Jennie and Robert are planning a robbery. In her garden apartment, Jennie sits cross-legged on the scraggly tweed couch with a composition notebook she bought just for the occasion. She’s proud that she can sit still like this. Nimble at 45. She listens to Robert’s plans and writes in the notebook; she still dots her i’s with hearts. Robert sits in the easy chair—he’s been out of prison two years. One more strike and he’s in for life. His leg is jimmying up and down. He’s smoking a cigarette. The ashtray is full but he doesn’t bother to empty it. The ashes fall onto the coffee table. Jennie pulls her knees up to her chest. “I don’t get it. Why Taco Bell and not McDonald’s?”
“I’m not comfortable doing McDonald’s,” Robert says. He flicks ashes into the tray.
“That makes no sense. I mean, do you see the doofus kids who work there? They won’t give us any trouble.”
“It’s McDonald’s. Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, pickles, onions, cheese on a sesame seed bun and all that. I love that place.”
“It’s two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,” Jennie chants. “What does a Big Mac have to do with our plan?”
“You just don’t shit in certain places. It’s McDonald’s. The Arches and all that. It’s like the flag. My dad used to take me there. I remember him buying me my first Big Mac.” Robert sits back forgetting his cigarette. “He told me I was becoming a man.”
His jeans were cowboy style. Wranglers or the like. Each back pocket sported a gold-stitched vee, making them unadorned by today’s couture standards of denim. These same jeans could be found in the boys’ section of Sears that advertised, “for your rugged little tyke.” They sagged in the seat and pulled across his thighs. Ironed flat, these jeans looked new. His belt, thick and tan, was cheap to the touch. But from afar, its discoloration from age was often mistaken for the unevenness of real leather. The buckle was a classic loop rather than a solid brass statement. His saddle shoes matched the exact color of his belt. The brown tee shirt, which he wore tucked in and pressed, read Harrys’ Sports. No one ever noticed the typo or the faded stains under his armpits. What they noticed was the dancing pig wearing a football helmet and a catcher’s mitt, the dialogue bubble reading, “come play with me, babe.”
Rose’s Drive Home
Jake – Father
Rose – Daughter
Two chairs on a stage, facing forward. We’re in a car. Rose, a woman in her late twenties, is driving, looking straight ahead. Jake, an overweight man in his early sixties, looks out the window.
JAKE: That was unnecessary.
ROSE: We had bad service. I don’t see the problem.
JAKE: Writing a thesis on the back of a check?
ROSE: It’s better than leaving no tip without an explanation. Then the waiter just thinks you’re an asshole.
JAKE: And you think this waiter wants to ask you out on a date?
ROSE: Okay, parse my words. The waiter will just think you’re a cheap asshole.
JAKE: I paid.
ROSE: It’s the principle of the thing.
JAKE: It’s always the principle with you.
ROSE: Waiters need to take their jobs seriously, like everyone else. When I waited tables, I took it seriously.
Silence. Rose looks over at Jake.
ROSE: You don’t think I took my job seriously? Jeez, I got laid off.
JAKE: Rose, watch out! You swerved into the other lane.
ROSE (she swings the car back:)Yeah, sorry.
JAKE: I just get the call, Rose is out of a job. Again.
ROSE: Is that what you think? That I quit?
JAKE: What I think is that you had two mojitos or whatever they’re called.
ROSE: And a bowl of pasta. I’m fine.
JAKE: I think you’re weaving.
ROSE: I’m weaving because I’m angry.
JAKE: You’re always angry.
ROSE: Not in Boston. Not there. Only here. Jersey. Home makes me angry.
JAKE: Boston is an anger free zone? That’s an interesting fact, Rose. We should send your grandmother up there.
They both chuckle. Silence.
ROSE: You don’t understand, Dad. I’m not angry like you forgot my birthday. I am just angry, trapped angry.
JAKE (sarcastically:) This is a horrid place to be, I know. Feel free to move out. No one is stopping you.
ROSE: You just don’t get it. It’s so much more complicated than that.
JAKE: That’s been the broken record since you turned 16. I don’t get it. You should look in the mirror, Rose. What do you understand? Maybe look around and see the world outside yourself for a change.
ROSE: There are no such things as broken records any more.
JAKE: (shakes his head:) You think you’re a riddle. You’re not that unique.
ROSE: What am I? A limerick.
JAKE: Always a smartass.
ROSE: Thought I was always angry.
Jake rolls his eyes and looks straight ahead. They drive for a time in angry, awkward silence.
ROSE (angrily sighs:) Limericks. I learned about those in the seventh grade. I had such trouble coming up with them. It’s the only time I remember you helping me with my homework.
JAKE: I worked. That’s what I did.
ROSE (shakes her head and slowly remembers:)
There once was a woman in Greece
Who had a very filthy niece
She had grease in her toes
And lice up her nose
For she washed with the liver of geese.
