Penelope’s Odyssey

Has their globe-trotting friend found the secret to a happy life or condemned herself to a lonely existence?

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We all got the email from Penny; she’d be back in Santa Barbara on the third Saturday in July and would love to reconnect with us. She didn’t know how long she would stay. I felt eager to see our old high school friend. But Nicole and Angela seemed ambivalent and maybe even a little hostile toward the idea.

“I don’t know why you’re so excited to see her, Jess,” Angela said. “It’s been over 25 years since we graduated and she’s never taken the time to come home, not even once.”

Nicole nodded. “We promised that the four of us would stay in touch. An email from her at Christmas and on the Fourth just doesn’t cut it.”

Except for the years spent away at college, the three of us routinely met once a month at Petrini’s off De La Vina Street for Saturday lunch. We’d gossip about family, local politics, science, art, and the sad decline of our sex lives. Nicole had become a thoracic surgeon with a husband, kids, and a way-cool house on the Riviera overlooking the city and the yacht harbor. Angela struggled to make headway in the art world, with too few gallery showings but with a patient and loving family. My CPA business stayed steady through booms and busts. But it was pretty lifeless work. Maybe that’s why Penny fascinated me.

“So why do you think she’s coming back now?” I asked.

Angela gobbled down the last forkfuls of chicken bruschetta while talking. “Probably just … to rub our noses … in what she’s … seen and done.”

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Unless she’s changed, Pen was never petty and, to a fault, generous. She was the one who helped me with my college entrance essay.”

“You could have asked me,” Nicole said. “I can write.”

“Yeah, but Pen had that flair … and that’s what I needed.”

Angela scrubbed at a spot of tomato sauce on her voluminous bodice and grinned. “Yeah, you’re right, Jess. I still remember the stories she wrote for English class. Never did understand why she joined the Army.”

Nicole scoffed. “Probably because, like art, it’s too damn hard to succeed as a writer.”

“Hey, ya don’t have to get nasty. I’m doing just fine as an artist, finally finding my vision, my style.”

“Yes, well good ole Pen still hasn’t found a home, bouncing around hell’s half acre and sleeping with every devil.”

I couldn’t understand fully why Nicole put Pen down. Maybe because she was an easy target, one that couldn’t respond from far off Morocco, Borneo, or some island off Tierra Del Fuego. Twice a year her emails came from different places, with photos attached of the locals and landscapes that made Angela gasp with envy, wanting to paint those unreachable worlds. But Pen also liked cities  —  Paris, London, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, and Sydney.

“I think she’s coming home because of the pandemic,” I said. “It’s getting too tough to globe trot when every country has its own travel restrictions. And she should know how dangerous it is.”

“Maybe she can’t find a boyfriend,” Angela said and chuckled. “That last selfie she sent shows she’s no spring chicken.”

“You should talk,” Nicole shot back. “You just ate the spring chicken.”

“Well, she’s always attracted handsome men,” I said, trying to smooth things over. I had a feeling that both of them felt threatened by Pen. Would she come back and hit on their husbands or even my partner? Back in high school she could bag any boy she wanted, maybe because she had no moral hesitations. It seemed strange since there were plenty of girls more attractive than Pen. But she had this off-kilter sexuality, call it a bit of craziness, and she put out those come-hither pheromones that even attracted ole stick-in-the-mud me. I always wondered what it would have been like to be her partner and travel the world for a quarter century. Although, joining the Army? Forget that.

We ordered another carafe of burgundy, spent the afternoon gossiping about Pen, and debated what we would do when she arrived in Santa Barbara.

“We all can have lunch at my place,” Nicole said. “I can have it catered by Bouchon.”

Angela glared at her. “Oh sure, be a big ole showoff why don’t you.”

“How about my place?” I offered. “I have a large dining room and I’m a good cook.”

It turned out that none of us wanted to yield home-field advantage. So we settled on having lunch at Petrini’s and asked the kitchen to make their special dishes normally reserved for wedding receptions and anniversaries.

* * *

Penny arrived on a puddle-jumper flight from San Francisco. She had self-quarantined for two weeks at her father’s place in San Mateo after flying in from French Samoa via Hawaii. I figured two weeks with her dad would push anyone onto a plane and out of town.

