Wednesday

NOT EXACTLY WHAT I HAD IN MIND


Not Exactly What I Had In Mind

“Hit away,” says Posnick, and I step onto the back tee of the 18th hole of Anastaziie, only six strokes over par.  I am extremely nervous at the thought of breaking eighty, something I have never done before.  I take a second and a third practice swing.
“Come on, already,” says Posnick.  He is a short, barrel-chested man who has made millions selling ladies blouses to Sears.  At this point in the match I am up over 250 bucks.  With Posnick, the stakes can never be high enough.  The one thing everybody at Desert Vistas says about Posnick is he likes the action.  You rarely hear them say that about a Gentile.
I find myself paralyzed over the ball, so certain that my shot will turn out bad that I am loath to swing.  I remind myself of all the techniques for staying calm.  Take a deep, slow breath.  Relax the arms and shoulders.  As instructed by a sports psychologist on staff at a golf school Sarah and I attended in Sun Valley, I try to think of a “safe place” – my mother stroking my face when I was a little boy, Sarah and I lying in a hammock on a weekend in Lennox, Mass. 
Wrong imagery.  My wife and mother often terrify me.  I feel the tension surge back into my arms.
“Ethan, hit the fucking thing.  Stella’s got about a million people showing up for dinner at 6:30.”
I don’t remember Sarah saying anything about dinner at the Posnick’s, nor can I imagine them holding a large party without inviting us.  You can’t hide anything at Desert Vistas.
Skeptical that there is any way I can calm myself, and sensitive to Posnick’s impatience, I abruptly lash at the ball, my arms locked, my legs frozen, my swing a parody of itself.
The ball streaks on a low line toward the desert.  I am certain it will be lost; or if I do find it, tangled in a maze of brutally sharp cacti prongs.  At the last possible second, however, the ball slices sharply to the right and winds up bouncing into the middle of the fairway, about 185 yards from the tee.  I feel an astonishing rush of relief.
“Son-in-law shot,” says Posnick.
“What’s a son-in-law shot?”
“Not exactly what I had in mind.”   With that, Posnick immediately begins his characteristically short and sudden lunge at the ball.  It comes off the club low and slicing, not unlike my mediocre drive, but still manages to bounce a good thirty yards past my ball. 
“Son-in-law shot,” I say.
“Fuck you.”
We set out down the fairway, our carry-bags hooked over our shoulders like knapsacks.  “You realize, of course, you’re only six over par,” says Posnick.
“Hey, come on, you don’t tell a pitcher he’s throwing a no-hitter.”
“I never figured you for the superstitious type, E.”
“I’m not…just feeling pretty nervous.  I’ve never had a round in the seventies before.”
“Shit,” he says, “this hole’s an almost automatic par, even from where you are.  You make a bogey, you still shoot 79.”  In all the rounds I’ve played with Posnick over the years, I can’t remember seeing him choke.  I imagine life in the garment business has somehow inured him to the pressure.
I stand over my anemic drive with my trusty seven wood, the only one of my fourteen clubs with which I am truly comfortable.  Try as I might to block them out, a slew of negative thoughts invades my mind:  there’s out of bounds to the right; they could replace me with a hotshot young creative guy at the agency and save a hundred grand a year; I’ve got to stop postponing having that lump on my back checked; will my son Adam ever find anything more than menial work.
I flail at the ball, and am up out of my stance well before I strike it.  The ball slices savagely to the right and cuts between two boulders, heading straight out of bounds.  Miraculously, it hits a saguaro and drops straight down onto the desert floor, well in bounds, where I am actually able to take a stance.  I punch the ball back onto the fairway, leaving me only about 120 yards from the pin, the perfect distance for a simple wedge shot. 
I am still tight as a drum, however, and skull my wedge to the very back of the green, at least 50 feet above the hole.  Wanting to make sure that I don’t leave the ball perilously short, I knock the putt a good 15 feet past the cup. 
Once every two years I make a fifteen foot putt under pressure.   I am sure today will not be one of them.  Having basically given up on breaking eighty, I jab at the ball carelessly, angrily, defeated.  It speeds toward the hole, hitting the back lip precisely in the middle of the cup.  The ball pops several inches in the air, then drops straight into the bottom of the hole.  A bogey six. Not only have I shot a 79, my lowest score ever, I have taken Posnick for 265 dollars.
“Shit, if the ball doesn’t hit the back of the cup it’s ten yards past the hole,” says Posnick.  “You would have five putted.”  He hands me a stack of bills.  The one thing you can say about Posnick is he settles his debts immediately.
Sarah has asked me to call on my way home, but I want to take her through the excruciating tension of the last hole in person, step by step.  She will listen with seeming interest, but it will only be perfunctory.  A steely competitor, and a psychoanalyst at that, she doesn’t truly understand the concept of self-sabotage, Thanatos, the death wish. 
Life is simple for Sarah:  you pursue what you want without fear or worry, fully expecting to obtain what you are after.  If things don’t work out, you are disappointed but don’t take it personally.  You just pick up and start over again.

