AN INTRODUCTION BY LINDSAY HUNTER
Every time I read Elizabeth Crane I have the same reaction, which is hard to put into words, but here, I’ll try:
This lady has her shit together.
But imagine those words embroidered in stardust and imagine me whispering them as one would a most precious secret to one’s sister. Elizabeth Crane’s shit and its togetherness never ceases to leave me awed and grateful and wondering how she does it.
“Mr. and Mrs. P” is a chapter in a book about old Hollywood gossip; it’s the long, unsettling tale your tipsy aunt tells you about her parents, sparing no gory detail; it’s the tell-all by the long-suffering maid. Who is telling this story? That’s another thing I love about Crane’s writing: it always feels like there’s a who, hovering just overhead, a Pan sprinkling in the glittery chaos. Her stories are fun and bizarre and wonderful and so, so sneaky.
The details in “Mr. and Mrs. P Are Married” are precise, every word and sentence and image in perfect placement. You’re lol’ing maybe twenty words in, and you’re also gleefully realizing that, Hey, this writer is a smidge deranged! Does she in fact have her shit together? The story begins to unfurl, faster and faster, you’re nearly breathless trying to keep up, and meanwhile all this time is passing but you don’t feel cheated. The answer is yes, she does.
Elizabeth Crane’s shit and its togetherness never ceases to leave me awed and grateful and wondering how she does it.
Let’s stop here and say a “hallelujah” for short story writers like Crane, who hand us entire lives that pass in a matter of thirty or so pages yet are realer than the life you’re in fact living right now.
The world is a bewildering, ridiculous place. It’s easy to forget that while you’re tying your shoes, selecting a croissant, driving the same stretch of pale gray highway for the eleven-hundredth time. Elizabeth Crane mines the everyday and reveals what we’re missing. It’s unsettling. It’s hilarious. It’s…beyond. And you just know she’s having a great time, because suddenly you are, too.
– Lindsay Hunter
Author of Eat Only When You’re Hungry
A Hollywood Story of Star-crossed Philanderers
“Mr. and Mrs. P Are Married” By Elizabeth Crane
Mrs. P is born on a cold day in West Virginia in 1947, eyes open, to a homemaker and a general practitioner. Worrying everyone terribly, she does not speak until her third birthday, when she says, I have to go. No one knows what this means. When directed toward the bathroom, she looks in and shakes her head. The child is immediately signed up for Catholic school.
Mr. P is born in Los Angeles, California, in 1941 with a slap to the bottom that literally knocks the shit out of him, and it’s not so much a sign of what’s to come, it’s the opposite if anything, as it is the first in a long series of unfortunate incidents.
His parents had once been in vaudeville, if that has anything to do with anything. We doubt it, but just putting it out there.
Upon turning thirteen, Mrs. P’s mother cuts her daughter’s long blond hair into a Jackie-style bob, which does not suit her. It’s the latest thing, her mother says, but Mrs. P will have short hair only one more time in her life, which will also be a mistake. Mrs. P loves her mother (if not as much this day as others), but she is now and will always be a daddy’s girl. (I’m hideous!/Baby girl, you couldn’t be hideous if you grew a camel’s hump on your back. Hair grows, sweet thing, you just hold on./She hates me, why else would she do this?/Sweet pea, your mama doesn’t hate you, I reckon she’s just a speck jealous because the bloom is off her rose and yours is just opening up.) Mrs. P wonders for a moment what will happen when the bloom falls off her own rose, but as soon as that thought passes, she tears off for the dime store, where she pockets a mascara and a “Fatal Apple” red lipstick. In addition to bloom-loss prevention, young Mrs. P hopes this will bring some edge to her style, and this look isn’t really her either, but she gives it a good go for the better part of seventh grade. However, this move does not bring her great popularity, and she quickly remodels herself one more time with a ponytail and a smile. This will carry her a long way.
Mr. P, tall, skinny, and Irishly handsome, gets into some trouble the summer before his freshman year of high school, the usual 1956 fare: smoking behind the bleachers, fistfight on Sunset Boulevard having something to do with a girl, drinking/ throwing up whiskey into Echo Park Lake. His punishments escalate accordingly from grounding for a day to a yardstick-whipping, and these whippings will continue throughout his high school career. From this Mr. P will learn two things. Thing one: that yardstick-whippings modify his behavior only for the length of time it takes for the physical pain to go away (a lesson Mr. P the elder will not ever learn). Thing two: just because yardstick-whippings as a method of parenting may not be effective does not mean he won’t keep it in mind. (In fact, when he has his own children of yardstick-whipping age, he will not resort to this, but he will consider it, often.) Mr. P is not the dumbest guy on the planet, but he’s not super quick.
