Thursday, June 28, 2012

The latest in blood and guts

I. Life.

The static cleared.
"In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide."
Rock 'n' roll.
Her attempt was a success. The station switched to a public service announcement then played a movie.

***

For a while she tried to take sad and make it funny, make it cool.
While a student at high school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she started a group called the Dateless Wonder Club. She thought about making T-shirts.

On a morning in the 1970s, the chronically depressed girl with dark shiny hair entered the newsroom with a heavy sigh and set down her things. She was always talking, to whoever would listen, about how soon she'd be 30 and was still a virgin. She had never been in a relationship that lasted more than two dates.

"Jesus, Christine. It's 8 a.m. Our coffee hasn't kicked in yet. Overnight there were two homicides on the south side, possibly related, and a fire in a warehouse. We've promised viewers a full report on each at noon. And you're talking about this?"

She hoped her co-worker George would hear about her untenable state of affairs and offer to correct it. After all, the clock was ticking. The year before she'd had a faulty ovary removed. The doctor said if she didn't get pregnant within the year it was unlikely she would ever be able to conceive. Tick tock tick tock.

***

She had moved into her family's old summer cottage on Siesta Key, Florida. For a while she lived there alone with a poodle.

Her bedroom was like a young girl's room. Pink paint, canopy bed. She would brush her long hair 100 strokes then turn off the light and go to sleep beside the poodle.

The moon would rise over a tree she and her brothers used to climb.

She knew the creaks of the wooden stairs by heart
a spot in the worn center of the top step made the loudest noise. If you moved to the side and skipped the spot, going up or down along the edge, you could go in silence. 


II. Work.

She had come to sunny Florida for work, first as a traffic reporter before she got the program on Channel 40. She was nominated for an award but not for journalism it was a forestry and conservation recognition award given by the Bradenton district office of the Florida Division of Forestry. "She was a strong contender," said a forester who had once been scheduled to appear on her program but had to cancel due to the birth of his son. He had never met her.

Christine used puppets. She volunteered at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, entertaining mentally handicapped children with the hijinks of a cast of colorful felt characters. She sometimes brought the puppets out on her program.

Her first major back in Ohio had been theater arts, before she transferred to a college in Boston and got into TV. She would look into the live black eye of the camera and feel untold numbers of people watching her, although her viewership rates were modest. She felt most vital in their imagined eyes.

III. Love.

She'd had this image of how it would be.
She'd be standing there in her kitchen, loveable as anything, reading the back of the cake-mix box, cute flour smears on her face and apron, frosting on her fingers. More Lucille Ball than Betty Crocker.
But the directions were straightforward, she wasn't an idiot, she didn't make a mess, and she forgot to wear an apron.
The cake was for George's birthday. She knew he liked chocolate so she got him "double chocolate." She wanted only to make him happy.
She wanted to live in a world where you could give someone a present and not expect anything in return.
She hummed Roberta Flack in the empty house. "Telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly."

***

"A little out of gear with other people" was how her mother put it. "She would walk into a room and every head would turn, yet nobody ever came over and asked for her phone number." 


News anchor Bob Keehn said: "What seemed to concern her was her involvement with the human condition. She would express a negative reaction to people and the way they treated each other."


Sports reporter Andrea Kirby recounted that Christine had once said, sounding like a Judy Blume book or a soft-rock song: "I would like to have, for just one week, someone I loved, who really loved me."

***

Christine arrived early and set the cake in the office fridge. The cake had chilled overnight in its Tupperware dome. She waited until an hour before lunchtime when the kitchen was empty. She led him back and told him to have a seat, and she unveiled the cake. She was proud of the way the frosting had retained its scalloped sea-wave landscape. It looked just like the cake on the cake-mix box. It was perfect.

"Oh Chris, this really is too much." He ate a piece to be polite.


***

Life is a soap opera. 

Andrea was the one she was closest to a sports reporter, the most tolerable girl in the newsroom. They were almost friends.

Andrea and George. Christine's two favorite people there, so it made a grim sort of sense.
"We've been keeping quiet about it because, you know, we're co-workers. But also, we know how hard you can take things. We both really care about you..."
Camerawoman Jean Reed said in later interviews that Christine never responded well to technical glitches, when things didn't go as planned on the air. She grew nervous and frustrated. 


One day her editor aired a story about a shooting instead of her friendly local program that sometimes had puppets on it. He cited a public hunger for "blood and guts."

She got the point.

IV. Death.

Co-workers later said she had talked about planning to kill herself, like it was normal, the way someone might talk about an upcoming trip out of town. No one believed it because she seemed so together
"a tough cookie" was how one person put it. Someone else said she had "a great sense of the absurd; almost a macabre sense of humor." When it happened, some who had watched thought it was a tasteless prank, or maybe performance art.

She did her homework, the dutiful reporter. She interviewed police for what she said was a story about suicide prevention. She asked what was the most successful method, and an officer said that something called a "wadcutter slug" that explodes upon entry was the way to go. Back of the head, not the temple. "Foolproof."

She drove to a gun store. She bought a gun.

At first having the gun scared her, then it thrilled her. This was an object with heft, a magic portal.


She would take it out of its box under her bed and feel the weight of it, the gravitas, in her hand. She would spin the cylinder.

Tick tock tick tock.


She told a co-worker that she had bought a gun and planned to shoot herself on camera. He chastised her for thinking of such a dark joke.

"Oh Chris, that really is too much."

***

That morning there was an apparent technical glitch. A tape meant to accompany a news story wouldn't roll while Christine was on the air, but she had seemed to take it in stride. She remained serene.

The static had cleared.

She had prepared two scripts: one for herself, and one for whoever would report what happened after the last of her script was read.

Wadcutter slug. Back of the head. Foolproof.

I expect nothing in return.

***

All three major networks reported her death. A Presbyterian minister delivered a eulogy. They played three songs by Roberta Flack. They scattered her ashes in the Gulf of Mexico.

The station switched to a public service announcement then played a movie. For weeks afterward, in place of her program, the station aired re-runs of "Gentle Ben," a TV show about the friendship between a young boy and a 650-pound black bear.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Wasting away again

In Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett and I just hang out at his house. We “chill,” we “veg out.” We don’t make it down to the beach much, but we know it’s out there. We can hear it, we can smell it. It informs our lifestyle.

