Excerpt from The Withdrawal
A novel by Douglas Wood
Published in slightly different form in Narrative Magazine as “Arrangements”
Clay steps inside his closet in search of a shirt that isn’t repulsive and discovers he’s left his body, a sensation neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but bewildering, definitely. Those hands, recognizably his, the fingers thin as paintbrushes continue slinging hangers along the rail, but he observes the action from a close vantage, like the difference between the left and right eyes—that far away—an adjacent but distinct point of view. Dizzying, to watch yourself operate like normal, to function like there’s someone in control.
The blue linen? The charcoal one with the trim? The checked one he got in Brooklyn? All are dispatched, their empty arms flap, the patterns blur. He sends them flying as if combining them with a tan jacket would prove lethal. God, I wish I were dead, he thinks, comforted. He most definitely does not want to kill himself, not right then, not in a serious way, but the pinch of this sharp, black thought braces him, spurs him to collect himself.
It’s not so crazy. When you love someone you wear nice things for them, right? He can’t disappoint Mark. Mark deserves better. And doesn’t Aedon deserve a father who can pick out a freaking shirt without turning it into Sophie’s Choice? The paisley Robert Graham? The Paul Smith with tiny dots? The ecru Calvin Klein? Ich kann nicht wählen. His brutal, automatic hands condemn each: Too fussy. Too dressy. Too boring.
His husband leans chest-first through the doorway, like he’s doing a standing push-up, a sweet, infuriating grin buried in silver-flecked whiskers. “Five-fifteen. Shannon will be here any minute.” Spoken as if he were helping. He is not helping.
Mark is handsome enough to wear jeans and whatever T-shirt is on top of the pile, and usually does. But for their anniversary he’s put on the only decent suit that fits—a sleek, navy John Varvatos—the suit Clay got him last birthday, which hides his little tummy and makes him seem taller. Clay is a painter. He knows color. He’s the one who picks out clothes in the relationship—that’s his job. Or was. God, I wish I were dead.
Clay makes his face smile, like people do. “I only have to throw on a shirt, then we can go.”
“Oh. You’re wearing the brown jacket?”
“It’s tan. Yeah.”
Mark’s face brightens with helpfulness. He examines shirts from the opposite end of the closet, dangles a few in front of himself and offers options. Many options. He may never shut up. Some of the most humiliating times of this most humiliating year were when Mark selected Clay’s clothes and dressed him as if he were a tantrum-prone ninety-two-year-old.
His new psychiatrist had changed Clay’s diagnosis from rapid cycling bipolar (which sounds fun but isn’t) to major depression and generalized anxiety disorder comorbid with depersonalization (which does not sound fun and isn’t). Still this was welcome news. At last he would be off lithium, which had crushed his libido. But weaning off unexpectedly resulted in a psychotic episode, a trip to the ER, and very nearly involuntary commitment. That was a year ago. He’s finally off lithium but after some stops and starts, he’s still waiting for the new regimen to kick in. Until the dosages equalize he’s stuck with all the side effects and none of the benefit.
Two whites, a neon orange, a pink and cream, and a tiny blue, plus two sherbet-colored tablets, as needed. He refuses to learn their Latin names until it’s clear they’re sticking around. He hardly cares if they work any more so long as the tinkering stops. As Dr. Khalil told him, it’s as much art as science. Clay’s an artist. Maybe he should have gone into psychiatry.
Throughout, Mark was the clamp that kept Clay’s fragile skull from exploding. If Mark resented it, he was kind enough to keep it mostly to himself, the words millstone and albatross occasionally implied but never passed his lips. And so the least, the very least, Clay can do is go to dinner and pretend he has some fucking joy left inside.
As he’s sorting, a sudden, slight tremor begins in his hands. A ten-finger rebellion. Ashamed, he clasps them behind his back.
Mark’s eyes are dark, raven sharp, and aimed at him. “You okay?”
