“I’m sorry about all the grandma drama.”
“You know. The tension between your mother and Joy.”
“I didn’t particularly notice, Dad. Other than the time Joy hauled you inside lest your salad get cold.”
“Uh huh. That’s what I mean. I think they got along okay at the beginning, but then the stress built. You coulda cut it with a knife.”
“I don’t think Mom was stressed.”
The phone conversation ended soon after. Jack rarely called his daughter. He always responded when she phoned, and he often thought about calling, but those thoughts tended to occur between 2 a.m. and dawn, or when he was somewhere phoning wouldn’t work. This call was a kind of debriefing after the visit.
He and his wife had just made a road trip to Eugene when Isabel happened to be there. Jack and Joy and Isabel all live in the Bay Area, but when Addy and her husband moved to Eugene and began having babies, Isabel bought a house there, had a cottage built for herself in the back yard, and began visiting for two or three week spans every few months. Isabel is not wealthy, but she’d bought her first Berkeley house, with Jack, in 1975. It cost $49,500. When she married her second husband the first place was sold, and her half of the proceeds (about $75K) went toward the $260,000 home across town. After her second divorce, that house was exchanged for a creekside cottage ($314K), which she enjoyed for 17 years. By the time the nest was empty it was worth $750,000. Which made an all-cash purchase in Oregon easy, with funds left over for the studio cottage she acquired in Berkeley.
So it wasn’t weird for her to be in Eugene when Jack and Joy showed up. It was only unusual because Jack didn’t visit often.
Addy mentioned the call to her mother. They were sitting on the old blue couch in the living room, sipping cider and white wine (respectively), to the sounds and smells of Addy’s husband cooking dinner. The kitchen didn’t have an exhaust fan, so there were always smells when Ian cooked.
“Grandma drama? I appreciate the almost-rhyme, but what’s he mean?”
“You know, Mom. Joy was tense around you.”
“We hardly interacted,” Isabel said. “I mean, there was the opening hour, when Joy wanted to count all the ways we’re similar, and made me smoke that j with her. That was weird. But not dramatic.”
“Yeah. I was there.” Addy put her cider can on the round table next to her and started to curl her legs beneath her before she remembered the fresh ink on her left calf and instead started rubbing lotion into it. “But after that, she noticed whenever you and Dad were together. And she was, well, distracted would be an understatement.”
“Jeez. We didn’t even talk that often. And what does she think: I want him back?” Isabel realized as she spoke that she didn’t mean the question. In her ear, she was starting to sound like her own attention-seeking mother. She thought “jeez” at herself then.
“No. Yes. Exactly. You were the one who broke up with Dad. Maybe Joy thinks he isn’t over it. Maybe he isn’t over it.”
“The only thing he’s not over is the anger. If he ever gets beyond that, he’ll be a different person.” Isabel finished her wine and rose for a refill.
Jack did not mention the phone call to Joy. That might surprise Isabel and Addy, because they know how concentrated and condensed the couple is; they assume talk occurs all the time. Jack married Joy in 1990. He’d lost the love of his life, as he considered Isabel, and he was even more determined with Joy to be nice, attentive, make her happy, give her no reason to complain. That strategy had failed with Isabel, but like any insane campaign, the failure just made Jack try the same method harder. So Jack married and focused all of his attention on Joy. Five years later he retired so he didn’t have to travel away from her. They used the money he inherited from his parents to enable that retirement, and also to purchase all the cable access, paper wares and packaged foods that would make their days effortless and entertaining. They didn’t get around to travel (except for the occasional road trip to Eugene). They never developed a social life. Eventually Jack picked up some small construction jobs from two old (school) friends, which got him out of the house for a couple of half-days some weeks. But most days Jack and Joy spent together, in their adjacent matching recliner massage chairs, in front of their huge plasma television system.
They were not aging well. Like typical 21st century Americans, they didn’t exercise and they took in a diet high in carbohydrates and vegetable oils. They got plenty of sleep but not so much at night. They managed to eke a significant amount of stress out of a work-free, argument-free existence. At nearly 70 both had health complaints. Neither felt well. Their house was always dark, and when Addy visited she wondered if that was owing to chronic depression, a desire to get a better TV picture, or an avoidance of mirror images. Isabel has told Addy stories about her attempts to get Jack to try personal enhancements – arguments she made in their 20s for Jack to shave off the beard or try perming his scarily straight thinning hair – Jack always responded by saying no thanks – he didn’t have to look at himself so he wasn’t bothered by what he never saw.
But Jack had been fit when he said that. He didn’t have good hair, and he could have paid more attention to his face, but he was well-built and strong. All in all, Jack was attractive in his 20s and 30s. At 70 he looked 95.
At 70, he and Joy were lumpy of body and pasty of face. Their hair was lank. Their nails were brittle. Their skin was liver-spotted. Their postures were bent and their walks were shuffling.
Jack didn’t tell Joy about the telephone apology, but he thought about it. He had the call with Addy the night they returned home, and then he had trouble sleeping. He pondered grandma drama.
It wasn’t that at all. It had nothing to do with Addy’s kids or grandma status or anything like that. As far as Jack could tell, Isabel was friendly. She looked good; maybe that was part of Joy’s problem. No. It got worse as the visit lengthened. It had to do with seeing Jack and Isabel together.
Yech. Life sure hadn’t worked out as anticipated. Not that Jack had any exact aspirations. It wasn’t like he had a calling. And growing up a boomer, in the suburbs, schooled in split sessions and public universities, he worked where he landed and did well enough. He never thought his adulthood would be so adventureless, or that his early retirement would mean days of tranquilized solitaire. He felt negative. He acted grumpy. No wonder Isabel and the kids called him a curmudgeon. He was a master of sarcasm.
He had a rough night. By the time the sun rose he was up and pouring his second cup of coffee. He decided to take a walk. It would be the beginning of some regular exercise.
He’d had a few glimmers of clarity during the dark hours. He received a sense he wasn’t able to articulate, something about Joy not being jealous of Isabel now as much as she was jealous of a time: when Jack was happy and Isabel was around. Bigger, though: he realized how angry – furious even – he still was at Isabel. And remembered a book he’d read back when they were married – was it Bradshaw on Family? – that discussed how easy it is to confuse hurt feelings with anger, and how especially guys often said they were angry when they were actually hurt – and all of a sudden (of course long overdue) Jack wanted to examine his own feelings, to see if he could distinguish hurt from anger. He didn’t have a plan beyond that, but he knew he’d have to run the exercise alone.
He snuck his sweats out of the conjugal bureau and slipped out the door as the sunlight hit the porch.