by Barbara Bottner
I’ve only agreed to accompany my husband Dan to have Sunday brunch with a Paul somebody because I’m terrified when I imagine him talking to a horse breeder un-chaperoned.
When unnerved, some people buy expensive chocolate. Dan buys a nine hundred pound mammal.
It’s the kind of overcast day in the San Fernando Valley that screams for the New York Times, Mozart and high end yoga pants. One thing Dan and I’ve always been good at is Sundays. It’s as if our heart rates and pulses finally synchronize.
But, there may be another heart rate joining us soon.
I’m not sure how I feel about this.
My period is three weeks late.
This is the morning I’d planned to tell him what color the 99% guaranteed blue and white pregnancy kit turned, but he got this call from some breeder who’s only briefly in town. So, while he gets dressed, I make the bed, tossing my childish collection of stuffed animals in among my pillows. I don’t really mind postponing the big news. Well, continuing to postpone.
I’ve kept him in the dark. It’s where he lives, anyway. I decided I needed to process my own issues about parenting before I say a word out loud.
On the plus side is that I’m heading to the far reaches of my thirties. Which is how I tend to think of being forty-one.
I turned forty-three last week.
I’ve never been sure I could be someone’s mother. I’m a writer and significantly self absorbed. But lately, I’ve found myself stalking infants in the supermarket. The babies like my goofy efforts but the mothers look slightly disturbed. And I worry that my intense babbling to someone else’s child is getting to be over the top.
So, that’s a clue.
As far as Dan is concerned, his horses are his kids. Were. At least this past year I’ve managed to persuade him to sell off ten of his eleven trotters. His stable had become all consuming, not to mention expensive. I accomplished this by begging, manipulating, threatening and weeping. Ultimately what worked was wearing high heel red suede shoes and gallivanting around the bedroom half-naked.
Ironically, it’s probably because of the strenuous activities following one of those performances, that my life might be in for a massive change.
We’re almost at Ventura Boulevard. Dan’s flushed face reminds me that I live with a man who strategizes about anything that can run on four legs and has a mane with the discipline of a convenience store lottery player. But unlike them, his bank account is loaded with fresh cash that glows neon in his mind.
The wild and crazy guy I married rushes across Sepulveda against the light, yanking my arm to keep up with him.
“That Buick almost got me!” I complain.
“This will be fun,” he says. He has perfect hearing which doesn’t mean he hears me. At the next street Dan stops at the cross walk like a normal human being for once and he smiles at me. I don’t want this next thought, but here it comes: he’s happy. I see the pure sweetness at his core. He’s beautiful.
“Imagine!” he says. I don’t have to guess at what. It’s always four legged creatures that make him this buoyant.
I hear myself saying ‘drats,’ out loud, like a cartoon wife, who aspires to be a force of nature but is only two-dimensional, has silly hair and no real core. I am Marge Simpson with a better profile.
Dan needs his games while I need him. He is the tree trunk and branches to my flitting bird who’s never had a nest.
We arrive at the chic The Wine Bistro. The ceilings have old-fashioned fans, presumably from Cuba, setting off the genuine New York factory tin ceilings. The lighting is halogen and arty. Thin bread sticks and dark rolls with rosemary smell exquisite.
We often come here on Monday nights to listen to music. Dan loves jazz but not as much as he loves the track. I’ve encouraged him to play his tenor sax even though it’s loud. I tell my pal Marlene, my budding therapist pal, it’s like living with John Coltrane, the early years. I’ve bought him fake books and CD’s and played him the classic albums I’ve accumulated since college. But playing music at the level he aspires to is difficult. And for Dan, being alive is already difficult.
What would happen to our nights out if little XY or XX comes along?
Okay, I admit it; I’ve read how the fetus develops. For the first few weeks, it’s the size of a poppy seed, i.e. it’s only a cluster of cells. In other words, a sesame seed is larger. So, I figure I have time to find out if my maybe poppy seed should grow.
But not that much time.
Dan points me towards a tall blond fellow dressed in sleek, casual clothing who waves, and grins broadly. Something about his eyes make my hands sweaty..
“Open mind,” prods Dan as we head to our table.
“I’ve heard all about you,” Paul’s long, clammy fingers grip my hand like a vise. During his prolonged smile, I notice that he’s missing a tooth.
He catches my look, says, “Dan, I can see your wife’s wondering about my dental status.”
“I always adore being referred to in the third person,” I smile with faux sweetness.
