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Bad Faith

 

 

 

Bad Faith

 

A novel by

Jesse Tandler

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition

Copyright © 2017 by Jesse Tandler

All Rights Reserved.

 

Table of Contents

 

[+ Freedom (P -15 Years) +]

Part I: Melody, Malcolm, Jamie

[+ Melody Goes on a Date (P -4 Months) +]

[+ Drowning (P -6 Days) +]

[+ Lifted (P -4 Months) +]

[+ Sharing Confidences (P -2 Months) +]

Melody at School (P-3 Months)

[+ Dinner for Two? (P -No One Cares When This Was) +]

[+ Guys’ Night Out (P -3 Weeks) +]

 

Part II: Annabelle, Saul, Connie May

Annabelle Gets an Email (P – 3 Months)

[+ Happy Three-Oh (P -6 Days) +]

[+ Snowy Pines Xmas Trees (P -6 Days) +]

[+ You Still Love Me? (P -6 Days) +]

[+ Stopping by the Parents’ (P -6 Days) +]

 

Interlude: A Couple Days Earlier

[+ Connie May’s Surprise (P -8 Days) +]

[+ Lunch at Melody’s (P -8 Days) +]

[+ Connie May Arrives at School (P -8 Days) +]

[+ Biting (P -2 Weeks) +]

 

Part II (cont.): Saul, Annabelle

[+ Sushi Dinner (P -6 Days) +]

[+ Reciprocity (P -5 Days) +]

[+ Annabelle Arrives (P -5 Days) +]

[+ Annabelle Remembers (P -7 Years) +]

[+ At the Pool (P -4 Days) +]

 

Part III: Davis

[+ Davis reading Schopenhauer (P -4 Days) +]

[+ Davis Returns to IMOP (P -3 Days) +]

 

Part IV: Thursday, Friday, Saturday

[+ Personal Rec on Thursday Afternoon (P -3 Days) +]

[+ Malcolm’s Event: Dinner and Karaoke (P -2 Days) +]

[+ In the Afternoon on Saturday (P -1 Day) +]

[+ Also in the Afternoon on Saturday (P -1 Day) +]

 

Part V: Xmas Party

Skydiving

Earlier in the Day

Eavesdropping

Attempting Forgiveness

Xmas Party, a Potluck

Responsibility (Freedom Redefined)

 

 

 

We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are—that is the fact.

—Jean-Paul Sartre

 

 

 

[] Freedom (P -15 Years)

 

 

Half his life ago, at an age when decisions had limited consequence and nostalgia was a mere dry seed, Saul discovered that he was condemned to freedom.

For reasons he could only now speculate about, his tenth-grade English teacher had given him and his best friend, Malcolm, xeroxed copies of an essay called “Freedom and Responsibility.” The essay was short, only six pages. He folded it in half and tucked it into his binder’s front pocket. The following morning when he got on the bus, he smoothed out the creased pages and began to read. The tortuous sentences contained words like “the for-itself” and “facticity.” And even when he recognized the words, he seemed to be missing something. Confusion worried him. People, including his teacher, considered him smart. He read the six pages again. This time, halfway down the second page, a couple of sentences stood out as intelligible, and the whirl of jargon crystallized into a revelation of coherent and impeccable logic: he alone was responsible for his choices, and nothing but these choices would reveal his ultimate self. He, Saul Rosen, was author of his own fate.

When he walked into Spanish later that morning, instead of heading to his assigned seat, he sat down next to Malcolm and said, “ ‘There are no accidents in life. We are condemned to freedom.’ ”

“Word,” Malcolm said.

“Word,” Saul said.

Malcolm then stood up, threw over his desk, and, without condescending to explain himself to the stunned teacher, swaggered out of the class with the limp he’d had since fourth grade.

Encouraged by their new liberated perspective, the two fifteen-year-olds began to read philosophy. They’d highlight passages confirming their certainty that life’s cogs interlocked and spun at a depth few others could reach. At school they founded The Existentialists Association (TEA), which composed and distributed a manifesto on the necessity of not being sheep, as Saul had learned to think of it. Several classmates joined them Wednesdays at lunch to argue opinions and draft pamphlets promoting the ideas they’d culled from Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Senior year they enrolled in a Modern Philosophy class at Cal State Long Beach. For three weeks Saul proudly toted his Nietzsche reader, laying it face up at every opportunity. They joked about going to college and using the pickup line, “So … I see you read Nietzsche.”

His passion for wisdom continued to increase, and by end of high school his fate seemed to cement without flaw or crack. Stanford had offered him a small scholarship. Malcolm would be nearby at Berkeley. His then-girlfriend was bound for an East Coast school, and he hungrily anticipated being condemned to freedom among a glut of new women. Feeling as though he were soaring through a lucid dream in which desires were fulfilled by mere say-so, Saul imagined his future as a philosopher, a transcriber of truths, teaching at universities and traversing the earth. He didn’t need to be famous—or even rich—he needed only to realize in the physical realm this vision he’d sketched in the mental.

[]Part I: Melody, Malcolm, Jamie

 

 

 

[] Melody Goes on a Date (P -4 Months)

 

 

It was 2007 and hope was in the airwaves. In the last year or so, several of Melody’s friends on campus, and many of the gentlemen she’d met at work, had created online dating accounts and begun the process of finding a mate (or just someone to mate with) in the brave new world of the Internet. After listening to their experiences, which ran the gamut from awkward to frustrating to miraculous, Melody clicked around a bit and decided that no one had done scholarly justice to this infant and stigmatized yet fascinating courting structure. A good paper on it would spare her having to idle in a lab or survey a bunch of other college students in an effort to extrapolate some seriously minor phenomenon.

After more than a couple of tedious conversations with her honors thesis advisor, who raised concerns about her methodology, Melody set out to prove the value of her idea, with or without faculty help. Worst case, she’d write it up for the school paper.

She created multiple profiles on three of the top sites. Each profile had a distinct theme: young academic with stylish thick rimmed glasses, obedient Vietnamese daughter, stripper with no direct face shots, and punk girl with spiked bracelets and dog collar. The descriptions of her habits and interests were identical.

 

i love to dance and stay healthy. you could say i’m an optimist who adores the sunshine and my work (preferably both at once!). i’ve never been skydiving but want to know what free fall feels like. my favorite stories are almost anything by jane austen (especially emma, who I relate to more than I’d like to admit), amy tan, or dorris lessing, and I have a special place in my heart for the giving tree, the little prince, and simone de beauvoir. recently, i’ve really enjoyed antonio damasio and daniel gilbert (brownie points if you’ve read them!). i might be the last person on earth to have not read harry potter. but this late in the game, it’s become a point of pride. can’t help my addiction to prime-time soaps like nip/tuck and grey’s anatomy (don’t judge!). we’ll probably get along if you liked shrek (both the first and the second), have a job or at least something you’re trying to accomplish, or if you’re a genius. i don’t discriminate by race or height or weight, only by the thoughtfulness of your message, which you should start with an asterisk to show you’ve read my whole profile (and that you know what an asterisk is!)

 

Nowhere did she mention her ethnicity or anything sexual. Nevertheless, for both the stripper and the punk profiles, but not for the academic or obedient daughter types, men seemed to prefer sending lewd, borderline illiterate messages about her body or race, or elaborate descriptions of sexual fantasies, many of which involved domination and pretty much all of which she was certain they couldn’t execute if she’d called them on it. Several men led with some line about how they basically fetishize Asian women or have always wanted to be with one, as though vaginas from another continent were a thing to sample, like ice cream flavors or peaches at the farmers market.

Anyway, guys—and women, too, she had to admit (she wasn’t judging!)—could be lamely superficial. No surprise there. Men had been objectifying her as a woman, and particularly as an Asian woman, since her tween years. Messages like, “hey babe! u got AZZ 4 an azn chick! lets hang. u in2 420?” didn’t faze her. More curious were the subs. A rather sharp looking white lawyer type announced his desire that her punk persona strap on a large black dildo and peg him. Another guy she thought she actually recognized from campus wanted her academic persona to tuck him into bed, call him “my little moo moo,” and pretend to nurse him with her right “udder.” He was very specific about that. The right one.

Not all were awful misogynists, of course. Some were cute and maybe even intelligent. One message in particular caught her attention.

 

*The interesting thing about free fall is that right after you’ve been dropped, you cease to feel like you’re falling. And, in most cases of extended free fall, you’re dropped from such a height that you can’t judge how far off you are from the ground, which, eventually, you’ll have to make contact with, gracefully or otherwise.

Do you study psych or neuroscience?

 

What a refreshing change from the norm. A tall Chinese guy in his late twenties, who liked both Tupac and La Bohème, claimed to appreciate both Woody Allen and Nora Ephron, listed contemporary literary titles as books he’s enjoyed recently (as opposed to the obvious non-reader’s brief selection of high school favorites), wore nicely tailored slacks and shirts with French cuffs, and didn’t use LOL or play video games or show other signs of boringness. He did say that he unironically enjoyed walks on the beach, but, then, she liked them too.

 

mr. anonymous,

your message drinks like spring water after a lot of slurping through a hopscotch of muddy puddles. thank you for that.

sounds like you’ve been skydiving. it’s definitely an adventure i’d like to tick off my bucket list.

good guess on my studies. i’m in my last year of a psych major. you seem to know something about it?

what’s your name, mr. dating site poet?

melody

 

Melody,

I don’t know much about it, but I have read Gilbert. I like the idea that we’re poor predictors of our happiness. Do you agree that we don’t know ourselves as well as we imagine? Looking at the people around me, it seems to make a lot of sense. Maybe you’d like to meet up for a coffee and help me understand from the perspective of someone who officially studies the stuff?

Malcolm

 

malcolm,

what are you doing tomorrow at 1pm?

m

 

Melody,

Meeting you wherever is most convenient, I suppose.

M

 

Melody arrived at Viento y Agua almost fifteen minutes early, ordered a maté latte, and scanned the room for an ideal spot to interview her date. In the corner by the front window was a stage elevated about six or eight inches above the rest of the cafe, and, on it, a table for two. She sat down facing the door, and slid her red notebook out of her red purse. Through the window-wall, the sun melted over the left side of her body. Her cats spent much of the day steeping in sunbaths, legs invisible under a sleepy wave of fur. She understood them. She, too, was a creature of the sun and could sit here pleasurably for hours. But that would be bad. At some point she should probably switch sides to keep her coloring even.

She sipped the maté latte. On the mug’s rim an oval kiss of cardinal, her favorite color, matched her notebook. It also matched her hair clip, her shorts, and her purse. Four years ago, when she’d applied to colleges, she’d chosen schools whose colors included cardinal: Stanford, USC, University of Arizona, Chico State, Wesleyan, University of Wisconsin (the last two, in retrospect, a mistake—way too cold). Her methodology didn’t seem any more arbitrary than many of her peers and included a prudent spread of reaches, targets, and safeties. She got into all but Stanford and enrolled at USC, which offered her decent financial aid and had a well-known psych program. Plus she could save money by living at home. At least that’s the way she’d reasoned it after her parents freaked about her moving out of her childhood bedroom. The mere mention of it set Ba (small, shrill and militant) to shrieking as though she’d threatened to down a bottle of Nembutal or slit her arteries from elbow to wrist. Má, too, shrieked and cried, smearing purple mascara under her eyes. They worried she’d be murdered by some crazy person, threatened to disown her, said they couldn’t afford it, claimed no self-respecting daughter would venture off on her own like that, insisted people would assume she’s a whore.

“What if I were a boy?” she asked.

“Boys are different,” Ba said, crinkling and tearing some junk mail in his fist.

Right. Boys can’t be whores.

“What if I’d gotten into Harvard?”

“Harvard is Harvard. But you didn’t even apply!”

Crimson, not cardinal.

So she still lived at home, was still expected to wait till she was out of college to date (yeah right!), wait till marriage to lose her virginity (too late!), wait till after med school to get married. Theoretically, she could still apply to med school with her psych degree, but she wanted to fix minds, not bodies. To appease her parents she played along. If she wanted to leave the house, she almost always said she was going to study at the library, or, if the library was closed, at a friend’s house. Her parents never refused this appeal to her responsibility as a studious Vietnamese daughter. “Go study!” was Ba’s mantra. “Học đi!” Ba said to her after she finished dinner. “Học đi!” he mumbled into his morning coffee while reading that day’s Người Việt. If she were in her room, he’d rap on her door, “Học đi!” When she was on the landline, he’d pick up and shout, “Học đi! Học đi!” This last summer, he’d discovered texting. Now, at the library or elsewhere, her flip phone chimed with the message, “STUDY HARD!”

 

At the top of a blank page, she wrote the date and location and, on the first line, began to jot notes about the setting and her mood. It seemed somehow relevant that the café was across the street from an elementary school, that the day was sunny, as usual, and that three bougie white ladies with pony tails had jogged past the window in the couple minutes since she’d sat down. More importantly, she made sure to note the setting of her mental and emotional space. Back in elementary school, she’d begun scrutinizing her motives. Since then, the voyage of self-examination had navigated under skies both clear and opaque, soared from zeniths of analytic triumph to nadirs of depressing ambiguity. Despite the vacillations, one thing had become obvious: articulating any but the most fundamental, biological motives meant reducing complicated, conflicting desires to crude rationalizations—and though rationalizing might be inevitable, it was vital to recognize any particular version of it as only partially true at best. Right now, for example, she was out on a date for the first time in a while, and though she could rationalize the date as an academic experiment, chalking it up to mere anthropology would be naïve. The objective curiosity existed, of course (it wasn’t mere pretense!), but could she ignore the fact that she hadn’t been touched for … a year?

Had it really been that long since she’d dumped clingy, aimless, Caleb, who’d forced her to end it when she caught him lying about his enrollment status? Caleb, the last in a series of middle class white boys she hoped to fix. Boys with tribal tattoos ringing their biceps, wedding them to their adolescence. Boys who smoked, flicking cigarette butts onto the sidewalk. Boys who criticized her for her low cut shirts and high cut shorts and flirtatious conversation and all the stuff that had attracted them in the first place. After breaking up with Caleb for being a big lying coward—lying was a deal breaker, the deal breaker, for her—she analyzed her attraction to these boys who put such colossal effort into parading how few fucks they gave. In order not to fall into another mistake and work on improving herself rather than a loser boy, she’d undertaken a relationship with herself. She had her studies, friends, and worked three times a week in the afternoons. Sufficient distractions for probably nine or ten months.

But a year was too long not to be touched, held, desired. For the last year, the only amorous looks had come from the males clustered on frat stoops or leaning against storefronts, whose whistles and whoops and gross visual pawing was too cheaply won; from the males at bars, who broke away from their bachelor herd to impress her with beer breath and trite fictions; from the males at her workplace, who paid her to appetize their lust. And from an occasional bold lesbian, whose gaze she’d force herself to hold, boldly, excitedly, as her lungs sought oxygen. Otherwise, very little of it satisfied her. There was something small and frightened about the macho way guys inflated themselves for viewing. Like the cute little bower-bird that spent so much energy building a super fancy nest and, once the female arrived to inspect it, performing a fancy, intricate dance. Funny what male animals believed made them sexually interesting to the female of the species. When men performed their fancy dance for her, she usually felt like patting them on the head and saying, “I know, I know. The patriarchy is hard on you too.” But if a guy surprised her with authenticity or wit, that same desirous look changed meaning. Suddenly, instead of being boring or gross or menacing, his lust made her feel seen, gave her value. In any case, she’d decided that the next guy she dated would have to wait for sex, at least a couple of months. They’d have to learn each other first. She was too old to be rushing into tragedy just because her hormones or whatever were shouting, “Yes, please!”

Not only would the man have to wait. He’d also have to be progressive in his conception of relationships. She was done with jealous boys. Towards the end of Caleb, she’d come across some reading on non-monogamy. It made a lot of sense to her. Why should she be restricted to one guy? And why did one guy have to be restricted just to her? Wouldn’t both parties would be happier if interest in other people weren’t considered “cheating”? Especially if she found someone, who, like her, wasn’t tortured by the petty jealousy that society, from friends to the media, expected everyone to impose on their partner in the form of unequivocal monogamy. Sure, it made sense back when women were considered property and instruments to produce an heir. But, hello, this was 2007. She wasn’t any man’s property, and no man was hers either. The more she thought about it, the more she refused to be the kind of person who limited her boyfriend’s experience because of her own insecurities. She vowed to herself that her next relationship would not be based on possession but on mutual respect for each other’s autonomy.

 

“Hi,” said a voice directly to her right. A short black guy, geeky in hiking shoes, khaki Dockers, and a plaid sweater vest, smiled at her as though he’d just passed gas.

“Hello?” she said.

He continued smiling uncomfortably. “May I sit down?”

She grimaced an apology. “I’m actually waiting for someone who’ll be here any minute.”

“You’re Melody, right?”

“Hold on.” Her grimace deepened—this time as confusion. “You’re not Malcolm, are you?”

The chair screeched and he suddenly was sitting. “No. I’m Jamie. Sorry, I figured this would be, um, perplexing.”

She hesitated a breath, but collected herself. They were in a public place. He felt somehow harmless. It seemed all right to entertain this oddity. “And why would it be perplexing exactly?”

Jamie nodded. “I know this isn’t the normal approach, but I thought you might understand.” Through his lenses, his rather long lashes flashed together then apart like a flap of moth wings.

Melody found the man awkward looking. Plaid sweater aside, mouth breathing gave his face an insipid blankness, beneath which her female intuition sensed something melancholy, half-resigned, and faintly desperate.

“Understand what? Deception?” she said. “What in my profile gave you that idea?”

“It was your four profiles.” His glasses had slid down his nose. He wedged them back with his index finger. She suppressed an impulse to flick his ear.

“So you thought my having four profiles gave you permission to falsely advertise yourself?” She’d meant this to sound matter-of-fact, but it came out defensive.

“It’s true I wasn’t being completely straightforward, but I thought that you might understand there are sometimes good reasons for roundabout ways since you seemed to take one yourself.” His tone lacked the accusation that his words may have otherwise implied.

“Well, to be honest, I’m kind of doing this as research.”

If this information affected Jaime, he didn’t show it. “Okay. But are you single?”

“That isn’t particularly relevant here.”

Jaime looked puzzled. “How can it not be relevant? Isn’t this a date, even if it’s a research date?”

“Well …”

“I’m not asking for myself.” The creases around his mouth flattened, as though his face were deflating. “I’m mostly doing this for Malcolm, the guy in the photos. It’s his profile. I’m just his liaison. I mean, he doesn’t actually know about us meeting. But I do have blanket permission.”

“To pick up women for him? How nice.” Melody opened her red notebook. “I hope you don’t mind if I take notes.”

“I’ve had worse,” Jamie said. His lips stayed parted as though he might say more.

She waited. No, he was finished.

“How many dates have you been on for Malcolm?” Did she believe in ‘Malcolm’? Should she call him on this outright?

“Three, including this one. The other two didn’t go so well. They practically ran away as soon as I approached them and tried to explain. It’s okay, though. They weren’t his type anyway. His type isn’t skittish.”

“Not a great advertisement there.”

“The right woman will get it.”

“Or a crazy person?”

“Yeah, sure,” he admitted. “Those may be the same thing.”

“You’re really making him sound great.”

“Malcolm is a great guy. He’s unique. In a good way. We’ve been friends since high school. I’m not doing this to find Malcolm just any old person to be with. He told me he didn’t need to go online to find a girlfriend. He doesn’t have problems finding them in the wild, he said. But I think he goes for the wrong types, which is why I hoped that online dating might be a good solution. There are thousands of people you wouldn’t meet otherwise and so much information to vet with.”

“What do you vet for?” she asked, pen at the ready.

“For Mal? Political views, whether you’re religious, whether you admit to masturbating.”

brought up masturbation almost immediately, she wrote in her notebook.

“Masturbation, huh? Quite smooth to introduce it in the first five minutes.”

“Mal wouldn’t want anyone who’s sexually repressed. According to your questions, you’re not. You’re also not religious, have left leaning views, have tried hallucinogens, like hip hop, and are college educated.”

masturbation and drugs—and, to be fair, other indications of my liberal nature

Odd, bewildering almost, what the stranger across from her knew before even meeting her. Maybe the masturbation reference was less rude than she’d taken if for, considering she’d answered a question revealing that she “likes/is open to” receiving anal sex. It occurred to her that men who’d viewed her profile, men whom she might sit in class with, would know she “likes/is open” to butt sex—and without her even being aware of their existence. This guy across the table had surely already made assumptions about it.

maybe manipulate sex questions to see if it changes type of guys messaging

“He agreed to it as long as I do the work. I pretty much got him to write the profile, answer the questions, and choose some photos. I’ve had to do the messaging and meeting.”

So this dork in the plaid sweater, not Malcolm, had written that eloquent message. She felt the massive anchor of reality drowning the hope it was chained to. “You wrote that message about free fall?”

Jamie sucked his lips and stared in some sort of awkward hesitation. “I emailed your profile to Mal, and pointed out that you want to go skydiving. So, actually, he wrote it. He’s a better writer than I am, and I didn’t want to screw it up.”

A delicate ping registered off the submerged hope. “What does Malcolm do?”

“He studied philosophy at Berkeley and a year of law at UCLA. Mostly because he didn’t know what else to do with his philosophy degree. But right now he’s independently wealthy, so, well, that’s kind of the issue. He’s not ‘doing’ in the sense you mean it.”

“Smart, handsome, wealthy. But the problem is direction?”

Jamie pushed his glasses back onto his nose. “Yeah. Kind of a detour?”

“I see.” Time to get back to her interview. “Are you looking for someone for yourself as well?” she asked. “Am I your type?”

“It’s more complicated for me.”

“But am I your type?”

To her surprise, Jamie explained that, in fact, she wasn’t.

says i’m not his type

“Why not?”

He took several breaths before answering. “Complicated.”

complicated=gay?

“I don’t mind the long version.” She moved to pat him on the head, but quickly thought better of it and landed a reassuring hand on his. She didn’t want to admit it, but she empathized. “Some of us are more complicated.”

 

 

 

[] Drowning (P -6 Days)

 

 

The room smelled grapey. Malcolm dug around his brain for last night’s happenings. Okay, one step at a time. Did he drive home from the bar? He couldn’t remember exactly, but he was almost sure he hadn’t taken a cab. Some day he was going to be hovering above his smashed up Lamborghini, wondering what all that gooey red shit was in his hair. Which was fine as long as no one else was hovering beside him wondering the same thing. Tracking the grape odor, he peered into the trash next to his bed. Right—the grape flavored condom, its wrapper tossed onto the nearby floor. The rawness in his throat reminded him he’d snorted through an eight ball with that nineteen-year-old airhead from the car wash. A Korean girl. His mom had always looked down on other Asians and had endlessly bitched at him about Milan, the black girl he was with for most of his sophomore year at Berkeley. She’d wanted him to be with a Chinese girl, of course. It didn’t seem to matter to her that all the Chinese girls he’d known were nothing like him. They were some combination of too studious, too plain in their tastes, too narrow in their judgments, too much like his mom. He knew she would have disapproved of Melody, too.

He and the girl from the car wash had sat on the couch in the living room, hips touching, chasing shots of Vodka with gulps of Red Bull. To get things flowing, he’d put on Robin Thicke’s “Cocaine.” When Thicke, in falsetto, sang, “Baby/Beverly Hills Hotel four am/it’s my birthday,” the girl giggled and asked if they could do coke on her birthday at the Beverly Hills hotel.

“Girlfriend,” Malcolm said, setting his drink on the table and reaching into his blazer pocket, “You’re with Mal-Icious tonight. We don’t have to wait till your birthday to party.”

A mirror, smudged dirty white, lay ready on the table. Because she was young and dumb enough to be impressed, he cut the rock with his American Express Black and rolled a hundred-dollar bill for her to snort through. He passed it to her, hoping she wouldn’t talk. He thought about how occasionally when he’d gotten depressed he’d cruised to the BHH in his Lamborghini, felt golden for a minute while he watched the valet park it ten feet away, then had strut inside to the bar to get even more depressed by running up two hundred dollar tabs while wondering why hot women preferred to date tools and douche bags.

When she handed back the mirror and the rolled hundred, he placed them on the table and told her to lie down on her stomach. She obeyed, folding her arms into a pillow shape and closing her eyes as though expecting a massage. He slid his thumbs under the factory-frayed denim mini-skirt and smoothed the creased border where ass met leg. She was hot enough if he didn’t look too closely. He ignored the impulse to say something critical. Instead, he looked at her ear. Ears, particularly if they were small and delicate, seemed innocent. Melody’s ears were small and delicate. But now wasn’t the time to long for Melody. He’d lose his mojo. Gently, he lowered his mouth to the car wash girl, and bit down on the fleshy lobe, tasting the metal of her earring. He felt a desire to pleasure her through pain—or to apply some kind of pressure to her body, but not so that she’d be hurt really, more to satisfy some tension in him. He kissed her shoulder and bit down harder than before. She shivered as he pulled away slowly, dragging her skin through his teeth. He scrunched the frayed skirt up to her waist. Her flat ass provided disappointingly little resistance. Its sallow cheeks, the skin tautening into goose bumps, glowed in the room’s soft, drug appropriate lighting. She giggled nervously and asked what he was doing. She was probably new to this game and playing along to conceal her inexperience. Or maybe not. Maybe she was just insecure about her flat ass.

“Your ass is sexy,” he lied for their mutual benefit, and sprinkled a line over one cheek. Her hips were too narrow, boyish. Melody’s hips flared more, and her ass curved more apple-like, even if less so than Milan’s had. As usual, Melody was home tonight with her parents, so he’d called this airhead who’d thought his car was “oh my god, so cool.” The girl propped herself on her elbows and rotated her head to watch him lower his nose to her. Finished, he licked the dust from his fingers. She whimpered in a way she must have imagined sounded cute to guys. “Shh,” he assured as he repositioned her thong, wiggled two fingers into her and used her wetness to capture the rest of the powder. He nudged the concoction between her lips for her to suck off his fingertips. The last traces he wiped onto her gums. “Want more?” he asked, leaning over to the blurry mirror and cutting her a couple lines.

He smiled to himself remembering how, minutes later, he threw her against the wall and kissed her hard on those same numbed lips. She hadn’t expected it, but neither had he. The spontaneity of thudding against a wall while drunk and coked out had turned her on. More predictable—for him, anyway—was his calling a taxi as soon as he’d pulled the grape condom off. He told her he needed sleep. “Business in the morning.” Truth was, of course, that without lust there was no motivation to tolerate her clingy affection or the noise she thought was conversation, and had she hung around, he would have said something unsavory. So he was saving them mutual regret when minutes after his orgasm he ushered her dumbfounded face into the taxi, curled her hand around two twenty-dollar bills and struggled to smile apologetically as he slammed the door.

He turned to the window to see how much of the day he’d slept away. The light angled into his eyes through the crack. He still hadn’t gotten around to fixing it in the three years since the house had abruptly become his. His parents had lived with the crack for at least five years before that. It hadn’t mattered to them since they usually woke before dawn to send off a few emails before driving to the lab. Research doctors—in it for the glory. Together they’d exhausted nearly one hundred and forty years in an unsuccessful battle against a fun, relaxed life, in the vain hope of pleasing the Swedish Academy.

His body took a deep breath, like it was tired of him. He didn’t blame it. For all the abuse, it really complained very little. Flinging his quilt to the foot of the bed, he wiggled toward the edge until he could slide his good foot to the floor. The thermostat was set to seventy-two. Colder than that, his leg and hip ached. In boxers and socks, he limped downstairs to the kitchen, grabbed chopsticks, microwaved a cup noodles and took it back upstairs to his computer. Checking his email, he found a message from Saul’s wife, Connie May. The subject line read: THIS IS A SECRET. NO ONE CAN KNOW!!!! Interesting. Turned out she wanted to meet for lunch that week to discuss a recommendation for nursing school. Back when she was still a waitress, she’d mentioned saving a portion of her tips for tuition. Nothing ever came of it.

He inserted a bootleg German porn, Piss und Sperma Biester #4, and munched the noodles as four masked, potbellied guys urinated onto a hot girl. She was done up goth style: iron-straightened black hair with short ruler-straight bangs, her body naked except for red fishnet stockings and, of course, matching high heels. Sexy as fuck, that type of kinky shit. Her mouth was agape and aimed upward to form a bowl so that most of the piss streamed into it. That part was kind of whatever. It was what followed that interested him. She spat the amassed urine onto a vertical glass panel, about three square feet, and methodically licked it clean, top to bottom. When she was finished, she crawled to the spot where she’d originally been showered and lapped up the puddle on the floor. The glass panel act—now that he hadn’t seen before. At some point in the future, he’d like to direct a porn under the name of his alter ego, Mal-Icious. Come up with some crazy shit no one had ever seen. It just couldn’t involve animals or feet. Animals couldn’t consent and feet were ugly. “Piss und Sperma Biester,” Malcolm growled to himself in a hostile German accent, then paused the video and slumped in his chair, considering how this nursing school thing would affect the grad school application he’d submitted for Saul. The whole point of the application, more effort than Malcolm had expended on any of his own recent achievements, was, in a single stroke, to crowbar the cage Saul had stubbornly erected around his freedom—a cage which had diminished him as a friend, as a good human being—and propel him as far from Connie May as possible. The idea had come at the end of the summer. He’d been wondering what to do for Saul’s thirtieth birthday when, hungover one afternoon, he re-watched Good Will Hunting. During the scene where Chuckie insists that Will owes it to him to go do something better with his life than sit around and waste away in South Boston, Malcolm suddenly understood that he, Malcolm Lam, needed to play Chuckie Sullivan to Saul’s Will Hunting. Granted Saul wasn’t as brilliant as Will, but their emotional maturity had notable parallels: namely, both required a swift kick in the ass to start making wiser decisions. Fortunately, a search through Malcolm’s old Word docs yielded copies of the final drafts of the personal statement and writing sample Saul had him proofread when he’d applied to UCLA’s PhD program back in 2000. With the necessary modifications and a brief, but responsible sounding, explanation of why Saul had taken four years off, Malcolm then created an email account with Saul’s name and filled out the appropriate online forms. A little research revealed that one of Saul’s favorite professors and former advisor had transferred to a New York school that specialized in continental philosophy. Disguised by the email account, Malcolm wrote to the professor, explaining why he—that is, Saul—had taken a break and how badly he wanted to get back into philosophy. The professor requested Saul send in his application ASAP. He seemed sure the matter could be settled fairly quickly. Everything had been sent and now Malcolm was waiting for Saul’s birthday to announce the news. Today, actually, was Saul’s birthday.

Already, one hundred thousand dollars had been set aside to help fund the first few years. And Malcolm thought maybe he’d relocate to New York along with his friend. Sell his parents’ house and buy a sick little pad on the Lower East Side.

While hot water filled the bathtub, he ground out fifteen push-ups and fifteen sit-ups, a superstitious morning-after routine he knew did little to purge his system or increase muscle tone. Meanwhile, a Tupac playlist bumped from his bedroom speakers. During Pac’s last two years on Earth, he’d been Malcolm’s hero and musical mainstay. The melodically bellicose bass lines, the voice electric with wisdom, Pac didn’t need distorted power chords or screaming to charge his message with fury. Malcolm listened and felt in himself a quiet-storm kind of violence, an undirected waiting-with-arms-crossed rage. On Friday, September 13, 1996, Malcolm had been combing his hair for a frat party, Me Against the World on in the background to hype himself for the evening (“They say pussy and paper is poetry power and pistols, plottin’ on murderin’ motherfuckers ‘fore they get you. Picturin’ pitiful punk niggaz coppin’ pleas, puffin’ weed as I position myself to clock Gs”), when one of the brothers bolted through the house, howling that Pac, barely twenty-five, had left his body and become a god—beating Jesus by eight years. (Pac’s apotheosis was proven, in Malcolm’s mind, by the following decade, as he starred in two movies and released over a hundred new songs.) Later that Friday night, raging against the injustice, Malcolm, smashed and in tears, began to unload one of the kegs onto the hay-like grass in the frat’s backyard, shouting, “Pour out a little liquor for the homie Pac. Tip that shit over!” Because the stream was slow, he began to kick it, hoping for a carbonated explosion. Four of the brothers, sympathetic to Malcolm’s grief, escorted him to his room, scraped the piles of fluffed and folded clothes off his bed and lay him down to sleep. The next day, feeling sober and purposeful, he closed his eyes while his right pectoral was tatted with a Glock 40. Inscribed along the barrel were the dates 6/16/71 – 9/13/96. That was the last time he’d acted quite so dramatic. Since then, the anger and frustration and grief from losing his parents, losing his brother, the pain in his hip, Milan’s cruel obliteration of his hopes and his subsequent failure to give a fuck about law school, and whatever other dumb shit had happened throughout his twenties, he was able to more or less dismiss and move on from. And so, by not thinking about the dumb shit, life was basically fine.

Malcolm stood over the tub, watching the water rise, bobbing his head to the beat. Vapors snaked off the water, fogging the mirror above the sink. He dipped his heel to test the temperature. It prickled. Slowly he immersed his body, groaning as the heat stung his skin and relaxed his muscles. As he sank deeper, his eyelids fluttered shut. Despite the bath’s soothing pleasure, he felt impatient. Recently nothing had satisfied him while it was happening. The chief joy of an event lay in its anticipation, not its fulfillment. If the stereo’s controls were within range no song reached its second minute. No matter how much he liked it, it seemed that only a different feeling—or something else entirely—could rid him of his impatience. Propping himself on his elbows, he examined his torso: long and slender with little cobblestone abs from lucky genetics, not exercise. At the intersection where his torso split into legs, his cock floated upward, the uncircumcised tip bobbing at the water’s surface like a buoy in the harbor. Underwater, the shaft looked sallow, jaundiced, the head a bruised purplish. It was long and slender like the rest of him.

The bath wasn’t relaxing him. Solitude stressed him out. He forced himself to stay in the bath and concentrate on the warmth. Seconds later he was toweling himself dry, itching to call someone. Standing naked and dripping, he scrolled through his phone’s contact list. None of the names, not even his girlfriend’s, offered the prospect of releasing the anxiety trapped in his body. He did have some coke left. No, he thought, that would be bad.

The desperation to connect became unbearable. He dialed Melody. Her voicemail answered and he clicked off. For maybe a minute he stared at his phone, paralyzed by lack of will.

It rang.

“Hey,” Melody said. “I was in the shower. Sorry.”

“You want to get breakfast? Afterwards I can take you to get your Christmas tree.”

“I have a haircut at one. You want to take me to that too?”

“Sure—” He choked on air, blank about what to say that could purge him of his anxiety.

“Yes?”

“You’re not wearing anything?” he said.

“Just a towel.”

In a sly voice he said, “Why don’t you drop it for me so I can imagine your ass better?”

“Where do you want to go for breakfast?”

He began to sigh, caught himself and decided to joke. “Denny’s.”

“Be serious.”

“Grand slam breakfast is serious … on your colon.” He laughed.

“Right, right. I know: ‘It’ll grand slam your asshole shut,’ ” she humorlessly quoted him. “Never heard that one before.”

He sighed. Lots of sighing.

“Mal? Are you okay?”

His face shrugged. “Meh. Maybe I’m hungry.”

“Me too.” Then sweetly: “You know what I feel like?”

“A ballerina.”

“No, silly.” She was affectionate, as though she hadn’t brushed him of just seconds ago. “Champagne brunch at the Yacht Club. Mmm.” A pause. Then in a little girl voice: “Mal?”

“What?”

“Mal?”

“Yes?”

“I’d drown with you. You know that, right?”

He took a deep breath. Melody, Melody, Melody, Melody.

 

 

 

[] Lifted (P -4 Months)

 

 

The Yacht Club membership, the four bedroom in Long Beach’s most affluent neighborhood, the wrecked-by-neglect sailboat, the liquid assets in the low seven-digit range plus the seven-digit life insurance policies were the tragic corollary of an intoxicated high school senior speeding with his prom date to the hotel room he’d rented for an after party. Malcolm’s parents’ Honda, en route from the lab at a quarter past midnight, was idling at a red light. The Suburban’s skid marks began part way into the crosswalk.

At the time of the accident, Malcolm had been a couple years out of his failure at law school, living in a West LA high rise, charging up debt on Visas and Mastercards. With his brother disowned for ignoble choices, one of which was landing in jail for, ironically, broadsiding—and killing—a mother and her five-year-old while driving under the influence of alcohol, Malcolm was the sole beneficiary and executor of his parents’ estate. Somewhat aggrieved for the two bodies that created his, he used some inheritance to hire a wedding planner he found on the Internet to handle all aspects of the funeral.

The inheritance also worked to get dates. Somehow women knew he had it and would spend it on them. More than once, a date met him with no more than an ID on her. No purse, no wallet, just proof of her age. The boldness pleased him. He appreciated their presumption that he’d take care of them. But for some reason, if the relationship was launched with money, it never fell into love’s orbit. Melody had been different. Melody was, to Malcolm’s near disbelief, launched by Jamie, whom he’d permitted, on a whim and under the assumption that nothing would come of it anyway, to create an online dating profile and act as proxy for him.

After Jamie had suckered her with Malcolm’s photos, he’d convinced her, for the sake of her honors thesis, to meet the real deal. Unfortunately, in the convincing, he’d said that Malcolm had composed the message about free fall. Once or twice, touched by a mild and diffuse guilt, he’d nearly rectified this triviality. Each time, though, he hadn’t seen the point in making Jamie out to be a liar and had allowed the feeling to pass. Eventually, having allowed the feeling to pass too many times, he sensed that he couldn’t mention it without looking like a giant liar himself, and decided to let bygones be bygones.

On their first date, since she still lived with her parents, they rendezvoused at a nearby strip mall. When his razor clean Lamborghini roared up beside her beat-up Sentra, she stepped out of her car in a tight, low cut carmine dress, carmine painted finger and toe nails, her hair and makeup crafted with pleasing subtlety. He then stepped out of his car and pressed the button that opened the passenger side door.

She tilted her head. “It opens like a wing,” she said, her tone hitting a note between amusement and derision. He opened and closed it twice more before she crawled into the deep bucket seat. “The whole thing,” she said, scrutinizing the interior with her eyes and her fingers, “they made it like a spaceship.”

“I almost bought a Prius,” Malcolm said.

“The peacock with the longest, shiniest feathers impresses the peahen.”

Malcolm glanced at her dress. “And peahens? Do they make no effort?”

“Touché, sir.” Melody lifted her eyes to his, challenging him. “Now let’s see if your strut matches your coloring.”

Malcolm nodded and fishtailed out of the parking lot.

They drove to LA and dined at Cut. She asked the sommelier for a dry white and rolled her eyes at his suggestion of a hundred thirty-five-dollar Chardonnay. Her carmine fingernail pointed to a forty-dollar Sauvignon Blanc. “What’s wrong with this one?” she asked.

“It’s also very nice,” the sommelier replied.

“Very nice is fine with me,” Melody said, definitively.

Malcolm noted, and appreciated, the definitiveness.

He asked her about being a senior at USC. Her next step, she said, was probably a graduate degree in clinical psychology.

“Clinical, huh? What pushed you towards that?”

“Doesn’t everyone who’s a little crazy have dreams of helping others not be?” she deadpanned.

“So how are you going to help me?” Smiling, he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.

The corner of her mouth dimpled knowingly. “That depends on what you need, doesn’t it?”

He laughed. “I’ll let you diagnose that.”

They had to rush to make the second half of the opera for which Malcolm had his American Express concierge service purchase fourth row seats. In the Lamborghini, as the wind blew her straight black hair into a Medusæan jumble, she told him that no one had ever taken her to the opera. Then it’s a good thing we’ll sit through only half of it, he thought. But later, as Plácido Domingo concluded his aria and Melody gazed tearfully at the stage, Malcolm had to credit the girl for her sensitivity. At the end of the night, she kissed him for a couple minutes in the car—gentle, open-mouthed kisses with no tongue—and agreed to meet him during the week for dinner at Urasawa.

Saul, upon hearing this, groaned and told Malcolm not to treat some random college chick to five-hundred-dollar dinners two dates in a row. Malcolm omitted that Urasawa had cost an even thousand.

“Look at the precedent you’re setting. You’re throwing money at her and she’s giving you passionless kisses. Come on, Mal. You’re better than that. And the opera?” Saul grimaced. “What a waste! I’d give you more ass than you got for those tickets. Try this: take her for a five-dollar bowl of phở and see if she sticks around.”

Heeding the advice, Malcolm treated Melody to phở on their third date. He couldn’t resist adding a little something, though. When she stepped into his car, she found a Louis Vuitton purse on the passenger seat.

She squinted at it with suspicion. “I hope this is your mom’s or something.”

“My mom doesn’t accept gifts.”

“Maybe you should see if she wants it anyway.”

“She’s dead. You have more use for it.”

After several moments of silence, she said, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He took her hand and kissed it.

“I’m sorry about your mom.”

He squeezed her hand. She squeezed his back.

 

He dismissed Saul’s implication that his extravagance was a bribe. Mostly, he enjoyed buying things for her. “Some guys write love letters or songs, others give massages or handmade gifts. I woo with my taste for luxury. It’s what I have to offer. What’s wrong with that?”

“You’ve got to stop founding your relationships on superficialities. You know I’m an expert on that, so I’m allowed to say it. You’ll always end up at the same place if you always start on the same course. She likes you for your money. You like her for her looks. Do you see the problem here?”

“Sure, but isn’t everyone superficial? I mean, how did you end up marrying your wife?”

“And see how that turned out? How would you feel about Melody being your baby-mama?” Saul nodded, apparently pleased with this insight. “Ask yourself that question before you blow your inheritance on some chick.”

“Whoa. Hold up, brotha.” Malcolm raised his palms, as though halting the idea. “I always bag it.” As irresponsible as he sometimes was, he knew better than to allow his irresponsibility to make him responsible for a baby. “Also, you know, she’s not just ‘some chick.’ ”

“What? Are you in love with a college girl now?”

After the third date Malcolm reported to his friend that he’d sucked on her breasts in the strip mall parking lot and, though she’d stopped it there, she’d appeared to struggle with her lust. In fact, she’d insisted on planning their next date, telling him that she wanted to surprise him.

At noon on a Sunday, he’d received a call from her. She was standing outside his house. She’d rung his doorbell at least five times before proceeding to knock for a couple minutes. He apologized. The bell hadn’t worked in years and it was sometimes difficult to hear knocking upstairs. When he opened the door, she leaped on him, hooking her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. He tripped backward, but was able to steady himself before toppling. A sharp pain bolted from his hip down his bad leg, and he winced, sucking air in through his teeth and gripping his thigh.

Jumping off him she covered her mouth and cried, “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I totally forgot. I’m so so sorry.”

As the pain scorched his bones, he shrugged as though to say, No big deal.

Melody had on a floral-patterned summer dress. Tugging at her earlobes were large silver hoop earrings. Their weight stretched her earring hole into a vertical dash. During the fuss about his leg, her LV bag had slipped from her shoulder to her elbow. She hiked it back to her shoulder. He could tell she’d been using it. The thought made him happy. He stepped back to admire his date. Her tits were large for a small Asian girl. The rest of her looked good too. She smiled at him smiling at her. Her cheeks were high and chubby in a cute way. Her heart-shaped mouth, not much wider than her nose, slipped to one side, as though she were self-conscious about her smile. He imagined her as excited about the date as he was. It had been a while—high school probably—since a woman had put effort into a date with him. It seemed they usually put most of their effort into deciding where he was going to take them to eat, or what movie they wanted to watch.

She said, “Grab your bathing suit and sandals.”

“Bathing suit and sandals?” he asked, suspicious. “What for?”

“I’m not telling you.” She fluttered her eyelashes in a way he knew she thought was cute. He found a calculating nature attractive in women. It was a feminine feature—like breasts.

“Do I look like the kind of guy who wears sandals?” Stuffed somewhere in his closet were a pair of decade old orange board shorts he used to wear in the outdoor hot tub before he’d allowed leaves to clog up the jets. Plus, he didn’t want to explain that he couldn’t swim. Pools were okay, he didn’t mind wading in them, but sand and ocean were basically dirt and salted sewage. He hated how damp sand stuck to his skin. And sandals? The ugly result of a fashion-lazy beach culture.

“Let’s go shopping then,” she said.

They drove her Sentra a mile down the road to a trendy clothing store on Second Street and Melody picked out a pair of red board shorts and red sandals. She cut the tags off and told him to change at the store. He watched her grab a white canvas belt with a red “M” on the buckle. She tossed the belt and tags on the cashier’s counter and removed a thick stack of cash from her wallet.

By the time they reached the car, the cloudless summer heat had Malcolm sweating. Two minutes later when he stepped out again and onto the beach, his shirt clung to his back. On the sand a brisk wind sailed off the water, chilling his damp back and whipping microscopic crap into his eyes. His armpits squished from the relentless sun. His outer arms stung from the wind. A gravelly film skidded back and forth between his soles and the sandals’ leather, irritating his sanity until he kicked the things off and carried them—which, because he resented carrying anything, also annoyed him. The brown-green Pacific, over which hovered a strip of miasmic fuzz, sparkled harshly. A used condom was twisted into a pretzel beside a lump of desiccated kelp abuzz with gnats. His hip hurt. He looked at Melody to see if she was as annoyed with the beach as he was. Her face, directed at the water, glowed with delight. He relaxed, happy that she was having a good time with him. Catching his glance, she said, “I love the beach, the ocean. It makes me feel peaceful inside. I love digging my toes into the warm sand and listening to the surf, the sizzling sound it makes. I’d have the best sleep if I lived on the beach.”

He smiled and grunted in romantic agreement.

“It’s funny that I’m such a beach person. You’d think that as much as I love the water, I’d be able to swim. But I can’t. Never learned how. So if we go in the water, you’ll have to save me.”

He told her if she relied on him, they’d both drown.

“Then how would you feel about drowning for me?” she said, playful and maybe a little wistful. She was staring out at the water.

“I can’t think of any better way to go,” he joked back. He hadn’t meant it, but as he took in her profile, her baby fat cheeks, the sudden yearning in her sweet puckering gaze, it struck him as true. The nearness of her beauty lent a rosy hue to the idea of their dramatic death. It even colored his usual dislike of the beach. Melody, a woman he was attracted to, seemed to want to be with him. After years of lopsided relationships in which his infatuations were unrequited or his abuses undeserved, he found himself in a situation where both sides felt good at the same time. Melody shivered and rubbed her arms, but happily. Even the goosebumps on those arms seemed to have arisen from her joy rather than the chill. It’s possible to enjoy the beach, he told himself. He inhaled deeply, tasting the salt air in his throat, then closed his eyes and allowed himself to relish the breeze’s faint tickle on his arms and legs. Now they were enjoying the wind together. He snuggled his toes into the sand, wiggling them beneath the hot upper layer into a cooler, moister, denser pack. Now they were enjoying the sand together. He listened to the soft slap of water on sand, and its sizzling retreat. From further down the beach came intermittent cries of children’s laughter followed by the weeping caw of gulls. Life as poetry. Malcolm stepped behind Melody and, because it felt right, cradled her. Slowly, but with firm, confident affection, he ran his palms up and down her arms. He closed his hand around them. Goosebumps bristled his fingers. He kneaded her arm. She moaned, like a purr. A delicate, hairless feline. In comfortable silence, they stared at the ocean. His hip, despite the cold wind, wasn’t aching, and suddenly, like a flare shot into the night, Malcolm recognized that he was high.

“Thank you,” he said. “This is beautiful.” His voice, deep and tranquil, vibrated in his chest. He hoped it conveyed what was taking place in him, and maybe it did because she threaded her fingers through his and squeezed. Melody’s shoulders steadily rose and sank, rose and sank, the breath as miraculously real in her lungs as in his own. Shifting his eyes from the ocean, he admired her ear. The silver loop tugging at the small attached earlobe. Above it, streaking across the pinna, a thin bifurcated vein. He kissed it. His nose drifted upward until it reached the part in her shiny, black, sun-spangled hair. She smelled good. She smelled soft. He desired nothing beyond the present moment. Amazed and grateful, he stood still, breathing her in and knowing that everything in the world was perfect.

 

 

 

[] Sharing Confidences (P -2 Months)

 

 

Malcolm had been dating Melody for weeks before he decided to ask whether she was seeing anyone else.

Shortly after their perfect afternoon at the beach, tendrils of attachment began to curl themselves around his thoughts of her. They tightened as he flipped through the mental photos of her reaction to his car’s doors on their first date or of the way she slurped her phở or of her buying him the board shorts and planning a walk on the beach. He’d already begun to feel the luscious ache of nostalgia for the origins of his love, and to anticipate the secret and melting contentment of being near her. At the end of each date, he’d ask when she was “free to hang out again.” He asked casually, as though the idea had just then occurred to him and was, like, totally cool either way. Out of caution he hid the intensity of his affection. His past had taught him not to endanger serious happiness by broadcasting it. It seemed stupid, but displays of ambivalence were necessary until some kind of emotional codependency developed. He had a burrowing worry that when a woman learned the flagrant reality of Mal-Icious, the image that, from afar, her imagination had anticipated as a portrait of Prince Charming, appeared, up close and personal, as a chaotic mottle of black and blue. To ask whether they were exclusive risked implying his excitement about her and possibly holding up the painting for scrutiny. Best to be careful. Surround the question with pomp and romance, and thereby bury rather than highlight it.

Asking the question also risked sounding presumptuous. He didn’t think he had the right yet. Dating had its tense initial stages during which boundaries were warily tested for points of entry: Is it too early to introduce her to my friends? Should I text back immediately or should I wait a couple hours? Can I kiss her on the street? Hold her hand? Is she mine only? The question might sound possessive or jealous, and, really, he was concerned less about her liking other guys than about those other guys taking away the time he wanted to spend with her. Scheduling their romance was already complicated by her classes and school work and her parents’ demand that she sleep in her childhood bedroom, as though she weren’t of legal partying age. A second or third man would mean additional lonely evenings, additional bored hours without his clever, sweet, young Melody.

Another problem was the etiquette. In high school, and even in college, the approach had been obvious. You knew the girl’s social group. They knew yours. The public nature of relationships meant that information flowed through multiple channels and inevitably back to you. If she had a thing with another guy and you had no idea, she was obscuring it not only from you but from everyone. A willful deception on her part, which entitled you to a conversation. With Melody, however, no public knowledge apprised him of his place with her. The isolated nature of the relationship defaulted into a don’t ask, don’t tell sort of privacy. Any information she didn’t volunteer was her business alone. Certainly, he had his own business now and then, and wasn’t about to be hypocritical.

Only one other condition could make the question totally natural: were they having sex, he’d have a right, almost an obligation, to ask for the sake of his safety. But, despite weeks of dating, touch had penetrated no deeper than eager hands and tongues. Their dates had mostly all been outside his house. The elaborate date he was now planning, however, created a space for sex, a space to better understand his future with her.

 

Since Melody couldn’t stay out too late, he rented a limo to pick them up in the late morning. When she climbed in, “Das Wiedersehen” from Tristan and Isolde sang through the car speakers. Malcolm was wearing his baby blue Tom Ford tux, lily white shirt, jet black bow tie, his blue and gold Rolex Submariner enhancing his wrist, size eleven Tom Ford’s spiffing his feet.

“So dramatic!” she said with a laugh.

“What are you referring to exactly?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The stretch Hummer, the opera, you.”

He took her hand and slowly kissed her knuckles. “You, my beautiful, make me dramatic.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh please. Anyway … where are we going?” she asked, fluttering her lashes.

Pulling her hand so that her entire body tilted towards him, he kissed her forehead. Pantene shampoo, he knew from the soapy fragrance. Milan had used it too. He sighed, and, inhaling, kissed her once more before whispering, “You’ll see. First, though, open that little thing to your right.”

He watched her pick up a small package wrapped in a page of Psychology Today. She tore the paper, opened the black jewelry box.

“Malcolm!” She turned to him, taking his chin in her fingers and kissing him. “Thank you. It’s a beautiful red.”

“It’s red beryl,” he said as she touched the stone and brought it closer to her face. “I think it matches your purse and nails and all that. And, not to go for the cheesy metaphor or anything, but it’s one of the rarest stones in the world.”

He took it from her and clipped the thin gold chain around her neck. The stone fell just below her throat. Good choice, Malcolm thought to himself. He kept silent about the supposed spiritual qualities of red beryl, like its power to open its wearer’s heart to love.

Once they got to the coast road, Melody rolled the window down and stuck her hand out. The wind blew past in a high pitched suck. Then she discovered the limo’s sunroof and opened that instead, closing her eyes and basking her face in the light. “Give me a clue where we’re going,” she said.

“My favorite compass direction.”

After a moment’s thought, she looked at him and, of course, rolled her eyes. “South,” she said. “Ha, ha. But where south?”

He sucked his lips and shook his head. Surprises were more fun.

The Hummer rumbled past strip malls laden with chain stores, over the bridge to Seal Beach, through Sunset Beach, until finally the little shops and houses vanished and Malcolm and Melody were cruising along the sand and water. This section of coast road soothed Malcolm each time he drove it. In fact, more than anything else, even more than the sunshine, it was Pacific Coast Highway that made California romantic. To the north were the sparkling beaches of Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara. Further up, the electrifying seascapes near Half Moon Bay, Big Sur, Monterey. To the south, where they were headed, were the rocky coves and ritzy houses of Newport and Laguna. They pulled up to one of these, and Malcolm led Melody inside.

 

  • * *

 

“Wow,” escaped her, as she entered the ridiculous clifftop house Mal had brought her to in the ridiculous stretch Hummer. The room was full of light and warmth, the view from the cliff as spectacular as any she’d ever seen in person. A slim border of spume snaked between a pillow of sand and the endless blanket of sea, blurry daggers of light glimmering along its creases. “Wow,” she said again, this time with intention and appreciation.

Mal gripped her hand. She squeezed and brought it to her lips, kissing his knuckles, mimicking, but not mocking, his gesture from earlier.

“Come,” he said.

She followed his light blue tux to the staircase, admiring his long, slim back as he limped up the three flights to the rooftop terrace, where two middle aged men in suits were playing jazz. A duet on keyboard and bass. The air smelled of the salty ocean. A gull cried its squeaky caw.

“Just us?” she asked, seeing a table set for two. White table cloth, two place settings, two champagne flutes.

“Just us,” he said as he pulled her chair out for her.

Was this merely a date? She began to suspect a grander purpose. But after just two months of dating (they hadn’t even gone all the way!), what sort of purpose? Mal hadn’t seemed at all like the kind of guy who’d propose marriage hastily, yet this level of extravagance usually coincided with a proposal. Plus they were at the beach again, a now sacrosanct terrain for them. Melody felt both impressed and wary. She touched the red beryl below her throat. Maybe he just loved her.

A server approached with a bottle of sparkling rosé, and poured it with comical gravitas into the two flutes. The liquid bubbled like a science experiment, threatening to overflow before fizzing away to the glasses’ lower quarter. Each flute then got a second pour. Mal lifted his, sniffed it, and held it out to toast.

“You make me happy,” he said.

“To happiness all around!” she said, tapping her glass to his.

The rosé tasted expensive. The duet played. She watched the bass player’s sausage fingers thump the strings. The sun melted over her neck, her arms. A breeze (a zephyr?) passed over her skin. She considered how frequently she’d found contentment with this outrageous, intelligent, generous, ingenuous, aging boy. With the losers she’d dated, there had been magnetism, electricity. But after several weeks with them, she’d recognize an increasingly negative pulse. Put her in the same room as Caleb, and, though they’d probably fuck, she’d soon want to leave. Whereas with Mal, nearness drew her closer rather than gradually repelling her. What if she stayed attracted to him? Would life go on offering contentment? Would he be the support she hoped for in a partner? Would he continue to encourage her professional endeavors and broaden her perspective with music, culture, food? She fantasized about visiting opera houses in Europe, backpacking Laos and western China, him learning Vietnamese, her Mandarin. Wasn’t he the kind of guy who paid attention to her as a person and not just as a female? He’d chosen a red necklace and wrapped it in Psychology Today. He had opera on in the ridiculous stretch Hummer, probably as a reference to their first date. The man was certainly thoughtful. And generous. And unique with his limp and his élan and his light blue tux? She smiled to herself. As a kid, she’d heard someone say, “If a man is one in a million, there are three thousand more of him.” Were there three thousand more Malcolms? It seemed unlikely. Would she find someone better? She might, but then how long would she have to search? She could be thirty or forty before she found the “right” guy (or discovered there wasn’t one!). Anyway, she found comfort and value in the idea of choosing her soulmate young and allowing love to ripen over the decades. Ông nội and bà nội had been married for over seventy years. They’d loved through wars, regime change, famine, children, land reform, loss of their wealth, expatriation, isolation and generally devastating cultural loss, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. When ông nội died, bà nội cried week after week for months. Having made it through the day, every evening without fail she’d pour herself rượu đế and demand a toast to ông nội. She’d hold up the glass, her voice quavering as she declared him the best man she’d ever known. Then she’d glance around for confirmation, and they’d all have to nod (even ba, her son and also a man she knew) while bà nội teared up until the grief flowed in runnels along her skin’s ancient creases. Melody’s feminism and autonomy notwithstanding, she considered it a gift to marry young enough to love so intensely for so many years.

Soon the butler set two plates on the table. “Parsnip soup with coconut, mint, and lime on the left. On the right, sea urchin with black bread, jalapeno and yuzu,” he said, and took a step backward before making his exit.

The dishes were dainty, delicate, fancy, delicious. Several more similarly fancy, delicious courses followed. Diver scallops with caramelized cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion. Parmesan risotto with wild mushrooms and herbs. Roasted Maine lobster with romanesco and smoked-chili emulsion. The courses were paired with a dry Riesling, probably because Mal knew she preferred dry whites. For dessert, the butler opened a box of chocolates and explained all twenty-four (eight dark, eight milk, eight white). She chose a white curry, a milk raspberry, and a dark chili.

When she finished the chocolates, the server laid a check holder on the table. Mal pushed it towards her. “Thanks for this wonderful date.”

She frowned. What was this?

“Okay, okay. Don’t get upset. We can split it,” he said. “What’s the damage?”

She opened the check holder. Melody reached across the table and socked Malcolm in the arm.

“You jerk!” she cried.

He massaged his arm. “Glad you like it.”

It was a $500 gift certificate to a spa in Santa Monica.

 

Fifteen minutes later, they sat quiet together on the sofa downstairs, sipping sparkling rosé and enjoying the ocean view. Mal’s hand rested on her thigh. His fingers fidgeted, lightly grazing her skin. She’d considered shaving that morning, but hadn’t, and wondered if he noticed the light prickle, whether it bothered him or whether he accepted her body in its furry animality.

His foot tapped rapidly for a few seconds, then stopped as he seemed to notice it.

“Why all this?” she asked, resting her head on his shoulder.

He inhaled her hair and sighed. “It’s fun to have a multiple course jazz brunch on a rooftop overlooking the Pacific.”

“You know that’s not what I mean. What else is going on inside you.” She kissed his chin, then pulled back to examine his eyes. “You seem a little nervous.”

“I’m neither a little nor nervous.” He laughed, but unconvincingly.

She felt tender towards him. “What is it, baby?” She hadn’t meant to call him baby and fought an impulse to add words meaninglessly in order to dilute her embarrassment.

“Baby, it’s you,” he sang. “Sha la la la la la la.”

She asked him to be serious. He laughed and told her he was serious. Did she get the reference? That old song? Not that she was a cheat or anything. He laughed again, nervously, and apologized.

“This isn’t going quite as planned,” he said, not looking at her.

“Seems great to me so far,” she said, but she knew her brow had furrowed.

“Have you seen the bedroom?” he asked.

“You know I haven’t.”

“You have to see this bed.”

“Why do you want me to see the bed?” Suddenly she felt really stupid. “Is all this so I’ll have sex with you? You think I’ve made you wait too long? Because if that’s what you want, you should just be direct about it.” Were those tears coming up from her throat or something? No fucking way was she going to cry about this.

“No, no,” he said, backtracking, probably because she sounded upset. “I mean, it kind of is, but not for the reason you think.”

“Oh? What reason do you think I think? And, you know, those words you just used are really similar to your friend’s before he passed me off to you. Am I like a fucking baton in a relay race or something?”

“Ha! Can you imagine Jamie in a relay race? Who would want to be on his team?” When she didn’t respond, he said, “No, I mean I was wondering why we haven’t, but it’s not a problem.”

“Well, I’m glad it’s not a problem because I want to go home now,” she said, standing up.

“Please sit down.” He reached for her hand.

She yanked it away. “Don’t touch me!”

He winced. “Ok, ok. I won’t touch, you can stay standing. But can we discuss what’s going on here?”

Melody crossed her arms. She didn’t want to hurt him, but she had to be definitive to maintain both the upper hand and her own composure. “Fine, but don’t try to manipulate me. I’ll see right through it and won’t ever forgive you.”

“Deal,” he smiled and put out his hand to shake.

His dopey, little boy smile relaxed her against her will. She smiled back. Annoyed at how easy she was, she tightened her mouth. “Deal,” she said and shook his hand. “But just know, if you ever lie to me—if I ever find out you’ve lied to me—it’s over.”

He nodded sheepishly. Then his smile faded and he sighed again, a slow inflation followed by a sudden puncture followed by a gust of confession. He admitted his fear that she’d lose interest if he exposed his happiness, and his fear of other men taking time that could be spent with him. His explanation seemed reasonable enough. It also surprised her with its revelation of vulnerability. For Melody, vulnerability in a man could go two ways. One or two soft spots in an otherwise strong armor were endearing, made her feel useful and needed. But more than one or two minor insecurities, and her tenderness turned to contempt. Despite efforts to wash herself of the patriarchal prejudice that men should hide insecurities behind a mask of strength, weak men were simply not attractive.

Still, she resisted caving too quickly. “What does that have to do with trying to get in my panties?”

“I want to sleep with you. Who wouldn’t? But today I was hoping to get close enough to you, just lying next to you in bed, that it would feel natural to ask you if you’re seeing anyone. I wanted to play it cool, but got scared. Turns out falling in love at any age is kind of scary.”

She asked him what scared him? Did she seem fickle or something?

Looking out towards the beach, he mumbled that he hadn’t intended to bring any of this up now, but, at this point, his balls were already on the table, so why not? He then told her about Milan, the last woman he’d projected a future with. For almost a year and a half, they behaved privately as a couple, publicly as acquaintances. Secrecy had been her requirement, not his. At the beginning she’d excused it as a quirk of her need for privacy. Here and there, however, her friends made mention of her exes or guys she’d hooked up with, and uncertainty crept in. He confronted her about it. Those were “inconsequential,” she said, and who cared about keeping inconsequential hook ups private? The logic hadn’t fully convinced him, but he’d loved her painfully, and wanted to believe her desperately, and, with little more than one high school relationship to interpret women’s motives, he could mostly convince himself. Because he was so in love with her, he’d sometimes timidly hint towards a future together, but she’d stay silent or change the subject. Other times he’d lose the will to contain his love and tell her how happy he was just to be around her. He’d kiss her all over her face, her shoulders, her arms, her fingers. Now he guesses she found all that love for her pathetic. At the time, though, he was too tortured, too consumed to notice. A year and a half in, following a night of arguments, she finally submitted and agreed to be his girlfriend in public. The next morning, he made her favorite breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs. When he put the plate in front of her, she looked at it for a while without picking up her fork. It frightened him, the cold way she remained silent and inert. He had a premonition of her thoughts, but said nothing. Finally, she spoke.

