HSR Home HSR Archives Submissions Contributors This Issue
Past Editors Contact Us Commentary on HSR Hamilton Stone Editions Home Our Books
Hamilton Stone Review #36 Spring 2017
Carole Rosenthal, Fiction Editor
Ellen Alexander Conley
What About Jazz?
It has been a year and a half since I gave away Jazz, the dog, to Father Paul. The deal was that he was supposed to bring him to visit Steve when he came to conduct his weekly services at the Alzheimer’s home. But he never did. Part of the problem was my fault. I did not call him the day before Catholic Thursdays—his religion’s slot at Garden Court—to remind him to bring the dog. Every Thursday became the same. Father Paul always greeted me warmly with a hug and a kiss and related one or another anecdote of Jazz. But he did not bring the dog, himself.
Did I miss Jazz? The answer was complex. Anytime I passed a golden retriever on the street, I stooped to pat and hug the dog and say to the owner, “I recently had a dog just like that.” Originally I had told the strangers that I gave my dog away but the pet owners looked at me askance and wanted instantly to move on. When I gave the other account, they empathetically suffered my brief emotional onslaught, thinking my pet had died. But I did not miss walking Jazz in the rain or having to get up early to take him out on the morning walk. That was when Jazz was a ball of energy, and I was a reluctant kite behind him. In that way, Steve and I had been a good pair pet-wise. Steve was an early-to-rise person, and he walked with his dog several miles and brought him home tired but amiable. I didn’t miss having to use the tape roller before I went out in order to get the yellow fur-fluff off of my black clothes. I didn’t miss the possibility of broken bones when he yanked me towards another dog or human, both species which he loved eagerly and indiscriminately. All in all, there was more I didn’t miss. But there was still an emotional attachment. How could there not be? Jazz lived in my family unit for two years.
Twenty months into the give-away, Father Paul and I did our formal ritual. “How’s Jazz, I would love to see him,” etc., etc., etc., and then the usual—nothing happened.
Winter was making the days end early, and in the half-light I focused my eyes on plastic bags caught on bare twigs while my mind was re-running the scenarios of our Thursday Catholic meetings. After a year and a half of doing this while pondering it on my solitary ride back into the city, I remembered a slogan of the ‘70s, “Speak Truth to Power,” and that memory emboldened me.
So, the next time I saw the priest I asked, “How do I know the dog was not run over the week after we gave him to you? How do I even know he’s alive?”
Father Paul, splendid in a gold and white cloak with a hood, responded, “He just had a wonderful weekend at Lake George. Jazz is on Facebook, and he gets hundreds of hits. Check him out. He has a big fan club.”
When I went home, I tried. Eventually I did find Jazz, but I also found a U-Tube video of Father Paul. It turned out that he was high up in the church hierarchy: a Bishop no less. And what’s more, at a large gathering in some fancy-shmancy cathedral, he told the congregants that he was an ordained Catholic priest, he was a professor, a psychologist and he mentioned he had a partner, two girls and a dog named Jazz.
I told my son. “We can’t dislike Father Paul. In one of his speeches he said he had a partner. He’s publicly out, and that takes guts.”
“I can hate him if I want to,” my truculent kid answered. “And what about Dad, what about his emotional needs?”
He had a point.
And I certainly didn’t tell him about my emotional needs, or about the new concept that I had devised while sitting at lunch with Steve in Garden Court: Namely, that I had reframed my husband, his and Alexandra’s dad—as my brilliant pet.
(Sung to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man” la-de-dah de dah)
If Steve were a dog,
He would be celebrated through the land
No Dog would be as smart as him
They would call out the band.
Steve could eat with a fork or a spoon,
And he could mostly figure out where was his room.
Even though he sometimes tries to eat the soup with a fork
He would quickly change to the spoon.
If Steve were a dog
He’d be on national TV
Lah de dah de dah
But it was true.
Case in point as to the reframing: Years ago, I worked in pediatric research, and once in a great while, a baby would be born with his brain outside his skull.
La de dah de dah.
I did not want to touch them. La de dah de dah de dah.
They turned my stomach and made me retch.
But a doctor told me, the baby was happy and was the best of what he was. I was the one who was trying to form him differently. If he were even a pumpkin, we would be in great amazement about him. He would be the genius of pumpkins. We would praise him and want to hold this genius pumpkin and have our photos taken with him. “Just hold this genius; he is the best of his lot. He will be happy if you are.” He had placed the newborn in my arms with that leathery thing on his head. The baby’s hand grasped my finger and suddenly I was not repulsed. He was the best of his kind—the best pumpkin baby from the pumpkin patch.
I went back to the lab and cultured his chromosomes. We asked the mother if she had an x-ray in her first trimester. This was the old days, and all of this was cutting edge. Yes, she had fallen and injured her leg. La de dah de dah.
So it wasn’t a great leap, from pumpkin, to dog to Steve.
In Steve’s dining room I knew all the people. Some I kissed when I came in and others I waved to. They were my social group now. I looked forward to seeing some of them. (And also to escaping from them).
My grandchildren were much more evolved and accepting than I ever was. They were at ease with these people. I recalled visiting my Aunt Ester at a nursing home when I was in my twenties. She was my father’s sister. She pulled something repulsive out of her handbag, and my father and I ran from the room, our stomachs heaving.
My mother eventually came out.
“What is the matter with you two?”
“That thing! What was that thing from her purse?”
“You both are such big babies! It was a rotten banana.”
It had been such an object of repulsion, our minds having a complete peeled-eyeball-sandwich horror reaction. We had reframed the banana negatively.
No Fiddler on the Roof—la de dad de dah.
And in my current life, autumn followed summer like it always did, and I would go to Garden Court three days a week. One of these days was Thursday, the Catholic Father Paul day, when there was no Jazz.
And Steve was still the brilliant Steve—i.e. in the dog-intellectual category.
Our meetings had become ritualized. Father Paul was an imposing man even without his flowing church garb. He was big and solid. Maybe he was even overweight, but his clothing hid it well. He was dense, a solid physical entity who would bend and give me a hug and kiss on the cheek and say that Jazz was now on a diet of apple and carrot treats to help the dog lose weight, and that I should call him next week to remind him to bring Jazz to Garden Court.
I didn’t make the call. But I told him in-person every week, “Please bring Jazz.” A therapist would have to delve into me to figure out why I couldn’t make that phone call. But maybe it was genetic. My son would not call the parking garage for our car and always made me do it and my son is used to giving talks in amphitheaters.
But then it was winter, and the “What about Jazz?” question was reaching an overwhelming crescendo within my family and community. I felt like Noah who ran to another city to escape G-d’s command. It had become time for me to call Father Paul at home to “remind” him to bring Jazz. But it took nerve. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because if he didn’t bring the dog, it would mean the stakes would escalate and I would have to take some unspecified further action. Now, before I made “the reminder call,” everything was very pleasant. We were all Fiddler on the Roof dancers.
Speak Truth to Power, Speak Truth to Power, I chanted at Stations of the Cross i.e. at the supermarket, in my car, at home. And why did Father George hold this power over me? I wasn’t even Catholic.
I could see us all standing before Judge Judy on her TV show. That used to be Steve’s favorite program until she ruled against a dog owner when his dog bit a neighbor, and Steve had run to me all frantic and upset.
“It’s a show. It’s TV. She didn’t mean you,” I uttered, and rubbed his arm while the fear remained in his eyes. Note: This does not make Steve any less as a dog. We once had a German Shepherd who was so afraid of thunder that he scratched out our bathroom plumbing, and he was ferocious in all other situations. So being afraid of Judge Judy didn’t diminish Steve’s position in dog-dom.
I did one more “Speak Truth to Power,” mantra utterance and called the cell phone number that Father Paul had given me a year and a half earlier to arrange the dog’s transfer.
The phone rang and rang and then I heard Father Paul’s extremely loud and stern voice on his answering machine, “DO NOT LEAVE ANY MESSAGES ON THIS PHONE! CALLS WILL NOT BE RETURNED! IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM CALL THE DIOSCESE NUMBER! I REPEAT NO MESSAGES!
What! This was not what I expected. I didn’t leave a message. For whom was this message intended? Was there a crazy parishioner who annoyed the Bishop? That seemed the most logical explanation, but I sort of took it that—with his spiritual sixth-sense—Father Paul might know that I was finally ready to take action?
Instead I called my daughter. “Text me Father Paul’s number,” I asked her. She sent me the same exact number. Again I called the number and had to listen one more time to the stern warnings. Then I said in almost my Truth to Power voice, “I am reminding you to bring Jazz this Thursday.”
Then I became giddy from Talking Truth to Power, so next I sent him a text in all caps—“BRING JAZZ!!!”
In all the pictures I have and in the photos on my phone, which I always show to Steve, Jazz is a big, blond, shaggy-haired beast. If he had a human comparison it would be a Californian surfer who used the word “dude” and was best buds with both guys and girls. If someone didn’t like him, he would just say “whatever.” And cuddle up near the person until he or she changed their mind.
Each resident in Garden Court had a memory box outside of his or her room where the family placed old photos—many of weddings, one of a resident who had been a World War II fighter pilot, one old Asian woman even had a Pratt University sticker (that’s where I teach). In Steve’s memory box, we had put a snapshot of Steve and me holding hands under the Washington cherry blossoms and a big, 3-D photo of a Golden Retriever on a postcard. We always said it was Jazz. That stand-in dog even had the same black spots on his tongue. Who’s going to quibble or tell him differently at the Alzheimer home? He thinks it is Jazz.
Everyone always asks if Steve still knows me. I say “yes.”
Sometimes he forgets the proper names of his kids and covers it up by saying, “When are the pecker-heads coming to visit me?” But never Jazz and never me. Reframed Steve was still the reigning most brilliant dog in the USA and maybe the world. Lately, they have been saying parrots are really smart, but I think Steve would beat them if I entered him in another category.
Since I left the message on Father Paul’s phone against the admonishment of his outgoing message, I didn’t know for sure what would happen. Father Paul didn’t call me back. Even the nurses were nervous when they realized it was showdown time between the Bishop and me.
Steve and I waited on the wicker bench by the fish tank. But then Father Paul and his partner strode in, and so did Jazz. There was something tense in their body language as if they had had a fight with each other or were resentful of me. No hugs or kisses for me this Thursday. Somehow bringing Jazz had upset the apple cart—one more Macintosh on this side—CRASH!
But Jazz was there—warm and furry and fat. I grabbed his blocky head in my arms and hugged him to my breast, and then I pushed him over to Steve. All the nurses and the desk staff stood around, beaming. Jazz didn’t bury his head into our laps, like he always had. He gave us a reserved, nervous greeting. I made the little joke, “I think he is worried that we will take him back to dry Kibbles.”
“Good boy. Good boy,” Steve repeated and patted the big lug. And so did I.
Father Paul strode quickly inside to the community room as if he were now behind schedule to conduct Mass. The rest of us stayed outside by the goldfish tank petting the dog, who now weighed well over a hundred pounds. He was eighty pounds when we gave him away, and he had gained much more breadth. I tried to make small talk with the Bishop’s partner but mainly Steve and I just said, “Good boy.”
After the service, Father Paul, his partner and Jazz made a quick exit.
I went with Steve into his small dining room called The Cottage, with its goose and butter-churn motif. Another dining room was the Cove and was all-nautical. And there were two more, but you get the idea.
After sitting with Steve as he ate his lunch of mashed potatoes, ham and some peach cobbler, I made my escape. And it was indeed a getaway. Kissing him hastily and running from the community room and punching in the code on the exit door keypad, all the while hoping Steve wasn’t following me, which would have broken my heart. It was bad enough when I would say, “I’ll be back on Saturday,” and he would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” like it was a lie he was used to. Even worse was what he had said the other day when I told him goodbye:
“You didn’t put enough into it.”
“You are making me feel guilty.”
“I don’t want that. I want you to be happy.”
“You are so good.”
“I try to be.”
That was not dog talk. It was dog spelled backwards.
Figure it out!
La de dah de dah.
I went to the big shopping mall about a mile from Garden Court. I went to eat at Panera as per my custom with the entertainment section of the New York Times where I circled television programs I might watch in my solo but not lonely nights. I was such a regular at that restaurant that they automatically gave me the big sandwich and boxed half for me to take home for my dinner.
If I were a rich man, la de dah da dah, I couldn’t ask for anything better than their turkey cranberry sandwich on a French baguette. La de dah de dah.
My cell phone rang. It was my daughter. “Are you going to go into any of the shops?”
“Diego just broke the present you got for Gigi, the toy-shopping cart. Could you pick up another?”
“I guess so.”
She spoke loudly to her grandson, “You’re lucky. Your Nana is going to try to get another one. Thank her.”
He mumbled, “Sorry.”
I was tired, all the way down to my aching muscles, aching mind and sinews. Getting up early, too worried to sleep, and fretting all the way to New Jersey about the dog show-down had taken a toll. Steve’s walker was in the trunk, a left over from his broken patella days and occasionally used by me because of my bad left leg.
I tried to wrestle it out to help me on my long walk to the supermarket in that massive shopping center. But the metal wheels were tangled in some other detritus of the trunk. I think it was caught on my school bag with the pin from the teachers’ union, which said, “Is Pratt Faculty Worth Less?” that the union representative had given me a decade before. But the walker was a no-go, lodged in too far.
Without the walker, I tiredly angled my way towards the supermarket. The hypotenuse is shorter than the combined two sides. See, Mr. Kunkle, my geometry has paid off. Although the prior week on the same exact walk (when I felt sprier), I had passed a bumper sticker that stated: “Another Day, and I Have Not Used Algebra.”
Tiredly and wobbly, I made my way towards the supermarket.
I was just passing a clear section of the parking lot, a ramp to the exit when an older model brown car almost ran me down.
Looking up, I saw the face of Jazz in the front seat next to Father Paul’s partner. I could tell he had not recognized me, but Jazz had. Jazz sat next to his new owner in the front seat, something we had never allowed.
Over the last year and a half, Father Paul had related to me how Jazz got to sleep in their bed and eat specially-cooked white meat chicken for his meals. And that day after our lukewarm emotional reunion, in New Jersey in the Essex Shopping Mall, Jazz stared me down. He looked directly into my eyes when I practically got run over.
And if I get to live a thousand years, I will never forget that smug smile that this canine bastard gave me.
La de dad de dah de dah.
