Donna is the first to arrive. Normally that would bother her but today she appreciates the extra time alone. She sweeps her eyes around the dining space, smiling at the new, young waiter who started just last month. His eyes gleam against his dark skin as they linger on her and remind her that despite tipping to the other side of 40 some time back, she still has it.
The other patrons range in age but they are all townies like herself. No surprise, given the time of year. Nobody visits the Jersey shore in the winter. Come summer, even this lesser-known spot will be teaming with beachgoers, swarming with oiled, tanned skin and miles of reveling youth, blissfully ignorant that their bloom will soon fade. Then they disappear, move to a new hotspot the following year, and another horde replaces them. Yet here she still is, pale and smooth and elegant despite her years. Her mother’s words, loathsomely tiresome at the time, now serve as a mantra.
Stand straight and your figure will be put to good use, dear.
She does, waiting patiently with a raised chin and practiced smile. Her teeth gleam white and perfectly straight. Again she must thank her mother for the torturous braces. Of course, she improved her smile even more with laser whitening as soon as it became available. Her smile is one of those things that a man will never point out specifically. Not like her plentiful cleavage or her long legs or her shapely derrière.
Instead, her porcelain teeth are one of those things that makes others see what she wants them to see. There is no better mask than a dazzling smile. That she discerned on her own, her mother never understood the value of a disarmingly perfect show of teeth – her mother’s were coffee-stained and worn, useless for altering the town’s perception that her mother was a hard woman.
Nobody says that about Donna. Ask any shopkeeper, any wait staff, any child knocking on her door at Halloween. For years she’s been told she was the best mother at the bake sales and the PTA meetings and holiday fairs. Her candied apples are renowned.
Of course, she isn’t delusional. She doesn’t think she is flawless either in her appearance or her mothering. But Jensen turned out well despite … well, despite his father abandoning them when he did. Jensen uses his own charm and dazzling smile to very good effect in selling those humdrum paintings of his. Why anyone would plunk down hard-earned dollars for seascape images you could get for free using your iPhone camera was truly beyond her. Apparently Jensen had happened to come along at the exact time to benefit from hipsters desiring the cache of saying they owned ‘art.’
It probably helped sales that Jensen was gay. She’d dealt with Jensen’s being gay very well, even back when it wasn’t quite as fashionable as it is now. She can’t pass a newsstand or open a website or turn on a television show any more without some same-sex couple lip-locked. Frankly, she could do without it. Not just same-sex – any couple groping each other, really. Who needs to see that? What’s the point of a personal life if you conduct yourself like that everywhere?
Jensen hadn’t surprised her when he’d finally come out … rather, been caught out. She’d discovered him and some boy in Jensen’s bedroom, coming home from work early. It was disgusting, but she knew she’d have been equally disgusted if she’d caught him and Danni. The truth is that since she’d never caught Jensen and Danni at anything for all the years that girl had been throwing herself at Jensen, she’d been clued in to her son’s preferences well before he’d ever experimented with a boy.
It doesn’t bother her. Having to hide isn’t reserved for gay people so that is nothing new. She’d thought it was actually good because he’d never have to worry about getting married. Unfortunately, society now seemed in a hurry to create more opportunity for grief. She doesn’t begrudge gay people their marriage licenses, but really, why would they want them? Seems like all the headache with no upside.
A glance at her wristwatch shows Jensen and his entourage are all officially late now. Her lips twist. Is it really that hard to arrive somewhere on time?
The hostess approaches and smiles with closed lips. “Waiting on Jensen?”
“Yes, Barbara. And some of his friends.”
“Bar or table?” Barbara asks, gesturing with her hands.
Donna considers. There are only a few regulars at the bar. She eyes them shrewdly and spots Mark Donnelly. No, that won’t do, as he might start trying to rekindle the short assignation they’d had last winter. He’d been fine as a temporary respite but he started getting much too smothering, wanting to join her Sunday lunch with Jensen and see her every night. She liked her men on a tight leash, just not tied around her own throat.
“Table, please,” she replies.
Barbara walks her to a round table near the far wall. The large window faces the empty outdoor deck, beyond which is the ocean, but the water is nearly invisible in the dim evening glow. The clouds were full when she’d left home, plump with moisture. The weatherman is predicting a winter rainstorm. They haven’t had one of those in a long time. Been too cold. But as January eased into February she thinks it possible.
