Bernie Roth is not going to get his twenty-year service plaque in the lobby. The hospital he founded has been purchased by Westec Medical Division. Bernie Roth is merely the former figurehead of an ad hoc insurrection that has no meaning in the realm of litigation. The project coördinator makes it clear that his presence is unnecessary, in fact, it’s intolerable.
He leaves the merger meeting three days early. Bernie Roth takes a midnight flight, and his green-tinted contact lenses sting as he drives from the airport directly home. The house is perched on a cliff of purple succulents above the ocean that is, today, a dark blue like certain fabrics in which you see the grain and stitches.
Chloe designed their house with an architect from Milan. It’s a two-story Mediterranean villa with arches, balconies, a turret, orange tiles on the roof, and graceful windows of leaded glass that face interior courtyards enclosed by bougainvillea draped walls. And it’s not painted pink, Chloe has meticulously explained. It’s a salmon terra cotta.
Chloe’s car is in the driveway. It’s a weekday and she should be out. He notices her car with surprise and relief, realizing that if she hadn’t been home, he would have called her and asked her to return immediately.
He finds Chloe in the bedroom, standing inside her closet, apparently arranging clothing. She is wearing a silk kimono imprinted with red peonies, her blond hair is tied back in a ponytail and she seems startled to see him. She actually touches two fingers to her throat in a gesture of surprise when she looks up, and her mouth is momentarily wide. He starts to embrace her but, for some reason, stops, and lays down on the bed instead.
“You’re three days early,” Chloe says. There’s something accusatory in her tone.
“I was invited to leave,” Bernie explains, prone. “I’m not getting my plaque.”
“Why not?” Chloe asks. She glances at him, briefly, then continues moving clothing through the one hundred twenty square feet of her cedar closet.
Spring-cleaning is inappropriate, he decides. Insulting and dismissive. Bernie wants a scotch and he wants her to lay down with him, in that order, now.
“Their focus groups don’t like plaques. It reminds the consumer of death. Their lobbies are strictly ferns with central gravel fountains. They’re identical, like McDonald’s.” He closes his eyes.
Bernie waits for Chloe to offer him consolation. A drink and a quick tennis game, perhaps. It’s still early. They could have lunch, walk on the beach. Then he could tell her his joke. Westec Medical Division. WMD. See, there are weapons of mass destruction, after all. They’re just not in Baghdad. They’re in La Jolla.
Bernie Roth is aware of an agitating interference in the room. He must remove his contacts. His vision is blurred and scratchy, as if his eyes are being clawed. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“I’m packing, Bernie. I’m not getting my plaque, either. I intended to be gone before you got back.” Chloe resumes her closet activities. He sees now, the selected dresses and suits and skirts hanging in one area, an assembly of shoes and purses already on the bedroom floor below the French windows leading to the mahogany bedroom terrace. Her entire set of luggage is in the corner, garment bags, cosmetic cases and assorted carry ons. The suitcases are open and most of them are nearly filled.
“Where are you going?” Bernie sits up. Is this an unscheduled Book Club related journey? A prize-winning poet must be fetched at an airport and properly entertained? Is there a problem with the children? Maybe he needs a scotch and a cup of coffee.
“ I’m just going, Bernie. That’s the point. Not where.” Chloe pauses. “I’m leaving you. This. Us. La Jolla. I’m through.”
“You’re leaving me? As in a separation? A divorce?” Bernie stares at her. “Now?”
“Affirmative. Sorry about the scheduling. But it’s always something. The siege of festivities. Christmas. Birthdays. Valentine’s Day. Our anniversary. Departures tend to be awkward.” Chloe looks directly at him. “Can you give me an hour or so to wrap it up here?”
“Wrap it up here? What is this? A movie set? You’re divorcing me and you want me to leave our bedroom now?” Bernie repeats.
He examines the bedroom as if he’s never quite seen it before. Their bed has four oak posts supporting a yellow brocade canopy. The walls are an ochre intended to suggest aged stucco. Ochre, not yellow. A stone kiva fireplace is dead center across from the bed. Navajo rugs lay over glazed orange Spanish tiles. The ceiling is a sequence of Douglas fir beams somehow procured from a derelict church in New Mexico. Bernie assumes her decorator hires bandits. An elaborate copper and glass chandelier with a history involving Gold Rush opera theaters and saloons hangs suspended from the middle of the beams. Chloe insisted it was necessary, despite the earthquake hazard. It was essential for what did she call it? The hybrid Pueblo Revival style?
