A Short Story
by Marly Swick
SITTING IN THE WAITING ROOM AT PLANNED PARenthood, Jonathan and his mother made an odd couple. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him, wondering. The young punk couple with his-andhers studded motorcycle jackets. The stylish black woman with her gold leather attaché case. Two overweight, semicomatose teenage girls. Ayuppie-ish couple huddled over the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Jonathan wondered if they had made a point of saving the puzzle all week for this purpose.
He wanted to be a good son, but he couldn’t help feeling that this was asking too much. Beyond the pale. Last week his mother had called and left a message on his machine: could he possibly give her a ride to the doctor the following Friday afternoon? When he’d called her back to
say okay, she’d sounded weird. “What’s wrong?" he’d asked her, against his better judgment, not really wanting to get into anything. During the past year or so, since his parents’ divorce, his mother had started confiding in him things he did not particularly want to hear. Intimate things. Private feelings. Details of her sex life. Things he preferred not to think about—or picture. He had tried hinting that his sister, Debra, would be a more appropriate confidant, but his mother ignored the hints. His mother and sister had never really hit it off.
“I wasn’t going to tell you,” his mother had said with a sigh, “but since you ask ...”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” he’d interjected. “Really.”
But of course she had told him. And just as he had feared, what she had to tell him was something he did not want to hear. On the phone he had been shocked into silence for a moment. Then his automatic sympathy reflex had kicked in and he had mumbled all the appropriate comforting responses. Or at least he’d given it his best shot. But after he had hung up, he found himself stalking around his living room, muttering curses and slamming drawers. Then he calmed down and called Farrell.
Since Farrell had moved out,
Jonathan had been rationing his calls to her—no more than one a week. He and Farrell were “trving to be friends.” Farrell had been skeptical at first, arguing that both of them would be better off if they quit the relationship cold turkey, but he had finally persuaded her to give peace a chance. Although he had sworn up and down that he harbored no secret hopes of a rapprochement, he still could not believe that their relationship was over. He had been in love with Farrell most of his adult life. They had met back east in college—in Intro to film Noir—and had moved to L.A. to pursue film careers together. That was three years ago. Now Farrell was in lTCLA law school and he was still writing screenplays during the day and driving an airport shuttle bus at night.
1 hey were moving in different directions, she’d said to him gently one night after dinner. Then, when he’d argued and balked, she’d said she was moving in a different direction; he was standing still—going nowhere. He was stunned. He hadn’t had the faintest idea that that was how she saw things. He said that he’d change. But she didn’t want to negotiate. She had rented a one-bedroom apartment in Palms, she informed him. Wait a minute, he’d said. But she was already packed and out the door.
1 hat was Farrell. Once she even so much as thought about leaving, she was as good as gone. “Bitch!” he’d shouted, running alongside her old YW. “Bitch!” But she’d turned onto the highway and sped away.
Still, he loved her. He wanted her back.
WHEN FARRELL ANSWERED ON THE SECOND ring, he was surprised. “It’s Saturday night,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d be home.”
“In law school there’s no such thing as Saturdav night.” She sounded impatient. “I’m in the middle of Pa/sgraf versus Long Island Railroad. This better be good.”
“It’s good,” he said, “in a bad way. It’s my mother. I’m taking her to Planned Parenthood next Friday to get an abortion. T his is a forty-seven-year-old woman we’re talking about. Can you believe this?”
“Wow,” Farrell said. “Your mother!” He could tell she was picturing his mother, with her matching handbag and shoes, and the hairdo that looked as if it had never been slept on.
“I don’t think she should tell me these things. I’m her son, for Christ’s sake.” He walked over to the tape player and inserted one of Farrell’s favorite cassettes. “It gives me the creeps.”
“Is that my Stephane Grappelli tape?” Farrell asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” He turned the volume up a notch.
“So why doesn’t the guy go with her?” She was starting to sound impatient again, and he imagined her flipping the pages of her casebook, neatly highlighting in yellow as they talked.
“You mean Re-Phil? Hah! What a joke. The guy is a total loser. Not to mention physically repulsive. She says he couldn’t handle it. She says he’s quote emotionally fragile unquote. She refuses to tell him. Can you believe this?”
“Well,” Farrell said, “l think it’s nice she’s so open and that she trusts you. She’s treating you like an adult.”
“I’m not an adult! I’m her kid. No matter how old I am, she’s still my mother.”
“She’s also a woman.”
“I don’t want to think of her as a woman.”
Farrell was quiet, and he could see her suit-yourself shrug. He didn’t want to push it. Just these past couple of weeks he thought he’d detected a gradual warming trend on her part. “Well, I’ll let you go,” he said, half hoping she’d say it was all right, she’d rather talk to him than study.
“Okay,” she said. “Hang in there.”