“Fine.” Clay finds a smile as wide as it is false. “Better than fine. Great!”
“Come here.” Mark is not fooled, not this time. “You wanna cancel?”
Clay buries his face in Mark’s thick neck, tries not to feel irreparably damaged. His husband smells very, very good. His cropped hair, more pepper than salt, is damp from the shower. Clay wants nothing more than to stay like this, smelling that clean smell all evening. But that’s not an option. It’s their anniversary. Reservations have been made. There is a babysitter.
“Give me ten minutes,” Clay says and like it’s no big deal he grabs the green-checked shirt from Brooklyn and sends Mark on his burly way. The color is off but it might not be lethal. A tie? No. Life is too short to choose a tie.
Last night after tucking Aedon in Mark came to their bedroom, slid beneath the covers, and he and Clay kissed and whispered and joked for half an hour before they fell asleep in a tangle. They did not make love, Mark needs transition time to feel romantic, but Clay was fine with that. Clay thought the drugs had killed his libido for good. The hope that this part of their life might reawaken is sufficient for now. Clay can go a long way on a few grains of hope.
The doorbell must have rung because Aedon goes tearing out of her room and down the long hall, punishing the stair treads with her stocking feet, shouting, “They’re here! They’re here!” like a preteen Paul Revere. Clay tenses, girds for a crash—a painting knocked to the floor, one of the big vases in their nooks shattering on the stairway, but there is none. The only sound is his daughter’s overexcited yelping mixed with those of her pals at the front door, who will be spending the night. Three sets of feet pound through the house, out toward the pool and who knows what hijinks.
A welcome, disembodied voice echoes up the stairway. “Clay? Mark? Are you boys decent?” Shannon’s here.
After a perfunctory knock she enters the bedroom straightaway, catching Clay with his pants at half-staff, around his skinny thighs. Though he possesses a hundred varieties of shame, prudery is not one and Shannon has done everything but bathe him. He tucks and arranges himself in no particular hurry and then gives the bones of his hips a playful shimmy before zipping up.
“Hey, handsome. Woo-hoo!” She throws her head back and laughs her infectious, barking laugh. A foot shorter than him, she must reach up to give him one of her pillowy, fortifying hugs. The exact bolstering he needs.
“Perfect. And this jacket! I see you ordered the Boglioli after all. Very fancy.” She brushes her knuckles on his lapel. “How you doing, sweetie?”
Clay’s usual method of avoiding the question of his mental health—short bursts of false, positive energy—is made difficult. With Shannon there’s no way to sugarcoat. Luckily there’s no need to. “I am putting on a brave face for Mark. But hey, my brave face is functioning again. Baby steps.” He grins, big and goofy.
“You’re going to have a beautiful night. Where’s he taking you?”
“Borboleta in Beverly Hills. It’s supposed to be nice.”
“You don’t sound thrilled.” She kicks off her heels and plops down into the leather club chair by the window.
“Portuguese isn’t my favorite food. But when Mark makes a plan, I obey. Path of least resistance.”
From behind, Mark says, “You like Portuguese. Remember?” He’s in the doorway with half a smile frozen strangely on his face—from resentment? disappointment? embarrassment? It makes Clay want to sleep for a hundred years.
Shannon is there to deflate the awkwardness. “Damn, you both look good. I don’t know which one to lust after.”
“Flatterer,” Mark says.
“Hold on. It’s nothing much, but I wanted to . . .” She digs in her jangling purse and withdraws two small boxes that look to Clay like parakeet coffins. “This one’s for Clay. Wait. No, this one’s for Clay. This one’s for Mark. Happy anniversary to my two gorgeous guys.”
“Shut up! These are fantastic, Shannon.” Clay slips on the Prada sunglasses—shield style, tortoise-shell brown—and he strikes a pose in the mirror. “How can I hate myself and still be so vain? Come on. Do I look impossibly handsome?”
