“Meant to Be”

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“I always thought you would marry Cari Lyn.” If my mother said this once, she said it umpteen times. Her habit of repeating herself drove me crazy.

My response was always the same. “Mom, Cari Lyn is happily married to her junior high school sweetheart, and I’m gay.”

“I know, I know. But I always thought you and Cari Lyn would get married.”

What more could I say? I tried not to show my annoyance. I later learned that Cari Lyn’s mom had frequently expressed similar sentiments.

Cari Lyn and I met in first grade. She was a vivacious curly-haired blonde and I was a shy brunette. Our moms had met and played tennis together, becoming best friends. Our dads started playing chess. Our brothers, Glenn and Rocky, were about the same age, but didn’t really play together. Neither of my parents had siblings, so there were no aunts or uncles in our insular family. Cari Lyn’s family filled that void.

We shared August birthdays — hers in the middle of the month, mine at the end. We split the difference and celebrated together. One year we hosted joint party where kids came to her house for dinner, then were driven to my house for cake and dancing on the patio. How sophisticated, we thought, for the suburbs in the sixties.

After going through grammar school together at Buena Terra Elementary School, when we went to La Palma Junior High our paths diverged. She was a cheerleader and socialized with the cool kids. I was a nerd, silently attracted to boys, and hung out with the other misfits. Her family moved away, then mine did. But we, mostly, stayed in touch. Well, our moms did, anyway.

I attended her wedding, and we got together when we happened to be in the same area. Cari Lyn made a point of coming into San Francisco every August so we could have a birthday lunch. In recent years my partner and I stayed with Cari Lyn and her husband on car trips northward.

Over the years, we recognized each other as soul mates, even surrogate siblings. Our relationships with our own brothers were fraught, and we took solace in our special relationship. I referred to her as “my oldest friend”, then changed it to “my longest friend.” Nothing quite captured the gist of “us” – a person who has known you your whole life, shared many of the ups and downs.

Cari Lyn was a welcome sounding board while my mother was dying. I was honored when her mom referred to herself as my “Aunt Lolita.” I was supportive as both her parents began declining and finally died, within months of each other. We had driven together to check in on them, my partner and I were ushers at her dad’s memorial, and then I represented Cari Lyn at her mother’s memorial, when she was hospitalized in Las Vegas with pneumonia. Poor Cari Lyn had had quite a year.

All these decades later we still get together to celebrate our birthdays and this year was no exception. When I started making plans to drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara for a few days, I called Cari Lyn to see if she might want to rendezvous there. I didn’t need to remind her that her mom’s sister was getting elderly and she had cousins in the area. Recently retired, she left her husband at home to work on a project and drove to meet me.

After breakfast, we had a terrific time driving around Montecito exploring some of the places she remembered from her childhood. The area was experiencing a heat wave, and the sun was hot. Late in the afternoon I suggested stopping at the Biltmore Hotel to take advantage of their happy hour. I had been there the day before on the recommendation of a friend to enjoy a solitary beer on the veranda. When I described how lovely it was, to my surprise, Cari Lyn agreed. I was even more surprised when she ordered a glass of sangria. She’d been a teetotaler for most of our adult lives. I barely drank at all either. But there we were sipping sangria — hers red, mine white — and nibbling on a tasty discounted appetizer of tuna tartare. The afternoon was balmy. A breeze wafted through under the umbrellas carrying the scent of the tropic flowers from the well-manicured gardens. Before us spread the coastline studded with tall palm tress.

As we sat together, we felt like our old — I mean young — selves. My hair was now white and Cari Lyn’s beautiful mane had turned to grey. We continued talking about our lives and compared notes on our respective recent retirements and applying for Social Security benefits. She talked of the arduous task — physical as well as psychological — of going through her parents’ belongings, a year after their deaths. I described the decluttering campaign I had waged several years ago and how I had been trying since then not to acquire more stuff.

After we finished our drinks we walked to the restrooms. As we strolled back down the carpeted hallways of the palatial Biltmore, Cari Lyn stopped adjacent a brocade sofa.

“Sit down,” she commanded.

I did.

“I have something for you,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for the right moment to give it to you and this is it.”

What could she have for me, I wondered? I was equal parts excited and wary. I didn’t want some tchotchke that had belonged to her folks.

She pulled out a small white box out of her purse and handed it to me. I looked at her, and then looked at the box before opening it.

In it was a small silver ring with the Sanskrit letters signifying Om, the ubiquitous Hindu symbol of the sound of the universe. I had chanted the mantra for years at the beginning and end of my yoga classes. I didn’t remember seeing it written.

“My dad wore it for the past fifty years,” Cari Lyn explained. “I wanted you to have it.”

Tears welled in my eyes.

“I’m honored,” I choked out. It was too small for my ring finger, so I slid it onto my pinky. I held it up to the afternoon light. “It’s beautiful,” I said.

Then she showed me her own ring with the same symbol, and told me that her mother also had worn one. I thought about how Cari Lyn might have given this family heirloom to either of her brothers. About how for years my own mother withheld a ring that had been promised to me. About how her father, whom I knew as a quiet, punning, spiritual person. It felt like this gift was not just from Cari Lyn, but a reminder from the universe, to breathe, to accept miracles where they occur.

And as we sat there together the middle of the hotel lobby having our private moment, I had a vision of our mothers, their spirits on high together, gazing down at us. In a weird way they had been right: Cari Lyn and I were married. This ring now solidified our long and deep relationship. We were permanently united, just not in the precise way our moms envisioned. They had seen the two of us together in the future, and interpreted it as husband and wife. I was overcome with a multitude of simultaneous sensations — past, present and future. We sat quietly for a moment.

Then, Cari Lyn and I stood up, hugged and walked down the hotel corridor out into the sunshine, hand in hand.

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