Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 11)

11

On the bed, time has eluded me, when the phone rings. I pick it up.

“Babe, I’m really sorry. I’ve been locked in a training class the entire day. How’s Samantha?”

He sounds harried and worried. However, feigning emotions is an art Richard has practiced and perfected. It’s a useful illusion in his briefcase of sales tricks. If he were in front of me where I could see his eyes, I could judge his sincerity.

“Fine,” I say, clipped.

“Fine. What does fine mean?”

“You’d know if you’d been at the hospital.” Regret instantly consumes me. I can’t stand an argument now, not with Samantha asleep, not with the situation: moving, accident, philandering, betrayal.

“I explained about the meeting. I’m sorry. Christ, I’m heartsick about it.”

“You have a phone.”

Dead air, absolute silence. It’s a waiting game, another of Richard’s tactics. Wait for the other person to move first, blunder, while you marshal your thoughts; counter with force. He employs the tactic expertly. I know the rules but I’m not a gamester. I always surrender, followed by Richard reminding me that I would never succeed in business, and that we are fortunate he’s the one earning the living.

“Minor bruises and a couple of cuts,” I say, to stop the emptiness from expanding between us.

“Good, good,” he says. After more silence, he says, “I’m sorry about this, Babe.”

“I understand, Richard,” I say, unhappy with myself for giving into him.

“No,” he says, “sure I’m sorry about not getting back to you sooner, sure. But I’m really sorry I can’t get home tonight. We’ve got a dinner, and after we’re doing another session. It’s a fantastic new product. We’re going to make millions. But it’s complicated, and we’ve got to get up to speed fast.”

“Oh, sure, I understand.”  But I don’t. Since our move to Cranbury and his elevation to district manager, work is the axis of his conversation—the breadth and quality of his sales territory, his sales force, the strategies they employ, and the products they sell. Since we’ve been married, he’s worked on the introduction of two new drugs, and in both instances he talked about them interminably. He studied them and attended training for weeks. He described the intensity of his activities in detail, until I was ready to scream at him to stop, to show me a modicum of mercy. But now he is lying; I am convinced.

He declares me the best and testifies to his good fortune having me as his wife; and he hangs up, free to pursue whatever has captured his attention.

I relocate my packing operation to the living room. I’ve saved it for last, as I enjoy taking my tea here, wishing to maintain the room for as long as I can. It represents comfort and normalcy.

I’ve been working for a while when Samantha walks in rubbing her eyes.

“How are you feeling, honey?” I glance at the regulator clock on the wall. She’s slept for two hours.

“Good.”

“Sore? Anything hurt?”

She shrugs.” No, not much.”

“Hungry?”

“Ump,” she grunts, another shrug.” Maybe.”

I have an ulterior motive as I suggest we retrieve Emily from next door and go out.” How’s pizza sound to you? Jerry’s?”

“Yeah, Jerry’s.”  She’s perky now. The pizzeria’s name is magic. The girls adore the place. Jerry’s saucy, square pizza, tomato pies they call them, is the attraction, as well as the kitschy murals, vistas of Venice, Rome, and Naples’ harbor. They always ask, “Can we go there?” and “Will it look like the pictures?” Neither Richard nor I like Jerry’s; we were raised on cheesy pizzas. Tonight the attraction for me is simple: Jerry’s is in Princeton and five minutes from Richard’s office. I doubt even he would be so stupid as to campout in his office with whomever. But I allow myself the dread.

We pick up Emily, who expresses squeaky delight at our adventure and cruise over to Princeton. Along the way, I have doubts about lurking in the parking lot of Richard’s office building. What if his car is there and his office light on? What can I do with Samantha and Emily with me, except bake in the pizzeria and on the drive home?

Near Jerry’s, the girls, Emily first and Samantha right behind her, say, “Let’s see if Daddy wants to come with us.”

I equivocate. “I don’t know. He’s at an important meeting. I don’t think he’ll have the time.” For good measure, “And then he’ll feel bad he can’t join us.”

I observe them in the rearview mirror. Samantha is quiet and impresses me as contemplative. Maybe she understands. But, no, she can’t; she’s still too young. Without hesitation, Emily pleads, “Let’s see. Let’s see, please.”

I’ve only half persuaded myself swinging by Richard’s office is the wrong thing to do and Emily’s begging provides me with an excuse to act on my motive. I pass the little strip mall where Jerry’s is, and continue the short distance to Richard’s. I drive through the front and back lots. The girls press their noses against their respective windows, searching.

“Too bad. It doesn’t look like Daddy’s here.” I attempt a cheeriness that I betray with a grimace; though, thankfully, they can’t see my face.

We go to Jerry’s and later leave with a small pizza for Richard. It’s not my idea; Samantha and Emily insist.

We arrive home before nine and I put them to bed straightaway.

I’m alone in the living room, a cup of tea on the coffee table, the room dim, lit by light seeping from the kitchen, staring at myself mirrored in the window. I’m not happy with me. I appear haggard. My countenance is a scowl. As the clock ticks away to ten, then eleven, I watch myself deteriorate into a crone. By now, too, my mood is foul; it’s as dark and cold as the night beyond the glass that reflects back the wretched me.

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Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 7 and 8)

7

The address was on a Post-it, scratched hurriedly, almost indecipherable. It was an address without a name, just 96th Street, NYC. I had slipped it into my purse.

It was a Saturday when I arranged with Carol a twenty-four hour play date for Emily and one for Samantha with another neighbor. Richard, as usual, was working and left the house before eight. I was on the Turnpike by ten, through the tunnel by eleven-thirty, and parked in the Port Authority by noon. Forty-first Street was deserted and I easily caught a cab. I asked the driver to drop me a block east of where Angie and Bobby lived. I didn’t want to chance running into them, for I didn’t really know my purpose. Perhaps I did want to confront Angie, reveal my knowledge of her marriage to a man I loathed, and my discovery of it in spite of her determined deception. Then again, maybe I was there simply because I could not trust Richard; that I suspected him of manufacturing the tale for no other reason than to torment me.

I walked around the block. It was a pleasant neighborhood, neat, expensive, gentrified into contrived quaintness. Angie and Bobby’s address was a six-story gray stone that looked as if it dated back to the Twenties. A small garden separated it from the street and a wrought iron fence formalized the boundary between private and public property. A Starbucks was on the corner and it afforded a direct view of their entrance.

I ordered a plain black coffee and sat at the counter that ran along the window. Over the next hour I observed three couples exit. Seeing them released a tension mounting in me. It seemed unlike me and I realized some of Richard’s competitiveness had rubbed off on me. I fretted that Angie and Bobby owned or rented the penthouse. Perhaps it was a bit more than misplaced competitiveness, and maybe it had nothing to do with keeping a step ahead. Maybe, instead, it had everything to do with my fear that Angie and Bobby were a perfect match; in Bobby McFarlane Angie had found the successful and possibly devoted man she’d dreamed of back in Creek Falls. On the stool in Starbucks allowing my overpriced black coffee to grow cold, I suffered pangs of jealousy, and then self-recrimination for begrudging Angie happiness, and then a reluctant appreciation of why she asked Richard not to reveal her marriage to me.

It was around two when I saw them come out. I would have overlooked them, not recognized Bobby, if it hadn’t been for Angie, who, in spite of for her pregnancy, appeared very much as she had in high school. But Bobby, he wasn’t himself. It was like a “Twilight Zone” episode, the one where the old couple try to trade their worn bodies for new models, though in the case of Bobby the exchange is from a grimy runt to an elongated, polished clean, and well dressed—expensively in a sky-blue shirt and black slacks, and gleaming black shoes, shining so brightly in the sunshine I saw them glint from half a block away—image of success. I remember my disbelief; that I must have been in a nightmare.

I sat frozen, my coffee forgotten, the only thing filling my mind and my vision, the improbable couple. Angie walked on Bobby’s right, close to him, gripping his arm with both her hands. He bent into her several times as they ambled toward Starbucks and me. He kissed her, and how repellant the act seemed to me. She spoke to him, smiled, and he kissed her again; and she laughed in response, threw her head back, and laughed as if he actually pleased her. They were yards distant, and a window was between us, too, yet I believed I could hear her from where I sat, as if she had fired her roaring laugh directly at me, and it plunged into me, a flaming arrow of searing sadness.

