Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
It is about wanting and need, wanting and need—a peculiar, desperate kind of need, needing to get what you never got, wanting it still, wanting it all the more, nonetheless. It is about a profound desire for connection. It is about how much we don’t know, how much we can’t say, what we don’t understand. It is about how unfamiliar even the familiar can become.
It is about holding one’s breath, holding the breath until you are blue in the face, holding the breath to threaten, to dare, to say if you do not give me what I want, I will stop breathing. It is about holding back, withholding. It is about being stuck. It is about panic. It is about realizing you are in over your head, something’s got to give. It is about things falling apart. It is about fracture.
It is afternoon, just after lunch. She starts dialing. She dials, knowing no one is home. Her mother, retired, remains a worker, always out doing, running. Her father is busy as well, taking classes, volunteering. She dials as a kind of nervous tic and then when she can’t get the call to go through, she dials more frantically as though in a nightmare; calling for help, screaming and no one hears, picking up to find the line is dead. She dials, forgetting the new area code.
“The area code for the number you’re calling has changed. The new area code is 343. Please redial the number using the new area code.”
She dials again, unsure of the last four digits of her calling card.
“The personal identification number you entered is incorrect. Please reenter the last four digits of your calling card.”
She is cut off.
She dials once more—if it doesn’t work, she is going to dial zero and have an operator place the call, she is going to dial 911 and tell them it is an emergency, somebody must do something. She dials nine for an outside line and then she dials the number straight through, letting the office pay for the call—fuck it. The new area code feels odd on her fingers. She hates change, she absolutely hates change.
And then the phone is ringing and on the second ring the answering machine picks up and there is her mother’s voice, distant, formal—the outgoing announcement of a generation that has never gotten used to the answering machine.
She hangs up without leaving a message. She checks her schedule. There is a 3:00 meeting—the subject: pain relief.
She has not spoken to Steve today. That part of their relationship, calls during the day, is over. There used to be phone calls as soon as he walked out of the apartment, sometimes from the elevator going down, “I’m in the elevator, the neighbors are surrounding me, pick up the phone.” A call when he got to the office, “Just checking in.” After lunch, “I shouldn’t have had the wine,” in the late afternoon, “I’ll be finished early,” and then again before leaving, “What do you want to do about dinner?”
Now, they can’t talk. Every conversation, every attempt turns into a fight. She can’t say the right thing, he can’t do the right thing; they hate each other—all the more for the disappointment. There is no negotiation, no interest in repair, only anger and inertia.
“It’s not my fault,” he says.
“If there’s such a thing as fault—it’s half your fault.”
She hurries to prepare for the meeting, the launch of a combination acetaminophen/homeopathic preparation (Tylenol and Rescue Remedy)—Products for Modern Living, a pill for all your problems.
Wendy, the shared assistant, stops her as she’s going down the hall. “I couldn’t get you a conference room for a whole hour, so I got you two halves.”
“Two halves of a conference room?”
“From 3:00 to 3:30 you’re in two and from 3:30 until 4:00 you’re in six.”
“Halfway through, we have to change rooms? That’s crazy.”
“It’s not just about any headache,” she says, sitting down with the client. “It’s your headache. It’s the sense that you’re about to explode. Your head is pounding, the boss is droning on in the background, kids are screaming, you need relief and you need it fast.”
The client nods.
“It’s the classic headache ad—pumped up, there’s throbbing and there’s volume and pressure.”
“Modern life is very stressful,” the client says, happily counting the bucks.
“There’s the emergency room doctor/trauma surgeon, the voice of authority. ‘As a doctor at a leading trauma hospital, I know about pain, I know about stress and I know how quickly I need to feel better.’ The doctor moves through the emergency room—all kinds of horrible things are happening in the background. ‘A combination of acetaminophen and a homeopathic supplement, Products for Modern Living offers safe, effective relief.’ She picks up a patient’s chart and makes a note. ‘Sometimes what’s old is what’s new.’”
“I like it. It’s fresh and familiar,” the client says.
“Let’s move from here into conference room six and we’ll review the rest of our campaign,” she says, seamlessly moving her team down the hall.
Later, she passes Wendy’s desk; Wendy is obsessively dipping cookies into a container of orange juice.
“Are you okay?”
Wendy puts out her hands, they’re shaking. “Low blood sugar. I spent from 8:30 until 3:00 trying to get the damned computer to print. I called Information Services, they said they could come tomorrow but the proposal had to go out today. Never mind. I did it. I got it done.” She plunges a cookie into the juice.
She hands Wendy a sample of the remedy. “Try it,” she says. “Call it market research and bill them for an extra 2,500 bucks.”
Again she dials. The phone rings and rings, maybe her mother is there, maybe she is on the other line. Maybe it is her father—her father always ignores the call-waiting, he doesn’t know what call-waiting is.
“Didn’t you hear me beeping? That was me trying to call you.”
“Is that what that was? I was on the line, talking to a man about something.”
She worries that one day she will call and no one will answer—one day she will call and they won’t be there anymore.
She remembers dialing her grandmother’s number just after her grandmother died. She called just as she had always done. The number rang and rang and somehow she didn’t lose hope that her grandmother would find her way to the phone. She thought it might take longer, but she expected her grandmother would answer. And then one day there was a recorded voice, “The number you are trying to reach has been disconnected; if you need further assistance hang up and dial the operator.”
She hangs up. Six months after her grandmother died, she went to her grandmother’s house and parked in front. The plants that used to be on the sill of the kitchen window were gone. The light in the living room, always on, was off. She walked around back and peered through the sliding glass door. The house was filled with different furniture; different pictures of different grandchildren rested on the mantel.
“Can I help you?” Mr. Silver, the old man next door asked, as though he’d never seen her before.
“Just looking,” she said and walked away.
