Story of a Family
The Phone Call
“Relations are simply a tedious pack of people,
who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live,
nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”
The Importance of Being Earnest
HE PHONE CALL THAT CHANGES MY LIFE comes while I’m going down on Becky.
You know, I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned Becky, because now that’s all you’ll want to hear about. But Becky really isn’t important. It’s the phone call.
Anyway, here’s how the whole thing starts: As I’m leaving the condo one morning, I find an attractive woman lying on the sidewalk in front of me, having tripped over some kid’s abandoned Razor. How often does that happen?
I help her up.
She has teeth like a Pepsodent model and plump natural breasts, bound only lightly by something sheer beneath an effulgent silk blouse, allowing for all sorts of perceivable movement. Her hair is dark chocolate, dipping down and curling up at her shoulder, gently brushing the divot above her clavicle (I know clavicles aren’t generally considered sexy, but you’ll never hear that from me). Except see, I get a weird feeling from her right off the bat; a weird feeling about her sense of what’s what, because the next thing she says to me is, “Wow, I like your shirt.” Which anyone can say, except she sounds sincere. But the shirt is a joke. Seriously. Paisley, western style with one puffy sleeve, one sleeve tight. I have six of them, all western style, each made from a different material, each with a puffy sleeve, some with collars of varying and uneven widths.
I have six of them because my neighbor, Carmine Hightower, is in love with me. He has been ever since I moved into the condos a couple of years ago, when Trisha and I split up. Because he’s in love with me, he makes me shirts. And every few weeks or so, in the hallway between our condos, he presents me with a new one.
The day I moved in, he baked a casserole and brought it over, which was no small task considering that the bottom of the casserole dish was burning the top of his thighs while he maneuvered his wheelchair between condos. Fortunately, he has no feeling in his legs, so it wasn’t as dire as all that. But still.
He used to have feeling in his legs. He used to walk. But not since high school, not since five or six ardent heterosexual classmates took some time out from their studies to beat the living crap out of him and leave him for dead. “Go ahead. Open it,” he says about the rumpled grocery bag he’s handed me on the morning I am to meet Becky. He is beaming up at me from behind thick Drew Carey glasses. (He’d be a dead ringer for Carey if he dropped about a hundred or so pounds.) I take the wad of material from the grocery bag and let the body of the shirt drop down like the sail of a ship. And there, pinched between my fingers, is the paisley, western-style shirt that Becky will see and compliment. Carmine’s grin is wide, pushing his glasses higher on his face. “Try it on,” he says.
I’m always forced to try it on. Right there, right then.
So I take off the shirt I’m wearing (in this case, a subtle blue button-down Oxford) and stretch my right arm through the longer of the sleeves, less for the shorter, so that the two sleeves look similar in length. I’ve learned to do this since our first shirt-related encounter when I held my two arms at equal length, and Carmine saw the discrepancy. He apologized profusely, rolled back to his condo and went to bed for three days.
The subsequent shirts have improved, but only slightly.
“Carmine, thanks,” I always say.
“Do you like it?”
“Sure, yeah,” I always say. “This one’s really good. I like it.”
“Great,” he always says. His chubby hands clasped in front of him, his bulbous cheeks flushing red with pride and humility.
It’s a fucking nightmare.
Then I have to wear the shirt out to my car, drive to a place where I can park, struggle out of it and put my other shirt back on—reversing the process, of course, at the end of the day, before I return to the condos. He is always waiting near the mailboxes, needing to know how my day went or—more to the point—what people, colleagues, friends, strangers, thought of my new shirt. And this is when I have to dig into my creative abilities, my acting talent, to summon up a slew of semi-believable bullshit until I see that he is satisfied.
Anyway, this is the shirt I’m wearing when Becky trips and falls in front of me on the sidewalk. She isn’t hurt, not even a skinned knee. But, clearly, she is clumsy; and just so you know—only an opinion here, but—finding a clumsy/attractive woman, lying on the sidewalk no less, is like finding an unlocked and brimming treasure chest on the beach. Clumsy/attractive women are one-winged eagles; ridiculous in flight, but majestic on a perch, and, unlike their fully winged counterparts, entirely accessible. I mean, think about it; it’s difficult for a woman to cultivate any real sense of superiority after she has tripped and fallen on her ass.
