Over the years, they had taken a lot of pictures of each other. They were looking at these the other day. The most recent ones were from their trip to California, first time they had ever been in the Golden State.
They remembered Francine as a kind of post hippie, free spirited woman, she with her long red hair, compact form, lovely smile. Francine had married Harold. Harold was never bequeathed a nick name. He had seemed at the time a surprising choice, he was quite a bit older (or so it seemed when one is 26), quite strait laced. Well suited only in terms of his preference for fine woolen vests, jackets. When Harold and Francine held hands, they remembered how her long flowing third-world spun multicolored dresses brushed up against his exquisitely tailored pant legs.
Harold had already finished his surgical residency back then, and he was waiting for Francine, who had chosen pediatrics. Once she graduated, off they went. They really did think, the four of them, that they would stay in touch, even visit each other every couple of years.
Neither couple had anticipated the impact of having children. How could one, really. It had become slightly disturbing to realize in the past decade that even the annual Christmas letters had stopped traveling, first, the ones traveling east.
Max, never called Maximilian, had stayed in primary care all these years. His wife Ally, never Alexandra, went in and out of emergency medicine practice, depending on the needs of their three kids, now handsomely launched in their own careers, the youngest just finishing at Brown the year before.
In the early years, Max complained a lot about illegibly written charts, followed by the imposition of managed care, followed by how he struggled to keep a handhold on the spirit of healing in an ever increasing business climate. The most recent grousing was about having to learn the latest version of the electronic record, how he was ever more exposed to the demands of others, task notes, emails. He realized that legibility had come at an unexpected price. He told Ally, again, how the electronic world of point and click had made a dinosaur of the individualized narrative note, and the result was a net loss of communication.
Ally, working half time now, would pour him a glass of his favorite Pinot, and just listen. The Pinot was from California. It got them thinking.
Ally had volunteered to take the aisle seat, so Max could look out the window. It was curious how neither of them had ever traveled farther west than St Louis. Once they crossed the Mississippi, it was as if a radar beacon had awakened Max and from that point onward, he craned his neck to the left watching how the Great Plains unveiled more and more open land, fewer roads, huge swaths of green that slowly became unbroken vistas of brown that began to wrinkle into what he imagined were buttes and canyons, the unmistakable rise of The West as in High Plains Drifter country, finally capped off by the Rockies.
“Look at that,” he said to Ally with a voice of amazement, pointing out the snow covered peaks. She had to temporarily put her book down just before the heroine was to be rescued, or possibly murdered, so she leaned over, her left arm resting on his right leg, said “Mmm, nice. Mountains. Very pretty,” before resuming her place on the page.
By the time they began their descent to Los Angeles, Max realized that he would have to unravel the kink in his neck muscles, and he started to rotate his head back and forth, opening his jaw several times. Ally looked up at him once, said “Charming.”
The plan was to rent a car and drive out to the suburban town where their old friends lived. They were offered a hybrid. They had never driven a hybrid, and thought that it was very California thing to do.
Ally had been a little concerned when she confirmed the trip two weeks before, Francine was delighted, of course, to hear that they would be coming out. But her voice sounded a little distant. It might have been the cell phone coverage.
Francine had said, “Harold might not be here the first night.”
“And look, I want to make sure we aren’t inconveniencing you in any way,” Ally said, “we can always get a hotel reservation, this whole trip is a hoot for us, we haven’t taken time off as such in years.”
“A hoot,” her friend echoed, thousands of miles away.
“No, no, of course not. You know Amber no longer lives here, we certainly have the space.”
Ally remembered seeing pictures of Amber that had stopped before first grade. She had thought that there were other children too, but she didn’t want to ask about them just now. There would be time for all this.
Ally had not said anything to Max that same night, he was rapidly decompressing as usual, he simply asked “Did you reach Francine?”
“Contact. Yes.” She knew that was all he needed to know, or could hear, after one of his typical days.