Troy Ernest Hill
To say he had a big nose is not to do it justice. It was, yes, to the point of deformity. Elephantism or –iasis or something like that may be the technical term for it—ginormous, as my friends would say. And not only was it gargantuan but its bulbous tip and nostrils had lunar-like craters you could see down into, dark, filled with soot from the city fumes and whatever else it is that clogs pores.
I’m not being nice when I say that I liked the nose—his nose. People talked about it that way—“the nose”—like an entity unto itself. He, Jacob, talked about it that way, like it was disconnected, not actually part of him, and I suppose that’s how he wanted it. Of course it was the first thing anyone ever noticed about him, the thing he was ridiculed about in school, the thing that made him vulnerable, shy, the thing that allowed him to develop into not-an-asshole, unlike most people. He sometimes would ask me, once he finally realized that I wasn’t just saying I liked it, when he finally relaxed into the realization that it turned me on, when, more than that, he came to realize it made me adore him (not it in itself, but the person it made him), he would ask if I still would have liked him if he had a normal nose. I couldn’t honestly answer that question.
We met in the Park one Sunday afternoon. I had just finished a run of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and after almost a decade in the business had finally made a living as an actor for a few months. A friend’s agent had come to see me in my supporting role in the show and agreed to work with me on a trial basis. And though I hadn’t booked another acting gig and would be starting back at my waiting job that night, I had that sense of starting fresh, heightened by the crisp scent of fall in the air.
I was lying on top of a picnic table looking up at the leaves just starting to turn and watched a red leaf come loose from a tree above. It seemed to lift upwards, suspended, as if the energy of being released had propelled it toward the shimmery blue sky for a moment. There must have been a slight gust of breeze up in the branches of the old maple, because the leaf spun, lightly, ever so lightly, and then spiraled down, leaving the puffy cartoon clouds behind, until it landed right in my hand. I clutched it tightly against my chest, like a signed contract of good things to come. And then I heard a bass saxophone voice say, “Nice catch.”
Still on my back, I looked over to see a collegiate-looking guy in red gym shorts and a gray sweatshirt holding a football. I guess because I was looking at him sideways and everything was skewed, my brain having to work harder to make sense of the image, I didn’t initially see that his nose was grotesquely large. I’m just realizing now as I write this that it was probably one of few—if not the only—first encounters that Jacob ever had that didn’t involve the other person noticing his nose before anything else. My eyes were drawn to the chiseled muscular legs jutting out of his shiny sheer shorts that curved thickly down into ankle socks and running shoes. I said, “Thanks,” through a nervous chuckle.
He turned and looked up the walkway in profile, I remember that’s when it caught my attention—the unlikely protrusion pointing up the path, and I sat up, instinctively, my brain again having to work something out. He turned back, looked at me for a second, and then looked down, undoubtedly aware that I was now staring at his nose. But even though I may have been marveling at its unlikely immensity, the mountainside with the boulder outcropping halfway down and the three rolling hills of the nostrils and tip flaring out at the bottom, what I was feeling wasn’t at all the repulsion he probably imagined—the repulsion he had been subject to time and time again. No, I felt something—the opposite of repulsion—right away. I don’t know if it was “love at first sight” exactly, but I felt that pull, almost like panic—something hard to swallow—and, still, for a second, couldn’t speak. His body told me that he was about to walk off, and I managed to hold up my hand—the one still grasping the now annihilated leaf.
I said, it was so stupid, I said, “You look like you’re good at playing catch.” I was sitting with my legs hanging off the end of the wooden table.
He looked back, a cautious one-sided lip-curl grin, eyes narrowed. He pressed the ball he held with one hand into the other and said, “I guess. Want to find out?”
I laughed. Looked up at the oak.
He backtracked for safety, looking around, “I mean, if you don’t feel like it…”
I think he thought I was laughing at him, making fun. I said, “No, it’s just, I’m NOT good at catch.”
He said, “Could’ve fooled me,” smiling again, shyly.
I thought, this is getting awfully ‘aw shucks,’ but I wasn’t completely sure if he was hitting on me or just some big-nosed clueless straight guy from the Upper West Side. I held out my hand and let the leaf remains fall into the grass below. “That was just luck.”
He again looked like he was going to walk off. He was kind of swaying, with more movement in the direction away from the picnic table.
“But I’ll give it a shot because I kind of really don’t want you to walk away right now.” Ridiculous, but it stopped him.
He looked back, his face turning red, squeezing the football even harder between his hands. I wondered for a moment if I was mistaken—if the flushed face was pissed-off-ness—if he might fling the ball at my head any second, but then his big shoulders shrugged and he said, “Alright,” his voice sort of breaking on the first syllable. I still wasn’t positive if he thought I was just a friendly fellow, but it was Central Park in New York City and the guy didn’t look dumb.
I hopped off the table, smiling and probably still staring at his nose. He seemed to get bashful and looked down as he headed toward an open field. “I’m Jacob,” he called over his shoulder.
I kind of jogged to catch up with him. “I’m Lenny, but I hate my name.”
Then he looked over at me, really smiling, with teeth and everything, and handed me the ball, the way a quarterback hands it off to a running back or whatever. I guess he was relieved or felt a camaraderie because there was something about myself I hated, too. He goes, “I’ll trade your name for my—” and flipped the end of his nose with an index finger and took off running in a zig-zag into the field, which was slightly uphill from where we were coming from. He held a hand up, meaning I should pass the ball, and I thought, oh shit, I’m going to have to throw while he’s moving. I pulled my hand back over my shoulder like I had seen done on TV and forced it with all I could muster in his direction. It went about halfway to where he was and thudded onto the grass, and then wobble-rolled back toward me. I covered my face with my hands and peaked out between two fingers. I figured, well, if he hadn’t figured me out before, he has now. He jogged back to the ball, which had come to rest a couple feet from me, and picked it up.
I said, “I told you. I’m not good at catch.”
“I think it’s the throwing part you need work on.” He spun the ball up in the air and caught it.
Then we were looking into each other’s eyes. His were set deep and just slightly a darker shade of blue than the September sky. He was about half a head taller than me, but the hill made the difference greater. My heart was pounding. It seemed so quiet—I heard a dog yelp in the distance.
He said, “Want to just walk around instead?”
After strolling around the park followed by coffee at a neighborhood spot, we ended up at my place with only an hour for steamy sex until it was time for me to get ready for work at the restaurant. We exchanged numbers, and Jacob left after a promising passionate parting kiss. I took a quick shower and thought about who I should call to share the news.
At the time I was part of one of those groups of friends—a gay pack that travelled around together to bars, to brunch, to shop, etc. Thomas, Mark, Simon, and me.
Thomas and I were both musical theater actors and had met in what’s called a “master” class in New York. He was driven, ambitious, always working to improve, always auditioning, and he had a strong voice and was good looking in a nondescript kind of way—all-American with blonde hair and well proportioned features, but also as if he had never been outside or gotten scratched or broken a bone. I had no doubt he would have a solid career.
Mark was Thomas’s friend from Gainesville, Florida, where they both grew up and went to school. He worked at MTV doing something, I never figured out what exactly, except that he thought it was really important. He looked kind of like Thomas in size and shape but instead of wavy blonde hair had a thick, almost black mane that he was always getting cut in some new trend that required lots of gel.
Simon was one of those guys who started balding early and just shaved it all the way down. He was a little short and stocky with insightful green eyes. I had thought him kind of sexy the first time we met in a bar a couple years back. We hooked up but were both too drunk for anything to happen, and we laughed about it and passed out together in bed. At his apartment in the morning instead of being awkward we started talking like old friends and it was clear we were meant to be that and nothing more. Eventually I pulled him into the circle with Thomas and Mark.
So, too high on new love not to share the news, I hung up my bath towel, went to my tiny bedroom, and tried calling Simon, but he didn’t answer. He had recently joined AA and was probably at a meeting. I knew Thomas would already be at the theater getting ready for his evening performance of some Beach Boys musical he was in, so I took a deep breath and phoned Mark who picked up after one ring. He almost always picked up regardless of what he was doing: working out, in the middle of a meeting at work, in the middle of a date. The Pack had a running joke that he would answer the phone in the middle of sex, and he probably would, just to be funny.
He saw it was me on his caller ID and instead of saying hello just went, “Spill.”
I managed to pull on my underwear and socks with the hand not holding the phone. “I met this guy in the park today.”
He said, “Ew. Hooking up in the Park? Isn’t that dangerous … and kind of eighties or something? I mean there is the Internet, hon. Al Gore invented it?”
“Very funny. Not like that. I mean not like a sex thing. I mean, not that it wasn’t a sex thing, I’m just saying it was legit. Phone number exchange, etc.” I pulled my black polyester pants off the hangar they had hung on undisturbed for the last three months and put them on.
I heard the TV in the background get turned down. “Name, age, height and weight.” Mark had the impression that he knew every single gay man under thirty-five who resided within the five boroughs—or at least in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and parts of New Jersey.
“His name is Jacob. He’s a few inches taller than me. Athletic looking. Probably about five years younger than us—twenty-five or six. I don’t think he said.” I wondered if and how I should explain. “He has this—”
“I don’t know any Jacobs. Sounds like about a few thousand other guys. I’m waiting.”
“Curly light brown hair, blue eyes—”
“Does he live in Gramercy?”
“No, West Seventies.”
“He has this—he has a distinctive nose.”
“Well, really big, actually, with a bump in the middle, and kind of bulbous at the tip.”
I heard the TV noise click into complete silence. “You don’t mean—The Nose?”
I looked through my white button-down shirts for the one with the least amount of food stains. “I didn’t know he had a nickname.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve seen him around. He’s called The Nose. You hooked up with The Nose?”
“I mean, it wasn’t like that, exactly.”
“Wow. I didn’t realize—is that some kind of fetish thing? Are you into kink or something?”
“I’m saying it wasn’t like that. Don’t be an asshole.”
“Fine. Sorry. It’s just kind of a strange choice. But, hey, if you’re into it ... So is it true what they say? Big nose, big—”
“Since I know you’re not going to let it drop, yes, in this case, yes, it’s true.”
“I think I’ve told you more than enough already.” I was starting to wonder why I had even called and sat down on my bed to gaze out the small window at the pigeons in the airshaft huddled on the tops of air-conditioning units, including mine.
“No! I’m not kidding. I like him. It’s not a hookup kind of thing. We’re going out Wednesday night.”
“You’re, like, dating The Nose?”
“His name is Jacob.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Fine. Don’t then.”
A pigeon on the windowsill made a deep gurgling sound, and I felt depleted of the life that had filled my veins before the call.
“Don’t get all defensive. I’m just thinking about what’s in your best interest. I mean, do you really want to be known as the guy who dated The Nose? You’ll have to, like, move after that if you ever want to date again.”
“I have to go.”
“Don’t be like that. Listen, you deserve better than The Nose, ok? I realize you aren’t exactly first-round picks but you aren’t freak-show outcast status by any means either.”
“Geez, thanks, Mark.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I seriously have to go to work.” I stood up to tuck in my shirt and went to the dresser to try and find a black dress belt.
“I thought the show closed.”
“It did, but I’m picking up shifts again at Joe Allen’s.”
“You’re such a cliché.”
“Whatever. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up and wondered for a minute if there was any truth to what Mark had said. Was I marking myself as a freak by dating one? Was Jacob really known around the gay city as “The Nose?” Was it some kind of low self-esteem thing that I was acting out by being drawn to him?
But then thinking about Jacob gave me the urge to call him—there was no denying what I felt. I reopened my flip cell phone and stared at the newest entry into my contacts and then snapped it closed again, reminding myself of swinger’s rule—no calling until at least two days following hookup.
I walked to work, which was only a few blocks from my apartment, and saw mostly the same faces that were there when I had left three months prior. There were lots of smiling “Welcome backs” from the other waiters, though it seemed to me they carried a darkly gleeful air—gleeful in that I hadn’t really escaped and was back where I deserved to be—with them in one of the less extreme, outer circles of hell.
I finished my shift around 11:30, and despite having danced six nights a week in the show, my legs and arms were a little sore from being out of table-waiting shape. I hobbled down to the basement to the staff closet/changing room to deposit my apron and get my jacket and stuff. I switched on my phone and saw I had a voicemail. It was Jacob.
“Hey, Lenny. Hope you had a good night at work. I just wanted to say I had a really good time today. Let’s talk about Wednesday and make a plan when you have a chance—tomorrow night maybe. Ok, well, have a great night. And by the way, I like your name.”
I felt a flood of things in combination and intensity I’d never experienced before: joy, hotness, warmth, even sadness. Jacob had broken swinger’s rule and probably didn’t even know about it. He wasn’t playing games and really just wanted to talk about what to do on our upcoming date. I was just standing there kind of in shock and with tears in my eyes. One of the bus boys, this short guy from Ecuador named Luis asked me, “Que pasó?” It wasn’t that he couldn’t speak English. It was just that I would try and speak Spanish with the Latin guys at work, and Luis was one of the nicer ones about it and played along and would correct me, in a helpful way. I tried to string together words from my very limited vocabulary, “Un hombre que me gusta mucho.”
He laughed, shaking his head, and folded his apron into a neat square. I’m not sure if he was laughing at my bad Spanish, at the silly American gay waiter, or just being friendly. And I didn’t care. Jacob had broken swinger’s rule, and everything was about to change for the better.
Wednesday night Jacob came by my place on the way to the neighborhood Italian restaurant where I had made reservations. I had proposed that we meet for a drink as soon as he was off work, but he wanted time to go home and change. He had to dress up for his office job and I actually wanted to see him like that, in his suit or dress clothes or whatever, but he thought it was dorky. He had obviously just showered. His hair was a little gelled and I could detect the faint smell of cologne. He was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve polo shirt with one of those outdoorsy vest down jackets, like LL Bean or something. He stood in the doorway and looked a little nervous, and when I asked him to come in, he glanced at his digital watch and said, “I guess we have a few minutes.” I turned my back on him and went into the kitchen area and he followed—he knew from the time before that the hallway between the bedroom and living room/kitchen was so narrow you had to walk single file.
I asked, “Want to have a drink?”
He looked at his watch again. “Do you think we have time?”
I made a mental note that it would probably be a bad idea in general to be late whenever Jacob was concerned.
