I should have listened to my lawyer and never watched that DVD.
It didn’t help anyone. The only impact it had was on me and it left me destroyed. Everything had been over for weeks. I could have just left it in the safe, unwatched. My anger would have the same, my sense of betrayal would have still been there, but I would have had my soul intact. I couldn’t leave it alone, though. It was like an itch I had to scratch.
A year earlier, I had noticed small changes in my wife. She was dressing better, spent more money on clothes, which I didn’t think was possible, and was staying out later with what she called ‘the girls’. I don’t know how five middle-aged women considered themselves ‘girls’, but whatever. The biggest clue was that she was happy.
My wife was a self-centered harridan and happy wasn’t on her list of viable personality traits. Until then.
She had become even colder to me and the children. That wasn’t as horrible as it could have been. We were used to our home being a place where she came to sleep and our family being a verbal punching bag. Now she wasn’t even pretending to care. No calls to say she was going to be late, no making the kids meals.
After I received a printed-out Amazon gift card for my birthday that was left on the dining room table and her not showing up until 11:00 that night, I had decided that enough was enough. When the kids told her about our going to Bucca di Peppo to celebrate and questioned her about not attending, she rushed them to bed.
Her face was beet red. “You couldn’t wait? You just couldn’t wait until the weekend? Now I’m the bad guy. Just freaking wonderful. Dad’s the put-upon hero. Again.”
I sat there, Shiner Bock in hand, staring at her. “You have to be kidding me. We didn’t leave the house until 7:00. We waited an hour and a half for you. Did you even check your messages? Your daughter called you three times. You know what? Fuck you. Why do you even bother coming home? Next time, just stay gone.”
I clambered to my feet, a little drunk after the red wine with dinner and three beers in short succession after we got home. I climbed the stairs to the bed, stripped down to my underwear and got under the covers. She entered fifteen minutes later.
I don’t know if she was feeling guilty or it was an attempted birthday gift, but laying next to me, she reached into my shorts and gently grabbed my dick. I couldn’t remember the last time I had yelled at her, and I guess she decided that conciliatory was the way to go. “I know we’ve grown a little distant lately, honey, but we can work it out. You know I love you.”
We hadn’t had sex in more than five weeks and we hadn’t made love in years. I would have liked to have rolled over and ignored her, but I wasn’t that strong. When she kissed me, I kissed her back. I kissed her ear and moved down to her neck as I pulled up her negligee. She kept her hand on my growing cock and was slowly pulling it, stroking it, bringing it to its full length.
My lips made their way to her collarbone when I smelled it: Eros by Versace. The aroma was faint, probably hours old, but it was there. I use Fierce, by Abercrombie and Fitch, but the kids got me a bottle of what I was smelling on her for my birthday. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the implications, but they upped and smacked me in the face. I felt the Italian food rising in my throat, ran to the bathroom and lost my dinner.
I rinsed my mouth out and sat there on the toilet, trying to think.
“Anthony? Are you all right?” She was outside the door.
No, I’m not all right, you cheating bitch. “Sick. I need a few minutes.”
“Okay. I’m going to sleep in the guest room then. Don’t want to catch anything.”
Thanks for the comfort and support, whore. “Okay.”
What the fuck was I going to do?
I used the computer in the shop the next morning and found a surprising amount of private investigators. Who knew Colorado was a hot bed of illicit activities? How was I supposed to determine which one was the best? I had no idea. I chose the one with the website I thought looked the most professional.
In two weeks, I had all the information I needed. She was fucking our kid’s pediatrician. I shouldn’t have been surprised. She was probably looking to upgrade. He was divorced and in his late forties or early fifties. Doctor Burrows had plenty of money, and that’s all she ever cared about. She was a mercenary cunt and I’d known that for at least a decade.
Her brother was Jerry Hernandez, the legendary middleweight boxer. He’d bought us a home when we got married and we lived on the same block as her other siblings and her mother. Jerry had staked me when I quit my job at the firm and became a professional glassblower. He bought all the equipment necessary and owned ten percent of my business. When I paid him back, he’d returned his ownership stake.
