The Sureness of Horses, Chapters 13, 14, 15, and 16
In January the rains came. Storms rolled in from the Pacific, one after another, releasing torrents, until late in the month. The first morning the sun came out, I called Diana and asked her to meet me at the ranch over my lunch hour.
I arrived at the barn early to find most of the trails closed. The lunging ring—where I wanted to turn Artemis out to get the pent-up energy and bucks out of her—wasn’t just muddy; it had standing pools of water.
After so many days with no horses, I was all thumbs. I fastened Artemis’s bridle before I removed her halter, so I had to undo everything and start over. Then I buckled her girth without looping it through the saddle pad. All my preparations seemed to take forever, but eventually I was riding next to Diana. Being up on a horse next to her again, although somewhat awkward, felt good.
As usual, Artemis wouldn’t keep up with Gray Cloud, but my horse didn’t like trailing too far behind, either. She’d trot to catch up, and Diana and I would talk, but then she’d fall behind again.
Riding felt foreign. Diana compounded my wariness by discussing a talk she’d had with Jolene. “She wants to get to know you. That’s when the idea for the dinner party came up.”
Artemis put her ears back; something was bothering her. I tightened my legs around her wide belly. Edward, who had taken the lead in my lessons, had taught me to do that at the first sign of trouble. Her ears straightened up again and I relaxed.
“I want my friends to get to know you, especially Jolene and Billy. Now that Rob’s in California, he’s always talking about these company IPOs. Initial Public Offerings—think of them as debutante parties for businesses. I’m thinking about a party that’ll be our IPO.”
“You needn’t go to so much bother.”
“No worries—I miss having people to dinner, and I want to go public. I don’t want to feel I’m sneaking around, so if I want to keep seeing you, I’d better have a party. Sally has told me to let my freak flag fly.” She laughed.
“Jolene’s husband works for Rob, right? Won’t that be awkward?”
“Not for me, quite the opposite,” she said as Artemis fell behind again. “It shouldn’t be awkward for you, either. Billy’s practically family; he and Rob met in law school. Billy even bought a house up by Rob. Jolene’s the closest thing I have to a sister. And we should be most thankful to her for Artemis.” Rather than yell over her shoulder any more she put her hand on the back of the saddle and swiveled around to me. “I’m ready. I want you to meet my friends, and I want to meet yours. Maybe you want to invite a poet.”
“No poets. No, I don’t think so.” My thoughts ping-ponged between my immediate fear—Artemis had tripped twice—and the notion of a dinner party. I hadn’t been to one since before my divorce and I missed the feeling of belonging that went along with a warm evening in a friend’s home. Artemis was so far behind that I had to almost shout, “A dinner party sounds like fun. How about Jorge and his wife?”
Diana stopped to let me catch up and, a bit reluctantly, nodded. “Your choice. How’s he doing, anyway?”
“He’s still out of work. He started his job search late, so he’s coming from behind.”
“Okay, if you’re sure. Shoot me the address and I’ll send him an invite. It’s time I met them. With Jolene and Billy Tyler and us, that’s six. Maybe someone else, too—I’m no good at small parties, the darn table’s too big.” She laughed.
“I’m a little out of practice on dinner parties. What should I wear?”
She paused. “I don’t know. In Dallas the guys would wear ties, but maybe you can do without that. A jacket anyway.”
“I’d have a hard time talking Jorge into a jacket.”
“I have to get used to California.” She looked up at blue sky with a few puffs of clouds. “It’s a lot easier to do on a day like today.”
When we left paved roads for the only trail still open, the horses slipped so much in the mud that Diana and I turned around and walked slowly back on the blacktop. “No secret place today, I’m afraid,” Diana said lightly.
Cliff came toward us in his beaten leather jacket and I whispered to Diana, “How about inviting Cliff?”
“Not now,” she said quickly as Cliff walked over. But after he and Diana laughed about the pitiful riding conditions, she said to me quietly, “Good idea. I’ll send him an invite.”
Once the rains were past, I was going out to the Ranch three evenings a week and whenever I could slip away during the day. One afternoon when Ray canceled a staff meeting, I called Diana and she agreed to meet me out there.
It seemed as if every local schoolgirl was out there on a horse that day. As I approached, Artemis thrust her head out the dutch door and nickered.
“You crazy lady, you’re not even my own horse, but I think of you all the time, I do,” I said, ruffling her mane.
