Chapter 2: RANCHO BERNARDO, CALIFORNIA (Part 6)
The ride home is interminable. The girls sleep. Richard concentrates on driving. The silence is disconsolate and wearing. I sit and stare at the traffic surrounding us. Everybody is hurrying somewhere, north and south. We’re packed together but amazingly traveling over sixty miles an hour. From my first days in California, when Richard and I searched for a house, I could not get over how fast Californians drove. Fast. All the time, as fast as possible, as if arriving before starting was critical. Everybody took the freeways. They could be going a mere mile to a store or an office, and could easily take a street or road. But they insisted on the freeway. Once I asked a neighbor why. “It’s the fastest way to get someplace,” she said. “Otherwise you’re always stopping for lights.” Fast.
Home, we carry the girls to their rooms. I do the laundry. Richard retires. He says he has an early day ahead of him. After I start the laundry, I go to the kitchen to brew myself a cup of tea, a decent cup taken in my lovely Limoges. While I wait for the water to boil, I check our voicemail. Richard never checks it. He never receives calls on our home phone; everything happens on his BlackBerry. There are two messages. The first is from my mother inquiring about our Disneyland adventure. I promise myself to phone her in the morning. She’s certainly in bed already. The second is for Richard. It’s a woman, young by the clean high pitch of her voice, a voice not yet coarsened or deepened from shouting, crying, and lamenting. She doesn’t say much, but it doesn’t take a long, detailed message to worry me. Drawing on Richard’s history, I’m able to fill in the gaps, no matter how yawning.
Her message is, “I’m sorry to call you at home about our business, Richard. But I phoned you twice. Call when you get this.”
I lower the volume on the answering machine. I listen again. Then a third time. It’s a simple, apparently innocent message. Probably an assistant. The San Diego office is large enough for an administrative staff. Richard’s mentioned the size a couple of times. He’s proud it’s big, though he inherited the staff. But I understand quantity counts with him. He labels it “head count,” which I envision as detached balls of hairy meat, objects, lifeless. The more head count, the greater his stature.
Yet, I find the message disturbing and anxiety begins to roil me. I’m thinking I won’t be getting much sleep tonight, not in my condition.
No, the message is simple and on the surface innocent as I play it back a fourth time. But there’s an undertone. If I could just pinpoint what is gnawing at me. I listen another time, and then I hear it, the two words sufficiently powerful to force me to sit, to knead my forehead, to allow the kettle to boil unattended. She says, “Our business.”
Monkey business. Illicit business. Deceptive business. The business of betrayal. I hear all these in “Our business.”
The kettle diverts me and I turn off the stove. I can’t drink my tea now. I am hardly able to move. I find getting under way a trial, but I make it into the family room, to a chair facing into the back yard. It’s a clear moon bright night and I can see to the limit of the yard, the stucco wall. I wish I was back in Cranbury on my favorite sofa, staring across the silvered lawn, into the neighborhood. I miss it. I really don’t like San Diego, the monotony of it. I don’t want to go upstairs, climb into bed, lie next to Richard. I am in a state, as they say, verging on tears, wallowing in self-pity. I don’t know why, though. Richard is Richard. I know who he is. I know what he does. From the time in the Rider library, from my concern over his lodging in the coed dorm, I’ve known. The knowledge is like being struck with a stone: It hurts the first time and you think nothing could hurt as much; and then you’re struck again on the bruise made by the first stone and the second hit hurts worse; and then it happens again and you understand what torture is.
I am imaging myself as a tormented soul, on the rack, suspended from rafters, taunted, abused, challenged to stop the onslaught, demeaned into inability, condemned to acceptance.
I open my eyes and sunlight light bathes the yard and the sky is bright blue like it is afternoon. I glance at the clock in the kitchen. It’s 5:45 a.m. The master bedroom is above me. I hear the shower begin to run, the water splashing, drumming the ceiling in a muffled melody attuned to Richard shifting in the tub. I rise from the chair, my back stiff, my cheek bone sore where I laid it on the knuckles of my hand the entire night, but otherwise surprisingly refreshed, considering where I’d slept and what had occupied me when I blacked out.
I prepare the girls’ lunches. I’m finishing Richard’s breakfast, questioning why I’m bothering, reminding myself we are married, and he isn’t acting any differently than he has since our marriage, since college.
“You’re up early,” he says, dropping into his chair at the table in kitchen alcove. It seats four, but when the girls are full-size people, it will serve as a table for two. I dread the eventuality.
I capture his attention by not responding, though that’s not my intention. I serve his breakfast in silence, and sit across from him with a cup of coffee.
“Too tired to talk?” he asks, touching a finger to bare table. Where’s the paper? You know I like the paper with breakfast. He’s bursting to say it, but he doesn’t; nor does he display his annoying habit of tapping the empty spot on the table where his newspaper usually rests. I believe he senses something is different today. “Not surprised,” he says. “It was a heck of a couple of days.”
I leave my coffee on the table and retreat to the sink, where I busy myself with dishes, the girls’ prepared lunches, with any distraction I can manage.
But I can’t ignore him; I glance at him. He eats quickly. “Big meeting?” I say.
