Of Course I’m Coming
By John Perilli
It is not like his wife to keep him waiting for an answer. Robert’s fingers are slow and clumsy these days, and his discomposure only grows when he sees a text message to her sitting there, plaintive and assumedly unread, for more than two hours. It hurts his joints for him to type on the undersized keys of his phone, and the letters do not respond to the placement of his thumbs the way a computer or typewriter would. Rather than cause himself more pain to correct, he sends a message with typos included.
Are u goig 2 Barbaras party or what? Need to leav soon. Pls let me know I havent heard from u.
He rises from the couch. The tweedy brown cushions inhale air and expand to their normal size as he stands.
He likes to collect the small pieces of stationery gathered from the bedside tables of hotel rooms. There is a small pile of them on his desk. It is old furniture, dark and worn like the rest of the room, but the collection of pastel-colored notepads makes it seem like someone has given it attention lately, or at least dusted and tried to organize. A tarnished brass torchiere lamp, providing the dim room’s only light, stands alongside the desk. He takes a pad with the bluish header of the Plaistow Motor Inn and writes:
Please let me know if you are going to Barbara’s party.
He is comforted to see his message in black ink, clean and permanent. He dates it, signs it, and tears off the page.
He has filled the top drawer of his desk with pages and pages of his messages, filing them in a comforting chronological order where they cannot get away from him. He had yielded to his wife’s insistence that he buy a smartphone (I need to find you sometimes, Robert!), but did not give in entirely. When the phone does not unlock despite his many tries at the passcode, or when his text message application seems to escape him, the written messages keep him tethered to the world.
His wife does not know about the notes he writes to himself. His pen shudders over the latest one. He does not add that he has not heard from her, and puts it away.
When he finally leaves, he knows he is running late. His mind his blanketed in a stressful fog. A nervous energy sends currents from his errant thoughts to his increasingly erratic hands, giving him no chance to consciously intervene.
He turns right where he should have taken a left. This he realizes when he passes the True Value when he should be seeing the church steps. He pulls over in the parking lane, and earns a strident honk from a passing SUV. A last spike of frustration, and then he breathes.
Robert, I need you to build a memory palace, his therapist had told him. Her voice plays in his head with a patina of static, as if from a radio. Think of a set of rooms––or buildings, or anything––that you know intimately, and associate things you need to remember with each one.
He remembers choosing the example of the buildings. The True Value––which was once Petteruto’s Hardware, which was once Briganti Bros.––was his first location, but his mind always gets caught up in remembering the succession of owners, and in the end he forgets what memory he was even supposed to assign to the place. He does not get as far as the church, or the wide church hall next to it (whose construction bankrupted the parish that built it in 1978, necessitating a diocesan takeover and merger with a nearby parish which had outgrown its own church).
He remembers these small details, and it pains him, because he has trouble remembering others.
He recalls Barbara, whose party he was supposed to be at a half hour ago, storming out his front door when she turned 18. He remembers the words she hurled at him years ago. You don’t fucking own me anymore, Dad, she said. I’m sick of this fucking place, and I’m sick of you trying to keep me here.
He was about to rise off his chair to defend himself when somewhere on his body—which, accursed by aches and fat and failure, felt suddenly old to him—a valve opened¬, perhaps down by his left side where he had been sore all week, and let all his air out¬. The harsh words died on his breath like the last disappointing puff of a cigarette. He told Barbara that she was always welcome in his home. She slammed the door in his face.
He was able to locate Barbara through the graces of a neighbor who remained in touch with her, but it was only then that he started to notice that small details were eluding him. He could never remember her phone number when he went to dial it, and had multiple Christmas and Easter cards returned undelivered because he miswrote the address. It was as if the dexterity that was leaving his hands––the accuracy of a pen stroke to fill a crossword, or to underline the performance of one of his retirement funds in the paper––were departing from his mind as well.
I think...I’m worried I’m losing it, Philomena, he told his wife, tiptoeing over the words. He had started talking to her at length during unending afternoons without Barbara in the house. I don’t know what the hell I should do.
She clearly grew impatient listening to him complain so much, but humored him. I think you should find a shrink.
That’s the wrong word. A therapist.
