Fair Lady

Her collection of glass insulators shines in the afternoon sunlight.  Even the mottled brown one looks younger in this light.  Stepping into her foyer through the front door, Ava picks up the clear, aqua colored insulator, holds it against her cheek, and lets the smooth glass cool her.  She catches sight of her reflection of the entryway mirror and lifts up her chin to erase the shadow of a pouch.  Defiantly, she tucks her chin back down and stares back full-faced.  She raises her middle finger at the reflection.

 That’ll show her, she thinks.  Aging isn’t for the weak of heart.

 Shaking off this image, Ava sits at the tiny work space near the kitchen to check email.  Her publisher has resent the message entitled “Reminder”.   Like she needs another reminder?  The second installment of her aphrodisiac cookbook, tentatively titled “Love Bites,” is overdue.   Ava hits reply and types, “Eat my apples, you old bitch,” then quickly cancels the message before she accidentally sends it.

“Get a grip, Ava,” she says out loud to herself.  “Calm down.”

Switching to Facebook, Ava glances at the People You May Know section.  An older face is peering out at her.  Him. Thinner, older, but unmistakably him.  His hair style stuck in the sixties, gray now.  His glasses round and Lennon-ish.  That smug smile.   “Oh, my God,” she says, “Mr. Portsmouth.  Pete.”

Before she thinks, Ava clicks on the image and asks it to be her friend.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

Pete retreats to his office above the garage.  Filled with posters from past shows, and a phonograph player for 45’s and LP’s, he shares the space with a mannequin dressed in the costume worn when he played Henry Higgins.  Pete lives most of his waking hours in this room. The place smells like stale cigar smoke and dirty socks.  Nowadays, there is an overtone of Campho-Phenique mixed in.  Booting up the computer, he looks for distraction from his chemo queasiness.   The screen brightens to reveal a self-help page that must have been the last one read by Sally, his wife.  It’s a black framed page, with a cheerful animated stick figure pointing out these lines:

It is normal to have a wide range of feelings while going through chemotherapy.  Stress and fatigue make it harder to cope. At some point during chemotherapy, you may feel:

Anxious    Depressed   Afraid    Angry    Frustrated    Helpless   Lonely

Pete rants, “No shit?  Who writes this stuff? ”

His audience, the Henry Higgins mannequin, does not respond.  Pete feels again the sensation that the mannequin is the “old” Pete, the healthy one, and that he, the Pete in the computer chair, is a cranky outsider.

Returning his focus to the computer, Pete switches over to Facebook.  This is his guilty secret.  Well, one of them.  Here is where he stalks his friends, his neighbors, even his old students.  He likes reading the trivia of their lives, their banal comments, even, occasionally, an insight.  He reads down the page:

Bob Douglas – We spent all our vacation time posing in front of fake SF backdrops while the baby takes a crap and my father-in-law spouts senile commentary from the backseat of our car.

Tish McDonald – If these political ads don’t stop soon, I am going to slit my wrists.

Page after page scrolls before him.  Pete himself never puts a single comment on the site, or even clicks a “Like” button.  That’s because he doesn’t want anyone, especially all his former students, to see how small his world has become.  He doesn’t want anyone to know how he obsessively checks the site.  He doesn’t want to put his stuff on the street like so many of these folks do.  Never has wanted to.  For good reason, he thinks.

Surprisingly, today there is a message for him.  He clicks the icon until a face appears.  There is writing and a phone number beside it.  Who can be writing to him?

That face.  That beautiful seventeen year old face.   Older.  Forty plus years older.  But it is her.  The face of Ava.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

“Damn it,” Ava yelps.  She looks down at her ragged cuticle, snagged on her panties as she pulled up her Spanx.   “Sheesh, that hurts.”  She is exhausted, hardly sleeping the night before, half dreaming of that picture that popped up on Facebook yesterday.

The bedside phone rings as she is stepping into her black slacks, a size larger than this time last year.  She picks it up quickly before it wakes her husband before she has time to look at the electronic name and number scrolling across the screen.