Then—I find out—she’s a nurse! An E.R. nurse, to boot. I have a hard time tempering my enthusiasm at finding this out. After all, nurses deal on a daily basis with all sorts of bodily functions and disgusting fluids, are therefore pragmatic, nasty, cannot be shocked.
What could be better, right?
Which is what I thought.
But I was wrong.
The next night, we go to dinner. Italian. A bottle of Nebbiolo. I order light (don’t want to be groggy, you know, in case something naked happens); a radicchio salad with baby arugula, thin slices of Parmesan cheese and the white fish. She has the potato soup with chicken, and the gnocchi with duck ragout. So, it starts well. But, by the end of the meal I’ve learned every last fucking minute tiny detail about the nursing and medical profession—a line of work with far too many nuances. So many, in fact, that despite her exemplary breasts, I just want to go home. Which is what I say. But the sentence, “I think I’d like to just go home,” is not nearly as definitive as it should be.
“Sure,” she says. “That sounds great.”
“I was gonna say my place, but your place would be fun.”
And then, just when I’m going to be courageous and honorable by bravely declaring exactly what I’d meant—proof that I am not just a guy concerned only about my dick—she adds this: “You have a headboard, right?”
“I…” wheels spinning, “a headboard? Yeah.”
She smiles and pulls a roll of surgical tape from her purse. “I want you to tape me to it.”
I’m intensely casual with this next: “‘Kay.”
“And then I want you to smear warm oil on my breasts. My nipples. And I want you to lick my pussy,” she says. “That sound okay?”
What I don’t know—as I shove a credit card at the waiter and tear our coats off the hanger beside the table—is this: her love of all things grotesquely medical, Becky’s, is not just professional or humanitarian or academic—it is sexual.
After dutifully taping her wrists to the headboard, I have skillfully moved down her body to work my lingual magic on her, and she is writhing like a windsock, expressing her appreciation with, “Oh God, Robert, yes! Yes!” Which is not the part I have a problem with. What starts to get on my nerves is how she includes details about her workaday world: “…and there were five of them,” she says, still windsocking, “coming in with the EMTs…” Her back arching. “Oh yeah, it’s so good, Robert... so good… uh-huh…” More breathing, writhing. “All in bad shape… they need to be intubated… but bad… an eyeball… dangling from this guy’s… uh-huh, right there, baby, good… it’s so good… it’s hanging… out of its socket… flopping around…”
Me, I’m trying to concentrate on the work at hand.
“Oh God, yes, right there, right there…” Breathing, arching. “His arm… on ice… in the other room. Your tongue, amazing… amazing… and his intestines… roll out… on the floor… yes, yes, like that, yes… squish under my feet… his liver… it’s slippery…”
This is where I’m having trouble keeping the concentration I mentioned a moment ago. I’ve never been good with internal organs out of place. To my thinking, they are internal for a reason—no one wants to hear about them on floors and underfoot. So I am both nauseated and aroused, which is new for me. I’m oddly reminded of Woody Allen trying to think of baseball during sex, only I’m trying to think of sex during sex. I decide to take a break so I don’t, you know, throw up on her vagina.
She, of course, notices right away. “What’s the matter? I was so close…”
It’s a peculiar juxtaposition—the sex thing along with the other—and I am quietly praying that my psyche will just accept it, roll with it, embrace the image of sliding viscera in a sexual context. But I can’t, and now I’m sitting on the side of the bed, my head between my legs. “Nothing,” I say to her question, but mostly to my withering dick. Finally, I look over, ready to level with her because sometimes honesty is an acceptable option with women.
But she beats me to the punch. “You don’t like this?” she says, her eyes now bigger, greener, more ingenuous than I recall their being at dinner. She bites her lower lip, which is oddly both childlike and hot—she’s good at these juxtapositions. “You don’t like the tape?” she says, nodding to her wrists, “because I can’t wait to do this to you. I can’t wait to suck your cock.”
A moment later, she is arching her back again, regaining lost ground, undulating with the movement of my tongue. “Ooooo yes, baby, yes…” she says thrusting her pelvis at me like a court summons. “That’s right, uh-huh…”
I’m an artist, a virtuoso… I am the conductor of a great philharmonic orchestra, brilliantly guiding with my tongue a multitude of disparate musical instruments through The William Tell Overture toward its magnificent crescendo.
