Carolyn and her husband are our friends, couple friends. Our evenings together go like this: Carolyn and Reuben arrive late in the afternoon, stopping first for wine and dessert at the gourmet store in Ybor City, the old Cuban section of town. They park their Jeep in our driveway and Carolyn whistles for Buck, our black Lab. When I open the door, Reuben is standing on the porch with a cardboard dessert box, impeccably dressed, smelling pleasantly of cologne. He and I take the flan into the kitchen, where he gets a taste of whatever I’ve prepared for dinner: a cassoulet or paella in the winter, a fresh ratatouille or lobster salad in the summer. Soon Carolyn appears in the kitchen. “Hi Nora,” she says, breathless from running with the dog. “Where’s your better half?” She reaches into the refrigerator for two beers and goes out to the back porch, where my husband, Ted, is waiting.
Tonight Reuben and I linger in the kitchen longer than usual. It’s August in Tampa, maybe the hottest day of the year; we’re both reluctant to leave the air conditioning. Finally we join Ted and Carolyn on the porch. They’re sitting in their usual spots on the wicker sofa, red-faced from laughing.
“What’s so funny?” says Reuben.
Carolyn wipes a tear from her eye. “I can’t say.” She gives me a wink. “There’s a lady present.”
Carolyn’s stories are usually bawdy or scatological, full of burps and farts and bodily emissions. She has the vocabulary of a trucker or a sailor. Reuben and I joke that we get together so Ted and Carolyn can curse. It feels good to joke about it. It reassures me that my jealousy of Carolyn is in remission. For a long time it consumed me. From the day he met her, Ted became more critical of me: my fears, my shyness, the time I spend in the bathroom putting on makeup or taking it off. He never complained about those things before. Not until Carolyn reminded him of everything I wasn’t.
“How’ve you been, Ted?” says Reuben, offering his hand. “Did Carolyn tell you what happened yesterday?”
“What?” says Ted.
“Get this,” she says. “Yesterday I had my first cutaway with a student.”
Carolyn works part-time as a skydiving instructor. Every weekend she does a dozen tandem dives with novice divers strapped to her belly. I listen as she explains how yesterday, diving with an exceptionally nervous student, she realized that their shared parachute had failed to open.
“Twenty seconds,” she says, pausing for effect. “I had 20 seconds to cut loose the chute and open the safety. Otherwise—” she claps her hands together. “Splat.”
“Cut it loose?” I say.
“When the chute opens there’s a whole mess of ropes,” Ted explains. “If you don’t cut it loose, the second chute will get tangled up in them. Then you’re cooked.”
I feel suddenly queasy. I have a desperate fear of heights; the thought of jumping out of an airplane makes me sick. Reuben puts his hands over my ears.
“Poor Nora,” he says. “Don’t listen. You’ll have nightmares.”
There’s more to the story—the intricacies of packing a parachute; comparisons to Carolyn’s two previous cutaways, both on solo dives—but I’m not listening. I’m watching Ted watch her. His blue eyes flash, and a spot of red appears in each cheek. It occurs to me, not for the first time, that this is why I keep inviting Reuben and Carolyn back. My husband is never more interesting to me than when we’re in Carolyn’s presence. Years ago—I’m not sure of this, but I think it’s true—he watched me that way. Every night he came into the restaurant where I worked and sat at the bar for hours, nursing a single beer. The stalker, my friends called him. Twelve years later his eyes skim over me; I am like a familiar painting, like the house he grew up in. I look at him the same way. Only when Carolyn comes do I notice his clean profile, his resonant voice, his wrists turning in the cuffs of his shirt. I remember that my husband is a handsome man.
We met Reuben and Carolyn two years ago, in a Thai restaurant on Dale Mabry Highway. We sat on opposite sides of the room; between us, a table of young men celebrated a birthday. The men toasted, laughed, drank. They wore stylish sweaters; they sang “Happy Birthday” in resonant tenors. Then, halfway through their meal, the birthday boy pitched face forward into his curry. An ambulance arrived. Just as the man was carried out on a stretcher, a waiter came out of the kitchen balancing two trays: Carolyn and Reuben’s pad thai, Ted’s and my yellow curries.