“Right. Will do.” He forced himself to hang up before he blew it by saying something insistently personal or pathetically sentimental. He marked a red Fon his calendar and counted back, adding up all the other little red and blue Fs. The blue Fs were the times that Farrell had called him. The red Fs were the times he had called her.
Over rhe past two and a half months, since she’d moved out, he’d marked only five blue bs as opposed to eleven red ones. Not counting the times he’d gotten her answering machine and hung up. This depressed him. He looked at his watch. Lately, since Farrell had moved out, he was always looking at his watch. Time moved more slowly, sluggishly. He felt like an old 45 being played at 33.
“They’re already half an hour behind schedule,” his mother said fretfully, blindly flipping the pages of a much-handled Newsweek.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He remembered Farrell’s once pointing out to him that when he was nervous he tended to speak in non sequiturs. He got up and paced over to the window, waited a minute for the receptionist to get off the phone, and then gave up and gravitated back to where his mother sat. “It can’t be much longer.”
“Oh, well. It’s all experience. Grist for the mill.” As if to illustrate the point, she pulled a fancy notebook from her handbag and jotted down a couple of phrases.
Peering over her shoulder, he read, “like patient fish waiting to be gutted.” A year or so before the divorce his mother had enrolled in an evening poetry workshop at Los Angeles Oitv College. The instructor—no doubt thrilled to find someone who knew how to use an apostrophe—had encouraged her to send our her work. The day after she received her first acceptance, she announced she wanted a divorce. His father had been stunned. Whenever Jonathan had visited him in his new studio apartment in the Marina, his father had seemed bewildered and woebegone, like a dog banished for bad behavior. Jonathan and his sister had held long worried telephone powwows about him—until he surprised them by falling in love with a young woman in his building, a pretty divorcee with a six-year-old daughter. By Hanukkah he had himself a whole new family. So Jonathan and his sister shifted the focus of their worry back to their mother, who had joined a singles’ book-lovers club and struck up a thing with some unprepossessing loser named Phil Kapischkey, or “Re-Phil,” as Debra immediately dubbed him, because their father’s name was also Phil.
“What on earth do you see in him?” Debra had protested while Kapischkey was in the men’s room. They had come together for their mother’s birthday dinner, the first time they had all met.
Insulted, their mother had leaped to his defense, ranting on about how he had earned a doctorate from Harvard and had been a Russian-lit professor at USC before he retired. how cultured and refined he was. To drive home her point, she said that they were reading Anna Karenina aloud to each other in bed—a chapter a night.
“Jesus,”Debra had said, “spare me the gory details.”
Their father had at least been tanned and fit—a weekend tennis player.
“Anna Karenina’.” Jonathan had said, groaning, picturing the thick paperback with its thin pages and microscopic print. ‘Aou really think this thing’s going to last that long?”
HIS MOTHER WAS STILL BLSA SCRIBBLING IN her little notebook when the nurse practitioner called her name off the chart. “Evelyn Levitov.”
When she didn’t respond, Jonathan poked her gently in the ribs. “That’s you,”he said.
She dropped her pen and clutched his arm. “I’m scared, Jono.” She squeezed her evelids shut, damming the tears.
His heart pounded. Even now, as an adult, he was unnerved w hen one of his parents show ed any sign of w eakness. “Come on, now.” I le put his arm around her shoulders and steered her back toward the nurse. “It’ll be over within half an hour.”
“She’ll be just fine.” The nurse smiled reassuringly. His mother attempted a smile and handed him her alligator handbag. She w;as dressed in a gray knit suit and looked as if she were on her way to some ladies’ luncheon. “Keep an eye on this,”she said. “Buy yourself some lunch.”
Listening to the forlorn click-cliek of her high heels down rhe ugly corridor. Jonathan suddenly wondered what Re-Phil was doing at that very moment. He imagined him hunched contentedly over a large bowl of steaming borscht. Stupid bastard. Selfish wimp. Jonathan stormed back through the waiting room and out onto the sidewalk and across the bright, busy street to a phone booth at a corner gas station. The phone book had been ripped off its chain, so he had to call information. “A as in kangaroo, a-p-i-s-c-h-k-e-y. Philip.” He scribbled the number on the back page of his mother’s fancy little notebook, dropped in a quarter, and dialed. Re-Phil’s “Hello?” sounded simultaneously suspicious and hopeful. For a moment, imagining his mother’s possible outrage, Jonathan was tempted to hang up.
“Who is this?” Re-Phil demanded. “Speak up!”
The voice, professorial and testy, goaded Jonathan into speech.
“This is Jonathan Levitov,” he said. “There’s something I thought you might like to know.’