I did fairly well for myself. Working as an artist instead of as a commercial drone made me happy. Not my beloved wife, though. It was too financially risky until I bought her a BMW. She was mollified, but still not happy about having to tell her friends I was an artist who worked out of a shop in the backyard.
Every time I tried to pay her brother back, she complained. “He doesn’t need the money, he’s rich.” I tried once to explain that him needing the money wasn’t the point. If she understood, which I doubted, she didn’t care. Any money that we took in was ours, and she would be damned before it went to someone else.
Oddly, that outlook didn’t extend to other people’s money. She constantly had Jerry paying for things for her. It took me six years to pay my brother-in-law back with money I kept hidden from my wife. He always tried to refuse the payments I made every few months because that’s the sort of man he was. I kept making the payments because that’s the sort of man I was.
When Jerry was dying and lost his money, he could no longer help her. The house was in her name and she immediately had it listed. We moved to Pueblo within weeks. The small town we had been raising our children in was too provincial for her. I think she saw her brother once more before he died. I took the kids to see him almost every weekend.
She informed me that I made her look bad by going without her.
So, yeah, I knew who and what my wife was. Unfortunately, I had still loved her. I think I loved her right until I walked into the doctor’s office. Her car had been in the parking lot, so I knew she was there. The kids were old enough to fix their own dinner and stay unsupervised for a while.
His practice was in an office suite with other white-collar businesses. The door to his offices was locked and I almost popped my shoulder from the joint when I decided I was macho enough to knock it down. After bouncing off the door, I grabbed a fire extinguisher that was nearby and slammed the metal cannister repeatedly on the door handle. Within a minute the door was open, and I was in.
I heard Camilla’s moans from a nearby room. It felt like the clowns and Disney characters decorating the walls mocked me as I moved closer to the adulterous pair. Her growing wails and pleas led me to the second room in a hallway of examination rooms for sick children. He had her bent over the table, his less than impressive cock slamming into my wife. The doctor was at an odd angle as he tried to minimize the contact from his oversized belly.
The sick sounds of slapping flesh, the visuals of his flabby white ass and her gaping vagina and the wet sloshing noise from their coupling both nauseated and infuriated me. This? This is what she was cheating on me for?
They had no idea I was there until I wrapped my forearm around his throat and pulled him back. I threw him against a cabinet filled with cotton swabs, tongue depressors, and other supplies, most of which fell to the ground. He was shocked into silence, staring at me, mouth agape. She wasn’t so quiet.
“An ... Anthony. Anthony! Get out of here. Get out!”
I hadn’t been in a fight since the fourth grade. I wasn’t a retired Navy Seal. I never even picked up any tips from Jerry on how to box. I punched Dr. Burrows in the stomach as hard as I could, and I felt something twist the wrong way in my wrist. With the other hand, I pushed his head against the cabinet. Why? I have no idea. I should have punched him or hit him with something.
The bitch continued to yell. “GET OUT! You ruin everything! Everything.” She started pounding on my back, probably more effective with her fists than I was with mine.
I back-handed Burrows across his face and kicked him in the shin. I sucked as a fighter. He was covering up as best he could. I guess he also sucked as a fighter.
Getting myself under control, I started to feel the throbbing in my hand and wrist. I looked about the shambles of a room, equipment was strewn everywhere. I spit on the doctor and turned to my wife.
“Don’t come home this time. Just stay the fuck away from us.”
I left and drove to the hospital. I called my aunt and asked her to come by and stay with the kids until I got home. Nothing was broken in my hand or wrist, but it hurt like hell. They wrapped it up for me, gave me prescriptions for some pain killers and anti-inflammatories and sent me home.
They were visible from the end of the block. I slowed down and then stopped as I watched the two police cars sitting outside our house. I thought about turning around and going to a hotel for the night, getting a lawyer and turning myself in, but I was too tired to fight. I just wanted all of this to be over. Her presence had been a shroud over our lives for as long as I could remember, and it was mentally and spiritually exhausting.
