We were spending the afternoon on the wharf in Santa Cruz, a city on the edge of the Monterey Bay, just a touch south of San Francisco by way of Highway One; a scenic, precarious strip of pavement, hugging the coast like a black snake.
I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for twenty odd years, but you wouldn’t know it by the looks of me. My usual slacks, short-sleeved dress shirt, and wide-brimmed Fedora, to cover my receding brown hair and shade my ever paling skin, stands in stark contrast to the shorts, wet suits, Hawaiian prints and Birkenstocks worn by most of the tanned, beach-faring homegrown crowd. I don’t surf, the ocean’s much too cold for my liking; and I hate it when sand gets in my socks and shoes, grating roughly against my skin. To top off the oxymoron of my seaside existence, my work with an advertising agency in San Jose, though personally rewarding is not something I flaunt in this liberal college town.
Holding her floppy white straw hat, Joanne skipped down the old wooden peer, her right arm swinging freely. The pier stood on creaking stilts of old oak pylons that had been driven into the sea floor at the start of the last century. A space in the middle of the pier had been created for tourists to feed the seals. Joanne stopped at the railed opening to see the gluttonous sea creatures lounging on the braces below. As I caught up, she barked, clapped and laughed loudly, imitating the chubby, sumo-wrestling otters’ boisterous demands for food.
She was laughing like she had when we were two little toe heads. I remembered the times she interrupted my Lone Ranger play, as I made serious sound effects of guns firing and bullets ricocheting past my head. I wore my plastic red cowboy hat and holster and she’d be outfitted as a petite ballerina; her blond pigtails held to the side by bright pink, silk ribbons.
“Get out of the way!” I’d yell, pointing my six-shooter at the bad guys. She danced closer. “Stop it Jo!” I’d yelled again, using the form of Joanne she hated. She danced closer still, twirling, curtseying, falling and playing dead; her square-toed, laced ballet shoes sticking straight into the air. Everyone knows ballerinas and cowboys don’t mix, but she would keep jumping up and falling down, giggling and laughing, with total disregard for my need to save the land from desperados. Unable to keep a straight face, I’d holster my guns and clap at her performance, just like I’d seen our mother do before she’d died of cancer.
Joanne was still barking at the seals when a skinny woman wearing a blue-green scarf joined in. Momentarily startled, Joanne stopped and stared. Realizing the stranger wasn’t any crazier than herself; she smiled, laughed, and resumed her barking and clapping. hey were like mimicking mimes imitating an innocent bystander.
The new addition to the barking seal admiration society turned and clapped towards Joanne, who eagerly returned her applause. They both bowed, barely avoiding knocking each other in the head. The woman’s scarf slipped forward and fell, revealing a shiny hairless scalp. She grabbed the cloth by the corner before it hit the pier. She stood grinning with the brilliance of a sparkler and quickly wrapped and tied her silk scarf. Joanne took off her hat and briskly rubbed her short soft brown curly tufts.
Feeling somehow drawn to this barking skeleton with no hair, I moved closer and listened to the enraptured duo, as the lady pointed at Joanne and said, “Chemo?”
Joanne nodded. They hollered, squealed, and embraced; as if they were long lost sisters.
“Robin,” the woman exclaimed, bowing slightly.
“Joanne.” She curtsied.
They hugged again. Joanne, holding the sleeve of Robin’s full length, blueprint dress, turned her in my direction. “This is my big brother Rueben; my great protector and occasional pain in the butt,” she snickered. “This is Rob . . .”
“Robin,” I interjected. “I heard.”
Dispensing with my usual reserve, I took Robin’s hand, knelt on the wood planks and kissed the back of her thin wrist. “It’s a pleasure, Ms. Robin.”
She bent her knees and bowed her head formally. “The pleasure is all mine Sir Rueben.”
I stood, offering my hands as their princely escort. Joanne, on my left, placed her right hand on mine, as Robin did the same on my right. With her free hand Robin lifted her dress a few inches, as Joanne pretended to do likewise, though she wore pants. We walked regally towards the bench at the end of the pier, with our noses turned theatrically skyward.
I brushed off the bench, pretended to place a cloth upon it and invited them to sit on their royal throne. They sat, squished comfortably together, as I descended onto the thick weathered wood next to Robin.
“Come closer,” she said, grabbing my pant leg and pulling. “It’s chilly out here.”
I snuggled closer. The waves thumped against the pilings below. We watched the surfers, as they drifted around the rising swells, waiting for the crest of a perfect wave. When their experienced eyes saw nature’s roller-coaster approaching, they began paddling and stood bravely on their miniscule pieces of wood; daring the foamy, curling blood of the sea to give them a thrill before extinguishing itself on the sandy shore. I thought about trying it once or twice, but the idea of swimming in freezing water, sharks, stinging salt-water in my eyes and the possibility of drowning; made my fledgling desire vanish faster than a crowd of punk rockers exiting the concert of a polka playing accordion band.