“Possibly,” Mark says in a perfect, snarky Paul Lynde voice. He even has the laugh down. Mark tries on his glasses and kisses both Shannon’s cheeks, European-style. “That’s so thoughtful of you.” His sunglasses are Gucci: gunmetal, square, and make him look like a gay James Bond. Judging by his body language, they are one step more fashion-forward than he feels comfortable wearing, which makes these glasses a perfect gift in Clay’s estimation. Educational, practically.
“You’ll be happy to know, Mark, I got them for free at the Grammy’s gifting suite. They had such great stuff this year. And Clay, you’ll be happy to know that I saw Adam Levine grab the same pair you have. He was . . .”
She continues her Grammy gossip, which stars were and weren’t there, while Clay stares at the mirror and pretends to preen. But there’s something wrong.
The sunglasses are perfect. It’s not the glasses, it’s him. The elevator in his gut plummets. The reflection is off. He doesn’t look like this. He re-tousles his sandy hair. Where is his jawline? Who is this old man? It’s like a wax bust of his thirty-year-old self has softened in a hot car. God, I wish I were dead.
Convincingly cheerful, he says, “Back in one minute, I promise.” He pops back into his closet. The Calvin Klein striped tie? The skinny wool one? Knowing that his fixation is stupid doesn’t make it easier to choose.
With an annoyed sigh, Mark settles into the club chair across from Shannon. “I have to dress up tonight. But you look suspiciously nice for an evening of babysitting. Hot date after?”
“With Adam Levine!” She chuckles, a mom happy to be flirted with. Clay glances out and Mark is right. Her thinnish, strawberry hair is down in large, loose waves instead of her customary, forlorn suburban ponytail. What’s more, she’s got on her good jacket with the embroidery over a tasteful but cleavage-baring dress. An ensemble designed to play up her assets, yet cover her carb-related sins. “I had to look respectable. I spent the afternoon house hunting—yet again.”
“So soon? You just moved a month ago.”
“Two months ago. But three a.m. Monday morning, Stella and Cooper come screaming into my room: ‘Mommy! Mommy! There’s helicopters outside!’ I look out and there are three helicopters, and searchlights, and cops walking through our yard with their weapons drawn. You know the house two doors down with the cypress trees? There was a freaking drug bust. The kids have been sleeping in my bed ever since.”
“In Los Feliz? No way!” Clay says from the closet but what he’s thinking is: The silk one with brown stripes? Navy Donna Karan? Almost, but not quite.
Mark says, “But you don’t have to move. It’s a good street in a good neighborhood. Don’t overreact.”
“My kids always come first. If I have to break the lease, screw it. I can’t risk Derek re-opening custody because they’re not in a safe neighborhood.” Even leaning forward, her plump toes barely reach the carpet.
“It could happen anywhere,” Mark says. “If you leave, you’re going to lose your deposit. You know that, don’t you?”
Clay emerges, ties in hand. “She’ll lose a security deposit, Mark, not a lung. If she doesn’t feel safe, she doesn’t feel safe.” Clay holds out five ties for review, Shannon’s review, not Mark’s. Without hesitation she picks the navy blue Donna Karan from off his shoulder. Just like that. He used to do that for people. Clay says, “I saw a house for rent in Silver Lake, up the hill from the Berglass’s. You should check it out. It must have great views.”
“The Spanish place? We saw it together last time I was looking, don’t you remember?” She gives a puzzled little wrinkle of her nose and continues. “Well, funny you should mention it. I went to see it again today just to torture myself. It was way more than I wanted to spend but the building manager really liked me. He said it’s been on the market so long, the owner is reducing the rent next week. It’ll be only seven hundred more than I pay now. And the pool is better, and it has hardwood floors, and—”
“So get it! Get it!” Clay says.
“Hush, you,” Mark says. “What’s the problem?”
“The same problem I always have since the divorce. Asshole Derek trashed our credit. My score now is approximately zero, so they want the first two months’ rent, plus the final month. According to the manager, the owner won’t budge on that. Once the new price is listed, it’ll get snapped up. Oh, well. First day in the hunt.”
