- Published: 2 February 2021
- ISBN: 9781786091338
- Imprint: Windmill Books
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $24.00
Three Exhausting Weeks
Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash—the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theater. Before HBO, Netflix, and the 107 other entertainment outlets bankrupted the Lux, I sat for many hours in that once-splendid cinema palace and watched movies. Now it’s stall after stall of what passes for antiques. Anna and I looked into every one of them.
MDash was about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, which was as big a deal for us as it was for him. Steve Wong’s grandparents were naturalized in the forties. My dad had escaped the low-grade thugs that were East European Communists in the 1970s, and, way back when, Anna’s ancestors rowed boats across the North Atlantic, seeking to pillage whatever was pillageable in the New World. The Anna family legend is that they found Martha’s Vineyard.
Mohammed Dayax-Abdo was soon to be as American as Abdo Pie, so we wanted to get him something vintage, an objet d’patriotic that would carry the heritage and humor of his new country. I thought the old Radio Flyer wagon in the second warehouse stall was perfect. “When he has American kids, he’ll pass that wagon on to them,” I said.
But Anna was not about to purchase the first antique we came across. So we kept on hunting. I bought a forty-eight-star American flag, from the 1940s. The flag would remind MDash that his adoptive nation is never finished building itself—that good citizens have a place somewhere in her fruited plain just as more stars can fit in the blue field above those red and white stripes. Anna approved, but kept searching, seeking a present that would be far more special. She wanted unique, nothing less than one of a kind. After three hours, she decided the Radio Flyer was a good idea after all.
Rain started falling just as we were pulling out of the parking lot in my VW Bus. We had to drive slowly back to my house because my wiper blades are so old they left streaks on the windshield. The storm went on well into the evening, so rather than drive home, Anna hung around, played my mother’s old mixtapes (which I’d converted to CDs), cracking up over Mom’s eclectic taste, in the segues from the Pretenders to the O’Jays to Taj Mahal.
When Iggy Pop’s “Real Wild Child” came on, she asked, “Do you have any music from the last twenty years?”
I made pulled-pork burritos. She drank wine. I drank beer. She started a fire in my Franklin stove, saying she felt like a pioneer woman on the prairie. We sat on my couch as night fell, the only lights being the fire and the audio levels on my sound system bounding from green to orange and, occasionally, red. Distant sheet lightning flashed in the storm miles and miles away.
“You know what?” she said to me. “It’s Sunday.”
“I do know that,” I told her. “I live in the moment.”
“I admire that about you. Smart. Caring. Easygoing to the point of sloth.”
“You’ve gone from compliments to insults.”
“Change sloth to languorousness,” she said, sipping wine. “Point is I like you.”
“I like you, too.” I wondered if this conversation was going someplace. “Are you flirting with me?”
“No,” Anna said. “I’m propositioning you. Totally different thing. Flirting is fishing. Maybe you hook up, maybe you don’t. Propositioning is the first step in closing a deal.”
Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school (St. Anthony Country Day! Go, Crusaders!). We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my license and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while. One day she walked into my office because she needed to rent a space for her graphics business and I was the only agent she could trust because I once dated a friend of hers and was not a jerk when we broke up.
Anna was still very pretty. She never lost her lean, rope-taut body of a triathlete, which, in fact, she had been. For a day, I showed her some available spaces, none of which she wanted for reasons that made little sense to me. I could tell she was still just as driven, focused, and tightly wound as she had been at SACD. She had too keen an eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing. Adult Anna was exhausting. Adult Anna was no more my type than Teen Anna had been.
Funny, then, that she and I became such solid friends, much closer than when we were kids. I am one of those lazy-butt loners who can poke my way through a day and never feel a second has been wasted. In fact, as soon as I sold my mom’s house and parked the money in investments, I walked away from my fake business and settled into the Best Life Imaginable. Give me a few loads of laundry to do and a hockey game on the NHL channel and I’m good for an entire afternoon. In the time I spend lollygagging over my whites and colors, Anna will drywall her attic, prepare her taxes, make her own fresh pasta, and start up a clothing exchange on the Internet. She sleeps in fits and starts from midnight to dawn and has the energy to go full throttle all day. I sleep dead to the world as long as possible and take a nap every day at 2:30 p.m.
“I am going to kiss you now.” Anna did just as she said.
We had never done that, other than those pecks on cheeks that go with brief hugs. That night, she was offering a whole new version of herself, and I tensed up, confused.
“Hey, relax,” she whispered. Her arms were around my neck. She smelled damn good and tasted of wine. “It’s the Sabbath. A day of rest. This is not going to be work.”
