Authors: Ann Leary
For Devin, with love
irst of all, he’s a Joe.
Dad warned me about this. A different kind of dad might have said, upon first meeting his daughter’s fiancé, something along the lines of, “Seems like a nice enough fellow.” Or, “What does he do for work?” My dad chatted with us for a few moments that April morning in 1987 when we drove all the way up to the Cape to give him the happy news, then he pulled me aside to offer an urgent, intervention-minded critique. “He’s a Joe if I ever saw one,” he grumbled, squinting off at some indiscernible point down his dead-end, crushed-shell road. You could tell it pained him to have to say it. He stroked his thick nose with the crook of his finger in an effort to conceal his words.
“He’s a real Joe,” he emphasized again, wincing slightly, and just like most Neds are thoughtful and Jakes tend to be sly, Davids smart and Jacks funny, Joes, according to Dad, are a handful.
He’s a Joe and he’s a Leo, he’s part Italian and, if that weren’t enough, he’s starring in a television show. A Joe with his own show is a lethal combination. I see that now, of course, but back then, when I was still in the blinking, gushing, smitten stage of our relationship, I wasn’t alarmed or annoyed by Dad’s dire admonition, his superstitious “nameology,” as my brother Neil used to call it. I was thrilled.
He’s a Joe!
I told myself.
I’ve got myself a real Joe!
And he didn’t have a show then, and nobody but Dad gave a shit what his name was, and truth be told, I didn’t find him much of a handful at all until many years later, when he was almost out of my grasp.
Now Dad has more or less lost touch with reality. He lives at the VA hospital in Bedford, Mass. He’s got Alzheimer’s with a little wet brain thrown in. But even though he usually forgets who the kids and I are, he always remembers Joe.
“Joe Ferraro,” he says when he catches a glimpse of him on the TV at the VA home, where he’s known to his nurses not as Ralph Manning, but as Joseph Ferraro’s father-in-law.
“A real Joe, the son of a bitch,” my father says. And he knows one when he sees one.
The two words rose above the restaurant din from one of the tables behind me, rose up and out of the dull white drone of late-night chatter and the chink of fork upon china and the distant half-drowned tracks of a forgotten Hindi-jazz CD. Had they been any other two words, they might have become part of the ambient clamor that surrounds each table at Pastis like a protective garment, allowing its occupants to speak of love or desire or deals or just to leisurely gossip, as Karen Metzger and I had been doing for the past five minutes. It was Wednesday night at Pastis, we were celebrating Joe’s Golden Globe nomination with the Metzgers, and the guys had gone outside for a smoke.
“This is amazing, Julia, you have to try it,” Karen said. She was hacking away at a mound of hard hazelnut ice cream. “Here. Try it,” she said, tapping the plate with the tip of her spoon. Then she carved out one more little bite for herself.
“I just saw him, he’s standing outside smoking. Right outside the door.” It was the same man’s voice behind me, eager and disbelieving.
“I know. We saw that guy, but we don’t think it’s him. He looks too small.” This was a girl. A tipsy girl. And young, that was clear. She divided the word
into two syllables and then dropped the second syllable an octave, just the way my daughter, Ruby, and her friends did when they spoke to one another.
“Everybody looks smaller in real life,” said the guy. “Ever seen Tom Cruise? Guy’s a dwarf. Ever seen Al Pacino, Sean Penn? Pygmies!”
I shot Karen a look of startled amusement but she hadn’t heard him. She was shaving tawny ice-cream crescents onto her spoon and reexamining, in a tone that was rising with shrill indignation, the “perfect storm” that had swept her husband Brian’s just-released film to the bottom of the box-office charts, where it clung, battered by reviewers, looking for a dignified and timely route to next season’s DVD releases.
“The studio was out to lunch on this one,” Karen said. “And Sophie Wilkes just can’t act. A director can only do so much.”
“I don’t know, I think she’s all right,” I said. “Everybody liked her in that movie about the teacher. Didn’t she win the Oscar?”
“That was a fluke. She’s awful. Why aren’t you eating this?” Karen pushed the ice-cream plate to my side of the table and then she stared at it, wistfully.
“Go ahead,” I said. “I like it when it’s a little melted.” I slid the plate back to her. “Can I use your phone?” My phone was in my purse, dead.
Karen took one last swipe at the ice cream and then she plunged her arm up to her elbow into the oversized Balenciaga tote that hung from the back of her chair. She probed the depths of that two-thousand-dollar handbag, biting her lip and staring straight ahead, and I was reminded of a young English veterinarian I had recently seen on a television show, struggling to extract an unborn calf from the womb of its desperate mother.
“I can use Joe’s phone when he comes back,” I offered.
Karen frowned for a moment, thrusting her arm slightly deeper, and I could see the bulge of her knuckles as they rolled along the supple leather walls of the bag. There was the muffled tumbling of keys and coins and then she extracted the phone triumphantly.
