Lisa liked going to bars. Since Chris liked Lisa, considered her his dearest friend, he went to bars with her. For him, places of this sort had outlived their usefulness when he graduated college. Did he really need someone else to pour a drink for him? It wasn’t as if his glass of Cabernet was being prepared in any way. If he could choose from a wider selection of wine, he would never choose the one he was drinking now, if he could choose the music, he would certainly choose something less overplayed, and a chair with a back would have been nice. Lisa enjoyed going to these places, though, for reasons she’d never made clear in all the years they’d known each other. Therefore, they went.
“I really think it’s possible I could make my mother’s death look like an accident,” she said wistfully.
“You think that, but the crime scene investigators would get you.”
She slumped dramatically. “You’re probably right. Damned technological breakthroughs.”
“Besides, I don’t think her calling you three times a day is justification for murder.”
Lisa threw her hands above her head. “That’s because you don’t have to take the phone calls. Try listening every day to a twenty-minute summation of last night’s TV shows. Try listening to her petty complaints about her friend Millie over and over and over again. Try listening to her word-by-word recollections of the conversations she has with the produce guy at Stop & Shop. You wouldn’t rush to judgment so quickly then.”
Lisa made an elaborate show of draining her glass—she was drinking Cosmopolitans tonight—and putting it back down on the tabletop.
Chris laughed. “Your mother calls me ‘Honey.’ She can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.”
“I need a new best friend.”
Lisa signaled the waiter for another drink. She put both elbows on the table and leaned toward him. This pose made her look easily twenty years younger, especially in the dim light of the bar. Chris often wondered what Lisa had been like as a college student. She seemed perpetually in her late thirties, even though they’d met when they were in their mid-twenties.
“What’s new at work?”
Chris sighed automatically. “A woman on my staff who’s on pregnancy leave called yesterday to tell me she’s decided to be a stay-at-home mother, a guy came into my office today to tell me he’s being sexually harassed, and management has decided to limit salary increases to two percent this year. Have I told you lately how much I love being an administrator?”
“You should’ve taken that spot in Rhode Island.”
“It was the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“It was the right job.”
“In the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“The job in Westport, then.”
“It was a start-up. The risks were too big.”
Lisa patted his hand. “You do know that their stock has gone through the roof, don’t you?”
Chris pulled his hand away and gestured with it. “Yes, I know their stock has gone through the roof. Unfortunately, my crystal ball was in the shop the day they offered me the job, so I couldn’t see a year into the future.”
Lisa shook her head, glanced around the room, and pretended to concentrate on the song playing through the sound system. Chris simply focused on his only-adequate wine.
When Lisa’s new drink arrived, she clinked her glass against his, drawing his attention. “So you never get a chance just to wriggle anymore?”
“Wriggling” was Lisa’s pet name for genetic engineering, which Chris had done for fifteen years before being kicked upstairs two years ago. “I haven’t wriggled in centuries. Nope, a Ph.D. in Botany is really only good for one thing these days: budget reviews.”
“You didn’t have to take the promotion, you know.”
“I shouldn’t have taken the promotion. But I did. That ship has sailed. Let’s not have this conversation for the second time in five minutes.”
“Hey, at least you can get a promotion in your job. I’m stuck in the same spot until I retire.”
Chris smirked. “Yeah, tough spot. You sold two multimillion-dollar homes last month, right? As long as you continue to cater to high-end, recession-proof clientele, you get promotions all the time.”
“But no sexual harassment cases.”
“You could always start one.”
Lisa snorted. “You haven’t been down to the offices lately. The only thing I could start is an asexual harassment case.”
Chris laughed in spite of himself. “Speaking of sex, what’s the latest with Ben?”
“I think he’s in Melbourne tonight. Either that or Taiwan. He touches back down on this continent sometime next week. I think he has a drive-by past Connecticut scheduled before the end of the spring.”
“It’s the perfect relationship.”
Lisa rolled her eyes. “Yeah, perfect. We’ve been together for nearly three years and I think we’ve spent less than a hundred days in the same place.”
