by Lise Haines
Staslow had driven up Coyote Road and down our steep drive for nine years now. Each Friday morning, I anticipated the zip of his hand brake when he pulled in next to our house. Then the sound as he unlatched the tailgate of his pickup and let it drop so that it caught on its own chains. Stas was an acoustic guitarist when he wasn’t cleaning pools. He had strong arms that he exposed to the sun, and today his hair was bound up like a sumo wrestler’s.
Hauling the supplies down to the deck, he cleaned the filter traps first. When he began to sweep the surface of the pool, he went for the pods that blew our way from our neighbors’ eucalyptus. From the property just above theirs, he gathered a million tiny yellow flowers clustered in our water.
I had purchased the house years back when prices were good and it was only possible for one person to live there. After Catherine came along, I took out a second mortgage and we asked our architect friend to turn that small box of a house into a small Richard Neutra knockoff. Catherine had specified that each room face the pool, including the two bathrooms. During the remodel we lengthened the pool five feet to enhance Catherine’s kick turns and provide architectural balance.
Moving backwards almost in a dance step, Staslow used the net attached to the long pole, skimming the water with care. He stopped right where the old pool used to end, before he seemed to remember that he had more to do. Here he slowed the action of the net as if he were donating this extra work to us as a gift. I paid attention to the way he reformulated the chemicals now that he was using new products, in case, in a state of Armageddon, I needed to perform this duty so that Catherine wouldn’t miss a day’s swim.
After he checked the temperature in the whirlpool one last time, he glanced up to see if I was in the dining room or at my desk in the living room frowning into the screen. Mostly I worked at the small apartment down by the beach. This belonged to a friend who only came into town one month a year and was more interested in having it looked after than collecting rent. I kept a work area at the house for pounding, late-night deadlines.
Stas removed his sunglasses to look for me now, even checking around the back of the house by the retaining wall where none of us ever went. I think he took a piss back there a couple of months ago when he was running late for another job, but I never brought this up with him. I did suggest to Catherine that he might have been marking his territory in case we ever decided to shop for another maintenance company. She said, “He’ll be cleaning this pool a hell of a lot longer than I’ll be swimming in it.”
When I quizzed her, she sat back from the breakfast table and said I took everything too seriously. She knew I hated that expression, even when she said it in jest.
Maybe that’s why, later that day, she attempted to clarify her thinking. “You and Stas seem to have a special bond.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said, trying to get her to stop.
But I did know. If he caught my gaze before loading up his truck, he would wave goodbye as if he wanted me to come outside and talk with him about the latest war, or how the chaparral should be cut back farther, or if I would think about going to a French film with him even if neither of us spoke French and there were no subtitles. I sometimes think he found the idea of being with a woman who was with a woman appealing, though he had never been overt about this, and it really wasn’t about that. For me there was no sexual tension as I considered his efforts. I was in love with Catherine.
Hearing his boots on the paving stones going toward the pickup now, I popped from behind the pantry door where I had been pretending to look at dinner choices. I had never hidden from him like that before. But something was going on with Catherine that I couldn’t nail, and I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation.
Sounds have a way of echoing in a canyon, so I had probably heard someone else’s boots on someone else’s paving stones on the far side of Coyote Road. There was Staslow standing by the pool, looking in my direction. I called, “Thank you!”
He stood there for a few seconds, shrugged as if I had not answered a question he had posed, picked up his supplies and then put them back down. He came over to the kitchen.
“What’s up, Stas?” I said, opening the door.
“I’m not a gossip, you know, I’m a guitar player.”
“Okay,” I laughed. After a moment I realized I had not really let him into the house, and that he was blocking my way if I wanted to go out to talk with him in the morning air. So I asked, “Do you want to sit on the deck chairs?”
“Bring an ashtray,” he said.
I had a particular dish I used for these instances, which wasn’t an ashtray at all but an old tea bag rest that said I hold the bag, with a face glazed on it. It had been my mother’s. We sat at the table so we could both look down the hillside, take in the homes lined along the curved and switchback roads, the city, the mission, the highway, the broad sweep of the ocean. We could see the boats on Wet Wednesdays. Not close enough to understand the race but close enough to understand how lucky we were.