JAKE (laughs:) That’s disgusting. I helped you write that?
ROSE: Yeah, you did. I love it. I got an A.
JAKE: Always did.
JAKE (turns around:) There are cops behind you.
JAKE: Yup, lights are on. Pull over.
JAKE (reaches in his pocket and pulls out a dirty penny): Here. Suck on this.
ROSE: I am not sucking that! It’s filthy!
JAKE: Just in case, Rose. It’ll screw up the breathalyzer.
ROSE: How do you know these things?
JAKE: I’m a dad. (Pause.) And I was a cop.
Rose pops the dirty penny in her mouth and sucks.
ROSE: I’ll probably get Hep C.
JAKE: Always the drama queen.
Rose pulls over. They wait.
**The stage goes dark for a few moments.**
ROSE: You sold me out.
JAKE: Jesus Christ, Rose.
ROSE: That stop sign wasn’t visible!
JAKE: Are you kidding? You weren’t paying attention.
ROSE: Do you see that tree? How it blocks it? You threw me under the bus.
JAKE: You’re lucky I gave you the penny.
ROSE: Really? Really? That’s all you can say?
JAKE: You passed the breathalyzer, didn’t you?
ROSE: I didn’t need that gross penny, I would have passed anyway.
ROSE: And now I have a moving violation. I’m going to fight it.
Rose stands up as if she is getting out the car. She walks around and stands on the other side of Jake –as if she is outside the passenger door. She begins taking pictures with her cell phone.
ROSE: These trees totally hide the sign. How could I see the sign?
JAKE (gets out of the car and walks toward her): Those people who fight tickets are crackpots.
ROSE: Who are “those people”?
JAKE: Don’t start calling me a class-ist, Rose.
ROSE: You’re the one going there, not me.
JAKE: I worked along side all different kinds of people in my line of work. Not like you.
ROSE: Me? Are you kidding? (She takes a picture, looks at it, takes another.)
JAKE: You sequester yourself in a bubble.
ROSE: A bubble? What bubble? I went to college. I waited tables. Then I worked at a nonprofit.
JAKE: And then another. (Jake pauses a moment and in a lower voice:) …and then another.
ROSE: Bubbles? Working to save the environment is a bubble? How exactly?
JAKE: Did everyone you work with go to college?
ROSE: I guess.
JAKE: And everyone was white?
ROSE: No, I don’t think so. Not at all.
ROSE: How am I supposed to remember! I don’t take a census when I start a job.
JAKE: Are you friends with anyone who didn’t go to college?
ROSE (thinks for a moment: ) No. You sent to me to college…what did you expect? I’m friends with people I met in college. Your friends with people you worked with. It’s not like I have some checklist—Fun at parties? Check. Forward thinking? Check. College? No? Well, sorry. No friendship with you.
JAKE: That’s a bubble.
ROSE: And you’re not in a bubble? Please. I have to get a good shot of this stop sign with the tree in front of it.
JAKE: No, I was never in a bubble. I wasn’t privileged. Entitled.
ROSE: You think I think I’m entitled? Wow. I take you to dinner to thank you for letting me crash here while I look for a new job, and first I have to suck a filthy penny, and now, I’m being name called.
JAKE: Such drama, Rose. Always.
ROSE: I don’t think I’m entitled to anything!
JAKE: How many jobs have you quit?
ROSE: I got laid off!
JAKE: The others?
ROSE: They were toxic work environments! Dad, you don’t understand—
JAKE: I do. You think work is supposed to be fun. With casual days and retreats and feel good projects. You think it’s all about the personal journey. You think it’s camp. Sitting around a bonfire. With the smell of campfires in the air. And s’mores for dessert. Work is not supposed to be fun, Rose.
ROSE: So work should smell of rank fish and rancid meat? Work should be a place where you don’t learn? A place you hate going to day after day? It should be prison?
JAKE: That’s privilege talking. Some people don’t have a choice.
ROSE: You don’t understand. Never did. At one job, my boss asked if I would dance on a table for him. You think that’s fair? You think I shouldn’t have quit? …Sorry, I am not going to feel bad for sticking up for myself. And you’re the one who taught me to do it!
JAKE: It’s a job. You just don’t seem to respect money.
ROSE: I am fighting this ticket because I respect money!
(Rose’s cell phone beeps.)
JAKE: What’s that?
ROSE: My alarm.
JAKE: For what?
ROSE: Daily call to mom. It’s three hours earlier there.
JAKE: You call her everyday?
ROSE: Yes, yes I do.
JAKE: I worked.
ROSE: Yes, yes you did.
ROSE: For me to work in a bubble.
ROSE: And suck pennies.
ROSE: They could go well with mojitos. Lime flavored.
JAKE: Always joking.
ROSE: Always optimistic.
JAKE: You’re never going to win.
ROSE: But you’ll be my witness.
