Needless to say, I made up the names and swapped around obvious details. The visit really happened though. A secret to this day.
Our publisher sent me bicycling over to the glam edge of town, to courier an important floppy disk of ad copy back to a customer. Soon I delivered the disk, and was pedalling back to the office.
“Go see Harvick,” a silent but clear voice demanded.
“He’s at work,” I talked back. “He is always at work. And so am I, on the clock.”
“Next left turn,” the voice nudged me.
“He’s not home!” I argued. This was life before cell phones. There was no way to even call and check.
“Get going,” the voice replied.
So I pumped uphill to a posh cul-de-sac with turfy lawns and widely spaced faux castles and faux moats dressed with artificial concrete stone.
The doorbell rang its Big Ben chimes. No answer. A glance through the garage window showed that the car was of course gone. With a sigh I hopped on the bike again.
“Backyard,” the voice commanded. “Hurry up already.”
I hurried around to the backyard fence. Out by the pool, a very beautiful young woman was sobbing with head in hands. Now, Harvick’s yard had seen a range of guests and sophisticated props — for filming the time lapsed path of some comet, or solar-cooking mass batches of turkey jerky, or hanging up salvaged organ pipes as novel improvised percussion for touring musicians. What I did not expect to find there was a lovely young lady, or any lady.
“Why hello, Miss,” I said. “Are you all right?”
She leaped to her feet, flinging back her hair. “No English,” she sobbed, hands up.
“Oh. What language do you speak?”
She named three languages. For some reason, people with zero English can all understand that one question.
“Oh, okay.” One of her second languages was one of mine. “Hello. I’m Mary, an old friend of Harvick’s.”
Her panic turned to amazement. “I’m Edieta.” She opened the gate. We settled on chaise lounge chairs, and soon our languages warmed right up (her “No English” really meant “A fair amount, but I was too scared to talk”) for a nice bilingual girl chat.
Edieta lived with her large family on another continent and hemisphere. One Sunday they were picnicking at the beach. Harvick on one of his conference and research trips stopped by the waterfront. Soon he was entertaining the four-generation dynasty with his childlike enthusiasm, acute scientific curiosity, and improvised magic tricks using local props. The family was so won over that they invited him for dinner. He visited several times, extended his stay for a week at their house, sent gifts upon his return home, visited again for Christmas, and finally wrote her and her parents with an offer: Would she like to come to the States as his house guest? She could see what the country had to offer, and then consider staying and marrying him. He set aside a floor of his castle with bedroom and bath for her separate use and comfort, offering to take her anywhere she wished to go, to help her explore options for her future, and to buy her anything she fancied.
Now, her six week American vacation was over. Did she like him enough to consider marriage? Or, would she head back home to her family? That morning she had waited for him to leave for work, and sat down outside for a spell of abject weeping.
“Such a good man and respecting perfect gentleman. And so handsome!” Edieta exclaimed. “And works very hard — day and night.”
“He is,” I agreed. “And he does.”
“Even at home he has ideas, and hurries to write them. Or call the men and talk about it.”
“Harvick loves and lives his profession. Always asking questions and learning.”
“He says here I can study and work what I want, and he will help with college, career, buy a car, anything!”
“Harvick respects women and supports their independent ideas. He pushed me to interview for my publishing job; he insisted that I could learn the work, and he was right.”
“It’s just… he’s away a lot. Working, conferences, lectures.”
“Yes; he has many invitations to speak and teach.”
“And I’m here.” She looked around. “What life is this for family? Nobody visits or calls. Not one child or even dog or cat playing, no shops or place to walk. Neighbors drive by, don’t wave. Because I’m foreign?”
“No no; because this is a ‘bedroom community,’” I tried to explain. “Young faculty establishing their careers. They just come home to sleep. Their social world is campus. In this neighborhood they need cars to get everywhere, so they are not out walking. And no, they are not avoiding you; it’s just that they don’t know Harvick. He lives here only because it is quiet and private for work. He does not take time to meet these neighbors. If you are on campus you will meet his colleagues, their wives, their students.”
“Does he go to church? Our village goes to church three times a week. We all walk together.”
“Well… he says that nature is like a church to him.”
“He did not introduce me to his family! Why?” She threw her hands out. “They don’t visit or call me.”
“Oh, they… live far apart, and are really busy.” Harvick was an only child. His folks divorced when he was two. The whole family had drifted out of touch years before.
“Back at home, families eat together every night, and big Sunday dinner. Sure, they work hard and not much money. But we shop at the bazaar together, cook together, stroll and chat and sing songs, play music, even dance on the plaza.”
“Your family sounds wonderful.” Harvick would pay happily for overseas calls and plane visits for Edieta. But he didn’t have a ready-made family or community to offer a new wife or new mother.
“Mary?” Edieta leaned close, whispering. “He’s got GUNS. Why?? He can buy meat at the store!”
“Right. He’s all licensed, and they’re registered. The guns and the cabinet have combination locks. He’s a really safe responsible gun owner. It’s only a hobby to relax from work. He and the guys go out to… like an academy where they practice shooting at… oh, I don’t know; bottles or cans or whatever. It’s common here.”
