Dr. Leopold’s Problem with Contentment
by Joann Kobin
Edgar stands behind his wife, Lisa, whose hands are flapping around in his sister-in-law’s yellow rubber gloves, and offers to finish the dishes for her. Kitchens make her nervous. Even this sleek, newly remodeled one, with its granite countertops. “I really don’t mind finishing up,” she says. “Just keep me company.” And she goes on to tell Edgar he has a beautiful family—a brother with a good, dry sense of humor, a sister-in-law who’s not in the least freaked out by feeding eighteen people and keeping track of everyone’s preferences and whims. “Lovely children, adorable grandchildren . . .”
“Aren’t you exaggerating a tiny bit?” he teases, and she says, “No.”
Her enthusiasm is a relief. He hadn’t been at all sure it was wise to drive down to this family gathering at his older brother’s white brick house in Westchester. Lisa, his second wife of three years, is a freelance magazine article writer accustomed to her own calm, orderly work space and solitary research. He’d convinced himself she was suffering here—from boredom, from staccato bits of disrupted conversation, from envy, from not being appreciated by his brother’s family. He’d given her a few chances to back out of this occasion, but she hadn’t taken them.
Sadly, he can feel the chill in the air toward himself and Lisa; remarkably, Lisa doesn’t seem to feel it. His family wants to make her feel welcome, but the fact is everyone loved Betty, his ex-wife; everyone misses Betty. After all, the lives of the two families had proceeded in parallel time until he’d ruined the symmetry. However, Betty’s absence, Edgar is convinced, is more vivid than her presence had ever been. A veil of sadness had always shadowed her spirits in a group, deep sighs and worried frowns. Could be, of course, that he was the only one who saw it. He’d wanted her to let go of that veil of sadness. Maybe it’s his profession—he’s a psychiatrist—that’s always promising that improvement is possible. Desirable.
When they first arrived, his sister-in-law Anita’s idea of greeting Lisa had been to give her a guided tour of all the family photographs on the walls of their den and dining room: the bearded old men with yarmulkes and the somber big-bosomed matriarchs, a world apart from Lisa’s Midwestern roots. Then there were, of course, the living as well as the dead. His brother David and Anita have three married children—that’s six names, and among them there are three babies under eighteen months and four children between eighteen months and seven years old. Benjie, Josh, Hannah, Zeke. . . . Edgar, a fond uncle, who’d been close to his two nieces and nephew, can barely keep track of the parade of grandnieces and grandnephews.
“Please let me take over,” he presses Lisa, but she just keeps on transferring dishes from sink to dishwasher.
Your brother,” she says, “adores his family, but he won’t be sorry at the end of the day to see all the young ones go home.”
“He’s gotten kind of rich, my big brother,” Edgar says, his voice etched with childishness; “pleased with himself, but modest at the same time,” he hastily adds because he knows that Lisa likes him to speak well of everybody.
“I wish Jason had come with us,” she says. “He would have had a good time.”
“He’s pissed with me,” Edgar says. “Especially now that Betty has sold the house because she’s too ‘poor’ to keep it. My fault, of course, even though I give her enough to keep it. The house—big symbol for Jason.”
Lisa shuts off the water. She disagrees. Jason isn’t angry with him. It’s simply hard for him to see all his cousins married and with kids, and he doesn’t even have a girlfriend and he’s not sure of what kind of work he wants to do. “Edgar, forget the symbolism of the house. Don’t overanalyze. Besides, Jason and I get along well.”
Edgar concedes. Lisa may be onto something: that Jason’s no longer the adored little cousin he once was here in his uncle David’s house. His cousins have moved on to their own adult lives. My God, they certainly have! He lets go of his timeworn theories and asks Lisa whether she noticed Anita’s strand of black pearls. “David told me how much they cost. Take a guess.”
Lisa declines to guess, and Edgar leaves her in peace. She’s happy to have some time out in this house of fecundity.