“I have a list and this is confusing. Yes. Why don’t you make yourself a drink? I’ll join you downstairs in a bit, OK?” It’s not a question.
“Isn’t this sudden? I’ve been preoccupied with the merger, but—” he begins.
“Actually, it’s a coincidence. It doesn’t really have to do with you,” Chloe says, over her shoulder. She extracts a pair of fire-engine red high-heeled shoes. She holds them in her hands, as if determining their possible flammability. Or is she weighing them? Is she taking a special flight? Are there baggage limitations? Is she going on safari?
“We’ve been married twenty-four years. I must have some involvement.” Bernie entertains the notion that this is a ghastly practical joke, or the consequence of an anomalous miscommunication. A faulty computer transmitting a garbled fax designed for someone else entirely, perhaps.
Chloe is within her fortress of closet, on her knees, nonchalantly evaluating pocketbooks and shoes with both hands. She does have a list, he notices that now, and a pen where she checks off and crosses out items. She’s also listening to music. Bob Dylan live, he decides. It’s her favorite, the Rolling Thunder tour. Or the other one she plays incessantly, Blood on the Tracks. They made a pact when Irving and Natalie went to college. She would not play Bob Dylan in his presence. In return, he would not subject her to John Coltrane or Monk. No Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker, either. Chloe deems his music agitating. In fact, his entire jazz collection is, by agreement, kept in his study, as if they were vials of pathogens. Or slides of children with pre-op facial deformities.
Bernie stares at her back for an arrested moment, in which time simultaneously elongates and compresses. Then he pushes himself up from the embroidered damask pillows with their intimidating wavy rims of thick silk ribbons requiring handling so specialized he fears them, stands unsteadily, and walks down stairs to the kitchen. He pours scotch into a water glass.
Outside is a tiled courtyard with a marble statue of what he assumes is a woman rendered in an abstract manner embedded in the center of a round shallow pool with a fountain. Flowers that resemble lotuses but aren’t drift slowly across the surface like small abandoned boats. He realizes the petals form a further layer of mosaic. So this is how his wife makes stone breathe. Then he reads the Sunday New York Times front page twice. The script is glutinous, indecipherable. He pours another scotch and dials Sam Goldberg’s private emergency cell line.
“The WMD negotiations? You’re still there?” Sam doesn’t wait for a response. “I’m at lunch with a client, Bernie. Can I get back to you?”
“Chloe says she’s divorcing me,” Bernie begins.
“I’m representing her, yes.” Sam sounds equitable, even expansive.
“You’re my best friend,” Bernie reminds him.
“I love you both. She came to me first. I’ll call you back.” The phone goes still in his hand, which feels suddenly numb. He remembers that his hospital is now simply part of two hundred fifty small medical facilities owned by a corporation based in Baltimore. He is merely one of 12,500 doctors they choose to employ.
Bernie climbs the wooden stairs to their bedroom. Chloe is placing shoes in an enormous cardboard box. “Imelda Marcos had fewer shoes,” he notes. He’s wondered about her shoe accumulation, the pumps and stilettos and platforms, how odd for a woman who habitually wears sandals or is barefoot. “ Won’t you need a porter or two?”
“My job is over. The chauffeuring. The scheduling. Tennis lessons and matches. Music classes. Not to mention the soccer practices and interminable playoffs. The surfboard transportation logistics. Piano recitals. Ballet productions. The play dates,” Chloe pauses. She reaches for something in a drawer on the far side of the closet. She withdraws a package of cigarettes. She lights one and faces him.
“Listen. It begins in preschool. These kids don’t play. They have auditions. If they pass, if they get a call back, a sort of nanny-chaperoned courtship ensues. It’s loathsome.” She expels smoke. “Later, it’s worse.”
He hasn’t seen her with a cigarette since Ion and Gnat first went to nursery school. The fumes are infiltrating the room, further irritating his contacts. Bob Dylan is whining off key and out of time, contaminating the air, now on an auditory level. It should be labeled a posthumous rather than live performance, he decides. He shuts off the switch.
“I didn’t know you still smoked,” Bernie said. “Or that you hated the children’s activities.”
