At the curb, Roger sidesteps his chauffer and opens my door, indicating that I get in with a smooth, 'step-into-my-office' allure. He shoos the chauffer away. Expressionless, he holds on to the door handle and stares off down the sidewalk. Suddenly I understand why Roger's been gone so long. He's turned into a robot…
"Thanks." I mumble, keeping my eyes on Roger's face as I slide into the backseat. He runs a hand along his jaw, unblinking, and then quickly shuts the door as soon I tuck my legs in. I stare up at him through the tinted window, edging a little bit to my right on the stiff leather car seat.
My hand bumps something and I turn.
I am not sure I can accurately describe how I feel over the next few seconds. Tears spring up into my eyes before I even remember to breathe. I yank my hand away and hold it defensively between my knees, groping at the air with my free hand. I claw at the lock, the ashtray, the door handle… I fumble to undo my seatbelt…I haven't even buckled my seatbelt…I cross my legs timidly and lean as far as I can toward the window, sitting on my hands.
Quietly, I exhale.
I turn my head ever so slowly to the seat next to me.
---She is very small. Fragile, I believe would be the right word.
As I silently gape at her, she shrinks to the seatback, shying as far away as possible, behaving exactly as I had. She draws her knees to her chest, and her feet vanish under the folds of her dress- white, with rows of tiny daffodils and a hem of ribbon. Her eyebrows wrinkle, uncertain, denting her flawless little face. She sticks out her lower lip, pink and quivering, on the verge of unreserved apprehension. She buries her face into the dip between her kneecaps so just her intense, emerald eyes peer out at me, unblinkingly as her father's. We do not break eye contact.
…I am paralyzed.
A peculiar fear heaves at my chest…my reflexes stop.
I am so afraid that it affects my heart rate.
…She is pale, so extraordinarily pale…little blue veins pattern her soft face, running a road map just under the surface of her skin. Color flushes the smooth skin just above her cheekbones, clearly discomfited. She blinks and tiny, almost transparently blonde eyelashes flicker over her eyelids. Her hair falls in strawberry-blonde coils around her ears. She draws breath in the tiniest voice I have ever heard.
I am terrified for her and of her.
"…Hi." I whisper.
She does not speak. She balls her little fist and rubs it across her dazzling green eyes, curling up tighter.
I smile and take my hands out from under me. With all my might I attempt to wave, but I cannot convince my fingers to unbend themselves. I squeeze them against my palms…I pivot my wrists…but I am shaking so badly… I press them between my legs and raise my shoulders to my chin and withdraw.
She watches me decisively, still frowning.
She lowers her own rigid shoulders a fraction of an inch. "…Are you scared?" She asks, almost inaudibly. She has a lisp, mispronouncing her 'r's and 'w's.
"Are you scared?"
She nods too.
She nods again, but more hesitantly this time, as if this were the wrong answer.
I wring my hands. "…It's…it's okay, you know."
She looks away, out her window, scanning desperately for Roger.
He rounds the car, opening the door on her side.
"Daddy!" She whimpers, holding her small arms out. It is even more surreal to hear her confirm what I'd suspected in the first place… He gathers her to him and she wraps her arms around his neck, nuzzling her face into his collar bone. He takes the seat across from me.
I stare at them, open-mouthed, offended, pissed, amazed…
He smoothes the back of her hair and clears his throat.
"…Mark, this is Paige."
Paige. My shaking hands reach out to her, almost touching the small of her back and retreating, muscles not able to hover for too long, too enthralled, retaining every last bit of courage to keep from weeping.
She is beautiful.
I smile. But I'd rather not be smiling.
Maybe four or five years ago it would've been alright to smile, when I'd maybe heard the announcement that Roger had fathered a child-
A little girl…
Possibly I could grin and bear it at the baby shower or… in the waiting room, perhaps-
How about beaming from ear to ear as I passed around the box full of cigars in pink wrappers, clapping my hand on the back of the…proud father-
I could've celebrated. If not with Roger, then at least alone. A phone call would've done a world of good. I would've hung streamers in my apartment. …Subscribed to 'Modern Parent' just so I could feel in the loop. Come on. It wouldn't have been hard.
I am jack shit.
Years of loyalty and whatnot come whipping around the generation gap and hit me where it hurts. I feel competitive. One glimpse of Roger Davis' daughter and I lose all of my self-respect. Severe hindsight syndrome; something like that.
I want a daughter.
Where are these thoughts coming from? I want to rule out jealousy, but no, I am.
