Peter’s Disappearance

Peter Bernstein told his friends over wine that while he thoroughly enjoyed being married—at forty-seven he’d been continuously married for over thirty years; first at age seventeen, then at age thirty-two to his present wife—he believed that over time marriages age, as do the participants, but at different rates; that at some point both realize they are no longer meant for each other. Unfortunately, he went on to say, one partner usually comes to this conclusion before the other, resulting in the one bringing news of his or her dissatisfaction promptly labeled the scoundrel…the cad…the rat. “A lesson in being first,” he said chuckling. “It’s a shame that because one realizes before the other they’re no longer compatible he or she ends up the bad guy.”

Peter expounded on his marital theory while demonstrating to Tim and Andria—neighbors that met online and moved next door so they could live together for a bit, not wanting to repeat past mistakes—his latest wine aeration device. Holding the aerator just above the wine glass, he slowly poured wine in the top of the glass funnel-like cylinder, its two small tubes within causing thousands of bubbles to infuse the wine as it whooshed its way out the bottom of the aerator and into the stemware.

“Oh, great,” his wife said while sipping her favorite syrah and rolling her eyes at her husband, “so I guess we’ve got—what?—another five or so years left together?” She looked at their friends and shook her head.

“Do you really think that thing works?” Andria asked of the infuser, her nose wrinkled, head tilted like a puppy. Peter found it interesting when Andria asked a question because, regardless of the answer, she never seemed any more enlightened as a result.

“Hell, I don’t know,” Peter said, “you can probably do the same thing by stirring the wine for a minute or so with a spoon, but then that’s so plebian. He pronounced ‘plebian’ with an exaggerated air of superiority. He liked Andria a lot and enjoyed playing against her need to feel at par with the masses. She could go on and on about her hatred of prejudice and how one shouldn’t judge others by their clothes, speech, background, color, and so on; but, ask if she’d be comfortable on a highway at night, her car battery dead and a pick-up with darkened windows pulling to a stop just in front of hers, and watch her squirm. He enjoyed screwing with Andria. His wife said he had issues.

Peter said to his wife, “First of all, Rhonda, I’m not talking about you and me, I’m talking about married couples in general. If people went into marriage accepting that this aging and changing process is normal and is going to happen sooner or later—and most people do go through it, that’s why our divorce rate is so high—then the one sensing that something in their relationship isn’t right could let the other know and they could address it…face it head on, work on changing some things, possibly save their marriage. Or…maybe…decide not to. That’s okay, too.”

Tim, a rare contributor to any conversation not having to do with his paying too much property tax, stopped buttering his sixth bread roll and said, “What if the unhappy one—the dissatisfied one, or the other one, the one getting the news—doesn’t wanna fix it, what happens then?”

“That’s the beauty of it, see? If either one—the person bringing their dissatisfaction to the attention of the other, or the person to whom it’s news—doesn’t want to fix it…they don’t. It’s over. The very fact that one or the other isn’t interested in working on the problem is itself an answer. They move on— they remarry, stay single, turn gay…whatever—but here’s the good part: they now have a chance at fifteen or twenty years of happiness in another life, instead of being miserable and unhappy in the one they’re in, finally splitting up when their dissatisfaction gets to be too much. Unfortunately, by then, five, ten, or fifteen years may have gone by—years that could have been good ones. And that goes for both the husband and wife; they both deserve to be happy. You get one crack at this thing they call life and it’s up to every one of us to make it as enjoyable and rewarding as possible.”

“I’ll bet one of ‘em is happy—the one having the affair, that’s who,” laughed Tim.

“That’s just it: usually—unless one or the other is having an affair—neither of them has done anything wrong; they’ve just changed that’s all. Let’s face it, it’s not the forties or fifties anymore; couples don’t have to stay married for the sake of being married, or for the church, or their parents, or the children. Hell, children know when their parents aren’t happy…they feel it. The kids deserve a happy life too; one with parents that love each other and are excited to be married, not complacent and miserable.”

“Well, I think the whole idea is ridiculous,” said Rhonda. “If you don’t want to be married, all you have to do is say so.” She looked directly at Peter, her expression a challenge.

“Okay, okay, let’s drop it; I didn’t mean to stir things up. I can tell this isn’t going to end well.” Peter chuckled raising his hands in a pose of surrender. “It’s just something more people oughta think about as their marriage matures. That’s all I’m saying.”