HIS FURY PARTLY SPENT, JONATHAN STDOENEY realized what he must look like, walking down the sidewalk with his mother’s alligator handbag. He tucked it under his arm and crossed the street to the coffee shop where he’d told RePhil he would meet him in thirty minutes. Re-Phil was taking medication for a nervous condition and could no longer drive, but he said he’d call a cab. He lived about twenty minutes away, near LaBrea and Wilshire. Jonathan ordered a cup of coffee and waited. Ever since Farrell had left him, he felt conspicuous and pathetic sitting alone in restaurants, conspicuously pathetic, as if everyone were looking at him, knowing he’d been dumped. He checked his watch, again, and glanced around for a discarded newspaper, a flyer—anything to make him look busy and to distract him from wondering if he’d done a stupid thing calling Re-Phil. Maybe he should have minded his own business. Which he would have done, happily, if his mother hadn’t dragged him into this mess. All this new “openness" was highly overrated. When Debra had had an abortion, her sophomore year in college, she had at least been considerate enough to keep it a secret from their parents. He recognized one of the pudgy space cadets from the clinic sitting at a nearby table, staring at him. She was gurgling the last inch of her Diet Pepsi, and he had a terrible intuition that any second now she was going to come over and talk to him. Hurriedly fumbling with the clasp, he tore open his mother’s handbag, fished out the little notebook, and started furiously jotting down notes, his brow furrowed in mock concentration. as if he were trying to remember some complex mathematical equation. The girl got up and left. He relaxed and put down his pen. The notebook fell open to a poem in progress, with lines crossed out and cramped phrases squeezed in above them. His mother’s handwriting was difficult to read, hut the word Kotex leaped out at him. He sighed and slammed the notebook shut, signaling the waitress for a refill.
Two or three months after his father had moved out, his mother had dragged him to a group poetry reading in a little bookstore on Westwood Boulevard, The poetry was amateurish, and he fidgeted in boredom until—at last—his mother got up there and started to read. Then his boredom turned to appalled embarrassment, as she read one long confessional poem after another in an Amazonian voice he didn’t even recognize. He’d expected maybe bad Emily Dickinson, but this was more like bad Allen Ginsberg. She might as well have been standing naked at the podium. He wanted to stick his fingers in his ears. All manner of disgusting personal details—sagging breasts, hemorrhoids, flaccid penises, stretch marks, semen, tears, menstrual blood. She even read a poem about his birth, which she made a point of dedicating to him, smiling out at him in the second row. She described the “w ine-dark slug of placenta" and the obstetrician “neatly darning the hole in the old worn sock of her vagina until he was afraid he was going to he sick or faint. When the reading was over—at last—everyone flocked around her, flapping excitedly, chirping their praise. Her cheeks w ere flushed, her dark eyes bright, as she looked over at him as if to say, “Well? So?” He had intended to tell her just what he thought—to really let her have it—but somehow, with all her admiring fans standing there awaiting his proud response, he had found himself smiling wanly and giving her the thumbs-up sign.
FROM ACROSS THE RESTAURANT JONATHAN CAUGHT sight of Re-Phil heading toward him. breathless and unkempt, hair uncombed and shirt misbuttoned. In his white shirt and slacks, and with his thatch of bristly white hair, he looked like an old polar bear. Not so much fat as massive. Jonathan looked pointedly at his watch.
“Sorry,’ Re-Phil w heezed. “The cab was late.” Jonathan plunked a dollar bill on the table and said, “Let’s go. She might be done by now.”
A tender, stricken expression flitted across Re-Phil’s face as he noticed the alligator handbag. “She didn’t tell me,” he said. “I didn’t know a thing.”
“Ignorance is bliss.”Jonathan held the door open and waited for Re-Phil to pass through into the bright dazzle of sunshine. He felt like a bounty hunter bringing his man to justice.
The waiting room wxts more crowded than when he had left. Jonathan had to elbow his way to the front desk, where he was told that his mother was in the recovery room. “She’s feeling a bit woozy,” the nurse practitioner said. “It’s not uncommon. We’ll just let her rest a few minutes.”
Jonathan squeezed himself between Re-Phil and the yuppie husband and repeated what he had been told. Craning his neck, Jonathan could see that only one corner of the Sunday crossword puzzle was still partly blank. On the table next to the vinyl couch were wire racks full of pamphlets on various birth-control methods and diseases: herpes, gonorrhea, AIDS. Re-Phil was engrossed in a pamphlet on the cervical cap. Jonathan suddenly remembered the time their apartment in Boston had been broken into. Predictably, the thief had stolen a brandnew tape recorder, the stereo turntable, a broken Nikon, and some junk jewelry. But the thief had also taken Farrell’s diaphragm out of its blue plastic case and had stuck it to the bedroom wall with a hatpin from one of her vintage hats. Farrell, relatively calm and stoic up to that point, had screamed when she’d discovered it later that night. And Jonathan had felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck as she pointed speechlessly to the dead diaphragm, skewered there like a voodoo sacrifice.