Mrs. P joins the pep squad in high school and is nominated for captain before the end of the year. She has become quite a natural beauty, although in the brains department she’s pretty much on the level of her future husband, maybe a half notch up. Mrs. P does spend a lot of time thinking, about life mostly, she just doesn’t get very far with it. She looks at the world around her, and it sort of looks nice, post-football bon res, pie-baking contests, Main Street parades, church potlucks, but even from the center, she feels removed from it somehow. It looks to her like a class photo they took without her. She thinks she’s supposed to want it, but imagines everyone walking around with nothing but clouds in their skulls because it’s easier than coming up with any idea of what they really think. At times she wishes she had clouds in her own skull in place of thoughts like these, but even the effort to assimilate only results in further thoughts about why no one sees what she sees. She tries to enter the picture by dating the quarterback, Ned Crawford, for most of her junior and senior years of high school, leaving him devastated when she decides to break up with him right before prom. Ned had been planning a prom night proposal, but Mrs. P had been secretly fucking her mechanic since he fixed her Ford Falcon. The mechanic had seduced her, quite easily, with talk of life’s small beauties: the Baptist church on South Elm just after it lets out, the Potters’ old blue barn that leans like a parallelogram, a pink Band-Aid on a boy’s skinned knee, the percussion of a car engine. He talks at length about the details that give meaning to the mundane. (It’s not about looking, it’s about seeing, you dig?) Mrs. P has never heard talk like this before, certainly not at home, and Ned speaks mostly of football and taking over the family shoe store, neither of which interest her. The mechanic sparks more in her than her sexual nature (which is no small portion of her overall nature); it’s almost as though he activated a hidden mechanism or replaced a missing part she’d hardly known was gone, and suddenly she feels as though her whole self has finally been assembled. When she tells him she needs to go, he nods and sends her off with a farewell fuck. After reading a tiny ad for an art school in the back of Photoplay, Mrs. P takes off for Los Angeles, just before graduation. Disheartened to discover that the art school is actually just a suburban post office box, she redirects and answers a casting call for all-American types for a game show hostess in the same magazine. She does not get that job, but lands a mayonnaise commercial right after putting in an application at the Chicken A-Go-Go.
Mr. P is at this time on the amateur boxing circuit, mostly getting his ass kicked, but it doesn’t matter, because a talent scout from one of the networks spots him and offers him a screen test for a new soap opera. Mr. P, like Mrs. P, had shown little interest in acting before jumping in (in spite of occasional suggestions from his parents to try bringing back vaudeville) and his talent hasn’t quite been uncovered at this point (although he does have some), but on the basis of his resemblance to the actor hired to play his brother, he’s given the part. The show becomes a hit and Mr. P makes the cover of Photoplay and Mrs. P sees it and thinks he’s kind of cute in a bland sort of way, a guy who manages a grocery store kind of way, but she won’t give him another thought for fifteen years. At this time, nineteen-year-old Mrs. P is involved with a much older television producer who gets her a few lines on some popular situation comedies and not much more. She’s not with him for this reason, that’s not her thing, and she’s not with him just because he tells her she has a quality (because she has no idea what this means), nor is she with him because he talks to her as though she understands what he’s talking about (even when she doesn’t). She’s with him because when they fuck, he does this thing with a scarf around her neck that makes her feel like Jesus himself is fucking her.
Mr. P at this time, has not gotten much further, sexually speaking, than pounding his costar missionary-style. This is good enough for making a baby, which they do, a red-headed girl they call Maggie, but not good enough to hold on to his costar, who briefly becomes his wife after they discover the pregnancy. They divorce quickly, because his drinking has sent him on one too many two-day benders, and his wife has heard one too many lame excuses (I had to shoot a night scene in Malibu/I had an important meeting in Malibu/Something happened in Malibu/I don’t have to tell you everything). Also she doesn’t much like being called a cunt. From his second wife, he will learn about cunnilingus, but he won’t enjoy it, and they too will reproduce, a boy they name Seamus, and ten months later, a girl they name Erin (as in Go Bragh, which he thinks is hilarious one drunken night and briefly tries to convince his wife would make a great middle name, Right, she says, because I’m sure high school was a smashing success for Ima Hogg), but again, the drinking and cunt thing, so this marriage will also be short-lived. In 1972 he will land the role that will be the first line of his obituary, a wildly popular weepy drama (Love Lives on Forever) about a widower whose daughter dies of a rare disease but who finds love with her private nurse and learns to live again. For a while he pounds this costar as well, but she refuses his proposal. Mr. P, raised Catholic, has always believed in marriage, even though he doesn’t know why and doesn’t question why, even though the example set for him by his parents was not particularly inspiring (twin beds in his parents’ bedroom, the door to which was almost always open/not much in the way of dinner conversation beyond Pass the green beans/not much in the way of motherly affection beyond a pat on the blanket after she’d tucked him in/Dad liked to drink and sleep with prostitutes). Still, he feels that there’s something holy about it, marriage, or should be, at least; he believes this is the true and right thing for a man and a woman to do and is determined to find a wife he’ll stick with one day.
