More unlikely things have happened, of course. Like when Phineas tried to swat a fly and instead knocked over a jar containing his niece Mimi’s collection of daddy longlegs, one of which found its way into his wife Eleanor’s fur coat, causing Eleanor that night to scream at the Met in the middle of “In Questa Reggia,” which in turn caused the diva singing that aria to become upset, which generally made the backstage that evening very unpleasant. More unlikely things, for sure.
But, when Eleanor came down this morning with a serene smile on her face, Phineas was nevertheless perplexed. Eleanor hadn’t smiled like that since the breakfast after her final performance of Der Rosenkavalier, when she watched Phineas re-enact her last ever curtain call—all twenty-six curtsies—and how she had to tiptoe offstage to avoid tripping over the dozens of long-stemmed roses that well-wishers had thrown at her feet. In fact, since her retirement, Eleanor hadn’t smiled much at all.
Phineas served Eleanor her usual bowl of bran flakes and sliced strawberries and placed the week’s New Yorker in front of her. The silver filigree bracelet she wore dangled freely on her wrist, drawing attention to the Braille-like veins on the back of her hand.
Eleanor swept aside her breakfast, looked around a moment, and then got up to retrieve her laptop from the Balinesian table next to the landing—a teakwood table onto which a scene of the Ramayana had been carved over sixty years earlier.
Mimi streamed in, fingering her iPhone but stopping briefly to whisper something into Eleanor’s ear.
It wasn’t every night that Phineas and Eleanor slept in separate bedrooms but, the previous evening, Phineas had thought it wise to do so. Eleanor had been staying up lately, staring into her laptop and snickering—sometimes gasping—while tapping madly on her keyboard. This seemed especially true on nights before she drove Phineas to his radiation treatments, at which she would sit in a small, sterile room for caregivers of dying cancer patients and wait while Phineas had ionizing waves beamed at the bundle of cancerous DNA in his skull.
Phineas slept in his brother-in-law Charlie’s old room on those nights—a room filled with the tattered remnants of Charlie’s life: stacks of scuffed tapes with torn and faded labels; yellowed aerial photos of the estate that Charlie and Eleanor had grown up in with dozens of scribbles marking oxer, combination or open water jumps for the pretend equestrian courses that he and Eleanor used to design; and a pile of scrap papers from his veterinarian practice, each containing notes of this certain cat or that certain dog, with a black star on the ones he’d put down.
Though Phineas had retired from his comptroller job several years earlier, he couldn’t look at those cassette tapes and not want to affix proper labels, or see the scraps and not want to transfer their content to a spreadsheet. But he didn’t. It was only recently that Eleanor had consented to Phineas’ sleeping in Charlie’s room, but only on the condition that the room be left just as Charlie had left it.
“You don’t have to take me,” Phineas said, sliding the strawberries a safe distance away from the edge of the table. “I’ll call a cab.”
Eleanor looked up from her computer. Her soft white hair was whipped up and tied begging, almost, to be capped with a maraschino cherry.
“Oh don’t be ridiculous, Phin,” she said. “Of course I’ll take you. I’ve got some shopping to do over there anyway.”
“All right,” Phineas said, punctuating the remark with a deep sigh. His neck skin hung now—not horizontally like it does on fat people, but vertically, wafting about like little toy boat sails when he turned his head or took a longer-than-usual stride. His eyes had changed too. They looked wider these days and seemed to capture more light, as if some other-worldly force had temporarily granted him increased exposure to make the mundane seem more sublime. A parting gift, perhaps. “Take a look at how the sun hits the spindles in that wrought iron fence. And their shadows. See?” he had recently said to Mimi as she and he took their usual Saturday morning stroll through the Upper West Side. “It doesn’t get more beautiful than that.”
“Go ahead, dear. Get in the car,” Eleanor said, without looking up from her laptop. “I’ll be right out.”
Phineas eyed her and Mimi. Then he nodded and slowly turned toward the door.
* * *
Gabrielle. That was Eleanor’s name on Xenoikos—a social networking website. Gabrielle was a twenty-two-year-old brunette with blue eyes, thick lashes and plump lips—features strikingly similar to those of Mimi (and perhaps having something to do with the degree of involvement that Mimi had assumed in assisting Eleanor with the setting-up of Gabrielle’s profile). In fact, so alike were Gabrielle’s self-described features to those of Mimi’s, that when Mimi offered a photo of herself to Eleanor for Gabrielle’s profile picture, Eleanor readily agreed.