Peering hard, she can just make out the darker blur of the ocean against the thick gray sky. Jensen has some painting called Evening Ocean or Night Sea or some such blather. The painting is nothing but smears of black and Donna remembers staring at it a full minute before telling Jensen that he is very lucky that so many people claim to see the emperor’s new clothes.
She hears Jared’s laugh first, followed by Danni’s melodious giggle. Behind them Jensen chuckles. Spotting her, Jensen sobers, knowing how much she hates tardiness. He takes the lead heading toward her, and Donna stands as they approach. She avoids Jensen and slips her hands up to Jared’s shoulders.
“Dear boy … did you grow taller in California?”
Jared laughs awkwardly. “Nah, just trying to not slouch so much. Jensen’s influence.”
Donna smiles, disengaging herself from the not quite embrace. “Well, yes, I did always urge Jensen to stand straight. Although …“ Her eyes twinkle with mischief. “… all the coaxing in the world didn’t exactly keep him straight.”
There are weak chuckles and Jensen blushes. Donna sighs inwardly because really … the younger generation just can’t take a joke.
“Sit, please,” she says to Jared and then turns to point to the remaining chairs as Jensen and Danni share one of their stealthy secret looks. Do they really think that childishness isn’t long past its expiration date?
Distracted, both Jensen and Danni go for the same chair to Jared’s left and Donna has to hold back the eye roll threatening to give away her true feelings. Not for the first time she wonders if they all sleep together in some unorthodox polyamorous relationship. It would surprise but not shock her. Actually, she doesn’t think Jensen could handle it even if he could get aroused by Danni.
She tried a threesome once in her more youthful days. Two men, of course. Another woman would have halved the pleasure. It went well except every time one of them paid any attention to the other she felt obliged to remind them of who really mattered. In the end, the rewards weren’t worth the effort of keeping them both centered.
She’s still not sure how Jensen’s held onto Jared as long as he has. Although that is quickly coming to an end.
Surrendering the seat to Danni, Jensen moves to Jared’s right and settles. Now Donna has Jared directly across from her, with Jensen on one side of him and Danni on the other. She smiles inwardly because divide and conquer is the main course on tonight’s menu.
“Jared, first, let me say welcome back. You were sorely missed.” That is a true statement if ever there is one – four weeks of Jensen’s pining are more than anyone should have to bear.
“Thank you, Donna. I’m really glad to be home.” He turns and looks at Jensen who smiles at him dopily. Really, son, have I taught you nothing about keeping some things to oneself?
“Ah,” Donna says. “So you got to stop by your family in Pennsylvania on your way here?”
There is a moment of confusion and Jared’s eyebrows come together adorably. Jensen, of course, immediately gets it and his color deepens to his collar.
“I … no, I’ll go see my folks in a few weeks if I can.”
Danni pipes up, “Mrs. A., Jared meant home as in here, as in with Jensen.” This last is said with a cold glare and Donna presses her lips together in false contriteness.
“Of course. How silly of me.”
Jensen is not assuaged by this because it came from Danni and Jared is now trying to fix it by whispering urgently in his ear and putting his arm around Jensen’s shoulders. Donna watches silently as Jensen’s face stays embarrassed and he stiffens under Jared’s over-the-top show of affectionate exuberance. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how Jensen stands it at all.
She takes pity on her son. “Jared. Of course you are happy to see Jensen again. But please, tell me about your education seminar in Santa Barbara. I’ve heard some from Jensen but would prefer to hear it in your own words.”
Jared starts slowly, but being Jared it isn’t long until he is talking faster and louder and sharing tales of learning techniques and new paradigms and experimental approaches to a myriad of learning disabilities. She urges him on with very carefully placed questions, “Oh, how fascinating … How does that work?”
When Jared pauses she adds, “But that’s incredible. Why isn’t that being tried in more schools?”
Pausing only to order his meal, and when it arrives, taking hasty bites between explanations, Jared dominates the conversation. It’s annoying but expected, and so easy to manipulate that Donna is practically bored by how effortless this is playing out. Jensen started the meal by looking at Jared adoringly but eventually, as she expected it would, Jared’s excitement starts to wear on Jensen.
That’s when Donna puts down her steak knife, appreciating the sharp click it makes as it skims the plate’s ceramic rim. “Jared, my dear, I’ve never seen you this animated, so … passionate.” She turns her head just a hair to meet Jensen’s eyes. “In fact, it reminds me of when my own dear son is painting. Wouldn’t you agree, Jensen?”
Suddenly drawn into the conversation Jensen startles and nods. Donna feels Danni’s eyes like daggers but doesn’t react, Danni’s not necessary this evening.
