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Review of “Post Office,” by Charles Bukowski

First, the mundane stuff; this book is written in a crisp style reminiscent of a walk down memory lane years after events, but it isn’t a very pleasant stroll – more like a drunken stagger. Numerous grammatical errors (like missing verbs, etc.) can be distracting but it is easy to read.

This review is short because the book is more like a novella than a novel. In fact, it seems that the author wrote the most memorable part (I can believe that from the story) first, so this is the middle portion of the entire story. I remained curious but I wasn’t turning pages as fast as I could either, nor was I dreading my daily reading. It isn’t humorous but the tongue-in-cheek writing style and the bizarre situations the protagonist finds himself in do elicit a chuckle now and then. I don’t know if it’s autobiographical or not and I don’t care. It is a fictional story.

At any rate, one of my complaints is that the author either assumes that (or doesn’t care if) the reader is familiar with how mail is processed and distributed. These details figure prominently throughout the book but there is no description of what they are; including the places where the character worked, the equipment he used, how he got around. Nothing, until a focus on “schemes” used to sort mail (before machines took over that mundane task), and that was brief.

I did feel that I understood the central character to some degree through the many experiences he had during the eleven or twelve-year period covered in the story. The story line is somewhat episodic, mostly centered on romantic relationships, but succeeds with very few words to convey the sense of desperation and meaninglessness of his career and life. The author managed to take a mundane person with no outstanding personal qualities and show that he was just like the rest of us (albeit with a passion for drinking too much and horse tracks). One key element was missing, however; I really didn’t learn what made Henry Chinaski tick, even after I’d finished the book. He was simply rehashing every day (and every year) over and over. Maybe that’s explained in one of the other two books.

I won’t be reading the rest of the story but, if you find Post Office laying around and don’t have to buy a copy and wait for it to arrive, it’s worth a read.

Review of “Las Cosas Que Perdimos en el Fuego,” by Mariana Enriquez

This is the latest in my Spanish reading. The English translation is “The Things We Lost in the Fire.” This is a collection of short stories by an Argentinian author. My first comment is that Spanish in Argentina drops a lot more pronouns than what I’ve read before. I had to read the entire sentence and glean every hint from word endings to know who was doing what to whom. And lots of slang that Google Translate only guessed about half the time. I’ve been listening to an audio lecture series on language and I’m beginning to suspect that written fictional Spanish follows spoken language standards rather than the written (i.e., formal) style. It’s a free for all.

The stories are all set in Argentina in the last thirty or so years, focusing on the seamier side of life for average Argentinians rather than criminals – people struggling with day-to-day life in a nation with extreme income inequality and entire cities of homeless people. There’s also some black magic and gruesome child abuse. The characters are all seriously disturbed but not enough to be institutionalized and the stories are thus real downers (especially when read carefully to try and understand them). I would add that none of the stories have endings; the reader is left hanging with no conclusion –  like the cliffhanger season finale of a popular TV show. The depiction of what people are thinking and dealing with on a daily basis is very well portrayed, however, especially when read in the native language of the region. Every story left me with a combination of sympathy and disgust for the plight of any rational person who might find themselves living under the circumstances portrayed in this book.

In general, I don’t like stories like those contained in this book, but I didn’t read it for entertainment. This is a gritty, realistic depiction of life in a developing country where frustration, superstition, inequality, and death are daily events. Just don’t read it if you want some kind of closure.

A Review of “Until I Find You,” by John Irving

I’ve been stalling to write this review. The author is world renowned and this book was a New York Times bestseller. The rave reviews (printed in a special preface entitled “Praise for…”) filled four pages. I must be a Martian. I don’t know how all of those reviewers could have read the entire book, which is 820 pages; after all, this novel takes several days to read and they don’t get paid by the hour. I actually read the entire book at my usual slow pace and I understand it as well as anyone (without using literary jargon meant to confuse and obfuscate). I’m not going to pretend to know what the author was thinking when he wrote it; I’m only going to throw my two-cents-worth into the pot.

The book is grammatically well written and the copy editor did a good job. I only found a few typos and punctuation errors. The style (at first) leans heavily on interjections introduced through parenthetical sentences and even paragraphs, but then the style changes to less-evocative prose. That isn’t my main complaint, however; this book is nothing more than a thin treatment of childhood sexual abuse drowned by irrelevant details. The author was bored with the story before he finished it, and simply threw an ending together. (I don’t blame him.) (BTW these parenthetical sentences are examples of the style used in the first part of the book.)

If you want to learn about tattooing and the (sometimes real) people in the industry; acoustic organs; nineteenth century organ music; the geography of Scandinavian cities; the (imaginary?) life of a small boy in an all-girls school; wrestling; and a bizarre twist of several (imaginary) books and screenplays written by characters in the novel – this book is for you.

The plot got lost in the details and even the author apparently lost track because, when the central character finally found his estranged father (they’d never met), there was absolutely no explanation of what caused a deeply religious man, tattooed from neck to foot, to abandon his son, and (when he got older) to play the acoustic organ in a church before removing his clothes and exposing himself in public. To make the ending even less plausible, the central character (Jack Burns) is suddenly cured of years of sexual child abuse by people he trusted (not his family) and accepts his estranged biological father’s behavior as normal.

This book strains incredulity beyond the breaking point. It read like a never-ending Saturday Night Live skit and not one of the humorous ones. I think I laughed twice while reading it, but I can’t remember when because most of the book was filled with mind-numbing details about topics I couldn’t care less about, especially when presented in such excruciating detail. This book was published before social influencers had taken over, but I don’t think it matters. I’ve read several recent books that were recommended by the news media and they were just as bad as Until I Find You. Nothing has changed, only the medium.

Even if I didn’t have a policy of not reading more than one book by an author, I will never read ANYTHING by John Irving again; I can only speculate that screenplays based on his books (e.g., The World According to Garp and The Cypress House Rules) bore little resemblance to the books.

In summary, this book was as hard to read as The Divine Comedy, except it wasn’t written 700 year ago. I prayed for the ending, which was as much of a let-down as the entire book.

A review of “El Principe de la Niebla,” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The English translation of the title is, “The Prince of the Fog.” I read this book as part of my Spanish lessons. I’m surveying a range of genres and authors to expand my vocabulary. I’ve learned that each book has a unique vocabulary, with certain words used repeatedly by individual authors. This is a short book which would probably be more correctly called a novella. It’s intended audience is probably junior high but it was challenging for me. The author is a well-known Spanish writer, so this gave me an opportunity to see how different he writes from the Latin American translations of English books I’ve read before. (I’ve recently started reading books written in Spanish to avoid translation issues.) I’m not going to review this as a children’s book, but as a general-purpose novel, which was suggested by the author himself in the foreward.

I enjoyed the story, even though I don’t generally read horror stories, because Zafon develops characters well with minimal words and reveals nuanced relationships between the characters. His descriptions of scenes and thoughts are very good but limited because of the brevity of the story. I don’t know how common it is for non-English authors to locate their stories in England; at first, I assumed the setting was the Spanish coast of the English Channel but it seems to have been set on the southeast coast of England but – to be honest – he never explicitly states the location (there are references to workers coming from London). I couldn’t help imagining Spanish characters, probably because of the language and the general culture described in the text. The Spanish was a little different from the Latino Spanish translations of English books I read before but it wasn’t difficult.

I got the impression that it was originally going to be a short story but the author realized it was getting too long because he was doing a thorough job introducing the setting and characters, so he turned it into a novel; however, since his target audience was children (who don’t generally read long books), he cut it short once the story got to the action. Nevertheless, the action scenes, culminating with a dramatic ending during a huge storm, were very exciting and easy to imagine from the descriptions. What was lacking was a sense of why any of it occurred. Instead of revealing the evil creature through the experiences of several character, the author had one of them relate what he knew about what was happening. Ultimately, I was unsatisfied with the explanation but I guess pre-teens wouldn’t be expecting too much. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the ending, which was definitely not a happy ending for everyone. I think that’s a message the target age group should learn from books before it happens to them in real life. Overall, I liked the book and would recommend it to anyone learning Spanish and looking for moderately difficult books to read.

Next up: I’m now reading a book written by a young Argentine woman using a lot of slang and vernacular…and it is very hard to read. See you next time!

 

Review of “The Divine Comedy.”

I’m not sure how to review this book. It was written around 1306 by Dante Alighieri, who was a respected Italian (before there was a nation called Italy) poet in the  Middle Ages in Florence. So I’m not going to be too hard on it. It’s a very long poem (693 pages) that doesn’t rhyme because of the translation to English, so it’s very difficult to read. It was translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1858, who was a poet himself, not that it mattered because of the aforementioned problem. Sometimes, I tried to get in a poetic rhythm while reading it and other times I just read the sentences (it has normal English punctuation) and ignored the lines and stanzas. Neither method helped.

Okay. Now to the content. I would call this a work of science fiction/fantasy if it were written today. Of course, it was written as a religious poem and in fact has been treated almost as sacred by the Catholic Church. The main character is Dante, who is led through a series of ever-descending (and more disturbing) levels by Virgil (a Roman poet), where we meet people Dante knew from Florence. I have to digress a moment and say that Dante had been exiled from Florence in a dispute between two different groups supporting different Popes. Dante picked the losing side and never returned to Florence.

Hell is filled with people he doesn’t like, most of whom are repentant although there are a few who tell him to get lost. I guess he really didn’t like those guys. There are detailed descriptions of people being devoured by lizards, disemboweled, beheaded, drowning in mud and water, burned by flaming balls falling from the sky, walking through flames, and even more fun stuff. Spoiler alert: Satan is at the bottom of Hell chewing on – you guessed it – Judas Iscariot in a frozen lake! I guess that’s where the phrase “cold as hell” originated. I always wondered about that, but now I know the origin of the phrase.

Then Dante and Virgil begin climbing a mountain through Purgatory, where he meets more people he doesn’t like (but who he didn’t perceive as evil) and some erstwhile allies from Florence. They climb the mountain and angels arrive intermittently to inform residents that they’ve waited long enough. There’s a lot of wailing and moaning here but no physical punishment. They’re joined by an old friend of Dante’s, who’s been promoted to a higher level of purgatory.

To be honest, I couldn’t keep track of how many levels there were in any of the realms he visited; for example, Hell had both levels and some kind of ditches within levels. There may have been nine levels with three sub-levels in Hell (the text is rather difficult to understand on one reading) and I was so confused by the time he exited Purgatory to enter Heaven that I didn’t even try to count after that. The friend from Purgatory wasn’t ready to go to Heaven yet, and Virgil couldn’t because he was a pagan (Virgil lived before Christianity was the official religion of Rome.), so Dante is met by his new guide who turns out to be (no surprise) a woman he’d always wanted to have an affair with but hadn’t been able to pull off.

Heaven is presented as a series of rings filled with spirits who sing a lot in Latin and the whole theme of the story becomes more philosophical, mostly on religious topics. There are lectures by saints (including St. Peter) and other notables on the corruption of the Papacy (remember that Dantes’ choice for Pope lost the religious war), including some friends of his. He goes up this stairway through ever-brightening circles of saints and angels and other luminaries (literally) – by the way, I’m certain that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is based on this image – to finally be overcome with joy and incessant singing at the ninth (or maybe the tenth) ring. We never meet God. I guess that would have been considered sacrilegious.

My overall impression is hard to put into words. This story would make a great movie. There’s plenty of action as Dante travels through Hell and Purgatory and lots of dialogue, which addresses many topics that were of great interest to people during the Middle Ages, which has been referred to as the “Age of Faith.”  There is a very natural progression in the action and the dialogue, as well as Dante’s growing sense of his own human weakness, during his journey.