As soon as Phineas had stepped outside, Mimi stared at Eleanor with a huge grin on her face. “So?” she said. “Tell me!”
“Ha!” said Mimi, jumping up. She hugged Eleanor and did a little dance, making the lanky metal rods on her forearm piercing jangle. “I told you, didn’t I?”
“Oh my, you were right!” Eleanor said, giggling like a teenage girl.
Gabrielle had gone to a virtual gallery opening with Alec the previous night through Xenoikos. Afterward, Alec had taken Gabrielle home and had gently started to caress the nape of her neck, which in turn had prompted Gabrielle to moan, which in turn had prompted Alec to begin caressing something else, and the typical cascade of sexual folly had ensued, culminating in an earth-rattling way, thanks in no small part to a certain motorized device that the young cyber couple had unabashedly employed.
* * *
The waiting room at the hospital smelled like fish. Not in a pungent, rotten way, but in the more subtle way that it does on the wharf, packed in ice. Salty, cold and mercurial. Eleanor walked to the water fountain, flipped open the Monday lid from her weekly pill holder, and counted the four colorful tablets that made up her morning dose—one for high blood pressure; one for cholesterol; one to calm her nerves; and one to make sure that her calmer nerves didn’t get too calm. Too calm was bad for her, said her doctor. Too calm meant depression. She swallowed them one by one, and promptly exited the hospital in search of her car.
Manny’s was an over-the-counter Jewish deli in Garden City, with just a few tables and chairs filling out the small, storefront dining area. There was only one bathroom—a unisex bathroom painted mustard yellow, with a picture of George and Ira Gershwin above the toilet, each clutching a bagel with one hand and resting the other hand on the shoulder of Manny’s owner, Irv. If you stood in the anteroom just outside of the bathroom, you could get a panoramic view of the entire deli. On sunny days, the light shone in muted streams onto the tops of the bistro tables, revealing their dozens of hair-thin scratches and two small, but jagged craters on the table in the middle.
Eleanor waved at Irv when she arrived and hastily retired to the bathroom, where she spent an unusually long time flipping through a gossip magazine, mouthing a few stanzas from Madama Butterfly and toying with a recalcitrant curl that had escaped her morning’s application of hairspray. When she finally emerged, she didn’t go to the counter to order her usual poppy seed bagel and coffee. Nor did she find Irv to get his impression of the Met’s latest offering. Instead, she cowered behind the thick foliage of a Ficus tree outside the bathroom door, staring at the black-haired man who had just sat down at the table with the two craters. Alec. He looked just like his photo on Xenoikos: Thick hair; square jaw; and handsome, in a delightfully princely way.
She fished for the digital camera in her purse. Mimi had coached Eleanor on how to use it. It was easy, she had said—you pull it out, push the “on” button, point the lens towards your target and push the big silver button. But these lessons were totally lost on Eleanor now who, when fumbling for the “on” switch, accidentally dropped the camera into an urn on the other side of the bathroom door. As she flailed her hand about in the urn, Alec looked at his watch. Then he stood to watch the street cleaners on Franklin Avenue.
He was looking into the sunlight with his profile in full view when Eleanor finally managed to snap her first photo of him. By the time she remembered she didn’t have to rewind the camera for another shot, Alec was walking out. So, her second shot only caught Alec’s jacket, flapping behind him in the frame of the door.
“He’s real,” Eleanor told Mimi that evening.
“Well, what’d you expect?” Mimi said, and laughed.
“I didn’t expect that he’d look exactly like his Xenoikos profile picture!”
The possibility that men actually posted authentic photos of themselves on Xenoikos was something that Eleanor had not seriously considered.
Later that night, to the gentle curdling sound of Phineas’ breath, Gabrielle met Damien and made love to him on the bathroom floor of Tavern on the Green.
A few days later, she met Paul on Jones Beach and re-enacted the scene in From Here to Eternity (and Paul, being too young to know that film, professed his undying love for Gabrielle’s passion and originality).
