"Look," said Andersol, "we found a cat! We're going to keep him for a pet."
I walked across my mother's porch to see the brownish-gray animal she was petting. Cats aren't brown, I thought, unless it's some exotic breed with that fluffy tail. I recoiled in disgust. "That's not a cat! It's a god-damned groundhog! Get away from it before it bites you!"
"He doesn't bite," said Bodie. "He's really friendly."
"Groundhogs are not pets! They're just about the most destructive animals on the planet, and once they move in, they're almost impossible to get rid of! Get it out of here NOW!" My revulsion was becoming panicky; I had to keep them from making this thing feel at home. Did we have a shovel so that I could kill it?
"Oh, all right," sighed Andersol. She picked it up and put it out on the sidewalk, where it turned and watched her as she backed away.
The dream followed me as I bathed and dressed. This one was a no-brainer: a groundhog for a pet was my subconscious symbol of my friends' insistence on a romance with John LeMay. In the dream, Andersol and Bodie didn't know that a groundhog for a pet was a bad idea. Obviously they don't understand that linking me and John is a mistake, I thought. I need to get it through their thick skulls.
And I was looking for a shovel, to kill it. That was straight out of childhood, when Mr. Shellebarger down the street bludgeoned a young groundhog to death in his vegetable garden when I was eleven. Mr. Shellebarger was seventy, and the whole street stopped by to congratulate him when they heard about the kill. My parents were the only adults I knew who didn't preface any mention of groundhogs with the adjective "god-damned." They objected to that kind of language, saying that any use of the word "god" in conjunction with an animal as hateful as a groundhog was sacrilegious.
That morning we attended Marca's soccer game; the afternoon, I spent shopping with Claire. Evening came and flew by with dinner and card games with the kids. It was after eleven when Jesse, Bodie, Andersol, and I were finally alone. The day had been a lot of fun, and I was wondering how I could tactfully ask them not to gossip about me and John anymore.
"Hey," said Andersol. "I was so brain-dead last night I didn't even ask about John's mom. Is she all right?"
"She's doing just fine," I said. "Once she got some antibiotics, everything started clearing up and she felt much, much better. She's still got a bit of a cough, but she's up and around and was even at the gym Friday morning."
"That's good, because John said that you only e-mailed him twice this week and they were both really short, like one sentence. Did you two have a fight?"
"No, we didn't," I replied, becoming annoyed again already. "We have nothing to fight about."
"Then what's up?" Bodie asked. "He's worried enough to ask us if there's some kind of problem. Did you meet someone else?"
"Look, I can tell by the expression on your face that you're really pissed about something," said Jesse. "You look like a wet cat. Do you want to tell us what's going on?"
"No, but yes," I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself before I started to shout and throw things. "I understand that the children have heard you three talking about John and I being in love -- in fact, that John and I will be getting married."
"Those eavesdroppers!" Andersol sputtered, chuckling. "So what? You and John are obviously crazy about each other, and you look to me like you're headed for a serious relationship. Tell us that you haven't thought about that yourself."
"As a matter of fact, I haven't. And I don't think he has, either. What I would like is for you all to stop fantasizing about my love life, especially when you might be overheard by the kids." If I focused on being polite, I might refrain from screaming at them, but I couldn't keep from gritting my teeth.
"Sully, are you seriously trying to tell me that you and John aren't in love?" Andersol had her head cocked to one side in a gently admonishing way.
"Don't patronize me, Andersol, only a week ago I called him on the phone to tell him his mother was in the hospital. At almost midnight. A woman answered the phone, a woman named Caitlin, and she had no idea that John's friend 'Sully' was a woman. Does that sound like a man in love to you?" I demanded angrily.
"What?!?" shouted all three at the same time, their lower jaws hanging open.
"Oh, that got your attention, didn't it? He never mentioned Caitlin to you, either, did he?"
"I can't believe this," said Andersol.
"Me, either," Bodie agreed. "I'd have thought he'd tell ... "
"Oh, shit," Jesse said weakly.
My anger at their gossip merged with my anger at finding out about Caitlin, and I said bitterly, "Now you see, John LeMay has his own life going on full throttle on the East Coast, and this coast is only a vacation spot. Let me request that in the future, you three keep your damned gossip about my love life out of hearing range of the children, or maybe see if you can't find any other interesting subjects to discuss. I'm just pretty damned sick of the whole damned subject." I drained the last sip from my wine glass. "And yeah, you were right," I added to Jesse, "I'm just as pissed off about you talking about me behind my back as you would be if I was talking bullshit about you. C'mon, Gabe."
