Martin sat at a small patio table at the craft brewery. A pinkish sunburn on his bald spot and the slight build of an introvert were his most striking features. His friend Gabe sat across from him trying to attract the attention of the waitress. Gabe, with his large shock of white hair and broad shoulders twice the size of Martin’s, was not used to being ignored.
“Am I invisible?” Gabe asked Martin.
“Maybe so,” said Martin as he glanced around at the other brewpub patrons, mainly thirty-somethings.
Gabe waved one arm vigorously. “Ah, now she sees me.”
“There is beer in our future,” Martin chuckled. “And here comes Warren.”
Warren, a burly man with a perpetually red face, strode onto the patio smiling broadly.
“Sorry fellas, traffic.”
Five minutes later, with craft beers and a large plate of nachos before them, the old friends discussed world events, local gossip and whatever else came into their heads.
Martin was the only one of the three who was still working. He was an investigator for the government agency that regulated banks and wrote short stories in his spare time. Gabe was a retired English teacher, Warren a retired lawyer.
“I heard that the owner of this place just left his wife and moved in with that waitress,” Gabe said.
“Lucky him,” said Warren.
“...Said the twice-divorced lawyer who lives alone,” Martin added.
Gabe smiled. “Apparently the waitress’ former husband was one of the bartenders here until one night last month when he came home unexpectedly and walked in on her and the owner buck naked on the living room couch. It’s kind of sad. He and the owner had been best friends since childhood.”
“Ain’t love grand?” said Warren, grabbing a handful of the nachos.
“I remember reading a short story years ago about a Russian guy who falls in love with his friend’s wife,” said Martin.
“Chekhov,” Gabe said. “On Love.”
“I thought it was called ‘About Love.’”
“Different translators, same basic story.”
The friends were silent for a while. Martin heard the faint rumbling of thunder in the distance.
Warren smirked. “Wasn’t Chekhov the guy who said never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”
“So, we haven’t seen you much lately. What have you been up to, Martin?” Gabe asked.
Martin took a long drink of his beer. He looked at his friends across the table, then at the clouds again. It was one of those days when thunderheads move slowly across the desert sky, and one is never sure whether they will just pass by or erupt into a downpour. Then he began his story:
As you guys know, I’ve been a widower for the past five years. The house is paid off. So is the car. And Barbara’s life insurance policy was substantial. I could retire, I suppose. But I choose to keep working at my job mainly because the people I work with are pleasant and the work is interesting. I was hoping that I could meet someone my own age. But the likelihood of such a thing is remote. I’m thirty years older than almost everyone I work with.
My only coworker over fifty is a guy named Declan who is in his late fifties. He’s an ex-cop who retired from the force about ten years ago at the same time that he and his first wife divorced.
Declan is remarried now to a woman named Maeve who’s in her early thirties. She’s from Ireland, came over to work at a beach resort in Maine. They met when Declan was on vacation up there a few years ago and soon after that they were married. She never went back home to Galway.
Declan and I became friends when we worked on a few cases together. We went out after work for a beer and a burger every so often. He knew I’d lost my wife and was alone a lot, so he invited me over to his house for dinner now and then. I declined his first few invitations, not wanting to impose on him and his wife. But then I went to his 4th of July barbecue a couple of years ago.
They’ve got a great house on a huge, landscaped lot. When I arrived at the barbecue, about twenty people were already there. Declan was running around making sure everyone was having a good time. Maeve was in charge of entertaining the kids. She and Declan had no kids of their own, but some of the guests had brought their kids to the party.
They had set up a little inflatable plastic pool out in the middle of the backyard, and Maeve was in her swimsuit splashing around with the kids, spraying them with the garden hose. Declan introduced me to a few of their friends and then brought me over to introduce me to Maeve.
“Maeve, honey, this is my friend Martin from work,” he said.
She looked up at me from the kiddie pool; her hair was wet. She put it behind her ears and stood up, smiled and shook my hand. “Martin, so nice to meet you finally. Declan is always talking about you.”
She had bright blue eyes and a copper-bronze complexion, here and there freckles. In short, she was beautiful. I grinned and nodded, unable to utter more than a “hello.”
“Time for a pint?” she asked.
She bounced over to the keg and poured me a perfect pint in a red plastic cup.
“Enjoy!” she said and returned to the little pool. My eyes followed Maeve as she splashed all the squealing kids.
I stood in the midst of the partygoers sipping my beer. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Maeve. Something about her reminded me of my wife when we were younger. Maeve and Barbara had the same light-brown hair. Barbara was also great with kids even though we never had any of our own.
A feeling of guilt grew inside me; after all, Maeve was not Barbara. She was my friend’s wife, for God’s sake. I wandered around the party chatting with the other guests and trying to focus on anything other than Maeve and the echoes of Barbara that were so powerful.
