Konch Magazine - Bad Summer by Ellen Geis

Ellen Geist
 
Bad Summer
 
 
     We are all in the kitchen, and Louise, the second wife of my first husband, is cooking us something, clanging my stainless steel pots around with a comforting sound. “He's a total jerk,” she announces. “We don't think he's good enough for you.” As she lifts a lid to taste, steam crosses her eyelids and brow. She steps back. “Why can't he even tell you if you're going out tomorrow or not?”
     “Yes, why not?” my favorite cousin Roni concurs. These days I am never alone. My apartment is full with a blur of people. Louise has come in from Philly to help go through Jonah's things--my son, her stepson. The two mothers, Louise has named us, circling my narrow wrist with her thicker, more capable fingers. I haven't the heart for the work.
     I call the total jerk instead. I use the phone in the living room, aware of my voice drifting into the busy kitchen. For once, he’s sitting at his desk. “I'm getting irritated with everyone,” I say. I offer some names. I take a breath. “And I’m fed up with you for not even telling me if we’re going out to dinner tomorrow or not,” I add in a rush at the end.
     For days now he won't let me know if he's switched dinner engagements with some woman friend of his, so we can have our date instead. Nothing is ever definite with us. I am always on spilkes. Will we go? Won't we? I never know until the final moment. For some reason, I don’t think to simply ask. My powerlessness over the world has all contracted itself into Eric.
     My friends and family are angry. They think Eric should be here, as they are, cooking food in my kitchen, taking on the awful job of packing Jonah's things into boxes. They don’t understand.
     When Eric and I met back in April, my life was normal, or a kind of normal. I was then an ordinary girl chasing some guy who wasn't available, involving myself in a ridiculous relationship that wasn't likely to turn out, like many others in my life, until Jonah was killed crossing the street while coming home from camp to his father’s house. That moment the van pulled into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the stopped bus changed everything.
     How was Eric to behave then? I suppose it’s possible someone else would have acted differently. For instance, another man might have come to my apartment on hearing of Jonah’s death. Maybe another man would have driven me to my ex-husband’s house in Philadelphia, would have sat up with me all through the night.
     At four in morning that terrible night I called my childhood friend Evangeline instead. “You said I could call any time,” I told her. “I can’t sleep.”
     “Of course you can call. Of course you can’t sleep,” she said.
     “I don’t have any real idea what’s going on,” I told her.
     She said, “That’s a blessing.”
     I hung up the phone and went into Jonah’s room at his father’s house. There was his new telescope and there the half-eaten peanut butter sandwich he’d left that morning on a shelf above his bed.
 
