Every night for the past twenty-some odd months I’ve said the same prayer before collapsing into bed. “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Creator of it all, please watch over my beautiful but ill-mannered children. And once Lord, just once before Zack and Lily turn 18, please let me win one hearing in Department 18 of Family Court, 111 North Hill Street, County of Los Angeles, Judge Isadore Brownstein, who hates my guts, presiding.Good-night, now.”
Every night I go to bed alone, never knowing which woman is going to lure me out of my sleep. Today was Tammy’s turn. I like Tammy best, better even than Loretta or Dolly or Reba. The moment I hear the click, I send a karate chop across the empty side of my mattress directly onto the snooze knob. I’ve tried hip-hop, heavy metal, even klezmer music but nothing lures me out of bed and to my 5:45 shower quicker than country. So with Tammy’s melancholy twang echoing in my head, I stumbled barefoot out of my apartment and up the driveway of the Complex toward the communal laundry room.
On the way I heard footsteps behind me, then the familiar voice of my across-the-driveway neighbor, Caressa Hunter.
“Philip, what’re you doing out here in your ’jamas?”
I turned to find Caressa dressed, as usual, in some sort of immodest gear.
“Out of soap. Thought someone might’ve left a box of Duz I could borrow for my bath.”
“Laundry detergent’s not for your body, silly. Call me when you need a favor.”
“Caressa, I left a load of laundry drying last night. Need my towels.”
“You goof.” She swatted at the air.
I met Caressa on her 45th birthday. That night she was wearing a Confederate gray dress that rode up to mid-thigh when she stretched out on Reuven and Simi’s floor. Reuven and Simi managed our apartment complex, and their place was the gathering spot for anyone who needed espresso, hummus and company.
Caressa had returned from dinner with a girlfriend and didn’t feel much like going home. Reuven poured her shots of Smirnoff and sang “Happy Birthday,” in Polish, his first language. After a second shot Caressa, who had downed a few Bud Lights at dinner, began wailing about how sad it was that she hadn’t had a birthday cake with a candle to blow out, and naturally — it’s my nature — I volunteered to drive to Marie Callendar’s, the only bakery open at that hour, to buy a few slices of pie so we could salute her. Caressa decided to accompany me.
As we drove onto Olympic Boulevard she said, “Forget dessert. Let’s go walk on Zuma Beach. It’s my 45th goddamn birthday. I don’t want to go home and snuggle with my cat.”
“Zuma’s an hour away. Besides, we’d get cited for walking on the beach at this hour. Or stung by a jellyfish. Or beaten for invading some surfers’ turf. Nothing good happens on a beach at this hour.”
“We could spread a blanket and stare at the stars.”
I grimaced at her. “And get run over by a dune buggy. I don’t think so.”
Caressa unbuckled her seat belt and scootched toward me, but before anything could happen I made a fast U turn, drove her back home and politely said goodnight.
That was more than a year ago. Ever since, Caressa had taken my benign neglect as a sign that she ought to mount a serious pursuit, so today, like so many others, she followed me into the laundry room where I began separating darks from whites.
“You’re supposed to separate them before you wash, Philip. You need a wife.”
“Had one. Didn’t do laundry. Sent it out. God knows where.”
“I need a favor.”
“Take me out for Valentine’s dinner.”
“When is it?”
“Lily’s with me until seven. And there’s Zack.”
“Sneak out from eight until ten. Or eleven. Or right before Zack wakes up.”
“I never leave Zack alone on school nights.”
“Christ, he’s almost 17.”
“But emotionally he’s eight. When I stay out late, he waits up.”
This time I wasn’t lying. One Saturday night I sneaked in after mid- night, and my son, frantic with worry, lectured me about the fact that after ten, one-quarter of all L.A. drivers are DWI. He was furious. He threatened to take my keys from me.
“Well, if you change your mind.”
“I won’t. Have a good day at work, Caressa.”
“You, too.” She turned to leave, but stopped herself and whirled back. “And Philip, in between giving your students pop quizzes, think about this.”
She lifted her tank top revealing a white sports bra. Thirty-four B. Same as Fiona, who I still wasn’t over. Same as my ex, Helena. I should probably discuss this in therapy with Velma, my psychologist who I can no longer afford. Who I think is also a 34B.
“I’ve been working on my abs. Can you tell?”
She grabbed my hand and rubbed it across her belly.
“Tight, huh? I’m down to four percent body fat. I’ve been focusing on abs and buns the past few weeks.”
“For God’ sake, Caressa,” I hissed, “Zack’s window is two feet away. He can probably hear everything we’re saying.”
“He slept through the Malibu Quake. He wouldn’t hear us if we made love up against the water heater… which could be fun.”
“I’ve got to shower.”
“I could hand you a nice, fluffy towel when you… ”
“Don’t you need to hurry to work and inform some poor bastard who just totaled his Mazda that your insurance company will only pay to replace the rear defroster?” Besides the fact that Caressa was batty, I hated what she did for a living.
“Think about Valentine’s dinner. Trashie Lingerie has a holiday sale on… ”
“I got sandwiches to fix. Later.”
I watched her adjust her clothing as she headed toward the staircase leading to her apartment. She opened her front door, but before disappearing inside she slid her hand against the back of her shorts as if to straighten them. She didn’t turn, but she knew I was looking. I always did. I grabbed my laundry basket and headed back to my apartment. Caressa would never give up. And I wasn’t sure I wanted her to. But she didn’t get it. She didn’t fit the profile, though I never told her that. Never told her the profile demanded an experienced mom, someone who raised her own kids or step kids, someone who understood kids. I wanted my children to be part of an old-fashioned
family. Dad, Mom, the kids. Or in my case two teenagers, each of whom wanted the other one dead. Still, I wanted to sit around the table at dinnertime and talk instead of sitting on the floor in front of the TV eating pizza and Chinese out of cardboard. I craved normalcy, a nuclear family. Craved that even more than I craved Caressa’s body which I longed for on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.
But there was no time to dwell on that subject.
I had visitors.
Two uniformed Beverly Hills marshals, 25-yearold guys with necks as thick as sequoias and wearing mirrored sunglasses though it was barely light out, stood on my doorstep. They looked like guys who had been invited to the Minnesota Vikings rookie camp but were cut because they couldn’t remember the plays. The thicker one, Lieutenant Harkins held an envelope in one hand and pounded on my door with the other.
“It’s six o’clock, lieutenant. If you really want to scare the crap out of my son, why don’t you just shoot out a few windows?”
“You Philip Lachman?” Harkins barked.
“You know I am.”
He tossed the envelope at me. “You’ve been served… again.”
They turned, mounted their Harleys. It was just light enough outside to see the exhaust spewing from their silver tailpipes as they tore off.