I Don’t Remember It That Way
I used to say that all you need to pull off a great Derby party is the perfect mint julep. Get everyone sort of elegantly sloshed on Kentucky bourbon and simple syrup. Lure them in under the spell of crushed ice and bruised mint. (Even the bruising must be done elegantly.) You serve the juleps in frosted silver goblets, preferably ones with a pedigree.
Do that, I told my sister Everly, and it takes the pressure off the rest of the menu. Whether you do buttermilk-battered chicken, as I did last year for the movie stars, or whether you do baby back ribs with a bourbon mop, like this year – mint julep is the thing. What people want is to forget themselves, I told Everly.
Everly was back from her second deployment in Iraq, and she told me she wanted something new, she didn’t know what, but not soldiering. I was the queen of something new, all right. While she’d been away, I had gotten a new life, mostly against my will, but I was getting used to it.
These Hollywood types who flock to the Derby parties are just the same as everyone who is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, I told Everly as we chopped garlic greens for the crispy potato pancakes. Everyone but everyone weeps in the Churchill Downs grandstand, longing for home. I shouldn’t be telling Everly this, I knew that. How many days and nights had she longed for home while Iraqi shells fell on her bunker? That was what was real. The Derby—not real. Two minutes, then they forget they wept. But what’s wrong with that? Adopt another culture, remember another time. It’s harmless. So much easier than having to be yourself all the time.
After Chuck left, I fell into the habit of saying cynical stuff like this. I’m better now. It suffices to say that last year at Derby time, I wasn’t my bright cheery self. Sixteen years with Chuck, and I hadn’t been myself the whole time. I know that now. His affair hurt—it stabbed me deep—but it turned me right round to get my own self back. That night of the Derby party, I was starting to see myself again —someone new, but someone I could still recognize. Then I saw him. Boone. I remembered Boone. I would never forget Boone. I was about to never forget him again.
I was arranging the petit four Derby chocolate mint cakes on a silver stand. First, I caught a scent. Not mint. Not chocolate. A wild, spicy half-clove scent, mingled with the chocolate and mint. Grass and river water and wildflowers. I lifted my eyes and saw my high school sweetheart Boone. He had been watching me for a few minutes as I fussed with the candied violet flowers that topped the petit fours. He was already at my shoulder. I was well within his magnetic pull-field. Our faces were very close. That’s why I noticed the eyes. “Seems I’m just in time for a treat,” he said.
I was fresh hot off a divorce. He was standing so close, I couldn’t jump into exclamations and excited hugs the way you do with high school friends. He’d already crossed in, and I decided to let it just happen. I tilted my cheek to his and said, “Good to see you,” like it hadn’t been twenty years. We both understood to take the conversation back to my staging tent.
We sipped pink tea, not iced white Zin like our older sister Daisy remembered when she told the story later. Daisy was the smartest, the doctor, and she had helped me that day with the loadout, then she had her own Derby party to attend. I forgot that. But I know I wouldn’t drink while catering. I was working. I do remember what I was wearing, a twinklelight blue silk dress with spaghetti straps. Everly said my dress was Diana-esque, as in Princess Diana, but I had always dressed that way, before Diana.
“I heard last year it was delicious,” Boone said. “It is.” His eyes rested on my face, my lips.
“You must have gone to the wrong Derby party last year,” I teased. “Else you would already know.”
I stunned him with that one, I thought, as I brought the tray to the table. Everly would need to pick up soon, start these around.
I turned to Boone. “I heard you were in France.”
Actually, I’d heard he was back. I had been hearing about him through the grapevine for weeks leading up to the Derby.
And actually, what I already knew was that he’d married a French woman, and they owned two Arabian thoroughbreds and lived in Bordeaux. That’s what I’d heard. But that part was years ago. So long ago, the facts had already started to alter themselves in my mind.
“For a while,” he said, “but I’ve been stateside for years. California, mostly. Now here.”
Divorced, then, by the look of things. We didn’t need to have that conversation yet. Still, it seemed like too important of a moment for us to launch into catching up on his mother, my family, old friends. And my life had been too dull the past sixteen years—carpools and Girl Scouts and cupcakes. “I’d love to hear about … ”
“Any health department rule against adding a helper?” he said, motioning his eyes to the platter before me.
