The kindnesses bother her – people moving around her living room and hinting at her to sit as if she were a guest of honor – concern with sorrowful eyes. People murmur at her, Joan darling, you’ve done so much. He’s in a better place now. This is kindness. They balance hors d’oeuvres on tiny plates and nosh to be nice. He’s gone but she’s still the wife. They hold her by the waist, lay hands on her shoulders or suggest that she eat. Sit, Joan, sit, Esther Jaffe says. It’s a Shiva, you’re supposed to sit.
Esther and the neighbor ladies do the organizing: grape juice, coffee, a platter from the recreation center and enough casserole to last a lifetime. With Tupperware and foil covered dishes the widows come, bringing sorrows of husbands lost. Esther brought her grandnephew, a heavy boy going to the state university who visits every weekend. He’s that good, Esther tells her. Joan asks him to carry the unwieldy O2 tanks into the garage – the rental company won’t pick up until Monday – and put them beside the assisted breathing machine along with the yards upon yards of coiled plastic tubing that allowed her husband the freedom of roaming about in his own home. Her Sandy had been her life, but the last four months had consumed him. Strangling him from the inside with his tender bronchi giving out like yellowing broccoli stems. The rabbi hadn’t said it exactly this way, but her husband had been a handful. Outspoken. A smoker from the time he was fifteen. At first, just puffs off his dad’s butts and later, pilfering smokes from the glove compartment of the Dodge Coronet where they were hidden from Sandy’s mother, God rest her soul, and into his lungs. Fifty-two years of tar and nicotine with a two-year oxygen chaser. If he’d had a nickel for every puff, he used to say, I could have financed the cancer three times over.
Her daughter had wanted to be there when it happened. For you, mother; for support. As if death made an appointment. I always have my cell phone with me, her daughter said, as if Joan was that far behind the times. Sarasota’s just an hour and a half away. Joan refrained from rolling her eyes. Her daughter didn’t seem to understand the distance between one breath and the next, the tentative relationship they had with the assisted breathing machine. But mother, I can’t just wait around like a vulture. When it happened, her daughter had been inconsolable, crying daddy, daddy, daddy, as they took him away, snipping locks of his hair and accusing her mother of robbing her of any last precious moment.
Let there not be distraction from the memory of our loved one, Sanford Gerstler, on this day of great sadness and reflection. The Rabbi’s voice had been rich and round as if the Gerstlers had been gold-circle benefactors. The Amens and Oye-mains of the neighbor ladies had been slipping past her ears since that week Sandy took his final turn. Her Sandy – in defiance – sang songs from the Bhagavad-gita and recited snippets from the diaries of Swami Prabhavananda, the emphysema forcing him to stop every three or four words in order to refill his saturated lungs. He was drowning. He was Jewish – Bris, Bar Mitzvah, but in his sixty-sixth year he discovered the Hindu temple outside Miami and switched in a week and a half. In my sixty-sixth year, he liked to say, twice the age of Jesus. It made no sense to Joan on either account. So they would cover the mirrors and lament in the tradition of his birth, something she knew he would not fight. She would light the Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of his death, as she lit the candles for each of their parents, God rest their souls, and she would sit with death as an informant. On that day of days she knew she would go to her maker without restraint, as he had gone to his. Unclad.
Joan slips into the front bedroom, the sickroom for the past seven months, away from the crowd and the hum and the clink of silver on plates. An undulating blob moves across her husband’s computer screen. It had been a comfort to him. The internet-computer holds all his favorite songs and the chant-along DVDs that sooth, calm and regulate flow. The rented bed is striped and ready to go. The divot down the middle slowly reshapes itself, preparing for its next assignment, like a temp. And tonight, Joan will sleep. She’ll get up only to tinkle, without monitoring, half aware, the whirring motor-sound and its regular, conditional breathing through the early hours. She suffocated every breath. With him.
Joan pushes back a covering over the mirror and a curious woman stares back at her. Her cheekbones are jutting and her hair falls like straw close to her neck. All day, Esther has been handing her little bottles of Perrier as if they were the elixir of life, but Joan keeps leaving them on tabletops because the bubbles burp in her nostrils. She smooths the flat, black shift under her bust – her mother had said bosom. She no longer requires a bra because she’s become that skinny. It accentuates her forward-slumping shoulders. She pushes them back and wonders, what she’ll do with all this food? God in heaven, she murmurs, I can’t finish half of it by myself.
