Countdown to Sea
doreen counted twenty corridors and ten doors before a nurse helped her locate her husband at Cottage Hospital. She was careful not to slam the door. Paul’s eyes were closed and he didn’t move. She pulled up a chair beside him. She squeezed her hand and allowed her fingernail to sink into the flesh of her thumb. Everyday Doreen found something new to count. At night, when she fought sleep, she performed long division. She hadn’t always been a counter. It started with the accident at work, a misstep that resulted in ten stitches on her knee, two crutches, and the same black sweatpants for six weeks.
Now, it was Paul’s turn for bad accidents, and bad choices. Only his lot was worse. Two broken legs, three fractured ribs, one arm in a cast, and seventeen stitches on his head. The number of Paul’s stitches matched the number of years between him and his young girlfriend, Laura. She laughed and then cried at the idea of Paul with a younger woman. Doreen remembered when he told her to her face that he and Laura were “just friends.” She didn’t believe him. His lies tasted thick. The tart yogurt notes of his words forced her to pay closer attention to him.
For the first time in the thirty years she’d known him, his hair was not combed. Paul took so much care and trouble with his sweet locks. “Because you never know,” he always said, one of his mother’s sayings. He combed before bed, and always combed long before she needed to be somewhere. He enjoyed the ritual of combing, even though it drove Doreen to passive-aggressiveness because his patches of gray were covered by thick waves of black silk. The silvery strands that managed to stand out only made his hair shine with extra luster. She wasn’t as lucky with the way her roots splashed deathly white all over her crown and bangs, framing a cruel caricature of her younger self. On rare occasions when Doreen offered to comb his hair, he received the best scalp massage and slept soundly through the night without any care for Doreen’s sharp elbows, jabbing his sides, as she tossed and turned. She checked the time on her wristwatch and waited for Paul to wake.
Tonight, Paul hoped there was a chance he’d get lucky. He turned on the bathroom faucet and washed himself, paid extra attention to the place he usually wiped hard with rough toilet paper. He added a dab of cologne to his pubic hair, flossed, and gargled with the wimpy orange-flavored mouthwash she preferred. Because she complained about his rough chin, he shaved for the second time that day. He wasn’t sure if all his prettying up would be rewarded with a brief sack session. His wife grew less inclined by the minute. Was she having an affair too?
When she opened the front door, her purse, stacked on top of her briefcase, hid her face. First, he noticed the state of disarray around her waist. The way she let her blouse hang loose, instead of her usual military tuck, made her look as if she had finished with some quick action in a bathroom stall. She set her things down on the kitchen counter. Her disheveled lion’s mane looked as if she could power the entire neighborhood with her frantic electricity. She didn’t make eye contact.
He turned away. When he took a second look, he noticed her jaw. She was clenching her teeth so tight he could almost hear them shatter and roll to the floor like ice. Finally, her eyes met his for a second and he knew to high-tail it to the couch because that’s where he always fell asleep, watching TV, when she came home in her you’re-gonna-be-so-sorry-I-have-to-do-this-job moods. Even though he made enough money for her not to work, even though she had begged and bartered for a career, Doreen blamed him for her problems at work. She fueled her fantasy of becoming a super multi-tasking woman who had her own money, drove her own car, and carried a planner filled with business appointments and weekly trips to the dry cleaners and the nail salon.
Up until a few years ago, it used to work like a charm: give her a little peck on the cheek and let her smell how eager he was. Lately, she did more sighing and counting to herself, as though giving him a time out, the way they used to do with their son Billy.
“Tired,” was all she said as she lifted her hand and used an invisible force field to keep him from putting his arms around her. He retreated to the couch.
His honeymoon was over before it started. Too bad, he hadn’t retreated for good after the frijoles fracas fiasco. Paul used to prepare the Mexican food his abuelita Lina had taught him how to make. There was nothing easier than cooking a little rice and beans and wrapping it all in a tortilla warmed in the microwave. He didn’t make tortillas like his grandmother, nor did his food taste as good, but the meal satisfied him. The first time he made his special dinner for Doreen, she sniffed the air with her pinched nose, avoiding the steam of beans, and acting as though she’d disappear if she inhaled the earthy aroma.
“What on earth is that foul smell?” Doreen stopped, tapped her heels. She wasn’t stepping foot in the kitchen.
“Frijoles. You’ll learn to love the smell. Trust me.” He moved closer to her, but she only made herself rigid and proceeded to build her invisible wall of China.