“Soccer did me in. Soccer, for Christ’s sake. How does soccer figure? When did that make your short list? How many professional soccer stars has La Jolla produced? It’s just crap.” Chloe is vehement.
“We accepted division of labor as a viable vestigial tradition. But you could have refused,” Bernie counters.
“You can’t say no to soccer. It’s the new measure of motherhood. It’s the fucking gold standard. I sat in parking lots between chauffeuring, feeling like Shiva with her arms amputated.” Chloe finishes her cigarette. She uses a yellow shoe with a red flower at the toe for an ashtray.
“Let’s have a drink downstairs,” Bernie suggests. His voice is reasonable. He is able to produce this effect by pretending he is someone else entirely, a concierge or a waiter. “I’m finishing the Laphroaig.”
Chloe consults her watch. It’s the Piaget he gave her when their son entered college. His wife shrugs, the kimono sleeves drift briefly from her sides like twin crane skimming an inlet, hunting. “One drink,” she assents.
They sit in the kitchen. He considers the Westec buy-out. For two decades, he entered the hospital each morning and paused in a gesture of respect near walls engraved with the names of doctors who had achieved their twenty, twenty-five and thirty year status. Next year, he would have had his own twenty-year service plaque installed. Chloe has already arranged the catering. He would be permanently mounted beside Milstein and Kim, McKenzie, Fuentes and Weintraub. They were there when Northern San Diego Children’s Clinic was built, the landscaping just put in, the first bougainvillea and hibiscus bushes growing against still dusty cinder blocks. Chloe planted pink and white camellias the next year. Then wisteria and roses.
Bernie realizes the kitchen floor is actually a composition of hand-painted tiles, purple and blue irises and violets. The stems and leaves are a raised green enamel suggesting channels and veins. So this is how she prepares their meals, barefoot, standing on a version of cool garden. He finds cheese and fruit in the refrigerator and bagels in the cabinet. A china platter with ornate silver handles he vividly recalls packing in plastic wrap and hauling in a special crate on a plane sits between them. Where were they returning from? Portugal? Prague? Chloe averts her eyes.
“I love California Lent. It comes the spring you’re fifteen and lasts the rest of your life.” She looks tired.
“Just gain a few pounds and let’s stay married.” Bernie spreads cream cheese on a bagel. It’s stale. Chloe smokes another cigarette.
“I’m leaving a few pounds early. I’m one of the last original wives. Do you realize that?” Chloe asks. “I’m forty-six. Let’s just skip menopause and the obligatory trophy wife syndrome. We did our jobs. Now the task is finished.”
“ We had a deal. We agreed to be postmodern,” Bernie points out. “No empires with historically disastrous ends. No mistresses with unnecessary dangerous complications. No tax fraud. No start-ups or IPO’s. Just us, with plausible defendable borders.”
“We did that. You built the clinic. I did this.” Chloe indicates the formal dining room with her fingers, and by extension, he surmises, the entire house and grounds, courtyards, swimming pool and tennis court, gazebos and rose gardens.
“You saw it as a job?” Bernie is amazed. “It was a performance art piece. Remember when Book
Club discovered one-man shows? Spalding Gray. Reno. Sandra Bernhard. Laurie Anderson. We went with the Weintraubs on opening night, remember?”
Bernie Roth thinks for a moment. Then he says, “No.”
“It was the hospital benefit that year. A bit arty for you. We went back stage. Elaine had Laurie Anderson’s entire tour profile. We realized we were earning more than she was. We had our own multimillion dollar a year performance art pieces. We just had smaller venues and a limited audience. Elaine Weintraub, the original wife. Before the current version. The ex-TV late night weather girl? The anorexic redhead with the room temperature IQ? Jesus. Elaine Weintraub was my best friend. You don’t even remember her.” Chloe finishes her scotch.
“Our marriage was an art piece, a performance?” Bernie is incredulous.
“The four piece choreography. The music lessons. Sports and tutors. Surfing and swim meets. The theme birthday party extravaganzas. Christ. Not to mention the gardeners I bailed out of jail. The maids with alcoholic boyfriends. Their secret abortions. The relentless complications. The emergency loans. It was 24/7 for twenty years. And I’m not getting a plaque either.” Chloe stares at the table. Bernie pours more scotch.