“We’re game if you are,” Carolyn called across the room. “We’re both organ donors, by the way.” We laughed, Reuben ordered a round of Korean beers, and by the end of the night they’d moved to our table. They fascinated me, the silver-haired gentleman and his young wife, her hair so short that a waiter had once called her “Sir,” even though she and Reuben were holding hands at the time. We all laughed when Reuben told this story, though later the whole thing struck me as strange. Carolyn is tall and slender, with delicate features; it seemed impossible that anyone could mistake her for a man. Stranger still, neither Carolyn nor Reuben seemed bothered by the waiter’s comment. This, I’ve since concluded, is the difference between them and us. In Carolyn’s place I would have been mortified. In Reuben’s place—having a stranger think he was sharing a romantic dinner with another man—Ted would have been livid.
At the end of the evening we swapped phone numbers. “We’ll never see them again,” I told Ted; but a few days later, Reuben called, inviting us to their house for a barbecue. We played badminton in their yard that evening, slightly drunk: Ted and I on one side of the net, Reuben and Carolyn on the other. After 10 minutes Reuben and I put down our racquets and stood off to the side swapping recipes for bouillabaisse. Finally we retired to the patio, watching Ted and Carolyn as we talked. They played until full dark, visible only by their white tennis shorts, their long bodies graceful as dragonflies.
They are alike in more ways than I can count. They both love dogs, action movies, college football; they are both skiers, scuba divers, climbers of rocks. From a distance they even look alike: blond hair, muscled calves, sinewy forearms. To me they are like champion horses, beautiful because of their strength.
The Florida evening is loud with bugs, the neighborhood coming back to life after the shuttered, sultry afternoon. There are katydids, dogs barking, kids playing baseball in the park down the street. We hear a loud crack, the satisfying collision of bat and ball.
“Good hit,” says Carolyn. “Sounds like a homer.”
Ted rolls his eyes. “I wish they’d go back to school already. Ask Nora. They make me nuts.”
I shrug. “They make him nuts.”
Reuben and Carolyn don’t have children either. For them the choice was easy, according to Ted; for us it’s been a struggle, a decision made after years of persuasion (his) and regrets (mine). Ted says Carolyn has no interest in babies, that she’d rather spend her best years rock climbing and skydiving than potty training and watching cartoons, and I know this only makes him love her more.
They agree on everything. The best scuba spots (the North Wall of Grand Cayman), the best way to catch a hammerhead (live blue runners), the best autumn marathon (Marine Corps; they trained together last summer). At least once in the course of the evening, they’ll say the same thing at precisely the same time. “In stereo,” Reuben will joke when it happens. I’ll laugh along with everyone else, relieved that the moment has passed.
“How are the mosquitoes treating you?” I ask. I’ve already shooed two away from my face. As the sun sinks lower, it’s only going to get worse.
“So far, so good,” says Carolyn, oblivious to the pink welt rising on her cheek.
Ted shrugs. “You know me.”
I do. Ted grew up in Florida, yet he’s never felt a mosquito bite in his life. He’s always surprised the next morning to find his arms and legs covered with red bumps. He has climbed Mt. McKinley, run four marathons, and dives to depths of 140 feet, yet he’s unaware of certain facts about his body: that he’s allergic to cats, that red peppers give him heartburn, that his arms become more freckled every year from not wearing sunscreen. He can’t tell when he’s dehydrated, constipated, or catching a cold. He doesn’t realize he’s losing his hair.
“My potatoes are boiling,” I say, getting up. “Any volunteers to make a salad?” We’re having shark steaks, from the 5-foot hammerhead Ted caught in the Keys last weekend, and his favorite garlic mashed potatoes. Ted does the catching, cleaning, and grilling. I do everything else.
“Sure,” says Reuben.
“We’ll take Buck to the park,” says Ted. “I’ll start the grill when I get back.”
Reuben follows me inside. I mix the salad dressing; he takes a head of romaine from the refrigerator and rinses it at the sink. We don’t talk much, but I admire the way he moves around my kitchen, humming softly. His forearms are tanned from the golf course. Everything about him murmurs gentleness and competence.
