“You could just stamp AVAILABLE across your forehead and everyone’d know.”
“Hey, what’s a sister’s for?”
“Jesus, am I that obvious?”
“No, but close.”
“Stop saying sorry. We all get a little horny now and then.”
“I’m not horny.”
“Am not,” he’s emphatic.
Neither of them believes it.
“OK, maybe a little.”
“Try a lot, Toddy.”
“All right. Cut it. Yes. He’s cute. I noticed. Since when is that wrong?”
“It’s not. It’s just that every time I see you do this, you notice the guy but then don’t make the move.”
“I’m not just going to go up to someone and say...”
“...Hi, I’d like to get in your pants?”
“Jesus, Marybeth, stop it.” They move from the bar to one of the less crowded corners.
“OK, what would you say?”
“I don’t feel comfortable going up to someone and saying, ‘Hi. I think you’re good looking. Just wanted to say that’.”
“Actually, why not? That sounds refreshingly honest. Better than stupid small talk about weather or the great hors d’oeuvres.”
The annual holiday party in the Bertram Press penthouse is a command performance for staff and clients, a necessary evil in these days of tighter and tighter competition. Great couture, top-shelf booze, killer views of lower Manhattan, with ample side dishes of ego-stroking and deal-making.
“I don’t recognize him. Wonder if he’s with anyone?”
“Another question you could ask.”
“Perhaps right after I tell him about getting into his pants?” Todd could dish it right back when--if--he wants to.
“You’re so hopeless, you know that?”
“Yeah,” she winks, “it’s what makes me so cool to be with.”
The stranger walks over to the bar, orders something, and then looks around. He sees Todd and Marybeth, smiles, and walks over towards the piano where a young man is playing innocuous background melodies.
“See. He notices you.”
“No, Marybeth, he’s listening to music; he’s scoping out the party.”
“You so underestimate yourself, don’t you? If you notice him, trust me, he’s noticing you.”
“Give me a break.”
“Then why’s he walking over this way?”
Todd looks and, sure enough, the guy’s now moving towards them, a glass of seltzer in hand. Todd’s knee-jerk reaction is to turn away and face his sister.
“Excuse me, you’re Todd Richards, aren’t you?”
Todd’s forced to turn back. “Yes.”
“Isn’t he adorable when he blushes?” Marybeth interjects and then adds, “I’ll leave you boys alone.” She gives her brother a few friendly pats on his arm as she walks away.
“Sorry. My sister’s got a warped sense of humor.”
“Don’t worry about it. Anyway, you’re Todd Richards, right?” He extends his free hand, “Joe Harper.”
“Yes, I’m Todd. Hello. Do we know each other?”
“No. Sam Feinstein said we should meet.”
“Oh? You’ve got a manuscript he thinks I should read?”
“Actually, a collection of photos with some text. He thought you’d give it a fair look-see.”
“Well, you can always send it over to my assistant, and she’ll make sure it’s short listed.” Todd’s feeling more and more awkward. The guy’s drop-dead gorgeous--especially the chlorine blue eyes--and he tries not to stare. But, truthfully, everything about the way Todd’s talking--not to mention his stiff body language--says I’d turn back if I were you.
“I was hoping I could bring it in personally and explain what I’m trying to do. Sam thought you might be open to that idea.”
“He did? That’s not usually how it’s done,” but then, catching his increasingly imperious tone, softens. “But if Sam thinks I should. Has he seen the project?”
“No, but I’ve described it to him. That’s when he suggested you.”
“I normally do straight text not multimedia; I don’t know how helpful I’ll be.”
“Well, if you’d rather not, I understand.”
You’re letting this one get away, you idiot. “Well, no, I don’t mean that.” Jesus, just say yes. Make an appointment. Something. Stop being an ass. “Why don’t you call my assistant, Cele Johnson, on Monday morning and we can do lunch or something.”
“Thanks. That’d be great.” The stunning smile matches the eyes.
“Good.” The awkward pause. Who says something?
“Well, thanks again. I’ll call her Monday.” Joe starts to move away--to Todd’s relief--but then turns. “And you’re just as cute as Sam said you were.”
He walks into the crowd.
Todd thinks he hears his sister laughing nearby and blushes--again.
“Such as why you’ve become a recluse out here? Why can’t you just come to grips with the fact he’s dead? Talk about it? Grieve it?”
Todd goes to the window. It’s getting dark. Any moment, it’ll start snowing. “How dare you tell me how to grieve?”
Marybeth takes a step closer, but still keeps distance between them. “I’m not trying to tell you how to grieve. I’m just saying you should grieve. Let it out.” She hears the overly therapy-drenched tone in her voice and after a beat, apologizes. “Sorry.”
He still looks out towards the sea and the descending clouds. “I’m doing the best I can. Under the circumstances.”
“You know very well, Marybeth.” He turns and walks through the portal into the library.
She follows. “Why don’t you say it?”
He’s gone to the window in that room; it faces east. Snow’s clearly starting to sift through the low-flying clouds. “Why should I?”
She puts her hand on his shoulder.
He shrugs it off.
“Because then we can at least be honest about everything.”
He turns. “Oh, then it’ll be all right, is that it?”
“No. It won’t change a thing. But it won’t be the elephant in the living room anymore either.”
“Actually, Marybeth, there’s lots of elephants. Steam Room elephants. 9/11 elephants. Sister elephants. We’ve got a whole fucking parade of pachyderms.” He goes back to the dining room and takes up his drink.
She trails: “Well, that’s a start.”
“Anger’s even better.”
He just glares.
The cross-town M79 bus pulls up, spilling out a gaggle of squealing kids and overwrought parents on their way to the Met. Apparently, it’s Art (capital A) for the masses, including hyperactive pre-teens and untethered chaperones.
After the onslaught, Todd climbs on, takes a seat near the rear, and after the bus pulls out into 79th Street, watches arching tree branches float by overhead.
It’s an ingenious concept to recess the cross streets through Central Park. For visitors walking through the park itself, it maintains the illusion of being somewhere out in the country; for the commuter cutting across to the East or West Sides, it keeps things moving and focused--you have a destination; you’ll get there soon.
Soon, Todd thinks. Soon.
He’d spent the afternoon wandering the landscapes of Galleries 759 and 761, the Hudson River galleries--Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Frederic Church, and their spiritual cousins--taking in the photographic vistas and micro-detailed trees, clouds, and fern-covered precipices. Anything to smooth the prickly emotional edges: He’s meeting Joe Harper for dinner at The Arte Cafe over on 73rd off Columbus--good food, good service, cute waiters.
Why the hell did I agree to this?
The bus emerges on 81st by the Planetarium where Todd gets out and walks over to Columbus, then heads south, a stiff Canadian wind pushing him through the dusk. Autumn in New York: Cool and breezy, the stuff of romance novels and those E-Z listening ballads heard in doctor’s offices or while you wait on your mobile for the next available customer service rep.
He stops at shop windows, periodically checking the quartz blinks of time on his vintage sports watch, creating as many diversions as he can muster--reading a sign, smiling at passersby, then--quite suddenly--feeling his heart skip as he thinks about the meal ahead, then back to shop windows.
He makes jokes: T-minus 10 minutes and counting: Houston we’re go for lift-off.
Finally, he arrives at the corner of 73rd about 5 minutes early. Time to catch his equilibrium--or so he thinks.
“Todd?” He hears his name announced on the street.
He’s startled by Joe, who sticks his head out past the doorway.
