There is something different about Jim tonight, an extra hint of confidence, or even—and I believe I have lived in California just about long enough to use this phrase with authority—inner peace. He sits across the table from me and looks around the restaurant with a satisfied air, when he is not looking at me tenderly, even proudly. He does not squirm in his too-large sports jacket, kindly provided by the staff for those who don't realize a polo shirt is not always appropriate attire. He hadn't flinched when the coat check girl's eyes dawned with the recognition that I was indeed the woman from the commercials. He'd insisted that I pick the restaurant, his treat, and after we arrived spent several minutes quietly perusing the menu instead of wondering out loud and at length what on the long list of Japanese and French words might possibly be edible.
"You're awfully happy tonight," I say, to quell that silence between us, comfortable enough elsewhere but unbearable in restaurants, especially before the water glasses have been filled.
Jim nods. "Well . . . Marianne," he says, and the waitress clears her throat.
"Steak," he says, turning his attention toward her. "And French fries." She is a slim, beautiful girl, like they all are here, with a carefully blank face. She blinks once and turns to me.
"Darling," I say, smiling to reassure the girl that everything is fine, that my husband suffers neither dementia nor irritability, "that's not on the menu."
"They have the ingredients back there," he says.
The waitress smiles, showing off her evenly capped white teeth. "I'll see what I can do."
I order the salmon, as usual. Danny Gillespie, our agent, has passed along a great deal of literature that claims the fats and oils very likely prevent wrinkles, leaving you as fresh faced pink as the slab of fish itself.
"What's wrong with meat?" Jim asks. "And potatoes. When's the last time you ate a potato?"
The night before we left Kew Gardens, I ate a small box of takeout french fries, with salt and ketchup. As he well knew. "You could have picked the restaurant," I tell him, and he is silent. We make a great show out of buttering rolls and take many sips of ice water.
Several times after the food arrives Jim opens and closes his mouth as though to say something, then changes his mind. I am drinking the last of my wine when he finally makes his decision. He takes my hand across the table, his face serious. "I love you," he says. "And I'm so proud of your work here, but . . . we've had our little adventure. Let's go home. This is not where I want to grow old."
He is already old, but I refrain from pointing out the obvious.
"Why now?" I ask. I, for one, like this new town, with its palm trees and warm breezes and interested casting directors, and compromise has always been an essential in our marriage.
"Why not?" he answers. "I don't like being so far away from Maura."
Maura. Our daughter, a souvenir from the early days of our marriage, when I was nineteen and Jim was thirty and he smelled like the coconut hand soap he used when he washed his hands between patients, instead of the talcum powder and latex of later years. Jim was an OB/GYN and I sat behind a desk and scheduled his appointments. We have not seen Maura in eight months. Like her father, she is a gynecologist of sorts, but unlike Jim's, her practice has an ostentatiously religious bent. Christian gynecology is a surprisingly lucrative business, as Maura's well-heeled office and spacious home on Long Island attest. She endorses Natural Family Planning and discusses topics of artificial contraception and sexual health with married couples only. Her policy sounds uncomfortably close to malpractice to me, but there are a number of things I do not discuss with my daughter. This is one of them. She is married to a real-estate agent named David, a freckled tater tot of a man from whom she caught her fervent religion and with whom she has been trying to have a child for a decade. Another thing we do not discuss.
I pick up my knife for no reason at all then set it down again, not wanting to appear hostile. "Maura doesn't need us looking after her." If she were not my child, I would not choose to have very much to do with her, and I believe that she feels the same way about me. As it is, I prove my love for her by keeping my mouth shut, whenever I can bear it.
"We need to get back to our lives," says my husband. "And you should talk to Maura."
"I will think about it," I say to him, flashing the smile that has made concrete the very wonderful concept of royalty checks.
At home, the phone is ringing as we walk in the door. Our machine answers, the caller hangs up, and the phone starts ringing again.
"Marianne Cox," I answer, thinking that maybe it's Danny with some important news.
"I can't believe you finally picked up," says my daughter, three-thousand miles away.