I pull into the driveway; and parked in such a way as to block anyone from either pulling into or backing out of any of the three garages is a white Toyota Camry, the prototypical Arizona rental car.  Suddenly I remember that our son Adam is coming in from Boston for the Memorial Day weekend and that there is a good possibility that he will be bringing his new girlfriend (at twenty-four his first girlfriend) with him.
Poor Adam, it’s as if his younger sister Allie got all the traits our society admires, looks, height, social ease, good figure, and Adam all the ones that are scorned – allergies, plumpness, grating voice, thinning hair, extreme earnestness. 
I enter the front hall, wondering what kind of woman would be attracted to my son, when a stranger pops out of the kitchen and we stop inches short of a head on collision.  Smiling brightly, she extends her hand.  “Sorry, I almost ran you over.  You must be Mr. Lerner.  I’m Meg Hanratty, Adam’s friend.  I believe you know my parents.”
There is a disconnect.  Up until now, Adam’s friends have almost exclusively been post-adolescent boys with unruly hair, eruptive complexions, the tell-tale grayish hued skin of heavy pot smokers, and a pronounced inability to look one in the eye.
This woman has the unmistakable look of a mature, middle-aged person.
She thrusts her hand at me.  Her grip is strong, too strong.  “Just on my way to the loo,” she says.  “Catch up with you in a minute.”
She zips around the corner, and I stand there and take a long, deep breath.   I roll my shoulders.  I am only steps from the kitchen, in which I can hear Sarah, Allie, her investment banker boyfriend Richard Halpern, Sarah’s sister Phoebe, and, yes, Adam, in the ritual preparation of Saturday night dinner. 
I can picture it in my mind:  Sarah directing, Allie second in command, with Phoebe, Richard and Adam carrying out their orders, chopping garlic, setting the table, running out for wine or bread crumbs or some other overlooked ingredient.  There is chatter, and white wine drinking, lettuce washing, lemon slicing -- an overall feeling of festiveness.  Someone has put on the CD of The Harder They Come, a family favorite.
I am trying to dredge up the courage to enter this world, when I hear the distant flush of a toilet, then the characteristic squeak of the warped powder room door being yanked open.  I plunge forward, steps ahead of the onrushing Meg.
“Hey, everybody,” I say as I am assaulted by the brightly-lit kitchen and the swirl of activity.  I catch my son’s eye.  “Adam, baby, how are you?”
I hurry over to him, and he hugs me powerfully.  I imagine I must feel stiff and unyielding in his arms and, in a second effort, pull him closer, plastering my cheek against his.  “I’ve missed you so much,” I say.
“Did you meet Meg?” he asks.
“Yeah, just now…in the hall, we almost ran into each other.”  I chortle lamely.  “She seems great.”
I am trying with all my strength to force a warm, welcoming smile onto my face, to join in the cheery mood of the kitchen, to overcome the rage I feel at Adam’s sorry choice.  Sarah, who at times seems to know me better than I know myself, has surely anticipated my reaction to Meg and declares, “Hey, you better hurry up and jump in the shower.  You’re late, Mister.”
I check the clock.  It is 6:45, not late at all.  But I welcome the chance to regroup alone.  Sarah hands me a glass of cold, white wine.  “It’ll help you unwind.  Dinner’s served at 8.”  She turns to the others.  “This golf is rough business.” There is an appreciative group chuckle.  As I trudge up the stairs, I hear the convivial buzz in the kitchen take flight once again.

