By the end of dinner, Sara was exhausted from a long weekend of socializing, and she wanted nothing more than to retreat to Cindy’s apartment and read. She hadn’t decided what she’d download to her Kindle, but whatever she chose, she looked forward to the still silence of the words. Jane felt like a cocktail and more conversation: “Something cold with someone cool,” she said, directing the force of her smile at Cindy and the force of her words at Chris: “Do you want to drop Sara off at Cindy’s and then swing us over to May’s?”
Nodding pleasantly while paying the check, Chris Beltran accepted his girlfriend’s question as the directive it was. Later, per Jane’s instruction, he waited for Sara to cross the street and safely enter Cindy’s apartment building — “It’s a little sketchy this close to the 99” — before driving half a mile to their next stop. May’s was a Thai restaurant on 45th designed to resemble an authentic old teak house. Through the lowered car window, Jane told Chris that she’d “Uber it” back to her condo in Belltown and then sent him on his way to Greenlake.
“All Thai restaurants smell like fish,” Jane said as she led Cindy downstairs, “and the food reeks of it, even the stuff with chicken or beef. But the lounge here is poppin.’”
The lounge gleamed red and glittery gold. They eased into a vinyl-lined booth. There were just enough people around to provide the illusion of privacy without the discomfort of true solitude.
“Chris is a doll,” Jane declared, “but a man can really dominate a conversation.” Cindy nodded, but she actually couldn’t recall Chris speaking more than a dozen words all day. He made Sara seem loquacious. “I’m stoked that it’s just you and me now.” Jane rested an arm behind her. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for some time. I’ve said, ‘Cindy Prior, that is a gal I’d like to know better.’ I don’t know why it hasn’t happened.”
“I’m sorry,” Cindy said, finding herself apologizing as if fully to blame, “the summer just got away from me.”
Jane ordered a Garuda’s Perch for herself and a Bubbly Hibiscus for Cindy. “They’re bomb,” she said. Cindy was usually wary of drinks with proper names, but she felt in the mood to escape her current mood.
“You’ve had a houseguest,” Jane noted, although Cindy had stopped thinking of Sara as just a visitor. “I know how it is. That’s why when people come see me, I put them up in a hotel.” She licked the sugar off the rim of her glass. “So, you think Sara will go back?”
“Go back?” Cindy repeated, swinging her crossed leg. “Where?”
“Who,” Jane corrected. “Matt.”
“Why, I don’t know.” Cindy took a quick sip of her drink. “She’s still adjusting.”
“Fair enough.” Jane shrugged. “But I don’t think she’s going back. I have faith in her.”
Cindy bit her lip to hold back a recent memory, and Jane poked her shoulder like she was testing a steak for its doneness.
“You know something I don’t?”
“Me?” Cindy pried her fingers from a thatch of red curls. “No.”
“Good, cause, what I’m saying is I’m happy for her. No else would say it. No one else would admit. But us.” Jane’s words lassoed Cindy and pulled her closer. “You and me. We’re a vanishing breed. We live our own lives.”
“Hey, we go home tonight, who’s there? No one we don’t want to be. How many wives can say that?” Jane clinked her glass against Cindy’s. “So, let’s talk about you.”
Cindy felt like a spotlight had been focused on her. She batted her eyes. “Oh, well, honestly, I’d have to say everything is just going great! I’m gonna be an aunt again, you know.” Jane nodded as she played with the zipper at the hem of her jeans. “Jacob’s awesome, but it’ll be so different having a niece. My parents are just thrilled. They’ve already rescheduled the trip to Peru they had planned for Dad’s sixty-fifth birthday so they can be in Portland when Mindy gives birth.”
“Peru, huh? Fancy. Well, vacationing there is. I hear actually living there is a bust.”
“Yeah,” Cindy agreed. “My mom thinks struggling countries are much nicer to Americans. They appreciate all the tourism, I guess. They’ve both really taken to traveling lately, especially overseas. They like America, of course, don’t get me wrong, but neither of them enjoy much of it outside the northwest.” Cindy paused to quickly offer an instinctive, middle-class defense of her parents’ wealth: “They’ve worked so hard over the years.”
“Good for them,” Jane said, adding with a wink, “and you eventually.”
“How’s your family?” Cindy asked, twirling her straw.