It was over.

He was stunned but somehow unsurprised. What had he done?

Nothing, she said. Then the words tripped out: she was ashamed of herself, it was unfair, but she couldn’t get over her vanity.

“Because I’m Asian?” he asked.

“No,” she’d answered, “that’s not really it.”

“What then?” he asked with a sinking anticipation. “My leg?”

She gazed at the pancakes, her breathing slow and deep. She hated walking down the street with him and having anyone suspect they might be more than friends. And she hated herself for being shallow. He was shocked but not shocked. Like when his hip had been smashed as a kid, the initial blow didn’t register as pain, but, at the moment of contact, exiled his spirit from his body. In his detached state, he hugged her, said he’d love her forever and would be there if she changed her mind. She thanked him for being so calm and big-hearted, then said she needed time away from him. They couldn’t see each other, at least for a while. From outside of himself, he watched his body nod to her, say, “Of course,” pretend to understand.

For some reason, he left the pancakes and eggs on the table until, two days later, he noticed what looked like a river of chocolate sprinkles flowing from behind the refrigerator, up the table leg, and splashing onto the plate where they dispersed in a hurried drizzle over “the last breakfast.”

Within a week, she was publicly with someone. When he learned of it, he experienced a strange, unexpected, mad elation. He exulted both in what he imagined to be her happiness as well as in his own odd sense of vindication. He sent her a postcard of a nuclear mushroom cloud. On the back he wrote:

I hope you fall in love so deeply that when you look at him you wonder, How is this real? What did I do to deserve this? But, mostly, I want you to experience how the fiercest happiness detonates a bomb in the soul. The shards from the explosion you caused in me lay scattered around me, impossible not to step on. They’re stuck into everything that echoes of your presence, from the room in Dwinelle Hall where we smoked weed and made out on the desk, to our restaurant on Jackson in Chinatown, to my green flannel bed sheets.

When you gaze at him, feeling these things, scarring yourself on the shards of your future memories, think of me and know that sensation, that beautiful pain, is how I always felt near you.

 

Malcolm laughed. “I guess I’ve always been dramatic.” He got off the couch and carefully wobbled down to one knee. “Will you be my girlfriend?”

“Mal—”

“By the way.” He put his hand in his tux coat and pulled out an envelope. “Here’s your final surprise for the day.”

Inside the envelope was a head shot of Malcolm in his light blue tux. He had black framed glasses on.

“You wear glasses?”

“Nonprescription. Looks smart, right?”

Confused by a jagged smear in the lower right corner of the photo, she said, “You scribbled on it?”

“I signed it. See?” He pointed proudly to the black scratch over the light blue jacket. “ML.”

“Hilarious. Now, please, get off your knee.” She sat down on the couch and patted the leather beside her. He wobbled up to his feet then kind of flung himself onto the couch.

“Mal, I really care about you, and I understand it was difficult for you to share your fears. That was brave.” She saw him blanch. “So first I want to assure you that I do want to spend time with you and, yes, even have sex with you. I just didn’t want to rush it and regret it. But I don’t think I like the idea of ‘being yours.’ And I don’t want you to ‘be mine.’ ” She placed her hand on his, “Do you think we can be together without possessing each other?”

“Of course we can. You know I don’t give a fuck about being traditional. And I’m not jealous of other guys. But what happens if you start seeing someone else and spending your free time with him? Do I just have to miss you even more than I do now?”

She’d read about the time management issue in non-monogamous relationships. Maybe they had to instate a hierarchy. “Okay then. How about this? We can be each other’s primary partner, and if there are times the other one is busy, we can see other people.”

“Like if I’m having a guys’ night?”

“Or, like, every night I have to stay home with my parents.”

His face sank. “Depressing.”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “This really works much more to your benefit.”

“I’d rather have you with me.”

“Me too. But, for now, you know that isn’t always possible, so how about we try it?”

Mal sucked his lips. “We can give it a go, I guess.”

“Non-monogamy will become a trend. I can sense it. We’re just ahead of the curve on this one.”

They both shifted their gaze to the ocean. She rested her head back onto his shoulder and snaked her arm over his waist. He kissed her hair again. She was going to be in a consensually open relationship. Life was good.

Then he said, “While we’re enjoying this beautiful view and sharing our deepest darkest, is there anything you’d like to add to the mix?”

“Hmm.” Today was a turning point. A day of transparency in the relationship. With their bold plan they were establishing an uncommon trust. And there was something she knew she should tell him. She laughed, kind of sadly.

“What?” he said.

“We’re all afraid of how we’re seen, aren’t we?”

“Despite my own behavior today, I doubt there’s much you could possibly tell me that you should be scared of.”

“Well then. I guess I haven’t told you about my afternoon job.”

 

 

 

[] Melody at School (P -3 Weeks)

 

 

Soon after the non-monogamy talk with Malcolm, Melody found herself on a kind of date with the grad student in charge of her Social Issues in Gender discussion section.

In class that week they’d read excerpts from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and the discussion had led to a rather heated debate on the wisdom or naiveté of the author’s open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Many of the students found the dynamic dubious and manipulative, and sided against Sartre. They cited his numerous affairs against her fewer, longer lasting ones as evidence that he was just a male pig looking to get his end in wherever he could. A smaller contingent, led by Melody, argued that their assumptions were inherently misogynistic.

“First of all,” she said to some preppy, pony-tailed, tri delt sweatshirt wearing white girl named Shira, “you seem to be assuming that the decision to have an open relationship was Sartre’s and not hers as well. But if that were the case why would she have written, as she did in the chapter on ‘Social Life,’ that marriage leads to adultery because it ‘suppresses female erotic satisfaction and denies us freedom and individuality’? That doesn’t sound like she’d have preferred monogamy. It sounds like she preferred openness and honesty and like choosing exclusivity would have meant stuffing her head in the sand to avoid the reality of her desires?”

The preppy tri delt was twisting a thin leather watch around her wrist. Probably an expensive Christmas gift from Daddy, Melody thought, picturing a cheery white sitcom family snuggled around a tree and fireplace, somewhere with snow, maybe Minnesota, which, though she’d never visited, seemed like the kind of place very white people came from. In this vision, the girl was cozied up in her boyfriend’s oversized letterman jacket, his ring dangling on a necklace above her well covered cleavage. Before Shira could answer, Melody added, “You’re also buying into the patriarchal presupposition, with your claim that greater numbers mean greater pleasure, that size matters.” She allowed her face the shadow of a contemptuous smile. “Maybe their love and companionship wasn’t a dick swinging contest. Is that so impossible to imagine?”

Okay, that went too far, she admitted. Tempering her patriarchally imposed cattiness, she forced herself to unthink the scene by the fireplace and replace it with a question mark. She moved the question mark through the room, landing it on the Shira’s white forehead.

“Are you saying the solution to cheating is to allow people to cheat openly and then call it non-monogamy? Maybe you’re right. But the open cheating didn’t get rid of Beauvoir’s jealousy,” Shira said, twisting her watch. “Sartre knew she was tortured by his affairs but he kept pushing her, kept adding women to the list—and lying about his intentions to all involved. Is that the kind of relationship she should have settled for? You said that she shouldn’t ignore the ‘reality of her desire.’ Wasn’t security also a real desire?”

The grad student’s eyes, directed at Shira, wore a look that shifted oddly between annoyed and amused. He said to her, “I think Melody brings up an interesting point about agency here. Should we assume that Beauvoir didn’t choose the arrangement? She had other options, Nelson Algren and Claude Lanzmann, to name a couple.” He picked up his notebook, a Moleskin like Melody’s, and flipped it open to where a blue Post-it gave a serrated edge of color to the white pages. His arm flexed at a right angle, pumping up his muscles. Along his dense bicep flowed a thick green vein that disappeared beneath a tight wrap of black t-shirt. The shirt was imprinted with a cat’s head and the words Sleater-Kinney. As he spoke, she noticed a dimple flashing on and off in his right cheek. “In a 1976 interview, she said, ‘We were totally secure in the knowledge that our relationship was also totally solid, again preordained, though, of course, we would have laughed at that word then. When you have such security it’s easy not to be jealous. But had I thought that another woman played the same role as I did in Sartre’s life, of course, I would have been jealous.’ What do you make of her own thoughts on the matter?”

Shira had been retying her pony tail as the grad student spoke. Everyone watched her as she took her time finishing. Finally, she said, “I think that in public she glorified their relationship. She desperately wanted her ideals to coincide with her feelings. But I’m certain she actually got jealous and suffered.”

“Could be,” the grad student said a bit too casually. “But there are other ways to look at it, aren’t there? What if part of their love was to recognize the illusory nature of security and attempt to overcome jealousy with ‘transparency,’ as they hoped? Couldn’t they have seen jealousy as a challenge and speaking transparently about their feelings and actions as a way to strengthen their bond?”

“I just know that jealousy is painful,” Shira said, looking down again and twisting her watch with surprising force. “I wouldn’t want to cause my girlfriend pain, and I hope she wouldn’t be selfish enough to continue hurting me if a third party threatened our relationship. And their whole idea about ‘transparency’—or his idea, really—probably made her suffer more. I bet he knew that, too, and went on hurting her because he was an ugly, short, narcissistic, man, and to watch her stand by him even as he hurt her must have given him a huge ego boost.”

Shira was gay? Softer than before, Melody said, “You could be right. But she was a brilliant woman, and I don’t think I can judge her for decisions that she obviously thought out. It would feel too paternalistic to invalidate her feelings like that.”

Shira shrugged. “I don’t know that being smart can save us from our feelings. All the research I’ve read makes it seem that the smarter you are, the more convincingly you can lie to yourself.”

The grad student asked, “Oh? And how can we know if we’re lying to ourselves?”

“Maybe we can’t,” Shira said. “Maybe we’re all just making it up as we go along, and we’re attributing our character to something inherent rather than realizing it’s actually just a perspective about ourselves that’s being fashioned by our circumstances and solidified by our habits.”

“The fundamental attribution error?” Melody said, feeling generous. She wanted to approach Shira after class and suggest they meet up. Daydreaming, she saw them studying together at a café, sipping at the maté cradled hot in their palms, occasionally glancing up to consult each other on a study they were reading. Their witty observations would bubble forth into debates over gender and sexuality. Over time, this cute, conservative lesbian would be swayed (at least philosophically if not in practice) by Melody’s more advanced point of view on open relationships. In other conversations, Shira could enlighten her on how lesbians actually, truly have sex (sixty-nining? strap-ons? did scissoring really work or was it an invention of male-gaze-centric porn?). Melody wondered whether Shira’s relationship with her girlfriend was solid. What if it weren’t and the two of them made out one evening as she walked Shira from the café back to her sorority? Or what if, sitting on Shira’s bed, reading aloud from Gender Trouble, their voices coalesced into an electrifying harmony that neither had experienced before? Throughout college Melody had been curious, tempted even, to experiment with a girl. But she kept quiet about it, both self-conscious about her inexperience and ashamed to imagine herself as one of those flippant women who toyed with bisexuality because it seemed cool and transgressive. Either way (or both ways!), she’d be judged. Ironic that she felt confident about pleasing someone with foreign anatomy but sheepish about her ability to please someone with a clit and breasts like her own. All she had to do was touch a man’s hose and widen her eyes, and, voila, the hose squirted. Calling forth the squirt was almost shamefully simple. Yet despite her possession of a clit and frequent attention to her own satisfaction, she had only vague hypotheses for satisfying other women. What got them wet, for example? For Melody, back of the neck kisses or hair pulling usually did the trick. But every woman was different. What if the other woman didn’t come easily? Since a vagina worked differently than the hose, her blow job skills didn’t transfer. She imagined herself down there in front of the furry little triangle, staring at the labia petals in moist bloom, dazed by fear of failure. And even if Melody figured out the body situation, which would probably take a while, the thought of maneuvering another woman’s sexual psychology stirred up other, analogous insecurities. Then, on top of all that, there was the question of her own desire. Was she actually interested in tasting a vagina or did she merely like the idea (the challenge?) of being able to satisfy a woman as well as a man? When she thought about it, though, was she genuinely interested having a dick in her mouth? Were someone to offer her a half-foot rod of flesh to suck on, she’d probably pass. The turn on was her performance, the skill with which she deftly blew the dick flute and elicited the music of pleasure. She’d first recognized this indirect way she got aroused the time she played Medea in a high school production. The rapt gaze of her audience had inspired a sense of fierce, intoxicating, raw power. And though the performance had nothing to do with sex, she’d radiated sexuality. Afterwards, in the bathroom, she’d noticed a snail track in the granny undies her mom bought her and understood, even if vaguely, that her ability to generate in others a desire for herself got her excited (which also led her to her current three afternoons a week “work-study” position). She imagined preppy Shira orgasming at her touch and almost instantly felt hot in her lady parts. It seemed possible that her desire for male desire was mere conditioning, and that sex with a woman could open a world of romance and gratification that her conditioning hadn’t allowed her to see. A thrill passed over her.

Shira stopped twisting her watch. “The fundamental attribution error?” She laughed. The sudden, scornful puff of “ha!” smacked Melody like a palm to the face. “Like how you started being nice to me once I said I had a girlfriend.”

Melody’s intestines cramped. She tried to smile as though she were in on the joke. (Ha!) Shira turned away and began to pack her things. Mercifully, class had gone over time, and the grad student used the fraught silence to dismiss the group.

 

Melody fled the classroom, barely nodding at the grad student holding the door for her. To thank him would have required speaking, a capacity she didn’t trust at that moment. Shira’s laugh hounded her. Her shame gradually transformed to doubt. She felt stupid, gullible, unfairly betrayed by her championing of non-monogamy and, worse, by her optimistic daydreaming. She couldn’t help a sudden mistrust of her insight into people and ability to be a good psychologist. Maybe she was smarter than average, but not brilliant like she’d now and then permitted herself to hope. She even felt doubt about her looks, which this femme lesbian sorority girl had just rejected. Her nose was too wide, her face too round. (She had chipmunk cheeks!) If Shira had been attracted to her, she surely wouldn’t have cut her down publicly like that. Did that mean only men (sex-driven hetero males) were attracted to her? She knew how little that was worth. In fact, the entire future she’d envisioned for herself (astute therapist, feminist warrior) could easily be an optimistic delusion that would end in failure. She should probably just grind out her degree, go to nursing school, marry a Vietnamese dentist, and produce grandchildren for her parents.

Utter decompensation washed through her. She wanted a hug. But from whom? She filed through her cardinal tote bag until she found her phone to call Mal.

He’d texted while she was in class. You on for a feminist movie tonight? The Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Sounds like a little something for both of us there ;-)

From far away he must have sensed her anguish. He seemed to read her mind sometimes, even if cluelessly. What a sweet, loving man. The memory of him limping up the stairs in his baby blue tux appeared to her, warming her heart or her body or whatever it was that felt things. Still, at that moment positive thinking proved a challenge. A part of her, a part she’d never admit to out loud, had trouble believing his love would endure. Right now he treated her like a princess, but eventually her sexual luster would fade and he’d notice the subdermal fear and deformed trust and all the other little things that could make her unlovable in the long term. It seemed unfortunate that she could love him as a whole, imperfect human ape, yet couldn’t convince herself that her beauty wasn’t a cautiously manicured artifice that, seen often and from all angles, would expose a fatal blemish.

Instinctively, she tensed at the rapid patter of footsteps overtaking her own. A moment later, a male voice called her name and the grad student appeared.

“Did you catch up to me?” she said.

“I did.” He offered her a gentle smile. “Is that okay with you?”

She asked if something was the matter.

He said he hoped not. “It was an intense interaction, and I wanted to check up on your feelings.”

“That’s nice of you, but why would you be concerned about my feelings?” She sounded a little defensive.

The dimple flashed. Brown crescents of hair flopped in front of his ears. The rest was pulled into a man bun. One of those feminine looks that could express almost hyper masculinity. On the grad student, however, it came off as a little too soft. He reminded her of a young Antonio Banderas/John Stamos hybrid, but with thin lips and a nose that she wanted to knock a couple millimeters to the right. Odd how this guy could resemble two seriously hot men (from her childhood) without being hot himself. That said, she found it difficult to ignore the thick cabling of his arms and the dense flatness of his chest pushing against his Sleater-Kinney shirt, so he wasn’t exactly not hot either.

“Generally, I like to allow students space to express their ideas and work out their feelings on the issues we discuss. But I also want to make sure that everyone feels the space is safe, and I wasn’t sure whether Shira’s last comment made you too uncomfortable.”

“Thanks,” she said, releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “I’m okay. I mean, it caught me a little off guard, but I understand where it came from.”

He didn’t answer immediately. His gaze was questioning. Then his dimple flashed. “Good. I’m glad to hear that.” Another pause. “Did I interrupt a phone call?”

“Oh, this?” Melody held up the phone. “Just reading a text from my boyfriend.”

“By the way you were speaking about open relationships, I figured openness would be your practice.”

“Oh, it is. Mal and I are non-monogamous.”

He was staring into her eyes, too intensely to be a display of mere friendly interest. She thought she saw one of his pecs twitch. “That’s cool. Are you going to write on non-monogamy for your final paper?” The dimple flashed again.

“I’m not sure. I hadn’t thought about it.” She had, in fact, been contemplating it, but didn’t want to admit to being read so easily.

“Well, I think your ideas are profound. You should stop by this week during my office hours.”

 

Profound. The compliment lodged snuggly in a spot from which, over the next couple days, it would frequently peek out. Were her ideas profound? She herself felt their weight, their sparkle, but the couple of times in the past she’d flattered herself for a profound thought, she’d soon discovered that others had beaten her to it by centuries or even millennia. In this case, though, a grad student, a thinker with credible knowledge, had floated the word. She reveled in it.

There was another consequence. With every echoing of profound arrived an echo of his dimple, his arms—an intermingling of his image with the word’s effect on her. She found herself weirdly fascinated with his off center nose, with his casual choice of clothes. How’d he become a feminist? Was he an activist too? She imagined his fist in the air, chanting at a protest and doing whatever else activists did. Was his physique natural or a feat of vanity? Would he make a move on her? She wasn’t yet sure whether she wanted him to. Twice, at home, she tested out the image of his thick flat chest, the vein in his thick arms as he propped himself above her.

On the day of his office hour, she arrived ten minutes early. His door was open and when she glanced inside he was reclined in his desk chair, gripping his man bun in one hand, a book in the other. His book arm was propped at a right angle, just as he’d held it in class. Both arms bulged nicely. She wondered if he flexed on purpose.

He looked up. His head tilted back as he checked the wall clock. “Hey. You’re early. But that’s cool.”

Embarrassed by her eagerness, Melody said, “I was walking by. I actually wasn’t planning on coming till later. I have some stuff to take care of at the library.” (Which wasn’t precisely on the way, but…)

He spread his book face down on his desk. Melody strained to read the cover.

“Kristeva,” he said. “Tales of Love. Interesting take on narcissism. Have you read it?”

“Not really.” She hated to admit ignorance, particularly to men. “I mean, I’ve heard about it, but, no, I haven’t read it. Do you recommend it?”

“Only if you want to get deeper into psychoanalysis and gender studies. But you’re a psych major, right?”

She nodded.

“Yeah, well. Probably not a rabbit hole you want to venture down.” His dimple flashed. “Anyway, if you want to come back at the end of the hour, maybe we could grab a fair trade coffee somewhere? I haven’t gotten my fix for the day and am not the sharpest interlocutor without it.”

 

For the intervening hour, she lounged on a bench in the sun and thumbed through a paper on mate selection. It suggested that absent other major incentives people opt for mates with similar phenotypes. (Duh! How often did she notice a mismatched couple without assuming that cash compensated for what his body lacked?) The paper had a counterintuitive take, though. It argued that assortative mating, as it was called, actually led to greater fecundity. Maybe, she thought. But maybe not. Evolutionary pressures probably couldn’t explain every little thing about human taste. An alternative explanation for assortative mating was simply that you dated the hottest bod you could land.

Standing up to leave, she admired the tan on her freshly shaved thighs, slender and shapely from all her afternoon dancing. Her skin had darkened a shade in the last hour. She checked the time. Five more minutes. She sat back down and, seeing no one around, drifted a finger pad up her thigh. A pleasant tingle, almost like an itch, vibrated along the line of contact. She noticed her wrists, how thin they looked, how delicate. Her skin was smooth, her bones pixyish. Like a young girl’s. Or a doll’s.

 

She met the grad student at his office, and together they walked to one of the marginally superior on-campus cafés, one where they’d be able to actually nab a seat. On the way, he asked her about her reasons for majoring in psych, her favorite classes, favorite professors, and touched upon one or two other banal, unmemorable topics. (So much for profound ideas!)

Fortunately, it was an off hour and two or three tables were still open. As they stood awkwardly beside each other in line, a scene at the register caught Melody’s attention. A middle-aged (white) bozo in a Dodgers cap stood yapping at the young barista, a sweet looking college girl in a work polo and apron, whose eyes were already fixed on the next customer. After receiving his change, the bozo stepped to her side and continued yapping as she rang up the next order.

“One thing about life,” he said, sloping towards her from beside the register, “you’re either a fly or you’re the windshield.”

The cashier grimaced in that way women sometimes pass off as a smile to appease this sort of gross, entitled-feeling bozo.

Since the grimace probably signaled to him her female brain’s failure to comprehend his aphorism, the bozo explained, “You either splat, you know? Or you’re doing the splatting.”

Then he chuckled.

Disgusted, Melody stepped forward and said, “Stop harassing her while she’s trying to work. Can’t you see she’s not interested in entertaining you?”

“Jeez. I was just making conversation.” He glanced at the barista, probably for support. She was taking the next order, pretending not to notice the confrontation.

“Conversation is a consensual exchange. Forcing your presence on a woman who’s not interested in you—and slowing the line while you do it—is not a conversation.”

He took off his hat. Lonely, sporadic grey wisps wafted from his scalp like steam. He swept them back with his free hand. His forehead glistened.

“Didn’t know that I wasn’t allowed to be friendly.”

Melody almost felt sorry for him and softened her tone. “It’s not friendly to press yourself on women who can’t move away from you or really even say anything without endangering themselves or compromising their jobs. And for future reference, don’t try impressing women by explaining things that are as obvious as your bald spot.” She checked herself. “I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t have said anything about your hair. You can’t help it. But you can help the misogyny.”

“Look, what are you? Chinese? Aren’t Chinese women supposed to be submissive?”

Race now, too? “Is that how I’m supposed to be?”

The bozo examined the floor. A finger reached to scratch his head. “I guess not.”

“And, no, I’m not Chinese. Not every Asian woman is Chinese. I’m American. As American as you are.”

Without making eye contact, the barista said, “sir,” and handed him his drink. The bozo hissed like a deflating tire, and walked off. A few customers cheered. Melody returned to line, triumphant and ready for her maté.

 

At first the grad student acted as though nothing significant had transpired. Though vaguely hurt, Melody didn’t fish for his opinion or his praise. They cupped their respective hot drinks and continued where they left off. Soon he steered the conversation towards relationships. He asked if she’d put any more thought into writing her final paper on non-monogamy.

“I’ve considered it. To tell the truth, I was thinking about changing the focus of my honors project from online dating to maybe how online dating effects non-monogamy. Or something along those lines. I’m not sure yet.”

“Are you planning to use yourself as a study?”

“I know the methodology isn’t the most sound, but sometimes I think I’d prefer to write something that people will actually read.”

“Rather than just a few of us academics, you mean?”

“Yeah, a memoir type thing maybe. ‘I did X for a year, and this is what I learned.’ I have a feeling that’s the next rage.”

“If you’d like, you can try it out for your final paper.”

“Sniff it out first for class, huh?” Melody smiled. “I’ll think about it.”

His dimple flashed as he laughed. “Sniff it out,” he echoed, and removed the lid on his fair trade coffee, drawing the cup under his nose. “Smell is so important,” he mused. “Have you read Proust?”

She hadn’t, but from various references was familiar with Proust and his famous madeleine. “You mean when he dips the cookie in the tea and then writes a book on everything the smell evokes?”

“Coffee reminds me of my mother. She had one of those machines that you could set to brew in the morning before you woke up. I’d watch her prepare the machine at night, the two heaping scoops she’d drop into the filter. All through elementary and middle school, I set my morning alarm to go off at 6:47am, two minutes after the brewing began. When I awoke, I’d rush to the machine, pour her coffee, adding the drop of milk she liked, and brought it to her in bed.”

What a mamma’s boy. “Very Proustian, I guess.”

“I didn’t beg for good night kisses, at least.” His dimple flashed.

“You must have a good relationship with your mom.”

“She’s dead.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Melody said.

“Just kidding.”

“Huh?”

“I was kidding. She’s not dead.”

“Uh, okay. I’m glad I don’t have to be sorry?” That was weird.

“I apologize,” he said. “I’m always curious to see how people react when I say that. It gives a bit of insight into people’s characters, especially their sense of humor.”

“What did you learn from mine?”

His cheek dimpled. “You’re kind of normal.”

“How am I supposed to act? Laugh at your prematurely dead mother? You’re giving me my grade.”

“That’s true. It was wrong of me. For some reason I got a little too comfortable. Maybe it was watching you lambaste that man.”

“What do you mean?”

“Seeing you from a personal side. That you’re as passionate about feminism outside the classroom as you are inside. I feel that I understand you better.”

“What do you understand better?”

“Values aren’t a mere academic exercise for you. You’re emotionally invested in your beliefs. I relate to that. And it’s why I’m curious about your personal investment in non-monogamy.”

Melody sensed the direction he wanted to take the conversation. She wasn’t sure how to handle it. A part of her longed to hear more of his analysis of her personality and values. But she was also wary of his power over her grade and her future, and debated the prudence of confusing their relationship.

Suddenly, the grad student’s expression hardened. He scooted back in his chair. The atmosphere of confidence shifted to cool propriety. Melody hadn’t noticed how close he’d gotten until the distance returned to normal. The change surprised and wounded her. But before either of them spoke again, the reason became obvious.

Shira, materializing like a ghost, said, “Hey, you two.”

Though Melody had done nothing shameful as far as she could tell, the pony-tailed tri delt’s sarcastic smirk poured over her with the shameful sensation of warm liquid in her lap.

“You guys continuing the conversation about open relationships and transparency?” she asked, with more knowing than was appropriate. Her face and throat were lightly freckled, her hair streamed pale penny-copper. She turned to Melody. “Stu is an expert, as you’re probably aware.”

Melody considered the grad student. Stu. Stuart.

“She jokes,” he said, staring at Shira again with the annoyed, amused look.

“What? You’re not writing your dissertation on open, sexually fluid relationships?” she asked him. Again she turned to Melody. “I figured you guys had been discussing that.”

Melody shook her head, trying to puzzle together the uncomfortable dynamic she was witnessing. Then she said, “Well, not exactly. But it is something I’m interested in.” She smiled. “Would you like to sit down?”

Shira remained standing. One at a time, she scrunched her tri delt sweatshirt sleeves up above her elbows, then crossed her arms. “Maybe he can convince you that it’s not all bullshit.”

The evident history between these two suddenly illuminated the classroom back and forth from earlier in the week. Entering the fray, Melody asked, “Did he try to convince you?”

“And failed spectacularly,” Shira said.

Stu threw up his hands. “Oh, come on. Let’s be fair.”

Now you want to be fair?” Shira said. “A little late, isn’t it? And dare I say hypocritical?”

The space between Stu’s eyebrows furrowed into an unattractive vertical bulge. “Shira, please. This isn’t the time.”

Melody sat back in her chair, kind of embarrassed but also kind of delighted to be witness to the drama.

“Why not? So you can try to lure this girl into the same predicament with your superior grad studentness?”

“Of course not,” he said indignantly.

“With what then? With the gym bulk that supposed to compensate for your height?”

He frowned. “Now you’re just being mean.”

“Or the way you’ve dedicated yourself to the role of sensitive feminist?” She laughed and asked Melody, “Did he try that whole bit about how he reads Proust and relates to him because he used to bring his dear mother coffee in bed every morning?”

Melody returned the laugh, finally feeling in on the joke.

“And then that weird bit about how she’s dead when she’s not?” Shira grinned. They were now comrades.

Stu flung his head back and released a massive, frustrated sigh.

“My guess is that he hasn’t quite gotten to the part where he asks if you want to ‘play’ with him and his girlfriend. He’s smart enough to save that till after grades are in.”

“Seriously, Shira,” he groaned, closing his eyes, “did you consider that maybe I’m simply having a meeting with a student?”

Shira’s sweatshirt sleeves had fallen back over her forearms. She pushed them up a little. “It crossed my mind. But then I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s going to resist this one. She’s super cute, feeling her feminist oats, and is into non-monogamy? Not to mention probably a little down on herself after getting scoffed at in front of the class.”

Despite the contempt, it was impossible to ignore the underlying big-sisterly solicitude and the “super cute.”

In a flat, resigned voice, Stu said, “We were discussing her final paper. Maybe you’ll let us get back to that?”

“Sure thing, Stu. I’ve got to get some studying done anyway,” Shira said, and walked towards the counter. The fountain of penny-copper hair, which Melody had for some reason remembered as blond, spiraled down behind her.

“Sorry for all that,” Stu said.

Melody smiled, still high off of the “super cute.” “No worries, but I’ve actually got to get going? I’ve got to think through some of my ideas more anyway. Walk me out?”

“Of course. Maybe we can schedule a time to discuss next week.” His dimple flashed, then faded, flashed, then faded.

“Thanks. Sounds great!”

They stood up. He seemed to have more to say, but, instead of speaking, smiled pathetically and held the door for her as they exited into the bright afternoon sun.

 

As soon as they’d walked a block, she thanked him, waved goodbye, turned the corner, and circled back to the café.

In the quietest corner of the now lively café, Shira was hunched over a pile of books. Melody watched as Shira scribbled in the margins of a book. This was the kind of friend she wanted. Smart, pretty, contradictory, didn’t give a rat’s ass or a flying fuck. Melody inhaled deeply and approached her.

Without glancing up, Shira said, “I feared you’d want to disturb me with questions.”

“Your fears are justified,” Melody said.

Shira gave an amused snort and met Melody’s gaze. Her irises were lavender. As Melody stared into them she noticed the same light freckling in their halo of color as on the girl’s otherwise pale white face. Melody admired the unusual coloring. Its rarity fit her idea of this woman.

“Are you more interested in how it started or how it ended?” Shira asked, motioning for Melody to sit down opposite her. “Because, really, the answer is the same: with a load bullshit.”

Melody sat. “What happened?”

“He led a section I was in during my first semester here. I’d never had a sensitive feminist—or a guy pretending to be one anyway—hit on me. He knew to show interest in my ideas, and recommended important books when I came to office hours. Since I’d never listened to feminist punk, he leant me Riot grrrl and Bikini Kill CDs. I figured he was gay and just mentoring a freshman, newbie feminist. Then he began introducing ethical non-monogamy as a topic of our conversation. He had me read The Ethical Slut, and eventually convinced me to ‘experiment’ with him, since, having a primary partner and all, he would be ‘safe.’ So for a few weeks that winter, I ‘experimented.’ Problem was, he wasn’t actually so ethical. Even though he had a girlfriend, he made me feel special and privileged, implying that I was the smartest, most fascinating woman he’d ever been with, that he almost never found anyone he truly connected with, blah blah yadda yadda. He was so busy romancing me and propping me up that he ‘forgot’ to tell me there were others he was pulling the same shit with. At least one or two every semester. Which I discovered from his girlfriend who, it turned out, was a jealous mess.”

“God, that’s awful. Lying is the one thing that instantly turns someone ugly for me. I lose all respect for people who can’t own up to their behavior.”

“Then don’t listen to Stu. He’s a liar and a coward.”

“This is a bit of a non sequitur, but why were you with him? I thought you were…” Melody trailed off in embarrassment.

“Gay? Just because I have a girlfriend at the moment?”

Melody immediately flushed at her normative assumption. “I guess I wasn’t sure.”

“It’s fine. I’m used to it.”

“No,” Melody insisted bravely. “I shouldn’t have assumed. I should know better.”

Shira said nothing at first. Her lavender, freckled eyes looked thoughtful. “I hope you don’t mind my giving you some advice.”

Melody shook her head eagerly. “Not at all! I think I need some.”

“I can tell that you’re really concerned about all the biases and blind spots we grow up with, and I applaud you for caring so much and doing something about them. But have you considered that you might be trying to be someone you’re not? Maybe it’s just me having come to this recently myself, but I realized as much as I might be able to understand my past and where I came from, I wasn’t going to be able to overthrow it in some kind of psychological revolution. You can become aware of the problems and try to check yourself, which I’ve seen you doing, but you can’t not be the person you are. It’s a recipe for unhappiness.”

“But what if myself is the constant questioning and overthrowing?”

“I’m all for some creative destruction, but maybe think of it this way. If you want to build a proper home, you can’t keep digging up the dirt. At some point, once you’ve leveled the ground as evenly as you can, you have to lay the foundation. That doesn’t mean the thing won’t need repairs here and there, some renovations, an addition for the kids and all that. Question is, what do you want to spend your time doing? Eternally digging up the foundation? Or building a house to live in?”

 

 

 

[] Dinner for Two? (P -No One Cares When This Was)

 

 

For Jamie, few pleasures in life could match a sushi dinner from Koi. Especially when he was starving after one of his twelve hour shifts at the casino. Three days a week he worked eight a.m. till eight p.m. and, sometime in between, ate a flavorless chicken sandwich or jalapeño velveeta nachos before driving home to watch TV and pass out. Being a supervisor at the casino exhausted him. No sunlight, no clocks, nothing to indicate the passage of his workday. Just a monotonous eternal half-light. The casino was careful not to remind the clientele how many irretrievable hours they’d spent being cheated. California casinos were especially insidious. Unlike Vegas, they didn’t attract the average person looking for a fun weekend splurge. The casinos in shitholes like Bell and Hawaiian Gardens served lonely addicts needing their joyless fix. At least the California casinos didn’t allow slot machines, where people sat down alone, inserted the paycheck they’d exchanged for a casino card, and pushed a button over and over until the card registered zero. Even when they won—the slots by law must be programmed for at least a 75% payout, though it was usually over 90%, enticing players with small intermittent wins to maintain the illusion that the next win would be the big one—their faces expressed something more akin to the relief of a crack hit than to happiness. At the Bellagio, Jamie had once tapped an old lady on the shoulder and told her that if she continued at the $1 Megabucks Machine, where she was wagering two dollars per spin for a 89% payout, every twenty four spins, statistically speaking, would reduce her card by ten dollars.

“That’s why I’m going to stop after my next good win,” she’d said.

Jamie had nodded, stepped to the Pai-Gow table, and lost three hundred dollars. A lonely, lonely world. And today, within sight of Christmas, he’d fired two decent, if incompetent, human beings. Firing had become one of his primary functions. The other supervisors hated making the calls, and so one day, instead of listening to them bitch about whose turn it was, he told them, fuck it, he’d do the firing from then on.

One of the two workers he’d just sacked was a chubby brunette he’d asked to dinner a few weeks back. Like all the co-workers he asked to dinner, she’d said yes before systematically excusing herself from every day he suggested. The usual. Underlings were like that. When he asked them out, they didn’t look at him funny or snort incredulously. Instead they said yes then somehow, even though he decided their schedules, never had time.

A relationship would have changed everything for him. He was sure of it. And he wouldn’t take a partner for granted like his friends did. Connie May was difficult, he admitted, and Saul should have married that German girl, Annabelle, who was attractive and rich and super nice and who Saul sent packing in order to knock up Connie May—but at least Saul wasn’t alone. And Malcolm? He had his opportunity right now and was about to fuck it all up.

Thanks to Jamie, Mal had Melody rather than a rotating list of hookers. Setting up Mal with a suitable woman was half of Jamie’s online dating plan. The ulterior intention, though mildly disingenuous, entailed first attracting women with Mal’s photos before meeting them to feel out whether they’d be interested in him, Jamie. If they weren’t—and he generally, like with Melody, sensed their disgust immediately—no problem, he’d announce that he liaised for his friend, which was true. Then he’d try to sell Malcolm’s virtues while sugarcoating his vices. Melody, he realized from the playful photos in her four different profiles, her sexual liberality, her references to free fall and psychology, seemed potentially open-minded enough for Mal—or, just maybe, for him.

As he’d told Melody, finding a partner for himself was “complicated.” Though there’d been some confusion in his teen years, he wasn’t gay. But he wasn’t exactly straight either. Or maybe that wasn’t the way to put it. He was straight, but he wasn’t particularly heterosexual. Sex didn’t appeal to him. Yet he longed for a companion, a confidant, someone to journey through life with and give his love to. Life was meant to be shared. He dreamed of traveling to Vienna with his partner, complaining together about the airplane food. Of reminiscing on the return flight about the old people in the cafe where the two of them shared a slice of chocolate cake and the best coffee they’d ever tasted. Of camping in Tahoe, setting up a tent and creating a bonfire to cook dinner. Of adopting a baby together! But even more than the big things, he wanted merely to be allowed to brush his teeth at night with someone else there brushing hers, to have permission to watch in the mirror as she scrubbed her frothy mouth in one of life’s most banal and tedious routines, to be able, later, to hold the covers open for her, crawl in beside her, watch Saturday Night Live or something as silly and unnecessary and meaningless, and snuggle noses before turning around and falling asleep to happy dreams. But sharing the banal wouldn’t happen with a woman who needed sex. He’d tried once to calculate the percentage of women who, one, would be compatible with him, two, would not require sex, and, three, actually wanted to be his girlfriend in the first place. Then, maybe to compare or maybe to punish himself, he calculated his odds of winning the lottery.

Jamie hadn’t told his friends about his abnormality. He hadn’t told anyone, actually. Ever. Life was already too embarrassing. Instead he wrote poetry. Years of it, since seventh grade, stored silently in probably a dozen notebooks. An unspoken, almost unacknowledged hope had impelled him to draft the hundreds of poems about an enduring sexless love with a sturdy, caring woman, as though breathing enough desire into his poetry might, like with Pygmalion or Pinocchio, bring the art to life.

Meanwhile, as he waited and hoped, he could help his friends where they were too blind to help themselves. To this end, Jamie had recently started dropping hints to Melody about marriage. And his plan seemed to be working. The first two times he’d mentioned it just to feel her out. A word or so about Malcolm having never been so happy, how perfect they were together, and, of course, he’d implied that a woman who married Mal would be set for life. By the third or fourth round of hints she’d grown a little more receptive. Then at an Irish pub last week he’d told her about Malcolm’s dream of marrying young. Malcolm and one of the bartenders were playing darts. He even lied a little, explaining that Malcolm had some funny idea that a woman proposing to him would be the most romantic thing possible. Something about “experiencing the certainty of her affection.” He’d been proud of himself for that phrase, though he’d immediately realized it sounded more like Saul than Malcolm. But since Melody had only replied with, “Oh, that’s so sweet. He’s so sentimental,” Jamie figured this was a subtlety she hadn’t discerned and followed up with the question his entire plan had been building towards: “I think you guys would be so happy together. Could you ever consider proposing to a man?”

Her answer had given him hope. “It’s up to me anyway, so why not?”

 

In the waiting area at Koi, Jamie watched the new hostess usher diners to tables or to the sushi bar. She was wearing a short black skirt that showed off her muscular calves and bony knees. He liked bony knees. In high school he’d once told this to Malcolm and Saul, who then laughed at him for months. It’d always been that way, their relentless jesting humiliation. Sometimes they’d just look at him then look at each other and burst into laughter. They seemed particularly to enjoy making fun of his taste in women, and maybe his taste was different than theirs, but why did his finding bony knees attractive incite weeks of jeering? In any case, he’d learned his lesson. No matter how often he and his friends discussed the wonders and disasters of a woman’s body, he’d never mention that upper lip hair on strong looking women made him feel tender. Or thick necks. Really thick powerful necks. Women didn’t have to have one, but when they did, it was pretty nice.

After about twenty minutes, the hostess approached him with her bony knees and called him to the register. She was maybe five foot five, so they stood just about eye-to-eye. An odor broke from under his arm as he swapped a hundred-dollar bill for a plastic bag with a bottle of sake and the two Styrofoam containers into which the chef had divided his sushi boat.

“A fork and plate are in here, right? I don’t feel like doing dishes tonight,” he said, half-truthfully. He’d bought his house two years ago and owned a fork, a spoon and two snifters but hadn’t yet acquired any plates or bowls. “And cups for the sake?” he added hopefully, remembering his snifters dirty in the sink.

She smiled and, if he wasn’t mistaken, did that thing girls do to make their eyes twinkle. “Sorry, we don’t have to-go cups for sake.”

Though he’d seen it happen before, no woman, as far as he could recall, had ever twinkled her eyes at him. For a moment hope, that rare tease, held a match to his heart’s cold ashes. Its warmth rose to his face. He blushed and was about to return the smile but stopped himself just before the hope exposed itself beyond a momentary widening of his eyes. Her smile was not for him but for his patronage. “I figured. Just checking.”

At home, he took the sushi boat, plate, and sake from the bag and dumped the rest onto the table. The soy sauce and wasabi crashed onto its warped, grease spotted surface, scattering into a nonsensical constellation. Strewn between the condiments were two sets of chopsticks. The plate, he discovered with a thumb-flick that separated the plastic, was also a pair. He stared at the plates, pushing back the nose bridge of his glasses until the lenses tickled his eyelashes. For some time he heard only the alternating puff and collapse of his lungs. Finally, he shifted one plate and one set of chopsticks in front of himself, and slowly nudged the others across the table. Another several breaths passed while he gazed at the food. He folded and tucked a napkin under the edge of his plate, then folded and tucked a napkin under the edge of the other. He walked to the sink, inspected the snifters, and, in a moment of honesty, chose the dirtier one for himself. He opened the Styrofoam container, unscrewed the bottle of sake and sat down.

He chewed slowly, dousing each bite in the saltiness of soy and the sting of wasabi, and glancing, between mouthfuls of sake, at the shot of bitter liquid and the single piece of yellowtail across the table. There was something about the way it flopped over its little clump of rice. He stared at it for a painful moment. His next bite of fish and rice tasted like nothing. When he finished his meal, he scratched his nose with his thumbnail and because no one was looking, because no one was ever looking, dug a booger out of his right nostril and, after admiring its eggy viscosity, flicked it in an arc through the empty kitchen.

 

 

 

[] Guys’ Night Out (P -3 Weeks)

 

 

Mostly, Malcolm presented himself as a guy with an expansive sense of humor and a willingness to party whenever. And mostly, he felt like that guy. But since he’d turned thirty, an age portending some approximate deadline for maturity, there had been an increasing number of moments, especially moments alone in the mornings after he’d partied, during which unrealized hopes broke free from the weights he’d used to sink them and surfaced like children drowned in foul waters. In high school, he’d dreamed about being married at twenty-three. To marry young seemed romantic. That had been back before his heart had calloused against his breakup with Milan and years of rough loneliness, before it had petrified under the mountainous weight of futile effort—back before he’d grasped the unfortunate truth that adult intimacy required more than the lustful passion that had dominated his adolescence. This deeper intimacy he sought demanded a host of mutualities: mutual interests, mutual tastes within those interests, mutual appreciation, mutual affection, mutual sense of humor, mutual acceptance. For some reason, though, mutuality, particularly mutual acceptance, had been difficult to find. Why this was, he couldn’t quite determine. He was sure he could accept the idiosyncrasies of a woman who loved him, provided he loved her. And it wasn’t as though he were abusive or into anything too kinky—like furries or getting pegged. His main peccadillo was the harmless vice of porn and the occasional escort or bar bimbo, which he’d have gladly forgone for the right woman. Yet even if he reduced its frequency, debauchery in some form, Malcolm believed, was as native to his being as almond eyes or black hair. Any woman who truly appreciated the whole Malcolm and not merely this or that aspect of him—like his car, his height, or his bankroll—should accept that fact and not give him a load of shit for it. And of all the women he’d dated, Melody seemed the best candidate for this. Who better to accept his debaucheries than someone whose day job was one of them? Nevertheless, he felt the need to keep his darkest escapades private.

On Wednesday evening Melody had to study late at the library, so Malcolm, inspired by the freedom in his relationship and envisioning an evening of decadence unfurled before him like a red carpet, invited Jamie to go drinking. At eight o’clock, they met a few blocks from Malcolm’s house at Michael’s Ristorante, one of Long Beach’s tastiest and most expensive Italian-ish restaurants, commenced with Grey Goose martinis, and chased their three courses with two bottles of a delicate Pinot Noir. When the check arrived Malcolm pushed it at Jamie.

“Thanks for dinner.”

Jamie pushed it back. “You invited me.”

Malcolm bonked Jamie’s forehead with the vinyl check holder. “And you showed up.”

As Malcolm watched Jamie spend money he’d actually worked for—earned at a job he hated—a shudder of guilt passed through him, but was quickly extinguished by the irritating dullness in Jamie’s expression. Malcolm wondered if it was this expression that attracted abuse or if it was the gullibility attached to it.

After dinner they walked a minute down the block to continue the party. Dim, panoramically mirrored and non-judgmental, the Crow’s Nest had become Malcolm’s lazy default. He didn’t particularly like it there, but he appreciated that no patron at the establishment felt entitled to superiority once they’d ordered a drink and sat down. Those at Crow’s seeking to mate were already inclined to hope less for mutual attraction than for a partner in loneliness. Malcolm ordered a drink and headed to the bathroom stall for a little something to warm the blood and make other people more interesting. Then for two and a half hours he and Jamie sipped Grey Goose and tonic, with Malcolm ducking into the bathroom every so often for a couple booster lines.

“I’m going to tell you something, but don’t make fun of me.” Jamie stared pathetically at Malcolm.

Malcolm felt the desire to flick Jamie’s ear. “I’ll do my best.”

“No. I’m going to tell you something and you’re not going to make fun of me, or I swear to Christ, I’ll leave right now and you’ll have to face loneliness by yourself for the hour before your hooker can arrive.”

“You win,” Malcolm said, even if he didn’t mean it, and Jamie began to explain some dating service he’d just signed up for. The service had interviewed him and was supposedly setting him up with an attractive, sporty woman.

“How do you know it’s not some scam?”

“The women have to pay, too. Same amount.”

Malcolm sucked at his vodka tonic. As usual, Jamie’s logic seemed flawed. “Seriously? How much?”

“Twenty-three hundred.” Jamie’s face indicated he saw nothing wrong with this number. “We get up to twelve dates or a year, whichever comes first.”

Twenty-three hundred was hardly some nominal fee to keep the women from flaking. “Whoa! Two thousand dollars to meet some chick who’s as desperate as you are? Fuck, dude. Just stay here till closing and start going up to the girls and knockin’ ‘em down. One’ll stay standing.”

“I don’t want to knock anyone down. I want a relationship.”

Malcolm nodded. His vodka tonic gurgled as he siphoned the bottom out.

At some point after five or so minutes of them staring at one of the flat screens silently projecting local news into the bar, Jamie said, “Dude, life sucks.”

“Here,” Malcolm dug the vial from his pocket and nudged it at Jamie’s palm. “This works better than the alcohol.”

Jamie clamped his hand into a fist. This angered Malcolm. “You think you’re above it? You’re sitting at a bar, drinking, not getting laid, ever. Maybe this won’t grow balls for you, but it’ll at least make you imagine that you could reach into your panties and scratch a pair.” Jamie’s face and posture seemed to express genuine sadness. Malcolm decided to back off a little. “Look, just take the vial to the bathroom for a minute. If you’re in the stall alone and don’t really want any, just come back and finish your drink.”

“You don’t get it, Mal. I’m not a druggie like you. I can’t just inhale coke and pretend for the next half hour that life doesn’t suck. I can’t just call a hooker like you’re going to in like an hour, and cheat on my girlfriend who loves me.”

“I’m not cheating. But it’s true that we’re different. I’m not into hairy white girls with bony knees.” Malcolm tried to smile.

“It’s not funny. We’re not high school. I’m at least trying to be responsible. What are you going to do with yourself once you blow all your inheritance? Have you even thought about that?”

“Why are you getting so dark? We’re trying to have fun.”

“We’re at some loser bar, with a bunch of drunks.” Jamie gestured towards the bar. “It’s already dark.” His arm dropped, and he shook his head. “You’ve got a girlfriend, Mal. You take her for granted. If I were you I would have already proposed. What are you waiting for? To drive her off with your drugs and hookers? Do you think you’re going to find another hot college student? Fuck it, dude. Go buy a ring tomorrow. We’re getting old. This might be your last chance.” Jamie tilted his head back and closed his eyes. Softly but intensely, he said, “Someone needs to save your lost ass.” With his eyes still closed, he went on: “See the dude with the skateboard?”

“What about him?” Malcolm had, in fact, noticed the forty-something dude with a dyed black ponytail and a Metallica t-shirt, leaning onto the bar. A chain drooped from a belt loop to the back pocket of his black jeans. Malcolm had seen him enter and had watched in disgust as he’d balanced a skateboard against the bar. A man whose body had aged into its fifth decade, but whose desires were stalled in his teens. Depressing. Even worse for it to be so grossly apparent. He wanted to ask the guy how it felt to be a cliché.

“He can’t grow up.” Jamie opened his eyes again. The heat and focus had left his voice.

They were silent for a few minutes. “Remember in high school, we thought we were smart?” Malcolm said, meeting Jamie’s dull stare. “Or I was smart, at least.” Jamie continued to stare and mouth breathe. “Obviously we were wrong.”

“Yeah, well, we didn’t know yet that life is pain and suffering, and it just drags on and on.”

“Correction: the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ … and on that note—” Malcolm downed the remaining Goose tonic, stood up and went to the restroom.

 

 

 

[] Part II: Annabelle, Saul, Connie May

 

 

 

[] Annabelle Gets an Email (P – 3 Months)

 

 

On a September morning, almost seven years after she’d kissed him goodbye at the airport, Annabelle received a curious email from Saul. Despite her regular letters to him, he’d hardly written. Not long after she’d returned to Germany, he married a woman he’d been a little too sexually reckless with. Given her own history with him, she hadn’t been surprised, even if the news had disappointed her shy hope—partly romantic, partly pragmatic—that they could continue their relationship once he’d matured and was ready to be a father to their son. Preferably in Berlin. But she’d been willing to move back to California had he really wanted it.

He blamed the dearth of correspondence on his wife. Early on he complained she had “an irrational jealousy of both natural blonds and any other female who poses even the vaguest threat to the stupidly obvious impossibility of an absolute emotional monogamy.” Annabelle hadn’t responded to that one. She appreciated neither the undermining of another woman nor the underhanded way he implied his continued lust for her. Nor excuses in general. Best to be forthright, she thought. Despite her affection for the confident, clever, optimistic man she’d known him capable of being, she had to admit noticing hints of puerile narcissism. Annabelle had seen him put people at ease and make them laugh, particularly undergrads in his section, but she’d also witnessed him tear down those who disagreed with him, as though a logic that differed from his own deserved not empathic consideration but impatient contempt. She also had sensed that obstacles to his sexual freedom would incur similar animosity, which was why she’d released him from his paternal duties before Xavi was even born. Still, she hadn’t blamed him and had held out hope. Such immaturity was common to boys like Saul, who’d been spoiled by an upbringing that indulged his every demand. But if a puppy could eventually grasp that its responsibility not to shit wherever it pleases extended beyond the intimate borders of its bed and food bowl, Saul, too, she figured, could be housebroken. Not by her—she didn’t believe in changing people—but possibly by the responsibilities of post-student adulthood.

Back when he was a twenty-three-year-old grad student, she’d found herself intrigued by him. Intrigued by the determined way he’d honed in on her before class and asked her for a date. And not for a drink, but for a match on the tennis court. Intrigued by the raptorial focus on his bearded face when he slapped a reverse court winner or ran to the net for a volley. She’d noticed the same focus when he’d listen to arguments in seminar before raising his hand and eviscerating a classmate. Most students, notwithstanding deniably snide intimations here and there, were careful with others’ feelings. Annabelle herself preferred to disagree gently, taking her interlocutor’s hand as though to walk the same path, then softly pivot. In that way, if her aim was right, they’d arrive at her conclusion together. Saul’s brute force approach rarely convinced anyone, even when he was correct. But she was nevertheless attracted to the guilelessness and male confidence that underlay his method—plus he was handsome with his regally curved nose and his black curls a bit feral above blue eyes that always seemed to sheathe a grin. Perhaps she was most intrigued by his potential to be a good person. Like with a character out of Dostoevsky, she suspected his contempt belied a fervid moral sense that, rightly or wrongly, insisted other people live up to the standard his intellect had set for them. It was admirably high enough that he himself often fell short. Certainly for others this could be a turn off, but Annabelle, chronically uncynical, discovered herself wanting to please him and appreciating the motivation.

At the beginning, their talk centered around philosophy and sex, and frequently combined the two. As they lay on her bed after the first time they slept together, he nuzzled his lips into her nape, and whispered, “Until recently, I assumed my attraction to women was based in a desire to have sex with them. Funny right?”

He snaked around her, his leg draped over hers, giving an effeminate curve to his hairless hip and hairy limb. Her gaze continued down the bed. The purple duvet cover spiraled off the side as though trying to sneak away. She reached down and threw it back over their feet.

“A conventional view,” she said, swirling the cool cloth between her toes.

“I’m talking about the initial attraction, that constriction of my lower chest in the first moments of seeing someone. The feeling isn’t a desire to have sex. It tells me that I could want the woman, and will want her once I sense she wants me.”

“And if she doesn’t want you?”

“Then ‘could desire’ won’t ever become ‘does desire.’ It ends with the constriction. What I find even more interesting is that I also feel the constriction when I listen to beautiful music.”

“Sex as music, huh?” She tangled her fingers in his black curls. “Are we making music?”

You sure did. What was that? Four times? Five?”

She squeezed his curls. “Don’t be so sure you’re the musician here. A woman has to know how to play herself.”

“I’ll give you that. Now squeeze harder.” His eyes shuddered closed as she tightened her fist. “Actually, I think music is a good comparison. It shows that the desire I feel isn’t actually for the object. I don’t want the music itself, I want the feeling it gives me.”

She reached for his balls with her free hand. Dark crinked hairs sprung from the wrinkly sack, like the balding scalp of a mad professor. The balls themselves looked exhausted, lazy, and, from her experience, a bit on the small size.

“It’s a desire for the feeling of desire,” she said, still contemplating his balls.

“Right. But I’m pretty sure I was taught that when a woman’s beauty provokes desire, the desire is for the woman.”

“So what does that say about your desire for me?” She lifted the balls and let them fall, lifted them and let them fall.

“Since you’re beautiful, your desire makes me feel good about myself.” He paused, eyes still shut, apparently unaffected by her lifting and dropping his balls. “I desire your desire.”

“I’ve noticed.”

After a moment of apparent contemplation, he asked, “You know the way for me to sense your desire most intensely and, therefore, desire you most?”

“Don’t you know that Americans don’t use ‘therefore’ in speech?”

He opened his eyes, pulled her hand from his hair, and kissed the nails of her fingers, biting down on her thumbnail.

“Ouch!”

“You didn’t answer the question,” he said.

“What makes you desire me most? Hmm.” She feigned ignorance. “I couldn’t possibly guess.”

He grinned. “Let me show you.”

“Again?”

“Yes, again.”

 

Sex had mattered so much more then—or at least she’d craved it more often. Difficult to determine what had changed: whether aging hormones, aging emotions, the fading novelty of new lovers, or lack of exciting options. In recent years she’d seen her lovers, three of them since Saul, less often. True, she’d had other responsibilities—Xavi, her writing—but the Thursday afternoon rendezvous with an older divorced man contented her. It was simpler, more out of necessity than passion. Rather like quieting a mild appetite with a lightly dressed salad than of lunging ravenously at a sizzling half-kilo steak. The time for ravenous lunging had passed. The time for irrational passions had passed. Other activities—motherhood, writing—connected her to love.

Four hours each morning she invested herself in imagined stories. After her scarce recognition for a couple short stories in obscure magazines, her one book had enjoyed moderate success in Germany. The longish novella followed the teen years of a beautiful boy who falls in love with his ugly fraternal twin brother. She’d published it, like her literary hero George Eliot, under a male pseudonym, and she’d mentioned its publication to no one. She hadn’t planned on keeping it hidden, but the longer it remained so, the more she enjoyed her secret identity. No one asked what she did for a living—the family fortune was well known. So nothing had to change outwardly, even if the writing had paid well, which it didn’t. The remuneration was the work itself: the discovery of her imagination, the magic of animating people in other minds. Succeeding in this last point thrilled her most. Twice, friends had recommended her book, sending an agitated flush through her. She told them she hadn’t heard of it and thanked them for the recommendation. Her second book, longer than the first, was nearly finished. She’d given it a French title: Mauvaise Foi. At the beginning, the novel’s characters find themselves trapped in roles they’ve adopted, more for the sake of vanity then they would admit or have realized. Normally, readers want to see protagonists have an epiphany and obliterate their fetters. Once she’d developed these characters, however, she was still unsure whether they indeed deserved epiphanies and obliteration of suffering, and so, though nearing the end, hadn’t yet determined their fate.

 

For a minute or so she stared at the screen, rereading Saul’s email. The wise decision, it seemed, would be to ignore his invitation and continue enjoying the drama free life she’d established over the last few years. What could be achieved now? A relationship between Saul and Xavi perhaps. Almost certainly nothing between her and Saul.

Xavi was at school. Lately the class had begun working on a family memory book. They took digital photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and pasted them into a colorful flow chart—everything they did in his class surged with color—that gave the children a visual map of their relationships. So far Xavi had four photos: himself in his soccer goalie uniform, Annabelle smiling at him while tasting a marinara sauce, her aunt and uncle by the lake, and last year’s head shot of Saul the High School Teacher in a polo, a sardonic eyebrow arching over twinkling blue. She felt tempted to lie to her son, to invent a large loving family that would welcome him at Christmas and play with him at his birthday parties. But of all the things her money could buy him, a family was not one of them.

She lit a candle and settled into her meditation chair. Twenty minutes later she bought two round trip tickets to spend Christmas in California.

 

 

 

[] Happy Three-Oh (P -6 Days)

 

 

On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, a Sunday long with potential, Saul woke to the cat batting his morning wood. He lifted his knee and, partly by accident, clocked the hairy skull an inch or two sideways. The cat arched, flattened its ears and hissed. A patch fluffed up around its spine. As it clawed the comforter, dust rose like mist around pops of ripping fabric, and Saul, allergic to one of the two things near his face, sneezed a nickel-sized glob onto the cat’s forehead. The rest spattered the yellowing comforter. The cat looked funnier now—and more pathetic. For a moment his dislike of Hamburger seemed unfair. Maybe if the cat had been a mutual decision, he would’ve felt more generous toward it. But two years ago the animal arrived like a delivery from hell, hissing and cat-growling in a ventilated IMOP carton, “to teach Davis and Nat responsibility.” Connie May had set up the litter box in the downstairs bathroom, showed Hamburger where to dig and, after the family huddled around the cat squatting for its baptismal shit as a member of the Rosen household, demonstrated the poop scoop for the kids. During the following week Davis’s clever attempts ended with clumped litter pebbles strewn beyond the borders of the downstairs bathroom. The container was soon relocated to the corner beside the upstairs toilet. “Responsibility” now meant that once in a while after dinner, when Hamburger began to mew incessantly and Saul deemed the nagging worthwhile, Davis would crank open a can of tuna and hand it to Nat, who’d jiggle it until the smelly cylinder plopped into the cat’s food bowl. Gelatinous tuna, fresh from the can.

A chip of white paint flaked off from the ceiling and landed beside the snot on the comforter. Saul grabbed one of the crumpled tissues from the nightstand, wiped the snot, and dropped it back into the fuzzy paper cloud. He should throw it away. Or not. What did a small wad of tissues matter when the ceiling was literally falling in front of him? Connie May denied that their little rental was disintegrating. She said the flakes on his pillow—which were on hers, too, he pointed out—were his dandruff, and used this excuse to buy more expensive shampoo.

The cat, oblivious to the goop matting its face, hopped to Saul’s feet, knocked its head against his sole, and began to lick the bottoms of his toes. The moist tingle was soothing, particularly at the vertices of his toe pads. Saul allowed the licking to continue, vaguely disgusted at himself for taking pleasure in the soft scraping of a tongue Hamburger often employed as toilet paper. Maya, the college girlfriend he really should have tried harder to keep, once showed him a spot near the haunch that triggered lapping on her roommate’s cat. When her slender, pianist’s fingers scratched above the tail, the cat’s tongue shot from its mouth and licked the air. Maya. Saul drew a breath and held it, enjoying the tense calm in his chest. Why did he let go of a sexy, intellectual, sane woman. He blew the breath out with the crushing regret that he’d literally fucked himself out of the life he’d wanted.

His first kid was with Annabelle. He’d met her in Philosophy of Perception during year two of the PhD he never got to finish. Her naturally blond eyebrows and naively earnest face were attached to the most toned body he’d ever seen on a white woman. She was German but spoke English naturally and without any particular accent, so he was surprised to discover while eavesdropping on a conversation one of his sleazier colleagues had initiated with her that she’d spent only a couple of weeks in America before the current semester and would be returning to Berlin, her home, at the end of the year. The next week he got to class early and stood outside at the water fountain, eating an apple. When she passed he casually walked in behind her and sat two seats down the seminar table. That day two significant facts emerged: she’d been educated at an American school in Berlin, and her studies, like his, focused on the philosophy of art, literature in particular. The next week, noticing her enter with a tennis bag, he slipped in a word about his years on the high school varsity team and maneuvered himself into a tennis date.

When two and a half months later he alluded to continuing life as usual, Annabelle waved off his suggestion as “undoable.”

“I think you mean irreversible. Which it isn’t.” What seemed undoable was becoming a parent at twenty-three.

“You don’t understand.” She shook her head.

He insisted he did and begged her to stay in America—and, though he hadn’t actually bought a ring yet, marry him. A calculated risk. Worst case, he’d be stuck with her brutally contoured hips, shimmering blond hair, intellectual conversation, trust fund, and gift for emotional independence. The single downside wouldn’t be, as Malcolm suggested, her small breasts—Saul cared about shape, not mass—but her Nordic height that overshadowed his run-of-the-mill five-nine.

“Undoable,” she’d repeated, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed. Saul knelt on the floor, separated her knees, and nestled his face between her muscular thighs, which splayed to accommodate his nose and mouth. As she stroked his curls, heat and moisture circulated off the vinyl upholstery, dampening his face. Occasionally, she’d squeeze her hand into a fist, and he’d moan into her legs.

