Michael rule, twenty-seven years old and officially separated from his wife for four days, woke Friday morning at nine-thirty to the buzzing of a digital alarm. The clock was on the floor, and for a frightening second, he didn’t know what the shrill hee hee hee sound was, only that the noise emanated from the faded olive green carpet of an unfurnished and unfamiliar apartment.
As Michael leaned over and turned off the alarm, an awareness moved through him like warm jelly pulsing through his veins: today he needed to pick up his five-year- old son, feign control and manliness while explaining the separation and impending divorce, and answer Anthony’s questions, of which he knew there were typically a multitude. He imagined Anthony’s face — trusting, earnest, worshipful — and he felt helpless.
Michael went over the facts: four days ago his wife, Penny, had confirmed that she was in love with Donald — wealthy, established, his father-in- law’s contemporary and business equal — and she wanted a divorce. (Ever since: rage, jealousy, bitterness, a reassessment of his masculinity and worth, and the bone-crushing dead weight of sorrow.) Thus far father-in- law, William Deader, hadn’t fired him from Deader Industrial LLC.
The apartment was a former office overlooking Newport Car Wash, at the periphery of the Newport Beach shopping mecca Fashion Island. Deader Industrial LLC owned the property; Deader Industrial LLC owned Newport Car Wash. The apartment was a concession, Michael believed, for Penny’s infidelity. But how long would Mr. and Mrs. Deader’s pity last, now that he hadn’t shown up to work and was ignoring Mr. Deader’s — Bill’s, Dad’s — phone calls?
The last four days Michael had been going to bed (two mattresses stacked on the floor) at three, four in the morning, sleeping fitfully, and waking in the hazy sunlight near noon. He lay there for hours, listening to the sounds of the car wash below, aware that he had to persevere through another day, but unwilling to begin: held back by a keen disbelief and a profound hurt at the power of circumstances to develop against his will.
Once he got out of bed, he sat with his back against the wall and studied the activity below, how the customers assembled, their backsides to him, on a cement bench and waited for the men to flag them with towels. Customers slipped cash (mostly dollar bills) into the men’s hands, and the men nodded, but rarely spoke, except to one another.
Michael had discovered that the men had a system to alert one another of the periodic visitations of their manager, a white man with a mustache. Upon spotting the manager descending three cement steps, the employee at the head of the car wash snapped his towel, and the men successively snapped their towels down the line, until the last person got the signal.
Naked, walking to the bathroom, hands cupping his groin as he passed the window, he caught a glimpse of the tan-004545_ uniformed men toweling the shiny blacks, blues, and reds of Porsches and Mercedes. He was beginning to recognize the men, noting who was more animated, who came to work hung over, and he imagined their whispered conversations.
Everything was new in the apartment, cheaply assembled, transformed from an office, and a fine dust coated the sink and toilet from their harried, half-assed construction. He imagined the office’s hasty conversion had been for his convenient elimination from Penny’s life. Lifting the toilet seat to pee, he concluded that after a nearly six-year determined hiatus from alcohol, instigated by Penny’s pregnancy with Anthony and their mutual decision to “live healthy,” he might very likely get very drunk very soon.
The hot spray from the shower hit him directly in the face with an irregular hissing noise, thumping little pellets against his eyelids, nose, and lips, as if the showerhead had never been used and was trying to sort out its purpose. It was his first shower in four days. Unlike the removable and multiple-choice showerhead in his bathroom at his home in Newport Shores — Penny’s home — he discovered the apartment showerhead had one spray option: Unrelenting Beady Squirt.
Never before had life hurled him in such loathsome directions, reminding him of how it was to struggle under the foamy tow of a wave, his body pushed and pulled. As a boy and teenager, he believed he wasn’t manly because he didn’t care about the things his own father revered — business, football, politics — and what sweet revenge when he succeeded beyond his father’s middle class aspirations anyhow. Penny fell in love with him because he was different. A novelty, she said. They met at UCLA, both philosophy majors, English minors, and married soon after graduation. Affluence and a generous position at Deader Industrial were added benefits to marrying Penny, and he learned to ignore any qualms about working for a large corporation. Over the years, he’d grown accustomed to the advantageous lifestyle.
Penny’s main reason for falling out of love, Michael believed, was that his success was connected to her family, that he’d claimed their affluence as his own, as if he’d disappointed and betrayed her, even though they’d decided together that he should work for Deader Industrial. And in his mind, she was irretrievably connected to her family’s prosperity, therefore connecting him — it was complicated. On further analysis, he conceded that besides working for Deader Industrial and living in the three-story home in Newport Shores — a wedding gift care of Mr. and Mrs. Deader — he’d conveniently overlooked any prior ambition to write novels and teach. What had happened to him?
Michael put on his socks, pants, and shirt. His clothes fit loosely, he fastened his belt to the last hole, but his pants sagged. Since about a year ago, when he’d first suspected Penny of infidelity, he’d begun losing weight, mostly muscle tone. In the corner of the small kitchen stood an Arrowhead water dispenser, beside it three blue plastic containers of water, leftovers, no doubt, from the apartment’s time as an office. No one had noticed him since he rarely left the apartment, and he wondered if the other offices had been warned that he lived among them, since they worked for Deader, too. The container made a gulp as he poured a cup. He drank, his hair damp from an unenthusiastic towel dry, rivulets along his ears collecting at his earlobes, and then crumpled the paper cup in his fist.
When the phone rang, he knew it was his younger sister even before he answered. The phone was on the floor, and he sat with his back against the wall, letting it ring, his palm against the receiver, feeling its vibrations. Lisa, divorced, mother of two sons, and remarried at twenty-five, called daily. Normally they only talked on holidays and birthdays, and although he was grateful to her for being worried, he was reluctant to talk.
“Hello, Lisa,” he said, answering by speakerphone.
“I thought I’d have to wake you,” she said, her voice echoing. At seventeen Lisa had moved to San Francisco where she continued to live. She chose men that bullied her, reminding Michael in the worst ways of their father. Although a respected church member and community leader, their father’s form of discipline ...