I thought about Declan and how important Maeve must be to him. His first marriage was a failure, and he told me that he was trying hard to get this one right. I had to admire his energy. For many people, one career and one marriage is enough. When we talked, I could sense that he was committed to his new job and to his new homelife. That made my attraction to Maeve feel even more unwise.
Later that day, when the food was ready, everyone picked out spots around the large picnic tables on the patio. Maeve appeared through the sliding glass doors in a T-shirt that said “Galway Gal,” a pair of jeans and a Yankees cap. She squeezed herself into a small space on the picnic bench between Declan and me.
“The food’s great,” I said, trying to distract myself from the fact that her leg was snug against mine under the table.
She had put on some makeup, and the scent of her cologne reminded me of one that Barbara used to like when we were young. It had been years since I’d sat this close to a woman.
As we ate and drank, I was afraid to join in the conversation around the table. The beer in front of me was my third, maybe my fourth, and I was concerned I might inadvertently let slip how taken I was with Maeve. The music blared from the patio speakers, songs that took me back twenty years. I was time traveling, a younger version of myself, and the woman beside me wasn’t Maeve, it was Barbara, shimmying to the music as the late afternoon turned to dusk.
When it was time for me to leave, I found Declan by the kegs. I thanked him and he hollered to Maeve. She ran over to us. When she was a few feet away, her bare feet slipped on the grass that was damp with early evening moisture. She grabbed me on the arm to keep herself from falling.
“Good thing you were here to break my fall,” she laughed as she let go of my arm. “Don’t be a stranger now.”
When I got to my car, I sat for a moment and took a deep breath. I ran my hand over the place where she had grabbed my arm. I felt a frightening combination of exhilaration and dread.
A few months passed before I saw Maeve again. Declan asked if I wanted to go to the country with them on their annual trip to buy apples and pumpkins. He knew I had nothing to do most weekends, so I couldn’t say no.
I was nervous as I drove up to their house. Declan was in the driveway packing the cooler and some folding chairs into the trunk.
We went inside to get Maeve. She was sitting at an upright piano playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” She stopped playing and turned to us.
“Please don’t stop,” I said without thinking.
“Oh, I need practice, I stopped at the difficult part,” she laughed and got up from the piano bench. She looked different, a bit heavier than in the summer.
She looked me over. “Not really dressed for farm work, are you?”
I looked down at my flannel shirt and khaki pants. “Are we picking the apples and pumpkins?”
“I hope so,” she said.
“No way, I’m too old for that kind of work,” Declan said.
He went into the kitchen, leaving Maeve and me alone together in the family room. We looked at each other, nervously silent.
Declan drove. Maeve insisted that I sit in the front seat where there was more leg room. She kept up a funny monologue from the back seat.
“Why’d the chicken cross the road halfway, Martin?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Because she wanted to lay it on the line.”
Declan groaned. I chuckled.
Maeve talked about growing up around Galway. She said when she was a teenager, one of her friends had a beat-up old car that they used for road trips to the countryside.
“The floor under the gas and brake pedals and the clutch was rusted out, so there was a piece of plywood duct taped in its place. When we went through a puddle too fast, the wooden floor would float up and then flop back into place as the water receded. It was a terrible car. But it beat walking.”
I glanced at her over my shoulder. Her eyes were electric with energy, bright blue. Exactly like Barbara’s. I forgot what I was going to say.
“Where did you grow up, Martin?”
“The New York City suburbs. I had my own beater of a car in high school. It was a Chevy Corvair, the one that Ralph Nader wrote about in his book called ‘Unsafe at Any Speed.’”
“Nice.” Maeve laughed.
“The engine was in the back, the trunk in front, so if you got up to about 70 miles per hour, the front tires would start to come off the ground and you could turn the wheel to the left or right and the car would keep going straight.”
“So, Nader was right,” said Declan.
Maeve said that when she was a kid, they used to go out in a friend’s fishing boat and smoke weed while they were bobbing around Galway Bay. Sometimes there was sudden dense fog or choppy water. Getting back to the dock wasn’t always easy. Especially when everyone was stoned.
I told them how we did the same thing in my friend Steve’s boat in the Great South Bay off Long Island. I found myself rambling on about how Barbara and I used to go water skiing with Steve and his girlfriend Pam. It had been a long time since I’d thought about how Barbara and I had been high school sweethearts. As I spoke, I could picture Barbara, her strong swimmer’s shoulders glistening in the summer sun.
“It must have broken your heart when you lost her,” Maeve said.
“We had a good life together, it just ended way too soon,” I said.
The conversation dwindled to silence. The suburbs changed to countryside. Farm stand signs touted hayrides and corn mazes.