“You don’t want that life,” she said, in what he’d come to think of as her German bluntness, a trait which, looking back, may have just been maturity. “You’re not ready, and I don’t want to teach you.”

He flung his arms around her waist. Wiping a tear on the inside of her thigh, he gazed into her eyes as meaningfully as he could. They gazed back, resigned and water blue. Soft pale cheeks touched by falling blond crescents, calm lucid irises, tenderly reassuring fingers combing over his scalp. Her harmony of inner and outer beauty seemed rare. Couldn’t he both keep her love and be freed of responsibility for a baby? Why was that so impossible when it could be so easily accomplished?

Ich liebe Dich,” he whispered dramatically. It was a phrase they’d already exchanged in tender post-coital moments.

She parted his curls and kissed the crown of his head. “Ich Dich auch. You can come and stay whenever you like.” He thought he heard her sniffle.

Though he was pleased by her devotion to him, the prospect of entering UCLA’s fall quarter untethered tempted him more than that of fatherhood.

So, early in her eighth month, Annabelle kissed him goodbye and passed through security at LAX, turning around once to wave. He couldn’t recall if she’d smiled, but the image of her balloon-bellied profile remained queasily grotesque in his memory, with its bizarre naval protrusion and orbicular tautness, inside of which cells were rapidly splitting and bubbling together to form a creature half Annabelle half Saul.

Xavier was born two months before the twin towers collapsed. In the six years since, Saul and Annabelle had rarely spoken on the phone, opting instead to email. She conscientiously sent him photos of his son—he’d print the most flattering and rotate it onto the refrigerator—accompanied by Annabelle’s detailed account of “X’s Progress toward Awareness.” Recently, she’d appended a postscript dictated by Xavier. Though composed in German, it was a first grader’s German, simple enough for Saul to understand with his atrophied memory of undergraduate language and graduate reading courses.

It had hurt to imagine his son: the tiny pebble finger bones, their grasp reflex surprisingly strong; the spongy wonder in the graphite eyes, already three-quarters their adult size; the erratic wisps blowing from Xavier’s clay-soft skull; the fat-creased limbs sprouting from the peanut body; the diaper crinkling whenever the peanut body was lifted and moved; the soft, nearly edible fragrance radiating, thousands of miles away, off the skin of his baby. It also hurt that he had no influence, that his fatherhood consisted of no more than an accidental genetic offering.

He’d meant to visit Anabelle and Xavi. But when Anabelle left, he was with Maya for the next semester and a half. Soon after she left for her junior year in Paris—and he’d intended to stay with her there on his way to Annabelle in Berlin—he fucked himself another baby.

Then recently, on a warm September evening, a martini enhanced nostalgia for Annabelle—following a lecture from Connie May on his obligations as a parent, even if it had only been in reference to Natalie—culminated in an email inviting her and Xavier to Long Beach for Christmas, and to be guests of honor at the party he and Connie May were planning. Perhaps he’d also been coaxed by a trio of photos he’d kept of them fucking, a stimulus in occasional bouts of clandestine and rushed masturbation. Hidden fairly well, he believed, in the “Music” folder on his laptop, in a sub-folder “Long Lost,” were one doggy style, camera held out to the side; one of her on top, dharmachakra tattoo in clear focus beside her iliac crest; and, finally, his most treasured, one of her curled on her side with his dick in her ass. The angle of this last photo gave him a pleasing girth, like a midget’s forearm. Shortly before his wedding to Connie May, he’d scanned the original four by sixes into his computer, shredded them and dumped them a block away. Physical evidence wasn’t safe. Even buried within a labyrinth of files and directories on his computer he sometimes worried that his wife would sniff them out.

The opening bars of Thus Spoke Zarathustra rumbled from his phone. Hamburger paused its licking and rotated an ear toward the disturbance. The ear, like an old man’s, sprayed white hair from inside. Saul reached over to his night table and turned the phone to check the number.

“Are you dressed?” his wife asked.

“I’m in bed.” He scratched his beard.

The cat hopped off the bed and landed with a padded thump.

“We’ve been waiting forever. We hoped you’d be up and showered by now. You know we need to pick up the tree after breakfast. If we don’t go today all the good trees will be gone. The party is next weekend, you know, and you don’t want just any old thing in the living room.”

“You’re right. I don’t,” Saul pretended to agree. “In fact, what if maybe, just maybe, we skip the whole tree thing this year and avoid their judgment altogether. I’d bet Jesus would appreciate that instead of murdering a beautiful piece of his father’s art, we can do some community service and help someone in need. And I’m sure all our friends and family at the party won’t look down on us too much for trying to spread goodness in lieu of the more traditional arboricide.”

“Here’s an idea, genius: get dressed and come downstairs.”

Saul had been up till two entering grades for stacks of compare and contrast essays and writing comments for progress reports tomorrow, the first day of the last week before winter break, that idyllic half-month expanse of paid leisure. It was—he pulled the phone from his ear—barely seven o’clock. “Let me shower.”

“We’re starving. Just brush your teeth. You can shower later. You don’t need to impress anyone. Oh, and your wallet’s down here.”

His wallet, along with his keys, watch, and phone should have been piled together on his night table. She must have needed the American Express. He wondered if she maxed out the Visa on hair bleach and pink acrylic nails. But that was just mean because he knew Hair & Nails 911 was cash only. The women there claimed to give her “best deal.” He’d watched them say this even after they’d adhered a butterfly sticker or something equally bullshit onto her toenails. Afterwards he’d grumbled that she’d wasted money on a sticker, something most people stop getting excited about after second grade.

“It’s a waste to look pretty for you?” she asked.

He felt like an asshole, but didn’t want to admit it. “It’s a waste to cover any part of yourself with artifice is what I’m saying.”

“You mean make up?”

“I mean anything. You’d be better without clothes, too,” he tried to joke.

“You’d leave me if I didn’t wear makeup, and you know it. Anyway, if you think people shouldn’t cover themselves with ‘artifice,’ why don’t you shave your beard?”

Usually, she shopped without him and let him discover the bank withdrawals or the charges on the credit card bill. That had most likely been her plan for those two pairs of pointy-toed boots UPS had delivered on Tuesday. But the truck had arrived later than usual and he’d been home to answer the door.

She held up one of the shoeboxes. “They were basically free.”

“And the other pair? ‘Basically,’ of course.”

“Stop patronizing me like I’m a child. You know what I mean by basically.”

“I have a feeling our understandings may differ.”

The shoes had been buy one, get a second pair for half price.

“So you spent money to save money? The whole thing is a marketing trick. You have boots that work fine.” As soon as he spoke, he realized he didn’t want to discuss money again. Exhausted, he looked at the boots. Ornamental straps uselessly crisscrossed over the foot on one pair. The other sported cuffs of faux-fur that resembled squirrel tails. And as if the boots themselves weren’t bad enough, he foresaw how unflattering they’d be when she tucked her jeans into them, a trend only slightly less horrendous than the bunched up leg warmers he’d observed on several women in the neighborhood. It seemed obvious to Saul that fads were always in bad taste, and would be each time fashion marketers recycled them. He’d tried to get the point across to his wife. Recently, seeing that straight bangs had been enjoying a renaissance, he slipped her a preemptive barb about the nineteen-eighties style bangs on one of the teachers at school. She’d listened quietly with a smile that couldn’t conceal her disappointment. Moments like that, when he squashed her childish hopes in the cause of good taste, he’d feel a guilty constriction in his chest and have to remind himself that the alternative was public embarrassment for them both.

“Why is my wallet downstairs?” he asked.

“I found Nat playing with it, so I took it from her and put it in my purse. I reminded her that your wallet isn’t a toy.” After a well-timed pause, she added, “Don’t worry, Saul, I wasn’t spending any of your hard earned pennies.”

Downstairs, his two young dependents were watching Full Metal Jacket, on loan from Malcolm’s Kubrick box set. The fifty-inch plasma TV and surround sound system his parents had bought them two Hanukkahs ago—Saul’s father unable to fathom a gratifying existence without a giant TV—gave the movie too much reality for seven-thirty in the morning.

On the screen, the sergeant had discovered Private Pyle’s jelly doughnut. Saul couldn’t understand why anyone would volunteer to be bullied like that. Jamie had enlisted in the Marines twice, but broke his leg in boot camp the first summer during mile five of an eight mile run at two a.m. with a weighted backpack strapped to his bat-sighted, five and half feet of pudge, and then, after surviving the second summer, got rejected by peer reviews. Maybe they’d sensed the lonely desperation and, like so many predatory natures, felt savage towards it. Since then, he himself had become predatory, rapidly ascending to a supervisor position in a California casino, where, for exploiting human weakness, he earned nearly three times what Saul did for educating young people.

“Ready to go?” Saul asked, noticing a Penguin Classics book open on his stepson’s lap. Davis often borrowed literature from the two bookshelves Saul placed strategically beside the sofa opposite the TV. Months had passed since he’d last added to his collection.

Davis looked up from the book. “Waiting for fatso to go ballistic on Sergeant Dickwad,” he explained in the deadpan that he and his private school friends used to communicate all things. Every once in a while Saul considered how much more like a white kid his stepson sounded since they’d enrolled him in a preppy Jesuit school four years ago. Fortunately, he was on scholarship for demonstrating a Mensa level IQ and a memory for words that Saul envied. “It’s my favorite scene. Nat’s going to love it.”

Natalie nodded, pretending to understand. Saul was ten when he first saw the movie with Malcolm, whose workaholic parents lacked the time to supervise their son’s media consumption, and he remembered the scene as particularly disturbing. But Natalie wasn’t ten. She was four, and, worse, had recently been exhibiting worrisome behavior. Normally, Saul believed that reality, even in its most noxious forms, nourished and matured perspective, but he’d had difficulty battling down the instinct that his unstable child should grow up in an impenetrable lock box. And if not an impenetrable lock box, at least some kind of shock-absorbing bubble that would slow the onslaught of adult-world horrors—rushing at her from TV, the Internet, and a fifteen-year-old brother—which threatened to annihilate a positive view of the world and of herself. He squatted to the DVD player, ejected the disk, snapped it into its case and stood there, calculating where to hide it.

Davis slyly tilted his head. “I thought you were against censorship.”

“I’m for maintaining the integrity of the art. But I’m also for introducing it at an age when its content and aesthetic can offer more than weeks of nightmares. In any case, let’s avoid psychological experimentation on your little sister, okay?”

“Oh yeah, happy birthday,” Davis said and gently elbowed his sister.

“What?” she huffed, and stared at Davis accusingly.

“What are you supposed to say to your dad today?”

Saul nodded at the thin Penguin Classics volume. “What are you reading?”

Davis, holding his place with his middle finger, closed the book and lifted it for Saul to see. Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms.

“A little difficult, no?”

“Easier than mom’s Health & Fitness.” Davis eyed the magazine pile on the coffee table. “It’s like an instruction manual for happiness. You want to take a look?”

Saul raised an eyebrow at the implication and clamped his hands on his hips.

Connie May’s voice, mellifluous and breathy, sang from the kitchen. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, Mr. President. Happy birthday”—as she stepped into the room, she slid her hip catlike up and down the doorjamb and blew a kiss—“to you.” She smiled, twirled once, curtsied then readjusted the standard brown, monogrammed Louis Vuitton purse she’d “accidentally” bought with the rewards points they’d accumulated on his American Express—three years of points he’d hoped to apply toward a week-long Kauai package for next summer. Under the pretense that she must have mistakenly clicked the wrong button, she’d pretended to be as surprised and devastated as he was when it arrived. “All right, Big Boy,” she said. “Since it’s your special day, tell us where were going for breakfast?” As usual she was wearing light, meticulously applied makeup. Her eyebrows were cleanly plucked, the shiny scar on the left, a gift from her father, penciled over. Her bleached hair was butterfly clipped in a swirl at the back of her head. Soft curly strands escaped along her ears and neck. Though thirty-one, vanity and hot yoga had kept her figure stunningly similar to the one in her prom photos, with petite hands and feet and a baby face untouched by the puberty that had worked magic on the rest of her body. From the moment she first took his blueberry short stack order at the twenty-four hour diner, he’d locked into orbit around her strong sexual valence: the tight plumpness of her curves; the pillowy generosity of her breasts; the intriguingly intimidating sarcasm lacing the sort of tender touch he’d found common in women who’d suffered dysfunctional childhoods; the slutty come-hither strut that she’d accentuated, consciously or not, by exposing a hint of blood-red T-string above her black slacks. Even now, the breathy contralto of her voice, with its Joni Mitchell-esque consonants, exerted a sexual gravity. Through the numbing strata of familiarity and resentment, he could still recognize the primordial force that had attracted his groin toward hers.

If where they had his birthday breakfast had truly been his decision, he’d have chosen dim sum. He loved the little thatched baskets steaming with three or four garlicky, gingery, bite-sized dumplings that were served throughout brunch time, arriving always in a different sequence. His salivary glands squirted at the idea of the rice porridge with salted pork and thousand-year egg, the endless flow of tea, the pushy old women trucking the carts. But he didn’t tell his wife this because she hated dim sum and, beneath an I’m-doing-this-for-you-no-matter-how-much-I-hate-it smile, she would have insisted they go. She claimed it makes her sick, but he suspected her sickness was linked more to the attractive Chinese teacher at his work than to the food. So dim sum was out. To avoid the kids’ complaining, he asked them where they’d like to eat. Davis shrugged his opinion and said, “Considering I didn’t get you a gift, shouldn’t you be the one choosing?”

Natalie pleaded for Denny’s. Diarrhea Denny’s, Malcolm called it, and would make Davis laugh by saying, “Denny’s Grand Slam menu: it’ll Grand Slam your asshole shut.” Her mother must had taken her while he was working. In the end, the family settled on The Coffee Cup, a pastel painted local café frequented mostly by the Belmont Heights gay and lesbian community. And, since no one pouted or screamed, it seemed the perfect compromise.

En route to the door Saul stopped to stash the Kubrick DVD in his wife’s purse. Within kissing range, he leaned in to close the eight-inch height difference. “Wait,” she said with a sudden concerned frown. She grabbed his shoulders, turned him around and, tilting his head back, inspected his scalp like a chimp searching another chimp for fleas. She licked two fingers and flattened a stubborn patch on the crown where his coils of black hair were gradually expanding into a yarmulke of scalp, as though to curse him for neglecting his heritage. In his early twenties he’d promised himself that if his hair thinned, he’d shave it off. Then a year and a half ago he detected the inchoate bald spot but imagined no one else quite could. The contrast between his black hair and sapphire—he liked to think of them as “fiery”—blue eyes was his “most striking” feature, usually the first, and occasionally the only, physical trait women admired aloud. He also worried, irrationally, that shaving his head would bring attention to his narrowish shoulders. Four or five days a week he prepared for baldness by driving to the gym for a couple vigorous rounds on the circuit training machines, a cost justified once he’d realized he and Malcolm rarely played tennis anymore.

Pretending to yawn, he reached across his chest and flexed his bicep.

Connie May floated a single laugh. “Very sexy. It’s kind of what your head is starting to look like.”

“I’m not going bald.”

“Saul, please.”

So there it was. Time to shave it.

She tickled under his beard with her French tips and, gripping its crinkles that on close inspection looked like pubes growing out his face but which he kept to strengthen a weakish chin, she gave it a light squeeze and pulled his head close for a kiss. As they kissed, she moved her palm onto his thinning crown, letting it sit there as though she were transferring chi. “I’d been saving the news for your birthday.” She kissed him again. “But don’t worry, honey. It doesn’t matter to me. I didn’t marry you for your looks. It’s your brain that’s hot—so hot it’s burning through your hair.” She laughed hysterically at her joke.

On this Southern California winter’s morning the temperature, according to the local channel, was sixty-two and rising. Connie May was dressed modestly in jeans with rhinestone lined pockets and a too-small leather jacket. Saul threw on his ten-year-old hooded Stanford sweatshirt. The cuffs were fraying and a mysterious blotch dirtied one sleeve, but it was as comfortable as a firm mattress and, along with his beard, tricked strangers into mistaking him for less than he was. Which, he admits, made him feel good about himself. He knew he could have become a rich lawyer—to prove it he’d applied to and rejected Harvard Law for the philosophy Ph.D. at UCLA—but in lieu of ostentatious wealth, he opted for clothes that the Salvation Army might reject and drove a rusting, twelve-year-old Toyota Corolla keyed on both sides, with a license plate holder, purchased and affixed by Connie May, that read, “My Other Car is a Piece of Sh*t.” Though Saul mostly avoided mentioning his elite pedigree because of how pompous other people sounded announcing their own, his pride occasionally vented a passing, “Yeah, Harvard offered a tempting financial package, but, story of my life, I chose love over money.”

 

 

 

[] Snowy Pines Xmas Trees (P -6 Days)

 

 

At Snowy Pines Xmas Trees, a dirt lot recently converted from Pa’s Pumpkin Patch, the family broke into three rows. In front, Natalie’s little hand was gripping Connie May’s back pocket. The plastic chrome beads of a WWJD bracelet twinkled in the sunlight. Under Saul’s watch, Nat had “lost” at least four or five of these, but then Sunday would come and deliver a replacement. Each week, along with other indoctrinatory crafts, she brought home a scratchily crayoned, color-by-number nativity or crucifixion scene with the headline “Jesus Died for My Sins,” or some unsubtle equivalent of “the Lord will set me afire in monstrously painful eternal damnation if I don’t unquestioningly buy into the magical improbabilities you preach at me.” Davis lagged behind his sister, something loud, fast, and guitar driven damaging his hearing. Glaring at their backs, Saul’s indignation rose at the idea of a commercialized tribute to a hateful institution on display in his living room. Other people buying into consumerist religiosity was frustrating but something he could tolerate because, as much as he hated it, he had no control over other people’s stupidity. That his own money contributed to the farce was humiliating and raised questions about the strength of his convictions.

Around holiday time each year, they revived their argument. Connie May would tell him Christmas wasn’t about him, call him a “Bah-humbug” and remind him that he was overlooking the happiness Christmas brought children, i.e. his daughter, and therefore children’s parents, i.e. Connie May and him. During the first three years he caved to her argument, admitting, however reluctantly, that he preferred his family be happy. But this year, a week or so ago, two, maybe three vodka tonics into the evening, he explained that his issue was not “the tree per se—I like trees—but think just a little below the surface. Let’s not mindlessly buy things. Let’s not be ignorant. Think about what it represents: it’s saying, ‘Instead of considering the merits and applicability of Christ’s teachings, I’m just going to follow some ritual that has nothing to do with—and, in fact, runs in blatant opposition to—them. Purchasing a poor murdered tree, and conforming to the fabricated jolliness of the whole event, deludes you into feeling Christian, while really just proving you’re gullible enough to eat up the Church’s self-serving, Jesus-contradicting falsehoods. Look at what your church has justified: hate for miscegenation—ahem, your son—hate for people who enjoy sex in anything but the missionary position—ahem, us. Fuck, Connie May, they even justified slavery with your bible. Slavery! How ignorant can you get?”

“Slavery, Saul? Really?” She squinted at him, as though his face were throbbingly bright. “We’re talking about a tree. A tree that doesn’t hurt anybody. They didn’t fly a Christmas tree into the towers.”

Anything she said about the towers was a dig. While watching a documentary together, Saul teared up and couldn’t help sniffling when the specks of color on his TV began to float to the ground from the sky-scraping windows, as miniature and surreal as characters in old video games. His mistake had then been to tell her about his trip to the observation deck of the South Tower with a high school girlfriend. Connie May now associated 9/11 with the girlfriend.

“No, Connie May, of course they didn’t. The tree isn’t the cause of anything. But it is representative.”

“Yes! Representative of family and joy and giving and us all being together!”

“All that’s just sugar sprinkled on the whole ugly petty tribalism. Look, our government wouldn’t have sent two hundred thousand people halfway around the world to take over a country that also bought trees in December. But, fine, murder and slavery aside, let’s approach it like a Christian.”

“I am a Christian, Saul! You look down on me for it every day.”

“Whatever. My point is this: if you’re so studied in what Jesus would do, do you really think Jesus would spend thousands of dollars on a tree and gifts—none of which is necessary, none of which accords with his teachings, and all of which destroys the environment? I’ll tell you what Jesus would do: he’d feed and clothe a bum. He’d give the money to a prostitute to save her a couple tricks, or wire it to the children of slaughtered Tutsis so they could buy a cow. So how about it? Instead of decorating a tree and buying a bunch of junk to celebrate his birth, let’s be like Jesus this year. Let’s give away all our material possessions and roam the earth in rags!”

His presence inside the slaughtered forest of Snowy Pines Xmas Trees increased Saul’s sense of having failed to become the success he had believed he was destined for. He wasn’t supposed to be married to this kind of woman. Worse, he couldn’t resist believing that his sperm mixed with a different woman’s ovum would have yielded a better result than Natalie. He recognized the meanness of this thought. But it wasn’t as if he didn’t feel love for his daughter—sometimes he was overwhelmed by her fragile smallness and need for his care. He didn’t blame her for her appearance or occasionally psychotic behavior. She didn’t choose to be the product of his and Connie May’s bodies, his and Connie May’s failings. He knew it was unfair to wish more from his child. And she wasn’t all bad. Her face was cute, at least he could imagine it was. And her hair, though thin and sparse like her mother’s, was sweet to the touch. With luck she’d look like her mother—most women eventually did, right?—and get by on that. Hook some rich guy. But right now, her torso was boxy and her forearms and calves grew more hair than did the other children’s in her daycare; her mind seemed to process sluggishly when it bothered to process at all—sometimes she stared at Saul, appearing to await the instructions he’d just finished giving. And despite being told again and again to use the toilet when she felt the urge, thick poop smears ruined at least two or three pairs of panties each week. He knew this, despite Connie May’s protective reticence, because he checked underneath the papers in the bathroom waste basket, but pretended not to notice so that Connie May wouldn’t hide them where he couldn’t track the wreckage.

If his resentment toward Connie May hadn’t been amplified at breakfast by a squabble over the tip, he’d have been better able to repress it while his family picked an Xmas tree. But twenty percent was what you left these days unless the service was unexpectedly bad. And nothing unexpected happened, nothing bad. It was no surprise to him that with two waitresses besieged by sixty or so hungry customers—not to mention the throng milling about the door, waiting their turn—that service wasn’t immediate and food arrived, usually as ordered, at its leisure. The café’s popularity wasn’t based on snap-snap efficiency. People went for the clean, bright atmosphere, better than average dishes and cheerful waitresses. But Connie May hadn’t eaten for about sixteen hours and had grown cranky waiting outside for thirty minutes and then thirty more in the booth. So when she was finally served her spinach feta mushroom omelet with home fries instead of the fruit she’d requested, and complained and was brought—with only one reminder—the fruit, she decided that the waitress, a cherub-faced blond with cute pigtails, deserved only a ten percent tip. Having been a waitress herself, Connie May was an authority on gratuity. She took Saul’s wallet from her purse and leafed through it for the total plus a five-dollar tip before returning the wallet to him. When he dug out a ten and replaced the five, she snatched the larger bill and shook it in his face.

“Five’s not bad for screwing up an order after making me wait forever. That girl’s not going to get extra for showing skin.”

“What? Her arm?” Saul said, as though the sliver of the smooth tanned skin between her beltless jeans and tight black shirt hadn’t been luring his repeated glances. “She’s working hard. And don’t try to pretend you didn’t use the same tricks. I always gave you twenty percent. Even the time my blueberry short stack had no blueberries.”

Connie May’s pupils pulsed—which they did whenever some angry thought unleashed in her a sudden adrenaline rush. “You and your blonds!”

“You’re blond.”

“No shit, Saul. Why do you think I don’t let the brown grow out?”

This fallacy, as Saul understood it, was predicated on the coincidence that some of his ex-girlfriends, including the one he shared a child with and had offered to marry, had been natural blonds. Dravidian dark Maya, his secret favorite, would have been convincing counter-evidence had he been stupid enough to mention her.

Across the table Natalie covered her mouth and spoke through her hand. “Jesus wouldn’t say ‘shit,’ Mommy.”

Saliva gathered in Saul’s mouth. He swallowed it. “Jesus has been dead for two thousand years, sweetie. You can’t talk about him in the present tense.”

Beside Natalie, devouring a pile of French toast, Davis pretended not to hear anything.

Connie May folded the ten-dollar bill into her palm and began to forcefully stack the dirty plates. With a pinched smile, she said, “Sometimes it’s hard to be like Jesus when you’re angry.” Yelling and vigorous cleaning were the primary vents through which anger exited her body. “But you’re right, sugar cakes. Jesus wouldn’t use that word, and we shouldn’t either.” She plucked up the silverware. The knives and spoons clattered harshly on the ceramic.

To alleviate some tension, Saul said, “Jesus wouldn’t have cared what your hair color is, C, and neither do I. You’re naturally beautiful.” He leaned in to kiss his wife.

She dodged the kiss and exhaled sharply through her nose. “Don’t be so cheesy.”

“But it’s true, mom,” Davis said, his tone urging reconciliation.

Connie May lifted her nicked eyebrow at her son and swept all the crinkled napkins into a pile.

No one spoke. Saul gave his stepson a thank-you-anyway grimace. Davis sunk into the booth. The springs squeaked.

Connie May humphed. “I shouldn’t even be helping her.” She tossed the balled up napkins into a toast basket next to the plates she’d stacked.

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it,” Saul said.

His wife didn’t acknowledge this. Instead she shivered as though recalling something awful and, humphing again, slapped the ten-dollar bill onto the table. “There,” she said. “Happy now that your blond gets her twenty percent?”

 

Saul watched his wife poke giggles out of their daughter, mimic baby noises and counterfeit an overzealous joy—and point at the tallest, bushiest trees, a gesture he was certain was leveled at him. When they last discussed it, she’d agreed to a small tree, waist high at most, and without the white gunk sprayed on—as though snow were ever a part of a Southern California Christmas. But now she’d probably track down the most expensive, in-your-face monstrosity on the lot. And it wasn’t as though he hadn’t already compromised. Any further sacrifice would set a precedent of utter defeatability for the next holiday season. He increased his pace to catch up with her. Not to start a fight. Just to put his foot down.

His mobile phone rumbled out Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Time for a new ringtone. He’d started with the standard shrill br-ring, but his phone was a popular model and he often found himself reaching into his pocket for someone else’s call.

His parents began a simultaneous rendition of the Happy Birthday song. He talked over them before they got to “dear Bubela,” their pet name for him and one of the dozen or so Yiddish words they’d inherited from their immigrant parents.

“I can’t believe you’re thirty,” his mother sighed. “You’re so old.”

“I’m sure you didn’t feel old at thirty,” Saul said.

“Of course not!” his mother said. “But you’re my baby. It’s difficult for me to believe I have a thirty-year-old child. It makes me sound old, even if I don’t feel it. When Natalie’s thirty, you’ll see.”

“Did you get my text message this morning?” his father cut in. “I sent it at midnight. Your mother kept me up with her snoring.”

“I didn’t see it. Sometimes I get texts and voicemail a day late. Stupid service.”

“See,” his mother said, “he would have called back.”

“There’s a website where you can send free text messages,” Israel explained. “Of course, they steal the money on the receiving end. I read in the paper about how these texts costs them nothing. But they charge forty cents. Twenty to send and twenty to receive. You should see the fees on the bill. I have no idea what they’re for. I bet no one knows. In fact, I know no one knows because I called and asked. ‘What’s Teleconnect Fund? What’s Relay Service Device Fund?’ The Indian guy they outsourced customer service to said, ‘It’s the Teleconnect Fund, sir.’ So I tell him, ‘I can read that. Why is it on my bill?’ They should keep it simple and include everything in the $69.99.”

“Oh,” Saul’s mother said, “don’t make it such a big deal. It’s not like we’re running out of money. The universe provides.” She believed in souls and tunnels of white ether warping you to a neat little afterlife where old friends and family gathered, gossiped and kept watch over the living.

“No, Goldie. I provide.” No one was quite sure why he called her by the diminutive version of her maiden name, Goldberg. Her name was Iris.

“It provides because we believe it will,” his mother said with finality.

“Belief or forty years of work is the same thing if the money just appears in your joint account.”

“Are you stopping by today, Bubela?” she said. Saul often envied his parents’ mastery of the selectively deaf ear.

“We’ll see, Mom. I have a lot of stuff to take care of.” In general, talking to his parents wasn’t difficult. He even enjoyed occasionally spending time with them. But for some reason he was allergic to his mother’s questions. He should have been gentler with his parents, especially since they’d generously subsidized—and continued to subsidize at fifteen hundred per month—his missteps.

“Leave him alone, Goldie,” Israel said. “He’ll stop by if he’s got time.”

“Hoooo, shit!” was shouted from off to his right, followed by an unmistakable laugh.

“I’ve got to go,” Saul said. “I’ll call you later.”

“Happy—!” he heard his mother coo as he clicked off the call.

Malcolm approached with his swagger-limp. He was wearing pinstriped slacks, black leather square-toed shoes and, unlike anyone else in Southern California, a pea coat. Six lanky feet of miraculously contained explosion, Malcolm had been Saul’s closest friend since third grade, the year before a Cambodian gang member, who’d heard, correctly, that his girlfriend had “done shit” with Malcolm’s older brother, ambushed Malcolm outside the elementary school, breaking his nine-year-old pelvis and femur with a metal pipe. Tragic that Malcolm had paid for his brother’s carelessness and bravado, yet it was impossible now to imagine Malcolm without the limp adding panache to his splayfoot strut. In twenty years of friendship Saul had never heard Malcolm lament his bad luck or lay blame. Aware of his own insecurities, Saul knew he’d be ashamed, and for this reason had rarely broached the subject. But when he had, Malcolm had shrugged and said four botched surgeries was enough; he didn’t believe one more would improve his quality of life.

Cupping his hand to his mouth, Malcolm shouted, “Happy three-O.”

“Happy thirtieth!” Melody, next to Mal, echoed.

“Yo,” Saul said when his friend was within normal speaking distance. They bumped fists. Malcolm slapped Saul’s shoulder. They laughed. Saul then hugged Melody, who reciprocated with one arm while clutching the base of a two-foot tree with the other. Despite the chilly air, Melody was wearing a crimson shirt cut so low and tight that her nipples would probably have popped out from a real laugh, and, even better, shorts that, were it not for the belt loops through which a white canvas belt with an “M” buckle was threaded, Saul would have mistaken for denim panties. Utterly tacky and effective seduction. From a recent visit to her workplace he’d familiarized himself with the soft temptations of the little that was hidden.

“See, now that’s a nice little Jesus bush.” Saul pointed to her tree and nodded his approval. He shifted his eyes from the tree, breezing over her tits and the cute chipmunk cheeks of her symmetrical face with its flat nose and large nearly black eyes that, coupled with her parted lips resembled a small panting dog—a Pekingese or something like that. “Aren’t you Buddhist, though?”

“Sure. But I grew up with Christmas. The family gathers at my grandma’s and she cooks a huge pot of phở”—she pronounced it as a question, with the Vietnamese bounce that reminded him of a racquetball popping off a wall—“and we all open our presents. You don’t have to be Christian to enjoy Christmas. It’s nice anyway, don’t you think?”

“Our friend here,” Malcolm said, “doesn’t think anything that has to do with religion is nice. For years, he swore he’d never celebrate Christmas or let his kids go to Church.” He shook his head and said to Saul, “You’re whipped, dawg.”

“I’m holding true to my beliefs,” Saul assured. “So what if Nat gets sneaked off to Church a couple times a month.” A conservative estimate. “The rest of the time I am her religious education.”

Malcolm was grinning victoriously. Melody appeared dubious.

“Not sure about what happens in your relationship, but in a marriage you have to present at least a semblance of compromise.”

“Whipped, compromised—call it whatever you want.” Malcolm squeezed Saul’s shoulder, massaging it roughly for a few seconds. “Anyway, I was going to call you to see if you wanted to celebrate tonight at Koi? Jido’s working. Omakase on me. Your favorite.”

Omakase was indeed Saul’s favorite: a meal designed extemporaneously and based on the whims of the chef, like the art of jazz applied to food. It was also a meal he couldn’t afford by himself. “Let me talk to Connie May,” he said, annoyed that he’d be forced to struggle for no good reason.

“Tell her to come too.”

“We’ll see.” This would be a difficult sell, considering he’d been with Malcolm on Friday afternoon when Connie May had decided to surprise him at work.

“I’m sure your parents will watch the kids.”

“I said”—Saul suppressed a throat swell of self-pity—“ ‘We’ll see.’ ”

As the clouds drifted, slivers of light opened onto the dry dirt of Snowy Pines Xmas Trees. Malcolm looked down and shook his head again. His faux-hawk gleamed like patent leather. There had been much head shaking since Saul had forfeited bachelorhood. Its frequency had forced Saul to note his friend’s gradually receding hairline and had led him to compare Mal’s aging to his own: hair loss, spontaneously cramping muscles, aching spine, stressful bowel movements, and, most recently, portents of arthritic knuckles in the cool winter mornings before the Corolla warmed up. Bodies began to decay earlier than Saul had expected. How many years were left before decay foreclosed on pleasure, before laughing with friends and eating sushi caused greater suffering than satisfaction? How long before a pacemaker was installed to spur his heart to continue galloping under the ruthless jockeys of job and family? When would his cheeks slacken into sun-spotted jowls and his scent rot into the alliaceous, mildly fecal odor of old men, snuffing out what remained of his diminishing ability to attract attractiveness? How long before even porn and masturbation would fail to get his dick hard? What was he doing with his life? He could have been feeling in love right now. He should have been lecturing at a university and seducing supple, intellectually curious women. A professor of desire. Instead he was spending his pathetic income on a Christmas tree and suppressing rage because the simple wish of meeting his friend for dinner on his birthday would most likely end in an asinine battle with his wife.

“What are you guys talking about?” Connie May pinched him in the kidney area and began to crawl her hand around his waist. He moved to push her hand off, but stopped. She ran her tongue over her lips and smiled at him with what appeared to be trusting curiosity—a combination of inquisitiveness and vulnerability that elicited a paternal reflex. Nothing he could do against it. Trust had that effect on him.

Malcolm said, “Koi tonight. My treat.”

Saul reminded his wife, “It’s your favorite. Jido’s behind the bar.”

“Sounds great,” she said. “You should go. Someone has to stay home and watch the kids.”

Saul recognized Connie May’s twofold strategy. Fold one: still upset from relenting at breakfast, she planned to make this difficult. Fold two: if he slipped up now, she’d have yet another thing to lord over him. The best move was to insist that she join. “My parents would be happy to watch Natalie. They can play War! War! all night. You should come.”

Her nostrils flared subtly. He realized his mistake. “You should come,” sounded like he’d go without her.

“I can’t ask them to watch Natalie again. You should have told me earlier so I could have found a babysitter.” To Malcolm and Melody, she said, “I can’t trust any old somebody with my baby girl.”

“Yeah, they’d strangle her,” Saul said. “We haven’t been out in at least a month. I’ll ask my parents. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

“Don’t. They’d never say no to you.” Turning again to Malcolm and Melody, she explained, “They give us too much already.”

Saul turned towards a heavy clinking sound. A woman and young girl passed by with an enormous English Mastiff, a cowbell hanging from its collar. The trio stopped beside an Xmas tree six or seven feet away. The dog, loping to a halt, probably weighed more than the woman and girl combined. In fact, its massive droopy head alone might have outweighed the little girl. It caught Saul staring and barked. The bark, powerfully deep, startled him. The woman holding the Mastiff’s leash winced apologetically and explained, “Ursa just wants to play.”

“Yeah, man, relax,” Malcolm said. “Ursa just wants to bat around your severed head.”

Davis, headphones in, laughed. Malcolm mussed his spongy hair. Grinning, the kid swatted the hand away.

Saul raised an eyebrow and frowned. “Ha, ha.”

Then, with everyone still watching, Ursa lifted a leg and let loose on the Xmas tree. The operatic stream ricocheted onto its belly. After an impressively long aria, the dog squirted out a staccato finale, and, mission accomplished, the trio continued on, apparently without any shame.

Did you see that? Saul wanted to ask everyone. What a wonderful freedom to possess, to be allowed to piss all over a Xmas tree. A vengeful satisfaction second only to ass fucking in a church.

Connie May persisted, “Really. I’ll see if I can make it. If not, you guys go and have a great time.”

Malcolm said, “You sure?”

“I don’t need to be there for everything,” she said, in which Saul heard, “I can’t believe you’ll celebrate my husband’s birthday without me.”

“All right,” Malcolm said and turned to Saul. “Meet there at eight?” Quickly, probably sensing the coming argument, he added, “We’re off. Melody’s got a haircut.”

Before they could turn away, Connie May flicked a finger at Melody’s midget tree. “Too bad for Saul you got that one first. Did you see anything smaller than that? A branch maybe? Or do you think we should snap a twig off one of these bigger trees, smuggle it out in Saul’s ratty sweatshirt pocket and call it a day?” She patted Saul on the back. “You know how this one feels about Christmas.”

Malcolm laughed and moved to hug Connie May goodbye. She whispered something in his ear. Malcolm said, “Yeah. Later.” Then, louder, he joked, “You’re not surprised that he’s an inconsiderate asshole, are you?”

“Please, Mal. I’m crazy, not delusional.”

 

 

 

[] You Still Love Me? (P -6 Days)

 

 

Back at home with the kids in front of the TV and Connie May upstairs, waiting for him to confess to the hurt he’d caused her at both breakfast and the Xmas tree lot, Saul crawled to the kitchen and plucked the econo-size Grey Goose bottle from its place on the counter between the half-gallon Bombay Sapphire and the coffee maker. The clock on the stove assured that in twelve minutes his drinking wouldn’t be taking place in the morning. But, anyway, it was his day off. And his birthday. And he was Jewish—alcoholism wasn’t in his make-up. Applying surgical deftness to each stealth repositioning of his body and the objects it was moving through space, he retrieved the cocktail shaker, carefully opened the freezer, slid a handful of crushed ice into the shaker, added a manly sum of vodka, wrapped the shaker in a dish towel embroidered with the advice “Live Life to Its Fullest,” wrapped the dish towel into his sweatshirt, turned to the wall, crouched into a ball, and shook as quietly as possible. He emptied the crisp liquid into a tumbler and hardly a minute later had rinsed, dried and stowed the shaker in the cabinet. The glass in his hand, which he planned to down in two or three gulps, looked to all eyes like refreshingly cool water. A martini may taste better in its fancy inverse cone, but it was somehow cozier in a regular glass.

Dumping poison into the organism helped relax the mind. The toxins, loosening Saul’s sense of obligation to other people’s concerns, whispered, Who gives a fuck what she thinks? What’s the worst she can do? Get angry? She wasn’t going to leave him. What if he just up and left her, though? The answer, of course, was that she’d suffer for a while and move on. Maybe less comfortably—or, shit, maybe more. She’d leech onto a new guy, probably a rich one with a big dick. The image of another guy’s dick in her upset and aroused him. Envisioning her fucking a bigger, more pleasurable dick than his excited the lust and terror of jealousy. But the jealousy would fade. From experience with ex-girlfriends, he knew it lasted for six, maybe nine, months—a duration similar in length to the infatuation at the beginning of a relationship—then he’d be over it, the bulk of it consumed in the fires of masturbation. But he couldn’t leave Connie May because he couldn’t leave his daughter. She was already unstable. And a divorce would fuck her up worse. Especially if Connie May had primary custody over her. She’d brainwash his little girl to despise him and everything he believed. Then, instead of becoming an interesting person, his daughter would become her mom. Sometimes, however, when he considered his influence, a darker notion chilled him. What if his control over her fate was imaginary, and his entire domestic struggle was erected upon delusions of his own consequence? Managing classrooms of children had taught him the futility of control by force or even by threat of force. Exercising force incited resentment, and threat of force worked only on a child who hadn’t yet discovered that his authority relied on her belief in it. The only true control came by persuading her that imitating him would benefit her. This sort of control could only be achieved by consistently modeling success. Which he wasn’t doing. So here was another reason to drink the poison: temporary nonchalance toward his recent model of underachievement.

To prepare for the onslaught of Connie May’s anger, he drank vodka. A couple pre-noon swigs would buttress his spine for his marital duty. If when he confronted her he weren’t numbed to her unhappiness, he’d probably start yelling. Yelling was totally pointless, like running a hamster wheel. You got nowhere and you arrived there exhausted. And worse, yelling fortified the obstinacy he was trying to penetrate. Pleading wouldn’t work either. Nor would crying. Nor would an apology. At least, not at first. Her indignation was impregnable to any single method of attack; his respite would come only after he conceded defeat hundreds of times in thousands of words, jiggling the phrasing like a cheap key in a rusty lock until something clicked and she said, “See, that’s all you needed to say.” Only then would they have sushi.

His glass was empty. He lifted it to his mouth and tilted his head back, waiting for the last stubborn drops to slide out. Then he uncorked the Goose and poured another manly gulp directly into the tumbler.

At the beginning of the relationship it had taken only a few minutes to calm her. Her tolerance to apology had grown since then—in proportion to his tolerance for alcohol. These days she could battle for three or four hours before she was convinced of his surrender. Sometimes they battled late into the night. Letterman would start his monologue, soon Conan was thanking his guest for appearing on his show, and then there was whatever brainless crap CBS spoons through the tube for insomniacs. If he wronged her during the day, they locked themselves in the bedroom—or the bathroom, depending on who was home to overhear. And with each argument his frustration grew, the hours a waste of breath he could be breathing into something or someone else.

“Fuck,” he moaned and took another drink. The bedroom seemed exhaustingly distant, an arduous slog up the helicoid staircase. He realized he was sighing and trapped the sigh on the inhale—held it, held it, held it—waited for the body’s dread of suffocating to overtake the dread of dealing with Connie May, and, finally forced to exhale, savored the pleasure of relief. Okay, better go now. But eat a pear first to lessen the vodka breath. Then say the pear was fermented. Or, no, don’t. He should stand up for his right to take a sip of vodka on his thirtieth birthday.

Only four of their five years together had been so volatile. In the beginning, the two of them had been relaxed, uncomplicated versions of the people they’d since become. He remembered returning to the diner without the usual coterie of grad students, hoping she’d be there. Hard to believe that he’d been so nervous, so doubtful he could convince her to go on a date. Her boldness had intimidated him. She was the kind of waitress who sat next to you in the booth when she took your order, and touched your arm to ask if you needed anything else—Ketchup? Tabasco? He sweat under his arms and on his forehead as he posed at the bar, Heidegger’s Being and Time on the counter, spinning his most charming self at her, concealing lust behind platonic concern and ambiguous flirtation until he mentioned something about Venice beach and she, without him asking, said she’d love to go.

They began to see each other regularly. Since it was far from campus and usually inhabited by a child, he rarely visited her apartment. When he did, though, for the first month at least, he brought her chocolate with almonds, which he’d learned had been her favorite Halloween candy. More often, she drove to his place after work. Iris sat for the ten-year-old Davis while Saul introduced Connie May to LA’s best ethnic restaurants, a luxury they enjoyed courtesy of Israel, who, knowing his son wouldn’t be able to afford fun on a Ph.D.’s stipend, had given Saul a MasterCard for “special occasions.” Before their relationship began, Connie May thought Panda Express was Chinese food. She’d never had real sushi before their second date—only California rolls from the supermarket. She knew even less about Korean or Malaysian or Indian food, and when he first brought her to an Ethiopian restaurant on Fairfax, she said, “I didn’t think Ethiopians had food.” Sometimes surprised by her ignorance, he answered her questions about his heritage and why he didn’t wear “a little hat.” To her, Jews were exotic, like pygmies or Masai. She was excited to celebrate her first Passover at his aunt’s, and slightly disappointed when the dinner revealed almost nothing to her about the religion. “We’re eating Jews,” he explained. Davis, who regularly attended Church with his mother and had been brought to the seder to meet Saul’s family, asked Iris why she’d killed Jesus.

Saul came to his mother’s rescue. “The Jews didn’t do it. Let’s be specific here. His body was killed by the Romans, and his teachings were killed by the Church.”

At the beginning of their courtship, every topic branched into dozens of anecdotes. Hours were spent marveling at the disparate nature of their pasts. He confessed to her the pressure he experienced in high school to be both the number one singles player and valedictorian. She listened to his story about speeding back to school, wearing a Yankees cap and sweating from rage, storming into the counselor’s office the afternoon he received Princeton’s early admission rejection letter, and accusing her, on tenuously founded suspicion, of sabotaging his application. The counselor’s confused and sad expression made it clear she’d been innocent—though he hadn’t realized it for several years. Connie May joked about how she’d attended a partial semester at every community college in the area. He alluded to great minds and referenced things that sounded brilliant. She’d gaze at him with interest, admiration even, and say she wished she were that smart. They’d laugh about the strange people at her work. The latest cowboy boots the owner had on as he informed his employees that he couldn’t pay minimum wage because the restaurant was barely covering his bills. Or guys who seemed to have no job and, since they were regulars, were allowed unusual orders like half of a hard-boiled egg.

Her son was her favorite topic. He’d been the cutest baby everyone she knew—or met on the street, she was quick to add—had ever seen and she, along with everyone she knew, had been awed by his extraordinary precociousness. Looking back on this, Saul could admit the almost pretty sensuality of Davis’s long-lashed green eyes that contrasted with the spotless carob skin of an angular symmetrical face framed inside the kind of spongy curls only mixed kids grew. And it was true he had read more literature and possessed a sharper wit than most of his peers, but in other cases Connie May obnoxiously exaggerated his talents. For example, she had kept every attempt at art he’d ever made, no matter how glaringly unspectacular the result. Stacks of construction paper crowded their closet floor, the work dating from 1995 to when he suddenly stopped in 2004, admitting to Saul that, had he not worried about disappointing his mother, he would have quit “years ago.” She didn’t see her son clearly, wouldn’t concede his limitations. Though, Saul had to admit, what loving mother does? Motherly love wasn’t rational; perhaps it wasn’t even sane. Saul’s mother still thought he was God’s gift to everyone he met.

On their first date Connie May had explained why Davis was nearly half her age. Her school friends, she’d said, had been cholas and, like her, were knocked up before their senior year of high school. Their baby-daddies, though, were cholos with a sense of family. “My baby-daddy was black,” she said. Saul, whose grandfather had participated in the March on Washington, frowned at her implication.

“Hey, just telling you what happened—that’s all.” She threw her hands up and shrugged. “Nothing special about him anyway besides his big dick. In the end it wasn’t worth it to try to get him away from his wife and three other kids.” He hoped she meant the big dick wasn’t worth it. Weeks later when Davis’ father popped up in conversation, Saul asked casually, downplaying his curiosity, how big it was. “Trust me,” she said, dismissively. “It’s not all that fun when you can’t get it in all the way without it hurting me.”

He didn’t believe her and often wondered, in a muddle of jealousy and arousal, if she missed it.

In those first weeks, aside from her work and her son, she talked about her childhood, how fucked up it was, how she measured her history by scars—whether something happened before or after a particular mark on her body. The nick on her eyebrow where no hair grew from the time her father, who lived with them for three wild months during kindergarten, knocked her head against the tub faucet after she cried that she wanted privacy in the bath. Above her knee was a pale finger-length scar from biking into a rose bush during the winter of fourth grade. Everyone she’d ever seen had made it look so natural, and when one of the neighborhood kids offered his bike to try out, she underestimated the balance required at slow speeds. The puffy dot on her forearm from the last morning of school freshman year reminded her never to walk up behind her mother yapping on the phone, blind to surroundings, blindly gesticulating with a cherry-tipped cigarette. Abuse and negligence, Saul concluded, were the leitmotifs of her childhood. But they were able to laugh about it. Tragedy was amusing viewed from the heights of cloud nine.

At that point, trust hadn’t yet been questioned; the stakes were still low: a couple months invested in afternoon sex, exotic dinners and evenings in her bed after Davis had gone to sleep. When he’d planned to meet Malcolm at a bar, she’d smiled and told him to have fun. They’d still lived separately, banked separately, the boy wasn’t, and would never be mistaken as, his. Connie May’s job paid her survival; it didn’t matter to him that it was dead end. The seed of their relationship had barely germinated, its roots yet to force their way through infatuation’s protective integument into the dirt of reality. In the off chance that a relationship with someone of such a dissimilar background—and foreground—were to take root…well, that off chance seemed far, far off.

After several months the relationship’s end seemed inevitable. By then her body had ceased to generate in him sufficient illusions about her personality. He’d accumulated enough experience about relationships to acknowledge that his and Connie May’s main point of compatibility was sex. Since that second bulk pack of condoms ran out two months before, this wisdom had been tested almost daily. He hadn’t ended the relationship just yet because dumping her without her having done something to earn it would have come off as his being cold, and as irrational as this was—and stupid, in retrospect—he desired to maintain the caring image of himself he’d painted in her mind.

Even so, there had been a time he’d said they shouldn’t be together. Instead of sending her an email or dropping a letter in her mailbox, he thought the manly thing to do was to tell her in person. As though his brainless vanity would allow those tears to be the final impression he’d make on her.

Naked on top of him, her head burrowed into the crook of his neck, and her breasts smushed to his torso, sloppily smearing their sweat like salty lotion, she wept and choked out, “Do you love me?”

He bit her ear to show he was uncontrollably in the moment.

“Do you love me?”

“Of course.”

“You don’t seem as excited about me as you used to.”

“Shhhh.” He stroked her sweat drenched hair.

Her body convulsed on top of his. She was sobbing. This was good sex.

“Saul, come in me. Please. I need it.”

He calculated the weeks since her last period. About two and a half. As hungrily as possible, he whispered, “I want to come on your tits.”

Still sobbing: “I need you to come inside me.”

“You only want it because you’re ovulating.” He moaned to make it sexy.

“No. I just need you to.”

Afterwards, as he pretended not to be rushing her onto the toilet, he scowled his regret.

He stood, his pubic hair slimed with his compromised judgement, while she crouched, small and breakable, on the toilet seat, her gaze and hands set upon her knees. “I needed to feel like you love me.”

A weak, weak human being, he thought, disgusted both with her need and with his moral collapse in the face of it.

Soon they had their first venomous fight. It wasn’t so much about whether or not to abort as the reason behind Connie May’s adamancy that an abortion was impossible.

“This authority you’re deferring to,” Saul, relaxed by a couple vodka tonics, began as their debate shifted towards subtler reasoning, “was established thousands of generations before the Enlightenment and throughout its history has fought viciously to murder all progress that didn’t directly correlate with an increase in its power. Of course they want you to produce as many followers as you possibly can! Plus manufacturing so many offspring keeps you too busy to question them. Fuck, C, think about it. Your church’s period of greatest influence is called the dark ages. Besides, it forbids all kinds of shit you do on a regular basis, including fornication. If what they say matters so goddamn much, why don’t you observe that too?”

She crossed her arms. “I may be Christian, but I’m not Jesus.”

Logically he’d been aware of it, but it finally pummeled him with full emotional force that not an attraction of spirits but the shape of a body, particularly breasts, those hefty globs of fat tagged with nipples, and ass, two other mounds of fat between which shit was expelled, had driven him to fertilize a woman who refused a commonplace medical procedure because someone who probably fucked little boys told her that an invisible man in the sky didn’t like it. Suddenly, maybe for the first time in his life, he questioned his own intelligence. But he quickly reassured himself: his failure wasn’t one of intellect. He didn’t misread the woman or the situation. No event here surprised him. His failure was one of personal integrity. A disintegration of character. Basically, he’d been a weak, selfish human being.

It was probably the regret twisting his face that caused her to break like she did. The skin where her cheeks became nostrils ballooned, like a frog’s throat before it ribbits, and she cried, “Oh, Saul!” uncrossed her arms, flung them around his waist, and proceeded to bawl. Sniffling and sobbing, she said, “Let’s do the right thing. I’ve done the wrong thing too often. We could be a happy family. Don’t you think we could be a happy family?” She whimpered, wiped her tears on his shirt and looked up at him, hopeful. Her mouth opened, her teeth clamped onto his chin, scraping against his beard.

Her hope, couched mainly in the word “family,” touched him. This woman deserved happiness as much as he did. This woman had dreams about her future. Dreams that were fragile, dear, in need of protection. He didn’t want to be the Shatterer of Dreams, the Grim Reaper of Hope. After all, this child was his doing. He needed to reintegrate his character, align his actions with what he believed was right, even if what was right was difficult.

He reciprocated her embrace and kissed the part in her bleached hair to reassure her. “It’ll be okay.”

“Just okay?” she cried, warning him to do better before drenching the front of his shirt in juicer, more terrified anguish.

“Shhh,” the Protector of Dreams blew into her hair. “I couldn’t be happier.”

The next day, riding a moral high, Saul signed his name to a marriage license.

They told Saul’s parents, who congratulated them with hugs and a check. The next weekend they honeymooned at a bed and breakfast in Marin. The nearby wineries were off limits, of course, which was disappointing. But otherwise the trip was a success. They slept in and, at brunch, toasted their marriage with flutes of freshly squeezed orange juice. They rented a convertible to drive around the bay and into San Francisco. They ate lunch in Chinatown and walked over to North Beach for coffee and gelato, then down to Fisherman’s Wharf for clam chowder in a bread bowl. After getting Ghirardelli chocolate by Fisherman’s Wharf, they hopped on the trolley to Union Square and went shopping.

Though she enjoyed the food and shopping, Connie May, expecting something more optimistic than the chilly gloom, said she preferred Los Angeles. She shivered. He rotated her to him and drew her close, warming her with his body. “My wife,” he whispered to her. Wife meant forever. Even if they got divorced they were married by the child growing inside her. She was different than Annabelle, who required nothing from him. Connie May wasn’t moving away, didn’t have enough money to support two children. He’d promised to belong to her, to take care of her forever. His parents had given them twenty thousand dollars. That part he felt a little sick about. He’d have to pay it back with virtue, with being a good husband. Forever, he thought again and hugged her closer. All right. She was pretty. Maybe ignorant, but not stupid. Her genes were good, anyway: Davis was a bright kid. Hurled against the backstop of a solid education, Connie May’s simple-minded beliefs would bounce off their children. It was unimaginable that any child of his would become a Jesus Freak. And as for his marriage, no relationship was going to be perfect. At least he and Connie May had strong sexual chemistry. Now she was his to take care of. Whatever else she may be, she was his. His wife with his baby inside her.

Into her ear, quietly, his eyes glistening with responsibility and his feet, if not his heart, anchored to an unbidden destiny, he hummed, “I love you. I love you.” She smiled and slipped her hand down the back of his jeans, resting it coldly on his skin.

Upon their return, they moved into their current mini-house. One of two properties on a single lot, the cream colored “shoe box,” as Saul and his wife called it, offered their new family a bedroom for each child—Natalie’s had been converted from a dining nook—a bathroom ample enough to spread his arms, as long as he bent them at the elbows, and a kitchen tacked, as though a hasty afterthought, to the side of a living room into which they crammed her couch, his two Ikea bookshelves, and a seventeen-inch CRT, later to be replaced by the fifty-inch plasma. In the corner by the kitchen, a metal staircase spiraled up into the master bedroom. The setup ran him sixteen hundred a month, all but a hundred of which was subsidized by his parents. To provide for their other living expenses, Saul put his degree on hold and applied for the district intern program in Los Angeles and in Long Beach.

Soon he found himself as an English teacher at a failing high school. The principal loathed him for some reason, and before his second year he transferred to an only moderately unsuccessful six through twelve charter school. He was able to negotiate his salary for five hundred dollars a year above district pay scale. The students were no better academically, but the principal liked him and he was not completely unhappy there.

 

The tumbler was empty again. Three down. Saul opened the refrigerator, found a Bartlett pear in the crisper bin, washed off the sticky skin and bit into the flesh. Sweet, but a little mushy. As he took another bite, the cat mewed and crashed its skull on his shin. It turned and repeated. Saul glanced over at the food bowl. Empty. Of course. The cat didn’t waste affection. There was no altruism or generosity in its giving. He slid his foot under Hamburger’s fluffy belly and hoisted the animal a few inches off the ground. It submitted to the humiliation, its flaccid body drooping into a frown. Saul respected its resigned stoicism. He lifted it higher and took another bite of fruit. A morsel of pear flesh the size of his pinky nail landed on Hamburger’s back fluff.

“Rrrao,” the cat said, pathetically.

He, Saul, was master of the house. “All right.” He let the animal down. “You’ve earned your meal.” He scooped a fistful of kibble into the bowl, leaving the morsel of pear on the cat to see how long it would stick. Now he’d trudge upstairs to earn his dinner.

The bedroom, when he entered, was spotless. Compulsive cleaning was the silver lining to her anger fits when they weren’t flying full force at him. Sprawled tits up on the tautly made waterbed, Connie May, having waited until Saul had seen the pain on her quivering mouth, leaped up and threw herself at him as though she’d heard he’d died and had just now discovered otherwise. Tears and mucus spilled from her eyes and nose onto his sweatshirt. Because she hadn’t cried in months—only yelled or thrown things—he’d forgotten how the skin at the corner of her nostrils ballooned unattractively.

“It’s your birthday. I want you to be happy. Can’t we not fight for one day?”

The skin by her nostrils popped out again, but she caught the sob mid-swell. It was difficult to determine whether the crying was her spontaneously reacting to pain or consciously preying on his weakness. Connie May was making him feel that he’d failed to live up to her image of him. It was the tactic his mother used the couple times she’d really wanted to punish him.

“I decided Davis is old enough to watch Nat,” Connie May said. “He can probably handle her as well as anyone, really.”

“I agree.” He was sapped. “I’m a little sapped. Guess I didn’t get enough sleep last night. A nap would be perfect right now.” Gathering his courage, he added, “Especially since the birthday martini I made myself is kicking in.”

Instead of flashing the anger he’d braced himself for, his wife gave him a lascivious grin. “How about we put that martini to better use than sleep?”

When all else failed, he thought to himself, perked up by the idea, they fell back on the fundamentals. Good thing he’d had the vodka. It eased the transition, kept him from being too stubborn to fuck out his frustration. His dick was stiffening. Maybe this represented a breakthrough for Connie May. Maybe the crying had been cathartic for her. Maybe now when she got upset, she’d cry and they’d fuck. At the beginning, their fights had ended in sex—explosive, emotionally drunk sex where she’d beg him to fuck her in the ass or want to “suck him dry,” or even, on a rare occasion, one then the other—just as in the pornos she’s forbidden him to watch—a combination that both perplexed and aroused him. The memory got him hoping she’d say something dirty. He raised his eyebrows questioningly.

Cupping her hand over his groin, she said, “Calm, big boy. Calm. You’ll see.” She knew him so well.

She dipped her hand into her pants, fished out two glistening fingers and put them in his mouth. Then she walked to door, turned the lock and pulled her shirt over her head.

 

 

 

[] Stopping by the Parents’ (P -6 Days)

 

 

Again, she was the driver. This time, not because of his birthday, but because even after his fifteen-minute nap and hot shower, she still didn’t trust that he was sober enough to handle a car, which he himself sometimes called “metal death on wheels.” On the way to his parents’, SUV bumping stiffly over the asphalt mile they could easily have walked for exercise, dozens of renovated houses teased her with their unattainable luxury. All these rich people hadn’t lived in the area, or hadn’t been so rich, when she was a kid. The isolated neighborhoods of Naples, Park Estates and Bixby Knolls had shielded them and their pale little children from the modest bungalows and apartments of the Heights and the Shore—and, of course, from the terrifyingly colored families to the North and the East. But sometime in the last ten to fifteen years, the rich had grown big hairy ones, and, gradually, some of the cute wooden boxes sprouted monstrous second stories, while others disappeared and were replaced by fancier, more important houses, some even had a little baby house with a half number address, like Saul and Connie May’s, tucked behind it. The sunlight glared off the rich clean windows, on the undented Lexuses and Mercedes or, in many cases, on smugly humble Priuses, glared off the probably-not-as-dysfunctional lives inside. The kind of Growing Pains TV happy life that had spoiled Saul. Connie May stifled the temptation to wake him with a snide remark, knowing it would lead to a fight. His eyes were closed, his breathing was tranquil and heavy, and she preferred he sleep off as much of the alcohol as possible. At a red light, she leaned over and kissed his forehead to conceal her welling anger, maybe also to dispel it. Sometimes it helped to rub his forehead with her lips, to smell the dandruff shampoo she bought for him so he wouldn’t show up to work looking like it snowed and have that Chinese bitch think his wife didn’t take care of him.

She was trying not to be riled. Trying not to spoil his birthday. Calm, she told herself, and practiced deep Ujjayi pranayama. Deep inhales, slow exhales, like fogging a mirror with her lips closed. To be a yogini is to remain in the present, to not dwell on the past. That was one reason she liked yoga. Jesus, she was sure, would do yoga. A few Sundays ago, the pastor quoted first Corinthians where Paul wrote that love keeps no record of wrongs. Apparently, Jesus never held grudges. Neither should a yogini. But, then, Jesus didn’t have her fucked up childhood. Joseph didn’t beat Jesus or knock his head against the bathtub faucet. Mary wasn’t more concerned with her appearance than with her children’s survival. So maybe it was a little easier for Jesus to be Christ-like. Did He ever get angry? There was the time in the temple in Jerusalem when He yelled. But He didn’t yell because He lost control. He showed anger to drive home a point. Wasn’t that why she got angry and yelled? Because otherwise her husband didn’t listen? And now he was drunk. And if his drunk scowl and his drunk digs didn’t aggravate her enough, she had to witness his pitiful need to numb himself. She was sure he hated his life with her but wasn’t man enough to walk out on it. She’d respect him more if he did grow some hairy ones and just leave. Why else would he always torture her with that miserable pout that made her feel like she wasn’t good enough? Like he didn’t even want her and just stayed because it was easiest. Sometimes she rationalized that his drinking had nothing to do with her. She reminded herself that it helped him forget about his job. He did work hard, even if he got home earlier than most husbands, had weekends and holidays off—two weeks for Christmas, a week in spring, six weeks in summer—and still didn’t make enough to fully support them. That was part of the reason they were driving to his parents’ house now. Israel would write his son a fat check for his birthday. Maybe only a couple hundred, but, hey. She hated always worrying about money and seeking out only the cheapest bargains for herself and the kids. Everything in Natalie’s wardrobe came from Target or Wal-Mart. That was all right for now since all she needed were Hanna Montana and High School Musical shirts, and skirts she was going to stain and tear on God knows what. And her frenemies weren’t old enough to tell the difference between Wal-Mart and Payless and whatever their rich parents bought. But for Davis, especially since he was at a private school where the wrong clothes were social suicide, she smuggled him into Tilly’s and paid with cash that she stored up in amounts too small for Saul to notice. Like a squirrel hoarding acorns for winter. That was what she’d been reduced to. A frantic, bug-eyed rodent. And what did she ever buy for herself? Instead of getting what she really wanted, what she knew would give her the fresh look she’d like and which would keep Saul interested in her, she was constantly settling for whatever was cheapest—and usually a step behind the latest fashion. All to make Saul happy—or at least to keep him from getting too critical. Not like he approved of anything she did anyway. Take today, for example. After the incident on Friday at his school, she was hoping his actual birthday would run smoothly. She’d been so proud of herself afterwards, when he finally called her back and told her how he’d gone to lunch with Malcolm. Instead of yelling at him about all the things she’d wanted to—the fact that he was married to her and not to Malcolm, that his German girl would be taking up all their Christmas time together—she’d held her breath till her vision blurred, breathed out quietly so he couldn’t hear, and then asked him how lunch was. He said they’d gone to Long Beach Thai, and as much as she was annoyed about not being invited, it wasn’t like she’d missed out on sushi.

