O Perfect, Perfect Love!
In High School, I played football for no reason other than to meet girls, not realizing that one runs into very few girls while playing football except on the rare sideline play. And I played right guard!
“Please, no deodorant jokes. I’ve heard them all,” I used to say. My number was sixty-nine, that old symbol, so you can imagine the noise when we were introduced. “At right guard,” ha, ha, “number sixty-nine,” ha, ha, ha, “Ray Dante…” Ray, Ray. Fucking Ray. On game day, we wore our jerseys to school, and I wore mine like a stigmata in the hallways. Was I proud or ashamed? Before every game I threw up. During pre-game drills, my chest would tighten, and my heart race. Afterward my aches and pains were matched only by my relief that the game was, in fact, over. The games themselves I don’t remember much.
My senior year Mia and I became an item. After four years of helmet-induced pimples, finally a girlfriend. Whoa, Nellie. You could say we met during practice. We ran a sweep right, I pulled, and one of our second-string linebackers decided to play tough guy. We rolled out of bounds like a couple of tumblers and took out the legs of the cheerleading and pep squads who were pretending to practice. Panties and legs, wool sweaters and ribbons, all in a heap. I had to push somebody’s breast out of my cage. Much whimpering and crying. “Buck up,” I said. “We do this every day.” Betraying, I suppose, a fundamental lack of sensitivity to anyone’s problem but my own. Coach Carmichael blew his whistle, his face flushed purple, the vein in his forehead pulsing with cartoon speed. Not good signs. So we untangled ourselves and restored order, an opportunity to dust off a cheerleader’s backside. The gesture was not appreciated. Much tugging and repositioning of garments. On the top row of the bleachers there was a girl who wore overalls and a flannel shirt and a smirk she didn’t bother to hide. “Hey, Ruthie,” she yelled to the captain of the pep squad, “your butt’s hanging out.”
This is quite a girl, I thought. This is the one to know, overalls be damned. I clacked straight up the bleachers in my cleats. “Name and number,” I said, “and don’t be coy. Tempus fidgets.” I could feel Carmichael boring holes in my back.
“Who the hell are you?” she said.
“Ray Dante, and who the hell are you?”
As it turned out, Kendra, the girl on the bleachers, had been sitting next to me the year before in MacKeller’s U.S. History. I tended to doze, and I confess I’d never got past the overalls and the smirk. I was too late regardless, she had a sailor boyfriend in San Diego and wasn’t interested in surrogates, faithful girl that she was. She had a sister, however, and Mia was just my type, she promised. How right she was! Mia had never worn overalls in her life, and she had high sharp sophomore breasts which she kept beautifully displayed.
We went to a movie—a double feature, M*A*S*H and Patton—and began to kiss as though we thought to resuscitate each other. I reached under her blouse but hit iron.
“What is this,” I said, “whalebone?”
“Shut up and get back to business,” she said and planted her mouth over mine.
“I’ve heard of lifting and separating,” I said, “but this is armor.” Her tongue was in my mouth, dueling with my own, and whatever sense I might have made was lost.
We carried on like this for the rest of the fall, locked up for hours with no sense of time’s passage. In the back rows of theaters and in the backseat of her mother’s car, Mia, all underwire and body suits, yet her tongue was so busy, her mouth so voracious I believed we were having sex.
She held my hand in the halls and peeled my oranges at lunchtime. She came to every game, so she could kiss my bruises afterwards. This even though we played in terrible, out- of-the-way places, desert schools with lousy fields and bad locker rooms. You always knew you were in for it, the moment you set your gear down. The benches were scarred by fifty years’ worth of initials, while the air was steeped in the sour ferment of sweat. There would be the plip-plop of water dripping somewhere. The teams we played were terrible as well, Air Force brats and oil worker bastards, migrant riffraff of the lunar landscape. Tough kids who did not know how to play the game except to step on your hand and knee your crotch in pileups. But there was Mia, in a position learned from her sister—sneering at the cheerleaders from the top row of the bleachers, huddled in a red parka as bright as flame. Which matched her cheeks in the wind-whipped desert chill. With her watching, I stopped throwing up in the locker room beforehand, no matter how I forced myself, fingers down my throat, such was the ritual.
One night, though, we were snakebit. We marched down the field and fumbled on the five. We stopped them for no gain, tweet!, ten-yard penalty and a first down. The whole night like that, over and over again, a bad dream. In the second quarter, our tailback broke his ankle so badly that his foot was dangling by a thread, sickening to see: when they picked him up off the ground, they did so one part at a time. And with a minute to go in the third our tight end, who was also our punter, took a shot to the head. So, on fourth down, when he should have been ready to take the long snap from center, he was wandering the other team’s sidelines and asking for bus fare. Georgie looked back between his legs, stood up, and turned to me. “Where’d he go?” he said. “I’m looking backward and there’s nothing but end zone.”