I’d spend the night in jail, post bail and get my kids. We could stay with my aunt until I figured out a long-term plan.
Yeah, not so much.
She started screaming and pointing as I pulled up. Hiding halfway behind the door, she did a great job of pretending to be terrified. Her left eye appeared bruised and would likely be black and blue the next day. A ball of lead settled in the pit of my stomach. The bitch was setting me up. I turned off the car, kept my hands visible at all times and slowly stepped out and onto the driveway.
The police officers were professional. One of them kept her hand near her holster while the other slowly walked towards me while speaking.
“Mr. Anthony Cuddo?”
“Yes. I’ll admit right now that I broke into fuckheads office and smacked him around, but I never touched my wife. I assume I’m going to be arrested?”
Looking at my house as they cuffed me, I saw my aunt steer my eldest son from the window. My wife, the bitch, was smirking at me as the officer had his hand on my head, making sure I got in the back of the car safely.
My one allowed phone call went to my cousin Matteo. We grew up together and were closer to siblings than cousins. He got me the best lawyer in the city and arranged my bail. I couldn’t get within five-hundred feet of the bitch or my children. I couldn’t contact them in any way.
Thanks to Matteo’s lawyer and Dr. Burrows not wanting fathers to know that he was banging the mothers of his patients, I only did sixty days and had a lengthy parole. It could have been worse, but not seeing my kids was killing me.
After I was released I received supervised visitation, one hour a week, supervision paid for by me.
Matteo loaned me enough money to put a down deposit on a house. It was the same home where we had raised our children. The building for my old shop was still there and I had to have a Sheriff with me when I retrieved my tools and equipment from the house the bitch and my kids still lived in.
Like a wounded animal, I crept back to the place that made me feel safe. This was where I had been happiest. I started working again and Matteo became my biggest customer. I don’t know what he did for a living, exactly. I had a rough idea, though. It’s pretty much what he had done since we were kids. He found people that had something to sell, he found people who needed what was being sold and he put them together for a percentage of the sale.
Did I think it was all legal? Not at all. Matteo had a knack for putting the right people together and as long as it wasn’t something that would harm innocents, he didn’t care too much about what was being negotiated. He had me working on high-end vases and was paying me outrageous fees. In turn, he sold the vases to the people he helped and they paid him huge amounts of money for the vase. On the books, his money now came from selling vases that should have cost under $1000 for tens of thousands of dollars.
The divorce was winding its way through the legal system and the bitch was now pushing for unsupervised visitations. I was surprised by how long it took her to make that move. Now that she had to actually be a mother, she didn’t care for it. If she could foist the kids on me at times, it gave her an opportunity to go out and do whatever and whoever.
The previous year I had made $52,000. Not bad, but not great. The cost of living wasn’t too high around us, so the bitch didn’t have to work. We were at the lower end of comfortable. Her lawyer was using that amount to gouge me for alimony and child support. Matteo was holding onto my pay or cut or whatever you want to call it until I asked for it. With his purchases taken into account, I was looking at making just over $125,000 that year.
I’d fight her on the percentage she got of the $52,000, but I wouldn’t fight too hard.
When the divorce was complete she sent me a long letter. I never opened the envelope, but it felt like there had to be at least five sheets of paper in there. I knew her, so I knew what they would contain. I was a loser. I should have earned more money. I overreacted to Dr. Burrows’ thorough medical examination. Everything was my fault.
I took it into my shop and turned it into ashes with a blowtorch.
Weeks went by and I couldn’t stop thinking about that DVD. It was like Chinese water torture. Always there, always knocking at the door of my mind. Drip. Did she talk about me to him? Drip. Did he fuck her better than I did? Drip. Was everything actually my fault? Drip. Would the DVD tell me why she tore our family apart? Drip.
I finally popped it into my laptop and sat down with a fifth of Jack.
The view of my wife getting fucked by the aging Dr. Burrows didn’t destroy me. To be honest, it was sort of boring. Normal people don’t fuck like porn stars. She sucked his dick, he slammed his less than impressive cock into her and he came pretty quickly. The end.
