When I come back from the shower, I hear M. and the boy engaged in some elaborate game to which I have no real point of entry. There are whole, complicated narratives at work that span days. Characters are introduced, imperiled, and rescued. Seemingly innocent figures turn villainous, to later redeem themselves. Choices are made. Fortunes turn.
I hear my son say with a certain solemnity in his tone: “Will the Legion of Doom put Nom-Nom to sleep forever? Tune in tomorrow for the next episode.”
When Z. was little, these same games. Hours engrossed in the worlds they created together. If I joined them on the floor, they would patiently review certain bits of critical information. “This is Tiger Boy. He creates mischief.” Or they would temporarily suspend the narrative so that we all could take turns launching tiny plastic cannonballs at our beleaguered cat.
Over the weekend, our friends come over and we all stand around in the kitchen while the boys strew the contents of their board games across the living room floor.
The adults hover while I work. I assign them tasks – slice the bread, arrange the cheeses, pour the wine, dress the table. They raise the possibility of moving out of state and I stop what I am doing, put my spatula down, scowl. “We are just looking,” R. says, “there is nothing definite yet.”
“We just need work - actual, steady work,” N. says, “we can’t keep going like this.”
The boys rush in to update us on the progress of their game. They dance around us in their socks for a while before disappearing again.
“Didn’t you think that by this time in our lives, there would be more certainty? That we’d have all this figured out?” I ask. I go back to blanching garlic.
“Maybe not all of it,” R. says, “but definitely more than this.”
At the table we talk about the high school production Z. performed in. A musical. R. and I wax sentimental about its story, the song lyrics we had memorized in our teens. Our husbands do not share our nostalgia. M. says, “I came away confused, I couldn’t follow what the conflict was.” I take this as my cue to fly into mock rage. “It is so simple, what is there to follow?” My voice is raised and I am waving my arms around. M. plays along. “But he sees her at the school after the summer romance, why isn’t he happy to see her?”
R. and I take turns shouting explanations at him and now also at N., who has joined the fray. Battle lines have been drawn by gender. “It was the fifties!” “He’s protecting his reputation.” “She was in love.” And so on.
The divorce is reaching its final stages for my friend K., and I check in with her to see how she is doing. She and her man – the one she is in love with – have agreed to only speak by phone until all the paperwork has been finalized and filed. “It’s fine,” she says, “it’s good. We’re both really busy.” I nod my affirmation. They talk a couple times a week. He suggests that maybe she’d want to date other people.
She says: “I didn’t say this to him, but the last thing I want to do is date. I don’t want to meet anyone else. I like him. I want him. Why would I ever want to date other people, when I’ve already picked him?”
She is quiet for a moment, then asks: “Do you think he said that because he wants to date other people?”
There is no real way for me to know the answer to this, but I don’t think she is looking for an answer. She is waiting for reassurance. I say: “I doubt it. Why would he, at this point? After all this time that you’ve waited to be together?”
She looks down at her soup. “I don’t know. Maybe he does.” She pauses, picks up her spoon, swirls it around in the soup that is now growing cold. “Well, he can do whatever he wants,” she says, “but I’m tired. I don’t want to date. I just want to get all this over with so I can get on with my life.”
The waitress leaves the check, clears the plates. K. says: “It just gets so lonely sometimes, you know?” Again, I nod. She says: “I can’t help it. I’m so lonely.”
L. comes over to eat dinner with us while M. is at work late. I ask her about the man she made the four-hour drive to see, despite my admonitions. “It was lovely,” she says. “We had a lovely time.” She wipes at my counter with a sponge.
“I wanted him to come up this weekend, but he wouldn’t.” I say nothing.
“You know, it’s all fine,” she says. “I know it’s not going to be a thing. It’s just good to know where I stand.“ I let her go on.
"He’s completely transparent about it. It’s kind of refreshing. It’s good to know where we stand.”
Z. wanders into the kitchen and we talk about school, her classes, which temporarily suspends the conversation I realize I no longer want to have.
The fantasies develop early, blossom in adolescence. The idea that things will go one way or another. It is now, I think, in mid-life that one begins to recognize the fantasies for what they are. But the lure of them is still there, still driving us, even as we hold them up to the light, see them in all their gauzy impossibility.
It is not the details of the fantasies that I remember really – more the feeling of them. The sense of certainty that they engendered. The assurance that you have mastered a bit of the world, a bit of yourself. That you have arrived at a place of knowing – a static, unchanging place. How seductive the possibility of living without doubt.
I open my car door in the parking lot and there is a patch of ice – ice! – where I am about to put my foot. I am so cautious about my footfalls now, the physical therapist’s mantra – softly, softly – in my head all the time. The ice patch seems a reminder that there will be things I cannot anticipate.
Everything is symbol and sign to me these days. Messages of encouragement from the universe coded in birdsong; warnings in the play of shadows across the kitchen floor. I see hopefulness in a bit of winter sunlight refracted through the stained glass window. And later, as I ready myself for bed, shaking off the day, I listen for the wind’s mournful howl as I slip into dreamless sleep.