JAKE: Maybe I can make a call.
ROSE: Do you smell it? It smells like Christmas. In June.
JAKE: It’s the pine tree.
ROSE: Always practical.
ROSE: I do wish life was more like camp.
JAKE: …Me too.
To the Woman Who Doesn't
Just clean under your nails.
Just condition, rinse, repeat.
Just don't rub under your eyes; wrinkles, you know.
Just one hour of cardio a day.
Just 30 minutes of toning a day.
Just 3 reps of 20 sit ups a day.
Just 2 reps of 10 push ups a day; prevents sagging breasts, you know.
Just drink a glass of milk a day.
Just drink eight glasses of water a day.
Just sip one glass of red a day.
Just eat one cup of broccoli a day.
Just eat one bowl of blueberries a day; after all, they’re antioxidants; prevents wrinkles, you know.
Just avoid corn syrup each day.
Just avoid carbs each day.
Just avoid sugar each day.
Just don’t eat too much meat each day.
Just follow Zone or Weight Watchers or South Beach each day.
It’s really just 1200 calories each day; you don’t want that ugly middle age spread, you know.
Just a little color to hide your gray every day.
Just five minutes of bleach to whiten your stained teeth every day.
Just a little mascara to enlarge your eyes every day.
Just some blush to redden your dull cheeks every day.
Just a dab of retin A to lighten those age spots every day.
Just a chem peel to slough the dead cells off every day.
It’s just the first layer of skin you peel off; just admit it, you’re getting old; you need to hide those wrinkles, you know.
Just a little laser to zap those spider veins every day.
Just a little brazilian to make you look 14 every day.
Just a little botox to open your face every day.
Just a little implant to raise your breasts every day.
Just a little suction to stop that pooch every day.
Just a little vaginal rejuvenation to make it new; you know that too ages every day.
Let’s face it, you’re aging, you don’t want him to leave you, you know.
I got flowers for my birthday. Again. She sent me a vase of purple tulips with a little smiley card with the message, “Happy Birthday, Dad! Love, Lila.” It was typed in all capitals, like she was yelling at me.
Yes, yes, yes, I know it’s okay for a man to get flowers. I was born in the 30s, I don’t still live there. Her gift is certainly better than getting a tie or a sweater or tote socks to keep my feet warm. But still, I turned 75 and now suddenly I’m a man who has everything? All I have now is a golden parachute that morphed into tin on the way down.
And as this pertains to Lila, this causes me great stress. Not that I’d ever tell her that. You know I stopped judging her and her stupid decisions several years ago. I no longer say, “Are you kidding? You want to quit acting to own a restaurant? Do you have investors? Business skills? Do you know how to make more than mac and cheese with tofu hot dogs?”
No, I don’t say stuff like that anymore. And she hugs me more because of it, but that doesn’t make me feel as good as you think it would. I’d feel better knowing she’s leading a productive life and will carry on the family name with a modicum of pride.
Don’t get me wrong. I gave her all the tools to be a successful, productive adult. Good schools, exposure to culture, college. I even paid for that MFA in acting. She can hang the diploma in her restaurant … that, by the way, never happened. When my wife and I argue about Lila, she says I didn’t give Lila the tools to be a happy adult. Her kids, she says, are happy and productive. This is a little too true. A doctor, a lawyer, and a firefighter. And not just any firefighter, a smoke jumper. The young man jumps out of planes to fight fires. He might as well be a super-hero. Or an idiot.
Excuse me, a happy idiot.
So one night a few years ago, after watching Lila’s face crumple when I asked her whether yoga instructors got health insurance or did they all depend on their parents forever, I decided to stop judging. Yes, I had had two martinis and a fight with my wife who said dinner with my daughter and two martinis is two martinis too many. But eventually, it was my decision. So I announced to my wife that I would no longer judge Lila’s decisions or to explain how her new fangled get rich scheme will not succeed without hard work … the thing she most avoids.
Now I just listen, and I say, “that’s nice, honey.”
But Lila’s pushing me to the limit. Now, she’s going to marry a man to keep him in the country. I did mention to her that this was illegal, just in case she didn’t know. She shrugged. What I didn’t mention was that he was an idiot and shouldn’t be allowed to stay in this country. No, no, no. Not like that. You liberals get all jumpy way too fast. I have no problem with immigrants—we’re a country made of them. My problem is with morons.
And Lila’s faux-fiancé is the epitome of moronic. And he’s Canadian –don’t look at me that way, I don’t have anything against Canadians—but this is not some man she’s saving from a despot. This is my daughter hanging out with a man who says “supposably” and “libary” and looks at you in a perplexed way when you correct him, as if he’s thinking, “but I just said that.”
