Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 2 ~~ Introductions

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

She is a 45-year-old woman, mother of three, wife of one. She would like to say “recently-turned” 45, but doubts that five months ago counts as recent. Still, 45 isn’t what it used to be, she insists. “60 is the new 30” was the headline she read on a magazine at the dentist’s office. It had a picture of Lauren Hutton on the cover, focusing on the sexy gap between her front teeth. “If 60 is the new 30,” she reasoned, “then 45 must be the new 22 and a half.” She decided not to calculate what this new math would mean for her 19-year-old daughter, Rose.

Her name is Jo Kasten, and she works in the Planning and Marketing Department of the Sisters of Infinite Beneficence Hospital, where her friend Mandy employs her to write about old people and disease ("Older people. Don’t say old people!" Mandy reminds her)—in an upbeat way.

She considers herself both intelligent and attractive.

“That’s the principal quality of all attractive women, don’t you think?” she stops her self-summary to ask me. “They have a natural self-confidence, a sense of well being, an instinctive belief that all the world welcomes and adores them.”

"I adore you," I offer.

"I thought so," she grins.

“I read an online astrologer—have you heard of Rob Bresny?—who tells his readers to foster an attitude he calls “pronoia,” which means that when everyone in the office is huddled around the water cooler whispering your name, you don’t imagine they are saying mean things about you, but planning a surprise party!” she laughs heartily. “I have that.

“I may be a bit plumper than is strictly necessary." She gives me a belligerent stare. "And I may have wrinkles radiating from the corners of my eyes, but I’m still attractive."

I nod.

"And I still love to have sex with my husband—who worships my voluptuous ass,” she gives me a sidelong look, “whenever we can sneak away from other members of the household."

She pauses again, considering.

I nod encouragingly. "Go on."

"And Larry isn’t too cranky, or sulking, or too busy surfing on the Internet.” She grabs a hank of her short black hair and twirls it around her index finger. Her nails are bright red.

“My hair's still pretty,” she goes on a bit defensively. “I’m still a ravishing brunette, (a stage whisper) thanks to hair care products. Aaaaannnddd (she deliberately slows the tempo here, drawing me in), not so long ago I received quite a bit of attention from a lonely and brainy young man—a camp friend of my children’s—who enjoyed playing the guitar for me, and writing poetry for me, and giving me shoulder massages…But I’m sure you don’t want to hear that story,” she says, eyes twinkling, and gives a small kick of her black shoe.

I ask who is the hero of the story that she's telling me.

“I am, of course,” she rolls her eyes. “Or maybe it’s Eddy. But for him, the word anti-hero seems more appropriate.” She gives a very small laugh. “That's a hero who lacks traditional heroic qualities, right? But what are traditional qualities?” She adopts in a mock professorial tone. “Courage, primarily; also strength, size, and nobility, which takes two dictionary hops to deliver magnanimous, meaning ‘noble of mind and heart, generous in forgiving, above revenge or resentment, unselfish, gracious.’” She stops again, apparently to receive my admiration. I give it.

“Magnanimous, in turn, is from the Latin for ‘great-souled,’ with magnus meaning great and animus meaning soul," she continues.

“But that doesn't really fit Eddy. He's certainly not above resentment or generous in forgiving—not of his mother, anyway. But I guess he could be considered ‘great-souled’ in the Jungian sense, meaning he’s lost his individual soul and become part of the collective soul of humankind; meaning he sees and hears things on a larger-than-life, archetypal level.”

She shifts her voluptuous ass before adding, “Meaning, of course, that he’s insane.”

Jo stands up then and walks over to the bar, where she pours herself a gin and tonic, the first of many she'll consume during our meetings together, using the fancy silver tongs to drop miniature ice cubes into her glass.

