The underwater silence of our afternoon reading is shattered by the doorbell's expensive chime. Etzel's head snaps up, like a swimmer's does when his lungs are spent and burning. And like a swimmer, Etzel audibly sucks air and widens his bloodshot eyes. He breathes. Peering mischievously at me, he says, "It's sommme-body commmmingtokilllusssssso. . .I'llllgetit," and then he laughs his comatose, anti-something-or-other drug-laugh that I have come to know. And I laugh too.
I laugh because that's what I usually do when Etzel is fortunate enough to laugh, let alone make a joke; and I laugh because I think Etzel's never-quit attitude is courageous and charming; and I laugh because Bob is in the driveway, stoned and shooting hoops with his dealer Brad (or Chad) and is never going to give his brother the love and companionship he so desperately needs; and I laugh because I have had four glasses of delicious Cabernet from Bob and Etzel's mother's vineyard up in Paso Rubles; and I laugh because I am generally frazzled over the fact that my period is three weeks late-and I am so completely not in love with Bob.
Etzel opens the door and the guy from Pink Dot hands over two grocery bags. Etzel lugs them into the kitchen, his laugh dying, and I give the guy a fifty. The guy blushes. I smile and tell him he is cute; now his face explodes to the color of the blood red chrysanthemums lining the drive that I had helped Etzel plant after he saw a show about flowers on the Nature Channel, and told me he wanted to plant a garden with red flowers so he could watch beautiful things grow. The guy at the door is probably sixteen, has zits like the Big Dipper, greasy hair, probably lives in Westwood with his parents-different world.
"Bob, Brad, stuff's here," I say, and shut the door, silencing the sound of Bob's new Nikes that I bought him, squeaking against the driveway and, no doubt, mucking up the garden with every lay-up.
And like that, it's underwater quiet again.
In his second year at UCLA Etzel started hearing God's voice, and one night he took off his clothes and ran down Sunset, hitting cars with a baseball bat because he thought they were Devil Ships. Bob and I picked up Etzel at the hospital. They simply said he'd had a "break with reality" and they would gladly recommend some institutions if in-home care was, as they said, "implausible".
Later that night, Bob, his mom and I had a discussion, and after many hours-and when Bob's snoring sounded like an asthmatic at a picnic-Bob's mother said, "Jainie, I wonder if I might employ you to help Etzel with his disease?"
I felt my hands go numb and said, "No. No, I won't do that." Then I looked at Bob-twitching; his mouth hanging open-and said, "But I will help Etzel with his convalescence." And so it was. That was almost a year ago.
In the course of two weeks I watched Etzel go from a 3.8 student in computer science to. . .to what? To a psycho as Bob so lovingly calls him? No. To my boyfriend's brother who drowns on his own drool because of his medication. Who is sometimes incontinent. Who sometimes writes me poems about God or flowers (Jainie with violet eyes/I don't care why's/a lily laugh/you do the math-I got that one just last week). Who, if he stopped the meds, might hurt people, might hurt himself, might hurt me. In no time at all, I watched Etzel turn into a shadow of who he was, a figment, a ruse. A psycho? No. A schizophrenic? Well, maybe. And so my job is to remind him of who he was. I'm helping Etzel find himself, and in the process he's teaching me about life. And if that sounds a little after-school special to you, then I would suspect that you have never dealt with someone who is truly struggling to remember his place and meaning in the world-as we all are.
Etzel and Bob's mom is a famous art dealer: Rebecca Lang. It's rumored that she discovered Jean-Micheal Basquiat and had an affair with him despite being a rich white socialite twice his age. She's never here. But we are. We're right here, beneath the surface. There are shelves of books, a pool table, a gym, computers and TV's and stereos, the walls swim with Kandinskys and Rothkos; we order anything we want. The only time we leave is to maybe see a band at The Opium Den, or to get drinks at The Mile High Club.
I haven't slept with Bob in over a month. I'm sure I'm pregnant. We decided to switch to condoms after I finally stopped taking the pill-the novelty of random breakouts, mood swings, and tits that felt ten times too big was wearing thin-but Bob rarely wore them. Yesterday morning I threw up. It was red because I usually drink two glasses of Rebecca's wine in the evening. When I finished brushing my teeth the sun was starting to come up, so I sat on the deck and watched the canyon melt from black to gold and sang "hush little baby don't say a word" to the baby in my belly.
In the kitchen Etzel is sitting on the floor giving what looks like fellatio to a pickle. I smile and rub his head.
"Wherrrrre's yourrrmmmmom. . .Jainie. . .Jainnnie?"
I kneel down and take the pickle away from Etzel because I think what he is doing is vulgar. I give him a Jell-O pop because they are his favorite, and I know he will eat the thing and not give it a fucking blow job.
"You know where she is, baby."
I start taking down dishes and arranging our turkey and roast beef sandwiches. I open a Red Stripe and take a sip.