No, no, no. I didn’t say any of these things. I told you I stopped judging her. Okay, yes, not telling her about my judgments is, in fact, more accurate. When Lila told me it was a good deal because she could share his apartment in Williamsburg and he’d give her discount on the rent and they’d certainly pass the fed interviews because they actually would live together, I took a deep breath and said, “that’s nice honey.”
Don’t get me wrong, I do think Lila is smart. She’s suspicious about my sudden acceptance of all her plans. I mean, I tell her, “I just don’t judge you anymore, honey. I just want you to be happy.” Isn’t that a comforting thing to say to one’s child? Don’t you wish you had heard that from your father?
She is just not satisfied with that answer. Instead, she has informed me that my brain has not stopped working and so I must still be thinking. And if I’m still thinking, I’m still judging. Then she told me judging is just how reasonable people organize information.
Yes, yes, yes, I know. I told you, she is smart.
But then yesterday happens. She called to tell me wants to start a dog washing/skype café. She asked me for my opinion. And I said, “Sounds like an interesting idea, honey.” And she said, “Interesting good? Or interesting you’re pretending not to judge me because you want me to love you more than I did when I was a kid.”
She can’t have such a ridiculous idea. I think she’s testing me. She’s always done that. Trying to shock me into paying her special attention—like she was the middle child instead of an only child who got near constant attention from her stay-at-home mother who refused to work even when money was tight because we agreed when we were 22 and stupid ourselves that she’d be a stay-at-home mom.
I digress. I used to call Lila Miss Shock and Awe well before there was a war branded with that slogan. When she was 16, she dropped a condom on the dining room floor in front of my very Catholic mother. And yes, it spurred a loud conversation about teenage sex and virginity. But then my very Catholic mother asked my daughter if she was familiar with Herpes and asked her how it compared to the Clap.
No, no, no, I didn’t want to know why my mother has so much personal knowledge of gonorrhea. And my daughter simply reveled in making everyone at the table uncomfortable. This was the 80s. She wore her hair in some ugly way—short on one side, long on the other. She once tried to go to the opera with her bra on the outside of her shirt. So this is what I mean by judging: I told her she looked like a dime store hooker.
That, in retrospect, might have been harsh. I do recognize that I might have been too hyperbolic in my criticisms. Which is what led me to cease judging.
But she did look like a cheap hooker.
And so now she seems to be testing me again. She wants to shock me into saying something judgmental. Now don’t you agree? I mean, who thinks that people want to wash their dogs and talk on skype at the same time? I told her, “That’s a fine idea.” And I told her I was happy she shared it with me. Do you know what she did? She didn’t say, “Thanks Dad, you’re the best.”
What am I supposed to do? I have no idea what I’m doing with her, she has no realistic plan for her life, and time, at my age, is of the essence.
So I think my Dad has dementia. To be continued…
The Teenaged Boy. Are you listening to this? I mean, do you want to
a) slit your wrists,
b) poke your eardrum out with a knitting needle, or
c) kill the person playing that FUCKING song AGAIN.
Perhaps it’s d) all of the above.
My father has gone fucking insane. Right now I’m thinking my Dad is the one who needs therapy. Not me. His new girlfriend just dumped him. They weren’t that serious because we only did the dinners here at home and not the field trips we usually do when he’s getting super-serious. You know, like ‘let’s go to a Broadway play’ or ‘let’s go to the opera,’ or ‘let’s go to that new Chinese place on Springfield Avenue,’ or ‘let’s explore Ironbound.’ You know all the things we NEVER do unless he’s trying to IMPRESS a woman by PIMPING OUT HIS SON.
GET A DOG, DAD.
If I have to listen to Alexandra Leaving one more time, I’m gonna kill myself. Leonard Cohen, fuck. My friend likes Leonard Cohen. He plays ‘em at parties when he thinks it’s time for everyone to leave. DO YOU UNDERSTAND WHAT I MEAN, DAD? It’s a downer. YOU ARE BRINGING EVERYONE IN THE HOUSE DOWN.
But it’s only me, so why would he care?
My dad has played this song 121 times. 121 TIMES. And it’s really more, because the first few times he played it I wasn’t counting because I said to myself, “oh, Pops is listening to shit. He must have been dumped. AGAIN.”
Have you listened to the song? First off. We’re atheist. So when Dad comes to his senses I am going to point out that he is fucking with my fragile adolescent belief system by telling me that the Lord is going to take someone away. The Lord is as Casper my father used to say. Not that I fuck knew what that meant. But really, you are going to ROT IN THE GROUND.
Second off. My dad went out with this woman for a month. A MONTH. She hadn’t even slept over here yet.