Next it was Ken in Soho, and Dave in a Garden City office building. Then Kirk. Then John. Then Roger. And then another Paul.
With each of Gabrielle’s exploits, Eleanor’s collection of photos of the men at the crater-top table grew. And the quality of each photo grew too. After Ken, Eleanor had purchased a more expensive DSLR camera and had begun to exercise patience, waiting for that perfect shot—when, for example, Gabrielle’s man turned his head into the sunlight, looked up at the chalkboard menu above the counter, or glanced over at a newly arriving patron.
“These are good!” said Mimi, flipping through Eleanor’s album.
“They are a rather good-looking bunch, aren’t they?” Eleanor said, leaning over to see.
“Well that too. But I mean these photos. The lighting. The angles. The expressions on their faces. The cropping. You’re a natural, Aunt El.”
* * *
With each passing day, Phineas grew more and more quiet. He wondered why Eleanor had suddenly become enthusiastic—insistent even—about escorting him to his radiation treatments. He wondered how new words like “pixels” and “photoshopping” had entered into her vocabulary. He remembered their honeymoon in Bali, when he’d cajoled Eleanor into singing “Addio del passanto” as he anchored their canoe near a cove in the Gili Islands, and how, when his tibia had gotten shattered by a bucking horse their last evening there, Eleanor had carted him back to the hotel and called for medical help. Then she dismantled the carved table for carrying on the plane while packing and dabbing at Phineas’ blood as a local nurse hastily stitched up the gash on his shin. Eleanor was indomitable then, taking on every problem with the calm confidence of a sniper within range. She had always been indomitable—until now. Now, it seemed, the sicker Phineas got, the more time Eleanor spent with her computer.
He decided to speak about it with Mimi during their weekly stroll.
* * *
About the time her father, Charlie, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Mimi had begun taking an unusual interest in bugs. This delighted her father—a retired veterinarian—who viewed arthropods a close second to chordates, all being part of the wondrous Animalia Kingdom. And when Mimi’s Aunt Eleanor insisted that Mimi and her ailing father move in with Eleanor and Phin, Mimi happily agreed because it meant that she could continue her entomological studies, knowing that when she needed to run off to class or prepare for examinations, her dad’s care would be left in the loving hands of his sister Eleanor.
Mimi’s dad often spoke of his older sister Eleanor when Mimi was growing up. He was proud of Eleanor’s success in opera, and it seemed almost surreal to Mimi that this famous person would call her dad a few times every month—seeking him out for advice on everything from personal entanglements, to restaurants and animal breeds—and treasure her father’s company more than anyone’s except, perhaps, for that of Uncle Phineas. As Mimi aged, the presence of Eleanor in her life became less surreal and more grounded. They had lunch together; went shopping; saw an occasional show. With each outing, Mimi understood Eleanor more—how Eleanor’s fame had been somewhat isolating; and how Phineas and Charlie had been the pillars of Eleanor’s support system and the conduits to her life outside opera.
After moving in with Eleanor and Phineas, one might say that Mimi went a little overboard in her studies. While her father lay dying in the next room, Mimi’s room was full of bristling life. She kept about 20 different varieties of insects in her room, including an hourglass full of aphids, a colony of ants and, of course, the jar of daddy-longlegs. Tolerance of her room became a litmus test for her. Any man who showed not only a keen interest in, but also a comfortable level of calm in her room made the grade and earned his rightful place in her bed. A test that only a handful of men had so far passed.
Occasionally, Mimi would wheel her dad into her room for a change of scenery. The radiation treatments had made him spindly and weak, but she could see by the yearning in his graying blue eyes that he needed to move beyond the four walls of his room every now and then. She remembered the proud look on his face the day before he died as he watched her shepherd a small drove of aphids from one hourglass to another with a stalk of fennel, and how he had touched her cheek and said, “I’m so sorry.”
It was the same look he gave to her the following night, just after he gazed at Eleanor and just before he pressed the trigger on the system that would deliver a lethal dose of Pentobarbital into his body.
* * *
“She’s just in a different place, right now, you know,” said Mimi about Eleanor, as she and Phineas passed the American Museum of Natural History. Their Saturday morning walks were much shorter now, and Mimi made a point of staying closer than normal to her uncle just in case he faltered.
