Wednesday, August 18, 2010
An Excerpt from "Third Degree"
Meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time shouldn’t involve wearing bathing suits.
Is it just me or should that be a hard and fast rule?
My best friend, Max, didn’t agree. Any time she gets to wear a bikini is a good day. But she’s a size two with six-pack abs. Me? I like to think that at five-ten I resemble one of those hard-bodied beach volleyball players, but in actuality, I’m less gazelle and more stork. With a pot belly.
I was headed to meet my boyfriend’s clan, the Crawfords. And frankly, I’m a little uncomfortable, at my age, with the “boyfriend” designation; sounds a little juvenile to me but I hadn’t come up with anything better. This soiree was being hosted by Bobby’s brother, Jimmy, who I had met under less-than-ideal circumstances—let’s just say that it was an “unfortunate incarceration” and he’s a really good lawyer—and his wife, Mary Pat, and I had been told that it would take place around the swimming pool. And that Mary Pat had a “banging body,” according to her husband, who was completely in her thrall. Hence, my dilemma.
Max said that I needed to get a sarong.
I spoke slowly. “But that would mean that I would have to go to Bali and I don’t have time for that. We need to be there by two.”
“They sell sarongs in America,” she reminded me.
“Yes, but that would mean I would have to go to a mall, and in case you didn’t hear me, we need to be there by two.” Anyway, I was still in bed, talking to Max on the phone.
“I wish you had told me sooner. I would have lent you one of mine.” I didn’t ask why she had a sarong—or more than one, for that matter—nor did I remind her that I outweighed her by fifty pounds and would look stupid with a sarong tied around one leg. “As fascinating as this problem is, I have to go. The Hooters waitresses are threatening to strike if I don’t give them a real case to work on.”
Max is the head of a cable network called “Crime TV” and is working on a reality show that combines Hooters waitresses and private investigation. (Don’t say it. I already know.) I had no idea how that was considered “entertainment” but Max had the golden touch and every reality show she produced was a ratings blockbuster. She was considered something akin to lightning in a bottle in the world of reality television combined with crime, so who was I to judge? I’m a college professor who teaches creative writing to disaffected college freshman, along with a few upper-level courses to juniors and seniors, and Max thinks that it’s a miracle I can stay awake while giving lectures to my classes, which I take as more of an insult to my teaching ability than to the attention span of my students. I like my job, even if when I use a three-syllable word, the students look at me with the same quizzical look my dog gives me when I say anything besides her name and the word “cocktails”.
I had described the show to Crawford, and his eyebrows raised. “You’ve got to admit,” he said, his cheeks turning slightly red at the thought, “there’s something to be said for women with big boobs in bikini tops following philandering husbands around.” And then, because he spent his formative years as an altar boy and knew that he was going to hell for saying “boobs” in mixed company, he wisely shut up. And probably did a silent Act of Contrition.
My eyes lighted on the cherry ring pop sitting on my nightstand that was ostensibly, my engagement ring. It had all happened so fast—we had just left City Hall after Max and her husband, Fred had gotten married—and Crawford sprung a proposal on me, shocking me with his spontaneity. Crawford’s not a spontaneous guy; everything he does is thought out and measured, wood burning in that gorgeous head of his. But this was completely out of the blue and I hadn’t really given him an answer. The pool party and the meeting of the entire family, though? That made me think that he assumed that I had said “yes.” I probably would at some point, but for right now, I was on the fence. Everything was great between us. But having been married to a serial philanderer, who was now six feet under, I was a little gun shy. It was going to take me a while to sort this whole thing out.
After staring at the ring pop for an inordinately long period of time, I went back to staring at my old bathing suit. I chided myself for not having done what most normal people would do in this situation: gone to the mall and tried on every bathing suit in the store. However, since it was August, I was sure that fall clothes were already on the racks, and I would be destined to wearing one of the last suits in the store, either a string bikini or a flowered mumu with matching leggings.
Crawford said that “everyone swims” at Jimmy’s parties; that was a direct quote. Apparently, Jimmy had spent a boatload of money on a pool and hot tub and the family was a bunch of waterlogged Irish-Americans who couldn’t be dragged out. And they loved to play “Marco Polo” according to Crawford. I lay back on my bed, considering my options. I could tell Crawford’s family that I had just had liposuction on my abdomen and I couldn’t get my stitches wet. Nobody would believe that. Even in a prone position, my stomach was visible over the waistband of my pants. I could tell them that I almost drowned as a kid and was afraid of the water, which was true. Or, I could just tell them the truth which is that I can’t swim and avoid water and all related sports. One thing I’ve found is that if you tell someone you can’t do math, they’re fine with it. Can’t read? No problem. We’ll teach you! Can’t swim? Admitting that is akin to admitting you’ve been in the pen. Nobody believes you and then, after they’ve stopped laughing, everybody eyes you suspiciously .
I have a lot of other admirable qualities but didn’t feel like I could share them with the Crawfords without sounding like a braggart. One of them is that I exaggerate everything to the point of paralysis at the thought of certain situations.
Like meeting your future in-laws. And revealing a character flaw like not being able to swim.
I got off the bed and looked at my bathing suit on the floor next to the bed. It was the same one I had had since my honeymoon with my late ex-husband. I had forgotten to pack a bathing suit for the trip (which gives you a little insight into my preoccupied, post-wedding state—paging Dr. Freud...) even though we were headed to Aruba, and had been forced to buy a two hundred dollar Speedo in the hotel gift shop that was now more than ten years old and missing some important expanses of elastic.