You know how it plays out in the movies, where the teenaged son sees a sexy older lady coming out of the dad’s room with a towel? HA! Never happened. They are never coming out of the room with a towel. They are never sexy. Those movies LIE. My Dad’s girlfriends are fucked up single mothers who reek of low self esteem. He’s the high school science teacher for fuck’s sake; he wears tweed on purpose. I suppose he can’t attract much else. He plays up the whole I could-have-been-a-professor-but-I-chose-to-work-in-the-trenches-that-are-our-public-schools-thing. And that’s cool. Really. He can be cool. He’s patient, blah blah blah. He’s supportive, blah, blah, blah. He’s there for me, blah, blah, blah. And these women, they line up at his desk at Parent Night when they don’t even have a kid in his class. Only single dude in town, you’d think. Maybe he is, how the fuck would I know. Then he takes them on dates that makes me think he could be a player. You know, like Play-ya. Seriously. Like the zoo. He takes single women to the Central Park Zoo and buys them a lemon ice. Their little suburban panties get all wet. They see him as a man who knows how to yearn. It’s all Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. They’re moon eyed on fucking moors. Even in fucking New Jersey.
Then something happens. I have to tell you, I don’t know what the fuck it is. But it’s something. These ladies see something soft in him, the underbelly of a kitten or something. Maybe they smell it—his softness. And then they’re gone. He just meets women, woos them and weeps. Yup. I meant the alliteration. Fuck my English teacher. Women, woos, WEEPS.
DO NOT. NO, DAD. NOT AGAIN. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me. FUCK ME. Here we go, the woman’s head lying on a satin pillow. YOU DON’T HAVE A SATIN PILLOW. She never even had her head on your shitty cotton one.
I am going to be SO FUCKED UP. I have to tell you, I was okay when my parents got divorced and they told me I was going to live with my Dad. He was the funner parent. Emphasis on was. My Mom, she traveled too much to be primary caregiver. She’s a big pharma rep. She sells happy pills to doctors who don’t want to deal with their patients’ aches and pains. That’s what my Dad says. My Mom says my Dad is just mad because he flunked out of med school. They both laugh when they say this to one another. Ha ha ha. Tee hee hee. They’re teasing, they tell me. They have one of those healthy co-parenting relationships my therapist tells me. But this, THIS. How is this healthy for a teenaged son. If I don’t fall far from the tree, MY LIFE IS GOING TO SUCK AND I AM NEVER GOING TO GET LAID. DAD, TAKE PITY ON ME, YOUR ONLY SON. PLEASE. Please.
I have to tell you, I have a girlfriend, you know. I haven’t told my Dad about her. It would jinx it, I think. Her name is Annie.
I love it when she tucks her hair behind her ears. I’m working up the nerve to do it for her one day when her hair falls in her eyes. She likes the lemon ices my Dad keeps in the freezer. I have to tell you, I’m fucking trying not to yearn.
You have to wear the black dress. You look elegant and hot. I know it’s the one you wore on your first real date with him. That’s the point. Don’t you want him to hurt? I know, I’m not going to say anything when we’re there. So I’m not going to say something to him like I did at the package store when I saw him buying a bottle of tequila—cheap tequila—and told him that he was a fucking Voldemort for leaving you in the manner he did. I’m going to ignore him. You are too, right? That’s our pact.
No, don’t wear those pearls. Pearls don’t say fuck you. Pearls say I think I’m something I’m not. My grandma always used to wear pearls. She had an eighth grade education but liked to act like she was a WASP. Once she took me and my sister to a restaurant for lunch—a place where you sit in wicker chairs and order quiche and iced teas. We had to wait and she flirted with the host and gave our name as Selby rather than DePalma. I just remember fidgeting because she giggled the entire time. Just picture a woman with a colostomy bag tee-heeing over a man overdressed in a pin-striped suit. I suppose he did look better than my grandfather who I never saw wear anything other than his blue mechanics uniform. So when I graduated the eighth grade, my grandma gave me the pearls. I remember I was wearing a pink argyle sweater with a purple turtleneck and purple cord skirt. I loved that skirt.
Can I try on that silver lame dress? I know it might give me a greenish hue in the black light of the club, but I love the way it swirls. We can both look totally beautiful tonight. You’re going to strut right into that club he acts like he owns and make him regret the very day he told you, “you aren’t the one.” I know, I know, he didn’t say that to you. That’s what Kevin said to me. But that’s what he meant, right? When any guy breaks up with you, that’s the message. You aren’t loved by me. So I know he went, “I’m not ready for something serious,” but that’s really an I-don’t-love-you.
You look so good in that dress. I wish I could look like that in a dress. I got my mother’s thighs and my father’s belly. I’m more meant to be a dirt farmer in Sicily than a patron at a club in the Meat Packing District. You know, my father’s father worked there —before it was trendy. He butchered meat and he beat my father. That’s why my mother says my father doesn’t communicate. I don’t get it. They should get divorced. No kids left in the house, they’re barely Catholic and she’s always complaining about him. Every time I talk to her on the phone, she says, “ Your father is growing roots and smells of blue cheese.” Promise me, if I ever sound like that about any man, you’ll shoot me.
I think without stockings. You have great legs. You’ll make him jealous for sure. No. He won’t have a date.
