Everything looks blue in the dark. When the only light in the room pours from the computer screen, the harsh, soft-edged glow shrouding every object, you feel like you’re seeing everything through a plate of glass. Except for a thin, orange “L” formed by the gaps in the doorframe, this is your world. Your...aquarium. Come on in, the water’s fine.
Why don’t I write artsy shit like that anymore? I’m too busy. Okay that may not be an answer, but it’s an excuse, at least. I tutor, I do theatre, I take five classes a semester, and by the time I get some time to myself I’m too tired to even read. Asking me to compose witty, insightful, tragic prose in my crowded dorm room is like asking someone who’s too tired to eat to cook you dinner. Did I mention I’m a horrible cook?
But let’s not sing my praises too much. After all, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because for the first time in over a year, I feel like writing some of this down. And it’s all his fault.
uncannie: whats new? AWarr75: i bought the die hard trilogy uncannie: nice uncannie: i bought pink suspenders uncannie: they match my bra AWarr75: weird uncannie: your face is weird AWarr75: well you are a ho-bag uncannie: that was unfathomably clever uncannie: almost as clever as your screenname AWarr75: what uncannie: you should have made it “mankindof”…..mankind because thats what adam means, and kind of because you are only kind of a man AWarr75: how long have you been waiting to say that uncannie: ummm no comment AWarr75: dork
He’s not the most charming of figures, unless by “charm” you mean the valiant, heartbreaking way a boy knocks you down on the playground, the raw redness of your elbows and the heels of your hands marking his unequivocal victory. My boy tilts his chin up when he smiles, doesn’t shave for weeks, and points at himself while relating anecdotes. He loves that my underwear isn’t fancy, and I love that his sweatshirts cover the small bruise on my thigh that never seems to go away. I told him that I wanted to do something special for Valentine’s Day. He suggested that we skip work, class, and rehearsal to lie in bed all day watching episodes of “Family Guy.” I said we do that every Saturday. He said Valentine’s Day is a Tuesday.
I’ve never been so happy.
AWarr75: buy me something AWarr75: something you can put on an show me uncannie: oh like a watch? AWarr75: a watch....just a watch...HOT uncannie: haha but you dont even need the watch because its always time to get naked AWarr75: youre proving my theory uncannie: which is? AWarr75: innocent girls are always attracted to badass rebels like myself uncannie: haha right.....if by badass you mean preppy as hell AWarr75: no AWarr75: face it AWarr75: im a rebelious hardcore badass AWarr75: parents thing im bad to the bone AWarr75: *think
I don’t even own a watch anymore because I take my cell phone everywhere. It’s funny, I hate talking on the phone, but being without one freaks me out. Yeah, you’re right, that’s not funny. But have you noticed that things just keep getting integrated and compacted? Watches with calendars, phones with music and videos and email—pretty soon all forms of communication, entertainment, and personal identification will exist within one electronic device the size and shape of a mini-pretzel. Seems convenient—to mush together the important aspects of distinctly separate functions. But be warned: only when it falls out of your back pocket and you accidentally flush thousands of dollars worth of your life down the toilet, only then can you truly be free.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m just killing time here. I started listening to “Annie Waits” by Ben Folds, but then decided that was way too cute. Now I’m listening to “Everything You Want” by Vertical Horizon because it has nothing to do with him. With either of them, actually.
uncannie: i like your new facebook picture uncannie: despite the whole "look i cut a girl out of the picture that means i know girls" aspect AWarr75: only a jealous girl would notice that uncannie: oh you want me to be jealous AWarr75: you want me to want you be jealous uncannie: no, i just want you AWarr75: cute AWarr75: i hope that guy who was on your bed a few nights ago knows that uncannie: that would hurt his feelings AWarr75: hahaha AWarr75: he sounds like a tool to me uncannie: riiiiight cuz you know so much about him and all AWarr75: mmmmhm defense AWarr75: that means he is uncannie: if i defend you to other people, does that make you a tool also? AWarr75: no, video games and addiction to alcohol and caffeine make me a tool uncannie: cant argue with that AWarr75: now your smugness and self appraisal makes you insecure uncannie: nothing makes me insecure, i just am uncannie: thats why i have trouble getting ass AWarr75: hahaha AWarr75: you sure that is the only reason? AWarr75: sorry, that was my personality making a joke on insecurity uncannie: i got it AWarr75: well shit uncannie: ok im going to bed so i can toss and turn for a few hours before falling into a fitful slumber AWarr75: what does that mean AWarr75: i usually drink a lot that way i can go right to sleep uncannie: i can never get to sleep when im drunk uncannie: or when im sober for that matter uncannie: i think part of it is that i sleep better when everyone else is asleep, and my roommate always stays up til like 5 am every night uncannie: and another part is, of course, thinking of you uncannie: (cue emo) AWarr75: freak uncannie: love you too AWarr75: awwww
Did I really throw the “L” word around like that? I don’t think I did. I must have sort of meant it, at least. This time I’m saving it, although I think it’s one of those things you’re not really supposed to save, like Halloween candy. I never used to get too much candy, just a plastic pumpkin’s worth, but somehow I’d always have candy left over. I’d go back and look at it, decide it was too old to eat, but still I wouldn’t throw it out. I have a hard time distinguishing what’s trash and what isn’t.
Man, that was a loaded sentence. Good thing they’re just words.
uncannie: adam, none of these boys can satisfy my urges uncannie: i need a MAN AWarr75: hahaha no you dont AWarr75: you need a cuddler AWarr75: you need a poet AWarr75: you need an artist AWarr75: you need someone intelligent AWarr75: you need someone funny AWarr75: you need someone who can only be described as AWarr75: GAY
At my fifteenth birthday party my boyfriend told me he was gay. I said, that explains a lot. What I meant was that explains why you haven’t tried to get in my pants in the four months that we’ve been dating. I should have said that out loud...he would have laughed in that soul-shaking baritone and touched my shoulder. Instead I climbed up the brick wall separating my backyard from the highway and sat just long enough to ruin the flower-printed skirt that he loved.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t upset that he was gay. To be honest, it wasn’t that much of a shock—I mean come on, I wasn’t completely clueless. No, what upset me was that now we had to break up. He just had to tell me, didn’t he? Couldn’t just sneak a tryst in at the locker room every now and then?
I guess that wouldn’t have made me feel better. It certainly didn’t feel great when I was sixteen, and my boyfriend told me he didn’t think we should date anymore because he had feelings for someone else, and I said who, and he wouldn’t tell me, and why, why would he do this to me? I asked my friend Kayla. She patted me on the shoulder as I pressed my forehead into the sickly turquoise-tiled wall of the high school bathroom, and she said, I know, I know. You know? I said, and looked at her. Kayla stepped away from me. No, I don’t... Her eyes widened. Oh, Annie! And then she was crying, crying and confessing and clawing at her clothes, saying she hooked up with him but she would never, ever be his girlfriend after this, she wouldn’t dream of it, not after what he did to me...unless... Unless? I said. I wanted to spit in her face, and she knew it. She backed out of the bathroom, her mouth apologizing but her eyes remaining blank, leaving her unless behind.
uncannie: please tell me something good AWarr75: i love you? uncannie: haha, the question mark is so appropriate AWarr75: i know
These conversations are so old. You would think that after a while the computer would just delete them. Like your maid throwing away that pink corduroy skirt you’ve kept all these years because you looked so good in it once, and you scream at her, but in the end she was right. I don’t really know what I’m talking about; I’ve never had a maid.
I used to have au pairs, though. That’s when a young woman comes over from Europe and lives with an American family for a year, the catch being that she has to take care of the kids while the parents are at work. Now you might think that I was the ultimate brat to make up for not having any brothers or sisters, but no. My au pairs got a pretty sweet deal, since the only trouble I got into was making strange sandwiches in the middle of the night and feeling like crap in the morning. You’d think I would learn, but I guess when you want a sandwich, you’ve just got to have one. I shouldn’t take it for granted, I guess; after all, there are few late-night desires that can be satisfied by a trip to the kitchen.
Damnit, now I’m hungry.
AWarr75: could you stalk me please? i've seen it in movies and it is awesome uncannie: umm, ok AWarr75: what i never get is when the stalker is hot AWarr75: who wouldnt want a beautiful stalker uncannie: maybe beauty is relative, so if the girls stalking him, she becomes unattractive because of her unattractive behavior AWarr75: we are guys uncannie: not all guys are like you AWarr75: shut up AWarr75: if i was like all your guy friends you could totally have tamed me uncannie: if you were like all my guy friends i wouldnt want to do you AWarr75: haha YES AWarr75: you still do? uncannie: i never said i did AWarr75: playing hard to get are we uncannie: i am hard to get uncannie: did it ever occur to you that sometimes a girl will let you do what you want to her just so she doesnt have to sleep alone AWarr75: you know you can't pull that crap with me uncannie: i'm serious. yeah sometimes i want more, but most of the time i just want to have a warm body next to me AWarr75: alright then, if all you want is a warm body, im sure there are plenty around uncannie: its not that simple AWarr75: well you made it seem so uncannie: the act is simple, but its more intimate than most sexual acts, you cant just hop into bed with a random person and have it be comfortable AWarr75: i can uncannie: well that makes me feel special AWarr75: you know not every girl can be like you AWarr75: but if they could what a sweet world this would be uncannie: oh shut up uncannie: you'd like me to be lonely so i have to call you AWarr75: i hate the phone uncannie: me too but what else is there AWarr75: drugs AWarr75: alochol AWarr75: poetry AWarr75: art AWarr75: the color 7 uncannie: i meant communication-wise uncannie: wait a second uncannie: 7 isnt a color AWarr75: hmmm AWarr75: think about it uncannie: no uncannie: i cant deal with you being cute right now uncannie: boys suck AWarr75: i only care about boobs! AWarr75: (how is that) uncannie: :) AWarr75: sweet
We used to joke that we’d end up together. Not like we’d get married and have kids or anything, but that when we were old and burnt out and no one else wanted us anymore, we’d find each other somehow. It’s a depressing way to view things, but rather romantic, too. So that’s probably why neither of us tried very hard. I remember being angry and frustrated for a long time, but I still don’t think I tried. I think what it came down to was he thought that he would corrupt me, and I wanted to be corrupted. But I see now that purity has nothing to do with how many cigarettes you smoke or guys you go home with or Bibles you throw out the window. Purity is being true to yourself. Adolescence is probably the least pure time of your life because you don’t yet know who you are. I look at pictures of myself in high school, and instead of thinking Wow I was so skinny, I think, Who the hell is that?
AWarr75: thank you very much for your card uncannie: you're welcome AWarr75: my roommate thinks you are crazy uncannie: haha, why? AWarr75: cause you wrote future lover on the return address uncannie: oh wow i forgot that AWarr75: sure uncannie: did you tell him its an inside joke or just let him think it was creepy? AWarr75: i totally let him think it was creepy AWarr75: i thought it was creepy uncannie: i should have remembered that you dont remember anything AWarr75: freak uncannie: i know you are but what am i AWarr75: cute? uncannie: try again AWarr75: intelligent uncannie: hmm getting there AWarr75: dramatic? uncannie: naturally AWarr75: short? uncannie: i hate you AWarr75: if you hate me why did you send me a birthday card uncannie: like god, i work in mysterious ways AWarr75: why do you toy with me so uncannie: because i can AWarr75: i dont get you uncannie: amen AWarr75: i dont understand you girls AWarr75: im totally not attractive uncannie: you are quite attractive, even in glasses, actually especially in glasses, but besides that, you value video games and liquor over female companionship, which gives us a challenge. we like a challenge because we feel like we deserve it when we finally win you AWarr75: hahaha AWarr75: i totally have game AWarr75: score uncannie: ok i have to go work AWarr75: have a nice day cutie uncannie: you too, and remember, it's talk like a pirate day! AWarr75: you are crazy uncannie: thats why you arrrrr crazy about me :) AWarr75: hahahaha
The thing about Adam is that he’s far away. Not just literally, by physical distance, but emotionally. I stand there and wave at him, and he shouts, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. He can’t hear me either. And I run toward him, but he runs away, because he likes to be chased. He thinks this is a game, and maybe he’s not wrong, but you know, I’m out of breath. And I need a new metaphor.
Danny is different. He calls, he listens, he tries. He fits me. I can’t figure out where he fits in...but he is here, for now. That’s something.