“…it’s sooooo good… so hot, so hot, sooooo warm, the intestines… running down my leg… oh yeah, baby… there’s slime inside my shoe…”
I am making every effort now to stanch the emerging mental images of slithering guts... the missing arm, the eyeball, still dangling. It is a hopeless cerebral game of whack-a-mole.
She notices again that I’ve withdrawn. Still breathing hard, she asks what’s wrong.
“Nothing. I just…”
She’s staring at me.
“You know, Becky… as much fun as this has been… the tape and all…” (hold on—the synapses of my brain are suddenly firing like a space shuttle booster), “…the tape, the tape is great, because I love the tape!” I grab it off the floor, tear off another piece, and paste it across her mouth.
This I am proud of.
I wait though, study her face, see if it is going to work for me or against me. (You can never be sure when you’ve just taped a woman’s mouth shut.) She is surprised, that much I can tell because her eyes are wide, intense. But as to whether she is smiling or frowning… well, I can’t see her mouth anymore. Then I feel her torso press against me, her right breast drops delicately to the side as she pushes into me, and there is a moan. I have done good. In fact, she is moving on her own—she is a locomotive that I have hurled heaping shovels-full of coal into. I smile and edge back down her twisting, turning body, and return to my previous line of work. Once there, she is most receptive to my efforts, and I can tell she is a mere moment or two from cresting the hill. She is shoving herself at my mouth; her legs are wrapped tightly around my head… which is why I can barely hear the phone when it rings.
The answering machine picks up: “Hey, this is Rob. Leave a message.” Then, “Yell-low?” It’s my dad. “Robert T.? It’s your dad.” Whom I can hear perfectly now, since Becky’s legs have loosened at the distraction. “Robert? Yell-low? Is this the machine?” Why he and the rest of his generation have refused to master, embrace or, hell, correctly use the technology of today—no, not even today’s technology, any technology that has emerged since the ’80s—is beyond me. “Well, I guess I’ll leave a message…” Then, “Robert T.?” My middle name is Theodore. “Kind of important, so I’ll just… Robert?” I’m going out of my mind. With an apologetic glance to Becky, I reach over and pick up the phone.
“Dad? What’s going on?” I’m sitting on the side of the bed again.
“Robert. It’s your dad.”
I know that. “I know, Dad. Listen, I’m a little busy right now…”
“Right. Then I’ll make it quick.” Not what I was shooting for, but okay. “It’s your mother. I’m afraid she’s very sick.”
“Uh-huh…” I run my free hand up Becky’s smooth inner thigh.
“I think she’s dying. It might even be real this time.”
“Right. Mom’s dying… well shoot.” Now I’m figuring how best to respond to this news, you know, in an appropriately sensitive way. “Boy…” I say, “that’s not good. That’s bad.” Okay, I know what you’re thinking: That’s my concern? That I sound “appropriately sensitive”? Well, a couple of things are going on that you need to understand. One: as you may have gathered, this is not unfamiliar territory, this dying mother thing. And two: it’s possible that I have some unresolved issues with my mother.
“Listen, Dad, can I call you back?” I glance at Becky and see that her eyes have narrowed in a new way, a way that no longer implies lust—it is inscrutable, this narrowing of the eyes, indicating something possibly perilous.
Meanwhile my dad is barreling ahead: “Yeah, I took her over to the hospital this morning, after we found some blood in her poop…”
For the record, there are so many things that disturb me about this last sentence… and it’s not my father’s use of the word “poop” where “stool” might’ve been more appropriate, or at least adult. It is primarily the word “we”—as in, “we found some blood”—that paints a vexing picture for me, where I see the two of them, huddled over the toilet, examining my mother’s bloody shit. My erection—in case you were wondering—is ice cream on a heating grate.
My father continues, “And there was some greenish, black chunks a somethin’ or other in there too.” I’m delighted to learn this tidbit, as now I’m seeing my parents with what, a flashlight, a popsicle stick, a magnifying glass, poking at it. “Don’t know what the hell those were,” he adds, “…kinda spongy, fell apart as soon as I stuck it with a pencil.”
We have crossed the Rubicon.
Now I hear Becky trying to speak, but she produces only a loud mumble, so I ignore her for the time being. I ask my dad what hospital my mother’s at, desperate to finish this conversation.
Becky mumbles something again, so I lean over and yank the tape from her mouth. “Ow!”
“St. Michaels, here on Sunrise,” my dad says.
“Will you un-tape my hands, please?” This Becky says in a quick monotone that implies irritation.
