Carol M. Olmstead
What would she say to the lover she hadn’t seen in 20 years?
What Rebecca would wear when she saw him had been decided the day she opened the invitation to Miguel’s wedding in Albuquerque. The mid-calf black wool skirt with the slit up the left side. There could still be a chill to the March air so her choice of wool would not be questioned. The new short sleeve silk blouse, off-white with the black trim around the stand-up collar. The newer still chocolate brown linen jacket with the three-quarter length sleeves and the black embroidery around the hem would work perfectly with the black wool skirt. The jacket hid her hips. There was more hip now than the last time she had seen him 20 years ago.
Rebecca counted back two and a half weeks from the wedding date to find a day for an appointment with her hair stylist. That would put the wedding right in that perfect short window of time between when the cut was too short and when the style began to lose its shape. At the last minute she also booked time with the colorist. Maybe some red highlights this time. She had changed a lot in 20 years, and now, in mid-life, she was not happy with all of it. She needed all the help she could get if she was going to see him again. Nothing could be left to chance.
Her husband was thrilled with the idea of an out-of-town wedding when Rebecca showed him the invitation that evening. “Yes, of course we should go,” Tim had agreed readily. After all, they went to the wedding of his college roommate’s daughter in Tucson. They went to his elderly aunt and uncle’s 60th anniversary party in Denver. Any excuse to leave the gray New York winter and go west of the Rockies worked for both of them.
“Let’s go a few days before the wedding,” Tim suggested, his enthusiasm building, “and rent a 4-wheel drive.” Tim talked of seeing Santa Fe and Taos, of endless blues skies, and of the starry night sky. Rebecca talked only about wanting to be there when her long-time friend Miguel married his high school sweetheart.
Yes, off course, Rebecca and Tim would go to Albuquerque.
And so would Rory.
Rebecca saw him as soon as she came around the path that led to the small adobe chapel in the center of the University of New Mexico campus. He was alone, leaning against a cottonwood, its new buds forming a green haze against the brilliant, cloudless New Mexico sky. She knew instinctively it was Rory, although she had to look twice to reassure herself. This man didn’t really look like the man she remembered. The face was fuller, more jowly. The body -- as much of his body as she would allow herself to take in at the first glance -- was more filled out than it had been 20 years ago. He was no longer the thin, lanky cowboy. Filled out, but somehow more athletic. She would know for sure if she could see his eyes, but they were hidden behind sunglasses.
Tim didn’t want to be the first in the chapel, since neither of them knew anyone but the groom, so they stopped in front, a stone’s throw from where Rory was protected by the cottonwood. He was wearing a suit, Rebecca noted with surprise as she surreptitiously glanced at him. Nice European cut and a flattering shade of olive with a good brown tie. When Rebecca and Rory were dating, he had only owned one tweed sport coat. “What would a Texas cowboy need with a suit?” he had laughed.
Rebecca and Tim filled their waiting time with the small talk that came so naturally to them. Tim noticed the incredibly blue sky and, ever the architect, how much he liked the design of the campus. Rebecca said it would be even more beautiful when the cottonwoods were in bloom. Tim admitted he thought he might feel awkward at the wedding of a friend with whom she had so much history. But now, after last night’s dinner for out-of-town guests hosted by the bride and groom, he felt remarkably comfortable. Rebecca lied about how comfortable she felt.
As they rambled on, Rory walked past her without a sign of recognition. Maybe it was her own sunglasses disguising her, she thought, excusing the oversight. Or maybe it was the husband beside her. Or, maybe this wasn’t Rory.
The last time she thought she saw Rory was 10 years ago, at an out-of-town conference. So sure it was him, she left a note for him on the message board: “Rory, if that’s you, give me a call,” it said, with her maiden name and cell number. The message stayed on the board for the entire 3-day conference, so in the end she decided it wasn’t him. The other possibility was unacceptable.
Miguel, the nervous groom, was standing just inside the gently arched chapel doorway to greet his guests as Rebecca and Tim entered.
“Guess who is here?” he smiled as she hugged him.
“Rory! Rory Washburn,” he said. “He said he wasn’t sure he could make it, but he’s here.”
Rebecca knew well of Rory’s failure to commit.