I was going to keep this review short and just say I hated the story but, as I thought about it while writing this review, I got over my initial bad impression (based on the poem format and clumsy language used by the translator) and recognized the imagination and thought that had gone into the work, especially considering when it was written. Bottom line: It’s a good story but should not be read in the intellectually punishing format I suffered through. It would be much better in prose since it has practically no resemblance to a poem in the English translation, and without the poetic English that was favored (apparently) by Longfellow. I mean, really, if you’re going to translate from ancient Italian to English, why take a detour through Old English? Let the story stand on its own merits, which aren’t that bad.

Review of “El Libro de los Americanos Desconocidos,” by Christina Henriquez

I’ve been reading Spanish language novels recently and this is my third. This book was simultaneously published in English (the original language) and Spanish. Thus, my review should be taken as applicable to either version. However, this book is best read in Spanish because all of the characters are Hispanic and almost every word in it should be understood in Spanish. I read it to improve my reading comprehension. Nevertheless, it is a good exploration of the way many Americans (some of the characters are naturalized citizens) live.

The main story is about a Mexican family who came to the U.S. to seek special education for their daughter who had suffered a brain injury in an accident. All of the characters find themselves in a run-down apartment complex in Delaware, where they interact around the central theme. The author does a very good job presenting this disparate group of immigrants, so much in fact that I didn’t like any of them. I should add that many of them are only introduced in short chapters that summarize their stories, but I don’t see how she could have avoided that problem. Nevertheless, there was a sense of abruptness to their stories, which had very little to do with the main story. It probably should have been longer.

I especially appreciated how the author thoughtfully revealed the mental anguish (and personal behavior) of the central character, who I found myself disliking as I learned more about her. Don’t get me wrong. Creating and developing a character who isn’t evil and does nothing unethical that a reader learns to dislike is very difficult. Still, this woman is responsible, through what I would call her fundamental stupidity, for everything bad that happens to her family. This part, which is key to the entire story, is very well written.

The ending seemed a little contrived but it works because of the focus on the main character; however, I would have enjoyed some follow-through on the secondary romantic story line. It didn’t happen. I think the author didn’t want (or know how) to bring all of these separate themes together. Had she done that, it would have been a great book. As it is, it’s a good book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an inside look into the fate of immigrants from Latin America.

John’s Downfall

John Norton was enjoying this vacation more than any other he’d ever taken his family on. He’d already taken a hundred photos on the ride up the steep road that led to Machu Picchu. Marilyn and the children were on a narrow strip of grass with a breathtaking view of the main site and he wanted a picture of them together, so they posed as he backed up for the right shot.

“Be careful,” Marilyn warned.

“No problem. This isn’t nearly as dangerous as the Grand Canyon,” he replied as he got started taking photos, capturing their expressions.

“A dozen people fall into the Grand Canyon every year,” she responded with concern.

He took a small step backward and felt the cord that was strung around the site a foot above the ground against his left calf. Not wanting to lose the shot, he squatted and took a couple more images, but he lost his balance and had to throw his left foot further back until it caught on the rope and, without thinking, he deftly threw his right foot back to catch himself. Too late, he realized what he’d done.

John felt his body fall backward but, unworried, he continued taking photos. He would fall on the ground and look foolish. He’d done that before.

That’s not what happened.

There was no ground.

Time came to a stop for John as he saw Marilyn and the children recede from view, but he kept taking pictures. However, he would have to throw those out because all their faces were twisted in fear.

He had thirteen seconds to make his peace with God and whatever else he considered important because he was falling 1400 feet with nothing to stop him.

“What have I done?” was his first thought.

“You are a moron,” was his second.

His mind had thoughts of its own, like flapping his arms and legs like a fish out of water. He got control of his innate urges after five seconds and stopped trying to fly. He became calm and focused on the surreal sensation of freefall. He closed his eyes and watched his life flash before him.

He was in first grade, sitting on a bench next to a cute girl who wanted to share his bologna sandwich, so they ate together. He had part of her peanut butter sandwich and they became good friends. He thought he’d forgotten her name; it was Pamela. They had become more than best friends by the time they got to third grade, where they played doctor. He smiled at the memory of examining her anatomy closely and letting her examine his. By the time they entered puberty together, they were ready to do more than play.

“Yes,” he thought. “I learned about sex from Pamela and we did it a lot.” Those were fond and long-forgotten memories.

Then, memories of all the girls he’d known after Pamela flooded into his super-attenuated consciousness. He had never thought of himself as a womanizer, but it was plain to him now that he had been and still was. His mind was flooded with all the women he’d had sex with, telling them that he loved them, each and every one. And he had, or so he’d thought at the time. But now he knew he had just wanted to be a stud, someone who dominated every woman he met, and it had been fun. With his eyes closed tightly, he imagined their ample breasts in his hands and their bodies writhing in pleasure under his sexual assault.

That word brought another set of images, ones he would have preferred not to recall during his last moments. Still, he couldn’t help spending a few seconds recalling the women he’d forced himself on; he even remembered their names alphabetically: Adrienne, Cynthia, Elizabeth, Francine, Marilyn (yes, he had married a woman he had assaulted), Nona, Pamela (he had forced himself on her in high school), Tricia, Vanessa, and Zahra. He smiled at remembering raping Nona in his own house after a party. She had fought him at first but, as he’d suspected, she wanted it as badly as he and was moaning by the time he finished. None of them had accused him of rape, so they obviously had all wanted him as much he’d wanted them; they just needed encouragement.

After eight seconds, John’s thoughts got around to Marilyn. He had forced himself on her and she had turned out to be the woman who thought she could control him, and she’d tried; she’d let him assault her continuously until the previous night, when he’d taken her with as much prejudice as the first time they’d met. Another smile crept over his face as he recalled how many women he’d had since marrying Pamela. He’d always assumed that someone like her, a buxom blonde with a healthy libido, was having as much extramarital sex as himself. However, now, with death looming only seconds away, he admitted to himself that she had never cheated on him. He was the cheater. That had been a narrative he’d used to avoid controlling his wanton ways.

With time slipping out of his hands, he thought of the men he’d known. That didn’t take long because he had no friends, only acquaintances. He didn’t like men because he wasn’t gay; why spend social time with people you couldn’t have sex with?

John’s casual review of his life finally centered on his family. He didn’t love his wife, his children, his parents or his siblings. In fact, they were all a nuisance that got in the way of his real interest. He suddenly realized that recalling memories of his past life had aroused him as the end neared. His last seconds were spent in sexual bliss as he had the best orgasm of his life.

Fourteen-hundred feet above, Marilyn stared at the spot where, thirteen seconds before, John had been standing and took her children’s hands and pulled them close.

Then, a smile slowly crept over her face, before it spread into a grin.

The Great Gatsby: A Review

I’ve read three of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and more than a dozen of his short stories. This novel has more adventure than the other two (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned) but isn’t written as well. It almost seemed cut and pasted, some of the scenes were so out of place. In fact, my impression is that he started out writing a novel along his usual slowly developing line and then got in a hurry and wrapped it up (it is really more like a novella with about 60K words by my estimate). The editor notes at the back revealed that he had rewritten major parts after receiving an author’s proof from the publisher.

I liked the way the story was told by a somewhat disinterested man (the only likable person in the story) who met Jay Gatsby as a neighbor. However, everything we learned about Gatsby and his long-lasting love for Daisy was through this narrator retelling what he had been told by Gatsby. I didn’t really get a feel for it and in fact it was so briefly presented that it seemed unimportant to me as I was reading. It was only by reading the extremely long preface, which talked about this as if it was a generational divide, that I realized it was a major theme of the story. It’s worth repeating that the interesting scenes were obviously contrived to fit them into the story. None of it made sense, not even for super-wealthy people with nothing to do with their time.

As with everything else by Fitzgerald that I’ve read, he has a problem with punctuation; specifically, he doesn’t use commas very much, even though he writes long, descriptive sentences with plenty of prepositional phrases. I guess some authors get excited and don’t notice that the pauses that are in their head aren’t indicated in the punctuation. Oh well. This is very common.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book, unless you’re reading anything and everything you get your hands on like I am.

The Workaholic

George Levy didn’t think of himself as retired. It didn’t matter that he’d failed to obtain financial support for his attempt to acquire a local home improvement store in the Dallas area, so that he could improve their supply chain and make them competitive with the national outfits like Home Depot. This was simply one of many such failed efforts over the years. He had been involved with practically every kind of wholesale and retail venture over the last forty years and setbacks like this were nothing new. He already had several alternative business plans ready, from purchasing a financially imperiled commercial furniture company to buying a fast food franchise. He would have used his savings to complete the transaction, but he’d taken a serious loss on an apartment building he’d purchased just before a private equity firm had built a high-rise building within a mile of his, but theirs was targeted to affluent tenants. They had unlimited amounts of money and no interest in sustainable real estate development and he didn’t have the capital to withstand the initial attraction of what they were promising.

The banks didn’t seem willing to invest in realistic projects like those he had proposed over the last few years. If he were honest with himself, he would have recognized that the heyday of small entrepreneurs like himself was past, at least in large cities like Dallas. But George had always nurtured a dream of rebuilding America in a sustainable way, which to him meant remodeling everything, from apartment buildings to the local hardware store, rather than tearing everything down every few decades and building something flashy and expensive in its place. He was convinced that America was pricing itself out of a sustainable future. Despite his recent setbacks, his children would inherit a substantial fortune when he died because he had always been aware of the need to elevate his family into the upper rungs of American society, especially as a black man. He would leave more than three-million-dollars to his family when he died, which reminded him that he was going to meet his son at White Rock Lake for a walk along the lakeshore.

After checking the time, he went to the garage and got into his twenty-year-old Lexus, which still ran perfectly, and started the engine before realizing that he hadn’t opened the garage door yet. He had read about people dying of carbon monoxide poisoning in their garages. It didn’t sound painful but he didn’t want to die that way. Besides, it took hours and more often than not it didn’t work—someone often wandered by and discovered the unconscious but still alive victim in their car. Sometimes the victims had permanent brain damage, which had made their lives worse than before. He opened the garage door with the remote and, after making certain it was closed, drove sedately through the modest subdivision where he had lived for more than thirty years.

After a short drive, George pulled into the small lot near the water and parked next to Lewis’s new Lexus and found his son waiting impatiently, checking his watch and using his smartphone in ways George couldn’t imagine. He had grown accustomed to minor displays of annoyance from his family and friends ever since he’d been diagnosed as suffering from Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He hadn’t shared this information with anyone except his wife, which had contributed to their misunderstanding his rapidly increasing forgetfulness as indifference. Were it not for the disease and his obstinate personality, George would have known that this was the reason for his recent series of failed business endeavors. Lewis ended his on-line activity and greeted George warmly.

“He there, Pop. I was just checking with Mom if you had forgotten we were meeting today. How’s it going?”

George was very proud of Lewis, who had gone to college and gotten a degree in finance, which meant he would be prepared to take care of the family’s financial security in the future. He hugged his son and said, “Everything’s going great. I think we’re all in good shape. By the way, how’s your wife…” He paused because he’d forgotten Lewis’s wife’s name.

“Janine is great and so are the kids.” He put his hand on George’s shoulder and led him toward the trail that followed the lake shore as he continued, “Sharla is turning out to be a very good swimmer, although I’m not buying tickets for the next Summer Olympics yet, and Ethan is starting to look like a bookworm…like his grandfather. He does math problems for fun, if you can believe that!”

