Tim stopped at Kevin's on August 10th to tell me that his second son, James, had been born that day, that James and Kelley were doing fine and that he was leaving to join his unit and deploy to Iraq. As I remember, I told him to keep his head down, but nothing more notable than that. When I left for foreign wars, to a totally benign military assignment, my father told me not to play payday poker, and never roll dice on an army blanket. Words of wisdom.
They started shooting at Timmy the weekend after he got to Fallujhah. It was sudden: a fourteen year old Arab with an AK47 took aim and hit the wall just a little above his head and to the right. He was eating an MRE but was able to duck. He even continued his conversation with Gunnery Sergeant Hill, but that little bastard shot at him. I woke up immediately, of course, but the damage was done. They really are trying to kill my son. At three in the morning it was hard to calm down and get back to sleep. I wrote it off as a bad dream.
At school today people were crying because a young girl had just been notified that her husband had been killed serving in Iraq. There are a bunch of people from Puerto Rico over there. People in Puerto Rico like the military. When you go into a bar and bring up the subject, a good percentage of the guys served: Iraq I, Viet Nam, Korea, even WWII. I read somewhere that during the Viet Nam era some thing like 13 people from Harvard served in Viet Nam. They got that many in a single year from the University of Puerto Rico. The war protests are also different here: they aren't really protests. They are a combination of mild anti-war activities and strong support for the troops.
It happened again. The other afternoon I was taking a nap between classes and it was a full ambush with those, what-do-you-call-them, IEDs and RPGs, and heavier duty automatic weapons: all those wonderful alpha-numeric devices I thought I had left behind at Ft.Dix, Ft.Sill and Baumholder in the 60s. Timmy and his team crouched behind a wall for cover and they all came out unharmed.
I thought the deal was that if you went and served, and then maybe your kids would get a pass. There are, for ever it seems, strap hangars out there who are always spectators: let their kids go and fight. Whenever they show those wonderful war movies, whether it's the Duke or even something like "Band of Brothers," they get all the technical stuff right, but they're never able to embody the sheer terror of someone shooting at you. I didn't have to experience it then, but it seems worse as an experience you undergo vicariously for your younger son.
The dreams have changed. It's not Timmy now: it's Timmy the way he looked when he was commissioned and I pinned on his gold bars. I woke in a sweat and wondered: If I hadn't encouraged him, he wouldn't be there. The shots were closer this time, and he got dinged by a chip of masonry. I'm getting afraid to close my eyes. If I doze, I wake to that peculiar crack! crack! crack! of an AK, and Timmy is scrambling for cover.
I have always liked the idea of service. It's something my family believed in, and I tried to pass on. My father was in WWI; my brothers, cousins, nephews, and brothers-in-law were all in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. A great uncle was with Pershing on the Mexican border, and on Tim's mother's side service extends from Viet-Nam, through the Civil War, 1812, to the Revolution, probably all the way back to the Pequod War. I encouraged Tim and his older brother to go to Marine OCS. I thought the experience would be a positive one. With Iraq, however, from the time he got his assignment, if I even thought about him going there, tears would come to my eyes.
Tonight they blew up one Humvee in front of him and another behind him. When he exited his vehicle, he was dressed in the dress blues he won as the most outstanding boot at Parris Island, and I was invited by a Marine Corps general to come and celebrate his achievement as a young Marine enlisted man.
My military experience was one of providential benignity: drafted after college into the pre-Viet Nam army, I taught school to GI drop-outs, fought the valiant battle of the beer halls in Germany and, with my ticket punched, was able to nod knowingly, and silently, when all those vets from Nam commented on their experiences.
Before I went to bed tonight, the WNBC reported that two Marines were killed in Fallujah. I couldn't catch my breath until they gave more details. It makes for a fretful night. It's horrifying when you find yourself praying that some other father's kid is dead instead of yours. Two civilians approach a road block with their hands above their head. At the last minute they drop to the ground and start firing at the Marines at the check point. Timmy falls to the ground and rolls to cover. When he gets up he is covered with mud, but he's dressed in a WhittierCollege lacrosse uniform. He is wielding a defenseman's long stick instead of a M16 or Beretta. And he's nineteen years old with dyed hair and an ear ring, and a long way from Iraq.
I was in graduate school when Tim was commissioned, and I used to have long, rambling, intense conversations with my fellow, much younger, graduate students about the value of military service to some one like Tim: young, full of life, an artist, an idealist. My argument was that in order to avoid future Mai Lais it was important that people like Tim serve. I wouldn't like, in some future war, to consign my child to the care of the likes of Lt. William Calley. Young men, who go off to serve, whether it's a "good war" or the disaster I consider this one to be, deserve to be led by the best and the brightest that the United States has to offer. Yet Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and God knows how many other top schools no longer offer ROTC. The liberal fuzzy heads, as opposed to sentient liberals like me, never cease to amaze me: since you don't like the military, foreign policy, or economic guidelines that exist, encourage a system that makes the situation worse by keeping better people out of the loop.
Today it was a plain old mortar attack. Woop! Boom! Woop! Boom! The attack is semi-successful: two wounded. People are huddled around the remnants of a building and Timmy is stretched out on the ground, surrounded by his team. But when he removes his helmet, I realize that it's a white and blue Montclair lacrosse helmet and he's wearing a blue number 76 jersey and is lying on the field at Columbia in South Orange and his team is dressed in blue and white instead of desert camouflage. He failed to wear a cup and a Columbia attack man unleashed a ferocious shot on goal which Timmy blocked in a particularly un-lacrosse-like manner. Coach Witty assured me that Timmy was fine and after a rest, he would be able to continue his fight for dear old Montclair High. Sleep is harder and harder to come by. It's as if those Iraqi bastards are watching and waiting: if I don't maintain my vigil and I doze off, they're going to kill my little boy.
A couple of semesters ago, I had a young, God bless me, terribly young female student, I think her name was Lourdes. She was obviously pregnant at the start of the school year. She had the fresh faced, clear eyed beauty that is typical of so many young Puerto Rican girls. As the semester, and her pregnancy, progressed she started to miss classes. She had done very well on the one exam she had taken, and I didn't want her to lose the credits, so I told her friends in class to be sure to tell her to get all her work in. They explained that she had in fact had a baby boy, and would be in for the final and would have her journal, an assignment that I give to all my classes: write fifteen entries in a notebook, in English, about various aspects of their lives. She took the final, and did well, but when I was home compiling the final grades, I realized that she had missed one of the partial exams, and I was going to have to give her an incomplete. Then I read her journals. They were standard ESL student fare, if a little more imaginative, until I got to the last one which described the birth of her son, named after her husband. She had married a month or so before her husband had been deployed and she had gotten word a week or ten days before the baby was born that her husband had been killed in Iraq. IED, mortar attack, AK47, who knows or cares. Because she was writing in a second language, the prose was stripped and clean. She lacked the vocabulary to embellish and expound, so it was very matter of fact. My husband was killed in Iraq. The poor child. What a waste. I gave her an A.
Three Iraqis approach a roadblock, a man, a woman, and a twelve year old boy. As they get close, automatic weapons appear and they start spraying Timmy's team. They take cover and return fire: three dead "civilians." When I look closer it appears that Timmy is hit. There's blood and a doctor working on him, But I realize that it's not Iraq but the emergency room at Montclair Community Hospital and I'm holding an eight year old screaming Timmy down while the doctor stitches up a gash in his face. The wound is from some childhood escapade, a fall from a tree, a bicycle crash on a suburban street, but not from a 7.62mm round on a war zone road in Iraq.
The descriptions of the war and the activities surrounding it are an exercise in poor English prose. Contrary to the way you are told to teach writing, everything seems to be done in this war in the passive voice. There is never a "doer" of the action. "two Marines were killed in Fallujah . . .", "My husband was killed . . . ", "Mistakes were made . . . ". By whom? For what reason? The only ones taking responsibility for anything seem to be the soldiers and Marines who are there, the boots on the ground.
As Timmy's Humvee travels at fairly high speed along a road running next to some tributary of the Euphrates, an IED goes off prematurely and the Marines jump out of the vehicle and into the water. As Timmy rises to the surface I reach down to pull him out, but he's not near the Euphrates but in Chatham on Cape Cod. While their mother is shopping, I take the two boys down the gangway to a floating dock whose mechanism for adapting to the changing tides fascinates the three of us. As Kevin and I walk up the gangway I hear a splash, and realize that Timmy is not with us. I run over to the edge of the dock and when he comes up, I grab him by the head and haul him out of the water. A scary experience, lots of frightened tears, but everyone is safe.
Tim sends home a wonderful description of Fallujah. With his artist's eye he sees the "green and purple slime," of the fetid canals and notices the wildflowers and colorful dresses of the Arab women. To him the terrible odors of both Iraq, and himself, are not stench, but "scents." Poetic. I pray that when he gets home he is without any scars, physical or otherwise. Jerome David Salinger, a happy uncluttered Columbia student went off to join an intelligence section of an infantry unit in WWII. He fought in a little noted action called the battle of the Hürtgen Forest near Aachen in Germany. It went on and on from September until February. Thousands of casualties (3,616 KIA, 15,208 WIA, 685 Died of Wounds), and Jerome became J.D. Salinger, a recluse who taught us all to believe in Holden Caulfield instead of Santa Claus and avoided people for the next fifty years. Frightening.
Look at Siegfried Sassoon with the BEF and his images of WWI:
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Or Louis Simpson with the 101st Airborne in WWII writing about the road to Carenton:
Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
Maybe Tim will be one of the lucky few who do, in fact, come out unscathed. Wars affect people. God knows this one has affected me. When you find yourself dreading the sound of your daughter-in-law's voice on the phone – why else would she be calling? – you realize how much it does affect you. Tears well up for no reason. You pull over to the side of the road because, somehow, you can't catch your breath.
But time passes. Now it's summer; Tim got home in February in time for his birthday, and he and Kelley, and Kevin and Patty were able to continue a tradition and go out for dinner together. He marched in the St. Patrick's Day Parade with his unit. He did indeed return – unscathed. My dreams stopped. We differ only on the politics of Iraq, not the on the fidelity of the troops. He and Kelley are still devout Bush Republicans, which is probably just as well: imagine maintaining your sanity if you had no faith at all in your Commander-in-Chief. His mother, my ex-wife, still wonders where he ever got his politics; Bush-Republican-Timothy: By 1950s-Liberal-Jim, Out of 1960s-Liberal-Laura. I tell her that in the 60s they warned us that if we kept smoking dope we'd have mutants for kids, but she thinks it's a sort of rebellion. It is their war. We certainly never listened to our parent's opinions on how we should feel about Viet Nam.
I have finished teaching summer school and will go to New Jersey next week and finally get to see Tim. I haven't seen Lourdes in school in a while now. But I still remember her, and her family: "Mi esposo fue matado en Irak."
You may read Tim Murphy's piece on Fallujah in Hamilton Stone Review Issue # 9, Spring 2006.
I've always been afraid of cows. An actor on TV said his
was kicked to death by a cow. I wonder if it was one swift blow or the
kicked and kicked until there was nothing left of the woman.
