That summer, I asked men out on dates, for no reason other than my father was dying. My friends were doing the same. I liked how we lined up. We had secret names for them. Sue called one guy Choir Boy because he was Catholic, and not lapsed either. Rivkah saw two Joes in the span of a week. She referred to them as the Cs, as in average Joes. To nickname them ensured we wouldn't fall for them. It'd be mortifying, we reasoned, to end up marrying guys we'd called Slim Jim or Q Tip or Norman Bates.
It was a rotten time in my life and I felt compelled to be rotten too.
I took the men to one of two Pho restaurants: Pho 78 or Phan's. Mrs. Phan, as we called her (though rumor had it that wasn't her name at all, but her daughter's) was missing her left arm from the elbow down. As soon as you sat down, she'd rush over and bark at you for your order, gesturing wildly with her nub. I took men I wasn't sure I hated to Phan's to find out if I did. If they seized up at the sight of Mrs. Phan or broke into a cold sweat at the thought of what to order —pho, you always order pho at a pho restaurant—I could relax and enjoy my free meal. The other guys, the ones who wore too much cologne or had weak chins or couldn't take a joke at their own expense—these men I took to Pho 78, where diners were guaranteed to get food poisoning, unless they ordered the vegetarian Pho, which I always did. The health department shut them down every few months and when they reopened, they changed the number in their name.
I was twenty-five and had just checked my father into a nursing home. I was seeing this guy I called Jordan Catalano because he was quiet and had enormous blue eyes like Jared Leto. Because he'd been on a heavy dose of antidepressants all his life, he couldn't maintain eye contact or an erection. I didn't mind.
One day he took me to an antique store and told me to pick something out, anything. But I didn't want anything. His insistence on treating me reminded me of my father. Though he had lived through the Great Depression, he was the least frugal person I knew. He bought my mother and me anything we wanted, no matter the price. He once bought me a pair of $900 sunglasses that I left in a cab minutes later. My father's inability to be angry with me, truly—even violently angry—made me feel sheepish. How could anyone feel worthy of that kind of love? I had the sneaking suspicion that I didn't deserve his devotion any more than I deserved the expensive gifts. But the presents were important to him. They seemed important to Jordan Catalano too, so I spent an hour looking. I apologized for my indecision. Finally I found a jade coffee cup that pleased me. The sticker price read $75 and my date pulled out his wallet. He carried my present, double-wrapped in gold tissue paper, like a high-school letterman carrying my books. He set the bag on the floor by the couch, eased me down, and started kissing me. At some point he pulled away and stroked my hair and said, "It turns me on to buy things for you."
I laughed giddily. I couldn't stop. Snot came out of my nose. I pinched it and ran to the bathroom for a tissue.
When I came out, he was staring ruefully at the floor.
"You think I'm a big joke," he said.
"No no no! I can't believe my luck."
"My therapist doesn't think you're good for me." He held the door open and I walked through. He didn't even slam the door, but closed it gently. I would miss him.
That night Sue and Rivkah and I met at the Polish place in Bloomfield, as we always did, to discuss the men. We licked kielbasa drippings from our fingers, Sue and Rivkah on one side of the booth—they insisted on sitting together—and I on the other. Usually we made fun of their stupid jokes and mimed the length of their dicks, but Sue and Rivkah were oddly tight-lipped about their conquests.
"You really blew it," said Rivkah, when I told them about Jordan Catalano.
"Yeah," said Sue, "You could have been a sugar baby."
"I hear the market's flooded these days," I said.
"That's true, people are catching on. You have to be like really hot now."
"Jenny's hot!" said Sue.
"I'm okay," I said.
Rivkah screwed up her mouth and motioned the waiter for another beer. She sucked the last drops out of the bottle and slammed it down on the table. Something seemed off. It felt like the air was sucked out of the room whenever I opened my mouth. I looked to Sue for some kind of clue, but she stared intently at her placemat.
"Remember when I sold my underwear to strangers on the internet?" asked Rivkah.
I pushed my greasy plates aside.
"What in the fuck are you talking about?" I said.
"You know, in college? I think it was junior year."
I shook my head and glanced at Sue.
"You didn't know about that?" she asked.
"No!" I shouted.
