Rachel Hochhauser

ROMEO

 

     I’m a fifty-seven-year-old man.  Divorced.  Two Kids.  For a month now I’ve been living in a retirement community, though I’m not retired.  I imagine that’s what defines me at the moment.

     Playa Monte is a nice place.  Palm fronds.  Mediterranean tiles.  Stucco walls.  There’s a choral group and a theater company, and four levels of care: independent living, assisted, skilled nursing, and memory support. 

     I have a routine of sorts.  Read the paper over two eggs, and leave the pan in the sink.  When I come home at night, the leftover egg has flaked away from the edges.  Once or twice, I’ve reached in to grab a piece and eat it.  These are the sorts of things you do when you live alone.  The newspaper’s unorganized, and when you change your clothes, you let your underwear fall into a little pile on the floor.  You leave them there for days, so that the piles dot your bedroom, then your apartment.  On Saturdays, I have lunch with the Romeos.  Retired Old Men Eating Out Sometimes.  The “sometimes” is every Saturday at noon, and they take turns picking the restaurant.  Out of the four of us — me and Tony and Tap and Lev — I’m the youngest.  They pity me.  They, with their limps and their teeth and their withered skin.   

     I’m a retirement housing consultant.  What that means is applications for licensure.  Market feasibility studies.  Operations audits.  And when your marriage goes kaput, access to the independent living suites a facility can’t find occupants for.  The irony is I helped to design them — living environments that promote family visits — and I’m alone.  

 

     This Saturday, I get to choose the lunch spot for the first time, and I pick Chyn King because I like the noodles.  At the restaurant, the four of us take a booth, and partition ourselves from one another with the prodigious menus.  

     “I don’t eat pork,” Lev says.

     “We know you don’t eat pork,” Tony tells him.

     “I’m just saying.”  Lev flips his fingers as if to say, off with you.  The first time I met him, having weak coffee in the communal courtyard, he asked: “What the fuck are you doing here?”  He has a crease at the corner of his mouth, and it’s often wet with spit.  Every once in a while, he reaches up and wipes it away. 

     “We’ve been eating lunch with you for how long now?” Tony says.

     “It’s just a reminder.  At the Italian place —” Lev wipes his mouth.

     “Enough about the Italian place.”

     “How about duck,” I say.  “Duck chow fun.” 

     “If everyone else wants the pork, order the pork, I just won’t eat any.” 

     Tony flicks his menu with a fingernail.  “Scallion pancakes.”

     “Egg drop soup,” I say, and think of those creamy curls, the sodium.  My ex wife, Anne, never used to let me have Chinese food because of my cholesterol.

     “Soup,” Tap agrees, and that settles it.  He unrolls his napkin and places his silverware just so, before spreading the cloth across his lap.  He still polishes his shoes.  Tap’s memory is going before his habits do.  Tap is tall and tan with white hair like memory itself, but his mind’s no good.   He lives in a unit with his wife, and looks old without the age: smooth skin, smooth lines, no wrinkles or creases, skin or shirt. 

     “I used to sneak Chinese food, junk food, whatever.  My wife wouldn’t let me.  She thought I didn’t take care of myself.” I’m conscious of saying “my wife” because each time I voice the word out loud it feels like I’m subtracting points, or losing something.  I only have so many times left where I’m allowed to say it.

     Tap picks up his menu again and stares at it.  He reads them— menus — like they’re short stories.  Stimuli for things that have happened in the past.  Rice pudding, he’ll say and trail off, and I know what he means because rice pudding is the time Anne and I stopped at a greasy Sicilian spot on the way back from camping in Mammoth.  It’s two young children, cinnamon, a dark night, and the plump raisins one son picks out and puts in a pile the other eats from.  It’s a camper shell tied to the roof of a car and a back that hurts from sleeping on the ground and a grumpy comfortable togetherness with cliché Sinatra in the background — the sort a place outside of King City would play.  The World We Knew.  Softly As I Leave You.

