It was the worst coffee she’d ever tasted and she’d once tried the one made from weasel shit. The brown sludge slowly making its way down her throat made her think of that hot and humid summer when their son was conceived, only it wasn’t coffee she’d been drinking then. It was good old American whiskey whose bitterness was so much more welcome.
She frowned at her cup, but said nothing, choosing instead to keep drinking. If nothing else, it would wake her up nicely. A pigeon flew above the balcony, cooing loudly.
“Are you even listening to me?”
Her husband, David, stared at her over his newspaper. His face, once handsome and tan, was now wrinkled and pale, his mustache a shadow of what it had once been. She’d fallen in love with his hair; when they met, it had been shoulder-length like Bobby Sherman’s. He used to have the same warm smile, too.
“Sorry?” she said, surprised at how raspy her voice sounded.
“I was saying,” he began, “I was saying that we should’ve gone to see John instead of expecting him to come here. It’s his birthday after all.”
They’d lived in Santa Monica back then, right by the beach. They’d planned on going to the Bicentennial parade, but her husband was called away on a business trip. It was all the same; neither of them liked President Ford very much. Thus, she stayed home, in the sweltering heat, under the bright lights of fireworks, drinking whiskey on the beach. “What’s on your mind?” David asked, folded up his newspaper and put it on the table. “I’m just thinking about the past, that’s all.” She took a sip of that godawful coffee. “Before John was born.” He frowned. It reminded her of how strong he seemed back then. She’d never met another man who could sweep a girl off her feet so easily. Not until that summer. Not until those long nights at the beach. The warmest Fourth of July in years and the first one she spent alone. “Remember when we first heard ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ and you thought the baby was gonna be a girl?” he said, still frowning. “You were so sure, and I told you, ‘No, it’s gonna be a boy, as tall as his father and as smart as his mother.’ Remember? And when he came out small, I thought, well, let’s pray he’s a genius.” John was as tall as his father, wasn’t he? Certainly smarter than his mother ever was. “I do remember,” she murmured. “I do. I was thinking about that summer, though. The Fourth of July and the parties.” His face fell and she almost felt glad for it. Oh, if only she could hate him. If only he would hate her. “I wish I could’ve been there,” he said, not for the first time. “I wish I hadn’t been working all the damn time.” “It’s fine. It was nothing special, really. Not like the summers we spent together later, with John.” He didn’t seem convinced. It wasn’t true, anyway. It was the best summer of her life. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it,” she said. Forty-two years. The innumerable nights spent crying herself to sleep. The feeling of wanting to crawl out of her skin. Half that time spent trying to please him in every way possible, half in wanting to make him angry. She took another sip of coffee. “Do you think he’s awake?” “John? I suppose so. He’ll have to get the girls ready for school.” “We should probably call him, then. Get it out of the way.” He got up to get the phone, his knees creaking. She took the time to stare at a pigeon perched on the balcony on their left. It cooed at her, and she waved at it, feeling weird immediately afterwards. Silly old woman. Her husband came back outside, phone in hand. She took it and dialed John’s number, putting it on speaker. Nobody answered. There was silence for a while. Her husband stared at the phone while she kept looking for the pigeon who’d flown away. “He’s probably still asleep,” she said quietly. “You know he likes to sleep in on his birthday. We’ll call later.” “I wish I could’ve been there,” David said again, and she didn’t need to ask where. “It must’ve been nice, the whole country celebrating like that. It was the year the Monroes were there, right? And the Winstons?” She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She took another sip of her coffee. “Nice people all around,” he said, though he wasn’t smiling. “Mark Winston was a good friend. He passed away recently, did I tell you that?” She nodded. “Good man, Mark was. John and Becky Monroe, too. Nice couple, weren’t they?” Was she supposed to nod again? She shrugged instead. “Did you know—“He stumbled over his words and tried again. “Did I tell you that I saw John Monroe a couple of years ago?” The cup fell out of her hand and broke. She jumped out of her chair and fussed over it, sweeping the pieces into the saucer. The brown muck spread over the hard balcony floor. “You didn’t mention that,” she said, all pretense forgotten. Her husband said nothing, only stared into the distance. “He asked after you. I wish I’d mentioned it,” he said finally. “How is he?” “Becky died a few years back,” David replied, his voice cold. “They didn’t have any kids, you see. She was a lonely old woman, and she died alone.” Damn him, damn him to hell! She kept picking up the pieces of her broken coffee cup, desperately trying to avoid eye contact. “I gave my condolences and all that.” He waved his hand dismissively. “It’s a shame, you know.” “What is?” “Well, I said to him, you know, I looked into his eyes and I said, ‘Well, I wish he’d at least been named David Jr., if nothing else.