Rivkah was always doing this. She dropped these tawdry confessions casually, as if we were well aware of them, when in actuality she'd never told us to begin with. Usually, Sue was in the dark with me and I was unsettled to find that this time she wasn't.
When I took a sip and missed my mouth, beer dribbling down my chest, they smiled at each other. It was difficult to have two best friends at once. More and more I was feeling left out around them, naive, like a tagalong kid sister, but I couldn't tell if I was being overly sensitive or if they were actually in cahoots. It was a consequence of grieving, the constant gnawing worry, the implacable self-doubt. I had caught myself flinching more than once, as if about to be slapped. It was that feeling you get when there's a cop behind you on the road, like you're doing something wrong, guilty just for existing.
* * *
The following Saturday, my father and I were playing Chinese dominoes. That's what he called the game. I didn't know if this was a racist thing or if it was actually what the game was called. It was hard to tell because he said things like that, old fashioned things, but then he'd talk about the prison industrial complex or legalizing pot or the Equal Pay Act and his progressive opinions would betray his octogenarian status. There didn't seem to be a difference between what we were doing and regular dominoes. I matched up the dots. I sipped coffee.
I remember this day clearly because that evening I met the punk lawyer, whose real name I couldn't bring myself to use, although I didn't have contempt for him. In fact, I liked him. It was terrifying to feel something other than contempt and resentment. I spent Fridays and Saturdays at the nursing home and would rush back to the city Saturday nights, desperate for a different kind of contact with men, men who didn't need me, who didn't particularly like me, let alone cherish me.
My father was still eating and talking, but he could no longer walk and was using a fancy wheelchair he'd ordered from Sharper Image. My mother, had she not left him years before, would've been sad to see him like that. Each weekend I was confronted with new evidence of his lost independence: he was no longer trusted to dress himself or administer his insulin or count out his pills. Soon, I suspected, he wouldn't be able to wipe his own ass or feed himself. But today was going well. He was eating peanut butter crackers, beating me at dominoes, and asking about my friends.
I told him Sue had gotten a new job that was going to pay well—a used car dealership commercial—and that Rivkah had moved in with Sue to save money. He told me he was glad I had so much going on socially.
"Two friends doesn't exactly make me popular."
"Well you've got more going on than I ever did."
"You had a career, Dad. My generation is only social because we can't find work."
"You're dreamers. And you all like to drink." He paused. "I wish you'd take it easier."
But how could I take it easy? I was pulled in two directions: my life in Pittsburgh and my commitment to my father. I knew I had to maintain normalcy in the former, that when he was gone, my old life would be there waiting for me, and I'd have to fall back in line again. If I slowed down even for a moment, I worried I'd lose my footing completely.
After a few more games, he said he was tired and I left. I laid on the gas over the rolling green hills and fantasized about teleportation, about a bubble bath and a bottle of scotch, doo-wop blasting from my speakers. But alas, I had another date. The Accountant didn't like Pho so I broke my cardinal rule and told him I'd meet him at the movies. During the previews, he spoke of his problems with culture: craft beer culture, hookup culture, review culture especially. He didn't need some stranger priming him on what to like. I confessed I read the blurbs on the backs of books before I bought them and that shut him up. When the movie began, I regretted letting him choose. I didn't care for war movies. During a particularly gruesome scene, I excused myself and went to the bathroom. When I came back, I felt the Accountant watching me. He whispered "Hi" which seemed odd because we'd already said "Hi" an hour ago and I couldn't understand why he was suddenly being nice to me again. I turned and realized this was not the Accountant after all, but another man entirely. My date was two rows directly in front of us. This man was tall like my date. He had blond hair that was short on the sides and long on top and there was a glare from the screen off of his glasses. He had a gap between his front teeth that was visible even in the dim theater that I found adorable; a smile at once mischievous and harmless. I waited politely through a scene where the hero got his leg blown off before asking the man if he wanted to leave. In the light of the lobby, I appraised him. He was wearing a leather jacket with obscure band buttons, a white shirt, jeans, and Doc Martens. He told me he was an immigration lawyer by day and a punk by night. He had been in dozens of bands, but was bandless at present.
I took him to Phan's. He didn't flinch when Mrs. Phan asked what we wanted. He ordered the Pho with tofu.
I asked if he was vegetarian and he said, "I plan to go to heaven when I die."