Strangely, he hadn’t made excuses for himself. He’d even apologized and told her he wished she’d been there. And again, because it was his birthday weekend, she let it go—or at least made it seem like she had. That they didn’t argue was a positive omen for his actual birthday. But already the morning hadn’t gone according to plan. She hadn’t wanted to fight. In fact, she’d done her best to be sweet and giving. It wasn’t everyday he was allowed to have her ass. Usually, she saved it for when she was feeling especially close to him. Like when he looked at her with what that Arab guy’s poem called “the pain of too much tenderness,” those rare times when he was happy with her and got so fidgety about it that he didn’t know where to put his hands or his mouth—hungrily squeezing and clutching at every soft part of her body, and kissing and biting her tummy, her shoulders, her forehead. Definitely not like today when he was trashed and she wasn’t. He hadn’t even been careful with her. The way he fucked her, turning her around almost like he couldn’t stand looking at her face? There was no “pain of too much tenderness.” But at least he’d seemed hungry for her, which helped. It reminded her of another quote he’d told her, by some guy with a name that sounded like Doritos’ Cool Ranch. “A man’s desire is to desire a woman. A woman’s desire is to be desired by a man.” It was kind of true, but, really, everyone desired to be desired. Imagine if she’d stopped showing Saul that she desired him? Well, he’d probably just fuck some other woman and she’d feel bad about herself then too.

The car radio was tuned to one of his NPR stations. For a few months when she’d been pregnant with Natalie, she’d listened only to NPR so that she could talk to Saul about politics and stuff like that. It did help with some of their conversations, and she began to believe that his respect for her was growing. Then she realized that he didn’t respect her so much as offer the kind of approval and encouragement he’d offer a student he’d expected very little from. Now about half the time she listened to one of the pop or country stations and sang along absentmindedly. It was easier. Unlike Saul, she recognized the value of relaxation and mindless enjoyment. Getting through life was struggle enough. The other half of the time, she tuned into NPR, mostly when they had stories about real people or “On Health” where they talked about new developments in medicine. As a child, she’d dreamed of becoming a nurse, rushing around the ER in cute pink scrubs and a stethoscope slung over her neck. Easing people’s suffering. For about a year, she’d secretly been considering nursing school, but she wasn’t going to mention anything about it to Saul until she’d been accepted and had paid the tuition deposit. Otherwise, he was going to knock her down like he always did, convince her why her dreams were stupid, half-baked ideas, and recommend a more appropriate dream for her. The only person who knew about nursing school was Malcolm, whose help she needed to get in. And, as she realized recently, she needed to get in. Her whole life had been a mere struggle to get by. Part of the struggle, she was sure, was on account of not having a career that gave her purpose. Motherhood had given her a purpose, and she loved it—probably eighty percent of the time—but as a purpose it was incidental. With John she was fifteen and stupid and her purpose had been to keep him, not to be a mother. A decade later with Saul little had changed but her age. For seven years she’d worked as a waitress and a single mother and had no time to find herself. Soon, with both Davis and Nat in school, she’d finally have some breathing room. And having a career and an income wasn’t just about proving her worth to Saul. She felt the boredom and frustration of not working toward her own professional goals.

Beside her, Saul’s head flopped onto the seatbelt. A light rattle stuttered out his nose. He acted so harshly, so judgmentally, but he was just like every other person in this world: a big child. A body that had continued to grow and age around a child’s needy blue eyes. People may look in the mirror at their bodies, full sized and beginning to break down like someone’s old Corolla, and may imagine that inside they’d aged too, but whenever Connie May really paid attention, it seemed to her like everyone just wanted to be taken care of. And as long as people needed to be taken care of, nurses would be needed. That was one of the arguments she’d prepared to counter Saul’s discouragement.

In front of Israel and Iris’s house, Connie May abruptly hit the brakes, snapping Saul’s head forward. The seatbelt locked. His eyes popped open and he gasped. She put her hand on his chest. It was thumping.

“What the fuck, Connie May!”

As though speaking to a little child, she said, “We’re here. Your parents want to see their big son on his big three-O.” She heard an echo of Malcolm’s congratulations this morning. Then she reminded herself today’s his birthday.

His head tilted further into its don’t-fuck-with-me-bitch scowl, and there was a swish in his mouth and a sharp breath in, but after a couple seconds he seemed to decide not to comment.

As though the woman had a sixth sense or something, Iris had already opened the door, buck teeth glowing helplessly, happy tears about to run down her crow’s feet, like Saul had just arrived home from war or achieved something amazing and rare for her to be proud of. Connie May hoped never to be this embarrassing with Davis. Still groggy, Saul ran toward his mommy. Connie May followed a couple steps behind him. Now that she was closer, she confirmed there were actual tears jiggling on Iris’s lids.

Mommy flung herself around her baby. “Happy birthday! Can you believe you’re half my age now!” She sniffled, swiped a tear with her pinky, laughed for no reason and hugged him tighter.

“All right, mom. Enough.” He pushed himself off her. “You saw me yesterday. Nothing’s changed since then.”

“You weren’t thirty yesterday.”

Saul groaned.

“I can’t help it, honey. This is what mothers do.”

“All right, mom.”

She slapped him flirtatiously on the arm. “Don’t patronize me!”

“Whatever, mom,” he murmured, peering into the house, probably for his daddy.

Connie May whiffed a sweet pungent musk. Apparently Saul smelled it too because he suddenly turned impatient and rushed inside.

Iris turned to Connie May. “How are you!” she said as they hugged. It was an emotional hug, an overflow of Iris’s syrupy love for Saul. Connie May assumed Iris loved her because Iris believed that her son did. At least Saul put up a decent front for his parents, probably because he was loath to endanger the monthly injection of cash. Angry once, she’d jabbed at one of his biggest insecurities. “Why don’t you run and tell mommy and daddy how horrible I am so they can come save you like they always do?”

After smacking his lips like he’d just sucked on a lemon, he’d answered, “I’d be humiliated to let anyone know how much I fucked up by marrying you.”

She’d told him not to do her any favors. She didn’t need his protection.

“I’m not doing it for your sake.”

“Protecting mommy and daddy’s money? How sweet of you.”

“Yup,” he’d said, crossing his arms and nodding. And as if the last comment wouldn’t be forever crashing about her memory, he’d added, “They don’t need their heart broken by knowing who you really are.”

“Have you guys eaten?” Iris asked, still sniffling.

They groaned about how full they felt after their big breakfast, but Iris was already slicing up an apple for Saul. He crunched on a quarter as they moved to the den where Israel slouched into the sofa, watching basketball, his belly rounded toward the ceiling. Saul rubbed his father’s bald head. “The bonehead,” he called it. Sliding down the bonehead, his fingers twiddled the untrimmed fringe, which had recently gone grey around the temples. Apparently, Saul and his father once shared the lovely black hair and blue eye contrast.

“For good luck,” Saul said and hugged his father. Same routine every time.

Israel sniffed. “Celebrating already?”

“How can you smell anything in here?” Saul joked, already eyeing the old psychedelically marbled glass blown pipe and its bowl of fading red ash. Connie May was used to it now, but when she’d first learned that Saul’s parents smoked pot, she’d experienced what Saul called a “paradigm shift.” Till then, all the adults she’d known who smoked pot had been deadbeat losers.

“Even if I couldn’t smell it coming out your pores”—Israel scrunched his nose disapprovingly—“I could hear it in your voice. You need to cut down on that poison.”

Saul shrugged. “Pick your poison.”

“I’m married to mine,” Israel said.

Connie May watched for Saul’s reaction. He blinked. “I married my panacea.”

“You married what?” she said sweetly, disguising her annoyance at what she assumed must be sarcasm.

“Panacea, from the Greek for all healing. You, C, are the antidote to all things wrong in my life.”

Israel smiled at her like he was winking. “Quick on his toes, isn’t he?”

Connie May giggled politely.

“Before I forget—” Israel pulled out his wallet, filed through its accordion of cash, and sifted out five hundred dollar bills. “A little something for your birthday.” He snorted. “Because we deprive you the rest of the year.”

After flipping the cash into the brown leather Kenneth Cole wallet Connie May had bought on sale at Marshall’s to replace the ratty Velcro canvas one he’d used since middle school, Saul thanked his father with another hug and rub on the bonehead. A boy being taken care of by his daddy. His Kenneth Cole wallet from Marshall’s and Calvin Klein jeans from Costco, both of which, because she’d bought them, normally made her feel closer to him, added to the impression of her husband as a thirty-year-old boy who needed parents to feed and dress him. Picturing a snotty little thing playing with a train set—she wasn’t sure why a train set and he probably hadn’t been snotty, but that was the image—she felt that Saul needed to be taken care of. Real men, she thought, didn’t need to be taken care of. John, Davis’s father, was a real man. Broad, muscled, straight-shouldered, six foot four with kinglike posture; massive, crushing hands; and a long, thick cock that had run through her like an Amtrak train. He was smart, too. Not smart like Saul, not the slippery, explain it all away type of smart. Smart because he didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. Cheated on his wife and didn’t give a shit. Gave to Connie May when it suited him, took from her when it suited him, and didn’t trouble himself about consequences. He wasn’t scared of her reactions. He didn’t try to fox his way out of her anger. He simply wasn’t in her power. And because she had no power over him, she had no choice but to respect him. Strange that her respect came from her inability to control him. It didn’t matter if she yelled and slapped at him. He’d catch her wrists and laugh at her like she was a little girl, like her anger was cute. Sometimes, though, when he wasn’t feeling playful, he’d give her a stop-dead look. Not an angry, frustrated crawl-in-a-hole-and-die-bitch scowl like Saul’s. John’s look told her that all her drama was useless. His silence spoke for him. He didn’t even have to use that deep gravelly voice that always made her wet. With Saul she picked fights, confident he’d eventually cave to her wishes. With John she’d attacked because, oddly enough, his calm way of handling her made her feel secure and protected—then he drove back to his wife and kids and left her itching to phone him. Sometimes she’d lift the receiver and begin to dial, then slam it back into the cradle. The time she actually did call, his wife answered. Connie May listened closely, hoping, though it hurt a little, to hear John’s voice in the background, while his wife said, “Hello? Hello?” It was before everyone had cell phones and Caller ID, when you had to dial star six nine for a blind call return, and about half a minute after she hung it up, Connie May’s phone rang. Unable to suppress her curiosity, she raised it to her ear and listened with her palm covering the speaker.

His wife: “Hello? You just called me. You there?” Pause. Then, turning ghetto, “Look, bitch. I know who you are.” Sigh. “You ain’t never gonna have him. It don’t matter if he fucks you. You think your little white pussy some carnival prize gonna keep him around? Well, let me tell you: you ain’t shit but that little prize. And just like one of them giant stuffed teddy bears, he ain’t got nowhere to put you in his house. Yeah, you done heard me, bitch. You ain’t never gonna be more for him than that: some silly little white prize. This is where he come home to. So why don’t you go find yourself some missing tooth-having, stained wife-beater wearing, mullet-headed, beer bellied, red necked cracker motherfucker to knock up your young ass, so you can get your worthless life done with already. You ain’t gonna get shit from my man. You hear me, bitch? You hear me?”

She heard all right. That was why she told John she was on the pill and that he didn’t have to pull out. So she could say, with her big round belly, “Who’s stupid now, bitch?”

Knowing that she could get pregnant when John came in her turned her on. Almost everything about John turned her on. When she was lying under him, her face smothered in his chiseled hairless chest, his dick stretching her, his animal hunger ravaging her, she felt like a woman. Even sometimes in public, without ever asking her permission—not in any way—he’d move towards her. It made no difference where they were. She sensed the desire in his approach. They fucked in the park, her flowery skirt tented to hide what had to be obvious to anyone paying the slightest attention. They fucked against his car in the church parking lot while her mother sat in the pews. The summer-hot metal on the door searing her ass, the door handle stabbing into her hipbone. They fucked in the stairwell of his friend’s apartment at three in the morning. At a crowded bar. Everything turned her on because he wanted her and was going to take her whether she felt like it or not. And that always made her feel like it. Remembering it dampened the strip of her thong. The man didn’t give a fuck about what anyone else thought. Including her. And that was also why she stopped it. To this day, he hadn’t taken any care of his son, but he’d still be fucking her stupid if she’d let him. For a while she did let him. Sneaking past her mother’s room and, even though she had school in the morning, tapping on her window after two am, after the bars closed. And foolish girl she was, she’d be awake, warm and comfortable in her buttoned-up pajamas, waiting for him to unbutton them and watch her nipples stiffen in the cold air. In his whiskey and coke breath he told her he loved when she wasn’t wearing a bra or panties. That he loved her hard nipples. Not that he loved her. It didn’t matter. Somehow his compliments, his coming to see her and not someone else, had been enough to keep her dreaming about their future and their children and about all the happiness they’d share growing old together in their house with its swing set and garden in back. But once Davis was born and she was exhausted, actually hoping sometimes that he’d help, he lost interest. The fun was past. There was nothing special about her. Her pussy wasn’t tight anymore. And why should he stick around when the world offered him other women, childless women, who longed to spread their legs wide apart. They could sense what he was. One of those rare, real men who needed women, but not any particular woman, a man who loved his freedom more than the women, but who would always get the woman because his confidence and feral power brought out her female animal. And that felt so good.

In her twenties she decided that a relationship and family with the kind of men she was most attracted to wouldn’t offer the security she needed. So when Saul, a graduate student from a stable family, who seemed to be a stable, intelligent, responsible man, got her pregnant, she considered it a sign from God. That was the sort of life God was telling her to lead. Saul would be a caring father to Davis. He had to be, right? Because his father was a caring father and his mother a caring mother.

“Matches?” Saul said to his father, turning the pipe upside down over the ashtray and tapping it against his palm. “So old school.” On the third tap, black dust plopped out in a single clump. Lifting the pipe, Saul squinted into the bowl, gave it one more tap and packed a fresh bud.

“They add to the aroma,” Israel said. He nodded toward Iris. “Give your mother the first hit.”

“Oh, no,” she said to Saul. “It’s your birthday. You go first.”

Saul pulled a lighter from his pocket. Ah, so this was why they came. She watched Saul inhale what must have been most of the bowl. He was still holding his breath as he passed the pipe and lighter to his mother.

Iris smiled bashfully. So easily impressed. “Thank you.”

Saul came over to Connie May and opened his mouth next to her ear. She felt the warm moist smoke seep out. He whispered, “That was great today. The perfect birthday present.”

To quiet him—she didn’t need his parents hearing their business—she smiled coyly and pinched just below his ribs. She wanted him to offer her some of the weed. Not because she would smoke it, but because she wanted him to be considering her.

“You want to do it again?” he said. He turned to her and gave her a kiss while he pressed his hard-on against her waist. Like jabbing her kidney was going to make her horny. But guys did silly things with their penises. She’d seen grown ass men hang towels on them and beam at her like a little boy looking for mommy’s approval. Or use it to “mushroom punch” her arm or forehead. Every guy she’d slept with long enough had used his penis as both a clothes hook and a play weapon.

She shushed him flirtatiously, though she would have preferred him to leave her alone. John wouldn’t have said anything. He would have just taken her to the bathroom, pressed her to the wall, pulled out a steel cock and by the time he wedged it between her thighs, she’d have slurped him right into her. All this thinking about sex. She was probably meant to be a man. Too much testosterone. That was why her arms and pussy were hairy. Of course no one but Connie May knew how hairy because since age fifteen she’d been obsessive about keeping both neatly shaved. By now, she suspected, it was probably so thick that if she let it grow she’d look like Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf.

After offering the pipe to Connie May, who declined, Iris asked Saul what he’d like to listen to—since it was his birthday.

“No rap,” Israel said. “Put on something relaxing.”

“Don’t worry, Dad. I think we can find a compromise between your fogy shit and something good.” Saul began scratching little circles on Connie May’s lower back. He got all affectionate when he was high. She wished he wouldn’t have to be intoxicated to want to touch her with something besides his dick. To encourage the sweeter touching, she reached over and, without looking at him, massaged his earlobe between her thumb and index fingers. “Go ahead, Mom. You choose the music. I trust you.” No matter what he said to his mother, he sounded patronizing. Definitely not his most endearing quality.

Soon, John Legend’s first album played on the den speakers. “Is this all right?” Mommy asked the baby. “It always reminds me of you.”

“It’s fine,” the baby said.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Iris said and hurried away. When she returned, she was carrying a pair of baby booties the size of Saul’s feet.

“Mittens?” Saul said, rudely. As cloying as Iris could be, Saul’s lack of gratitude towards the woman who gave him life, Connie May was convinced, came from his having never suffered enough. They’d argued about it before, and he’d had the audacity to say that people who hadn’t suffered from shitty circumstances compensated by suffering in their minds.

What complete horse shit, this self-imposed suffering. If it didn’t make you grateful, it wasn’t true suffering.

“They’re slippers to keep your feet cozy in winter,” Iris said, beaming with the idea of her son snuggled in a warmth she’d hand knit.

“Thanks, mom. But you really didn’t need to knit me anything else for now. I’ll let you know plenty in advance before I move to Siberia.”

Annoyed, Connie May said to the Baby, “You don’t have to be a jerk whenever someone who cares about you does something thoughtful.” He was pathetic. She’d like to say this directly to his parents. She’d like to ask them why they’d raised a goody-goody who was too obedient to bring home anything less than an A. Too obedient to ever learn how to stand up for himself. She’d taught Davis manners, but not so that he’d be some kind of pushover—like the world was going to bow down to his straight A report card. And even then, she’d never heard anyone complain about him. Natalie, on the other hand—well, she was God’s lesson to Saul. And to his parents. They didn’t know how to keep her in line. She was a little too much truth for them. Fact was, the world wasn’t the way they believed it to be. His mother always blabbing that whatever happens was written in the stars, and about the universe providing and all that shit. “Really, lady? Really?” Connie May wanted to say sometimes, but held her tongue and smiled like she agreed. Dead people watching over, protecting us? Were Connie May’s dead relatives paying as little attention to her as her live ones were? Were the dead ones also stacking empty Coors Lite cans on the prickly yellow grass beside their flimsy plastic lawn chairs? But she never said anything because the last thing she needed was for Saul’s parents to think she wasn’t any better than where she came from. She was sure they already believed she was “marrying up.” But, really, why shouldn’t she have gotten the hell out of where she came from? They should respect her for “moving up.” She tried not to resent them for not getting this, especially since, for the sake of her marriage and her children, she made an effort to understand them. Of the two, Saul’s father was easier to relate to. Israel was a little less naive than Iris. He might not care about anyone outside his brood, but at least he was realistic. Probably because he actually worked for his money. Connie May might not work right now, but she’d had to start working at fourteen, so she wasn’t naive like Saul’s mother whose only labor in life was giving birth once. No father beat Iris because thirty days out of thirty-one he would have preferred her not to exist. At age nine Iris wasn’t handed an eviction letter intended for her mother. Iris’s father never stole the chocolate the neighbor gave Iris for Christmas in order to stuff it into his other daughter’s (Connie May’s half-sister) allergic, thirteen-year-old mouth while pinning her arms with his knees and calling her an “ugly nigger whore.” And Iris didn’t have to watch that half-sister—a beautiful girl with skin and hair like Davis—fulfill her father’s prophesy and then be murdered, nineteen and pregnant. Iris didn’t have to secret away these details of a past she couldn’t forget. There were no pages burned from her diary because she believed that no one could truly know what had happened to her and still love her. It was no wonder Iris believed people were good and that she was watched over. But Connie May’d had it different. It’d been made clear, on a regular basis, that people, whether dead or alive, were not inherently good. God gave people free will and they generally used it to fuck up. That was how people were: greedy and weak. Saul told her that for someone who was supposed to believe in Jesus, she was very Old Testament. He’d even said that his people’s God, the Jewish one, was a prick, and that Jesus was all about “turn the other cheek when someone strikes you” and “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Well, that may have been all good in Iris’s happy world, but, realistically, how were people going to learn if someone didn’t make it obvious to them? And who better to do that than God? Connie May didn’t usually let Saul know when she agreed with him, but she did agree that most people were too stupid and ruined inside by their fucked up childhoods to make the right decisions. They needed a whole lot of help. Like Mal—always making bad decisions and then wondering why he wasn’t happy. Times like now, when her thoughts turned dark, Connie May had to close her eyes to see happiness. She pictured her son and his future. She pictured being old with Saul and rubbing his bald head and his bristly nape. She imagined rubbing it in Paris and laughing at him, walking along the bank of that river from Before Sunset. If she didn’t close her eyes now and imagine, she’d ruin the rest of the day.

 

 

 

[]Interlude: A Couple Days Earlier

 

 

 

[] Connie May’s Surprise (P -8 Days)

 

 

It would be a nice surprise, she thought, to show up at his school on the Friday before his birthday with a homemade ice-cream cake. She’d never been a whiz at cooking, but she could be crafty, and when she finished carving the vanilla ice-cream into a smooth cylinder and decorating it with sugary caramel and chocolate goodness, she smiled at her creation with a sense of triumph and satisfaction. Not only was it pretty but it would be delicious, and, just as importantly, there was enough to share with all the teachers in the department, even that flat-faced Chinese bitch that Saul avoided talking about. Originally, Connie May was going to buy him a really nice cashmere sweater from J Crew—black, to match his thinning hair and bring out his blue eyes—but, as usual, he’d forbidden her to “buy” him anything for his birthday and, this time, realizing he didn’t forbid her from “making” him something, she’d agreed. Her first idea, to knit him a sweater, kind of fell through after she calculated how much the yarn she wanted would cost. There’d be no way to hide the expense, and she refused to ask Saul’s mom. Iris, who had more yarn than the Alamitos Bay Yarn Company, would adore the idea of a sweater for her baby. But that’s exactly what Connie May didn’t want: yet another favor from his parents. Better to keep it affordable—just make an ice-cream cake. She wanted to attach a handwritten card to it, but she feared writing anything heartfelt because he always criticized her and made her feel like she wasn’t good enough. Even when he insisted that he “loved” getting letters from her, she couldn’t help feeling self-conscious while watching him read her writing, certain his mind was silently tearing her apart.

He told her once, “You use a lot of pre-fabricated language..”

She apologized for her “ghetto public school edjumacated, no college degree havin’ ass” and told him that it was still what she meant and he should just appreciate it.

Instead of taking the clue and saying something nice, he said, “I only mean that you can’t possibly be expressing yourself genuinely.”

Well, she didn’t know a more genuine way to say, “I love you. You mean the world to me.” He crossed his arms and sighed, told her it was fine. Still, she knew he was disappointed in her.

By now, he’d criticized so much about her that she was afraid to express anything that really mattered. He’d just hurt her with it. She’d told him this, but nothing changed. He didn’t seem to hear her. So when she needed him to hear, she got angry and yelled.

One mean time, he said, “Intelligent people don’t need to scream to communicate their point.”

She replied calmly, “You may be book smart, Saul, but you’re dumb as shit when it comes to people.”

Because a card from him would mean a lot to her, especially since she couldn’t remember the last time he’d written one, she thought a card from her would have to mean something to him. Even if he criticized the writing, he’d like hearing that after five years and all the horrible, horrible things they’d said and done to each other, she loved him and would stick by him. That was how relationships should be, people staying with each other even when they had problems. Everyone was going to have problems and life was always going to be difficult, but that didn’t give you the right to just walk out on someone you’d made a commitment to. She’d sworn in front of God that she’d stay with Saul “for better or worse, till death do us part.” God put them together, and, as the Bible says, “what God has joined together, let no man pull asunder.” And, true, there was a lot of “for worse” right now, but she was sure that once she got into the nursing program and he finally had to respect her a little bit for having a job, a purpose, and making more money than he did, there would be more “for better.”

Like the cake, her card was nothing fancy, just a little white construction paper rectangle glued onto a larger green one. Sitting in the kitchen, she chewed at the cap of a pen, figuring out the best way to make the card look pretty. She ran upstairs, got one of Saul’s red pens from his desk and ran back down. Then she doodled little hearts in the green border until she decided on an opening line.

 

Dear my husband,

We’ve been together almost five years. It’s hard to believe all we’ve been through. We’ve come so far, Saul. I know we’ve had a lot of problems and that a lot of those have been my fault, but I love you. I’ll always love you. No matter what happens, I’m here for you. I still believe you’re my soul mate. I’ve learned so much from you. I admire who you are and who you want to be. You’re going to do great things. I DO think you’re the smartest, most handsome man I’ve ever known. Twenty years from now we’ll look back on all this and be happy we stuck it out. Davis will be older than we are today and he’ll be rich. Natalie will be in law school or medical school or something else that makes us proud. We’ll travel the world together. We’ll play with our grandkids. Life will be beautiful. Life IS beautiful with you. I love you more than you can imagine. I love you with my soul.

Love, your Wifey

 

She was proud of the last line. It was different than the regular “I love you.” She hoped Saul wouldn’t make fun of it. She could hear him saying something stupid like, “And I love you with my crotch.” Sure, it would be kind of funny, but it would kill the romance—which was something he seemed to enjoy doing. It wasn’t “real” enough for him otherwise. Like there was something fake about being romantic.

Chewing the pen cap again, she proofread her letter for spelling and grammar errors. If she found one, she’d have to decorate a whole new card. She was thankful when she couldn’t find any. Taking the pen out of her mouth, she saw tooth marks all over the cap. The plastic clip was twisted out, gnawed thin and useless. She went to the garbage bin and hid the pen under several layers of trash.

 

 

 

[] Lunch at Melody’s (P -8 Days)

 

 

During his back-to-back lunch and prep period on the Friday before his birthday, Saul had agreed to meet with Malcolm, whose impatience for celebration often stretched birthdays into weeklong events. Saul’s bachelor party, for one, had begun the night he announced the engagement and continued up to the eve of his wedding. As with most things involving Malcolm, partying far exceeded reasonable decadence.

The yellow Lamborghini rumbled up to the teachers’ parking lot, where Saul stood with one foot flat against the chain link fence. He would have preferred resting his back against it but was wary of checkering his Polo with the black grime that coated the metal. It was disgusting enough that the refineries, the millions of cars, and the particulates from the port’s traffic tarnished something as beautiful as the sky. They shouldn’t also soil his clothes, which may sometimes be threading and faded, but were always clean. Applying Newton’s Third Law with his foot, Saul propelled himself from the fence and toward the Lamborghini.

“Oh, shit, Rose-man got a Lambo?” JayShawn, one of his twelfth graders, shouted, a hand cupped to his mouth. He smiled, mock-embarrassed. “Sorry, Rose, didn’t mean to curse. But that yours?”

The twelfth graders were permitted to get lunch off campus, but—Saul glanced at his watch—not quite yet. Since these two didn’t ditch his classes, he merely said, “JayShawn, let’s practice some of the critical thinking skills you’ve learned in my class. This car would imply that I possess what?”

“Scrilla!” JayShawn threw out his hand for a torso level-five. “Dang, you rich, Rose-man?”

Saul looked at JayShawn’s hand, raised an eyebrow. “I’m a teacher.”

“Yeah, but you white.”

JayShawn’s best friend, Lincoln, possibly Saul’s favorite student, pulled the gold-fist pick from his squishy mushroom afro, tapped it against his temple and said in a robot voice, “Asian dude driving a Lambo. Small meat alert.”

“There are plenty of other things one might try to compensate for,” Saul said.

“Um. Probably not math skills,” Lincoln said, fist bumping with JayShawn.

Malcolm’s Lambo often, like today, annoyed Saul. The conspicuous waste of money couldn’t satiate the lack its purchase represented. He crawled in on the passenger side, not quite situated when his friend dropped the machine into first and took off.

“Remember this?” Malcolm spun the volume knob so that the first raw bass thump whipped Saul’s hair like a gust of wind. He’d already fast-forwarded through the wordy intro and began with Raekwon’s verse.

“I grew up on the crime side/New York Times side/staying alive was no jive.”

“Sophomore year.” Saul smiled. “Half a life ago.”

When Method Man rapped the chorus, the two friends, mimicking the raspy Brooklynese, sang along: “Cash rules everything around me, C.R.E.A.M. get the money, dolla dolla bills y’all.” They made eye contact and laughed. Connie May complained that Saul’s friends behaved as though he were still in high school. He’d tried to explain the appeal of old dynamics that had maintained the simplicity of an earlier period of life. Whether he “grew up” or not seemed irrelevant, especially when he imagined how “acting adult” would sap the interactions of their pleasure. He asked Malcolm, more venting than asking, why relationships with women couldn’t be as hassle free as with friends.

“It’s stupid,” Malcolm said, “but I have yet to meet a woman—even Melody—who didn’t expect me to be the person they thought I was during the first few weeks of a relationship. You know, one of them actually said I’d ‘falsely advertised’ myself?”

“What? Did she find Buried Alive in Sperm #8, or did she just go through your phone?”

“Door number two.” The car halted at a stop sign. Malcolm leaned his head out the window and hawked a loogie onto the asphalt. “Pissed me off, too. She refused to believe that I could be just friends with hookers.”

Noticing that they were nearly yelling, Saul turned the volume down. “Where’re we eating?”

“You’ll see.” Malcolm turned the volume up again.

“I wish I could have a drink right now. But I have to be back at work in less than two hours for some more stupid shit. Check this out. In my sixth grade homeroom this morning I had to break up a riot during SSR.”

“SSR?” Malcolm said, turning the volume down.

“Silent Sustained Reading. Which they’re supposed to be doing, but mostly aren’t, of course. But they can read comic books or whatever, as long as they’re reading.”

“Playboy?” Malcolm asked. “For the articles, of course.”

“If only their reading level were that high. Anyway, Socrates—this chubby kid who would be in eighth grade already if he weren’t so dumb—farted in class today, and Gerald, another brilliant one who I can already guarantee will be repeating sixth grade, felt obliged to provide the insight, ‘Socrates farted,’ to which Socrates replied, ‘It’s not a fart. It’s gas!’ Of course, since the students see I’m trying not to laugh, Gerald felt free to retort, ‘It’s from your smelly butt, you fat hamster!’

“So Socrates shouts back, ‘At least I don’t have a peanuthead.’ Which, I have to admit, is quite a cogent insult since Gerald’s skull is in fact shaped like a giant peanut.”

“How’s that?” Malcolm asked.

“It’s saddle shaped. Anyway, this gets a couple other kids started. They start chanting, ‘Shut up, fat hamster. Shut up, fat hamster.’

“Socrates shouts back, ‘Your mother’s poor.’

“At this point, I try to be firm and say, ‘Enough.’

“I’m ignored of course and the quicker of the two bullies says, ‘Well, your mother’s a poor whore and that’s how she bought you your fat K-Mart clothes.’

“Socrates squints real hard at the bully and says, ‘I wasn’t talking to you, stupid gorilla.’

“Wow. You just let them go at it. That’s hilarious.”

“It is,” Saul said, “but I still have to do something. I don’t exactly want the principal walking down the hall right now. So I clap three times: the school wide signal for the students to reply with two claps and obedient silence. One girl—one—looks at me, claps, then glances around and shrugs apologetically. In the meantime, I hear Peanuthead saying, ‘Your mother’s a dirty gorilla, you fat Mexican hamster.’ If you weren’t aware, racial slurs are a frequent turn in the course of my eleven year olds’ arguments. I clap one more time, and again my one good seed claps her reply.

“At this point, Socrates is yelling, ‘At least my mother’s not a nigger,’ which gets the kid next to Gerald pointing and hooting, ‘You tight! You tight!’ ”

“Which means what exactly?” Malcolm asked.

“I don’t have a firm grasp on the expression, but I know that ‘tight’ can often be replaced either by ‘mad’ or, as we used to say, ‘moted.’ Anyway, six or seven students are now, for whatever reason, standing on top of their desks, whooping. Whooping. Like we’re back in the 90s on the Arsenio Hall Show. Some girl shrieks. A boy shrieks, probably just a reflex to mock her. Peanuthead gets so egged on by the ruckus that he darts across the bungalow’s carpet, winds between desks, trips over a boil in the floor from last year’s rains, and shoves Socrates off his chair. Now it’s physical and, even though it’s just homeroom, I actually have to do something. For situations like this, I’ve assigned my two biggest students to be security monitors. These kids love being security monitors. They have a couple other super easy tasks, like making sure the door is closed and taking attendance. Every day they complete their job properly, I give them a sticker for the inside of their folders. Today they got to go into emergency mode, which we’ve practiced several times after school. Four claps and an index finger sends the first security monitor to distract and get in the way of the bully. Naturally, he took his job a little too seriously and yoked Peanuthead in a half nelson. Meanwhile, the second monitor is herding those he can to the north side of the bungalow, away from the door where they might get the idea to sneak out and trumpet the news down the hall.”

“Sounds a lot like my day.”

“While all that’s happening, I notice that Socrates has stood up, lowered his head, and flung his arms wide, readying his attack at the yoked Peanuthead. I have to rush between and catch him mid charge, lift him into the air and set his butt firmly onto a desk. The class loves it and, in unison, shouts, ‘Ooooohhhh!’ So, yeah, this is the kind of stupid shit I deal with at work.”

“Why don’t you do something else then?” Malcolm said.

“Like what? I’ve got no other hard skills. Overeducated, underpaid, as they say.”

“What about going back to school? Finishing your PhD?”

Saul stared at Malcolm. After a moment of disbelief, he said, “And how, my friend, would you propose I feed the giant monkey riding my back?”

“That can be figured out,” Malcolm said. “You need to do something different. ‘If you don’t change your direction, you’ll end up where you’re heading.’ ”

“Lao Tzu.”

“Yeah. So, listen. Uh.” Malcolm’s voice snagged on some thought. “Yeah, well, I did something.” This was uncharacteristically hesitant. “A thirtieth birthday present to you. To help you change your direction.”

“Yeah?”

Malcolm sighed as though exhausted. “No. I really need to wait till your birthday.”

Curious as this hesitancy was, Saul expected nothing more revelatory than a surprise party or a fancy hooker.

They parked outside a windowless brick building. Attached was a high-fenced parking lot half-full of imports. Mostly Mercedes, with a couple Italian racers. A giant in a suit was planted under a canopy outside the door. His hands were clasped in front of his groin; an earpiece spiraled out his shiny taurine dome. A tough, military glare promised merciless execution of his duties.

“We’re eating at 2-Play?” Saul said.

“They’ve got hamburgers, wings. The French dip’s pretty decent.”

The giant shifted his mass to block the door, in case Saul and Malcolm had considered making a run for it.

“ID, please.”

“I’m thirty tomorrow,” Saul said. “How old do I have to look for you to assume I’m over twenty-one?”

“I get paid to check your age, not guess it,” the bouncer said in a tone that confirmed he was, in fact, the humorless asshole he appeared to be. “ID please.”

Saul handed it over for inspection. His license was studied carefully, bent and flicked several times to ensure authenticity.

“How often do you accidentally snap one?” Saul said, as though he weren’t being sarcastic.

The giant grunted, flipping the license at him. “Arms up.” When he finished frisking them for whatever he must know they didn’t have, he stepped aside, extended his tree-trunk arm toward the entrance and said, “Welcome, gentlemen. Enjoy the club.”

Malcolm palmed the giant a twenty.

“What’s that about?” Saul asked.

“He’s new,” Malcolm replied.

They entered an anteroom where a cashier waved them through and told them to “enjoy the club.” The main room—a dim, windowless, thinly carpeted warehouse with an odor suggestive of a locker room—encircled a stage with a floor-to-ceiling pole, which was straddled by a tight-bodied Latina. Her enormous implants projected like party balloons epoxied under her stretched skin. She’d coated her acne-beaten face with more tint than a limo. The universe of strip clubs hadn’t changed since Saul last stepped into one four years ago for his epic bachelor party. He shook his head remembering how Malcolm had offered one of the girls enough cash to lay him, and how, to Mal’s exaggerated disappointment, he had turned it down, afraid that he’d contract a disease.

After situating themselves at one of the tables nearest the stage, Malcolm ordered two gulps of water at six dollars each, a Buffalo wings appetizer and two French dips. Even if alcohol had been legal at the club, Saul had to return to the school in a little over an hour. Six or seven guys were scattered around the room, all but a couple of whom slumped in chairs by the back wall. The two closest to the stage alternated between man-giggling and nudging each other and leaning in, fingertips extending the yellow play money the strippers later exchanged for real dollars.

The next stripper, announced as Joy, strut onto the stage in a feather bikini. A vertical cesarean scar blanched a strip of otherwise smooth, dark skin. She made eye contact and smiled. Her movements expressed the beat with fluidity and precision, even while they seemed thoughtlessly, laxly executed. Maybe she’d aspired to dance for a company, or maybe in videos. Saul wondered if she’d gotten knocked up before or after becoming a stripper. Either way, it almost hurt to watch her. Wasted talent, he thought. It plagued his job—some of his brightest students, kids who were linguistically gifted, lashing their friends with clever similes, with wit quicker and more incisive than Saul was capable of, were unable to read at grade level. Joy did her thing, jiggled her jiggly parts, stripping her top, spinning on the pole, then stripping her bottom, and, as a finale, hurling her crotch high onto the pole’s upper reaches. From there, she descended upside down until about midway, where she gracefully rotated herself upright and eased into a side-split. Again, she met his eye, this time with a how-do-you-like-that smile.

He was chewing a rubbery Buffalo wing when Joy’s shelf-ass appeared in his periphery. The skin had looked better from a distance. Stretch marks over her hips blurred milk into the coffee skin, and a swathe of dark hairs lined the T-string wedged deep in her cheeks. Having offered a luscious view of her ass, she said, predictably, “Hey, hot stuff,” and touched his shoulder. Her hand was knowledgeable and nurturing, similar to his wife’s. “You taking a little break from your hard day?” Her fingers drifted down his chest, seductively edging toward his lower abdomen.

“You know you like what you see.” She jiggled her ass. The fat snapped from right to left with impressive exactitude.

“I do…” But he couldn’t fuck, so what was the point? “But I have these buffalo wings.”

The DJ announced the next stripper. “Please welcome our Star of Siam: Star.” Saul grimaced at the corniness but eyed the stage to avoid eye contact with Joy. David Bowie’s “China Girl,” in what sounded like a sped up tempo, blasted through room.

Melody burst from behind the stage curtains.

Holy shit, Saul thought, surprised, unsurprised, envious, confused, desirous. He glanced over at his friend. Mal grinned and stuck out his tongue.

“What the hell? You never told me.”

“Pretty fucking nice, right?”

Her eyes were locked to the wall above the men’s heads; her lips were parted and glossy. She yanked about, overstating each kick, each twist, pushing ahead of the beat. In contrast to Joy, Melody seemed to take genuine pleasure in dancing, her movement all sweaty staccato exertion, an argument for enthusiasm over talent. Saul assumed her to be an unselfconscious, fervid lover. The kind who screams and orgasms and zealously slobbers all over your dick. Lucky Mal, he thought. His dick quivered, pumping up to a partial, dead-end erection.

“The food here isn’t better than what I got for you, big boy.” Big boy: what Connie May often called him.

“You’re probably right.” He kept his eyes on Melody, scratched his beard. He should trim it tonight. “Maybe when I’m done eating.”

Sliding her fingers down his leg to his knee, she said, contemptuously, “Everybody wants themselves some Joy, hot stuff, so when you’re done eating and you want some, you better hope Joy isn’t visiting some other body.”

Great, a fucking metaphor for his life.

After her dance Melody approached and admonished, with a tight smile, that boyfriends weren’t allowed.

“I’m not hurting your business,” Malcolm said, glancing around the room at the clientele.

“Seriously, Mal? I thought we discussed this.” Her eyes flipped to Saul then back to Malcolm.

“I’m buying Saul a dance for his birthday.”

“It’s not till Sunday,” Saul said, stalling the conflict of both desiring the dance and preferring to avoid awkwardness.

Melody sighed, looked down, shook her head. A smile twitched on her lips. “Just one?”

“Oh, you’re going to give him the dance?” Malcolm laughed.

She raised her eyebrows, tapped her foot. Her toenails were painted crimson. As were her fingernails.

In the end, Saul was slipped three hundred-dollar bills, which made him feel prostitutey, and sent into a room with his friend’s girlfriend. An unfamiliar hip-hop track began as they passed through a curtain into a small semi-private room, walled with mirrors and furnished with a low bed, not quite knee high. Melody spun Saul around and shoved him backwards onto the mattress. He bounced noisily off the springs. The ceiling and walls were covered in mirrors. Tilting his chin forward, he watched the contours of her shoulder blade ripple and swell as she pretzeled an arm behind her and let her top fall to her crimson toenails. She mounted him, pressing her palms on his chest in order to hover her crotch inches above his. The nipples on her young tits aimed at his throat. Her lips, as usual, were parted to allow breath to enter and exit her lungs. There was enough light for him to discern the taste buds on a sliver of her tongue.

Uncertain of the boundaries, Saul said, “You don’t have to do anything, you know. I can just give you the money.”

“This is my job and I’m good at it. Anyway, I like to earn my money. Don’t worry,” she smiled, “clients aren’t allowed to touch.” She leaned back and raised her arms to run her fingers through her hair. Slowly, she began to undulate over his crotch.

To say something, he said, “I like the mirror on the ceiling.”

“The guests like to watch themselves.”

“I figured it was there so I could see your ass.”

“Then you’re the exception. The guys that come here want to be able to watch their fantasy. Seeing a hot woman all over them turns them on, you know?”

“You learn that in a psych class?”

“Just here. From Professor 2-Play.”

Melody had gradually lowered herself until her thong touched his khakis. No doubt she would feel his erection. But his dick was hard enough that fear of discovery was arousing. Hopeful, he scanned her face for recognition. A rivulet of sweat beginning at her black roots glistened down past her ear. Its pin-sized head dangled from her chin, threatening to plop onto his Polo. With his middle finger he wiped the sweat from her chin. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the pulsations in his body. The woman nearly naked on top of him was pretty, and smelled young. He wanted her. But what if he had her? He’d once felt the same yearning for Connie May—the same improbability that this woman would grant his desire access to her emotions and her body. Actually, he’d felt that way about all the women he’d been with. At the beginning, access to them seemed to promise—however nebulously defined—superlative satisfaction. But with time he grew restless, most recently at the thought of Maya. That lanky elegance. That sensible, educated mind. He still occasionally masturbated to the memory of her long slender fingers, palm up, stroking his cock. Lately he’d been thinking about her, frequently and ruefully. There was a particular image: they’re alone at her dorm suite, she’s washing dishes, he steps up behind her, gathers her hair into an ad hoc pony tail, and, admiring those wispy black locks swimming along her nape like seahorse tails, runs them through his mouth for the pleasure of their satiny texture.

Yet he was sure he’d grow restless with her as well. Unless he absconded to a monastery or landed in jail, there would be no end to life’s procession of attractive women, and though he sometimes thought, “If only I had that one I wouldn’t need anyone else,” it seemed unlikely that any one woman existed who could forever defuse this “if only.”

The first song of his four-song lap dance ended. Another stripper was announced and a slow, sex-pounding R&B jam came on. The latest R. Kelly. Wasn’t he supposed to be in jail?

The bed creaked as Melody stood up, stepping forward so that her feet straddled his head. Balancing herself, she stripped off her thong, which shouldn’t have made much difference considering it had hidden only the slit of her genitalia. But it did make a difference. The slit, unassuming but sweltering with the possibility for one of life’s only thorough satisfactions, whispered to him. He whispered back. A damp-skin scent spread out from her crotch as she lowered herself again into the dry-hump. Connie May could never find out about this.

As though reading his mind, she asked, “How’s married life?”

“Kind of like this. So much possibility, and you’re lying on your back, getting fucked without fucking.”

“I heard this comedian talk about monogamy,” Melody said. “He said the word monogamy sounded like a disease. The disease of ‘one-gina.’” One hand pressed against Saul’s chest; her crimson nails gripped into his shirt, pinching his skin. The hard contact aroused him more.

“Right,” Saul smiled. “Like an STD you catch for life.”

The R. Kelly song ended and Melody whispered, “If you didn’t have get back to work, this is when I’d unzip your pants.”

“Just unzip?”

She winked.

“Hustling for your tip, huh?”

“If you weren’t married, of course.”

You’re not, though,” he said, a little too pleadingly.

“No,” she said, drawing the “o” out contemplatively. Smiling with an almost awkward goofiness, she said, “Hypothetically …?” and paused, staring at him.

“Hypothetically what?”

“Hypothetically, what would you think if Malcolm and I got married?”

Since she seemed sincere and vulnerable, he resisted his deeply conditioned impulse to issue a warning against marriage by declaring it a categorically bad idea—or, in the most benign instances, an unnecessary legal entanglement. Why not keep your freedom a simpler matter? Should you stay together until one of you bit the dust, fine, great, whatever. Should you separate, however, as do approximately seventy-five percent of married couples in California, you’d merely be piling unnecessary agony onto an already painful process. So to answer both honestly and sensitively, he said, “I really want for Malcolm—and for you, too—whatever would make you guys happiest.” Which, of course, would be to not get married.

 

 

 

[] Connie May Arrives at School (P -8 Days)

 

 

She parked the 4Runner two spots down from Saul’s dirty Corolla and carefully stepped out, one foot at time. Because of the car’s height, it was no easy feat, even without the shiny black stiletto-heeled knee-highs that she’d tucked her jeans into—the ones Saul said made her ass a perfect irresistible bubble. She’d also put on a cute new empire waist top, white and airy and flattering to her boobs, which, as long as she didn’t hide them, flattered themselves anyway. Most women with two kids had pancakes, but God had mercy and spared her that curse. After a long bout of indecision, she’d decided to straighten her hair and leave it down instead of clipping it up and showing off her neck. Usually Saul preferred it up, but she thought it looked classier this way. She circled to the passenger side to get the cake, which she’d wrapped in aluminum foil and set into a deep-dish platter, so it couldn’t melt everywhere. Cake in hand—again she felt a little surge of pride—she headed for his bungalow, where she knew he usually ate his lunch. The door was locked and the room was dark. Twice she jiggled the handle. She pushed down a third time and a fourth. She felt the beginnings of anger in her throat, a swelling like the warnings of an oncoming cold. Where could he be? Not in the teachers’ lounge. He said he never went in there unless he had to. It then occurred to her that he actually was in the room—with someone. She could hear herself breathing harder as she peeked through the window. But after careful investigation she heard nothing and saw nothing. She speed walked to the foreign language and art hall, steadying her purse against her ribs with her elbow and holding the cake to her stomach. At the end of the hall, where the foreign language classes were held, Connie May peered into each of the rooms. She’d forgotten which one belonged to the flat-faced Chinese bitch. After passing two Spanish classes, she spotted the Chinese bitch staring stupidly at her computer while students scribbled away at their desks. That Saul wasn’t there didn’t make her feel better. She wouldn’t feel better until she surprised him with the cake. She stopped next at the staff lounge. But once outside it, she didn’t want to go in and have everyone see her chasing around for Saul like a crazy woman, so she listened for his voice and, when she didn’t hear it, took out her phone and—though she’d wanted to surprise him with her cute outfit and hair that she’d spent half an hour on—called him. She didn’t hear it ring in the staff lounge and he didn’t answer. This was embarrassing. She was prancing around, dressed differently than anyone at the school, and lugging a cake like she was crazy. Saul liked his ice-cream soft, she knew, but by the time she found him it would be soupy. It was possible that he’d just gone to the bathroom, so she headed back to his bungalow. While she was again eyeing the darkened desks and white boards, a fat little boy who’d just trotted out of the bathroom bungalow said, “That Mr. Rosen class.”

“Yes,” Connie May said. “Do you know where he is?”

The boy stared at her as though she were trying to con him into something. “Who is you?” was what finally came out his mouth.

“Who are you?” she said to him, thinking that since they were at a school, she should correct him.

“Socrates,” he said.

“No—who are you, not who is you.”

“Socrates,” he repeated with a broad dull smile.

“Wow,” she whispered, truly amazed. Saul had told her about Socrates. But this was difficult to believe.

“You like Mr. Rosen?” Socrates asked.

“He’s my husband.”

Socrates put his fist over his mouth and stifled a laugh. What an obnoxious child, Connie May thought. Then he turned and ran away, laughing out loud.

She switched the ice-cream cake to her other hand, squeezing her fingers into her painfully numb palm and then rubbing it against her jeans until it warmed a little. She called his phone six or seven more times while waiting outside his room, then went for another lap around the school, carrying the stupid melting cake Saul didn’t fucking deserve. That thing inside her, that part of her that she suspected was broken, was swelling with rage. She hated being screwed up and reacting like this. But it would get to a point when the brokenness took possession of her, like what happened to that girl in The Exorcist—but without the evil head spinning and pea-soup vomit. It possessed her, consequences no longer mattered, and she destroyed things. If she hadn’t gotten upset, she never would have broken the vase he’d given her for her birthday. She would have thought, No, I’ll want to have that later instead of a new vase that will always remind me I broke my birthday present. But the anger threatened that the painful swelling would hurt her until she broke everything connecting her to its source. Saul had told her that she was the source, but she didn’t quite believe that because only a few people caused the swelling and rage. Her father, John, and Saul. She’d sometimes started to feel that way with other guys, but never so seriously.

She wanted the swelling to go away. She took a deep breath. The clock in the hall taunted that she’d been at the school for almost half an hour.

“Where the fuck are you?” she murmured, getting angry now at the freezing cake. She bent the foil back from the pan and peeked inside. The caramel and chocolate syrup was swirling in vanilla soup. She called Saul’s phone one more time. He gets one last chance, she told herself.

No answer.

She felt like screaming, or banging her head on the wall, like making some hole in herself to let the heat out. About twenty or thirty feet away, there was a big metal trash can. She ran to it, raised the cake above her head, and with both hands hurled it straight down as hard as she could. The ice cream splattered all over the trash can’s black plastic lining. Destroying the cake didn’t bring the relief she needed. She reached into her purse for the card, crumpling it and throwing it, too, at the trash. But she was wound so tight that she missed and it bounced off the rim of the can and landed in front of her foot. Hating it, hating Saul, hating herself, she stomped on it, twisting her boot, hoping to shred it. Her hands were tight fists at her side, her lips contorted, her back hunched forward. She straightened herself and walked to the 4Runner, dreaming about hurting Saul, dreaming of finding a man—a big, tough, generous man, not a cheap, whiny snob—who wouldn’t think she was below him. Dreaming about fucking this big, tough man so that she could never go back to Saul.

“Lady,” a kid shouted from behind her, “you forgetting your paper.”

If he was out with someone, there’d probably be an email from the bitch on his computer. Her lips tightened over her teeth as she ran toward her car.

As soon as she was on the road, she pressed the pedal so hard the wheels lost traction and squealed. Almost instantly she smelled rubber. In a rage at Saul, in a rage that she’d just thrown so much effort into the trash, she blasted Lily Allen on the 4Runner’s stereo. Not the whole album, just “Smile.” Each time it ended, she hit the back button so she could feel the pain again. It wasn’t that the lyrics said exactly what she felt, but the idea was there. The singer got rejected for another girl, the boy came back to her because the other girl wasn’t really that special, and now the singer felt good rejecting the boy and making him hurt. Pretty simple and pretty great. The windows were up in the 4Runner, so she could sing hard. This wasn’t about singing to sound pretty. This was about letting it out so she wouldn’t lose control. She always regretted her actions when she lost control. But it made her even angrier to think that when she’d played the song for Saul he’d laughed at it and said, “She’s spinning the pathetic weakness of needing to feel needed into fake female empowerment.” He’d totally missed the point. She couldn’t explain what it was exactly, but he’d totally missed it.

Generally, she didn’t play songs for him. She’d once made the mistake of telling him that a Sarah McLachlan song reminded her of him. At the time, she was happy and feeling love for him and meant it as a good thing. Along with a bunch of other lines about wanting to take care of someone, the song had the lyrics, “I would be the one to hold you down/kiss you so hard/I’ll take your breath away/and after I’d wipe away the tears/just close your eyes, dear.”

“It’s about a stalker,” Saul had said after the first lines.

“It’s about love and wanting to take care of someone. It’s how I feel about you.”

“You feel like a stalker?”

“You don’t get anything!”

“Wait—I don’t get it? Let’s check.” He walked over to the laptop his parents had bought him. It whirred and beeped when he flipped it open.

To be wrong about this now would turn something beautiful into shit. “I don’t care what the computer says about it.” She ran over and closed the top. Maybe a little harder than she should have.

“Jesus, Connie May! Be careful. We can’t afford another one. And it’s not the computer that says anything. It’s Sarah McLachlan saying it in an interview. Don’t you want to know what your song is about?”

“I don’t care anymore.” She felt so frustrated and sad, she began to cry. “Why can’t you just let yourself feel what the music is saying? You do this with everything. You ruin everything by thinking about it.”

Saul frowned. About time he felt bad. Or at least pretended to. She knew he often faked caring to avoid a fight. “Come here,” he said.

She sniffled and shook her head. She wasn’t going to give in yet.

“Sorry.” He turned his gaze out the window and spoke softly. “I don’t enjoy things if I’m enjoying them wrong. I can’t blindly follow an aesthetic without analyzing the content.”

“Apparently your dick can,” she shot at him.

He looked tired. “If we’re going to argue, can we at least stay on topic?”

She reminded herself of the quote in Romans about not taking revenge in order to leave room for God’s wrath. She tried to do right. Sometimes, though, she got so mad at him she couldn’t stop herself. Wasn’t that God’s wrath on Saul? God channeling his wrath through her? It was the way God made her, and, anyway, God knew her heart and always forgave.

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s stick to enjoying life, then. When was the last time you enjoyed something because you thought about it?”

“I enjoy you.” He smiled.

“You’re lying. But if I ‘blindly follow the aesthetic’ and don’t ‘analyze the content’—well.”

 

She hit the brakes extra hard as she parked the car. When the song ended for the fourth time, she twisted the keys out of the ignition, stomped into the house and sat down at Saul’s laptop. Usually, when Connie May was angry at Saul and he wasn’t home, she’d snoop through his computer or his desk. Nothing was password protected. Not his files, not his email. The one time he’d tried to set a password, she accused him of trying to hide things from her. Just because she had access, though, that didn’t mean he wasn’t hiding anything. It meant she had to be cleverer about where to search.

It wasn’t out of spite that she’d deleted the letters to old girlfriends or photos of him happy with someone else. Saul simply refused to understand why and how much his past burrowed into her like creepy, poisonous insects.

“Why do you need to keep letters to your ex-girlfriends?”

“I keep everything,” he’d said, as though the question exhausted him. “It’s like my version of a diary. What’s wrong with that?”

“You have me now. You don’t need to look at old letters.”

“Then you don’t need all those baby pictures of Davis since, I mean, you have the new improved Davis.”

“It’s different. Davis is part of my life.”

“My past is a part of mine.”

“Maya isn’t part of your life anymore. Why do you need a letter telling her how beautiful and amazing and smart you think she is? And how fucking great it is that she speaks four languages?”

“Just like your photos from high school show you how you looked physically, my letters from high school and college show me how I looked mentally.”

“Why do you need that? Why do you need to remember that you love watching her bend forward because her stomach ‘creases but doesn’t fold.’ ”

“Jesus, C, relax. That’s from a long time ago. I don’t need it. I just like to keep record of what I used to be like.”

“Well, if you don’t need it, please get rid of it. It hurts me.”

Then he’d pretend to get rid of it and she’d have to snoop through his computer and throw it away herself.

Stupid Maya who spoke four languages and who was so skinny her skin didn’t fold when she bent over. There was that song she’d sent him recently. The one she’d written and recorded all by herself—skinny Miss Perfect. Saul didn’t need that stupid song. Connie May couldn’t deal with imagining him listening to it. She began searching through his “Music” folder. Saul had played just about his entire music collection for her, so when right above the folder “Maya Rajani” she noticed one called “Long Lost” she wondered what had kept Saul from playing it for her.

Her cell phone began to ring. She opened her purse and fumbled around to catch the call before it went to voicemail.

“Hello? … Oh my! Seriously? … She stabbed his knee with a pencil? … Okay. I’ll be right there.”

 

 

 

[] Biting (P -2 Weeks)

 

 

Last Monday Saul picked up two four-year-olds, instead of the usual one, from preschool. Both, Saul noted, were wearing High School Musical t-shirts. Natalie’s shirt was TV-static grey with a panorama of the entire cast. The other girl, Taylor F.—the three Taylors in the preschool were differentiated by the first initial of their last names—had a pink shirt with a photo of the eternally smiley, dimpled, and shaggy-haired seraph Disney was marketing as the latest pre-teen heartthrob. After years of filtering the exploitation down from high school to middle school to late elementary school, boy craziness was finally being sold to preschoolers. When Saul was four he watched He-Man and Thundercats cartoons. Maybe preschool boys still did. Maybe only the girls had graduated from My Little Pony and Gem to High School Musical and Hannah Montana. In any case, Saul hated the kitschy ideals that Disney relentlessly propagated, and hoped the media would soon shovel the public some dirt on this fucker.

Once home, Nat and her friend ran into Nat’s room and closed the door. Saul opened it a crack before treading upstairs to the bathroom. He’d been holding it since eleven am, preferring the cozy upstairs and the laxative luxury of the latest New Yorker to the cautiously toilet papered seat and hurried force required on the faculty toilette. Afterwards, lightened of load, Saul went to check on his daughter. In the far corner of the room, beside the shriveling cactus named after Hanna Montana’s on/off boyfriend, a gift from Saul to promote a sense of responsibility, Nat and her friend huddled over a loudly crinkling bag. Nat had her back to the door and didn’t see Saul spying on her.

“Stop eating my cheese puffs,” Natalie hissed, eagle-clawing Taylor’s cheeks with one hand while struggling to pry open her lips with the other. Saul’s daughter shrieked and yanked her hand from inside Taylor’s mouth. As though astonished, she glared at her finger, then at Taylor, readying herself to pounce.

“Girls,” Saul said, stepping into the room. “How about a snack in the kitchen?”

Natalie looked at Saul and started to cry. She held up her finger. A prick of red was pooling in a tiny indentation. “She bit me!”

Of course she did, he wanted to say, annoyed that his child was, as usual, trying to manipulate him. “Well, honey. Did you put your fingers in her mouth?”

Gripping her finger, exaggerating agony, she shrieked, “She bit me, Daddy!”

“Did you put your fingers in her mouth?” he asked again, calmly.

Natalie sobbed and nodded.

“Should you have put your fingers in her mouth?” Saul used the same technique with his students: yes or no questions only, which they then had to answer with yes or no. The goal was to clarify for them how the results of their bad choices were their own fault.

“She was eating my cheese puffs!” Natalie wailed, as she spat and drooled.

“But should you ever put your fingers in anyone else’s mouth if they don’t want you to?”

“No, Daddy. But she was eating my cheese puffs!”

“Okay, so you know you shouldn’t put your fingers in anyone’s mouth if they don’t want it.”

“But she was eating my cheese puffs!”

“Why are you eating in your room?”

“I’m not!” she cried, bag open behind her.

“How many times have we talked about ants and roaches? And, sweetie, when was the last time you watered Jake Ryan? He’s turning brown. You don’t want him to die, do you?”

Taylor F., having not been reprimanded and probably figuring she could act with impunity at her friend’s house, reached into the bag behind Natalie and scooped out a handful of cheese puffs.

Saul sensed what would happen, but couldn’t reach his daughter in time to stop her from hurling herself head first at Taylor’s stomach and, like some feral beast, sinking her teeth into the pink cotton beside the heartthrob’s shaggy hair.

Later, Connie May said, “She’s four. Four year olds do this kind of stuff.”

Before Connie May’s favorite line about Natalie became, “She’s only four years old!” it was, “She’s only three years old!”

Ironically, Nat had been easiest at two. “Terrific twos,” Saul and Connie May gloated about their pudgy, frighteningly agreeable angel, whose stellar behavior, Saul was then convinced, originated in an inborn social genius. No tantrums in public and only minor—unarguably cute—pouting at home. No crayoning walls or stomping into her parent’s room at night demanding they wake up and play. At seven p.m. she’d march directly into her bed and fall asleep. If Saul was working at home, she wouldn’t badger him to play with her. She’d toddle to his chair, purse her lips for a kiss and, after receiving it, toddle away.

This changed around her third birthday. “No” became her favorite word. Arms crossed and feet planted her favorite stance. Shrieking “I’m not!”s or whiny “I didn’t!”s, her retorts to being caught in the act. And if she didn’t get her way, she punched her oppressor or—more insidiously—accidentally bucked him with her shoulder. If she didn’t approve of her food, she threw it. Twice she demanded yogurt, took a spoonful, spat it at Saul and swept the rest off the table, the yogurt container exploding against the wall. Both times she was told to go to her room. Both times led to a physical struggle. In the end, she was restrained and carried, howling and hyperventilating, onto her bed. And, both times, after being set there, she whipped herself into such a fervor that she vomited. She was not given yogurt again.

Recently, the card game War was the only game she wanted to play. She demanded War constantly, often pestering Saul while he worked at his desk. “War! War! War!” she would chant and tug at his pant leg until she hit him and he had to carry her into her room for a time out. Even when he was available, he avoided playing with her. War was a difficult game to lose on purpose, and she would throw a tantrum when she didn’t win. If they both drew a face card, Natalie, no matter who drew higher, would snatch the card out from in front of Saul and claim it as hers. Once, after losing to Saul’s father, she scratched blood from his earlobe. As if these events weren’t disturbing enough, last Sunday morning when Saul had slugged downstairs, he’d found Nat sitting cross-legged in the living room, staring a little wildly at the airtight plastic container that usually stored her toys. The toys lay in a pile at her side. When he asked what she was doing, she shrugged and continued to stare. A distressed mewing followed by the harried scratching of plastic came muffled from within. Saul recognized cat fluff squished against the container’s cloudy translucent side. He rushed to unseal the top and free Hamburger. Gently but with a firm tone he explained why this could never ever happen again. How Hamburger would suffocate and die and make everyone very very sad. Death, he explained, meant that Hamburger would cease to be a cat, that he’d would be gone forever and no one would ever be able to pet him again. Later that evening he’d caught her again in the process of stuffing Hamburger into the container. He hid the container in his closet and moved the toys into a breathable cardboard box.

Now she’d bitten Taylor, whose mother would have to be informed.

“You say she’s four like that makes it okay to take a chunk out of her friend’s stomach. Is that what Davis did at four?”

“He didn’t inherit your rage.”

I wasn’t like that as a kid. It’s not my rage she inherited.”

Connie May’s pupils pulsed and her lips parted.

Seeing he’d dizzied her with a jab, he readied a hook to the gut. “By the way—that High School Musical shirt? Do we really have to encourage teeny-bopping? She’s only four years old.”