It is getting dark: 5:22. If she hurried she could take the 6:00 Metroliner, she could be in Washington by 8:00. She wants to go home. It has been coming upon her for days. Almost like coming down with a cold, she has been coming down with the urgent need to go home, to sit at her place at the kitchen table, to look out her bedroom window at the trees she saw at one, at 12, at 20. She needs something, she can’t say exactly what. She keeps brushing it off, hoping it will pass, and then it overwhelms her.
Again, she dials. A man answers. She hangs up and tries again, more carefully, looking at the numbers. Again, the unfamiliar man answers.
“Sorry,” she says. “Wrong number.”
Again, she tries again.
“May I help you?” he says.
“I keep thinking I’m calling home, I know this number and yet you answer. Sorry. I’ll check the number and try again.”
“Hello?” the man says. “Hello, hello?”
She says nothing.
He waits and then hangs up.
She puts on her coat and leaves the office. If she had reached her mother she might have felt good enough to go to the gym or to go shopping. But what started as a nervous tic has become something more, she is all the more uncomfortable, she goes directly to the apartment.
There is a message from Steve.
“Sorry we didn’t talk. I meant to call earlier but things got crazy. Tonight’s the game. I’ll be home late.”
The game. She forgot.
She takes off her coat and pours herself a glass of wine.
Steve is at the game with his best friend, Bill. Bill is 43, never married. Bill won’t keep anything perishable in his apartment and has no plants, because it’s too much responsibility. When he’s bored he drones, “Next,” demanding a change of subject. Inexplicably, it is Bill who Steve turns to for advice.
Again, she dials.
“Who are you trying to reach?” the man asks. This time, no hello.
Without saying anything, she hangs up.
She orders Chinese. She calls her brother in California; she gets his machine. “When did you last talk to Mom and Dad? Were they okay? Did something happen to their phone? Call me.”
By 10:00, she is beginning to imagine horrible things, accidents. She is dialing and dialing. Where are they? At 76 and 83, how far can they have gotten?
She remembers New Year’s Eve when she was young, when she was home eating Ruffles with Ridges and California Dip, watching New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and waiting.
Eleven fifty-nine, the countdown, 60 seconds away from a new year; three, two, one. The ball drops. The crowd goes crazy.
“Happy New Year from Times Square in New York. Look and listen as America welcomes in 1973.” She drinks her fizzy cider and waits. Ten minutes later the phone rings.
“Happy New Year, Sweetie,” her mother says. “We’re having a wonderful time. Mrs. Griswald is just about to serve dessert and then we’ll be home. It’s going to be a good year.”
She remembers checking the clock—12:20 AM. At 1:00, New Years Rockin’ Eve segues into the late, late movie and she begins to wonder. At 1:30 wonder turns to worry. At quarter of 2:00 she is picturing her parents’ car in a ditch by the side of the road. At 2:20 she wonders if it is too late to call the Griswalds and ask when they’d left. She is 12 years old and powerless. By 2:40, when she hears their key in the door, she is livid. She slams the door to her room and turns off the light.
“Honey, are you all right?”
“Leave me alone.”
“I hope she didn’t get into the liquor—should I check?”
“I hate you.”
Happy New Year.
She gives it one last go—if they don’t answer, she is going to call Mrs. Lasky, one of the neighbors, and ask if things are as odd as they seem.
Her mother answers on the first ring.
“Where were you?” she blurts.
“I was in the closet looking for something.”
“I’ve been trying to call you for hours, why do you sound so strange?”
“I was in the closet—foraging. What do you mean you’ve been calling for hours? We just got home. We had concert tickets.”
“I didn’t know where you were. I was worried.”
“We’re adults, Susan. We’re allowed to go out.” She pauses. “What day is it?”
“You usually call on Sunday.”
“I was thinking of coming home.”
“Well, I don’t know what our schedule is like. I’ll have to check. What’s new?” her mother asks, changing the subject.
“Not much. I must have dialed your number a hundred times—first I couldn’t get through, then I got the machine, and the last few times some man answered. I was beginning to feel like I was losing my mind.”
“That must have been Ray.”
“A friend of your father’s.”
“Daddy doesn’t have any friends.”
“This is someone he met at one of his classes—I think he’s lonely, he brought his cat. It’s good you’re not here.” She is allergic to cats.
“I thought it was me, I thought I dialed wrong. Why didn’t he identify himself? Why didn’t he say, ‘Green residence’? Why didn’t he just say—‘I’m the one who’s out of place’?”
“I don’t know,” her mother says.
“Did Daddy go with you to the concert?”
“Of course—he drove.”
“What was this Ray doing at the house when you weren’t home?”
“Haven’t I mentioned him?”
“Really? You would think I would have—he’s staying with us.”
There is a long pause.
“Mother—could you just check with your doctor, could you just say my daughter is concerned?” She thinks I don’t remember. She thinks I forget. “Could you do me that favor and ask the doctor if everything is all right?”
“The truth is when I’m in there, I don’t think of it.”
“I’m in that paper gown. Who can think of anything when you feel like at any second it might come undone?”
“How long has this Ray been around?”
“A couple of weeks. He’s a lovely guy. You’d like him. He’s very tidy.”
“Is he paying rent?”
“No,” her mother says, horrified. “He’s a friend of your father’s.” She changes the subject. “Where’s Steve?”
“At the game.” As she says it, she hears Steve at the door. She hurries to get off the phone. “I’ll call you tomorrow, we’ll figure out the weekend.” She snaps the bedroom light off.
She hears Steve in the living room, opening the mail. She hears him in the kitchen opening the fridge. She sees his shadow pass down the hall. He is in the bathroom, peeing, then brushing his teeth. He comes into the bedroom, half undressed. “It’s only me,” Steve says. “Don’t get excited.”
