The Straight Shot

There we sat in the fourth-floor waiting room of Columbia Presbytarian, my grandmother, mother and I, the matrolineal straight shot. Three women who somehow branch from my grandfather’s staunch maleness of shorts, of swim trunks, of overcoats and hats, one for tennis, one for winter, caps for every season in between. Not represented are Nettie (his long-dead but long-lifed mother; she lived to ninety-two or three as I recall, long enough for me to yell into her deaf ears and wave into her blind eyes; they told me later she was insane, certifiable), Shirley (sister, estranged like so many siblings of that generation, grievances of tenements and Depression childhoods now fossilized into rocky decades of silence) and Julia (other granddaughter, tenth grade, Westchester County).

I am pleased by the symmetry on this side of the family. My grandparents had two children, a boy and girl, and each of them had two children, a boy and a girl, and my grandfather himself was one of two children, a boy and a girl. And so he’s had one of everything, mother, father, sister, wife, daughter, son, everything but brothers (none) and granddaughters and grandsons, which according to the mathematics of families are supposed to increase geometrically, through fruitful multiplication. Though technically with our symmetrical but dysfunctional family we are not multiplying the human race. The Diamond clan is holding exactly steady at zero population growth. All this symmetry is what they call replacement.

I am running the numbers silently in the waiting room in a kind of homage to the family business. My father went into business with this grandpa, his father-in-law. Their accounting success is sending the grandchildren one by one to the most expensive private universities, kept us all in suburban homes and horizon-expanding summer programs, ballet shoes and shin guards, tennis rackets and well-tuned pianos, even drum sets and darkrooms, if we wanted them. Their accounting success bequeathed to me the twin autisms of neatness and counting, a compulsive habit of accounting for everything and putting it in its rightful place. I played in their offices, very young, sharpening pencils, drawing on ledger paper, pressing buttons on the adding machine, Xeroxing my hands. Years later both my father and grandfather showed me the manila folders of all my hand Xeroxes they kept in their file drawers, dutifully gathered with the other records, and this might be why I think you can go to the files and find proof that you are loved. Now I count the most ridiculous things, I count hallucingenic trips (five out of eight were good, for a good trip percentage of 62.5%) I count the average age differentials among the couples I know, international flights and domestic flights, the percentage of my wardrobe that is black, the percentage of my t-shirts that say M*A*S*H. On trips and vacations I split the days into fractions, the trip is 1/4 over, this is the midpoint of the second half. Now is the year that my mother is exactly twice as old as me, and in three months there will be twenty months left to my twenties, and there are an equal number of avenues as streets left in my walk, so I can turn on every corner and make a perfect zigzag.

My grandfather, our patriarch, the original accountant, he is a little autistic himself. Not really, not technically, but he, too, likes arcane facts. He would applaud these calculations, if he knew about them, but he cannot.

Our patriarch is at this moment numbed, sedated, probably unconscious (it was explained that they’d start with a local, but if the surgery ran long, give him a general) while they unblock the artery in his groin, the very loin from which this family for whom he accounted springs. How can it be that three weeks shy of his 89th birthday they can cut him open and he’ll heal, knit back together, close up?

His two personal mottoes are “Muddle through,” and “Stay the course,” that’s how. Put those together, read the Times, take a nap, go deaf enough to mute your wife and the decades pile up.

Though his has not been an easy longevity. Medical science has played its role. Scrapings and replacings of veins and arteries have helped him along, bulges and clots suctioned before they explode, clogged vessels snipped before they fill up completely. Cataract surgery and hearing aids, medications at every meal. He’s diabetic and mad for sweets. He orders Coca-Colas and dishes of ice cream, muttering, “It’s quality of life, not quantity!” He goes under the knife now and then, and after it’s done he whispers to me, “I have an enemy, Emily! An enemy! The man who cut me, with a knife. I will get revenge!”

He’s been making a tour of area hospitals lately. A fall in the street sent him to Lenox Hill with a subdural hematoma, then he got pneumonia and ended up in the Mount Sinai ICU. It all sounded grave, brain injury, ICU, pneumonia, his age. But the hematoma cleared up on its own, and the pneumonia went away. When I went to see him he was lying with three days growth of silvery beard, looking hale and manly. He was singing dirty limericks to the indifferent nursing staff and my mother, all-but-dissertation on her psychology doctorate said, “He’s disinhibited.” His ever-present wingtips–even in summer, dress shoes everywhere but the tennis court–awaited him at the foot of the bed.

My grandparents both told tales of incontinent indignities, and I nodded, made sympathetic noises, blanched at the hospital smell and thought, “No thank you, not me, when the time comes, God-I-don’t-believe-in give me the courage to get the gun, to make the jump, I won’t go down with the leaking ship of my body, in the ward on the 14th floor, in the pavilion named for some other rich, dead Jew.”

They stopped the leaks, the wetting of the lungs, the wetting of the bed, and the organs of the old reluctant soldier reluctantly soldiered on. He put on his wingtips and went home, and at Thanksgiving he was wearing one of his beautiful blazers from Barney’s, the one they always proudly tell us cost several thousand dollars. “Three thousand dollars at Barney’s,” they whisper, in the same voice they use to say, “Harvard,” also “cancer,” and now, “Alzheimer’s.” It’s cashmere, it’s houndstooth, it’s gray and blue and brown.

My brother’s girlfriend, her first extended gathering, we found her in the corner with him, politely listening. “And THEN,” he was saying, “I was shipped overseas.” World War II! He’d probably started at birth! Poland, Paris, Ellis Island, Lower East Side, Arthur Avenue, Townshend Harris, handball championship, the ladies’ belt factory, City College, accounting, conscription, basic training, the South, the Midwest, the 53rd Finance, the Allied Advance! We’d left her there too long. In the car on the way home, exhausted, she lay her head on my brother’s shoulder, fell asleep. Before she conked out she said, “‘The sweep of history,’ he just kept saying, ‘the sweep of history.'”