The three of us had promised not to dress up or go to any extremes to make ourselves look our best. We all broke those promises. So I felt a little stupid in my makeup and custom-tailored suit when Penny showed up at Petrini’s. She wore a simple blouse, skirt, and flats, her hair cropped short with Asian-looking tattoos curling down her neck and disappearing under her clothes. Her tan was darker than it had any right to be. But her blue eyes still shone schoolgirl bright. She gave us her patented crooked grin. We all hugged and with a clatter of chairs sat at our favorite corner table, partially screened from view by the ubiquitous rubber tree plants.

“I can’t believe you guys are still eating at this joint,” Pen said.

“I can’t believe it’s still here,” Nicole said. “But the service is good and the food delicious.”

“And plentiful,” Angela added.

We sat quietly for a moment, the three of us gazing at Pen, trying to reconcile our memories with the current reality sitting before us.

I broke the silence. “We’re so glad to see you. Twenty-seven years is too long.”

“Yes, yes it is,” Pen said and smiled. “I’m sorry I haven’t been back. But the world is so big and full of both wonderful and terrible things. I couldn’t help myself.”

“So why … why are you back now?” I asked.

“My mother has cancer. She’s being treated at UCLA Oncology Center. But she’ll need home healthcare. So I’m it.”

“Is she going to be all right?” Angela asked.

“No. It’s stage IV pancreatic cancer.”

We murmured our condolences. The wine arrived and we paused to contemplate parents, some living, some not. The cabernet tasted bitter but I drank it anyway. Pen sipped from her glass and stared at us, waiting.

“Your emails gave us clues,” Angela said. “But they definitely didn’t tell your story. You were always good at telling stories. So what’s up with that Army thing?”

Pen leaned back in her chair. “Jeez, that was so long ago. Well, you all knew my family was barely making it. And I was no genius in high school. So I joined the Army and they paid for my training as an RN. Spent a couple of tours in Afghanistan working in field hospitals, helping surgeons piece soldiers and civilians back together.”

“That sounds grim,” Angela said.

“It was. I kept my head down and did the work. But I started having crazy nightmares. They were really ugly, about things that I couldn’t tell anyone. The Army shrinks didn’t help and the meds they prescribed made me feel stupid.”

“Sounds like PTSD,” Nicole murmured.

“Yeah, maybe. But I felt that same way sometimes … when I was hanging out with you guys in high school. I acted a bit crazy back then, thought it was just rioting hormones.”

“Jeez, Pen, we didn’t know,” Angela said. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

She ignored the question. “Anyway, when my hitch was up I left the Army and started my odyssey. Seeing new people and places seemed to help, made me focus on what I experienced at the time. I got used to that life. I need that life.”

“But how can you live, support yourself?” I asked.

“Having an RN license meant I could find work just about anywhere. Sometimes I got paid with room and board.”

As if on command, we reached for our wine glasses and took generous gulps. I struggled to say something, to break the silence, to pull us away from thoughts about how we might have mistreated Pen back in high school, our false assumptions, things we overlooked.

Finally, Angela succeeded. “Did you make any close friends?” she asked and grinned.

“You mean, did I shack up with any great guys? Sure. There was a barrister in London that I got close to. He let me wear his wig. In Cairo I fell for a tour guide who took me places I hadn’t been in a while. And then the roustabout working the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. He was somethin’ … an expert at drilling. But none of it really serious, nothing stuck.”

“Why not?” Nicole asked. I knew she disapproved of Pen’s bed-hopping and saw it as a major character flaw, not tolerated in her social circles ­ —  or maybe just not acknowledged.

Penny sighed and played with her empty wine glass. “I have no Odysseus back home waiting for me, you know. I’ve become a different kind of Penelope, free to roam the world, to experience love on my terms.”

“But don’t you miss … miss home, or ever having a home?” Nicole asked.

Pen thought for a moment. “This may sound corny, but maybe my home is where I am. And my loves are the people I’m with.”

I stared at Angela and Nicole, their gazes fixed on an unseen horizon, heads nodding. Pen touched her throat, touched the blue tattoo of a stylized panther that descended toward her heart. She must have realized that she had struck at the solemn heart of the matter because she quickly smiled and her voice brightened.