“Free-hole-eez! Smells more like a fracas fiasco.”
“What’s a fracas fiasco?”
“Something inedible like your frijoles. I’m getting take-out. Open some windows.” Doreen fluttered her hands wildly. “Your frijoles fracas fiasco is getting on my clothes.”
“Oh, relax. I’ll open some windows.” Paul had a hard time believing she had never tasted or seen a tortilla before moving to California.
She slammed the bedroom door shut. Paul fluttered his hands the way she did to fan away her evil juju. He made a mental note to look up fracas in his Scrabble dictionary; he liked the word. Doreen was good with words. Too bad she didn’t know much about good food. Her relationship with food was as hypocritical as their marriage. Doreen refused to eat his beans, but when they went out to a fancy restaurant, she ordered quesadillas or wraps, gringo burritos made with spinach tortillas. He was tired of the way she watered everything down. Doreen had done a number on him: changed the way he ate, dressed, and walked. When they got married, she refused to take his name and even suggested he change his. She was serious, but backed down out of respect for his father.
Paul hadn’t told Doreen he was ready to reclaim his birth name, Pablo. Pablo like Pablo Neruda. He wanted his name back. His parents still called him Pablo. After the wedding, he told them he wanted to be called Paul. “Pal?” His mother had used her most commanding tone, “Aqui en mi casa no hay ningún Pal, solamente un Pablo.” At home he was Pablo and at work and in Doreen’s world, he became Paul. The arrangement was easy because his parents rarely spoke to Doreen. During the week he and Doreen spent in Mexico, burying his abuelita<.i>, Doreen had to suffer and call him Pab-Low out of respect for his mother.
Paul loved playing Scrabble with women. He could tell a lot about a woman by the shoes she wore and the Scrabble words she formed. Most women took one look at him and proceeded to teach him with the same enthusiasm as singing the alphabet song to a three-year-old. Every now and then, he’d get a sassy gal his age who thought she could show him a thing or two, but he was even happier to let the woman win.
When Laura walked into Book Den, the sun was behind her. She carried herself so regally into the sunlight, as though stepping on earth for the first time. The young woman smiled back at him. He felt a little nervous as she approached. When she challenged him to a game, she didn’t know what she was getting into; neither did he.
Scrabble was something Laura and Derek used to do every free weekend before he was sent to Iraq. After Derek died, she stopped talking to their friends. Eventually, they stopped coming over. It didn’t help that she refused to change out of her bathrobe and didn’t care if she hadn’t washed her hair or bathed. Her friends never asked how she liked the homemade dishes they brought to revive her spirits. She wasn’t ready for a world without Derek. Even when she thought she had heard Derek’s strong voice, it took his poor soul a few attempts to save her. On Derek’s third try, she heard him talking to her from the bathroom, like he used to when he brushed his teeth at the end of the day and remembered all of the things he wanted to tell her. He always ended by saying, “I love you, babe,” and she’d repeat it back to him. He was her silly bug. She thought she heard water running in the bathroom. She mustered enough energy to swing her legs over the edge of the bed and stand. Before she reached the door, she stopped cold upon hearing Derek say, “Get out of the house, Laura. Go play Scrabble, do something!” It was his angry, sergeant’s voice first, and then his softer voice, “Get out of bed, babe.”
After she checked the bathroom and found that the faucet was not running, that everything was just as she had left it and that the noise was in her head, she kept hearing Derek repeat the word Scrabble. Scrabble. Scrabble, she heard again and again. The word hung in the air like some freaky message from the other side. Last summer, when they were walking down State Street, he mentioned meeting new people at the bookstore. He made it sound so fun, said they could take their own board and not worry about getting in on someone else’s game. He also said he was tired of hearing her complain about the wives at the Base. She told him she’d think about it, but it was just as much fun playing at home, just the two of them, especially since he was often away on weekends. Training to kill, she’d say. How eerie the words sounded now as she repeated them to herself.
Laura took slow, deliberate steps the first time she walked into the Book Den without Derek. Her body stiffened as she navigated through space as though wading through a cold river. You can do this, she reminded herself. She saw an older man sitting by himself. His tiles were in a purple Crown Royal sack. He looked lonesome and harmless. When the man saw her, he smiled so cheerfully it made her smile too. She was glad she had showered and washed her greasy hair.