“We have good news tonight,” he says, reaching into the cupboard for a bowl. “I’m retiring. I resigned last week.”
For a moment I’m speechless, stunned by the thought that I’m old enough to have a friend who’s retired. I’ve never asked Reuben’s age, but I know he’s got 20 years on the rest of us, maybe more.
“Wow,” I say. “Congratulations.”
“I’ve been thinking about it for awhile.” He tears the lettuce into the bowl. “Don’t get me wrong. I love my work.” For nine years he’s been president of First Florida Bank. “But I’d like to be home for dinner once in awhile. I’d like to spend a little time with my wife.”
“She must be thrilled.”
Reuben chuckles. “I think she’s a little worried. I’ve been a workaholic since she met me. She’s afraid I’ll lose my mind.”
“You can travel. Play golf. You’ll find plenty to do.”
“I think so.” He looks up from the salad. “I’ve got one project lined up already.”
He’s about to say more when we hear Ted clattering up the porch stairs. He takes a glass from the drainer and fills it with water.
“You’re bleeding,” I tell him.
“Am I?” Ted looks at his legs. A bright string of blood is trickling down his blond shin; Buck must have tried to climb him, crazy to get the frisbee out of his grasp. He swipes the blood away with his sweaty forearm, then takes the glass out to the porch.
Reuben laughs. I wonder if he’s thinking what I’m thinking: How can a person not know he’s bleeding? It gets back to the question I’ve always had about Ted: Is he brave because he fears nothing, or because he feels nothing?
A moment later Carolyn comes into the kitchen, her T-shirt plastered to her sweaty back. Her hair is sticking straight up and there’s a smear of dirt on her face. She looks terrific. I think of my family’s medicine chest when I was a little girl: the ointments and laxatives, the ovals of pink felt for the bony joint of my mother’s big toe, sore and swollen from years of stuffing her wide, flat feet into dainty pumps. Carolyn’s medicine chest would contain no evidence of the sad, secret maintenance a woman’s body requires: the depilatories and mustache bleaches, the yeast treatment creams, the Midol. I know this is true because I’ve checked.
“Nora, that’s one hell of a dog you’ve got,” she says, rinsing her hands under the faucet. “He’s a champ.”
I smile. “He says the same about you.” Naturally, Buck loves Carolyn. She grew up on a dog ranch in northern Minnesota with a father who bred huskies and raced dogsleds. I wonder if that cold childhood is responsible for her fast metabolism, her miraculous pink-and-white-skin.
She watches me drain the boiled potatoes into the sink. “Can I help?”
“Can you peel potatoes?”
She frowns. “How tough can it be?”
Reuben laughs. “I’ll be out on the porch,” he says. “Nora, keep her away from the stove. And don’t let her chop anything.”
On the climbing wall Carolyn can balance her entire weight on one toe and four fingers, so graceful it hurts to watch her. In the kitchen she’s like a teenage boy, all knees and elbows. I stand next to her at the sink and show her how the skins slip right off when the potatoes are cooked long enough.
“Will you look at that?” she marvels, as if I’ve demonstrated an ability to move objects with my mind. She digs into a potato with her fingers and laughs delightedly as the skin peels away. “Where did you learn this?”
“I’m an Irish girl. I was peeling potatoes before I could walk.” I cut the potato into quarters. “My mother could peel a dozen a minute.”
Carolyn whistles through her teeth. “Geez. I don’t know any of this stuff.” She reaches for another potato. “You can do anything.”
A flush warms my face. Like all redheads I have treacherous skin, the kind that hides nothing. “You’re joking.”
“No, really.” Carolyn touches my arm. “You’re like an Amish woman. You make all this amazing food, and you don’t even have a microwave.”
I laugh out loud. “You’re too much.” I set down my knife and do something I’ve never done before: I give Carolyn a hug. She’s a foot taller than I am; I stand on my toes to grasp her shoulders. She smells of soap and grass and chewing gum, like a little girl.
