Forces beyond our control sometimes buffet our course in life. But don’t give up. Adjust.
The Last Time I saw Julie was originally published in January, 2008, in The Yolo Crow 9:22-27.
The Last Time I Saw Julie
I saw her sitting on a bench at the mall talking to a toddler in his stroller. She was playing with his fingers and making happy sounds at him. They were both laughing and giggling. She looked almost exactly as I had remembered her. Her straight black hair was parted in the middle and framed her oval face. Only now her hair extended to about the middle of her neck and ended in a sort of a flip. Her hair used to hang past her shoulders long and straight back when I knew her, back when we were at university together, back in another life. I walked up to her.
“Hello, Julie,” I said.
She looked up at me, smiled, and extended her hand. “Hello, Richard. It’s been a long time.”
I clasped her hand. As our hands separated, I noticed a stickiness and pressed the tips of my fingers together to confirm it.
Julie looked at my fingertips dancing with each other. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s his juice.” She offered me a premoistened towellette. “This is Eric,” she said introducing the young lad.
“Hi, Eric,” I said and gave him a little wave. He looked at me from his bright blue coveralls and rainbow-striped t-shirt and gurgled in response.
Just because she was with a child did not make Julie’s marital status obvious. I wanted to find out without being too direct, so I assumed she was married and asked, “Is your last name still Nakamura?”
“Oh, yes.” Then, probably because I was too transparent, “But Eric has his father’s name, Goldstein.”
Then I noticed her wedding band. It was a simple band without any fancy cutwork or stones. It was not accompanied by a large diamond engagement ring or any engagement ring. “How are you doing, Julie? Life looks full for you.”
“Oh, yes. This little guy makes sure of that.” She smiled at Eric and shook one of his feet. He smiled at her.
“Are you working at a paying job, too?”
“Not now. I was doing artwork for the newspaper until this guy came along. I’m taking some time off until he gets a little older.”
“So the three of you are living on one income?”
“Yes. It’s a little tight but we can do it. We came down here today and had lunch with Daddy. He’s an assistant manager there at Penny’s.” She nodded toward the large store at the end of the mall.
“Is that where you met him?”
“No.” She laughed. “Actually I met Joshua in poetry class, not long after you and I broke up.”
Julie and I met a lifetime ago, back in our university days. We met at a party. It was more like a drunken orgy. At least we acted like it was. I don’t remember much about the party itself, but Julie and I had a lot to drink. We ended up in my bed. Even though I don’t remember much about the party, sex with her was so terrific that I remember it even now. Over the next couple of weeks Julie and I saw a lot of each other and each time we ended up in my bed, or in the shower, or on the sofa, or on the swivel recliner. We were exquisitely compatible sexually. Each time was an adventure into a zone beyond pleasure.
I thought Julie was exotic. Growing up in a small town in middle America, I had had seen Japanese people only on television or in the movies and had had no contact with people of a culture different than my own. There weren’t even any Catholics in my town. Julie’s entrancing features and facility to move between Japanese and American cultures fascinated me. She taught me about sushi and mochi and took me to Japanese restaurants that I never would have braved by myself. She introduced me to Japanese art and Japanese poetry. I craved her, and I craved sex with her. With her, my life was an adventure, and I wanted us to always be together. We became a couple, and she moved into my place.
“Is Joshua a poet?” I asked.
Julie smiled at me, one of those knowing smiles and said, “Yes. He’s very good. He’s had a lot of his poems published and will be completing a book of his works in a few months. Working at Penny’s is only his ‘day job,’ not his life, thank goodness.”
I smiled back, glad for Julie that her husband was both in the management ranks and a poet. “Are you a poet, too? Is working as a Mom your ‘day job?’ Do you secretly rescue the ‘poetically-challenged’ with insightful lines in the nick of time?”
She laughed a dainty laugh, almost a giggle. Her eyes still scrunched up into narrow slits when she laughed, just like I remembered. And I remembered how much I loved that look. It made me want to keep her happy all the time.