"We were out to dinner." Maura would assume that I've been sitting here all evening, listening to the phone ring and chuckling to myself spitefully.
"Right," she says, "you were just later than I thought you'd be."
"Oh. Well, anyway, hi," I say, trying to sound cheerful. It's a little after six on Long Island, and I imagine that Maura has just said goodnight to her last patient and sent her receptionist home early, as she sometimes does on slow afternoons. She is alone in her office, sitting at the front desk, pushing the rolling chair back and forth. "How's David?" I ask. "I mean, how are you?"
Maura sighs, the same petulant expulsion of air as when she was five, twelve, seventeen. "Did you talk to Dad?" she asks.
Jim leans against the wall, watching, smiling. "I talk to your father quite regularly, dear, almost every day."
"That's not what I mean."
"Why don't you just tell me what you mean then, and spare me the guess?" Jim's smile wavers, he stands just slightly tensed, ever at the ready to mediate, to run interference. I smile reassuringly and shoo him away.
"When are you coming home?"
"Your father and I don't think right now is the best time to leave. I have a very important meeting with my agent tomorrow, and we'll know more after that." It was time, Danny had recently informed me, to "strategize," to "formulate a plan" for my next year here. There were, he swore, some really promising leads, some good stuff that always came out of pilot season, for which, of course, I'd have to be in LA.
"Mom. He wants to come home."
"What makes you think . . ."
"I asked him."
"Asked him what?" In many very important ways, our relationship has changed not a whit since she was fifteen.
"To come home."
"Why? Maura, your attachment to your father is truly admirable, but you are a very big girl now . . . "
She sighs again. "I thought he would tell you. He's going to be a grandpa. So are you. Well, a grandma. I want Dad to be a part of the pregnancy. I want him to oversee the delivery."
"Oh," I say. "A baby." I look over at Jim, standing on the other side of the room, and he mouths "Surprise." There is, I think, something grotesque about her plan to make use of Jim in his professional capacity. Yes, my husband is an OB/GYN, but he was never my OB/GYN, or hers.
"Are you there?" Maura's voice comes through the receiver, annoyed. "I know you're there, I can hear you breathing."
"When . . . when did you tell Dad?"
"A while ago. He wanted to give you more time, he said you were enjoying yourself, but I need him here. Family is more important than whatever it is you're doing out there, anyway."
I take a moment to process this. Of course Jim would want to leave for a selfless, righteous reason. He is a much better person than I am, always has been. There was nothing for me to do but accept this long ago, and move on. "Congratulations, honey," I say. "How far along are you?"
I picture Maura relaxing in her chair, a small smirk around her mouth, thinking that she's gotten her way. "Sixteen weeks," she says.
"My goodness." I add a small bulge to her belly in my mental picture. "That's wonderful."
"David and I are very happy."
"Well," I say. "You should be. I will talk to your father tonight."
"Thanks for being reasonable, Mom," says Maura. "It'll be . . . nice to see you."
"Bye, now." I hang up.
Sixteen weeks ago, my auditions were picking up. I was starting to get phone calls from people asking me personally to come in and read for them. I was recognized on the street by a giggly eight-year-old boy. He thought I worked at a crayon factory featured on Reading Rainbow, but I realized that it was just the beginning, that soon I'd be recognized for who I really was. Jim still believed that eventually, with hard work and practice, he would discover some acting talent. Maura managed, somehow, to conceive a child. The process by which a fertilized egg implants itself into a woman's uterus is remarkably invasive, similar to what happens as a cancer takes hold. It involves the destruction of maternal tissue, the creation of what is, for all intents and purposes, a hole, and burrowing. Burrowing! That's what badgers do, with teeth and claws.
Jim moves over to me, cautiously. "So I guess you'll be wanting to cancel with Danny. I told Maura to go ahead and book us a flight for next week."
"Is that not OK?" He takes my hand in his, and it feels like a trap. "We could stay a little while longer and do some sightseeing, if you want."
"Jim," I say. "I'm not going to cancel with Danny."
He is silent.