Donna shifts the knife on her empty plate and then minutely pushes the place setting away from herself. “Passion like that must be pursued. I remember when I tried to get Jensen to continue with his business studies at the university. And he said no. Said he had to paint. I admit it took me a while to understand that. While I enjoy a great many things I don’t believe I’ve had something like that in my life. Something that I couldn’t do without.”
Jared, bless his simple soul, is actually catching on and staring back and forth between Jensen and herself in growing alarm. His lips are moving as if trying to formulate words but nothing is coming out. Donna smiles up beatifically at the busboy who clears their table. She does like the attentive service of this establishment. The new waiter offers her more water and Donna offers him a sly wink as she accepts and utters, “You do know how to take care of me.”
She can feel Jensen’s disapproval from across the table but ignores it in favor of finally meeting Danni’s tense gaze with a dare of her own. Danni does not disappoint. “Jensen does love to paint, and wouldn’t you know it but there’s a whole new ocean to explore in Santa Barbara.” Given Danni’s surety, Donna senses that this is something that’s been hatching between Danni and Jared for a while.
Jensen, however, is clearly not in the loop.
Jared enthusiastically jumps in, “Yes. We visited the beach when Jensen came out to visit. It’s stunning and Jensen did some beautiful drawings. Have you gotten to see them?”
Donna licks her lips and lifts the full water glass up to take a sip. She sees Jensen through the glass, face distorted like a Picasso painting, but still so clearly telegraphing panic. She puts on a confused countenance as she sets the glass down and runs a nail absently along the condensation. The drops trace a jagged path down the side of the glass.
“Jensen did speak of his visit and mentioned the beach.” She sits up straighter and uses her hands to speak in a way that she never usually allows. “Wait …“ Jensen is nodding no and squeezing the napkin he’d placed before him when the table had been cleared. He is worrying the edge of the fabric between his thumb and pointer finger in a punishing manner. “… the Hallmark card!”
Jared turns to Jensen mouth forming a question, but Donna beats Jensen to the explanation. She laughs lightly because Danni couldn’t have given such a perfect opening if it had been scripted. She makes the story humorous, keeping her voice light. “Yes, Jensen showed me those drawings before tossing them in the trash. Told me they reminded him of Hallmark cards … all glowing and happy but completely empty. I think that’s what you said. She turns to him. “Or maybe it was soulless, I forget exactly.” She gestures airily. “He said that the beach was very lovely, but sterile, no drama, no emotion. Full of perfect people acting perfectly.”
She turns her head to glance out the window where the moon is struggling against the clouds, outlining the ghostly shimmer of waves in the distance. There may be very little she and Jensen have in common, but this – the strength and majesty and fear-inspiring awe of the Atlantic Ocean in the wintertime – this, she understands.
And that is the one thing California will never offer.
“You could have told me you didn’t like that beach … we didn’t need to spend all our time there.” Jared’s eyes are clearly hurt and Donna forces a solemn look on her face, with just the right tinge of regret.
“Oh, dear. I didn’t mean to give the wrong impression. It’s not like Jensen said he didn’t enjoy his time visiting you.”
Danni is ready to blow. “You …“
Jensen reaches across the table to put his hand over hers and squeezes. “Danni. Don’t, please.”
“Then you speak up, you can’t let her get away with lies like that!“
Donna really could kiss Danni right about now.
Jensen isn’t the one to correct Danni’s mistake. “Danni. It’s fine,” Jared says, voice stiff. “Donna isn’t lying about anything.”
“Jared, I’m sorry if I upset you. I thought Jensen would have been honest with you about how he was feeling, given how close you two are.”
“It’s not your fault, Donna. I would have thought so, too.”
That’s when Jensen finally finds his voice. “Jay … it’s not that simple.”
“No, actually, it really is.” He turns slightly to face Jensen. “You hate California. You’re never going to move there. See, just say it. It is simple.”
Her son is literally squirming, looking around as if to measure how many people are staring at them (no one is) even though their voices aren’t loud enough to carry. She wonders if she should feel a moment of pity but dismisses it. This intervention had to happen. Jensen would never be happy without their ocean and as much as she believes her son really did love the too-tall man-boy that invaded his life like a tidal wave, well, everything ends eventually.
Jensen stammers in a voice almost too faint to hear, “I haven’t decided anything yet.”
“I have,” Jared says strong and clear.
“No … Jay, no. You can’t just give it up.”
Even Danni chimes in, “Jared … you should think about this.”