George chuckled because he remembered how much fun math had been when he was a child, before he’d learned that there was no money in math, at least not when he was a child. But times had changed. He had an idea, which he expressed as they strolled along the quiet water.

“Maybe I should get his help on my next project? I think my financial projections were off a little and that’s why the bank didn’t support my business plan. Still, they’ve made so much money from my past projects that they should have trusted me…”

Lewis interrupted his thoughts as he said, “I’ll get you two in touch, Pop. That’s a great idea. Of course, I’m here to help too. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I do have some experience in commercial financing.”

George scoffed. “I know that, Lewis. That’s why I trusted you with my accounts. You’re a good man, Lewis, and I hope that someday you will take responsibility for the legacy I’ll be leaving you and your sister. I’m counting on you.”

Lewis, being a good son, didn’t want to tell his father what the state of his legacy was because it would serve no purpose. His mother had told him about George’s diagnosis, and it broke his heart to see a man with a vision, and the will to act on it throughout his life, being destroyed by a disease he hadn’t brought on himself. He was trying to think of a response when his father continued.

“Of course, the inheritance tax will take almost half, which will leave you with less than two-million dollars; however, I know that you’ll put it to good use. You’re smarter than me and you went to college.” He laughed and Lewis joined him while holding back his tears.

Since learning of his father’s illness, Lewis had done a lot of research, spoken to George’s doctor with his mother present, and read several books about Alzheimer’s disease. He should be honest with his father when it was necessary, which he didn’t think was the case, until George continued.

“I’ve been thinking that it might be a good idea to let you take over the family fortune.” George waved his hands dismissively and added, “I know I’m not old enough to retire but you’ve a better mind for finance than me and the whole world is about the latest fad in derivatives and other exotic financial instruments. Don’t argue with me because I’ve made up my mind. I want you to take over.”

Lewis hated himself for what he was about to say. He waited until they had passed a young couple with their toddler daughter before saying, “Pop, I know that you have Alzheimer’s. Mom couldn’t keep it a secret because it’s too much for her to bear alone. I want you to know that we’ll all be with you every step of the way. You’ve been a great father and provider and you will always be an inspiration to all of us. You’re not alone in this.”

George wanted to walk away and leave Lewis standing there but he didn’t. Instead he stopped walking and turned to his son. “Don’t treat me like a moron, boy! I raised you and put bread on the table and I’ve set aside a nice legacy for you, which I just now said you should take responsibility for, so don’t patronize me, or I might change my mind!”

Lewis nodded and grimaced as he did what the experts had recommended. He nodded apologetically and said, “I’m sorry for offending you, Pop, but there’s something you need to understand. Things aren’t the same as they were. It’s different now…”

George retorted before his son had finished speaking. “Maybe I was premature in trusting you with my savings. Maybe you aren’t ready to take on such a responsibility.”

Lewis faced his father and, after rubbing his forehead with his hand, took a deep breath and said, “Pop, that’s what I’m talking about. There is no Levy family legacy. You emptied your reserve when you invested in the stock market last year. That was before you gave me access to your accounts. I speak for Joseph and Nadine when I say that you’ve already given us more than most young people could expect, and we appreciate it and love you for putting our futures first. Thank you for being such a thoughtful and loving father.”

George struggled to comprehend what Lewis had said for a minute. Finally, he stammered, “Did I blow your inheritance? Is that what you’re saying? I had meant to leave you with a nice nest egg…I mean, Goddamnit! I’m only sixty-four. How could I have done that?!”

Lewis put his around his father’s shoulders, feeling somehow empty inside as he replied, “None of that matters. We’re all in good financial shape thanks to your teaching us the importance of planning ahead. You’ve done a good job, Pop, and no one would dispute that.”

George nodded numbly. “Thanks, son. Let’s get going because I’m working up an appetite with all this walking. I’m going to be hungry by the time we go to lunch…and I think you said it was your treat?”

Lewis grinned and patted George on his shoulders as he replied, “Me too. I always get hungry when I go for a walk with you, Pop.”

They made their way back to the parking lot, where they got in their cars and drove to a barbecue restaurant where they found a table near the front, which faced the street through large windows. George always liked to have plenty of light when he ate because he had tasted too many hairs in his mouth over the years and he preferred seeing them on his plate rather than finding them with his tongue. This remarkable ability, which he had demonstrated repeatedly, was demonstrated when their salads arrived.

George held up the hair he had seen in his salad to the window and said, “See what I mean?”

Lewis didn’t laugh, which was what the family always did when eating with George as a group, and seriously responded, “It’s a good thing we got a table near the window.”

Instead of wiping the hair onto his napkin, George examined it closely and finally pronounced, “It’s from one of those Mexicans they hire, probably illegal; those people have no understanding of simple hygiene. They’re just a bunch of barbarians, not much more than animals.”

Lewis nodded and changed the subject with his response. “So, Pop, do you think you’re ready to retire?”

Recalling that he was dying of Alzheimer’s disease, George filled his mouth with his Caesar salad and made his son wait before he answered, “Apparently, I retired several years ago but I was too proud to admit it. All I’ve been doing is entertaining my dying brain at the expense of my family.”

Lewis was aghast at this statement. “What are you talking about? You’ve been doing the same thing that took care of us all our lives. Sure…maybe it is time to retire and enjoy the fruits of your lifetime of hard work.”

George nodded as their entrees arrived; he was having a half-rack of ribs and Lewis had pan-fried snapper with a hollandaise sauce. As they ate their meals, he was reminded of the progress of all of his grandchildren, whose names he was having difficulty remembering, by Lewis. But the thing that was foremost in his mind was that he had been living in a fantasy world, where he had millions of dollars to bequeath to his children. He had lost it all and didn’t even remember it. That was too much for George.

When the check came and Lewis paid it, George knew that his children were going to be okay, despite his failure to carry through on his original desire to take care of them. He knew that his son was patronizing him as they left the restaurant and stopped for a last hug before going to their cars.

“Take care of yourself, Pop, and don’t be a stranger. The kids really love it when you and Mom come to visit. I mean it. They love you more than I do, which I hadn’t thought was possible.”

Reaching in his jacket pocket for his car keys, George felt a stiff piece of paper, which he removed and examined in confusion. It was a Powerball lottery ticket that he didn’t remember buying. Lewis noticed his confusion and asked what was up.

“I must have bought a lottery ticket.” He went to Lewis and offered it to him. “Maybe this will make up for my having squandered your inheritance.”

“No, Pop, you keep it. Maybe you felt lucky that day and it would ruin the karma if I took it.”

George shook his head. “No. I remember now. I meant to give it to you. I had just been looking at my financial records and realized that I was broke and went to the store for bag of chips and it struck me. This is all I have to leave you but promise me that you’ll share the money with the rest of the family.”

Lewis reluctantly accepted the ticket and made George promise that he would come to visit that weekend.

When he got home, George received a phone call from an old friend he had gone duck hunting with many times over the years. Tom didn’t waste much time in getting to the reason for his call.

“I was just sitting here, looking at all these shotguns I’ve collected over the years, and I thought of you. Do you recall that time my favorite birddog, Patsy, ran off and we spent the day trying to find a dog rather than shooting ducks?”

George remembered that day as if it were yesterday. “Daisy. The dog’s name was Daisy,” he corrected, proud of his good memory.

“Oh yeh! That’s it. Patsy didn’t sound right. At any rate, you still have that old Remington 870, don’t you?”

“Sure, but I haven’t used it in five years. It’s well-oiled and stored properly. What do you have in mind?”

“Get it out and clean it up because we’re going to brush up on our shooting. Don’t even try and wiggle out of it, George, because I’ve already made a reservation at the hunting club to shoot some skeet.”

Tom had always been like that. It was impossible to say no to him because he expressed so much anticipation of whatever activity he was proposing. George reluctantly agreed and, after a few more minutes of recalling previous hunting adventures, Tom hung up and left George thinking about his thirty-year-old shotgun. It took a while for him to find the key to the gun cabinet; actually, it required his wife’s assistance to recall where he might have left it several years before, which was the last time he’d opened the cabinet. She expressed surprise at his sudden renewed interest until he explained that he was going skeet shooting with Tom that weekend. She had always liked Tom and had shot her fair share of skeet and even ducks, often with him and his wife, but not in the last twenty years.

His wife went back to the kitchen to make dinner while George began to clean his shotgun, in the middle of which he forgot why he was cleaning it. Confused, he went to ask his wife with the weapon in his hand. When he appeared in the kitchen with a shotgun held in his hands, she was startled.

“What the hell are you doing in here with that smelly old gun, George?”

He looked at her helplessly and responded, “I was going to ask you the same question. Why am I cleaning it?” He shrugged and she understood the cause of his confusion.

She rushed to him and pushed the gun aside so that she could hug him before responding. “We’re going skeet shooting with Tom this weekend and you need to clean it and make sure it isn’t rusty from sitting in the cabinet for so many years. Don’t you remember?”

He shook his head, but now he had a purpose, so he thanked her and went back to the study with the shotgun dangling from one hand. He cleaned it thoroughly and checked its operation, which he convinced himself of after dozens of times operating the pump and trigger. However, he didn’t have any ammunition so he couldn’t check if it would jam or not. Sitting there with his freshly cleaned shotgun on the table in front of him, he forgot why he was in this position; and then he recalled that he was going to put the firearm to one last use. He had already forgotten about his skeet-shooting plans with Tom. At any rate, he would have to get a box of ammo because he needed at least one shell for what he intended to do.

By the time he had gotten a box of ammo the next day, George was having second thoughts about his original plan. It would be traumatic for his wife (he couldn’t remember her name) to enter the study and find the mess he imagined would have been produced by his planned action, so he went skeet shooting with his wife and met Tom at the hunting club. His eyesight and reflexes were undiminished, and he got a better score than Tom at the end of the course. They had lunch at the clubhouse, where they were joined by Tom’s wife, Hailey, whose name George remembered for some reason. During the course of the meal, which consisted of a barbecue pork sandwich for George, the topic of the opioid epidemic came up and how many people were dying of overdoses. He listened carefully as Hailey described how easy it was to get these drugs, especially in Houston which had more than twelve-hundred overdose deaths the previous year. George didn’t think these victims of the drug crisis had died in pain or left a mess for someone to clean up. Had they been his age, their deaths could easily have been mistaken as a heart attack.

George had a new plan. It wasn’t actually a plan but a painless and less-traumatic way of accomplishing his objective. However, he didn’t know any drug dealers and couldn’t imagine himself in Sunnyside, looking to buy opioids from a drug dealer. This was a problem because he had no medical conditions that required pain medication and his doctor had expressed his opinion about other doctors who had been tempted by the big pharmaceutical companies to over-prescribe drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin many times.

With what remained of his conscious mind focused on this problem, George stumbled (literally) into a solution. His wife had just finished mopping the kitchen floor when he ran in to share something with her, which he had forgotten by the time of the event. She warned him about the wet floor just as he lost his footing and fell against the countertop, his right temporal lobe taking the brunt of the impact while his right wrist snapped as he hit the floor, whereupon his head had a second impact, this time with the tile floor. He didn’t pass out, but he lay on the kitchen floor like a pile of rags as his wife (her name is Shirley) called nine-one-one.

