Maestro Keys — Chapter 5

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FIVE

After twenty-seven years of marriage Linda Keys still loved her husband. Whenever she heard about men who abused their families or couldn’t hold jobs or drank or gambled or philandered she shook her head in disbelief. She had no idea what it was like to live with such an ogre. She knew how privileged that made her, and she tried to be humble and grateful about it.

Arnold grew into a solid, dependable man, just as she imagined when they became an item in college. He struggled to find a decent-paying job their first few years; they ate plenty of ramen dinners, and several times she took jobs in retail to keep them solvent. But he always worked, even substitute teaching while going through law school. He was a decent father, too. He and Rudy weren’t close these days, but that was a phase the kid was going through. Give Rudy a few years and he’d adore his dad again.

The question in Linda’s mind was whether she had been as good a wife. She was always supportive. She never badmouthed her husband in company the way so many of her friends did theirs. And she put up with his idiosyncrasies — even obeyed his command never to go into the study, although it tempted her mightily. What did he have in there besides a zillion compact discs, a beat-up reclining chair, and a yellowed, secondhand podium? A blow-up doll, maybe? She’d understand. At least he wouldn’t be cheating with a real person, like so many of his colleagues.

But inside, in the space hidden from everyone including him, she was growing frustrated with Arnold.

From the living room window of their split-level house halfway up the El Cerrito hills she gazed past tree-topped Albany Hill to the blue-green bay and mist-shrouded San Francisco. Arnold used to be so much livelier. He’d build a stage out of cardboard boxes and put on puppet shows for Rudy and his friends. He’d belt out arias until Rudy clapped his hands over his ears and offered his allowance back if Daddy stopped. He’d surprise her by coming home with a babysitter and giving her fifteen minutes to dress for dinner and a movie. But these days his laugh was rarer than a landline phone.

With Rudy close to flying the nest, she and Arnold could soon focus on each other again. She was in a hurry to get on with it. Menopause loomed; she’d already missed a couple of periods. The first time it happened she took a pregnancy test. The second time she didn’t bother. Though she’d read that The Change didn’t necessarily mean the end of her sex drive, she still worried the day was coming when she’d have her last orgasm. For the first few years of their marriage she didn’t know what worked for her in bed. No sooner did she learn than she became pregnant, and once Rudy arrived there wasn’t much time for sex. Now, in the years, maybe months, left to her, she wanted to be Nympho Woman.

But where was Arnold while her body screamed for satisfaction? Locked in his soundproofed cloister, brooding to the fusty fiddling of some powder-wigged, long-buried fuguemeister.

She accepted that after twenty-seven years he wasn’t as attracted to her as he used to be. That was natural. It was also natural that her body went to hell while she worked for two decades keeping the household together. She wasn’t about to starve herself, and all those miracle diets were bunk, so by the time she discovered aerobics it was too late: her hips and thighs had become permanent. Even though she took classes at a nearby gym four mornings a week she hadn’t shed more than a few pounds. Maybe if she took more advanced classes and stopped going for a mocha and croissant afterwards?

Once home from aerobics, with Arnold at work and Rudy at school, she’d masturbate two or three times, then catch up on the sleep she hadn’t gotten the night before. It was the best part of her day. But she half-hoped Arnold would come home unexpectedly and catch her. What would he think? Would it excite him? Disgust him? She never found out because Arnold never came home unexpectedly. On the rare occasions he left the office early he texted her first.

Maybe if she put all that energy into seducing Arnold she’d get him going. She could tell him to close his eyes and dream she was Jennifer Aniston — he didn’t care for the Friends reruns she liked to watch, but she noticed he stuck around an extra few seconds whenever the Rachel character was on screen. Or she could suggest someone more contemporary, like Jennifer Lawrence, but he probably wouldn’t know who that was.

Fantasy. That was the secret. Fantasy fueled her own sex drive. A few years earlier she started a mental list she called Men She Wanted To Fuck Once. Any man was eligible, from friends of Rudy’s (did that make her a potential child molester?) to famous figures. Her hunk of the moment was Dwayne Johnson (he can even sing! Wasn’t he great in Moana?). Recent additions included Colin Kaepernick (the 49ers’ defiant quarterback), Ed Sheeran (provided he lost the beard), Robert Reich (she saw him at a downtown Berkeley restaurant once and wondered what it would be like with a man that short), and the genial Eurasian-looking barista who made her last couple of mochas at the café she went to after aerobics.

She wondered what Arnold’s fantasies were like. He wasn’t the type whose eyes bulged at big boobs or perky butts, but in the space he kept to himself was he Don Juan, despoiler of innocents? Most men aspired to be, judging by those sordid porn sites she visited on occasion out of curiosity. (Was blended-family incest really that prevalent? She hoped to never find out.) Beyond fellatio, which always made him groan with pleasure, she had no idea what lit Arnold’s fuse these days.

