I’m not a science writer by training—I earned my degree in English and American Literature. As I reached my late-20s, though, my questions about life and love required answers that couldn’t be gleaned from poems or novels. I applied for the job at CelluTech, 50 miles north of Los Angeles, and happily accepted the position because science never lied and never wavered. A molecule did this, and genes, even defective ones, did that. Sure: science often reinvented itself. For instance, quantum physics contradicts traditional physics; and some researchers believe that cancer stem cells exist while other researchers didn’t. But even in this chaos, science still followed hard-and-fast rules.
More than its certainty, science always anticipated the discovery of a better life and a better cure. And psychically, I needed to join this effort that offered hope to the world. Even though my parents didn’t die from cancer or diabetes, I didn’t want children being left alone because their moms and dads had.
As I left Dr. Tremaine’s office, though, I didn’t drive back to work, nor did I think about stem cells or renewed hope or sick mothers.
I had purchased tickets (third row, center) for Truman and me to see Wicked at the Pantages. I had made reservations at Providence for dinner afterwards, and over lobster risotto for me and a rib-eye for him, we would talk to one another instead of throw words in the air in hopes that the other person captured them in their intended order and spirit. Because sentences like, “Will you pull in the trash cans after the trash man empties them?” became interpreted as, “You don’t pull in the trash cans after the trash man empties them.”
In the soft golden candlelight of a restaurant, Truman would remember falling in love with me 13 years ago. He would realize that he was damn lucky to still be married to me even though we no longer went out dancing or gave each other backrubs (how I missed his shoulders); or ate barbecued ribs like we used to every Monday night; even though the showers we used to take together had become solo endeavors. He used to tuck me in bed. We used to make love before he left the room. I used to fall asleep afterwards, not waking until the morning.
If anything was haunting our house, it was the Ghost of Used To.
We couldn’t blame ear infections, or PTA meetings or soccer practices for our inability to communicate.
We didn’t have children. We didn’t own a dog. Our bickering resulted from our failures to talk and listen to each other, husband to wife.
Now, instead of taking walks to the reservoir, cooking tacos together, or battling each other in rounds of Guitar Hero, I retreated alone to the upstairs den to watch The Simpsons. I’d sit there, in a worn-out state of unease, and wait to hear the security panel ping and Truman shout, “Hey, babe! It’s me.” On many nights, The Simpsons melted into Jeopardy. Since his promotion to Executive Vice-President, Jeopardy melted into Lost or C.S.I. and then, the ten o’clock rerun of Seinfeld.
We had argued about his insane hours, and he had apologized, and he would come home and eat tacos and watch American Idol.
Until the next week.
I slipped a Jill Scott CD into the stereo, and sang as I showered, dressed and primped. I ignored the pipe’s strange rumblings as I pulled on a crimson silk dress that clung to my hips, caressed my thighs and boosted my cleavage. I looked hot. Smoking hot. The woman I used to be 15 years ago.
Hotness reclaimed, I sat at the dining room table, still and stiff to avoid shiny face, flat hair and sweaty underarms. I wanted to pop a Paxil, but I couldn’t. Not anymore. So, I stared at the vase of white lilies in the table’s center, fantasized about eating lobster risotto and chocolate ganache cake, then standing in the lobby of the Pantages with a program book in my hand and my husband on my arm.
I glanced at the clock in the telephone’s display: 7:33. The theater’s curtain rose at eight o’clock.
He hadn’t called, hadn’t e-mailed, hadn’t text-messaged.
I dialed his cell-phone number.
I stomped to the living room and jabbed the stereo power button—Jill, then no Jill. I dialed his number again.
I stomped to the kitchen and peered out the window to the driveway.
Just my Volvo.
Where was he? What was he doing? Are those his headlights zooming around the bend?
At 7:40, I stopped keeping watch at the window, and started pacing. Did he get in an accident? Did he get pulled over by the police? The telephone chirped and caller I.D. droned Baxter, Truman, Baxter, Truman. I grabbed the receiver, and shouted, “Where are you?”
“I’m still at the pool,” Truman said. “Trying to get in some extra dive time. I didn’t realize how late it was.”
I rubbed my temples—anger headache. “The show starts at eight.”