We dress as if we’re about to head to the beach, or as if we’ve just returned from the beach. Overpriced tropical-printwear – short-sleeved button-down shirts he wears with swim trunks that pass as shorts here, strapless muumuus for me – from the nearest souvenir shop that also sells frogs sculpted out of cowrie shells and “Beach Buns” postcards still in print since the 1980s, of faceless “bikini babes” photographed from behind with a light dusting of sand across their bottoms, in neon-colored G-strings for modesty at this family-friendly resort where the parents slip down to the hotel piano bar for a drink after the kids have tired of the indoor pool and fallen asleep.

Or maybe it is the 1980s. There are no calendars here in Margaritaville, and no clocks. Neither Jimmy nor I know how to tell the time of day by the sun – it's just up and then it's not.

Jimmy wears his frayed raffia hat, a survivor of his rowdy past; he bought it in another beach town when he was young, spring break with the guys in a Jeep, a different Jimmy who was more trim but just as tan, a swashbuckler grin full of heedless bravado many years before “some people” would “claim that there’s a woman to blame," a Jimmy who exists now only in rapidly fading photographs in an album whose adhesive is wearing off. An impervious Jimmy who would dole out heartbreak (in a good-natured way that made you unable to hate him) and not the other way around.

We’re not romantically involved, Jimmy and I, even though you might hear him call me “babe” or “darlin’,” and the reason we're not involved isn't just the age gap, although there is that. He hits on women much younger than I am, brings them back here in multiples (tells them they can bring their friends) to hang out in the hot tub out on the deck. I see them on bar stools in the kitchen some mornings, bleary-eyed and subdued, checking Facebook on their smartphones as Jimmy mans a skillet of sizzling bacon and mixes us a pitcher of Bloody Marys, hair of the dog that bit us. The reason we aren't involved is that I am not his type. I am too much a reader of serious books, too much a brunette but not the exotic kind, or the fun kind. But we chill, we veg out, we share a common appreciation for “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”

We're not so much friends as enablers. We met when we were the last two still there at the Holiday Inn bar late one night last summer, and the lights came up harshly, the bartender wiping the counter with a wet rag, "you don't have to go home but you can't stay here" and all that. Jimmy invited me to come chill at his place, said he had plenty of supplies there, we could keep the party going, encouraged me to check out of my room early and sleep in his guest bed for free, said some company could do him good, said he hoped I wasn't allergic to cats.

Other people besides the "hot babes" pass through the house here in Margaritaville, especially at night when Jimmy fires up the grill out on the deck and plays his records, the bright steel-drum music and the kitschy calypso (“Come, Mister Tally Man, tally me banana – daylight come and me wann’ go home”), the reggae and even the Beach Boys, anything that reminds him of where we are and where we aren’t. But the people – both men and women, both his age and the younger ones who marvel at his “vintage” records – mostly hang out there on the deck, which Jimmy has strung with lights shaped like chili peppers.

The guests stir their drinks with the colorful paper umbrellas that we buy as frequently as orange juice and suntan oil. They talk and laugh and get boisterously drunk under the cloud-muted stars with the crashing of Atlantic waves in the background. Jimmy’s deck is known as the place to be, right up there with the handful of gaudy nightclubs and bars in Margaritaville. He’s even mentioned in a guidebook you can find in chain bookstores nationwide, although the guidebook politely omits his actual address and only says to ask the bartenders how to find him. All of his parties end in a conga line, a ritual that feels downright tribal when someone plays along on Jimmy's bongo drums.

Besides the guidebook notoriety, of course the local paper has done features on him. It has done multiple versions of basically the same article about him, because there’s always some rookie reporter wanting to do a piece with local color, local flavor, an adjective-laden and atmospheric profile to add to his or her journalistic portfolio that will showcase the writer’s knack for characterization, for pointing out the same chili-pepper lights, the same raffia hat, that reporters have been mentioning for years, and that even I have mentioned here. And always they mention the tattoo, the one that’s “a real beauty,” “a Mexican cutie,” and of which he can truthfully say “how it got there, I haven’t a clue.” He keeps these clippings in the photo album with the bad adhesive.

But during most of the daylight hours, when the sun’s high and monotonous and the air heavy with the East Coast moisture that makes our hair curl and everyone else is at the beach, it’s just Jimmy and me and a calico cat named Jambalaya in the house. Jimmy has a bipolar relationship with the air conditioner – he either floors it full-blast, or he shuts it off completely so he can feel the light coating of sweat that reminds him where he is and where he isn’t. (Sometimes I sneak and crank it up or down a notch when he’s too busy with the blender or searching for his lost shaker of salt to notice.)

We live on sponge cake, we smell the shrimp beginning to boil. We eat what we want, we eat whatever’s around. There’s an abundance of a certain herb Jimmy is fond of, but I don’t partake. He’ll offer to roll me a joint, or to share the one he’s just rolled for himself, and when I decline (disingenuously citing a long-outgrown respiratory issue, or an aversion to feeling “out of control” even as my third drink of the afternoon condensates in my hand) he just looks at me for a moment, mystified, but doesn’t push the point. I’m pretty sure this is another reason why I'm not his type, maybe the main reason.

The house is furnished almost completely with wicker furniture, chaise longues, things meant for outside. It's not a proper grown-up's house. For decoration there are goofy things, Jimmy things – parrot piñatas wearing sombreros, an Astroturf bath mat for the “toilet golf” he has set up in the bathroom off the master bed (and which he actually uses, or so I would be led to believe, by the muffled hollers of “Fore!” and “Hole in one!” I hear when he’s in there). There are crinkled-plastic Hawaiian leis everywhere, even though we are nowhere near that far-off paradise. A cheap festive accessory is never far out of reach in Jimmy's house, just in case a party starts up.  

During the day the TV is always on, tuned to game shows. Never the news, because that would jar us right out of Margaritaville as much as a calendar or a clock would. Never a talk show, never even a soap opera or a sit-com, nothing with even a simulated human relationship that might remind him where he’s not.

We get slowly drunk, giggly drunk, and he tells me stories from his life. The hippie days, when he was a dealer in Morocco, say. Hemingway-esque tales of big-game hunting with his dad back where Jimmy grew up in Montana, or Idaho – the elk jerky, how good it was; I can’t count the times he’s told me how good it was, how I need to try it someday. His blithe college days at a party school where it’s summer year-round, where he studied philosophy because it was his major and Buddhism because it justified his laissez-faire nature. Every story has a girl in it except for maybe the hunting ones – Debbie, Sandy, Linda from the old stories; Caitlin, Kayley, Lindsay from the new stories, the ones that take place here in Margaritaville where he is ever on spring break. The stories are never in chronological order, because time is irrelevant here.   