The little museum is empty, and the guard has been following me from room
room. I pause. She pauses along with me in front of these cow paintings
we were together. I've come to see a painting because I'm being accused
stealing a Roualt and some bath
towels from my dead lover's apartment. I'm curious to see what a Roualt
like. I don't remember ever really looking at the walls in Harold's apartment
or ever noticing anything distinguishing about his bath towels. I'm not a
very observant type—his apartment seemed very ordinary to me with
furnishings. I did see a postcard of Charlie Chaplin sitting in a bathtub
wearing his black suit and
bowler. It was on the refrigerator door and Harold
said it was from his secretary who took off for France the Friday before
without notice. I thought it
peculiar that he would not only keep the postcard but display it. The
is following me but stops along the way to chat with a tall man in a red
toupee. I'm leaning toward the Roualt looking for the artist's signature
alarm goes off. Maybe I'll be accused of trying to steal this one too.
painting of mens' heads and it reminds me of my three brothers the way
seems to be going a different way. Like snakes. I move quickly toward the
as the guard approaches.
* * *
Lie detectors. Would I take a lie detector test? Do I need money? Why
would I take towels and a valuable painting? I really don't know why
do that. I always need money. Doesn't everyone need money? I'm not a
although sometimes I feel like one. A thief of space even the way I'm
sitting as if I'm in more than one chair. The detective is watching my face as I speak.
I'm trying to see his teeth as he asks what I think of as not very smart
questions. I spot a gap between his teeth and there's the lisp that
reminds me of
my youngest brother who's an archery champion, his shortness and choice of
weapon somehow belonging more to the Middle Ages. If he were being
would come out that he believes in an equal society. That means that it's
to lighten the burden of his boss by taking his antique estate wristwatch
pair of cufflinks that were left in the men's room. The cufflinks he had
into a pair of earrings for his girlfriend and the wristwatch he gave to
father who's on the road to Alzheimer's and thought the ticking suspect
dropped it into the toilet. Jeremy plunged his hand in after it ruining
Rolex, the origin of which is unknown. I look down at my own tiny
wristwatch, and I
see that I've been in this chair for over an hour, the toes on my right
tingling. I shift my weight as the lisp drones on—he wants to know where
my watch. I tell him that my aunt who's really not my aunt but my
cousin left it to me in her Will. The thing I liked about her most was
Leo. Detective Cye is looking at the little diamonds and rubies as if I'm
wearing the crown jewels, but he also nows that the watch may come with
documentation so he moves on to the subject of my relationship with
Harold at which point
I rise. I tell him I have an appointment, turn and walk toward the door. Although I want to see the expression on his face, I don't look back. The
detector issue, for the moment, is dormant.
* * *
Chances are I wouldn't pass a lie detector test—I do lie a lot.
the most disheartening thing about me. It's not even a form of protection
desire to reinvent myself or impress or take on a false persona for my
amusement. It seems to be lying for lying sake. They accumulate like
When I had met Harold two years ago I noticed his shoes first
I was chasing a rolling quarter that had dropped and came to rest at his
foot--a black-tasseled loafer that smelled like the interior of a new
car and had
tiny stitching. We were in a jazz club, and I had come to see my
who was presently on stage playing bass, an instrument that had blocked
window of our apartment that had let in a few rays of light. He'd been
ignoring my phone messages, and I needed to know if he had walked away
grandmother's colander. It comes with a history of human use, and I
wanted it back,
dents and all.
I pocketed the quarter and rose slowly past Harold's blue necktie
what seemed like small lips flying toward his throat. Then I saw a flash
crooked tooth and dark eyes through shining eyeglasses. I was tempted
myself with a made-up name but instead told him that I liked his shoes.
looked a little like a Republican, maybe because of the short-cropped
stood at the bar, and I ordered what he ordered—a rusty nail that I
slowly until I felt my brain rising. We had chatted, the words sliding
other, and now I wonder how many lies I might have told about myself that
Harold believed. Then I thought I heard him say that he's here to collect
from the bass player. When I mentioned that I was here to get a kitchen
from the same guy, I wasn't sure the words came out in the right order.
felt as if we were in a Greek play.
I wonder if I should have told all this to Detective Sigh.
* * *
On my desk is dark chocolate in the shape of a gun with an
accompanying note written in Chinese letters. The package had been delivered by
and the only one I know with the imagination to do this is dead. I save
tissue wrapping with my name on it along with the thin ribbon. Is it a
Should I bring this to Detective Si's attention? Maybe have the note
and dusted for prints? I'm tempted to ask if they've questioned Harold's
ex-wife and lanky son, the one with the milky eye. She's the one who's
accuser. My desk is cluttered with press releases on the latest drugs
aroma of the chocolate. By the time I get around to dialing Detective
number I've eaten the gun.
* * *
Harold booked musicians in clubs but didn't like the music they
He didn't mind jazz if there was a female singer in the group. He did ask
sang and I was tempted to lie saying I didn't when I've been told
times that I have a really sweet voice. I look down at the skirt he
had bought me
in Iceland and feel the little metal snaps at my waist. I keep his gift
black and white piece of pottery on my night table filled with aspirin.
middle brother, Seth, thinks I should keep a knife or pistol near my bed.
seems each of my brothers has a need for a weapon. I do carry a miniature
hair spray I picked up at a beauty products' convention. Seth had met
once and said he was sure he had a secret. Although Harold was blond and
dark-eyed I imagined he might be black and maybe that was his secret.
And me, almost
everything about me is a secret, even to myself.
* * *
I have never seen a warrant before, and I'm reading it through before
will let the two men in. It doesn't say anything I really understand
eyes are tearing up. I position myself in the ray of light near the
wait while they pull on their rubbery gloves and start to rummage. The
with the ponytail has a light touch as he rifles through my desk and
the unopened mail on top. I think of the Chinese note and wrapping paper
ribbon in my office. If I lose my job because I'm a suspect in a
towel/painting theft—I can sue. The walls of my apartment are quite
bare except for a
drawing of deer staring out and a reproduction of some famous flowers
that seem to
have teeth. To speed things up I open the door to the linen closet where
raggedy towels are neatly folded in size order. There's one that has the
a Nevada hotel on it, but I'm pretty sure it's stuffed in the back with
pajama tops. To my knowledge, Harold has never been to Nevada although he
to gamble and then sit in a hot tub. Since it is not like him to die, I
think of him as dead yet. I wonder if I'll be doing this with all the
I'll come to know. They'll forever occupy the present.
The men begin to leave with something in a clear plastic bag.
thanks me for my cooperation while his colleague eyes my jewel-encrusted
I should have asked to see their badges.
* * *
I slip into a seat in the back of the funeral home and imagine I see
detectives here and there. I look for Harold and see a closed casket
up front. My
ex-husband, Maurice, is sitting with his girlfriend, Eunice, who probably
never had a nickname. He used to call me Zo-Zo. That doesn't make
sense except it
sounds a lot like so-so. Harold's ex and milky-eyed son are seated in the
front row along with a sister who lives in Canada and has a vineyard with
section of imported Russian soil that produces wine from hell.
There is a whisperer behind me who evidently knows that Harold wanted to
cremated even though he's Jewish. When I turn around, it's the drummer in Maurice's band who has his neck in a brace. He nods at me. I think of the
athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics and on TV saw their bodies being
carried away but not before the blood spilled in the soil was gathered
and placed on
the body--as if they would still need their blood.
The whisperer goes on about Harold's heart condition, and then he drops
voice saying something he doesn't want me to hear. Maybe Harold died
having sex or while undergoing a test or just at rest. I can't quite get it, but
I'm pleased that he doesn't seem to think I killed him. Then ransacked
apartment. Harold occasionally put a little white pill under his tongue,
just assumed it was recreational. I should have asked, but since I don't
be questioned because I'd have more lies to keep track of, I keep my own
questions to a minimum.
Malcolm Reed, piano player, sits down next to me. He tells me his
daughter needs back surgery and a tree near his house has to come
down. I want to
tell him I ate a chocolate gun and I'm probably being watched. I would
see Harold's face once more. The lighting is dim, and I'm having a
opening the casket and leaving my white scarf draped across Harold's
Malcolm takes a tie out of his pocket and puts it on. There's a low hum
room as if in the presence of death the voice must not call attention to
The rabbi wrapped in a blue and white tallis begins to speak of God
Harold. I'm enjoying the occasional Hebrew that seems to come at certain
intervals. It's the music of grief and mystery and it's verging on
What I keep to myself is that if there is a God I think he's very mean.
Friends and family are rising to speak and, in death, Harold is
saint. Somewhere in the crowded room there must be a clue as to who would
have lifted his art and towels. Malcolm is pointing out the notables
to me: all I
see are the back of their heads. Dying in your sleep is the most
method, Malcolm, but drowning must be the most interesting way because an
euphoria is supposed to set in; one last remarkable experience. Harold
may have died
in someone's arms and while it's not such a bad way to go, I'm glad they
weren't my arms. The room is hushed with what I think of is fear rather
sadness. It's as if the dead have a secret they don't want us to know.
* * *
The precinct smells of paint and Detective Sy
gets up from his desk when he sees me, a gesture that takes me by surprise.
The office is in constant movement as if it's an asteroid hurtling through
space. It makes me edgy, and I keep looking around to see if something
happening is getting too close to me. He hands me a clear plastic bag
letters in it and apologizes for keeping them so long. Evidently the
there might be a conspiracy with one of my brothers who has a record and
an artist. The letters are a kind of journal my brother kept in prison
making anyone who reads them in law enforcement uneasy. I'm tempted to
a lie about this brother who now works in chalky pastels and has a series
called "The Beast"—the beast having a sweet mouth in which you're
tempted to toss
in peanuts. Meanwhile, I've received another chocolate gun with a note in
what I think is Russian, and I can only hope they keep coming.
The detective and I shake hands, and as I walk through the chaos of the
precinct, I have my hand on the little can of hair spray just in case.
The Bathrobe Imbroglio
When she picked up the phone, a stream of words hit her ear; she didn't even have time to say "Hello." For an instant, she thought "Obscene phone call" and was on the edge of hanging up when she felt she recognized not just the voice but the style—rapid, witty, scintillating. Then the words were saying, "Remember me?" and a name unlike any she knew or could remember knowing, even though she struggled to activate her memory. But slowly the rapid-fire delivery formed an image in her mind, of a man, a young man, good-looking, suave, unusually nimble with words, even for someone in her profession—advertising. This had to be him— What did he say his name was? Colt? That didn't sound familiar. Still
The call came at night, and the man she thought of as her common law husband, Ron, lay on the bed at her back. "Who is it?" he asked, but she waived him away as she waited for the familiar stream of words to slow down.
Eventually they did but not before the flattery of this man having called her after all this time, having remembered her, not before this flattery left her warm and rather breathless.
"Can we get together?" The stream of words ended as abruptly as it had begun.
"I can't; I'm already occupied—"
"Tonight? Oh, Smith, you are as wild and unpredictable as I remembered you to be! That you thought I meant we should get together instantly. I didn't mean tonight. But soon—maybe sometime next week?"
So they set a time: next Thursday at eight.
"Who was that?" Ron insisted when she hung up the phone.