There was a rule, but I didn’t tell him that. I was unveiling the white chocolate elderflower lace, which we would serve up with honeysuckle granita. I showed him how to dip granita into goblets. Following at his shoulder, I drizzled chilled vodka over each one and added the white chocolate lace for garnish. In this way, we treated each one as an exquisite masterpiece. “This exotic array,” I said, “is the result of my foraging. We still go down by the Palisades at the Kentucky River. It’s where we got the elderflower, the honeysuckle, the candied violets.” That place, that time. I hadn’t forgotten, and neither had he, I could see as his eyes took that in, curtained it. He looked out at the party.
Tuning into the rhythm of the crowd, sensing what the guests would need next, I glanced up to watch Everly move through the serving tent, placing nettle and asparagus flatbread pizzas on the buffet table.
The spring evening breeze fluttered through her blouse. Everly was wearing simple white capris —my suggestion. She’s small and curvy, a miniature Audrey Hepburn. Everly’s hair was silky, like an animal’s. She is a gamine, is what they call it. Everly always suggested a little something innocent and untamed, though it was never her intention. I can attest to that.
His eyes tracked to my sister bending to place a tray on the table. I watched a slow smile move across his face and linger. Boone went off to say hello, but not without a kiss to my cheek and a promise to meet at Vintage for a drink next Tuesday.
I was back from Iraq, uncertain what to do next, and only half-married, when Laurel asked me to cater a Derby party. She was trying to get her business off the ground. I was, for the first time in my sorry life, seriously in danger of losing my way. So I said yes.
Like I said, I was only half-married, and it was a matter of debate which was the stronger factor holding Scott and me together—our shared trauma of war or our stubbornness not to fail. It certainly wasn’t love, or what I remembered of love. The uncanny thing was, my sister had stayed on the home front while I fought a war, but I had returned home to find a sister who knew the battlefield of love the way I did. We had all the same questions.
Once I said this to Daisy when we were out feeding horses at her farm on Paris Pike, and she turned from the horse, her hand held flat, a baby carrot cradled in her palm, and said in her droll voice, “I don’t know if I ever would have seen it that way.” The horse flared its gums back and grabbed the carrot between its teeth, leaving a spot of saliva on Daisy’s hand. “But I think you may be right about that.”
I felt a stab at my ribs, beneath my heart. “You may be right about that” was what the marriage therapist had told me to say to Scott, and say it early and often. I wasn’t sure it would work, or anything would. Because nothing was right.
I wouldn’t say Laurel had a bad marriage, just a dull one. Post-divorce, she was quickly in danger of becoming a cliché. As a last-ditch effort to save her marriage, she’d had a boob job. I swear to God, they don’t look real, more like vanity mirror globe light bulbs coated with a spray tan. She told me that after the surgery, when she and Chuck had the green light to “be intimate,” as she puts it, he told her they weren’t big enough. “For five grand, they should be g-d cantaloupes, not mangos.” He really said g-d, not the real word. Neither one of them ever cussed, just pretended to like that. It would be hard to say which member of that couple was trying harder to be not-real. Later, Laurel confided to me her new, hard boobs made her feel breakable.
I have told Everly a million times I’m so glad she’s back safe and sound. She looks good. What a relief it was to lay eyes on her when she and the other soldiers came through the jetway above us. I clapped along with the crowd, our applause rising. I felt so patriotic. My sister had served. “That’s my sister,” I said to the stranger next to me. “There. Right there. My sister.”
Sometimes I want to ask Everly, because she might know more than anyone, how did I get here, a mother of three daughters, orphaned daughter, a divorced woman, and now a Derby caterer? Boone had asked me that, too, before he went off to say hello to Everly. I knew it was just a simple question, not an invitation for my life story.
I’ve lived by the book, though not necessarily the Good Book. I believe that good, hard-working people earn their rewards in this life, and that means me. I married Chuck one year after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Kentucky, and we started our family right away.
I stuck it out as a working mother as long as I could. Every Sunday night, I dutifully mapped out dinner menus for the week, cooking and freezing so that weeknight dinners of chicken risotto and butternut squash lasagna wouldn’t be such a hassle, so that I could have it all, such as the all is. My days at the office were punctuated with breaks to pump breast milk to take back home to my baby. All of this seemed too unnatural. Why not just be with the baby when you were what the baby needed? It seemed that every waking hour was devoted somehow to storing up food for my family in the hope that someday all the bellies would be full and sated. Yet what I learned was that when you supply that—when you are the supply—they are never sated.
That turned out to be my story, because after sixteen years of giving all, I learned Chuck had been having an affair. That last part I would tell Boone. I find it arouses the protector instinct in men. They get a little indignant that a beauty like me might find herself cast aside.
