“And do you know what the worst part is? She wasn’t even his secretary! He left his wife for his boss’s secretary!” Michele cackled, drawing her knees to her chest in delight and nearly kicking her pedicurist in the face. Going to a pedicure before a memorial service seemed like an odd choice to Ellen, but she knew better than to question it. Michele was just happy to have her daughter home.
“I wasn’t even friends with Amy Bartolovich,” Ellen said.
“Amy Cahill,” Michele corrected her.
“I can’t believe she’s keeping her husband’s last name after he cheated on her! That’s so… old-fashioned.”
“Who are we to judge?” Michele offered with some finality. “Besides, ‘Cahill’ is so much easier to pronounce.”
Ellen hadn’t seen Amy Bartolovich since they were assigned to the same row at their high school’s graduation ceremony. According to Michele, Amy Bartolovich became Amy Cahill about three years ago, while Ellen remained Ellen Baskin. Ellen remembered that Amy was the first girl in her grade to get her navel pierced, and she once accused Mr. Manaster, her history teacher, of touching her inappropriately during quiz bowl practice. She later recanted, saying that he had never so much as looked at her, she was just angry he gave her a C on an essay. Her parents home-schooled her for the rest of the year and the school awarded him “Teacher of the Year” to apologize. He dropped dead a week ago from a heart attack. He was fifty-seven, and a close friend of the Baskins. Michele and Ellen had planned on going to the service after breakfast and pedicures.
Of course Ellen hadn’t traveled to her parents’ home in Naperville, Illinois for a funeral. She and Michele had conspired to surprise her father for his sixtieth birthday. Upon arriving at her childhood home, Ellen felt the same familiar fears and anxieties. She worries that she cannot connect with her parents the same way she could when she was a kid. How could she explain to Michele and Seth Baskin, who are asleep by 10 each night, 11 if there is someone good on The Tonight Show, what it was like to leave a date’s apartment at four in the morning because he sleeps on a mattress on the floor with no bedding? But this time around, something else hangs over Ellen’s head. It had just so happened that two weeks before, she had gone to her doctor for a biopsy. She had something called “cervical dysplasia” (Don’t Google it, the nurse said. You’ll only scare yourself). At best, she had HPV, at worst, cancer. She thought of the bedframe-less date, and promised a god she didn’t believe in that she would never have sex again if the biopsy turns up cancer-free.
Michele’s car lurched into their driveway, barely stopping before hitting the bumper of her Seth’s sedan. Ellen got out to inspect the damage, but Michele had already walked inside the house. The fresh dent sat right next to a peeling and faded My Child Is An Honor Student at Naperville Central High School bumper sticker. Seth Baskin was famous for refusing to display bumper stickers, no matter how benign or bi-partisan. “It makes you a moving target!” he would bluster over and over. Ellen felt overwhelmed and flushed with pride when she brought home that sticker with her first high school report card and Seth rushed outside to display it right in the middle of the bumper. He made a big production of showing the sticker to anyone entering his car. Even when Michele had bought him a new car for his fifty-fifth birthday, long after Ellen had left high school, he found a way to transfer the old, ratty sticker. Michele had entered the house, leaving a key-less Ellen to bang on the door.
“I’m sorry, sweetie!” Michelle apologized, opening the door mid-knock. “I forgot you were even here.”
* * *
Ellen sat silently in the backseat of her father’s car as the Baskins drove from the synagogue to the cemetary.
“So, how’s the babysitting going?” Seth asked, while Michele drove.
“I tutor underprivileged students in reading and writing,” Ellen responded through gritted teeth. “I have told you a thousand times, I am not a babysitter.”
“You know I was just kidding.”
Ellen grunted, but said nothing. Seth loved his little joke, to tell people his daughter was a professional babysitter despite working toward a Masters degree for the last two years. She thought about her boss, and hoped their drunken groping at the non-denominational holiday party wasn’t the reason she had to get that biopsy.
“Well, I thought the service was lovely,” Michele chirped. This time it was Seth who grunted.
“It was a bit rich of them to call him a ‘local hero,’ don’t you think? The man died on the toilet for Chrissakes!”
“Just like Elvis…”
“Ow! Goddamnit,” Ellen whispered to herself. She twisted her ankle on a mound of dug-up earth.
“Watch your language! We’re at a cemetery,” Michele hissed.
