This couldn’t have happened. That’s what I keep telling myself. Not to Pamela. The smartest, prettiest, and most successful of the three of us, with her naturally platinum blonde hair and chic designer clothes . . . not to mention her fluency in Latin and Greek!
Telling it to you, like this, as we walk along the beach in the rain, is the only way I can make it real . . .
Where to start?
Anywhere, it doesn’t matter . . . you’re right.
I was always known as the “rebellious sister”—the one who told our tyrannical father to go to hell, the one who took off and married too young, against his wishes, and then disgraced him with my nasty public divorce, that hypocritical adulterous Catholic who, repeatedly, cheated on my mother. The local papers couldn’t get enough of the salacious details about the town’s most prominent family, and its rebellious daughter. Not that it was unexpected. From early on, I’d been ruining my father’s reputation, sometimes deliberately. In my teens, I became a punk stoner with a fake diamond stud in my nose, pushed the limits however I could, then went to a distant, not very prestigious state university and got myself a degree in art history instead of the MBA he insisted on in order to join his precious business—which, of course, I had no intention of doing. Though it was well before then, even as a child, that I knew I’d be leaving one day, never to return.
So, of course my first big trip away from home was to the furthest place I could think of: China . . . in 1989, a couple of months before Tiananmen. I was a year into my MFA program, specializing in ancient Chinese Buddhist art, and eager to see it in its original home. Though everyone was warning me against it . . . actually, because everyone was warning me against it.
Yes, it was kind of dangerous then, but I was determined to make my way into the Asian art world, and I’d convinced myself that the way to do it was to go to the source, in China.
I’d written a prize-winning paper on T’ang Dynasty Ch’an painting, which became my entry into a cross-cultural exchange program sponsored by a university consortium of Asian art specialists who assigned me to a tour of the major Buddhist art sites around Szechuan and Southwestern China.
The first thing I found on landing in Beijing was that the smell and taste of the air was like nowhere else: a fiendish signature brew of coal dust, garlic, sweat, sputum, roasted sesame seeds, shit, and burnt sugar. City or countryside, East, West, North, or South—wherever I went, the air was the same.
No, I’m not exaggerating.
Bound for different parts of the country, my colleagues and I were packed for processing into an old, marble Soviet-style hotel with fleas in the faded gold brocade draperies and massive Catherine-the-Great four-poster beds. The never vacuumed faded carpets were emblazoned with too many layers of dust and grime to make out any decipherable patterns of design but might have been Persian in origin. Or, possibly, imitation Aubusson.
We were an oddball collection of two randy males: one Czech, one Danish, and one female American, me—the three of us destined for the farthest, least civilized Maoist reaches of the Middle Kingdom; an Austrian, uncanny Brad Pitt lookalike, which might account for why he got the single plum assignment (Shanghai); and a British, Chinese-and Russian-speaking woman, who ended up in Harbin and, I later heard, had to be airlifted back to Beijing and treated for what was rumored, and vigorously denied by the program administrators, to be SARS.
Of course I fell in lust with Peter, the Austrian. Shared a couple of taxi rides to recommended five-star hotel restaurants with him, which, ignominiously, before we could ever get into bed, resulted in two vicious cases of food poisoning that left us vomiting and prostrate in our individual Catherine-the-Great four-posters until the day we were shipped out to our respective destinations, never to lay eyes on each other again.
The Chinese carrier, CAAC, laughingly referred to by our tour guide as “China Air Always Crashes,” creaked and grazed its way across the terrifyingly close Szechuan Alps for four hours, tossing us around like rag dolls in our tightly cinched seatbelts.
No, we didn’t crash. But, on landing in Chengdu, we were individually herded into separate transit lounges for questioning. My interrogator, a ferociously pock-marked woman in combat fatigues and a black beret, pointing a Kalashnikov in my face, accused me of being an Israeli spy and demanded I surrender my passport, until her male superior convinced her otherwise and, after informing me that our tour had been canceled, led me back to the group and bundled us into a bus, which drove us only a few yards to a waiting airplane on the tarmac, where we were re-boarded and shipped back to Beijing and dispersed for flights back to our respective points of origin later that night.
