It rained all day yesterday. The radio stations called it torrential. Big fat raindrops fell straight down, collecting faster than the earth could absorb. Flash flooding in some parts of Morris County; the Rockaway Reservoir spilled over onto a patch of Route 23 out by The Windlass. It’s only drizzling now at the northern edge of the county, but the wind’s picked up. Tommy, usually a bold Maltese, treads carefully around puddles and fallen branches. I’m not prepared to see Kyle’s house as we round the corner.
He hasn’t lived there in so long that it’s become anonymous like most of the other houses in the neighborhood. The olive-colored shingles were painted over with a coat of pale yellow years ago. A sun room has been added. Kyle got out of town around the same time I did—his parents sold the place not long after that. But for a moment it manages to morph itself into his house again, and then recedes back into the grey suburban background.
My father’s umbrella doesn’t feel particularly sturdy. A strong enough blast of wind and one of the thin metal ribs could give.
Tommy leads me further up the road where he takes a whiz on a stretch of hedges.
When I am reminded of this neighborhood, I think of coming home from college over summer break, or picking up my parents a few years ago to see that play in Madison. They are newer memories; most of the old ones keep to themselves in the back of the mind. A bunch of years ago now, me and my brother and Kyle, playing Nintendo and riding our bikes around streets named after old Indian tribes.
I wonder how Kyle is doing. The last I heard he left a pretty good gig at Mondeléz to join a start-up in California.
A gust of wind. I attempt to zip up my old Columbia jacket that I grabbed from the foyer closet but I realize it’s already all the way zipped up. I can’t believe how cold it is. Last week it was almost sixty degrees.
The supermarket seems smaller than the last time I was here. It’s an Acme now, but when I still lived in town it was the “new” A&P. And it’s basically empty. Other than the handful of cashiers and the girl at customer service, there’s only about a dozen people walking around. That should make it feel like the place is bigger, shouldn’t it?
It’s funny what pops into your head when you come back home. I won’t lie and say that I don’t still think about her, though still a lot less than I used to. When I passed Prescott Pines on my way up here I couldn’t help picturing Odette in my Pathfinder wearing one of her dresses. The Pines are a super-ritzy development on the edge of town by the golf course. I gave Odette the tour once. I told her when they first started building around there Neil Diamond and Eddie Murphy were going to buy plots. I guess I was trying to impress her. I don’t know if it worked, because sometimes you couldn’t tell with her—if you really wanted to know you just had to dig.
There’s a woman in produce and she seems a little too spirited given that no one’s seen the sun for two days. It’s almost eight-thirty, but the day has barely crept along. The ride from my place in Mount Vernon to Jersey is a trip that wears me out more than it should. I even waited to leave until after morning traffic, but the drive wasn’t any shorter on account of a leftover rainstorm in the Meadows. And my parents are already putting me to work: walking the dog and picking up groceries and fixing the clock on the stove. Well, I suppose it was more like I volunteered. Each time I visit they look a little bit older and then I start feeling guilty for not seeing them enough. It’s not like Mount Vernon’s in Ohio. The woman in produce must be handling every plum in her quest for the perfect one. She’s wearing glasses and she’s not unattractive. When she looks up she gives me a quick smile.
At the checkout the kid runs the 2% milk, the bananas and the cereal across the scanner. Then the paper towels and the Epsom salt. The kid has a generic haircut and a rash of pimples on only one side of his face. He’s older than high school age but not by much. About the same age I was when I thought if I didn’t get out of Bailey Ridge soon I was going to be stuck here forever.
I drive past the yoga studio and Theresa’s Flowers, and the Milton Inn. The light spilling out from the inn glows on the soaked pavement. Even during snowstorms you’ll find cars in the parking lot. Some people are eating but most are drinking. I consider giving Troy a call to see if he could go for a pint. It’s only my first night here and the only thing I have to look forward to later is watching movies.
I’ll survive, I think as I turn down Milton Road. I’ll see him tomorrow anyway.
