibberish to scratch a dozen places in succession on his back. He’d remove her robe and fold it neatly in her lap, smooth her pajamas, and repeat it when she put it back on. He’d croon a medley of Frank Sinatra songs from his days with Tommy Dorsey, and include flat notes he knew would strain her nerves. When she protested by covering her ears, he dug out his own old seventh grade clarinet from under the cushions and played a tuneless song. When he stood to dance and drew her to him, they fox-trotted and waltzed cheek to cheek, and by now his foolishness made her sleepy enough to doze off on her feet. He’d carry her to bed and tuck her in so snugly she couldn’t help but giggle.
“I love you, Loretta. You’re a good sport,” he’d say.
“Yeah, right. Go to sleep, you idiot,” and turned her back to him.
He’d pat her buttocks and lapse into a deep slumber. If he slept too late, she’d kiss him till his eyes opened.
“If anyone knew the fun we have, they’d think we were crazy,” he told her at breakfast.
“It’s cheaper than having you committed. Pass the muffins, you big lug.”
He sang “Stardust” in a lilting falsetto until she begged him to stop, with a wry smile. After she finished her first cup of coffee, she announced their agenda for the day. He obeyed meekly and exacted a goose on her when it pleased him, not often, but enough to make her roll her eyes.
“You big child,” she’d murmur, and hid her amusement.
When her mother finally stopped eating, Matt explained to Loretta as gently as he could that she might last a month and not much longer. Loretta slept poorly by then, and several times awakened, sweating and in a panic. Matt held her, stroked her hair and assured her she was all right and the scare would subside any second. When she sobbed, he led her into the den where he’d bought a cot and put her to bed where they could watch the sun come up, or on a moon-lit night, she could watch the white dots of waves breaking far offshore. He’d sit next to her and hold his free hand lightly on her shoulder, arm or back when she needed him.
One morning at five, a call came from the young Filipino woman who specially cared for the old lady.
“Dr. Matt? She died this morning at 4 AM, quiet in her sleep. I heard her rattling and came in. She sighed and her head went down. It was peaceful. Her soul is with Jesus now. I’m sorry,” she said.
Matt thanked her and had coffee ready at bedside when Loretta woke up.
She looked at him and asked, “It’s Mother, isn’t it?”
“Yes, at 4 AM. She was asleep and peaceful.”
Loretta sat up in bed and said, “Well, she was a good woman. She made Dad happy and raised all of us. Now she’ll rest.”
They sat by the picture window and watched fishermen in yachts sail out of the bay. Sometimes Matt shrugged but found nothing to say. He wanted to say he was sorry, that he loved her mother, too, but she knew that and he could tell. When he went into shave, he took his time, and lingered in the hot shower water. She needed time alone. He watched her as he dressed, and went in to make toast and pour his orange juice. At the window he waited in a reverie, watching a big ketch back out of her slip and maneuver into position to sail forward. He thought of Juliet and her last days and his own mother as well. He knew he’d see them both again when his own time came. He’d go along with whatever Loretta planned. He wished he could do more for her, and corrected himself. Not when a mother dies. That you take that as it comes, moment by moment. The sun lit the harbor and needed a few minutes to assume his place in the sky. Loretta came out in a Chanel suit, and asked if they could go to church.
First they went to see her mother’s body, that had already been removed by the mortuary people. Loretta thanked the Filipino caregiver profusely and gave her a linen envelope with one thousand dollar bill inside. The woman kissed her hands and Loretta touched her thick black hair.
She and Matt took a last look around the room and Loretta slipped a silver framed picture of her siblings at two and three years old into her handbag. She said, “Mother, you were strong,” and stepped outside.
The morning manager caught up with them by the front door and gave Loretta the little Rolex watch her mother liked to wear loose on her wrist. Loretta accepted it with a nod and held it while they drove to church and during the service. For a month she wore it as a bracelet.