Typically, if he offered me a smoke, Staslow prepared it on the spot, angling his torso around to prevent a sudden gust of wind from blowing his stash away. But today he handed me a carefully rolled joint as if he had thought about our conversation in advance.
“How . . . robust is it?” I asked. “I’ve got some mellow stuff I just bought that I think you’ll like. I’d be happy to run upstairs.”
“This is the stuff I grew,” he said.
“Then I’ll take one hit.”
I did this and passed it back to him. When we sat together this way, as we did sometimes, I noticed the amber rings around his green irises. I knew his son, who had the same kind of eyes. He used to do some of his father’s rounds with him in the summer before he moved away.
“Nice,” I said, coughing a little. “So you have some interesting gossip. This isn’t like you.”
“Not . . . gossip. Oh, did I tell you a couple of filmmakers dug out forty hours of footage from Ken Kesey’s old barn? I guess the Pranksters had no real interest in syncing the dialogue, so the thing’s been a bear to edit.”
“I know one of the filmmakers. What about them?”
“Nothing. I’m circling,” he said, finally taking a hit. I imagined he had his first smoke of the day over pancakes; his second over turkey, lettuce, and mayo on a croissant, something I had seen him eat out by the pool when he came during the lunch hour; a toke or two before dinner; a last smoke as a nightcap looking out at some vista.
When he offered it to me again, I waved it off. I watched as he wet his thumb and index finger and held the burning end of the joint until it was out.
“I’m surprised a guitarist would do that,” I said.
“Toughens up my calluses,” he smiled.
“What were we talking about?” I said. “God, I lost the thread.”
“You know my sister Hettie started working for Dr. Lisborn,” he told me.
“I was surprised to see her in the office.”
“Physician’s assistant now. I think she likes it there.”
“She’s prettier than you, you know.”
“You’re killing me,” he said.
Catherine had gone through a melanoma scare three months earlier when Dr. Lisborn cut out a mole on her neck. It had seemed to change shape the way the Channel Islands shifted when viewed from the various windows of our house. Catherine’s father had died from nodular melanoma when she was in her mid-twenties. Dr. Lisborn talked to us in his garden-side office the day he did the exam. He stressed the effects of sun and water, sun and cloud cover, sun and fog, in that way that certain Southern California doctors embrace the subject of the body as if it’s a spiritual journey.
Although we were quickly assured when he called with the results, it was that particular conversation that led Catherine to change her habits and swim either very early in the day or well past sunset. She had a way of making abrupt changes, and could never be argued from her new position once she made her mind up. Early meant the alarm going off at 4:30 in the morning, followed by the sound of her one-piece straps snapping into place, the pool lights reflecting off our bedroom ceiling. I rarely got back to sleep on those days, so I would start the coffee and curl up on the living room chaise with a throw-blanket around my legs, waiting for the sun or for her to emerge, whichever came first. In a ridiculous moment of hyper-romance, I once told her that they were one and the same, and she threw her wet towel at me. I chased her into our bedroom where we laughed until we made love.
We had been together eleven years, and I continued to thrill at seeing the water sheet down her body onto the hand-painted tiles each day. Swimming kept her strong and lithe. I watched with a mix of pride and lust as she pulled her suit away from her body and let it drop wherever it landed before heading into the outdoor shower. Then I would retrieve her suit and soak it in one of our sinks.
Some mornings I was annoyed by the alarm going off, but I never said anything. As long as it gave her a chance to swim and kept her out of the sun, I was content. She told me many times how happy she was moving through the water when the pool was newly cleaned, and how she hated the yellow flowers that ceaselessly rained down on us. So we were on a weekly pool schedule, and I was getting high with Staslow, waiting for some bit of local news.
“Is this about someone like Oprah getting work done? Do any of us care anymore?” I asked.
“I don’t mean that kind of gossip. I used the wrong word. Forget that word entirely. I just didn’t want you to think I was going around talking about it. Hettie said I should wait for you to bring it up. But you haven’t, so I wanted to say if things get tough for a while, I could probably check in on the pool on Saturdays at no charge when I’m up this way. I jam with some guys over on Mountain Drive on the weekends. You know . . . I wouldn’t have to tell my boss if you had to let the service go.”