“And I told Brian not to cast Gregory Mason. He’s just too gay. Nobody believes him when he plays a romantic lead.” Karen held the phone at arm’s length and squinted at the screen. Then she handed it to me.
“Greg Mason’s gay?”
“Julia…yes. Everybody knows this.”
“Wait. I know somebody who dated him. A girl.”
“Nonetheless. Giant fag.”
“No…” I said, laughing helplessly, but Karen interrupted me. “When they were shooting the scenes in Thailand, Greg had a parade of local working boys wandering in and out of his trailer every day. Ask Brian!” she said when I gave her a look. “And listen to this. We invited him out to Southampton one weekend and he brought tasteful gifts for me, the kids…even the dog.” Karen was whispering now because Joe and Brian were heading back to the table.
“What straight man is
thoughtful?” she murmured as I began to punch out my phone number.
“Well, I hear Tim Robbins is thoughtful….”
“Julia…Gregory Mason brought an Hermès collar for Waffles.”
My thumb gleefully hit the last four numbers. An Hermès collar for poor old Waffles!
The Nextel recording prompted me to enter my security code, and as I tapped it in, I watched Brian and Joe make their way through the crowded room. I recall, now, that Joe wore his “Yes, it’s me” expression—a shy half-smile, his gaze fixed just above the nudges and hungry glances that carried him along like a gentle wave. From behind me the man said, “I toldja! Joe Ferraro,” and then Joe Ferraro himself, grinning broadly now, slid into the chair beside me.
“Jesus Christ, we could hear you girls cackling all the way outside.”
“I love it,” said Karen. “We
cackling, Julia, like a pair of witches.”
“A pair of well-toned witches,” said Brian.
“I prefer sorceress,” I said, kissing Joe on the lips. “Somehow it sounds so much more attractive than witch.”
“They both sound evil. And sexy,” said Joe. “Who are you calling?”
“My voice mail. I just want to see if Ruby or Catalina called….” I stopped talking then because the first message was playing.
said a woman’s voice.
Who? The voice was Southern, I knew that at once. Just from those two words I knew.
“Thanks for the message. I can’t believe you had to ask if I’m happy, baby, you know I am. Where are you, Joey?”
I leaned away from Joe and he raised an eyebrow. “Everything all right?”
I nodded slowly, listening.
“I want to see you, babe.”
“Is it Catalina?” Joe asked, and I nodded again, still listening.
Joe turned to Karen and Brian. “You know, the first night Catalina babysat for us we thought she stole Ruby?”
“I’m horny as a motherfucker,”
said my mysterious confessor.
My face burned. I felt waves of what must have been blood and adrenaline surging across my chest, shooting upward and then pounding against the top of my head. I was vaguely aware that Joe had launched into his “how we thought Catalina stole Ruby” anecdote. It’s one of his favorites.
“We never left Ruby with a sitter before that night because we were completely broke,” Joe began, and he shot me a little smile as he always did when recalling something from the days when we couldn’t eat at places like this, couldn’t afford cell phones or babysitters, couldn’t really even afford a baby—though we had gone ahead and had one, anyway.
“…and Julia was out of her mind with anxiety about leaving her.”
It’s true. In those days, we either stayed home or took Ruby out with us. But when she was almost a year old, Joe got his first starring role in an off-Broadway show and I wanted to go to opening night. So I asked Carlos, our super, if he knew any experienced babysitters.
“Somebody honest and reliable and caring” is what I told Carlos, but what I was thinking was,
Somebody who won’t smack the baby, or steal the baby, or hurl the baby against the wall in a crack-induced frenzy
. Carlos recommended his sister Catalina, who looked nice enough when she arrived. She was a short, middle-aged woman with an enormous bosom and a warm, shy smile. Her English wasn’t great then, and this is the part of the story where Joe likes to announce that although I had boasted for years about speaking conversational Spanish, it turned out only to be true if the conversation is limited to greeting words. After saying
Catalina and I just stood there grinning nervously at each other.
“Miss, where is the baby?” Catalina finally asked, and then she laughed with delight when she saw Ruby smiling up at us from her high chair behind me. For some reason I had been blocking her from Catalina’s view with my body.
she exclaimed, clapping her hands and winking at Ruby, and Ruby laughed and clapped her hands along with Catalina. She
linda, I thought to myself. How can we go out and leave our beautiful,
daughter here with a complete stranger? But we did leave her there. We left her laughing and clapping with Catalina, and although I tried to get Ruby’s attention as we walked out the door, she didn’t seem to notice we were leaving.
“I like that the babysitter is older,” I said to Joe in what I hoped was a breezy, casual tone on the way down in the elevator. I was clutching the handrail and forcing myself to breathe.