     Rice pudding.

     Tony points to something. “Ten ingredients fried rice.  There’s vegetables in that.”

     Lev shrugs.  “As long as one of them isn’t pork.”

 

     Anne and I met when we were pretty young — early twenties.  She was trim and smart and blue eyed, and ate oranges all the time, so that her fingertips smelled like the pith, and her hands had a vague kind of stickiness.  Her eyes were so blue that I couldn’t stop thinking about her genealogy, the line of recessive traits that trailed behind her, the matching of all the various alleles that lead to that blue. 

     We moved in together and I stopped seeing those things pretty quickly — the shape of her earlobes, the color of her eyes — because when you get to know someone, really know them, you stop seeing what they physically look like and you start to see something bigger.  I remember looking at Anne and trying to figure out how she fit inside her body.

     There are sets of images — moments — that define a person.  Anne, leaning back against her chair, an arm resting on the edge of the table, releasing cigarette smoke, before she quit.  Shaving her leg in the shower, her foot turned against the edge of the tub so the tendons of her calf stood out.  Her wet hair.  Those were the first years.  Later, her sunglasses, always on.  Typing something on a phone, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, hands moving at a frantic pace, mouth only a line.  Carving a pumpkin with my sons, a crease of concentration, a stabbing motion into the orange flesh. 

     The last time I saw her, she looked hardboiled and unyielding, like I’d never known her at all.   Like jury duty.  She’d done her hair and put on makeup to sit across a conference table.  Blue nail polish, nails clicking  against the table.  Expensive drapes.  In all the years I’ve known Anne, her nails have never once been blue.

     When you get married, you say for better or for worse.  I can’t erase the images.

 

     Monday, I go in to see Tamar, the property manager.

     “I’d like to get a dog,” I tell her.

     “Jerry,” she says.  There’s lipstick on the rim of her cup, and one of her big earrings is missing a stone.

     “Tamar,” I say back.

     “You know the rules.”

     “I know the rules,” I agree.  “But I’d like to get a dog.  Something small.  A companion.  It won’t bother anyone.”

     “Do you know anything about dogs?”

     I give her a long, hard look to say of course I know things about dogs.  “I’m a short term resident.  We wouldn’t even be here that long.”

     “You know our policy,” she tells me.

     “So change the policy.”

     “We can’t change the policy.”

     “I make the policies.  I advise you to change the policy.”  I look at her, the lines in her face, and do the math in my head: early thirties.  She’s got curly dark hair and no wedding ring, and some sort of breakfast flatbread— a wrap? A roll? — half eaten in its wax paper beside her.  Her chair has back support and her mouse pad has one of those gel rolls on it, for wrist comfort.  The sort of office supply I would advise against in an audit.  Studies have shown they don’t make a difference.  They’re wasteful. 

      She’s playing, looping the telephone cord, up and around her fingers.  I’m watching and suddenly start thinking about doing things to her that I don’t even want to do.  Just the possibility.  Taking a fistful of her dark hair.  I think about what we could do with that cord. 

       “I like your mouse pad,” I say and walk out.

 

         I’ve got two sons and no girls and I wonder sometimes if there had been a Karen or a Darla or an Ashley in addition to Anne and James and Logan and myself, things would have gone differently. 

         James and Logan will come to forgive me with time — they’re halfway there already.  All it takes is more exposure to life itself and their own desires. 

         Anne, I’m not so sure. 

 

         A few days later, there’s a knock on the door, and Lev’s outside, in the hallway. 

         “Chinese food,” he says, “is no good for you.”

         “What do you mean?”  I stand aside so he can come in, and he does.

         “You ought to be eating sushi.  Rice.  Fish. The Japanese diet.” He uses a handkerchief to wipe the corner of his mouth.

         “These kids of yours,” he says.  “How old are they?”

         “Seventeen and twenty.”

         “Good kids?”

         “Good kids,” I nod.

