Are there some things we shouldn’t talk abut in a marriage?
Martin leaned forward, a little out of plumb, wavering slightly. “Can I say something, judge?”
The traffic court judge leaned her chin on her hand, offering the slight nod and indulgent smile she might have bestowed on her favorite uncle.
“Look, your honor,” he said, voice quavering between the fervor of his emotions and the effort to speak his mind, “I don’t care if you make me pay the ticket. It’s not the money. It’s the idea.” He paused to gather himself, swipe his lips. “Your honor, look at you. You’re a young woman. I have three daughters around your age. You’ve all got a lot of life left, God bless you. But I don’t. When you’ve had colon cancer and chemo and a heart stent you are very aware that time is short.”
He looked over to the ticketing officer. “Now I know this young man was just doing his job.” The square shouldered officer stared straight ahead, a slightly bemused twist at the corner of his mouth. “And you’re just doing your job, but I think this whole deal is out-of-whack.” Martin looked down, brow furrowed, centering his thoughts. “See, I live on a dead-end street. The live-end has a traffic light. Husted Street. You know it?”
The judge slowly closed and opened her eyes. “I know the street.”
“Well, the light on the corner is slow.” He waved his hand, as if to erase the idea. “Well, it’s long. Is what I mean.” Nodding to himself, he continued, “I mean. One time, I timed it. It’s not the usual thirty second wait between light changes. This light goes ninety seconds.”
He locked eyes with the judge. “Maybe you haven’t experienced this yet, but when you’re retired there isn’t a whole lot to do all day long. And me, I get in my car and do errands and go to Mac Donald’s for coffee with some of my buddies and go buy bread or milk as needed. There’s no need to buy it all at once, once a week, like when we had kids and I was busy working. So, I stretch it out, if you see what I mean?”
The judge rolled her finger—move along.
“So, my point being…I’m at this corner, waiting for this light, several times a day. And here’s the problem. Half the time…no, it’s more than half the time…there’s no traffic coming for blocks in either direction. So, there I am sitting like an idiot waiting for a mechanical device to let me go on with my life. Some civil engineer in some government department has programmed a timer to a light that is holding me hostage for no real reason and is making me waste the limited number of precious minutes I have left in my life.”
The man holds up his hand as if to hold off the judge’s objections. “I know. I know. If everyone took the traffic laws into their own hands this would be Italy.” The guy smirked. “That’s a joke that I can make because I’m Italian and just got back from visiting there last month…my family in Calabria.”
The man frowned, concentrating. “But, seriously, I know all about the wedge theory. I preached it to my kids all the time. But a man my age isn’t everyone. I am able to judge when it’s safe to complete a left turn against the red. The way I see it, I’m ahead of the curve. It’s the law that has to catch up like it did with a right-turn-on-red. Gathering himself tall, chin up, “I don’t have any money to waste,” he said, “but I’ll pay any tickets I get rather than waste what’s left of my life staring at a damn electric bulb just because it’s supposed to help most of the people most of the time. I have the right to decide when my liberty trumps the law and I will face the consequences if caught.” He emphatically ducked his chin and sat with a thump.
The judge stared at the old man for half a minute. She finally raised an eyebrow and said, “Case dismissed and don’t get caught.”
Later that day at his senior community, Tori called, “Hi, Marty!” from under the blue umbrella beside the pool. She patted the lounger next to her and Martin shuffled over, towel over his shoulder, flip-flops slapping. He didn’t know Tori very well. They had said hello over Wacky Wednesday cocktails at the clubhouse a couple of times. But since Marie passed last year, he had more or less kept to himself.
As he rounded the deep end of the pool, he absorbed her welcoming and welcomed smile. Nice woman, he thought. After easing down to the edge of the lounger, he accepted a glass of iced tea noticing her hands—long fingered and graceful, quivering slightly, tinkling the ice. Looking up to salute her with his glass, he paused to feel the warmth from her gold-brown eyes. She felt familiar, like someone he might have known all his life. How come he hadn’t noticed her before?
He was about to start the conversational volley—his habit to serve first—when he checked himself. He had come to accept long stretches of silence since Marie was gone. There was no one else to talk-at about his sinus headaches, how he had slept the night before, the weather. Lately, aware of his tendency to prattle on, he made a point of squelching a daily medical report when asked how he was. He was also finding it helpful to hear what others thought of the day’s open faucet of political news before offering his take. So, instead of filling the gap Tori politely left for him, he paused, deferring to her.