What stole my life from me were her words. She had married me because Jerry liked me. Her brother was her meal ticket and she wanted to keep him happy. The bitch thought she was making a sacrifice for her brother’s sake. If she was marrying me to make him happy, she should have no compunctions about fucking around. That was depressing, but not soul shattering.
What crushed me was when she told the good doctor that I wasn’t the biological father to any of our three children. Oddly, the first thing that went through my mind was what sort of a lunatic thinks that was the pillow talk that would woo you a new husband? The video was detailed enough for me to see him flinch and a look of disgust flashed across his face.
I missed my next visitation. Not because I loved them any less, but because I had climbed into a bottle and started drinking my days away.
A few weeks later Matteo was on my porch. I looked like crap, but so did he. If the tie-breaker was hygiene, he was definitely winning. I gazed at his newly bald head and pallid skin for too long and he finally spoke.
“You gonna invite me in?”
“Oh, yeah, sure. Sorry.” I opened the screen door for him and looked around in the fridge for a beer. I handed him one, grabbed one for myself, thought better of it and put mine back.
“So, what are you doing here, Matteo?”
“Nothing much. You haven’t answered your phone in more than two weeks. You haven’t called anyone. You missed visitation with your kids, my mom’s pretty pissed about that by the way, and you owe me four vases. You smell like a hobo and your house is a mess. But hey, aside from that, everything is cool.”
I sat down on the couch and Matteo swept some newspapers off a chair before he also sat.
“Talk to me, Anthony. What’s going on?”
Taking a deep breath, let it out and started. “I ... damn it, the kids...”
“What about the kids? Are they okay?”
“They’re ... the kids aren’t mine.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Who told you that?”
“My cunt of an ex-wife. It’s on a video from the PI’s. She was telling the doctor. I think the psycho was bragging.”
Anger warred with sadness in my cousin’s face. He took a moment before responding. “That fucking whore. That miserable, cheating whore. If she was in a dumpster fire I would only walk by to close the lid. Fuck her. First off, we need to get tests done to see if she was telling the truth. And then, fuck her! You raised those kids. You’re more their parent than she is.
You need to straighten up. Shave, take a shower, get something reasonable to eat and we’ll go talk to your lawyer. You need to go for full custody. Fuck her.”
Matteo might not have had the most extensive vocabulary, but he was my cousin and best friend. While I was in the shower he straightened up the house. He dragged my Weber kettle around to the front of the house and was pouring some charcoal in when I stepped out onto the porch.
“Hey, you’re looking human again. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to Pueblo to see the lawyer and then we’re going to try to see your kids. We need to get in front of this for CPS or the welfare people or whoever the fuck determines your custody and visitations. Then, you’re flying with me back to L.A., Barbara would love to see you. I’ll get you back here for your next official visitation.”
And that’s what we did. We spoke with the lawyer who promised to speak to the right people and mitigate any damage done by my missing the visitation. The bitch let us see the kids as it allowed her to get out and do what she wanted. She stopped me on my way out the door.
“Anthony, I need some money.”
“Get a job.”
“I have to watch the kids, idiot.”
I stopped and counted to ten. “Get a part time job.”
“Be reasonable. It’s just money.”
“It’s just my money, you grubby little bitch. My money! You get every penny you’re owed, you got the house and your car and now you want more? I know for a fact that Matteo’s mom buys stuff for the kids. You’re not getting a fucking dime more out of me.”
Matteo called from the driveway. “Anthony, let’s go.”
He was right. Staying and talking to her was a waste of time. I turned and left her standing there. This wasn’t about her, it was about my kids.
We took them to a movie and out to dinner. They were happy to see “Uncle Matteo” and all of us went to my aunt’s for dessert. Matteo had three pies, four gallons of ice-cream and a wad of cash for his mom. I couldn’t have unsupervised visitations, but how could it be my fault if I happen to be around when they visited with their uncle?
We were on a plane to Los Angeles when Matteo returned from the lavatory, sat down and a small medicine bottle fell from his pocket. He was sweaty and his hand shook as he tried to pick it up.
