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“God no!” Jeanine let out, her irrepressible laughter echoing off the trees. “Mom fell in love with the lifestyle.” Who wouldn’t? That big house, those parties, the travel: New York, Hawaii, Australia... “She may have loved my father,” qualified Jeanine, forgivingly. But then: “I mean, at first. Before...”
Before... Before the drinking. The nights her mother would find her once-respectable insurance man-husband face down on the living room floor, the rehab stints that never took, the hospital visits for his drink-related injuries. The car accident, the last one, the one that almost took what had been left of his life.
And yet, Dave had his doubts.
“...I don’t know.” He really was enjoying this now, this new style of conversation between them. Were there other couples, the majority even, who exchanged these kinds of introspections?
“Oh, come on!” she retorted.
“I always remember that last moment they had together,” Dave reminisced. He did remember it, too, and often: in the shower, in long, boring client meetings, in his sleep.
“Which was...?” Jeanine asked.
“You don’t remember? You were there, I wasn’t. You told me about it.”
For a long while he had been certain that he had been there, had witnessed it: the final drama. Little in scale, voluminous in content. Every time he remembered that he hadn’t been there was like waking from a dream.
“What did I say about it?”
Is it possible, Dave asked himself, that she had really just asked what she had just asked? That she couldn’t honestly remember the scene in question, the scene, their scene, her scene?
Dave cleared his throat.
“That your father was lying there more or less comatose, and that all you kids were gathered around him. Your mother said, ‘Okay, everybody out. I want to speak to your father — alone.’ You were peeking through the bedroom door. She looked him over and she said, ‘You put me through hell — but I want you to know that all the while, I loved you.’” Dave coughed, while an especially tall bit of grass, bent over by the breeze, nipped at his knee. “Right after that, even though he couldn’t express himself, a tear fell from the corner of his right eye. After that, he was more or less gone. It was the last exchange they ever had.”
“And the most diplomatic.” Jeanine, to Dave’s surprise, chuckled. After a beat, though, she settled into the mode he had expected. “I had forgotten about that,” she confessed, softly.
“How could you?”
“I don’t know. I guess I wanted to keep my memories of them, now that they’re gone, positive.”
“I think that is a positive memory.”
“Is it?” Jeanine asked, not yet ready to bury her dead. “The first part speaks volumes.”
“Yeah,” Dave conceded. “But the second part...”
A pair of squirrels fought each other in the limp branches above their heads, then settled, judging by the sound, into harmony.
“Well...” he added lazily. The fight, such as it was, was out of him now. He never could hold much. “Maybe that’s just the Catholic in me,” he hazarded, hoping to reframe what he had said to make the personal the philosophical. “Always convinced that you can recant on your deathbed, erase the sorrier parts of the past with last minute sentimentality. Or the writer, the way that you can redeem almost anything with a good ending.”
The writer? Really? You write advertising copy, Dave. A client gives you a sheet of facts, you tie them together, you collect a paycheck.
“Ducks are funny, aren’t they?” Jeanine said. The latest pair plunged their heads beneath the water, the lower parts of their bodies shimmying in the summer air.
“I’m so glad that, as a species, we don’t show our butts when we eat.”
He had expected maybe one of Jeanine’s resonant laughs. Instead, he had to settle for an obliging smile.
“They just glide along,” she commented, transfixed. Another pair slinked smoothly past, not a care in the world — the state she, when here, was usually in, and maybe was now returning to. “They never discuss their relationship.”
“That’s our problem, isn’t it?” Dave added. “As a species? Always asking ‘Why?’ ‘What if?’ ‘What about...?’ We’re the only ones.”
Was this what she had been looking for from him? Some inaccessible perspective on who they are, or might be? After all, their sons were getting on; university next year for their firstborn. In no time, she and Dave would be just a couple of ducks.
Dave made an overture to a standing position. She stopped him, just as he was separating cheek from stone:
“I love you.”
The sincerity of it, its depth, was new, even if the words weren’t. This wasn’t their usual “I love you.” In fact, it almost knocked him over.
“I love you, too,” he replied, hoping that it sounded compatible.
Jeanine slid a hand, warm and worn, around his waist, keeping him firmly in place. “Don’t tell me the reasons, okay?”
Dave’s eyes, still dappled, adjusted at last. The ducks, upright and in focus, were just normal ducks again.