“Busy morning?” she asked. “I noticed your car was gone.”
She must be able to see my driveway from her house, he thought. But hell, I’m not even sure where she lives, let alone if her car’s come or gone. “I was in traffic court. Talked my way out of a ticket.”
Tori hunched onto her hip, interested. Thinking she must be bored silly to want to hear about contesting a ticket, Martin plowed ahead. “Nothing much to tell. I simply told the judge… just a kid really—thirty years younger than us…that I didn’t have time to wait for left turn lights.”
“Like the slow one at the end of our street.”
“That’s the one.”
“You made a left turn while that light was red? And she let you off?”
“Yeah. I laid on the ‘feisty senior’ bit, but not too thick. Played the ‘green bananas’ riff.”
Tori shot a puzzled look. “…you don’t buy green bananas because you’re not sure you’ll be around to see them ripen.”
She erupted with a deep throaty chuckle, hand to her mouth as though she had to apologize for burping. Martin loved to surprise a laugh out of someone, especially a woman, when she wasn’t expecting it.
Tori lay back, glass to her forehead. “Folks look right past people our age. Pat us on the head.” She rolled onto one shoulder toward Martin. “You gotta stand up for yourself. Can’t go through life waving your hand for permission to go to the bathroom.”
“Yeah, and at my age, if I wait too long…”
Again, she chortled. “No, but, isn’t it sad there aren’t more easy fixes like a stop sign or blinking light for your long red? Or…or like dropping the Catholic no-meat-on-Friday rule.”
“All at once…no more mortal sins,” Martin added, then grinned. “And think of the long lines outside the pearly gates the day they sprung everyone in hell that got sent there for eating meat on Friday.”
“Ha!” Tori reacted, eyes dancing before she stared off in the middle distance. “But you know,” she offered, “some rules are different…unwritten…harder to change.” Responding to the question crossing Martin’s brow, she kept on, “Sharing-rules. What you can and cannot share with friends, with children, with partners.”
Martin set his glass down on the deck, looked across the pool where another couple lay broiling in the sun. “You talking about spouses?” he asked.
Tori nodded. “I’m sure you didn’t share every little thing with Marie.”
“You knew her?”
“A little. Around here.”
“Yeah, no. There’s stuff she didn’t ask me and things I never asked her. When you’re married,” he offered, “you set boundaries…keep to safe topics, right? You find what they are the hard way. No-fly zones. The main rule is to keep us together, focused on work, the kids, avoiding landmine subjects, not turning on the light in a darkroom…”
Tori grinned. “You’re mixing metaphors.”
“What are you a writer or something?”
“English teacher. But, you know, when you’re in green banana time, with a complete stranger, maybe you can break those rules.”
Martin stood up slowly, shuffled, head down, to the steps at the shallow end and waded to the floating rope. After unhooking it, he slid into his usual, rhythmic, breast stroke. About the tenth lap, the perfect balance of breathing and effort brought him to a state of suspended animation, floating in time, like waiting for a light to change, to try something new, to talk about things he never shared before.
“So?” Tori asked of the man hunched across from her, “Where to begin?”
“I don’t know,” Martin demurred, shrugging a towel across his shoulders. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear about all the little things Marie did that drove me nuts. Boring.” He looked down adding, “Besides it feels kinda disloyal or something. You live with someone for fifty years…” Tori nodded. After a moment, Martin continued, “Big stuff? Wanna hear about big stuff? Jobs. Kids. Houses. Moves…yadda, yadda, yadda. Like a resume? Nah, I don’t think so.” Rolling now, drawn out by Tori’s intense focus, he said, “So…stuff we wouldn’t talk about…” He chugged the rest of the iced tea. “Okay. We never talked about her labor and deliveries, or gall bladder surgery or her affair…or mine for that matter.” Martin locked eyes with Tori. “Some stuff… you just hold your breath and get through. No need, no point in re-hashing it. In some ways it’s very private…and over. Thank God. And you respect that…that space for each other.”
Martin got up, spread the towel over the deck chair, paused, finger pointing. “I know. Here’s something we never talked about.” Bracing on the arm of the chair, he carefully lowered himself back down. “I mean, how do you tell someone their family is weird. Marie’s family was British. Not like they drank their tea with their baby finger curled. Come to think of it, they only ever drank coffee, but you get the idea…they didn’t talk much. Their kids probably had to pay a nickel for every word. So, I like to think I was a breath of fresh air when I showed up for family dinner. You know—joking, chatting, teasing the brother and sister, getting the Da to talk about this and that. But I never got the feeling they really got me. Like I was a cute puppy. Fun, but you better watch me in case I started chewing on the doilies.