He’s not biting, comes closer. “Wrestling. I held the championship for lightweights when I was in college and I still fool around. Probably not that smart.” His pungent Patchouli aftershave wipes out the lovely rosemary breadstick aroma.
“What college?” I ask dripping with honey.
He hesitates, comes out with, “Oberlin. I majored in economics. Wrote a paper with my professor that was ultimately accepted into the Economist.”
“Really? As an undergrad?” I almost squeak, incredulous. By the time a paper hits major national magazines, grad students’ names become invisible.
“That’s formidable! What was it about?”
“It must have been, what, 1980? Dealt with the global economy. We were about twenty years ahead of our time.”
I lean forward, wait for him to continue the excellent grave digging.
Dan catches the tension, tries to redirect. “Nice shirt, Paul,” he says.
“Should be for almost two hundred bucks,” says Paul. “Sometimes you splurge, right, dude?”
Dude? Since when is a surgeon who looks like Beethoven, a dude?
I’d like to splurge all over him. And I don’t buy the tooth story. If you’re dealing with horses in the six figure range, you don’t go around looking like a hoodlum —unless you are a hoodlum.
Dan tries to get me and Paul to agree on something. “How can you not love horses? The way they fight to win, their sheer athleticism; it’s inspiring!” He turns towards me, his broad, strong face a alive with enthusiasm and glowing. Horses are sacred to him, like cows are to people in India where, if you hit one in an auto rick or motorcycle you can go to jail for two years.
I wish I could lock up the part of Dan that gambles.
I also wish Dan knew there were more sacred things than cows or horses. Like XY chromosomes.
On the other hand, I worry that I’m too selfish to be anyone’s mother.
“I do love the horses. But from a distance. The way I love Johnny Depp,” I explain. “Anyway, honey, you agreed, to find new, healthy sources of pleasure,” I say, using my modulated, therapy-approved voice.
Under discussion has been Dan’s compulsive tendencies. Since he doesn’t bet, and only buys, he insists he’s in the equine business.
“Have you ever been to horse country? It’s gorgeous!” Paul asks.
I look at him with savage eyebrows.
“I mean if we were to breed, honey….” Dan adds.
Dan’s voltage tells me he’s got the mind-altering adrenaline buzz on. And now I am getting perturbed. The Gamblers Anonymous literature I’ve borrowed explains how the partner of the addictive personality is prone to dizziness, palpitations, hysteria, sudden, inappropriate outbursts of anger, headaches, loss of appetite, excessive overeating and withdrawal from friends and family. Eventually, to absolute self-destruction.
“Calm down,” I say, mostly to myself.
“Willie swears by Paul,” Dan says, citing his trainer.
“It’s Willie’s crazy schemes that got us into debt, honey,” I counter.
“He’s done good by us too,” says Dan, ever blinded to Willie’s conscientious attempts to get us to purchase yet another equine.
“Willie, who drinks booze with the sort of allegiance one devotes to the Green Berets, that Willie? Willie who’s always manure -adjacent, is miraculously going to solve our money problems?”
“We’ll make cash from mating King! Not to mention there’s a fortune to be made if his offspring became winners, right Paul?”
“Absolutely,” says Paul looking uncomfortable.
“Welcome to our marriage,” Dan applies my joke.
My open mind is mostly shuttered like a beach house in Arctic Winter. The days of boarding, training, racing, losing- our-entire-savings and going-into-debt are finally and only recently, over. “Paul, you should know our money is in an account Dan can’t get to?”
“That’s why I’m turning on the charm,” says Dan, flicking his bad boy dimple at me. I wonder, is this type of personality any kind of father material?
I think of his ex-wife, Maxi. She told me they had trotters instead of a marriage. Maxi didn’t care for the four legged creatures. She laid down the law: no horses. Then, no kids. Then, no husband.
Dan got the stable and I got Dan.
Originally I didn’t have any real opinions in this arena until the night he took me to the backstretch. There I discovered the dank smell of the hay, the Olympian animals, the Runyonesque ambiance. I felt transported into a truly exotic land. Old black men, faces carved with untold tales, were sitting under a single light bulb playing gin, just like in the movies. I wanted to know more about these living legends but was afraid to hear their stories. I imagined them as disenfranchised black men, leaving small towns that held no futures, riding on railroad cars, sleeping in abandoned barns with paperback novels stuffed into their pockets that sold them on the glamorous life of grooming horses in the beautiful rolling hills of central California. Maybe they believed the color of their skin would finally not countagainst them. And maybe they fell in love with the muscular animals when their own bodies were starting to fade.