         “I was married fifty-four years.”

         “That’s a long time,” I say, and decide not to say more. The marriage started before I was born and ended with death before I ever met Lev.

          He shrugs.  “People have these romantic ideas of the way things should be.  None of us would still be married if people divorced then the way they do now.”

          The Romeos had a friend named Louis who passed a couple of months before I showed up.  They say, “It’s sad” without showing a trace of emotion.

           “Most people,” Lev says.  “Don’t know their hands from their feet.”

           After he leaves, I dial Logan’s cell phone.  I used to call to hear his voice, but then the mail message changed to a computer reading off the numbers.  I feel sure, in some small way, that this was done to punish me, to keep me from hearing the octaves and inflections in my son’s speech.          

           No answer.  Never a response.  Great anger.  I understand these things, and though I cannot decipher the complexities, I understand that they are there, and am comfortable waiting as long as it takes for him to forgive me.

           We picked the name Logan because it was plain and understandable.  Solid.  Apple pie.  The color blue.  Logan.  When I leave messages for him, I ask him to do normal things: basketball games, tangibilities.  If he were a few years older, I would say: let’s grab a beer.  You go through life attempting to shield the things you love most from hurt, and then you become its instrument.  

 

           After work one day, Tamar comes to my unit.  She’s wearing a skirt and a blouse — the office sort — and the kind of jewelry people buy on vacation.  I picture her keeping all of those big, bright ornaments organized in a drawer somewhere, hung on one of those little wire racks.   Microwaving dinner for one.

            “Hi Jerry,” she says, her whole presence a suggestion.  “Do you have a minute?”

            “For you,” I pull open the door.  “Two.”

            “Two?”

            “Minutes,” I explain.

            “Jerry,” she begins.  “We found someone to fill your unit.  A long term resident.”

            I take a step back and the door begins to swing shut on its hinge, so I grab the handle again.  “You and I both know no one here is a long term resident.”

            “Jerry,” she repeats.

            “That’s great news.”

            “It will need to be empty by the first.”

            “Great for Playa Monte,” I say.

            “We had an agreement that our arrangement was not permanent.”

            “I think we should talk about this,” I tell her.  “Not make any quick decisions.”

            “Jerry,” she says again, harder.  “Can I come in?” 

            I step aside, and she comes past, all business.  Head high. She’s so detached from the subtleties that even I can’t read into anything.

            In my unit, the floors are carpeted, and there are handrails everywhere.  It’s just me and my stuff — the books, the newspapers.  Piles of underpants, and now this woman.  She looks around and then goes straight over to the shelf, to a photo of my kids.

           The picture is black and white, and Logan is still so young that his face hasn’t lost the look of an old man, it’s wrinkled by his expression, morphed into something fluid and creased and moving — a reaction to whatever is going on outside of the frame.  Anne behind the camera, maybe.  Something else.  I don’t remember when the photograph was taken.  I can’t be certain which year.  Logan is in his green polar fleece jacket that colors his entire childhood — the playgrounds and school days and hikes.  I can recall the aquamarine despite the lack of pigment in the photo.  You could spot that electric green.  A honing device.  You could find him in an instant.

           I wish he still wore that jacket. 

           Tamar points at the photo.  “You have children,” she says.

           I nod, though she can’t see me.  From behind, I can watch.  The physical parts: the swell of a breast, the shape of an earlobe.  The things that matter at first. 

           “Logan and James,” I say.  “Left and right.”   Son and son.  Heat and heart.  Somewhere, outside of that photograph, two dissonant parents.  You can love what you destroy. 

           “Well.” She turns back to me, and there’s something different in her face, the look that women get when a man stops being a man and can be a person.  “At least you’ll be able to get that dog.”

           She says this light and playful.  A half smile.  It makes me feel the window of opportunity.  It makes me want to pull her apart, to take each of her limbs in one of my hands and move them in opposite directions.  I think about her ankles, her wrists.