"Some guy; you don't know him," Nadine tried to shrug him off but found herself talking about him even while she meant not to. "Harold Weinstein, he used to be, but he calls himself 'Colt' now." 'And me "Smith,"' she thought unused to being called by anything but her first name by people who were—or purported to be—friends. "He wants to meet me for a drink."
"I don't like this, I don't like this at all." Ron rolled over on his back. "You haven't seen this guy in how many years? And all of a sudden he has an urge to have drink with you? Something fishy's going on."
"Nonsense. What's so odd about that? People look up old friends all the time."
But she thought it odd as well. What did Harold—Colt—want with her?
* * *
They had arranged to meet at a restaurant near her house, a more expensive restaurant than she usually frequented—his idea. The restaurant had a backyard garden, and although the weather was a bit on the raw side for spring, he suggested that they sit outside and she agreed. They were the only patrons in the garden; the space felt as private as her home. She luxuriated in the budding trees, the evening light, the glass-topped tables, the ice-cream-parlor chairs. He ordered a bottle of good French wine. They sat but not silently: Colt began to talk almost immediately.
"I'll bet you're wondering why I called this meeting, Smith, what ulterior motive I have—I know, I know," he held up his hand like a traffic cop, "you don't have to say a word. Well, the truth is, I do have an ulterior motive. Several perhaps. Beyond the simple human desire to look up someone whom I'd liked in the past but never had the time to know well.
"I'm not in the advertising racket any more. I've gone into selling people," and he handed her his card, a simple beige one with black engraved type set. It read only, "Colt," in prominent letters and a phone number. "If you're out of work, need somebody to place you, I'm your man. It's a good racket, matching resumes to jobs: you make everybody happy.
"Well, at work," he had just leaned over the table and become suddenly more intimate when the waiter, a tuxedo-dressed Italian, arrived with the wine bottle wrapped in a white napkin. Showily the waiter removed the napkin, spun the bottle around, and displayed the label to Harold. Colt. She couldn't get used to thinking of him as a disembodied last name; the habit seemed odd. Colt nodded his head; they watched the waiter's skillful uncorking of the bottle, the pouring of the thin stream of red into Colt's glass. Colt took his time judging the taste. He wanted to be considered a connoisseur, she realized. She watched him nod his head; she watched the waiter pour. She tasted the ruby liquid: not bad. The waiter left.
"Why did you change your name?" She still fingered his handsome card.
"Easier to remember," he said. But she thought there was more to it than that. "This woman—did I tell you about this woman at work?"
She shook her head.
"Well, this woman. I don't know how to tell you, Smith. This woman. I never considered myself the sort to fall in love, but I'm smitten, Smith. Smitten. This woman, she is everything I ever wanted in a woman, oh, I don't know: beautiful, witty, empathic. We're together all the time at work, and the electricity!
"But she's married, wouldn't you know it, and a faithful wife besides, so that's all there is to it. Every day I can hardly wait to get to work just to see her—it's bad for me, this longing that I can't ever hope to fulfill. So I was thinking about how to distract this obsession, and your name came to mind."
He smiled and paused: to sip and consider her reaction, she supposed.
"So you're looking to lose yourself," Nadine mused. "Might be harder to do than you think. Harder to realize."
"Sweet and bright besides," he said. It set her teeth on edge. Something about him was decidedly "old school"; still, he couldn't be that much older. But like men who were technically in her generation, in their early forties now, Colt seem unaffected by the sixties. The sixties had done strange things to women who weren't quite young enough to be the flower-child generation but whose brothers or sisters were. Those barely "over thirty" then, whose nostalgia for freedom made them identify with the younger generation: they were nearly all women. But the men her age, they seemed, as a lot, to identify with the establishment. Perhaps because by that time, being male, they were part of it, not still on the outside of the fence struggling to get in. Nadine resented his flattery.
"And I wanted you to read something I've written," Colt interjected into a silence he seemed unable to tolerate. He picked up his briefcase, opened it, and extracted several sheets of paper. He handed them across the table to her. Nadine was surprised at the heft of the opus. In the old days, when she and—Colt—worked at the same advertising agency, he wrote poetry. She remembered that distinctly because one day, as he strode past her cubicle on his way to his own, he stopped to say: "Guess what happened to me the other day? I was standing in the bookstore, looking at the little magazines, and I picked up Sewanee Review. 'Let's see what bright young poets are being published these days.' I started flipping through the pages. Guess what I found. A poem by bright young poet Nadine Smith. Damn! Beaten into print, and by a mere girl!"
Nadine waved away her memory and read. Colt's writing was dense, the kind of impersonal academic writing she had learned to despise, but she strove to avoid criticizing it. "This sort of thing, it's out of my field," she said, handing the papers back.
"But what do you think?"
"How can I have an opinion about something I don't understand?
But he seemed to ignore her answer. "Come on, Smith. You can tell me what you think. I'm a tough guy." He puffed out his handsome chest like a partridge. "I can take it."
She laughed. That broke the tension.
* * *
After wine, they went to his car, a pale blue Datsun, to her house and to bed, although not quite that quickly. He had to open the trunk, extract a suitcase, and bring it in to the house with him. She had to scout the several rooms, to make certain that Ron hadn't unexpectedly returned. He had not. He wasn't due home until morning anyway: by mutual agreement, they both had their little affairs on the side; they were children of the sixties in that regard. When she came downstairs, Colt and his suitcase had disappeared—into the bathroom she surmised as she put up water for tea. She was right: soon he walked down stairs regally in a rich-looking maroon terrycloth bathrobe, barelegged, ensconced in thin gray slippers.
"You've certainly made yourself at home!" Nadine said, and together they drank tea. In her library. She showed him some of her poetry. In short, it was a civilized affair.
In bed, Colt proved to be the normal sort—he liked his straight, in missionary position. Nadine was always grateful when she got men without odd passions. 'This could be a regular thing,' she thought in the morning, which was hurried. Colt had to get ready for his job; Nadine had to get the coffee on.
"Give me a call," he called over his shoulder as he left.
* * *
The encounter left Nadine flushed and singing all day. She recognized it as early euphoria, common in the first days of an affair. But she daydreamed nonetheless, and always the theme was the same, she and Colt getting together again.
When a decent interval passed, Nadine called. She discovered an answering machine, so she left a noncommittal message—who knew who was hearing it, perhaps even his lady friend at work—and waited for the return call. And waited, and waited, and waited, and finally shrugged her shoulders. With some men, she would have called a second time, or even a third, to make the connection, figuring that the first message hadn't gotten through, but with Colt, she knew somehow that the silence was deliberate, that he had "tried her out" and found her wanting. "Couldn't stand up to Wonder Woman at work," she thought ruefully.
* * *
More than a year had passed, early autumn had arrived unseasonably cold, when Nadine heard from Colt again. The shock of his voice on the phone was not as intense as it had been that first phone call, but the excitement was still there.
"I didn't answer your call, Smith." He began as soon as she'd lifted the phone from its cradle. "I didn't call back. I confess it. It's true. But there were a couple of reasons for that, which is why I'm calling now.
"I believe in truth telling—not as a common practice, you understand, but in intimate relations, I think that's best, so that is what this is, Smith, truth telling.
"The main reason I didn't call you up was that you didn't make me forget the woman at my job—you remember my telling you about that woman."
"Yes." Nadine replied weakly, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the speed with which he was delivering his message.
"Well, you were very good in bed, Smith—oh, weren't you—but I just couldn't continue, you understand. And then there was the question of your poetry. You showed me one poem which was the most offensive poem I ever read in my life. Not that the poem wasn't very good, for one of its kind. But that is not, in my opinion, poetry. I'm an eighteenth century gentleman in these matters. Not only that, this poem, this terrible poem, was on pink paper—pink. The color I most despise."
"What poem was it? Nadine asked, her author's curiosity aroused, and when he described the work, she recognized it as one of her humorous erotic poems. 'Eighteenth century gentleman my eye,' she thought. 'Pope would have been amused. Colt's not an eighteenth century gentleman; he's a twentieth century prude!' The knowledge shocked her. She had been prepared to hear that Colt was still enamored of his office friend—indeed, she'd anticipated some such excuse—but his critique of her poem caught her off guard. And still he continued.
"But the real reason I called, Smith, is I want my bathrobe back."
"Yes. I left it there."
Nadine began to laugh. "That was your bathrobe?" Months after Colt had stayed at her house, she had pulled a luxurious maroon terry cloth robe out from under the bed in one of her infrequent cleaning moods. It had been so long since she'd thought of Colt, she didn't recognize the garment so she showed it to Ron, who was bisexual, and accused him of having divested one of his lovers of it. Ron didn't recognize the robe either, and after they argued to a stalemate over who was responsible for bringing it into the house, they examined it. Together they'd marveled at its poshness, looking for a designer label but finding none, and wondering at the miracle of its sudden appearance. "We didn't know whose it was," she blurted, still laughing.
"Well, I want it back, Smith."
He paused while she considered the matter. The bathrobe, although several sizes too large for her, had become her own. She loved to double wrap the front panels over her body, the wide-cut sleeves made longer by the material drooping from the shoulder. Fortunately, the robe had no definite shoulder line, so it was as comfortable as it was warm.
"I suppose in the meantime it has become a member of the household, used and friendly and all that," he said, as though he had read her mind through her silence. "Something like that? Is that right, Smith?"
"Right," she blurted to her astonishment. She was surprised at how possessive she felt, how stung by Colt's criticisms of her.
"Well, I guess that's the price I pay for leaving my bathrobe behind on a one-night fling." After a few more verbal sallies, he signed off.
Nadine trembled as she hung up the receiver: she didn't know whether she was more wounded at his rejection of her as a lover or at his criticism of her poem. Both hurt. And then the nerve: demanding his bathrobe back. Still, things had turned out well. Nadine, a coward about confrontations, had managed through some miracle of spontaneity to resist his demand.
The next day Colt called again. "Listen," he said, "we're like two kids playing tug of war with this bathrobe. It's mine. I want it back. Why should I sit here shivering?"
Reluctantly, Nadine agreed. They even set a time: Sunday afternoon. And Nadine gave Colt another phone number where she could be reached to confirm the pickup.
As soon as she hung up the phone, she regretted having made the arrangement. Now she was being stung every which way—by not being the lover he had wanted her to be, by not being the poet he desired, and even by losing a bathrobe she had grown to cherish. Anguished, she spoke to Ron. "Don't give him back his robe," but Ron had no concrete ideas as to how to avoid the matter. So she discussed the situation with a girl friend, Denise. Denise roared with laughter when she heard the story of Harold—Colt!—and his plush maroon robe. "He's crazy," she declared.
"No, I mean it. Crazy. Avoid him. Don't see him; don't give his bathrobe back—"
"But how? How?"
Denise considered. "Say that Ron discovered the robe and won't relinquish it."
Nadine shook her head.
"Say you mentioned the robe to another boy friend, and he got so insulted that he took the robe and left."
