“Are you sure she wants to see me?” Robert asks.
It’s the first thing he’s said in several minutes, which is utterly out of character. Robert never stops talking. Whether he’s showing off his latest signed first edition, asking you how much of J.F. Powers or Stephen Millhauser you’ve read, describing the progress he’s making on his next novel, or recalling some college scandal you haven’t thought of in thirty years, a visit with Robert is both hugely entertaining and utterly exhausting. A three-day stay once a year or so is about as much as my introverted soul can take.
So the fact that I’ve stunned him into silence by describing my conversation with Lucia French is practically a historic event. “She was extremely clear about that,” I say. “She basically ordered us both to drive to Gloucester tomorrow afternoon. And I came away with the distinct impression that this might be close to a dying wish. She hasn’t been well for the last few years, you know. I’ve told you that.”
“Jesus,” Robert says. He gets up and walks to the window. “I don’t know if I can do that. I don’t think I want to do that.”
We’re sitting in Robert’s library, the retrofitting of which was the last stage of the extensive renovation that Robert and Sandy have done to their grand house in the not-so-grand Boston suburb of Somerville. The built-in shelves are of oak, to match the paneling in the huge dining room and the wainscoting in the entry hall and the massive curving staircase to the second floor. The first editions lining the shelves are often admired but never read, the reading copies having been relegated to the shelves on the upstairs landing.
“I’m going to see her,” I tell Robert. “If you really can’t bring yourself to go with me, I can rent a car. But I would consider this a command performance. I really think—“
“Christ! I can tell you won’t let go of this.” Robert sits back down in one of the leather chairs and shakes his head. “All right, what time are we supposed to be there?”
“She said five o’clock.”
“Let’s get to town early. I’m going to need a drink first.”
“That’s fine,” I say. “I’ll even buy.”
If anyone had told me, back in college, that I would one day become good friends with Robert Mattingly, I would have suggested they were one Old Milwaukee over the line. For one thing, Robert was the chief verbal terrorist among our cadre of bitchy and highly competitive literature majors, and I was his frequent target. For another, he tended to pursue the very same smart and pretty young women that I was attracted to, and his record of success was far better than mine.
One of those young women was Lucia French. She was a slim, dark-haired first-year student and I was beginning my second year at New College, and we wound up siting next to each other at dinner soon after the term began. She thought she might want to major in literature and asked me what it was like. I told her I hoped she didn’t have thin skin. She informed me she’d been the star of her high school debating team and a regional forensic champion and definitely could hold her own with the mouthiest literary poseur.
I began to make it a point to stop by Lucia’s dorm room several times a week, and she generally seemed happy to see me. I asked her out to movies at the Asolo Theater, just a short walk from campus near the Ringling Museum of Art, and we even had a few dinner dates downtown after I persuaded her that riding on my Honda motorbike wouldn’t lead to her early demise. She was witty and outspoken and seemed to like nothing more than to tease me for taking myself too seriously. By the end of October, I was fairly sure that I was in love with her.
But it was not long before Robert started showing up at her dorm room every day, often before I arrived. The word was that he was making his way through the roster of female first-years, and Lucia’s time had arrived. If I went over when Robert was there, he’d nod curtly at me, then continue with whatever opinion he was expressing or story he was telling. Finally one day her roommate told me Lucia hadn’t been back to her room for several days, had left with her favorite pillow. I didn’t ask Lucia what was going on; it was obvious enough. And when she went home for Christmas that year, she didn’t come back. I asked Robert if he knew why. “I can only quote the Bard,” he said, tossing his hair out of his eyes in a characteristic Robert gesture. “‘Who is’t can read a woman?’ Cymbeline, as I’m sure you know.”
