I wrote a lot in my 20s and 30s (three books published— two with my best friend and college roommate and a novel on my own) then I chose without...read more realizing I was choosing a world of movie marketing, kids, mortgages, guest teaching, family vacations, groceries, SAT tutors, squeezing in a love affair with my husband, reading, paying attention and writing furtively. Now I am writing full-time. I still have the kids, still read, still having the love affair with my husband, but I pay less attention to some things and more attention to others.
“The doctor will be with you shortly. You doing okay?” The nurse was half-in the curtained cubicle in the ER.
I was on my stomach. I lifted my head and, like a sad cow, swung a nod her way, but she was already gone.
Earlier, Max and I were trimming the Christmas tree. We sat around smoking weed and drinking screw-top champagne until about eleven, when finally we looked at each other and wordlessly got up and started untangling the Christmas lights. I lost my balance and stepped on a string. Tiny lights were crushed like small bones under my heel.
I lifted my foot. “Oh, no,” I said.
“Blue, try this strand, will ya?”
I plugged it in the socket. “All good.” I looked at the half-trimmed tree. “Don’t we have too many white lights and not enough reds and greens?”
“Let me turn out the other lights. Wait, I gotta put on some ornaments. Sit on the couch. Okay, tell me how it looks now.”
With the overhead light and the table lamp turned off, the tree looked great. From my angle, Max looked almost as big as the tree. He was a bear with a brown beard and syrupy eyes. Max taught math and coached football and basketball at the high school. I freelanced from home, writing copy and annual reports for local businesses. We lived in the small town where Max had grown up.
I held out my hand to him. He half-dropped the box of ornaments on the floor and sat down on the sofa next to me. We squinted at the tree. That was the way to tell if the lights were right. We shared a turbo hit. I loved trimming the tree. The kids were asleep. I reached over and grabbed the last cookie they had left on a red plate for Santa.
Max pulled me onto his lap. I sat with my back to him so I could see the tree. In no time, he was hard. I tilted my neck, listened, moved my panties aside and settled on him.
“Blue, we should finish the tree,” Max said. “Right?”
I loved loving him through his clothes. Sex with our clothes on was different from naked sex. I liked to feel for him through his jeans and flannel shirt.
Max picked me up and eased us down to the floor. After a few minutes, I got on top of him. Max turned me onto my back and smashed me into the ornaments that had rolled out of the box. They broke under me. It hurt like hell, but the pleasure was building within me. I reached up and grabbed a low tree branch to try to move myself off the ornaments. I pulled the whole tree over, but hardly noticed as we kept going.
“Are you okay?” Max pulled up to look at me, glancing sideways at the tree on the floor. “Do you want me to stop?”
“No. Hurry and finish,” I whispered. It felt so good then it didn’t. The wave I was riding crashed and dribbled away. I could now feel the shards of glass digging deeper into my behind.
Max came fast and got off me gingerly. He stood up and fixed his jeans.
I lay on my back looking up at him. “Ouch.” I put my hand under my butt to brush the glass away. I rolled over onto my side. “Oh, Max, the tree.”
“Whoa, Blue. You’re covered in blood. There are ornament pieces sticking out of you.” He knelt down beside me. “Should I take them out?”
“I guess. Can you? Can you get them out?” I got up on my elbows and twisted around to look at my butt. I couldn’t see the glass, but I could sure feel it.
I looked at the horizontal tree. It made me sad. I counted the white lights.
Max was a gentle man. “Go ahead.” I wanted to cry. Christmas was ruined.
“What time is it?” I asked him
“I don’t know. Close to midnight.” Max pressed his forefinger and thumb carefully around a piece of broken ornament and pulled. It broke off in his hand leaving glass in my behind.
“Oh, Blue, baby. I’m sorry. Let me try again.” Max got up and turned on all the lights and settled down beside me.
“No. It’s okay. Lemme go try to get them out in the bathroom,” I said. “Do you think your mother heard us?”