I never tell him my stories, never talk about my life away from Margaritaville. Compared to his tales, my stories seem inchoate, half-lived, half-experienced, half-remembered, lacking a moral or a punchline. So I just drink and listen and laugh at his stories, at his broad “dad humor” jokes. And sometimes late at night there is drunken philosophizing, which both of us enjoy, and which keeps us convinced that we are kindred spirits.  

Of course he has another home somewhere, in another state, but he avoids it as much as he can for as long as he can. I never ask him how he can afford this, what he does “for a living” as they say, because I don’t want to tarnish my image of him. I’m sure the facts are there in those smudgy clippings from the local paper, but I’ve never read them through all the way, and probably never will. I don’t want to learn, say, that he’s an assistant manager at a used-car dealership somewhere in the Rust Belt, ironically bicycling to work after too many DUIs, sitting in some cramped office with one of those old calculators that makes noise and spits out long paper receipts. I also don’t want to hear that he’s some successful entrepreneur, that he runs an idiosyncratic pizza parlor where there are plastic flamingos on the walls and the wait staff is told to greet customers by saying, “Aloha!” Although this second image is probably closer to the truth, if his house in Margaritaville is anything to judge by.  

Anyway, if I asked him about it, he would probably say, “This is what I do for a livin’!” Get it? The broad dad humor.

He sits on the porch swing, strumming his six-string. He has a good voice and a knack for a memorable if bawdy lyric. I imagine he plays gigs back where his other home is, hotel lounges and pool halls. Maybe he's even recorded an album, maybe at a cousin’s recording studio. Or played guitar or sung in the background of some bigger musician's album. I can’t imagine him bothering to promote this, though. He would rather sit back and have them come to him, the lazy cult leader, the laissez-faire Buddhist.

When I’ve had enough to drink, I stand on wobbly sunburned legs and he turns the music up and I dance, and he joins me. He grabs the cat's two front paws and makes her dance, too. Sometimes he plops a sombrero on my head, or tosses leis around my neck, horseshoes-style. He does this especially if I start to get too serious. He offers me pot, again, and I decline, again.

And so the days go. I don’t know the reason I stayed here all season, any more than he does. Neither Jimmy nor I know how to tell the time of day by the sun. We know seasons, though, and at some point we sense a change in the slant of the light, feel the moisture evaporate and a crispness take its place, the haze gone, "you don't have to go home but you can't stay here." He starts to admit that there’s not a woman to blame after all, and that maybe it’s his own damn fault. And I come to realize something similar, although I never mention what, and so we leave Margaritaville. He padlocks the front and back doors until next time. There’s always a next time.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tourism

His name is Columbo.
His artist friend, whose name you’ve forgotten, has a gallery next door to this “queer” bar, the one you’ve stumbled into at 1 a.m. on the night of your 30th birthday because you were drunk and felt like dancing and this was all that was open on a Wednesday.
The artist is going to paint Columbo, and this makes Columbo proud, because it will make him sort of famous, at least to people who walk down Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego and look into the window of the gallery once the portrait is done. It will make him sort of immortal.
The artist says Columbo has “a lot of stories in his face,” and it’s true. Columbo is a scrappy and sinewy 54 years old, with cataract eyes and skin the color of molasses and white stubble like grains of sugar.
“I’m from Brunswick, Georgia, by the shore, where the sand is like sugar,” he says to you at the bar after you buy him a straight-up whiskey along with your fourth screwdriver of the night.
You tell him, again, that you want to dance. You’re suburban, white, wearing a miniskirt and a tight black top that came from an Express store at a mall back home in northern Virginia. You’ve only lived in San Diego for a week, having made the long drive from Virginia, having gotten laid off from your job there and thinking you could start a new life here, and it’s your 30th birthday, and damn it, you want to dance.

The wanting to dance is why you left the first place you went to tonight, which was more of a right place for you. It was a hip nightclub where you'd watched two alternative-rock bands, and a shy guy your age named Stan had approached you and you'd hung out with him and his cool friends. They'd all had work the next morning, but you don’t have a job in San Diego yet, and besides you hadn’t wanted your buzz to go to waste, especially on your 30th birthday.
So when Stan had yawned and gone home, you'd turned to his friend, the roadie-looking short tough one in the black T-shirt and tattoo sleeves. He'd seemed like he’d know a place you could go to dance.
He'd suggested “a gay bar” or “Fifth Avenue,” and this place you've stumbled into—hiccupping and tottering in a zigzag down the sidewalk in your trendy bondage-looking high heels—is both.
Outside you'd met Bear, an obese man in a wheelchair who later confessed to you that he’d gotten his nickname not because he was fierce, as he’d like to have most believe—but because he was soft, like a teddy bear.
And of course you’d met Columbo, who was standing with him, whom you'd instantly assumed was homeless in his shabby clothing and with his con-artist mien. You'd told them that you'd wanted to dance. And so Columbo had crooked his elbow and lifted his arm and said, “Okay then, let’s dance,” and he'd led you inside.

That you’d taken his arm and gone in there—was that smart? It was what you'd done.

Inside, you had felt like you were in a Tom Waits song. The bartender was gay, stern, judgmental. The artist was enormous and wore a beret, like a kid in an elementary-school play acting the part of “artist.” The people at the bar had said he was a “pop artist,” portraits of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, that he was “the next Warhol.” The artist had seemed not sure whether to trust you, not sure you weren’t some kind of voyeur or tourist, telling you he had Columbo’s back—as if Columbo were the vulnerable one.
And there'd been the artist’s date, Syd, an “esthetician” her card said, a “skin-care specialist” who said you were “gorgeous.”
And the tall, red-wigged transvestite walking around, proud and quiet and mysterious, like part of the décor.
At the jukebox in back, Columbo had needed help keying in “Michael Jackson” on the screen, but you grew up using computers and figured it out right away. After pulling up the Michael Jackson song list, you'd suggested “Billie Jean” but he'd wanted “Thriller,” so that’s what you'd danced to.
He was gentlemanly, not sleazy and grinding like the young guys you’re used to at clubs, and it was like dancing with a wacky great-uncle, down to the Old Spice smell.
“When my ex-wife and I used to dance like this, everyone at the bar would get quiet and watch,” Columbo said and taught you moves, strange jerky bent-over things you’d never have thought of yourself and will not incorporate into your regular dance repertoire.

