Pete stood with his arms crossed and eyes narrowed, his expression radiating skepticism. “How do you know that?”
I grunted as I maneuvered the heavy potted cactus onto the lip of the cargo area of Pete’s Jeep. “Are you going to help me with this?”
My nine-year-old nephew Gabe, staying with us for the weekend, abandoned the soccer ball he’d been kicking against the back wall of the house and ran to me. “I’ll help, Uncle Jamie!”
“Thanks, Gabe, but it’s too heavy for you. This is Uncle Pete’s job.”
Pete unfolded his arms and lifted the other side of the terracotta pot, long enough for me to get the dropcloth fully underneath it. “I’m serious. Is that something Scott taught you?”
“What? No. How would Scott know about anniversary gifts?” I shoved the pot far enough into the interior of the cargo space to suit myself, then turned and brushed off my hands. “Abby told me. The traditional gift for a five-year anniversary is wood. She’s a carpenter and woodworker. People ask her to make things for fifth anniversaries.”
“Oh.” Pete pointed at the cactus. “That’s not wood.”
“I’m aware of that. Think of it as drought-appropriate wood.”
Gabe had resumed his soccer practice. I said, “Gabe, time to go. Buckle up.”
“Okay.” Gabe hurled himself head first into the back seat of the Jeep, then turned and leaped back to the ground. “Can I take my soccer ball?”
“You won’t need it. You’re going to swim, right?”
“Oh, yeah.” Gabe vaulted into the Jeep again.
Pete said, “I have to wash my hands.”
“They’ll just get dirty again. We have to reverse this process when we get to Ali’s. Unless you’re planning to make me lift the cactus out by myself.”
Pete rolled his eyes, but he was grinning. “Okay, fine.”
I climbed into the passenger seat and turned to check Gabe’s seatbelt. Gabe said, “You and Uncle Pete talk to each other just like Mom and Dad do.”
Pete laughed and started the car.
Five years ago on this day, my friends Alison Fortner and Melanie Hayes got married. I stood on Ali’s side, with her sister Lauren; Mel’s attendants were her college roommate, Sarah DiLorenzo, and her best friend from law school, Tasha Jimenez. The ceremony took place in Ali’s parents’ backyard, in our hometown of Oceanside. Ali, Mel, and I, with our childhood friend Robbie Harrison, had spent many happy hours running and playing in that yard.
Every year since, Ali and Mel had thrown themselves an anniversary party on Labor Day weekend. They were married on Labor Day itself, but when September 1 fell during the week, they celebrated on the weekend.
Ali owned a xeriscaping business and Mel was an attorney, a partner in a thriving practice. Choosing a gift for them was tricky on a librarian’s limited budget. But we couldn’t go wrong with a drought-resistant plant, and a cactus was as drought-resistant as they came.
Pete took the long way out, driving down 17th Court – also known as the alley behind our house – all the way to Arizona Avenue, then back north on 17th Street so we could cross Wilshire at the stoplight.
As we passed the front of our building, activity across the street caught my eye. “What’s going on over there?”
For the past year, a new apartment building had been under construction on the lot across 17th Street from our building. It had been completed in July, and new residents had begun moving in shortly thereafter.
Pete glanced in that direction. “Oh, Helen mentioned that. The apartment management is throwing a block party so we can meet the new neighbors.”
“Ah. You didn’t want to go?”
He gave me a “duh” look. “We couldn’t be in two places at once, could we? Besides…” He made a head gesture to the back seat, where Gabe was playing Fruit Ninja, according to the sounds of exploding fruit and landmines.
“Helen will tell us all about it.”
Our neighbor, retired school administrator Helen Quintero, lived at the opposite end of our four-townhouse building. She had an enormous garden in the small plot that served as a front yard and spent most of her time there. As a result, she knew everything that happened in the neighborhood.
I said, “Is this a common thing in Santa Monica? Because I’ve never heard of it.”
“Neither have I. Maybe the managers are hoping to forestall any complaints about noise.”
