1: The Big Day
One could hardly imagine at the start of such a glorious day just how badly it would end up. Blue skies and a breezy 78 degrees made everything feel more like southern California than Massachusetts in early spring. And although the Atlantic Ocean was a good five miles away, the unmistakable smell of the sea wafted through the Waldman’s inviting though somewhat weather-beaten Colonial Revival Cape Cod, reminding its occupants that summer was coming. Tucked among those remaining hardwoods untouched by the developers, Emerald Forest was an affluent community of sixty homes set on three-acre lots on the outskirts of the picturesque village of Port Henry. While the neighborhood had been thoughtfully landscaped to display the charms of every season, the weekend clambakes, yacht club regattas and decorative floral gardens, their bright magentas, yellows and lavenders contrasting sharply with the professionally tended green lawns, made summer special. Backyard swimming pools, their turquoise liners glinting in the sun, added a touch of Hollywood glamor to the staid New England scene.
It was on this perfect day, the eighth one in April, that Daniel Waldman, head of the household at 245 Storybook Lane, turned fifty years old. The birthday boy, or to be more accurate one of two birthday boys, the other being his identical twin Douglas who lived with his wife Riva in Annapolis, Maryland, greeted the day in good humor despite his grinding hangover. His wife Poppy had thrown him a birthday bash the previous evening where he drank a little too much of everything and smoked just a little bit of something, causing him to worry this morning over hazy memories of unruly behavior that might be illegal, if not in Massachusetts then certainly somewhere. Cautiously making his way from his bedroom along the narrow carpeted hallway and down the steep back stairs that led into the too-bright kitchen, Dan passed several clusters of black helium balloons hovering in the corners like security guards on a smoke break. A
headache beckoned, but he ignored it.
“There’s the birthday boy! Happy birthday, honey,” Poppy chirped, handing him a steaming mug of black coffee. The Waldmans had been married long enough for her to know that communication with her husband first thing in the morning depended on his immediate consumption of caffeine. “Happy official birthday, that is,” she amended, planting a kiss on his cheek.
Dan was somewhat confused by his wife’s flannel pajamas and for a brief moment wondered what season it was. Looking down to inspect his own attire -- jogging shorts, a Red Sox t-shirt and a pair of beach flip-flops -- confused him even further. “Thanks, honey,” he said, grabbing the mug and grudgingly admitting to himself that he felt like shit. “I’ll consider this my gift, and I absolutely love it. What’s with the flannel PJs? Is it still winter?”
“Of course not. But you were so hot last night when you came to bed and insisted on opening all the windows. And with the ceiling fan running, I woke up freezing at three in the morning. Honestly, do we really need to have that fan on already? It’s only April, after all.”
“Sorry, I’m a hot-blooded guy, what can I say?”
“Forget I said anything. Today’s your birthday so whatever Dan wants, Dan gets. In fact, there are a couple of special treats coming your way later,” Poppy said, trying for an impish grin. Despite her frumpy attire she struck a seductive pose, brushing her hip up against his. The effort was completely lost on Dan, busy ruminating on his bad behavior at last night’s party.
“I’m not sure if I deserve anything. Based on how I feel today, I must have gotten pretty wasted last night. I hope I didn’t hurt anyone.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, everyone knows you wouldn’t hurt a fly. Yes, you did seem a bit tipsy for a while, but there was certainly no physical abuse. You and your golf buddies sang a few rude barbershop quartet songs shortly after midnight, but by then most of the other guests were already gone. Otherwise you were a perfect gentleman.”
“That’s a relief,” Dan said, and he meant it. He’d hate to have tarnished the sterling good-guy reputation he worked so hard to sustain by being sloppy-drunk in front of a crowd, especially with so many of his employees in attendance.
“Although I must say, you were needlessly rough on dear Roger Birnbaum,” Poppy continued, starting preparations for what looked like breakfast for an invading army. A huge bowl of blueberry pancake batter stood ready to go and a platter of smoked salmon and sliced tomatoes cozied up to a basket of bagels and muffins. Jams, jellies and cheeses completed the buffet. Not much of a cook when it came to complicated dishes, breakfast was the only meal Poppy felt confident about and so naturally she pulled out all the stops on such occasions.
“Oh no, not dear Roger,” Dan said sarcastically. “Should I expect a call from the ACLU?” The Roger in question was not only flamboyantly gay and extravagantly proud but had recently become annoyingly belligerent as well. The bumper sticker on his gas-saving hybrid read, ‘Every Day is Gay Pride Day!’ Besides that, if you just looked at him funny he was all over you for being homophobic.
“No, no, nothing like that. You just roughed him up verbally, and you know how he scares so easily. But he sort of deserved it, bringing you a walker as a birthday gift. That was downright rude if you ask me, and so inappropriate. And also, he made that toast to you when I brought out the cake, going on and on about how you’re such an old man now and he’s just down the road if you ever fall and can’t get up, that sort of thing. I guess he was trying to be funny, but you weren’t laughing even though everyone else was. Especially when he said that maybe the corn on the cob was too challenging for your dentures.” She laughed out loud thinking back to it.
“Holy shit, it’s all coming back to me now,” said Dan, spying the offending walker in the corner of the dining room supporting a tray of empty beer bottles, plates of half-eaten birthday cake and wads of crumpled dinner napkins. “Dammit, I wish I had hit the little fairy! And how the hell old is he anyway? What is he, a whole year or two younger than me?”
“Well, according to Nick, that redhead in the blue mirrored sunglasses -- I think they’re a couple but you never know — anyway, he told me Roger is about to turn forty in a few weeks,” Poppy informed him. “That would make him exactly a decade younger than you.”
“No shit! Well, if that’s true then he looks really bad. I guess it’s all that running around those queens do. You know, their so-called lifestyle must take a toll. And why are we even friends with such a damn baby anyway?”
“Honey, Roger lives three doors away. You know, we live in one of those open communities where people of all ages are allowed to buy houses, although fifty-five is not too far off if you want that lifestyle.”
“Well from now on I do not want to socialize with anyone younger than me, except maybe you,” he said, giving her a quick hug. “And of course, my kid brother.” He was joking, since Doug was born just four minutes after him. Still, the family had always referred to Dan as the big brother and Douglas as the baby. “I guess I’ll go call the dumb prick and get it over with.” Juggling the Sunday paper with his coffee and his cell phone, he ambled back to the screened porch.
Dan tried to hide his feelings, never wanting to appear weak or needy, but he was still upset that Doug was a no-show on their big day. After all, Poppy had started planning this bash for both of them months ago. Several mutual friends who lived out of state had flown to Boston, then got picked up by a car service for the half-hour drive to Port Henry and stayed overnight at a nearby motel, with Dan footing the bill. Doug and his wife Riva were supposed to have driven up a day or two early to help with the preparations and get the party started. But then, just a week ago, Douglas learned that he had won a huge government contract he’d bid on last fall and needed to begin preliminary work on immediately. He swore up and down that he could not afford the travel time; in fact, he claimed he would be spending part of his birthday weekend working. Dan had hit the ceiling when he got that news, and it looked like the two were headed for one of their classic big fights, the kind that had both of them screaming obscenities at one another and hanging up, then calling back, screaming more, and hanging up again. Those bouts could last several hours and were unpleasant for anyone within earshot. Fortunately this time the two wives had grabbed the phone on each end put a stop to all the nonsense.
As a compromise, an arrangement was made for both families to spend the long Memorial Day weekend at a resort in New York’s Hudson Valley, just about halfway between their two homes. They would celebrate together then. “After all,” Poppy had said, “you guys will be fifty all year long.” Dan had agreed, but deep down he was still pissed off. Once again, Douglas didn’t seem to care about him as much as he wished.
Being an identical twin had always been the biggest feature of Dan’s life. He liked it for making him feel special without his having to do anything special at all. From birth on, friends and strangers alike took a great interest in the boys, finding their extreme physical similarities and mannerisms “spooky” and “fascinating.”
Back in their younger days, before receding hairlines and sagging skin impacted each of them in different amounts, Dan and Doug were incredibly identical, even for identical twins. Each had jet-black hair and dark brown eyes -- almost black -- and a distinctive mole their mother had called “a beauty mark” in the middle of his right cheek. After almost twenty-one years of marriage, even Poppy sometimes had trouble telling them apart. And on more than one family occasion Riva, who everyone knew got tipsy from just a few sips of wine, had thrown herself at Dan thinking he was her own husband.
On closer inspection their personality differences made it obvious who was who: Dan had a big booming voice and a ready smile for everyone, qualities which made him extremely popular in high school and college, then a master salesman who often boasted that he could sell ice to the Eskimos. Starting out selling cars right after college, he drifted into radio ad sales in his late twenties and found he had a knack for the business. Tiring of working for someone else, he had started his own agency ten years earlier and gradually built it up into quite a success; now he was clearly a superstar in the field on a national level. He was often asked to speak at business conferences all across the country and was an adjunct professor at nearby Roxbury Community College where he taught the basics of advertising and Internet start-ups. His ego had expanded to keep up with his growing list of achievements, and his bold cockiness was tempered only by his charm.
Douglas, a commercial architect, was much more soft-spoken, and, especially when he was around Dan, downright reserved. For much of his life he had lived in Dan’s taller shadow, and the feeling had followed him into adulthood. As he often said when his wife prodded him to be more assertive with his brother, “Competing with him is exhausting. Besides, I always lose.”
As youngsters the twins had found early success in acting, owing mostly to their pushy stage mother who believed from the minute they were born that they were destined for greatness. An ex-chorus girl on Broadway, Helene Waldman insisted that show business was in her blood, and thus in theirs, and was convinced her two beautiful boys had inherited her “star quality.” It’s true they both loved being in the limelight and had no trouble learning and memorizing their lines. Hoping their careers would finance her old age, Helene literally ferried the boys to and from their modest home on Staten Island to Saturday morning acting lessons and auditions in Manhattan. Her husband Morris, an orthodontist with both feet planted firmly on the ground, did not share her enthusiasm, instead wanting the boys to grow up into decent citizens, dentists even, and not “some crazy Hollywood no-goodniks.”
But Helene persisted, haunted by the memory of her own brief stint in the glow of the footlights, and her diligence finally paid off: between the ages of seven and twelve, Dan and Doug appeared together in five TV commercials, three legitimate movies and two off-Broadway plays. The boys loved playing “pretend,” which is what they called acting. Hungry for bigger and better parts, Helene hired a powerhouse agent whose high fee ultimately proved worthwhile when, shortly after their ninth birthday, the boys were cast in the title role, which they had to share owing to union rules governing child actors, of a weekly, half-hour prime-time sitcom called “The Amazing Richie!” Shot mostly in a huge New Jersey warehouse and on locations around New York City, the plot revolved around an impish boy with a wild head of red hair who could see into the future. Using his “amazing” powers and accompanied by a zany cast of character actors and a laugh track, Richie created havoc in the first fifteen minutes. After a commercial break at halftime, Richie solved all problems with the help of the magic wand only he could see, once again confounding all the clueless adults. The popular show spawned “Amazing Richie!” lunchboxes, “Amazing Richie!” magic wands and “Amazing Richie!” red-haired wigs. The fun continued unabated until the head writer had a heart attack at the end of the third season and left the city to raise llamas on a ranch in Wyoming. Taking his departure as a sign, the network decided that Richie should also be put out to pasture and cancelled the show. Still, Dan and Doug had continued to call each other “Richie” forever after, confusing everyone around them.
Tired of the rigors of rehearsing and eager to return to what remained of their carefree childhood, the boys ditched acting with little regret. Still, their mother was heartbroken, and kept every press clipping and review in several huge scrapbooks. Until her death a year ago, she’d haul them out for every new person she encountered. Morris now had the treasured books stowed somewhere in the confusion of his assisted-living condo in West Palm Beach, where at the age of seventy-six he maintained a vigorous schedule of poker and golf with the men and daily morning tai chi classes he attended primarily to meet whatever eligible women might be interested in romance with a white-haired widower with a heft nest egg.
Poppy started out to the sunroom but stopped when she heard Dan yelling on the phone. “Dammit Richie, don’t give me that same old bullshit. You should have been here and you know it!” She knew the two of them would go on blaming one another for at least half an hour, so she set about cleaning last night’s mess before the kids came downstairs and started making a new one.
The whole day was to be a celebration of Dan’s birthday; after all, turning fifty was no small thing, certainly to Dan who prized youthfulness above all. Poppy was already worried about reaching that particular milestone and it was still six years away. Still, she often studied her face critically in the mirror wondering if she should have a facelift, but her fear of surgery outweighed her fear of jowls. “I’ll just wear a lot of turtlenecks and scarves,” she said when the subject came up with her friends. “Besides, Dan swears it doesn’t bother him.”
But in the last several months, really much longer if she stopped to think about it, their noticeable drop in sexual activity was cause for alarm, making Poppy wonder if he still found her attractive in that way. In fact, one of the birthday gifts she had for him was a sexy lace teddy from Victoria’s Secret she hoped would ignite the dwindling flames that had burned brightly in their early years together. She planned to test its allure on this very day since the kids would be gone all afternoon and they would have the house to themselves, except for Archie, their pushy English bulldog who had to be ousted from the bedroom forcefully whenever they had sex. “Oh, let him stay and watch, what else does he have in his life,” Dan always said, seeming to find it acceptable. But Poppy always insisted the dog get put out, saying she simply could never have sex in front of an audience.
The kids started streaming in for breakfast just as Poppy finished vacuuming up the last bits of confetti from the living room carpet. Ben showed up first, already dressed as if it were a school day. A nerdy ten-year-old who excelled at golf and got straight A’s in science and math, Ben had spent several weeks making a special gift for his father: a personal jigsaw puzzle. He had surreptitiously snapped a touching photo of Dan snuggling with Archie, had it enlarged at the nearby office supply store, glued it onto a giant piece of cardboard, and then drew the lines and cut it apart into jigsaw shapes all by himself. The whole thing was presented in a box with a copy of the original photo glued to the top. Poppy had to admit it was quite ingenuous.
“Think he’ll like it, Mom?”
“That is very cool, honey. Yes, in fact I think it might even be his favorite present ever. Now hurry and wrap it so he can have the thrill of opening it.”
“Hey, yeah, that’s a great idea! I could wrap it in this,” he said, grabbing a few sheets of the Sunday funnies from the kitchen table. “Then if Dad doesn’t like my present he can at least have a good laugh.”
“About what? Who’s laughing? Is it about me?” Alexandra had wandered in, still half asleep and dressed in a pair of her father’s cast-off pajama bottoms and an oversized t-shirt emblazoned with a neon-green image of a marijuana leaf.
“What is that you are wearing, miss?” Poppy tried to sound angry, although she was in no mood for an argument and truthfully did not really care. These days she knew her daughter’s overriding goal in life was to bug her and she did it in every way possible.
“Oh Mom, would you just chill out, I got it at the thrift store for a quarter. It doesn’t mean I smoke the stuff!”
“A quarter? That’s quite a bargain.” Poppy was content to let anything and everything go today, it being Dan’s birthday. She knew it was a very big deal for him, and that he saw fifty as the doorway to old age, the one thing he feared more than anything else. She just hoped they could get through it without any major mishaps, which was a rarity in the Waldman household; usually chaos disrupted all of her carefully arranged family days. But today everything seemed to be clicking right along. Alexandra gave her father an oil painting of the family’s now-deceased former bulldog Brutus that she had made in art class expressly for this occasion. For a teenager she was still nice enough, loving Dan openly and without shame; most fourteen-year-olds tried to hide their positive feelings for their parents thinking it uncool to display them, but not Alex. In fact, Poppy sometimes worried that she was too affectionate with Dan, especially when other people were around, sitting on his lap and hugging him and such, but she decided to keep quiet about it unless or until it became a real problem.
She only wished a little of that affection would rub off on Troy, who was now deeply committed to rebellion. A surly eighteen, he was openly hostile to all blood relatives. He had recently declared birthdays “dumb,” said his father and uncle were “redundant,” and referred to his kid brother and sister interchangeably as “boring” and “annoying.” But today even Troy was feeling generous. Currently a senior in high school with a little more than a month until graduation, he was already focused on leaving for college in distant Arizona at summer’s end, the one thought that occupied his brain almost all of the time. He had consented to getting up early on this Sunday, if you can call eleven o’clock early, to attend the traditional Waldman Family Pancake Breakfast and gift-giving ceremony. He did so with a touch of nostalgia, realizing he would not be at the next one. He had even gotten his father a birthday card, which for Troy was quite a huge step forward. Even though he could afford a gift -- Troy had amassed quite a savings account from working part-time as a busboy all through high school -- he thought that since his father already had everything anyone could want, it was a waste of money to buy him some silly trinket. “It’s not like I’m going to get him a motorcycle or anything,” he said to his mother. She understood, and actually agreed. “A card would be nice, though,” she suggested, and he had surprised her for once by coming through with one, and even signing it with xxx’s and ooo’s.
Once all the kids had assembled, Poppy signaled to Dan to get off the phone, mouthing a quick “happy birthday” to her brother-in-law before he hung up.
“How’s Doug?” she asked.
“Obsessed, as usual, about himself. All he could talk about was his work, like that matters more than us turning fifty, for Christ sake!”
“Well, he’s obviously excited about it. That’s understandable.”
“Yeah, I guess. But still, it was bad enough that my dad didn’t come, but my own fucking twin brother can’t make it to my fiftieth birthday party? That is sick!”
“Don’t you mean our birthday? It’s his too, remember?”
“Right, yeah, I know, I know. And by the way, I don’t buy that bullshit story that he was working last night. I think it just was too much trouble for him to bother driving up here, and you know Riva probably worked on him a little, since she hates me so much.”
“Honey, just let it go. First of all your father is in Italy, and you know it was too good an opportunity for him to pass up. As for Doug, he’s a workaholic just like you, and they really need the money from this job he’s got now. His business has not been that good for the last year or so, according to Riva. Who by the way does not hate you, not a bit! She’s simply a little intimidated.”
“Yeah, well she sure acts like she hates me. Besides, she’s always with ‘the glass is half-empty’ bullshit, so you can’t necessarily believe anything she says.”
Dan had never really trusted his sister-in-law, so he gave little credence to anything she said. Coincidentally, Doug and Poppy were also not close. “She’s very pretty,” Doug had said after meeting her for the first time, “but she’s certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” Luckily for family harmony the two wives got along well enough, confiding in one another about the odd quirks their husbands shared. Whenever either couple had an argument, the wounded wife called her sister-in-law afterwards for commiseration, saying, “Thank god I have you, nobody else would ever understand.” Together they concluded that neither brother would like any woman the other married since they were so in love with each other, nobody else would do.
“Whatever their circumstances, the party was last night and they weren’t at it, so get over it. Besides, we’ll all be together in just a few weeks,” Poppy said, hoping to distract Dan from his hurt feelings. “Now come and open your gifts and have some of my world-famous blueberry pancakes, the kids are waiting.”
After Dan had appropriately admired his presents and the last pancake had been digested, everyone split off in different directions. Troy went to a movie with his girlfriend and Alexandra took Ben to the Spring Fling Carnival at the junior high school. Poppy was looking forward to having some private time with Dan, but before she had even cleaned up the breakfast dishes he ran into the kitchen and announced he was going out for a bike ride. “Now that I’m supposedly “over the hill,” I have to make a point of getting regular exercise. I don’t want to turn into a big fat blob like my brother!”
“Where are you going? Do you want to wait for me and I’ll go with you?”
“Nah, this’ll be a quick one, no dawdling,” he assured her.
“Well how long will you be gone? I was hoping we could spend some quality time together, since the kids will be gone all afternoon. If you get my drift.”
“Sure honey, I’ll be back in an hour or so, two hours tops. I’m just riding out the causeway to Plum Island and tool around for a while, you know, to work off that fabulous breakfast. I’ll be back before you miss me. Ready to go…if you get my drift.”
And before she could offer further protest, he gave her a quick hug, downed the last of his coffee, grabbed his bike helmet and ran out the door. As she stood waving him off, Poppy realized that once again, Dan had managed to make her feel like being with her was the last thing in his life that mattered at all.
2: The Phone Call
For most of his adult life Douglas Waldman had tried very hard to be an individual first and a twin second. After all the fuss that had been made over the two boys as they were growing up, by the time he reached his early twenties Doug just wanted to be himself, if there even were such a thing; he wasn’t really sure. In fact, being a twin was the reason he ended up on a psychiatrist’s couch the summer after he graduated from college.
After much deliberation and despite the advice of all consulted, the boys attended college together. Choosing a small school in Pennsylvania known for its eclectic teaching staff and unusual curriculum, they opted for different roommates. That was Dan’s idea. “It’s just too weird for us to live together,” he had explained. But Doug suspected it was because Dan found him dull and wanted a more swinging social life.
The two led separate lives on campus, with Doug spending most of his free time studying in the library while Dan hung with the fraternity crowd. Still, it was comforting to know they were there for each other in times of need, and they managed to get in a couple of meals together every week. Doug kept his hair short and grew a beard and Dan wore glasses and grew a ponytail, making them look less alike and avoiding any confusion on campus.
After graduation, Dan moved back to New York City and found a job selling cars, while Doug decided to extend his studies and applied to graduate school in architecture in Virginia. Things seemed fine. But once he was settled into his own apartment in Roanoke, finally out from under Dan’s shadow at the age of twenty-one, Doug realized that he was paralyzed with fear. He had almost no experience in making a decision based solely on what he wanted; it had always been what they wanted, which almost always meant what Dan wanted. In fact, Doug still started sentences with “we” when speaking only about himself.
“When we were a kid, besides being grammatically incorrect, is the wrong way to go about the business of living,” Dr. Tamarkin, the first of several therapists Doug would visit over the next two decades, had said at their very first session.
“I know, it’s just that’s how it was for so much of our life -- I mean my life--that I can’t seem to stop. I pretty much say “we” instead of “I” or “me” constantly,” Doug admitted.
“Does your brother do the same?”
“Nope. Never has. It’s always “me, me, me” with him, even when it was about us. Like on our TV show when we were a kid. I mean kids.”
“Give me an example,” the doctor said.
“Well, like the director would say that he needed one of us to take a publicity photograph. Or appear on an interview program, but just one of us. They tried to downplay the fact that it was twins playing the role. I guess they thought people would start looking for differences between the two kids and that would be distracting from the story line. Anyway, Dan always jumped at the chance first, and since he was so much more outgoing, they took him. He never thought maybe he was hurting my feelings.”
“Weren’t your parents involved? Couldn’t one of them intervene on your behalf to make it more fair?”
“To be honest, I think my mother felt Dan would make a better impression on people. I was always the shyer of the two of us. It was obvious that she thought he was the best one to put out there. I guess I agreed.”
“And you didn’t ever get angry, kick up a fuss?”
“Not really. I think I felt like they were protecting me. Dan was always looking out for me, like I was his kid brother. Nobody would mess with me because of him. And then as we got older, he gave me a lot of advice about school and girls, and then work. About everything, really. I felt like he was always there, in fact I still feel that way. It’s just that when I was a kid it was comforting, but the older I get, the less I like it.”
After years of therapy devoted to developing his whole self and not just half of it, Doug had made a lot of progress. Thankfully, by the time he turned fifty he had pretty much licked the “we” habit and was able to think about himself as an individual, which is why it was so important to him that he pass this particular milestone in his own way, on his own turf, and not as a satellite of Dan. It took him some time to muster up the courage to tell Riva he was not going to the party up in Massachusetts; he knew she would flip out. She liked Poppy and was looking forward to seeing her and the three kids, but more importantly, she felt it was time Doug got over his “freaky twins thing” and embrace his brother as just that: a brother.
“I understand that you are tired of being a sideshow attraction and living in his shadow, so tell him that! But by hiding from him, you’re not really dealing with the issue,” Riva had said when Doug announced his intention to boycott Dan’s party.
“I am not hiding! First of all, I really do have to work. There are several key people on this project who are counting on seeing my preliminary sketches first thing Monday morning. Anyway, please let me deal with this in the way I want. I don’t need to be challenged by you on every little thing.”
“I’m sorry if you feel challenged, but you are being very unreasonable. And this is not ‘every little thing,’ this is a very big deal, there are several people flying up to Boston who think they will be seeing both of you. Howard and Monty are coming all the way from Florida, and Laura, Carla and Brad are making the trip from Chicago. You’ll be disappointing all of them too.”
“Oh get real, you know Howard and Monty are really Dan’s friends, and Brad and Laura barely know me anymore. As for Carla, I doubt she and I have ever even had a conversation. Admit it-- hardly anyone who likes one of us has ever liked the other. And the people I like the most live right here in Maryland, and we could have them over to our house to celebrate my birthday. Couldn’t we? You love giving dinner parties, so here’s a chance to do it up big!” He gave her what he hoped was an ingratiating smile.
Besides, Doug thought to himself, Dan had certainly let him down often enough.
There was the time he cancelled on Thanksgiving that first year he and Riva were married and living in Washington, D.C., before Poppy was even in the picture, and it was just going to be the three of them and their son Max, at the time only a few months old. The turkey was just about done, the table was set, and Riva and Doug had been peering out the window looking for Dan’s car for an hour when he called to say he was stuck in holiday traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, it was starting to snow, and he just wasn’t in a holiday mood, so he was turning around and heading back home. One of their classic telephone fights ensued, with Riva in the background whispering that Doug’s shouting would wake the baby. But he and Dan kept at it, hurling accusations at one another about who loved who more and who did what to whom back when. Riva finally got so upset that she took the turkey out of the oven and walked outside into the snow, fully prepared to toss it in the trash. Doug slammed down the phone and ran outside to stop her. They finally decided the day was a washout and the only possible save was to donate the whole meal to charity. While Riva wrapped up the bird and all the side dishes she had spent days preparing, muttering under her breath that Dan was a selfish asshole, Doug bundled little Max into his warmest snowsuit and the three of them drove over to the Central Union Mission on 14th Street where they found a long line of the city’s homeless waiting to get in for a hot meal. “At least these people will appreciate all my hard work,” Riva had grumbled.
Their act of kindness helped deflect their sour moods, and by the time they picked up a pizza on the way home they were laughing it off. They had a pretty nice Thanksgiving after all, making a fire and enjoying the bottle of champagne they had bought for the occasion, but neither of them ever forgot it. And Doug had been keeping score ever since of all the ways his brother had let him down or disappointed him in some way. “Believe me, I am so much nicer to him than he is to me,” Doug often said, sometimes out of the blue. And so Riva, who had to agree, gave in on the fiftieth birthday thing, deciding that really it was none of her business after all. She and Poppy cooked up the Memorial Day celebration a month later, and to be honest, Dan didn’t seem to care a bit. Doug knew it was because Dan always wanted to be alone in the spotlight, just like when they were kids on TV. He was probably relieved that he would have this landmark birthday all to himself.