After leaving the television producer, Mrs. P does a guest spot on an action series and quickly marries the star of the show, causing a sensation by hyphenating her last name. Her new husband doesn’t much care for this, he’s a bit of a traditionalist, but he’s mad for her and takes it as part of the package. Frankly, he’d just as soon have her stay at home, which he lets her know on numerous occasions, to which she always says sweetly, some variation of, Oh . . . well . . . I don’t think that’s for me. In 1976 Mrs. P gets her big break on a new action series created with her in mind, this one featuring an all-female ensemble cast, for which her thick blond hair is cut to accentuate its natural wave, a hairstyle that will seemingly be copied by every woman in America for a time. It’s around here that Mrs. P becomes acquainted with the tabloids, who declare that she is involved in everything from sex cults to sorcery. None of these things are ever true, and as much as she’d like her privacy back, a part of her wishes they’d go ahead and print the truth as she sees it, which is simply that she has the sex drive of an eighteen-year-old boy and likes to try new things (new things here including activity considered by some to be risky but which she sees as merely exciting and, perhaps most important, no one else’s damn business). Because of the negative attention, Mrs. P cuts her hair into a pixie style (which looked good on Jean Seberg and, she realizes too late, only Jean Seberg, and which of course serves only to bring her more unwanted attention) and leaves the series that made her a star after just one season, and although her hair will be talked about for decades, she is not heard from again publicly until the ’80s. Privately, between 1977 and 1983, several things happen, beginning with two miscarriages and three months in a private mental care facility — exhaustion is the reason made public, but in fact Mrs. P suffers a protracted and debilitating bout of depression brought on by the miscarriages, wonders if god thinks she’d be an unfit mother, wonders if she could love a child she didn’t give birth to (she could, but will not find out), wonders if having a child would make her want to stay in one place (it won’t), wonders if anything matters without children, which for a time leaves her profoundly hopeless about more or less everything else she’d previously cared about, even sex (What does it really mean, anyway, nothing). Intensive psychotherapy and brief affair with a yoga instructor help her to snap out of it, but all of it figures into, if not causes, the breakdown of her marriage.
Mrs. P’s husband makes a serious miscalculation in introducing his wife to his best friend during this period, believing that his friend Mr. P will keep an eye on his unreliable wife while he’s out of the country filming a made-for-TV movie about an Australian bounty hunter. (I know she’ll fuck somebody else if I leave her alone. Never met a woman or a man as horny as her in my life. And I’ve met a lot of women. And I’m horny.) What happens instead is that though Mr. P initially does remarkably well with this task, dissuading the future Mrs. P from a dalliance she’s interested in having with a tile man doing work on her patio, Mr. P is thoroughly unable to resist her advances when they are made, and because they have begun to confide in each other during this time of their relationship troubles (He just doesn’t get me/Women always leave me/Who would leave you, baby?/Ah I guess I can be a jerk sometimes), their bond is not merely sexual (especially given the initial absence of the cunnilingus Mrs. P is quite fond of), but as it turns out, a genuine connection that neither is prepared to give up. Mr. and Mrs. P talk about god and life (I just think, this can’t be all of it, right? Like, stars? at can’t just be explained by astroscience, right?/No, no way, baby/I know, right?) and even art (I’m completely taken with Matisse’s colors/I can’t say I know who that is/Here look at this book, baby, see, doesn’t it just make you want to lay some paint down on the floor and roll around in it?/You are so fucking sexy, baby, I am over the moon for you), which is something Mrs. P has secretly been thinking about trying again someday, painting, and Mr. P says, If you were my wife, I’d build you a studio, and Mrs. P smiles and brushes it off as just a hobby, anyway, tells him he’s sweet and changes the subject. Mr. and Mrs. P think these conversations are deep, even though they aren’t, although who’s to decide that, really, because they are with each other one hundred percent by now, and because they do really connect here, because they both feel something they haven’t felt before, something they both believe no one has felt before, and maybe that’s as deep as it ever needs to be. Mrs. P acquires a quickie divorce before her husband even returns to the country, and immediately moves in with Mr. P at his Beverly Hills mansion. Mrs. P’s husband deals with this betrayal by waiting for a respectable ninety days before telling his side of the story to Barbara Walters.