She doesn’t respond.
“Are you in here?” He turns on the light.
“I just spoke to my mother.”
“Yeah? It’s Wednesday—don’t you normally talk to them on Sunday?”
“There is a strange man living at the house. He’s been there for two weeks—she forgot to tell me. A friend of my father’s.”
“Your father doesn’t have any friends.”
“Maybe if you’d waited and called on Sunday, he wouldn’t have been there.” Steve pulls his T-shirt off and drops it onto the floor.
“Not funny.” She gestures toward the hamper. “I was thinking I should go and see my parents this weekend—that’s why I was calling. I haven’t been in a long time. But I can’t exactly go home if this guy is there.”
“Stay in a hotel.” She sits up to set the alarm. “I’m not staying in a hotel. Am I going to have to do some sort of intervention, kidnap my parents and reprogram them?”
“Did you ask him what you should do?”
“About what?” Steve punches at his pillow.
Steve doesn’t answer. She thinks of her parents, her parents’ marriage. She thinks of her parents, of Steve, of having children, of when they stopped talking about it. She wishes they had children. He thinks it’s good they didn’t. She still wants to have one. “It’s not going to fix it,” he says. She doesn’t want the child to fix it. She wants the child because she wants a child and she knows that without Steve she will not have children. She rolls away from him. There is an absence of feeling, a deadness, an opaque zone where there used to be more.
“Breathe,” Steve says to her.
“You weren’t breathing. You were doing that holding your breath thing.”
She takes a deep breath. Sighs.
“Do you want me to come with you to your parents?”
In the night, in the subtlety of sleep, they are drawn together, but when they wake it is as though they remember—they pull apart, they wake up en garde.
“I know it’s been hard,” he says in the morning as they’re getting ready to go.
“What should we do?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says.
They don’t say anything more. She is afraid to talk, afraid of what is happening, afraid of what she is feeling, afraid of what will happen next, afraid of just about everything.
The morning meeting is adult undergarments—peer Pampers. There are boxes of the product on the conference room table. The client opens a box and starts passing them around—a cross between maxi pads and diapers, there’s something about them that’s obscene.
“What we’re selling here is a new gel insert—it’s incredibly absorbent.” the client says. He is the only one truly comfortable handling the product—he rips one of the diapers open, pulls apart the crotch area to expose the insert. “This is it,” he says. “It sucks up water, up to ten ounces. Our research shows the average void is four to eight. The older you get, the more frequently you urinate and with slightly less volume, so we’re estimating approximately six to seven ounces per use.”
A junior creative executive picks up one of the garments and, as though giving a demonstration, he pours his coffee in. “Afraid to have your morning cup because it runs right through you? Try these.”
For a tenth of a second it’s funny and then as a liquidy brown stain spreads through the material it becomes a problem. Blushing, he puts the dirty diaper in the trash.
“Not a good idea,” someone says. “A very poopy diaper.”
“That’s all right,” the client says. “Accidents happen.”
“It’s a control issue,” she says, trying to pull the meeting back to order. “How to feel in control when you are out of control. Picture a man in his car stuck in traffic, a woman strapped into her seat on an airplane, she coughs. But she doesn’t look stressed; in fact she’s smiling. When everything around you feels out of control, help yourself feel in control. One less worry.”
“Don’t make it seem like we’re encouraging people to piss their pants,” the client says.
“The idea is to encourage people to lead healthy, normal lives, not to let bladder control issues stop them from activities that are part of everyday life. We’ll spend some time with these,” she says, gathering up the diapers. “Give us a call next week.”
The client stands. There’s a wet spot on his suit. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says, “but it’s not that. In the car on the way here—my muffin flipped. I got jam all over me. Imagine me,” he says, “going through the day with a wet spot on my suit selling adult diapers.”
“There’s a one-hour cleaner down the block, maybe they can do something for you,” she says.
“Now that’s a good idea.”
Steve calls. “I was wondering if we could have dinner?”
She thinks two thoughts—he wants them to work it out and he’s leaving. She thinks them alternately and equally. Either way, whatever it is, she doesn’t want to hear it. She isn’t ready.
“I have plans,” she says.
“I’m meeting Mindy for a drink. She’s coming in for a matinee and then I’m meeting her.”
“Well, I’ll see you later then. What should I do about dinner?”
“Don’t wait for me,” she says.
She has no plans. She hasn’t talked to Mindy in six months.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks.
“Fine,” she says. “You?”
“Fine,” he says. “Fucking fantastic.”
After work she goes to Bloomingdales. She wanders for two hours. She is tempted to take herself to a movie, to take herself to a bar and have a drink, to get home really late, really drunk, but she doesn’t have the energy.
“Are you finding everything you need?” an overzealous sales associate wants to know.
What does she want? What does she need? She is thinking about Steve, trying to imagine a life apart. She’s afraid that if they separate she will evaporate, she will cease to exist. He’ll be fine, he’ll hardly notice that she is gone. She hates him for that. Will she start dating? She can’t picture it, can’t imagine starting again with someone else.
When she gets home, Steve is on the bed, channel surfing. “I ate the Chinese—hope you weren’t saving it.”
“I ate with Mindy,” she says.
She goes into the kitchen. Dials.
“Hello, is Mrs. Green there?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
She wants to say, “You know damn well who’s calling,” but instead she pauses and then says, “Her daughter.”
“One moment.” There is a long pause and then Ray returns. “She’s not available right now, may I take a message?”
“Yes, could you ask her to call me as soon as she is available? Thank you.” She hangs up.
“Find anything?” Steve calls from the bedroom.
She doesn’t respond. She stands in front of the open fridge, grazing.
The phone rings. “It’s deeply disturbing to call home and have to ask to speak with your parents. What does that mean, ’You’re not available’?” she says.