When I was growing up my father wasn’t exactly the type of guy who’d go for his annual check-up. In fact, he always said that going to the doctor only made him worse. One time he fractured his hand falling on the ice and it took him three months to figure out it wasn’t going to get better on its own. He had to get his hand rebroken and fitted with a metal pin. Then he quit drinking when I was in eighth grade, and not long after he joined a gym. I remember that year he even went to the doctor because of a week-long flu. The fear of mortality had crystallized.
I had been under the impression that Dad stopped drinking because he wanted to lead a healthier lifestyle. Until one day Mom set me straight. “He quit because he didn’t want to end up like your grandfather.”
“Special delivery,” I say, setting the bag of Epsom salt down by the couch where Dad’s reading. “I got you cereal too.”
“Thanks, Sport. Still raining out there?”
“Still drizzling,” I say. My parents are older than you’d expect. My mom didn’t have me until she was thirty-six; she had my brother two years earlier. I imagine that’s why sometimes Dad takes to calling me sport, and kiddo.
His leg is propped up on a cushion on top of the ottoman. His pajama pant leg is rolled up, and there’s an ice pack on his knee. On the phone Mom said that he was afraid of doctors again.
“You need anything else? Your laptop?”
“Nah. Just going to wait here for your mother.”
“When will she be back?” I ask, closing the door to the fridge.
“Soon, I hope.”
Mary, an old family friend, had picked Mom up earlier to go to the mall. Dad said if there’s anyone capable enough to look after my mother it was her.
“I’m going to turn this other light on for you,” I say.
“That’s okay, Wade. Too much light.”
My old room has changed gradually over the years. In its current state it is a strange combination of an office, a place for my parent’s antiques, and throwbacks from when I was twenty. I take my coat off and drape it over the back of the chair. On the desk there are Fidelity Bank statements, a magnifying glass, an iron. In the cabinet by the closet there are rows of VHS tapes that have long replaced my stereo. One of the framed pictures on top of the cabinet is of my parents taken several years ago in Anguilla. They are happy. There are not enough of these moments, I think.
I’m always astounded to see that my Cindy Crawford poster is still up behind the door.
I lie down on the bed and flip on the TV. I kick my shoes off and take some small pleasure in hearing their thud on the floor. There’s a faint hint of citrus in the room. It’s Monday, my first day back in New Jersey and the second official day of my vacation. I have promised my mother at least two more days here, a promise made months ago to make up for the fact that I haven’t visited in over two years. And, just as I expected, here is that old melancholy starting to creep up on me again. It mostly had to do with something not unique to Bailey Ridge, a town with its lake and couple of intersections and desirable condominiums, just enough to make you think you never needed to go anywhere else. But I had been on to its plan from the beginning. There’s a silver lining though, and her name is Krista. After flipping through the channels for a while I leave it on an old episode of The X-Files.
When me and Odette first split up, my mother would call me once a week. She would usually call while I was still at work, where I’m a buyer for a stationary company. I’d answer and tell her I’d have to call her when I got back to my newly more spacious apartment in Mount Vernon. I knew she was a little worried but she’d never mention the break-up. She’d spare me from having to think about those five years. I appreciated that. One day Mom called and she couldn’t remember where I lived. She knew I didn’t live in Jersey anymore but she kept getting stuck on Delaware, and Pennsylvania. At first I thought she was drunk.
My father said that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s or dementia—definitely not. And that’s straight from the doctor. Yeah, he put her on medication, but it’s only a preventative measure. “There’s nothing to worry about,” Dad said. “This is what getting older looks like.”
When I called Mom a few weeks ago to check in on her she told me she had run into one of my old friends from school at the post office. Krista was asking about you, she said. And she had given my mom her new cell number to give to me. I couldn’t believe it. Krista Jacobi was a knockout in high school. And smart too. She was one of those girls that you had to wonder: what if? She had transferred from San Diego junior year because her father took a job in the city. She had long brown hair and dark eyes and a smattering of light brown freckles at the tops of her cheeks that gave the impression that she had just been out on the beach. We had been friends, but sometimes, it had felt like we were on the verge of something more.
