Hope and I got our drinks, went to a table and talked about my brother maybe for a couple minutes. Then we talked about bullshit things that didn’t matter. I remember feeling angry about it later, but Hope was just being Hope. Talking about real life wasn’t something she was interested in.
Now, close to 18 years later, there she was sitting at my kitchen table, drinking vodka mixed with diet 7-Up and using one of my saucers as an ashtray. She had called me out of the blue wanting to have a simple get together.
“You don’t ever change much,” I told Hope when she first sat down. “To me, you still look like a kid.”
“Kids we’re not,” Hope replied. “You with your cane and me with my health problems more than tell me we’re over the hill. I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.”
“What kind of health problems are you having?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Hope said. “Let’s change the subject.”
Remembering that health problems are real life issues, I started to realize I was going to have to walk on some eggshells during this reunion. It wasn’t going to be easy as there was something I needed to bring up.
We started discussing where I live — Covington, Kentucky. Hope didn’t have much to say about it or seemed all that interested, so I let her talk about her winter home in Florida. Unlike Hope, I can fake an interest.
As she talked, I thought back to junior college. That’s where we first met in the early '70s. We must have been 19 years old. She wanted to be a fashion designer and had a strong sense of direction. I didn’t. I was going through the motions with no idea what I wanted in life.
Hope and I made out once in a stairwell. The college was in an office building in downtown Cincinnati occupying the sixth and seventh floors and by sheer luck, nobody saw us touching each other’s bodies and kissing. That was the only time Hope and I ever got physical. Since then, I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve even hugged one another. Some would stay Hope is cold. I’m just going to say she’s reserved.
As she continued speaking, I noticed that Hope looked frail, but Hope has always looked that way. Her long blonde hair is streaked with gray now and her pale skin looks even paler. I’ve always been attracted to her. If she feels the same about me she’s never told me, but still we’ve stayed in contact all these years. That tells me she at least feels something.
Hope was finished talking about Florida, so it was my turn to come up with something to say.
“You still working at the department store?” I asked.
“Yes, senior sales clerk in ladies dresses,” Hope said.
“That’s quite a title, don’t you think? Senior sales clerk. A clerk is a fucking clerk.”
“You’re doing what you want to be doing.”
“I’m selling dresses,” she said. “Suggesting accessories is as close as I’ve ever come to being creative — a little late in life to be a designer now.”
“At least you’re kind of in the field, right?”
“I’m a clerk, Larry,” she said, taking a drink from her glass and lighting up another cigarette. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Changing the subject again, we talked about college friends we no longer see and teachers who Hope thinks are probably dead. We talked about music we like. We both agreed we don’t like American Idol. We’re both Aimee Mann fans. The lightness of the conversation was starting to bore me.
Hope was on her third vodka and 7-Up when she said, “How are your kids doing?”
“All grownup, doing well,” I said. “I see them pretty often.”
“I’m glad you’re close to them.”
Now it was time to bring up what I wanted to talk about — that elephant in the room. This was probably one of the reasons why it took Hope and me close to 18 years to see each other again.
“You know, I’m sorry about Alex,” I said. Hope took a draw off her cigarette, looked down and played with the ice cubes in her glass.
“I left a couple phone messages after I heard he had died,” I said. “You never called me back.”
“I know,” Hope said still playing with her ice cubes.
“Is it something you want to talk about?”
“He lived with his father,” Hope said, taking another drink from her glass and taking another draw off her cigarette. “I don’t know if I was close to him — thought I was but maybe I wasn’t.”
“It has to be hard,” I said.
“It was, it is hard,” Hope said. “No note, no nothing. Just took one of his father’s guns and shot his brains out.”
Shocked by her bluntness, I probably had my mouth open. Hope put out her cigarette and got up from the kitchen table and poured herself a fourth glass of vodka and 7-Up. After she sat back down, she lit up another cigarette.
“How old was Alex?” I asked, trying to regroup. “He must have been 16 or ...”
“Can we talk about something else?” Hope said in a low steady voice. “It was over 10 years ago, OK?”
We sat in silence for a minute or two. I had brought up that real life, unpleasant topic and Hope seemed annoyed with me. Honest talk was now making our get together awkward.
We got back to talking about bullshit things like we did after my brother died 18 years ago. It was shallow and meaningless, but that’s how Hope wanted it.
After her fourth vodka and 7-Up, Hope left. We didn’t hug and barely said goodbye. After she was gone, I noticed there was still some vodka left in her glass. I sat down at the kitchen table, in Hope’s seat, and finished it for her.
Sitting there, I thought of Hope, tried to put myself in her shoes and figure out why she is the way she is. How can she deal with this tragedy in her life, the death of her son, without talking about it?
She opened up a little bit when I first brought up Alex, but it didn’t take long for those walls to go up — walls I know all too well when it comes to Hope.
I can only conclude everybody is different. People deal with loss in their own way and it’s not my place to judge Hope’s behavior or who she is. Still, sitting there at the kitchen table, I felt sad and disappointed. Selfishly, I wanted more from her.
We’re both in our late fifties now, so not seeing each other for another 18 years might be a little risky. I’ll call her in a month or two and suggest another get together. I’ll test the water to see if Hope really wants to talk, but more than likely we’ll discuss things that don’t matter. We’ll keep the conversation light.
Somehow this must be Hope’s real life, how she wants it to be. If it is, I can, at least for a couple hours, adjust my life accordingly.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: firstname.lastname@example.org