Rebecca, my new girlfriend, moved in a few weeks ago. Her makeup and toiletries are all over the washroom now. I guess you have to expect that from a woman Rebecca’s age. My daughters are the probably same way. I haven’t seen either of them since their mother died.
I got a letter from Sarah, my eldest, the other day. It listed conditions that had to be addressed before we can have any further contact. The first is that I see a psychiatrist. The second is I send her the good china. “Unless these conditions are met,” the letter said, “I don’t wish to have any further contact with you at this present time.”
Sarah’s boyfriend must have helped her with the language. He’s a lawyer. I can’t imagine Sarah coming up with “unless these conditions are met.” It’s too formal, for one thing. Normally, when Sarah writes a letter, she doesn’t hold back. Like me, she speaks her mind. It’s still a kick in the teeth reading “I don’t wish to have any further contact…” That’s hard for any father to read. Then again, Sarah never made anything easy.
I sent a copy of the letter to my other daughter in Edmonton. Kelly’s the more reasonable one, but I’ve made mistakes with her as well. She called back, saying the psychiatrist wasn’t a bad idea. “You could at least try,” she said.
I wanted to tell her I am trying. Most of my letters to Sarah come back unanswered. Imagine my surprise when she wrote back, telling me to see a psychiatrist.
Rebecca thought that was a hoot. She was licking jam off her fingers. “I’d have a bird if my daughters told me that,” she said, bunching her hair up on her head. “That’s if I was old enough to have daughters.”
She’s always doing funny stuff like that. On her way to work the other morning, she saw me looking out the window. She struck a pose on the sidewalk. My neighbour, Marvin, was out watering his lawn. He took one look at Rebecca and went back inside, slamming the front door.
Rebecca laughed when I told her later.
“I didn’t even see him there,” she said.
I can only imagine what Marvin’s thinking now. He and his wife, Rita, have been our neighbours for thirty some odd years. Rita was always over when my wife was sick, bringing her food, sitting upstairs talking. I half expected them to get on the phone to Sarah and say, He tell you about his young girlfriend yet? Knowing Sarah, she’d phone Kelly, making it sound worse than it is. “She’s half his age,” she’d say, “and Mom’s only been dead a year.” That’s typical Sarah. She can make a crisis out of anything.
Anyway, I decided I’d better get things sorted, so I started writing a letter to the girls. “I’ve found somebody,” I wrote, “She’s a nice girl I met at a local bar.” I crossed out local bar and put restaurant. Then I crossed out girl and put woman. While I was writing, Rebecca got behind me with her arms around my neck. “I didn’t know he was that old, officer,” she said in a squeaky voice. “He just looked so yummy.”
I haven’t sent the letter yet. It’s still sitting next to Sarah’s. I keep seeing the word “psychiatrist.” I know we’ve said terrible things to each other over the years, like after the funeral. We’d come back to the house, and I’d laid out some stuff on the bed, their mother’s jewelry mostly. I told the girls to take what they wanted. Sarah said Martha promised her the good china.
“When was this?” I asked.
“It was the last thing she said to me,” Sarah replied.
“She never mentioned it, Sarah. Not once.”
Sarah looked at me like I’d committed a crime, then she stormed out of the house. I didn’t hear anything else until her letter arrived. It’s the final sentence that bothers me most: “I don’t answer the phone because I’m afraid it’ll be you.”
I’ve tried asking Kelly about it, but Kelly says it’s between me and Sarah. “You guys figure it out,” she said, then added, “Would it really be so bad if you gave her the china?” So I decided maybe it was for the best. Rebecca and I don’t need a setting for twelve people, anyway.
“Good for you, partner,” Rebecca said. “I’ll help you wrap.”
The first time Rebecca came over here for dinner, I remember her saying, “Gee, old timer, this is a big house. No wonder you’re lonely.” She saw the china in the hutch. “You’ve got enough for an army there,” she said.
