09/26/2021

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.