“It was three dollars. I wasn’t even paying attention to what was on it.”

Saul just stared at her, not interested in hearing bullshit.

“You know,” Connie May said, her voice suddenly conciliatory, “all your criticism is affecting her.”

“Why are you changing the subject?”

“Saul, please, listen. Remember that doll you told her was bowlegged?”

It was a baby doll with long blond hair. Part of a multicultural set: a white baby with soft blond hair, a black baby with short curls, and an Asian baby with a bowl cut. Natalie had held up the white one and said, “She’s the white baby.”

To Connie May, he said, “The doll’s bowlegged. So what?”

“Well, today in the car, Nat looks down at her legs dangling off the booster and says, ‘Mommy, am I bowlegged?’ ” She paused for effect. “Saul,” she sounded pleading, “your daughter really looked concerned.”

Annoyed by the “your daughter,” he said, “So you told her she’s not bowlegged and that was that. What’s the problem?”

“She doesn’t need to learn those things.”

“She doesn’t need to learn to identify things in English? She doesn’t need to learn adjectives? How stupid do you want her to be? You already take her to Church.”

Connie May narrowed her eyes. “Fuck you, Saul.”

“Fuck yourself, Connie May.” Saul felt sweat break under his arms. He hated her ignorance. But it didn’t help to curse her, did it? Cursing her merely entombed him deeper, as though he were Fortunato and each of his words a brick he was handing to Montresor—and her body, he laughed sadly at himself, was the Amontillado. Fortunato was a fool for allowing intoxication and appetite to lead him into Montresor’s cellar. So whose fault was Fortunato’s demise? That was a question he’d asked his twelfth graders in order to discuss self-awareness and personal responsibility.

Connie May stepped backward, put her hands on her hips. “How do you expect your daughter to be normal when you’re always so fucking critical? And always so pissed off? Pissed at her, pissed at me. Moping around the house with that sour face, looking for something to criticize, some way to make us feel bad about ourselves.” Her chin quivered. “Why do you hate us so much? What did we do to deserve this?”

At first, Saul didn’t answer, just stared and wondered. Wondered how he granted himself permission to be so weak. Wondered why he hated her. Did he hate her?

“I don’t hate you.”

He looked at his wife: the scar on her eyebrow, her quivering chin, her tears, her delicate hands and small ears, the sudden intensity of his desire to treat her better, to prove himself a better man. At one time he did love her, and sometimes still did if he was honest with himself. At that moment he needed to express something, almost anything, that might penetrate the callous that had thickened from all their friction. “I know you’re not going to believe me right now because we’re fighting, but I do love you. I just can’t show it most of the time.” He moved to hug her, to close the emotional distance between them by closing the physical.

She twisted her head back and pushed him away. “Don’t try to make it all better with a hug. That doesn’t work. I don’t want to hug you.”

He sank down to the carpet about a foot in front of her. “But I love you.”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know that? I definitely can’t tell from the way you treat me.”

“Years ago I read Dante.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I know it sounds stupid to you, but I’m trying to tell you something right now.”

“Stop groveling at my feet.”

He stood up. Continuing his thought, he said, “According to Dante, there is only love. Sounds wrong at first, but when you think about it, it kind of makes sense. Hate is love frustrated. It’s love perverted. We hate whatever blocks us from what we want, from what we want to give our love to, and—this is what makes it so confusing—sometimes what blocks us from giving love to what we want is, ironically, what we love.”

“Sounds like bullshit.”

“You’re not hearing me. Listen to what I’m trying to tell you.”

“Bullshit, Saul. Bullshit, bullshit,” she began pointing at him and stringing the word onto an operatic melody, “bullSHIIIIIIIIT, BUUUUUULLshit, bullSHIIIIIIT, b-b-b-b-bUUUUUULLLLLLLshIIIIIIt!”

“Yeah, well, I’ll tell you another truth that sounds like bullshit.” For the first time in his life, Saul scanned the bedroom for an object to break—something cheap and replaceable—to prove, in language she’d understand, how serious he was. “I hate you because you make me hate myself.”

“I make you? If I make you hate yourself, why don’t you make your shit packed and make yourself a happier life?”

“Because my responsibility is to take care of my family, especially Nat.”

“Listen to yourself, Saul. You think getting a measly paycheck every two weeks is taking care of us? You have a warped idea of what responsibility is!”

“Fuck you, C. I know I don’t make enough money.”

“Then do something about it! You’re the one always complaining about money. I just want to be happy. And if that’s ever going to happen, you need to be happy. Really, Saul, how long do you want to be so fucking miserable?”

He walked over to the bed, climbed under the comforter and pulled it over his head.

“Yeah, you do that. Go hide like a little baby.”

He said nothing. Soon the floor under the carpet creaked toward the door and down the spiraling stairs.

He listened to his breath, felt his skin growing hot. A drop emerged at his hairline and skated down his cheek into his beard. The sweat began flushing out over his nose, his arms, over the crease at the top of his throat. He lay still and dry eyed while his body wept. This wasn’t supposed to be his life.

[]Part II (cont.): Saul, Annabelle

 

 

 

[] Sushi Dinner (P -6 Days)

 

 

The two couples sipped beers in Koi’s cramped reception area. Connie May and Melody were lauding the durability of their identical LV bags. They’d already spent several minutes discussing Melody’s sassy haircut, which boldly sloped around her head in a kind of helicoid fashion, rather like the banister of Saul and Connie May’s staircase. Three seats had been cleared at the corner of the sushi bar, and they were waiting on the fourth where a young woman in a poufy dress and Teva sandals lingered on the complimentary pineapple that came with the check.

“She’s in my church group,” Connie May said. “Very nice, but kind of strange. Hopefully she doesn’t see me.”

“Looks lonely. Maybe you should set her up with Jamie.” Saul heard the annoyance in his comment which was neither polite nor funny. “In any case, she needs to leave and let us sit down.” He’d had only vodka and two pieces of fruit since breakfast at the Coffee Cup.

“Grumpy, grumpy,” Connie May said. To Malcolm and Melody, she explained, “Big boy needs to eat.” Saul had, in fact, prepared his hunger for this meal.

“It’s not impossible to enjoy a dinner alone, you know.” Melody said thoughtfully. Just above her breasts sat a red stone on a delicate gold chain. She’d taken to wearing it often in the last month.

“Jamie does it all the time,” Malcolm said. “Though not because he wants to. He’s just a loser who can’t attract women.”

“Or,” Melody shifted into her psych student diagnosis mode, “have you ever considered that he might not actually be interested in women?” She was wearing her belt with the big chrome M buckle.

Malcolm’s head tipped back. “Oh, shit!” he shouted and clapped his hands. Several people turned towards his noise. “That reminds me. I forgot to tell you. He called me a couple days ago and asked whether it’s gayer to take home a guy that turns out to be a girl or to knowingly take home a tranny.”

“Why would that even matter?” Connie May said, dismissively.

“Interesting question.” Saul glanced at his wife and, even though he knew he shouldn’t, frowned. “I’d say gay and straight refer to the gender, not the sex, you’re attracted to, right?”

Dubiously, Connie May said, “There’s a difference between sex and gender?”

Malcolm answered, “In short, sex is biological, anatomical, and gender is a cultural construct, what a person identifies with. A tranny, even if ‘she’ has a penis and is sexed male, is still a ‘she.’ So ‘she’ is gendered female.”

“You learn that from porn?” Connie May asked.

“From Male Sexuality class in college,” he said.

“We call trannies ‘she,’ ” Saul reiterated, “which indicates female gender. A man desiring to fuck the opposite gender, I’m sure we can all agree, is not gay. And if a woman turns out to be a man, i.e., a tranny, and you have sex with him, gender-wise, that tranny is still female, which makes the attraction heterosexual.”

“What about the dick?” Melody asked. “And you should say ‘trans,’ by the way. Not ‘tranny.’ ”

“Fair enough. I bet the idea of the trans woman as a ‘she’ marginalizes the dick. Though,” Saul paused to think, “if the dick itself becomes part of the attraction—well—that must be a sort of bisexuality.”

“Or just being a horny guy,” Connie May said.

“But to stay horny requires psychological titillation, not just physical,” Saul countered.

Connie May raised an eyebrow. “Men have assholes. Does wanting to fuck an asshole make you gay?” She smiled and added, faux-contemplatively, “I believe you would have fucked me if I had a dick.”

Embarrassed that this woman who supposedly represented his ideal partner—represented, therefore, him—lacked a basic capacity for logic, Saul explained, “Men and women share plenty of features: hair, skin, mouths. Assholes, just like those, don’t define gender.”

“I think they do,” Connie May persisted. “You don’t call women assholes, do you? Just men.”

Saul groaned.

Malcolm said, “This tranny I know told me—sorry, trans woman told me that, as long as they don’t think anyone will find out, eight out of ten guys fucks her even after they find her dick. I think we’d consider those guys straight. Their intention was to fuck a woman.”

“I think a good percentage of horny guys, once they’re horny, will just take what’s available,” Saul said. “In those cases, the dick becomes incidental, an object marginalized by the original desire for a woman. The guy gets horny enough to overlook the dick—or even, because it’s part of a ‘she,’ re-envision it as feminine. Consider the case of a husband asking his wife to fuck him with a strap-on. I bet he’s not usually fantasizing about being fucked by a man, but is desiring to be fucked by a woman. He wants to feel penetrated, but by a woman.”

“Would that make him lesbian?” Connie May asked.

Saul shook his head. “Still a hetero attraction.”

“What about if he wants to be fucked by a trans woman?” Malcolm asked.

“Trans women are gender female, remember?” Saul said.

Malcolm laughed, “Right, that’s why we call them ‘chicks with dicks’ and not ‘guys with tits.’ ”

“Chicks with dicks rhymes,” Connie May said. “People like rhymes. You’d have to say something like ‘Dudes with boobs.’ But I guess that doesn’t quite work either.”

“Slant rhyme,” Saul noted. “Too subtle for the masses. Anyway, I’d have more respect for Jamie if he were gay. Then there’d be an excuse for his never having a girlfriend.”

“It’s really sad. Do you realize Jamie’s never had anyone say to him, ‘I love you’?” For effect, Malcolm sounded suddenly, genuinely concerned.

“I’m sure his mom has,” Melody said.

Malcolm grimaced. “That bitch? Love? She guilt-trips him if he doesn’t give her the thousand dollars a month she claims he owes her for raising him.” To Saul, he said, “But think about it. How would you feel about yourself if you’d never had a woman wake up beside you and say, ‘I love you.’ Or tell you any other time—ever.”

“Ready?” the hostess, a sexy young blond, asked, guiding them to the bar.

“Half an hour ago,” Saul said rudely, partly because he meant it, but mostly to show Connie May it hadn’t occurred to him that the hostess was yet another delicious morsel he’d have liked to—but never would—taste.

Connie May slapped his leg and widened her eyes at him, reproaching him for his rudeness. He shrugged, as though to say the girl deserved it.

On the way, Connie May playfully elbowed Malcolm in the ribs, startling him. When he turned to her, she smiled and whispered something.

“Of course,” Saul heard Malcolm murmur. “Later in the week, okay?”

What the fuck was that about? Saul wondered.

They sat at the sushi bar. Jido, Koi’s best chef, gave his usual head-dip bow and finished cutting a California roll into six bite-sized cylinders. Saul leaned over to Malcolm. “What a waste. Why does Jido even bother making those? It’s like asking Philip Roth to write copy. People really need to learn about omakase.”

“Maybe those people like California rolls,” Malcolm said. “Not everyone has to be snobs like us.”

Behind Jido were photos of his kids: a glowering teenager and a gurgling newborn with a downy black triangle fluffing off her scalp.

“How’s the baby?” Melody asked.

“Very good, thank you. Teaching her to eat uni. I didn’t with Kio. It was a mistake. Thought I was saving money. But now he eats only cucumber roll.” Every syllable received the same staccato stress, so he smiled to emphasize the tongue-in-cheekiness. From his accent and his grammar, you’d never guess he’s been in California for more than half his life. But if at home and at work he spoke Japanese, when, besides with his customers, would he ever practice English?

“He’s a teenager,” Melody reassured. “Give him time.”

“Kio doesn’t want time. Only money,” Jido said, rubbing his fingers together. “And new car. Mustang. Doesn’t want my old Toyota.”

“Don’t give in, Jido,” Melody frowned and nodded.

“I didn’t. He drives the old Toyota, I bought myself new Mustang. Red.” He followed this with a grunt. Topic over. Time for business.

Malcolm said, “Omakase for four. Whatever’s good today.”

The waitress set four large Sapporo bottles beside four small sake glasses, which Malcolm immediately filled. He raised his sake glass. “To complete and shameless hedonism.”

Connie May rolled her eyes. “How about to Saul’s birthday?”

“Same thing,” Malcolm laughed and stuck out his tongue. They clinked glasses. “By the way”—he winked at Connie May—“cab’s on me.”

Sashimi and sushi flowed steadily over the bar. Unagi and anagi, side by side. Delicious sea bass sprinkled with lemon and salt. Standards like uni, ikura, and monk fish liver were served, as well as creative dishes like tuna carpaccio, something with oysters, another thing with prawns and something else with their heads, final non-thoughts frozen in their little black eyeballs. A Jacuzzi-like warmth of food, friends and Japanese alcohol washed through Saul. By now he’d had three large beers and shot after shot of sake. His bladder throbbed. He stood up. Connie May’s neck glowed at him soft and tender and he bit it lightly, whispering that her tits were the sexiest in the restaurant, before stumbling to the toilet.

Lazily leaning against the partition between the urinal and the stall, he pissed mightily onto the clean white urinal. On command, clear liquid, sparkling as though tinseled, streamed from his hose-like apparatus that, he chuckled at the thought, doubled as a mating device—nature’s wondrous ingenuity. His piss cascaded down from some arbitrary target, until he noticed a black spot a couple inches from the splatter screen. A fly stuck in the urinal. Strangely, it didn’t move when he nailed it with his stream. On closer inspection, he saw it was part of the toilet and that under it, in a crescent of tiny letters, was a web address.

Back in his seat, he scooted toward his wife and bent to kiss her neck again. She stiffened, but allowed it. On an impulse he nibbled her earlobe. He was about to nibble harder when she impatiently nudged him away and hissed at him to stop, people were watching.

Suddenly aware he must have done something wrong, he smiled to buy time, scrolling the last minutes through his mind. “There’s a fake fly on the urinal. Why do you think it’s there?” he directed the question at her, hoping to mollify her with proof that he was interested in her opinion.

“Right,” she said. “You’re looking at flies.”

So that was how he’d fucked up. He played dumb, scrunching his face as though perplexed.

“Nothing, Saul. I’m not talking about anything. You just keep on looking at flies.”

“Whatever,” he said, as though she were hallucinating. And to prove his allegiance to his wife, he turned to Melody and asked, with uncouth directness, why she’d decided to become a stripper and if she was bothered by the fact it wasn’t socially accepted. His mild hostility aroused him. Perhaps she’d feel the same.

“Ignore him,” Connie May sneered. “He’s just drunk.”

“No, it’s all right,” Melody said. “There are several reasons. First, I thought it would be a fascinating way to research the male psyche and sexuality, a kind of field work that most psychologists are too squeamish for. It’s a great opportunity. How many serious researchers have embedded themselves in sex work? People can judge my character all they want now, but, later, it’ll be my book they’re judging. Plus, truth is, dancing pays well and I’m good at it. Most days I make much better money than, say, a high school teacher. There are even days when I make better money than some doctors. Which means society not only accepts my job, but values it.”

“Wait, wait. Hold up. You are a stripper?” Connie May said.

“I dance at a gentlemen’s club. I wouldn’t say ‘I am a stripper’ because it’s not who am I. It is something I do, though.”

“Well, good for you!” Connie May nodded her support. “But—”

“A contingent of certain men values it,” Saul said, cutting off his wife before she could ask something that would incriminate him. “I wouldn’t generalize beyond that.”

“What do you know?” Melody said. “When were you last in a club?”

Saul sensed his wife waiting for his answer. He threw up his hands as though to say he couldn’t remember if he tried, which he hoped could also mean, “How can you ask me that—you know exactly!”

“How did you even know she’s a dancer?” Connie May asked.

“Malcolm,” Saul explained, vaguely. “But still,” he pressed on, “I’m just curious. Aren’t you ashamed of it sometimes?”

Connie May kneed Saul under the bar. He knew she was wondering why he hadn’t told her.

“Why would I be? Is there something wrong with it? Anyway, it’s a means to an end. Dancing’s my fieldwork and some nice extra income. It’s not my career.” She sat up straighter and fixed her shirt.

For a moment Saul’s eyes were drawn to her breasts.

She rolled her eyes. “Charming.”

He continued. “But aren’t all strippers ‘putting themselves through business school’ or ‘saving for med school?’ ”

Malcolm popped a slice of sashimi into his mouth and reclined in his chair. “Keep digging, dawg.”

“Saul,” Melody said, “if you can’t even remember the last time you were in a strip club, why do you think you have a clue about why dancers work at clubs?”

“It’s common knowledge,” Saul mumbled into his beer before gulping the last quarter.

Malcolm stretched over the bar and poured the rest of a large Sapporo bottle into Saul’s empty glass.

“Sorry,” Connie May said to Melody as she pushed the beer glass away from him. “Saul talks nonsense when he’s drunk.”

He scowled at his wife and reached for the glass. “No need to be so decorous. I’m pretty sure my friends prefer honesty to politeness.”

Connie May’s pupils dilated. “Your friends?”

Probably to show female solidarity, Melody touched Connie May’s wrist and said, “I don’t mind. Saul’s always a good case study for me.”

“Really?” Saul said. “How’s that?”

“Hmm.” Melody tapped her finger to her chin. “Where to begin? Well, you’re a classic narcissist. You see people as instruments to provide for your desires. And if they fail to be played by whatever weak effort you put into charm, you try to extort it with meanness. You know, at the very least, you need to start working on being strong enough to deal with the mere fact of other people’s needs—considering you’re not making enough effort to meet them.”

A sneer bore into him from Connie May’s face.

Melody, too, was staring at him. Her lips were parted. Close them, he thought.

He couldn’t allow these two to outsmart him. “I’m not a stereotype. Like everyone else, I act according to circumstance, not by the dictates of a schema you learned in an undergrad psych course.”

Melody didn’t reply. In fact, she was smirking. She slipped the hair on the shorter side of her haircut back behind her ear. He wondered if she were even listening to him, or if her attention had focused elsewhere. Maybe he was staring at her for a moment too long, but he found it difficult to look away. Her smooth young skin. No wrinkles branching from her eyes. Years from showing age.

Connie May clucked her tongue and patted him on the back. “Nice going, Big Boy. Way to be offensive.” At least his wife didn’t seem too mad anymore.

But wait, why was he being an asshole? He was thirty years old today. This could be half his life—maybe even a whole life if he were living in a shtetl a hundred years ago. What was wrong with him? When had he stopped trying to become a better human being?

Her mouth closed and she mussed his hair like Malcolm had mussed Davis’s hair at Snowy Pines Xmas Trees. “Don’t worry, Saul. We’re used to it.”

I’m not actually an asshole, he wanted to say. I haven’t been myself. But because he’d been pathetic enough already, he said, “Thanks. I’m glad you understand.”

 

Later, as he and Connie May brushed their teeth, after he lied that he’d just that day learned about Melody’s stripping and hadn’t had time to tell her, he met her eyes in the mirror and through his toothpaste foam said, “I turned thirty today.”

Her eyes flicked over to his. She spat into the sink and lowered her face to the faucet to rinse her mouth. As she turned to leave he wrapped his arm around her waist.

“What?” She sounded tired.

What he’d meant was, I’m feeling lonely and in need of your love. Quickly he spat and rinsed, keeping his palm against her lower back. In a move that surprised even him, he spun around, bent her backwards and pressed his lips hard against hers. After a moment he relaxed them and kissed her softly, a touch of the most tender pressure. At first she resisted, maybe confused. Then as though from a sudden reflex of the heart she returned an equally soft kiss. And another. When he lifted her upright, he cupped his palms gently over her cheeks and stared into her eyes, longing to understand what she was feeling. He couldn’t remember the last time he looked into her eyes with caring in his own. In her face he recognized suspicion and hope. She didn’t deserve to be felt about the way he often felt about her. He’d promised to take care of her and was failing. She knew that too. He kissed her hairline.

“I’m sorry. I feel so far from you, from everyone. I need to feel close right now. I love you. Just stay for a moment. Please, don’t go anywhere, just let me hold you. I’m going to be a better husband. Please let me be a better husband. I want to be better.” On and on he babbled, imagining the words pulling her closer, making her feel—so they could feel something good together. On he went, murmuring, holding tight, stroking her hair and kissing her face as she cried.

 

 

 

[] Reciprocity (P -5 Days)

 

 

During the week before break Saul’s classes were formulating SMART goals: selecting a weakness and scaffolding a Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely plan to strengthen it. His curriculum required students to self-assess—with guidance—their own strengths and weaknesses in reading, writing and study skills, and to devise a SMART plan to improve upon the weaknesses at a rate of one per unit. Before winter break, students had to present their latest goal to the class. In the weeks following the break, during which goals were usually forgotten, they would evaluate their progress in their journal and, finally, analyze their successes and failures after the assessment at the unit’s end.

The self-directed goals helped students who showed little self-direction, and little content knowledge. The first year Saul taught, he’d assumed that twelfth graders would have a decent understanding of thesis statements, five paragraph essays, and metaphors. But, as it turned out, their English teachers had mostly ignored such advanced ideas, concentrating instead on reinforcing the repetitious spilling of tautological platitudes. “After reading the great gatsby i believe money canot buy u happyness. Peeple think it can but i don’t think so. i think this cuz i think it is tru even if sum peepl dont believe it.”

Assessing goals was a timely lesson for Saul as well. This morning he’d found an email from Malcolm, explaining his thirtieth birthday present. Exhaustion flopped through him like a slinky down a staircase while he thought about his babble from last night. Yet maybe instead of his doubling down on the marriage, as he’d promised in a crash of drunken sentimentality, “being better” actually called for a full retreat. Annihilating his fetters—gently, of course—would free her to fetter herself to a man who’d fulfill her expectations—as long as the requirements for fulfillment didn’t shift to whatever that man wasn’t doing for her. Which, in any case, would no longer be Saul’s problem. The thought re-energized him. Of course, leaving Nat and Davis posed a notable complication, but in his suddenly hopeful mood complications were nuisances, not impossibilities. Forty percent of couples with children got divorced. Statistically that would place Nat within the norm, and what better gift could you give your kid than normality?

Then there was the matter of the hundred thousand. It was true that he’d long been accepting money from his parents and free meals from Malcolm, but this generous fund, which might last five or six semesters max, overtaxed his conscience. He called and told Malcolm he couldn’t accept the hundred thousand.

“No worries, dawg.” Malcolm said. “I already weighed its uses: my friend’s happiness? Whores and coke? My friend’s happiness? Whores and coke? The answer? A hundred grand for each.”

“Still…” Saul said, his insistence crumbling.

“Make sure every nigga stay rich within my cipher.”

Saul smiled and continued the lyrics: “Where’d you disappear to, son?”

“Maintaining.”

“Puttin’ myself in a position most of these rappers ain’t in.”

He figured his pathetic stagnation had prompted the gift. But what about Malcolm’s own stagnation? What purpose were his days achieving? Maybe unconscious projection underlay his attempt at springing Saul from domestic prison, as he knew Malcolm saw it. If so, the gift was also a plea, and Saul owed it to his friend to reciprocate. Yet the only wish of Malcolm’s that, aside from passionate everlasting love, he hadn’t yet purchased himself was the producership of an experimental-concept porn video, like “putting a leash and cone of shame on some bitch and fucking her doggy-style.” How to present Malcolm with this particular opportunity remained unclear.

About a quarter of his students had already sallied up to the front of the room, dragging their nails over a desk or two, play punching a friend or two in the arm, being told to take off their backpacks or purses, spit out their gum and not to lean on the board or on the lectern while they spoke, and had dutifully presented their SMART goals to a class full of teenagers who could give a fuck. Yet the minute hand ticked and progress happened, however crawlingly.

Without raising his hand or being given permission, Lincoln Washington jumped from his desk and swaggered to the front of the room.

“Uh, Linc. We have a system for taking turns.”

“Sure. I’m supposed to raise my hand and volunteer. But, Rose man, you and I both know that no one else here,” Linc swept his arm in a grand indicting oval, “wants to go next. So I’m saving everyone time. You like efficiency. What’s more efficient than me reading everyone’s mind and being proactive?”

Despite his superior vocabulary and wit, this was Linc’s second year in 12th grade, the only kid from last year’s small class to repeat. A skinny dark kid with circular wire-rims and a fro the breadth of his shoulders, always with some fist-pick stuck in it, he’d usually appear distracted, almost never turn in homework, but unfailingly had a wisecrack on hand, sometimes funny, sometimes in need of editing. As often as possible it involved the word “meat.”

“Well argued, Lincoln. Next time, though, raise your hand.”

“Word.” Linc stood there silently.

“Your goal?”

“To turn in my homework on time so I can graduate.”

“Turn in your homework on time? How often? For what grade?”

To Saul’s right gum squirshed in a mouth. “Sandra, gum.”

Sandra growled and probably rolled her eyes, sauntered to the trash by the whiteboard, leaned over it and spat. When she turned back around, Saul said, “Try again,” and waited. This time she let the gum slide off her tongue. Saul nodded and looked again to Linc.

“Every day for an A.” Linc smiled wide, gave two thumbs up.

“How are you going to measure that?”

“By going online every week and checking my grade. How else?”

Saul nodded. That part was indeed perfunctory. “How will you attain it?”

“By doing my homework.”

“Obviously. But what has stopped you from attaining it up to this point?”

“Video games and youporn.com,” Linc said, matter-of-factly.

Linc’s cousin! The perfect connection for Malcolm. How though to approach a student about it? Even with Linc, he’d have to conjure an impeachably plausible reason. “How will you keep yourself from those?”

“Work in the kitchen, I guess.”

“And that is enough? Is it realistic?” Saul asked.

“Moms is watching,” Linc said. “You think she want to see my meat?” In falsetto, he pretended to imitate her, “Lincoln Jackson Washington, put your meat away right now! It’s blocking all the light!”

“Is it realistic to expect that you’ll do your homework even without distractions? If so, how?”

“I’ll print the calendar and have moms sign for each day I finish. Then I’ll bring you the calendar to sign at the end of the week.” Linc croak-laughed like Eddy Murphy and again gave two thumbs up. “You like that, huh? That I’ve learned something about accountability?”

“When will you have the goal achieved by?”

“Till I’m out of this mother.”

“Thank you. Sit down.”

 

“Lincoln,” Saul called when the buzzer zinged. “Can I speak to you for a second?”

“You going to write me a pass to Spanish?”

“Sure.”

Linc dragged a chair across the linoleum, spun it around and dropped himself onto it. “Thanks. I hate Spanish.”

“Don’t you want to be able to impress Latinas with your Spanish skills?”

“I’m a black male in America. The ladies aren’t interested in how many tongues I speak. Right, Rose man? You black. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I understand you’re twenty, but this still is school. Keep it approp—”

“And how big my meat is,” Linc cut in. “They interested in a brotha’s meat.”

Saul sharpened his glance.

Linc bowed his head obligingly.

“I was hoping you could help me with something. I’m working on an article about the adult film industry.”

“An AR-tee-cul,” Linc smiled meaningfully and signed air quotes. “And you want my expertise, huh? I can help you with your AR-tee-cul.”

“No ideas, all right? This is strictly professional. Also, this is not something that people need to hear about. Sometimes people can get the wrong idea.” He really should have taken the time to invent a more solid reason.

“Wrong idea? Like when I’m walking down the street and white people think that I’m going to rob them because I’m a young nee-gro.”

“Right. If people we know hardly know us, how can we protect ourselves from people we hardly know?”

“Shop at Banana Republic and paint our skin the color of a dog’s belly.”

“Or at The Gap,” Saul said.

“The Gap? That’s for poor whitey.”

Or whitey on a teacher’s salary, Saul thought.

 

 

 

[] Annabelle Arrives (P -5 Days)

 

 

Not an hour of light remained on the Tuesday Saul drove with Davis to LAX. They didn’t speak as the engine’s vibration massaged their feet. Instead, they filled the time with All Things Considered on KPCC. National Public Radio was the only upside to Southern California traffic. During Saul’s twenty-minute drive to work, Morning Edition and Renee Montagne’s voice stroked him calm, preparing him for the shrillness of the school halls. It lifted his thoughts into clean white cloud fluff high above the dirt reality of Wife and Job, and he loved her for her daily gift of matinal tranquility.

They cruised into the parking structure by the Bradley terminal, cut the engine and waited in the Corolla for Annabelle to call and let Saul know she’d retrieved her luggage. Davis had seemed pensive during the ride, but this wasn’t unusual. The boy was given to introspective moods and Saul knew he’d speak once he’d chewed through whatever was in his mind’s mouth. Some of Saul’s favorite moments with Davis came when his stepson approached him for advice, probably because Saul’s best self emerged when he was asked to provide honest insight to a good listener. The pleasure was the same he got from executing a successful lesson in the classroom, but since Davis was a better student and the lessons, spontaneous and heartfelt, lacked all the concomitant bullshit of teaching in public school, the pleasure was consistent. Some of the other favorite moments came when they talked about the books or philosophy, which Saul had slowly fed Davis over the last four years.

As Davis tilted his head against the passenger window, his spongy curls flattened into an oval. He appeared to be gazing out the windshield at nothing in particular. Recently, a shadow had begun to darken under his nose, and his scent was pierced through with pubescent musk, familiar from the rooms and hallways of Saul’s school. Saul contorted to reach the knob by his knee, and pumped his arm in circles to ventilate the Corolla with cool parking structure air. He felt proprietary toward this man-child who wasn’t, but whom he was supposed to treat as, his. The feeling was love, he guessed. But the love he felt for Davis was different than what he felt for Natalie. She was his and when he handled her tiny clothes, or touched the clammy surfaces of her palms, or smelled the baby softness of her scalp, the tenderness he felt became uncomfortable, and through him pulsed a sharp longing to crush her fragile little ribs or crack her soft skull. But with Davis the feeling wasn’t so pointed—it was a diffuse, vicarious pride.

Having shifted his introspective gaze to the cement pillar they were parked beside, Davis said, “There’s a girl at school who likes me, I think.”

“You’re not sure?” How exciting, Saul thought, for a relationship to still lack definition. Those weeks of intriguing uncertainty, wondering what the tingling sensations in their bodies would lead to. The vibrant pleasure of newness: when becoming familiar was thrilling, when hours of mutual ogling were ceaselessly fascinating. How fun relationships were before familiarity rotated our gaze outward.

“Well, she’s been sitting next to me at lunch everyday, and on Friday she grabbed my face and kissed my cheek. I mean, a friend dared her to and she pretended it was joke, but she blushed. Plus her best friend asked me in Spanish class if I liked her—in Spanish, though, so I wasn’t really sure if it was a joke or not. It’s not like anyone really speaks Spanish in that class, so she could have meant the opposite of ‘do you dislike Jazzmine?’ or she could have meant ‘do you like like Jazzmine?’ ”

“What’d you say?”

“I wrote, ‘Jazzmine es simpática.’ I didn’t want anyone’s feelings to get hurt. She’s pretty, but she’s kind of weird. On purpose, I think. Like she calls herself a vegan and dyes her hair black and wears horn-rimmed glasses and shoes that look like ballet slippers. I’m a little suspicious about her reasons for liking me anyway, if she does like me. She says she likes girls too, so who knows.”

The cool thing recently, Saul had noticed, was for girls to declare bi-sexuality, particularly when guys were around to hear it. This really wasn’t a concern for Davis. “Why would you be suspicious about her liking you?” he asked. Later, sometime in the future when Davis recalled this girl, Saul could already sense that he’d remember the veganism and the horn-rimmed glasses. Probably more clearly than the eyes behind them. Minutes before Saul was about to see Annabelle again, the memory of her blond eyebrows and dharmachakra tattoo came to mind with greater life than the shape of her face.

“I think she might like me because we’re the only kids who are half black, half white.”

“Well, there’s some context then, I guess.” Saul hoped to sound encouraging. As with the experience of philosophy he’d tried to guide Davis through, Saul wanted Davis to learn the dangers of attraction and how to protect himself against them.

“She is kind of cute, I guess. But, I don’t know. Whatever.”

Saul realized that Davis must be feeling the urge to talk about this girl because he already had begun to fall for her, because the incunabula of love felt like a constant need to express, a continual association of everything with the object of desire. More had happened than Davis was revealing. “You like her.”

Davis suppressed a grin. “Don’t tell anyone. Not even mom. Especially not mom.”

“Promised. But can I ask when it began?”

“With Romeo and Juliet, I think. She said she liked the way I recited Romeo’s monologue. She told me in this way that made me feel really good about myself. Kind of like getting the highest grade on a final. I don’t know. After that I started thinking about her differently.” Davis had been reading Romeo and Juliet in his English class. Saul had helped him here and there with the language, though for the most part Davis understood it fine.

Discussing the play with Davis had inspired Saul. Since quitting his PhD he’d found little time to read, and often when he sat down with a book he couldn’t get past the first page or two without realizing that he had no idea what he’d read. All day he exhausted his concentration on classroom management, deciphering scribbles in pigeon English, drawing up and revising lesson plans, contacting parents whose interest in their children’s education couldn’t match whatever video game he’d just interrupted or whose two jobs made a parent-teacher conference impossible; then he came home to Connie May’s needs and a bipolar preschooler. His twelfth graders were supposed to read at least two books per month along with the work from their other classes. It was hypocritical of him to preach reading and then do so little himself. But the night he’d helped Davis, Saul grabbed his dusty copy of Shakespeare’s complete works and reread the entire play.

When he first read it in high school he’d assumed Shakespeare had intended the play to be a tragic drama of star-crossed lovers whose families stubbornly and wrongly doused their love’s flame. Without thinking, he’d sided with Romeo and Juliet in perceiving the adults’ rivalry—and the world’s rules, in general—as unjust. Now he realized he’d vastly overestimated their wisdom. This time he understood the message differently. The tragedy was a result of benighted obstinacy on the part of the parents, as well as one of literature’s most spectacular fuck-ups. All the characters, no matter how eloquently they expressed themselves, were egregiously wrong. A seventeen and a twelve-year-old get gaga infatuated at a party—fatuous seemingly the root word here—and decide that, having now laid eyes on each other, they need to marry immediately. As in the next day. Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetic dialogue, it was that simple. Romeo, the reader is informed, falls in and out of love on a whim and probably would have married Rosalyn within an evening of meeting her had she not reacted so frigidly to the warmth in his trousers. Juliet, of course, is completely unaware of Romeo’s history. If she were aware, maybe she’d be warier. (Through what means, however, with only twelve years of fourteenth century experience to inform her decision—and probably no tits—would she acquire such awareness?) But, no, after meeting that evening they insist on wedding straightaway. And, astoundingly, their older confidantes, a nurse and a priest, enable the lunacy, agreeing to the marriage one day after the children meet, two different adults abetting in the children’s decision to abandon their families and friends, abetting in all but the rash double suicide in Act V. All for a relationship that would’ve ended a couple weeks later in an explosion of hormonal intensity proportionate to its passionate haste. So a bunch of fuss and death over what? A situation that anyone with experience would have identified as an infatuation (fatuousness) devoid of mature perspective.

The parallels he could have drawn to his own life had, of course, occurred to him. Drawing parallels to his own experience had always been his primary motivation for reading both philosophy and literature. It used to inspire him when some writer provided language for his thoughts. Maybe he read less literature these days to keep himself from getting too depressed about his life.

“Remember that Schopenhauer book I was reading?” Davis said, understandably wanting to change the subject.

“Sure. You like it? If you haven’t read Kant there’s a lot that you’ll miss.”

“He keeps mentioning Kant, so I looked at your Kant books. They’re horrible. If dude was so brilliant, why couldn’t he write clearly?”

“Dude wasn’t a normal person. He’s supposed to be this worldly figure, but he never even left his hometown. And no one who’s that influenced by Kant is normal.”

“Is anyone who’s that influenced by some philosopher ‘normal?’ ” Davis asked with a significant stare.

“True,” Saul agreed. “Normal people don’t think that much.”

“Anyway,” Davis rolled his eyes—why was everyone always rolling their eyes at him?—“I wanted to ask about something Schopenhauer wrote in one of his essays.”

Saul hoped he’d remember the text well enough.

Davis stared at nothing in particular and quoted: “ ‘The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feeling of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other.’ ” He took a deep breath. Saul envied the boy’s memory. “So is the point in life to be the eater?”

“That’s what Nietzsche believed. He was all for action without contemplation, which, I think, would lead most people to be the eater. But I don’t think that’s what Schopenhauer was saying. My guess—and remember, Schopenhauer had a comfy bourgeois life—is that he just got a superior kick out of throwing in a kind of Buddhist perspective. Well, and I guess probably also making people feel bad. He was a great animal lover, but didn’t think much of humans.” Saul sucked his teeth. “You know, as much as I like all the philosophy I studied, I don’t think the life that we actually experience can be distilled into ideas. Ideas always reduce experience to a single flat interpretation. To anything anyone professes, you can always find a counterexample.” He looked at Davis to see how his confession registered. “That said, I think we’re eating and being eaten without even being conscious that we’re on one end or the other.”

“I want to be conscious, though.”

“Even if you’re being eaten?”

“Yeah. I think so,” Davis said.

Saul contemplated Davis’s will to consciousness. “Okay, look. My thesis on this would be that the suffering and pleasure in life are inextricable—that sometimes we think we’re eating and it turns out we’re being eaten, and that sometimes the juicy leg we’re feasting on is actually our own.”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra chimed on Saul’s phone.

The pick-up area outside the baggage claim was the darker, dirtier bottom level of the Los Angeles airport. People departing LA would remember the sun’s bright warmth as they wheeled their luggage into the terminal, but those arriving, many of whom had never seen the city, were unloaded into the echoing horn honks and engine rumbling of a sooty, orange-lit tunnel. For the several years Saul had envisioned picking up Annabelle at the airport, he’d ignored this depressing aspect. In his daydream Annabelle stood at the curb, holding his son’s hand, hip leaned against a titanium, rolling suitcase. Her hair, blond and freshly cut to reveal two inches of pale Nordic neck. Dark sunglasses masked her water blue eyes till she stepped into his car and lifted them slowly from her face. Their eyes met. They both smiled. The sexual tension was pulling them close. It said, “Saul, leave your wife, I’ll take care of you. Finish your PhD. We’ll live in New York or San Francisco while you teach at Princeton or Stanford, whichever Xavier wants to attend at sixteen. Forget this stifling existence. I won’t ever get upset with you for being yourself. We’ll be happy because I’m hot, rich, intelligent, educated, and know how to appreciate you. And I desire you in a way, so open, so free and so willing that it’ll blow your mind.”

In actuality, Annabelle’s long and hard body had on pocketless denim pedal pushers and a black ribbed tank top, loose in the chest, that stretched down to the wide flare of her hips. Her platinum blond hair was pulled into a ponytail. With one hand she waved to Saul as he drove up, while her other hand lay atop his son’s wispy, shoulder blade dusting, platinum hair. If he weren’t certain Xavi were his, he would have doubted his curly black hair genes could produce such straight white strands. Saul wasn’t sure whom to greet first, or, now that he thought about it, how to greet them. Hugs? Kisses? He popped the trunk, left the engine running, signaled to Davis to help with the luggage, stepped from the car and suppressed his anxious urge to laugh so that it became a kind of goofy smile that ripped his cheeks upward, tightened them in knots below his eyes and made his face sweat. He decided to hug her. There wasn’t much cushioning anywhere. The palms of her hands pressed into his back, each finger gripping and massaging. She wasn’t shy.

“It’s been a while,” she said, smiling, it seemed, just as uncontrollably. Sophisticated-looking rectangular glasses framed her water blue eyes. Her blond eyebrows, as always, reminded him of the soft blond patch under the pedal pushers.

“Longer than a while,” Saul said. “Aren’t you cold?” Connie May was always complaining about being cold. They’d battled over keeping the window open at night in the winter. Yet another thing he wouldn’t have to stress about with Annabelle.

“I have a sweater. It was hot on the plane.” She turned to their son. “Na, Xavi? Hast du dem Papa was zu sagen?

Xavier resembled his mother, though his ears jutted like little trumpets and he wasn’t quite as pale. And instead of a muscular feminine figure and a tank top, his bones edged sharp at his joints and he wore a German National Team goalie uniform and cleats. No shin guards, at least. “Hello, Papa,” he said, his accent maybe Australian. In her letters, Annabelle had mentioned a tutor. Male or female, he hadn’t been told. Which led him to wonder if the tutoring was some guy’s side job. Though she’d written nothing in her correspondence about other men, he found it hard to believe there hadn’t been any. Maybe women. He hoped so—then he wouldn’t agonize over whether some other dick had satisfied her more than his own. In several of the conversations during the weekends they’d spent twining legs in his single bed, always planning to go but never making it to brunch, she’d emphasized her attraction to individuals and not a particular gender.

“A soccer fan, I see,” Saul remarked to his son, trying to conjure up the ecstasy he was supposed to feel. Right now, Xavier seemed like one of those characters in a dream who didn’t physically resemble the person he was supposed to be, yet was somehow that person. Odd that here was his six-year-old son, and he, Saul Rosen, a grown ass man, felt reticent and awkward.

“He wants to get his hair cut in that silly football player style, but I won’t let him. Not yet. It’s too nice long, isn’t it?” She stroked Xavier’s hair, combing her fingers through the wispy drape behind his neck.

Xavier said, “Nein.”

Saul thought maybe to lift Xavier into the air, kiss his blond eyebrows, figure out some way to feel like his father. He bent forward, but hesitated, unsure how the boy would react. Xavier, probably doing what was expected, kissed Saul once on each cheek.

An airport traffic officer in a reflective jacket shouted at them to move it along. Davis had already thrown the luggage into the trunk and relocated himself to the back seat. The man shouted again and glared at Saul. Saul decided to introduce Davis to Annabelle and Xavier before leaving the curb. The three shook hands.

Davis said, “Schön Sie endlich kennenzulernen.” The accent was surprisingly natural.

Annabelle laughed, a delighted childlike music, and turned to Saul, her eyes asking if he were responsible.

“It’s a surprise to me, too,” he said.

“There’s a German kid at school. He taught me a couple things,” Davis explained. “Aside from ‘Nice to finally meet you,’ I learned a few I shouldn’t repeat in front of my stepbrother.”

“Wonderful,” she said, laughing again. “But, please, I’m not so old. Duz me.”

The man in the reflective jacket tapped two fingers on Saul’s window, deepening his glare as he noticed the black dust on his fingertips.

Your own fault, Saul thought, inching away from the curb.

Saul gave Annabelle an ironic smile. “Welcome back to LA.”

“It’s so warm,” Annabelle said.

“You remember it here much?” he asked.

“It was a good time. I had my American boyfriend. I got a baby.”

“Made a baby,” he corrected, though he quickly realized the error was purposeful, a joke probably. “Anyway, I’m glad you could come.”

“I like it,” she said, and rubbed his head with her palm. “It feels like an animal.” She pushed her lips out in that way Germans occasionally did to show contemplation. “Igel. I’m forgetting what it’s called in English. Like the video game with Sonic.”

“Hedgehog,” Davis’s voice said from the back.

Annabelle twisted around. “You are a smart one.” Twisting back to Saul, she said, “But, you know, I liked your locks too. You look good both ways.” She smiled, delighted, girlish. “I think more hair brings out your eyes, though.”

“Thanks. Just did it yesterday. I think I look younger this way.”

“And tougher,” she said.

In the back seat, Davis exhaled loudly.

At that moment, as though this were a movie, the sun auspiciously carved through the clouds and pierced the windshield, warming Saul’s steering hand. With the heat and light there arrived a stillness that cast a living beauty over the familiar five-lane freeway and the normally invisibly ubiquitous palm trees, over the industrial South Bay and the whole of Southern California, a place he’d never considered beautiful. He knew why this was happening. He wasn’t stupid. It happened because this woman was near him again. Because he still could feel her loving presence and her magnetic sexuality. Because the connection of their bodies had fashioned this little wispy-haired, wing-eared goalie. Because in him there lingered the memory of fierce intimacy. Happiness, after hibernating through a long repressive winter, had been reawakened by a voice and a smile. At one time she had been the closest person to him, his confidant. He’d trusted her after their first weekend, and had never ceased trusting her, perhaps the only woman besides his mother he’d ever not mistrusted. Amazing, he thought to himself, how quickly he’d unlocked his emotions, how desperate he’d been to open himself at the first signs of being accepted—how willingly, eagerly, he’d taken a few intense hours as a promise of acceptance. Two days before their long ago tennis date she’d been a mere blip on his radar, yet that blip had torpedoed into his own blip, detonating his green blinking monotony. It had suddenly seemed natural that she’d been the one he shared his time with, the one whom he wished had been there that afternoon when a beer-chubby Tri-Delt in stilettos tumbled down the steps by the bookstore, the one whose presence gave a comic lightness to the excuse he had to make for sleeping through the eleven a.m. intensional logic seminar. The one who infused all perception with acute narcotic bliss.

Six years later, over the drowning rush of stupidity’s consequences, Saul bridged the current moment beside Annabelle to the moment she’d walked through the gate at the same airport and twisted her round-bellied body to wave at him. The hope of possibility bobbed to the surface. The possibility that his Alltagstrott could pick up speed.

A quickening in his chest urged him to run his hand over the muscles stretching those pocketless pedal pushers. “It’s good to see you,” he said. “I mean it,” he added, as sincerely as he could, hoping she’d feel his sincerity.

She smiled at him. He noticed a soft mustache blurring her upper lip. The hairs were mostly blond, barely noticeable without direct light. But amid the soft yellow blur, two black hairs, little spiders’ legs, had sprouted just over the corner of her mouth. The grotesqueness of it frustrated him, the fact that bodies spoiled their own beauty. Why did beauty crumble in upon itself as he learned to appreciate it more fully? Youth seemed like a fucked up prank, a music he’d begun to love once his hearing had faded. He tried to be okay with the hairs, with this threat of inchoate masculinity, and reminded himself that no woman escaped it. He also reminded himself that his convictions had unfailingly proven themselves as permanent and durable as soap bubbles. Tiny hairs or not, if the two of them had an hour alone he would try to get inside her, prove that he still could. And then, he knew, something would happen, some border would be crossed, some membrane punctured, after which his return to Connie May and the tedious, soul crushing Alltagstrott would be impossible. Then what, he asked himself? What would be the consequence of the new freedom? He glanced in the rearview and saw his stepson’s eyes, warning him of the potential damage, begging him to tread lightly. Too many people with feelings as real as Saul’s were involved in this mess.

 

 

 

[] Annabelle Remembers (P -7 Years)

 

 

Seven years ago, when they first starting dating, Saul had promised Annabelle something typically American, and, the LA County Fair, she imagined, epitomized American culture. Though there was a German-American fair in Berlin, she’d guessed that just as hamburgers and Mexican food were quite different than their lackluster German imitations, the American version would be greasier and more delicious. In her teens she’d toured the States with her aunt and uncle and seen the super-sized people, the super-sized portions, the self-righteous indulgence of all the excessive metal and plastic in their cars and houses. Americans had appeared as little children in big bodies, unaware that the earth was a resource to share, not an object to jealously hoard, jam your flag into, and guard with a gun. However, as was the case with children, their selfishness was as unconscious as their friendliness and generosity. Random Americans in the street smiled at her if she made eye contact, as though her eyes tickled their lips. The receptionist at the gym always wished her a wonderful workout on her way in and a wonderful day on her way out. Sales staff and waitresses delighted in serving her. In Germany they sometimes gave you a dirty look if you bothered them for the check. American culture inculcated cheeriness. Even if the cheer was deceptive or self-serving, she found herself reflexively mirroring the gesture and, after a while, meaning it.

At the LA fairgrounds, Saul parked his little black car in the vast dirt parking lot and announced that when they returned later, sweaty and smelly, he was going to fuck her in the backseat “like two horny teenagers.”

“What makes you think that’s appealing to me?” she said, though secretly she took pleasure in his assured way of declaring things.

“You want it, too.”

“Did I give you a signal I wasn’t aware of?”

“I get a tingling in my ‘tail,’ as you Germans call it.”

“Your Schwanz.” She laughed, as she usually did when he spoke or referenced German. “I’m sure it tingles all the time. You know the saying, ‘To a hammer every problem looks like a nail.’ Well, to your Schwanz everything looks like a hole.”

“Sure. But, unlike the hammer, my Schwanz is correct in its analysis of problems,” he said.

“I think you’re Schwanz might be in danger of causing the problems.”

“We won’t get caught.”

“But what if we do?”

“We’ll explain that we overheated and were changing into something more comfortable.”

“That would be a lie!”

“No.” He grinned. “Just a different way of stating the truth.”

“We’ll see,” she said. “We’ll see.”

 

The petting zoo, being so close to the entrance, was their first stop. About a dozen pygmy goats roamed a square of wood chips scattered over dirt. Most of the adults were nearly as wide as they were long. She was wondering if they were fat or pregnant when she noticed a handwritten cardboard sign that explained, “Our goats are not pregnant. They are just obese.” Wasn’t this animal cruelty? She pointed it out to Saul. He put his arm around her waist and kissed her cheek. “Here, my sweet German girl, is a metaphor for the American culture you’ve longed to see: the reckless, deleterious, and insistent overconsumption of a community.”

He dropped a quarter into the food dispenser and divided the compacted hay pellets between them. Already, spheroid pygmy goats surrounded them, bullying the smaller goats and kids aside. Annabelle tried to push through to pet the soft-furred kids, with their freshly sprouting horns and pathetic hungry eyes, but the old fat goats stole the food from her palm, all their fat aiding in their violent rush to get fatter. She tried again to feed the babies, this time boxing out the bigger goats like a basketball player about to leap for a rebound. Squatting and pushing, she reprimanded the adults, increasingly frustrated at their persistence. Finally, after several repositionings, she found herself shoveling pellets into a kid’s mouth. Delighted at the success, she reached to stroke its fur and touch its tiny horn growths. The kid, focused completely on the hay pellets, ignored her petting. But before it could finish the few hay pellets in her palm, an adult goat hip-checked it to the side and, in the heat of the moment, bit into her hand. Nothing serious. Just enough to vex her about the adult’s selfishness and drive her to some form of protest, even if only symbolic. She dropped the remaining pellets on top of its head. There, you fat greedy thing! Eat till you explode! she thought. As the pellets fell to the ground, the goat blinked and craned down to munch both pellets and surrounding wood chips.

“Did you see that?” she asked Saul. “How are you ever supposed to feed and pet the babies?”

“Like this,” he said and kissed her neck before walking to a kid and herding it over soccer-style between his shins. With nowhere for the kid to escape she knelt and squeezed it to her chest to get a whiff of its fur. A lush blend of baby animal, hay, and urine. As soon as she let go, it bolted.

“If there were grass everywhere instead of wood chips and dirt, they’d all be grazing naturally and wouldn’t feel the need to assault the pellet supply.” He examined the ground. “Don’t you think it’s funny that if all an animal ever consumes is grass, that means the animal is made of grass? And air, I guess, since they breathe air. And water. Generations of horses and cows, made only of grass, air and water.”

“Then you must be made partly of LA smog,” she said.

“Yep,” Saul said, pseudo-reflectively. “And some people are made of Doritos and Mountain Dew.”

At the sheep pen, Saul leaned over the fence and began to bleat. To Annabelle’s ear, at least, he sounded remarkably similar to a sheep. She wondered where he’d learned to imitate a farm animal. After two or three efforts, one of the sheep bleated back. Within about thirty seconds the bleating increased in number and urgency until the entire pen was bleating as though in panic. Their farcical ears launched out perpendicular to their skulls, their jaws hinged open and quivered with their coarse nasal vibrato. Strangely, they didn’t flee, just bleated more forcefully, and their eyes appeared oddly indifferent to whatever must have shifted in their thoughts. She pulled at his shirtsleeve. He crossed his arms and nodded, scanning the pen to admire his work. When the bleating slowed, he threw in one more baa before laughing and walking away.

“That wasn’t nice,” she said.

“Don’t you think they appreciate the excitement?” he said. “Imagine you were a sheep, living out your half dozen years in a sheltered home, never exercising your natural fear instinct or experiencing a little adrenaline rush. Wouldn’t you be bored? Why should we expect them to be so different from us? Was it torture when your friends coerced you into your first roller coaster ride?”

“I still knew what I was getting into. I think this is more like getting your dog high. It’s unfair. The dog has no idea why its world has suddenly changed.”

“But imagine how good its food tastes? Tell me that is not a gift.” He clucked his tongue to signal the conclusiveness of the statement. “Apropos,” he patted his pocket, “let’s take a ride on the Ferris wheel.”

By the time they sat down onto the hard plastic seats of their private gondola, the residual cool of the Autumn morning had completely dissipated. Though they usually sat next to each other, even in restaurants, they had to sit on opposite sides to keep the thing from tilting. Annabelle took off her sweatshirt. The afternoon sun breathed its cozy California warmth against her hair and skin. Gazing out through the gondola’s windows, enjoying the dwindling size of the people below as her body soared upward, she felt content with life. She leaned across and kissed Saul’s shoulder. After a couple revolutions, their gondola jerked to a stop near the top, swinging back and forth for a moment before settling into comfortable stillness. Saul reached into his pocket and produced his glass one-hitter, already packed. Bowing his head as though in prayer, he extended the pipe to Annabelle, the sweet pungent plant swirling in the air before her.

For probably half an hour—or who knows how long—they sauntered in silence through the fair’s asphalt paths, fingers lightly intertwined, occasionally employing their free hands to point at the buckling ankles of a woman in stiletto heels or at a midget with a shirt that read, “I Fuck on the First Date,” or at a family of six in matching attire gorging on corn dogs and giant neon blue slushes. She listened to the rhythm of her sandals flip-flapping, snapping back against her heels; the robotic whirr of spinning rides; the cottony tones of Californian English; the shatter-clatter of ice machines. She said to Saul the sounds were speaking to her. He mused that all sound had meaning if you knew how to listen. It all became music. Just like any sight, framed correctly, like a photograph, could be beautiful if you knew how to look at it. Another minute or so passed. Saul was speaking again. Not translating immediately, she only heard his voice and not its content. She smiled at him. His blue eyes, staring at her, were set off in chiaroscuro by his floppy coils of thick black hair. He boosted himself onto the balls of his feet so that his gaze was on level with hers. It conveyed grave intent, as though he were suffering.

Suddenly concerned, she laid her hands on his shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

“Aren’t you hungry?” he asked.

 

Because the line wasn’t long and because it sounded more appetizing than the various fried options (such as fried Twinkies or fried butter with whip cream and chocolate sauce), they agreed on a stand specializing in gourmet hot dogs, entered the line behind five or six other hungry people, and browsed the chalkboard menu.

Behind them two children were wailing dramatically. A man’s voice threatened, “Shut. Up. Both of you. Or I swear we’ll never ever do this or anything fun ever again!” The wailing hit a more distressed pitch before dribbling off into sniffles.

Annabelle and Saul glanced back. The father, sunken chested and short, wore a fading UCLA Basketball T-shirt, and though he appeared not to be much older than she herself was, his hair wisped in a corona around a balding scalp.

Saul kissed her ear and whispered, “I bet the kids were incompatible with his basketball career.”

Not wanting to disrespect a person she didn’t know, a fellow human who already seemed to be suffering, Annabelle, not finding the comment funny anyway, ignored him and returned to browsing the menu.

Four animal species plus a couple vegetarian options comprised seventeen styles of hot dog. Saul wanted the spicy lamb dog and the classic kosher beef frank. She chose the pork GOMeI (Gourmet Oscar Meyer Imitation) because it seemed the most American.

Two college age boys in backward facing baseball caps worked the stand. One took orders and collected money, shouting each order to the grill boy, who’d transfer the corresponding sausage from a cooler on his right. The stand didn’t bother with order numbers. Each new order was placed at the back of the grill and slowly rolled its way forward until the grill boy slid his spatula under it, flipped it into a hot bun, set the bun onto a paper tray, and hollered the name of the sausage into the waiting crowd. Saul and Annabelle placed their orders and stepped aside to admire their sausages rolling slowly to the front of the grill.

The act proceeded smoothly and efficiently and soon Saul stood at the condiment table squirting globs of spicy mustard onto his hot dogs. His back was turned when Annabelle watched her GOMeI soar into the air, arc over the grill boy’s backward facing baseball cap and plop with a little wiggle on the dirt. The boy’s face and eyes twitched in thought, and a swift kick propelled the GOMeI out the back of the stand. He then pursed his lips and set a replacement in the back of the line. Annabelle looked at Saul, who was still layering his hot dogs in condiments. She wished he’d seen it with her. She was laughing. Since no one else was laughing, she forced herself to stop, which reddened her face and made her armpits sweat. The laughter seemed to originate behind her face. Was that where laughter started? Somewhere behind your nose? What about the convulsive shrug she was resisting, the one that, in her resistance, had just made her snort? Beginning at her toes and moving upward, she surveyed herself for the sensation, and concluded that her entire body, from skin—from the hairs on her skin—inward, spasmed all at once. The whole body laughed. Her thoughts soaked warmly through her consciousness, which, it seemed to her, resided in the front top quadrant of her brain. The weed in Germany was never this strong.

“GOMeI,” the grill boy yelled, thrusting the sausage into the crowd.

Annabelle grabbed it with her free hand.

“What the fuck?” someone shouted.

The anger in his voice frightened her. Uncertain how to answer his question, she grimaced apologetically. A yeasty odor, probably beer, leaped the space between her and the voice. She lifted her eyes toward the origin of the unsettling combination. The short man in the UCLA shirt was cocking his head and glaring at her. A woman, presumably his wife, and two small children, possibly his, hovered behind. The woman’s hair was permed and colored an unnatural red. It looked as exhausted as she did. One child had something like chocolate smudged around his mouth. Both little faces were swollen from fits of crying.

Jabbing toward to the GOMeI, the man said, “That one’s mine. Yours is in the back.” His finger flicked at the area behind the stand. Her eyes followed his finger flick.

“I’m sorry,” she said as sweetly as possible. “I thought we were supposed to receive them in the order they were ordered.” Order they were ordered sounded odd, but she thought it made sense anyway.

“Don’t be sorry,” the woman said to her. “Jimmy needs to wait his turn like a big boy.”

Jimmy sneered. “Fuck do you know, Karen? Were you even paying attention?”

The woman replied, “Generally I try not to pay attention to you, but my asshole radar was beeping real loud and I couldn’t help it.”

Saul reappeared, hot dogs covered in relish and mustard. Nearly half of one was already eaten. He smiled amiably at Jimmy—far more jovial than any smile she’d seen on him before—and swallowed. “Cool shirt,” he said, pointing with the chewed end of the half eaten hot dog. “You’re a UCLA alum?”

“Fuck’s it to you?” Jimmy stepped toward Saul.

Annabelle stepped back instinctively. She’d noticed that Americans often threatened each other without actually hurling a fist, but she still reacted like a European.

“We are, too,” Saul said, smiling, and not backing away. “Actually, we go there now. Did you enjoy it?”

Jimmy thrust his head forward and squinted as though he were confused. “You think I give a monkey’s ass fuck where you go to school? I’ve waited my turn in this stupid line. I’m hungry. I’m ready to—you don’t even want to fucking know.” He waved his fists like a boxer setting up.

“Why are you mad?” Saul asked, thoughtfully.

“She took my fucking hot dog!”

“No,” Saul said slowly. “Why are you actually mad?”

Jimmy looked confused.

Saul waited a moment before extending his uneaten hot dog toward Jimmy, who still hadn’t recovered from Saul’s last question. “Here, man, I totally understand. You can have this to tide you over if you want. Or this one, if you prefer.” He lifted the half eaten one. “It’s lamb. The world’s most delicious animal—most delicious land animal, anyway.”

“GOMeI,” the grill boy shouted.

Quickly, Saul grabbed it and passed it to Jimmy. Before anything else could happen, he turned Annabelle around and lovingly but rapidly ushered her to a safer distance.

 

While they ate, Annabelle replayed the episode in her mind. Saul hadn’t reacted to the man’s anger. Instead he’d calculated friendliness against brutishness, softness against hardness. Very Lao Tzu. He may have been condescending, but perhaps only Annabelle had understood that.

“You’re flawed,” she said to him. “You know that right?”

He swallowed and said, “Yeah, I know. If God had wanted me to be perfect, he would have made me a few inches taller.”

“And your abilities equal to your ego.” She kissed his forehead.

Suddenly looking concerned, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile like that before. Your lips are tighter and I can see your gums. Something very girlish about it.” His hand reached over and began to stroke her forearm with his fingernails. “Maybe you’re just high.” He sighed. “No, I think it’s that you love me.”

She smiled. “Du hast recht.”

“You make me happy.”

Du mich auch,” she said.

“You make me feel wiser,” he said. “You’re like philosophy. You’re my philia.”

“And your Eros.”

“And my Eros.”

Amoroso uso della sapienza.”

“Dante.”

“Yes,” she answered. “Dante.”

They stared at each other, kind of giggling without sound. She desired: to eat him, to bite into his chin, to pull his curly black hair, to squeeze the skin above his waist. Her panties were wet. She told him so.

 

 

 

[] At the Pool (P -4 Days)

 

 

Before she arrived, she’d decided not to pressure Saul into spending more time or acting any more like a father than he naturally felt compelled to. She figured her hands off approach would encourage fluid interactions, maybe even a burgeoning storge. Wasn’t this the natural extension of the respect she’d granted him seven years earlier when she’d announced her pregnancy, the respect of not burdening him with such responsibility at twenty-four? Now, though, with a wife and two other children, he’d had time to adapt to fully realized adulthood. Yet, to her mild chagrin, when Saul appeared at the airport, his interactions with Xavi came across more like the awkward embraces of a first date than it did the loving reunion of a father and son unfortunately separated by fate. Was her dream that Saul’s invitation had implied a longing to be near his son a mere delusion? Or had the years of intercontinental obscurity germinated a yearning that had suddenly wilted in the Los Angeles sunlight? What else made sense? He couldn’t have only wanted to see her?

 

In bed the first night, she’d sat with Xavi, stroking circles over his lower back and little butt, the kind of loving rubs that usually coaxed him to sleep, and asked him how it felt to be in California with his papa. He answered with a shrug.

“What does that mean?” she said, poking his ribs.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you excited?” she suggested.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you ready to have fun tomorrow?”

“I miss our house.”

“We’ll go back soon. But we just got here. Once you have fun, you’ll probably love it so much, you won’t want to leave. That’s what happened to me when I stayed here. At first I missed home, but then I fell in love with the sun and the beach and your papa.”

“I don’t want to speak English.”

“You don’t have to. But no one will understand you if you don’t.”

With his face in the pillow, he shrugged again.