“Hey, Wade…” My father pops his head through the door, tentatively, as if this is still my room. “Did you want to grab dinner sometime this week?”
“Sure. It’ll have to be Wednesday, though.”
He notices that I notice that he is experiencing discomfort.
“It’s probably just some fluid in my knee. I’ve done the same thing jogging before.”
“I wasn’t saying anything.” He takes a few more steps into the room to see what’s on the TV. He moves like he’s carrying a heavy weight on his right side. The hair that he keeps longer to cover his bald spot is slightly askew.
“You used to watch this.”
“Are you going to get it checked out if it doesn’t get any better?” I knew there was a chance that he messed up his meniscus.
I hadn’t seen Troy since he had come down to New York five or six weeks ago. Since I rarely drove up to Jersey and Troy didn’t mind the trek as much as I did, he’d drive down and I’d show him places around the city. He had wanted to see the MoMA, which was curious because he wasn’t exactly a museum-going type of guy. He was more about his Challenger, the Mets, and taking the boat out on the lake. So, we went to the MoMA— I know I definitely didn’t mind going again. His sudden interest, he claimed, was because he needed to know how people could spend all day in places like that. Troy’s been one of my best friends since middle school and I was almost positive this had something to do with him trying to impress a young lady. Surprisingly he liked the place. He was especially amused by an exhibit downstairs: a huge pile of lint with a bunch of small mirrors sticking out of the ground.
Troy’s usually up for anything and generally unencumbered. With a little persuading I talk him into going to The Blue Terrace to hang out, and be my ride—I don’t want to have to worry about how much I’m drinking.
It’s almost ten when we pull in. The parking lot is more crowded than I expected for a Tuesday night. The day has turned out pretty okay. There’s been no rain and the sun occasionally managed to break through grey and white clouds. Now a gentle breeze rolls past, carrying the smell of cigarette smoke. I haven’t been here since college and as we approach the entrance I feel like I’m about to embrace with an old thrill.
“Here it is,” Troy says. “In all her glory. I sure hope Missy’s here.”
“I forgot about Clyde,” I say, nodding at the growling stuffed bear past the lobby. “Looks like he’s still accepting leis.” And someone has even gone to the trouble to set him up with a pair of sunglasses.
“Clyde, The Protector. Nothing’s changed.” He pats the bear’s stomach as we pass.
The Yankees are up on big screens on either side of the bar. I can just make out Billy Joel playing from the jukebox in the back.
Troy adjusts his plaid driving cap. “Okay,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Let’s get us some drinks and then we can say hello to that girl of yours… and Larissa’s here.”
“Tab’s on me tonight,” I say, handing him my debit card. “Just don’t forget what we talked about.”
“Yeah, got it. Your best friend, the greatest wingman of all time, you don’t want me hanging around. Larissa beckons.”
Troy’s right. At first glance, nothing has changed about The Blue Terrace. There’s still the green vinyl bar stools and the red votive lights on the tables. The price of a domestic pint after eight hasn’t changed. The brass molding on the bar top gleams from the lamps above. I wonder if the same guy still owns the place. Every once in a while he’d come out and tell his bartenders: “Make sure it shines.”
And yet something is different. Whatever it is, it reminds me of the small panic of turning thirty a few months ago. Which still bothers me but then I try to counter it with simple math. I still have another forty-five years— give or take.
The seats at the bar are all full, taken mostly by men staring up at the TV. One of them looks familiar, like a little brother of an old friend. None of the women are Krista.
“Here,” Troy says, handing me a bottle of Sam. “You find her?”
“Watching the game, waiting for you.”
As we head past the bar it’s hard to miss the strange marriage between St. Patrick’s Day decorations and Easter: shiny shamrocks and cartoon rabbits and baskets overflowing with eggs.
