Beginnings and Ends

by Susan Dobrof
He lured me with his personals ad: "Rough diamond needs polish.”  Six-feet tall, dark hair flecked with gray, eyes the color of tootsie-rolls, and a sweet smile he covered with a hand to hide crooked teeth.  Paul drove a truck for a helicopter company and made good money for an eighth-grade dropout.  He looked like a cross between Glenn Campbell and Burt Reynolds.  I fell hard for this barrel-chested macho man who painted my toenails flaming red.

I practiced labor law, suing companies whose workers got hurt on the job.  One night, lying in bed, I stroked the blurry tattoo of a bull on his shoulder, the result of too much drinking by the tattoo artist and Paul.  He put his arm around me and said with surprise, “You are just a sweetheart, aren’t you?”  Like in his blue-collar world, he couldn’t expect people to be nice.  His sexual hunger enthralled me.  I opened to him, body and heart.

I got postcards—“Walla-Walla, the town they liked so much they named it twice!”  One card had a photo on the outside of a little boy with big eyes holding a crooked daisy, and the inside said, “I wuv you” and had a return address of “Sweetie.”

I made brightly colored WELCOME HOME!!! signs on his returns. He gave me a trophy inscribed “1995 Sexual All-Star.” The one I gave him said “Boyfriend Extraordinaire.”  I loved his low, rich voice, his husky, explosive laugh.  He talked from way down, deep in his chest, his words laced with gravel.  Three weeks after our second date, he said he wanted to spend his life with me.

We spent summer weekends at a beach house with my friends – intellectuals, politicos and artists.  Paul was blunt, plainspoken.   He held his own, and my friends liked him.

My heady career of big buck settlements and hand-to-hand combat with corporate lawyers had me fashioning words into shields for beat up laborers. I had been all career, all the time, until Paul.  I coddled his exhausted, grumpy self after work.  He cooked for us and held me, asleep and awake.  Paul called me his delicate flower and once bathed and powdered me before bed.  Four months into the relationship, he said he wanted to give me a ring. “Not an engagement ring, that’s down the road.”  None of the turquoise or creamy tiger’s eye rings at the Native American craft store were right.  Paul said, “We’ll find a good one next time.”  

I met the only family Paul had on a spring afternoon, when Paul took his nephews dirt-biking.  His sister, Mary, lived in rural Yamhill County.  She met us at the door, saying, "Paul! You should have told me you were bringing Susan to lunch. It's just sandwiches."  Mary was forty, and her shoulder-length hair was threaded with gray.  She had Paul's eyes and nose. Her skin was sallow, but her grin was wide and she hugged me. Her husband, Doug, a helicopter pilot, was in the kitchen, slicing thick sections of what looked like meatloaf and slapping them onto a dinner plate.

Mary piled white bread, paper plates, mayonnaise, a jar of pickles and one of green relish on the kitchen counter.  Doug went to the front door and then the back door, yelling, "Boys!"
    
A young male voice outside said, "Can't we just go?"
  
"Get in here and meet Paul's girlfriend."

I heard, "Paul has a girlfriend?" as the two teenagers came in, screen door slamming behind them. The older one was tall, with frizzy hair.  
  
"You must be Justin.  I'm Susan," I said reaching a hand towards him. He hesitated, looked at Mary, and grasped my hand and released it in the same instant.  Andy, sixteen, smirked at his brother's discomfort, stared at me, and turned toward the food.  I stood next to Mary at the sink, while the guys built towering sandwiches.  They carried the sagging plates to a table in the living room.

Mary pulled gallon cartons of juice and milk from the fridge.  Also, two Blitz beers.  I looked around for glasses and napkins.  "I was surprised when my little brother said he was dating, and you're a lawyer . . .I mean, I'm glad for him.  He's on the road all the time. . .and I don't see him much," she said, all in a rush.

"He was going to come alone for the boys, but I wanted to meet you," I said.  “Paul doesn't like to talk about the past but. . .well, it just sounds like you guys had a rough time when your dad died."