Re-Phil stood up abruptly, clumsily knocking over one of the pamphlet racks. “Here she is,” he said. “I see her.”
Jonathan looked up. From the other end of the hall his mother gave him a limp wave and a pale smile. Then she noticed Re-Phil. Her step faltered; the nurse gripped her arm more firmly. His mother looked confused for a moment, and then angry. She shot Jonathan a dirty look.
The nurse handed her a small vial of pills. “Just in case you feel any discomfort.” The nurse patted her on the shoulder. “Be sure to call if you have anv problem or question.”
I he moment the nurse turned to go, Jonathan and RcPhil both rushed up and claimed an arm. Evelyn shook them off. “I’m all right,” she said irritably. “I can walk.”
She smiled at Re-Phil, pointedly ignoring Jonathan. “I’m sorry about this. You were sweet to come, Phil.
Sweet, Jonathan fumed. “Here.”He handed Re-Phil the handbag. “I’ll go bring the car around.
On the drive home his mother and Re-Phil huddled in the back seat. Jonathan felt like he was at work, driving the shuttle bus. He cranked up the radio and pretended to ignore them. In the rearview mirror he could see the top of his mother’s silvery-blonde head resting against Re-Phil’s bearish shoulder. His huge hand cradled her skull, his fingertips tapping out the tempo of the musicon her forehead. She didn’t seem to mind. Jonathan remembered a game he had played with his parents when he was little, just learning to read. I he three of them would lie in bed together and trace letters on one another’s backs, underneath their pajamas, and the tracee would have to guess the word. I hey called it Ticklegrams. He had tried it years later with Farrell, but she was too ticklish; she could never hold still long enough.
They dropped Re-Phil off at his apartment on Sycamore, at Evelyn’s insistence and over Re-Phil’s protests. He wanted, he said, to come fuss over her—fluff her pillows and serve her hot soup and read aloud to her. Jonathan thought it was the least he could do, considering, but his mother held firm.
“Not today,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
She nodded wearily. He kissed the back of her hand. Who (Joes fie think he is? Jonathan thought. Count Vronsky? After Re-Phil got out, Jonathan turned to the back seat and said, “You want to come up front?”
His mother shook her head frostily. He shrugged and turned the radio back up. They rode the rest of the way in noisy silence.
AT HIS MOTHER’S HOUSE, HIS OLD HOUSE, JON Aa than busied himself making a pot of tea while his mother futzed around in the bathroom. AWhcn she emerged, after an alarmingly long interval, during which he’d imagined her hemorrhaging to death on the tile floor, she walked silently past him into the den and flipped the TV on to Oprah. He set the pot of tea on the end table next to the sofa and trotted off to the bedroom for a blanket and pillow. He was gone only a second, but w hen he returned her eyes were closed and she appeared to be asleep. He tiptoed over and turned the volume down and then collapsed into his father’s old La-Z-Boy. Oprah was talking to obsessive-compulsives. One middle-aged Japanese man was explaining that he couldn’t seal an envelope without first checking and rechecking to make sure that his four-year-old daughter was not inside. Jonathan sighed. People were so crazy. He didn’t know one person you could call really well adjusted. It was all just a matter of degree, a continuum. Today it was red and blue Fs on his calendar. Tomorrow—who knows? He got up and paced restlessly around the house. The hallway leading to the bedrooms was lined with framed family photographs, mostly of him and Debra, declining in cuteness with each passing year. There were a couple of group portraits w ith his father, but his mother had removed their wedding picture, exposing an ugly nail hole surrounded by chipped plaster. In the dim light of the hallway lie peered at his watch. At his car they paused. It was cooler now—the marine layer. “How’s your mother?” Farrell fished a Kleenex out of her jacket and wiped the thick film of moisture off the windshield, so that he would be able to see. The gesture touched him.
When he returned to the den, his mother’s eyes were open. She had removed her suit jacket and was sitting up. sipping a cup of tea. Her hair was mussed, and it occurred to him that in her satiny black slip she exuded the mature sex appeal of, say, Lee Rcmick.
“You feeling okay? You want anything?" he asked.
“I’ll be all right. You don’t need to hang around.”
“That’s okay—I want to,”he said, wiping up some spilled tea with a potholder. This wasn’t strictly true. What he wanted was to feel virtuous, beyond reproach. “Anyway, I don’t have anything better to do.” He meant to strike a jocular note but didn’t quite make it.
His mother reached over and patted his hand, and then modestly adjusted her slip straps. “You really need to let Farrell go,” she said gently.