That didn't sound quite right, either, but the idea of fighting to retain the bathrobe sounded great, and Nadine resolved to stand Colt up on the Sunday appointment. That was easy enough to do. On Sunday afternoon, at Ron's studio in the city—the number she'd given Colt to confirm their appointment—Ron and Nadine pulled the plug on the phone and took no calls. That pleased Nadine so much that she decided she would tell Colt that she'd sent the bathrobe to the laundry—to remove the recent stain of menstrual blood (that should freak Mr. Eighteenth Century Gentleman)—and the laundry had lost it. Still, she felt chagrined about the matter. Could she pull it off? Could she lie to him?
Then Monday evening the phone rang and she recognized Colt's voice speaking even as she lifted the receiver to her ear: "Nadine Smith gave me this number to call to make arrangements to pick up a package," Colt was saying, and Nadine felt an electrical charge run through her body. Would she tell him? Then, as he spoke, she realized that Colt didn't know he was calling her home number. Somehow he'd gotten Ron's number and her number mixed up in his mind. Smiling she hung up the receiver. To her surprise, she thought she heard Ron talking downstairs. She hadn't known he was home from work yet. She ran downstairs, gave him a hug.
"Colt just called," she said. "I hung up on him."
"I know." He laughed. "The phone was ringing when I came in the door, do I picked it up just in time to get the last of his schpiel."
"Yes! I knew right away who it was, but I pretended I didn't. 'Are you calling for Nadine Smith or Betty Smith?' I asked in my most officious voice. Colt said 'Nadine.' 'Well, Nadine's out of town on business, and she didn't say anything about any package to me. I'm her husband, and I don't know anything about any package. Do you want to leave a message?' I used my most macho voice." Ron stood smiling.
"No!" Nadine said. "Did he leave a message?"
"Are you kidding? He hung up right away. I don't think you'll be hearing anything from him again."
Ron was right. The days passed silently into weeks, and the weeks into months, and the majestic maroon bathrobe hung like a trophy on its hook in Nadine's bedroom. Sometimes Nadine's sense of victory was dampened by the fact that Ron, not she, had resolved the situation. But mostly she was grateful. Late at night or early in the morning, those fragile times when the cruelty of an indifferent world sometimes made Nadine tremble, she would take the bathrobe off its hook and double wrap it around her body, a second skin, warming her, protecting her—a shield against rejection.
From Fence of Earth
From the moment Maggie and Scott met, there was between them the thickness of thieves and born-again rebellion. It was church camp, the United Baptist Federation, the Cuyamaca Mountains, July 1959. She was fourteen, he sixteen. It was evening. He was standing under great dark firs on the other side of the creek with some other boys, drinking beer, laughing with a rowdy, dangerous energy. The windowed lights of the chapel streamed yellow as honey bees a stone's throw off, singing wafted on the summer night air, Do Lord, Oh Do Lord, Oh Do Remember Me, and she and the Mexican boy she'd ditched chapel for were kissing at last, saying good-bye, after strolling around the lake (she'd met him that afternoon, he was camping with friends, he was Catholic), and she knew the boys on the slope above the creek were watching them kiss, she glimpsed one raise his paper bag towards them and slug down some beer and he must've made a crack because the others guffawed and jostled each other, and then while she and Tonio were making out, the singing slowed, "What a fr-ie-nd we have in Je-sus..." They heard the earnest voice of the preacher, it was nearing "come forward" time, and she had a keen sense that those inside the chapel were all together, in bright light and sound, while they—the boys across the creek, Tonio, she—were outlaws, in the open air, in the dark.
"...This is a time in your life when temptation is powerful. Some of you come from broken homes, some of you tonight have sinned, some have backslidden...But you do have a friend in Jesus, children..."
She heard someone burst into tears, the preacher keened, "That's right, yield unto Je-sus..." She pulled away from Tonio. "I've got to go," she whispered. The plan was for her to mingle with the congregation when they came out. They began singing "Almost Persuaded, Now, to Believe," and between verses the preacher was pleading, "Don't hover on the brink of belief. Don't fall back into the pit of darkness. Come to the Saviour, come forward and be saved..."
She was fording the creek, stepping on rocks in the dark, and half way across she turned to wave but Tonio had disappeared into the black woods, and then she slipped on the wet stones and fell in. The sweater, her bunkmate's angora sweater, she'd ruined it, it was sopping and clinging, now she'd get caught. She came up drenched and sputtering, her wet hair in her eyes, to the raucous laughter of the clump of boy figures under the firs.
"Don't you know kissing is a sin, girl?"
"You sin, you fall in."
"Great tits, ooh-ee!"
She felt her face flame. She felt dirty, ashamed. They were mean, they were scary the way all boys were scary in a group. They'd turn on you, gang up on you, you couldn't beat them up.
"Come here," one said. "You can have my shirt."
"You been washed in the blood of the lamb."
"Take it off," another one said. "Let's see your great tits."
"Shut up," the first one said. "You're blind drunk."
"I'm not drunk, and I'm not blind. Look at 'em, man, are those bitchin' tits or what?"
The next morning the nastiest one was on K.P. He brought grapefruit juice to her table, milk, jam and butter. She wouldn't look at him. She wore a big sweatshirt and she'd pulled her hair back severely into a pony tail. Her bunkmate whispered, "I rode up next to him on the bus. He's really cute, isn't he? But he's real shy."
Maggie made a face. "I don't think he's cute."
He slid a plate of toast onto the table, deliberately grazing her breast.
"The truth shall set ye free," he whispered next to her ear.
"What'd he say? " her bunkmate asked.
Maggie hated him. "Nothing," she answered sharply. "He's bold. He's nasty." But she felt her nipples rise against her sweatshirt; her belly tingled with heat.
He set down a bowl of scrambled eggs. "Sin and repent," he said loudly.
"Weird," one kid said to another.
Then he laughed and winked at her. Everyone saw.
The next night she was on K.P. She saw him move to her table when he saw her serving. This time he was quiet, shy; she could understand what her bunkmate'd meant. She dropped a fork and he picked it up for her. She stole glances at him and caught him once looking at her hips, but not the way she would have thought, it didn't make her feel dirty, his eyes were sober. He seemed embarrassed she'd seen him.
After everyone had gone and she was clearing tables, she found a paper rose tucked beside his pudding dish. Spaghetti sauce stained one petal. He'd formed it out of his napkin! She slipped it into her breast pocket.
He was waiting for her under the light outside the screen door of the dining hall, leaning against the light pole. Insects were circling high above. His blue Bermudas were faded and so was his tee shirt. He had downy gold hair on his arms, he had warm reddish-brown tanned skin, he hadn't much beard yet, she could see all this so clearly in the naked light.
His eyes flicked to the rose sticking out of her pocket.
She blushed. "It's nice," she said. "I like it."
He smiled. "Good," he said.
He was the most beautiful boy she'd ever seen. He was too good-looking for her. He drank beer. He was impudent. She was a Christian.
"You were mean the other night."
He grinned. "When you got wet? It was funny. I'm not apologizing." He glanced at the rose. "I mean, that's not why I made it. I just like you, that's why." His face looked so soft. His lips were smooth and red like the lips of boys caroling on Christmas cards. "You're a nice girl, aren't you? You're a good girl."
What a strange boy. He was the strangest boy she'd ever met.
She didn't know what to say, so she didn't say anything. She just kept looking at him. He was a little cross-eyed or something.
One eyelid sank into a wink.
She giggled. Her face got hot again.
"That's what you get for staring." He grinned.
"You have two different colored eyes." One was dark blue and the other more like sky.
"Yeah. And this eyelid's a little droopy. See?" He pointed to the right one, the darker one.
She stepped closer to look.
"That's why I can drop it like that."
She smiled. "Cool."
"What do you wanna do?" he asked.
She looked away. "I don't know," she said. "Want to walk me to my cabin?"
"No," he said softly.
"Well, I can't skip chapel. I mean, I don't want to walk around the lake." He was watching her, and this time she felt, more than thought, felt it in her whole body: he's got the kissiest lips, he's the most beautiful boy I've ever met. "I mean," she said, "do you wanna walk around the lake?"
"No," he said. "I don't want to walk around the lake."
"Well, what do you want to do?"
He looked at her and then he looked away and then he looked at her again and his face was all soft. "I want to go love," he said dreamily.
I cannot remember exactly the first time I saw Dr. Rosen, the foot doctor, but this I do: he seemed always to be on his knees or on a low stool; a position of seeming subservience, although I eventually knew that as a dermatologist, it went with the territory.
"Derm – ?" Forgive me; I meant podiatrist. I was for the moment associating the name in my mind with another Dr. Rosen in a different city and an entirely different make of breed. This first, the subject of the story I tell here, I respected, even liked, although we had our tensions, as you will see. Now, for the record, both are gone from my life; the latter, forever – Good! – But for this one mistaken recall memory summoned as I record here. Perhaps – and then I will really banish Dr. Rosen 2 – my subconscious has here a purposeful way. Number 2 was competent, though money driven. He had two offices in South Florida: (probably still does): The Falls, the largely pseudo upscale mall in Pinecrest; Miami Lakes, that gimmicky almost all white enclave where Fifties nose jobs are not necessary nor would have been then.
The first Dr. Rosen was also competent and thorough; too thorough. When he would finish shaving and clipping after an eternity of time, then massage soothing lotion, he would pat my feet, murmur words of encouragement about ongoing care until the next visit; and, then we would talk.
I was on life's journey. He was locked into it. I had left the mainstream – hell, all streams – ! And he was a galley slave. I, on my own professionally, was learning how to make do – not such an easy thing when your talent is advocacy not the practical of business – and he? – Well, he did almost everything, except keep the books. I think, if memory recalls this one right, he didn't have a receptionist, not even one of those almost elderly but vigorous woman from the lower east side where his office was, and who would live in a public housing project of New York City with only her own kind. (To clear the boards on this, let me make very clear: as Antarctica would melt if its temperature went up or down more than a couple of degrees, so would her spotless, neighborly project. You get what I mean?)
Dr. Rosen never overtly told. However, the allusions were unmistakable. A man of medium height, both fleshy and lean in the face; a wearer of thin gold frame rimless glasses that seemed poised to cut into his cheekbones, and his dark brown-black eyes always stared as he spoke. I could not tell if he was muscular, although as a major league catcher behind the plate; no sign of tiring. Ever! Picture him in a World War II movie in the barracks taunted for his ethnicity, reluctant to fight…and then…?
To be fair, I used him (among others) for therapy. Told him how I was forced to the practice; forced to come to New York City. And my anguish, never much below the surface although controlled – would emerge, as the Long Island or Grand Central Railroads from the caverns carved out for them to move into harsh sunlight to perform – into a grim face frozen resolve as I spoke:
"People pay for this."
Dr. Rosen knew what I meant. That estrangement from the one person who, in all the world, no matter which society and however it programs; or religion, no matter how it indoctrinates; or ethnic group, no matter how its propaganda was standing the centuries, was the one whose warmth and caring could give soothing against life.
In this context, Dr. Rosen:
"I know why she married me. I could figure it out." He sounded as though in medical school, thoughtfully explaining an assignment he gradually had come to understand. He voice was calm, even; he was a professional. But, his body, seemingly always a mix of the limber and stiff as he worked, now would stiffen; there was no movement. It was as if the dishwasher in the kitchen suddenly went still; was it still working? And then you heard the blessed flow of water into the machine as again it performed, as it would day after day, until its life ended. Likewise him after he spoke of this.