“I know, babe,” he said. “I should’ve called earlier—”
“Yes, you should’ve.” I lurched to the living room. A tear rolled down my cheek, and my fingers picked at my lips, drying beneath coats of lipstick.
“I didn’t realize how late it was. When I got off work, we rushed down to the pool—”
“Penelope and me,” he said.
Penelope Villagrana worked with Truman at ESPN, and partnered with him on climbs, dives and jumps. She was single, had the body of an Amazon, and was rumored to be as adventurous in the bedroom as she was on the mountaintop.
“We got here late, and Flex was pissed. You know how he is. He doesn’t care about anything else, and he doesn’t want his students to care about anything else, either. When you dive, you’re supposed to focus on being under.
“Plus, my allergies were bothering me, and my eyes were a little scratchy, and I couldn’t take a Sudafed, and so my mind was just…” He sighed, then said, “This was the first time I glanced at a clock. You—”
“Are you coming or not?”
Truman paused, then said, “I can’t, Nic. I’m sorry. I just… I don’t want anything to go wrong when I’m a hundred feet under next week. And I know you don’t want that, either, right?”
I didn’t speak, angry that he had exploited my fears to justify his selfishness.
“I’ll make it up to you,” he said. “I promise.”
“I’ll add it to the list,” I said, hoping that he sensed my dissatisfaction.
He laughed, not sensing anything. “I’ll call when I’m on my way home. Love you.”
A dial tone told me that he had hung up.
I threw the telephone at the fireplace, but it didn’t shatter into billions of tiny pieces like I wanted. Instead, the phone hit the brick with a thud, and landed on the floor with a crack. Anger unquenched, I buzzed around the room. My heart pounded so hard, I thought it would explode. My ears rang, and then, I couldn’t hear my heart anymore. It worked, though—knife blades were stabbing at it like freshly-sharpened Henckels in a rump roast. I grabbed my left arm and sipped air. Couldn’t breathe. Pain in my chest. I was suffocating and having a heart attack at the same time.
I squeezed my eyes shut, and took deep breaths. One… Two… Three… Breathe.
I tore the covers off Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly and Consumer Reports, then kicked the coffee table. I yelped and tears burned in my eyes as fire blazed from my toes up my calf.
The house laughed–I swear it laughed. Not the low groans of a settling foundation, but high-pitched pings. Hee. Hee. Hee.
If I didn’t leave, I would hurt myself again and I would destroy items more precious than magazines and telephones. Like the porcelain bowl from Paris. Or the delicate crystal picture frames from Tiffany. Or the black clay vase from Mazatlan. Exquisite, throwable things.
I limped to the breakfast bar and grabbed for my keys beneath the fruit bowl.
I always kept my keys beneath the fruit bowl. I checked the countertops and sink, and then the dining room table, the couch in the den, and the table in the foyer.
I sprinted back to the kitchen, and spotted the Volvo fob beneath the fruit bowl. Okay, I’m blind now. I grabbed my purse from the pantry and stomped to the car.
Dark sky and distant stars hid behind thin, wispy clouds. Misty rain had thickened the musty smell of burnt chaparral, and in seconds, my hair lost all curl and lay flat against my head. My eyelashes clumped, and mascara liquefied into a thick, gooey paste. Melting. I’m melting. What a world, what a world.
I climbed into the car, and at the base of the hill, I grabbed my cell-phone and called Truman’s sister,
Leilani. “I need to talk or… or…”
Leilani sighed, and said, “What did he do this time?”
“He…” I bit my lip, not ready to cry.
“Did you eat?” she asked.
“And I didn’t cook,” she said. “Let’s meet at Dan Tana’s. I’ll call Mo.”
Truman didn’t play sports in high school or in college. He was a math geek, and after graduation, he accepted an analyst’s position in ESPN’s marketing department. Ten years and four promotions later, he was now the Executive Vice-President of Content for the network, overseeing development, design and production of programs for television and the Internet. He had also taken an interest in spelunking, diving and climbing.