Unsurprisingly, Mrs. P, in her soft-spoken way, her voice like a pot-smoking kitten, will inform Mr. P that he’ll need to learn a few new tricks if he’s interested in keeping her around. Mr. P makes a few initial stumbles but learns to please. In fact he learns a few extra tricks thanks to Mrs. P’s interest in bondage and knife play. Some tricks he will flat-out refuse, like the time Mrs. P hears there’s a new trend in Japan where people are utilizing electrically charged squid as one might use a dildo. (I’m not sure where the pleasure in that would be for me/It just goes where the dildo goes, honey/I don’t think I want an electric sea creature shocking me up the ass/How will you know unless you try it?) He’s about to say, I just do, but the look on Mrs. P’s face is so inviting that she might be able to convince him that an atomic missile up his ass would be even better. For a time, this behavior will remain in the bedroom and will also involve weird third-person dialogue (Yeah, she loves his big dick in her mouth!/He’s cumming! Mr. P is cumming! Here it comes!/Cum on her face!) and role-playing (teacher/underage student, pimp/drug-addicted whore, mommy/little boy, daddy/little boy [Mrs. P is always the daddy in this scenario; Mr. P is initially taken aback by this not because it’s incestuous but because it seems gay, but it’s another chance for Mrs. P to use a strap-on], priest/altar boy [a variation on the previous, with a few Biblical verses], brother/sister, farmhand/sheep).
For nearly a year, things are good, and outside of the bedroom they do a lot of the typical things couples do, travel, go to the movies, the beach, throw dinner parties (although admittedly, someone at their dinner parties always gets drunk enough to either break a large piece of furniture or punch someone). Once, on a leisurely hunt for beach glass, Mr. P gets down on one knee with the narrow end of a nicely sanded green beer bottle and places the glass ring on her finger, the look on his face as he proposes that of a puppy who just chewed up your grandmother’s needlepoint pillow but still hopes to sleep in your bed. Mrs. P says, You’re sweet, and resists the mysterious urge to pat him on the head, and tells him if she were to marry again, it would only be him, but he knows that tiny little if is the major problem with the entire sentence. Around this time, Mrs. P rescues a skinny calico kitten that shows up behind the air-conditioning unit, realizes, as she treats it for worms, lovingly salves its wounds, feeds it with a bottle, that her maternal instincts haven’t abandoned her, perhaps even grew while she wasn’t looking, and perceives an almost spiritual connection with the animal, would go so far as to say she feels not just appreciated but understood by the kitten, and is so moved by the experience that she begins donating large sums of money to animal-rescue groups. She has been asked to appear on behalf of various causes over the years, always declining but donating anonymously (Well, I just don’t see why anyone needs to know, she’ll say with a coy smile) and making no exception now. Mr. P, to date, has never gotten much more involved in anything terribly munificent outside of buying a few boxes of thin Mints when the Girl Scouts come around, and has vocally disapproved of Mrs. P’s inclinations in this area (You’re going to go broke!/I have more than I need./You can’t give to every pathetic person out there!/Yes, I can!), but has recently softened, partly in the hopes that it will make him seem more marriage-worthy (Will you marry me if I give a million dollars to sad dogs?/Maybe/Get me my checkbook).