Max looked at the wall like he was trying to see through it into the bedroom on the other side. Our kids, Patrick and Mandy, doubled up when my mother-in-law visited. A widow, she lived in the same town, but spent some nights at our house. Holidays. When I had a deadline, she helped me out by watching the kids.
“You have to get the tree upright. What if the kids wake up?” I said, rocking myself onto my knees and then to my feet but staying bent over like a hunchback. A few drops of blood hit the carpet. The maroon rug absorbed the blood. The wall-to-wall carpet came with the house and for the first time I was glad I hadn’t ripped it up like I’d wanted to the very first day we moved in ten years ago. Semen ran down my leg. I kissed Max on the cheek and put my hand inside his shirt. I let it rest on his chest. For a quick second, I felt like I was taking an oath on him. I shuffled down the hall to the bathroom.
Five minutes later I was back with a magnifying mirror and tweezers. “I can’t get any of them out. I can’t even turn around far enough to see them. Am I too fat? They keep breaking off and I’m still bleeding.”
I dropped to my knees pushing out my naked bottom for Max to study. “Your mother is snoring.”
I had scotch-taped some Kleenex to my bottom. “A bandage.”
“It’s soaked through. We’re going to the ER.”
“No. I’m okay. I don’t want to wake your mother—and have to tell her—“
“What? That we were making love and . . .?” Max gave me a smile. “I’ll knock and tell her we’re going.”
Max’s mother Rita had come into the living room without either of us hearing her. She wore the robe from Marshall’s I had given her last Christmas. It was too big for her. She had wrapped the tie under her breasts to keep the robe from dragging on the floor.
“I am taking Blue to the ER. If the kids wake up, I don’t want them to come in here and—“
“Rita, please,” I broke in. “This is a mess. They can’t see it.”
“Maybe I can help.” Rita put on her glasses and, crouching down, studied my butt. “Tweezers.”
“I think I have some pain meds left over from my wisdom tooth thing.” Max disappeared down the hall. I don’t think he wanted to watch. I wedged a pillow under my knees and lay with my stomach sprawled over the couch. I hated the couch. It was too big for the room. It had been Rita’s couch. I felt blood trickling down the back of my left thigh. The tree was on the floor and my mother-in-law was picking glass out of my ass.
I swallowed the pill Max held out. I heard him in the kids’ room. I heard the front door open and close. I lost track of Rita. I couldn’t remember thanking her for trying to get the glass out. All the ornaments were in pieces. I thought there might be more in the attic. Or maybe CVS was still open. I must have dozed off because the next thing I remembered, Max was helping me into the backseat of the car. I rode to the hospital on my stomach.
“Max. Can you pull over for a minute?” I said, rising up on an elbow.
“Are you going to throw up?”
“No, I want to smoke a joint. Take the edge off.”
“I think the edge should pretty well be off with that Percodan.” He steered the car into the parking lot of the Church of the Lighted Candle. There were a lot of parked cars. It was the Christmas Eve service. We went last year, but the kids were crabby and kept moving back and forth from my lap to Max’s. Finally, to contain Patrick, Max let him draw on the small collection envelopes. I let Mandy sit down on the prayer rail, and they stayed quiet through the last reading from Matthew.
“We can’t park here,” I said, dropping my head on the seat so no one could see me.
Max wheeled out of the lot, found a dark side street, and idled the car. We shared a joint.
“I’m sorry, Max.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” Max twisted around to look at me. He wore his hair long. He looked like a throwback rock star. He played the guitar now and then. He was steady when he looked at me. He was steady when he looked at anyone he liked. His students loved him.
We pulled up to the ER entrance. “I don’t have any pants on,” I said to Max.
“Right.” Max wiggled me side to side until he got me out of the backseat. He took off his windbreaker and tied it around my waist.
He took out his phone. “Hey, Blue. I’m not laughing at you.” Max snapped a picture of me from behind. “You’ll love this by New Year’s Eve.”
