|The Wine Mistresses
"I’d say he has three kinds of wounds on his legs. The skin graft donor sites--those are supposed to go away, but they’re still angry red. The deep scars, as if someone took an ice cream spoon to scoop out the muscles. And then there’s the Frankenstein scars from the surgery.” Sandy had been describing her second son, Michael. As a toddler, he had been a boy of curly blonde hair, deep blue eyes and rosy, round cheeks. In short, his was a perfect commercial beauty that my own children did not possess. Had she been the type of mother to do so, Sandy could have marketed her son successfully. His was the face of the angel that the buyer seeks on every baby product from shampoo to diaper rash ointment.
I thought of Sandy’s words on my hour-long flight to the center of the state. I had been delayed two hours in Southern California, waiting for the fog to lift in San Francisco, and had finished reading both my short novel and my magazine. Four months had passed since the night Michael nearly died of bacterial meningitis, and I hadn’t seen Sandy in all that time. When I tried, over the phone, to tell her, “I love you,” she would reply, “Oh, yeah, that,” and I wasn’t sure if, when your child nearly dies, and the loss of limbs is predicted, the love of anyone, even of a friend of twenty-five years, matters.
Over the course of Mike’s illness, none of our telephone conversations had gone well, even when the news was good. Sandy would stop mid-sentence to announce that she had forgotten what she was talking about--but she never forgot to comment on her forgetfulness, as if she believed she could punish herself into the kind of remembrance that would make her life whole again. Abandoning the phone, I took to sending sweets and cookies, with letters tucked in the packages, little homemade reminders that I hoped would express my concern. Finally, I simply asked, “Can I come up?”
My timing was not good, as Michael, a miracle of survival, was coming home from the hospital in a few days. He had come through without losing the predicted limbs--the doctors had thought for awhile that at least the toes would have to be amputated. After four months in the hospital, most of which was spent waiting to see which muscle tissue would heal and which would die off and need to be removed, Mike’s homecoming might have been complicated by my presence. I was not someone he knew very well. “Your letters. . .” Sandy began and then trailed off. “Come Natalie,” she said. “Thank you for your letters,” and I felt that my welcome into her home was a gift in recompense for the written word.
I had seen pictures of Michael since I last saw the real boy. When I arrived at his house, and he appeared at the front door, Mike gave credence to his photos. He was growing out of his curly hair and taking on a more mature beauty at four years of age. All kids change, I thought, but I was trying to grasp the idea of life-altering events so early on. The first of the scars I noticed were those Frankenstein ones, and I wondered whether Sandy knew how closely she had paralleled Mary Shelley’s story in the labeling. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, though he had selected fine, white flesh for his creation, had neglected to secure enough of it and needed to stretch it too thin, making his creature too transparent.
“The doctor had to take the muscle all the way to the bone,” Sandy whispered after Mike had shyly backed away. “He said he couldn’t graft skin over bone, so he just pulled together what was left. He told me, ‘I hope it works.’”
“Seems like an inexact science,” I replied.
“Well, it’s like Doug says. You get greedy. The first night, it’s ‘Please God, don’t let my son die. I’ll take him any way I can have him, but I’ve got to have him.’ And then it’s, ‘Please, he can’t lose his toes.’ And then, ‘Why shouldn’t he walk?’ And finally, ‘Why does he have to be saddled with those ugly scars?’”
Mike’s older brother, six-year-old Ryan, appeared, waved, and pulled Mike away to help him fight some alien beings that Sandy and I were blind to. They made shooting--no, blasting--noises down the hall and into the backyard.
“I don’t have any answers, about the scars,” I said when they were out of sight. “I was a lucky kid. And maybe I was a too careful kid as well.”
Sandy sat on the couch, a low laugh escaping before her lips turned up a smile. “Too careful, yes. But you still have this, I see,” she said, touching a dark, lumpy and uneven circle, the size of a quarter, on my knee cap.
I have very few scars on my legs, and this first truly noticeable one appeared only after I was old enough to avoid such a calamity. I lost my balance once in an adolescent crush. The desire to be near the object of my affection propelled me on a daily walk past his house. It was as if I had slipped into the dancing shoes of folk tales, those that exhaust the wearer who cannot take them off, who becomes the puppet of their control. The hope that my hero would be out in the yard and would hail me stole half an hour from me each morning when I would take special care in dressing to please. In my skirt and heels, I wound my way home from school, adding four blocks to the journey. After weeks of this ritual, I saw my knight playing with a friend and a soccer ball. The ball was kicked in my direction, and as I followed it with my eyes, I suddenly found myself prostrate on the cement, an embarrassed heap of supine reverence. My champion and his companion laughed out loud, but made no move to help me. I had gone literally head over heels at an exposed tree root that burst through the sidewalk.
