from Virtues of a Sport
“We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don’t like?”
~ Jean Cocteau
Not that I thought life was bad. Sometimes one feels of life that the winds that buffet us, the blizzards that blind us, the cold that stings our fingers too stiff even to hold a hand anymore, sometimes one feels they serve to remind us that a fiery hearth awaits to thaw us once again into the malleably amorous and woozily glamorous smiles-with-limbs we remember ourselves once to have been.
One of those times, this time was not. When we arrived at the Riddell home, motor tocking, we blinked at Spruce Street packed with unprecedented amounts of Range Rovers, and Land Rovers, while any middle-class vehicles had been obviously red-rovered to the other side of town; it seemed this parking arrangement had been required so as not to stale the view of the Riddell house for the guests of its party. The house, a Western Victorian number shrugged up in its coat of gables and eaves, snow flocking it prettier than a Christmas tree, blushed its window-light out at the street. It was the kind of house you see in Mork & Mindy’s opening credits, because it would take an alien to convince you anything interesting went on in there (and one of the neighbor’s houses was the Mork & Mindy house, a fact that drew tourists creeping by at all hours snapping photos only occasionally of the correct house and issuing their best nasal nanu-nanus). Riddell, my ex-wife’s new husband and the owner of this house, I didn’t know well or care to. We’d only spoken once, when he called me (at this time in my studio on Santa Fe), to say he’d spoken to my wife at home and begged her to beg me not to turn down the Colorado Arts Council award. Of course, the embedded information of this message (that he’d gone “over my head” by “callin up the missus”, which he actually said, weighed the receiver down onto the hook so hard I spilled a bottle of wine off the end-table onto a bust commissioned by a rich man for his father. The bust, doused in Merlot, resembled McDonald’s Grimace. Why did I think I’d turned the CAC’s award down? I wasn’t sure. Until recently I had thought it was the following: There comes a time in every man’s education when he suspects every statement that begins “There comes a time”, but also when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide, and that he’s been doing both for a living.
“I’d better call her,” Reggie said, and began dialing into his cell. By now, either because Reggie was in hiding, or because he was with me, maybe even it was the presence of the wounded and wanted vigilante, Reggie felt it might be best to call big sis and ask in advance how she felt about company. Reggie tried twice before he got her on the line and while her voice remained calm—she had a nurse’s calm in the face of calamity—it was clear she was telling Reggie this wasn’t the best time.
Reggie started with a, “I know. It’s just, Cole—” and didn’t get further. “What? Yeah. He’s here.”
And after a few more beats he’d hung up, looked at me with the sad frown on his face of a friend bringing an addict to his dealer, or a coach bringing a team to a slaughter, trying to feign faith with a squint as if into me but at me instead. “It’s not too late to drop him off over at the ER on Broadway. It’s right down the street.”
The vigilante Craig, now, was indeed unconscious. His matted mane leaned in Sara’s lap. Her horrified expression was like that of a temp discovering first day on the job that the job was to tame lions.
“While I’m giving up hideaways…” I let hang.
“Motherfucking point taken.” Reggie zipped up his jacket. “She said meet her off the back entrance to the kitchen. They’re entertaining up front.”
I got out and pulled my seatback forward to the wheel.
“Isn’t this the house from Mork and Mindy?” Sara had her head craned out the opposite window. Her lean revealed a tattoo on her lower back, not of a star, or a butterfly, or a flower, but a Sigmund Freud quote: “How bold one is when one is sure of being loved.”
“They’re all the house from Mork and Mindy,” I grunted, with my arms under Craig’s, and my face in his rank hair. “Come on, Reggie. It’s time to walk the vigilante.”
“It’s hard to detect good luck—it looks so much like something you’ve earned.”
~Frank A Clark
Eliza answered the door, and then offered a cursory hug to her brother who she had to let through the doorway to see what I held behind him.
“Who’s that?” she asked, knuckles to her nose from Craig’s funk—sweat, pine, and bloody tree sap—now invading the entryway. The damp snow-boots on the welcome mat waved a nearly scentless white flag in surrender. “He looks like he’s a writer or a drunk, and you know I hate both.”
This was true. Out of a concrete deduction from her experience in Denver’s downtown ER, yes. But she also hated drunks out of some abstract projection of hate on her father’s wealth thanks to a brewing dynasty, a fortune that she learned from me to blame for her father’s abduction and murder. Drunks earned most of Eliza’s detestation and, knowing this, since our divorce I’d taken up drinking just to spite her. To deaden pain, sure, and to punish myself for not catching on sooner & for not working harder to forgive her, possibly. But mostly to spite her. These are but few of the only myriad reasons life provides us with to drink, once we get past the one reason not to; a ship in a bottle isn’t weathering storms, it’s just pretending.