I grabbed it for him. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Just a little under the weather. The flu or something. No big deal.”
I read the label. “What’s Afinitor?”
“Nothing. Just take a couple a day and I’ll be fine in seventy-two hours. Seriously, not a problem. Don’t mention it to Barb. I don’t want her to worry.”
“Okay. We’ll load you up with vitamin C. That’ll kick its ass. Maybe some matzah-ball soup.”
He didn’t look good, so I was glad to hear it was only the flu. It must have been the tail end, as there was no coughing or sneezing. I hoped he wasn’t contagious, we had just spent the day with my kids.
We landed, grabbed our luggage and headed to the parking lot. It felt like there were more people at LAX than lived in Pueblo. I said a small prayer to the traffic gods as Matteo eased us out of the airport in his Caddy. From the times that I’d come to visit him and Barbara, I’d learned to live in dread of the 405.
He kept his eyes on the road as he spoke. “Hungry?”
“Barb’s going to have Thai delivered, so how hungry are you?”
“If you’re asking if I can pick at some Thai after hitting In and Out, the answer is absolutely.”
“Hah! You’re definitely my cousin. All right, animal style here we come.”
We pulled into his driveway and I sat there for a moment enjoying the view before unbuckling. I loved his place. There was a feeling of comfort there. It was a nice home on a large plot of land. They never had kids, so they didn’t need much space in the house. Everything was in pastel colors that suited the stucco.
They had two avocado trees, one in the front and one in the back. For the first few years of visiting them, I almost lept out of my skin when an avocado would fall and land on the metal roof over their enclosed porch. It was almost too perfect to be able to walk into your backyard and pick a lemon from one tree and avocados from another. Twenty minutes later, you were sitting poolside with the world’s freshest guacamole.
Barbara met us at the door. A tall, willowy woman, she made their house a home. She was born and raised in California, but she reminded me of the stereotypical southern belle. Barb was graciousness and comfort embodied. After kissing Mateo, she stepped in and hugged me.
She spoke softly into my ear. “I’m so sorry, Anthony. You didn’t deserve any of this.” Stepping back and holding my shoulders at arm’s length, she shook her blond hair from her face and looked into my eyes. “Matteo missed you. So did I. We’re happy you’re here. If you ever need it, this is home. You’re always welcome.”
Dropping her hands, she started to turn and then looked back. Looking at me again, she frowned and turned to her husband. “You idiots stopped at In and Out, didn’t you?”
Matteo laughed. “Don’t blame me. He was crying about it the entire flight. I finally had to give in.”
Barb laughed, as well, and we sat and picked while she enjoyed the Pad See Eaw and Satay chicken. We caught up after dinner, Barb asking about my new and once old home. We talked about her mother-in-law, which led to a discussion about the kids. Seeing how that affected me, she tried to switch the conversation to something more mundane, movies, current events and anything vanilla enough to keep the conversation going without pushing me into a maudlin melancholy.
I smiled, appreciating her effort. Matteo had lucked out. He had hit the matrimonial jackpot while my marriage was a losing bet from the start. “It’s okay, Barb. It hurts, but there’s no sense in running from it. Yeah, she set me up and I spent time in jail. She followed that up with taking most of our assets and the house and getting crazy alimony for the amount I was making. I hate her for that, but the kids? That just wrecked me. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m still sort of wandering around in a fog.”
“Well, while you and my husband were out having a good time, I was getting some work done. Three DNA kits should be here tomorrow by 5:00. You’ll get swabs from the kids and we’ll find out if she was lying or not. I spoke to Matteo’s lawyer and he recommended a colleague specializing in family law. Have you thought about having your marriage annulled? You have a video of her admitting that it was fraudulent from the start and she was cheating immediately. If it’s annulled, her alimony goes away.”
Gobsmacked, I stared at her. “That might work? Seriously? That’s genius. Yeah, I don’t want her getting a dime.”
“We’ll go see the lawyer tomorrow afternoon. It looks like you have a good shot at an annulment.”
