On a spring afternoon in the 1960’s, a middle-aged man named James Bradley sat at one of the outside tables of Enratti’s, a fashionable San Francisco restaurant. From time to time, he looked at his watch. Whatever else had changed about his wife Louise, he thought, she was still unable to arrive anywhere on time.
Bradley was aware that he looked out of place among the other patrons having their lunch at the tables around him. He was a big man (ten pounds overweight, his doctor had recently told him) with a red, beefy face and his hair was in a then almost unheard of crewcut. He wore a dark woolen suit which looked as solid and durable as iron.
The other people in the restaurant were either young, or aspired to look young, like the hippies who seemed to be setting the current fashions. The men with their long hair, sideburns and moustaches resembled one another, like members of the same tribe. They were dressed in gaudy sports jackets, turtle-necked shirts and slacks so tight-fitting you’d think they had to be pried off at night.
Some of the women wore bell-bottomed pants suits, others short skirts with leather boots and a few had on the so-called hot pants, which to Bradley looked like nothing more than the shorts Louise used to wear for picnics and barbecues. Almost all had heels high enough to make them as tall as basketball players.
Bradley lit his fourth cigarette (they weren’t outlawed then) and finished his second old-fashioned. (He should cut down on his drinking and smoking, his doctor had also told him). He was beginning to wonder if Louise would appear at all when he saw her rapidly striding down the street, a slim figure in a light dress that ended well above the knee. My ex-wife, thought Bradley, has nice legs. Her hair, which she’d worn long to please him, had been cut short and it swung around her head as she talked vivaciously to the man walking beside her.
Bradley stood up as they approached. “Jim,” said Louise. “How nice to see you. I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting. We had oodles and oodles of appointments and I just couldn’t get away.”
“That’s all right,” said Bradley, who’d re-scheduled a sales meeting so that he’d be on time.
“Oh, I want you to meet Dick, Doctor Thompson, one of our consultants. He was headed in this direction and kindly escorted me.”
The two men shook hands. Doctor Thompson was thin and dapper, neatly bearded, wearing a corduroy jacket with patched elbows and jeans. “Glad to meet you,” he said.
“Same here,” said Bradley. “Care to join us in a drink?”
“No, thanks. I have another engagement. See you later, Lou. Don’t forget the meeting this afternoon. Fryer wants to see your report.”
“I won’t,” said Louise, as she sat down.
In all of their married years, thought Bradley, no one had ever called his wife “Lou.” Maybe it was a part of her new life. Equality of the sexes. Lou could be a man’s name. There was Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse, Pride of the Yankees. Take it easy, he told himself, and keep your mind on why you wanted this lunch.
A waiter had approached. “Want a drink?” asked Bradley.
“Yes, thanks,” she said, looking up brightly at the waiter. “A martini, please, medium dry, with just a twist of lemon.”
How quickly they learn. His ex-wife, who at countless suburban house parties had drunk nothing but little glasses of sherry, now sounded as if she’d been ordering martinis all of her life. Medium dry, with just a twist of lemon, just as if she knew what she was talking about.
“Well,” she said, “this is very nice.”
“Yes,” said Bradley. He’d chosen Enratti’s because he’d taken Louise there on one of the few times she'd come into the city to meet him for lunch. It was the day he’d been promoted to regional sales manager and he’d phoned, telling her to drop everything, they were going to celebrate. That had been, what, nine, ten years ago. He wondered if she even remembered.
The waiter brought their drinks. “Cheers,” said Bradley, raising his glass. “Uh, you’re looking good.”
“Thanks. So are you. Of course, you could lose a little weight.”
“Yes, I know. How’s the job?”
“Just fine,” she replied.
Bradley frankly hadn’t expected her to be able to get anything more than some kind of receptionist job. She didn’t even know how to type. But somehow, after a period of doing something vague for the city welfare agency, she’d been hired by one of those large federally-funded foundations that were into everything: conservation, ecology, planned parenthood, all those things which had become of such great concern. He supposed she’d done very well; at any rate, now she was right in there, a career woman who wrote reports that people like Fryer, whoever he was, were anxiously waiting to see.
“Still keeping the birth rate down?” he asked.
“Trying to. You have no idea how difficult it is.” She lowered her voice. “Why, just last week we had one woman who said she faithfully took the pill. Do you know what she did with it? She put it in, well, her vagina.”
Bradley laughed. “I can see you have your work cut out for you. Do you want another drink?”
“No, thanks. I don’t want to be tipsy at the meeting this afternoon.”