We kissed again, this time with me a collected and invested participant. My arms went around her and pulled her close. We leaned into each other and loosened up. We found each other’s necks and worked our way back to our mouths. I had not kissed a woman like that in close to a year, not since the Evil Girlfriend Mona not only dumped me but stole cash from my billfold (Mona had problems, but kissing? She was fabulous).
“Atta baby,” Anna sighed.
“Shabbat shalom,” I sighed back. “We should have done that years ago.”
“I think we could use some time spent skin on skin,” Anna whispered. “Take off your clothes.”
I did. When she took off hers, I was a goner.
My Monday morning breakfast was buckwheat pancakes, chorizo sausage, a huge bowl of berries, and percolated coffee. Anna opted for some herbal tea I had long ago tucked away in the pantry and a tiny bowl of nuts she chopped up with a cleaver. She counted out eight blueberries to round out her nutritious breakfast. I shouldn’t say that neither of us wore clothes as we ate, as it will make us sound like nudists, but the fact is we tumbled out of bed without the slightest inhibitions.
As she was getting dressed for work she told me we were signing up for scuba diving lessons.
“We are?” I asked her.
“Yep. We are going to get certified,” she said. “And you need to get some workout clothes. Running shoes and sweats. Go to the Foot Locker in the Arden Mall. Meet me for lunch at my office right after. Bring the wagon and the flag for MDash and we’ll wrap them.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I’ll make dinner at my place tonight, we’ll watch a documentary, then we are going to do in my bed what we spent last night doing in yours.”
Anna ended up taking me to Foot Locker, making me try on five different pairs of shoes (we settled on cross-trainers) and four versions of sweatpants and tops (Nike). Then we bought food and drinks for the party Anna wanted to throw for MDash. She said my house was the only place for such a bash.
Around noon, MDash was one of sixteen hundred soon-to-be Americans standing on the floor of the Sports Arena, right hands raised as they swore allegiance to America—new citizens who would preserve, protect, and defend what was now their Constitution as much as it was for the President of the United States. Steve Wong, Anna, and I were in the bleachers, witnessing the naturalization of a sea of immigrants, their skins all the different colors of human nature. The sight was glorious and made the three of us emotional—Anna the most. She wept, her face pressed into my chest.
“It’s … so … beautiful,” she kept sobbing. “God … I love … this country.”
MDash’s Home Depot co-workers who could get the time off showed up at my place with a lot of cheap American flags, purchased with their employee discounts. Steve Wong set up a karaoke machine and we made MDash sing songs with “America” in the lyrics. “American Woman.” “American Girl.” “Spirit of America” by the Beach Boys is actually about a car, but we made him sing it anyway. We used the Radio Flyer wagon as an ice chest and six of us planted the forty-eight-star flag like we were the Marines on Iwo Jima, MDash being the guy in the very front.
The party went long, until only the four of us were left watching the moonrise, listening to Old Glory flitter and flap on its pole. I had just opened another beer from the slosh of ice in the wagon when Anna took the can out of my hands.
“Easy, baby,” she said. “You’re going to need all your capabilities, just as soon as those two go home.”
An hour later, Steve Wong and MDash headed out, the new American citizen singing “A Horse with No Name” (by the band America). As soon as Steve’s car was out of the driveway, Anna took my hand, leading me to the backyard. She put cushions down on the soft grass and we lay there, kissing, then, well, you know, putting my capabilities to the test.
Anna runs whenever she can jam a few miles into forty minutes, a habit she was going to force upon me. She took me to one of her routes, an uphill path that loops around Vista Point and back, and told me to get going. She would zip along ahead of me and meet me coming back down, knowing I’d never keep up with her.
My exercise is an option-only affair. Occasionally, I’ll ride my old three-speed to Starbucks or play a few rounds of Frisbee golf (I used to belong to a league). This morning I was chuffing up the dirt road, Anna so far ahead I didn’t see her, my feet breaking in my new cross-trainers (note to self: move up a half size). My blood was surging up and down my body in unfamiliar fury, so my shoulders and neck tensed up and my head pounded. When Anna came charging down from Vista Point, she was clapping her hands.
“Atta baby!” she called out, passing me. “Good first effort!”
I spun around to follow her. “My thighs are on fire!”
“They are rebelling,” she called back over her shoulder. “In time they will submit!”
Anna reorganized my kitchen when I was in the shower. She thought I kept my pans and lids in the wrong cupboards, and why was my flatware drawer so far from the dishwasher? I had no answer. “Let’s get going. Can’t be late for our first scuba lesson.”
The Scuba School smelled of rubber wet suits and the chlorinated pool. We filled out papers and were given workbooks to study, along with the schedule for our classroom sessions, as well as options for the date of our open water certification. Anna pointed to a Sunday four weeks away and reserved our berths on the boat on the spot.