Esther’s grandnephew, sits alone in the side yard next to the recycling tubs (something Joan has to get better at: separating the papers, aluminum and plastics.) Little wonder he’s sitting outside, the house is stuffy with old people. She asks him for a cigarette and she thinks he’s ignoring her when she asks a second time. His large frame hunkers over one of those little white music devices with earplugs. His head keeps time to some private tune. She can be thankful it’s not one of those big, noisy box boomer radios, or whatever the kids are calling them these days.
She makes the universal smoking gesture - fingers to lips. You don’t have a cigarette, do you? It’s Jared, isn’t that right? He pulls at the wires in his ears and stands quickly, disturbing the Costco plastic patio table with his thigh. Esther says he’s a decent kid – a technology major with computers. He’s what, twenty? A stricter diet would be good. And some exercise. His hair is full and shiny, like Sandy’s was, before it went. It’s dark, but a little too shaggy around his face, which is uncensored by grief; clear and unaware. He hadn’t known her husband.
I don’t smoke, Mrs. Gerstler.
I haven’t smoked in twenty years, Joan says, sitting on the lip of a white, plastic chair. I just want something to do.
Do you want to be alone?
Oh no. I’ll have plenty of that. She’s not fishing for sympathy. That’s a hot commodity inside her kitchen. She’s outside scamming for a cigarette she can’t remember how to handle and she can’t stop laughing. The plastic chair trembles under her bird-weight and Jared, with giant, sweaty hands and a wide-eyed look of concern watches as she laughs and laughs like a crazy lady in broad daylight, something her Sandy would definitely not stand for. Then Esther is putting her down on her bed. Guests leaving discretely. Her daughter, palm to her forehead, wonders how she’s going to manage everything now that everything is coming apart, as if it’s somehow her responsibility. The neighbor ladies clean the kitchen and silently stack mountains of food into the freezer. Another one joins the club.
Caring for him exhausted her. The breathing – the lack of breathing – that wasn’t the worry. It was bedsores. The threat of them. Turning him so he wouldn’t soften like a mushroom. The breathing – the lack of breathing – was reality. The mechanized in and outward rhythm of the assisted breathing machine was her connection to consistency. Toward the end, the home health nurse came by twice a day and Esther visited often. Even so, in the presence of death, it’s a distance one goes solo. The assisted breathing machine had been her way into him. She’d lay her hand along on its long plastic tubing or the humming metal frame and swear she was holding the back of his hand the way they’d slept – touching, but not involving, like after the births of their daughters – his whole existence clad in that rasping, metal box. She had found herself responding to polite inquiries with, oh, we’re doing better today, as if they were on a cruise.
Her daughter comes down weekends and takes her to Pilates. It makes her pelvis ache. Mother, you have to do something physical, her daughter pushes. You’ve got to stay active now that daddy’s gone!
Says who, Joan thinks. She’s perfectly happy to sit by herself with the curtains shut and listen to NPR. She doesn’t have to do anything, except defrost another casserole every now and then and keep the house tidy for when Esther drops in. She’d like to try sleeping on the other side of the bed, but as far as she’s concerned there’s nothing in particular she’s got to do. She’s only doing it for herself.
Her daughter takes her to get a manicure and they sit under an umbrella watching couples on the beach. The entire time, her daughter doesn’t stop talking about her boys and their soccer leagues. Joan thinks the ladies at her condo are a single-minded bunch, sitting under umbrellas in the shade around the pool and talking about grandkids. Joan sees her husband playing volleyball down the beach with a group of his army buddies and spills her lemonade.
You should think about moving up to Sarasota near Ronald and me now that you’re all alone, her daughter tells her.
I have friends, Joan says. I’m thinking of learning the computer.
That’s nice. Her daughter doesn’t skip a beat. Next weekend, I’ll bring the boys down. You haven’t seen them since the funeral. Children keep you young. They watch the young men playing volleyball and become quiet, unusual for her daughter. The player with the dark, hairy legs stops and looks their way.