“Was it breast cancer?” Joanne asked, breaking the comfortable silence.
“Still is,” Robin said, matter-of-factly. “It’s such a happy camper, it’s decided to pitch tent.”
“I’m sorry,” Joanne said; her face transformed into a Japanese Kabuki mask of sorrow.
“Not your fault,” Robin replied dreamily, looking past the horizon. “Not anybody’s fault.”
“What a rotten deal,” I said.
“Yep, a rotten deal,” she said softly and exclaimed, “I’m starved.” She stood, took hold of our hands and tried pulling us off the bench. Her grip was surprisingly strong. “Sir Rueben,” she bowed. “Lady Joanne,” she bowed again, “Queen of the barking seals. Let us partake of some fine delicacies at the great dining hall of fish and chips.”
Turning our backs to the sea; Robin promenaded, with her two newly aggrieved squires, past the barking seals and tourists snapping pictures, towards the castle of greasy potatoes and dead fish meat.
After finishing a second order of fried breaded cod at Barcello’s Fish Fry and stacking the grease stained, white and red checkered throwaway containers in a heap; Robin grimaced and lurched forward.
“I think I’m going to be sick!” she covered her mouth.
The waitress behind the counter, who was as worn and painted over as the pier itself, noticed Robin’s distress and came as fast as her arthritic knees would allow.
“You OK?” she barked, with an urgency that implied, “You better be.”
Robin put her hand on the spotted Formica top and rolled her head from side to side. I placed my hand between her shoulder blades, moved my fingers up her spine and massaged her neck. Leaning closer, I heard her laughing under her breath. She looked at me and smiled, then jerked upright, “Just kidding!”
Joanne rolled her eyes with relief. The waitress was not amused. “Ha. Ha,” she scowled, lumbering back to the other end of the counter, muttering silent obscenities.
“Why’d you do that?” Joanne admonished, “It wasn’t funny.”
“Hey,” Robin replied, “When did you turn into the queen of pathos?”
Joanne’s frown turned into a smile, as she pushed Robin’s shoulder.
“Ouch!” Robin yelped, clasping her shoulder and grimacing with pain.
“Oh no,” Joanne’s face contorted once again. “I’m so sorry.” She looked at Robin with alarm. “Are you OK?”
Robin’s mischievous grin returned. She winked, letting Joanne know the joke was on her.
“Why . . . you!” Joanne waved Robin off good naturally and pushed her on the shoulder again as Robin renewed her painful grimace, then laughed hysterically, almost spitting with pleasure.
Robin turned discreetly in my direction and whispered, “I’ll act sick more often, if you promise to rub my back like that again.” I started to look away but couldn’t. She took my hand like a precious jewel and stroked it as gently as a soft kitten. “You have beautiful hands,” she purred. I glanced over her shoulder and saw Joanne watching out of the corner of her eye.
As we headed towards the car to pay the meter, not wanting to pay thirty-five dollars for a two-hour stroll, because of a parking ticket, it seemed as if the three of us had been together all day.
Reluctantly, we took our leave, as Joanne was driving back to Modesto that afternoon and offered Robin a ride.
“I’ll walk. Thanks,” she said, looking admiringly at the sky then back at me. “It’s such a beautiful day. I don’t live far.”
Joanne gave her a long hug. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” Robin asked.
“For reminding me how good it feels to laugh.”
“What else is there?”
They held each other’s hands, one on top of the other. Robin gently extracted her fingers from Joanne’s and turned her luminous eyes on mine. I wasn’t sure what to say or how. It felt like I’d known this woman all my life.
“Let’s go Rueben,” Joanne broke in. “I’ve got to get packed.”
My lips parted and crackled a stifled, “Goodbye.”
Robin stood quietly, nodding farewell. I started to walk away, when a desperate surge of adrenaline turned me around. Robin hadn’t budged. I hurried back.
“Could we . . . ah . . . get together sometime?” I said.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she smiled suggestively, reaching into her shimmering dress pocket and handing me a card.
Lowering my hat against the sun’s glare, I read. “Robin Magnolia. Consultant.”
“Consultant for what?” I wondered out loud.
“Surfing,” she replied, taking my hand in hers and kissing me on the cheek.
“Life surfing,” she whispered. Call me.”
Joanne shouted, “Come on Rueben! I’ve got to go.”
“See ya,” I said, letting her hand drop and heading towards the car. It took all my strength to not spin around and take her in my arms.
