issue thirty
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(3480 words)
Richard Compean
Something to Talk About
       My father was one of six children, and my mother one of five, and their families were both not only Mexican but also Catholic. They and their siblings all bought the church's prohibition against birth control because in the interest of growing America's Roman Catholic population this prohibition was not against marital sex ("Hail, wedded love...").
The combination of free sex (free of having to take those little pills every day for the mujeres and free from having to put rubbers on their members for the macho hombres) and Latino fertility (those fertile sperm were faster and more efficient than any chopped and channeled Chevy or low rider) resulted in more cousins than I could ever count or keep track of.

When we would go visit one of my aunts or uncles I would hear my mother say, "This is your cousin Freddie, and his sister Dolores is also your cousin, as are Jose and Ted and Jeannie" -- urging me to go play with all of them now that I knew their names. I remembered the ones closest to my age, but the older ones and younger ones are held now not even in Proust's voluntary memory but stored somewhere in the back of the back of my brain, if anywhere at all.  

There was, however, one important exception, and that was my cousin Maria, four or five years younger than me. Her mother, my dad's youngest sister, married later than most of the others, just in time to avoid becoming an old maid at 24. Everyone was happy that she finally married and secretly happy that her first child Maria was born less than nine months after the wedding. None of us cousins were counting and most of us did not yet know about such things.

Maria was the exception because from about age nine on she became the dark beauty who would have given the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets some real competition and might even have distracted Dante from his Beatrice.

As I grew older I did not see Maria often and only occasionally heard about her from my parents. I remember that one of the few times I saw her at one of the family weddings -- she must have been about 17 or 18 -- I thought, "too bad she's my cousin," and that if she were not I probably wouldn't stand much chance with her.

By the time I got busy with my graduate work, began my professional life, and got married, I forgot about Maria and all of my other cousins. I devoted time to the college courses I was teaching and to becoming a good husband and father to our two children -- defying what the Jesuits had tried to teach me, that the means (birth control) never justified the ends (responsible family planning).

After her divorce, my younger sister took it upon herself to keep track of all our uncles and aunts and our many cousins. As a result I would occasionally hear from her about various family events, including rumors and gossip, which would tide me over until holiday family visits to see my parents.

Thus it was that I had heard, indirectly, that Maria had been disqualified for Rose Parade Queen at Pasadena City College in 1969 for her outspokenness against the war in Vietnam, that she began a job as a bank clerk, and that she was very picky about boyfriends. Later I would hear that she had met and married a divorced former Navy pilot who loved to drive Corvettes. He already had a daughter aged three and soon they added a son to their family.

Many years later we -- my wife Ann and I and Maria and her husband Steve -- accidentally met on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Mexico out of San Pedro Harbor. We were there for the same reason -- to celebrate the successful raising of our children and to get away from them for an uninterrupted and restful week. We were able to change our meal schedule so we could dine with them the final two nights of the cruise. Maria was in her mid-forties then and both she and her husband Steve looked happy and healthy.

       If fecundity was the hallmark of my father and uncles, longevity characterized my aunts. Most of them were to make it into their nineties, but my dad's eldest sister Alice ran out of gas at 87. She was the one who -- according to shared family history (perhaps only legend) -- had been burst in upon while bathing in the family of eight's only bathroom by her younger brother -- my father. Upon seeing her bosomy nakedness, he had burst out, "Ay, Alicia, que grandotes chichis tienes!"

At Alice's funeral service and celebration of her life several years after the cruise, Maria and Steve made it a point to tell us how much they had enjoyed our company and conversation during the two final days of the cruise.

Neither Maria nor I knew then that seven years later we would each lose our spouse. Steve died when the red Corvette he loved so much and was racing like an F-14 did not make it around a steep and sharp San Diego canyon curve and sent him flying without an ejection seat or parachute. Ann died of lymphoma that had begun with breast cancer that was not caught in time.

My sister told me about Maria's tragic loss and I apologized profusely for not being able to attend Steve's funeral service because Ann's condition demanded my constant attention. I had taken a whole semester off from teaching and later went on reduced load after Ann died. All of my siblings and quite a number of my cousins, including Maria, came to Ann's memorial service.

After the service, Maria, now sixty, asked me what I was planning to do now -- as the Beatles once sang, "When I'm 64." Since my adult children had both been on their own -- one in Vermont, the other in San Francisco -- for quite some time, I told her that I still very much loved college teaching and living in Chicago (where in my lifetime I still hoped to see the Cubs actually win a World Series).

I was still doing that, living and teaching in Chicago, when one day I got an email from Maria, asking me if I had ever thought about going on a cruise again. She and Steve had gone on several more after the Mexico one, but now she could not get any of her friends to celebrate her retirement by joining her on a cruise to Alaska, one she and Steve had always wanted to take. She did not want to go alone, so she thought her cousin David might consider going with her -- in separate "single" cabins, of course.