“They’re… relatives.” Jane laughed. “No, they’re boss. Barbecues. Holidays. All the stuff you’d expect. My dad retired three years ago: He finally left my mom.” She mimed striking a drum. “Ba-dah-bum! Seriously, though, he’s a great guy. Self-made man.” Jane noticed the palliative effect the subject of family, anyone’s family, had on Cindy, so she leaned back with her drink and continued. “My grandparents never had much money, so they were miserable. My dad always wanted more, but his brother didn’t make waves. You know the sort of kid who’s just as happy with an empty box for Christmas even if everyone else got a toy rifle? By their teens, it was clear their futures weren’t shade-worthy. Now, there was some distant cousin who never had a family of his own and was loaded. My grandparents practically adopted the old coot. They figured if they were nice enough, he’d reward them when the time came. That was also the only reason they ever went to church. Then in ’64, he croaks and leaves everything to my dad.”
“Why just your father?”
“He asked,” Jane answered with a shrug. “His folks danced around it — real poseurs. But Dad cut to the chase. They didn’t care at first. They thought he’d just hand it over and take whatever they felt like giving him back. You pay taxes. You know what that’s like. But they were too thick to see that the money had changed everything. It wasn’t even like they were his parents anymore. I mean, outside of, you know, biology, but in the real world, they were just this sort of pathetic middle-aged couple trying to tell him what to do. And who listens to poor people? So, he took off and enrolled at UC Santa Cruz. He just wanted to keep a solid C average so he could stay out of Vietnam. Or ‘Nam. He always calls it ‘Nam. Even though he never went. His brother go drafted, though, and he came back in a box. There wasn’t even much of a story, like what you see in the movies. He just died. Kids today spend $100,000 to get a degree, and they always feel like they got gypped. But my dad paid $20,000 to stay alive, so he considers it money well spent.”
Cindy stared into her glass and watched the ice cubes melt before pointing out, “But you said he was self-made.”
“Yeah,” Jane confirmed, not seeing any conflict. “He made it all for himself. He saw opportunity and took it. Like he always told me, ‘I never owned a slave or killed an Indian. My money’s as clean as anyone’s.’” She set her drink on the table and conducted her thoughts with heavily ringed hands: “See, what I’m saying is: You have to look out for yourself. Who else is going to do it? Family? Perhaps.” She shook her head. “A man? Perhaps.” She shook her head harder. “You’re the only definite. That’s the truth. God’s honest, gospel truth, and do they want you to embrace it? No, they want you to spend your whole life being afraid of it.” She held a candle below her face and spoke with a creepy intonation, “Don’t. Die. Alone. Let me tell you something, sister: We all do.” She put down the candle and picked up her drink. “No matter the size of your rock — I’ll buy my own, thank you! — or all the kids you wrecked your body having. Match.com, OKCupid, eHarmony… What are those things? They’re a sand trap… no, they’re symptoms of a disease — people wasting their lives running from the inevitable. And I admire the stuffing out of you for just… standing still. It couldn’t have been easy. But look at you now! You have yourself, and that’s the only thing worth having.”
Cindy peered through her glasses at her almost-thirty-seven-year-old reflection in the mirror behind the bar. This was the first time in a while — if ever — that Cindy had thought of herself as a commodity. She finished her drink.
“Delish, huh? How about a couple more?” Not waiting for an answer, Jane signaled the bartender for another round. “Now, it’s true: I’ve got the word’s hottest man. But this is key: We each have our own places, set up just how we want. No arguments. No tension. No mess… we both have maids. I’ve got a closet full of stuff at his. He’s got a toothbrush at mine. It’s the best of both worlds. He asks me, ‘Should we move in together?’ I say, ‘No way!’ Why? For the same reason I give the middle finger to marriage.” She also physically flipped off the idea of wedlock. “I like my freedom. Why should I give that up?”
Jane’s candor shook Cindy’s propriety and caused her to ask, without her innate Prior filter, “Don’t you want kids?”
“Plenty of time for that!” She dismissed the four years remaining in her thirties with a sweep of light brown hair over her ear. “Besides, kids are an indulgence, not an investment. Look at those old biddies in the nursing homes. A horde of grandchildren among them. Who’s there every day? Their nurses. Clock in. Clock out. It’s all transactional. When they shipped my grandmother to one of those places, everyone she knew before she started forgetting everyone was already burnt toast. What she clung to the most was her home. Why? Because, in the end, how do we define happiness? Security! And that equals freedom, and freedom has a price tag.”
Jane moved closer to Cindy in the booth until her bare shoulder rubbed against Cindy’s fleeced arm.
“I want to show you something. It means a lot to me because I know it’ll mean a lot to you.” She slipped an iPad mini from her bag and opened an app with casual swipes of a pinky. “This is a house. I shouldn’t call it a house. That’s insulting. It’s an opportunity. It’s an experience. It’s under foreclosure, so we should act soon.” She lowered her voice, as if about to share something deeply personal. “Listen closely to what your heart tells you, because I feel like you’re going to fall in love.”
— from The Wrong Questions