Developers had refurbished all the old houses on Bow Street and the agent and I perched in one of the new restaurants there sipping martinis and slurping oysters. We watched salt being unloaded onto the Portsmouth harborside from a huge Bulgarian tanker flying under a Maltese flag from the port of Valletta. We laughed as we savored the briney terrors of creatures and spirits unknown to us.
A few months before, the agent had e-mailed me that she believed I could get a good contract with a small but distinguished publishing house based on a story of mine that had appeared in an obscure journal in England. All I had to do was turn it into a novel. I sent off a vague proposal for doing so in ways as yet unclear to me and we were eating cod cakes at an overpriced bistro in New England. Thanks for coming up, I said. Oh, always enjoyable to get out of the city. Especially to go to Maine, the agent said. This is not Maine, that is across the river there. Well, to me it feels like Maine and is close enough. Right. New York has lots of things, I added, but not everything. She asked if I had offers from other publishers? No and if any came along I would not be enticed. How will the novel develop she wondered?
I’ll tie in loose ends that come along as I proceed, I wished I had said. But if she noticed my hand tremor slightly she gave no sign and I repeated my desire to stay with Frank because his reputation as a publisher I respected more than any inducements another outfit might try to offer. Besides, I assured her this opening scene would not work in any other sort of story.
A miniature flag of the Order of the Knights of Malta stood in the corner of the bookshelf behind the receptionist and tilted against the side of the box in front of it a postcard from Valletta. They guarded a tightly packed row of books. Each section of the whole rosewood wall unit was loaded with books and a dusty collection of cards, notes, tiny baskets, ceramic tiles, small bowls, statuettes, items from a hundred souvenir shops from across the globe. I thought I would ask the young woman about the Maltese flag, but our attention became absorbed in the paperwork in front of us. Lara wanted me to have the tests yet again even though I felt fine and we both knew we were satisfying her compulsions. Since her father had died four years ago, somewhat suddenly of an undiagnosed cancer, she had become obsessed with making sure we both had enough tests to insure against any similar catastrophe. I managed to keep to one such exam a year. We waited for close to an hour, the waiting room packed with people mostly our age. Lara was reading a long book on her iPad these days. I had forgotten the book I was working on so I leafed through the pile of magazines. No articles on travel escapes to Malta or any other islands I might be curious to visit. Beautiful photo spreads of lots of sunny places, sparkling cities, remote beaches and blue depths and expanses.
Visits to medical centers of any sort trigger thoughts in me that are by now familiar and even consoling. In large hospitals, in small waiting rooms, we learn to savor our solitude. Everyone is in the same situation with or without a diagnosis for a specific problem. Death is taking down someone nearby and we don’t know it, usually, often, and we get attacked by it every so often. Someone we know dies suddenly or gets a shock of a diagnosis. If I am symptom free at the moment, for the time being, it makes me delighted and even more on guard as the years add on to each other in my private spinal chord plus enclosing body which it struggles to keep erect. Hemorrhoids, new eyeglass prescription, indigestion, poor sleep every so often, anxiety attacks, nervous worries, memories of more severe breakdowns, the adolescent depressive states, the short-term hospitalization for mental or nervous problems, lowered cell count, stress-induced insomnia, stomach difficulties, poor appetite, overweight, overeating, underperforming heart rhythms, breathing difficulties, pain in the knees, arthritis that “comes with age.” Even without a specific crisis, our baggage of health imperfections keeps filling, expanding, getting heavier. If you’re conscious of time at thirty or forty, you begin a kind of zen reversal once you get past sixty, an aptitude for denial, for ignoring the progressions, for focusing only on the moment at hand and for imagining the next, the upcoming without imagining their worst possibilities. Algorithms take care of realities, our hearts look for comfort at every turn, in every breath, we become masters at being grateful whether we are really grateful or not. Our dishonesty with ourselves at what might happen now or later, turns into an unshakeable faith in what is good right now. Ironies appeal less and less, clever observations fade before the embrace not so much of resignation as of the acceptance of the comfort and security of what is, now.
I never knew if Lara understood any of this when I tried to say something of it. She didn’t know, or she did know, that I couldn’t comprehend the grip her obsessions about diagnosis, about the pronouncements of a medical authority, had on her. These visits to clinics, to doctors and medical centers, became simply entre’acts for other stage of our drama together. Interludes. You welcome, eventually, a patience for fulfilling the script at hand that much younger people don’t even have the convolutions in their souls to even imagine.
I learned this during Olivia’s illness. Anxiety, terror, depression pushed me to find some glimmer of exaltation somewhere. When we eventually came out into the other side, it was elation stronger than I had ever felt. I realized we learn to hover, to oscillate, to compress both feelings into a lifelong devotion to the hum of vitality itself, the faint buzz of consciousness wherein we simultaneously die and live, feel sadly joyful, desperate-ecstatic.
Her concern for my health figured in a larger collaborative relationship we had forged and at this point her self-interest involved wanting my encouragement to go ahead and adopt an older child. Lara brought up the possibility about a year ago, not long after her forty-eighth birthday. We were looking at a disturbing, as always, Diane Arbus exhibit one weekday afternoon at the museum which we often visited. Lara was self-employed, and I, now a writer.
Lara had been my student, briefly, years before at a time when I thought I wanted to try university teaching. It was a dull class, I realized soon enough, on contemporary novels. She was the best student and we had a few coffees. I went back to practice, our lives diverged. Years later when I returned to Portland, she said hello to me one day at Whole Foods. We fell into a friendship that never would have been possible earlier. She and her boyfriend of years had broken up a few months earlier. We found we enjoyed walking around town, the promenades, the boulevard, the port. We continued, going on six years. Our close friends knew we enjoyed looking, not at one another, but at views, paintings, movies together. Lara now felt age was making her face one key question: why not adopt a child, even an older child?