I think I sit here like this, doing nothing, because it reminds me of doing nothing in my room at home. The screen of my laptop is the only thing that looks the same in both places. Oh great, now I’m getting sentimental.
uncannie: you still owe me a date uncannie: this you will forget and i will remember for a freakishly long amount of time, like all other aspects of our relationship AWarr75: yea speaking of which, who am i talking to, i forgot sorry AWarr75: maybe next time you will learn that asking nicely instead of just demanding will get you better results uncannie: i thought id shake things up a little uncannie: plus you are so lazy AWarr75: i dunno if lazy is the word AWarr75: i just put more effort into things you dont AWarr75: like video games and tv uncannie: as opposed to real living breathing aching for attention sex-deprived american female AWarr75: now that is a t-shirt slogan if i ever heard one AWarr75: wear that shit around campus see if you dont get any nookie uncannie: i dont want nookie, i want cuddling and foot massages AWarr75: hahha AWarr75: i hear you get that a lot in college AWarr75: LETS ALL GET DRUNK...ITS FOOT MASSAGE TIME AWarr75: speaking of which my massage chair comes friday uncannie: haha oh my GOD you are the LAZIEST fuck ive ever heard of AWarr75: there goes that jealousy i keep hearing from you uncannie: i have a right to be offended when you choose a chair over me AWarr75: hey this chair has 4 separate rollers, that is like four hands, do you have four hands? AWarr75: plus it has a cup holder and built in socket to plug in video games to uncannie: i have a built in socket AWarr75: yes you do AWarr75: you are so cute when you pretend uncannie: why thank you
Danny needs to call. Right now. This little trip down memory lane is going too far. I want to crawl into his bed and hide from this dull blue glow. I want to forget his screen name, his smooth, round shoulders, the way his beard grows in redder than his sideburns. I want to forget. To tell him. No, to forget. Forget to tell him? Forget, forget, forget, forget. Tell him. Tell him. TELL HIM.
AWarr75: whatsup uncannie: well i have a boyfriend AWarr75: awww that is quaint uncannie: shut up AWarr75: you shut up, how long have you been waiting to brag to me about this uncannie: haha ummmmm uncannie: we've been dating for like a month.....so since then i guess AWarr75: is he a drama geek uncannie: nope, frat boy AWarr75: haha yea right uncannie: and you're going to love this.....his name is danny AWarr75: why do i love that uncannie: annie and danny? AWarr75: i still dont get it uncannie: ok be that way AWarr75: well it is totally cause im jealous uncannie: you know what i like to hear AWarr75: im telling him you said that uncannie: feel free AWarr75: what uncannie: oh so hows your roommate? AWarr75: dead to me uncannie: aww whys that? AWarr75: he deleted warcraft off my computer AWarr75: what a tool uncannie: aww uncannie: adam victimized yet again AWarr75: im always the victim uncannie: you play the part so well AWarr75: well not all of us can mature in life uncannie: my eternal tadpole AWarr75: well you are a frizzy butterfly uncannie: i didnt know you were a poet AWarr75: One short sleep past AWarr75: We wake eternally AWarr75: And death shall be no more AWarr75: Death thou shalt die uncannie: why do i love you AWarr75: because i quote poetry to seduce you AWarr75: .....death poetry uncannie: hahahah uncannie: my turn to quote poetry to you, though its no john donne uncannie: some day i'll appreciate in value
get off my ass and call you
in the meantime i'll sport my brand new fashion
of waking up with pants on at 4 in the afternoon
you need him
i could be him
i could be an accident
but i'm still trying
thats more than i can say for him
uncannie: where is your boy tonight
i hope he is a gentleman
and maybe he wont find out what i know
you were the last good thing about this part of town AWarr75: fall out boy is not poetry uncannie: its still what i wish you'd say to me AWarr75: id lose 4/5 of my appeal if we ever became something AWarr75: so be happy with what you have
This summer I went over to his house. Adam lives about twenty minutes away from my parents’ house. I rang the doorbell and watched through the glass door as his dog, a longhaired miniature dachshund, scrambled toward me. The chestnut of her fur matched the wood floor, and I crouched down to where she had put her paws against the glass, her eager breath forming a small circle of fog. Suddenly the door opened. She was instantly in and out of my arms, leaving my cheek wet as she flew down the front steps and into the yard.
Matilda! he shouted. I looked up at him. I saw the muscles on the underside of his arm stiffen as he leaned against the door. He looked different from the last time I saw him, but not from how he had sounded on the phone. Thinner, maybe, and taller, as I realized when I stood up. I poked him in his not-so-soft stomach and cocked my head to the side. Hi, I said. Hey, he said.
We went inside. He brought me to the kitchen and introduced me to his mom, whom I had met twice before. She asked me where I went to school and said she wished her son had gotten in there. He told her we’d be downstairs.
We played pool for a while, or rather he shot balls in the pockets while I danced with my cue stick and tried to look cute sitting on the edge of the table. Then we moved to the couch in front of the big TV. Even under the big fleece blanket, where it’s safe and everything goes, our bare legs hardly touched. We sat there for hours. I was used to waiting. But when I told him I had to head home soon, the only move he made was to walk me to the door. I looked up at those silky brown eyes and put my arms around his neck. I lifted my face toward his. He bent down, slid his arms around my waist, and pulled me into a close hug. He smelled like Axe and fresh towels. I laughed as he picked me up and swung me around. Until I landed back on the ground, I was filled with ecstasy and hope.
But I drove away that night, and I didn’t go back.
uncannie: so, have you heard the new jack johnson album? AWarr75: no i am a man uncannie: you are so a closet michelle branch fan AWarr75: hey she is a musician uncannie: your face is a musician AWarr75: why thank you uncannie: my friend is doing her own taxes AWarr75: lets kick her ass uncannie: word AWarr75: wait AWarr75: you have friends? uncannie: i hate you AWarr75: do you? uncannie: i hate you being so far away AWarr75: hahaha, we talked less when you were 10 minutes away uncannie: i didnt say i was nostalgic AWarr75: im just saying AWarr75: dont you have a boyfriend?
I was leaning against the back wall of the class room, hands in pockets, body arched forward a little, right leg bent, heel resting on top of the skirting and head cocked unintentionally to one side like my childhood photos; hiding a sulk, a shyness. A ‘little camp’ was the description offered by one student. She, herself, so debilitated by her family she had succeeded at nothing, was getting through the course because I was writing virtually half of her work for her.
Her brother, who had abused her as a child, had burnt himself to death in his car by throwing petrol over the inside and igniting it. She, too, had attempted suicide, driving her car at sped into a lamppost. The vehicle had split almost in two, she had stepped out with a grazed face. Her sibling she had seen as selfish, there being nothing left for her to remember him by.
Mature students, generally, had problems, especially women. The majority on this course were females and half of them were starting the long road to economic independence and, for some, hoped-for single parenthood. Their male partners were largely unsupportive, insecure and suspicious of those who were helping their women stretch to new vistas; a colleague had recently seen one of them standing in the car park looking grimly up at the staff room windows. Fresh bruises seemed a weekly occurrence. The younger girls, minimum age twenty, were not exceptions.
For six months I had been lecturing this group in both the sociology of deviance and of medicine. Most would go on to a nursing or social work degree. Two hundred students were split into groups called ‘cohorts’ by management. I’d told the latter that as a cohort referred to a tenth of a Roman Legion and I hadn’t seen a toga or a sandal since I’d been there, the term was inappropriate.
I disliked management and their sycophants; their eager grabbing of Edu-biz buzz words and throwing them into the air like linguistic status symbols at staff meetings, at the end of which, having remained silent throughout, I would quietly place a scribbled list of code words in front of the frowning Chair.
The students I saw as ‘mine,’ as I did the subject I taught, and was aware that this proprietorial urge was a vestige of a working class background; my father, a caretaker, owning nothing, would claim psychological ownership of ‘his’ building, my mother, a cleaner, ‘her’ bank.
I was doing role-plays with them and had suggested a scenario or two; the Jehovah’s Witness parents of a young injured child who were refusing to allow a life-saving blood transfusion - what would, could, the medical team do? A similar question was posed by an extremely sick menstruating woman being treated by Orthodox Jewish doctors. It was a delight to watch two Yoruba Nigerian women and a Kenyan man play the doctors.
With encouragement they’d create their own situations and act out one or two a lesson. They particularly liked making up narratives that enabled them to dress up - tongue in cheek I’d suggest nurses uniforms with fishnet stockings and stiletto heels would be appreciated - and, if they justified it in the context of a genuine ethical dilemma, to use music. The head of school would look through the door and frown perplexedly at us. Once, she had marched into the classroom and demanded we changed rooms, this one having been overbooked. I’d told the class not to leave.
‘You can’t treat them like this.’ I’d said to her.
‘And I hate the way you behave towards me in front of students,’ she’d hissed angrily, and using her authority had had her way. I wondered if she’d have acted thus if most of the students had been white.
Thandi Mnede was delivering a baby - a large black doll - from a fair-haired Spanish student, slightly shorter than the doll, lying on my desk surrounded by other ‘medical staff’ who were laughing and screaming with delight. I liked the innocence, the ingenuous nature of African women, except when it came to religion.
I told them of European oppression and control through Christianity, that god was a construct, all predictably met with surprise, anger and, sometimes, pity. God was involved with the things that they wrote, their essays and research projects - particularly the latter where, in their acknowledgements, they would thank various organisations and individuals who had helped them, often including god. I’d suggest they put me higher on the list than god. Some took me seriously.
Pulling a chair across I sat down, watching them. Maria was holding her new-born tightly and miming breast-feeding while Charity, the youngest in the class and wearing a stars and stripes headscarf, was jumping up and down with glee. It was she who, after I’d told them that sepia photos of ringed female necks a foot long and ‘savages’ with bones through their noses had been part of my early upbringing, had insisted to the group that the bones were fashion statements. On her mobile I knew that it permanently said, ‘I love Jesus and Jesus loves me.’
Thandi was enjoying herself, grinning at me. She was tall, slim, with short frizzy hair, almond-shaped eyes and that slightly jutting curve at the top of her buttocks. I was seeing her that evening.
Recently she’d been passing the staff room and I’d beckoned her in and asked what work she did. Most of the women had caring jobs outside college; she was looking after adolescent boys. I offered to help her with her project questionnaire and handed her a sheet of paper which asked if she fancied a drink one evening, under which I’d drawn a large square with a ‘yes ’under it and a small one with a tiny ‘no. ‘Please tick appropriate box.’ it said.
She’d folded it in quarters slowly and perfectly and in her slightly brittle Zulu accent had said, ‘Why didn’t you ask me before? I knew you wanted me as soon as you walked into the classroom.’
I’d explained that it would have been too early then and may have frightened her off. Disdainfully she’d lifted her head and walked away.
It had been rather different in the early days when she’d been with other students chattering eagerly around my table waiting for their marks and calling me, ‘Mister Steve.’
We met in a pub near where she lived, I arriving before her as intended. It was a dismal place; flock wallpaper, match boarded dado, fifties lampshades and a tattered, miss spelt notice stating that there were rooms to let. When Thandi came in I gestured at it and said that the landlady would probably have told any potential guests that she couldn’t shake their hands, she’d just finished putting lard on the cat’s boil. She looked bemused.
Sitting down opposite me and with her Nefertiti head inquiringly angled she said,
‘Well, are you bisexual?’
I asked if it was the earring - I wore a small gold one. Pints were pulled and a darts matched ended before she told me it was because I wore tight jeans. I jokingly sneered at her African stereotypes, until she reminded me that I’d told them that sociology was a generalising enterprise and not to apologise for it.
She couldn’t stay long; she had a shift to do, and briefly told me about herself. Brought up outside Johannesburg in a large, extended family - I envied aspects of African culture; babies huddled in slings between their mother’s breasts, having lots of ‘mothers’, what could create more security? - she’d managed a restaurant before coming to London and its gold-paved streets. She was single, had a son Nono - pronounced with clicks after the consonants - and was thinking of adopting Tshepiso, her absent brother’s teenage child who he had ill-treated from an early age.
‘I want to show her and teach her love.’ she said.
Two evenings later I was quickly shaking hands with other household members, an aunt, uncle, two cousins, a half-sister and a sister who she shared a room and a bed with. She gave me a glimpse of the room; a few African carvings, bright traditional dresses inside an opened wardrobe door, a photo of herself in a Diana Ross wig taken on the sea front at Clacton when she’d first come to Britain four years before.
In the train on our way to see ’Umoja’ she wore a black velvet hat and, picking up a newspaper from a seat, started reading. I asked her if her not talking to me was an African thing.
‘We don’t show love or hold hands.’ she said, and enquired if my son was well. I was divorced, as I told my classes in response to their questioning, and my young son stayed with me some weekends. Later I was to find that she revelled in disinterest; not asking who I’d seen a film with, but where, not who had accompanied me to a gallery, but merely a polite raising of an eyebrow.
I asked her why she had worn her hat in the theatre and hadn’t clapped and sung as many in the audience had.
‘We wear our hats inside. And I didn’t want to make a noise because I could see the way you looked at people when they were unwrapping sweets. But I told the people behind that you are my teacher and to take no notice.’
There was a smile in her eyes, but I felt frustrated that she hadn’t expressed herself, had misunderstood.
In class she acted as if we hadn’t been out together. Occasionally I rang her at her work place, she always seemed to be working and could rarely talk for long. She called me ‘darling’ on the phone and I noticed she greeted her student friends in the same manner. Childishly, I felt annoyed.
One Sunday she rang to ask me to help her with a communications essay, the title of which she’d been allowed to choose herself. Despite precise instructions she got hopelessly lost. I drove to where she was parked and led her back to my flat. Standing by my side while I looked at her work and wearing salwar kameez trousers wrapped around her head, braided extensions pluming above them, she looked utterly African.
Without looking up I asked her quietly when she was going to sleep with me. She pushed me playfully to the floor and stood astride me, eyes black and still. But it was church day and she had to leave and, holding her folder, walked to the gate while I returned to the screen where her essay title still read, ‘’Thou shalt lie only with whom thou love.’ Discuss.” I wondered if she recognised the irony.
