“Come on, man, call her,” Sloan says. “She’s single, slender, no kids, good job, condo on the lake.” He ticks off her attributes like options on a Mercedes. Compared to her features, I feel like a used Plymouth. “You know she’d love to hear from you. My boyfriend’s back and all that.” Sloan regards me. It’s your move, man.”
Two weeks later, I still haven’t moved. Oh, I’ve written my script, highlighted my talking points. Even so, I’m hoping for voice mail because improv terrifies me. The dial tone drones on. Stay cool, No big deal. Like it’s every day I call my high school sweetheart after thirty years. Keep the conversation light, accentuate the positive, then just slip in that her prom date is now blind. What’s the worst she could say—“I don’t date blind guys?” Nah, she’ll be open-minded, curious in a scientific way. She majored in biology, after all. She won’t get all dramatic like if she’d become a poet. Or ask a lot of feeling questions like a social worker.
I punch the buttons. Four rings, then a click. New age music, like at the dentist’s. Beep. What, no greeting?
“Uh, um. This call is for Mary. Mary, this is Jeff. Yes, junior prom Jeff.” My throat is closing. “I know it’s been a long time. I’ve recently moved back to Rockford and I hear you’ve been back for reunions. Next time you’re in town, I’m wondering if, if we could get together, well, for lunch or something?” Where’s my script? “I know this may be a surprise. So, when you pick yourself up off the floor, I hope you’ll give me a call.” Good ad lib. Now, wrap it up. “My number is 815…”
“Hello, Jeff.” That voice—warm, subtle and so familiar. That voice leaves me speechless. “When I heard it was you, I started chuckling. Not sure why.”
“Chuckling’s better than cursing,” I say.
“When the phone rang, I was playing with my dog,” says Mary. “My dog’s name is Keeper. I’ve heard about your dog, Sherlock. Sloan told me about him a year ago, when you trained with him.”
“Oh, so you know,” I say. “About my eyes, I mean, because you know about Sherlock.”
“Yes,” says Mary, “and I think it’s wonderful.”
“You think what’s wonderful?”
“You’ll see, Jeff. Keeper is a special dog, too. He fills my heart with love.”
“That is, well, wonderful,” I say.
“Yes, it is. I adopted Keeper from Boxer rescue the same time you got Sherlock. Keeper and I go for walks. By walking with him, I have regained my strength. I had breast cancer and I had a lumpectomy and chemo and radiation last year. I got pretty weak. But I’m stronger now.”
“Jeez,” I say. This part about Mary having cancer isn’t in my script
“I guess so. I can’t believe you had cancer.”
“Neither could I,” she says, and chuckles. “At least for a while. It wasn’t the end of the world, though at first, I thought it was. Still, it was a rough stretch. A year before the cancer, my dad died. I loved my dad. He took me sailing every Sunday. I miss him.”
And I thought bad stuff only happened to me. “I remember your dad,” I say. “He looked like Dennis Mitchell’s father. You know, Dennis the Menace.” What am I saying? “I’m sorry about your dad, Mary. I recall him as a kind man.”
“He was that. And he looked like Dennis Mitchell’s father. You have a good memory.”
“I remember all sorts of things. I remember your Standard Poodle named Coco. He liked to play in the water with us.”
“I remember riding with you in my first car, the red Camaro. I remember the party you had senior year when your parents were out of town. I remember you were Junior Class treasurer. I remember what I wrote in your sophomore yearbook. I remember your integrity. I remember everything.”
“We’ve missed you at the reunions,” says Mary. “They’ve been fun.”
“Well, I moved pretty far away, then I got self-conscious about losing my hair, then I got self-conscious about losing my eyesight. It’s all silly, I know. I’ve got a lot of growing up to do.”
After a pause, Mary says, “I’d like to see you next time I come to Rockford. We can go for coffee.”
Coffee? I hate the taste and caffeine makes my skin crawl. ” Sounds great,” I tell Mary.
We set a date and say goodbye. I hang up the phone and shake my head. Mary sounds serene, like she’s absorbed the ultimate lesson in life. I sound woeful and self-pitying. Mary must think I’m an idiot—and she’s right
That night, I dream I am driving my red Camaro with Mary beside me. I see the highway for miles ahead. Mary wears a white summer sweater. She does not have breast cancer. We are driving to the lake. Mary’s dad gave us gas money. Coco the dog rides in the back seat. He holds his favorite beach toy in his mouth. He’s drooling.
Two weeks later, at the appointed hour, I step outside to await Mary. I am thinking about how she has bounced back from cancer and her father’s death. I want to be out front when she arrives, standing tall.
Through the dark, I make out her headlights drawing even with me. Then her car door opens and I hear her dog skitter toward me and I hear my dog spring toward her and I shout, “Keeper!” and Mary shouts, “Sherlock!”
“Mary, you look like you’re sixteen years old,” I call to her, for that’s how I remember her, even though now she just blends into the dark night.
And Mary calls, “You’ve got hair,” and it’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. And then Mary yells, “And so do I,” and I celebrate being a survivor right along with her.
We laugh and I love the sound of it. We hug and I love the feel of it. And Mary tells me the dogs are leaping and dancing in the moonlight. And I hear them panting and blowing like new old friends and it’s the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.
Mary kisses my cheek and her frosted breath carries the scent of coffee. And all this is happening so fast and I kiss her cheek and I smell the scent of coffee again on her breath and it’s the sweetest scent ever to come my way.
Postscript: Mary and I married in 2010. She has brought joy where all I hoped for was relief. We continue to work together toward acceptance and progress. Mary’s cancer remained in remission until November, 2015. I have written of her subsequent surgery and on-going recovery in recent blogs, “Homecoming” and “Common Denominator.” Happy Valentines to all.
[A version of this story appeared in The Rockford Review, copyright 2011. Used with permission.]