“I’ll explain later,” I said. “Where?”
“The office.” She pointed a limp manicured hand to a room off the kitchen we stood in. Then she frowned and opened her mouth wide a moment before speaking. “Wait a minute, is he shot?” At this last rise in her voice, she covered her mouth and we all listened to the party until rolling laughter clued us into our fragile incognito. When Eliza caught view and skittle-wind of the panicked breath emanating from Sara, who stood luminous beneath the porch-lamp as a snow-lynx in a hunter’s sight, Eliza said, “That yours, Cole?” She tapped a lip with a fingernail. Her nails were green and her mood was too, but her face was not. She smirked, too tough for that.
My cheeks burned from the heat in the house, from the embarrassment on Sara’s behalf, and from the shame I had no one at all.
They burned more when Sara said, “Maybe I am and I’m proud of it.”
I smiled at her, and we shared a long gaze of my brown eyes into her blue. But eventually my dignity wiped its stage-makeup off. “She’s too special to inflict myself on.”
“And I wasn’t?” came Eliza’s expected response, though it was half-hearted and accompanied by a guiding hand on the small of my back. And into the study Reggie and I dragged Craig, after which Reggie went to hide somewhere and Eliza left to fetch her nursing bag. For a few moments, it was Sara, me, and Vigilante Craig snoring a rattle against the window, which meant it was just Sara and me. With his head against the window, Craig was obviously a man comfortable with cold—I admired him because I inexplicably equated that to all kinds of cold, even the human kind. I decided then it was a fair test of character which one we’d rather have bring us to death.
“That was sweet, that lie you tried,” I told Sara, and snooped around the desk. For what, I didn’t know. The non-existent kind of proof ex-es snoop for, which falls into the following categories, and usually in numerical order.
Proof Ex-es Need In Order To Recover from Heartbreak at the Hands of an Unfaithful Lover:
- The face-saving 1: Proof that we’re better off.
- Followed by the achingly sweet nostalgia of 2: Proof that it could have been different.
- Then the blazingly honest hope of 3: Proof that it’ll be better with the next person for us, but exponentially worse with every next person for them until they die alone listening to an IV drip, certain that the sound is a symbol of the tears they’ve cried all their life grieving their mistake.
- And finally the resentful but honest truth of 4: Proof that you really do want the best for them even after all they’ve put you through, because you can’t bring yourself to do it. You can’t sneak through the cold snow, creep up behind the night-watchman of your integrity and faith in humanity, garrote him while you watch blood coughed into the slush in the gutter.
As if all these possibilities could have fit into a scribble on a sticky note flagging a paperweight, the total of a tax-return, or a receipt for a dinner for two at a New-Mexican Restaurant… (wait a minute)…like the one I observed just then, torn in half on top of a pile of paper in the short blue recycling bin beside the desk.
“You still think she’s pretty?” Sara asked in a tone of voice usually reserved for someone holding up a Rorschach test and spidering their hand under the desk to press the red button that calls in the buff nurse with the hypo and a kung-fu grip.
And Sara was right to question my judgment in that regard. Eliza’s strengths were never in her physical appearance. As a sculptor, a perfect physical specimen was a bit hackneyed in my eyes. Anytime I worked for someone with a taste for the classics, I made a career of copping feelskies on spritely lasses, tautest bellies, marble asses and balloonish breasts. But: as with music, so with women. The classics got boring. I was more of a soul man, than anything. And what Eliza didn’t have by way of a paunchy, almost centaurian, resoluteness to her stance, she had in a mind and eyes so quick she could diagnose an aneurysm in a flea. When she returned from service in Iraq, she told her brother that she wanted me with as much certainty as Uncle Sam wants us all, and her resistance to my gushy romanticism provided me exactly what I didn’t know I always wanted—the stimulus to try and try without the possibility of ever succeeding (meaning: achieving a fortune of—perhaps the greatest fortune known, at that—love).
Only, there was something strange about this particular receipt for a dinner for two at a New-Mexican Restaurant, and it rang in my head like a bell cued by the opening door. I stood up from the recycling bin just in time to pocket the receipt and turn to find Eliza and Sara in a dagger-juggling act with their eyes. Thankfully, if regretfully, their rivalry had kept Eliza from seeing me snoop. Eliza began handing things to Sara and rattling off instructions.
“Put these gloves on,” she’d say. Then, “No, not like that. Well now that you’ve touched them you’re protected but what about his wound? Ever heard of infection?” The more instructions Eliza gave the more mistakes Sara made, which I began to realize was the point. Eliza could have asked me for the help, but belittling me was no new thrill. And besides, Eliza figured a little wrenching was in order just in case Sara saw it in her heart’s valve to make steam with me. I knew exactly what Eliza was doing because I’d seen it all so many times before. Eliza dug her teeth into the throat of social situations with the saddening, and erotic, violence of a cheetah tumbling a gazelle into the dust. Thankfully, she soon left to get the peroxide she forgot and to make sure there were still plenty of mini-quiches and bacon-wrapped dates or whatever, for the party. She left the door open behind her, and both Sara and I exhaled simultaneously.