“Every once in a while, I put something together. Just for me. Mostly, I read poetry and not write it.” She gave me a serious look. “And what about you? Is there a Mrs. Richard Armistead in your life?”
“If there is, she hasn’t announced herself. No girl friend, either.” It was my turn to smile a knowing smile. My social life consisted of beer and pool with the guys and an occasional one-night-stand or an indulgence with one of the women I see occasionally. Since Julie, I have not had a relationship as intense, as consuming and as passionate. My knowing smile was because I was the only one who knew that my social life was almost boring.
“Oh. Sorry to hear that. I thought surely that you would be married with a houseful of kids and climbing the corporate ladder by now.” She smiled. “What kind of work are you doing? Let’s see, you were studying mechanical engineering and planning to engineer automobiles, right?”
“That’s right. You have a good memory.” I used to show her pictures of flashy cars and the designs of their working parts. I explained the advantages of overhead cams compared to pushrods and rocker arms, and of fuel injection to carburetion. I showed her drawings of how differentials worked and what made semi-trailing arm rear suspension better than any other rear suspension. I was excited about those things back then. They had beauty. They must have been interesting to her because she was very attentive.
“So are you designing automobiles now?”
“Oh, I, uh …” I looked away for a moment. “I, uh, I’m working up to automobiles. I’m doing motorcycles right now.”
“You’re designing motorcycles? That sounds like fun.”
“Well, not designing exactly. I’m working in the repair shop … in the biggest dealership in town. I’m learning a lot from the hands-on experience. It will give me a leg up when I start working on automobiles.” Although I knew that there were no plans right then for me to be working on automobile design, I also knew plans change. So I didn’t exactly lie.
“I’m sure it will.” She smiled a smile somewhere between supportive and patronizing. At least she didn’t have that bored look she started to get after we had been living together for a few months. Back then she seemed to have had her fill of piston ring metallurgy and water pump design. Shock absorber mechanics was no longer a thing of beauty for her. She was getting deeper and deeper into her poetry and art classes.
Julie lifted Eric from the stroller and set him on his feet. He held on to her finger as he took halting steps. He had her eyes but his curly brown hair must have come from his father. She looked over her shoulder at me. “He’s quite adventuresome. And he concentrates so much on his walking that he hasn’t learned any new words since he took his first steps a few weeks ago.”
“He looks like a real pistol,” I said. I watched her encouraging her son to walk. She didn’t seem so exotic any more, just a new mom happily talking with her toddler son. I wondered if she and Joshua went out for sushi often. I wondered if her exoticness had worn off for him as it had for me. Maybe she never was exotic to him. Maybe she was always a fellow poet to him. Her exoticness had really captivated me. When it wore off, I found that I didn’t really like Japanese food much. I haven’t had any sushi or been inside a Japanese restaurant for years now, since Julie and I broke up.
Little Eric missed a step a couple of times and landed on his diaper-padded butt. After the second time, his legs started to get wobbly. Julie scooped him up and rocked him on her shoulder for a few minutes. He relaxed and his eyes closed. He went limp.
Softly, Julie said to me, “It’s his nap time. We have to go.” She stooped down and tossed Eric’s paraphernalia into the pouch on the back of his stroller.
“It’s good to see you, Julie. You take care.” I gave her a little wave as she grabbed the stroller with her free hand.
“Bye, Richard. Good luck to you.” She walked away, pushing the stroller with one hand and holding Eric, sleeping on her shoulder, with the other.
Back when I knew Julie, she was a soul searching for beauty through art and poetry. I was an aspiring engineer searching for beauty through machine design. It was sex that drew us together. We had both thought sex was love. It isn’t. After a while, our differences became more obvious and too great to be held together by only sex. That’s when we parted. Seeing her after all these years, Julie looks different in ways due to more than just her haircut. Her face radiates a glow of happiness whose source is deep satisfaction and anticipation of further satisfaction.
After seeing Julie that day, my life doesn’t look quite the same as it did before. I’m living my life with grease under my fingernails. Good machine design is still beautiful, but I’m not as excited about it anymore. Sex is still beautiful too, but I’m not as excited about it anymore either. And love? I don’t know about love.