There was no reason to put it off any longer. Jack’s letter had arrived Saturday, and still Cynthia had not managed a response. Why would she have? After all, the man was a complete stranger, little more than a name from her past. He might even be one of those online predators she had read about. Over and over she had recounted the reasons why encouraging him was a bad idea.
And each time her thoughts trickled back to one undeniable fact. As far as she knew, Jack Benz was the only person in her world who cared enough to ask how she was doing, and certainly the only one who had offered to be her friend. For that reason alone, he at least deserved to be let down softly. Her message would be short. An email would suffice.
She spent a few minutes Tuesday afternoon listing the points she wanted to make. By the time she logged onto her email site Wednesday morning, she was ready with her reply.
Pardon me for taking so long to answer your letter. At first I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it in a civil tone. I was surprised at how angry it made me to hear that you knew I had a secret. It felt like I was being spied on.
But when I took time to think about it I realized that my secret shouldn’t have been a secret in the first place. The people who see me every day know that I’ve had a stroke. It’s no secret to them. They can tell by looking at me, or hearing me talk.
My therapist tells me I shouldn’t be ashamed about what happened to me. It wasn’t my fault, nothing I chose to have happen. Still, even though my condition has improved with time and therapy, I’m not the person I was before. I never will be. That bothers me a lot. It bothered my husband so much that he could not bear to look at me.
As for the feelings you wrote about, those fantasies of yours. I can assure you no one fantasizes about the person I’ve become. You wouldn’t if you saw me. I’m in no condition to make a good first impression on anyone.
I appreciate your interest, but I can’t be the person you think you knew, and I can’t do what you ask.
She sent the email on its way, then paused.... struck by a surprising realization. For most of three days Jack’s unexpected interest, and thoughts of how she would respond, had pulled her beyond what had become the dominant theme of her post-stroke life....the painful, angry questions of why those trials had been visited on her.
It had become a lifestyle, that self-pity of hers. In that case, how could she have guessed that, if only for a while, a blunt-talking old man could move her beyond those depressing thoughts?
Jack Benz’ talk of being a friend had an undeniable appeal. There was no friend like that in her life. But he had also written of reality, and its place in his dreams. What kind of reality would allow for a friend like her?
There must have been something going on at the college that noon hour. There were no students anywhere in the place. Except for a couple guys across the room making a fuss about some televised ball game, it felt as though Jack and I had the Terrace all to ourselves. We took a booth at the end of the long window overlooking the creek and ordered a beer. For the first few minutes I must have been more quiet than usual, at least that was what Jack noticed.
“Is it Maria who has you thinking those deep thoughts?” He liked to pretend that be could read my mind. It was his way of kidding. At that moment it was hard to laugh off his probably accidental insight.
“I suppose so,” I answered. “At least she’s part of it. There are times I feel too damn old for this ‘relationship’ stuff. She’s a nice lady, but she has some very frustrating ideas. It’s hard to get my head around some of them.”
“As strange as a sixty-three year old drop out, who spends his days writing geriatric love stories?” That struck Jack as particularly funny. “That’s what you call them, isn’t it? Geriatric love stories.”
“Her ideas are even stranger than that.” For the next few minutes I offered him an in-depth review of ‘God’s Judgment 101,’ complete with a brief description of Maria’s depressing symptoms.
As I finished, Jack drained his beer and offered a sympathetic smile. “That is heavy stuff,” he nodded. “Heavy, and seriously strange. Are you sure you want to follow her through all that? There’s no telling where it could lead.”
“It’s not like I decided to go there. I didn’t sign up for that. It just happened. Anyway, it’s nothing I can turn off. I like the lady. I’d like her to be happy.”
“Yeah, I guess so. That’s what I’d like.” I looked up to find Jack grinning back at me. “What’s that silly smirk about?” I asked.
“I’m just wondering. That’s all.”
“It was what, four years ago when you checked out of your marriage....so you could tell your stories without having to deal with all that other stuff? That’s right, isn’t it?”
I could tell where Jack was leading me. He had heard me talk about those last months with Sandra ....the constant bickering and my own sharp-edged guilt. He knew how the unlikely promise of my writing had kept me going through those times.
“Yeah, that was it,” I nodded.
“So how is this different?," he asked. "Does Maria interfere with your story telling, like Sandra did? Or can you have it both ways now?”
I took a moment to finish my sandwich, while I composed the most honest response I could manage. I owed my best friend that much.
“My writing has turned to crap," I began. "It gets about half my attention. And it shows. But right now I don’t seem to care. Maria is hurting and I want to help her.”
“So how is this different? How is Maria different than Sandra?”