So I know I shouldn’t say anything about him, but he was completely clueless, right? I mean just another bridge and tunnel in khaki pants.
I’m sorry. Don’t cry. He has his good points. I’m not saying you totally wasted your time. I know I shouldn’t say anything, but you always go for those earnest types. You shouldn’t. They always break your heart. You know why? Because you don’t expect it. You expect a guy like Kevin to drink too much, to cheat too much. Generally to be an ass. But Jasper? You were blind sighted. Or is it broad sided? I forget. Funny. It applies either way.
He isn’t worth it. No man is worth all that crying. You’re going to mess up your make up. I didn’t cry at all when Kevin left. People say there are seven stages of grief. I think two, anger and fuck you. You’re not even in anger yet. You need to get there. I mean we do all this shit for men. My mother says we don’t have to; that our generation doesn’t even need men. But look at all those magazines: Keep your Man Happy, How to Stay Slim for Him, Twenty Ways to Improve Your Dating Life. Then all those books, The Rules, Finding Love that Lasts a Lifetime, Making the Most of Internet Dating, Getting to Yes, Getting to the Second Date, Meet Your Astrological Match.
And then the break up books? I brought over a couple for you. Getting to Love Again, Saying Goodbye without Anger. I even bought a divorce book—like I’m preparing for my future.
Who’s the audience for those relationship books? I am. I fucking bought all those books. I read all those magazines. I know you do too even if you act like you don’t. I see the New Yorker on the coffee table, but I see Cosmo by your toilet.
Do you think men buy those books in the same numbers women do? Kevin bought comic books and called the “Graphic Novels.” I wanted a relationship, he wanted to be a super-hero.
No, no, no. There’s nothing wrong with wanting love. I mean, sometimes I feel totally pathetic. We’re both college graduates with good jobs and shiny futures and we are sitting in this apartment in Chelsea waiting for the next step. And that step—even though I spent years planning otherwise—seems to have taken the shape of a man.
I know. I know. You believe in love. It’s a Beatles song, la la la all you need is love, all together now. So get over Jasper and believe. Wear the platform boots. I’ll wear the heels. Maybe someone will love me.
I’m not supposed to show you the house. The realtor told me explicitly; she said, “I am the only one allowed to show this house to prospective buyers.” Just like that, with no contractions. I’ve lived here my whole life. Wouldn’t I be the best person to show you this house? But I follow the rules. I can’t remember ever breaking one.
You can wait for the realtor here in the living room. She told me the house should smell of cookies. I told her it should smell of Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings. She said, “that might offend potential buyers who are vegetarians.” I told her, I am not selling to vegetarians.
Just like that, with no contractions.
Now of course, I don’t really care if you’re vegetarians. People do whatever they please.
I see you both stealing glances at the urn on the mantle. It’s okay. Look. Obviously, the gilding was a bold choice. That’s my husband Vincent. He died seven years ago. I know it’s morbidto keep an urn in the house. I am not unaware of this, but like I told the realtor, I’d sell him with the house if I could. It’d sell faster without it, she told me. Well, I baked the cookies and took down the knickknacks. But the urn stays, I told her. I don’t know why she thinks I’m in such a rush to get to the retirement home. They call it an active adult community these days. But I was never all that active and it’s where I’m going to die, so why not just call it what it is. The Waiting Room.
That’s a picture of him there, in his uniform. He fought in Korea. Yes, yes, like in M.A.S.H. I liked that show too. I had a crush on Hawkeye. Didn’t everyone?
Oh, I see. You liked the hippie. BJ, was it? He reminded you of your dad? You’re a different generation after all. Well, I should have had a crush on the rich one. The balding one with the rich-snooty accent. Why are so many rich men bald?
It didn’t matter. I was never pulled toward the rich ones. I liked the ones with the hair. Hawkeye had that thick brown hair that was just a little too shaggy.
My husband, his hair was like Hawkeye’s but wavier. Even at the end, thick and wavy and lustrous and so black. Black like he was an Oriental. I’ve been coloring my hair for years. I had really dark hair too once upon a time. Now I have this orange-blond frizz. It looks like I went for Bozo the Clown. I didn’t. My hairdresser tells me this color is kinder to the gray. So I do it, even if it’s not kinder to me.
Do you work at Cornell? Most people do here in Ithaca. It’s not like there’s much else to do. Oh, you’re both doctors? Did you meet in medical school? I met my husband at Cornell. He was studying to be an engineer. He wanted to be an architect. He ended up a building inspector. He could never grasp what he wanted. Although I didn’t know that when I met him.
I was just the school’s receptionist when we met. I was wearing a tweed skirt and a pink blouse with pearls. You think I remember because it was romantic moment in my life, but I remember it because I wore that outfit every day. I’d press it each night and sprinkle talcum in the armpits. I used to know all those tricks to make good clothes last. Now I just buy cotton that washes and wears.