Outside is sunlight that surprises him with its nuances, its fluid avenues of yellows that are not solid at all, but tentative and in curious transition. Streaks like gold threads waver across the surface of the fountain, a filigree embossing the koi. Bernie thinks of brass bells and abruptly senses a clash in the air. So this is the sound of a day being sliced in half.
“I walk through this house and it’s like being trapped in a postcard,” Chloe indicates the living room table, a square of inlaid mahogany completely covered with framed photographs. She picks them up, one by one. “Agra. Bali. Rome. Luxor. Maui. Everyone holding hands and smiling. It’s a laminated version of reality.”
“But this was our life,” Bernie realizes. He stands near her. “ You wanted Thanksgiving in a Beirut back alley? Easter in a Turkish tenement? That wasn’t our experience. What’s encased in glass is, in point of fact, the truth.”
“Really?” Chloe sounds bitter and combative. She is still wearing the kimono with the extravagant sleeves that seem to suggest intention. But she has put on pink lipstick and diamond earrings. She has brushed her hair. Perhaps she sprayed her wrists with perfume. Then her skin would be a distillation of all things floral and vanilla. “This isn’t truth,” Chloe said. “It’s an advertisement for consumption.”
For a moment, Bernie thinks she is alluding to tuberculosis. TB is rebounding globally. Half of Europe tests positive. Studies suggest nearly forty percent of New York City college students have indications of exposure. Malaria is also making a spectacular come back. Polio is a possibility, too. Its crossover potential is seriously underrated. A major influenza epidemic is inevitable, actually statistically overdue. Of course, small pox could be the defining epidemic of the millennium. Then he realizes his wife is not talking about infections. He holds a silver framed photograph selected at random. “You don’t appear to be suffering in Tahiti,” Bernie observes.
“I didn’t suffer. I just wasn’t engaged. It was like filling stamps in a geography game. More accumulation. Just like the grotesque children’s activities.” Chloe seems to be considering another drink.
“Grotesque?” Bernie repeats.
“Piano. Cello. Guitar. Ballet. Gymnastics. Basketball. Karate. Theater arts. Choral group. Ceramics. Mime. What kid has that plethora of aptitudes?” Chloe demands.
He is apparently meant to say something. “I have no idea,” he admits.
“They don’t have affinities or longings. Every stray spasm of temporary enthusiasm gets an immediate new uniform. They lack affection and discipline. Activities are another form of consumption. Now a video. Now a violin. Now Chinese. Now a chainsaw.” Chloe sighs.
Bernie considers the possibility that he may pass out. He barely slept at the negotiations, which were not mediations, but rather the inordinately slow unraveling of a fait accompli. His hotel room was curiously uncomfortable, the sheets and towels abrasively starched, the walls a deliberately muted blue reminiscent of an interminable depression. The sense of transience in carpet and upholstery stains disturbed him. There were lingering odors he couldn’t identify. Perhaps it was perfume, insect repellant, spilled wine, suntan lotion and something intangible that leaked from a stranger writing a postcard. He had insomnia for the first time since he was an intern and nightmares about his father.
“What are you going to tell Ion and Gnat?” Bernie tries.
“I’ve taken care of that.” Chloe almost smiles. There is strain around her mouth. It’s as close to a sneer as she can permit herself. Her genetic code doesn’t allow her to further distort her face.
“You’ve talked to them?” Bernie is tentative and afraid. He needs to establish coordinates. He must assemble reliable data. “Ion and Gnat. How chic we thought their nicknames were. How millennial. Naturally I’ve spoken with them.” Chloe stares at him. “Natalie used to tell me what a great mother I was. I had my standard line. I’d say—”
“I’m compensated. I’ve got my CEO salary, yearly incentive bonuses, stock options and pension plan,” Bernie supplies. “Of course I remember.”
“I wasn’t kidding,” Chloe states.
After a moment, in which he feels dazed and incoherent, and thinks oddly and wildly of hummingbirds and lizards, and how patterns on reptiles resemble certain common skin disorders, he asks, “What did the children say?”
“They’re a monolith of narcissism and indifference. They want assurances there’s no hostility and the finances are secure. If separate doesn’t intrude on their scant psychological resources, it’s fine. They require known quantities. If it arrives from two locations, that’s irrelevant. Just so we don’t necessitate their engagement.”
“Is that it?” Bernie senses there is considerably more. He best skill has always been diagnostic.
