As my big brother pulls off Riverside Drive into the shady parking lot of the University Towers in Tulsa, we can already hear every hedge buzzing, heavy with drunken bees. Schools of newborn gnats swarm and hover while we tug at clothing stuck to damp skin.
The air is thick. We stop to inhale and assess the height of the building, tilting our heads back to take in all thirty stories. We can see where we are headed, far above the green boughs of trees that might cushion a fall from a balcony that high.
These twin towers were built in the mid-sixties, about the time we left the city. My brother and I remember the trips down Riverside Drive four decades ago, before these Towers were built, before our family cracked, broke, and split. There was already a tallest apartment building in Tulsa. Everyone passed it on the way into the city and back to the suburbs. It was a wide, rectangular monolith wrapped in glass.
That was where our Mother moved, away from the endless grid of well-lawned houses, the years of polite rejection. She moved to the original tallest apartment building, the one with all the windows. And I visited her there a few times, but it was never pleasant.
The stale smell in the hallway made me choke. The starkness of her “little studio apartment” was paralyzing. It made me queasy. It was too high off the the ground, uncomfortable, dangerous. She was moody. Stiff with pain one moment, depressed. Hysterical and unpredictable the next. I was numb, confused.
“Well, Mom, someday we’ll look back on this time in your life and laugh about it, I bet.”
Yeah, right. Soon after my big brother and I went off to college, Mom decides to have a talk with Dad. Attempting to shock him into a conversation about their marriage, she quietly suggests that maybe they should get a divorce. Dad looks up from the paper and says, ” Okay.”
Twenty-four years of cordial tolerance, mutual suffering. No argument. There were never any arguments . And now there’s no husband and no family and she doesn’t know how to do anything else. There is no estate, no insurance policy, no business to split, no career in sight. No self confidence, no trust, and no idea how this happened or what to do next.
One afternoon I sat frozen on her couch while she melted. She sobbed into her rented dining table for about forty minutes. I sat and watched her and listened. I didn’t know what to do. So I tiptoed out the door and drove back down Riverside Drive to our suburb on the South side, where the rows of low houses offered comfort, spread out in familiar flat squares, and I fixed supper for Dad and my little brother.
Tonight it is thirty years after our family flapped awkwardly out of the Tulsa nest. We flew in five different directions, landing on separate continents, and staying apart for most of the rest of our lives. I am back in my hometown for a rare visit with my big brother. He wants me to meet his buddy Ted.
On the way to the top of Ted’s Tower, I wonder if I’ll be able to breathe in the hallway. I beg the elevator not to stop between floors. I pray the clear weather holds. Let’s not have a tornado this evening. I sure hope we don’t have to evacuate.
With a bong at thirty, the stainless steel doors slide away to deliver us into a tunnel glowing with indirect and artificial light. This kind of light can hold back panic, illuminate a path, or let a drunk decipher an address. It cannot, however, take the place of dappled shadows or sparkling sunlight on whitecaps. My big brother rings Ted’s bell.
The door opens, and an evening of superlatives begins with the Most Congenial Host. Ted is extra tall with green plaid Bermuda shorts and a nineties version of the 50’s alligator shirt. We follow him around the curved, mirrored hallway. We glide on over-sized Italian tiles, checkered black and white. He leads us into a vast living room with a panoramic view of the city skyline, the Arkansas river, and the Oklahoma prairie beyond. I inhale and my brother grins.
We grew up in this town, but I have never seen it like this. Ted has massive leather couches clustered around the sunken entertainment center, which keeps the TV screen below the sweeping wall of windows. He hands us high-powered binoculars to view the changing backdrop as we experience the panoramic sunset.
Then he ushers us out to the balcony and pulls up padded bar stools to the telescope. Aiming it at the airport 15 miles to the northeast, we can read the names on the sides of planes. Turned toward the historic Cimarron Ballroom, we can see employees arriving for the evening. Tiny people disappearing through tiny doors down at ground level.
He brings out his camera and captures us looking at his world.
Ted lays out salmon pate and fancy nuts, then cranks up the hibachi and puts his full attention on me. I decline offers of exotic mixed drinks. We are up thirty floors, after all.
He graciously pours 7-Up for me and announces the beginning of a multimedia show in my honor. What is my delight? His library of music videos, tapings of rare concerts and behind-the-scenes documentaries, is exhaustive. All I have to do is say the word: The Beatles, Eric Clapton, The Doors, any era, any style, what?
“Do you have Keith Jarrett, his Koln Concert?”
His face drops. I’m afraid he is going to cry. He shakes his head.
“It doesn’t matter. It was a long shot. I was just kidding, really.”
“Are you sure?”
“How about The Moody Blues?” he asks, recovering and reaching for a video from among hundreds. “I’ve got them Live at Red Rock Canyon, with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Incredible acoustics. Fantastic. Really.”
He puts on The Moody Blues, and there they are, as amazing as promised. There’s the breathtaking canyon, funneling the music to me, pinning me to the leather upholstery.
I’m locked in front of a big screen with Surround Sound drowning me in music I had hoped to never hear again.
I sink deep into Ted’s couch and am taken against my will back thirty years to the duplex townhouse looking down on the freeway. The one my husband Sam and I rented in 1969 after our house in Santa Cruz burned down.