Now, back at the bar, Columbo looks into your eyes.
“I’m a hustler. I sell something, and it ain’t marijuana. I sell cocaine. I hate it. But I do what I have to do to survive. You don’t hate me, do you?”
You insist that no, no, of course you don’t hate him—after all (you don’t say this), you’re a liberal white suburban girl who minored in Sociology, who loathes malls and longs to live in a Tom Waits song. Of course you don’t hate him.
You can’t finish your fourth screwdriver, let alone the fifth that someone offers to buy you because it’s your birthday, and Columbo offers to walk you a few blocks to where you can catch a cab. You take his hand when he offers it, and as you walk, he introduces you to street people. You gape at them like a tourist.
At a street lined with slumbering homeless people, Columbo hisses, “Robert!” and a man pokes his head up from a sleeping bag.
“This is my friend, ___. She’s cool. If you see her around and I’m not here, make sure she’s okay.”
You shake Robert’s hand and tell him good-night and he rests his head back down on his pillow. The whole open San Diego night is his public bedroom.
And there's Jamaica, wearing sunglasses at 2 a.m. and sinister. And two more men, one pushing a shopping cart of all his possessions, the other loping beside him. They check you out in your miniskirt and give Columbo a sort of psychic thumb’s-up.

“I’m a hustler.”

Columbo asks if he can “borrow” 20 bucks, and you’re drunk and bleeding-heart liberal and suburban and white and so you say, “Of course! Where’s an ATM?”
Columbo says, “Watch this—I’ll take your 20 bucks and make it into 40,” and you’re not sure what this means, if he’s going to demonstrate a well-executed drug deal right in front of you or what. You stand back as he talks to two men passing in the night, but he never does make it into 40, and you don’t get your 20 back.
You get into a cab, and Columbo asks the driver to take good care of you, as if Columbo is the boss of the streets here at night and everyone has to listen to him, including cab drivers. The driver nods but seems amused and patronizing to Columbo.
In the cab, your buzz wearing off, you feel self-conscious with the cab driver. You laugh and shake your head and say: “What a weird night. I don’t really know that guy. I just met him tonight. I don’t really know him or anything.”

“Will you come see my picture when my friend paints me?” Columbo had asked you. “Me and Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Won’t that be somethin’?”



Monday, June 11, 2012

Unemployment, third month

You are so broke that you're bumming gas money from your parents. Whose house you are living in again at 30. The last time your mother did the family's laundry, she came into your room with a pair of your socks she'd neatly rolled into a little ball. There'd been a twenty-dollar bill tucked inside. She had winked at you as she'd laid the sock roll on your bed.

You put a few dollars of gas in at a time so you can still afford a daily mocha frappuccino from Starbucks. It's a luxury, and buying one is living beyond your means. Buying one is the high point of your day.

You psych yourself up. You go to bed each night and set the clock for eight, but you just lie there. You worry and bite your cuticles in the dark. So you get up and join your mom, who is downstairs watching episodes of "Bridezillas" and "Extreme Makeover." You both eat coconut cake, Doritos, olives, string cheese. Sometimes you eat Pillsbury cream-cheese cake icing straight out of the tub, with a spoon.

You fall asleep around dawn.

You wake up when the 9-to-5 people who still have jobs are eating lunch.

No one has e-mailed or called you, not from any of the countless faceless companies you feigned such interest in when sending out cover letters. Not even the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association that needed an e-newsletter editor.

That's not true -- someone did contact you about a job, as a secretary for a construction company. And always there is spam from the insurance companies looking for sales reps. And many other jobs that you would be terrible at. The subject lines read things like "[Insert name], we want to interview you!" With the economy like it is, it seems cruel, this preying on the desperate.

You tweak your online resumes and professional profiles. You apply for jobs online. You maintain good relations with your references. You play online Scrabble.

You get in your car in the afternoon, to get the frappuccino and get home before rush hour begins. You drive to the Barnes & Noble. The Starbucks cafe area is abandoned except for you. You know the baristas who see you every day probably realize you are unemployed. You always pay in cash, never the debit card, because you live on cash now -- cash handouts (from your parents), like the guys who stand at the long stoplight across the street from the shelter. You used to always give them a dollar, but now you can't, and it kills you, being one of those jerks who avoid making eye contact with them.

At Barnes & Noble, you sit and drink and read something highbrow. You read something snotty and a bit above you, to convince yourself that you are intellectual, you are an artist, you have a bright, lively mind.

You dream of having your own apartment again, how you will decorate it. You are thinking of painting the walls warm colors: ochre, mango, sangria.

At home, bored, you sometimes IM friends who are busy working. "Just one quick funny thing to share with you!"

You eat dinner with your parents and sometimes your sister, who is in her seventh year of a two-year degree, and living at home, too. (Your brother, the engineer, is the good kid, with a Christian wife and a condo and two cats.) Your parents bow their heads and close their eyes as someone says grace, and you do it, too, because you are living under their roof. You bow your head down low in supplication, in humility, in something that feels like defeat, mostly because you don't believe in what you are doing. You close your eyes.

You go into the basement to do a work-out tape. In the concrete dust, among old Easter baskets and albums of baby photos, you watch a Teutonic supermodel as she exercises in front of the shimmering aqua water of St. Barts. You mimic her wishfully.

The sun sets so early in January, and after evening rush hour you have to get out again. Your gas tank is almost empty, but you are restless.

So you drive. You drive along the parkway by the river. There's no one else on the road, and the moon is a thin C lying on its back. Vestigial snow is glassy under moonlight. You drive through the dark tunnel of trees, miles and miles of trees on both sides with sporadic flashes of river to the east. A passionate rock song comes on the radio, and you turn it up so loud that it could damage your car stereo, or your ears. You turn it up so loud that it could obliterate everything, a sort of aural suicide.

You feel your soul -- yes, your soul -- fuse with the music as you stomp the shoe that is not on the accelerator. You dance as much as one can dance in one's seat. Your hair thrashes around you. You sing, and it feels like the most soulful sound to come from a human ever. You beat your wrist and the heel of your hand against the steering wheel, and you do this so hard that it hurts. You speed a little. Then you speed a lot. You feel a stirring inside you, like a swirl of sand brought to life in the desert by a sudden wind.

The "low fuel" light is not glowing just yet. It will soon, but you have a little time.

Tomorrow you will get up early. Tomorrow you will remember all the famous and wise quotations about success being 90 percent perspiration. You will hustle; you have hustled before. You just need to wake the fuck up.

You are still singing the song, watching for the deer that sometimes dart in front of cars. Near the end of the parkway, the city lights sparkle on the surface of the river, and it looks like watery underground fireworks. You are sobbing when you think to yourself, "I cannot live like this," again, again, again.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Wilderness

Part 1

"We're all fucked up."