Matteo spoke up. “I need to drive down to San Diego in the morning for work. Speaking of work, I need those vases, Anthony. We set you up in the backyard with the same equipment you have at the house. Consider it your shop away from home.”
Looking over at him, I saw his left hand shaking on the table near his plate. He pulled it towards him and dropped it on his lap. Raising my eyes to his, he was staring at me and slightly shook his head. I looked at Barb, back to him and said nothing.
We spoke some more before heading to bed. Barb knocked and entered the guest room as I unpacked. She slipped on some pillow cases, not speaking as I wondered about Matteo. I looked up as she started to leave. “Thank you, Barbara. It’s ... this has been rough. It’s good to have family.”
Hugging me again, she spoke into my ear. “I’ll say it again. You didn’t deserve what she did to you. You’re a good man, Anthony.”
Matteo was gone by the time I woke up. Angry at myself for not speaking to him before he left, I showered and grabbed some Mueslix and soy milk for breakfast. Barb and my cousin fully embraced the California stereotypes. I was hoping we wouldn’t be having tofu for dinner.
He was right; a duplicate of all of my equipment was in a new, large shed in their backyard. I worked until about noon when Barbara came in bringing some lemonade. She was wearing a light blue sun-dress with a yellow belt. It went well with her cornsilk hair and blue eyes. I was an embarrassing sweaty mess.
Smiling, she handed me the lemonade. “We need to leave in about forty-five minutes.”
“Okay, thanks. I’m gonna finish up here and take another shower.”
We met with the lawyer who made sure that I understood that he was just providing me with general information and that if I wanted to move forward, it would have to be with a lawyer in Colorado. He asked lots of questions and I gave him as many answers as I could. He confirmed that my case looked good, which had me happy for the first time in quite a while.
Barb tried to pay, but I refused. I had a good amount of money sitting with Matteo until I needed it. I paid for the consultation and we grabbed some lunch before heading home. It was seafood, not tofu. She noticed my better mood and we sat for almost two hours, talking about old times, laughing at anecdotes from when Matteo and I were kids.
He called to say that he had to stay overnight. I stepped out by the pool when Barb hung up and called him. It went to voice mail. I tried again. It went to voice mail. I sent a text.
Stop fucking around and call me back. Now!
He did. “I was in the john. Can’t a guy take a piss? What’s up your ass?”
“Okay, sorry. I don’t know, I thought you were avoiding me. What ... Matteo, what was up with your arm last night?”
“The shaking? It’s nothing. Remember when I broke my arm? There was some minor nerve damage and now that I’m getting older, it haunts me a bit when I’m tired. Listen, I appreciate your concern, cuz, but really, it’s nothing.”
“That’s it. Stop worrying about me and get those vases made.”
Barb and I changed into swimsuits and headed out to the pool. She laughed when I jumped as an avocado hit the sheet metal. Embarrassed, I smiled at her, a bit self-conscious. We enjoyed some white wine and the warm water until we started to prune up.
Matteo was back the next morning and I spent the day in the shed, working on his vases. He had an account for me where he was holding most of the money he was paying so the bitch wouldn’t be able to get her hands on it. There was about $17,000 in there and I had him get me $5,000 in cash. When I wasn’t working, the three of us ate, swam, laughed and talked.
The next day was a repeat and the following I left for my visitation with the kids. I met them at the bitch’s house and we spent our time together in my old shop. I had spent a bunch of the money that I got from Matteo on gifts. My children weren’t spoiled, and they would have been happy to see me without the presents, but they were kids, so they lost their minds for a little bit.
The latest iPhones were a big hit and my eldest let loose with something that sounded like “Yeet!” I hadn’t a clue as to what that meant, but I assumed it was good.
The social worker told me that this would be the last week of supervised visits and my time was increased to four hours every Saturday. It would be reviewed in sixty days and might be increased from there. She always maintained her aura of professionalism, but she was a nice woman. I invariably brought lunch with me for the kids, and I included a sandwich or something for her. She declined the first few times but seemed to warm up to me the more she was exposed to my bitch of an ex-wife.