For a second I thought this was a state-of-the-economy talk. I knew he had lost a couple of his old clients recently and I figured he wanted to stem the tide. But the problem was, I knew this moment. I wrote and doctored screenplays for a living. I often had to suggest where this kind of moment was missing in a script.
He relit the joint and passed it to me. I remembered how Catherine had told me the doctor’s good news while I was down in Los Angeles, pinned in a long meeting, unable to do little more than read her text. I had come home that night exhausted but greatly relieved, with a bottle of champagne. She had kissed me almost euphorically and gone outside for a swim before dinner.
I inhaled so deeply without thinking that Stas had to get up from his side of the table and pat me on the back. When I stopped sputtering, I said, “I didn’t realize we were talking about her condition,” as if I had known all along that she was ill.
“She’s too young. Hettie says it happens, but . . . Don’t tell her I said anything.”
“I’ll give the office a call.”
We both went quiet for a minute and he got up and walked over to where he had left his supplies.
“I know how much Catherine loves to swim,” he said.
“She’s a total fish,” I said. “Should I keep this?”
I held up what was left of the joint, watching the smoke trail skyward.
“Sure, sure. I’ll . . . Okay, I’ll see you next week. Try not to worry about anything. She’s strong. You’re strong.”
“Drive safe,” I said.
After Stas blew the thing open, I sat down on the steps leading into the pool’s shallow end, fully clothed, and wept. I followed this with a stiff gin and tonic, then a second and a long shower. It was impossible to think she was getting treatment. She showed no signs, logged no appointments, even written as symbols on her calendar. There was none of the fatigue that comes with radiation, the nausea that accompanies chemo.
Sometimes I saw this kind of irrationality to Catherine’s actions, to her decisions. She would suddenly mention that we were off on a trip when an unexpected taxi arrived, our suitcases packed and waiting. I would come home to find a crew ripping up the kitchen tiles because I had made some idle remark about the color the week before. Five years ago she walked in the door and said that she had quit her job at the Botanic Garden where she sold field guides, bird feeders, and wildflower earrings in the little shop. She would now be pursuing a full-time career in painting.
“I have to do this before I get too old,” she said on our walk that afternoon. I always laughed when she said things like that. I was twenty years her senior.
“Glad you find it amusing. But you have your career,” she said.
“I work on some real schlock to keep the Jacuzzi heated. And if you quit work I’ll have to take on more schlock.”
“So you’re comparing working on a romantic comedy of questionable value to unwrapping glass wind chimes? I told you, when you came up with the idea of adding a whirlpool, that I don’t like sitting around in hot water.”
I made a stupid pun about being the one in hot water and the next day Catherine took over the back bedroom with oils and stretcher bars and mineral spirits. Over time, she sold several pieces to her friends. And maybe this did make her happier, and maybe that’s all I ever really wanted.
I called Dr. Lisborn’s office after my talk with Stas and strong-armed Hettie into letting me take her to a late lunch at the bistro close to her office. I told her I was consulting on a medical drama, so she wouldn’t have to feel her job was in jeopardy for breaking confidentiality. We quickly settled into a coded conversation of what-ifs, how doctors and physician’s assistants might handle various cases. She had the same kind of openness as Stas, but she was very careful about the manner in which she stated things.
I left our lunch with a clear understanding of what it can be like to live without a jaw, a tongue, a throat, and how, once it has advanced to a particular stage, surgery becomes unnecessary torture. I had family members who might let themselves be cut to ribbons to get a few last days in, but that wasn’t Catherine. Hettie told me it was typical for patients to take fairly high doses of pain medication at a certain point, and how this and the spread of the cancer can affect the mind. She talked about how quickly things can change.
Unlike Catherine, who seemed to have lost everyone she ever loved, the only person I lost was a friend in high school who severed his arteries during a particularly bad year. My parents were both alive and still together. My four siblings had all married and had their homes and children back East to stay near the family. In that funny way my parents embraced life, they never questioned that I had sometimes been with a man, sometimes with a woman. They even spared me the idea that I finally defined my identity when Catherine and I fell in love, allowing me the simple fact that I found someone who was right. They understood that we would never leave the ocean, our house, the mountains, the fires and quakes. My parents had enough grandchildren, and when we flew back for one of their gatherings, no one pressured us. Catherine once said they demonstrated a lack of interest because I moved away so young, but I’m not sure I felt that way.