George had broken his wrist and fractured his pelvis in his fall, and his conservative doctor prescribed Vicodin for the pain, which George had reported as being much greater than what he actually felt. He was in a good mood as he left the hospital in a wheelchair pushed by Lewis, with a bottle of pain relief in his pocket. He would not have to suffer losing his personality and sense of being as so many others like himself. He had a painless escape plan. Shirley watched him closely for the first few days after his homecoming and then it settled down. He could walk with his fractured pelvis and so, one evening when she was reading a book, he emptied the entire bottle of Vicodin into a glass and filled it with his favorite Scotch. After creeping silently back to his bed after this painful effort, he put on his headphones and started a playlist he had recently compiled for this purpose on his smartphone, before taking several minutes to down the Scotch and the Vicodin. He was very happy and died with a smile on his face as Michael Bolton crooned When a Man Loves a Woman.

Addicted to Love

We’ve all met someone like the protagonist of this story, and we never know if we should feel sympathy for them or envy them for their willingness to take chances, again and again. Those who’ve never experienced the thrill of falling in love repeatedly will have difficulty comprehending what it’s like to feel the pulse quicken and the lightness in the head that indicates the onset of a delusional romance. For those who are blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with this recurring ability, it is very enjoyable and much better than watching television. However, they will also admit, if they are being honest, that it is an expensive and emotionally exhausting hobby. That is what Lionel Watson has learned during his sixty-four years on earth.

It would be easy for someone who has never felt the way Lionel does to mistake him for a narcissist because of the concern he’s always felt about his appearance but, in fact, he dresses exactly appropriately, with his hair cut to exacting standards, and speaking correctly to fit into whatever social group he wants to join; and he always liked to join groups with lots of girls. He has a deep-seated need to be accepted by anyone he likes, especially girls. That’s why he had learned to play the clarinet in high school, to meet the girls in the band, and why he had joined the drama club, even though he couldn’t act any way except as Lionel Watson. It had worked out because apparently, he had a popular set of personality traits. He’d even gotten the lead role in the high school performance of Guys and Dolls his senior year.

It wasn’t until he started college at Georgia Tech that he had to make some adjustments to his lifestyle because he was studying electrical engineering. He had compromised and modified his original plan to study English literature or perhaps psychology because he was good at math and engineering. Thus, it took a couple of years to get his bearings and find the college girls.

I

The live oaks had shed last year’s leaves and were covered in pubescent bright-green foliage as Lionel strolled along the walkway to meet his girlfriend, Mary Jane Henning, in front of the library. It was his last semester in college, and he had great news to share with the love of his life, who was graduating at the same time as him. It was fate. They were meant to be together forever, and his heart was racing in anticipation of their future. He stopped in front of the steps that led to the red-brick edifice containing more than two-million books and periodicals of higher learning. He was gazing upward and imagining all that knowledge when he was startled by a hand on his arm. His heart skipped a beat when he turned to see Mary Jane smiling at him, displaying her perfect teeth. Seeing her always made his day; she was medium height with auburn hair and hazel eyes, set in a brooding face defined by her aquiline nose and wide mouth, defined by thick lips that begged to be kissed.

Without thinking, that’s exactly what he did, and she responded as he’d hoped she would. They went to a nearby bench and sat down, where they kissed again, before Lionel shared his news.

“I got a job offer from Boeing to design jets and spacecraft and stuff like that. I want you to come with me.” He took a deep breath and added, “Will you marry me and make a life together?” He held his breath awaiting her answer.

She was surprised at this sudden proposal because they hadn’t talked about it before, but she loved Lionel and wanted to marry him. She nodded emphatically and responded, “Of course I’ll marry you and go wherever we have to, but what will I do there…I mean, for a job? I don’t know anything about Boeing, or even where it’s located.”

He finally breathed and said, “It’s in Seattle, Washington, which is right on the Pacific Ocean. Seattle’s a big city with half-a-million people, and universities and restaurants and everything. It’s bigger than Atlanta. And the climate isn’t so hot in the summer and it never snows. The winters are mild. They call it a maritime climate. There will be plenty of jobs for someone as smart as you, Mary Jane, but you don’t have to work if you don’t want to because I’ll be making a lot of money.”

She liked the sound of that. She had been dreading looking for a job and now Lionel had found one that could support both of them. She was quickly becoming as excited as him as she exclaimed, “That sounds great! We have to get married here in Georgia so that both our families can make it. It’ll be a great big wedding and my mom is going to be so excited. I can’t wait to tell her!”

They were both caught up in the surge of hormones accompanying such a momentous decision and neither of them could think of anything else for the rest of the semester. They planned and talked about it, and discussed everything with their families, and finally decided on getting married in the United Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, where Mary Jane had attended services all her life.

They were married the day after graduation, which was attended by both families as was the wedding. Mary Jane was very happy because Lionel had worked out the schedule without her having to think about it. She had been free to concentrate on her wedding dress and who should be her bride’s maids, and other important things like that. The weather was perfect for a spring wedding and the reception which was to be held in the large field next to the church, and she knew this was the beginning of a wonderful life.

Lionel was even more excited than Mary Jane because his entire family had driven up from Macon, but he hoped that nobody would start a fight during the reception when there would be plenty of liquor to fuel any hidden animosity between his family, who weren’t very well off, and Mary Jane’s, who were among the aristocracy of Atlanta (according to his mother).

As expected, the wedding and reception were glorious affairs with the cooperation of the weather, and the only ruckus was between two of Lionel’s cousins, who had brought some moonshine and imbibed a little too much, finally having a pushing contest over whose car was faster. It was adjudicated by their father when he suggested they should race home, a suggestion that caused Lionel to roll his eyes and stay out of it. At a relatively early hour (nine o’clock), Lionel and Mary Jane took their leave of the wedding guests and rode in a limousine to a motel where they would spend their wedding night, before taking off for Seattle in the morning on the train, which would serve as their honeymoon. They were going to see the country together for the first time while the wedding gifts would be sent to them by freight.

II

The first three years in Seattle were marital bliss for both of them as Lionel worked hard, while avoiding being a workaholic and neglecting his bride, and Mary Jane got them settled in to the ranch-style house they had bought and made acquaintances among their neighbors. With Lionel’s full support, she attended classes at the University of Washington to earn a master’s degree in library science. Their daughter, Annabelle, was born within a few days of their second anniversary and she looked just like her mother, to Lionel’s delight. Everything was going just the way both of them wanted.

Mary Jane didn’t like spending time with the engineers from Boeing because she thought they talked about work all the time, which they did; and Lionel was often dragged into their conversations against his better judgement while their wives would do something else in another room with the kids. Lionel desperately wanted to join the women and children, but he didn’t want to insult his work colleagues; however, he always apologized to Mary Jane when they were alone.

One evening, after Annabelle had been put to bed, and Mary Jane had come out of the shower wrapped in a bath towel, she said, “Aren’t you tired of bringing work home with you whenever we get together with your friends from Boeing?”

Lionel should have taken notice of her wording and her tone, but he didn’t because he couldn’t take his mind off the towel draped over her breasts, and what they were going to do in the bed. Thus distracted, he replied, with a slight wobbling of his head, “Sure, but I don’t want to offend them, and they seem to want to talk about work all the time. I’d rather spend time with you and the other wives and the kids but I’m kind of stuck.”

She nodded thoughtfully as she brushed her long, auburn hair while directing a blast of hot air on it with the hairdryer. “I have friends too, you know, and I’d like us to get together with them sometime. I think you’d enjoy their company as much as I do.” The towel was slipping down and Lionel was getting excited, so he answered without thinking.

“That’s a great idea. Maybe they can all meet and become friends.”

She finished blow-drying her hair as the towel fell to the floor, causing Lionel to instinctively rush to her and wrap his arms around her narrow waist, feeling her soft skin, and kissing her passionately. She returned his feelings as strongly and, when their lips had separated, she said, “Why don’t you take a shower now so that we can go to bed. I’ll set something up for you to meet the gang.”

He reluctantly released her and practically ran to the bathroom, removing his clothes as he went. As he closed the door, he heard her add, “You’re going to love them.”

Thus began a different period in their marriage, one which caused Lionel a great deal of distress because Mary Jane’s friends were from a completely different social group than his coworkers. The men had longer hair and wore colorful clothing, nothing like the suits the engineers wore, and the women dressed provocatively, with low necklines and short skirts and tight jeans. He tried to fit into this group of people, but it was difficult to do because they talked about music, art, and moves, and other stuff like that. None of them were married and the women flirted with him all the time, which made him feel very insecure because he would never cheat on Mary Jane, even if they were naked in front of him, which one girl, Debra, managed to accomplish one evening when he went to their master bathroom and found her undressed and in the shower. He apologized for barging in on her and backed out the door as she said that she didn’t mind if he used the toilet while she showered. It took weeks to get the image of her standing naked in front of him out of his mind because she was a natural blonde. He had never seen a blond undressed before.

Taking all things into account, however, he liked being with Mary Jane’s friends at parties more than his work colleagues because they didn’t talk about electrical systems on aircraft or missiles, which he heard enough about at work. However, he liked the engineers he worked with and their families, so he had to come up with a way to keep the conversation from becoming an extension of the Boeing offices. Then, he had an idea which he shared with Mary Jane one evening before bed (bedtime was the best time to talk seriously because Annabelle was in bed and they weren’t distracted by TV or friends). He waited until she had come out of the shower wrapped in a towel before sharing his idea.

He focused on his words rather than her body casually wrapped in a towel as he began. “I’ve been thinking about how we could change the tenor of our entertaining our friends. Right now, we either have my friends from work come over or we have your friends, but never at the same time. Why don’t we have a dinner party and invite some engineers and several of your friends? I don’t mean like we have to choose our best friends or anything like that. It could be random. I think it would make for a more stimulating conversation and, in case you’re thinking that my colleagues only talk about work, I can assure you that they don’t, not even at work. It’s just that they naturally tend towards it when there are too many of them in the room.” He smiled hopefully as she seemed to think about his proposal.

She turned off the hairdryer and looked at him uncertainly before saying, “Why do you refer to Tanya, George, and the others as my friends? Don’t you like them?”

Lionel hadn’t expected to be asked that question, but he was prepared to answer honestly, “I don’t get phone calls from them or invitations to join them for happy hour. They always call you. I don’t even know any of their phone numbers or last names. I like them very much and I enjoy the time we spend together, but…” Then he remembered an incident that would prove his point.

“For example, last month I suggested that Tanya and Gloria should join us in visiting the art museum and Tanya said she would talk to you about it. I never heard back, and we went to the museum by ourselves. I think it would have been fun to have their insights because they’re more aware of pop culture then me.” She was thinking again.

The result of her cogitation was not what he had expected. “George said that you made a snide comment about his being a hairdresser and he was offended. They don’t think you like them and you treat them with disdain…and I can see their point. You are aloof with them and never add anything to the conversations. You don’t seem to care what they think.”

Lionel almost fell off the bed at her words. He had been attempting to fit in with Mary Jane’s friend and had convinced himself that he was making progress. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a psychologist and neither was she, so he didn’t understand that they used language differently; he was an engineer and they were artists and creative people like that. Thus, he stammered in response, “If I insulted George, I’m sorry and I’ll apologize although I don’t know what I said that he found offensive.” He paused a moment and continued, “I’m not sure what disdain means but isn’t it like thinking someone is not as good as me? How would they get that impression?”

She faced him and retorted, “I’ve noticed it too, Lionel. You aren’t making any effort to understand our conversations and you aren’t even trying.”

