Julie nods. I head to the kitchen with the empty dessert plates. I uncork another bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and smile. We’ve gone through an entire meal without arguing.
I return to the living room to refill our glasses. As I lean over to pour the wine, I place my hand on Julie’s shoulder. She squeezes it gently. There are hopes for a thaw.
Just as I sit down, my phone rings. I check the number. My face must be a tell, because Julie immediately slumps in her seat and starts shaking her head. “No,” she mouths.
I answer the call.
Julie pushes her chair away from the table and walks out, leaving her glass behind. So much for progress. I silently watch her depart, then turn my attention back to the phone.
“Hello?” I say.
“Jonathan?” the voice on the other end is frail, faint. I take a moment to gather my thoughts.
“Hi, mom,” I finally say.
“Where have you been? You don’t call. You don’t visit.”
“I don’t see you anymore. I miss you, you know. I miss it when you’re not around,” straight for the gut punch.
“I know,” I settle into the armchair. I give her the standard lines about my busy life and how hard it is to find the time to talk.
“Well, can you talk now?” she asks. I glance at Julie’s empty chair and her untouched glass of wine.
“Yeah,” I say.
So I let her talk. She tells me about her garden and how the neighborhood kid who comes around once a week no longer gets all of the weeds out like he used to and wouldn’t it be nice if I could visit and help out.
She talks about dad again. How the rain had stopped at the exact moment I stood up to give the eulogy at his funeral and what a wonderful sign it was and how he must be in heaven now, may God bless his soul. She tells me she misses me when I’m not around.
She shares more tired family anecdotes and I chuckle and sigh at all the right moments. She says the weather’s getting cold and points out that it’s good for the garden because what plants could possibly grow in this kind of heat. She misses me, she says, when I’m not around.
She misses me.
I head up to the bedroom. I hesitate outside, then knock on the door. No answer. I nudge the door open. Julie’s in bed with a book she’s pretending to read. She doesn’t look up.
“May I come in?” I ask.
Julie nods ever so slightly, without looking away from the book. I come in and sit beside her. We don’t speak for a while. At last I say, “Look, I know it’s--”
“You can’t keep doing this, David. You just can’t,” Julie puts the book down.
“The doctors said it helps her cope. Besides, what else can I do?”
“Not picking up the phone would be a good start. Or you could just tell Clare the truth. It’s not your cross to bear.”
“Tell Clare the truth,” I let the words hang in the air. “Tell Clare the truth.”
I get up and start pacing. “Which truth would you have me tell her? That I’m not Jonathan? That her son’s been dead for a year? That she calls a virtual stranger several times a week because she’s got nobody else to turn to? Help me out here.”
“Like I said, not your cross,” Julie says.
“It’ll crush her!” I say. “Then she’ll forget it all anyway. She’ll call again, so it’ll crush her again. Over and over. I can’t do that to a person.”
“So the plan is to simply let her call forever,” Julie stares ahead with a blank face. None of this is fair to her. I try another angle.
“Jonathan would’ve wanted me to--”
“Oh, fuck Jonathan!” Julie spits the words.
I stop mid-step and spin toward her with my mouth half-open.
“He’s dead, Jules,” I say.
“And it’s nobody’s fault but his own,” she says. “If he hadn’t been showing off on that Harley, if he hadn’t been speeding, if he’d paid attention to the road, he’d still be alive. He’d still be alive and you wouldn’t have spent three months in hospital with a punctured lung and half of your bloody bones shattered!” Julie’s almost screaming now.
“You weren’t there,” I’m still rooted to the floor. “You don’t know.”
“I know it’s a miracle you didn’t die. You could’ve died. I could’ve lost you,” she bursts into tears. This catches me off guard. Julie’s just not the type. I walk over and hold her tight as she sobs and sobs.
“I get it,” she says through the tears. “He was your best friend. You miss him. You feel sorry for Clare. But we can’t go on like this. Look at what she’s doing to you. To us. Clare has the luxury of forgetting, but she makes you relive it with each phone call. She’ll never let you move on.”
I free my hand from under Julie’s head and pull the blanket over her. She’s in deep sleep. I return to the living room and down the leftover glass of wine. I top it up and walk out onto the terrace. Being outside helps. I sip the wine, looking up at the darkening sky.
Julie always hated me riding pillion on Jonathan’s bike. She was so sure we’d get hurt one day. She was right.
Julie’s right about most things. It is a miracle I’m alive. I do miss Jonathan. I do feel sorry for Clare, driven mad with grief and all alone in this world. That, partly, is why I gave her my number after Jonathan died.
But Julie’s wrong when she says it’s not my cross to bear. I owe this to Clare; this and much more. There’s a very good reason I keep answering the phone and playing pretend with a senile old woman.
Jonathan wasn’t the one steering the Harley that night.