I watched through the steam as a drop of sweat rolled slowly down Peter's long, thin nose and into the churning waters of the hot tub, then let my own hand float down through the hot, hot water to touch the molded fiberglass bench lovingly. This was my own hot tub on my very own back deck, financed by my recent divorce settlement. And I loved it unconditionally, from its rough redwood exterior to its smooth fiberglass heart. Soaking in the hot water could be so sensuous, so relaxing, so mellow. At least it could be when there weren't a lot of other people there to share the experience with you.
But there were other people in the tub with me that cool Sunday in October, four other people in fact, all there to discuss human potential. I wasn't feeling very sensuous, relaxed or mellow. Tense, troubled and angry was more like it. And it wasn't just the others in the tub. It was the one person who wasn't in the tub who had me upset, my sweetie, Wayne. I brought my wet hand back out of the water to wipe the perspiration from my forehead and tried to force my mind back to what Peter was saying. But my mind just couldn't digest one more lecture on the meaning of being human.
I slid deeper into the tub, slowly surveying the others as a jet of hot water massaged my tight shoulders. Were they really interested in what Peter was saying? Sarah sat next to me, her moist Howdy Doody face alert and smiling at Peter through the steam. She seemed to be listening. On my other side however, Tony was staring vacantly at the patterns his hands were generating in the bubbling water. I wondered what he was thinking about. I'd have bet it wasn't Peter's lecture. Linda's head was turned toward Peter, but her brown face was expressionless. Of course, this was nothing new. In the six months since Linda had joined our group, I had never seen her face do anything more athletic than lifting an eyebrow.
"Self-esteem goes hand in hand with responsibility," Peter was insisting.
Peter Stromberg habitually insisted, argued or contended, rarely satisfied with merely making a statement. His contentious nature may have made him an effective career attorney, but he could certainly be a wearing conversationalist. I turned my eyes back to his long, pinched face with a sigh. His body was long and lean too, but somehow he looked elderly at forty-six years rather than fit. He waved his nearly empty Perrier bottle in the steam as he continued his lecture.
"Personal responsibility isn't limited to our own lives," he declared. "We have a responsibility to help others who are less fortunate."
Sarah bent forward, grazing me with her elbow as she did. My new hot tub was a tight fit for five people.
"It isn't up to us to tamper with the lives of other people," she countered, her voice loud and clear with confidence. "They have their own karma, their own lessons to learn from the universe."
Peter opened his mouth to disagree, but Sarah kept on talking. "You label these folks 'less fortunate.' But you're forgetting that they create their own fortune, good or bad. The most humane thing you can do is to leave them alone and let them do their own--"
"Sarah!" Peter objected. He sat bolt upright, sending a wave across the hot tub to splash over the side, spraying our faces in the process.
"It's true," she said, then giggled at the outraged look on Peter's face. "My sister was like that. Bad grades in school, in a shitload of trouble most of the time. I tried to help her out. A lot of good that did!" Sarah shook her head. "But the minute I left home, she got her act together. Without my help!"
"That's not the point," Peter corrected her.
"Isn't it?" replied Sarah, tilting her head to the side and grinning. Sarah Quinn was the only person I knew who liked to argue even more than Peter did. Not that Peter would ever admit that he enjoyed arguing.
"No," he snapped. "The point is our own responsibility..."
My mind shut down. I couldn't listen anymore. I looked out over everyone's heads, over the log pile against my redwood fence, and over my neighbor's shingled rooftop to Mount Tamalpais in the blue distance. I wondered what it would be like to be Sarah, to be that confident, that positive. If I were Sarah, would I be having problems with Wayne?
Sarah didn't have problems. She had "learning experiences." But then, Sarah was positive in everything she did. She even claimed to be immortal, to be "youthing" instead of aging. Sometimes I wondered if she really was getting younger. She had been forty-five when I had first met her, and she had looked it. Now, a few years later, she looked about forty. She was a tall blond woman with a big bosom which had been gradually unsagging, and a clear face which had been unwrinkling ever since I had met her. I suspected exercise, maybe even surgery, but I wasn't certain. I turned my eyes in her direction, squinting at her face, examining her intense hazel eyes, heavy brows and wide Howdy Doody mouth. If she had undergone surgery, there were no scars to prove it.
I let out another sigh as Sarah leaned forward again, happily sparring with Peter. Being forty years old and short, dark and A-line myself, I envied Sarah not only her self-assurance but her height and bust measurement.
I closed my eyes to better brood over my deteriorating relationship with Wayne. I had thought that finally divorcing my husband, Craig, would free me to have the relationship I wanted with Wayne. Wayne was a passionate, kind and intelligent man, but as far as I was concerned he had been pretty damned unreasonable lately. Of course, he thought I was the one being unreasonable.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Startled, I opened my eyes and found Tony peering into my face anxiously.