Instead, Riva had planned a birthday dinner for Doug to be held on Sunday, his true birthday, reasoning that celebrating the night before was pointless. The guests were three couples who had become their close friends, and none of them had never even met Dan. They liked Doug for himself and not for being half of a freak show.
Dan was the “A” twin, born first, making Douglas the “B” twin. These designations were used the world over in twin studies and quite liberally in the Waldman family as the boys were growing up. Naturally Doug always balked at the label, despite the fact that he really was second best to Dan in almost every way and had been right out of the starting gate. At birth Dan outweighed him by two pounds, was half an inch taller and clearly the more robust of the two. And although both boys had been considered to fall in the “genius” IQ range early on, Dan was always the superior student and graduated high school six months ahead of Doug. His resulting gap between graduation and college allowed him to take a lucrative constructive job, so by the time the boys got to college Dan was already ahead of the game with money in his pocket, making Doug feel even younger.
Dan married first and had three kids where Douglas just had the one. And over the last few years, Doug’s burgeoning paunch and obvious lack of fitness -— he still smoked cigarettes while Dan had quit years earlier —- stood out, literally, in sharp contrast to Dan’s muscular, toned body. All of these things contributed to Doug’s feeling like a second-class citizen whenever Dan was around, so he was grateful that a day’s drive separated them. And though he loved his brother and would do anything for him, at times he hated him just as fervently.
In fact, since that Thanksgiving so long ago, Dan and Doug’s adult relationship had been punctuated annually with horrible fights that brought out the worst in each of them. Their knock-down-drag-outs had reached the point where any and all onlookers, usually family members, just rolled their eyes and shrugged when they got going.
One such fight many years earlier had earned Dan the nickname of “Mr. Coffee,” something Max never failed to mention whenever his uncle called. The incident occurred one summer when the two families were sharing a house for a week at the Jersey shore. Troy was barely out of his stroller, Alexandra was a baby and Ben was not yet born. From the very first day, Dan was annoyed that Doug had allowed Max to bring his best friend along, since he was hoping that Max would spend time and bond with Troy who idolized his older cousin. Some trivial matter involving the three children caused Troy to run crying to his father while Riva and Poppy were out on an early morning run. Dan then woke Doug and accused him of deliberately trying to make Troy feel left out. Tempers flared and the next thing anyone knew Dan had hurled the steaming contents of his morning coffee right at his brother’s face. Fortunately there was no lasting damage to Doug’s skin, but his psyche was permanently scarred. And while over the years accounts differed as to the true course of events, the only eyewitness was Max, who took to calling Dan “Uncle Coffee in the Face” and feared him from then on.
The twins had other fights even worse than that one and though they had not yielded any nicknames they were still quite violent in nature and involved late-night ranting, the screeching of brakes, jumping out of moving vehicles, hurling of hideous epithets, and even another ruined Thanksgiving turkey. After each bout, a ridiculous number of phone calls back and forth between the brothers and their wives were required to achieve even a temporary peace.
In a way, Doug knew less and less about his brother the older they got, and often thought that were they not related, they might not even be friends. Doug no longer found it funny to be mistaken for Dan, something that happened frequently when he traveled for business, although less often since he had put on the extra pounds. What he found most disturbing was when a strange woman threw herself at him in an airport, gleefully shrieking Dan’s name. That sort of thing confirmed his suspicion that his brother was not always strictly faithful to Poppy, a fact that both angered him and also made him a little jealous. How did he do it? Douglas found it impossible to lie to Riva even a little bit, so he couldn’t imagine having an extra-marital fling without giving himself away.
Doug reflected on all this after he got off the phone with Dan the morning of their birthday. As if she were reading his mind, Riva said, “I guess it’s best that you two celebrate separately. God only knows what kind of scene you might have had at that party last night!”
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Doug. “It’s always better to let Dan be alone in the spotlight. When we see them next month, things will be much easier. After all, the shock of turning fifty will have worn off for both of us by then,” he said, only half-kidding. “Anyway, I’m really looking forward to my little party tonight, honey. It’ll be nice to have our friends over.”
And so the dreaded day was turning out well after all, despite the big to-do over Doug’s not going to Port Henry for the party. His phone call with Dan was conciliatory on both ends, and as usual they spent much of it talking about work. Dan claimed to be proud of Doug for landing such a big job; such praise went a long way with Doug and fueled his enthusiasm as he worked on the new project in his home office for much of the afternoon. Riva, a gourmet cook and professional caterer, was happily preparing a mini-feast for his birthday dinner. The exact menu was to be a surprise, but Doug was confident that there was a cherry-glazed cheesecake in his immediate future.
Their dinner guests—the Shiners, the Harts and the Pollards--were all good friends who lived in the neighborhood. They arrived together and on the dot at 6:00, armed with gag gifts and eager to give Doug a good ribbing about his age. “I remember turning fifty,” said Riva, surprising everyone but Doug with her observation. “I’m not saying how long ago, but let’s just say I robbed the cradle.” Actually she was two years shy of sixty, but few people ever suspected she was a day older than Doug, owing mostly to her ever-vigilant attention to diet and exercise and his lack of it. She cooked up a storm but ate very little herself, counting calories like a schoolgirl even at her advanced age.
Their dinner guests—the Shiners, the Harts and the Pollards--were all good friends who lived in the neighborhood. They arrived together and on the dot at 6:00, armed with gag gifts and eager to give Doug a good ribbing about his age. “I remember turning fifty,” said Riva, surprising everyone but Doug with her observation. “I’m not saying how long ago, but let’s just say I robbed the cradle.” Actually she was two years shy of sixty, but few people ever suspected she was a day older than Doug, owing mostly to her ever-vigilant attention to diet and exercise and his lack of it. She cooked up a storm but ate very little herself, counting calories like a schoolgirl even at her advanced age.
Many bottles of fine wine were enjoyed along with the grilled steaks and salmon, piles of jumbo shrimp and several exotic side dishes that arrived in a steady stream. Eventually the coveted cheesecake found its place in the center of the table, with candles glowing, albeit not fifty of them. Toasts were made by everyone and good-natured stories were shared about Doug, as the glorious day faded into what promised to be a cool evening lit by a bright moon.
“Let’s have a big hand for the cook,” Doug said, and everyone obliged. Riva had really outdone herself this time, and Doug appreciated that. The only thing missing was his son Max, who as usual was not part of the celebration. Even though he and Riva were used to it, each of them always held out the hope that just once Max would surprise them with a card or at least a phone call. At almost twenty-two, Max still was as self-absorbed as he had been during his teen years. He had little thought for his parents until he needed something. But this time Riva had called him earlier in the day and literally begged him to call his father on this special night. So when the phone rang at 8:30 as everyone was enjoying an after-dinner brandy, she let Doug answer it, assuming it was Max. But by the look on her husband’s face she could tell it wasn’t, and she ran over to be near him, sensing bad news.
Naturally, her first worry was for her son. “Is it about Max?” she asked. Doug shook his head no, and turned on the speakerphone. She heard Poppy saying, “It’s very bad, Doug. They’re saying he’s in critical condition.”
“Critical! Oh my god, what happened, was he hit by a car?”
“No, a man driving by witnessed the whole thing and he said Dan must have hit a rock or something and he flew right over the top of his handlebars and hit the ground face down.” Her voice was steady and oddly unemotional. “I told the doctor he has a twin brother, and he said you should get here as soon as you can.”
“Get where? Where are you?”
“He had just called me ten minutes earlier saying I might have to go pick him up because it was getting too dark. It was almost dusk and he didn’t have his headlight…”
“Poppy, where are you, what hospital?”
“He’s in the ICU at Mass General, in Boston. Just get here as soon as you can.” She hung up.
Doug turned pale and collapsed onto the living room couch. Everyone rushed over and surrounded him, waiting for him to speak. “They’re saying he’s in critical condition. I’ve got to go there right away. She said he might die. What if he dies before I get there? I’ve got to go right now, I’ll have to drive there.” He sat up straight and collected himself, running his hands through his hair and brushing some lint off his sweater. Despite the dire situation, Doug was approaching this crisis in his usual business-like manner.
“You can’t do that, you’re too upset, “ Riva said. “Besides, it’s got to be like an eight-hour drive from here. You’ll get there just as soon if you fly out in the morning.” “Maybe it’s not as bad as they’re telling her,” Sue Pollard said. “You know, they want to prepare you for the worst, just in case….” Her voice trailed off.
Riva agreed, as did all their friends. Everyone thought Doug should wait until the morning and fly to Boston. Doug immediately went into his study and logged onto his computer to book a flight as the dinner guests assembled around Riva, groping for words that might make the truth less awful. There were none. It was obvious the party was over. Quietly everyone headed for the door, saying all the usual things on their way out: “Let us know how we can help.” “We’ll be praying for you.” “Call me tomorrow, keep us posted.”
Life for all the Waldmans had completely changed in that instant, in more ways than they could ever have suspected.
3: Spreading the News
From the age of seven, Max Waldman had wanted to be an actor. His first performance, as Captain Hook in a grade school production of “Peter Pan,” garnered a standing ovation and fabulous reviews in the PTA newsletter, and from then on it was clear that would be his career. No small encouragement came his way from his paternal grandmother, who was still disappointed that her two sons had walked away from stardom after all her selfless sacrifices. “I took them into the city every weekend, and believe me that was not so easy with two little boys with ants in their pants,” Grandma Helene loved to say. “And they could have been something, they were on TV, they were on Broadway, oy, what they gave up.”
She also loved to reminisce about her years as a chorus girl on Broadway, always finishing with, “but then I had children, and that was that.” So when her grandson Max showed talent and interest, she was virtually born again. She immediately ordered subscriptions to Variety and Backstage, spending hours perusing the auditions listings and alerting Max to any that sounded right for him. He appreciated it, and actually had achieved a small measure of success in the two years he had been living in Manhattan. After a year of drama school he took to pounding the pavement on his two days off from waiting tables at a kosher deli on the Upper West Side. With his dark eyes and jet-black hair, broad shoulders and memorable smile, he was almost always called back for a second reading, and once in a while he was cast in a TV show or something off-off-Broadway. Not stardom, but at least it helped pay the rent.
Handsome enough to be a leading man, instead Max went for character roles. He was especially good with comedy and rage, qualities he said he learned as a child from watching his father and his uncle fight. He spent his formative years wondering who was who since the twins looked so alike. Uncle Dan had taken to calling himself “N.Q.D.” which stood for Not Quite Daddy. But by the time Max was two or three he figured out that the one who was loving and caring and always there for him was his real dad, and the other guy, the look-alike, could not be counted on for anything except maybe a tummy tickle or two.
“I’m so glad I’m an only child,” Max said to his new girlfriend Nina. The two had been sharing a pepperoni pizza and a bottle of cheap Chianti in Max’s cramped fifth-floor walkup when his mother cut short a potentially romantic evening with the upsetting phone call about his uncle. She had delivered the news in a calm and clipped manner, holding back her tears and trying to put a positive spin on things, but Max could tell it was a bad scene. “Now look at all the shit my dad’s going through because his fucked-up brother got messed up in a bike accident. Who needs it?”
Nina, herself one of five children, strongly disagreed. “Not everyone has bad siblings. You might have had a good one, a friend in need and all that supportive stuff. I love all of mine. Besides, how do you know your uncle was at fault? Maybe a car sideswiped him, you know they do that all the time, or maybe honked at him or—you know. Anyone can have an accident.”
“Because I know for a fact that my Uncle Dan is a major pothead, and I bet he was stoned and going way too fast. He’s all about showing off and breaking records and outdoing my dad. I bet anything it could have been avoided. ”
“Your uncle smokes pot? Really?
“I saw him sneaking some a few times, once at a family birthday party for one of his kids, and another time I walked in on him in the bathroom by mistake, and he got all flustered and tried to hide it but I could smell it and there was still some smoke in the air. I was only about ten or eleven so I think he figured I didn’t even know what I was seeing. But I did,” he said with a grin. “I’ve always been precocious, at least that’s what my mother calls it.”
“What do you think will happen now? Will you have to go up there to visit him in the hospital?”
“There is no way that’s happening. I guess if he dies I’ll go to the funeral, unless I get that off-Broadway gig I tried out for yesterday. The show starts rehearsing next week. My fucking uncle--Jesus!”
“You’re kidding, right?” Nina was still never sure when Max was being real or just trying out a new character. “You would miss his funeral? Your dad’s twin brother?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m kidding, but only sort of. He really is a selfish dude. He’s never done one thing for me or my dad, or anybody really, just to be nice or helpful. It’s always got to have some part that benefits him or else he’s not interested.”
“That does sound bad,” Nina said. “But still, this is not something you would wish on anyone, I’m sure you agree.”
“Yeah, I do feel sorry for him. That sucks. I guess I will have to visit him, all of them -- my aunt and my cousins, sometime. And my dad too, he’ll be a total mess over this. His brother is like the most important thing in his life, even more than me or my mom, at least that’s how it looks to me. Anyway, not tonight… I’ve got other plans.” He grinned at Nina and shoved the pizza box aside. But before he could get anything started the phone rang again. This time it was his father, voice quivering.
“Hey Dad, how are you doing? That sucks about Uncle Dan.”
“Yes, it does. I just wanted to hear your voice, and tell you how much I love you, and to please be careful. I know you ride your bike all over the city, and --”
“Dad, I’m fine, please don’t worry about me. I’m very careful and I always wear a helmet…”
“Your uncle had a helmet on.”
“Okay, so I’ll be extra careful. What should I do, wear two helmets? What can I say to make you feel better? What can I do?”
“Nothing. Just wanted to hear your voice,” Doug said. He realized at that moment that he wouldn’t be hearing his brother’s voice for a long time, if ever again. That fact made him desperate to see his son, hold him and hug him like he did when he was a little boy. “Maybe you can come see us soon, okay? This is all pretty shocking, let’s pull together as a family.”
“Sure thing, Dad. I will definitely get there soon, as soon as I can get time off work. But if you need me, just say when and I’ll be there.” Max hung up and looked at Nina, who had by now taken off most of her clothes and was lying on the couch in her underwear. He was not one to shy away from a sexual encounter when it presented itself, but somehow this seemed like the wrong thing to do right now. “My uncle might be dying, my dad’s a total mess, what kind of a person would have sex at a time like this?”
“Let’s find out,” said Nina, moving over to make room for him next to her.
“How about if we just watch a movie or something? Would that be bad? I mean I think I’m too distracted by all this to really do the job right, if you know what I mean.”
Nina smiled and grabbed her clothes and started looking for the TV remote. “Wow, that’s a relief, “ she said. “I was beginning to think you were a heartless creep.”
4: The Silver Lining
Despite her initial shock, Poppy was taking the situation in stride. After she got the phone call from the police about the accident, and after she called her mother and Doug and her best friend Margie who screamed and said, “I’ll be right over,” and after she failed to reach Troy but left a message for him to call home, and then sat the two younger kids down and told them in a steady voice that, “Dad’s had a bike accident and will be okay but will be in the hospital for a few days getting better,” she poured herself a glass of that champagne she had kept on ice all afternoon for their birthday tryst and tried not to be angry. As for any other emotion, she was unsure how to feel and so she felt very little.
Truthfully, it had been years since their marriage had been much good. Dan was a driven workaholic, either at the office until midnight when he was in town or away on business for three or four days at a time. The kids had written him off as an authority figure years ago and instead regarded him as a fun but distant relative. Glad when he was home, they hardly missed him when he was gone.
Eventually Poppy began to feel the same way, and lately she noticed her spirits even rose slightly whenever Dan announced an impending business trip. That was not a good sign, she knew. And even though she still found him attractive, his complete lack of interest in her day-to-day activities and the life of the family was a turn-off, and so their sexual encounters had steadily declined to about once a month, and even then it was none too exciting. Dejected and disillusioned over her drab marital relationship, and she was still so young, Poppy had started to size up other men as potential bedmates. Consequently she found herself fantasizing about everyone from her acupuncturist to her son’s soccer coach while she was in bed with her husband.
That Sunday she had waited for hours for Dan to return from his bike ride, suspecting that he had simply forgotten about her at home in her new Victoria’s Secret teddy, hoping a birthday tryst might rekindle their flagging sex life. What an asshole, she thought. Why did he have to go for a bike ride when they finally had the house to themselves for a few hours? He said he wanted to get some exercise, but how come her needs never seemed to matter? When the tears finally came in a sudden and violent outburst, she couldn’t be sure if they were for her or her husband.
By the time Margie arrived to stay with the kids, throwing her arms around Poppy and crying as if it were her own husband lying at death’s door, Poppy was trying to muster up the courage to go to the hospital, even though she dreaded doing so. “It’s like that scene in The War of the Roses where Michael Douglas has a heart attack but not really, and Kathleen Turner doesn’t even bother to go see to him because she already hates him, or something like that,” she said to Margie. “I mean, I don’t hate him of course, he is my husband after all. But if he’s in a coma, what the heck am I even supposed to do for him?”
“Sweetie, you are his wife! You have to go, that’s crazy talk. And besides, what if he dies? Oh God, I can’t believe I even said that, I am so sorry, but really, it could happen. You have to, absolutely have to be there.”
“I suppose,” Poppy said grimly. “But what will I even do there?”
“You will sit by his side and pray for him to wake up. You will hold his hand and send him positive energy. Remember, this is the father of your three children,” Margie said, giving her another hug. “He is the head of the household, the provider of all that you have, and a damn good one too if you take a look around this place.”
“I know, you’re right, it’s just that I feel so resentful. If he had stayed here with me today this wouldn’t have happened. Where did he go? And what am I supposed to do with all these bitter feelings coursing through me?”
“Good observations, and yes, good questions. Here’s something you might try: There are plenty of sexy doctors all over that place, so maybe you could focus on looking good and showing some cleavage.”
Margie was attempting to be funny, but actually, her flip comment struck Poppy as a good idea. “You know Margie, I can’t believe you are thinking that. Really, how cruel can you be,” she said with a mock smile, pulling the V of her V-neck sweater down a little bit.
The two women laughed at this. Best friends since college, they told each other everything. Margie had heard all the details of Poppy’s marriage woes over countless cups of coffee and glasses of wine and saw this unexpected and unfortunate turn of events as an opportunity for her to get out of a crumbling relationship that had ceased to be much of anything years ago. They both knew that Dan had cheated on Poppy many times, and that his alleged “business trips” always involved extra-curricular activities. Women had called the house looking for him, and Poppy came across receipts for all sorts of incriminating things each time she took his clothes to the drycleaner after he returned from a trip. Sometimes she suspected that no business had been involved at all, unless it was funny business.
Early in their marriage Poppy had confronted Dan, but he denied everything and accused her of being paranoid. Their ensuing fights had led nowhere since she had no intention of leaving him. With three young children and no clear career skills, she had no escape plan. Besides, there was her beautiful house, every inch of it lovingly decorated by her or someone she had hired to carry out her dream. If she were honest with herself, she’d have to admit that her Imperial Blue BMW Sports Wagon, her weekly manicures and her membership in the Port Henry Club & Day Spa were worth more to her than Dan’s being faithful.
Poppy was the first to admit she had never been very maternal, despite her obvious fertility. With enough liquor in her she would confide that while she loved each of them dearly, every one of her kids had been a “mistake” or a “surprise” that her husband had welcomed with shouts of glee while she inwardly groaned. Poppy was on the pill when Troy was conceived after she and Dan had been married for just two years, and at twenty-six she still felt nowhere near ready to have a child. Dan was only the second man she had ever slept with, the only other one being her first husband, Marco, the sexy Italian boy she had dated in high school and run into a few years later at a local singles bar. Mistaking lust for love, they married after a short courtship and discovered they had little to give one another outside of the bedroom. Their disastrous union lasted little more than a year and ended abruptly when Poppy walked in on Marco in bed with her best friend.
Meeting Dan not long after her divorce, she had hardly sown any wild oats at all and was hoping there were some yet to come, within their marriage vows of course. She fantasized about role-playing with Dan, seeing herself as a dominatrix cracking a whip in six-inch stiletto heels, black fishnet stockings and leather underwear, or maybe black lace crotchless panties -- those seemed more erotic. She hadn’t pinned it all down in her mind but she was sure she’d figure it out in time, but of course none of that would ever happen with a wailing baby in the next room.
Still, Dan was thrilled at the prospect of becoming a father and so they went ahead. After Troy was born, Poppy immediately switched to an IUD for what she thought would be added protection, until along came Alexandra. Certainly wanting to stop at two, Poppy opted for a diaphragm thinking it would allow her to have more control over things; it was most definitely firmly in place when little Ben was conceived.
After that she stopped using birth control, putting the responsibility on Dan to use a condom. He rarely remembered and yet she never got pregnant again, and so she chalked it up to motherhood itself as the ultimate birth control method. And while she had gone through the motions, cooking and baking and making Halloween costumes and volunteering at school fairs, her heart was never in it the way it was for many of her friends. Naturally she felt somewhat ashamed, which is why she valued her friendship with Margie even more. Childless and unmarried, Margie never judged Poppy as a bad mother. Instead, she marveled at how well her friend had tended her flock despite her lack of real enthusiasm for the task.
“Now get over there and do your stuff. And don’t worry, I’ll take care of things here,” Margie promised, pushing her out the door. “And keep me posted!”
By the time Doug arrived at the hospital late in the afternoon of that very first day, he found Poppy sitting calmly reading a magazine, dressed quite nicely and even a tad provocatively he thought, and wearing make-up, which was unusual for her. In all, she was far from the disheveled mess Doug expected her to be after a night spent sobbing at her husband’s bedside. Instead she was serene and dry-eyed, unlike Doug, who burst into tears the minute he saw his brother’s lifeless body hooked up to machines, his dark eyes half-open and staring but seeing nothing.
“Please Doug, let’s have no crying in here,” Poppy said. “In case he can hear. I want everything to be upbeat.” Country music was playing in the background, coming from a CD player on the bedside table. There were a few flower arrangements in small vases placed around the room, and a stuffed teddy bear holding a smiley-face balloon occupied the only other chair. Poppy had certainly made things cozy in the short time Dan had been there.
“Upbeat? What the hell are you talking about, he’s near death in a coma!”
“Don’t be so dramatic. The doctors say he is not near death, his vitals are all fine, he is just resting his brain. Nobody knows if he can hear anything, and if he can I want him to be calm. That’s why I’m playing this music; he likes it.”
“That’s nice, but if I were lying in a fucking coma I would damn well want to hear my entire family bawling like crazy,” Doug said.
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Poppy replied sarcastically.
Doug had never really trusted Poppy, thinking she had married his brother as a way out of poverty after her failed first marriage to “some derelict,” as Dan had described him; he never really got all the details. Well, now the gloves were off and the pretense was over, and he would damn well cry over his own fucking identical twin brother if he wanted to! He looked at her sitting there calmly like the Virgin Mary and was furious at her seeming lack of emotion. “What are you all dressed up for, by the way? And why all the jewelry? What’s going on? Do you have a date later?”
“Must you? I mean I know you are very upset, but there’s no need to take it out on me.” Polly gave him a pleading look. “Anyway, in case he wakes up, I want to be sitting right here and looking nice for him.” And so for the next eight weeks, whenever Poppy was in the hospital at Dan’s bedside she was dressed in her finest clothes, hair fixed and wearing makeup, and actually looking a whole lot more put together than she usually did while Dan was wide awake.
At first Doug was confused, but since Riva actually believed Poppy’s story about wanting to look her best when Dan woke up, he began to like his sister-in-law more and feel that she really did love his brother after all, despite all his doubts. But Doug was wrong about that. The truth was, Poppy really was hoping to snag a nice single doctor, or even a hospital administrator, while her husband was out cold. With any luck she could get one interested in her enough so that when Dan finally returned to consciousness, which she truly believed he would, she could tell him she was leaving him and make a new life for herself with her new man.
To that end, she hoped he wouldn’t wake up too soon.
It’s not that she hadn’t tried with Dan. But almost from the very start, it seemed he was always just beyond her reach. She had stopped calling him at the office years ago since he never took her calls. His secretary always said he was “in a meeting” or “out with a client” and could she possibly help her with anything? When Troy had broken his leg on a school ski trip, Poppy waited alone at the hospital until almost midnight, despite leaving several messages at his office. Then when she had that burst ovarian cyst, she first arranged for a neighbor to come over and sit with the kids and then called an ambulance for herself because Dan was out of town.
Theirs was hardly the partnership she had dreamed of as a girl. Yes, Dan made a good living and she had everything a woman could want in terms of material goods, but still…. what about love? Was she destined to grow old without it? And now, the way she saw it, Fate had handed her a way out. After all, like Margie said, she was still young enough to start over with someone else.
Chapter 5: The Skeleton in the Closet
“Hey old man, happy birthday!” Jay was waiting for Dan with open arms, dressed in a flowing, leopard-print silk kimono and matching thong. “I’m so glad you could get away.” He gave Dan a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and gestured for him to come inside the spartan apartment. Besides an L-shaped, maroon velour sofa and a huge, circular white shag rug in front of the gas-operated faux fireplace, there was hardly a stick of furniture. Eight or nine colorful throw pillows dotted the floor. The room was dominated by floor to ceiling glass doors leading out to a balcony overlooking the ocean, and the spectacular view was really all the furnishing needed.
“Me too, but I can’t stay too long. The family is waiting, and I promised Poppy I’d be back in an hour.” He glanced appreciatively at Jay’s toned physique. “I see you dressed for the occasion,” he said.
“Well, I wasn’t sure how much time I would have to show my appreciation for all you’ve done for me,” Jay said with a grin. The two men kissed deeply and fell onto the sofa, Jay grabbing at Dan’s crotch and starting to pull off his pants.
“Wow, I see you’re all ready to go,” said Dan, eyeing the younger man’s huge erection. “I guess it’s true what they say about black men!” Despite all the times they had gotten together, Dan was still in awe of Jay’s remarkable physical attributes. He enjoyed talking with him as well, but the sex was the main event for him. It was the best he had ever experienced, so much more exciting than he had ever imagined was possible between two men back in the days before he had tried it. Today was no different, and the hours passed quickly before he remembered that his wife was waiting back home, hoping to spend some alone time with him. Guilt and panic overcame him.
“Oh shit, I’ve got to go,” he said, even as the younger man remained straddled on his chest, covering him with kisses.
“Not so fast, I’m not through with you yet,” Jay said petulantly. “After all, you’re not getting any younger. They say after fifty it’s all downhill.”
“On second thought, I guess I can stay a little longer. Soon, I’ll go soon.”
Jerome Raines had been living in Boston and tending bar in a popular gay nightclub when he’d met Dan eight months earlier. Despite their obvious differences in age and race, or maybe because of them, they were attracted to one another immediately. Dan sat at the bar and ordered a beer and the two of them started talking as if they’d known one another for years. Dan stayed until closing time and the two men continued talking together in the parking lot after Jerome got off work. At Dan’s insistence they made a date to meet again a week later when he had to be back in Boston for an early morning client presentation. They met for lunch, and after Dan paid the bill they went straight to Jerome’s nearby apartment. Soon enough, and to Dan’s surprise, they were having sex.