“Have you heard from Scott lately?” Scott was their son, now 18 years old and at college.
“Yes, he’s doing okay. No fantastic grades, of course, but at least he’s not talking about dropping out any more.”
“That’s good news. No more problem with drugs?”
“No, I think that’s over with, thank God. Oh, he probably still smokes pot, but then even the teachers do that.”
Be thankful that your son is on nothing worse than marijuana, thought Bradley. The new morality. He signaled the waiter and they ordered. Louise excused herself to go to the powder room, another habit of hers which hadn’t changed.
While he waited, Bradley listened to the voices around him. Everyone appeared to be talking at once. Phrases like “maximum communicability,” “radicalizing the right” and “crisis of confidence” mingled with “let it all hang out” and “tell it like it is.” The new language to go along with the new morality. One of the reasons he and Scott had become such complete strangers was that he’d simply been unable to talk with the boy.
When Louise returned the waiter brought their food. “Well,” she asked, busily putting pepper on her salad, “how’ve you been, Jim?”
“Pretty good. We have all kinds of new government regulations. On pollution, you know. And now there’s the fuel thing. But we’re plugging along.”
“Still all wrapped up in your job?”
“I suppose so. I am trying to do some reading, though. Don’t laugh, but I’m trying to get through 'The History of Western Civilization', all ten books or however many there are.” If you were alone every night that’s what you did. You smoked and drank too much and read books.
Louise smiled. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll read all of them.”
“Yeah, Jim Bradley, the expert on Western civilization. And how about you? What have you been doing?”
“Nothing special. I’m taking a class at college, one night a week. I’m doing a little painting, landscapes mostly.”
“Are you playing any tennis?”
“A little. Freyer, that’s one of our directors, has a court at his place. Once in a while I get invited for the weekend and manage a few sets.”
Fine. A weekend at the Freyers. A few sets of tennis. Then a few drinks (martini, medium dry, with a twist of lemon). Then some fine intelligent talk about birth control, with amusing stories about women who put the pill n funny places thrown in. How could picnics and barbecues compare with that?
“How’s your second serve?”
“My famous second serve,” she laughed. “I’m still working on it.”
“And my famous backhand. I’m still working on that.” He’d ordered Venetian coffee, the specialty of the house, for the two of them. “Well, cheers. Are you going out any?”
She shrugged. “To a cocktail party or a dinner every now and then. You really can’t get out of them. The foundation is very big on social events.”
Yes, a cocktail party every now and then. And who takes you home from those cocktail parties? And who are you sleeping with now, Mrs. Bradley, now that everyone was sleeping with everyone else? Professor Thompson, better known as Dick to his colleagues? He didn’t look like Louise’s type. But then, what was Louise’s type now? Who could tell who was anyone’s type any more?
It was an unusually hot day for San Francisco and Bradley, in his woolen suit, felt uncomfortable. He watched as his wife, cool and tanned in her short-sleeved dress, lifted her cup to her lips. A lock of hair fell on her forehead and suddenly he was reminded of how she’d looked the first time he’d seen her. It was at the tennis club and she’d been pushing a strand of hair out of her eyes while biting her lips in vexation over not being able to get in her second serve. Without any thought, he’d been in love with her. All right, he said to himself, that’s enough of that. Don’t get yourself all uptight, as they said now. Stay loose. Did they also say that? He took a deep breath and began, “Louise, . . .”
“Yes,” she said, putting down her Venetian coffee and picking up her napkin.
What should he say? Do you tell your ex-wife you still love her while she’s daintily wiping her lips with a napkin at a fashionable restaurant? Do you stand up and crush her to your chest? Do you yell at all these people, the ones who were so with it, “What the hell have you done to my wife, God*** you?” No, you didn’t create a scene. You played it cool.
“I guess you’re, well, satisfied with the way things are?”
“Yes, Jim, I think so.” She glanced at her wristwatch and said, “Oh, I have to rush. If I’m late, Dick will be furious.”
He stood while she gathered up her things. “Would you like me to walk you back?”
“No, it’s out of your way. And I do have to run. You finish your coffee. Thanks so much for the lunch. We’ll have to do it again.”
Bradley winced. How many times had he heard those stock phrases: we’ll have to do it again; we must get together; call me and we’ll have lunch. Phrases used as a sign-off with persons you never intended to see again.
Bradley sat down heavily and watched as his ex-wife walked rapidly away. In a few minutes she’d merged in with all the other people busily going places, then she vanished around a corner.