“He might have gone home,” I said. “If he’s smart, that is. This night is a wash.”
We called time-out, and Coach Carmichael raged on the sidelines, pushing players out of his way. There is nothing like your functional psychotic for a football coach, and there are certain ritual gestures that must be performed: the slamming of the clipboard, grabbing an unfortunate third-stringer by the face mask. The usual pathologies. When Anthony Meeker, the nerdy team manager, offered him the rejected clipboard, he scaled it into the grandstand and hit one of the drummers in the band.
“Huddle up,” Georgie said. “Huddle up, goddamnit, before he comes after us.”
Over Georgie’s shoulder I saw Mia with her arms around her knees, the big parka drawn up around her face. It wouldn’t be long, I thought, and then real life would begin again.
Our quarterback didn’t have much leg, but he was the next best thing. Georgie snapped the ball, the lines pushed forward, we heard the thock of shoe on ball, and then we took off downfield. Their return man caught the ball on the left hash mark and began running to our right, cutting across my lane. “Just a little closer, you son of a bitch,” I thought. This while I had his number in my sights. Then the lights went out.
I saw the hit a week later and it wasn’t pretty. Mind you, the whole team was watching the film, and although we had lost a game we should have won and lost it badly, there was still a certain anticipation in the room. The images flickered on the Super 8 projection, and the take-up reel clattered, making all kinds of racket. One of their skinny little receivers had come streaking from my blind side and arrowed me right in the chest when I turned toward the corner. Coach Carmichael ran the film through, my legs went up into the air, and I landed on my head. “Ooh, Dante,” my teammates said. “He nailed you. Nailed you good.” Even Anthony Meeker, that malicious little shit, laughed through his swollen nose.
“Hey,” I said. “I wasn’t the only one.” I pointed to our tight end who scrunched down in his seat and our tailback who propped his cast in a second chair. Coach was good enough to stop the film then reverse it so my legs came down, my head came up, and the receiver ran backwards away from me. Then he ran it through again. Four more times, and each time I landed on my head. “Look at that,” Carmichael said. “Upsy-daisy, you puss.”
The first words I recall upon waking up. I was on my back, the sky was the color of ink, and the stars were winking their secrets. Coach Carmichael was kneeling above me. “There you go. Up and at ’em, you little puss.” I wobbled off the field to tepid applause and sat down on one of the wooden benches. I saw two of everything, and try as I might, nothing would come together.
“If a sparrow falls on the forty yard line,” I said, unable to complete a thought.
“Try this.” Anthony Meeker broke open an ammonia capsule, holding it under my nose so the fumes stung the back of my throat. Tears sprang into my eyes.
“Christ,” I said, “get away from me.”
“You’re loopy,” he said. “Your bell’s been rung.”
“What would you know about it?” I said. I swung and caught him flush on the nose, blood went everywhere, and I threw him to the ground. Why? What had he ever done to me? I had never looked at him twice before that night, one of those math geniuses with athletic tape holding his glasses together. Greasy hair, never took a shower. The caricature of a stereotype, Tony Baloney. He lay on the ground curled up around himself while two of my teammates kept me from stomping him. Coach Carmichael turned around and took one look at us. “Nice going, Dante. You finally hit something.”
One of the assistant coaches escorted me to the bus. “Go all the way to the back, and don’t even think about getting off. We’ll get your clothes.”
The driver sat in his seat at the front and stared at me until I couldn’t take it any longer.
“What?” I said. “What do you want?”
“Nothing.” He was wearing one of our red high school windbreakers, and even in the shadows inside the bus, I could see that his jaw muscles were working overtime. “What would I want with you?”
As I walked off the field, I had passed directly under the grandstand, and I had hoped for one little glance of understanding from Mia. She was standing, however, staring in the direction of the field, and her jaw muscles were bulging, as though she were barely able to restrain herself from running onto the field to make all the tackles that we had missed.
“High school punks,” the driver was saying. “Why bother?”
Four weeks later we won a section championship, and at the awards ceremony we each received a gold football charm. I knew what was coming, and I had a chain ready. Ball and chain, just like the cliché. They went around Mia’s neck immediately, but I was the one who was hooked.
“You see,” I said, “I’m not such a bad guy.”
She had been cool to me ever since that night in Tehachapi, and I gathered that I was still on probation. I had broken Anthony Meeker’s nose when I was not myself, and for her that constituted a warning. But the gold football seemed to help, and we were back to our backseat wrestling before the Winter Formal.