I had joined Truman on his earlier excursions to lesser mountains and to tourist-trap caves—not to climb or spelunk beside him, but to enjoy a novel, the hotel and the hotel spa. I stopped tagging along after reading a C.D.C. advisory before his first true cave exploration–bat rabies at Moaning Cavern. What the hell? He left without me, and promised to run from the first bat he saw. Then, days before his first ascent up a “real” mountain, I read a news article about a climber who had slipped off a mountain’s slope and died. We argued, and he promised that if the climb got too rough, he’d turn around.
I know: I worried too much. Each adventure spoke to his unwavering determination. Each journey symbolized the Black Man’s Struggle in the World. Moaning Cavern would be his last spelunk, and Mount Whitney would be his last climb… I thought. But Mount Kilimanjaro followed (19,340 feet high and in Tanzania), and then a larger, more dangerous cave in Peru. We took fewer vacations together since he now allocated most of his salary and off-time to climb, crawl and jump.
“Not only is all of this expensive,” I had complained, “it’s also dangerous. You can get infected with something, or break a limb or… You could die, Truman. What would you do then?”
“Nothing,” he had said. “I’d be dead.” He had smiled and squeezed my hand. “If I wanna climb the ladder at work, I gotta do more than play company softball. It’s what they do, Nic, and if I’m with them, I’m right there when they decide to promote somebody. We were about to jump off that bridge near San Luis Obispo when Keith offered me the E.V.P. slot, remember?”
“I understand the importance of networking and schmoozing,” I had said, “but we shouldn’t hang from bridges since they just stopped hanging us from trees.”
Truman had rolled his eyes.
“I’m not overreacting,” I had shrieked. “And stop looking at me all crazy like that. How many climbers died in avalanches last year? How many hikers froze to death in the woods? How many so-called good swimmers drowned during white-water rafting trips?”
Truman had nodded. “You’re right. It is dangerous. I’ll be more careful.”
And then, one late night, he called me from work. “You won’t believe the idea I just had.”
For a year, a camera crew would follow a quartet of ESPNers (including Truman) as they prepared for a climb up Mount Everest. Then, they would telecast the climbers’ attempt to summit. Truman’s bosses had loved the plan, but I had loathed the scheme, and had refused to talk to him about it. Because I had read Into Thin Air four times. Since 1922, 210 climbers had met their fates 29,000 feet above sea level. Who’s to say Truman…?
Truman left for Nepal on the first of May. I didn’t sleep much in anticipation of late-night or early-morning phone calls that would announce his death. I hated that telephone now. Its ring pin-balled and echoed throughout our cavernous house, striking bare walls and Mexican tile floors, only stopping once I picked it up—another reminder that I lived there alone until my husband, God willing, returned to the States.
Fear (of robbers, of rapists, of everything) also kept me awake. Since we were anti-gun, Truman had bought a 22-inch machete as a weapon, and I slept with it beneath the mattress. The television played all night, and every light in the house burned bright, and I never (not once) watched news stories about young women being raped, stabbed, and murdered in parking lots, in garages, in their beds.
On nights when the wind shrieked beneath the house’s eaves and the neighborhood dogs barked nonstop, and I glimpsed phantoms out of the corner of my eye everywhere I turned and dread pressed against my chest like an anchor, I checked into a room at the Sunset Marquis.
Truman reached Everest’s peak, only suffering from a frost-bitten pinky toe. He returned to the States three weeks later, enervated by his success, convinced of his immortality.
And soon, he would show our friends the “behind the scenes” climb DVD. He would see awe in their eyes, and hear them say, Dude, I can’t believe you did that. He would be seduced by his image on that recording, and would remember the cold and the coughing, and the sound of tents flapping in thin wind.
He would remember the thrill of it all, and I knew he would seek to recapture it. He would return to Everest, or worse: climb Alaska’s Denali, where nighttime temperatures dropped to 40 degrees below.
“This better be important,” Monica warned as I slid into the red leather booth. “I’m working on the Hertzberg bat mitzvah, and—”
“Mo, please,” Leilani said, fluffing ginger-colored hair that coiled past her shoulders. “Nic needs to talk and we need to listen.” Then, she winked at the very-married sitcom star seated two tables across from us.