It was only the second time Dan had been with a man; the first time had been an abysmal and depressing experience with an unsavory character he’d met online. After that he decided he’d done enough fooling around to last him forever and vowed to ignore the nagging attraction he felt for men from time to time. But this time with Jay was different, and he found the experience shockingly thrilling.
It was several months before Jerome learned that Dan was living a straight life with a wife and three kids, in a big house with a swimming pool, a dog and two cats, all thirty minutes away in an affluent Boston suburb. By then the two were embroiled in a hot romance and Jay--that’s what Dan insisted on calling him -- didn’t care. Although he was half Dan’s age and could have had his pick of the local gay population, Jay was smitten by Dan’s good looks, lean biker’s body and engaging personality. And the fact that he was a successful businessman with his own advertising agency and plenty of money did not hurt his case. Jay was no gold digger, but having grown up in a poor family in Boston’s gritty South End, his mother a cleaning lady and his father driving a garbage truck for the city, he was determined to better himself in any way he could. This involved him working two part-time jobs and a generous financial aid package from the school based on his family’s income being at the required poverty level.
Now twenty-six, Jay had barely come out of the closet himself, having spent four years engaged to his high-school sweetheart. But things weren’t right between them, he could tell, and try as he might he just couldn’t take the leap into making it permanent. So they had gone on dating until one day she hit him with the ultimatum: Marry me or get out. He got out. And then, with the help of a friend, he came out.
The one with Dan was the first serious relationship Jay ever had with a white man, or any man really, after countless one-night flings and sexual experimentation in nightclub back rooms. After six months with Dan, Jay was sure this was the real thing. To facilitate their being together as much as possible, he found a job waiting tables in downtown Port Henry, the sleepy little village where Dan lived and also had his office. After moving into the second-floor apartment of a somewhat rickety beach house on Plum Island, the neighboring oceanfront community just three miles over a causeway from the downtown area, Jay’s life became little more than going to work and spending time Dan, with occasional forays back to Boston to visit his parents.
He already felt like they were in love, and Dan swore he was leaving his wife for him. Jay believed this, and the two of them met three or four times a week, always in Jay’s apartment. On rare occasions they went out for dinner or dancing in Boston, driving there separately. Sometimes Jay went on business trips with Dan to Chicago or New York where they had less chance of being seen together.
This pattern of hiding had started to bother Jay, who encouraged Dan to come out and live with him in the open. Dan claimed to be considering such a move, but for now he was committed to his children and not “fucking them up” with his sexual needs. Even though the duplicity bothered Jay, things were so good between them, especially the sex, that he stayed with the status quo. And now, for Dan’s fiftieth birthday, he had gotten him a very special gift: a key to his apartment, which he presented with much fanfare and a bottle of Dan’s favorite bourbon.
The two toasted their bright future together, and Dan hurriedly threw on his clothes to ride the eight miles back home before it got too dark. “I love you, man,” he said, adding, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“You better,” Jay said. “I’m counting on it.”
“Really Jay, this is all going to change soon, I promise. I just have to get up the nerve. And find the right the words. But I agree, things can’t go on this way, it’s not fair to either one of you.” Then he kissed him, grabbed his bike helmet and rushed out the door. And that was the last time Jay would see Dan for a very long time.
Chapter 6: Not Your Brother’s Keeper
Of all the people who cared about Dan and what happened to him, whether he lived or died, if he opened his eyes or remained in a coma forever, Doug’s wife Riva cared the least. She had always disliked her husband’s twin and forced herself to be nice to him only because he was important to Doug. Otherwise she considered him a selfish, self-absorbed brute who regarded everyone else as a bit player in his life story.
Like any good wife, she worked hard to keep these negative feelings to herself, although they did manage to seep out from time to time. But Doug would have been stunned to know that his own wife was sorry Dan hadn’t died the second his head hit the pavement. Riva was dismayed that she ever even had such a terrible thought, but there it was, haunting her and making her feel like a sinner. Yet she understood more than anyone else that Doug’s own life was virtually at a standstill until Dan got better. His total attention would be focused on every breath Dan took until he recovered, and possibly even long after that. Maybe forever, depending on Dan’s condition after he woke up. She wouldn’t even let herself think about what life would be like if he didn’t recover and instead remained in a coma; that was just too awful a possibility to consider.
In the end, though, Riva felt overwhelmingly sad that such a bad thing had happened to Dan, or to anyone at all, like a bolt out of the blue and on his birthday to boot! Regardless of how poorly Dan had treated her, or anyone for that matter, she wasn’t a heartless bitch after all, and so despite her negative feelings towards him, from time to time she was overcome with a flood of tears regarding his grim situation. Just one look at Doug’s downcast expression could get her going, and the two of them would hug and cry together over the horrible situation that had overtaken their lives and seemed destined to go on and on with no improvement.
Her only salvation was talking to Max. She’d brighten up as the two of them commiserated over the nasty turn of events on one of their frequent phone calls. Only Max knew the depths of her dislike for his uncle, and he couldn’t blame her. He had watched as she held her tongue for most of his childhood, not saying so many things that needed saying. Instead she would just shut down when Dan was around, exactly like his dad did.
“So now what?” Max asked. “Is he a vegetable?” It had been three weeks since the accident and Dan was still in a coma.
“Honey, I’ve asked you before, please do not use that word, especially when your father is around.”
“Sorry, I’ll try to stop, although lots of people do use that expression, it’s not like I made it up. Anyway, is he? Will he ever be okay again?”
“It’s too soon to tell. His doctors say very little except to remind us that being in a coma is actually a good thing because all the while he’s in it, he’s resting and repairing his brain. They assure us he will eventually wake up, but they can’t predict what he’ll be like when that happens.”
“Oh great. What could he be like?”
“Well, he could be partially paralyzed or not remember anyone or not know how to talk or walk or go to the bathroom or eat, or he could be just fine, like nothing happened. It’s funny how little they know about this sort of brain injury, really. All they keep telling us is that every patient is different, and the fact that Dan was very intelligent before the accident works in his favor. Something like he has more to work with, you know, that kind of thing.”
“So now is our whole family ruined? Is Dad going to kill himself over this or what?” Max, like her, was really only worried about Dan as far as his condition impacted Doug. His uncle had hardly paid him much attention, good or bad, when he was little, and paid him even less over the last few years. Still, he realized that even when bad things happened to bad people, they were still bad.
“Of course not, especially if we are supportive and loving to him.”
“So is Dad messed up too? I mean, did his brain also get affected? Let’s remember, they both came from the same egg, and they both get colds at the same time, and all that other weird shit. Remember that time Uncle Dan had the flu when he was all the way in California and dad was at home back east and he got it on the exact same day? And remember that time with their appendix?”
“The appendix thing was a fluke, Dan didn’t have to have his out, he just
chose to go ahead and do it because it was acting up a little and your dad’s almost burst. It was not really necessary….”
“Come on Mom, when you think about it, there’s always some pretty weird shit going down between the two of them. It’s like each one of them is only half a man!”
“I hate when you say that, Max, it is simply ridiculous. Your father is perfectly fine, and he’s a whole person, just like you and me.” She decided not to share her observation with Max that Doug clearly had seemed a little “out of it” since Dan’s accident. “By the way, have you called him recently? He’s up in Massachusetts right now. You might try his cell phone, I’m sure he could use a break.”
After hearing about Max’s landlord problems and promising she would help him out with some needed cash in his bank account, Riva got off the phone and felt better for having talked with her son. Since Dan’s accident, Max was the only member of the family she could really be honest with; all the rest of them required an acting job that she was finding increasingly taxing.
Riva had fallen in love with Doug despite herself. After her first marriage ended she had sworn off relationships forever, or so she thought. But when she met Doug at a friend’s Fourth of July barbecue one year, it was different. They were the only singles in the group, and naturally gravitated towards one another. Soon afterwards he called her for a movie date, and they became friends long before becoming lovers, and that was a new experience for her. After her divorce, her relationships with men had always been fast and furious and based on passion; naturally they died out quickly. But things with Doug were different. He was solid and steady and dependable, a rare set of qualities in a man who had never been married. And despite their age difference, they felt the same way about so many things they often joked that they shared a brain. The only place they differed was concerning anything about Dan. Whenever she dared to criticize his precious brother it almost always led to a fight, so she had stopped voicing her true feelings years ago.
Which was why, of all the people she had to treat with exaggerated loving kindness, well above and beyond what would normally be expected from a sister-in-law towards a brother-in-law who had never shown her the slightest interest or affection, it bugged her that it was Dan.
Chapter 7: That Funny Feeling
It was one of those dark and dreary days when the sun never materializes. Riva had been home alone for the past two days, and on this day she turned on every light in the house to quell her growing sense of uneasiness. Doug was due back from visiting Dan any minute now and she tried to cheer up with a glass of wine, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. This coma business was wearing her down, just like everyone else in the family. So she was relieved when she heard Doug’s car pull into the garage. Maybe he had good news!
He didn’t. Instead, he dragged himself through the back door and dropped his suitcase on the floor, then plopped down at the kitchen table looking beaten and weary. In a tired voice, he asked, “How do I look?”
“What do you mean? You look fine. Okay, you look tired, and sad, but you look like Doug. Why, are you not feeling well?” She hurried over and put her hand on his forehead like her own mother had always done when she was a girl to see if he had a fever. She still didn’t quite understand why the back of the hand was the best instrument for that, but she did it anyway, out of years of habit.
“I just feel funny. Like out of it. In a haze, sort of. You know, I got lost today, driving from the hospital back to the airport in Boston. In fact I almost missed my plane. It was as if I had never driven those roads before, I drew a complete blank when I got to the exit and just kept going…”
“Honey, you are exhausted. You have flown back and forth to Boston three times in the last month. No wonder you don’t know if you’re coming or going.”
“Yeah, you got that right. But it’s more than that. It’s funny, the whole time on the flight up there I’m fine, and then the minute we land in Boston my mind starts to get fuzzy, and the closer I get to the hospital, the fuzzier I get. It’s very strange, I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”
“Oh great, I guess now you’re brain-damaged too.” She said it lightly, but still she worried there might be some truth to it. Ever since Dan’s accident, she noticed more and more that Doug had been different. Normally he was the smartest person in the room and had all the answers, but in the last few weeks he had been slow to respond to even the simplest questions. Often he was just plain wrong or, at best, slightly confused. And his once flawless sense of direction had gotten them lost several times coming home from places they frequented, with Doug making the wrong turn on a dark road or missing their usual exit off the highway.
Riva thought it was stress, but Doug insisted—no, he knew--that it was because of Dan being in a coma. His brother was his other half, and now his other half was gone. As he put it, “I’m flying with one engine out.” He confessed to her that he was also messing up on the job, forgetting to return phone calls and drawing a blank on people he should recognize. It was weird, but he felt it would pass if only his damn brother would wake up.
Riva listened to all this and finally suggested he talk with their family physician, an idea Doug rejected outright. “Oh sure, like that clown knows so much about brain injury, right? He’s good for prescribing antibiotics and little else, and last time he even got that wrong.”
“He’s not a clown, Doug. He may not be up to your standards, but he’s what we’ve got for now.”
“Sorry, that was rude of me. I know he’s your good buddy. Anyway, I just think he’d draw a blank on my problem.”
“Well, then what are you going to do about this? Maybe if you talked to someone, a shrink perhaps. Maybe you could call Dr. Becker… remember him?”
“Okay, right, maybe. Sure, I’ll call him tomorrow. If I remember.” Doug poured himself a shot of whiskey, kicked off his shoes and settled down on the couch in front of the TV, turning on the evening news. “Maybe a dose of somebody else’s problems will keep me from thinking about ours,” he said with a trace of sarcasm.
“I talked to Poppy this morning and she said he seemed to be waking up,” Riva said, trying to sound upbeat. “Did you feel that way too or was that just her usual smiley-face spin on things?”
“Can’t tell. You know, whenever I walk into his room he sort of sits up and bends towards me. It’s damn freaky, I’ll tell you. The first time it happened everyone who saw it went nuts, they called the doctors in like he was finally coming around. But then nothing.”
“So then what did you do? Did you hug him or what?”
“Yeah, sure, I put my arms around him and we sort of hugged, but it was like hugging a tree stump. I mean, he wasn’t really hugging me, it was more like a plant going towards the sun, some kind of solar reaction. Some identical twin thing, they think.”
“Wow, that’s pretty wild,” Riva said. “Can they use that connection between the two of you to wake him up somehow?”
“Maybe. Poppy says the head doc wants me to visit more often, something about my presence having a positive impact on him or playing a role in his recovery.”
“Well, what about the fact that your absence has a negative impact on me?” Riva was getting tired of Doug being gone all the time. When he wasn’t away on business, he was up in Boston visiting Dan. “Besides being lonely and missing you, there are plenty of things around here that need attention. Doesn’t that matter too?”
“Of course it counts, but right now all I can think about is my brother lying in that ICU. And that bitch wife of his. She is not exactly the caretaker of anyone’s dreams. She’s not you, that’s for sure.” He stood up and walked over and gave Riva a hug. “If it were me lying there, I know you’d be there for me every minute. But I swear, half the time she’s down in the cafeteria or on the phone with one of her friends. Plus, she never cries. Not once. Isn’t that weird?”
“She’s not Jewish, remember? I know, I know, she converted, but still, at heart those WASPs are cold fish. Don’t get me started.” Although Riva maintained a good relationship with her sister-in-law, she didn’t trust her when it came to anything important. And now, seeing how things were unfolding, with Poppy being such a control freak about who visited Dan and how long they stayed, and telling Doug he could not even release his sadness over his brother’s dire situation, Riva was starting to like her less and less every day.
“I won’t. Besides, there’s nothing you or I can do about it, she’s the wife and she’s got all the power. You know those kids have only visited once? And she does nothing about it, says it’s better that way, that seeing him there just upsets them.”
“She’s probably right about that. Why do they need that image of their father in their heads forever? Look at how much it upsets you, and you’re an adult.”
“Yeah, I suppose. Anyway, I feel so much better when I’m here at home. This fuzzy-brain stuff only happens when I go to see Dan.”
“Not really, honey. You just said you’re messing up on the job here at home too, didn’t you?” Riva reminded him. “And to be honest, I have noticed things too.”
“Really? How bad is it?”
“Well, it’s bad enough to look into it. Like last week, you lost your car keys and went tearing through the house looking for them, and you were holding them in your hand the whole time.”
“Yeah, that was pretty nuts,” Doug admitted. “And sometimes I think I hear his voice, in my head, you know, asking me to help him. Am I going batty or what?”
“It’s probably just stress, honey. And all the travel is exhausting. And maybe the twin thing is in there little bit too. After all, you have never really been without him from the moment of conception. Who knows, maybe his coma really is doing something to your brain’s wiring too. I’ve heard of stranger things.”
“You might be right, maybe I need to talk to someone about all of this. We could both go see Dr. Becker together, and then you’d hear what he has to say without me having to remember what he tells me.”
“Jesus, is it that bad?”
“Yeah, I guess it is, honey.”
Chapter 8: Alexandra Throws a Fit
That year the spring was particularly cool. With a strong wind blowing off the ocean, nights in Port Henry could be downright frigid, and Poppy was still wearing sweaters or a light jacket to the hospital even though it was almost June. Dan was still in a coma, and after six weeks she had started to skip a few days here and there, growing weary of the hospital food and tired of all the driving. Boston traffic was horrendous, even though she timed her trips to off-hours and avoided rush hour. Besides, the kids needed more attention than they were getting from helpful neighbors and the charitable parents of their friends. Her friend Margie pitched in as often as she could, and Troy did his best to fix meals for the younger kids when she was gone, getting groceries and ordering pizzas. But a senior in high school was not exactly willing to stick around and help his siblings do their homework.
After an initial burst of visitors, it was pretty much down to Poppy and Doug taking turns, with an occasional visit from Riva who was afraid of flying and so had only come twice thus far. The people from Dan’s ad agency and even his closest friends stopped going, instead sending cards and calling rather than face the bleak scene playing out at the hospital. It was understandable that most people found it too depressing to sit next to his still body and try to make small talk with her. Even the kids had been to see him just once, and they all wanted to leave after twenty minutes.
Only Doug stayed for hours and hours, almost all day, holding his brother’s hand, giving him back rubs and reading to him, teary-eyed and depressed. Poppy spent most of the time flipping through magazines and walking the corridors, seeking conversation with the nurses and cruising the cafeteria for any interesting and possibly available doctors. But most of the staff seemed intent on their work and besides a quick nod and the occasional pat on the back, provided little diversion. Soon enough Poppy found that keeping a bedside vigil was a drag.
She had started to orchestrate more visits from Doug, telling him that the doctors thought his being there was a key contributor to Dan’s awakening. This was not wholly untrue, but still it was one of the lies Poppy had started telling Doug. Another was how devastated she was, and that his presence at the hospital gave her the respite she needed to avoid a complete nervous breakdown. In reality, she felt better than she had in years. With Dan finally silent for once, Poppy was starting to find her own voice. Thus one afternoon, when out of the blue Dan opened his eyes and stared right at her, she was almost disappointed. She could tell it was a different kind of look than the blank stares of the past two months. This time he really connected, almost smiled, and said his first words since the accident: “What’s going on?”
Poppy ran over to his bed and grabbed his hands. “My God, you’re back!”
“What’s going on? What’s going on?” Dan repeated the phrase several more times, sounding a bit like a stuck CD.
“You’re in the hospital. You had a bike accident. You’re going to be fine, really you will. Everything works, there are no broken bones.”
“I’m hungry,” he said. Ever since the first week in the hospital, he had been receiving nourishment through a feeding tube that went directly into his stomach. “Where’s Richie? I’m very hungry. Tell Richie to bring me a burger.”
“I can’t believe you are talking! And perfectly!” Poppy grabbed the phone next to his bed and called home. Alexandra answered and Poppy said excitedly, “Guess what! Dad’s awake, and he’s okay! He’s talking!”
“Cool,” said Alex. “Can Uncle Doug drive me and Alicia to the mall?” She was over the fact that her dad was not around weeks ago, and didn’t really care too much when he came home, especially since Doug was around so much of the time. She liked her uncle more than her father anyway, mostly because he didn’t lecture her. For all the kids, things hardly seemed any different at home than before the accident, except their mother was gone more.
“Honey, is that all you can say? Anyway, where is Uncle Doug? Put him on the phone.” Doug had arrived very late the night before and was still sleeping that morning when Poppy left to go to the hospital.
“He’s taking a shower. I think.”
“Well, tell him to call my cell phone right away when he gets out. And no, you are not going to the mall, you are coming straight here with him to see your father.”
“But Mom, I promised Alicia I was going and besides, we need to get stuff for the school play. Please, I’ll see dad another time, okay?”
“No, you will see him today! Your father has been in a coma for two months and you have visited him exactly once. Now he is back from the dead, and you will come and give him a big hug and a kiss and show him how happy you are that he is alive!”
“No! I’m not coming and I’m not even that happy he’s alive! He totally ruined practically my whole spring break, and I had to drop out of swim team because you could never take me to practice, and anyway, it’s no big deal that he’s awake since I never see him anyway.” Alex threw down the phone and ran out the front door. She was in tears by now, and screaming loud enough for Doug to run downstairs to see what was going on. He picked up the phone and said, “Who is this?”
“It’s me Doug,” Poppy said, somewhat shaken by the confrontation with her daughter, but still happy to share the good news about Dan. “Alex is having a meltdown, just ignore her. Dan is awake!”
“You’re serious? Really awake, not just opening an eye like the last time you said that?”
“Really awake. He’s talking and he’s hungry and he knows who I am. Get over here as soon as you can.”
“Oh wow, that is such great news. I’ll be there soon, unless I get lost on the way to the hospital. But what about Alex?”
“Oh, just drop her off at her friend’s house on the way, she lives just a few blocks from us. I’m not going to let anyone spoil this for me, least of all a cranky teenager.”
They hung up, and Poppy turned her attention back to Dan. She had relented where her daughter was concerned because she realized Dan had a ways to go before he would be truly “awake.” While she had been on the phone with Alex, a nurse had come in to adjust his meds and was startled when he spoke to her. Instantly, she started holding up fingers in front of his face, asking him to count them. Dan was dutifully responding correctly, only missing once or twice. Still, Poppy noticed that he was fairly confused, and he looked gruesome, even worse awake than comatose. He had lost about fifteen pounds, and although the nurses had tried to give him a shave every few days, his beard was scraggly and his hair was stringy and needed washing. He looked like nothing as much as a homeless bum. Perhaps it was best if the kids waited a few days before seeing him.
Within minutes the room was full of nurses and aides, all of them having heard the news. Even Dr. Katz appeared, the elusive head of the ICU who almost never materialized. He was checking Dan’s pulse and seemed pleased. “Well, Mrs. Waldman, it looks like your husband will be out of here tomorrow.”
“You’re kidding, right? He’s hardly ready to come home!” Poppy was terrified at the thought of having to take care of Dan on her own.
“You are certainly right about that,” said Dr. Katz. “No, he will be transferred to our rehab facility just as soon as we can accommodate him there. I’m afraid we need this bed for people in far worse shape than him.” He gave her a broad smile, as if what he had said was quite clever.
Dan kept repeating that he was hungry, and Dr. Katz explained that the feeding tube would have to remain in for at least a week, and then be removed carefully. That would happen at the rehab center. Until then, Dan would be permitted to sip liquids, maybe even a little bit of a milk shake, but not have any solid food for at least another few weeks.
“This is wrong,” Dan said, raising his voice. “This is all wrong. I don’t like this. Where’s Richie? Where is my hamburger?”
Dr. Katz seemed quite pleased that Dan could speak so well. “This is all just dandy, believe me Mrs. Waldman. Everything will be fine from here on out, I can assure you. It’s just a matter of time before your husband is back to his old tricks again.”
Oh great, Poppy thought. Somehow she didn’t find that news very comforting.
Chapter 9: A Little Background Music
Riva met Doug while she was working as a book editor at a mid-sized publishing company in Washington, D.C. A friend had insisted they meet, and so she obliged by attending a Fourth of July barbecue one Sunday. While he wasn’t strictly her type—-besides being younger he was Jewish, and although she was too, still she had never gone for Jewish men, finding them self-absorbed and demanding—-she enjoyed his deadpan sense of humor. Besides that, he was very smart, always a turn-on for her. They hit it off and planned another date, this time a movie and dinner. A few dates later they drank more than their usual two glasses of red wine and ended up in bed, which surprised them both, mostly because it was so enjoyable.
They started dating exclusively soon after that, and comfortably fell into the idea that living together would be much easier than living apart. Marriage was a simple next step. Since neither one wanted a big production, a quick visit to the justice of the peace with Doug’s twin and Riva’s best friend as witnesses and the deed was done. There was little fanfare besides a champagne toast and a hastily purchased wedding cake delivered to the restaurant where the four of them had a celebratory lunch afterwards.
Meeting Dan only one day before marrying Doug, Riva flashed on the thought that had she met him sooner, she might have ended her relationship with Doug instead of marrying him. She found his brother overbearing, egotistical, crass, not at all funny, and a bad dresser. This last trait was one subtly detected by Riva alone, who had an aversion to all but the most natural of fabrics. If it didn’t grow from a seed or come from an animal, Riva would have none of it. Consequently her respect for Dan fell even further because of his obvious commitment to polyester. When she shared her thoughts with Doug, who wore only the finest of wools, silks and cottons, he laughed and said, “That’s great, at least I do something better than him!”
It was a delicate balancing act that Riva undertook anytime Dan’s name came up in conversation with Doug. When she openly stated her dislike for him, a fight ensued. If she praised Dan’s business acumen and obvious earning ability, Doug was hurt and felt put down, since he earned a lot less. It was a lose-lose no matter what she said, so she tried to say very little. Instead she focused on Poppy and developed a decent relationship with her sister-in-law despite secretly thinking her a ditzy twit with hardly an original thought in her head, and a tad on the slutty side. In time she realized they shared a love of art and music, and of course, they were married to twins.
Like their parents, the Waldman cousins had mixed feelings for one another. Max disliked the whole lot of them, most especially Alexandra who he found “dumb” when she was young and “a troll” in her later years. He tolerated Troy when they were growing up and only began to enjoy him as a skiing partner when the two came of pot-smoking age. “Troy acts like he’s all straight and everything, but he always has good shit,” Max confessed to Riva in his senior year of high school.
She was shocked, since that meant Troy was doing drugs in junior high. Still, she kept the secret, since her pact with Max demanded it. She felt her silence was a small price to pay to know what her own son was doing. As for Ben, Max paid him no attention whatsoever besides the occasional pat on the head. In fact, all of his cousins certainly did little to assuage his “poor me, I’m an only child” complex, which he dragged out so often in his early years that Riva seriously considered adopting, or perhaps fostering, another child. But whenever they approached Max with the possibility of getting a new brother or sister he would have none of it, saying he wasn’t going to let “some total stranger use all my stuff.” Fortunately he discovered girls soon enough, and by the time he was a teenager he reveled in the fact that there were no bothersome siblings cramping his style. And since Riva had only one sister who had never married or had children, that was it for Max’s extended family choices.
On the other side, Alexandra had a major crush on her handsome cousin Max from the time she was very little, and Troy looked up to him with envy, secretly wishing that they were brothers instead of cousins and that Doug was his father instead of Dan.
“You got the better one,” he said to Max when the two of them were hanging out together, somewhere in their early teens.
“Oh yeah, how do you figure?“ Max had asked.
“At least your dad is home sometimes. My dad never is,” Troy said dejectedly. “It sucks, it’s pretty much me, my mom and the little ones every night at dinner.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Max said, feeling sorry for him. Grasping at anything to cheer his cousin up, he said at last, “At least you have other kids around, not just grown-ups.”
“Yeah, I guess, but my mom’s sort of a lousy cook. And she’s not very maternal, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t. Like how?
“Well, she never really liked to just hang out with us, just for fun, you know, like other moms, even when we were really little. It was always just doing whatever was necessary and no more. And it was always my dad who read us stories at night, she sort of disappeared right after dinner.” Troy looked sad as he talked, thinking back on his childhood, but then brightened and said, “Still, I always knew she loved all of us, it just wasn’t her thing, to be a mother.”
Relations between the adults were hardly better. Poppy had always feared her in-laws. Doug intimidated her and Riva made her feel small just by existing: She was a better cook, a better conversationalist, and had always gotten more attention from her own husband than she felt was appropriate. Dan often called her “Riva” by mistake, which was tiresome if not infuriating. “No, I am Poppy, Riva is your brother’s wife,” she would remind him angrily. “What’s that all about, anyway?”