Mark and Clay are ready to say their goodbyes but first they need to find their daughter. Cooper’s in the bathroom, Stella’s in the garden and neither has seen Aedon. The adults call her name for several minutes and, just before panic sets in, Shannon finds her, a skinny needle under a haystack of three purple comforters and six purple pillows on her unmade bed.
Mark sits. Like an angry ragdoll, Aedon flops over onto his lap and only then begins to sob. He pulls a few strands of shiny black hair from the corner of her mouth and says, “What’s the matter, Lady Aedy?”
“I hate Stella!”
“Now, Stella’s your best pal.” Clay pats between her pointy shoulder blades. She shakes him off and clings tighter to Mark who is the A-dad, the one a girl can depend on. Clay is permanent B-dad and who can blame her?
Shannon says, “What did she do?”
At ten she has become a master of the shuddery, dramatic breath. “In the garden . . . I put the shovel down for one second and Stella grabbed it . . . I told her . . . give it back and she threw the shovel at me—”
“That’s not what happened!” From the hallway Stella rushes in, her round face livid. “First of all, it wasn’t a shovel, it was just a trowel. And I didn’t take it, I borrowed it, and when she asked for it back, I went over to give it to her, but the trowel fell accidentally. Accidentally, Aedon. And—”
“You’re a liar! It was on purpose!” Aedon points at a red spot on her forearm the size and shape of a piece of macaroni. “Liar!”
Stella’s mouth twists. The flat of her hand smacks the door and she runs off wailing. They were born eight months apart, but where Aedon is small for ten years old—they don’t grow them too big in Vietnam—Stella looks practically old enough to drive thanks to her height, which she got from her dad, along with her frizz of hair and temper. Her face and dumpling shape she inherited from Shannon.
“She’s a liar!” Aedon howls. “It was on purpose. Ask Cooper.”
Shannon’s son has been lurking outside as younger brothers do. Barefoot, he wanders in munching a piece of uncooked spaghetti. “Oh, yeah. Stella threw it.”
“Coop, let’s you and me set the table while the girls chill out.” Shannon gives Aedon’s heaving back a motherly little rub. “Pizza’s on its way and I know two girls and one little boy who are ready for dinner.”
Mark says, “I know two big boys ready for dinner too.”
God, I wish I were dead.
There are no stars, but the night is positively balmy and they’re seated out on the patio under strings and strings of exposed bulbs. Borboleta is not as posh as either of them had expected, but the restaurant makes up for it in authenticity: the disinterested guitarist noodling in the corner, the ocher of the walls, the waiter with the dangerous smile, the redolent spices. It is a perfect choice. On their first anniversary—their first overseas trip actually—they went to Lisbon. Fifteen years ago when they were different people in love in a different manner.
It is understood that Mark will order for them both. To begin: a dish of steamed clams and mussels as well as the chouriços assado—a Portuguese sausage flambéed tableside in a pig-shaped ceramic brazier. Mark is rapturous and peppers the poor waiter with so many questions that the chef, a wizened guy with absurdly black hair, comes out to chat with him. Mark could make most anything on the menu—as a Greek American he can fake most Mediterranean dishes—but he picks up a few valuable pointers. Throughout the evening special plates they hadn’t ordered appear at their table—an octopus here, melon and prosciutto there—along with the caldierada and salt cod that they’d asked for. It turns out Mark was right, as usual. Clay does like Portuguese food; he’d simply forgotten.
The wine is good and goes to Clay’s head immediately, as he’d hoped it might. One benefit of his mood stabilizers. Conversation comes as easily as the free food, which is a pleasant surprise. Clay’s not sure why he expected otherwise, but he had. Mark is in prime form. He reenacts the rollicking tales of his latest voiceover sessions, laments the spare tire he can’t seem to lose, gossips about the guys in the gay cycling group he joined.