She was so full of energy that she trotted in place in the stall. I found an empty ring, walked her inside it, and unhooked the lead line from her bridle to set her loose. There was still one muddy pool in the turnout ring, but she nosed around the sandy surface until she found a patch that was dry enough that she could lie down and roll. She thrust her legs in the air on her back, coming close to rolling completely over. Then she rose and shook the dust off. From the center, I clucked and swung the lead rope around to get her going. She cantered around me like a locomotive. Twice she threw her back legs into a buck that I knew could throw me out of the saddle and break me like a twig. Glad that she was doing this where she was supposed to, I said, “Good girl, Artemis.” When she quieted down to a walk, I moved toward her. She walked over and met me mid-ring—her way of saying she’d had enough. It was time to groom her and tack up.
Diana rode up on Gray Cloud just as I mounted. “Well, don’t you look like an old pro up there,” she said. “Smart to turn Artemis out.”
“What’s with all the kids?” I asked.
“It’s Pony Club day. It’s like 4-H but for horses. Some of these girls will ride in the hunt next week.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. You don’t really hunt animals, do you?”
Diana laughed. “No. Well, not this time anyway. This is a drag hunt. We lay down a scent from one jump to another. The hounds think they’re hunting, but there’s no game. When we do go after animals, it’s coyotes we chase, and they always get away, you know, like Wile E. Coyote.”
“Well, that’s good. The word hunting isn’t one of my favorites.”
Soon we had the horses walking on the asphalt, with Artemis a few steps behind Gray Cloud. We veered off the pavement onto a trail.
“Come on.” Diana said. “Let’s trot. We have to get you legged up. We’ll ride third field, where it’s almost all walking and trotting.” She lead me on a trail we rarely took.
I prodded Artemis with my heel. Edward says Artemis would be more confident in me as a rider if I’d really kick her—but this time she did respond.
“That’s it,” Diana said. “Just push up a little with every step. Go with her rhythm.”
I thought I recognized the field we were suddenly in. “Isn’t this . . . what you called your secret place?”
Diana laughed. “As a matter of fact, it is.”
“Really,” I said, pretending to flick a cigar like Groucho Marx.
“Sorry, big boy, no blanket time today. I brought you here because we need to talk about something.” We tied our horses to trees. Diana sat down and motioned to me. “Here, sit on this log.”
I stopped her talk by touching her cheek. “I’ve been dying to kiss you,” I said, moving my lips toward hers.
“Wade, Wade,” she said, and for a while we blended into each other. Then she gently pushed me away. “Today’s not a good day with all these kids around. Some hapless Pony Clubber could wander over the wrong hill.”
As I withdrew, Diana said, “Not that there won’t be plenty of time for that in the future. I like kissing you, just not now, and there’s something we need to discuss.”
“Okay, you’ve got my attention.”
She looked at me straight on, looking very serious. “It’s about Jolene and Billy. I’ve known them a long time, Wade. When Rob was in law school, we’d double date. Billy had made Law Review, which impressed Rob, who barely got by. Now Billy manages the Enersystems account, the biggest in the firm. He can be a character, but be nice to them, for me. They really are like family. I want you to be part of this.”
I liked to think I could get along with anyone. Still, a high-powered partner from Texas could be a challenge. I looked over at the tied-up horses as I tried to take this in. “Sure, I understand. I doubt there’ll be a problem.”
“I just wanted you to know.” She stood up, clearly finished with the subject. “The kids are coming at five, and we only have a week to get you ready to go out with the hounds. Let’s work a bit.”
I pulled her toward me for a last kiss before we remounted our horses.
“Let’s trot to the end of the fence.” She nudged Gray Cloud out of his walk.
I followed her lead.
“That’s the way,” she said when Artemis caught up. “She’s got a strong trot. Now control it—lean back a little and pull ever-so-gently on the reins. Make a full stop at the end of the fence. Show her you’re in charge.”
“Whoa.” I tightened my upper legs as I pulled, and Artemis slowed to a walk for two steps before stopping. We went on like that, with her even having me canter, which is more or less like a gallop.
So the lessons went until, late the next week, Diana said I was ready to hunt. “We’ll take it easy on you this time. You’re not ready to chase directly behind the hounds, but let’s go for third field.”
What a hoot . . . me, dressed, out with the hounds.