When I rose, my nylons were torn open and my knees bloody. I limped home to clean out the tiny pebbles and bark from under my skin. I have always honored the scar that remained my first lesson in love. “Keep your eyes on the path and step carefully” became my dating motto.
“What can I say, Sandy? You know the story--the mark of love.”
“The mark of love,” she repeated, and patted a spot on her own calf where she had torn away a circle of skin in her first leg-shaving session, an early effort to appear smooth.
I had grown into a life where stepping carefully was an option. I wondered if, for Mike, the areas where the muscles had been ‘scooped out,’ as Sandy put it, would fill in on their own--or if there were plans to fill them, maybe with silicon pouches, something like those that enhanced breasts. “You know, he’s doing better than I expected,” I volunteered.
“Wait until tomorrow morning,” Sandy answered with a sigh. She was trying to stay light, although she had told me the moment we met in the airport, “I think we’re it for the evening. Everyone is busy.” It was only then that I realized she had meant this to be an official celebration, a gathering of friends to mark the end of the era of the hospital, and the beginning of a new family life. I asked her to stop at the grocery store on the way home, and I bought everything to make dinner--chicken enchiladas in mild green chili sauce, rice and beans. When we arrived at the house, there were “Welcome Home!” Mylar balloons floating all around the family room ceiling, but they kept getting caught in the ceiling fan and making terrible “wap, wap!” sounds until they had to be tied up.
While the chicken simmered, Sandy, her two boys, and I headed out for the backyard. Michael had a few short tantrums--one when he forgot how to get up from a sitting position. However, as soon as he was reminded to support himself with his arms, he became jovial again and asked his mother to play kickball. Sandy would roll the blue and pink-swirled plastic ball slowly. Michael made a run for it--or so to speak. He was walking, but twisting at the waist and pumping his arms as though he were moving at top speed. His grin spread until it took over his face just at the moment he kicked. The plastic ball, almost weightless, soared up into Sandy’s arms. Mike threw his hands straight up into the air and pulsated, his whole body announcing that he’d made a goal. This was followed by clapping and screeching on the part of Sandy and me. Even Ryan put his arm around Mike’s shoulder. The evening sun sparkled gloriously along the boy’s flesh.
“Someone ought to make up a poem about that kid,” I said. “Something like the opposite of ‘Casey at the Bat.’”
“Does it tug at your heart?” Sandy almost sighed.
“Not that image, not right now. Let’s not have any tugging right now,” I replied.
“You’re right. We’re celebrating. It’s too bad so many of our friends are missing it.”
“The celebration--and the thing worth celebrating,” I added. “My God, who is it that thinks to put passion into the recipe?”
“What do you mean?”
You know when you’re pregnant, and you’re trying consciously to shape your baby, your child. You think up hair and skin and nose and lips. You especially think up eyes and teeth because they’re such marks of beauty. How much time did we spend on that—and listening to classical music that we’d never heard before in our lives? If those kids. . .” I pointed to the brothers, who were now grasping small plastic shovels and flinging dirt from an overgrown vegetable garden high into the air on the pretense of transporting it to metal dump trucks. “If those boys are the product of your imagination, then you have a lot to congratulate yourself on. Your sense of beauty is--astonishing. But did you think up the passion, the exuberance? I never thought about it while I was mentally jotting and altering the recipe for each child. Not once in three pregnancies.”
As I set the table for dinner, the doorbell rang. Doug, Sandy’s husband, welcomed two friends, a couple who were introduced to me as Geoff and Andrea. Geoff had those goofy good looks that middle-aged men are lucky to get as they grow bald. Andrea, without makeup, had a healthy appearance. She gazed intently at me as we were introduced. Both of them carried bottles of wine, deep red. I never drank alcohol, or at least not since I had made the effort to do so was when I was in college. Now I was faced with Sandy and Doug’s friends, and their red wine, which, even I knew, did not complement the meal. Guilt pinched me, as I presumed that as the provider of this meal, I should have seen to some other, less hearty, drink.