Before the week was out, Loretta flew them down to Fullerton where they attended a small funeral at her mother’s church, with only a few family members in attendance, because no one else except her sisters survived to come. The minister hurried through the service with dignity and when it was over, Loretta rode with Matt and her sisters to the old cemetery behind St. Jude, where her father and grandmother were buried. Rain began falling as the mortuary apparatus lowered the old lady’s casket into the ground, and Matt felt melancholy about the maudlin quality of the entire operation.
Afterwards in the shelter of their car, Loretta said goodbye to her sisters and asked her husband to take her back to their beach place. She changed into a flannel nightgown and went in to sleep. Matt watched football games all afternoon in the den and tried not to think about his mother in law, because he missed her already. At 5 PM, Loretta came in wearing slacks and a sweater, sat next to him and said, “Well, that’s that.”
There was nothing left to say. A few days later they flew back to Portola Valley where a hailstone covered the ground with bouncing marbles of ice. Matt smiled when his wife looked around with distaste. They went to bed early and slept soundly until 6 AM the next day.
The next morning, they drove down to the bookstore in Palo Alto and bought dozens of new books, magazines and a vintage Barbara Stanwyck calendar Loretta admired. They came back and made sandwiches and soup, and settled in to read.
A while later, Loretta looked up and said, “Can you spare a kiss for your old wife?”
Matt scooted over to hold her in his arms and she added, “You know something?”
“What?” he said.
“I never would have made it in elementary, junior high or high school without you, buddy. True. I was terribly insecure the whole time. There was never a day when I didn’t question whether I was as good as the other girls. I mean the smart girls, and also the ones who seemed so relaxed and cheerful. Even the ones I never met, who went along day by day, doing the best they could, married later, had kids, family picnics on the weekends, you know? I never thought I was the least bit pretty then, either. My complexion was froggy and I had no chest to speak of. I always wanted to be your girlfriend but I couldn’t imagine you’d keep me. So I compromised as your best friend and felt grateful to be able to do it. Did you have any idea at all?”
“Well, once in a while I kind of wondered,” Matt admitted, “But no, not really.”
“There were so many girls I envied. Beautiful girls, Girls with pretty figures, gorgeous eyes, ballerina’s legs. The girls who seemed content, even if they came from poor families. I never quite felt I was part of things.”
“Yet you were a leader, a lifetime Honor Roll member, a Lancelle every year, you had a million friends, and a dozen or more nice guys asked you out.”
“Yeah,” she said, and shrugged.
He let her go and sat with his arm around her shoulder.
“Why did you love me then?” she asked him, as if a great deal depended on his answer.
“Are you serious, Loretta? I considered you a goddess, the absolute best from about two minutes after I first saw you at the swimming pool. I thought you were doing me a favor all along. You were so poised and mature, even as a little kid. I never lost my crush on you. It only deepened.”
She listened with an intent expression and he saw her consider every word and phrase, and all his implications.
“That is the sappiest thing I ever heard,” she cracked finally.
“Well? Don’t you believe me?”
“Of course I do, Matt,” she whispered. “I knew you did, but I just couldn’t figure out why.”
“You always seemed so confident,” he told her.
“Well, sure. Of course, in a pragmatic way. But I didn’t believe anyone of your calibre would love me. Ever. I was rude, and a snob. I was impatient and short with people. You got through to me, Matt. Little by little you taught me.”
“I sure wish I’d known.”
“It wasn’t time yet. You’re not listening. I never dreamed I could keep up with you, or be the girl you deserved, not for a minute. Not even in college, Actually.”
“Didn’t I seem like I cherished you?”
“I guess I was afraid to accept it. Stupid, huh?”
“Well, it worked out all right,” he said, and used his reach to squeeze her bottom until she yelped.
“You sex maniac,” she remarked. “What did you want for dinner?”
They settled on spaghetti with a fresh salad, and had it ready in fifteen minutes.
From that moment Matt watched their marriage and Loretta for a change. because in his experience, once someone reveals her secrets, she often becomes guarded in ways, whether to defend herself, or through regret, he did not know.