“It’ll only take like five minutes to get there.” I guess I was taking in his nose. I should have been used to it from the previous encounter, but witnessing its volume in person was more powerful than memory. I must have been making Jacob self-conscious because he turned away and drifted toward the couch. The kitchen and living room were one entity sort of divided by a counter and differing floors, white linoleum and hard wood.
“Whatever you think. Sure.”
I got a couple glasses down from the cabinet over the sink and looked over at him sitting on the edge of my second-hand sofa, leaning forward with his hands folded together, like he was in the living room of my parents’ house and having to ask permission to take me out or something. I thought, This guy needs a drink.
I got the ice tray out of the freezer and clanked a few in each rock’s glass, which I filled halfway with vodka and then added a splash of tonic. I said, “Sorry, I don’t have any limes.” My refrigerator was generally empty except for a water filtration pitcher and occasionally some juice and a couple things of yogurt.
I stirred the drinks with a spoon and brought them over.
“Cheers.” We tapped glasses and he looked at me, a grateful smile breaking out, and I had that feeling again like when I got his voicemail.
I was happy to see that he took a big sip.
“Wow. That’s pretty strong.”
“Yeah. Oops. I guess I tipped the bottle over a little too much. Oh, well.”
I took a sizeable swig and set my glass down on the floor, and he followed, setting his on the floor. I leaned over and we started kissing and pulling into each other, and soon we were in bed and I found the exact spot where he had applied the cologne—where the shoulder meets the neck on both sides, and there was the smell of his just-brushed teeth, and the smell of the gel mixed with shampoo and the scent of his head, and all the other leathery smells that get exposed in bed and all of them mixing in sexual anesthesia and we didn’t make it to the restaurant in time.
We ended up ordering pizza and sitting on the floor of the living room with a bottle of wine. There were a couple of stools at the kitchen counter and that was it for a dining table. And then we were back in bed. And then at some point after more sex and massages and murmuring pillow conversations, he picked up his watch off the bedside table to check the time and realized he should go home since he had work in the morning. We debated if he should stay and get up early enough to go home to get dressed for work and finally decided on both getting dressed and going over to his place for the rest of the night.
Fast forward a few weeks. It all happened really fast, like a couple of lesbians. Not that we moved in together on the second date or anything, but if it wasn’t New York City where you’re terrified to give up your lease, I would have. He stayed over or I went to his place every night I wasn’t working at the restaurant and even then sometimes we’d get together around midnight after my shift. His apartment was bigger, but, since he had a roommate, we tended to stay at my mine where we could walk around half dressed or not at all—and even though it may sound like a big sex thing, and there was a lot of it, the connection felt like a lot more than that.
He worked as a compliance officer at a big financial firm in midtown and had to be at work every morning at 9:00, so for the first time in my life, I was keeping what might be considered a normal schedule. Despite the fact that restaurant money is best on weekends, I rearranged my schedule so I could align with his workweek and have Saturday and Sunday off. I would get up in the mornings and see him off, and then maybe go to the gym or take a yoga class, have coffee, watch TV, talk on the phone with one of the Pack members (though less and less), think about what Jacob and I would do on our days off, form a clearer and clearer picture of his family and years growing up in Wisconsin as more and more personal information was added to the Jacob library in my head, imagine what it would be like to actually live together and where that would be and what it would like, etc, etc. Basically I’d wile away the morning and early afternoon, and then get ready for work. And despite the fact that I was up every morning at seven, I wasn’t motivated to audition. The appointments my agent had set up were for unappealing little parts and the thought of standing there singing those stupid songs in front of a table full of theater people high on their silly slice of power suddenly seemed so pointless. My friends saw this as a bad sign, and I guess it was, but I don’t know. I think I just saw the opportunity for a different kind of life—one in which I didn’t need to be in the spotlight or hold onto the ever-diminishing dream of winning a Tony. It was the first time since I could remember that those things just didn’t seem important at all.
After only a few weeks, we decided to get tested for HIV together. We went to a clinic offering results in one hour and sat in the waiting room holding hands. I’m pretty sure he had nothing to worry about and I didn’t have any specific event I was worried about, but you never know for sure if you’ve been around the block a few times and, regardless, the process always made for this excruciating suspense. Even though worst-case scenario wasn’t at all the end of the world anymore, I mean this was almost ten years since the drugs came out—people were living full healthy lives, it still brought up that terrible dread and then of course if our statuses were different, what would that mean? The young nurse must have thought us endearing because when she came out through the door and saw us sitting there, she smiled in a way that I knew meant we were both negative. When she told us, we embraced and kissed, and she stood watching us and then we got up and all had a sort of group hug. The other people in the waiting room were by themselves and looking nervous, and I realized I had become one of those annoying insular couple people who are oblivious to everyone else around them. But I couldn’t help it and didn’t want to. The world had changed, the city had changed, everything was through the lens of Jacob and me, and it was rose colored and nothing or anyone else mattered quite so much.
After the HIV tests, we said we’d be monogamous, and we were, and had unprotected sex from then on. I mean, that was the point. Not that it made that big of a difference physically—I mean it did make it even just a little hotter, a little freer, but I think more than anything, it was the fact that we both wanted to and were willing to commit in that way. It made everything feel somehow more important.
I had seen very little of the Pack since Jacob and I met, about a month and a half before, and they were all insisting on brunch, protesting my absence from our usual gallivanting and saying that they really wanted to meet him. I knew they genuinely did but also at least partly for the purpose of making fun of him and us afterwards, but I finally relented. We met at this place in Hell’s Kitchen that had this minimalist waterfall on a metallic-looking wall behind the bar, these Romanesque looking sconces hanging here and there, mid-century modern tables and chairs, and this huge Victorian chandelier hanging in the middle of the room. The owner was this coke-head who also owned a bar in the neighborhood and was always lurking at one place or the other, being chatted up by all the neighborhood guys who thought they were so hip for being in what looked liked a mash up of some overwrought and undereducated interior designer’s store in the middle of Ohio. I hadn’t picked the restaurant.
After everyone ordered their egg-white omelets, Jacob went to the men’s room, and I just waited for someone to pounce.
“Listen, Lenny, this is an intervention.” Thomas seemed to have taken on the role of spokesperson. “Number one, you’re dating Frankenstein, but let’s set that aside for the moment.”
Mark, who was nursing a hangover with a vodka cranberry, interrupted, “I still can’t believe I’m at brunch in public with The Nose.” He looked around the room with a pained look to see whom he knew.
Simon made a face and shook his head at Mark, and Thomas rolled his eyes and said, “Excuse me, Mark, this is serious.”
Mark raised his eyebrows as his upper lip crimped on one side, “Who’s not being serious?”
Thomas went on with his elbows on the table and his long-fingered hands conducting. “The situation, Leonard, is dire.” It was hard enough for me to be called “Lenny,” but “Leonard” I truly despised, and Thomas knew this. “It’s bad enough that you aren’t returning our texts, but for you to ignore calls from our agent is simply unacceptable. I went out on a limb to get Randy to come see you in Seven Brides, and need I remind you that he’s working with you on a trial basis? He tells me you haven’t been showing at the auditions he’s getting for you. And I know you haven’t been to any of the open calls because I have and by the way I just booked the revival of Grease 2.”
I tried to make it about him, “Oh, that’s fantastic. Congratulations! I kind of figured that Beach Boys thing wasn’t going to last.”
They all just peered at me with pursed lips.
I confessed. “Ok, ok, I know. I’ve been bad, and I hope Randy isn’t pissed. I told him I had the flu—”
“Which he could tell was a lie, by the way—”
“What? Did he say something about it?”
“He said you didn’t even attempt to sound remotely like you were sick—and you’re supposed to be an actor.”
I looked over their heads to see if Jacob was coming back, but didn’t see him anywhere. “Something’s just clicked since I’ve been with Jacob. I don’t know. Honestly, I’m thinking about quitting acting altogether.”
Mark and Thomas gave each other knowing “It’s worse than we thought” looks.
Simon looked at me with a sad smile and said, “You have to do what’s best for you. No judgments here. Just make sure it’s what you want and not what you think someone else wants, ok? I mean, none of us are getting any younger, right?”
Mark sipped through a cocktail straw and sneered. “So what? You want to move to the suburbs and bake cookies and have ass babies?”
Fortunately they all laughed because I needed a minute to regroup. I knew in a way Thomas had a real point and I didn’t have a good comeback other than I was in love and didn’t care about anything else at the moment. Of course if you’re inside that it all feels more than valid, but from the outside it looks crazy and pathetic. It wasn’t like Jacob was asking me to change, I had really just lost interest in everything else.
“Not exactly. It’s just made me think about what I really want, and I don’t think it’s this—the whole theater thing. I mean, now that I’ve crossed the thirty threshold and it hasn’t really happened, what’s the best-case-scenario—making a living off crappy little supporting roles the rest of my life?”
Thomas looked like I had just announced having terminal cancer and that I had decided to refuse treatment. “You’re closer now than ever, Leonard. And Randy wants to help you. It makes no sense to stop now.”
I saw Jacob coming out of the one-person bathroom and apologizing to the woman who was waiting. “He’s on his way to the table, so ….”
“So real quick.” Thomas held up a finger. “Is Pinocchio paying for you to play housewife—can he afford to and does he even want to?”
I leaned in and said in a stage whisper, “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying, I’m not sure what I want to do except for one thing, and that’s be with Jacob.” I said his name in full voice and looked at him as he was almost to the table. Everyone turned and looked, making him blush. I didn’t want to move to the suburbs necessarily, though the truth was I had thought about it. I just wanted to take Jacob someplace where he wouldn’t have to deal with a bunch of bitchy queens and where I wouldn’t have to have an agent to lie to and where, ok, I guess what I wanted was to go to some dreamy place where we could live happily ever after.
Fast forward six months. I took a job managing a sort of upscale sandwich shop that was only open during the day so that I could have more or less the same schedule as Jacob. I wouldn’t be making as much as I could as a waiter, but I figured we could cut our expenses by moving in together soon, which I had been dropping hints about to Jacob. I had officially stopped acting and unofficially stopped talking to Thomas and Mark—couldn’t deal with their attitudes, though I still saw Simon every once in a while. I think the experience of getting sober had given him a broader perspective on things. I asked him to stop by on the way to his evening restaurant gig so I could talk to him about something Jacob had been bringing up that had me feeling more than a little uneasy. He showed up on a Tuesday afternoon, and I smiled seeing his short stocky frame come through the door that one of the young guys, Jorge, was just about to lock.
“Is it too late to get a ham, olive, and brie?”
“You know I love you, Simon, but the Panini press has already been cleaned and I’m not going through that twice in one day.” I was putting the day’s cash in a zippered bag.
“How about some of that java you’re about to dump then?” Simon looked at Leo, the other shift worker, who froze at the sink where he was about to drain the contents of the industrial-size dispenser.
I said, “Espera, por favor,” to Leo and then, “It’s all yours,” to Simon. I had continued my lame efforts at Spanish with Leo and Jorge. Jorge was a good sport about it, but I think it got on Leo’s nerves. He walked off to do something else, and I stuck the cash bag in a safe in a bottom cabinet and then grabbed a paper cup to fill. I tore open three sugar packets and dumped them in. Simon had been a sugar fiend ever since he stopped drinking.
I asked the two eighteen-year-olds to wrap things up, and they said, “Sure, boss.” I was never sure if they were just saying “boss” in the way that a lot of the Latin men would say it to you in bodegas, like saying “pal” or how in old movies they would call a stranger “Mac,” or if they really thought of me as the boss. I mean, I was the manager, but I had never been anyone’s boss before, and even though the pay was ridiculously low for someone trying to live in New York City, I kind of enjoyed the title, either way they meant it.
I sat down at a table that Leo had just wiped down.
Simon looked at me with that frank AA honesty and said, “You look happy.”
I set the coffee in front of him. “Thanks.”
“Thank you.” He held the cup up as if in a toast. “As long as you are, that’s all I care about.”
“Likewise.” I made a conscious choice to not start talking about Jacob immediately. “What’s new with you?”
He took the plastic lid off the cup, inhaled deeply, and took a sip like it was something much richer than four-hour old, lukewarm brown water. “Just working at the restaurant, going to meetings—you know, the ongoing saga of being sober and single.”
“Aren’t you allowed to date by now?” I remembered something about not seeing other people for a certain period of time.
“You’re supposed to wait a year, so I’m almost there, but to be honest, I’m not in that big of a hurry for all the curveballs that come in that department. I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with my Mac, though, and gotten pretty good at playing around with Photoshop. I’ve been thinking about going back to school, actually, for graphic design. There a few programs in the city—trying to figure out if it’s worth going into debt over or if I should just try and get a job some place. Speaking of, what about you? This place paying the bills?”
I looked around at the guys mopping and wiping surfaces and realized I kind of liked working there. “Not exactly, but it’s a good change of pace and I’m thinking—I’ve been figuring that Jake and I’ll move in together when his lease is up in a couple months and save on one rent instead of paying double. We stay at each other’s places pretty much every night anyway.”
Simon gave me a look. “And is Jacob aware of this?”
“We’ve talked about it.”
Simon set his coffee down and gave me a harder look.
I added, “In passing.”
I don’t know how he knew to question it. I guess he was just insightful like that. His green eyes scanned the space in front of me, like he was reading the bullshit in my aura. “I see. Two months is pretty soon, right?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I need to talk to him about it.”
Simon smiled in a way that would have been annoying from anyone else. “Good idea. So what else? You miss acting?”
“Honestly, not really. It’s strange, but I don’t. Jacob was really surprised when I told him I decided to stop auditioning, which is funny since I haven’t been in a show since we met—I mean he’s never even seen me on stage.”
“But when you met, you told him you were an actor, so he’s probably always thought of you that way—it’s probably integral to how he sees you. Was he freaked out by it?”
I took off my uniform baseball cap and brushed out my sweaty hat head with my fingers. “No. Why should he be?”
“It’s just a big change, is all.”
I wanted to bring the conversation around to the reason I had asked Simon to stop by before he had to leave for work. “Speaking of things being integral to a person…”
“Yes?” Simon had the rim of the paper cup on his lower lip and his eyebrows poised.
“There is something that’s kind of freaking me out—that I wanted to talk to you about?”
“Well, the thing is, Jacob’s been talking about getting a nose job.”
Simon’s big stubbly head dropped to one side in consideration. “And you sound like you don’t like this idea?”
“It’s just … like you said, his nose is such a huge part of who he is.” Simon gave me a look, and I realized what I had said. “That wasn’t meant as a pun.”
