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.
“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.