“I could see how that would be hard to discuss with Marie,” Tori admitted. “She would be putting down her own family.”
Martin studied Tori as she ducked her chin to one side while looking back up at him—in a way Marie’s younger sister used to do. “You just reminded me of something else we never talked about…Kate. Marie’s sister. She used to look at me the way you just did. I think she really had it for me.”
Tori shook her head slowly to a that’s–not-happening-here look.
“Not that I minded,” he blithely continued. “Helped make family visits more interesting.”
“Did it go anywhere?”
“Nah, not really.” Martin raised his chin, remembering. “But it was more than once that she would snug close to me on the front porch glider, or snuggle and bump while drying dishes. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if…”
“So, you never brought up any of that with your wife?”
“C’mon, how do you say, ‘I think your sister has the hots for me and she ain’t half-bad, come to think of it.’”
Tori smiled to herself, canted her head and eyes as before.
“What?” Martin asked.
“Did it ever occur to you that Marie was very aware of her sister’s interest. That they might have talked about you?”
“Sisters share, Martin. To a point. And who knows, it might have even made Marie feel good to show you off, make Kate a little envious.”
Martin’s face relaxed into a self-satisfied grin. “Coulda been. Never thought of that. But then…even after she got married…”
They both studied each other for a while.
Tori finally spoke, “Would it be possible to follow up…connect with her at this point?”
“Nah,” he grunted, shaking his head, “she’s out of the picture.”
“Ah!” Tori said. “Anyhow, it would all be different now that we,” she added, waving her hand to include the two of them, “got past the pheromone fog.”
Martin snorted. “Pheromone fog! That’s a new one.” With an expression of mock insult, he added, “But, hey, speak for yourself about being past it, and all.”
“Oh, c’mon,” Tori cajoled. “Yeah, we still got the left-over radar running, checking each other out, but we’re not kids anymore, in case you haven’t noticed.” Martin wriggled on the chair, stood, sat back down, a puzzled expression contorting his face causing Tori to finally remark, “Or maybe we’re so old that we’ve come back round to being kid-kids, just really liking each other, looking for buddies.
Getting up and walking to the gate, Tori turned and said, “And we don’t want to waste what’s left waiting for a green light.”
“Knock, knock,” Martin called through Tori’s screen door.
“Just a minute,” he heard from a back room.
He kept shuttling the hot pot from hand to hand while Tori crossed the front room in a robe, towel around her head. “Yeah, hi Marty.”
“I brought you some of my spaghetti carbonara. Thought you might like to try it.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” she remarked, holding the door open. “Come on in. Have a seat for a minute while I finish up.”
Martin set the pot on the kitchen counter.
A few minutes later, Tori appeared barefoot in a cornflower blue sun dress. Her damp, silver hair draped the pot while she closed her eyes to better appreciate the distinctive aroma. “The real thing,” she announced, “like from Trastevere where the charcoal makers lived.”
“How do you know that?” Martin asked.
Her condescending smile seemed to say ‘there’s a lot about me that you don’t know,’ before she replaced the lid, got out two dishes and tableware.
“No, no. I didn’t mean to barge in and invite myself. I just wanted to let you try it.”
“Sit down, Marty. I’ve got some Chianti, a salad and a couple of rolls. We’ve got a meal.”
“Oh. Okay, I guess.”
“And, to answer your question, I’ve traveled a lot.”
Over the meal she remarked, “Now this is my idea of Carbonara. Not that creamy, gooey, Olive Garden glop. Every time I was in Rome, I made it a point to go to a trattoria near St. Peter’s to get into some of this.” Savoring a mouthful, she added, “Hmm. Nice job. Just right.”
“Thanks. My kids liked it too. They called it my Italian Mac and Cheese.” Pausing to butter a roll, Martin continued, “So, you went to Rome a lot. Were you a stewardess or something?”
Tori stood up, hands clasped in front of her, head tilted, “What would you like to drink sir? Coffee? Soda? To go with your complimentary peanuts.”
Abashed, Martin said, “C’mon.” Raising his hands in surrender, he added, “I was just trying to figure out what you used to be.”
“Used to be…” Tori repeated. She sat back down, put her hand on Martin’s, smiled gently. “Marty, I’ve always been ‘me’. And this ‘me’ has done a lot of different things.”