But here’s the rest, how I became a caterer: About a year into this working mother stint, I left my position— gladly—in the tobacco lab at the University of Kentucky and devoted myself to family. I became pregnant with our second daughter, and that was the day I resigned. From that point on—what a relief!—I could devote myself completely to family. Chuck and I had three daughters, just like my mother did.
The only difference was, now I was forty-two, and I found myself divorced and without much of a plan. I’d been filling everyone up but me.
So of course I decided to be a caterer. That’s how I would tell that part of the story to Boone when we met at Vintage. Chemistry and satiety, two subjects I knew well.
At this point, I caught his eye as he talked to Everly. He smiled back at me, and with that, chemistry came, in the flood of an instant, to mean so much more than my brief, human-devoid career in a tobacco lab; this kind of chemistry was the kind I remembered and ought to remember again. Yeah, this could get way more interesting than the tedious breakdowns of the properties of nicotine that had been my errant career. It could, possibly, again be a mysterious set of infinite combinations, something more combustible. I looked at the way the lines crinkled around his blue eyes, the way he leaned away from her as he tilted his tumbler of julep to his mouth, taking the lip of it in his lip, but his eyes on me, raking me. I watched him pour the ice-cool mint and fire-hot bourbon to his tongue. Satiation, his mouth promised.
His smile was electricity, blue-eyed American electricity, the kind of patriotic spark I could trust to remain dangerous and familiar at the same time. I thought I was falling in love.
I’d long since stopped loving the dangerous ones. My worlds were full of them—soldiers, paramedics, firefighters. I knew them all. Scott had been dangerous once, but now I just thought he was mean. When my sister and I met Boone again, I knew he was dangerous and sweet, but not trying to be anyone’s hero. It was a combination that was bound to unravel me. I agreed to meet him at Vintage.
“Friday is perfect,” I said.
“Friday it is,” he said and walked back to Laurel’s tent.
It would have been hard for Scott and me to hide anything from each other, not like Chuck had hidden from Laurel. Three goddamn years Chuck had that affair. They had a frickin’ love child now. My ex-brother-in-law was well on his way to a substitute family.
But Scott and me, we were the knockdown, drag-out, get-real couple. I don’t mean to make it sound like we threw dishes at each other, though I did throw the dog at him once. To his credit, he caught her. And it wasn’t a throw, more of a toss. I remember screaming, “You deal with it, then!” I stormed off. I guess I used to be famous for my storm-outs. That’s what Daisy and Laurel would tell you. Our parents, too, if they were here to tell.
But I don’t see it that way. I’m not that way now. Life’s too short for storm-outs. Scott and I have been going to meditation, and if there’s hope for us to pull it back from the brink, it’s that we’re learning to be less mindless. The first time I meditated, I thought I would spontaneously combust, right there in the room on my mat. From the instant the chime sounded, I tried to focus on my breath, but my mind raced ahead, as if the chime had been the jangling bell at the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby, rather than two hand-tuned Tibetan brass bells. Pretty soon my mind was going every place I never wanted it to go, as though the trauma jockey was astride, whacking my sorry mortal hide with a whip, steering me right into the flying dirt clods of hell. Just when I thought my stack would blow, the instructor would tell us to breathe in, breathe out, come back to the breath. And the chatter would cease for one glorious moment.
I finally got to where I could watch one thought pass without telling it to just go away. I must have had a good stretch of focusing on the breath because the next sensation was a cramp in my left calf. Though my eyes were closed, I felt the light filtering into the room through the jelly-colored glass block windows. The colors behind the curtain of my eyelids swirled and softened. Then I remembered to breathe. For a while it was like I was underwater, beautiful candy-colored water, fuchsia and bronze and mint. And I could even taste mint on my tongue. But then my leg started twitching and it reminded me I had been thinking, and I wasn’t supposed to think. Especially I wasn’t supposed to think about Scott and what was to become of us and was I still attractive to the opposite sex. Especially, I was not supposed to think of how Boone had come back into our lives, and would he wreck them again, as he nearly had before? And would Laurel ever know how much he wrecked me? And shouldn’t I have said no and not met up with Boone at Vint—
The instructor intoned again, asked us to take inventory of our bodies. Might you feel tension in any one area? Your jaw tight? Brow creased? No, actually, it was all kind of tingly in there, I wanted to tell her.
