Lately, Rita only catches about half of what we're watching on television. She's busy on the sofa crocheting hats and has this idea that she's going to sell them online. So if we're watching a sitcom, say, she only hears the dialogue, but she misses the little side glances the characters give, the gimmicks and comic business, and then she says she didn't think the show, which I'm finding hilarious, is that funny. "Why don't you watch it, then," I ask, and she looks at me like I'm crazy, and then maybe takes a look at my drink to imply that my judgment is addled, because she thinks she's paying attention enough. TV is only worth half an effort, she'll say if we have the conversation, but really it's only her wedding dress shows and cooking programs that require half an effort. Comedy is hard, and it's sad Rita doesn't get that.
Watching and listening always require great attention, and even the most familiar things can be surprising. Like tonight, for instance, I'm watching The Adventures of Robin Hood on the classic movie station. I haven't seen it in decades, and guess what? The movie's in color! I had expected to see Errol Flynn and those merry men in black and white, but there's Robin Hood in brilliant green, and Will Scarlett as red as a cardinal. Then I realize that we didn't have a color television when I was a kid, and I tuck the thought of what else I might have missed away for later.
"White knuckling," Rita says. She's working on the hats, not taking in the movie at all.
"Shh," I say. "It's in color." I have to admit I'm drinking, just my usual TV beers, but if you take movies seriously, you'll know what I mean about the shush-ing.
"This is important," Rita says. "Tape it." She means "DVR it," but there's not much point in explaining. I don't even bother with telling her that breaking up the narrative flow is an insult to the director. Time is in the hands of the beholder, she thinks, and that's a big enough thought to yield to, so I do what she says. Lowest common denominator viewing is one of the secrets to an enduring marriage, and ours has lasted over thirty years.
Robin Hood and Little John have squared off on the log bridge, cudgels in hand, and so they remain. When I pause the movie so I can listen to what she wants to tell me, Rita glances at them, gives up trying to process what she sees after a second, and repeats herself. "White knuckling. That's what killed your father. That's what caused his heart attack. It was stress related. Because he was white knuckling. Dr. Oz talked about it this afternoon."
So I've got to guess which conversational thread we're picking up, although they probably all lead back to the same tangle. Mortality is a big one, and it's usually knotted up with my recreational drinking. "What's ‘white knuckling'?" I ask.
"It's when someone's an alcoholic but fights it. That's what killed your dad -- tension."
"Dad never had more than two drinks a day his whole life."
"Exactly! He was resisting. Wasn't his brother an alcoholic? It runs in families."
"Ralph? We never saw him." But it was what everybody said. He drank like a fish, according to my mother. "Dad made it to 75. His father was 74 when he died. The trend says I can expect at least 76. And you should blame your father."
"Your father's 84. He's over the average life expectancy. What's to say he didn't take a couple of those years from my dad?"
"That's just mean," Rita says. "You want my father dead? And you have more than two drinks a day."
"So then I'm not white knuckling, right?" I say. "No tension. I'm giving in to my urges. I'm relaxed." Then the telephone rings -- it beeps the opening measures of "Für Elise." No matter what the tune, phone calls are an intrusion I can't tolerate. Why would anyone think they can barge in on my privacy any time they want? Didn't I retire as quickly as possible to get myself out of the public eye? Rita understands that, and hasn't seemed to mind working part time to supplement my pension. I never answer the phone, unless it's our daughter Bonnie.
"It's Jack," I say. I hate the calls, but I like the way the caller's name and number shows up on the TV screen -- I know what I'm avoiding, not like in the old days when all phones sounded the same and rang and rang and rang. Seeing the caller's name on TV while I'm safe in my recliner gives me a warm, safe feeling, in the same family of emotions as the joy I felt when the name of the school district I taught in appeared on snow days.
Rita is up and to the closest extension, which is in the kitchen. She still moves lightly, my wife. Pilates and Zumba. She's encouraged me to join, but my weight doesn't fluctuate much, if I judge by the size of my slight belly. I've got twenty years left, by my reckoning, and I'm comfortable with my routine. I like the curve of her neck, like a swan's. My daughter inherited it -- when Bonnie got engaged, she talked half-seriously about tattooing her soon to be husband's name on her neck. "Sam" it would say, permanently, between her nape and collar. "My hair will cover it most of the time," she said. "Maybe you should be less specific," I said. "Maybe just put 'MEN.' Or, if you really want to be an object, why don't you get a bar code?" She never got the tattoo, but I'm sure my opinion didn't influence her decision.