“Wait a minute,” he objected. “No one can read my mind, not even me, much less George or Tanya or any of them. Not even you, Mary Jane. I may not be linguistically gifted like Tanya or you, but I have some idea of what I’m thinking, and I’ve never felt disdain for anyone in my life. This is a good reason for our mixed friends to meet because then you would see that engineers talk differently—that’s all.” He nodded with finality and waited for her response.

She held her towel up as she said, “You should take a shower. You have to get up early in the morning.”

For the first time since their marriage, Lionel went to bed without making love to his wife. However, being a man with a mission, he persisted until she agreed, after a week, to arrange a dinner party with several of her friends. He did the same, but made a point of inviting only unmarried Democrats, who would at least not have a conservative point of view or a spouse waiting at home to deal with, which he was certain wouldn’t have worked at all.

On the appointed evening, everyone arrived on time and the evening’s conversation went as he had hoped. His coworkers, being engineers, kept insisting on clear definitions of ambiguous words, and Mary Jane’s friends seemed uncomfortable being put on the spot semantically. There were several heated debates but no name calling and, by the time they took seats in the living room to listen to some music which Gloria had brought in the form of several albums Lionel was unfamiliar with, accompanied by light conversation. As it turned out, Bob (a good-looking guy with blonde hair) was familiar with all of Gloria’s choices and they hit it off, which kept things under control for a while.

However, apparently feeling snubbed by not being invited to dinner, a couple whose names Lionel could not remember showed up at ten o’clock, apparently under the influence of alcohol or maybe cocaine (which he knew they used casually). Raphael and Nikita were in a hot-blooded mood, just like Lionel’s cousins at the wedding, and they insisted on joining the party. Lionel could see that the guests Mary Jane had invited were more than a little annoyed at such boorish behavior as the uninvited guests began verbally assaulting Lionel’s guests. To his surprise, however, they were not defensive or disdainful of the interlopers and the evening ended at eleven o’clock with everyone leaving on speaking terms.

Despite the success of the evening, and many more such mixed group events over the next couple of years (including the marriage of Bob and Gloria, who had been the blonde in the bathroom encounter with Lionel), arguments between Lionel and Mary Jane became more frequent; sometimes over the subject of another child but, more often, over what a psychologist would have called her social insecurity as her friends slowly began to accept Lionel as worthy of their attention. Mary Jane got her master’s degree and found a job at Seattle University, where she met a new group of friends, but this time she didn’t bring them home, so Lionel never met them. This, of course, increased his insecurity about her new friends and what she was doing completely outside his observation.

As fate would have it, it was Gloria (now pregnant) who explained how life worked to Lionel’s shock. He had been invited to her and Bob’s new house just a few houses down the street from Lionel because Mary Jane was going to a concert with some of her new friends that evening and would be dining out with them. Lionel had just finished his chicken cacciatore when she dropped a bombshell.

Her eyes were laughing as she looked at Bob, who apparently knew what was coming, before she said, “Do you remember when I tried to seduce you, Lionel?”

He had gotten the image of her lithe and perfectly blonde body out of his mind until that moment, when the image flooded in. He looked helplessly at Bob and muttered, “I’m sorry…it was an accident…”

Bob was grinning as Gloria continued, “It wasn’t an accident. Mary Jane suggested I should refresh myself in your private bathroom and I understood exactly what she was talking about. I was single and not in a romantic relationship and so I figured, what the hell? If she was okay with our having sex in her own bed, I was because she had told me intimate details about your sexual relationship. You could have had me right there…in the bathroom if you’d wanted to.” She paused and sipped her wine before continuing, “But you’re a nice guy who doesn’t do shit like that. I saw you in a completely different light after that night. I realized that I wanted to marry someone like you…and then you introduced me to Bob.”

Lionel’s mind wasn’t spinning. He was numb as he stammered, “What are you saying?”

She put her hand on his arm and gently replied, “Mary Jane had an affair with George from the beginning. The rest of us—Tanya, Sylvia, and the others—were a coverup for their relationship. They stopped seeing each other when she got her new job. He told me this himself. Do you understand?”

“Maybe I can fix whatever I did wrong that made her look for other men? I can fix this.” He didn’t believe his own words.

Bob was shaking his head as Gloria replied, “No, Lionel, you can’t. Mary Jane told me that you were indifferent to her and how you never had sex and then suggested that I should seduce you to invigorate your sex life, but I knew she wasn’t telling the truth because she had mentioned several times how great your sex had been the previous night. She lied to me and she’s lying to you.”

“Maybe we need marriage counseling,” he stammered.

They were both shaking their heads, but it was Bob who responded to Lionel’s desperate statement. “You got married straight out of college and it seemed that it would last forever, but it didn’t work out. Mary Jane isn’t a slut and you’re not a wooden soldier, but you guys just never had time to discover who you really were. One would think that finishing college would clear our minds, but it doesn’t seem that way.”

Lionel, to his great displeasure, divorced Mary Jane and didn’t have to pay alimony but he gladly paid child support for Annabelle, who he would be allowed to see, by court order, every weekend. Mary Jane wouldn’t look him in the eyes when they left the courtroom, probably because she had been demonstrated to be an adulterous, thanks to the depositions of Gloria and George and the rest of her previous group of friends.

Time heals all wounds the saying goes, and so it was for Lionel. He thought about what he had done wrong in his marriage to Mary Jane and came to the conclusion that she had been overly influenced by friends he didn’t know (forgetting that she had started her affair with George within months of their meeting), his own insecurity at her having friends he wasn’t familiar with, a fallacy proven false by Gloria’s becoming one of his best friends, and their having arguments before going to bed. He wouldn’t let any of this happen again.

III

Being unable to get the image of Gloria in the shower out of his mind now that he was divorced, Lionel began looking for someone like her; he would have gone after he except that she had married his friend and coworker, Bob, so he had to look elsewhere. Of course, not being able to communicate directly with his subconscious, our protagonist didn’t know he was looking for a natural blonde, but he focused with laser precision on just that objective. He had remained in his house after buying out Mary Jane’s half, which she got in the divorce settlement, and so he saw Bob and Gloria several times a week and, as fate would have it, he met the next love of his life because of her.

Gloria had always been a good tennis play, having played competitively in college and she and Bob went every week to a tennis club not far from their house. She had been trying to get Lionel to join them because he had played some tennis in college as well (he had learned that it was popular with women) although not competitively; but he didn’t have a partner to play doubles with his friends. She solved that problem by setting him up with a woman she had played with until getting Bob to take it up. Her ex-opponent, and sometimes partner, was thus available sometimes because she hadn’t found a permanent replacement for Gloria.

Cathy Miller could have been Gloria’s sister, they were so much alike, even though they hadn’t met before becoming friends at the tennis club. She was a much better player than Lionel and they lost the match miserably to Bob and Gloria, but she didn’t seem to mind as they stopped for coffee after the humiliation of his first setting foot on a tennis court in six years.

Cathy slapped Lionel’s shoulder in a way that got his attention and shared her perspective of the game. “I can’t believe you did so well after so many years. It was mostly your bad serves that cost us a victory, so I guess I’ll have to work with you on that.” She was smiling at him and he felt the same excitement he’d experienced when he’d met Mary Jane.

He grinned sheepishly and replied, “I think it was a lot more than my tendency to drive the ball into the net, but thanks for the support. However, be careful what you say because Gloria is likely to insist that I take you up on your implicit offer of assistance.” He wasn’t sure if he’d gone too far, but Cathy’s response reassured him.

“I think you need a lot of work, so why don’t we make a date for every weekend? And, if Bob and Gloria are willing to play against us, we can measure our performance as a team against our rivals.” She placed her long fingers on his arm and added, “What do you think? Are you up to the effort?”

He was definitely ready to spend a couple of hours every weekend with Cathy, with fantasies of more than weekends already filling his imagination, as he responded, “Okay. You’re on but don’t feel obligated. If something comes up or you just don’t want to deal with me, tell me openly. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

Gloria and Bob were both grinning as she interjected, “I can’t wait to play you guys again. Bob and I may have to pick up our game too because I know that Lionel takes any challenge seriously.” She gave Bob a glance that told him she was thinking the same thing he was. Lionel had finally gotten over his difficult break-up with Mary Jane, so he threw his support behind the proposal.

“Let’s make a wager, since you two appear to be committed to a serious training program. We’ll play again in a month and the losing team has to buy dinner for the winner, who gets to choose the restaurant. Are you game?”

Before Lionel could think of a response, Cathy confidently answered, “We accept your challenge, but I’ll warn you that I have expensive taste in restaurants.”

They toasted the wager with their coffee cups, but Lionel didn’t think they had a chance because, even though Bob had only been playing for a year, Gloria was a very good player and in excellent condition. This reminded him that he knew first-hand what kind of shape she was in; then, he looked at Cathy, who was smiling at him, and imagined her in the shower and wondered if she was a natural blonde too.

By the date of the challenge match, Lionel and Cathy had fallen in love, and he knew it wasn’t just him because she was calling him all the time and sharing details about her private life. They hadn’t slept together, or even kissed, which made their relationship even more special because he got as much pleasure from how she made him feel as he would from sleeping with her. The tennis match was another thing entirely. As he had suspected, Gloria could have played them by herself, and Cathy and he lost, although they had won a set. As it turned out, Gloria also had expensive taste in restaurants because she was an assistant editor for an entertainment magazine in the Seattle area. Lionel and Cathy constantly talked on the phone and had several private dinner dates after the match, and he was sure of what his next move should be when they finally kissed as he dropped her off at her apartment the day before their dinner with Bob and Gloria.

The kiss became enthusiastic and his heart was pounding as their lips parted. “Cathy,” he stammered, “I love you. I’ll understand if you don’t feel the same…”

She interrupted by kissing him even more passionately and then gave her response. “I know you do, and I love you even more, if that’s even possible.” Then she blushed and shyly continued, “I would invite you in, but I don’t think we’re ready for that yet…” Suddenly, she shook her head and added, “That’s not what I mean. I want to make love to you in the worst way, but it doesn’t seem like the right time, if that makes sense?”

He nodded quickly and replied with his pulse pounding, “I know what you mean. It isn’t time yet. We aren’t in a hurry. We have all the time in the world, but I love you so much that I think my heart is going to explode every minute I’m away from you.”

She smiled shyly and said, “Me too.” Then she opened the door and, before going inside, rushed back over and kissed him even more intensely; then, she blew him a kiss as she closed the door. He knew what he had to do to make everything perfect.

They met Gloria and Bob at a quiet Italian restaurant away from the noise of the city, after a hectic drive through city traffic with Cathy constantly caressing Lionel’s arm and smiling at him expectantly. They were led to a cozy table near a window that looked out on Puget Sound with the full moon reflecting off the quiet waters. After ordering a bottle of very expensive cabernet, Bob’s gaze shifted between Lionel and Cathy as Gloria expressed the anticipation in the air.

“You two are awfully happy to be paying what will probably be a very expensive wager. What’s going on?” She imagined they had finally slept together but her assumption was incorrect.

Cathy could barely control her excitement at being in love with Lionel as she giggled and responded. “Lionel and I are I love, if you can believe that. Who would have guessed? I mean, I was just giving him refresher tennis lessons…but there you have it…we’re in love.” She looked at Lionel with the same gaze that had caused him to recognize how much she loved him, so he nodded emphatically.

“I think it was love at first sight,” he said with certainty.

It was Cathy’s turn to nod emphatically. “Absolutely. Otherwise, why would I have insisted on helping him? Every moment since we met, I’ve thought only about him.”

Lionel was still nodding as the wine arrived and was poured into their glasses by the server. When the young man had departed, he knew it was time to make his move, to turn this into the most perfect night of his life. He raised his wine glass and made a toast.