     The next day it began to rain in torrents--unusual for the middle of July. “The sky is crying,” I said to my ex-husband Danny. It was an old blues song we both used to like.
     The rain cleared briefly for the funeral. We were all sitting together under a green awning in front of the gravesite. The color of the mud, deep brown, the look of the leaves, swaying from their load of rain--all that dark fertile green--started to frighten me.
     “What's going on?” I asked Vangie. “Why does everything look so weird?”
     “It's just grief,” she said, “Makes everything look this way.”
     Then the small box, pure pine as tradition calls for, was slid into the ground. I stood, nearly stumbling, to shovel in the first load of dirt atop the casket of my son. I didn’t know how I’d possibly gotten there, or what future could await me, or how I could ever face it.
     Maybe any other man, other than Eric, would have come with me to that place. “You're not coming are you?” I’d asked.
     “I have to work,” he'd said, with a cough. This made sense to me at the time. He had to work, of course. He hadn't known me long. But why did that matter, really? I wondered sometimes. These are questions, though, I don’t want to pursue too deeply. If I did, I would have to give him up. Then I would have to focus my attention somewhere else.
     “Oh,” Eric says, now on the phone, “I did change the appointment,” as if there were nothing odd about his not having told me this before now. “Where do you want to go?”
     “How about the Gotham Bar & Grill?” I say. The first time we ever had sex, or rather started to, we talked about the Gotham. He had to leave me to meet his brother for lunch. Not at the Gotham, but we discussed that it would have been the better place to go, instead of somewhere cheaper but not as good. I thought at the time we were one soul, separated at birth, because we agreed about things like the Gotham.
     Eric is allowing me to take him out on his birthday. Not the exact day of his birthday, of course; that day has already passed. His actual birthday is the twenty-seventh of July, which was my mother’s birthday as well. Such coincidences as this have assumed great significance for me.
     Everything seems to be fitting together in some pattern I can't yet discern:  Jonah's death a week after his thirteenth birthday, his funeral on a Friday the thirteenth. “But thirteen is a lucky number in Judaism,” my Rabbi, Rabbi Jake has said. He's given me a few books on the Kabbalah to read.
     In one of the books I found a reference to the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the day that Jonah was killed. Rabbi Jake said at the funeral this was a little-known fast day in Judaism, marking the day the wall of Jerusalem fell, beginning three weeks of mourning that end on the date of destruction of the Temple. It was a bad month for the Jews. Or so it explained in the book:
“Why did Ezekiel see his vision of the Power in the month of Tammuz? Is this not a month of evil omen for Israel...? But Rabbi Levi said: It is to tell you of the power and praise of the holy one, blessed be He, that in the month of Tammuz, the very month in which they were smitten, there extended to them the mercies of the Holy One, blessed be He.” (from the Cairo Genizah)
      I get the evil omen, but not the extended mercies part.
 
     “No,” Eric answers me, “not the Gotham. It's too expensive. That wouldn't be appropriate.” I hate that word. It's one of Eric's favorites, as if he's set himself to hold the line of proper conduct against unruly renegades like me.
     “You can take me to the Gotham after your first solo performance,” he says.
     Eric doesn't seem to understand how unlikely that is. I’m a freelance violist. I don't enlighten him. I don't want to remove the aura of romance he's attached to my musical career.
     “Isn't there someplace in your neighborhood?” he wants to know.
     “Well, there's this place, Antonio's, on the corner of my street,” I say.
     I describe the restaurant: the waiters dressed in tuxedos, their authentically hoarse accents, the way they scrape crumbs off the tablecloths with silver scalpels between courses, the tiny white lights strung across the dark tinted glass windows.
     “That sound's perfect,” he says with enthusiasm. “We'll go there.”
      I hang up the phone, grateful something is settled. I announce the news to Louise and Roni. Then I am ready to tackle Jonah's room.
     His room is incredibly clean. I scarcely noticed it when I walked in from the funeral, and I’ve barely gone back in again since.
      “It's so clean,” I tell my cousin Roni, as I look around. “Why?” I’m afraid Jonah had some terrible premonition.
      “Don't you remember we cleaned it? It was your idea,” Roni reminds me.
     Of course, then I remember, she had come over and helped Jonah sort through everything a few weeks before he left for the summer. He had ordered me out of the way—I was not to peek in at their project. I stayed in the front room, reading a book on the sofa, while he and Roni cleaned for hours. I could hear them bartering over items. He hauled four green jumbo garbage bags full of junk past me. He was clearing out all his baby toys. He was going to turn thirteen very soon.
      We start in on the drawers. I want to keep the worn-in sneakers, because they look so much like Jonah. For that reason, I want to keep his blue jeans and striped polo shirts, too. Here is his Mets T-shirt from the one game he’d had the chance to go to, and here, shoved in, is his prized baseball glove.
     Carefully folded is his Boy Scout uniform, with the belt and the scarf. The troupe met in the dingy grey basement of a church on the Lower East Side and did their outside badges in the parking lot. But Jonah took his badges very seriously, working on them determinedly from the handbook that hadn’t changed since the fifties. He had acquired so many. I wish I knew what each one was.
     I definitely want to keep this Earth Day T-shirt. In truth, I want to keep everything. I am only willing to give up a few old pairs of pants, some plain white T-shirts, and maybe the winter jackets because they will fit the neighbor's child.
     Next to the dresser I find his radio-controlled car. I agreed to buy it for Jonah when he met my proposal to bring all his grades above 90. Danny told me I was being the proverbial pressuring ”Jewish mother” he’d always suspected would one day be unleashed. I’m not even sure what had possessed me to issue such a call, but Jonah actually appreciated the challenge—a kind of dare. Only afterward had he eagerly asked me if I thought I might get him the car for a reward. He had marked it in a catalog.
     I was brought up with clear disdain for such material rewards. But Jonah had asked with such earnestness, how could I refuse? “I can order it myself with your credit card,” he’d told me. He had only needed to call me to the phone to give my okay.
 