“Who’s that?” my dad asks.
“Huh? Oh… a friend.”
“Un-tape me, please.” This is firm, insistent, cold.
“What’s the matter with her?” my dad asks.
“I taped her wrists to the headboard,” I say, as I reach for the scissors on the nightstand.
“Oh,” my father says, and then tells me about certain hospital food my mother is unhappy with, and the nurse she is happy with, while I cradle the phone between my ear and my shoulder, slip the point of a scissor blade under the twisted surgical tape at Becky’s wrist, and work it slowly. I have a fair idea that her mood has taken a turn, though I’m still in a vastly gray area regarding her intentions. After all, when her hands are free, she could very well wrestle the scissors away and turn them on me (possibly just to see my innards slide around on the floor, ha-ha). My dad is saying things that I’m not hearing because I’m watching Becky free herself. Her breasts swing gently with her movement, so naturally the thought of renewed sex creeps up in my mind. Which is insane for a number of reasons; the more obvious of course is that she looks pissed off. The less obvious is the after-sex scenario. I mean, if I loathed her before sex… well, come on. Not to mention the self-loathing. And what if, for instance, in those post-coital moments—that is, if Becky hasn’t sliced me to smithereens—she coos and talks baby talk? Because… she seems like the type who might.
All of this, these thoughts, as entertaining and destructive as they are, are rollicking though my head until vaguely I hear my father infuse the names of my brother and sister. “So, then you’ll talk to them, Robert?”
“Lenny and Darlene, you’ll talk to them?”
“Oh. Gee, uh…” Becky is free now, pulling the tape away from her wrists like they are on fire. “…I don’t know, Dad. They’re… they’re not really people that I’m, you know… comfortable with.”
“It’s important, Rob. To me.”
Crap. This is what my father does. He asks me to do stuff, not so much for my mother, but for him. “Yeah, sure,” is what I say, while, in my head, I’m screaming Fuck no!
When I finally hang up, I see that Becky is by the door, her dress half on, her left breast still exposed; her shoes, nylons, bra, panties are all clutched tightly in one hand, her face red like an English bus. “You are one fucked up asshole!” This doesn’t catch me altogether by surprise, and while I’m trying to think of a clever pot-calling-the-kettle-black response—you know, with a twist—she adds, “How can you treat your own mother that way? You fucked up asshole! Do not call me!”
And she is gone.
* * *
I'M NOT TERRIBLY SHOCKED by Becky’s sudden shift in attitude; in fact, it’s a phenomenon I’ve seen before. Especially in women. It may have something to do with why I’ve never been all that fortunate regarding the women I date or end up with. The prime example I suppose is Trisha, whose only positive contribution to our marriage was filing for divorce. That was nearly two glorious lighthearted years ago.
Of course, by her account, it’s me who was incapable of ever having a successful relationship/marriage because (a) I was raised by a “psychopathic psychotic sociopath” (her words), and (b) my sarcasm is a “constant and destructive juggernaut” to any possibility of sustaining a healthy relationship/marriage. I said I disagreed, said I was unable to sustain a healthy relationship/marriage because I married a money-grubbing “harridan” (my word—it was part of a crossword puzzle earlier in the day), and frankly—as I pointed out to her—sarcasm is the very breathing apparatus that has kept me alive in the terrifying depths of the dark black sea that is my family!
In more placid times, between the tsunamis that comprised our marriage, Trisha was subtle, cryptic even, in her assaults. When I first got the job at Sloan-Kester—a large reinsurance company here in Sacramento (we insure insurance companies for commercial real estate)—she said I was a standout amongst those who were merely mediocre. Meaning, as I came to realize, that she thought of me as extraordinarily mediocre. She assumed that the business degree I earned a few years earlier came with secondary oceanfront property and Gulfstream access to the world. When neither materialized, her resentment built slowly, increasing in sinewy waves, the way gas prices climb, dip once in a while by ten or twenty cents, and then vault past their previous mark a week later.
Why we never figured out any of these gaping flaws before hurling sacred vows at each other in the garden of the Courtyard Marriott is beyond me. No, that’s not entirely true. I suppose, early on, I just assumed that a painful, disastrous marriage was inevitable, was a forgone conclusion, was all part of being an adult. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I figured I might as well jump in, get it over with, you know, learn to deal with a bad marriage.
The way my father did.