But then Loretta seemed relieved of a burden she’d carried, and if anything, seemed less intense, less judgmental, and more inclined to enjoy her life. She shed some of her reserve, and became more playful, including with his pranks and silliness. She liked puns and for the first time, enjoyed a good dirty joke, as long as it wasn’t viciously obscene. Now she’d even goose Matt occasionally, and laugh until her sides hurt.
They lived quietly for a long time, growing old together, and reached a point where they actually finish many of each other’s sentences, as some old couples are said to do. He never thought about how he might lose her, or how she might lose him. Their combined wealth was impressive, especially because he’d purchased blocks of stock in the first two major Silicon Valley software companies when they first went public. Their dividends embarrassed him slightly, because he’d done nothing to earn them. He considered himself a man who’d been fortunate in every conceivable way.
One morning approximately two full decades after Matt and Loretta married, she took a bath in their final residence, a condominium in Montecito. She noticed a lump on the inner quadrant of her left breast at about 5 o’clock. She stood to dry herself and told Matt immediately.
“Yeah, it’s there,” he said, guided her fingers to feel it.
He got her in to see an oncologist that afternoon and the woman asked the lab people to step on it. By the next morning at 9, her doctor called to say the results were positive and Loretta should arrange for a lumpectomy.
Matt asked her what she wanted to do.
“You can wait a while if you want,” he said.
“Why would I want to do that?” she asked him.
The old Loretta.
She remained calm and deliberate as they discussed it all. Of course she was scared, but he emphasized the high rate of surgical success, and weakly, she seemed to think, but he tried his best. She seemed to take heart, and underwent the procedure Friday morning, feeling as if she were going through the motions. He drove them home and asked her what she’d like to do.
“You decide. I’m a little nervous,” and they decided Chinese call-in for dinner with some classic movies he chose, all light comedies. As much as he could expect, she enjoyed them, and after a month, she seemed to forget the procedure most of the time, in what they both realized was the performance of her life, and she knew he knew.
Oddly enough, she found pleasure in dressing fashionably around the house, posing for their baleful Bassett hound. Matt toned down his pranks and surprised her more gently when he pinched her buttocks, or stuck a Post-It on the back of her head. She seemed just as proud of herself as ever, although she no longer wore anything low-cut or anywhere near tight. He never lost his wonderment at the rare splendor of being with her, with Loretta.
The next Wednesday morning, Loretta woke up, pushed his shoulder until he followed, and announced:
“I’m not going through any more rigamarole. I don’t want to and I won’t. If the cancer comes back, we’ll arrange for the best palliative care available and ride it out. I mean you will. I’ll kick the bucket without heroics. Can you sign onto that, Matt? You’re not mad?”
He had a pretty good idea of what would happen and his mind raced through it. He knew he’d feel the same way in her situation, and he answered, “Yes. Of course.”
“Good! Let’s have a nice breakfast and plan contingency arrangements.”
He started immediately in comparing their experience with his and Juliet’s. Her situation had been radically different, as anyone who knew her would expect. In his thoughts, he mapped out how Loretta might go on, as another type of woman utterly. She had her own strengths, in her appreciation for tradition and her reserve, compared to Juliet’s brash warmth and emotional vigor. He’d probably known her better, Juliet, grown more with her, yet it seemed what he knew about Loretta gave him a much deeper understanding, albeit a less complete one. He could imagine how she’d want to be treated, and he prayed for the guts to give her the support she’d demand.
She began with housecleaning and sorting that left their condo not quiet stark but easily in the Spartan range. Right away Matt realized he didn’t want any more either. She gave most of her entire wardrobe away, and bought a new one, more functional and lacking in her customary style. With only the most basic accessories, she stopped wearing any makeup except a touch of foundation and the slightest pink on her lips, and to Matt, she became more beautiful than ever.