“Rory is here?” she acted surprised. “I’ll have to find him.”
Rebecca and Tim never talked about the relationships they had before they met. Of course each knew way too much about the other’s ex-spouse. But they had tacitly decided that when it came to the time period between their respective divorces and when they had met, what was past should be left in the past. So Tim knew only of Rory as a “friend” from Phoenix she had met through Miguel.
Now it was a confirmed sighting. Rory was here. She quickly scanned the chapel and through the filtered light from the leaded glass windows she saw him sitting alone near the wall in the fourth row from the back.
“There’s Rory,” she pointed out to her husband.
“Let’s sit next to him,” he offered, innocently. “He’s the only other person you know here.”
After 20 years, Rory was here and she was here -- and her husband was here. It was not how she had imagined their reunion would be. They turned into his row and Rebecca inched sideways along the polished wood pew toward him, Tim following behind. She had hoped Rory would be the first to speak, but as he nodded to acknowledge their presence he still showed no sign of recognition. The ball was in her court.
She extended her hand toward his. “Rory?” she asked, struggling to keep her voice steady. His smile was puzzled.
“It’s Rebecca. Rebecca Olson.”
He remained without a clue, so she took a stab at his heart.
“I was Becky Goldstein when you knew me.”
The change came over Rory’s face slowly, as recognition seeped into his consciousness. It was as if his brain was doing a frantic disk search, pulling together the scattered fragments of a whole memory.
And then there was a smile of recognition.
The smile that had never stopped sneaking into Rebecca’s consciousness, until she fell in love with Tim and put Rory out of her mind for good. Or, so she thought.
It moved quickly after that. Rory slid over so she could sit next to him. Rebecca introduced Tim. The men shook hands, they exchanged small talk, and the processional began. And Rebecca’s mind began to wander to when she was 27, recently divorced, and attending a conference in Phoenix.
“Pardon me, ma’am, are you Rebecca Goldstein?”
Becky looked up from the conference program and noticed first the Nikon pointed at her and then the lanky man with the red goatee and wire rim glasses who was behind it.
Tall, thin, chiseled face, close-set blue eyes, sandy hair flopping on his forehead. He was wearing a well-worn tweed sport coat over a chambray shirt. He was very easy on the eyes.
“Gold-steen,” she corrected lightly. Yes, that’s me. Can I help you with something?”
“I’m Rory Washburn,” he said, lowering the Nikon and offering his hand. “I’m the photographer for this conference. I’m supposed to take candid shots, and I wanted to make sure I get the right name with the photo.”
Rebecca smiled. This was going to be a fun conference after all.
The chemistry between them was immediate and explosive because of their differences. Becky was Jewish, a “Jersey girl” with a family history in the New York garment district across the Hudson River. She was raising her 3-year-old son on her own, and it was her first business trip alone since her divorce and return to full-time work.
Rory, from Texas, the son of a bible-thumping mother and a father who drank too much, was Baptist. He was recently separated from his second wife.
As a teenager, Becky had spent her summers enjoying Broadway matinees with her girlfriends. She shopped at Macy’s, Bloomies, and Saks. Rory had spent his breaking in horses and riding the rodeo circuit. He later told her he found her dark looks and city background exotic. To Becky, his cowboy drawl was the sexiest thing she had heard since she got over her crush on Roy Rogers. And then there was something about his well-worn cowboy boots that sent her a message about where he had been.
Rory took her to the rodeo that night, where she was overwhelmed by the dust and the animal smells and the late October heat. She developed a love-hate relationship for the bull riders, watching cowboy after cowboy try -- and usually fail -- to hold on to the mass of raging, spinning, crazed animal for eight seconds. The bulls had names like Rampage and Red Wolf and Dillinger, and Rory told her they had only “been rode” by seven men. The men who tried to ride these beasts -- boys, really -- had names like Tater and Ty and Terry Don. The men she knew back home were called Saul and Seth and Simon.
She watched in horror as almost a ton of snorting, sputtering animal dethroned a rider and came charging after him, horns down, goring the cowboy and throwing him into the air. Rory called it a “wreck.” She watched the bullfighters in their silly clown makeup and costumes fight off the bull’s second attack against the defenseless cowboy, selflessly and literally taking the bull by the horns to deflect its next blow. Becky was repulsed and horrified, and mesmerized.
