From short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby by Gabriel Constans
The Barking Seal Admiration Society – Part 2 (Conclusion)
Joanne put her bag in the trunk of her partially rusted Volvo station wagon and closed the beige trunk with a thud; sealing the contents for a safe trip home. She’d just called her husband and kids to let them know she was on her way.
“Drive careful little Sis,” I said sarcastically, both of us knowing she was probably the safest driver in North America. I used to tell her she drove like an old granny when we were teenagers. She’d sit at a four way stop, for what seemed like hours, making sure there weren’t any cars approaching within a hundred miles!
“You big Dufus,” she grinned. “Have I ever been in an accident?”
“Have I ever gotten a ticket in my whole life?”
“Then shut up already and give me a hug.” She grabbed my arm, pulled me close, put her arms around my back and squeezed hard. I squeezed back. She squeezed harder, as did I, until it felt like she’d break my back.
“OK! OK!” I gasped, pretending to be out of breath. “Man! You’ve gotten strong in your old age!”
“And don’t you forget it!” she teased, as she got in the car, closed the door, strapped herself in, adjusted her mirrors and rolled down the window.
I leaned in and kissed her. “Love ya. Take care.”
“Likewise.” She kissed me back.
“Remember,” I kidded, “it doesn’t matter how you feel as long . . .”
She shook her head, having shared this joke a hundred times. “Yeah, yeah,” she completed the line, “as long as you look good.”
I jerked my finger, like shooting a gun and blew away the smoke, completing our leave taking ritual. She waved and rolled up the window, then suddenly rolled it back down. I leaned in.
“Call her,” she said.
“Call her tonight.”
“Who?” We’d been talking about Robin every since we’d left the beach.
“I mean it Rueben. There’s something between you two, something special.”
I’d planned on calling the minute Joanne was out of sight.
“Sure,” I grinned.
“Promise,” I said and crossed my heart.
She rolled up the window, checked for oncoming cars, for what seemed like an hour, then slowly eased onto the highway. She looked in her rear-view mirror and waved one last time.
I stood and waved to my beautiful little sister. As she drove away, I remembered telling her once, after she’d interrupted my cowboy game once to often, “Leave me alone! I wish you were dead!” The memory filled me with shame.
“Hellooo stranger,” Robin answered, with a seductive, languid drawl.
“Is this Robin?” I asked, “The surfing consultant?”
“Rueben! I knew you’d call.” Without skipping a beat she said, “Can you come over tonight?”
“Tonight?” I think . . .”
“Think!” she interjected. “There’s no time to think.”
“Well . . . sure.”
“Can you pick up some wine and flowers? I was thinking about you all the way home and plum forgot to . . . oh yeah! Make sure they’re . . .”
“Fresh cut,” I finished her sentence, “right?”
“You devil. How’d you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“That place next to . . .”
“Shopper’s Corner,” I surmised. No problem. It’s right on the way.”
“No problem, I’d love too.”
“Love too,” she repeated. “Isn’t that a great word – love?”
“Yeah, it’s a great word, but don’t you think we’re moving a little fast here?”
“Fast?! Are you going to wimp out on me before we even get started?” She quietly added, “We’re mates and you know it.”
“I may not know a lot, but I know when I’ve been thrown a pearl.”
“This kind of thing is rare,” she went on. “Some people don’t know when it’s come up and bit them in the bud and others keep thinking it’s somewhere they’re not.”
“That may be true, but . . .”
“I’ve only felt this way once before,” she said. “I may be about to die, maybe not; but I’m not about to let your fear screw things up.”
She got that right. I’d been burned before. In my early twenties I’d fallen in love with a slim, nineteen-year-old redhead named Francine. We were stupid enough to get married. It lasted about a year. I was so dependent on her approval I would have leapt off a cliff if she’d asked. She had to literally jump in bed with my best friend before I crashed and burned. That experience had embedded its tentacles deep under my skin and been tediously removed, one by one, year after year.
“You’re right,” I said. “I felt that way before and this feels like the real thing, but…”
“No buts about it. The only butt I want to see is yours.”
I don’t know where she got the courage to be so blatant, but she was right on the button. Something in my chest had been cracked open like a safe and she had the combination.
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
“One more thing,” she said. “I love you.”
“Likewise?” she teased. Is that the best you can do?”
“Robin,” I paused, “what can I say? I love you too. Be there soon.”
“Not soon enough,” she whispered.
I started to hang up, then quickly brought the phone back to my ear. “Robin! Robin!”
“I’m right here,” she replied calmly. “It would help if you had my address, right?”