Then a week before graduation I found the football in an envelope which had been stuffed inside my locker. Someone had taken a crowbar and broken out the little vents. A note was crumpled around the charm: “I could never love somebody who preys on the weak and looks down on the lowly.” Mia was in San Diego. Her sister was marrying her sailor, and her sailor was heading for Vietnam.
It was the best year of my life. And then I opened my locker.
O Mia Mia! I blamed Anthony Meeker, that gamey little shit, for my troubles. Him and his ammonia capsule.
Time passed and I heard that Mia had gotten married, and then I heard that she had married Anthony Meeker, Mr. Tony Baloney himself, he of the greasy hair and taped-together glasses. It was too strange to be true, but isn’t that the way life is? And then I heard that Anthony Meeker was a gazillionaire, one of those computer wizards who build empires in the air. Or in Anthony Meeker’s case, his father’s garage.
A fundamental lack of fairness, I thought and still think.
Time passed and I became a Christian.
How? you might ask.
Again, too strange to be true. Even more strange was that I was a Christian of a sort I had never known, a fundamentalist of an entirely different stripe. If I could play football to meet girls, could I become a Christian to get laid?
After high school, I left home for college. This for the money that was promised to me. You know the statistics. But after I graduated, I was a thousand miles north of home, I lived in a damp one-room studio where mildew blackened the walls, and the only job I found was in a nursing home. I had a degree in history, I had written an analysis of WPA projects in rural and remote areas, and there I was, with my lousy academic eyesight, giving sponge baths to eighty-year-olds who confused me for Calvin Coolidge.
“Hey, Silent Cal,” Mrs. Bainbridge said one day. “If it weren’t for you and that scumbag Hoover, my brother might not have killed himself.”
She was sitting up in bed and her head was pitched forward so I could run a washcloth along the back of her neck, where she smelled like a round of Gouda.
“How do you sleep at nights, you little prick?”
“I count sheep,” I said, “and I sleep like a baby.”
Mrs. Bainbridge was in the habit of disrobing while in her wheelchair. Tying her up did no good; she wiggled out of the knots and used the terry cloth restraints like tassels, so the nurses called her Harry. As in Houdini.
The first time I found her naked, she had wheeled herself and her gray thatch out to the rec room, only to watch two of the male ambulatories playing cribbage. While they ignored her, she diddled her nipples and licked her lips. “Hey, boys,” she cooed. “Plenty to go around.” She pointed to me. “Don’t pay attention to that man over there. He’s an imposter and a spoilsport. Aren’t you, Cal? You ruined this country, you and your whole crowd.”
She was batting her eighty-year-old eyes at me, her false eyelashes, her only apparel, slightly askew but fanning the air a mile a minute.
“Don’t do this to me,” I said. “Mrs. Thompson shits in her bed whenever she doesn’t like the dinner, which is often, and Mr. Williams in 17A pisses in the bottom drawer of his nightstand. God knows why. The rest of you have lost your minds in other ways.”
“Go blow,” she said, “before I get ugly.”
It was through Mrs. Bainbridge that I saw Jesus. Her granddaughter came to visit every Thursday. Amelia Goodheart. I swear it’s the truth. How could I make this up? She brought sherbet and a Bible passage for her grandmother, and was a quiet, unassuming girl in modest clothes, corduroy jumpers, white blouses and wide bows. One Thursday I was mopping underneath her grandmother’s bed while she read from Luke: “Where the body is, there the vultures will gather.” Her grandmother was spooning rainbow ice from the carton, greedy little bird that she was.
“What in the hell does that mean?” I said.
“Those with ears to hear, let them hear,” Amelia Goodheart said. Her eyes were closed and she might as well have been feeling the words rather than speaking them.
“That’s the thing with all those apocalyptic visions,” I said, “they can mean anything you want them to.”
“If you say so,” Amelia Goodheart said, speaking from something like a bubble inside herself. She had long brown hair with a center part so straight she might have used a ruler when she brushed it. She sat on her grandmother’s bed with the bearing of a nun.
“Silent Cal here doesn’t know shit from shinola,” Mrs. Bainbridge said, mumbling around the pink and green spoonfuls. “He needs to stop sulking behind those glasses of his. You need to get out, spread your wings. After my bath, that is,” she said with a wink.
“You could come to the farm with me,” Amelia Goodheart said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Animals make me sneeze.”
“You might learn something,” she said.
“I don’t convince that easily,” I said.
But who was I to say no?
Amelia Goodheart lived on forty acres with two dozen other true believers. A funny sort of farm in that there were no crops, and the only livestock were the few grubby children who ran around, free of any adult supervision as far as I could tell. As I was to find out later, there was no shortage of oddities at New Aurora. It was a cool fall day as I recall, and a light mist was falling, but as we bounced through the ruts of the farm’s graveled drive, there were three matrons and three bearded men cavorting naked in the muddy pond next to the main building.