Today at the hospital, I can’t stay very long. I won’t be there when he wakes up. I have work. And I’m terrified of hospitals, they make me sick, they make me suicidal. The smell, the light, the chairs, the televisions blaring in the corner of every room, the different ways people try to look brave in the face of everything that’s going on here. The fact that every time I’ve been in one someone I love has been all fucked up, and then sometimes they die to boot. Most of all I hate the mauve or beige plastic dishes, so ugly, so unsanitary looking. The way everyone is in defeated clothing, the patients in their gowns, the doctors in their scrubs, the visitors in sweatpants. In the hospital I am often seized with the urge to retch and dry heave, and then I feel guilty because the hospital to me is this idea, the hospital to me is bad fashion, and I can call the elevator, hand in my visitor’s pass, take a squirt of free instant hand sanitizer and be gone.

So I kiss my grandmother and mother, and wait for a while, and then I go, because it’s been several hours and will be several more, and I have work, and I am weak, and I am immature, and I don’t want to stay and I don’t have to.

I can’t get out of there fast enough, I’m running for the automatic doors, through the atrium of the Rich Dead Jew Pavilion, toward the South Entrance, the echo in the vast space contributing to the illusion that I am underwater, kicking madly for the surface.

The day is gunmetal gray but it’s beautiful to me, and I dash past the wheelchair lineup of people going home, clutching stuffed animals, trailing balloons, looking sort of demented from whatever they did to them in there to keep them alive, and I take the steps three at a time, and I sprint for the subway, and it’s all I can do not to whoop, not to holler, not to yell and gloat, “NOT ME! NOT TODAY!” My hands are tight fists and I want to fall to my knees and press them to my forehead like the annual winners of the most important tennis tournaments. We’d watch them at my grandparents’ country house, a bungalow, really, Wimbledon in July and the U.S. Open in the sluggish, stifling end-of-summer heat. McEnroe, Connors, Navratilova, Lendl, Graf, Sampras, Seles, Becker, Edberg, Agassi, every year one of them would win, sink to the grass or hardcourt in joyous disbelief.

And come to think of it that’s what I feel now. Where they felt the relief of triumph I feel the triumph of relief. There is no Center Court and there is no silver cup, and I am not climbing through the stands and kissing my tearful beloved, bear-hugging my stone-faced coach, but I have won, I am a champion.

We’d watch the semifinals and finals on the old, remoteless T.V. My grandmother would shout along with the guttural effort of every groundstroke, and my grandfather would cheer each great point. Him in his tennis whites, her in her garish bathing suits, goggles in hand. “He’s tired,” she’d murmur. “Look at his shirt.” The tennis greats of the moment would be soaked with sweat, their shirts transparent, their pockets full of balls. But then they’d wipe their eyes and bounce the flourescent fuzzy green thing three times, hard, pull the racket arm back like they were drawing a bow. It’s my favorite shape in all of sports, the setting of the serve in motion. Tossing arm outstretched, head thrown back, swinging for your own meatball pitch. The long, silent second before the shot. Then the cries that followed, first the server on T.V., the inhuman grunt of applying the annually accelerating force, clocking in at 110, 112, 120 mph, then the linesman, always incomprehensible, the one-syllable calls “out,” “fault” and “ace” indistinguishable to me, and unaccompanied by the gestures of baseball umps or football refs, and so I’d wait for my grandmother’s call, high-pitched, triumphant. “Ace!” she say. “Did you see that, Sammy? Did you see?”

“He’s got quite a serve, that Sampras.”

We watched some epic battles. Connors, he made an improbable run one summer. I don’t think he won, but he went far, and was too old. I was older, too, I remembered him dimly, young, in his prime, from when I was very little, and I was confused. I wasn’t that much older but here he was, hanging on for dear life, fighting for every point, so genuinely thrilled each time he won one. And Sampras, once, he had the flu, threw up in the locker room, threw up on the court, and won. We’d watch the trophy presentation, the comically big checks. I’d beg them to leave it on until the very end, until the Goodyear Blimp pulled back to show the Unisphere, fountains aglow. If it had been a long match it would be twilight, and they’d show a montage of the last two weeks, and say goodbye for the last time, fading out on the winner, holding his trophy aloft.

As I flee the hospital I find that like all winners, I am horny. Not purely for sex, though that’s part of it, but horny for everything, to run and jump and lie down on hard floors, scream and shout, to smoke cigarettes, to make remarks. I want to get drunk and give birth at the same time, I want to screech tires, I want to kick someone in the shins and get punched in the face, I want to chew steak, I want to suck face, bite a lip, taste blood. Smash glass, chop wood, throw stones, to do everything and anything my body might permit. It’s a reactionary horniness not uncommon to my exits from hospitals, funeral homes and the closed-up apartments of the elderly or depressed. It’s the surge of powering back on, the rarity of feeling my youth, what it means, which is really just the possibility of doing things.

How awful, I think, while one of our own lies in suspended in artificial death, his very wiring and plumbing subject to the surgeon’s mechanical touch, the oldest living highways of our bloodline cauterized and still smoking, and I am thinking of sex and life and vice. How awful, I think, how wonderful.

If the family is an organism and part of me lies artificially paralyzed and splayed on a table in the O.R., then this other part is restless from the extra energy that flows in only one direction, down the line; for the straight shot, well, it’s not mothers or daughters or the winning backhands of champions, the straight shot, it’s time.

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