So began his visits with Maureen. She was not a doctor, but seemed to enjoy the act—she was always confident in her answers, even when he doubted them. Her office was, in the style of a physician’s, a cold shade of white on both the walls and the tiled floor. She forewent the typical therapist’s couch and offered her guests a black plastic chair which made Robert’s legs stiff.
Are you sure you can’t give me any pills for this? he asked. Isn’t there something you can do?
You know, Robert, if I could have popped a few pills years ago that would have saved me from my all my problems, I wouldn’t be here, would I?
He had gone home to his wife more nervous than he had been before the appointment. Before, he had been reasonably confident that his was a small problem—like one of his puzzles, ultimately solvable by a sharp mind who didn’t care about cheating to look up the answers. Now he wasn’t sure.
I just didn’t trust her, he said.
His wife’s face bespoke disapproval of his skeptical reaction to her idea. Philomena took it hard when she was not right. You’re just being difficult.
I know when I’m being told something that doesn’t make sense.
Well why don’t you go become a doctor? his wife told him. She seemed to like this line she had come up with, and repeated it. Why don’t you go become a doctor? You don’t know everything.
Goddammit, Phil, I never said that.
She paused. They stared at each other, daring the other to apologize, but in seconds each recoiled.
Look, it’s awful, his wife said, seemingly at a loss. I hate…seeing this, I hate being a part of it, I hate not being able to do something. I shouldn’t complain.
You’re goddamn right you shouldn’t, he said.
Another tense moment passed before she realized he was being facetious. There was a moment of slight laughter—a release.
I think you should talk to Barbara, she said.
Really? His tone was skeptical again. She’s going to think I’m going nuts.
Doesn’t she already? his wife chuckled, but her face quickly straightened. This is different, though. She’ll take this seriously. She’s a serious woman.
Are you sure?
I’m sure, she said. And if she doesn’t answer, I’m still here.
She left the room.
Hands jittering, he reached for the cordless phone on the table next to the couch, and, after three tries, dialed Barbara’s correct number. He remembered that she took the call, reluctantly invited him over—
In a great glowing flash, removing him from his memory, he recalls the directions he used to drive to her house. He pulls out of the parking lane and turns around, angry at himself for not remembering sooner.
On his way, he drifts back to his recollection. He remembered that Barbara took three rings to answer his call that day. She must have known it was him. He remembered hearing a baby crying in the background. I’m busy.
Jesus Christ, Barb, get over yourself for a second.
What the hell do you want?
Just give me five minutes and I’ll explain.
The party seems to go quiet as he arrives. For a second, he hears that limberness of conversation that signifies a gathering in progress, but it dies as he crosses the threshold into his daughter’s living room. He feels the judgment of thirty sets of eyes. He looks around for his daughter––a friendly face, or at least a recognizable one, in a crowd of unknown in-laws––but he cannot find her. He ambles forward.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says meekly.
Mercifully, the conversation resumes. He hears again the clatter of ice from the freezer as drinks are served, the laughter from friendly discussion. He wonders if the previous moment had even happened.
“You drove here?”
The voice comes from his left, and he feels immediately relieved. Barbara is holding a clear cocktail in a highball glass in one hand, and her phone in the other. He notices that her eyes look deep and shadowed, and that there are gray streaks in her curly brown hair. When did she begin to go gray? He does not draw attention to it, not just out of tact, but to spare himself the shame if she has actually been this way for some time, and he has just forgotten.
“Slowly,” he assures her.
Despite her woebegone appearance, Barbara smiles.
“Here to see the birthday boy?” she says.
He feels a stone slide slowly into his gut. He pauses, and turns his eyes to the ceiling, thinking furiously, but no name comes to him. The word “who?” is on his tongue, but he swallows it.
Barbara’s smile flickers, but she gives a good-natured sigh. “Dad, it’s your grandson! He’s turning four today. Jared, bring him over here.”
Barbara’s husband, a pale balding toothpick, bounces over with Robert’s grandson on a shoulder, both heads nearly brushing the ceiling. He sets the boy down, who rushes and hugs Robert’s legs shouting “Grampa! Grampa!”
Robert leans over to Barbara’s ear. “I don’t have a card for him. I’m so sorry.”