Craig's face slipped into sadness when he said this. He stopped saying things like "Whatevers" and "That's so money" in that wry, dryly funny way of his. He looked down into his glass of Märzen beer he was drinking during our "business lunch" at Gordon Biersch at the Tysons Corner mall. We were dining "alfresco," except that where the outdoor seating would be in a normal restaurant was in the mall corridor here. Our seats came with a view of the entrance to Barnes & Noble, a Vonage cart, and the escalators.
I'd met him a few weeks earlier at an Oktoberfest-themed networking event for high-tech professionals in northern Virginia. I'd been moping around, feeling like a lost soul, a secret bohemian who somehow found herself working in the marketing department of a software company one day.
"Hi Lisa." He'd said it like he knew me, like he'd recognized one of his kind at the Oktoberfest. He'd been leaning against the wall, the latest of countless beers in his hand, grinning at me. He'd caught my magic-markered name on the sticker I'd been forced to put on my sweater at the registration table.
I was supposed to pass out the stack of my business cards I'd brought with me, but I stayed by Craig's side the rest of the evening. We had somehow gotten numbered tickets; a man in lederhosen took the stage and called out the numbers of the winning ticket. The prize was a trip for two to Germany.
"Let's make a deal," Craig had said to me, his pupils dilated. "If I win, I take you, and if you win, you take me."
I'd agreed to the deal, thinking that one of us winning would make a cute beginning of a romantic comedy, if this were a movie. We both lost.

His call to my office number a week later was formal, sober. It didn't sound like the same guy I'd hung out with at Oktoberfest.
"I'd like to meet with you to discuss how my company and your company might be able to work together."
At Gordon Biersch, he said he wanted to get the business part out of the way. He said he was only allowed to drink during a work lunch if the other person drank, too. He let me drink from his glass, to taste his beer. Then I ordered my usual screwdriver, and another, and he had two dirty martinis, and our secrets poured out to each other.
He'd been right; I was one of his kind.
For one thing, we're both alcoholics. Any excuse to drink. The waiter raised his eyebrows the fifth time we sent him back to the bar for another order.
For another thing, we agree--work pays the bills, period.
Then there's what we were both thinking but never said. He mentioned his wife. I mentioned my boyfriend, made an affectionately irritated remark about some of his habits.
"Sounds like true love," Craig said, and paused.
I paused.
"Can I ask you something personal?"
"Anything."
"Have you ever cheated on your boyfriend?"
The answer left my mouth almost before Craig finished the question.
Then Craig directed the question at himself. "Am I married? Yes. Am I monogamous? No. I think it's unrealistic." He looked at his beer; the blood vessels in his face constricted, reddening his skin. "One minute you're leaving church thinking you're going to hell, the next minute you're trying to get laid. One minute you're in love with your wife, the next minute you're fantasizing about her younger sister, or her even younger sister."
That's when he said, "We're all fucked up."
I don't personally believe this, but it made me feel less alone.
He said, "Men are pigs."
I said, "Some women are, too."
He said, "That's what makes life so beautiful." I think it was supposed to be a joke. I think he was trying to convince himself.

Before we left for the parking garage and our separate cars, we'd agreed to meet again--"For a short lunch and a long something else," he said.

That evening, I met my younger sister for coffee. She and her boyfriend had just celebrated their one-year anniversary and she felt like the two of them were no longer exciting to each other. She didn't think either of them would cheat, but she didn't know what to do. What should I have told her? I offered her a buffet of answers: It happens to all couples, wait it out if you love him, there are ups and downs, try giving each other some breathing room, it's okay to think about other people as long as you don't act on it, we're all human.

When I didn't hear from Craig, I called him at work. I'd taken my cell phone out to my parked car. I was shaking. I was justifying it to myself, thinking of how hard my boyfriend had made life for me, feeling unsupervised in my atheism.
I said to Craig, "I was calling to see if you wanted a follow-up?" My voice sounded sweeter and more scared than you'd think it'd be, coming from someone who was proposing what I was.
He said, "I thought about it, and it's very tempting, but I can't do that."
I thought of what he'd said about leaving church feeling like he was going to hell. I could see him, kneeling in a pew, his hands clasped on the back of the pew in front of him, his ruddy face down so it rested on his praying hands with his eyes squeezed shut. I could see him alone and jerking off in his bathroom, thinking about his wife's younger sister, maybe crying and cursing himself afterward.
What I said to him was weird: "I'm so happy for you."

I had been one of his kind, but he was better than me now.

Part 2

It's a rare free weekend for Lisa. Her boyfriend has enrolled in a "wilderness survival" course, where he'll build his own leaf hut, create traps for squirrels, start fires without matches, eat wild plants and berries. She has dropped him off in the country, an hour away.
They have no sex life. There are many reasons for this. She keeps secrets from him.
On Saturday night of the rare free weekend, she shaves her bikini line in the shower. She puts on see-through black panties and a matching bra. She's wearing a miniskirt and high heels with no stockings; it's November and cold.

The cab driver is Muslim. She clicks out to him in her long bare legs, slides across the smooth leather of the back seat. He knows she will probably drink, will probably have sex.
At the nightclub, she meets a boy from India. They dance until 4:30 a.m., when the lights come up and the bouncers tell everyone to go home.
She rides with him and four of his friends in a car to their townhouse in Vienna. The guys talk in an Indian language, maybe Hindi. The boy caresses her bare legs, down to the sensitive insteps of her feet; this should tickle her, she thinks, but today it doesn't. The townhouse is undecorated; it's obviously a place where boys live.
There are BMWs parked in front of the townhouses, but the walls are cardboard-thin.
In his room there are no adornments except for one thing: a lighted photograph of a beach, aquamarine water and a palm tree. There's a battery in the frame that powers the lighting and the animated waves that move on the screen. It's tacky; she loves it. He leaves her for a few minutes to do something.
When he comes back, she's sitting on his bed, smiling at the picture. "Do you like my beach?" he asks.
"I like your beach."
"It has sounds, too." He clicks a switch, and there are ocean sounds.

He undresses and gets under the blankets, and indicates that she should do the same. He takes a condom from the nightstand, kneels over her, and ceremoniously unrolls it onto himself. He's naked but wearing a thin gold chain with a charm on it; she wonders about its significance to him. He fucks her. It's something he does often but she rarely does. She's tight, he's large, and there's pain for her. He lifts her legs higher to try another angle, and gets all the way into her. Through the thin walls of their townhouse, four Indian boys in their beds hear her cries. They know he is fucking her.
"Sorry," she whispers, blocking her mouth with her hand.
"I'm so sorry."

Monday, June 4, 2012

Adults

Photo by Mikael Jansson for Vogue; cast of the play "Skylight."

