Rachel’s second marriage was a mistake. After it ended, the only good things she could say were:
“Well, I certainly learned how to live with stress!”
“At least it got me out of my first marriage.”
No one would argue that these are accomplishments.
Richard left, and she remained in the marital abode for close to a year. But she avoided the cafe they used to frequent. It was a ten minute walk from the house, congenial and clean if not gourmet, a perfect place to take the kids, to go as a couple, or to fetch desserts from, for after dinner at home. Rachel adored the cheesecake. Her stepson was into the creme brulee.
She missed that cafe after Richard left, but she was shy about patronizing it. Not so much from fear of nostalgia: more because she didn’t want the owner’s look of concern, his considerate hospitality. Almost eight months passed before she entered the place again, for lunch with her best friend. It was mid-October, and the sun blazed in a spanking blue sky.
The owner was overjoyed. Ali gave her a wide grin, a gentle hug, the best table on the patio. She angled her chair next to the rail and enjoyed the street scene. When he brought her salad out he asked, “How’s Richard? Is he still…” and as he spoke, he mimed lifting a glass to his mouth and tossing it and his face backward. In a flash Rachel understood what had eluded her when Richard lived with her: every trip to the cafe for take-out dessert was a chance for Richard to knock back a couple of glasses of white.
A number of years passed. Rachel moved out of the neighborhood and the cafe was sold to a pharmacy. That was sad, because it meant the shopping/dining boulevard lost its best outdoor tables. But turnover is how life goes.
Rachel and Richard exchanged emails on their birthdays for awhile, but those were not informative. She could tell he wasn’t thriving; he never mentioned an interesting case and he kept relocating farther inland. Everyone knows it’s a one-way move from the coast to the valley; it’s always too expensive to return.
Then Rachel acquired an old colleague of Richard’s, as a consulting client. When she and Ted reconnected over the phone, they started with reminiscences. There were references to some out of state conferences. Ted said something about how much Richard could put away. And then changed the subject.
Rachel knew the men never had any love for one another, but they’d both been attorneys in a regulated field, so they were used to meeting at hearings and continuing ed sessions. It was a gentleman’s practice then; they were almost courtly in behavior. Their firms came apart with deregulation, but Ted kept most of his old clients and represented them in other matters. Richard didn’t do so well. By the way Ted commented Rachel understood that for him, and probably others in that network, the significant trait in Richard was his drinking.
Another number of years passed. Richard died. He was 75 but his death didn’t appear to be connected with his age. He was driving home from work on an October Friday afternoon and he made a turn in front of an oncoming SUV. It was his error, and it cost him his life.
Rachel heard the sad news from her former stepson. She passed it on to her children and friends and eventually to another client who had known Richard. Brad had been Richard’s junior partner, so he was much closer to Rachel’s ex than old Ted. When she told him about the accident, Brad blurted, “Was alcohol involved?”
Rachel is the last person to assess an individual’s personality by the comments it evokes, but questions and statements about Richard were starting to mass around her like cavalries. Then she spent an afternoon with her daughter.
She flew to Portland for a long weekend in November. They didn’t get a chance to really talk till Sunday morning, when her son-in-law took the boys out for a dog walk and doughnut fetch. Emily poured them fresh cups of coffee, added half & half to hers, and brought the mugs to the table. “So tell me about Richard,” she said. “I mean, I remember living with him but I was, what? 13 when he moved out? What were his values? What did he like?”
Rachel thought those were lovely questions. And she couldn’t answer them. Right then she understood the meaning of “floored.” She uncrossed her legs and put both feet on the tile under the table while she pitched a little forward, gazed at the table top, and thought back. She drew a blank.
What was Richard like? Who had she married? The concepts gave her pause. She got to experience flooring and pausing in the same morning. She wanted to think about that time. She might even search some old journals.
It took her awhile to resuscitate some memories. She was thinking back more than half her adult life, after all. By the end of her meditations she concluded that Richard wasn’t as admirable or honorable or creative or intelligent as she had believed in the beginning and left unchallenged at the end. The character she saw through time’s scope was mostly conventional and conforming, and generally not brave or brilliant. Richard had lived widely enough that he had a few vivid moments, like when he was busted for making fake IDs in high school, when he was shot in Viet Nam, and when he fell in love – 40 years old and grasping at passion – with Rachel. He came fully alive those times, he sparked with vigor and couldn’t be denied. At least, that’s how it felt when he wooed her. He seemed irresistible, like a force of nature. She was discontent in her marriage and her first husband knew it. She was imminently recruitable.
Looking back, Rachel concluded that she took that leap without a lot of knowledge. Richard’s firm had been a client, and her contact had been with his senior partner until Gus retired. That’s when Richard assumed the administrative mantle, and Rachel started working with him, and they sparked into an affair that led straight to marriage. She’d felt swept off her feet when it happened, and she’d figured that Gus knew him, Gus passed the reins to him, Gus as much as vouched for him.
But Gus, like Rachel, was Jewish. Rachel now thinks it was her Yiddische upbringing that prevented her from understanding situations where individuals drink to excess but still manage the appearance of normal life. Her parents were the same age as Gus; folks from those households believed one had to be falling-down drunk to have a problem. As far as Rachel is concerned, nowadays anyway, functional alcoholism is a Protestant art form.