Who are you waving at? her daughter asks. God bless her, Joan thinks, the poor girl grows more nasal with every passing year, like the Yentas at the complex.
At dinner, Esther tells them everything about her upcoming hip replacement surgery and the good news about her grandnephew’s successful stomach staple surgery. Jared had the tummy tuck! Had to, Esther confides, for the disorder. Heading the wrong direction too fast for someone his age. It got his father, you know.
A boy his size, Joan thinks, shouldn’t be a smoker. Is he at the state college, still? Joan asks. She can’t think of anything nice to say about about a tummy tuck.
The following weekend, during cocktail hour with her daughter – the only way Joan can seem to enjoy their time together – Esther brings Jared over. Progress is apparent.
A veritable Prince, Esther crows, thanks to the tummy staples. Joan agrees, his skin looks ruddier. Perhaps it’s the Florida sun or just getting out of Wisconsin.
You have Wi-Fi, Jared announces, changing the topic.
I do? Joan asks.
Yeah. A strong signal, Jared says looking into his little device as if it is a Geiger counter.
What’s a Wi-Fi? Esther asks.
For the computer, Auntie, he tells her, a hook up to the Internet and stuff.
It’s probably coming from in there. Joan points to the front room. I don’t know anything about those things. It’s my husband’s.
Was, her daughter tacks on and the conversation bristles.
Can I jump on? What’s the password?
Her daughter laughs. She won’t know. It’s Joan1962. Daddy always used the same password for everything. So secure! She rolls her eyes as if revealing a conspiracy. “Joan” and the year they were married. Joan glances at her daughter. She had no idea. She’s moved that she’s his only password.
She beckons Jared to follow her into the front room where the flat-screen computer turns a light-blue blob around and around like a bread machine. She points at the keyboard. Can you teach someone to be online? She knows it sounds silly, especially to a twenty-year old computers wizard, but she doesn’t want to sound falsely familiar, like someone pretending to be on a first-name basis with a celebrity they don’t even know, like, Did you hear what Cybil said the other day – you know, Cybil Sheppard. Joan had seen her on the cover of AARP the previous month.
She stands behind him while Jared fiddles on the keyboard making images shift across the screen. Her daughter leans in the doorway afraid to come in. Jared seems excited about Google dot com and informs Joan she can type in a name or a product and get all the information she wants. Anything at all, he tells her. Just type it in. As if anything new is ever that easy. He enters in some words and calls them Yahoo and MSN. For the news and headlines and weather updates, he says. As if any of that ever changes in South Florida. but she takes notes on the back of an old paper placemat and realizes she’s holding her breath. Jared puts her in front of the keyboard and bends over her shoulder with his chin hovering at her ear, the inward pulling of his breath; softly insistent and wheezing like her husband’s oxygen machine.
Go ahead, he says, enter something, as if she knows what to put. She carefully places her fingers above the keys the way she learned typing on carriage-return machines that were ancient when she was a girl in high school. First the left: F D S A, then the right: J K L…. Where’s her memory? What’s right pinky; colon or quote? She knocks his thigh with her elbow and it jiggles. She can’t stop giggling. She discovers bumps on the keys where her index fingers go. Clues! But where to rest her eyes? In high school, they were strictly not permitted to watch the words emerge on the paper or their fingers press the round, metal keys. Perhaps it’s best to close one’s eyes to keep in focus. Like kissing.
Oh Jared, you’re helping an old lady into the twenty-first century, Joan’s daughter says, wanting to be included. Jared looks sheepish, as if he’s done something insulting. Joan slaps him on the knee and frowns.
They trade places and he tinkers so quickly she can’t keep up.
There’s great stuff on here, he says, Is it OK to burn some of this music off your hard drive?
That won’t hurt it, will it?
He suppresses a laugh and says no. He’s far more charitable than her daughter, Joan thinks and he has a chin, she discovers, under there.
No, mother, it’s how you copy music from one device to another.
