I’m sharing this because I really enjoyed reading it, hope you enjoy it too!
THE BIG CAT
The women in my wife’s family all snored, and when we visited for the holidays every winter I got no sleep. Elida’s three sisters and their bombproof husbands loved to gather at her parents’ house in Golden Valley, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The house was less than twenty years old, but the sly tricks of the contractor were evident in every sagging sill, skewed jamb, cracked plaster wall, tilted handrail, and, most significantly, in the general lack of insulation that caused the outer walls to ice up and the inside to resound.
Every night the sounds were different. Helplessly cognizant, I formed mental scenarios while drifting in and out of sleep. One memorable night, I tossed and turned in a metalworking shop. From the far end of the second-floor hallway came the powerful rip of my mother-in-law’s rough-cut saw. From below, on the living room’s foldout couches, the intermittent thrum of welders’ torches—a wild hissing as the sisters’ noses sparked and soldered invisible objects. Beside me, Elida’s finishing touch: the high-pitched burr of a polisher perfecting a metal surface. Elida was slight, and she dressed in precise, quiet colors. She sat with her hands folded, wore clear nail polish and almost undetectable makeup. You would never have imagined that such a stark little person could produce such sounds. Ambien, earplugs, two pillows over my head—nothing could shut the noise out. I lay awake stewing, even though I knew I should feel sorry for them. The sisters and their mother had visited sleep clinics, endured surgery, blown their cpaps off their faces, tried every nose strip and homeopathic remedy that existed. It wasn’t that they liked to snore but that they were incurable. I think they took comfort in solidarity, though. Elida admitted that she loved sleeping in that noisy house, and sometimes they snored in unison—which was terrifying. One subzero vacation morning, my daughter, Valery, ran her finger across the ice-furred downstairs living-room wall and asked, “What is this, Daddy?” “Snores,” I said, blue with tiredness. “All the snores from last night have stuck to the walls.” Later, after her mother and I had divorced, Valery wistfully recalled that moment as the first time she’d realized how alive with sound the night was—and that all the noise emanated from the women in the family. Later still, she asked her mother at what age she’d begun to snore, and asked me if that was the reason we’d split up. Valery was worried for her own future. I assured her that snoring had had nothing to do with the divorce, which was amicable but also unavoidably painful. I laughed and hugged Valery. I even told her that I had adored her mother’s snores. I had never adored them, but I had adored Elida, almost to the point of madness, from the first time we met. We found each other in Hollywood, as Minnesotan expatriates always do, common sense driving them together—though to leave the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes for a thirsty city built on a desert may speak of some interior flaw. For Elida, it was the compulsive lure of film editing. In my case, the shame of acting. Although I auditioned endlessly and always had work, my parts generally lasted between six and twelve seconds. I rarely had a line. But I had Elida, her intense green stare, her Nordic pallor, even after years of sunlight, her slender, gliding walk, and the dark swerve of her severe haircut. She was mine.
When Valery turned twelve, I was cast in a supporting role in a movie that got a lot of attention. It could have been my fabled break. But Elida suddenly panicked over how unhappy Valery was in high school and decided that the schools in Minneapolis were more nurturing. We moved back. I had to accept the fact that my film career was over. I’d worked steadily and spoken a line or two, given many a meaningful glance, tripped villains, sucker-punched heroes, spilled coffee on or danced around movie stars in revolving doors. I had appeared in dozens of films, TV episodes, commercials. But Elida hadn’t been doing well, and both of us got better, more reliable jobs back home.
Elida loved the minuscule: the hundreds of tiny decisions that together produce a great flow of scenes. She applied this love of detail to her new vocation, planning corporate events. I also loved the small, when it consisted of learning to say lines a dozen different ways, with different tonal qualities, inflections, and gestures. In my new job, as a fund-raiser for a vibrant local theatre company, I perfected the gestures and tones that I hoped would coax donations to my organization. For my birthday that year, perhaps to console me for the life I’d given up, Elida somehow managed to clip and splice together a half-hour movie of my bit parts, which she set to eerily repetitive music. Shortly after she gave me that gift, which she titled “Man of a Thousand Glimpses,” we parted. I moved out of our downtown condominium, near nurturing DeLaSalle High School.
For the first couple of months after leaving Elida, I bolted out of work at exactly 4 p.m. I drove to my tiny apartment impatiently, hungrily, addicted not to a new relationship but to sleep itself. Deep rest was a drug. Waking from relaxed oblivion, I vibrated with an almost tear-inducing pleasure. Why shoot up, I wondered, when just by depriving the body of uninterrupted sleep for twenty years you can have ecstasy with no side effects? Except, it might be said, for Laurene.