In the back, there’s more seating: a couple of dart boards and a pool table. I think I see her by the bathroom, a girl with a drink in her hand and brown hair. But she’s too young, and too tall. I can feel my heart rate gaining speed. I wrestle with the decision to wear khakis with my Oxford instead of jeans.
“Is Missy going to show up?”
“Not likely if she hasn’t by now,” Troy says. “Larissa’s here anyway.”
There are three girls sitting down. One of them is writing something on a napkin. Sitting at a table right next to theirs is a couple of grey-haired guys drinking beers and eating burgers. Maybe that’s something else that’s changed too. When I was coming here, by now, in the crowd, the young would outnumber the old. But tonight it’s very evenly matched.
And then, there she is by the jukebox.
“Hey, stranger.” Krista hugs me and kisses my cheek. She smells great.
“You remember this hoodlum. He just wanted to say hi real quick.” She still has the freckles and her teeth are a radiant white. Her lips are a deep, bright red.
“It’s been a while, Troy.”
“You look good.”
“You’re a sweetie. Nice to see you’re still looking out for your bud.”
“Be careful with this one.” he gives me one of those raised-eyebrow looks.
“It was a little filled up over there,” Krista says. “So I grabbed a seat back here. It’s not much but we do what we can.”
Troy exits. And then we begin. I want to know everything.
We quickly slid into conversation of our post-high school days. She went to Boston College after she graduated, where the New England winters were more formidable than she expected. She double-majored in finance and communications. Then she lived in Hell’s Kitchen when she worked for Charles Schwab. Sometimes she’d meet up with her father (his office was only twelve blocks away). “After six years I think he was tired of Cobb salads and hearing about how sick I was of my job.”
“I always cashed in all my vacation days at the end of the year so I could just get one big check, but this year I needed some time.” I explain that I’m a buyer and that my work involves panning back and forth between three monitors, deciphering distributor sheet abbreviations, and being one of the few people willing to make the coffee in the morning. “I wish I could’ve been more resolved in college.”
“All the stuff mom never told us.” Krista knocks the ice around in her gin fizz with a straw.
“What about a husband?” I ask.
“I had one of those once,” she says. “Everything was going great until he left me for an equestrian. I think he’s working on his third now.”
“I’m sorry, that’s tough.” This is good news for me. I was trying to figure out her relationship status on Facebook but Krista had her privacy settings on lock-down. All I managed to do was check out a few photos. In one of them she’s at TAO in the city laughing, wearing a short tight dress. Tonight she’s got on a pair of expensive-looking jeans and grey suede boots and a thin long sleeve shirt with a neckline precisely low enough to make a guy wonder how he could see more. Krista always knew how to dress. Her hair is different though. It’s cut so that it’s longer in the front and gets progressively shorter as it reaches the back. From the side it looks like geometry.
And there’s something edgier to her now, and it’s not just the hair or the boots. But whatever scent she is wearing (coconut and something else maybe?) rounds this hardness out.
It starts to dawn on me that what I was looking for here tonight was more than just Krista. The more we talked the more I glimpsed that tiny brilliance, moments when I still felt like I was ahead of the world.
“So, did you ever get married?”
“Not quite,” I say, “five years and then one day…poof.”
“A pretty common theme nowadays,” Krista says. “My parents moved to Ridgewood. I’m staying with them for a while. Before you say anything, I already know how lame that is.”
“Loads of people have done that,” I say, taking a gulp of beer. “It’s not like it’s easy out there.”
“I just needed the time to think, you know. I’m doing some admin for my dad, for now, until I find something else.”
At some point Krista touches my hand. And then we got on the topic of love and what we tried replacing it with after it was all over. We talk about the future where we await better circumstances. I’m glad Troy’s somewhere out there in the crowd.
“You know,” she says, “Bergen County isn’t that far from Mount Vernon. Head for the GWB and it’s less than forty-five minutes.”
It’s almost one in the morning by the time I get home and there’s a mist settling in. To the west there’s a handful of blinking stars. The moon hovers above a stack of clouds—it’s just shy a sliver from being full.