Afterwards, they spent the first of many passionate nights together on that trip, and off and on for the next two years whenever their travels could bring them together in Western locations.
The applause from the guests in the chapel brought her back from her dreams. The ceremony was over and she had missed most of it.
“Becky!” Rory said in disbelief as they left their pew and joined the rest of the guests headed back out into the sunshine. “I can’t believe it’s you. I had no idea that you and Miguel still kept in touch.” He hugged her. “How long have you and Tim been married?”
“Ten years this spring. What about you, did you ever remarry?”
“Well, I have a fiancée back in Phoenix.”
“Is she here?” Tim asked. Rebecca pretended to scan the crowd.
“Julie’s back home working on a huge presentation due on Monday and couldn’t spare the time for the trip,” he told them. “We’re actually not officially engaged but we’ve been dating for a while and she’s given me kind of an ultimatum about it,” he added quickly.
Rebecca showed Rory a photo of her son, now grown, then somehow maneuvered the conversation to golf, a safe topic that she knew both men could handle. By the time they began walking toward their cars to head to the reception, somehow Rory had invited Tim to play golf at his club and Tim offered the same hospitality should Rory ever come back East. While Rebecca was developing a headache, her former lover and her husband were developing a friendship. While the men bonded, Rebecca’s mind again wandered.
On her first return trip to the Southwest, Rory and Becky hiked the Grand Canyon and she learned to use Rory’s Nikon, two passions that stayed with her long after her involvement with Rory had faded. It was January and the temperature dropped into the single digits while they slept in his orange VW bus in an almost deserted campground at the south rim of the Canyon. For Becky, the city girl, hiking meant walking back to the Port Authority bus terminal from Macy’s when it was raining and she couldn’t find an empty cab. Walking down the snow-covered Bright Angel Trail, descending one mile to the Colorado River, was more than she could have imagined. It was easy work for an experienced hiker like Rory, who spent much of his free time here, hiking alone. For Becky, it was exhausting work, but well worth the reward of the incredible vistas she saw.
The next day he took her to Canyon de Chelly, through Navajo lands that he had access to only because of a grant he had won for a photography project. They took off their hiking shoes and warm wool socks to race through a frigid stream, a short cut that would save them an hour’s climb. In the end, she was more than willing to endure the numb feet in exchange for the first-hand view of the cliff dwellings that only a few non-Native people had seen.
She met Rory’s boss, Miguel, on her third trip to Albuquerque several months later. He and his then wife were throwing a house warming at their new condo, and heartily welcomed Rory’s out-of-town “friend.” Becky and Rory didn’t arrived until after dinner was served, having stayed too long in bed. Becky thought it terribly rude behavior and a poor first impression, but she was too caught up in Rory to stop herself. It was a common theme throughout their tumultuous relationship.
“We’re early as usual.” Tim’s voice brought Rebecca back to reality as they pulled into the lot of the country club on the outskirts of Albuquerque, ahead of the bridal party. Her headache was now immense, but when Tim headed straight for the bar and announced his plan to “get this reception going,” she unwisely accepted her first glass of wine. It was a bland California Chardonnay that immediately started to numb her pain and mask her fears of her feelings for Rory.
Rebecca avoided the hors d’oeuvres, not sure whether she was more afraid of getting cilantro stuck between her teeth or of igniting a fire in her stomach with the enchiladas. The burn of last night’s red chile tamales was a not-too-distant memory for her Gringo tongue.
“Yes, it was a lovely ceremony,” she heard herself saying to the couple from Minneapolis, also out-of-town friends of Miguel, making quick work of her first glass of wine.
“Yes, it is such a romantic love story,” she heard herself say to the bride’s boarding school roommates who recounted how the couple had reconnected at their 30-year reunion.
More wine was needed to get through the evening.
“Yes, I am still fascinated by the beauty of the Southwest,” she heard herself say to Rory, who had joined them at the bar. Only now as she spoke those words, she began for the first time to question whether she had been drawn to the West because of her memories of Rory.
