Alicia Gifford

Safe

I’m horny,” Rob whis­pers. It’s six in the morn­ing. He press­es against his wife, urgent, ready. “You don’t have to do any­thing.”

Julia shifts around so he can enter from behind. She’s half asleep but doesn’t mind. She’s glad after ten years of mar­riage they still have a lot of sex. She’d only been mar­ried to Carolyn’s father for five years, but their sex life had stopped after Carolyn’s birth due to his own ver­sion of post-par­tum depres­sion.

Rob strokes her breasts, kiss­es her neck while she lies in a soft, sleepy place. He fin­ish­es, gets up, and heads to the show­er. “Stay in bed,” he says. “I’ll dri­ve Carolyn.”

She snug­gles back into her pil­low. Before leav­ing, he kiss­es her good­bye. She hears her daughter’s voice call out. “Bye Mom.” In three weeks her girl grad­u­ates from high school. She’ll be going to col­lege in Oregon in the fall. And Julia and Rob will fly off to Italy for the whole month of October.

: : :

Julia gets up around nine, brews cof­fee, watch­es her morn­ing shows. She’d been an assis­tant head nurse in a busy mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary ICU when she met Rob, a pedi­a­tri­cian, and he’d asked her to quit her job after they mar­ried. “Your salary all goes to Uncle Sam any­way,” he’d said. And after a par­tic­u­lar­ly gru­el­ing day with two simul­ta­ne­ous arrests and not enough beds for the surg­eries com­ing in, and under­staffed, of course, she quit. She keeps her license up, but it’s hard to think about going back to work.

Her project this month is to refi­nance the house. Mortgage rates are at an all-time low and she fig­ures their house pay­ment will be at least $1,500 less per month. The bank wants to see the last few years’ income tax­es, so she push­es her way through the stacks and box­es of Rob’s home office. He’s a bril­liant crit­i­cal-care pedi­a­tri­cian at Children’s and a won­der­ful step­fa­ther to her daugh­ter, whose real father gassed him­self in the garage when she was three. But what a slob. The rest of the house was kept in her OCD way, but this is his space and she doesn’t ven­ture in it much.

It doesn’t look too bad now. No piz­za box­es or moldy cof­fee mugs. She opens the file cab­i­net where they keep their income tax fold­ers and 2008’s is miss­ing. It could be mis­filed, or it could be any­where. She looks around hop­ing the blue and white fold­er their accoun­tants use will pop out of the mess.

She doesn’t begrudge him his fox hole. She’d been on the verge of bank­rupt­cy and fore­clo­sure from the debt her hus­band had accrued dur­ing his final mania. Since his death she’d been work­ing dou­ble shifts with­out much head­way. She got the cred­it card com­pa­nies to write off a small amount of debt when he died, but the cards that were in her name, the American Express and Visa, were maxed out and accu­mu­lat­ing crazy amounts of inter­est debt every month. The sec­ond mort­gage on her small home had a bal­loon pay­ment loom­ing.

And then, her lit­tle girl, six years old, had been hit by a car. Carolyn was in Children’s Hospital for a month with Rob as one of her doc­tors. After her recov­ery, Julia and Dr. Robert Goldberg—Rob— caved into the chem­istry that had built between them. He was a wid­ow­er too, with no kids. His wife had died of a brain tumor sev­er­al years ago, and they were both open and hun­gry. Rob moved in and their lives made a hair­pin turn. They mar­ried and became a fam­i­ly. They sold her lit­tle house in Glendale and bought a mod­ern hill­side aerie in Silverlake. Sometimes she wakes in the night think­ing she’s still in the sor­ry state of her for­mer life, her guts twist­ing until she real­izes she’s safe.

: : :

She kicks some box­es around and finds the lost tax form under some files. An old eel skin brief­case in the cor­ner catch­es her atten­tion.  She remem­bers this brief­case from Rob’s bach­e­lor pad, before they mar­ried. It used to have old Playboy and Hustler mag­a­zines. His jerk-off port­fo­lio. They’d joked about it being eel skin. She’d thought he’d tossed it.

He’s enti­tled to his pri­va­cy, and it’s not like he jacks off now. She doesn’t think. And if he does, so what? She gets her vibra­tor now and then. And it’s not like the brief­case is in her face in their bed­room or stashed in the bath­room. It’s here, in his lair.

