Walking on Broken Glass

Before you ask, no, we did not wake Colin up in the middle of the night. He had been right, as usual, about it being important for it to be just me and Ziggy. We woke up in the morning still as tightly wrapped around each other as if we’d slept in a tour bus bunk. He yawned and stretched and went back to sleep after I got up and got dressed.

I decided against teasing him about how he used to be so resistant to having sex in my house. It was nicer to just imagine that he was still there–warm and languid, wrapped up in my sheets–while I was dealing with getting Claire through the X-ray checkpoint and onto the plane. She was in a mood, argumentative and snapping like a turtle, but ultimately compliant with all that I asked of her.

I was thankful that the reason we took the early morning flight was so we could fly direct and not have to change planes on the way. Could you imagine trying to catch a connection in Newark with a cranky, motion-sick alligator in a wheelchair? That’s what it would have been like.

By the time we touched down in Tennessee, Claire looked rather gray and she’d gone silent. She kept her arms crossed over her chest like an Egyptian mummy as an attendant pushed her through the airport to the curb, where a van from the care facility was supposed to meet us. I left here there while I swung by baggage claim and by the time I got back to her, the van had pulled up, and the guy they’d sent was leaned over in front of her, talking to her. He had a hand on one wrist: feeling her pulse.

He was a middle-aged, light-skinned black guy, and he turned his head toward me as I approached. “How long has she been like this?”

Oh, you know, she’s been a bitter, vain, confused woman who was cheated of her youth and opportunities by sexism and patriarchal attitudes all my life, but I didn’t think that was what he was asking. “Been like what?”

He shook his head and instead of answering me, spoke to Claire again. “Okay, Miz Silver. Let’s get you in the van if we can, all right?”

She nodded and mouthed “all right” silently back at him, her eyes still shut.

“What’s going on?” I asked him, once we had her buckled in.

“She’s in a lot of pain,” he said. “I’m not sure, but it sounds to me like maybe she didn’t bring enough of her meds along.”

“Pain meds?” I buckled in next to her. It wasn’t an ambulance or anything like that, just a multi-passenger van. To her I asked, “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Oh, you know,” was all she’d say, waving me away.

Not that I could have necessarily done anything about it on short notice. The Allston house was pretty much drug free except for ibuprofen and Pepto Bismol. But still. I could have tried.

Ruth pried the whole story out of her at dinner time, by which point Claire had been re-medicated and was feeling more loquacious, and wanted to brag all about the fancy receptions and dinners and ceremonies that Courtney’s graduation had entailed. I hadn’t been there for dinner that night. I had taken a nap after I got back to my little extended stay place to unpack my own stuff, and after making sure she wasn’t about to crash-expire, I had been wrung out and really needed it.

When I woke up I had slept through dinner, which wasn’t a big deal, but I knew I’d be in for it if I missed the game of hearts. I hopped into a quick shower. When I came out, the message light was blinking. I figured it was Claire wondering where I was. So I hurried back over there to see if she and Ruth wanted to play a couple of rounds before bedtime and that was when I got to hear the whole trip recounted by Ruth, through the filter of what Claire had told her.

Ruth talked while shuffling and dealing the cards as if Claire wasn’t sitting right there. “Your mother, I tell you, she is something, boy.”

“Yes, she is.”

“You take her on any more excursions you gotta keep a better eye on her. You know what that wily thing did?”

“No, what?”

“To make sure she could get through all the ceremonializing and socializing she was doubling up her meds. She didn’t seem high as a kite to you?”

“Um—“

Claire interrupted at that point. “Excuse me, but do I seem at all impaired to you at this moment, Ruth, dear?”

“Well, no, except that you picked up your hand before I dealt the last card.”

“I’m just getting a head start on my strategy,” Claire said with a sniff. “I figured you’d be getting to it and I didn’t want to embarrass you by pointing out you counted wrong.”

“Counted wrong, my fanny,” Ruth said, handing around the final deal. “Anyway, what’s this I hear about a charming older man your sister introduced her to?”

“Oh, yes, that’s true,” I said. “I wish I’d known about the medication, though.”

“They only send you with the exact number you need, you know, because they’re worried you’ll turn around and sell the extras or something like that.” Ruth rolled her eyes. “No doubt a Reagan-era policy.”

“Now, Ruth,” Claire said, rearranging her cards in a fan in her hand. “Not every problem in the country is Ronald Reagan’s fault.”

“Yes, some of them are Nancy’s,” Ruth said with a huff. “Well, I’m glad you had a grand time and made it back in one piece.”

After the game, I helped Claire back to her room and helped her get ready for bed. As I tucked her in, I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She took my hand in hers and started massaging my palm out of habit. “You want the truth, dear?”

“Always.”

She sighed. “I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.”

“I thought being in pain was the thing you were the most afraid of.”

She sighed again. “It was. Turns out I didn’t know the half of it. Once it got really bad, well I just felt so stupid I felt like I deserved the whole thing.”

“Oh, Mom.” It just slipped out. “You don’t deserve any of this. Especially not any Nancy Reagan anti-drug guilt or whatever this is.”

She sighed and went on like I’d said something nice about Nancy. “She was such an elegant First Lady. I mean, not on the level of Jackie of course, but the Reagans, they were entertainment business people, you know.”

I had a vague notion that Reagan had been an actor and that he’d been in a movie called Bedtime for Bonzo, in which he co-starred with a chimp, but that was the extent of it. I just nodded.

She told me stories, some of which may have been pure fabrications, about Hollywood power couple Ronnie and Nancy Reagan, until she fell asleep.

I went back to my place and picked up the phone, intending to call Jonathan to ask him if I was remembering right about Nancy Reagan pretending she didn’t know Rock Hudson and refusing his phone calls when he was dying of AIDS. I was pretty sure I’d heard that from him. But the voice mail was prompting me to listen to my messages. So I hit play to get it out of the way.

Carynne’s voice on the line. “Call me when you get this. I have news from Feinbaum, from Digger’s lawyers.”

I let myself entertain the fantasy for a few seconds that they were calling to settle. But no. I wasn’t going to be that easy.

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