We went to the Passion play, ‘The Mysteries.’ Knowing my views on organised religion she was surprised at my choice. How many times had I told them of social inequality being legitimised by hymnal lines like,’ the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, all creatures high and lowly, god ordered their estate.’
The director had encouraged members of the South African cast to act in their own languages. She casually said she could speak five of them. On the way back I mentioned that the lead black singer, the best voice on stage, should have played Eve. She made no comment, just shrugged. I tried to get her interested in the songs, the humour, the scant, but effective scenery; like the stockade made of Peter Stuyvesant cartons in which a near naked group had sung, ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ and received a standing ovation. She shrugged again, then said,
‘I will stay with you tonight, then.’
I drove her home. In the bedroom she began undressing quickly, a sudden dark shape slipping under the duvet. After telling me that it was too early for us to make love, she added disinterestedly that she would still satisfy me. After delivering a short lecture on the myth of joyless servicing, I gave in to her plea that she never slept naked by letting her wear me for most of the night.
In the morning she made herself breakfast with food she’d brought with her, picking up pieces of cornmeal to soak up her thin stew, lips making soft smacking sounds and occasionally smiling. Unravelling her cornrows into a tightly curled wedge and rubbing in sulphur cream, ‘Because this is what they do back home,’ she transformed my kitchen by putting dishes away as if she had lived here forever instead of staying a night. Looking briefly around my minimalist home she announced she’d be late for college and that when I took her class I mustn’t anger the women again by jeering that infibulation was about male control and that they didn’t have to lie back and think of Africa.
As she started the engine of her car, barefoot on the pavement I anguished my frustration through the car window.
‘But I made you cum.’ she frowned and drove away.
During the summer I saw her only once. She had passed the course and was beginning a nursing degree at university and was working nearly all of the time, mostly with the boys. I rang her most days and if there was more than a three-day gap between calls she would ring to remind me of ‘the contract’, referring to a promise I’d made to phone her regularly.
One evening she asked me to meet her at the street where I’d picked her up when she’d got lost. When I crossed the road to her, she wound down the side window and gently took my hands and pulled them inside the car and pressed them to her breasts. I felt awkward, like a teenager, and wanted to take her home. She grinned at me and said she had to go back, and drove off. Always she seemed to be driving away.
She’d been at university a month before I saw her again; for the first and only time she’d arranged for someone to stand in for her at work. She walked in with a parcel of fish heads and yams and began washing up while they warmed. Noisily she sucked one of the eyes while I opened the wine, though she rarely touched alcohol. I found it pleasurable to watch her eat with her fingers.
She hadn’t spoken since coming in, then, with eyes darker than her lashes and blacker than her fountained braids, looked up at me and said, in long continuous sentences and barely pausing for breath,
‘When you mimic me your accent is too strong, I am Zulu not Afrikaans, and when you come home with me at Christmas it will be very hot, but you must wear a suit to show respect for my mother and you cannot sleep with me.’ She carried on eating for a while. ‘I am beautiful inside as well as out, and if I were a virgin you would pay a thousand pounds for me, and when I go back I even give them my panties because we are poor and when I was a child my uncle said I was spoilt because I didn’t sweep the yard and cook tomatoes in the big pot like the other children and I walked like an old woman, but I hold my shoulders back for you because I am glad you took me out, though I don’t think you will come home with me at Christmas.’
She looked down at her plate again. I didn’t know what to say.
She stood up and began swaying with the music I’d put on, a languorous wisdom inhabiting every glance, then, moving nothing except her wrists, bending them rhythmically downwards, she was nonchalantly clutching all the sex in the world.
There was a familiarity about the bedroom struggle to remove her clothes, until she clamped my wrist and I noticed the rag tied around her waist, which she’d said she wore for fasting. This meant that nothing was to enter her body except water.
She laid down with her back to me, braided hair now in a loose knot on her shoulder before flowing down almost to her hip.
‘I am a wounded soldier making love on the battlefield.’ she whispered, and went to sleep.
When I woke she was parading naked around the bedroom, buttocks clenching Zulu style and intently mirror-gazing. She murmured repetitive ‘mmms?’ to my thick-throated questions about when I would see her again, and her bumping into a stool, hair extensions loosening, did not interrupt her delighted solipsism. After she had gone I could still hear her sharp vowels telling me she was leaving, and lay still on the bed as I scrawled on the calendar an imaginary cross for some day next month.
She started work-placement at a local hospital, after which she came to tell me that as her family had moved to Nottingham and she had flown back to her childhood home to bring Nono back with her, as well as adopting Tshepiso, she now had nowhere to live.
‘I have now been seeing a man for some while.’ she added, with that slight irregularity of English use I usually found endearing. ‘He is not African, but he will provide a home for us.’ Her eyes were sad, and also asking me to offer her my home.
This news hurt and confused me. The flat was not large enough, my son still stayed with me, though less often, and I wasn’t sure I could cope with her two children. I felt weakened, told her I couldn’t have her, was sorry
Then, at the end of her first year at university, instead of the dutiful relationship she had with god being little more than a socialized response, she really did find Him.
She asked me to come to church with her and listen to her testimony. I hadn’t been to a church since a child. It was a Victorian building whose builders would never have envisaged the nature of this congregation. There were many people present, mostly ethnics, the majority Africans. The pastor, white, tanned, grey hair, tailored sports jacket, briefly shook my hand.
‘Hi, I’m David.’ he drawled in an American accent, and moved into the hall.
‘Hi, I’m a sceptic.’ I said under my breath as I climbed to the back of the balcony. I stood watching the keyboard player hitting the chords with a gospel band and, pointing to the hymn-filled screen above the stage and telling them that this was their god for the morning, he led the congregation into their devotional karaoke.
Matrons sang, clapped and swayed, and towards the far side of the balcony I saw two students I’d taught the previous year looking across at me, eyes wide in surprise. I exaggeratedly raised my shoulders and gestured with open hands to them.
Thandi arrived late, African time, shook my hand - I fondled hers - and introduced me to her lover, a protestant chill momentarily freezing the music. He was a pleasant looking Afro-Caribbean who welcomed me warmly and asked me to sit with them. I stayed where I was. After a sermon and further hymns it was time for her testimony. She stood in front of the audience and told them how she had come to god.
She recited it very quickly and emotionally and I could understand little. After she had finished, with more clapping and singing from the now packed church, she came up to the balcony and gently squeezed my arm and asked me to take her back to the flat so she could tell me what had really happened. Her partner would take the children home.
Sitting at the table with me she held my hands tightly together as if I were praying and, with her eyes closed, told me that when she was seventeen her ancestors had occupied her spirit and told her to remain chaste - a command manifested in the white rag appearing around her waist - and that when it was time for her to work for them she would be told. She assumed that, like chosen others in her country, she would ‘go away’ for two years and then return as a healer.
Two weeks ago the ancestral spirits had demanded that she walk into the sea and there would be a crocodile waiting for her with open mouth into which she would climb. There would be snakes, a festive party and great happiness inside the creature. There she was to stay until ready to heal the sick.
As she told me this she spoke rapidly, became excited; several times I gently slowed her down. She became more agitated, almost frantic, when she announced that a fortnight previously she had, wearing the rag, white knickers and white dressing gown, set out to obey these wishes at Southend-on-Sea while her younger sister and her boy friend had watched from the beach.
Resisting explaining the phallic symbolism of the snakes, I imagined her, oblivious to the sounds of boy racers, the pier train, the fun fair, go-karts, the smell of vinegar and chips, moving deeper and deeper into the sea.
Part of me wanted to laugh, almost hysterically, at the sheer incongruity of the town she’d chosen, but I believed her; believed her when she told me that as her head was going under water, god had exploded inside of her and told her to renounce what she was doing and to do Hiswork, and only His.
She had waded back to her sister and pleaded with her to find a priest. They’d driven back and found the church - the one she had been speaking in an hour before - and she’d told David what had happened. This had been her first visit since then.
She began to cry. Releasing my hands I gripped hers. She opened her eyes; they shone with excitement. This was a different reality for me, a spiritual universe I couldn’t enter, and didn’t wish to. I wanted to tell her that many frigid women who gave themselves to Jesus could do so in the knowledge that they didn’t have to make love to him. She would, her humour and patience jettisoned, have cried out that it was profane, an insult. She wasn’t in the classroom; I wasn’t teaching her. I held her tightly for a long while before she left.
I went to church with her once more. It was the last time I saw her.
She picked me up at my home and drove northwards. In the car Tshepiso ate greens with her fingers while Thandi threw us around back streets telling me that the preachers used private jets; I proselytised about ruling classes and god until we arrived.
In a hangar on Hackney wasteland gantry cameras arced over us like crows, people waved at screens, puzzled they were in profile, and envelopes for Jesus magically appeared. Outside, I’d noticed how permanent the fast-track buildings were, how organised it was. As well as hot food and drinks there were all the cogs of capitalism; stalls housing loan firms, insurance companies, mortgage and investment brokers, banks, estate agents, a funeral director, even an adoption agency. And inside, a bass voiced pastor was telling the congregation that all that they looked upon was all they may have.
Knowing those who had nothing, I stood up, squeezed past Thandi with a tight smile and walked towards an exit, remembering irrelevantly the gifts she’d brought me every time she came to see me; the lemons I never ate, the popcorn I never made, the t-shirt I never wore.
At the door I turned; saw her head with its short tufts of hair, Tshepiso and Nono grinning back at me, and under the starry night ceiling of the stage, standing in a lake of lilies, the wild hair of a singer hitting Whitney Houston notes. Turning sixties pop into gospel, Jackson Five look-alikes strutted to the front and a thousand believers raised their hands.
She came rather gingerly into Peguy’s office.
It must have showed.
“Come on in, come on in, I’m not the Big Bad Wolf, and you’re certainly not Little Red Riding Hood....”
Although I do have a red coat on,” she laughed, sitting down in this big old wooden chair in front of his desk, him getting up and coming over and sitting in front of her, as if he wanted to eliminate all barriers between them, not make it Preacher and Penitent, but just “pals.”
“Nice office!” she said, looking around, all kinds of pictures of the Blessed Virgin on the walls, some things very “ancient” looking, almost medieval, a medievalish statue of Jesus, hand upraised like a Rabbi giving the final blessings after services.
“You like my ‘medieval’ things? From Holland, actually. After the war. You know. I was there at a conference, Rotterdam, almost totally destroyed...poking around in ruins....they’re kind of ‘illegal’ and all that, but in a sense where better place than this? And how do you like my Mexican Blessed Virgin?”
Pointing to a huge bright, very “Indianish” looking picture of the Blessed Virgin.
“A bit garish, but who says Jews aren’t garish.”
“I’ve got a little tea here,” smiled Peguy getting up and going to a bookcase on which sat what looked like a very, very Louis-the-Fourteenthish teapot and two teacups and a sugar bowl, “just waiting for you. It should be just about right by now.....”
Miriam noticing a little sink and microwave over in the far corner of his office half hidden by a carved screen from, she guessed, India.
He was such an artsy guy. She loved it, always had been a frustrated interior designer herself, loved to play around with wallpapers and paints and pictures, mirrors, the perfect chair here, the perfect candlestick there.....
She loaded her tea with sugar and they both sipped a little, then sat back in their chairs, relaxed.....
“It’s funny, sometimes I play a little game with myself, take a
copy of the bible in hand, and just open it randomly,” taking a copy of the bible off his desk and opening it randomly, “and invariably it gives me, how shall I put it, ‘peace.’” Starting to read: “’Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid....,’” stopping, looking a little troubled, confused.
“You had the page marked didn’t you?” Miriam teased him, but not just teasing either, it had been too much on the mark to be pure coincidence, hadn’t it? Peace, peace, peace.....
“No, not really. St. John, Chapter Fourteen, verse 27....., and then in Chapter Sixteen, the very end: ‘These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. IN the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world...’ Hmmmmmm....I have overcome the world...how does that strike you. Can’t you just feel the peace descend, the Buddha-of-Kamakura-ness....?”
“But what about something you said the other day, about the crucifixion being an impediment to the Jewish acceptance of Christ as Messiah?”
“Well, what the Jews wanted was someone to liberate them from the Romans. And to see the possible Messiah crucified by the Romans, well, it negated their whole idea of salvation in this world, or maybe salvation isn’t the right word...liberation is more like it....but I think of the sentiment in so many inscriptions in the catacombs, early Christians killed by the Romans, death not as something horrible, this life as something great...but death as desirable...suddenly leaving this world behind and going to eternal Heaven to be with God forever....”
“But the ‘son of God’?”
“Someone had to redeem mankind from Original Sin.”
“Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, Adam eating the forbidden fruit, which changed the whole nature of man’s life on earth, introduced aging, death, disease....”
“But for the son of the God who created the whole universe to have to be scourged and crucified, go through all that agony? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“That’s what I originally said, the crucifixion is a big impediment
for the Jews to believe in the Christ...I guess I got used to it, was raised in it, the way Christians concentrate on Christ’s suffering, The Way of the Cross, Christ Falls the First Time, Christ is Crowned with Thorns.....but always followed by the Easter Sunday resurrection...Spring, after a long, dead Winter....”
“Jesus as sun-god again?”
