Julia travels from Spain to visit her daughter in Massachusetts, and hoping to find herself; by Jenny Falloon.
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Julia is well past the kissable years, at least where carnal kisses are concerned. But she is a good-looking woman still. Her body is shapely, the blue-grey eyes frank and mischievous. Julia likes a good argument. And her hair is well cut these days. Paying 35 or 40 euros is nothing, especially as she doesn’t color it any more the brassy red she once favored. She doesn’t need to. She’s got the fine silvery grey her mother had. Men notice it. And she sees them noticing.
Not that she does anything about it. Well before Arthur had been felled by a heart attack, Julia had lost interest in sex. This surprised her, somewhat. She had imagined it would last forever, like the need for food or light. But no. A flame that had burned steadily all her life had become dimmer and dimmer and had finally gone out entirely. When she thought about it – which wasn’t often – she consoled herself by remembering how promiscuous she had once been, all those years in San Francisco and London, even having an affair during her first marriage, to Christina’s father. Hard to imagine now. To everything there is a season.
It was harder on Arthur. “I might as well be dead,” he would say, with a groan.
Arthur had loved coming to the States.
“Anything can happen in America,” he would say sagely, as the plane came in to land and they were peering out of the tiny window, their little grey heads together, at the city sprawling below. “Anything. Not like stuffy old England.”
“Yeah,” Julia would drawl. “You could be shot and killed in Walmart by a 19-year-old with an assault weapon. Definitely not like stuffy old England.”
Arthur would bristle when she talked this way, the public schoolboy in him. “All the same, it’s an exciting country. You can feel it as soon as you land.”
What she is feeling now, standing outside Arrivals, is bitterly cold, as a steady snow settles on her black wool coat and her hand-knitted scarf. And it’s not the faint-hearted stuff you get in England every now and then, that has the BBC panicking, as if Hampshire were Minnesota. This will be there in the morning, she thinks with pleasure. Deep and crisp and even.
She stands there taking it in. The size of everything, the speed and efficiency, that dark urban loveliness that may have been what Arthur was getting at. Yellow cabs swish by on glossy streets, the SUVs, black most of them, always vaguely menacing. The coaches, brightly colored and gigantic, seem to have rolled up outside the airport just this morning, they look so new. She imagines a dumping ground outside the city, to which the old ones are dragged unresisting, taken away to die. A silver limousine slides away from the curb, high-pitched feminine laughter spilling out of its windows.
She turns up her collar, tightens her scarf, and heads to the taxi stand, her little red suitcase trundling along behind her like a puppy.
Her driver is a tall husky man with bushy eyebrows, wearing a turban and a heavy wool jacket. He looks puzzled when Julia gives him the Cambridge address, and she thinks of Christina’s rant about Boston cabdrivers. “Aren’t they supposed to know how to get there? Isn’t that their job?”
But these days they have Siri, or something like it, and he nods. Julia settles into the backseat and watches the snow drive steadily into the windscreen as they pass through wide, flat streets full of blocky residential buildings, most of them made up of flats now or condominiums, streets she has been coming to for years, that she knows almost as well as her own.
Christina is at the second-floor window as the cab pulls up, waving madly, her blonde hair framed against the light. Julia fumbles her suitcase onto the sidewalk, coated with fresh snow, declining the driver’s offer of help, and heads carefully across the sidewalk toward the stairs.
Is there a new man in her life already? Someone she’s met online, through Elite Singles? She almost winces. Elite Singles. Whatever happened to good enough? But you could hardly call an online dating service Good Enough Singles.
Julia had liked Sam – his wit, his ballsiness, his intelligence – but she had always feared the marriage wouldn’t last. Why had she never said this to Christina? Would it have made a difference? She has never quite made a peace with this. It’s like a blister that doesn’t hurt all the time, yet never really heals. And, living in Spain, she hadn’t been there through worst of it – the grief, the battered self-confidence, the months camping out on Patty’s couch.