But as arthritic and badly dressed as they were, sucking cigarette butts and snorting snuff late into the night, they played hand after hand. The scene had the iconic feel of a Norman Rockwell painting.
To my surprise, I felt drawn to this exotic world. At least for a while.
Then, I was with Maxi.
I’m convinced that if Dan didn’t own pacers and trotters, our life together would improve. I believe that without horses, we wouldn’t have this tension; this background argument that covers us like smog. Dan wouldn’t be fielding phone calls from Willie at 2AM, to talk about a pulled tendon. Maybe he’d bring me flowers or give me a neck rub once in awhile. Maybe his concerns would center on us. On me.
But what if my elemental– perhaps desperate– need for his undivided attention is unreasonable? I’ve never hidden it. But let’s not get into that whole bi-polar, terrifying mother story and how I grew up with so much fear I developed unfortunate coping habits, then had to pay a bloody fortune to learn to undo them. No. Been, been, been there.
On paper, I’m nobody’s ideal version of a parent, that’s for sure. But I’m working on it. I touch my stomach. In there, a cute egg with a lovely singing voice has merged with a fine, dashing sperm with an impossibly high IQ. So, I will get myself up for evolving. But will Dan?
“Paul’s willing to pay us real money for King,” he says to me, as if Paul weren’t there.
“What’s real money, guys?”
They look at each other telepathically, I guess, refusing to answer.
Even this mild conversation could easily turn into something worse. Our fights are often defined by geography. At home, it’s as if we’re on opposite teams, while in grocery stores, we hug. Decisions in the meat department, which kind of beef, bottom round or brisket, maybe pork chops for a change, get us holding hands. Once we arrive at the leafy vegetables, romaine or arugula— we become so overwhelmed, we cling to each other. By the time we reach the imported cheese section, there’s often necking. Organic or local. Marlene says this isn’t love, it’s anxiety.
She’s so wrong. Frankly, I worry for her future patients. I believe that love includes anxiety. Anxiety is one of the building blocks of existence.
I grab a bread stick and suck on it as if it were a pacifier. I’m trying to figure out why the hell I have the sweaty palms and simultaneous goose bumps.
I try to imagine Dan focusing on a short person with a bat in his hands. Or her hands. I was a great pitcher in middle school.
Paul’s ball bearing necks swivels towards me. “”We’ll work out those details. Anyway,” he slides to a photo on his cell: “here are a few of the seventy odd acres of green rolling hills where King will run free.”
The land he shows us is breathtaking. “This where you breed?” I ask.
“Actually, our property is just across the way from the photo. We’ve been building the barn so we haven’t had time to take pictures.”
Seriously—a photo of a ranch across the road? I glance at Dan, raise my workaholic eyebrows, but his face is ever shinier with eau du enthusiasm. Paul’s already discussing the various mares he wants to mate with King. Then he starts selling and selling hard.
“You have to get a look at this foal! I’d give you a great price.”
“I like a balanced top line,” Dan says, free-associating. “I don’t like a heavy fronted horse. But ultimately there’s always the question of concentration.”
“From what I’ve heard she’s a royal pain in the ass. Doubtful she has the makings of a broodmare,” says Dan, finally showing some spirit.
“We’re done buying horses, Dan! We’re divesting! Raising a foal is just another big bet!”
I start mumbling about the math; the cost of hay, replacing hooves, vets bills, things I have learned about but have zero interest in. I’d rather be in my bathrobe, offering my astonishingly insightful political analysis of Fareed Zacharia’s monologue on the Middle East.
I want to say, ‘you’re a doctor. Why can’t you just doc?’
Completely ignoring me, Paul mentions gestation periods. For a horse it’s only a couple of months more than a human.
I can’t be more than five weeks in.
“Try to remember King’s glory days,” Dan pokes me.
To be fair, his star steed, King, had won several purses. In his last race at Los Al, he ran with a lot of heart, but pulled a suspensory ligament and finished up the track. We had to retire him. Now, Dan wants to believe he can make money by breeding the stallion.
Breeding. There’s a loaded word.
Sometimes, when I read of the crises in Africa I think, why replicate my complicated gene pool, generations of repressed Hungarians and dour Poles harboring ancient resentments? Why not adopt one of those adorable kids and give them a chance?
That’s probably another clue right there.