The night before I was to go out with the hounds, she asked me to stay over. At dinner she asked, “Are you nervous about going out tomorrow?”
“Not really . . . should I be?”
She took a sip of wine. “I don’t agree with Billy that horses are dumb, but they are big. It’s okay to be a little scared—it might keep you from doing something stupid.”
“I understand,” I said.
“I’ll ride with you. I know some good places we can view the first and second fields. First field jumps, second field goes through gates. Third field, where we’ll be, is also known as hilltoppers.”
“Which field—is my terminology right?—do you usually ride in?”
“Sometimes they ask me to lead second field, but most of the time I ride up front with the master.”
“Since I know so little, that sounds right. And I thank the hunt for you asking me to stay over.”
She looked down. “Some things are better left unsaid.”
“It’s the first time you’ve actually invited me. Before, it just kind of happened.”
She walked over to me and touched my cheek. “But this is the night before the hunt. We’re only hours away from loading that trailer in the dark.”
As we were falling asleep I pulled her to me, but she rolled out of my grasp, saying, “I’ve set the alarm for five. We need sleep.”
In the depth of the night I woke up to feel her skin on mine. She’d snuggled up behind me. I turned toward her and we made love as if our bodies knew what they needed more than we did.
It was still dark when the alarm went off. Diana sprang out of bed. I played possum. She was only partially dressed when I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror. She was brushing her hair and the image of Diana, the Huntress, a life-size naked statue I’d seen in New York City, flashed in my mind. “You look lovely,” I said, blowing my cover.
“Get up, lazybones.”
Diana fixed her stock tie so that it jutted out from its pin. She donned a white smock as a cover-up.
“You look like a doctor about to make her morning rounds,” I said.
“Come on, get dressed. I’ll fix your tie after we load the horses.”
Soon we were at the ranch attaching the trailer to her SUV in the dark. Artemis and Gray Cloud didn’t want to get in. Diana had me stand behind them while she pulled Artemis into the trailer, making a hasty exit by a side door as the mare lumbered up the ramp. Once Artie was in, Gray Cloud marched right up.
We drove across Alpine Road to a dirt road in a grassy field that was already dotted with trailers, unloaded our horses, and tied them on opposite sides of the trailer. Everyone was working to get their horses tacked up and their riding outfits in order. The scene made me think of actors before a performance.
In the first light of dawn I fiddled with my stock tie. Diana came and helped, explaining that the wide soft ties actually serve a purpose. “In an emergency it can be used as a bandage.”
All these things to learn about an ancient sport. A man, dressed like Diana, even wearing a white doctor’s smock as a cover-up, came by our trailer carrying a silver tray with plastic cups of port wine. “Good morning, Master,” Diana said, and introduced him as Jack. He was a little taller than me, about the same age, with close-cropped brown hair—the hairstyle I knew as a “Princeton.”
“Stirrup cups,” he said. “Liquid courage.”
Diana demurred, but I took a cup. It tasted powerful, so early, but good too.
“Diana, can you lead second field?” he asked. “It shouldn’t be a long day. They’re only laying the drag for eight jumps.”
“Gray Cloud’s acting up, so I think I’d better hilltop today,” she said.
Jack seemed to know immediately why Diana was dropping back to a lower field. He looked me up and down. “Nice to meet you, Wade. You’re a lucky guy.”
He turned to Diana. “Why don’t you lead third field; I’ll have Richard take second.”
“Could I get a look at the trail map, Master?” Diana asked, and he showed her the day’s planned course.
After Diana led me in a little trotting, we heard Jack yell “Field please,” and forty riders circled around him. Intimidating now on a tall white horse, Jack had exchanged his doctor’s smock for a bright red hunting coat and carried a bone-handled whip. He emphasized the importance of closing all gates after everyone went through, and then he thanked the landowner. A smiling man, also in a red coat, nodded in appreciation.
I began to feel apprehensive. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that port—I didn’t remember ever drinking before noon.
The huntsman opened a trailer and out bounded two or three-dozen hounds, taller and whiter than beagles, with tails that stood almost vertically.
The horses moved nervously as we riders organized ourselves into three distinct groups behind the hounds. The horses’ ears swiveled severely, almost mechanically.
Diana, leading the largest group with me by her side, led us up a hill to the left. Morning mist rose off the grass. She stood in her saddle and turned around to speak to the field. “We should have a great day. I’ll try to get us some good vantage points. See those two riders across the way? They’re laying down the scent. Hounds and riders will follow that path.” After a while she spun in her seat again and asked if the group was ready for a trot.