I slid off the stool to ensure they did not see me and stood to the inside of the front door until they passed. I waited a moment, not much more, until they turned the corner, when I left Starbucks and fell in behind them. They zigzagged over to 5th Avenue, where they hailed a cab. I dashed to the curb and flagged my own cab. I was breathless and a good-humored fare, explaining to the cabby this was something like the movies; I wanted him to follow that cab a few cars ahead of us.

We traveled down 5th for several minutes. They stopped on the park side, across from the Guggenheim, and I asked my driver to pull over at 89th Street. I slowly walked toward where their cab had deposited them. They had the light and crossed to the museum and entered it. There was a bench on my side of the street and I sat down. I admit the sight of Angie and Bobby entering the Guggenheim surprised me. I didn’t know Angie was fond of art, but I credited her with the intelligence to have developed an appreciation. But Bobby, his transformation from a grease-smeared bum, startled me. He had gone from fixing cars to repairing people, and now this. I began to doubt myself, to wonder if I had terribly misjudged him. Perhaps Richard had been right about Bobby when he claimed he was smarter than I imagined, and possessed more ambition, far beyond cars and a predictable existence in Creek Falls. What had I accomplished compared to Bobby? I’d married Richard. My ambition had been to marry Richard and have a family, and, maybe, if I could manage it and Richard would agree, to teach when the girls where in school full-time. And here was the boy I’d detested, who I had banned from my wedding, from whom I had attempted to separate Richard; here he was successful, apparently cultured, married to my best high school friend, who herself was accomplished. How could I have been so wrong? Maybe Angie and Bobby were right inviting only Richard to their place, keeping their marriage and where they lived from me.

It seemed they were in and out of the Guggenheim in minutes, but my watch indicated that two hours had passed. I was startled and a little worried my own mystification and, maybe too, envy so engrossed me I’d lost track of time and location.

We taxied again. We weaved down and across town to Seaport Village. It was a beautiful day, sunny and pleasantly warm. They strolled arm in arm, with me close behind. They circulated through the shops and accumulated bags that Bobby carried. Frequently, he leaned into Angie and whispered to her. She laughed. I knew she laughed because I saw her shoulders shake. Sometimes he kissed her, usually on the cheek, but once he stopped her right in the middle of a gaggle of sightseers and kissed her on the mouth. It wasn’t a peck; he wrapped her in his bag-festooned arms and kissed her with a passion that embarrassed me, and aroused my jealously. How long had it been since Richard kissed me like Bobby kissed Angie? I couldn’t recall. Maybe not since Samantha was born. Maybe not since his work, his drive to achieve, replaced me as the passion of his life.

It seemed too much to me, their attraction to each other. Was it possible two people whom I was certain disliked each other, that a woman I believed I knew, that a man I detested, that these two could meld into the embodiment of the hallowed couple?

My afternoon of surveillance persuaded me it was. Stupid twists of trite sayings whizzed around in my mind: A tiger could change his stripes. Birds of totally different plumage do flock together. Instead of warmth and happiness at the sight, the encouraging good cheer that if this then what more: the end of religious war, or racial hatred, for what wasn’t possible? Instead, I was exhausted, aching, ready to return home, unhappy with my lot, and pining over my predicament.

And then it happened, what I suspected, and, truthfully, what I had hungered for, my subliminal motive for shadowing the two up and down Manhattan—Bobby affirmed the immutability of his character; that his stripes were still black and repugnant, the color and sentiment of his heart. We were in the financial district at the site occupied by the new World Trade Center. There we stood, though not together, but close enough for me to see tears glistening on Angie’s cheek. Bobby did the expected. He enfolded her, gazing on the enshrined site and comforted her, until he looked away, and his eyes latched onto a woman passing behind them. She was tall, lithesome, and beautiful by any measure. She was with a man. He wasn’t nearly as young or attractive as she. She was on his arm, but I could see she was detached, in a world to which she had closed the portal, at least to her companion. Bobby, still clutching Angie, swiveled his head and revealed to me, to anybody who was paying attention, an unmistakable expression of boredom. It could have been the time of day, the endless sightseeing, the hard labor of it all, and the exhaustion it engendered. But he wasn’t tired, simply bored with Angie, for in the second it took the woman to pass, Bobby’s face flashed pleasure, excitement, and desire, and he seemed to pull away from Angie, as if the passing body possessed an irresistible attracting force, a seductive gravity.

The expression struck me, disturbed me, and dissuaded me instantly from reversing my opinion of Bobby McFarlane. It highlighted more, too. It announced Bobby did not love Angie. Why he was with her, what his purpose was, I didn’t know. Love, however, was not it. For, I understood marriage without love, marriage with a man who regarded everything and everybody as better than his wife and home. And in that instant, I was afraid for Angie . . . and for myself.

8

The crash startles me. It’s loud and reverberates off the hard walls and surfaces of the kitchen. For a frightening second, I can’t place where I am or what is happening, until my foot strikes something. I step back and the something crunches under my foot. I look down and see my largest serving platter, a white, oval stoneware server decorated around the edge with grapes in relief, broken at my feet.”Shit,” I hear myself exclaim. The platter was a bit of the Richard booty I liked. I used it only once, as Richard wasn’t much for having people over; he preferred entertaining in restaurants. It’s better, he said. It saves you work. I’m only thinking of you. I didn’t believe him. I’ve always been a nervous party planner, always worrying whether a dish would turn out, concerned that the house was neat and clean enough, that sort of thing. Richard said your trepidation is aggravating; I am aggravating. Restaurants aren’t aggravating.

I pick up three large pieces and dozens of shards. I consider repairing it, but finally concede it is unsalvageable. I sweep up the smaller shards and toss the shattered platter in the garbage. I check the clock. Plenty of time before Samantha comes home. I resume packing and admonish myself to pay closer attention to what I am doing.

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Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 5 and 6)

5

It was the night he shocked me with Angie’s marriage to Bobby; that Bobby was a doctor, in residency; that they lived in New York City and he had seen them many times. No, seen them isn’t right: He called them; visited them; ate dinner with them at their place; he’d been social with them without ever uttering a word. Worse, he claimed he’d been secretive at Angie’s urging.

I was distraught, when I said, “I suppose they have a family, too.”

Richard can be maddeningly indifferent, painfully cruel, brutally insulated from feelings, mine specifically. He said, “You suppose c-o-r-r-e-c-t-l-y.”  A slap would have stung less than his snide exaggeration.

I collapsed on the floor in our bedroom. I think that is a real recollection, me prostrate on the floor, he perching on the edge of the bed, observing me, cocking his head, inspecting me as if I were a curiosity, a zoo specimen that should have no feelings but, oddly, against all zoological laws, seemed to possess them; hurry up with the dissection kit, Charlie, here’s the missing link.

“It’s not exactly a family, yet,” he said.

I choked on a dry sob, as if he had suctioned everything from me, even my tears.

“She’s pregnant. Not too far along, about three months. Now,” he said, rising, “if you’ll excuse me, I have to get into the bathroom.” 

Pain pierced me, inflicted agony in every part of me, my head, my eyes, my chest, but most viciously, my heart. It was like everybody I knew, I loved, I believed loved me, had surrounded me and were jabbing me with daggers: Richard poking with a degree of malice too great even for him; Rosemary, the nun, the celibate, stabbing, as if to enforce Paul’s Corinthian admonishment, reminding me that I was a fool for putting my life in the hands of any man, especially Richard’s; and Angie, the Brutus, running me through with a sharpened, greasy screwdriver forged in the union with Bobby, the devil, one of the few people who I could unequivocally declare I despised, twisting the fouled steel on the fulcrum of her pregnancy. I wanted to scream and beat the floor with clenched fists; but I couldn’t. Samantha and Emily would have heard and wakened; and fabricating an excuse, containing my anguish, carrying on normally, would have intensified the torture immeasurably.