“And you never fight and the sex is great.”
“True on both counts.”
“What’s the downside?”
“The downside?” Lisa looked around the room and leaned forward farther, as though she was about to impart a state secret. “I think I love him.”
This was a surprise. In all the years they’d been friends, Chris had never heard Lisa say she was in love with anyone. “Really?”
“I’m probably just kidding myself. But I miss him more all the time. I’ve been making him stay on the phone with me longer and longer lately.”
“Like mother, like daughter.”
Lisa reached across and punched Chris on the arm. “That was totally unfair.”
Chris rubbed his arm. “So what are you going to do about these . . . feelings?”
“What can I do about them?”
“And screw up what we have? I don’t think so. No, not a chance.” She looked at Chris as though he had three heads. “So I assume since you haven’t said a word about Patty that your date with her went the way your dates usually go.”
Chris cringed at the mention of the latest woman Lisa had fixed him up with. She’d been doing this since a few months after the divorce. Lisa seemed to have an endless supply of women for him to meet and an equally large supply of optimism about blind dating in spite of Chris’s gruesome track record. “I’m afraid so.”
“What’d you do wrong this time?”
Chris pretended to be offended. “Why do you automatically assume it’s me screwing up these blind dates?”
“Are you actually asking me that question?”
Chris knew not to pursue this. “She seemed really nice. She likes books, she likes sushi, and she has beautiful eyes. I thought things were going pretty well for a while there.”
“Until . . .”
“Until I got sad.”
“You got sad? Amazingly, I haven’t heard this one before.”
“There was the thing with the anniversary.”
“Ah yes, the day that will live in infamy.”
Chris shot Lisa a look to say that this wasn’t something to screw around about, and she threw up her hands as if to acknowledge that she’d slipped.
“We should just remember next year not to do something like that around this time,” Chris said. “I’m not very good with it.”
“Sweetie, you have to get past it at some point.”
“I am past it. That doesn’t mean I can’t mark it in some way.”
Lisa nodded very slowly. Chris wasn’t sure if this meant she was acknowledging his point or reproaching him. “How was Becky when you saw her that night?”
Chris shrugged. “Who knows? I might be the last person on the planet capable of answering that question.”
“Teenagers are tough.”
“It wasn’t going to be like this with us.”
“Actually, it probably was. From everything I’ve heard, it doesn’t matter what your relationship is like with your kid before she becomes a teenager. Once she’s there, all the wires get crossed. I know what you mean, though. You guys clicked.”
“Excellent use of the past tense.”
Lisa reached out for his hand again, but this time she squeezed it. Chris squeezed back and made a moment’s eye contact with her. How many times had she propped him up over the years, when Becky was sick, when things had started to break down with Polly, when he moved out? There really was no substitute for old friends.
“You know, for some reason I still think about that fantasy world you guys created,” Lisa said. “What a great way to spend time with your kid. Sometimes, I’ll be showing a house, and I’ll walk into some kid’s room and it makes me think of the two of you telling stories together. That was an amazing thing.”
It was unquestionably an amazing thing. The inspiration for it might have been the rightest moment Chris had ever experienced. It was a week after Becky’s first chemotherapy treatment and the five-year-old had been visibly frightened and confused. She had trouble sleeping and he had already spent several nights up with her trying to find some way to comfort her, some way to ease her mind. Chris had never believed Becky was going to die—his failure to “take her illness seriously enough” was in fact one of the things he and Polly had been fighting about at that point—but he couldn’t think of any way to imbue his daughter with the same confidence.
On their fourth night up together, Chris sat against Becky’s headboard with her head on his chest, their usual position. They hadn’t spoken for at least a quarter of an hour, but Becky was no closer to sleep than she had been when her shuffling in her room had woken him up an hour or so earlier. He hated that this was so scary and disorienting for her. He wished he could simply tell her she was going to be okay and that she would believe this. Her body was telling something different, though.
At that moment, an idea came to him, as though delivered by some otherworldly FedEx guy.