“I was in the bathroom. I fell asleep in the tub.”
“Why didn’t he just say that?”
“He was being discreet.”
“You’re my mother. Does he know that?”
“Of course he knows.”
“Why was he answering the phone? Why didn’t Dad get it?”
“Maybe Dad was busy, maybe Dad didn’t hear it, he doesn’t hear as well as he used to. We’re old, you know.”
“You’re not old. Who is this Ray character anyway? How much do you know about him?”
Her mother doesn’t say anything.
“Mom, are you there? Is he right there? Can you not talk because the guy, the guest, the visitor, Ray, is right there?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Yes of course, he’s there? Can he hear you? Can you not talk because he can hear you?”
“No, not at all.”
She stops for a minute, she takes a breath. “I feel like the SWAT team should be setting up next door with sharpshooters and a hostage negotiator. Are you all right? Are you safe?”
She overhears a mumbled conversation: “Oh thank you. Just milk, no sugar, thanks, Ray.” There is a slurping sound.
“Where does this Ray sleep?”
“Downstairs, in your brother’s room. What train are you planning on taking?”
“I think I can get out early, 2:00 PM.”
“We’ll look forward to seeing you. Stay in touch.”
She hangs up.
“When are you leaving?” Steve asks.
“Early afternoon—I’ll go straight from the office.”
“Should we talk?” he says.
“Are you seeing somebody?”
“No. Are you?”
“No. Then we don’t have to talk.”
She walks into the bedroom. “This is how we’re having a conversation, yelling back and forth between rooms?”
“Is this how Bill told you to do it?”
He doesn’t say anything.
“There’s some man living in my parents’ house. Can’t the rest of it wait?”
“Do you want to have a code word so you can tell me if something is really wrong?”
“I’ll say, it’s unbelievably hot. And that means call the police or something.”
“Unbelievably hot,” Steve says.
“And if I say my toes are cold, that means I’m confused and you should ask me some more questions.”
“Hot house/cold toes, got it.”
In the morning, Wendy’s desk is too neat.
“Did she quit?” asks Tom, the executive who shares Wendy with Susan.
“She just needed a day off; the computer got to her.”
By 9:00 there’s a temp in Wendy’s place, a woman who arrives with her own name plate: Memorable Temporaries, My name is Judy.
“Worst thing is not knowing someone’s name, looking at her and wondering, Who is she? How can I ask her to do anything—I don’t know her name. Now you know, it’s Judy. And I’m here to help you.”
“Thank you, Judy,” she says, going into her office and closing the door.
“I have an appointment outside—I won’t be back,” she tells Judy at 1:15, when she emerges, wheeling her suitcase down the hall.
“Have a good weekend,” Judy says with a wink.
The train pulls out—she has the sense of having left something behind, something smoldering, something worrisome—Steve.
The train pushes through the tunnel, rocking and rolling. It pops out over the swamps of New Jersey, and suddenly instead of skyscrapers and traffic there are leggy white egrets, big skies, chemical plants, abandoned factories, and the melancholy beauty of the afternoon light.
She takes a taxi from the train. Directing the driver toward home, she descends into a world that is half memory, half fantasy; a world so fundamentally at her core that it is hard to know what is real, what is not, what was then, what is now.
“Is there somebody home?” the driver asks, pulling up to the dark house.
“There’s a key under the pot,” she says giving away the family secret.
It is twilight. She stands in the driveway with her suitcase at her feet, watching light fade from the sky, wondering why she came home. On the telephone line above her, four crows sit waiting. The trees press in like dark shields, she listens to the breeze, to the birds still calling. Across the way she sees Mrs. Airman moving around in her kitchen. In the house that used to belong to the Walds, someone new is also doing the dinner dance.
She stands watching the sky, the branches of trees blackening against the dusk. There is a rustling in the woods beyond the house. She glances at the brush, expecting to see a dog or a child taking a shortcut home.
Her father pushes out, breaking twigs along the way. He is carrying a brown paper bag and a big stick.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I walked.”
“Did you have car trouble?”
“Oh no,” he says, “I didn’t have any trouble. I took the scenic route.” Her father peers into the carport. “Ray’s not here? I must have beat him.”
“Where’s your car?”
“I left it with Ray. He had errands to run. I had a very nice walk. I went through the woods.”
“You’re 83 years old; you can’t just go through the woods because it’s more scenic.”
“What would anyone want with me? I’m an old man.”
“What if you fell or twisted your ankle?” He waves his hand, dismissing her. “I could just as easily fall here at home and no one would notice.” He bends to get the key. “You been here long?”
“Just a few minutes.”
Her father opens the door, she steps inside, expecting the dog. She has forgotten that the dog is not there anymore, he died about a year ago.
“That’s so strange—I was expecting the dog.”
“Oh,” her father says. “I do that all the time. I’m always thinking I shouldn’t leave the door open, shouldn’t let the dog out. We have him, for you, if you want,” her father says. “His ashes are on the shelf over the washing machine. Do you want to take him with you?”
“If we could leave him for now, that would be good,” she says.
“It’s your dog,” her father says. “So, how long are you here for?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t usually stay long.”
She takes her bag down the hall to her room. The house is still. It is orderly and neat. Everything is exactly the same and yet different. The house is smaller, her room is smaller, the twin bed is smaller. There is a moment of panic—a fear of being consumed by whatever it is that she came in search of. She feels worse, further from herself. She looks around, wondering what she is doing in this place, it is deeply familiar and yet she feels entirely out of place, out of sorts. She wants to run, to take the next train back. From her bedroom window she sees her mother’s car glide into the driveway.
“Is she here?” She hears her mother’s voice across the house.
“Hi, Mom,” she says and her mother does not hear her. She tries again. “Hi Mom.” She walks down the hall saying, “Hi Mom, Hi Mom, Hi Mom,” at different volumes, in different intonations, like a hearing test.
