Beaming from the backseat of my cab, Cookie announced for my benefit, "I'm taking these two out for their 20th wedding anniversary." Next to her sat her daughter, Kiley. Kiley's husband, Carlos, was beside me in the shotgun seat. "L'Amante is shutting down at the end of this month, and that's their favorite restaurant," Cookie went on.
"Happy anniversary, guys," I said.
"It's not really 'til October," Kiley admitted, giggling.
"Well," I cautioned, "after this great meal tonight, you better not split up before then."
Cookie laughed and said, "If they do, I'm getting my money back!"
Carlos chuckled in his quiet way, indicative of the deep affection he holds for both his wife and his mother-in-law. He's a handsome man — I'd call him a bona fide "manly" man — with his shaved head, bronze Latino complexion and black mustache.
If Carlos ever even considered leaving Kiley, I'd suggest he have his bald head examined. She's a bright light of Burlington, vivacious and funny. Her spot-on impressions of friends and celebrities have had me laughing so hard that I could barely drive. On a deeper level, she's a person who has only kind words to say about others, a trait I find both rare and precious. (I could also mention that the woman is a long-legged smokin' hottie, but that would be shallow of me; hence the parentheses.)
To be closer to her family in retirement, Cookie had recently moved up to Burlington from Arlington, a small town in the southern tier of the Green Mountains. Arlington is a typical Vermont hamlet, but with a notable claim to fame: Norman Rockwell lived and painted there from 1939 to 1953, during which time he produced most of his iconic Saturday Evening Post covers using town folks as models. (Also, Michael J. Fox married Tracy Pollan in Arlington in the summer of 1988 — not quite of Rockwellian significance, but a nifty fact that locals talk about to this day.)
The move away from Arlington had not been easy for Cookie, who lost her husband 10 years ago. As the longtime town clerk, she had roots in the community that ran deep. But life is about adjustment to change, and she seemed to be meeting the challenge with optimism and enthusiasm — traits she shares with, or perhaps passed down to, her daughter.
"Hey, Kiley," I said, "you wanna hear a pizza joke?"
"Absolutely!" she replied.
"Nah, it's too cheesy," I said, and added, "I'll be here all week."
Oh, I got great timing. All I lack is a rim shot, and I'm working on that.
Cookie and Carlos laughed, but Kiley was in hysterics. "Girl, you are my best audience," I said. "God bless ya."
Cookie said, "When Kiley was in high school, I always knew when she was talking on the phone to her friend Kevin, because she would be laughing uproariously."
"I met Kevin, didn't I?" I asked Kiley. "Didn't he visit you up here a couple times? He's a gay guy, right?"
"Yup, my best friend all through high school. I think you've driven him at least twice. I believe you met his husband, too."
"How did that work in high school? I mean, times were different, and you were in a rural community. Was he, like, out?"
"Oh, God no. He dated girls. And he eventually got married and had kids. Even after the divorce, when he moved in with his 'roommate,' he still kept up the façade. I mean, even with his closest family and friends, like me."
"Didn't you know, though? You guys were so close."
"Yeah, I suppose I knew, but we just respected his wishes. We never loved him any less for having this big secret. He only came out to me, like, three years ago. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life, actually."
"Could you tell me about it?"
"Sure. There was a big get-together at our house, a dinner, and at some point I found myself alone in the kitchen with Kevin. I remember he was leaning against the sink, and I just looked at him and said, 'You know I love you with all my heart, but I just have to ask you—'. He interrupted me with 'Yes' and burst into tears. We both were crying and hugging. I kept saying, 'You know you could have told me years ago, honey.' We just laughed and cried for a while in that kitchen."
"Gosh, that's so touching," I said. "I'm actually tearing up myself. Thanks for sharing it."
The cab was quiet for a moment before Kiley spoke again.
"But I really do understand a bit of where Kevin was coming from. I don't know if you knew this, Jernigan, but Carlos and I were both married before, when we were younger. It takes some time, some living, to find out who you really are, what you really want out of life. And what you truly need in a partner to make you happy."
Carlos had turned in his seat to listen, and he shared a sweet 20-year smile with his wife. Some guys are adept at the honeyed speeches; with Carlos, his presence does all the talking.
Pulling up at the restaurant, I sighed. I thought about Cookie, about Kevin, about Carlos and Kiley — and the emotional journey that is everyone's life. When folks share their personal experience with me, it moves me to my soul. I consider it an honor, and I'm humbled.
And then I thought, Man, I could really go for some Italian food.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.