There was an immediate hitch with the car. They couldn’t get it started. It was very hot, they were desperate to get the A/C going, and the parking lot with its nearby rental office seemed to glare and focus all the light in their direction. One of the rental agents walked by, and showed them how they needed to push a button, how there would be no engine noise until they got moving.
They headed out east toward what would become desert, if they went far enough. Two weeks ago, looking at the map, Max had said, “Imagine that, the desert for god’s sake.”
“We won’t be going that far east. It’s before Palm Springs.”
“I’d love to go see it, we’ll be so close by.”
The light remained very bright, actually seemed to get brighter.
“I see why they call it the Sunshine State,” said Max.
“That’s Florida,” said Ally.
“Still…” said Max.
The land was flatter here. It looked as if it took some effort to grow trees. It was a TV familiar landscape. Max and Ally had never moved out of their first home. It had been intentionally chosen for its modesty, charm and location, an older house circa 1923, situated in a racially mixed neighborhood, edgy on the fringes. Sometimes the fringes moved in closer to their home.
The A/C had proven to be very powerful, they had turned the fan down twice already. The homes they saw as they drove along looked very new, Max wondered but did not ask Ally whether she knew how many times their friends had relocated the family. They turned a corner and began to see Mc Mansions, here and there a gated community. As the car began to slow, Max now squinting and searching for street numbers, Ally quietly voiced what she assumed to be a shared concern, “Uh-oh.”
“Damn,” Max said.
“I really need to get sunglasses. That’s going to be a priority. This light is getting to my brain.”
“Maybe we can find a Rite Aide or Wegman’s or something tomorrow.”
“They don’t have Wegmans out here.”
They both spotted Francine at the same time, an out of place character wearing her typical statement of clothes, standing sentinel on the sidewalk along the street. They knew something was wrong with the picture, she looked as if she hadn’t aged at all, and when the impossibly young woman turned, they realized it wasn’t their old friend, and this is when they heard an older woman’s voice call out, “Watch out Heather, folks from New York got their eye on you.”
Up the long driveway, a slender woman with brilliantly silver hair, precisely combed, trimmed. She was wearing very tight looking jeans, a deep blue silky blouse, significantly unbuttoned.
Max was staring at their old friend, he had not yet spoken, Ally had said “Hey!” excitedly, before turning to Max and saying in a low voice, “You’re staring.”
“Wow,” said Max, by way of greeting as their old friend started to walk down the driveway toward them.
“Turn in, turn in,” Ally commanded, as Max remained somewhat stunned. He waited long enough that Francine finally reached their car, leaned into the open passenger window, patted Ally’s arm, which was followed by Ally reaching for and grabbing Francine’s hand in an atypical handshake.
“Been a lot of years,” Francine said, to the silent and synchronized nodding of heads.
No one saw the smirk that Heather made.
Heather said, not waiting for a reply, “I’m out of here, off to Garth’s” and she headed down the sidewalk.
Her mother, standing up straight now, letting go of Ally’s hand said, “What? Wait!”
It was an awkward moment, Max leaned over from the driver’s seat and asked, “Did she say ‘Goth’?”
“Garth,” Ally answered quickly.
Max knew enough not to say anything more about Garth.
They sat around a large island in the kitchen, the way Max saw it, all chrome and white, gleaming. Francine was finishing the touches on what she said was her favorite dip for Bruschetta, she had already put out the small bowl of olive oil, sliced the bread, asked them to try the garlic pesto. The house was immaculate, huge, blatantly elegant. The newly arrived couple almost expected to see a registration desk, a place for a concierge.
Max held up his long stemmed and oversized wine glass, pointed it this way and that, announced, “your place is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” said Francine. “You may be our last guests”.
Ally stole a glance toward Max, Max lowered his glass slowly
Francine noted the slight pause in what had been rapid catching-up-talk “Umh,” she said, looking up at them, then looking back at the table and dipping a piece of the bread in the olive oil, taking a bite, using the back of her free hand to dab at something dripping along the side of her mouth. Ally and Max would later share, long after returning home, how this was a mini epiphany, a glimpse of their former laid back friend.