Did I say "Dr. Rosen never overtly told"? That's correct. How did he meet her and at what stage of his life? Why her?
Once, with a sigh, I mentioned how I was not dating. It was then, for the first time, Dr. Rosen mentioned his daughter. A curious smile appeared, one I had not seen on his face before. Previously, when I would discourse in anguish, his smile would curl slightly at the edges of his mouth, his eyes allowing a flash of fleeting scorn and satisfaction. It was as if he was communicating to me: I know how you view me – trapped! – Now see how I view you – ! That was the tension. But there was more to Dr. Rosen's communicating. He was not a man without compassion. Sometimes, those very eyes would go moist with feeling for me; yes, slightly and fleetingly; but, I was not his brother or cousin; and, he was always my doctor, knowing that distance from the patient, non-cynical or rationalized, was always best. Moreover, a natural sense of humor, the kind he learned he possessed playing stickball in Brooklyn schoolyards where he was pushed into contact with every conceivable type the ghetto threw up to be related to, had in the process in that proving arena, honed. It was a classic ghetto sense of humor, which he could use as he told me stories, or in his wise way – he was not a genius – both inform me and give me comfort. Sometimes, I got this and sometimes not. You see, the tension was reciprocal, and I had a lot to learn.
When, years later, I learned of the stroke and how finally it killed him, I knew this, and cared.
Perhaps, better I should return to Dr. Rosen's daughter (if not exclusively), and how he talked about her those many times when his work was done for me, his firm soft hands finished applying the magical refreshing lotion; and, he would lean back and begin again. Those times, it was if a miracle was appearing before my eyes. He would appear young, not middle aged; spontaneous, not in a straightjacket; almost joyous with vicarious life. He seemed to be in love. Her name was Abby.
"The one who's Abby!" I cried out.
"Yeah." Dr. Rosen said, obviously not wishing to be interrupted. He was, so to speak, starting a riff. He sat up on the stool with wheels, pushed back almost furiously from me using his gum sole shoes to gather traction on the floor, while simultaneously patting my bare feet with authority: "Finished."
This time I waited.
"She's going to law school," he smiled.
I felt my face flush. Those were times of emerging female liberation. (No problem.) Yet, I saw the competition thereby geometrically unfold if ever I attempted to fight my way back into the system; and, I saw also, as though an alienated twin to myself, the torment and anguish of what I was supposed to be as opposed to who I was and off that becoming.
But Dr. Rosen knew this.
"What law school?" I cried, anguish in my hopefully more controlled voice.
He replied with that deadpan eyes staring look: "University of Miami, Coral Gables." His smile was hidden. It was playground time.
My burning face fell. Coral Gables, Miami – same thing – was the Promised Land I was driven from. By the one who should have cared for me, in cahoots with my stepfather. Was Dr. Rosen still speaking? He was still there, I knew, as I saw him through a blur. Was his riff this time a twofer? A vicarious living for him; sticking me for abandoning The Tribe except as the psyche gripped?
As I came back from an onslaught of dizziness, which momentarily caused the examination room to go black with small spinning spoke wheels of florescent light, he was speaking.
"Naw, she's already there. Third year."
Had I asked? Even as I pondered, I saw yesterday: the late Fifties and early Sixties: Coral Gables and the shops on Miracle Mile: The Stagg Shop; The Dinghy – where I bought madras sport shirts and smooth front buckle in the back light wool pants, and for twenty-five dollars, a pair of cordovan shoes that gleamed in the night after polishing, as I went in the second hand Chevy I paid for from the money I earned from pressured to be busboy summers North, to pick up the first girl I ever loved. –
I returned to talking with Dr. Rosen. "Doing well?
This time Dr. Rosen was smiling. "First in her class. All three years."
I was noticeably breathing.
"She has already lined up a position with the best law firm in Florida."
I tried to gather myself.
I thought and watched Dr. Rosen intently. During all his discourse, his wife was never mentioned. Somewhere, somehow, she was home in Great Neck on Long Island, but not part of his life as dreamed. Perhaps I should have resisted, but I did not:
"Is Abby married?"
For the first time ever as far as she was in our talking, that stiffening returned to Dr. Rosen's body; and, his imperturbable face.
"Sure. Great guy. Met him in law school."
I knew not to and did not have to ask more. But this I thought as I left his office in the gathering New York fall twilight: somewhere in that marital bed of Abby and her husband, lay deep needs of a third. Normally, from his office on the lower east side, I would walk home, into the already called "East Village"; maybe stop at the Second Avenue Deli for one of their truly great hot pastrami on ryes. But, as I approached, lines were already forming on the pumpernickel sidewalk for seating at both the counter and tables (I peered in) that stomach clammy feeling would not abate. I did not wish to bring on more nausea. I did not wish to eat then after throw up.
I kept seeing Dr. Rosen. Then, one day, he was gone. I had no notice. On one of my very occasional visits to my general practitioner who also had his office on the lower east side and, in fact, referred me to Dr. Rosen, either I asked him or he volunteered that Dr. Rosen had moved to Miami.
He laughed with delight. He too knew me (somewhat).
"But his practice? It was all established here!"
Dr. Katz smiled.
Several years passed. I did not ask Dr. Katz of Dr. Rosen again. It was not as though I did not care. On the contrary: slowly, sometimes with bitter pain, I was becoming more aware of myself ; and, with that, was coming awareness of others, what made them, this in turn encouraging compassion; my version.
I had deep forebodings. Perhaps, my mood swings. I thought not.
Then one day, Dr. Katz told: "You remember Dr. Rosen?
"I see," I said with the consummation of nausea that incipiently warned as I stood outside the Second Avenue Deli those years ago. I looked up and at Dr. Katz. He was biggish and beefy, and there was a photograph of him in his office where he would take patients to speak in confidence, that was him upon graduation from medical school; slim. I could see, and tell from his voice, the news – other than the inevitable ghetto pride of passing information along – gave him no pleasure.
"May, I ask, Dr. Katz," I began, my voice cracking, "how it happened? My eyes reflected my pain. Oh, no, it was not just for the loss, but for the circumstances I feared as the Jews of Eastern Europe feared the march of approaching Nazi boots. (Perhaps this analogy is way to strong; but terror is terror.)
Dr. Katz spoke in that confident intimate tone of the doctor who, over years, has seen and treated so much, and knows manner, if not healing, is part of the mature general practitioner's approach:
"Dr. Rosen was visiting his daughter at the Fontainebleau Hotel. She and her husband had a cabana. It was a bright shiny day. She was lounging on a mat by the pool. Dr. Rosen walking over, across the broad deck, waved, she waved back, and he suddenly stopped."
There was a silence and I wondered where I had heard exactly that silence before. But my mind was numb and scrambling to retain what I was hearing through ringing ears. I breathed in and out audibly. Perhaps this encouraged Dr. Katz to continue; perhaps he would have anyway. Depending, he too liked to talk, at least with me.
"He staggered and reached out. But he was in open space, all alone, no one to grab hold of; and, he sank to the damp concrete, Within minutes, the paramedics arrived with an ambulance, and they rushed him to Mt. Sinai, but" – and here Dr. Katz gave a wheezing giggle; you interpret it – "by that time most of the damage was done…"
"Yes," Dr. Katz smiled, totally without, in any way, the pejorative.
I wanted and needed more. But not then; not there! Numb, I left his office and slow walked the streets. They threatened me. Looking up to the projects from whence so many of the doctor Rosens and Katzs had come – forget which borough or whether the homes were in projects – I saw behind the curving balconies into living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms: families in close living, and patterns formed in the young. I wanted to get far away: into Greenwich Village and the bookshops, The Strand Bookstore, Eighth Street Bookshop; to breathe life. (Again, I feel the need to justify myself. In time, over much ongoing time, and also from his brother who went to law school with me and referred me to him, I learned - as filtered - much of Dr. Katz. Enough to justifiably, on instinct then, recoil from Dr. Katz's ongoing tale).
It was after browsing, and an into-the-past skewered beef with peanut sauce with rice, and two good drafts of beer dinner at Chumley's deep in the West Village, that I knew, once calmed down, what I must do. The next week I went uptown to The New York Public Library, the main one on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street. I went into one of the twin research rooms: magnificent, huge, ornate, warm and non threatening, to do my research.
Research was something I did well when I wished to. Twice, I was a national debate champion (high school, college); and, with major New York law firms, was exemplary. The key would be, if I could get to the information if it existed at all, beyond what the persons involved carried, knowingly or not, within.
I had, once before, followed in the Miami Herald, a story. It was of a classmate in high school and college – Miami High and the University of Florida – and his initial run for governor. (He was older than I; factor this out.) I struck gold, being able to follow the campaign daily, establishing not only what was happening, but why.
Eagerly, I turned again to the Miami Herald. With the assistance of ace research librarians, I filled out slips for real copies of the paper. I sat and watched for my small square number to light high on the tote board, rushing over often as the dumbwaiter was settling in with a stack.
Long before The New York Times, the Herald came close to perfecting the use of color photography. They used the technology well. The headlines were typical: a baccalaureate of Dr. Rosen leaving the north – Great Neck – for the new life in Florida; then, in the body, the ongoing story before tragedy struck. The story seemed so innocuous, but not to me. Still, I reread it several times to be sure. I am not foreign to paranoia.
Obscure, was whether Dr. Rosen was practicing as a podiatrist. It seemed, and the story firmly left little doubt; he was always visiting Abby at the Fontainebleau. Was this only weekends? Wasn't she practicing law? Full time; part? She had two children; Dr. Rosen left them, grandchildren, along with his widow and son. His wife was a Florida shadow; only her location had moved.
Then the picture of Abby: Technicolor, full on the page to the fold; lying on her back, bikini clad, body oiled and sun glistening. You saw the slit of the bellybutton, the ample (enough) breasts, the shapely legs spread showing one full but not heavy thigh, tapering to her knee as a plane descending; all this smooth and tanned in the Florida sun. Her face was expressionless; straight, modern ethnic features of allure (especially to those with him she locked "what goes on in my head" to what is in yours). She was wearing sunglasses; big and round; oddly – as they totally hid her eyes – revealed!
* * *
Once, I was hit by a car right outside my apartment building. The idiot was fortunately moving slowly, so as he caught my back (I was hurrying away from him, forefinger of a partially extended raised forearm hailing a taxi), I was more stunned than hurt. I went to the emergency room of Beth Israel hospital, pronounced okay, left with some over the counter pain reducer, and walked around in near shock several days, then stunned for several weeks. It was that way with Dr. Rosen as I contemplated his life and death.
Now I was sure I understood. In his life – for whatever reason or reasons – Dr. Rosen was locked into his daughter for all the needs he should have found in his wife. I did not know beyond conjecture why – some force was driving him not to be himself – but I didn't have to. All the signs he showed during my visits – that masochism – inexorably led to his following Abby to Florida, and here, in the Promised Land he found at last the acid of pain. Abby could never be his! That was finally clear to him that final fatal time when he approached her, her body glistening on the deck of the Fontainebleau Hotel. Like an aneurysm, whatever hit him – heart attack, stroke – its time had come. No longer could he live with the illusion of vicarious living; that Abby was his.