“Paul, the doc and I are getting out of the business. We’re not considering buying at all.”
“Instead of a baby horse,” I say, the big announcement trembling on my lips…
“What can I get you?” The tall, sleek waitress appears and cuts me off. “Have you decided?”
“I’ll have quiche,” I say, suddenly delighted my tell-all sentence has been interrupted. “Without the salad.”
“No salad?” This is fantastically puzzling to her.
“Quiche, a la carte!” I repeat too adamantly, giving her the energy I’m feeling about Paul.
“Good choice,” patronizes Paul who’s never set foot here before.
Why am I having such a violent reaction to this dude, I wonder?
But I can barely touch the food on my plate. Too busy being vigilant.
I’m not by nature a violent person, not generally vindictive, although I have spurts of strong annoyance and the occasional episode of road rage. But I feel threatened. Dan’s poor judgment and deranged hopes for sudden wealth, for appearing in the winner’s circle, for being interviewed on some cable sports TV station, can lead us down the road to destruction, bankruptcy, humiliation.
Why can’t my husband be more tuned in? I use my psychic powers to send him a word. Baby. Baby, baby, baby!
“I can let you have the foal for…” Paul’ missing tooth glares at me.
“Buying is off the table,” I hiss.
I’ve been known to blow opportunities, cause embarrassment, act outrageously. I’ve exited a room, a job, a country with my tail between my legs—-or tail-less.
The waitress is gleefully pushing a House Special desert…—a flaming chocolate brandy number. Writers are prevaricators. We get paid to lie convincingly. So, in my brightest voice, I say: “Sorry, but deserts are poison to a diabetic! I’ll wait for you boys outside.”
“Diabetes?” whispers Dan incredulously.
I’m on my feet mumbling about glucose levels.
It’s a little brisk on Ventura Boulevard, but I don’t care; it’s warm compared to sitting next to the horse hustler.
Three minutes later, Dan bursts into the street. “I’m so sorry to hear you’re diabetic! It came on rather suddenly!” He shakes his head incredulously and gives me a shattering look, or a look that might shatter someone less determined than I am. Then he turns and marches back inside.
Twenty minutes later, Paul and Dan emerge. We all shake hands in the restaurant parking lot. He’s driving a rented Ford Fiesta. Really? He couldn’t go for the extra bucks for a Caddy? We’re saying ,oh, we’re so extremely happy to have met each other. Chums, we are. “We look forward to seeing you up at the ranch. Love your sweater, my wife would be thrilled to meet you, you can get a prize foal for about ten grand,” says the snake before he slithers off to his blue rent a wreck.
I take off ahead of Dan.
“You were awful!” he scolds, marching behind me through the carefully tended suburban streets.
“I was unpleasant. You haven’t seen my awful.”
A dog barks. A radio plays “You’ve Got a Friend.” I sigh, try to improve my posture, a self-help project that might come in handy in the coming months.
“You can have the last word,” Dan promises.
“My last words are: his eyes were bullet holes!”
“Jesus!” Dan sprints ahead of me and he’s no sprinter. Then, winded, he waits up and turns around. “It used to be the odds that interested me. Favorites, long shots, Exactas. There are rules, but they’re always being broken. There’s order, but there’s chaos, too. You never stop learning: heart-rending races with big-hearted horses.”
“Poetic, dear. We really should walk more.”
He ignores my wisecracks. “I’m realizing, though, it’s more than that to me. It’s a foreign country, a new language; it’s painting and music. You know how you always say I should explore my creative potential? Well breeding, making a winner, now that is creative.”
That word again. Breeding. Bingo!
We shuffle inside our house. His eyes are steady on me. I give out nothing encouraging.
“Well, I suppose I can see, he is a bit slick,” he admits, sotto voce. “I was really just meeting him for King’s fee.”
“The man is a walking Chernobyl!”
“You’re way overstating the case,” he slips his arm around me amorously. “Hmmmm.” He slips his hand down my ass.
“I can’t do this now, Dan.”
He gives me the full on sex voltage, heat coming out of him as if he’s a wood burning stove. I don’t respond: I’m all business, so he tackles the situation again. “Okay, okay, if you’re that certain, I guess we can sell King. I think we can get thirty-five grand for him.”
It would erase our debt. I suck in air as if I’ve been underwater too long. “Are you making a true commitment, Dan? Even with all of that racetrack poetry inside you?”
His mantra is “whatever you say.” The man just wants to get laid but his words still make me hopeful.