“Hey, I got here early.” (His jacket’s already off.) “Got us a booth. Hope that’s OK?”
“Sure. Fine.” Todd follows Joe inside. The place is packed.
“How’s this?” It’s near the bar. “It’s the only one they had. Thought a booth would give us more privacy.”
Privacy. He feels another wash of nerves. Already? “Yeah, this is great. Thanks.”
Todd slips off his coat and smiles: They both have on the identical deep blue button-down shirt.
“Couldn’t have planned that, huh?” Joe points to Todd’s then his.
“Must’ve gotten the memo,” Todd jokes.
And so it goes, a maze of small talk about Fall weather, right-wing politicos, landscape art, Todd’s former short-lived experience as a college lit professor, the intrigues of publishing--all integrated neatly into shared appetizers, chicken marsala, and an apocalyptic chocolate cheese cake for desert.
Beneath the rolling waves, each of them swims cautiously in the currents of eyes, lips, hands, gestures--not to mention the first pulsing choreography of anticipated sex.
They agree to go Dutch, pay the bill, and begin to stroll down Columbus for the Starbucks nearest Lincoln Center.
“So,” Joe says.
“So.” Todd exhales deeply.
“Yeah. It’s a good place.”
They walk into Bucks and get on the line.
Suddenly, Todd feels Joe’s hand on his shoulder. “We could skip the coffee part.”
Todd turns and sees the impish grin. “Really?”
“My place is an easy bus ride away. East Side. 67th. We could go there.”
Todd plays along: “And?”
“Talk? Pleasantries? ...Etchings?”
The first of many times.
For a while.
“Stop playing my shrink.”
“I’m not. I just want you to get better.”
“You’re telling me I’m not well? Fuck you.” He runs his hand through his hair, a habit when he’s upset.
“Come on. This is getting awful. You’re just playing games. All I want...”
“All Iwant is for you to get the fuck out of my house and leave me alone. If I want to stay here in Montauk, I can.”
“Yes, I know that, but...”
“But what? You suddenly want some kind of neat resolution so you can walk away with a clear conscience? That’s it, right?”
“No.” Marybeth adjusts her hair. Same habit.
“You mean you never knew?”
They’re hiking up the steep incline of Mount Jo. The Short Trail gets you to the peak quickly--but it’s brutal if you’re not used to climbing. The rangers say to take the Long Trail down; it’s easier--you can go slower, take great pictures, eat lunch. So that’s what they’ve decided on.
“No,” Todd said. “Never had a clue.”
“That must have been a shocker.” Joe’s winded and rests against a boulder.
“Shocked--and dense as one of these rocks.” Todd catches up and leans next to him.
October air on an Adirondack peak is always remarkable--cool, tinctured with the burnished aroma of birch, maple, oak, pine, and drifts from campfires below.
“Come on, we only have a few more dozen yards; we can rest then.” Todd plows ahead.
Puffing behind, Joe picks up the conversation: “So when did the government get involved?”
They reach the nearly bare peak--outcrops of brush and wind-blasted pine rooted in the cracks of glacier-smoothed slabs of rock.
“Can we just drop it?” Todd asks.
“OK, but you’re the one who brought it up. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“Not a problem.” Todd sits down and gets an apple from his backpack.
Joe joins him and does the same.
“For snapping at you. You’re right. I was the one who started talking about dear ol’ Dad.”
“It’s cool,” Joe said. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want.”
“Not today. Sometimes I start these things and then it just doesn’t feel right.”
Like you do all the time, Joe thinks, but keeps his mouth shut.
They finish their apples in silence, looking at the nearby peaks, the high stratus clouds, Lake Placid in the valley.
“Thanks for understanding.” Todd places his arm around Joe’s shoulder and leans in to kiss him on the cheek. “I’m lucky.”
“And I’m patient.” Ouch, did I have to say that? It slipped out.
The arm drops away. Todd stares straight ahead. How do I respond to that?
“My turn to say sorry.”
“No. You’re quite right, aren’t you?”
“It came out wrong.”
“No, I think it came out just the way you meant it. You see yourself as patient. Patient Joe dealing with Hard-to-Reach Todd.”
“O jeez, here we go.”
“Don’t you mean, ‘Here we go again’?”
Joe says nothing. Damned if I do; damned if I don’t.
“Why the hell do you bother staying with me?”
“Todd, I don’t want to fight. It’s our vacation day. Let’s not spoil it.”
“I’m not spoiling anything. I’m just observing--commenting on yourcomments.”
“Yeah, and I should keep my mouth shut.” He reaches over and squeezes Todd’s arm. “I stay with you because I love you, but you’ve got to trust me more. You start things and then pull back. It gets frustrating sometimes. I’m here to support you.”
Joe lets out an exasperated sigh and gets up, walking to the ledge. “It’s one of those days when nothing I say’ll make a difference, right?” He turns. Todd’s still sitting, tossing the apple core from hand to hand. “I’m sorry you find it hard to talk about your father. I understand. If I found out my Dad was a spy, I’d be freaked out, too. But you bring it up and then when I try to talk about it, you get pissed off at me as if I were the one trying to pry things out of you. Well, I’m not prying.”
Todd pitches the core over the ledge and gets up, pulling his backpack on quickly. “Let’s get out of here,” and he starts to head towards the descent trail.
“That’s it, huh?” Joe follows. “You hear something you don’t like, and you walk away.”
“I walk so I won’t say something I’ll regret,” he mutters and continues.
“Fuck it. Go for it. What would you regret saying right now?”
“That you’re my lover, not my god-damned shrink.”
“That’s your answer for a lot of stuff, isn’t it? You wall me away and don’t let me work with you.”
They maneuver over the roots and rocks on the supposedly easy trail.
“Maybe I wall myself away to keep you out.”
“Well, there’s a blast of honesty.”
“So, respect it.”
“Yeah, and knowing that sometimes I just need to keep you and everyone out of the picture so I can sit with my stuff for a while. I need to feel this shit; I don’t need to be analyzed or rescued.”
“I’m not fucking rescuing you, Todd. I’m just trying to do what friends and lovers are supposed to do--support one another.”
Todd starts singing in an exaggerated southern croon: “Stand by your man!”
“Fuck you, Todd. Just fuck you.” And immediately regrets the words.
“Fuck you, Todd,” Marybeth’s exasperation is primal.
“Ah, there we have it. My dear sis doesn’t get what she wants, so she has a tantrum like a child.”
“Who’s being the child here?”
“I imagine you’ll say it’s me, right?”
“Maybe. Or just maybe that you’re a very hurt adult who can’t quite figure out what to do with all his feelings.”
“Would you stop with the psychobabble already? It’s ridiculous.”
“Like I said, fuck you.”
“Back at ya, bitch.”
...And immediately regrets the words.
The rest of the trek down the mountain is in silence, the kind that has tiger teeth and cobra venom.
It’s only in the gravel parking lot outside the Adirondack Loj that Todd speaks.
“I’m sorry the day’s turned out this way. I’m sorry I can’t be as consistent as you’d like. I’m sorry, but that’s the way I am.”
“Which is a cop out, Todd.” Joe moves closer and speaks with quiet resolve. “You don’t always have to be like this. Every time we get close, you pull back. Every time we talk about the past--especially yours--you run. You don’t have to.” He leans in towards a hug, but Todd stiffens: He’s very conscious of other hikers and campers in the fairly crowded parking lot. “There’s only so much a guy can take before he gives up.”
That’s the knife. “So that’s it. You’ll just leave me?”
“Which may be exactly what you want, Todd.” That’s the twist.