At that point in his life, consciously or not, he was faced with choice: life without Abby, or death. I do not wish melodrama here: All the signs, that whirlpool call to ghetto living never excised by any of us, and always a dominant to his psyche, won. So he killed himself. As surely as the alcoholic, drug addict or very reckless driver.
But what of my life? Why my obsession with Dr. Rosen?
My father died when I was one. Circumstances forced my mother to share a bedroom with me. In an apartment with her sister and her husband and four year old daughter. The two sisters wanted things their way, and with those within their radar, it was their lives' game plan. With me, it almost worked. Bent against my own will, I was driven by my mother to be and do. Now, with retrospect, I see the pattern of near self- destruction. I was almost Dr. Rosen.
I think I've caught it now.
Lisa was a screamer. She was at least loud enough for my grandmother to hear through the heating vent in her bedroom, two stories above the damp, musty basement that served as my brother Joe's bedroom. Before Thanksgiving, though, Joe wasn't aware of our heating system's particular acoustics. He must have assumed that neither our mom nor our grandmother knew what was going on down there, or else he had more nerve than I could ever hope to muster.
As far as my grandmother was concerned, the odds were against Lisa from the first day Joe brought her home to meet the family. It was late March and I had just come home from sophomore baseball practice. My mom, home early from work, stood in the front yard raking dead grass and what was left of last fall's leaves. She paused when she saw me approach, leaning a bit on her rake and trying with her other hand to push stray hairs away from her face. She frowned as I came closer.
"You'd better not go in the house with those cleats on. Grandma's spent the day spring cleaning."
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, right," I said. I grabbed a plastic bottle from my equipment bag and squirted lukewarm water into my mouth.
My mom nodded toward the house. I looked up to see my grandmother's skinny arm pushing a rag across the windowsill of an open window.
"Come on, Mom. She's just spying on us."
She laughed. My grandmother's habit of eavesdropping in what she thought were cleverly disguised ways was an ongoing joke in the family. As my mom began to half-heartedly defend her mother, I felt a slight vibration in my chest, and we knowingly turned our heads toward the end of our street.
The music blasting from the approaching Jeep was deafening. The pounding beat of the bass from Van Halen's "Runnin' With The Devil" penetrated my entire body. It was only 55 degrees outside, but Joe had the ragtop off and his long hair whipped behind him as he turned into the driveway without slowing down. Lisa sat in the passenger seat next to him, laughing, singing, her arms raised to clutch the roll bar above her. Joe slammed on the brakes and the Jeep came to an abrupt stop just in front of the garage. He turned off the ignition and the music evaporated, and except for the brief knocking of the Jeep's engine, the air fell silent. My mom and I stood there, motionless. I felt like we had interrupted them, although I wasn't sure what it was we had interrupted.
"Hey, Mom, Ricky," Joe said. He climbed down from the Jeep. "I want y'all to meet Lisa."
Joe and I had spent our entire lives in St. Louis, but he'd somehow acquired more than a hint of a Southern accent. It seemed unintentional; I'd always attributed it to his love of bluegrass and Southern rock. So I was surprised by the early Van Halen, which was more in line with my tastes.
I watched in shock when Joe ran around to the other side of the Jeep and helped Lisa out. I knew of Joe's reputation at school. I'd heard many girls refer to him as "gentle" and "sensitive." While some of us guys were busy after school at baseball or soccer practice, Joe could be found down by Creve Coeur Lake, sitting on a picnic bench strumming ballads on his Martin guitar. He'd had many girlfriends as a result. But I'd never seen him open a car door for one.
"It's nice to meet you, Ms. Brooks." Lisa shook my mom's hand and smiled at both of us. Joe must have already told her our parents were divorced; even our friends who had known us for years still called her "Mrs." Most of the time.
The three of them quickly settled into an easy conversation, my mom immediately accepting Lisa, just as she did with all of the friends we brought to the house. I nodded my head as if involved in their discussion, but I didn't process what they said. I began to worry about whether I smelled and if Lisa noticed. She stood with her hands in the back pockets of her Levi's and her shoulders easily erect. I found myself drawn to her mouth. Her lips were moist and full, even when stretched in a smile. Sometimes, when she wasn't talking, she would bite her lower lip ever so slightly. When she laughed I noticed her teeth were straight, and white, like her T-shirt. She was a goddess.
"Don't forget your cleats, Ricky, okay?" My mom touched my arm. "Okay?"
They must have finished their conversation, and I was the last one to know it.
"Yeah. Okay. No problem."
As they headed for the house Lisa turned and looked at me, those full lips forming a barely perceptible smirk. I fumbled with my bag and I felt my face getting hot. On my way in, I glanced up at the open window again. My grandmother was still there, dusting the windowsill.
Despite my grandmother's behind-the-scenes protests that she didn't have enough to feed another mouth, my mother invited Lisa to stay for dinner, and Lisa readily accepted. An hour and a half later, she sat at our small dining room table eating my grandmother's lasagna.
Unbeknownst to Lisa, she'd sat in my grandmother's usual spot. For an instant I thought my grandmother would say something, but I saw my mom throw a mean glance in her direction, and she let it pass. I took the opportunity to sit directly across from Lisa. On her first bite she inserted her fork between her lips, closing her eyes and letting out a quiet "hmmm." She ate slowly, but vigorously, seeming to enjoy the sensation of eating.
"This is delicious," Lisa proclaimed. When she asked for seconds, my grandmother's eyes widened.
"My word, missy, you eat like a truck driver," she said. She was not impressed. If Lisa knew my grandmother was insulting her, she didn't let on.
"That's exactly what my dad says," she said, laughing. She steadied her plate, and my grandmother begrudgingly piled more food onto it.
"Hey, Mom, guess what Lisa and me are gonna do this weekend?" Joe sat next to Lisa and he grabbed for her hand under the table.
My mom smiled. "Tell me."
"We're going flying," he gushed. "Lisa's a pilot." He looked at Lisa as if he couldn't believe his good fortune to have her sitting next to him in his house at his dinner table, and a pilot, no less. I couldn't believe it either.
Under polite questioning from my mother, Lisa explained that she had been born in Israel to an Israeli father and an American mother. Her father had been a pilot in the Israeli air force, but for the last ten years had been flying in the States for a commercial airline. He was the one who had taught her to fly.
My grandmother stopped eating while she listened to Lisa.
"Oh, are you Jewish, then, dear?" Although the rest of us cringed at my grandmother's tone of voice, Lisa pretended not to notice.
"Yes, ma'am, I am."
"Oh." My grandmother let her eyes gaze upon Lisa a little longer, and then she went back to her food without another word.
After dinner, my mother and grandmother retreated to the kitchen to do the dishes. Lisa offered to help, but my grandmother insisted that as our guest, she was neither expected nor allowed to clean up. Coming from my mother, this rule would have seemed warm and welcoming; from my grandmother it was merely exclusionary.
Lisa politely acquiesced. "I really should get home anyway," she said. "Thank you both for a wonderful meal."
I stood in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen and watched Lisa give my mom a brief hug. As she leaned over, her T-shirt came untucked and I glimpsed her stomach, taut and brown.
"Make sure he drives safely," my mom called to Lisa before the front door slammed behind them.
My grandmother's voice pierced the brief silence that followed. "You're not really going to let him go up in a plane with her, are you?"
"I don't see why not." My mother kept her eyes on the sink in front of her, not looking at my grandmother even as she handed her a plate to dry.
"My God, Barbara, that's just asking for trouble!"
Everyone I knew called my mother by her nickname, Hope. My dad had once explained to us that when our mother was a young girl, her own father had given her the pet name because of her optimistic outlook on life. My grandmother, though, always insisted on using her given name.
"She seemed to know what she was talking about, and I'm sure they wouldn't have given her a license if she didn't know what she was doing."
"That's ridiculous. You and I both know a license means nothing. I have a driver's license but I'm smart enough to know I shouldn't be on the road."
I let out a little laugh at my grandmother's self-deprecation. They both turned and glared at me.
"Mother, he's my son. I'll decide what he can and cannot do."
"You can't let your guilt about the divorce affect the decisions you make about these boys, Barbara. You can't just let them do whatever they want." My grandmother's voice was lower, though her tone was still sharp. "They need some limits."
My mother held the bowl she was washing in midair and for the first time, looked directly at my grandmother.
"You mean like forbid them to date Jewish girls, or perhaps anyone who doesn't have the lily white skin of our Nordic forbears?"
While my grandmother stood in stunned silence, my mother set down the bowl and rinsed and dried her hands. "I think I'm done here." She turned toward me. "Ricky, will you take over for me, please?"
After my mom left the kitchen, I thought my grandmother would say something to me. She didn't, though, and I just shrugged at her. We finished the dishes in silence.
As a boy of sixteen, it didn't take long for me to dismiss the argument between my mother and grandmother and focus once again on the object of my brother's affection. I lay in bed that night trying to figure out what it was about her; why, of all the girls my brother had dated, Lisa was the only one who had ever interested me. She was beautiful, of course, but so were most of the others, in their own ways. What I noticed most about her that night at the dinner table was that she seemed, well, really smart. The other girls, by comparison, seemed very average. Not stupid, or anything, but more like their life revolved around Joe. Lisa was different, somehow. I suspected that Joe was not the center of her existence. He was just one of the many things she had going on.
Lisa began to spend a lot of time at our house. After school she and Joe sat at the kitchen table, doing homework and ignoring my grandmother's obvious attempts to eavesdrop on their conversations. I was doing some eavesdropping of my own, but of a more covert nature, or so I thought. I took to doing my homework at the table with them, instead of retreating to my usual spot sprawled out on my bed. Joe didn't seem to care much, if he even noticed the change. He was completely enamored with Lisa, and everything else was just white noise.
One Saturday in late May, Lisa arrived at our house to pick up Joe to go flying. The flying had become a weekly event for them. Joe told me how they flew to little airports around the area, eating breakfast in Cape Girardeau or lunch in the Ozarks.
I was coming down the stairs when Joe opened the front door. They were immediately all over each other. Joe's hand reached under Lisa's shirt to rub her back as they made out in our foyer. She made that same little "hmmm" sound she had made when eating the lasagna. I could feel myself getting a hard-on. I cleared my throat loudly.
Lisa pulled her lips away from Joe's. "Hey, Ricky," she said. Joe moved southward and kissed her neck, instead.
"Hey." I stood there, not wanting to leave but wishing Joe would stop.
Lisa smiled slightly. It was the same look she had given me the first day we met in the driveway. She was getting a kick out of my embarrassment.
"Hey, Joe, why doesn't Ricky come flying with us?" She watched me as she spoke.
This got Joe's attention. He raised his head and turned to me, as if noticing me for the first time. I expected him to immediately veto her suggestion and was surprised when he agreed without hesitation. I was beginning to believe he would murder our own mother if she only asked him to.
Joe headed out the front door, holding Lisa's hand behind him. "Come on, Ricky, we'll fly you down to the lake," he said over his shoulder to me. I followed them, not quite sure what I was getting myself into. The flying, though, was the least of my worries.