Max did the talking with the ER receptionist. A cop standing just off to the side of the check-in desk watched us. I was sure he could tell we were high. Max looked over and smiled at him. The cop nodded and walked away. Max handed the receptionist his insurance card. He assured the woman I didn’t have another insurance policy. He stood there and filled out all the forms she handed him on a clipboard.
A man in blue scrubs came up to me and took my arm.
“I gotta wait here, Blue.” He nodded toward the double doors.
The aide walked me back to a curtained cubicle. I wanted to make conversation with him. I tried to read his nametag. I had trouble getting up on the gurney.
“Going to be a few minutes. Busy night,” a nurse said, waking me up again. She shoved a thermometer in my ear and took my blood pressure. Before I could say anything, she was gone. I was sure she thought glass in my ass wasn’t a serious emergency. I lay on my stomach. I used to lie on my stomach when I was a teenager and talk on the phone. I once talked for three hours to a boy I had never met. My best friend, Ashley, had given him my number. Sometimes he’d talked so low I couldn’t hear him. I’d lain in the dark not knowing what to say back. I remember feeling my pelvis getting wider, spreading like a big saucer over the bedspread. I’d wondered how I would first kiss him. I’d wanted his hands on me.
Someone had draped a sheet over me. Max’s jacket was on the floor. I stared at the high school mascot of a falcon coming in for a landing.
I had never been in an ER before. Christmas lights were hung along the one wall so each cubicle had a weak green-red shimmer. It was like the scene in The Godfather, when Michael goes to the hospital and it’s Christmas and no one is guarding his father. I closed my eyes. I was sleepy. I thought about how I had gotten here. I had to get ready for the doctor’s questions. We should have finished the tree and put together the dollhouse for Mandy and put the training wheels on Patrick’s new red bike by now.
I was really high and kept falling asleep. I jerked awake feeling like I was going to throw up. My mind was racing from one thing to another. My mother popped into my head. She had a different life. A life I couldn’t afford, but was brought up to expect. I had to go to the bathroom. I wondered if I could pee standing up. There was no clock. I heard low voices coming from the cubicle to my left. My curtain riffled a bit. I hoped the nurse was coming back. I wanted the one who was pretty. No makeup, a little overweight, but bouncy, in charge.
My mother was not a particularly pretty woman, but in her passport picture, she looked beautiful. She drank dirty martinis with extra olives. She wore a two-strand pearl necklace. She didn’t have to work. She had heavy crystal wine and water glasses of different sizes and several salt and pepper shakers for specific holidays. I won’t ever have her life. I felt a little let down by that. Cheated. Even so, I would have liked to see her swoop into the ER in her blue crepe suit, wearing low-heeled, good Italian shoes, and take care of me.
I think the nurse said Max had gone back home for a while. How long have I been in here? I wonder if the nurse told the doctor I’m high. I thought loving sex was like being of pot of boiling water. When did I become that pot of boiling water? It was the day when everyone had been gone and I was alone in the house. My father was at work, and my sister and my mother were out—I wasn’t sure where either of them had gone. I got down in the living room, close by the couch so no one could see me through the bay window, and masturbated. I had a sudden orgasm, though I hadn’t known that was what it was. I remember thinking two things when I got up from the floor; playing with myself was going to be something I would do again and again, and I had to keep it a secret.
“What happened?” The doctor flipped on the fluorescent overhead light.
I got up on my elbows and looked at him. A terrible flash jolted me. Had he been inside my head? Did he know what I’d been thinking about? He stepped back out of the cubicle and my mind wandered back to my mother and my sister.
Keeping it a secret turned out to be hard. Like the night when my sister jumped out of her bed and in one step pulled the covers off of me. I lay still with my hands between my legs.
“Mom! She’s at it again,” my older sister called out. I was surprised the next-door neighbors didn’t turn on their lights to find out what the fuss was about.
My mother stood in the doorway blocking most of the hall light. There was a halo about her head. It seemed like she didn’t want to come all the way into our room.
“Blue, I don’t want you to hurt yourself. It’s not a ladylike thing to do. So let’s not talk about it anymore.” She closed our door.