It's so bright out on the veranda that it hurts your eyes. Bess is watching sun sparkle on the sea, reclining in a chaise longue, feeling like the girlfriend at the end of a movie in which the characters have gotten away with a heist and escaped south of the border. There's always that scene at the end of those movies, the girl in a bikini and straw hat, sipping a margarita in front of the turquoise ocean as her bad-guy boyfriend says something clever into a cell phone to his hapless pursuer back north. James Bond's creator had a famous home in Jamaica; it's a hotel now, and his fans can sleep in his very bed. Bess read about this last week, in British Vogue. The British Vogue is somewhere in a scatter of magazines inside, in the living room. Richard is a history professor--was a history professor, before he retired four months ago--and Bess knows he thinks that some of her reading material is insipid. Sometimes she'll stick a book on top of the magazines--most recently, her paperback copy of "Anna Karenina," a black-and-white cover photo of a girl's knees with a bouquet of violets on her lap, and an Oprah's Book Club stamp of approval over the picture--to remind Richard that she's smart.

She spends more time reminding him that she's young and attractive; this is the easier task. A few days a week, she walks down to the town and goes into a nice clothing boutique (but not one of the really posh ones). Although she doesn't speak Spanish--Richard bought her a learn-Spanish CD set a month before they moved here, but she hasn't gotten past animal names and colors yet--she manages to buy herself a new sundress or espadrilles or pretty lingerie. Richard's body started falling apart shortly before she got him (arthritis, chronic back pain, a bad knee). In the old days, when it was an affair and not cohabitation, he would press his erection against her and say, "I don't need Viagra--I have you." Now he pops the little blue pill with his other vitamins and supplements. He keeps the bottles in his bathroom--in Mexico, Richard can afford a house that not only overlooks the sea but in which they also have separate bathrooms--and Bess doesn't tell him that all the bottles and ointments are a turn-off, or that his gray pubic hair is a turn-off, too. She closes her eyes when she goes down on him.

Bess is pale and burns easily, so she sits in the shade of a giant white-canvas umbrella. It's time for the siesta, but she doesn't feel like taking a nap. The veranda is painted bright white and the sky is cloudless. Heat prickles her limbs and she squints, even in dark sunglasses. Richard's son, Alan, is coming for a visit this weekend. Perhaps she'll go to town to get some fresh flowers to make the house festive, and some ingredients for cooking. What should she make when he's here? What can she make? He'll be expecting something local and authentic, guacamole, tortillas, exotic local fruits. Cerveza like his dad drinks by the six-pack, or maybe tequila.

She puts on her floppy straw hat and retrieves her keys from the air-conditioned inside of the house. She locks the sliding-glass door, which reflects blaring sky and vast searing sea. She follows the stepping stones through the terraced courtyard blossoming with tropical flowers (a selling point highlighted by the real-estate agent). She locks the gate, and walks down a dusty, sloped road into town.

***

Richard is in town, at his favorite watering hole. Richard and Bess have an unspoken agreement to spend about half the day--the beginning half--apart. They don't say it out loud, but this is so they don't grow tired of each other. The half-day of independence commenced after the first few weeks, those first happy weeks of Bess waking Richard up with a blow job, Richard bringing breakfast to Bess in bed on a tray. It was breakfast in bed, then breakfast together at a small table in their bedroom with the double doors to the balcony flung wide open and salty air soaring in, then breakfast together in the kitchen where Richard read the paper in Spanish and Bess made herself a fruit shake in the new blender. The breakfast-in-the-kitchen phase ended on the morning when Richard rose early, kissed Bess on the forehead, and left a note on the kitchen table saying he had gone to town. The note was in Spanish, to help Bess learn. This is what he does every morning, as Bess sleeps in. He always tries to include a new vocabulary word in his note.

He's happy to be here with Bess. He's particularly happy about it when she wakes him up with a blow job. But he misses talking about adult things. Going on 30, Bess is not a child. But his efforts to engage her in discussions about the news, or politics, or grown-up things such as taxes or changing a tire or cooking that doesn't involve the microwave, falter more often than not. It almost makes him miss his ex-wife, until he remembers times like when the ex hurled a ceramic cereal bowl during a fight and just missed his head. It's not that Bess is unintelligent; it's that she chooses to fill her head with fluff. Fashion magazines, too much time on Richard's laptop visiting the blogs of her friends back home, laughing at the telenovelas she watches (for irony, to laugh at the melodrama of it all) in the afternoons.

He fell in love with her years ago, when he shouldn't have. He'd fallen a little for the sensitive, shy girl he first met when she was a teenager, then fell harder when he ran into her again ten years later, when she was over-helpful and deferential to him at the library where she worked. "Don't I know you from... Bess?" "Dr. Brody!" "How long have you been in Denver? Would you like to have dinner sometime?" "How's Alan doing?"

Now, despite his gentle prods to get her to find a more productive use of at least some of her days (a part-time job, maybe in a boutique in town? freelancing long-distance, maybe e-mailing articles to the U.S. and English-speaking publications? volunteer work? pottery or flamenco dancing?), it's as if Bess is in a dreamy state of permanent vacation. Her accomplishment for the day would be purchasing some pretty new lingerie--earlier this week, it was a matching bra-and-panties set in seashell-pink satin with black-lace trim--and having it on, and nothing else, when he arrived back home in the late afternoon. How his feminist ex-wife would have scoffed.

But then, who was he to judge? He was here, in this bar, as he was every afternoon. The doors and windows all open to the hot day, but cool here in the shade, no inside lights necessary. There are a couple of flies sucking up droplets of beer an inch from his bottle, but they make him think: "ambience... authenticity." Richard prides himself on having found this place away from the touristed main strip, away from the boutiques where Bess shops (because the salesgirls can assist her in English). And this town is off-the-tourist-map as it is, a tiny speck on the aquamarine sea with an Indian name but far from any ruins or anything else most tourists might want to see. One of Richard's colleagues, a professor of Latin American literature, this was her hometown, and she'd touted it as an undiscovered gem. He'd been chagrined to find that the town was not completely devoid of tourists; it was no Cancun, but it did attract a certain brand of adventuring tourist with backpack and Lonely Planet travel guide, and the main street downtown had the requisite souvenir shops whose staffs spoke English. Richard first came here on vacation with an old mistress, Elsa, whom he'd met at a Fourth of July parade. Now he lives here with Bess.