I don’t think my husband will mind, then, either. She hasn’t meant it as a joke until she sees him chuckling and then she joins in to show what a good sport she is. In return, he shows her how to create a bookmark, set her preferences and cruise Internet websites – his word, she notes because it had a much rougher meaning when she was his age. He takes her to Ebay dot com, Craigslist and Amazon. She’s overcome when she finds her name online in the meeting minutes of her condo association’s website, seconding a motion to change the flowers along the entryway to the recreational center. She’s overcome, like on the day her engagement to Sandy was mentioned in the local newspaper forty-three years prior. Jared doesn’t notice. Her daughter is getting ready for the drive to Sarasota. Jared wants to know what her objectives are. How does she intend to personalize the web to her needs. Does she want to consider a Facebook page? Twitter? Forget about MySpace. Jared is goal-oriented, like her daughter, but encouraging. It hasn’t occurred to her that the Internet is a destination. She tells him that for now she’s satisfied to cruise.
Late that evening, when she can’t sleep for all the quiet, and after a tiny bowl of mushroom soup with dry bagel, she finds herself at Personals dot com backslash Ft_Lauderdale.
I was the blonde in the red halter-top at Benno’s last night (is she eavesdropping?) who was not interested in talking with the guy next to me at the bar. You were a few seats down having dinner. WHEN I was bold enough to approach, YOU were heading towards the door. We exchanged glances a few times before you LEFT. :) :) :) It’s a long shot, but what the HECK!
Oh my goodness, how will the blonde at the bar find the gentleman having dinner? What if he doesn’t visit Personals dot com? How will he see the posting from the girl in the red halter? Could that be the same Benno’s in Ft. Lauderdale where she and Sandy had dinner three years ago, before the oxygen made him ashamed to leave the condo. The gentleman having dinner could be from anywhere in the whole world: Finland, Illinois, Rio de Janeiro. And why these capitalized words? When - You - Left - :) :) :) - Heck! More Internet code? And what a busybody I’m being! This Internet system makes the world small, like television did when it first became popular. She types a space followed by a colon then an end parenthesis, the way the girl in the red halter-top had done in her posting. It turns magically into a smiling face. Her first icon!
The tummy staple is making a difference. Perhaps the walking, too, and the gym at the state college. He combs his hair out of his face and tucks in his shirts.
And not because I tell him to, Esther says.
He’s been approved for solid food in moderate portions. Six ounces max. They celebrate with a casserole she’s positive isn’t one of Esther’s. They sit under the covered patio in the early Florida evening, listening to cicadas as the Rain Bird sprinklers whoosh across the lawn. Jared downloads music from the Internet onto his little Apple iPod music tape recorder over the Wi-Fi. Her daughter pretends to appreciate his selections because they confuse her mother.
That’s music? Esther asks. You pay money at the store for that?
No one buys music at a store anymore, Joan confides. It’s something everyone under fifty seems to know these days. Jared sets up an email account on Hotmail dot com made up entirely of her very own name: joan dot gerstler at hotmail dot com. That’s me, she thinks as she types it for the first time and makes up a password that everyone know will be “Joan1962.”
Now I can send you pictures of the boys, mother. Her daughter is uncharacteristically thrilled. Jared looks up from the screen and gives Joan a half-cracked smile, as if he’s downloading her thoughts.
Don’t worry, he says, it’s easy with your DSL line. It’s fast. You’ll be hooked in.
Hooked in, she wonders? It’s another one of those computer phrases that sounds awkwardly perverse. But she and Esther silently agree he’s still a good boy no matter what kind of garbage he listens to.
Dear “Blonde Gal in Red Halter:” (She suspects this is a screen name.) I read your posting on this website and I had to write to you. I’m curious; did you find your mystery-man from Benno’s? Can people really find each other this way? Forgive a nosy old lady. I hope your long shot pays off.
Joan had put a note in a bottle, one summer and, as a girl, threw it into the surf near Kitty Hawk on the outer banks of North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers learned to fly.
Whoever you are, please answer my message in this bottle. I’m fourteen and I live on Long Island in New York State. Whoever you are, I love you.
It was the boldest thing she’d ever done.
