i was driving on the 101 north of san francisco, frigid air venting through the windows.
“you don’t mind, do you?” my ex-mother-in-law asked.
“no.” i answer.
“i just get a little hot…” she looks forward and takes a breath.
“no. it’s fine. i actually like it.” in some ways this is true.
someone send a runner for the weather that i’m under for the feeling that i lost today.
“who is this? playing?” she asks
she looks at me for a few beats without saying anything and I look at the road pretending not to pick up on it.
“two negatives equal a positive.” I smile, still looking forward.
“in math.” i answer. “when you have two negative operations, it makes a positive number.”
“are you doing math right now?” she asks without sarcasm.
i don’t even think to make, i don’t even think to make, i don’t even think to make corrections.
“what do you think he means by that?” she asks.
“i think i know.” she adds.
i don’t say anything.
“you know how important this is?” she asks rhetorically. “that you’re doing this.”
i answer with a tight nod.
“have you heard how he’s doing today?”
“we should have gotten you lunch. i’m sorry.”
“it’s ok. i would have stopped if i really needed it.” this was mostly untrue.
put an ocean and a river between everybody else, between everything, yourself, and home
“i’m glad i get to do this with you. your mom, i mean, i feel like she would have wanted me to…”
“yeah.” i look over at her. “i know.”
“i hope i didn’t…”
“no.” i sketch out a quick smile across my face. “it’s pretty amazing what you’re doing.”
“you know everybody, i mean your brother and sister would. if they were here. they would… you shouldn’t have to do all this on you’re own.”
“i’m not doing it on my own.” it comes out quicker and crisper than i intend. “i mean—i don’t know why you’re doing this, but i do, and i can’t tell you how much it means.”
“did they say how long they thought he might…?”
“no,” i say still looking forward. “they couldn’t. or at least they wouldn’t. but soon.”
afraid of the house, stay the night with the sinners. afraid of the house, ’cause they’re desperate to entertain.
“is there something else?”
“i don’t know, i feel something.” she’s looking at me but i keep my eyes forward.
we pull up to my grandfather’s house and notice a couple of cars in the driveway.
“i feel a lot. right now.” i answer. “i think i just may be letting myself feel too much.”
“are you getting enough rest?”
“yes.” this is a lie.
“if you think that maybe—”
“no, i’m okay. i just have a lot going on and…”
“i know you do. i worry about you.” she takes my hand.
we walk inside the house without knocking. it smells like someone just lit a match. there’s a voice in the kitchen taking on the phone. a nurse, i figure.
i lead us down the hall to the end bedroom and push open the door. there’s a tv on in the corner of the room and a young filipino man in a black track suit.
“hi.” he says. “i’m christian. the caregiver.”
the implications of a name like that cycle through my head.
“i’m ken’s grandson,” i say. “this is my mother in law.” i turn towards janice and there’s a pause. i almost explain that she really isn’t my mother-in-law anymore, at least not technically. but there isn’t really a word for what she is. my stand-in mom, my friend, the only other person willing to come with me, janice. even though all those things are true, it’s hard to pick just one that sounds right and there isn’t a word i can think of to describe the amalgamation. i turn towards my grandfather who’s lying in the bed, mouth open breathing loud. he looks at me and then at janice and he looks confused and happy and fifty pounds lighter than two days ago.
he mumbles something and i can see the inside of his mouth, his tongue discolored and too lazy to push any words out effectively.
“janice is here.” i say gesturing towards her theatrically, as if i was introducing a fellow cast member. as if life were just a play we were putting on for his benefit.
he let’s out an “aha” or something like that.
“he’s been trying to get out of bed.” christian informs us. “he needs to defecate and he wanted to use the toilet.”
“is that an issue?” i ask “i mean isn’t that okay?”
“the nurse said we shouldn’t, she said we should just use the diaper. she’s on the phone now talking to her boss.”
i look towards the hall then back at christian then at janice.
“grandpa, you need to just go in your diaper and they’ll clean it all up for you.”
he doesn’t register or maybe he’s just playing dumb. i see these words travel through the air and i hate the way they look. what a state to be in. to live ninety years only to be treated like a baby once again. he’s a war hero who saved his whole submarine from being blasted out of the water, he was a fire captain in los angeles, he was a husband who watched his wife die fifteen years ago, a father who watched his daughter die just three years ago. it just felt wrong to expect this of him. to treat him this way.
“what if i help?” i ask christian. “what if we both lift him?”
“well…” he says in reply, his eyes flitting towards the hallway and the sounds of the nurse on the telephone.
“i’ll tell you what,” i say. “i’ll take the heat. let’s just get him up.”
after adjusting the tubes and catheter and clearing the way we lift him up.
“careful,” he says and it’s the clearest word he’s spoken in three weeks.
i wrap my arms around his naked body which is eating him up, which is wasted, which is my body fifty, sixty years from now. i think for a second that i’m gonna be sick. and then on the inside of my forehead as if it were a home movie being projected on a wall, i see myself running up to him, hugging him, seven years old, ten years old, fifteen years old…
“i’ll be right back.” i say to janice and christian after we get him on the toilet. he’s sitting there staring unexpectantly, uneven.
“maybe he should be alone anyway” christian says. “i have to stay, though.”
janice leaves the room behind me and we walk down the hall to the living room.