He shrugged. “She’s gone.”He swiped an old New Yorker off the coffee table and leafed through the cartoons. “We’re just friends.”
“Your father and I tried that—the friends bit. She paused to slosh more tea into her cup. “It didn’t work. But then maybe your generation can handle these things better. Do you think?”
Jonathan shrugged. For some reason he was irritated whenever his mother tried to engage him in a discussion about men and women, although he was equally irritated whenever his father refused to discuss such personal issues, which was always.
“In our generation an ex was an ex,” she said. “Completely out of the picture. Of course, w e expected things to last forever. Whereas I don’t suppose your generation ever really expects anything to last.”His mother blew on the hot tea, musing. “There’s some corollary or something there. Although I can’t quite think what it is.
“If x equals expectation, and v equals degree of friendliness with Ex, then more x results in less y,” he said, pleased with himself.
His mother laughed, spilling some tea on the blanket. Hearing her laugh, Jonathan suddenly felt something inside him relax and expand. For the first time all day he didn’t feel like picking a fight with someone. “Hey!” He tossed the magazine aside. “I’ve got a great idea. How about some canasta?” He leaped up and grabbed the cards from the cupboard. “Jesus. I don’t believe you still have these.”He smiled at the worn faces of Lady Di and Prince (diaries on the dog-eared cards that he’d brought back as a joke from his junior year abroad. The summer of the royal wedding. He hummed as he dealt the cards, transported back to a simpler, more lighthearted time in his life—the summer he was twelve, with a broken leg, and his mother had sat by his bed playing canasta with him by the hour. The last time he’d played was right after he and Farrell had started sleeping together. She had come down with mono, and to help pass the time he’d taught her how to play canasta, but she thought it was a stupid game and insisted he learn how to play chess instead. Farrell was an impatient teacher and he was a slow pupil. They fought so much that he finally flushed the chess pieces down the toilet. The ev ening of the illfated birthday dinner his mother had bragged that RePhil was a world-class chess champion, which was just one more black mark against him as far as Jonathan was concerned.
As if she had read his mind—it wouldn’t be the first time—his mother suddenly stopped arranging her cards and said, “You know, you really shouldn’t have called Phil. He had nothing to do with it. You’ve just created an embarrassing situation. For everybody.”
“What are you talking about?” He squinted at his cards, the setting sun shining directly into his eyes. “It takes two, you know. In my generation we males take responsibility. Fifty-fifty.” He discarded the jack of clubs.
“What I’m talking about is that Phil Kapischkey and I have a platonic relationship, more or less. Prostate problems. And this medication he’s on, well—” she shrugged and waved her free hand vaguely. “If you must know, your father was the one who—”
“Stop! Just stop right there. I don’t want to hear this. Jesus!" He slapped his cards down on the table top, rattling the teacups. “You don’t have to tell me this.”
“And you don’t have to shout.” Frowning, lips pursed, his mother focused intently on her cards, fussily tweaking them into a perfectly symmetrical fan. Tweak, tweak, tweak. His arm shot out and knocked the cards from her hand.
She sighed and glared at him—a cool, dispassionate, unmaternal glare. “Just what are you so angry about?”
The question surprised him, caught him offguard. He bent down and started picking the cards up off the floor. Lady Di’s and Charles’s royal smiles seemed to have frozen into aloof reproach. Hunched over in his chair, he could feel the blood rising to his face, his heart pounding in his ears, as if he were back in high school geometry and the teacher had asked him a question he didn’t know the answer to. The loud silence. All those eyes trained on him. I hen he heard Farrells voice—he had broken down and called her in the middle of the night shortly after she had moved out. “You know what your problem is?” she’d asked.
Lying there in the dark, alone, his heart pounding, he had said, “No. Do you?”
And she had said, “Yes,” and then heaved a big sigh and said, “Never mind,” and hung up on him.
His first response was a sort of dizzying relief. Then, lying there in the dark silence, alone, he could hear the bees buzzing inside his brain. Curiosity propelled his arm out toward the phone, and cowardice yanked it back under the covers. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, his mother always used to tell him.
He dumped the cards on the coffee table, looked at his watch, and stood up. “Debra will be home in half an hour. If you need anything, you can call her.” He zipped up his windbreaker. “Okay?”
“Fine.” She shrugged.
At the door he hesitated. “Did he know about this?”
“I thought you didn’t want to know.”
He walked back into the room and perched edgily on the arm of the sofa opposite his mother. “Just this (me thing.”
“It hurts,” she said, picking up the vial of pain-killers and prying off the lid. “Get me some water, would you?”
As he shut off the faucet in the kitchen, the phone rang. It was Re-Phil. “How’s she doing?” he whispered, as if he were in the same room.
“Fine,” Jonathan said. Then, after an awkward pause, “Look. I’m sorry about all this. I shouldn’t have called you.”
