Fiction Finalist: Real Women

My husband Ireland wanted me to quit as a physician and join him on a trip to Italy. I wasn’t thrilled. He’d already arranged the trip, and announced he was going to run some workshops of his own, “wellness workshops,” he said, that didn’t require the medical license. I think he liked my medical license but didn’t want one of his own, just the money that went with.

Meanwhile, my mother, an eighty-two-year-old movie actress with sixty-eight movies to her credit—real Hollywood movies—was suddenly keeping in touch, and favored Ireland’s idea.

“Your mother believes in vacations as an opportunity to think clearly,” Ireland said to me, reason and persuasion wrapped into one. He was ex-military and played in a band. We lived on a farm.

He proposed going to Italy to visit an aunt of mine. Plus run a workshop for the aunt’s friend who he had visited halfway through this year. Of course, I couldn’t be sure he had slept with my aunt’s friend but I imagined it would be the kind of thing he would do, him not knowing how else to get from point A to point B. I loved him.

He hadn’t packed and was standing in front of the mirror examining his pretzel as if checking all working parts were A1 shipshape. “Your auntie is going to pick us up,” he said, “and take us down to the Amalfi Coast where she rented us a villa.”

From what I remember, her nose was strongly built and those demanding eyes fitted her occupation as an opera singer. She had a way of being impossible to pin down to details. Earlier this year, Ireland wrote my aunt—who had gone back to live on the Amalfi Coast after divorcing her husband, and she invited him to come teach a group of females how to be Real Women in Uncertain Times. I had not paid much attention when he spoke about it.

The first time I met the aunt, we were invited to her divorce party in Hollywood, North Van Ness Ave—I can almost recall the street number. My mother came for the networking. She was not making much headway getting investors for a documentary on gun legislation. In a D&G striped pink shirt and casual brown blazer picked up from Squaresville when we went tea drinking near Griffith Park, she was both regal and accessible. Nearby, two mid-thirtyish wannabes had gone as nervous as greyhounds. I left her and went to stand on the patio. The sound of some famous actor’s kids floated upstream from a house nearby. I felt peaceful in the way houses with views of the sky from every angle can bring till the famous actor revved up a motorbike. My aunt’s PA told me how my mother had seen Brad Pitt creatively avoiding paparazzi by disguising himself as a tramp. One of the guests overheard and came over to top up my champagne. She said, “Your mama spotted the sexy thriller legs… there’s always something happening on this street.”

From where I lay on the carpet doing ding dong with Ireland, I could see webs under the four poster. Several objects of art were visible including underwear from last time, a stars-n-stripes number from a friend’s vintage shop. Propped onto my elbows, I checked the clock. “I have booked an Italian cruise to prepare us for Italy,” he said just then in the tone used, I am sure, by winners of the Nobel Prize when thanking their wives. Departing Rome, and we could get off a day early in Naples. Married thirty years, I did not know that I should treat him as if he’d taken a degree in urges. Mine were only feelings without make-up.

“Lots to do,” I said, picking myself off the floor, “so I’ll stay at the guesthouse.” Ireland asked if I wanted him to make me dinner. I preferred he do the packing and check cancellation policy at Celebrity Cruises. The mousetraps I’d come back to the farm for were already in the car so I gave Ireland extra hugs for leaving him on his own that evening. “Shoulder is coming good,” he said, lifting and twisting it like a rag doll appendage, “and you are a number one miracle worker!”

My mother rang as I was about to get in the car so I placed my bags on the bonnet. “I want to visit with you, three-thirty tomorrow,” she said, and hung up. She must have disembarked only moments before, back from Bangkok, and I wondered if she would not be too jet-lagged. My return call went unanswered. A patrol went past and blared a tornado warning and I reflexively dropped my mobile on my foot and had to tip my runners to keep it from a mud bath. We don’t usually have much traffic on the main road off the farm.