Dan always said the same thing: “It would be so much easier if you two had the same name, like Richie and me.”
Chapter 10: Getting Back
Dan spent seven weeks in a rehab facility in Boston. It was slow going, but gradually, every day it seemed, he made progress. He learned to sit up in bed, then swing his feet over the side and stand up with the help of an aide. Eventually he was cleared to get out of bed by himself and walk the three feet to his private bathroom, as long as he carried a little bell in the pocket of his bathrobe to summon help if he fell. After three weeks he had his feeding tube removed and rejoiced in being able to swallow applesauce and yogurt and eat mushy things like scrambled eggs and cottage cheese. Each baby step warranted a phone call from Dan to Poppy and then from Poppy to Doug, who would carry on as if Junior had just taken his first step.
Riva, often within earshot of these conversations, found the whole thing irritating. “Jesus, you’d think he’d found the cure for cancer the way you two carry on over every little thing,” she said sarcastically one day after a particularly long and grating phone call that Doug had put on the speakerphone.
“Why can’t you just be happy for him?”
“I am happy for him, believe me. And for you and Poppy and all the starving children in Europe. But come on, these daily updates are a bit obsessive, don’t you think? I mean honestly, does every little thing have to be discussed to death?”
“I want to hear how he’s doing. Is that wrong?”
“Fine, okay, I’m sorry. It’s just that when Max had the chicken pox and you were out of town at that AIA convention in LA, you didn’t call to see how he was doing, at least not every day, and he was four years old and your own son.”
“That was completely different. Max was going to get better, and he was under the care of the most wonderful nurse in the world, a loving Jewish mother, whereas my brother is in a hospital and who knows what’s going to happen to him, and there’s not a goddamn Jew in the whole damn place.”
“Dr. Katz isn’t Jewish?”
“Okay, so Katz is around, but Poppy is a cold fish, you know that, and the kids won’t go near the place. I know my brother and he needs lots of love and hugs and pats on the back and a squad of cheerleaders, and all he’s got is my phone calls and visits, and you every once in awhile. I think you should come with me again next time.”
“I guess. It’s just that it’s all so depressing. I mean, how great is it really that he can sit up in bed? Is that a cause for celebration, when he can hardly remember that he did it five minutes later?”
“Riva, it’s a process. His doctors keep telling me he’s the poster child for recovery, that he’s doing great, really great.”
Riva thought back to her first visit after Dan was transferred to the rehab facility. For her, it was even worse than when he was in the coma. At least the ICU at Mass General was all business, bright and sterile with state-of-the-art technology, full of starched professionals striding briskly in and out, administering medications and arranging tubes, actively curing the sick, whereas the Greeley Rehab Hospital, just a few miles away and highly recommended, was basically a slightly seedy nursing home for all sorts of broken people. The beds were full of youngsters who had been in terrible car crashes and the elderly in various stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. There were others like Dan who had suffered diffuse brain injuries from falls, car accidents, motorcycle crashes and strokes. One unlucky young woman had been struck by lightning in her own backyard, and it hadn’t even been raining where she was. Now she hardly knew who or where she was, and her incoherent babbling echoed up and down the halls.
Riva couldn’t shake the memory of that last visit, not only for the haunting sight of all the patients lined up in the corridors in wheelchairs, staring vacantly at nothing, waiting for their next physical therapy appointment or lunch tray with that depressing gray food and the bright red or orange or green blob of Jell-O, but for her own husband who was so broken up over seeing his brother in such a situation. “He doesn’t belong here,” Doug had said the first time they stepped off the elevator onto Dan’s floor.
“Yes, this is exactly where he belongs, Doug. They are making him better. He will be out of here soon enough,” she reassured him. What she wanted to say – no, to scream at the top of her lungs-- was that she didn’t belong there. That she feared the images would infiltrate her dreams and penetrate her bloodstream, making it impossible to see the beauty in a lovely spring day without flashing on the living Hell that held so many people hostage.
Still, the next time Doug visited Dan, Riva went too, and she was glad she did. He really was getting better, certainly a lot better than many of the other patients they had met before who had gotten worse over time. Dan was learning how to walk again, and all of his doctors and physical therapists said he was an excellent student. “Wait till you see this,” he exclaimed when he saw them approaching. “This will blow your minds, I promise.” And with that he proudly walked up and down the corridor using only a cane for support. “Not bad, huh? And watch this,” he said with a grin. He motioned for them to follow him outside onto the patio, where he walked down three cement steps into a garden, turned around, and walked back up the steps. He was so overjoyed by his accomplishment that he turned around and did it again, then stooped over and picked a daffodil from the garden and walked back up, presenting the flower to Riva. “This is for you, my dear. Thank you for coming.”
After making a fuss over his new skills, the three of them got around to playing Scrabble, and Dan won. “He always wins. How is that possible?” Doug asked her later after they had said goodbye to Dan and were on their way to the airport. “Before the accident I used to win at least half the time, and now, even with a serious brain injury, he wins pretty much all the time.”
“Pretty much? You mean every time. He’s a freak now, I guess,” Riva said, only half-joking. “He has a super-brain for words on a Scrabble board even though he can’t remember if he ate his lunch ten minutes earlier. I’ve heard of things like that happening to people after they experience a trauma or get struck by lightning. ”
“Too bad there’s no money in it,” Doug said ruefully. “Oh well, I’m happy that he’s still good at something, even if it is just a game.”
Later on, once they were settled into the flight home, Riva took a deep breath and got up the nerve to say what was on her mind. “Well, so Dan’s getting better. That’s very good news. But you’re not doing that well, honey. In fact, you’re kind of a mess.”
It was obvious that Doug had shouldered much of the burden created by Dan’s accident. He had flown to Boston every two weeks or so, more or less depending on the level of Poppy’s hysteria on the phone, staying for two or three days each time, mostly to sit with Dan at the hospital or spend some time at his ad agency, which was now a huge cargo ship without a rudder. And while the business was still running smoothly, with projects flowing in and out and getting billed, there was nobody on staff with any vision for the future. Eventually, without new clients and without a captain at the helm, the ship would stop dead in the water. Dan was always such a huge personality that his many clients around the country who had grown accustomed to his wining and dining them every few months would soon feel his absence. These thoughts kept Doug up at night, and the lack of sleep showed up on his face.
“Thanks dear, that makes me feel just great. Look, he’s my fucking twin brother. I can’t just abandon him, can I?”
“Who said anything about abandonment? I only want you to see that you are devoting more time to his life than your own. For example, remember Max? Our son?”
“What about him? Is something wrong?”
“No, but he hasn’t talked to you in the last month. He told me he misses you, that you never call him anymore, and that when he tries to get you, your phone is turned off and it goes straight into voice mail.”
“No, but he hasn’t talked to you in the last month. He told me he misses you, that you never call him anymore, and that when he tries to get you, your phone is turned off and it goes straight into voice mail.”
“I’ll call him as soon as we get home.”
“And another thing,” Riva said. “While your brother is getting better every day, you are getting worse. I say this with love, but you are in terrible shape. You have put on about 20 pounds since his accident, and that can’t be good for your health. Plus I know you’re sneaking cigarettes because I can smell the nicotine on your clothes and on you, even though you brush your teeth afterwards to hide it.”
“Well, at least my teeth are getting better care,” Doug said quietly.
“Ha ha, is that supposed to be funny? Really Doug, this whole thing has hurt you almost as much as it has hurt Dan. You’ve got to get control of yourself.”
“Look, Riva, I know it’s been like hell for all of us, but it’s only temporary. Things will change, you’ll see.” And with that Doug put on his earphones and turned his attention to the little TV screen in the seatback of the chair in front of him, staring at the map of their plane as it made its way south to Annapolis.
But things did not change, at least not very soon. Dan remained the center of Doug’s universe, Doug kept getting fatter and kept smoking cigarettes, hiding from Riva and feeling ashamed. And worst of all, his brain continued to feel “foggy” whenever he went to see his brother. He too hated the whole situation and desperately longed for it to change, magically, without any action on his part. He prayed for God to intervene, even though he had never prayed before, had not gone to temple since his bar mitzvah and was not at all religious.
And then suddenly things did change, but for the worse.
One morning Poppy called and said that Dan had been found sexually accosting a young man in the rehab facility, but that the doctors said it was “normal.”
“Normal? What kind of crap is that? That is not normal in my book,” Doug yelled. “Not normal in anyone’s book, I imagine. What the hell?”
“Apparently after a brain injury there is often a period of sexual confusion, but it’s usually temporary,” Poppy said. “Anyway, it’s upsetting, and I wanted you to know, and wondered if you can shed some light on this.”
“What do you mean, shed some light on it? I have far less of an idea about his sexuality than you do, you’re his wife! What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think. Honestly, one time I found a note from someone named Jay that sounded as if they were lovers, I swear…”
“What the hell? When was that? Jay who?”
“I have no idea, it was about six months ago. I never asked him about it because it felt too invading.”
“Invading? You’re married to the man! How could you not ask him about something like that?” Doug was outraged, feeling his long buried dislike for Poppy bubbling to the surface again.
“We never had that kind of relationship. Not like you and Riva where you tell each other every time you go to the bathroom. Dan and I are more private.”
“We never had that kind of relationship. Not like you and Riva where you tell each other every time you go to the bathroom. Dan and I are more private.”
“Okay, I will not rise to that bait. I know you’ve always been jealous of Riva, so fine, put her down if it makes you feel better. I just want to know who this Jay person is.”
“I am not jealous of Riva!”
They went on like this for a few minutes until Doug said, “Look, we are lashing out at one another because we’re both mad at Dan. Let’s get off the phone before we each say something we’ll regret later.”
Several weeks passed without another episode, and Dan seemed to be improving daily, almost getting back to some kind of normalcy. It was more than a coincidence that Doug was slowly but surely feeling more clearheaded as well. One morning he said to Riva, “ You know, I think I almost feel like my old self again. Not sure why, but that fuzzy brain thing seems gone.” And it was on that very day that Poppy called to say the doctors had all agreed that Dan was ready to go home.
This was great news for everyone but Dan. In the hospital, all his needs were met by a team of young and cheerful nurses and orderlies who had come to love him for his wild sense of humor and his steady, determined progress. He never feared falling on the way to the bathroom and he always had help getting in and out of the bath or shower. If something bad did happen, he could just press a buzzer and help would be there in a moment. Who would do all that for him at home? And with the kids and the dog running in and out and the TV on and the phone ringing constantly, it scared him to think about getting lost in all the chaos of a typical suburban family. Could Poppy handle him?
And while Dan was getting better physically, still he seemed confused about some of the basics, including his own family. One day he told Doug he wasn’t sure the kids were really his, claiming that it was hard for him to believe he had ever had sex with Poppy. “They hardly say a word to me, they’re always playing video games or on the phone. And Poppy is so cold to me, and I’m not attracted to her at all. Was I ever? You know, like before the accident?”
“You know, I’m not sure if I can help you there. You and I never talked about things like that, buddy,” Doug replied. The two were sitting on Dan’s screened porch overlooking the garden on a brisk but sunny afternoon, playing Scrabble. Doug was happy to see that Dan was finally walking on his own, with just a cane for some added sense of security, and that some of his old competitive spirit was back, at least on the Scrabble board. Despite his head injury he was well ahead of Doug and not above crowing about it. “Well, I’m sorry to say, you’re losing by quite a lot, and to a retard,” Dan said, adding up the points.
“You can’t say retard anymore, by the way. It’s considered an insult.”
“When did that happen?” Dan asked, truly surprised.
“While you were sleeping.”
“Hey, I’m retarded and I intend to call myself a retard if I damn well want to, and nobody’s going to stop me, got it?”
“Fine by me. I agree, you are a retard now and maybe even have been all your life. But just don’t say it around Max or he’ll have your head on a platter.”
“I hope I remember. Anyway, it seems the only part of my brain that wasn’t
affected was the part I use to play Scrabble. Seriously, the doc even said that last time I saw him.”
“Too bad there’s no money in it,” Doug said. He was only half-kidding. By now it had become obvious that Dan would not be returning to his former job as head of the ad agency. Since being discharged from the rehab center he had gone back to the office several times, finding out each time that he lacked the skills required of an executive. He was short-tempered with the staff, forgot entire conversations within minutes of having them, and neglected to return phone calls to clients. Doug was beginning to wonder how his brother would support himself, especially if the rumors of him being fired by the board of directors of his very own company were true.
It was too soon to talk about it, and there was still a chance that Dan would yet make vast improvements, but Doug was worried nevertheless. He barely had the ability to support his own family, he was certain he couldn’t take on the burden of his brother and his wife and three kids. The last time he broached the subject with Riva she had scoffed, saying, “Jesus Christ, he’s your brother, not your son! Get some perspective!”
“He’s not just my brother, he is my identical twin brother. You have no idea what that means.”
“Oh please, you two are not a circus act, Doug. Does it mean you have no separate life, no separate identity? Does it mean you are responsible for his happiness, and the happiness of his whole family, to the detriment of your own? Is that what it means?”
“Look Riva, I don’t want to have big argument about this, but I will not abandon my brother.”
“Fine. Don’t abandon him. But you better figure something out, because we certainly can’t support him and his whole family.”
“Nobody is talking about doing that, believe me.”
“Anyway, why can’t Princess Poppy get a damn job? What does she do all day anyway; she’s always complaining that Dan’s driving her crazy. Maybe she would welcome being away from him some of the time.”
“Well then, who would take care of Dan? He can’t be left alone yet.”
Riva rolled her eyes and left the room, shouting behind her, “I can’t stand talking about this again for one more minute!” It was true that conversations like this one dominated their time together. Dan’s accident was taking its toll on all of them, that much was for certain.
Chapter 12: The Truth Comes Out
One day over breakfast, Dan confided in Poppy that he had a series of numbers stuck in his head and he wondered if she knew what they meant. “Is it my social security number? Or maybe one of our bank accounts?” he asked. “Or a phone number, or what? I can’t get it out of my head, and it’s making me even crazier than I already am,” he said miserably, as usual feeling sorry for himself. His favorite subject these days was how much he had suffered.
“Now stop that, you are not crazy, you had an injury and you are getting better slowly but surely,” she said, tired of saying the same things to him day in and day out. “Anyway, what’s the number?” He told her, but it meant nothing to her, although since it started with the local area code she thought it might indeed be a phone number. “Go ahead and call it,” she suggested. “What harm could there be in that?”
After breakfast, Dan summoned up his courage and dialed the number. It rang and rang, and finally was answered with a recorded message: “Thanks for calling, but I’m out! Leave me your info and I’ll call you back.” Dan did not recognize the voice and hung up without leaving a message. He reported back to Poppy, who said she’d give it a try and see if she recognized the voice. “Nope, doesn’t ring a bell with me either,” she said, and also hung up. “Maybe it’s not a phone number after all. Let’s go get a lottery ticket and see if it’s lucky,” she said with a grin, and that was the end of that, until a few days later when Poppy was busy doing some laundry and the phone rang. She noticed the caller ID number seemed familiar, and so picked it up. A male voice said, “Hello there. I’m not sure who you are, but I got two phone calls from your number a few days ago and wondered if someone was trying to reach me. I’m Jerome, my friends call me Jay…”
Poppy froze. Was this that Jay? She almost hung up, but thought she might as well know whatever there was to know, and so said, “Do you know someone named Dan Waldman?”
“Well, I did know someone by that name a while ago, but I sort of lost touch with him. Who are you?”
“I’m his wife.”
Now it was Jay’s turn to freeze. He couldn’t think of one thing to say, and so just held on, breathing into the mouthpiece. Finally Poppy said, “My husband was in a serious bike accident several months ago. He was in a coma for many weeks, and woke up with your phone number in his head. Are you a client of his, or what? How do you know Dan?”
“Maybe you should ask him,” Jay said, feeling like he was tiptoeing through a minefield. How much did she know about Dan’s being gay anyway? “Is he okay now?”
“He’s doing much better but his memory is shot, so I’m not sure he would remember you. Why don’t you tell me?”
Jay was relieved and frightened all at once. He was happy to hear that Dan had not just dropped him after their last time together, as was his fear. He had waited to hear from him but concluded that giving Dan the key to his apartment had scared him off. And he couldn’t blame him, seeing as how he was living a straight life with a national reputation and three kids to deal with. Jay had consoled himself with the knowledge that love was out there somewhere for him, and the thing with Dan was just the first heartbreak everyone needs in order to grow.
But right here, right now, the possibility of seeing Dan again excited him, and he didn’t want to say anything to jeopardize that. He certainly couldn’t tell this poor woman her husband was hiding a secret life. At least not now, while she was taking care of him. So he lied.
“Yes, I was a client of your husband’s. I’m not sure why he remembered my phone number, though. Please tell him for me how sorry I am to hear of his accident, and maybe ask him to call when he’s feeling better. I’d love to hear from him personally.”
“Yes, I certainly will tell him. Bye now.”
Poppy wasn’t sure what to think. Maybe the guy was a former client and that note she had found was from a different person named Jay. Or maybe it was this same Jay, but she had read too much into it. In fact, she could hardly remember now what it had said that made her suspicious at the time—it was something like “it’s getting hard missing you,” which seemed to her sort of vulgar at the time, but could have just been an innocent joke. She decided to tell Dan about the phone call from this man and see how he reacted.
Later that evening as they were having dinner together, just the two of them with the kids off doing homework, Poppy casually mentioned, “The person with the phone number, you know, that number you keep thinking of, called here today. He said he saw our number on his caller ID, I guess after you tried it that time.”
“Really? Who was it? Did he know me?”
“Yes, he did. He said he was a client, his name is Jay…or rather, Jerome, I think he said.”
In a sudden flash of clarity Dan remembered. Jay! He loved him! They loved each other! He knew enough not to tell Poppy about this right now, and determined to contact Jay and get some details on what had gone on between them before the accident. “Huh. Really. Well, I had a lot of clients, I’m sure I don’t know why his number came to mind. Maybe he owed us money,” he said lightly, and went back to his veal cutlet. But suddenly he felt better than he had in a long time. His past life started to make sense.
Poppy remained suspicious. Why did he remember the phone number of this one particular client? And how come the supposed “client” hadn’t heard about what happened to Dan, when all the other clients knew about it immediately, like the very next day? Susie in HR had called all of them to let them know that Dan would be out of commission for a long time. Cards and gifts had come pouring in, and none were from anyone named Jay. Poppy smelled a rat, and she was pretty sure its name was Dan. Still, rather than stir things up, she simply said, “Why don’t you call the office tomorrow and see if they can tell you who he’s with and the status of the account. That might jog your memory.”
Dan looked at her, seeming confused. “Tell me who who is? What are you talking about?” He had already forgotten.
Chapter 12: Max’s Good Idea
“It’s been like six months or something, hasn’t it? And he’s still pretty fucked up if you ask me,” said Max. He was visiting his parents for a few days, taking a break from what he called “Gay Central,” his name for New York City, and from Nina. Like all his girlfriends did after a few months, she was starting to get on his nerves. The problem of the moment was that despite Max’s feeble protests she had virtually moved in. “Even though she has another place to go, where she pays rent and has a roommate and keeps all of her clothes, still she wants to be in my studio apartment which is barely big enough for me, let alone the both of us, especially since she’s got a serious shoe and handbag fetish. I mean really, just her boots alone take up half the place.”
“I guess she just likes being with you, honey. I can’t say I blame her, after all you are adorable,” Riva said in typical Jewish-mother fashion. “You should feel flattered. Or else maybe you should ask her to contribute something to the rent. Like half.”
“Hey, that’s a thought,” Max said. “That is a damn good idea, Mom. Thanks.”
Max had visited his uncle two times since the accident. The first time was when he had joined his parents on a trip to Port Henry for a family reunion of sorts in mid-October, right after Dan was released from the rehab center. That was a mostly happy occasion, except for all the chaos and bad food. “Her cooking is worse than ever,” Max had complained afterwards, referring to his Aunt Poppy’s overdone brisket and bland side dishes. “Why didn’t you cook, Mom?”
Riva was flattered but put out. “Should I have taken the whole dinner in the car with us? Anyway, sometimes you have to let other people step up to the plate, no pun intended. And Poppy was excited to do it.”
“Yeah, but why is it brisket all the time with her? Doesn’t she know you have to be born Jewish to make that come out right? She should stick with something her people eat, like a big, shiny ham with pineapple or steak and kidney pie or whatever. Who are her people anyway?” His mother gave him that look and he shut up.
The next time was when he went up for a ski trip in New Hampshire with Troy the weekend after Thanksgiving and spent some time alone with Dan, playing Scrabble and “shooting the shit.” He had actually enjoyed being with his uncle for the first time in many years, finding his new, post-accident personality a lot easier to take. Still, he thought he was a long way from being well.
“Honey, your uncle is doing great, all things considered,” Riva said. The two of them were alone for a few minutes while Doug was out picking up their Chinese take-out. Whenever Max came home, it was their family tradition to order in from Foong-Lin, an Annapolis favorite.
“You mean considering he’s a retard?”
“Max, please have some respect! And don’t ever say anything like that in front of your father, promise?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure, okay, of course not, what am I, an idiot? But how’s he ever going to make any money again? Nobody will hire him, that’s obvious. Half the time he forgets what he said right after he says it, and so he says it again. It’s crazy. As far as I could tell, the only thing he can do well is play Scrabble, which is actually kind of weird. He wins every damn time!”
“I agree, it is fairly odd. His doctor said it’s the only part of his brain that was completely unaffected--the game-playing part, don’t ask me what that is, but anyway, the three of us play all the time when we see him. It makes him feel good about himself, and you know he’s always liked to be first at everything, especially when he’s competing with your father. Now Scrabble is the only thing he can win at.”
“Hey, maybe he should do that professionally. You know, in New York there are always flyers advertising Scrabble tournaments all over the place, and some of them have cash prizes. He could scarf those up easy,” Max said excitedly. He saw that Riva had that very same look of skepticism she wore throughout his teen years whenever he came up with a new idea. “Really, Mom, I am quite serious now. I’m not a dumb kid anymore.”
“You were never a dumb kid,” she said swiftly. “And I know you’re being serious, but it’s unworkable. He can hardly get himself to the corner coffee shop in Port Henry, how would he get to New York City? And be in a tournament?”
“Good point,” said Max, realizing suddenly that his idea would involve him taking his uncle to these things. That was certainly not any plan he wanted to initiate. Still, it was worth thinking about.
“Besides,” Riva said, “as for money, your uncle is pretty well set for life financially. Dad and Dan’s lawyer have been working for months to find a buyer for the agency, and they finally have. A much bigger national agency is buying Dan’s business, and he’s getting several million for it. After the deal goes through he can just live off his investments. No, money is certainly not his problem. But finding something for him to do is. He was always such a workaholic, he will go bonkers—even more bonkers—sitting around the house twiddling his thumbs.”
When Doug came home with the food, two large brown paper bags filled with enough for plenty of leftovers tomorrow, the three of them set about the serious business of devouring it in silence. As it was for many Jews, especially the ones who had been raised in kosher homes like Doug and Riva, eating Chinese food was a quasi-religious experience not to be taken lightly, with special attention given to forbidden treats like roast pork and lobster. They ate in silence. Once they were past the wonton soup and pot stickers, Max told Doug about the Scrabble tournament idea.
“Interesting,” said Doug, a little soy sauce dribbling down his chin. “I like it. But how would he get himself there?”
“Yeah, well, we’d have to work that part out,“ said Max. “Maybe we could hire someone?” The three of them exchanged glances and simultaneously burst out laughing, imagining some lowly assistant trying to tell Dan what to do and where to go. Still, the idea was not without merit, and later that night Doug asked Max to check out how many such tournaments really existed, how often and where they were held, and how much money was involved. “You know, the money doesn’t really matter, but it will make him feel like he’s actually working. Your Uncle Dan needs to get excited about something, and this just might be what he needs. You know he’s happiest when he’s winning at something.”
“I know Dad. I’ll look around.”
“Thanks, Max. Whatever helps…you know, is a help.”
Chapter 13: Poppy Finds Out
She may have been a bad cook and not too great a housekeeper, but Poppy was no dummy. She had never bought that story about this person named Jay being a former client, and so decided to do some sleuthing on her own. It was easy enough to check Dan’s cell phone, since most of the time he had no idea where he had left it. Each time she came across it, she checked his messages and looked at his texts. And since he had needed her help to set up a new e-mail account, she knew his password and could easily go into his e-mails when he was napping or in the shower or out poking around in the garage or the backyard.
Since Dan’s old phone had been smashed to pieces in the accident, everything she found had been written since he had come out of the coma and out of rehab. And she found plenty. It became obvious in no time that Dan had been living a double life before the accident. There were many texts from Jay, all sexual in nature and some referring to their times together before the bike crash. It had been going on for over a year! And through Facebook and e-mails, she learned all about Jay, and was shocked to see his photo: he was black! And young, barely older than Troy!
At first she was stunned, sad and repulsed to realize that she had slept with Dan while he was having sex with a man. It was rare, but it happened. The first thing she did was go to a clinic in Boston to get tested for HIV. Relieved that all was well, she decided that intercourse with him now was completely out of the question. Anyway, he didn’t seem at all interested in her in that way, and only once in a while would say something like, “Maybe we should we try to do it to see if it works, ” or “Do you want to give me a blow job?” Her usual response was a laugh, and he would forget in minutes that he had even said anything.
Eventually her rage surfaced. How dare he? The father of her children was a homo! And with a black man half his age, of all people. Couldn’t he have found some nice, dignified older gay man to consort with, maybe someone with graying temples, a sailboat and a big, fat bank account? And what about her? What was she supposed to do?
Naturally she had to tell someone, and so she told Margie, one night when they had gone out for dinner. Dan was at home with the kids, just Alexandra and Ben since Troy had finally gone back to college after staying home for one semester to help out. But the two younger ones had become quite protective of their dad and could see to his needs and keep him company in front of the TV or playing Scrabble, which he did almost every night now. She told him she needed a “girls night out” and met Margie at Hugo’s, a casual French-style bistro on Port Henry’s bustling waterfront. Margie was stunned. “No way! There is no way your husband is gay. No. Way! He’s always coming on to me!”
“Oh great, that’s awfully nice to hear,” said Poppy grimly. “Thanks.”
“I just mean in a meaningless, his-habit-with-all-women way, not seriously.”
“Well, I guess that’s been his cover.”
“Does that make you his beard?
“Forget it. Let’s order,” Margie said, quickly opening the menu and scanning the wine list. After settling on a California Pinot, the two of them considered the situation from all angles and decided that Poppy’s best course of action was to do nothing. At least for a while, until Dan was back on his feet again, and then she could kick the bastard out. She decided right then to tell Margie the rest of the story, the part she had kept hidden from everyone. “Anyway, Dan is not the only one who has dabbled. I started an affair back when he was in a coma.”