I wanted to be a doctor. Well, I didn’t actually want to be a doctor. I didn’t even think I could be one, you know? The doctor I went to growing up had a bulletin board of Christmas cards and pictures of kids. What I wanted was to get cards like that every year. I know now that seems silly. You see it on a million television shows. Anyway, women didn’t become doctors back then.
Yes, I love the fireplace against the brick wall too. That wall, it’s real brick, not like the facades they put up in the mcmansions at the edge of town. You can run your fingers down the brick and some of it might crumble in your hand. On no, not enough to worry. Just enough to know the clay is real. When I was little I would hide little things –like a locket or a ring—in the cracks between the bricks. I used to imagine a loose brick would reveal a secret passageway. There are none, I know now. My husband inspected the house when we refinanced. He had the habit of sucking all the magic out of my head.
My husband loved this house. After we married, he moved in. He had quit Cornell in some huff about a grade he thought he didn’t deserve. Sometimes, I think he planned it all that way. When he met my parents the first time, he’d go on and on about the crown moldings, the archway from this room into the dining room. He talked all about house’s lines. He never talked that way about me.
My parents, when they passed, gave him the house. You’re too young to remember, but those were days when women couldn’t even have credit in their name. So I suppose it wasn’t too cruel of my parents to do that. And well, my father was old fashioned, disappointed he had two daughters.
My husband talked big in those days. Before we met, he had traveled all over the world, and I hadn’t left Ithaca. He talked of moving to California. I know it sounds calculating, but I thought he was my ticket out. I imagined we’d have little towheads running in the surf even if neither of us were blond.
My two children live there now. California, I mean. They’re living my dream, I suppose. I’d whisper to them each night after their bedtime story, leave, leave. Well, they did. I succeeded. Now it’s just me here in the house. They don’t visit. They say it’s cheaper for me to visit them now that it’s just me. Just me. Vincent went quickly right before he retired, right before we were going to take a cruise—he had a heart attack while inspecting a house. Lucky he died in someone else’s attic or I would have to disclose that to you. I would have to tell you that. And I would. I follow the rules.
Abbie, it’s me again. I don’t know why I deserve the silent treatment. It’s been two weeks now. You have to realize that you’ve made me ill. My throat is clamped and my insides; well, let’s just say I’m no longer bloated.
If you’re mad, just tell me. It’s like we’re in middle school all over again. Only now I’m pleading over a cell phone and not over the aqua blue princess phone with the spiral cord. I’m not leaving notes in your locker, I am texting you, IMing you, messaging you through Facebook. I’m not stalking you, but I did notice you took down all those pictures of us in Cabo last year.
How could I know you’d take him back? Are you telling me I was too supportive? After the break up, you were angry because I had never told you how unbending he was about things. When I told you how irritating he was that time he spent an hour pontificating about the irrelevance of the Oxford comma, you thanked me. I mean, who cares about the life spans of punctuation?
Do you remember what you said? “I think he just liked dropping Oxford into the conversation, a little reminder than he had a degree from Oxford.”
And now you’re mad at me because the two of you are back together.
Remember the day he left you? He called you after five years together and said he didn’t have the energy to work through the problems. And let’s get this straight, you lived with him and he called you. You came to my house. You said quote, “I feel as if every cell has been cleaved in two.” You were crying so hard, you popped a blood vessel in your eye. We were worried you’d be stuck that way, a big red splotch ruining what you always said was your best feature—your Irish blues, you called them. You cried at the dining room table and then you slid under the table, hiding under it like it was a fort. You told me your throat had closed, that you were allergic to the trauma. I fed you blueberries and Saltines—one at a time, like you were a baby bird I was nursing back to health.
To tell you the truth, I thought you being a little dramatic on the floor sobbing like that. Come to think of it, you’ve always been rather dramatic. Do you remember what you said to me when we met in the 5th grade? “I’m younger than you are. So you know you’ll die before me.” You seemed so exotic, all the way from New York City. You were dressed all in black and you made fun of my Osh Kosh by Gosh overalls. Maybe I should have known something was off. I loved those overalls. After that day you made fun of me, I’d look in the mirror and feel like a roly-poly hick from the suburbs rather than the cute little girl I thought I was.
Remember in college when you gave me the silent treatment for two weeks? All because you socked your date in the face after he flirted with another girl and I wouldn’t storm out of the party with you. You went about your days cooking breakfast, reading for class, chatting on the phone, hanging out with our mutual friends and just acting as if I walked about the world dressed in an invisible cloak.
That day he left you, you kept sobbing. “I am not lovable, I am not lovable.” And I kept saying, “you are lovable, you are lovable.”
So, maybe, just maybe you’re mad at me because you knew that after all your drama, I really didn’t mean it.
The Dental Hygienist
A dentist’s office.
