"Since when do you drink coffee?" I ask, switching the portable phone from one ear to the other while I step into the laundry room to get some privacy. "It seems like yesterday that I was driving you to the grocery store for candy bars."
"Well, I still eat candy bars, Ian. Why do you find it so strange that I drink coffee?" This is Patty talking.
I'm at my parents' house in the Midwest, talking on the phone with Patty for the first time in months, and it's strange to hear her voice again. She sounds so much like Mona, who once whispered "I love you" into my ear with those same high, slippery tones that Patty used now. Patty is Mona's sister, but we never talk about her. That topic of conversation is off-limits, and we both know it.
"It's not strange, exactly. Just new."
She continues defending herself. "I love coffee. Is caffeine culture too dignified for a girl like me?"
"It's not that, Patty. I'm just not used to you making an adult proposition like that . . . let's go out for coffee . . . "
"I'm nineteen, you dope. I'm allowed to make adult propositions."
"Of course you are. Just give some time to get used to that."
Patty is six-and-a-half years younger than me. I used to be married to her older sister Mona, but she remains a dear friend, despite the age difference and what her sister once meant to me. In my earliest memory, my parents took me a bicentennial parade downtown, and at that time Patty wasn't even born yet. I remember nuclear anxiety and impending armageddon quite clearly while she only knows of the Berlin Wall as a relic of the past.
After I lost Mona, I took a cross-country job transfer and started a new life. Shortly after that, Patty started classes at the university and became completely enthralled with college life. Busy as she is, Patty has been good to keep in touch with me over the months, especially after all that had happened. We wrote letters to each other, exchanged cassette tapes of fun party music, recommended books and movies, and so on. She sometimes asked me for love advice and I was thrilled to offer it. I didn't go out with girls in my teenage years, so discussing these issues with Patty was like a refresher course in Remedial Dating:
Where does love come from?
What can we do with it?
Where does it go?
And why should it go so horribly, horribly wrong?
Patty wants to spend some time with me while we're both back in town for the holidays. She is staying at her mother's house in the suburbs during winter break and doesn't have access to a car, so I offer to pick her up in my rental. When I landed at the airport, I decided to rent a brand-new Mustang rather than a used clunker. Patty can't wait to see it.
I drive down the old avenue, turning the old corners and passing the old mailboxes, and my emotions start to cloud over. These are the streets where I courted Mona years ago. The slushy streets and snow-covered lawns seem to be no more than a dusty memory being taken off a shelf in the back of my mind. This couldn't be happening right now, could it? Surely I'm not really on my way to Mona's house, when I know she's not there.
But Patty is there. And I came to see Patty.
She waits for me at the front door as I come up the driveway, saving me from an uncomfortable encounter with my old mother-in-law. Patty runs up to the passenger side of the shiny rental car and pounds on the window, smiling broadly. She is bundled up in a colorful stocking cap and thick mittens. I have trouble finding the automatic lock for that door, but in a few moments it clicks open. Patty slips in the car and immediately leans over to embrace me.
"I missed you, Ian!" she says, burying her face in my shoulder. I can smell the apple shampoo in her hair.
"Me too, sweetheart." I give her a quick hug and lean back into driving position. "Where should we go for coffee?"
"I don't know. Just get me out of here." She pulls the seatbelt around her waist and clicks it into place. "My mom is driving me crazy!"
I nod quietly and back out of the driveway.
"She wasn't too thrilled about me seeing you today. She always liked you before . . . but ever since . . . " She stops immediately. I look over and catch her picking nervously at a fingernail. She looks great, like always. Patty's eyes are sky blue and fill a room with light. She has a small cleft in her chin and smooth white skin. Right now, her eyebrows are perked in concern. "I'm sorry," she says.
"Don't worry about it," I say. I take the car out of reverse and pull out into the street.
"I love this car," Patty says, breaking the silence. "I would do anything to have a car like this."
"Not really my style, to be honest, but it's fun to drive."