Clay laughs along like he ought to and manages to divert Mark from the cripplingly dull topic of his mental state and dosages. Clay refuses to be one of those insufferable people. If he sets his mind to it, with rare exception, he can be entertaining even at his lowest. It’s a point of pride. And tonight when he’s run out of material Clay simply passes along Shannon’s news. “Christina Aguilera’s people have put a song of hers on hold. Can you believe it? How ridiculous would it be if Christina Aguilera sang Shannon’s song?” Clay plops a brown lump of sugar into his cappuccino and stirs. “I mean, what an honor.”
“I don’t know about honor. It’s not the Medal of Freedom.”
“It’s better than the Medal of Freedom. Christina Aguilera!”
Mark’s burst of laughter makes the other patrons turn toward them, which for some reason makes Clay feel suddenly lucky. The prospect of sex tonight takes a more definite shape.
The breeze kicks up and the candle inside the glass globe struggles to stay lit. Mark shields the flame with one hand and finishes the last bites of dessert with the other. The waiter discreetly places their bill on the table. Without looking, Mark hands him his credit card. Expansive, almost jolly, he says, “So, what do you think?”
“What do you think?” he repeats with a wide grin, bushy eyebrows raised. Mark loves this little guessing game—starting the conversation midway to see if Clay knows him well enough to follow his train of thought.
Clay does not say Just fucking tell me, but opts for: “I give.”
“About Shannon and the kids moving? Should we loan her the money for the deposit?”
The two of them donate tens of thousands of dollars to charities each year, so it’s not as if Clay thinks of Mark as stingy. But like a lot of people who grew up with money, Mark can be oddly frugal. Like a lot of people who grew up without it, Clay is unfrugal. Clay grins and wonders if he looks as drunk as he feels.
On top of the table Mark’s solid hand takes his. “Is there something I’m missing? We have an emergency fund and our friend is having an emergency. She’ll get a royalty check on the first that will cover it. Screw it, right?”
Clay feels his face still smiling as his thumb strokes his husband’s hand in the soft, dizzying light. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”
When they get home, both dishwashers are humming. On the couch, under a cashmere throw, Shannon naps while a BBC comedy plays on TV. She stretches herself awake, relates the kids’ hilarious antics, and as always declines the invitation to sleep over in one of their guest rooms. As per their plan she’ll get her kids in the morning.
Clay’s head is still fizzy from the wine. He trudges up the curving staircase to the green guest room where Aedon dozes with Stella, her former enemy. They share the big bed while Cooper snores on an inflatable mattress on the floor. Clay kisses his daughter’s temple and as he does most every night, he whispers, “Papa loves you, Aedy.”
A few slow blinks. She lifts her heavy head, kisses his cheek sweetly, and then barks, “Go.”
In his room Clay tosses the Brooklyn shirt into the hamper, crawls under the blankets, and turns off the lamps.
Mark closes his laptop and places it on the nightstand. He says, “Happy anniversary, Love,” and they kiss twice. Three times. Sixteen times for sixteen years. Mark snuggles in, resting his head on Clay’s breastbone.
Clay’s hand starts to wander down his husband’s spine, but Mark intervenes, pulls his fingers to his lips, clasps them to his bare chest. Evidently they won’t be having sex tonight. It hardly matters. Clay Peterbaugh is the luckiest man ever. Who deserves this life he has? He is still outside his body, still slightly off-kilter, but as close to himself as he remembers being.
Mark must be smiling. His whiskers stab Clay’s chest in a thousand tranquil places. These, Clay can feel.
In a well-worn hoodie, flannel pajama bottoms, sandals, and those killer new sunglasses, Clay sets off with the kids down the gently curving, manicured sidewalks of Hancock Park. The two girls skip ahead while Cooper hangs back, reaching up automatically to take Clay’s hand when they get to street corners. Clay had all but forgotten younger kids did this. This morning’s chirping conversation—a joke-by-joke rundown of a Bennie the Worm episode—has Clay trying to laugh in the places he ought to, but truth be told, he’s having trouble following. While he could blame it on a seven-year-old’s retelling or on the wine last night, Clay’s mornings are often foggy like this, the price he pays for not wanting to die. Getting lost is not out of the question, but these are streets he’s traversed many times.