“Oh, for the crying out loud,” Martin muttered. “You gonna play word games with me? Like a English teacher. Which, now I remember, you said you were.”
“Who I am and what I do are two different things,” she patiently explained.
“I get it. I get it, teacher. Now can you just tell me where you taught all those years before you retired Ms…?” Martin asked, chin thrust forward. “By the way, what is your last name, anyhow, come to think of it?”
“It’s Maisano, Mr. Amico. Vittoria Maisano”
Searching her face for clues, Martin remarked, “You don’t look very Italian. So, you must be a social climber…marrying up.”
Tori spluttered, wiped wine from her mouth with a napkin. Grinning, she explained, “My family comes from Ventimiglia, up north at the French border, by the Riviera”
“Ah, okay,” Martin conceded.
There followed a prolonged silence with both lost in thought.
“I don’t have anything for dessert,” Tori finally remarked. “Maybe we could go to the Dairy Queen by the mall.” Grinning she added, “If you promise not to make a left turn on red.”
“Ha!” Martin replied, “No worries. I got the judge eating out of my hand. Besides I got some hazelnut gelato back at my place.”
Martin and Tori gently rocked on his porch swing watching bugs bounce off the screen. It was Martin who finally said, “Whadda ya say, Tori? Your turn. Talk to me about things you never shared with your husband.”
Tori half-smiled and shrugged sadly. “I never shared anything with my husband…I never had one.” Responding to Martin’s perplexed expression, Tori went on, “I can hear the wheels turning in your head. No, I wasn’t a nun. And no, I’m not gay. I just never got married. Not even a long-term partner of either sex. I suppose moving around all the time can keep a person loose and unattached.” Resting her feet on the porch rail, she explained, “I was in the service as a trainer for two tours. Then I taught children at Army bases and embassies around the world. And, before you ask…there’ve been lots of guys…but never the right one at the right time.” She carefully tented her dress over her knees before adding, “But you don’t need to worry. These days, I like my space.”
Martin held her eye for a count of five. “So do I.”
“That’s a big relief,” she mocked. Martin swatted her leg then asked, “So, where have you been…what would you call it?…stationed? Do we need a globe?”
“It would help but just say all over the States, Europe, the Middle East. Not so much in the far East or Latin America except for vacations. Basically, everywhere military and diplomatic corps lived with their families that needed education. And since I retired, I still like to keep moving.”
“But you’ve been here a while.”
“My daughter lives in Hastings.”
“So, out with that story,” Martin urged.
Tori sighed. “Fair enough. My turn to spill. Okay. I was teaching embassy brats in Guatemala City, the capital, when my biological alarm went off. I suddenly realized, at thirty- nine, that if I ever wanted a child, it better happen soon. So, there was this local guy I was seeing. And there was this courier from the State Department. And a guy in the passport office.” Tori shrugged. “It took. And I had Peg. And now she lives in Hastings as a single parent with her own daughter, Crystal, who is three years old.”
“That’s a lot of water over the dam,” Martin remarked.
“That’s it? No judgments? No comments? Everyone who hears the story has something to say about it.”
“Not me,” Martin said. “Life’s complicated.”
“You stole that line from the movie, Green Book.”
“It works. Right? Who am I to say one way or the other, what you or your daughter should do?”
Tori pursed her lips and nodded in agreement. “I settled here for a while, trying to help when her marriage went south.”
“I’m sure she appreciates it.”
“Not that you’d notice. Plus, I’m actually starting to resent being stuck in sleepy old Plainwell. I’m getting restless. I need to be on the move.”
“So, you’re only here temporarily.”
“Uh-huh. My lease is up next month. I heard San Miguel Allende is a hot place for ex-pats.” Breaking another prolonged silence, Tori said, “It’s getting late,” leaned over to give Martin a peck on the cheek, said, “Thanks for a nice evening,” and left.
Two days later, Martin woke to the doorbell and a perplexed and frustrated Tori. “There was an accident on 37. They called my daughter in to ER. She left Crystal sleeping and got a neighbor to come over until I get there. Can I borrow your car? Mine’s in the shop. It’d be faster than calling Uber.”
Martin yawned, rubbed his eyes. “Look, gimme a minute and I’ll drive you.”
On the way over, Tori described her granddaughter. “She’s pretty wild. Peg doesn’t seem to know how to handle her. She throws tantrums in the middle of grocery stores, in restaurants. I avoid going out in public with them. It’s embarrassing. I raised my daughter better… never let her get away with that kind of behavior when she was a child.”