Barbara shrugs. “I have some stashed in my filing cabinet. I’ll get you one to fill out in a bit.”
Jared leans over to Barbara’s other ear. “Your dad didn’t get him anything?”
Any sense of relief Robert feels leaves him. Barbara squirms, and maintains her pained smile.
“Well, Jared, he was running late! You know how Dad is when he gets in a rush. Right, Dad?”
“Right,” Robert says, though he is not sure.
Jared picks up Robert’s grandson, as if unsatisfied with the excuse. “Joey got lots of presents, right? He was such a good boy this year! So many presents for the good boy!” Robert’s grandson laughs as Jared holds him under the arms and nuzzles him.
Robert extracts himself and makes for the kitchen. The busyness feels more pressing there. The white tile floor hurts his eyes, and seems to amplify the confusion in his ears. He finds the ingredients and mixes a weak gin and tonic, and doesn’t bother with the wedge of lime. He sips, avoiding conversation, and returns to the living room. A couch invites him to sit, and he obliges it. The weight blessedly lifts from his legs.
A relative, distant, regales him from his right. Robert reluctantly turns. He cannot make out all the words over the din in the room, but through the noise he hears, “where were you? Did you forget the turn at Steeple Drive again?”
For once, Robert remembers a detail he is looking for—but not fondly. The man is one of Philomena’s cousins, whom he had first met at their wedding rehearsal. This person had drunkenly asked Philomena, only half-jokingly, whether she would live long enough to regret her decision.
Martin is his name. Yes.
Smiling in the power his memory held over Martin, Robert turned and said, “I’m sorry, what are you called again?”
He remembers, a few years ago, coming home from a party much like this one, feeling shaken.
He sat down on his dark tweedy couch, and tugged himself out of his heavy wool sweater. Perspiration had left blotchy stains on his blue button-down shirt.
They were all looking at me, Phil, he said. Barbara must have told them.
Philomena sat down next to him. Her bony arm splayed across the top of the couch over his shoulder.
It’s none of their business, his wife said. Who cares what they think?
Phil, I care what they think. They’re mostly your family.
She looked at him with a kind of tender concern.
Fuck them, she said. They’re lucky I put up with them.
Robert was pleased. He was sure his wife did not hate her family this much, but was glad she took his side.
If any of them say––
She stopped to cough, a small fit leading to a deep bout of hacking. Robert patted her on the back. After nearly a minute, she stopped.
Well damn, if that’s what I get for quitting, she said, with a laugh that might have been another cough.
Robert laughed as well, but not without a bit of grim recognition in his own gut. Unlike him, Philomena had quit smoking, but her habit had been a ravenous packs-per-day obsession. He never smoked more than a pack a week, even in a bad mood.
Look, I trust Barbara with my life, she said. She would never let you down. She’s a bit petulant sometimes, yes, I know.
She leaned against him, looking down at his corduroy slacks. She dragged a finger over his leg.
I’ll have it easy, she said. The cancer will be awful but it’ll only take a year.
Robert finished her thought in his head, and it made him feel helpless and full of dread.
Phil, if I go crazy... he said, finding it required an effort. If I...just don’t give me up, okay?
She looked up at him, as if she couldn’t believe him. Not if I can help it. And Barbara better not either. Or I’ll make sure she and Jared have to go to every one of my family’s stupid parties until they go crazy, too.
He texts his wife again. R u coming or what?
After a brief, largely one-directional conversation reminding Robert who he was, Martin has left for more hors d’oeuvres. Robert’s gin and tonic has become watery and warm on the coffee table by his knees. He feels a tap on his shoulder.
“I got you something to give Joey,” Barbara whispers, and she reaches around the couch with a colorful birthday card and a pen. Forest critters in party hats dance on the cover, and it plays a monophonic version of “For he’s a jolly good fellow!” when it opens. As he takes the card with his free hand, Barbara grabs hold of his phone.
“Who are you texting?” She asks. He pulls his phone away.
“Oh no,” she says. “You’re not texting Mom. You’re not...”
She vaults around the side of the couch and sits down next to him, looking frightened. He looks confusedly back at her
“Dad, please tell me...”