"Jack!" Rita says. She puts the phone on "Conference," to keep from holding it close to her ear, even though no one has ever claimed that landlines will destroy your brain. Play it safe is her motto. She moves out of sight into the kitchen nook to sit at the table while she talks. I press "play" and Robin Hood falls into the stream, and the men of Sherwood Forest laugh merrily.
Jack works as a mental health counselor at a clinic in Brooklyn. We knew him in college, but lost touch until about a year ago. He'd been a suitemate and had moved to an off campus apartment with me and three other guys for senior year. We were friendly enough, but moved in different social spheres. He'd abandoned his political science major and law school ambitions to throw himself into the theatre program. He didn't drink and smoke pot like the rest of us, and was always impeccably groomed. But as put-together as he appeared, there was something provisional about him: too many "used to be's", "soon to be's" and "down the road's." For example, Jack was as imperially slim as Richard Cory, but we knew (because he told us, and because there was a softness to his edges) that he used to be fat, and that he'd be fat again. His hair was thinning already, which led to a new hair style every week. But before long, svelte, fashionable Jack would resemble the neighborhood butcher.
One Friday afternoon Jack found the rest of us celebrating the arrival of the weekend with bongs ‘n booze in the living room. He didn't want a drink and waved off the bong. His cologne was so strong it cut through the stale stench of beer and the sweet haze of weed. One of the guys sniffed. "We smoking PCP?" We laughed, but we always felt a little uneasy with Jack, like we were waiting for something. And this time he obliged us. He took a seat on one of the wooden folding chairs we'd stolen from a campus party, sighed, and announced, "I'm having a relationship with Charles." It was no surprise. Charles was his TA for Advanced Acting. We'd met him. We sat quietly for a second before somebody said, "It's about time." That broke whatever tension there was, and Jack was relieved to laugh with the rest of us. Then Toby, a beefy guy who'd played freshman football, got up and moved toward Jack, I thought to give him a hug. He held out his hand, and when Jack took, it, Toby wrapped his arm around him. "Grab his other arm," Toby said, and somebody did. "Hey, Jack said, but he was giggling, and so were the rest of us. Two of us bent Jack over a couch while the other two picked up the tennis balls scattered around the room (although in my mind they were oranges, but why would there be oranges all over the floor?) and started whipping them at his ass. Jack wriggled like a puppy. "Guys," he pleaded, but he never stopped laughing. It was over in less than minute. Jack packed up and moved to his lover's apartment and we didn't see him again until graduation, where we exchanged high fives.
"Of course he's gay," Rita said that night as we lay on my mattress. "Why did you have to abuse him?" But I'd always been a little proud of the way we'd handled the news, and proud of Jack for having the balls to tell us the way he did. I always believed he trusted us completely as he absorbed the smack of each tennis ball (or orange) we whipped. Only years later did it come out that Rita thought we'd pelted him bare-assed. "It was still uncalled for," she said. But I wonder, is humiliation like cholesterol? Is there a good and a bad kind?
Jack was a safely stowed memory: until this Facebook thing. I don't play, but last year he "friended" Rita out of the blue. When I thought of Jack, which was rarely, I figured he'd become a lawyer (maybe theatrical law -- he was a terrible actor), or, more likely, dead of AIDS. As unexpected as it was to hear from him at all, it was good to know he was alive. But the shocking news was that Jack had a family -- a wife (female), two kids in college, one already out. He had beaten us to a grandchild! I married Linda, my high school sweetheart, he announced. He was indeed overweight, his picture revealed, and his shaved head was polished to a sheen.
And now Rita and Jack are buddies -- they exchange emails, Facebook messages, and long phone calls every few weeks. I've talked to him a few times and mostly ask questions about his kids and listen to him tell me how lucky I am to be retired and ask how I'm going to spend my time now. But Rita and I don't know and don't ask about the about-face in Jack's sexual preferences. Maybe it had to do with the World Trade Center somehow, like everything else. Maybe he made a promise to his dying mother, who was very religious.