“No, no. I’m glad you did. You did the right thing.”
Jonathan could hear a piano rhapsodizing away in the background. Something tragically romantic. Russian. Full of doomed yearning. Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky. “Do you think she feels like talking to me?”
“Not right now,” Jonathan said. “Now’s not the right time.”
“I understand.” He cleared his throat. “You must wonder, I mean about your mother and me, and I just wanted to say, to ex—”
“Please,” Jonathan cut in. “Please don’t explain anything.”
He hung up and returned to the living room with the glass of water. As he set the glass on the table, he suddenly recognized the piano piece—“Moscow Nights.” His sister had driven them all crazy practicing it over and over again for a recital.
“Who was that?”
“Count Vronsky, at your service.” He clicked his heels.
“I thought you were leaving.” She turned up the volume on the television set, tuning him out.
“I am.” He had to raise his voice to compete with the local newscaster’s. “But first I want to know. Did he know?”
“Yes!" He stomped his foot in frustration.
“It’s really none of your business, you know.”
“I know! I know it’s none of my business. That’s what I’ve been telling you all along. But since you’ve chosen to make it my bus—”
“No,” she said. “The answer to your question is no.”
“No? He didn’t know?”
She nodded. “It was just a silly accident. We had some financial stuff to discuss and we decided why not try to make it pleasant, for a change—why not do it over dinner? Try to be friends. After all, twenty-six years—” she shrugged. “So, it was pleasant enough. Kind of comforting, really, you know?” Jonathan nodded. She paused for a sip of water. “Afterward he brought me back. I’d mentioned that the sliding glass door was off the track again, and he volunteered to see if he could fix it. We had a couple of brandies.” She sat up straighter and pressed her knees together primly. “Your father and I—well, sex was never our problem.”
You know what your problem is? I le could hear Farrell’s voice again. He balled his fists in the pockets of his windbreaker and shook his head, as if to knock out her voice.
“You okay?” his mother asked. He nodded.
“You can imagine how foolish I felt w’hen i found out—like some silly teenager, at my age. Your father has his own life now. With Jennifer.” The name of his father’s new significant other rolled off her lips effortlessly. No sign of jealousy. “I didn’t want to stir up trouble.”
“Trouble,” Jonathan repeated tonelessly, suddenly recalling his father’s one feeble attempt at a father-son talk. They had been in the car. His father was giving him a ride home after a high school wrestling match. It was pouring rain, and Jonathan was depressed and silent, having lost the match. His father, never noted for his sensitivity to mood, chose that occasion to caution his son about the risk of getting some girl “into trouble.” He painted a gloomy scenario in which Jonathan dropped out of high school, married, moved in with the girl’s parents, worked at a car wash during the day, took classes at a vocational school at night, and crawled home exhausted to a squalling baby and an even more exhausted wife. By the time the Lincoln had sailed into the garage, Jonathan felt like shooting himself to put himself out of this mythical misery. For months after that little chat he couldn’t even unhook a girl’s bra without seeing himself dressed in sudsy coveralls, hosing down a car.
The pain-killer must have contained some sort of sedative. His mother’s head had fallen back onto the pillow and her eyelids drooped and fluttered. He tiptoed over, turned off the television, and shut the blinds. It was just getting dark out. He knelt down beside the sofa and whispered, “I’m going to take off now. I’ve got to go to work.”
“You know why you’re angry?” she murmured.
“Why?” He felt his pulse start to race. I le held himself very still.
“You were always like this, always.” A dreamy smile floated on her face.
“Like what?” he said.
But she was gone. Out like a light, as his parents used to say.
OUTSIDE IT WAS COOL AND MISTY. THE CLOUDS had moved in. Fie drove around aimlessly fora while, trying to figure out what he felt like doing. He had lied to his mother about having to work; he had arranged for the night off just in case of any complications. FI is stomach rumbled. All he knew was that he didn’t want to go home. He ran through a mental menu—hamburger, Thai, sushi, pizza—waiting for a nod from his belly. He was hungry but not really in the mood. Finally he pulled into a Taco Bell. A newspaper was lying on the table next to him. As he crunched on his taco, he skimmed through the movie listings, although he wasn’t really in the mood for that either. In the booth opposite him a fat, bright-eyed baby held court, propped up in a carrier contraption on top of the table. A little boy about five or six tore off tiny pieces of tortilla and handed them to his baby brother, who squashed them in his fist and rammed them clumsily into his mouth. The boy’s older sister was making a chain out of straw wrappers, and the mother stared out the window dreamily as bits of shredded cheese and lettuce oozed out the end of her burrito. She was very pregnant. For the first time, Jonathan thought about the aborted fetus and wondered if it had been a boy or a girl. Growing up, he had lobbied tirelessly for a brother. A younger brother, who couldn’t run as fast or read as many big words. He had even had the name picked out: Duke. Duke Levitov. Finally they had bought him off with a dog. A German shepherd. His mother had automatically started calling the puppy Duke, but he had said no, the dog’s name was Major— just to let them know that^ knew a dog was a poor substitute for a brother.
