The Last Thing He Told Me

1.2 Greene Street Before It Was Greene Street

chapter
Chapter

I met Owen a little over two years ago.
I was still living in New York City then. I was living three thousand miles
from Sausalito, the small Northern California town that I now call home.
Sausalito is on the other side of the Golden Gate from San Francisco, but a
world away from city life. Quiet, charming. Sleepy. It’s the place that Owen and
Bailey have called home for more than a decade. It is also the polar opposite of
my previous life, which kept me squarely in Manhattan, in a lofted storefront on
Greene Street in SoHo—a small space with an astronomical rent I never quite
believed I could a􀏦ord. I used it as both my workshop and my showroom.
I turn wood. That’s what I do for work. People usually make a face when I
tell them this is my job (however I try to describe it), images of their high school
woodshop class coming to mind. Being a woodturner is a little like that, and
nothing like that. I like to describe it as sculpting, but instead of sculpting clay, I
sculpt wood.
I come by the profession naturally. My grandfather was a woodturner—an
excellent one, at that—and his work was at the center of my life for as far back as
I can remember. He was at the center of my life for as far back as I can
remember, having raised me mostly on his own.
My father, Jack, and my mother, Carole (who preferred that I refer to her as
Carole), were largely uninterested in doing any childrearing. They were largely
uninterested in anything except my father’s photography career. My grandfather
encouraged my mother to make an e􀏦ort with me when I was young, but I
barely knew my father, who traveled for work 280 days a year. When he did have
time o􀏦, he hunkered down at his family’s ranch in Sewanee, Tennessee, as
opposed to driving the two hours to my grandfather’s house in Franklin to
spend time with me. And, shortly after my sixth birthday, when my father left
my mother for his assistant—a woman named Gwendolyn who was newly
twenty-one—my mother stopped coming home as well. She chased my father
down until he took her back. Then she left me with my grandfather full-time.
If it sounds like a sob story, it isn’t. Of course, it isn’t ideal to have your
mother all but disappear. It certainly didn’t feel good to be on the receiving end
of that choice. But, when I look back now, I think my mother did me a favor
exiting the way she did—without apology, without vacillation. At least she made
it clear: There was nothing I could have done to make her want to stay.
And, on the other side of her exit, I was happier. My grandfather was stable
and kind and he made me dinner every night and waited for me to 􀏯nish dinner
before he announced it was time to get up and read me stories before we went to
sleep. And he always let me watch him work.
I loved watching him work. He’d start with an impossibly enormous piece of
wood, moving it over a lathe, turning it into something magical. Or, if it was less
than magical, he would 􀏯gure out how to start over again.
That was probably my favorite part of watching him work: when he would
throw up his hands and say, “Well, we’ve got to do this different, don’t we?” Then
he’d go about 􀏯nding a new way into what he wanted to create. I’m guessing any
psychologist worth her salt would say that it must have given me hope—that I
must have thought my grandfather would help me do the same thing for myself.
To start again.
But, if anything, I think I took comfort in the opposite. Watching my
grandfather work taught me that not everything was 􀏲uid. There were certain
things that you hit from di􀏦erent angles, but you never gave up on. You did the
work that was needed, wherever that work took you.
I never expected to be successful at woodturning—or at my foray from there
into making furniture. I half expected I wouldn’t be able to make a living out of
it. My grandfather regularly supplemented his income by picking up
construction work. But early on, when one of my more impressive dining room
tables was featured in Architectural Digest, I developed a niche among a subset of
downtown New York City residents. As one of my favorite interior designers
explained it, my clients wanted to spend a lot of money decorating their homes
in a way that made it look like they weren’t spending any money at all. My rustic
wood pieces helped with their mission.
Over time, this devoted clientele turned into a somewhat larger clientele in
other coastal cities and resort towns: Los Angeles, Aspen, East Hampton, Park
City, San Francisco.
This was how Owen and I met. Avett Thompson—the CEO of the tech 􀏯rm
where Owen worked—was a client. Avett and his wife, the ridiculously gorgeous
Belle, were among my most loyal clients.