Ellen thought it was a bit much for her mother to admonish her like that after her parents had just made fun of a man for dying on the toilet. After the burial, Seth suggested they visit his parents’ graves on the other side of the cemetery. Michele and Ellen couldn’t protest. It was, after all, his birthday. They placed small pebbles on the headstones, as was customary at Jewish gravesites. Ellen remembered Michele once whispering “How gaudy!” at a Catholic wake when someone placed a multi-colored wreath over the casket. Seth wordlessly turned around to march back to the car. Ellen and Michele followed suit. A woman with close cropped hair and a fanny pack strolled by them with two large dogs in tow, though it looked more like the dogs were walking her.
“Seth Baskin, as I live and breathe!”
Seth stopped walking, the color draining from his face.
“Wow, Donna! It’s been awhile,” Seth greeted her in measured tones.
“It has!” Donna looked toward the sky and mimed counting on her fingers. “Thirty-two years, in fact!”
Seth introduced Michele, who smiled a little too widely and shook Donna’s hand a little too vigorously.
“And this is my daughter, Ellen.”
Ellen stepped forward, wondering who this strange woman could be. She wasn’t family, and her parents have had the same friends for the length of their thirty year marriage. Maybe she was an old coworker, back when Seth worked at—
“You know, your dad and I used to be engaged!” Donna grinned toothily at her. “Before he met your darling mom, of course.”
Seth quickly excused the family before Donna could finish explaining that she was at the cemetery to take her dogs to her mother’s grave. Michele drove in silence.
“Dad, was Donna my almost-mommy?” Ellen attempted to lighten the mood.
“Well, not quite…” Seth explained that Donna couldn’t have children.
“Barren,” Michele whispered, to no one in particular.
That explains the dogs, Ellen thought to herself. She had read somewhere that cervical cancer could make a woman infertile, and made another promise to that same deity that she would have one hundred babies if she could walk away from this with just the HPV. Seth gripped the wheel tightly, and turned up the radio, making it very clear this subject was closed. When they arrived at the house, Seth bolted for the front door, but Ellen and Michele lingered.
“Did you know he was engaged to another woman before you met?”
“Honey, he was engaged three different times!”
Ellen struggled for words again. Seth Baskin, Seth “No Dating ‘til After You’re Married!” Baskin had proposed to three different women?
“I couldn’t believe it either, sweetie. Let me tell you, I did not rest until I walked down that aisle and saw him standing at the end of it. I didn’t even believe it then. I had to touch his face to make sure he was really there.”
* * *
Ellen heard Michele’s faint sniffle as the car pulled up to the curb, under a large sign bearing the word “Departures.”
“You know you could always visit me in New York, Mom.”
Michele pursed her lips. Her New York was the New York of old NBC crime procedural dramas. When she thought of her only daughter living in New York City, she thought of police officers pulling the bodies of dead young women from the Central Park ravine, the old porno theatres of Times Square, and brochures warning citizens not to take the subway after dark. Seth pulled Ellen’s suitcase from the trunk, huffing and puffing about how idling was illegal at the Departures gate. Michele ignored him and pulled her daughter close.
“Be good,” she whispered in Ellen’s ear.
The Baskins exchanged a final round of “I love you”s. A blast if ice cold processed air hit Ellen in the face as she walked through the sliding doors into the airport. She felt her phone vibrate at the bottom of her bag. By the time she removed every item to retrieve it, the call went to voice mail. After dropping her I.D. twice, misplacing her boarding pass, and failing to make any TSA agent even smile after apologizing for how smelly her feet were, she sat down at her gate with a weak cup of coffee. The missed call was her doctor’s office. She was supposed to call them back for the biopsy results. She knew which outcome she preferred, but she didn’t want to reach out to every one of her former sexual partners to say “I have HPV” any more than she wanted to tell Michele she had cancer. After giving her date of birth and social security number, she spoke to her doctor. Ellen sensed a sneer as her doctor said that she had something called “high-risk HPV.” Ellen sighed with relief, and almost missed her doctor’s next statement—that there are no symptoms, it should go away on its own, and she didn’t even have to tell anyone. She managed a “thank you” before hanging up the phone. She had long forgotten her conflicting promises of chastity and procreation, and wanted to call some man in her life, to meet her for a drink and maybe more after she landed.
She dialed Michele’s number instead.