I talked with my parents that afternoon. They told me—my mother on the phone in the study, my father sitting on their bed—that I had to pull myself together and make dinner like it was any other night. I needed to wait until she was ready to tell me.
As I shaved the carrots and washed the Bibb lettuce we grew in the two garden boxes where we tended herbs mostly, I began to feel betrayed, angry that Catherine had pushed me away. Before long I found myself going over our main arguments in my head, hoping they would offer a clue. One of our fights was about suffering. Catherine liked to say that suffering was necessary to create art, to love fully, to feel the deepest type of compassion. I disagreed, making my points with overly familiar anecdotes, as if she were going to sit by my knee and listen to me rattle on and simply nod in agreement, because I was older.
She would say my life had been too easy and that someday I would realize I hadn’t really loved her. And then she’d say something about all of our friends being her friends—that I wasn’t capable of really opening up. Once she got to that point, she would leave the house and get in one of our cars, typically the faster of the two, and take off. She disappeared for a full week back in April. I think we had both wished I would truly suffer then, but one of her best friends called an hour after she left, whispering into the phone to say Catherine would be staying at her place, almost as a scold, a quiet slap in the face. So I only had the chance to miss her. While I waited for her to come home, I did all of her laundry including the folding, and I rescheduled any appointments she had, since she left her calendar sitting open on her desk.
The night Stas gossiped about Catherine’s melanoma, I prepared one of my better meals for her. Pan-seared local halibut with a mango tamari sauce, new potatoes in olive oil with chives, a lettuce and pear salad, and a bottle of Chardonnay I had held in reserve. She took a bite of the fish and looked at me and said, “You were smoking with Staslow today, weren’t you?”
“A little,” I said.
“It’s that particular red your eyes get.” She smiled, got up, and put on something by Billie Holiday. “I think Stas is in love with you,” she said. I asked if we could listen to something more cheerful. She said, “Then get up and pick something,” and I let it go. I tried not to look at her neck but I did, intermittently. At one point she almost caught me and gave me a funny look, so I coughed into my napkin. “I wish you wouldn’t tease me about him,” I said.
If there was something I was supposed to see, other than the barely visible stitch work close to her thyroid, I couldn’t find it. To distract myself, I talked about the new project the studio had sent up for me to work on. The basic story was about this billionaire who runs a business empire and suddenly gives away his worldly possessions to teach in a small, rural school. After I described the first episode, I said, “The thing I can’t figure out is why a man that powerful would walk away from everything. And until I can really get that . . .”
“Because he knew he could create all of it again if he wanted to. You can’t really give that kind of power away.”
“So it stays in your back pocket.” I sometimes think she understood stories, understood people better than I did. “You’re probably right,” I said.
Finally she told me she was starting a new painting. She had been in a blocked state the last year, filling her time with yoga classes, meeting friends for coffee, generally disappearing into town for things. I often thought her inspiration had dried up and that she just stopped painting rather than muddle through. Instinctively, I felt if I applauded this new start or hugged her or asked for details this might be enough to stop her, to make her seize up again. So I simply raised my glass, then went over to the sink to start the cleanup.
“Want to watch a movie tonight?” I asked.
“No, I think I’ll go for a swim in a while.”
“Newly cleaned,” I said.
“Exactly. Then I’ll read and go to bed early.”
She brought her dishes over and put them on the counter. As I poured the soap into the sink, she put her arms around my waist and rested her head against my neck for a moment. I was entirely content, and told her I might sit in the Jacuzzi and watch her swim. She told me how much she loved me.
For a solid week I was fueled by my parents’ advice. They had, after all, been together for nearly five decades, and in many ways seemed to still love each other more than any of us. So Catherine and I went about our business. She bought two new dresses at our favorite shop and a long green scarf for me that reminded me of a vine. We went to a party given by a friend Catherine had once worked with; we stopped by a plant sale and bought borage and thyme and some frivolous looking begonias; she arrived at the dinner table splattered with paint. I wasn’t really sleeping at night but I pretended each day that the alarm woke me.