“Hello?”

“Ava, is that you?  Do you know who this is?”

She glances sideways at her husband, Tim’s, prone body, partly covered by their sheet.  His eyes stay closed but she thinks she hears a slight change in his breathing.

Hiding a small smile, she says,   “Sorry.  Wrong number.”

The sound of their neighbor’s rooster crowing brings her back to this room.  She picks up her brush and strokes her short blond hair vigorously, making sure every hair on her head is in place before she goes to fix breakfast. She’s trying a new recipe for her overdue cookbook, making mamey sapote into a milkshake. It’s a Mexican fruit rumored to spark romance.  She’d better drink it all herself today.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

In a desert town half a state away, Pete limps away from the spot his wife has dropped him.  The pain is evident in his walk and in his face, making him seem older than his seventy years.  He enters the clinic’s back door, the one reserved for chemo patients.  He greets the nurse at the desk with a familiar half-wave.

“Pete, ready for your last day?”

Jeez, he thinks. You would hope that the receptionist in an Oncology Department would pick her words more carefully. “Yep,” he responds instead.  “Plug me in.”

Soon, Pete drifts off to the place he always goes at this point in the treatment.   He floats up to the ceiling, looks down on himself, distancing the nausea and fear.   He drifts to the smells and feelings, to the touch and sights of his earlier life.  He sees her as though she is standing in front of him.  Her long white blond hair shines in the desert sun, not sun-damaged yet like all the California girls in her class.  Blue eyes.  Nordic.  Cold.  He hears her flat vowels and the cadence of her low voice.  It sounded exactly the same when he called this morning.  He smells her hair again, musty, fragrant, not flowery, earthier and sexual somehow. Christ, he thinks, I may be the first man on this earth to get a boner during chemo.

Hours later, Sally is waiting for Pete after treatment.  She never comes in with him anymore, not after the first go-round of chemo sixteen months ago.  This second time, he has asked and she has reluctantly agreed to drop him off.   Like a school child with a hovering mother, he watches her wave good-bye tentatively and greets him effusively when he climbs back in their car after treatment.

“How are you doing?”  Sally inquires lightly.

“How the hell do you think,” Pete snaps.

The silence that follows is the kind that shouts all sorts of retorts.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

Returning from a late lunch, the cell phone rings just as Ava approaches home.  After checking the number she sighs and punches the Bluetooth on, snagging the hangnail again.

“Ouch.  Hello, Tim.”

“What time is dinner?”  No hello.  No how are you?  No go to hell.

“Uh, I’m not hungry.  Why don’t you grab something for yourself?”

“Are the kids coming by tonight?” Tim sounds hopeful.

“Not that I know of.  Sandy wants us to watch the girls for them on Thursday.  A sleepover.” Ava recites the information in a monotone.

“Cool.  I’ll be home later then.  Can I bring you anything?”

How about some excitement, Ava thinks.  She says, “Not a thing.”

Ava throws the dead phone onto the car seat beside her where it rolls onto the floor mat on the passenger side.  It starts to ring again and she lets it lie.  She goes inside.  I’m going to do it, she thinks.

Grabbing the bedroom landline, she clicks the menu for the last number.  Hands trembling, she hits redial.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

“I got it,” Pete grabs the phone quickly as Sally reaches for it.

“Can you talk?”

“Sorry.  Wrong number,” he says aloud, clicking off the ringer.  He turns away from Sally, palms the phone and slides it into his pocket.

“Weird,” Sally offers. “I thought it might be Dr. Peters with your scan results.”

“Nope,” Pete says as he heads for his man cave.

Holding the receiver, Pete hesitates before he redials.  His memory picks out the picture of the seventeen- year-old girl in the Speech and Drama Club, the one who transferred in her senior year from some place in the Midwest.  Iowa?  Illinois? Indiana?  Idaho?  An “I” state, at any rate.

That year was the third year Pete had taught high school. 1965.  Armed with a teaching credential and a SAG membership, Sally and he had decided the desert would be an interesting place to start out their careers and married life.  Lots of potential.  Newish school.  An affordable house.  Hollywood close enough in case the acting career ever took off.