As I left the downstairs study, I thought about how constantly irritating it would be to live at the estate, with every move examined and speculated upon, and how glad I was to be able to leave tomorrow. Untold wealth there might be at the Reich estate, but I didn't need it. I had my own income and my own place in Riverton. If I lived here, it would just take one wrong move, one fight with Jesse and I could be out in the street, with nothing but a cardboard sign that said, "Accountant for hire."
The more I thought about the gossip and the more I thought about the prospect of staying at the estate, the less I wanted to be there. After attending early Mass the next morning, I threw my bag into my car and drove back home, and spent the afternoon lying in the warm sun, reading my own copy of She so that I could discuss it with Owen the next time I saw him.
The phone rang about five. So, I thought, someone wants to apologize for being such a gossiping pain in the neck. "Hello?" I said pleasantly.
"Sully!" said John's voice.
"John, hello." I felt my face freeze.
"Hey, uh, listen, I just realized how rude Caitlin sounded when she answered the phone last week, sorry I'm such a stupe I didn't think about it until now."
"Don't worry about it, John, she just didn't know who I was." Why are we having this conversation?
"Well, she was pretty drunk, that's all the excuse I can give."
"Oh," I said, wondering what I was supposed to say in response.
"Sully," he said tensely, after moments of my silence, "Andersol called me, told me you were upset about Caitlin."
Damn it, why couldn't they just leave my life alone? "John, your personal life is none of my business. Andersol had no right to say that to you --"
"Sully," he interrupted.
"We were playing poker. A bunch of us from the precinct. Caitlin is my partner's wife."
At a complete loss for words, I was silent. My first thought was, oh, great, now he knows. Knows what? Something I didn't even want to admit to myself? Something that desperately wanted to giggle in euphoric relief?
"Don't be mad at Andersol for calling me, okay? She just didn't want any misunderstandings messing up our friendship, that's all. And I guess she knew you wouldn't say anything to me about it." He paused. "I'm glad she called -- but I wish you'd have said something."
"What should I have said?" I asked him, hoping for a clue as to what I should be saying now.
"You should have said, 'John, you two-timing son of a bitch, who the hell is Caitlin?'"
"I ... no, I couldn't have said that." I had to chuckle at the thought.
"Andersol did. First thing this morning, I wake up to her shouting at me, and cussing me out," he said, and I could hear a bit of relief in his voice, too.
"Must have been a cussing-out kind of weekend all round. I told her and Bodie and my sister off for talking trash about me in front of the kids." About us in front of the kids.
"What? They were talking about you in front of the kids? They shouldn't do that."
"They didn't know the kids could hear them. But I just got mad." I sat down, feeling suddenly shaky, remembering Bodie telling me that John always took my side in any argument. He did, didn't he? And now he knows that I don't want him to have another woman in his apartment, and here I am, not telling him to get lost and find another woman for his apartment.
"You got a temper, that's for sure," he said. "Marca takes after you."
I gasped. "That is absolutely not true!"
"Hey," he said, laughing, "Jesse tells stories about how strong-willed your mother was -- I bet she was the only reason you weren't in fights all the time when you were a kid. You don't back down from anything, not even when everyone else thinks -- " he stopped abruptly.
"'Everyone else thinks' -- what, John?"
"Something different from you," he saved nicely. While I wondered what he was referring to, he changed the subject. "How's my mom? Did you see her today?"
"Yes. She made a highly fattening, utterly delicious, HUGE batch of macaroni and cheese this afternoon. She lost a few pounds while she was sick, and says that this is the perfect time to indulge and gain them back. She's all but completely better, so don't worry, she's going to be all right." Nice move, John, I thought: defuse the tension, get off the sensitive issues, make nice. Well, I'd had enough quarreling this weekend, I wasn't going to bicker with him about words that hadn't been spoken.
"Great. And the kids?"
"Marca's team won their soccer game Saturday -- she's a starter, no surprise there. Owen's reading She, by H. Rider Haggard -- "
"That's a good one!"
"And I'm reading it, too. It is a good story, but I have some concerns about the emphasis on beauty that the story portrays." I embraced the new subject gladly.
"How old's Owen? Thirteen? I was maybe fifteen when I read it, and I identified with Holly, the ugly guy that everyone said looked like an ape. I think most guys who read it would sympathize with Holly. And isn't the whole story about how beauty is a trap?"
"I don't know. I read it when I was about twenty-seven --" imagining Adam as the uncommonly handsome character Kallikrates, though I was not about to mention that -- "and I've just started to reread it."
"I'll get a copy from the library," he said. "Maybe we can compare notes."
He was making an effort to find some way of making a long-distance relationship work. I was impressed.
No Caitlin in his apartment to worry about. And now he knows. And I know.
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.