The woman behind her yelled, “Sure, let’s go!” Diana kicked Gray Cloud and led the horses up the hill onto a small knoll. Soon the hounds appeared and scrambled along the scent path, followed by what must have been the first and second fields, twenty riders in all.
“For those of you new to hunting,” Diana said, “The hounds are giving tongue. They only do that when they’re on scent.” The riders cantered at full speed. The spectacle of red and black coats on the fast-moving horses behind the yelping hounds was breathtaking.
The hills behind Stanford, dotted with houses, were a vibrant green. After the hounds and hunters disappeared around a bend, Diana pointed off to another hill and said, “Let’s go over that way; we can see two jumps from there. We’ll need to hurry, since they’ll get to the first one pretty soon now.”
The hill she pointed to was at least half a mile away; riding there, I was quickly winded. When I caught up to Diana, I said, “Wow, this is work.”
“Aww, this is a walk in the park. Wait till you’re up with the hounds.”
She turned to the others and said, “How about a controlled canter up that next hill?”
She led us in a trot until the grade got steeper. Then, Diana kicked Gray Cloud into a full canter. The horses seemed to go into high gear all at once. I was reminded of those cowboy movies in which the good guys fly across the plains after the bad guys. I tried to figure out why cantering uphill felt safer than on the flat and guessed that it’s harder for your horse to run away on you and you feel closer to the ground. I worked to keep Artemis’s head up and my own fanny down. I wasn’t as scared as I was winded. I knew I was flopping around on my horse and hoped no one would notice.
“Tuck in like a skier,” Diana yelled across to me. “Heels down, weight back. Let Artemis do the work.”
My ride smoothed and I settled in.
As we stood on the hill, I studied Diana. Her tack was immaculate, with the end of each leather strap in its keeper. Gray Cloud looked as if he were born to hunt, a fit dappled gray Thoroughbred from central casting. The white form-fitting saddle pad on his back was whiter than Diana’s knit gloves. Unlike Artemis, Gray Cloud didn’t seem the slightest bit winded. Diana turned around and said to me, “Perfect weather. Sit straight in the saddle. You’re doing great.”
“I’m glad there’s a chill in the air or we’d all be dying of heat,” I said.
On Diana’s command, our group would trot, canter up a new hill, and the spectacle of the hunt would appear magically before us. She was so skillful that I felt like a member of a medieval court, that the field riders were being presented for my amusement.
Foxhunting, even without a fox, was as colorful as any movie on the big screen. The sport was all form. Except for the huntsman, who directed the hounds, and the whippers-in, who kept the hounds from running off, not one of the riders was necessary; in their finery, the first and second fields provided little more than pageantry and excitement for the riders. When the woman next to me, wearing a yellow vest, was asked what those following the hounds do, she said, “Logically, theirs is the least-needed position in all of sport, less use than a batboy. But I’m going to be one of them by the end of the season, no matter what it takes. Imagine tucking in behind the master, right behind the hounds.”
These riders were the antithesis of the Bauhaus dictum, form-follows-function, which I had once used as a motto for my life. “You look fantastic, and it is much more important to look good than to feel good,” I’d heard one rider say to another in greeting this morning. Each of them had risen long before dawn for the excitement of being part of this scene. Is there any way a hapless kid from the Midwest, faced with this elaborate pageantry, could not be moved? Did I ever have a prayer of not falling for the woman who showed me this world?
I was thankful for a rest at the top of the hill. I couldn’t imagine how the riders who followed the hounds maintained their grueling pace. Except for an occasional stop, which they called a check, they just kept riding, full-out. I was relieved, hours later, after two more hills, when Diana said, “I think the first field is already hacking back. If we trot over this hill, we can meet up with them.” It was almost over! I loved it, but I was dead meat. Soon the three fields joined together, the horses walking back in from the hunt behind the hounds.
When we came within sight of the trailers, the huntsman vaulted off his horse like a gymnast and handed his horse’s reins to the master. The huntsman talked constantly to his hounds, calling miscreants out by name, “Whiskey, get back in here. Winner, off that squirrel. Wishlist, down.” Walking briskly, surrounded by his hounds, he was the very picture of hunting tradition.