Lisa drove a '68 Ford Mustang, powder blue, mint condition. We drove with the top down, her dark brown curly hair blowing in the wind. I had yet to see her in a car with a roof. I suspected that winter probably cramped her style, if that was possible. She popped a Foreigner tape into the cassette player; "Urgent" boomed from the rear speakers on either side of me.
We drove down Highway 40 toward Spirit of St. Louis Airport. After we passed the mall, she pulled off of the highway onto Long Road. With her left hand on the steering wheel and her right hand on the stick, she effortlessly navigated the curves while flirting with my brother. She sang along with the music, leaning over close to his face during the parts that especially moved her. I had a strong desire to open his door, push him out, and climb into the front passenger seat myself. Instead, I leaned back and closed my eyes, breathing in the fertile scent from the flood plains of the Missouri River.
At the airport, Joe and I stood around on the tarmac while Lisa checked over the plane. It was a small high-wing four-seater that Lisa referred to as her "go-cart with wings." She ignored us and concentrated on her preflight checklist. I noticed her leg muscles tighten when she pulled herself up onto the wing struts to check the fuel tanks on top of the wings. I noticed Joe watching her, too. He had a smile on his face. It occurred to me for the first time that for him it wasn't just sexual, it was something else; he was proud of her.
He turned to me as if he sensed my attention.
"You sure you're ready for this?" he said.
I paused for a minute before answering him, looking at the plane and then at Lisa, who was running her fingers lightly along the leading edge of the propeller blades.
Without taking my eyes from her, I said, "Yeah, I think I'm ready." And then, under my breath, I added, "The question is, are you?"
When we climbed into the plane, I sat on the right side behind my brother so that I could see Lisa better. We took off toward the west and quickly crossed over the river. It took only a few minutes to get over my initial queasiness about being in such a small space several thousand feet above the ground. I wore the headset Lisa gave me and listened to her talk to someone on the radio as she handled the controls of the plane. In a way, it was similar to how she drove the Mustang and flirted with my brother at the same time. Now, though, she was serious and professional.
I looked at the ground and tried to see if I recognized anything. At one point I guessed we were somewhere near Hermann, because I spotted what looked like rows of vineyards spreading out from the banks of the river. It then occurred to me that Hermann, and the river, for that matter, were not on the way to the Ozarks. At least not by plane.
I leaned up between the two front seats. "Where're we going?" I shouted over the noise of the engine.
Lisa turned and frowned at me. She pointed to the microphone on her headset. "Use your mike, Ricky."
I fumbled with my headset, pulling the microphone up from where it had fallen under my chin.
"Sorry," I said, speaking more softly this time. "I was wondering where we were going."
Suddenly the plane banked to the right and I felt my body being pulled back and left. "Shit!" I yelled. The wing outside my window seemed to be perpendicular to the ground. No sooner had I spoken than the plane righted itself. I thought I was going to throw up.
Lisa and Joe laughed up front. I opened my mouth to speak but was interrupted when she pulled the plane sharply to the left this time. I searched for something to hold onto.
"We thought we'd have a little fun and practice some steep turns." Lisa smiled broadly at my brother. "Should we show him a spin?"
The plane leveled again. "I'm gonna throw up," I muttered. If they heard me, they didn't let on. The plane slowed and the engine got quieter. I watched in horror as Lisa pulled back on the yoke and the nose of the plane rose higher and higher in the air. Joe whooped in anticipation. The plane began to shake and a loud horn sounded.
"What the hell are you doing?" I yelled at her, not caring if I shattered her eardrums through her headset.
"Relax," she said. And then, incomprehensibly, "Hold on." Without warning, the plane fell to the right and out of the sky. At least that's how it felt to me. The nose that had only a second ago been pointing up was now spiraling down, straight for the sacred ground below.
* * *
We landed a couple of hours later at a little airport near Table Rock Lake. The air blew in gusts near the lake. On the slow descent, the wind buffeted us and it seemed impossible that Lisa would be able to keep the plane level enough to land. I kept my mouth shut, though, for fear of further humiliating myself.
Once down and out of the plane, I immediately fell to my knees and kissed the ground. My theatrics garnered the intended response; Lisa and Joe laughed at me. Unexpectedly, Lisa came up from behind me. Her long, delicate fingers grabbed my waist and she brought her face close to mine.
"I'm the one who brought you safely to the ground," she whispered, her breath warm against my ear. "Shouldn't I be the one entitled to that kiss?"
I instinctively looked for Joe, but he was on the other side of the plane putting blocks under the wheel. I was desperately conscious of my heart in my chest – its strong, rhythmic beating as it pumped the blood through my veins – an alien trying to escape the constrictive walls of my ribs. Before I could answer her, Lisa was gone.
"Come on, Ricky, get to work," she called from under the wing. "We've got to tie it down before we get some lunch."
I slowly moved toward the tail of the plane, trying to look busy and wondering what had just happened. As I fumbled with the rope, Joe came to my rescue.
"You okay?" he asked me, grabbing the rope from my hand. "She was just playin' with you, you know." For a second I thought he had witnessed our exchange, but then I realized he was talking about her earlier performance in the air. I nodded. I had the crazy thought that somehow I had seriously betrayed my brother.
The diner was situated adjacent to the runway, right next to the airport's only hangar. The waitress was friendly with Lisa, and the cook waved to her from behind the counter when we first came in. As we walked to our table, I even noticed that some of the men at the tables nodded their heads in greeting to her.
"I'm here enough that they recognize me," Lisa explained, cocking her head in the direction of the kitchen as we slid into a booth by the front window. "But the others are pilots. They probably saw us fly in and that's just how pilots are to each other." She shrugged.
"Of course it doesn't hurt that she's the only female in the joint," Joe said. His arm rested on the top of the booth behind her. "Not counting her, of course," he added, motioning to the sixty-ish waitress. He squeezed Lisa's shoulder as he spoke. I wondered if it bothered him, her casual friendliness with other guys, but I couldn't detect even a trace of jealously in his voice.
We sat at the table a long time after finishing our food, talking and watching a few planes practice their landings. I began to relax. I started to believe that Lisa was probably just playing with me, not only in the air but on the ground, too.
After finishing her umpteenth cup of coffee, Lisa jumped up and announced she would be ready to walk down to the lake after "making a pit stop." She sauntered through the restaurant, well aware that every set of male eyes in the place was watching her. Only after she was out of sight did I turn to Joe.
"Does it ever bother you?"
"What?" He tilted his glass into the air, dumping crushed ice into his mouth.
"Her . . . how shall I say . . . her magnetism, her . . ." I paused and then laughed, "her unbridled sexuality."
He laughed, too. "Wow, powerful words coming from my little brother, the jock. Why don't you tell me what you really think?"
I was not going to let him answer my question with a question. "Well?"
He took another swig of his ice. He chewed slowly and watched a plane taxi just outside our window.
"You just have to know what she's about," he finally said. Without elaborating he set his glass down and stood. "I'm gonna pay and then hit the john before we head out."
I got up, too, and wandered outside to wait for them. The winds had died down and the sun's rays warmed my face and forearms. I found a bench outside the hangar. Leaning back against the hangar wall, I closed my eyes and thought about what Joe had said. As far as I could tell, what Lisa was ‘about' was sex. Then I tried to imagine kissing her – what it would be like and how it would come about – and I started trying to convince myself that maybe Joe wouldn't even care if it happened.
Voices inside the hangar interrupted my thoughts. One voice was definitely Lisa's, but I didn't recognize the other. I kept listening for Joe, but didn't hear him. I stood up and walked over to the open hangar door. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and then I was able to see Lisa sitting on a cabinet in the far corner, her legs dangling in front of her. Standing in the space between her legs, facing her, was some guy with a ponytail gathered at the nape of his neck. His left hand rested on her thigh. She laughed at something he said.
"You can come in, Ricky," she said, startling me. She pushed the guy's hand from her leg and jumped down.
"Gotta go," she said. "My escort's here." He grabbed her hand to stop her.
"Don't be such a stranger." His voice was low. He was definitely older than Joe and stood tall above her.
She stood on her tiptoes and gave him a peck on the cheek.
She joined me in the threshold of the hangar, where shadows gave way to light, and put her arm around my waist.
"Let's go," she said, as if this immediate intimacy between us was the most natural thing in the world. And just like that we walked out to the tarmac, where we found my brother in the front seat of a bright red Pitts, having just accepted the offer from an old WWII veteran for a ride in his plane.
They started having sex in our basement sometime in early July. At least that's when I first realized it.
School was out for the summer, but our mom still went to work every day. My grandmother was home, of course, but she usually retreated to her bedroom after breakfast to watch the morning talk shows, and then again after lunch to watch her "stories," as she called them. Lisa had a part-time job working at the airport every morning from 7 to 1, so Joe, in an effort to maximize their time together, agreed to take the early morning shift as a bagger at the local grocery store. When the weather was good, they went flying after work. On the bad days they ended up at our house.
The Thursday before the Fourth of July the weather was unusually hot and humid. We normally wouldn't see temperatures over 100 until August, but the thermometer attached to the breezeway between the garage and house already read 96 degrees when I came home from lifeguarding at the pool.
When I entered the house, the cold air from the air conditioner smacked me like I'd run into a wall. My hair and suit were still damp and the small hairs on my body rose as a wave of goose bumps enveloped my skin. I first heard the music when I went into the kitchen to get a drink. The last refrain of Jefferson Starship's "Jane" wafted from under the door that separated the top of the basement stairs from the kitchen. I knew instantly they were both down there; had my brother been alone he would have been listening to Steve Earle or the Allman Brothers. I was a bit surprised they weren't at the airport, because although it was miserably hot, the weather seemed otherwise perfect for flying. I wondered if small planes like the ones Lisa flew had air conditioning.
I didn't hear their voices until the song ended. Not their voices, really, but their sounds. There was a lot of grunting from both of them, accompanied by the screeching of the springs from Joe's old twin-sized bed. Although I stood in the kitchen, in my mind's-eye I could see them perfectly. I knew Lisa must be on top. Another song came on, but Lisa's grunts had progressed to loud moaning, incapable of being drowned out by even the music. I knew I should leave the room, the house, even, but I couldn't. It was like those times when you come across a bad accident on the highway. You know you shouldn't gawk, but there's some voyeuristic instinct that kicks in and you can't help it.
Again my heart was beating, like a fist punching from the inside, faster and faster as it matched the crescendo of their lovemaking. There was a short break in their noise, and then Lisa cried out, in a low, guttural voice: "No!" It never occurred to me to think my brother was doing something unwanted. This was before it was drilled into the brains of boys too young to even understand, that if a girl says "no" – no matter what the circumstances – you stop whatever you're doing. It didn't matter. I knew they were way past the stopping point, and I suspected that despite her plea, Lisa was getting exactly what she wanted.
Her scream caused me to start and I accidentally dropped my glass into the sink. Shards of glass splayed in different directions. I hunched over the counter, unmoving, hoping I wouldn't be discovered.
"Ricky?" My grandmother's voice called down from the top of the second floor stairs. "Is that you? Is everything all right?"
I hesitated. If I didn't answer, she would probably come down to investigate and discover not only me, but also Joe and Lisa. If I did answer, Joe and Lisa would hear me and know for sure I had eavesdropped on them. Little did I know, both contingents already knew what I was trying to hide. I decided it was best to keep my grandmother at bay.