I really was not interested, so I politely declined. But when a stroke and a heart attack soon thereafter took the lives of two close friends, both younger than me, I began to consider the possibility. Since Ann had died I had never thought about marrying again and really enjoyed living my uncomplicated life alone. But now my circle of friends was growing smaller and my college students were looking more to me like middle schoolers.

When I looked back at the information Maria had included about the cruise I noticed that it was only for a week and that the magnificent outdoor scenes of the Alaskan wilderness started to get more beautiful. So just a few weeks later I emailed Maria again to tell her that I just might be interested after all. This was on a Wednesday and Maria emailed right back to say the deposit deadline was Friday and she would be willing to go if I was. On an impulse, I emailed her right back and said, "Let's do it!"


       We had agreed to splurge and stay one night at the Vancouver Fairmont Waterfront hotel, walking distance to the ship we would be boarding. Getting one room with two queen beds made the luxury more affordable. It was very late in May and ours would be the first Alaska cruise of the summer season.

I arrived first, checked in, then waited for her in the lobby. I had planned to make it a work-free voyage, but brought two books I would be using in a new fall semester class. I had just begun to read one in the lobby when I thought I saw Sophia Loren walk in and knew immediately that it was Maria.

"Hello, David," she said and welcomed me with a warm hug. "Are you still sure you want to do this?"

"It's too late to turn back now," I responded, then summoned a bellhop to stow her cruise luggage. Like me, she had brought a separate overnight bag just for the hotel. I gave her the extra key and carried her bag up to our 7th floor room. Once she put a few things away we decided to go down to the hotel bar where, after a couple of classic gin martinis, I felt totally comfortable just hanging out with my still beautiful cousin, but more importantly my newfound female friend.

When we went back up to our room, Maria informed me that she had two important things to tell me. One was that she liked to sleep naked, but not to discomfort me tonight she would wear a nightgown. The other was that she snored, sometimes quite loud, but she had a gift for me -- a fresh package of earplugs -- and she would not feel bad at all about my using them (as both Steve and her older sister used to do). Like a gentleman, I let her get ready for bed first, then got ready myself and said goodnight, earplugs at the ready. Since we could not board the ship before noon, I did not set an alarm.

When I awoke Maria was already up and dressed, sipping the hotel room coffee and reading the front page of the Seattle Times

"Can you believe," she asked me, "that Donald Trump is leading all of the other Republican candidates?"

I mumbled something about it being still early, then headed to the bathroom to shower and shave. At brunch we both ordered huevos rancheros, then checked out and took our luggage the short distance to begin boarding our cruise ship.

Our cabins were on the same deck, near, but not next to each other.

Once on board, the whole voyage seemed to go very fast. We had the late dinner schedule with our group each evening and I took advantage of quiet mornings to read my two books and enjoy the solitude. I would meet Maria each day just after noon for lunch, then walk with her before retiring for a siesta. We both found our dinner companions (and most of the other passengers) absolutely boring. They did not read -- books, magazines, or even newspapers. They did not go to movies or the theater and only watched simple-minded sitcoms on network TV. Fortunately, the second night we found (on the lowest deck) the Cadillac Bar, with a pianist-singer who not only performed tribute repertoires (Frank Sinatra, Motown, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel) but also took requests. Here we met two other couples who were actually culturally literate, who had experiences, ideas, and opinions of their own. One was from Kansas City and the other from Dallas.

Here I got to know Maria better. I found out that it was true about her Rose Parade Queen candidacy and that she had never actually married Steve but had told her parents that she had (supposedly in Las Vegas) so they would stop hassling her about it. Their actual commitment to each other had been enough for her. I also found out that she loved Gregory House, M.D. (of the TV series House) as much as I did, she because she thought his intelligence was sexy and I simply because he was savvy and outspoken.

On the sixth day of the cruise we took a whale-watching excursion to Juneau, where we had a run-in with some "admirers." After the boat trip we had gone to a bar and grill for drinks when a couple of men noticed her looks and lack of a wedding band. They had begun to hit on Maria pretty hard, pressing her to drink with them. I had been looking at possible gifts for my children at a souvenir shop contiguous with the bar.

"Honey, I almost forgot," I said to her, coming up close and taking her hand. "The kids are going to be calling about their mortgage at 3:30, so we better get back."

She looked at the watch she wasn't wearing and said, "Oh my God, I didn't realize it was that late. Yes, we better rush back."

Once we got out of hearing distance Maria asked, laughing: "What kids? What mortgage?" At the Cadillac that night she requested Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" and insisted on paying for "Honey's" drinks. We closed the bar at 3:00 a.m. When I walked her back to her room, she asked me to wait just a minute, then came out with her handbag and said she wanted to spend the night in my room because she wanted the company. She smiled and promised to wear her nightgown.