Belle liked to joke that she was Avett’s trophy wife, which may have been
funnier if it also wasn’t so on point. She was a former model, ten years younger
than his grown children, born and raised in Australia. My pieces were in every
room of her town house in San Francisco (where she and Avett lived together)
and her newly constructed country house in St. Helena, a small town on the
northern end of Napa Valley where Belle tended to retreat alone.
I had met Avett only a handful of times before he and Owen showed up at
my workshop. They were in New York for an investor meeting and Belle wanted
them to stop by to check on a rolled-edge side table she’d asked me to make for
their bedroom. Avett wasn’t sure what he should be checking for, something
about how the table would look with the bed frame—the bed frame that would
hold their ten-thousand-dollar organic mattress.
Avett couldn’t have cared less, honestly. When he and Owen walked in, he
was in a sharp blue suit, his graying hair crunchy with hair gel, the phone glued
to his ear. He was in the middle of a phone call. He took one look at the side
table and brie􀏲y covered the mouthpiece.
“Looks 􀏯ne to me,” he said. “We good here?”
Then, before I answered, he headed outside.
Owen, on the other hand, was mesmerized. He did a slow sweep of the whole
workshop, stopping to study each piece.
I watched him as he walked around. He was such a confusing picture: This
long-limbed guy with shaggy blond hair and sun-drenched skin, in worn-out
Converse sneakers. All of which seemed at odds with his fancy sports jacket. It
was almost like he fell o􀏦 a surfboard into the jacket, the starched shirt beneath
it.
I realized I was staring and started to turn away just as Owen stopped in front
of my favorite piece—a farm table that I used as a desk.
My computer and newspapers and small tools covered most of it. You could
only make out the table beneath if you were really looking. He was. He took in
the sti􀏦 redwood that I had chiseled down, gently yellowing the corners, welding
rough metal to each edge.
Was Owen the 􀏯rst customer to notice the table? No, of course not. But he
was the 􀏯rst to bend down, just like I’d often do, running his 􀏯ngers along the
sharp metal and holding the table there.
He turned his head and looked up at me. “Ouch,” he said.
“Try bumping up against it in the middle of the night,” I said.
Owen stood back up, giving the table a tap goodbye. Then he walked over to
me. He walked over to me until somehow we were standing close to each other
—too close, really, for me not to wonder how we’d gotten there. I probably
should have felt self-conscious about my tank top and paint-splattered jeans, the
messy bun on top of my head, my unwashed curls falling out of it. I felt
something else though, watching him look at me.
“So,” he said, “what’s the asking price?”
“Actually, the table is the only piece in the showroom that’s not for sale,” I
said.
“Because it could cause injury?” he said.
“Exactly,” I said.
This was when he smiled. When Owen smiled. It was like the title of a bad
pop song. To be clear, it wasn’t that his smile lit up his face. It wasn’t anything as
sentimental or explosive as that. It was more that his smile—this generous,
childlike smile—made him seem kind. It made him seem kind in a way I wasn’t
used to running into on Greene Street in downtown Manhattan. It was
expansive in a way I’d started to doubt I’d ever run into on Greene Street in
downtown Manhattan.
“So, no negotiating on the table then?” he said.
“Afraid not, but I could show you some di􀏦erent pieces?”
“How about a lesson instead? You could show me how to make a similar
table for myself, but maybe with slightly kinder edges…” he said. “I’ll sign a
waiver. Any injuries acquired would be at my own risk.”
I was still smiling, but I felt confused. Because all of a sudden I didn’t think
we were talking about the table. I felt fairly con􀏯dent that we weren’t. I felt as
con􀏯dent as a woman could who had spent the last two years engaged to a man
whom she’d realized she couldn’t marry. Two weeks before their wedding.
“Look, Ethan…” I said.
“Owen,” he corrected.