Ladies! You’ve never done The Cat? The Yab-Yum? Italian Chandelier? Oh come on, girls, you just don’t know what you’re missing. Jazz it up! If your lover thinks Doggy Style and Missionary is being creative, get a new lover! Spice it up! Subscribe to our eNews! Get notes from our sexpert! Joan examined the drawings. She thought Pilates had been tough.
At AdultSensations dot com, they offer a free gift for taking their sexy survey, a pale pink cream that warms the skin. Try it on your nipples! Jared pulls open the sliding glass door as she’s only half way through the survey. It flusters her so badly she throws her sweater over the screen. She makes him sit in the kitchen with an extra-large portion of casserole and Diet Coke in a can, explaining she’s online making an appointment at the DMV, which contains sensitive information.
It’s chill, Mrs. Gerstler, he says, picking at the food, but not eating. Everyone gets drawn into those kinds of sites. He catches her eye and tosses a shaggy lock off his forehead. You can’t help it, he shrugs. That’s how the Internet works. She wonders if he was this frank before the staples. She wants to trim that hair out of his eyes. How nicely it would show off his emerging cheekbones.
I don’t think I want to know what kind of online computer sites you college boys get into.
He gazes at her for a moment before his face sneaks into its half-cracked grin. Everyone does it, Joan, he says. Everyone.
He accompanies her to an Introduction to Tai Chi class at the recreation center. He’s not sure how it will pay off, but he’s gracious about going. He wants results, something he can count. Like ounces. They stand in a circle – Jared, eight elderly women, and Mr. Ericson, the condo association president – swinging their bodies from side to side, bending their knees and letting their arms slap around from front to back. The leader tells them to resist resistance. The heft of Jared’s forearms thud dully against his middle in comparison to the grandmothers in the circle. Where does it go? Her Sandy disappeared before her eyes. Into a wisp. His forearms had been thick. He had been sturdy. In the early days – in the Navy – he had been a devastating man.
When they are instructed to choose a partner, Mr. Ericson waves Joan over, but he’s mobbed by the other seven ladies clamoring for a chance at the tan, eligible widower.
If you’d rather be with him… Jared mumbles. His Save the Manatee T-shirt inches up like a caterpillar exposing his white, smiling belly as they raise their arms, mirroring one another.
Nonsense, she replies, not fond of the pouty-boy act. She steals a glace at Mr. Ericson, barrel-chested and full of oxygen and then leans into Jared speaking conspiratorially.
Not with this competition. I’d wake up dead in my bed. Jared nods, but he doesn’t understand. He knows so much about computer interactions, but nothing about people? In just a few weekends, he’s introduced her to all kinds of worlds – birds of New Zealand, tapping and scrolling, new pancake recipe websites, all from her husband’s desk – yet she’s afraid to let her forearms swing into his circle.
At SaveTheManatee dot org she learns that Manatee calves stay with their mothers for two years before venturing out on their own. The Tai Chi series would cost two hundred dollars without MediCare, the same as a plumber or a gentleman from Xcorts dot com. She stashes ten new twenty-dollar bills in the satin pouch under her stockings where she keeps her ancient diaphragm. Such a relic.
Ft. Lauderdale has nine listings on MenForHire dot com, two straight. When she expands her search parameters to include Miami and Coral Gables, where the university is, she finds twenty-three straight men. She appreciates “Jay,” who has a nice bio with no spelling mistakes. He lists himself as a sensitive lover and willing to travel. She wonders if he’s ever traveled to a place she’d enjoy, like Australia or New Zealand.
Another boy, “Randy…the pleasure professional,” is a responsible guy who has her safety in mind at all times, getting tested monthly for STD/HIV diseases and can produce paperwork upon request, but there is something slightly off-color about “Randy,” as his name suggests.
“Leonardo,” who looks so clean-cut, likes to read, swim, dance, go fishing and play chess. His profile goes on to say he’s easy-going, non-judgmental and compassionate and looks forward to every new date as a unique and customized experience.