“Is that you?” her mother finally asks when she’s two feet away.
Her mother hugs her—her mother is smaller too. Everything is shrinking, compacting, intensifying. “Did you have a good flight?”
She has never flown home. “I took the train.”
“Is Ray back?” her mother asks.
“Not yet,” her father says as he puts two heaping spoons of green powder into a glass of water.
“Where did you meet this Ray?”
“Your father left his coat at the health food store and Ray found it and called him.”
Her father nods. “I went to get the coat and we started talking.”
“Your father and Ray go to vitamin class together.”
“They go to the health store and a man speaks to them over a video screen.”
“What does the man tell you?”
“He talks about nutrition and health. He tells us what to do.”
“How many people go?”
“About 30.” Her father stirs, tapping the side of the glass with his spoon. “This is the green stuff, I have two glasses of this twice a day and then I have a couple of the red stuff. It’s all natural.” He drinks in big gulps.
It looks like a liquefied lawn.
“See my ankles?” he says, pulling up the leg of his pants. “They’re not swollen. Ever since I started taking the supplements, the swelling has gone down. I feel great. I joined a gym.”
“Where was this Ray before he came to you?”
“He had a place over on Arlington Road, one of those apartments behind the A&P with another fellow.”
“Something happened to that man, he may have died or gone into a home. I don’t really know,” her mother says.
There is the sound of a key in the door.
The door opens. Ray comes in carrying groceries. “In your honor, Ray is making vegetable chow mein for dinner,” her mother says. And she is not sure why vegetable chow mein is in her honor.
“You must be Ray,” she says, putting her hand out as Ray puts the bags down.
“You must be the daughter,” Ray says ignoring her hand.
“Did you get the crispy noodles?” her mother asks.
“I don’t eat meat anymore,” her father says. “I don’t really eat much of anything. At my age, I don’t have a big appetite.”
“I got you some chocolate rice milk—I think you’ll like it.” Ray hands her father a box of milk.
“I like chocolate,” her father says.
“I know you do.”
Ray is of indeterminate age, somewhere between 55 and 65, sinewy with close-cropped hair, like a skullcap sprinkled with gray. Each of his features belongs to another place; he is a little bit Asian, a little bit Middle Eastern, a little bit Irish, and within all that he is incredibly plain and without affect as though he has spent a lot of time trying not to be.
“And I got the noodles,” Ray says.
“Oh, good,” her mother says. “I like things that are crunchy.”
Her mother and father peer into the grocery bags. She wonders if Ray pays for these groceries—if that’s why they’re so interested—or if he makes them pay.
“Nuts,” her father says, pulling out a bag of cashews. “And raisins.”
“Organic,” Ray says, winking.
Her father loves anything organic.
“Remember when we couldn’t have lettuce because it wasn’t picked by the right people, and then we couldn’t have grapes. And after that it was something else,” she says.
“Tuna,” her mother says, “because of the dolphins.”
“I have something to show you,” her father says, leading Ray into the living room. There is a drawing on the dining room table.
“Very nice,” Ray says.
Her mother walks past them. She sits at the piano and begins to play. “I’ve started my lessons again.”
“Let’s hear the Schubert,” Ray says.
Her father proudly shows her more drawings. “I’m taking classes, at the college. Free for seniors.”
It is incredibly civilized and all she can think about is how bad things are with Steve and that she needs to come up with a slogan for adult diapers by Monday.
A little later, she is sitting in the den. As her mother knits, they watch the evening news. Her father is in the bedroom, blasting the radio. Ray is in the kitchen with the pots and pans. The smell of garlic and scallions fills the house.
“You let him just be in the kitchen? You don’t worry what he does to the food—what he puts in it?”
“What’s he going to do—poison us?” her mother says. “I’m tired of cooking. If I never cook again that’s fine with me.”
She looks at her mother. Her mother is a good cook, she is what you’d call a food person.
“Does Ray have a crush on Dad?”
“Don’t be ridiculous—what am I, chopped liver?” Her mother inhales. “Smells good, doesn’t it?”
A noise, an occasional small sound draws her out of the room and down the hall. She moves quietly thinking she will catch him, she will catch Ray doing something he shouldn’t.
She finds him on the living room floor, sitting on a cushion. There are small shiny cymbals on his first and third fingers and every now and then he pinches his fingers together—ping.
She goes back into the den.
“He’s meditating,” her mother says, before she even asks.
“Twice a day for 40 minutes. He tried to get your father to do it and me too. We don’t have the patience. Sometimes we sit with him, we cheat—I read, your father falls asleep.”
Again there is the sound of the cymbals—ping. “Isn’t that the nicest sound?”
“Does he do it at specific intervals?”
“He does it whenever his mind begins to wander. He goes very deep. He’s been at it for 20 years.”
“Where is Ray from? Does he have a family? Does he have a job? Is he part of a cult?”
“Why are you so suspicious? Did you come all the way home to visit or to investigate us?”
“I came home to talk to you.”
“I don’t know that I have anything to say,” her mother says.
“I need advice—I need you to tell me what to do.”
“I can’t. It’s your life. You do what’s right for you.” She pauses. “You said you wanted to come home because you needed to get something, you wanted something—what was it, something you left in your room?”
“I don’t know how to describe it,” she catches herself. “It’s something I never got. Something from you,” she says.
“I don’t really have much to give. Call some friends, make plans, live it up. Aren’t any of your high school buddies around?” She is 35 and suddenly needs her mother. She is 35 and doesn’t remember who her high school buddies were.
“What does Ray want from you? What does he get?”
“I have no idea. He doesn’t ask for anything. Maybe just being here is enough, maybe that’s all he wants. Everyone doesn’t need as much as you.”