When Richard emerged from the bathroom, I was still on the floor, in a fetal curl, whimpering and jerking spasmodically. He glanced down at the wreck that was me. He shook his head in mock pity.”Got to go,” he said.

6

Richard is a list maker, an annotator, and a note taker. He’s fully electronic, but he also resorts to pen and paper. His pen of choice is a Mont Blanc, a bulky black tube large enough to be a weapon. It’s self-aggrandizing, his personal award for a promotion, or maybe it was for driving his office to achieve a nearly impossible goal; Richard calls these Olympian efforts “stretching” and he delights in devising “reach” goals, more of his deceptively benign nomenclature. He lugs the pen in the inside pocket of his suit jacket, along with his small leather notepad. His notes are mostly reminders to himself. He files them in his pants pockets, but often, more often than not, forgets them the second he yanks them from his pad. I asked him about his habit early on, why he bothered when he immediately forgot about the notes, and I was left to snatch them from his pockets before the dry cleaner bonded them where he’d filed them. The notes themselves weren’t important, he’d informed me; it was the act of writing that seared the messages to be remembered permanently in his mind. Inadvertently, while caring for him and his clothing, I found the address of Bobby and Angie McFarlane.

Emily skips into the kitchen.

“Finished already,” I say, not a question, but a skeptical declaration.

She nods vigorously and requests a glass of milk. After she drinks it, fast, gulping loudly, as if she’s munched a desiccant packet, which once she did as a toddler, she asks if she can go next door. I call across the way, clear an afternoon of play at Carol’s, and send her out the backdoor. I watch as she runs through our yard into Carol’s and disappears into the house. Carol pops her head out and signals Emily’s safe arrival.

I decide to check Emily’s work, always a good idea with her. I find she has removed every object from Richard’s desk. They are in the box. But she has clumped everything together in a single piece of clean newsprint, sort of like dead soldiers in a mass grave. I sit on the floor and settle into the task of doing the job right.

I’ve properly wrapped half the items in Emily’s clump, when I stop. What the hell am I doing? Taking special care of Richard’s ridiculous testaments to his ego. Serves him right if the things show up in San Diego as broken meaningless garbage for dragging us away from Cranbury, for lying, for cheating, for taking me hostage and locking me in a velvet prison. And me, what’s to be said of me, who abets him?

I promptly unwrap the items I’d meticulously wrapped. I bunch them in Emily’s fashion and drop them in the box. My daughter was right.

My small act of vengeance improves my disposition and I go down to the kitchen to pack things that hold meaning for me.

I’ve put most of the dishes and silverware in boxes. I’ve held back four of everything we use daily. Miscellaneous platters and bowls and the like remain and I set to work on them. I remove them from the cabinets and stack them on the table in the breakfast area. I sit, begin, and stare into the backyard.

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Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 3 and 4)

Angie’s young. I’m seeing her as she was in high school. Her hair is black and curly, relaxed ringlets that someone not knowing her might think were permed. Her face is round. She’s Italian, but her face has strong oriental qualities: faintly epicanthic eyes, bud lips that when she paints them bright red resemble a Geisha’s mouth. She’s my height, but not nearly as slim as I am, more zaftig—busty and hippy. Back then my mother was after me about being skinny. Now she’s after me to lose a few pounds, drop the baby fat because the babies are here, been here for a long time now.

It’s the winter Richard and I started dating. Angie and I are walking along Main Street shopping, dashing in and out of stores as much to warm up as to eye, caress, but rarely buy, the merchandise. Creek Falls is a cold and snowy patch of earth, just on the north side of a weather line that separates it from downstate’s slightly milder winters. It’s a damp freeze, too, the penetrating kind that seeps into my bones until it requires an entire night by the radiator to restore me.

The day I’m remembering was fierce and I know I was trembling visibly. As we strolled on Main, Bobby McFarlane pulled up beside us and paced us in his Belair. Richard rode with him often, but not that day. Bobby lunged across the front seat and cranked down the passenger window.

“Get in,” he yelled, as if being Richard’s girlfriend bestowed upon him power to command me.

Angie, who already had hold of my arm, tightened her grip. She raised her free hand and wagged her gloved middle finger at Bobby. He reciprocated and roared off, not bothering to close the window.

“I hope he freezes his ass off,” she said.

“A possibility,” I told her.” Richard says the heater’s busted.”

“Serves him right.”

She was shivering and her eyes were tearing.

“Let’s get a tea,” I said.

The coffee shop was a short order joint, rich with the scent of burgers and french fries and coffee, alive with the soft chatter of locals perched on stools at the counter. It was comfortable, and comforting. We hadn’t said anything to each other since entering and seating ourselves in the back booth. We were too busy warming up, relishing the heat, and squirming out of our coats when we were, finally, too hot.

“This is good,” I said, sipping my tea, holding the cup under my face to savor the steamy fragrance.

“What’s with Richard?”

It was an abrupt question.”What do you mean?”

“Richard seems like a nice guy. I mean, he’s got to be a nice guy. You like him. But this thing with Bobby?”

I shrugged.”Richard says it’s because Bobby has a car.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, Richard says it’s just easier to get around with a car. He can’t afford his own. Bobby’s got one. Or something like one.”

“He hangs around with a guy just because he has a car, to hitch an easy ride? Doesn’t that sound, I don’t know, kind of shallow to you?”

“I suppose. But we’re not married. I can’t demand Richard not see Bobby.”

She smiled.”Not yet you’re not.”

I didn’t want to talk about Bobby and Richard or Richard and me.”What kind of guy are you hoping to marry?” I asked.

“Certainly nobody from Creek Falls,” she said.” You can bank on that.”

4

If Richard or the girls were around now, they’d want to know why I’m weepy. Irony is the reason, but the girls are too young to comprehend and Richard is emotionally dense.

My tea has cooled, but I don’t mind. It’s time to retrieve Emily, then make her lunch, and find a way to entertain her, because I can’t impose upon Carol everyday. Then it’s resume packing.

I dump the tea dregs in the kitchen sink. It is an odd sink for a kitchen. It’s not the shape. It is a double and large and perfectly fine. It’s the color. It is blue, a particularly bright shade, close to sky, celestial, that shade. It matches the kitchen.

I wash and dry the Limoges set, handling it with the care it deserves, pausing to admire it and trace my finger along the rim of the saucer, quivering with sensual pleasure. Placing it in the rack to dry, the realization strikes me that I’ve caressed the cup and saucer more, been more intimate with them, than I have with Richard in the past month, maybe longer.

We’ve had our bad patches previously, several of them, most when I succumbed to my suspicions about his faithlessness. The incident with Angie, however, was different, much more affecting. Another woman’s not involved, unless I count Angie. It was a betrayal I couldn’t fully forgive. I’ve tamped down my feelings to gray ash from the inferno they were when he revealed the marriage of Angie and Bobby, and his secret visits with them.

I put the Limoges on the rack to drain safely.

But the sink, I am mulling over the blue sink, the matching blue kitchen. It’s a mystery, really. I don’t recall how the sink or the kitchen got blue. I don’t remember them as blue when we bought the house. I can’t recollect redecorating and selecting blue. Of course I redid the house, loaded it with expensive things, some treasures I loved, but most just things bought in reprisal for Richard uprooting and dropping me in the middle of an alien world—his realm of work, travel, and deceit. But the kitchen, if I did redecorate it, I’m sure I would have done it in white, a polar tone to keep it bright and efficient, or a traditional yellow, maybe a rich ocher. Blue, though?

However, I have no time to waste on what I did or didn’t do. The clock, a circle ringed in celestial blue—how extraordinary, too, that the kitchen is blue and yet monochromatic at the same time—tells me I am cutting it close. Emily hates when she is the last child picked up and extracts a price with recalcitrance that either I have to deal with or, too often, assuage with a treat.

Traffic is light and I arrive ahead of release time. I park behind a few early birds, mothers occupied with phone calls. I wait and a line builds behind me. I’m amazed at how much time I spend, toss away is more like it, waiting on Samantha and Emily. Once I moaned about it to Richard.

He said, “I don’t understand you, Babe?”