We tumbled back to his place, mouth on mouth. I couldn't keep my hands off his slender neck, his fat adam's apple bobbing up and down. I wanted to choke the life out of him, which is how I felt when I really liked someone. He had a poster of Joan Jett above his bed. Her eyes were rimmed in the usual black liner, the shaggy hair framing her face, but she wasn't playing guitar or giving the finger or even wearing leather; it was a simple headshot, black and white. It looked like a senior headshot or a missing person's photo. I peeled off my shirt and dropped it to the floor. He didn't reach for me, but sat very still on the edge of the bed. I kept my eyes on Joan and pushed him down. His cat, Violet, rubbed against our legs while we fucked. I tried to fall asleep, but at 1 AM I was still wide awake. I was thinking of my father, thinking I should go and visit him, when the punk lawyer propped himself up.
"I can't sleep either," he said, "It's still early. Let's go to Bob's."
The city disappeared behind us as we inched across the Highland Park bridge toward Bob's Garage. Bob's specialized in cheap syrupy drinks and karaoke. But the decor was why people really went. It changed with the seasons and holidays. It was nearing the Fourth of July, and Bob's was decked out floor to ceiling with yellow, red, and pink lights and pictures of hula girls and little American flags and tin hot dog signs from the 50's. Fake yellow grass hung limply from the ceiling, lovingly stapled there. It reminded me of Easter at the nursing home: flesh-colored plastic eggs in pastel baskets, the residents wearing white paper bunny masks, some of them scribbled on with broken crayons. My father had refused to put his on and I didn't blame him.
The punk lawyer and I sat at a tall table and ordered drinks. He opened his mouth to speak and closed it. He opened it again. "What's the worst thing that's happened to you this year?"
Don't say dying dad don't say dying dad.
I typically told my dates about the situation very matter-of-factly, as if sedated, as soon as I had a drink in my hand. I'd tell them my dad was dying and I was having a hard time and here I was, on a date. It occurred to me later that I did this because it gave me a way out if I needed it, but here, with the punk lawyer, I didn't want an out. I wasn't sure he could handle me at my most wrong and dangerous, and I was terrified that if I opened up even in the slightest, I wouldn't be able to stop.
I decided to say I'd been on some really bad dates.
He smiled. "You trying to tell me something?"
"No, you've made it past dinner. You're alright." And for once, I wasn't lying. I hadn't been with someone who had a personality in a long, long time.
* * *
I told Sue and Rivkah about the punk lawyer. As soon as I mentioned his actual name, I knew I'd made a big mistake. They'd surely look him up on Facebook after I left the bar.
"What is he? Sixteen?" asked Sue.
"Punk's dead," said Rivkah.
"He's very funny," I said.
"Well that's a plus," Sue said. She was very made up, more so than usual. She'd drawn her eyebrows on thick and dark and they spilled past the inside corners of her eyes and onto the bridge of her nose. She'd also plotted a large dark beauty mark just above her lip every day, but she couldn't get the location exactly right and the mark would noticeably shift to the left or right. She was saving up her T.V. money for permanent tattoo makeup.
Rivkah, on the contrary, was plain and pale and very Eastern European, with wide set olive colored eyes and devastating dimples. Sue got up to go the bathroom and Rivkah's gaze followed her.
"I can't meet up this Sunday," Rivkah said distantly. "My dad's in town for the weekend."
My skin prickled. Mention of fathers in any capacity made me angry. I knew it was silly, unseemly even, but I couldn't control it.
She must have sensed my discomfort because she added, "You should come to dinner with us."
"Where are you going?"
"Sue and I were thinking that new Thai place."
"Were you even going to invite me?"
Rivkah rolled her eyes. "I just did, Jenny."
* * *
When people say they're afraid of death, what they really mean is they're afraid of dying. It seems there are two kinds of dying people. Some resign themselves to it, like my grandfather, who, after his wife died, gave up on walking, then going to the bathroom, then eating. He desperately wanted it to be over. "I've had a good full life," he said. Then he asked my mother to make him an ice cream sundae, which she found reassuring because he hadn't had an appetite in so long. She watched as he ate, barely closing his mouth, long milky strands of saliva hanging from his gums. When he finished, he set the bowl gently on the nightstand and convulsed to his death.