When Peter told Rhonda that his comments about marriages aging and changing had nothing to do with them he lied. Peter was and had been in a state of marital limbo for several months—not unhappy, but not happy. He loved Rhonda more than anything on earth. They had a good life. Rhonda made wads of money managing other people’s wads and he—thinking it silly to work at making a decent living when Rhonda was already making way more than they needed—had decided to work from home as a copywriter. As it turned out, this included being housekeeper, driver for their activity-seeking daughter, lawn mower, gardener, handyman, shopper, and other duties—sneaking in a few holes of golf, time permitting. He liked their arrangement: he enjoyed solitude, no longer wanted to work in an office, and, as a writer, valued alone time. Still…he wasn’t happy. Each morning he’d drive his daughter to her school bus stop, get the obligatory peck on his cheek, then return home in time to kiss his wife good-bye as she left for her office—the same one where he had worked for over twenty-five years managing his own client’s money doing the same thing as Rhonda, but without her enthusiasm. He’d make coffee for himself, sit on their back deck overlooking the canal, and wonder what was wrong. He knew one thing for sure: he needed to escape somewhere. Anywhere. He had a desire for different. Simply that…different.

He sat on the deck of their canal-side home and waved as those with waterside homes or that own a boat are prone. An elderly couple in a pontoon boat—both in sweat suits, hers pink, his aqua—waved back; the old man tilted his coffee cup in greeting. The woman waved and said something about it being a beautiful day to which Peter called back that it certainly was. He watched the boat pass, its stern leading a slight wake, and then continued to watch as it turned south into the river a hundred or so yards away, then disappear. A warm, humid breeze stirred the water’s surface making it appear the canal was a river, its faux-current heading out to sea; the same rippling image climbed the trunk, then the crown of the old maple tree on the canal’s far side. September was his favorite month: the temperature cooler, tourist season over, their street once again quiet, school in session. He was reading a story in one of those men’s journals that feature guys doing things about which most men only dream: an African safari, a raft trip down the Amazon, a trip through Paria Canyon. The article was about a man that wanted to escape life. The man believed that the 21st century, for all its technological advances—cell phones, email, PDA’s, GPS—brought with it an almost oppressive feeling that everyone knew where a person was all the time; that one could seldom enjoy a truly solitary moment. Unlike men in the forties and fifties, privileged to leave the house without announcing their destination or estimated time back, he said men of today are constantly kept track of. His solution was to simply disappear for a few weeks; to take a break from it all. In the article he took care of all the business he felt needed attention in his absence, made sure his family would be safe and secure, prepared a pouch to take with him of important documents—ID, medical records, passport, emergency phone numbers, etc.—let a few friends know what he was doing, and asked them to check on his wife and daughter in his absence. Then he disappeared. He had no destination in mind. He told no one where he was going because he didn’t know—he didn’t want to know. He had no plans other than to be where no one knew him; a place where he could be truly anonymous. Although he lived with his family just outside Chicago, it turned out he actually spent the entire two months he was gone less than three hours away in a cheap cabin on the shores of Lake Superior. The important thing: he had actually disappeared for a while.

“Is this about you needing to evaluate whether we should stay married or not?” Rhonda asked when he broached the subject during wine time. They started having what they called wine time every day when Rhonda returned from work around five-thirty, giving them a chance to update each other on the day’s activities before their daughter became center-stage.

“No, honey, it’s not,” he assured her, “it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read that story I told you about; the one where this guy disappears for a few weeks…gets away? That’s all. Hell, I’m forty-seven—call it mid-life crisis if you want—but this is something I need to do. The guy in the article said it was one of the best experiences of his life. I think it sounds fantastic!”

“I don’t know, Peter, I think it sounds…dangerous somehow. Let’s run it by Tim and Andria and see what they think; they’re coming over for a drink later.”

“I’m okay with that, if you want. But, really baby…what can go wrong?”

Rhonda sat suspiciously quiet while Peter described his idea to their friends.

“What if you get sick while you’re gone?” Andria asked.

“I’ll have my medical records and emergency contact information on me at all times,” Peter answered.

“Where’ya gonna go?” asked Tim.

“I don’t know; that’s the whole point.”

“What if you run out of money?” said Andria.

“What if you get lost?” again, Tim.

Peter answered their questions, being sure to sound confident and matter-of-fact about the whole thing, until Rhonda asked, “What if we get sick or hurt and wind-up in the emergency room?”

Peter sighed, then said to Rhonda, “Look…I know I can’t plan for every conceivable circumstance; but, hell, people go on trips all the time, all over the world, and sometimes you just take fate as it comes and prepare as best you can. I’ll make sure everything is covered while I’m gone. I promise.”

An uncomfortable silence ensued, but was broken when Tim slapped his hands together and said, “Well, I think it sounds like Peter has it all pretty well thought out; and I for one wish him good luck!”

“Well, then, so do I!” said Andria, adding jokingly, “After all, Peter, you’re not getting any younger.”

They all laughed, even Rhonda who didn’t really find it all that funny.