We went to the Viva Verde Salad Cafe for a lunch of salads made of salads with salad on the side, after which I wanted to go home for a nap. But Anna said she needed my help moving some stuff around her house, a chore she had been putting off. This was barely true, almost a lie. She actually wanted me to help her rewallpaper her hallway and home office, which meant I had to move her computer, printer, scanners, and graphic equipment, then do her bidding all afternoon.
I never made it home that evening. We had dinner in—vegetarian lasagna with vegetables on the side—and watched a movie on Netflix about smart women with idiot boyfriends.
“Look, baby,” Anna said. “This is about us!” Then she cackled and reached into my pants without so much as kissing me. I either was the luckiest man in the world or was being played for a sucker. After Anna let me reach into her pants as well I still wasn’t sure which.
Anna had to work at her office. She employs four no-nonsense women and an intern who is an at-risk girl from high school. Last year she landed a contract for doing the graphics for a textbook publisher, steady work but as boring as wallpapering for a living. I told her I was going home.
“Why?” she asked. “You’ve got nothing to do today.”
“I’m going to get a run in,” I said, making that up on the spur of the moment.
“Atta baby,” she told me.
I went home and did put on the cross-trainers, then jogged around the neighborhood. Mr. Moore, a retired cop whose house shares my back fence, saw me running by and hollered out, “What the fuck got into you?”
“A woman!” I yelled back, and not only was that true, but I felt good saying it. When a man thinks of a lady and looks forward to telling her that he ran forty minutes, well, partner, he’s living in Girlfriend Territory.
Yes. I had a girlfriend. A girlfriend changes a man from the shoes he exercises in right up to how he cuts his hair (which Anna did the very next day, in front of my barber)—alterations I was due. Fooled by the adrenaline of romance, I ran farther than my body could stand.
Anna called just as I had given up on a nap because my calves were as tight as beer cans. She told me to get over to her acupuncturist; she’d call to arrange an immediate treatment.
The East Valley Wellness Oasis is in a minimall/professional building with underground parking. Driving my VW Bus, which has no power steering, around and around those descending circular ramps took physical effort. Figuring out the multiple elevators of the facility taxed my brain. When I finally found office 606-W, I filled in five pages of a Wellness questionnaire, sitting beside a fountain that made more noise from its electric pump than from its cascading water element.
Do you accept the practice of Visualization? Sure, why not? Are you open to Guided Meditation? I don’t see how it could hurt. Explain your reasons for seeking treatment. Please be specific. My girlfriend told me to bring you my tired, my poor, my balled-up leg muscles yearning to be freed.
I handed in my answers and waited. Eventually, a guy in a white lab coat called my name and took me into a treatment room. As I stripped down to my skivvies he read over my paperwork.
“Anna says your legs are bothering you?” he asked. He’d been working on Anna for the last three years.
“Yep,” I said. “My calves, among other muscles in revolt.”
“According to this,” he said, tapping my paperwork, “Anna’s your girlfriend.”
“A new development,” I told him.
“Good luck with that. Lay on your stomach.” When he put the needles in me, my whole body tingled and my calves twitched uncontrollably. Before leaving the room, he hit play on an old CD boom box for my guided meditation. I heard a woman’s voice tell me to clear my mind and think of a river. I sort of did that for half an hour, wanting to fall asleep, but couldn’t because I had needles sticking in me.
Anna was waiting for me at my house, having made us a dinner of leafy plants with seeds and rice the color of dirt. Afterward, she rubbed my legs so hard I winced. Later, she said she had not made love five nights in a row since college, but was going to give it a whirl.
She had set the alarm on her phone for 5:45 a.m. because she had to get a lot done. She made me get up, too, allowed me a single cup of coffee, then made me put on my running clothes.
“My calves still hurt,” I told her.
“Only because you are telling yourself they hurt,” she said.
“I don’t want to run this morning,” I complained.
“Tough titties, baby.” She threw my sweatpants at me.
The morning was cold and misty. “Perfect for roadwork,” she said. She forced me to imitate her twelve-minute stretching routine right there in my driveway, setting a timer on her phone with a tone that bing-ed every thirty seconds. There were twenty-four body positions I had to hold, each one stretching some sinew or muscle inside me, each one making me wince, cuss out loud, and get light-headed.
“Atta baby,” she said. Then she explained the route we would take around my neighborhood, twice for her, once for me. Mr. Moore was getting his morning paper from his front lawn just as I was running by.
“Was that your woman? Who ran by a minute ago?” he called to me. I was panting so hard I could only nod. “What the fuck she see in you?”
A few minutes later, Anna lapped me, spanking my buttocks as she passed. “Atta baby!”