“You don’t understand what, Richard? That I find it mind-numbing to sit in a car half the day waiting for the girls?”

“I doubt you spend anything near half a day,” he rebuked.”The point is, it’s your job. It’s in the job description of ‘mother.’  That’s why you’re home. I know women who would trade places with you in a second.”

We were in bed early. Richard had expectations for the night. But his demeaning remarks enraged me and I bolted into the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and vented my anger in tears. Ten minutes passed and I returned to bed. Richard was sleeping. I slipped in quietly and positioned myself toward the edge, eliminating any possibility of touching him. In a dumb way knowing his desires were left unfulfilled satisfied me. It wasn’t much, possibly nothing. However, Richard was a man who usually got what he wanted on the job and at home and not much was a triumph of sorts.

Emily trots from the building, smiling, delighted to be one of the happy crowd whose mother loves her enough to fetch punctually. I climb out and greet her with a huge hug, hoisting her skyward and thrilling her with a swing from side to side.

In the car, she chatters endlessly about her day, her friends, rivals, her activities, and her achievements, stellar among them a magnificent drawing of a cow. She holds it up to me, demanding I study it, as if it is a Matisse, not an authentic Matisse, not a woman or a still life, yet fanciful, a commentary on canvas, or in Emily’s case, construction paper. I divide my gaze, switching cautiously between drawing and road.

“Sweetheart, but why’s the cow red?” It certainly is fauvist, at least in color, and in that the cow, bloated like a balloon, floats above a bright blue landscape.

“She’s a mad cow.”

A distempered female, so what else is new?

“Why’s she mad?”

“She’s fighting with the daddy cow.”

I’m surprised and stricken with guilt. It’s impossible not to fight with Richard sometimes, but some arguing is naturally built into marriage. I am amazed that Richard and I argue infrequently. I’m mad at him plenty, usually with cause. However, I respect my daughters. I love them. I want them to feel that love and the security of a calm and ordered home. Nothing would undermine this more than incessant battle royales with their father. Obviously, though, scrupulous as I am, as pained as I may find myself caging the vituperation engendered by some careless, thoughtless, or premeditated transgression of Richard’s, Emily has seen enough, and it’s made an impression.

“What’s the fight about?” I ask her.

“Oh,” she says, delineating the cow with a long, slim finger, “the daddy cow says she has to move to a new place.”

Well, I wouldn’t say the mommy cow is mad about moving from her comfortable home in Cranbury, green, lush, seasonal Cranbury, to a place that is brown, dusty, and monotonous; leaving a clutch of acquaintances requiring years to establish; forfeiting schools, doctors, contractors, and shops she’s come to like and rely on; but she’s certainly not thrilled. And she has told the daddy cow as much. Maybe I’ve expressed my unhappiness a little too often for the good of the girls. I strived for circumspection, discussing my concerns with Richard in the privacy of our bedroom, in brief conversations, because lately I’ve been able to garner only snippets of Richard’s time and attention. Yes, the move represents a wonderful opportunity; it means great things for Richard; and it will reward our family with . . . well, with more stuff, which is important to him, perhaps to the girls too, but less so to me. I’ve conceded all this to him. But Samantha and Emily are people, I’ve said. They have friends and things they like about Cranbury. Besides, Cranbury is their entire world; it is everything they have known since they were born. These pleadings did not impress Richard, who is of the opinion children adapt, and ours aren’t the first children who’ve ever moved. They’ll survive. True, I yielded, but not without anguish.

“Well, I don’t know about the mommy cow’s new place, but ours is going to be wonderful,” I say.”It’ll be sunny and warm all year. You can play outside every day, if you like.”  This is my big gun. Emily loves the outdoors; loves running; loves anything physical.

“I know,” she drones.

“I bet you’ll meet someone as nice and fun as Seth almost the minute the moving men put your things in your room. Maybe even sooner.” Well, perhaps not someone exactly like Seth, but close enough. I chose the area and the house because I saw lots of children, big and small, and as close as next door.

“You say.”

“I know.”

She grunts.”The mommy cow’s still mad.”

We drive the rest of the way, which isn’t very far, in silence, with Emily resting her head on the door window and staring out. At home, we eat. After, I deposit her in Richard’s home office that he hardly uses as he is seldom home. Regardless, he’s managed to accumulate an assortment of business bric-a-brac—awards, photos, paperweights, a desk set, pens promoting the company’s various drugs, and lots more. I let Emily help by giving her a box, clean newsprint, and instructions to clear and pack Richard’s desk.

I return to the kitchen and resume packing. It isn’t long before I’m wondering about Angie’s baby, asking myself if Richard hadn’t lied about it.

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 1 and 2)

1

I am packing for our move to San Diego. Richard has been prowling the house, shaking his head in disbelief, complaining at every opportunity about wasting his time.

“Babe,” he said the first packing Saturday in the kitchen wrapping our everyday plates in the clean newsprint provided by the movers, “the company is paying for everything.” He flapped paper for emphasis. “Everything, including the guys who’ll do this.”

“I don’t trust anyone with our things,” I said.”Besides, this way, I’ll know where things are. Otherwise I’ll be unpacking for a year, not you.”

He worked for a half-hour, until his BlackBerry rocked—aptly, Foreigner’s “Urgent.” He grunted and pantomimed for several seconds, though the sneaky smile peeking at me around the phone hinted the truth.

“Got to go,” he said, nearly in his car when he called the reason, “big fuck-up.”

Since that Saturday two weeks ago, I’ve been packing. Samantha helps in her small way. Emily creates work. Fortunately, my neighbor Carol volunteered to have her over to play with Seth, her son, afternoons when she’s back from pre-school.

But, really, my mind isn’t on Richard. It’s not on the packing or the girls. Angie, my best friend from high school, preoccupies me, and has since I learned the unimaginable happened to her. She married Bobby McFarlane, and then she died.

2

Preparing to leave has revealed to me how amazing our situation is.

We moved into a large house in Cranbury, New Jersey. Richard decided I should stay at home. The births of Samantha and Emily sealed my fate, though I admit to myself, never to Richard, I find home life satisfying. But before Samantha and Emily came, I hadn’t much to do and was restless.

Richard said, “Do what all women do.” 

“What’s that?” I asked.”I’ve been a woman my entire life and I’m not familiar with what all women do.”

He disregarded the sarcasm. Richard is excellent at ignoring what he doesn’t want to hear, or what doesn’t agree with his notion of the proper world order.

“Shop,” he said.”Buy stuff for the house. The place needs stuff.”

He was right. The house was huge, much larger than the home I’d grown up in and bigger than Richard’s house. It surpassed the largest houses in Creek Falls, those that Angie and Rosemary lived in, houses I always regarded as mansions, the kind of houses I aspired to. So I shopped and shopped and crammed every room in our Cranbury house with furniture. When I finished with the furniture, I continued to buy. Pictures for the walls. Vases. Candlestick holders and candles. More towels and sheets than I could ever use. Seasonal decorations; our house mimicked the seasons inside and out. Everyday I bought a few new items, everything except electronics. Richard’s contributions to the buying spree were televisions for upstairs and downstairs, stereos, personal electronic devices for himself. When Samantha came along, there was more to buy—furnishings, clothing, and the like. Emily got her own gear, no hand-me-downs in our little family. I didn’t realize how much I’d bought, what a one-woman economy I represented, until I began to pack our hoard.

I pack in three-hour shifts, mostly because the periods correspond to the girls’ schedules: See Samantha off. Drive Emily to preschool. Three hours later, pick up Emily and make her lunch. Three hours later, meet Samantha at the bus stop; prepare a snack for her and Emily. Three hours after that I put dinner on the table. I usually manage a few minutes for myself between these frenzied episodes, a retreat from the havoc life has become since Richard announced his promotion and the move to California.