We were leaving from Nashville airport in the next few days so the evening was about going through the rooms in the guesthouse and jotting down what needed fixing. The remote did not work so I had to manually enter a playlist of Ireland’s music but couldn’t settle into his newer pieces and then I gave up. In a momentary inattention, a mousetrap released and filleted skin off my finger.

I did not sleep much from the rush I got from trees crashing outside and a siren woke me when I finally fell asleep at 3 a.m. When I was six my father received the daily takes of a horror film my mother was involved in with Romero, and I sat on his lap and watched, in our private screening room, my mother get bitten by a zombie. “Wowza,” I said. I woke screaming for months and was banned from such films. I sent my mother a message to reroute or perhaps cancel because of the weather. She sent back that she was coming no matter what since she had business in town.

Despite a bright autumn sun streaming in the kitchen window, my head felt foggy. As I walked the few blocks to my practice, I sent Ireland an SMS about my mother’s arrival. Did we want to entertain at the farm? Probably not since the wine was over here? He said he’d cook, and I said, Yeah!

I managed to get back early after cancelling the last two appointments. Stashed last minute travel purchases on the suitcase. Progress needed to be made on the packing. My mother liked to say I was like a fireplace where the embers had long gone and I was a challenge, but I hoped to distract her with Ireland’s entertainment.

She arrived about 4:30. I wished her arrivals would occur when my embers were firing on all cylinders. I gave her a sideways kiss to avoid an armful of books getting between us. “I need for someone who I can be crazy around,” my mother said, taking off her hat and hanging it. “And you are not to prescribe surgical removal of my uterus either.”

“I would never do that, it’s not my way,” I replied.

She said carefully that doctors were mandated to preserve quantity of life rather than quality. “You are in a mood,” she added, considering my face.

I laughed and took the hat and found a more comfortable place for it in the living room.

“You should sell this town to a studio,” she said, “there’s no one in the streets… oh, I lie, two people walked into that health food store.”

“You laugh at the strangest things.” she said. “The shopkeepers won’t be merry about the foot traffic and you know the Chinese distrust the face of a woman who laughs too much.” She sniffed the tea.

“How was your trip?” I was making conversation as I drizzled honey into her tea with an antique teaspoon she had bought for me in Shanghai.

When I came back with a cheese platter, she gave me news about my stepbrother. He had been chased by paparazzi on his motorbike, the ones lining his street and panting for views of superstars.

“He was wearing a cowboy hat and Speedos.”

“Goodness!” We do not know whose sperm was responsible for my stepbrother but I imagine his father was an actor.

“He’s tired,” she said, “of having those Mafioso parked in the entire street.” My brother lived in our family home on Van Ness.

“How do you know that they are, you know…”

“Black cars, tinted windows and Italian sunglasses.”

“Oh.” I might have said more but a mobile dinged and a text from Ireland told me to put the goose in the oven.

The conversation was definitely lagging so I said, “How long were you away for this time?” I had received an email from Australia about a pilgrimage to the desert, to Uluru. “Hired a car,” she said, “and drove all the way from the North. Their government is investing into more uranium mines, near Kakadu. Even China has a piece of the action!” She repeated her amazement that I hadn’t turned activist about the uranium facility close by. Every patient in my clinic, in her opinion, had a uranium hazard issue. “If we worried about everything,” I said, “we would do nothing.”

She changed the subject. “How is the malpractice suit going?”

“Getting facts mixed up,” I said, “that was several years ago.” A senior pediatrician at the hospital was making mistakes and I had been the instrument behind his dismissal and even though the hospital requested his resignation, I did not get any popularity votes.

“You took a bit of a hit with increasing workload,” she said.