"Are you feeling okay?" he asked softly as Peter ranted on.
I smiled at him. Tony Olberti was such a kind man. He was easy to smile at. And he was certainly easy on the eyes. Thirtyish, compact and muscular, his cinnamon-colored hair, round blue eyes and open Irish face belied his Italian ancestry. Tony was also unashamedly gay, but again he belied the stereotypes. He was earnest and slow-speaking, rarely witty, and never biting in his comments.
"I'm fine," I whispered back to him.
His eyes remained round with concern. Tony was kind, but he wasn't stupid. He squeezed my shoulder gently.
"Let me know if you feel like talking," he said and turned his face away, allowing me my privacy.
I pulled myself up straight in the hot tub, exposing my wet shoulders to the cool October air. Sarah was speaking again. I tuned in.
"You create your own reality," she said.
I tuned back out hastily. I didn't need to hear any more of this particular sermon. The first time I had heard Sarah say, "You create your own reality," the concept had seemed profound. But after a few hundred too many repetitions, it had begun to sound more like the metaphysical equivalent of "so's your old man" to me.
One look at Peter's face told me he didn't want to hear the phrase again either. The skin on his dripping face was so tight as he glared at Sarah that it looked as if his cheekbones were ready to slice through.
Then Linda caught my eye. She was staring at me, with no more expression than usual, but staring all the same. Damn. Why was she looking at me like that? Linda Zatara, I thought, woman of mystery. Linda was a brown-skinned woman with long, prematurely grey hair and matching grey eyes. The combination was chilling, especially when combined with her emotionless face. Six months ago, Sarah had introduced Linda to our group. I still didn't know much about her. Her job, her hobbies, her ethnicity, even her marital status, remained a mystery. As for her opinions, she was as reticent as a Supreme Court nominee. The woman even sweated unobtrusively! But the real mystery was why she bothered to come to our group meetings.
None of us was really comfortable with Linda. She had to know that. But every time one of us questioned Linda's presence in the group, Sarah had shouted the questioner down. She had even out-shouted Peter. And after a while Linda had just seemed to melt into the smooth inner surface of the hot tub. Except for her eyes, which were now unblinkingly fixed on mine. I crossed my arms uncomfortably.
Suddenly I noticed that Linda wasn't the only one with her eyes on me. Peter and Sarah had stopped arguing and were looking at me curiously, too. What were they looking at? A scarlet A on my chest, spinach between my teeth?
"Kate, you're awfully quiet today," said Sarah. "Is there anything you want to share with the group?"
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tony turn my way again. That made it unanimous. The pressure was on. Should I tell the group about my troubles with Wayne?
"I'm all right," I muttered. I needed time to think about the offer.
The group in the hot tub were not really my closest friends. I had met Peter, Sarah and Tony a few years back at a Human Potential in Business seminar that my then husband, Craig, had dragged me to. After the seminar, which had turned out to be unexpectedly useful as well as fun, the five of us who lived in Marin County had decided to continue the exercise in a study-group format. Somehow we usually ended up at my house, where we discussed whatever new business, success and personal-growth techniques were floating around. Then we generally alternated griping or bragging about our businesses. Craig had dropped out of the group when the two of us had separated. And Linda had dropped in. Now it looked like the only way Linda would ever leave the group was on a stretcher.
I leaned back against the tub's edge and sighed.
"There you go again," Peter remarked peevishly. "You've been sighing all day, for God's sake. What is the matter with you?"
No, they weren't my closest friends, but they sure felt like family, if family means a bunch of people who jointly and individually drive you mad half the time and are there to support you the other half. I even shared Sarah's gardener and cleaning lady. When my workload had gone over sixty hours a week, she had taken me in hand, convinced me that I would ultimately save money if someone else did the housework and gardening, and arranged everything for me.
I looked at the sweating, staring faces one more time.
"All right, all right," I muttered ungraciously. I took a breath. "Wayne wants to marry me," I confessed.
The hot tub went silent except for the whoosh and gurgle of the circulating water. The faces around me didn't look particularly enlightened by my confession. Even Sarah's ever-present smile held a hint of uncertainty.
"That's it?" asked Peter incredulously, breaking the silence. "Wayne wants to marry you and you're upset!"
Tony put a wet hand on my shoulder. "Take your time, Kate," he said gently.
I took another breath and explained. "You see, he wants to get married, but I don't. Now he's refusing to see me at all if I won't agree to marry him, and--"
"Then why don't you agree to marry him?" Peter demanded.
Damn. I knew I shouldn't have opened up. Did I have to explain how I felt about marriage, only a year after my divorce from Craig?
"I just don't want to, all right?" I said finally.
"Of course, it's all right," murmured Tony, squeezing my shoulder. "You need to do things at your own pace."
"What you really ought to ask yourself," advised Sarah enthusiastically, "is why you created this separation with Wayne."