We bought a bushel of apples, a few pumpkins and two jugs of apple cider, then found a picnic table in a clearing on the side of the road and had our lunch. Declan didn’t let Maeve carry anything heavy.
Maeve sipped apple cider and nibbled a sandwich as she looked at the surrounding fields and the cloudless blue sky.
“How long have you played the piano?” I asked.
“Well, I took lessons back home on and off but gave it up when I came to the states. Declan bought me that piano last Christmas so I could start playing again.”
Declan smiled and drank his beer. “Gotta teach the kids to play one of these days.”
“Are you going to have kids?”
Maeve closed her eyes and then opened them slowly. “I’m due in April. Twins.”
I hoisted my beer. “Congratulations.”
Mave took another sip of cider. “It’s a little overwhelming. But I’m getting used to the idea. My sister said she’ll come and help me when they’re born.”
On the drive home Maeve fell asleep in the back seat. I did the calculations in my head and determined that Declan would be over seventy when the twins graduated from high school.
The following spring, Maeve gave birth to the twins, a girl who they named Sarah and a boy that they named Sean.
The christening was followed by a party at their house. Maeve’s sister Mary Clare had come from Ireland, as planned, to help her with the babies. The party was a loud affair, friends and relatives from all over laughing and talking. Music filled the house. I found Maeve in the large bedroom that had been converted into a nursery changing one of the babies and handed her the baby gifts I’d bought, one with a pink bow, the other with a blue bow.
“Oh, Martin, thank you so much.” She hugged me for what seemed like a long time. She pressed herself against me. Her body was warm, her breasts much larger now. Her eyes had the look of someone who hadn’t slept well in a while. “Bless you for coming.” She kissed me softly on the cheek and turned her attention back to the babies.
Mary Clare squinted at me from the doorway.
I found Declan in the backyard with his cousins from Chicago.
“Hey, Martin. Come on over here and meet my family,” he called out to me. “This is my cousin Ned. And this is my cousin Kevin.”
I shook hands with them all, feeling strangely conflicted. All I could think about was the feeling of Maeve’s embrace and her soft kiss on my cheek.
As the party wound down, I decided it would be best if I just waved to Maeve and Declan as I was leaving. They were surrounded by family, so they just waved back. On the way to my car, I saw Mary Clare give me the side-eye from where she stood talking to Declan’s cousins.
As time passed, I spent a fair amount of time with Declan, Maeve, Sarah and Sean. Declan looked worn out from fatherhood. Maeve was a doting mother, very much consumed by all the caring that the twins required. When we got together, I couldn’t help but notice that she would often nod off while Declan and I were talking.
Declan and I talked about work and about life. He told me that his first marriage was derailed by their inability to have children. His wife and he were disappointed to the point of despair. They tried to draw satisfaction from their careers, Declan working as much overtime as possible and progressing up the chain of command in law enforcement, while his wife went to law school and set records at her law firm for billable hours. After too many years in separate worlds, they sought out a couples’ therapist. But eventually they ended up divorcing.
Declan said that he wanted desperately for his marriage to Maeve to succeed. This time around he dedicated himself to Maeve and the kids. But he was concerned that the pressure of parenthood was wearing him out and putting Maeve under a lot of pressure as well. He explained that she had grown up in a large family where the older children were expected to raise the younger ones. Maeve was the youngest of her siblings, and for many years she was lost in the shuffle. In her teens she had become the family “wild child.” Her parents had run out of energy for childrearing, which meant that Maeve was free to explore dangerous detours. She dabbled in drug use and drank to excess. She was hanging around with a bad crowd in high school and, after a few arrests for petty crime, eventually ended up in a court-ordered substance abuse rehab program. The rehab program helped her to grow up and leave behind the wild child persona and all that came with it. Moving to the U.S. got her away from the ne’er-do-well crowd she had associated with back home.
As time passed, I became an honorary uncle to Sarah and Sean. Maeve and Declan’s extended family members lived far away in Chicago and Ireland, so they weren’t much of a presence in the kids’ lives. Instead, I was there at Christmas, and for their first two birthday parties.
Maeve and the twins would come to visit me when Declan was out of town for work, and we would go to the park or a playground. We talked for hours as the kids ran around. She was homesick for Ireland and overwhelmed with motherhood. She and Declan had grown apart as he spent a lot of time traveling for work. She told me she was happy to have me to confide in. And I felt less lonely as I spent time with her. Maeve trusted me and sought my advice on topics big and small.
She began to keep a journal and sometimes read it aloud as we watched the kids run around the playgrounds and parks. I told her I thought that she was a good writer and gave her my copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and a few other similar books. She took an online memoir class, squeezing it in when the kids were napping or asleep at night. Her writing improved, but so did her feelings of isolation.