Patty gets excited in a hurry. "Would you let me drive it?"
"Well . . . the insurance only covers me . . . "
"Please please please! I'm a good driver. You should know -- you taught me to drive, Ian! Please let me drive the car!"
She has me laughing now. "I'll think about it," I say.
Patty keeps pushing me. "Oh, come on. We both know that you'll give in to me eventually. You might as well let me drive it now!" She pulls off the stocking cap and shakes out her hair.
"Look at that head of hair!" I say. "It's getting long!"
"I've been thinking about getting it cut," she says. "Long hair is such a bother."
"Don't you dare," I snap. "It looks fantastic."
"Everybody says I look like Mona."
We leave that comment in the air, where it floats for a few seconds and then falls to the ground.
"Are you hungry? I think we should go to a burger joint and get some grease."
"No thanks, Ian. I've been watching my weight."
I snickered. "What, are you worried about the freshman fifteen?"
"I've already got the freshman five. I'll be happy to stop there," she says.
I give Patty a big grin. "You don't need to worry about your figure. If you're fat, then there are no skinny people." As the words escape my mouth, I realize that I once used that same cliché to reassure Mona about her weight. Up ahead, a streetlight turns red and I slow the car to an easy stop.
After a few minutes of debate, Patty and I decide to get coffee at a diner in the south end of town, near the warehouse district. The Mustang rolls into the parking lot, and easily finds a space near the door. The diner is nearly deserted, which is just as well.
We get out of the car together, and I use the automatic lock device in the keychain. "This car is awesome," she says.
"I'm still deciding," I say, smirking. She pretends to mope as we go into the diner. She's smiling again as a waitress seats us in a booth.
As we look over the menus, I jump-start the conversation. "Tell me about classes. In one of your letters, you wrote something about a cute philosophy professor."
She rolls her eyes toward heaven and smiles broadly. "Dr. Bradley. He's an absolute dream. I have his class at eight o'clock every morning, and I never miss it. He's so smart, and so funny, and he has a great body. I've seen him walking out of the Fieldhouse after a workout, with his hair all wet with sweat and his face red from over-exertion. He's fantastic."
"Married?" I ask, taking a drink out of the tiny water glass.
She cocks her head at me. "I don't know. It doesn't matter. He's just someone to fantasize about."
"How come you don't have a boyfriend these days?"
She shrugs and leans back in her chair.
"You'll have to forgive me," I say. "Your social life is a lot more interesting than mine."
She smiles. "Do you have any friends in Boston yet?"
"Occasionally I'll go to the bars with the guys at work. It's not really my style, but it's better than sitting at home alone."
"What is your style, Ian?"
The waitress brings two cups of coffee to our table. I wait until she walks away to answer Patty's question. "It's all pretty boring, really. I like renting videos. It's fun to go out to movies, too. And going to restaurants. I like museums and parks. Since moving to the East Coast, I spend a lot of time at the ocean."
I have to think about that question for a minute. "Actually, you're right. I always go to the ocean alone."
"You spend too much time by yourself, Ian." Patty takes a cautious sip of coffee, scrunches her face, and starts to add two more sugars.
"You're right. Absolutely right."
We sit in silence. Patty's hands are wrapped around the coffee cup, lovingly, while steam rises and swirls around her head. She's looking out the window of the diner, watching the cars race by. Now that I look closely, I can see that she has indeed put on a little bit of weight. Her face is a little softer. It looks good on her, but I know that I can't say that without sounding like a nut case. I find myself wondering what it would feel like to touch her face, tickle behind her ear lobe, and that shocks me back to the present.
"Are you sure you won't eat anything? I'm starving to death."
"No thanks, Ian. I'm just here for the company." She smiles and cocks her head to the right. I know where she learned that, and it's killing me to think about it.
While sipping coffee and munching on french fries, Patty and I make boring conversation about current events and the recent snowstorm that delayed my flight and screwed up her plans to get home as soon as she finished her last exam. Patty complains about her mom's mood swings and I tell her how embarrassed I was when I came home to find my mother folding all of my underwear. She laughs loudly, and self-consciously covers her mouth. Those eyes really blow me away. I think they always have.