It took no time at all before I was sleeping the entire night beside a woman whom I feared I had married too quickly because she slept like a drunk kitten. From the beginning, I had to consciously keep myself from referring to Laurene in casual conversation as “my current wife.” Though it was taken as a joke, I knew better: it was a slip. Laurene Schotts was the daughter of the owner of an immensely successful Midwestern sporting-goods chain with outlets in the ex-est of the exurbs throughout the tristate area. She was also a lover of the theatre arts. At the annual gala dinner for my theatre company, which Elida organized pro bono the year we parted, Laurene spoke between the salad and the entrée. Her flattering words of thanks to our supporters, which screened a plea for still greater largesse, impressed me with their genuine, awkward grace. Laurene revelled in that sort of gala, where people bid on donated items—the use of time-shares in warm countries, fur coats, ski packages, signed books, hand-painted scarves. Scarves draped our chairs, and we took superb vacations. Laurene was blond, social, generous, and loved to barbecue. Elida was dark, wayward, introverted, frugal, and usually a vegetarian. Laurene could drink a whole bottle of cold Pinot Gris between 5 and 6 p.m. Elida might sip one murderous, snore-inducing glass of Côtes du Rhône between eleven and midnight. After the divorce, Elida and I met once a month to discuss Valery. We had agreed to do this early on, even when it hurt to see each other. Every time, after we had wincingly established where Valery’s college tuition would come from, or whether she needed a new therapist, after Elida had confided the latest news of Valery’s boyfriend, who we both hoped would turn out to be simply “experience,” we would conclude the hour with a cheerful goodbye, perhaps saying “That wasn’t so bad!” or even “Good to see you!” We laughed in relief. We hugged, patted each other on the back, sometimes drank a cup of tea before the drive home. We never kissed, not even on the cheek. Our divorce had been agreeable and final. Our post-divorce meetings were lingering, tedious, and self-congratulatory. Once Laurene and I were married, however, the meetings with Elida became more difficult. The boyfriend had turned into a problem—we suspected an addiction. We also began, without any warning, to fight. It would start with some obscure thing and progress to even more obscure things. By the end of our meetings, Elida and I were worn out. Then, after one particularly difficult session, still upset as we were saying goodbye, Elida, instead of hugging me, stuck out her hand. I took her hand and held onto it until she met my eyes. Her glare pulled me to her, and I shocked us both by kissing her studious, pale lips. We jumped apart, as though scorched, and turned away. We didn’t speak of it.
Our next meeting was set up by e-mail, and I found myself walking eagerly toward Nick’s, a restaurant off Loring Park, which was quiet and decorous by day, with leather booths and gauzy curtains that let in glowing white rafts of winter light.
Elida was sitting at the third booth in, and raised a hand as I entered, then put a tissue to her eyes. She had been crying, a rare event. It usually meant, frighteningly, that she’d had some breakthrough realization about me that she’d repressed for years. Warily, I asked her what was wrong. She told me that Valery had started snoring. Her boyfriend had left her, thank goodness, but now Valery was refusing to believe that her mother’s snoring hadn’t precipitated our divorce. “Of course it didn’t!” “Maybe not. We had other issues.” “Who doesn’t? Twenty good years. One bad year. A thousand little issues came home to roost.” “I thought, you know, because of those good years we might still get back together,” Elida said. “Until Laurene. She doesn’t snore, right?” I admitted as much. “Ah.” Elida turned to look out the window, and her dark glinting hair swung sorrowfully alongside her cheek. “The first time we spent the night together.” “St. George Street.” “I warned you I snored. I’d already been to the specialists and had surgery, which only made it worse. It’s almost a relief to sleep alone now. At least I’m not blasting a man out of bed.” “I never minded.” I thought of the couch in Los Feliz that had wrecked my back. The walk-in closet with a floor pallet in our Minneapolis condominium. I’d adjourned to these lonely sleeping venues on most nights. I did mind, but her fixed gaze shook my heart. “Last month you kissed me.” “I did.” We grew perplexed, ate in silence, each secretly examining the other’s face from time to time. I was very conscious of the drama of the situation. Any former actor would have been. Elida sussed that out. “You’re trying on expressions,” she said, laughing. It was true. Various expressions crossed my face, but none felt right. The elements wouldn’t meld. My eyes would express affection while my mouth was tense. Surprise would lift an eyebrow while my upper lip worked cynically. Embarrassment smote me. At least that