After college, to the extent that I thought about Robert Mattingly at all, it was to hope that our paths never crossed again. But many years later, when I’d just launched my very small publishing company and we found ourselves at the same book event in New York City, Robert invited me out for drinks, and to my surprise I found him both charming and sympathetic. He’d had a literary career, but it was modest enough not to inspire extreme envy. Among his published books, a tract on boxing had sold modestly well, but his novels, one of which I published, were critical successes and commercial failures. He taught English lit, but at Greater Boston Community College, not an ivy-covered sanctum. Yet he seemed very content with his lot.
It was not until Robert had invited me to his splendid house in Somerville that I understood the secret of his contented life: his wife, Sandy. She was a former member of the cabinet of a Democratic governor of Massachusetts, former head of a foundation connected to Harvard, current executive director of a prominent Boston charity, ambitious and indefatigable. And she was not only willing but anxious to underwrite her and Robert’s lifestyle, to finance the home renovations and the vacations in Martinique and Martha’s Vineyard, to make sure Robert kept fit and healthy, to host book launches for his novels, to maintain a comfortable life. She and Robert were genuinely in love, and she was his biggest fan.
Robert and I are meeting Sandy for dinner tonight in a loud, over-decorated restaurant near Fenway Park. I seldom see much of Sandy during my visits because she is seldom at home, what with working long hours at her charity’s offices and meeting potential contributors at wine receptions and art auctions and dinner parties, events that Robert shuns.
I like Sandy very much, in spite of the fact—or maybe because—our personalities are so dissimilar. She looks on Robert with affectionate bemusement, and I know she thinks I lack ambition, but she has a direct and forceful way of meeting the world that I can’t emulate but nonetheless find attractive.
She’s very curious about our Gloucester plans, which Robert outlined to her in an afternoon phone call. “I know Robert was the Lothario of New College. Was this Lucia French one of his conquests?” she asks me.
I glance over at Robert, who is giving his complete attention to buttering a roll. “You could say that,” I reply. “You could also say he took her away from me, or at least that’s what I would have told you then.”
“Robert!” Sandy says sharply. “This is why I don’t go to New College reunions.”
“It was a largely self-created reputation,” Robert says. “I wanted to see myself that way, I’m not sure why. It was mostly bullshit, like so much else about me in those days.”
“You’re much too modest,” I say. “I definitely didn’t see much of her after you moved in. And then—”
Robert says, “She disappeared.”
I nod. Sandy says, “Disappeared?”
“Yes,” Robert says, “she never came back to school after Christmas break.”
“And did you try to find out what happened?”
“I called her parents,” Robert says. “They wouldn’t tell me anything, and they wouldn’t let me talk to her.”
Sandy looks confused. Turning to me, she says, “So she never came back to college, but you’ve kept in touch with her. How did that happen?”
“That’s kind of a strange story,” I say. “I remembered she once told me she wanted to act. And one day I was reading a review of an Off-Broadway play and I saw her name, Lucia French. This was before Google, so I just called and bought a ticket—it was when I was living in New Jersey. And of course it was her. She was really good in the part. I hung around afterwards and we went for a drink and a bite to eat.”
“Was she surprised to see you?”
“Not as much as I expected, but she was always a very guarded person. We kept in touch after that. I went to her plays when I could, and we’d hang out. We talk on the phone, email, text, even exchange letters. We’re good friends. We see each other when we can.
“She’s had a decent career, I think. but not a spectacular one. Off-Broadway, a lot of regional theater, some small film and television roles. The last time I saw her in a play was in Gloucester—there’s a good professional theater there, Gloucester Stage. She was in three or four productions there, and she liked the town so much she bought a house a few years ago. I visited her there last year, right before I saw you and Robert.”
“And now she’s ill?”
“She won’t say much about that, but I think it’s breast cancer. I really don’t know for sure.”
“Well,” Sandy says, “be careful.” I’m not sure what she means by that. It’s a fairly easy drive out to Gloucester.