I turned to her, my pulse suddenly pounding furiously. "I did not 'create' this separation! Wayne's the one who won't see me--"
"Kate, Kate," sighed Sarah, shaking her head. "Of course you created this separation. You have to be honest with yourself."
"I did not--" I began again.
Sarah blithely ran me over. "Everyone creates their own reality. Everyone, Kate! And then they complain." She shook her head again, her smile sad but tolerant. "When that gardener of ours, Jerry, complains that he's not making the bucks he was when he was an attorney, I ask him, 'If you really want to be a lawyer, why did you quit?'"
Sarah tilted her head at me, as if to ask if I got the point.
"Listen, Sarah--" I started.
"What Jerry does or doesn't do is irrelevant to this discussion," Peter interrupted. "The real issue is one of commitment--"
"The real issue," Sarah corrected him, "is acknowledging our own karma. We can't learn what the universe has to teach us unless we're honest with ourselves. Take my cleaning lady, for instance. She fancies herself a computer programmer, but she's still a cleaning lady. She blames others for her failures--"
"Your cleaning lady's problems are irrelevant!" Peter asserted loudly. The water in the tub shivered nervously. We all knew Peter wanted to be a judge some day. He was already good at rulings.
"The issue here is Kate's commitment to Wayne," he finished, his volume lowered but his tone still righteous.
Sarah wasn't impressed. "Kate has to meditate on what she really wants," she insisted. "We all have freedom of choice in our actions, in our reactions. I got a weird phone call last night on my answering machine. The voice said I was an 'arrogant, unfeeling hag.' And that my money wouldn't do me any good when I was dead. Huh!" she snorted. "I could have let it upset me, but I didn't--"
"You ought to take that kind of call more seriously," Peter told her, shaking his Perrier bottle sternly. "As an attorney, I receive my share of abusive calls, and let me assure you, I take them very seriously. Right now, I'm dealing with one disgruntled client--"
"You missed the point, Peter," interrupted Sarah. "My intuition told me it was a wrong number. If I'd believed the call was for me, I would've flipped. But I take a positive world-view. You see, you really can create your own reality."
Peter twisted his thumbs around the neck of his Perrier bottle. "Sarah," he threatened. "If you say 'you create your own reality' one more time, I'm going to strangle you!"
"Kate," Tony interjected softly. "Relationships can feel--"
"You can strangle me, but you can't kill me," Sarah teased Peter. She stuck out her tongue, then leaned back against the tub's wall, grinning. "I'm immortal, remember?"
I turned to Tony. "Go on," I prompted. Tony opened his mouth again, but Peter was faster.
"First of all, you are not going to live forever any more than I am," he told Sarah. "Secondly..."
Tony shrugged. There was no way either of us was going to get a word in edgewise, now that Peter and Sarah were off and running. I rolled my eyes for Tony's benefit, patted his knee, then slid down in the hot water again. At least Linda wasn't watching me anymore. Her head was turned toward Peter again. I let my eyelids drop and resumed brooding. Peter's words came breaking into my thoughts a few minutes later.
"Kate, I'm talking to you," he scolded. I opened my eyes reluctantly and focused on Peter's pinched, frowning face.
"I'm concerned about you," he told me.
"Thank you, Peter," I replied cautiously. But he wasn't finished.
"Your attitude towards marriage indicates a profound lack of commitment. And commitment and responsibility are what make us human."
"And love," added Tony. "But don't worry, Kate. This kind of mix-up happens in relationships, even in caring ones. Lovers always test each other. But if it's the right relationship, it'll weather the storm." He smiled warmly at me.
I returned his smile. Cliched or not, his words had the ring of truth. And more importantly, it was a truth that I wanted to believe.
"But marriage--" began Peter.
"Can we talk about something else?" I requested hastily. I had received enough advice for the day.
"Dammit, Kate, you brought the subject up!" Peter objected.
"I did," I agreed quickly. "And I appreciate everyone's suggestions," I assured him, with the silent amendment that sometimes I actually appreciated Linda's silence more than his suggestions. "But I need some time to think about what everyone's said."
Sarah nodded and gave my arm a friendly pat. "You know what they say," she prodded me.
"No, what do they say?" I asked impatiently. I wasn't in the mood for jokes.
"When you ask for free advice," she replied, "you get exactly what you pay for."
I had to laugh. Even Peter's face relaxed momentarily into a rueful smile. As Tony chuckled, I felt a warm moment of companionship with the others in the tub. I glanced at Linda's face, wanting to include her. She stared back, her grey eyes cold and dead. The moment ended.
"Anyway, I'll be glad to change the subject," Sarah went on. "I'm working on this far-out new computer program. It models the genius of the very best stockbrokers. And I'm almost done. All I have to do now is come up with a name for it."
"Broker In A Box," I suggested.