At her desk, Doreen changed from high heels into her sneakers. The lunch ladies never followed her when she chose a one-hour jog over a heavy meal and heavier gossip. They knew of her infamous Superman trick of changing into her jogging suit in the bathroom or, sometimes, in her car. She refused to give any of the lunch ladies reason to mock her, or worse, tag along on her trail of womanly instinct and a wife’s aversion to sweet perfume on her husband’s shirts.
She parked her car at the end of her street, seven houses away. The engine on her new Prius was quieter than a cat’s purr, but she wasn’t taking any chances. If she was going to throw the last thirty years away, she needed hard evidence, or as Shakespeare put it, ocular proof. She was ready to teach Paul and his Scrabble partner a few new words. She checked the time, 12:44. She pushed her bangs out of her eyes. More hair fell out. She flicked the lifeless strands out the window. The thought of Paul’s thick mass of dark hair and the way he recently carried himself like a much younger man renewed her sense of focus. She had to catch him in the act, even if it meant seeing something she didn’t want to see. She looked at the clock again. Still 12:44. She waited for the next minute, grabbed her bag, and walked down the street. The doors were unlocked. She didn’t have to use her key. Apparently, the careless lovers didn’t have the foresight to lock any of the doors. Doreen always shut the tricky front door and locked it whenever she was home. She tiptoed past the trail of clothing, towards the giggles and noises. She hovered in the foyer and peeked in the living room. Paul sat on their couch with his head thrown back. His hand disappeared under the topless woman’s skirt. The girl held onto Paul’s hair while his fingers probed around inside her. Doreen didn’t need to see. She thought twice about pulling out her camera and snapping some photos. Instead, she decided to take the young woman’s underclothing. That way, they’ll know. She raced back to her car. The laces of her sneakers came undone. She kept walking, caught her breath in the car. She looked at the clock, 12:52. Seven minutes to kill twenty-five years of marriage, five years of courtship.
She drove away from her street, turned onto the highway and headed for Ojai. She parked at the lake and watched the water for three hours. Doreen cradled her knees and comforted herself by remembering all that she had accomplished despite her failed marriage and one conservative daughter who’d rather be a housewife and stay-at-home mom. She had marched for women’s rights so that her daughter and future women would have opportunities and choices she didn’t, including the glories of birth control. It’s not her fault her ungrateful daughter doesn’t appreciate all of her sacrifices. She survived the divorce of her first husband at a time when women were supposed to stand by their men, no matter how hard and blue they beat them. She was the very first female administrator at the college’s resource center. She surprised her husband and mother when she graduated from city college. If she could survive being married to her bipolar ex-husband, she could survive anything. Bipolar. She laughed at the word. She didn’t find out what Joe’s problem was until well after their divorce. She lived with Joe’s wicked mood swings before the word bipolar had been invented.
Up until the last three years, living with Paul had been a piece of cake compared to her brief, but hellish marriage to Joe. Lately, she didn’t know what to do with Paul. She was devoid of any passion for him. She didn’t mind the arrangement and lack of intimacy herself, but it was obviously difficult for Paul, who must be taking Viagra or something. He was having an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter. He had ruined their lives and she was keeping the house, the car, the TV, and their kids’ love. She skipped a stone in the lake for each of her accomplishments and future goals and got back into her car.
She returned to an empty driveway and locked house. She wondered what Laura thought about her missing underwear. She opened her bag of ammunition. The bra and panties were still there and she felt as if she were a pervert. She uncorked a bottle of wine, poured herself a glass, and waited for Paul.
Paul pulled his car into the garage. When the rumble from his stereo ceased, he continued to sing along to the Rolling Stones, his favorite band. Doreen roiled with anger at his cheerfulness. She refilled her glass and eyed him with her iciest stare.
“What happened to you?” Paul’s smile quickly faded into a frown.
“It’s over, Paul. Thirty years, sixty days.”
“What’s up with you?”
She raised her hand to silence him. “I have ocular proof.”
“That’s from the Shakespeare play you dragged me to. Don’t start with your drama.”
She pulled out the underwear that was not hers and held up the lacy garments as though they were stiff enough to stab him.
“I’m not having this conversation.” He took a swig from the bottle of wine, then a swig that lasted several seconds, until he downed the rest.
“What are you trying to prove?” Doreen saluted him with her half-filled glass.
“Nothing.” He slammed the bottle on the coffee table and took off on his motorcycle.
Doreen wasn’t sure what had just happened. Paul had a special gift for twisting her words and claiming to be both victim, and victor. She didn’t even have time to bring up the Scrabble issue. Those quirky alphabet tiles and game she never understood. His newfound interest in words and books and hanging out at bookstores, his bad posture from hunkering over a Scrabble board as though making the most important decisions of his life were part of his infidelity. He owed her an apology. She was the wounded one, but he had walked out and deprived her of yet one more stinging victory.