Every day begins at this bar to talk with the reluctant-to-talk owner, Victor, who languorously serves Richard and the one or two locals here, each sitting alone. Sometimes Victor's two sons are there. Roberto is 14, and was wearing a John Lennon T-shirt when Richard first met him. That had excited Richard; John Lennon had not only been his favorite Beatle, but his role model. More often, the son who's around is Javier, 8, who recently acquired a pet tortoise he named Gertie. Today Javier was asking Victor if it was OK to give Gertie a bath in the sink. Is today a school day? Richard has no idea. One day slips into the next into the next.

Then it's time for a walk. Richard isn't drunk when he leaves the bar; there are more beers at home in the fridge that will help him accomplish that later. Away from the tourist terrain, he knows not to stray too far on his own, and to carry in his back pocket a fake wallet that contains about twenty bucks and those plastic fake credit cards you get in the mail, to fake out anyone who might try to rob him. He likes to stroll through neighborhoods, to see women hanging garments on clotheslines, barefoot children playing soccer in the street. The people regard this gringo with curiosity, and automatically speak to him in English before he finesses them with his textbook-perfect fluency in their language.

After the walk, more often these days than when he and Bess first arrived, he goes to a strip club. He likes to learn about the girls, to learn their names, what their lives outside the strip club are like. Bess would be jealous, so he doesn't tell her. Besides, he's mostly conducting amateur sociological research, learning about the everyday lives of his new neighbors, even if there isn't much talk during the lap dances he regularly pays for.

***

In the main drag through town, male vendors call out to Bess from the market. That took some getting used to, the way they flatter and yell to get her to buy from them. She can't understand what they're saying. One time, one of them had kissed her on the cheek. She had told Richard about it later, hoping to make him jealous or protective, but he only laughed and shook his head. There seems to be no making Richard jealous. It's maddening to her, because the ghosts of Richard's lovers continue to haunt Bess. He apparently still keeps in touch with some of them. A letter had arrived, pretty penmanship and "Lila Downey" atop the return address, a New York City address, less than a month after they'd moved into the house. Trying not to seem jealous, Bess had said, "Who is Lila?" Richard had laughed and said, "An old flame." He'd left it at that. She'd tried to find solace in his use of the word "old" ("old" as in former? "old" as in his age?).

He keeps old photos. The women in them are beautiful. She keeps nothing. Not even an old letter from Alan.

***

The strip club--also far from the tourist area, the area Bess sticks to--has a back room that serves as what's called, in all the American strip clubs Richard's been to, the champagne room. There's no champagne here, and no special name for the room. But it's known that, if you want to have sex, you can have it back there, for a price.

Richard never goes back there. Although he enjoys his independence from Bess, and grants himself the freedom to fantasize often about other women, he never takes it that far. Part of it is the fear of STDs, but part of it is simply that it's a threshold he won't cross. When the idea tempts him, especially after a few extra beers at Victor's, he snaps back, like the end of a bungee cord pulled to its taut limit. They always try to win him over, though. Today a girl named Adriana sits astride him wearing only a G-string and playfully reaches into his front pocket, where she knows he keeps his real wallet. "Aha!" she laughs, holding out a fan of fifty-dollar bills. It's old money that he hasn't yet converted to pesos--he considers it insulting to pay for things in American dollars, as if implying that pesos aren't real money, although the dollars are gladly accepted everywhere in town. She exchanges a look with the bouncer standing just inside, next to the door. The bouncer has a tattoo of a topless mermaid on his bicep. Richard pretends to laugh it off, gently takes back the money, and shoves the wallet deeper down into his pocket, out of her reach.

Adriana snakes off Richard's lap and climbs back onto the small stage in her stilettos. He smiles appreciatively as she writhes for him, the only customer, her skin bronze, her hair long and whipping as she twirls around the pole. She's hot, and he's hard, but he's really looking forward to seeing Bess when he gets home. He and Alan got diving certificates years ago, and he's campaigning to get Bess to get one, too. He wants to plunge into the clear water with Bess and point out colorful fish and fantastical creatures to her. This was what he'd wanted almost as soon as he'd run into her again at the library, the day she located a book on Mayan ruins, which had been misfiled, for him. The day she'd laughed and blushed and her eyelashes had beaten like the wings of a bird. He'd wanted to drift under the ocean and see hidden worlds with her.

***

What would Alan like?

Bess hadn't seen him since high school, and Richard hadn't said anything that would give her a clue as to what kinds of foods to buy. Did he drink? Was he a vegetarian now?

Did he have a girlfriend now?

Bess doesn't ask about him much, although Richard obviously delights in talking about him. Alan is Richard's only child, with the first ex-wife. Alan is coming alone; that much Bess knows. It isn't that she plans to flirt with him, or that it really matters whether he'd find her attractive now, does it? Still, she would like for him, after all these years, to think that she looks good. She would want that of anyone who hasn't seen her in years. So she skips the market and goes into a clothing boutique.

What had he liked back then? Goth girls. Girls in bands, girls with purple hair who wore black. Black T-shirts with the names of cool bands on them. What would he like now? In the shop, there are pretty sundresses on mannequins, in a spectrum of colors. Richard likes her in bright colors. She chooses a summer dress in black.

***

"No no, I went to Victor's before this--I've already had too much to drink!" Richard laughs, in Spanish, but the strip-club owner insists that Richard try the new tequila. High-quality, hard-to-get, good stuff. "For man who appreciates finer things," the owner says, in English. Adriana has disappeared into the dressing room. Richard thinks, Why not? He doesn't want to offend the locals. I'm a local, his fuzzy brain tells him.

***

Twenty blocks away, in the tourist part of town, Bess stops with her shopping bags full of the Mexican hot chocolate she thought Alan might like to try, local fruits in funny shapes and bright colors, the dress, a new necklace. She stops because she's come to the doorway of a small Catholic church, a cool and dark room of pews and stained glass, right there downtown. The church is sandwiched between a store that sells Dia de los Muertos-themed trinkets for the tourists, and a butcher shop. To the left of the doorway, skeletons made of sugar dance in candy graveyards. To the right, slabs of blood-red meat hang in a display window. Bess enters the church and drops her bags. There's no one else inside. She's a Protestant, and a lapsed one at that, but she walks to the front pew, kneels in front of the altar, and summons forth a rusty prayer she had recited as a child every night before going to sleep.

