Also, make sure to read our guest contributor's "Survivor Story" post from Friday. To participate in a Q&A with the author, visit the Ink Well (see live chat window along right margin) on Monday at 8:00 p.m. EST.
Ted and Debbie had grown children from their first marriages and they brought us up-to-date with the latest news of who was where and doing what. Then it was John’s turn. I had to try to not let my mouth fall open as he wove a fascinating story.
When John was a young officer he married Sara Brimstone against her father’s wishes, because she was from old money and John was not. Together they had had a girl, Sandy, and a boy, Sonny. When John returned early from a long deployment, he found Sara in bed with another man. They divorced. He fought for custody of the children and won. Whenever duty called John to the sea or sky his Grandmother Dannigan watched the children in Coconut Grove, Florida.
Then John met Cindy Shirrow, an airline stewardess. They married and had one daughter, Estelle Desiree. In less than a year Cindy was killed in an automobile accident. John was in Vietnam when it happened, and his grandmother took one more child under her wing.
John’s fourth child came into his family through his father, who had adopted Francesca, the daughter of a faithful servant. When John’s father died, John assumed the responsibility. It was the right thing to do, he said.
John saw to it that his children were well taken care of as they grew into adults. When he was home he lived with them in his house in Coconut Grove. When he was away, Grandmother Dannigan and her servants continued to care for them. John made sure they went to the best schools, and all appeared to be successful. Sandy was married and going to MIT, Sonny was at NASA’s astronaut school, Desiree was at Julliard and Francesca was at Florida International University and living with John’s Grandma Dannigan.
Just when we thought he was finished, John hung his head. “We’re not very close now. I guess I was away too much when they were growing up. I feel like the black sheep of the family.”
Something stirred inside me. I wanted to rush over and put my arms around him and tell him it was all right, he had done his best. But I had just met this charming man and that would have been too presumptuous. Instead I meekly said, “I’m so sorry.”
Later, at the dinner table, Debbie sat John opposite me. He immediately reached up, ripped at the Velcro, and removed the blue-foam neck brace, saying the doctor recommended he only wear it when his pain was excruciating. Hmmm. . . . Looks even better, I thought. Ted poured the wine and John lifted his glass.
“A toast,” John said. “Here’s to the breezes that blow women’s chemises past their kneeses.” Even I laughed at that.
I looked around at the beautifully, evenly-set table and realized I was fully lulled into the spirit of Debbie’s dinner party. The meal, as always, was exceptional. Wine was plentiful. John, throughout the meal, was completely captivating. He complimented Debbie’s culinary talents, offered lighthearted jokes, and filled the hours that passed with more of his fascinating stories. A real charmer, this one, I thought, who knows all the right moves.
As the evening wore on, I learned even more about him. Before coming to Vestico as a consultant he was with the Federal Contract Administration. The FDA and the CIA, he explained, used the service. He was sent on missions into sensitive areas where it was, as he put it, “best for U.S. government presence to remain unknown.”
Before the night was over, he told us he’d been born in Turrialba and that he spoke Spanish fluently, having first learned it as a child living with his mother’s family in Costa Rica. That was why, he explained, most of his missions took him to Central America.
I interjected that I was a genuine California girl and that I had lived my whole life in one county - from being born and raised in Pittsburg to settling in Concord during my first marriage to migrating to Antioch for affordable housing after my divorce, all within a twenty mile radius. “For a world traveler like you it must sound dead boring,” I said.
“I envy you,” John sighed. “As a child I moved around a lot because my Dad was in the Navy; then I enlisted and the rest is history.”
“My parents still live in Concord,” I added, as if that tacked on some allure to my story. “They moved to California in World War II when Dad’s unit was stationed at Camp Stoneman. The weather appealed to them, so they stayed after Dad was discharged.”
John added that was exactly why he had settled the Bay Area, and then he was off on another story. To me, this dinner guest of Debbie’s was a regular James Bond. As difficult as it was becoming for me to keep my eyelids from drooping, I wanted to hear every word of the story he was telling about a mission in Panama City.
He and another operative, he said, had rented adjoining offices. They were close to completing their mission of forcing a drug cartel out of Colombia. One day, after lunch, John was at his desk in his office when he heard his partner’s office door open. John expected to hear his partner’s footsteps, but instead, he heard the loud rattle of machine-gun fire. Instinctively, he hit the deck, scrambled under his desk, held his breath and waited. The office door opened, and a strange voice said something about “getting the other one next time.”
Minutes later John learned his partner had been killed instantly. That might just as easily have happened to John, I thought, realizing that in real life, this James Bond stuff was horrifyingly brutal. As though reading my thoughts, John looked directly at me when he said, “That’s when I realized I was getting too old for that line of work. It was time to call it quits.”
I sighed deeply. “And it’s definitely time for me to call it quits now,” I announced. “It’s nearly midnight.”
While Debbie and Ted waved to me from the porch, John escorted me to my car, surprising me with his rapt attention. After I was behind the wheel, he asked me to wait while he walked over to his own car. He returned with a paper bag.
“I wish I had something more to give you,” he said, “but this croissant is from a special bakery in San Francisco. I know you’ll like it.” He grinned. “A special pastry for a special gal.”
It was an odd, but interesting, gesture. I thanked him for the croissant and drove away. On the way home I reflected on the entertaining evening and my introduction to an articulate, witty, and amusing man who had impressive credentials and exciting stories, a man who went out of his way to focus his charm and attention on me. But also an older man, I reminded myself. Parked in my garage, I grabbed my purse and the paper bag. What was it about me, I wondered, that made this man decide I was “special”? Although I had certainly learned a great deal about him, what exactly had he learned about me?
Barbara Bentley is a victims' advocate in California, where she was directly responsible for the passage of Assembly Bill 16, which changed California divorce law. A member of STAND! Against Domestic Violence, she addresses women’s and victim’s rights organizations, and her story was featured on Lifetime’s "Final Justice." Find out more about Barbara and her book at http://www.adancewiththedevil.com/