We both laughed, and Simon said, “Ok, a huge part of who he is to you, but not to him, apparently.”
“I guess. But it has helped shape who he is, as a person.”
“It will still have helped shape who he is as a person, even after he has the nose job.”
“Maybe you should go back to school to be a shrink.”
Leo stopped by the table, his short braids dangling out the sides and back of his cap. “You guys need anything else? I’m about to dump the rest of the coffee and bounce.”
Simon said no thanks, and I added, “No, gracias,” which made Leo shake his head as he walked off. I looked around to wave at Jorge, who was already at the front door about to head out, and then turned back to Simon. “It’s not definite or anything. He just started bringing it up and looking into it online. I don’t think he’s seen anyone about it or anything.”
“Well, it makes sense. You kind of wonder why he hasn’t way before now.”
That was not the response I wanted. “Please don’t start.”
“I don’t mean it in a nasty way. I’m just saying, it’s not like a major operation these days.”
I took a breath and placed my palms flat on the table. “His family had no money when he was growing up, so cosmetic surgery was never in the budget. He worked his way through school, and apparently he’s been saving up ever since he started working. Health insurance considers it cosmetic, even in his case, so it’s not covered. I just found all this out the other day.”
“You make it sound like he was cheating on you or something. It is his decision, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. I guess it just scares me for some reason.” I stared into my upturned cap, feeling sorry that Simon wasn’t taking my side more.
He put his hands together, as if in prayer or yoga or something. “Sounds like a lot of changes happening for you both. Makes sense that it’s scary, but exciting, too, right?”
“Yeah.” I placed the cap on my head, backwards, at an attempt at seeming casual.
Simon looked at his phone. “I should really get going. Thanks for the coffee. And not to be annoying, but I do think you’d better let Jacob in on your plans for moving in together. I mean, he may have already renewed his lease, and besides,” he smiled at me as he put on his zippered leather jacket, “it would probably be good for him to know.”
I got up and went to the door with him to let him out. “I know, I know. Details. I’m sure we’ll work it all out.”
We did the double-cheek kiss, and I locked the door behind him. I turned back to face the empty restaurant and took a deep breath of cheap lemon floor cleaner—the same scent that resulted when I mopped my apartment. I made a mental note to start buying those more expensive natural cleaning supplies so my place would smell nicer when Jacob moved in.
A few nights later, Jacob looked preoccupied, his brow in chronic tension, and finally announced as we were eating at a neighborhood Thai place, “I need to talk to you about something.”
I couldn’t help smiling as I refilled our glasses from a shared 22-ounce bottle of Japanese beer, thinking he was finally going to bring up moving in together and this was him being nervous about saying it outright—like a sort of semi-marriage proposal, one of the first serious steps in New York gay coupledom.
“It’s something we’ve talked about before in general, but now it’s not abstract anymore.”
He had this way of talking about things that was sort of mathematical, and I had come to find it completely endearing. I took a sip and nodded, wondering if he had brought diagrams or spread sheets regarding how best to go about finding the perfect apartment.
“I have an appointment for next week.”
I pictured a realtor’s office. Walking various neighborhoods. Stopping in for coffee and discussing the pros and cons of a Queens versus Morning Side Heights commute.
“I’m going to need you to pick me up. Do you think you could take off work a week from Thursday? Dr. Rosenberg only does procedures on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
I was like, “Wait. What?”
The waitress set down my Pad See Yew, and I felt like I might throw up on it.
“Because when you go under, they require someone to take you home. I’m sure I’d be fine to jump in a cab, but it’s probably a legal thing to make sure they don’t get sued. I tried to get the appointment in the afternoon so you could just leave a little early but they only had the 9 am time slot open, so I should be out around 11:30. Maybe you could still go in late?”
He took a bite of his chicken curry. I think he was doing his best to pretend that this was all normal—completely run of the mill. We had had more than a few conversations about it and he knew how I felt.
“You have an appointment? I can’t believe you decided this without talking to me about it first.”
His square jaws chewed and his icy blue eyes peered at me in forced blank innocence.
“I mean, it’s so fast, too. When did you meet with the—what is he called—the plastic surgeon?”
He took a sip of water. “I’ve been meeting with her for a few weeks. I wanted to show you the computer generated images of what I’ll look like afterwards—I still can—but you’ve reacted so, you know, strongly before that I thought you’d flip out and try to talk me out of it.”
“Well, yeah. I would. I am now—flipping out.”
He looked at my untouched food. “Aren’t you at least going to eat something?”
“I guess I’m not really hungry all the sudden. Strange.” I folded my arms across my chest.
“Come on. Don’t be like that.”
“Like what? I can’t help feeling sick to my stomach. This is huge. This is everything, and you just went and decided this with no conversation, no input for me, no regard for my feelings at all.”
“Hey,” He held his chopsticks suspended, pointed at me, I imagined like little surgical tools that could chip away everything we’d built between us, “it’s my nose. It’s my life.”
“Whoa, excuse me, I thought we were sharing our lives, but apparently not.”
He looked down at his food. “That’s not how I meant it, but it is my nose.”
The waitress was standing there and looked at Jacob’s nose as he said it. “Everything alright?” She looked at my plate, the chopped parsley garnish undisturbed.
“Not really,” I said and turned toward the exposed brick wall that I sat against at an angle.
“Would you like me to bring something else?”
I knew Jacob was mortified. As a Midwesterner he was still easily embarrassed by situations in public that were anything other than polite. He turned his curly-haired head to smile at the woman. “No, we’re fine. Thank you.”
I half stood from the banquette and half shouted, so that other patrons looked over, “No. That’s not true. I’m not fine. Nothing is fine!” Maybe I had a little excess drama built up from not performing for months.
The woman backed away about a foot, and Jacob, looking like he was trying to sink his head into his body like a turtle, managed, “I’m sorry. The food is excellent. We’re just having a little disagreement.”
The woman forced a small smile and fled to the kitchen. Jacob silently scolded me with wide eyes like an outraged parent, and I looked down at his nose that seemed somehow to be drooping slightly, aware of its own imminent demise, already like a relic from better days, melting my anger into something closer to sadness, and I sat back down.
“I’m sorry. It just scares me. I don’t know why. Maybe I should go back into therapy. You’re right. It’s your decision and your body and I really don’t know why I’m so upset.” I pushed the food around on my plate and asked, “What about your sense of smell?”
“What do you mean?”
“Could it be damaged by the procedure?” I looked at him, hoping to instill fear.
He leaned toward me over the table, his head cocked to one side in exasperation. “Don’t be ridiculous. Won’t you just eat something?” He was a total mother hen when it came to food.
I looked down at my plate and knew I couldn’t stomach it. “I think I’m going to just get it to go. I’ll be fine, really. I just lost my appetite. I guess I’m just afraid of everything changing. I thought we were going to start talking about moving in together. I guess I was expecting that.”
He was chewing again, matter of factly, but then frowned through the mastication as I added, “And then you drop this bomb.”
He took a sip of beer, staying silent. This was the worst for me, when he shut down. He wiped his mouth with the red polyester napkin and threw it on the table.
I kept trying to dig myself out. I said, “No, sorry. I’m just saying that’s how it felt for me. I’m just saying how I feel—not that you did anything wrong.” I had learned this jargon from my former shrink. Jacob just picked a half peanut up off his plate and popped it into his mouth, so I said, “And of course I’d be happy to pick you up from the procedure. I’ll just call in sick so I can keep an eye on you and make sure you’re ok.” And then, out of some kind of survival instinct, though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I said, “Can we go back to your place so I can see the pictures of what it’s going to look like?”
I never saw the pictures. When we got to his apartment, he said he was really tired, and since I didn’t really want to see them anyway, I let it go. Then I spent the next week wondering what he would look like and what kind of nose he had chosen. I kept meaning to ask, but then couldn’t bring myself to do it. Things had grown tensely quiet between us. We only had sex twice over the course of that week, which was a low frequency for us, and it felt really phoned in when we did. I tried to bring it up a couple times, and he said that he was nervous about the whole nose job thing. Once I said, “Well, you can always cancel and think more about it—I mean, what’s the rush?” But then he just clenched his jaw and went for a run even though it was ten o’clock at night and drizzling, so I knew not to go there anymore.
The next week we were having dinner at my place, a couple days before the procedure. I had bought these folding TV tray stands so that we could sit on the couch and eat semi-civilized. I thought I’d try bringing up the unrelated subject of living together in the hopes of connecting around the wall that had sprung up since the announcement of the impending surgery. He was organized by nature, and I’m not, so I was pretty proud of my plan and thought he would be impressed that I had thought it through.
“So, I know it will be tight, but I was thinking when your lease is up, you can move in here for a month until mine is, and we can take that time to look for a new place.”
The lack of an immediate response made my stomach jump into my throat, and I set my fork down on the tray. Finally, it was only a few seconds but felt like an eternity, he said, “Well, with the surgery and all, you know insurance doesn’t cover it. So my savings will be down. Not the best time to pay a deposit and first and last months’ rent, and pay a broker’s fee, and all that.”
“I thought about that,” I hadn’t really thought about the cost of the surgery, but I had thought about the expense of moving, “and since you’d be staying here rent-free, we’ll actually be saving money for the deposit and everything.”
He raised his bottle of vitamin water to his mouth. It seemed to me in excruciatingly slow motion. The sip, the swallow, the setting back down. And then finally, “Plus, there’s Robert,” his roommate, “I can’t really spring this on him at the last minute.”
“Six weeks is plenty of time to find someone who wants to take half an apartment in this city. He’ll have a line of people begging for it as soon as it’s listed.”
He turned to me with a new sharpness in his movement, a jerkiness that I hadn’t seen before. “But he’s not going to let just anyone move in. We knew each other from business school. Both of our names are on the lease, and we already renewed it anyway.”
I couldn’t respond. I felt like the ceiling was crashing in, and I half hoped it would.
He went on. “And with everything going on,” I could only assume he was referring to his imminent transformation, “it just seems like too much to manage all at once.”
I got up to dump the rest of my food into the garbage and started washing the pots and pans I had used to make the pan-fried chicken with roasted tomatoes, red peppers, and onions. Yes, my kitchen had evolved into a place where things were actually cooked on a fairly regular basis, where a few cookbooks were stacked on top of the fridge, where you actually had to move things around inside of it before you could set something sizeable onto one of the shelves.
As the water got hot and the sink filled up with sudsy water, Jacob came up and embraced me from behind. He said, “It’s going to be ok, you know?”
For a while after the surgery, I thought maybe things really might be ok, and that I had just been selfishly fearful of change. The immediate effects were not much because his nose was covered in thick bandages that were held in place by wires and a band that wound around his head, sort of like the headgear I had to wear for an overbite in middle school. He took a couple of weeks off work, and it was kind of fun to play nurse. Even though he wasn’t sick, he was supposed to be immobile for the most part, either lying down or sitting in a chair, and that made for some fun sex games in which he had to stay still but I didn’t. Anyway, I would cook meals or order in to his place, and he was appreciative of all the help and it seemed like the air had cleared. The thing was done and though we weren’t moving in together, things were pretty much back to normal.
On the Friday afternoon the week after the surgery, I turned my phone on after my shift and had a voicemail from Jacob saying he had landed in Wisconsin. He thanked me for taking such good care of him but thought he should give me a break and let his mom have a turn. Plus, his family was dying to see him. He was going to spend the next week—his second week off work—there. I stood in the middle of the restaurant dumbfounded over the fact that yet again he had planned something and not told me about it until the last minute.
After a couple minutes, Jorge appeared, waiting for me to move so he could mop the spot I was obstructing. I must’ve looked at him with terror in my eyes, still not budging. He asked, “What’s up, boss?”
I was numb, in shock. I just said, “Nada,” and went home without saying goodnight and leaving the keys for he and Leo to lock up.
Back at the apartment, I kept picking up my phone and then throwing it down, stopping myself from calling Jacob. His voicemail was left at 12:45 pm, when he knew I’d have my phone off for the lunch rush. He obviously didn’t want to talk to me live. I kept playing the message, listening for clues, trying to detect inflections that I would interpret five different ways. I tried to go to bed early. I lay in bed smelling the remnants of him in the sheets. I got back up, paced the apartment, got back into clothes and walked around the block a few times. Had a couple drinks at a nearby bar. Went back home, took a shower, checked my phone a hundred times to see if Jacob had called. He hadn’t. I watched a movie though I took in nothing of what was happening on the screen. I went to bed again and couldn’t sleep. Got back up and sat on the couch in near darkness—only the dim hallway light was on. Finally, though it had gotten late, I called Simon, who was generally a night owl, even sober—but not that night as it turned out.
“I am now.”
“What’s up?” I heard the chain of a lamp bouncing against a hollow metal stand.
“Jacob went to Wisconsin to see his family.”
“So I get a call because your usual company is unavailable.” An exasperated yawn came through the line.
“No, it’s that I think he’s moving on.” I got choked up at the words coming out of my mouth. “I just get the feeling he’s not into us anymore—ever since he decided to get the nose job.”
I heard Simon take a deep breath. “Are you sure you’re not just overreacting? I mean, why would he feel differently about you just because he has a new nose?”
“I think it’s partly—largely because of the way I’ve acted about the whole thing. I mean, he knows I didn’t want him to do it, and it’s just created this widening wedge between us. And now that it’s done … I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you try to be supportive? I mean, maybe what you’re afraid of is that you won’t like the way he looks. Do you?” I heard aqua-zip sound of water quickly filling a glass.
“He’s still has bandages on, so I can’t tell what it looks like.”
“Why don’t you try seeing it from his perspective?”
“Why did I call you?” I meant it to sound sarcastic funny but it came out sarcastic annoyed.
“Seriously, Lenny. Anyone, anyone would want a nose job if they had a schnoz like that.”
“Take it easy.”
“You know it’s true. It’s kind of superficial that you are like changing the way you feel about him over it.” I heard his glass clank against a countertop. He was definitely in tough-love mode.
“Hey, I’m the only queen in this town that wasn’t so superficial that I actually gave him a chance when he had the freak-level nose.”
“So that’s what you’re afraid of?”
“That now you’re going to lose that status. You’ll have to offer more than being the only one big enough to see past his weirdness. You’re going to have competition.”
“Well, yeah, maybe.” I felt exposed, like in those dreams when you get to school and realize you’re naked.