"I like it here," I say. "I don't know if I'm ready to leave yet. I just need some time to think about it, please."
"Jesus," he says. "Marianne . . . I don't really see what there is to think about."
No, he wouldn't. "I'm just going to go to the meeting," I say.
"Sure," he says, and he is silent and distant for the rest of the evening, and turns away from me in bed.
The terribly unfair thing is, moving here was Jim's idea in the first place, enthusiastically supported by Maura, who thought her father needed a break from his hard work. As far as she was concerned, I could go on filing and scheduling forever.
About a year ago, we got a letter from his insurance company informing us that the monthly payments for his malpractice insurance were going up, and up, and up. We could afford it. Thanks to word of mouth and the inertia that winds through the streets of Queens, beckoning each new generation to precisely repeat the lives of the last one, our practice was solid. Our baby picture bulletin board was beginning to fill with snapshots of the sons and daughters of girls we'd delivered twenty and thirty years ago. We'd reached the point where a larger check to the insurance company was just that, a larger check, not tangibly connected to a loss for us. But Jim obsessed over the letter, carrying it folded up in his lab coat pocket, staring at it, delaying his response for weeks. He came to me one Friday afternoon, after the last of the six-month checkups and well visits had gone home, holding the letter in his hands. I happened to be lying down on the waiting room couch, flipping through a People magazine. We also subscribed to Parents, American Baby, and Great Expectations, but there had to be something for the young girls to read.
"Marianne," he said to me. His eyes flickered from me to the celebrity wedding montage. He looked hopeful.
I closed People over my index finger. "What is it, darling?"
"Marianne . . ."
I smiled, encouragingly. His patients tended to appreciate this reticence coming from a man so familiar with their most intimate histories; after nearly forty years, I had grown used to it.
He cleared his throat. "This letter's made me think."
"You want to retire?" I asked, helping him along. He was seventy, after all, and I'd recently begun to wonder how the hoop-earringed, tightly ponytailed girls who flipped through People in the waiting room could bear to tell him anything from their stirruped perch on the examining table.
"Nothing that drastic. But what if we . . . took a break? Did some traveling?" He looked again at the People magazine, and I felt deeply tired for my husband, so afraid all the time of being considered foolish.
"It would be lovely to see California," I said, squeezing his knee.
His eyes gleamed, and he fought to keep his sudden relieved smile from becoming indecorously large. "Marianne," he said. "I've always felt that maybe, just maybe, if I gave it half a chance, I could be really terrific at acting."
He was, incidentally, wrong about this.
The first step on our path to stardom was deceptively easy. Molly Doyle, who we saw through a difficult pregnancy with twins several years ago, is married to man who went to UCLA, whose freshman year roommate is now a mid-level agent for actors primarily interested in commercial and voice work. A few phone calls, and we had representation. This is how Jim expected life to be, after sixty—the cashing in of earned favors, lots of handshake deals and understanding smiles. We met with Danny Gillespie three days after our plane touched down at LAX, once we had settled into our one bedroom sublet in an apartment complex that had not only a courtyard, but a courtyard pool. He had a small office in a warehouse-looking building, with a receptionist/secretary who could have been a model. Maybe she was. She managed to look bored and superior at the same time, while eating jellybeans one by one from a bowl on her desk. When Jim approached to announce our arrival, she pulled the bowl closer as though she were afraid he'd steal it. This was not how receptionists in Queens behaved. Personally, I'd always favored busy and accommodating.
Danny Gillespie's personal office was painted construction-paper red. He had movie posters and a complimentary calendar from a Chinese restaurant tacked to the wall behind his desk, which was the cheap, faux wood kind sold at discount stores and covered by a thick pane of glass to protect another poster. He sat behind it, appraising us, raising his bushy gray eyebrows.
"You represent all of these people?" Jim asked, looking around.
"Mmm," said Danny.
That wasn't a yes, but our options were not exactly unlimited, so I kept the observation to myself, and instead asked, "What can you do for us, Danny?"
"I'll get you into auditions," he said. "I'll tell you about casting calls. But that's all I can do. I can't get you jobs. That's your problem."