It was just after noon when we sponge-washed our horses and put cotton blankets over them. At last we could eat. Diana had brought two folding chairs, which I set up in the circle where people shared food and wine. The riders, whose outfits were now misshapen and spotted with mud, seemed exhausted but talked excitedly of the day’s spectacle. One friend of Diana’s, a little older, had come off her horse at a jump, but she was unhurt and said casually, “Blackie and I were together over the coop, but when we landed on the other side, I went left and Blackie went right.” She laughed and took a large swallow of wine.
Jack, who’d traded his red coat for a belted green heather wool jacket and his helmet for a tweed driver’s cap, congratulated me on my first hunt. “I hear you did well.”
“Thanks. Great fun,” I said.
“Breakfast is one of my favorite parts of the hunt,” Diana whispered to me. She had encouraging words for everyone as they joined us.
Sitting next to her, I downed my second glass of chardonnay. “Honey, this roast beef is delicious, but it’s after noon—shouldn’t we call this lunch?” People laughed as they told me that, even if it’s four in the afternoon, the meal after a hunt is always breakfast. They seemed careful to not make me feel like an outsider as they said it. I felt the kind of tired I wasn’t used to—goofy, and full of thanks.
After we ate, Diana was all waves and smiles, but she was quick to leave. She stood up, turned to me and said, “The kids are coming in a couple of hours and we have so much to do.” We gathered our gear and loaded the horses for the short drive back to the ranch. Gray Cloud and Artemis must have known they were headed back to their barns, because they marched right up the ramp into the trailer.
At the ranch we put the horses up, washed their tack, and put everything away. She touched my arm. “I wish we’d planned and you could at least shower at my place. But the kids will be coming by any minute.”
After we cleaned out the trailer and unhooked it, it was time to get into my own car. She hugged me and pulled away. Then she moved close and kissed me on the cheek. “You’re sweaty. Actually,” she said, coming back for another kiss, “I like salt.”
Before the party, I called Diana to see if there was anything I could do. “Maybe set the table?”
“Oh, I had that finished by noon. But maybe you could pick up a couple of packs of party ice. Those tiny cubes, you know. Jorge and Marita are still coming, right?”
“For sure. Jorge says Marita’s mom used to throw fancy parties in Havana before Castro, so she’s looking forward to it. They had some upset over what she’s wearing, but they’re coming.”
“Fancy parties in Havana?” Diana sounded incredulous.
I told her how Marita’s father taught at a medical school in Cuba. “When they escaped to Florida—Marita was in junior high—Florida hadn’t recognized his license and he had to drive a cab. It killed him. Literally: he had a heart attack coming home from driving a double shift. Jorge thinks that’s why Marita’s so pushy for Eva.” I paused. “He thinks that Marita wants to give her daughter the start her father had tried to give her before things fell apart. That’s more than you want to hear, isn’t it? Anyway, they’ll join us for sure.”
Diana, looking elegant in a navy blue blouse and white wool slacks under a red apron, greeted me at the door with a kiss. I brought a bottle of wine—a Chardonnay, much fancier than I drink at home, that seemed to please her. “Let’s get that on ice,” she said, leading me inside and taking off her apron. Then she took me back to the guest room and shooed Micah off the bed. “Here’s where I’ll have them put their coats.”
A silver place card holder showed she had seated me at the head of the table. In the center were two tall clear glass vases holding roses. I had to look twice at the large plates at each setting; they were silver. “Is it safe to eat off metal?” I asked.
“Those are chargers, silly. The plates go on top.”
The phone rang. “It’s the Tylers,” she said. Billy and Jolene, I reminded myself. She buzzed them up.
Billy had a short haircut and bulldog face and the swagger of a man who was used to getting his way.
Diana asked Billy if she should open one of his wine bottles. “Good stuff,” she said. Far Niente, much pricier than what I’d brought.
“Wine’s definitely cheaper out here,” he said slowly, with a drawl. “That’s a good thing about having Napa Valley nearby.”
Diana turned to him, “Napa. Remember that partner’s meeting at Silverado when we wondered what it would be like to actually live out here? Could that have been only two years ago?”
“I’m liking California more than I thought I would,” Jolene said. “Wade, you’re going to have to get used to how crazy we Texans are about our state. When I said I was moving out here, my friends went into mourning. But over the holidays I found myself missing California. At the end I was anxious to get back out here. You were brought up here, right?”