I’m brewing a cup of chamomile tea. I prefer mild, soothing blends, nothing too sharp or robust, for I have plenty of edge in my life at the moment and not nearly enough mellowness. I pour the boiling water into a special cup. During my accumulation days, I spied a delightful tea set in a Princeton antique shop. It was very fine porcelain Limoges, almost translucent, a delicate hand-painted arboreal design, though the royal blue, the result of time and wear, had faded to ceil. It wasn’t cheap by any means; the price had scared me off for two days. I reserved the tea set for my personal use. I didn’t mention my purchase to Richard, and I don’t use it in the presence of the girls, who would clamor for milk-white tea with me just to handle the cups and saucers.

I carry my tea into the living room, set it on the glass coffee table, and plop on the sofa. I have two sofas in the room facing each other, coffee table between them. My favorite is the sofa facing the floor to ceiling mullioned windows. From my sofa I am able to look out over our deep front lawn into the street and past it to the forested front yard of the house across the street. No one in the family uses the living room save me, so it is always tidy, a wonderful sanctum of solitude. I will miss the room and the view.

Richard flew me to San Diego twice to look for houses. We saw a decent house in Rancho Bernardo, but I wasn’t happy that the houses were one on the other, each exactly alike in design and color. Even more distressing was the landscape: brown, arid, rocky, green only where irrigated. Richard, I remember, was enthusiastic; he’s always upbeat about his ideas and his career, always ready to fend off my disgruntlement with his pocket phrase, But I’m doing it for us, Babe. I dampened his pleasure when he asked what I thought.”Brown,” I said.”Everything is brown.” He regarded me quizzically, clueless that I was revealing my displeasure.

I’m gazing on a spectacular winter day. It is pleasantly cold, a temperature that chills just enough to wake and energize me. It snowed a few inches a couple of days ago and, since, the cold and sun have baked a thin crust of ice on the surface. The yard twinkles in today’s sunlight and I idly wish for my sunglasses. I sip my tea. I lean back. I close my eyes and I promise myself not to doze, not to risk being late to fetch Emily.

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 3: LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA (Part 4)

Bobby relegates Karen to the backseat with me, and for once I miss Richard, for I have no lifesaver to grip. Until this moment, I have never ridden in a car driven by Bobby McFarlane. I’ve imagined the experience as terror on rubber, but the real thing outstrips my fear. I’m strapped in, cinched tight, cut at the waist to discomfort, yet I still reel from side to side, bang into Karen when she and I are unsynchronized, and nearly crack my head on the window. Yet I alone am in abject terror. Bobby and Richard are slapping at each other and the dash to such an extent I can’t look forward, for fear I might watch us destruct in a head-on; better to not know and perish in anxious oblivion.

We careen forever, until, thankfully, the ride ends in the parking lot of the Marine Room. We emerge from the Mercedes in unison and group around Richard. They are in perfect condition, hair in place, and in Karen’s case, makeup pristine. I feel like I’ve climbed from a wreck, wrecked. When I flash on my reflection in the Mercedes’ window, I’m shocked to find I am as perfect as my companions. The turmoil and carnage is inside me.

We enter. Bobby and Karen immediately are effusive. The lobby captivates them, as it is elevated a floor above the restaurant, and even more, a large octagonal aquarium dominates its center. They circulate around the aquarium and exclaim at the various species circling in it. Bobby quips, “Hey, is dinner swimming in here, Richie?” Richard winks, and I have no idea what he means by the gesture. Karen blurts, “Ewe,” as if somehow what will be on her plate is unrelated to the cute fishes parading before her.

Finally, gratefully, we descend the stairs. Fortunately, while Bobby was Vita-Mixing us in the Mercedes, Richard phoned ahead and a table awaits us. The hostess, young, blond, in a black strapless cocktail dress, in flimsy sandal slides, bare legged, and, I suspect, without underwear, leads us to a table next to a window with a limitless view of the Pacific that seems to extend to Asia.

Trooping dutifully behind her, Bobby and Richard run eyes up and down the girl, and I sense them conjecturing about the underwear situation, whether she’s had a bikini wax, whether she is virginal. At least Richard would be weighing this last point. Richard early on in our marriage, clinging to me in bed, running his hand up and down my side, over my hip, repeatedly over my hip, revealed an attraction I held for him. I was pure, clean, spotless, he’d said, a perfect creature, unblemished. He told me of a movie he’d seem, Belle de Jour, about a housewife who fulfills her perverse desires in a brothel weekday afternoons, while her husband supposes her engaged in wifely activities. Physically, she is perfect, but not quite pure enough for a customer who detects a blemish on her body, one tiny imperfection. It enrages him. He expiates her for her sin of imperfection by beating her. Naturally, this revelation shocked me. Richard, not explicitly, but in tone, implied the man’s rage was understandable, perhaps even justified. Afterward, when Richard fell asleep, I went into the bathroom and examined myself. I was physically perfect, no moles or discolorations, or dimpled fat deposits; no creases, no visible veins, no dark hairs; nothing but clear smooth pristine skin. I remember staring at myself, sweating behind my ears and over my upper lip, thinking, “How long can I remain perfect?” Later, I even watched the movie and discovered Richard’s memory was imperfect. It was the man who was flawed, a criminal who wished to possess her.

“It’s a postcard, a big, beautiful postcard,” Karen gushes with her nose nearly on the glass, so close she fogs the window; so close I fear she might embarrass us by smudging it with her lip gloss.

Bobby drops an arm around her and pecks her cheek. “Beautiful, Doll?” he says. “The really beautiful stuff is sitting right here. Right, Ritchie?”

I would love to dive under the table and not surface until we leave. Instead, I manage a wan smile, which encourages Richard, who slithers an arm over my shoulder while spouting, “You bet.”

I am not much of a drinker; however, when the waitress appears for our order, I request a martini, the high-octane Bombay sapphire kind, straight up. It attracts their attention, and if wine was on anybody’s mind it isn’t now. Karen orders a Manhattan. Bobby and Richard ask for what I’m having. I’m tempted to urge the waitress to hurry, please, there’s an emergency at our table; but I tame my anxiety. The waitress leaves and they close around the center of the table, hunch forward toward each other, and begin chattering gaily. I turn toward the Pacific, tune them out, and focus on the descending sun and the people straggling onto the beach preparing to worship.

Our drinks arrive. We toast to friendship, though I mouth in silence. I gulp. Richard eyes me warily and says he’s sure glad I’m not driving. I respond with another weak smile.

Karen asks, “What’s happening?” She’s pointing to the beach congregants who have coalesced into a sizable mob.

I answer, “Evening vespers.”

Richard regards me askance, not angry, but perturbed, his eyes cautioning me to drop the iconoclastic wit, the real thing, not like earlier. Once he loved my humor. Quirky, weird, smart—he characterized my commentary variously then. Now it is an annoyance.

He says, “They’re here to watch the sunset. Californians can’t get enough of it.”

Karen’s eyes light up. “I just love sunsets. They’re so romantic. Bobby loves sunsets.”

Bobby grins, though on him it’s more a smirk. “I love sunsets,” he intones. “I love them so much they cost me a million bucks.”

I realize he’s attempting playful sarcasm, but he can’t disguise the meanness; it’s woven in his genes, bootstrap doctor, or not.

“Karen said you live on Long Island. Near the ocean?”

“It’s our backyard in Bayport,” chimes Karen, merrily.

“Yeah,” says Bobby, “we’ve got sharks for neighbors.”

“He’s kidding. Our neighbors are wonderful people.”

“Stock brokers, investment bankers, and a goddamn car dealer. Very nice human beings.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Karen says. “Vic got you exactly the Mercedes you wanted.”

“Charged me two freakin’ surgeries for it, too.”

Richard howls and Bobby joins in. Karen rolls her eyes at me, her commiserating signal that boys will be boys.

I’m not much interested in their house, but I care even less to listen to Bobby and Richard carp about money and shysters, and the like, which is the new direction of the conversation.

I ask, “What’s your house like?”

As the meal progresses; orders for steaks and fish are placed, delivered, and consumed; dessert fussed about, ordered, and appreciated; Karen rattles on and on about the house and Bobby fills in snidely. It is large. It contains many rooms, each professionally decorated. It is electronically state of the art—television, sound, and, naturally, home protection system to guard all the house contains. Everything impresses Richard, who avows we will need the same in our house, we will have the same, and by God we will have a larger house because we deserve it. The only thing that impresses me is that their backyard is the Atlantic Ocean. To have the Pacific as ours, a place in Solana Beach or Delmar, or up the coast in Laguna, now that is a dream; when Richard catches my eyes sparkling at the idea of ocean property, he cringes, and I feel a rush of pleasure that he is feeling himself inadequate.