In the living room, with grownups and children coming and going, he sits on the couch next to his niece Mimi, the mother of two, and tries to conjure up the easy, confidential affection they used to enjoy when she was a sharp, funny little kid and he a budding child psychiatrist who carried around a deck of cards and a fabulous miniature kaleidoscope. He used to be able to get her to chuckle about all sorts of nonsense. Once he’d been able to talk her through a strange habit she was getting into of putting her pinkie up her nose and oinking, and she stopped doing it, much to her parents’ relief and his. For six or seven months he made special telephone calls to her almost once a week to see how she was doing. Now she wants him to admire her baby whom she’s nursing with so much pleasure. The only reference to their past is the fact that she lets herself lean close to him. The heat of her body reassures him, but after he admires the sweet swaddling in her arms he can’t think of what else to say. However, she says, “Uncle Edgar,” and being called that, like hearing one of his own children call out to him—“Daddy”—stirs him and he’s longing to hear the rest of Mimi’s sentence, but she stops. She’s gazing hard into her baby’s face while his little mouth is pumping away on her nipple, his mouth and cheeks like a beating heart, and the cable of connection between them as thick as cream.
“What, honey?” he asks, but she’s forgotten what she wanted to say, or she censored herself. Or she’s not really concentrating on her Uncle Edgar.
He picks up the slack, noting aloud how tastefully her mother has redecorated the living room. A regal color scheme of deep crimson and gold; chairs that’ve been reupholstered with coordinated fabrics, rich and glossy stripes; the couch in a pattern that resembles the Unicorn Tapestries. Mimi laughs. “I told mom to hold off redoing the house till her grandchildren got older, but she claimed the fabrics are stain-resistant, dirt-resistant, and—if they do get dirty—easy to clean. She actually poured a cup of hot black coffee on the cushion to prove her point, and it beaded up and rolled off without leaving a stain.” Mimi spins the baby up onto her shoulder and rubs his back in firm circular motions, then glances at her uncle Edgar with a challenging look. With a sneer—or is he imagining that? “So are you and Lisa going to have kids?”
The question strikes him as impertinent, with a dash of disdain. He’s fifty-three years old and it seems he’s forfeited his adult standing by splitting up with Betty. To be honest, his brother’s rapidly growing family makes him uneasy. The faces of new spouses and their newly hatched offspring dilute the cozy familiarity of the old family. He’s gotten peripheral.
His eyes slide away from Mimi’s firm grapefruit-size breast, exposed now that the baby has stopped nursing and which he feels he shouldn’t have looked at and admired in spite of himself, to the tall window across the room that frames a piece of watery blue sky. The glimpse of sky is like a gust of fresh air, and then a branch shivers, shaking loose the first golden leaves of autumn, all framed by the long rectangle of the window. A memory intrudes: Betty and Anita together, laughing and talking, whizzing through a pile of dirty dishes and pots, quickly restoring a kitchen that minutes before had looked like a war zone. They talked and gossiped; they laughed, then stopped laughing when he appeared. Were they laughing or were they cackling? “Talking about me, girls?” he remembered saying and now wishes he hadn’t presumed that.
Mimi raises her eyebrows, still waiting for him to answer her question. She can sense his uncertainty. “Do you want to have a baby?” She assumes he doesn’t. “Lisa doesn’t seem unhappy without kids,” she says probingly.
“She’d like to have a child very much,” he says firmly but quietly, not wanting to make a public announcement or involve anyone else in their conversation; and he sidesteps his own mixed-up desires, wanting to redirect the conversation because he feels slightly affronted by Mimi’s nervy questions and some element of judgment—and yes, disdain—but she doesn’t let up. He’s honestly not certain whether he should father a child at this point in his life, but he wants to give Lisa her heart’s desire. “So you’re willing to start all over again?” his niece persists, and suddenly aware that her breast is still uncovered, she covers it.
He’s vague in response, mainly to hide a small harsh voice that wants to say, No, not really. Would prefer not to. His vacillations puzzle him. Not because he has them—that seems perfectly normal for someone his age—but that Lisa doesn’t notice them, and that they don’t unsettle or annoy her. (Is she that unflappable?) More than that, she doesn’t seem to realize that here in his brother’s home she’s sort of a persona non grata.
This is the House of Fecundity, Edgar thinks. Maybe conception is contagious. Maybe if they stick around, they’ll catch it. They’ve been trying to get pregnant for almost two years. By wordless consent they’ve not talked much about their reasons for wanting or not wanting a baby, their decision to go ahead and try, or their lack of success in the venture thus far. Monthly disappointments, initially noted, began to pass by without comment. Talking doesn’t always clarify things, according to Lisa, but of course he still believes in it. When he was younger words seemed like frisky little musical notes: play them well and you became the Mozart of therapy. Once not too long ago, in an unusual moment of impatience, Lisa told him to shut the hell up. He probably deserved the reprimand.