When they were dating he and Mark used to take evening strolls through the neighborhood to smell the night blooming jasmine. Later when baby Aedon wouldn’t sleep, they’d tuck her into the stroller for a midnight ramble up that one street—he can’t remember the name now—but on either side it has date palms sixty feet high and so fat you couldn’t put your arms around them. The three of them would return home having never seen a waking soul.
The houses here are big but not huge: a few craftsman, several Spanish, a Tudor that Nat King Cole lived in, a couple of Italian villas like theirs. Los Angeles has hipper neighborhoods than Hancock Park. Wealthier, gated enclaves where the mega-stars live in even grander homes. Mansions. Compounds. Hancock Park isn’t rich rich. It isn’t Beverly Hills or Bel Air. But compared to Brine, Missouri? Clay’s current walk-in closet is as big as his bedroom growing up.
There are days it seems ridiculous, all this money. How much do people need? Mark, who grew up in Brentwood down the street from Aaron Spelling, complains about Hancock Park’s Waspy patricians, all the ancient Lexus drivers who voted for Reagan back when. Once in a while he makes noise about moving back to New York where he’d lived for a decade, but life goes down easy here. In the mid-nineties Mark and his lover Charles bought the house for that very reason. They needed a peaceful place for Charles to die.
Sometimes on a warm day like today Clay imagines them walking by this gate, that fountain, passing under this very tree. How Mark, his black hair thick and fluffy—he was modeling then—might have walked hand in hand with Charles, who was tall, taller than Clay even, with a face sharp, but kind. In photos he looks like a friendly crane, attractive in that awkward way of El Greco’s saints. St. Charles of Brooklyn.
Like he’d been there, Clay sometimes pictures Charles taking out his keys, entering the house. His house. Clay sees him lying in bed, wasting daily away; a witness as Charles’s vision flickers out, his memory ebbs. Clay can smell the sour tang of the sheets, hear the mucus rattle in Charles’s chest. His every breath was hard-fought and costly. How he looked out the bedroom window into the branches of the oak as he breathed his last. They’ve discussed Charles obviously, but Mark has mostly shut that time of his life away.
Clay shared these secret images with Shannon, who informed him that Charles had spent the last six weeks of his life in the hospital, rather than dying at home. She was Charles’s half-sister and obviously in a position to know. Clay is still not wholly convinced. These scenes remain true for him, truer than if he’d borne witness. What if Charles had had Clay’s dumb luck and never got the virus? What if Clay had Charles’s purposefulness, his steadfast appreciation of life? What if Mark came to resent being a nurturer? What if. What if. What if. The saddest words that ever were.
Like a slap, Clay is brought to attention by the kids behind, shouting, “Car! Car!”
In the time it takes him to turn around, he imagines the brakes screaming, the thud to come, the anticipatory horror; he rehearses an alibi. But no—it’s only a game they are playing. Each time a car passes they wave like crazy people, counting how many folks wave back.
He should tell them to hurry up. Maybe he does. He’s not sure.
Blood-orange daylilies fill the boulevard divider of the Larchmont Village shopping district. They pass boutiques, cafés, an independent bookstore, a cold-press juicery, the inevitable yoga studio. The Hollywood sign stands mythic and mist-shrouded up ahead. The kids meander and dart while Clay plays sheepdog, herding them toward Yaekel’s Bagels, a go-to spot of theirs. Six months ago, Yaekel’s opened just when Clay’s uptake receptors started to uptake again after his episode. On days he felt well enough, he took shambling little walks around the neighborhood to give Mark a break from nursing him in his madness, and often met Shannon here for lunch or coffee. If Clay and Shannon were good friends before, at Yaekel’s she became a fellow veteran of Clay’s Serotonin Wars. There should be a commemorative plaque.