“She told me she was coming, but she’s running late,” he said, defensively. “What’s the big deal?”
“Dad, come on, you know what the big deal is.”
She looks imploringly at him. Then she looks over his shoulder and her face melts into alarm.
“You guys going to be OK over here?” Jared says from behind him.
“Just talking with Dad.”
“He’s texting your mother again?”
Barbara starts shaking her head, but Jared insinuates himself. He wedges his thin frame between Robert and Barbara and looks concernedly at her.
“Barbara, I keep telling you, he’s not safe on his own,” Jared says. “We need to get him into long-term care.”
Robert can’t see the look of shock on his own face. He stares at Jared’s back, not believing him. I’m right here, he wants to say. I’m right here.
“Jared!” Barbara hisses. “We’re not having this discussion here!”
“Then when are we going to have it?” Jared said. “He’s going to drive home after this. Do you trust him?”
“He got here fine...”
“Stop making excuses for him,” Jared said. “You’ve been dodging this discussion for months.”
“Jared, it’s our son’s birthday.”
“Fine then. Later, we’re sitting down and having this discussion.”
“Barbara, nothing about this is okay!”
Robert looks around Jared’s back at his daughter. She gives him a kind of apologetic shrug, which disappoints him. Jared still ignores him, and in protest, Robert looks away from both of them. He picks up his gin and tonic and drains it with a shudder. He leans back against the couch, and the world enters a pleasant spin around him. He drowns out the argument his daughter and son-in-law are having at their own party, drowns out the thoughtless chatter of everyone else at the party who looked so judgmentally at him when he arrived, drowns out the saccharine whining of the birthday card’s song, and creates his own little pocket of space and time. He feels a vibration in his hand, and draws his phone closer to his face.
Of course I’m coming, his wife had responded. You thought I’d make you suffer alone?
He likens his memory to the tweed couch he and Philomena would often sit on to watch the news or TV, trays pulled up close to their knees. He remembers when they had first bought the furniture for their little house. It had cost them more money than they’d had after closing on the place, and they’d needed to take out more financing to buy it all. The color and style were in fashion that year, and they had proudly displayed the couch in their living room for all their friends and guests to sit on. It was a time when he and Philomena went to the Rotary Club socials every other week and had the energy to host parties two or three times a month.
Looking back, the couch had been a rather quaint marker of their success. They had paid it off just as it had begun to fray. The strands of fabric had begun to detach from one another, and following them from one end of a cushion to the other became a process fraught with rips, holes, and cigarette burns.
When Barbara was born, Robert noticed that his wife became taciturn—the news was just starting to pick up on the research into postpartum depression, but her desultory period lasted much longer than any of the articles he collected had suggested. Years, in fact. The parties kept going, and sitters were found on the Rotary Club nights when Barbara came home from kindergarten. But Philomena’s heart for all of it had weakened.
Robert knew she had come from circumstances in which she had looked forward her whole life to being the center of a social orbit. A person for whom paying $50 more for a pricier bottle of wine, or a tin of caviar instead of cottage cheese, was no great expense. And now with a growing child, that part of her life seemed suddenly excessive—sinful, even, when a young mouth demanded something besides martinis and delicacies. Torn, Philomena began to drink more heavily, which coincided with a blackening of her smoking habits. Equally torn, Robert began to take time away from Barbara to care for his wife, enlisting relatives and friends to entertain the confused young girl on school nights and weekends.
He missed his daughter with a physical ache as Philomena lay on the couch, burping and sobbing, the thirsty tweed fabric absorbing her tears. He wondered if their new life with Barbara was really the cause of his wife’s melancholy, or just a conduit for some depressive spirit in her that he had somehow never seen, hidden as it may have been behind the expensive china and drunken merriment of their former lifestyle.
Oh it’s not fair, she would say. When you men become alcoholics, it’s all artsy and heroic. Women alcoholics are just fuckups and failures.
You’re not a fuckup or a failure, he said meekly.
Well you’re a goddamn liar.
That had been the first time he’d thought that it was coming to an end for them. He worried what would happen to Barbara if they divorced—or if his daughter had become attached to any of his relatives and would demand to stay with them.