That was my first—and only—dangerously crazy act of rebellion. Since then I’ve worn my black sheep mantle lightly. It was Denise, the “good, quiet youngest sister,” who suffered for me, although I never asked her to. That was her role, the martyr, assumed when our mother died. Denise was the fragile one our father never dared to berate, the way he did me. “Ruth, the Brute!” he’d scream, in response to my cutting remarks and the spiteful smile I’d deliver after every slap in the face. It was different with Pamela, too. Not only wasn’t she beaten—it was as if he wouldn’t dare approach her, almost bowing from a respectful distance, like a servant, as she entered or left a room. There was something so superior and majestic about her, the way she carried herself—untouchable, unreachable—as if she were encased in a cloud, an angel in red lipstick and spiked black patent leather heels.
Unlike me, Pamela married the “right man” at “the right age” (28). Immediately after taking her Ph.D., in classics, she got the “right job” (Stanford) in the same department as her brilliant husband George. Partners, never competitors, they collaborated on the same papers and award-winning books, and were equally admired and envied by their peers. Scandal-free, no affairs on either side—with students, colleagues, or otherwise. Pamela and George had a son, Devon, a beautiful, fair-haired boy who started talking in full sentences at eight months and reading when he was two.
Then George went to his college reunion, met an old boyfriend, and, within a week, Pamela’s blessed life was shattered to bits.
She was stirring a martini when George came through the door and made the announcement. Without waiting to take off his coat.
“I met the man I’ve loved since I was twenty!” George (who was forty at the time) blurted.
Pamela finished stirring the martini. Turning to him, she opened her mouth to speak but found herself struck dumb. My oldest sister wasn’t a crier, but this time she really broke down and wept—for days. Until George packed his things in a roller they’d both shared on conference trips, and left home to move in with his boyfriend, never to step foot in their luxurious Palo Alto ranch house again.
When asked where he was going, George quickly scribbled the address of his lover on a Post-It and, ordering her not to try to visit or call except for an emergency involving Devon, initiated their divorce.
Pamela retreated into depression. Unable to sleep or eat, she lost fifteen pounds in three weeks. I had moved to Hawai’i by then, but we’d remained in touch via our monthly phone calls. Pamela didn’t like texting. And she only used email for professional communications. She preferred “touching base” in the monthly phone calls she insisted on making herself. Probably because she was worried about the cost for me. An assistant curator of Asian art at the Honolulu Art Museum doesn’t earn nearly as much as a Stanford professor. You’re smiling. I’m serious. It’s been hard living from hand to mouth, housesitting to keep from paying rent, all my stuff in storage. But never mind; this isn’t about me.
What? Oh, yeah, those Japanese wedding tourists are all over the beaches . . . taking photos even in the rain. They stopped being cute long ago. Let’s move under those ironwood trees . . . though there isn’t much shelter left since they’ve been pruned to death by the so-called arborists the county periodically sends out to destroy whatever is left of the landscape . . .
Where was I? Yes, thanks for reminding me. Pamela’s breakdown.
Apparently, Denise, an epidemiologist working for the CDC, in Atlanta, got to Pamela before me and managed, somehow, to coax her into seeing a psychiatrist. Denise was always better at this sort of thing than I ever was—I tend to come across as heavy-handed and bossy. Whereas Denise, with her sweet, high-pitched little girl’s voice, can convince you to do anything you never thought you’d want to do. At least she was successful enough to get Pamela eating again; and, with the help of the pills her psychiatrist prescribed, she was sleeping, too.
When I called, Pamela had recovered a little. She had even gone back to teach her classes, felt it was essential not to let down her Ph.D. candidates in particular. Though unrecognizable, a wraith in baggy Tai Chi pants and black slippers, she heroically attempted to resume her life as best she could—for Devon’s sake, mostly.