With Mr. P’s encouragement, Mrs. P will endeavor to get back in the acting game after a couple years absent, takes acting classes for the first time, finally auditioning for and landing a part in a feature as a woman whose child has been abducted. Around the time that Mrs. P’s career begins to take off again, Mr. P’s begins to take a nose dive, not crashing completely but forever remaining in middling comedies and the occasional cameo in a drama that shows the potential he had but never fully proved. It is during this period that Mr. and Mrs. P begin hurting each other. It could be argued that the origin of this behavior began with some of the sex play, but that remains uncertain. There is an incident when Mrs. P drips hot candle wax on Mr. P’s testicles, which turns them both on for about a minute until Mrs. P accidentally drips a little too much and gives him a second-degree burn, which he believes she has done on purpose because she’d been angry with him about his unwillingness to try the squid. (Cunt! You know you meant to do that!/Why would I do that on purpose?/I don’t know, maybe you see me as a father figure!/I don’t need a father figure, my father’s nice!/I bet he is, fatherfucker!/Maybe you were really fucking your father!/That doesn’t even make any sense!/Don’t you even say one more word about my daddy!/Fatherfucker!/Well, maybe you were fucking your mother! Motherfucker!/ Bitch!/You’re the little bitch!) This fight continues off and on for a good while, and will always be referred to in later fights. (You were supposed to pay the gardener/No you were supposed to pay the gardener/No my assistant was supposed to pay the gardener/Was the assistant supposed to read your fucking idiot mind?/Why are you so worried about the gardener anyway, do you want to fuck him?/Yeah, I’m a faggot now, I want to fuck the gardener/Hey, I don’t know, maybe you do/Well maybe the gardener wouldn’t burn me on the balls!/Let it fucking go, did you cum or not?) In any case, who throws the first punch is up for debate, but what is certain is that they’re both throwing them. Mrs. P, being of a petite stature, does not inflict a lot of damage with her bare hands, but has great aim with pottery and is not afraid to throw it. After these incidents, there is always make-up fucking, and sometimes they’re still bleeding, which makes them laugh. Sometimes they call each other Cunty and Motherfucker, affectionately. Several years later when Mrs. P leaves, it is not for this reason, but it may be the reason she comes back. In the summer of 1986 Mr. and Mrs. P conclude this period of their lives with the birth of their only child, Charlie, which as she’d long ago imagined, provides a meaning to her life that trumps everything else that matters to her, a meaning she tries unsuccessfully to explain to Mr. P, who feels something he doesn’t care to call jealousy but looks a lot like it. (It’s just . . . I feel . . . a knowing/A knowing./A knowing./ . . . /If you don’t understand without me explaining, I don’t think you’re going to.) In spite of Mr. P’s unknowing, the early years are magical, filled with trips to Disneyland and the redwoods and Maui, with playdates, Happy Meals, and bedtime stories. Mr. P sees Mrs. P bathing the infant boy in the kitchen sink, carefully soaping the baby’s bald head, whisper-singing “Mockingbird,” wrapping the baby in what looks to him like a velvet towel, and knows beyond doubt that he will never feel for another woman what he feels for this one. Mr. P, however, in spite of this example, will, on the occasion that he actually picks the baby up, continue to hold the boy as one might deliver the Thanksgiving turkey to the table, with about the same measure of pride, and as though the only purpose for lifting the boy is for the purpose of transporting him from one place to another. Mrs. P, the primary caregiver by a lot, will love the child as much as a child could be loved, but by the time he turns fourteen, he will have stolen and sold most of his mother’s jewelry for drugs, wrecked a car he wasn’t licensed to drive, and gone missing several times. An early excuse involving Malibu is not accepted, for obvious reasons. (I should have beat your ass with a yardstick like my father did/Yeah that worked out real good for you, Pops/ . . .)
Mr. P’s relationships with his children have only rarely resembled anything falling on the positive side of the parenting scale. His relationship with his younger daughter, Erin, has never been good, considering that her mother moved her to the East Coast when she was six and he’s visited her exactly four times in fifteen years, and has been strained even more ever since Erin decided that sex for any purpose other than procreation is a black sin and that her father will go to hell for it unless he accepts god, which Mr. P thinks is horseshit even though he considers himself to be a practicing Catholic, albeit one who sins and doesn’t go to church. Mr. P tells his daughter that if he does go to hell, that’ll be the least of the reasons. His son Seamus, now in his thirties, is a seventh-grade history teacher, the only P child to attend more than a semester at college, and who now has a family of his own, is by all accounts but his father’s the well-adjusted one, perhaps due to the presence of a loving stepfather who entered his life early on, or perhaps just by luck of the draw, since this didn’t seem to help his sister at all. No doubt Mr. P’s hostility toward his son is exacerbated by Seamus’s calm and easygoing demeanor. Seamus loves his father, but has learned from years of Al-Anon meetings to do so from a distance where there’s no chance of being hit. Seamus sends his father and Mrs. P (whom all the P kids have always adored; You’re too good for him/Why are you with him?