Breathe, just breathe.
On the big screen above me in the tent, the post parade began. Boone returned at my elbow and bent his head to whisper in my ear. “What’s your bet?” I felt his breath on my neck, and I remembered. The spring I was sixteen, Boone and his mother had come to live in the downstairs apartment of our cabin at the Kentucky Palisades. The idea that our family would be living there with him the whole summer we’d be at the cabin had just lit me up all through the spring. I had gotten my driver’s license in April—and a sudden, inspired burst of energy to help Dad fix things at the cabin to get it ready for summer. “Only Dad was onto me,” I confessed to Boone as we watched the horses trot out onto the track to circle past the stand. “I thought at the time I was fooling him, but I have more sense about that now.” Because I have a teenage daughter who is just like me, I didn’t add.
“Laurel, what were our parents thinking?” Boone said. “That you wouldn’t sneak down to see me?”
Lying on the fold-out sofa bed, my shirt off, my skin tingling with the cool of my perspiration and his, whispering in the dark, we believed no one had known, his mother sleeping in her room, my parents upstairs.
I remembered it all: Boone past and Boone present, seemingly the same, wild and sweet, only sweeter now. Boone, who could quote Walt Whitman and had been to France; Boone, who knew horses, could ride, had a way with them; Boone, who loved our mother’s cooking, even when we did not. He’d played baseball and he’d traveled. As this man re-entering my life, he’d traveled and read more, making him more interesting. He was irresistible. That long-ago summer when we still lived at the cabin at the Palisades, I’d had Boone all to myself.
“So which horse are you betting on?” Boone said.
“I always bet on the red ones with three white socks,” I said, referencing Secretariat.
The year I turned twelve, our parents decided to rent out the lower level of our cabin down at the Palisades of the Kentucky River. All through the spring, Daisy and I went down with Dad to renovate the cabin so the walkout basement would be rentable. Laurel was in cheerleading competition season. I think that’s why she didn’t come.
We’d grown up at the cabin, every summer since I was born and even before that, when Daisy was two and Laurel wasn’t even born yet. The three of us had all these summers to explore. Sometimes we took the trail along the edge of the limestone cliffs, breathlessly making our way through the brush, pressing aside the branches of blue ash and sugar maples until we emerged to see the muddy river two hundred feet below. The sudden cleavage between two coinciding limestone cliffs seemed like something of a miracle. Walking along the ridge, it seemed possible to know something that had before seemed unknowable. I think our parents needed one that summer—a miracle, I mean.
Other times, Daisy, Laurel and me cut in to the forest at points only we knew, trails that led us to secret, sandy terraces down close to the river, lined with beech and tulip poplars, where we had stashed a canoe so we could paddle our way through the placid waters. Here, we found the best wildflowers and chokecherry bushes. Spring ephemerals, our mother called them, flowers that quickly bloom, then produce seed.
“The rest of the year, the plants devote their energy to underground structures—roots, rhizomes, bulbs,” our mother said, and this idea of a fleeting scene of wonder took hold in our imaginations. We knew that when we came upon a hidden meadow draped in the white lace of chokecherry flowers, we might be the only ones to see it like that. We leaped forward into the meadow with our baskets, reaching beneath the drooping clusters for the small dark fruit and filled our containers to take them back, because we knew that in a week, the fruit would be gone.
That spring, with Laurel busy with cheerleading, Dad told Daisy and me that he needed us to be his extra hands. He wanted us to bring him tools and lend moral support. Daisy and I, we did all the brick work leading up to the separate door, while Dad did the carpentry, a lot of drilling and sawing. I didn’t mind. I liked the way the mortar oozed through the bricks, liked to spread it smooth. It seemed a way to restore an order of sorts. Daisy wondered aloud if this made us “brickheads,” the term she had for construction workers who had once worked for my father, when he still built homes, before the recession. I said I didn’t know, but it seemed we were becoming more like them so maybe we ought not to call them that.
At Vintage, a bar with a flowing wall of water pinned between blue and violet lights, I could feel classy and sophisticated. Here I was sitting across from Boone for a second date. It seemed so easy. Quite a solution. Feeling betrayed? Just strike up a romance with a high school sweetheart, someone you already knew.
I started by asking about his mother, who had been our mother’s hope for the garden at the cabin. That seemed safe. Our mother had her mind made up the minute she met Boone’s mother, a potential renter, that this woman was someone who would tend to the flowers, shrubs and trees, keep the cabin looking nice. We could plant tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant in the vegetable garden, and our new tenant would keep an eye on things until we came back for summer. These hoped-for botanical skills were the reason Boone came into our lives.