“How about this? Whenever you miss home, you can speak to me in German? It’ll be our secret language.”

Xavi rolled on his side and pointed to a large photo of Nietzsche, the famous profile photo with the squirrel tail mustache. “I don’t like that picture.”

The bedroom had been Saul’s. Now a guest room, it had once been home to his crib, which had given way to his bunk bed, which had given way to a futon, which, once he’d graduated college, had finally been replaced by a bed an adult would willingly sleep on. From old photos, she knew that the walls had once been painted sky blue and, along with the Nietzsche poster, were a palimpsest of his evolving tastes. Near his desk had hung a polar bear poster, eventually replaced by Tupac with a gun in his belt and a finger to the camera. Over his dresser had been a painting he’d done in elementary school, thrown away for the only semi-ironic, framed Beavis and Butthead knocking around in a washing machine with the caption, “Huh, huh, huh. I think I just made my pants dirtier.” Now, except for Nietzsche, the traces of Saul’s childhood had been overwritten by Iris’s pragmatic drive for comfort and color coordination. Though she wished she’d been able to walk into Saul’s teenage bedroom, Annabelle agreed that his mother’s renovation saved everyone embarrassment. It now matched the rest of the home that Annabelle had fallen a bit in love with during their relationship. The house had welcomed her with as much filial warmth as had the Rosen parents. The first time Annabelle met Saul’s parents, they hugged her with genuine emotion, and Israel told her that she had full fridge rights—he resented the criminal stinginess about food that certain households perpetrated. Since then—often on the weekends, and sometimes even during the week, she and Saul had come for dinner, Iris cooking while around the kitchen table Saul and Israel debated liberal politics—each time Annabelle had entered the Rosens’ world she noticed something new: a piece of indigenous art, a sponge painted room, a renovated kitchen counter, a sofa angled differently. There was a hidden bustle of constant modernization. Iris’s home would never wind up a museum of a past decade. So it was funny that Nietzsche still frowned on the wall. But then, Iris probably couldn’t bring herself to erase every trace of Saul’s youth, no matter how incongruous—the sentimental peeking out through the otherwise hawk-eyed aesthetic.

Laughing at Xavi’s fear of Nietzsche, she walked to the wall and removed his mustached face from the hook and stowed him in the closet. She sat back on the bed and stroked Xavi till he fell asleep, which, once Nietzsche had vanished, didn’t take long.

The next day, Saul, Connie May, and Natalie showed up at his parents’ house for breakfast. In the crowded, noisy kitchen, Israel prepared a breakfast of huevos rancheros. Little Natalie boycotted the eggs, insisting instead on yogurt and honey, which for some reason led to charged discussion about whether she was allowed to have yogurt. Eventually, Iris, who assured Saul that Natalie often ate yogurt without any problems, brokered a compromise and, cup in hand, playfully airplaned the milky goo into her granddaughter’s mouth. During breakfast, Saul sat next to Xavi and asked benign and probably boring questions about school and soccer, while Xavi’s eyes stayed locked to his eggs. Several times, Annabelle reminded him in German that he was being impolite, and his glance would flit over his father before snapping back to his plate. Once in a while, Saul patted Xavi’s back or squeezed his tense shoulder. Just smile at him with love, Annabelle kept thinking at Saul, as though the thought might jump telepathically from her mind to his.

Twice while concentrating on Saul, she’d felt an uncomfortable heat, and shifted to catch Connie May glance away, a murine tremor at the side of her mouth. Not that Saul’s wife much resembled a rodent—if anything, she had a hint of feline in her delicate face and the round muted eyes behind which Annabelle intuited both mistrust and predacity—but more a sense that something inside her was skittering around, hoarding nuts as though someone were plotting to steal them from her. Connie May’s jealousy saddened Annabelle. I’m here for Xavi’s sake, she wanted to say. As a mother, you should understand that. At the same time, a competitive female fire, which she could never quite extinguish no matter how deep she shamed it into the coldest depths of herself, enjoyed Connie May’s fear of her power. In the end, though, Connie May was a secondary issue. Annabelle needed to find out how much to expect from Saul as a father.

One moment from that day had been especially revealing. Once the chill morning mist had dissipated, and afternoon sun began to heat the air, they drove to the yacht club for a swim with Malcolm. As soon as they entered, Saul disappeared to the bathroom, and, upon his return some twenty minutes later, made an excuse about needing to calm Natalie, despite the fact that she’d been relatively well behaved all morning. So while Annabelle and Malcolm raced Xavi in doggy paddle and a frantic version of butterfly that he’d gleaned from God knows where, Saul waded in a shallow corner with a hand under Natalie’s back as she practiced floating. From the pool deck, Connie May dangled her feet into the water, cheering on Xavi, apparently ignoring the occasional half-sneer Saul directed at her. Whatever the cause, his petty behavior annoyed Annabelle. Everyone sensed the tension. Probably to ease it, Connie May finally suggested he play Marco Polo with his son—she’d take over with Nat. Saul stared at her for a moment, as though she might be fooling him, before swimming over to teach his son, slowly and clearly, the rules of the water game. Xavi showed little interest in his father’s explanation. But once the game began he paddled with all the flailing fury his four bony limbs had in them. Despite—or perhaps due to—his effort, the initial round went rather poorly, since Saul, playing the “it” position first, used his adult skill to tag Xavi almost instantly. Such a rapid, annihilating loss shocked her son, who, though not used to winning games with her, was always given at least some time to exercise and improve his skills, and he reacted to his father’s insult by paddling to the pool ladder and bawling. He refused to be “it.” When Annabelle encouraged another round, he looked away, growling, “Aber ich will nicht mehr.” For at least three or four minutes, Annabelle worked to persuade him. Finally, he cried, “Nein, nein, nein. Ich will nicht. Er ist nicht mein Papa.” No, no, no. I don’t want to. He is not my father.

She quit words and clutched him to her. Why hadn’t she better anticipated this rebellion? From the beginning, even while he was in utero, she’d talked about his Papa in Amerika. Yet it dawned on her that he’d recently, until maybe last year, soon after he’d started school, stopped asking questions about Saul. How big is he? How strong is he? Can he fly? Can he lift cars? She’d laughingly reported these in “X’s Progress toward Awareness.” Then gradually—and these had hurt—some of the last questions, ones she hadn’t reported: How can he be my father if he doesn’t live in Germany? If he loves me, why doesn’t he live here? Is he dead? Do I really have a father, mama?

The tenacity of her embrace must have inspired him because Xavi’s tears turned to keening. She looked over at Saul. He appeared tiny and distant, a speck of a man treading water in the deep end, his bald head a furrowed globe, his face an island of helpless fear. His jaw dipped momentarily below the water’s surface. She watched him turn towards this wife. Connie May’s nostrils flared as her glare narrowed and the curtain of her upper lip raised to bare her teeth. On that cue, he quickly sidestroked towards the ladder.

Saul kissed his son’s head. “Xavi, ich bin doch dein Papa,” he said in his funny American accent.

Du klingst komisch,” Xavi spat as though the accent had been carried on a nauseating cloud of rancid breath.

“That’s how Americans sound. You’re in America. We sound funny, but,” he paused dramatically, “can you keep a secret?”

Xavi didn’t respond.

“The secret,” Saul whispered, “is that we sound funny but also have superpowers.”

“No you don’t,” Xavi said, but a little choke betrayed uncertainty.

“I shouldn’t have used my super hearing. If you play more Marco Polo, I promise not to use it again.”

Xavi finally looked up to scrutinize his papa, who maybe did actually have superpowers. “Can I have superpowers?” he asked.

“They might be deep in you, and you just don’t know it yet. We’ll have to see if they come out while you’re playing.”

The negotiation soon came to a satisfactory end, and the four of them, she, Saul, Xavi, and Malcolm, splashed around and chased each other until it was time for lunch.

Though Saul had, for the moment at least, redeemed the relationship, she couldn’t exorcise the image of his distant, helpless head, barely buoyed above the water surface. It haunted her with a symbolism that colored her mood. Regardless of how he handled Xavi afterwards, the image layered the sunlit afternoon with melancholy hues. A watery sadness whose intensity exceeded her ability to account for it.

[]Part III: Davis

 

 

 

[] Davis reading Schopenhauer (P -4 Days)

 

 

Davis understood, theoretically at least, that his stepfather had a fairly powerful brain. In practice, though, he seemed kind of stupid. By age ten, Davis had no doubts that his mother remembered everything he’d ever said to her and that the softest curse, the faintest murmur of anger, would be endlessly avenged at her convenience. So he figured Saul’s brain should have warned itself against vindictiveness towards Davis’s mom, even if she did overreact. The pettiest, most useless words were exchanged when he drank. Weekends and the occasional weekday evening, seemingly by accident, Saul acted “a little too much himself.” Davis had been taught in health class that people got drunk and then didn’t act like themselves anymore, but once, in a stepdad to stepkid moment on a Friday evening after a spaghetti and shrimp dinner, when he mentioned this, Saul, who’d annihilated four martinis in under an hour, had snorted and said, “Nota bene: that’s the conventional, unthinking way of looking at it. And an easy excuse for when people behave like assholes. In reality—a place I recommend spending as much time as possible—alcohol disinhibits, which means you let out more of who you really are. It seduces you into believing for those few minutes that the itchy thoughts you’d normally resist should be scratched right then, as though picking the scab that your relationship has become won’t leave a scar. It persuades you that your sincerest feelings and insights should go on permanent record to be forever misinterpreted and hurled back at you. It persuades you that the ideal act is the one not suppressed by your understanding of consequence. For some people that means being silent and antisocial, while for some, that is to say most, it means being louder, less considerate, and more desperate in their affection. And for others, often women, it means crying for no apparent reason.”

“So sincerity for you means being angry and hurtful?”

“I imagine I’m sending buckshot of pure truth to splatter the brains of unexamined thought all over the floor of delusion.”

Davis sighed.

“I could be wrong. Hey,” Saul shrugged, “it does happen every once in a while. But, when in the moment—and even afterward—I really believe I’m less wrong than the people I’m talking to, people who haven’t reflected on anything deeper than a mirror.”

“Jesus, Saul.”

Saul’s stumbling eyes blinked twice. “Davis,” he began then belched into a closed mouth. “Shrimp flavored martini,” he noted.

“Gross,” Davis said, as the words landed in a caridean cloud grey with vodka. “That smells like rotting hobo.”

“We rot on the inside and just can’t see it,” Saul said and refocused his eyes. “Davis,” he repeated. “You have potential like I once had.” He dropped his gaze hard onto Davis’s face. “Some of that is intelligence and the simple capacity, exercised or not, to avoid stupid consequences. The rest is freedom to live as you please. What I’m saying is: don’t ever let anyone dictate your life.” In a strangely affectionate gesture, clearly intended to underscore the next point, he clutched Davis’s arm, boring into the bicep with his thumb. “And don’t ever, ever”—he bore painfully deeper so that Davis retracted abruptly, though without escaping—“get a woman pregnant by accident.”

 

Obvious enough advice, Davis thought, and told Jazzmine about his alcoholic stepdad on their after school walk to International Mansion of Pets, advertised unironically as IMOP. Since neither of them could drive and the closest zoo was nearly an hour by car, Jazzmine had concluded that IMOP was the next best thing. She adored animals.

“Even in cages?” he asked.

“I can’t exactly see lions and polar bears in stupid old Long Beach, can I? Anyway, I think it’s important for children to learn to love animals. So they won’t eat them.” Seven and a half months ago, she’d become vegan and, in the two weeks since she’d made herself his friend, had been on a crusade to save him from “eating flesh,” “murdering conscious beings” and “destroying the planet.”

“I like animals. I have a cat named Hamburger,” he said in his defense. “But they taste like I’m supposed to eat them.”

Her green eyes—the light green of unripe mango—squinted inside black horn rimmed frames, and she puckered her lips, huffing in mild exasperation. “God! Don’t say that!” She punched his arm. “Would you eat a person if they tasted good?”

Davis reflexively looked to his arm.

“Sorry,” she said, reaching over and rubbing his arm contritely. “I hate violence.” She hooked his elbow and snaked her hand around to continue the gentle massage.

A new, pleasurable discomfort intensified his ambivalence toward her. On the one hand, her rashness irritated him and her convictions seemed a little extreme. But then, she wasn’t dumb like some of the rich kids at the school and he had found himself masturbating to her, even if her eyebrows were a little thick and she still wore, so rumor had it, a training bra. He liked her small ballet slippered feet, her skinny flailing arms, her narrow ribs that, during swim class, pressed their delicate outline into her bathing suit, her jeans, currently red, suctioned over fatless hips and the compact bubble booty he came thinking about. Or, actually, it was thinking about how she’d maybe let him have sex with her. Which might have been the reason he masturbated to her in the first place. It was difficult to say.

“If I were allowed to, and someone knew how to cook them so I wouldn’t get sick—sure, why not?” he answered, knowing he couldn’t be tested. “And, Jazz, why’s Long Beach stupid?”

Her eyebrows raised incredulously. “Do you feel like you belong around these people?”

These people?”

“Yes,” she nodded and began pointing in all directions. “These and those and all of them.”

Davis considered it for a moment and agreed that, no, he really didn’t.

 

Her response to Davis’s story about Saul was, “I bet he eats corpses.”

Davis stared at her for a moment. “Why do you say that?”

“He sounds like my mom’s boyfriend. And my dad. Mean drunk men.”

“Well, yeah, he does eat meat. And so do I,” Davis said. “And so do most people. You can’t judge him on that.”

“You haven’t thought about it before,” she said dismissively. “It’s”—her fingers winked at him—“quote unquote ‘normal’ to eat animals in this country. Didn’t you say he was a philosophy professor or something? He should have questioned his carninormative perspective. I don’t understand people who’ve thought about it and still chew up and swallow corpses.” She shivered in disgust.

“Carninormative?”

“Yeah. Like people who think eating flesh is the only normal.”

Though he’d just said some unkind things about Saul, Jazzmine’s derision provoked him to defend his stepfather. “Not sure where you got that, but it sounds really pretentious. You could say our biology, like our teeth, are carninormative. And beings consume beings. It may be weird, but that’s how things live. And anyway, you ate meat until recently. Saul has his reasons, I’m sure. He’s not a bad person. And he really is one of the smartest people I know.”

Jazzmine bit at her thumbnail and kicked a stick into the street. “I’d just like to talk to him about it, that’s all. Once he thinks about it more profoundly, he’ll realize he’s wrong.”

“Realize he’s wrong? Ha. That’ll be a first.” Without the intended sarcasm, he said, “Why not just come for our holiday party and convince my entire family?”

“Really?” she said, smiling. “Are you inviting me to meet your family?”

Davis shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

She let out a high pitched noise. “I’d love to see where you come from. I’m excited.”

As they continued to walk, she edged closer to him. “You have a pet cat? Funny word: ‘pet.’ Don’t you think it’s strange that we call them what we do to them?”

“Like calling a book a read?” he said. Her nearness both attracted and unsettled him. He considered stepping away to a more friend-like distance, but he also enjoyed the stirring heat.

“Or,” she appeared to be looking at some clouds, “like calling someone you do it with a fuck.”

“Uh, that too,” he said for lack of anything smarter.

“Sorry,” she fake apologized. “That wasn’t very feminine.”

“Sure it was.”

“You’re sweet.” She smiled and, without looking, fumbled for his hand, gripping it and dragging him at her new faster pace.

 

The IMOP was housed in a generic-beige strip mall beside a massive twenty-five aisle megamarket. When they arrived, Jazzmine squeezed with greater mission and nearly ran to the kitten and puppy section. Holding hands continued to intensify the ambivalence he’d felt when she’d first invaded his personal space. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to be holding hands. His grip remained loose while he deliberated whether to squeeze back or not. Squeezing, he was almost certain, indicated that he wanted to be boyfriend girlfriend, and despite what he’d told his friends, he’d never been with a girl before and, after squeezing her hand, wouldn’t quite know how to proceed. The steps seemed natural on TV and in books, but the couple chances he’d had to kiss a girl had ended in nervous inertia. He feared she’d recognize his inexperience, which would quickly circulate through their tiny school and explode his lie about the local public school girl he’d had sex with. Then suddenly they were in front of the dog and cat cages and he didn’t have to decide to squeeze or not because she let go and flung her hands to a prayer in front of her mouth.

“Ohhh,” she whined. “Don’t you just want to take one home?” The cages were stacked three high and about seven or eight wide. Undecipherable words and numbers were scribbled onto placards stuck to the bars of each. Several cages stood empty. Most of the rest were kittens, though five or six puppies were gathered into the center. A couple fluffy little white poodle types, a couple chihuahuas, a lab and some kind of pug faced thing with enormous perked ears.

“I have Hamburger,” he said. “Saul would kill me if I brought home a dog.”

“How about that one?” She pointed to a little black and white one with perked ears and pug face. “What if we shared him? He’s like us: half black half white.”

“And he has four legs, fur and enjoys sniffing buttholes—just like us.”

“Jeez.” She rolled her eyes. Her horn rimmed glasses slid down her nose, and she used the opportunity to gaze over the tops of them. “Sorry if my analogy was too broad, Mister Buzzkill.” She marched off in her small ballet slippered feet saying, “Doesn’t anyone work here?”

Davis watched the puppy bat newspaper shreddings around its cage. He knocked on the window. It hopped around, then stared at him and cocked its head. One black ear folded forward.

“Can I see that one?” he heard Jazzmine asking.

Davis turned around.

“The French Bulldog?” asked a gum-chewing basketball body in an IMOP polo tucked carefully into sagging khakis. “He’s cute, huh?” He smiled and scanned Jazzmine up and down before turning to open the cage. Probably a senior. Maybe even in college. Community college, though, if he went to college. Obviously thought himself hot shit with his manicured goatee and pencil-thin chinstrap trimmed along his jawline, slowly chewing his gum and pausing to glance nonchalantly at his beeper while strutting his lazy swagger. Trying to keep his pants from falling, Davis thought, feeling his face narrow. Bet he thinks he’s going to get up on my girl—even if she’s not my girl.

Basketball body swaggered over to Jazzmine, puppy carelessly, sloppily spilling out of a big basketball hand.

“Ohhh,” Jazzmine whined again, strangling the bemused puppy against her chest. “What’s his name?”

Douche bag grinned, halted his gum chewing. “Shorty, you name him whatever your heart says.” The gum chewing recommenced.

Davis wondered if Jazzmine’s flat chest turned him off. Or her small ass, though it had a nice shape that Davis could appreciate. At that moment he desired two things: for the guy to think Jazzmine was hot and for the guy to know that he’d never have her but that Davis could. From all the times he’d heard his mom yell at Saul, he’d assumed jealousy was the fear of losing your girlfriend or boyfriend to someone else. But Davis had no fear of losing this girl. Really, her affection for him wasn’t a variable in the equation. The jealousy seemed to come from this douche bag’s confidence.

“We’re thinking of getting him,” Davis said “He’d be a good match for us.” He looked to Jazzmine. “Right?”

She giggled and lifted the puppy to her cheeks and breathed in. “Romeo,” she said. “Doesn’t he look like a Romeo?”

“How much?” He had only twelve dollars in his wallet, but the savings account Saul had insisted on four years ago had almost seven hundred dollars of birthday and Hanukkah money from Saul’s family.

The IMOP guy smirked. “How are you paying? Cash? Credit? You want to finance him?”

“Finance him?” Davis asked. “Like a car?”

Douche bag snapped his gum. “Pretty much.”

“I suppose it depends?”

“All dogs are ten percent off today … and he’s normally thirty-one fifty…” Douche pulled out his phone, checking his beeper en route, and tapped the screen a bit. “That makes two thousand eight hundred and thirty-five. If you pay cash we discount the sales tax.”

“Wow,” Davis said. “Are you sure?”

Douche smirked douchily. “Yep. No sales tax.” Gum snapped.

Since he refused to let this jerk have any satisfaction, he asked Jazzmine, “You want him?”

Again she breathed in the puppy’s fur, squeezing his sloppy puppy body. “He’s so precious,” she answered.

Trying to sound nonchalant and man-in-control, he said to the guy, “Thanks. I think we’ll talk this over together for a minute. I’ll let you know if we need you.”

Douche winked at Jazzmine and reached into her arms for the puppy. The soft lump melted in the basketball hand as he swaggered it back to its cage, where it flopped down and ate some soiled newspaper shreddings.

“All right, little dude,” he said to Davis. “You just let me know how you want to pay. I’ll be up front.”

 

To delay the discussion, Davis suggested getting some chocolate at the megamarket. After spending four of his twelve dollars on some all organic, fair trade dark chocolate bar, he plopped onto a bench by the exit and stared out, kind of tired, on the vast black parking lot. The few cars crowded into the spaces directly in front of the market. Beside the bench, Jazzmine straddled a gaudy plastic quarter-to-ride firetruck that, in some variation, sat outside most of the supermarkets he’d seen.

“He’s pretty expensive,” Jazzmine said sadly and gnawed on the corner of the chocolate bar. Her ballet slippers, the bottoms worn and sooty, pendled lightly over the concrete.

“Yeah. He is,” Davis consoled.

“It’s really sweet of you to offer.” She bit off a chunk of the chocolate. Sucking on it, she said, “This is the best chocolate, by the way. It’s all organic and fair trade.”

“I really do want you to have him,” he assured, though he didn’t recall actually offering. “I wish I were rich.”

A five-toed pigeon bob-walked in an oval. As it picked up speed, its head bobbed faster. “What if we had to bob our heads faster in order to walk faster?” he said, unzipping his backpack. He dug around for the remains of his sandwich. “Would we walk fast only when people weren’t looking?”

“What if we thought head bobbing was attractive?”

“And some people’s head bobbing was more attractive than others?” Removing some crust from his lunch bag, he began to ball up pigeon-manageable pieces and throw them onto the ground. “I know this might make him shit on us, but what else is he going to eat? Pigeons probably evolved to live off humans’ left overs.”

He wondered where its sixth toe had gone, whether a cat or something had eaten it. Last New Year’s day, at dim sum, Saul and Malcolm had goaded him into trying chicken feet. The slinky of tiny bones he sucked the toe skin from reminded him of the shit they’d probably waddled through when they’d been attached to the bird. They tasted all right, like fat and salt, but there were countless things without eyes, feet and emotions that he could be eating. Why did he need to eat chicken feet? Until Jazzmine, that thought was probably the closest he’d come to vegetarianism. Maybe she had a point. What if Hamburger had grown from kitten to cat in a tiny cage, shitting all over himself until some human severed his paws and, after slicing all his skin and fur off, chopped the rest of him into little pieces and cooked his insides with onions and tomatoes? Eww. And oiled the pan so the little pieces of flesh wouldn’t stick the burning metal! Double eww. Davis didn’t care so much about the cat, but, at the same time, he wouldn’t even wish that fate upon someone he hated.

Still staring out at the parking lot, he said, “Maybe you’re right about the vegetarian thing.”

Her green eyes—the light green of unripe mango—narrowed at him suspiciously. The horn rims worked like eyeliner to bring out their color. Some girls seemed to know how to make themselves pretty. “You mean that?”

“I guess I was just thinking that animals shouldn’t go through all that suffering because they taste good for the few seconds we’re eating them, you know?”

“I like the way you look at the world,” Jazzmine said.

A hesitation in her voice told him there was more. His first thought was to tell her, “I like the way you look.” But that would sound superficial, so he just thanked her.

“Hey, I didn’t chew this one,” she said with pride and stuck out her tongue. A dime of chocolate sat in the middle. “Normally I get too impatient. Like the owl in the Tootsie Pop commercial.”

“Huh,” he said to sound interested.

“Yeah,” she was looking at her feet. “I get impatient. Like right now for instance.”

He knew he was being asked to drag it out of her. “Right now?”

“Yeah, well, see.” She looked at him, looked at the pigeon, looked back at him. “Remember that essay we read called ‘Brown’?”

“The one about how everyone will eventually mix and the world will be filled with brown people like in Mexico.”

“I knew you’d remember—or have actually read it, I mean.” She smiled at him. “So, yeah, you and me, we’re not like the other people around here. We’re different, but like each other at the same time.”

Because he didn’t know what to say, he smiled and nodded. He wondered if she was referring to their common history of single white moms and married black dads and stepfathers who drank too much.

“We’re the brown future” she said. “It’s kind of like we’re already a step ahead of other people.”

“Right,” Davis drawled, waiting for her point.

“Okay, so I know this isn’t what girls usually are supposed to do, but we live in a modern world, right? With different rules. At least that’s how my mom explains my life to me. But I think it’s true, even if my mom says it.”

“Isn’t the world always modern as long as you’re not living in the past?”

“In the past I’d have to wait for you to ask me to be your girlfriend.”

He’d kind of sensed this coming. “Ninety years ago you wouldn’t have been able to vote.” His mouth was dry.

“I can’t vote now, Davis” she toyed with his name, drawing out the “day” sound. “But I can ask you if you’ll be my boyfriend.”

“Are you asking me?”

“I am. What’s your answer?”

Fuck it, he thought. Why not? “I’m glad we live in modern times.”

 

 

 

[] Davis Returns to IMOP (P -3 Days)

 

 

The day after he became Jazzmine’s boyfriend, instead of loitering around the palm tree in the quad as she’d asked him to, he made an excuse about needing to finish his final draft of the Romeo and Juliet paper and headed to IMOP.

Two significant happenings after they became boyfriend and girlfriend. The second happening: his mother pan-fried hamburgers for dinner that night. Since parting with Jazzmine, Davis had been thinking about eating animals. Jazzmine had told him about all the smart vegetarians: Einstein, Gandhi, Plato, Socrates, Da Vinci, Plutarch, Tolstoy, Percey Bysshe Shelley, Christian Bale, RZA, Method Man and Redman, Flaubert, Andre 3000 and Erykah Badu, Thoreau maybe (who in Walden wrote something about how an ox grows into hundreds of pounds of muscle on grass and water, so we shouldn’t be so concerned about not getting enough protein). Jesus, too, since maybe the fish he served hadn’t actually ever been alive. This, he thought as he chewed the first bite, is ground up cow. It did seem strange that people should grind an animal, shape its torn up flesh into a disk, and eat it. The cow probably did suffer a shitty life in order for the couple moments of flavor in his mouth. Davis imagined the dead cow being stuffed through a grinder that resembled a wood chipper. Cow body in one side, cow mush out the other. He gagged and spat the ground animal back onto the plate. He ran to the bathroom and rinsed with mouthwash, gargling away the cow stuck to his molars and spitting it down the drain.

“Mom,” he said upon returning. “I think I’m going to have to be vegetarian. At least for now.”

She raised an eyebrow at him. “Where’s this coming from?”

“I’ve been thinking about the animals.”

“If you care so much about animals, don’t waste that one on your plate.”

He closed his eyes. Opening his left he looked at his plate: hamburger. He switched to his right eye: ground up cow. Left: hamburger. Right: ground up animal. Opening both, he stared and thought, stared and contemplated. The cat rubbed up against his shin, mewing, desirous, smelling the cow. Hamburger eating hamburger. Sliding his seat back suddenly, he vomited onto the floor.

The first happening: outside her apartment yesterday, they’d hugged longer and differently than they had when they’d been just friends. Instead of them standing a couple feet apart, each craning forward at the hip and lightly touching a hand to the other’s back, she’d clung tightly and rested her cheek on his shoulder. One of her hands pressed, with almost frantic need, on his lower spine. His intuition sensed her seeking protection, and he discovered spreading through him a desire to protect. Protect and give. His arms swelled long and powerful around her. His fingers pressed onto her ribcage that, during swim class, showed through her bathing suit. What was the word for this feeling of her up against him but not close enough while he wanted to give her whatever she needed from him? There must be some word for it. Oddly, the feeling reminded him of that rainy afternoon during his first months at the school when he’d forgotten his lunch and hadn’t eaten since breakfast and thought his mom had crashed because an hour after school ended she still hadn’t come to pick him up. Then she’d arrived, flushed and apologetic, and he’d collapsed in the passenger seat, sobbing, though he didn’t know why. Like being hungry and alone and desperately generous all at the same moment.

Jazzmine popped to her tippy toes, her face magnified and maybe uncertain. Maybe they were supposed to kiss. Maybe it was her first time doing this, too. It was difficult to tell. She took both his hands in hers, patty-caked them twice, then squeezed and, without looking back, ran around the side of the building. An accidental moan, the kind that escaped when he sank into a hot bath, chased her skinny body as it vanished behind the apartments. For a little while he waited, watching the corner, willing her to reappear. Not long enough to scare the neighbors but sufficient for her to run back out and hug him again. The fresh memory of her skinny arms gripping him, the skinniness of her ribcage that encased a heart thudding against his nervous thuds, was lit with an unfamiliar heat. Its mint burned pleasurably as he waited, and burned pleasurably as he ran home. He’d longed to see her for another minute, longed to give something to her.

In IMOP, Douche bag had on the same thuggish uniform as yesterday. Today, however, Davis noticed a name tag pinned onto the IMOP polo. “Where’s your girl?” Jaden Patrick asked, leaning back and stroking his goatee.

“How much do I need to put down for the French Bulldog?” Davis asked.

“You surprising her, huh?” He continued to caress his chin hair. “You’re too late, little man. I think we sold him yesterday. Hold on, let me check.”

Assuming Jaden fucking Patrick was just being an asshole—because who would’ve paid three thousand for that puppy in the last few hours—Davis followed him to the cages. The puppy was there, sleeping.

“So, Jaden, how much down?” Davis asked again, barely containing his condescension.

“Chill out, little man. And, by the way, if you’re going to call me by my name, it’s Jaden Patrick.”

“You don’t go by JP?”

“My moms calls me JP. You ain’t my moms.”

“Fair enough,” Davis said, done with this asinine exchange, thinking he’d call him JP anyway. “Do you take debit card for the down payment?”

Pointing to a printout on the window, JP ran his finger over it to red ink that read “Sold.” He turned his palms up, as though to prove he was empty handed. “All right, look. I’ll be straight with you. Your lady’s pretty fly”—now he raised his hands to proclaim his innocence—“I’m just saying, you know? A man sees these things. So I want to help you out. Here’s a tip: the bulldog’s cute and all, but ladies get mad stupid over the teacup chihuahuas. She can carry it around in her bag. Takes almost no space. I gave one to my last girl. She named it Sweetheart. Thing’s so tiny it eats air. I think she fed it a carrot or two a day. No joke.”

Advice from this guy seemed shady. Nevertheless, Davis considered his options.

“Plus they’re only 600 bucks.” JP pursed his lips, thoughtfully. “They die mad quick, though. Dainty little things. I mean—police siren gave Sweetheart a heart attack. Died straight dead in my girl’s purse.”

“Sudden death is a plus,” Davis said. “Wouldn’t want to have to take care of them for too long.”

JP laughed. “The girl or the dog?”

“I can break up with a girl. No one has to die.” Davis smiled. The guy couldn’t be a complete douche if he was laughing at Davis’s jokes. “All right. Let me see one of those chee-hoo-a-hoo-a-s.”

“Just so you know: all our dogs come with a one year guarantee. So if it dies in the first year, you get another one, no charge. Vet visits are free for only six months, though.” He unlocked a cage with two rat dogs and handed one to Davis. “So, what do you think?”

The puppy, a light chestnut rodent, fit in Davis’s palm. Over its terrified eyes, its forehead ballooned like a perfectly spherical tumor. Apparently a desired feature of the breed. “Is it supposed to tremble like that?”

“Yeah, it’s normal for these things. Can’t breed a wolf down to the size of a D cell battery without a side effect here and there.”

At least he knew about evolution and breeding.

“Which school you go to?” JP asked.

Davis gave the name of his small Jesuit school.

“I had a girlfriend there. She just went off to Santa Barbara. I visited her once. Longest drive I ever made for a booty call, you know? But damn, you ever been to that campus? So many fly honeys. That’s where I’m trying to transfer to after I finish my two years at City.”

“You were with Deborah?” Davis asked.

“You know her?”

“Everyone knows everyone at my school,” Davis said, realizing he’d kind of heard about this guy. “Don’t know her well or anything, but there’s no private business. You went to CP, right?”

“Yeah, I went to Columbus Prep—or Colored People as we called it. How’d you know?”

“Did you have Mr. Rosen for English?”

“Maybe,” JP answered, sounding suspicious.

“What’d you think of him?”

“Strange dude. He’d always call on you when you weren’t paying attention. I mean, he was a good teacher and all, but he wanted to be teaching at a college or something.” JP stroked his goatee. “You know him?”

Davis explained the relationship.

“No shit? A-ight, then. Since you his kin and all that, I’ll hook you up. I can’t get you the chihuahua for less than six, but I can throw in a crate, a leash and collar, and some chow.”

 

 

 

[] Part IV: Thursday, Friday, Saturday

 

 

 

[] Personal Rec on Thursday Afternoon (P -3 Days)

 

 

Malcolm sipped his second vodka tonic as his friend’s wife approached the table at—he checked his wine-faced Rolex—twelve twenty-eight, interrupting the restless mulling over of his future that had accomplished nothing for the last quarter hour. Instead of wearing the tacky rhinestone-studded or pre-ripped jeans he’d been expecting, she was decked out in a breast-flaunting turquoise blouse and black slacks that flowed down to turquoise four-inch stilettos. Above pearl studs, her hair, tied in a bun, gleaned shiny and hard. A string of turquoise hovered at the peak of her cleavage, and her pudgy child fingers, nails painted turquoise, gripped a manila folder. The affected classiness and rare punctuality reminded him of a girl fresh out of college, interviewing for her first job, struggling to appear important, but wearing her tits front and center like a woman still more confident in the influence of her sex than the strength of her resume, which, he knew, lacked a college degree or anything more intellectually sophisticated than taking orders and carrying plates around like a maid. Unfortunately, acceptance to nursing school didn’t take sexual sophistication into account because in that respect, at least, she moved and talked like a pro. Malcolm, like any man, could recognize that. Yet for some reason, probably because of the kids and their implication of exhausting responsibility, or possibly because she wasn’t the right type of crazy, Malcolm had never been attracted to her. Good thing, too. Otherwise, on this or that lonely morning, he would have ended up calling her to suggest they fuck, as he had done with a couple of Saul’s old girlfriends.

She placed the folder on the table and put a hand on her hip. The scent of rubbing alcohol and potpourri seared his nostrils. Shorter breaths and subtle mouth inhalations helped him cope until he habituated and could breathe normally again.

“What do you think of the new professional Connie May?” She posed, duck lipped and staring into the distance like an indifferent model.

“Beautiful, as always. Though, I’ve got to say, professional doesn’t necessarily mean perfumed to the teeth.”

Ignoring the criticism, she said, “It’s not supposed to be ‘as always.’ This is supposed to be a fresh new look for a fresh new life.”

Instead of clueing her in to the technicality that a fresh new life would exclude the baggage of the old one, he surrendered honesty to ease and said, “Beautiful in such a new way.”

“Thank you,” she nodded, satisfied. “I wish Saul would learn as quick as you. Anyway, I thought you should see who you’re recommending to the Cal State Long Beach nursing program.” She emphasized the school’s name proudly and clicked her turquoise fingernails on the manila folder before sitting down across from him. Now she looked around, maybe disappointed that the surrounding tables were empty. Malcolm followed her eyes, unsurprised. When he’d offered Connie May her pick of lunch spots, she’d chosen Bono’s without hesitation. Malcolm didn’t mention that Bono’s was too big and overpriced to fill up during lunchtime on a weekday.

Tapping on her manila folder again, smiling anxiously, her eyes glinting with a hope that made Malcolm uncomfortable, Connie May said, “So? What do you think? It’s a great idea, right? You know how I feel about helping people. And when I finish I’ll be making more money than Saul. No more listening to him bitch and moan about me buying real shampoo and conditioner instead of that cheap stuff at the supermarket.”

While waiting for Connie May, Malcolm had been considering how, and to what extent, he should help her. Had she not been Saul’s wife, and had he not been hoping Saul would move to New York, he would dash off her recommendation, skim over her personal statement and never think about it again. But now he had to consider what would most effectively jimmy Saul’s shackles and release him back into a suitable life, and after weighing the drawbacks as well as the advantages, Malcolm decided that if Connie May got it in her head that nursing school at CSULB was her destiny, the jimmying would require less violence. They’d merely be “going their separate ways.” Nevertheless, something felt off about the whole deal.

“What about Nat?” he asked.

She gave him a dubious frown. “You don’t think I thought of that?”

“Just curious,” he said, sipping and sipping. The ice crescents tinkled like little bells against the thin glass rim.

“Of course,” she said more gently. Then leaning forward, she extended a hand onto his wrist, sliding his fingers down the glass to the damp napkin under it. “She’ll be in kindergarten next year and the school has free programs for kids whose parents work all day.” She squeezed his wrist. “So? What do you think?” Her grip seemed a little intense, demanding.

Malcolm didn’t answer immediately. He was trying to figure out whether she truly wanted honesty and, second, if honesty were even an option. “Helping people” seemed like a dumb reason to involve yourself in other people’s mucus, puss, and constant dying. Plenty of professions helped people. And, really, would he trust Connie May as his nurse? Probably not. Ice crescents knocked his teeth as he finished his drink. As the waiter passed, Malcolm signaled for a third vodka tonic. Good thing he had nothing else to do today. He felt weariness sinking into him like a slow heavy heat. Instead of giving him energy, the vodka appeared to be draining it.

“So?” she said, her mouth twitched, probably resisting her impatience. “What are you thinking?”

Maybe he should order a vodka red bull. “Where’s Annabelle?” he asked.

“She took Xavi to Disneyland, apparently, according to my lovely husband, to show him ‘the kitschiest place on Earth.’ ”

“Disneyland?”

“I told him not to be such a ba-humbug. I really don’t see why he’s against some harmless fun.”

“Well…” Still nothing to say. Only weak stirring sensations, which may have been feelings, but were unattached to thoughts.

Connie May leveled her gaze at him. “Mal, are you not telling me something?”

“I’m not really thinking anything right now. Well, now I’m thinking I probably shouldn’t drink vodka at noon. Or I need to at least mix it with caffeine or something.”

“You’re avoiding my question. I know what that means. Saul does it all the time.” Her voice softened, coaxing him as though he were a child. “Just tell me. I won’t get mad. Are they together now? Did he go to Disneyland with them?”

Danger ushered the weariness, the thoughtless feelings, back to his hindbrain. “Please, Connie May. Could you imagine Saul going to Disneyland on his own volition?”

“It just seems like something’s going on,” she said, pulling her hand back and crossing her arms.

“Nothing’s going on. It’s just …” he stopped himself. It’s just what? He had no idea how to complete the sentence, so he shrugged and let it end gently in silence.

“It’s just what?”

He sensed fear in her voice. Her fear, he knew, usually came out sounding angry, and though he’d heard it growl several times, she’d never unleashed it on him. And she wouldn’t unleash it now. Explosions were reserved for her intimate relationships. Once, after a five bottle, five country wine tasting Malcolm had held for Saul, Connie May, Jamie and some hooker, Saul had opened one of Malcolm’s 1999 Insignias and poured his own portion into a red wine glass while pouring Connie May’s into a white wine glass. This error, which brought them yelling to their respective car doors, was serious enough for her to almost shatter the passenger-side window with her palm. On the way home, she’d screamed for a divorce and ripped the rearview mirror from the windshield, claiming that Saul “didn’t need to look around so much.” Malcolm didn’t understand how arguments, even drunken ones, could lead to shrieking and violence. He might sometimes be a jerk to women, but as soon as they decided to confront him he crumbled to their will and that was that.

“You’re right. Of course, you’re right. Nursing school is a great idea. I never meant to imply otherwise.”

“It’s worse when people hide things from me then lie.” She seemed not to be referring so much to him as to a point in her own memory.

His hands raised in a gesture of surrender. “Look. There isn’t anything I’m lying about. I just want to do what’s best for everyone.”

“By everyone you mean Saul.”

“Saul’s my oldest friend, Connie May. Of course I’m concerned about him. But I’m concerned about you as well.”

Her nicked eyebrow sharpened into a little frown. “Just not as much.”

“Honestly, when I say ‘everyone,’ I’m even including myself. This whole thing got me thinking about the future and plans and purpose and what mine actually are.” Behind his words, the restlessness pushed and pushed, frustrating him with its relentless pressure. “I don’t know what to do with myself. You’re talking about the future like you can see it, and it reminds me that I can’t imagine my own. It’s great you want to be a nurse and help people and I’d love to help you. I just don’t know if I can because right now I have no purpose and am helping no one, not even myself.” He looked down. “Sorry. I’m not trying to sound lame.”

“You don’t,” she said and returned her hand to his wrist, this time squeezing sympathetically. “Sometimes people just need to let it out. You can talk to me. I’m actually a good listener.” Her face encouraged him to let it out.

He let it out. “I used to want to be married in my early twenties, have kids, all the romantic stuff. And look what happened.”

“Ah, I see. The best way to fix that is to not accomplish anything for the next thirty years either.”

Malcolm sighed. “I thought I’d want to have a job making a ton of cash, drive a Lambo, have a hot girlfriend, party whenever I felt like it. But now I don’t know. Now I feel trapped.”

“Trapped by what? Your freedom? I’d love to have that problem.”

“I know it sounds stupid.”

She continued squeezing his wrist. “I hate to say it, Mal, but that feeling won’t ever go away as long as you live the way you’re living. I know you’ve been through some shit in your life. Your hip, your brother, your parents. And I never hear you complain about any of that. It seems like you don’t even think about it. Which is great. But I’ve learned in my own life that all the damage comes out in other ways. For me it’s getting angry and breaking things when I get scared. For you it’s partying, coke, and hookers. But what are you doing to get out of it?”

Malcolm shrugged. Shrugging seemed to be the easiest response.

“If I wouldn’t have had Davis,” she continued, “I’d probably be dead by now. And I wouldn’t have cared because I didn’t care about myself. We all need something to care about, something to love. What do you love?”

Their conversation was quickly devolving into some cliché-ridden heart to heart. “Having kids doesn’t work for everyone. And I’m not having them anytime soon anyway.”

“That’s not my point. Even with a child, I didn’t feel settled. You can’t find peace in other people. There’s only one place to find peace.”

He should have known not to give her this opening. Despite his skepticism of religions—he found them cultish and creepy, even if his mistrust lacked the rabid loathing that Saul often exhibited—the zealous certitude of Christians, or anyone who’d been reborn by a vision of truth from which they’d never since wavered, aroused uncomfortable self-doubt. It had occurred to him that he’d never felt so strongly about a belief, and if he’d had a religious experience, like at the beach with Melody that one afternoon, the certainty of its truth hadn’t stuck around long enough to harden into conviction.

“I’m not Christian, Connie May. My family is Buddhist and, no offense or anything, I prefer it that way.”

“But let me ask you: do you find peace in Buddha? Think about it for a second. Isn’t it better to believe and find peace? Or do you really want to keep feeling restless without even trying God, even just once?”

Her grip on his wrist was twisting his skin. Gently, he lifted her fingers off and raised his glass to his mouth. A couple drops of melted ice, nothing more. “Better not to have conversations about God with me. I may not be as unrepentantly atheist as Saul, but you’re wasting your time.”

“God loves you, Mal. I have a feeling that now is the time you need to hear about it.”

“There are other ways to find peace,” Malcolm said, still dwelling on the perfection he’d found at the beach.

“Drugs don’t count.”

“Hard to believe, I know, but I’m not talking about drugs.”

“Okay, then. What are you talking about?”

Hesitating to admit what he knew it was, he just lowered his eyes. A hand removed the empty glass and replaced it with a freshly bubbling vodka tonic. He tasted it. For the first time in a while, a Chinese word came to him. 苦. Gǔ. How appropriate. Like his life.

When he looked back up, Connie May had tears in her eyes. “Mal, if you’ve felt God, why are you denying him?”

How should he admit that he’d felt peace at the beach? People were always saying you couldn’t love someone after a couple of dates. But, really, why not? The feeling had been as real as anything else in his life.

“It has nothing to do with God,” he said. “If it was anything, it was love.”

“Love is God,” Connie May said. “That’s John 4:8. ‘Whoever does not know love does not know God, because God is love.’ ”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”

“My pastor says that’s how we know God exists—because we feel His love. That’s how we know Him. When you were feeling love, you were feeling God.”

“I guess we call it different things.”

“No, it’s God’s love. It’s all that science and stuff you’ve learned that makes you think it’s not. You can’t see God with your eyes, Mal. You see Him with your heart. There are so many clues we don’t see unless we open our hearts. When I look back on my life and all the shit that’s happened, I know God was there, testing me, preparing me for the path he’s laid out for me.”

“No offense, but you might think that because you already believe it. According to Melody’s psych classes, it’s called a confirmation bias. We fit any information we get into the beliefs we already have.”

“Don’t you think you have a confirmation bias about science?”

“Well, if I believe anything in science, it’s because it’s been proven over and over. We can see it.”

“Really? You can see black holes? You can see monkeys evolve into humans? You can see atoms? No, you believe that atoms exist because science told you so. But can you feel science’s love like you can feel God’s love? Makes more sense to me when I can feel it than when some person who calls themselves a ‘scientist’ tells me it’s true.”

Religion had practiced willful ignorance and self-justification for millennia. No way he would win this. “Well then, I wish God would love some happy future into my heart.”

“He can,” she said. “I know you think it’s crazy, but when I think about being a nurse, I feel God agree with my path. God loves you, too, Mal. You just don’t allow yourself to believe it’s Him.”

What kind of sermonizing what this? Malcolm was fairly certain that these ideas did not originate in Connie May. Mentioning this, though, might offend her, so he just nodded as though he were agreeing. And in a way, perhaps, he did agree. Back in high school he’d posted a Frank Lloyd Wright quote on the TEA bulletin board: “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” Around that time, in the intro to philosophy class he and Saul had enrolled in at Cal State, he’d learned the most famous proofs for God. Most of them, such as Anselm’s ontological and Aquinas’s cosmological argument, were easily refutable. The teleological argument, however, had gotten him thinking. He’d read William Paley’s version, and it was more or less the following. You’re walking along and come across a watch on the ground. Whether or not it functions properly or parts are missing, there’s no way you’d ever imagine that this complex device came to be by some random collision of particles. Now if you look at life, which is infinitely more sophisticated than a watch, why would you think that it is random? How could the mechanism of life—the animation, the computer-like coding of DNA and all that—in all its astounding intricacy, be random and pointless if we can’t imagine the same of something as simple as a watch? Later, he’d read Bertrand Russell’s refutation of the teleological argument, wanting it to be convincing. Unfortunately, Russell’s weak response failed to shore up his atheism. And then he’d read about Darwin’s explanation of how complex biological mechanisms, like an eye, evolve from simple ones. But even then, what accounted for the potential in the code, for life’s sheer ability to evolve? Even if no intelligence created the human being, that the first amoebic things oozing around in lava or whatever held the potential for the human being was, he thought, no less amazing. So, for Malcolm, nothing yet had proven the inexistence of God, and the teleological argument, even if it didn’t prove God’s existence, made some kind of higher intelligence seem possible. Which gave him another idea. Considering the unfathomable complexity of the world and our ignorance of its origins, why be so insistent about atheism? Why be as uncompromisingly and obnoxiously dogmatic as a Bible banger?

To relate all this to Connie May would be a waste. He didn’t believe she’d understand why her God and his idea of the nature-god or whatever he should call it weren’t the same. He knew he’d never believe in a religion, but if that sense of the world being perfect was God, his conception of God was not as Jesus or some detached being, but as Being itself—as life itself. Even if the result was temporary, this made him feel good, generous, purposeful. Almost at peace.

“Nursing is what you want to do?” he asked. “You see yourself loving it?”

“Absolutely,” she said, staring at him hopefully.

“In that case, let’s look at this app and get you in.”

 

 

 

[] Malcolm’s Event: Dinner and Karaoke (P -2 Days)

 

 

As usual, Malcolm had insisted on “hosting Friday night’s Korean Barbecue and Karaoke event.” He’d sent out an email invitation with an animation of a champagne bottle popping and bubbling over into a glass labeled “Alizé,” as though he couldn’t have just called the couple people involved. The subject heading read, “Y’all know what time it is ….” Always a big show with Mal at the center, Connie May thought. He strutted like he was the big ringmaster with the whip, when really he was the animal let out of its cage to jump through hoops. In any case, he meant to play up the drama: both of Saul’s baby-mamas would be there—not to mention his little aspiring intellectual trophy stripper and his other bitch, Jamie. Whatever. Connie May was glad that at least she got to go out this time. Not that Saul wouldn’t have gone without her. He’d proven that. Always trying to get out of the house, away from her, making her feel like it was her fault he was miserable just because he made a little money instead of acting like a child and going to school forever. Anyway. The kids were home with Saul’s parents. She hoped no one poked out an eye. But, really, everything should be fine. Nat had taken to following around her new brother with a look of quiet awe—while he quietly ignored her. When he spoke German with his mother, Nat’s head cocked to the side and she gawked almost as though she were frightened. It was nice to have her tamed, for the moment at least.

Malcolm picked them up in a ten-seat limo. It was important to him that no one have to drive so everyone could get wasted. Well, hey, she’d ride in a limo. It wasn’t like she couldn’t appreciate the luxury. In fact, just walking toward the long white Mercedes had her feeling a little glamorous. She climbed in, scooted down the bench and found herself leg to leg with Saul’s big blond German. Connie May’s leg was about half the size. Despite the rivalry she felt, Connie May had decided the girl wasn’t a bad person. It was easier to feel this way because she didn’t seem quite like a woman, more like an overgrown girl. Cute, Connie May admitted, but not particularly sexy. Connie May had a theory that to be sexy a woman had to have suffered. Suffering made you more aware of yourself and your body. Annabelle was also too big for Saul. He’d never feel secure about her height. He was always telling Connie May that she was the perfect size, that her legs weren’t too long to comfortably do it doggy style. And there was something kind of lesbo about this big girl with small breasts. She walked a little like the body builders whose arms were too swollen to hang straight down at their sides. Beside her, Connie May felt womanly, petite and big breasted. She’d imagined her husband on top of this woman, not manly and overpowering, but like a boy crawling on top of his older sister. Despite this, or maybe because of it—it was hard to tell when the emotions got all mixed up—she’d been more amorous than usual. During the three nights the German had slept at Saul’s parents’ place, Connie May and Saul had had really good sex. At one point, Connie May was horny enough to tell Saul that she’d imagined the German girl sucking him off. For a second he stopped, probably scared she was trying to trick him. So she moaned and assured him that it turned her on. That had excited him, of course. He started grinding into her harder and whispered, “What else do you want?” The jealousy thing added an intense new dimension, and she had let herself imagine further. “How would you like it if I let her eat me out? Had her lick my wet pussy?” Saul asked what he would be doing, just watching? “You can fuck her from behind,” she whispered in his ear, getting it moist with her breath. “From behind?” he asked. He was into it. Guys were easy like that. If they were even mildly turned on, they’d get off on whatever you moan at them. Saul had once said he wanted to be so close to her that they should move from the bed to the shower so she could piss on him. She’d goaded him: “Fuck the shower, do it here!” Of course he didn’t—he was never that spontaneous—but she still believed she could have convinced him of it had he not minded wetting the bed.

When she was honest about it, the last couple nights, talking dirty about another woman hadn’t only been for him—she’d been getting herself off too, and if she hadn’t been careful she would’ve come before she could reap all the possible pleasure. “Yes, from behind,” she’d whispered. “In her pussy or ass. Whichever makes you come harder.” He just moaned “fuck” a few times and pulled out. This wasn’t the time to be teased. This was when she needed it hardest. She threw her legs around his waist, crossed her ankles, and, with her hands, reached for his ass to pull him back inside her. She knew he wasn’t going to be able to hold it, but she needed only a couple more seconds anyway. “I want you to put it balls deep in her ass, then, before you come, ram it into my pussy.” She heard, “fuck fuck fuck fuck,” as he shot his load into her. She felt him throbbing. The pulses sent her into orgasm. “Give it to me,” she demanded, grinding into him, pleased at how easy it was for her to make him come at her bidding. Afterwards Saul had excused his excitement by explaining that the idea of a threesome, not the idea of sex with the German girl, had gotten him off. He’d probably sensed the danger in aggravating her jealousy. And, it was true, Saul’s excitement about that big girl during sex, when Connie May wasn’t being turned on by it, did worry her. But even if she didn’t trust Saul, her female intuition persuaded her the German probably was safe.

When they started for LA in the limo, it was six-thirty and fortunately the traffic was light going North on the 405 so they got to the restaurant, supposedly the best barbecue in K-Town, by seven-thirty, half an hour before their reservation. Mal saw this as the perfect opportunity for “aperitifs.” In less pretentious circles, Connie May has heard this called “pre-partying” or, even better, “pre-gaming.” No, wait. That was getting drunk at home before having to pay bar prices. For her, though, this equated to the same thing. Mal ordered a round of Hite beers and two bottles of soju.

Twenty minutes later they were seated on the patio. Built into the center of the table was a small grill. Usually Connie May preferred the kitchen to cook her food, but she found that part of the fun of eating Korean BBQ was grilling the meats yourself, adding as much garlic and onion as you could take. You’d reek of kimchi later, but so would everyone else.

Malcolm slapped Jamie’s shoulder, massaging it roughly so that Jamie winced, and told him to order.

“Order yourself, fucker,” Jamie said, rolling out the sting from his shoulder.

“You’re the one who took three years of Korean because you wanted to impress that ugly girl.”

“Yeah, and it didn’t work,” Jamie said. “Anyway, we’re in America. They understand English here.”

“Stop being a bitch and order.”

It was always like this. Jamie did it to himself, though. To demanded respect, he’d have to stop hanging around. That would make the point. People would abuse you as much as you let them. If Jamie had refused to hang out with Malcolm, Connie May was sure Malcolm would apologize. Malcolm’s fear of being alone outstripped his pride any day.

Soon, about ten little dishes were placed on the table. Jamie called them banchan. One was an enormous platter of Kimchi, which a middle-aged Korean lady cut with scissors. Then Jamie, hands folded in front of himself, ordered in Korean. When he finished, Malcolm laughed. “An nyoung ha se yo,” he shouted and bowed. Connie May knew it was the formal way to say hello because Malcolm did this every time Jamie said anything in Korean.

“Whatever, fucker,” Jamie said. “I just hope you’re prepared to eat all this.”

Plate after plate of raw meat was set on the table. Jamie gave a short explanation for each one: short ribs, spicy pork, marinated beef, chicken, pig stomach, squid, tofu, chigae, shrimp, a casserole with mackerel, seafood pancake.

The German girl, whose mouth, too busy chewing, had made almost no noise, set her chopsticks on top of her rice bowl and spoke. “This is probably the best Korean food I have ever had. Even better than in Seoul.” This bitch had been everywhere. But that was what happened when you were born rich.

“Apparently,” Connie May said, laying her hand on the German girl’s wrist, “the best Korean food in the world in here in LA. They get fresher ingredients.” She glanced at Saul to let him know that she did listen to him, even if he didn’t listen to her.

“It’s delicious,” the German girl said.

Malcolm, doing what he was best at, continued to refill both beer and soju, so that by the end of the meal everyone was tipsy. The German girl’s face was a little flushed, which stood out from her white hair and the blue eyes that God had drained all color from. She had blond eyebrows and Connie May remembered that Saul had once told her, stupidly, at the beginning of their relationship, that whenever he’d looked at them he thought about her pubic hair. The German girl was smiling at the boys’ interaction—“the boys” Connie May called them because when they were together, it was like watching her son with his friends. Men, she thought, were really just boys that earned money. Connie May considered mentioning to the German girl that Saul and his friends were immature. He, of course, used a different word: puerile. She wasn’t sure what was wrong with the word immature. Nothing probably, except that normal people used the word. Sometimes Saul made himself ridiculous just so he didn’t sound like a normal person. Connie May bet that in a week or two, the German girl wouldn’t find their “puerile” interaction so cute and entertaining. In fact, she should use that word tonight, show him she listened.

Connie May turned to the German girl. “What are you doing Sunday morning? Because I was thinking that, well, it would be great if you came with us to church.”

Malcolm laughed and toasted his soju glass with his beer glass. “Cheers to that.”

“She’s not religious,” Saul said. His forehead creased unattractively.

“I’m sure she can answer for herself.” Connie May raised a warning eyebrow. Just one, so her forehead wouldn’t crease.

The German girl looked thoughtful for a moment.

Connie May went on, “It would be interesting for little Xavier to see what an American church is like.”

“Yes, it would,” the German girl said slowly. “But I don’t want to offend anyone. I don’t believe in the Christian god.”

“No reason to feel bad about that,” Connie May said, placing her hand on the German girl’s. “A lot of people just go for the social side of it.”

“Yeah,” Saul said. “Most of them don’t really believe that nonsense.”

Suddenly Jamie said, “I’ll go with you.” He fingered the bridge of his glasses higher onto his nose, but Connie May saw no change in his facial expression, as though he hadn’t said anything.

“We should all go together,” Connie May said, smiling as warmly as she could. “And they have a Sunday school for the kids with arts and crafts. Nat always has a great time.”

The German girl didn’t answer immediately. She was smiling, but with a slight nervous tightness around her lips. She could use some help with make-up, Connie May thought. It’s like she never learned how to accentuate the stronger features and mask the weaker. Her pale grayish eyes matched a paleness in her hair that could be brought out with, maybe, an ice blue scarf or even some eyeliner with a touch of silver in it. Nothing could be done about her flat chest, though. Connie May sensed a smile she didn’t let surface. Oh, well. No one’s perfect.

“It was only a suggestion,” Connie May said. “Don’t worry if you really don’t want to. I just thought it might be a fun new experience for you.”

“Thank you,” the German girl said, looking at the table, and nodding her head. “It’s nice of you. I’ll go.”

Connie May, feeling a heartbeat of triumph at the concession, slipped her hand under the German girl’s palm—a damp, surprisingly cool palm—and laid her other hand on top. The girl’s much longer fingers enclosed Connie May’s hand. Something was wrong. Connie May intuited it, but said nothing, not wanting to give up her win.

When the check came, Malcolm glanced at it then, predictably, pushed it at Jamie. Without argument, probably because the German girl was there, Jamie pulled his money clip from his front jeans pocket—cheap, generic brand jeans that tapered at the ankle—and slid out his debit card.

In a surprise move, the German girl reached for the bill, softly slapped Jamie’s card onto the table in front of him and handed her American Express Black card along with the check to a passing waiter.

“Thank you,” she said to Jamie. “That was the best Korean food I’ve ever had. You did a great job ordering.”

“See, dude,” he said to Malcolm, a plea resonating at the core of his “see.” “Someone appreciates me.”

 

  • * *

 

A few blocks from the restaurant, the group entered a glass door beside a nail salon and ascended a staircase leading to a chic bar with reflective black surfaces, mirrored walls, and soothing red and blue mood lighting. Electronic beats pulsed under what sounded, not unpleasantly, like sheet metal being chain-sawed at alternating angles. The Korean guy at the reception desk had his hair gelled into a gleaming faux-hawk, not unlike Malcolm’s, though slightly longer and fuller.

Meanwhile, Saul noticed as Connie May, for about the hundredth time tonight, laid her hand—the one with her marriage band—on Annabelle’s, as though she were imparting female wisdom. Maybe she was persuading Annabelle that Saul was a prick, commiserating, relating herself to Xavier in that she, too, didn’t have her asshole father around. Annabelle nodded, her naturally blond eyebrows furrowing solicitously. How often, Saul wondered, did his wife think about Annabelle’s blond eyebrows, blond hair, blond pussy? Then Connie May laughed and Annabelle’s big square teeth—with, Saul reluctantly admitted, their hint of equine protrusion—shined between her thin lips. Despite his paranoid suspicions, whatever was passing between these women appeared genuine.

The receptionist escorted them to a room for ten, but, like the limo for ten, it seemed intended for eight. Malcolm ordered a bottle of Grey Goose and, though they’d just overeaten, some fried calamari, nachos, and chili cheese fries. Ignoring the hourly rate, the group browsed the catalogs for at least twenty minutes before deciding what to sing. In the meantime, the waiter arrived with the bottle of Grey Goose, an ice bucket, a bowl of limes, and scuffed plastic carafes of cranberry juice, orange juice and tonic water. Malcolm stopped browsing and poured drinks for everyone.

Somewhat charged off Hite and Soju, Saul proposed a toast. “Here’s to driving around in a limo.” He raised his glass. “Fuck driving. And fuck Los Angeles.” Yes, he thought, that was exactly how he felt. He clinked his glass first against Malcolm’s, then Jamie’s, Melody’s and Annabelle’s. “The only good things in this city are my friends and the food.” His wife was stirring her Screwdriver, examining it as though she’d spotted a tiny insect floating among the arcs of cloudy ice. Saul downed his Goose and tonic in a sustained glug.

Shrouding her silent protest behind tongue-in-cheekiness, Connie May joked with Melody about belting out their own version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” as though they weren’t actually hoping to. Finally, Malcolm input the code for “On Bended Knee,” a Boys II Men ballad from their high school days. There must not have been any Tupac. Saul wondered why people—including Malcolm—thought that going to Karaoke meant you were supposed to sing cheesy songs.

Adding to his annoyance, though it was difficult to say why it annoyed him, was the stupid expression on Jamie’s face. The expression had been aiming itself with suspicious frequency at Melody. He really shouldn’t be wearing his desperation with such obliviousness, Saul thought.

Mal and Melody sang almost as if they were tone deaf. Of the group, only Annabelle and Connie May, whose voice evoked feelings of love and pride in Saul, were consistently on key. There were few public situations in which Saul trusted Connie May to open her mouth and sound beautiful, but this was one. When she sang, he could relax and believe others envied him this sexy woman whose voice smoldered with that indefinable rarity which wasn’t simply pleasant, but gave pleasure, in an almost uncomfortable way. Her singing could roil your emotions and provoke the desire to cry for no other reason than that was how your body reacted to her voice. Sometimes, like right then, he could see her as beautiful. He felt a sudden nostalgia for the times his love for her had surprised him. It had happened once earlier in the week. Socrates had handed him a crumpled note. His birthday card from Connie May. Seeing her ruined effort pained him. Little hearts had been doodled lovingly into the margins. She’d dreamed about their future together, their happiness, told him she loved him with her soul, which she must have remembered from their early days, a time they’d spoken about how clichéd expressions of love were, even if love itself always felt unique and original. At some point he’d said it to Annabelle, as well. He needed to go easier on other people for their sentimentality.

“Yo, dawg,” Malcolm pushed a mic at him.

Saul pushed it back. “Let the girls sing.”

While Connie May and Annabelle karaoked Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Saul searched their faces for hints of what they were masking behind the chatty camaraderie. It was difficult for him to imagine that Connie May wasn’t fully conscious of the irony here as she sang a duet with a woman whose name she wouldn’t speak. Yet she was focused on the TV monitor, hitting notes like it was a contest, and he wasn’t sure whether the relish in her voice, the occasional flirty smile at Annabelle, wasn’t actually intended to punish him.