Peter sat at the small bistro-like table and savored a glass of South African Chenin Blanc recommended by Carlos, co-owner of Gables European Café, a small Miami restaurant tucked between a jewelry shop and a high-end furniture store selling futuristic pieces that go quickly in and out of style. He watched the sleek flint-gray CL-Class Mercedes slide into a space moments before occupied by a shiny, carbon-black 650i BMW convertible with thirty-day tags, as yet unmarred by state-issued plates. To shield the outside dining area from the Miami heat and sun the front of the restaurant—once an enclosed display area for a Payless Shoe Source—was set back some thirty feet from the storefronts on either side, forming an alcove; a small, comfortable, outside, covered dining area that—because it never suffered direct sunlight—stayed pleasantly cool. A half-dozen ceiling fans provided a comfortable breeze and orchids hanging from pots mounted on the walls and relaxing music created a Zen-like ambiance; a place to drink, dine, and chill.

Peter enjoyed watching the Miami women: their shiny black hair, dazzling blonde hair, ash-colored hair, hair colored bright red, and two-toned hair that made one wonder if the person doing the dying had simply run out of time. Their clothes a bit snug in all the right places; sexy high heels, some resembling jaguar hide or some other predatory animal; skirts that seemed especially tailored for Miami’s ubiquitous J.Loesque butts. Whether a woman headed home at day’s end, arms loaded with dinner and chatting on a cell phone; a mother tugging a hesitant child doing that halting, stiff-legged walk kids are so good at; a University of Miami student meeting her friends for lunch at one of the many outdoor eateries, or a cleaning lady—aware they are being watched—they primp, check their hair, wet their lips, and walk more upright as they pass. Ah, Miami, he sighed. Best of all, he thought, no one knew where he was. He really was on his own. He woke when he wanted, typically early, before the sun rose from its day over the Eastern Hemisphere. From the bed where he slept, free to move at will and toss and turn without bothering his wife, he’d go straight for his iPod deck. Cuban music filled the room as he crossed to the kitchen, flipped-on the coffee maker, and headed for the bathroom to brush. Ready for the day, he’d pour his first cup of coffee and stand on the thirteenth floor terrace overlooking the neighborhood below, its ubiquitous Mediterranean style houses and neat, green patches of grass fronting each. Sipping, he marveled at the sound of roosters crowing from the scene below, all within sight of Miami’s glass and gloss skyline. After writing for a few hours he’d walk down Miracle Mile for lunch.

Looking out from the small alcove, Peter felt as though he were watching a proscenium theatre play: actors entered stage left and stage right, were briefly visible, then gone out the other side seconds later: two old men in guayabera shirts strolled and talked, comfortable with each other in that long-married-couple way, a Cuban cigar poking from one pocket and a pencil or two from another, their hands clasped behind their backs as if handcuffed—the boulevard median planted with palm trees and festooned with hundreds of lights a backdrop. Two men stop, peek in the alcove, whisper to each other, then sit a couple of tables away. They put down their murses and nod to Peter; he smiles and nods back. An attractive young mother pushes her toddler in a stroller weighted with shopping bags while having no trouble strutting in five-inch high heels, a seldom-possessed skill. He loved that about Coral Gables; the variety of people, races, cultures, dress, cuisine, language; it made him feel somehow more intelligent, worldly, urbane.

A voice broke through the curtain of his daydream. Peter looked up from the wine he was swirling for the origin of the sound and found a more than attractive woman leaning toward him. She had asked him something, that much he knew. When did she sit down? Her amused expression said she was used to reactions like Peter’s. He finally said, “I…I’m sorry…did you say something?”

“Excuse me; I obviously startled you. I don’t mean to bother you, but I overheard the owner recommending that wine you’re drinking—a South African wine?—anyway, I asked how you like it. But, I can ask him if you’d rather,” she said, still amused.

“No, no…that’s okay. I guess I’m too easily mesmerized; you know, the whole thing, the setting, the people, the music, the electricity of it all…stunning women talking to me. I don’t mind at all. In fact, if you’d like a taste I’d be happy to share some.” He extended his hand for her glass. She looked at the hand, then at him, then—instead of holding out her glass—got up, gathered her purse and glass, and sat next to him, corner-to-corner.

She placed her glass between them and covered it with her hand. “Before you pour, so you know, I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but you seemed so—I don’t know—like lost in another world. I’ve been sitting at the table next to you for over ten minutes and you haven’t even glanced my way. I know that sounds egotistical, but it doesn’t happen often. I just had to find out what you’re thinking.” She looked at Peter, held his eyes, clearly waiting for a response. Her green irises had celadon flecks that Peter found himself counting; her mouth a bit crooked in an Ellen Barkin way. He found it hard to concentrate looking at her lips, her eyes, her lips, her eyes… Over her right eye was a small scar partly concealed by auburn hair cut shoulder length that made her look cute.