Now his niece can’t let go of the subject. “Just think, you’ll be at least seventy when the kid is sixteen. At seventy is that what you’re going to want to be doing—dealing with a teenager?” She’s giving him a not-so-subtle lecture on how to live, again blurring the line between who’s the adult and who’s the child, between uncle and niece. She’s become overbearing, he thinks, and banal. What happened to the sharp, quirky slant her mind used to have? Giving birth to two kids has made her an authority on family life but narrowed her grasp of the world at large. What happened to the economics major who was going to join the Peace Corps and then go to graduate school to learn how to improve the economies of small Third World countries?
“Maybe if Gabriela gets married, you’ll have a grandchild, and maybe that’ll be just right for the two of you,” Mimi, the expert on the human heart, pronounces. Gabriela is his grown-up daughter, and his niece’s authority makes him rebellious. He prays that his hunch is right: that Lisa is at this very moment pregnant. They’d be thrilled with a little rascal of their own.
He looks away and just then Lisa appears in the doorway of the living room, which at this point is crowded with young parents and their offspring. He’s the only one who seems to notice her. Without the apron her deep green sweater and skirt cling to her slender but curvy body. She’s surveying the scene, but to Edgar she is the scene. The scene she’s apprising seems to delight her, and seen through her eyes he has to admit it looks appealing. It’s real family life, not Lisa’s and his wan facsimile of it. David, his chemist brother, is making up a goofy, nonsensical story for two of his grandchildren, one on each knee; and Jody, Mimi’s sister, is nursing her baby while she talks with Anita; and Mimi’s husband, Peter, is lying on the middle of the carpeted floor sleeping. Jody’s husband is dozing off in an armchair in the corner. Young fathers—they’ve never been so tired in their lives. Edgar’s working on a paper for the next psychiatric conference about the depressive reaction of new fathers in the first two months of their baby’s life, and his brother’s home has become a living laboratory for his hypotheses. These fellows have never had to give up anything before, never had to accommodate to another being’s iron-willed demands—those tiny emperors and empresses who rule and hold court at night as well as during the day. The three young men, Peter and Mike and his nephew, Keith, seem dazed. They’re not sure of what to do. They want to please so much: they have the diapers but not the magical grapefruit breasts. It’s a crucial time for fathers. Their male bodies, hormonally speaking, haven’t prepared them for the shock of parenthood, or at least not in a helpful way. They’re horny as hell and sleep-deprived. Edgar hopes to complete his article in the next month or two so that he can present it at the biannual conference in May. At that moment Mimi’s baby, whose name momentarily slips his mind, belts out a full-bodied baritone burp. He and Mimi laugh, and instinctively he reaches out and takes the baby from her lap and cradles him in his arms. Of course all the time he’s aware that Lisa is still standing in the doorway.
The infant, pink and sated, lavishly outfitted in a miniature red velvet vest and pants, a miniscule red plaid bow tie, opens his round eyes wide and Edgar and the baby study each other. The little guy’s had a good feed and now he’s quite taken with his great-uncle Edgar’s nostrils and lips and the eyes beaming into his. Tentacle fingers grope confidently toward Edgar’s chin, grazing his mouth and tempting him to nibble at the baby’s fingertips. Translucent fingers, eyes that see but don’t name. They’re carefully inspecting each other and they both like what they see. Tiny man, imperious little bugger, your great-uncle Edgar loves you and your bow tie. He can see this bambino thirty-five years from now sucking on a cigar in a cherrywood-paneled office, a CEO of an investment firm, wearing a three-piece suit. The baby’s body delivers tranquilizing ripples, probably better than any antidepressant, and Edgar forgets how restless and bored he’d felt moments ago in this house-turned-nursery. Moments before he longed to be in a corner talking only with his brother, David, about the upcoming election. His brother, he’s sure, is going to vote for Reagan, not Mondale, and he wants to challenge and heckle his choice. A turncoat. A traitor to their family’s longstanding loyalty to the Democratic Party. David is pleasure-loving, generous, a bearlike, affectionate man. Now, holding Isaac—the name finally comes to him—Edgar feels calm. He gets a kick out of these primordial critters. He rearranges Isaac—or is it Samuel?—against his chest, attempting to snuggle the fuzzy head under his own chin, but Isaac isn’t sleepy and wants to keep eye contact with him. They’re buddies. The baby, no passive blob, is sizing him up. Yes, according to recent research, infants are considerably more interactive than ever supposed. From across the room, Lisa, who’s been leaning against the doorjamb all this time taking in this busy, burgeoning domestic scene, waggles her fingers in a funny baby-wave at Edgar. “Hi, lovey,” he can see her mouth move. Once in a while she reminds him of an athletic coed at one of those not overly demanding Midwestern universities where the students have a lot of fun and aren’t stressed out by heavy academic workloads. She’s beautiful in a fresh, natural way. She has an inexplicably sunny disposition, a cup-half-full kind of person. Energetic. Swift, like the goddess Diana. She runs six miles a day, six days a week.
