He tried to remember exactly when he discovered to his eternal surprise that she had become a bitch. It wasn't all that long ago, to be honest, but he suffered from an attention deficit, and time of course had always been his problem. From long summer weekdays on the lifeguard stand when there was too much of it and the hours stretched themselves out in an infinity of bikini bottoms, to the past couple of years, where time was measured in anxious heartbeats and a daily cholesterol pill.
The years had been unkind to his marriage. And it was quite possible, truly, that what he needed was revenge. He had decided to either die or become young again.
He pressed the call-button briefly with a flourish. Might as well go for a laugh out of the New Girl. Might as well try to think about something like revenge—should he recover any part of what he used to call his game—try to think about anything besides the blessed morphine drip by which he was now, more than ever, measuring the hours.
It was another fucking kidney stone. Snuck up on him like a hooker trying to knock off a quickie at Santa's Workshop on Christmas Eve. He and little Mike had been halfway to the top of San Jacinto, snuggled in for the night in that six hundred dollar pup tent, when it hit. Pain in the left flank, dry-mouthed nausea. He tried to put it out of his mind, all night long, but of course that was impossible. Once you've felt that throb, bob-bob-bobbing along on waves of dread, it's like a gravestone: irrefutable.
"I've had two babies and a kidney stone," the night nurse said when she checked him in. "I'd rather have twelve more babies."
That was, of course, after the long drive back from Palm Springs, after the agonizing breakfast clean-up and break-camp. After the long hike back to the tram, stopping every fifteen minutes in agony for water and a prayer. After the return to the desert floor in springtime, and after the scary look on little Mike's face when he asked "Dad? Are you gonna die?"
Hopefully not before your mother, was all he could manage to think, less than gallant, yes, though he tried to smile and shake his head no. The body's frailty is a terrible thing to behold; it killed him to remember Laura's smug superiority as she drove him, sucking on his water bottle like a baby, to the hospital. He had, in the back of his mind on the way to L.A., synthesized some fanciful rapprochement between the two of them, the old "in sickness and in health" bit come at last to bear. But Laura spent their time together in the waiting room on her cell with Vivian, talking about him as if he wasn't even there. Laughing. Wishful fucking thinking.
A kidney stone is rarely a fatal matter. A tiny calculus of indigestible undissolvable mineral trapped in a too-small place a couple of inches north of your dick. You won't die from it, but you'll wish you could.
"Well!" said the New Girl, in mock surprise, "how'd you get this number?" She had the precious narcotic in her hand, but they were going to have to dance the dance:
"Not doing too well then, hunh?"
He shook his head.
"You don't know the half of it."
"Your wife leave?"
You could say that. She'd split. Boogied, all right. Run like a rat on the Titanic at last call. Vamoosed.
"Well you're in good hands. You know that, right?"
He winced as she took his pulse; nodded. He was embarrassed by his helplessness.
"You're in good shape aren't you?" she said at last. "You jog?"
"Unh hunh. Say, any chance you might have some… opiates…hidden somewhere on your body?"
"Shh shh," she went. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is it?"
He hesitated. What would the truth get him do you think?
"Come on," she drawled, nodding her head, expectant, Screen-of-Death-azure eyes noncommittal.
"Six?" he ventured.
"Six?" She moved to the IV, thank god. "Six is what we would call…uncomfortable…don't you think?"
He nodded. And the warm morphine glow surged behind his ears, suffusing him with a sense of well-being and gratitude, bathing the New Girl in the sunshine of his love, like in the old song from when opium was just a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
"I know who you are you know," she offered, like a lyric in a Beatles song. "I do."
"You're pretty famous in these parts, cowboy."
"Heh. My fifteen minutes, yeah."
"I watched all your movies in school."
He laughed, shaking his head ruefully. She laughed, chin quivering like a teenager's, like a three-year-old shakily piloting her first tricycle. She couldn't have been thirty he figured.
"Well I did! For credit too!"
"Hmmm…" as he settled into the arms of Morphia, "Mom and Dad must've loved that."
"I like genre films. I think everybody does."
She handed him an icy glass of water with a straw. "Suck. Please."
"And a movie that transcends its genre, well, I think that's my favorite sort of movie at all."
"Un hunh. Up." She helped him straighten a little, fluffed the pillows. The sound of fresh linen and her sweet girl smell in any other setting would have made him instantly erect, like some sort of robotic dog, but he couldn't even imagine erection at the moment.
"Leaving Las Vegas. Mad Max. The Usual Suspects. All transcended their genres."
"I see. So you like movies then, eh?"
"Oh yes," she twittered. "I am a romantic."
Everything from there on out was hazy, soft-edged, like a Monet which was predictably slashed to ribbons by the box-cutter of pain that always preceded the next morphine hit. He was aware of his urologist, the handsome youngish Pakistani, wrapped in expensive tweed, assuring him all would be well.
He remembered being wheeled down the corridor like the opening scene in an episode of ER, tiles and light fixtures flashing by overhead, a shot he'd got maybe twenty times himself in one "genre" picture or another. He remembered laughing to himself: his life had become a movie now and he was hoping for a happy ending.
He remembered joking with the OR nurses, high as a hippie in disguise. They were all finger-wagging, cluck-clucking, jabbering about penises and tubes being stuck up penises and pain and absence of pain and drugs and….
...and the next thing he knew, he was in the recovery room, disbelieving all who told him that, yes, all was well, the procedure was over, he had done fine. He would not want to die any more.
And he remembered little Mike, much later, putting down his sketchbook when his mother had left to make a phone call, nice of her, and the New Girl had brought some ginger ale on ice:
"Dad," he said, taking his father's hand, whispering, boy-smell sweet like nothing else on earth, "I like her. She says you used to make her happy."