It’s all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder, as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?
But it’s nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
He’s in the bedroom, in a hospital bed, tubes up his nose. The second stroke really knocked him out— the first one wasn’t so bad, just one of his legs was a little shaky. That’s what Bennie told me. Bennie from high school, our old friend. Lou’s protégé. He tracked me down at my mother’s, even though she left San Francisco years ago and followed me to LA. Bennie the organizer, rounding up people from the old days to say good- bye to Lou. It seems you can find almost anyone on a computer. He found Rhea all the way in Seattle, with a different last name.
Of our old gang, only Scotty has disappeared. No computer can find him.
Rhea and I stand by Lou’s bed, unsure what to do. We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying.
There were clues, hints about some bad alternative to being alive (we remembered them together over coffee, Rhea and I, before coming to see him— staring at each other’s new faces across the plastic table, our familiar features rinsed in weird adulthood). There was Scotty’s mom, of course, who died from pills when we were still in high school, but she wasn’t normal. My father, from AIDS, but I hardly saw him by then. Anyway, those were catastrophes. Not like this: prescriptions by the bed, a leaden smell of medicine and vacuumed carpet. It reminds me of being in the hospital. Not the smell, exactly (the hospital doesn’t have carpets), but the dead air, the feeling of being far away from everything.
We stand there, quiet. My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit? When did you stop having parties? Did everyone else get old too, or was it just you? Are other people still here, hiding in the palm trees or holding their breath underwater? When did you last swim your laps? Do your bones hurt? Did you know this was coming and hide that you knew, or did it ambush you from behind?
Instead I say, “Hi Lou,” and at the very same time, Rhea says, “Wow, everything is just the same!” and we both laugh.
Lou smiles, and the shape of that smile, even with the yellow shocked teeth inside it, is familiar, a warm finger poking at my gut. His smile, coming open in this strange place.
“You girls. Still look gorgeous,” he gasps.
He’s lying. I’m forty-three and so is Rhea, married with three children in Seattle. I can’t get over that: three. I’m back at my mother’s again, trying to finish my B.A. at UCLA Extension after some long, confusing detours. “Your desultory twenties,” my mother calls my lost time, trying to make it sound reasonable and fun, but it started before I was twenty and lasted much longer. I’m praying it’s over. Some mornings, the sun looks wrong outside my window. I sit at the kitchen table shaking salt into the hairs on my arm, and a feeling shoves up in me: It’s finished. Everything went past, without me. Those days I know not to close my eyes for too long, or the fun will really start.