It’s Saturday morning and from half a block away he can see the place is jam-packed. Waiting for a table next to the expensively tattooed patrons smoking e-cigarettes in various stages of hungover is absolutely unthinkable. Clay is ready to turn the kids around until he spots Shannon, who has secured two tables on the dappled patio. Clay prefers inside, but he’ll adapt.
“My, my, my,” Shannon says. “Look at the four sleepyheads!”
Cooper says, “Can Clay cut my hair into a Mohawk?”
“You chickened out last time,” she says.
“I want it now, for real.” Cooper’s voice is piping.
He’s an adorable, adorable child, sweet and funny; Stella is smart and charming; and Aedon, she is Clay’s everything. Yet Clay is overcome with gratitude that Shannon has secured the kids a separate table.
She helps Stella and Cooper stow their sleepover gear under their chairs and Clay can hear the begging process begin, for Aedon to go to their place for the afternoon. He hears them, but he might be sitting next to his body and Clay must concentrate on that.
She joins him and slides her coffee his way. Shannon knows.
“You’re not going to believe this.” She glances at the kids and lowers her voice. Clay has to lean forward to hear her over the clatter and chatter of the patrons. “When I woke up I had an email from Derek’s fiancée telling me what a rotten mother I am for keeping the kids from him. This is Derek’s weekend and he called off visitation, not me. She sent it at four-thirty this morning, obviously drunk or stoned.”
Clay tries to look suitably aghast as she reads selections aloud off her phone. In the daylight it’s evident that Shannon’s acne is flaring. Even when it’s under control, she puts on full makeup no matter the hour, no matter the occasion. Clay is no stranger to skin issues. When he’s feeling better, maybe they’ll go do facials. Is he staring?
From out of nowhere the magenta-haired waitress places plates of eggs and hash browns in front of the kids and an omelet and coffee in front of him. Somehow when Clay wasn’t paying attention, they must have ordered. Maybe she ordered ahead? Shannon goes over and cuts up the sausages for all three kids, and monitors how much jelly goes on the toast. Suddenly Shannon is across from him, speaking. Clay tunes in to her frequency late and only hears the final word: “Mark?”
He hazards a guess. “He’s meeting us here. He wants us to order something for him.”
Shannon pours syrup on her waffle from what seems like a great height, like a magician. So much for her diet, Clay thinks, uncharitably. Maybe if he pretends he’s not an asshole he won’t be one. He makes an effort. “So, Shannon, what are you guys up to today?”
“I told you. Remember? The kids and I are off to look at three more houses: Valley Village, Burbank, and Sherman Oaks. If you want to come . . .”
Clay hates to sneer but sneer he does. “The valley? You said no to the valley.”
“If we don’t get a place by the first, we’ll have to put our stuff in storage. God knows what Derek will make of that.”
“What about the other place, the one in . . .” Synapses fail him for a moment. “Los Feliz was it? Silver Lake? Are you going to see that one again today?”
“Nah. Monthly I can afford it. I mean, obviously. But this move came up so suddenly, with the drug bust and all, I didn’t get a chance to save up for the deposit.”
Clay thinks he probably ought to wait; he and Mark haven’t had a chance to discuss it. But over her shoulder he can see Mark by the hostess stand, several hemp grocery bags stuffed from his trip to the farmers’ market, a paper bag from his trip to the pharmacy. An odd feeling like contempt mixed with resentment, like jealousy, like fury, comes over him.
Clay’s mouth begins talking before Mark can come along and be the good guy. “So, Shannon. You know how much Mark and I love you and the kids. We’d like to help you guys out with the security deposit if we can.”
For the briefest moment Clay sees something cross her face, then her eyes redden and fill. “Are you kidding me? You can’t.”
“We can. We want to.”
