Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The View from Here - Chapters 3 & 4

I am not a science writer by training—I earned my degree in English and American Literature. After college, though, poems and novels could no longer answer my questions about life and love. Back then, I had applied for the assistant writer position at CelluTech, fifty miles north of Los Angeles 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 believe that there are no such things. But even in this chaos, science still followed hard-and-fast rules.

I had stayed with CelluTech since then because science always anticipated the discovery of a better life and a better cure. And psychically, I needed to belong to any effort that offered that much hope to the world.

As I left Dr. Tremaine’s office, though, I didn’t drive back to work, and I didn’t care about stem cells or quantum physics or belonging.

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 afterward, 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?” were becoming interpreted as, “You don’t pull in the trash cans after the trash man empties them.”

In honor of tonight’s “date night” (Truman and I hadn’t been out together in months), my husband sent me a bouquet of white Casablanca lilies. The tiny card nestled in the fragrant bundle read, Can’t wait to get wicked with you after Wicked. I love you, babe! Tru. “I love you, too,” I said with a smile, then placed the vase on the dining room table.

In the soft golden candlelight of a restaurant, Truman would remember falling in love with me thirteen 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 back rubs; 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 afterward, 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 recent bouts of 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, pissed and uncomfortable about being pissed, waiting 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.

And it wasn’t as though I had nothing else to do in my life other than wait for him to come home. I had been active in my sorority. I had attended author readings at bookstores. I had worked late at my office on many nights. But I didn’t want to relax with my sorors. I didn’t aim to share a life with best-selling novelists and their fans. I had married for a reason.
Truman and I had argued about his insane schedule, and he had apologized, and he would come home at a reasonable hour to eat tacos and watch American Idol; or see a movie at The Grove; or hike up to the reservoir.

Until the next week.

But on this night, he had promised—promised—to show up.

I slipped a Jill Scott CD into the player, 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.

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. The positive ClearBlue Easy pregnancy tests had nixed my pill-popping. So, I stared at the vase of lilies in the table’s center, fantasized about standing in the lobby of the Pantages with Truman on my arm, and afterwards, eating lobster risotto and chocolate ganache cake.

I glanced at the clock in the telephone’s display: 7:33. The theater’s curtain rose at eight o’clock.

Where is he?

He hadn’t called, hadn’t e-mailed, hadn’t text-messaged.

I dialed his cell-phone number.

No answer.

I stomped to the living room and jabbed the stereo’s power button—Jill, then no Jill. I dialed his number again.

No answer.

I retreated 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. 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 FOX Sports Network. She partnered with him on climbs, dives and jumps. She was also 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,” Truman was saying. “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… This was the first time I glanced at a clock. You won’t believe—”

“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 had 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…

Penelope Villagrana.

I kicked the coffee table, and yelped. 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 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. 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, the mascara liquefying 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 Leilani. “What are you doing right now?”

Leilani chuckled. “You mean, who am I doing right now.”

In the background, a man laughed.

Leilani and I had shared a dorm room during our freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. Her working-class Pentecostal family lived in Cerritos, California. Her father, Douglas Baxter, worked in construction on the week days and as a head deacon on Sundays, and her mother Cassandra made casseroles and frittatas between prayer meetings, choir practices and world mission ministries. Leilani’s big brother, Truman, had forsaken the church and Cerritos to earn a math degree at M.I.T.

I frowned. “Okay. T.M.I. I’ll call you later.”

“It’s cool,” she said. “I’m done. He’s leaving. What’s up?”

“I need to talk or… or…”

She sighed. “What did Truman do this time?”

I bit my lip, not wanting to cry. “One guess.”

“Did you eat?”


“And I sure as hell didn’t cook,” she said. “Let’s meet at Dan Tana’s. I’ll call Mo.”

Truman was climbing out of his car as I pulled back into the driveway. We didn’t speak as we entered the kitchen. We didn’t touch. Didn’t kiss. Just strangers sharing the mortgage payment.

The house was quiet and cold. The living room smelled of my perfume and the 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 glanced over my shoulder.

Truman stood in the doorway.

I crossed my arms. “Yes?”

“Where were you? Before you drove back home, I mean.”

I smirked, then said, “Out.”

His shoulders hunched at his ears and his nostrils flared. “Who were you out with?”

“Why does it matter? I wasn’t out with you like I was supposed to be.”

Truman glared at me, and said nothing.

“You haven’t even apologized for flaking on me… again,” I said. “Who the hell do you think you are, standing there, looking at me like that, being pissed?” I turned to glare out the window. “I’m the one who gets to be angry. Not you.”

“But I called—”

“Twenty minutes before the show started!”

Outside, the German shepherd’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?”

Truman shook his head. “I apologize for my reaction. And I’m sorry for not showing up tonight, okay?”

Still angry, I muttered, “Yeah.”

“Great. See you in the morning.” Then, he retreated back down the hallway.

On the next morning, sunbeams pushed through the usual June gloom, and my bedroom blazed bright with light. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand—a little past eight o’clock. I should’ve been zooming off my freeway exit by now, but sandbags weighed down my arms and legs, and I struggled to leave the bed. Couldn’t tell whether Truman had slept beside me or not—the sheets were twisted around my hips, and the comforter had been kicked to the floor.

Morning sunshine filled the kitchen. Weird: in June, Los Angeles never saw the sun until late-afternoons.

Truman had cooked himself breakfast, the stink of eggs and burnt butter the only clues of his presence.

As I reached to open the refrigerator, I noticed that he had used words from my magnetic poetry journal to leave a message on the door.

Diamond goddess soars
Frantic turtle dreams
I worship magic
You twirl in purple
Use my sausage

Silliness as a peace offering.

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