“Let’s make something,” he said, a little surprised by the sound of his voice after the lengthy silence.
“I don’t think I can really do that right now, Dad,” Becky said wearily.
“I don’t mean make something with our hands. I mean with our minds. Do you want to?”
“Make something with our minds?”
“A story. Not just a story, though. We’ll invent a whole world to put the story in.”
Becky pulled back and looked up at him. They’d made up stories before, often on long car rides, usually based on characters from one of the books they’d been reading at bedtime. What he was suggesting here was something different, though, and he could see from her expression that it intrigued her.
“How do we do that?”
“We just start,” Chris said, sitting up slightly. “Right now. What kind of world is it?”
Becky thought for a moment and then brightened, her eyes looking bluer than they had in months. “Let’s make it a kingdom. Like in that book we read the other day.”
“King or queen?”
“King and queen. Together.” She put a hand to her forehead for a moment. “And they have a teenage daughter who is very smart and who makes them very proud.”
Maybe something like your cousin Kiley who you adore?
Chris thought. “Is there magic in this world?”
“Tons,” Becky said broadly. “All over the place.”
Becky laughed out loud. He hadn’t heard that in a while. “Cows?”
“It’s an important detail. Are there cows and pigs and birds in this world or are there different creatures we never saw before?”
“How about flying pig cows?” Chris chuckled.
“We could do that.”
“And talking fish.”
“How would we hear them underwater?”
“They don’t talk when they’re underwater, Dad,” Becky said as though everyone on the planet knew that already. That she was animated enough to scold him was a huge thrill for Chris.
“Right, of course. So they’re walking and talking fish.”
“They don’t walk. They roll. Well, not roll, really. They just sort of flip around to get where they want to go.”
The conversation continued until Becky, yawning, lay her head on Chris’s chest and fell asleep. The next night at bedtime, they continued inventing pieces of the world, so caught up in this exercise that they didn’t begin to make up a story until the night after that—which was the first night that Becky slept through in more than a week.
They called the kingdom Tamarisk—named after a tree Becky loved from one of the picture books on plant life Chris had bought her—and it evolved in numerous ways over the years. As Becky got older, the fish stopped talking and she replaced flying pig cows with creatures of sheer imagination with names that Becky seemed to take particular pleasure in determining. When she was nine, she decided that there should be an internal logic to the naming process. Chris came home from work one evening and she handed him a list of rules governing all Tamariskian nomenclature. However, some things about it had never changed. The same king and queen still ruled over the land, they still called the nemesis to the south The Thorns even though this didn’t follow the naming rules, and the sophisticated, beautiful, gutsy, and brilliant teenage princess still starred in most of the adventures.
Rather than becoming less important after Becky had gone into remission, the nightly visits to Tamarisk became more of a highlight to the day. If Becky had a sleepover or Chris had a business function, they found some way to hook up over Tamarisk even if only for a few minutes.
Then, with a suddenness that was more shocking than the end of his marriage, it was over. The day he moved out, Becky declared that she would never tell another Tamarisk story. Chris was certain this was part of her reaction to the divorce—he sensed a kind of hostility in her that day that he’d never experienced with her before and couldn’t fully understand—and that in time they would go back. It had never happened, though, and the years of creation between them took on a mythical status, as though it was legend rather than real life.
“It was an amazing thing,” Chris said with the kind of shrug that indicated he was anything but reconciled about this.
“Life is long, sweetie.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means that our relationships go through movements. Like in a symphony. You’re in a fugue period right now with Becky. That doesn’t mean that a month from now, or three months from now, or three years from now you won’t be someplace else with her entirely.”
“What if the fugue is the last movement?”
“It’s not. Even you don’t believe that.”
“Let’s say I don’t want to believe that.”
“If it’s important for you to make that distinction.” Chris looked at Lisa and chuckled. She glanced down at her watch and said, “I’m sorry, but we’re all out of time for your bitching tonight. The rest of the evening will be dedicated to my issues and you telling me how fabulous I am.”
Chris pantomimed prostrating himself to Lisa. “As you wish, milady.”