There was a Speech and Drama club already at Desert High but no place to stage a production.  Pete, starting to find some talent among the nerds and the brains that are drawn to drama, found “cool” kids joining, too, some hoods and athletes and cheerleader-types, mainly because they had heard how much fun the out-of-town speech trips were with Mr. P.  Only a few years older than his students, he had a curly mullet and a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth whenever he could sneak a smoke.

He and Sally were a good team then: she, a screen-writer, he, the aspiring actor.  This was going to be a short-term gig, a good place to start a family, steady income while they got established.  Unfortunately, nothing like that happened.

Starring in one commercial early on, played again and again, gave him some local fame and enough dough to buy a Porsche.  A long gig, teaching high school for forty years, followed that short burst of fame.  The income, while steady, never got them far enough ahead to take the adventures they’d carefully planned.  And sadly, or maybe just as well, they had no children of their own.

Now this.  Retirement, cancer treatments, and a hovering, anxious, disappointed wife.

Pete places the call.  He hears the voice answer, “Finally.”

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

Putting the miles between his house and the place that he and Ava have agreed to meet, Pete remembers it all.  The State Speech Finals were in Santa Barbara that year and Pete had six kids who qualified.  With their permission slips in tow, he loaded these teens into Sally’s Chevy wagon, leaving his precious Porsche behind, to be used by Sally only in case of emergency.  Driving too fast he made it to the coast in plenty of time to check in and change for dinner.   All the kids were starving by the time they hopped back in the minivan to go to Denny’s.

“Steve, bring your Original Oratory along.  I’d like the others to hear the ending before your finals tomorrow.”

“Ava, come on up here in the front. I think you are ready for the Dramatic Interpretation but there is one section I’d like for you to read to me on the way to the restaurant.”

Pete took a long pull on the “cough syrup” that he kept in a flask taken from the glove compartment.  He reached over Ava, bumped her knee while replacing the flask before starting the car.

“Sorry.  Did that hurt?”

“Not even a little.”

“Are you ready?” This said a little under Pete’s breath.

“Yeah.  For just about anything.”  Ava raised her eyebrows and looked at him with wide-eyed innocence.

“Ha.  Haha.”  Pete’s voice hadn’t sounded this high -pitched and nervous since his first high school dance.

Dinner didn’t take long and the ride back to the motel was even shorter.  The boys went to their assigned room and Ava, the lone girl, to hers.  Pete stayed behind to have a cigarette and finish off the flask.  The knock on the driver’s side window didn’t really surprise him.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

That trip launched the stolen moments and secret calls.  Their code, “Wrong Number,” served them well for the remaining months to Ava’s graduation.  No one, not Sally, not Ava’s parents, not other students nor teachers knew anything more than the surface alibi:  young enthusiastic teacher motivates another difficult student to excel at something.  Finally.  End of story.  Especially since Ava was going away.

“Back to the “I’ State?  Really, Ava?  Your scholarship can work here as well.  What’s wrong the Left Coast?”

If only you knew, Ava thinks.  “Distance.” is all she says.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

Ava packs her overnight case, then calls and leaves a message for Tim.

“Hi.  This is Ava.  Work is coming slowly and I’m feeling like I really need a change of scenery to kick my writing into gear.  Call me on my cell phone in an emergency.  Oh, the girls are coming over on Thursday, remember?  Both Mia and Julie.  Sandy has to go out of town for business so I said we’d keep them overnight.  I’ll be back by then.  There is a meatloaf in the freezer. Or get pizza.  Why am I organizing this?”

Beep.  An electronic voice comes on to tell Ava that she has run out of message space.  Does she want to re-record her message?  Can I re-record my life, please, Ava thinks.

A four hour drive to the rendezvous with Pete, that gives Ava time to think about it all.  After 35 years, for God’s sake, Ava has hit a wall in her marriage.  A stone wall, high and impenetrable.  She can see crevices in the wall, toe holds that might help her climb over.  But when she sticks her toe in, the crevices crumble underneath.  It happens during their perfunctory “love” making, in the midst of family holidays, and in small moments of tenderness. This latest thing, she won’t even let herself think about right now.