The pitch of Simon’s voice dropped into low intensity. “Listen to me. Celebrate the fucking nose job.”
“I’m serious. Try to embrace the new nose. Have a party, something. You owe it to him, and it’s the only way you have to move forward. Who knows, you may actually like the way it looks.”
“Ok. You’re right. Thanks. Anyway, how are you doing?”
“Thanks for asking. Really tired, to tell you the truth. Can I go back to sleep now?”
I spoke with Jacob on the phone a few times over the course of his stay in Wisconsin, making a point of sounding upbeat and supportive. I carefully gleaned the details regarding the remaining time points to the completion of the new nose: his follow-up doctor’s appointments, the removal of the last bandages, and the time it would take for the bruises to heal and for most of the swelling to go down. Taking the timeframe into account, I made reservations for a celebratory brunch. The gathering would serve as the great unveiling of the new nose—the new Jacob. I invited his roommate, a couple of his friends from work, Simon of course, and even Thomas and Mark, who were, needless to say, surprised by the invitation.
When he came back to New York, I continued my efforts at being positive about the nose. I went to his apartment after work the day he got the bandages off with a mix of flowers from the corner bodega.
“You look amazing.” I meant it, too. It was a perfect nose—just the right proportion to fit his face, the slightest bump at the bridge to make it look natural, a straight descent to the tip, a width neither wide nor narrow. He looked like a fucking model, except for the last remnants of blue beneath the skin under the eyes that gave the effect of a black-eyed boxer.
He smiled sleepily and held the door open to let me in.
I squeezed him as tightly as I could, the flowers crunching into his muscular back, and then pulled away to look at his new face again. It was a little bit like looking at a stranger, but the familiar feel of his thick body and the scent of his soap and skin made for a strange mix—maybe like it would be to meet your boyfriend’s twin who you didn’t know existed until that moment.
I handed him the flowers, which he looked down at, a little befuddled. We hadn’t ever done the flower thing. I said, “Seriously. It looks really great. Can I touch it?”
He smiled, still in his bashful Midwestern way, and said, “Sure.”
After I ran my fingers lightly along the smooth ridge and gently squeezed the sculpted sides and nostrils together, he rolled his eyes and said, “Ok, ok. God, you’re worse than my mother.”
He put the flowers in a plastic water pitcher, and we debated what to have for dinner. He seemed to want to act like everything was normal, so we ordered food and watched TV and it wasn’t until we went to bed later that I brought up the nose job again.
“I’m really sorry about how I’ve been about the whole thing. That was really selfish.” I was determined, armed with Simon’s advice. “It’s just that I’ve been so happy with things—with us, and I guess I’ve been afraid of things changing.”
He gazed at me, grinning, his eyes glassy, and it was back to those feelings when you first meet someone and there’s so much uncertainty. He said, “Hey, I took a pain killer because it was bothering me—”
“Oh my God, I shouldn’t have squeezed it—”
“No, it’s fine. I’m just really drowsy, though. Do you mind if we just go to sleep?”
The brunch was on the following Sunday at my favorite spot in the West Village. Jacob had gotten up early and gone to the gym, so we met at the restaurant. I knew it was a little corny, but I was still holding onto Simon’s advice as my last hope, so I tied helium balloons that read “Congratulations!” to backs of the chairs. The hostess asked me what the occasion was, and I said “The end of an era,” which sounded too ominous to my own ears, so I added, “And the beginning of a new one.” I smiled at her, probably with desperation, and she looked at me like, “Ok, whatever.” I told her to go ahead and bring out mimosas so they’d be waiting when people arrived, and instructed her to make one just orange juice with an orange-slice garnish so we could tell which one it was for Simon.
In opposition to his usual punctuality, Jacob was the last to get there. Everyone turned to look at him when he arrived and the stream of chatter fell into awed silence at the perfect picture of a man that appeared at the head of the table. I held up my champagne glass to toast and said something really lame about springtime and starting afresh while Jacob looked down into his glass with a wry grin, looking sporty in a baby blue polo shirt—the edges of the short sleeves stretched by his just-pumped biceps. And then after a moment of reverent silence, squeals of delighted “Congratulations!” “Don’t you look fabulous” “Check out the movie star!” broke out as glasses clanked.
Instead of everyone stealing glances at Jacob and giving each other knowing sardonic looks as they did at that first brunch back in the fall, they all watched him, hungrily and with fascination, asking him perfunctory questions about work, his hometown, what sports he played in high school, any excuse to take in the freshly handsome creature in their midst.
I thought he’d be embarrassed and annoyed, but he laughed and countered and carried on, eating up the attention, while I sat invisible to one side.
Simon gave me a pitying smile at some point. Neither of us could any longer deny that we both knew how this was going to end.
It wasn’t long, two weeks later, Jacob showed up at my apartment on a Saturday afternoon. It was by the usual schedule, he would come by after his workout and we would typically have sex and then decide on a place to go for lunch or what to make if we wanted to stay in, but I could tell something was up.
He usually came in his sweaty clothes and we’d take a shower after we had sex—or during, but he had showered at the gym and put on clean clothes. He said, “We need to talk.”
I let go of the door and went and sat down on the couch. He remained standing as he uttered all the words I had already imagined fifty different ways, all with the same ultimate message.
“It’s not that these last few months haven’t been amazing.” I was thinking, seven and a half, to be exact. “It’s just, I’m not really ready to settle down. I mean, how would I really even know at this point? I’ve never really dated. I just feel like I need to experience what it’s like to, you know, do all the things that straight people did in high school and college and gay men do in their twenties that I haven’t really done yet, and it wouldn’t be fair to either one of us …”
The words became abstract sounds. I suppose I had been preparing myself for the moment because I clicked into some kind of mode that allowed me to make stunted responses in a calm if vacant way. I summoned the last of my acting skills, almost nodding in agreement in an effort to speed things along and not drag out the torture.
When he left, I let myself cry to exhaustion. Then I called Simon, who— though sympathetic—annoyingly, predictably, and at least partially rightfully told me I should try and see it from Jacob’s perspective. For the first time in Jacob’s life he was walking down the street and turning every head that went past. He really hadn’t had any relationships besides the one with me. Why shouldn’t he “explore,” which was one of the words he had used to explain why we needed to break up. Somehow the euphemism disgusted me, even though I’m in no position to be righteous in any way.
Later that afternoon, a waitress from Joe Allen’s called to see if I would cover for her that night. Though I was no longer on their weekly schedule, I was on a list of people who might fill in when needed. I had always said no when people called in the past because I hadn’t ever wanted to give up a night with Jacob, but this time I said yes, thinking it would be good to not sit around and stew. And then as I got back into my black pants and white shirt, regretted agreeing to it, wondering how the hell I would deal with crabby theatergoers complaining about their food all night without losing it.
I worked in a kind of auto-pilot state and somehow made it through the evening without breaking down in front of any customers. After the shift in the basement closet/changing room, I turned on my phone, wondering if Jacob had called, but I didn’t have any voicemail. I had tears in my eyes when Luis, the busboy, or more aptly bus man, came in and asked, “Que pasó?” He saw the tears in my eyes and added, “Tu hombre de nuevo?”
I said, “Quebrado, Luisito, mi carazón quebrado.”
He reached up and patted my back. “Siempre la misma, mi amigo. Siempre la misma.”
Choked up, I asked him, “You think so? You think things always turn out the same way?”
He folded his apron neatly and said, “Yes, Lenny. In love like that, it’s always the same.”
A few weeks later I was on the way to meet Simon for a movie and saw Jacob walking up the street. He didn’t see me at first, and fortunately he was alone. Summer had come late and it was one of the first hot days. He was wearing a tight red t-shirt bearing the letters “A&F” that I had never seen before, khaki shorts, and running shoes. His hair had been cropped close to his head and he was, of course, quite handsome, but he also had a general air of happy confidence that was new. I think his stride was a little longer, his chin a little higher, the hint of a smile at the corner of his lips. He almost walked past me as I debated whether to stop him, and when he first glanced in my direction, it looked like he was checking out the passer by who was watching him to see if it was worth pursuit. And then his face changed in recognition.
“How’s it going?”
I felt the tears welling up but I thought of Simon and his sage advice, and I wanted to at least try to make this not too hard for Jacob. “Fine. Everything’s fine. How are you?”
He couldn’t help but smile bigger and toothier than I had ever seen. “Good. Everything’s really good.”
I could hear in his voice all kinds of things his answer was referencing—things I didn’t want to know or imagine. As I tried to think of an easy way to break off the exchange, he asked, awkwardly, “So what’s new?”
“Not much. Just on my way to meet Simon for an afternoon flick.”
“Oh, great. Tell him I said hi. Such a nice guy.”
“Yeah. I’ll tell him. What’s new with you?”
“Not much.” His eyes darted around, shaking off the pressure of the lie.
I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb. “Well, I’d better go or I’ll be late.”
“Ok. See you around.”
I walked up the sidewalk, trying to resist the urge to break into a run.
To my surprise, he called out after me, “Lenny!”
I turned back, tears streaming down my face.
“You can change your name, you know? You can change anything you want!”
I sort of waved, stunned, and turned back around. I started to practically jog up the block away from him, unable to suppress the sobs, knowing that no matter what I tried, I was stuck being Lenny for life.
My Father's Novel
At first I saw the guy in cargo shorts and green t-shirt only from a distance. Even so, I recognized him as the fellow who'd stolen my father's orange VW camper and parked it in the lot down by the monastery. Not that my father was any sort of monk, or even a regular visitor to the monastery. The monks, though, were lenient about his use of their parking lot, since none of them owned cars, and visitors were infrequent.
It was in that van that I had found the MS of my father's novel, among all sorts of memorabilia and other detritus he had amassed over his lifetime. The novel, when I first found it, held together only by rubber bands and a large paperclip, was a total surprise. I'd never known that my father had a novel in him, struggling to get out.
Struggling, yes. And unfinished too. Every page had "unfinished" written all over it. And yet many, many pages had "genius" scribbled on them too, pawprints of my father's favorite Xolo dog.
The first chapter of my father's novel found him trying hard to find a beginning, and what resulted was a sort of in medias res sort of thing, echoing the voice of a son he couldn't have known well at the time he disappeared from our lives, my mother's, my brothers', and mine. As is so often the case with children who grow up without knowing one or both of their parents, the missing parent (or parents) seem to appear from time to time during their lives, but only in glimpses and flashes.
I knew that guy in shorts and green t-shirt, though I never knew his name, and, after a time, came to think of and refer to him as GT--green for the color of his t-shirt and tan for the color of his shorts (maybe B for beige would have been better, but GT it was). GT used to hang around with a young lady some of us called Ith (after Ithaca, where she'd gone to college) and some of us called Philly (because somebody once said she sounded just like someone from Philadelphia).
My father slipping out through a half-open door -- a recurrent image during most of my young life. No slamming of doors, just a sudden absence of indeterminate length, sometimes a week or a month, sometimes a year or longer, until he was gone forever, leaving behind little more than his unfinished novel. His absences seemed not to bother my mother or my brothers (both younger than I). His various returns went almost unnoticed by all of us.
Let me tell you now, before we're too far along, my father was no novelist. He never even claimed to feel he had a book somewhere inside him, let alone a novel or slim volume of verse. He did, however, have a working title that was a real killer: The Double Wife.
Few of my father's chapters had titles, but one had this title: Dead of the Day. In it, he describes (description not usually his forte) a man standing at an easel (he often said "weasel") painting another man standing at another easel (or weasel) painting a man standing at another weasel (or easel), painting . . . well, you get the idea. Infinite regress, I think it's called. The painter (the primary one, who's slightly varied as the images regress) is not my father, nor anyone else I remember. No one, male or female, in our family ever got much further into the art world than kindergarten fingerpainting.
Chapter Six: Dead of the Day
The painter (as my father called him), in a green t-shirt and cargo shorts, seemed younger and fitter than the man he was painting (also in t-shirt and shorts), and beyond that second figure the painters grew smaller and smaller, but also older and older, and more and more formally dressed, as they shrank to some mere point off in the distance. All of this was somewhat blurred, so that even if you could think you were seeing an identifiable figure you probably weren't.
The cargo shorts, the monastery, the VW camper--all motifs that recurred over and over in my father's novel, giving it, I must say, a verve and rhythm that surprised me, coming from a man who, to me at least, was famous mainly for his long afternoon naps, snoring loudly on the livingroom couch.
After studying the painter (as my father was wont to call him), one notices (my father wrote) the blurred-out figure of a dark, poodle-sized dog at the painter's feet, in motion it seemed, half in, half out of the frame.
Chapter Nine: The Double Wife
My father's novel ends with a chapter called The Double Wife, which features another painter, a woman this time referred to as Ith. She stands before a canvas divided into many squares so small that a viewer must lean forward to see them clearly. But they are clear, though small, each an image of a woman in the posture we know as that of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some hold babies in their arms, others do not. They differ also in age and size and dress. Some are naked, even some of the elderly ones. On a wall beyond the painting on the easel one finally notices a painting of the painter, her arm reaching out, brush in hand, toward her as yet unfinished canvas.
An Excerpt from the novel DEARTH
Another morning and I wake with thirst
For the goodness I do not have.
Mary Oliver, Thirst
By the time they reach the motel it is dusk. The cottony cumulus have dissolved into a sky that is now rich royal blue, with just a thick line of peach along the horizon, blending into a thinner line of lavender. Skinny trees are black silhouettes, like cut paper.
Waiting his turn to register for a room, Ray has time to notice that the motel desk is just a narrow shelf of wood nailed under a thick plastic window separating the reservations clerk from a visitor, with six bullet-hole sized holes to speak through, and a mouse-hole to shove a credit card through. Behind the plastic is a woman with a large head and long blonde hair with three inches of black roots, which is either stylish or slovenly—Ray can’t tell. She’s wearing a bright red shirt, and nothing below her breasts is visible so it appears that her breasts are resting atop the desk like a statue. She uses an out-of-date credit card machine so Ray’s receipt is mangled before the woman gets it right.
“Be thankful we didn’t have to pay cash,” says Stella, alongside him, nudging him.
Ray is so tired he can’t think of the most elemental Spanish, and stands tongue-tied when the woman asks what room he’d like.
Ray turns and hugs Felix briefly, and kisses Stella on her smooth, cool cheek. She turns a little and kisses him quickly on his mouth. He can taste her lipgloss—cherry, plus some chemical.