“Owen. That’s nice of you to ask,” I said, “but I kind of have a no-dating
policy with clients.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I can’t a􀏦ord to buy anything you’re selling then,” he
said. But that stopped him. He shrugged, as if to say some other time, and headed
toward the door and Avett, who was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, still
on his phone call, yelling at the person on the other end.
He was almost out the door. He was almost gone. But I felt instantly—and
strongly—the need to reach out and stop him from leaving, to say that I hadn’t
meant it. I’d meant something else. I’d meant he should stay.
I’m not saying it was love at 􀏯rst sight. What I’m saying is that a part of me
wanted to do something to stop him from walking away. I wanted to be around
that stretched-out smile a little longer.
“Wait,” I said. I looked around, searching for something to hold him there,
zeroing in on a textile that belonged to another client, holding it up. “This is for
Belle.”
It was not my 􀏯nest moment. And, as my former 􀏯ancé would tell you, it was
also completely out of character for me to reach out to someone as opposed to
pulling away.
“I’ll make sure she gets it,” he said.
He took it from me, avoiding my eyes.
“For the record, I have one too. A no-dating policy. I’m a single father, and it
goes with the territory…” He paused. “But my daughter’s a theater junkie. And
I’ll lose serious points if I don’t see a play while I’m in New York.”
He motioned toward an angry Avett, screaming on the sidewalk.
“A play’s not exactly Avett’s thing, as surprising as that sounds…”
“Very,” I said.
“So… what do you think? Do you want to come?”
He didn’t move closer, but he did look up. He looked up and met my eyes.
“Let’s not consider it a date,” he said. “It will be a onetime thing. We’ll agree
on that going in. Just dinner and a play. Nice to meet you.”
“Because of our policies?” I said.
His smile returned, open and generous. “Yes,” he said. “Because of them.”
“What’s that smell?” Bailey asks.
I’m pulled from my memory to 􀏯nd Bailey standing in the kitchen doorway.
She looks irritated standing there in a chunky sweater—a messenger bag slung
over her shoulder, her purple-streaked hair caught beneath its strap.
I smile at her, my phone cradled under my chin. I have been trying to reach
Owen, unsuccessfully, the phone going to voice mail. Again. And again.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” I say.
She doesn’t respond, her mouth pinched. I put my phone away, ignoring her
perma-scowl. She’s a beauty, despite it. She’s a beauty in a way that I’ve noticed
strikes people when she walks into a room. She doesn’t look much like Owen—
her purple hair naturally a chestnut brown, her eyes dark and 􀏯erce. They’re
intense—those eyes. They pull you in. Owen says that they’re just like her
grandfather’s (her mother’s father), which is why they named her after him. A
girl named Bailey. Just Bailey.
“Where’s my dad?” she says. “He’s supposed to drive me to play practice.”
My body tenses as I feel Owen’s note in my pocket, like a weight.
Protect her.
“I’m sure he’s on his way,” I say. “Let’s eat some dinner.”
“Is that what smells?” she says.
She wrinkles her nose, just in case it isn’t clear that the smell to which she is
referring isn’t one she likes.
“It’s the linguine that you had at Poggio,” I say.
She gives me a blank look, as though Poggio isn’t her favorite local restaurant,
as though we weren’t there for dinner just a few weeks before to celebrate her
sixteenth birthday. Bailey ordered that night’s special—a homemade multigrain
linguini in a brown butter sauce. And Owen gave her a little taste of his glass of
Malbec to go with it. I thought she loved the pasta. But maybe what she loved
was drinking wine with her father.
I put a heaping portion on a plate and place it on the kitchen island.
“Try a little,” I say. “You’re going to like it.”
Bailey stares at me, trying to decide if she is in the mood for a showdown—if
she’s in the mood for her father’s disappointment, should I snitch to him about
her fast, dinnerless exit. Deciding against it, she bites back her annoyance and
hops onto her barstool.
“Fine,” she says. “I’ll have a little.”
Bailey almost tries with me. That’s the worst part. She isn’t a bad kid or a
menace. She’s a good kid in a situation she hates. I just happen to be that
situation.