She thought back to her first experience with the vastness of the Southwestern desert.
Becky and Rory had exchanged passionate letters for more than a year, and shared heated telephone calls. They would rendezvous whenever work let them arrange out-of-town-travel, like Albuquerque, Tucson, and Phoenix. The desert landscape, the warm, arid sun during the day and the crisp coldness at night began to appeal to her, and it seeped under her skin and became a part of her conversations. “I could live in this climate,” she told Rory on her last visit to Phoenix. His response had only been his enigmatic smile.
That next September, Rory enrolled at New York University to get a Masters, a move to New York that startled Becky. He had never given her any warning that he was thinking of relocating to the East Coast. At first she assumed, even hoped, it was because of her. But Rory made it clear he wanted to live on his own in graduate housing. Becky was hurt, but said nothing. She had to wait a month for him to invite her to see his small apartment. She was shocked when he opened the door to see he had shaved off the red goatee and traded his wire rims for contacts. She saw a man she almost did not recognize, clean-shaven, in a red Columbia sweatshirt and khaki pants. At least he was still wearing the cowboy boots.
“It’s incredible,” Becky told Rory, as she stared out the window of his apartment.
She made it her job to show Rory life from her side of the country as well. He had shared the Grand Canyon in winter, so she gave him New England in autumn. They spent the first night in the Berkshires, in Stockbridge. It rained while they slept, and in the morning he was taken by surprise by the vibrant yellow carpeting of maple leaves that covered the roadway as they made their way north.
They spent the second night in Manchester, Vermont, sitting by the lobby fire at a charming New England hotel, smelling the cedar, laughing easily, and drinking steaming cider from locally made pottery mugs. She bought him a set from the hotel gift shop before they left.
Becky didn’t see Rory again until December, when he accepted her invitation for the holidays so he could meet her son. It snowed during his visit, and Becky took pictures of Rory building a snow fort with Danny, at age 4, in his brown snowsuit and matching mittens and Rory in his jeans, short ski jacket and his ever-present cowboy boots. As she watched the two of them, Becky thought that perhaps she had met the man she would marry, especially now that he was living just across the river. Danny was obviously crazy about him. She loved Rory, and she knew that Rory loved her. Or, rather, she thought he did.
Three months later it was over and she never saw it coming. Rory fell in love with a ballet student he met in the laundry room of his apartment building. Becky may have seemed exotic to Rory at first, but she knew she could never compete with a ballerina, or with the romance of a ballerina’s Manhattan lifestyle. They were still in touch, but now, Rory’s calls glowed with descriptions of the New York theater crowd and his “dancer friends.” Her cowboy had become a New Yorker. The calls came less often, and Becky found it hard to breathe when she thought about him.
By the time the wedding party arrived at the reception, Rebecca was royally, carelessly, and totally drunk.
“Can I sit with you,” Rory asked as Rebecca and Tim moved toward the ballroom.
“Of course,” Tim said, smiling.
Of course, Rebecca echoed to herself.
They took seats at a table at the back of the ballroom, and Rebecca again found herself sitting between her husband on her right and her former lover on her left.
Rory was again sitting on the side of her skirt with the slit, which she now stopped pulling together every time it fell apart.
“Let him see what he’s missing,” she smugly told herself through her alcohol haze.
Tim, never one to be shy with strangers, kept the conversation going while Rebecca tried to stay distant.
“What part of Texas are you from?” he asked Rory.
He’s from East Texas, Rebecca said to herself.
“Right in the center of the state, from a small town in the middle of nowhere,” she heard Rory answer.
That’s not right, she corrected to herself. Why is he saying that?
“Me, too,” said Tim. “From the middle of nowhere in the center of Iowa”
Great, she thought, my husband is busy finding things in common with my former lover.
Rebecca felt the room begin to spin, and she turned back and forth between the two men, careful to angle her back so it wasn’t completely to Tim when she talked with Rory, reversing the process when she talked to Tim. She wanted to keep them apart, yet she wanted them both to be here with her, now.
Rory said something about his fiancée planning a party for his 50th birthday. “Is your birthday soon?” Tim asked.
His birthday is in June, Rebecca reminded herself.
“Two weeks from today,” Rory told Tim.