“Well....,” Peguy screwing up his face, “let me put it this way, what we believe influences, dominates, colors and forms our whole lives. If we’re Richard Morrises and believe that we’re in this endless, godless chance universe that’s nothing more than a big question mark, we go around our entire lives under a cloud, strangled by anguish. I know. I’ve written to Morris, in fact when he came to Paris about ten years ago he stayed with me for a few days, and I never met anyone more, how can I put it, ‘resigned.’ Like he was going to get hung the following week. I found him extremely defensive, brittle, surrounded by a kind of perpetual howl of , how can I put it, ‘desolation.’I mean the Greeks and Hera, Aphrodite, Zeus....all very fanciful, but, for me, at least more science fiction than anything ‘real.’ And the Jewish lack of any real
afterlife....you say Kaddish and all you do is praise God, you have your Jahrzeits, but it’s all remembrance, no sense of re-meeting anyone in some sort of wooley-clouded heaven again....whereas Catholicism, it’s all spelled-out, you see it all over the cathedrals in stone, God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Madonna -- how/why Madonna ever called herself Madonna I’ll never know --and the promise of perpetual beatitude, per omnia saecula saeculorem, Amen, if you’ll pardon a little Latin...” “Haolam in Hebrew, Olam is the universe, Haolam is ‘eternity,’” Miriam getting her two cents in, enjoying more than ever before being who she was, knowing what she knew, like she was the Elder God(ess) talking to some just initiated Young God, Welcome to the pantheon, I’m one of the old-timers around here. Felt like getting up, politely, of course, many thanks and all that but just leaving....
But didn’t. Owed to him, didn’t she, to last it out until he finished?
“I know a little Hebrew. A little. After all the services I’ve attended, you know...., but...,” getting very solemn suddenly, solemn but
at the same time totally defenseless, tears coming into his eyes, looking like a little kid whose cat has just gotten killed by a car,whose mother has just gotten killed by terrorists, suddenly thinking of her dead husband, and not just him but all the hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians who had been killed over what exactly, where does my backyard end and yours begin?,”I’m a Catholic, I stay a Catholic not because I automatically believe, but choose to believe, the same way I choose to believe in Renoir and Pissarro and Rachmaninoff and....Paris....’etre dans la nature ainsi qu’un arbre humain/ be in nature like a human tree’, ....”
“Anna de Noailles...almost unknown....although she shouldn’t be. But you see what I mean, I don’t want to die and become nothing more than a neandrathalish pile of bones. I don’t want to be Jewish and be faced with no real sense of afterlife at all. I want to ascend into Heaven and see the old gang, my fat, old greasy grandmother and slim, stylish mother and the grandfathers I never saw, my grumpy old cigar-smoking father, my dead friends aunts, uncles....and...will I be able to talk to Jesus and the Blessed Virgin? And what’s ‘beatitude’ like?” lowering his voice as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear, as if the Inquisition was outside the door with tape recorders, boss-bishops just waiting for him to reveal all so he could be burned, hung, drawn and quartered in the old inquisitorial style, “I don’t know how much I really ‘believe-believe,’ but I know what I want to believe...and what I want to believe, force myself to believe, spreads its light all across the whole of my life, I’m never ‘down,’ in the dumps, depressed, despairing, but always waiting to ascend into eternal Paradise to be with my hero, my king, my best friend, Jesus....you see what I mean?”
“I see, yes, what you believe ‘forms’ your whole life....I was just thinking of the Lama....”
“The Dalei Lama,” he ‘corrected,’ just a minor, muted footnote.
“The Dalei Lama, how before he died he told everyone ‘You want to see how much control I have over my body. You’ll see....no rigor mortis.’ And after he died he never got rigor mortis.....”
“And not just a specific physical effect,” Peguy being rather obviously ‘patient’ with her, “But going to bed at night, lying there in the dark, your most vulnerable moment of the day, just you and....and...that’s the point...WHAT? Don’t you hate the idea of being in a universe where WHAT is NOTHING...CHANCE? But imagine, in the ancient past, the idea of the Great Mother, the Earth was literally Mother Earth, you slept in the arms, in the womb, whatever, of the Great Mother. Sometimes I wish I could go all the way back to that....”
“But the Virgin Mary is almost the same. All the cathedrals. Notre Dame. Our Lady.......”
“True enough. But, please.....no ‘automatic’ universes.....sleep in the arms of Our Lady, fine...talking to her son, Jesus....’Help me, Jesus, get through the night,’ all my prostate problems and swollen legs and joints caused by the chemotherapy.....,” stopping, looking very, very old, ancient, Miriam for a moment thinking of the ancient French, Mouster, Mousterian paleo-lithic spearpoints, skulls, how we’d all end up as interesting skulls, and then, when/if the skulls decayed, as nothing at all, Peguy reaching over and picking up his bible, “Let God guide me, in fact, open a page at random, which isn’t random at all, but very much ‘guided,’” opening it up, “John 12....let’s see what we have here. Thirty years ago I could practically recited it for you, but not any more. Jesus glorified by the Jews, ‘They took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried ‘Hosanna, blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord.’ The origin of Palm Sunday. You see how closely the primitive Church stayed to the text. And look here, verse 24, ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone, but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit...he that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.’ An explanation of sorts for the Death and Resurrection. Jesus becomes a seed that has to die in order to bring forth life. Then there’s this whole thing about ‘walking in the light.’ All this business about the Father having sent Him.....’I am come a light into the world, and whoever believeth in me should not abide in darkness.’ Just what I was saying before....there I am in the darkness of my bed, I’m a terrible sleeper, rely on all sorts of herbs to knock me out, and still I don’t sleep....but it’s OK, in my darkness, close to death, my whole body saying one thing ‘Not much longer now,’ but it’s OK because in the midst of my physical darkness, I’m surrounded by The Trinity, God the Father, huge and bearded and all benevolence, the father I never had, the Holy Spirit dove asleep on its perch at the far end of the room, Jesus, sitting there in the darkness sipping on a glass of dark, sweet kosher wine, Lach Heim, Lach Heim, Lach Heim/ To Life, To Life, To Life. And over the whole house the Blessed Virgin wearing her blue and white cape, breathing softly blessing, blessing blessing everything around her. It’s sanity. It’s better than Haldol and psychiatry, to turn the universe around you into Shantih, Shantih, Shantih, the peace that passeth understanding......”
Sitting back in his chair, beyond age now, dead and already passed over into eternity, Miriam finding it very easy to imagine him up in a blessed cloudworld somewhere for all eternity, much the same as he was right now.
For some long moments just basking in Peguy’s peace that passeth understanding, and then reaching over and lifting up the bible herself.
“Let me play your game for a moment, OK?”
“What game is that?”
“Turning randomness into divine revelation....”
“If that’s the way you see it.....”
A little hurt, obviously not wanting her, her cynicism dominating at all for the moment, not wanting to come back into “reality” at all.....ever....
She opened the bible.
Psalm 93. Started to read:
“The Lord reigns, he is clothed with majesty,
The Lord is clothed with strength, with which
He has clothed himself. The world is established
so that it cannot be moved. Thy throne is established
of old and Thou art from Everlastingness......”
Peguy snapping back into peace again.
“Sounds pretty good to me. Everylasting strength, majesty....peace......all the Catholics have done is ‘explicate’ the oneness and seen it divided into three parts...but the unity, the oneness is still there.....and a little bit of the Magna Mater/Great Mother/Blessed Virgin never hurt anyone....”
Trivializing it all in a way, but that was OK too. Somehow its peace dripping off on her, like drops of rain from trees as you walk through a
misty forest. Feeling Him there as never before....Him in all His three aspects, and the whole room enclosed in the mantle of the Great Mother Virgin (why Virgin?), beyond questioning into the world of total acceptance.
Half a year of their little “games,” and by Spring she was ready for Baptism.
On the altar at Notre Dame.
“But what’s it all about?” asked Adam as she got dressed for the Baptism....
“Like a Mikvah, I guess.....some sort of ritual cleansing...washing away of sins, bringing you into the ‘fold.’”
“Nous somme toutes moutons, n’est pas? We’re all sheep, aren’t we? Jesus is the Lamb of God....”
“Why not the pig?” quipped Michael.
“It’s all Jewish,” she said, all in white today, her first time ever all in white, skirt maybe a bit too short, heels maybe a bit too high, white pantyhosed legs a bit too shapely, but....,” like the Mass, Communion, it’s all based on Passover, the bread and wine, and the lamb, the lamb of God, Baptism....it’s all Jewish...just ‘updated,” hating the word when it came out, ‘updated,’ part of her still wanting to be un-updated, ancient, primal, like Rabbi Frankel was always saying “The best religions are the earliest religions, the further back the more sense it makes...even turning everything into gods....the divine....”
But still wanting to be “in,” part of the “fold.”
“But am I still going to do my Bar-Mitzvah?” asked Adam.
“Of course, of course. Later on, if you decide to follow your mother across the Sea of Reeds....”
“Sea of Reeds?”
“Red Sea....that’s a more accurate translation......”
A sudden image of ancient Egyptians pursuing ancient Jews filling her mind, the Jews crossing over as the Egyptians pursued them, and then the water suddenly giving way, coming back together, killing them
all. Lazarus rising from the dead, Jesus rising from the dead, the empty tomb on Easter (Passover) Sunday......wanting to believe that the Messiah had actually come, The Omnipotent on two legs with long hair, speaking Aramaic, the Hebrew of Christ’s time, still used in the Kaddish....and that some day (soon?) He would come back and the world would end in cloudy, heavenly glory....
“I don’t want to go. Do we have to go?” asked Michael, “it’s kind of a scarey place....all those columns and stone and what if a terrorist bombs it or something....”
“Don’t be ridiculous, a terrorist bomb Notre Dame? Whatever for?”
“What did they ever bomb our father for, he didn’t do anything....”
A horrible sense of loss suddenly filling her, like a bucket of black tar had been poured all over her, a bucket of shit, swamp water....what next, East Nile virus a mosquito in the Bois du Boulogne.....?
“You’re both going, and that’s it!” she said, never a dictatorial mother, always sweet and gingerish, Ms. ginger candle, dispersing her perfume into the air of everyone around her. Although.....sometimes you had to be Franco, Allende, William the Conquerer, didn’t you....?
“OK,” they both said, practically together, back into their bedroom, their computer, the new Mario games. It was nice to have that big bankroll in the old bank, wasn’t it. Sometimes worried about a depression, the bottom falling out of the French economy, felt she should have her money in Switzerland, but now with Switzerland becoming part of the rest of the European community, losing its”isolation” in a way.... ta sufit, ta sufit....let it go, let it go....
A nice hot shower, and then the blessing of bed. Loving Paris for a moment, for a moment looking out the window at the Seine and all the apartment buildings on the other side of the river, half moon just rising, and loving it all, the revolutions and Bastille days and the student riots and black Africans and North African Arabs, the impressionists and Hemingway and Henry Miller, Rodin, the Rodin Museum, the officiousness of Sr. Eiffel and his monster tower, the budding trees, plus temps, plus temps, plus temps;/more time, more time, more time...horribly guilty for a moment as she thought how lucky (God-gifted?) she had been not to have gone to that Pizza parlor where her husband had been killed. Clothes off. Making the shower hotter than usual, Patchouli soap, loving her breasts and legs and hairy pubic triangle for a moment, just to be there in the glorious NOW, then, as she stepped into the hot water, calming down, In Nomine Patris, Filhio et Espiritu Sanctus...Father, Son and Holy Spirit......
Then suddenly her mind starting to sing in Hebrew: shalom aleichem, malachei ha-shar-reit, malachei Elyon... Peace unto you o ministering angels, messengers of the Most High....
The angels in the shower with her, all wet wings and blessedness, welcoming them all, like being in a box of chickens, smiling, then laughing, welcome, welcome, welcome....all the angels but the Angel of Death. She never wanted to see him again, for many, many years, loving the idea now that she’d been such a “Jewish mother” to her kids. Good for them. Keep them on track in a trackless world.
The next afternoon in Notre Dame, up the main aisle up to the nave, under the curved stone ceilings that looked like stone crabs, past all the stained glass windows, everything curved, rosseted, vast, almost sepulchral, Father Peguy up on the main altar waiting for her like the little castrated/prostate-surgeried elf that he was, smiling, a triumph for him, no?
“I’m scared!” said Michael, “I like synagogues, but this......”
“You’ll be fine,” Miriam suddenly getting soft and motherly like she’d never been before, “it’s been here for a thousand years, and it’ll be here for another thousand...at least...”
“A thousand years?” Adam the mathematician, her little computer nerd, his head boiling with the number 1,000....although what was a mere thousand for her, her semitic ancestors, her “tribe,” going back, back, back to God knows where/when.
“It won’t take long,” bending down and kissing them both on the their heads. Nicely clean heads. She made sure of that. Just a touch of
Patchouli, the only shampoo she ever bought, a little touch of Hindu sensuality, just what they needed, both of them so totally in their heads, in their computers, internet, computer-games, the whole electronic business creating a whole new generation of nerdified pure heads, no bodies...senses....
Smiling as she went up the rest of the altar to her mentor, Mad Father Peguy, who she loved, loved, loved for his frankness, honesty, even his confusion.
So small and tiny up there on the altar dwarfed by the mausoleumish magnificence of the cathedral itself.