Jim squeezed my hand. "We'll be fine," he said. I nodded, watching Danny Gillespie's upside down reflection in the glass. His face was transposed over a poster that featured a toddler riding a golden retriever. Both wore sunglasses and baseball caps.
"If you do get a job," he said, "usually I take 15%. But since you two were so good to little Molly, I'll knock it down to 10."
"You're a good man," Jim said, standing up. I nodded and smiled. Danny clearly had some low expectations.
"Yeah," Danny agreed. "Best of luck to you two. I'll be in touch." To his credit, he was, at least weekly. After I started getting jobs, his lists of possibilities for Jim grew shorter and shorter, and mine grew longer and longer.
"People are starting to ask for you, Marianne," he said. "You've got a real knack for this."
He was a flatterer, Danny Gillespie, and I was not some bumpkin who'd hitched a ride out West in a turnip truck, but still it was nice to be appreciated. "Anything for Jim?" I'd ask, right before hanging up.
"I'm working on it, Peaches," he'd say. "Has he been doing those monologues?"
Religiously, two and three times daily. I don't have anywhere near this kind of dedication, but still I get more parts than Jim, and more callbacks. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Aging has loosened the skin on my face just enough that my cheeks are soft, not jowly, my hair is curly and white, and I wear a size 8, same as I did when I was thirty. I am comfortable, cozy looking but still fit, the perfect grandmother and AARP poster girl. Jim, on the other hand, is thin. His face is drawn tight over his skull, and three fearsome and unmoving lines groove his forehead. His voice is deep and hesitant, barking where it should be wise and kindly. Grandmother parts are simply more plentiful than portentous old man roles. In the eight months we've been here, I've been to more auditions than I can remember, and ten callbacks, and I've had two roles—I am the windsurfing granny in the new yogurt from a tube commercial and the bitter librarian in a television and print ad for some very crunchy potato chips. Jim has been an extra, once, in a nursing home scene for a legal drama.
Beyond our looks and the availability of roles, I believe I am more suited for this lifestyle. I can read these casting directors now, as easily as I could tell whether a new patient wanted birth control or prenatal care; I know what they want from me and I give it to them. Most want "sassy." Some want "poignant." No one wants "rigid, humorless, ponderous and unhappy," as Danny told me one casting director wrote about Jim. I'm finding it hard to deal with myself.
I wonder sometimes who I would be now if I'd married someone else. Jim and I met when I was so young, I think my personality grew to specifically complement his. If I'd married a different man—if I'd ever even dated a different man—there might be a lot more to me than there is now. Sometimes, when I was alone in the office, tidying up or doing some billing while Jim took care of a delivery, I would look through our collection of ultrasound photos, at those little globs of possibility. My favorite parts—and these only show up clearly sometimes—were the hand-buds, translucent spade-like paddles. Hands only form separate fingers because the cells that compose the webbing between them die. From the very earliest stages of our being, loss is programmed into our bodies. After I looked at an embryo's hand-buds, life would make perfect sense to me for about five minutes.
Jim is still sleeping when I call the car service and doesn't wake up when I kiss his forehead and make my quiet way to the door.
"Morning, Carmen," I say to the receptionist. Since I began bringing in money, and indirectly paying a portion of her salary, she's been deferential, alert, smiling even.
"You can go right ahead in, Ms. Cox. Mr. Gillespie's been expecting you." She started using "Ms" of her own accord, and I agree that it has a certain ring.
"Marianne!" says Danny. "Come in, come in." He stands, oddly, by the two chairs in front of his desk, where Jim and I sat the first time we came in. There's an awkward moment as we both try to sit and our knees bump. I remedy the situation by sitting slightly at an angle, and crossing one leg over the other, which causes my skirt to ride up a few inches on my thighs. Danny's eyes flash to the skirt and travel down my leg to my sandals, before he catches himself and brings them back to my face. I fold my hands and smile.
"Listen, Marianne," he says. "I've got a great thing for you. A buddy of mine's casting it, it's practically a done deal. You've just gotta be around to read for it, and you're in."