There is silence.
“Damn,” her mother says. “I dropped a stitch.”
She leaves the room. She goes downstairs. She wants to see exactly what he is up to.
The door to her brother’s room is cracked open. She pushes it further. A brown cat is curled up on a pillow; it looks at her. She pushes the door further and steps inside. The cat dives under the bed.
The room is clean and neat. Everything is put away. There is no sign of life, except for the dent in the pillow where the cat was and a thin sweater folded over the back of a chair. By the side of the bed is a book of stories, an empty water glass and an old alarm clock, ticking loudly.
“Can I help you?”
Ray is in the room. She doesn’t know how he got there, how he got down the stairs without a step or a squeak.
“I was just looking for a book,” she says.
She blushes as though this were a quiz, Robinson Crusoe. She knows it is a book her brother had, a book they used to look at as children.
He takes the book from the shelf and hands it to her. She sneezes. “Cat,” she says.
“Bless you,” he says. “You’ll excuse me,” he says, edging her out of the room. “I want to refresh myself before dinner.”
In the downstairs bathroom, each of his personal effects is arranged in a tight row on top of a folded towel—toothbrush, comb, nail clippers. The cat’s litter box is in the corner. There are four little lumps in it, shit rolled in litter, dirt balls dusted in ash.
Her mother sits at the table. “I haven’t had chow mein since Aunt Lena used to make it with leftover soup chicken.”
There is the scrape of a matchstick. Ray lights two tall tapers.
“Every night we have candles,” her father says. “Ray makes the effort.”
Ray has changed his clothes, he’s wearing an orange silk shirt, he seems to radiate light. “From the Goodwill,” he says, seeming to know what she is thinking. “It must have been a costume. In the back of the neck in black marker is written— ‘Lear.’”
“I’m tasting something delicious,” her mother says, working the flavors in her mouth. “Ginger, soy—oh, and baby corn. Where did you find fresh baby corn?”
She has something to say about everything. “Such sharp greens. Olives, what an idea, so Greek. The color of this pepper is fabulous. Red food is very good for you, high in something.” She gobbles. “Eating is such a pleasure when you don’t have to cook.”
“Did you take care of your errands?” her father asks Ray.
“Yes, thank you,” Ray says. “Every now and then it helps to use a car. I filled it with gas.”
“You didn’t need to.”
“And I put a quart of oil in. I also checked the tires; your right rear was down a little.”
She hates him. She absolutely hates him. He is too good. How does a person get to be so good? She wishes she could get behind it, she wishes she could think he was as wonderful as he seems. But she doesn’t trust him for a minute.
“More,” her mother says, holding her plate up for seconds. “What’s the matter—you’re not eating?”
She shakes her head. If Ray is poisoning them, putting a little bit of who knows what into the food, she wants none of it.
“I thought you said you were starving.”
She doesn’t answer.
“White rice and brown,” her mother says. “Ray is kinder than I could ever be. I would never make two rices.”
“Two rices make two people happy—that’s easy,” Ray says.
Her mother eats and then gets up from the table, letting her napkin fall into her plate. “That was wonderful—divine.” She walks out of the room.
It takes her father longer to finish. “Great, Ray, really great.” He helps clear the table.
She is left alone with Ray.
“Marriage is a difficult thing,” Ray says without warning. She wonders who he is talking about and if he knows more. “I was married once.” He hands her a pot to dry. “Attachment to broken things is not good for the self.”
“Is that where you got to be such a good cook? You’re really something, a regular Galloping Gourmet.”
“To feed yourself well is a strong skill.” He speaks as though talking in translation.
“Where are you from, Ray?”
She is thinking Main Line, that would explain it. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t care about anything, maybe money means nothing to him, because he already has it, because if he needs it, there is always enough.
“And what did your family do in Philadelphia?”
“They were in business.”
“What sort of business?” she asks.
“Dresses,” he says.
Not Main Line. “Do you have many friends in the area?”
He shakes his head. “I am not so easy, I don’t like everybody.”
“Do you have a family?” she asks.
“I have myself,” he says.
“And what do you want from us?”
“You and I have only just met.”
“My parents are very generous, simple people,” she says. It sounds as though she’s making him a deal, an offer. She stops. “I noticed you on the floor with the cymbals. Are you a guru, a swami of some sort?”
“I have been sitting for many years; it does me good, just noticing what I feel.”
She is noticing that she feels like hitting him, hauling off and slugging him. The unrelenting evenness of his tone, his lack of interest in her investigation, his detachment is arrogant, infuriating. She wants to say, I’ve got your number; you think you’re something special, like you were sent here from some other place, with little cymbals on your fingers—ping. She wants to say, pretending you’re so carefree, so absent of emotion, isn’t going to get you anywhere—ping.
“Do not mistake me,” he says, as though reading her mind. “My detachment is not arrogance, it is hard won.”
If she hits him, he will not defend himself—she knows that. He will let her hit him; she will look like an idiot, it will look like proof of how crazy she is, it will look as though he did nothing to provoke her.
“This is just what you think of me,” he says, nodding knowingly. “I am not anything. I am just here. I am not trying to go anywhere.”
“I’m watching you,” she says, walking out of the kitchen.
The door to her parents’ room is closed. She knocks before entering. Her parents are sitting on the bed, reading.
“We’re spending some time alone together,” her mother says.
“Should I not bother you?”
“It’s okay—you’re not here very often,” her mother says.
“What’s Ray doing?” her father asks.
“Rearranging the shelves in the kitchen, throwing clay pots and firing them in the oven and koshering chickens for tomorrow.”
“What makes you always think everyone else is getting more than you?” her mother asks.
“You’re hiding in your bedroom with the door closed and he’s out there—loose in the house, doing God knows what. He’s completely taken over, he’s running the show, don’t you see?”