Were they believers or not, the original builders!?!? Like all “founders,”“beginners,” always the first buildings of any city the best, whether it be London, Jerusalem or...thinking Nineveh.....Kabul....
Too much history. Too much reading.
NOW, NOW, NOW....forcing herself back into her body, her white nylon-sleek legs, her almost little-girlish white-made-up face that hid all the wrinkles....almost.... up to the main altar.
“Bon jour, mon amie? Toutes va bien?/Hello, my friend. Everything
Some tourists coming into the church, Germans, she thought, wasn’t that German she was hearing as they oohed and aahed about the size and magnificence of the place, remembering her visit to Cologne (K÷ln) the year before. They had their own magnificent cathedrals, nicht wahr, they should have stuck with them.....how did the Fnhrer ever emerge from the country of Beethoven, Bach Schuman, Brahms?
“Just ignore them, they’ll behave themselves,” smiled Peguy, nodding toward the tourists, “I’ve gotten so used to them that they’re practically invisible....and inaudible.... I see you brought your boys along. Will they be next?”
“I don’t know,” Miriam not appreciating the question at all, “when they’re old enough to decide....I don’t want to disrupt them psychologically too much, there’s been enough discontinuity in their lives already...how about a few years of simple continuity?”
“’Continuity,’ ‘discontinuity,’ your French is getting....it must be very difficult with all the roots so different....”
“It’s not easy although I took French in college....a little bearded professor from the Sorbonne, in fact.....”
“Wonderful....,” then moving suddenly from Father Benign Old Saint to Father Business-at-Hand, “You kneel here...it may be a bit messy for you, but holy water it is and holy water it has to be....”
Handing her a little container to catch the water in, starting to pray in Latin, her smiling as she remembered him going on one day about Vatican II, ( “all the’Vacitans’”) and the getting rid of Latin (“in order to de-universalize the universal church”), and him insisting that he was too old to change, and besides he loved Latin....beginning to pray....in Latin....the tourists coming up to the front of the church, kneeling down and watching, suddenly becoming piously quiet, a few words passing between them, probably, she thought, about her being an adult, an adult being baptized, did she look semitic enough for them to be able to tell, tempted for a moment to stand up and call out MA HA DASH to them? WHAT’S NEW?
But behaving herself as Peguy got to the center of the ritual Ego Te baptizo in nomine Patria, Filio et Spiritu Santo/ I baptize thee in
the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Not much water. And he had a big towel that he handed her to help her wipe off her forehead, as she got through drying herself off noticing Michael and Adam in the back of the church getting up and getting out fast, although with a certain amount of dignity, deference to the sense of the place being “sacred,” even if scarey.....
The German tourists out there all happy as they finished up, smiling, applauding without really “clapping” their hands, totally noiselessly, all that blond hair and bulk, one guy especially looking like he’d just come out of some neanderthal museum somewhere, remembering how the name “neanderthal” came from a place called the Valley of Neander....feeling truly “cleansed,” “at peace,” reaching over and giving Father Peguy a little kiss on the cheek. Which scandalized-amused the Germans.
Then following some wild impulse in herself, the altar becoming bima, suddenly becoming a rabbi, rabbinically in charge, the older the better, isn’t that what Peguy always said during his ramblings? Going up to the tabernacle, knowing the Torah wasn’t there, no scrolls, no
Hebrew, but opening it up and making the sign of the cross, there was the empty chalice, intoning in Hebrew, just barely above a whisper: “Baruch atta Adonai, Elohainu Melech Haolam, Borei Pri Hagafan/ Holy Art Thou, God, God, King of the Universe, Creator of the Fruit of the Wine.
The Germans all confused, scandalized again but this time not simultaneously amused, wanting to turn around and say something to them in her grandmother’s Lithuanian Yiddish, but controlling herself.....
coming back to Father Peguy, who, suprisingly, had tears in his eyes, looking like some old grandma himself, giving her an embrace.
“I know it’s crazy, but I loved it, the blessing of the wine....”
“How do you know that?” she smiled, always amazed by the man, what he knew that he really shouldn’t know.
“Oh, I don’t know...for someone as close to Kaddish as me....I’ve always been curious, actually learned how to read Hebrew at one point, love the sound of Melech Haolam, King of the Universe....it’s like a taste for dark chocolate or chirimoya icecream.”
“Bolivia. The most heavenly fruit you’ll ever taste.”
Another little hug.
“If you weren’t a hundred and ten and a priest, I swear....”
“Me too,” moving down off the altar now, “come over to my office, there are some papers to sign, after we find your boys.”
“So you noticed to. The church overwhelmed them.”
“It overwhelms me too,” passing by the Germans, waving to them, hand out, which they grabbed and shook, “Guten tag, guten tag, guten tag...,” as he passed beyond them toward the back of the church kind of letting his mind wander, letting his thoughts just come out, “There never was a second world war, Puten, whatever his name is, is Mr. Big Business, everything absolved, forgotten, Hitler never was, the Gestapo, Auschwitz and Belsen.....l’histoire, l’histoire, l’histoire....”
As Miriam emerged out into the cold sun feeling somehow ashamed, cowardly, the kind of sneaky bitch she never wanted to be, no mention of any of this to anyone at the Temple, big hidden secret, she had to protect her job didn’t she, even if she didn’t need the
money,had to protect what? Just wanting to keep it all under cover, two hers, Jekyll and Hyde, only which was which?
Cold sun. L’hiver de notres jours / The winter of our days....
Suddenly feeling she was as old as Peguy and then some, it had all gone/was going so fast, her head filled with her dead father and and mother and her cousins who had been killed on a school bus in Tel Aviv, her dead grandmothers and grandfathers, Abraham and Sarah and Pharaoh...and Jesus Himself.
Looking up at the sky as if she expected Him to be coming back (again?), riding on a white (horse) cloud.
“Temps pour le judgement final./ Time for the final judgement.”
“It wouldn’t be a bad time for it, would it?” smiled Peguy as Michael and Adam came from around the back of the cathedral, Michael all enthusiastic, “Man, you’ve gotta see the back of this place, all the stained glass windows and stone supports.....”
“The apse and the buttresses,” smiled Peguy.
“Whatever you say,” Michael put down, feeling dumb. Which
wasn’t Peguy’s intention at all, Miriam knew that, but....
“Would you be suprised if he became an architect?”
“Not at all, not at all.....that’s how it all begins, should begin, some focusing in, fun...and then you become your interests....”
Stopping at the bottom of the steps, a moment of unexpected sadness for Miriam. She didn’t want to leave Peguy. What did she want? For all four of them to go home to some home in the almost-country (somewhere along the Loire?),Mansard roofs and a big living room with a chandelier in it, big, light bedrooms, a garden with a gazebo in it, comfort, comfort, comfort, just being, etre, etre, etre/to be, to be, to be, with comfortable, zany old Peguy, watching the boys grow up under his/their influence, to be, to be, to be....until they simply weren’t...and then, were there really cloudy heavens up there somewhere where they’d all be reunited forever and forever and forever?
Wanting there to be.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
And what she wanted happened, didn’t it, became reality for her....
Somewhere the men were smoking. It was not difficult to tell, because, in fact, one could smell the cigarette smoke hanging in the air. It made me want a drag. I found myself reaching into my coat pocket for the Gauloise I’d taken from the orange-suited Frenchman, even though I’d given up the smoking habit. Then a bottle dropped, shattering, making the frogs go silent. I stood on the bridge looking down at the sound of dark water below, and almost convinced myself I could see a slight glimmer even though there was very little light.
I didn’t know where she’d gone off to, but she was in his tow now. She had mumbled something about arrangements as she’d passed, her eyes flickering mahogany in the firelight, but by that time I was through with it, I didn’t want to know the details.
One of the men turned to me, offering some of his vodka. I took a swig straight from the bottle, swallowing, and struggled to hold down the cheap, charcoal-filtered liquid. My throat burned at the harshness and I thought this might be worse than drinking piss.
“You know he owns the place,” the man said to me in Spanish as I handed back the bottle. I shrugged. I was trying not to think about it. All this talk was making me nervous.
Somebody else threw a log on the fire. They were having a conversation about boats, and I gathered a few of them had served together at one time on a fishing vessel in the Bay of Biscay as part of the Spanish fleet. Now it appeared they were in his employ for an endeavor on the Mediterranean. I had never worked in the fishing fleet and had nothing to contribute to the conversation, so I began to edge away from the circle. Besides, my French was better than my Spanish. The man with the vodka grabbed my arm as I passed. “A woman like that, you should be careful.” He took a pull from the bottle and smiled. “You shouldn’t let your girlfriend out of sight with a man like him.”
“She’s not… We’re just traveling together,” I said, haltingly. I didn’t like his tone of voice, and his breath smelled of sardines and vodka. I didn’t like how the stubble on his chin stood out against his glistening sweat in the firelight.
“Traveling together,” he repeated, chuckling.
I pulled away from him and left the circle, feeling his eyes on my back as I walked down the path that led around the house and toward the river. Someone said something I couldn’t make out, and then the men began to laugh. I felt my cheeks flush and wanted to punch something but there were only bushes and gravel, so I clenched and unclenched my fists instead.
I realized that at some point the frogs had started croaking again, a choir of chiding dissenters. God, how I wanted a smoke.
We had met the orange-suited Frenchman at a little café on the outskirts of town earlier that day. We’d pooled our loose change, managing to get deux cafés crèmes, and were already arguing about where to stay the night. A hotel was definitely out of the question – our credit cards all but maxed and the balance that was left on mine was barely enough for an emergency plane ticket back to the States – and any hostel that didn’t ask for payment before giving us a room key would hold our passports until we anted up.
I had seen him sitting at the table next to us, and even before we’d argued it seemed he’d taken an interest, studying the two English speaking strangers who’d stumbled into town covered in dust from the trek across the Pyrénées. But it wasn’t until she and I began bickering that the man’s ears pricked up. Now he watched us intently.
The conversation had not been going well, when she said, “We’ll have to pay with something.”
“What? We almost didn’t have enough for these coffees.”
“You know, it’s not that big of a deal,” she shrugged. “Something…” and looked away.
I glared at her, frowning, my cheeks suddenly hot, at a loss for words. And then it occurred to me – Biarritz. But then I’d thought she’d been joking, in the play of the moment. I thought that by “something” she hadn’t really meant “something”, but now I could see it was different.
“Why are you looking at me like that? Why should it matter?”
I fingered my coffee cup, its porcelain stained the color of old ivory. The handle was chipped. Suppressing the urge to pick it up and smash the cup against the wall, I looked down into the milk foam instead, as if I could find the right answer there. There were so many reasons - my mouth full of wrong answers - I was about to offer one when she stopped me.
“You’re not my father,” she said, staring at me pointedly. “And you’re not my boyfriend.” And then she looked away.
I couldn’t argue with those facts, but still I didn’t understand her reasoning. I downed the milk foam dregs of my coffee and stood, disgusted.
“It’s my choice, who and where,” she began.
“Hypothetical feminist rhetoric,” I cut her off, then bit my tongue against the truth of it. “We’re not getting anywhere.” I turned, leaving the table for the general direction of the W.C., mumbling something about needing to relieve myself.
She said something to my back, softly. I wasn’t sure if she’d meant me to hear or not, but I ignored it, my heart dropping. I pulled open the door to the bathroom.
The mirror greeted me, the reflection of a gaunt, unshaven man. I splashed my face with lukewarm water, hoping to wash out the tears. I stared at myself, the drops of water clinging to my face, caught in my stubble. Dark spaces hung under my eyes. The light reflected back at me, harsh and unforgiving.
I had spent my cash reserve on the trip through the Pyrénées. She’d been out of money since Biarritz. I had asked her then, for her own sake, as we waited at the bus station to begin our mountain crossing through Basque country, to make one collect phone call to her family. Her father could wire the money or, even better, deposit it into her account. But she refused, citing reasons…
Biarritz… I tried to shut it out.
Her scent, a mixture of stale perfume, sweat from traveling and the sea’s salt, set things off in my mind. She turned and smiled coyly, and for the first time I really noticed her eyes – mahogany, rich and deep. We stood on the boardwalk near the empty carousal, no one around to ride it in the off-season cold. Just offshore, a lone sailboat skimmed along, white sail billowing against the afternoon sun.
It was like being in a painting. The kind a wealthy tourist might buy his mistress to remember their autumn tryst. The sun through her hair, her hair sprayed outward like sea mist, one single moment locked in amber.
Later, at the bar in l’Hôtel la Plage in the old port section of town, where I’d dipped into my cash reserve to get us a room for the night, everything seemed to glow. The wood in the large fireplace smoked and crackled while people made merry on Basque sangria talked softly in many languages, French and Spanish and even a few words of English swirling into the dim, candle-lit room.
The joy seemed contagious. The beauty seemed contagious. But under that swam a great sadness, just waiting to come up for air. I sipped at my glass of sangria. The half-full pitcher between us caught the firelight and refracted burgundy and jeweled fruit colors. She picked a piece of orange out of her glass and sucked on it, then blushed. “What?” she asked, her mouth full, when she saw me staring at her.
I began to play with a box of matches I’d grabbed from the bar. “Nothing,” I began, then stopped. “It’s just,” I started again, not sure how to finish the sentence.
She placed her hand on mine. Moments passed and we simply looked at each other, the laughter around us.