What she needs to think about is how to tell Pete.  This new information, his cancer, this has changed the game. She has got to tell him.  She should have long before now.

When she met Pete, she was not like the other students in that bum-fuck little town.  Ava lived with her father, a con man who traveled constantly pimping the 1960’s equivalent of snake oil, the Scarsdale Diet.  Her mother, the original anorexic, hid out in the bedroom of their rented two story home on the 18th hole of the Desert Golf Course, reading Barbara Cartland bodice rippers and sneaking cigarettes.  Their refrigerator held only fancy cheese and bubbly water.  Ava had the run of the place, no curfew and a bad attitude.  Pete seemed to find her charming and irresistible.  Dangerous.

He was like a big brother at first. Not like a teacher.  Definitely not like a teacher.  He was somebody to ease the way in a new school, her fourth one in as many years of high school.  At least she had started at the beginning of the school year, her Senior Year.  She picked Speech and Drama as her last elective and it turned out to be her best class.  She was good at it, good at playing a role.

After that school year, leaving California was hard, but not as hard as staying would have been.  She told no one, not Pete, not her parents, not one friend about the secret that she carried inside her when she returned to the Midwest.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

The place they had agreed to meet, a location half-way between Pete and Ava’s home towns has only a seafood restaurant and an Exxon station as rendezvous possibilities.  And one small motel, with a weathered neon sign with the final “L” burned out.  It blinks “Star Dust Mote…” off and on, like something stuck in your eye.  Pete arrives first, struggling stiffly from his vintage white Porsche.  He orders a cup of coffee with a Christian Brothers Brandy chaser, sitting alone in the dusty dining room in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week.  The bartender/ waitress/ motel manager seems happy to see him.  Ava does too when she arrives.

“That was a long ride,” Ava settles into the booth across from Pete, after a quick peck hello.  Pete doesn’t get up.

“Look at you.  Stand up again.  Let me look at you.”  Pete says appreciatively.

Ava lifts her chin and takes a deep breath, pirouetting.  She gives Pete a little curtsey and sits down.

“You have not changed at all.”

“Hah.  Sure.  Well, you have.”

“That’s my girl.  Diplomatic and subtle.”

“Not your girl.  Not then, not now.”

“Fair enough, fair lady.  Let’s start again,” Pete offers.  “How are you, darling Ava?””

“Today?  Fine.  Good.  Happy to see you again.  And you, Mr. P.?”

“Better than I have been in years.”  Pete sits up taller, and adds, “Hey.  I brought you a present. “

“Aw.  Not fair.  I didn’t bring you anything.”

“Yes.  You did.” He points his finger at her.  “Anyway, here it is.”

Ava reaches for the box like a three year old at her birthday party.  Pulling it out, she holds the aqua Hemingray insulator up to the fading afternoon sunlight against the café window.

“It’s beautiful.  I still have the first one you gave me in Santa Barbara, after we… well, the next day.  I have a collection now.  My granddaughters give me a new one every Mother’s Day, and Tim…”

“Your granddaughters?  How is that possible?  How many children do you have?  And Tim?  That’s your man?”

“The girls are in their early thirties.  Both have kids. I find being a “granna” easier than parenting.”   Ava works hard to keep the tone light, not answering the Tim question.  “How is Sally?  There is still a Sally, right?”

“Yes.  She is, well, she is still Sally, you know?”

“Hmmm, not really.  I never met her, exactly.”

“But, you must have.  I mean, there were events and stuff that…”

“No.  Must have been some other girl back then.  Some other girl who met Sally.  Were there a lot of us?  In those days?”

“There were a lot of students, but only one you, Ava.  Only one you.”  Pete signals for the waitress to bring him another brandy.  “Want one?”

“Do I ever.”

