Sex, Lies & Hot Tubs
Some Houses Don’t Have Roofs
Nineteen ninety-nine did not mark the end of the millennium, as some would have you believe. But it marked the end of an era for me. In September of 1999, I turned fifty.
Something always happens when you turn fifty. You wake up with eye bags and you have your first hot flash. Your daughter tells you she’s pregnant or your son says he’s gay. Your husband buys a Corvette and takes up tai chi. Barely one week after my fiftieth birthday, my husband, Jeffrey Dunwell, went missing from his Scottsdale clinic. According to his girlfriend, he threw down his stethoscope and bolted out of the building, leaving poor Mrs. Weinstein alone in the light box, where, shivering in her panties and wraparound goggles, she awaited her treatment for psoriasis.
My fiftieth birthday fell over Labor Day weekend, and we celebrated it alfresco under the Mexican sky. In retrospect, I can see that by the time it rolled around, what was to come had long been ordained. A wiser woman would have accepted what I had refused to see. A braver woman would have sucked it up and moved on, and to hell with him. Well, I was neither wise nor brave, and for that I have regrets. All I ask is that you don’t judge me too harshly. Bear in mind, all you wise, brave women, and take heed: Sometimes we inherit the fears of our mothers and, I would guess, of their mothers before them.
◊ ◊ ◊
Puerto Peñasco, aka Rocky Point, is three and a half hours from the outskirts of Phoenix, four if you stop to buy insurance, five if you stop for the good tequila. But on the drive south for my fiftieth birthday, we were stuck on the highway an extra two hours. Word reached us, down the convey of vehicles, that a car carrying a family of five including the dog had collided with an oncoming truck. It was a miracle, someone said, that no one was killed.
I took it as a sign: My marriage would go on.
For a long time, I wouldn’t acknowledge even the obvious signs, like Jeffrey’s sudden appreciation for sushi, or that time he got his teeth bleached. If he’d come home from work with his briefs inside out, I probably would have ignored that too. But things were different now. Once a woman is betrayed, she looks for signs everywhere.
After putting away the groceries, emptying the suitcases, sweeping the floors, and making the beds, I retired to the patio outside the condo. Tired after a swim, Jeffrey was asleep on the chaise longue next to mine. I listened to the cadence of his breathing, and for a moment I imagined myself curled up in his arms. But then the smell of fish frying in another woman’s kitchen wafted through the air, and the moment died.
Definitely another sign. Unfortunately not a good one.
He let out a snort and jolted awake. “I dreamed I was a clamshell,” he said, stretching leisurely. “Just a shell, not a clam. How strange is that?”
“You must be hungry. We should start thinking about dinner.”
“Have you decided where you want to go?”
He looked away, and my gaze followed his over the railing of the patio. In spite of the wind that had picked up, some foolish soul was parasailing, a speck in the sky at the end of a rope. An umbilical cord, I thought. The rope grew shorter and the man was lowered, but he couldn’t connect with the rocking boat.
“I thought we’d eat in,” I answered. “You know how crazy it gets over Labor Day weekend.” Actually, any weekend, since the drinking age down here was eighteen. “I was hoping we could have a family night at home. With the Turners, of course. Sherryl said she’d make her spicy crab dish.”
He squinted his good eye, his real eye, at the drama in the water. “Are you sure? You turn fifty only once. When my time came, I went out kicking and screaming.”
“It’s a birthday, Jeffrey. Not a funeral.”
“Claire wants to go to a party,” he said, glancing back at me. “The least we can do is let her have some fun, after dragging her down here.”
“I’m seventeen,” she’d argued when I’d told her she was coming with us to Rocky Point. Translation: I’m almost legal and you’re not the boss of me. “I want to stay with my friends,” she’d persisted. Translation: I’m not leaving Ryan. Ryan Campbell, her on-again, off-again boyfriend was pursuing a career as a domestic-engineering consultant. Translation: He’d dropped out of high school to sell vacuum cleaners at the discount mall.
“It’s not like we had a choice,” I reminded my yawning husband. Last month, while we were at a wedding, she’d thrown a party and several bottles of Jeffrey’s Don Julio had somehow evaporated. “We just can’t trust her,” I added, nearly choking on the T word.
He mumbled something incoherent and fell back to sleep. I walked onto the sand to look for Claire. Dusk was falling, the tide retreating. The beach was already popping with fireworks, and the man in the sky had landed.
Farther along the shore, only a few stragglers remained. Sherryl was collapsing her deck chair and Eric was folding his blanket. He said something, and she straightened to her statuesque six-foot height. She appeared to be laughing as he leaned into her, his forehead meeting hers, her long blond hair whipping around their necks. She pulled away and he grabbed her arm, and the laughter stopped. Anyone passing by might think they were lovers, not mother and son.