URSULA is in her scrubs, standing over a man in a dentist chair.
Do you remember I Love Lucy? It was that fifties sitcom where Lucy, this redhead, was married to a handsome Cuban musician. Everyone’s seen it. Lucy was always getting into some such trouble, mostly she wanted to break into show business or have her own job. It always ended up a disaster, her hijinks that is, not her marriage.
I bet your wife liked it, women do. Lucy always had antics. Some new escapade every week, every job. She was always fired.
My job has never involved an escapade. But I was fired once. Don’t shift, I’m likely to stab your gum. I was 16. I was babysitting, sometime in early October for the O’Neils. There were three boys, I think they were all named Peter. Such brats, wanting to stay out catching fireflies past dark. Wanting to play rough inside the house. Screeching in the kitchen for this snack or that. The echo could have turned a cat deaf. So you know what I did?
I changed all the clocks to read 10 pm and put them to bed three hours early. I remember feeling so smart, so ingenious. I watched television and ate all the candy I found in their cupboards. Chocolate kisses, Milky Ways. Those candy corns. Turns out it was their Halloween candy. And they accused me of stealing it. Please. Well, as you can imagine, I was fired.
But there weren’t any antics. It barely qualifies as an escapade. I would never eat the candy from one’s cupboards now. I think of myself then—with such freedom. Who would eat all the Milky Ways and candy corns in someone’s home? And how come I didn’t get sick? I remember laying on their tweedy recliner chair, cocooned in their rec room. My stomach full, my tongue stinging from sugar burn. But I was content. To be that free to help oneself to what one wants. That’s something to think about.
For me, I didn’t think I’d be a dental hygienist forever. Think. Have you ever met one of us over the age of 50? Even 40? I don’t think so. I got this job because I wanted marry a dentist. I didn’t have my eyes set on a doctor. When I was thirteen, my mother’s doctor looked at my crotch and told me I’d develop early. He told my mother to take me bra shopping. Who says those things?
But a dentist, a dentist seemed a stable choice. Not smart enough for med school, so he wouldn’t be too full of himself; but smart enough to want stability, a profession helping people.
I know it’s not all that feminist. But I wanted to have a family. And this job was so much better than some job as a cashier. Like my father said, not everyone gets to be a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief.
Now, I turn 50. Tomorrow. My hair is gray underneath this blond. My eyelids are purple underneath this shadow. Broken capillaries hide underneath my foundation. All day, I scrape teeth of the loved.
Do you see this scraper? I sharpen it and then I scrape off your plaque because you’ve been too lazy to floss. Even though you lie and say you floss four times a week.
Don’t protest. That’s what everyone says: Four times a week. Everyone thinks it a perfect lie, an admission of partial neglect. And everyone looks sheepish, as if I am going to smack their hand with a ruler. What do I care if your teeth fall out?
You all see me every six months, or if your gums are loose, every three. And hardly anyone knows my name. Ursula. Isn’t that a beautiful name? When I was little, it reminded me of unicorns. And sure, I exaggerate. Some people remember it. The way they remember their maids’ names.
I was once engaged to be married. Planned the whole wedding. Small—it was going to be in Vegas. Just our closest of the close. Before Vegas was Vegas and back when kitsch was charming.
It never happened. I found out six weeks before the wedding that he was already married. I always think—would he have gone through with it? Married me and become a bigamist? Or would he have just disappeared?
I know what you’re thinking. He wasn’t even a dentist. I miscalculated that one. All the dentists—all the good ones—were married where I worked. And so, of course, I quit several jobs, looking for the single dentists. But after awhile that seemed kind of desperate. And it wasn’t like I could put that in a cover letter. I don’t think so.
I settled here. You like it here too, you’ve been coming for years. They’re good to me. My gums are as healthy as a thirty-year-old’s—they take care of their employees. People bleach their teeth, thinking that alone is going to make them look younger. They’re wrong, those people. I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s the gums. You don’t want gums that are light pink, like the color of cooked meat. Hued to the bone like a starving animal. They should be red and plump, like a cherry. That’s youth.
Do you want me to polish your teeth?
For so many years, I’ve lived in my apartment, a shelf on the third floor in an okay neighborhood; five times daily, I’ve taken the 38 Geary –a moving shelf of people—to here: a cube where I’ve scraped plaque off the teeth of the lucky. Sometimes, when I watch that television show, I Love Lucy—that show no one really watches anymore—I see Lucy trying to be an actress, Lucy trying to earn her own money, Lucy trying to be a first class wife. Lucy trying impress her husband—“love me.”
And all I see is that poor woman trying to get her husband’s attention. Every episode, it takes twenty minutes of antics until he sees her for who she is. And then he forgets and it begins again in the next wacky episode. And I think to myself, does he ever really see her?
And I think to myself, how is that even funny? And I think to myself, I’m 50, and I wonder, who sees me?