Margie let out a shriek that caused several people seated nearby to look over at her anxiously. “No way! You are kidding me! With who?”
“One of the doctors from the ICU at Mass General. He was assigned to Dan for a couple of weeks, and we met and clicked right away, I could tell. Then one morning I ran into him in the hospital cafeteria, and we had coffee together. Later that very day we were having sex in a Super 8 motel a few miles away from the hospital.”
“Really? A motel? The same day?” Margie was shrieking again. “I cannot believe this. With Dan in a coma you fucked another guy? In a motel? That is tacky, girl! Sounds like something I would do,” she said with a delighted grin.
“I have to admit, it was incredible,” Poppy said, blushing. “It still is.”
“Oh God, this is unbelievable. Who are you? I need more alcohol!” And with that she flagged down the waiter and ordered them two Bloody Marys. “And make them strong,” she yelled out as the waiter walked off.
“He suggested doing it in a supply closet in the hospital right then and there when we were having coffee in the cafeteria, which I thought was way tackier.”
“Sweetie, you are just full of surprises tonight,” Margie fairly squealed. “Well, tell me. Who is he? How old? He must be gorgeous for you to be so impulsive. How was the sex? I need details, since I never have any of my own these days.”
“Let’s just call him Bill for now. He is somewhere in his early to mid-thirties, or maybe even late twenties, I’m not quite sure. And yes he is gorgeous, like a god or a movie star or something. And the sex was incredible.” Poppy delivered this last piece of information with a big smile as Margie listened with ever-widening eyes, sipping her Bloody Mary as she did so. “I mean, really, really good. Like in a porno film good.”
“Late twenties? Wow, robbing the cradle, I’m impressed. So how often have you
seen this guy? And when can you? Come on, keep talking,” Margie commanded, happily munching on some popcorn like she was at the movies.
“We get together like once or twice a week, whenever we can both get away. He has a couple of housemates so we usually meet in a motel that’s halfway between here and Boston. It’s quite tawdry.”
“What’s his specialty?”
“He is great at everything, but if I had to choose I’d say oral sex.”
“Jesus, Poppy, I meant his medical specialty! And really? It’s good?”
“Actually he’s a critical care nurse. And yes, it’s amazing. I never really cared for it before with Dan, but with Bill it is beyond belief.”
“Nurse? I thought you said he was a doctor.”
“Well, I couldn’t just say ‘I’m sleeping with a nurse,’ it’s too confusing. I figured I’d ease you into it. Anyway, he’s almost a doctor. He could be a doctor, in fact he was going to be, it’s just that he liked nursing better and got tired of going to med school. He says he might go further one day. Besides, when he’s naked I don’t care what his title is, and you wouldn’t either, trust me.” Margie exploded with laughter.
The two friends finally ordered their dinner entrees and got into the bottle of wine. Eventually they switched onto the subject of Margie’s new boss at the law firm where she worked as a paralegal and how much she hated her. Waving the waiter back, they decided to celebrate their first dinner out together since Dan’s accident and asked for an appetizer serving of steak tartare. “Why the heck not? After all,” Margie had said, “what’s a little e.coli compared to what you’ve been through? Which reminds me, do you guys use a condom? You know, disease and all…”
“Not so far. I’m still on the pill, and I don’t want anything between me and that fabulous equipment of his. I swear, any disease I catch from this guy will be worth it. But I’m not worried, he is very clean, you know, hygienically speaking.”
Life was slowly returning to normal, Poppy realized, something she had doubted would ever happen during the early weeks after Dan’s bike accident. And now, even though both she and her husband were sleeping with strange men and not each other, things were not really all that bad. The money was set, the kids were healthy, and she was having the best sex she had ever had in her life. Not bad at all, considering. In fact, the only problem was Dan’s moping around the house with nothing to do all day. That was one thing that needed fixing, and soon.
Chapter 14: Max’s Plan
It was pouring buckets and Max was already regretting the whole enterprise before it had really even started. Soaking wet, having neglected to bring an umbrella, he traipsed back and forth on 23rd Street looking for the address he had seen in the classified ad in the Village Voice, but kept missing it somehow. “What the fuck,” he muttered to himself as he looked again and again at the space where it should be, but wasn’t. Finally he ducked into a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts to dry off and call the phone number shown in the same ad. He was glad he did, since it turned out the ad contained a typographical error and the place he was looking for was on 28th Street, not 23rd. “Dammit,” Max shouted, as he clicked off the phone. As compensation he bought himself a powdered jelly donut and a large latte. Feeling better after ingesting the sugar and caffeine, he ducked back out into the rain and ran the five blocks up 10th Avenue to the correct address, finding the New York City Scrabble Club Headquarters wedged between a liquor store and a Korean bakery, and went inside.
The whole idea had taken shape after talking with his new girlfriend, Lulu. He and Nina had broken up months ago, and in no time Max had met the latest woman of his dreams at a yoga class his friend Howie turned him onto. “You can’t believe the chicks in this place, man,” Howie had said. “They do things with their bodies you simply cannot believe. You just gotta see. ”
That statement turned out to be true as far as Lulu went, and Max was a happy man once more. It was Lulu who told him about the Scrabble Club. Her older brother had done some carpentry work at the liquor store right next door to it and had stopped in there on his breaks to check out what was happening. “Gabe says it’s amazing! He says there are all kinds of people in there, including totally respectable types, men in business suits even, who compete and actually win money. Every week they have some kind of special game or tournament going. You should see about it for your uncle, really,” Lulu had said.
Max had forgotten all about it until he saw the ad in the paper: “CALLING ALL SCRABBLE FREAK$! WIN CA$H PRIZE$! FIND FUN AND FRIENDSHIP!” An amateurish line drawing of a Scrabble board and an address and phone number accompanied the boldface headline. Max decided it couldn’t hurt to check it out, so there he was, on a Monday afternoon in a biblical deluge, looking for something his crummy, now semi-retarded uncle who he really didn’t like very much could do with himself to keep his father, who he loved a lot, from being so sad and depressed all the time.
The place was bustling, with a couple of dozen people sitting at four backyard redwood picnic tables, the kind with the benches attached. Some were playing Scrabble while others were just watching the games and kibitzing. There was a huge ticking timer on the wall, and an even bigger clock right beside it. Score sheets were pinned to a large cork bulletin board, and a big sheet of lined paper bore the title, “UPCOMING TOURNAMENTS IN OTHER CITIES.” Another large chart listed “2, 3 and 4-letter Words Containing Z, X, Q and J.”
Max stood just inside the front door taking in the scene, unsure of how to proceed, when finally a bearded, middle-aged man with a sizable paunch strode over, his hand extended in a friendly greeting. “Hey there,” he said smiling, “Welcome to Scrabble Central. Do you play?”
“Hey, hello. Thanks. Not me, but my uncle plays. He is really good, so I was just checking you guys out to see if this was something he could maybe get into.”
“Well, bring him in and let him find out for himself.” The man introduced himself as Abbott Clark, and explained that he ran the operation most days. Max was amazed to learn that there was a whole world of so-called “Scrabble freaks” who met there every day to play and prepare to compete in tournaments all over the five boroughs of New York, as well as in other large American cities. Still more took place in France and England, with the U.S. winners joining those competitions.
Max told Abbott as much as he felt was necessary about Dan’s condition, and that he lived in Massachusetts. “He’s getting better every day, but he’s still a little shaky about traveling.”
Abbott thought about that for a minute, and then said, “Well, there are trains several times a day from Boston to New York. Wouldn’t be too hard to get him here. It might be just the ticket for him to be around people who also enjoy doing like what he enjoys. In fact, we have another guy with a brain injury who comes here, Jake, that guy sitting over in the corner in the red baseball cap. He fell off his roof about two years ago while he was out cleaning the gutters on his house. Almost died. Lives in Queens. Only forty-three, even though he looks a lot older. He’s one of our best players, and has already been in a couple of big contests. Won some decent cash. Maybe we should meander over and talk to him.”
Abbott introduced Max to Jake and the three of them made small talk about the weather. Max noticed that Jake was a lot like his Uncle Dan in a couple of ways, mostly that his hearing seemed less than stellar and he asked for things to be repeated a lot. Finally Abbott excused himself, and Max got around to asking Jake if he thought that the Scrabble Club had helped in his recovery. “Absolutely, no doubt about it,” was his instant reply. “Gave me something to do, someplace to go. And something to work towards, since I could never work again after my head injury. I was just sitting at home, driving my wife batty, until I started coming here. Of course I had my doctor appointments and my physical therapy appointments, but nothing where I’d feel like I was worth anything. And nobody came to see me after the first few months. That’s typical.”
“Yeah, same with my uncle,” Max said. “At first there were lots of visitors, but now hardly anyone. Except for family.”
“You ought to get him here, especially if he’s good. There aren’t too many people at the top, mostly they just like playing for fun. We could use a club champ! Besides, there are cash prizes in the big tournaments, and that never hurts,” Jake said with a big smile. “Well, nice talking with you, see you around.” He gave Max a hug and walked back to his corner.
Once he got back home, Max was all excited to call his parents and tell them he’d found the answer of what to do with Uncle Dan. Of course there were details to work out, like how Dan would himself get to New York and where he would stay once he go there, but he had plenty of money so Max figured he could afford a hotel. And maybe Aunt Poppy would take him on the train, or one of the kids. It wasn’t his problem, though. He was pretty sure he had already done enough of a good deed just by finding the place.
Chapter 15: Dan Gets Moving
Time may not heal all wounds but it does heal some, at least enough to function. Over time Dan was able to prepare his own meals and be left at home alone. After about six months he took his driver’s test and passed, to the surprise of everyone, most of all Dan.
That was quite a day, and not just for him; Poppy was tired of driving him everywhere, like to all his therapy appointments and the barber and the library and his brain injury support group meetings. Not only did those errands add to her daily burden of taking care of the house and shopping for groceries and ferrying the kids to all their activities, but she could hardly manage to escape once or twice a week for her motel date with Bill, something she desperately needed. Those few hours she spent with him were the only time she wasn’t consumed with Dan, Dan, and more Dan.
It wasn’t love with Bill but it was very deep lust, and his compliments satisfied her need to feel attractive and appreciated, something Dan had never excelled at even before the accident and now did not at all. Besides, she knew he was back in touch with that Jay character from reading his texts whenever she came across his cell phone. So far the two of them had just been texting, but it was obvious they had every intention of resuming the relationship as soon as it became plausible and possible to do so. She dreaded that day, while at the same time she welcomed it. At least it would get him out of the house.
Even though he had gotten his license back, Dan was very nervous about driving and so only went out in daylight, and only short distances. So Poppy was surprised when she came home from grocery shopping one late afternoon and found that Dan’s car was gone. A sporty black Corvette, his vanity license plate, CRAZY4U, was meant to reflect his feelings for the car, but now it seemed almost obscene, with several possible meanings. Was he crazy for Jay? Was he just crazy? Would he ever be normal again? What would he do with himself once the kids were all gone? Was she stuck with him forever? Destined to sit across from him over the Scrabble board as the two of them slowly turned gray, or in Dan’s case, bald? Or worse, watch him play Scrabble online with strangers, which is what he far preferred since she admittedly was not very good and he liked to compete.
These questions plagued her, and she and Doug had argued heatedly over her poor attitude. “You’re his wife,” he’d say, “remember the vows? The part about in sickness and in health? Well this is the sickness part!”
Yes, she remembered. Still, she had made those vows before she knew her husband was gay, or at least bisexual. And now, knowing that, she had no intention of letting him ruin her life -- what was left of it. As Bill always said, “You’re still a young woman and you’ve got a great pair of tits!” That was one of the reasons she loved seeing him, so that someone could see her, admire her even, naked in all her glory, before everything started to sag.
Poppy snapped back to attention as she looked at the empty space in the garage. This was the first time Dan had gone out driving past noon. She hoped he was alone and not with Ben or Alexandra, since his driving was downright dangerous at this point. Hastily she texted both kids to learn their whereabouts. Both of them texted back quickly, as instructed or else they would lose their phones immediately and permanently. Alexandra was at play rehearsal; her class was putting on “Bye Bye, Birdie” and she had won the part of Birdie’s mother, so she had plenty of lines to learn. Ben was at his pal Zander’s house and the two of them were “doing homework” which meant playing video games, she knew, but still, it was a relief to know they were not out driving with their father.
So that left Dan, alone, out driving his sporty black Corvette in the near-dark night. She called his phone and got his recorded message. That could mean anything or nothing. Often when he did answer he shouted into the phone that he couldn’t hear her and would hang up abruptly. Other times he couldn’t even hear his phone ring, or he had the ringer turned off, or it wasn’t even with him or it was but he couldn’t find it in one of the many pockets in those damn cargo pants he insisted on wearing. The fact that he didn’t answer could mean any of those things. Or. Or he could be with that Jay person, doing God knows what sordid things. She wouldn’t let her thoughts go there.
As it happened, Dan was with Jay. Finally. After weeks of talking and texting and emailing, Dan had gotten up the nerve to drive the same route he had driven the day of the bike accident to Jay’s apartment. He hadn’t been on that road since then, and although he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, some of it came back to him in flashes as he neared the exact corner where he had crashed. He was surprised that he felt nothing as he drove by the spot, and continued on a few more miles, crossed over the 3-mile long causeway to Plum Island and found Jay’s second floor apartment with the help of his car’s dashboard GPS system. The house was little more than a somewhat rickety old beach shack but with an unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean that made the apartment a real find, and worth much more than it would cost otherwise.
The reunion was emotional for both of them. Jay burst into tears at the sight of Dan, who had gone gray since the last time they were together. “Hey, old man, now you really look the part,” he said tearfully, hugging him hard. As for Dan, he was happy that he remembered Jay at all, having feared that he would draw a blank when he saw him. But everything came back in a rush, and the two of them sat down on the balcony, the brisk salt air washing over them, and talked for a long time. Jay opened the bottle of champagne he had chilling to celebrate their being together again and demanded to hear every last detail of what had happened. Dan apologized for not being able to remember much. “All I know is what they tell me: that when I got to Route 12 and Allen Avenue, I flipped over my handlebars and hit my head on the pavement. The next thing I knew it was two months later and I was in the ICU at Mass General.” He looked up at Jay like a sad puppy hoping to be adopted in a pet shop window.
“And now I forget everything and can’t hear very well, and I sort of have a limp because my knee got fucked-up. And the worst thing is, some other parts that once worked really well don’t anymore, I’m very sorry to report.” He said this last part with a rueful smile. Jay kissed his cheek and took him by the hand. “We’ll just see about that,” he said softly, heading into the bedroom. “Bring your champagne.”
Chapter 16: Bill Gets Involved
“Honey, where were you last night? I was worried," Mrs. O’Hara said to her grown son. “You didn’t come home, I know that because I got up at three o’clock and then again at four o’clock and your car was still gone.”
“Really Mom, I’m a little too old for this kind of interrogation, don’t you think?”
“Well, some folks I talk with think you’re too old to be living with your parents if you want to know the truth, but since you do live with us I think we deserve to be treated with some consideration and common courtesy. I mean, just because you’re 30 years old does not mean you can’t be killed in a car accident. I do worry.” Mrs. O’Hara sniffed into her tissue and tried not to cry since she knew how much her son hated that. “Can I fix you some eggs?”
“Sure, eggs sound great. I’ve got to get to work by 11. And why do you only worry about me at night? Plenty of car accidents happen during the day, yet you don’t call me at work to see if I made it there alive. Thank God for that, I guess.”
“Bacon too?” She knew he loved his bacon.
“Sure Mom, bacon too. Thanks.”
Things had not gone as planned for Bill O’Hara. An early, ill-advised and hasty marriage at age 21 to a girl he barely knew and had gotten pregnant had lasted only two years. Fortunately, sad as it was at the time, Shelley had a miscarriage in her fourth month and they would never had gotten married without a baby in the picture, but that was all ancient history. The whole mess had changed his life, causing him to take a job at the local supermarket as an assistant produce manager rather than go on to medical school as planned. When it became obvious that there was no love between them and never would be they had an agreeable divorce, after which Bill started down a dismal road peppered with a series of jobs he hated. Waiting tables, selling used cars and managing a burger joint did little to quell his childhood dream of being a doctor.
People often suggested he go into modeling because of his movie star looks – blonde hair, blue eyes, tall and lean—but he never gave that a second’s consideration. He was stuck on wanting to make a difference, somehow, to someone. Finally he opted to go to nursing school, which seemed like a quicker route to the same destination. Besides, more and more men were becoming nurses, and the stigma attached to it as a female profession was fast disappearing. But nursing school proved to be almost as tough as med school, and costly too, and so he needed financial help. Grudgingly, he moved back in with his parents in their roomy split-level just north of Boston to save money on rent and concentrate on getting his RN degree. And since living there was so easy, he never bothered to move out.
Besides all the pictures of Jesus on the walls, which Bill found slightly disturbing and also comical since his parents hadn’t been to church for years and his father’s only hobby seemed to be downing pints of Guinness, living with them had never been much of a problem for Bill since he was always either at work or staying over at someone else’s place. All of his friends and certainly most of the women he dated had places of their own by now, except for a few really young ones who still lived at home. But those relationships ended quickly when it became clear there was nowhere for them to have sex. Until Poppy.
She was different. Not only was she a lot older than Bill, but she was married, and with three kids of her own. He could just imagine his mother and father screaming to bloody high heaven if they found out about her.
Bill could tell the minute he met her that she was interested in him. Even with her husband lying right there in a coma, still she was all dolled up, wearing a low-cut sweater that displayed her ample breasts, and even smelling of a sexy perfume and giving him that hungry look. Pretending to read a book, he had caught her eying him up and down as he was changing the IV drip bag hanging over her husband, and while he was used to women looking at him that way, it had never before been over the body of a comatose patient.
“So,” he had said to her, more to calm his own nerves than hers, “this is a shame about your husband. It must be really hard on you, not knowing when he’ll wake up.”
“It is. I just hope it’s not too soon,” she had said with a flirty smile.
“Too soon for what?”
“Oh, lots of things. Like to get to know you better, for one,” she had said, leaning forward provocatively. She was good-looking enough, that was for sure, but still Bill was stunned and had simply turned and walked out of the room, feeling sorry for her husband. The poor guy, there he is in a coma and his wife is coming on to all the doctors, okay, and nurses. He had seen her pull the same shit with several other staff members. Still, despite thinking she must be some kind of slutty whore or sex addict, he looked for her the next day and the day after that when he was in the Critical Care Unit, but since he was working the overnight shift he didn’t see her. It wasn’t until a few days later that they ran into one another in the hospital cafeteria early one morning, just as he was getting off work and she was arriving to visit her husband. They sat down to have coffee together and it seemed like almost no time before they were both naked at the Motel 6 down the road from the hospital. She was crazy in bed; it was like she had never had sex before, or had but not for a long time, like she had just gotten out of a nunnery after years of celibacy. She was almost insatiable, and the afternoon passed with them hardly speaking, just moaning and grunting at one another.
Bill knew most of what he knew about Poppy from reading her husband’s case history rather than from her divulging any personal information. Still, despite the odd circumstances, and their age difference –she was almost 14 years older-- he found himself thinking about her all the time, and missing her, and wanting to be with her more often. But the motel thing was starting to get tiresome, and expensive. He certainly could never bring her home to his parents’ house. How embarrassing would that be! So they kept meeting in motels, even after her husband woke up and was transferred to a rehab facility, and finally returned home.
Bill knew it was nuts but he was hooked, at least for the time being. She had a certain way, and she was obviously wild about him too, and maybe, just maybe, things would work out for them now that she had found out her husband was gay. That was a shocker. She had even started to talk about divorce. Bill figured if things kept going the way they were going, soon enough he might even get up the nerve to tell her that his so-called “roommates” were really his Mom and Dad. Then maybe they could even get a place together. Of course, there were those three kids of hers. So maybe not.
Chapter 17: The Detail Man
It was a week until Christmas and not one thing had been done about it by anyone in the Waldman family. Despite their being Jewish, like many affluent Americans they usually celebrated Christmas anyway, if for no other reason than to buy one another expensive gifts and host elaborate dinner parties for Dan’s biggest clients. As Alexandra had complained bitterly when she was about six years old, “Who ever heard of a Hanukkah party?” But this year everything was different, and with so much attention spent on Dan’s condition, the whole family had simply let both holidays drop through the cracks.
Dan was getting better every day but he still had a lot of issues that were troubling, the biggest one being that he was in love with Jay which made him a homosexual, he guessed, and something he probably should discuss with his family, and certainly his wife. Although, Dan had noticed, Poppy seemed pretty distracted these days and was hardly ever home since she had taken a part-time job at small arts and crafts gallery in Port Henry’s commercial district. Even though it was only three days a week, she seemed to always be going off somewhere on the other days as well, usually with her friend Margie, or so she said, although often enough it was for a late afternoon tryst with Bill. With Troy off at college, it had fallen on Alexandra to take care of things at home. She cooked meals and helped Ben with his homework, while their Haitian housekeeper Bonita took care of the laundry and general upkeep of the house, adding a day a week to her schedule. Besides needing the money, her heart went out to the whole family, especially the children. It was obvious they could use her help.
One day, out shopping in Port Henry’s festively-decorated downtown district, and overflowing with Christmas spirit, Jay got up the courage to make a bold move and visit Dan at home. He had driven by his house countless times but had never even slowed down, just catching a glimpse of the imposing brick façade out of the corner of his eye and in the rear-view mirror. This time he stopped, parked right in front, and walked up the slate path to the impressive oak front door adorned with a brass lion’s head knocker. He chose the doorbell instead, holding his breath and praying silently. Dan had said that his wife worked outside the home on “most days,” so Jay was praying that this was one of those days. It was.
Bonita answered the door, took one look at him, said, “Whatever you’re selling, they don’t want it, so get your sorry black ass out of here,” and slammed the door in his face. Annoyed but not surprised, he rang the doorbell again and waited. This time Dan came to the door. He was confused seeing Jay standing there, since this had never happened before. “Why are you here? Is something wrong?”
“No, everything is fine. I just wanted to see where you live. Can’t you introduce me as a former colleague or something?”
“I guess so. Come on in.”
Bonita, busy vacuuming the living room, was outraged to see that Jay had gained entry. “What’s he doing in here?” she demanded. “I already told him to leave.”
“That’s okay, Bonita, he is actually a friend of mine.” Dan took Jay into the kitchen and offered him a cup of coffee, still not convinced this was not some kind of trick. He didn’t like to have his routine disturbed, and he was accustomed to seeing Jay in his apartment on Plum Island and nowhere else. Because it had been snowing on and off for the past week Dan had not gone to see him, since his reaction times were still slow and driving in bad weather frightened him.
“Would you like a sandwich? We have some nice egg salad, it’s my daughter’s specialty. She adds mustard. Here, let’s sit down for a minute,” Dan said, motioning to the kitchen table. He chose a chair by the window that faced the street so he could see if Poppy was coming.
“Thanks, I’m not really hungry. I brought your Christmas present,” Jay said with a big smile. He handed Dan a small box wrapped in green tissue paper. “Open it later. Besides, I missed you, and I was in the neighborhood.”
“Why were you in this neighborhood?”
“Dammit, I was in the neighborhood to come see you!”
“Oh. Well this is a bad idea, what if Poppy comes home?”
“Say I’m a past client, an old friend, whatever.”
“You can’t be an old friend, she knows all my old friends, and besides, you are not that old.”
“Fine, tell her I came to detail your Corvette.”
“Hey, that’s good. I can use that one,” Dan said, completely serious.
“Look Dan, this bullshit has got to stop. You’ve got to tell her the truth about us.”
“Tell who the truth about what?” Ben, home from school for Christmas break, had wandered in looking for a snack and was all ears. Looking at Jay, he said, “Hey, it’s a black guy. We never had a black guy in our house, except once for Bonita’s boyfriend who only came to the back door to pick her up. Who are you anyway?”
“Hey there, you must be Ben,” Jay said. “Nice to meet you, I’ve heard a lot of
great things about you from your dad.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Well, let’s see. He said you tell great jokes, and you’re a math wizard and that you make a spectacular grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe you’ll make one for me sometime.”
Ben was flattered and offered to make Jay a sandwich right then and there. Jay said he was seriously considering it, but their lighthearted banter was too much for Dan, who was worried Poppy might show up any minute. “Look Ben, Jay and I have some serious grown-up stuff to talk about, so maybe you should let us do that. He can’t stay long.”
Sticking his tongue out at his father, Ben said, “Fine by me,” grabbed a
bag of corn chips and a jar of salsa from the cupboard and ran out whistling.
“Cute kid,” Jay said, smiling at Ben’s departing figure but still obviously distraught. He listed his grievances: He felt unloved, ignored, left out and frustrated. He loved Dan. He knew that Dan loved him. He was confused. At this last complaint, Dan interrupted his litany.
“You’re confused! How do you think I feel? I’m confused about everything, not just us. I have a wife and three kids I barely remember having, a lover half my age I’m hiding from the world and a twin brother who calls me every day and cries whenever he looks at me. I was in a coma for I don’t know how long, and there are days when I’m sorry I woke up.”
Jay stood up to leave. “I’m sorry to hear that you feel that way. I thought I made you happy. As happy as you make me.”
“Wait, that came out all wrong,” Dan said, standing up and grabbing Jay by the hand. “You do make me happy, it’s just that I can’t figure out how to get from where I am right now to where I want to be without hurting more people.”
It was at just that moment that Poppy walked in. The three of them stood glaring at one another, not speaking, with Dan’s last statement hanging in the air over them. Poppy had obviously heard it too. Slamming a bag of groceries on the counter, she yelled, “Well please, don’t let me stop you.” Then, spinning around angrily, she stormed out of the room.
“Oh great,” said Dan.
“Yes, it is great,” said Jay. “Now that she knows what’s going on, the hard part is over. You two just have to figure out the details.”
“Well, I’m not that good at details these days, as you know. I used to be, but since the accident that’s not my strongest suit.”
“Well then it’s a damn good thing you’ve got me. We already agreed that I’m your detail man, remember?”
“We did?” Dan was flustered and more confused than usual after Poppy’s appearance and immediate disappearance. “When was that?”
“We did?” Dan was flustered and more confused than usual after Poppy’s appearance and immediate disappearance. “When was that?”
“When I first got here. It doesn’t matter, I’m just kidding. What I mean is, everything will work out, I promise. We’ll work it out together.”
“Oh, good,” Dan said with a sigh. “As long as I don’t have to figure it out all by myself.”
Chapter 18: Not My Brother’s Keeper
Since Dan’s accident, Doug was heartsick most of the time and had taken to drinking martinis at odd hours to soothe his jangled nerves. (He preferred them with all the trimmings, sometimes adding a slice of lemon and a few olives or a smoked oyster to feel like he was getting some nourishment.) Despite his brother’s progress, Doug couldn’t stop remembering the vibrant and dynamic man his brother once had been and comparing him with the shell of a man he now was. Almost an obsession, it was starting to impact his ability to concentrate, and work was starting to suffer.