/I love him/But why?/Why not?) birthday cards and holiday letters, calls a couple of times a month; Mr. P rarely offers any return communication, and rarely even returns Seamus’s calls. When asked why by Mrs. P (or anyone for that matter), he says, I hate that guy, and that’s all he ever says about it. Maggie, Mr. P’s other neglected daughter, whose birthday he forgot every other year since she was five, endeavoring, unsuccessfully, to make up for it with cars and credit cards (She doesn’t need a car, she’s twelve/Well, did she like it?), is currently serving a three-year sentence at a women’s prison for breaking and entering, a charge she pleaded no contest to on account of it being true; she had broken and entered her ex-husband’s house and taken back her engagement ring, which she pawned for an ounce of black tar heroin. This causes Mr. P no small amount of anguish, which he deals with by smoking some black tar heroin. This, however, is not his drug of choice, so Mr. P adds to this some Percocet and Scotch, which leads to his third DUI arrest. Mr. P, who once had to pound milk shakes to keep his 150 pounds, still has his boyish looks, but has put on some weight and is puffy in the face from the drinking. He’s thinking about an eye lift. Later he will get one, which will make his eyes look slightly inhuman, which he will attempt to remedy by adding eyeliner, which is one of those things some older men in Hollywood do that we shouldn’t even try to understand. Mr. P is sentenced to ninety days of community service picking up trash on the 101 freeway, wearing dark sunglasses and the required pinny that in bold letters says LOS ANGELES DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, and during this time gives several autographs, which makes him happy and sad at the same time, which confuses him (as you might imagine, this inability to understand complexity of feeling has not aided him in his acting career either). Mrs. P leaves during this period, and even though there are plenty of obvious good reasons, it’s not any of these. She just needs to go. She tries to explain this to Mr. P, that it’s just a drive she has, that it doesn’t have anything to do with him, and it doesn’t, but he doesn’t get it, and he’s demolished, like when they fill up old buildings with dynamite and they’re utterly flattened, like that, he tells her, flattened. He begs her not to leave, promises her anything she could possibly want, anything he could possibly do to make things work, couples therapy, liposuction, anything, but she just smiles, sadly, kisses his weird eyes and goes, takes troubled thirteen-year-old Charlie with her, and except for one horrendous incident with a prostitute, Mr. P will not get involved with anyone sexually or otherwise until they reunite. He will flirt a lot, in restaurants, in bars, in the grocery store, on the street, or his version of flirting (You ever see Love Lives on Forever? You want to?), mostly with women younger than his daughters, but none of this will result in sexual activity of any kind. Mr. P stalks Mrs. P a little bit periodically, moping in his car outside her house, showing up places he thinks she might be, leaving horrifically out-of-tune heartbreak songs on her answering machine (She’s gone! Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone! She’s leaving! Leaving! On that midnight train to Georgia!) and sending sad, nonsensical letters (this period of my life, babe, is like smoke signals, and without you my mind goes to lunch), and she actually thinks it’s kind of sweet, and she actually knows exactly what he means.
Mrs. P drops out of acting during this time, this time for good. She takes up painting and even though it’s halfway decent, she doesn’t get much in the way of critical acclaim, which she seems to understand (Yeah, it’s a little they don’t get it, a little “look at the girl with the hair having her fun”), but doesn’t really care, because she sells a boatload of it. Also it fills her spirit, and in early 2002 she up and marries and quickly divorces a gallery owner. Needless to say, when Mr. P learns that she’s married someone besides him, he calls her immediately and asks why she didn’t just stab him in the stomach with a fireplace poker instead. Around here she watches a lot of Oprah, reads The Road Less Traveled, and starts listening to NPR, which she thinks is really interesting. She tells people, I just love learning, you know? even though she may not be fully comprehending the material being consumed. Often she learns things altogether wrong (Did you know that Kim Jong-il is responsible for the deaths of millions of babies in Taiwan?) or memorizes bits at the most basic level (the problems in our educational system can’t be solved by throwing a bunch of money at it), nevertheless she’s invigorated, and will tell anyone who will listen about the latest thing she learned.