Sarah giggled appreciatively.
"Does it go in a robot?" asked Tony slowly, his face reflecting his confusion. Sarah mostly programmed personal robots for robotics firms.
"No, no," she said. "I'm branching out in a whole new direction..."
I leaned back, relieved, as the conversation went on to business. We were all small-business owners, with the possible exception of Linda Zatara. I had no idea what she did for a living. Peter Stromberg had his law practice. Tony Olberti owned and cooked for his own vegetarian restaurant, The Elegant Vegetable. His cooking was inspired, so good that even the major San Francisco reviewers had praised him unanimously. Sarah Quinn made big money designing software for computer games, personal robots and whatever else caught her attention. And I was the sole proprietor of Jest Gifts, a mail-order gag-gift company.
My cat, C.C., came skulking around the tub just as Peter launched into a tirade about that rarest of commodities, ethics in the legal profession.
I dangled a wet hand over the edge of the tub to keep C.C. company. She sniffed it, then yowled her objection to the chlorinated water that dripped from my fingers. Peter stopped mid-sentence to glare at her. Was he going to overrule her objection?
Before he had a chance to, Sarah began to serenade the cat. "Sing the blues, honey," she caroled, blissfully off-key.
C.C. obliged with a long, mournful meow. C.C. was hungry. C.C. was always hungry.
I was hungry, too. I hadn't had any breakfast. I was saving room for one of Tony's spectacular meals.
"Isn't it about time for lunch?" I asked him hopefully.
Tony nodded and stood carefully, barely disturbing the surface of the water. "I've got medallions of tofu, shitake mushrooms and greens in a lemon-herb sauce..." he began.
I hustled recklessly out of the tub into the cold air, leaving a small tidal wave behind me.
"And avocado-stuffed zucchini," he continued as he stepped out onto the deck. Peter and Sarah scrambled out after him.
"And spiced oatmeal-raisin bread..."
Even Linda was out of the tub and drying off by the time Tony got to the apricot-and-currant crepes with whipped tofu-carob topping. We all threw on dry clothes as fast as we could, mostly sweat suits except for Sarah's orange and purple caftan. Tony's meals were worth hurrying for.
Once inside, I set the kitchen table as Tony pulled the elements of our lunch from my refrigerator. He even had something for C.C., a cooked corncob, the only vegetarian dish she would eat. He squatted down and held it out to her. She inspected it suspiciously, then clamped her teeth around it and pulled it rudely from his hand. Tony was smiling dreamily as he straightened up.
Sarah sidled up to him with a mischievous grin on her face and sniffed. "I know your secret," she stage-whispered.
The dreamy smile left Tony's face. A pink tide rose slowly up his neck and into his cheeks.
"But I won't tell," promised Sarah, winking. "I like your cooking too much."
Tony made no verbal response to her words. He turned back to the refrigerator and pulled out the rest of his covered dishes in silence. Sarah giggled as she walked to the kitchen table.
Peter and I looked at each other and shrugged simultaneously. What was Sarah teasing Tony about? We all knew he was gay. That was no secret.
I watched Tony as he put the finishing touches on the zucchini. His skin color had returned from pink, passed through normal and settled into pale. So what was the big secret?
"Tony--?" I started to ask.
He turned and handed me a fragrant loaf of bread. I could smell cinnamon for sure, maybe nutmeg. "Kate, will you slice this for me?" he asked quietly.
I opened my mouth to pry.
"Please?" he said.
I sighed, shut my mouth and sliced the bread.
We devoured Tony's feast with the quiet focus of gluttony, only speaking to one another to claim more food. Once the last dollop of whipped tofu-carob topping had been licked from the serving bowl, we waddled into the living room, past the pinball machines--relics of a defunct business as well as a defunct marriage--to sit in comfort. C.C. claimed Tony's lap as he flopped into one of the swinging chairs suspended from the redwood beam ceiling. Sarah grabbed the other swinging chair, and Peter and Linda sat down on the homemade wood-and-denim couch. I lowered myself carefully onto a large pillow on the floor, one hand on my too full stomach.
"If no one else has anything pressing," Peter began, "I'd like to discuss a potential client--"
"Excuse me for a moment," Sarah interrupted, rising from her chair. Ignoring Peter's scowl, she promised, "I'll be right back," and walked out the front door.
Peter sighed, but continued with his story. "A man came in yesterday who wanted to sue his therapist for unlawful touching because the poor woman hugged him. Do you believe it?"
Tony shook his head in commiseration. Linda merely stared as usual.
"So what did you do?" I asked.
Peter opened his mouth to answer, but the ring of the doorbell cut him off.
Sarah? Or another visitor? I pulled my overfed body from my pillow with an effort, walked back past the pinball machines and opened the front door. A four-foot-tall aluminum robot wearing a curly red wig and padded bra stood on my doorstep.