Jared’s eyes go hard which stuns Donna because she’s never seen that determination before. “There is nothing to think about. You stay here. I stay here.”
If Jensen were anyone else’s son he’d concede in the face of such certainty and overwhelming devotion. For a split second Donna wonders if it’s possible Jared means it … if Jensen can really be more important than Jared’s education, his future. But the thought is quickly dismissed as romantic claptrap.
Donna is right to believe in Jensen. His eyes harden now, too, in a way that Donna recognizes. They are a muddy green whereas hers are a deep blue, but both colors reflect their stalwart spirits. Neither allows their heart to rule their mind, neither hides from reality.
“Jared, I appreciate the sentiment, but you are not deciding your entire future at dinner with my mother, spurred by emotion to make declarations you will later live to regret.”
Danni leans in, “I have to agree with Jensen. We can talk about this later.”
Voice rising Jared argues, “No offense, Danneel, but this isn’t your decision. Just like it’s not Jensen’s. I’m the only one who gets to decide where I go to school.”
A long, distant rumbling of thunder breaks over them and the passing waitress says, “Sounds like a whopper.”
Winter thunderstorms are very rare. Donna sees the shudder of Jensen’s shoulders. The boy never did like storms and is still scared of thunder to this day. She wonders if he still clutches that threadbare stuffed bunny or had she chucked that ratty old thing some time back? She can’t recall.
The handsome waiter brings the check and Donna makes a show of wanting first to pay and then to chip in before finally allowing Jensen to pick up the entire tab. Might as well let the lemmings who buy his artwork pay for it. The tension between the three friends is palpable and lingers in the air like the electricity hanging on the ocean breeze as they exit en masse.
In the parking lot, Donna looks around. She recognizes Jensen’s car and notes that Jared didn’t drive. She scrutinizes them all, heads down, very purposely not looking at each other. “Can I offer anybody a lift?” Donna asks helpfully.
Jared starts to say yes but Jensen speaks up first. “Jay, please, I’ll drive you home if you prefer not to come back to our place.”
“Our place,” Jared echoes flatly, looking from Danni to Jensen.
Donna’s interest peaks. This is new. She hadn’t thought Jared would be jealous of Danni given, well, the gay business. But she is well aware of how unnaturally close Jensen and Danni are, it can’t be easy being a third wheel to that.
Another rumble, sounding a bit closer now and Jensen looks up before grumbling, “You can’t think I fucking want you to move.”
Then Jensen’s eyes widen as he realizes he’s cursed in front of her. She doesn’t care for vulgarities. The world is ugly enough without filth coming out of one’s mouth. Her lips twist in distaste.
“I don’t know what to think because you never tell me anything. You talk to Danni. Hell, you even shared with your mother before you shared with me.”
A flash of distant lightening brings the ocean into sharp relief. It flickers like a strobe in a horror flick. What an odd storm so early in the year. Must be this climate change the scientists are always going on about. Come to think of it, here they are in the parking lot in February and she is positively warm in her fur.
Another rumble, low and deep like a hungry lion, follows the lightening flash. Jensen’s voice shakes as he stares Jared down. “That’s because I don’t love them like I do you!”
“Jensen, dear, we’re in a public place.” Donna reproaches although they are alone at present. It is unseemly to air one’s emotions in such a blatantly naked manner. She set out this evening to help Jensen but he also has to help himself. This would not do.
Jared reaches toward Jensen’s upper arms and Donna wonders if he’s about to shake him. But Jensen has turned to look at his mother. “Mom,” he utters in bewilderment like he’s forgotten everything including his own name.
She nears her son and wraps one arm loosely around his shoulder drawing him closer. “I know it’s hard,” she says, voice soft. “Doing the right thing always is. Stay strong.”
With one final squeeze she meets his raw gaze before blinking once and releasing him back into the world. Not meeting anyone else’s eyes she says goodbye while walking away, one gloved hand up in a backward, jaunty wave.
Behind her the ocean stirs and the air pulses in drum-like fashion. She arrived first and she will leave first.
They are still standing mutely in stunned stillness, flinching only to the rumble of her car passing as she smoothly turns out of the lot.
Winter Rain Storm
by Dale Biron
All night we watched
the eucalyptus trees bow this way,
then that, nearly exhausted trying to
please the wind. So many demands!
Living close to land’s edge:
anything but charming. The wind is
of the ocean's many wild forces.
Now that this winter storm --
scattered limbs and torn leaves --
just outside our door
we can pray for rain in earnest.
Pray always for what has already
happened as the world
is glancing back in your direction.