“Fuck off--enough with the psychological bullshit.”
“Not bullshit. Truth. I think you’re so damned afraid of being abandoned that you just push people away.” He demonstrates, pushing his arms out. “You leave before you’re left.”
They both stand there and let that last sentence kick in.
The unsettling, settling silence of truth.
Slow, meaningful, deliberate.
You don’t have all the answers, buddy. But Todd doesn’t say that. Fuck you, asshole. He doesn’t say that either. He just nods because he knows Joe’s right. And--from nowhere--cries for the first time in front of another man.
And to his own great surprise, Joe starts to cry.
He goes back to the window, pulling the wool belt on his sweater tighter.
Marybeth tries to get close, but he turns away. “Todd. I’m not the enemy.”
By now, he’s sobbing, refusing to let her near. “Just go away.”
“I can’t.” Then rephrases it: “I won’t”
Todd holds Joe’s hand tightly. “Can’t you stop this?” He asks the doctor in desperation.
Joe’s gasping for breath, his eyes wide and glazed.
The ER doctor’s checking a monitor. “The diuretic should help.”
He doesn’t look at Todd, but is now focused on taking Joe’s pulse, feeling his ankles, prodding his stomach.
“What’s happening? Asthma or something?”
“Your friend’s having an attack of congestive heart failure. In essence, his heart can’t pump fluids through his body; those fluids are collecting in his lungs and making it difficult for him to breathe.” The doctor, a young Asiatic Indian, finally looks at him with dark and what seems to be exhausted eyes.
“Difficult? The guy’s suffocating,” the panic in Todd’s voice is obvious.
The overweight nurse standing next to him--her name-badge says Cindy--puts her hand on his shoulder: “Mr. Richards, try not to raise your voice; you don’t want to make Mr. Harper more upset than he already is.” The tone seems patronizing--or is it just plain old disdainful?
Todd ignores her, shrugging off her hand sharply, and speaks to the doctor, “The man on the ambulance said it might be asthma; that can cause the lungs to shut down, too, yes?”
“No, it’s definitely not asthma. His lungs are full of fluid and his pulse is nearly 180. This is heart failure.”
Joe’s clearly terrified.
Todd’s grasp of Joe’s right hand becomes even tighter.
The doctor, sensing all this, finds some words and a half smile: “Don’t worry; he should get through this.” Then glancing at Cindy, “Order an Echo.”
She moves Joe aside to get past him--her hands firm against his waist as if she’s moving a carton--(no one’s going to shrug heroff the way he has)--and disappears through the sea-foam green curtains into the hustle beyond.
For a change, Todd restrains his tongue.
Within an hour, Joe’s numbers have stabilized and his breathing’s returned to normal.
No more gasping.
He looks exhausted.
Todd more so.
They wait for results.
The perpetual chatter and racket of an ER--arriving ambulances, crash carts, patients, concerned loved ones, stretched-thin staff--becomes a kind of background noise, the canvas on which to paint fear and the unknown. Todd finally knows understands the phrase--Time seemed to stand still--and says aloud, “Clichés exist for a reason.”
“What?” Joe murmurs through the plastic mask draped over his mouth. A machine next to the bed puffs air at regular intervals.
Out of the corner of his eye, Todd sees the electric green numbers and graphs: 140/85 blood pressure, 74 pulse, 39 breath rate, and the seismic peaks and valleys of Joe’s embattled heart.
Gentle beeps seem to correspond with the heartbeat. Todd tries not to focus on the machinery; he doesn’t want to get Joe more concerned than he already is, so he looks at Joe, but pays close attention to the peripheral view.
“Hmm?” Todd realizes his mind’s wandering.
Barely audible: “What did you say?”
“Oh,” Joe says flatly, sounding almost sad. When Joe moves to scratch his chin, Todd realizes that he hasn’t let go of Joe’s hand since the last batch of tests nearly half an hour ago--that he has, in fact, been holding his hand or gently stroking it for much of the two hours since they’d gotten to the ER.
“I feel like shit,” Todd finally speaks.
He leans closer to the pillow and he begin to sob. “I said some awful things back on the trail. And then on the car ride back. Now you’re sick.”
Joe looks at him deeply. “You didn’t do this.”
“I got you upset.” He’s trying to control his tears.
“So, what else is new?” Is that a smile Todd sees through the mask?
Joe slowly paws at his mask and pulls it down to free his mouth: “You didn’t do anything. This was bound to happen.”
“Family history. Lots of heart disease.”
Todd lifts the mask back up over Joe’s still pale lips, “Maybe you should keep the oxygen on.”
“I sound like Darth Vader.” Another smile?
“That’s OK.” He kisses his forehead and strokes his hair.
The doctor from before--Dr. Singh (still young, but looking a bit more revived)--comes through the curtains. “We got back some results.” He has the decency to address both of them; Todd’s heard some rough stories about how the partners of gay men are treated by hospitals.
“Apparently you’ve had a malfunctioning mitral valve for quite a while; the kind of damage we’re seeing didn’t just happen. But the good news is that you don’t seem to have had a heart attack; I’m not seeing that kind of scar tissue or decreased blood flow around the heart wall. That’s a good sign.”
“So he’s had this for a while?” The question’s as much for the doctor as for Joe.
Singh looked at Joe: “Did you know about this?”
There’s a moment’s silence. Joe nods reluctantly, a cue for Todd to say, “Evidently there’s a family history.”
“Do you have a cardiologist or family doctor?”
“Family,” Joe says quietly.
“Does he have your records?”
Joe nods again.
This is as new to Todd as it is to Singh. “I had no idea,” Todd says, as if the doctor might get mad at him for not relating this the minute they’d come in.
Cindy sticks her head through the curtains, “Dr. Singh, we need you at Bed 6--just for a second, please.”
Singh speaks to Todd this time, bypassing Joe: “Could you get the name? The more we have to go on, the better we can treat him. Fortunately, you ended up at one of the better cardiac units in the City. You’re lucky. I’ll be right back” And he left.
“Joe? What’s this about?”
“How long have you...”
“They detected something when I was a teenager. They said I’d need a replacement someday. Guess it’s someday.” He looks dejected.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“I was going to.”
“When you moved in.”
Todd shrinks back a bit. “When I moved in? Why so long?”
“I was afraid.”
“That you wouldn’t want me.” He turns away.
He leans in and puts his hand on Joe’s chest and rubs gently. “You could’ve died today--maybe--with all that exertion--climbing those trails. And then taking a six-hour ride back.”
Joe pulls down his mask again, “I didn’t want you to think I was an invalid or something.”
Singh comes back. He notices the mask right away. “Mr. Harper, you’ve got to leave that on. You need as much oxygen as you can get for the next few hours.”
“His doctor’s name is Milton Katz.”
“Ah, yes. I know him. Good man.”
Nurse Cindy peeks through the curtains. “Do we need anything here?”
“No, but ask the desk to call Milton Katz.” Then it’s just the three of them again.
Singh asks, “May I ask what the relation is here? Brothers, friends?”
Joe speaks through the mask: “Partners.”
“No,” Todd explains--that old pang of fear biting him in the gut--“relationship partner.”
Joe just comes out with it: “We’re lovers.”
“Oh, sorry--partners. Lovers. Ah--” as if he’s suddenly understood the answer to a nagging question. “So were you together when this attack came on?”
