“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—
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.