Helen had already told us that each of the twelve two-bedroom, two-bath apartments was renting for $2500. “For what they’re charging for those apartments? The people who live there are more likely to complain about us.”
When we arrived at Ali and Mel’s, Kevin and Abby were in the driveway, hauling their gift out of the back of Abby’s pickup truck. The tree that Ali and Mel had been married under in the Fortners’ yard had fallen in a storm months ago. Most of it was chopped up for firewood, but Ali had asked Abby to choose several large chunks with which to make a square coffee table for Ali and Mel’s great room. Abby had taken the wood to her shop at her sister’s house in Palmdale and crafted the table to Ali and Mel’s specifications.
It was a beautiful piece of furniture. Pete whistled and I applauded. “Abs, that is gorgeous.”
Abby beamed. “Thank you.”
Kevin said, “It’s also heavy as hell. You guys want to help?”
We maneuvered the table indoors, Gabe charging ahead of us through the house, then hauled the cactus to the back yard, where Ali was on the deck tending vegetables on the grill. I asked, “Where do you want this?”
“Whoa, that’s a beauty! Um – I don’t know yet. Set it on the other side of the pool for now. I think it’ll end up near there eventually.”
We complied. I said, “Now we can wash our hands.”
Ali’s parents, sister, and brother-in-law came up from Oceanside. Mel’s law partner Neil Anderson and his husband Mark Sivak were there, as was Sunny, their legal secretary, and her wife, Ellen. Mel’s friend Tasha – now a real estate attorney – and her boyfriend were there.
The only person missing who usually attended was my dad.
When I sat down beside Ali’s sister Lauren, she said, “Remind me again what your dad’s doing today?”
I watched Gabe do a cannonball into the far end of the pool, where Kevin and Neil were supervising. “He’s got this new girlfriend, you know. She planned something for them to do with Colin and went ahead and bought tickets, without asking if this was a good day for it.”
Lauren raised an eyebrow. “Oops.”
“Yeah. She’s as yet unversed in the family traditions.”
“How long have they been dating?”
“I’m not exactly sure. A couple of months, I think.”
Lauren said, “I don’t think Mom and Dad have met her.”
Charlie Fortner had worked with my dad for years at Camp Pendleton, training new recruits. They were good friends. I said, “I’ve barely met her myself. They haven’t been up here yet.”
Lauren smiled. “It’d be good for your dad to have a lady friend.”
“Yes, it would. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Once the food was ready and we’d filled our plates, Pete sat beside me. Gabe was on my other side, working his way through an enormous pile of potato salad which filled half his plate. Pete asked, “Did you supervise the filling of Gabe’s plate?”
“No, Kevin did. At least he’s got vegetables.” The other half of Gabe’s plate was stacked with bell pepper and cucumber slices. “He’s not wild about some of the vegan items.”
Pete lowered his voice. “Neither am I.”
As a committed carnivore, I had to agree. “Vegetarian is like visiting another country where everyone is friendly and speaks English. Vegan is another planet.”
“A vegan would say that you haven’t yet tried the right recipes.” Pete speared a potato chunk. “I’ve never asked you about Mel’s family.”
“Ah.” I looked across the pool deck, where Ali and Mel were sitting with Lauren and her husband Dustin. “Mel’s mother and sister refused to accept her relationship with Ali. In high school, when Ali and Mel wanted to hang out together, they had to do it at Ali’s house. When Mel told her mother she was getting married, her mother wrote her a long letter telling her how disappointed she was in her.”
“Disappointed? After everything Mel has accomplished?”
“You know how some families can be. The fact that you’re gay wipes out everything else about you. My grandfather was the same.”
“Were they religious?”
“Does her mother still live in Oceanside?”
“No. She moved to Nevada after Mel’s sister graduated from high school.”
“What about her father?”
“He lives in Florida with his second wife. He helped Mel pay for college and law school, but the new wife isn’t ‘comfortable’ around Mel. So she talks to her dad on the phone but almost never sees him. He didn’t come to her wedding.”
Pete sighed. “Financial support is better than no support. You and I are so lucky.”
“We certainly are.”