At Riva’s suggestion, Doug started seeing a shrink once a week to get some relief. Riva put all her hopes in this basket and was convinced it would fix everything. Max, as usual, thought it was dumb and a waste of money, and never one to hold back his opinions, he told his father just how dumb he thought it was during one of their weekly phone calls.
“I don’t get it. Your brother falls off his bike, hits his head and goes into a coma, then wakes up nutty and now you need a shrink?”
“He is not nutty, as you put it so rudely, he is brain-injured. How many times must I tell you that?”
“Sorry Dad, my bad. Anyway, you are a separate person from him, and yet you are all mopey and down in the mouth like it happened to you. That cannot be much help to him,” Max said for perhaps the twentieth time since the accident. “Anyway, I think Uncle Dan is not as bad off as you think he is.”
“That’s nice to hear, but what makes you say that?” Doug was immediately interested. Besides respecting Max’s opinion, he was desperate to hear some good news about Dan’s depressing condition.
“Okay. Two things. First of all, I found this whole Scrabble tournament world in the Village that I think would be great for Uncle Dan. It would give him a sense of community, a place to be, and there are even a couple of other people there with brain injuries. Don’t get excited, it’s not a nut house or even a dementia, daycare kind of place. This is a legitimate thing, kind of like a hobby that went postal. They hold tournaments and people even make money! This is serious stuff. They travel to other cities, meet new people. Uncle Dan would love it! He could start schmoozing again, and you know that’s his favorite thing.”
“Go on.” Doug was intrigued.
“Well, there’s a tournament two weeks from this coming Saturday and if we could just get him up here, I could sign him up and he could get in it and I bet you anything he would win! I watched a lot of these folks play and he’s a shit ton better than all of them. And if he wins, then he goes on to the regional tournaments in other cities, and so on. It could be his whole new career!”
“Playing Scrabble is hardly a career,” Doug inserted grumpily, although he had to admit that his brother’s prowess at the game they had played competitively since childhood had indeed improved noticeably since his accident.
“Dad, he’s already made a fortune selling toilet bowl cleaner, and who thinks that’s a career?” It’s true that Dan’s largest client had been the purveyor of “Organic Flush, the first choice in green toilet health.”
“Continue,” Doug said, nursing his martini and chomping on some peanuts as he listened. “You said there were two things that made you think he wasn’t that bad off. What’s the other one?”
“Okay, don’t freak out, but I think your brother is getting out more than you know. I hate to have to tell you this, but I think he’s gay. Or maybe bi.”
“That’s out of the question. He has three kids with Poppy!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but things can change, “ Max went on. ‘Anyway, I saw him driving around Boston one day a few weeks ago with some young black dude, and they were stopped at a traffic light right near the train station, and I swear Dad, I saw them kissing. On the lips. Like for real.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Doug exclaimed, downing his drink and getting up to fix himself another. “And what were you doing in Boston?”
“Dad, I went there for an audition with some theater company, and it was definitely Uncle Dan’s car -- who could mistake that license plate? And the young guy was at the wheel, and Dan had his arm around him. And then they started kissing, it was pretty gross, just like a girl and a guy except it was two men. It’s sick if you ask me, but that’s just my personal opinion, I know, gays are fine, they can get married and have kids and everything. Whatever. They almost saw me but I turned my head away.”
“Very. Like maybe a couple of years older than me, or maybe even my age, I can never tell how old black people are. Who knows, maybe he’s much older. Anyway, they were definitely going at it, and then the light changed and the car behind them honked and they took off. So I think Uncle Dan is doing better than you think in several areas. Like having sex, for one.”
“Max, I get the point,” Doug said dejectedly.
“Just saying, stop feeling so sorry for the guy all the time.”
“So to make me feel better you called to tell me that my identical twin brother is now gay and has taken a black lover half his age? And that’s supposed to make me feel better how?”
“Dad, face facts. He is a separate person from you. You two are out of the womb, remember? You have got to snap out of this funk and let him live the rest of his life, and you have to live yours.”
“So did you get the part?”
“They called me back for a second read next week. It’s pretty cool, and if I get it I would have to move to Boston for like three months, it’s a limited run kind of summer stock thing. So then whenever you visit Uncle Dan you could see me too.”
“That does sound cool.” Doug was beginning to feel better, partly from the second martini, but also from hearing about the possibility that he personally was not 100% responsible for Dan’s future after all.
“Okay then, so I’ll make all the arrangements for the Scrabble thing. But you need to buy the train tickets since I am all but penniless,” Max said, only partly joking. “And you’ll need a hotel room for the two of you for a night, too.”
“This is starting to sound expensive,” Doug said, becoming slightly alarmed. Always a bit of a penny-pincher, he hated the thought of wasting money on a lark, especially since Dan had so much more of it than he did.
“Dad, don’t worry. If he wins, which he will, the first prize is $500! That will pay for all of it, plus a little left over. Well, maybe not any left over, but certainly the train and the hotel, at least most of it. Anyway, I thought Uncle Dan is like richer than God, isn’t he?”
“Well, not richer, but certainly as rich.”
“So get him to pay you back, right?”
“Easier said than done,” Doug muttered more to himself than to Max. “But still, it’s worth a try. Okay, I’ll do it. Now I just have to get him to agree.”
Chapter 19: Lewd and Lascivious
After overhearing Dan and Jay talking in the kitchen, Poppy spun around and got right back in her car and drove over to Margie’s house. “So that’s Jay,” she blurted out to her friend a few minutes later.
“NO SHIT!” Margie yelled. “Wow, I did not see that coming! A black guy?”
“What do you mean, a black guy? How about just a guy, any color at all?”
Margie admitted that she was less stunned to hear that the man in question was a man than that he was a black man, since Dan had never seemed very interested in people of other races. In fact, he was pretty limited to Jews when it came to friendships and even all the women he had cheated on Poppy with over the years. “Anyway, now you know, and you can move forward,” she said, hoping to be helpful and avoid a total meltdown scene, seeing as she had a date coming by to pick her up in half an hour.
“And the man looked so young, much younger in fact,” Poppy wailed.
“Look at the bright side. You are off the hook! Enough with the caretaker role, you can run off with Billy boy and screw your brains out. Although. . .”
“Well, I hate to be a downer, sweetie, but aren’t you forgetting something? I mean really, take your time and see if you can think of what I might mean,” she said with a smile. Checking her watch, she said, “I’ll give you five minutes.”
“Okay. I already give up. What am I forgetting?”
“It’s more like who are you forgetting. Let’s see. A hint. There are three of them and one of them is….”
“Oh shit. My kids. Right. I did forget them. I forgot all about them. Dammit!” And with this realization she buried her face in her hands and began sobbing.
Never one to shirk her responsibilities before, ever since Poppy had started seeing Bill she was like a teenager with a schoolgirl crush. Somehow the kids got taken care of, mostly by Dan, brain injury and all, who drove them to their activities when Poppy was working and made sure they got home afterwards. And Alexandra had turned into quite the little cook, fixing meals for all of them. And with Bonita around a few days doing the laundry and cleaning the house, it was as if nobody even missed her, really. Sure, Ben still rushed over for hugs whenever he saw her, and always wanted her attention at bedtime, but that was it.
As for her feelings for them, she seemed not to be very maternal. Troy was all but grown and never called home unless he needed money, and so she almost forgot he even existed. These days her thoughts tended to drift to Bill’s naked, rock-hard body and the things he did to her when they were together in the motel room. Things she had never done with Dan, not even in their early dating days. Things, in fact, she could hardly believe she was capable of doing, yet Bill brought out her inner harlot, sometimes shocking even him with her bawdy suggestions.
“Oh my god Margie, I am a terrible person! I have totally ignored my family for months and months now! This must be some sort of mental illness, using wild sex as my coping strategy after Dan’s accident, or something. Am I one of those sex addicts like you hear about all the time on TV? I need help!”
“Wild sex? How wild?”
“Wild. I can’t even tell you. It’s too depraved.”
“Oh calm down. You are not depraved, I’m sure I’ve done worse. Your marriage sucked long before Dan fell off his bike and you know it. And anyway, when was the last time he even looked at you like a desirable woman before then? You guys always had bad sex. In fact, maybe he was always gay and just never told you. Maybe he didn’t even know it himself, the poor guy. After all, where did this guy Jay come from? He knew him before the accident, let’s remember that.”
“You’re right. You are so right. You are absolutely right! But what’s going to happen to my kids? They can’t stay with Dan; he barely remembers where he left his bedroom slippers. They complain all the time about having to call him like three times to get him to pick them up from wherever they are. And I can’t go and be with Bill with Ben and Alex in tow, he’s just thirty years old himself and still lives with a couple of roommates.”
“It might be time to talk to Bill about his intentions. Like, what is he doing with you? And who are those roommates anyway, and why do you always have to meet him in a motel? You know, some basic info,” Margie said with authority. “Trust me honey, something is not kosher with your sexy nurse. You better find out what’s what before you leave your husband and kids for him.”
Poppy decided that Margie was right and called Bill right then and there. He suggested they meet at their favorite motel in an hour, but Poppy said she would rather go for a drive as she wanted to talk about something important. They agreed she would pick him up at his house, but he’d be waiting for her outside as his roommates had some sort of work meeting going on. She agreed, even though that story sounded suspicious. “What’s with him hiding his roommates from me?” she asked Margie when she got off the phone.
“Maybe he’s married. Or worse, maybe he’s hiding you from them. Did you ever think of that? I mean if they are around his age, or even younger, he might be embarrassed that he’s dating an old lady over forty.”
“You’re probably right. But when we’re together there doesn’t seem to be any age difference between us at all.”
“You sly cougar, you! Anyway, I’ve got to finish getting dressed. I actually have a second date with someone who did not seem like a total loser on the first one. Imagine that.”
“Who is he?”
“Go and get your boyfriend, I’ll tell you all about him tomorrow if he’s still not a jerk tonight.”
Leaving Margie’s house, Poppy felt better than she had in months. Really, things would work out somehow, she was confident. Dan had tons of money coming in from his ad agency and always would, their lawyer had seen to that, so that was no problem. And if they got divorced she would likely get a big settlement, and maybe even the house. Bill could move in with her and the kids, maybe. Oh well, it was too soon to worry about those details.
Suddenly there was Bill waiting for her, looking smashing, like one of those sexy male models you see in the Sunday Times Magazine section or something. Those tight jeans certainly did show off his perfect butt. She was already feeling all tingly inside just looking at him.
“Hi, doll,” he said, jumping in next to her and immediately sticking his tongue in her ear. “What’s the big news?
And right away she was turned on, forgetting even what she had wanted to talk to him about. Trying to steady her shaking hands as he stroked her upper thigh underneath her skirt and played with her hair, she drove a few blocks to a neighborhood kiddie park and found a secluded spot at the far end of the parking lot, turned off the engine and collected her thoughts. “Look Bill,” she started, “things have gotten pretty intense between us, and I just wonder what we are doing, where we’re going, you know, that sort of thing. Hey, stop that! What are you doing?” To her horror he had started to undress and had already succeeded in shedding his jeans and underwear, revealing his growing erection. “Are you crazy, it’s like fifteen degrees outside, you’ll freeze your ass off.”
“Not if you keep it warm, I won’t.” And with that he reclined the passenger seat, pulled her over on top of him and stuck both his hands under her skirt, tugging off her leggings. In just a few seconds she was writhing in pleasure, his pulsating cock already deep inside her. Kissing him deeply, with his hands squeezing her bare buttocks, Poppy didn’t register the knock on the car window. But it was insistent and growing louder. Then came the flashlight.
A cop making his nightly rounds had noticed the fancy BMW wagon from a distance. Hearing shrieks from inside it, he thought there might be trouble. He drove closer, parked his patrol car and approached the scene on foot, gun drawn, expecting to find a rape in progress, or maybe just a couple of drunken kids. But no, it was two consenting adults going at it like dogs. Putting his gun away, he rapped on the window again, shouting in to them. “Don’t you folks know this is a public park? You can’t be doing this here.”
Determined to have an orgasm, Bill kept pumping away, ignoring the officer completely. Naturally this did not sit well with the cop, who muttered something into his cell phone. Poppy was by now reaching what she considered to be her peak sexual experience of all time and decided to keep going, the hell with the law. Even a fireman’s hose wouldn’t have stopped the two of them at that point.
In less than five minutes two more cop cars pulled up, and suddenly, having finally climaxed together, the exhausted lovers looked around and understood that they were in big trouble.
“Step out of the car, please ma’am. You too, sir,” said one officer. Hastily pulling on their clothing, Bill and Poppy did as instructed and were politely escorted into the back seat of one of the police cruisers.
“What’s happening? What law did we break? What about my car?” Poppy was in a panic, suddenly aware of how low she had fallen.
“We’ll explain it all down at the station, lady,” was the curt reply. “Give me the car keys and I’ll make sure it gets safely over to the impound lot. And if you two know a good lawyer, you might want to give him a call.”
Chapter 20: Dan Makes a Move
“Come on Uncle Dan, it will be good for you! You need to get out of the house more, meet some new people, get yourself back in the game. I promise, you’ll love it.” Max was having a hard time convincing his uncle to come to New York for a tournament at the East Side Scrabble Club, to be held one week after New Year’s Day. “What better way to start off a new year than meeting new people and, you know, starting fresh and all that good stuff? Besides, you can meet my girlfriend, Rosie.”
“Rosie? She sounds nice. I always liked that name. So optimistic and cheerful.
Tell me about her. What’s she like?”
“She’s great Uncle Dan, you’ll love her I’m sure, I’ll tell you all about her when I see you, but first let’s stick to the subject since I don’t have much time.”
“Okay, what was the subject again?”
“The tournament? About you coming to New York to play Scrabble. Remember?”
“The tournament? About you coming to New York to play Scrabble. Remember?”
“A little. But how would I get there? And how would I get back home?”
“We’ve been over this before. All you have to do is get a ride to the train in Boston and two hours later I’ll meet you right there at Grand Central Station in the city. It’s easy. You can do this, I know you can.”
After getting off the phone with Max, Dan weighed his proposal carefully, or as carefully as he could with his memory problems. He was depressed when Max reminded him that this was the third time he had called and asked him to explain it all to him again.
It certainly sounded like a good idea. Dan was intrigued, and welcomed a little break from his lonely life at home. Jay was away visiting his family in South Carolina for two weeks, leaving Dan pretty much on his own except for his daily phone calls from Doug. Visits from lifelong friends had all but stopped cold once word got out, somehow, that he was now gay and had a boyfriend. And with Poppy out on bail until her hearing, the two of them were civil to one another when it was necessary but she was little comfort to him. She had started sleeping in the downstairs guest bedroom and rushed out of the house early each weekday, dropping the kids off at school and going in to work long before Dan woke up at around noon. Since his accident he had trouble sleeping and usually didn’t go to bed until one or two in the morning, sometimes even later. Often he lay awake trying to remember a time when he and Poppy were happy together, something he could hardly believe now that he was with Jay. But he did remember some things, and none of them were good. It wasn’t so much that Poppy had been arrested that irked him, but that she had actually been caught having sex in a car, something Dan had suggested once or twice but she refused, calling him “adolescent” and “perverted.” And here she had gone and done it with a guy half her age, or technically three-quarters of her age, but still, not with him.
At least things were out in the open, and that was a relief for all concerned. Poppy knew about Jay and Dan knew about Bill, and neither of them seemed very upset about any of it. What troubled Poppy most was the fact that her boyfriend was still living with his parents, at his age! She had found that out at the police station when they were each formally charged with several laws on the Massachusetts books that she never knew about, but then, why would she? Apparently she and Bill had been guilty of Fornication, Adultery, and Open and Gross Lewdness, each a separate crime with its own distinct punishment, ranging from “imprisonment for not more than three months or by a fine of not more than thirty dollars” for the first charge, “imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars” for the second, and “imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars” for the third.
Owing to Dan’s good standing within the community, stemming from an ad campaign that his agency had done at no charge for the current mayor’s last election and his generous annual donation to the local Policemen’s Benevolent Society, Poppy and Bill had spent only one night in jail until a reasonable bail was posted and accepted on their behalf. Still, they each faced a trial in the next month or two, unless the lawyer Dan had retained could work a deal and get it all taken care of with little fanfare and a generous check to the city. Somehow it never made the local newspaper despite its prurient nature, sparing Poppy public humiliation. Still, she had to explain it to her children. The younger ones barely understood and seemed not to care once she promised she would not be going to jail, while Troy, away at college, was in some strange way proud that his mother was still “hot.” In fact, his mother’s arrest paled in comparison to his dismay over learning his father was gay.
Despite Poppy’s apparent moral deterioration, Dan’s condition was improving daily. Happy that finally he wasn’t hiding a secret life, still he was shaky on a lot of things, and travel was one of them. “I’ll come if your dad goes with me,” he told Max.
“No way! Dad would have to come up and get you? How about if he meets us in New York too?”
“I don’t feel good about taking the train alone,” Dan whined. “I want Doug.”
“Why don’t you get your boyfriend to go with you? Then he could meet Dad and me at the same time. We could all be there with you.”
“That might work,” Dan said. “And I could get Bonita to stay with the kids. Let me think it over. If I forget anything, I’ll call you back. If I remember to call you back. Maybe you better call me back tomorrow.”
“Uncle Dan, this is the third time we have talked about this already. Listen, I’ll sign you up and get Dad to call you, maybe he will come get you after all, who knows.”
“Okay, that would be great.”
After several more phone calls back and forth among the three of them, Doug finally agreed that the plan was indeed a worthy one. Anything that would get Dan back to the world of the living and give him something to do other than spend time with his “boyfriend” was fine with Doug, and so he readily agreed to fly up to Boston and meet Dan at the train station downtown, then take the train back to New York City with him. All Dan had to do was get a ride to Boston, and he was sure he could count on Poppy to do that much for him.
And so, that night, with his daughter Alexandra’s help, Dan packed a suitcase for a weekend away, just to feel ready. Then he started studying The Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary day and night. He got Alexandra and Ben and even Bonita when she was in a good mood to play with him with a timer, since Max had told him that in tournament play every game was limited to twenty-five minutes instead of the usual hour or longer the Waldman family’s games stretched on. For the first time since the accident, Dan felt almost like his old self again. He had a purpose, a goal, a reason to get up every day. Competition was in his blood. He wanted that trophy and was determined to get it.
Chapter 21: Riva Has a Heart
“Oh for God’s sake, what next?” Riva was slightly pissed off at the plans being made that would take Doug away for yet another weekend with his brother. “Now he’s going to New York City to play Scrabble and you have to hold his hand? Why, exactly?”
“Because he has a brain injury, or did you forget? And because he is my twin brother, or did you forget that too?”
“Little chance of that,” she answered icily. After so many months of Dan’s injury being front and center, Riva was getting near the end of her rope. And now her son had been dragged into it as well. But what really angered her was hearing about Poppy running around with a man half her age, or almost, and Dan doing the same. She could hardly remember when she and Doug had last had a romantic evening together, and those two were getting laid on a regular basis! The thought of it all made her skin crawl.
Stomping around the house, slamming doors and drawers to vent her frustration, she was ill prepared for what Doug said next. “Actually, honey, there is something else I want to discuss with you. You might want to sit down for this.”
“Oh Jesus and Mary.” She remained standing.
“Well, apparently Poppy was arrested a week ago, and while she’s out of jail on bail, she might have to….”
“Arrested? For what? Out of jail? Good lord, this family is a mess.” At this latest news, she plopped onto the living room couch and kicked off her shoes. “I need a cigarette,” she lamented, even though she had given up smoking years ago and probably would get sick if she tried one now. “So, what’s the charge?”
“Oh, all sorts of weird things, like public indecency, disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, lewd and lascivious behavior, something else I forget.”
“And just what did she do to deserve all that?”
“She and her boyfriend, the nurse, were caught having sex in a kiddie park. In a car, his I think, or maybe hers, I’m not sure, but anyway apparently that is against the law in Massachusetts. So now she is facing some sort of sentence, or punishment, or at the very least community service. And with Dan and his boyfriend, well, you know, Dan is somewhat scatterbrained these days and certainly not much of a father figure, I was thinking maybe the kids, you know, the two little ones, Alexandra and Ben, maybe we could sort of take them in for a bit until all this gets straightened out.”
“Take them in? You mean have them live here? With us? What about school, and all of their friends? Where is this coming from, anyway? Whose bright idea is this? And who caught them, anyway?”
“Some cop doing his nightly rounds. Wow, I bet he got an eyeful,” he said, trying to not think about the sordid details. “Actually, Alexandra asked me the last time I was up there. ‘It’s like living in a nuthouse’ was how she put it. And that Ben cries at night in his room. She says we’re more normal and that she wants a regular life again. It was pretty heartbreaking if you must know.” Doug poured himself a drink and gave Riva one of his pathetic puppy-dog looks. “Remember, it would only be temporary, just until Dan and Poppy get themselves straightened out. Anyway, what are families for, after all?”
“Damned if I know,” was all she could muster. Reeling from the news that her usually goody-two-shoes sister-in-law had fornicated in a parked car in the middle of winter with a boy half her age and spent a night in jail, she could hardly focus on fostering her niece and nephew, even for a short time.
“Well, can you at least think about it?” Doug persisted.
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” And she truly was, wondering where the kids would sleep and what they liked to eat and how much homework they’d need help with. And really, they were both nice kids, after all, and Max was grown and gone and honestly, sometimes their nest felt painfully empty, with just the two of them rattling around, and those empty bedrooms upstairs making her wish they had had more kids.
“Alexandra also said that she thinks you are a great mother, and that she always wished you were her mother, and that she would love to live with us, and how you’re so sophisticated, and more stuff like that.”
“Oh please, now you’re just making things up,” Riva said with a laugh.
“No, really, honey, she said all that. It was pathetic. It was like those commercials you see on TV for foster care.”
“I guess those two have been through a lot. First the coma, and then they find out their Dad’s gay, and to top it off his boyfriend is black and they’ve never even seen a black man before.”
“Come on Riva, they have too seen black people.”
“Yes, but just not up close, and certainly not in their own home.” She cracked a smile. “I guess it would be okay, you know, for a while, except for all the school stuff. I’ll have to call tomorrow and find out what’s involved for them to transfer here. When are you thinking all this will happen?”
Doug sighed in relief. This was turning out to be a lot easier than he had feared. “Whenever we can get it all together, I suppose. I think that’s our call.”
“Well, could we at least have sex one time before the kids move in?” Riva asked, only half-joking. Doug laughed and joined her on the couch. Hugging him, she said saying, “Seriously, I’m not kidding. Once they get here you can forget about doing it anywhere or any time we want.”
“I’m free right now,” he said, feeling more relaxed than he had in months. “How about you?”
Chapter 22: Broadway Hip-Hop
“So essentially what you’re saying is you are replacing me with two new kids. That’s great, but just one question: Will I still be allowed to come home and visit?” Max was not reacting well to the news that his cousins would be moving in with his mother and father.
“Oh come on honey, we are not replacing you. That’s impossible, we could never love anyone as much as we love you. It’s just temporary, and of course you can come home anytime.” Riva was touched by his reaction, and quite frankly a little surprised. After all, Max hardly came to Annapolis to see them more than once or maybe twice a year. Usually she and Doug drove up to New York every few months, got a hotel room near Max’s apartment and ran around the city with him to get a feel for his life there.
“So where will they sleep? In my room?”
“Max, your room as you call it is now Dad’s home office anyway. Didn’t you notice all his drawings and books in there the last time you came to visit? And the drafting table where your drums used to be? No, I think we’ll put Ben in the guest room and give Alexandra some privacy in the family room downstairs.”
“Fine, whatever. Have fun all of you. Anyway, I called you, remember? I have news. Big news, in fact, even bigger than those two little snots coming to live with you.”
Praying that Max’s news would not make her a grandmother, she braced herself. “Okay, what’s your big news? I’m sitting down.”
“I got a part in a Broadway show. A big one!”
“A big part or a big show?”
“A big show, a medium-sized part.”
“What show, have I heard of it?”
“It’s not open yet, it’s just going into rehearsals in the next couple of weeks. I just found out today and I called you right away, because you are my mother and of course I would call you right away. That was before I knew you were getting new children.”
“Max, please. Okay, so what’s the show, what’s the part, tell me everything.”
“It’s a musical version of Our Town and I’m George!”
“Oh God, you’re George? Isn’t that the lead? That’s a huge part! Oh honey, that is so fabulous. Will you have to sing?” She remembered her private horror when he sang at a camp talent show at age twelve. He was earnest and played the guitar reasonably well, but his voice made Bob Dylan sound like Pavarotti. Her face growing hot, she remembered being happy the theater was dark so she could slink down into her seat unnoticed.
“Well, yeah, but it’s sort of a modern take on the play, so I’ll rap instead of sing. That’s how I got the part, because I’m so good at rapping.”
“Is the whole thing rapping? I mean, the parents and all the townspeople? And what about Emily, and my goodness, not the funeral scene I hope?”
“No, everyone else just sings. Only George raps. That’s his thing. I know it sounds bad but it works, I promise. The director swears it will be groundbreaking. Anyway, I start rehearsing week after next so it’s a good thing that whole Scrabble thing is this weekend because I will be completely busy after that. But this will get Uncle Dan started, and if he wins and becomes the club champ then all kinds of people will offer to help him get to wherever he has to go.”
“Do you think he has a chance of winning? I’d hate for him to go all that way and do badly.”
“Mom, he is so totally going to win it’s not funny. He has won every single Scrabble game he has played with Dad since he woke up, and you know Dad used to beat him more. His brain is not normal anymore, he has like a Superman brain in the Scrabble area. That’s what his doctor said too, remember?”
“Well, he has been studying for it, reading all kinds of special dictionaries and word lists. I think he is getting kind of excited about it.”
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you --how did he like Aunt Poppy going to jail for screwing in public? I bet he wasn’t too excited about that.”
“I wish you wouldn’t put it so crudely, dear.”
“How should I put it then? They were making love in public? Really mom, get serious, there is no nice way to say it.”
“I guess you’re right about that,” Riva agreed. “Anyway, your uncle has a boyfriend now so he can’t really say much about it.”
“This family is so messed. But then, whose isn’t? My new girlfriend tells me stories about her abusive alcoholic father hitting her mother and it makes me sick. Anyway, I gotta go, I must be late for something. I’ll call you Friday to arrange for meeting Uncle Dan and dad at the train and all that.”
“New girlfriend? Who is she? What’s her name?”
“It doesn’t matter, she’s just some girl. When I meet one who matters I’ll tell you her name.”