Twenty-five years ago, Leilani Baxter and I had shared a dorm room during our freshman year at U. C. Santa Cruz. The Baxters were upper class Pentecostals from Cerritos, California. Douglas Baxter owned a construction company, and his wife Cassandra was his wife. Truman had forsaken the church for a math degree at M.I.T., and Leilani… Leilani was pretty. After graduation, she moved back into her parents’ home and had planned to earn a Masters in Social Work; but her ambition waned. Tuna casserole and Salisbury-steak dinners had become her Kryptonite.
Monica had also attended U.C. Santa Cruz, and lived in the dorm room next door. Monica, a Watts Ghetto B.A.P., wore a long, golden weave and giant doorknocker earrings. She matched her tennis shoes to her tracksuits, and drove her boyfriend’s purple Z28 until the repo man came for it during spring semester.
After Leilani ordered her third lemon drop martini, Monica dished about the spoiled Hertzberg girl and her secretly-bankrupt-hedge-fund-king daddy. Distracted, I stared at the backs of my hands, marred by yellowed scars made by Aunt Beryl’s cats. I had the strangest desire to tear at my hands, wolf-like, and my heart pounded harder as the urge to self-cannibalize grew.
Leilani bragged about her latest acquisitions—D-cup breast implants—and all the clothes she had to buy to accommodate them, including the hot pink halter dress she now wore that also showed off bronzed skin from a Barbados trip with Sam, a mortgage banker with a wife and twin girls.
“Wait a minute,” Monica said, turning back to me. “Weren’t y’all supposed to be at the Pantages tonight?”
I nodded, then pushed my fork through the mound of creamed spinach.
Leilani sighed, then fluffed out her hair again. “He flaked on you, right?”
I grunted, and forced a forkful of spinach into my mouth.
Monica glared at her steak. Leilani, eyebrows crumpled, considered me with silent pity.
Near tears, I reached for the red string tied around my sister-in-law’s left wrist, and said, “So what’s this for?”
Leilani slapped my hand away. “It’s a Red String.”
“I see that it’s red and that it’s a string.”
“Ain’t that a Kabbalah whatchamajig?” Monica asked.
“Yeah,” Leilani said.
“So what’s it for?” Monica asked.
“It protects me from the influence of the evil eye,” Leilani said in all seriousness. “Other people’s negativity keeps me from realizing my full potential. There’s some other stuff about Rachel the matriarch but…” She shrugged. “I don’t know all that much about it. Way too much stuff to read. And then they want you to go to all these classes and crap...”
“Amazing that you actually tied the string around your wrist,” I said. “Seems easier if you would’ve just kept it in your cheek.”
“Ain’t all this Jewish?” Monica asked.
Leilani nodded, then nibbled on a scalloped potato.
“But you believe in Jesus,” I said.
“Minor detail,” Leilani said.
“Our Lord and Savior is a minor detail?” I asked, eyebrows lifted. “Is this the same woman who told me back in college that I was going to Hell coz I listened to Prince, and wore jeans, and that this was a Christian country and we Americans shouldn’t have to learn anything about Ramadan or listen to some heathen rant about some false god that lives in some rice paddy in the jungles of east Asia?”
“Lei, you did say all of that,” Monica said.
“I’m an adult now,” Leilani said. “And I believe in what I wanna believe in coz I wanna do it.” Then, she turned to me, and added, “Maybe if you wore one of these, you wouldn’t need to pop Paxil and Valium.”
Monica smirked. “So this Red String is helping you with your… you know?” She sniffed with exaggeration, then swiped at her nose.
“That’s for recreational use,” Leilani explained. “Not for psychological issues. And I don’t need drugs to function. I can stop whenever I want.”
Monica rolled her eyes. “Spoken like a true crack-head.”
“Stop talking like that,” Leilani said. “It demeans us all.” She turned to me. “Why aren’t you drinking?”
I shrugged. “Don’t feel like it.”
“Bullshit,” Leilani said.
“Uh, negative energy,” Monica said.
“I’m not stupid,” Leilani told me. “You drink more than I do. And with everything that’s going on between you and Truman…” She tilted her head as though someone had whispered in her ear. “You’re pregnant.”
I sipped from my water glass. “You’re nuts.”
Leilani beamed. “You are!” She turned to Monica. “She is, isn’t she?”
Monica futzed with a napkin.