“I’d like to publicly admit that Bob and Gloria are a better tennis team than Cathy and I and add that, in all seriousness, it was Gloria’s amazing talent and physical stamina that made your well-deserved victory possible.”

Gloria blushed as Bob nodded his agreement and they touched their glasses, which meant it was time for Lionel to do something that would make his life perfect.

He turned to Cathy and added, “I’d like to offer a consolation prize to Cathy for being such a great instructor, whose efforts weren’t enough to make me a tennis champion.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small box with a bow on top, which he slid across the table to her.

Everyone’s eyebrows arched in surprise, but it was Cathy who picked up the gift box and gently removed the bow, before opening it and removing the small diamond ring it contained. As she held it up to the light for everyone to see, Lionel got up and knelt on one knee in front of her and all the people seated in the dining room and expressed his heartfelt desire.

“Will you marry me, Cathy Miller?”

Instead of answering immediately, she handed the ring to Lionel and held out her ring finger and, as he slipped the token onto her digit, replied, “Of course, Lionel. I love you and I would like nothing more than to be your wife.”

Bob and Gloria’s jaws dropped in shock at this sudden event but could think of nothing to say. During the silence, Lionel got up and kissed Cathy gently and lovingly and the incessant pounding of his pulse, which had been unrelenting ever since he’d first met his fiancée, stopped and he felt fulfilled. He was whole again.

IV

Lionel and Cathy were married in a park next to a lake with all of their friends and most of her family in attendance. His parents had declined to join them even after he offered to pay their airfare. He understood, but Cathy hadn’t been married before, so her family was very excited, and she was from the Seattle area. He had declined her father’s offer to share the expenses of the wedding but, not wanting to offend his future in laws, had suggested that they could pay for the reception. He was floating in the clouds the entire day and, to his relief, there were no altercations during the reception, not even when Mary Jane attended with her new husband, George, with whom she’d had the affair which led to her and Lionel’s divorce; and Annabelle, who was only three, was a flower girl. He felt no animosity toward either George or Mary Jane, so there were no awkward moments. The newlyweds were scooted away in a limousine for a week-long honeymoon in Hawaii, which further solidified the closeness of their relationship.

Naturally, Lionel had no applicable memories from his first marriage, so his second marriage was everything he had ever dreamed of. He felt closer to Cathy than he had to anyone in his life. His good friends, Bob and Gloria, had their doubts but they couldn’t help but share the obvious joy the newlyweds were feeling. They were inseparable and they never argued or even disagreed about anything. And Bob noticed that Lionel became more creative at work and even got promoted to a management position, all because of finding the woman of his dreams. He and Gloria discussed this a lot in bed before turning the lights off. It was an enigma.

The marriage of Lionel and Cathy was indeed the picture of matrimonial bliss for six years, during which time she gave birth to two boys separated by only a year, his tennis had improved sufficiently that they sometimes beat Bob and Gloria in a doubles match, and Cathy stopped working at minimum-wage jobs and got a college degree in political science from the University of Washington. During all of this, Gloria saw no signs of conflict between her friends, who she had decided were the picture of marital bliss. She discussed this often with Bob, who expressed an ambivalent view that they were happy, so why was she so concerned about it? She couldn’t answer that question although she knew she was not attracted to Lionel, but only to Bob, who had proven to be exactly what she had needed—he was as open-minded as Lionel and fun to be with and intellectually stimulating and she loved him. Still, she was bothered by Lionel and Cathy’s seemingly perfect marriage, which subconsciously reminded her of his apparently idyllic marriage to Mary Jane.

Gloria’s worst fears were realized when Cathy, with Lionel’s wholehearted support, started law school. Cathy had a sharp mind which had been lying fallow until awakened by her marriage to a man whose support for those he loved bewildered Gloria. She saw the first evidence of a problem appeared when they met for lunch one day when Cathy had a break from law school.

Cathy didn’t speak much as they both ordered spinach salads but when the server had left she looked at Gloria intensely and said, “I know that you and Bob are Lionel’s and my best friends, but I don’t know if I can speak to you openly because you’re our friend, not just mine. Since I married Lionel, I don’t have personal friends and I’ve never wanted any because we’ve always shared our lives, so I’m stuck, Gloria, not knowing who I can speak to about my marriage…”

Gloria immediately replied, “I’m a woman, Cathy, and I’m not going to share what you say to me in confidence with anyone, not even Bob. You should know that. I’m always here for you and Lionel, and I’m not stupid enough to think you are the same person.”

Cathy nodded and sighed with relief as she said, “Thank you, Gloria. You’re my best friend just as you are Lionel’s…you know that don’t you?”

Gloria nodded and Cathy continued, “I’m very happy in my marriage but…Lionel hasn’t stopped being a newlywed and it’s starting to bother me. He is so loving and affectionate that I feel like an asshole even speaking about it…”

Gloria thought this was a good time to tell her best friend about Lionel’s marriage to Mary Jane, so she did in detail, even mentioning her own part in what had happened. She finished with her personal interpretation of the cause of Cathy’s discomfort.

“So, after that ordeal, he’s trying to be the perfect husband, and he’s doing a very good job from what you’ve told me; however, he loves you so much that he’s still acting like you just fell in love. Some women would see that as a very good thing…I suppose you don’t?” She tried not to grimace at her question.

Cathy thought for several moments, before she found the words to express her feelings. “I am very happy with him. He is the perfect husband…something has changed, probably me, but now I feel like he’s choking me. I’m probably overreacting but it’s very real to me. What should I do?”

“Haven’t you talked about it?”

“I have tried to do just that, but he won’t talk about it, Gloria. We’ve been married five years and we’ve never had an argument about anything. I admit that we didn’t disagree about much, but he wouldn’t even argue with me about the boys when they were so much trouble. He simply does whatever I ask, no matter how outrageous my demands are. Sometimes I think he’s my personal slave, who feeds me and our children and takes care of us and even pays for my education, but who doesn’t see me as a person. Does that make any sense, or should I seek psychiatric help?”

This was more than Gloria had expected to hear but she tried to answer honestly. “It sounds like a pretty good deal to me, to be honest. Lionel is a loving husband who makes certain everyone has everything they need, doesn’t neglect your children, and supports your desire to improve yourself. I don’t understand why you are becoming unhappy. Maybe you should talk to a marriage counselor.”

“Yes. That’s it,” Cathy said with relief. “I don’t think he will understand why we need to do it, any more than you do…I’m not sure why myself, but we’ll do that. Thanks.”

V

Cathy convinced Lionel to talk to a marriage counselor and they spoke to strangers about their marriage, at first with a psychologist and then later in group sessions with other couples, for six months. He was as honest as he could be during all of these sessions, but he actually had nothing to complain about. He loved Cathy and their boys and was very proud of her in wanting to become a lawyer. And it didn’t seem that she had any complaints either, other than that he loved her, which made him even more confused than before. In fact, the other couples they had spoken to during the group sessions had asked them why they were even in the meeting. Lionel had shrugged but Cathy had shaken her head uncertainly.

Cathy didn’t understand herself why she had humiliated Lionel as she had, making him speak in public about their marriage, but she left the program as uncertain about what was bothering her as before. The reason for her personal turmoil suddenly became clear to her when Lionel and their boys attended her graduation from law school. They were standing up and cheering as she walked across the stage and accepted her diploma from the dean of the law school, and she saw them there, so proud of her, and she hated them. When she had left the stage, she realized that she hated herself because she hated people who loved her.

They celebrated her graduation with Bob and Gloria and their children, James, who was five and Stephanie, who was three, and she should have enjoyed it, but Cathy was distracted the entire night, even when her sons gave her a home-made card with her face pasted on top of a picture of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lionel was as loving and supportive as she had expected, and it was a good day. She had graduated from law school and she knew that he would throw his full support, which she knew was substantial, behind her as she studied for the bar exam.

The only awkward moment in the entire evening came when Bob asked her what her plans were now. She hesitated for almost a minute before answering, “I plan to get on with my life…and that will include all of you.” After saying this, she realized that she hadn’t looked at Lionel or their children. She felt like an asshole, but no one commented and thus the evening ended just as every day did with Lionel—no argument or raised voices.

Cathy spent two months studying for the bar exam while Lionel supported her by taking care of everything so that she could focus on her studies. He shopped, cooked, cleaned, took the boys to their day-care center, and didn’t interrupt her when she was in the office working. And he never complained even once, not even when she said she was too tired to make love; that fact surprised her because they hadn’t failed to have sex every day for their entire marriage (when she wasn’t menstruating). The day she got the results of her exam was a replay of graduation, but this time Lionel had arranged to have a party at their house, and she didn’t have to do anything because he was having it catered.

Bob and Gloria were the first guests to arrive with a gift for Cathy, which turned out to be a daily calendar with lawyer jokes. She didn’t know lawyers were so humorous until she looked at some of the pages. As other guests began to arrive and were met by Lionel, Cathy had an opportunity to speak to Gloria alone.

She was fighting a feeling of sadness as she admitted what was bothering her to her long-time friend. “Gloria, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I should be the happiest person in the world, but I feel terribly depressed. Not about the bar exam or getting a job; in fact, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Gloria could tell from Cathy’s distraught look that she wasn’t exaggerating. She hugged her and tried to comfort her. “You’ve been working very hard for several months and, even if you don’t know it, that kind of intense effort has an impact on mental health. It was like a finals week that didn’t end, but it’s over now. It may take a few days to get back to normal.”

Cathy nodded absentmindedly and sighed, “I hope you’re right, but I feel the same way I did before Lionel and I went to marriage counseling. I never told him about it because…you know how he is…”

Gloria knew how he was, and she thought she knew what was bothering Cathy, and it wasn’t studying for the bar. It was the same thing that she had complained about before; Lionel was smothering her with love and attention, and she didn’t need that anymore. She had learned to think independently and, even though Lionel would readily accept the new reality if anyone told him, he would never recognize it on his own. She had thought that marriage counseling would have brought it into the open but she hadn’t wanted to ask about it unless they brought it up. She avoided shaking her head in frustration as she changed the subject.

“Have you heard back on any of your job interviews?”

A smile appeared on Cathy’s face as she answered, “Yes, in fact I have three job offers. I could join a large law firm, go to work for the state, working in the Department of Financial Institutions, or directly for Amazon. I don’t know what to do!”

“Maybe that’s why you feel so worried. Which job appeals most to you?”

Cathy grimaced before saying, “I already know that I would be traveling a lot with Amazon but it’s the best position in terms of building a career. I would also have the opportunity to travel with the Burns and Weatherford because their international, whereas working for the state would be a very stable position. I’m worried about being away from the boys.”

Gloria scoffed. “Lionel will always be here for them. Boeing isn’t going anywhere, and neither is he. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Cathy smiled painfully and put her palm to her forehead as if she had a headache but, before she could respond, they were interrupted by Lionel and several of her friends from law school, who had also passed the bar exam. She was distracted from her physical and emotional discomfort for the rest of the evening once the party got going, but she knew she would be asked about her future career many times. She had already made her decision but didn’t know it yet and her anxiety was caused by this disjunction.

Lionel was so proud of what Cathy had accomplished that he couldn’t help sharing his feelings with everyone at the party. She hadn’t told him about her job offers so he was as surprised as the others to learn that she had an offer from Amazon, which seemed to him to be what she had dreamed of from their conversations while she was studying law and specializing in international law. They were talking to a fellow lawyer, a black man named Franklin who was several years younger than Cathy, when she made her decision clear.