Paul wanted to get on the highway and ride fast. He turned down Ortega road, swerved for a cat, but didn’t have enough time to adjust for the huge truck coming straight at him. Quick pictures flashed through Paul’s mind. Slurping root beer floats after school with Lucy, Larry, and Gina. His daughter Juanita, the namesake his mother never knew. Lucy’s telegram telling him to forget about her and baby Jaunita. Doreen announcing she wanted a job and had already found one. His daughter Nikki begging for money for the roller rink. Fishing off the pier with his dad. His mother singing a Mexican love song. Abuelita Lina kneading dough. And then nothing.
Paul’s arm bandage, stitches, and cast kept him from shifting to a comfortable position. He wanted to scratch below his belly button and comb his hair. He heard Doreen counting and muttering to herself. He opened his eyes enough to see Doreen was pissed. He wondered if he could play dead until she left. Did she ever stop to count all the times she tried to make a fool out of him in front of her friends or the kids, all the times she got mad at him for no reason and blamed him for her problems at work, all the times she teased him with the promise of sex?
His first instinct had been to deny the whole thing. Say something like... Laura, she’s someone in the Scrabble club that’s all. But Doreen had to spy on him and find ocular proof with Laura’s bra and panties. Laura. He started to mouth her name and screw up his face. He wanted to invent a good excuse, but Doreen’s expression stopped him. He saw his own mother staring back at him. How do women do that? If it weren’t for Doreen’s blond hair, which she dyed to prevent herself from “looking like Joan,” she resembled his fair-skinned Mexican mother. His mother always went on about how improper it was for a married woman to dye her hair like a prostitute. Joan. Doreen anglicized both of his parents’ names well before she changed his name to Paul. He was too slow to learn and had been blinded by Doreen’s small waist and long legs. She still looked cute in the tailored suits she wore. He fought the urge to disconnect himself from his cast and tangle of tubes. He pushed for more morphine and drifted back to sleep.
Doreen managed to avoid Paul’s parents, Laura, and any number of his friends and coworkers. She stared at Paul. Three of his nails on his good hand were severely chipped and bloody. He looked so vulnerable all bandaged up like Joseph Heller’s soldier. Paul used to ride his motorcycle to work, until she put a stop to it. Doreen told him he was getting too old to zip around like a rock star on wheels. He was lucky to have survived with broken bones and stitches. She refused to take any blame for his accident, especially since the first word out of his mouth was Laura. Even though she was proud of her detective work, Paul was the last person she imagined having an affair. He hadn’t looked sexy or even good in the last fifteen years. Especially after he developed the Santa Claus paunch that limited his wardrobe to tent-sized flannel shirts. She never thought he fancied himself a Casanova, but he always had nice hair and dreamy eyes. Her lids had started to droop with bags of worry and too much overtime. His droopy bags only made his dark eyes look ready for love. She wished she could say the same about herself, but she hadn’t had any sexual urges in over a decade. We’ve had enough of that stuff, she reminded herself. Paul had his Hippie days. She performed her wifely duty until she started suspecting Paul was getting his needs met elsewhere. She wondered if his accident would affect his infatuation for Laura or would the near-death experience remind him of what the two of them had sacrificed. Didn’t the past thirty years count?
Even more pathetic—she still loved the old fart. They were supposed to grow old together. For a second, as she pondered his defeated body in a hospital gown, she thought she could take him home and things would be like they used to be. She remembered their wild love affair before they got married. How they used to fool around in the back seat of his car like teenagers, even though they were both well past thirty. This was all before he started leaning on his Mexicanness. She didn’t have anything against him being Mexican, but as a couple, they needed to match and fit in. She didn’t have any exotic qualities to flaunt unless you counted the fact that the Irish had once been slaves. But she imagined them reconciling patching things up anyway. Paul would be grateful for her extra health insurance and elated that she had actually forgiven him. Doreen’s fantasy ended when he murmured her name again. There was no mistaking Laura for lollipop, lips, luck, or love.
Melinda Palacio's most recent work is How Fire Is a Story, Waiting. She is the author of the novel, Ocotillo Dreams, for which she won the Mariposa Award for Best First Book at the ILBA 2012 and a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature. Read more about her poetry and fiction at www.melindapalacio.com. She also writes a column for La Bloga.