“Wade’s from the Midwest—Illinois,” Diana said.
I looked at Billy. “I haven’t been back to my home town for years. “I like it here.” Meanwhile, I thought, maybe it’s time to touch base home.
Jolene motioned toward the red roofs of Stanford. “And it’s hard to argue with this weather.”
Billy shook his head and frowned. He didn’t like California as much as his wife did, and he wanted people to know it. Happily, the phone rang and Diana buzzed someone else up the elevator.
“It’s Cliff. He rides with me, Billy,” Diana said. “You’ll like him. He hunts. Used to play polo, too.”
Cliff removed his trademark leather jacket when he came in. I turned to Billy. “This guy has written the most interesting book on what you might consider a dull subject—Jasper Ridge Ranch. Cliff brings it alive. Great photos. Did you know Leland Stanford bought the ranch, allegedly on his deathbed?”
“I’ve thought a lot about that guy,” Billy said. “Talk about strategic thinking.”
“He left quite a legacy, for sure,” I said.
Cliff turned to Billy. “I wanted to thank you for letting me ride Artemis. And Wade here’s been getting her out even more than I have. He even took her out with the hounds last week.”
Billy looked at Cliff, then me. “We worried Artemis wouldn’t get enough work. We’d hoped the kids would ride her, but no. You two are doing us a big favor.”
“Did you know the ranch was used for artillery practice in both World Wars?” I asked Billy.
“How did you find all this stuff out, Cliff?” Billy asked.
“Local libraries, mostly. They’ve been helpful at Stanford, too.”
Billy shook his head. “One of the best things about being a senior partner is I don’t have to do my own research anymore. I did it for years, but I never really liked it. What’s this about a hunt?”
“There’s a club here with over fifty hounds,” Cliff said. “We go out two or three times a week in the winter.”
Billy nodded. “I met a lot of the hunt crowd in Dallas—good people.”
Diana and Jolene moved toward us. “Wade took to it like a fish to water,” Diana said lightly.
“I’m just starting out with horses,” I said.
Cliff shook his head. “It’s the best way to get to know Diana, I’ll tell you that.”
I glanced at her.
“Cliff, back off,” she said. “Let Wade be Wade. He’s a poet, you know.”
Billy looked at me with renewed curiosity. “You write poetry? I hope you’re not one of those flaming liberals.”
Diana refreshed people’s glasses. Why did she have to bring up poetry? “Poets come in all stripes,” I responded. “In politics, I’m what they call out here a ‘Declines to State.’ You know, an independent voter. The major parties try to make it sound as unattractive as possible.”
“Hah,” said Billy. “So, you write poems. Do you publish?”
“A few in little magazines. I’m what’s known as a local poet. Meaning no one has heard of me locally. As opposed to the national poets, who no one has heard of clear across the country.”
“He’s making a joke, Billy,” Diana said. “Laugh, okay?”
“I might need more bourbon before I start laughing at poet jokes,” Billy said, but he touched me on the shoulder.
“Let me refresh that drink,” I said.
Diana’s phone rang the third time. “That must be Jorge and Marita.”
I excused myself and headed for the door.
Diana joined me just as they got off the elevator. I was happy to see them. Diana said, “Nice of you to come, Marita. And daffodils! Let me get them into some water.” She turned her wide smile on Jorge. “And you must be the Jorge who Wade’s always talking about.”
While Diana dealt with the flowers, I walked Jorge and Marita into the living room and introduced them. Jolene raised her hand and waved horizontally when her name was mentioned, kind of the way James Dean waved in Giant.
Diana came in and placed the daffodils prominently on the piano.
Billy said, “We were just talking about how different California feels, compared to Texas, that is. Where are you two from?” he asked Jorge and Marita. His eyes lingered on Marita. Covered up in a baggy denim jacket, she was proof that you can’t hide a good figure.
“I’m from El Paso,” Jorge said. “Marita’s from Florida, originally from Havana.”
Marita extended her hand. Rather than shake it, Billy lifted it to his lips. Marita surprised me by curtseying. “Jorge used to work with Wade, but he’s between jobs now.”
I brought in the drinks as people moved into the dining room.
Looking over the place cards, Jorge nudged me, “Man, she has you at the head of the table. The big Kahuna.”
I shrugged, trying to be cool. Actually, I was uncomfortable playing host. She seemed to want to make me feel like the man of the house, even in the subtle way she introduced me and asked me to say grace. I was silently rehearsing what I’d say.