Franklin got the ball rolling when he casually said, “I think we both applied for the same positions, Cathy, but Amazon didn’t call me back. I’ve got my fingers crossed that you don’t want to work for the state.”

Lionel interjected, “That would be a great position but I think that Cathy wants to travel.” He put his arm around her waist and kissed her hair before continuing, “Which would be fine because she could focus on her career while I become the stay-in-Seattle dad and take care of the boys.” He was grinning as he finished.

Cathy turned to him and, with a serious expression, asked, “Really, Lionel? You wouldn’t mind my traveling all the time and maybe spending years away from home?”

Lionel wasn’t going to say what he really thought because he didn’t want to have an argument in front of their party guests and, besides, he wanted Cathy to be happy more than anything else. He shook his head and, controlling his inner feelings, answered, “No because I know that for us to be happy, we have to pursue our professional goals, even if they keep us apart now and then.” Those last words had been difficult to voice but he’d gotten through them, and everybody was looking at him approvingly. He liked that.

Cathy’s mind unified one of the issues that had been the cause of her headaches and depression, but there was one more to address. Still, this small step forward immediately eliminated the dull pounding in her temporal lobes and she was able to smile at Lionel and say, “In that case, you don’t have to worry, Franklin, because I’m going to become the junior attorney in Amazon’s legal department.”

VI

Lionel and Cathy’s marriage ended on friendly terms, with his acceptance of her new career and how much it meant to her, and her accepting that he loved her and the children and would always be her best friend. Thus, the boys spent as much time with him as with their mother because of her frequent travel. They didn’t even need a court-ordered visitation plan but instead worked everything out on their own, and he was pleased with the situation overall. But he missed her because he had no one to be in love with; after all, he couldn’t be in love with his ex-wife even if he did still love her. It might sound confusing to the reader but it wasn’t to Lionel. Nevertheless, he felt as if he was a two-time loser at marriage and wanted nothing more to do with it.

Seeing the mental torment Lionel was suffering, Bob and Gloria were frequent welcome guests at his house, which he had retained after his second failed marriage. Cathy hadn’t asked for any part of the house because she saw it as her children’s home when she was away, and she knew that Lionel would be a good father to them. As she had explained her decision to him, he had paid for her to get a law degree, which was worth half the value of the house.

To get back to the story, one day Bob and Gloria were at Lionel’s house for a barbeque on a hot August afternoon, which was the opportunity they had determined was the best time to get him back on track. Gloria knew him better than he knew himself, even if she couldn’t tell him so directly; thus, she used a less-direct approach. She and Bob had decided to help him unleash his inner self, the man who had to be in love to be himself and at his best.

Bob took a sip from his bottle of beer and, watching Lionel closely for any sign of suspicion, casually said that he and Gloria had started playing bridge, waiting for Lionel’s response to continue.

“Bridge?” he asked as he flipped the steaks. “Who plays bridge, except old people in retirement homes?”

Bob scoffed and retorted, “People who enjoy a complex game that’s incomplete, which means that it can’t be played by a computer. It separates humans from machines.”

This got Lionel’s attention because he had been managing a program to increase the automation of control systems in Boeing’s next aircraft, and how the computers would be integrated with human pilots.

“So, do you guys play at the senior center or on line with people from Russia or someplace like that?”

Gloria interjected, “Bridge is a lot more fun to play with people over a bottle of wine so that we can try to read their body language and expressions. It’s like regulated gossiping, if you know what I mean.”

Lionel understood and he was intrigued but then he recalled playing tennis against Gloria, which he and Cathy had done until their divorce. “Oh, I get it. One of you is a bridge master and you want someone to practice on, just like tennis. Right?”

Gloria could see that they had his attention so she scoffed nonchalantly and replied, “No, Lionel, we only just learned by accident when Bob stumbled on a bridge tournament on YouTube. We watched it for several hours and became fascinated and now we love it.”

Lionel was certain that this was another blind date, like when he’d met Cathy, so he declined. “I guess you have a friend, Gloria, who needs a partner?” He smiled sarcastically, hoping that would end the topic.

Instead, Bob answered, “Not at all,” before taking a drink from his beer and continuing, “We thought you might find the idea of an intellectual card game played with friends over drinks and snacks interesting.” He sneaked a glance at his wife and added, “You could find your own partner, and it wouldn’t need to be a woman. Bridge isn’t a dating game…”

Lionel’s gaze switched between Bob and Gloria as he said suspiciously, “So, Tom (his oldest son) could be my partner?”

Bob nodded uncertainly and said, “Sure, if he enjoys playing card games but I’m not sure a preschooler would understand the complexities of the game very well.” He shrugged and let Lionel think about it. The seed had been planted.

VII

Lionel was sitting on the bench for parents, watching his sons, Tom and Seth, play in the fort and ride repeatedly down the slide at a public park near his house, when an attractive young black woman sat down next to him. He tried not to pay attention to her, but she was so close that her fragrance—the cumulative result of her hairspray, perfume, and even her deodorant combining in an olfactory symphony—was overwhelming his senses. Despite this distraction, he paid no attention to her until she spoke to him.

“Excuse me, sir, but I think I’ve seen you here before. Do you come to the park often?”

Now he had to look at her, and he was immediately struck by her appearance, which reminded him of several black actresses he had seen in movies, but she was sitting on the bench next to him. He had never spoken to a black woman before, other than to sales clerks in grocery stores and places like that, and he didn’t know how to respond. It took a few moments before he could stammer, “Yes, ma’am, I do.” He waved his hands in the general direction of his house and added, “We just live a couple of blocks away. I bring my boys, Tom and Seth, down here several times a week to let them blow off steam. Otherwise, they can get a little rambunctious, if you know what I mean.”

She laughed in a delightful way and said, “I wish I didn’t because my daughter is the same way.” She pointed towards a young girl with dark skin who was showing Tom how to slide faster and continued, “Tanya acts like a boy most of the time. Whatever the boys are doing, she has to do it better, whether at home or at school, she’s always showing off.”

Lionel laughed and replied, “Maybe she’ll grow up to be an Olympic athlete. From the way she’s running circles around Tom, I think she could be a marathoner.”

Instead of responding to his comment, his park-bench neighbor sat up and said, “I think we should be properly introduced. I’m Jasmine Ramirez and yes, my father was Hispanic—Peruvian actually.” She was smiling and Lionel had forgotten where he was as he looked into her dark and laughing eyes. Eventually he responded.

“I’m Lionel Watson. I’m very glad to have met you, Jasmine. Do you think we could meet again?”

Before he could correct his inappropriate words, she said, “I’d like that very much. When can I find you here in the park with your boys? I wouldn’t want to miss you.” Lost as he was in his growing infatuation with Jasmine, he didn’t notice that she was even more forward than him, so he answered openly.

“Anytime you like.”

Thus, Lionel and Jasmine dated in the park for a month, all the time with his heart feeling as if it would burst from his chest, and they fell in love. Of course, in the meantime she had met Bob and Gloria, who loved her as much as he did, and they learned to play bridge with his best friends. Lionel was ready to propose after two weeks, but he had learned to keep his strong feelings to himself after two marriages. It wasn’t until Jasmine, who he could tell had reservations about their relationship, invited him to her apartment for dinner that they got engaged.

She had never given him her address until the day of their dinner engagement and he felt as if it were a test of his commitment when he parked his car in front of her home, which was located in a public housing complex he had never seen in all his years living in Seattle, and it wasn’t even very far from his suburban neighborhood. He went up the stairs to the third floor and knocked on the door while holding onto the small box he was carrying in his jacket pocket. He was met by Tanya, who jumped on him and hugged him as if he were her father. And then the woman of his dreams appeared, attired in a very short and tight-fitting dress that made his eyes pop. Dinner consisted of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans, which reminded Lionel of Georgia and made him love Jasmine even more, if that were possible.

While she cleaned up from the meal, she sent him to get Tanya into bed, which he was glad to do. She was such a sweet girl who reminded him of Annabelle, who he didn’t see as much as he would have liked. He told her a story he made up for the occasion and tucked her in before joining Jasmine in the living room.

“Well,” she asked. “What do you think?”

He understood her question and wanted to do nothing more than propose right then, but he was trying to be more patient, so he responded, “I love you and Tanya. If you’re trying to impress me with your living arrangements, it didn’t work because I grew up in a shack with no heat or electricity. I didn’t know what a toilet was until I started school. And,” he added proudly, “I love fried chicken and mashed potatoes. That was what we had for Sunday dinner once a month.” He stared at her until she blinked.

“I love you too, Lionel, and I want to be with you…”

When her words trailed off he started to reach for the small box in his pocket but he was interrupted when she pulled him to her and began undressing him, with his blind assistance, and then herself, and then she pulled him to the bedroom, where Tanya was sleeping in her small bed in one corner. He had forgotten about the box in his discarded jacket by the time she pulled him onto the bed and slipped out of her underclothes. As they began to make love, he briefly thought that he had never had premarital sex before but then swiftly realized that this was the same thing as a wedding night. It was nothing more than a time lag.

He woke up early and, carefully disengaging from her limbs which were intertwined with his, found his jacket in the dark and retrieved the box from its left pocket, before returning to the bed to finish what he’d come to her apartment to do. He was distracted for a little while when she awoke and immediately wanted to make love again, which was fine by him. It was at this time that he saw the problem with one-night-stands; the awkwardness of leaving someone’s bed and home with no intention of ever seeing them again had been discussed many times among the engineers at Boeing. That wasn’t a problem for Lionel because, as soon as they had both recovered from the ecstasy they had shared, he pulled the box out from under the pillow and, opening it to reveal its contents, presented it to Jasmine.

Her eyes opened wide but before she could say anything, he said, “I was going to ask you to marry me last night but we got carried away, so I’m giving this to you this morning, hoping that you love me as much as I love you. I want to marry you, Jasmine…”

She snatched the box from him and put the ring on her finger in no time, before holding it up to the morning sun filtered through the shades and exclaiming, “Yes! I can’t believe it…are you kidding?”

He shook his head. “No ma’am. I love you and I don’t think I can live without you, to be honest.”

She sat up and threw herself at Lionel as she responded, “Oh god, I love you, Lionel. I love you. I love you so much, and Tanya loves you and I love your friends and I love everything about you. This can’t be real…you can’t really love me…”

Lionel had never fallen in love with someone who didn’t think that he would love them before. He nodded and reassured her. “It’s real, Jasmine, if you really want to marry me. I mean…I’m just a guy you met in the park and you would be right to wonder about all that, if you know what I mean.”

She laughed skeptically and looked at the ring on her finger and then at Tanya, who was starting to stir from all the commotion, and then her demeanor became serious as she said, “I’m overwhelmed, Lionel, and I would be honored to marry you and be your wife for the rest of our lives. I won’t be like your first two wives and desert you, but I’ll always be there for you. My only desire is to be with you and have a family with you, hopefully even another child for Tom, Seth, and Tanya to boss around, if that’s what you really want.”

That was what he wanted more than anything, so they were married within a month, this time in the small church her family attended. It didn’t take long for Lionel to realize that he would remain married to Jasmine for the rest of his life because she quickly straightened him out on proper marriage behavior. Apparently, being married twice hadn’t taught him everything he needed to know: he was not to meet his second wife, Cathy, without Jasmine present; he had better not take Tanya for granted; he’d have to listen to her opinion and be ready to express his own; and several other miscellaneous violations that had probably contributed to his failed marriages. The rule that was most difficult for him to follow was the one about not being afraid to argue, and Jasmine was willing to have heated discussions, although she never called him names. Bearing all of these regulations in mind and following them, they were very happy. Lionel officially adopted Tanya, and Jasmine gave birth to a daughter who was christened Felicia after her mother.