"What is it?" I ask.
"It's UPN." He beams. "It's a sitcom set in a pediatrician's office. This guy, this pediatrician, he's got three kids. Triplet boys. Little kids."
"Uh huh," I say.
"Yeah," says Danny. "And so you, you're Barb—or Rose, they haven't decided yet—but she's the uh, the tough granny with a heart of gold, who uh, comes back to help this doctor—her son in law—manage his office and watch his kids after his wife dies."
"Uh huh," I say, wondering if the kids will teach Barb or Rose to skateboard in episode one or three.
"Yeah," says Danny. "There's a lot of potential for cross-cultural comedy, my buddy tells me. So you have to be willing to try to uh, get down and funky, maybe some hip hop granny stuff, just be the comic foil basically."
"I suppose Judi Dench is otherwise engaged?"
"Ha," says Danny, without laughing. "This is a good deal, trust me. The network'll almost definitely pick it up. Low on dignity, high on laughs. I think you want this."
Family is important, but for God's sake, so am I. "I think you're right," I say.
"That's right!" Danny is exuberant. "So you're sticking around?"
"It looks that way."
"Beautiful." Danny Gillespie claps his hands to his knees, then stands up. "I'll let my guys know," he says.
I stand up as well, glad that I didn't eat breakfast, excitement bubbling and dread sinking in my stomach at the same time. "Thanks a lot, Danny," I say.
"I'll keep my eyes open for Jim. Probably I can get him in the background on a soap."
"We'll have to see about that, Danny," I say. "I don't know if Jim is going to stay."
Danny is not particularly surprised by this, or troubled. He just nods, taking it in. "I think that's a good thing," he says. "You're a smart woman. You'll go much further this way."
"Right," I say, trying on this new, smart personality. "Just get me that job."
"Absolutely," Danny says. He opens his office door and ushers me out into the waiting room. "Don't you worry about a thing with that. Carmen!" he says, "Get our Marianne a car home. Charge it to me." Carmen busies herself with the phone. "Don't worry about a thing," he says, throwing his arm over my shoulder and squeezing once. "Everything here is gonna be worked out great." He backs away and shuts himself in his office, and I wait with Carmen, my million-dollar-smile firmly in place, until the car arrives.
The chauffeur wears a dark blue cap and holds the back door open. He is decorous and quiet. During the ride home I rest my head against the leather upholstery and enjoy the breeze from the air conditioning. I would like, maybe, to consider another agent, someone less mercenary, but I doubt they exist, and even if they do, they wouldn't be able to get me jobs the way Danny does. And I wouldn't ever leave Danny. He is, after all, the only person I know in Los Angeles. Besides, I tell myself, this city, despite its juvenile passions and appetites, is a place for adults who realize that life is, really, fundamentally unfair. The deserving are almost never the successful. If you can make a living here, no matter the reason, you are incredibly lucky. I can, and I am.
I return to an empty apartment. There is a scrap of paper taped to the dresser mirror, announcing in Jim's handwriting, "Pool." The smiley face he drew underneath it is the most hopeful two dots and a squiggle I have ever seen in my life. I take Jim's note off the dresser mirror, fold back the tape, and put it in the zippered compartment of my pocketbook.
Jim returns from the pool, wearing an old gray t-shirt and orange flip-flops, a blue and red striped towel hanging around his neck.
"How's Danny?" he asks.
"He found a show for me."
Jim smiles without meaning it and takes off his sunglasses. "I hope it's filming in New York."
"Listen," I tell him. It would be cruel to delay this. "I love you." This is true. But it's not the same as it was when I was nineteen. This is a love born out of duty, and, like all children, it has finally turned its back on its mother. "And I love Maura."
"But," he says. Just that, "but." He is an old man, my husband, sitting heavily on the bed in ludicrous red swim trunks, his bony knees the size of saucers, and I am torturing him.
"But I'm good at this. I'm better at this than I am with you, better than I am with Maura, better than answering phones—"
"You were fine with the phones," he says.