Chapter 23: Richie’s Back
The morning of the day he was scheduled to drive to Virginia’s Dulles Airport, get on a plane and fly to Boston’s Logan, then rent a car and drive to Port Henry, spend the night at Dan’s house, then get up the next morning and drive them both back to Boston to catch the train to New York, all because Dan was “playing the coma card” (as the family had taken to calling it when Dan claimed he was unable to do something and blamed it on his brain injury) by refusing to fly to New York by himself, Doug woke up feeling feverish. His throat hurt, his ears were ringing and he ached all over. He tried to hide his symptoms from Riva but she knew him too well. “What’s wrong?” she had asked the minute she saw him standing at the kitchen sink gargling with salt water. “Are you sick?” Rushing over to him, she slapped her hand on his forehead and announced that he was “burning up” and that additionally, he was “not going anywhere.”
“I have to go, Saturday is the tournament and Dan simply cannot go alone. He is incapable of getting himself to the train, and getting off in New York City, and that’s that. I have to go.”
“Let his wife take him.”
“She can’t leave the state until her trial, or some such nonsense. Please, don’t remind me.”
‘Well then I guess it’s show time for his little boy toy. And if you don’t want to tell him then I will,” she said, grabbing her cell phone from her purse. “Now go back to bed and get some rest, I’ll be up in a minute with some hot tea.”
“No, I’ll call him.” Doug was upset, but not too upset, as he had been dreading the whole trip. After so many months, and after so much improvement, it was still hard for him to see his brother as a helpless dimwit. At least when they talked on the phone Dan was still as assertive as ever, dominating the conversation that was always all about him, as usual. But seeing him in person it was obvious that Dan was a weakened, shrunken version of his former self, with none of his trademark self-confidence, and it broke Doug’s heart. He wanted Dan to still be the A twin and did not relish the position for himself. Making the call, he braced himself for Dan’s disappointment. “Hey Richie, it’s Richie.”
Dan sounded happy and upbeat, a nice change from his usual depressed complaining self. “Hey Richie, how ya doing? So it’s almost the big day. Shouldn’t you be on the way here already?”
Doug explained his situation, and Dan immediately lost his temper, yelling about how he could never count on him, and now what would he do, and how he couldn’t possibly go alone, that this was months in the planning, barely stopping to give Doug a chance to get a word in. Finally he paused for a breath and Doug said, “Couldn’t your friend go with you?”
“My friend? What friend?”
“You know, your boyfriend, Jerome.”
“You know, your boyfriend, Jerome.”
“You know about him? Did I tell you about him?”
“Yes I know about him, we all know about him. Poppy told us. And it’s fine, believe me, I don’t care, I love you no matter what or who or why or anything.”
“Really? You don’t think I’m a pervert?”
“Well you might be, but not because of being gay. Anyway, I seem to have a fever of 102 and my wife, the Warden, will not let me out of the house. And doesn’t your friend live right nearby, and couldn’t he go with you on the train to New York? And then you two could spend the weekend at that fancy New York hotel I booked for us, and he could go with you to the tournament on Saturday. And he could meet Max. It might even turn out better after all, who knows.”
“So I’m gay? Is that what I am now?” Dan seemed confused by this revelation, as if Doug knowing about it had made it more real, and as if he were considering it for the first time.
“Well, you do repeatedly choose to have sex with a man, and you are a man yourself, so yes, I think you meet the criteria. But don’t worry, it’s quite respectable these days; in fact, it’s all the rage. I find the worst part to be his age. Exactly how old is he anyway?”
“I’m not sure, but I think the first number is a two.”
“Yeah, well your first number is a five,” Doug said with a laugh.
“And do you know that he’s black?”
“Hey, I would expect nothing less from you. I mean if you’re going to break the rules, break them all, right? Remember when you had a fling with our tenth-grade math teacher, Miss McCrory?”
“I don’t even remember breakfast.”
“Well, you had sex with one of your teachers in high school, that’s about the whole story.”
“ No kidding! I did? Tell me all about it.”
“I must say, as I recall she was quite attractive, what the kids today would call ‘hot.’ Every guy was nuts about her, and one day she kept you after class for extra help and somehow the two of you ended up screwing on the couch in the teacher’s lounge.”
“Really? I have no memory of this at all, dammit! Then what happened?”
“The janitor came in to clean the lounge and walked in on the two of you. Then he proceeded to tell the principal what he had seen. Miss McCrory was fired on the spot and you got suspended for a week, and then got elected class president our junior year. Everyone thought it was very cool of you. You were quite the hero.”
“Really? What about Mom and Dad? Did they think it was cool?”
“No, they did not think it was cool. You were grounded for the whole summer and had to work in Dad’s dental office two days a week for the next few months. I think he had you disinfecting all his tools and sweeping up the waiting room.”
“You know Richie, there are some memories I wish I had and others I’m glad not to have anymore.”
“Anyway, can you ask your friend to go with you? The tickets are paid for, you just have to drive to Boston and claim them at the ticket window. The train leaves Boston at 2:00 so you’ll have plenty of time to get there, just park at the station in the long-term lot. Then Sunday morning, after the tournament and a night on the town, you’ll do it all in reverse.”
“Maybe I better have Jay call you and get these details,” Dan said. “You know I’m bad with details.”
“Fine, have him call me. And Richie…”
“Break a leg.”
“That one I do remember. Thanks, Richie.”
Chapter 24: My Mother the Sex Fiend
“Can you believe it? His parents! My adult boyfriend who I’m committing adultery with lives with his parents. I am leaving a self-made millionaire with his own award-winning ad agency for a male nurse barely of voting age who still lives with his mommy and daddy. What’s wrong with me?” Poppy, still in shock over hearing the truth about Bill’s so-called “roommates” the night before, was venting her frustration over Mimosas and chocolate croissants in Margie’s sunny kitchen.
“Well, it certainly sounds bad when you put it that way,” Margie agreed. “But be realistic. He’s been voting age for nine years, or is it even longer? When can you vote anyway?”
“I think it’s 18, or 21, I can’t remember.”
“Well anyway, try to look at the bright side, ” Margie chirped. “I mean really, there are some positive aspects to all of this.”
“The ‘nurse’ as you call him is studying to become a nurse practitioner and will eventually make a respectable amount of money, about $95,000 a year to start according to my online research. He only lives with his parents right now to save money, so that means he has a good head on his shoulders and also a decent relationship with his parents. And then of course there is the part where he is a gorgeous, thirty-year-old super-stud with the best body outside of Hollywood and an unquenchable thirst for sex, with you by the way, in a variety of strange and unusual positions that you claim to enjoy immensely. How’s that so far?”
“You’ve got a point,” Poppy said, starting to feel better about things. Margie’s description of Bill certainly made him sound like a good catch and the steady stream of Mimosas didn’t hurt. “Still, my life is a mess.”
“Okay, I guess I need to continue,” Margie said. “The millionaire husband you mention is now out of the closet, where he has been for who knows how long, and with a boyfriend half his age. He has suffered a traumatic brain injury. And, with all due respect, he is a distinct pain in the ass to be around. So, to sum up: no sex, has a boyfriend, is annoying, and only wants to play Scrabble, which you hate.”
“It’s true, I have always hated that damn game and he always made us play it, the whole family, so he could beat all of us and gloat about it. Except Troy, who won pretty often and that really bugged the hell out of Dan.”
“Well, those days are over. You have traded in your Scrabble board for a French maid’s uniform and a pair of sexy stilettos.”
“And a prison record,” Poppy said grimly. “Let’s not forget that.”
“Wow, you are in a bad mood today. What’s eating you?”
“The kids. My children. I have let them down, and the worst part is, I don’t really care. I mean I love them, but I want to be with Bill more than stay married to Dan and do the mommy thing. And I feel rotten about it.”
Margie hesitated, but finally decided to say what was in her heart. “If you recall, Poppy, you never really wanted kids. It was Dan who pushed you into it. Made you feel guilty about not having any, and so you went ahead and did the expected suburban mom routine. But that was never you, not really. Look, we’ve been best friends since grade school and I know you, and you are a wild woman, plain and simple. And wild women do not spend their nights making papier-mâché volcanoes for the school science fair.”
“It’s true. I never did see myself as a mother. But then when they came along, each one was so adorable. And I really did like them when they were babies. It was fun taking care of them. I just don’t really like children once they’re out of kindergarten. I guess that’s why I had another baby, and then another. I loved the diaper stage.”
“Right. You should have gotten puppies, or maybe kittens. But hey, you did a great job anyway, the kids always had what they needed and you loved each of them with all your heart, and you still do. It’s just that things are different now, and they’ve got to roll with the changes. Living with Doug and Riva will be good for them. Think about it: she’s all about being a mommy, right? Doesn’t she have a catering company, she lives to cook or something? So she’ll take great care of them. And Doug is their father’s identical twin, you can’t do much better than that. And they live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood and you’ll see them as often as you want or they need. Sounds like a win-win to me.”
“You’re right, I know. But what if Bill gets tired of me? I am a dozen years older, and he might start thinking I’m an old bag pretty soon.”
“You will not be an old bag for a long time, if ever. And until then, think of all the fun you two will have together. You can take vacations, and have sex whenever you want, and pay attention to Poppy for once and not Dan and Troy and Ben and Alex. Come on, you’ve earned this.”
“I suppose so. I did stand by him while he was in the coma, and at the rehab hospital, even if I was cheating on him with Bill on the side. But then, I’m pretty sure Dan did that to me all during our entire marriage.”
She thought back wistfully to their early days together and could hardly remember a time when they were truly happy. She had gotten pregnant with Troy after they had been married only two years, and much of that time Dan was busy working for other people, which meant traveling when they told him to travel. Poppy spent many a weekend alone. Besides, when Dan was home he often worked late, since back then he was hoping to start his own agency and was busy writing business plans and seeking investors. Then four years later along came Alexandra, and Ben after that, and with each child, she and Dan had grown further apart. It’s true, she decided -- she had earned her time with Bill and she was damn well going to enjoy it for as long as she could.
“You know Margie, you are right. You should have become a shrink. I feel so much better after talking with you. In fact, I’m going to call Bill right now and see if we can get together later. When I left him last night I was pretty shaken up about him living with his parents. I should let him know it’s all okay.”
Poppy left Margie’s apartment with a lighter heart. She and Bill had agreed to meet at their favorite motel, just for old time’s sake, even though now that everything was in the open they could probably go to his place if they wanted. But there was something about the secluded Idyll Court Cabins that released her inner wildcat, and she was hesitant to give that up. As she approached the parking lot she saw Bill’s car and started getting excited in anticipation. There he was at the window of one of the little cabins, waiting.
“Hi honey, I’m all ready for you,” Bill said, swinging open the door and holding a bouquet of daisies in front of his naked body, hiding what she knew was likely a huge erection. He grabbed her and flung the flowers aside, the two of them kissing as Bill slammed the door behind her and fairly pulled her clothes off. Never one for foreplay, in seconds Bill’s rock-hard erection was thrusting inside her, making her crazy. Her orgasm came within seconds, and she moaned deeply as the waves spread over her, the creamy feeling making her weak as he pulled out just in time. His spurting ejaculation rained down on her breasts, the sticky substance covering both of them.
“Well, hi to you too,” she said when she finally caught her breath. “I guess you’re not still mad about me storming off last night.”
“I was a bit hurt, to be honest, but then I could totally see it from your perspective. That’s why I never told you before. It’s kind of humiliating,” Bill said.
“Don’t feel that way. I know it’s only got to do with saving money, and not because you are a big baby. Believe me, I think of you as a real man.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I was getting tired of the secret.”
“Yes, secrets are bad. I once read that having a secret in a family is the worst thing you can do. It assures that nobody will be happy.” As Poppy spoke the words she thought of Dan and wondered how long he had kept his secret from her. Or even from himself. Shaking off the thought, she turned to Bill and said, “Let’s promise never to have secrets from one another, okay?”
“It’s a deal,” he said, covering her with kisses and ready to go another round. “No secrets.”
Chapter 25: I’m Only Here to Help
At first Jay was reluctant since he thought board games were silly and childish, but after some reflection he decided that going with Dan to the Scrabble tournament in New York would give their relationship some validity. The more they did things out in the open the sooner they could stop hiding altogether. And he would get to meet Dan’s nephew, which could only be a good thing. If Max liked him, then he was bound to say good things about him to his father, and Jay was desperate for Doug to approve of him. Besides, it was his day off and he’d love a weekend in New York at a nice hotel, and some quality time with Dan.
He arrived at Dan’s house early to allow for traffic, and despite a hard rain they arrived at the Boston train station in plenty of time for coffee before boarding. Dan spent almost all his time with his head stuck in a dictionary, still trying to learn obscure words he might need for his game. “I’m just worried because my memory is so bad now, I won’t even remember half the things I’m learning anyway,” he confided over his latte. Jay tried to calm his fears but realized there was little he could say since it was true. Dan’s memory was indeed shaky, although it was improving slowly.
Once they boarded the Acela Express and settled down for the three-and-a-half hour ride, Dan dozed off almost immediately. Jay spent most of his time in the club car, nursing a beer and reading the paper, chatting with other passengers and munching on a pre-packaged tuna sandwich that wasn’t half-bad. He was nervous about dinner that night with Max and hoped the kid would like him. After all, meeting the family, even just a nephew, was always a big step. And his conversation on the phone with Doug early that morning had left him more than a little rattled.
At Dan’s insistence he had called Doug to get the details about what time the train was, how to get the tickets, and where to meet Max once they arrived in New York. Doug had answered the phone but hastily handed it over to his wife, claiming he was sick with the flu and couldn’t talk. His wife, Riva, apologized profusely for his curtness, explaining that he really was feeling poorly and that’s why he wasn’t going to accompany Dan to New York.
“Well, I’m happy to step in,” Jay said brightly. “Anything to help Dan.”
“That is so kind and generous of you, I can’t tell you how much this means to all of us. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he does well and that the city doesn’t overwhelm him. New York can do that, you know.”
“Well, that’s what I’ll be there for, to keep him calm and give him support.”
After giving Jay the details about the trip, Riva had hung up and reported her impressions to Doug. “Actually, he sounds like a lovely person, honey.”
“Great. So my twin brother has found himself a nice young black boy to have anal sex with. I’m so glad to hear he’s lovely.” Doug was huddled under a pile of blankets on the living room couch, sipping some hot tea and sneezing periodically.
“Would it be better if I had said the guy seemed like a total creep?”
“No, but it might have been better if you said the guy was a gal about his age, and white.”
“I had no idea you were a racist!”
“Oh please, I am not a racist just because I don’t want my formerly straight brother to be fooling around with a little black boy who’s into crazy sex. I’ve heard stories about people like that.”
“I will assume it’s the fever talking and let that pass,” Riva said. She had never known Doug to show the lightest bit of racism, and in fact his closest friend at the office was black. She chalked it up to his bigotry against homosexuals and left it at that.
Max was waiting for them at Penn Station right under the big clock, just as he had promised. His mother had alerted him to the fact that his father would not be coming and instead Dan would arrive with Jay, his new boyfriend. Max found this alarming but at least Uncle Dan had made it, that’s all that counted. He had no trouble spotting the two of them as they made an odd couple, even in New York City where almost nothing was ever odd.
Dan looked around without spotting Max for a few minutes, so Max ran over and gave him a big hug. “Wow, I hardly recognized you, I guess it’s the beard,” Dan said. He turned and introduced him to Jay, who stuck his hand out and gave Max a wide grin. Max suggested they get a quick dinner before Dan and Jay went to their hotel, and they opted for a steak house right around the corner from the train station. Trying not to be too distracted by Jay, who looked to be about his own age, Max jumped right in with excited instructions for the next morning. He would pick them up at their hotel in a cab and take them to the Scrabble Club across town where the tournament would be held.
“How many entrants are there in this thing?” Dan asked. “Do I even have a chance at coming in third?”
“There are like 120 people registered,” Max answered. “But don’t worry, most of them are in it just for fun and will not be a threat to you. There’s only like ten or twelve top tier players, and you are one of them. You’ll do great, I know it. Just get a good night’s sleep.”
“I will if this one leaves me alone,” Dan said with a grin, gesturing towards Jay.
Max found the thought of his middle-aged uncle and this young dude having sex quite disturbing, but he hid his feelings with a gulp of his beer and a bite of his burger. Thinking to himself that his family couldn’t get any weirder, he smiled and said, “I’m sure Jay will help in any way he can. Right dude?”
“Right,” Jay said. “After all, I’m only here to help.”
Chapter 26: And the Winner Is
Dan and Jay checked in to their hotel and were thrilled to finally be alone together. It had been a while and they were both feeling a strong urge to hop into bed and do all the things they always did to each other. But this time it was Jay who put on the brakes, saying there was time for that tomorrow afternoon, after Dan had won the tournament. “You need to study up tonight, my friend,” he said to Dan. “I can help if you like.”
“You certainly can,” Dan said. “I need someone to get me out of these clothes and give me a back rub, I’m pretty tense after that long train ride.”
“Seriously Dan, I am not kidding. We’ve gone through a lot to get here and I don’t want you to blow it tonight.”
“Fine, how about if I just suck it and lick it?” he said with a smile, grabbing Jay and pulling him on top of him onto the bed. “That’s how you can help me tonight.”
Jay could never resist Dan’s sexual advances and soon enough the two of them were deeply embroiled in their own brand of lovemaking, forgetting where they were and why they were there. Somewhere in the distance a ringing phone refused to stop, and finally Dan realized it was his cell phone. He disentangled himself from Jay’s strong embrace and finally found it ringing inside his pants pocket on the floor of the bathroom. It turned out to be Doug, wondering if they had made the trip safely and met up with Max.
“Yes, everything went as planned, Richie. Now Jay and I are studying words for tomorrow. He is being a great help to me,” he said to his brother, leering at Jay’s perfectly toned bronze body waiting for him on the king-sized bed.
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Doug said. “I just wanted to wish you luck tomorrow, and say again how sorry I am I couldn’t go with you.”
“No problem Richie, it’s all working out fine. Max looks good, by the way, although I barely recognized him with that beard.”
“He has a beard now?”
“Yes, and it’s quite substantial. He looks like a cross between a rabbi and a terrorist.”
“Oh great,” Doug said grumpily. “My two least favorite professions.”
Dan tried to listen to his brother but Jay was writhing on the bed, his ebony erection seeming to glow in the darkness and grow larger and larger the longer Dan stayed on the phone. Finally Dan could stand it no longer and said, “Okay, listen, I better hang up and get back to what I was doing before you called.”
“Sure thing, Richie. Let me know how it all goes tomorrow.”
The next morning Jay and Dan woke up early and showered together, then went down to the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast. They took numerous word lists with them and Jay drilled Dan on obscure two- and three-letter words using the Z, the J, the X, and the Q.
“Zuz, xis,qi, xu, jeu, pyx and suq are all legitimate,” Jay intoned over his steel cut oats with berries and walnuts. “So are ogee, agio, juco and jib with two b’s.”
“Jib with two b’s? I knew about jib with one “b” but not two.”
“Yes, with two. You might need that if you have a blank or something,” Jay said, suddenly an expert on Scrabble. “Anyway, don’t panic. Just take your time.”
“I can’t take my time, that damn timer will be ticking!” Dan was starting to get nervous and picked at his scrambled eggs. “I can’t eat this, I’m too keyed up.”
“You’ve got to eat, there won’t be a break until one o’clock. And don’t be silly, first of all you always win, and secondly, you don’t need the money anyway, it’s all for fun, remember?”
Suddenly Max arrived and slid into the booth next to Dan. “Don’t worry, you will be great, Uncle Dan. I just checked out your competition and you are the best. There are only eighty people signed up for today, and that’s good, it means there will only be two rounds of games of four people each, and you will definitely win both of those. Then there are the one-on-one games, as many as they can have until 5 p.m. today. If there is no winner declared yet, you will play again tomorrow morning at 11.”
“Oh God, that’s a lot of Scrabble,” Dan said. “I hope I don’t get tired.”
“Just keep reminding yourself, ‘I’m a freak of nature.’ Remember what the doc said at rehab? Your brain is special, the one place that won’t get tired is your Scrabble part, or something like that.” Max gave his uncle an endearing smile, waved the waiter over for the check, and said, “Now let’s boogie, I’ve got a cab outside waiting to take us uptown and the meter’s running.”
Chapter 27: Doug Toughens Up
One afternoon when nobody was bugging him for anything, and Riva was out catering a bridge party luncheon for a neighbor who was turning sixty-five, Doug stripped down and stood in front of a full-length mirror. He couldn’t avoid the truth any longer: he had grown obese. Since Dan’s accident Doug had been mindlessly eating, using food as a drug, and had put on nearly fifty pounds. Riva was too nice to say much about it, except every so often when they had sex and she laughed that his protruding stomach was like having somebody else there with them.
“Thanks a lot,” he said one night when he was feeling particularly vulnerable. Rolling away from her, he muttered, “How would you like it if I said that to you?”
“Well now, let’s see. If it were the truth I would appreciate it, I guess,” she said smugly, looking down at her own svelte figure, still trim even at her age. “Anyway, I still love you no matter how fat you are. Or get.”
Nobody had ever called him fat before, and it went in deep. In fact, all of Doug’s old life had been slipping away from him since Dan’s accident. Before, Dan had always been the center of attention but Doug could at least hold his own. After all, he had become an architect, married a wonderful woman, had raised a great son, and had accomplished plenty of things in his own right. Maybe not as much as Dan had, with his big ad agency and his Corvette and a fancy house with a swimming pool, but still, he was no layabout. But now it was as if he no longer existed; it was Dan, Dan, Dan 24/7, no matter whom he was talking to. People at work asked, “How’s your brother doing?” All the friends and neighbors who had never even met Dan asked about him constantly, as if Doug’s entire life revolved around his poor, injured twin languishing in a coma up in Massachusetts. Lately he had taken to answering them with, “He’s doing great, and did I tell you, my son is on Broadway!” That sure got their attention, and then they were off and running about Max. But again, it was never, “How are you doing Doug? What’s going on in your life that’s new and exciting?”
He realized upon reflection that it was lucky nobody asked, since the answer would have been a big fat zero. He had spent so much time traveling back and forth to Massachusetts in the months following Dan’s injury that he had missed out on a couple of big projects at work, and now he seemed to be getting the dribs and drabs of the firm’s smallest clients: shopping malls, banks, even a new stand-alone fast-food joint, which was surely the lowest of the low for an architect. Everything was done already, he basically just had to walk around and figure out where to put the electric outlets.
And so he ate. This was because he didn’t drink to excess or use drugs, in fact had never had any addictions whatsoever. Until now. It had started slowly, with a slice or maybe two of pizza between lunch and dinner. Then there were those mid-morning donuts with his coffee, and maybe some French fries with his burger at lunch. The more he ate the hungrier he got. But because he was fairly tall, just over six feet, it took a while for him to get what Riva had just called him: Fat. Which he now was.
Staring at his naked body in the mirror, he realized he had to do something before there was no turning back. He called a local gym that he passed daily on his way to work, a place called Fitness Forever, and asked what it would cost to have a personal trainer twice a week, just to get him going. It was reasonable enough, and so he decided to give it a try.
Doug’s first day at the gym was tough. Walking in, he saw dozens of young men, all in great shape, and great-looking women too, not an overweight person in sight. It was like a bad dream, or maybe a good dream depending on your vantage point. He shuffled over to the reception desk and gave the woman working there his name so she could find his membership paperwork. Waiting to have his picture taken for his membership card, he got up the nerve to say, “Is this a gym for people who are already in great shape?”
The attractive young woman, another muscular and toned specimen reeking of good health, laughed and said, “No sir, not at all. Come in the morning and you’ll see a whole different crowd. These are the fitness buffs that work out for a living, personal trainers and coaches. They come in the afternoon because it’s less crowded. Mornings and evenings are when all the normal people come.”
“Well then, I guess that’s when I’ll be coming,” he said with a timid attempt at a smile. He signed up for a six-month membership right then and there, determined to become one of the “fitness buffs” himself.
Leaving the gym after promising he would be back for a 7 a.m. introductory class, Doug passed by a Taco Bell where he often stopped for a quick snack. But today he kept going. And that night at dinner, Riva asked if he was coming down with something when he didn’t have seconds of her spicy pork meatloaf, one of his favorite dishes. “No, I’m just full, that’s all honey. Your cooking is as good as ever.”
He debated telling Riva about joining the gym but decided against it. After all, he might just go one time and hate it, and then he’d have failed. She didn’t need to hear that, not while she was already thinking she was married to a tub of lard. He’d just keep it as his little secret, until it started to show. He hoped that would be soon.
“So have you talked with your brother lately? What’s happening with the Scrabble thing? He’s won the last two tournaments, hasn’t he?”
“You know, I have no idea. How about we not talk about Dan tonight and just concentrate on us? We don’t have much longer until those kids get here, and then we’ll hardly have a minute to ourselves.”
It was true, Ben and Alexandra were due to move in with them in a few weeks. The kids were excited to start at a new school, a place where nobody knew their dad was “a gay brain freak with a black boyfriend half his age” and a mother who was doing community service “serving food to drug addicts at a homeless shelter” for having been “caught naked in public with a teenager,” as they described things. They were both completely humiliated by their parents at this point and were eager to live normal lives with normal people like Aunt Riva who cooked for a living and would actually make them breakfast and dinner every day and Uncle Doug who was an architect and drove a regular car like a Prius or a Taurus or something they could all fit in at once.
Doug was excited at the thought of them coming. It seemed to fit well with his plan to lose weight and get in shape. Having youngsters around would be good for him. It was almost like he was getting a second chance at life, and this time he planned to make sure it would be his life, not half of one shared with a twin.
Chapter 28: The Amazing Richie Returns
Dan won his first tournament handily and was awarded a check for $500 and an invitation to play in another tournament a few weeks later in Buffalo. He was happy to win but dismayed at the thought of making another trip, since traveling seemed like such a burden to him. He was having issues with balance and hearing, both as a result of his brain injury, and he tired easily. Also, Jay would not be able to go with him on the next trip, and he couldn’t possibly go alone. He had even asked Poppy, and she had said no before he even finished the question. Once again, it was his nephew Max who came up with a solution.
“Uncle Dan, you need a manager! Someone to plan your tournament dates, make the travel arrangements, hotels and all that stuff. Do you know anyone who could do it?”
“Not really. Unless someone from my ad agency wants a new job.”
“That’s it! Get someone from the agency! I bet there’s some secretary there who hates her job and would love to get out and do something different, at least for awhile.”
Although Dan was no longer the owner of M. Waldman & Co., on paper he was technically a “big cheese” because of how much stock he still owned. The newly appointed CEO, his old childhood friend Barry Lincoln, would call him about once a month to give him the latest news and even ask for advice, but the agency’s lawyers had worked everything out so that Dan would get an annual income but essentially lack power to do anything related to the business end of things. Still, most of his former employees had always liked him, and maybe there was somebody on staff who would be willing to take on the job Max described.