“i need to do something, really quick” i say.
“go ahead, honey.” she gives me a sad smile. “are you okay, do you need to eat?”
“no” i say. but i do.
there’s a lot i need to do. but for some reason there’s only one thing i am compelled to do. i make my way to one of the unused bedrooms and open up the email on my iphone. i met a girl. i should say that i met a girl that i wanted to see again. i met a girl who seemed like she wanted to see me again. it’s not the first time, but it’s the first time in a long time that i cared, that i tried. we saw each other a couple nights ago and said we’d hang out this weekend. it’s all i’ve been able to think about. the idea of actually going out on a date is so foreign, so different from anything in my life for the last two and a half years, since my ex and i split. and right now, i need an escape.
footsteps pound decisively down the hall and i realize the drone of the nurses phone call had disappeared. she must be off. i hear the door to grandfather’s room open and the sound of the nurse reprimanding christian. the voice is muffled and i can’t quite tell if she’s speaking in another language.
“hold on a second, i’ll be right there,” i yell. “it’s my fault.”
i’ve had a girlfriend, i’ve had a couple friends with bennies. but i never had to ask anyone out. these stories all seemed to be in progress when i caught up to them. this was different though. i saw this girl at a party, and really didn’t take too much notice, but she kept coming up in my awareness, digitally and otherwise. maybe i kept bringing her up, but it’s easier to blame magic sometimes. fantasy is so much more believable than real life. i asked a mutual friend about her, i reached out and invited her to a reading i was in, even though she was already going. i was trying to write myself into her narrative, or maybe the opposite. the thing is actual life doesn’t ever work out the way you write it. but this did. the narrative i wrote was happening. i was almost an observer watching it happen, waiting for it to diverge, but it didn’t. and as it continued to stay on script i started writing ahead, filling in details, moving forward faster than the speed of now, elevating the meaning to heights beyond the reach of a simple step ladder.
i had asked her if she wanted to hang out, go for a hike or whatever this weekend and she said yes. the next day i had to go to the city and i emailed her to see if she wanted to go to lunch. she wrote back that she couldn’t. then i wrote her to see if she wanted to go to dinner instead. she was too tired. then i said cool but tell me when you want to hang out this weekend.
the nurse knocks on the door.
“come in,” i say.
“yeah. it’s my fault i told him to do it.” i say before she can get another word in. “i’ll be out in a second.”
for a second it almost seems as if she’s just gonna stand there, then she turns sharply on the heels of her white shoes and exits letting out a sigh.
okay. you can see where this is going. and if i was in my right mind, maybe i could have to, maybe i could have been cool and let whatever is going to happen happen. i hadn’t really felt the need to act on anything in the last several months, so why is it a big deal to just let this thing with this girl unwind how it’s going to. if the way it had been going is any indication, the likelihood of shit just working out was good.
but right now being cool was not part of my aesthetic. i had not heard back from her. it had been twelve hours and i hadn’t heard what time she wanted to hang out this weekend. twelve hours is a week, in digital time, in my quarantined, pseudo-hermetic existence. and now that i think of it, my mind went, i hadn’t heard her reiterate her initial acceptance her desire to hang out. maybe she didn’t want to after all. maybe my persistence in wanting to hang out yesterday weirded her out. was i too over the top?
my narrative was getting away from me. i had to do something about it. and what better time than right now, in between the bowel movements of my dying grandfather, during a hypoglycemic attack, while i am trying to hold together my job and family.
i have never been an addict, but watching the clips and soundbites of charlie sheen over the last week, i think the realities of what it means to melt down are on the top of everyone’s mind. so you’d think that someone who has enough self awareness to keep it together for all the big stuff, would be able to swing enough perspective on the small stuff. in this particular case, you’d be wrong. i pushed send on the email without even rereading what i wrote to her. it was almost like a gesture of disregard. at first i thought it was for her. but i couldn’t help but realize, even then, that the disregard was for myself.
I scrape myself out of the chair and leave the room.
“grandpa, i’m gonna go now. i love you.” i bend down and bury my head in the crook of his neck.
the nurse looks at me and begins to say something, but she stops herself.
“thank you.” i say. “for taking care of him.”
“of course.” she says and her smile is nothing if not genuine.
i finally eat lunch, pick up my kids from school, shuffle around and then got everyone to bed. i walk upstairs and check my email. there’s no response to the message i sent the girl. i click my sent box and open up the email. i read it through for the first time. it isn’t so much that it sounds desperate (it does), it isn’t so much that it is clearly from the hand of an emotionally unstable person (it is), it isn’t so much that it pretty much ends the chance of ever seeing this person one-on-one again (i assume it will). no, the thing that is most disheartening about the whole affair is that it is poorly written. i don’t say that to lessen the emotional and ego-shattering ramifications of it, or to excuse anything. it’s just that, in my experience if you’re going to go down, it’s best to do it in style.
when i show the email to my friend he says, “my god, chris. you’re so naked.”
“it’s not just that i’m naked,” i say. “it’s that i’m naked in a fat-suit.”
“how do you feel about it?”
“winning,” i joke. “this is the second person in the last two years i’ve been interested in. and i just went through a whole relationship before i even got to the first date. it was actually a brilliant tactical move.”
“yeah,” he agrees. “you just sacrificed your queen.”