When George quit his job and moved with his boyfriend Karl, now his husband, to teach in Dunedin, in New Zealand, Pamela broke down again, seriously enough to warrant a stay in the university hospital’s psychiatric unit. This time, no amount of therapy and pills, or Denise’s tender loving care, could help her. A protracted sick leave saved her from losing her job. Devon went to stay with Denise and her own “difficult,” probably autistic, husband and two weird kids in Georgia.
Anyway, Pamela’s ex had shared custody rights, which he quickly took advantage of by getting a court order allowing him to bring Devon to New Zealand to live with him. Denise fought him, claiming to be Devon’s legal guardian until Pamela was sufficiently recovered to care for the boy herself. She lost. And Devon’s still with his dad.
You’ve lived in New Zealand . . . what’s Dunedin like? I heard the South Island is cold . . . and Dunedin really cold.
You’ve never been there? Guess I shouldn’t be surprised. There are plenty of places in the States I haven’t been. I can’t take cold weather. Which is part of the reason I stay here, despite the insanely high cost of living. No, I don’t miss the change of seasons. I prefer the endless summer. . . As a surfer, I thought Devon would like it, too. So, when Pamela suffered her first breakdown I offered to bring my nephew to Hawai’i but was discouraged, via several contentious email exchanges with Denise, who had never taken me seriously, in the past, and had no plans for trusting her nomadic “brute” of a sister with Pamela’s precious offspring now.
Not that I’m a model of perfection when it comes to relationships. My own disaster of a marriage, though brief, certainly suffered its share of sturm und drang, which my no longer gentle and forgiving sister Denise judged in my unfaithful husband’s favor. Accusing me of being too demanding because I wouldn’t tolerate Bruce’s philandering with as many patients as he could get his hands on, both off and on the examining table, she said she simply couldn’t “get her mind around” my refusal to accept what she called his “heartfelt apology” (how did she know it was “heartfelt”—she’d met him exactly four times after we were married?) and the public humiliation I laid on him the night I took him out for his forty-fifth birthday dinner in his favorite, obscenely overpriced, Persian restaurant—leaving me with a bill for three-hundred and fifty dollars charged to my credit card, along with his overdue tax bills, which I only stopped paying for two years after the finalization of our divorce. And that’s not including what was left of my tiny share of the annuities we held in common.
How could Denise expect me not to make a scene in that bankrupting Persian restaurant, or any restaurant, for that matter, when my dear husband quietly informed me—over a sixty-dollar caviar-laced sheep’s yogurt appetizer and a forty-two-dollar glass of French Bourgogne (!)— I wasn’t really his type, that he’d always been driven to seduce younger, skinnier women (both of which I was, when he first met me) and that he knew he’d made a mistake marrying me, on our wedding day—at the reception! Of course I behaved like a “termagant”—that was the word Denise used, “termagant”—though where she got it from, I can’t imagine. Denise was never a big reader. She’s a moderately talented medical researcher with a limited imagination when it comes to anything outside of her field.
Don’t look at me like that. I’m not trying to be funny. Though I have to admit, this whole Real New Jersey Housewives over-the-top tragicomedy is starting to make even me want to laugh.
You’re right, life is often crazier than a reality show. Though I never watched one. But, yeah . . . that strikes me as right.
What time is it? Four. Good, there’s still plenty of time for me to get back to feed Agnew. Oh, you didn’t know I’d adopted a cat . . . When? Last week. Rather, the cat adopted me. Hung around waiting to be fed. Though I later found out that he was sort of owned, and well fed, but always wanting to eat more. I met the owner one day, a crook-backed old lady living down the block; she said she didn’t mind if I fed the cat. Since he was always meowing for food, she’d named him “Noisy.” Other than that, she seemed to have no particular attachment to him— Actually, I think she was glad to have someone to share him with, since he didn’t live indoors and was half street cat anyway. For some reason his pinched face and close-together eyes reminded me of Spiro Agnew. That was Nixon’s vice-president . . . a crook, like his boss.
But of course you already knew that. I’m not getting ‘testy,’ just explaining why I named the cat Agnew.