I pick up a knife and almost sing the word, "Business!". I want to slit my wrists over how stupid that sounds.
"Hey Jainie! I'm gunnu shower and play Tad my new song. . .we'll be down."
I hear Bob and whomever gallop up the stairs. I hear doors slam. I hear Etzel noisily sucking on his Jell-O pop. I hear running water.
The water reminds me of my parents. They were both swimmers. My mother actually qualified and swam at the 1972 games in Munich. When the eleven Israelis were massacred, they (my parents) distanced themselves from the sport. At our house in California, I used to count the leaves gathered on the pool to see if there were more amber or green before Jimmy the cleaner swept them away-my little game before we'd swim. Then one day, after the Olympics thing, and when Jimmy hadn't been around much (at all), I lost count-the soggy leaves piled up and swayed on the hidden water like a sea of dead jellyfish. A year later, when I was twelve, and the pool's surface was officially sealed with a piece of canvas, they were killed in a plane accident. They probably died in the water; and no, thank you, I have never failed to recognize the cruel irony in that. Anyway, since I'm suddenly spilling out my life story. . .my Aunt Patty lived In Los Angeles, so I moved down here from the Bay area and lived with her until I was eighteen. The world can change a lot in a few hundred miles, in a few hours.
I met Bob at UCLA, where I majored in English Literature of all pointless things. He too was a different person-warm, funny, attentive. But I guess (I'm realizing) that we all have the dirty potential of being a day or two away from turning into a less kind, less recognizable version of ourselves. Anyway, I was modeling to pay for my tuition but eventually I quit school because the shoot schedules became so demanding. Two years ago things dried up, and I was glad. I have almost a million dollars in the bank from modeling, and in two years, when I turn thirty, I get another million in inheritance.
"Jell-O pop-p-p-p issss God'ssssmmmmucus."
"Etzel, why don't you play the piano while I fix us our dinner."
Etzel struggles to his feet and erects his still well built six three frame and goes into the living room where he beautifully plays Chopin. I watch Etzel slump over the keys and make music. I encourage him to play the piano; I feel it keeps his mind sharp. You see, I believe that people and situations can continue to change: if Etzel got sick, why couldn't he one day get better? If one family drowns, why can't life be breathed into another one? Why not? Why not. And that's why, when I'm tired or fed up or pissed off (as I often am) I continue to work with Etzel. Though sometimes, many times, he's not the one who feels like work. This hopefulness is a weakness of mine. Or is it a strength? Sometimes I can't tell the difference between the two. It's funny though, I seem to have more hope of recuperation in Etzel than I do in Bob. Perhaps it's because Etzel was blindsided-his less kind, less recognizable self was an accident; either he was pulled under the surface of things by some dark undertow, or he was lulled away in the arms of a quiet slipstream. Bob simply lost interest in the world he was living in and buried his head in the sand, and not only is that malicious, it's unforgivable.
I sip my Red Stripe and feel a little woozy. I bend over and touch my toes. I lean that way for a minute, puffing air. I peer up and over the aquamarine linoleum that swirls in my mind like the waves of Malibu. Can I dive into this? Can I open my arms and leap into this ocean, this cold floor?
When I stand up, the kitchen bends. The steel subfreezer reflects my face as would a wraparound sideshow mirror. I laugh at seeing myself so easily changed into something so unrecognizably grotesque, and hope that I haven't truly done so. I steady myself against the kitchen island. I suddenly remember Etzel's latest poem-I laugh harder now and say its last line out loud, you do the math. . .I hear strains of Bob's new techno-disaster drowning out Etzel's finessing of Chopin. I look down and see a corner of roast beef drowning in mayonnaise.
* * *
At a stop light on La Sienga Etzel turns to me and asks where we are going.
I take a Kleenex from the box on the dash and wipe drool from his mouth. LAX is beaming and blinking a mile ahead of us, huge structures signifying safety, like lifeguard stations. The winds are blowing eucalyptus and LA smog. Etzel's chin is resting on his chest and his head is bobbing as though he was floating in water.
I lift his head by the chin.
"You and I are going someplace to have a family, Etzel."
I suddenly feel a hot flash, a heaving sensation, and realize I'm crying when I say, "What do you think of that, Etzel? A family?"
Etzel says, "I liiike flyyyying, they are God'ssh-sh-ships. Whaaatarrrrrefffaaammilies?"
The hot red light that fills the car is replaced by a mossy glow, and Etzel's face is splashed with a wash of pale-green light. I lean toward Etzel so we are mouth to mouth. I mean this to be only a gesture, something maternal, something close and private, but for some reason I complete the gesture. We kiss, and I squeeze the back of Etzel's neck, and he runs his delicate fingers down my wet face. I collapse into him, and whisper in his ear, that's what we're going to find out, Etzel-then I turn away, and let my foot off the clutch.