“We’re not hiding, we’re spending time alone together.”
She sneezes four times in quick succession. “Cat,” she says.
“Did you bring anything to help yourself?”
“What the hell makes him so special that he gets to come and live here with his cat?”
“There’s no reason not to share. In fact it’s better, more economical, and he’s very considerate,” her father says. “If more people invited people in, it would solve the housing shortage, use less natural resources. We’re just two people. What do we need a whole house for? It was my idea.”
“Why don’t you just open a shelter, take in homeless people and offer them free showers, et cetera?”
“Don’t go completely crazy,” her mother says, “There are no homeless people in Chevy Chase.”
She looks around the room. “What happened to Grandma’s table? It used to be in that corner.”
“Ministorage,” her mother says. “We put a lot of things into storage.”
“Boxes and boxes. We loaded a van and they took it all away.”
“The house feels better now, doesn’t it? Airier, almost like it’s glad to be rid of all that crap,” her mother says.
“Where is this ministorage?” she asks.
“Somewhere in Rockville. Ray found it. Ray took care of the whole thing.”
“Have you ever been there? How do you know your stuff is really there?” She is thinking she’s figured it out, she finally has something on Ray.
“I have the key,” her mother says. “And Ray made an inventory.”
“Fine, first thing in the morning I’m going there. We’ll see what’s what.”
“Why are you so suspicious? Your father doesn’t have many friends, this is nice for him, don’t ruin it.”
“What do you even know about Ray—who is he really?”
“He writes,” her father says.
“Yeah, he keeps a journal, I saw it downstairs.”
“You shouldn’t be poking around in his room,” her mother says. “That’s invasion of privacy.”
“He’s written five books, he’s had stories in the New Yorker,” her father says.
“If he’s a world famous writer, why is he living with you?”
“He likes us,” her father says. “We’re common travelers.”
“We should all be so lucky to have someone willing to pay a little attention to us when we’re old—it’s not like you’re going to move home and take care of us.”
“I came home because I wanted you to take care of me. Steve and I are having a hard time. I think Steve may move out.”
“You have to learn to leave people alone, you can’t hound someone every minute. Maybe if you left him alone he’d come back.” Her mother pauses. “Do you want Ray to go back with you?”
“And do what, help Steve pack?”
“He could keep you company. I’m not sure he’s ever been to New York. He likes adventures.”
“Mom, I don’t need Ray. If I needed anyone, it would be you.”
“No,” her mother says. Simply no. She hears it and knows that all along the answer has been no.
Her bedroom is simultaneously big and small. She is too big for the bed and yet feels like a child, intruding on her own life.
She pulls the shade and undresses. The night-light is on, it goes on automatically at dusk. She lies in the twin bed of her youth, looking at the bookcase, at the bear whose fur she tried to style, at her glass piggy bank still filled with change, at a Jefferson Airplane “White Rabbit” poster clinging to the wall behind the dresser.
Stopped time. She is in both the past and present, wondering how she got from there to here. The mattress is hard as a rock. She rolls over and back. There is nowhere to go. She takes a couple of the new pills—Products for Modern Living.
Her mother and father are standing in the front hall with old-fashioned American Tourister suitcases.
“I’m taking your mother to Europe,” her father says. “Ray is going to keep an eye on the house, he’s going to take care of the dog.”
“He’s lonely,” her mother says. “He came for coffee and brought us a cat.”
She is hiding in the woods behind the house, watching the house with X-ray specs. Everything is black-and-white. She calls her brother from a walkie-talkie. “Are you out there? Can you hear me? Come in, come in?”
“Roger. I am here in sunny California.”
“I’m watching Ray,” she says.
“The mail just came,” he says. “Ray sent me a birthday card and a hundred dollars in cash. That’s more than Mom and Dad ever gave me.”
“Do you know where Mom and Dad are?”
“I have no idea,” he says. “They didn’t even send a card.”
And then Ray is chasing her around the yard with the cymbals on his fingers. Every time he punches his fingers together—ping—she feels a sharp electric shock. Her X-ray specs fall off. Everything changes from black-and-white to color.
Ray runs into the house and closes the door. The deadbolt slips into place.
She is on the other side of the glass. “Open the door, Ray.”
She finds the key hidden under the pot. She tries it. The key doesn’t work—Ray has changed the locks.
“Ray,” she says, banging on the glass. “Ray, what have you done to my parents? Ray, I’m going to call the police.”
“They’re in Italy,” Ray says, muffled through the glass.
She is on the walkie-talkie, trying to reach her mother in Italy.
“You’re not understanding what I’m saying,” she says. “Ray stole the house. He changed the locks. I can’t get in.”
“You don’t have to yell, I’m not deaf,” her mother says.
She wakes up. The house is silent except for two loud, sawing snores—her parents.
In the morning, she dresses in her room. With Ray in the house, she feels uncomfortable making the dash from the bedroom to the bathroom in her underwear. She gets dressed, goes to wash her face and pee, and then heads down the hall to the kitchen.
“Good morning,” she says.
Ray is alone at the kitchen table.
“Where is everybody?”
“Your father had an art class and your mother went shopping with Mrs. Harris. She left you her car and the key for the ministorage.”
Ray holds up string, dangling from it is a small key.
“Would you like some herb tea? I just made a pot.”
“No thanks.” They sit in silence. “I’m not exactly a morning person,” she says.
As she steps outside, Mrs. Lasky is across the way getting into her car.
“How are you?” Mrs. Lasky calls out. “How is life in New York?”
“It’s fine. It’s fine.” She repeats herself, having nothing more to say. “And how are you?
“Very well,” Mrs. Lasky says. “Isn’t Ray wonderful? He keeps my bird feeder full. The most wonderful birds visit me. Just now as I was having my breakfast a female cardinal was having hers.”