“Okay, I get it,” I said, “you believe in the au natural.”
“Of course. They’re the bodies God gave us,” Amelia Goodheart said. “There’s no call to be ashamed.”
“Well, there’s a few who might have cause,” I said, noticing a rounded paunch here and sagging buttocks there.
“You’ve heard of glass houses, I suppose,” she said, looking at me in a meaningful way.
I hadn’t expected that an hour after her grandmother’s bath, I would be unveiling my own imperfections to the air, but she had issued a kind of challenge, and I didn’t see any way to refuse when she had shucked her clothes along with her modesty by the water’s edge.
“Don’t be upset,” she said when we were standing knee deep in pond water, our toes buried in sludge. “The cold air does that to everyone the first time. Especially in front of strangers. The shrinkage, I mean.”
“I had no idea you were that experienced,” I said.
I had not paid much attention to Amelia Goodheart prior to this, but now I couldn’t help but notice the small pink-tipped breasts, wide hips, and the light golden tan that bore no evidence whatsoever of strap marks.
What have I gotten into, I thought, with this contradictory girl?
And, The possibilities of life are endless.
She introduced me to the other nudists, and I suffered the awkwardness of shaking hands, such a formal gesture in such intimate context. I kept hoping for pockets, but all I saw were beards, top and bottom, appendages swinging, no strangers to the cold were they.
“How lovely,” one of the women said, “to have a new member.”
“Sightseer might be the better word,” I said. “Although both have their meanings.”
“You are certainly welcome whatever your inclination.”
She had a mop of gray hair, and there was mud caked in her various crevices, but she was happy to welcome me into the fold, she and the others. They dove into the muck like beavers, yelping and splashing and throwing mudballs at each other with the good humor of children. The oldest of the women hit me square in the forehead, cackling with delight. “Life is messy,” she said to me as she began her windup, “and you need to live.”
Then, when we were thoroughly engaged with life, brown and gray with it, we trooped toward a communal shower house, and I thought the moment couldn’t get more interesting.
“So, Amelia,” I said, “maybe we could see more of each other. Not that we haven’t seen a good bit already.”
“You’re sweet,” she said, “but we haven’t been interviewed.”
“An interrogation? Now? After such an introduction?”
“We have our ways,” she said.
I was given a brick of homemade soap and a coarse brown towel and was ushered into a shower stall that was more of a closet than otherwise. And given her behavior at the pond, I wasn’t terribly surprised when the door opened then closed behind me, and I felt a loofah scrubbing the space between my shoulders. Another hand circled my waist before drifting lower. There was a kiss of hair against my backside.
“This is full service,” I said, “for an interview. And you’re like no girl I’ve ever known.”
But the hands and other parts did not belong to Amelia Goodheart, as it turned out, but were attached to one of the mud-bathing matrons.
“Sorry for your disappointment,” she said. “Amelia is quite a girl, but you have some things to learn. She’ll have to wait her turn.”
Thus began my instruction in the ways of New Aurora. I was literally in the capable hands of a fifty-year-old vamp named Louise Pennington whose little seraglio this was. They were diehard descendants of Perfectionists, those oddball Christians who believed that Jesus had already brought them into the Kingdom of God. And since, in His Kingdom, there was no giving and taking in marriage, a little hanky-panky was nothing more than the healthy exercise of faith. A holy kiss and whatever comes next.
“Getting to know you,” Sister Pennington said, “is to love you. We are sister and brother after all.”
“For one big happy family,” I said, “that seems a little incestuous.”
“You’re quite a literalist,” she said, “even for an outsider.”
We got to know each other rather quickly in the shower. Too quickly, as it turned out, because that was the beginning of my second lesson in the social intercourse at New Aurora.
“We take our time here,” Sister Pennington said. “That’s part of the etiquette. We enjoy the experience rather than the memory.”
“I was a little revved up,” I said, “what with all the soap and water. Can you blame me?”
And that was when I learned my third lesson.
“I don’t what?” I said. “Jesus is one thing, just as I am and so on, but I guess I’m a little deaf to the details. You’ll have to repeat that.”
“No e-jac-u-la-tion,” she said. “Read my lips. You don’t get to come. None of the men at New Aurora come.”
“What fun is that?”
“I mean if this is a birth control issue, you know that we have pills now and a whole catalogue of other means.”
A hundred years before, the original leader of the Perfectionists at Oneida, New York, had instituted the sacrament of complex marriage, which, in that pre-contraceptive age, was complicated indeed. Hence, the rider of male continence. But, in addition to a woman’s body belonging to herself, John Humphrey Noyes held some other progressive notions, such as the prolongation of both partners’ enjoyment. So, although there were other means of preventing birth, the practice had been maintained as an article of faith.