I was home and in the shower when she joined me. We kissed a lot and touched each other in our wonderful places. She instructed me on how to scrub her back and told me to come to her office at lunch so we could study our scuba workbook. I had yet to read the first few pages, but she had already completed half of it. When she had the time is beyond me.
I spent the afternoon hanging around her office, answering multiple-choice questions about scuba equipment and its uses, scrolling through some real estate listings (I still dabble), and trying to amuse the women who were bent over their graphic work. No dice. All this while Anna took a long conference call with a client in Fort Worth, Texas, designed new title pages for a series of textbooks, proofread three projects, helped her at-risk intern with her geometry homework, reorganized a supply closet, and completed the second half of the scuba assignments. We had yet to take our first classroom session.
Not that it mattered. We were the only students. We watched videos about the glorious underwater world, then got into the pool. We stood in the shallow end while Vin, our instructor, explained to us every piece of the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. That took a long time, mostly because Anna had at least five questions for every bit of gear. Finally, Vin had us put the regulators in our mouths, drop to our knees so our heads were submerged, suck in the metallic-tasting pressurized air, and blow out bubbles. The class ended with us taking a water fitness test by swimming ten laps. Anna went to the task like an Olympian and was out of the pool and drying off in a few minutes. I swam a languid breaststroke, finishing a distant second in a race of two.
Afterward, we drove to the East Village Market Mall to meet Steve Wong and MDash at Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe for milkshakes. Anna had a small cup of sugar-free nondairy yogurt with a dusting of real cinnamon. Sitting there, enjoying our treats, Anna tucked her hand in mine, a gesture of affection that did not go unnoticed.
In her bed that night, Anna was going through her pre-sleep iPad scroll when I got a text from Steve Wong.
SWong: U boffing A???
I pinched out my reply.
Moonwalker7: Your bizniz?
SWong: U Nsane??????
Then MDash joined the chain—
Moonwalker7: I was seduced
FACEOFAMERICA: “when cooks fuck the stew burns”
Moonwalker7: who says that? The village shaman?
FACEOFAMERICA: “when coaches fuck the team loses” Vince Lombardi
And so it went. Steve Wong and MDash saw no good coming out of the pairing of Anna and me. Too bad! That very night Anna and I went at it like stew cooks in Green Bay, Wisconsin, hell-bent on pleasure.
“Should we have a chat about our relationship?”
That was me asking. I was standing in Anna’s kitchenette, wrapped in only a towel after a shower, plunging her Swiss press coffee apparatus for my morning elixir. She had been up for an hour and a half and was already in her running togs. Luckily, my cross-trainers were back at my place, so no marathon training for me.
“Do you want to have a chat about our relationship?” she asked, cleaning up the few outstanding coffee grounds that had fallen onto her surgically spotless countertop.
“Are we an item?” I asked.
“What do you think?” she asked back.
“Do you think of me as your boyfriend?”
“Do you think of me as your girlfriend?”
“Is either one of us going to make a declarative statement?”
“How should I know?”
I sat down and took a sip of coffee that was too strong. “Can I have some milk for this?” I asked.
“Do you think that gunk is good for you?” She handed me a small bottle of nonpreservative almond milk, the kind that has to be used up in only a few days, the kind that is sold as “milk” but is actually liquefied nuts.
“Could you buy real milk so I can have it in my coffee?”
“Why are you so demanding?”
“Is asking for milk a demand?”
She smiled and took my face in her hands. “Do you think you’re the man for me?”
She kissed me. I was about to make a declarative statement, but she sat on my lap and undid the towel I was wearing. She didn’t get in her morning run.
Being Anna’s boyfriend was like training to be a Navy SEAL while working full-time in an Amazon fulfillment center in the Oklahoma Panhandle in tornado season. Something was going on every moment of every day. My 2:30 naps were a thing of the past.
I was exercising regularly, not just the morning jogs but also swimming in scuba class, doing yoga stretches for what grew into a half hour, and joining Anna in a hot-room spinning class that was so taxing I upchucked. The number of errands we went on was maddening, and they never came from a to-do list or shopping helper app, but were all spur of the moment, ad hoc. Incessant. If unoccupied with work, working out, or working me over in the sack, Anna was making something, looking for something, asking to see what the store had in the back, driving to an estate sale across town, or going to Home Depot to ask Steve Wong about a belt sander for me, as the top of the redwood picnic table in my backyard needed smoothing. Every day—all day—I spent following her orders, which included precise driving instructions.
“Make the next left. Don’t get off here. Take Webster Avenue. Why are you turning right now? Don’t go past the school! It’s almost three o’clock! The kids are just getting out!”