“I don’t understand it. She’s always been in one place—by me—ready to solve any problem head on. What do you think is causing this?”
Mimi looked down and crushed a leaf. It felt terrible to think that she might have inadvertently been causing her Uncle Phineas so much pain. It hadn’t occurred to her that Eleanor would become so obsessed with Xenoikos. But Eleanor had seemed so listless after Charlie’s passing. For days she wouldn’t eat, and forbade Mimi’s telling Phineas about the real way that Charlie had died. Mimi thought a little cyber-socializing might help.
“I’m not sure. I mean, if you want me to talk to her, I will.”
“No. I will,” he said, touching her cheek. “Thanks for talking.”
She looked into his wide eyes. “Uncle Phin?”
“I’m gonna miss these walks, you know?”
That night, Phineas waited until Eleanor had changed into her nightgown and, with her laptop and cup of green tea, settled down next to him on the bed.
“What was all that noise last night?” Phineas asked. He’d slept in Uncle Charlie’s room again and had heard a thumping sound at about 1:00 a.m.
Eleanor waited a moment and then firmly gripped his knee. “I had an orgasm, Phin,” she looked at him. “A big, deep orgasm. All by myself. Ha!”
Phineas swallowed and stared at Eleanor for a moment. Then he looked down and shook his head. “I’m sorry, El, if I’ve driven you to this.”
Eleanor lifted her eyebrows. “Well, if it were your fault, I should thank you!”
Phineas paused for a moment, staring at his hands. He kept his head down when he said, almost in a whisper, “Believe it or not, El, you tend not to think so much about orgasms when you’re about to die. You think of what matters; what you’ve done that matters. You run a long cost/benefit analysis on your life and see if you’re still in the black, you know? You worry about the people you are leaving behind. I haven’t thought of my penis in months.”
“Well, I haven’t thought about it in years,” Eleanor said, and laughed.
Phineas smiled. “But now you’re thinking of someone else’s penis, is that it, eh? You have some kind of younger man?” Then he lowered his tone. “El, I don’t think I have much longer.”
Eleanor stood up and started toying with a porcelain dish on a nearby curio cabinet. “Don’t be ridiculous, Phin. Of course you do.” She ran her fingers over the dish’s surface in a clinical manner, as if inspecting it for hairline cracks.
“—Please, Phin,” she said, holding up the dish. “Not now.”
* * *
“Okay, this has just become officially weird,” Mimi said. She and Phineas were in her room. Next to them was a photo of a molting scorpion that Eleanor had taken with the new filter she had purchased. Mimi had her hands on her keyboard, and Phineas sat behind her, staring into the computer screen.
“You can do it,” Phineas said, resting his hand on her shoulder. “Tell her I’m from Garden City too and that she’s lovely,” Phineas said.
“Uncle Phin, twenty-two-year-olds don’t use words like `lovely.”’
“Okay, tell her, eh, tell her whatever a twenty-two-year old would say then.”
Mimi tapped out, “I’m from GC too. You’re hot, btw.”
Then came Gabrielle’s response. “You’re hot too. And look at those big hands…wow.”
Mimi laughed. “She’s good.”
In addition to recommending his Xenoikos name—Tristan—Mimi had recommended to Phineas that he use a photo of a student palming a basketball that Mimi had scanned from her college newspaper.
Phineas looked exasperated. “I have no idea how to respond,” he said.
“Here, let me,” said Mimi. “Well, you know what they say. Heh. So, you been to The Cove lately? Can I interest you in a drink?”
“You can drink on this thing?” Phineas said.
The Cove was a room on Xenoikos that was made to resemble a bar, complete with loud music. You could select from a variety of virtual drinks and a little drink icon would pop up next to your profile picture. Whenever you wanted, you could “sip” your drink by pushing the “Ctrl S” key and the fluid level in the drink would actually appear to dip. Or you could hit the “Ctrl C” key and chug it down all at once.
Gabrielle ordered a Dirty Martini and slammed it down.
Tristan ordered a Sex on the Beach and slammed it down.
“Okay Uncle Phin,” Mimi said. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d make your move now.”
“This is harder than I thought,” said Phineas.
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Mimi said. “Want me to try and come up with something?”