Undaunted by fussing infants and Madonna breasts and toddlers’ tushes being rediapered on Anita’s new sofa, Lisa makes her move, stepping into the room. How come she doesn’t dissolve in longing in the midst of all this proof of other people’s fertility? Maybe her pleasure comes from some knowing place inside her, Edgar thinks; perhaps from a shrimplike creature whom she hears whispering, I’m here, I’m here, don’t worry.
“Uncle Edgar, are you going to vote for Mondale–Ferraro?” Mimi asks, and he tells her yes. “Good,” she praises him. “Awful how my father’s become a Republican in his old age. Isn’t it amazing having a woman on the ticket?” and he agrees, and is relieved that his niece approves of something about him, even though he knows Reagan is going to win. It’s a strange but lovely coincidence how Geraldine Ferraro reminds him a little of Yvonne Piquette, the child psychiatrist he’d met in Paris at the International Association of Child Psychiatry conference in ’81, a brilliant, decent woman who’d survived the death of both her sons and her husband, a woman who’d come through her own life-threatening illness. Yet Yvonne was more alive than Geraldine Ferraro, smarter, more vivacious, wiser. Edgar makes clucking sounds at Isaac and kisses his warm head. When he catches a certain tenderness soften Lisa’s face, he’s even more convinced she’s guarding a secret and he knows what it is.
Slowly she makes her way across the room, patting the heads of the two toddlers on David’s knees and crouching to exchange words with Peter on the floor. Then she’s standing in front of Mimi and himself. “Hand him over,” she sings, holding out her arms. Edgar, however, doesn’t want to give up Isaac, especially with Mimi’s eyes trained on them, primed to note every minute signal between Lisa and himself—information that will be hashed over in Technicolor with her sister and mother later that night when the children and fathers have gone to sleep. The baby has nested in his lap, safe within scent of his mom. Lisa reaches for him and lifts him up with hands under each of his armpits, and it’s as if she’s ripping him out of the perfect nest of mommy and uncle. Uncle feels a tremor of anxiety in his gut where ease had just resided, and Mimi’s face registers worry. Isaac’s legs dangle and then he starts pumping them until Lisa jimmies him up on her shoulder and bounces herself and the babe across the room. Isaac swivels his head to catch sight of his mother, and within moments he’s whimpering, with Lisa bouncing and singing to distract him.
Lisa bounces Isaac out of the room and jounces him from the den where the older children are watching a video, to the kitchen and then to the dining room, which, neat and empty now, is awaiting the next meal for this family of eighteen. Edgar can track Lisa’s route by Isaac’s screams; he’s obviously inconsolable, and Edgar’s pained by her lack of success in comforting him. In fact, in a matter of seconds, little five-year-old Marisa, Jody’s kid, comes running over. “Aunt Mimi, someone’s holding Isaac and he’s screeching.” No one seems to remember Lisa’s name even though she’d sat on the floor and played a complicated board game with Marisa for more than forty minutes.
“The baby’s okay,” Mimi tells the kid, and then turns to Edgar and says, “He’s at the stage when he doesn’t like strangers.”
“He seemed to feel okay with me,” Edgar says, without thinking: absolutely the wrong thing to say, he realizes instantly.