As if. As if she’s not going to look.

She picks up the brief­case and opens it. The old mag­a­zines are there, the one on top, an old Hustler. There’s a mani­la enve­lope at the bot­tom, its edges stick­ing up around the stack of ten or so mag­a­zines. She pulls it out.

Inside, there are images, col­or pho­to­copies of women in var­i­ous pos­es typ­i­cal of Hustler—legs spread, shaved pubes, breasts bal­loon­ing, arch­ing, posturing—these lurid, las­civ­i­ous­ly posed women, all dif­fer­ent bod­ies but the same face. Carolyn’s face. Her daughter’s head has been expert­ly pho­to-edit­ed over each ridicu­lous woman’s head. Carolyn at age thir­teen twist­ing paci­fi­er-sized nip­ples; four­teen, spread­ing shaved labia with her fin­gers. Seventeen—six months ago when Carolyn had just cut off her hair to this cute, spiky shag—looking over her shoul­der while push­ing her anus toward the cam­era.

Sweat drips from Julia’s armpits and her hands shake. She wracks her brain try­ing to grasp the mean­ing of all this. There hasn’t been any signs, any kind of clue to any—improprieties—Rob adores Carolyn.

He adores her.

She’s got to take her daugh­ter and go. She must leave Rob, he’s depraved. A sick moth­er­fuck­er wannabe daugh­ter­fuck­er. She should kill him. Gut him with her chef’s knife; drug him then suf­fo­cate him with a plas­tic bag over his head.

Except, she loves him. There’s that. She does. She loves her hus­band. Ten years of mar­riage and she still yearns for him. He makes her feel beloved. He makes her feel safe.

But it’s not like she’s been blind­ed by love and grat­i­tude. She’s been alert. A love­ly step­daugh­ter? Julia is not some naïve Good Wife. She’s always been vig­i­lant about the poten­tial of such jux­ta­po­si­tions. Woody Allen/Soon Yi Syndrome. And she’s close to Carolyn; they talk frankly. Carolyn would’ve told her if any­thing had been—amiss. Carolyn has told her she’s not a vir­gin any­more; that she’d gone all the way with her boyfriend, Vic. Carolyn had expressed her dis­ap­point­ment in the whole busi­ness, and Julia had reas­sured her daughter—in addi­tion to advice on birth con­trol and STDs—that it would get bet­ter, that sex­u­al­i­ty required a cer­tain matu­ri­ty of body and soul. And she’d talked to Rob about it, who’d strong­ly opined that Carolyn not be sex­u­al­ly active at sev­en­teen. Rob-the-Pediatrician. Rob-the-Fucking-Pervert.

The phone rings and the caller ID indi­cates that it’s him, his cell phone. She’s not going to answer. She needs to think this through, find out stuff, the extent. The dam­age.

She packs up the pho­tos after look­ing through them one more time, puts the brief­case where it was, and screws the refi­nance.

: : :

Julia goes to pick up Carolyn from school. She watch­es her daugh­ter come across the street to the car. How beau­ti­ful she is, all that bur­geon­ing nubile youth. All that promise and inno­cence. For a moment, an image of Carolyn naked and strad­dling Rob’s face flash­es through her head.

Christ. She could use a drink.

In the car, Julia starts by say­ing she had a hor­ri­ble night­mare. “I dreamt you’d been molest­ed by Rob,” she says. “I dreamt he’s been molest­ing you all this time. It was ghast­ly.” She looks hard at her daugh­ter.

Ew, Mom, that’s sick,” Carolyn says. “No offense, but Rob’s old. Yuck. Why do you even tell me this gross­ness? T.M.I.”

You’d tell me, right? I mean, some­times dreams—”

Too many After-School-Specials, Mom? Is Oprah talk­ing up her Chester-the-Molester sto­ries? Rob’s my dad. I mean, I think of him exact­ly like a dad, with bad breath and yucky nose hairs. I mean, he’s great for you.” She shud­ders.

: : :

Julia stays qui­et the next few days, observes life through a new lens, the Post-Eel-Skin Lens. “What’s up?” Rob asks. “You seem pen­sive or some­thing.”

When he reach­es for her at night, she tens­es.

What?” He turns on the light. “What’s with you?”

Nothing,” she says. “Cramps.”