Don’t do it… “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than sit and talk to you,” he said. You idiot. “You just caught me off guard, that’s all.” Crinkles around his eyes appeared as he smiled. “You see, long-married guys like me don’t often have stunning women join them unsolicited for wine.” Shit

She smiled. “Well, Mr. Long-Married Guy, can I get a taste of that wine then?” She had moved her hand so he poured an amount typical for a taste. With her eyes firmly fixed on his, she reached over her glass for Peter’s, took a sip of his wine, looking at him over the rim, then set it down. The red lipstick mark on his glass was the color of a fire engine and reminded him of a Marilyn Monroe poster he’d seen at a cinemaphile gathering. When he again looked up she had that same amused expression. “If you’re willing to share a bit more, I’d like a full glass…that is, if you’re not in a hurry.”

Peter filled her glass. He watched her sip; close her eyes, tilt back her head, and deeply inhale, savoring the wine. He sensed she knew just how closely he was studying her. Finally, she opened her eyes and said, “Delicious. That is a wine to remember. And this is an experience to remember.”

“I don’t even know your name,” he said.

“Barbara. And please don’t tell me you have a sister or mother named Barbara—that would spoil it.”

“I don’t actually know a Barbara, but it suits you somehow. I can’t imagine you being anything else.”

“Well, thank you; and how about you? Does the Long-Married Guy have a name?” she teased.

“Peter. And, please don’t tell me you have a sister or mother named Peter.” They laughed that easy couple’s laugh like they do when everything the other says is fresh and amusing.

They chatted; laughing and kidding like new lovers. She told him she’d recently moved to Coral Gables after finding her husband in bed with the neighbor’s daughter, her Goth make-up smeared on his face and hers. “You know what I remember most about that day? I remember wondering if the little slut’s make-up was actually smeared, or if she put it on that way.” They told each other lots of stories, anecdotes, and personal stuff: she sleeps with a favorite fuzzy animal her father gave her; Peter always wanted to be an artist, but opted instead for making a decent living; she has fantasies of life as a model; he about being Donald Trump. They settled into a comfortable familiarity, her hand lightly resting on his forearm, drinking wine and watching the street activity; occasionally commenting on a particularly bizarre outfit, an unusually attractive woman, or a weird hairdo, or—for long periods—nothing.

The now-empty bottle announced an end to Peter’s temporary insanity. He set it next to their first empty. “Wow, we drank them both.” Checking his cell phone he saw that four hours had gone somewhere. A waiter was arranging tables for the dinner crowd. He set the bottle on the table, looked at Barbara, his eyebrows raised in a “Well?”

“If you’re waiting for me to say I had better go, I’m not going to.” she said. “I don’t want this to end.”

Jesus…what the fuck have I done? Peter chuckled and said, “Well, I’m obviously out of practice, huh? I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to say.”

“How about this?” she said, her voice low and reasonable, “You say: ‘Should we order another bottle or go someplace else?’ emphasis on the someplace else.”

Peter watched her face. She was enchanting in an exotic sort of way. He marveled at how her eyes, nose, and mouth seemed choreographed. He saw her lips stop moving and her gaze fix on him waiting for an answer. An image of Rhonda, her intelligent smile, thoughtful and kind, her sex, her trust, inserted itself in his mind’s eye. What can go wrong? “I’m sorry. I’m the one that needs to go. I have to fix something,” he heard himself say.

He watched Barbara’s face change to that of a child being told her dog was just run over; tears at the bottom of her eyelids threatening to spill over. “Peter, don’t do this…please. I’m not a bitch, or a home wrecker, but things like this don’t happen every day. I know you feel something special too…I can tell.”

Peter looked out at the street. On stage another actor, a hustling UPS man peeking around a dolly piled high with boxes stopped to talk with two Latinos. Peter envied their laughter—their nonchalance—and wished he too were able to laugh and joke. He forced himself to look back at her. “Barbara…please, let me pay for this and get out of here. I can’t…”

She held up her hand as though swearing on a Bible and shook her head, “No…don’t say anything…please.” To another guest they would appear to be praying: both heads down, neither speaking for a long time. Finally she looked up and said, “I guess that’s it then, huh? One thing’s for sure,” she said chuckling ironically, “I won’t be ordering any of that wine for a while; the memories would be too much.” Peter remained silent; there was nothing more to say. She leaned over, lightly kissed his cheek, placed her napkin neatly on the table, gathered her purse, stood and left…stage right.

Peter sat…stunned. An old woman shuffled through the set, one of the wheels on her shopping cart squeaking rhythmically as she pulled it along. She smiled kindly at Peter, then went about her business unaware that two people had met and briefly fallen in love.