I shared some of my life experiences with her, all the while knowing that I was depending on this friendship to remedy my own loneliness. As we spent more time together, I knew that I was falling in love with her. When our hands touched each time we said goodbye, my heart raced.
One night last winter I got a panicked call from Maeve. Declan was away on another business trip, so she was home alone with the kids. The electricity went out in their neighborhood after a tree limb brought down a power line. She asked if I could come over.
Maeve met me at the front door. She was holding a flashlight and was wearing a winter coat. It was clear that she’d been drinking. And crying. The house was cool but not cold yet. She said she’d called Declan, but he hadn’t answered. The next person she’d called was me.
It was snowing heavily when I went outside to retrieve some firewood from beneath the garage overhang. In a few minutes we had a healthy fire going in the living room fireplace. Maeve and I pulled chairs closer to the hearth. She asked me if I wanted a drink, but I nodded toward the weather outside and said I had better stay sober for the drive home. She poured herself a glass of Bailey’s. The bottle was half empty.
About twenty minutes later, the electricity came back on. In an instant we were in the brightly lit living room looking silly in our coats. Maeve moved around the room turning off some of the lights. She checked the refrigerator to see that everything was still cold.
“Sure, you won’t have a beer, Martin,” she called to me.
“No, thanks,” I said.
A child’s voice called out from upstairs. Maeve trudged up the stairs slowly. She was there for about fifteen minutes.
As Maeve descended the stairs, I told her that I ought to go. She made a clownish frown for a moment. Then smiled. “If you must.”
We stood near the front door. She’d taken her winter coat off and was dressed in a snug T-shirt and leggings.
She thanked me for coming and we embraced. She sniffed and buried her face into the spot where my shoulder met my neck. I stood frozen for a moment, then I stroked her hair.
“Everything’s okay now,” I said.
“If only,” she said. “If only.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand and laughed a little.
That was about six months ago. It’s developed into a very sad situation for Declan, Maeve and the kids. When Declan returned from that business trip, he found her drunk and asleep on the couch, the kids alone upstairs. A couple of months later she checked herself into a residential treatment program. But she started drinking again as soon as she was back home.
Declan realized that he needed to be more involved and that he had to stop working so much. He also gave Maeve an ultimatum: either she gets sober, or he’ll divorce her and take the kids.
Maeve lives in her own apartment now. She sees Sarah and Sean during chaperoned visits on alternate weekends. Declan’s niece moved in with him and minds the twins when he’s at work. He transferred to a different section of the agency where he doesn’t have to travel as much. I hardly see him at work anymore.
I tried to stop thinking about Maeve, but I couldn’t. I know it’s absurd for someone my age to even consider pursuing a relationship with her. But we have loneliness in common, and we are each other’s remedy.
She called me one night last month to say hello and asked me if I could come over and help her figure out how to connect the cable box to a new TV that she’d bought. When I got there, I quickly figured out that the TV was already connected correctly. She was just looking for company. I was happy to see that she was sober, and from our conversation it seemed that she was making progress toward getting her life back together.
She told me that she and Declan were in the process of getting divorced. It was apparently taking forever and costing a lot of money. On the bright side, she said that Sarah and Sean have gotten used to the arrangement, living with Declan and visiting with her. They have stopped acting out in preschool and seem happier. Declan has agreed to let her take the kids to Disney World over the holidays. And Maeve has a job in a bank in town.
As we talked that night, we looked into each other’s eyes. She put her hand on my cheek. I covered her hand with mine, then I put her hand to my lips and kissed it. As Chekov would say, our spiritual fortitude deserted us. She led me to the bedroom and we made love till morning.
The next afternoon she called me. She was crying and cursed me for taking advantage of her. Then she said she was sorry and begged me to come over. I told her I didn’t think that was a good idea. She hung up on me.
Later that day I drove over to her apartment. I’ve been spending the night at her place ever since. I know it’s unusual. I’m only a few years younger than her parents. But at this time in our lives, we need each other. I don’t know what I’ll do when it inevitably ends. For now, I’ve decided to be thankful, and happy.
She reads to me from her journal at night. I talk about anything and everything with her. I’ve read her some of my short stories. I’ve never done that with anyone, except Barbara. And sometimes I wake up to the sound of her practicing on the used electric piano I bought for her on eBay a few weeks ago. Debussy mostly. With a little more practice, she’ll be able to get through “Clair de Lune” without any mistakes.
Warren and Gabe looked across the table at Martin. No one said anything for a few minutes. Then the waitress who lives with the brew pub owner came by and they ordered more beer.
As she walked away from the table, Gabe admired her smooth gait and auburn hair. Then he looked over at the owner who was tending bar. Gabe shook his head and said, “I guess they know what they’re doing.”
“They do,” said Warren. “Right, Martin?”
Martin looked up at the thunderheads floating by and shook his head from side to side slowly. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”