: : :

Julia perus­es the want-ads for nurs­es. If they divorce, she’ll get decent alimo­ny, but she’d have to go back to work to put Carolyn through col­lege. Rob has no oblig­a­tion to her daugh­ter. Julia would be back in the trench­es, not the hand-to-mouth exis­tence of the Before Rob era, but alone. Peri-menopausal, mid­dle-aging, and alone. The idea of being sin­gle, being on some online dat­ing site, start­ing over or maybe not ever being in a rela­tion­ship again—

God.

Their upcom­ing trip to Italy has been ardu­ous­ly planned, with accom­mo­da­tions in lux­u­ry hotels, rus­tic inns, and bed-and-break­fasts. Rome. Florence. Venice. Capri. A vil­la for a week in Positano. Julia has nev­er been to Europe, but Rob has. He knows Italy well and even speaks Italian. Cara mia, he says. Ti amo, dol­cez­za. Che tette! They nev­er hon­ey­mooned; there wasn’t time for it when they mar­ried, his job, Carolyn so young. They’d planned this trip for years, guz­zling Valpolicella and limon­cel­lo while por­ing over maps and trav­el guides.

: : :

She watch­es Rob, watch­es her daugh­ter, their inter­ac­tion.

What’s with you, Mom? You are weird, late­ly. Is this menopause?”

I’m too young for menopause,” Julia snaps. “Maybe. Maybe that’s it.”

: : :

Julia lurks in the hall­way when Rob and Carolyn are on the sofa, sit­ting close. Rob is help­ing Carolyn with a biol­o­gy project, a schemat­ic kid­ney.

Pretty amaz­ing,” Carolyn says. “Who knew all that hap­pens just to pee?”

The human body is a mir­a­cle. A whole inter­nal uni­verse. A kid­ney fits in my palm.” He cups his hand in the air. “A man­made dial­y­sis machine—an arti­fi­cial kidney—is a clunky hunk of met­al on wheels, and doesn’t do near­ly the job of the real deal. Don’t get me start­ed on the brain.” He cups both hands togeth­er as though hold­ing a brain. “There’s the real mag­i­cal mys­tery tour.”

Semi per-me-able mem-brane,” Carolyn mouths slow­ly. “Os-mos-is.”

Nora Nephron, you will ace this,” Rob says.

Neph-ron. You make it more inter­est­ing than Mr. Dowd. You’d think some­one who teach­es biol­o­gy could get a han­dle on basic B.O.” They laugh. Julia ducks into the laun­dry room.

: : :

Julia needs to heap up the courage to act. When Rob’s at work, she goes into his office to look at the pic­tures again, but the brief­case is gone. She looks every­where, the back­yard, garage, the trash, and noth­ing. Like it nev­er exist­ed.

: : :

Everyone has secrets. Julia throws up lunch and din­ner when her jeans get too tight. She’s had an abor­tion; no one knows. She’s got a stash of Vicodin she takes now and then, just for fun.

And this:  Julia had done her best to be sup­port­ive of Carolyn’s father, but it got to her, the debt, the stress; his solip­sis­tic world of depres­sion when he wasn’t fling­ing him­self off the walls with man­ic hopes and dreams. His non-com­pli­ance with the meds, his sui­ci­dal mop­ing.  “You’d be bet­ter off. I’m just a bur­den.” It got to her and then she told him if he were seri­ous about it he’d stop talk­ing and act. “Show, don’t tell,” she’d said. How his eyes had widened.

She goes to find her stash.

: : :

At night, in bed, Rob tells her that he loves her. That he’d nev­er do any­thing to hurt her or their fam­i­ly. He’s all con­cern, crin­kled eyes, and sin­cer­i­ty. A whiff of des­per­a­tion. He’s all good­ness and light, like a mes­si­ah. A Savior. Julia is loaded on pills. She floats adrift, like space trash, in her own pri­vate, inter­nal uni­verse. Kidneys excrete, intestines churn. Her rep­til­ian brain responds to his love­mak­ing. The image of her daugh­ter cunt-crush­ing Rob’s face takes a mag­i­cal mys­tery tour through her brain, and she emits a long, low ani­mal sound that Rob takes for pas­sion.

I know, bel­la mia,” he breathes, accel­er­at­ing his move­ments. “I know,” he says, and from a galaxy far, far away, she won­ders who he’s talk­ing to.