“Have you seen Claire?” I called.
Neither of them heard. I was about to call again, but then I saw my daughter, a pixie in the breeze, coming from the direction of Chi-Chi’s Beach Bar. She waved at someone in the distance, then slowly made her way toward me.
“Who were you waving to?” I asked when we converged on the patio.
“Do you have to know everything?”
“I’m just trying to make conversation, Claire.”
“Fine. Let’s converse. I’ll get the cookies, you get the milk.”
Obviously she was still ticked off.
“I’m going out tonight,” she said, suddenly shifting gears. “Chi-Chi’s is having a barbecue. It’s rated PG, so you don’t have to worry.”
“I thought we’d all stay in. We’ll grill some fresh shrimp. It’ll be fun.”
She drew her lips into a thin tight line, her imitation of my schoolmarm expression, which always amused her father and irked the hell out of me. “First you make me come down here, and now you’re grounding me? You are so imperious.” Her word of the week.
“Oh, Claire. It’s just one night, not a life sentence.”
“Sure, and we can play Pin the Tail on the Lobster. I think I’ll pass. Barbecue on the beach or snooze with the seniors, now there’s a no-brainer.”
Even though she looked like me, five-foot-two, slim, chin-length brown hair, I wasn’t one of those mothers who went around introducing their daughters as their younger sisters, nor did I believe we could pass. But I wasn’t ready for the home just yet.
“I’m turning fifty, not fossilizing,” I replied. “And there’ll be other parties. You turn fifty only once.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Claire went to the barbecue with Eric, and I ended up at Casa Margarita, a restaurant in the Old Port reputed to have the best Chinese food in Mexico. And it was true, if you were partial to tortilla chips with plum sauce.
The alfresco terrace overlooks the rocky beach, and in the evenings you can sit for hours, stargazing and sipping margaritas. Rain in Rocky Point is rare and some houses don’t have roofs, but on the night of my fiftieth birthday, the air was thick and musty, the sky a tangle of clouds. Shielding me from the offshore breeze, Jeffrey sat next to the railing, but I still felt the chill.
A roar of engines erupted from a road in the back, drowning out the gulls and the sea. It faded to a grumble, and then it was gone. Someone at a nearby table threw a morsel of food down onto the beach, and in a cacophony of screams and feathers, a war broke out among the gulls. Moments later, some of the birds returned to their perch on the railing, others flew off, and a few hovered in midair, wings tilted to the wind.
“I once read that if you tie a red ribbon around a gull’s foot, the other gulls will peck it to death,” Sherryl announced.
“That’s because the others want one just like it,” I replied, and she stuck out her tongue. It was a standing joke, how she copied everything I did. Like buying a condo here in Rocky Point. Two doors down from mine, it was the same model, only reversed. Or remodeling her yard back in Scottsdale. Separated from mine by a cinder-block fence, it now boasted an oval-shaped pool. She’d tell me imitation was the sincerest form of flattery; I’d tell her she had no taste. I mean, look who she copied.
Paul threw a tortilla chip at the railing. A flurry erupted, then screams, then another squabble on the rocks below.
Sherryl pulled on his arm. “Don’t encourage them. They’ll only want more.”
“Germ-spreading, filthy creatures,” he muttered. “I’m trying to get them to go down. I like won tons in my soup, not bird dung.”
“They don’t have that good an aim,” Sherryl answered.
I dug a chopstick into my egg roll. “I have juniors for homeroom,” I said cheerily. “Odd, last year my homeroom class was mostly boys. This year it’s mostly girls.”
Sherryl shook her head. “Teenage girls. I don’t envy you. And you have Claire’s histrionics to boot.”
“I love teaching,” I said, examining the red stuff oozing onto my plate. Salsa egg rolls, who knew? “I always get antsy over the summer break. At least we start in August, not later like the rest of the country.”
“It’s too hot for school in August,” Jeffrey said.
As if on autopilot, Paul responded, “Yeah, but it’s a dry heat.”
It was an old joke, but I laughed anyway.
“What the hell does that even mean?” Sherryl said. “Hot is hot. You still burn.”
“But you don’t sweat,” Jeffrey pointed out.
“Speaking of teenage girls,” Paul said to him, “how’s the new assistant working out? Kiki, right?”
“Keeley,” I corrected. “Keeley Wilder.” Young, perky Keeley Wilder, Jeffrey’s new medical assistant at the clinic. Young, perky Keeley, who’d been working there for a month before I knew she existed.
