We were late getting home from work this evening. My plan had been to drop Rhumba off and head out for an evening with my yoga and men’s club, the Lords of Shavasana (reputedly the most difficult of all yoga poses). I had four minutes to travel five miles through heavy traffic.
I phoned the Atomic Grandpa, tonight’s host, to say that I’d be late, and not to hold the session for me. Then I turned to go, my dinner bag of deli in in my hand. I’d bought for us both: antipasto sandwich and bean salad for me, avocado and cheese with pasta salad for her. And a piece of cheesecake, just because.
“You know, you don’t have to go,” Rhumba told me shyly. “You could stay here. We could put our dinners together and have a feast.”
The house is an utter wasteland. We’re having the first floor painted; everything’s out of place or covered with stacks of other things. Including the dining room table, the kitchen counters, and any chair that a cat wasn’t sitting on.
Rhumba never holds me back from meets with other guys; clingy, she is not. But perhaps this was a time to stay, not go; and suddenly, I wanted to. I picked up the phone again and told the AG that my wife required my presence at home.
“We Lords always blame our absence on our wives,” I explained, putting down the phone.
“Women do the same thing,” Rhumba said. We cleared off the table and made a little picnic amidst the chaos, eating our sandwiches, picking at each other’s salads, and splitting the cheesecake.
And we talked of the old days: of places we’d lived and how we got to be there. Of how we’d met and the people who’d brought us together, good and bad, intentionally and unintentionally. Of old lovers and almost-relationships, of a close webwork of mutual friends, of a decade when we were the best of friends but attached to other people and what kind of hell that put the “other people” through — because her boyfriend had cheated on her with my soon-to-be-girlfriend, and they couldn’t imagine that we weren’t talking about that, or doing what they did.
We weren’t. We didn’t. It was the most chaste, honorable waste of ten years together that you could possibly imagine, and everybody knew it except us. Except that it’s this sort of thing that makes me glad I’m an aging 16-year-old who takes life and obligations more seriously than the cool kids. They sat there and let their imaginations torture them while we ate pasta at Ernesto’s and talked business and life while the San Francisco fog blew past the open doors and the waiters handed glasses of house red to anyone who had to wait for a table.
After my relationship broke up, Rhumba even fixed me up with another woman, a presentable housemate who habitually bemoaned the lack of good men. I went with her for awhile; even tried to take her to see my folks, but she wouldn’t go. “You’re always so serious,” she scolded me. Well, yeah. She was a perpetual grad student from New England money, one of those melancholy people who pretends that life is a cabaret but doesn’t believe it. “i’ll get tired of you one of these days and dump you,” she’d say brightly, and giggle. And yet made no effort to move on. In the end, I dumped her. I had just enough self-respect not to hang around for the sex alone. Of course she never spoke a word to me again.
“She was really like that?” Rhumba asked. “I thought she was looking for a real relationship. She was always reading the personal ads.”
“She told me she thought you wanted me for yourself,” I told her. That was true, she admitted, but if I’m a boy scout, Rhumba’s a girl scout (and she has the badges to prove it), and nothing came of it until her relationship also ended.
In the meantime there’d been a not-quite-relationship with a semi-famous novelist who Rhumba admired and had corresponded with. They discovered mutual interests in writing and gardening; she became his personal assistant for a time, and he made a serious offer of marriage. In the end Rhumba determined that he was obtaining services, not a soulmate, but couldn’t actually tell the difference. He eventually found a taker, and apparently there was one hell of a pre-nup involved.
I can’t quite remember how I came to it; but one day, with both of us free, I showed up at Rhumba’s door with a dozen red roses. I wasn’t nervous; I knew how she’d respond. The only uncertainty: were we actually insane to let it go this long?
For a veteran couple like ourselves, remembering old times is a reaffirmation of why we got together. Memories strengthen and renew the bonds we forged so long ago, so that we can venture on together secure in our love. The poet of the skies, Antoine de St. Euxbery, said that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.
Dinner done, I reached across the table with an extended pinky finger. Rhumba grasped it with one of hers. It’s a thing we do.