Kate Braverman

Cocktail Hour

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.