“Of course you would have to pay them,” Max pointed out.
“Well, what’s the going rate for a business manager?” Max asked.
Even though his head for business was now fairly muddled, Dan knew right away that the salary for such a person would far exceed his winnings in these Scrabble tournaments. Being a chronic cheapskate at heart despite his comfortable finances, he answered “A lot more than I want to pay, I’m sure.”
“What if we got you some kind of speaking gigs? You know, like as a person with a traumatic brain injury that came back from the almost-dead and now you’re doing great kind of thing? You know, you could make appearances at colleges or hospitals or even make one of those TED talks everyone watches these days, about the dangers of biking without a helmet or how much playing Scrabble helped you recover.”
“It’s an acronym, it’s not like some guy named Ted does the talks. It stands for something like, technology and entertainment and I forget what the D is for, anyway, lots of regular people do them, specialists in different fields. I’ll show you a couple. Anyway what if you contacted the Scrabble people and became their spokesman, talking about how word games are good for brain health, how playing Scrabble brought you back from being a vegetable, sorry not really Uncle Dan but I’m just saying, supposing. You know, a whole anti-Alzheimer’s thing, you know? Maybe the agency could pitch some ads featuring you.” Now Max was getting excited and could envision a burgeoning new career for his uncle.
“You mean like now I’m The Amazing Richie again, all grown up? That’s not bad, actually.”
“Exactly! The Amazing Richie thing! I forgot all about that. Hey, I bet I could hook you up with someone who could get you on a TV show, one of those morning news things. My new girlfriend works in television. Let me see what I can do.”
“Another new girlfriend? What’s this one’s name?”
“It doesn’t matter, she probably won’t be around long, I don’t think she likes me very much. Anyway, what do you say? Will you do it?”
“Sure, why not. I’m certainly not doing anything else.”
A few days later Max called Dan to report that he had lined up a spot for him on one of the network talk shows, “Wake Up with Walt.” It was on from 7 to 9 every weekday morning, and Dan could shoot his segment from home since they had agreed to send a local Boston cameraman and an interviewer to him, to capture that “homey” angle.
“Wow, that’s big. I even watch that Walt guy. Why are they so interested in me?”
“I told them you were at death’s door not long ago and that when you woke up from the coma you could hardly talk and now you’re winning Scrabble tournaments all over the country and that you are very motivational for people with brain injuries.”
“And they believed you?”
“Uncle Dan, it’s basically true. I mean, you were at death’s door, at least the first few days, and you have won tournaments in New York, New Jersey and now Delaware, right? So that is basically all over the country. And there’s another one coming up in California soon, I know you can do it but if we have to get you some money first to pay that manager person, you go on TV and maybe even get an article written about you in People or Reader’s Digest or something, and then we put up a website and get a Twitter account and before you know it, you’re The Amazing Richie again.”
“What’s a twitter account? Birds?”
“No, not birds, Nothing to do with birds at all. It’s a stupid name. Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.”
“Have you talked about this with your father? Because he might have to agree since he was also The Amazing Richie once.”
“I haven’t but I will. Anyway, he would be all for it. All he wants is for you to be happy and have something to do every day.”
“Fine. What time will they be here? The TV people. Is that today?”
“No, of course not. I’ll call you later with all the details. I just wanted to see if you would do it. And one more thing—could Aunt Poppy be there too? They sort of want the family angle.”
“The family angle? I guess you didn’t tell them my wife was arrested for have sex in public with her boyfriend and she is planning to move out and live with him. No, that wouldn’t go over that well. And did you leave out the fact that my kids are being shipped off to Annapolis because I am a drooling idiot who can’t be trusted with them. Did you mention that?”
“Uncle Dan, your kids are not being shipped off, as you put it. They want to go, they are excited to go spend some time with your identical twin brother and his fabulous wife, who happens to be my mother so I can vouch for her being pretty good at taking care of kids, because you are now having a homosexual relationship with a man half your age, or did you forget. And no, I didn’t say any of that to the folks at Channel 9 because none of that sounds like what someone called “The Amazing Richie” should be doing. So can we get Aunt Poppy in on this or not? It will just take like an hour, it won’t kill her and she might even like being on TV, who knows.”
“Okay, I’ll ask her. Although if you want my opinion, Jay is the one who should be there since he’s the one helping me most of the time.”
“Yeah, maybe, but let’s save him for the paparazzi after you’re famous. After all, we don’t want to give away all the juicy stuff for free.”
Chapter 29: Margie to the Rescue
Margie had been working as a receptionist for a busy orthopedic surgery practice while she attended night classes in real estate. Her hope was to become an agent, and then maybe even have her own brokerage one day. But never one to stick with one thing too long, she was growing tired of her job, having already been there for two years. And the steadily increasing advances of her boss, a pudgy, balding egomaniac who she did not find at all attractive, and besides he was married with three kids under the age of seven, had become unbearable. And so, almost out of the blue, she quit.
“That’s it! I did it,” she crowed to Poppy on the phone. “I told that jackass I was finished, cleaned out my desk, and I’m outta there!” She was quite happy about it, despite the fact that she had no prospects and not too much money in the bank. But her genial personality and bouncy good looks had always helped her land on her feet, somewhere.
“Maybe you can switch to day classes and finish your real estate course sooner,” Poppy suggested.
“Nope, I already checked that out. I have to stay put or I’ll lose money and time.”
“Well, would you like to help a poor, misguided, messed-up, crazy person traipse around the country in search of fame and fortune?”
“Is there such a job?”
“Well, as it happens I do know of such a position.”
“I guess ou mean Dan? How hard would that be? I mean, could I stand it?”
Poppy sighed. “Well, if you can put up with someone who is completely self-absorbed, who’s half-deaf and only hears what he wants to hear, who treats you like a slave except when he treats you like a dog, and who whines when he gets hungry and then complains about the food, I guess it’s not too bad, considering.”
“Considering what?” Margie was intrigued, and she did love to travel.
“Considering the pay, which is $150 a day plus all meals and expenses.”
“Shut up! Are you kidding? When do I start?”
And so Margie became Dan’s personal assistant. She was very efficient and took the job quite seriously, arranging for a Skype meeting with Max on her very first day so he could transfer to her all the necessary information concerning upcoming tournaments, how to sign up, who to call, what websites to follow, and a detailed list of Dan’s dietary likes and dislikes, hotel room quirks and travel complaints. Undaunted by Max’s dire warning that, “one minute he’s a pussycat and the next he’s a feral monster,” she was thrilled at the prospect of their first outing to San Francisco in just three weeks. Max was ecstatic to be relieved of his duties, especially since Our Town, the Musical was a runaway hit and he hardly had a minute free anymore.
“Thanks so much, Margie. This is really great. You have no idea what a load off this is for me,” Max said as they neared the end of their call.
“Anything to help a friend,” she said cheerily. “And who knows, I might even have fun while I’m at it. I’ve never been to a Scrabble tournament before.”
“Well prepare yourself. It’s a pretty wild scene. And this one coming up in San Francisco is the mother of them all, with players from as far away as Japan and Brazil participating. It’s actually pretty serious stuff, and the prize money this time is $7,500 for the winner, and the next few people do pretty well also.”
“Wow! That’s a lot of money for a silly game. Do you think Dan has a chance?”
“This is no silly game, it’s actually quite a big business, with corporate sponsors backing it and even some local TV coverage. And yes, Dan will definitely win, there’s no doubt about it. He’s a fucking freak, oh, sorry -- excuse my language. But I’m not kidding. His brain is just wired for the game. And even though he does, it’s like he barely has to study anymore. He just shows up, plays and wins. Did you see him on that morning TV new show a few weeks ago? He did sort of a demonstration of his skill. ”
“No, but your Aunt Poppy told me all about it. I guess he’s starting to be somewhat of a celebrity, huh?”
“Yeah, and pretty soon he’s going to be in People magazine, I think it’s like the week after next.”
“Yikes! How did that happen?”
“I’ve been dating a publicist who has a few connections there.”
“Another new girlfriend? What’s this one’s name?”
“She’s just some girl, she’s not the one,” Max said, somewhat wearily.
“Oh, well, someday the right one will come along, I’m sure. Meanwhile, it sounds like you’re having a good time looking for her.”
“Yeah. Whatever,” Max said. “I guess.”
“Well, so that’s everything, right? I’m all set?”
“Just one more thing, Margie. Make sure you call him Richie. Not Dan. He’s Richie now. The Amazing Richie.”
“Do I have to call him the whole thing?”
“No, just Richie is fine.”
Chapter 30: Bangkok
Apparently Poppy and Bill could not keep their hands off each other, since they were once again caught having sex in public shortly after their very expensive lawyer had gotten them off with a fine of $250 and fifty hours of community service each for their first infraction. It happened on a beach one day in March, when a chilly breeze and overcast skies worked in their favor; at least nobody else appeared to be around.
Bill had driven to Port Henry to have lunch with Poppy since he had the day off and had never seen where she lived and worked. After picking up drinks and sandwiches at the Main Street Noshery, the couple headed off for a picnic on Plum Island, as it happened the very same town where Jay lived and where Dan went for almost all of their trysts. But no, the four of them did not run into one another. (At least that.) Instead, once Poppy and Bill had finished lunch and walked along the shore for a bit, the pounding surf got the best of them and in short order they were spread out on a blanket behind some sand dunes, going at it like a couple of bunnies. “Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this,” Poppy said breathlessly as Bill was pulling down her panties.
“No stopping now,” he replied, and so she threw herself into it, allowing the ocean breezes and sound of the pounding surf to act as an aphrodisiac.
“Oh God, this is incredible,” Poppy shouted, ripping off the rest of her clothing. “I love you, Bill,” she shouted out above the surf. “Oh God, oh God, don’t stop! Don’t stop!” Unfortunately, it was at just that moment when a young officer drove by in his cruiser and thought he heard someone screaming. Parking his car, he then scrambled down the dunes, gun drawn and expecting to find someone in trouble. Instead, he got an eyeful. Unashamedly, he watched the totally nude couple as they climaxed on the white sand, utterly enthralled by their erotic choreography set against the dramatic pounding of the surf behind them. Unable to stop it, he felt himself getting an erection inside his uniform. Silently, hiding behind the dunes, he unzipped his pants and jerked off. Then he pulled himself together and used his cell phone to call for assistance in case the randy couple gave him any resistance.
Walking slowly towards the two of them still locked in an embrace, the officer announced his presence with a loud throat-clearing, then informed them that they were in “big trouble.” Poppy burst into tears, imagining herself in an orange prison jumpsuit surrounded by huge dykes who would each want their way with her. Hoping for sympathy, she asked the cop, “Please, can’t you just forget what you saw and let us go? I mean, we didn’t hurt anyone after all. Will we go to jail?”
The cop, feeling guilty that he had succumbed to his own erotic needs by ogling their lovemaking, felt that he owed her something to make her feel better, and so said, “Not likely, probably just a fine. Nevertheless, I gotta say you two put on quite a show. That was way better than any porno movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen plenty. Have you considered doing this professionally?”
Of course their public lovemaking was deemed illegal, he went on, and the two of them, after dressing, were helped into his police cruiser and driven to the local precinct. After the paperwork and mug shots and fingerprinting were completed they were ushered into a cell together to await the arrival of Poppy’s lawyer, Ed Bamberger. Ed, a partner in a big Boston law firm, also maintained an office right in downtown Port Henry and thus was on the scene promptly. An old fraternity buddy of Dan’s, he had represented the bawdy pair in their first trial and was dismayed to be called back for another round, finding the whole business beyond distasteful.
“I don’t understand the two of you,” Bamberger said, clearly disturbed by their behavior. “Haven’t you ever heard of motels? This is even worse than when you were caught doing it in your car,” he said to Poppy with a shake of his head. “My God, Poppy, have you forgotten you are still a married woman?”
Poppy sat, her head down, sobbing into a wad of tissues. Bill was less outwardly distraught, but only a little. He worried that this latest episode might jeopardize his job at the hospital. “Now what?” he asked Bamberger. “Will we go to jail this time?”
The lawyer shrugged and said, “Honestly? I know a lot of people here. This is a small town. Dan Waldman, and even Poppy here, have been fine, upstanding citizens of Port Henry for years, until his tragic bike accident upset everything. People understand that. Over the years Dan has given thousands of dollars in support of the local hospital, and loads of free advertising to our local charities and school groups. That kind of thing is not forgotten. And Poppy, before she went crazy and started hanging around with you,” Bamberger continued, nodding at Bill, “ran the annual high school car wash fundraiser for years and was even a substitute teacher in the elementary school.” The lawyer stopped to catch his breath, shaking his head sadly as he reflected on the past. “God, that things have come to this, “ he muttered to himself.
“Ed, we didn’t kill anyone, don’t get too carried away,” Poppy said, blowing her nose noisily into her tissue wad. “I mean yes, it’s bad, but it’s not that bad. And you have no idea what is going on with Dan, so don’t think I have fallen this far for no reason.”
“You’re right. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. Please don’t tell me. So, as far as punishment, I think that with all your past good deeds working in your favor I might be able to work a deal again. But maybe this time the two of you might have to get the heck out of Dodge, if you know what I mean.”
“No I don’t. I have no idea what you mean,” Poppy said. “Where exactly is Dodge?”
“It’s an expression, honey,” Bill said helpfully. “It means we have to get out of town on the next stagecoach, right Mr. Bamberger?”
“Pretty much,” he answered, staring at the cement floor of their holding cell. “You two sit tight and let me see what I can do.” And with that he left them alone to consider their fate.
“Please stop crying, Poppy. It’s bumming me out,” Bill said testily. “I was supposed to be at work at five today for the overnight shift. I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble.”
“Get you in trouble? Are you kidding? We are sitting in a jail! We’re already in trouble!”
“Well if you could just keep your goddamn hands to yourself this never would have happened,” Bill snapped. “Really, you are insatiable. I’m starting to wonder if you might be a sex addict or something.”
“Are you saying I raped you?”
“No, of course not, but once you stick your hand down my pants and grab me, there’s nothing I can do. It’s all over.”
“Well then maybe you are a sex addict, have you ever considered that?”
“Hey, if you grab any cock on any thirty-year-old guy, unless he’s a fairy I can guarantee he will get a hard-on and want to fuck. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
The two of them went on bickering about who was at fault for half an hour or so, until finally the deputy police chief manning the front desk complained that they were making too much noise and he would have to separate them. “Fine with me,” Poppy said snippily as she was led to her own cell down the hall, where she promptly fell asleep on a lumpy cot in the corner.
Later that night, after Margie had come to bail them both out and Bill ran off in a frenzy to drive back to Boston to get to work, Poppy was naturally distraught. Settled into the cozy dining nook in Margie’s sleek condo, she said, “I don’t know, maybe Bill’s right. Maybe I am a sex addict. Even though I never was before. So what do you think? Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
“You are not a sex addict. You are just sowing those wild oats you never sowed before, and it’s about time if you ask me. I mean, come on, your first marriage was totally sexless, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I wish I could,” she said, sipping the chai tea Margie had made to help calm her nerves.
“You just have to stop doing it in public. Or else, if you insist, you two should go to some foreign country like Bangkok or somewhere and get paid to do it onstage. I once worked with a guy who went and did that for a year with his girlfriend. They made a ton of money and had a blast. At least until she got pregnant.”
“Then what happened?”
“They came back to the states, got married, she put on fifty pounds and now he’s fooling around with other women while she’s baking cookies with their three kiddies.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Yes, I’m kidding, I have no idea what happened to them after that. The point is, it’s a real thing. Google it: Live sex shows. Maybe that would get it out of your system.”
“Well, that would certainly one-up Dan, wouldn’t it?”
“Is that what all this is about? Are you just using Bill to get back at Dan?”
“No. Maybe a little. Oh, I don’t know. One minute I was married to a successful businessman with three kids and the next my husband is in a coma for two months and wakes up gay with a young boyfriend, then goes off to play Scrabble games and ends up on the cover of People magazine and I’m a single parent. How should one behave under that scenario?”
“He’s on the cover? That seems odd.”
“No silly, I was just exaggerating to make a point. All I know is there’s an article about him coming out soon, at least that’s what Max told Doug and Doug told me. The point is, my life is a mess now, my kids hate me, and I’m having sex in public at the drop of a hat.”
“Let’s not forget the landing in jail part,” Margie reminded her.
“Wow, so that’s what friends are for,” Poppy said glumly.
“Sweetie, I’m just playing with you. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“On vacation, apparently,” Poppy said.
“Well maybe you should take a vacation too, and I’m voting for a long one. You need to shake yourself up a bit, you’ve been stuck on that Mommy track too long and that’s why you’re going so crazy with all this sex stuff.”
“Maybe you’re right about us going to Bangkok,” Poppy said, grinning at her friend. “I could get it out of my system once and for all.”
“There you go, now you’re thinking like the old Poppy I used to know. And I hear Bangkok is a pretty wild country.”
“Margie, there’s something you need to know.”
“Uh oh, what now?”
“Bangkok is a city. It’s the capital of Thailand. Thailand is a country.”
“Good to know. Thanks.”
Chapter 31: The Other Richie
Just about one year had passed since Dan’s accident. With the passing of that anniversary Doug decided that after all the angst surrounding Dan’s rehabilitation, all the visits and phone calls and conferences with the doctors, all the problems related to Poppy and her new boyfriend and Dan and his coming out of the closet, he and Riva deserved a vacation to reconnect with each other and with their son Max before Alexandra and Ben moved in with them and took over their every waking moment. Besides, Max’s performance on Broadway had been getting raves. Little by little he was being noticed by people in the acting world as a considerable talent, yet his own parents had yet to see the show even one time.
“It’s a disgrace, really,” Riva said one night at dinner. They were eating in the formal dining room instead of at the breakfast nook as usual, even though it was just the two of them, to underscore the calm before the storm before Ben and Alex moved in with them in just a few weeks. Riva had put candles on the table, alongside a vase of fresh flowers. She had taken the afternoon off to make a special meal since Doug seemed to be eating a lot less these days. Riva worried that maybe she hadn’t been putting forth her best efforts on the home front lately since her catering business had picked up considerably. “We’ll have to get up to New York and remedy the situation immediately. What kind of parents are we, after all?”
“I agree,” Doug said. “I’ll make all the arrangements and we can take the express train up Friday morning, get there by mid-afternoon and have a nice relaxing dinner that night, then see a matinee on Saturday, or an evening performance if Max prefers, spend some time with him and take in some sights, then come home Sunday evening.”
“Good. And don’t tell your brother, I don’t want him horning in on us.”
“Are you kidding? He is so busy these days with his word lists, he barely has time to talk to me when I call.” It was true, Doug realized. Once again Dan seemed to have outdone him, even with his brain injury. Doug was of course glad he was doing so well, but still he felt overshadowed again, just like he had all of their lives. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but deep down it pissed him off. And in a crazy way he was actually jealous, even though he wouldn’t want to trade places with his brother. Still, Doug desperately wished to be great at something himself before he died.
“I talked to Poppy today and she told me he is now calling himself ‘The Amazing Richie’ at these tournaments. He’s had business cards printed up, and flyers, and even baseball caps to sell at the events. Once a businessman, always a businessman, I guess,” she said sarcastically.
This news did not sit well with Doug. “But I was The Amazing Richie too! I can’t believe he would usurp our name like that, without even asking first.”
“Honey, that TV show was on like forty years ago. Get over it.”
“I know, I know, I should,” he grumbled. But he couldn’t. For some reason, despite it being ancient history, it stuck in his craw. So right after dinner he picked up the phone to call Dan and have it out with him. But then he realized how silly he would sound. What would he even do with the name if Dan agreed to not use it? It was trivial, but Doug understood that it had touched a nerve deep inside him. That very minute he decided he’d have to find a way to be amazing too. Somehow.
Instead of calling Dan he called Max and left a message saying that he and Riva were planning to come to see him perform the following weekend and were very excited and proud to be doing so. Then he got out his computer and found a decent hotel for them to stay at that wouldn’t break the bank, and made the necessary arrangements for the train to New York and a couple of dinner reservations. All the details for their trip taken care of, Doug was free to concentrate on what the heck he could possibly do to compete with his brother.
“Honey,” Riva called in to him from the kitchen where she was finishing up their dinner dishes. “I just hope you aren’t letting that Amazing Richie thing eat away at you.” She came into the den and stood by the doorway, looking at him with a critical eye. “And by the way, have I told you that you’ve been looking great lately? Are you doing something I don’t know about? Because suddenly you seem to be quite the muscle man, and it’s very becoming. What have you done with that paunch?”
She walked over to the couch where he was slumped dejectedly and kissed the top of his head. “Whatever it is, keep doing it.”
Riva she went back to finish up the dishes, and suddenly Doug got an idea of how he could become amazing too, and he wouldn’t need to conk himself on the head to do it. His brother was living proof that it’s never too late to change your life. And so the very next day he woke up earlier than usual, hurried to his morning workout at the gym and made the startled manager an offer he couldn’t refuse. Doug Waldman, former mediocre architect and government lackey was soon to be the new owner of Forever Fit. And if he had any say in it, he might just live forever. That should get him in the record books.
Chapter 32: Things Could Be Worse
Despite his not being able to remember anything that happened five minutes earlier, and not being able to taste the difference between a sip of Dom Perignon and a swig of Bud Light, Dan had become increasingly content with his life. In little more than a year’s time since his accident he had gone from a comatose blob to a true role model for all handicapped people.
Gaining notoriety as “The Amazing Richie,” he won every Scrabble tournament he entered, both in America and Canada. This amounted to about eighteen in all, with several more scheduled for the coming year, including two in London and one in Denmark. Articles about his ordeal, his recovery and his permanent Traumatic Brain Injury, often shortened to TBI, had appeared in such magazines as Psychology Today, Reader’s Digest and People, newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal, and all over the Internet. He had over 5,000 Facebook friends. He had appeared on morning TV and dipped his toes into the TV talk show circuit with a local program, Boston Today, proving himself adept at the witty repartee necessary to win over fans. Thus he was chosen as the new spokesman for the Traumatic Brain Injury Association, which caused his smiling face to be plastered on posters on the sides of buses and in airports and train stations. Television commercials for the Association featured Dan peering up from a game of Scrabble to make a heartfelt plea for everyone to wear bike helmets. They ended with the tag line, “You Too Can Be Amazing, Just Like Richie!” Not surprisingly, several helmet manufacturers contacted him seeking product endorsements. Flattered by their requests, still he had beg off since he couldn’t honestly attest to their excellence without having used them, and everyone knew he wouldn’t ever need another helmet anyway. This fact saddened him since biking had been one of his great loves, but he consoled himself with the thought that it had never made him famous – until now.
At first Dan missed Poppy, but after Bonita started coming in every day to cook and clean and do the laundry and tend to his medications, he realized that Poppy had always done an inferior job and so adjusted quite contentedly to the new regime. Bonita was a joy to have around, always singing one gospel hymn or another and always in a good mood. “Having the Lord living inside you does that to a person,” she explained to anyone who would listen. And with Poppy off in some foreign land with her boyfriend, Jay had begun spending more time at the Waldman home, until he was living there pretty much full time. Despite their age difference, Jay and Dan learned that they were quite compatible in their daily habits and considered making it a permanent arrangement. With Dan getting an annual income from the stock he owned in his ad agency, money was no issue. Still Jay liked feeling independent, so he kept working a few nights a week as a bartender in the town’s trendiest steak house. This gave him cash in his pocket and access to the civic and business leaders of Port Henry, most of whom had known Dan in his previous life. His outgoing personality won most people over quickly, and before long the two of them were considered a “must have” power couple at the dinner parties and brunches of the town’s most elite citizens.
To avoid any hard feelings, Dan invited the neighbors in to get a closer look at the young black man who now lived among them, certainly a first for his all-white subdivision. Their Sunday afternoon open house was a big success, and everyone seemed to take to Jay immediately. Naturally Roger and Nick were especially thrilled to have another gay couple in the neighborhood and looked forward to spending many festive evenings with them.
Even the Waldman kids were happy with the new arrangement. Ben and Alexandra loved living in Annapolis. Having grown up on the water in Massachusetts they felt right at home, signing up for sailing lessons and spending as much time on the water as their busy after-school schedules allowed. They secretly agreed that Aunt Riva was a much better cook than their mother ever was, and that Uncle Doug was a lot like their real dad before the accident, only better because he paid more attention to them. Weekend trips into Washington to see a show at the Kennedy Center or tour the White House or see the museums were especially fun for them, and Doug and Riva reveled in the chance to share in their excitement. After all, it had been years since Max had been willing to run around town with them. And though he was away at college most of the time, when he had a long break Troy split his time between seeing his dad and visiting his siblings in Maryland. He thought the new arrangement was a great learning experience for everyone.
Max was having a great run on Broadway and while he was still playing George onstage, his career as a rapper had started to take off after one of his videos went viral. A recording contract was in the works with a major label. And now that Ben and Alexandra were living there, he went home to visit his parents more often. Max had always hated the pressure of being an only child, always feeling like his parents needed his happiness to fuel their own. But now with Ben and Alexandra filling up their time it was like having siblings, and when he talked with his parents they seemed happy no matter how miserable he might be. And with the house in Annapolis brimming with life, he visited more often and had a better time when he was there.
The adults were thriving too. As the owner of his own gym that catered especially to seniors, Doug was earning more money than he ever dreamed possible. His franchise, Amazing Fitness, was revolutionizing the industry, with more and more older people opting to change their lives and transform themselves from frail couch potatoes into vibrant health nuts. Besides all the usual machines found at every gym, Doug had added an acupuncturist, and nutrition, yoga and tai chi classes tailored to his specific clientele, and had waiting lists for all of them. He had lost fifty pounds and toned up considerably. Looking like a man twenty years younger, he appeared in his own TV commercials and several others for spinoff products like juicers and vitamins. These gigs augmented the huge franchise fees that came pouring in weekly, since there were now more than thirty Amazing Fitness centers across the country and more in the planning stages.
The two “Amazing Richies” got together often enough, but not that often. Dan and Jay drove down to Annapolis every couple of months, mainly to see the kids. Doug actually grew to like Jay and accepted his brother’s new lifestyle, happy that at last the two of them were now distinctly “different” from one another. As for Poppy, she relished having her own life back without the burdens of homework and housework, soccer practice and school meetings, visits to the dentist and pediatrician, the whole motherhood thing. And while she loved her children simply because they carried her DNA, she had no particular need to oversee their growth to adulthood. Instead she sent the kids gifts and postcards and that seemed to be all they required to feel loved by her. On holidays and at odd hours, owing to the different time zones in whatever country she happened to be in, she phoned Dan or the kids and filled them in with stories of her life with Bill as “performers.” Nobody asked too many questions and she didn’t offer many details, but she sounded happier than she had in years.
All of which proved that no matter how bad things look at the start, at the end of the day everything can turn out just fine.