“We were hiking this morning in the Adirondacks and decided to come back today. We were driving down the FDR Drive to Joe’s apartment when he started breathing heavily. I got off at 71st. I didn’t think he could make up to the apartment--he was breathing so hard--that’s when I called 911.” He adds quickly, “We had a fight earlier and...”
“Joe thinks the fight got me sick.”
“No, you’re heart valve got you sick,” Singh says. He leans part way across the bed and speaks to Todd, “Guilt’s useless energy. There’s no reason to take on the weight of the world.”
“Thank you,” Joe says. “Knock some sense in him.”
“Well, before we do that, let me see if Dr. Katz has called.” Singh smiles.
“Thanks,” Todd feels like crying again. Jesus, all these tears in one day. He isn’t used to this.
“Be happy,” Joe sings hoarsely, then coughs a little.
Singh rolls his eyes and says to Todd, “He’s better,” and leaves.
Within two days at New York Presbyterian, Joe has a valve replacement and by the beginning of the following week, they have him walking around and sitting up in his room.
“I was so stupid not to do this before. Not to tell you. To pretend.”
“Well, it’s over, and you’ll be better than new.”
“I mean what was I afraid of?”
“When we came in on Monday night, you said you were afraid I’d leave you.”
“Not maybe. You thought I’d leave you if I knew you had heart valve disease.”
Joe hesitates, “Or that you’d force me to get an operation.”
“Well, the operation happened anyway, didn’t it?”
“I wasn’t ready--or so I thought. I was afraid, that’s all. Afraid that you--or someone--would come in like storm troopers and try to run my life.”
“Instead, you got a new valve from a great team.”
On cue, Dr. Mark Barker walks through the door.
“Talk about timing,” Todd says. “I was just singing your praises.”
“I had a feeling,” he laughs. “Of course, there were a few others in on this, too.”
“How do things look?” Joe asks.
“Quite good, actually. Your new valve seems to be working fine. You were a good candidate, so I don’t think we’ll have much of a rejection or infection factor.”
“So, I’m out of the woods?” Joe asked.
Barker hesitates, finding the best words. “You’re certainly on the road to recovery--and a good life. The new valve should give you relief. Over time, your heart walls are becoming thicker and slightly stiff, which means the heart can’t fill with blood as efficiently as it should. But with medication--and there’s new stuff out there every day--plus a regular exercise program, you can absolutely have a quality life--and one that probably lasts a long time.”
“No certainties.” Joe says matter-of-factly.
Barker--graying, distinguished, mid-50’s--walks to the window and looks at the boats navigating the East River far below. “There never are.” He turns, looking at Joe warmly. “But let’s face it, you can worry about your heart or you can live life to the fullest. With the proper frame of mind along with a sound medical approach, you can enjoy a good life. Carpe diem, kid. Carpe diem.” Turning again to the river, he shifts the subject. “So, Dr. Singh tells me you two are life partners.”
“Yes,” Joe answers, Todd still feeling reticent about such matters with someone he barely knows.
“Do you live together?”
“Actually, not yet. Todd was planning on moving in the end of the month.”
“But I could push that timetable.” Todd still feels guilty.
“I think that would be terrific, if you could. It’ll be better if Joe’s got someone there, especially at the beginning. We want him to be active, but within reason. Someone to take walks with him, to help with cleaning and cooking. To monitor any changes if they occur. After a while, he won’t need that help.” A big smile: “He’ll be helping us.”
“My very own Mrs. Doubtfire.” Joe smiles.
“Come on, you’d look great in heels and an apron,” Joe continues teasing.
“I say the very same to my husband all the time,” Barker jokes as he goes to check the chart in the plastic bin on the door. He glances through the pages quickly. “Everything’s checking out. You’ll be home in a couple of days.” He drops the chart back in. “Joe, you’re in good hands,” he smiles at Todd, who feels suddenly connected to Barker.
Todd smiles back. So we’re all in the sisterhood.
“Thanks for everything, Doc.” Joe extends his hand and Barker comes back to the bed to take it.
“No problem. You’re a model patient.”
Todd also shakes hands. “Yes, thanks so much for everything.”
“If there’s anything, just call.”
Barker’s leaving, but turns at the door. “And fellas, no hanky-panky for the next month.” He winks and walks out.
Joe starts laughing--but stops when the stitches twinge.
As always, Todd blushes.
Todd’s face is flushed from crying. “You won’t go?”
“No. Not until you say it.”
“What?” He sits down, exasperated. “Say what, Marybeth?” He realizes he’s screaming; he immediately overcompensates to a near whisper: “What do you want me to say?”
“That you hate me.”
“It was just an experiment.”
“An experiment?” Todd raises the brow that says You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin me.
“Really. You don’t have to believe it.”
“So, it just happened--like an accident or something.”
Joe becomes aware he sounds shrill, pleading, so he lowers his voice. “Yes, really.”
Todd finds it exasperating and cloying. “Stop sniveling.”
Joe walks towards their living room window. The East River sweeps by below. A tugboat jostles against the February north wind and the full-moon tide. It’s nearly dark, the sky filling with the first stars and smog induced colors of dusk. The word from an old high school vocabulary book suddenly pops into his head. Crepuscular.
Todd’s caught, the net of guilt dredging the waters. The guy’s still recovering from an operation.
Then: The last time you fought, he nearly died. Finally: You’ve cheated in the past, haven’t you? What suddenly makes you Mother Superior?
Mother Superior? Where’d that come from? His old grade school principal, Mother Alice O’Neill. Marybeth’s, too. The two of them always getting into mischief (it was never trouble, it was always mischief, or that’s how our father put it when he was trying to play Daddy).
Is this mischief?
“It’s the fact that it’s a woman that’s got you, isn’t it?” Joe asks.
Without hesitation, Todd replies: “Yes.”
“So, you wouldn’t be mad if I’d fucked another guy.” It’s more of a statement than a question, spoken out over the darkening world beyond the glass.
Todd feels genuinely shocked by the word. That surprises him nearly as much as the word itself. “You make it seem...” He struggles.
“Can’t find a word? Fucked seems too tough? Too rough?” The tone isn’t angry. Rather it’s painfully distant. Which is almost worse.
“Yes, it does.”
“But you make it sound like I’ve betrayed not only you but the entire tribe.” Joe turns. “Todd, please believe me. I’ve been faithful from the start. I had no intention of doing anything.”
“So now, you’ll turn her into the temptress and you just couldn’t help yourself.” Todd’s voice rises for a second; he quickly ropes it. “I’m trying not to go crazy here. Just trying to understand.”
“And get assurances that it won’t happen again?”
“Yes.” Todd joins him at the window and actually finds the reserves to touch Joe’s shoulder for a brief moment only. “Yes, that’s what I’d really like.”
“I promise,” Joe says flatly.
Yet Todd has to dig that one further inch: “But what if you suddenly find yourself--tempted--again? What if you have no intentions, but still give in?”
Joe studies Todd’s eyes. What’s there? What could he say that would work? He chooses honesty: “OK, I can’t promise, Todd. I wish I could. Evidently I’m weaker than I thought I was.”
“So all someone has to do is bat his eyes--or, in this case, hereyes--and depending on factors--how tired you are, whether you’ve had supper or not, where you are--you might or might not go to bed with them.” He can’t resist: “You’ll note I avoided the ‘f’ word.”
“I’m afraid that’s the best I can do, Todd. I wish I could do better for you. And, yes, I have every intention of not cheating on you, but, yes, you’re right--given the right set of circumstances this weak-willed boy from the Burbs might just lapse.”
