Maybe I shouldn't have been sporting a black eye on the day Kirk and I were going to announce our wedding engagement.
"I'm trying to explain, Kirk," I said. I inhaled through my nose. Kirk was under a great deal of stress. I needed to defuse that stress, not engage it. Couples Counseling 101. I exhaled.
Kirk's grip on the Volvo's steering wheel was taut. The white shade of his knuckles matched the color of his clenched face. The car lurched forward, and two oncoming SUVs and a FedEx truck disappeared on the highway behind us. My own hands were beginning to shake.
"Will you just forget about confidentiality, Dory?" Kirk demanded. "Just forget about it!"
I forced my eyes past the concrete barrier of the highway. I could see a stand of redwoods, then they were gone too. Damn. I could have used a needle of their coniferous wisdom, a limb of their transcendence.
Voltura County, California, was home to tall redwoods. The county also hosted rolling hills studded with oak trees, dry grasses, hay fever, and Voltura College.
"Kirk, you're driving too--"
"I care about you, Dory," Kirk said. "I want to protect you. Can't you understand that?"
We hurtled by the curve of concrete where my father had been killed in an auto wreck just over six months ago. I closed my eyes, holding back the scream building inside me. Did Kirk have any idea what message his speeding was communicating to me?
"Someone hurt you," Kirk ranted on.
Even with my eyes closed, I could tell we were still moving too fast, way too fast. I willed the tension out of my neck and back. If we did hit something, the stiff parts of the body would be the first to break.
Detachment, I reminded myself. Calm. Of course, I wasn't sure what message I might be communicating to Kirk either. But I couldn't take back the black eye.
"Kirk," I tried again, keeping my voice gentle. "Could we slow down just a little?"
"Slow down?" he said. "You mean our relationship?"
My eyes popped open. What the--Did he really think I was talking about our relationship? Everyone filters speech differently, but come on.
Kirk turned his head, peering through his steel rimtril felt cool and sweet. I was alive. Alive and wet. I'd perspired right through my turtleneck.
"Just the car?" Kirk said, confusion wobbling in his voice.
It was time for more deep breathing. I'd had a good, committed relationship with Kirk for two years. We'd even lived together for most of the second year and were still able to share a home without arguing over filing systems. That was no small achievement. I was thirty-eight years old. I'd almost given up on finding a man to share my life with. But then, I'd found Kirk. He was that man. The one and only. How could anything go wrong with so much mutual affection? Hah! I should have known better. I was a couples counselor. Everything could go wrong.
"Oh crap, Dory, your father," Kirk said with sudden realization. He let up even further on the gas pedal. "Dory, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
"It'll be fine," I told him. I hoped I was telling the truth. The connection Kirk and I shared felt suddenly fragile.
Kirk's eyes were on the road again. I studied his long, narrow face, his dark, silky hair. Was love blind? What other show-stoppers had I failed to observe in Kirk's temperament besides this previously suppressed road rage?
"Kirk, I know you're asking questions from a position of caring, but I still can't give you the name," I said. "I told you the story. The name would be a breach of my code of ethics."
"I guess I know that," Kirk said. He sighed a sigh that could have reached the back rafters of any theater.
I watched his skin return to its normal peachy tan. But his teeth were still clenched. Anger? No, fear. Yep, that was it.
"Are you afraid of getting married?" I asked him.
"No, I just want you to tell me the name of the client who socked you!" he snapped back. "You have a black eye, Dory, a black eye!"
I didn't say a word. The car smelled of Kirk, of his anger, his fear, and of the textile dye he'd worked with the night before, none hidden by the overtone of his citrus aftershave.
"All right, I'm afraid," he said a few minutes later. "And I'm a complete idiot. How about you?"
Those were good assessments on his part. I thought about them. Did they apply to me?
"Yep, I'm scared too," I told him. "I'm not sure about the idiocy thing though. I need a few more lessons from my aunt Ellen for that."
Kirk snorted down a laugh. I felt immediately glad for the laugh and guilty a second later about using my aunt to get it. My aunt Ellen made herself a figure of fun for me. She always had. But I knew there was a real person underneath. Or maybe my own personal alien or something ... it was hard to tell with Aunt Ellen.
