My impulse was to duck out of view, but I rolled down the window.
“Oh my!” The familiar laugh rippled out or her. “Let me have a look at you!”
I stepped out of the car and she grabbed me. From her arms, her chest, her stomach pressed against me, came even more warmth than I remembered. “Mmm!” She let go and scanned my body. “Look at you. You’re a woman now. I guess you were the last time I saw you, but that was such a short visit, I still think of you as a teenager. And now you have kids, too?” They were barely visible, staring through the minivan’s tinted windows. “Can I see them?”
“Sure.” I slid open the side door and introduced Dante and Chloe.
“Great names,” Laura said. “And you know they both look like you. Especially around the nose.” She addressed the kids: “Gabriel and Megan say they’ve been having a lot of fun with you two.” She turned back to me. “But you’re not feeling well?”
As soon as she asked me I remembered from the old days that it’s impossible to be frightened of Laura. I’m sure the sense you get — that she’ll like you no matter what — is one reason Dad risked so much to be with her. “Actually, I’m better now,” I said. “I was just a little carsick is all.”
“Then you can come in! That’s great, I want to hear about everything.”
I hesitated a second longer, then gave in. Walking to the house, she took my arm as we were old chums. My free hand held Chloe’s. And Dante held Chloe’s other hand, so we went down the walkway four abreast.
As soon as we stepped into the foyer, Gabriel peered from around a corner and shot us all with a toy pistol. I flinched and Chloe let go of Dante’s hand to put her finger in her mouth. Grinning, Gabriel stepped out and handed another gun to Dante. Dante reached for it, then looked at me. Toy guns are strictly forbidden in our household, but this didn’t seem the moment to stand on principle, so I nodded. Dante seized the weapon. “Want to see something really cool?” Gabriel asked him. The two ran off into the depths of the house, shooting as they went.
“They’re going to the playroom,” Laura said. “Shall we show Chloe?”
We followed her down a pushily carpeted hall, past dark oil portraits in heavy gilt frames, a billiard room. One windowed alcove was furnished with a pedestal and vase of irises. I knew that Laura had married a successful businessman, but it still felt incongruous to find her living this way. The playroom was dominated by a big screen TV, its floor strewn with toys from a built-in cabinet. Gabriel and Dante, armed with joy sticks, were making ninjas jump and slash messily on the screen. Megan was tooting on a penny whistle held in one hand and thumping on a drum with the other. When she spotted Chloe, she picked up a toy guitar and handed it to her.
Back in the living room we found Ivor and Andy ensconced on a white sofa, iced tea set before them on a glass coffee table. Facing them, in an armchair sat a man dressed like Laura in white tennis togs. Marco’s skin was of the same weathered brown as hers, but it hung like loose leather over his country-club muscles. He was still wearing his green sun visor on a hairless head.
After she introduced us, Laura took our drink orders, and when she came back from the kitchen she also brought a plate of real foie gras and brie with crackers. The only seat around the circle was next to Ivor on the couch, but before Laura could take it, Marco reached for her. “Come here, good looking.” He pulled her onto his lap.
And so we began catching up. But, as so often with my own parents, we avoided mention of the group marriage. Instead we spoke as if we’d simply been neighbors, our acquaintance only interrupted by my move to New York, or Laura’s to Danville. If ever we strayed too far into the past, it was Marco who brought us back to something innocuous. “And
your mother?” Laura asked once.
“Doing well,” I said. “In fact she’s in Sierra Leone right now.”
“Sierra Leone! Isn’t that dangerous?”
“I actually think she likes to take risks, under certain controlled circumstances.”
“Wasn’t your mom the one who put an end to the whole thing?” Andy said.
We all paused for a beat, then Marco said, “I’d never go to Africa. China, yes. Russia. No place in Africa. What is she doing there?”
“Collecting art, isn’t that right?” said Laura. By now she had slipped
off Marco’s lap onto the carpet by his chair.
Marco reached down to run his hands through her hair. “Here’s all the art I need to collect.”
Invisible to him, Laura rolled her eyes. I wondered then what bargain she’d made with herself, to marry this man ten years her senior and so unlike her previous husbands. But a moment later, Marco made a joke, and in the way Laura laughed, looking up at him with one hand on his knee, she seemed genuinely fond.
The thought made me wonder for a moment what compromises I had made in my own marriage, maybe without admitting them to myself.