TWO DAYS AFTER
Christmas, the snow was still falling.
I should have been at my older sister’s outside Boston, visiting with Elaine and her husband, but the snow had started on Christmas Eve, closing the airports, and by morning the world was white and silent.
I decided to drive to Elaine’s from DC and make a couple of stops on the way. Traffic was light and the plows were out on I-95, but with the storm it was slow going, so I didn’t get to the Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in New Jersey until early afternoon.
The snow had piled up between the long rows of carved granite, and after tucking the cuffs of my corduroys into my boots, I high-stepped through the drifts to the Meyers family plot. My father had bought these dozen graves in 1951. Around then, my mother was bugging him to buy a house in Jersey, like his brother, but my father had refused to leave Brooklyn, saying he had plenty of time to go to Jersey—when he was dead.
Now he was there, with mom, my aunt, and uncle. There was even space for me. Someday. And probably sooner rather than later, since the men in my family weren’t notable for their longevity.
I cleared the snow from the footstones with a windshield brush, then stood in the pale gray light, talking to my parents, Aunt Lil, and Uncle Jerr until tears were freezing in my eyes.
Then I drove to Manhattan and checked into the Grand Hyatt.
Much of my life has been passed alone in dilapidated hotels and guesthouses in the peskier backwaters of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East—not necessarily places you’d go unless, like me, you had been a civilian consultant to a handful of intelligence agencies.
Yet even in the most genteel cities, when the accommodations were five-star, the rooms filled me with loneliness.
Television helps. So does vodka. And after turning on the news and pouring a Stoli from the minibar, I sat on the bed and reread the page I’d printed from the DoctorFinder on the American Medical Association website:
Glenna Rising, MD
289 W. 51st St
New York, NY 10019
NY AND PRESBY HOSP
COLUMBIA UNIV COLL OF
PHYSICIANS AND SURGEONS
NEW YORK, NY 10032
I doubt the cold warriors who initially funded the Internet suspected it would become a popular method for tracking down ex-girlfriends. I hadn’t seen Glenna in over thirty years, and given my career collecting and analyzing intel on foreign armies and paramilitary groups, I could have used my skills to uncover far more about her. But I didn’t want to ruin my vision of Glenna: beautiful, available, and willing to concede that she, too, was subject to this strange power that had kept us connected across so many years.
Reaching into my daypack, I took out a photograph of her. Long ago, I had sealed it between laminated sheets: the edges were curled with age, but the image had remained as detailed as an etching. Glenna is standing in the golden autumn light outside a hotel in Bennington, Vermont, with leaves falling all around her. Her long hair is the color of maple syrup with sun shining through it. A breeze blows it off the shoulders of her sweater, swirling it around her face, but you can still see the cameo perfection of her features. She is smiling, and yet doesn’t seem happy, appears suspicious instead, and to this day I don’t know if it was happiness she didn’t trust or me.
Perhaps it was both.
Someone once said a photograph is a far cry from a memory. I’m not so sure this is true because I remember looking through the viewfinder of the Minolta on that breezy, sunlit Saturday, smelling the woodsmoke rising from the white-brick chimney of the hotel, and thinking that no matter what became of us, I would love Glenna—and be haunted by her—forever.
I put away the photo, then picked up my iPhone and went through the saved voice mails until I heard the last one from Alex: “Hey, Dad. Thanks for dinner and the advice about Julie.
Things’re up and down, but I’m trying. I’ll be in touch. Love you.” Alex started laughing. “And, Dad. Stay out of Dorkville!”
I loved hearing my son laugh—in part, because his mother and I had split up when he was in fifth grade, and I’d taken away an enduring guilt-curdled image of him on his bed sobbing into his pillow. When Alex was fourteen, my ex remarried and left DC for Potomac, Maryland, and Alex decided to live with me in Georgetown. From the day he moved into my town house, Alex had been trying to fix me up—with a few of his teachers, some divorced soccer moms, and once with a woman who struck up a conversation with him in the cereal aisle at Safeway. Eleven years later and living in his own apartment in Baltimore, he was still playing matchmaker, but I wouldn’t cooperate, which, according to Alex, made me a distinguished resident of Dorkville.
The dinner Alex mentioned was three weeks ago at Bourbon Steak. We were splitting a porterhouse when Alex told me that for months he’d been fighting with Julie, the young woman he’d been seeing for two years, an auburn-haired beauty who worked at the State Department and spoke half a dozen languages. Alex said the fights were over nothing and came out of nowhere. I suggested he listen more and argue less; perhaps he’d discover what was really bothering Julie. He said, “Dad, I’m scared. When I imagine losing Julie, I can’t imagine ever getting over her.” Alex had some red in his hair, courtesy of his mother, but the greenish-brown eyes, cleft chin, broad shoulders, and thick chest came from me, and as I looked at him across the table, I felt as if I were watching a dismal rerun of my own life. I comforted my son with a lie. I told him these things worked themselves out, but whatever happened, time took care of every wound. He smiled at me, a sign, I thought,
that he believed me. But outside after dinner, before Alex got into his car, he hugged me, holding on longer than usual, and remembering that now, drinking by myself in a hotel room, I was convinced that I’d failed him as a father.
I finished my vodka and glanced at the television, where the newscaster was announcing that two soldiers had died fighting in northern Iraq, killed in an ambush outside the city of Mosul. Sadness and disgust rose up in me, and I shut off the TV and went to take a shower.
Standing under the hot spray, I considered calling Glenna, but odds were her receptionist or answering service would pick up, and I’d have to leave a message, which might not be returned.
Of course, Glenna might not be at her office when I showed up. She could be on vacation with a husband or lover or seeing patients in the hospital.
I dismissed these possibilities for the best and worst of reasons: I didn’t want them to be true, because even though I knew that my reunion plan was ridiculous, I also knew that if I didn’t feel as though my life were splitting at the seams, then I would never have stopped in New York to see her.