THE CHOICE GAME
(a 2,400 word excerpt)
The eclipsing sun pierced my right pupil for just a split second as the moon slid into place and Bailey’s Beads began to spin. Bailey’s Beads are little solar flames of prismed ruby light bouncing off the valleys of a black moon. I just needed a glimpse of that one eclipse with my naked eye. Just one tiny split of a moment. That took place up in the Cascade mountains in 1979, more than thirty years ago. I’m sure this is the cause of my vision troubles today.
Dr. Davis has been after me for several years now to visit an ophthalmologist. I used to love the way typeface made me feel. In a well–made book the lines of each word would glaze into my eyes. Character edges, kerned by a skilled chisel, seemed to rise off the page, piercing the appropriate membranes of memory, lodging in a mix of cerebral fluid and electrochemical significance. When a word appears sharp and true to the eyes, meaning is sharp and true. The mind understands and beats just like the heart. Over the last few years, though, the words I look at have started mashing up. Information is more smudged into me, pressure–glued to random spots around my optical nerve. Some mornings whole sentences swim up and down on the page. My mind rarely seems to beat like my heart anymore.
Dr. Davis noticed my eye problem back in 1995, a year after I got a 19–inch VGA monitor at work. I’m a desktop publishing specialist and copywriter with a well–known health insurance company. Twelve years after that he strongly suggested a visit to a specialist. Dr. Davis asked me why I had not yet made an appointment. I told him that I had so many things happening to me I was lucky to get in for a basic physical every two years. Using more patience than you would expect, he directed me specifically to one Dr. Louise Singleton who is located in his same office park. I saw right through that one, of course. Doctors are like all other business people. I imagined the two of them getting together twice a year over lunch at The Palm or The Striped Bass, surreptitiously exchanging #10 envelopes full of cash. His envelope for her is a goldenrod job containing maybe $400 right out of the cash box where he keeps all his co–pay money. She gives him a lightly scented envelope made of 20–percent post–consumer recycled paper. Pink granite. Her payment is higher, nearing $1,800. He’s routed almost twenty cases to her in the past six months. Why else would he have been so patient with me after years of ignoring his advice?
They talk shop and she writes off the luncheon. She has the minty pea salad with lemon–garlic mayonnaise made with lots of turkey bacon and asparagus. She drinks two glasses of Chablis, and about halfway through the second glass feels flushed and more excited than she thinks is safe, wants to go somewhere to be alone with her thoughts.
He has the swordfish–pecan pasta salad, made with fresh dill and tarragon all held together by a special iced Bearnaise sauce that explodes with flavor due to the minced shallots and Pommery champagne the sous–chef has added. After his third mouthful of creamy swordfish, linguini, and toasted pecans, Dr. Davis thinks back to the days when he was a child baking cakes with his father who owned a catering company, how batter always tasted better than anything else in the world – even the finished cakes – and how his father once let him eat an entire cake’s worth of raw lemon–vanilla batter. Even though it made him sick, the act, every mouthful, was sublime. He wonders if the Bernaise all by itself would have the same effect. Could you just order a bowl of Bernaise sauce? Maybe a few pieces of dark pumpernickel toast to dip? How much cream sauce would it take before you got sick like with cake batter?
Dr. Davis would have the same Chablis as Dr. Singleton, but he would be careful to drink slowly and to order a Black Turkish Espresso Walnut Mousse along with a demitasse of orange French Roast topped by a dollop of whipped cream. I once told him that I felt it likely there is no successful person in America who drinks alcohol before six p.m. He told me that he agreed with the sentiment but that it was possible to overcome the effects of alcohol in the middle of the day by consuming a very large portion of caffeine and sugar after imbibing at lunch. I could tell he was a lunchtime drinker and feeling defensive when he told me this. That’s how I know about the French Roast and the Espresso mousse. It’s also how I know that someday he is going to die of a heart attack before he returns to his office after lunch. I bet one quarter of all the heart attacks in America come after drinking too much coffee. Dying with coffee breath would be embarrassing as hell.
I am, of course, just assuming my doctor has a business relationship with Louise Singleton. I have no evidence that they are exchanging cash every summer and winter. I also have no idea whether they’re having an affair, and although at that time I’d never met Dr. Singleton, I was sure by the way my doctor talked about her that she was very attractive, maybe sexy, certainly pleasing to speak with: like a flight attendant out over the Atlantic in the middle of the night. It made me, just for a few minutes there in his office, want to go for an appointment just to find out what she looked like and to look into her eyes. I imagined that they were bright, moon–gray, and came, along with her whole beautiful face, very close to mine while diagnosing my problems.
I snapped out of it pretty quickly, though, and figured I could wait another five years at least. They sell amazing reading lamps these days. Laser beams for illumination, shimmering diamond light that will blind you like looking into the sun.
I am going to admit this right here: I am middle aged, and along with all the other shit that is going wrong with me, my imagination is becoming obsessed with the idea of having sex with women almost on a random basis. My eyes are failing but I spend a phenomenal amount of energy trying to ignore my libido.
I measured my arm last night. It’s nearly thirty–four inches from the top of my shoulder to the tip of my middle finger. I bet it will take another decade for my arm to extend that full distance when I’m holding a book.