They met with a palliative medicine specialist of impossible youth, a kind fellow who informed her exactly what medication she’d take, when and if she needed it, and exactly as he recommended. She insisted he give her a list of physical symptoms that might occur and went over each one exhaustively until she understood each one. He came around from his desk and held her hands with the stern affection of a family member no more than forty years old. While Matt watched, he asked Loretta to call him if anything went wrong, and immediately, not two seconds or two days or two weeks later. He gave her his home number, three work numbers, and looked her in the eye with benevolent tyranny. “I want you to call, and I expect you to call. Understand, ma’am?”
They made their deal.
To Matt, her answer of “Yes” seemed remarkably meek, and the young doctor squeezed her hands again. He cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders, and for the first time exposed his own vulnerability. Without saying so, he’d clearly be upset if she failed to follow his instructions, and he’d take it personally and be saddened. There was no doubt he cared about her, and one more male had been cast under Loretta’s spell.
Suddenly he stopped, the specialist, and looked as if he wanted to cry. He had a precise, clipped way of speaking, and the concentration of a strong intellect, but he knew both Loretta and Matt did as well. His shoulders slumped, and his suit and white smock looked too big for him.
“We’ll do this as a team,” the young doctor added. With a catch in his voice, he said, “I’m honored to be your doctor.”
“You work with death every day and night,” Loretta told him, in her brand of sympathy.
“The dying, yes. Yes, I do, ma’am.”
“Please call me Loretta,” she said.
“I will, Loretta. I’m Sheldon. Is there any other way I can help you?”
“I feel like bringing you some hot soup, Sheldon. Please don’t be so sad. I’m not, not really.”
“That’s very nice of you to say, Loretta. I try hard not to, but, well, I suppose it’s an occupational hazard.”
Sheldon looked at Matt, blinked in embarrassment, and then back at Loretta.
“I used to feel exactly the same way, son,” Matt said. “I think just about all good doctors do, too.”
“Sure, they do,” Loretta said.
On the way home, Matt reflected on how just a few months ago they’d been a handsome older couple who would play footsie in restaurants, mock each other, and improvise impressions of old friends, people they knew, and even patrons they saw at a distance, until they giggled, and then interrupted themselves to pretend mock earnest maturity until they had to laugh again. People stared at them and sometimes Loretta winked. Matt spoke to the waiters in the Bronx dialect he’d learned from a college roommate. The help strained to understand and walked away rolling their eyes. Loretta and Matt crumpled in amusement and tipped the poor servers doubly when they left.
“We’re goofballs,” he told her when they turned onto their street.
“Correct,” she pronounced, and fondled the white cardboard box of the lemon tarts they’d picked up.
Of course things went smoothly for a while, as Matt knew they would. Their family came to visit, stayed a week.
Matt never worked as hard in his life as now, to make sure their atmosphere was upbeat and cheerful, and for a while it worked. Before the year was out, Loretta felt pain again, the cancer came back, and she no longer felt like herself, either. She became a restless reader, casting one book aside and another after five minutes, walked to sit down in place after place when she had the energy, and ate less and less.
Sheldon the specialist urged her to see a professional, a psychotherapist, and knew of one in Santa Barbara, a woman he’d known in college.
“Did you take her out?” Loretta asked him sternly.
“No. She wasn’t someone I wanted to. But she’s kind and smart, and comes well recommended.”
“Where’s her office, then?”
“I hear she practices out of her home. I’ll find out.”
“Look her up,” Loretta said, and by mid-afternoon, she had an appointment.
Matt drove her and waited in a little park outside.
“My name’s Esther,” the therapist told Loretta. “I’m Jewish. Pretty ethnic, too. From Manhattan.”
“All right. I guess you could say I’m an elderly rich WASP, a retired homemaker and a lacrosse mom,” Loretta replied.
“Fantastic. Now what can I do for you, Loretta? How may I assist you?”
Loretta liked Esther right away, too, began seeing her every week, described her as a “big loving mama”, and learned to relax and watch her cancer instead of feeling trapped inside it. Esther gave her mantras, and Loretta sat by he window repeating them. Esther was a comfort, almost a new girlfriend.
