A Lot Riding on This
She googled an old lover. One hit revealed he had fathered a 25-year-old male victim of an apparent overdose, found dead on Santa Barbara’s main beach. She stared at the article, remembering a time she thought she was pregnant, when he offered to marry her and help rear a child that was clearly not his.
Some Friday evenings, they snaked along Los Padres Forest roads in his MG convertible, baroque music blaring from the stereo speakers. Except when he needed to shift, his proprietary right hand rested on her left thigh. When they danced the hambo, their centers of gravity meshed so well she had to hold on tightly, or risk being whirled into space. Between weekend rendezvous, he sent her postcards with texts rich in verse or strange anecdotes. He flipped back the bridgework that covered his missing front teeth with his tongue while she laughed in disgust. Pretending to condone her need for other men, he pressed her for details, awarded his rivals cute aliases: Shahid the Camel Jockey, Phillip the Physicist, Gregory the Great….
When she journeyed to Pakistan without him one summer, he allowed her to store some belongings at his home. It’s not clear how long he waited before unsealing her boxes: sniffing, caressing her various artifacts, and eventually opening envelopes that contained her personal correspondence. She traveled on — through Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Peshawar — while he amused himself writing long missives to her friends, lovers, and relatives, anyone whose news or turns of phrase impressed him. In these missives to intimate strangers, he manufactured oddly convincing lives for the two of them. Some even ended in her poignant, yet unavoidable, death.
After returning to a mailbox overflowing with a bizarre array of questions, congratulations, and notes of condolence, it took her months to unravel the fictional lives and deaths created in her absence. Clearly, many others too busy or shocked to reply might still inhabit his fantasy versions of her life. For them, she’d earned her doctorate in political science, was runner-up for a bronze medal in archery at the Olympics, or lived in Seattle with her rich lawyer husband and two perfect children. She’d created a cure for lung cancer and AIDS.
A part of her died instantly when her open convertible collided head-on with a Chevy pick-up, high in the hills above Santa Barbara.