I told her Martha liked to have dinner parties. Most of the people were her friends. When she died, I didn’t hear from any of them. Even Marvin and Rita backed off. That’s when I started going to this local pub down the street. I was lonely, retired, a widower with kids in different cities. I needed to get out of the house. What else was I going to do?
One night, Rebecca came in the bar. She sat a few seats over, ordered a drink, talked a bit to the bartender. Every so often, I’d catch her glance in the mirror behind the bar. Maybe she saw an old geezer, or maybe she just saw someone who was lonely. When the bar started to clear, out of the blue, she slapped the seat next to her.
“Park yourself over here, cowboy,” she said “Let’s palaver.”
I looked around, thinking she meant someone else. Rebecca’s a good looking woman. What did she want with me? Then she said, “C’mon, I’m not going to bite.” So I did, and we introduced ourselves. I told her I was a retired accountant. She told me she worked in a physiotherapist’s office. I asked her, “Why talk to me?” and she said, “I may have a screw loose.” At the end of the night, she handed me her number, I called her the next day, and we got together. Somehow it led to this.
Rebecca and I wrapped up the china and sent it off. Sarah lives in Hamilton, not a great distance, but far enough. I didn’t hear anything back. Rebecca thought I should call, so I did and left a message. A week later, I got a letter saying, “The gravy boat is missing. Send post haste.”
“You heard her, cowboy,” Rebecca laughed. “Post haste.”
We did a full search, going up in the attic, out in the garage. A few cups and saucers turned up, nothing with the right pattern. I called Sarah again and left a message saying we looked everywhere for her gravy boat. A letter arrived a week later with one sentence: “Who’s we?”
“Busted,” Rebecca giggled.
One night, Rebecca and I were having drinks in the living room. Rebecca grabbed the phone, saying she was going to call my daughters. I started chasing her, until my knee gave out. Rebecca put me on my back and told me not to move. “I gotta pop you back together, partner,” she said, then added, “You really got a thing about your daughters, don’t you?”
I told her she was going to give me a heart attack.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “It gives me the willies.”
She was quiet the rest of the night. She gets that way sometimes. The day she moved in here, she had three garbage bags of stuff and some dry cleaning. I told her it wasn’t much. She made this cutting motion with her fingers. Another morning I tried waking her up and she lashed out. Later, she said, “Sorry, cowboy, he had the scissors out again.”
She was quiet all day, sitting the couch. At one point, she looked up and asked, “Did you have a happy marriage?”
“We did our best,” I said.
“What did she die of?”
“A stroke,” I said.
She got even more glum.
I asked what happened to the happy girl I used to know.
“Gone to the dumps,” she said.
My place sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. Most of houses were built back in the thirties, all based on the same two-story design. We don’t get a lot of cars driving by, so I’ve gotten know what sounds familiar and what doesn’t.
I know Marvin’s car, for instance, and the Patterson’s, the Wilcox’s. The rest are either service vehicles or people turning around. I only mention this because, last Saturday morning, Rebecca and I were still in bed. I heard what sounded like a sports car. Nobody here has a sports car.
I listened, waiting for it to turn around, then I got up and looked out the bedroom window. The car was turning into our driveway. Then I saw Sarah get out of the passenger side. Her hair was up, sunglasses on top of her head. She waved to Marvin watering his grass. Then a guy gets out the other side. I figured he was the lawyer. He looked like a lawyer.
I put on my dressing gown.
“Rebecca?” I said, shaking her shoulder.
She rolled over and rubbed her eyes.
“Sarah’s downstairs,” I said.
“Holy, moly,” she said.
She started grabbing the sheet around her.
A key was turning in the front door. Then I heard Sarah in the foyer, saying, “He’s probably still in bed.”
When I came downstairs, Sarah was in the dining room, kneeling by the sideboard. The lawyer was looking out the back window, arms crossed.
“You could have called first, Sarah,” I said.
I realized the coffee table was covered in junk: an empty wine bottle, a full ashtray, gossip magazines. Who wouldn’t notice that?
“I came to get my gravy boat,” Sarah said, not looking up.
“You the lawyer?” I asked the guy.