Joan customized herself for her husband. That’s what a newlywed did in 1962. She loved him and felt his love for her, particularly when on leave from his tour of duty in South-East Asia. She can’t imagine what she’d have done differently, given the chance. She gave him her life and two lovely daughters. He gave them plenty to live on. She cooked, cleaned and cared for their home as her contribution to their future. He worked hard and saved wisely enough to pay cash for their Florida condo after selling the house in New Brunswick, even though he said time and again how a fifteen-year fixed-rate mortgage would have been a smarter use of their portfolio, especially now with all the hurricanes and the market falling into the toilet, but in his heart of hearts he knew she’d live in that condo far longer than he. Home ownership, free-and-clear, was one of the greatest gifts he could leave her.
At Hindu dot net there are easy-to-understand pages relating to the study of Hinduism, with colorful deities in dramatic poses like from the pamphlets he’d brought home to share from the temple on the outskirts of Miami. But oddly, Hindu dot com is the online site of The Hindu, an Indian daily newspaper, dry and colonial, but with advertisements and links to sites where one can buy products: vegetarian food, meditation pillows, housewares, and Hindu Goddess ring tones. When Joan Googles just plain Hindu she finds links to the perfect mate via HindiMatchmaker dot com, or Passover in Nepal through ModernHaggadah dot net. When she goes to Jew dot com she finds the exact same ads in the same format and style, except Jew replaces Hindu, as was the case with her husband. Interchanged.
But what do you do all day? By yourself? In every phone call her daughter has to ask. Her daughter – in that very serious way only a daughter who thinks her mother had nothing other to do with her time than devote it to the care of her husband and children – asks her what she could possibly be doing by herself all day five months after daddy is gone. Joan replies that she is making up for lost time. Her daughter and Ronald are super-ultra-reform Jews, the type who only go to Temple on Christmas and Easter, as they like to joke. A shame, really, but at least they stayed Jewish.
I’m learning the Internet. Joan tries not to sound defensive. I’m taking the “Intro to Computers” class at the community college this coming spring. Joan liked it better when her daughter was leery of placing a call to a house of the dying.
Well, you can do that kind of thing living in Sarasota. Her daughter laughs. Near us!
No, really, Joan hears herself repeating. I’m happy.
The first time she dials “Lance,” she clicks the receiver down before it even starts to ring. She worries he might have caller ID and come after her. To calm her nerves, she takes half of one of her husband’s leftover sleeping pills and reorganizes the aluminum foil mountain in the freezer. The second time she dials, it rings four times before going to voice mail. “Lance’s” post says he’s five foot ten, one hundred and seventy-four pounds and adept at giving pleasure. When he calls back, his voice is deep and masculine and he sounds slightly hurried, as if he’s just run up and down the bleachers before doing sit ups. He tells her he’s studying for a degree in English Literature and plays volleyball on the beach. He pauses occasionally, offering her an opportunity to speak, which she is unable to do. His post has a full head of dark hair, closely cut, and bright, attentive eyes like the ROTC boys her husband went to college with before the Vietnamese Conflict.
Are you looking for intimacy? He asks, as if he wants to know whether she is right- or left-handed. Do you have anything particular in mind?
When they first married, she would reach below her husband’s pajama bottoms after they made love to hold his penis until it returned to erectness. She knew she was forward, but on her wedding day, her matron of honor had confided that it is the woman’s responsibility to bring her husband to a state of readiness. All her mother had told her was to never go to bed angry, how to make a flaky piecrust and not to buy those expensive cleaning products when vinegar and water worked just fine. It had embarrassed her husband, the directness of her actions, as if his erections were his own responsibility. But she was emboldened to know she had power over him, when all her mother had ever controlled was her kitchen. Imagine the advantages of being married to a husband like “Lance,” Joan thought, who broadens his experiential scope with so many women? Had she given her husband enough scope?
Jared emails her something he calls a link. All she has to do is click on it, the message says. It’s a video of Jimmy Dorsey playing saxophone with his band.
A little before my time, she replies. But thanks for thinking of me. She loves her new Hotmail account. She still loves Elvis and Johnny Mathis, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, and remembers them on the Ed Sullivan Show like it was yesterday. Now, she has no idea who youngsters like. There must be so many. Jared spends so much time downloading music from the WiFi. Popularity changes. We come and we go. She’s seen it first hand. Her parents. Her husband. The baby she never even named. The Lynch boy, for example, when she was in the first grade – sick from school on a Friday and dead from pneumonia Sunday afternoon.