The ministorage facility is Called U-Store it. “U-store it. U-keep the key. U-are in charge.” She locates the unit, unlocks the padlock and pulls the door open.
There was something vaguely menacing about the way Ray was swinging the key through the air—yet he drew the map, he seemed not to know or care what she was thinking.
A clipboard hangs from a hook by the door. There is spare twine, tape and a roll of bubble wrap. She recognizes the outlines of her grandmother’s table, her father’s old rocking chair. Each box is labeled, each piece of furniture well wrapped. On the clipboard is a typed list of boxes with appendices itemizing the contents of each box: Children’s Toys, Mother’s Dishes, World Book Encyclopedia A–Z (Plus Yearbook 1960–1974), Assorted from Kitchen Closet, Beach Supplies, et cetera. She pries open a box just to be sure. She’s thinking she might find wadded up newspaper, proof Ray is stealing, but instead, she finds her book reports from high school, a valentine card her brother made for her mother, the hat her grandmother wore to her mother’s wedding.
She seals the box up again. There is nothing to see. She pulls the door closed, locks it and leaves.
Driving home, she passes her old high school; it’s been gutted. Building a Better Future for Tomorrow’s Leaders. Ready for Reoccupancy Fall 2002. Go Barons.
She drives up and down the streets, playing a nostalgic game of who lived where and what she can remember about them: the girl with the wonderful singing voice who ended up having to be extricated from a cult, the boy who in sixth grade had his own subscription to Playboy, the girl whose mother had Siamese twins. She remembers her paper route, she remembers selling Girl Scout cookies door to door, birthday parties, roller skating, Ice Capades.
She goes home.
Every time she comes to visit, it takes 24 hours to get used to things and then everything seems less strange, more familiar, everything seems as though it could be no other way—entirely natural.
She slides the car into the driveway. Her father is in the front yard, raking leaves. His back is toward her. She beeps, he waves. For a million years her father has been in the front yard, raking. He has his plaid cap on, his old red cardigan and corduroys.
She gets out of the car.
“Remember when I was little,” she calls down the hill. “And we used to rake together. You had the big one and I had the small bamboo … ”
He turns. A terrifying sensation sweeps through her. It’s Ray.
“I want you out,” she says, shocked. “Now!” He intentionally misled her. He had to have known what she was thinking when she drove in, when she beeped and waved, when she said, “remember when I was little.” Why didn’t he take off the hat, turn around and say, I am not who you think I am?
“Where is my father? What have you done to my father? Those are not your clothes.”
“Your father gave them to me.”
She moves toward him.
Ray is standing there, her father’s cap still on his head. She reaches out, she knocks it off. He bends to pick it up.
“It’s not your hat,” she says, grabbing it, throwing it like a Frisbee across the yard. “You can’t just step inside someone’s life and pretend you’re them.”
“I was invited.”
“Get your stuff and get out.”
“I’m not sure it’s entirely up to you,” Ray says. This is as close as he comes to protesting. “It’s not your house.”
“Oh, but it is,” she says. “It’s my house and it’s my family and I have to have some influence on what happens here. They’re old, Ray. Pick on someone else.” She grabs the rake and uses it to shoo him inside. “It’s over. Pack your bags.”
Her mother comes home just as Ray is trying to put the cat into his travel case. The cat is screaming, howling. The cab is waiting outside.
“What’s going on? Did something happen to the cat? Does he need me to take him to the vet?”
“He can’t stay,” she says. “He was in the yard acting like Daddy, he was wearing Daddy’s clothes. He can’t do that.”
“He’s your father’s friend. We like having him here.”
“He can’t stay,” she repeats.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have come home,” her mother says. “Maybe it’s too hard. You know what they say.”
“I’m just visiting,” she says.
Ray comes up the stairs. He has a single suitcase, the cat carrier and a brown paper bag filled with his supplements, his wheat germ and the red and the green stuff.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” her mother says.
“It does,” she says.
“Good-bye,” Ray says, shaking her mother’s hand.
There’s something about his shaking her mother’s hand that’s more upsetting than anything, it’s heartbreaking and pathetic, it’s more and less affecting than a clinging hug.
“Don’t forget us, Ray,” her mother says, walking him to the door, letting him out almost as easily as they let him in. “I’m so sorry, I apologize for the confusion.”
And then he is gone. She goes down to his room. She checks the doors. He has left his key on the bed along with her father’s clothes, neatly folded, his bedding all rolled up.
She comes back upstairs.
“Now what, Mrs. Big Shot?” her mother says. “Now who’s going to take care of us?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your father didn’t even have a chance to say good-bye.”
“I’m not saying they can’t be friends—I’m sure he’ll see him at the next vitamin meeting—just that Ray can’t live here. This isn’t a commune.”
She is sitting in the den. Her mother is knitting. Her father comes home. “I made a nice drawing today,” her father says.
“That’s nice,” her mother says. “Were there any messages?” “No,” her mother says. They sit in silence for a few minutes longer. “Where’s Ray?” “She made him leave,” her mother says, gesturing toward her with a knitting needle. “He was in the yard raking. He had your clothes on. I thought he was you—he scared me.” “He did a good job,” her father says. “The yard looks good.” Again there is silence. “
“Where’d he go?” her father asks.
“I have no idea, it all happened so quickly. Maybe back to the vitamin store,” her mother says.
She feels as though she can’t stay away. She has shaken things up too much, she is really on the outside now.
“I guess I should go,” she says.
Later that night she will take the train back to New York. The apartment will be empty. There will be a note from Steve. “I thought I should go. If you need me I’m at Bill’s. Hope you had a good weekend.”
“You come home, upset everything and then you just leave?” her mother says. “What’s the point of that?”
“I wanted to talk to you,” she says.
“So talk,” her mother says.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.