There are the obvious reasons why a teenage girl would be averse to her
father’s new wife, especially Bailey, who had a good thing going when it was just
the two of them together, best friends, Owen her biggest fan. Though, those
reasons don’t cover the totality of Bailey’s dislike for me. It isn’t just that I got
her age wrong when we 􀏯rst met. It comes down to an afternoon shortly after I
moved to Sausalito. I was supposed to pick her up at school, but I got stuck on a
call with a client—and I arrived 􀏯ve minutes late. Not ten minutes. Five. 5:05
P.M. That was what the clock said when I pulled up to her friend’s house. But it
may as well have been an hour. Bailey is an exacting girl. Owen will tell you that
this is a quality we have in common. Both his wife and his daughter can decipher
everything about someone else in 􀏯ve minutes. That’s all it takes. And in the 􀏯ve
minutes Bailey was making her decision about me I was on a telephone call I
shouldn’t have taken.
Bailey twirls some pasta onto her fork, studying it. “This looks di􀏦erent than
Poggio.”
“Well, it’s not. I convinced the sous chef to give me the recipe. He even sent
me to the Ferry Building to pick up the garlic bread he serves with it.”
“You drove into San Francisco to get a loaf of bread?” she says.
It’s possible that I try too hard with her. There is that.
She leans in and puts the whole bite in her month. I bite my lip, anticipating
her approval—a small yum escaping her lips, in spite of herself.
Which is when she gags on it. She actually gags, reaching for a glass of water.
“What did you put in that?” she says. “It tastes like… charcoal.”
“But I tasted it,” I say. “It’s perfect.”
I take another bite myself. She’s not wrong. In my confusion over my twelveyear-
old visitor and Owen’s note, the butter sauce had transformed from its
slightly malted, foamy richness into actually just being burnt. And bitter. Not
unlike eating a camp􀏯re.
“I gotta go anyway,” she says. “Especially if I want to get a ride from Suz.”
Bailey stands up. And I picture Owen standing behind me, leaning down to
whisper in my ear, Wait it out. That’s what he says when Bailey is dismissive of
me. Wait it out. Meaning—she’ll come around one day. Also meaning—she’s
leaving for college in two and a half short years. But Owen doesn’t understand
that this doesn’t comfort me. To me, this just means I’m running out of time to
make her want to move toward me.
And I do want her to move toward me. I want us to have a relationship, and
not just because of Owen. It’s more than that—what draws me toward Bailey
even as she pushes me away. Part of it is that I recognize in her that thing that
happens when you lose your mother. My mother left by choice, Bailey’s by
tragedy, but it leaves a similar imprint on you either way. It leaves you in the
same strange place, trying to 􀏯gure out how to navigate the world without the
most important person watching.
“I’ll walk over to Suz’s,” she says. “She’ll drive me.”
Suz, her friend Suz, who is also in the play. Suz who lives on the docks too.
Suz who is safe, isn’t she?
Protect her.
“Let me take you,” I say.
“No.” She pulls her purple hair behind her ears, checks her tone. “That’s
okay. Suz is going anyway…”
“If your father isn’t back yet,” I say, “I’ll come and pick you up. One of us
will be waiting for you out front.”
She drills me with a look. “Why wouldn’t he be back?” she says.
“He will. I’m sure he will. I just meant… if I come get you, then you can drive
home.”
Bailey just got her learner’s permit. It’ll be a year of her driving with an adult
until she can drive alone. And Owen doesn’t like her driving at night, even when
she’s with him, which I try to utilize as an opportunity.
“Sure,” Bailey says. “Thanks.”
She walks toward the door. She wants out of the conversation and into the
Sausalito air. She would say anything to get there, but I take it as a date.
“So I’ll see you in a few hours?”
“See ya,” she says.
And I feel happy, for a just a second. Then the front door is slamming behind
her. And I’m alone again with Owen’s note, the inimitable silence of the
kitchen, and enough burnt pasta to feed a family of ten.


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