A Friend of the Family: Chapter One
"It's a relaxing day, we're on vacation, our kids are happy, the world turns out to be an interesting place." She was in her bikini, one of Joe's flannel shirts on top as a nod to the darkening weather. Her red hair was pulled up in a clip on top of her head, and she'd suspended sunglasses in the cleft of her bikini.
"Pete usually knows which way the wind blows," my wife said, and I loved her for it.
"Remember our sophomore year?" Iris asked. "He didn't want to go down to DC to protest because he was afraid it would reflect badly on his medical school apps?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" I said. "Anyway, I had to study."
"I know you did, sweetheart," Iris said. She tousled my hair—unlike her husband, I still had a thick head of it—then plopped herself at the picnic table next to me. "I'm just teasing."
She laughed again. I wondered if Iris teased me because she knew I'd never really hold it against her. She folded a paper hat out of newspaper for Neal. Elaine gave me a smile over her paper, and Adam stole Neal's hat, and the seagulls, which had subsided, began to caw again. I knew my face was red—I was never very good at being teased—so I dug up the sports page, checked on the Yankees, since my Nets had yet to start their season. Eventually, Elaine got up to pour more coffee, and Joe brought out a fresh plate of cinnamon rolls, and Alec woke up and shuffled onto the porch to see if I wanted to go to the driving range, which I did. The rest of that day's schedule is lost to me. I'm certain that by dinner we were talking about other things besides the Soviet Union.
And that was 1991. A long time ago.
But I ask you today, have events not borne me out? Rogue nuclear weapons, a breakdown in command of the Russian army, a frightening centralization in the world oil market? An autocratic KGB man at the country's head? Rising AIDS rates, a widening wealth gap, the largest land mass on the planet—I ask you, Iris, have events not borne me out? Is it so hard to imagine that I might have been right?
At night, in that beach house, Iris and Joe slept in the bedroom on the second floor, and Elaine and I slept one floor down from them, and we could hear them together, always past midnight, although we tried not to. We heard them almost every night, and rolled our eyes at each other, and usually woke up in unrumpled sheets ourselves.
I have not seen the Sterns in almost a year now; I no longer sleep next to my wife. The four of us stayed together for all those years, from the University of Pittsburgh to beyond, moved to the same New Jersey town, rented shore houses, ate countless dinners, signed on to care for one another's children should the unimaginable happen to us. I happen to have a brother, a biological brother, whom I don't like very much. I have a best friend whom I miss like a brother, but whom I may never speak to again.
The Soviet Union collapsed and misery ensued, but that was not the worst thing that could have happened.
Now, at my little paved park by the Hudson, the last old fisherman starts packing up his gear slowly, arthritically. As he turns to bring his cooler from the car, I notice the tiniest shuffle in his gait, probably something not even his wife has yet paid much attention to. Parkinson's, in all likelihood, although a neurologist would be better equipped to make that evaluation. Still, I've sent a handful of suspected Parkinson's cases to specialists in the past several months, including a heartbreaker, a thirty-seven-year-old single dad; I've started seeing the disease everywhere.