I hated that I was so suspicious. Any attractive female was a potential rival: Claire’s biology teacher, who, at parents’ night, had looked right through me and smiled at Jeffrey; our insurance agent, who, while explaining the details of our new no-flood, no-fire, no-theft policy, had looked right through me and smiled at Jeffrey; young, perky Keeley, who, when I’d stopped by the clinic to take my husband to lunch, had chatted amicably, then looked right through me and smiled at Jeffrey…
I grasped Jeffrey’s hand, like an oyster reclaiming its pearl.
“She’s twenty-four,” he said, and that was the end of it.
After the last margarita was downed, the last chip thrown to the gulls, the waiter arrived with the obligatory birthday cake, its candles dancing madly in the offshore breeze.
“Don’t forget to make a wish,” Sherryl sang.
And I did.
The waiter came by with the bill, and Paul made a grab for it.
“I can go two ways,” the waiter said.
Sherryl gave him a coy smile. “You must be double-jointed.”
I laughed, Jeffrey was quiet, and Paul ended up paying.
◊ ◊ ◊
We parted outside our separate doors around midnight. Jeffrey and I found a dim room waiting, the TV glowing through a dubious haze, and what was that terrible stench?
“How was dinner, Mrs. D?” Eric asked, eyes on the screen. A Nightmare on Elm Street, I guessed, though it could easily have been Friday the Thirteenth, or any of the sequels. Struggling to stay awake, the girl in the movie was watching TV. Suddenly, Freddy’s—or Jason’s—metallic arms burst out from the set and the girl started screaming.
“Dinner was fine,” I answered, and Jeffrey escaped to the bedroom.
I switched on the light. Next to a half-empty bowl of tortilla chips, dishes littered the coffee table. An overturned glass had left a peculiar stain. Wearing a T-shirt with the logo I’m the boogeyman, Eric was sprawled out on the couch, his head on Claire’s lap while she played with his shaggy blond hair.
A little cozy, I thought, considering they were just friends.
“Are you ready?” Eric asked.
“Ready, Freddy,” Claire said. “One… Two… Three…”
“Welcome to prime time, bitch!” they sang in unison.
I was about to lose my cool, but then realized it was a line from the movie.
“I can’t watch,” Claire said, closing her eyes.
“Whatever you do,” Eric said, “don’t fall asleep.”
“What is that smell?” I asked as Freddy was shoving the poor girl’s head into the screen.
Eric sat up and stretched. “We overnuked some popcorn. Sorry.”
Burnt kernels normally didn’t stink like burnt hair, but since I couldn’t prove they’d been smoking, I bit back my remark and opened a window.
Eric made a show of yawning and clambered to his feet. “Boy, am I bushed.”
“You’re leaving already?” Claire shot me an accusatory look.
“Big day tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll come by around nine.” He cocked a finger at her face. “Catch you later, babe. You too, Mrs. D.” On his way out, he brushed against my shoulder, and I smelled beer.
“Why do you always do that?” Claire demanded.
Not understanding what it was I always did, I said, “No one asked him to leave, Claire. He was just tired.” I looked at her puffy eyes. “Maybe you should go to bed. You look tired too.”
“And maybe you should stop treating me like I’m five.”
The last thing I wanted was another argument, especially when I had no idea what it was about. “What’s happening tomorrow?” I asked casually, picking up dishes.
I waited for more. She didn’t embellish.
“I’m going out for some air,” she said. “I’m just going to the patio, but do you want me to take my phone?”
She picked up the bowl of chips and slammed the front door, leaving me with the mess, the smell, and Freddy looming at me from the TV. I aimed the remote and zapped him away.
I cleaned up the living room, then braced myself for the microwave. But the inside of the oven was clean. No dead popcorn anywhere, no charred bag lying in the trash.
I could still smell burnt hair, even in the kitchen.
I retired to the bedroom. “That girl has too much attitude,” I said to Jeffrey as I undressed. “And that boy is creepy.”
He was on the floor doing sit-ups. I wondered at the wisdom of this. At fifty-four, he was in the heart attack years. Who knew how much cholesterol was in that fried shrimp dinner, and should he even be exercising after all those margaritas?
“I have a few like him in my senior class,” I went on. “I know trouble when I see it, and it scares me. You know how impressionable she is.”
“Ryan won’t last,” Jeffrey said, his breath coming short. “She’ll dump him when you stop nagging her.”
“Ryan’s another story. I’m talking about Eric. He’s strange, Jeffrey. I’m sorry they ever bought a place down here. She spends too much time with him as it is.”
“Okay, I’m convinced. We’ll sell both properties and move to Costa Rica.”
“Can you please be serious?”
“What do you want me to say? He’s a kid. All kids are strange.”
“And serial killers probably call their mothers on Sundays, but I don’t find that reassuring either.”