“The reason Harold isn’t here tonight…”
“Oh Fran, Francine…” Ally started, the tone of one about to receive bad news.
“What?” Max asked, directed more toward his wife, her apparent concern.
Mid way through their dinner, just the three of them, there was the sudden arrival of a young woman who looked like, poor child, a female Harold. Her homeliness was more than compensated by a high level of energy, warmth, disarming immediacy. She had breezed in, seeming to be undaunted by the presence of strangers, quickly said “Dr and Dr…old friends!” and gave Ally and then Max a light shoulder hug, she standing while they remaining seated.
“Wow,” said Ally, you must be…”
“Amber,” Francine said, “just in from her social work placement, living on the cheap, looking for some financial support. Am I right, honey?”
“Only $50.00, though $75.00 would be even better.”
“She’s a whiz at math,” her mother confided affectionately. “Look in my purse up in the bedroom.”
“Not the master bedroom.”
The meal was dominated by colorful and not always recognizable vegetables, an array of condiments, the whole affair very tasty, they would later admit, though largely absent of protein. Max had asked the name of the main course, and after Francine easily pronounced five French names in succession, Max said, “Oh, yes,” sincerely affirming his ignorance. He had never been good at foreign languages. Nor, as Ally would later tell him, not terribly conversant beyond green beans, corn and romaine lettuce.
“Dessert?” Francine asked, “crème brulee.”
“Yes,” Ally answered immediately, hoping that Max, whose hearing was beginning to show signs of age, would not, again, describe his fascination with the desert.
Amber had breezed out as quickly as she had entered, ending an interesting intermission, ideas for more talk later about the kids, how they were faring. Her departure seemed to give the three adults permission to shift back to the topic of themselves. Francine had earlier started to describe that she was starting on a new path but hadn’t finished her train of thought, something with one of the artichokes wasn’t exactly right.
Max resumed his line of inquiry about what she had meant. Ally was afraid this was going to sound too much like an interview, sometimes her husband didn’t know when to back off from information gathering.
“Oh,” said Francine, almost surprised to be reminded, “yes, a new line of work.”
“I knew it,” Max said excitedly, “Peds was too much, you have seen the light and entered general practice.”
What followed was an undeniable time of digestion.
“Real estate?” asked Ally.
“In this market?” asked Max.
“It’s the dark before the dawn,” said Francine.
“Well,” said Ally, seeing that Francine was about to stand up, was now in fact standing up and heading toward the refrigerator, a monstrous thing of two large doors. Ally stole a glance at Max, Max raised his hands minimally, his eyebrows maximally, the message: who knew? “Well good for you,” Ally concluded to Francine, whose preserved total body curvature was seen gracefully bent forward, her head well past one of the large open doors.
Francine stood up abruptly and turned in their direction. “Sorry?”
“I said, you know…”
“That’s a brave, bold move to make,” summarized her husband, while Ally once again privately wondered how Francine had kept her shape, annoyed with the way her husband attempted to finish her thoughts, as if he ever could.
The crème brulee was excellent. Max and Ally felt stuffed, satisfied, and easily accepted the invitation to move out to the large living room with its cathedral ceiling and its many white couches. They had just settled in when Francine asked if they still smoked. It had been 35 years since Max had last touched a cigarette, and Ally had never smoked. Francine pulled a small plastic bag from a nearby drawer and held it up, dangling it like a charm.
“Oh,” said Ally, “smoke,” emphasizing the word.
“My god,” said Max, “where are we?”
“California, baby,” Francine cooed, sitting on a nearby couch, folding one lean leg beneath the other which she now stretched out, all the way, as if trying to pop off her high heel shoe in the process.
The women indulged, and Max found himself becoming distant from the growing camaraderie. It was not all that much fun watching them get high, silly, and finally, well, stupid.