He nodded, rubbing the bridge of his nose. They were dressed in tennis outfits, sweaters tied around their necks.
“Got a name?” I asked.
“Cole Peters,” he replied.
“Okay, Cole Peters. You two want coffee?”
“We’re not staying,” Sarah said, pulling out drawers, stuff rattling.
I could feel a pain growing behind my eyes.
“You’re going to break something, Sarah,” I said.
“No, I’m not.”
The bathroom door slammed upstairs. Sarah and Cole both looked up. The toilet flushed, then feet padded back to the bedroom. I picked up the empty wine bottle and ash tray. Then Rebecca came down the stairs, wearing my old track suit, her hair tied up, that crooked smile.
“Hey, there,” she said, then turned to me. “Did you offer them coffee? Do you guys want coffee?”
“They’re not staying,” I said.
“It’s all made,” she said. “Sure you guys don’t want some?”
Sarah ignored her.
“Rebecca asked you a question, Sarah,” I said.
“We don’t want coffee.”
“Then say that.”
“I just did.”
She kept pushing things around, slamming drawers.
“Your gravy boat isn’t there, Sarah.”
“I’ll look for myself, if you don’t mind.”
She slammed another drawer. Something fell over in the cabinet.
“You’re going to break something,” I said.
“Go upstairs if it bothers you so much. Take your friend with you.”
“Hey,” Rebecca said.
“That’s enough, Sarah.”
“Then leave us alone.”
I came around the coffee table.
“You want to be left alone? Go back to Hamilton. I didn’t invite you here. We were having a relaxing morning until you came along.”
“I’ll bet,” Sarah murmured.
“What did you say?”
I went across the room and pulled open the front door. The handle banged against the radiator behind it. “Go on,” I said. “Next time, you’ll have the decency to call first. Take your lawyer friend with you.”
Sarah stood up and faced me.
“I’m not leaving without my gravy boat.”
“And I said you’re leaving now.”
Cole pushed away from the wall. “Let’s go,” he said to Sarah. He didn’t wait for an answer. He walked to the door. “Coming or not?”
Sarah grabbed her purse off the dining room table.
“Don’t ever call me again,” she said to me.
She went out the door and down the steps.
Marvin was still there on his lawn. He watched them get in the car, start the engine, then pull away. He shook his head.
I closed the door and leaned my head against it. Rebecca came up behind me and put her arms around my waist.
“Why does she have to be so mean?” Rebecca asked.
I didn’t answer.
“Want to go back to bed?” she asked.
“I’ll be up in a minute.”
I got some orange juice out of the fridge. It tasted funny. I spit it out in the sink, rinsed out the glass, then went back upstairs.
Rebecca was under the covers.
“Come here, cowboy,” she said with her arms spread.
I got into bed and pressed against her.
“Who could hate a sweet old guy like you?” she asked.
I intended to call Kelly this morning, but didn’t get around to it. I sat around most of the day until Rebecca came home. We sat on the couch holding hands. Rebecca told me she’d been in the dumps all day.
“I got the blues big time, mister,” she said.
We went upstairs and curled up under the comforter. I told her things would get back to normal. We just had to give it a chance.
“Normal?” she said. “I’ve been waiting for normal all my life.”
She sighed and wiped her eyes.
“Scooch over here,” she said. “Take off your socks.”
She fluffed the pillows behind my head, then got a bottle of nail polish. “Close your eyes and think of something nice,” she said.
I tried, but all I could imagine was Martha and the girls standing over me, looking down, judging, maybe pitying.
Then Rebecca told me to open my eyes.
“What do you think?” she said.
I looked down at my toenails. They were cherry red, with balls of cotton batten stuck between my toes.
“They look good,” I said to Rebecca.
She put the top on the nail polish and lay beside me.
“I’ll call the girls tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll do it first thing.”
“Okay. And I’ll try to be my old self again.”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
She snuggled up close, putting her face next to mine.
“I promise to be the best girlfriend ever,” she said.
“I know you will,” I said. “I’m counting on it.”