The outside garage lights are on and upstairs there’s a light on in the kitchen. It’s quiet as I walk up the stairs except for the sound of the wood settling below the carpeted treads. Mom is sitting in the living room, the light from the kitchen barely reaching her.
“What’re you waiting up for me, Ma?”
“Sweetheart. How was your night?” Her voice is gentle, a weary bliss.
I can smell her cooking. If I had to guess, I’d put my money on one of her quiches. “Alright. I was running around with Troy; saw some friends.” There’s a glass of dark wine on the table next to the couch. I want to ask her if she should be drinking, but I decide against it.
“Troy? Oh, I like him. He still stops to chat if he’s in the neighborhood and I’m outside.”
The savory smell lingering from dinner almost makes me feel like I’m home again, and not just a grown-up visitor. “Yeah,” I say, “he’s a good ol’ boy.” On the wall hanging over the staircase there’s a shelf that’s only eye level when you’re sitting on this couch. On it stands a set of nesting dolls—19th century American soldiers—and a few stone angels. They have been guarding the stairs since I was a kid.
“I remember when your brother had his jaw wired and Troy brought fresh fruit over and vegetables so I could puree them. I think you might’ve been away at college.”
“He told me about that,” I say sitting down on the other end of the couch. “What’d you get into while I was gone?”
“You’re pretty much looking at it,” she says. “You’re father wanted to take Tommy for a walk earlier but we didn’t make it that far.” She starts telling me about the sunbirds who have just moved in a few houses down and how they seem like pretty decent people. It’s difficult to speculate who would want to live in New Jersey during the summer. She wants me to convince my father into seeing a doctor about his knee. “I know he loves it but he might have to give up running—he couldn’t even make it past Hopi Trail.”
“I’ll talk to Dad before I leave, but I can’t promise you anything. If the pain gets bad enough he’ll go on his own.”
All along there has been a squeaking sound, and I finally realize that it’s the wall clock by the dracaenas, which used to be downstairs in the den. Its face is a nautical map of Port Jefferson and on the five, in Terryville—Home of Buttercup Dairy—the slightly bent second hand rubs against the minute’s. And no one seems to mind.
“I guess I should attempt to try and get to bed soon,” Mom says, finishing off her wine. “I have to wait for your father to fall asleep before I can go upstairs. He moves around a lot, you know, because of his leg.”
There was no complaining in her voice. She hardly ever complained. I’m glad I’m here, spending time with her. Makes me feel like I’m doing something right.
“I saw Krista tonight,” I say, reluctantly, as if just mentioning her name could deprive the night of its power. But I have to give Mom credit where it’s due. Krista and I already have plans to go out into the city next week.
“Who?” My mother gets up. She is wearing sweats as if welcoming the start of a leisure Saturday. Tommy, who has been snoozing on the loveseat, jumps down to follow her.
“Krista, the pretty girl you ran into at the post office. You gave me her phone number.”
“Oh, no…Wade.” She looks at me curiously for a few moments in the barely lit room. “I didn’t see anyone at the post. Did I say I did?”
For a few seconds I am quiet.
“That’s right, that wasn’t you. Sorry, I got a little spaced out there for a sec.”
“Stop being silly, Wade. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I lie in bed thinking about The Terrace and Krista. And then high school. The summer before college we made plans to see each other a few times, but we were both so busy those couple months. Spontaneity trumped planning and we didn’t see each other again. Every so often I wondered if she still remembered me.
If only we could choose what to remember. What would we let go of? Suddenly the impossible knots in our lives aren’t just untied, they’re gone. Grudges dissolving, regrets vanishing, dreams that were just beyond our grasp retreating back into the world of slumber.
I pray when the time comes Mom will have some say. The ability to negotiate with memories, preserving the sacred while discarding what remains. As long as she can hold onto enough of herself so that when she sees us we are not ghosts.
Michael Fumai lives and writes in North Jersey. He holds a MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. His short fiction has appeared in The Fat City Review, The Quotable, Crack the Spine, East Coast Literary Review and Cease, Cows.