It was her mother's birthday, and Claudia had made reservations at Chez Panisse. But that morning, her mother asked if they could meet at an Indian restaurant in the Marina. Luis, her mother's boyfriend, had heard about it; a woman on the plane had told him about these curries that "would have you stacking your toilet paper in the freezer for days." Luis always complained that food in America didn't have the heat he needed for his palate and digestive system.
"Luis is here?" Claudia asked over the phone. She turned away from the newspaper she'd been scanning and frowned out her office window. "When did he arrive?"
"Just last night," her mother said happily. Luis said something in the background that Claudia couldn't hear, and her mother laughed again. "His flight from Miami was delayed so he's a little tired. He says hello, by the way."
"Well, he doesn't have to come if he's jet lagged. I mean, it's fine if he comes of course --" Luis said something again and her mother paused. "Mom?" Claudia said. "What time? Do you still want me to pick you up? Parking's a nightmare down there."
"No, that's all right," her mother replied, distracted. "What? Wait, I can't talk to the two of you at the same time. We'll see you there at 7. Bye, sweetie." And her mother hung up.
It wasn't as if Claudia had anything against Luis per se. He was perfectly pleasant, if a little boorish after a few drinks. He had light eyes and fair hair that Claudia suspected he had colored professionally. He made her mother laugh, and her mother, in turn, was entirely nuts about him -- "in a way I haven't been since your father," she told Claudia. He was some kind of attorney in Caracas, but even though Claudia was an attorney herself, for some reason they'd never talked about the law or their respective practices. Luis didn't really need to work anyway, Claudia's mother said, since he came from a wealthy family. "Royalty, I believe," her mother had said with that certain quiet tone that implied indifference but which Claudia knew was the exact opposite.
It was that he was married. He had four children, mostly all grown -- two were around Claudia's age and two were teenagers. He still lived with his wife in a "palatial estate" overlooking Caracas.
When her mother first told her this three years ago, Claudia had felt a cloud of disapproval shifting the features in her face. "Is he going to, um, leave his wife?" she asked.
"It's complicated," her mother said. She was sorting out papers in her bedroom, and her blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, which made her look girlish and vulnerable. She didn't look at Claudia as she spoke. "Luis' father died last month. His mother is devastated. He can't do anything right now. And there's the houses, the kids --" Her mother sighed heavily. Claudia looked out the window and didn't reply.
Now, three years later, she and her mother had eased into that unspoken truce so paradigmatic of the parent/adult-child relationship. They simply didn't talk about anything potentially explosive. In the meantime, Claudia had an affair of her own with a married man that had ended badly. This was her second of this type (the first was when she was in her 20s), and afterward she wondered briefly if her mother had subconsciously precipitated her bad choices. The connection was so obvious, so knee-jerk Freudian that Claudia quickly put it out of her mind.
Of course, at the time her mother had rearranged her features into the same look of disapproval when Claudia told her about Michael, one of the married men. Claudia remembered that they'd been in the car, her mother driving, and she turned to Claudia and said, "Now why on earth would you need to do that?" As if Claudia had deliberately picked the situation. They dropped the subject for the rest of the ride. She'd felt her mother internally struggling to come up with some pithy advice, some cautionary tale, a terse, momlike gem that she could deliver with effective pointedness, but her mother never talked to her about it again.
Luis and her mother arrived 25 minutes late to the restaurant, breathless and laughing. Claudia was cleaning out her wallet, making a pile of old credit card receipts and business cards, when they plopped down on the other side of the table. "Hi there," Claudia said, as Luis leaned over to kiss her hello European-style. After three years and numerous bumpings of heads and noses, she'd learned to now offer both cheeks to him. But it still felt pretentious.
"Hi Mom. Happy birthday." She leaned over to kiss her and sat down, watching as her mother ignored the place settings and sat next to Luis instead of her. Reluctantly, Claudia slid the table setting over to her mother.
"I was just telling Luis," her mother said, "about that writer who came in the shop and wanted us to display his script!"
"Oh, yes." Claudia had heard this story many times. "Haven't you told him that before?" she said meanly, before she could catch herself.
"She has," Luis told Claudia, "but I like to indulge her. Plus, I do not understand it yet."
"It was part of a performance art piece," her mother said to Luis. "Part of the whole thing was getting it in our window. And his friend was filming us talking -- oh, forget it." She waved her hand and laughed as Luis kissed her and smoothed her hair away from her face. Her mother's cheeks were full of color. Her mother added, "I just thought, since you're a writer ..."