We were in table tennis conversation. She took out a compact mirror and began to landscape her face from different concoctions in her purse as if my answer would bore her no end. We may have reached the beyond-redemption part of her visit. She told me I was a wuss. In an effort at intimacy, I said that my dreams had begun to seep into my mornings and evenings and spaces in-between, and she said welcome to my casino, it doesn’t get easier. My mother is beautiful, her skin translucent at the age of eighty and lips red as an exotic lipstick, and naturally glossy. She had me when she was forty with a sperm donor, a friend of hers.

Car tires on the gravel had us both looking at the window. My mother said, “Ireland?” Then his key was turning in the front door.

“Food arrives,” he hollered from the door and came in with green environment bags dangling. I felt a twinge about having to deal with leftovers. He pecked my mother’s cheek and the atmosphere began to change. “Oh wait, I have a present for you,” she said.

She had an Australian wine in her car, a glorious Cabernet, she said, and a Sauvignon that needed chilling. We traipsed into the kitchen and watched Ireland flourish chopping boards, set steamers on the go, slam-chop a knife on the ends of carrots, marinate eye fillets and taste a sauce he had been reducing all night. My mother congratulated him on his Southern hospitality. I reached over to take sunglasses off his cap and stop it falling in the mixing bowl.

She insisted on chopping onions. She told him about my stepbrother and how the paparazzi had punched him down and how he rang LAPD and charged hate crimes. “Well,” she said, “they are off the street for a bit now.”

They discussed Obama’s final election debate between sips of red, and then moved on to Hurricane Sandy—nothing like disaster to remind us of our humanity, he said to the garlic—and then on to unemployment. Reminded me of discussions I had as an undergrad. Standing to one side, and bolstered by a glass of peppermint tea, I let my mind wander. An old school friend whose child was dying of leukemia had convinced an acquaintance of hers to make an appointment. I brought up the test results in my mind, both the child and the acquaintance.

To Ireland she said that I needed drama to get me into action, referring to my early problems at the hospital. “Unlike the rest of us,” she added as she passed me a stalk of celery with a scoop of avocado mousse. Ireland was making gnocchi from scratch, the maple slab bench carefully dried for rolling the dough. He looked good in black and that trim moustache, stylish in a way people take as progressive. We sat on the floor, my mother as limber as she was in her twenties. “A true family occasion,” she said, “and tomorrow,” she said, focusing in on Ireland, “I am going to the rally at the county courthouse. Would you like to come?”

There were a few thousand workers totally dependent on the postponement of closure of the uranium enrichment plant twelve miles out of town. My mother said, “The newspaper called it a deal to advance America’s national security interest. Ha! Can you imagine that? At reduced cost to taxpayers?”

“We have heaps to do,” I said, “and the value of standing for the underdog who is unaware of being one escapes me.”

She passed the paper over to Ireland and told me to be ashamed of myself.

“Bit harsh,” Ireland said loyally. I had to think of something else to do, like wash dishes and turn the bed lamp on for her overnight stay. By the time I came back down, Ireland had elected to drive my mother to the rally.

The next afternoon as I was handing her hat back, she mentioned emailing my brother about a dream in which she had woken up screaming his name, that she very much wished to have a good mother-son relationship. We already do, he wrote back for the first time, it is called DNA. He told her that if she were to be a little less narcissistic and whittled down her ego then something might change. My mother asked me if he was right. I want to be a better person, she said. “Yes but,” I said.

“What do you mean yes but?”

I thought of the hours she spent calling to chat with me. She was devoted to causes of a magnitude that could send me cowering into a closet, and went to retreats in third world countries where she donated money to fund militant women’s movements against injustice.

The taxi dropped us off in the midst of concrete. To our left a blanket of almost neon blue green expanse.

“Happy?” Ireland asked.

“Absolutely,” I lied. Ireland was certain my flower power would return soon and said he was off to explore every corner of the ship. One of his favorite pictures of me is a seventies snapshot taken at Woodstock with my mother. Shortly after the heyday of vampire films, she became a Scientologist and took herself out of ‘rural movies’. As well, she ought to go on the Guinness book for recovering from the most number of cancers. She tests positive, she cancels her life, she locks herself in a room and three weeks later, bye bye imperfection. She did that when she got pregnant with me, terror-stricken about motherhood after the romance had worn off, but it became bye bye starring role.