She’s not a stranger. She’s Carlos’s sister.
“She seems nice,” said Joe. And then he stepped right up behind me and pulled me close, his arms traversing my chest and his face buried deep in the curve of my neck. “I’m really, really fuckin’ nervous,” he whispered into my hair, and I said, shakily, “I know. Me too.”
Joe stiffened then and said, “I mean I’m nervous about the show.”
“I know,” I lied. “Me too.”
After the show, there was a cast party at a bar on Bleecker Street, and I walked over with Joe’s agent, Simon. Joe arrived a little later with the cast and it was a great party. A grown-up party! I hadn’t been out at night in ages, and now here I was with people who talked about things like auditioning and making art and finding a drummer for their band. Nobody talked about weaning and Ferberizing babies, everybody raved about Joe’s performance, and I was having the time of my life. Within minutes I was doing things I hadn’t done in ages—flirting, smoking, drinking—and it was a good hour before I told Joe that I wanted to call Catalina and check on the baby.
“I’ll call,” said Joe, and he found a pay phone in the back. I watched him dial the number, and then the man next to me started talking about Joe. It was somebody from the
New York Times.
! I introduced Joe when he returned, and after he talked to the writer for a minute, he turned to me and said, “We have to go.”
“Everything all right?” I asked, and Joe said, “Sure,” but when we went outside and got into a cab, he told me that nobody had answered the phone when he called. He had called twice. No answer.
“Now, don’t freak out,” Joe said. “I’m sure they’re fine.”
I was bent over, jackknifed, hugging my knees, breathing in…and out.
“Maybe they went out for a walk,” Joe said, and I considered this. I thought about Catalina putting Ruby in her stroller. I imagined Catalina and Ruby riding the elevator down to the lobby and then casually strolling outside, where Catalina would place baby Ruby in a van driven by men wearing masks. I thought about Ruby crying for me as they drove across the Triborough Bridge to…who knew where…dark, wretched baby-selling lands…Ruby and Catalina and the men wearing masks.
But Catalina didn’t sell Ruby! When we threw open the door of our apartment, we found Catalina sitting happily on the couch watching Spanish television. Ruby was asleep in her crib. I had unplugged the phone that afternoon while Ruby and I napped and had forgotten to plug it back in. We all laughed with relief over the confusion and Catalina told me about a home remedy she thought I should try for Ruby’s cough. Something to do with honey and milk and warm, weak tea that she had used for her own children when they were babies in Nicaragua. Now I thought about Catalina as we sat there crowded around that cluttered table at Pastis, Karen and Brian and Joe and me. I thought about how I had wanted to climb into Catalina’s lap that night thirteen years ago, how I had wanted to climb into her lap and be cradled in her plump arms like a baby. In my ear was
This girl is young,
Just listen to the mouth on her.
If I had charged my phone the night before that dinner with the Metzgers—if I had made it a habit to
just plug it in each night,
as Joe had repeatedly advised me, I might never have heard her breathy sex talk, that fresh, foul purr that poured into my ear like contaminated runoff. And who knows, I might have gone on forever like that. Unaware. But I hadn’t charged my phone. Instead, I left it in that old red nylon bag—that ugly old red bag that hung from the back of Sammy’s stroller. Just left it there, turned on, until the wallpaper photograph of Joe’s smiling face on the screen slowly faded to black.
For the record, I didn’t mean to dial Joe’s number that night. It was an accident, I don’t care what Joe says. It was out of habit—I called Joe a lot, and I rarely dialed my own number. And our cell phone numbers are almost identical. Mine ends with 8804 and his ends with 8803, but it wasn’t until that night at Pastis that I discovered we both had the same code to access our messages. The PIN number is what it’s called, and 7829 was the number we had used for our ATM cards ever since Ruby was born.
It was RUBY on any keypad.
It was our daughter’s first name, but in numerical form it had become the sentinel for most of the other things we held dear—our wealth, our safety, our privacy. It was my AOL password and my PayPal code, and as Joe’s success grew, it was how we accessed our online mutual funds and individual investment accounts. When we bought our beach house, it became the code for the alarm system. Once Sammy was born, I had tried to use his name, 72669, for other codes—it seemed like the fair, impartial thing to do—but I could never remember when to use each child’s name, so I used 7829 for everything. I typed it in as my code when Joe’s assistant, Catherine, gave me my new cell phone, and apparently that’s what Joe typed into his phone, too.
I borrowed Karen’s phone again before we left the restaurant. I went to the ladies’ room and I dialed Joe’s number. I held on to the sink, punched in 7829, and there she was.
“Hi, babe, thanks for the message. I can’t believe you had to ask if I’m happy, baby, you know I am….”
Half an hour later, I stood in our kitchen, in the dark. Joe was taking a shower and I tapped out the code one more time.