“You’ll learn to hold yourself back,” she said, “like a lemming stopping at the edge of the cliff.”
“I don’t suppose anyone has exploded,” I joked. “From the frustration, I mean.”
“Not a single woman has been harmed,” she said.
“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” I said, which was when she turned serious.
“You will control yourself if you want to badly enough, and the sooner you learn that, the sooner you’ll get to know Missy Goodheart intimately, luscious little morsel that she is.”
“Ah,” I said, “so that’s the way it is.”
“And in the meantime,” she said, not without a smile, “you’ll have to be satisfied with me.”
You may think me foolish, or at least the captive of my own desires, but I cast my lot with the denizens of New Aurora that night. The muddy pond was my baptism and the shower house my confirmation. What was keeping me in my former life? Mrs. Bainbridge and the other eighty-year-olds at Glendoveer Manor? Each day I went to work I felt myself growing older by decades. I had told Amelia Goodheart that she would have a tough time trying to convert me, but then it turned out she didn’t even have to try. I converted myself. Any God who placed such a premium on enjoyment was all right by me. And they were a welcoming bunch.
I was given a room in the main building, a toothbrush, a brick of soap, and my own set of towels. I called the nursing home and told them to take a flying leap. What did I need with minimum wage when I would be employed by the family of God? The family of God at New Aurora, as it turned out, had several lucrative product lines: in addition to premium leather goods which they produced for a wholesaler in Portland, they also sold herbal folk remedies and essential oils by catalogue. They had quite a reputation among the granola-eaters, and the community was as flush as a blue-chip stock.
What could have been better? Those with leather-working skills cut and stitched, and the rest of us took phone calls, applied labels to bottles, and packaged orders. We wrote catalogue copy, took photographs, and operated the press. During the lunch hour, we were free to interview one another as to the glory of God, and after the workday was over there was the muddy pond or the shower house or any other nooks and crannies of the community’s forty acres. Although the average interview lasted an hour or more, one couple had spent nearly three hours conjoined, and George Hawkins, New Aurora’s most expert swordsman, had emerged with a beatific smile and his control intact if not his quota of handbags. The best I ever managed by comparison was twenty-four minutes, and even that ended with a whimper as I shuddered and spent myself inside Louise Pennington. And then I blacked out. Her dismay was palpable, and she had to restrain herself from yelling at me. “You seem sweet and you say that you mean well, but you’re weak-willed and selfish, and how will you ever know Jesus?”
“I can’t help it,” I groaned. “You’re too much woman for me. I would have to be dead inside and Jesus a peeping Tom.”
You see, there was more to know about the New Aurorans than my first supposition of them as nudists. They were serious believers, and except for their approach to sex, they might have been confused for Presbyterians. They met nightly for prayer and Bible study, they sang before dinner and they raised their hands. On more than one occasion one of the members would begin to babble in a language that sounded like a parody of Chinese. Once a week, they held a criticism session, one of the practices retained from the original Perfectionists. Several members of the community were singled out for discussion by the others, and their flaws were reviewed and dissected and analyzed, various suggestions for improvement being offered. I was a favorite for these sessions because I had so much to work on. My spiritual life was suspect and my difficulties acquiring the proper sexual technique were common knowledge, and for the members of New Aurora, the two problems were one and the same.
Following one such evening, Brother Wistrom, one of the bearded men from my first day in the mud, pulled me aside and asked, “How can you know Jesus if you’re living for your own gratification?”
“I don’t know, Morris,” I said. “I try. I really do. But the moment comes, and it’s already too late.”
“The next time you get to that point,” he said, “relax your abdominal muscles and slow down your breathing. That’s all there is to it. You’re riding a wave, and you can’t let it crash.”
“Easier said than done,” I said.
“You need to think of something other than your own desires.”
“Like what, for instance?”
“Puppies,” he admitted, “or cats lying in the sun. That seems to do the trick. Something from a greeting card.”
Really good teaching is wasted on the young and the stupid, and I wasn’t that young, mind you, but the teaching seemed lost on me regardless. About Jesus or sex, I seemed to be clueless. I couldn’t understand why if Jesus loves me, this I know, why He didn’t raise everyone from the dead and be done with it. And although it is embarrassing to admit it, my sexual performance never rose above woeful. I understood that Jesus was the resurrection of love, and orgasm was a little death, but I couldn’t seem to make the distinction between resisting the latter and welcoming the former.