Claudia glanced at the menu. "You're a writer, Luis?"
"Oh, yes," her mother said. "Poems. He really is quite good. I think he could get them published."
"You have too much faith in me," Luis said. He was studying the menu now too. "You order for me, corazón. I don't understand this food."
"But you chose it!" her mother laughed and that set off another round of giggling and jovial poking. Claudia took a silent deep breath, restraining herself from rolling her eyes.
OK, it wasn't just that Luis was married, and it wasn't that he was clearly never going to leave his wife. It wasn't even that together they made Claudia feel like a stern schoolmarm presiding over two rambunctious kids in need of Ritalin. It was the way her mother -- an independent, intelligent, strong-willed woman who raised two daughters on her own and ran a successful antique store -- ceded all control to this man. When Luis was in town, everything else stopped for her mother. Decisions were deferred. This man blew into town, upended everything in her mother's life, changed her routine, borrowed her car and then blew away, never certain when he'd be back. And her mother fell over for him, every time.
Her mother began to order food, as directed. Then they all talked about South American weather, soccer (luckily, Luis and Claudia found out some years back that they shared this interest), poets Luis admired and what he was going to do while he was in San Francisco. Claudia realized, as she chewed on a piece of nan bread, watching her mother laugh and tease Luis, that it was often like this with them. The conversation, steered by her mother, revolved around Luis and his interests and goings-on. If it didn't, her mother would gently guide it back, interjecting with a "Luis, tell Claudia about the time when ..." In Luis' presence, her mother, usually so opinionated and sure-footed, withered into a lame, spineless version of herself -- a '50s rendition of what a good girlfriend was supposed to be.
She could do so much better, Claudia thought. She's intelligent, she's beautiful. She could have any man she wanted. Now Luis was telling some story about borrowing her mother's Mercedes yesterday in Marin and running out of gas, only to meet a redneck in outer Sonoma who turned out to be not only a good Samaritan who lent him a gallon but also a published poet. Claudia was only half-listening when Luis said, " -- and I told him of course my friend wouldn't mind that I ran her Mercedes without gas because I'd given her the best orgasm of her life that very morning." Luis laughed.
Claudia continued to chew, but shot a look at her mother. This was really too much. What would possibly make him think that she would want to hear about her mother, her own mother, having an orgasm -- or even planting that visual in her mind of her mother in a sexual position that would lead to an orgasm? She shuddered, but for Luis' benefit (why? why? she scolded herself) smiled slightly out of politeness.
Her mother was looking at Luis aghast, but then she too started to laugh. "Luis!" she said, shoving him. "I can't believe you said that!" They began a mock argument, which Claudia wanted to tune out. She watched as her mother wriggled against Luis' embrace and tried weakly to resist him kissing her hair, but clearly, her mother was having fun.
It was more than that. Her mother was not only in love, she was happy. She actually liked this buffoon of a Latin lover -- she was excitable in his presence, alive in a way she wasn't normally. Her eyes glinted, her color was high. Luis paid her the sort of attention that most American men didn't -- or at least, the ones that Claudia had seen her mother date pre-Luis. These men had all seemed extremely old to Claudia, with portly bellies and hair growing out of their ears. And indeed, her mother used to sigh that on these dates she sometimes felt like she was out with her grandfather.
Maybe her mother couldn't have anyone she wanted. She was beautiful and successful, it was true, but this was her 62nd birthday. Dating was hard enough in San Francisco, and at her age surely the stakes were even higher, the opportunities slim and far-between, with the men having the pick of the litter. Perhaps Luis was a jackass, but maybe he actually was the best that her mother was going to get after all, and her wet-noodle routine was simply something she had to do to hold on to him. The thought of that had Claudia struggling not to tear up at the table. Now the two of them were mock-arguing about what was more flavorful, the lamb vindaloo or the tandoori chicken. Claudia suddenly remembered her mother didn't even like Indian food.
Claudia pictured a Luis-less life, but by now, three years into it, she knew her mother was in for the long haul. She wondered if her mother gave any thought to Luis' wife, sitting home alone in the "palatial estate" high in the hills of Caracas. With men statistically dying younger than women, was this to be Claudia's own fate too when she reached those sunset years? To decide between sharing one of the few good men left, or being alone and orgasm-less?