When the divorce was final, she had suggested Christina take a break from men. “Just be on your own for a while, find out who you are.” She wanted to sound wise and maternal but hated the wormy phrase she’d settled for. Find out who you are. Isn’t that we’re all of us doing anyway, all the time?
“Mom, I don’t have time! I’ll be 39 next year, and I want to have a child. My clock is ticking!” She stopped. “God, how I hate that phrase.”
And anyway, it wasn’t in her nature.
They talk for hours and finish a bottle of Merlot. There is no spare room anymore, so they both sleep in the sleigh bed Christina bought right after the wedding, which is huge with rolls of mahogany at the top and the bottom. Julia shudders to think what it cost.
But she is tired, and she sleeps well. She dreams they are in a sleigh, the two of them, mother and daughter, fur-hatted and muffled, racing along somewhere outside St. Petersburg – Nabokov’s Russia – over dazzling snow, their cheeks rosy with the cold, miles away from grubby old Massachusetts.
It is almost noon when she wakes up, and Christina is at work. There is a note on the dresser. My shelf is the middle one. There’s coffee made, you’ll see it. And half ‘n half. And strawberry jam, Bonne Maman! You’ll see it all. I love you!
The days go by. She meets the other tenants, a young woman from New Zealand, a graduate student in Chinese, and a Brit from Manchester, who works for a start-up. Then they seem to fade from view. She hears doors above being shut now and then, or the front door below opening to the street, and booted feet bounding up or down the stairs, a toilet flushing, the shower full blast in the mornings.
She reads, spends time online, FaceTimes with old friends in California. But the conversations are dispiriting and she’s relieved when they’re over. You cannot pick up after 19 years, she is realizing. She has been in Europe too long.
She takes the T, getting off at Charles/MGH, and walks down through Beacon Hill past the pricey shops and the jewelers where she once spent $300 on a pair of earrings at Christina’s urging.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Mom! You have the money. Spend it!”
She looks for a trench coat. All her life she has wanted a trench coat. She is a trench coat kind of woman, a little dated. Instead, at Macy’s there are disorganized racks of what look like gigantic vertical sleeping bags, all of them in dreary winter colors. The clerk, who is young, doesn’t know what a trench coat is, and Julia hasn’t the heart or the will to tell her. She has the sense these days, often, that she is the last of her tribe, looking behind as she walks in the street, checking the adjacent rows in the cinema. She doesn’t miss Arthur himself as much as the hole he left.
In the condo, a television would help. She could watch old movies or Netflix or slum a while on Fox. A dusty shadow on the living room wall shows where the last one was mounted – how small it looks! – the property of a post-doctoral fellow at the Kennedy School of Law who took it with her back to Los Angeles.
“At least it was hers,” says Christina. “When I go, I plan to take the wok and the whisky decanter as payment for the day I spent cleaning the leak under the sink.”
“They don’t belong to anyone?”
“Nothing here belongs to anyone, Mom. Natalie has a wooden salad bowl made by some indigenous tribe in New Zealand that she keeps in her room. But everything else has been left here by people long gone. And probably wasn’t worth much anyway.”
Sometimes in the evening, when Christina is out meeting an elite single, and there is no lecture or concert that Julia is interested in attending, she will put down her book or her magazine and go from living room to kitchen to dining room turning out the lights, all of them, so the condo is utterly dark. Then she will stand at the dining room window looking into the kitchen of the building next door.
The windows are grubby from sleet and snow, but the buildings are so close to each other that Julia can see the expression on the face of the young woman standing there drying wine glasses, holding each one up to the light. And it is not a happy one. Why is she doing this? Julia is not in the habit of spying on people, and the young woman looks like any other young woman in her early 20s one might see on the streets of Cambridge. Slim, of average height, longish brown hair.