"It's just me, Grandma," I called up. "I just dropped something." A moment passed and then I heard her bedroom door close. I let out a sigh and realized I had been holding my breath.
"Ricky, what are you doing here?" It was Joe.
I turned to look at him standing at the top of the basement stairs. His face was flushed; whether he was embarrassed or exhilarated, I don't know. His question was so stupid and the answer was so simple, but I waited a long time before answering.
"I live here." I turned back toward the sink. All I could think was – asshole. Why was I so mad at him? Without turning to face him again, I said: "What were you doing down there, torturing her?"
I regretted saying it the minute it left my lips. I braced myself for the blow I thought was sure to follow. It never came.
"Look, Ricky, don't tell Mom, okay?"
I finally turned to him. "Yeah, right. What am I gonna say? ‘Hey Mom, did you know Joe and Lisa are gettin ' it on in the basement everyday while you're at work? Pass the peas.'"
Joe stood looking at me. I think he still wanted some sort of assurance from me, but I was unwilling to come right out and give it to him, even though I knew I would never mention what I heard to our mother. Anyway, I felt that on some level my mother must have known how involved they were, even if she didn't specifically know it was happening right in our house. Despite my grandmother's motivations for saying what she did that night in the kitchen, she was right when she accused my mother of letting us do whatever we wanted. She knew, as well as we did, that my mother would never tell us not to have sex with our girlfriends; she would just tell us to make sure we loved them and to use birth control.
Lisa appeared at the top of the stairs behind Joe. She hadn't bothered to put her bra back on; her T-shirt was snug against her breasts and I could easily see the outline of her nipples underneath. She made no effort to shield her chest from my view. Joe and I knew she must have heard every word we had spoken.
Lisa let her eyes travel down the length of my body. I remembered I wore nothing but my swim trunks, and the embarrassment that had become so familiar in the months since I met her returned.
"Not out flying today, Lisa?" My voice had an edge and I realized it was the first time I had ever spoken to her this way.
She shrugged, ignoring my tone. She crossed the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and grabbed a Coke. "Density altitude's much too high," she said. As if I was supposed to know what that meant.
"Oh, of course, how stupid of me," I said, waving my hand in the air. "Density altitude's too high. Of course."
Joe glared at me, and then stepped forward, kneeled down and began picking up pieces of glass from the kitchen floor. Lisa and I ignored him. She took a step closer to me, but not too close to chance stepping on glass.
"You know what your problem is, Ricky?"
She leaned over as close to me as possible. I resisted looking away from her face as I inhaled the sweet smell of soap and sweat that seemed to cling to her skin. I swallowed but it felt like something was stuck in my throat.
"You think so?"
"I know so. You can't stand that he has something that you want."
"Except he has to share you with every other guy from here to Kansas City, doesn't he, Lisa?"
"Ricky, get the hell outta here before I bust your face." Joe's voice was quiet and steady, but serious. I barely had time to move when he stood and walked toward me.
"Did you hear me?"
"I hear you." I had to walk past Lisa to leave the kitchen. She knew it and stubbornly refused to give way, instead forcing me to squeeze by, our arms rubbing against each other as I passed.
As the summer wore on I kept my distance from Joe and Lisa. They continued to spend their free time together, flying or at our house. A couple times when Joe had to work a different shift, I saw Lisa at the pool. She winked at me, but then pretty much ignored me while, true to form, she flirted with the other guys there. I tried to talk to Joe once, to tell him that I thought Lisa was just screwing him over. He told me I "didn't know what the hell I was talking about" and to "mind my own business."
In August, a week or two before school, everything changed. Lisa stopped coming to our house, and except for work, Joe seemed to never leave. He spent his time on the couch in our small sunroom off the back of the house, the dark woven shades pulled shut to block the sunlight. He sat slouched down low with his feet propped up on a footstool in front of the television, watching the Cardinals try to make it into the playoffs. When the game finished, he never got up to change the channel. He just watched whatever came on next. I sort of expected him to start playing his guitar again, which he had neglected since he met Lisa. But it remained in its case in the basement, propped up against the side of his dresser gathering dust.
For the first week I ignored him, smug in my belief that he got what he deserved. By the second week, though, my curiosity got the better of me, and I wondered what exactly had happened between them. I hadn't seen her at the pool, as I thought I would, and when I asked a couple of the older guys I'd seen her with there, no one seemed to know her whereabouts. I finally accepted I had no choice but to ask my brother, even if it might seem to him that I was rubbing it in his face.
I nonchalantly made my way into the sunroom and fell into the Lazy-Boy at the end of the couch. On this day Joe was lying on his side; his head was at the end closest to me. Other than part of his forehead and the top of his nose, I really couldn't see his face too well.
"What's the score?" I asked.
"7-2, Cardinals, top of the seventh."
Silence. Clearly, if there was to be any conversation, I was going to have to initiate it.
I waited a bit, and then, as casually as possible, said: "Where's Lisa been lately?" As if it was normal not to have seen her around for more than a week.
What did I expect to happen next? I had a bunch of different scenarios in my mind. I thought he might tell me to mind my own business again. I thought he might say he didn't want to talk about it. He might just say they'd broken up, without giving me an explanation. Or he might say they'd broken up, and then proceed to give me the explanation. I thought he might blame her absence on me, although this was unlikely. After all, if there was one thing I understood about Lisa, it was that she didn't let someone else dictate her behavior. A slim chance existed, even, that he might burst into tears, knowing how he felt about her. But the answer he gave me never even entered my realm of thought, and God knows I had given it some thought.
"Israel." That was all he said.
I sat there dumbfounded. I had no idea what he meant. If I wanted to know any more, I would have to work for it.
He tilted his head back to look at me. "Yeah, you know that little country in the Middle East?"
Smart-ass. I decided to give in.
"Come on, Joe, what happened? What's she doing in Israel?"
"Nothing happened, Ricky," he said. He sat up and stretched. He looked at me and shook his head. I knew he was going to explain, but I also had the distinct sense that he didn't want to waste his time on me. At that moment I felt further away from my brother than I had ever felt; something about his demeanor told me that he didn't regard me as his equal anymore. He had gone on to some other level in life and left me behind.
"She turns 18 in January. She's got dual citizenship, and if she wants to keep it she has to serve over there for two years. She doesn't care one way or another, but her dad does. She's over there with him now looking for a place to stay come January."
"Serve?" I knew what he meant, but I wanted to be sure. It was 1982 and we both vaguely understood that Israel was involved in some sort of war with Lebanon that summer.
"The army, air force, whatever." He bent over, his elbows on his thighs and his head in his hands.
What a bitch, was all I could think. She had used my brother, but much more than I had ever imagined.
"She just dumped all this on you before she left?"
He raised his head. "What?"
"You just found out about this?"
He laughed, mockingly. "You are such a fucking idiot. You think you've got the world figured out, but you are such a fucking idiot." The distance got a little bit wider. "Of course I didn't just find out about this. I've known about this all along, almost from the day I met her."
I watched him but I couldn't speak. He wouldn't look at me. He wasn't crying, but his eyes were glassy with the tears he wouldn't let fall in front of me.
Finally I managed to murmur, "I'm sorry." I'm glad he didn't ask me ‘what for?' because at that moment, I don't think I would have been able to articulate it for him.
Lisa returned right before the start of school. She and Joe immediately fell back into their school year routine, except they spent more time at our house on the weekends instead of flying. Lisa was the same. Whenever I ran into her at school, and Joe wasn't around, she was flirting with some guy or another. She always looked at me out of the corner of her eye; she always winked if our eyes met. I continued to wonder if she ever took it any further with these various guys. I don't think Joe ever told her about our conversation in the sunroom.
At home, they continued to make love in the basement. They had never been too discreet about it, but now they carelessly left the door at the top of the stairs open and often failed to put on some music to disguise their sounds. Joe at least still tried to spare our mother the predicament of admitting outright her knowledge of their activities. They usually did it after school when she was still at work, or only after she had gone to bed on the weekend.
After Thanksgiving, though, our mom could no longer pretend not to know. It was like any other Thanksgiving in the years since our parents had divorced. My mom's sister from Wisconsin came to stay with us, with her husband and two boys. We crammed around our little dining room table, which really wasn't meant for more than six people, if that. The dinner had been uneventful; I was on my second helping of pumpkin pie, preparing to spend the rest of the evening playing stupid card games with my younger cousins. As usual, my grandmother barely spoke and everyone pretty much ignored her.
But then Joe started talking about Lisa. I don't remember why. It didn't take much for Joe to start talking about Lisa; probably my aunt or uncle asked how she was doing. It was the only entree my grandmother needed.
"While we're on that subject . . ." she piped up. Forks stopped in mid-air and conversation came to an abrupt halt. Everyone looked at her. That subject?
Her eyes bored into Joe. "Do you think you could please tell that girlfriend of yours to lower the volume a bit downstairs?"
I coughed, but made the mistake of trying to contain it, and pie flew through my nostrils. A surge of red washed over Joe, starting from where his shirt met his collarbone and travelling like a plague up his neck and over his face. He was speechless, but clearly no response was really expected from him. My aunt and uncle looked at my mom for some sort of explanation. My cousins resumed eating. They were young. I suppose they thought she was asking if Lisa could turn down the stereo.
"Mother," said my mom, implying that Thanksgiving was neither the time nor place. But this time it was my grandmother's turn to end the conversation, if you could call it that, on her terms. She simply began clearing the table, as if her request had been as innocent as turning down the stereo.
The next day, not surprisingly, our mom sat us both down for an embarrassing talk about respecting women and, of course, using birth control. After that, the basement door was closed again and the music played.
The closer it got to January, the more I found myself following them around when I could, eavesdropping on their conversations and watching them from afar without them seeing me. I chided myself for being like my grandmother, but still I persisted. As the seasons changed, their behavior toward each other changed, too. The joy they exhibited throughout the spring and summer had mellowed into the fall. Now that winter had arrived, they were even quieter. They spoke and touched each other with a sad tenderness, as if they were already mourning their loss.
On New Year's Eve it snowed for the first time that winter. Joe ran outside without his coat when he heard Lisa's car pull into the driveway. I dashed upstairs and watched from one of the second story windows. He reached the car before she even turned off the engine and opened the door for her. They didn't come right inside. They stood in the gently falling snow, face to face, Lisa's back against the car. They didn't even kiss right away. Lisa reached her hands up to Joe's face. They stared at each other and she felt his whole face, like a blind person might have. When she finished she pulled him closer and slowly kissed his forehead, his eyes, his nose and then finally, his lips. It was a short kiss. They held hands, then, their breath visible in the cold air, mingling in the few inches between them as they talked. Lisa seemed unaware of the snow resting on the dark curls of her hair. From where I stood, Joe appeared to be doing most of the talking. Lisa kept nodding her head slightly – yes, yes – like Joe was trying to convince her of something. In the yellow light of the street lamp I watched as Joe used his thumb to softly wipe under her eye.
Perhaps it had always been this way with them, though, when I wasn't looking. Or maybe I just looked at everything differently, now that I knew what she was about.