Coming in from retrieving the mail one afternoon, she went over and stood by the plate-glass windows in the living room. I watched as the letters and bills left her hand in something like slow motion, dropping to the floor.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I think I need to be on my own for a while.”
I assumed she meant that day until she said, “I’ll find an apartment.”
The air stopped. I didn’t know if this was about physical pain or the reality of her prognosis. Reaching a little, to make my reaction seem normal, I said, “Are you seeing someone?”
“No,” she said.
And then the conversation was done. I was my parents’ child no matter how far away I had moved. I would wait for her to tell me. Of course, I would realize what a bad decision I had made. But at the time I couldn’t see how narrow the gap was between allowing her this dignity and independence, and abandonment.
“I’ve got the daybed down at the beach. I’ll go,” I said.
We went back and forth, with me trying to convince her I could unwind near the ocean and get a lot done on this new script, and her saying, “You should be the one to stay.”
I got out the largest suitcase, hoisted it onto the bed, and unzipped it. “The pool is here. It’s designed for your kick turns.”
“I know, but . . .” Catherine tried.
I started with the middle drawer. “As long as you get that I’ll be suffering without you, I think I’ll be okay.”
She sat down on the bed and watched me roll up T-shirts, lining the edges of the suitcase. “You never really thought that’s what I’ve wanted, did you?” she asked.
I went over and kissed her on the cheek. “No, I never really did.”
“I’ll call you. Tonight,” she said, getting my robe from the bathroom. “We’ll have dinner in a few days.”
“I’ll come up and plant the begonias when you’re ready,” I said.
I have always been the brooder, or as my youngest sister who lived in nineteenth century novels liked to say, the one prone to brown studies. Certainly I was the only one in my family who attempted therapy. My older brother, Seymour, had said he worried about me more than anyone when he thought of us losing our parents. He added that it was a good thing I would never have to handle their day-to-day care.
“What the hell? I’m great on day-to-day stuff,” I said. “I do everything at home.”
“Because you’re in charge,” he said. “Death and illness don’t exactly put people in charge.”
“You’ve gotten smug,” I said.
He told me he was simply observing that this would affect me differently, that my . . . fragility might surface and float above everything else. I couldn’t help but think that genetically speaking, we had a long time to ponder this concern. Our family tended to live into their nineties. But I knew he was somehow correct.
When I understood I was going to lose Catherine, I decided I would be the strongest of them all. The strong woman at the circus. That’s why I packed instead of fighting to stay with her.
As I sat to pay bills one Monday, I noticed that plenty of groceries were being delivered to the house, which reassured me. We had always cleaned the place ourselves since it was only two bedrooms and we didn’t want strangers going through our things. I wondered how she might take to the idea of having someone coming in now, changing her sheets, washing up. I put this on my list of things to discuss with her. It had been a month since I had moved to the beach and there had still been no invitation, or permission, to come back.
When I called that afternoon, she kept steering us onto light topics, sometimes almost nonsensical, until she finally said, “Freya’s father, who had Alzheimer’s, he was put in a mental ward when his delusions got bad. Every day he had to wake up and realize where he was for the first time. You’d never do anything like that to me, would you?”
“Of course not,” I rushed to say.
Yet I knew sometimes people had no other choice. They couldn’t do it all alone, they weren’t physically capable. It took more than one caregiver just to help someone out of a chair or into bed, sometimes three. Behaviors became irrational, temperaments changed.
“Why don’t I come up and do some planting,” I said.
“Today’s not a good day,” she said.
“If you’ve fallen out of love with me, that’s one thing. But why cut off your friends?”
“When I’m by myself, I feel like I can get through this. I remember your saying that leaving home is the thing that made you tough.”
She had finally told me what was going on, without really telling me. As soon as we rang off, I called Staslow. He had been updating me on general conditions after cleaning the pool each week. The TV was going and the water was running inside the house. He even heard her singing once. She never sang in the eleven years we had been together. There were no other cars parked in the drive, and he told me Hettie had left a couple of messages about a follow-up exam but Catherine hadn’t scheduled it.