“Shooting the bottles?” She gripped her head. “At home they will call it a strange guy. And that snake. This terrifying thing in glass. Just stares at me.”
“The boa constrictor? That’s Bilbo.” Bilbo was only four feet long. For a boa that’s shoelace size, but he wasn’t going to get any smaller. “That tank is locked. And he’s pretty chill. I’ve cleaned his cage and given him baths. Just scrub your arms real well with anti-bacterial soap before and after.”
“No way. We can’t stand snakes at home that they are falling right out of the trees. Put one in the home? Why? By the way, he does not eat.”
“Sure he does, every month or so. Just mice.”
“WHAT? No no no, not Blobbo. No, I meant Harvick. Even I am cooking all day, make the table nice and dress up? He can eat in two minutes reading a magazine, say thank you off he goes. Did not notice food or me.”
“He noticed. He notices everything. He appreciates what people do. He just might not mention it.”
She looked at me with new interest. “You know him pretty well. How did you meet?”
“We were students years ago, and then we lived next door in student housing. At the publishing job I edit his magazine articles. I was his secretary on campus. I house sit when he’s away.”
“Then why didn’t he marry you?”
“Well…” Right at the start, Harvick had explained his checklist for a future spouse. Criteria included slender, petite, optimally proportioned, adventurous, vivacious, upbeat, appreciative of French wines and hot spices and jazz and direct sunshine and tennis, secular or agnostic a plus. “Because he needs someone like me who he can telephone at two o’clock in the morning to talk about his research! Just so you know.”
“But no dates?” She sounded incredulous.
“One. Years ago he saw me read a poster on campus about a dance party. He joked that he’d take me.”
“Really? What happened next? Did you say yes??”
“Absolutely! I bought a party dress and got all ready. I waited outside for an hour. Then I waited inside for two more hours. I understood perfectly: he was out in the field with his research and forgot.”
“No. What did you say to him?”
“I never said a thing. He was working. It was an innocent mistake.”
“But all that time together, did he ever try to… well…”
“No.” My spirits fell a bit at thought of the legion of Harvicks marching through my life. They were brilliant, super-achieving, breadwinning, handsome, cultured, generous, loyal, eager to seek me out to discuss their achievements and dating adventures with me as a good listener and all-round pal. Then they all found spouses and moved on — larger than life, legends like the Terracotta Army warriors of Shaanxi.
Edieta shook her head, gripping my hands. “Please don’t think too bad of me! But really — just I like to go back home. Is it all right?”
“Have you called your family about this, Edieta?” I was very touched that she cared what I thought, some accidental visitor who she’d known for all of twenty minutes. It sounded wise for her to take more time to think, perhaps make an extra trip or two, than to rush into a wedding. And right now she needed her family’s shared view and support more than anything.
“No, we didn’t talk! No phone in our house. Only my uncle has a phone, but he’s an hour of walk away.”
I felt sorry about missing these six weeks with Edieta. If only that intuitive voice had come along 40 days sooner! I could have borrowed a bicycle for her. I would have taken her with me to church and the farmers’ markets and music events. There were other language speakers among the faculty and their wives and students. She could have been happier then. Would that have helped? Why didn’t Harvick tell me! A friendly sociable guest with hesitant English — was leaving her alone in suburbia the best courtship approach? Maybe it was his adamant respect for women and their right to make up their own minds. Perhaps he was showing her a realistic slice of his life as it was.
Harvick never did mention Edieta. Neither did I.
Soon afterwards, at a conference, a high-tech software entrepreneur spotted him at the podium as a keynote speaker. She read about him in the printed program, then sent her business card to his hotel room with a bottle of French wine and two tickets to dinner at a jazz club. After that weekend, she spelled out for him exactly when and where and how he was going to marry her, and it didn’t take him any six weeks to make up his mind. After the honeymoon his new wife moved to town and invited us friends and the neighbors home for a torchlit Indian feast with all the spices. She was lithe, soft-spoken, gorgeous, poised as a lion tamer. With a single up and down glance she approved of me and Harvick’s wee-hour phone calls; I guess she got more rest that way. Soon she coordinated his career and tenure promotion and invitation calendar, his patents and grants and interviews with the media. She found a home for Bilbo and the organ pipes, sold the castle, bought a Mediterranean villa with vineyard and beach for their early retirement. Last we heard, they do a little remote consulting for fun, bottle their own wine, take the boat out, cycle around, play tennis. They’re doing fine.
Meanwhile, Edieta began to weep again. “Of course he is so kind and share everything,” she cried. “But… Mother of God, I am lonely! Really this house alone with snake looking at me and town of the dead will make me off my mind. Back home, I did not even know how happy we are together. I miss them to break my heart!”
She walked me to the gate. We hugged goodbye. “Please Mary, don’t tell him what I said?”
“I won’t even tell him I came here and found you.”
“When you came here and found me,” she confided, “I was praying to my mother and my grandma. Mommy? Grammy? Come here I am so scared! Come help me now! Wait — You knew he was at work today. What are you doing here?”
“No idea,” I had to admit. “Just a feeling.”