“No breeding at all?”
“You are what matters,” says Dan.
He strokes my hair. “Comon,” he says, and leads me into the bedroom.
“Hold on, there, sailor….”
“You have something better to do?” He has the special effects ability to transform into a human super nova when he wants to. He pulls me into his chest.
He kisses my neck. I hate that I’m this easy to get.
We’re under the sheets, now. It’s hard for him to talk while making love, like his emotions are in some sort of crawl space that we both have to get into. But at least we do get there sometimes. All of this love pours out now. His skin is medicine to me.
Then, what is that— a tentative sound—tapping? Drumming on the front door? Then, more forcefully, insistent knocking. We go limp; someone‘s selling roof tiling, religion, college-bound kids hawking cookies— eventually they’ll leave. But they don’t. We freeze like guilty children.
“Yo! You guys!” That voice is so damn familiar. “It’s me, Paul! I forgot to leave you the papers!” He’s about ten feet away from our naked bodies. “Hey, your screen is broken!”
“Tell him to get the hell out of here,” I growl.
But Dan’s flipped open the blanket.
“I can fix this screen for you,” Paul offers.
I holler, “get lost!”
“And the papers—it would take all of four minutes to go through them!”
“Really?” Dan asks,
I lunge towards him, grasp his giant leg. He extricates himself, mutters “I’ll be right back,” jumps into his jeans and heads towards the door like a frantic mosquito. I suddenly wonder why didn’t I heed my aunt who, after meeting Dan told me to keep looking around “and if I you’re lonely, get a cat!”
I never liked cats.
In the living room, Paul’s managed to get Dan to read the papers. Something happens to me; a force, fierce, focused, unafraid, opens my mouth which shouts: “I’m coming out there, Dan. And I’m naked.”
Dan and Paul roar. But I’m not being funny: I mean to be Kali, the Indian goddess, passionate. strong, destructive. As in, “Kali has had enough!”
When I was young, I was bold. True, everyone was; we were changing the world. We made love in public, got arrested in foreign countries. We did radical theater, yelling at the audience that they were Capitalist pigs. We did those things. I did those things, I remind myself. I tell myself, ‘you are not just a woman stuck in suburbia. You’re not a cartoon. You’re not Betty Boop. Jane Jetson. Or Marge Simpson. You may not be a goddess, but at least you can be Lucy from Peanuts.’
I head for the living room thinking if I am to bring someone into this world, I need to be fearless. I open my robe, drop it in a full frontal display.
For an instant, Paul’s speechless. Then he utters an almost sacred “wow!” He quickly realizes that that reaction is 180% the wrong one so he jumps up streaming nonsense words, grabs his papers and races out the front door.
My turn to laugh.
“What was that supposed to be?” asks Dan.
“That was me saying enough!”
“I never committed to anything!!” he exclaims.
“You ran out of the bedroom on me.”
Dan’s eyes have gone soft and cloudy. “I don’t know if I can do life without horses,” he mumbles head in hands now. His body folds down.
“There has to be something else!” I say, wondering if this clue will register.
Outside there’s vehement chirping, another bird dispute that happens all the time in the San Fernando Valley.
“We’re the destination for all the birds with issues,” he says, than a tear starts streaming down his cheek. “I gave up the stable. I’ve lost everything that matters.”
“I mean everything that isn’t us,” he amends.
If only he’d look up and study my face for a moment. Read my mind. But his eyes are closed.
“We’re all doomed, Dan, we just manage to forget about it.”
Then, under his breath, he starts humming an Eagles song, The Sad Café. He sings it perfectly, a tiny a cappella gem.
Some of their dreams came true,
Some just passed away
And some of them stayed behind
Inside the Sad Cafe.
These words account for so much in both of us.
Maybe a dad with an addictive streak is not ideal. Neither is a mother who is prone to sudden weeping. But somehow I can see us together, this little pink XY or XX person and her sad café of a dad who, watching her grow, will become less melancholy. He will adore his child, I’m sure. Anyway, who knows what the cures are for the human heart?
We fall back onto the bed. Dan rolls over onto my stuffed animals, picks up my maroon elephant. “I can’t believe how many creatures you need to keep you company when you can’t sleep.”
“They love me,” I say. “They love all of us.”
“All of us?” he mutters, starts drifting into asleep.
“All of us.”
I don’t tell him that my bears, rabbits and I lie awake and together, we stare at the ceiling, asking questions without answers.