Next morning I was the one up early, sipping coffee and reading. When Maria awoke she thanked me again for yesterday and said she wanted me to stay in her cabin tonight. At the Cadillac after dinner she told me and one of the other couples that she had almost gotten kicked out of her Catholic girls' high school for not believing that Mary was a virgin and for citing New Testament passages that said Jesus had brothers and sisters. She was pleased when I told her and the others that a recent Broadway play about Mary, called Testament, had the character Mary say to the audience: "And they claim that I was a virgin! How would they know?"

We ended the cruise with a brief checkout (of both rooms), a return to the Fairmont Waterfront, and then a departure for our own separate ways from the Vancouver airport. Maria thanked me repeatedly for choosing to accompany her and made me promise not to reveal any of her nighttime habits or revelations to our gossipy cousins and, especially, never to tell her mother the truth about her "marriage" to Steve. I promised before boarding my plane which was leaving an hour and a half before hers.


       When I arrived home, I found two emails from Maria waiting for me -- one thanking me once again and one asking for my cellphone number so she could also call or text.

For the first few days after my return I thought a lot about the cruise, recognizing that I would never have thought of going on my own and that I would have been totally lost without her there for company. About a week later I got a text from Maria, telling me that I had to see a movie titled I'll See You in My Dreams, then call her to talk about it. When I called, she explained to me that the women in the movie were just like her friends and she was just like Blythe Danner (but with no Sam Elliot).

Maria also told me that she would be going to Chicago the early part of next month and wanted to know if I knew a good place for her to stay -- a place that tolerated naked lady snorers. And she wanted to be sure it had a fireplace, Prosecco in the refrigerator, and a large screen TV. That was a lot to ask for, I replied, but I thought I might be able to find just such a place.

When she arrived on a Sunday afternoon, Maria scared me with two suitcases, but assured (and showed) me that one was empty -- for shopping. School would not be starting for another month, so I had cleaned up my bedroom for her and set myself up in my study. That night, sure enough, she undressed for bed -- completely, and said that if I had a problem with that I could close my eyes or cover them because she felt comfortable enough with me not to have to cover up.

Since we had each enjoyed -- separately -- the first season of the TV series Grace and Frankie, for the first few nights we began to watch the second season. Maria said that people thought she acted and looked more like Jane Fonda who played Grace, but that inside she was much more like Lily Tomlin who played Frankie.

For the next few days, she went shopping on her own without much luck. I had refused to play the "waiting husband," sitting in the chair near the dressing room, giving an opinion that would not matter at all when it came to what she chose to purchase. On Thursday she came back very excited with two dresses -- one red that really highlighted her hair and skin and one green that enhanced her eyes and smile. She put them on, one after the other, then asked me to choose which one she should wear to church on Sunday.

I suggested that she wear one tonight out to dinner and the other one on Friday night. On both of those nights we followed up dinner with drinks at a bar that brought back memories of the Cadillac on our cruise. On Saturday I knew that she had already decided on the red dress (a cocktail dress for church -- why not?) for Sunday.

Saturday night we ate in, starting with a bottle of ice-cold Prosecco. Then we sat close on my small couch while we finished watching season two of Grace and Frankie. The final two episodes, about the party celebrating a dying friend of Frankie's named "Babe" and the gifts Babe left them really touched Maria. She said that she did not want to die alone and that, like Babe, she too would want a party if possible to celebrate her last day on earth.

I wanted to say that she was highly unlikely to die this evening, but hesitated and instead just hugged her. She kissed me and whispered, "Will you please sleep with me tonight?"

"Of course," I answered, having spent nights with her before.

When I awoke in the morning I noticed that she was naked (no surprise), but that so was I. More than that, I noticed that I was spent. Then it came to me: we had done it; we two cousins had made love.

As quietly as I could I got up and went into the bathroom, closed the door, turned on the shower, and stood under the warming water. Then just as I began to ask myself, (Let us talk then, you and I) "Now what?" I heard the bathroom door open. The shower curtain parted and Maria, index finger over her lips as if shushing a child, entered and surrounded me with a head-to-toe warm, loving, and very wet total body embrace, both of our arms wrapped around each other. Just as I felt myself growing big, she stepped back to look at me, then said, "Ay, David, que grandote verga tienes!" We both began to laugh, dried off quickly, then went back to do it again.

On our way to Holy Name Cathedral Maria told me that she had nothing to be ashamed of. She believed and felt that she had committed no sin. Mary was not a virgin and neither did she plan to be. I told her that after Ann's and my second child was born I was "fixed" and she was well beyond menopause, so potential children were not an issue. She asked me to join her in receiving communion.

I told her that one of my angels, Bruce Springsteen, had convinced me that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive and she had really made me feel glad to be alive.

Now a year has passed and we are still doing it as often as we can -- both making love and receiving communion. Like our mothers and aunts, she has not been taking any pills; like my father and uncles I have not been using any condoms. As for all those cousins, we are letting them think what they want. As another of my angels, Bonnie Raitt, observed, we are still laughing a little too much, standing a little too close, and staring a little too long. We are giving them -- whatever their names -- something to talk about.   


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Richard Compean. All rights reserved.