     On the day he left for his father’s house for the summer, after Louise had arrived to pick him up, Jonah had demonstrated the marvels of his new car to us. He brought us out to the stoop while he sent the car hurtling down the sidewalk at top speed, deliberately crashing into the neighbor’s garbage cans.
     When Louise mildly suggested he might want to avoid immovable objects, Jonah shrugged. “What fun would that be?” he’d said.
      We’d returned inside to finish packing. I almost didn’t accompany him back out to Louise’s car to say goodbye. I wasn’t feeling well that day. Then at the last minute I decided to go. It wasn’t that much effort, as it turned out, but one I almost didn’t make.
     Jonah hugged me tightly by the car door. He felt unfamiliarly long-limbed and lanky-chested in my arms. We didn’t hug so often now that he was approaching thirteen. “Will you visit me this summer?” he’d asked with a wistfulness that startled me.
      “I will soon,” I promised.
 
     “I’m really glad you bought him that car,” Louise calls out to me. She is going through Jonah’s desk. She wants to see all the things she never had a chance to, because he only came to her for summers.
     She wants to look at his math homework pages with his name and class number scrawled at the top in his messy writing. She wants to show me the stack of letters from his girlfriend in Philly. She wants me to pore with her over the hand-painted model sports cars and Transformers, the tangle of parts from the old telephone answering machine that he begged me not to throw out, but to give him instead.
    He would create an advanced communication system to send radio waves into space because there is life on other planets. “Did you know,” he asked me, “what a light year really is?”
     Here is a journal where he graded each of his days. Only one has an A-, and the rest have A’s. Other notebook pages have been doodled on with outlines of spaceships and military hardware. An underground water system is drawn in intricate detail. Folded into a small square is a pen and ink drawing of the Brooklyn Bridge to scale, and stunning.
     All his Dungeons & Dragons workbooks are piled into another drawer, along with a small classic glued-down rock collection and the “Pop-Up Book of Mammals.”
     “Do you know that this friend of mine in psyche grad school gave Jonah an IQ test when he was five years old?” I tell Roni, holding up the book for her to see. “One of the questions was, ‘What’s the similarity between a mouse and a giraffe?’ The highest possible answer was that they are both animals. But Jonah answered, ‘They’re both mammals.’”
     “Amazing Jonah,” Roni comments. Then she adds softly, “You told me that story yesterday.”
 
     It's really not all that much to go through, I realize: a skateboard, some books, these few papers, these candy wrappers, these parts of machines. I am sorry now that we cleaned out his room before he left. I regret that we threw so much away. I want the baby toys and all the junk back. This isn’t enough for a whole life.
     I can’t look anymore. I rush out of the bedroom, sit on the couch, put my head in my hands.
     “We have to stop,” I announce, to Roni and Louise as they follow in after me.
     “That's all right,” Louise says kindly, “it's enough for one day.”
 
     “Go ahead and cry,” Roni urges, sitting down next to me. I try but I can’t. Some things are too big to cry about. How could I cry about Jonah when not that long before he died, I cried for a whole week about a bad haircut? I could cry at sad movies. I’m ashamed to admit I cried at “Gone With the Wind,” even though it’s incredibly racist.
     “Let yourself grieve,” all kinds of people have been telling me. Don’t they realize once I start, I will never end?
     “I’m going to call Eric again,” I say, “and see what time he’s coming over.”
 