Marita laughed as she pointed to Jorge’s place card. “And we’re seated across from each other, just the way Mama did it.”
“Cuba. Looks like those Castro brothers are going to hang on forever,” Billy said. “They’ve driven that island right into the ground.”
Marita smiled at him. “I’m with you, Billy. Americans don’t realize how quickly freedom can disappear.” She snapped her fingers. “Overnight.”
Billy reached out and touched Marita’s arm. He looked Jorge up and down. “That’s a smart little lady you’ve got there, buddy.”
“I’ve had friends go to Cuba,” I said. “They say it’s not as bad for the people living there as the press makes out. I think opening it up is good.”
Billy shook his head. “Nah, not until they change.”
“Wade’s just talking about his poet-friends,” Diana interjected. “From what I’ve seen some of them will do pretty much anything. I know they’ll say anything, that’s for sure. Wade is too patriotic to go to Cuba himself.”
Jolene looked lovingly at her husband. “Like Billy said, it’s very poor.” She didn’t seem to have noticed how blatantly Billy had been flirting with Marita. How could she miss it? Could she have noticed and not cared? That seemed unlikely.
Billy stared straight at me. “I can’t believe what you said about Cuba. It’s a communist threat, ninety miles from our border.”
Marita looked at Billy. “Mom goes on and on about the days before Castro took over. They were so happy there.”
“Of course, Marita,” I said. “But you don’t deal with the leaders by ignoring them.”
Billy shook his head. “We could improve those people’s lives in a weekend if we had the guts.”
“It is a beautiful island, everyone says that,” Jolene said.
Billy raised his drink to his wife. “That’s my girl. Hell, we could go down there and the next thing you know they’ll be eating at McDonald’s and speaking English.” He glanced at Jorge and Marita awkwardly. “No offense, but English is ten times better. We have over a million words; they don’t have a hundred thousand. Check it out.”
“Scary,” I mumbled, almost inaudibly. I looked over at Diana—did she hate Cuba too?
Billy looked at Marita. “You must be hot in that jacket.”
She frowned at Jorge and said, “He made me promise to leave it on.”
Jorge shrugged and nodded. He seemed to be giving her permission to take it off.
“W-e-l-l-l,” she said, spreading the word out to make her husband’s nod seem a dare. Starting at her waist, Marita slowly unbuttoned her jean jacket. Her hesitancy added drama, and soon all eyes were on her. When she removed her jacket, her blouse was so transparent that her red bra was as prominent a feature of her outfit as the blouse. Everyone but Billy quickly looked away.
Diana’s jaw was clenched, her lips tight. I thought of what sailors say before a storm. Batten down the hatches. Stand by for large seas and heavy rolls.
By the time Diana served dessert, the discussion had moved back to horses and the hunt. Cliff said to me, “So now you’re a foxhunter as well as a poet?”
“I’ve really only ridden once, in third field,” I said. “It hardly counts.”
“Third field can be pretty crazy with all those nutsy horses,” Cliff said. “I heard you did well.”
Billy said, “Maybe you should just stay away from horses.” He seemed to have cooled down after the Castro conversation. Seated beside Marita, his eyes continually returned to her.
Jolene moved her gaze from Billy to me as she passed a bowl of fruit and a plate of biscotti. “I’m so glad you’re getting Artemis out, Wade. How did she behave with the hounds?”
“She was fine, but we were hilltopping . . . I’m not ready to tear off behind the master yet.”
Cliff interjected, “You’ll get there. There’s nothing like it, except polo. I still miss polo.”
Jolene smirked at me. “Diana really likes the hunt.”
Billy piped in. “I don’t know. Horses are damn big and not real smart.”
Jolene glared at him. “Wade likes Artemis, and she likes him. Just because she bucked you off, sweetie—”
“Well I’m right,” Billy said. “Cliff, name one person in the hunt who hasn’t been hurt.”
“I broke both my collarbones,” Cliff admitted. “One hunting, the other polo.”
Marita leaned toward Billy, whispering something. I watched Jorge, who kept his eyes on Billy, who was watching Marita’s cardinal-red bra. I concentrated on not looking her way.
Diana stood and picked up her plate and then mine. She seemed anxious to get away from the table—from Marita in particular. Maybe I just imagined that, but she kept looking over at Marita and then looking away.