"Oh no, I did fine.  Didn't he tell you?  I lived with my girlfriend Tammy's family for three years. Well, most of high school anyway, before I met Doug.  Sally, Tammy's mom, I call her Mom.  They took me in, so I did just fine.  We talk every week.  I just love her to pieces. "

As we talked, Mary jerked four glasses from a cabinet, crashed a plastic platter onto the counter and threw a stack of napkins on the platter.  She didn't look at me while she spoke.

"I just thought, I mean, I know how important you and Doug and the boys are to him," I said, thinking I'd offended her, somehow made her nervous. Or maybe she, like Paul, didn't talk easily about personal things.  I'd badgered him into telling me that their dad died of alcoholism at forty-seven, their Mom, of a prescription drug overdose ten years later.

I followed Mary with the loaded platter to the table. Doug was chewing the last of his sandwich, next to three empty plates. He snagged the beers from the platter before Mary set it down, saying,  "Doesn't Susan get a beer?"

"That's okay.  Juice is good for me," I said. "Did they leave already?" I was surprised Paul hadn't given me the usual cheek peck before leaving.

Doug popped the beer tops with an opener on his keyring.  "Those frigging dirt bikes!  Good thing Paul likes dirt diving as much as the boys."  Doug slid one beer to Mary.  He grabbed his, and headed toward the kitchen, mumbling something at Mary.  All I caught was "dirty transmission."  Mary took a long swig of beer.  

"They love their uncle; he's just a bigger kid with them. But I did hear him tell Justin to stay in school. Justin wants to start driving for the company.  Doug says all the pilots want Paul on their crews. He's the best driver, Doug said, doesn't screw around." Mary finished her beer before taking a bite of her sandwich.  She pulled out two photo albums, filled with the boys’ school pictures, family vacations at the coast and the one week they spent in Hawaii. There were a few stiffly posed wedding pictures, not many baby pictures, and just one of her father, tall and smiling. The one picture of Mary, Paul and their parents shows an out-of-focus woman in an apron, reaching down for her toddler boy, next to a serious-faced girl, holding her father's hand.  By the time the guys came back, Mary and I had settled into a chatty groove.

One week later, my breasts and belly felt heavy and I looked for that rust-colored trickle that always turned into a gusher twenty-nine days after my last period.  No blood.

Paul made Rice Krispy treats for his company picnic while I peed in a cup. I started the laundry and he said, "Neither of us wants to check the stick."  But when we did, the lines crossed and were blue.

I thought, if I don't do anything, I'll have a baby.  Paul said, "The good thing is, we know you can get pregnant.  Maybe in a year it will be right."

I tried to stop crying so we could go to the picnic. He tightened his thick arms around me, clumsily stroking my head with his calloused hand as rising waves of desperation broke inside me.  “If we wait a year, I’ll give birth at forty-one. They’re already old eggs, how can we wait?”

“It’s not a good time.”  His voice was tight, pleading.  “I need to sell my house, then we can get one together.  It’ll be better when the new guy finishes training and they take me off the road.  I’ll work in the shop, be home most nights.  It’s just not a good time.”

The picnic was at  Doug and Mary's house, which sat on two acres, and they'd set up outdoor tables and chairs on the lawn for the picnic.  It was an early summer afternoon, the bright green hills looked soft, inviting.  Kids played at the basketball hoop, the parents were into the food and drink, and me, with a frozen smile, chatting.  I watched Paul playing hoops with the other drivers against the pilots.  In a t-shirt, dense shoulder muscles strained the dingy cotton as he made a lay-up easily.  Evading the jeering opponents for the rebound, he flashed me his crooked smile.  He had chosen me, and I felt myself choose him.

He drove us to my house, left hand on the steering wheel, right hand nestling my left hand, normal driving mode in what Paul called our Epic Romance.

“I’m only five weeks pregnant, not so far along. We could just get it done now, no muss, no fuss.  I must have more good eggs.”