“Not quite. They both have messages for you,” Chloe pauses. She takes a breath. “And this is the last act of translation I’m going to engage in. After this, you’ll have to gather and distill your own information.”
“Shoot.” Bernie is dizzy. He doesn’t want to flinch. “Ion quit the tennis team.” Chloe actually laughs. “He won the Desert Classic as a sophomore. He’s ranked number three in California, for Christ’s sake. He has a full scholarship.” Bernie realizes he is yelling.
“He knows we can afford it, without his playing. He hates tennis. Thinks it’s decadent, imperialistic and retrograde. He quit last year. I’ve been paying his tuition. Quietly. Part of my job. The choreography, mediation and scheduling aspect.”
“What about his major?” Bernie insists.
“He hasn’t been pre-med since freshman midterms.” Chloe avoids his eyes.
“What is his major, precisely?” Bernie is more alert. He understands rage is a form of fuel.
“Urban Design. It’s like modern history but with community projects.”
“Community projects?” Bernie puts his glass down. “Like Houses for Habitats?” He has a vague recognition of this organization. Perhaps he’s seen it listed on intern resumes.
“He’s specializing in athletics for the handicapped. Creating playgrounds with wheelchair ramps in barrios. Also, he isn’t Ion anymore. He’s Grivin,” Chloe informs him. “He plays drums in a band. He says it’s a good drummer’s name.”
“Grivin?” Bernie repeats. “An anagram of his wretched birth name. Irving. I should never have agreed to that.” Chloe lights another cigarette. She shakes her head from side to side. “But you were having that affair with the nurse. And I was on the verge of suicide. Guess I just lost that one in the sun.”
There is a pause during which Bernie considers the delicacy of the respiratory system and the necessity to gather filaments of air into his body, and keep his lungs oxygenated. “What about Gnat? What about Natalie?”
“No pre-med there, either. Sorry. She’s in Women’s Studies.” Chloe examines her hands. Her fingernails are translucent with pearl white slivers at their tips. Or perhaps they are arcs of silver, permanently engraved by some new cosmetic process.
“And? Come on. I feel it, Chloe. I’m down. Kick me hard.” The scotch is making him nauseous. He decides to make a pot of coffee and take a Dexedrine.
“She’s calling herself Nat and living with a woman,” Chloe reveals.
“She’s a lesbian?” Bernie tries to concentrate on Gnat, on Natalie. She was an excellent camper. When they rafted the Grand Canyon, it was Gnat who helped him erect the tents, identify the correct poles and how to position them. Her natural ability to recognize constellations was exceptional. She rarely tangled a fishing line. Was this unusual? Was her spatial aptitude an indication of abnormality? Had he failed to diagnosis a monumental malfunction?
“Fifty-six percent of her entering class listed their orientation as bisexual.” Chloe finishes examining her fingernails. Then she drinks her third scotch. “I suggest we adopt a neutral position.”
Events are accelerating in a frantic progression, each revelation is increasingly surreal. Day is assuming hallucinatory proportions. He concludes that his present condition resembles severe jetlag combined with sixth round chemotherapy. And there is, of course, the matter of the luggage. The suitcases packed in the bedroom. She must have arranged for someone to carry them down the stairs and load them into her car.
“Do you care about that?” Bernie manages. “Our daughter is gay.”
“Why would I care?” Chloe seems surprised.
“What will happen to the Christmas decorations?” Bernie asks. He considers their holiday ritual. Chloe and Gnat selected new ornaments for their permanent tree legacy, one for each family member, one each year. The two hundred yearold brocade angels with twelve-carat gold threads around their wings from Belgium. The gingham elves with pewter crowns. The silver maple leaves. The glass snowflakes, each with intricate individual facets and panels.
“Nat will take them no matter what. If she goes butch. If she opts for artificial insemination. She’ll take the ornaments. And she knew you’d ask that.” Chloe is leaning against the wall, her eyes partially closed.
Bernie pours coffee. He removes a bottle of amphetamines from his suit jacket pocket. He takes three tablets and offers the bottle to Chloe. She moves toward it with such unexpected rapidity, he can’t determine how many pills she extracts. Bernie watches her hands, following her fingers to where they terminate in glazed nails translucent like the undersides of certain tropical seashells.
“Remember the glass snowflakes?” Bernie asks.