Thanks to Jasmine’s rules, they were married ten years before the unthinkable happened. Jasmine was only thirty-eight when she was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma and she never saw her thirty-ninth birthday. Her funeral was held in the same church where they had been married and Lionel wept openly throughout the ceremony and even through the burial at a small cemetery nearby. Jasmine was laid to rest next to her mother, who had died of cancer too.

Lionel was devastated and the only reason he kept going was that he had promised Jasmine before she died that he would carry on because, as she put it, the children needed a strong father, not a self-absorbed fool who was lost in self-pity. He had laughed when she’d pointed out that she was the one who was dying, not him. He tried for months to be strong but wasn’t very convincing, not even to himself; however, one day he was confronted by Tanya, who was by now a strong-willed and beautiful fourteen-year-old.

They were having pancakes for breakfast with Felicia, who was now eight, and Jasmine had steadily watching Lionel for several minutes, until finally he had to say, “Why are you staring at me? Do I have something on my face?” Felicia laughed but her sister scrunched up her mouth before replying.

“I know what’s wrong with you, Dad, and I know how to make you better, but you’re not going to like what I say because you loved Mom so much that you can’t imagine life going on without her.”

He put his fork down and returned her gaze as he said, “Really? Where did you get your psychology degree?”

She pursed her lips and rolled her eyes before retorting, “You promised Mom that you would be strong and you’re not keeping your word. All you do is mope around the house and go through the motions of being our dad. Well…it’s time for it to stop.” Felicia was nodding emphatically and smiling.

He tried to look at the two young faces watching him as sternly as he could, but it was impossible. He managed to keep from smiling as he asked, “Have you two been talking behind my back?”

Two grinning heads, topped with long black hair (braided in Felicia’s case) nodded and Tanya answered, “Someone has to think about the future and you’re sure not doing it. You act as if Mom is going to come back from the dead…”

Lionel shook his head slowly as he thought of a response. Finally, he said, “I’m entitled to a year of mourning after the death of my wife. That’s a rule I read somewhere. Don’t worry about me because I’ll be fine.”

“No, you won’t, Dad. I’ve been looking through the photo albums and I can see a pattern. Do you want to hear my theory?”

He hadn’t known that Tanya had been going through memorabilia or that she had a theory about post-trauma rehabilitation. He nodded slowly, not knowing what she was going to say.

She cleared her throat in an officious manner that made him smile and began, “You are so happy in every photograph when you were with your wife, and I’m referring to all of your wives, but in the pictures when you weren’t married—which aren’t very many—you look really bored and indifferent, even when you had just marched in a parade with the band or graduated from high school.”

“That’s not a theory; it’s an observation,” he scoffed.

“I’m not finished. I remember when you and Mom first met. You were with Seth and Tom in the park and you had that look of ambivalence on your face until you had been talking to her a while. I have never seen it again, until now. Felicia and I know how much you loved Mom and we know you feel like you owe her memory something, which is the right thing for you to do; however, we also know that you can’t be happy unless you are in love, and I don’t mean with a memory. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

He knew what she was getting at and she was right, he didn’t like it, but he wanted to hear it from her mouth. He had learned to live with a woman who expressed herself and it was obvious that his daughters were just like their mother.

“You’re going to have to be clearer with an old man like me,” he retorted.

Felicia giggled and Jasmine continued, “Fine. You need to get married, Dad, for yourself and for us. Is that clear enough for your?” She was staring at him stubbornly and he lost the battle of wills.

Lionel was astounded to hear this from a girl whose mother had only died six months previously. He shook his head in exasperation and finished his pancake, making the girls wait for his response. Finally, a response came to him. They hadn’t thought it through, that was all. It was like a game to them. He stood up and took his plate to the sink as he pointed out the fatal flaw in Tanya’s theory.

“Many studies have shown that young women, like you two, resent step-mothers who they see as replacing their real mother. You would be miserable and hate me and whoever you imagine setting me up with if I were stupid enough to get remarried. I’m glad you got this off your chest but now we need to get back to reality, the reality where I am a widower and will remain so for the rest of my life. No one can replace Jasmine…no one!” He turned and stared at them, but they didn’t back down.

“We’ll see about that,” Tanya firmly stated as she brought her plate to the sink, followed by Felicia, who wore a determined look as she hugged him.

VIII

Tanya had planted a seed in Lionel’s fertile imagination and it didn’t take long for it to germinate. Of course, he consciously dismissed his daughters’ theory and its attendant solution to what they saw as a problem in their young and overactive minds. He shared his insight with Bob and Gloria and, after they had all laughed at the girls’ imagination, Gloria had startled him.

“You know, Lionel, I’ve known you for twenty years and I think there’s something in what Tanya said, although she was a little forward in her speaking to you so openly. They are so much like Jasmine that it amazes me.”

He was shaking his head in disbelief as he said, “I’m old enough to know what’s best for me and that is to enjoy the rest of my life with the two daughters over whose lives I have some influence, and to participate in the lives of my two sons and other daughter, Annabelle, who is starting college this year. I am a very happy man.” He looked at them and nodded his head once in affirmation of his permanent widower status.

Bob knew that his friend would not be himself until he had followed Tanya’s advice. Nevertheless, he understood how hard Jasmine’s death had been on Lionel and so he restricted his response to confirmatory nodding and a cliché. “Time heals al wounds.” Understanding his meaning, Gloria nodded her agreement.

Tanya and Felicia weren’t as patient as Lionel’s best friends and so they implemented their own plan, which involved insisting that they wanted to learn how to sail because of all the open water around Seattle. Having succeeded in coercing their father into buying a twenty-foot sloop, they demanded that he take them sailing every weekend until their plan could move to the next phase. They became proficient at sailing and Tanya even joined the sailing club in high school. After taking note of the other sailboats (and their occupants) with whom they were sharing the open sea, their plan succeeded beyond their expectations.

One beautiful July day they were sailing with Lionel at the helm and approaching a specific vessel which Tanya had identified on previous outings, she swung the boom the wrong way while Felicia gave the spinnaker more slack; the combined effect of these two actions caused their vessel to collide with their target. The sails became entangled, thus assuring a lengthy interaction with the woman and her children who didn’t know they were being boarded by pirates. The reader should know that the pirates (Tanya and Felicia) had singled them out from many trips to the marina and even knew their post-sailing routine of having lunch at the marina’s restaurant.

Lionel didn’t have time to confront his daughters about their sudden lapse in handling the boat because he was immediately facing an irate woman in her early thirties, who demanded to know why he let children who were obviously incompetent sail his vessel. Between effusively apologizing and directing Tanya and Felicia, who were grinning through the entire encounter, to get the sails disentangled, he realized that he was fascinated by this woman. As her son, who was Tanya’s age, and her daughter who was twelve, worked with his misbehaving daughters to get the rigging free, he promised to pay for any damages. It was obvious that this negotiation should take place in the restaurant so, after the boats were separated, they sailed back together as a small flotilla to the marina to discuss the terms of his surrender.

Tanya was very proud of herself over the next few weeks as she watched her father became the man he had been before her mother’s untimely death. She had done her homework and knew that Isabella Rodriguez was divorced and was devoted to her children, just like Lionel. Fortunately, the two unwitting victims of this act of piracy didn’t discover the truth until many years later when, after consuming too much wine at Lionel’s sixtieth birthday party, Tanya, who was by then a senior software engineer with Microsoft, had told the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and she swore to God. Her testimony was verified by Felicia who was by then a psychologist with her own successful practice.

IX

Lionel couldn’t believe that he had been married to Isabella for twenty years and nothing had gone wrong and they had even had a daughter, Julia, together, who was as beautiful as her mother and just as smart. They’d had their ups and downs but, thanks to Jasmine’s marriage rules and the constant counseling of Tanya and Felicia, he had made it this far, but he was bothered by something he couldn’t put his finger on. He couldn’t talk to his daughters about it because they were obviously biased as they had demonstrated repeatedly over the years, so he turned to his old friends, Bob and Gloria. He joined them for dinner one evening when Isabella had gone to a concert of the Seattle philharmonic orchestra with Felicia and Isabella’s son, Jonathan, who Lionel had not adopted because of his age and familiarity with his biological father.

Lionel had learned to talk about things that mattered while eating from both Jasmine and Isabella, so he shared his discomfort as soon as he had filled his plate with salmon, Italian green beans and rice pilaf.

“I feel like there’s something wrong in my life but I can’t put my finger on it,” he complained as he tried cut a piece of salmon and dipped it in a butter sauce Gloria had invented.

She scoffed as she did the same with her entrée and said, “We’ve heard that before, Lionel.” Suddenly becoming serious, she added, “Do you think Isabella is being unfaithful?”

Bob interjected, “You’ve had so many trials and tribulations that you are expecting something bad to happen without warning. This trait is what has helped you at Boeing; it’s why you’re a division manager and I’m only a senior engineer. You worry about the unexpected, and I don’t blame you. Of course, you’re worried about what’s going to fall on your head next, but the past is not a good predictor of the future.” He sampled his green beans and waited for a response.

Lionel had to think about what they’d both said before saying, “No, I don’t think Isabella is having an affair or even that she has ever cheated on me. But you have a good point, Bob, and I don’t know how to respond to that.” He laughed out loud and, after trying the green beans himself, added, “My daughters had to introduce me to Isabella in what could only be called bizarre circumstances. Maybe I’m incapable of dealing with life’s ups and downs in a regular way…I mean, I seem to drift along in whatever state I happen to be in until something dramatic occurs. Then, I suddenly go into overdrive with only one thing on my mind…”

Gloria replied in a comforting tone, “I think you are disillusioned, Lionel, not from any one event, although any one of your previous marriages would have been enough to do that. You are resilient and you haven’t had a catastrophe in twenty years, so you’re expecting something bad to happen. It isn’t always like that.” She turned to Bob and, taking his hand in hers, added, “You’ve finally run out of bad luck and you can be like us.” Bob was nodding solemnly at her words.

Lionel contemplated that idea as he finished his salmon and scooped the last of his green beans and rice into his mouth. Finally, after rinsing his mouth with the sweet Riesling wine Gloria had served with dinner, he started to understand.

“Neither of you knows how hard that is to change who we are. I understood why Cathy suddenly wanted to leave me because she had expanded her world and she couldn’t see me as a part of it, other than spending time with our sons. I’m no better than her. I’d be a hypocrite to pretend otherwise. We’re all the same and you two are the lucky ones, whose individual dreams and goals were the same.”

Gloria and Bob were shaking their heads in unison as she exclaimed, “You have it all wrong, Lionel! Bob and I have seen our expectations diverge over the years and it was only by a substantial effort that we’ve remained married. We’ve had to compromise continuously and it has bruised our egos, but we made it, just like you and Isabelle have.”

Bob added, “It’s worth the effort to know that you’re with someone who will be there at the end, and vice versa.”

Lionel had always thought he had found someone to be there at the end of his life in all of his previous marriages but it had never worked out. Of course, being himself, he had forgotten that he had done just that at the end of Jasmine’s life—he was still an egotist, but now he had friends and family to explain things to him. He laughed quietly and, holding his half-full wine glass up, offered a toast.

“To friends and family who keep us from being our primitive selves!”

Bob and Gloria held their glasses up and tapped them together with his as they voiced in unison,

“Cheers!”