Her house, perched on a central coast California hillside, had always and only resided in his head. Yet there it was, a three dimensional understatement, with him the exclamation point on the curb outside. The wind orchestrated the waves below, and he hummed a song from way back when to cover his nervousness.
Tom wouldn’t even be there, shouldn’t would probably be a better word, if it wasn’t for that lunch with Kate. Kate had told him that Liz’s husband had Alzheimer’s, and that it would be a good idea to check in on the two of them. At least that’s the way Kate put it. She was good for that, starting shit up and then taking a front row seat. After all, what are friends for?
Anyway, it didn’t surprise Kate or Tom that he grabbed the crumb leading him to Liz’s door, planting him in the wind above the surf, and filling his vision with a life that should have been his. His, except for the truth that he fucked that life up twenty-five years ago with a lot of booze, drugs, and irresponsibility. His, except he was the one out in front of the house instead of in it. He rang the bell. The door opened and there she always was.
A page turned back, and they didn’t speak until it became uncomfortable. She took his hand first, then they hugged like old lovers must, and she said something that he would never be able to remember because he was lost in the touch of her.
“Hello, Tom,” interrupted her husband Gene, who had appeared behind her like a shadow in the foyer. Again, the touching of hands, but this time it felt like a Sunday morning greeting outside the church; like a careful choice. It psychically marked the first time during that visit that Tom wondered what kind of person he’d grown up to be.
The three of them sat in the living room, smiling. He’d been shown the house, sans the master bedroom. The main living area had French doors leading out to a deck, and then out past the Pacific to the crouched edge of the earth. On a lower level were Gene’s art studio, chaos in color, and a guest bedroom where Tom assumed he’d never be invited to sleep.
Tom sat facing a fireplace, his back to infinity. Liz was sitting on the sofa, and Gene alternated between sitting too close to her and pacing an area rug in the middle of the room. They were trying to seem comfortable.
“Liz couldn’t believe it when you called, Tom,” Gene said, rising from the couch, beginning to pace. “She actually cried a bit. Right, my dear?”
She nodded, paused, and answered, “It’s just been a long time since we heard from Tom, Gene. I was touched by his call.”
Turning to Tom, she said, “It must be at least ten years since we’ve spoken, Tom. I think it was 1998, right before your wedding. What have you been up to?”
Tom imagined her continuing with, “I missed you so fucking much I thought I’d die.” That didn’t happen.
“I sold out to my business partner five years ago at fifty, and I’m writing full time,” he answered casually. In fact, he hadn’t written a word in over three years. “I had lunch with Kate the other day, and she suggested I call you. I thought it would be nice to come up to Aurora for a weekend away.” There, he’d said practically nothing.
“Did you bring your wife along,” Liz asked, in an equally casual manner. “Where are you staying?”
“My wife and I divorced last year, and I’m staying at the Aurora Pines Lodge,” he answered, and began to feel defensive. “I think it was you, at least according to Kate, who said that it would never last. I wish you’d told me. It would have saved a lot of wasted time and money,” Tom continued, giving it one of his best sarcastic smiles.
“I would have never said that, Tom. I’ve only ever wished you the very best. You know Kate. She’s always editorializing for me,” Liz replied, things taking a very wrong turn.
At that precise moment Gene stopped in the middle of the room, turned toward Tom, and stuck his right hand out, saying, “Hi, I’m Gene and this is my wife Liz. And you are?
“Tom; how about a drink, Gene?” he replied. With that they broke out the scotch.
Over the next couple of hours and three scotches, Tom revealed that he was hard at work on a novel, had been socializing like a thirty year old, and had never been happier. It was all lies. Liz listened with a smile on her face, and seemed to be glad for his company. It was enough. Gene, on the other hand, was fixated between asking Tom’s name repeatedly and staring out the window at the ocean with a frown on his face.
By late afternoon Tom began to run out of lies and knew it was time to go or beg Liz to leave with him. “I had better get back to the hotel,” he said, as if there was any reason at all.
“We are going to a dinner party at a close friend’s house this evening, and you are invited if you’d like to join us,” she said. “It would give us a chance to show you off.”
He was willing to do anything not to say goodbye, even lie to strangers, so he accepted. They agreed to meet back at the house and go together. “You can drive,” Liz added.
“No, I’ll drive,” blurted Gene.
They both stared at Gene for a moment, and then she said, “Let Tom drive this time, Gene. I’m sure he has a new car to show off.”