That’s not right, Rebecca thought. She was beginning to feel like she was living out an amateur performance of a musical comedy:
We met at 9.
No, it was 8.
I was on time.
No, you were late.
Ah, yes, I remember it well.
For 20 years, she had lived with the memory of this man. Now, she realized she never knew him at all. And as they talked she realized how he didn’t know about the woman she had become.
Rory remembered her son as a toddler called Danny in a snowsuit building a snow fort. Now he was Daniel, an architect with a preference for Armani, who designed airport terminals and stunning skyscrapers. Rory knew Becky as a city girl who was horrified at the rodeo. Now she was a card-carrying member of the Professional Bull Rider’s Association Club, the membership a birthday gift from her husband. When Rory had met Becky, she had never before held a 35mm camera. Now, her photographs had been published.
Did he still do nature photography? No, his work kept him traveling out of the country too much for that now.
Did he still hike the Grand Canyon? No, he had banged up his knee playing volleyball with a semi-pro league in Phoenix.
Volleyball? International travel? No Nikon? Everything was turning upside down in the world Rebecca had created around Rory.
When Tim excused himself and went to the men’s room, Rebecca saw her opening. She turned squarely to face Rory.
“Do you ever think of me?” she asked.
Rory smiled. “Often,” he said. “Whenever I think of some pleasant experience we shared or something we laughed about.”
“Then, what happened to us?” she asked.
Rory’s smile faded. “I seem to move in two year cycles,” he acknowledged sheepishly. “Anything longer than that and somehow, I’m moving on again.”
At last, Rebecca had what she came for. It wasn’t her; it had been him all along. She pressed on.
“How long have you been with Julie?” she asked.
His uncomfortable laugh telegraphed his answer. “A little less than two years,” he said.
For the first time it finally dawned on Rebecca that while their relationship had been all consuming she, too, had been part of Rory’s life for less than two years.
And now, 20 years later, she had looked directly into his eyes and she saw the love that she always knew was there. He had loved her, and in some way still did. But she knew she had never been in love with him. She had been in love with what he had represented. A life she thought she could not have without him. But without him, she had created that life for herself.
Rory said his good-byes around four o’clock to catch the last shuttle back to Phoenix.
“Becky, you haven’t changed one bit,” he smiled at her as he stood up to leave.
Well, she had changed, but she accepted his words as the compliment they were intended to be, and smiled a demure “thanks.”
Then there was a hug for Rebecca and a handshake for Tim, an exchange of e-mail addresses, and a promise to keep in touch. For the first time since she had met him, Rebecca was ready to see Rory go. She gave him a final glance as he moved toward the door. It was then she noticed he was wearing wingtips.
Tim was wearing cowboy boots.
After that, Rebecca seemed to breathe better. She stopped drinking, ate something, and her headache dulled. She and Tim danced, talked with the bride and groom, and got a standing invitation from the groom’s sister to stay with her family whenever they came back to Albuquerque. They joined in with the rest of the guests at their table to sing along with the strolling Mariachi trio, humming “la, la, la” in time with the music and then ending with a rousing chorus of Spanish words she didn’t understand. They laughed a lot.
In the morning, they awoke early to find a light dusting of snow coating the streets and trees, making the scenery dreamlike. They dug out their hiking clothes from the bottom of the suitcase. Rebecca layered two light sweaters under her jacket. Tim pulled on his jeans, chambray shirt. And cowboy boots.
Their flight home was uneventful. Rebecca read, stared out the window, and napped on Tim’s shoulder. They talked about how they could find a way to retire early, buy a house with lots of windows in Santa Fe, and spend their old age surrounded by a fabulous view and the company of friendly people like they had met this weekend.
Two weeks later, the e-mail appeared in her in-box, as she knew it would.
What a surprise to see you after all this time. My 50th birthday party was terrific. Tim is a wonderful guy. You certainly chose well for yourself.
Her response was equally brief.
Tim enjoyed meeting you, too. Isn’t it amazing how when you meet the right one, you know why all the others were so wrong? I did marry the cowboy after all.
She hit “send,” then deleted his e-mail address from her address book and shut down for the night, so she could go snuggle on the sofa with Tim.