Perhaps Philomena had sensed his concern, because she took it on herself to cut back. She quit smoking cold turkey. After a last gasp, when it replaced her beloved Marlboros, her drinking slowed down as well. The parties came to an end. Friends stopped coming over, moved away, had children of their own, or died.
Years after the fact, he is bewildered by how little it seems like this tumultuous time happened. He wonders if losing his memory has not had some perverse benefits. Like how he is able to look back at Barbara’s childhood—her moody elementary school years, her high school doldrums, right up until she slammed the door in his face—and feel warmth, rather than crippling guilt.
He wonders how his memory could lie to him like that.
He is able to follow certain strands of his memory straight through from beginning to end––he felt so accomplished whenever he was able to tell a story without forgetting any details! For others, there are gaps in the middle, or he doesn’t know the ending. In these, others can fill in the lost details. But the most frustrating ones of all are the stories where he doesn’t remember the beginning.
He does not remember exactly why he was sitting on the old couch one day feeling defeated, his attire unusually dark and subdued. He does not remember exactly why his phone rang with an unrecognizable number. He remembers picking it up.
Dad, it’s me. Barbara said haltingly.
Oh, Barbara, he said. I didn’t know it was you. What made you call?
There was a moment of silence over the phone, dead of talk or even breathing.
I just wanted to make sure you were okay, Barbara said.
I’m fine. Thanks for asking.
Dad, no you’re not.
He swallowed. Well, you’re right, I don’t feel great. I’m just sitting here, feeling a bit glum.
Dad, look. Barbara’s speech was halted by a long sniff. I know I’ve been bad to you.
You have. I’m not going to lie, he said.
I’m glad to hear you say that, Barbara said. I was worried you would try to play down all the asshole things I’ve done.
Barbara, you’ve done a lot of asshole things, Robert said. But so have I.
You have, she agreed. You and Mom were so busy being goddamn martyrs for your lost youth that you didn’t give a shit about mine.
This hurt him to hear, but Robert didn’t defend himself. That’s fair, Barb. I’ve told you I’m sorry about that.
But none of us are kids anymore, Barbara said. I hope we can both recognize that.
Robert noticed that even her reconciliation was not without a slight insult. But again, this was not a time to be defensive.
I recognize that, he said.
Ignoring the curious looks of his fellow guests, Robert removes the pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. The lighter finds the cup of his palm without any effort. Philomena had taught him how to shield the end of the cigarette with his hand so the flame from the lighter wouldn’t burn too conspicuously. He inhales, blessedly, and blows a narrow tongue of smoke toward the ceiling.
“Dad, can you not smoke in my house?” Barbara says to him. Jared looks on, mercifully inexpressive.
“Barbara, can you please not tell me what to do?” Robert retorts, taking another drag. “You’ll recall I put half the down payment on this house when I discovered you were living in a hotel.”
Barbara looks stunned. Robert is just as shocked that he has said this, but does not question it. He stands up, taking his cigarette with him, and makes for an unoccupied side of the room.
He tries to find a reason for his frustration. He decides, from a sea of possible explanations, that it is because he is angry at how quickly he has been discarded once his useful life ended. As if the primary reason for his existence were to provide a predictable stream of money, moral support, and pleasant memories until he was no longer able to, at which time he was expected to step aside. He does not appreciate being told this in the house he helped pay for, owned by a person whose life he helped create.
He thinks of telling Barbara why he is angry, but decides she would not understand. He would need to tell her the words she so hated to hear when she was little: “Wait until you’re older. You’ll get it then.”
He sees a door to another room, stately in dark brown wood against the ugly red floral wallpaper. He pulls it open, and enters his living room. There is the faded torchiere lamp in the corner. And there is the tweedy brown couch.
And there, sitting on it, is Philomena, her black hair restored to its full wavy luster, her skin returned to its pale smoothness, her eyes revived with their dark sultry glow. She is wearing an olive-green ensemble, a straight-lapel jacket over a matching pleated skirt, fishnet stockings and an ecru blouse, one of her old dinnertime favorites. She holds a cigarette between two fingers of her right hand, and exhales a ghostly thread of smoke through lips pursed poutingly as if to say, What took you so long?