“Gene no longer drives,” she whispered to Tom at the door. They hugged goodbye and he walked back to the car alone.
“Hi Janie,” she said softly through the bedroom phone.
“Hi Liz. What’s up? Are you going to be on time?”
“Yes, no problem. I do have a big favor to ask, though.”
“Sure, anything for you.”
“We’ve got an unexpected guest who showed up from LA, and I’d like to bring him along tonight if it’s not a big imposition.”
Liz knew that Janie wouldn’t turn her down. She hadn’t wanted to ask in advance in case Tom said no thanks, or more unlikely, if it didn’t seem to be a good idea. That would be too difficult to explain to the overly curious Janie.
“So who is your mystery guest?” Janie asked.
“An old friend of mine from many years ago,” Liz answered, trying to say as little as Janie would let her.
“Oh, I can’t wait,” Janie answered, chuckling. “Is he good looking?”
“Yes, as good looking as the two of us are married.”
“That good, huh? Bring him on, girlfriend.” They were both smiling when they hung up.
Tom lay on his hotel room bed staring into his past and future. Part of him wanted to jump in his BMW convertible and roar south as fast as he’d run from most things in life. The other part wanted to take advantage of the fate that seemed to be placed at his feet.
He’d never truly been happy since he and Liz broke up so many wasted years ago. He might have a chance at that happiness again, but she was so hard to read. He knew it was impossible to live in the past but the present and future required trust, something that he’d learned to live quite well without. His walls kept him outside that house on the edge of the Pacific and the horizon beyond.
Normally, the dinner party he had been invited to would be no problem. He was very capable of being charming, light, and witty. How he would somehow avoid staring at the object of his wants and desires, however, could be difficult. Twenty-five years had not taken away the youthful beauty he saw in the doorway that afternoon, and all of the accompanying memories had rushed back as if they were yesterday. The problem would be how not to be a fool in front of her friends and husband. Not that the husband would notice, or at least remember later, he mused.
He denied himself any of the wine that he’d bought on the way up from LA and took a long shower. Donning a turtleneck, jeans, and a blazer he was ready or not.
Janie and Ron Garnet’s house clung to the pine-crested hillside, daring gravity to upset the fantasy design. A slice of wrap-around windows bordered by cedar trim created a crow’s nest to gaze down on Aurora’s less impressive homes. It reminded Tom of houses he’d been to in the Hollywood hills, homes that defined their occupants.
Janie and Ron turned out to be accessible and warm, greeting him like an old friend and introducing him to the other guests who were clumped around the comfortable living space. Tom, who was not adept at remembering names, paid close attention.
“Tom, this is Franco, a long time friend of ours from Bakersfield. He’s a poet and retired professor from Bakersfield College. Ron and he worked together for many years,” Janie chirped.
“Hi, Tom Marshall,” Tom said cheerily. “Nice to meet you.” Nothing but a nod from Franco the poet, who turned back to his never introduced lady friend dressed in a black jersey dress with no accessories. On to the next torture, Tom thought.
Another group of four stood by a side terrace door drinking wine and arguing the merits of letting the deer run free throughout Aurora. They paused as Janie led Tom by the hand, joining them.
“Guys,” there were two men and two women, “Say hi to Tom. He’s an old pal of Liz’s from LA.”
One of the couples, smartly dressed, looked Tom up and down and wanted to say something derisive about Los Angeles, but they were too well mannered for rigorous honesty. “We’re the Taylors,” they said simultaneously, followed individually by, “Randy and Ann.”
The other couple whom Tom found out later were Leif and Hilda Rassmussen, just stared and grinned. Loaded, thought Tom, and knew why they were by the side terrace door, all the better to slip out for a toke.
Liz and Gene were across the room chatting with Ron. Tom, wanting to take advantage of every opportunity to gaze at Liz up close, worked his way in their direction, noticing that everybody was pretty much following his every move. He changed course and asked Janie for a glass of white wine.
“How rude of me,” she exclaimed. “You must think we’re a bunch of barbarians!” She poured an Italian water glass up to the rim, and Tom had to take a gulp before he could move.
“Liz bought sets of these glasses for everyone when Gene started spilling and breaking regular wine glasses regularly,” Janie explained. “It’s worked out pretty well so far. Cheers!”