was real. I put my face in my hands and tried to breathe, but my hands covering my mouth made me hyperventilate. When I looked up, Elida was signing the credit-card slip. She folded her napkin. “Don’t get up,” she said. “From now on, let’s do a phone call. Or e-mail.” “I really hate e-mail,” I said, “for personal stuff. Please sit down. We can solve this.” She sat down. Irrationally elated, I ordered a bottle of wine. “This is a bad idea,” Elida said. “Why? We can talk. How are the ripsaw and the welders?” Elida knew my nicknames for her mother and sisters. “Ha!” She clinked my glass. “What was I again?” “The polisher!” “I don’t really mind that,” she said. “It’s in my line of work, really. I miss you. Maybe we should have an affair where we see each other only by day and never sleep together, you know, at night.” She was speaking whimsically, but we proceeded to do exactly that. We were extremely happy for ten months. To be sure, I felt bad about lying to Laurene, but she noticed nothing. She made few demands, seemed happy enough with my company, and continued to barbecue, even in December. Meanwhile, Valery had left for college, and Elida and I were meeting in our old condominium, overlooking the poisoned brown waters of the Mississippi. Then one afternoon we were dressed, sipping tea, looking out at the river, when Valery dropped her suitcase inside the door. She was astonished to see us sitting there. She gaped silently for a moment, then clumped down the hall in her big snow boots. Elida gave me an oddly insolent look. You can live with a person, have an affair with a person, and still suddenly see an unfamiliar flash, like the belly of a fish in the shallows, there and gone. She had known exactly when our daughter would arrive home. Valery screamed when she saw the untucked covers on our bed, the scattered pillows. She clumped back into the living room. “How long has this been going on?” We told her. She began to sob. “All this time? How selfish! Mean! I could have had you both together. Instead, I’ve been trying to get used to you apart. I was facing the facts and then . . .” She pressed her mittened hands to her temples as if to keep her head from flying apart. We all started crying and, for a while, felt miserable. Then Elida snorted, and we burst into hysterical laughter.
It was decided that I would come clean and leave Laurene Schotts. Elida and I would remarry. Although it was strange, the idea gave me an enormous sense of rightness. Things were falling into balance. My elation continued all the way back to Laurene’s and my house on Interlachen Boulevard, in Hopkins, facing the golf course. A beautiful stone house, with creamy painted walls, a wet bar in the basement, and a vast screening room for movie-viewing parties. Sitting in my car and looking up the flagstone walk, I thought of the pallet on the floor of the condominium’s walk-in closet. I would regret leaving this lavish, comfortable house, bought with Laurene Schotts’s money. I would regret leaving Laurene, too, the silent comfort of her presence every night.
Laurene pitched a majolica vase, then a framed photograph of us in Peru. She threw a few other breakable objects at the wall and, at last, hefted a crystal unicorn she’d had since the age of ten. “You’ll regret throwing that,” I said. “Please don’t. I’m so sorry!” “Dad was right!” Tears rolled down her face onto her collar, wetting her throat. I was stricken. I couldn’t stop apologizing. Never before had I seen her truly upset or sad. “Dad was right,” she said again. “He said you were after the money. He didn’t trust you—a former bit-part actor. He begged me to make you sign a pre-nup, but I said, ‘No, you’re so wrong! He’s the one!’ ” Because I had little money, and because money hadn’t figured into my first marriage, except for the problem of not having it, I was until that moment unaware that this had even been discussed. I put it out of my mind and didn’t think about it until a month later. I had moved out of Laurene’s house into a studio apartment. I continued to see Elida only during the day. I wasn’t quite ready for the walk-in closet. “Are you crazy?” Elida said, putting down her tea cup one afternoon, after I’d told her the proposed terms of my divorce. “That family is worth more than a hundred million! You could get a settlement. They’d never even miss it.” I waved her off, but every time I thought about how handy, how fantastic it would be to have money I wavered. With my nonprofit salary, I could barely afford to soundproof Valery’s old bedroom. I told myself that I’d keep my pride and sleep on the closet floor. I’d walk away without a cent. But I didn’t, of course.
We bought the condominium next door and removed two walls. This gave us an easy path into a large room, where I set up a huge screen. Before it, we arranged several couches of immense size and comfort. I slept there in grateful quiet. I didn’t take Laurene for that much, comparatively speaking, and the Schotts family was relieved. Still, they hated me enough to threaten for a while to get me fired.