The social worker watched me carefully as I told the kids I bought us all Ancestry.com memberships. They didn’t question me as I got swabs of their DNA. She was frowning when I was done and stopped me when I got to the door of the shop.
“Anything I should be concerned about, Mr. Cuddo?”
“I don’t think so. Why would you be concerned? The kids had a great time. I certainly did. Did you see something I didn’t?”
“Mr. Cuddo, wouldn’t one DNA tracing suffice? You had all three children submit swabs.”
“You know how kids are. If one of them has one, they all want one. I see them once a week. I didn’t want any jealousy cropping up.”
“Uh-huh. Okay. You have my card. Please call me if you think that there is anything we should discuss.”
“Will do. Have a great week.”
As I got to my car, the bitch came running down the steps from the house.
“Anthony! Don’t go.” She came up to me as I got in the car and she held the door open. “Listen, I need to get some money. The kids need some clothes and there’s a problem with the boiler.”
“The boiler is under warranty. Call them to come in. I have the kids for four hours next week. I’ll take them shopping.”
“Anthony, honey, can’t you just help me out here?”
“Look, I’m not your husband anymore and I’m certainly not your friend. You want money? Get off your ass and get a job. You want someone to give you stuff? Find a different sucker. I’ve got to go. Get your hands off my car.”
“What about your children, you selfish prick?”
I sat there, fuming. Looking up from the steering wheel, I glared at her. “My what? Did you say my kids?”
A look of fear crossed her face. I knew her. It wasn’t fear of me finding out, it wasn’t a fear of being shamed. It was a fear of losing child support. She let go of the car door. I slammed it shut and pulled out.
Sitting at the airport waiting for my flight back to L.A., I called my neighbor, Jennifer Cruz.
“Hey, Jennifer, it’s Anthony.”
“Hello, stranger. How’ve you been?”
“Good, thanks. Listen, I’m going to be in L.A. for a while. Can you do me a favor and grab the mail and keep an eye on the house?”
“Sure. Hey, can you make those little glass things that people put in their windows and they refract the light?”
“Yeah, I can do those. Why, you need a few?”
“No, I heard that Council Woman Cumberley is looking to get hundreds made for Christmas for her major donors. I thought that you might get them your info and get your foot in the door.”
“Jennifer, how do you find this stuff out?”
“Oh, you know, I keep my ear to the ground.”
“Okay, well, thanks for the heads up and watching the place. I’ll be back some-time next week.”
Mrs. Cruz had a heart of gold, but she was a yenta on steroids. She always knows what’s going on in everyone’s business.
Barb had held dinner for me and Matteo picked me up. Traffic was much less brutal on the weekends, and we enjoyed the drive.
He spoke as he shifted lanes. “Hey, I need a favor.”
“Sure. Name it.”
“I need to meet some people about a deal tomorrow night, but Barbara has this charity thing she has to attend. I just found out about the meeting today and I can’t get out of it. Can you take her?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess. Is it formal?”
“Yup. You can borrow my tux.”
“Tuxedo? Really? That doesn’t really seem like my kind of event.”
“You’ll do fine. Just hang out with Barb and let her do all the talking.”
We enjoyed dinner together that evening played some cards and went to bed. I got back to work on the vases the next day, stopped at 2:00 PM, showered and shaved. Matteo’s tux fit like it was tailored for me.
My cousin gave me a wolf whistle when I came out of my room. Barbara smacked his shoulder.
“You look very nice, Anthony. You ready to go?”
She was stunning. Wearing a form-fitting red dress, her slender curves were accentuated and put on display. I’d seen her in a bathing suit countless times, but somehow, this was different. I stared for a minute and Matteo laughed.
“That’s why you’re going, Ant. You get to beat back all the single guys. Feel free to bring a club.”
“Sorry. That was embarrassing. Barbara, you look amazing.”
She blushed, kissed her husband and we left. It took us forty-five minutes to get there. I kept looking over at Barb and feeling guilty. It had been a long, long time since I had been with a woman and I clearly needed to change that ASAP.