She takes his hand and squeezes it so hard his wedding ring presses painfully into his other fingers.
Alone in his room, Ray lies on the bed fully clothed holding his breath. His large dark blue duffel lies beside him on the worn quilted magenta bedspread printed with red and pale pink roses.
Though the desk clerk reassured him it was a non-smoking room, and there’s a little plaque on the door with a cigarette behind a red slashed circle, the place stinks of old smoke and ammonia, and there are two black plastic ashtrays on the dresser. There are cigarette burns on the bedspread, which Ray had immediately pulled down on one side so he doesn’t have to picture all those who’ve been lying there before him.
He hasn’t been on a bed with springs in ages, and every time he makes the slightest move, the bed whines and makes a grand gesture, as if it might throw him off.
Not looking too closely at the sheets, he pulls down the thin olive green pilled blanket that matches the leaves of the roses on the bedspread. He misses his computer, which Stella had convinced him to leave at home so he could really experience this trip and not be tempted to do any work, or look at messages. This place probably doesn’t have WIFI anyway.
However he no longer wishes to experience this funky hotel, or look too closely at the moldy plastic tile in the bathroom alcove, the ratty maroon carpet, or the cruddy sink with the grout that looks like marshmallow. Stella is in a room with Felix and he’s alone. It’s amazing how much more fun it is to be with someone to share the motel horrors with. Ray is too tired to read or even look through the magazines he’s brought.
Or maybe he has changed. He’s making a lot more money than he did when he was a T.A. in El Paso and it’s been a long time since he’s been in a motel like this.
The one thing he does like about the tiny cabin of this pink motel with its office in the center and two rows of attached cabins like outstretched arms is that there are no neighbors, nothing around them at all, so he can pull aside the ratty red curtain and see the sky, rapidly turning black, so that now all Ray can see is his own image reflected in the window, on the bed, the lamplight brightening one side of his face. He reminds himself of John Turturro in the Coen brothers’ movie Barton Fink, who plays a young indigent screenwriter, put up in a ratty hotel in L.A. so he can work on a script with a strict deadline. Unable to write despite spending all his time in the room, he lies in the saggy bed watching the wallpaper slowly melt off the humid walls, and listening to bizarre sounds emanating from other rooms.
To get to this seedy, misnamed Agua Motel that Felix appeared to know of, they’d sped through those grimy Texas towns between the New Mexico border and El Paso, and then through El Paso itself where they rushed past all the landmarks of Ray’s and Olivia’s life. And suddenly he found he wanted to wallow in memories of Olivia. Olivia and himself. Olivia and Felix and Stella and himself, as they’d been all those years ago.
Stella, thinking this route might be hard on Ray, had been willing to change the itinerary again, to something new, but Felix had been adamant, so they’d crossed the border into Juarez, speeding past the huge line of cars, trucks, and SUVs headed north, lined up to cross the border into the U.S.
“Thank god we’re not on that line,” Stella had said, gazing at Mexican women and their children, or men, some in wheelchairs, sitting, wheeling themselves, or walking amongst the cars, and along the highway in the blazing sun, selling soft drinks, matches, Chiclets, newspapers, candied apples and other hideous looking sweets.
The children were tiny and adorable and had lots of black hair. The littlest were carried in slings on their mothers’ backs or over their shoulders, often with blankets covering their entire heads and bodies. The slightly older ones slept on, heads drooping, sweat beading on their wide foreheads and upper lips.
Here the Rio Grande—Rio Bravo on the Mexican side—was only about forty feet wide.
Once in Juarez, beyond the dirty aqua, turquoise, green and lavender concrete buildings, with iron grills covering windows and protecting small patios, with a multitude of signs advertising medicos, farmacias, abogados, and dentistas galore, and past the paved streets of the city proper, were larger houses, some on hills along the highway, higgledy-piggledy, no order. The vacant lots with their dry yellow grasses were covered in plastic bags of every color, soda bottles, and a variety of paper, looking like small garbage dumps or recycling centers that hadn’t been organized yet.
When Ray, standing on a hill near the Rio Grande in El Paso, got his first glimpse of Mexico across the river so many years ago, what had struck him was the disorder. No bulldozed hills to create level areas for building housing, no roads neatly running, squared-off, or curving, through planned developments. No neat landscaping. Just a chaotic jumble, made more so by distance and perspective. Almost as if a child had thrown down a huge set of brightly colored toy blocks and left them there.
Ray imagines he hears a radio or TV playing Mexican music. He considers going back to the front “office” to see if there’s any coffee or a snack machine, but he’s too tired and afraid he might have to use his rusty Spanish. He thinks of the book he’s brought, but he doesn’t feel like reading. About to turn on the TV he recalls an article he read that said that the moment you arrive at a motel you should wipe the remote and the telephone with antibiotic wipes. He has no antibiotic wipes, and soon he realizes that there’s no remote either.
He hears voices—maybe a television in another room, or people arguing. The voices get louder, especially the higher, he guesses, female voice. Then he hears bed springs that aren’t his, in no particular rhythm, just an occasional twang. By the time Ray finds the remote on the sink, the bedspring sounds have acquired a tempo. There are squeaks followed by bangs (maybe a headboard?) followed by bangs and squeaks, in a regular rhythm. He hopes these sounds aren’t coming from Felix and Stella’s room—but no, they aren’t next door—they are at least three rooms away.
Ray doesn’t want to think about Stella and Felix fucking. But he can’t help it. He switches off the hideous lamp with the broken shade that’s above his bed but not in the right place for reading anyway, and buries his head in his pillow. Squeak squeak bang.
He gets up to brush his teeth. No room for his Dopp bag, so he hangs it on the bathroom doorknob. He remembers to use only the bottled water provided by the motel—though it does occur to him that they could have filled the bottles with tap water so that they could reuse them. He looks for a place to put his toothbrush. The white towel looks gray. When he runs his hands through his dry hair and looks in the mirror above the sink he notices that he’s already too sunburned.
Squeak, bang, bang. He goes to the window and looks out, and sees his own reflection. Bang bang-squeak.
He opens the door a crack, and the only car parked anywhere near Felix’s Suburban are the two Toyotas in front of the office, which had been there when they arrived.
Ray lies down again, then he gets up to take his t-shirt off. Squeak, bang. He pictures Felix’s firm body, taut as a bow, over Stella. She is naked and very white and plump, and Ray can picture her entirety because Felix is balanced over her like a bridge over a river.
Stella’s hair is a dark reddish splash on the pillow and her freckled face is flushed. She’s not looking at Felix—her head is way back—and each time Felix pumps into her, her head hits the wall. No, not the wall, but the fake wood headboard that bumps against the wall (bang).
Ray imagines Olivia under him. She is thin, with narrow hips, and her butt almost fits into his huge hand. When she lies on her back her stomach slopes in like a bowl. He pushes aside her dark bangs with his lips and kisses her forehead. Once in a while when traveling they’d stop at fancy motels for a good shower, a firm bed and great meal. But mostly Olivia loved funky motels that weren’t catering to rich turistas. She’s damp from a shower and smiling--happy to be here. She takes his penis and holds it. He feels the heat of her hand on him as if it’s the center of his body, with a pulse, a heartbeat of its own. He runs his cock along her belly, her navel, then her underarm, and her ear, pretending he doesn’t know where to put it.
He hasn’t thought of her giggle, her raucous laugh in a long time. Maybe it’s hard to remember the laughter of a loved one who’s died.
Someone in another room is laughing. Ray’s room is now completely silent. Hadn’t it occurred to him that on this trip Stella and Felix would be sharing a room every night? And if he had thought of it, so what—something like that wouldn’t bother him because he loves being alone. But here he is, lonelier than he’s been in a very long time.
What do you do
out in the West
where the proud remnants
of European aristocracy
climb down from their phaetons
in haughty disarray
and walk, bareheaded into the desert
never to be heard from again
Halvard Johnson, Dance of the Red Swan
Ray wakes suddenly to what sounds like an airplane right above his room. The pounding in his temples is in synch with the banging on his door. It takes him a moment to realize that he’s in a Juarez motel and not in his apartment in Boston. He feels the familiar ache, disappointment that feels like fear, in his solar plexus when he wakes and realizes Olivia’s not there.
“Okay, okay,” he mumbles, grabbing the magenta bedspread and wrapping it around his torso like an unwieldy towel as he rolls off the bed.
A bit of his dream in which hundreds of Hell’s Angels roar into town on their enormous souped-up Harleys and BMWs comes back to him.
He opens the door to Stella, whose hair, wavy and wild, is now pulled back in a tidy bun, accentuating her cheekbones. Smiling broadly she holds out a Styrofoam cup. Her olive t-shirt and cropped pants are the same color as the chamisa, the dry rough grass along the paths between the cabins.
“It’s not too bad,” says Stella, handing Ray the cup and moving past him into the room. His bedspread, which he lets go to take the hot cup, falls to the ragged carpet, nearly tripping him. He sips loudly. Stella has remembered how he likes it—with just a little milk and no sugar.
“Not bad,” he says. In truth it’s pretty bad—probably Nescafe—but it’s hot and very welcome.
Stella looks Ray up and down, and then at the bedspread he’d had around him still on the floor like a huge puddle. “You must really be afraid of me.”
Ray looks down at himself and sees he’s fully dressed in his chinos and t-shirt.
“I forgot that I fell asleep in my clothes.” He feels the blood rush to his neck and chest when he recalls the sounds he fell asleep to.
Inside, out of the sun, Stella’s clothing seems brighter, lime green now, with very thin white lines, abstract meanderings, or a foreign alphabet on her Capri pants, which reveal ankles surprisingly thin for her size. The green reminds Ray of the chameleons he used to buy at the circus in Madison Square Garden when he was a kid, a cousin to the huge prehistoric-looking iguanas of Mexico and the southwest.
“I actually feel the caffeine running through me, shoving my headache along in front of it,” he says.
He heads to the sink with his coffee to rummage amongst his shaving gear for some aspirin.
“I woke up to the sound of an airplane or motorcycles, and now I recall that I was dreaming there was some kind of event for motorcycle enthusiasts, and Hell’s Angels here in town. I was late for an important appointment—” he shakes his head—“I can’t remember with who—but I remember the urgency, my panic. I am on foot, and every time I try to cross the road, more bikes speed by. The noise is unbearable and the bikers look more and more ominous, overweight, naked bellies and legs, and huge arms, bits of black leather, lots of metal studs, chains and tattoos.”
“Yeah?” says Stella.
“Then you knocked on the door,” he says. “It just left me with this headache.”
He doesn’t mention the hugely ominous feeling that came with it.
He finds his aspirin, a large bottle. In the dingy mirror above the sink he sees Stella behind him, coming closer. He’s tempted to run.
“I have something better, something natural for headaches,” she says. Ray watches in the mirror his face and neck turn pink, then red.
“What do you mean?” he asks, panicky, watching Stella reach around his head from behind him to feel his forehead. He feels the warmth of her, and sees, in the mirror, her hands meeting in the center of his forehead looking like a strange Indian headband.
Her fingers are cool and once again he’s aware of the lemony smell of her shampoo, or soap. Surely she will feel with her cool hands, how burning hot he is.
“You feel okay,” she says. “Probably just one of those travel headaches—you know—new places, weird schedules . . .”
“What time is it?” Ray asks. He feels as if he’s slept too much, and at the same time, as if he’s not slept enough.
“Felix and I discovered a surprisingly good looking restaurant attached to this dump,” she says. “Shall we meet there in fifteen minutes or so?”
Showered, and dressed in clean chinos that look like all his other chinos, Ray, feeling much more together, easily finds the low-ceilinged restaurant behind the cabins.
It does look neat and clean—must be a recent addition—with a bright blue Formica counter and red Naugahyde booths. He’s a bit late, so is surprised not to see Felix or Stella.
He slides into one of the many empty booths, and studies the paintings on the pale blue walls. Mostly dark, browns and dark blues, they have bright highlights of yellows, oranges, reds, and bright azure, all depicting romanticized versions of past and present Indians—Navaho, Apache, Aztec, Otomi, whatever, wearing full regalia: loincloths, beads, headbands, feathers, fringed leather bras and vests, ankle shells, necklaces, and large feather headdress. They carry spears, bows and arrows, some are in canoes, and others riding rearing stallions, with canyons and buttes and cactus in the backgrounds.
There’s one painting of a woman, bare brown legs, on a white stallion, wearing a headband with one feather, long black braids hanging near firm round breasts that are bursting out of a tiny leather beaded vest. One arm is raised, brandishing a long spear.
This type of art depicting gorgeous hyper-sexualized Indians is so common in restaurants and motels in the southwest, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona and even parts of Mexico, and Ray wonders what’s going on here, as most current residents of those places show no great love for the indigenous peoples they’ve displaced. There’s something somewhat racist and even pornographic about these depictions, with their unrealistic Amazonian specimens, and their scant leather coverings over nearly exposed breasts and glimpses of genitals behind tanned hide, fringe and beads, but he can’t figure out exactly what it is.
“Café, por favor, con poquito leche,” Ray says to the very young boy, who may be anywhere between eight and eleven, and who’s wiping the table with a very gray rag.
He doesn’t see any other Anglos around. Almost no one in fact, except for one man with a sombrero hanging from his knee, and a very dark, maybe Mexican couple looking slightly rumpled.
Yes, Ray’s ready for more coffee. His headache is gone, and he’s hungry—starving—for his favorite breakfast, huevos rancheros, dragon’s breath hot.
Ray’s studying a blue Xeroxed menu when Stella and then Felix slide in across from him.
“Dos mas cartas y mucho mas café, por favor,” Stella nods at the child who goes back for the coffee pot and two more thick white china mugs.
Something seems off to Ray. Unlike earlier, both Stella and Felix seem stiff and somewhat grim, as if both are in a bad mood. In fact, there’s a strange awkwardness each time they get together.
Felix studies his menu, as does Stella.
Felix is wearing a blue and white striped dress shirt with a stiff collar buttoned all the way up to his large Adam’s apple, more apparent than usual, especially as he’s not wearing a tie.
Ray recalls that in spite of the funkiness of a bullfight arena, most people dress up for bullfights—they are considered grand occasions. He hopes he looks okay.
Stella, her hair plastered back in this new way, spine straight on her bench, studying her menu as if it’s a prayer book, seems as severe as a matador. Ray wonders whether he’s missing something. Not that unusual for him.