By the time Ally asked, at last, giggling inexplicably before she posed the question, “So where the hell is Harold?” he was not all that surprised that she added, “and, excuse me, is he still your husband?”
“In vino veritas,” Francine murmured.
“I could go for vino,” Max said.
Francine looked at him, as if she hadn’t known he had been sitting there, and said, “Well honey, I have a case of Pinot with your name on it.”
They had privately planned to stay 3 or 4 days with their friends, use their house as a home base for some sightseeing. They thought this would be acceptable as they planned to be low maintenance visitors. In the morning following their arrival, they awoke to an empty house, a pot of fabulously dark coffee brewing. Its aroma had singularly awakened them, made them wonder for a moment where they were. Francine had laid out fresh fruit, pastries and croissants, and a note saying that she had gotten an early call about the possible closing on a deal out in the desert. A very big deal.
“The desert!” Max had said.
“Don’t start,” said Ally, choosing the raspberry Danish.
That evening when Max and Ally pulled into the driveway after a long day of sightseeing, they agreed on the story they would tell Francine. They had gotten a lot accomplished, they had seen the famous Hollywood sign on the hill, then Mulholland Drive, the tar pits, and the sidewalk where Stars had put their hands in cement. They had also driven down the same street where the Rose Bowl parade was held. Most every year the television view of early morning New Year’s Day stood in stark contrast with their own dark grey skies of winter. California was this dream, this American Everywhereland of pleasant skies and beautiful faces, where heavy coats and high humidity were equally banished.
“We’ll say,” said Max, “that my cousin in San Diego was demanding that we come tomorrow and from there we plan to see some other sights.”
“You don’t have a cousin in San Diego.”
“I never told you about Jose?”
“You have a Latino cousin in San Diego?
Francine had appreciated the house gift, they thought. It was a blue ceramic bowl that Ally thought was lovely and might fit their decor. Francine did not appear surprised about their plan to leave the next morning.
“You know,” Ally said, reflecting in the clearer light of the no-longer-stoned, “I really do admire what Harold is doing.”
Francine looked at her, “Do you now?”
“Doctors…” she appeared to have a lapse of name calling.
“…without borders,” Max helped out.
Francine took a deep breath. “Somalia,” she said. “Mothers and children are basically starving, the ones that survived the trek. Political…something. Upheaval, you know.”
Max looked down at his hands, then said, “It takes a certain passion.” The two women looked over at him. He had planned to add that it reminded him of the passion they shared going into medical school.
“That coffee this morning was fabulous Francine,” said Ally.
You could tell Francine, visibly relaxing, was delighted to hear this, “Isn’t it something? I can’t pronounce the name but it is only available for a month at this time every year. Not cheap but worth every penny.”
“Where from?” asked Max.
After a slight hesitation, Max said, “Well, Africa took Harold but we got some coffee out of the bargain.” He quickly added, “Francine weren’t you the one who used to drink only herbal tea. It was the three of us who were heavily into the java, especially when we started third year and those rotations.”
“Yes?” Francine said, or maybe asked. “Well.” A moment passed. “Tastes change.”
In one of the pictures, they were all saying goodbye to each other. Amber and Heather had shown up, Garth came too, he was off in the corner of the photo standing back about 20 feet, blending in with the brown colored hedges. Amber was looking straight at the camera and had her arm around her mom, while Heather stood several feet to the side in the direction of her boyfriend. Heather was looking at her sister embracing their mother.
“I thought that Heather was Fran at first.”
“Oh, so did I. “
There was a thoughtful hesitation as they looked at the next photo.
“What did you think of Garth?”
A delayed answer. “Max all over again.”
“Maybe after Somalia.”
She looked at him.
“My one regret…” he said pausing for effect, but before he had a chance to finish she concluded, “…that we missed seeing Jose.”
He looked at her. “How did you know?”
She hesitated. “Do I know you?”