It was certainly an upscale event and I was grateful I hadn’t worn one of my suits. I noticed the looks that Barbara garnered as we entered, and then again from the others at our table as we sat down. Jealousy, pride, and shame fought a pitched battle in my soul and there was no clear winner. We introduced ourselves to the people at our table, ordered our dinners, prayed it wouldn’t be the proverbial catering-house rubber chicken and headed to the dance floor.
After Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel” and two slow dances, I had to put some space between us before she felt my ardor. Again, I felt like jack-ass. We placed a few silent bids for auctions supporting pit bull rescues and she took my hand.
“Anthony, come talk to me.”
She led me to an empty table near the rear of the room. We sat down, and she looked around the room for a moment, seeming to marshal her thoughts. “You’re his best friend. He loves you like a brother. Have you ... does Matteo seem okay to you?”
What was I supposed to say? I felt like I would be breaking an unspoken trust if I said anything. I guess she saw my hesitation.
“I know how close the two of you are and you might not want to say anything you think he wouldn’t want me to know, but if he’s keeping something from me, I need to know. Anthony, a few weeks ago I found him asleep near the pool. He was so sunburned he had to see the doctor. He slept for more than eighteen hours that day. When your equipment was delivered he was talking to the delivery guys when he started slurring his words. He said he was just tired, but I could tell it was more than that. I’m scared to death.”
I didn’t know what to say. Stunned, I leaned back in my chair. “Barb, this is ... why would he hide something like this from us? When we first flew back here he looked really sweaty and pale. I was concerned and noticed his hands were shaking. A medicine bottle fell out of his pocket. He said he had the flu. A few days ago at dinner, his hand was shaking so bad he put it under the table so you wouldn’t see it. Supposedly it was nerve damage from when he broke his arm.”
“Did you see the label on the bottle? Do you know what the medicine was or who prescribed it?”
“Uhmmm, no. I think it was like Abirov? Abitov? Something like that. What should we do? Should we confront him?”
Barb was holding back tears as she answered. “Let me look into it a bit first.” She took my hand again. “Thank you, Anthony. Would you mind terribly if we skipped dinner?”
“Can we hit In and Out on the way home?” I was joking with her, but there was a naturalness when I said ‘home’ that scared me. It wasn’t my home. It was theirs. My home was in Colorado.
She stood, hugged me and we left. We walked through the door with bags of In and Out and Matteo was exactly where we left him, asleep on the couch. Did he go to his meeting? Barbara walked over to him and took his hand with her left. She stroked it with her right.
Blinking slowly, he looked at both of us and smiled. “Back so soon? Did you bring me some burgers and fries?”
A horrible sadness was settling in my stomach and I didn’t know why. It was a feeling of dread and I couldn’t trust myself to speak for a minute. “Sure did. I’m gonna change out of your tux. Don’t want to pay for the cleaners to get grease and ketchup out of it.”
Barb looked confused. “What? Anthony, that’s your tuxedo. Matteo bought it for you last week.”
Looking from Barb back to my cousin, I tried to push down all the questions that were springing to mind.
“Oh. Okay. I ... well, let me go get changed.” He knew for a week that I would need a tux for tonight. This wasn’t a last-minute meeting. If there was a meeting.
After changing, we enjoyed the food while sitting poolside. “So, Matty, what happened tonight?”
“They called about half an hour after you left. Cancelled the meeting.”
“That sucks. I hope you didn’t lose out on a deal.”
“Nah, it’s fine.”
Barbara collected some of the wrappers and the bag and headed into the kitchen. I could see her over Matteo’s shoulder as she grabbed his phone off the counter. She made a few swipes and looked out at me, shaking her head.
I continued. “So, they just called and cancelled out of the blue? That happens a lot?”
“Sometimes. I’m not really in what people would call a stable business.”
Life went on and Matteo seemed tired but otherwise fine. I finished his vases and started work on some designs to present to the Council Woman. I flew out on Friday night. It felt amazing to spend time with my kids, just the four of us. As nice as the social services woman was, her presence was like an anchor on my emotions.