Whoa! That caught me by surprise. “Lots of ways,” I stammered. “The thing is, Maria makes no demands at all. Whatever I’ve done with her I’ve done because I wanted to, not because she was leaning on me. I guess that’s the biggest difference.”
“So maybe you can have it both ways. Is that what you’re saying?
“Look,” I was still scrambling to answer his last question. “The last year or so with Sandra was a real hassle. It was one battle after another....about what she wanted and what I wanted, and how the two were so different. She wanted things to stay the same. I knew they’d already changed. There was no way I could put that genie back in the bottle.”
While I was wishing he would talk about something else, Jack plowed ahead in his devil’s advocate role.
“Sandra was your wife, Carl. Didn’t that give her the right to want things too? Are you saying you’re fine with Maria as long as she doesn’t want something you don’t want? Is that it? What if she comes up with some ‘wants’ of her own? What then?”
Damn, I wanted to wipe that smirk off his face. I drained my beer and waved to the bar girl for one more. To hell with a two drink limit. I did not have to go back to work like Jack. I was tired of his prying and ready for something different. Without a second thought, I took charge, changing the subject a full one hundred and eighty degrees.
"So tell me about Cynthia," I offered. "You said you got an answer from her. What did you find out?”
Jack acknowledged my retreat with a nod, and just as quickly turned somber. “It was a stroke,” he said. “I don’t know how bad it was. But she’s doing well enough to be in the assisted-living place, instead of a nursing home. She told me that.”
“A stroke. I guess that shouldn’t be so surprising. Not at our age. None of us comes with an extended warranty, do we?”
“I suppose that’s right. But I think it’s a good sign that she’s willing to talk about it. It took some nerve to do that, considering she doesn’t even know me.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I want to see her," I said. "I need to go up to Tacoma.”
“Are you sure?” Perhaps it was time for a restraining tug on Jack’s leash.
“Three weeks ago you were sure that you’d never find her," I continued. "Last week you were just as sure she wanted nothing to do with you. Now, all of a sudden, you’re ready to rush off to Tacoma. What’s changed? Besides, do you even know what kind of shape she’s in?”
I knew that Jack must have asked himself that same question. He was not the kind to act on impulse. Except, of course, concerning anything having to do with his irrational Cynthia Larson fantasy. Was he in that space again....allowing his heart to overrule the cold logic of her situation?
“I don’t know how she is,” he said. “I guess a stroke can mean lots of things. But what if she’s really messed up? Wouldn’t that mean she needs a friend even more? Near as I can tell she doesn’t have too many of those.”
“I expect she has one more than she knew about a few days ago.”
“Yeah. I think she does. I kind of like that feeling.”
Thursday night. Jack Benz was at his desk composing his response to Cynthia’s email. There were several things to address, each one needing to be said just right. As before, there was more than a single email’s worth. He had spent half-an-hour assembling his notes on a yellow writing pad.... scratching out lines, adding words, using long curling arrows to connect ideas that went together.
Finally, he paused to make sense of his scribbles, imagining how he would organize the diverse thoughts. No matter how he said what needed saying the resulting letter was bound to be long and hard to read.
Jack had always considered himself a telephone and email kind of guy, preferring the informality and immediacy they provided. If ever a time called for the clarifying advantage of instant feedback, his current situation fit that description. It was time to take a chance.
Actually, Jack had never stopped to consider what he would hear if Cynthia Larson was speaking to him. He did not recall that she had ever talked to him in the course of his persistent daydreams. From the beginning the possibility of a telephone conversation had been too remote to even consider. That was about to change.
It took a few moments to locate the phone number from a web-search site, and another few seconds for the Forest Gardens front desk to transfer his call to Cynthia’s room. Finally he heard her single word greeting. “Yes?”
“Hello there.” Jack was trying for a casual, matter-of-fact greeting. She must have heard the anxious trembling in his words. “It’s Jack Benz, from Tanner. I thought it was time we talked.”
“Oh my. I thought it was the office. They’re the only ones who ever call me.”
The words came at a labored pace, in a decided monotone. Vowels were formed slowly, drawn out. Sharp-edged consonant sounds were not entirely distinct. Some words arrived in ill-formed syllables, with an unfamiliar emphasis. Still from Cynthia's very first sentence Jack heard and understood every word. There was no doubt at all what she was saying.
“Well, it’s me,” he repeated. “It seemed like a good time for us to get past the emails and letters. I thought we needed to talk, and this seemed like the right time.”
“What do we have to talk about?”
“Let’s start with your last email, where you tried to lecture me on who I shouldn’t fantasize about, and who can’t make a good impression. That’s a good place to start.” Was he treading too close to the edge, he wondered....offering his subtle touch of humor.