I looked across the table and wondered when he’d tell me the story of his divorce. I wanted to know if he was emotionally available, but I didn’t quite have the palate for another dividing-up-the-household-goods story.
“And how’s Everly?” he asked after a while.
Safer territory, then, to talk about what Everly was doing, she and Scott and their little boy, cute as a button (did I really say that?), who was starting kindergarten in the fall. I told him how Everly and her husband both went to war even though they were officers and engineers, how even that didn’t protect them from seeing combat.
I told him about Daisy, too, who was working in hospice, and her husband in kidney dialysis, both doctors, both brilliant, their kids, Mitchell and Rochelle. “They’re probably both destined for medicine.”
“So, she’s married.”
“I – they – ”
“Yes.” I decided not to tell him Everly and Scott were separated. They might be having their troubles, but they understood each other in ways that Chuck had never tried to understand me. But then I never gave Chuck anything to be intrigued about. Everly would slap me for thinking that. Putting myself down was a bad habit. With Boone sitting in front of me, ready to ask another question about my family, I remembered an earlier self, the me before the putdowns had started.
“What does her husband do?” he asked.
“He was in the war, too, an officer,” I said.
Everly told me she and Scott were going to meditation together, that the Veterans Administration found it did wonders for post-traumatic stress disorder in vets. She told me it was more helpful than talk therapy, which Chuck and I did out the wazoo. Talking just made things worse.
Boone drained the last of his beer. “They’re not separated, then?”
I am Everly, the little sister, named after a rockabilly band, two brothers from Kentucky who had a hit in the 1950s about making out. You’d think I was born in 1957, when they were at their height. But no, I was born in 1972, when the Everly Brothers guest-starred in a summer show with Johnny Cash.
Our parents liked the name “Ever,” that’s what Laurel had said.
But this little summer fill-in show gave our parents the nudge into “Everly,” which they thought sounded even better.
Boone called me Ever, though, without knowing that’s where our parents had begun. That’s what he called me that whole summer, when I tagged along for tennis and ice cream, foraging at the river and learning ballroom dance in the living room with his mother’s Navajo rugs rolled back to the wall.
He came to see me after Laurel broke up with him, her senior year. He said he’d remember me forever. He said I was like springtime. He said what we had was special and he would not EVER forget me. He kept saying it, just like that, “I won’t EVER forget you,” until my pout turned to a smile. He cupped his hand under my chin and lifted my eyes to his. He said he only wanted me to be happy. He said he couldn’t imagine living without me. I was almost thirteen.
You weren’t named after the Everly Brothers, no way, I never said that. Mom was trying to decide between Heaven and Ever, but Dad wanted to name you Lily. That would keep the flower thing going. Daisy, Laurel, Lily, you see. So, Ever met Lily and became Everly.
You scoff when I tell that story, but it’s true.
And don’t you remember? We saw the Everly Brothers once. Of course, we had to. They had a reunion tour of sorts, and they played at the Executive Inn near the Fairgrounds in Louisville. Chuck and I were newlyweds, and … well, I can’t remember if you had a date that night. Isn’t that funny? I can remember clear as a bell that the three of us went, but I can’t remember if you brought someone. Perhaps not. You were always so embarrassed about your name you wouldn’t have wanted to explain to someone else why we were even going. But I think it’s the coolest name ever. Hah. Ever-ly. The coolest name, Ever.
I remember the sound was really bad at the concert. They sort of screeched through “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and I couldn’t remember what I ever liked about them. Also, we ordered bourbon steaks with garlic mashed potatoes and just because it was the kind of thing our parents would have ordered, we all got Manhattans, and tried to forget they were dead.
Rockabilly and Manhattans. I think we had our era wrong.
Novelist and memoirist Carolyn Flynn says she’s writing I Don’t Remember It That Way because she’s fascinated with selective forgetting—of ourselves, our shared past and our collective history, as families and as a country. Flynn is the winner of the 2014 Rick Bass/Montana Prize for Fiction for the short story “Pretend.” She’s completing a memoir, You’ve Gone Too Far, that springs from her creative nonfiction piece, “Resurrection,” published in Fourth Genre. A 2015 TEDxWomen speaker on the topic of “Tell a Better Story, Live a Better Life,” she can be found at www.carolynflynn.com.