One night, Elida surprised me by playing the montage of clips she’d made for my birthday years earlier. It was worse, somehow, seeing it on that giant screen bought with Laurene’s money. There I was, my trivial works captured for the ages. I hadn’t noticed, when I first viewed the movie, that Elida had made of those fleeting cameos and set pieces a sort of narrative. “Man of a Thousand Glimpses” started out with crowd scenes, me here, me there, the nice-looking, unobtrusive bystander reading a newspaper, glancing up at the sound of a gunshot, the man crossing a street, exiting a bakery, jumping into his car, uncoiling a hose to water his lawn. Next, a better man appeared, somewhat older, more heroic: I ran toward a river with a child in my arms; I was a soldier dragging his buddy to safety; I lowered a dog in a basket from a burning building, addressed people through a bullhorn, rushed into waves, and dived toward despairing arms. After that, I became a good father, inflated bicycle tires, opened refrigerator doors, lay back smiling in my late-night-shopper’s easy chair, had my waist measured, drove several carloads of screaming kids to sports matches. Small wonder I then got a pounding headache, clutched my jaw, my leg, my heart, wincing in agony. Next there came a turning point, which had been much applauded at the first viewing: I smoked a cigarette in a cheap motel, a beautiful woman silhouetted in the shower behind me. Afterward, ruined, I poured myself drink after drink, ordered a third Martini, fell off a barstool, crawled under a table and licked a woman’s ankle. I sank even lower—stuck a gun in a teller’s face, took cash from the drawer of a fast-food register. I palmed an apple from a pile, stole a moped, a diamond bracelet, a newspaper. These crimes kept me tossing in bed. I stared at ceilings, my eyes luminous, hollow with glare, haunted by ghosts, by women, by hallucinations. Sleepless, I got clumsy. I was hit by a car, crushed by a falling girder, devoured by a live volcano, axed, mauled, infected with bubonic plague. I was identified several times, in liverish-green morgue light, by stricken, dignified women. It was shocking the way I just kept on dying, physically, then mentally. A wreck of a man, I leaped from a bridge, a window. I parked on train tracks and drank deeply from a flask. I smiled at the swiftly approaching lights and laughed soundlessly. The End. Elida left. I played the movie over and over. How dark was my narrative! Why had Elida killed me off, instead of letting me rescue dogs at the end? This downward trajectory gave me a moral chill. I decided that I had not only wasted my life but had acted ignobly in taking money from Laurene. Although Elida and I had made Valery happy, and I’d thought I was contented with Elida, I knew now, as I’d known before, the nature of her true feelings for me. I destroyed the movie. It would be years before anyone noticed that my long-ago birthday gift had disappeared and I was once again dispersed into the confetti of B movies, failed TV sitcoms, and clumsy commercials. No one would ever have the cruel patience to assemble my life glimpse by glimpse again.
When the holidays came around, I insisted that we stay at the house in Golden Valley. Why not? I had already counted a million holes in a million ceiling tiles.
The first night at Elida’s parents’ house, we all had a mirthful, loving dinner, then did the dishes together. Elida’s relatives had easily absorbed me back into the family, where my role, though peripheral, was also vital, because I was Valery’s father. After we turned in and Elida fell asleep beside me, I lay on my back waiting. It usually took her an hour or so to really get going, but her sisters and her mother had already begun. Valery and a girl cousin had sneaked a bottle of wine into their sleeping bags and were now drifting off next door. The real snoring hit with abrupt ferocity. The orderly, mechanical regularity of the metalworking shop had been abandoned. Now it was more like a pack of wolves snarling over a kill. I closed my eyes. On my mental screen I saw lions driving the wolves—or hyenas, maybe—into the veld. On a hill overlooking the bloody feast, a baboon whooped. For many hours, I elaborated on the vivid images that accompanied the soundtrack: a lioness worrying the leg off a carcass, two others fending off a male, raking his ribs with teeth and claws, while their cubs mock-fought nearby. At last, I dropped off. In the deepest part of the night, I woke. Although Elida’s snarls had calmed to the loud, gurgling purr of a big cat digesting prey meat, I came to in a sick sweat, shaking. Perhaps my imagined scenario had triggered some terror from my evolutionary past. I had dreamed that I was the hunted animal, thrown to earth, being eaten alive. The tearing of my flesh, the snap of jaws wrestling at my bones, the blissful lapping as my throat opened—all this seemed absolutely real to me. It took some time for me to understand that Elida’s body had not been satiated on mine, that she wasn’t purring because she’d swallowed my heart. ♦