Mimi stared at the picture of herself on Gabrielle’s home page. Then she gazed at the scorpion’s exoskeleton, thinking.
“This is really frickin’ weird,” she said as she started to type. “On so many levels.”
Phineas read each word as she typed it. When she’d finished, there was a long pause. “Aren’t we supposed to dance or something first?” he said.
Mimi stared at Phin. “If this is what you wanted, then you just gotta dive in.”
Phineas swallowed. “Okay. Send it.”
And with the push of the “Post” button, Tristan began to rub Gabrielle’s back, in firm circular motions, eventually letting his hands slip around to the “soft mounds” on her front side.
And then, a response:
—Gabrielle moaned and turned to meet Tristan’s lips. Then she kissed him and rubbed her thigh against his hard-on.
And a reply:
—Tristan met her kiss and sucked her lips into his mouth as he lifted her over to a quiet corner of The Cove near the back door. He tore her shirt away and let his mouth wander downward to her stiff nipples. Then he slipped off her pants…
And on it went:
—Gabrielle was soaking wet, begging Tristan to enter her.
—Tristan let his pants down and thrust into her, moving his pelvis in, around and out, pumping to the beat of the music.
—Gabrielle screamed in ecstasy. (At which point Mimi distinctly heard a thud coming from Eleanor’s room.)
—Gabrielle offered Tristan a cigarette, and they made a date to see each other in person the next day for lunch.
Mimi clicked away from the site and powered down her laptop. “You two are one whacky couple, you know?”
Phineas sat back. “A cigarette? She doesn’t smoke,” he said.
“No, she doesn’t,” said Mimi, leaning the article containing Tristan’s photo against the wall on her shelf. “Gabrielle does.”
Eleanor sat quietly at her breakfast table the next morning. Phineas put her bowl of bran flakes down, and then started spooning sugar onto her strawberries.
“I can get a cab today if you want,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” she said.
Mimi mulled around at the base of the steps, listening to this back and forth. She was preparing an article for the Journal of Applied Entomology, and was discussing it with her mentor today, but her mind kept swirling over what had happened last night and she kept questioning whether it was the right thing to do. She put some of Eleanor’s insect photos into her portfolio with the rough draft of the article, and walked into the kitchen to say good morning.
“I’ve got some of your photos here, Aunt El,” she said. “If this thing goes, I may need to hire you.”
Eleanor smiled. “In that case, I may need that new macro lens I’ve been eyeing.”
* * *
Manny’s was empty when Eleanor arrived after dropping Phineas off at the hospital. She was excited to see Tristan and sat on the toilet adjusting the aperture on her camera to ensure sharp focus around the center of the frame. It had been some time now since she had used her old auto-focus camera.
About ten minutes later than she and Tristan had agreed to meet, she turned the handle on the bathroom door to assume position for her shoot. It was a sunny morning, and the rays beamed into the storefront like shooting stars. One of the rays beamed right into the head of the man sitting at the table with two craters. His back was turned to Eleanor and he wore a heavy coat and hat, making his identification nearly impossible to discern. So, she waited. This had happened before. Once she had waited ten minutes before her subject turned to expose his angular nose and goatee.
After five minutes, the man had still not budged. Ten minutes. Nothing. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the man took off his hat. He had thin, gray hair. Eleanor shook her head, thinking, at last, an imposter. But imposter or not, she decided, he was still worth shooting. She adjusted her focus just as the man turned to offer a full frontal view. His wide eyes ran across the counter and into the backroom near the bathroom, and then squinted, as if trying to peer through the lush Ficus, behind which Eleanor stood.
Eleanor emerged from behind the tree and slowly lowered her camera. Phineas smiled. Then he got up and walked toward her.
Her body started to tremble. “Damn you!” she said, as Phineas approached. She dropped the camera into her purse and rifled through the purse for something else. “See!” She held up her weekly dosing container and flipped the lid off the Tuesday compartment. “See!” She showed him an oblong mint-green pill. “See!” She thrust forward a larger, purple tablet. “See, Phin!” She was crying now, and tears were streaming into her mouth. Phineas stood still. “I’ve got all these pills,” she said. “Don’t you see, Phin?” She stretched out her hands. “I’m gonna live a long time!”
And that is when Phineas dropped.