She organized a rock-climbing demonstration for Steve Wong, MDash, and me at a newly opened adventure superstore that had a climbing wall as well as an indoor rushing river to demonstrate white-water canoeing and a skydiving chamber—a huge fan that blew straight up a silo with so much force it simulated free fall for helmeted customers. Need I say that in one evening the four of us did all of them? We were there until closing. Steve Wong and MDash felt like he-men after a full day’s work wearing those unisex aprons at Home Depot. I was exhausted, having been on Anna’s overloaded schedule too long. I needed a nap.
We had time for protein snacks at the Energy Stand at the front of the store when Anna left for the restroom.
“What’s it like?” MDash asked.
“What’s what like?” I said.
“You and Anna. Sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”
“You holding up?” Steve Wong asked. “You look exhausted.”
“Well, I did just go faux skydiving.”
MDash threw his uneaten half of a protein bar in the trash. “I used to look at you and think, That guy has figured it all out. He has his sweet little house with a nice backyard, he doesn’t work for anyone but his own self. He could throw away his watch because he never has to be anywhere. To me, you were the America I hope to live in. Now, you kowtow to a boss lady. Alas.”
“Really?” I said. “Alas?”
“Tell him that proverb you told me,” Steve said.
“Something else the village shaman taught you?” I wondered.
“Actually, the village English teacher,” MDash said. “To circle the globe, a ship needs only a sail, a wheel, a compass, and a clock.”
“Wise words in a landlocked nation,” I said. MDash grew up in the sub-Sahara.
“Anna is the compass,” MDash explained. “You are the clock, but you keeping time with her means you’ve become unwound. Your hands are right only twice a day. We’ll never know our longitude.”
“Are you sure Anna isn’t the sail?” I said. “Why can’t I be the wheel and Steve be the compass? I don’t follow this analogy.”
“Let me put this into a language you can understand,” Steve said. “We are like a TV show with diversity casting. African guy, him. Asian guy, me. Mongrel Caucasoid, you. Strong, determined woman, Anna, who would never let a man define her. You and her pairing off is like a story line from season eleven when the network is trying to keep us on the air.”
I looked at MDash. “Are you getting this pop culture metaphor?”
“The gist of it. I have cable.”
“The four of us,” Steve explained, “are a perfect square. You taking to the sheets with Anna is going to misalign our geometry.”
“She makes things happen in our lives. Look at us. It’s nearly midnight and we’ve been dangling and rowing and parachuting indoors. Stuff I’d never do on a school night. She’s our catalyst.”
“You’ve used sailboats, TV shows, geometry, and chemistry to point out why I shouldn’t see Anna. And I still don’t buy it.”
“I predict tears,” MDash said. “For you, for Anna, for all of us. Tears shooting out of our eyes.”
“Look,” I said, pushing away a protein brownie that actually tasted like a brownie. “One of these things is going to happen between me and my girlfriend. Yes, girlfriend.” I stole a look at Anna. She was far away chatting with an employee at a counter with a sign over it saying, INVEST IN ADVENTURE! “One. We get married, have kids, and you are their godfathers. Two. We break up in a public display of hurt feelings and recriminations. Both of you will have to choose sides: remain pals with me or go against the established rules of gender and stay friends with the woman. Three. She meets some other guy and dumps me. I become a melancholy loser, and do not say that’s already what I am. Four. She and I part ways, amicably deciding to be friends, as seen on TV. What memories remain are those of pseudo–rock climbing et al. and the finest sex I’ve had in a lifetime. We can handle any of those fates because we are all big boy grown-ups. And admit it—if Anna wanted to make out with you like she does with me you’d be all for it.”
“And you’d be the one predicting tears,” Steve Wong said.
Just then Anna returned, waving a thick and glossy color brochure, a smile on her face. “Hey, guys!” she said. “We are to go to Antarctica!”
“We’ll need the correct gear.” Anna was dipping a fresh Rainbow Tea Company tea bag into a mug of hot water. She was in her running clothes as I was putting on my cross-trainers. “Long johns. Parkas and shells. Fleece pullovers. Waterproof boots. Walking sticks.”
“Gloves,” I added. “Hats.” The trip to Antarctica was three months, many time zones, and thousands of miles away and Anna was already in Full Planning Mode. “Won’t it be summer at the South Pole?” I asked.
“We won’t make it to the pole. To the Antarctic Circle maybe, but only if the weather and sea cooperate. Still gonna be a lot of ice and wind.”
We went outside to do forty-five minutes of stretches on my front lawn, getting our downward dogs and cobras wet from the morning dew. Bing. The timer went off and I bent over, trying to touch my forehead to my kneecaps. Fat chance.
Anna was able to fold herself up like a card table. “You do realize,” she said, “the Apollo astronauts went to Antarctica, to study the volcanoes.” Anna knew of my jones for all things spaceman related. But she didn’t know just how well I knew that stuff.