"Dory," Kirk said. "I'm not that scared. But with my parents gone and all--"
"They're probably safe," I said. "They've been to Africa before."
"But they still think they're in the Peace Corps," he said. His face softened. "They're such do-gooders. They don't recognize the possibility of danger." He raised the pitch of his voice, and I could hear his mother speaking through him. "'Oh, darling, the people are so sweet. You mustn't believe what you read in the papers. They only threw the spear at us so we could admire it. The carving, you know. And what a work of art. Oh, my.'"
I smirked. Kirk had his mother down cold.
"Ma is too old to be traipsing around on other continents," Kirk told me. "I don't think she even likes to anymore. But Pop always talks her into this stuff."
"Your father's a good talker," I said. Tom Hansen was a Viking of a man--an aging Viking, but a Viking nonetheless, with his massive build and bright green eyes and long white hair. "He talked your mother into marrying him in Africa."
"But they were in the Peace Corps then," Kirk said, his foot heavier on the gas pedal again. "They were with a group, organized do-gooders. It's not like they can't find modern places to go in Africa. There are plenty of big cities with all the cultural amenities. But they insist on going to the undiscovered places a million miles away from a phone. And they're just running around on their own like there's no civil war anywhere, like there's no illness, like no one has any anger against Americans. Maybe if they read a newspaper once in a while, but noooo."
The car sprinted forward.
"Kirk," I said. My toes curled in my shoes. "I understand what you're saying. But can you please slow down the car?"
"Oh, Jesus, Dory," he said and slowed. "It's just my mother. I think of her, and then I go 'goo-goo, ga-ga.' But I regress."
I laughed and felt the spike that had lodged in my stomach dissolving. At least Kirk was capable of humor again. I wanted to comfort him with my touch. I reached out my hand and stopped short of his thigh. It wasn't advisable to comfort Kirk in a tactile manner while we were still on the highway. It's amazing how a traffic death in the family can tune up those instincts.
It was Saturday afternoon, a sunny September day. We were headed to my parents' house. No, that wasn't true anymore. I had to remember. It was Mom's house. Singularly Mom's, not parents', not Mom and Dad's, just Mom's. No wonder Kirk was so worried.
Kirk's parents usually called in on Friday evenings, but they hadn't called the night before. I felt the acute ache of my own father's death overcome the chronic ache. What if Kirk's parents really were in trouble? I shivered.
"I'm sure your parents are okay, Carpet Man," I told Kirk. Kirk designed textiles. He'd started out actually weaving them himself. He'd studied them all: Hmong, Persian, Renaissance, African, and Native American, just for starters. Usually, just the word "carpet" could calm him. Carpet, carpet, carpet, I thought at him. But Kirk's mind was still in Africa, searching for his parents.
He sighed again as he took the exit that led to my parents' ... my mom's house. The trees were visible again. We passed through the middle of a great cathedral of redwoods that darkened the sky even as the trees lifted the spirit, then we were back into the sunlight on the edge of the golf course that had been built a decade earlier and never failed to surprise me. It seemed so out of place.
"They haven't made their phone calls before," I reminded him. "Remember the time they forgot to call because your father joined a zebra hunt, and your mother stayed back with the women in the village learning homecoming songs?"
"I know," he said, a hint of a smile raising the corner of his mouth. "And the time they stayed up for a day and a half, dancing in that marriage ceremony."
"And the time they got lost in the sacred jungle--"
"They should have listened to their guides--"
"But they didn't. And they got to see that cobra."
We might have had Kirk's parents there in the car. We were telling their stories for them. At least Kirk was no longer raging or speeding.
We drove into the dry hills and within minutes, we were parked on the other side of the street across from my parents' house. The rest of the spaces in front of the house were already taken.
Once the Volvo was safely parked, neither of us moved to leave the car.
"And I thought Volvos were safe," Kirk said. "I guess that doesn't count when a maniac is driving one."
"Murder in the Volvo?" I suggested.
"The Volvo, yes." Kirk deepened his voice like a radio announcer's. "So safe on the outside, but who knows what lurks within? Ha-ha-ha, maniacs with lead feet."