Matt and Loretta took more walks on the docks now, short ones where the sailboats and yachts waited in their slips. She let the Bassett hound climb onto her lap with help and fall asleep, and he was a sad dog know who cried and seemed to know how mistress would keep him. She spent ten or fifteen minutes a day going through the remainder of her things and decided to throw out her college yearbooks, but not her annuals from Sunny Hills. He felt sad to see it, and he could imagine what she was thinking. She’d always been stoic when she had a cold or the flu, or even when she broke her wrist skiing, or sprained her elbow trying to open a window that stuck closed. He understood how her body worked, and resisted the impulse to consider it all tragic. Sometimes she looked at the Sunny Hills classmate photos for a long time.
Every two weeks, Matt took Loretta to see Dr. Sheldon, who’d become like a nephew to them. He’d examine her, see them in his office, and explain his conscious approval of what was happening. Then he sagged in his chair and they talked more personally. He was a sensitive kid and Loretta liked to rib him by asking him who was the sick one, anyway?
When Loretta told him, “There’s much less pain with my meds, so far. I can do a crossword again, and that’s a strange comfort. I like sweets, for the first time in my life. You saw how I’ve lost four more pounds. If you say I’m doing all right, I won’t disagree.”
They’d say outside that Dr. Sheldon looked woefully sad, but he bucked himself up then to come around and hug Loretta in his small arms.
“You’re doing fine, honey,” he said, with the usual catch in his voice.
When they got home, her cousin Jessica had left a phone message, her first since their trip to her parents’ house so many decades ago, near the beginning of Time, really. She asked if she could bring her partner could please come up to fix lunch or early dinner for them, but didn’t say when. Matt looked her up on Google and found out she was a sculptor in Point Dume, above Malibu. There was a picture and she had long flowing gray hair, silver jewelry and wore what appeared to be updated granny glasses, and lived with several big dogs in a rustic home on the cliffs.
They came a week later, and Loretta and Matt met her partner, a Japanese woman who taught Asian languages at a private school in the hills. While they all drank wine on the terrace, the partner practically sat on Jessica’s lap. Loretta felt well enough to let her hair down and admitted she wasn’t terribly fond of her uncle, when his name came up.
“Oh, he was a bastard,” Jessica admitted cheerfully, and Miko her partner followed her every word with solemn wide eyes. “He made me get rid of a dog Mom bought me when I was three, and he was so mean about it. He treated Mom mean, too. I’m sorry if they bothered you, too. I imagine they probably did. I went to see him before he died a few years ago and he was so cranky. The caregivers said he was combative, and no one but my older sister the nun came to see him. I told him I loved him, called him daddy, kissed him and skedaddled. I had to.”
“She did,” Miko emphasized.
They served a weak vegetarian paella, in consideration of Loretta, and a salad,and a quiche. Loretta ate a few bites and praised all of it. The conversation lurched along, and Matt could tell everyone except Miko was uncomfortable. Loretta asked Matt to help her get to bed, and they all stood to say good night.
“I wish I’d been a better cousin to you, Loretta. You’re the best,” Jessica blurted.
“That’s exactly how it always is, Jessica. I wasn’t much of a cousin either, but we all do what we can,” Loretta told her, and kissed her cousin’s cheek.
The fog was in and Matt carried her through a dark hallway into a dark bedroom.
“I’m a royal nuisance,” she whispered.
“What’s new about that?” he said, and they both smiled. He stroked her hair and she fell asleep. When he got back to the living room, Jessica and her partner said they’d be leaving, too.
“I did a lot of bad things, things I regret,” Jessica started to say, and Matt wanted to reassure her.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” she said. “Really I am. Truly.”
He told her everything was fine, and hugged them both before they went out to drive home.
Then he left the lights off and wondered what he’d do when Loretta was gone. He felt guilty for thinking about himself, and clicked a remote wand to turn the TV on.