The baby started to cry. The pregnant woman continued eating her burrito and staring out the window, as if she were just a stranger who happened to be sitting at that table. The baby cried harder. Jonathan got up and left.
Instead of getting back on the freeway and heading for home, Jonathan cruised along Olympic Boulevard, listening to the radio, pretending he didn’t know that he was just stalling, just seeing how long he could put off giving in to his worst instincts. He looked at his watch. Only six-thirty! He wished it were later, after midnight.
For some reason he had this notion (fantasy) that things would go better it he woke Farrell up. Her defenses would be down, and she would answer the door in her flannel nightgown, all warm and fuzzy from sleep, a tender smile hovering on her lips from some pleasant dream, preferably about him, although he knew this was really pushing it. He also knew that Farrell was generally cold and crabby upon being awakened.
BY the time he pulled up in front of her building, it was nearly seven. He had been to Farrell’s place only once before, and he had taken a wrong turn. He slumped in his seat and looked up at her lighted window tor a few minutes, trying to divine whether or not she was alone. Lights were burning in the front room. I he bedroom was dark. He took this as a good sign, but as he walked up the front steps it suddenly occurred to him that maybe it was actually a bad sign. Twice he stretched his hand out to ring the bell and then snatched it back. His heart bear like a conga drum in his chest, a crazy, savage arrhythmia, and he thought maybe he was going to have a heart attack right there on Farrell’s front stoop.
Then, just as he was about to turn and flee, the front door flew open and there she was. In the momentary confusion he thought that she must have heard his heart pounding, like a knock at the door, but in the next instant he noticed that she was dressed up, dressed to go out.
“What are you doing here?” she said. “You nearly gave me a heart attack. She was wearing the dangly silver fish earrings he had bought for her in Taxco. As she spoke, the earrings leaped and shimmied impatiently.
“I was just driving by and thought maybe you’d like to take a study break, go out for a cappuccino or something.” Standing there in the dark, barrell smelled sweet and familiar. He had a sudden intense desire to lick her face, the way Major used to greet him after a long absence. “I’ve had sort of a rough day.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “One of my professors is having a party. I’ve got to go. In fact, I’m already late. I promised him I’d be there early.”
“No problem.” He shrugged. “Just an impulse.” He turned to go. “You look very pretty, by the way.’
“Thanks.”Farrell’s voice softened a bit—relief that he wasn’t going to create a scene?—and she slipped her arm through his as they walked down the flagstone path toward the street.
“So what’s this guy teach?” he asked.
“Torts,” she said casually, but somehow the word sounded sweet and gooey on her lips.
“I don’t know,” he said, and sighed. “Okay, 1 guess. Considering.”
“Frankly, I never knew your mother was up to it.”
“You don’t know’ the half of it, believe me.” He was hoping she would ask him what he meant and invite him to come in and tel! the whole story, but he knew she wouldn’t. Somehow he knew that this torts professor w as “the one” — the one he’d been dreading. And the reason Farrell was being halfway warm and affectionate w as that she was happy.
“Let’s have lunch sometime,”she said, as he opened the door of his car. “Give me a call.”
“Sure. Okay.” He nodded pleasantly. Lunch. It felt unreal. As she turned to go, his brain translated the action into screenplay directions—a little technique he had developed years ago, during a bad acid trip, to take the edge off reality, or unreality, depending on how you looked at it. He was comforted by the illusion that all this chaos was really under his direction.
She leans over—through the open window—gives him a tender peck on the cheek, and runs off.
1 le sits for a moment, watching her in the rearview mirror until she disappears out of his line of vision, and then, slowly, he turns the key in the ignition. Backing up cautiously, he maneuvers his beat-up car out of the tight parking space. 1 hen suddenly, as if possessed—CLOSE-UP of toot on accelerator—he floors it and the car lunges backward. MEDIUM SHOTof Farrell’s crushed body. Something glimmers in the car’s headlights near her outstretched arm. Camera ZOOMS in. We recognize one of her silver fish earrings, lying there on the dark pavement like a beached mackerel.
CUT TO EXTERIOR. Mother’s house. Night.
JONATHAN DID NOT KNOW HOW LONG HE HAD BEEN sitting there in the driveway. The house was dark except for a light in the bedroom. He didn’t know what he was doing here. He had been tempted to follow Farrell to the party and to—do whatf Bunch the guy out? Kidnap her? He hadn’t known where he was heading until he was almost here. In the dim light of the car s interior he peered at his watch, surprised by how early it still was. Surprised that the night was still young when he felt so old and tired. And at the same time young—a small, very old, very tired child in need of comfort.