Jared pings her back with a link to a basso profundo singing America the Beautiful as he walks up and down the streets of Manhattan.
This more your style? he asks.
The singing man has a camera attached to his hat so you don’t see his face, except in occasional glimpses off storefront reflections. People make a wide berth around him. Every now and then, someone, timidly, joins in. YouTube has such funny stuff. Or is it Utube? Which? She writes back, Ha, Ha. Funny. LOL. She glances over her shoulder to see if he isn’t sitting in the next room, double-thumbing his little, white device.
People sang when she was growing up. Campfire Girls, baseball games, her father and his buddies singing along to Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney on the radio. The songs from the war that knit together the men in his platoon, men he remembered as if they’d grown up together. They knew Jimmy Dorsey. They knew his little brother, Tommy, the trombone player. Jared grew up during the second Iraq War, which he can simulate on one of his little handheld game players. Israel isn’t a war to him. It’s a history book headline. Between the two of them. So much history.
And you don’t need to say dot com or dot net every time. Jared has been teasing her all morning. They sit in her kitchen finishing off tiny portions of the second-to-last casserole from her freezer. It’s his finals week and he’s leaving for home any day now. He’s nervous. They won’t be able to see me like this. He side-glances down his body as if his new shape is distasteful, or frightening, or fake. As if the real Jared is evaporating in the Florida sun. He compliments her, saying her casserole is as good as his aunt’s. Joan doesn’t have the heart to tell him it’s probably his aunt who made it. She has to start cooking again. She heaps another spoonful of potato au gratin next to his cheesy mushroom hot dish. Guilt, with a side of affection. She’s grateful.
Thank God for the tummy staples, Jared says, patting his abdomen like a scholar, or I’d eat you out of house and home. Esther had said the same thing about fifty pounds ago. He’s wearing new pants that don’t require a belt to hold them up.
K. Joan, remember this. He’s teasing her again. Everybody knows where Amazon or Google are at. Dot com and dot net is implied. She wants to correct his grammar, the way he’s refining her Internet style. He’s shown her how to search for invasive cookies and clear her private data browser history by pressing Control + Shift + Delete. Always empty your cache. That way no one will know your shit. He blushes quickly. I mean your stuff. Nobody has to know where you’ve been.
A man in the house, Joan thinks. Daughters don’t provide that kind of sanctuary.
She’d worn a pair of sunglasses like Jackie Onassis and a scarf over her hair when she went to see Marlon Brando and that girl in the fur-collared coat in Last Tango in Paris. The movie left her with a craving, something she wanted from her husband – even after eleven years, two children and a miscarriage – forcefulness, domination, the ultimate benevolence. She was incognito at a matinee, three towns over, the spring of seventy-three, during the time she had to work so hard to keep her weight up – her bust evaporating without the slightest warning. On the drive home, she’d rolled down all the windows and removed her panties, stopping for a Coke at a drive-thru restaurant. Every time she saw a woman in high heels and a full-length fur, she wondered.
When she was Jared’s age, girls were sheltered. The burden of worldliness was placed on men. And yet, it was she, as a newly wedded wife, who led them through their first intimate exchanges – appearing to unfold and blossom, yet submissively holding back – the flower wooing the bee. She could imagine Jared and his friends studying the plains of female flesh around a dorm room laptop, jostling for position in front of a tiny screen, pretending they knew all about what they were seeing. Or perhaps that’s what’s changed over the past forty-five years. The mystery, grown easily available, was difficult to consider forbidden. Online men like “Lance” and “Rusty” and “Leonardo” were as common as the bad girls everyone seemed to know about, but didn’t associate with, when she was young. Or was it just that the Internet became personal depending on what you were cruising for?
“Rusty’s” listing says he’s tall, five foot eleven, but in his photo, he has the tight, muscled forearms of a more compact man, like those of her husband. She wonders if there’s a Mrs. Rusty? Does “Leonardo” have a steady girl? Do these professional men get bored with sex the way her husband found golf more interesting as time went on? Perhaps, as professionals, constantly honing their craft, assiduously trying new routines and positions exchanged from within the MenForHire community, sex only got better.