“Jack. Can’t you tell? Talking is hard for me. People can’t understand what I say. I’m not sure this will work.”
“Hey, you sound just fine to me. If there’s something I don’t understand, I’ll let you know. Okay?”
Indeed, he was pleasantly surprised how easily they were communicating. The hardest part was forcing himself to wait, to listen at the pace of her speaking, without appearing to hurry her. That was becoming more difficult by the second, because at that moment his head was filling with things he wanted to say. But he waited, until she had finished.
“Look, Cindy. There’s so much ....”
“Cynthia,” she interrupted. “It’s Cynthia. Cindy was a little girl. I’m Cynthia.”
“Thank you. I’ll try to remember that.” Jack was not so sure he liked that change. Cindy Welton would probably be a hard habit to break. “Anyway,” he continued. “I have some things I hope I can say right. If you don’t want to talk, at least please listen.”
“I will. Except when I have to correct you.” He heard the teasing in her stumbling words.
“Feel free to correct,” he laughed. A moment later he had turned serious. “First of all, I’m no expert on strokes. But maybe I know some things that you don’t. Here’s one. The stroke may have changed you. I’m sure it did. But who you are....the person inside, the real you....that hasn’t changed at all. Okay?”
He paused, waiting for a reaction, but she did not respond. “You also said you’re not up to making a good first impression," he continued. "The thing is, you don’t have to do that, at least not for me. Cindy Welton made an impression on me in the sixth grade. I was a fan then. I’ve always been a fan, even when she moved on to bigger and better things and became Cynthia Larson. So please, don’t be finding fault with my good taste.”
“Jack, will you be serious.” Cynthia had found her voice again. “You don’t know me at all. I’m not a sixth grader. You have no idea what impression you’d have if you saw me now.”
Jack tracked back to the first hearing of her words, just minutes before, and his worries about comprehending her speech. He was amazed at how easy it was. He understood everything she was saying. The initial awareness of how different she sounded had been pushed aside.
“Cynthia, you’re making an impression right now. It tells me that you’re being honest about what you’re dealing with. Honest and brave.”
Was he moving too fast, being too bold? Perhaps. Then he reminded himself he might never have another chance to speak so directly. It was a time for boldness.
“That honesty impresses me a lot," Jack added. "It’s what I like in a friend. It makes me want to know you better. It even has me thinking about a trip to Tacoma. I hear it’s really nice there this time of year.”
“What are you saying?” He heard the startled anxiety in her halting words.
“I’m saying that I’d like to come see you, in Tacoma. If I’m invited, that is.”
Her answer was a long time coming. When it arrived Jack was straining to hear her soft whisper. “Are you sure that’s a good idea”
“Cynthia.” There was a new firmness in his voice. “It is a good idea, a very good idea. It would help us get past all the email and letter stuff. We could actually talk, face to face.”
“You’d come all this way, just to see me?”
“You bet I would.” Jack drew a deep breath, telling himself to slow down. “Just for a visit. That’s all. To get acquainted. Maybe it would help you feel better about having a new friend. After that we could play it by ear.”
“Of course I’m sure. You just say when and I can be there in four hours. Three if I hurry.”
“I don’t want you getting a speeding ticket.” For the first time he heard her laugh. It was strained, as though it might hurt. But she did not hold back.
“I’d be careful.”
“And we could talk?”
“For as long as you wanted.”
“There’s one more thing.” This time her awkward laugh was more subdued. “You’d have to give me a couple of days notice, so I could have my hair done. I look a fright.”
“I’d do that.”
For another few minutes they exchanged timid small talk, neither of them sure how far to take their first conversation. Finally Cynthia stepped forward to make her point. “I don’t want to be impolite, but I’m rather tired. I think I should be going.”
“I understand,” he said. “When you have time, please think about my idea. It’s a good one. I hope you’ll think so too.”
With a promise to stay in touch, Jack said his goodbyes and set the phone back on its charging stand. He closed his eyes and replayed the instant when he first heard Cynthia on the line. He had welcomed her emails. Each one had made his day. But a real telephone conversation? That was off the charts.
There was no controlling the stream of returning impressions, each one revisiting some part of the tortuous path that had led to those moments on the phone.
Each step had been an important part of the whole....his calls to the law school alumni office and San Francisco law firm....talking with Eric Larson, hoping against hope that he would relay his message to Cynthia....waiting for her response, hoping to keep her interested enough to answer his emails.
There were so many ways the process could have failed. Yet there he was, recounting its success.
He walked to the computer. Fifteen seconds later the message, perhaps his shortest email ever, was on its way.
Thanks for a wonderful surprise.