***

Last month Richard and Bess had visited a junkyard looking for things to add to the house for cheap: a stone bench for the courtyard, a pretty filigreed wrought-iron gate to replace the wooden one. Among the jumble of mostly unusable castoffs, they'd found an old-fashioned claw-footed bath tub. They didn't need it, but they bought it and put it in the yard, filling it with water from the garden hose, joking like children about how it was their swimming pool. Under the stars, they'd climbed into the bath, Richard's head at one end of the tub and Bess's head at the other, their knees rising up like little mountains above the surface of the star-flecked water. Richard had admired Bess's breasts, half-submerged, the delicate pink nipples. He thought back to how conservatively she'd been dressed at the library (like a... well, like a librarian: turtleneck sweater, knee-length wool skirt) and felt a naughty thrill, but also a surge of love, at having her here with him now. Bess had looked across their tiny private lake, past their knee-islands, at Richard, who had laid his glasses on the stone bench and smiled at her now, and she thought: Right now... You're mine right now.

***

On the kitchen counter, Bess spreads her purchases, feeling proud and grown-up. She had conducted as many transactions as possible in her fumbling Spanish (she still can't do that trilled "r"). She'll mash up the avocados for guacamole later; she has hours till Richard will come home. She sits on the cream-leather sofa and flips through British Vogue. She picks up the remote control and turns on a telenovela. It's the only sound in the house. She presses the back of her hand to her hot cheek. Has she gotten sunburned today? Freckles? She tucks her legs under her and eases back into the huge cushions, drifting to sleep as the prima donnas in the telenovela scheme and rage.

She wakes to Richard's lips on her forehead, then her collarbone, kissing down, down her body.

***

Bess flits through the house--straightening a wayward calla lily in a vase, scooping up a dab of guacamole with a tortilla chip to quiet her growling stomach--as Richard picks Alan up at the airport. Richard and Alan are due to arrive in fifteen minutes. She'd thought of buying Alan one of the candy graveyard scenes from the tourist store in town, as a funny gift, then decided against it. Bess stands at the sliding-glass door and looks at the sea, which is sparkling so brightly, blinding. She's wearing a black sundress. She's trying to remember which movie it was that she saw with Alan when they were both 14 years old. The central air conditioning hums, a subconscious drone.

Richard bustles in first, then Alan. Richard is carrying Alan's weekend bag; Alan is carrying his laptop. "Hi!" Bess exclaims, too breathy, too high. Alan nods; he had known she was going to be here. Bess understands--this is the game they're going to play. They're not going to acknowledge the strangeness, they're not going to laugh about it. They're going to pretend that it's normal.

Aliens 3, Bess remembers. The movie was Aliens 3.

***

On Saturday the boys go diving. Bess watches in the shade on a deck as Richard and Alan wave good-bye from the boat zipping them to a deeper part of the sea, where pretty creatures live underwater. She watches Alan plop into the water first, his father watching. Then Richard plops into the water, too. Bess squints at the bright white light on the water, her pores stinging with sunblock and sweat. In dense trees behind the deck, a cicada chorus shimmers and crescendos.

In the evening, the boys have a Sudoku contest and Bess, pleading ignorance of math, offers to walk to the supermarket to buy more cerveza. She wants Alan's visit with his dad to be a good one, so she offers to leave whenever she thinks up excuses. On a busy street in town, knee-high children swarm around her, trying to sell her tiny packages of Chiclets gum. They say something that sounds like "Chicle." This time, a boy with hot red cheeks, dressed too warmly for the weather, brandishes an empty clear-plastic bottle. It's only later, as Bess is walking home, that she realizes what he was begging her for: "Agua."

Alan wins the Sudoku contest, and Richard, already several beers into the night, wants to take them to Victor's. Then he changes his mind and wants to take them to a bar with a pool table. Bess remembers something Richard said once, that he'd taught two people how to play pool: first Alan, then, many years later, Bess. Bess insists that the boys play first, as she watches from a bar stool. Richard's glasses slide down the bridge of his nose as he squints, his tongue lodged in the corner of his mouth, before making a sure, rapid stroke with the cue. He does this with a precision, fine-tuned over years, that humbles Bess--she'd always used her own time at the pool table to flirt with him, to lean provocatively over the table in short skirts. Sometimes she would intentionally play badly just so that Richard would have to stand behind her, close, one hand on her hip, and patiently explain again how to pull back in one long, slow, masterful backstroke, then thrust with swiftness, accuracy, potency.

Alan is competitive and majored in mathematics in college; he can see the geometric solutions to any ball's quandary, and he wins the first game. Richard says, "Bess? Want to challenge him?" Alan turns to a railing along the wall and polishes the end of his cue with dark green chalk. After a moment's hesitation, Bess selects a cue and Richard takes her place on the bar stool. Richard orders another glass of beer. He notices that Bess is concentrating, that she takes time to consider each move, that she doesn't ask for his assistance. There's no banter between the opponents, who keep their eyes on the shifting formations of the pool balls.

Although Alan wins, Bess knows he could have won much sooner, and that he was going easy on her. She thinks: It's not much, but it's something.

***

During the siesta on Sunday, Richard dozes in the bedroom, and Bess, who still hasn't adjusted to taking afternoon naps, gets up after ten minutes of trying, and heads for the veranda. She has to pass the living-room couch, which has been Alan's bed all weekend. She's in the hall when she hears the din of canned laughter from the TV. She finds Alan awake, watching a telenovela. Light from the surface of the sea, coming in through the sliding-glass door, makes him vivid to her. His dark curly hair is short now, but had been longer, an eggplant-purple hue with a checkerboard pattern shaved onto the underside of his skull--a sort of alternative-punk style, popular at the time--when she'd known him. Things that are still the same: he wears glasses; his unsettling blue-green eyes.

There had been something between them, once. Not for very long. He had ended it.

He smirks ironically at the hissy fit that one of the actresses is throwing onscreen. He laughs, a soft hiss of air through his nose, and gives a backwards nod of his head. His hands are clasped across his stomach. His posture isn't forbidding. Bess stands still and watches the screen, too. The drama queen fumes in rapid-fire Spanish. Bess says to Alan, "Did you take Spanish? Do you know what she just said?" Without looking at her, he says, "I minored in Spanish, and I have no clue what the hell she just said." Bess doesn't join him on the three-seater couch, but sits on an armchair. They watch, laughing at the same moments.

***

After Alan has been dropped off at the airport, Bess stretches plastic wrap over leftover lunch and places the containers in the fridge. Richard chatters about the visit, filling the house with talk of Alan because Alan is gone. At one point, he stops and asks, "Are you OK? I know it must have been weird..." Bess smiles, replies that she's fine, says she hopes it wasn't too weird for Alan. Richard says, "I think it was fine... We're all adults now." He steps toward Bess and wraps her in his arms. They kiss their way to the bedroom. In bed, Richard laughs and says, "I'm so lucky you knew my son," as his hands greedily glide over her naked body. Bess takes him into her, and thinks, He led me to you.