“But I’ve slowed down in recent years, not as young and flexible as I once was.”

Angela sighed then chuckled. “Yeah, sister, I can relate.”

“And I’m afraid multiple orgasms are a thing of the past.”

The three of us sat there stone-faced for a moment before breaking out in giggles.

“You do remember those, don’t you?” Pen cracked and our laughter grew louder, a relief from thinking too much about her ramblings and our own anchored lives. For a brief moment we were back in high school, talking about taboo subjects and feeling naughty. The waiter stared at us and smiled and our laughter got even louder.

“Shush, shush,” I said. “They’ll kick us out for disturbing the customers.”

“Yeah, that’s happened to me a lot,” Pen said, “in London, some of the small pubs upcountry, in Sydney, in Arles, in San Palo, and once in Seoul.”

“How could you live in all those places and talk with the locals?” I asked.

“You guys probably don’t remember but I aced Spanish and French in high school and could actually speak a little after three years of it. And when you immerse yourself in a community you can pick up enough to get by.”

Plates of food arrived and quickly cleared. Carafes of wine served and emptied. Pen found her storytelling voice and regaled us with tales of the Amazon Basin, the Kamchatka Peninsula, life in Yellowknife and riding circuit for the oil camps north of the Artic Circle, and stories of skipping across Europe during Oktoberfest, ending up in Arles and giving birth to her son.

“You have a son. How the hell …,” I stuttered.

“How do ya think,” Pen said. “I lived with Alan for almost a year. Got close to getting married. But the ole wanderlust got the best of me.”

“So why have you kept this a secret from us?” Nicole demanded.

Pen grinned. “Probably because I knew you would think me careless for getting pregnant, Angela would be mad at me for leaving a son behind, and, well, Jess would just be envious.”

I could feel my mouth drop open.

“Ah, come on, Jess. Haven’t you talked with your partner about adopting a child? Weren’t you the homemaking queen back in high school?”

Before I could answer, Angela came to the rescue. “So where is your son now?”

Pen thought for a moment. “Well, that was 15 years ago, plus or minus. He should still be with his father’s family. They’re good Catholics and didn’t approve of me, hated the way I spoke French.”

“Well, at least you tried,” I said.

“Yeah, the French. Whaddaya gonna do,” Angela said.

The three of us laughed, feigning knowledge of France and its culture and knowing that we had none.

Our waiter asked if we desired anything more from him. We were the only customers left in the restaurant. The lunch shift had ended and the place had closed in preparation for dinner.

“No, that will be all,” Nicole said. “Bring me the check.”

“How long will you be in Santa Barbara?” I asked.

Pen leaned back and shook her head. “Don’t really know. Could be days or weeks before Mom passes.”

“If I can help in any way, Pen, let me know,” Nicole said. “What are you going to do after that? If you want to stay in town, I know of good places that are hiring RNs, maybe even my clinic.”

“Thanks, but not yet. When my hair turns gray, I’ll be ready to return.”

“What are you talking about?” Angela complained. “You already dye it dark to hide the gray. We all do.”

Pen smiled. “Yeah, but when gray becomes okay, I’ll come back.”

Pen’s Uber ride arrived and we said our goodbyes, Nicole being the stoic while Angela and I sobbed.

* * *

We tre amici continued our luncheons at Petrini’s. But before another month passed, Pen’s mother died. She turned her mom’s East Side bungalow over to a property management company to rent out and took off, toward Asia this time. Once-a-month long emails followed with photos and short videos attached for Angela to use as artistic inspiration. Some guy in Shanghai became her lover. Her trek across Asia and through snow-clogged mountain passes into India seemed nothing short of heroic. She disappeared into the masses there for a while, only to surface again in Rome with a new lover and a job providing care to tourists.

I assembled Pen’s emails with photos and kept them in an electronic journal. Pen’s latest video showed her with a full head of gray hair, grinning crookedly, while behind her crocodiles slid into an Amazon tributary. I figured the journal would be as close as any of us got to our friend.

We seemed to relax, Nicole becoming less critical and Angela and I less envious. Maybe we too realized that our homes were where we are and our loves the people we are with. It didn’t feel corny at all.

Featured Image: Shutterstock

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