Most of the cruise Ireland would wrangle his way into playing music, different situations, various artistes and inevitably he was surrounded by adoring females. Ten years younger and a good clothes sense meant he could play the part of a Brando to my Monroe, which I think the younger crowd—in their late forties—thought was romantically antique. After I was introduced to the fourth one, I began to lose track of their names so I added a mental tag like ‘Slim’ and added an emphatic ‘Oh’ and eye focus if I ran into one on my way from deck to deck. The ship was a kind of world in which I swam like an eel looking for deep water, a social world order without any real heart. The night before we were pulled into the island of Santorini, I went to my cabin early and put on an anti-nausea wristband and determined to finish a novel I’d started several years ago, a stream of consciousness book given to me by one of my mother’s young friends. Another chapter in, and I began to believe the wristband had a dual purpose. Long tracts going nowhere followed engaging paragraphs where the writer and I had wonderful conversation. I was embarrassed for the hero who was busy disguising herself by switching gender and needing me to create a treatment plan.

A sense of work accumulating back home made me uncomfortable. I had been falling asleep to dreams that my clinic was so full of patients they overflowed into the street like one of those berserker music concerts on television. The side-to-side pitch got stronger and I put aside the novel and turned off the bed lamp, and with folded arms wondered where Ireland was at midnight. Where I was awash in disappointment, he had become giddy in the company of strangers. I would have tried for more sleep but reached in the dark for an oil I used for dry lips, forgetting that it was a container without a drip hole, and was washed in an entire bottle’s worth.

The rain came down harder and I rolled out of bed. I closed the sliding door of the cabin. A lurch had me grab for the writing desk. With each swell of sea, my stomach rose and slumped even though the result was not nausea. I moved slowly to avoid stumbling over open suitcases. A muscle in my chest was twanging like a guitar string and I thought I might be sleepwalking but the sensation passed. Music came to my feet. Our cabin must be right over the club venues. What had Ireland paid all the money for? Hilarious the way marketing can make glamor out of nothing. I heard a loud bang but nothing out of the ordinary followed. Sound system? I flicked a switch to turn on the overhead lights and dressed in a caftan.

In a glass-walled elevator, an ancient couple offset the ship movement by hanging onto each other so I tried to relieve their anxiety with a joke. “What do an alien and an autograph from a great actor have in common?”

“They both come from the stars!” I don’t think they spoke English. My intention was to get a cup of tea but I got lost. I wondered if my state was similar to what my mother might experience in adjusting to the transient environment of a movie. My mind slid into its inner workings. While following the most divine melody I found Ireland in one of the bars—I prefer opera mostly, even if Ireland was retraining my ear, and there he was jamming with two others, a taut dark-skinned man on a Turkish née and an Armenian-looking fellow on an unfamiliar instrument. As I rounded the corner, the floor dropped and we all leaned sideways. The most beautiful girl with dark plaits somersaulted through the air and when we righted ourselves, with a metallic shriek, she was sitting on my husband’s lap, and a righteous thunder billowed through the ship.

An acrylic smell washed over. The sirens began. Guests began pushing forward in undirected haste, revealing their lack of attention to the ship drills. I had jotted salient details in my iPhone on the mandatory emergency station routines upon boarding the vessel, and avoiding the milling staff in their orange jackets, I took hold of Ireland and pulled him towards the elevator. His palms were wet. The musical entourage, and the beautiful nymph—who grasped my free hand with both of hers—followed us. She reminded me of the novel I was reading. We stashed ourselves inside the glass box without an inch to spare, some of us a little more hysterical than others. The communal care and in its wake, a sense of connection, brought my senses deeply alive. As we surfaced onto the correct deck and moved towards our muster station, we were sprayed by the ocean. We put on our own jackets. Lifeboats were lowered. People surged towards the rails. Arguments broke out from matriarchs who wanted the women-and-children-first rule to be violated in the case of their husbands. Their mouths slashed open and closed in red and pink swathes.