           “Look,” I say, and she does.  “Would you like to have a drink with me?”

           “Now?”

           “Now,” I shrug.  “Whenever.”  I gesture out the window, as if time is a thing you can watch.

           “Right,” she says, and we look at the palm trees and the courtyard.  At the fake Mediterranean.  At our date occurring out there in the future.

           “So?”

           “So.  That’s nice,” she says.  “ But I’ve got a boyfriend.”

           “A boyfriend,” I say.  The word sounds young.  “Who’s this boyfriend?”

           Tamar looks at me, then at the photo, then back at me again.  “Jerry,” she says, exasperated.

           “I would like to do things to you,” I say.  Ankles and earlobes.  Breasts and wrists.  I take a step toward her.

           “You — ” She looks at the closed door, the sealed windows.   

           “It’s okay,” I say, calm, the way you talk to an animal.  She’s nervous, and I like it, because I’m pressing on something I shouldn’t, thin and razor sharp and dangerous.  I take another step. “I would like —“

           “Jerry.”  She’s backing toward the door and I keep going, keep moving toward her, but she makes it there first.

           “By the first,” she says, and the door swings shut after her, clicking softly.  We designed them so they wouldn’t disturb other residents.

 

           Sex can be cleaving.  Or a shared pulse.  You come to understand perfection differently.  You stop viewing the world with an artist’s eye — proportion or symmetry of smooth curves.  You get what Ruben was getting at, with those beautiful big-assed women.  It’s the you-ness of it, the intimacy of this person, and you feel yourself liking them, not excusing flaws, but appreciating the fact that you’re privy to them.  Close enough to see the clogged pores.  Just another form of being alive.  But when you have sex with someone who’s not your wife, it tends to be cleaving.

          Add this one to the set of images: Logan’s piano teacher, on her side, curled into me.  She had a comforter with seashells printed onto it, a singles apartment near the ocean.  I ran into her at the gym, because Anne insisted that I go.  Then her apartment became the gym.  It meant nothing.   Anne knows as well as I that it’s not about the fucking, or the betrayal.  She knows that it ended a long time ago, and my fucking, my fuck up, is only the license she needed to get out cleanly.  I gave her the hot, white kind of anger that leaves nothing behind, so that we — her and I — are razed out of existence.   She, the wronged.  Me, the damned.

           I still wake up in the middle of the night and think my wife’s so close I could feel the heat of her skin, could reach out to roll her hem between my fingers.  Our little boys just down the hall.  Logan won’t touch the piano anymore. 

 

           We do one last Romeo lunch.  Tony picks brunch — traditional breakfast — at a diner.  I tell them I’ll come back.  I can even drive us.

           “Eh,” Lev shrugs.  “You’re not even retired.”

           Were sitting there, old men, and me, a nearly-old man, in the corner booth.  There are a few families, little kids.  I imagine my own — Anne and James and Logan — going through the routines of a Saturday morning.  Long-limbed boys groaning for coffee.  Anne flipping flaxseed pancakes.  The carton of juice, just shaken.  The three of them at the table, passing the syrup.  The familial intimacy of pajamas. 

           In reality, James is at college.  Logan is still sleeping.  Anne, off somewhere, in her house, or outside her house, but no longer our house.  Blue nails, tap tap tapping. The new pecking order.

           I think back to how when I met her she said she had a boyfriend, too, but I kept calling, kept asking, kept going, kept persisting, until she didn’t have one anymore.

           When the waitress comes I look her up and down.  The shapes of her earlobes.  The swell of her breasts. 

           I order the egg whites.

 

Rachel Hochhauser is a writer living in Los Angeles. A graduate of New York University, she also has a Masters in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where she taught undergraduate writing and served as the Fiction Editor for the Southern California Review. She has a forthcoming short story in Per Contra, her nonfiction has appeared in various publications, and she recently finished her first novel.

Posted on May 14, 2015 .