Geoff and Andrea labeled themselves, jokingly, I thought, as ‘wine snobs’ while they poured cabernet sauvignon for everyone. I tried to say that I didn’t drink, but the conversation was on the wine and no one heard me. There was a tacit assumption that everyone would want a glass. It had been uncorked that day at the winery where Andrea was wine mistress, and its availability had prompted the visit.
Andrea commented, “This is delicious,” and held a forkful of enchilada in my direction. Although my glass had sat untouched through the early part of the meal, I now felt that I was being less than polite and picked up my glass.
“Who taught you to arrive with such tasty things?”
“It’s a quality I’ve been petted for all my life, so I guess it just comes naturally now.” I raised the glass to my lips. “This is good,” I said, and the surprise in my voice, in turn, surprised everyone else who already seemed to know this. “Where would I get this?” I continued.
Geoff named Andrea’s winery.
“I’ve never had a glass of red wine before.” I was confessing now. “Could I buy this anywhere?”
“‘Wherever fine wines are sold’ as they say,” Geoff answered. “Last year’s stock was about a hundred dollars a bottle. It should be the same, maybe a bit more this year.” Geoff looked to Andrea who nodded agreement but didn’t speak.
“Oh,” I replied.
“Well, you know, you can get a decent bottle of zinfandel for ten bucks.”
“Really? Sandy, did you know this?” I recognized that she had been silent too long, and wanted her to speak.
“I know it now,” she replied.
“Sure,” Geoff said. “You can have fun trying some out--just make sure it’s local, not French.” And here Geoff rattled off the names of some Napa wineries. “Find what you like.”
“We sometimes talk about things besides wine,” Andrea said to me, but her eyes were on Geoff, not boring into him, but merely having him acknowledge that we were free to change the subject.
“Oh, no, really!” I exclaimed, hoping Geoff wouldn’t stop. “It may be hard for someone like you to believe, but I’ve never finished a glass of red wine before,” I repeated idiotically, “because I didn’t like the taste, the smell--nothing.”
Sandy, who had been silently amused at my blundering, nodded in my direction and said, “You’re talking to a woman who won’t be pushed into anything that seems--icky.” I stared into her face, trying to read the comment, to see if she was making slight of me, if her own suffering had made me more airy, someone insignificant to her. I saw none of this. I saw nothing, yet. “You know, she gave up a great guy because he bought a motorcycle.” Sandy turned to me. “You don’t know whatever happened to Andy, do you? He was awful cute.”
Andy was the second of my true loves. Several years after my plunge and the subsequent scarring of my knee, I fell in love with Andy during lab in my anatomy class at the university. It seemed an odd place to fall for someone, over a cadaver and all, but I had gotten to the point where I could keep negative thoughts at bay. I read the eyes and lips of the living and ignored the dead, barely scraping out a passing grade. I considered myself lucky to have found the boy who deemed me likable--now after many years have intervened, I might say lovable. I held the notion that his love was conjured by the stars and had driven him into my arms. I didn’t know then that I was simply a late bloomer--or how frequently I would later be tempted to run my hands over a naked body because I had seen the curve of a muscle peeking out from under a pair of shorts.
“I never did connect with him after we broke up,” I answered. “You know, he used to tease me about not drinking. The first time we went out to a decent restaurant, I ended up explaining that I just didn’t like the taste of liquor, that it wasn’t a moral issue or anything.” Like coffee, alcohol was one of many acquired tastes that I couldn’t imagine people bothered with. I continued, “After that, every time we’d go out, when the waitress would ask, ‘Would you like anything to drink?’ Andy would say, ‘I’ll have a Chivas on the rocks--oh, and bring some Ovaltine for the kid.’ That would make me mad, so, in a fit of compromise--or concession--I started to drink strawberry daiquiris.”
“You might as well have had fruit punch,” Geoff laughed.
“I like fruit punch,” Ryan offered. “And so does Mike.”
“I know, Ryan, I do, too.” I replied while Andrea grimaced toward Michael and made him laugh. “Anyway,” I turned back to Geoff, “Andy promised not to make fun of me, and he stopped the Ovaltine comments.”
“But it was the motorcycle that ended it,” Sandy said. “Veronica thought Andy was going to turn into a Hell’s Angel or something.”
“She’s making that up,” I protested. In fact, it was with a thermos of frozen daiquiris that Andy and I were to ascend Mount Baldy on his new motorcycle, which I mounted behind him, to watch the sun set. Foreseeing our many adventures together, he also bought an extra helmet for me. Up the mountain we raced, he screaming back to me, “Lean into it! Lean!” But I could not lean as my face was flung too close to the pavement already. And so, star-crossed though we were, we came apart because we couldn’t travel together.