Despite my shortcomings, Sister Pennington was not my only female mentor. Diverse pairings were a staple at New Aurora as a means of combating jealousy and exclusivity, so I was free to experience all that the post-menopausal women of New Aurora could offer. Although very much in demand as a partner, Roberta Goodheart, Amelia’s mother, welcomed me once in the hope that she might supply whatever was lacking. She was, in her fifties, no bigger than her daughter, but she still displayed the muscular shoulders and thighs and abdomen of the gymnast she had been in her youth. With George Hawkins, she had experienced eighteen orgasms during the course of their marathon, and frankly, the prospect of coupling with such a dervish frightened me. She had visions during intercourse that the community treated as prophetic. But such was my desire for her daughter that I was willing to try anything.
“You will take it easy on me,” I said with as much hopefulness as I could muster.
We dropped our clothes, then began a stretching regimen because Roberta, who was very matter-of-fact, believed in the benefit of exercise and sweat and overall lubrication as much as she believed in love, and she knew how much a pulled muscle could impair performance.
“You’re stiff,” she said. “You never learned how to breathe.”
“I thought I was supposed to be,” I said. “Stiff that is.”
And I said, “What’s to know? I’ve been breathing all my life.”
“As though to breathe were life,” she said. “We’ll take you to life. Even if it’s kicking and screaming.”
But, I was no more successful in my session with Roberta Goodheart than I had been with Louise Pennington or any of the other matrons. This despite her instructions on breathing, her flexibility, or her insistence that we use the original Perfectionist position: she lay on her side, right leg drawn up and me left to figure out the mechanics of a rear entry.
“Maybe if you don’t have a face to look at,” she said.
“I’m not so sure,” I said, “that Tab A was meant for Slot B, not from this direction.”
“The missionary position is the tool of the patriarchs,” she said. “Love can occur, but it’s not the only way. Come here.” And she reached back between her legs to pull me into her, but by that time the deed was done while I was yet between her fingers.
“I’m beginning to think that it’s hopeless then,” she said, wiping her hands of me. “In all my years.”
“It’s the novelty,” I said. “Don’t you think?”
“No,” she said sadly. “I don’t think that’s the case here.”
“But I’m trying,” I said. “I just need a little more time. I mean it’s been what, ten minutes? Give me a little while, I’m sure I’ll bounce back.”
“The problem,” Amelia said the next afternoon when my latest failure had become universally known, “is that you don’t really love us.”
“I do,” I said. “I really do. You don’t know how much I do.”
She turned to face me in the front seat of her car. We were parked in front of her grandmother’s nursing home. She was dressed in her modest town clothes, and I could hardly believe that this was the same girl who could recite the preferences of a dozen men and not a few women as well. She leaned forward to hug me, as chaste an embrace as a sister might bestow. This was farewell. I had been asked to leave by Louise Pennington herself, a decision by the community elders unprecedented in the history of New Aurora.
“I don’t understand it,” Sister P. had said. And I have to admit that she did look perplexed. “We’ve never been unsuccessful before. You’re a special case.”
“That’s very comforting,” I said.
“You’re eager, you try, but every time you try to love me, you’re the only one who’s pleased.”
“What will you do?” Amanda touched me on one knee.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I had no life before, and I have no life now. I don’t suppose much has changed.”
“There you are,” Amelia said. “That’s a healthy way to look at it.”
So my experience at New Aurora ended, but my life took an increasingly sour turn, all my brave talk to the contrary. I went back to Glendoveer Manor for my old job, but no one was interested except Mrs. Bainbridge who blew raspberries at me for all my crimes. After six months at New Aurora, I didn’t have a nickel to my name; I suppose I was lucky to have had the pockets to put one in.
But I was as low as I could get. I dug ditches and picked berries. I worked cleaning up construction sites. I took a job selling cutlery door-to-door, but when I failed at that, I began to wonder if I might not be suited for anything. Fate intervened in the form of a Catalogue Sales position at Datakom Enterprises, Anthony Meeker’s digital empire. The personnel director saw the name of my high school and grew interested immediately.
“You’re about the same age as Mr. Meeker,” he said.
“It was a big place, and I doubt that he’d remember me,” I said. “I was pretty forgettable, and he ran with the fast crowd. We all knew he was destined for great things.”
“That Tony,” I said during another juncture of the interview. “He was slick before he had a license to drive.”
God help me, I thought. But it was my experience at New Aurora that finally tipped the scale. “I did a little bit of everything. Orders, packaging, catalogue copy. You name it.” And when he offered me the job, I thought that in terms of what I had learned as opposed to what I hadn’t, there was no shortage of irony.
I kept to myself, I rarely went out. I lived as cheaply as possible in a bedroom I rented from a mean old harpy in Beaverton, and I let them pay me in stock options. I worked overtime like a mother and rose through the ranks. In seven years the stock split three times, and I was a paper millionaire invited to corporate muckety-muck Christmas parties. Which is where I saw Mia again. I was drinking the company Scotch and wolfing the company salmon when she waddled in, pregnant with her sixth or seventh, I don’t know which. Tony Baloney was no Perfectionist, that’s for sure, but he had his own Research and Development team in the making.