We leave after lunch the following day. Robert plays a Rolling Stones CD on the way up. I was more of a Byrds fan in the old days, but the Stones are fine. Robert sings along to “Ruby Tuesday.” True to his word, when we get to Gloucester, Robert pulls into the parking lot of a hotel overlooking the harbor and we head for the bar. I order a Bloody Mary and Robert has a draft beer. “So what have you told Lucia about me?” he asks finally.
“All the good stuff,” I tell him. “The books, teaching, Sandy, your house. How we became unlikely friends.”
“So did you ever ask her why she left college?”
“Of course I did. But it was clear she didn’t want to talk about it. She’d change the subject. So I never pressed it. We’ve tended to stay on the surface of most things, actually.”
Robert downs about half his beer. “But you and Lucia see a lot of each other. I’m guessing you’re a bit more than friends.” I nod. “ If you don’t mind my asking, after your—after—”
“After Sharon? You can say it.”
“After Sharon, after all you went through, did you ever think of marrying Lucia?”
The Bloody Mary isn’t quite as spicy as I like it, so I doctor it with Tabasco. “Of course it crossed my mind. And maybe if she’d given me any hint that was what she wanted—”
“She never married, right?”
“No, and I don’t think there was anyone serious. Maybe some brief connections in New York or when she was on the West Coast for a film, but nothing permanent.”
“And you weren’t serious?”
It seems to me that we’ve already squeezed all the possible juice from this topic. “Lucia and I have had some good innings. That’s really all I want to say.”
We drink in silence for a few minutes, then Robert says, “Time to face the music. Lead the way.”
Lucia lives in a part of Gloucester known as Rocky Neck, an artsy peninsula with narrow, crooked streets. There are galleries and restaurants clustered near the harbor front. Lucia’s place, a brown wood-shingled cottage, is a few blocks in from the water. Lucia answers the door in a long, loose Indian-cotton dress. She has lost some weight since I last saw her, and her gray hair is thinning. But her green eyes are as lovely as always, and she seems delighted to see us. She hugs us both and leads us into the small living room, which is somewhat dim in the late afternoon light. She turns on a lamp on a marble table. I can see that Lucia’s collection of art objects has grown considerably since my year-ago visit, or perhaps she’s just put more of her things out on display. But Lucia has a good eye for balance and texture, and the room seems more harmonious than cluttered.
“You’re looking wonderful,” Robert tells her.
“I’m sorry my hair is such a mess,” Lucia says. “But you know, ‘Gloucester girls, they have no combs, they comb their hair with codfish bones.’”
“‘And we’re bound for South Australia,’” I say, finishing the verse of the sea chantey. Lucia laughs, but Robert just looks puzzled.
“Mark’s just an old folkie,” Lucia says. “Do you still love the Stones, Robert?”
“Listened to them on the way up here,” he says. “What can I say? I’m a child of the sixties.”
“Some child,” Lucia says. She tells us to sit in the two antique armchairs facing a small loveseat. “I drink mostly white wine these days. I hope that suits. A liquor store that delivers—that’s my latest luxury.” She sits slowly on the loveseat.
Lucia has already laid out three wine glasses on a round mahogany table. She gestures to a bottle of Chardonnay and a corkscrew and I take the hint and open the bottle and pour. I hand glasses to Lucia and Robert. He lifts his glass and says, “To old times and good friends.”
I quickly add, “And good times to come,” and we all drink.
We talk about acting—Lucia says she considers herself retired, although she may take a small part at Gloucester Stage in September—and college. Robert tells stories, some of them salacious, of people Lucia would have known in her brief career at New College, and a few she wouldn’t. I add whatever details I can.
Lucia seems appropriately entertained, but after a while she grows silent. “Lucia?” I say.
She looks sad. “You know, in one way I really wanted to go back to New College, after that Christmas.”
I wonder if that’s why we’re here today. I speak my line: “Why didn’t you come back, Lucia? You never told me.”
She takes a deep breath. “It’s quite banal, really. I was pregnant.”
Robert puts down his wine glass and sits up in his chair, but doesn’t speak. There’s no mystery here. Lucia and I never made love while we were together at college, and Robert was her only other boyfriend that term.