Tori called from her daughter’s kitchen, “She’s out of coffee…damn. I’ll have to go buy some.” To cupboard doors banging shut, she added, “And she’s got nothing for breakfast or lunch for that matter.”
“I can hear the kid,” Martin said. “What’s her name again?”
“Yeah, well, maybe you better introduce her to me before you go. Don’t want to freak her out. Mom gone. A strange man in the house.”
When the front door shut, Martin studied the child. Cute, he thought. Bed-head of blond snarls, clenched fists, defiant glare. Reminds me of my Sarah. “Hi,” he said, smiling warmly. “As soon as gramma gets back, we can have some breakfast. In the meantime, I wonder if you’re big enough to pick out your own clothes and dress yourself.” Crystal raised her chin and marched toward her bedroom. “And when you get dressed,” he called after her, “I can read you a story or tell you one while we brush your hair.”
Half an hour later, Tori was shocked to see Martin reading a book to a dressed and groomed Crystal seated next to him on the couch. “How did you…?” Martin shrugged.
Over Fruit Loops, Crystal fussed and whined about finishing her serving. “You know,” Martin said, “what you’re doing is not going to work. Use your words. I bet if you ask right, Gramma Tori will admit she gave you more than you can finish.”
For the next hour Martin had Crystal show him where all her toys went and by the time Peg got home for lunch, he had her singing, ‘I Knew an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.’
“I raised three daughters,” Martin explained on the ride home. “It’s about showing a kid respect and having fun.”
Tori grudgingly shook her head. “Sure ‘nuff, Mr. Rogers.”
“Hi neighbor,” Martin mimicked, “can you say, ‘thank you.’”
Tori looked up, eyes closed, sighed. “Thank you, Marty,” she said. “Crystal likes you. She responds to something you bring. What? Calm? Predictability? Control? Strange. I like that myself, surprise, surprise. It’s soothing. Comfortable. Take your time getting us home. There’s no rush to move on.”
Martin yawned, stared out the half open venetian blinds at the black ice on snow-whipped sidewalks outside. Nowhere to go. And even if he had a reason to go out, it would be dangerous, walking or driving. Eyes settling on a portrait of Marie, he started talking to her. If someone were around it would look weird, but really, it helped him get thoughts out and into words. He rtecalled a quote from Mario Puzo, the Godfather author, where he tells someone, ‘Write. Write. Write. How else do you know what’s in your mind?’ That’s what he had come to find lately about talking out loud. It was satisfying to put thoughts and feelings into words. He didn’t need to pay a therapist to listen.
“What do you think, Marie? Huh? You were a writer. Your diary. No, you called it a journal. Writing…speaking…same thing. It’s about getting stuff out.
“I started to read your journals but it got scary. Like I was going through your dresser. Invading your privacy. And maybe I might find something I didn’t want to know. That might hurt to know. There might be some sweet things about me, about us, I guess. But if you find a single puzzle piece, is it worth the trouble to go looking for the whole box? It’s too hard to get the complete picture of the way things were back then.”
To the PING of his iPad, Martin found an email from Tori. The attached picture showed her next to a fountain, a drink in her hand, a mango tree with yellow fruit hanging and on the ground. Delicious, he thought, the sun, the fruit…
How’s it going in frigid Michigan? It’s 78 down here in San Miguel. I was thinking, I bet you would enjoy it down here too. They have a vacancy for one of the cabins. I could set it up with the manager and you could come down for a while. What do you say? Actually, it would be nice to see you.
“So, there it is, Marie. An open invitation. Damn. I don’t know if I’m up for it. No, not that kind of up. Just all the getting used to each other. Hell, it took us forty-eight years and some stuff still set us off…never mind…old arguments. But hey, look at her. I really think she’s special. I couldn’t talk to you about another woman this way, before. But now that you’re gone, we can be friends, not spouses, right? Can’t you see what I would find attractive about her? I don’t mean her looks, exactly…none of us are juicy kids anymore, but she does carry herself well. Don’t you think? Anyhow it’s more than that. She’s like this battle-scarred correspondent on the evening news ‘And now let’s hear from Tori in Zambia.’ I mean, she’s been loving-and-leaving men all over the globe and now she seems to like my kind of down-home charm. Am I kidding myself? C’mon Marie. What do you think?”
Martin snorted a laugh. He could swear he heard the traffic court judge say, “Case dismissed. Don’t get caught.”