My father was the other kind of person. Ready to start a whole new life regardless of his ailments. When he got the diagnosis, the first thing he did was buy a brand new car. And he spoke constantly of his regrets.
"I should have divorced her years ago," he said one day, referring to my mother. But they had divorced, when I was eight, I reminded him.
"I should have done it sooner," he said.
* * *
On Wednesday, the phone rang in the middle of the night, slapping me awake. I had been sleeping in my clothes for months, waiting for the call. I imagined it always the same: a voice I didn't recognize, still hoarse from sleep, calling to tell me that he was sorry and could I come down to the morgue? I held my breath as I picked up the phone. This time it was dangerously low blood sugar; he was in the ER. I packed a bag, jumped in the car and drove. The seatbelt dug into my stomach. There was a hard knot that had been there for weeks. I was sure it was an ulcer.
When I got to the hospital, I gave the security guard my father's name. He repeated it back to me, pronouncing it correctly. My shoulders tightened. The only people who ever got our name right were my father's divorce clients or their ex-husbands.
I asked if my father had represented his wife.
He nodded. "She got everything. The house, the dog, the car."
"Sorry," I said.
"Ancient history now. The ex and I are friends. She sold the house back to me a few years later at a fair price."
"Emergency's that way," he said pointing. "Tell him Paul Sudds hopes he feels better."
I heard my father's voice the second I turned the corner.
"You're fools, all of you!" he was yelling.
He had apparently thrown his orange juice on the floor. A nurse was on her hands and knees soaking it up with paper towels. The fluorescence of the room was glaring and the sunlight bounced off of every metal surface. I felt a migraine coming on.
"Dad," I said.
"Hiya dear," he said, brightly, as if a switch had flipped. His moods were becoming more and more erratic. Arbitrary things set him off. At the nursing home, he threw Scrabble letters when he had a row of vowels and cursed loudly when he lost. He frequently screamed at the cafeteria workers for offering only sugar-free desserts, and when they acquiesced and gave him a generous slice of chocolate cake, he barely touched it before tossing it in the garbage.
I took his hand and sat in the chair next to the bed. "Why are you yelling?"
He gripped my hand. "You've gotta help me."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I need you to get a gun."
"If you love me, you'll do this for me."
"You know I can't," I said, and then I was silent. I glanced up at the saline bag, the fluids pumping into his swollen veins. With my free hand, I took out my phone and googled assisted suicide. Washington D.C. was the nearest city where it was legal. My thoughts leapt in front of me, out of reach. Depending on traffic, we could make the drive in four hours. Were the cherry blossoms in bloom there? No, that was spring. Still, it was probably beautiful there in summer. I could push him around the city, to the Washington Monument and the Supreme Court and then we could go back to our hotel—the most extravagant in town, the kind with a spa on the premises—and I'd administer the magical shot, and he'd slip away into a tranquil sleep.
Of course this wasn't possible. He had to be a resident of the state to qualify. But getting out of town didn't sound like a bad idea. He loved to travel.
"Dad, if you could go to any city right now, where would you go?"
He thought for a moment.
"Vegas," he said.
"Really? I thought you'd say London or Paris, somewhere more glamorous."
"I've never had a bad time there. The lights, the weather, the dinner shows. Siegfried and Roy."
"Didn't one of them get killed by a tiger?"
"Nope, Roy lost 25% of his skull, but he's fine. Talk about a comeback."
I did another search on my phone. Southwest had round-trip tickets for $450, including a two-door rental car. I googled shipping deceased family member back to home state. I wanted to know the protocol in the event he died in Vegas. Perhaps Southwest would even reimburse his ticket in that case. It was just as likely he'd die en route, but at least he'd be heading somewhere he wanted to be. I was slightly worried by the prospect of traumatizing other passengers, but my longing to make him happy trumped my worry. I reveled in my foresight, the ease with which I could solve problems before they even presented themselves. I'd inherited this attribute from my father, and it was comforting to realize I'd always carry this bit of him with me.
"Ok," I said, "Let's go to Vegas."
"Really?" he said.
His cheeks flushed with color and I was reminded of a picture of him as a little boy at the circus, ruddy-cheeked, hand patting the trunk of an elephant.
When the doctor came by later, he told her of our travel plans.