I pulled the blanket back up over me and scrunched down so my head was covered. In those fifteen seconds, I was out of the club. My sister and my mother stood together and I was shut out. And I never really understood much of what either one of them said after that.
For three days, I resisted. I didn’t want to hurt myself. But by day four, I was at it again—only waiting until my sister was asleep. Soon after, we moved into a bigger house and I had my own room.
Then playing with myself was replaced, though never entirely given up, with sex. I was at a friend’s house in Playa del Rey. It was an old beach house with a view of the ocean on the corner of Vista and Sandwater Drive. Most of the houses around it had been remodeled. Some were empty. My friend’s house only had a new kitchen, though there were plans for the dining room. All the wallpaper and the old wooden floors were stripped away. Her parents had lost their money. In my last two years of high school, a lot of my friends’ parents lost their money. Friends who went on vacations, attended private school, and bought designer purses were taking out loans for college.
I snorted cocaine with this boy in a hoodie. I never saw his whole face. We sat by ourselves on the porch the family used mostly to store things. I did a second line and he put his hand between my legs. Every ninety seconds a plane flew over the narrow highway, then over the beach, and disappeared out to sea. Instead of moving closer to the boy or touching him, I watched the planes. I came after two planes.
He drove me home, taking Jefferson, which ran along the Ballona Wetlands. He pulled over. Why was he stopping the car? He pointed out the passenger window. I turned and saw one white bird standing all alone. I looked over at him. His hoodie was off. He smiled and said, “Snowy Egret.”
“What happened?” The doctor was back. Had he been talking to me all this time? He looked at his iPad. He was gorgeous. He looked dead-tired, which made him all the more attractive.
I didn’t know how to explain my accident. I was fucking my husband and the next thing I knew there was glass in my derriere. Fanny. Backside. Butt. Heine. Rump. Rear. Bum. I pointed to my bottom. I shouldn’t have smoked that joint in the car.
“What happened?” the doctor said again, leaning close to my naked behind.
“We were trimming the Christmas tree and I tripped and fell on some ornaments.” I felt his breath on the backs of my thighs.
“You trim your tree naked?”
I was not sure the doctor actually asked me that. I decided not to offer up additional commentary.
“Painful?” he asked.
“Uh-huh.” I turned as much as I could to look at him.
“Yes. That was painful too,” I said.
He smiled, keeping his eyes on my butt. “How old are they?”
“Five and seven.” Then I realized I hadn't thought much about them. They had fallen asleep despite telling me they were going to stay up all night and wait for Santa.
“We were having sex,” I blurted out.
“Nice to love someone that much.”
“Yeah. Love. Maybe desire,” I said into the gurney’s thin mattress.
“Potato, potata,” he said.
The doctor started to pull out the pieces of glass.
I yelped. I hoped no one would come in with a gunshot wound and take him away from me. The bouncy nurse materialized beside him.
“I am going to give you something for the pain.”
Silently I said Yes! to the pain meds and pumped my fist when he stepped out of the curtained room. I was sure he wasn’t coming back. He was probably going to hand me off to an intern to finish the job.
“Here.” The nurse held out two pills and a small paper cup of water. She didn’t make eye contact with me.
“Some of the glass is pretty deep. You are going to need a few stitches.” He said and turned to whisper something I didn’t catch to the nurse.
I was still high. I wanted to lick his eyelids. “Sorry you have to work on Christmas Eve.”
“It’s okay. I don’t celebrate Christmas.” He pulled a rolling stool over and sat down to get closer to my butt. He knew he was going to be there for a while.
“This is a local anesthetic. You will feel a pinch,” said the doctor.
I felt the stitches being pulled through my skin. I didn’t mind the tug. It gave me something to follow. So what if I didn’t have the money or the house or the leisure I grew up with? Every day I looked out of my front door and saw matching houses, clipped lawns, and cars too big for the driveways. What did the people next door and across the street think about sex? What kind of sex did they have? How often? Did they use props? Vibrators? I wanted to know—was I normal? Did other people think sex was as good as a new house, good scotch, private schools, or a closetful of salt and pepper shakers?