There was a police car chase in progress on all three network affiliates and two local stations, where a silver Toyota turned north onto the Long Beach Freeway, trailed by a dozen Highway Patrol cars with red and blue lights flashing. Matt watched and remembered some of the cross streets from when one of his great uncles lived on 62nd near Vermont. The TV reporters said the chase started in Irvine at a mall when the car was stolen. The driver so fast, nearly 90 miles per hour, and Matt kept watching. The neighborhoods were dark, with dim streetlights, and the search beams from a police helicopter cast a spotlight on the stolen car. When the driver threw a small bundle the size of a cigarette pack out his window, the TV reporters got excited, and then he threw a second one. They said he might have a gun, and was considered dangerous. At bridges, people looked down and cheered. Matt had seen a couple of patients at King-Drew LA County Hospital many years ago. The camera made the car look smooth as it raced ahead, and Matt couldn’t see the expression on the driver’s face. Maybe he enjoyed the thrill of public attention. Matt couldn’t look away.
Then the driver got off the freeway and turned past a blockade and around traffic to go east toward Huntington Park. Matt thought surely they’d catch him now. In a minute the man turned into a dark side street below Century at Denver, and another and a third, and police had to slow down to follow. There were more of them on the next major street but the driver turned south and shot across Vermont at high speed and cut through what looked like a cemetery. A police officer’s voice on TV sounded angry and exasperated. He called the driver an irresponsible hoodlum and a car thief. Matt watched, enthralled.
The driver turned west and lost the spotlight for a few seconds while he blazed through another dark street, and Matt saw shadowed people on the curb cheering and waving. How did he keep his sense of direction? He went under the Harbor Freeway and west to Hoover, onto another side street, a second, and north onto 52nd Street, then west on a side street for a mile or two. The chase had started an hour earlier and they said the driver’s gas was running out. He jumped a curb on a small street corner and plowed across a yard into a driveway, and the spotlight lost him. When they found the car it was stopped, and half a mile north in an alley behind Crenshaw, the driver raced west in a dark truck he stole, a pickup with a construction company name on the side. He worked his way to the San Diego Freeway north and drove into the traffic, weaving in and out to run on the lane for cars that would exit. He sideswiped a station wagon, spinning it, and struggled to continue north. The reporters predicted he’d never make it across the Sepulveda Pass to the Valley but after another five minutes, he swerved off an on offramp up to a dark road two streets below Victory. Matt watched, engrossed, and saw the camera viewpoint from high above the car in the sky, looking down and ahead. The truck tank must have been full because the driver showed no sign of slowing or stopping. Matt lay on his side with his head propped up on a cushion. He wanted the driver to get away.
The chase lasted another hour until the truck rolled to a stop on its tire rims in Fontana. Matt watched the police surround it and talk to the man on loudspeakers. He was a Mexican kid in a T-shirt, about twenty years old. He stepped out of the truck as if he expected them to shoot him dead, and walked slowly backwards for ten feet and lay down face down on the asphalt. Cops ran up and one sat with his knee on the kid’s back while the others checked him for weapons and took his wallet. They stayed that way a long time. The station cut away for a commercial, then a cop yanked the kid up by his arm and pushed him toward a truck for prisoners. His legs were in manacles so he couldn’t walk fast. There were thirty or more police cars on the freeway and twice as many police. The driver of the jail truck waited a long time before he started forward. A tired looking police captain gave an interview and narrowed his eyes against the wind. Then the two news anchors came on at their big desk, a veteran with gray hair and a pretty young Mexican women. While they talked, Matt lost interest and clicked off the screen.
Matt felt astonished to remember all those streets. His dad took the kids up to LA then and they saw aunts and uncles around the city. For a moment Matt felt lost in another world of chases and police sirens, one of how many worlds ago he could not say,
The ocean horizon looked black, several miles out. There were lots of lights on the boats and tiny figues of people in thick coats talking. Matt thought they should all go to bed. When he relaxed his eyes, his view from he window was darker and he found it soothing He felt a sense of well being he welcomed and relaxed even more. Right way he fell asleep in his clothes, and didn’t wake up for hours when Loretta rang her bell for a glass of water. He held it to her lips and daubed at her mouth with a clean cloth napkin afterwards. She’d never opened her eyes and sank back to sleep. He got in bed next to her and rested his hand on her hip while he went to sleep. He hoped he’d die with her to be with her.