"I strongly advise against this," Dr. Mieter said. She was the seventh Nephrologist we'd seen that year. She was tall, thin, and stern, with a jet black bob and the set mouth of a dominatrix.
"What's the problem?" said Dad.
"Mr. Pfeizerzeit, you've had three strokes. You've nearly gone into a diabetic coma twice just this month alone. And you have terminal kidney cancer."
"Dr., you've done your legal duty as a medical professional. You will not be held liable should I kick the bucket in Sin City."
"Jenny, can I talk to you for a moment?" Dr. Mieter said. "In private."
I followed her out into the hallway.
"He can barely stand at this point. You'd have to help him to and from the bathroom. You'd have to bathe him. You'd have to administer his insulin and all of his medications. His health insurance won't be accepted outside of the state." She paused, then said gently, "You haven't thought this through."
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. "I just wanted to give him something to look forward to."
"Do something manageable. Take him to the movies," she said, patting my arm.
I re-entered his room. His face was drained of color again.
"It was a stupid idea. I'm sorry," I said.
"It wasn't stupid, dear. It was a wonderful idea. It made me so happy."
I excused myself to the bathroom down the hall, where I wept into a coarse paper towel, pressing my palms harder and harder into my closed eyes, until I could feel nothing but that pressure.
* * *
On the way back to the city I called Sue and then Rivkah. Neither of them answered. I hadn't been able to get ahold of them all week, except for a text from Sue that said her work schedule was crazy, but she'd definitely be at Johnnie's party that night. Rivkah didn't respond at all. I wanted to hear about their stupid days, what had happened at work, if they'd bought any new clothes. I wanted to tell them to fuck off for not being miserable, for flaunting how fine they were, and for avoiding me because I wasn't. I called the punk lawyer and invited him to the party, and he said he was already planning on going. He knew Johnnie from college.
I cried and scream-sang Fiona Apple until my throat hurt and then turned the dial of the radio to a calming jazz station. I wasn't sure if I should go to Johnnie's, if I should be around people, but I didn't want to be alone either. What people don't tell you about grieving is that you'll spend months or years or maybe the rest of your life in this nebulous zone where half the time you love everyone in your life and the other half those same people repel you and you can't always tell which mood you'll be in at any given moment. Even the most grounded people become frenetic. More than once, that summer and after too, I had miscalculated, gone out when I shouldn't have, said inappropriate things, spilled wine. I convinced myself things might be different this time; maybe I had gotten the outbursts out of my system. And as long as I put in some face time, I could always bow out early. Maybe the punk lawyer would be feeling misanthropic too and we could leave together.
Johnnie's house was packed wall to wall, the smell of meatballs wafting from the kitchen. My thighs were sticking together from the heat and every time I shifted my weight, they chafed. People were dancing to music that was too quiet; the conversations and stomping of feet drowned it out. I only recognized a few of them. The rest were oddly indistinguishable. Their faces looked strange and blurry, as if I was viewing them through a lens with too slow a shutter speed. I worried that my drink was laced with something, then realized I hadn't even gotten a drink. When I turned to get a beer, I knocked into Johnnie's boyfriend.
"Hey Jenny, do you have a lighter?" Johnnie's boyfriend asked.
I didn't and felt like a failure. On the bar cart, there were too many beers to choose from and I felt overwhelmed. I was thirsty and wanted something cool and clear, but not water. I dug my hands into the cooler for ice. I could see specks of dirt in the ice cubes, and dropped a handful in a plastic cup and poured vodka into it. I patrolled the crowd in the living room.
"Does anyone know where Sue is? Or Rivkah?" I could hear the cloying desperation in my voice.
One of the faces bared its teeth and mumbled something.
"What did you say?"
The sounds from the mouth came slow and thick. "I'm sure wherever they are, they're together."
"What are you talking about?"
I was treated to a slow smile, a tilt of the head. "Isn't it obvious?"
The noise of the party drained from the room and all I could hear was my heart beat. It was infuriatingly cliché, like a scene from an after-school special where the heroine discovers her boyfriend's cheating or has AIDS. "Jenny Learns a Secret." "1-800-CRUSHED."
I pushed through the wall of sweaty bodies and ran outside, where I threw up on the curb. Then I dialed Sue's number.