“Big enough,” he says. “I’m in the office in the morning, then I’m on the road with one of my reps. It’s a new rep, a training thing.” As he finishes his toast, he adds, casually, “I’ll probably be late tonight.”
“How late?” I ask.
He’s up, slipping into his jacket. California is not as formal as New Jersey. A suit and tie isn’t required here and hardly worn. But Richard likes the uniform and requires all his reps wear it to project the correct business tone.
“Late late. Eleven,” he says.
He’s strolling to the front door. I’m clearing the table with a blank face. I don’t notice he has returned until he is behind me and wrapping his arms around me.
“It really was a great weekend. I like being a dad. I wish I had more time to be with you and the girls.”
My heart pumps furiously, thrusting pulses of anger through me, and stiffening my muscles, so what he embraces is something as hard and inflexible as stone.
“What are you teaching your new sales rep?” freeing myself, turning to face him, piercing his eyes with mine, shifting his to the phone.
“Somebody called?” he asks. His voice is even. No, I detect an undercurrent of annoyance. “Why didn’t you tell me?” as he goes to the phone, aggressively, retrieving voicemail, listening.
“What’s her name?” I snap, surprising him. Surprising myself, too.
“Connie,” he says.
“Connie,” I repeat. I expel it like something dirty, foul and despicable, a disease, an ineradicable virus.
He approaches me. He touches my arm. His tone is softer, conciliatory. “Connie, yes, my new rep. She’s the one I’m training today.” His face is anxious. I know he wants to say more, ask me what I am thinking.
“Training for what?”
“Babe,” he says, soothing, smooth, but concerned, almost palpable, like comb residue in honey, “what’s bothering you?”
“Our Business is what’s bothering me.”
“Our Business,” he repeats, as if it’s impenetrable wifely argot for which he’ll need to consult a dictionary later to understand.
“Let me be clearer. Our doesn’t sound to me like she wants to discuss normal business, drug business.”
He extends his arms to embrace me, to pull me close. In his clutches, he strokes my hair, pets me like a disturbed pooch that will quiet down at the slightest display of affection.
I twist from him.
“Just explain what Our Business means to you and Connie.”
Placation and tolerance drain from his face and the stirring of anger replaces them. His eyes reduce to slits. His neck muscles cord. He shakes his head.
“Christ, Babe,” he says, raising his voice, not much, but enough to convey he’s upset with me. “Connie is a new sales rep. I train my reps, remember? I teach them the DeSantis method of selling. That’s why I’m number one, why my territory is number one is the country. And it’s why we’re here, in this house, in San Diego. It’s where everybody wants to live. Christ, I’m working for us. I’m trying to be a good father. And what do I get from you?”
“Superdad,” I mutter.
“What?” The word is edged, sharp, like a knife blade, belligerent.
I shouldn’t say what is banging around in my head. I can’t hold back, though, so powerfully does the thought pressure me. If I keep it in I might burst. “It was a sham, a show for the benefit of the girls, and for me too. You’re guilty, Richard. You’re no Superdad. You’re no father at all.”
His whole body stiffens. His fists clench. He frightens me, though Richard has never harmed, or so much as threatened, me. In fact, he’s rarely argued with me. Now, for a reason I’m certain I know, is different.
“All this, this attitude of yours, because of what? A phone call? A phone call from one of my employees? Why’d she call here? If you weren’t so preoccupied dreaming up invectives about my fathering skills, you would have noticed I didn’t use my BlackBerry once. Not one time the entire weekend. For your information, she forgot what time we were meeting. That’s it, just checking the time. When I didn’t respond to the messages, two messages she left on my BlackBerry, she called the home number. That’s it, Babe.”
His diatribe tranquilizes him. Now everything about him slackens—face, arms, hands, even his suit.
He is lying. I am convinced of it, but I don’t know how to counter him. It’s his adamancy against my interpretation of a word. Well, not just a word, but a whole foundation of duplicitous behavior. I could hurl his years of deceit at him; tell him I have plenty of justification for reading more into Our Business than she forgot the time.
But I have a problem: I am weak. I am fearful. I can’t tolerate confrontation and the ugly arguing it engenders. I am like a reed that survives by bending when a stream surges during a storm. Richard is my opposite. He thrives on battle. His life and our livelihood are erected on his relish of and ability to wage economic war. He is like the mighty oak that yields to a big blow just enough to survive with dignity, but otherwise stands fast. Inflexibility like his means he must sustain fearsome wounds sometimes, but he never lets on. Which while I am condemning him sounds to me like I am praising and admiring him. Maybe I am. There are no saints and devils today, and maybe never were.
Anyway, my blustery indignation would amount to hardly a weak sea squall; actually restorative to him, for I believe he dislikes my passivity; he would like nothing more than a big air-cleaning hurricane of confrontation. Not that it would resolve anything. It isn’t that he doesn’t tell the truth, which I know he doesn’t; it’s that he no longer knows what is true.
I say, “If you say so, Richard.”
He hunts around my face, peers deep into my eyes, concentrates on them; he’s very intense, to a degree that disturbs me. I can imagine him with his employees; I don’t think I would much like working for him.
What he sees must satisfy him. He says, “Good. I’m glad we cleared it up.” He pecks my cheek, and leaves.