“From Tibet? With triangular amber panels like medieval cathedral windows?” Chloe recalls. “I thought they’d look good as earrings. I imagined them on a young wife on a pyre. Of course, that wouldn’t work for me anymore.”
“That’s what you were thinking? In front of the goddamned pedigreed twenty-two foot Colorado blue spruce? Ritual incineration?” Bernie places his hands over his eyes. There are numerous anecdotally reported cases of sudden stress induced blindness. He puts on his sunglasses.
Chloe pours herself a cup of black coffee. Her movements are slow, listless, stalled. The room is a series of sea swells.
He realizes they are floating like the petals of the flowers that are not lotuses just above the koi.
“And you’re putting the fucking suitcases in your car and driving away?” Bernie is incensed. “Sam Goldberg is your lawyer?”
“He can represent both of us. Or I’ll take Leonard and you can have Sam,” Chloe offers. She drinks a second cup of coffee.
“Leonard is my golf partner,” Bernie says.
“We know where all the bodies are buried. It’s a cemetery. There’s enough to go around. When in doubt, just keep it, Bernie.” She studies the interior of her porcelain cup.
Then Chloe goes upstairs. She returns, slowly and methodically, with suitcases. He’s surprised by her muscular arms. She knows instinctively how to balance her torso, shift her weight, and bend her knees. She is barely sweating. She has replaced the kimono with a short beige linen dress with spaghetti straps that accentuate her tanned shoulders. Twenty years of yoga and tennis. Then the bags of groceries when the maids disappeared, were picked up by immigration, or beaten up by boyfriends. In between, they had babies and abortions. They visited relatives in their home villages and often didn’t return for months. Then the gardeners vanished. Chloe spent days in the garden with a shovel. Yes, she could easily load the baggage into her car. Even the inexplicable cardboard box of shoes. And that is the next step. Bernie considers the heavy carved oak front door that leads to the circular cobblestone driveway.
“What about the jewelry?” Bernie inquires. He always gave her a necklace on her birthday. Rubies in Katmandu. Pearls in Shanghai. Silver and turquoise in Santa Fe. Gold in Greece. He can remember each separate composition of stones and the rooms above plazas and rivers and lagoons where he unwrapped his offering and fastened the clasp around her throat. Sometimes there were cathedral bells and foghorns, drums from carnivals and parades, waves and sea birds
“I took the diamonds. I left you the rest. They’re in my safe. The key is on my pillow.” Chloe pours another cup of black coffee.
“Why leave me any?” Bernie wonders.
“You may need them for bartering purposes later. Sometimes a strand of Colombian emeralds really hits the spot.” Chloe lights another cigarette. This is not the behavior of a novice. This is no small stray gesture of recidivism. Does her yoga instructor know? Her aroma therapist? Book Club and the hospital board? And what does she mean by barter. That’s a curious concept.
“Wait a minute. Look. This is for your birthday. I got it early.” Bernie is excited. It’s the amphetamines, cutting through his fatigue, his heavy and unnatural disorientation. Airports are terminals of contagion. A maximum exposure situation. He might be incubating a malevolent viral mutation. Still, he is clarifying his thinking.
“I can’t wait.” Chloe gazes at her watch. Bernie walks into his study, the only room Chloe permitted him to decorate, and returns with a small wooden box. “Here,” he said. He feels wildly triumphant.
“I’m not interested,” Chloe informs him.
Her voice has more energy now. The amphetamines. Perhaps they should take two more. Bernie produces the bottle. Chloe allows her fingers to reach into the pills. She stands near him while he opens the box. A single grayish stone.
“I’m going to have it set,” Bernie explains. “It’s an agate from the beach in Chile. From Isla Negra where Neruda lived. I went there. I skipped Rio. Didn’t you wonder why I went to a river parasite conference in Brazil? I needed an excuse. I changed planes for Chile at the airport. Then I drove. I walked beaches for miles. I found it for you. I pulled it out of the water.” Bernie holds the pebble in his palm between them. His hands are shaking. “Now you can tell me what the stones know.”
“Bernie, you’re a lovely man.” Chloe touches his cheek. “You’ve made it a wonderful job.”
“I want to know what the stones know,” Bernie says. “That was your goddamned dissertation.Your personal grail.You were going to decode Neruda’s stones and explain them to me.”