“You must be family,” she says, and her words turn into a knife in his heart. He’s family. Betty, if she were here, would be family. However, Lisa isn’t family. He wants to leap up and rescue both Isaac and Lisa, but by this point Lisa is standing in front of them with the crying baby. Edgar, hoping that the baby doesn’t heave his just-finished dinner, takes him from Lisa as delicately as he can and quickly passes him to Mimi, who pours her familiar face and voice into him and then produces the magical breast. The screaming turns to heavy breathing, subsiding to occasional sputters and gasps. Thank goodness. He’d had a sudden fear that the baby was going to have a seizure, and he, a physician, a man with years of medical training, wouldn’t know what to do. Everyone would be depending on him but he’d forgotten what to do. It’d been a lifetime since he dealt with a real medical crisis. Can’t a baby cry without his panicking? Then it occurs to him that Lisa may not be able to be on constant demand the way Mimi is. Lisa is capable of “cutting off” once in a while, retreating, especially when she’s working on an article. A couple of times when she was writing she never even noticed him come into her study, didn’t know what he was telling her. Was a million light-years away. They may have to hire babysitters and nannies.
“He must’ve still been hungry,” Lisa says, and she’s not as deflated by Isaac’s fit as he’d imagined she’d be. In fact she asks Edgar to let her sit next to Mimi so that she can have some time with her. In the exchange of seats Lisa manages to brush her hip against his thigh; her touch stirs desire, and he wishes they could get out of this nursery and go back to their motel room with its king-sized bed.
Lisa, who sits down next to Mimi, doesn’t feel what Edgar believes to be a tiny retraction on Mimi’s part, a flinching, as though Lisa’s mere proximity might again stir up the infant’s hysteria. Well, he can’t fault Mimi. That tuned-in, intimate, breast-feeding connection is the template on which psychoanalysis bases most of its beliefs, its theories, its practice: the quality of that bond between parent and infant. Oh, let’s get real, between mother and child. Edgar, moving away, retraces Lisa’s steps across the room to the doorway in search of David, his brother, whom he finds in the hall getting the three older grandchildren into sweaters ready to go outside before the mild, sunny day fades. “The natives are restless,” David says laughingly. “C’mon, play ball with us.” It wasn’t exactly what Edgar had in mind, but he obeys.
Outside in the fenced-in backyard where his nieces and nephew’s old swingset still stands, the children—Hannah, Benjie, and Josh—he remembers their names!—explode and fizzle, roll, and run wild. David lets them. “Give them a little free play, but not too much or they’ll get wild and overexcited.” Years ago his brother had been a good camp counselor, then a good father. Knew when to organize and lead, and when to hang back. Had good instincts. In all matters. Didn’t sell his big comfortable house, kept the old painted wood swingset, put in a few more trees at the perimeter of his property, bought IBM stock right before personal computers became a necessity, bought Lilly, bought Merck, bought GE. Loved his first and only wife. Got himself a good position in a profession that wasn’t being decimated and overhauled by flaky quick-fix artists and doubting Thomases, new pharmaceutical therapies, and heavy liability insurance premiums. He sizes up his stocky, handsome brother in his slightly too-tight cashmere cardigan. And besides, he’s a good grandfather too. David sees him and throws him the ball he’s been holding. Back and forth they toss the ball while the children trample through Anita’s chrysanthemums. He’s playing catch with his big brother. However, what he really wants to do is throw his arms around him and hold onto him, and be hugged and appreciated. Wants to talk politics with him, philosophical issues, questions about what makes a man’s life truly valuable. Questions about personal courage and the limits of individual happiness. How he imagines their own parents would have answered those questions. Their father talked about “contentment,” not happiness. “Why not happiness?” Edgar remembers once challenging his father, who’d shrugged and gazed off into space. “Happiness is ephemeral,” his father had finally said. “Hang your hat on something more solid.” His answer had riled Edgar. Contentment was an old-man concept with a dead ring to it. No fizz. Now Edgar catches David’s wild throw and this time hangs onto the ball, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Hannah, the eldest of the three children, is efficiently organizing the other two into making a pile of leaves, and Edgar moves toward his brother, eager for conversation and confidences, but by the time he’s at his side David has pulled a tiny camera, no bigger than a deck of cards, out of his pocket and is taking shots of the kids. “Zeke, look at Grandpa,” he calls out to the youngest who raises his head, then goes back to kicking up leaves.