Lionel Richie’s “Hello” began. On the TV monitor a preppy Asian couple strolled over a bridge in what looked like Central Park. Big swans and little sailboats floated serenely in the pond behind them. Like all Karaoke songs, this particularly sentimental melody, originally made tolerable only by Richie’s voice, had been synthesized into pure cheese.

“Why,” Saul wondered aloud, “don’t the songs sound more like the originals? Why do they make them sound so goddamn cheesy?”

“Dawg,” Malcolm said. “Chill out. It’s Karaoke. Cheesiness is the point.”

Annabelle passed her mic to Jamie. Connie May, holding the other mic, turned toward Jamie, placed her free hand on his forearm and, without having to read off the monitor, goo-goo eyed him. Sweetly and melodramatically, accompanied by a twinkling synthesized harp, she sang: “I’ve been alone with you inside my mind/and in my dreams I’ve kissed your lips a thousand times.” Jamie stiffened and directed his eyes to the monitor with increased attention. This only drew Connie May nearer. She passed her mic to Annabelle and, leaning into Jamie’s mic, continued breathily and as though on the verge of tears, “I sometimes see you pass outside my door.” Unable to resist an obvious setup, Malcolm, on Jamie’s other side, mirrored Connie May’s pose, laying a hand over hers and bending to the mic. Jamie inched his head back, but kept a tight grip on the mic, refusing, for some reason, to bow out completely. As a trio—Connie May and Malcolm in full dramatic thrust, Jamie rigid in posture and voice—they sang in glorious discord, “Hello!? Is it me you’re looking for?/I can see it in your eyes/I can see it in your smile. You’re all I’ve ever wanted/and my arms are open wide.”

To Connie May’s left, Annabelle, reading off the monitor, was mouthing along, and though she wasn’t quite making herself heard, her blond eyebrows and water blue eyes were projecting the naive earnest he’d first noticed years ago in seminar. His attention fell to the invasion of black sprouts at the corner of her mouth, three short hairs splayed like fallen eyelashes, reminders that all bodies, imperfect to begin with, warp and decay with age. Six years ago those hairs, he was nearly certain, hadn’t been there.

She turned and, rumpling her nose, smiled, possibly sensing Saul’s intent gaze. He reached for the bottle of Grey Goose and refilled drinks till only a few stubborn drops still clung to the bottle’s inside. “I’ll go get another,” he said and stood. “You can embarrass yourselves without me for a moment.”

Perched at the bar, Saul was observing the silky-haired young bartender when Melody jabbed his forearm with her elbow. “Hey, there. Why so forlorn?” Her tipsiness radiated in body warmth and kimchi infused soju breath.

“Forlorn,” he echoed, returning to the present moment. “Hmm.”

“Is it that rough being thirty?” She offered a pouty-lipped expression and jutted her hips to the side. Young. Sexy.

He pouted back—imitation reflex, like smiling when someone smiled. “Is it that rough,” he repeated, as though asking himself. “Hmm.”

“Hmm,” she joked. “From the master of drunken eloquence.”

The compliment had been backhanded, but encouraged him anyway. It also meant that she’d forgiven him for being an asshole on his birthday. “Sorry about the other night. Can you forgive me for being a jerk?”

“Oh, were you any different than normal? I didn’t notice.”

“Maybe I wasn’t,” he said, a little depressed.

“Hey, Saul.” Her voice lowered, as though she were about to whisper a secret. “Can I ask you something?”

“You just did. But you can ask me something else if you want.”

As she inched closer, her posture opened—tits directed at his stomach—setting off “yes” signals in his libido. He felt the sudden increase in gravity. In some ways she really wasn’t so dumb for a twenty-one-year-old. Her face was round, symmetrical; her nose flat; her lips puffy, parted. No black sprouts in the corners. Her skin was still fresh, powder soft, untainted by the stresses of childbirth and child rearing. His gaze drifted slowly, deliberately, down her throat, over a green vein trifurcating like a thread-thin tattoo of a leafless tree, and continued downward, tracing the softball breasts, sliding over her flat stomach and her slight iliac flare. When his eyes returned to hers, she seemed to be noting his tacit praise. His limbs throbbed, and for a moment he felt in love with her.

Her breath shuddered and halted. Whatever she’d been about to say, she’d decided against. Instead she said, “Two women in the other room and you’re still flirting with me, huh?”

“I’m thirty. I’ve got to check my pulse sometimes. Make sure I’m still a man and not just a husband.” He twisted his ring and held it up for display. “Everyone can see I’m property—possessed and branded.”

“Sometimes a married man is more attractive. I’m sure you know that. The ring shows that a woman thought he was good enough to make him hers for life. The ring also makes sure that if you don’t like him, he’s not going to stick around. “

“Apropos sticking around, I’m thinking about that dance you gave me the other day. Now I’m thinking this up as I go along, okay? A little thought experiment, you know?” He waited for her to nod.

“This is going to be perverted, isn’t it?”

“I know that as a psychologist you appreciate thought experiments and aren’t going to take them the wrong way, right?”

“I understand you better than you think.”

“I hope so,” he said. “If you do, you won’t take this the wrong way.” He waited.

“I already told you: go ahead,” she said with a slight impatience.

“Okay. Well, the way you moved when you danced. It made me feel something intense, something pleasurable in itself. The train of thought continued and eventually I started wondering whether people should be able to satisfy their lust without having to take the lust seriously.”

“Okay…” she trailed off, widening her eyes. Dark irises, almost black. Alluringly beautiful. Though so were most women’s. Saul had rarely seen eyes, no matter how ugly the surrounding face, that hadn’t been alluringly beautiful.

“But somehow lust ends up leading to commitment.” He paused, waiting for her reaction. She seemed to be listening, turning this over in her mind. “Why is it that no great pleasures come without cost? Eat too much and get fat, drink too much and get sick or develop liver disease, have a kid and blow all your money and time on someone who you hope one day appreciates your decades of sacrifice, fuck and get diseases or kids or attached to someone you don’t even like.”

“Wow. Is it really that bad?”

He shrugged, aware he’d wandered off course. “Of course not. I guess I’m saying this: a little variety sometimes shouldn’t be that serious. Do your friends get mad that you have other friends? Do your parents get mad because you don’t want to eat phở every day? Does it mean that you don’t love your friend or that you don’t hold your mother’s cooking above all other cooking? No, but sometimes it would be nice, when sushi is in front of you, to take a bite or two. And does it damage your love for phở? No, in fact, the variety makes you appreciate it more, makes you long for the phở again. Like, say we had sex—hypothetically.” He played this game with his students: Socrates says Twinkies taste good. Is that a fact or an opinion? Correct, it’s an opinion. Because they might not taste good to Armani. Everyone get that? Good. Now, because Armani thinks Twinkies are gross, she says Socrates is stupid. Is that a fact or an opinion? “Would it mean that I don’t love my wife or that you don’t love Malcolm? No, it has nothing to do with them.”

Melody was staring past him. Finally, she said, “I understand what you’re saying. Plenty of anthropologists claim that humans aren’t meant to be monogamous. They say that relationships are only meant to last three to five years. And I think there’s something to that. It’s why I don’t insist Malcolm that suffer from ‘one-gina’ unless he wants to.”

This was fascinating news. “And you? Do you have other men?”

“Don’t get all hopeful. This ‘gina’ isn’t particularly contagious.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Because it’s not your business. And, yes, I can play that card,” she said, cleverly preempting his counter. “My point was that I see the complexities and pitfalls of modern relationships. And regardless of whether I have a side-fling or not, there are good reasons to have a primary partner. Like maybe I don’t have the time to flit around.”

“Not even for an afternoon?”

“I’m not saying that I don’t or never will,” she said, ignoring his implication. “I’m only saying that I’ve realized that there’s as much of a cost to freedom as there is to commitment.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“The pleasures that come with decades of love, for one. Also there’s family to consider. We raise our children for much longer. And they’re not raised by the entire village, but by a pair of parents. If the parents complicate their relationship, it ends up being bad for the kids. We can’t rely on old models like the traditional extended family.”

Maybe his talk about lust had come off as sleazy. To mitigate the sleaziness, he contradicted himself. “You know, I was just talking about variety and all that, but, really, the world, no matter how much we want it to, doesn’t work that way. It turns out that other people’s feelings matter.”

“Oh, do they now?”

“Yes. But I’m a guy, so please excuse me for figuring that out only recently. The world isn’t ideal, so you have to choose between constantly hurting people you care about and being misunderstood on the one hand, and settling for lack of variety on the other. But there is an advantage to the lack of variety. A deep relationship with one person is going to be more meaningful, more satisfying than myriad sexual escapades.”

Again she laughed, this time flicking his arm. “Myriad sexual escapades? Sounds glamorous.”

He smiled back. Considering her comment about the desirability of married men, he said, “But hey, if we need to compromise our selfishness for the happiness of others, we do it. And it is others, not other. Because when you get married, you don’t just marry one person. But, you know, a single deep relationship is probably the most satisfying thing on this planet.” With the exception of multiple deep relationships.

“That’s what I think too. Do you think Malcolm feels the same way? Has he talked to you about wanting to get married?”

“To be honest with you,” and he felt the desire to be honest with so earnest a question, “a deep commitment to something is probably what Malcolm wants most, even if he doesn’t realize it.” Though marriage probably isn’t the deep commitment he needs.

“Jamie—” she stopped.

“Jamie what?” Saul recalled the stupid hope Jamie had been directing at Melody all evening.

“Oh, I was just going to say that he agrees with you.”

Saul snorted. “Of course he does.”

They fell silent. He looked at the bottle of Grey Goose that had arrived by his arm and been noted on Malcolm’s tab. Melody looked somewhere else on the counter.

“I love Malcolm,” she said.

Saul nodded. “Good.”

“I really, really do.”

Recognizing what Melody must be feeling, and realizing he didn’t feel it himself, Saul wished to love someone again, sweetly, yearningly. But each time love had surfaced, like a submarine creature in a still pond, it had sent a ripple out over the smooth surface, quick circles widening swiftly and dissipating slowly, while he, Saul, focused his gaze on the spot where the creature had emerged, and waited vainly, impatiently, for it to emerge again. When it failed to, he began to seek it elsewhere. Had that become his leitmotif? Staring at his emotions, hoping? You’re drunk, he thought. Even when you’ve drunk nothing, you’ve been drunk for years now. What the fuck had happened to him? A life he didn’t want happened. Happened? Like he didn’t do it to himself? But here he was and something had to be done. Time to man up. Time to stop equivocating and act boldly. Either be good to his wife or leave her. Thinking of Annabelle, thinking of Melody, of Maya, he knew he couldn’t ever be happy with Connie May. He couldn’t tolerate the restrictions, the fighting, the “irreconcilable differences” as he’d have to claim in the divorce. But what about Nat? Davis would be fine, but he couldn’t just leave his daughter, jet off somewhere and begin anew. He was stuck. He was responsible for other people. Trapped in the responsibility he’d created for himself.

Melody sucked in a short breath.

“What?” Saul asked.

“Do you think we could be happy forever? I mean, I know it can’t always be perfect. But …?”

“What would be perfect?” he joked.

“He could lie,” she said, seriously. “That’s probably the one thing I can’t do. I can’t be with a liar. But Mal’s not a liar.”

As far as Saul could recall, Mal wasn’t a liar.

“So? Do you think…?” Her face went a little dreamy.

He kept his expression neutral. To allow his concern to surface would destroy her moment of confidence in him. “I’d love to see you and Mal happy forever.” A true statement, even if he knew she’d interpret it differently than he meant it.

She laughed and hugged him with surprising grip. He returned the hug uncertainly. Her breasts pressed onto his stomach. He felt suction on his cheek and a lingering moisture.

“I know you’ll give a great best man speech,” she whispered and released him.

“I’ll stay sober.” Because he sensed some urgency, like a marriage might happen too soon, he added, “You know there’s no rush on these things.”

Again she laughed, and he suspected she didn’t infer his meaning. “Thanks, but I’m not you.”

And it would be better if it stayed that way, he thought.

 

 

 

[] In the Afternoon on Saturday (P -1 Day)

 

 

Normally on Saturdays Connie May went to Daniel’s twelve-thirty power yoga class, but today, since Saul would be done playing tennis around noon, she’d decided to secretly make the nine-thirty vinyasa flow and surprise her husband with a winter citrus salad and tuna on rye. With the German girl around and Malcolm wanting to party non-stop, the last few days had been hectic, and aside from their little session when she’d teased him with the idea of a threesome, they’d spent no quality alone time. As much as they fought when they were together, if she didn’t get to spend a few relaxed moments alone with him, he started to seem distant. Like she was losing him to the rest of his life. And even if he was a big baby sometimes, he was her man and she loved him and needed to feel close to him. With the exception of their rare romantic dinners or weekends away, only fighting or cuddling time, or, as he called it, “processing,” gave her this feeling. Usually at night in bed, they’d lie facing each other, he’d lift her shirt and stroke up and down her side, riding his fingertips over her hip’s curve, and together they’d “process” the latest in the saga of his failing stupid kids and the neglected smart ones, Nat’s preschool drama, the slimy salad mix she’d gotten from Trader Joe’s, the house’s shoddy drywall, the intense three am keening of the neighbor’s cat, and all the other little words that didn’t really matter in and of themselves but that, taken together, kept the two of them close. When the kids were safe in their rooms and Saul lay with her in their cushy waterbed, as their souls touched with little words for those fifteen, twenty minutes before either sex or sleep, that was when she most believed they were fated for each other, and she imagined how in forty years they would still cherish those minutes alone, how the little words would keep them close.

Recently, she’d had to stop herself from blabbing about the nursing program at Long Beach State, squeezing Saul’s cheeks and laughing that soon they’d receive her application and, with God’s help, accept her. Considering all the shit God had tried her with up till now, she expected Him to come through on this one. Not because He owed it to her or anything like that, but because in everything that happened to her, in all the suffering, she saw Him setting her up for her purpose. He had trained her in suffering and given her the desire to help others through theirs, then he had pointed her towards the health profession with clues like NPR’s On Health and last Christmas’s mysterious appearance of a six-month subscription to Health & Fitness. Plus, she figured, God didn’t want her to be broke forever. And, for that matter, neither did Saul. So, really, she couldn’t see how her becoming a nurse wouldn’t be better for everyone.

By twelve-fifteen, Connie May had showered off the hour of sweaty vinyasa and made herself pretty for her man. Her hair up in a bun, a light touch of makeup and strawberry scented lotion, a flowing white skirt, and a white blouse he’d said made her tits look good. From the fridge she grabbed two grape fruits, one blood and one navel orange, and a Meyers lemon, shaved off the rinds, sliced them into cute starry circles and arranged them in a colorful overlapping pattern on one of her favorite dishes, a Tuscan serving platter decorated with hand painted fruit. She appreciated serving fruit on fruit. After garnishing with some fresh tarragon she’d bought yesterday at the market, she dressed the citrus with olive oil, a touch of sherry vinegar and honey. As she chopped the celery and red onion for the tuna, she realized she’d forgotten music to go along with her relaxed and happy mood.

Though she’d listened to it hundreds of times, she put Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation on the stereo, started with “Tell Him” and, because it was the last song on the album, hit the shuffle button. From the opening drumbeat, with Lauryn’s silvery moans and the sweet guitar, Connie May felt that thing good music did in a body. She felt her voice want out and, relishing the beauty of her own voice—she knew it was beautiful—sang:

 

Let me be patient

Let me be kind

Make me unselfish, without being blind

Though I may suffer, I’ll envy it not

And endure what comes

Cause he’s all that I got and tell him …

Tell him I need him

Tell him I love him

And it’ll be all right.

 

Lauryn went on to sing the truth that if she “lacks love,” she was “nothing at all” and had “no happiness.” She was preaching directly to Connie May when she sang that she was “imperfect” and “not without sin,” but now that she was older “all childish things end.” Jesus had said something similar, and Connie May’s heart whispered amen! Amen that Lauryn Hill wrote an album about the sacrifice called for by love, as though she’d had Connie May’s thirty-one years in mind. “Hurts So Bad” had lines like, “What you want might make you cry, what you need might pass you by, if you don’t catch it.” And every line in “Ex-Factor” expressed Connie May’s heart in music. When she’d found out that Saul also loved Miseducation, she’d tried explaining to him that Lauryn Hill was Christian and believed in God. You could tell from her lyrics. And, for that matter, so did almost all of the artists he listened to. Tupac, Erykah Badu, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. They all loved God.

Of course, Saul denied this and selfishly focused on himself: “Just because they talk about God, doesn’t mean they actually believe in your religion. Don’t you know about artistic personae? The person singing is telling a story, creating a character. Haven’t you noticed that Beyonce’s songs are about lame, cheating guys and have nothing to do with her marriage to Jay-Z?”

“I know you think you know everything,” Connie May had said, “but you’re not a singer, so you have no right to say what singers think.”

“Actually, C, I happen to have written a little back in the day.”

“Of course you did. Every kid does.”

“First of all, I studied the philosophy of art, remember? But if that doesn’t matter to you, I did take a couple of creative writing classes. Point is, you can’t fit your actual self into a world your mind creates and expresses two-dimensionally. It’s a law of storytelling. I’ll give you an example: if I wanted to write a book about our marriage, I wouldn’t start at the beginning and divulge every detail. Real life looks like a list, not a narrative. To write a narrative, I’d pick situations that I believe illustrate a truth about my experience, like going to buy a Christmas tree on my birthday. Then, as I write, the characters emerge from details that seem to fit the situation, like my protagonist fantasizing about pissing on one of the trees. Soon other characters appear in the story, and each of those characters has to behave according to the story’s logic, according to my understanding of how that character would have to react to the immediate situation. The tension builds between the characters until it reaches a breaking point, like maybe the story of my birthday ends with the wife being so aggravated with the husband that she can’t concentrate on the road and crashes the car, destroying the Christmas tree they’d attached to the roof.”

“But that didn’t happen.”

“Not if we’re speaking literally. Anyway, what I’m saying is that when you attempt to narrate your perspective, its truth gets twisted into fiction.”

“I suppose if you’re a liar.”

“An artist tells the truth in the same way as a dream tells the truth. In a dream you create the world, but for some reason the details manifest differently and often have to be converted into another form in order to make sense. Paradoxically, to seem true, real people have to be twisted into fictional characters. So if I write a book about some teacher my age named, let’s say his name is Jesse, who’s married, has pot smoking parents, a Chinese best friend, etc., etc. Maybe the story, as it gets twisted, makes more sense if he has no beard, or if he got married but never got anyone pregnant and only had a step-kid. Shit, who knows, maybe in his fucked up world, he got passed the second year of his PhD, and doesn’t ever feel the need to get drunk. The story doesn’t have to correspond to the facts as long as it represents their truths. That’s why good story tellers embellish, exaggerate, omit—”

“You mean they lie to tell the truth,” Connie May broke in sarcastically. “How convenient for you.”

“Whatever. My point is that artists don’t say ‘God’ because God is real but because it’s easier and more poetical than to work in a phrase like ‘the aggregate of random circumstances that is existence.’ ” She must have given him a doubtful look because his voice took on an even more condescending tone. “Think about it, C. They’re using metaphor. If Lauryn Hill sings about feelings in her heart, you don’t think she means the actual organ, do you?”

Saul always thought he was right. But he was wrong about artists not believing in God. Connie May had enough God in her life to understand what people sounded like when they felt the love of Jesus. Lauryn Hill felt His love. And because Saul loved the music, he had to love the love. So even if he was still denying God, Connie May suspected that one day when he stopped fighting so hard against who he really was—a father, a husband, a teacher, a man more ordinary than he’d like to believe—he’d find Him just as his favorite artists did.

While Lauryn Hill sang to her, Connie May finished making lunch and, to kill some time, re-read the “Learning Outcomes” for her program on the Long Beach State website. Her heart fluttered at all the things she’d be able to do, starting with being eligible to take the RN exam. She laid two fingers over the vein in her wrist and counted her beats per minute. Eleven in ten seconds, which meant—six times eleven: sixty-six. She felt healthy and sane. Much better than last week when she’d dressed up and tried to make him happy with the cake. That Friday everything had gone to shit. Which reminded her. There was that mystery folder in Saul’s music library. Quickly, because he’d be home any minute, she closed her laptop and scooted over to the bedroom, where he kept his. If he came home while she was still on, she’d just tell him her computer had lost its Internet connection and she was checking to see if his computer was working. “Oh, look,” she’d say. “I guess it’s back on!”

“Long Lost” contained icons named “Whatever1,” “Whatever2,” and “Whatever3.” She dragged the cursor over them and double clicked. Three photos appeared in front of her. Two naked bodies fucking. The woman with a tattoo. And a blond bush. She stared at them, absorbing every agonizing detail, swelling inside as she imagined Saul getting off on them while she wasn’t there, wondering how often he looked at them, comparing her body to that of the young German girl with a new age tattoo that Saul had once, and never again, mentioned.

Why did he always have to ruin everything? Why couldn’t he just love her. She may not be intellectual or be accomplished or have money, but these other stupid women didn’t look better than she did. They surely wouldn’t put up with his shit like she did. So what if the German girl let him put his dick in her ass? Didn’t she give him that too? And she aged so gracefully. Even after two kids, she still looked prettier. Why wasn’t she enough? It hurt so much to not be enough.

She ran to her phone and called Saul. No answer. She tried again and again. Then she called Malcolm and forced herself to sound calm as he informed her—cautiously, she could tell—that they’d finished “a little bit ago.” Then she called Saul’s phone five more times, hanging up and redialing as soon as she heard the voicemail. Twice, she banged her head against the wall but couldn’t knock out one pain with another.

She thought about getting in the car and driving to Saul’s parents’ house, the only place they could be right now. Stupidly, what hurt most was the idea that this girl, who she didn’t like but couldn’t help trusting, had betrayed her. Connie May had believed that bitch’s smiles, believed her “thank you”s and the warmth in her goodbye hugs. She expected weakness from Saul, and whatever pain he caused would become angry pain, break stuff pain. But the betrayal of Connie May’s struggle to be nice, and the kind way the German girl had treated her, surprised her like a knife in the back. She felt like a fool, like everyone was laughing at her.

“Fuck,” she screamed and threw her phone at his computer. His screen cracked like tempered glass, fracturing without breaking to pieces, just like her heart inside her body. The pain hadn’t subsided with the screen, so she swept the machine onto the floor. It slid and scuffed the wall, denting the white a silver streaked brown. She ran over and, jumping as high as she could, targeted her heels at the little glowing apple, aiming to feel the deathblow. Stomping again and again, she repeated the murderous crack of plastic and metal, making sure to destroy whatever held those images, stomping hard enough to shatter the memories in Saul’s mind, hard enough to break his stupid desire for this stupid lying bitch. Hard enough to make everything disappear.

 

 

 

[] Also in the Afternoon on Saturday (P -1 Day)

 

 

After two late morning sets of doubles at the Billy Jean King courts with Malcolm and the tennis pro Malcolm rented for $150, Saul drove Annabelle back to his parents’ house. From his tennis bag in the backseat, his cell phone beeped, indicating noon. Connie May had an hour and a half yoga class starting at twelve-thirty, and his parents had taken the kids to the LA zoo. For the first time since her arrival, Saul had privacy with his old lover. And inside the house were two of his favorite intimacy aids: weed and beer.

In the car he’d joked and she’d laughed, both of them riding the high they’d earned from crushing Malcolm and the pro 7-5, 6-3. It was true that Malcolm’s limp slowed his game, but his strokes were clean and powerful, and winning, even if one’s opponent was crippled, felt good. Annabelle, Saul noted, had improved in the six years since they’d last gone a couple sets at UCLA. Her reverse court forehand was accurate and fierce, her second serve had an almost untouchable topspin, her drop shot barely bounced. He praised these developments as they walked to the door. She smiled and pulled the house key from her purse.

“I changed my coach last winter.”

“The old coach fall too madly in love with you?” Saul said jokingly, but hoped she’d deny it anyway.

She laughed. “No, it’s the new one who gives me extra practice.”

The implication riled his jealousy. He wanted to hear that no one after him could be interesting enough to fuck. Saul Jacob Rosen, the spoiler of all future sex.

“Your tennis coach is your new lover?” Saul chewed inside his lip, annoyed at this failure of wit.

Her smile faded.

“You could be having sex with your tennis coach. I mean, why not? Got to have sex with someone, right?”

Her eyes focused on his, inscrutably. Maybe, despite his effort at nonchalance, she’d recognized his pathetic fishing. She unlocked the door and said, “I’m thirsty.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I was just wondering. That’s all.”

Annabelle waved off the apology. “It’s really none of your business. But if you want to know whether I have a lover, you can try asking. Don’t try to manipulate it out of me.”

The accusation stung, but, he realized, might also carry an invitation. The idea upped his spirits, and on the way to the kitchen Saul admired her from behind: a forgotten mole planted at the intersection of neck and shoulder, the tank top stretched along the inset of her spine, the fatless thighs and the ass, thicker but still compellingly muscular, that pushed at him through the tight white tennis skirt. Her back flexed as she reached behind her head to loosen the tightly wound bun, and with a couple flips of the hand her hair poured down, leaving a small kinked wave just above her neck. A flirtatious gesture? Either way, if something sexual was to happen in the next hour, he had to drop the insecure pussy shit and tack aggressive.

“Ohh,” he frowned aloud. “You should keep it up for a little.”

“Why?” she asked, turning to him, as though slightly alarmed.

“Because now I can’t see your skin and those sweet soft hairs at the back of your neck. The ones that don’t fit into the bun.”

“Your wife has a beautiful neck to stare at,” she reminded him. “And very soft hair.”

He acknowledged the check but remained cool, persistent. It would be necessary to convince her that Connie May had nothing to do with their hour alone. “Yes, her neck and hair are nice, but I don’t see why I can’t enjoy yours too. Just because I like Gaugin there’s no reason I can’t like Degas.”

“You can’t afford to own them both.”

“Fortunately money and love work in opposite ways: ‘True love differs in this from gold and clay / that to divide is not to take away.’ ”

“Not a good example, Saul. He left his pregnant eighteen-year-old wife for a sixteen-year-old. Try using that line on someone who doesn’t understand its irony.”

His eyes softened lovingly at her erudite rebuttal. This was no white trash Connie May, no undereducated seductress. It reminded him that soon he might be back in grad school, with intelligent people, with people who didn’t believe that Jesus would be returning to earth any day now, or that having babies at fifteen with another woman’s husband might be good life strategy. Soon he might be rid of his incompatible, stifling domesticity. Even if he didn’t get into the school, how long could he remain in Long Beach, desiring to escape the depressing hamster wheel of marriage, offspring, retirement and death? The break with that life was imminent, he was sure. Why not start now?

“Am I not allowed to be romantic?” he asked, assuming she’d get the pun. “Maybe my youthful idealism didn’t jibe well with more recent decisions, which, I have to say, have vacuum-sucked naiveté out of me like a—no, let me improve the metaphor—have whacked naiveté out of me like candy out of a piñata.” He paused, pressing intensely into her crystalline irises until she looked away. He edged closer. Above the corners of her mouth the little hairs sharpened into black spider legs. At some point we will be too old for this, he thought. You will look at my throat, wrinkled like a crushed paper bag, and the kinked white wisps framing a glassy scalp, and you will think my body too gross for my desire. And I will look at you and remember that you were beautiful.

“At some point we’re going to be old and the youth we could be enjoying right now might have gone wasted. As much as I enjoy you being here with me right now, I’d prefer my future nostalgia be fueled by longing of love requited, not love spurned. Can’t we take pleasure in each other while—”

“Before I’m old and ugly?” She laughed softly, mockingly. “Had we but world enough, and time, right?”

“Ha, good one, but, actually, I mean I’d like to ‘Marvell’ at you while I can still hope to enjoy the possibilities that my waning youth affords—whilst I can imagine you might still desire my body.” As he heard himself speak, he knew that although he sounded a bit overpoetic, this voice was closer to the pre-domesticated Saul. He put his hand to his mouth and stroked his beard to conceal his self-satisfied smile.

“Ah, right,” she shook her head. “You mean the possibility that you’re not too old for me to have sex with.” For a moment her blond eyebrows pushed together above her nose before she relaxed her brow and sighed. The paleness of her features, skin and eyes engineered by nature to survive the Northern European gloom, made him want to touch her face. He continued smoothing out his beard.

“Let’s not pretend we don’t think these things. Fact is, we have youth and don’t appreciate it. Reserving it for a single relationship is like hiding a flower in a dark room and switching the light on for only one person to admire. Shouldn’t we take advantage of our bloom, so that later we don’t have to regret our wilted petals.”

“Enough melodrama. That kind of thing won’t win me over.”

“No?”

“No. So just stop, okay? Think about your wife. I don’t want to hurt her and neither do you.” Shifting her attention to the cabinet, she took out two tumblers. “Ice?”

He’d thought enough about his wife. In fact, if anything, thinking about his wife turned into more thinking about Annabelle and how she maneuvered about his childhood house. Her knowledge of it, her ease, like she belonged here as much as he did, contrasted with Connie May’s stubborn discomfort—his wife who acted as though she’d be judged for behaving as part of his family. It seemed obvious that Annabelle, not Connie May, would fit best into the life he should be living: one founded on erudition and free of monetary worries. As an excuse to brush up against her, he stepped beside her and reached into the cabinet for a goblet. Their shoulders and hips touched. “There should be a few IPAs in the fridge from the last dinner party my parents threw,” he said, setting one goblet on the counter while he searched for another in the carnival of Ikea glasses and Fiestaware.

“I’m fine with water,” she said, leaning back, as though offering him space. No, he wanted to tell her, don’t move your body away from me, get in my way, meet my hand with the warmth of your sweaty hip.

“As good as water sounds, a cold beer would be heaven right now.” He grabbed two of the five bottles, popped their caps and, tilting the goblets, carefully poured the sizzling liquid down the glass’s curve. Just as rolling a joint anticipated the pleasure of smoking it, pouring a perfect head heightened the satisfaction of the first sips. He lifted one of the goblets to the sunlight coming in through the window, admired his work and handed it to Annabelle. She frowned at the goblet, but took it.

“To victory,” he said, staring her in the eyes.

Still frowning, she stared back. “To your son.”

They clinked goblets. Her resistance showed not only in her words but in her rigid posture, as though they were strangers and he might still attack her. The distrust annoyed him. A foam mustache lined her upper lip as she set the goblet on the counter. Saul noticed her watching him again.

“Tell me,” he said and, suddenly feeling thirsty, downed about half of the beer in the goblet. “What are you thinking?”

Her lips parted and closed. She licked off the foam.

Saul stared at her, trying to meet her eyes, waiting. “I’m watching thoughts happen on your face.”

Ten, fifteen seconds passed before she said, “You seem unhappy.”

“Right now? I just killed in tennis. I’m with you. I feel pretty good, actually.”

“Not now. I mean in general.”

“In general. Right.” He decided to attempt honesty. “Well, like you said about my romantic idealism—I’m paying for its failure. My life has become this confined, suffocated thing it was never supposed to be. But I haven’t given up. I’m still searching for that truth we talked about years ago, after the first time we made love. And I feel like maybe if I keep searching, keep my eyes scanning, I’ll see it. If not, the truth that I never found it might be the truth I was looking for.”

She was holding her breath. Exhaling, she said, “You’re not going to find it by having sex with me.”

“No?” Saul laughed. “But let’s say you’re right and I don’t find it. Is having sex with someone beautiful and happy going to make life worse? You think I’ll be unhappier for actually getting something I wanted?”

“Yes, I do,” she said. “Think about it: what would happen if we had sex? What would happen if you got what you wanted?”

“Let me kiss you, and we’ll see.”

“No.”

“I think you should see how it feels before you judge.”

“It will feel like lips touching. And it will feel like disappointment.”

“Why would it feel like disappointment?”

“Because you’ve built it up in your mind to give you something big, something it can’t give you.”

They were standing face to face now. If he took one step he could kiss her. And though she looked tense, she hadn’t turned away from him, hadn’t demanded that he leave. For some reason, she hadn’t completely closed off the opportunity.

“You’re not saying ‘no.’ As long as you don’t say ‘no,’ it’s difficult for me not to hope.”

Her hands moved from gripping the counter to a prayer-like clasp in front of her mouth. “Why do you want me, Saul? What truth are you going to find by using my body for your pleasure?”

“Your body is nice, of course, but it’s the whole thing I want. I want to feel you close. I want to know that you still want me—” he smiled and sang, in poor falsetto, “Just like I want you.”

“Why, Saul? Why?” Her voice trembled, maybe with frustration, maybe with cracking will. “Where has sex gotten you? What do you think its purpose is? Because I think you’re getting it mixed up with something else you want.”

“Why not just give it to me?” he said, somewhat desperate sounding. “You’ll enjoy it too.”

“No, I won’t. I have sex because I prefer to scratch the itch than pretend that I’m not itchy. But my life is different now. Focused on things that aren’t so much about me, me, me. I’m a mother, a writer. I don’t want emotionally complicated sex anymore. Unlike you, I’m not interested in making myself feel like a twenty-year old again. Sleeping with you, betraying Connie May, who I know has been trying hard to be nice to me—and I know it’s not easy for her. You really want to hurt her like that?”

“Of course not. But she’s not a part of this right now.”

“But she is, Saul. And at some point, you’ll realize that. Honestly, I’m surprised you haven’t already. You’re a father of three kids, a teacher. I care about you as a person, so don’t be hurt by what I’m saying, but I’m done loving your immaturity. You really need to stop trying to find your happiness in fucking people.”

Denial was his first impulse, but he squashed it because that would prove his immaturity. “All right, so you want to know why I want to have sex with you? Because you’re beautiful. Because I still feel close to you. Because I don’t see anything wrong with”—here he resisted saying “a little bump and grind”—“a little harmless pleasure in a world that is otherwise tedious and sadistic, a world that was advertised so differently during my childhood. Back then I got an A here, an A+ there. ‘Do well in school and you’ll be successful.’ That’s what we were told, right? So it seemed that as long as I did what I was told, people would continue stamping my life’s report card with straight As. Of course I’d heard people say, ‘Wait till you get to the real world.’ But since their world seemed no more real than mine, how could I possibly understand? And now that I’m stuck in that real world, my life looking like a car spinning its tires futilely in the mud, going nowhere, spraying dirt all over myself, now that I’m—to change metaphors—a leaf twisting in the wind, why should a little harmless pleasure—one that you too could be harmlessly enjoying, one you could offer so easily—why does it have to be so difficult, so complicated? So, again, you wonder why I want to have sex with you? I admit: desiring sex is not really about desiring the act of sex. It’s what comes with the sex: the deeper access to you—no pun intended—and the post-orgasm Zen-like calm, when we can relate to each other with a pleasure expunged of the sexual. It’s not about the act. It’s about feeling recognized. Do you know how little I get of that lately? Do you know what it’s like to drain your energy on teaching damaged kids the same basic skills over and over? Caring about young, fucked up people who are about to get dumped into the world that’s screwing you over, even while you’re teaching them how to negotiate it? Then to come home to a couple more kids and a wife who’s disdainful of the only life you really feel capable of living? My soul’s wailing like Ivan Ilyich, dying slowly. Can you blame me for wanting to pretend that for an hour—a mere hour—I have the life I actually want?”

She moved toward him, taller than his shrinking five-nine, and kissed the crown of his head. His forehead sank onto her shoulder. He didn’t cry this time. He did nothing to break the silence. Instead of more sounds, more words, they stood together, touching, breathing quietly.

“I’m too nice to you,” she said, finally. “You know you don’t deserve it.”

[]Part V: Xmas Party

 

 

 

[]Skydiving

 

 

At six-thirty a.m. on Sunday morning Malcolm and Melody entered the 405 South at an illegal speed. Malcolm switched from commercials on commercial radio to the CD already in the player—Tupac’s Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory—and drove faster. Relishing the music and speed, they kept their mouths shut, every once in awhile squeezing hands and exchanging anxious smiles. Seventy minutes after setting out, they arrived at the airfield in San Diego. Lake Elsinore was closer, but Melody, who had spontaneously planned the jump, had been swayed by the website for the San Diego company that advertised “a ninety second free-fall above a stunningly gorgeous vista of mountains, Mexico and the Pacific.” Also by the assurance that the instructors to whom they’d be strapped each had “thousands of jumps under their belts.”

The airfield looked unsettlingly desolate. Four or five tiny propeller planes studded the asphalt outside a hangar constituted of corrugated sheet metal and chipping paint. They followed a handwritten sign up the stairs to the office located on the second story. The door was open, but no one was inside. They wandered down the linoleum hall, calling, “Hello? Hello?” At the end of the hall by the reception desk was a single chair, presumably for customers waiting for the staff to appear. They sat—Melody on Malcolm’s lap. The weight bothered his hip, so she straddled him to equalize the pressure. It was still uncomfortable, but he kissed her and dealt with it. At eight forty-five, three-quarters of an hour after the office claimed it was open for business, a lady showed up with a coffee in her hand.

“You the eight-thirty?” she asked.

“I thought so,” Malcolm said.

“Good. Your guys’ll be here soon. They’re getting donuts.”

Around nine-fifteen, as Malcolm and Melody loitered anxiously at the top of the stairs outside the office door, they finally saw another human.

“Check this guy out.” Malcolm shook his head, pitying a middle-aged guy in Birkenstocks, cargo shorts and an inside-out T-shirt. Then from behind the hangar appeared a second guy who play-punched the first mid-spine. Guy one arched in pain and socked guy two in the kidney. Skinny and tall—at least six-foot four—this second horrendously dressed guy was wearing an inside-out sweater (what was with inside-out tops?), plaid pajama pants and what looked like slippers. His long, unkempt hair was tied in sloppy asymmetrical pigtails. “You’re jumping with him,” Malcolm joked. They both laughed at this absurdity.

A minute later the receptionist called them inside.

“Ready?” she asked.

Was Malcolm ready to jump from an airplane?

The lady led them to the backside of the hangar, which opened into an airy, barn-like storage space filled with a small plane, an old dust-coated Compaq and random equipment. Leaning against a bench were the two inside-out guys, introduced as Joe, tall and skinny with asymmetrical pigtails, and Steve, Birkenstocks now changed to Converse, each with a donut in hand. Sugary glaze clung to Joe’s lips. Raising his eyebrows questioningly, he pointed to a pink box next to him, its top flipped open to a couple dozen donuts. Malcolm and Melody politely declined.

“Cool,” Joe and Steve answered in unison.

Up close, Malcolm confirmed that these guys had just rolled out of bed.

The Birkenstock guy, Steve, who was probably forty, had straight silky hair that flopped, like a sheepdog’s, in his eyes. He flipped it back with his hand and asked who was jumping with whom.

Malcolm turned nervously to Melody and told her to choose. Straining to smile, she deferred back to him, but he insisted, avoiding culpability.

Bravely, Melody pointed to Joe. For his sake, Malcolm realized, his girlfriend was entrusting her life to an unwashed guy in sloppy pajamas and sloppier pigtails, from whose bottom lip sugary glaze still hung like an icicle from a roof.

Joe grinned triumphantly at Steve, who sighed in disappointment. Aware that his girlfriend was a more interesting piece of ass to spoon during a tandem jump than he was, Malcolm offered Steve an apologetic wince.

After declining to have the jump recorded on video—Malcolm wanting nothing stupid or girly he might do immortalized on DVD—they were buckled into the straps that connected their bodies to the instructors’. The system, somewhat like a backpack with four heavy-duty straps—two around the shoulders and two around the legs—which hooked onto the instructor’s pack, failed to convince Malcolm that he would remain attached to Steve and Steve’s parachute during the ten-thousand foot fall to Earth. Without further ceremony or any directions at all on how to act or what to expect, they were ushered into the side of a tiny propeller plane. From top to bottom on the inside were maybe four feet and the floor space was just as cramped. For everyone to fit, Malcolm and Melody had to caterpillar backward between Joe and Steve’s spread legs. Joe grinned again at Steve, and the instructors, once Malcolm and Melody’s asses were situated into their crotches, secured the tandem hooks. As long as Steve didn’t pop a boner, the position was cozy enough.

Malcolm was shocked to notice that the pilot was wearing a parachute. He pointed this out to Melody.

She laughed. “If we die, at least we die together.”

Malcolm agreed. “I guess it’s more fun than drowning.”

Finally, the plane took off. It ascended gradually, almost imperceptibly, now and then suffering a frightening dip. The side of the plane through which they crawled remained open with no barrier to stop them from sliding out into the sky. Malcolm imagined Melody, who was closer to the opening, tossed out, and contemplated a future in the wake of her death. The thought wrung drops of pain from his guts. The plane was so loud that Malcolm couldn’t hear anything that was not shouted at him. He watched Melody’s lips move, her words absorbed into the engines’ fury. He caught Joe peek at her cleavage. It pleased him to think that more or less every heterosexual with a penis lusted after his girlfriend. He hoped she was safe attached to Joe.

He turned as much as possible and asked Steve how many times he’d done this.

“Exactly? I’m not sure,” he shouted inches from Malcolm’s ear. “But well over nine-thousand times.”

Nine thousand. If Steve were suicidal or incompetent, the probability that either he—or fate—chose this particular jump to end it all was infinitesimal. Reassured, Malcolm asked Steve if he was from San Diego and learned about Steve’s emigration from Minnesota for a girlfriend.

“Did it work out?” Malcolm asked.

“Well, let’s say I decided to earn a living jumping out of planes,” Steve joked, too ambiguously for Malcolm to comprehend the meaning.

“So no?” Malcolm guessed.

“I’m single,” Steve sighed and flipped his silky straight hair behind his ear. Tipping his chin toward Melody, he said, “No beautiful young wife for moi.”

Malcolm looked at Melody, imagined himself married to her, felt happy, fortunate, etc. Pride welled up behind his eyes.

Eventually the plane reached ten thousand feet. Melody and Joe jumped first. They scooted to the opening in the plane’s flank and dangled their legs out. A second later they’d vanished, as though sucked up by a wormhole in the blue. When Malcolm and Steve arrived at the point before the point of no return, Steve instructed Malcolm to cross his arms and, once they exited the plane, to bend backward. Then, before Malcolm could bitch out, Steve dumped them into deadly free fall, which actually felt, physically speaking, like little more than wind in his hair. As instructed, he crossed his arms and bent backward. They flipped a couple times before Steve leveled them parallel to the Earth’s surface. It was strange to Malcolm that they were falling at terminal velocity and this guy was about as concerned as a dog licking its balls.

After about a minute of freefall Malcolm began to worry. He asked Steve when he was going to release the parachute. Five seconds, Steve answered. Malcolm braced himself for an abrupt jerk upward, but the transition was smoother than expected and soon they were sailing peacefully. Steve handed Malcolm the grips to control their direction and commanded him to pull down left. He saw Melody for the first time since she’d vanished into the sky. His girlfriend looked small and vulnerable attached to Joe’s torso, like a baby in a papoose.

“There’s your wife,” Steve said.

Though Malcolm was enjoying the fall, being responsible for the controls scared him. In an overzealous moment, he nearly shoved them past the instructor’s hands. Steve gasped.

“Shit! I’m sorry,” Malcolm yelled, once he saw that Steve had caught the grips and was again in control.

“It’s okay. No worries,” Steve said. During his nine thousand jumps, he’d probably had similar excitement cause similar fuck ups dozens of times.

At one point, Steve asked him to guess their altitude. Malcolm had no idea and said so. The perspective seemed hardly to have changed since they left the plane.

“Guess,” Steve insisted.

Malcolm’s thought process lagged. “Five hundred feet?”

“A thousand.”

Malcolm wondered at this. He really couldn’t have guessed.

During the van ride back to the airfield Malcolm began to tremble. It first appeared as a tremor through his bad leg, but quickly seized his fingers, hands, forearms, shoulders, even his jaw. And while his outside parts shook, his mood was funneling into an intense and focused serenity. The effects of the adrenaline rush were finally hitting him, five minutes after the jump. Next to him, Melody stared out the window, most likely unaware of how her chest rose and fell slowly, methodically. Lying in bed with her, he had flattened his cheek against this cage, listened to the heartbeat underneath, soaked in the heat generated by her body’s machinery, marveled that it worked the same as his. A beautiful little machine housing this creature he loved. He loved her—not, as Saul had suggested, the machine that holds her soul in this world, but her soul itself. Saul hated that word: soul. So mystical, so unscientific. But it was there; it’s what I love, Malcolm thought, pitying Saul for being so obstinately cynical.

His eyes followed hers to where dirt and tumbleweeds were accelerating into a blur. The sky, foggy earlier, had cleared into a vast dry blue. He slid his hand across the bench seat’s vinyl and onto her thigh. Forcefully, but not enough to draw blood, he dug his fingernails into her smooth skin. She replied by placing her hand on his and scratching, slowly. His palm turned to meet hers. Both grips tightened—and remained tight and motionless until the van ride ended.

Leaning her ass against the Lamborghini’s passenger door, Melody glowed with a rare happiness, one beyond what Malcolm had seen during their first weeks. She said, “I know we’ve been together only a few months. But I feel like I’ve known you for longer. There’s a strange thing that happens when you feel really close to someone. It’s like there’s another measure for time than the watch and wall calendar. Maybe the soul is on a different calendar.”

“I know what you mean,” he admitted. “It’s like we’ve been together for a year and a half probably?”

“That’s what I feel, too! Six months of calendar time, but a year and a half of soul time.” She giggled. “I wonder if the ratio of calendar time to soul time is always around three to one or if it depends on the quality of the time.”

“What if the Buddhists are right, and we knew each other in a past life?” Was it the intensity of feeling rushing through him that made this idea feel real? To add some levity to what may have come off as serious, he added, “Like maybe we were lemurs who’d fallen in love with each other’s tails.”

“Exactly!” Her beautiful dark eyes sparkled. “Wouldn’t it be funny if people had tails?”

“Clothing would have to fit our tail. In warm weather we’d sport it naked, like legs. In cold weather, we’d have to decorate it with a cut that emphasized its curves.”

“What kind of tails would you be attracted to?” she asked.

“Yours, of course.”

“No, really. Think about it.”

“How about a tail tattooed with tribal patterns?”

“How about a tail with a big diamond ring?”

“How about a tail pierced with a stud?”

“I think I’d like strong, slim looking tails without much fur on them.” Melody stepped towards him and grabbed his butt.

“Now I wish I had a tail.”

Somewhat dreamily, she said, “I feel like the last five minutes added about six months of soul time together.”

He affirmed this with a nod and hugged her to him. Her head tilted back. He felt tall as her gaze bridged their eight-inch differential.

“Mal?” she said in her baby voice.

“I love you too.”

Her eyes closed, and in a tear trembling whisper, she said, “You knew what I was going to say.”

“Because I love you.” He didn’t tell her it was obvious.

“You do love me. I know you do. And I know you’ll take care of me.”

“Of course I will.”

“Forever?” she asked, again in her baby voice.

“Forever,” he answered because any other response would kill the moment.

“You mean it?”

Humming a vague assent, he cupped her head against his chest and felt the strength of his size. How good it would feel to provide for her, put her through grad school. He imagined the satisfaction of sharing his life with her, eventually raising a couple children. Maybe he was growing up, but it did seem more satisfying than Crow’s Nest with Jamie. He’d need a job, of course, but he was thirty now. The next stage, being a grown ass man, with a grown ass job and a grown ass lifestyle had to happen soon. A man still partying at forty seemed pathetic, lonely, an aging adolescent, like that forty-something skateboarder at Crow’s with the dyed black ponytail and Metallica t-shirt. He didn’t want to be that guy. He didn’t want to die alone. She was saying he didn’t have to die alone. His hand fanned out over her back, covering almost the entirety of her shoulder blades. Her breasts rolled against his abs. His toned, hard abs. He should start lifting weights and become even stronger for her.

She abruptly wriggled free, disappointing him in his manly moment, opened the car door, reached into her LV purse and produced a small black velvet box. “I know this is a funny way to do it, but…” She shrugged. “It was my grandma’s ring. Whenever you’re ready I want you to give me this.” She handed him the box.

She must have read distress on his face because her eager smile flattened.

“You don’t have to—”

Malcolm touched his finger to her lips. She quieted. He never once in his life had considered that a woman might propose to him. But he knew not to say this now. This was fate declaring itself. Better to embrace it, not to shy from it like a coward. Like Pac said, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a soldier dies but once.” Dramatic, sure. But it stiffened a backbone.

He opened the box. Set in a gold band, a princess cut, possibly two carats, gleamed sharp in his eye, blinding him like the sun itself. At least she’d picked exactly what she wanted—and she’d even paid for it. Unless it really was her grandmother’s.

Providence was nudging him forward. Gently, he lifted her left hand to his lips, kissed all four knuckles and, staring into her dream-filled eyes, slid the promise of forever onto her finger.

 

 

 

[]Earlier in the Day

 

 

The morning of the Xmas party, before leaving for church with Nat, Connie May placed green and red swirled candles beside the TV in the living room and on top of the toilet tanks in the two bathrooms. Saul looked on, literally biting his tongue, aware that both the candles themselves and their placement so early in the day were unnecessary, but after yesterday’s disaster, he reminded himself to remain stoic and provoke minimal irrationality from his wife. He even said nothing when she plugged in a gaudy string of bulbs and a hollow plastic Jesus, struck matches with what seemed to him like spiteful glee and, huffing triumphantly, unleashed Christmas cheer upon their home.

Within ten minutes the house stank cloyingly of pine and cinnamon. Davis, back from spending the night at a friend’s house, asked Saul what reeked.

“The scent is aptly labeled Christmas Cheer.”

“Aptly?” Davis said absent-mindedly, flipping his slip-on Vans off his feet and into the air. He caught the first and barely missed the second.

“It’s aptly nauseating.”

“Huh.” Davis walked over to the candle by the TV. Following a couple taps on the glass surrounding the red and green swirl, he said, “Let me add some Bronx to that Christmas,” turned around, bent his ass toward the candle, and farted loudly. The flame fluttered and flared. Sniffing, he said, “Smells better already,” and danced, mock ballerina style, into his room.

At least one family member was in a good mood. And rightly so. Davis had entered into his first romance. This meant, Saul well understood, the possibility of not only first love but first sex as well, which, like a wedding day to an old fashioned girl, was the most anticipated event in a boy’s life. Saul empathized with his stepson’s excitement. At the same time, he predicted that inexperience and insecurity would soon rupture the infatuation. The tumult would seem like love because of its violence and strong emotions, but Saul would expose it as purely destructive, as mere jealousy and vanity that confused even the relationships of couples twice his age. Davis was going to need Saul’s advice and support, which was a problem if Saul left his family to finish his PhD in New York. They could, he supposed, talk on the phone a few times a week and correspond online, but would that be enough? What if Davis relocated with him? The boy required little maintenance, and New York would cultivate his intelligence and sophisticate his tastes. Realistically, of course, Connie May would never allow him to take Davis—or his daughter, whom he’d have no time for anyway. His little girl would grow up here in Long Beach, crashing through elementary school without his direct guidance. He harbored legitimate concerns about Nat being raised almost exclusively by a psycho bitch single mom. Though, really, if he compared Nat’s prospects to Davis’s present, maybe, like her brother, she’d flourish in the destructive synergy of Southern California public school and Connie May. Davis, the child Saul wished he’d had, offered the most convincing rationalization for abandoning his daughter.

Saul had inferred Davis’s relationship with Jazzmine on Tuesday in the LAX parking lot, so when on Friday Davis asked if he could invite Jazzmine to the party, Saul immediately assured him that girlfriends would always be welcome. Connie May, however, hearing about Jazzmine for the first time, began an investigation into her son’s knowledge of “this girlfriend.’”

Raising his hands in a gesture of innocence, Davis said, “Saul’s exaggerating. She’s not really my girlfriend.”

“How long have you had a girlfriend and not told me?” Connie May persisted.

Saul, in a moment of protectiveness against what he interpreted as misdirected frustration, cut in, “Let him have his privacy, C. A boy can’t share this kind of thing with his mother.”

“Privacy could get this girl pregnant.” Her nostrils flared.

“No one’s getting pregnant, mom. We’ve barely held hands. And, anyway, even if I didn’t have the kind of common sense you brought me up with, Saul’s had this talk with me already.”

Connie May’s fists dug into her hips and her chin crunched back towards her throat, squeezing out an unattractive second chin. “Really? When did that happen? Because no one told me about any birds and bees talk.”

“Saul did a good job. If I was already convinced about being careful, now I’m doubly convinced.”

“I’m sure,” she said and laughed maliciously. “He’s the expert.”

Davis sighed and turned his gaze to the wall. “Fine, mom. I won’t invite her.”

“I didn’t say that.” Connie May surrendered at her son’s pain. “I’m just hurt that you didn’t include me.”

“Sorry, mom. It happened barely a couple days ago.”

“I just want you to tell me about these things. You came out of my womb,” she said, displaying a rare whininess. Had Davis matured enough for Connie May to sense his breaking away from mommy? “I used to wash you all naked and smiley.”

Davis looked horrified, probably wondering why his crawling out from inside his mother required that he fully disclose all his romantic exploits.

“C, that’s disgusting for him to hear.”

“No, it’s not. It’s how God made us. We’re animals, not angels.”

“You’re right, mom. I understand. In the future, I’ll let you know everything, okay? I wanted to tell you. Honestly. And I was going to right after it happened, but then I got sick at dinner, remember, and, well, after that I felt scared for some reason. I know how much you love me and want the best for me and I was worried you might think I’m too young, but like I said, we’ve barely even held hands. We like each other, that’s all. I’m really really sorry I didn’t tell you immediately.”

Pathetic contrition touched Davis’s eyes and posture. His sinuous lankiness softened. Guilelessness mushed his expression. Smooth, Saul thought.

At around ten, while Connie May zoomed and scrubbed and set up for the Xmas party, Saul, chaperoned by Davis and Nat, was directed, without eye contact, to Trader Joe’s for reasonably priced wine and vegetable hors d’oeuvres. He picked up three bottles of a heavy zin, a pinot grigio for his mom, a bottle of Patrón for shots, baby carrots, celery, hummus, baba ghanouj, three types of crackers, broccoli florets, Danish blue cheese and a log of goat cheese with the silhouette of a goat on its label. Because Absolut was on sale, he thought it prudent to supplement the wine with a handle and two liters of tonic. Though Vodka tended to jiggle loose the filter between thoughts and speech and encourage mordant candor, he assured himself he wouldn’t drink enough to hurt anyone’s feelings. Only a strong martini or two to better ignore the block that his wife had mounted on his shoulder.

Standing in the checkout line, he noticed the plants and flowers along the wall and told Davis and Nat to pick one for their mother. Then from the selection of variously infused chocolate bars coloring the shelf near the register, he grabbed the pink wrapper containing dark chocolate with almonds.

When they arrived home, he had Nat deliver the blue poinsettia along with the coded message, “Daddy thought you might like it. He says the color is how he feels when you don’t feel well.”

Connie May received the plant with a difficult smile and said, “I wonder where your Daddy thought this weird blue thing would go. Do you see any room for it, Sweetie?”

Without bothering to investigate, his daughter jutted her lower lip and shook her head. Way to be on daddy’s side, Sweetie.

“I guess it’ll have to go out front. Hopefully no one wants to steal some weird blue thing, right?”

Having disposed of the poinsettia, Connie May returned to fidgeting with the tiniest details, dusting for a second time, reordering the Health & Fitness magazines fanned out over the coffee table, opening the cabinet and rearranging the glasses for no apparent reason. Saul approached her from behind and slid his arm around her waist. She stiffened and writhed out of his embrace.

“We need to talk,” he said, undeterred by her resistance, and escorted her to their room. Taking a deep breath, he shut the door behind them and, instead of asking her “what the fuck?” as would have been more instinctual, said, “What can I do to make you happy right now?”

“I am happy,” she said, as though he could read anything but delight into her unnatural lack of eye contact and general disagreeableness.

“Oh, right. Obviously.”

“Don’t, Saul,” she cried, flinging herself onto the floor and shriveling into a fetal position. “Just leave it alone.”

He didn’t buy her melodramatic sadness. “Leave it alone and then what? Fake it the entire evening, like no one will notice? What the fuck, C? And all this overemotional shit like we’re teenagers? Like you crying on the floor is going to make me want to stay?”

The moment of sadness had passed, and she glared up at him from the floor. “You’re such a pussy.”

“For what? Not leaving you like I should?” Maybe he should throw the chocolate at her, counter her with equal melodrama.

“See and you even know it. But you’re too weak. You send your daughter to do what a man should: apologize.”

“Sorry,” he said, sarcastically.

“It’s just like you. You won’t tell me the truth and you won’t leave. Why don’t you just do it? Follow through once in your life—like a man. You wanted to yesterday, but you came back with your little dick between your legs. I’d have more respect for you if you just did it. Just abandoned your family and fucked all the women you want.”

“Really? Little dick? You seemed to like it enough to marry.”

“I’ve had big dick. I didn’t marry you for your dick.”

Manipulating her with hurt so she’d retract this barb would be admitting her power over his feelings. Returning the anger would do the same. And this shouldn’t be about his dick. Enough had already been about his dick. This was about his weakness. She was right. His staying was pussy. So was arguing, mere threat without decision. He felt allergic to struggle and utterly decompensated by the thought it should continue. Even if their bitterness had grown too vicious to be pacified by the vows of love and change that had worked in the past, the tension had never lasted into the following afternoon. But then, no fight had begun with him finding his big rolling suitcase at the door, stuffed with balled clothing, and, next to the suitcase, the beautiful Apple laptop he’d saved up for last year. In a sudden confused swoon, he’d lifted its crushed and bent form, hopelessly wondering at the fractalized screen and at the ports protruding like organs squished out of road kill. No matter how insane she’d acted or what she’d broken, he’d never felt such crushing hatred, such volcanic frustration. It had taken years to accumulate the music, which was replaceable, if impossibly expensive and time consuming since he’d sold all the CDs after importing them, and two decades to compose the letters and papers, which could never be reproduced. She had not simply stomped away thousands of dollars, but had violated his past, destroyed it precisely so he could never retrieve it. He loathed her as though she’d shredded his memory, which, in a way, she had—and so purposefully, he understood, with so much malice towards his past. He remembered seeing the 4Runner outside and sprinted up the stairs to their bedroom. Connie May, hair spuming out of a bun, knelt in the closet, tearing his clothes from the drawers and hurtling them onto the slipshod pile around her. Nearly his entire wardrobe, including his ironed polos and khakis lay in ruin on the floor. They began yelling. Saul couldn’t recall most of it. But he did tell her that his life’s deepest regret was not having gone to Berlin with Annabelle, so that he never would have met her, let alone knocked her dumb ass up. She’d sobbed in increasingly violent convulsions and kicked at him twice. Finally, he’d asked, practically frothing at the mouth, if he should go get a hotel room. She’d told him to go ahead and fuck that lying bitch all he wanted. To save Annabelle, just in case she and Connie May had to interact again, he told Connie May that Annabelle was too good of a person, that she’d never sleep with him as long as he was in a relationship, that she was a much better person than Connie May would ever be. Connie May, nostrils ballooning, eyes severed from reason, insisted that he was going to get a hotel room so he could fuck “his lying German slut” and how if that’s what he wanted, that’s what he should do. Done repeating himself, Saul rolled his suitcase to his Corolla and drove off. Thirty minutes later, he called her from his parents’ house and told her that she need not worry, he’d found a hotel and would get the divorce papers on Monday. He waited for her to reply, but heard only the soft electronic background.

“Okay?” Saul said, calmly now. “It’s over. You don’t have to worry anymore.”

Over the line came soft guinea pig-like chirps. Then choking sobs. “I can’t believe you”—choke, gulp—“left. I didn’t believe you’d”—choke, gulp, fiercer choke—“actually leave me.”

“Then why the fuck did you pack my stuff and tell me to get a hotel room?”

“I didn’t believe you’d actually leave me,” she repeated.

In the end, like the pussy she was now accusing him of being, he’d driven home. He had mentioned nothing to his parents. The suitcase hadn’t even been moved from the trunk. Any triumph he should have experienced at her capitulation was immediately snuffed as he returned to his chamber of misery. The memory upset him now, reminding him not to repeat his weakness. Before he spoke, he observed her on the floor, goading him to leave for the second time in two days. Regaining some poise, he said, “You’re right. I won’t be weak. And you shouldn’t be either. So stop being difficult. It won’t work to manipulate me anymore. Here,” he nudged the chocolate into her hand and closed her fingers around it, “I got this for you.” With that, he left and shut the door for her to cry it out.

Expressing the truth exhilarated him. Had he struck out on a new path? Maybe the two contiguous days of fighting had finally shut down his will to argue. Had he only known that, without spite’s dulling sheath, truth’s blade sliced cleanly, he would have always spoken with such equanimity.

His spine straightened as he jogged down the stairs. He felt prepared for the party, almost as though he didn’t need a drink. But, fuck it, Connie May couldn’t tell him shit and a martini sounded delicious right now.

 

 

 

[]Eavesdropping

 

 

Until the year before he started high school, the year his grandma died, she and his stepgrandpa had picked Jamie up nearly every Sunday morning and driven him to church. He didn’t really want to go, even if he usually had nothing else to do. In retrospect, the main reason was probably the embarrassing succession of polyester Walmart suits. Always a size too big—until they were a size too small. He remembered how she’d kneel in her purple felt hat and shiny dress that made a zipper noise when he ran his fingernail over it, and cuff his pants so they wouldn’t tear on the asphalt. She didn’t see the point in paying much for a suit his body would outgrow, so each iteration was ugly and humiliating while he grew into—and then way out of—it. Other kids showed up in suits that fit properly, suits that didn’t have plastic buttons or bubbly shoulders like his always did. He actually hadn’t noticed the buttons or shoulders until several of the boys, and even some of the girls, had pointed them out. One of the boys had even grabbed the jacket and rubbed it between his fingers and laughed.

When Jamie asked why, the boy said, “It’s shinier than your grandma’s pearl necklace.”

The pearls were fake, but he didn’t bother explaining that.

Once, he must have been twelve or thirteen because it was the last suit they bought before she died, his grandma had taken him to Walmart for the next suit, and as they walked past the chintzy plastic sandals, past the sale-priced CDs and videotapes, past the frozen pizzas and economy tubs of food-dye ice cream, past the industrial trashcans and plastic lawn chairs, past the toothpaste and deodorant and econoboxes of tampons, Jamie suddenly sat down on the scuffed linoleum and threw a tantrum until grandma promised to drive him to Men’s Warehouse. He’d seen it advertised on TV. They only sold suits and suit stuff.

In a frustrated rage, he demanded, “If I have to go to church, I want a suit that fits, and that doesn’t have plastic buttons and bubbly shoulders. And that isn’t shiny in a couple months. I’m tired of being humiliated.”

After almost an hour of trying on every suit in his size, he pointed to his favorite. When his grandma told him that it wasn’t what people wore to church—or what they wore to avoid humiliation—he said he didn’t care. This was what he wanted and he’d never go again if he wasn’t wearing this suit. He crossed his arm and pouted and conjured all the stubbornness he’d never before felt motivated to exercise. Finally, she gave in. They agreed that it would be both his Christmas and his birthday present.

