By Jayna Locke
On a day when the Spring sky is full of sun and promise, we visit our college friend, Marcel, at his house on an estuary near the sea. He greets us on the front porch, barefoot, in khaki shorts and a white t-shirt that flatters his tan — if it is a tan. From old pictures, I know he was born the color of a toasted almond. But he is an even darker almond now.
“Come in,” he says. “Come in!” I see in his smile a gold front tooth, which is somehow not surprising. Then we hug and he is warm the way I remember. He fist-bumps Ben, who then drapes his arm around my shoulder.
On the way to the house we pass a Dos Equis bottle and a martini glass on the steps — remnants of a rendezvous the night before.
Marcel stands back to look at me. Then Ben. He smiles and shakes his head. It has been too long.
He sweeps his arms out toward the garden-like room where we stand. “Check out the digs. What do you think, my friends?”
It is beautiful. We tell him so. Sunlight streams in through skylights overhead onto an open rotunda lined with orchids, rubber plants and philodendrons. A tropical paradise. He shows us the view window that looks west. Outside there is a sun deck with rattan loungers, palms and bougainvillea. Below that, a sandy hillside stretches down to the estuary with a dock and a dory. A white long-necked bird struts along its shore. And beyond that is the ocean. Out at sea, a steamer is moving along. The scene is so much like the backdrop for a stage play that I want to clap my hands.
Marcel offers us a drink from a tidy wet bar in an alcove. It is too early. But Ben says, “Sure. Something light. Vodka and soda?”
I nod. “I’ll have that too.”
I imagine this place at night. Women in revealing dresses, hired party bands with steel drums or mariachis. Someone dancing on the deck railing, perhaps Marcel. In school, he was always the reckless one, the one people expected to read about in the obituaries before the five year reunion. Some speculated it would be a drug overdose, some a driving accident. But here he is eight years after graduation, doing fine. I suddenly remember how he always had people swirling around him, hovering in his sphere, enjoying his vibe, but rarely too close. I’m not sure why I have never connected these two ideas of adoration and distance.
Marcel hands us our glasses and we raise them up. “To two of my best friends of all time,” he says. Our glasses clink and we tip them to our lips.
“Look at you two,” Marcel says. “Married. Just like that.” And he looks at me because I chose Ben, the steady one. Then he slaps Ben on the back, the way friends do, but hard enough so that Ben has to set his foot down to brace himself. “Ben, you lucky shit.” He looks at me again. “You too, Emma. You’re both lucky.” He smiles in his enigmatic way, as if he is harboring some amazing secret, and even as his gold tooth glints in a shaft of sunlight I recognize that I am not immune to his charms.
Ben sets his drink on a coaster. “Where did you get that? That gold tooth.”
Marcel laughs. He starts to say something, then laughs again as if the memory is too amusing to be reduced to a mere anecdote. As if you had to be there. It has always been this way.
He taps his forefinger against the tooth the way one might test a piano key for tuning. “Let’s just say that when you run a nightclub, you run some risks.” And his smile seems to say “We may not be together long, you and I, but we’re going to have a good time.”
Some odd emotion tugs at me and I turn to look at the orchids, breathing their sweet aroma. I am thinking how there are only a handful of people who leave an indelible mark on our lives. People who always remain familiar, even when time rushes by like a freight train. You come back to them, or they to you, and it’s as if no time has passed at all, but you ache because you know it has.
Marcel serves us lunch out on the sun deck. There are bowls of fruit, avocados stuffed with shrimp and lemons, oysters on the half shell, cold gazpacho soup with tiny wine crackers shaped like seahorses, and a decanter of port. Though he is the one who serves the food, I catch a glimpse of a small brown woman in the kitchen wearing an apron. For a moment, I wonder why he is hiding her from us. But then he calls out to her.
“Mariana? Más limones por favor!”
And she emerges, smiling. She nods at us as she places a small bowl of gleaming lemon slices on the glass table.
“Gracias,” I say to her.
“¡De nada!” she says, backing away politely. I try not to think about how he affords this elaborate lifestyle. Is it just the nightclub?
At UC Santa Cruz, Marcel always had money. We never knew where it came from. An inheritance, perhaps. He bought us things — experiences a poor student living in a dorm room would die for — steak dinners, nights in town, rounds of drinks, ski weekends. We thanked him, but never asked how he came by his money.
I swallow a shrimp and say, “Hey, do you remember that trip…?”
And Ben says, “The one to Lake Tahoe.” For some reason, this has become our favorite common memory.
“Near blizzard conditions,” Marcel says, shaking his head.
With an oyster shell in hand, Ben says, “You wanted one last run in spite of the turn in the weather.”
I add, “But we went back to the lodge. We could barely see the way ourselves.”
Marcel sips from his glass of port. “I went for the black diamond. Just before they shut down the lifts.”
Ben snorts. “It was an utterly reckless thing to do.”
We laugh. It is funny now, with years gone by. And yet I blink in the sunlight, warm and cold all at the same time. With my eyes on the estuary, I say, “I never expected to see you alive again.”
“And then there you were,” Ben says. “Coated in ice crystals and snow like an abominable snowman. Triumphant. Always beating the odds.”
To counter the edge in his tone, I say, “We were so relieved. So… happy.”
In the late afternoon, we drink margaritas on beach chairs at the estuary’s edge. Mariana brings them down the sandy path from the house by the pitcher. We raise our glasses and toast. To life. To friendship. To us — Ben and me. Our marriage. And a thought tugs at me. A hope that I have chosen well.
Marcel begins to sing. He sings songs in Spanish, of love and sorrow, and Ben and I get up to dance, swaying in one another’s arms. Then Marcel cuts in and holds me tight, and his warmth is pressed close to me, his heartbeat against my chest. I think of pushing him away. His breath is on my cheek, smelling of limes and sunsets and a daring life, unhampered by fear or obligation. Then his song is done and we part, and I fall laughing into my chair, and I take Ben’s hand, which is cool like the evening air.
The sun slips down toward the horizon, and Mariana brings one more pitcher of margaritas, and its aroma of fresh limes mingles with the brine smell of the dampening salt air. With the sky turning flush in the dusk and the breeze coming up, we begin to think of sweaters, of leaving. The gulls are bedding down now, and there are few sounds — only the wash wash sound of the sea.
* * *
Jayna Locke is a writer based in Minnesota who has had a lifelong passion for fiction. As a transplant to the Midwest, she has lived in the Northwest and the Northeast of the U.S. as well as Northern California, and loves to infuse her fiction with a sense of place. Her work has appeared in a published anthology and in Portage Magazine.