“I was scared of riding in the open like that,” I tried to explain. “I mean, when you go around curves, it’s like the road is going to tear your skin away. I kept wondering what my mother would think if I died like that. Sandy, you know she never would have forgiven me.”
“Well, that’s probably true.”
After dinner, the boys were put to bed. Sandy asked Andrea and me to come in and talk while Mike’s dressing was changed. She thought having a third party present would keep him from complaining too loudly about the whole procedure. ‘Deep breaths,’ I told myself silently and let Andrea do the talking, asking the boys questions about their first days back together at home.
When we returned to the dining room, Geoff discoursed on Napa, wine tours, drunken tourists, and palates. “A developed palate, a brilliant one, can recognize about three hundred separate flavors. I’m just a measly amateur. I can only get about fourteen when I’m blindfolded. But Andrea, she’s great. She’s the one.”
Andrea didn’t seem to have enough interest in her greatness to press the point, but talked about walking the rows of grapes, stopping to taste and label. “Fruit, fruit, vegetable.” The vegetable rows were left to ripen. This seemed to me to be an adult version of the game “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and I thought of running in circles around the vineyard to come back to the same spot and find it sweetened--fruit, as Andrea said.
“Is it all in the timing?” I asked.
“No, a lot of it’s in the soil,” she answered. “If you don’t have the right soil, timing won’t make a difference.”
Once the first bottle was gone, Doug declared that as this was a celebration, he would break out some wine he had been saving for a special occasion. It had been a gift to him from a business associate in remuneration for a favor. Geoff noted the fine reputation of the winery, and uncorked the bottle. This time, I was anticipating the drink and was surprised at how I disliked the taste.
“Well Natalie,” Geoff said to me. “Since this is your first lesson in wine, let’s see if you have a discerning palate. What do you taste?”
I didn’t know whether to lie or to offend as those seemed my only choices. “I taste liquid smoke,” I offered. “Like the stuff you put on meat to be barbecued.”
“Actually, that’s very good, very good.” Geoff turned away from me. “Doug, this stuff is bad. Someone paid too much for it.” And then, “Natalie, maybe your palate can be developed.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Have you ever tried smelling something with a blindfold on and seeing if you recognize it?”
“No. The only time I recognized a lot of smells is when I was pregnant,” I volunteered, hoping that this wasn’t too far off course.
“So maybe you have the groundwork for a discerning palate,” Geoff mused.
“It was more like a hysterical palate. I could also smell something just by looking at a picture of it. If I’d see a billboard of a hamburger while driving, the thought of its smell would make me so sick, I’d have to pull over to the side of the road to vomit.”
“Maybe not such a good sign after all.”
Over my bowl of cereal, I saw someone scuttle across the floor toward me, hiding behind the doors that punctuated the hallway.
“Mike? Is that you?” I called.
When he continued to crawl all the way to the kitchen table, I finally realized that this was not merely an act of shyness for my benefit. Mike couldn’t stand up and walk. What he had done yesterday in elastic stockings and plastic braces wasn’t possible without them. He pulled himself up against a chair and sat down. “Mom,” he said, “Will you push that other chair over here so I can rest my legs on it?”
“His legs are not supposed to be bent for very long,” Sandy explained to me.
We had pushed aside the dinner mess in order to have breakfast, and, after eating, collected the dishes and the glasses, all completely empty. The pleasure of other people’s pleasure overcame me. I sat down.
“And now what?” Sandy asked, holding up the previous night’s second bottle of cabernet sauvignon. It had been half consumed and recorked. “This will have to be drunk soon.”
“Well, the way I see it, there’s just enough left for two, and you and I are the only discerning palates who are awake.”
“It’s only eight o’clock.”
“The next time we see one another, it’ll have gone bad,” I reminded her.
All the wine glasses were dirty. Sandy took the few steps into the kitchen and found two juice glasses in the cupboard. I poured.
“Today?” Sandy posed, hoisting her glass for a toast.
“Today,” I answered.
We clicked. “I wonder what that will bring?” she mused.
“Perhaps, for starters, it should be a search for a ten-dollar bottle of zinfandel--local, not imported.”
Victoria is currently working on a novel. This is her first fiction publication in a major journal.