A wave of confusion washes over Edgar but dissipates quickly as he thinks of Lisa and her secret. She’ll make a calm mother, not given to panic or hysteria. Staring at the ground, he finds a maple leaf splotched in yellow and red and brings it over to show Hannah who’s not at all impressed. Then Edgar lets himself tumble from a crouching position onto his back on the ground in their midst, and Zeke sprinkles his giant-sized body with leaves and dried old grass, and Edgar grabs hold of Benjie’s ankle and makes him trip and fall against him, and pretty soon the other kids are rolling around on the ground too, and there’s a heap of small, pliable warm bodies clustering around him. He inhales their sweetness, their freshness, as he stretches, letting his body go slack. He surrenders to the puppy dogs, and David snaps a picture. Flat on his back, not unlike Peter, the young father inside grabbing some shut-eye on the living room floor. In a few years, Edgar thinks, he’ll bring Lisa and their kids to this yard, the scene, so many years ago, of picnic lunches and barbecues—the cousins—teenagers then—milling about in their T-shirts with raunchy sayings, sitting on top of the picnic table drinking beer even though they were underage; Jason—a little younger than the rest, acting like a wise guy, always scrambling to be part of the group. He lies there for a few moments, happy to be the old sleepy Newfoundland dog, a sort of giant plaything for the puppies, who bump him, sprinkle his hair with dried grass, climb over his legs. Closing his eyes, he comes close to giving in, not moving. After a while the ground’s dampness gets to him—the old grass and earth smell like tobacco, the air is cooling off—and with a little more effort and less grace than he remembers, he stands up. For a second, time and space whirl him around, a jumbled moment of dizziness, but he brushes himself off and tells David, who’s still snapping pictures, that he’s going inside. He needs to collect Lisa and leave before another meal is served by Anita, who he knows has a refrigerator full of salads and casseroles ready for supper. He absolutely couldn’t go through another meal and clean-up, and he’s sure Lisa’s had enough of his family by now.
He finds Lisa on the same loveseat he’d been sitting on with Mimi. Except now Mimi isn’t there. Lisa is alone, and his nieces and nephew and their partners have scattered to other rooms, or to the bathrooms where the toddlers are getting their baths. He can hear Anita moving around the kitchen, the refrigerator door opening and closing. He can picture the dependable spinach lasagna coming out of the refrigerator. The house has turned quiet and dim, that time on a lovely fall day when you’re reluctant to turn on the lights and acknowledge that daylight is fading so early, that autumn is here. For the first time he can see that Lisa looks downcast, and she’s relieved when he suggests that they say their goodbyes before the next meal is set out. “I’m not even hungry yet,” she whispers, and he senses belligerence in the abruptness of her movements as she gathers up her pocketbook and leather jacket. Edgar’s motions, as he helps her with her jacket, are consoling, almost as though he were stroking her with her own jacket, draping her with love. She deserves to be appreciated, to be treated only with affection and admiration. She’s been so open-hearted to his family, the Leopolds, who now don’t really seem sorry to see them leave. He prays that Mimi wasn’t patronizing to her. “Why the rush?” Anita says. “C’mon guys, stay for supper. Everything is ready.” Their goodbyes happen fast.
The Country Squire Motel, recommended by Anita, a cut above the chain motels in the area, is about five miles outside a neighboring town, one of those Westchester towns with woods and low stone walls and glimpses of estates at the end of treelined roads.
“Your family doesn’t like me,” Lisa says, breaking a long silence. “Mimi wasn’t very pleasant.”
Edgar is ready to take up arms. He wants to know exactly what Mimi said to her.
“She pumped me for personal information. We hardly know each other.” Edgar, almost positive he can guess what his niece’s questions were about, waits for Lisa to go on. In the moment of silence he feels a flicker of hopefulness that maybe she has good news to tell him news that she wasn’t ready to share with anybody else quite yet. It’s best not to press Lisa to talk. She isn’t one of his patients. She’ll talk when she feels like it.
Lisa remains silent.
They’re driving through a fancy part of Westchester. Old estates. Lisa is trying to glimpse the large old homes tucked behind trees and hedges. “It’s not that they don’t like you,” he finally says, “it’s that they don’t approve of me. I’m the problem—the mixed-up kid brother. The one who didn’t want to join the boy scouts. Who got out of being drafted. Who never joined a synagogue.” He hopes he doesn’t have to launch into the real reasons why his brother and sister-in-law disapprove of him, and is grateful that Lisa doesn’t push him to go on.