In the meantime, Liz had disappeared so there was no logical place for him to go except back to Gene, who was staring at him strangely from a distance. Tom took a chance that Gene would remember him, but no such luck. This time, however, no introductions were made.
“So what do you think of our fair town, sir?” Gene asked. “Does it meet you standards? Maybe you can settle here in…………in………”
“I think it’s just fine,” Tom answered. “I think it might be an adjustment to live in a small town, though.”
“Nonsense! There are plenty of people here,” Gene answered. “There are so many that I can’t remember all of them!”
A joke, inside Alzheimer humor, wondered Tom.
Gene winked, and then said, “Come on Tom,” let’s shake things up a little before I lose my sense of playfulness. Who are those people over there by the terrace door?”
“Leif and Hilda and Randy and Ann,” Tom replied correctly.
“Watch this. Follow me,” Gene advised. They crossed the room briskly.
“What are you doing in my house?” Gene asked firmly as he approached the group. “Get the fuck out of my house before I call the cops.”
The word “cops” pushed Leif’s paranoia button and he backed against the terrace door, ready to flee outside. The rest of the group stood transfixed.
Gene broke into roars of laughter. “I’m only kidding, folks. I know who you are, Leif and Ann and……… whatever! You’re welcome in my house. My wife is here somewhere. Honey! My dear, get these folks some drinks! What kind of hosts are we?”
Liz appeared from the hallway and rushed over to Gene saying, “Yes, my dear. Drinks all round.”
“Dinner is served,” warbled Janie from the kitchen.
All eleven fit nicely at the black sleek dining table made of some unidentifiable petroleum product; five on a side and Ron at the head, men on one side and women on the other. “It helps to avoid the cross talk,” said a somber Franco, the poet.
Liz sat directly across from Tom. He was hoping for side-by-side seating so they could talk semi-privately but such was not the case. Gene, on the other side of Franco, attempted a toast.
“Welcome to our redecorated home. I’m hoping to get to know all of you by first name by the end of the evening,” he said smiling, and then drifted off as everyone lifted his or her glass.
Tom caught Liz staring at him wistfully and she mouthed, thank you. He smiled back at her and blew her a kiss, and then caught Janie capturing the moment with her eagle eye. He quickly turned to Franco.
“So Franco, have you written anything lately? Being a poet is a full time job, you know,” he commented, since it was all he could think of to say at the moment.
Franco grimaced and answered, “Poems are not on a time clock. They wait to come out when they are ready and society cannot set the time it will happen.”
“So that means, not lately, right?” Tom asked. He was already tired of Franco.
“Ron, who had been eavesdropping, laughed and said, “Franco, Tom’s a writer too from what I hear. What’s on your plate, my boy?” he asked. The entire table of diners seemed to turn its attention to waiting for Tom’s answer.
“I’m currently writing a novel. Unlike poems, novels come out whether society is ready for them or not. Otherwise editors and publishers would have nothing to ignore or denigrate,” Tom answered.
Nothing, not a sound came from anyone. Finally Liz spoke up. “What’s the novel about, Tom?”
Before he could stop himself, he answered, “Missed chances.”
More silence abounded, and way more staring. “Or maybe it’s about life on the edge and social grace,” he added, at which point Gene let out with a belly laugh.
“Sounds like a hell of a plot,” Gene said. “I’ll drink to that!”
The spell was broken and everyone went back to his or her previous prey, Liz turning to Franco’s date and asking where she bought her black dress. She left out a perfectly divine mortuary joke as a matter of taste and good manners.
The main course was Mexican fusion that tasted Asian to Tom. Compliments came from all, and Janie cooed her appreciation. Leif ate his portion and had another, saying little, giggling and pointing out that he had a serious case of the munchies.
The Taylors picked at their plates and nibbled on each others’ neck, which was definitely a strange time or place to do so. They seemed to be oblivious, as Liz darted her eyes back and forth from them to Tom. She asked for another glass of wine.
After the meal and a cup of sherbet each, Janie announce that an old song, Paper Moon, had been running through her head, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember the lyrics. That caused a mad dash by Ron to the Internet to look up and print several copies.
“I think that’s a great segue into the entertainment portion of the evening,” he announced, handing a copy of the printed lyrics to each of the women. “All men retire to the living room. Our damsels are about to serenade us,” he said.
