If Ben had been the kind of person who was ready to retire and move down to one of those gated communities in Florida where people played golf and cards all day and enjoyed the early bird specials, he might have been happy. But he was an intrinsically maladaptive creature by dint of the longing that had always characterized his personality. Now that longing had turned into a venomous jealousy of those whose lives lay ahead of them—say the brunette with the Eastern European accent behind the desk at the Marriott Courtyard, who worked nights to pay for school and had the choice of shagging the day manager or night manager in one of the empty rooms either before or after her shift had ended.
I’m dying, he’d thought as he negotiated the rush hour traffic leading out of West Palm Beach, his wife Dee dozing next to him in the car. Dread was more her problem than longing, dread about the future and regret about the chances she’d failed to take and the missteps of her past—one of which was her inability to achieve the dream of a certain greatness she was convinced would have absolved her from the indignities of age.
They were making a weekend vacation out of an obligatory visit to the Cantors who were dying even more quickly than they were. Their ailments including problems which took place between the L4 and L5 vertebrae of the spine and which were also comprised of pre-diabetes and, in his case, benign prostatic hypertrophy and in hers a slight heart murmur were not life-threatening, while their friends, who ironically had always been ahead of them in sexual and drug experimentation when they were younger were now taking the lead in having both experienced actual brushes with death. Ben and Dee were also convinced the Cantors had precipitated their aging process due to their precocity in yet one more area—their early retirement from living active lives.
Still it seemed that every conversation came back to St. Peter, the Styx, Hades and the pearly gates. He couldn’t remember who had said what; he and Dee joked in the way they did when they still didn’t believe—could it really be true?—that they were ever going to die.
As he drove down Congress, Woolbright, Military and Pipers Glen turning into the Westchester Estates, where their unfortunate friends lived, he had the distinct feeling that he didn’t really want to extend this. He didn’t care whether he lived or died. While he and Dee were waiting for their flight, they’d seen advertisements for Sandals, the all-inclusive resort that had franchises throughout the Caribbean. Each room was equipped with its own miniature pool and there were fit-looking couples, tall, handsome men, and buxom women strolling along the beaches, where by implication they would effortlessly express the culmination of feelings created by the mixture of romantic sunset and the thrill of perfumed flesh in effortless copulation. A smiling tuxedoed waiter who was dedicated to the relationships of his guests was pouring champagne. Literally everyone in the ads sported shit-eating grins.
“Fucking asshole,” he mouthed at an SUV that cut him off.
Ben didn’t want anything. He looked over at Dee and imagined what the two of them would do with each other were they sentenced to a room at Sandals, him playing with his flaccid dick the way he did every night as they lay in bed, the maitre d’ in their case pouring Diet Coke. As they walked on the beach, she would be cold and he would have stubbed his toe on a rock.
The Hispanic nurse was walking towards her BMW, as they pulled into the driveway. He’d already experienced the guilt of having to jerk off after meeting her on the previous trip. Then she’d offered her prognosis, which was that her patient, Mark, was doing very well despite the fact that he was dying of 4th stage metastatic lung cancer. She was killing Ben with the dark moist pools of her eyes and the partial view of an apparently oversized aureole and erect nipple that looked like the top of a baby’s bottle. She pressed her smart key and he watched as her trunk flew open, then rushing out to help her as she lifted up her carry-on.
“Just a coupla days in the Virgin Islands,” she said, with titillating indifference.
He felt an obligation to get to the real truth, but there was no way to mix the question, “how’s he really doing?” with any sexual innuendo which would at least have made him feel he was still in the game. He wanted to run away, far away and never come back. It didn’t even have to be with a hot nurse.
Her engine purred softly as she turned on the ignition and looked behind to back out. For a moment all he could see was her neck, which looked like the trunk of a freshly pruned tree. This reminded him of the time he once caught a glimpse of the president passing in a motorcade. She was beyond self-contained. She had the look of a woman who satisfied her desires. So it was disconcerting to find that he wasn’t even on her radar. He was less an object of desire for someone who was obviously filled with desire than he would have been to someone who didn’t desire anyone or anything, one of those saintly women, who had abjured the flesh.
Every time he’d visit his dying friends in Florida he’d experience an upsurge in his own lust that generally started as they swung out of the rental car parking lot and passed the first of several nude bars that catered to businessmen coming and going from the airport. Not that there weren’t topless bars everywhere, but the crudely emblazoned sign of curved bodies under palm fronds was doubly enticing. If he’d been dying he could have looked even further down the nurse’s shirt and for a moment he felt jealous of his friend. Ben was declining, but when he started to die, he was sure he would be cared for by some bulldog hospice nurse who hated him as much as he hated her. And then poof, it’d be over.
Ben had expected to find Mark sitting in front of the television in the kitchen area, which is where they always assembled. There was never any time that the television wasn’t on in the house and since there were TVs in every room, you could be sure that more than one television would be streaming—all tuned to either CNN, ESPN during the Open or reality programs like Shark Tank or American Idol. The sound was similar to that of the New York Philharmonic tuning up before a concert. This time, however, the armchair, usually occupied by Mark and standing in front of the kitchen counter next to the couch on which everyone else sat when they were paying court, was empty. Ben could hear the voice of the weather reporter of a local news station emanating from the master bedroom. The house was filled with the aroma of the marijuana that had been prescribed for Mark; it also exuded the disinfectant odor of death. Ben figured that when he walked into the room Mark would offer him a toke like he had done on the last trip. For a moment they were college buddies again getting high before they went out for Chinese food, except there’d been none of the laughter, of the feeling that everything was funny or of hot and sour soup burning their tongues.