Another couple, then a few more people trickle in and out of the dining room. Pete and Ava don’t bother to eat while the glasses gather in front of them.  Finally, the friendly waitress signals closing by polishing the salt and pepper shakers on all the empty tables around them.  She hasn’t asked them about another drink for at least an hour.

“I’m staying over next door, Ava.  I can’t drive that far again today with my leg.  Will you stay with me?”

“Yes.  There are still things to talk about.  Anyway, I’ve got nothing to go home for.”  Even as she hears her own tough girl voice, she drops her eyes and thinks of her daughters and their daughters.

“Good.” His hand reaches over the table to touch hers.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

Over in the room, they both seem to sober up immediately.  Ava watches Pete deflate, sitting heavily in the rickety chair by the desk to take off his shoes.  He looks so old.  So weary.  This is going to be hard, she sees.

“Hey.  Sit down here by me, please.” Pete says this with a wince, stretching his legs out on the bed, pulling himself up into a sitting position against the dimpled and dirty wall behind the bed.

Ava rests herself lightly against his chest, shifting her right leg to press against his, side-by-side.  “Well.  Now what?”

“I’ve been thinking about that.”

“I’m listening.”

“Can I become a teacher again for just a minute?”

“Why change now, you idiot?” Ava smiles to soften the words.

“You know I love My Fair Lady, right?”

“To have known you is to know that.”

“So, there is a scene that reminds me of us.  It’s when Eliza is about to leave Higgins and marry Freddy.  She gets all brave and uppity and says something about coming to care about Higgins, not to make love, but more a “friendly-like” caring.  She says she feels it even though there are so many differences between them.”

Here Pete stands up, undignified in his bare feet,then becomes the actor that he is, “Higgins gets pissed and says, ‘You’ll have to give up feeling neglected if the men you know don’t spend half their time sniveling over you and the other half giving you black eyes. If you can’t stand the coldness of my sort of life, and the strain of it, go back to the gutter. Work ‘til you are more a brute than a human being and then cuddle and squabble and drink ‘ til you fall asleep.’”

Pete continues, “Now, here’s the kicker.  The best line in the play, ‘If you can’t appreciate what you’ve got, you’d better get what you can appreciate.’”

Ava starts to applaud, then says with no warning, “I had a call a few weeks ago, from an agency in the Midwest,”

“A talent agency?   Are you doing that?  Acting now? I always thought you had talent…”

“No.  Not that kind of agency.  This was a people-finding agency, looking for me.  Actually, looking for information from me.  And from you.”

“What?  Me?  I’m, I’m not following, Ava, honey.  What are you saying?  Jesus, I guess I’m pretty buzzed.  Can you start over?”

“Pete, I don’t know how to say this except to say it.  All those years ago, when I left the desert to go to college, I didn’t start school that first semester.  I went to a maternity home in Illinois.  I had a baby.  Our baby.  A boy.”

Oh, my god, Ava, you never, you didn’t, you can’t mean…”

“I am sorry.  So sorry that I never told you.  I told no one.  Even Tim, not ever.  And now, now, it will all come out.  They have asked if I want to be contacted.  The boy, he wants, he needs to know about his genes.  So, your cancer, if there is a chance it may have some genetic connection…  They are asking for medical…”

“Ava.  Oh, Ava.  Don’t say sorry.  I have been such a shit.  I am the one who should be sorry.  Your life.  Oh, my God.  Let me absorb this.  God.   It has been your secret to keep for so long.  Oh, Ava. What can I do?  Let’s sort it out.  Let’s talk.”

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

The next morning, Ava brings up the stale tasting, barely warm coffee to their room and lets herself in, balancing the old fashioned motel room key and both cups.  Pete lies there, still sleeping.  His leg is posed at an odd angle poking out from under the cheap cotton sheet.  The muscles in his right calf are atrophied and the dark blue veins knot below his knee.  The whoosh of the door closing and the smell of the coffee awaken him.

“Hey, you.”

“Good morning.  Here is a sip of hot, poisonous swamp water to start your day.”

“Sounds like my real life.  Man, I feel that brandy.”