* * *
Eleanor had to beg the hospital to let Phineas come home. He was too frail, they said. But Phineas didn’t do well in hospitals. He’d had a number of abdominal surgeries in his 50s and 60s and never slept well in a hospital bed, even with Eleanor sleeping on the couch at his side. So when Eleanor announced he’d been discharged, the muscles in his face notably relaxed.
His first night back was rough. He tossed in his sleep, and spoke out loud a few times, in staccato-like bursts—“Me!” “Account!” “Dust!” By the second night, he’d settled into longer intervals of lucidity.
Eleanor slid over next to him in bed. He smelled like lavender from the soap in the bath she’d given him.
She touched his hand and began massaging his fingers. “Phin?” she asked.
“You’ve always been in the black with me, you know that right?”
“Just like your computer boys?”
“Nah. They’re in cyber black. You’re in real black,” she said, grinning.
“I’m honored.” He smiled.
She put her head on the pillow and gazed upward. “What do you think we’d be doing now if we were both twenty and meeting for the first time. If I were beautiful—“
“—You ARE beautiful.”
“—If I were YOUNG and beautiful and your joints didn’t ache, and dying was only something I sang about.”
Phineas smiled. “You know what I might do, remember?”
“I might admire your lips.”
“Oooh. I’d like that. And?”
“And perhaps wonder how your breasts might feel.”
“And what would you do to find out?”
“Well, I guess I’d hug you and try to kiss you, and if you kissed me back, I might let my hands wander a bit.”
“And I would kiss you back. Passionately. How do I feel?”
“You feel warm and soft.”
She took his hands and began running them along her torso. After a moment, he stopped her, freed himself and slipped a hand under her nightshirt. His palm felt like a warm pancake on her breast. She looked at him as her fingertips wandered along his hip, down his thigh, to his shin and the depression there made by the bucking horse so many years ago. She kissed him on the lips and let her mouth linger a bit until they had exchanged a few breaths.
“Phin—” she said.
“—I know,” he said.
Then she laid him down, nesting his face into the warmth of her armpit.
The light from Eleanor’s computer cast a clean glow over her arms and chest. Phineas looked over her elbow toward the screen. The hairs on her forearm were fluffy and white and tilting in unison toward the static of the laptop screen. He touched Eleanor’s face with the soft pads of his fingertips, feeling her youth and a light, watery bubble of a tear. Then he grazed her forearm, blazing a trail of wet hairs in the glowing white fluff. Quite a vision. In fact, the most beautiful thing that he had ever seen.
* * *
Eleanor knew the actual moment that Phineas had taken his last breath. She was lying peacefully, being comforted by the in and out of his breath, feeling every exhalation on her arm. He was breathing in triple meter, and she was using the beat of his breath to hum “Bist du bei mir” quietly in her head. As she approached the final bar, the beat stopped. She looked upon Phineas’ motionless face, touched his cheek and ran her fingers slowly across his lips. His wide eyes were at half-mast, in the way they might rest after a satisfying meal. She closed her eyes and finished the song in her head, this time imagining it loudly, the way she had sung “Dulcissima” in Carmina Burana at the Met when the decibels emanating from her larynx had reverberated into every crack and seam of the house and made her ossicles jangle. Then she pulled Phineas onto her lap, closed his eyes and cleared her throat.
Mimi’s mentor had liked her proposal and had given her some ideas on how to fine-tune it, along with some thoughts on photographs. Mimi was tapping out some of those changes when she heard Eleanor’s singing. “Liebestod.” Mimi had heard this somber piece before, one evening long before, when she, Eleanor, Phineas, and her dad Charlie sat listening to old albums and played backgammon after dinner.
She stopped her editing, and listened quietly as Eleanor’s voice gently filled the evening air. Her eyes wandered over to the picture of Tristan on her shelf, and then she looked down. How insistent the passage of time can be.
Eleanor’s photos were strewn across Mimi’s desk. Mimi surveyed them, and ran her fingers lightly across their edges: A Chinese Mantid clutching a black ant like a toddler holding a cupcake just before taking a bite. A dew worm, sexually mature at last, depositing a cocoon onto moist soil. An old spider, anchoring a new web on the patina of an aged, timeworn statue.