"Isn't it hanging in the air when you talk to him?" I've asked Rita, "Because it is when I do."
"We've got other fish to fry," she tells me. Rita's in the mental health field, too.
Now I hear them chattering on the phone at the kitchen table, but I can't make out what they're saying. I pause the movie: the Merry Men are dropping from trees to steal the booty embezzled by the evil Prince John. I need another beer. The trick will be getting by them without Rita putting me on the phone. She thinks it's good for me to make contact with the outside world. "Jack's an old friend," she says.
"A delicate matter," I hear Jack buzz, and Rita says, "Yes, well," and shoots me a look with fortune teller eyes. I open the refrigerator. "There's often reluctance," Jack says, and then he breaks off, as if he senses Rita can't talk. She points to the phone and holds it toward me. I take a beer instead. "Just a second, Jack," she says, and thrusts the phone at me like she wants to skewer me with it. "Is that my buddy Robert," I hear. "Bob, is that you? Tell Bob I want to talk to him, Rita."
I pretend to cut my throat with my beer bottle, and Rita thrusts the phone. Then I get the idea to pretend I'm juggling tennis balls, point to my mouth and the phone, but Rita doesn't get it. "Bob?" I hear. I grab an orange from the fruit bowl, bend over the counter and bounce the orange off my ass, put it back in the bowl and point again from my mouth to the phone. Rita gets it this time and stares me down. She figures I'm bluffing about bringing up Jack's reversal in "status," but I'm really on my fifth beer (since dinner, anyway), and what the hell, why not? I twist the cap off the bottle, aim a long swallow at Rita's frown, and take the phone.
"Jack, my good man," I say, "How the hell are you?"
"Remarkably well, sir, remarkable. What're you up to?"
"Robin Hood, the Adventures of, if you'd like it directory style, Herr director. Sword play, archery, and Merry Men," I lift an eyebrow at Rita. She shakes her head and glides into the den. I lean on the wall by the fridge.
"Un-hunh," Jack says.
"Yup," I say. "So -- you've been having quite the chat with my wife. How's yours? And the kids. And grandkid."
"Fine, fine, everybody's great. Actually," he clears his throat, "I was telling Rita a story about somebody at work. Henry. And the mess Henry has gotten himself into. I'm worried about him. Henry."
"Well, yes. He's fallen in love with a patient. The mother of a patient, actually."
"Is that so unusual?"
"The patient is a child," Jack says. "With nothing more serious than bedwetting issues. A simple matter of behavior modification. And there are medications. But Henry decided on the puppets."
"Yes, for a role playing exercise. Everybody wears a puppet, mother, child, and Henry. The puppets are supposed to talk about how they feel about the situation."
"Who's Henry playing?"
"That's just it -- it there's no appropriate role for him to play in this scenario. There is a father, and Henry shouldn't be supplanting him."
I've moved to the doorway and lean against it. Rita is back at the sofa. She's got one of her hats on her lap, but she's just holding it. I hold my hand up like it's a puppet, but she thinks I'm saying that Jack is talking too much and taps at her ear, telling me to listen to him. I shrug.
"Okay," I say.
"So his puppet starts up with the mother's puppet. Rita, are you listening?"
"Rita went to bed, Jack." I smile at my wife who spreads her hands in exasperation. I walk back into the kitchen and hoist myself onto the counter. I bounce my heels against the lower cabinet. "What do you mean starts up?"
"Oh, well, tell her I said goodnight -- I mean Henry started fondling her. I mean his puppet and her puppet. Rubbing and twining fingers -- which would be the puppets' arms. Suggestive middle fingers on palms, intimate tugging. That's how Henry described it."
"Wow," I say. It did sound crazy. "What kind of puppets? Animals?"
"I think so. Some generic animals. I haven't used them in a long time."
"And in front of the kid?"
"Yes! There for bedwetting advice, and this is the vision that's going to stain his dreams for the rest of his life. But now Henry and the mother are actually involved. He's out of control."
"Sounds like it."