“6427D South Cliff Drive. You know where that walkway is by the harbor?”
“A half mile from there, off Seabright, take a left on Surry.”
“You got it all right; you got it all.”
“See ya?!” she protested. “I hope you’ll do more than that.”
“You know what I . . .”
“Of course,” she interrupted. “And you know what I mean.”
“Sure do,” I said, twisting the smooth phone cord tightly around my index finger.
Beyond all logic, the magic continued. We spent days and nights “being in our skin”, as Robin would say; listening to the rhythms of the world; the sensations of our bodies; touching, sensing, smelling, gazing upon one another’s human form, with mournfully explicit awe and delight.
Entering her small, cozy apartment by the sea; felt like committing myself to a religious sanctuary where all our prayers were offered and received.
She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved here mother, her brother, her nieces, her eighty-year-old grandmother and her friends and colleagues. She’d worked in public relations for the Santa Cruz Visitor’s Bureau for over fifteen years and was missed by her peers, who often stopped to visit. Indeed, public relations, was an apt description. She had an uncanny ability to put people at ease.
Her best friend, Bessie, told me about a bigoted movie producer visiting from Los Angeles, who’d locked horns with Robin’s supervisor, Mary Lou, a tall, intelligent woman, who’d been born and raised in Texas. During a meeting with Robin, Mary Lou and Bessie, the movie producer had made a snide remark about cowboys and rednecks all being “stupid hicks.” “Mary Lou’s cheeks turned fire red,” Bessie explained. “Her jaw was tighter than a vice. If this guys company shot their film here it would bring the city a couple million bucks. Mary Lou was just about to let the jerk have it when Robin smiled and said, ‘You’re right. There are some stupid cowboys.’”
“Well,” Bessie continued, “Mary Lou and I gasped and stared at Robin in disbelief; until she added, ‘There’s idiots everywhere, aren’t there?’ ‘You got that right,” the producer said, shaking his head. ‘I must say’, Robin continued, ‘I’ve said some pretty stupid things my self. I bet there’s a lot of lame producer’s in Hollywood.’ “The producer jumped right in and said, ‘You have no idea,’ and started telling us about one ‘incompetent ass’ after another.”
“Needless to say,” Bessie concluded, “we made the deal.”
Robin’s charm remained intact in the midst of purgatory. You name it, she tried it: medications, transfusions, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxifications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormones, prayer, meditation, visualization . . . but the cancer kept chipping away.
The last weeks found me sinking, looking for a branch to hold onto. I was being pulled under by emotional quicksand. There was nothing solid to stand on. Her face had turned black, blue and yellow, as if she’d been in a bar room brawl. Her skin was translucent, stretched over her frame like a sheet of white plastic; her arms as thin as straws. She struggled to take in a full breath. The body I loved was disintegrating like melting snow.
“I hope I’ve made a difference,” she said softly, one gusty morning.
“Without a doubt,” I assured, with a lump like a clod of dirt stuck in my throat. “You’ve given so much love.”
“Yes, I have.” She stroked my cheek. “That’s been the best part.”
She turned away, looked out her large window and watched a mother and daughter lean against the cliff side railing, their hair being blown by the wind.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” I wanted to run, jump off the earth, find a black hole and hide. “I don’t know, but you can’t leave.”
“Nice thought, but just a wee bit unrealistic.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at my naivety.
“It’s just . . . I don’t know . . .” I struggled to find the right words. “How do you keep this up?”
“I have no choice,” she said, without hesitation.
“I know we don’t always have a choice,” I blundered, my mind racing with useless, crazy thoughts. “If it was me, I’d be screaming and yelling.”
“I don’t have a choice,” she reiterated. “This is who I am.”
We heard someone knocking. Our intimacy departed, as we turned our heads. The door flew open, pushed by gusts of cold air and Robin’s mother, who entered the tiny living room with the electric hospital bed looming in the center. She struggled to close the door behind her, pushing against the tenacious wind and patting down her gnarled hair. She took off her floor-length wool coat and placed it on the corner chair. With a forced cheerfulness that belied her dread, she exclaimed, “There’s my girl.”
“Hi Mom,” Robin smiled, holding out her shaking arms.
Joanne was making a return visit in a few days. We’d kept in touch. She knew the story. I wish she was here. She’d know what to do. She’d help her big brother learn how to say goodbye to the Barking Seal Societies lifetime member. She would know how to say “I love you” without clinging to hope. She and Robin understand life from a place I do not know. They know that “take one day at a time” and “seize the day” are not cliches; they’re the essence of our reality.
If only Joanne was here and Robin wasn’t leaving. If only . . .