     Then it's the next day, and my apartment is finally empty. I have hours to get ready for Eric. This is the best time, before he actually arrives, when I have something to anticipate. There's an odd sort of peacefulness over everything, like an aftermath.
     I’m able to walk right over to Jonah’s desk and put on “The Temptations’ Greatest Hits.” I can only manage this because Eric is coming over. When I hear, “…since I lost my baby....” my eyes fill, but then I switch my mind to the possibility of Eric standing in the room listening, maybe even dancing together.
     Because I have too three electrical appliances on at once, including the air conditioner, the circuit is overloaded and pops. I am still in my bathrobe, fresh from my shower. I pull on my jean shorts and a T-shirt, go down to the basement and hunt for the circuit breaker box. The basement is a place to which I rarely ventured once Jonah learned and liked to flip the circuit breakers by himself.
     When I come back upstairs, the “Temptations” are done playing. My friend Evangeline calls. “I have something to tell you,” she says. “Diane's husband Dom has some strange kind of leukemia. He kept saying he was sick, and no one would believe him.” Diane had replaced me as Vangie’s friend in my old neighborhood. I don’t know Diane well, but suddenly I begin to cry aloud.
     “Well, that clinches it as the worst summer,” I tell Vangie between sobs. We always labeled each summer’s failure or success: the boys met or not met, the days at the beach. We analyzed our lives by measuring one summer against the next.
     “With Jonah it would be enough,” Vangie says, sounding confused, “to qualify.”
 