Marita said to Billy, “We should help her clear.”
Diana said, “No need to do that. I’ll get it.”
Marita stood up as well. “Please let me help you.” She picked up Billy’s plate, then Jorge’s, and moved to the kitchen.
Billy picked up a salad plate and followed her. Diana passed him, returning from the kitchen with a pot of coffee.
The dining room became quiet as Diana filled our cups; I think we were all listening to what was going on in the kitchen with Marita and Billy. At least I was. Marita’s voice broke the quiet, rising from behind the door in a loud suggestive laugh. Diana winced. Cliff and I looked at each other. Jorge suddenly stood, an angry look on his face. He grabbed Marita’s jacket from her chair and strode into the kitchen, the door swinging behind him. We all heard him say, loudly, from behind the door, “We’re going home, Marita.”
“Relax,” we heard Marita say from the kitchen.
The door opened again and she came back into the dining room, followed by Jorge, who was attempting to drape the jacket over her shoulders.
Billy followed Jorge back from the kitchen. “Don’t leave too fast, compadre. Your wife’s been telling me great things about you.”
Jorge’s face was flushed as he returned to his seat.
Billy was calm. “Maybe we should have a talk about you and Enersystems,” he said. “They’re always on the lookout for good people. Sometimes I scout for them.”
It looked like Jorge wanted to punch Billy out and give him his phone number at the same time. Then he went limp, his body language saying, where do I go to surrender? “Okay,” he finally said, shoulders slumped.
Billy nodded. “I’ll make a few calls on Monday. Come on, Jolene, we’d better get going . . . I have an eight-thirty tee-time, and if I don’t hit a bucket of balls beforehand, I’ll duff around the first five holes.”
After Billy and Jolene left, Jorge and Marita followed. Marita attempted to gush to Diana about the wonderful evening—she came up with the right words, but her voice was nervous, almost singsong.
Cliff followed behind them, not acknowledging any drama. Had I imagined more than there was?
Once Cliff was on the elevator downstairs, Diana and I were alone. I helped her move a few more dishes into the kitchen, hesitant to start a conversation. “We can leave the rest on the table while the dishwasher runs,” she said over the whir of the machine. “Let’s sit down.”
She led me to an alcove next to the window overlooking the lights of the houses in the foothills.
“Sorry about that scene,” I said. “A bit of a mess.”
“What an embarrassment.” Her jaw was tight.
“Billy’s a piece of work for sure.”
“Billy? It was that woman. She was half-naked in my dining room, and who knows what went on in the kitchen. That laugh!”
“I thought Billy was a little overwhelming, too.”
Diana took a deep breath. “That’s just . . . who Billy is. We’re used to him. I told you how long I’ve known him. He was best man at our wedding.”
I nodded. “Yes, your wedding. Your wedding.”
“I don’t understand you sometimes, Wade. Do you go out of your way to make me uncomfortable?”
I was never sure what to say around Diana when she turned cold like this. The words that came out of my mouth, surprising even me, were “I’m thinking about taking a trip back to the Midwest.”
Diana looked up at me. “Where’d that come from?”
“I haven’t been back in . . . whew, over twenty years, and SnyderSound has a sales prospect in Chicago. Ray has some hot lead. It may be time for me to return to where I grew up. I have a lot to figure out.”
Diana looked out toward the lights in the hills and brought her hand back onto the table next to mine. “About us, you mean?”
I resorted, for good or ill, to poetry.
“’Time for you and time for me
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
before the taking of toast and tea.’”
“I vaguely remember that from that poetry class I took at SMU. I never quite got it. It was Keats I took to, I remember that, about the nightingale and all.’”
I smiled and went on,
“‘Should I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I will wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.’”
“I like you very much, Wade, you and your poetry world, but you may be right. Perhaps we both need time to think.”
Rather than respond directly, I took the coward’s route and quoted one more of Eliot’s lines: “’I do not think that they will sing to me.’”
We sat silently for a few minutes overlooking the foothills until we both stood at the same time and she walked me to the door. We stepped into the entryway without touching. She walked me to the elevator. After I pushed the button, we hesitated before we held each other. I half-expected to feel a brass breastplate, but she was as soft as my memories of her.
She pushed away, gently. “Part of me is dying to invite you back in.”
She felt wonderful in my arms, but I kissed her on the forehead, dropped my hands from her waist, and left.