“What do you celebrate?” I asked.
“Your husband is outside,” the doctor said, ignoring my question. He steadied me as I inched off the gurney. “The stitches come out in seven days. Keep the wounds clean and dry. Come back here or go to your regular doctor.” He held out a prescription. “Fill this. If you get a fever, call me.”
I nodded; hoping clean and dry didn’t mean no sex. I tied Max’s windbreaker around my waist to hide my bare ass. I looked up to say something, but the doctor was gone and Max was standing in front of me holding Patrick by the hand and balancing Mandy on his hip.
“They were awake when I got back to the house,”Max said. “So I brought them with me.”
“Merry Christmas, Mommy,” they whispered.
“Merry Christmas, babies,” I said. “How did you get back here?”
“One of the nurses said it was okay. She knows Daddy,” Patrick explained. “There she is.” Patrick pointed to the bouncy nurse who had taken my blood pressure and assisted the doctor.
“Everything okay here?”
The nurse touched Max’s back with the palm of her hand. I didn’t like it. Made me think they had slept together. Max knew almost everyone in town. For all I knew they could have gone to the prom together.
Don’t walk over there. That’s what Max told me about looking too closely at bad things. You look over the edge, get too close, you are gonna fall off a cliff. I fucked a bunch of guys before Max. I only walked over to size up the drop.
“We’re good.” Max shifted Mandy to his other hip and reached out for me.
When we got home, I rushed the kids past the living room, but I didn’t have to. Rita had tacked up a sheet so the kids couldn’t see in. I grabbed Mandy’s pink bedspread and wrapped it around me and lay on my stomach in the middle of Mandy’s bed. The kids settled on their backs with their legs straight as toothpicks, as though they were afraid they might hurt me if their little bodies came in contact with mine. I read them The Christmas Tree That Stayed Up All Year. Halfway through the second reading, they were both asleep, but I finished the book anyway before slipping out.
I went down the hall to the living room. I pulled the sheet aside and peered in. It was almost 3:00 a.m. Rita was on her knees, trying to fit the dollhouse together. She had trimmed the tree with bows made of kite string and rows of buttons strung on brown twine. I don’t know how she had gotten the tree upright on her own. Using her shoulder for balance, I knelt down beside her.
Rita patted my hand and kept at the dollhouse.
“Last week I had the Salvation Army come over to take the couch.”
“Uh-huh,” Rita said.
“They couldn’t take it. They couldn’t get it through the hall. They asked me how I got it in here in the first place. I told them Max took out the window and pushed it in.”
“That’s Max,” Rita said.
“My college roommate was coming over that night. I was embarrassed we had no furniture. He must have asked you to borrow the couch that morning.”
“He came over saying he had to have it.”
“He spent all afternoon fitting the window frame back in.”
“You don’t have to keep the couch, Blue,” Rita said, and snapped the last piece of the dollhouse in place.
Woozy, I lay down on my side in front of the couch. My butt throbbed. I should have asked the doctor for an actual pain pill. I couldn’t ask Max to go out on Christmas to fill a scrip. “I know. But I was. . . .relieved when they couldn’t take it.”
Our kids were conceived on that couch. How could I have forgotten that? Buried in the couch was more of Max—remains of our lovemaking. And jokes and fights and apologies and spit-up. And pennies and dirt. Us.
I never thought I would marry a man who didn’t own a suit. I looked at the mantelpiece, the bookcase with the carved molding because he had seen one like it in my mother’s house. The chandelier he’d rewired and hung. I looked at the things Max had made. I turned onto my stomach to squint at the green and red lights. Max didn’t debate the trajectory of his life. He lived it. And he loved me.
I heard the mudroom door shut and we both turned to see Max standing in the doorway, pulling down the sheet.
“Here we go. The last piece,” Max said, holding up Patrick’s bike with the training wheels.