Todd’s at the precipice. So many choices. Go ballistic, scream--or--leave, move out, slam the door. Or stay in utter control and let the guilt about possible consequences--like Joe keeling over--bridle his tongue.
Though going crazy is so inviting, Todd says quite calmly. “I understand.”
Joe, expecting much more, turns in surprise.
“I mean it. I understand.” Todd even puts his arm around Joe’s shoulder and keeps it there.
They can hear each other breathing.
They’re watching the world beyond the glass.
Looking across Roosevelt Island--the lights of Astoria, Ravenswood, Long Island City, Hunters Point flick on, slowly at first, then more and more.
Bonfires, Todd thinks. More stars than in the sky. He then finally breaks the silence with the real problem: “Maybe any other woman but Marybeth--my sister. Any other woman and I might’ve been OK with it. Might have.”
“OK. I’ll say it. I fucking hate you, Marybeth.” He stares at her.
Although it’s exactly what she wants him to say, it’s still shocking to hear. “OK. Yes. That’s it,” she says--more to herself--and paces around the room.
The snow is suddenly falling, windblown and thick. “Isn’t that what you wanted, Mary? Does that make it better? Does that wash it away?”
“Yes.” She feels her own tears starting. “Maybe.”
“Well, if it makes it any better, you weren’t the only slut in this saga.”
The word stings. “It was an accident, Todd. I’m not...”
“Jesus Christ, that’s the word he used. Accident my ass.”
“We didn’t plan it.”
“Neither did I.”
She stops in her tracks. “What?” She looks at him, trying to figure out what she’s just heard. “Neither did you? What?”
Todd stares at the email printouts; he’s trembling. How did I miss this?
He’s decided to stay in the bedroom today while Joe’s doing some shopping.
(Joe’s place is beautiful, but compact, with only one bedroom--a 12 by 15 rectangle. People need their space or they suffocate, Todd said, so Joe agreed to let him redesign the bedroom to include a corner office where Todd could write or do his editing work for Bertram Press.)
Why he’s never checked out the small walk-in further, he has no idea. Maybe he just hadn’t noticed the panel above the top shelf before because Joe’s shirts have been stacked in front of it. Maybe it’s never been slightly open the way it is now. Had Joe opened it recently and been sloppy?
Had he wantedTodd to look--was the sloppiness on purpose?
Or were there really such things as house spirits, toying with him, being mean for the sake of being mean?
And why would Joe print out such email?
And what do they mean?
And what purpose do they serve?
And is he going to blackmail the guy?
There’s a sudden movement behind him.
“Do you always read other people’s mail?”
Todd gasps reflexively.
Joe’s standing at the closet door.
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
The closet air’s getting warm. Todd can’t lie his way out of this one. He’s been caught. “The panel was open; I reached up close it and saw these.”
Joe takes them from Todd. “So, did you read them?”
“One or two.”
Joe gives him the do really want me to believe that?look.
“OK--about seven or eight of them.”
“Then I’m sorry I got back when I did; you might have made it through all eleven.” Joe has sarcasm down pat; it comes from working with the fashion divas on Seventh Avenue.
Todd’s tone is decidedly defensive: “If you didn’t want me to see them, why put them there?”
“I didn’t think you’d dig through the walls.”
“Hardly. The panel was open. I saw it. I looked in.”
“On tip toes? Come on, you’d have to feel around to see what was there, unless you got a stool.”
“Fine. I saw the panel open, I poked around, felt some papers, pulled them out. But don’t change the focus. Let’s not pin this all on me. Besides, why save these at all?”
“If you must know--insurance.”
“But you’re the one who’s making the sexual advances in these. He’s just...” Todd reads, “ ‘...a hot black guy, and I want you’.” He looks up, “he’s a hot-looking black guy taking the bait your tossing his way.”
“Yes, he took the bait and was foolish enough to put it in print.”
“So were you. If he’s saved his copies, you’re both screwed. It’s checkmate.”
“Not really. I got him to give me his copies--he was stupid enough to do that.”
“How?” Todd finds it hard to believe.
“I had him over one night, told him some horsecrap about really loving him, and begged him to hand over his copies--that we could burn our copies together--that would be his proof that I wasn’t out to get him.”
“How did you know he had copies?”
“Drunken argument. He told all.”
“Fine, so you had the ritual burning. What makes you think he didn’t keep duplicates just like you did?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“He wrapped himself around a utility pole on the Henry Hudson Parkway a few days later. Obviously no one found anything in his personal papers; believe me, I would’ve heard about it.”
Now, the shock for Todd isn’t the pile of e-mail, isn’t the story itself. No, now it’s the way Joe’s told the story. It has the neutral, icy formality of a police blotter.
“And you say that I hold back; that I hide my feelings.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Listen to you. A man’s killed and you really don’t care. It’s a sigh of relief.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Then where’s you compassion?”
“That left when this son of a bitch was going to destroy the company.”
“Oh, so you decided to lay a trap--and then--conveniently--he dies on the Parkway.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Oh, I’m sure you didn’t drive him into the pole, but I’d love to see the accident report. You could’ve slipped him drugs. His brake lines could’ve been sliced. Maybe not by you; maybe not even by someone you hired--but by someone you tipped off. Maybe you let other people in the company know what this guy was planning and hoped someone else would do what you couldn’t.”
“Would you fucking listen to yourself? Are you high on CSI and Law and Order reruns or something? The guy lost control on a wet road; he was going too fast; he hydroplaned when he tried to avoid smacking into the rear of a truck.”
“OK, but you didn’t shed tears, that’s for sure.”
“How do you know? Were you there?” The air in the closet is now stifling, but neither of them moves. “No, but from what I’ve just heard, you’ve got about as much sympathy as a scientist poking at lab rats.”
Joe looks at the sheaf of e-mail in his hand. “Here. Read them all.” He pushes them at Todd who lets them fall to the floor.
“Why? I got the drift.”
“You just jump to conclusions, don’t you? Assume the worst. I don’t know what’s worse, your assumptions about the affair or that I could actually murder someone. That says a lot, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah. Assumptions. Like my sister? Now these email? It’s a little tough not to jump to conclusions when it’s obvious I’ve been lied to more often that I thought.”
“Your sister was a one-time accident.”
“Accident? Oh, there’s that word again. A nice way of putting it.”
“Well, it was. Neither of us planned anything. It happened. I haven’t got excuses. And as far as Kevin is concerned, you’re right--I’m not sad he’s dead. But I was upset. I did cry--and a crack-up on a highway is not the way I would’ve ended this.”
“Why go to all the trouble of setting him up? It’s entrapment. It would never have held up in court.”
“It’s all I could think of doing at the time. Maybe it was stupid, but it worked.”
“Only because he’s dead.”
“OK, OK.” He finally has the sense to walk out of the closet.
The bedroom is vividly cooler by comparison.
“And you saved these e-mail because...?”
“Like I said, insurance. You’re right. I didn’t know for certain that Kevin hadn’t kept duplicates. And when he got killed, I didn’t know whether someone in his family or his lawyers might find his copies if there were any. I was scared, Todd, that’s all. So, I hid them away, to try to prove that he was such a sleaze that he’d be willing to blackmail the company or...”
“...have a scorching romance with the chief photographer in return for some preferential layouts in a few magazines.”
He waits for a response.
Joe remains quiet.
“So, did you?” Todd asks simply.
“Fuck him on the board room table--I believe that’s one of the phrases I read.”
Again, Joe doesn’t say anything.
“Well, your silence speaks volumes, doesn’t it?”
“Todd, it was a set up. I wanted to compromise him.”