“They trained in Iceland, young lady. If any astronauts went to the South Pole, it was long after they retired from altering the course of human destiny by cheating death in NASA rocket ships.” Bing. I tried to reach out and grab my ankles, setting my poor calves afire.
“Going to see penguins and whales and science stations,” Anna said. “And B15K.”
“What is B15K?”
“An iceberg the size of Manhattan, so large it’s tracked via satellite. Broke off from the Ross Ice Shelf in 2003 and is independently moving counterclockwise around Antarctica. If the weather holds, we can book a chopper and land on it!”
Bing. That was the final exercise. She took off running. I tried to keep up with her but no way that was going to happen, not with her all pumped up about B15K.
As I trotted by Mr. Moore’s house, he was just getting into his car, a travel mug of coffee in his hand. “That girlfriend of yours ran by a second ago. She was hauling ass.”
After showers and a breakfast of avocado on toasted spelt bread, Anna took that belt sander she bought from Steve Wong and started grinding down my picnic table. I joined her with some sandpaper of my own.
“After you take it down to the grain, you’ll need to repaint this. Do you have paint?” I did. “You should have this done by tonight. Then come to my place. We’ll have dinner and sex.” Fine by me, is how I felt. “I have to go to work now.” Before leaving she pointed out other wooden objects that needed sanding and paint as well—a bench, the back door to my kitchen, and the old shed where I keep my lawn toys and sports equipment. I spent the rest of the day on the work detail.
I was sweaty, dusty, and splattered with paint when Anna texted me.
AnnaGraphicControl: dinner in 15
I got over to her place in half an hour, but needed a shower before dinner. We ate in the living room—huge bowls of Vietnamese pho—watching two episodes of Our Frozen Earth on Blu-ray. For over three hours we learned all about the chinstrap penguins and crabeater seals that live only in guess which part of our planet.
I fell asleep before we got around to any sex.
Anna had scheduled an early morning scuba class without telling me.
Vin had us in full wet suits—the tanks, the weight belts, everything—sitting on our knees at the bottom of the deep end of the pool. We had to remove every piece of the scuba apparatus, including our masks, hold our breath, then put it all back on again. Afterward, Vin said I was behind in my workbook and had better get cracking.
“Why haven’t you finished the workbook?” Anna wanted to know.
“A date with a belt sander took up my time.”
Driving home, I felt a chalky tickle in the back of my throat, like I was getting a cold.
“Don’t say you are getting a cold,” Anna said. “If you tell yourself you are sick, you allow yourself to be sick.”
Her phone went off and she took the call hands-free; it was one of her clients in Fort Worth. A fellow named Ricardo told jokes about color templates, making Anna laugh as she pulled into my driveway. She stayed in the car to finish that call. I went inside.
“We have to go to Fort Worth,” she announced when she finally came into my kitchen. I was making chicken noodle soup from a packet.
“Why?” I asked.
“I have to hand-hold Ricardo through a presentation. That is not soup, by the way, that’s a sack full of sodium.”
“I’m allowing myself to be sick. Soup will help.”
“That shit will kill you.”
“I have to go to Fort Worth with you?”
“Why not? You aren’t doing anything. We’ll stay overnight and see the sights.”
“Of Fort Worth?”
“It will be an adventure.”
“My nose is running and I feel like a hive of bees are swarming in my head.”
“You can make it stop if you stop saying such things,” she said.
In response I sneezed, coughed, and blew my nose into a tissue. Anna just shook her head.
Here are the sights I saw in Fort Worth:
The huge airport. Jammed with so many travelers it seemed like the Texan economy had collapsed and the population was fleeing.
Baggage Claim. Under renovation and therefore a place of chaos and borderline fistfights. Anna had checked three suitcases, which were among the last to come shooting down the chute.
A bus. Painted all around in huge letters that said PONYCAR PONYCAR PONYCAR. PonyCar was a new travel option in competition with Uber and the rental companies. Anna had a voucher for a free weekend—why, I don’t know. The bus took us to a lot filled with tiny cars also painted with the PonyCar logo. I have no idea where PonyCars are manufactured, but they are clearly designed for small people. The two of us and our luggage had to be squeezed into a vehicle sized to fit the two of us and one-third of our luggage.
The DFW Sun Garden Hotel. Not so much a hotel as a collection of efficiency suites and vending machines meant for business travelers with limited expense accounts. Once we were in our little room, I lay down. Anna changed into professional clothes while she was on her cell phone with Ricardo. She waved goodbye to me and was out the door, trailing her professional rolling bag behind her.