"Oh, Kirk," I said. "I thought I'd lost you there on the highway."
"Never, Dory," he said back. "You can't lose me if you try."
And I believed him. Years of counseling other couples made no difference in my belief. Rationality made no difference. Because I'd spent even more years watching romantic comedies than I'd spent doing counseling. I only liked the movies with happy endings. I had been traumatized before adolescence by Alvy Singer's loss in Annie Hall. I'd cried my eyes out over the inevitable separation in Shakespeare In Love. I believed in happy endings like some people believed in UFOs.
I felt Kirk's arm circle my shoulders, tentatively at first, then more tightly, and all was well. The ending credits were showing, and music was playing. Kirk and I would have a happy ending. I was a fool, but at least I was a happy fool.
I reached across his lap to squeeze Kirk's left hand as the film went dark. I let my breath out.
I leaned back in my seat and looked out the car window. I could see Dad's front garden through the lattice-work fence. Roses and delphiniums, pink and sky blue hydrangeas, yellow coreopsis and glorious sunflowers refuted the end of summer. And the house beyond--it was a house that would have been better suited to the English countryside than the hills of California, but there it sat on a half acre of land. Gray weathered wood complemented by red brick, white-trimmed windows, peaked roofs with slate-colored shingles, and dormer windows with white trim.
It would be so good to see Dad.
I jerked up in my seat, remembering for the millionth time. I wasn't going to see Dad. I clenched my fists. Damn it to hell. When would I get that through my head?
"Dory?" Kirk asked.
"Nothing," I answered. I couldn't go there again. I willed my hands to open. "Your parents will be fine," I told Kirk one more time as my fingers straightened out. "They're always fine."
"Midory," he said. "You're so good. I'm sorry for the way I was dumping on you." He touched my cheek, caressing it with the back of his hand. Yum. That felt good. "Tell me again who's going to be here?"
"You know," I said. Had he really forgotten? "My friend Ivy and your friend Rusty and--"
"Look, there's Rusty now," Kirk said.
I looked. Rusty slammed the door on his vintage Triumph and began to run up the street.
"Oh Jesus, Dory! That means Rusty got here before us. He's the latest man on earth! We can't let him beat us." He snapped off his seat belt and reached for his door handle.
"We're supposed to be late," I told Kirk, grabbing his arm before he could open the door. "That's what Mom said. We're supposed to be fifteen minutes later than anyone else so we can make a grand entrance."
"Right," Kirk said. "I guess I forgot. I'm so--" He stopped and added, "So refresh my memory, who else is coming?"
"My aunt Ellen--"
"Will she be wearing her clown suit?" he asked.
I elbowed him in the ribs. I could make jokes about my weird aunt Ellen, but no one else could.
"And Mom, and the Sutherlands--"
"It seems to me, wherever your parents are, Marian and Jerry Sutherland are there too," Kirk said. "It's like Little Bo--"
He'd seen the look on my face.
"Wherever your mother is," he corrected himself in a whisper.
"It's okay," I told him. It wasn't really. Still, I wasn't the only one who kept using the plural form, the only one who kept forgetting Dad was dead. There was some comfort in that.
We sat in silence for a few nervous minutes.
"If late-is-my-middle-name Rusty is here, then everyone else must already be here too," I said.
"Excellent deduction, my dear Watson," Kirk agreed, donning a mangled British accent.
"Okay, are you ready?" I asked him.
"I'm ready," he told me and twisted around to kiss me on the mouth. It was a good kiss, a Kirk kiss, precise and passionate at once, with just the right trajectory, just the right teasing tongue, and just the right amount of pressure. I returned it gladly.
"I meant, are you ready to make our grand entrance?" I said once our kiss was finished. Kirk's mouth had been intense enough to warm my whole body, maybe even dry the perspiration from my clothing. Kirk was the Cary Grant of kissing.
Together, we got out of the car, and walked across the street, through the gate, and up the cobblestone path to the house that had been my parents'. Kirk rang the doorbell.
Kirk's friend Rusty Cho answered. He opened the door, and sunlight glinted off the red streak in his black hair.
"Hey, Dory," he said. "Nice shiner you got there!"