I pay for the food and coffee and she leaves the tip. When we get to the car, she begs relentlessly for the keys. Ultimately, I shake my head and throw her the keychain.
"I'm trusting you," I say.
"I won't let you down," she says, giggling madly. She starts up the car and tears out of the parking lot. She lets out a rebel yell.
"Damn teenagers!" I howl. We both laugh out loud, and she pulls onto the highway.
She turns on the radio and relentlessly switches channels. She stops at the local rock station, which is playing a song that sounds like Zeppelin but is actually a big new hit on MTV, or so Patty assures me. We have another odd moment of silence. This time Patty breaks it.
"Do you ever miss her, Ian?"
I take a long, deep breath. "You mean Mona."
I open my mouth to speak, but then close it again. I blow out a long breath.
"I know you don't like to talk about it with me. But do you have anybody? Anybody who understands?" I can hear the concern in her voice.
"Not really. None of my friends have had to deal with it. Losing a wife, I mean."
Patty nods. "It was hard for me, too."
"You're an amazing girl, Patty." Her hand is on the stick shift; I reach over and touch it tenderly. "Thanks for caring."
She looks over, smiles, and puts the car into neutral. We're rolling towards a red light. She glances forward, presses the brake, and we come to a complete stop.
I lean closer and kiss the corner of Patty's mouth. Without thinking, I bring my hand to her cheek and trail along her jawbone as I move in for a full-mouth kiss. Patty pulls back, roughly. Her eyes are huge and scared. "What are you doing? Don't do that."
"It's feels right, Patty," I say, and lean over for another try.
She pushes me away with both hands. "You're just thinking about Mona . . . "
"Mona's dead," I say.
"Ian," she says, her eyebrows squishing her face, "Mona is very much alive."
We're staring at each other now. Neither of us have the guts to look and see if the light has turned green.
Patty continues. "You talk like she's dead all the time, and it drives me crazy. This is hard for me too, you know. I lost her too. It would be so easy for me to blame you for everything."
"I know . . . " I want to say more, but I can't. I sink back into the car seat and start to fidget.
"You cheated on her, Ian. That's a fact. I don't know when she started drinking, but it had to be around that time. Why didn't you tell us there was a problem? You didn't say one single word to me until after the divorce. By then she was so far gone that I barely recognized her."
"She cheated too. She cheated first."
Patty sighs. "That's why I'm sitting here talking to you, Ian." She puts the car in gear and pulls forward.
By the time we get to Patty's house, I'm exhausted. My emotions are shot. Patty yanks up the parking brake and hands me the keys. "Sorry if I got a little harsh back there," she says.
"It's okay. I needed to hear that. I needed to be reminded." I take the keys and get out of the passenger door. I look up at the front porch, Mona's front porch, and I see my old mother-in-law staring through the screen door. I attempt to wave at her, but she stays as stiff as a statue.
Patty is waiting for me on the driver's side of the car. "Me and mom are going to visit her at the center tomorrow. Should I say hello for you?"
"I don't know what's best," I say.
"Alright," she says. There's something missing from her eyes.
"I'll miss you," I say, leaning in for a hug.
She obliges, and gives me a little squeeze. "You know," she says into my ear, "I think you should talk to somebody. Maybe a professional somebody."
I start to tear up and nod into her shoulder.
The hug ends, and she gives me a little wave before turning to the house. She walks to the porch through the crunchy snow on the front lawn. I once built a snowman there with Patty, when she was fifteen, and Mona, when she was my happy and devoted wife. The wind is starting to blow now, and my ears begin to hurt.
"I miss her," I call out.
Patty turns around, as if startled to hear my voice again.
"I miss her every day." Right now it feels like steam is rising from my eyes.
Patty smiles weakly and perks her eyebrows again. "I know," she says, "but don't you miss yourself too?"