I also learned that my right arm is an inch longer than my left one. It’s not the hands that are the difference. It’s the arms themselves. When I extend my arms, my right wrist is easily an inch further out there than my left wrist. Dr. Davis told me several years ago when I came in for him to look at a weird lump under my right rib cage that we may think we’re symmetrical but we aren’t. He never could figure out what the lump was, but suggested I eat more fiber and be careful with fatty foods. I followed his advice. The lump’s still there, although my bowels are much more manageable. Sometimes it’s a sheer pleasure to evacuate them. Really. Not like an orgasm, or a relief thing from holding it too long, just the act itself, like the whole gut is being cleansed as everything moves through my old intestines and colon. It seems like there’s less build–up on the walls inside of me — the sludge, you know, from all the fats and sugars and the acids they mix with over time. If thoughts of sweaty sex with some woman like the checkout girl at our neighborhood convenience store or our daughter’s dance instructor get too built up, I find myself considering what it would be like to use the toilet after sex with them.
I’m so grateful to my doctor for pointing out the need to change my diet, but I haven’t told him that I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve become a pervert. When I go to the bathroom there’s this warm cleaned out feeling and it extends all the way to my sphincter. So I feel better, but the lump is still there and sometimes it worries me along with all these unbidden thoughts I let myself have. None of this hurts, really, it just makes me ponderish. I’m assuming if the lump is going to kill me, it will grow from being the size of a peanut to the size of a hamster, or a Chihuahua’s head. I also assumed back then that my perversions would subside when I figured something out. I just didn’t know what that thing was.
My wife, Angeline, doesn’t like the lump and doesn’t like my loss of vision. I haven’t told her about my perversions. Sometimes in the morning I can’t read for several hours until my eyes are adjusted. She says to me, “It could be macular degeneration. It could be the beginning of cataract build up. You need to see a doctor. The lump could be cancer.”
I like the fact that she worries about me. It’s a way to be sure she still loves me. But I also like the way she knows better than to get too pushy about going to see doctors. I remind her that the doctor says my lump isn’t cancer.
“Then what is it?” she replies.
“We are not supposed to be symmetrical,” I say firmly. Then I leave the room so that the conversation is finished.
Angeline is five years older than me. She turns fifty in November. She used to be our babysitter when I was a kid. She came over every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to take care of my brother, sister, and me after school. I was nine. Angeline turned fourteen that year. I saw her naked twice that summer because I knew how to look through the keyhole in the changing room next to our pool. Seeing her naked made me fall in love with her. So, I knew who I was going to marry by the time I was ten. It took another fifteen years, but my love was too much for her. I never told Angeline about watching her change into her swimsuit. I’m afraid that if I told her, I would have to fall out of love with her. I’m superstitious.
Angeline is losing her hearing. She refuses to believe this, though. We’ve actually had fights about it. Angeline is very proud of her health. She teaches dance and Tai Chi at Swarthmore College. The funny thing about hearing is that sound is either there or it isn’t. With sight the world fades slowly into blurs and shadows and motion. With sound, though, it’s a tree falling or it’s nobody in the forest. Everything is either a crash or nothing, a note or silence. If Angeline doesn’t hear something, then it’s not there for her, even when I tell her it is. She’s stubborn and has yet to admit she’s wrong about anything, which is another reason for loving her. She’s wrong sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade her kind of self–confidence for any level of humility. There is nothing more exciting in bed than a good woman who thinks she’s never wrong, especially if you first saw her naked when she was fourteen and you were nine, a time in your life when you couldn’t get an erection (except in the morning, of course, when you wake up and have to pee) even if you knew the secret of petroleum jelly. She made a big impression on me then and she still does today.
I don’t know why Angeline has stayed with me all these years. I’m wrong at least once a day. When we have arguments it usually starts because I don’t know what I’m talking about. Several weeks ago the phone rang and I assumed she would answer it, but I don’t think she heard it. I was near the answering machine and the portable phone was somewhere on the second floor. I didn’t know it at the time but she was in the kitchen with the laundry. When I heard the answering machine come on and our babysitter’s voice blasting away telling us that she was sorry but she couldn’t take care of our kids on Saturday night because something had come up, I got very angry. I’m good at talking to Sara, the babysitter, and convincing her that we’d make it worth her while to spend the evening with our kids. When Sara says something came up, it means she’s been asked out on a date. But everyone has a price. Sara’s is usually an extra twenty dollars. This only works if I speak with her directly. There’s something about answering machines that takes the play out of life. When people like Sara leave a message on your machine, they feel they’ve made a commitment to God or something. Most forms of persuasion later on won’t convince them otherwise. Sara started working for us when she was fourteen. Now she’s seventeen and quite attractive, but I’ve never seen her naked. Once in a lifetime is enough for that kind of sight.
I was annoyed with Angeline all the same since she didn’t answer the phone.
“Why didn’t you get it?”
“I didn’t hear it. The washing machine is on.”
I thought it would be an easy tirade after that. I blamed her for Sara ruining our night away from the kids. Angeline pointed out that I didn’t like parties at country clubs and that the kids were getting a bit old for sitters anyway. I told her she needed to have her hearing checked.
As far as she was concerned I was wrong, of course.
It was only an hour of being mad at each other. We made up the way couples should.
It’s hard for me to look in Angeline’s eyes when we are lying together because of my bad vision. I smell her Angeline–breath, but her face moves all over the place on me and expands across the pillow. Sometimes I see her face pouring like liquid over the sheets; other times it is more like a portable cloud swirling on the bed with little charges … <snip> <snip>
You can read the rest of this story on November 16 when the book Implosions of America: Nine Stories is released. Sign up for further notices at the top of this page. There will be a time when you are able to obtain an ebook copy for FREE. I will also participate in several giveaways of the paperback edition over the winter.