Lunch at the Premonition Café
Men argue. Nature acts.
Right off, I discovered the best way to handle the heat of a Houston summer: go to Montana.
Helena is the closest thing I've ever had to a hometown. I wasn't born there, but my children were, and my parents still lived there, along with my big sister and her family and my little brother and his wife. I'd lived there more than I'd ever lived anywhere else and couldn't bear to be away from the mountains for more than twelve months at a stretch. Fortunately, I was able to finance a trip home every year by returning to my old summer job at Grandstreet Theatre, where I taught kindergarten, first-, and second-grade creative drama classes. For two weeks every year, I played the Whoosh-Whoosh game and led my merry little band of jumping beans on imaginary journeys through jungles and dragonlands and mysterious kingdoms where you could become a different person just by changing your hat. (Nice work, if you can get it.)
But this summer, my whoosh-whoosh energy was a little low. After class the first day, I went home and crashed on the couch at my parents' house. When my mom came home from work a little while later, she settled an afghan over me and laid her hand on my forehead for a moment. I'm well acquainted with that universal gesture of motherly concern (the palm of my hand, I like to brag, is accurate to within a tenth of a degree).
I knew I should open my eyes and tell her I was fine, but it was such a lovely feeling.
Being tucked in. Being a child instead of a mommy, just for that brief instant. So I lay there pretending, feeling a little guilty but mostly grateful for a modicum of that mama-bear nurturing no one ever gets enough of. Unless they're sick.
Of course, I know anyone you slept with before you slept with your spouse is supposed to be anathema, canceled like a bad check that returns to you stamped NSF for Non-Sufficient . . . um . . . Fellowship. You are to tear this relationship in two, pay the penalty, and never think of it again except in shame and regret.
My folks never approved of Jon, and truth be told, I lie awake contemplating how I'll prevent my own daughter from ever getting involved in such an affair. I was a twenty-year-old disc jockey. He was about forty, stood four inches shorter than I, and introduced me to orgasms, antisocialism, and acid. The relationship had had such a profound effect on my life, it was almost unbearable to realize I was barely a blip on his radar screen. For years, the sting of it was such that I wouldn't speak his name. On the rare occasions I did allow his memory to intrude on my consciousness or my conversations, I referred to him only as “the gimlet.”
I honestly thought he was out of my system, but when I sat down during “Reading Rainbow” to write my first novel, it accidentally turned out to be the story of a young disc jockey (me) who falls in love with an aging rancher (gimlet). The original outline ended in humiliation and death for the old sod. But somehow, as the story told itself to me and I told it to the keyboard, the fairy-tale characters performed reconstructive surgery on true life. The fictional man convinced me to forgive the real thing, and the fictional girl reminded me that I didn't love Jon because I was an idiot. I loved him because he was, and is, a remarkable person.
“Call me later,” he said the day he broke my heart, “just so I know we're cool.”I'm fairly certain he didn't mean twelve years later, but I decided to call, anyway, to ask his forgiveness and offer mine. We ended up talking for hours, and by the time we hung up, we were cool. Old flames smoldered down to old friends. I sent Jon a copy of the manuscript he'd helped inspire, and we agreed to meet for lunch while I was in Helena.
Montana was sunny and arid and Russel Chatham–
watercolor beautiful that day, as it is most days in high July. The theater-school session was almost over. The children and I were putting the finishing touches on our musical adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. After class, I helped them gather their magic carpet squares, construction paper Hobblegobs, and other take-home items, dispensing Tootsie Pops and good-bye hugs as I shooed them out the door.
Slumped in a booth at Bert 'n' Ernie's half an hour later, frowzled by a full morning of Quacknoodles and papier-mâché, I waited for Jon to mosey in with his long ponytail and funky attire reflecting his Native American blood and a sturdy tradition of too much sun, country music, and alcohol. But time and miles were beginning to show on him; his hair was cropped to a respectable collar-length, and the crinkles that used to be only for laughing were now set in stone. He'd taken an early retirement. He was sick. Some kind of heart problem.
“Hi there,” he said warmly, and I wasn't sure if I should get up and hug him, so I just said, “Hi there also.”
“Well.” He laid my manuscript on the table and sat down. “I didn't know you had it in you.”
“You think it stinks,” I instantly concluded. “You hate it.” I regretted showing it to him. He was intimidatingly well-read, and I was still feeling fragile about my words.
“No! I didn't hate it at all.”
“It's just a rough draft. Rough drafts are allowed to stink horrendously.”
“It doesn't stink.”
“It stinks. You can be honest. Go ahead. Be brutally honest.”
“It doesn't stink! Your spelling stinks. The rest is good. It's really . . . good. I stayed up all night reading it. And I tried to call you at the theater, because I wanted you to know, but then I had to walk around with all this . . . knowing, and I just wanted to tell you . . . I liked it. A lot.”