“Eddy is extraordinarily good looking,” she continues when she's finished mixing her drink, turning back to face me. “I realize that many parents say that about their children, but in Eddy’s case, it is true. His father wondered recently if maybe Ed is suffering from ‘pretty girl’ syndrome, meaning no one takes you seriously because you look too good. Even though he’d like to have a serious relationship, the girls who want Eddy are drawn by his face, not his great soul. That could be part of his troubles, but it wouldn’t explain everything.” She walks over to the window and looks out, tracing her index finger on the glass. Her back is to me again, giving me an opportunity to admire her assets, and I can't help wondering what's happening to her eyes.

“Besides looks, Eddy also has intelligence. He seems, to most members of our family—probably not his sister Rose⎯to be a near genius. But even though he’s very intelligent in some ways, he’s quite stupid in others, like knowing when he’s gone too far, when he's on the brink of getting in serious trouble, of getting kicked out of the house by his parents, or taken into custody by police, or beaten up by a band of thugs on the street.” She turns to see if the street thugs impress me. They do.

“Once, for Christmas, when he was maybe 10 years old, he gave me several little slips of paper. This was a popular gift that year, a notion fostered by some of the teachers at his elementary school. His big sister and little brother gave me slips of paper, too, saying things like ‘good for one breakfast in bed,’ or ‘good for a hug.’ But Eddy’s slips all said the same thing: ‘I will stop.’”

Then she stops, too. She opens a closet door and peers inside. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Right down the hall. Shall I show you?”

“No. I was just wondering.” She swirls her drink and tinkles the ice cubes, aware I am watching her, but not returning the favor. Aware how she looks in her little Jackie O red wool skirt and matching doublebreasted top with three-quarter-length sleeves. All she lacks is the pillbox hat. "Who's this?" She fingers a black and white photo in a silver frame.

"That's my mother, when she was young."

"Really? That's Eleanor? She looks so beautiful! I love the way they dressed in those days. Check out the gloves. Now that you mention it, I think I can see her face in there, a little bit⎯her aquiline nose."


“He also has an enormous penis." She still doesn't look at me when she drops this bombshell, but addresses my mother's picture. “When I would change his diapers as a baby, other mothers would turn their heads and gasp. I swear. I thought at the time, being unfamiliar with boy children—I have only sisters…"

"I remember."

"…that maybe it was a condition of infancy, that over time the rest of his body would grow to catch up. But it didn’t. I know because a lot of us go skinnydipping at camp.” Then she looks up to see how I’m reacting. Her cheeks are tinged red. So are mine.

“During his particularly hostile years, from age 8 to…18?” she laughs at her own joke, “I sometimes wondered if he suffered from testosterone poisoning. And during his recent problems, his father faulted him for compromising his natural gifts.” She puts on a stern face and a deep voice to imitate her husband. “‘He’s got good looks, brains, and a big cock,’ Larry says. ‘I can’t believe he’s going to throw all that down the toilet!’” She huffs and walks around, stiff-legged.

“Larry seems to think it’s sadder to lose a smart, handsome, well-endowed son than it would be to lose a dumb, ugly, genitally-inadequate one. As a mother, though. I beg to differ. Whatever bursts out of the womb after nine months of pregnancy, we’re pretty much predestined to love.”

Jo pauses, looking rueful. "I guess I'm doing all the talking."

"That's the way counseling works."

"You don't want to say anything?"

"I'll make a comment now and then."

"It seems kind of strange, just babbling on, because I know you."

"Well, it's unorthodox. But if I remember correctly, so are you."

She nods and presses on a tight little smile.

“You know what I read on a piece of paper at the hospital?”

I shake my head.

“Perhaps this will help you know my family⎯my new family⎯better,” she offers. “We were visiting Eddy when he was called out of the room by a nurse. So naturally, I walked over to his desk and started pawing through his pile of personal papers,” she grins. “On one, a questionnaire, he had written this description:

"'My mother is Xena. She’s practically a lesbian, but 20 years of relationship has forged a commitment of sorts with a man known as Mr. Thibedeaux. My father doesn’t like you, or that’s what he’d want me to tell you if you asked. My sister is a scientist, which makes her incredibly happy and knowledgeable and a ball of bliss. My brother is a punk ass, but an adorable one. But sometimes his brain gets paralyzed, which makes it difficult to hold a conversation with him.’