Leilani slapped my hand. “You’re gonna have a baby! Does Tru know?”
My eyes welled with tears.
Leilani’s smile dimmed. “What’s wrong?”
“She was planning on telling him tonight,” Monica said.
Leilani frowned. “You knew she was pregnant?”
Monica said, “Umm…”
“Lei, you can’t keep a secret,” I said with a forced smile.
Leilani arched an eyebrow. “Fine. Keep your little secrets. I don’t care.”
I touched my friend’s wrist. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
Leilani grunted. Less enthusiastic, she asked, “When is Secret Baby Baxter due?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “I took two of those ClearBlue Easy pregnancy tests a few days ago, and I’m going to the doctor on Friday to confirm. I was totally excited about it; but now, after tonight’s wackness…”
Sympathy returned to Leilani’s eyes. “A baby’s gonna end the stupidity.”
I shook my head. “Wait until you see the latest stupidity at his party on Saturday night. Then, we’ll talk. Prepare yourself, though, and promise that you won’t act amazed by what you see on the DVD. That’ll only encourage him to parachute from the space shuttle or something.”
“Does he have a death wish?” Leilani said, as she slid the bill over to Monica. “Daddy died from a heart attack. Granddaddy died from a heart attack, but here Truman is, climbing up mountains in Timbuktu.”
Leilani was right: what was Truman trying to prove? That he was strong? That he was fearless? That he’d live forever?
Truman climbed out of his car as I pulled into the driveway. We didn’t speak as we entered the kitchen. We didn’t touch. Didn’t kiss. Strangers sharing the mortgage payment.
The house was quiet and cold. The living room smelled of my perfume and from the vase of Casablanca lilies sitting on the dining room table.
I retreated upstairs to the bedroom as Truman checked the locks and armed the security panel. I kicked off my heels, pulled off my dress, then grabbed shorts and a tank top from the drawer. In the bathroom, I scrubbed my face free of makeup, then wrapped my hair in a scarf—a nonverbal cue that I had no interest in “making up.”
Truman sat at the foot of the bed, staring at the hardwood floor. He looked pale sitting there, gazing at his blue Vans.
I hesitated in the bathroom doorway. “You okay?”
He didn’t answer at first, and continued to stare at the floor. “Tired,” he finally mumbled. “Been a long day.” He glanced at me, his brown eyes dark and troubled. Then, he stood, an abrupt and noisy motion in the quiet. “I have some work to do. You shouldn’t wait up.”
Alone again, I stood at the window and pushed aside the crimson curtains. I rested my forehead against the cold pane. Darkness and fog kept me from seeing much, and I glimpsed the meaty, red petals of my peonies on the edges of our stamp-sized back yard. Somewhere in the neighborhood, a German shepherd howled, ruining the quiet. I hated that dog, but his barks kept my mind from sifting through the tatters of the day.
I stared at my engagement ring—an oval cut diamond embraced by ruby and sapphire side stones. We had been sitting on the Hollywood Bowl Lawn when Truman slipped on my finger, and said, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. The Philharmonic had played America the Beautiful as red, white and blue fireworks burst in the dark skies above the city.
I glanced over my shoulder.
Truman stood in the doorway.
I crossed my arms. “Yes?”
“Where were you?” he asked. “Before you drove back home, I mean.”
I smirked, then said, “Out.”
His shoulders hunched at his ears. He clenched his fists and his nostrils flared. He was ready for 12 rounds of boxing. “Who were you out with?” he asked.
“Why does it matter?” I shot. “I wasn’t out with you like I was supposed to be.”
Truman glared at me, and said nothing.
My skin crawled, and I turned to stare at the television screen.
Outside, the German Shepard’s barks turned shrill—at war with a raccoon.
“Who were you with?” he asked again.
I snorted, then placed my hands on my hips. “I had dinner with your sister and Mo. Is that okay with you? Wanna call them to confirm?” I had told him the truth. Still, my legs wobbled, and the room swayed like a pendulum, and the walls sucked in as though a black hole had formed on the patio. It was panic. I knew that state so well.
Truman gave a half-nod—he didn’t believe me even though he had to. “See you in the morning,” he said, then stomped back down the hallway.