“He’s not a bad kid, Ellen. Just different.”
“He reeked of beer.”
“He’s twenty. He’s legal here.”
“She wasn’t drinking,” Jeffrey said, now panting. “We’d know if she was. You’re overreacting. Relax, it’s your birthday.”
“Overreacting! How can you say that! How can you even think it after what happened. We could have lost her.”
He stopped moving, his face pale, and I knew I’d gone too far. I’d crossed into the dangerous zone, an area he’d deemed taboo. “That was two years ago,” he said sharply, when he’d found his breath. “She’s older now. She knows better. Besides, what does this have to do with Eric?”
I didn’t answer. Truth was, it had everything to do with Jeffrey, but the last thing I wanted, on my birthday or any other day, was to throw it in his face.
I wasn’t one of those wives.
“She needs boundaries,” I said, trying a different tack.
“If she had any more boundaries, she’d be in jail.”
But his voice had lost that edge, and we were back on safe ground. I pulled my Got π? T-shirt over my head and sat on the bed. “We’re too easy on her,” I said. By “we” I meant “you,” but kept it to myself.
“Loosen up,” he said, and sat down next to me. “You’re on vacation.” He pulled me to him and massaged my shoulders. Then his fingers did that swirling thing, inching down my spine. “Trust me, no parent has ever died from teenage angst. I know. I’m a doctor.”
“A skin doctor,” I reminded him, though mollified. It always amazed me when that happened, that he could diffuse my ire so easily.
What can I say? Married twenty-eight years and I still found my husband sexy. He was trim and fit, his face wasn’t spongy, and even though his hair was flecked with gray, he still had most of it. Jeffrey was a good-looking man.
He eased me onto my back. He kissed my chin, my nose, my eyelids. “It’s your birthday,” he said, lowering his head. “Tonight you get the whole enchilada.”
Jeffrey’s corny euphemism could always make me laugh, and I did. But then I motioned to the wall. “Claire,” I murmured. “She’s out on the patio.” I stroked the back of his neck. “She’s going snorkeling tomorrow. How about a little morning delight?”
But he was already rolling to his side of the bed, and a moment later he was snoring. After all those margaritas and sit-ups, it was no surprise. But for me sleep wouldn’t come. I kept thinking about Claire. She was so angry, and I had no idea why.
My thoughts drifted to the accident. It was strange how fate worked. If we’d left home ten minutes earlier, we might have crashed instead. Maybe I’d misunderstood the sign. Maybe it was a warning.
About an hour after Jeffrey had dropped off to sleep, I remembered that I’d left the window open in the living room. I was sliding into my slippers when I heard him mumble, “Do it again. Do it real slow.”
Do what again? Who did he think he was talking to?
Naturally I was suspicious, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, you can’t fault someone for what he says in his sleep, and anyway, this was the man who’d dreamed he was a clamshell. Who knew what went through his head?
Leaving him to his snoring, I closed the window and checked on Claire, who was safely tucked away in her room. I went out to the patio. The moon was high, the tide was in. Sometime in the past hour it had rained, but now the air was dry and cool.
In the bowl on the patio table was a mound of soggy chips, left for me to clean up. I swallowed my irritation. Not that anyone was around to vent at.
Loosen up. You’re on vacation.
I looked onto the dark sand. In the morning, the beach would be crowded with sun-bathers and swimmers, families and students, joggers and dogs. And peddlers. There were always peddlers, trailing in the sand from hotel to motel, dragging their wares.
On our first visit to Rocky Point, I’d bought three fake-silver bracelets. On our next trip south, I bought four necklaces. Two years ago, when a peddler whisked out an accordion portfolio of his sad-faced wife and all six of their niños pequeños, I bought what I thought was an anklet but turned out to be a key chain. “That’s it,” Jeffrey announced. “No more hotels.”
But the decision to buy a condo had nothing to do with peddlers. It was just after that third trip that I’d learned about Jeffrey’s affair. He swore it was over, he was a fool, she didn’t mean a thing. He loves me, I told myself. You don’t break up a family because of one mistake. And so I forgave him. For him the condo was a symbol of our new life together; for me it was a reminder that life goes on.
He posted a notice to ward off the peddlers—Prohibido El Ambulantaje!—but they came around anyway and I bought more key chains.
At the restaurant, what I had wished for, what I wanted above all else, was that our marriage would endure. Now, back at the condo, alone with my thoughts, I found myself worrying, once again, that the price was too high.
I had no idea just how high.
I was tempted to stay outdoors and wait for the sunrise, but the chaise was wet and the air was chilly. Truth be told, I liked the peace but not the solitude. I picked up the bowl and went back inside.