“That’s prehistory, Bernie. You’d need an archeologist to dig back that far. A paleontologist.” Chloe turns away from the agate. It looks lonely and ashen. It knows it is an orphan.
“What about the house? The furniture? The paintings? The sculpture? Each sofa a distillation of your personal evolution? That’s what you said,” Bernie remembers.
“I tried to amuse myself. Forget it. The house is too big for you,” Chloe determines. “The kids are never coming back.”
“They’re never coming back?” Bernie finds himself repeating. The afternoon is a kind of three-dimensional mantra.
Phrases are recited, but they are like howls people make on roller coasters, ludicrous vows and confessions. Words came from their mouths, but they are sacraments in reverse, staining the air. They are curses.
“Not for more than a day here and there. Now there won’t be the plague of holidays to entice them.” Chloe glances around the downstairs rooms, detached and calculating. “Unload it. The market is good now.”
“Chloe,” Bernie takes a breath. “I love you.”
“It’s been terrific, really. This is my terminal performance of prophecy on command. My final act of analysis and emergency emotional counsel. OK. I’m gazing into my crystal ball for the last time. It’s the goddess of real estate. She says sell.”
“Chloe. Let’s talk this out. There’s more to say. I can say more.” Bernie tastes the amphetamines now, an unmistakable metallic sting between his lips. It’s spreading through his body; microscopic steel chips, hard-wiring his muscles, his reflexes and agility. She can load the suitcases into her car. But he outweighs her by seventy pounds, and he is wearing leather shoes. One must not discount the element of surprise. Chloe can do head and shoulder stands, she has mastered all the strength and flexibility postures, but she has never been in a street fight.
“OK.” Chloe is suddenly unexpectedly agreeable. “One final note. That stricture I gave you about only wearing black and gray Armani?”
“Yes?” Bernie closes his eyes.
“I remove it. You should do jeans for a while, T-shirts. Downscale. Lose the Porsche.” Chloe takes a silver sandaled step toward the front door.
“You don’t love me?” Bernie is confused and chaotic and finds the combination not entirely unpleasant. His trepidation has been replaced by an erratic turbulent energy. He is blocking the door, with its thick carved oak panels and intricate squares of stained glass implanted in the center and along the edges. Her decorator no doubt looted that from a church, too. And he is not going to let her walk out to the driveway.
“Love you? I’m all dried up in that department. One marriage, two children, and the full liturgy of soccer. The one hundred unique ornaments I was designated curator for. The secret acts of mediation. Messenger services. Currency exchange. Frankly, specific love isn’t even on my radar screen.” Chloe seems resigned.
“What do you want? I can give it to you.” Bernie is desperate.
“Solitude. Drift. I’ll travel. Maybe pen a mediocre verse here or there. It requires a climate you can’t provide. You can’t survive the altitude I’m looking for, believe me,” Chloe says. “And no more question and answer quizzes. No more multiple-choice tests. No more essays.”
“Will you take this?” He extends the agate. “You said swallows and constellations of stars were inside. The mysteries of oceans. Metamorphosis and mythology. Take it.”
“No more homework. School’s out, Bernie. School’s out forever.” Chloe sings the phrase, twice.
He thinks it might be an Aerosmith song. Or, perhaps and worse, Alice Cooper.
Once he settles the suitcase problem, he’s going to play Coltrane on the house speakers at full volume. Dizzy and Monk. Parker and Miles. It’s going to be jazz week. Jazz month.
Bernie stands directly in front of his wife. Her suitcases are near the door. She is holding her car keys. Still, Bernie is beginning to get his bearings. There is a machinery in the periphery. He is starting to hear it hum and pump. There are mechanisms. Barter? Deduction is a gift. It becomes a skill experience polishes into a tool. The most fiercely reckless intuitions often prove accurate. And he can see the schematics now. There are blueprints and diagrams and there is nothing subtle about them.
“You don’t visit the hospital anymore,” Bernie notes. “You used to come for lunch. We had our special noon appointment.”
“I couldn’t stand all the doors opening to those discreet pastel alcoves. The rooms where women who still have eggs sit. Women with babies in their wombs. I could hear them devising names for infants. They do it alphabetically. Amy. Beatrice. Clarissa. Devra. Erica. Francine. Gabrielle.” Chloe glares at him.
“That’s a lie,” Bernie says, shocked. He wants to slap her across the face.