She laughs a little at the description of Eddy's little brother, but then sobers up. “I was insulted when I read my description. I mean, why does he call me a lesbian? What's that about? And what does he mean by a commitment of sorts with my husband? Doesn't 20 years make a major commitment? But Larry just laughed and said it sounded pretty accurate—the ass. 'At least he’s making an attempt to answer the question,' Larry said."

Our first session brings out all the basic information about Jo and her family. The Thibedeauxs (Jo kept her maiden name) live in Corinth, California, a little suburb just 17 miles south of San Francisco on the thin peninsula between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

“You might think that means we live in a liberal neighborhood, but you’d be wrong,” she complains. “Our block, particularly, is full of conservatives. The people across the street have their own U.S. flag which they fly on ‘patriotic’ occasions, like…Labor Day?” She bunches her eyebrows in perplexity. “During the last presidential election, only our lawn and the one at the far corner—where my sometime friend the massage therapist lives—had signs for Democratic candidates. And everyone our town drives an SUV, except us.

“One actually ran over my bicycle at a crosswalk one morning as I was on my way to the Sisters of Infinite Beneficence Hospital, where I work.

“It was huge, bright white, the size of a condominium, waiting at the corner on El Camino Real to turn right. I was off my bike, ready to walk it safely across the crosswalk. When I got the green light, I tried to peer up to make eye contact with the driver before stepping in front of his two tons of steel, but the windows were tinted black and I couldn’t see in. So I stepped into the crosswalk at the very same moment when the driver heaved his behemoth around the corner, crushing my front wheel under his tire.

“Then he jumps out of his car and says, ‘It’s a good thing you started screaming, or I wouldn’t have stopped!’ He seemed to think my screaming was a strategy I was using to get his attention, not a natural response to being run over by his big, fat, pig of a car.” This description winds her. She takes a moment to regain her equilibrium.

When Jo isn’t riding a bike, she drives a small, black, 15-year-old Nissan. Her husband of 20 years decided recently that he never wanted to drive a car again. So Larry sold his car and bought an old 50cc Vespa that he found on Craigslist. He also bought Jo an old Piaggio Bravo moped. When the two of them scoot around town, she feels the exhilaration of a gang member, complete with anti-social attitude.

“Just to be sure everyone knows where I stand, I affixed a little bumper sticker to the back of my Bravo that says ‘SUVs Suck Gas,’” she says proudly. I can see the old troublemaker I knew in high school twinkling in her eyes.

When the hour is almost up, she broaches a new topic for consideration. Larry’s switch to mopeds perplexes her. “You might think by my description that Larry is a flexible man who is open to new things, but you’d be wrong again. That’s twice now,” she teases.

“He’s acted like an old curmudgeon since he was a boy. He doesn't come to camp in Mendocino, because he doesn’t like dirt. He doesn’t come to my sister's little beach house in Santa Cruz, because he doesn’t like sand. He doesn’t take me out to hear music, or see theater, or go dancing in the City, because he doesn’t like crowds. And when we occasionally go out to eat, it’s always to the same damn restaurant downtown where he orders the same damn dish—spaghetti Bolognese, the cheapest thing on the menu.

“So here’s a man who assiduously avoids anything new, or different, or remotely exciting for his entire life. Yet, inexplicably, he makes this major change to his lifestyle at the ripe old age of 45. What do you think caused it?"

I have no idea.

“You know, it's funny. But when we were visiting Eddy in the hospital, in a moment of clarity, he asked me, ‘Do you think I had anything to do with Dad’s decision to give up driving?’

“I said I thought he did.”

Cut Off will be published in June.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home