Now however, Mark was receiving oxygen and he didn’t even acknowledge them when they approached the bed. It was Mark’s wife Cheryl who had been smoking and she took a long draw as she entered the room in the undone robe that she wore around the see-through nightgown from which Ben averted his eyes. Her skin was tan and leathery and the crow’s feet under her eyes gave her the look of a long-suffering poet who transacted in esoteric truths.
“I’ve spent the whole morning on the toilet.” She had the rasping voice of someone who had grown hoarse, from a lifetime of screaming in frustration.
She held the joint out to them, but Ben waved it off.
“Take a hit.” She looked offended in the way she would if they hadn’t liked her cooking. “Just one for the road.”
He had the feeling of being an uninvited and now unwanted guest who was getting in the way of the party. He was reminded of arguing with Mark about Eugene McCarthy and crashing artists’ parties in Soho during the 70’s. They’d get drunk in the bars on Prince Street and then hear an address from someone who wasn’t even talking to them. Now, however, he was more worried about being asked to stay than in being kicked out. Cheryl disappeared in a cloud of smoke and he held his breath as he walked into the kitchen, sticking his head in the refrigerator to avoid the contact high.
“We’re going to come back later,” Ben called out, as they prepared to leave. There was a long silence followed by the sounds of Cheryl’s coughing. The beeping of a heart monitor could be heard over the voice of a CNN anchor reporting Breaking News.
He pulled into a Publix, not that they needed anything, but just because he’d always found something soothing about Florida supermarkets with their abundance of both oversized discounted items and checkout lines and registers. He purchased several small things he didn’t particularly need or care about including Neutrogena Sport sunscreen and a dozen Schick Double Edge Razors. He bought a box of the store’s own brand of chocolate chip cookies, overly sugary but chewy, the perfect kind of treat when it started to drizzle on the windshield.
They began to drive in the direction of the hotel, when his cell rang and a series of what seemed like groans emanated from his speakerphone. It sounded like Mark was saying, “they’re killing me,” something that Ben immediately attributed to delirium. There was no doubt that the morphine they gave to people who were suffering great pain was hastening Mark’s death.
The entrance to the Marriott on Congress Avenue was not clearly marked. They pulled past it and then entered the parking lot by a side road that ran by several dumpsters. If they were going to have sex this was the optimal time since neither of them would be in the mood after Mark finally died.
Ben unloaded their bags and they checked in. She grabbed his crotch after he squeezed her breast and they trundled their carry-ons from reception to the elevator bank. He tried when she lay splayed on the bed like a butterflied leg of lamb, but he couldn’t maintain his erection; the ensuing feeling of meaninglessness flooded his brain with foreboding and misery like some kind of reverse endorphin.
His cell phone rang and when he picked it up, a male voice he didn’t recognize asked, “Is this Ben Marx?” Usually Ben hung up or didn’t even pick up his phone when a number appeared on the screen that he didn’t recognize. In the throes of the abortive attempt at sex he’d pushed “answer” rather than “decline” by accident.
“Mark Cantor’s wife has asked me to call you to inform you that her husband has passed away.”
“Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, my name is Steven. I’m a PA and part of the team attending to Mark.”
Ben’s jeans were laying on the floor right where he had climbed out of them before the attempted sex. Dee was in the bathtub and became hysterical when he told her, not because of Mark. She’d never liked him, but out of fear for them. Everything was falling apart. They were all dying. Mark had just been the first to go.
When they pulled up to the pot-filled house, they found Mark’s wife holding a reefer in one hand and a wine glass in the other. Jimmy Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” was blasting from their sound system and she was wearing a tie-dyed scarf around her head and oversized sunglasses. The festive Sixties atmosphere was countermanded by the fact that no one else was coming. There was just the music, the pot, the booze, the corpse in one room and an old drunken woman with bleached blond hair nodding into oblivion on a flower patterned upholstered sofa.
Ben walked into the bedroom where Mark’s body was lying. It hadn’t been covered and neither the nurse nor the physician’s assistant, who’d called on the phone, were anywhere to be found.
Dee patted Ben on the shoulder.
“He wasn’t a very nice man,” Ben mused as he looked down at his old friend.
When they walked into the living room, Cheryl took a deep drag on her joint and started to cough.
“I have to wait around until they pick him up,” she muttered through another bout of coughing. “It’s endless.”
“Are you cremating or burying?” Dee asked.
“It’s a no brainer. Anyway we don’t even have plots.”
Ben and Dee looked at each other. They would have liked to feel superior, but they hadn’t made arrangements either. It would be chaos when they died. The kids who were grown up and thriving, one an insurance lawyer and the other working in public relations at Pfizer, weren’t going to be too happy when they discovered they’d have to miss their workouts or yoga classes or therapy appointments to clean up the mess.
“Well, we said our goodbyes,” Ben announced, “so we’ll be taking off.”
“You wanna drink or hit. You can use my pipe.”
“Oh, that’s sweet of you, but I think we’ll pass.”
They drove from across Military down Woolbright and back onto Congress.
As they waited at a traffic light where they were going to make their U-turn for the Marriott, Ben looked up at a plane soaring into the sky. Ashes to ashes. One way or the other they’d soon be airborne.