At 5 AM Loretta needed a shot and he gave it to her, in her upper arm where he knew it hurt her. Afterwards he rubbed the spot with his thumb, gently as he could.
Around noon, she became delirious. Her eyes followed Matt around the room, and sometimes she said, “Tuck your shirt tail in!” or “You need a haircut!” or even once, “You know, you’ve really been my husband all my life.” He had to put his head down when he heard her, and laughed involuntarily and despite himself because her face was so earnest saying it.
Then he didn’t know what to say. He went to sit next to her, kissed her many times on the face the way she pretended to be annoyed by, and held her by her waist. He was content to sit with her for hours now, while he prayed or let his mind go blank. Sometimes he watched her sleep and smiled. That was all he could do.
By late afternoon while they watched the sun go down, she made a noise in her throat and an instant later she was dead. Matt closed her eyes and kissed her lips. He bought a warm washcloth and rinsed her face. Somehow she looked young again. He procrastinated for an hour, cried quietly and called the mortuary to take her body away.
His daughter Sally called as usual from La Canada, and Matt told her Loretta was gone. Sally didn't say anything for a while, and then whimpered, “We’ll be there in a while, Dad.”
When he stood up to get a glass of orange juice, he noticed the harbor in his peripheral vision. He told the dog, “What is there to do except look out the window?” He came back and took up his night watch.
When it occurred to him he knew a few high school classmates who had yachts outside, he realized he hadn’t seen them since the last reunion, if even then. He wondered why he thought of that.
His daughter Sally the pediatrician arrived at 9:30 with her oldest daughter, who looked exactly like Juliet must have in high school.
“Happy Birthday , Daddy!”
“Happy Birthday, Grandpa!”
He had to laugh at himself. He’s forgotten all about it. They brought him a dozen new books he’d want to read but hadn’t known about. His granddaughter Justine was prettier than Sally at that age, most people would say. Matt put his arm around her and hoped he didn’t smell too much like an old man. She cried and said she’d always miss Loretta, and he consoled her.
“She thought you were the cat’s meow, Justine. The bee’s knees. Do you know what that means?”
“Of course,” she snapped, and he had to laugh again.
Sally looked at him, worried. He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. For moments at a time, he forgot his wife Loretta was dead.
“Is it true you did Barbara Stanwyck’s hysterectomy, Grandpa?” Justine asked him next, and he threw back his head to laugh. They both cried softly now and held hands.
“No, sweetie. I never even saw her. Who told you that?”
“Well, Aunt Loretta, actually. I guess she was pulling my leg.”
“Yes, I guess she was.”
He felt a little better and Sally made waffles with scrambled eggs. He went in to talk to her and she said, “Oh, Daddy!” with her face on his shoulder. He held her head and said, “It was her time, kiddo. Know what I mean? She loved you guys.”
Sally said “Oh, Daddy” a second time and went back to her eggs.
Sally told him about how Justine had been elected Student Body President, and decided she might go to Stanford if they accepted her. Matt told her of course they would.
Sally sat down, speared a waffle with her fork, and told Justine to tell Grandpa about the boy at her high school from Qatar who drove a Lamborghini to school. The mortuary people came that moment and Matt told them to go ahead.
His daughter and Justine watched them carry Loretta’s body out, but he decided not to. Then he changed his mind because they’d expect him to. He held them both at his sides and hugged them when the truck drove away. He wanted to hear more about Justine’s school and planned to ask her if there were any boys she particularly liked.
“No,” she said when she came back and he did. “They’re all immature. There’s a boy up the street I talk to a lot, and he’s nice. But he’s not someone I’d go out on a real date with.”
Matt imagined he saw Juliet’s face behind the young woman, and even Loretta’s, too, and Justine rolled her eyes.
That was what he needed, and then they wanted to watch “Gone With the Wind” again. Matt was glad to join them. He didn’t worry about anything.
Everything was done now.