By the time the conversation about their house and view end, each of us, except maybe me who has drunk at only half their pace, is tilting on the brink; and the bill sits on the table, tactfully located exactly between us. Richard and Bobby grab for the leatherette folder.

“Mine,” says Richard, “you’re my guest.”

“Hell we are,” retorts Bobby, “you’re my guest.”

“Can’t be.”

“Can’t? Why not?”

“You’re in my town.”

“Oh,” moans Bobby, as if there can be no legitimate counter.

“It’s your turn when we’re in Bayport,” says Richard, having the last word.

Richard slips a platinum credit card in the folder. He vibrates with triumph.

After the waitress scoops up the folder, Karen cries, “It can’t be over. We’re having too much fun.” Her words fall over each other and for a second I can’t comprehend her. Her face is florid, her eyes glazed, and her manner willowy, as if she has misplaced her muscles.

Bobby snickers. “Doll never wants the good times to end. Right, Doll?”

She leans against him, slides her head up his arm, nuzzles the side of his face, and kisses him. It’s sloppy and noisy, their style.

“Let’s have a party,” she says brightly, pushing away from Bobby. “Let’s go back to your place and have a party. We can do it all night. Just party and have a good time.”

“Well,” I say, “we have to pick up the girls, and they have school tomorrow.”

“We’ll be quiet like little church mouses, church mice.”

“I don’t think it’s such a good idea,” I say.

Richard’s contradiction follows hard on my sensible refusal. “Great idea,” he says.

“Richard,” I say, evenly, though he is infuriating me, “of course it would be nice, and I know you haven’t seen Bobby in a long time, but I don’t think a party on a school night with the girls at home is the best idea.”

Bobby chimes, “Come on, this won’t be a noisy party.”

Karen titters and nudges Bobby.

“Okay,” he says, with smarmy hilarity, “Karen’s a bit of a screamer. But, you know, we can always gag her. Sometimes I have to gag her at home to keep the sharks from calling the cops.”

Karen elbows him. “You’re such a fibber.” To me, “He’s such a fibber. Maybe I squeal a teensy bit, but no screaming.”

Bobby rolls his eyes in such extravagant circles he risks them popping from their sockets. She elbows him again.

Richard now is snickering, low, like a boy contemplating or remembering something bad but fun. He says, “Babe’s the quiet type, usually, but you never know.”

And then I comprehend and I reel. My vision blurs and all around me turns blue. The windows aren’t windows. They are slabs of blue, impenetrable, confining, and I feel imprisoned. My chest constricts and I struggle for breath, each a painful, desperate gasp. My ears buzz, not with their voices bearing hints of horrid intention; they buzz with sounds familiar yet unidentifiable: an incessant whoosh of air, a rhythmic hissing, as if somebody in the restaurant is working a pump; squeaks, like rubber on tile; and metallic pings, like tools rolling up into a carry case. I am cold, a pillar who, like Lot’s wife, has cast an eye and ear on the forbidden, and suffering for it. But I must be a toppling pillar for I feel Richard pressing against me, quizzing, “You with us, Babe?” Richard’s arm encompasses me, pulling me close; he puts his lips to my ear, shaking, whispering, “Come on, you’re embarrassing me in front of Bobby.”

Noise erupts from me. I shrug from Richard’s clutches and spring from my chair. I run through the restaurant, up the stairs, and out the door into the coastal night, black, low, and shrouded in moist haze. I dash up the parking lot, up the hill, onto the street, and along it, churning my legs as fast as I can, my thighs rebelling painfully against the food and alcohol, my breathing thick, labored, hot, cutting as it begins failing me. The pavement glistens, reflecting the yellow glow of the sodium lamps lining the street. My senses intensify. I suck in air tinged with salt and the faint odor of fish. My feet, clad in heeled sandals, click. I’m desperate, but I sound silly, a silly woman clickity-clacking along. I’m running without a destination.

I round a corner and the La Jolla Tennis Club appears on my right. It’s awash in blinding floods of vapor light. Perfect green clay courts shimmer as if in sunlight. They’re empty. The clubhouse is dark. The club recedes behind me.

The street is eerie. It is empty. That there are no people on the sidewalks isn’t strange; rarely are people walking around anywhere in San Diego or anyplace in Southern California. It’s the street that’s weird; that puts me on edge; that portends impending danger; that hews my sense of fear and demise to the fineness of a needle. There are no cars. There are always cars on the streets in Southern California. But here, now, there are none. The absence of cars is surreal.

I’m exhausted and I hurt. I stop. Winded, I crouch and breathe deeply. Then I hear it, the missing sound. It is the low whining of a car engine. It’s behind me. Its pitch is high and its volume is increasing, audibly speeding up as it closes on me.

I am spent and can’t stand up, but I must see it. I pivot around in my crouch. The headlights, bright white xenon, blind me and force me to raise a hand to shield my eyes.

In the sodium lights, it’s hard to read true color, but I can’t mistake the color of the car bearing down on me. It is ceil blue, already strange on a high-prized rental, and now bizarre in the prism of the street lamps.

I stagger to my feet, hand over eyes that are peeled on the car. It’s a Mercedes, and it can only be Bobby’s special rental. Surely when he sees and recognizes me, he’ll slow and swerve to miss me. Seconds pass and I watch. Then through the glare, in strange clarity, I see Bobby’s face in the windshield and Richard’s next to him, both sporting toothy smiles. Karen, who I treated pleasantly, who I tried, feeble as the attempt was, to like, leans forward from the backseat between them. Her smile as big and fat as theirs is unnatural, as if frozen; she is inanimate, I realize, bobbing in synchronization with the car: up, down, right, left, like a pornographic inflatable doll. My body burns, my gut churns, my bowels are steaming stew of roiling pressure burbling for release. My brain blazes, because in it is birthing the horrid understanding that the man I have been living with, who is the father of Samantha and Emily, this man is a killer, and he is aiming to kill me, with the assistance of his friend, the doctor who is a butcher, who I now in a burst remember was a doctor who murdered his own wife, my friend Angie, my friend who I had forgotten, who I had obsessed about.

I lurch left, fall, and roll, until the curb breaks my momentum. I shake off my shoes. I’m wet and dirty and aching, and wheezing air like an asthmatic, as I rise and plant my feet. I wobble and swing in the direction the car had been moving, expecting, at best, to see red taillights vanishing around a corner. But the situation is otherwise. As I focus on the car, Bobby cuts the wheel sharply. The Mercedes turns violently, the rear tracing a mad, lightening arc, tires squealing and smoking. For the blink of an eye, a cloud of gray acrid smoke hides the Mercedes; and when the blink ends, the car bursts through, straight at me.

My mouth is open wide and my throat is vibrating and raspy and pierced with pain, and I know I am howling, and I hope I’m yelling for help, and I pray, unconsciously that every conscious faculty concentrates on getting my enfeebled carcass moving.

I lunge away from the car, up onto the sidewalk, praying the curb will serve as an impediment—slow Bobby and Richard and Karen, flatten a tire, something.

It does do something. It trips me. I am on the ground again, on green, and I am scurrying on hands and knees, like a squirrel but without its speed or agility. I’m well onto the grass as the Mercedes hits the curb, filling the air with the sharp thunder of renting metal. I look back to see the car lift and fall, strike the ground hard on blown tires, burrowing like a missile. The tip of the hood scoops under me, lifts me up, bounces and smashes me against the windshield, where the three watch me with open delight, all three transformed somehow I cannot fathom, except it involves that strange celestial blue. Up, up I go and skim the roof and roll down the rear window and land on the ground, a soft cushion of damp earth.

I’m screaming, “I am alive.” I’m yelling in complete surprise for I believe I should be dead, that anybody in normal circumstances should be dead. I’m on my back. I roll and right myself and look at the Mercedes. It’s trembling, vibrating, alive. Brake lights flash and change to back-up lights and grass and dirt fly and when it smashes into me, I explode.