“That’s not answering the question.”
“Check the dates on the email. It’s two years before I even met you.”
“Still not answering.”
As Joe walks out the bedroom door, he says, “Yes.”
“On the board room table. And elsewhere.”
“What do you mean?” She asked.
“I mean he didn’t plan it and neither did I,” Joe says.
“Our own infidelities.” Joe snickers. “Is that the word? Infidelity? Jesus this sounds like confession at St. Mary’s.”
“Yes, Marybeth. That charming, old-fashioned word. You weren’t the only one Joe screwed. And you weren’t the only one who broke a trust.”
But then this remarkable guy comes in, sits down on the nearby bench, and undoes his towel, letting it drape to the floor. Joe isn’t one to stare, but he can’t help it--the guy’s stunning and the deep, warm fog of the tiled room adds to the mystery.
Joe nervously looks down and then pretends to massage his right foot.
The stranger asks: “Do you know reflexology?”
Later, Joe would think that Paul’s opening line was one of the lamest pick-up lines he’d ever heard.
“No. Just rubbing out a kink.”
“Oh. It’s cool stuff, reflexology.”
“Reflexology. Based on ancient practices, actually. There are places on your foot that correspond to organs in the body like your liver and heart; if they’re stimulated and massaged, they can help keep those organs healthier.” He speaks with an accent. Joe tries to place it. Polish? Russian? Definitely Eastern European.
“Oh,” is all Joe says. He feels nervous. He also feels himself getting aroused. Shit. I can’t get a hard-on now, for Chrissake. He adjusts his towel to make sure everything’s covered.
“Yes, I started studying about a year ago. It really works.”
Joe nods, trying to look interested--which he might have been in any other circumstance.
“Would you like me to show you?”
“Well, I don’t...”
“It’s not voodoo or something. It’s just applying pressure to certain spots on the soles of your feet.”
“By the way, my name’s Paul.” He slides over to Joe’s bench, leaving his towel behind. “I guess I start talking right away and forget you don’t know me. But I’ve seen you around.”
Joe says--“You have?”--but is thinking, And how did I miss you?
“Yes. We must come at the same time. Mondays and Wednesdays about 5.”
“Anyway, may I?” He makes a gesture towards Joe’s feet.
This is weird. “Well...”
“I won’t if you don’t want, but it feels really good.”
I’m totally hard. Christ. “What the hell.”
Paul gets in front of Joe and goes to his knees. He lifts Joe’s right foot, rests it on his left thigh and begins pressing his thumbs into the center of Joe’s arch.
This is really happening? I came for some steam; five minutes later, Apollo is rubbing my feet.
“How does that feel.”
“Fine.” This is turning into bad porn.
Paul continues for another minute or two and then sits down next to him again, reaching over to grab his towel and place it over his lap, a wad of white terrycloth. “Not bad, huh?”
“No, it was pretty good.”
And that’s when Paul leans over and kisses him on the cheek.
The door to the steam room opens and another couple of guys come in.
“Well, I’ll catch you next week,” Paul announces, sounding as if he’s just finishing a conversation. He gets up quickly, holding the towel across his groin, and walks out.
Joe sits there, stunned.
Hard as a rock.
The two guys who had walked in are talking stock options, oblivious to everything.
...and then reaches over and kisses him, which is the last thing Todd expects, though he gives in more quickly than he ever imagined he would.
“Mmmm,” is all Todd can muster, and then adds. “Be careful. Someone might come in.”
“We’ll hear the door and stop. Besides, it’s pretty steamy in here.”
“I’ll say,” Todd can’t resist the bad joke.
He’s kissed again, and a warm hand slides across his thigh. “I’m Paul.”
“Hi.” And he kisses him again.
No one else came in for the next fifteen minutes.
Joe and Todd are side-by-side on stationary bikes.
“You mean they’re going to do a week-long photo shoot?”
“That’s what I was told.”
“Great. And at Windows?”
“Yup.” “Talk about being on the top of the world.” Todd pumps furiously. “When do you start?”
“September 10th. Monday until the following Monday.” Joe’s matching Todd’s speed.
“That soon. Great.”
“And a spread in Elle.”
“Damn, there’ll be no living with you.”
They both laugh and disappear into their workout, cycling as fast as they can, seeing who can reach 500 calories. Just what the doctor ordered.
As they’re cycling away, it’s Todd who sees him first, across the workout room, doing chest presses on the Nautilus. He looks away quickly. Crap.
He turns to Joe and notices that he’s looking across the aisle as well. Without warning, Joe gets off his bike, grabs his towel and walks quickly towards the locker room.
Todd stops and follows him, worried. “Joe? What’s up? You OK? How’s your heart?” The questions pour out.
Joe staggers a bit, probably from having stopped so quickly. “Fine. I was just getting too hot.”
“You sure that’s all?”
Joe walks over to the water cooler and is pouring a plastic cup full when the door opens.
Jesus, it’s him.
“Why hello. What a surprise.” Paul comes right over to both of them.
At first Joe’s trying to pretend he doesn’t know the guy, but that isn’t going to work.
Todd’s obviously just as flummoxed.
“Fancy meeting you both here at the same time.”
“Hello.” Todd decides to speak.
“Hi. I didn’t realize you two knew each other.” Paul points to both of them.
“Sure,” Joe says. “Old friends.”
Paul leans in, a conspiratorial chuckle in his voice, “So maybe you twocould join me in the steam room.” The emphasis on the word two is clearly meant to have hidden meanings--which, of course, Todd and Joe immediately understand. And then Paul adds the bomb: “You were great separately; it might be better with three.” He laughs.
But Joe acts dumb: “What the hell are you talking about?”
Paul stands back a few inches, puzzled. “If you think it’s too risky, I live a block away.”
“Why would...” Todd tries to look shocked as well.
And then Paul realizes what’s happening: “Jesus.”
“Jesus, what?” Joe asks.
“You’re not just friends; I thought you might have said something to each other, but I guess you didn’t because...”
“Said what?” Todd knows he’s stepping on dangerous turf, but maybe something can be salvaged here--a lie, a denial, something to save the moment.
“Fuck, I really started something here.”
“What are you saying?” Joe pursues, trying to play Todd’s game.
Paul steps back. “Listen, I’m sorry guys.” And before Todd or Joe can say anything, Paul races out of the locker room.
“What the hell was that all about?” Joe tries.
“Oh, I think we know.” Todd feels the anger race through him.
Joe senses it. “What’s the matter with you?”
“The matter?” Todd walks down one of the empty aisles of lockers. “The guy knew you. And I mean knewyou.”
“Don’t act all prissy with me. He seemed to knowyou, too.”
Todd lets his rage hide his mortifying embarrassment. “Fuck you.”
“That’s how we handle it?”
A tall Asian man obviously coming from the showers turns down the aisle. Of course, his locker is right where they’re standing.
Joe follows Todd back to the cooler. “Don’t walk away from me.”
“Yeah, well don’t pretend you’re fucking innocent here.”
“Innocent? Of what?”
“You gotta be shittin’ me. You’ve obviously had sex with the guy.”
“Apparently you have, too.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Yes. It. Is.” Todd walks back out onto the gym floor, which is getting more crowded with after-work patrons, mainly Upper East Side gays.
“What’s really going on?” Joe asks.
“Give me break.” The anger at himself is intolerable. He just wants to run out--leave and be left alone.
Joe grabs his shoulders and turns him. “Don’t run out on me.”