One evening, Julia watches the young woman as she disjoints a chicken; another she is carefully folding large white napkins and stacking them on the counter. Sometimes a young man joins her, tall and thin with longish brown hair and glasses, a student obviously, and Julia gets to imagine the nature of their relationship and what he has just said that has caused her to laugh. Not exuberantly, it would seem from here, but a laugh, still.
As it happens, Christina knows him from her work at Harvard. “He’s a student,” she says. “And she’s just come over, to marry him.”
“So it’s an arranged marriage?” Julia can hear the surprise in her voice.
“Yes, I think so. Which is odd, isn’t it? In this day and age. And here. But it happens.” She pauses. “At least they’re the same age. They’ve known each other since they were children. I talk to him sometimes. He’s doing very well, of course, or he wouldn’t be here. He has a good future. All the same, he’s young, and he would like to have a life, play around a little, be young. Before he gets married.”
“So will she go to school here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But she’s come over to be the wife.” She pauses. “And the mother, presumably.”
Tonight, there’s a party. Julia watches as women in saris – brilliant shades of green, yellow, purple, pink – come into the kitchen. Casseroles and pots of food are presented. The husbands – bulky confident men who are pleased with themselves, what they’ve achieved, whom they’ve become – hug each other broadly and slap each other on the back. Julia imagines the smell of perfume and sweat and after-shave, spicy food, the wet heat from the stove.
It all has a faded sepia quality, as though she is watching a silent movie. She and Arthur gave parties like this when they were first in Spain. She would simmer red wine with cinnamon and brandy, and grill huge prawns, and people they barely knew would show up and drink too much and flirt with each other in that little kitchen with its red cabinets and its view of the Mediterranean.
She is about to turn away, when a couple come in. The woman is tall and fleshy, in her 40s perhaps, in a clingy red dress, her thick black hair swept up on her head. She walks over to the window where Julia stands in the darkness and looks out, as though she expects to see something remarkable in the no-man’s-land between numbers 10 and 12, instead of two garbage cans and a plastic Santa lying on his side. Julia has for a brief moment the horrifying sensation that she has been seen. Then the man joins her at the window, bending his head with thick greying hair toward hers, and says something. They laugh.
So absorbed has she been that Julia has ceased her vigilant listening for the door below, the rustle of winter clothing, and the blast, even up here, of cold air. Christina is beside her, the room bathed suddenly in light.
“That’s the parents. They’re a glamorous pair, aren’t they?” She smiles, unravelling her scarf.
“Look! They’re inviting us over.” Christina waves back, a big smile. “You should go, Mom. You need to get out, for heaven’s sake. It’s Christmas, and I’ve been neglecting you.” She pauses. “And it’s not snowing any more. It’s gorgeous out, so still and the sky is so clear. And I won’t have to worry about you, right next door. But I won’t join. I just got in.”
“So? What happened? Is he a possible?”
“You know, Mom, I think he may be.”
“Tell me about him.”
“Well, he’s tall.”
“That’s a good start.”
“And he’s calm.”
“I feel good about him already. You need calm.”
Fifteen minutes later, Julia is walking up the wooden steps next door, her hand on the railing. She is wearing her purple dress, the only elegant thing she brought. It has a scalloped hem and a deeply curved neckline that draws attention to her breasts. People see her in it, she’s not just another old woman who fades into the background. The snow on the steps is soft under her black pumps. Little specks of it cling to the velvet.
How clear the sky is tonight, she thinks. How glorious! How infinite! None of this earthly stuff matters a whit, what we do, how we do it, what we fail to do. We are gone in so little time.
She grabs the metal knocker below the wreath on the door and taps it twice, firmly. She can hear laughter, loud voices, a cork popping, then another. When did she last do anything like this? When did she ever do anything like this? She taps it again, harder.
It is the young woman who finally appears, in jeans and a t-shirt. Julia realizes with dismay that she has forgotten to bring a gift. Ah well, too late now. And young people don’t care about that sort of thing anyway. She explains that she is Christina’s mother, visiting from Spain. The young woman smiles and begins helping her off with her coat. She is thinner than she appeared through the window, with bronze muscular arms.