All settled, the five women stood in a line and began to sing:
Say, it's only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
Yes, it's only a canvas sky
Hanging over a muslin tree
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
Without your love
It's a honky-tonk parade
Without your love
It's a melody played in a penny arcade
It's a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me
It was cute; it was borderline darling, in fact. And truer than anyone else but Liz and he knew, thought Tom. Her eyes never left his throughout the entire song, or was he just imagining that?
Gene asked, “What was the name of that song again?” No one laughed.
There was much left unsaid and no one saying it on the way back to Liz and Gene’s house. Tom knew he wouldn’t be invited in, and the start of the rest of his life was slipping away in the shadows of propriety.
“Thank you for coming and for putting up with the dinner party, Tom,” Liz said as she stood in the darkness outside her house, Gene’s protective arm around her. “I hope we’ll see you again soon.”
“Actually, I thought I’d drop by in the morning to say a proper goodbye,” Tom answered, grasping at any chance.
“Good idea, Tom,” Gene piped in. “Maybe we can all take a walk on the ranch down by the ocean if it’s nice out. How about ten o’clock”
“Sure, Gene. That sounds like a swell idea,” Tom answered. “What do you think, Liz?”
“That would be nice,” she answered softly. “Goodnight, Tom.” With that, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and walked away leaving the two men standing there in silence.
After a restless night’s sleep full of dreams of Liz, Tom woke at dawn, ate an early breakfast in the coffee shop, and waited. Looking out the hotel lobby front window at the pines he wondered if he could live here.
Foolish thinking. There was no reason to live in Aurora except to be with Liz. Gene was ill but didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. Yet, eventually he would be gone. How long, he wondered, and then caught himself wishing it would be soon. You are a cruel and selfish cad, he thought.
At ten sharp, Tom was at Liz’s front door. She answered, slipped through, and closed it after her, motioning him to follow her as she walked out on the street.
They walked silently for half a block before she spoke, “Gene’s having kind of a rough morning. I decided that a walk by the beach is not a good idea for him, and he reluctantly agreed.”
“Good. I mean, whatever you think is best,” stammered Tom.
They walked quietly awhile downhill until she finally asked, “So, honestly Tom, how did you like the dinner party? That’s about as good as it gets in Aurora, unfortunately.”
“It was fun, unique people actually,” he answered.
“In other words, you hated it,” she fired back.
He stopped, turning to her. “I loved being in your company, Liz. That’s how I liked the dinner party. Ok?”
“Ok,” she answered simply with a half smile and walked on.
They reached the ranch gate and followed the path on the other side. She explained to him that the ranch had been donated to the town for everybody’s use and the trail was maintained by the townspeople. It was a powerful site to behold; tall grass whipping in the wind, stands of pines to the east, roaring surf to the west, and the two of them stuck in the middle. They were totally alone.
Liz walked along in front of him for a few minutes and then suddenly turned with a grin on her face.
“You know, that bit about Janie thinking of the song Paper Moon was a set-up by me. I wanted to have that specific song performed last night,” she said.
“Unfortunately, no one knew the introduction to the song. That was the part I especially wanted to be heard.”
Tom looked confused. “I don’t know the intro,” he said.
“It goes like this,” she answered.
“I never feel a thing is real
When I'm away from you
Out of your embrace
The world's a temporary parking place”
“Nice,” he murmured.
“True,” she answered, and continued on the trail.
“So what is the prognosis on Gene,” he asked, and saw her back stiffen.
She walked on and spoke. “Gene has maybe a month or two until he’ll have to go into a facility. He’s been on a downhill slide for some time and eventually will be too
Hard for me to handle at home.” She turned and asked, ”Why do you want to know, Tom? It’s not your problem.”
“I was just concerned that………” he started.
“Concerned about what? Are you just curious?” She was trembling and tears appeared on the edges of her eyes.
“He’s not too far gone to be jealous, if that’s what you’d like to know. He tried last night to make love to me and it was pitiful. We don’t even sleep together anymore, Tom. Is that what you want to know?” she yelled, and turned away.
“Wait!” he called out. She was just a few steps away, and turned back sobbing.
“I can’t think of anything else but being with you,” he said. “I never want to let you go again. I’m sorry, but that’s the simple truth, and it doesn’t matter to me who knows or cares.”
Tears streaming down her face, she replied, “Good, because I was going to have to throw myself off a cliff into the ocean if you didn’t tell me that.”
Neither could recall how they ended up in each other’s arms, kissing. It didn’t matter to either one of them who made the first move. Passion defeated propriety and the infinite horizon applauded.