I threw the bathing suit on the bed and decided that I wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t want to do. But I also decided that I needed a big ice coffee to steel my resolve. I put Trixie, my golden retriever, on her leash and started into town, a short walk from my house.
I live in a little village in tony Westchester County, where years before with a small inheritance from my parents, I was smart enough to buy a little, tiny house perfectly situated due to its close proximity to both my work and New York City. After my divorce from the aforementioned late ex-husband, it turned out the house was just the right size for me, my dog, and Crawford when he visited. Crawford lives in Manhattan and commutes to the Bronx to the detective squad at the Fiftieth Precinct, I wondered what would happen if we did marry. Would he move here? Would I move there? How would two people who had lived on their own for a while adjust to living with other people again? We had been dating a little over a year and Crawford was clearly perfect, but he also had two teenage daughters, an ex-wife who was getting remarried in a few months, a really intense job, and his own way of doing things after living alone for a long time. We had a lot to finagle if we were going to make this work.
Most importantly, how would Trixie feel?
I grabbed my coffee cup from the dish drainer before I left; my village was going green and I was going right along for the ride. Before leaving, I took a quick look at the calendar that hung on the side of the refrigerator. Yep, still August. I find August to be a tough time for me, something that never changes from year to year. My mother’s birthday had been in August. She had also died in August. Every year, I expect it to get better, but here we were, a decade later, and I still feel like I can’t catch my breath. Was that ever going to change? Was I being unrealistic to expect that it would?
I didn’t feel the same way about my father’s death, even though at the time, it had been just as difficult. The difference was that he hadn’t suffered like my mother had. He had just gone to work one day and dropped dead, too young, at the UPS office where he picked up his truck and deliveries every day. His friends said he was dead before he hit the ground, and for some reason, that gave me some measure of comfort. I was only a teenager when that had happened but still, I could deal with his absence in a way that I couldn’t when it came to my mother.
Maybe it was all those years we had together, just the two of us. Or maybe it was because of how much she had suffered. Every year, I tried to sort it out, and every year, I just marked the days down until it August was over and it was no longer an issue.
When I got outside, I was not surprised by the weather: hot and steamy, a typical August day in New York. The humidity would have me looking like Gene Wilder in no time. I reconsidered the jeans and tee shirt that I had put on before I left and decided that an ensemble a little less sweat-producing would be appropriate for the pool party. At which I decided I would definitely not be swimming. Trixie tugged at the leash, delighted that we were heading into town, even though she would be sitting outside the coffee shop while I had my iced coffee in the air-conditioned comfort of Beans, Beans. (I know—my mind goes there, too, but who am I to tell the hippie owner, Greg, that “beans, beans” is the start of a not-so-nice childhood rhyme of a scatological nature?) Greg is a lovely guy with a messy, gray, Afro who loves coffee and calls everyone “dude” regardless of their sex. He often has on a tee shirt that says “Jesus is my homeboy” and thinks that Beans, Beans is the most clever name for a coffee shop. Who was I to disabuse him of that notion? The store is decorated with thrift-store finds and has a funky, neighborhood vibe that I love. So what if the coffee isn’t great? Greg is a nice guy, he needs the business, and I need the coffee. It worked for me. Crawford, on the other hand, thinks it is overpriced and a little precious. He likes his coffee in a paper cup with a plastic lid and Greek writing on the side. And he likes his muffins like he liked his women—hard on the outside, soft on the inside, and without any adornment. I only fit that bill about sixty percent of the time, but he’s accepted that. That’s the way he’s been drinking his coffee and eating his muffins for years and nothing is going to change. And he really didn’t like being called “dude.”
I wrapped Trixie’s leash around a parking meter and gave her a kiss, thinking about my soon-to-be-consumed iced coffee and what I would wear once I peeled these jeans off. The bathing suit with the missing elastic was looking better and better.
The village was hopping on this Saturday morning and I took in the building traffic in the center of town. Almost every parking space was filled and people milled about, waiting until ten o’clock when the boutiques and other stores opened. I was glad that I had walked.
I thought about the impending party. I was friends with Crawford’s Aunt Bea and she had made a few comments about his mother being a “piece of work.” I had heard the expression before and knew that it connoted a lot of different things in different people’s minds. Was she an eccentric? A little bit loony? That I could handle. I came from a long line of French Canadian whackos. Or was she mean and nasty? I never could get Bea to commit and what was I going to do? Ask Crawford? “Hey, what’s the deal with your mother? Is she a bitch on wheels or just a little crazy?” That wasn’t going to work. I had myself kind of worked up about the whole thing. Meeting the parents was stressful enough but when you had a wild card in the mix—one Kathleen Crawford—it was enough to induce a seizure.
I was lost in thought as I approached Beans, Beans and put my hand on the handle to the outer door, not really paying attention , lost in the reverie of thinking about what items resided in my closet. I thought about a pink shirt that made me look thinner than I actually was but then remembered that it had a huge chocolate ice cream stain on the right breast area. Trixie made a sound and I turned to tell her that I would be right out and that I would probably bring her a treat. While my head was turned, the door to the coffee shop swung open, my hand still gripping the handle, the edge of the door catching the side of my nose and the right side of my face as I was pushed backward onto the sidewalk. Two men spilled past me, locked in some kind of pugilistic fox trot. They tumbled onto the sidewalk a few feet away from me, punching and kicking each other. As I hit the ground, I saw that one of them had a bloody nose, and that the other one was missing a shoe. I focused on the fact that his tan stopped at his ankle and I thought that was really weird. All I could think was “socks and boat shoes?” This floated through my mind in the seconds before the pain in my face flooded like a tsunami into my consciousness.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Third Degree! To read more, return next week. To order,at Amazon click here.