Why haven't I had a daughter?
Why haven't I gotten married?
I do believe I'm having either a mid-life crisis or a tantrum…
Let's pause for a self-evaluation: …To be Shakespearean, my life is in its autumn stage. Next comes the cold winter…or the golden years, depending on your cognitive appraisal. Subjectively speaking, from this point, there is no spark of hope for me. No direction from here on out. I've had my fun. Yes, I'd say my glass is half empty. Shoot me.
I'm forty. I live alone. I work. The end.
There are several things missing from my life that the average human should possess- namely, deep interpersonal relationships, an interest in society, appreciation for my accomplishments, spontaneity…
I'm too lazy. I lost the desire to be impulsive way back when all my friends died. I thought I could make a difference. I thought turning my attention to them would matter. But now? Uh,…I vote…does that count as participating in society and making a difference?
I keep telling myself that I don't care what other people are doing, that I shouldn't try to measure up, but I'm failing at pretending to be unconcerned. I don't know what I should do with myself! I'm so damn… average!
Putting things into perspective, it made sense for Roger to run away/disappear mysteriously for years. It's fitting to his personality. Oftentimes he went stir-crazy in his own life, turning to drugs and reckless abandon to keep his mental cabin fever at bay. He muddled through it all- hell and back- and came out the other side as- a wealthy father and husband? What? Pieces of this puzzle are missing. I'm the average one. I'm boring. I was supposed to have the wife and the kids and the house- suburban Scarsdale with a mortgage under my belt and a Golden Retriever and a lawn sprinkler system…I'd join the Parent-Teacher's Association, and buy a briefcase and bring my wife bouquets of flowers after work… I am so confused! Roger ran away to like…deal cocaine or something. Right? Doesn't that make more sense? Where does he get off on popping out kids? I'm the loving father, damnit! Did he come back to rub this in my face?
I don't have a daughter and Roger does…
I watch their interactions curiously, studying Roger's receptiveness of her.
She is behaving as a typical five-year-old would: a bit standoffish, quietly whining into Roger's lapel, more so for attention than from authentic fear of the man sitting across from her. She lied to me, the little bitch. She's not scared of me. I bet I'm not the first stranger to meet with her father in the back of this limo. He's bound to convene with clients back here, bring 'em back for drinks…I'm sure she's seen daddy's co-workers…whoever they may be. She just took advantage of my own fear. Doesn't she understand that I was awe-struck? Does she not know how significant her existence is? Does she not know who her father is, or who I am in relation? What a snot. She just wanted a hug.
I want a hug…
…And a daughter…
"Paige, this is my friend Mark."
He tries turning her by the shoulders to face me, but she stiffens and will not have it. He gives up and just cuddles her, unyielding.
Grr. It's Mark's turn now…
I raise my eyebrows and put a hand to my forehead, shaking my head in disbelief. I could say something, something nice like…congratulations! …Or really I could say anything at all… but fuck that. Had I known beforehand I would've written a speech. Psh.
--Paige, at one time this was my best friend Mark, but I buried my demons and he was one of them.--
That little girl that he is cradling in his arms has no idea that those same arms cradled the bodies of two dying women…both of which Roger loved and lost. This little girl knows nothing of pain, nothing of sorrow, only the embrace of her father's arms, the starchy scent of his sport coat and the back of this limousine. She is spoiled. There is no reason she should not be. Her father is obviously successful… overtly caring and yet somehow distant. Why should he reveal to her his past? The better question would be, what would she care? She doesn't need to know the Roger Davis that I'd known.
I've got it now.
New life, new skin.
He had this little girl and got sent back to the drawing board, picking and choosing what to bring with him in this new adventure called 'Fatherhood and Responsibility'. Roll out the red carpet, Roger Davis is a changed man. A mere blueprint of his former self. I mean- it's not everyday an ex-junkie from the lower East side gets his ass carted around in a limo. But then where does that leave me? On top of the discard pile, I assume. Shed skin, a consequential remnant…a big grinning skeleton in his closet. What's up Roger! I'm here to remind you how much your life sucked!
Ouch. …Maybe I'd better get out of the car. I'm not cut out for this… but obviously I am wanted somehow.
He came looking for me, and here we are. But like I said, I'm not exactly grinning.
We pull away from the curb and drive for a while in total silence.
Roger is caught up in his own sick and twisted reunion plans, so he is not the first to instigate conversation.