In a blackout, Mr. P hears about the gallery guy on Access Hollywood, tracks him down, and kicks the shit out of him. Mr. P has never thought of his relationship with Mrs. P as abusive and neither has she. They always like to say passionate or tumultuous. They always like to say their love is one of a kind, even, or maybe especially, at times when they aren’t technically together. We aren’t really sure what to call it, love isn’t the first word that comes to mind, but we haven’t got another one. If you catch Mrs. P after she’s heard this kind of scuttlebutt about her relationship, she’ll say, Who are they to say what love is or isn’t? You know what I think? I think love is easy. It doesn’t mean you don’t throw things at each other sometimes or take a few years off for yourself. Mrs. P gets word of what Mr. P’s done (via the tabloids, which she of course doesn’t read but is hard-pressed to overlook at the supermarket checkout) and dreamily tells her best friend how romantic she thinks this is. In truth, Mr. and Mrs. P have never really been out of touch since the split, Charlie being their excuse for multiple daily phone calls that go well beyond what time he should be picked up from his AA meeting, but there are things they don’t discuss, or we should say she won’t discuss, for obvious reasons. So but Mr. P gets word from her girlfriend that she was touched to hear he defended her honor so gallantly, and starts writing her love letters again, really sweet, if unsurprisingly odd and misspelled love letters (I love you like a bonfire loves a marshmallow), and Mrs. P finally answers him back and tells him that if he goes to rehab, she’ll consider taking him back someday, even though rehab doesn’t have much to do with it, she just wants a little more time. Mr. P goes to rehab, and it doesn’t take the first time, or the second time, but it does take the third time, which coincides with him being around long enough to become ironically popular again, getting some interesting parts in independent films and finally a sitcom. Mr. P sends flowers and gifts to Mrs. P every week (picked out by her girlfriend because he’s inclined to pick out antelope-sized arrangements and Elizabeth Taylor–type bling for her even though she prefers freesia and hardly wears jewelry at all), but it isn’t until she hears from her friend that he has prostate cancer that she begins seeing him again. Mrs. P visits him every day in his room at Cedars-Sinai, even though they’ve been apart for some time. She won’t have any of what the nursing staff is selling her in terms of visiting hours (but does so in her charming way — Oh, I’ll be on my way in just a few, and then sleeps in his bed next to him for the length of his stay). Mrs. P also avails herself to Mr. P during his entire recovery, baking fresh berry scones every day, bringing flowers and reading Anna Karenina to him, mostly because Mrs. P has always loved the first line. (Usually, she just reads a page or two before he falls asleep.) Mr. P does everything he can to use his illness to get her to come back (I might croak tomorrow/ Nice try, baby, the doctor says you’re all clear/Ah, I don’t know, I’m not feeling that great unless you’re around/I’m always with you, baby, you should know that). Mr. P soon recovers and promises never to hurt Mrs. P again, and he doesn’t.
Mr. and Mrs. P’s son, Charlie, takes his turn in prison, also on drug-related charges. It’s a terrible time for the Ps, much worse than the cancer, for Mrs. P the hands-down worst time in her life. Charlie doesn’t blame her (prison dialogue, all family members present: Charlie, I should have done better by you, my sweet baby boy/Please don’t blame yourself, Mom, I just got some shitty genes from Dad/So it’s my fault/Yeah, well, you could have at least tried to make up the difference somehow/Did I not give you everything you needed? You live in our goddamn guest house with freaking maid service/Not now I don’t/You’re just an ungrateful little bitch/Stop it! Stop it right now!), but she can’t help herself. At home, Mrs. P cries and cries, mostly alone in a secluded corner of her garden, until Mr. P finally pulls his head out of his ass and admits to her that he’s fucked everything up with their kid, and that he wants to try to do right by her (Don’t do it for me, baby, do it for him/I will, baby). Mr. P goes back to the prison without Mrs. P (for the first time) to see Charlie and weeping, confesses his sins.
(I’ve fucked all you kids up, I know it/Nah, Dad, the odds were against me in the womb/I still could have tried harder/You did the best you could, I know you got fucked the same way I did./I’m so, so sorry, Son/Hey, I thought love meant never having to say you’re sorry/Yeah, that’s a big load of horseshit/ (actual laughter here)/I want to do better now, if you’ll let me try/Okay, Dad.) This particular Okay, Dad has any number of layers to it, including but not limited to total skepticism, lingering resentment he’s too tired to express, and hope, a little tiny bit of hope that he might someday have a dad that acts like a dad, even now. Mrs. P, whose bright light is dimming just a bit now, leans on Mr. P, lets him stay over most nights now, and they no longer fight or throw anything, they make healthy dinners, watch movies, and have some sex that’s a somewhat less energetic version of times past, but that has a tenderness that had never been there; Mr. P often lies quietly next to her after, while she falls asleep. He likes to say that he loves to watch her dreaming, he imagines, of kittens in palaces, dining on lobster rolls and ice cream sundaes, romping under rainbows and sleeping in canopy beds.