Paul said, “In a year we could see if we want to do it.  I never thought about it much, but now we know we can.  I could have a son,” he said. His voice was soft, full of wonder.   I pictured him holding our baby, with that gentleness and fierce light in his eyes. In a year it would be the right time.  Once he and I were solidly together.  My fantasy took me from the sad present, with inconvenient life starting in my belly to a happier future.  I thought we were shoring up the shaky underpinnings of our jumbled plan for home, marriage, baby.  

I made the appointment with Everywoman’s Health Clinic for the procedure.  At the clinic, a perky technician led Paul and me to an examining room for an ultrasound to confirm the pregnancy.  She had me lay on my back, while Paul stood near the door, shifting from one sneakered foot to the other.

Paul watched the milky blob on the screen. He frowned, wouldn’t look at me.  A redheaded nurse took me to a little room and stuck me for an IV of Valium while I looked at pictures of bored, rich people in “Town and Country.”  Valium so I wouldn’t care about those doomed cells.  I’d thought Paul could be there, but liked being alone, floating.

The redhead led me to the room with bright lights.  A tall, woman doctor with liquid blue eyes and cascading hair shook my hand.  Another woman helped me into position, my knees up and supported.  She held my hand and patted it the whole time, as she controlled the nitrous oxide with the other hand.

It was over fast.  A couple of cramps and wet regret leaking from my eyes onto the pillow.  In the recovery room, four women laid on beds, quiet and still.  A fifth woman was sitting up, vomiting into a metal basin. The redheaded nurse said, “Barfing is normal. I’m used to barf.”

Paul took me home where we lay together in bed, me still floating, feeling loopy.  “Those boxer shorts I got you,” I said, “did you try them yet? You like my silk blouses so much, I got you silk shorts.”  He stroked my hair. I inhaled his sweet, sweaty smell.

“This is just a glitch.  I don’t mean a glitch, I mean I know you want a baby, so we’ll do it when it’s right,” Paul said.  After a few hours, I felt pretty good and wanted to make him feel good.  I kneaded tension out of his lower back, massaged his head, and he relaxed some more.

Two months later, Mary, her husband and two friends lay on the grass, watching the August star showers. They drank wine, beer and tequila.  Late in the night, Mary fell and cracked her head on their cement patio.  The others were asleep or passed out, and no one noticed.  She died at the hospital the next day, with a .28 blood alcohol level.

Her funeral was in a stifling hot church, filled with all the pilots and drivers from the company, the two owners and all the wives, girlfriends and kids.  The organist played “Angel from Montgomery,” Mary’s favorite song, behind Linda Ronstadt’s voice.  I sat nervously with the family behind a sheer curtain, separating us from the other mourners.  Her sons and I cried. Her husband and Paul sat dry-eyed.   After the service, everyone gathered at the house, where two beer kegs and coolers full of wine and soft drinks eased the transition from sad to another boozy afternoon.  

By the time Paul got off the road and we bought a house, he was knocking down four or five shots of bourbon every night.  There was no more ring shopping.  No more talk of babies.  

We had been together two years when he gradually stopped telling me the dates of his occasional out-of-town work.  I dug through stinky clothes, toiletries and CDs in his backpack one day and found a card with a heart on the front.  Inside, in purple ink, someone named Terri had written, “When will I see you again?”

I cried, screamed, “Who is she?”

“She’s a friend.”

He stopped coming home at night, stopped pretending we were together.  Not me. He came over one Saturday afternoon, all teary and said he was sorry.  He pulled me to him and I started crying.  He led me to the bed we hadn’t shared in months.  I could barely breathe as he quietly undressed me. He was fierce, but held me after, for a long time, not speaking. I clung to him.

“I thought we’d never make love again.”

We didn’t.  

Susan Dobrof is a retired labor and employment lawyer.  Now she studies and teaches yoga and studies and practices Buddhist meditation.  Due to all these changes, she’s able to fully experience the joy of walking around the block with her cat.  They live in Portland, Oregon.

© 2010, Susan Dobrof