When he got to church that Sunday, one of the kids said, “Hey, gramps. Where are your golf clubs?” In spite of the snickering, which died down after a couple weeks anyway, he wore his suit proudly, and even began tolerating church with amused condescension now that he’d discovered, and could express, his plaid nature. It hadn’t mattered for long anyway because, within the year, his grandma died of an aneurysm and he no longer had to spend his Sunday mornings weathering scorn while pretending to pray to Jesus.

Now, more than a decade and a half later, he found himself sitting in the pews beside Connie May, Annabelle, and their two little kids, wondering why so many people felt the need to spend half of one of their days off listening to someone lecture and threaten them. As strange as this seemed, the creepiest part was the enormous cross hanging up front. It hung from two metal chains, like a gymnast doing a routine on the rings. His church had had an equivalent construction of wood on display, and the parishioners had sometimes talked to it. He’d also seen people whisper to and kiss their cross necklaces. If God were everywhere, why did people speak to crosses as though they were divine intercoms? At least this church didn’t have a naked, dying Jesus strapped to its cross. That was a Catholic thing. And it weirded him out. The church needed a different marketing strategy for people like Jamie. He would have preferred a big blue heart, or a teddy bear. Something adorable. Not a bloody, naked dude, emaciated and expiring.

His bladder began to register his morning coffee. He could get up immediately or wait till the sermon began. Both options had distinct advantages. For politeness sake, he’d go now. He lifted himself up off the pew. Coming toward him down the aisle was a squat black girl in a yellow sundress. Her hair was cropped short and black octagonal tortoiseshell frames eclipsed her eyes. On her feet were sandals, the kind with the Velcro straps around the heel. He could tell they were Tevas. His body flooded with longing as she passed. A hint of fragrance, cinnamon-vanilla maybe, lingered in her wake. As though his soul had snagged on her yellow sundress, each step that increased the distance between them stretched him achingly. How good the ache felt! How alive! With astonishment and gratitude, he watched her sit directly in front of his now empty place in the pews. Joyfully, he hurried to the bathroom.

Nearly swooning, Jamie released the morning’s coffee into the toilet. After the finale of quickening contractions, he carefully jiggled off the last drops. This was not the time to leave a pee mark on his khakis. Today was a moment of truth. He could sense it. A reckoning for three decades of loneliness. Was this his reward for returning to church after his long apostasy? Was his grandma watching over him? He couldn’t imagine she took pride in his career as a casino supervisor, and momentarily wondered if the vision he’d just had was a cruel mirage. No, he insisted to himself, it was a gift. It had to be.

Back in his seat, he gazed at the curled buds of hair on her nape and inched a bit closer to recall the cinnamon-vanilla of her perfume. Her neck and arms were attractively thick. She was speaking to the woman next to her, and he was able to catch her profile. He admired her glasses and the geeky nasality of her voice.

He tapped Connie May’s shoulder. “Who is that in front of me?” he asked.

“Jenny?” she said, sounding amused. “What? You like her?”

“Just counting the black people. That’s all,” he replied, stoical, and tuned in again to the conversation in front of him. The satisfying ache returned as he admired her neck, her octagonal classes, her munchkin voice.

She laughed at something. The laugh exploded in him like a glitter bomb, sparkling hopefully. This had to be it. She had to be the one. There was no way to prove it, yet he knew it with the kind of certainty he’d experienced when he’d discovered that first plaid suit. But how would he approach her? How could he convince her of what he now knew?

As though his grandma had heard him, his question was answered. Jenny and the woman began conferring about the church group they attended the following hour, and giggling in excitement about an upcoming camping trip.

 

 

 

[]Attempting Forgiveness

 

 

God knew Connie May needed to hear about forgiveness. It hadn’t been very Christian of her to banish that stupid blue kissing plant when Saul was trying to reconcile. But discovering those awful photos yesterday had squeezed her heart like it was one of those stress balls that gets all tiny and wrinkled with no space for air. And it had stayed tight. Even as she’d clutched the chocolate bar he’d set in her palm, her heart had no room for him. God had tested her, and she’d failed. Hatred and pain took over, and ugliness gushed from her like puss from a wound. A couple weeks ago, Saul had said that hatred was love blocked up. Maybe he was right. Just yesterday, she’d yelled at him to leave even though all she really wanted was for him to hold her and repeat over and over that he’d never ever leave, that he was hers and could never ever love another woman.

Nat and Jamie sat to her left. Nat’s head rested unconscious against her arm. Her sleeping angel. Connie May touched a finger to Nat’s chin and gently shut her gaping mouth. To her right, surely to test her some more, God had seated the German bitch. Like in the limo, their legs almost touched through their skirts. Connie May had on a cute, church-appropriate A-line skirt. This bitch had somehow decided to wriggle her linebacker thighs into a black pencil skirt. How could Saul want to fuck a woman whose thighs were thicker and stronger than his own? And who wore an evening skirt to an afternoon service? With a blouse for women who actually had a chest!

Before they sat down, this flat chested, thick-thighed German had the gall to thank Connie May for welcoming her as family. Connie May had smiled graciously, even though all she saw on the bitch’s face were blond eyebrows. She inhaled and exhaled ujjayi breath through her nose and concentrated on the pastor’s words. As though he could read her mind, he was talking about a man who, about twenty years after the holocaust, had asked forgiveness of a Christian survivor from the camp where he’d been a guard. Connie May didn’t think it so big of the Nazi to repent decades after he’d been an evil asshole. Why God didn’t insist you handle business by His rules in the first place had always confused her. Some of God’s rules made perfect sense: be kind to others, don’t steal—even His distaste for fornication was more or less understandable. But He’d also created a world that allowed all those cute little kids to starve in Africa, their bellies puffed out from eating nothing but air. It seemed evil to allow that. And then there were people He’d made who were so aggressively evil. Like Hitler and Stalin. You could murder millions of people then simply ask for forgiveness from Him and, poof, you went to heaven. It occurred to her that she’d seen that movie where Hitler killed himself in the end. So he definitely went to hell. But Stalin? He could have felt Jesus in his heart and be sitting alongside God right now. Theoretically then, she could meet Stalin in heaven? Huh. Maybe He had a perverted sense of humor. He certainly had a sense of humor about other things. Like monkeys. Up close they kind of looked like weird people. And like cats. Sometimes Connie May blew on Hamburger’s ear just to watch it twitch and to laugh at the annoyed stare on his cat face. Sex was weird, too. A few times a week, Saul’s pee hose got stiff, he put it in her pee hole, and they rubbed their pee things together until goop shot out of his balls. Kind of hilarious, really. And the hilarity was all over the place. People, animals, and plants all fucked in some way or another. God must have designed it as a joke and then out of laziness, or amusement, stuck it on pretty much everything.

She focused again on the sermon. The Nazi, who’d conveniently found Jesus after killing Saul’s people, waited for the survivor woman to speak. Memories of the guards flashed through the survivor woman’s mind. This man had tortured innocents. He could have even been the one who killed her sister. At first, a chill of hatred paralyzed the survivor woman. Connie May probably would have kicked the Nazi in the balls or something. But the survivor woman was a good Christian, and remembered that forgiveness was an act of will, not an emotion. So she battled her hatred. In her mind, the survivor woman recognized that if a man asks forgiveness she should follow God’s word and extend it. Finally, the woman lifted her hand, and, though she hadn’t reasoned herself into forgiveness, an electric current ran through her and she exploded with love for the Nazi. That’s the way it worked. Grace didn’t just appear in your heart magically. You had to will it.

Fine, Connie May thought, and, staring at her knee like a Jedi knight, tried to use her Christian force to shift it closer to the German girl’s. The knee balked. She stared again, hard enough that her eyeballs trembled. Was she really going to have to touch this bitch with her hand?

“Couples who don’t forgive will grow apart.” The pastor had transitioned to marriage. Of course. “Forgiveness begins with good will. Digging inside of ourselves for goodwill is not easy. It may be even harder to pull the goodwill up from its depths, but we must trust our spouse’s good intentions.” Really? Was wanting to fuck exes good intentions?

Again, she forced herself to breathe. The sermon ended with Mark 11:25. “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.” Connie May glanced over at the German girl and prayed. Forgiveness begins with an act of goodwill, she repeated. Please God, help me forgive. Help me see Your truth. Connie May found that her eyes had scrunched closed. She opened them and saw the blond eyebrows pointing at her brightly, questioningly. Trembling, Connie May reached her fingers towards the beefy arm beside her. As blindly as she’d found her eyes scrunched, she discovered her hand clasped in the other woman’s. The big hands squeezed hers. She squeezed back. A triumphant tear of joy quivered over each of her eyelids. Her vision blurred, but not enough to overlook the watery relief mirrored in the other’s face. From under the blond eyebrows Annabelle’s eyes glistened, transparent and blue like the ocean in Club Med photos. This woman had a different life, but they both loved their children, and were just trying to do their best. This woman, despite her poise and money, was, Connie May realized, just as tender and vulnerable as Connie May herself. With a throb of sisterly love, she understood that Annabelle, too, was just winging it. They sniffled at the same time, which caused both of them to laugh and squeeze tighter.

A sudden weight dropped onto her lap, and an oomph of air escaped as she let go of Annabelle’s hands.

“Let’s go, mommy!” Nat said, as she slammed her small skull into Connie May’s stomach.

“Yeah, let’s go, mommy!” Xavi said, gripping his mother’s thumb and pulling her towards the aisle and out of the church.

Jamie was still seated in the pew.

“You coming?” Connie May asked.

He stood up. Almost mumbling, he said, “I’ve got time to kill, so I think I’ll actually go to the church group meeting. I used to enjoy them as a kid.”

She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You’re a good man, Jamie.”

His lips tightened into a smile. He grabbed her hand and set it on his cheek. The skin was hot. “Thanks, Connie May. You’re a good woman.”

 

 

 

[]Xmas Party, a Potluck

 

 

The first guests, Saul’s parents, arrived a few minutes before six with a honey-roasted pig’s thigh wrapped in foil. Israel announced, for the third time since he’d been told the dinner was a potluck, that a Jew should bring the pork. Iris beamed excitedly while she squeezed and kissed the family, as though she hadn’t seen them in years. For the umpteenth time she mourned his lopped curls, but commented that with his nicely shaped head he looked good anyway.

Three car doors slammed on the street. He took two shot glasses from the cabinet and began to slice a lime.

Out front, Jamie said, “Fuck you, Mal. Who doesn’t like pasta salad?”

Thus Spoke Zarathustra chimed in Saul’s pocket. His jaw clenched as he read the number. Why would someone be calling from the principal’s office? He silenced the phone and sent the call to voicemail. A minute or so passed. The screen lit up with a message. The voice was, indeed, the principal’s. “Saul. It’s Saturday evening, a little past six, and, as you I’m sure know, I wouldn’t be calling if it weren’t about something we need to discuss ASAP. Long story short, a parent heard a rumor about something you might have asked a student. I’m not jumping to conclusions before I speak to you. You can reach me all evening on my cell if I’m not in the office. Please call as soon as possible.”

Had Linc ratted on him? This could mean his job, a hearing, public embarrassment, lawsuit, and who knew what else. The principal probably wanted him to come in. Would they arrest him right there in the office? Smelling of vodka? What if they decided to breathalyze him?

“Oh, shit!” Malcolm entered the kitchen in a charcoal suit and pink tie, and set down three large tins Saul had been told were from Koi. They slapped palms and clapped each other’s backs. “I’ve got news!”

News: the confirmation of admittance that Saul had been waiting for. Remembering he wouldn’t be teaching for much longer, he postponed dwelling on the principal’s call and sprinkled salt onto the back of his thumb. Malcolm declined, insisting Patrón should only be shot pure.

Saul shifted his weight from his right to his left. Then from his left to his right. “All right, spit. No need for suspense.”

Jamie trundled into the kitchen and noticed the Patrón being poured into two glasses. “Where’s my fucking shot, you cheap bastard?” Jamie mouth breathed and stared in blank, playful hostility through his thick lenses.

“Listen to this idiot,” Malcolm said. “He thinks he’s still in boot camp.” To Jamie, he said, “Why are you still jocking the fuck out of the Marines? They rejected you. Twice.”

Jamie, in excellent spirits, answered, “Fuck you, Mal. Your gimp ass wouldn’t even be allowed to enlist.”

“Oh, please. I could pretend my IQ’s under a hundred. But whatever. I’m going to let you off easy.” Malcolm gripped Jamie’s trapezius hard enough to make him flinch.

Impatient for the news, Saul redirected, “What are we toasting to?” He took out another shot glass, poured a splash and passed it to Jamie.

“A half shot?” Jamie glared at the glass pinched between his thumb and middle finger. “Fill it up!”

“Relax. You’ll get another one,” Malcolm said. “I’m instituting a new rule. Good news must be toasted twice: both before and after its announcement. And I have two pieces of good news and one, let’s call it, comic relief. That’s five shots in total. You’re getting half shots because no one wants you drunk. You get belligerent and—I know it’s hard to believe but—even uglier looking.”

“Now, what are we toasting to?” Saul asked.

Malcolm raised his glass and cleared his throat, twice. “Today is a great day. There will be three items of news presented in order of increasing importance to our host.” He made meaningful eye contact with Saul. “To start off, Jamie had the first of his scam dates.” Clapping Jamie on the back, he asked, “So? Was she as bony kneed as you’d asked for? Was her mustache thick enough for you?”

“I told you already, dude.”

Intuiting the direction Malcolm was heading, Saul asked, “How fat and ugly was she exactly?”

Jamie pressed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Like five-two, one eighty, one ninety. You know that’s huge for an Asian girl. Her face was so pudgy I couldn’t even tell if she was ugly.”

“Pudge-ly,” Saul mused.

Malcolm grinned. “So let me get this straight. You paid twenty-three hundred for this service to set you up with a fat chick whose knees were of uncertain boniness?”

“She had to pay, too,” Jamie said, defensively.

“Wait. Hold up.” Saul said, grasping the import of this fact. “These women paid twenty-three hundred to meet you? Holy shit, Jamie. Think about it. Go get your money back. Bars serve the same purpose for an exponentially cheaper price.”

“It’s for people who have trouble with bars, dude. It’s called Lunch Dates. I get twelve total—one per month for a year. Anyway, I can’t get a refund. I already asked.”

“Scam,” Malcolm said, sniffing his Patrón, and, if Saul wasn’t mistaken, flicking his tongue into it.

“And they set you up for the few minutes you have between morning and afternoon at work?” Saul asked.

Malcolm answered before Jamie. “Much easier escape. I mean, imagine if you showed up to your dinner date and Jamie was mouth breathing across the table from you. Harder to make an excuse. But after five, ten minutes of lunch you can throw ten bucks on the table, say you forgot something at work, and that you’ll get in touch again when you have a moment.”

Saul asked, “Is that what you told this chick?”

“No, I told her that she wasn’t what I asked for. I wasn’t specific about it or anything. Then I got up and left.”

“Wasn’t what you asked for?” Saul said. “She’s a person, Jamie, not a product or service.”

“I didn’t pay twenty-three hundred to meet some fat Filipina who obviously doesn’t go hiking.”

“And how did this fat Filipina judge you, do you think?” Saul said.

Jamie shrugged.

Malcolm clapped Jamie’s back again. “Date one: knocked down.”

“Keep knockin’ ‘em down, Jamie,” Saul said. “Only eleven to go.”

“Keep knockin’ ‘em down,” Malcolm echoed, then added, “Maybe one’ll stay standing.”

Saul raised his glass in agreement, proposed a toast to “knockin’ ‘em down,” and shot the tequila. He poured another round and the three of them did shots in preparation for the second piece of news. Saul wasn’t expecting it to arrive so suddenly and with such force, and had hardly begun spinning the possibilities through his mind when Malcolm banged his shot glass on the table and, as though in a rush, announced his engagement.

Was this a joke, Saul wondered? If it wasn’t, did it mean he’d lost all chance of fucking Melody; and did it endanger the plan to send him to New York with a hundred thousand; and would they anchor themselves in Long Beach and in order to ‘settle into family life,’ mindlessly produce offspring and have nothing else to talk about; and was it too late to convince Malcolm not to lawfully soul-cuff himself to a twenty-one-year-old stripper, to pimp slap his face and scream, “Don’t do it! Don’t ruin your life! A relationship that doesn’t need immigration papers doesn’t need marriage!” After all this restraining himself from exposing his deepest convictions, he managed, “Uh, really?”

Having processed the news with astounding speed, Jamie bear-hugged Malcolm. “Dude, congratulations! I knew this would happen. When is the wedding?”

“You knew?” Saul said.

A smug pride in Jamie’s smile bothered him.

“How did you know?” Saul hadn’t meant to sound angry.

Connie May burst into the kitchen and, scuttling up to Malcolm, poked his ribs. She’d spotted Melody’s ring—“how beautiful”—and wanted to hear how he’d proposed. He responded with uncharacteristic reserve, lowering his eyes often while he recounted their tandem jump and the subsequent high ending in a proposal.

“She proposed to you?” Saul asked, terrified by a recollection of his discussions with Melody. “Hold on a second. How long have you guys been dating? Like four months? You know, no one will be mad if you wait a little longer. What’s the rush?”

“Don’t listen to him. Saul’s just jealous I’m not twenty-one. I think you guys are great for each other,” Connie May assured Malcolm. Her mood appeared to have lifted with the guests. “We hadn’t been together long either, but look at us now. Four years later. Everyone has their rough patches. But when you love someone you stick it out and get over it. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?”

“Well, if we’re going to be exact about it,” Saul said, “Nietzsche wrote, ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ The ‘me’ implies he was speaking of himself, otherwise he would have phrased it, ‘What doesn’t kill one, makes one stronger.’ It’s pretty clear he had little faith in others and it’s doubtful he desired the average person to turn it into a hackneyed expression of consolation.”

Almost before he finished speaking, his wife had looped his arm and was explaining to the other two that she required his help in the other room and they should continue to drink without him. Swinging him into Nat’s room, she took his face in her hands and kissed him. Then kissed him again. He was shocked. The first had been hard and had pressed his lips uncomfortably against his teeth. The second, following several seconds of eye locking, appeared to convey love and, surprisingly, a plea for reconciliation.

He slipped a palm under one of her breasts, cradling its cushy weight. She allowed him to lift it without complaint. “I’ve only had a couple shots,” he said. Maybe she’d be down for a quickie. He released her breast and crawled his fingers downward, snaking them around her ass and fisting a fat chunk. The length of his hard on jabbed into her stomach.

“Plus a martini,” she reminded softly, nuzzling up on his throat.

So she’d known about the martini. He pulled away from her. “Why are you spying on me? What is your need to watch me so fucking closely?”

“What do you expect me to do? Sit by while my husband self-destructs in front of everyone?”

“It’s not self-destruction if you’re the one destroying me,” he said, feeling himself snarl like some rabid animal.

Her nostrils flared.

“And don’t start crying. It’s not going to work,” he said, sounding colder than he actually felt, and charged a bit dramatically from the room.

 

“She doesn’t want you drinking, huh?” Malcolm guessed when Saul returned. “No worries. I’ve got something hotter anyway.” Pointing to a powder filled vial he’d pulled from his slacks pocket, he stuck out his tongue.

Normally Saul avoided coke. Short lived high. Not worth the price. Irritable comedown. Difficulty sleeping. But at the moment his mood was rebellious and expansive. Ready for adventure. Adventure: related to advent, something about to happen. He wanted something—life—to happen. He remembered reading, possibly in Montaigne, about a wearied Roman soldier approaching his Caesar and requesting permission to rid himself of his life. The Caesar looked the soldier up and down and responded, “What makes you think the thing you have at the moment is life?” A poignant observation.

“Is there enough in there?” Saul asked.

“If not, I’ve got another,” Malcolm assured, handing Saul the vial and, also from his pocket, a hundred-dollar bill, visibly hyped that others would be partaking. “Have at it all you want, my friend. I’m trying to get rid of it. Get all prepared for my new responsible life.”

“What about the last piece of news?” Saul asked, hopefully. His phone began to vibrate against his thigh.

Tilting his chin at the vial in Saul’s hand, Malcolm said, “Take a couple bumps. I’ll tell you the good news in a few.”

Three lines later, Saul greeted Annabelle and Xavi and inquired, with obvious disgust, about church that afternoon. A good experience for Xavi, she said, even if it was nothing they’d want to do regularly, and, before he could commiserate with her that it was insane and creepy and stupid, went on to praise the couple of hours they’d spent languishing in the Long Beach Aquarium’s liquid tunnels, gazing around at sharks and at a massive turtle, so peaceful in its slow forward float. Sensing he should avoid criticisms, he dropped the matter of church, kissed Annabelle on the cheek and lifted his son into the air. Flipping the boy so his head pointed towards the floor, Saul began to pump him up and down, shouting, “Xavier, the human drill. Buzzzzz. Buzzzzz.”

Xavi made gleeful noises and, voice bouncing with his body, asked his mother, “Was ist ein Human Drill?”

Eine menschliche Bohrmaschine,” she explained. She seemed to be staring at Saul strangely, a question behind her expression. Wonderment at his playfulness? The father of her son displaying his fatherly prowess? He smiled and winked at her. Despite yesterday’s meltdown, he felt confident enough—even if the confidence was inflated by coke and alcohol—to visually lick her tall muscular blondness. Her ass filled out her jeans, giving it the look of a densely stuffed plush toy. The shape tugged at him, and he wondered why the ass—and the other curvy parts of women’s bodies such as breasts and legs—possessed the dick hardening properties that harder parts (feet, elbows, hands, forearms) mostly lacked.

Perhaps she’d read his mind because her forehead crowded with speed bumps. Slow down. In response he suavely offered her a drink. She patted his shoulder a few times and said she thought she’d greet everyone first before she poured herself a glass. Deciding that he should pour a glass and bring it to her, he took Xavi by the hand and stepped into the kitchen.

“Would you like some apple cider?” he asked his son. The sharp elbows, the wispy silvery hair. Was this child really half his? How did Saul’s black hair genes get commandeered by Annabelle’s platinum blond?

“Apple cider?” he repeated. “Yes? No?”

Xavi lowered his eyes in wordless uncertainty.

“It’s like apple juice, but”—Saul summoned what German he could and rephrased—“Apfelsaft mit Sprudel. Umm. Like eine Apfelschorle.”

His son nodded. “Yes, please.”

So the language hadn’t completely evaporated from his memory, even if he was once able to translate Kafka and now could barely recall the word for apple juice. Strange what slipped from memory and what lingered. Memories, he’d heard on NPR, rewrote themselves with each recall. Even more unsettling, people apparently revised the memories in accordance with their desires, with their present emotional state. What did that say about his nostalgia for Maya, the longing for her lanky elegance, long pianist’s fingers and clever dark eyes? When they used to make love in her room, he’d furtively glance at the mirror on the closet door and lust after the contrast of her slender, broad-hipped length pressed against his longer pallor. Physically ideal, independent. Had the brief months together half a decade ago truly been as ideal as he now believed? Well, there had been the letter after she’d left for Paris. She’d written it on the plane. The grievances had been unflattering, though he’d dismissed them as her need to wedge distance into her desire for him. But he had to admit there’d been some truth in it. She’d accused him of selfishness, of jealousy, of profound narcissism, of criticizing her habits and taking cruel jabs at her lunatic parents, who she believed tried to control her because they loved her. “You of all people should be able to understand that concept,” she’d written. Then there was that photo he’d taken of her lying on the carpet in her bedroom, staring at the ceiling through glistening eyes. They’d fought about something he couldn’t remember now, and it had ended with her prostrate, crushed, weakened, and beautiful. He’d grabbed her camera from her desk and captured her limp body in its exhausted surrender. Later, before she left, she’d pasted the photo into her parting gift, a scrapbook with “From Nietzsche to Santa Monica” written in gold Sharpie on the cover. The scrapbook was at his parents’, where it would be safe from Connie May’s purges.

He passed the apple cider to Xavi and delivered a glass of white wine to Annabelle, then snorted two hasty lines in the bathroom before taking Malcolm aside. He, too, had good news for his friend. Mal better appreciate this, Saul thought, since it may have cost my job.

He stepped into the kitchen where Annabelle appeared to be enjoying herself with Jamie. Jamie handed Saul his shot glass that had been waiting on the counter. Upon inspection, he discovered it brim full of tequila.

“Drink it, fucker,” Jamie barked. “You need to catch up.”

“Oh, no. Believe me, I’m ahead.” Saul toasted his glass against the bridge of Jamie’s glasses and dumped poison into the organism.

Saul poured refills. “One more for luck,” he said.

Annabelle said he didn’t need any more luck.

What was this? Annabelle pulling some Connie May shit—however softer, more concerned, and less manipulative she may be? Her hand gently grasped his wrist and applied mild downward pressure. Care flowed through it into his arm. Sandwiching his hand over hers so that she couldn’t easily remove it, he lowered his face to the glass, suctioned his lips over the brim, released his grip on it, and, flinging his head back, swished the tequila into his esophagus. The liquid pooled there, stuck. Saul hadn’t foreseen the challenge in swallowing with his jaw locked open. If he tilted forward the tequila would flood back into the glass. But if he moved his hands he might lose Annabelle’s touch.

Saul groaned, and Jamie plucked the glass from his mouth. Saul’s lips sealed and he swallowed in relief.

“Did you hear about Jamie’s scam dates?” Saul said to Annabelle.

She slid her hand out. Saul pretended it didn’t hurt him inside.

“I heard about his date,” she said. “And he told me what you guys said.” She touched Jamie’s forearm in the same way she’d touched Saul’s. That, too, hurt him inside. “Jamie has a good heart and plenty to offer the right woman.”

“Like a lot more money than you can,” Jamie threw at Saul.

Due to your generous contribution to society, Saul felt like saying—or, better, he should punch him hard in the nose, right between his fat lenses. But he said nothing. His energy had suddenly dropped. And he knew he’d appeared immature enough yesterday. Confidence was fading. Maybe the coke was shitty.

Annabelle went on, “But he didn’t get to tell you about the woman he met today.”

“Yeah, dude. A nice black girl. A little nerdy—like me. She wears Teva sandals and loves Koi and camping.”

“That’s one for three, at least,” Saul mused. “But Teva sandals?”

“Yeah, dude. It means she’s outdoorsy.”

Saul grinned. “Ah. But is she backdoorsy?”

“We’re meeting for ice cream sundaes. She gave me her number.”

“Someone gave you her number?” Saul said, acting astounded. “How much did you tip her?”

“Fuck you. She’s nice. I signed up for next month’s trip to Big Bear with her church group. Don’t be jealous just because I may have found someone who’s interested in me.”

“You met at church group? Perfect! Some chick who believes an invisible being is instructing her not to have sex with you until you spend a ton of money on a party where a guy who’s vowed chastity himself and probably touches children to satisfy his neglected needs recites a magical formula that finally permits her to take your virginity.”

“The church isn’t catholic, dude. The pastor is married. Anyway, have you asked if I even want to have sex? Maybe my goals in life are different than yours,” Jamie said. “But that would never occur to you because to a hammer every problem looks like a nail.”

Saul laughed. He’d heard that from someone before. “Our casino manager is getting philosophical.”

The doorbell rang. He turned and shuffled to open the door.

Outside the screen, a cute girl in horned rimmed glasses, about Davis’s age and color, waved to Saul. He welcomed her in. She didn’t enter immediately but stood for a moment, skinny and pigeon-toed in pink converse, teal capris, and a faded black Bad Religion T-shirt that had lifted above her belt when she’d waved. Her punkishness was a lunge at sophistication that struck Saul as appropriate to a mixed girl in a private school.

“Saul, this is Jazzmine,” Davis said, beating him to the door. “Jazz, this is my stepdad, Saul.”

“Great to meet you,” she said as Saul stuck out his hand to shake. But Jazzmine, surprising him, went for a full hug. Her backpack obstructed an easy embrace, and he fumbled for a moment deciding whether to maneuver under or around it. Under might be too intimate—and, therefore, creepy—so he went around, laying his hand on its magenta canvas. Something living yelped under his hand.

As Saul recoiled, Jazzmine apologized. “I totally forgot about Romeo.”

“That’s the animal in your bag?”

“Yeah, you know, the teacup chi-hoo-a-hoo-a Davis got me?”

From the way she’d said it and goo-goo eyed Davis, Saul suspected “chi-hoo-a-hoo-a” had become a private joke between them. Saul tried, unsuccessfully, to make eye contact with Davis.

“Look, he’s adorable!” Jazzmine spun the backpack around. The top was partially unzipped. She dug her skinny arm in and pulled out some trembling fur. Crouched in her cupped hands, the chi-hoo-a-hoo-a, about half the size of a New York sewer rat, gurgled or something, probably freaked out by its fear of the air stirring around it. She whispered at it and sniffed its head before rubbing it against her cheek. In its excitement, it crouched tighter. Its ears folded down, its eyes quaked in its sphere head and its tongue flicked nervously.

A flower or chocolates were appropriate gifts for a sophomore romance—or even a plush toy, as juvenile as that may be. To gift the responsibility of life should come only at the end of all other offers. The dog, unlike a child, could of course be returned to the store or, if necessary, sold or given away. But still, the presence of this animal meant Saul had failed to convey the wisdom of treading cautiously within the centripetal temptations of vagina. He wondered, also, whether Davis had picked the dog up at the pound or had bought it with his savings. A stupid decision either way. Though if he’d spent his savings, he’d soon comprehend how financially ruinous a wrongly chosen relationship can be. All things considered, the dog was a relatively cheap lesson.

Saul scratched the dog’s sphere head with his finger. “Glad you could come. It’s just a small party with family and friends, but I hope you’ll feel free to stuff yourself with food and,” he faltered for what he might have been about to add.

She smiled, somewhat proudly. “I have pasta salad in my bag. I’m vegan, so it’s not always easy for me for me to go to people’s houses and find food without animal parts or secretions.” He felt her watching for his reaction, and could sense her preparing a diatribe. “You’re not vegan, I’m guessing?”

She was cute. He could understand why Davis was attracted to her. He decided to make a decent impression on her rather than to involve himself in an argument. “Davis didn’t tell us, so we don’t have too much prepared for you. But we do have some veggies and hummus, if that seems good.”

“Davis said I should try to convince you to be vegetarian. He doesn’t think you’ve really considered it.”

“Whoa. That’s not what I said,” Davis argued. “I said that he’d be difficult to convince.”

“Same thing,” she said and returned the chi-hoo-a-hoo-a to her backpack. “The only reason people aren’t vegetarian is because they haven’t really thought about it.”

Was this little girl condescending to him? He reminded himself that moral certainty was a symptom of youth and not to be held against her. In teacher mode, he asked, “On what principle do you base your moral certainty that eating animals is wrong?”

“No animal should have to suffer unnecessarily,” she answered. Her feet pigeon-toed, as though readying her body for attack.

“What if the animal had an idyllic life—free range on the pasture, no hormones and all that—and a painless, serene death?” he asked.

“We don’t think it’s all right to kill people, no matter how great their life is. If we shouldn’t take the life of one thinking, feeling being, why should we take the life of another just because it’s not human?”

“So you’re equating animals and people?”

“Yes.” She said, as though confirming this for herself. “I don’t see why we think we’re worth more. It’s totally speciesist. They have emotional lives and feel what’s happening to them. A pig or cow is smarter and more aware than a lot of handicapped people. No one thinks that a mentally handicapped person doesn’t deserve the same respect as a normal person. In fact, a pig is smarter than a lot of people, period.”

“I’ll grant you that.” Saul laughed. “But you still haven’t answered why it’s wrong to kill animals—or, for that matter, people, if we’re going to equate them. Your argument seems to pivot on suffering, but if the animal doesn’t suffer during its life, what would be wrong in killing it for food? Do you think animals, or people, suffer when they’re dead?”

“I think we’re dead when we’re dead. We don’t feel anything anymore. That’s why it’s wrong. To take life away is robbery.”

“That’s just clever rhetoric. To take life away doesn’t necessarily entail suffering, does it? If a person or animal doesn’t know it’s about to die and is suddenly, painlessly killed, what kind of suffering is that?”

One eye narrowed at him through its horn rimmed frame. She didn’t answer immediately. At length, she said, “Their friends and family suffer.”

“And, then,” he went on, “once the animal is dead, particularly if it has suffered, should you let its suffering go to waste? Or should you revere the animal’s life by consuming it?” He noticed that Davis was smirking.

“It’s disgusting to eat corpses,” she said, looking as though she were gagging.

“Okay. It’s fine to feel that way, just like it’s fine to dislike the taste of mushrooms. That’s an aesthetic, not a moral, argument.” He touched her shoulder to assure that he harbored no ill will towards her. “I think it’s great that you’re vegan. It’s better for the environment and it shows empathy. Not many fifteen year olds have empathy. But as much as I encourage you to be vegan, I think you should be careful about adhering too closely to the dogma. Adhering to any dogma is dangerous. It closes your mind and encourages you to feel superior, when, really, your position is, in the end, based on a sentiment. For example, you might believe that it’s wrong to cause suffering for the sake of food. But what makes causing suffering—or anything—wrong? A feeling about what’s best for you and for others. You might feel that aiding the weak benefits humanity. Another person might argue that looking out solely for your own interest and letting the weak die benefits humanity by creating a stronger group—survival of only the fittest and all that. Another might even feel that the best thing for us would be to die off tomorrow and leave the earth to other species. I definitely feel that way sometimes. Someone else may conclude that suffering is just a fact of nature and not a bad thing at all, but rather a mechanism to promote self-preservation. The rabbit survives as a species because it fears suffering—and is often justified in its fear when it is caught by the eagle’s talons and ripped apart by the eagle’s beak. Would you insist that the eagle extend empathy to the rabbit? Maybe we shouldn’t categorically extend empathy to everything. Maybe our own survival depends on an aquiline blindness to the suffering of others.”

“The eagle doesn’t know any better. It doesn’t have a choice,” she said. “We don’t have to cause suffering. We can eat plants instead.”

“True,” Saul nodded. “All I’m saying is that choosing to eat meat is not inherently wrong. It’s not wrong for the eagle or the lion, right? It only becomes wrong once you evaluate it based on human constructs, on principles evolved to benefit our species as a whole. But when you really get down to it, all principles are justified at their base by nothing realer than our feelings. And who can claim their feelings as the absolute standard for right and wrong for others?” He smiled and stroked his beard. “We can talk about this more later, if you’d like. I’ve got to speak with my friend for a moment. In the meantime, please make yourself at home.” He turned to Davis. “You should introduce her to our little group of losers. Just know that Jamie’s a little drunk—don’t antagonize him.”

“Does that mean I shouldn’t antagonize you either?” Davis said as Saul walked off.

Unfortunately, his parents were still talking to Malcolm. As was his wife. As were Xavi and tall blond Annabelle, who hadn’t been warned about Connie May’s unjust illusions concerning her integrity. To make their separation from the group seem natural, Saul drifted his fingers over Connie May’s back and waited until Malcolm looked his way, so while he kissed the top of her head he could widen his eyes and bend his brow sideways without her catching on. As Saul’s fingers affectionately grazed her back, Connie May neither tensed nor relaxed, possibly mistrustful, possibly ambivalent. But then, even if she had interpreted the stroking and kissing as an apology, she never accepted apologies in front of others. Reconciliation required the isolation of their claustrophobic aloneness.

“Oh, dude,” Malcolm said once Saul had finished kissing his wife’s head. “I’ve got something to show you. Come outside and take a look.” And with that slick move, they subtly departed to shoot Patrón before heading outside to discuss news.

 

  • * *

 

As Jamie and Annabelle discussed the “outdoorsy” woman he’d met at the church group, Melody watched Saul and Malcolm standing outside together. Her fiancé in his Armani slacks and his boyhood best friend in a pilled and shredding hoodie. At least hers dressed like a grown man.

“Little boys in man-sized clothes, right?” Connie May said.

“How’d you know I was thinking that?” Melody asked. “Though I guess it’s pretty obvious.”

“It’s what I think every time I see them together.” Connie May touched her ringed finger, lifting it for the third time in fifteen minutes. To Annabelle and Jamie, she said, “Isn’t it a beautiful ring?”

The constant weight of metal stiffening her finger had thrilled her all afternoon. The ring seemed to constrict with even the tiniest movement, reminding her of Malcolm’s love and of the future’s sweeping potential. For now, at least, she reveled in feeling committed, and glowed with the awareness that her commitment bound her to deep intimacy—but not to a sexual prison of renouncement, jealousy, and regret. Soon she’d habituate, of course, and the excitement would settle into periods of general contentment and, likely, occasional frustrations. But for now the love and possibility left her almost giddy.

Jamie raised his glass. “Let’s drink to it,” he said.

Connie May glanced at the Patrón bottle and frowned. Melody followed her gaze. The silvery liquid was more than half gone. No one responded to him.

“That’s what I see too,” Annabelle said. “I mean, the grown child thing.”

“It makes sense that we both see him that way.” Connie May laughed. “Maybe that’s what Saul looks for in women. Someone to recognize that for all his big words and fancy ideas, he’s really just a fifteen-year-old.” She smiled at Melody. “There’s some advice for you. Whenever Malcolm gets difficult, picture a fifteen-year-old boy. We have more patience for children.” She bobbed her head, as if reconsidering. “That is, if the image doesn’t turn you off too much.”

Inspired by her expansive mood, Melody decided to be playfully provocative. “If he gets difficult, I’ll spend time with one of my easier lovers.”

The faces of the other three twisted and rumpled and blinked, likely seeking the sarcasm that was unapparent in her matter-of-fact tone.

She went on, “We may be getting married, but we’re not dead or blind. Or possessive.” Because they still said nothing, she added, “That’s the beauty—one of the beauties—of our relationship. No jealousy, no restrictive demands. We’re together, we’re committed, and we’re free.”

Clearly dubious, Connie May asked, “Did he decide that? Or did you?”

“It was my idea,” Melody said, hearing echoes of her class discussion. Why did people always attribute the desire for openness to the guy? The smell of fart abruptly assaulted her. Within seconds, Connie May and Annabelle’s faces had also pinched in disgust.

“Sorry, guys,” Jamie said, and held out his hand to indicate they should all move to another part of the room.

Once they’d footed over, the conversation resumed, and Melody calmly explained her reasoning.

“That all sounds great,” Annabelle said. “It’s certainly an enlightened view. But if you want to keep the relationship open, why get married? Why not continue dating?”

“Because even though I don’t believe in restricting my partner—or myself—I really like the idea of forging a lifelong bond and being able to look back on all the decades of love and adventures. Isn’t that the most beautiful way to live? Knowing another human so intensely and interweaving your experiences so deeply that losing them would be like losing a part of yourself? The decades of the life that you shared…” Melody felt herself choking up. “I might hope to unlock the patriarchal handcuffs that male dominated culture tries to apply to my freedom, but I guess I’m also a sentimental woman who longs for love and security. I’ve come think of it this way: instead of continually digging up the foundation of my relationships and ending up with a heap of dirt, I’d rather build a house, even if the house isn’t built perfectly or needs fixing here or there. But then, as much as I’d love the comfort of my home and all the dinner parties I’ve thrown and the memories I’ve accumulated of the kids growing up, sometimes it’s fun to travel somewhere and stay in a hotel, right?”

“Sounds confusing,” Connie May sighed. “But I guess to each his own.”

Annabelle was gazing at her, her lips pressed thoughtfully tight. She opened them to ask, “How long have you been together?”

Melody hesitated. She knew how unconvincing four and a half months sounded. “Almost half a year?” she said, self-consciously.

Annabelle lifted her fist to her mouth and sucked on a knuckle.

“It’s long enough,” Jamie insisted. “They’re a great couple.”

Melody looked at her feet. Platform wedges with cardinal straps. “It sounds too short, I know.”

Connie May set a hand on her shoulder. “If it’s what you feel, trust it. God works in ways we can’t always make sense of.”

Melody forced a smile. “I guess we can never know the future.” Somewhat meaningless, but what else could she say? As a modern woman who grew up Buddhist, passing off the logic of her decisions as God’s will felt like a cop out (and a lie). “Anyway, we’ll probably have a long engagement, so if it turns out we’re not meant for each other, we should know before we actually get married.”

Connie May said, “I recently read an advice column about lessons the author learned in her thirties. I can’t remember all of them, but I do remember one: that no matter how old we are, we’re all just winging it.”

“Winging it,” Annabelle mused. “What a funny phrase.”

“Like we’re flying through life, Icarus style, about to crash at any moment,” Jamie said. “Flying like we’re always falling, never sure how far from the earth we are, which eventually we’ll make contact with, gracefully or otherwise.”

Melody tensed. Was Jamie plagiarizing Mal?

“Where’s that from?” Annabelle asked.

“Something I wrote once.”

You wrote a poem about how we land after a fall?” Melody’s voice almost failed.

Jamie seemed suddenly to notice Melody. “Or, no, actually, no. Sorry. I’m misremembering.”

Her chest sunk, and to keep from saying anything rash, she excused herself to the bathroom. Door locked, she sat on the toilet seat and stared at the towel on the wall. It was olive and had a crooked thread drifting off its border. Her eyes narrowed and the thread blurred. She opened them wide and it trembled. She shut them and saw the burnt umber of eyelids blocking light. It’s possible she was misreading the situation. Malcolm was intelligent, a clever speaker. He could have written the message. But now that she thought of it, Malcolm had never written her anything. Fuck. She was stupid, a fool. Her engagement (and who knows what else she believed about him!) was founded on falsehood. Fuck, fuck, fuck. She knocked her head against the wall. Not too hard, but enough to hear the hollow pop her skull emitted upon encountering something real.

She unlocked the flimsy, hollow core door gently in order not to slam it way too hard. It would break and she’d feel bad. She already felt bad for Saul and Connie May’s shitty little house. But she also felt tenderness thinking about it. Their little nest. Regardless of its shittiness, it was theirs: their TV, their bookshelves, their knives and forks and bowls, their shitty hollow core door. For the last hours she’d been dreaming of remodeling Mal’s house together, brightening it up with colors and curtains. Evidences of their love. Turning it into their home. Her eyes misted. Her lips quivered.

When she returned, she smiled like she was truly happy (and not profoundly tormented) and pretended to have something to discuss with Jamie in the kitchen.

In the kitchen, Jamie grabbed the bottle of Patrón, lifted it a few inches off the counter, paused as though time had suddenly stopped, and, slouching, set it back down.

She whispered, “Did you write it?”

Still facing the bottle, he shrugged.

“Shrugging’s not an answer, you jerk!”

He slouched further, his back rounding as though to deflect her ire. “I’m misremembering. I read it so many times I imagined that I wrote it, but of course I didn’t.”

She squinted at him, wishing to penetrate his back with her glare. “Tell the truth,” she demanded.

He must have felt it because he finally turned around. His eyes jittered behind his thick lenses. “I don’t remember exactly.”

So there it was. The proverbial shoe dropping with a thud on her heart. She resisted an impulse to pound her chest to see if it would sound the same hollow pop as her skull.

“But whatever the case, he loves you, you love him. What does it even matter now who wrote a little message on a dating site?”

She swallowed the saliva that had puddled on her tongue. If only she could swallow the frustration and disappointment. Maybe she should have spent more time digging up the foundation rather than trying to build a house.

 

  • * *

 

Outside, the dry December evening had cooled to sweatshirt weather. About as Christmas-y as Long Beach ever was. Malcolm pinched Saul’s Stanford sweatshirt between his fingers, as though testing the quality of its weave.

“I think it’s time you got rid of this thing.” True. He’d have to represent a different school now. “You really need to get out of the habit of wearing worn out stuff. Improve your style a little. Just look at the cuffs on this.”

“I tried to get you a porn gig,” Saul said casually, as he examined his frayed cuffs. “Since you’ve been helping with the grad school thing.”

The amusement Saul expected to see when he looked up failed to appear. Malcolm inhaled deeply and blinked. “Dude,” he said after a long slow exhale. “You serious?”

“Completely.”

“I really appreciate it. I really, really do.”

What the fuck was this? “But?”

“But … well … it’s not the right time.”

“Huh?” Saul said, confused.

“Yeah, I know. It seems bitch.”

“Damn right it does.” Maybe even cost my job, he thought, annoyed that Malcolm hadn’t comprehended his effort and sacrifice.

Sorry.” Malcolm looked as though Saul were hurting him. “I’m just thinking about my future. I’m going to be married. I can’t continue to fuck around and go nowhere. Remember how Lao Tse said, ‘If you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you’re heading’? Well, where am I going to end up if I head towards porn?” Malcolm looked out the window, all philosophical. “You know how restless I’ve been. Drifting without purpose. Some things this week have made me realize I need to do something that isn’t myself.”

Saul didn’t see the Lambo. Instead there was a Prius in the driveway. “Did Jamie get a Prius?”

“I traded in the Lambo this afternoon,” Mal said. “Growing up!”

“What happened? Since when the fuck did you decide to become all prudent? At least with the car.”

Malcolm took a step back. “Damn, dawg. That’s cold.”

“No. I’m not intending to be mean—even if I think you shouldn’t rush to get married.”

“I know what you’re thinking. I’m pussy whipped by a twenty-one year old stripper.”

“Your words, not mine.”

“You should be happy for your friend. I don’t want to be the forty year old dude in the bar who everyone knows couldn’t grow up. I’ll admit it’s possible I’m in love. Is wrong to surrender the immature, misogynist pose to a beautiful, deserving woman? A woman who actually loves me back?”

“Misogynist pose? Sounds like your mind is as pussy whipped as your dick.”

“Fuck you, Saul. Seriously. Look at yourself in the mirror. Shaving your head because you’re afraid of being judged. Growing a beard because you’re afraid of being judged. Fuck judgment for once and be real.”

“Oh? Your life is suddenly more real than mine?”

“Of course, not. But are you the man you want to be? I want to do something real, something good. Something that doesn’t vanish into a hangover. It’s time for me to get a real job. Or at least go back to school. Even your wife—”

“My wife what?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I don’t see why it really matters. So, yeah, even your wife is going back to school. Even she is trying to get her shit together for some kind of reasonable future.”

Malcolm explained about nursing school. Saul remained unconvinced. Her applying for a nursing program didn’t mean she’d complete the program and become a nurse. Malcolm grasped Saul’s shoulder. “But, look. If you’re thinking all these changes might ruin your plans, don’t worry. You might still get to go to New York.”

Some kind of muddled noise came out of Saul.

“Well, yeah, so the news on that front is good. Kind of. Not perfect.”

Saul stared at Malcolm, breathing and waiting.

“Turns out it’s a really selective program and there are like six or seven spaces. You’re on some kind of wait list. They don’t normally have a wait list, but your old professor assured me—or you, he thinks—that he’d make sure you’d be granted admission if their other selections don’t accept. He said there’s like a twenty to thirty percent chance you’ll still be accepted for this year. If not, you can reapply next year.”

Had Saul been less manly, he would have cried.

Malcolm chewed his upper lip, looking all conflicted. “The hundred grand is still yours if you want to go. But, to be honest, I was thinking that maybe we should see what happens here first. We’ll both be married, and, I mean, Connie May having a job should improve your marriage. She’ll have purpose, and you guys won’t have money problems. You might even be able to take classes again at UCLA.”

Bitterly, Saul said, “Maybe you’re right, and I should give my marriage more time. As they say, I have kids to think about.”

“Yeah, dude. Davis and Nat, they’re good kids. They deserve having a father around.”

“Stay miserable for the kids, right? Marriage—I’m telling you now—leads to misery.”

Malcolm winced. “That’s kind of harsh. And not universally true.”

“It’s harsh for me because if I have to continue this relationship. But you, you didn’t impregnate anyone.” Frustrated, Saul shook his head. “Haven’t you learned anything from my marriage?”

“Big difference, Saul. I’m not marrying her because I fucked up.”

“Yeah, but even so, marriage is a completely unnecessary institution—once, but no longer, useful for its economic efficiencies. Similar to slavery, actually. Do you think it’s mere coincidence that both legally place you in bondage? Only in recent history have people been brainwashed to think marriage is about love and,” he shuddered, “commitment—from the medieval Latin for ‘put into custody.’ Though apparently it only permanently ‘commits’ twenty-five percent of people in this state. And I bet those twenty-five percent would have stayed put in each other’s custody without the paper. Don’t you see that no one needs to get married. A domestic partnership costs thirty-three bucks and is just as valid for health insurance and hospital visitation rights. Which leaves only two legitimate reasons to actually get married. One is that you require papers to stay in the country. The other is to vote for the exclusionary bigotry of ‘God’s most holy union’ between a heterosexual couple. If you don’t care about gay people’s right to fuck up their lives just like straight people can, then go ahead. If, however, you give a shit, you should boycott marriage until this freedom is equally accessible. Trust me, I wish I’d considered these things before I soul-cuffed myself to a wife. And I wouldn’t have had she not been pregnant with Nat. Melody’s not even pregnant.” He paused to consider this possibility. “Or is she?”

“Of course not,” Malcolm said.

“Then save yourself while you can.”

“I need to save myself from a different beast than you do, my friend. Wife, kids, that whole deal—that’s what’s going to save me. How’s your unromantic and jaded pragmatism going to help me with my loneliness?”

Maybe he was being too hard on Malcolm. Saul knew the drugs, the hookers, the partying contributed to, if not caused, the loneliness Malcolm was referring to. In that light, maybe porn, which seemed morally akin to these vices, wasn’t, in fact, the optimal solution. But marriage? Yet how could his friend find peace in a state so contrary to his nature. The unaccustomed responsibility was too drastic a change to be sustainable.

“Shouldn’t you guys live together first?” Saul suggested. “She’s kind of young to be getting married, isn’t she?”

“She wants to get married, and if that will make her happy, it will make me happy. And, yes, she’s young. That’s why we’re planning to wait till she graduates. In the meantime, she can’t move in with me. Her parents would disown her.”

“I hate it when people can’t deal with reality,” Saul muttered, as he unscrewed the vial with one hand and dumped a couple lines worth onto the back of the other. He contemplated for a moment. Fuck the bullshit, he thought, tapping out the remaining powder in a gesture of fatalistic rebellion, and inhaling it with thunderous suck. A second snort vacuumed the stuff he’d missed. Finally, he licked a finger, wiped up the lingering grains, and rubbed them on his gums as he’d learned from Malcolm’s “big brother” during a party at their beer-rank frat house.

“Balls out, huh?” Malcolm sounded impressed. He sneaked a baggie into Saul’s jeans’ pocket. “The rest is all you. I’m done with this shit—for a while at least.”

Feeling sour and kind of righteous, Saul grunted. Walking back inside, he checked his phone. Two more missed calls from the principal.

 

  • * *

 

The back of his fiancé’s head glimmered like a magic eight ball. Tell me my fortune, Malcolm thought, as he admired the white threads of sunlight sliding over her coal black hair. Their baby would have this same hair. For the first time he wondered if their baby would be considered mixed. Or would everyone simply see her as Asian? Her. Would their baby be “her”?

The threads of light shifted as he approached her from behind. She was talking to Jamie. Within kissing distance now, he could smell her shampoo. The comforting fragrance of floral soap and woody-scented hair sank into his lungs. The smell evoked a primal paternal protectiveness. He imagined another man hurting her, and, in the next instant, imagined himself ripping that man’s throat from his neck. Oh, he loved Melody.

He kissed the back of her head. She stiffened.

“Hey,” he said.

“I’m going to get some hummus,” she said without kissing him back, without even looking at him.

“Hey,” he called after her. But she didn’t seem to hear him. Unnerved, he asked Jamie, “What were you guys talking about?”

“Life. Romance. Earlier we were talking about the date I’m going to have.”

“Why did she just ignore me and walk away like that?” Mal asked.

“I don’t know,” Jamie said, suspiciously closing his mouth rather than concluding with the blank gaping he usually did.

“Ouch!” Jamie shouted. “Why’d you fucking flick my ear?”

Malcolm scowled at Jamie and followed Melody to the living room, where she was aggressively spooning a hummus onto a plate layered with quartered sticks of carrots and florets of raw cauliflower and broccoli.

“What’s wrong, baby?”

“Nothing,” she said, using a carrot stick to even out the glob of hummus.

He slid his arm around her waist. She allowed it, but her body, even if invisibly, was resisting him.

“Hey.” He nuzzled his nose into her ear. Playfully, he said, “Come on. You don’t love me anymore?”

“Don’t ask that,” she murmured.

“Seriously?” He tried to turn her towards him.

“Stop it. Leave me alone. We can talk about it later.”

He considered pressing it, but didn’t want to make a scene. “All right. But first just tell me that you still love me.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

She shook her head. The threads of sunlight slid along that beautiful, soft, black hair. “Because, right now, I don’t know.”

 

  • * *

 

For the next hour while his guests ate and socialized as though life were fucking jolly Saul sipped at Absolut martinis and, in between refills, inhaled a fat clandestine line or two of Malcolm’s final eight ball. As he sat quietly on the couch, twirling the stem of his martini (the fourth since his failure to convince Malcolm of the stupidity of marriage), he realized he was nauseated. In the upstairs bathroom he puked liquid. The heaving lasted a while, pumping his guts in a reverse orgasm, until his body, sweaty and depleted, slinkied onto the floor, his head crashing beside Hamburger’s litter box. The odor from the shit and urine clumps burned his sinuses. He convulsed in a final paroxysm, spewing bitter yellow goop over the litter. Drops of goop spotted the rim and the surrounding linoleum. He tore a wad of toilet paper and dabbed sweat from his forehead and nose. Tomorrow he’d make Davis change the litter. He rinsed his mouth and brushed his teeth. Really, he should eat something and stop drinking, but the coke, besides disguising the alcohol’s effects, had killed his appetite. A glance in the mirror showed his skin pale and blotchy, as though he were sick. He ran the faucet, drinking the cool water. For what seemed like two or three minutes, he slurped at the airy stream, hoping to rehydrate the skin on his face. A kind of itchy exhaustion throbbed through his bones and stomach, but when he contemplated dropping his frustrated body onto the stupid waterbed, he could think only about how the bed hurt him, how it never satisfied his weariness but only layered it with pain. He angrily splashed water on his face and descended back into the party.

“Ah, there he is,” Connie May announced upon his return. She clinked a spoon against her wine glass. Probably because that’s how she’d seen it done on TV. “I’d like to propose a toast. First, I’d like to thank you all for coming and bringing such tasty dishes. Special thanks to Israel for ‘shlepping’ that leg of Jewish ham. It’s also nice to see new additions to this year’s celebration.” She turned to Jazzmine, who was seated on the couch, chi-hoo-a-hoo-a atremble on her lap. “Jazzmine, welcome to our home. We’re so glad to finally meet the girl who’s had such a positive influence on Davis’s morals and diet. And, Annabelle, it’s incredible that you and Xavi flew across two continents and an ocean to spend the holiday with us. Even though you arrived a few days ago, you’ve already become like family. I know Nat has loved meeting her little German brother.” Annabelle, who stood beside Connie May, bent down and kissed the shorter woman’s cheek. Connie May gave Annabelle a sisterly smile and a side hug. What amazing hypocrisy! “Last but definitely not least, I’d like to congratulate Mel and Mal on their engagement. Welcome to the club, you guys. I’d wish you good luck, but—”

Cat growling interrupted the toast.

“Oh!” Jazzmine cried. While Connie May had been speaking, Romeo had crawled from Jazzmine’s lap and quivered his way down the couch. Suddenly alone, Romeo must have registered as an imminent threat in Hamburger’s cat brain because, before Jazzmine could gather the puppy back into her protection, Hamburger flew down and swiped him to the floor. Romeo yelped in distress. Saul, off whose leg the puppy ricocheted, scooped Romeo up and, dizzied by the sudden movement, stumbled sideways, accidentally falling into Hamburger with his knee. The cat yowled and vanished in a terrified smear up the stairs into the bedroom.

“I didn’t mean to,” Saul said, maybe too loudly.

Connie May touched him, was moving him toward the couch. “Here, sit down,” she was saying.

“Don’t try to calm me!” He jerked out of her reach. “Stop pretending in front of everyone that we don’t have problems.”

“Saul,” she begged. “Why don’t we go upstairs for a minute?”

“I don’t want to argue about this upstairs, as though people didn’t know we can’t stand each other.”

Melody decided to side with Connie May, telling Saul to go upstairs, check on the cat and lie down until the alcohol wore off.

“Why should I listen to a conniving, money hungry bitch?”

Malcolm clenched Saul’s arm and, insisting he go cool off for a minute, rotated him toward the door. Saul wrenched his arm free. The recoil set him off balance and his pant leg brushed against Connie May’s Jesus tree. An angel ornament knocked his shin. Pissed that the stupid tree had hit him, he shoved it against the wall. Ornaments clattered and fell. He swept his foot at it, spinning in a full three-sixty and nearly falling. As he recovered, he saw Nat, Davis, and Xavi staring in shock. Nat began to wail. Connie May ran to her and lifted her up. Xavi, following suit, rushed to Annabelle, clutching her leg. Annabelle lowered her eyes. Vomit burned up his throat into his mouth. He swallowed it down. No one here understands, he thought. No one gets me. Because they don’t understand themselves. But it was time they did, and at that moment Saul knew he would have to be the messenger. Fuck being polite. Fuck harmony and lies. With righteous words of fire, he was going to make sure, one by one, that they all understood the truth.

 

 

 

[]Responsibility (Freedom Redefined)

 

 

He awoke with his eyes still closed. For a while, he lay there with eyes shut, upset, and confused as to why he should be. He was on the downstairs couch. His Stanford sweatshirt and jeans were still on. And his socks. He felt like shit. He dragged his scalp back and forth across the throw pillow. The soft fluffy one his mother had knit. His mother who showed her love in wool and helpless smiling.

A mental photograph developed in the dark room of his memory: the hot blear of standing beside the tree, the scattered panorama of the party, the venomous feeling.

Night blackened the downstairs rooms, amplifying the floor’s irritable whimpers. Through the blinds the streetlights stenciled knife-thin slits in the carpet. The slits cut into his foot and shin as he tiptoed to Davis’s room. The boy’s breath swelled and deflated his silhouetted length. The spongy curls flattened onto the white glow of his pillow. One leg hooked around his blanket, exposing a yellow patch of boxers and a lanky striated limb, the musculature of a distance runner. A body expressing endurance and a belief in the worthwhileness of the journey. Saul desired to sit on the bed and admire him as he could a son of his own blood. In an ideal life, Connie May would have no greater claim than he on the boy’s intelligence and bearing, and Davis would have been his to love without reserve. In this real life, however, he could never entirely pride himself on Davis’s accomplishments or his potential. He could never be as close as he’d like. They’d forever be separated by biology and a decade of absence. No matter how he longed for it, he would never be Davis’s father.

He passed on into Natalie’s room. Her blankets crumpled beside her pillow at the top of the bed. A couple feet below, her little body was crouched tightly on its side, her hair tousled and knotted in scattered rays. When he bent down and kissed her pudgy forearm, she began to cry. He carried her through the darkness to the bathroom, pulled down her pajamas and set her onto the toilet. A tiny fart vibrated from her bottom, and her head collapsed forward. He supported it in his palms, smelling her scalp while she peed. The stream tinkled and halted, like a faucet twisted off, then flowed again, spreading a sandpaper odor through the air.

He laid her back on her bed and draped the covers over her, lowering his nose again to her hair. Her scent was still powdery and babyish. The crying had stopped. As her face relaxed, the creases around her mouth and nose, the scrunched skin on her forehead, smoothed out, tranquil. Seraphic. Connie May’s face, too, when she slept, was seraphic.

That youth, he longed to have it again. Not to lack the perspective and waste it, but to inhabit it and appreciate it. To enjoy it with the wisdom that gradually takes its place. He remembered feeling in love, spending most of his time reading stories love had produced, and pursuing intimacy, the vulnerable closeness that felt like love—and required sex. He longed for the time love had made everything look like a painting and sound like music. The grass flaming thick hungry green outside Royce Hall, a few dead leaves crackling crisply, the sound alive. The magnetically charged girls who’d recently discovered their bodies’ wondrous talent and, like a kid with his first slingshot, were aiming it at everything. Would moving to New York return him to that feeling? Would it re-attune him to the music? For so long he’d heard only noise. Yet he knew the music and noise were the same sounds, and only his perception had changed.

Condemned to freedom and condemned to a single path, each choice producing a future that cancelled the possibilities of having made any other choice. His actions had woven him into a rigid domestic cloth and left him little hope for the kind of freedom he wanted to be condemned to: the freedom of no responsibility—which, he finally realized, wasn’t what Sartre had meant. His actions didn’t reveal who he was, as he’d misunderstood half his life ago. They created and limited his self. Like carving a sculpture, each choice chiseled shape both into and off of the stone, so that all this time he’d been honing his weakness.

Back in bed, staring at Connie May’s pale soft skin and the two necklace-like creases below her throat, he glimpsed the nostalgia he’d suffer after he left her. The delicate swirls of her ears, the scar on her eyebrow, these features of her body over which she had no control, an inheritance which had seduced him with its sultry luster. Her small beauties reminded him that this woman was as real as he was. Her suffering meant as much to the universe as his own, and hers, he admitted, had been so much greater. He forgave her for her weakness toward him, though he couldn’t forgive himself for his weakness toward her.

She rolled towards him and hugged him to her. Her touch, even in sleep, felt needy and full of certitude. She kissed his shoulder and nudged her face into its crook. He cradled the back of her head, sifting his fingers up through her hair. She’d love him as long as he stayed, as long as he belonged to her. To her, love meant once you decided on someone you stuck to him regardless of the misery. It meant you battled to keep afloat, you didn’t jump ship, you drowned if that’s what it came down to. He hadn’t understood her. Instead he’d seen love as delicate and temporary. Like silk, it caressed your body, though an incautious movement might snag the fabric and rip it like tissue. And even when worn with the most anxious care, repeated use rubbed dim its luster. Either way, he never believed he loved her. Odd, then, that he missed her now, even while her body warmed his palm and her mouth exhaled almonds and chocolate.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered to her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I was wrong about myself.”


Bad Faith

After four years of marriage to the intriguing but volatile Connie May, a waitress he got pregnant during his stint as a promising graduate student, Saul, now a high school English teacher and father of two, fantasizes about a return to the freedom of single life. At the same time, Malcolm, Saul’s wild best friend, whose multimillion dollar inheritance has funded several years of escapades with cocaine and strippers, is seeking a more domesticated future—possibly with the younger Melody, a savvy psychology major at the local university. Over the course of the two weeks between Saul's thirtieth birthday and a Christmas party that will be attended by Saul’s seemingly perfect ex, Annabelle, each friend devises a secret plan: Saul to offer Malcolm a career with purpose, and Malcolm to spring Saul from his complacency. In the meantime, Connie May has arrived at a plot to win back Saul’s affections and save their marriage, while Melody considers how to unveil a shocking secret of her own. As each character learns of the others’ plans, it becomes increasingly uncertain that realizing their desires will bring the happiness they’re hoping for.

  • ISBN: 9781370394845
  • Author: Jesse Tandler
  • Published: 2017-03-25 20:20:25
  • Words: 103491
Bad Faith Bad Faith