Allie is seating us and directs me to my usual place at the head of the table.  I am amused by this because everyone in the family knows that the real head of the table is wherever Sarah decides to plunk her ass.  Allie places Meg at my left, Phoebe to my right.  The shower and the glass of chardonnay have helped me regain my equilibrium.  I turn to Meg with what I believe is a kindly smile.  “And how are your folks?”  Another question keeps trying to force its way onto my lips – How the fuck old are you, anyway? – but I keep it at bay.
Of course, I know full well how her folks are, for her father Tim and I play golf together at least two times a week.  But I need time, small-talk, to hear her voice, to use my own, all in the hope of corralling the shock and anger that is trying to paralyze my vocal chords.  I need, somehow, to get used to the idea of my poor, befuddled son giving himself to a woman old enough to be his mother.
“Oh, Dad’s his usual curmudgeonly self, but Mom is doing great.  The doctor says he doesn’t even see the need for her to go through chemo.”
How did she and Adam ever get together in the first place, I wonder.  Fucking Sarah, always match-making.  Our Adam isn’t dating anyone right now.  Oh, my poor, naïve, unsuspecting son.  This woman has pounced on him like a mongoose on a cobra, only Adam doesn’t have a drop of venom in him.
In response to my asking what she does for a living, Meg is describing in great detail all the aspects of her role as an assistant director of promotion for a Boston TV station.  I am studying her face as she drones on, the heavy, unplucked eyebrows, the wide, almost jowly cheeks, the wiry black hair speckled with gray, the studied avoidance of make up.  To my eye, she hasn’t a hint of the handsomeness of either of her parents.  I remind myself to ask Sarah if she was adopted. 
After we finish the main course, Sarah dispatches her sister Phoebe to go get the pies.  Adam accompanies her into the kitchen and comes out with a bottle of champagne.  “Listen up, everybody,” he says, clinking his knife on a glass.  “I’ve got an announcement to make.”  He begins passing out a package of plastic champagne glasses.  And as the assemblage busies itself pushing stems into bases, Sarah catches my eyes with her own and widens them menacingly.  I know the look.
Adam raises his glass.  “To Meg,” he declares, “soon to be the mother of our child!” 
“Oh, my God,” squeals Allie, “You guys are going to have a baby?  That is so exciting.”
Meg and Adam nod their heads manically.
“When is the baby due?” Phoebe asks.
“August 28th, Dad’s birthday.”  I can sense Adam trying to catch my eye, but I pretend to be consumed with shoveling a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie onto my fork.
“Hear, hear,” says Sarah.
As we all drink, Meg goes over and sits on Adam’s lap, at which point the only part of him that is still visible is a small slice of the left side of his face.  It’s an astonishing sight, to my eye, anyway, for if nothing else it is quite clear that their positions should be reversed.

Sarah is reading in bed, the duvet folded neatly across her chest, as I amble in from the bathroom.  She looks up at me, fixes me momentarily with her eyes, then returns to her book.  “Don’t start,” she says.
“I took thirty milligrams of Ambien,” I report.
“Trying to commit suicide?”
“I still don’t think I’ll be able to fall asleep.”
“Why not take a hundred.”
I grab a New Yorker off my night table and push my feet under the covers.  I read several paragraphs without having a clue what they are about.  “He was going to be my linebacker, Sarah, my go getter, my hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners litigator, the guy who marries a super-model.”  My voice cracks.   “He’s such a fucking baby.”
“What will be will be.  Now let me read my book.”
I quit the short story and look at the cartoons.  Nothing seems funny to me.  “Who’s going to support them?  Where are they going to live?  Who’s going to watch the fucking baby?”
Sarah puts her book down.  “We’ll figure it out,” she says, turning off the light and rolling onto her side.  Somehow that’s become our family mantra.  We’ll figure it out.  We almost never do.
 
            I lie there in the dark, trying to summon the energy to tell Sarah about my record-breaking 

round of golf, when I hear the gentle buzz of her snore.  I lie on my back, my hands at my side, 

impatient for the Ambien to kick in.

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