“Thank you for paying for the sangria, and for the hotel room.”
I shrugged. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, trying not to worry myself. “Listen, I’m not sure about this.”
“What do you mean?”
I sighed. “This,” gesturing all around, “Europe, I mean.”
She pursed her lips. “It’s a little late for that. We’re already here.”
“Spain, I mean. I don’t know.”
She looked at me, eyes flashing. “At least cross the Pyrénées with me. Once we’re on the Mediterranean, you can head to Barcelona, fly out of there.”
“Sure,” I said, smiling as I refilled my glass, hoping not to discuss it anymore.
After a time, she said, “How can I repay you?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I repeated.
“Still… I have to do something for you.” She looked over at the fire, sipping the last of her wine. And then she asked, “You’ll always be my friend, won’t you?”
The next morning sitting at the bus station, waiting, she acted as if nothing had happened. I tried to broach the subject, but couldn’t find the words. Finally, she asked me what I was thinking. But instead of responding with something about the previous evening, I began to talk about money.
The path edged around the house toward the front gate. Behind me, I heard the sardines-and-vodka-smelling man’s voice rise up in rapid-fire Spanish and I made out the single word “maricón” before I turned the corner, the group erupting into more laughter.
After Biarritz, she refused to acknowledge any change, and maybe there hadn’t been one for her. Still, something had shifted, and I blamed that for the arguments that had sparked up during the mountain crossing, arguments that, even now, in this café, were starting to become a ritual.
I dried my face with a disposable towel.
By the time I returned to the table, he’d already pulled over his chair, a cigarette dangling from the fingers of his left hand. They talked, looking at each other intently. As I approached, I couldn’t hear a thing over the hot steam hum of the espresso machine. A desperation rose up inside.
I returned to the table, breaking their gaze. The orange-suited Frenchman smiled courteously, offering his pack of Gauloise. “A cigarette?” he asked in English, as if he’d read my mind. I reached forward, taking one, and then hesitated when he held out his lighter. God, how I wanted to smoke the thing, but his courteous though not-quite genuine smile, his old-as-her-father hands, made me hesitate. Things weren’t quite desperate enough to break down into bad, old habits.
I tucked the cigarette into my pocket. “Maybe I’ll save it for later,” I replied, in French. He looked at me, still smiling, then shrugged and turned his gaze back to her, dropping the pack lightly onto the table.
“We’ve been invited to a party,” she said to me. “Dominic has invited us to his party tonight.”
She smiled at him coyly. He took a long drag on his cigarette, smiling back, and released the smoke slowly through his lips and nostrils, giving the impression that he was smoldering from the inside out.
“He wants a few authentic Americans around,” she said.
Arrangements had been made.
Up ahead I could hear them speaking French inside the house in low, murmured voices. The windows were open to the warm night air, and a faint light was coming out of the half-drawn shades.
I stopped, fingering the cigarette in my pocket. The murmuring changed into cooing sounds, moaning sounds. Something crashed down inside of me.
I told myself not to listen, to keep walking, but something held me in its invisible undertow. I stood there, frozen, wondering how it had come to this. It was just for one moment, but knowing better, I looked inside.
Candles flickered across her body naked on the bed. He knelt over her, a tapered candle in his hand, wax dripping slowly down.
Hating that moment but transfixed, my feet locked, motionless. And then he looked up, his smoldering eyes catching mine.
Numbness rushed through me and then fell away to a sudden pounding, a hot wash of tears. I broke from the path and pushed my way through the low hedges like a blinded animal, out onto the street beyond, down the road, toward the sound of water.
I picked up some gravel and held it out over the edge of the bridge, trying not to think about things. The men’s laughter drifted down through the croaking frogs and water sounds. I tried to concentrate on the noises of the night, not think at all, but I could see his eyes smoldering at me as he hovered above her. My face was wet and hot with anger and with tears.
Fishing fleets, bottles of vodka, arrangements. It seemed everyone else was amused. I opened my fist, letting the pebbles roll off my hand. I imagined I could hear them make small splashing sounds as they dropped into the river.
I pulled the Gauloise from my pocket and placed it between my lips, lighting it with a match from the box I’d taken from the bar in Biarritz. One drag and then I held the thing between my fingers, watching it slowly burn, the red tip drawing back. Disgusted, I flicked the thing toward the river below.
I withdrew another match, striking it against the side of the box and watched as my hand flared in the sudden light, then let it fall.
I struck a third, using it to light the remaining matches, watching as the box’s sides took flame and the cardboard began to darken and curl. I held onto it as long as I could, the hairs on my knuckles singeing before I finally let go of the whole damn thing. The miniature fireball plummeted downward in a widening fan, edges disintegrating into ash, before striking water and going dark.
It was time, I decided. With the light gone, so too the color. Tomorrow I would leave for Barcelona, with or without her. From there, I could hop to London and then back to the States.
Only vague shadows remained.
“We’re just traveling together,” I told myself, trying to mean it. But I wasn’t convinced.
The last thing any of them remember was the quiet of a windy ride home.
Sid was full from all the bread he’d eaten before the waiter even took his order. The garlic rolls kept repeating on him. They always do. His shoulders were hunched inward and he squinted – concentrating on the road ahead and Gilda’s every move. Aware of his glare, Gil drove cautiously, but distractedly. She desperately wanted a cigarette, but even at age 39, she couldn’t bring herself to smoke in front of her parents. They know she smokes, sure, just not how much and she couldn’t do it in front of them. Too bad because nicotine helped her concentrate, especially after a large Italian meal.
Bertie sat in the backseat, her shoes on the floor, her legs lying across the velour seats and her bony back pressed against the side door. Bertie’s stomach was on empty. She rarely eats at dinners in anyone else’s honor – especially Sid’s. Most of the time, she won’t even come. "I’m too sick. You go. Have fun … Don’t worry about me, if my number’s up, it’s just up."
But tonight, she had little choice. She was in California, staying at Gilda’s house in Southern California’s highlands. She hated to be alone in the house after dark when the Coyotes start to howl. She watches them through the sliding glass doors too scared to do anything but stare.
Gilda left work to pick her parents up and escort them to Dante’s, a 20-minute -drive that is like careening down a twisted intestine. The kind that make’s your ears want to pop and your stomach want to implode.
It was a silence louder than heavy metal and deeper than the crevices in the Santa Ynez canyon.
No radio, just each of them lost in a swirl of intrusive and chaotic thoughts. Why is he watching me? Don’t they know I drive myself everywhere? How can she see where she is going it’s so black? I shouldn’t have eaten that roll. I hope I make it home by nine to see Doctor Quinn. Ingrates all of them. Sure celebrate daddy’s birthday. Mother Fucker, Mother fucker, that’s all anyone ever says. What about Father Fucker? You never hear Father Fucker. Oops, almost ,missed that turn. Damn I wish I could have a smoke. As soon I get home, I’m locking myself in my bathroom, opening the window and having a butt. I wish I had taken my Prilosec before dinner.
“Ma’am are you OK?,” a California Highway Interstate Patrol officer in a dark tan uniform raps on the darkened window.
Bright orange lights streak the midnight sky. Gilda’s charcoal Lexus and a forest green convertible Mustang sit on the sandy dirt shoulder off to the side of the Santa Ynez. Salt fills the air as white-capped background waves collide with sandy dunes and brown rock formations.
“Maam,” he says again, louder. Gilda’s hazel eyes stare straight ahead, with her size B-chest pressed against inflated air bags.
“OK, ma’am, I am going to open the door now and help you out “ the officer says as if he is convincing a gunman to drop his weapon, not coaxing a stunned middle-aged woman out of a smashed Lexus.
On the left side of the car, an EMS technician is opening Sid’s door carefully. “I have a heart condition,” Sid murmurs to the man, as his eyes try to regain their focus.
The right front side of the Lexus is crushed, the headlights smashed and the rear end of the mustang is folded like an accordion. Its left back yellow light is shattered but remains together like a vase glued by a guilty teen.
“Where's my wife? Where’s my wife? ” Sid asks.
Gilda who is now standing on the side next to her car, turns her head and screams “DADDY.. “OHMYGOD!! IS HE GONNA DIE? OHMYGOD!!!...MOMMEEEEEEEEE”
The officer rubs her shoulders and tells her these things always look worse than they are. “No major injuries, just some bumps and scrapes. I’ve seen much worse. Really.”
Her breath grows more erratic, she inhales short and then exhales even shorter. “Sit down Miss,” the officer points to a rusted metal divider.
“Now put your head between your legs and breathe. You are no help to anyone when you are like this,” his tone changes from concern to scolding. She listens.
Into his walkie-talkie, the technician helping Sid calls the closest hospital, Cedar’s Sinai. “Rodger, this is 109. We have an elder man, about 65, says he has a heart condition. On Coumadin. May have a concussion. We need a bed.” Static like pins and needles crawling up a deadened leg, “Yes. A daughter here, pretty startled, but seems fine.. May have been drinking, don’t know. Doesn’t appear drunk and there’s a third, they are trying to get out now.”
Bertie is shaken and stirred.
Her neck is cocked to the left. “Where are my shoes? Please help me find my shoes?” Sid, where are my shoes. Where are you Sid?” she asks the burly female patrol officer who is helping her out of the car and to her feet.
“Sidney,” she says in a hush. Then louder as her voice is being reacquainted with its own strength. “Take me to my husband, please. My Sidney. Where is my Sidney.” In a flash, she remembers that Gilda was there too, driving. “My baby,” she asks. “My babyMybabyMYBABEE.” Her voice at Volume 10 and her anxiety hitting a Rictor scale 7.
The patrol officer puts her thick arm around Bertie’s shoulder.
“It’s OK, maam, everyone is OK. Just breathe. Follow me. In then out. In then out. Nobody got hurt too bad. Your lucky, I’m telling you. In then out. Breathe You are all just shaken up a bit,” she says, taking a deep breath herself and using her free arm to illustrate the circular motion of such a breath.
The two begin to breath in harmony and she ushers Bertie toward Sid who is lying with a halter monitor on his chest as two EMS techs stand by with a portable automatoc electronic defibrillator. Just in case. “Is he Ok?” Bertie freezes up and terror claws at her clammy skin.
The smell of alcohol wafting under her nose brings her back. Still dizzy, she shoots up. “Sid,” her hand grabs the aluminum railing on side of his gurney. He reaches for her hand and squeezes it.
“He’s OK. Didn’t need to shock him. His heart is just erratic because he’s nervous and the oxygen is just a precaution,” the technician offers. A crazy straw device under Sid’s nose fills with smog as he breathes.
“We are going to take him to the hospital because of the Coumadin. A precaution. We just need to observe and make sure there’s no internal bleeding, but he’s going to be OK.” Sids tanned hand feebly reaches for Bertie’s again. Their fingers join in a comfortable way -- Ying embracing Yang.
Bertie nods. She knows the Coumadin bit by heart. Sid’s been taking it since he had his first mini-heart attack over 15 years ago.
A technician walks toward Gilda who is swapping paperwork with a police officer. He hands her license back, she hands him the accident report after she has looked it over.
She answered questions about who hit whom.
“The mustang was pulling out of the driveway as she turned the corner. He says he signaled. He may have she didn’t see it though.”
Had she been drinking?
This makes sense to the highway cop, the bend comes around way quickly and, he says, it’s not the first accident in this spot, just the first one tonight.
Gilda is nervous-talking. “I am in insurance. Live in the Palisades,” her eyes jut to her dad and her feet grind into moist, brown dirt.
Finally, a chance to interrupt the technician buts in and says, “your parents are asking for you. They are both alert and doing well,” he says.
Bertie and Sid are holding hands. She is sitting on ambulance ledge wearing a technicians’ navy blue coat, her feet dangling off the side. They barely touch the dusty road. Her shoes are back on her feet and she has no idea how they got there. Sid’s gurney is parked right in front of her.
Bertie puts her hand on Gilda’s shoulder just as the technicians get ready to put Sid in the ambulance. “It’s not your fault, Mamala.”
It is at this precise moment that Gilda starts to think maybe it was. Her breathing speeds again as her eyes grow small. Her quivering mouth opens and senselessness spews forth. I didn’t mean this OhMygod, what’s going to happen. I wish I were dead. How did I do this. Fuck. Fuck. Shit. I can’t take this . Why is this happening? She’s heaving as she cries, but when she looks up and sees people looking at her, she is stunned silent. Embarrassed, she takes a long True Blue cigarette out of her leather case and lights it with a yellow Bic.
Gilda, now contained but shaking, is smoking as tears with clots of black mascara roll down her face. She takes two or three long, smooth drags and puts it out on the ground and gets ready to climb in the waiting ambulance.
“OK guys, let’s get ready to roll. We are going to take you to the hospital just to monitor your condition and make sure.” The siren roars as they head toward Cedar’s Sinai, a 10-minute ride with no traffic
Bertie pets Sid’s ‘hair’ and makes jokes about it being a good thing that the piece didn’t fall off.’ She tells Sid not to laugh, leans in and kisses his cheek. “You are OK, OK? You are Not leaving me now. No way. No how,” she touches her pale lips with two fingers and then touches his arm.
He tries to tell her something, but his voice is raw so she leans in. "Nuh, he says he has to pisch,” she says, laughing as color slowly ebbs into her face.