Flipped (Raw)

Flipped (Raw)

Chapter 3: LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA (Part 3)

It’s late now, nearly seven. Richard didn’t tell me what time he would be home with Bobby and the wife, but I can’t imagine it will be too much longer. Quickly, I finish the salad. I dash upstairs. I strip, shower, apply makeup sparingly, and am ready by six-forty five. Downstairs, I peek in the family room. It’s in good order. I’m grateful the girls have been neat. I wonder if I should have asked Samantha and Emily to change into something more appropriate for guests. But why? It’s only Bobby, and I detest him, and I don’t think the new professional version will neutralize my loathing.

In the kitchen, I remove the steaks from the refrigerator. I season them so Richard has only to lay them on the grill and fulfill his role of master griller. When I’ve finished, I hear the front door open and his call, lighter and brighter than it has been in a long while, “Babe, we’re here.”

Incredibly, I search for anything reflective to check my appearance, to insure I am presentable for Doctor Bobby McFarlane. I groan at my mountebank behavior with disgust.

“Babe,” roars Richard, so animated and joyful I fully expect sparks to fly from his ears, like fireworks at a ballgame when the home team hits a home run.

He’s on me quickly, enwrapping me in his arms, ramming his mouth on mine in a very unpleasant and borderline abusive kiss. Of course, I know it’s all show for the benefit of Doctor Bobby and Mrs. Doctor Bobby, who on cue enter when Richard has me in his clutches.

“Don’t smother the poor girl,” exclaims Bobby, spinning the words like they are a joke, like we should all pause to laugh hysterically. Oh, how he revolts me. My skin prickles as my hatred feeds itself.

“Bobby,” trills a female voice, “why don’t you kiss me like that?”

Richard releases my lips and swings to my side, as if we are connected by a hinge, and pins me to him. I can barely budge or draw anything but a shallow breath.

Bobby, in imitation, pulls his wife to him, bends her back, and attacks her lips with his. He pushes hard as she squirms and squeals delightedly. They kiss interminably. It occurs to me that I’ve never, until this moment, seen Bobby kiss anything apart from his old Belair.

This Bobby is bright, shiny, polished, just as Richard said. He’s burnished in the style of the really rich. The old Bobby was always a smudged mess, a boy whose parents I assumed for the longest time were too poor to afford a shower or a bathtub. That Bobby was disheveled, ratty top to bottom in the same crusted clothes day after day. Then he moved liked a stalked weasel, his head, it seemed, seated on a pivot. Too, he was short, a runt. The new version of Bobby is tall. He stands straight. Well, maybe that accounts for it. Not only did he learn medicine in school, he received instruction on improving his posture. They must have counseled that nobody would trust a stooped surgeon.

I’m at the point where I can’t watch them any longer, on the verge of screaming for relief, when, thankfully, Bobby releases her. She slaps him playfully. She turns her attention to Richard and me and jabs a bright red-tipped finger at us. I’m thinking the manicure must have run somewhere around seventy-five dollars. Her nails gleam like acrylic, or maybe I just hope they are, fulfilling my preconceived vision of her: fake in every regard. For certain, much of her is. Her hair is bottle-red, almost natural but a degree off. Her face is constructed from jars, tubes, and applicators; the cheeks too rouged, the eyes painted Egyptian blue on the lids; the lashes long and languid, like lose threads on badly stitched clothing; the lips fat, coated in blinding gloss; and the rest of her jutting out front and back. That Bobby is a successful doctor; that he could attract a decent woman is meaningless, because Bobby, doctor or grease monkey, can forever and always only be himself: cheap, tawdry, and uncouth.

“You two,” she badgers playfully, “you two released the beast in my husband.” To Bobby, squeezing his ample cheeks, “You’re a breast tonight, sweetie, an animal.” To us, “That’s the way I like him, thank you very much.”

My stomach gurgles and my intestines ache and I’m nauseous. I want to sit and shove my head between my legs to stave off an alimentary urge to puke on Doctor Bobby and Mrs. Doctor Bobby. I suppress the craving with false gaiety, though I sense I’m coming off as a spiteful witch. “You’re welcome,” I say.

Richard pulls me closer in a sort of sideways hug. “Isn’t she a riot in a skirt?” he says. I glare at him. I’ve come to realize locating Richard’s true north and dissecting it is impossible, for he is a chameleon, willing and able to adapt to any situation. It is why he is such a super salesman. Who is the real Richard? What does he feel? Does he feel? Who knows? Like now, he’s laughing as if he is sincere; as if I uttered the great witticism of the day; as if I really meant to be funny and play in the wave churned by this absurd woman; that I accept the ridiculous scam that Bobby McFarlane is a respected physician, a healer miraculously metamorphosed from his pupae of malicious goof.

“Now, Bobby,” says Richard, adopting an officious tone, “tonight forget you’re a heart surgeon. Everything here’s going to taste good, and it’s going to be a hell of a shock to the old ticker.”

As Richard blathers, he frees me and removes the steaks from the refrigerator. He cants them to afford Bobby and his wife a spectacular view of the raw red meat, naked but for my application of cracked pepper.

Bobby digs into his pants pocket, which I notice for the first time are the finest quality gabardine, bright blue, the color not unattractive of itself but strange and bizarre for dress slacks. He extracts a cell phone. He opens it and switches it off with a flourish. “Officially off duty, Ritchie.”

I cringe and my shoulders hunch at the nickname. I’ve never called my husband anything but his full given name, Richard. Ritchie is a boy’s name, a little boy. It’s the name I remember Bobby—ugh, another little boy’s name—always using with Richard. “Hey, Ritchie, get in the car. Come on. Ditch her and get in.” “Hey, Bobby, keep it in your pants, man, I gotta say goodbye.” They bantered like this constantly, Ritchie and Bobby, dumb and sometimes insulting boy bilge.

“Come on, Bobby, let’s burn meat.”

Richard reopens the refrigerator and extracts two beers. He hands one to Bobby, who eyes it like a connoisseur instead of the Gilt Edge guzzler I recall. He nods approvingly and Richard, with the tray of meat and his beer in hand, winks at me on his way to the patio. “You girls get acquainted while Bobby and I take care of business.” As if dinner is entirely his creation, as if I am champing to get acquainted with anybody who would strip her clothing and allow Bobby McFarlane to paw her, doctor or not.

She blows a hurricane breath upward and it flounces her hair, quite a testament to the strength of her wind power as her hair is preserved, lacquered to a shine that challenges the gloss of her face.

“That Bobby, a wonderful doctor, but not much in the social department,” she says. “I’m Karen.”

She sees I’m fiddling with the salad and condiments, placing them on a tray to carry them to the patio where we’ll have dinner.

“Let me help you,” she says, taking the salad bowl from me. “I like helping. I should have been a nurse, Bobby says.”

We stand in our places, both apparently reluctant to join our husbands, who we can see through the slider. They are animated, drinking, opening and closing the hood of the grill, a monster of stainless steel festooned with knobs and buttons, loaded with shelves, and powered by two propane tanks. “Only the best for us, Babe,” was what Richard said when he bought it. “But do we really need it, Richard?” I said. “It’s as big as a stove.” He scowled at me. “What do you know about grilling?”

“Like little boys, aren’t they,” Karen says. “Bobby’s the same way about grilling. Bigger the better. I mean, it’s just the two of us and we’ve got enough cooking power on the deck to feed half of Oyster Bay.” She titters; she’s a titterer.

“Isn’t that on Long Island?” I say.

“Yes.”

“How’d you and Bobby meet?”

“He saved my father’s life.”

“Oh,” I say, surprised. I still cannot get over what is obviously fact: Bobby is a doctor. The auto mechanic is now a highly skilled human engineer.

Karen arches her eyebrows. Not much, but enough for me to notice.

“Sorry,” I say, a bit defensively. “But Richard and I went to high school with Bobby, and, well, to tell the truth, you know, he didn’t seem like he would end up a doctor.”