Paige resorts to soft mewing, running the side of her cheek along her father's leg and pretending to be a kitten. She paws playfully at his shoelaces, hanging upside down off his lap, and inevitably, kills Roger's machination. Here is my first perception of Roger's parenting skills, and I am not impressed. He is more concerned about maintaining his mystery and silence. A squirming five-year-old temporarily kicking him in the face does nothing for his composure. He grabs her around the waist without even smiling, brusquely plops her down on the seat beside him, and straps her down in one fell swoop. She giggles with glee throughout the lifting-and-plopping process, but after that seatbelt holds her still, she is not a happy camper. She crosses her arms over her chest and glares at him with her tongue out, sniffling.
Roger blushes a little.. had I not been paying attention I would've missed it. See, Roger shows embarrassment a little differently than most. Where I can laugh at my own humiliation, Roger just beats himself up inside for being vulnerable.
Frowning intensely, he raises a hand to his daughter.
Her tongue vanishes immediately. She sinks into the seat, completely noiseless. Roger snaps his glare away and goes right back to pondering, staring through me.
I have so much I want to say and ask that I do not even know where to begin. I bite my own tongue, and the car remains void of conversation.
Several minutes later, Paige whispers, "…Daddy?"
He does not answer.
Paige blinks and rests her chin on the windowsill, patient.
I sit up a few inches in my seat…in case, you know, she wanted to direct her question to me… She looks over at my attentive movement, acknowledging it by frowning and condemning me for even trying. I'm a stranger. No way do I have the authority to be answering her questions.
…I twiddle my thumbs.
The limo is heading due East. We pass St. Patrick's Cathedral and turn out onto Park Avenue.
We slow and stop.
Besides the furious honking from around us, it is painfully quiet.
"…Daddy?" Paige tries again.
Roger is busy staring angrily out the opposite window, carefully avoiding either of us. He moves his jaw slightly, but continues burning a hole through the pigeons and the fenced-in sugar maple sprouting from the median on the other side of the glass.
"Yes, what Paige?" He snaps.
She crinkles her eyebrows and proceeds. "Where are we going?"
"To get your mother."
"And then what?"
"Wait and see."
"Am I coming?"
"Paige? What did I tell you about asking questions? Wait until we get there and you will see what happens. Alright?"
"I said, 'alright'?"
She puts her chin to her chest and looks over at me. I try non-verbal feedback, some kind of encouragement or reassurance, smiling and give her a discreet thumbs-up. In turn, she throws me a look of 'What the fuck dude, I just got chewed out by my dad. Why the hell are you smiling?'
I find this extremely funny. I can't help it. I'm obviously inept here, and Roger's downright frightening. I put a hand to my mouth to keep from laughing. I think I should be speaking up…is it always this tense between them, or am I putting a strain on their loving bond? They had no problem hugging earlier… Maybe I should just leave…
"Mark-" Roger says suddenly. "Yes?" I reply almost immediately. I'm compelled to salute. He scowls at my jumpiness. "…You're awfully quiet."
Well fuck you, you're awfully blunt.
"Look, Mark-" He trails off. "I know this must be…"
"Awkward?" I interject.
Again, the scowl. Well sor-ry, I didn't realize you weren't finished yet.
"…Abrupt." He corrects. "But I figured this would be the best way to go about seeing you again, right off the bat."
I mumble inaudibly.
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Just- never mind…"
"No really. I want to talk. I want to- what were you going to say?"
"I-" I'm utterly disappointed with the state of our friendship…my life…and your wealth and good fortune…
Yeah, the HIV positive son of a bitch. How the hell have you been? Honestly. Any relapses? Immune system been treatin' ya well? T-Cells hangin' in there? I THOUGHT YOU DIED.
"…Um…so…where have you been…" I think of ending the question there, but that might take some time. So I add, "…staying?"
"You mean where do I live?"
"Relatively speaking, yes, Roger, where have you been living?"
Roger bites his lip and then proceeds to rattle off a list of residences. The first are all centrifugal of New Mexico, and he ends eventually and rather proudly with, "…and Santa Fe."
He nods. Then he breaks his intense concentration, the meditative glaze in his eyes clearing, and he leans in close to me. He opens his mouth a second, searching for words, and then says quietly, "I went back."
It is a momentous breakthrough. A reference of the past? Is he acknowledging that we share common knowledge? Indeed, Santa Fe. I remember that! Good job, Roger! Of course… I have no idea why you even went in the first place, so I'm out in no man's land again. Okay, great! You went back. "Why?"
"Business." He says obscurely. …And…we're back to where we started. Nowhere.