Sara wheeled on me with her head thrust forward and her shoulders slouched down so that the veins in her neck bulged rope-like. “How did you ever love her? Are you a sado-masochist? I’m asking seriously. I know a brilliant psych-major interning…” And so on.
And now we came to it; this was ultimately why I blamed myself for Eliza cheating on me. Well, not her cheating; that was her prerogative—she was likely cheating on Riddell already, judging by the smudged printing on the receipt I’d pilfered. I Sherlocked this clue because Eliza had informed me once over the phone, when I called weeping over that first Thanksgiving, that the menu had been altered for Riddell’s IBS. In other words, looking at that receipt in my hand, I knew Riddell would never have ordered either the costillas or the green chili burrito, both ranked 10 on the hotness scale at Efrain’s New Mexican. Eliza was a cheater. Fine. Not an evil person. So, I felt I deserved her. Because I felt I was wrong too. I let it happen to me for so long that when I found out, out of shame not anger I left pronto. I’d explained most of this to Sara when I said, “That’s why I didn’t have time to ask for the ring back.”
“What?” she barked. “You didn’t get back the ring?”
Sara’s line of questioning—re: wedding, rings, suspicion, true-love—was quite common in the un-married youths I’d encountered. After all, they were on their pilgrimage to their own holy grail and I was a blind, old (I was 31 to their 20) tinker they hoped might shed some wisdom as to how to avoid losing the path, as my gnarled heart proved I had. In the religion of love I’d become an agnostic, and didn’t mind indulging crusaders rambling about, trying to prove something to themselves, so long as I was not made to feel a deserter (though I was, re: Tenille).
All I had to say about the ring was all I’d ever had to say about jewelry: “Meh.”
“You have to get it back!” Her voice parakeeted through the room. “Cole? You have to. I mean, how are you ever going to make it work with anyone else with a piece of yourself trapped in her jewelry box.”
“I can’t say I think of it that way. It’s not myself. There’s no trap. She’s not Medusa or a minotaur or anything like that. Though, she does have those thighs…”
“It’s not that you owe it to yourself,” Sara said, and she crossed her arms in a way that increased her cleavage so I was inclined to agree with whatever came along for the buoyant ride. “You owe it to your future wife.”
Which was where she lost me. She said the word wife almost with tears in her eyes, as if “wife” were a title like Queen or Empress, and marriage to a groom an elaborate process of selecting the prestigious title of First Unic. Another reason for Eliza’s infidelity: she’d wanted to be married but it hadn’t been so important to whom. It’s not only women who do this, just like it’s not only men who want to have sex and don’t care who’s making the heat so long as it’s hot. This was just my situation, and I was trying to explain it to Sara, who said she was going to be sick to think she’d die to be married and Eliza treated me like that and I didn’t demand back the ring. (It’s amazing what a broken heart will do to endear us to others.) Sara gave me a hug I couldn’t return because my arms were included, which was probably a good thing. I wouldn’t have wanted to start something with her but an unfamiliar investor in our discussions had just made known his excitement over certain prospects in monkey business. That was a good sign. And one to save for Tenille. Indiscretions are events; erections just potential. After pushing Sara away and turning to hide my crotch I saw there was nothing to hide. Investor scared off, thankfully, by my scruples. Though, my heart did tell me it would be good for Sara to strike up some kind of an affair with someone to convince her that she was not in love with Rourke. And that Rourke was not in love with her. I just wasn’t the one to do it.
“Besides,” I told Sara, “I doubt she even has the ring anymore. She inherited Mrs. Gatlins’ tastes, and Mrs. Gatlins’ collection, and she’d have no need for a cheap ring like the only one I could afford.”
“What’s that you were saying?” Eliza asked, entering, this time focused on me, having forgotten her assistant Sara like a lack-luster Candy-Striper.
“I’m going to the little girls room,” Sara said.
“Sounds about right,” Eliza said. “But no.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, no. They’ll see you.”
But Sara had a good point, as she usually did and as her beauty usually distracted from: “I’m nobody here. What’s there for anyone to think?” And off she went, closing the door behind her.
So there I was, alone with Eliza for the first time since—
Vigilante Craig choked on some drool, coughed, and went back to snoring.
I tapped the nearest thing to me sitting on the desk. “Three hole punch, eh? Electric, no less.” I saw her, through my rapid-fire blinking, tilt her head and scrunch her nose. “I’m happy for you, Ellie. Really I am.”