As the ambulance pulls into to the hospital complex, two technicians kick up the wheels of the gurney and get ready to wheel Sidney into the back door of the emergency room. “We called ahead and they are expecting us, so there should be a room with a EKG ready and waiting. OK. On Three. One. Two…”
“Mrs. Morris, we are going to get a wheel chair for you. And run some tests to make sure you didn’t get a concussion and see about that neck of yours,” the technician says. She is chewing hard on a caramel candy that Bertie gave her during the ride over.
The walkie-talkie in her pocket blares words about another accident on San Vicente. “That’s for me,” she smiles. “You gonna be OK. I’ll check on you when I come back, “ she hugs Bertie and grabs Gilda’s hand for a second.
It’s 11:30 p.m.
Sid is whisked down the hallway, as Gilda runs behind him. “I’m right her, daddy. Right here.”
Bertie is suddenly in all her glory as three nurses wearing light pink help her into waiting wheelchair. She is pushed brusquely down the antiseptic hallway, passing metal poles with deflated intravenous bags positioned like stop signs, carts topped with pale blue pitchers and see-through cups are filled with either urine or apple juice and a few wayward, sheetless cots.
The emergency room, which they passed through just briefly is barren save for a zoned-out women in a wheel chair just staring down and a group of 20-somethings with red nylon handkerchiefs tied on their heads.
“Slow night” One of the nurse’s whisperers into Bertie’s ear. “Anyway, you may as well get checked out because insurance will need all types of reports. I’ll walk down and see how your husband is,” she says. “When am I gonna get me some of that delicious candy you give all the other girls. I ain’t had me nothing to eat in like 10 hours. Um-hmm.”
Bertie opens her handbag and doles out a caramel and two coffee Nips to her attendants. The plastic wrappers crinkle as they open the candies gratefully.
The doctor is young, but nice and very good looking in a sleep-deprived, bloodstained scrubs sort of way. He’s not single. Bertie asked. It’s every Jewish mother’s dream that one of their children will marry a doctor. Even Bertie’s.
He looks at her chart and asks her to turn her neck this way, then that way, raise her left arm up above her head, then her right one. He looks in her eyes with a flashlight. She doesn’t like that, it makes her dizzy. “The vertigo,” she whispers as Dr. Kravitz scrawls something on a metal clipboard.
He hits her right knee with a hammer, then her left. “Good. Good. All good,” he says. “Does anything else hurt you?,” he asks.
“No,” she says tentatively. “How’s my husband doing? He gets very nervous when I’m not with him. Can we please go check, that nice colored girl said she would, but I don’t know what happened to her. You know, the pretty schwartza, Monica.”
Her name is actually Kandace and, as if on cue, she pops her head into the examining room. “There you are, Mrs. Morris. I couldn’t find you! Your husband is fine. He’s only worried about you and we are trying to talk your daughter into an exam, make sure she’s alright. Do you need anything to drink? Juice, water, ginger ale? Hi there Dr. Kravitz! You treating Missus Morris OK?”
Bertie’s eyes follow Kandace’s lips. “Hiya doll,” says Bertie. “I was just asking about youse. He’s OK?”
Kandace nods her head and smiles.
“You got some ginger ale in a can, not opened?” Bertie asks. Thinking for a moment that Kandace is an air stewardess, not a nurse. Bertie plans to save the soda for later. “If not I’ll just have a little water in one of them there cups,” says Bertie glancing toward the sink in the corner. Its long, smooth faucet is perched like a giraffes neck next to a stack of small while plastic cups.
“I’ll see what I can do,” she says. The doctor looks up from his clipboard and tells Bertie she can see her husband as soon as she gets some x-rays. “At this time of night, there’s usually no wait,” he says. “Oh, one more thing, you are not pregnant are you?” he smiles. “Cause you know we don’t like to order x-rays during pregnancy,” he winks.
Bertie smiles back, squints and mutters something incomprehensible yet flirtatious letting the good doctor know that while she doesn’t find his humor funny, she’s not at all adverse to being made to feel young. He lightly touches her shoulder and says that he’ll review the x-rays and that she should have her primary care doctor call him in the morning.
“I’ve got patients to see,” he says.
“Get some sleep, you. It’s not healthy all the hours youse put in,” says Bertie. Kandace offers to wheel Bertie down the hall for x-rays and maybe a quick peek into Sid’s room.
“Thanks doll face,” says Bertie.
Sid is lying in his bed, a sphygometer attached to his upper arm and an attentive nurse monitoring the reading. Gilda is pacing at the foot of his bed, wanting to ask questions, but scared to disturb the nurse.
Making a sharp turn with the wheel chair, Kandace wheels Bertie into Sid’s room. His eyes find hers, and she stands to take his hand. “I’m fine,” she says. “Gotta take some x-rays, but you just worry about you now,” she squeezes his hand.
Tears stream Gilda’s cheeks, she rarely witnesses tenderness between her parents. Bertie notices her daughter and says, “Go get yourself some coffee and splash some cold water on your face. There are many eligible doctors around here and you look like that,” she reaches into her bag and takes out a cruddy- lipstick without a cover. “Here, use this. It’ll brighten up your face. Nuh.” She rolls her eyes at Sid’s drooping eyelids.
With that, Kandace turns Bertie's wheelchair back toward the door, knowing that x-ray is expecting them. As they cross the threshold, Bertie looks up at her ambling chauffeur and says “This is why she’s still single, nuh, going around looking like she just rolled out of bed. No make-up.Nothing.40, a real Old Maid. Just my luck.”
Kandace just pushes Bertie down the hall, as Gilda exhales so hard that her frosted-bangs blow off her face. “Jeezus Christ,” she mutters. Sid’s nurse turns her head and an embarrassed Gilda looks down and says “sorry.” The NO SMOKING sign above his bed taunts her.
Sid wiggles his fingers to get Gilda to settle down and come sit, just as Bertie gets wheeled into the x-ray room.
The x-rays are quick and soon enough Bertie is back by Sid’s side. Another doctor explains that he is fine, but should stay overnight just to be sure. He doesn’t have concussion, but they’d rather him stay up for a few hours to be sure and to make double sure there is no internal bleeding.
His pressure’s good, and his heart has settled, but he shouldn’t be agitated. Bertie nods solemnly and asks if she can get a bed so she can stay with him.
Gilda says, “Mom, why don’t I call someone to come take you home so you can get some rest. I’ll stay with daddy.”
Bertie won’t hear of it. “No, love, you go. Get some rest and a change of clothes so when you come back in the morning you look more presentable. OK, mamala? We don’t need you here.”
Gilda wants to argue, but Sid nods with Bertie and she concedes. The doctors stern warning that her father not be agitated plays in her head.
“See it will upset your father if you stay. Go home, get fresh, we will call you if we need you and make sure your car is OK,” Bertie says.
“OK Mah,” scoffs Gilda.
The car sustained some minor, mostly cosmetic damage. Fortunately, its exterior is more resilient than Gilda’s. Crying, shaking and confused, she clutches her bag and takes a taxi to the city-run shop where her car was towed. She shows her driver’s license to a sleepy attendant. He tells her the keys are in the ignition, he wants to ask her if she is OK, but doesn’t know enough English. Her cheeks are ruddy and her eyelids swollen as her hand shakes in anticipation of her next cigarette.
Back in the hospital, an efficient administrator is giving an attentive Bertie the ins-and-outs of what their insurance will and won’t cover regarding Sid’s hospital stay, her check-up and any other potential injuries. She squints and listens, taking careful notes in cursive on a memo pad she carries solely for occasions like these.
“Mr. Morris wasn’t driving, you see, so it can’t go through your insurance,” the administrator repeats.
The bill for Sid’s stay, Bertie’s tests, not to mention the physical therapy she may need if the creek in her neck doesn’t go away, is going to be at least $1,200.
“Don’t you fret dear,” she says to her half-sleeping husband. “I will talk to Russ and we will get this settled ASAP. I will call him first thing. We’ll see about how we pay this bill $1,200, ridiculous, what is this the Waldorf?”
Bertie is great with a project. No matter how complicated or convoluted the bureaucracy, she always finds a way to get what she wants. Whether through a phone or letter-writing campaign or ludicrous name-dropping coupled with piercing persistence, she will call and grill and call and grill. She’ll take your name, contact your supervisor, drop your name, and then contact your supervisor’s supervisor. The more labyrinthine the organization, the more motivated she is. She is indefatigable when given a task.
Russ Fayer is the Morris’s trusted attorney. Russ Sr., his father, was the one who initially brought them in as clients, but he has since retired and his son is proving to be just as eager to help and humor them each time they want to change their will.
The phone brings. “Hullo?” asks Bertie. “Hi Gil. It’s Gil,” she says to Sid, who has given up trying to sleep. “You home now dear,” she asks. “She’s home now,” she tells Sid. “How’s the car? They charged you what?” The green, digital line on Sid’s monitor zig-zags.
“Now you’ve upset your Father. His heart monitor is going crazy. I may have to hang up and get the nurse. Don’t cry. Breathe in.”
The neon line stops sputtering as if Sid, too, is following Bertie’s breathing advice. “OK Daddy’s back too normal. The nurse, she ‘s very nice, says he can leave tomorrow by noon to go home. God willing,” she sighs for full effect. “And we will recoup at your house for a few days and then head back to New York for the Holiday,” she says.
“Dad needs to see his regular doctor and well, my neck, I may need some care too. Maybe you will take off from work and come back with us for the holidays to help out.”
Bertie listens for a while, her eyes fixed on the now-filled out page of her notepad.
A candy stripper dances by the door pushing a cart filled with Magazines. “OOOH!,”Bertie yelps, startling Gilda who is still talking about the logistics of something or other. “Gotta Go, doll,” she says. As Bertie hangs the phone, Gilda hears her mother ask if they have this month’s McCall’s.
They don’t, but Bertie takes last months Family Circle, this week’s National Enquirer and a Danielle Steele book without a cover. “Nuh, they call themselves candy strippers, but they don’t have candy,” she says to Sid. His eyes are drifting closed
The night nurse comes in and checks to make sure everything is OK. She tells Bertie that Kandace says good night and will stop by the in the morning. “Now you get some sleep too, hun. Just ring the buzzer if you need anything – anything at all. I am at the desk all night. Ooh I didn’t know that Nancy Reagan has an eating disorder. Damn,” the nurse says as her eyes glimpse the National Enquirer cover.
Used to single beds, Sid and Bertie slept through the night without incident. Bertie’s magazines sit in a pile next to her body and her right hand hangs limply over the side of the cot, and Sids hand hangs off his bed. They were cupping hands before bed, but their fingers drifted apart during the night, one by one.
Minutes before the morning nurse begins her rounds, Bertie’s left eyelid opens and she taps Sid’s limp hand. “Rise and Shine, sleeping beauty,” she says, the same thing she has said every morning for the past 40 years. He startles and clutches onto her hand. His eyes open cautiously as he replays the last night in his head. The dinner, the accident, the hospital. His mental movie is finishing as Bertie is in the middle of a diatribe about something. She’s feisty today.
“Excuse me, dear,” she calls to the nurse, “can my husband get some fresh water and who do I see about checking out,” she calls out the doorway.
She slept in her clothing so she has little do in terms of dressing and approaches the counter located right outside their door. She demands several things: a manager or administrator, her x-rays, a bill as well as two wheel chairs.
Once she rejoins Sid in their room, Bertie calls Gilda who is planning to pick them up in the spare car. She is up, brewing coffee and about to take a shower, when her mom calls. “Ok, all-right already,” says Gil into the beige receiver. “I will leave as soon as I can, Don’t worry. Just make sure you both get checked out first and that you are OK.” Her eyelids are puffy and her nerves frayed. She hardly slept at all last night. She just sat in the corner of her kitchen clutching her legs and rocking back and forth. An empty wine glass and an overflowing ashtray on the yellow linoleum floor sit exactly where she left them when she crawled up the stairs an hour ago to brush her teeth.
As soon as Bertie hangs up, the phone rings back. It’s Russ. She tells Sid not to worry himself and asks a nurse to take him to the bathroom while she takes the call.
As Sid comes back, he overhears her saying. “If that’s the only way than what choice do we have. Take care doll, Oh here he is now,” she says her eyes meeting Sid’s as he emerges form the bathroom. To Sid and his nurse, “what’d ya do? You was in there so long, we thought you had a hard piece or something. Oh Russ, didn’t realize you was listening.. talk to you soon, Take care.”
Sid rolls his eyes, embarrassed that their lawyer knows anything about his bathroom habits.
“He was a good boy,” is all the nurse offers.
“I’ve gotta go take care of the bill,” says a surprisingly spry Bertie. “I have spoken with Russ. I know what to do. Don’t you worry your pretty head about it. I am going to get the bill from them and we can clear it all up later. Oww! my neck,” she says as she approaches the main desk.
Her eyes dart in and out of the other rooms on the cardiac care unit as she makes her way to the main desk. Her flabby Turkey neck arches and peers into rooms then she suddenly casts her eyes downward to avert the eyes of other patients and their loved ones.
Just once, she’s too slow and her eyes meet those of another spouse. She shakes her head, smiles and says.”good health. It should all be good” into a room where the patient in inundated with chest tubes and catheters, covered by a thin white sheet.