“You,” she said. “I don’t believe it. Don’t we have our Nazi guards at these things? Where’s the rent-a-cop? This seems like a security breach.”
“Look, it’s Mama Mia,” I said. “Mama Mia Meeker.”
“I guess I haven’t heard that more than a hundred times tonight,” she said, massaging her belly. “God save me from originality. So what are you doing here?”
“I work here,” I said. “And you?”
“The same, obviously,” she said pointing to her front, ship of state that she was.
“So where’s hubby?”
“Buying a congressman. Or three.” She lowered her voice and herself into a chair. “Protecting the Internet from undue regulation. Dear God,” she said, “I’m huge.”
Her belly was huge, and her face was puffy as though it had been filled with air, but I could tell it was Mia inside, and I was jealous, I admit it.
“I guess Mr. Meeker figured out the hooks on the corsets. That was more than I could do.”
“Mr. Meeker had help. Just like he had help acquiring his rugged profile. He’s so proud of his nose. It makes him look tough. Like he’s seen a little action. Listen,” she said suddenly, “I have a favor to ask.”
Mia had a friend she wanted me to meet. Wendy. Divorced two years before and treated badly by every man since. I couldn’t be any worse. Wendy was the head of Marketing, so it was a wonder we hadn’t already met. Mia pushed me toward the dance floor where a disco ball was bouncing pinpricks of light around the room. The strobe light made the dancing look like a seizure disorder. “She’s just your type,” she said, “completely clueless. She’s my best friend, so I don’t say that lightly. When it comes to ad campaigns and presentation concepts she’s a genius, but about men she’s a moron.”
“That should help,” I said.
Wendy was sitting at the bar, wearing a spangled dress so reflective that, when the lights hit her, she was painful to the eye.
“Mia!” She was drunk and nearly fell from her perch on the bar stool.
“I brought you a present,” Mia said. “Don’t scare him away.”
“You’re so nice to me. What did I do to deserve this one?” Wendy squinted at me. She had sleepy eyes that suggested fireplaces and down comforters. “Well, okay,” she sighed, “what the hell.”
“Try him on,” Mia said. “You can always return him if the fit’s no good. You don’t even have to be nice.”
“Excuse me?” I said. “I prefer nice.”
“Okay, Mr. Nice,” Wendy said. “You can drive me home.”
“I’m so pleased with myself,” Mia said. “A stroke of inspiration, it was.” She waggled her fingers at us. “Call me.”
In her apartment, Wendy shrugged out of the glitter and shimmer of her dress with a speed and motion so practiced I couldn’t help but think of Amelia Goodheart, and my heart sank. “Okay, Big Bopper,” she said, in a voice that was drunker than she was. She stepped toward me in her party heels and a red thong that could have fit in a thimble. But in bed she lay still, her eyes focused on the ceiling, unresponsive to any and all suggestion.
The irony was not lost on me. I had spent the better part of six months hoping to fit into a family of modestly dressed, Bible-thumping eroticists and failing miserably in the process, but get into bed with a liberal tart who treated sex like a punishment, and I turn into Johnny Tall Tale himself. Sister Pennington would have been so proud of me! I rode wave after wave with this disinterested woman.
“Aren’t you done yet?” she said, the edge of irritation creeping into her voice. “How much longer do you think you’ll be?”
I turned her onto her side and propped her right leg onto my shoulder.
“What are you doing now?”
“Trying to love you,” I said. “And hoping to be loved.”
“Oh, please. It’s a little early for that, don’t you think?”
We were married three weeks later with Mia and Anthony Meeker as our witnesses. She was on the rebound, and I was seven-years lonely. Her sleepy eyes had seemed bedroom-inclined, and her red thong underwear had led me to believe that our union could be a happy and inventive one. I suppose it was. We never thought of having children, we were happy as a couple, although we hardly knew what to say to each other, we were such strangers. We were so rich, though, it hardly mattered. We could always hire someone or buy something. She took to wearing flannel nightgowns and wool socks because she was always cold and her usual response to my overtures was “That again?” but she never refused me. Then again, she never really participated despite my best Perfectionist efforts. She stayed on the sidelines, as it were. Many years later, she became deathly afraid of pregnancy; it was an obsession for her, that fear. She had no faith in the skills I had learned at New Aurora, and although I used a rubber and she was on the Pill, she demanded I get a vasectomy. I loved my wife and I wanted to love her all the more, so I did as she requested.
A day later, my balls were swollen to the size of grapefruit.