They arrive at the motel. Lisa doesn’t make a move. There are cars parked on either side of their allotted spot, a squeezed-in feeling, and it’s dark. “She asked me if we were going to have a baby.”
Again, Edgar waits. He waits. A minute passes. He waits until he can’t wait any longer. “And you said?” His heart is pounding. He lets himself think about the drink he’d like right this minute. Vodka and tonic. More vodka than tonic. Their motel room has one of those mini-bars. Sometimes they’re even stocked with a split of champagne. An inexpensive champagne, but no matter; any champagne is celebratory. “What’d you tell Mimi?” he asks, this time in a hopeful whisper.
“I told her the truth.”
“I told her ‘No.’?”
“I told her it was too late. The right time came and went.”
“You told her No? And is it No?” Edgar’s embarrassment about telling Mimi exactly the opposite verdict that Lisa told her fades to disappointment, then changes form and turns into confusion, then back into embarrassment. What must Mimi be thinking? What kind of marriage must Lisa and he have that they don’t know what the other really wants? He said yes, she said no. “You told her No?” he repeats.
Lisa opens the car door and gets out. She wants to finish the conversation inside their room and have a drink. Scotch on the rocks—her drink of choice. Where’s the ice machine? He finds a stylish chrome ice bucket on the dresser top and heads back outside, locates the ice machine and scoops out enough ice for an entire cocktail party. All the while he holds the question in his mind, something he’s good at; and it stays there like a double-parked car—you can leave it for a while but not for too long. Lisa’s answer has him confused. “You told Mimi No?” and Lisa, who mixes his vodka and tonic, says yes, she told Mimi no. Her tone is crisp. The confusion written all over his face doesn’t intrigue her, his or anyone’s; she likes clarity, straightforwardness. Her no makes Edgar feel a sharp pang of regret that doesn’t clear out as quickly as he’d like. And what is regret, he thinks, but pain moderated by nostalgia? He’s got a sloppy case of nostalgia—he can’t believe it but it’s true: he—the big, old Newfoundland, with the puppies climbing over him, pawing him. “You’re sure, sweetheart?” he whispers.
“I want to close the door on it,” she says softly. “Once and for all. Our life together, as it is now, seems very good to me.” Her gaze is tender, delicate, even shy. “We have so much. I’m content. Really. Nobody gets every single thing they want.”
He thinks that over as he takes in Lisa’s words, observes her expression. Nobody gets everything they want. Her features relax; the tension around her mouth is gone, her lips full again—not pinched. He, on the other hand, feels edgy. He’s reminded of the teenaged boy he’d seen in his office the other day, a kid with a longstanding complaint. A kid who’d remembered when his mother had gotten his best friend a birthday gift, the very toy that he—her own son—had begged for but didn’t get. At the time his patient, who was nine or ten, didn’t dare complain; it wasn’t his birthday and the friend, after all, was his best friend. It bothers him, how his mother could’ve done that. Why? As the kid, who was now fifteen, explored that memory, Edgar was aware of feeling jittery, almost breathless. That same jitteriness he feels now. He might have told that fifteen-year-old boy, Nobody gets everything they want exactly when they want it, but he hadn’t thought of that. And anyway, he isn’t sure he would ever say that to anyone.
They sipped their drinks, sitting side by side at the foot of the king-sized bed, with its soft, puffy comforter. It was a handsome upscale room, the TV hidden in a cabinet made of some kind of fruit wood. Lisa had put on one lamp near the bed, having shut off the overhead light he’d put on as they entered the room. After a few minutes she takes the glass from his hand and along with hers puts them both on the dresser, and begins to pull off her sweater and step out of her skirt. A delicate gold chain with a shiny silver pendant dangles between her breasts and seems to wink at him. Her moves are sultry, slow; her eyes smile—sexy. A small signal from him will bring her body close to his, her hands touching and smoothing him; her lips, her mouth, her tongue, anywhere he’d like. But he can’t make himself send that tiny signal. His body hasn’t arrived at the Country Squire Motel. It only looks like he’s here. He’s still caught in the space between Yes and No—her No, his Yes; her Yes, his No—almost certain that his niece, Mimi, is measuring that contradiction at this very moment, at Anita’s heavily laden table, with the old family in their usual places.