Joanne put her bag in the trunk of her partially rusted Volvo station wagon and closed the beige trunk with a thud; sealing the contents for a safe trip home. She’d just called her husband and kids to let them know she was on her way.
“Drive careful little Sis,” I said sarcastically, both of us knowing she was probably the safest driver in North America. I used to tell her she drove like an old granny when we were teenagers. She’d sit at a four way stop, for what seemed like hours, making sure there weren’t any cars approaching within a hundred miles!
“You big Dufus,” she grinned. “Have I ever been in an accident?”
“Have I ever gotten a ticket in my whole life?”
“Then shut up already and give me a hug.” She grabbed my arm, pulled me close, put her arms around my back and squeezed hard. I squeezed back. She squeezed harder, as did I, until it felt like she’d break my back.
“OK! OK!” I gasped, pretending to be out of breath. “Man! You’ve gotten strong in your old age!”
“And don’t you forget it!” she teased, as she got in the car, closed the door, strapped herself in, adjusted her mirrors and rolled down the window.
I leaned in and kissed her. “Love ya. Take care.”
“Likewise.” She kissed me back.
“Remember,” I kidded, “it doesn’t matter how you feel as long . . .”
She shook her head, having shared this joke a hundred times. “Yeah, yeah,” she completed the line, “as long as you look good.”
I jerked my finger, like shooting a gun and blew away the smoke, completing our leave taking ritual. She waved and rolled up the window, then suddenly rolled it back down. I leaned in.
“Call her,” she said.
“Call her tonight.”
“Who?” We’d been talking about Robin every since we’d left the beach.
“I mean it Rueben. There’s something between you two, something special.”
I’d planned on calling the minute Joanne was out of sight.
“Sure,” I grinned.
“Promise,” I said and crossed my heart.
She rolled up the window, checked for oncoming cars, for what seemed like an hour, then slowly eased onto the highway. She looked in her rear-view mirror and waved one last time.
I stood and waved to my beautiful little sister. As she drove away, I remembered telling her once, after she’d interrupted my cowboy game once to often, “Leave me alone! I wish you were dead!” The memory filled me with shame.
“Hellooo stranger,” Robin answered, with a seductive, languid drawl.
“Is this Robin?” I asked, “The surfing consultant?”
“Rueben! I knew you’d call.” Without skipping a beat she said, “Can you come over tonight?”
“Tonight?” I think . . .”
“Think!” she interjected. “There’s no time to think.”
“Well . . . sure.”
“Can you pick up some wine and flowers? I was thinking about you all the way home and plum forgot to . . . oh yeah! Make sure they’re . . .”
“Fresh cut,” I finished her sentence, “right?”
“You devil. How’d you know?”
“I don’t know.”
“That place next to . . .”
“Shopper’s Corner,” I surmised. No problem. It’s right on the way.”
“No problem, I’d love too.”
“Love too,” she repeated. “Isn’t that a great word – love?”
“Yeah, it’s a great word, but don’t you think we’re moving a little fast here?”
“Fast?! Are you going to wimp out on me before we even get started?” She quietly added, “We’re mates and you know it.”
“I may not know a lot, but I know when I’ve been thrown a pearl.”
“This kind of thing is rare,” she went on. “Some people don’t know when it’s come up and bit them in the bud and others keep thinking it’s somewhere they’re not.”
“That may be true, but . . .”
“I’ve only felt this way once before,” she said. “I may be about to die, maybe not; but I’m not about to let your fear screw things up.”
She got that right. I’d been burned before. In my early twenties I’d fallen in love with a slim, nineteen-year-old redhead named Francine. We were stupid enough to get married. It lasted about a year. I was so dependent on her approval I would have leapt off a cliff if she’d asked. She had to literally jump in bed with my best friend before I crashed and burned. That experience had embedded its tentacles deep under my skin and been tediously removed, one by one, year after year.
“You’re right,” I said. “I felt that way before and this feels like the real thing, but…”
“No buts about it. The only butt I want to see is yours.”
I don’t know where she got the courage to be so blatant, but she was right on the button. Something in my chest had been cracked open like a safe and she had the combination.
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
“One more thing,” she said. “I love you.”
“Likewise?” she teased. Is that the best you can do?”
“Robin,” I paused, “what can I say? I love you too. Be there soon.”
“Not soon enough,” she whispered.
I started to hang up, then quickly brought the phone back to my ear. “Robin! Robin!”
“I’m right here,” she replied calmly. “It would help if you had my address, right?”
“6427D South Cliff Drive. You know where that walkway is by the harbor?”
“A half mile from there, off Seabright, take a left on Surry.”
“You got it all right; you got it all.”