"Hello?" She sounded so far away, like I wasn't talking to her on the phone but listening to a recording of her voice from when she was much younger, from when we were in college together, her voice an octave higher, girlish and breathy.
"Where in the hell are you?"
"Oh, sorry, we lost track of time. We'll be right over."
The 'we' stung, but it wasn't a new feeling. I had been feeling it all summer, the churning in my stomach, a gnawing certainty that I was missing something key, the unease of not knowing what it was.
By the time they arrived, I was on my second cup of icy vodka. They walked in holding hands, letting go abruptly at the sight of me. They had matching zits on their chins.
They walked towards me, Sue with her arms outstretched. She hugged me tightly.
"How long has this been going on?" I said, my arms limp.
"We were going to tell you," Sue whispered in my ear.
"How long?" My voice filled the room. People encircled us, excited by the promise of drama. Everyone was looking at me.
"A few months," said Rivkah softly.
"I can't believe this," I said.
"How could you not know?" the blurry-face from before said.
"You're acting crazy," said Johnnie's boyfriend.
"Excuse me! I'm worried everyone I love is going to leave me at any fucking moment." I began hyperventilating.
"Honey, relax," said Johnnie, cupping my face. "Your friends are in love. It's not the end of the world."
I threw my drink in Johnnie's face. Gasps came in waves. I remembered I was surrounded. They could do anything to me.
Johnnie wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. He pointed to the door. "Out."
I turned on my heel and straightened myself. After the door shut, I heard Sue call my name. Someone else said "leave it."
My car was parked a few blocks away and I walked toward it in a daze. The confrontation had sobered me up, but I was suddenly very tired. A car pulled up and parked. I shielded my eyes from the high beams. A tall figure stepped out of the car.
"I thought that was you," the punk lawyer said.
"I was just leaving."
"Stay," he said. I was still standing on the sidewalk, he on the road. He took my hand and pulled me down. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"Come on. Talk to me."
He looked at me the way he had at Bob's. He meant it—he wanted me to talk. It wasn't like when someone asks you how your day is, assuming you won't tell the truth. He was eager to listen. But how long could that eagerness last? Maybe through the night, maybe through the week. Through the year. But eventually he'd tire of it; who wouldn't?
I could have said I'd get back in touch when things weren't so bad, when—if—I ever felt
like myself again. But I couldn't behave.
"Punk's dead," I said. My voice had a caustic edge. I pushed past him and ran to my car.
He called my name for a while and then it was quiet.
* * *
The following Monday, my father called and told me stories I couldn't verify, that didn't make sense. He spoke of a great aunt who'd done twenty years in prison for poisoning her husband. "She put the rat poison in his soup! His soup!" he said. He laughed and laughed.
On Wednesday the nursing home called and said I had better get there. My father was all dressed in dockers and a sweater. The sweater was inside out and he was wearing two different shoes, a loafer and velcro sneaker.
"I'm going to work, dear," he told me, smiling.
I explained he couldn't go to work. It was the middle of the night; that was the excuse I gave him. I helped him out of his clothes and tucked him into bed.
He looked past me, through me, and said, "I want to fly out the window."
The nurse told me this was common, a sign, in fact, that it wouldn't be much longer, a week at most. She gave him more morphine to calm him down. A lady from hospice came and gave me a pamphlet. I thumbed through it when I was sure he was asleep. Everyone has the right to die pain-free and with dignity. Pain-free, sure, but where was the dignity in this? It said that in their final days, the dying often have hallucinations or visions. They claim sightings of deceased loved ones. They forget how bad things are and regress to a happier time. Usually childhood.
The next morning he asked me to bring him the newspaper. He said he wanted to read, and though I knew he wouldn't be able to – he couldn't focus on the words anymore; they all bled together – I did as I was told.
"It's useless," he said after a few minutes.
"It's okay. I'll be your eyes," I said and took the paper from him. "Flames engulf California Warehouse – Humboldt County: A warehouse full of medical marijuana plants caught on fire Tuesday, sources say."
The story was a line away from a joke, so I embellished. "The firefighters were so high they couldn't remember how to work the hoses." I laughed.
"Then what happened, dear?"
"They went home, I guess."
"Everyone was okay?"
"Yes, everyone was okay."
"Where does it say that?" he asked squinting his eyes.
I pointed. "Right there."