In a fog due to my lousy health, I could not get the TV to work. The cable system had a menu unfamiliar to me. All I could get on screen was the Sun Garden Hotel Channel, which showed the glories and wonders of all the Sun Garden Hotels in the world. New branches were opening soon in Evansville, Indiana; Urbana, Illinois; and Frankfurt, Germany. I could make no sense of the phone system, either. I kept getting the same main voice menu. I was hungry, so I dragged myself down to the “lobby” to shop in the vending machines.
The machines were in a separate little room shared with a small buffet table that held bowls of apples and dispensers of breakfast cereals. I took some of each. One of the vending machines sold pizza by the slice, another offered toiletries, including a few cold remedies. After four tries at getting the machine to accept my crinkled twenty-dollar bill, I bought some capsules, some pills, a few single-dose liquids and something in a small bottle called Boost-Blaster! that bragged of its megadose of antioxidants, enzymes, and whatever good stuff is in Swiss chard and certain fish.
Back up in the room, I made a cocktail of two of every purchase, tearing off the safety foil, figuring out the childproof caps, and chugging down the Boost-Blaster! in one pull.
I woke up with no idea where I was. I heard a shower running. I saw a crack of light from under a door and a stack of textbooks on the nightstand. The bathroom door flew open in a flash of illuminated steam.
“He’s alive!” Anna was naked, drying herself off. She had already been out for a run.
“Am I?” My cold was no better. Not at all. The only new feeling I had was wooziness.
“You took all this stuff?” She waved at the small desk littered with the debris left over from my self-medication.
“Still sick,” I said in feeble self-defense.
“Saying you are still sick makes you still sick.”
“I feel so rotten your logic actually makes sense.”
“You missed it, baby. Last night we went out for organic Mexican food. It was Ricardo’s birthday. There were about forty of us and a piñata. After, we went to a racetrack and drove miniature hot rods. I called you, texted you, but nothing.”
I grabbed my phone. Between 6:00 p.m. and 1:30 in the morning AnnaGraphicControl had called and texted me thirty-three times.
Anna started getting dressed. “You better pack. Gotta check out of here, and then go to Ricardo’s office for a meeting. To the airport from there.”
Anna piloted the PonyCar to an industrial park somewhere in Fort Worth. I sat in the reception area, feeling horrible, blowing my nose again and again, trying to focus on a book about astronaut Walt Cunningham on my Kobo digital reader, but I was just too foggy. I played a game on my phone called 101, answering true/false and multiple-choice questions. True or false: President Woodrow Wilson used a typewriter in the White House. True! He hunted and pecked a speech on a Hammond Type-o-Matic, hoping to drum up support for World War I.
After a long sit I needed some air, so I took a slow walk around the industrial park. Every building looked the same and I got lost. I found my way back when, luckily, I spotted a parked PonyCar that turned out to be ours.
Anna was there, cooling her heels with her clients, waiting for me. “Where were you?”
“Seeing the sights,” I said. She introduced me to Ricardo and thirteen other textbook executives. I shook hands with none of them. I had a cold, you see.
Returning the PonyCar was as effortless as promised, but the courtesy bus to the airline terminal took forever to show up. To make our plane, Anna and I had to run through the DFW airport like two characters from a movie that was about either wacky lovers on vacation or federal agents trying to stop a terrorist attack. We did make the plane, but not in time to get seats together. Anna sat up front, I was way in the back. My clogged ears were killing me on departure and hurt even more hours later on descent.
On the way to my house, she stopped at a liquor store for a small bottle of brandy. She had me drink a large shot of the booze, then put me into bed with a pillow tuck and a kiss on my forehead.
DAYS 19 AND 20
I was ill, pure and simple, with bedrest and liquids being the only remedies, as has been the case with colds since the first Neanderthal came down with the sniffles.
Anna, though, had her own ideas. For two days she was on a mission to cure me sooner rather than gradually. She had me sit naked in a chair with my feet in a tub of cold water. She wired up my limbs to something akin to an EKG machine, made me take off any metal I was wearing, which was none, then flipped a switch. I felt nothing.
But in time, the water around my feet turned first murky, then brown, and then began to congeal until the tub looked like the most unappetizing Jell-O mold imaginable. The goop was so thick that pulling my bare feet out was like extracting myself from swamp mud. And the stuff stank!
“That’s the bad juju coming out of you,” Anna said as she flushed the slop down the toilet.
“Out of my feet?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s proven. The bad food you eat, the body poisons and fats. They leach out of your feet.”
“Can I go back to bed now?”
“Just until your steam shower.”
“I don’t have a steam shower.”
Anna installed a series of plastic curtains in my shower with a portable steam maker set on high. I sat in it on a footstool, sweating, until I was able to polish off three big bottles of weak tea of some kind. This took some time, as the tea tasted like gutter water and a man’s bladder can only hold so much gutter water.