"…And now you're in Manhattan?"
"I've been back," he assures me, "on and off for a few years."
I do my best to look deliberately offended.
"…Itinerant salesman?" I try.
"Encyclopedias." He nods. My jaw just about drops off my face.
"…No, Mark, not really." He hisses, a big, stupid grin breaking across his face. He chuckles a little, which is such an incredible relief, and I laugh, and we're laughing, together.
For a moment it feels…normal.
And then his grin vanishes and he collects himself- which is his equivalent of turning back into a robot, and I'm silenced and faltering.
"…Then, um, what do you do…?"
His smile is back. I don't trust it. But I smile right back at him anyway, in spite of myself, because it feels so good to have Roger- real, live, actual Roger, sitting less than a foot away from me, and smiling, nonetheless… He's smiling-at me- and it's totally convincing. Is this where I realize I really, really missed him? I think so.
His eyes dart over to Paige, looking flummoxed on the seat next to him. "Not now." He says. And then the smile is extinguished just as quickly as it formed, again.
Huh? His own daughter doesn't know what he does for a living? She can't know, apparently. …What ever will she do for Career Day?
I exhale and take them in. I don't know what to think. I'm not entirely persuaded that I'm happy to have him back. And who said he was even back anyway? He might just unexpectedly scamper off again, lucratively peddling encyclopedias to the Southwest regions of America.
What a flake.
I'm psyched to see if Collins rolls in his grave when he gets a load of Roger. He might just come out of the ground and wring his neck.
That'd be an awesome spectacle.
I pass judgment prudently and silently. If you ask me, a Lexington Avenue condo is a shameful and ill-fitted home for Roger Davis.
We exit the car and near the house.
He watches me inspect the exterior of his apartment with provocation, but says nothing. My censure of the place is, with intent, a backhanded compliment, and I can see the guilt baring down on him with every sweep of my eyes.
He can't tell if I'm jealous or repulsed by his property.
…It's not jealousy, I promise.
He unlocks the streetside door and we mount the stairs. Paige scrambles up them, yelling, "Mom, we're home!" and disappears from sight.
Our footsteps echo off the marble staircase.
From what I can see, there are four floors, each branching off in separate directions from the main concourse in the hallway. A massive, auriferous chandelier dangles flamboyantly from five floors overhead. The walls are dazzlingly white, which may or may not add to the illusion of endlessness. It's sterile and stuffy- like a great museum.
I think I'm going to be sick.
"Well…This is where I live…" Roger urges with false modesty. He winces a bit. He can tell I'm uprooted by all this. We reach the first landing.
"Mm-hm..." I say, ogling. "A little, ah, much for someone who travels for a living, don't you think?"
The great and terrible sellout. I'll be direct about it, no shame. Why the hell does he need a house this big, especially since the nature of his job is peripatetic?
"Paige and I live here while he's away, but thank you for asking." Admonishes a sharp voice from near the doorway.
A woman in her late thirties strides out onto the staircase, wiping her hands vigorously in a dishtowel. Her eyes are rimmed in black, her lips painted a specious red and her chestnut-colored hair his done up, though she is wearing jeans and an apron.
She slings the dishtowel over her shoulder so it snaps in the air, buries her semi-dried hands in the front pocket of her apron, and pulls out a sealed envelope. The dampness of her fingers make an imprint on the paper.
She glares at me as she saunters past, firing such a curt and merciless simper that I retreat a bit and almost tumble backwards off the stairs.
"This came for you this morning." She says, pressing the envelope into Roger's hands.
"Hey, hey! You're getting it wet…!" He fusses, prying the thing from her grip. She flicks her fingers at it mischievously, sprinkling it with droplets.
Then she grabs the back of his neck and pulls him in for an intense and drawn out kiss. He stumbles forward and the envelope is wrinkled between their colliding torsos. He doesn't seem to mind anymore.
As they kiss, she watches me out of the corner of her eyes, intimidating me, goading me, looking me up and down, almost as if to say, "You see this? This is mine."
…I cannot believe the nerve of this woman! I'm not sorry she'd overheard me criticizing her home. To rattle her, I yawn and check my watch.
They separate in a flurry of breath, and her attention is back on Roger, who is tugging the creases out of the envelope. He puts one of his hands on her lower back and proclaims, "Uh, this is my wife, Christine."
She purses her lips and struts back into the house, untying her apron behind her back. "And this is Mark…?" She quips. Her question resonates over the walls and high ceilings.
Roger nods ineffectually. The woman already had a hunch, and I need no introduction.