“Back away,” Chloe orders. Her voice is high and thin. It wavers, hangs in the air and loses its sense of direction and purpose. He considers fireworks, how they explode, tattooing the sky with a passionate conviction that quickly dissipates. Then she says, “Do you want the police here?”
Bernie Roth envisions the La Jolla police; two or three freshly painted vehicles parked in the circular cobblestone driveway, each officer tanned and uncertain. He imagines them standing in the marble entranceway below the oasis of stately sixty-foot palm trees. The fronds cast unusually vertical shadows like arrows and darts. From certain angles, the house looks like Malta. He’d once suggested mounting an antique cannon in the turret. And domestic complaints are a gray area. He is, after all, the senior doctor at the hospital. Alternatively, he imagines chasing her car, positioning himself at the end of the driveway, his back against the wrought iron gate, his arms spread wide. She might impale him.
What are his options, precisely? He can shut off the master switch on his computer, of course, locking the garage and gates. Chloe refused to learn how to manipulate the systems. She said she wasn’t intelligent enough for such smart appliances. He often worried what she would do in an emergency power failure. Or he could call Ron Klein. Ron is running the psychiatric unit now. A wife with a menopausal psychotic break requiring hospitalization. It happens all the time. Ron owes him a few favors. But favors are a limited resource and he needs to ration them.
“I’m delirious,” Bernie realizes. “ I need to take something.”
The green in his wife’s eyes intensifies. It is like observing a river coming out of a mist. Or emeralds just professionally cleaned by sonic wave devices in a jewelry store.
“ You’re going to open the cookie jar?” Chloe asks. “But you’re under suspicion. You swore no more until Christmas.”
“That’s nine months away. Isn’t that unnecessarily punitive and arbitrary?” Bernie wanders into his study.
This is the only area of the house he has been allotted. He designed it himself in one weekend. He didn’t need a decorator. He ordered over the Internet. The walls are mahogany and the bookshelves contain his medical library, computer files and jazz discs. The lamps are solid brass. The sofa is brown leather like oak leaves in mid-October. The floor is red maple. Chloe disparaged his aesthetics and dismissed his study as aggressively masculine. But she is following him now.
Bernie Roth has always possessed the capacity for strategic action. It might be time to retire now, after all. Empty nest syndrome demands attention. Menopause is problematic. They can build something new, on a beach in Costa Rica or Mexico, perhaps. Grivin can help with the construction. Maybe he can get extra credit course points. And Nat. She can bring her girlfriend. They’re probably both good with hammers.
Bernie walks directly to the wall safe and unlocks it. The safe contains one blue canvas duffle all-purpose sports bag wedged against the metal. It fills the entire safe and Bernie has to yank it out. Chloe watches him unzip the bag. Bernie extracts a handful of glass vials. He removes a box of syringes.
The agate from Isla Negra is in his pocket. Later, Chloe will tell him about Neruda, the poet she was enthralled with when they first met. When she recited stanzas about volcanoes and poppies, he didn’t hear the words precisely, but rather followed the narrative through her mouth and eyes. It was medical school and he was stupefied with exhaustion. He heard the phrases she offered as a music that was visual. It was a sequence of facial expressions, a tapestry of geometries composed from flesh. Trajectories formed on her lips, which were rivers and bays with bridges, and exited through her eyes, which were green wells and portals that could foretell the future.
Tell me what the stones know, he will command later. I want to be initiated into the language of agates. Show me how they form bodies like infants and feed themselves from stars. And Chloe will comply. She will find the capacity for jazz. It’s simple. Saxophones mean spread your legs. Later, she’ll laugh at his WMD joke. Her throat will emit sounds that look like strings of rubies and sapphires. She will fall down on her knees and explain everything. She will invent and improvise. He’ll help her remember why she has a mouth.
“The usual?” Bernie asks, glass vials in his hand. He prepares a mixture that is two parts morphine, one part cocaine. He prefers the reverse. He taps the air bubbles out of the two syringes. “We’ll celebrate the birth of God early this year. Take a few weeks off. Reassess our position.”
Chloe apparently agrees. She has removed her beige dress with the thin shoulder straps. She isn’t wearing underwear. She curls on her side on the leather sofa like a fawn at dusk. Bernie Roth reaches for his wife. She extends her right arm, the one with the good veins. He injects her first. Then he injects himself.