Mrs. P comes down with cancer herself, of the colon, unfortunately it is discovered rather late for anything but a miracle, which is what they both hope for, and now Mr. P tends to her. Mr. P shifts into a brand-new gear for this exercise, goes to great lengths to find a cure for his wife, learns to use the internet (for a while he hadn’t even believed it existed; he would say, Who uses that really?, this around 2004), reads articles and calls around the world, everyone from doctors to shamans to the pope (the latter of whom is not easily reached for miracle-making, he discovers). He prepares most of her meals as smoothies because she can’t tolerate solid foods and hardly has the energy to chew anyway. Mrs. P doesn’t love all of these smoothies (I’m not crazy about the split pea, honey/Come on, it’s just like soup, you love soup!/This is not like soup/Okay, sweetness, I’ll fix you something different, what do you want, you name it/Chocolate banana/Okay baby, chocolate banana coming up/With whipped cream/You got it baby) but when he delivers them to her bed with a loopy straw and an edible violet blossom on top, she gives him a grateful, loving smile, albeit a cancer-stricken, half-lit version of her famous smile, a smile that makes him know his time on the planet hasn’t been altogether useless. Mr. P gets down on his knees every morning and evening now, something he hasn’t done since third grade, praying to god to cure Mrs. P, trying to make any deal he can think of, even some unsavory ones (Take me, take Seamus), weeping and even admitting some of his flaws (I know I’m a shitty father, I know I’m a dick in sixteen different ways, Mother Mary, but she’s an angel, you probably already know that, and she doesn’t deserve this, please don’t take this out on her, she is good and kind and I don’t think I can live without her). It is during this time that Mr. P makes the first of a number of marriage proposals that Mrs. P turns down. (Oh, silly, when are you going to stop asking me that?/When you say yes./I want to grow old with you./Sometimes I think people like me aren’t supposed to grow old./What does that mean? What kind of people are you? Don’t say that.) Mr. P thinks they’re the same kind of people, the kind of people who like a good cheese and an old movie and who think too hard about the wrong things (which he thinks to say just in the moment, but which may be as insightful a thing that ever comes to him), who got lucky in the most important way when they found each other, the kind of people who are meant to grow old together, forever, until they’re old and feeble and take an overdose of pills so they can die at the same time, in an embrace. This has been Mr. P’s plan ever since he met Mrs. P. He knows there’s not much time left but he still wants to be able to call her his wife, once and for all. (Please, baby, make me the happiest man in the world, we can do it however you like, a big church wedding, at the courthouse, I could rent a yacht, we can go to Vegas, whatever you desire/Oh I don’t know.) But Mrs. P does know, she thinks maybe she’s just meant to sparkle brilliantly for a short while and when the shine starts to dull, she’ll just fizzle out quickly, like a bottle rocket.
Several days before her death, in a bit of a morphine haze but not at all unclear about her decision, Mr. and Mrs. P are married. She has mere days left, so it’s hardly as he always imagined, an all-white barefoot ceremony on the beach, close friends (and even some family), vows they wrote themselves, Mrs. P with a single gardenia behind her ear. The only thing that’s white in reality is the harsh fluorescent lights above them, and the only people present besides them are the hospital chaplain, an uninvited nurse who randomly walks in with a handyman, insisting that one of the monitors needs to be checked at this exact moment, and Mrs. P’s best girlfriend as a witness. Mrs. P has, with the doctor’s permission, cut her morning dose of morphine in half, but is still drowsy and in pain and distracted by a fly buzzing around her head. At Mrs. P’s request her friend has dabbed a tiny bit of rose lipstick on her lips and cheeks, and Mr. P has brought a gardenia for her hair, which she uses for a bouquet instead, because she loves the fragrance, says the fragrance is so heavenly that when she closes her eyes for a second it positively takes her away. The chaplain weds them with the traditional vows, although Mrs. P’s not listening at the moment, Mr. P smiles and snuffs and makes a slashing motion across his neck when the chaplain says “obey,” her friend gives a small inaudible chuckle, and although Mrs. P has been unable to prepare anything, Mr. P has with him the dog-eared, folded-up vow he’s been hanging on to since he wrote it thirty years ago. Tears run down his puffy face as he reads it, the others in the room are welling up too, all but Mrs. P who’s in and out, and returns only long enough to see Mr. P wiping away tears and telling her that he knows he’s still not a very good man, but she’s made him a better one, and that fourteen lifetimes from now when he’s an armadillo and she’s a gazelle, he will still love her as much as he does this day, as much as always.
At the funeral, Mrs. P’s bereaved, ninety-two-year-old father is led down the aisle, held tightly by Mr. P on one side and Charlie on the other, because he can barely stand from the grief. He asks Mr. P, weeping, not expecting an answer, Why her, I’m an old man, why not me? Why my sweet angel girl? Mr. P says he’s not sure his wife was really made for this world. Mr. P’s father considers this for a moment before he speaks. What world do you suppose she was made for, then? I don’t know, Mr. P says. A better one.