“Throbbing,” I told my doctor over the phone. “And bruised in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. Like walking around with an udder. God help me.”
My urologist said that was nothing, he had known cases much worse. He hinted of explosions and gore. But then he had an odd sense of humor, that guy. When I called again, his nurse offered little sympathy and fewer details. “Try giving birth,” she said, “then tell me how much it hurts.”
“It always comes to that, doesn’t it?” I said. “Bitch and moan, and then when it’s over you lord it over us as though we’re deficient. Every mother is a tyrant.”
“You got it,” she said. “And you can’t stand blood either.”
I was in my office, dressed in sweats and an ice bag, limping from one filing cabinet to another and cursing the pain. Cursing my wife as well? I suppose. Dr. Shaw had recommended that I stay home for a few days, but what would that have accomplished? Wendy was working at home—Datakom was going through a rocky time and the new product line was critical—and she would have seen my discomfort as pandering for sympathy. Who needed it? I tossed and turned on the couch in the coffee room, pitied myself, and went home at five the next morning. Only to find Wendy and her suitcase gone. And then I called Mia, who told me to come right over to the Meeker palace. Tony was testifying before a Senate subcommittee on antitrust legislation, and she and the kids would love the company.
“Look,” she said, meeting me at the door, “I heard from her. She’s unhappy, but it’s temporary. She’ll be back.”
“But I don’t understand,” I said. “I did everything she wanted. I have an ice pack between my legs for her.”
“Yes, you do.”
“It hurts,” I said. “It really hurts.”
“Oh, brother. You men are perfect babies.”
She took me to a den in the rear of their massive house, shushed her legion of curious children, and turned on a floor to ceiling television. “You look funny,” she said. “Your eyes are dark and your hair’s all smashed. Like you just woke up but haven’t slept.”
“Maybe I’m still asleep and I’m just dreaming,” I said. “Dreaming that I’m awake and dead on my feet.”
“You need some rest.”
“And more ice?” I said.
“More ice. Coming up.”
On the wall opposite the television, there was an oil portrait of the empire builder himself, Anthony Meeker, dressed in a suit and tie, painted when he was about thirty years old and worth a mere ten or twenty mil. His hair had been cut by artists who charged two hundred bucks a trim, but his glasses, cheap black frames, sat crooked on the bridge of his crooked nose. And it seemed to suggest no matter our net worth we never stray very far from our point of origin.
“Pretty awful, isn’t it?” she said.
“Nice suit,” I said.
“His mother loves that picture.”
“It’s a mother’s picture. Her boy the success, dressed in his Sunday best. It’s understandable. What I can’t understand,” I said, “is why she left. You can tell me that. I’m not a bad guy.”
“She’s neurotic and you’re needy,” she said. “She can’t believe that anyone who loves her could be very smart. It’s a tough combination. I guess it had to happen, and I’m sorry. I feel responsible.”
“It’s all your fault, then,” I said. “But she could have told me before I went to the doctor.”
I never did lie down that morning. Instead, I sat with Mia and drank coffee while we watched for news bulletins about Tony Baloney’s testimony before congress. The hearings were not going well. One senator after another scolded Tony for playing too rough, for creating a playing field that sloped in his favor and other such strained metaphors, and we could see our paper fortunes teetering. Tony sat alone at a long table, taking it and taking it. But then the news from Washington was preempted by another report: a private jet miles off course and flying on autopilot. The jet belonged to a golfer whose recent successes had catapulted him to the top of the money list, but now all on board were believed to be dead, victims of depressurization and oxygen loss, and the plane was flying itself. There was talk of the Air Force shooting it down if it threatened the population on the ground. The jet tore through the sky for four hours, ran out of fuel, and crashed in South Dakota. If the passengers weren’t dead before, they were now.
“That’s a terrible, terrible story,” Mia said. “Even worse than watching Tony getting kicked in the head. It reminds me of you.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“No, really. Everyone’s dead or unconscious inside the plane, but it keeps flying. And no one can do a thing to help. Nothing except watch and hope against hope.”
“I’m feeling a lot better,” I said. “Thanks again.”
“You’ve been flying for years.”
“No more,” I said. “Don’t say another word. Please.”
Mia left, then returned with more coffee and pastries on a tray.
“So, this may be the wrong time to ask, but what is this I hear about an hour, two hours at a time?” Mia said. “Wendy says she’s had enough. You’re too insistent, and when it’s over she feels like she’s supposed to applaud.”
“I’m trying to love her,” I said. “Is that a crime?”
“But two hours. That’s a joke, right? Otherwise I’m jealous with children.”
“Maybe it is,” I said, “now that I think about it. Just a joke. Maybe it just seemed like a long time to her.”