Mark sets down his bags and borrows a chair from another table. “What’s up?”
“You guys! That’s so generous, but I can’t accept.” Shannon dabs her eyes with a napkin and shakes her head. “Look, it’s a lot of money.
Clay smiles bright. “I told Shannon what we talked about last night, about helping her with the Silver Lake house and everything.”
“Great,” he says after a beat. “Good. You’re family, Shannon. We want to. How much is it?”
High and childlike, she says, “Twenty grand?”
Mark’s heavy lips compress into a thin line that nearly disappears into his beard. “Whoa!”
Mark can be crass especially when it comes to money. Clay laughs, embarrassed, playing Mark’s comment for a joke. “Some of that needs to be for movers, because I am not schlepping boxes.”
Mark says, “We’re in a position to help, so let us help. Pay us back when you get paid. It’s just a few weeks—”
“One week. Ten days tops. My quarterly ASCAP check comes by the fifth at the very, very latest. But listen, I need to think about it. That you’d even offer means a lot.”
Walking home Mark barely speaks and once they arrive, he holes up in his study. Clay can hear him on the phone, bantering in several zany voices, laughing in strange keys with his sister or one of his voice-over friends.
When it’s time for dinner Mark has clammed up again. He’s made pan-seared lingcod, which Clay hates. With heroic effort Clay refrains from referring to this a passive aggressive entrée, to honor the unspoken truce imposed for Aedon’s sake. After, when Clay reminds them to put their dishes in the dishwasher instead of just in the sink, Mark’s expression goes sour.
Clay says, “Okay. What?”
Mark’s downturned eyes often look sad, but not now. They are hard, his smile brittle. “Nothing. I make the dinner, you clean up. It’s the arrangement. Bath time, Lady Aedy. Let’s go, go, go!”
“The arrangement?” Clay clears Mark’s plate, but with huffing and eye rolls. There may be extracurricular clanking.
Aedon has crawled under the table in order to clean up her toys, but is instead building some kind obstacle course for her favorite Lamby out of the salt and pepper shakers, the napkin holder, and a jar.
Quietly, intensely, Mark says, “Focus, Aedon. Focus. What are you doing right now?”
“You yelled at me and I didn’t do anything!” She hugs her stuffed lamb to her flat chest and storms upstairs.
Clay continues rinsing dishes, silent. Mark did not yell, but screw him.
He moves to the stove, pours kosher salt into his cast-iron pan, and scrubs with a paper towel. His head bowed, he begins in the middle of the conversation. “It’s just that . . . We didn’t discuss loaning Shannon the money.”
Clay throws the dishcloth onto the countertop with a loud, wet slap. “Are you crazy? We did discuss it. It was your idea, in fact.”
“But twenty thousand? There’s no way in hell twenty thousand is for three month’s rent.”
“Does it matter how much? She’s paying us back in a week. Ask her for an itemized invoice, would that make you feel better?”
For forty-five minutes the two of them hash it out, as squabbling couples do until they recognize that it’s the same old money fight they always have: Clay is the gas pedal, Mark is the brake. They’re really on the same page, more or less. Clay admits he could have (perhaps) waited to offer the loan. Mark admits he could have (perhaps) kept from overreacting. The main thing is, if it makes their friend a little more secure it’s worth it.
A few days later, after dropping the kids off at school, Shannon, Mark, and Clay pile into her Lego-filled Mercedes SUV and drive to the bank where Mark has a cashier’s check issued for twenty thousand dollars. Shannon folds the check once, shakes her head and shyly mouths, “Thank you.” She hugs them separately and together, Mark with his arm around Clay’s waist.
Clay’s father is a Nazarene minister in downstate Missouri. Counting blessings, helping the less fortunate, doing unto others, these have been encoded in his DNA. At that moment, in the bulletproof-glass and potted-palm bank, giving aid to a friend in need seems so gratifying, so beneficent, that the act feels almost selfish.