Look, it’s stopped raining. Since we planned to eat at the Olive Tree and that doesn’t open till five, let’s walk a little further toward Bellows Beach. It’s nicer now that the beach has cleared and the Japanese wedding people have moved on. Did you know that all their wedding paraphernalia is rented? It’s all part of a pre-paid package deal . . . gowns, tuxedos, bouquets, photos, stretch limos, wedding cake, photographers, hotel . . . Even the locations, shots, and poses. Lately, the photographers have been directing the grooms to lift the brides high in the air. Pity the poor skinny guys with their plump new wives in those super heavy crinolines and stiff, scratchy layers of tulle! Not today, though. You missed it. Today was pretty tame, considering. Compared to other tourists, the Japanese are pretty tame. Conformist. Nobody wants to stick out. My Japanese acupuncturist told me there’s a saying that goes something, like, the nail that sticks out the farthest gets pounded down the hardest.
I read somewhere that the Japanese have the least sex of any other ethnic group. That’s why their population is dropping to point zero something . . . no sex and no immigration. A sure combination for disappearing.
Speaking of disappearing . . . Did I mention that, after confessing that I wasn’t his type, my ex husband got up and left the Persian restaurant before disappearing into the rain.
No, not like Humphrey Bogart . . . if only. What did he look like? Uh . . . a little like Russell Crowe, only not as . . . baggy . . . if you know what I mean. Bruce’s one saving grace was his love of classical music. No, Russell is a rock musician. A pretty lousy one, I gather, though I never heard him play.
The last concert my ex and I attended, an all-Prokofiev program, provided me with an opportunity to unleash a parting shot at him. We were climbing over the knees of the concertgoers in the neighboring seats when an old guy, seeing the ticket Bruce was holding up, asked, “Are you odd?” Referring, of course, to the odd/even seats. Bruce didn’t hear him. But I did . . . So, I stopped briefly in front of the old guy, smiled, and said, in a loud voice, “Yes, he is! Very odd!” making everyone in our row within hearing distance laugh. It wasn’t intended to be cute, by the way. I was too alienated by then to hold back from publicly humiliating Bruce whenever I got the chance. Besides, I wasn’t too high on myself, either. I’d gained a good bit of weight (was about ten pounds heavier than I am now)—and against my ex’s advice—I was wearing a too tight white dress and too high heels and had to squeeze myself into the narrow space between the rows, trying not to step on the toes of the people who were already seated.
It was an “intentionally aggressive act” . . . I agree with you. Dressing inappropriately is a weapon I’ve used against my father, my ex . . . against any man who pisses me off . . .
What about Pamela? I guess I changed the subject because talking about her is still too painful . . . though it’s been two years now . . .
She never got out of the hospital . . . But not because of her mental breakdown. They were checking her out for allergies or other problems she might have with the cocktail of psychotropic drugs they were about to prescribe . . . Give me a minute. No, I’m ok . . .
It was during the physical exam for possible side effects of the medications that they discovered she was suffering from a rampaging form of lymphoma and immediately transferred her from the psych unit to oncology. Within a month, she was dead. I was with her. Day and night. Holding her hand, watching her fade into nothing. Forced to chase Denise out of the room for getting hysterical, for ranting. For blaming everything on George, on me, on everyone but Pamela herself . . . though Pamela was clearly the one she blamed the most . . . for leaving her, for not living up to her glorious “persona” . . . for being loved more, by my father, by her students, by her beautiful replicate son. But mostly for dying. She took it out on me, of course. Though I’d never have taken Denise for one of those people who’d swoop into her dead sister’s apartment and clean out everything, even before the funeral. But that’s exactly what she did. Sold the artwork, the furniture, saying, since I didn’t have kids and she did, I’d have no reason to keep anything. All she left me with was Pamela’s old tee shirt with the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid—“Arma virumque cano . . . Arms and the man, I sing”—in Latin and English. A grey tee shirt with black lettering. And an un-washable olive oil stain in front.