An exercise bicycle was delivered. Anna had me ride it every hour and a half for exactly twelve minutes, until I had worked up a sweat to prove I had raised my body temperature.
“This is to cook out the mucus and such,” she said.
For three meals in a row she fed me bowls of watery stew with chunks of beets and celery.
She had me do one-hour, slow-stretch sessions from her iPad, but I had to move exactly as did the instructor on the video.
She plugged in this thing the size of an electric bar of soap that made a humming sound and vibration, a bit of homemade medicine with Russian lettering on the box. She had me lie naked on the floor and rubbed my entire body, both sides, with whatever that thing was. The Commie machine made different sounds over different parts of my body.
“Atta baby!” Anna said. “We’re getting to it now!”
Without telling her, I chugged some NyQuil and chewed up a few Sudafeds just before I crawled back into my bed to disappear into the Land of Nod.
I felt better in the morning. My sheets were so damp with my night sweats I could have wrung them out like a chamois.
Anna had left a note taped to my percolator.
Left you sleeping deep and silent. I like you like that. You will no longer be ill if you finish the soup in the refrigerator. Drink it cold in the morning, hot at lunch. Do the exer-bike twice before noon and take an hour for the stretch routine on the link I emailed you. And RE-STEAM, until you’ve downed three bottles of distilled water! Leach that sodium! A.
I was alone in my house on my own terms, so I immediately ignored Anna’s instructions. I had coffee with hot milk. I read an actual print copy of the Times—not the online version, which Anna preferred because newsprint paper was a sin against the earth, regardless of my recycling. I treated myself to a nutritious breakfast of eggs with fried slices of linguica (a Portuguese sausage), a banana, a strawberry Pop-Tart, papaya juice from a carton, and a large bowl of Cocoa Puffs.
I did not do any stretching. I did not get on the stationary bike nor did I go into the plastic steam stall. I did not open her email link, thus stretched not a whit. Instead, I spent the morning doing laundry—four loads, including the bedsheets. I played my mixtape CDs and sang along. I reveled in obeying not a single one of Anna’s commands. I lived the best life imaginable.
Which meant I had answered the question Anna had put to me two weeks earlier: No. I did not think I was the man for her.
When she called to ask how I was, I confessed to ignoring her instructions. I also said that I felt healthy, rested, and like myself and despite how wonderful I thought she was and what a dope I am and blahditty blah-blah dittity-blah.
Before I could muster the vocabulary to actually break up with her, Anna did it for me.
“You are not the man for me, baby.”
There was not a smidgen of rancor in her voice, neither judgment nor disappointment. She said it straight out of her face in a way I couldn’t. “I’ve known for a while,” Anna said, chuckling. “I was wearing you down. Would have destroyed you over time.”
“When were you going to let me off your hook?” I asked.
“If you hadn’t backed out by Friday morning, we’d have had the Talk then.”
“Why Friday morning?”
“Because Friday night I’m going back to Fort Worth. Ricardo is taking me hot-air ballooning.”
A bit of my man-pride had me instantly hoping that this Ricardo fellow would not be the man for Anna, either.
He wasn’t. Anna never told me why.
For the record, I did get my scuba certificate. Anna and I joined Vin and a dozen other divers, offshore in the kelp beds. We breathed underwater, swimming through what looked like a tall forest of sea trees. There’s a great picture of Anna and me, on board afterward, our wet-suited arms around each other and big smiles on our cold, wet faces.
We leave for Antarctica next week. Anna arranged a big shopping spree, seeing to it that we have all the necessary gear. She spent extra time with MDash, making sure he was going to have enough layers to stay warm. He’s never been to a place cold enough for chinstraps and crabeaters.
“Antarctic Circle, make way,” I hollered, modeling my green parka and shell. Anna laughed.
We’ll fly to Lima, Peru, then change planes for Punta Arenas, Chile, where we’ll board a boat to make the crossing from South America to the old science station at Port Lockroy, our first stop. The seas in the Drake Passage can get pretty rough and tumble, they say. But with a strong sail, a firm wheel, a true compass, and a reliable clock, our ship will journey south, bound for the Antarctic Circle and adventure galore.
Oh, yeah. For B15K, as well.
The journalist was born in 1964, which is to say she’s seventeen years younger than I am.
In September 1970, two sites squared off for the title of the center of the world: Piccadilly Circus, in London, and Dam Square, in Amsterdam.
According to the statistics, on this last day of the year a man of eighty-five has approximately an 80 per cent chance of reaching 31 December 2015.
Charlie’s ugly Crocs stuck to the mats on the floor behind the bar, making a sticky, squelching sound.
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.