I’m the navigator and I point to the street sign ahead where we make our last turn. Harm sees it too, and as he makes the right turn I describe Flay’s house again so we’ll both be ready when we see it. We’ve never met Flay, but he’s dating our friend Rebecca, whose husband died a year ago. She’s just getting used to the idea of being with another man, and so far she seems to like Flay, especially what she calls his magnetism.
“I’ve never been so intimidated by the thought of shaking a guy’s hand,” Harm says.
We’ve checked out Flay’s website, at Rebecca’s suggestion. The site says that Flay serves on a number of boards and sees himself as a mentor and life coach. He’s written a self-published book called The Handshake, available in print or as an ebook. Flay expresses thoughts on his site about what happens when we decide to walk through certain doors. Whole new realms open up, he says, based on which doors we choose to enter. Other doors should remain closed, Flay advises. We shouldn’t let negative emotions enter through our mental doorways.
“Can you imagine a whole book on shaking hands?” Harm goes on. “Do you think he’ll clutch my elbow or shoulder with his left hand on the first shake, or would that be too familiar? If he does, should I reciprocate? I’m afraid he’ll feel my breath on him or that he’ll sense what I’m thinking.”
“I hope he can’t see through you, Harm.”
He knows what I mean. At times I think I’m Harm’s life coach. Everywhere we go I have to warn him not to make sarcastic remarks, even to himself. He likes to tell me about his freedom of speech, but I’m not talking about arresting him, I’m talking about manners and attitudes and being fair to people. His inner comments show on his face, though of course he can’t see that. But I can see them, and as I’ve told him, so can other people.
Harm has joked all afternoon about the door talk on Flay’s website, whether we’ll want him entering us and whether we’ll want to enter him. I had to cut him off because he was getting on a roll about his negative emotions and how he’d go insane keeping them locked in a cage inside him. He’d already worked up an attitude about Flay, the philosophically cocked eyebrow in his website photo, the quotes from self-help gurus serving as fodder for his humor.
We slow to a stop on time in front of Flay’s house, confirm the address, and Harm turns off the engine. The house is shaded by old trees, and on the left side an empty driveway leads back to a garage. The plan is for the four of us to have a drink and then go to Flay’s favorite restaurant, a place where Rebecca says he knows everyone and where she can choose from several vegetarian dishes.
We walk up the front steps, and Harm knocks and turns and hikes up his pants as he blows out a tense gust of air. I shake my head, nothing happening except in his mind, but I don’t try to talk him down fearing someone on the way to the door will overhear me. But no one comes to the door, and Harm gives it another knock, harder, and both of us begin a doorbell search, high and low, Harm mumbling to himself. We see no doorbell. Harm shrugs and gives the door a firm pounding, just short of obnoxious. We stand on the porch, waiting. We wait some more, and eventually I lean against the door and shout Rebecca’s name.
“You could call her,” Harm says.
I pull out my phone and within seconds I hear hers ring, but the call goes straight to her recording. I leave a message, not letting impatience seep through in my tone. Harm then suggests that he walk around the side of the house. In view of the pacific guru quotes he’s posted online we doubt Flay will shoot him on sight, but one of his neighbors might not like the look of strangers prowling around the house. Someone might call the police, Harm says, and if Flay and Rebecca aren’t at home how will we explain ourselves? I tell Harm that we don’t look like criminals, and he asks me if I think all criminals look alike.
“What choice do we have?”
He goes down the steps while I continue to knock. He starts on the right side of the house, which seems to have a better view of the backyard, but the ground is wet and I can see he doesn’t want to get his shoes muddy. He calls out but hears no reply. He turns back and walks down the driveway but soon returns to the porch, mission failed, saying he thought it was too forward to walk around in the backyard.
“If they were here,” I say, “I think she would have at least looked out the door for us.”
“Maybe there’s been a misunderstanding and they’ve gone to the restaurant. You sure we got the right time?”
I tell him I’m sure, I talked to her earlier in the day. I again call Rebecca, and her message answers. Harm takes another shot at knocking, but the door stays closed. We decide to drive to the restaurant, and if they’re not there we’ll wait for them. It strikes me as we go to the car that Harm seems relieved. I think he secretly hopes for a quiet meal, just the two of us, and he’s probably rehearsing remarks about the doors we enter and do not enter.
As we’re about to get in the car, Rebecca’s voice stops us. She’s on the front porch waving us back to her, thin as ever, the yoga and Pilates classes are paying off. We shut the doors and head up the walk. Flay comes out to greet us, a glass of white wine in his left hand, leaving his right free for the handshake. I hear Harm clearing his throat and I fear he could be on the verge of an observation.
Rebecca gives me a hug, an explanation in progress before her arms reach me. They’d been listening to music in the kitchen, drinking wine, talking, and they hadn’t heard us. “We get carried away listening to each other, she says, releasing me and stepping back. “We forget about our surroundings, our phones, the only thing in the room is our words.”
“Good to meet you, Colleen,” Flay says, no handshake for me, which is as I prefer it. “And Harmon, I understand you go by Harm.”
Here comes the handshake, nothing unusual, a slightly overhand grip, not exaggeratedly firm as far as I can tell, no overt attempt to transmit charisma, but Harm, though he hasn’t read the book, may claim the overhand style implies dominance. Sometimes I worry so much about what he’s thinking that I start to think like him myself. My guess is he’ll feel lucky that the wine glass prevented entry to his elbow or shoulder.
“Yes, I go by Harm, and I hear you prefer Flay to Flavius.”
“Exactly,” Flay says and sweeps his hand toward his open front door.
I go in first, asking myself where our apology is. We must have been stranded on the front porch for fifteen minutes and all we hear is that they were fascinated by each other’s conversation. Harm enters without comment, Rebecca and Flay behind him. I try to make eye contact with Harm. He avoids looking at me, I suspect afraid of what his face will reveal if our hosts see our eyes meet. I can tell he’s waiting along with me for an apology or some expression of empathy, but Flay has shut the front door and has begun telling us, his chin elevated, about his house, how many years he’s lived there, where in his travels to various continents he’s found different pieces of furniture, the treasures left in the attic by the previous owners. I avert my eyes from him, tired of being on my feet, wondering if he has any red wine in the house, urging myself to suppress uncharitable thoughts. Harm takes a peek at me, curious to see if negative emotions could be entering through my doorway.