I will not be moved. "I want you to stay here," I say. I don't, exactly, but he won't stay no matter what, and it doesn't cost me anything to give him this.
"Come on," he says. "We need to be with Maura and the baby. Our daughter and our grandchild." He means this, and these words when he says them have all the weight and meaning of a dream fulfilled, the capstone of a life.
"I need to stay here," I tell him, and I think that my words have a different kind of weight behind them, the kind of weight that sets new foundations. We already know what is going to happen, these words are just to allow each of us the comfort of thinking we did all we could to bring the other around.
"Will you ever come home?" he asks.
I look at him. He said the same thing to Maura when she decided, her first year in medical school, to get an apartment of her own. "Listen," I say again. "Give me six months. Give me through pilot season. Give me until the baby's born. Maybe I'll find something that films in Astoria. Maybe I won't get anything at all."
"Then what?" he asks.
"Then I'll go back to Queens. Or you can set to work finding a step grandma." I say this with a laugh, lighthearted, but Jim doesn't smile. I imagine having a grandchild far away, a good Christian girl who writes laborious letters to Grandma Marianne in Los Angeles and worries about the state of my soul.
"That won't ever happen," he says. "I don't want to die without you."
"Don't be morbid," I say, purposely missing his point, which is that he doesn't deserve this. This is true, but I do.
Jim sighs, and his sigh is everything Maura's wants to be but isn't, a perfect rendering of world-weariness, a genuine spiritual burden made audible. "Do what you want," he says, finally. "I'm going back. You can decide later."
"Jim," I tell him. I sit down next to him on the bed, put my hand on the soft gray fur between his knee and his swimsuit. "Jim, I've already decided."
He lies back, pulling me beside him. I lay my head on his chest, underneath his chin. His heart beats, putters along. I smell his sweat, and the chlorine from the pool, and faintly, his suntan lotion, with its undertones of coconut. I reach up under the t-shirt to his little mound of a stomach and stroke the wiry hairs around his navel. During the worst time of pain and fear in my life—when I was in labor with Maura—I distracted myself by picturing Jim, every bit of his body, starting at his feet—remarkably soft and pudgy, covered in curling black hairs—up to the point where his hair was beginning to stage a retreat from his forehead. I pictured him one-inch section by one-inch section, bottom to top and back down again, back, front, and side views until Maura's screams mingled with my own and my doctor said, "Mrs. Cox, relax, it's over." It was an almost miraculous comfort, just remembering his physical existence. His was a body I knew as well as my own and loved better. I am giving up my right to that comfort. He grabs my hand and holds it tightly in his. He turns and presses his lips to my forehead. I kiss him back, pat his chest, and stand. His eyes are closed and I won't let myself cry.
"I know," he says. "Sweet girl, I know."
He is an old man, my husband, and he is tired. Tomorrow, he will wake up early and pack a single suitcase so that he won't have to check any luggage. It will sit by the door and stare at me accusingly until finally he takes a flight into JFK and is picked up by my daughter, his daughter, the pregnant Christian gynecologist. He will go back to our old apartment, or he will move in with Maura, and he will be doctor, father, grandpa. I will stay here. I will be Rose or Barb. When my family sees me, if they see me, it will be on television. I will be a person entirely unlike myself. I wonder if they will be able to tell the difference.
Years ago, Jim used to tell me about the babies—the little details that made each mother and child unique, complications or unusual happenings that made a certain delivery memorable. You always want the baby to scream, he'd tell me. After they scream, the doctors and the mother know that the child will be fine, and everyone can relax. "Why do you think they scream?" I'd ask. Even though the real answer was in response to pain, or to clear out liquid and force air into their lungs, Jim would reply, "Because it's cold out here, and lonely. They realize they gave up a good deal. They've got buyer's remorse." Each day that I am away from my husband and daughter, each day for the rest of my life, nearly two hundred thousand babies will make their way out of the only perfect safety they will ever know. Imagine the cacophony. Jim was wrong about the buyer's remorse, the yell of regret. They scream out of impatience, because they can't wait to see what happens next. They shout to announce their arrival.