“Get your fuckin’ hands off me.” He’s loud enough to raise the eyes of one of the trainers standing behind the front desk.
Joe lets go but says softly. “We need to talk, not run.”
“The time for that’s over, honey.” There’s a preposterous soap opera stare-down for a few seconds.
Todd isn’t going to let go of his anger--or his gambit of turning it towards Joe--so he goes back into the locker room, grabs his stuff, and walks away without changing.
Joe does nothing.
He just watches the whole routine unfold without a word.
Paul, standing by the locker room door, shakes his head. “Hypocrites,” he calls out. Loudly.
It takes two floor trainers to stop Joe from beating the shit out of Paul.
In less than half an hour, the world beyond the window’s gone from ominous clouds to full-tilt blizzard, spinnaker after spinnaker of billowing snow running from the East.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it wasn’t just you. Joe also went behind my back with another guy--some guy from the gym.”
“Yeah, shit all right.” She sits down next to him.
They’re both where they’d started, at the dining room table, their teacups in front of them.
He picks up the spoon and begins tapping it on the table. Todd barely says it: “Me, too.”
“Yes. I had sex with the same guy.”
“You’re shittin’ me?”
“I had sex with the same guy Joe did.”
“I wish it was that easy. No, I had sex with the guy before I knew that Joe’d done the same thing.”
Marybeth finds herself smiling.
“You think that’s funny?”
“No. That’s wild, that’s all. I mean the three of us. Look at us.”
“Yeah, look.” He smirks.
“See. You find it kinda funny, too.”
“Try painfully ironic.” He takes a sip of his tea. It’s cold. “Joe has sex with you. Joe has sex with me. Joe has sex with Paul--that was the gym guy’s name. I have sex with Joe. I have sex with Paul. It’s a fuckin’ orgy, for Christ’s sake, only one at a time. And for why? For what purpose?” He puts the cup back down. “I mean really. Why? Why would we do that? What were afraid of? I mean Joe and me. Why couldn’t we just fall in love?”
Marybeth remains silent.
It’s getting late. They can hear the wind rattling the windows throughout the house.
In the end, it’s the baggage.
It’s the secrets.
Or that’s what they told themselves.
Todd stands by the living room window with its spectacular nighttime vista. “I’ll miss this.”
“Me, our relationship, or the view?” Joe wants it to sound light; instead, it’s another thread in a taut web.
“I guess all of it.”
“Guess, huh?” Then watches Todd fall into the sticky filaments.
“Yeah. Just guess.” He’s caught in the web but doesn’t fight. He just lets the crosshatch of words lay across him, like the entrapped fly deciding not to struggle.
Joe comes over, stands next to him--and puts his arm, tentatively, around Todd’s shoulder. “I guess, too.” Is that a hint of being choked up? Does the spider cry?
Todd doesn’t move away, but he doesn’t lean in either. “I’m not a nice man, Joe,” he says finally.
Are the threads of the web ripping apart?
And after a silence, “No, you’re not, Todd.”
Another silence--the muffled, distant sound of traffic slithering in through the open terrace door.
“Neither of us, Todd.”
“Neither of us.” It’s a lifeless echo.
All the edges have frayed, the web’s unraveled, and Todd walks away. His backpack is by the door. “I’ll get the rest of my clothes tomorrow when you’re at work.”
“And I’ll leave the keys on the counter. Marybeth hired a few guys to get my desk and boxes. She’ll call and make arrangements.”
“Good luck this week with the shoot.”
“I’ve never been up to Windows, do you believe? All these years, you’d think at least one client might’ve taken me there.”
It’s the small talk of inevitable goodbyes, the chatter one dangles above an abyss.
“Bye.” Todd says.
Followed by the remorseless, septic thud of a door.
“I think you did love each other,” Marybeth finally says. “You just didn’t know how to overcome your fears.”
“Yeah, but what were we afraid of?”
“Losing yourselves.” She blurts out the words.
Almost as quickly, Todd says--“Yes”--then smiles. “Well. That was easy. We’ll hire ourselves out as shrinks.”
They both laugh.
He draws his hand through the air, making a headline: “You, too, can cure what ails you in fifteen minutes.”
“So much for the psychobabble, huh? Now we’re professionals at it.”
Their laughter subsides; any more would have been too artificial.
He turns to her: “So what made you keep going out with Joe? Why did you pursue it, Mary?”
She doesn’t expect that question.
“I asked him the same thing. I told him I wasn’t comfortable. I mean, once could be passed off as an accident. More than a month’s on purpose. I wish I had the answer for you, Todd. Really, I do. It’s awful of me. I knew it would hurt you, but I still went ahead. I was selfish. Part of me enjoyed being with him in a forbidden kinda way.” She leans towards him, “I do love you, big bro. Really, I do. You know that, right?”
“I do.” He says simply. “But that doesn’t change the anger. The trust. The betrayal. You knew it would hurt me, yet you went ahead anyway. What does that say?”
“I know, I know.”
“But it also doesn’t change the fact that I’m a fucking hypocrite. Paul was right. A hypocrite. I did the very same thing. I cheated--for lack of a better word--on Joe, too. And I cheated knowing it would hurt him if he found out. Talk about building a wall.”
“Tall and thick.”
24. 8:15 A.M.
The computer calendar on his laptop tells Joe it’s Tuesday the 11th and the clock face (Mikey Mouse) says 8:15 AM.
He downloads a few of the photographs he’d taken yesterday onto his laptop and sends them to the office. And to Marybeth. They’d been close through the last few weeks and had kept their ongoing “affair”--such an old-fashioned word--a secret. Todd’s gotten upset enough with the steam room episode; Joe doesn’t need to add another layer--even Marybeth’s a bit taken back by what they were doing and is glad about his discretion. Neither wants to add more fuel to Todd’s barely hidden rage.
Joe turns to his two models: A remarkable set of male twins dressed in Armani. The smells from the restaurant kitchen are already wafting through.
“Let’s try a few with you sitting at a table.” Joe’s assistants go to pull out chairs and begin arranging glasses and silverware.
I wonder if we could manage a threesome? Joe shakes the thought from his head with a half-joking retort: Slut. And then smiles that smile of his.
A new manuscript sits on Todd’s office desk, but he’s not reading. Like everyone on his floor, he’s glued to a TV monitor.
He looks over to see the time: 11:05 AM
Already all the networks are playing the endless video loops of the South, then the North Tower collapsing, as if we can’t believe our eyes, as if we need to see the images over and over again to say This is really happening; this isn’t an hallucination, the nation collectively rubbernecking at the most fatal terrorist act the world’s ever seen, wanting to turn away; unable to stop looking.
It’s then--11:05 AM--the images hit him harder than anything has before.
His friends say later that Todd passed out and cracked his face on the desk, which explains the bandage stretched across his right eye when he wakes. Marybeth’s arranging the icepack on his forehead as he comes to.
“Where am...” But it hurts to talk.
She doesn’t have to say a word.
Marybeth thinks it’s OK to send those last pictures over to Todd. It’s been two weeks and he probably won’t ask how she’s gotten them.
Or if he does, she’ll lie and say that Joe’s co-workers sent them to her.
Why would a co-worker do that?
Fuck it, I’ll think of something.
Does she want Todd to see the last pictures Joe took? Does she really want to make a point?
Let Todd stew a little, wonder why Marybeth has copies of Joe’s work?
Does she really want to hurt him?
Make him feel like shit for breaking up with Joe when he’s just as guilty as Joe was, if there’s anything to feel guilty about to begin with?