She scurries after her into the depths of the house.
We're off to a great start.
Roger leads me into a living room- excuse me- the parlor- and I nestle into a leathery blob that's a hybrid of a bean bag, a piece of modern art, and a massage chair. It pulsates rambunctiously until Roger leans over and flips a hidden 'off' button. I try not to move for the next few minutes in fear of it turning back on.
Roger sits stiffly on a white textile futon. We are separated by an oval-shaped glass coffee table, and he fidgets with his envelope, alternating between setting it briefly on the coffee table, staring at it, and then swiftly yanking it off and twirling it in his hands.
The décor in this room is very crude; shades of grey, the most extreme being black and white. All photographs on the walls are obscure prints- naked women draped over piles of canvases, also in black and white. Behind Roger is a fireplace and a white limestone mantel that slopes inward. Along the shelf are (black and white) studio photographs of Paige in various outfits and settings. Above that is a guitar, mounted much like one would mount trophy buck, and clustered around it are framed headshots (autographed) of the Well Hungarians. It looks much like a shrine. I am both impressed and taken aback by the vanity of it all, and yet, I suppose things in this house have long since stopped being aberrant to me…
The area behind where I am seated is made up of doorways. The one directly to my right is the entryway to the kitchen, and whatever's happening in there smells delicious. From somewhere waaaay off in the back of the house, a grandfather clock strikes 2 pm.
Again, we're immersed in the omnipresent silence.
Roger scoots forward on the futon, getting ready to stand, just as Christine wanders out of the foyer carrying a platter with a bottle of Pinot Noir and two wine glasses. She sets it nosily on the glass tabletop, shoots me a restrained leer, flips her hair over her shoulder and exits.
I roll my eyes and pour myself a glass before Roger can even offer.
Roger checks over his shoulder and then leans forward and looks into the kitchen and beyond. He folds his hands in his lap and then beckons me over to the futon. I carefully lift my butt from the vibrating bean bag and tiptoe over to him, guzzling my entire glass in one gulp and refilling once more before locking my eyes on Roger's.
He inhales, whispering, "You wanna know what I do?"
I nod eagerly over the brim of my glass.
"Mark…I can trust you, right?"
I slowly lower it and eye him suspiciously. Can he trust me? What's that supposed to mean? …He does deal cocaine, I called it! If there is one person on earth Roger can trust, I hope he'd pick me.
"Nope, not at all."
…Whoops, forgot he'd killed his sense of humor.
"What?" I sputter, annoyed. Let's get on with this.
He smiles, for a split second, and boasts, at a whisper, "Mark, I went through training…and uh, and now I work for the Criminal Investigation Department."
Wait a minute. "Hold on. …You what? That's like…so you're like…-what?"
"I'm a plainclothes officer."
"…You're- a cop."
Is it impolite to laugh? "Roger. You're.- An- undercover cop?"
"…Well hot damn."
Roger does not allow my amazement/ridicule. He grabs the champagne cork and squeezes it in his palm tensely, analyzing my reaction. I stare at my reflection in the silver platter and bite my lip. Much of what I have comprehended of Roger's new life is having a negative effect on me. I don't think I'm being fair. Hahahaha.
"…Does this mean I can go tell everybody now?"
Christine strides in at another opportune moment, carrying a wine glass for herself. She reaches across me so her sleeve dangles in my face, and plucks the bottle of champagne from the table.
She shakes her head at me skeptical, piqued… I am a disgrace to the Davis household.
"It's not funny." She succinctly assures me. She pours herself a half a glass of Pinot and then puts the bottle somewhere in the kitchen. I frown into my empty glass.
She reenters and flops down on Roger's left, crossing her legs and sipping daintily. "So… Mark, what do you do for a living?"
I am an unworthy blue collar wage slave proletariat piece of filth, m'am. Kindly eat my shit.
I force a saccharine smile, leaning over Roger- who I had quite forgotten about- and point to my chest. "I work for the Independent Film Channel-"
"Television! My oh my, Roger, you never mentioned him being a TV personality-"
For some reason this catches me off guard and I blush, correcting, "No, no, not- I'm not on TV, I'm the rough cut editor- I work like, behind-the-scenes, so to speak. I splice the film for the daily releases…like, after the editors and directors review the footage I-"
"Fascinating." Christine mumbles sarcastically. She stands and stretches and yawns, "If you're ever doing a local broadcast, do let us know so we can tune in…"
I am nailed with another lip-curling smirk and she exits.