I asked him to drive back up there with some story.
“Like what?” he said.
“Tell her . . . tell her your boss is concerned about the new pump,” I said. “And he wants you to run a series of tests, which means getting into the house to check the plumbing. Otherwise the whole system could shut down.”
“Does it have to be that elaborate? She’ll know it came from you.”
“I’ll go with anything.”
A heavy pain in my intestines kicked in when I hung up until I was practically doubled over. I got into bed and pulled the covers around me, hoping Stas would hurry.
He phoned back an hour later. By then I was up and pacing.
“Someone delivered a couple of boxes of groceries to the front door,” he said, “but she didn’t bring them inside. Maybe the coyotes got them, a mountain lion. Some of the canned goods were intact. I brought those into the house. She was lying on the chaise in the living room.”
I kept the phone to my ear as I rushed to the car. “How did she look?”
“She was pretty out of it and there was an awful smell in the house, so I got her to sit on a deck chair in the shade while I took out the garbage and washed the dishes and made her a can of soup. She only took a sip and said it was too salty. You better get up here.”
“I’m halfway there.”
“I’m on my way to get her more food,” he said. “Fresh stuff. She’s got to eat something. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“What about the vegetables we were growing?”
“They haven’t had any water in days.”
She was curled up outside in the last of the sun when I arrived. She wore a tank top and yoga pants, the green scarf she had given me wrapped around her neck. When I came close in order to hold her she put a hand in the air and said “Don’t,” in an almost tender way.
“You all right?” She looked awfully weak. “What can I get you to eat?” I asked.
“I’m not hungry.”
“I’m sure we have some crackers, or something in the freezer. Let me hunt around.”
“In a little while,” she said.
“I’ve missed you,” I said. “Too much.”
“Do something for me?” she said.
“Swim for me.”
“You know I don’t swim,” I said, starting to laugh. I saw she was serious.
“Just walk around a little near the deep end.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Can I get you a glass of water? Medicine?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Go on.”
“I’ll go inside and grab a suit,” I said.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said.
Once I started to strip down, I could see her adoration.
Always fearful about going too deep, I tended to stay near the steps if I went in at all. I had read that a person can drown in a bucket of water. But I draped my clothes over one of the chairs and did as she said.
I eased down the pool stairs, holding onto the rail.
“Keep going,” she said. “Out in the middle, where I can see you.”
Venturing out, I inched forward until my feet found that lip where the sudden drop happens. The water’s motion, or my own, started to pull me deeper. I felt the terrible rush in my chest, the panic. I could go under so easily. I paddled as hard as I could to push myself back. Then I just slowed and began to arch my back, my legs drifting toward the surface. I floated for a moment, taking in the sky.
When I made it to the shallow end again and was sitting on the steps, breathing, she said, “I think this is my favorite time of day.”
I left the water, and without bothering to towel off, I went over and sat by her side. She allowed me to hold her hand.
She let me get her pills now, dripping water into the house as I went. She took two different types. We had always kept a loaf of bread in the freezer. I made her toast and she ate a few bites.
The house was still. The hills too quiet. When the chlorine started to sting I got in the outside shower and rinsed off. Wrapping up in a bath sheet, I tied my hair in a smaller towel and looked over at Catherine. I wondered what I was going to do now that things had become real.
Stas would be back soon. I would ask him to roll a joint and stretch out on the chair next to hers, and talk with her a little, so I could go in and make us all dinner. I looked at the way the breeze, coming over the ridge, created a familiar ripple that traveled from one end of the pool to the other, and I heard him downshift as he started down the drive.
Lise Haines is the author of three novels: Girl in the Arena (Bloomsbury USA), a 2011 South Carolina Book Award Nominee; Small Acts of Sex and Electricity (Unbridled Books), named a Book Sense Pick in 2006 and one of ten “Best Book Picks for 2006” by San Diego’s NPR station; and In My Sister’s Country (Penguin/Putnam), which Rocky Mountain News chose as a “Stellar Debut for 2002.” Her short stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Post Road, Crosscurrents, and elsewhere. She is Writer in Residence at Emerson College and was a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard University. (4/2012)