“Hey,” he says. “Aren’t you two talking to each other?”
“It’s nothing,” says Stella, not looking up.
“Here’s a joke I read somewhere or other, probably on Facebook,” says Ray. He hates those things—funny photos or jokes, and can’t believe he’s going to tell one, but his need to break the tension wins.
“On an El Al flight, you know, the Israeli airline?” he continues, “there are always two flight attendants in a row.” Ray has their attention. “One walks ahead serving the food, and the other follows close behind, saying, ‘Eat, eat,’”
Felix looks blank. Stella smiles reluctantly. “Ha ha,” she says.
“Hey,” says Ray, removing his utensils from their napkin bunting, “We’re on a trip. I came a long way.” It takes effort to say this rather than sit quietly absorbing the mood, as is his habit.
“Well,” says Stella, “are we going to have to act jolly when we don’t feel like it just because you’ve flown here from Boston?” She absently runs the tines of her fork along the straw placemat.
“I hope you’re not angry at me,” Ray points his forefinger to his chest.
Stella stares at his hand, or his slim gold wedding band.
Their very young waiter returns to replenish their coffee. Ray watches to see that he doesn’t spill anything, but the kid is dexterous.
He gazes into his mug of steaming coffee, now as tense as the others. He hates conflict and has always avoided it. He keeps away from fights, doesn’t like to argue, and sharp criticism from anyone, even if not directed at him causes his stomach to turn and his heart to pound in a kind of terror.
He doesn’t know why—he can’t recall his parents ever fighting. There was no yelling, screaming or hysterics in the quiet apartment he grew up in, an only child.
Perhaps he’d be better off if they did fight. Maybe then he’d be used to it—and it would seem like nothing. Obviously, he thinks, they avoided conflict too, and he’s read that not only can that personality trait be inherited via nurture, it can actually be genetic, like shyness, or empathy.
He remembers often suffering from feelings of injustice and being misunderstood, but whenever he tried to explain how he saw things to either parent, he’d begin to cry, making it impossible to speak.
“Of course we’re not mad at you,” says Felix, placing his red, large-knuckled hand over Ray’s.
“We’re just mad at each other,” says Stella. It’s nothing. Didn’t you and Olivia ever fight?”
Ray didn’t recall fighting or arguing with Olivia—but they must have. Most likely he wouldn’t be fighting—she’d be yelling. But this didn’t happen often. Even discussions where Olivia was angry felt like arguments. But Ray doesn’t remember many of those occasions.
“We did have an ongoing fight while we were all living in El Paso,” says Ray, scooping up his viscous huevos rancheros with tortillas rolled into fat flutes. The thought of revealing this makes him slightly sick, but he can’t help offering it to change the mood.
“I remember a big argument,” says Stella, wrapping a tortilla around some scrambled eggs, rolling it into a giant cigar, then biting the tip.
“Maybe it was when we visited you in your teeny ranch house on Fiesta Drive in El Paso. We were drinking wine. Olivia said that people who never have children always remain children. They always, no matter how old, think of themselves as children—the child of someone, but never the mother or father of anyone. And that keeps them immature. I remember you ended up shouting, spilling your wine on that horrible yellow ochre carpet, ‘There’s nothing wrong with being immature.’”
Ray does recall many discussions related to having children. “I think I meant ‘childish,’ not immature, he says. He does recall this now. But he can’t imagine himself yelling.
“There are some good things about remaining childless; the ones I’m thinking of are you can continue to be needy. You can remain narcissistic. You can be as selfish as you wish, forever,” Olivia had said.
Ray had felt attacked, not knowing whether to own up to those traits his wife had enumerated, each emphasized with a period.
He remembers now what Olivia looked like that particular evening—wearing a long narrow-skirted black dress, which made her look even thinner, her pale skin vampire-ish. Yet her straight eyebrows and high bangs made her seem always a bit puzzled, and vulnerable.
“We all met at the fertility clinic at the University, right?” says Ray. We were all in the waiting room that time.”
“Yeah,” said Stella, drinking her coffee. “Most of the people were women, much older than us,” she says.
“Olivia and I called it the ‘futility’ clinic,” says Ray.
He’d felt like a fraud the entire time they were trying to get pregnant because he was half-pretending to want a child. He’d never understood Olivia’s desire for a baby. She was five years older than he, and maybe being in her thirties had something to do with it. But she was an artist—wasn’t that enough?
Strangely, their diligent efforts to conceive didn’t turn him off sex like it did for some couples—the temperature-taking, the hormone shots, the sex on demand, the emphasis solely on ovulation. He enjoyed the sense of purpose, the idea of sex for a reason.
Each month when Olivia got her period, she was depressed, and while sad for her, he was pleased.
Ray was taught to administer the daily hormone shot to administer to Olivia’s firm derriere. He recalls the initial resistance as he pressed the needle into her skin—then its surrender. He was not thinking, like her, of, please let this work, or sperm, eggs, babies, or even of sex. As he pressed the large needle further into Olivia’s flesh Ray was imagining layers, and strata. Geology.
Ray says, unwrapping one last tortilla from the plaid cloth napkin keeping them warm, “How come you guys quit going to the ‘futility’ clinic?”
Not everyone is motivated enough to continue with the time commitment and the expense, he thinks. He can’t imagine them with a child. “I hope I’m not hitting an exposed nerve here,” he says. “But you lost your desire for a kid?”
Felix and Stella look at each other and laugh. “We never wanted a baby. You’re remembering it all wrong, Ray,” says Felix, sighing, and getting to his feet, “I was there for a vasectomy.”
“Can that be true?” Ray shakes his head.
How could he misremember something so crucial? And if that’s not the case, how could he have been so unknowing of what was really happening, what his friends were thinking, doing? Unless they are lying. Or worse, kidding.
Ray studies his nearly empty coffee mug, feeling the small crack near the lip.
“How come I recall things so differently?” he asks. “Or was I so out of it? So unaware of what was going on?”
He can’t look at them right away, afraid of the answer, or to find they’re teasing him. When he does, he sees they’ve hardly heard him, and are both eating.
“What about those orgiastic sounds I heard from your room last night?” ventures Ray, changing the subject.
Then he recalls his dream, and the image of the road he needed to cross. And the din of the motors.
Stella laughs. Felix shakes his head. “It wasn’t us, that’s for sure,” he says.
“Though not because we weren’t getting along. You can have fantastic sex with someone you hate,” says Stella.
“I’m not sure that would work for me,” says Ray, surprised.
Felix, just about done, looks all around the small diner, and then behind him.
“Think about it more, Ray,” says Stella, pushing her chair away from the table.
“What’s wrong?” asks Ray, watching Felix.
“Oh, Felix is being paranoid,” says Stella. “He thinks we’re being followed.”
“Followed.” Ray looks up from studying the bill on the table. “Why would we be followed? You’re kidding? Who’d want to follow us?” Ray feels his throat tighten.
“Don’t ask,” says Stella. “Felix is involved in border issues. I’m going to the john.”
“Border issues. What border issues?”
“Well, Ray,” says Felix, trembling, either with fear or anger, “you may be able to ignore politics, but you can’t live near a city like El Paso and remain pure.”
“What makes you think I’m not involved in politics?” asks Ray, even though he’s not. “And what do you mean by ‘pure’?”
Stella is back and grabs her purse off her seat. “Let’s go,” she says, now in a rush.
“We’ll talk more later, Ray,” Felix says.
“Oh,” says Stella, squeezing her lush body between two chairs near the cashier’s booth, “are secrets being kept?”
Ray has a hard time keeping up with them. He already has his bag with him, so he waits near the car, in the motel lot, while Felix and Stella go in to their room to pick up whatever bags they’d left.
Somewhat alarmed, Ray watches Felix sidle cautiously along the motel wall, and peer through the window into his room, looking around him before opening his door.
What the fuck, thinks Ray.
The Junior Embalmer
Jordan Bell had thought Sam was crazy to hire the Russian girl. You didn’t see many women in their profession. It was like the insurance business; men signified safety and protection, while women weren’t expected to cope well with emergencies. Sonia was a pleasant surprise. On her first day, when handed a six-month old baby girl, she didn’t express an iota of discomfort. The junior embalmer was always given the small cargo, not to test them, but because it was easier to do the massaging necessary to release the rigor. Cargo was the term they used, it fit with the notion of preparing for a journey.
Sonia seemed to like the children. Jordan noticed the little extras she brought to work; hair ribbons, a few matchbox cars, even a pink plastic purse. Eventually, the items left her drawer and entered the caskets. Sam had been furious at the Mason girl’s wake when he saw the lollipop clutched by curled fingers. But then Celia Mason put her arms around him, her head on his chest, and thanked him for giving Beth her favorite treat to take with her. McBurney’s Funeral Home became known for its caring touches, thanks to Sonia. When a school bus plowed over an embankment in Greene County last winter, McBurney’s received the whole cargo.
The funeral home was on Hollow Neck Road, outside of Ellenville, in upstate New York. At seventy-five, Jordan had spent his entire life in the area. Clustered on the mountains were tiny towns perpetually on the verge of disappearing, impractical because of the long distances between them. They were connected by the low-lying Neversink River flowing for miles, as a flat cascade moving over stones, or a deeper stream that rushed parallel to the country roads. Immigrants appeared during the spring, like exotic trout.
“Mr. Jordan, come see.” Sonia called out from the dressing room, where clothing and final touches were added. Jordan walked slowly, carrying two floral arrangements that had been left at the back door. He didn’t approve of the ritual of flowers. Why pay tribute to the deceased with the dying?
Like many of the businesses in the area, McBurney’s had once been someone’s house. Sam McBurney had bought the two-story colonial, converting it cheaply.
Embalming was done in the basement, the walls and floors tiled a beige color, like the inside of a woman’s compact. The two porcelain work tables, chipped and stained, stood beside the tub-sized sink. Mounted to the wall was a large dispenser of unscented hand cream. Although they wore disposable gloves, Jordan and Sam washed their hands between each task, rubbing lotion on them afterwards. The last to touch the relatives of their clients and the first to shake the hands of the bereaved, it was important their hands be soft.
In front of the coffin, with her back to him, Sonia looked like a little girl who had snuck inside. She wore old-fashioned looking high heels that covered most of her feet and reminded him of the shoes his mother had worn. She wasn’t wearing stockings and her ankles were so white that the veins cast a bluish tint. She leaned over to smell the blooms he carried. “Baby’s breath. My favorite.”
Sonia liked everything about McBurney’s. She loved the rolling cosmetic cart that held both store-bought and mortuary make-up. She was impressed by the large dumbwaiter that carried the cargo upstairs, and the recessed lighting in the bereavement area. In the small town in the Ural Mountains, where she was from, she told Jordan, the mortuary was attached to the police station. Embalming was performed alongside of the coroner’s work.
There was something child-like about Ms. Sonia herself, despite the high heels and perfume that mingled comfortably with their acrid work odors. When she first arrived, Jordan had to fiddle with the large protective head gear, tightening her face mask until the blonde curls, like fluffy little chicks, were crushed against the plastic.
Jordan and Sam wore the white coats of laboratory technicians while Sonia purchased her work clothes at a beauty supply company. She preferred the feminine colors. A wooden pole in the dressing room held both her pastel-colored smocks and the few garments left behind by loved ones. Most deliveries to McBurney’s came from the local hospital. Relatives brought the appropriate clothing for the departure. Dissension among grown siblings accounted for the pieces that still hung on the garment rack. Sam, who had five children, had his choice of burial attire written into his will. Jordan, who was childless, didn’t see the need.
Sonia was performing a two year residency at McBurney’s, but there wasn’t much to teach her, although Jordan had to remind her regularly to wear gloves. He looked into the white coffin and saw a length of yellow yarn that began in the little boy’s fist and traveled down his corduroy pant leg where she had placed a little stuffed kitten. She certainly had an instinct for the work.
Despite what people said, it was death that altered loved ones, not the undertaker. Sonia had successfully transformed the waxy gleam the boy wore upon arrival. Making lips meet naturally was the most difficult aspect of their work. If the mouth hung loosely, death seemed unexpected, a surprise. If the lips were tightly shut, the corpse appeared to scowl, resentful of its fate. Sonia’s boy slept. The skin of his face and hands was luminescent with the pinkish glow from a dye in the embalming fluid.
“You like, Mr. Jordan?” She spoke without looking up, concentrated on wrapping the end of the yellow yarn around the kitten’s paws. “His mother told Mr. McBurney that she wished he could take his kitty with him. Do you like cats, Mr. Jordan?”
She always asked what he liked, as though it mattered. Patty, his wife of forty years, now deceased, never asked his preferences. She created them. He would have liked a cat, but Patty had been afraid she might step on the creature. “I never cared for animals in the house. Crawling around during the day. On the beds at night.” He spoke with Patty’s words.
She cut the yarn, making a pretty curl at the end. “When I was a little girl I never had my own toys. I had to wait until a cousin became tired of their doll or stuffed animal. Do you have children, Mr. Jordan?”
“It was just the two of us.”
“I want lots of children. But only if my husband makes a lot of money. It’s no good to have children if you can’t buy them everything.”
“Children need more than money.”
“They need a slap on the bottom sometimes. You would have been a wonderful father, so patient.”
“My wife was afraid,” he said, lifting the boy’s head so she could slip a blue satin pillow beneath it.
“She wasn’t scared for herself.” Delicate furrows had lined Patty’s forehead, under the light brown hair. She wore ribbons of worry, even in her sleep. “She was afraid of hurting anybody. If she found a mouse in the kitchen, I’d have to trap it in a shoe box.”
“To throw in the river?”
“To set it free outside.” Patty saw pain everywhere. “Ooh, look at those broken porch steps,” she’d say, as they drove past a house crouched in decay.
“I can’t afford to be afraid, Mr. Jordan.” She stepped backwards, her hands on her hips, craning her neck to see how the boy looked from a distance. “I have plans.”
Jordan had planned to be an old man surrounded by family. But waiting for Patty’s fears to subside, their childlessness became an event that had already occurred.
“When I was a girl, on my way home from school, I found a chicken frozen in the snow.” Sonia circled the coffin, hands on her hips, looking in at the boy from different angles. “I picked it up, looking for teeth marks of a fox. But there was no blood. Where did it come from? How did it die? I ran home to ask my mother.” She crouched down and then stood up quickly as though to surprise something in the coffin. “My grandfather told me that the chicken had been scared to death. He said it escaped the cage by accident and freedom gave it a heart attack. Can you imagine telling a child that story?”