“See ya?!” she protested. “I hope you’ll do more than that.”
“You know what I . . .”
“Of course,” she interrupted. “And you know what I mean.”
“Sure do,” I said, twisting the smooth phone cord tightly around my index finger.
Beyond all logic, the magic continued. We spent days and nights “being in our skin”, as Robin would say; listening to the rhythms of the world; the sensations of our bodies; touching, sensing, smelling, gazing upon one another’s human form, with mournfully explicit awe and delight.
Entering her small, cozy apartment by the sea; felt like committing myself to a religious sanctuary where all our prayers were offered and received.
She talked openly about dying, but more about living. She wasn’t afraid of death, but she loved life. She loved here mother, her brother, her nieces, her eighty-year-old grandmother and her friends and colleagues. She’d worked in public relations for the Santa Cruz Visitor’s Bureau for over fifteen years and was missed by her peers, who often stopped to visit. Indeed, public relations, was an apt description. She had an uncanny ability to put people at ease.
Her best friend, Bessie, told me about a bigoted movie producer visiting from Los Angeles, who’d locked horns with Robin’s supervisor, Mary Lou, a tall, intelligent woman, who’d been born and raised in Texas. During a meeting with Robin, Mary Lou and Bessie, the movie producer had made a snide remark about cowboys and rednecks all being “stupid hicks.” “Mary Lou’s cheeks turned fire red,” Bessie explained. “Her jaw was tighter than a vice. If this guys company shot their film here it would bring the city a couple million bucks. Mary Lou was just about to let the jerk have it when Robin smiled and said, ‘You’re right. There are some stupid cowboys.’”
“Well,” Bessie continued, “Mary Lou and I gasped and stared at Robin in disbelief; until she added, ‘There’s idiots everywhere, aren’t there?’ ‘You got that right,” the producer said, shaking his head. ‘I must say’, Robin continued, ‘I’ve said some pretty stupid things my self. I bet there’s a lot of lame producer’s in Hollywood.’ “The producer jumped right in and said, ‘You have no idea,’ and started telling us about one ‘incompetent ass’ after another.”
“Needless to say,” Bessie concluded, “we made the deal.”
Robin’s charm remained intact in the midst of purgatory. You name it, she tried it: medications, transfusions, intravenous therapy, diet, herbs, detoxifications, chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, hormones, prayer, meditation, visualization . . . but the cancer kept chipping away.
The last weeks found me sinking, looking for a branch to hold onto. I was being pulled under by emotional quicksand. There was nothing solid to stand on. Her face had turned black, blue and yellow, as if she’d been in a bar room brawl. Her skin was translucent, stretched over her frame like a sheet of white plastic; her arms as thin as straws. She struggled to take in a full breath. The body I loved was disintegrating like melting snow.
“I hope I’ve made a difference,” she said softly, one gusty morning.
“Without a doubt,” I assured, with a lump like a clod of dirt stuck in my throat. “You’ve given so much love.”
“Yes, I have.” She stroked my cheek. “That’s been the best part.”
She turned away, looked out her large window and watched a mother and daughter lean against the cliff side railing, their hair being blown by the wind.
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” I wanted to run, jump off the earth, find a black hole and hide. “I don’t know, but you can’t leave.”
“Nice thought, but just a wee bit unrealistic.” She rolled her eyes and grinned at my naivety.
“It’s just . . . I don’t know . . .” I struggled to find the right words. “How do you keep this up?”
“I have no choice,” she said, without hesitation.
“I know we don’t always have a choice,” I blundered, my mind racing with useless, crazy thoughts. “If it was me, I’d be screaming and yelling.”
“I don’t have a choice,” she reiterated. “This is who I am.”
We heard someone knocking. Our intimacy departed, as we turned our heads. The door flew open, pushed by gusts of cold air and Robin’s mother, who entered the tiny living room with the electric hospital bed looming in the center. She struggled to close the door behind her, pushing against the tenacious wind and patting down her gnarled hair. She took off her floor-length wool coat and placed it on the corner chair. With a forced cheerfulness that belied her dread, she exclaimed, “There’s my girl.”
“Hi Mom,” Robin smiled, holding out her shaking arms.
Joanne was making a return visit in a few days. We’d kept in touch. She knew the story. I wish she was here. She’d know what to do. She’d help her big brother learn how to say goodbye to the Barking Seal Societies lifetime member. She would know how to say “I love you” without clinging to hope. She and Robin understand life from a place I do not know. They know that “take one day at a time” and “seize the day” are not cliches; they’re the essence of our reality.
If only Joanne was here and Robin wasn’t leaving. If only . . .
Story from Saint Catherine’s Baby