“How are you, Pete?  You look rough.”

“I don’t know.  I feel kind of …”   He shudders, sinks down on the bed.  Theatrically, his body begins a series of seizures.

Ava moves quickly, pulls the blanket from the floor and covers him, dials “O” on the room phone.  “We need an ambulance.  Now.”

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

“Sally?  Sally, this is Ava.  Ava Brady.  I mean, well, I was Ava Sandburg.  Oh god, I don’t know where to start.  See, Pete….he’s, he’s ill.  You need to come here.  The hospital staff will give you directions. Hold on.  What?  Yes.  Yes, of course.  He wants you here.”

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .                  .         .

Looking up from Pete’s bedside, Ava sees Sally softly enter the room.  Sally beckons her away from the sleeping patient and waits for her in the brightly lit hospital corridor. As Sally reaches out to shake her hand, Ava grabs her, hugging her tightly.  Sally pulls away, stiffening.  Ava grabs Sally’s hand, says, “I’m so relieved you are here.  They won’t tell me anything.  They kept saying that they were waiting for his wife.”

“The doctor downstairs just told me that he’ll be fine.  The seizures are a somewhat common side effect of his chemo.  We’re not to worry.  They don’t expect they will reoccur.”

“Thank God.  I’ve never seen someone seizing before.  So frightening.  How are you doing?  You must have been so freaked out, driving up?”

“I’ve learned throughout this illness to pace my worry.  I guess I was more confused, how it was that you two…”

“It’s not what you think, Sally.  You see,…”

“What is it that I think, Ava?  Tell me, please.”

“There was something between us, yes, all those years ago.  I was a child, a lonely child, and he, he was my hero, someone who paid attention.  But now, no.”

“I knew about it then, you know.  I didn’t know you, but I knew the idea of you.  And I know Pete.  I’m happy to hear you say there is nothing between you two now.  Glad for you, that is.  This is trouble, I can tell you, that you do not need.”

“Sally, I’m sorry.  Pete can give you the whole story when he awakens.  I can only say I’m sorry for then and for now.  Please, please forgive me.  And him.”

“And will you forgive him, too?  And yourself?”

“What a funny question.” Ava looks over to Sally, who has a pleading look in her eyes.

“I have never blamed you.  And long ago, I forgave him.  I hope you can too.” Sally moves quietly into Pete’s room and lets the curtain close behind her.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

The ride back to the desert in his Porsche while following Sally’s car was mercifully peaceful. Sally will have to be told the whole story but not now.

The phone rings as they walk in to their house.   Pete picks up the land line phone when it rings, then signals to Sally to lift the other receiver.  They stand facing each other, each holding a phone extension. The Oncologist’s voice drones on, beginning to discuss the results of the scan.  Dr. Beale interrupts himself suddenly and asks them to please come into the office to hear the news.  Not good.  A look of resignation passes between Sally and Pete.

.         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .         .

Ava was not quite in the front door, when the questions start.

“Did you bring me some seashells?  I like the sand dollars.  Did you, Granna Ava?  Huh?  Huh?”

“I want a mermaid doll.  Did you find one, Granna?  Can we have it now?

“Girls.  Girls.  Settle down.  Climb off me.  Let me get in the house, please.  I brought you some beautiful postcards and a new pen from the place I stayed.  Oh, come on, don’t push your mouths out like that, the cards are beautiful.  We’ll go shopping later.  Now, climb off and let me hug Grandpa.”

Ava stumbles against the entryway table as she brushes away the girls, causing the insulator bottles to rattle against one another and threaten to fall.  Tim walks toward her, eyes searching her face for signs.  He slowly puts his arm around her, drawing her into his embrace.  She sinks against his strong body and rests there.  He reaches for her hand and she automatically pulls it away, protecting her hang- nailed thumb.  As she does so, she catches their reflection in the entryway mirror and allows herself a sigh.  She lifts her injured hand for Tim to kiss.  Her eyes show surrender.

“We’ll talk,” she sees him mouth to her mirror self.

Ava-in-the-mirror nods.

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