The screen door slams; we hear Ted’s whistle, his heavy footfalls. Carolyn releases me, like a teenage brother too embarrassed to touch. Ted comes into the kitchen carrying a couple of empties.
He says, “Did Carolyn really peel a potato?”
We eat on the screened porch. Carolyn tells another story, and Reuben raves about the fresh artichokes. Ted keeps our glasses filled.
“I talked to the travel agent,” says Ted. “She found us a terrific condo on Cayman Brac, but we have to reserve this week.”
Carolyn glances at me. “I’m not sure we should drag these guys on another dive trip.”
“Nora doesn’t mind,” says Ted.
Our last time in the Caymans, Ted and Carolyn did 14 dives in 10 days. I spent every afternoon drinking margaritas in the tiki bar with Reuben. It wasn’t a bad trip.
Ted clears the plates from the table. Reuben and I each left some potatoes; Ted’s and Carolyn’s plates are as clean as if they’ve licked them. He takes the leftovers down the porch stairs and whistles for the dog. Reuben leans back in his chair and smokes a cigar. He and Carolyn hold hands under the table. That’s something kids do, something Ted and I used to do, so long ago I can’t remember what it felt like.
I turn to Carolyn. “I heard the news. Reuben already told me. You must be thrilled.”
Carolyn looks at Reuben, confused. “News?” she repeats.
I refill my wine glass. “About his retirement.”
Carolyn laughs. “Oh, that good news.” She runs a hand through her hair. “Yeah, it’s great. Two more weeks and he’s a free man.”
We have coffee and dessert on the porch; Reuben helps me clear the cups and plates. When I come back outside Carolyn is leaning over the railing, staring into the distance. Ted has his back to us, his fingers in a pot of saguaro cactus, checking to see if it needs water.
“Climbing in the morning?” he asks. “6:30?”
“Me?” says Carolyn.
“Of course,” says Ted. “Who else?”
He’s right—neither Reuben nor I would be caught dead rock climbing—but the remark comes out sarcastic and a little cruel.
“Sure,” says Carolyn. “I’ll meet you at the wall.”
At 11:00 p.m., Reuben and Carolyn get up to leave. We walk them down the porch steps to their Jeep. Reuben’s arm is around Carolyn’s waist and they stumble slightly, trying to walk side by side down the narrow stairs. For a second I feel Ted’s hand at the small of my back. Then it goes away so quickly I wonder if I imagined it.
“I have to tell you guys something,” she says. “I’m going to burst.” She turns to me. “We’re adopting a baby girl from Romania. She’s not coming for another three weeks, but I couldn’t wait.” She grabs my hand, not Ted’s. “I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Baby. I remember a time, months ago, when I ran into Carolyn in my gynecologist’s waiting room. It surprised me, then, that Carolyn would need such a doctor; that she possessed the same invisible network of tubes and organs I did. Equipment we’d both opted—I thought—not to use. She’s been trying all along, I think. Trying to have a baby.
“A baby,” I say. For the second time that night I take her in my arms. “A baby.”
I can imagine her as a mother. I’ve seen the transformation before, ambitious friends who quit their jobs in advertising or finance; glamorous friends who cut their hair and began wearing sweat suits. Somehow on Carolyn motherhood will look different, a breathtaking feat.
Ted won’t see Carolyn for a couple of months. Week after week she’ll break their climbing date. “She’s busy with the baby,” I’ll tell him; but he’ll be dejected, inconsolable, like Buck when we leave for a weekend and put him in the kennel. When Reuben and Carolyn finally invite us to their place, Ted will bring gifts he picked out himself: a miniature fishing vest, a GoreTex windbreaker. “It’s technical,” he’ll say of the windbreaker, as though the baby might find herself in a rainy wilderness where hypothermia was a danger. Carolyn will exclaim over the tiny clothes, but she’ll fold them and put them back in their boxes, and Ted will know that he has lost her.
Ted doesn’t know any of this now, but he suspects. I feel it in his body, his arm creeping around my waist. Together we watch the Jeep back out of the driveway. Carolyn drives one-handed, her left arm hanging out the window. We stand in the yard a long time, until the red taillights disappear at the end of the street.