And the photos themselves.
Two drop-dead hunks.
Does she want to plant more seeds of doubt in Todd’s mind?
Actually, the thing Todd thinks when he opens the first picture has nothing to do with Marybeth or jealousy or doubt or fidelity. Instead, what he thinks is blatantly sentimental, and the cause of more tears: I wish this were a last picture of us.
October in Montauk could be gorgeous; this year’s proof. So, it isn’t a hardship to be outside working on a project. One of those pain-in-the-butt projects that has to get done before the cold weather sets in.
When Todd had arrived the day before, the front door was stuck. The only way to fix it properly was to take the damn thing down and carefully plane it.
Rasp in hand, Todd slowly scrapes off tiny slivers at a time, then takes fine sandpaper to smooth over his work.
It takes a couple of hours of putting the door back on, taking it down, sanding more off, then back on again to get the job just right. When he’s done, he stands on the porch, staring.
A red front door.
Two brass sconces on either side.
The porch painted with glossy grey deck paint.
The patina of Norman Rockwell over a Currier and Ives house.
After a while, and a last deep breath of autumn sea air, he goes in.
The door shutting is reassuring.
He can unravel in peace.
“I’ve become an angry, unfortunate man, haven’t I, Marybeth?”
“You don’t have to be.”
“Which means you think I am.”
“Which means I came out here to try to rescue my brother from himself.”
“And rescue yourself in the process. Two for the price of one.”
“That’s true. You’ve all but admitted it.”
They’re both caught in the net.
“We could talk forever. The truth is we both did some shitty things. We did things despite knowing how much it might hurt--that it would hurt--another person. That didn’t stop us. So maybe we’ve both become angry, unfortunate people. And, yes, maybe, I came out here as much for myself as for you.”
The clock chimes 5.
Outside, in the storm, some lights from the village make glowing nebulas on the left horizon.
To the right, the neighbor’s front porch light casts a glow across the yard between their properties.
Somewhere ahead is the sea, but that’s lost in the spiraling undulations of black and gray.
They sit in silence for a long while, staring out the window.
Sudden bursts of sleet against the windows.
The rising and falling wind.
The distant surf.
By November, he’s completely locked up behind his door. Leaves have shed, the sea grasses have turned golden brown, and winter’s ready to float down from the great North.
Then one Thursday morning.
“They found fragments.”
“What do you mean?”
“Fragments of bone. It’s a positive match.”
Todd’s furious. He slaps his cell phone shut.
He puts his head against the dining room window. It feels cool.
His cell rings again.
He can ignore it; instead, he flips it open.
Before he can say anything, she starts: “Listen you arrogant prick, you’ve cut yourself off from the world. People are concerned. I thought you’d want to know. It took a lot for me to call. I thought you’d want to know. I still love you. Your friends love you. That you’d want to know about Joe.”
“Well, I don’t.” He’s impassive.
She speaks very quietly. “You are not the Todd I came to love growing up. You are not the Todd who helped me through Mom’s death. You are not the Todd I helped through all the crap with Dad. You are not the Todd I listened to when you gave up classroom teaching and wondered whether you could make it as an editor. You are not the Todd I could joke with and laugh with and dance with and share anything with. You’ve become a bitter old fucker who’s hiding out here because you’d rather shut the door on life than deal with it. You,”--and she emphasizes her final words--“are not my big brother.”
She hangs up.
He tosses the phone against the wall. “Fuck you.”
He can feel his pulse in his head.
He sits down...
“That went well.”
But after a moment, he realizes he’s shaking.
“I am not a nice person, am I, Joe?”
And smirks again.
“Marybeth, the truth is this...” He adjusts his weight in the chair and leans forward, taking her hands in his.
She doesn’t pull away, just tries to get used to the coldness of his fingers.
“The truth is I was growing older and still tied to home. Granddad, mother, then father. Forced by them and my own guilt into endless caretaking--emotional and physical. It wasn’t my choice. It was theirs. Maybe if it’d been my decision, I wouldn’t have minded nearly as much. Or been nearly as angry.
“Anyway, the result? Anything that smacks of commitment makes me run. I never wanted to be tied down again. And anything that smacks of loss makes me run. I want to be close, but I run scared. I’m afraid of being left behind, so I can’t allow being close. Quite a predicament, yes? There I’ve said it. Happy?”
She looks out into the darkness for a moment then turns back. “Yes.”
His smile lacks the usual cynicism. “And once you think you’ve been freed from the prison of your worst fears, you never want to go back--that would be insanity. Which is why I shun religion and loathe those haughty conservative types who think they’ve got all the answers. Which is why I defy authority and long to dance on the grave of all my forebears. Which is why I leave lovers and shut the door on my sister.”
He squeezes her hand for a moment. “Which leaves me plungingly alone, longing for God and the dream of unconditionally loving kin.”
They hadn’t turned on lights, so they’re sitting in the dark.
The storm outside has turned eerie shades of ruddy gray.
“Which is all a dream.” Todd let’s go of her hands and walks over to watch the storm.
“What is? What’s all a dream?”
He can feel the chill penetrating the window glass.
“Happiness. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.”
His breath makes fog.
She stands next to him.
“I might have continued to love you, Marybeth, if I still didn’t feel so betrayed. Even if I did the same thing. Even if that makes me a hypocrite. Will I ever forgive you? I don’t know. Would I like to? Yes. Will I forgive myself? I don’t know that either.”
His finger makes a line through his breath fog on the window. “There. Take that as your comfort for the day. I wish it could be more, but I can’t fabricate.”
“I don’t want you to, Todd.”
“Perhaps that’s the new direction I see myself taking, even if that means--especially if that means--not saying what other people want to hear. Will the walls tumble? Did you think you might be the trumpeter to do that, sis? The prophet circling the city time after time shouting messages of repentance? Able to stop the sun in its tracks to achieve victory? Who knows?”
“Just try, that’s all. Just try, Todd.”
“I promise nothing.”
“But what will you do? Stay out here forever? Become Miss Havisham?”
He comes back to sit down. “This narrative might end happily: I could decide to sell the house--or could invite guests--or could, in a totally romanticized gesture, open up a guest house or a bed and breakfast. Something that shows I’ve moved on.” The tone is sardonic. “Or I might resign myself, accept my fate, falling back on one of the oldest of all rationalizations: ‘That’s just the way I am. I can’t change. It’s too late.’ The last image of the story is me walking into the storm, disappearing into the white-out like the creature in Frankenstein on his sledge heading north towards oblivion. Though we do have to take the monster at his word, don’t we, since we never actually see him die.”
Though he knows it’s ice cold, he takes a last sip of his tea. “Or it might be simpler and truer to life. After you leave in the morning, I take a walk, I have breakfast and wait--like we all must--for the next thing. No particular ending at all.”
He leans back, rocking on the chair’s hind legs. “Action, inaction, or apathy--a cornucopia of transitive and intransitive possibilities.”
Marybeth says nothing.
“What I’ll probably do is go to the IGA, assuming it’s open, and buy some bread and come back to the house. And then what? Toast? Coffee? I wish I knew.” He settles in place again. “Of course, even if I knew, I probably wouldn’t tell you because--like I’ve said repeatedly, if you’ve been at all listening--I am nota nice man.”
Marybeth stares out at the storm.
Todd stares, too.
There’s nothing left to say.
The clatter of sleet.
All night long.
All writing in this section is copyrighted. Permission for use with full credit to author must be obtained.
(c) T. Richard Williams (pen name for William Richard Thierfelder)