That night, she flirts with an Xcort named “Pierce,” asking him to quote his cost to accompany her on an overnight trip to the Keys. Nine hundred dollars. “Leonardo” quotes six-fifty, and “Randy…the pleasure professional” says he can do it for five hundred, but if she’s interested, he can throw in a girl-companion to make things especially nice for another three hundred.
It’s a crapshoot! Joan laughs, and abruptly closes her browser without logging off. She thinks she’ll try again the following day and see what a two-night trip might cost, maybe shopping in Atlanta, with ice skating, but that night, her husband comes to her in a dream and rather sternly tells her to quit messing around. Either fish or cut bait, he scolds. No one likes to be played with. It bothers her so much she unplugs the power strip behind his desk, including the fax machine, until every blinking light ceases.
Just after daylight, she calls Jared on his cell phone and confesses what she’s done to the computer, leaving out the indelicate parts.
Just plug it back in and turn it on, he says, sleepily. You can’t hurt the computer. He’s chuckling. She imagines his torso heaving like a Cadillac on springs. She plugs the power strip in like Jared tells her and turns the computer on. She’s relieved when everything starts up OK as if it didn’t mind the snooze. Still, she can’t get what her husband said out of her mind and how sternly he spoke to her – and now that she thinks of it – using complete sentences without having to stop to catch his breath! She imagines what the Columbian gardeners think of her as they saunter across her porch, blowing leaves out from under her patio furniture, giant phallic tubes swinging from their compact bodies, or how the postman’s cologne seems stronger since her husband’s passing. Can they sense she’s a woman wanting? Do they see beyond the dyed and permed hair of her little old lady demeanor? Can they divine Joan at the drive-thru, her panties balled up in her purse, revolutionary?
When she gets up the nerve and makes an appointment, it’s with “Lance,” because he’s nice on the phone. When she meets him at the door her jaw is quivering so hard she can’t form words. He carries a backpack slung over one shoulder and rolls a massage table behind him on a little wheeled dolly. She has set out two servings from her last remaining casserole, olive bread from the overpriced bakery section of the grocery store and a small glass of wine for each of them. “Lance” smiles warmly, encouraging her to enjoy her wine. He declines his, wanting, he says, to keep his senses clear and available solely for her pleasure. His deep voice relaxes her and he sounds so sincere. She wants to tell him so, but controlling the needles and pins in her solar plexus requires her complete concentration. When the time comes to move things along, she stands frozen in the doorway between the kitchen and the hall outside her husband’s office. “Lance,” the perfect gentleman, suggests a light massage to relax her and sets up his table in the space occupied previously by the rented hospital bed, an emptiness she hasn’t known how to replace. He shows her how to drape herself in the clean, white sheet he produces from his bag and then turns discreetly away while Joan excuses herself into the bathroom to remove her quilted cotton robe. When she returns, he stands behind the table, tan and shirtless. Able.
In the darkness, Joan locates her robe left draped across the chair by the door. For the past forty years she has made a habit of draping it over the foot of her bed before tucking in. She steps into her slippers and closes her robe delicately between two fingers. The massage table, the expensive white Egyptian cotton sheet, the strong hands smoothing across the dish of her pelvis are all gone like the rented bed, except for a small, round, ring on the corner of the desk where “Lance” had set his container of lavender scented oil. From the kitchen, the refrigerator closes, rattling jars in the door.
Lance? she calls.
She passes through the hall, her slippers slightly scuffing, and snaps on the light. Jared winces. His tiny white plugs dangle from each ear. Manatee calves, she recalls, as she hangs in the doorway. His eyes drop to the floor by way of apology.
I saw your light, Jared says. I needed some music. Auntie Esther doesn’t have your connection.
She fills two wine glasses, sets one in front of him and sits.
There’s food if you want.
Jared moves to sit and then stops at the table by her arm. He’s not breathing – something Joan is immediately aware of.
Was he nice to you? he asks.
She rests her hand in the crease of his elbow. She’d like to push his stupid hair out of his eyes.
He was nice, she says, trailing away and then adding, it’s his job.
She follows his eyes and lets her robe fall open.
* * *