“And will Christina be coming too?” Her face lights up.
“I don’t think so.” Julia shakes her head. “She just came back from a date. With someone new.”
“Ah.” A knowing smile. “And it is someone she has met online.”
“She wants to meet someone, of course. I hope she will be lucky.” She says this firmly.
Julia gestures, a light shrug.
“Yes, she would. Like to meet someone.” She hesitates. “I guess we all would.”
Julia is going home today. Her flight is this afternooon. Meanwhile, there are poached eggs and bacon, fresh orange juice, doughnuts from Gail Ann’s.
“He kissed you?” Christina jaw drops, the coffee pot in hand.
“Yes. He kissed me.” Julia smiles. “Isn’t there a song with that title? Or maybe that was ‘Then he Kissed Me.’ The Crystals? The Supremes?”
“Good Lord.” Christina sits down. “Why?”
They laugh. “I don’t know why. People don’t always tell you why they kiss you. Perhaps he was drunk, there was a lot of alcohol there. Perhaps he was overcome with the spirit of Christmas – although, as Hindus, do they celebrate Christmas? – or his son’s marriage. Or perhaps he felt sorry for me.”
“I don’t believe it! You go to a party with people you’ve never met before, and the man of the house, or one of them, hits on you.”
“Ugh. I hate that phrase.” Julia is determined to make light of this. “He didn’t hit on me. He kissed me. Assertively. And I like a man who kisses assertively. Who wants to be kissed unassertively? And it was just a kiss. He didn’t grab my breasts or shove his hand between my legs. But who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have minded if he did. I was in a strange mood.”
“As I was leaving. I didn’t stay long. That would have been tacky. He walked me to the door, holding me by the elbow – which always makes me feel ancient – then all of a sudden he pressed me up against the coatrack and kissed me.
“I was about to push him away, my back was hurting a little against the wall, but he’d been so nice, and I was feeling pleased with myself, pleased that I’d gone. And I was enjoying it! It’s a while since I’ve been kissed, I’d forgotten what it’s like.
And I could hear the wife in the living room, she has a loud laugh. And I could smell curry and incense and wet fur and cigar smoke. It was nice in a way. Sort of homey.
Christina shakes her head. “I’d never let a man kiss me if I didn’t want it.”
“I know. But you’re different. Your generation is different. Sometimes it’s the unexpected that takes us out of ourselves, that’s what we need.” She smiles.
In the plane she has a window seat. She watches out of the tiny window as the land falls away from them – snow-laden still, wide and flat – and the present turns into the past. Next time she is here in New England it will be winter, again. Christina will say, “Why do you always come in winter, Mom? There are other seasons, you know. Spring, for instance. You should see the lilacs here in May.”
She will have a new life by then, of course. She will make it so. That is what she does.
Almost as if by agreement, no one mentions that odd time in the condo in Cambridge which, in any case, will be occupied by new tenants now. Natalie will be back in New Zealand, teaching Chinese in Auckland, having taken the treasured salad bowl with her. The Brit – what was his name? – will have married a Japanese student eight years younger than him and be living in Tokyo. And the young woman next door, the woman carefully drying the wine glasses, will have wed her young man, as arranged, with as good a chance of happiness, Julia supposes, as in any modern marriage.
So Julia is startled – but not aghast – when she sees her, one bitterly cold morning sitting in a café on Massachusetts Avenue. And across from her is not the young man, the student with the stellar future, but his father, his meaty exuberant father, a large hand resting like a paw upon hers.
Julia’s hand goes instinctively to her mouth, the pattern of shock, for it is definitely her. Just as it was definitely Julia back then at that noisy Christmas party whom he pressed unresisting against the coatrack.
All the same, this being Julia, she gathers herself together, quickly and formally, looks ahead, and walks on, smiling. Arthur may have been right after all. In America, anything can happen.