Her merry, friendly countenance returns. “I know the whole story. Bobby loves to tell the story of his life. Do you know what he has hanging in his office, right behind his desk, right there with his diplomas?”

I shake my head.

She sets the salad on the counter. She stretches her arms wide. Bobby and Richard glance in at that moment. Both imitate Karen and laugh until I think they might drop their beers. Karen notices. “Really, they are little boys.” She displays her middle finger at them and their roar penetrates the door. “A picture of his old Belair.” Out go her arms again. “This big!”

I don’t know what is showing on my face: shock, revulsion, the aftertaste of bad memories. It’s something in sync with her thoughts, though, for she says, “Exactly my feelings when I saw it for the first time. It’s just a big blowup snapshot, not even very good.” She shakes her head and titters. “But the rest of the office is nice, very tasteful, the kind that tells you the guy knows what he’s doing, you’ve come to the right place.”

I nod. “Good,” I say. “But the car, I’m curious, you must know Bobby was a mechanic.”

“Oh, sure,” she says, “He loves to tell me about it. ‘Up by my own bootstraps.’  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it.”

“When did you meet Bobby?”

“When? Five years ago?” She flicks her fingers and stares at the ceiling. “Five years, that’s right. I met him after his wife died.”

I’m almost compelled to say, “A woman before you married him. Amazing.” Instead I ask, “How did it happen?”

“An accident,” she answers. “Poor thing was hit by a taxi. I don’t care for New York. The greatest city in the world. Not in my book. Bobby likes to take me in—”

“No,” I blurt. “I’m sorry. I mean the bootstraps.”

She examines me, silent for a few seconds, maybe curious about how I could not know of the epic rise, or maybe how I could be so ignorant about my husband’s best friend.

“It’s just … well, we’ve lived away from home so long … well, I sort of lost track,” I apologize.

“Sure,” she says, “I understand. ‘Look ahead, never back,’ Bobby always says. I guess you and Richard are like Bobby.”

I shrink, fold into myself to escape this comparison to Bobby McFarlane.

“Bobby took your leaving pretty hard. I don’t have to tell you Richard was his best friend. Sometimes, the way he talks about Richard, sometimes I think he loved Richard. And he was jealous of him, too. Not hateful jealous. Envy, I guess, is how I’d describe it. Richard had everything. Great job, you, a future, everything. It woke him up, you know. He started taking courses at that community college—”

“Roosevelt County Community College?”

“Yeah, Roosevelt. Bobby says he wasn’t much of a student in high school. But he got to like college. He saw there might be something it for him. And he discovered he was a bright guy. He was good at math and science. He found it came easy to him. You know Bobby’s a hard worker. I swear sometimes I don’t see him for days. Always one more patient, one more operation. Anyway, he was an excellent student. When he finished up at Roosevelt, he transferred to Cornell. And, well, like they say, the rest is history.”

I listen dazed, with the vague notion that I know the story. I know this about Bobby. And I sense I know even more, but at the moment, it’s lost to me.

“Look at those two,” she says. I follow her eyes to the window. “We could walk off the end of the earth and they wouldn’t be the wiser. Boy, I hope you like your steak burned because by the looks of it they’re going to be extra crispy.”

Smoke billows from the stainless steel monster and Bobby and Richard have disappeared. They aren’t even near the contraption. Karen charges for the door. I put the tray on the counter and rush to catch up. She beats me to the grill and turns it off.

“Where did they vanish to?” I ask.

Karen’s poking the steaks with the long grill fork. “Hope you didn’t pay an arm and a leg for them. Those things aren’t fit for compost.” Then she crooks her finger and I follow her around the side of the house to the front.

Bobby and Richard, Samantha and Emily are in the driveway. Bobby has the hood of his rental up. It’s an expensive car, a king-size Mercedes. The girls perch on the fender, and Bobby and Richard have their heads under the hood.

“Bobby, what are you doing? You burned the steaks, you know.” Karen yells shrilly. It hurts like fingers raking a blackboard.

We’re approaching the car. Bobby and Richard yank their heads from the engine compartment. I take Emily into my arms and gesture for Samantha to climb down.

It’s only then the color registers with me. I say, without intention; the words just escape, like air whooshing, as if I’d been kicked in the gut, “I didn’t know rental cars came in that color.” The color is blue, the shade of a noon sky. And oddly, or obscenely, Bobby’s slacks, which I’m staring at as I speak, match the car.

“You like them?” he asks, as if maybe I may be complimenting him. “No, you don’t see pants this color very much. You can’t believe how much time it took to find them.”

Karen laughs like a loopy soprano, the piercing noise ranging somewhere between sarcasm and embarrassed discomfort. “Hours. Hours on the Internet, on golf warehouse sites. My eyeballs nearly fried.”

“Worth every minute,” Bobby trumpets, sidling next to Karen and wrapping an arm around her. He plants a kiss on her cheek, a wide mouth kiss applied with plenty of suction, so obnoxiously resonate it echoes in the dead air of the driveway.

“The steaks are ash,” I say, struggling to appear indifferent but inwardly happy about their incineration.

Richard leans against the car and sucks at his beer. He’s concentrating. His eyes are vacant, as if he’s directed them into himself. It’s his contemplative expression, the one that says, Don’t bother me. The wheels are turning.

“Idea,” he barks, reanimated. “Bury the steaks. I know a place you and Karen will love.” He walks over to me and slips an arm around me as he expounds, “It’s down on the ocean, right on the beach. We can eat and watch the waves and the gulls. You’ll love it. Right, Babe?”

“Yes,” I admit. I love the Marine Room, adore the Pacific washing up in tide practically to the floor-to-ceiling windows, always mesmerized by the gulls wheeling in the ocean night, reflecting florescent white in the restaurant’s floodlights.

“What are we waiting for?” chimes Bobby. “Let’s get the show on the road. I’m starving.”

Emily in my arms is a reminder. “What about the kids?”

“Stash them next door,” Richard says. He sees I’m about to protest. “They do it to us. Let’s reciprocate. Besides, you like it next door, don’t you, Emily?”

“Jackie,” she says. It’s synonymous with “Yes” in her vocabulary. Jackie’s her little friend and has a sandbox in her backyard. Emily is eager to spend time with Jackie. Samantha’s counterpart in age is a boy, Russell. Russ is a taciturn little fellow. Samantha’s no ball of fire herself, but Russ is in another league, a boy folded onto himself and encased in an often times impenetrable ball. I think he exhibits autistic traits, and once I mentioned my concern to Sandra, his mother. She took umbrage, considered my observation intrusive. For several weeks the sandbox was off limits to Emily. But after a while, probably as a result of Jackie wearing away her mother’s resentment, much like a stream smoothes stone, Sandra relented.

“I’ll try,” I say, freeing myself from Richard’s grasp and extending a hand to Samantha.

Sandra isn’t happy, but then Sandra rarely is. I suspect her relationship with Cal is prickly. She never says anything, as I never disparage Richard. But I can sense it. I wonder if I emit the same rays of discontentment, and if they are as detectable as Sandra’s. Anyway, Emily is happy and Samantha seems relieved to be rid of us. Not of me, not Richard either—the girls love their father, even if he is a somewhat indifferent dad, but of Karen who, I think, scares children with her manufactured visage, and Bobby, just because Bobby, crude or polished, is a frightening individual.

I return, and Bobby, spirited and vociferous, commands, “Let’s load up the old buggy and get going.”

Richard offers to drive. He’s the host and knows the way and it’s the least he can do to make up for the tragedy of the steaks, which by his tone and attitude, he regards as my fault, and maybe Karen’s, too.

But Bobby insists; he’s always been Richard’s wheelman.

As we pile into the blue Mercedes, Karen says, “Bobby’s the worst passenger in the entire world. The worst.”

The doors slam, solid German, latching like refrigerator doors sealing in the contents and hermitically protecting them from corruption. Though, in our case, it’s the opposite, since we’re now sealed in with at least one rotten apple.

We’re jolted as Bobby tromps the gas pedal and injects us into the street. Squealing tires announce our takeoff for La Jolla and the Marine Room.