Emergencies create a sense of calm, the kind I first discovered at medical school. Now I announced I was a doctor and this gathered me a small posse of needy and genuinely in need, to watch over. I spoke light-heartedly as if a ball in the air was arriving, for which I had endless patience.

In a short space of time, the loudspeaker confirmed my instincts and announced a containment of the situation, applauded the absolute perfection of emergency systems, the magnificence of the captain’s abilities, and an appreciation of the ship staff. A list of passenger directives ensued, and as quickly as the crisis had risen, it began to seep away, settling into atmospheric corners of our awareness like an exuberant dog, curbed.

The routine of the ship took over. The episode had taken longer than I imagined. Ireland seemed to be shell shocked which did not make sense given his army days. He wanted to relax a bit, he said, so I went to my room to have a shower and passed a line of people gathered at the coffee station. The crew were smiling genuinely. Passengers gathered in groups, flagellating their feel-good levels, making theories of what-if, repeating a sense of gratitude at being saved. I sensed in them a disappointment, as if nature had played an unfair joke. I lay down but could not sleep until the dawn.

I had been comatose for the entire day at sea while we headed for Naples, our last port before Rome. The day’s itinerary had been slipped under the door and I figured Ireland had not come back. He would have been playing music and making friends. I turned the phone onto international roaming and saw an SMS from him about the grand and final ship’s dinner. He asked for a special talk between us that would change everything. I stayed awhile under the fierce stream of warm water, making lists, and then dressed in a glittery black dress. I put on a twined gold leaf bracelet and matched earrings. In the center of my throat was a ruby clasped in a larger loose plait of similar design. I had bought it for myself just before I had gone to meet Ireland where he was playing in the Lower East Side. My flesh was adrenalized and I was creating a plan to release myself from my obligations to the hospital. Ireland and I could run workshops together.

When I got to the fine dining room on the top floor, I received several effusive compliments en route. I stopped to chat with a woman who welcomed each diner with a song, burlesque style. Took me awhile to spot Ireland. I was gratified to find he had reserved a dreamy spot by the window from which we could see the vastness of the sea demonstrating its frills and taffeta green blues. He cleared his throat. He took my hand and there was an oddness about his grasp.

“About you and me,” he said.

When my mother broke the news to me in an inconsequential fashion of her impending divorce, we were meeting for a cup of coffee. I had been admitted to medical school hours before. “I feel like I am in one of your zombie movies,” I said. My mother could not recall ever having acted in a movie requiring zombies.

“No sweetie,” she replied, “we are vampires of all our tomorrows.”

I had a hysterical belief that I would not have another father-sub who had long hair and pointed Italian shoes. I would be proved wrong. She made disparaging remarks about Harvard and talked about large lecture courses delegated to undergrads.

“Finishing school for rich boys and girls,” she said. When I complained that she was not doing a good job of acting out the pleasure of having a daughter be admitted to a world class medical school, she told me that expectations invested me in getting nowhere.

“The sea is so calm,” Ireland said in a way that suggested this-too-shall-pass. “Please don’t cry,” he said. The waiter, young and out of his comfort zone, put one hand behind his back and tilted the wine towards me. Mistrusting my voice, I put a hand over my wine glass. “We could still be friends,” Ireland said. I could not focus on the rest of what he said.

How does this work? To offer an antidote while the bite was happening. After I mopped my face, I gathered up the room key and made my way out. When I married him, I understood that he was not an intelligent man but only gave the appearance of being so. In his shoes, I would have loved me, understanding that love was what we made it mean, nothing more or less. A woman in the elevator asked if I was okay. Allergies, I said.

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