I’ll tell you my fantasies if you tell me yours, she nearly offered a dozen times. But she didn’t want to threaten him. He already wasn’t as interested as he once was. If she said or did something scary it might shut him down completely. That was also why she hadn’t suggested he see a urologist to find out if his problem had a physiological (and curable!) origin. Now that he’d turned fifty she should suggest he go anyway, if only to have his prostate checked.

If she had to guess, she’d say his problems weren’t physical but mental. He was having trouble at his job, having trouble with Rudy, and having trouble with his age. From the day he hit the big five-oh he hadn’t been the same.

There wasn’t much she could do about work except assure him they’d get by if he were fired. She handled their finances, and unbeknownst to him, shortly after he got the job at Brooke, Klein & Shipler she started a rainy day account with savings from their household budget. (Was she the only middle-aged white woman in town who knew how much cheaper it was to shop at Trader Joe’s and Costco than Whole Foods?) Thanks to a couple of mortgage refinances and the rebounding stock market, the account had grown bigger than she ever anticipated, and probably could get them through two years without income. If no rainy day came (fingers crossed!), her dream was to surprise him with a tour of Europe after he retired. They’d visit Paris, Milan, Vienna, Bayreuth. But if the money would ease his mind now, she’d move it to their checking account. She didn’t really want to go to Bayreuth anyway.

She could do more about Arnold’s relationship with Rudy, who was at the age where everything came into question, especially his parents. She’d managed to stay on Rudy’s good side; there was no reason Arnold couldn’t either. He just had to realize Rudy wasn’t ten and subject to his guidance anymore. It would also help if he stopped sounding so out of touch. As she remembered it, they felt the same way about their parents. Didn’t they want to do a better job with Rudy than their parents did with them? It wouldn’t kill Arnold to familiarize himself with a few hip hop performers, or at least stop calling it rap music in front of Rudy.

Arnold and Rudy needed more time together. It would be hard to arrange, with Rudy at school all day and studying at night, and Arnold at work all day and in his study at night. But she knew she could prevail on them. All it took was a firm hand.

As for whatever Arnold was going through about his age, she already took care not to mention his thickening middle and thinning hair. Perhaps she should take a more affirmative approach and tell him he looked as handsome as ever. All men were vain, Arnold unexcepted. Flattery might get her everywhere. And if she started acting younger herself, growing her hair out and not letting the roots show as often, holding his hand and swinging it playfully, buying a stuffed animal and making it talk, he’d probably respond in kind. After all, Arnold wasn’t dead yet. He only acted that way.

For dinner that night she made sloppy joes. She knew it might remind Arnold of their scuffling days when even hamburger was too expensive, but that was the point. It would give him perspective on how far he’d come. And how could he not be moved by Rudy’s delight when for the first time in forever the college man was served his favorite childhood dinner?

It did seem to lighten Arnold up. Instead of complaining about work he ridiculed Trump’s mischaracterization of an adverse ruling on immigration, wondering whether Trump was trying to undermine respect for the federal courts on purpose or was genuinely that stupid. “Can’t both be true?” Rudy asked, and Arnold laughed, granting that they could. For once the two of them agreed on politics. (And finally, something about Trump to be grateful for!) Linda was so glad to hear them talking civilly that she just listened, casually licking sloppy joe juice from her fingers. At one point Arnold noticed and flashed her a merrily lascivious look. Now that was the old Arnold!

“You know, Lovey,” she said in the bedroom afterwards as he changed into his jeans, “dinner was so pleasant. I wish we could get along like that more often.”

“Tell that to the kid, Babe,” he snorted.

She gave him a side hug, which he neither resisted nor returned—so typical of him lately. “You two are always so negative about each other. Aren’t you tired of it? Don’t you want to break the cycle?”

Arnold admitted he did.

“Maybe you and him should have a meal together by yourselves. Let him pick the restaurant.”

“He’ll pick that filthy pizza place on Telegraph, or some vegan place where the only thing worth eating is — “

She hushed him. “Go, and make the best of it.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll have a wonderful time stepping over the homeless people, ordering from some arrogant kid with a nose ring, and picking the cockroaches out of my food.”

“Lovey, you know the sooner you agree to it the less I’ll nag you about it, so name the day.”

“I’ll check my calendar at work tomorrow and let you know.”

She got on her toes and kissed his forehead. Even if she hadn’t received a specific commitment, she had received a commitment in principle, and as Linda Keys knew after twenty-seven years of marriage, when negotiating with a lawyer that was a victory.

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© 2022 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.

The north edge of Albany Hill, San Francisco Bay, and downtown San Francisco.
View from the window halfway up the El Cerrito hills.

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Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.