     Eric rings the bell exactly at eight. He didn't call to confirm as he said he would, and I never phoned him as I usually do. So when the bell rings right on time, I'm surprised.
I buzz him in, then open my apartment front door and watch him walk up the stairs to the second floor. I can never remember what he looks like when he’s not with me. I take this opportunity to try to pin down some characteristics. He has that caramel color hair, I note. I can't fix the exact style--somewhat long but also short at the same time. He has chocolate brown eyes, close together. I can remember his features individually but not as a composite whole.
     I often look at people on the street trying to find parts of their appearance that match Eric's, as if this will help me remember. Sometimes in between seeing him I have a bizarre, fleeting worry that I've created him from my imagination, and that's why I can never remember what he looks like. Now I see he is small-boned, something I always forget.
     “Oh, you're on time,” I say. He kisses me in the doorway before I've closed the door. I expect a perfunctory kiss, but he doesn't stop. “You look great,” he says, looking down at my jean shorts.
     “But I'm not dressed yet,” I tell him.
     He follows me into the living room, where I sit right down on the floor with my legs crossed. I tell him about Vangie's friend's husband. “What's happening to us? What’s going on?” I ask him.
     Again I start to cry, but I know these tears will stop. And they can’t be self-pity, since they are not for me. He sits down next to me and holds me in his arms to try to comfort me. I can tell he thinks I’m attractive in this distraught state, because he begins stroking my thigh.
     “I guess we should go. Aren't you hungry?” I say. In my picture of the evening and my order of things, it is getting to be time to go to dinner.
     “I'm hungry for you,” he answers me.
     I go with this. I don't tell him to wait for later, even though I would prefer that. I had envisioned dinner, talking, sex, then him staying over.
     “Isn't there somewhere more comfortable we could go?” he asks.
      I walk Eric into the designated “privacy” room. It’s a railroad apartment, and this is the only room with a door. Though we are alone, I am taking him there.
     We lie down on top of the coverlet. It’s dark enough that I can see the glow-in-the-dark stars that Jonah put on the ceiling when it was his room with bunk beds.
     Jonah had asked, and I’d agreed he could move back into that room after the summer. He had explained very seriously, like an adult speaking to a child about such matters, that since he was turning thirteen, he would need full- time privacy.
     “Look,” I tell Eric, pointing to the ceiling. “Jonah did that.” The pattern had always seemed random to me, but looking up at the plastic stick-on stars now, I’m startled: they’re in an exact formation of what must be the constellations, star for star. “Is that the Big Dipper?” I ask Eric.
     “It is,” he answers.
     “Are they all in the right place?”
     “It's unbelievable,” he says, with a low whistle. “They're all in the right place.”
     At that moment I think, this is as close as two people can get. Eric is equally as amazed at Jonah’s stars as I am and thus is the only one who can comprehend my unfathomable loss.
     I curl my head against his shoulder and look up at him.
     “Isn't this great?” I say, for no accountable reason. “Wouldn't you like to like to go to the Bahamas together and lie around all the time and have sex? We should go to the Bahamas.”
     “We can't go to the Bahamas,” he reproves me sternly. I’ve broken the mood.
     “I was kidding,” I say. Eric isn’t finding me funny in the least.
     I leave the room and return with his birthday gift in hand, Emily Dickinson’s collected poems. I’m not trying to be pretentious. I found an untouched volume of her poetry in my high school library when I was fifteen, and it saved me from total isolation in cheerleader/football world.
     “It's wonderful. It's perfect,” Eric says. “I'll read it this weekend at the beach.” He's already announced he's going to the Hamptons for the weekend. I'm going to visit Vangie in my nonexclusive hometown of Penn Argyl, Pa.
     “Now it’s time to go to the restaurant.” He announces.
     Eric tucks the book under his arm to take with him as we leave.
     “Aren't you going to come back after we eat?” I say.
     “I've got to get up early. I probably won't have time,” he mumbles.
      In the restaurant, Eric makes light dinner talk. I try to think of a subject to discuss. Eric comes up with one:  welfare. “I have a theory,” he says. “Listen to this. It's really a stroke of genius. It would solve our entire problem of the welfare system, of welfare fraud.” He marks his place with his fingers on his napkin and plate to emphasize certain words and phrases. I watch his fingers to avoid thinking about what he is saying. He's spinning out a set of muddle-headed theories that I worry smack of ordinary prejudice. I pretend to be impressed.
     For a moment I wonder:  What if after all the pressure-cooker of tragedy was lifted and somehow we were together—what if I found out then he's not particularly insightful or intelligent? Maybe it's best to talk about other things, I tell myself, suppressing the thought.
     I change the subject back to my emotional state. He’s at his best when we are talking about me. “Everyone tells me I’m so strong,” I say. “ ‘I don’t know how you can get up in the morning,’ someone told me the other day. I felt like I shouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, that there’s something wrong with me.”
     “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re being the only way anyone can be; no one else knows,” Eric says in a low tone, “what it takes.”  He is smart, I conclude on this basis, more than smart, in fact. He’s the only one who understands anything about how I feel.
     Now everything seems perfect enough, except that I'm starting to focus on how to get him to return to my apartment so we can have sex. “Maybe I should get you drunk?” I offer with what I hope is a winning smile. He looks tense and doesn't respond. He's certainly going straight home, I realize.  
     We are walking down Elizabeth Street. In the deserted half-dark, he has been complaining about not having enough sleep because of his long hours on rotation at the hospital. Though I suspect this is probably just an excuse not to spend the night, I respond with overwhelming compassion. I put both arms around him, and since he is shorter than me, I hug him as you would a child. “I wish I could just take care of you!” I cry out.
     “Thank you,” he says, a little sheepishly, probably realizing more than I do how ludicrous this sounds.
“Will you be at that same number in the Hamptons this weekend?” I ask him plaintively as he’s about to head down the subway stairs.
     “I'm not sure. I might be at a different number.”
     “Would it be better if I didn't call?”
     “It might be better.”
      “I'll only call if I absolutely have to,” I tell him.
      “That seems reasonable,” he says.
      I'm definitely not going to call him, I decide. I can focus on this clear-cut goal. This is one thing—maybe the only one—that is in my control.
     After Eric has gone and I'm back in my apartment, I lie down on the sofa and imagine the evening differently, step by step. I can change the past in my mind. Then I scrunch my cheek against the nubs of black wool, picturing a girl who was once beautiful and loved, who once had a teenage son.