“Hullo Miss Morris,” says the night nurse who is getting ready to sign out. “How’d ya sleep?”
Bertie smiles “Just fine, doll, just fine. My husband would like some orange juice when you get a sec and I’d like to get the bill. We really need to get home. This is a lot for us ..”
Smiling back and nodding in a you-and-I-both sort of way, the nurse says that she is on her way home too, but the day nurse will be happy to bring Mr. Morris his orange juice. Before she signs out, she will make sure the appropriate administrator get the bill together and see if the doctor left any other instructions.
“Hey there, Miss Morris,” says a large black man in pink pushing an aluminum cart filled with stacks of electrical monitors.
“Oh, hiya there Eugene,” she says and smiles.
His name is Robert.
“You know, Miss Morris you and your husband are just sooo cute. You two love each other sooo much. It’s so nice to see that these days. I wish you too the best of luck and hope that me and mine have as much as you do one day,” she touches the crepe-paper thin skin coating Bertie’s hand.
“45 years,” says Bertie, a tear rolling off her bottom eye lashes. She takes the nurses hand and squeezes it. “You will have it too. I only hope my Sid’s heart recovers. I wouldn’t want to go on without him. Loved him all my life,” a few more tears drip down as the nurse nods her head left and right with the story.
A doctor looks up from a chart he is reviewing.
Gilda picked them up later that day and made it her job to see that they were comfortable. She talked about hiring a nurse even though there was no medical reason. Too expensive, don’t be crazy, you will just stay home from work, with us was Bertie’s flat response.
About five days into their recuperation, as the Morris’s got ready to head back to Rockville Centre, the doorbell at Gilda’s home rang disturbing them as they ate breakfast.
Having just set the food on the table for breakfast, Gilda ran to get the door.
A gentleman wearing a trench coat and a beige fedora hat asked if she was Gilda Morris.
“Yes, can I help you?” an-always alert and paranoid Gilda replied.
“Here,” he said pushing a letter-sized envelope into her hand.
“Who’s there?” and “What are you doing out there so long?’ call Sid and Bertie respectively from the kitchen where they are drinking tea and eating toast with hotel-issue jelly.
Confused, Gilda opens the envelope. Her stomach drops. “What the fuck” she screams stirring the sleeping coyotes and neighbors in her cul-de-sac community.
How could they be suing her?
Her parents are suing her for hospital and medical costs incurred as a result of the accident.
Jolene and me, we go out every Saturday as long as we can get a sitter. Sometimes we get Margie, the teenager down the street, but usually Jolene's sister, Pam, watches them. She says she can use the break from her husband.
Don't get me wrong, the kids are great. But a four and five year-old can get on your nerves after a while. I mean, you don't want to just send them off to watch TV, but there's only so much you can do with them. Steven, the older one, he likes to make believe I'm a ladder and climb to my shoulders. Lynn, she's always trying to do what her brother does, so I got these two kids climbing all over me.
It's fun for about five minutes.
I don't know how Jolene manages. I'm surprised the church hasn't declared her a saint. It was her idea to stay home when Steven was born, and it seemed natural for her to keep staying home with Lynn.
She doesn't regret it, she says, because the kids are better off. You wouldn't believe how well-behaved they are, at least in public. Steven is already reading and Lynn sounds out everything she sees. When they're not climbing on me, I'm reading to one or the other.
But I'm at work most of the day. So when I get home, it's a treat playing with the kids. Still, it doesn't take too long before I start feeling trapped.
Jolene's been going a little stir crazy, I know, and she's looking forward to Lynn starting kindergarten. Steven started this year. What she wants to do is go back to work full-time. She was a legal secretary before we married, and she's worked a little part-time since. But it's not the same, she says. I tell her she can go back anytime, we'll find a way to work it out, but she says she'll wait until Lynn starts school in the fall.
She's really a great mother and wife, but lately she hasn't been herself. I figure it's this flu bug that's been going around. So I'm looking forward to going out tonight. Maybe it'll get her out of her funk.
"So what do you wanna do tonight?" I ask her. "Your sister'll be here soon. You wanna eat and see a movie?"
"I don't care," she says. Then she says, "You decide."
I check the movie schedule and there's something we both want to see starting at 7:50. "We could eat," I say, "and have plenty of time to get to the movie, especially if we eat at the Chinese buffet near the theatre. The one we have a coupon for."
She says she doesn't want to eat there.
"Why not? We go there all the time."
"I'm just not in the mood for Chinese."
So I make like I'm putting my thinking cap on and I act like I just got this brainstorm. I say, "I know. We can have cocktails and hors d'oeuvres at the Ritz and go to the ballet afterwards."
"Very funny," she says. But she's not laughing. In fact, she looks kinda sick.
"What's wrong? You still got that stomach virus?" I try reaching out to her, but she pulls away.
"No. I don't have a stomach virus."
When she's angry or hurting, she wrinkles her forehead. And now her forehead's so wrinkled she looks like she's wearing an old lady mask, the kind kids wear on Halloween. She doesn't say anything. She just looks at me like she's trying to remember who the hell I am and why I'm in the same room with her.
"If you're not feeling good, we could call Pam and stay home."
"No. I want to go out."
"So name another place. Isn't Red Lobster near the movie theater?"
"I don't want seafood."
She makes a face.
"Then you tell me what you wanna do." I'm raising my voice a little now. The kids had been playing in the other room, but they come to the kitchen to find out what we're fighting about.
"What do you guys want?" I ask. But I make a funny face to show them I'm not really angry. Lynn is hanging on to a book she likes us to read, and Steven is looking at me with those big eyes.
"Why you talking loud, daddy?" he asks.
"Because your momma's being a pain in the patoot," I say. I try to put my arms around her waist, but she has the same look she had before, only now she doesn't want me on the same planet with her.
She tells the kids to go watch TV while she fixes dinner. And she tells me to go to hell. Just like that. At least she waited for the kids to leave the room.
"Me? What I do? I just wanted to take you out. The hell with you." And I tell her I can get something to eat at Mulroony's, and she can kiss my ass.
But just as I turn towards the door, she says to me, "I'm pregnant, damn it! We're gonna have another baby."
That's how she told me. Romantic, huh? I remember the first time, with Steven. We were in bed and she was resting her head on my chest and kind of playing with me down there, you know? She asked me if I want to have a baby, and I said, "Sure."
She whispered, "How about seven months from now?"
"You mean you want to start trying in seven months?" I can be real thick sometimes.
"No." She lifted her head and looked at me. I can still remember the way she was smiling, kind of nervous and shy, like she looked the first time she spent the night at my apartment.
It suddenly dawned on me. "Seven months is good," I said. "Real good." And we started in kissing and laughing. We made love after that. I said it was to make sure the pregnancy took.
When she told me she was pregnant with Lynn, we were eating breakfast on a Saturday morning. Steven was in his highchair making a mess. I poured myself coffee into a mug she had on the table and started drinking. After a while, she asked, "Do you like the new mugs?"
"Sure," I said, only half looking, because I need at least two cups of coffee before I'm human.
Then I saw that nervous smile on her face again. I looked at the mug and it had "Expectant Father" written on it and I looked at her cup and it had "Expectant Mother" on it. I didn't say anything at first. I just put down my mug, grabbed her hand, and said, "I love you."
"You better," she said, and we laughed like two children when one of them farts. Steven started laughing, too, and I thought how I must be the luckiest man in the world.
When Lynn was born, I said, "She's a beautiful girl. Now we got a perfect matching set."
"Shop's closed," Jolene said. "No more deliveries."
As soon as Steven started kindergarten, Jolene began planning on going back to work. She spoke with Bernie Nagle, her old boss, and he said he'd be happy to have her back full-time. To be honest, I started figuring how we could pay off the credit card with her salary and maybe start making double payments on the mortgage or saving for the kids' education. I make pretty good money, enough for us to live on, but not enough for us to move to Easy Street, you know? I think about how we could take a good vacation. The kids are getting old enough to appreciate Disneyland and I know Jolene always wanted to go to Hawaii. With two salaries, we could do some of those things, instead of just talk about them.
So when Jolene said she was pregnant again, this time we didn't celebrate.
"Are you sure?" I ask.
"Of course I'm sure."
I immediately forget about going to Mulroony's. I wouldn't have gone anyways, to be honest. Instead, I put my arms around her and tell her it'll be all right. We'll make it work.
She backs away from me and whispers, like she was afraid of anyone hearing her, "What if I don't want it to work?" Her nose is red and I see her body shaking. "What if I don't want another child?"
I just stare. I know I don't really want another baby, either, starting all over with diapers and all, but hearing it out loud scares me. It's kinda weird, but the first thing I imagine is my mother's face. She had that look she gets, kind of squinting her eyes, when she disapproves. "A baby is a gift from God," I hear my mother saying.
I realize I'm staring at Jolene. Worse, I'm squinting.
She turns from me and starts making dinner for the kids, adding tuna and peas to leftover macaroni and cheese. As it warms, I try talking to her, but all I could say is, "It'll be all right, honey. You'll see."
She pulls away and tells the kids to wash for dinner.
I pour two glasses of milk and get plates and silverware and put them on the kids' place mats. Then I sit down at the table. We usually join the kids when they eat, even if we're not eating.
"You want me to make you something?" Jolene asks me.
"No," I say. "I hope we're still going out."
She looks at me with the saddest expression I've ever seen in my life. "I didn't know if you still wanted to go out with me."
I swear it was everything I could do to keep from blubbering right there in front of the kids.
We decide to go to a new restaurant that opened nearby. It looks expensive, but we don't care. The waiter takes our drink order. I get a beer and Jolene orders vodka with club soda and a twist of lemon, but then she calls the waiter back and asks for iced tea instead. I don't say anything.
We stare at each other for a long time. Finally, she reaches into her purse and pulls out a pamphlet. I see Woman's Clinic printed in bold lettering. Underneath it, I read, "You Have a Choice." I see the word abortion, but nothing I read registers. My hands are shaking.
"When did you get this?" I ask.
"Yesterday. I went there to make sure I was pregnant." She points to the pamphlet. "I talked with a counselor."
"And this was her idea?" I don't like the tone in my voice, but I can't help it.
"No, it wasn't her idea." She presses her lips together so tight she almost can't squeeze out the words. "I asked for the information. She told me it's a simple, safe procedure."
I take her hand. The back of my throat is burning. "Could you go through with it?"
"I don't know," she says.
Then she starts crying. I even feel my eyes filling up. I see the waiter coming with our drinks and I turn away like I'm looking at the menu. Jolene doesn't care. She lets the cry out. I wish I could.
I don't even remember if we order food. All I know is we talk and talk, and we both finally admit we don't want another baby.
"Aren't we being selfish?" I ask.
"What's wrong with being selfish?" Jolene looks at me and I see wrinkles under her eyes I never saw before. "Don't we deserve to be a little selfish? We're good parents. We're good people. We just need time for ourselves."
I nod my head. I admit how I'd been thinking about her salary and what we could do with extra cash. "It's not like I want the money to buy a Jaguar or something. I just want things to be easier for us."
"I know," she says. And she starts in crying again.
That night, we talk about God and sin and hell. Neither of us is what you'd call religious. My family is Lutheran, but they hardly ever go to church. My mother used religion mostly to scare us as kids. She'd say that God was always watching, so we better do the right thing."
I guess it worked because I tell Jolene that I feel God is listening in on us right now. "And I don't think He's happy."
As soon as I say that, I hate that I said it. The last thing I want to do is use God to make Jolene feel guilty.
I apologize to her. She says she understands. "But if there's a God, why would He do this to us? Why would He have us raise a child we don't want while Pam's been trying to get pregnant for eight years now? It's all so random."
I knew nothing I could say would make any sense, so I just held Jolene and let her cry.
That brings me to where we are now, sitting in a small, stuffy room filled with files and boxes of rubber gloves, talking to a counselor about our "options." Jolene is sitting there holding a tissue, hardly saying anything. I know I'm talking too much. I do that when I get nervous.
Jolene grabs my hand, but her eyes don't meet mine. I see her bottom lip twitch as she tries to speak. At first, it's as if she lost her voice. She moves her lips, but makes no sound.
"God forgive me," I hear her whisper. Then she says something in a voice so low I can hardly hear. When the words finally register, I realize she's saying, "I-don't-want-another-baby."
The counselor talks about adoption as an alternative, but Jolene shakes her head. I know she isn't listening because her eyes have the same look she gives me when I talk baseball. We had talked last night about having the baby and letting Pam adopt it, but Jolene said it could never work. She'd always know it was her child and she'd want to raise it her way. Finally, the counselor looks to Jolene and says, "There's no need to decide today. Why don't we make another appointment in two days. If abortion is your choice, we can arrange it immediately."
I feel like I'm gonna throw up. The counselor comes around her desk and hugs Jolene. I'm just sitting in my chair wondering what to do next.
I finally stand up and go to Jolene. I tell her I love her. I kiss her and squeeze her tight. The counselor smiles and holds out her arms to hug me. "I was talking to my wife," I say, and we all laugh.
It's good hearing Jolene laugh, even though her eyes are red and swollen, and I'm shaking. We walk out of the office with our arms around each other. I can't say for sure if I'm holding her up or if she's keeping me from falling, but together we make our way out of the clinic, shading our eyes from the morning sun.