"The truth is," Jack says after a pause, "there's substance abuse at the root of it. I mean, Henry's drinking. Pretty heavily."
"After or before this whole mess? Is it a chicken or the egg thing?"
"No, before," Jack says. "This latest is a symptom, really. He's cut people off, too. Withdrawn."
"Un-hunh, But not from puppets."
"No, not from puppets -- alcoholism runs in his family, Bob."
"So I'm given to understand." I'm not liking the direction the conversation has turned. I wriggle off the counter and stick my head into the den, but Rita's left the room.
"Frankly, I think there's been a problem for years, but he'd been white knuckling."
"White knuckling, you say."
"Mm. Resisting and resisting until finally, for one reason or another, he reached his breaking point."
"Maybe he just gave into it," I say, and I want to kick myself, because Jack jumps in with extra vigor.
"Yes, maybe so, that's a good observation, very sensitive. But I wonder if he's aware of how much damage he's doing to those around him. He's got loved ones. Kids from his first marriage. Parents. He may have irrevocably damaged his relationship with his ex. His family should come first, don't you think?"
I've wandered into my den, plop into recliner and lay back. But my beer's empty. I hoist the bottle overhead and tip it to my eye. A drop wets my lashes. "Pity," I say. The TV's muted, but there's quite a sword fight going on between Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham -- stairs, chandeliers -- rapiers pointed at head and heart. How could I not have known this was in color?
"Listen," I say, "Listen, Henry."
"Right, un-hunh. Listen, Jack, there's something I've been wanting to talk about. I've been needing to talk about it for a while now. . . and you're the only one who can help with this."
"Yes?" He's eager. "Whatever I can do for you, Jack. Anything you need."
"I'm eating an orange now. Navel. From California. The peel is thick, but it comes off easily." Jack had disappointed me -- twice. First of all, I thought he'd been satisfied with being a memory. Did I need to hear from him again after more than thirty years? Now that my career lies behind me like a sunken ship. Which leads me to the second disappointment --"
"Un-hunh." He can hardly contain himself. "But what was it you wanted to ask?"
"I think of you when I eat oranges," I say.
"Yeeaah --" Jack draws out the word; now he's trying to figure out where I'm going. The second disappointment? I thought we had a tacit understanding, Jack and I. I don't bring up the "change" in his status, and he leaves me alone. No sparring. Allow things to remain unsaid. Thirty years I spent in the classroom, probably a million words spoken on the job, and not a single honest one shared about the passion -- the love and the hate -- that passed across my desk every day. Every day. Unspoken. That's the sunken treasure I've left behind. I don't know if I'm jealous of this Henry or pissed off at his lack of restraint. But I know I'm pissed at Jack for bringing him up.
"Back in college," I say, "what were they, oranges or tennis balls? I'm thinking the latter, but I keep seeing the former in my mind's eye."
So you teach literature, and you let your love and your hate leak out. It's your puppet. And when you finally take it off after decades, there's nothing and no one left to love. The end of love, even if it's silent, leaves you broken. Is that what Jack wants to know? And Rita? White knuckling? Have a drink. Watch a movie. With full attention.
"Oranges or tennis balls?" I ask.
The phone is quiet for a while. I notice that it weighs about the same as my beer bottle, and I pretend to juggle them, but I'm really just moving them up and down, like a kid would do. Will Jack be rising or falling when he finally speaks? Doppler effect! But he waits me out, and when I hear his voice I'm holding the phone in front of my face like it's a mirror. A second before he speaks it occurs to me for the first time that maybe we went overboard when we held him down that afternoon.
"Oranges," he says.
"Really," I say. "Well, I thank you for that. I've been thinking maybe I imagined them all these years. Listen -- I'm in the middle of a movie here --" Robin Hood kisses Maid Marion. She's beautiful enough to love. Deep within Sherwood Forest, the Merry Men feast. Jack and I exchange good nights.
Maybe I crossed a line thirty years ago. Maybe Jack and I just crossed a few on the phone. What I know is that everybody's on his own high wire, and the number one rule should be to keep your hands to yourself. So I don't know yet how much of this conversation I'll share with Rita. The unanswerable question -- because I'm not about to make any phone calls of my own -- is why were there oranges all over the floor?