He could certainly imagine her touching the dead animal with her bare hands. But why was she still angry with her grandfather? Jordan hadn’t reminded Patty of his own disappointments. There was no point in revisiting the scene of an accident.
He noticed the price tag still on the boy’s pants, indicating a hasty purchase for the occasion, maybe by a relative. He gently pulled it away from the waistband and Ms. Sonia snipped the plastic thread with her scissors.
He and Patty lived in a house built over a hundred years ago. They carefully restored it, smoothing the cracks of time with plaster. The surrounding stream of trees provided by the mountains required constant care. After a storm, small boughs littered the yard, sodden leaves prevented the growth of grass. Patty attacked the errant leaves daily, expertly burning fallen limbs. The house was her baby and she worried about it when they traveled, as though their absence put it in danger.
“We work well together. Don’t we, Mr. Jordan?” She removed her flowery smock. “Lunch time.”
Jordan used to join Patty, a legal secretary, every day for lunch. It made the day longer but in a pleasant way. He’d drive the twelve miles, passing connected residential units, like rows of Monopoly pieces, springing up in newly flattened spaces where nature and man had come to a standoff. Sam and his wife lived in one of the new townhouses, part of a development placed on freshly shaved land.
Jordan and Patty ate at Benny’s Cafe in Wurtsboro, a small restaurant that served American, Mexican, and Italian cuisine. Patty used to say that Benny’s was like Europe served on a paper plate. The fast food hamburger place and Chinese restaurant had gone out of business years ago, but their signs remained. There was a gas station and tavern with a big screen TV on the corner. A wall of red maple trees stood behind the small buildings, either to protect them from the mountains, or to keep the tiny town’s encroachment to a minimum.
He followed Sonia up the back stairway to the kitchen on the second floor of McBurney’s, the hardwood steps thickly painted, instead of sanded and stained. According to Sam, there was no point in putting money into an area unseen by the public. The showrooms and viewing chambers were thinly carpeted and dimly lit, in respect for the bereaved and to conceal roughly patched walls. Patty, proud of Jordan’s work, said Sam treated McBurney’s like an old car that wasn’t worth fixing.
The future of the business didn’t matter much to Sam despite his name on the door. Sam and his wife owned a condominium in Florida and had twelve grandchildren scattered across the country. Jordan and Patty had attended McCready christenings, birthdays, graduations, and weddings. If Patty was saddened or envious, she didn’t share it with Jordan. Sitting in assigned seats at decorated tables, he decided that families were like constellations, the celebrated achievements trajectories for children to travel away from their homes.
Since Patty’s death, Jordan spent more time at McBurney’s. If he wasn’t working, he’d be in the kitchen, reading the newspaper, or sitting with his eyes closed. The old-fashioned refrigerator with its exaggerated roundness was usually empty. Patty used to say the words “funeral home” were misleading because nobody lived here. But Sonia brought plates and cutlery to the McBurney kitchen. Dishtowels now hung from the handles of the unused oven. She had scrubbed the old dinette table until it trembled. If she wanted to pretend McBurney’s was a real house, it was all right with him.
Today, she peeled hard-boiled eggs brought from her home. Jordan set the table for three, even though Sam wasn’t there. Sam acted like a salesman, crisscrossing the tiny communities that were spread over upstate New York, visiting veteran associations and hospitals to keep the McBurney name in people’s minds.
Sonia took a large jar of mayonnaise from the refrigerator and held it up to show Jordan. “See, one dollar. Can you believe it?” She turned the jar in her hands. “I love the Dollar General. If they had that store in Russia, everything inside would be broken. Did your wife shop at the Dollar General?”
“Sometimes,” he lied. Patty had been too fearful. Dented cans carried botulism. Sealed caps and expiration dates weren’t sufficient proof of safety.
“How did your wife die, Mr. Jordan?”
Cancer had jumped out from behind, tagging Patty. You’re it, you’re it, followed them from x-ray to ultrasound. They sat in the parking lots of doctors’ offices, holding hands and repeating phrases used by the surgeon or oncologist, weighing words that meant hope, or nothing at all. Considering the chemicals of his work, Jordan didn’t understand why it wasn’t him. Could he have tracked death home and left footprints for Patty to step in? But they both knew the earth spun, individual lives dropping like beads of sweat.
Eventually, Patty’s house turned against her. When the stairs were too difficult to climb, the den became their bedroom. When it was too hard for her to eat, the kitchen became the enemy. Jordan prepared tiny portions of food and served them on paper plates with accordion edges like the ones from Benny’s Cafe. The first time he did it, Patty laughed. It was never clear if it was the illness or the treatment that made it impossible for her to eat.
Sam had given him as much time as necessary. Jordan had her interred in Delaware County where her family lived. Her sisters, angered by the closed casket, said Jordan was selfish and he supposed they were right.
The first months after Patty’s death, he’d leave the downstairs lights on when he went to bed as though she was only at a library meeting. He continued to buy the red grapes she liked, waiting for them to shrivel so they could be discarded. For the brief moment he stood, head bowed, in front of the open refrigerator, it would be as though she had eaten them. On Sunday nights, using a pen, he created a weekly viewing schedule of circled TV shows. He focused on the the TV like a blind man, guided by sound, unaware of what he watched. He only wanted to complete the schedule.
In their bedroom, her reading glasses rested at a rakish angle, on top of the book she had been reading three years ago. A half-filled box of Kleenex and a cylinder of lip balm still stood on her night table. If he moved suddenly, jostling the bed, the lip balm would roll to the floor and in the morning he’d put it back. Patty would have considered it a foolish display, magnets for dust.
“Why aren’t you married, Sonia?” He knew she had come to Ellenville because of a cousin who had opened a combination delicatessen and hardware store on Main Street. The men who worked there were thick-shouldered and fair.
“This is very good question, Mr. Jordan.” She seemed delighted by his interest. “I tell you the problem. Russian or American? Which road do I take? I’m comfortable with Russian guys. In many ways, we speak the same language.” She giggled as she leaned over and lit the pilot light of the stove. “But American men spend more money on women. They listen to opinions more than Russian men. On the other hand, Russian men treat mother-in-law better than American men. So, this is very complicated issue. Maybe you can advise me.”
“Keep a pair of waterproof boots in your car.” That was his advice. “After October, it could snow any evening,” he told her. “Those high heels could be dangerous.” She should know that, coming from Russia.
She shrugged her shoulders and sighed loudly, as though he had disappointed her. “There is so much talk about weather in this country. Winter is cold and summer is hot, what’s so important?”
He thought about it. “It’s helpful. People want to know what to expect.
A month earlier, Jordan had driven Sonia to the local reservoir. As they drove across the concrete bridge that spanned a valley carved out of the mountains, a strong current of wind pushed perpendicularly against the car. Jordan held the steering wheel tightly. At one end of the bridge was a dirt parking area for those who wanted to view the reservoir like a river.
“Why did you bring me here? To see the river?”
“It’s a reservoir. Man-made.”
He watched her read the description on a sign. An entire village had been submerged in order to create the reservoir. Farms, streets with stores, two churches and an elementary school once stood under the water.
As a child, Jordan had been haunted by the idea that someone might have missed the instructions to vacate the village. He imagined his grandmother, woken by rushing water that carried cups and saucers, pots and pans, through the rooms of her house, pushing out the doors, into the streets. “The reservoir gave me nightmares,” he told her. “I had to close my eyes when my father drove us across the bridge. I didn’t eat fish for years.”
She laughed. “The children must have clapped to see their school covered in water.”
It was the notion of a forgotten body, tossed upon the water, dissolving unclaimed, that had been so disturbing.
Sonia pulled at his arm. “I didn’t mean to make fun. I just changed the story a little, so there would be no more fear. That’s what we do, isn’t it?”
“What about your boyfriend?” he asked, “The man who speaks Russian on the phone.” On the telephone, in her native language, Sonia’s voice became stern, almost admonishing. He felt sorry for the unseen young man.
“He’s my cousin’s friend. He has nothing important to tell me.”
“Maybe he’s too shy to express his interest.” He didn’t imagine Sonia having any trouble finding a husband, except for her profession, of course.
“Hah. Russian man never shy to express interest.” She produced a large onion from a paper bag. She held it in place on the plastic cutting board with one finger, as though she might spin it like a top. “Most Russians don’t want to go back but I’m not like them. There are too few buildings here and I miss my mother.”
It was a relief to hear her speak fondly of her mother. “There are lots of big cities in the United States. You chose a town in what’s called a rural area.”
“I know, I’m an educated person, but this is where my cousin lives.” She never referred to her cousin by name. He wondered if that was a European custom. She peeled and chopped, her eyes teared from the inner layers of onion. “There are too many trees.”
“You should have brought your mask upstairs,” he said, making her laugh. The frying onion brought McBurney’s kitchen to life, the ordinary smell suddenly exotic. He closed his eyes. The hissing from the pan almost covered the noise of the condenser responsible for refrigeration in the basement. Sonia claimed she could adjust the noise with the proper tools. She said, in Russia, where access to the mountain roads could be blocked by snow for weeks at a time, everyone had to be self-sufficient. Even the women fixed machinery. Patty had once pulled off a pair of pantyhose to create a temporary fan belt when her car broke down an hour from their home. It had been hard to reconcile her competence with her fears.
“Mr. Jordan. “ He must have fallen asleep. “Mr. Jordan.” She knelt beside his chair and picked up his hands. “I have special offer for you.” From above, her yellow hair looked very thick, almost wiry.
“I want you to come back with me, to Russia. When my residency is done.”
“Russia?” The word sounded unfamiliar as he spoke. He remembered the map of the world from high school, a map that was pulled down like a window shade to cover what the teacher had written on the blackboard.
Her strong fingers pulled at his hands, the way she had pulled at the little boy downstairs. “I want to start a chain. A chain of parlors. You will be the senior embalmer.”
“What do you need me for?”
“The businesses in this country have stories. McBurney’s is supposed to be a family business but Sam’s children never worked here. I want my business to have a story.” She pulled, again, at his hands, as though impatient to take him with her. “You will give Russians a new face for bereavement costs. I will be the face behind the business.”
If she would move away he could stand up and regain his senses. “But I don’t speak any Russian.”
“You won’t have to. I’ll speak for you.“
“But what about Sam?” As soon as he said his name, Jordan realized the kitchen smelled like a truck stop. Sam would be furious if the odors had traveled through the home. Food was comforting to the bereaved but McBurney’s shouldn’t smell like a house for the living. He had let himself become intoxicated by the smell and sound of the frying onion. He opened the kitchen window and told Sonia to run downstairs and open the rest of the windows before Sam returned. “Go, quick. Open the front door.” He scraped the onions into a the paper bag, he’d bring it to the garbage bins outside.
She stood there, shaking her head. “Don’t be scared, Mr. Jordan.”
By five o’clock, Sonia had changed to her street clothes and was waiting for Jordan in the vestibule. “I have another surprise.” She opened the shopping bag she held, pushing it at him, until he bent over and saw some of the toys she kept in the metal cabinet. “I’m sending these to Russia. To my little girl.”
“You have a little girl?” How could she abandon her? “I thought you were waiting for a rich husband.”
“You have to be philosophical, Mr. Jordan. Who knew the boy with the kitty wouldn’t grow up?” She put down the shopping bag and wrapped a silky scarf around her head, tying the ends under her chin. Her smooth white face reminded him of the hard-boiled eggs. “I look funny, but my hair is like a baby’s, so fine, the wind wants to blow it away.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
She leaned into the oval mirror on the vestibule wall and examined her face closely as though she was on her way to an important event instead of the parking lot. A waviness in the glass caused a slight distortion. “What difference would it make? The visa is more complicated with a child.”
“What’s her name?” He asked as though a name provided proof of her existence.
“Masha. She’s named after my mother.”
“But who takes care of her?” He imagined the girl in the snow without a coat or mittens.
“My mother. She looks just like me.”
Jordan saw women wearing kerchiefs and high heels, making their way on cobblestone streets, the grandmother holding the hand of a miniature Sonia. Patty had owned a set of round, painted dolls, varying sizes that fit one inside of each other.
“You are coming. I can tell.”
“Hold on, hold on.” He looked around him, the little vestibule almost like a closet. The dark paneling had a slightly greasy sheen. “I can’t just leave my home.” Could he turn his back on Patty’s house?
“We’ll get stainless steel tables. No more porcelain. It stains too quickly. You will be like a grandfather to my little girl.”
“Doesn’t she already have a grandfather?” As Jordan opened the front door, flecks of white paint cracked and fell from the wooden door frame, joining the light snow that had just begun. Sam didn’t like Sonia to stay for the viewings. Families didn’t want their loved ones handled by a foreigner. “He’s not patient like you.” She danced down the steps of McBurney’s, the snow quickly covering her shoes. “Masha will like you right away. You’ll see.”
It was unusual to have two viewings in one evening. Sam took center stage while Jordan remained a few steps behind him. People who knew Sam shook his hand as though he was connected to the bereaved. An older exit was easy. Middle-aged children, full of fresh regret, were grateful to Sam. He carried their burden away with confidence.
The second story, the boy, was different. The bereaved parents leaned on the bodies surrounding them. Because so many mourners had gathered, only relatives were admitted at first. An older woman separated two boys exchanging punches while she cried. Jordan stood to the side, hands clasped. Undertakers had a saying, the smaller the cargo, the bigger the turnout. Usually, a family’s tears passed through him but tonight they stuck in his throat.
He slipped the dusty reading glasses from Patty’s night stand into his breast pocket and tossed the Kleenex box and lip balm into the wastebasket. Climbing the steps to the attic, her eyeglasses rested against his chest like the skeleton of a bird. From the window, shaped like a porthole, an outline of trees traveled down the mountain, standing where he once imagined his grandchildren at play, smooth-headed little boys in button-down shirts. He hadn’t imagined a little girl. But boys didn’t wear those kind of shirts anymore, except to a funeral. Even grown men wore tee-shirts now, sometimes with pictures on them.
Against the slanted attic wall was a set of luggage, collapsed canvas bags in a pile. He laughed, surprising himself. The prospect of being interred by foreigners one day didn’t frighten him at all. He’d drain the pipes to keep them from freezing and hand Sam the keys for future owners.