He opened the car door and got out. The next-door neighbor’s dog barked as he walked across the lawn toward the house. At the door he hesitated, wondering whether he should ring the bell so as not to startle his mother or whether that might only wake her up. He knocked softly. When he didn’t hear anything, he opened the door with his key. It was pitch-black in the entryway. He flicked on the light and kicked off his loafers. In his stocking feet he tiptoed down the hall and paused outside his mother’s room. She was awake, lying in bed watching an old movie on television, her hands resting lightly on her breasts in her flimsy nightgown. In the moment before she sensed his presence, he caught a private glimpse of her that made him catch his breath. A glimpse of her as a woman, a self, apart from him. But in the next instant she looked up and smiled and was his mother again.
“Hi, Mom. What’re you watching?” he asked, even though he had recognized the film at first glance.
'"Strangers on a Train.” She yawned and patted the empty side of the bed. “Join me?”
He was surprised that she didn’t seem more surprised to see him. Almost as if she’d been expecting him. He padded across the room and stretched out on the other side of the king-size bed. “How you feeling?”
“Not bad, considering.” She tugged her conversational-French grammar book out from underneath him and slid it under the bed. Shortly after the divorce she had begun planning a trip to Paris. A commercial came on and she muted the sound. “How ‘bout yourself?”
“Okay, I guess. Considering.” He rolled over, his back to her, and sighed into the pillow. She picked up his hand and gave it a maternal squeeze. “I’m sorry I behaved like such a jerk,” he said. His voice sounded small and wobbly. “I don’t know what my problem was. Is.”
“There are plenty of other fish in the sea.” She slipped her cool, soft hand underneath his T-shirt. “Ily a beaucoup des autres poissons dans la mer
He flashed on a tight shot of Farrell’s hand reaching up to unhook her danglv earrings and dropping them — pink, plink—onto the night table beside the professor’s bed.
Outside it had begun to rain lightly. A gentle rat-a-tattat against the glass. He kept his eyes shut tight. His mother’s feathery fingertips tickled as she traced the letters on his naked skin. He guessed the words aloud one by one. Sad, mad, bad, dad, glad. The soft touch and simple words were soothing—hog, bog, dog, log, fog—so, so soothing, like rain, like heartheats. Joy, toy, coy, boy. Her fingers froze.
“It was a boy,” she whispered. “You always wanted a brother.”
“No, I didn’t,” he lied. “Not really.”
She started to cry.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey. It’s not so bad.” He patted her hand clumsily and handed her a Kleenex from the box on the night table.
“Look at us.” She laughed and blew her nose. “Two real sad sacks, as your father used to say. It was one of his favorite expressions, remember?”
Jonathan nodded. On the television screen Bruno, the psychotic, had his hand down a sewer grate, straining and stretching to touch the cigarette lighter he had dropped. Close-up of the lighter with the crossed tennis rackets embossed in gold. The murder evidence. In college Jonathan had written a term paper on the crisscross imagery in Strangers on a Train. The professor had given him an A and said it was a thorough and “very mature" piece of work.
“You watching this?” his mother said.
He shook his head. “Not really.”
“ I hen how about some canasta?" She tossed the used Kleenex into the trash basket beside the bed.
“Yeah, sure. Why not?" He picked up the remote and clicked off the television. “I’ll get the cards.”
He got up and walked through the dark house to the den. Next door the neighbor’s dog was barking again. T he cards were still out, sitting on the coffee table. He grabbed them and then made a quick detour to the kitchen, w here he took a couple of beers from the refrigerator. He set the beers on the night table. His mother had put on a robe and smoothed out the bedspread. Fie handed her the double deck to shuffle. When he was little he used to love to watch his mother shuffle cards—quickly and gracefully, as if she were doing a magic trick. He practiced and practiced but never got to be much good. The barking next door had escalated into a frenzied, lovelorn howling. A canine aria of outraged loss. Jonathan leaped up, walked over to the open window, and yelled, “Quiet!”
For a moment there was a stunned silence. Then the dog started up again—a tentative whimper at first, then a yelp, then a full-fledged howl. Jonathan slammed the window shut and went back to the bed.
“You know” — his mother paused, cards in hand—“I still dream about Major sometimes.”
“Really? So do I,” he confessed. He had always felt a little stupid dreaming about a dog. “What do you dream?”
“I dream he’s still alive.” She handed him the deck.
“That’s what I dream too,” he said, and as he started to deal out the cards he suddenly had an odd sensation, as if he were a ventriloquist and that dog out there were his dummy, whimpering and howling in the night.