“It was 1967. I don’t remember if there were actually any rules about pregnancy at New College, but I wasn’t about to subject myself to . . . I just wasn’t up for that.”
She looks at Robert and smiles. “Don’t worry. You don’t have an unacknowledged son or daughter out in the world. I had a miscarriage, and I had no particular trauma. My parents dealt with it reasonably well.” She leans forward and pours us all more wine. “But I do think a call from you would have been nice, Robert.”
Startled, I start to object. “Your parents—”
“No,” Robert interrupts me. “No, Lucia is absolutely correct. I didn’t call. Or write—we wrote letters in those days, but I didn’t write one. It’s one of a great many things from those days that I regret. I’m sorry, Lucia. Please, after so many years, forgive me.”
“I forgive you, Robert, of course. I realize it’s quite self-indulgent of me to even bring this up after all this time, but I’m kind of at a place where I can see the loose ends of my life, and I want them tied.”
“No, I don’t think this is self-indulgent on your part,” Robert says. “I was the self-indulgence champion of New College in the 1960s.”
“Or at least one of the finalists,” I say.
“You know,” Lucia says, “when people blame the Boomers for everything that’s gone wrong in the country, I get all self-righteous and defensive, but then I wonder if there isn’t some truth there. I wonder how much of our self-expression was actually selfishness. We were an acting-out kind of generation, and maybe it damaged us.”
Robert looks skeptical. “Damaged?”
“Made us less resilient somehow. Prone to emotional PTSD? I don’t know.” She smiles and looks at me. “When I asked you to marry me and you said that everything with Sharon had—what was it?—‘ruined’ you for marriage? I knew that was the truth, and it made me very sad, that she had hurt you that way. Disappointed for myself, of course, but very sad for you.”
To his credit, Robert doesn’t say anything, just sips his wine. Lucia goes on to talk about her garden and plans for installing some decorative tile in her kitchen, and then she says, “I get tired really easily these days.” Robert and I take the hint and say we need to get back to the city, and we thank her for the wine and conversation.
At the door, I tell Lucia I’ll call her next week. “I’d like that very much,” she says, and kisses me on the cheek. She tells Robert, “Now that you know where I live, come see me again.” He tells her he will.
As we walk back to the car, which is parked on the street that runs along the harbor, Robert says, “You asked me back at college if I knew why she didn’t come back. I said something obnoxious, right?”
“Have you forgotten? You quoted Cymbeline.”
“‘Who is’t can read a woman?’”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“You know the only other thing anyone can remember from Cymbeline? The song?”
Robert is silent for a few moments, but it’s not because he’s stumped. “I may not be an old folkie, but I do know the song: ‘Golden lads and girls all must, like chimney sweepers . . . ’”
“‘Come to dust,’” I recite.
When we get back to the car, Robert starts the engine, sits for a moment and says, “Mind if we hear the Stones again?”
“Not at all.”
But before he pushes the “play” button, as we thread through the narrow lanes back to the road out of Gloucester, Robert asks, “Do you ever go to YouTube and look for a song you listened to in college, and then the fucking algorithm finds another and another and before you know it, hours have gone by and you haven’t got a damn thing done, but you can’t write because you just can’t stop listening and remembering all that shit? Does that ever happen to you?”
The honest answer is “no,” but of course I don’t say that to Robert. I say, “Yeah, I know what you mean. I know how that goes. And it’s the damnedest thing.”
Lawrence Paulson is a writer of fiction and poetry in Hyattsville, Maryland. His poetry has been published in Southern Voices and Eunoia Review and received an International Merit Award in the Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition. A short story received an honorable mention in the 2014 Northern Colorado Writers Contest and was published in the contest anthology, Pooled Ink. He has been a journalist, copy editor, association executive, publisher, and the owner of an unsuccessful yarn shop. A native of New Jersey, he received a B.A. in literature from New College of Florida.