I’ve been watching more TV than usual in the Age of Quarantine. ESPN has been running old playoff basketball games, and since my sports-minded kid has no idea who won, they may as well be new. Between that and Hulu, which runs ads, I’ve been subjected to a lot of commercials.
It’s astonishing how quickly Madison Avenue has adapted to Shelter in Place. At first, the ads were companies expressing their corporate concern about us, their customers. Corporations are people, too, and have empathy! Walmart has the one with some of their employees singing “Lean On Me,” which is “manip,” as my wife puts it.
But now, the ads all incorporate the “new normal.” One begins with a somber voiceover: “In these uncertain times…” And it’s a bunch of people, especially kids, doing super creative stuff with their laptops, and it makes me feel like a useless idiot for spending my time watching TV.
Copywriters, please: I don’t want to see people using Zoom in a commercial. Like, ever. Show me packed beaches and eighty thousand fans screaming in sold-out arenas and exotic locales and jet travel and car chases and raves and Patrick Mahomes. We want to escape, ffs. Indulge us.
This week’s “Sunday Pages” features my friend Jessica Anya Blau. If I could pick but one adjective to describe both her and her work, it would be this: delightful. Her charm, wit, and humor shine through in all of her novels, but with a laid-back, Southern California sensibility that is uniquely her own. Her entire oeuvre is ideal quarantine reading.
The Trouble with Lexie is her most recent novel, and also her naughtiest—which, considering her debut is called The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, is no small feat.
Enjoy, and stay safe!
The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the Klonopin. And it wasn’t even that she had stolen them. At 30 generic pills for 10 dollars, the theft of a handful (2 down the gullet, the rest down her bra) had to be less than . . . 7 bucks? The problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin. And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.
“Miss James?” Jen Waite said. Her dyed hair was blonder than Lexie’s and her pale face looked prettier than Lexie remembered from their single meeting at Parents’ Weekend—brow furrowed now, head tilted with concern.
Lexie looked down at herself. Her fitted white dress was scrunched up to her hips and she wasn’t wearing underwear. A shadow of hair trailed from crotch to mid-thigh. Lexie tried to yank down the dress down but her brain-hand-body coordination was off and she couldn’t manage the required butt-lift.
“Miss James, do you know where you are?” Jen Waite said.
Lexie managed to sit up. Her eyes were wide open. She looked straight down at the tightly made bed (at 33, she had yet to figure out how to make a bed this perfectly, this hotel or military-like) and thought about the pill bottle. Yes, she remembered, she had put it back exactly where she had found it. Prescription label facing out, as it had been when she’d first spotted the drugs in the medicine cabinet.
“Miss James, are you okay?” Dear God, Daniel was in the room. And he was calling her Miss as if they hadn’t spent an entire week together in this very house only last month. As if they hadn’t spent two nights together every week for the past eight months. As if he had never whispered I love you into her ear, her neck, and the usually hairless and opalescent insides of her thighs.
No. Daniel was calling her Miss as if their only relationship were through Ethan, the beloved Waite son, who earlier in the year had been one of Lexie’s student patients at The Ruxton Academy. Ethan’s condition had been nothing serious, nothing even half-serious: college-application-related stress, an exceedingly ho-hum and common ailment at the elite boarding school.
“Ambien!” Lexie finally said. She had read stories of people taking the sleeping pill and then eating all the dairy out of their refrigerator or driving to their ex-wife’s house and trying on her underwear.
“You need an Ambien?” Daniel was staring at her with a hard, distant look. There was no glint of recognition, no slyness of shared secrets, mixed fluids, merged scents. “You’re missing a shoe.” He pointed at Lexie’s bare right foot. On her left foot was the strappy high-heeled sandal she had originally bought for her planned wedding. Of course, she had intended to wear both of the pair to the blessed event.
“I haven’t been sleeping lately and I took an Ambien tonight and I must have driven over here on it—WOW!” Lexie tried to act as stunned as one might be if this had actually happened. “WOW. Can you believe it?!” She got off the bed and pulled down her dress. She brushed her hand across the bedspread as if fleas or crumbs had fallen off her. “Wow.”
“Wow,” Jen said. “That’s crazy! Was the door unlocked?!” Jen looked at Daniel as if to accuse him of once again forgetting to lock the front door.
“I guess it was unlocked. I don’t even remember coming in!”
“Don’t you live on campus?” Jen was open-mouthed and wild-eyed. This would be a story for her next dinner party. Lexie hoped it would be the only story she’d tell involving her, Lexie. Until earlier in the night, Lexie hadn’t understood that she was that woman. The one who may have broken up a twenty-year marriage by ruthlessly being the easy one in a man’s life: never asking him to stop at the drugstore and pick up vitamin C, never demanding that he not chew his cereal so loudly, never insisting that he refrain from making sexist jokes in front of company. Always interested in sex.
“I do live on campus, but I have a friend who lives nearby on Scarborough Road so I’m familiar with the area-” Lexie pointed toward the window as if Scarborough Road were right there, although she wasn’t even sure if it was within thirty minutes of the Waite house. She had passed a street sign for Scarborough Road at some point during the drive over and only remembered because when she had read the sign, Simon and Garfunkel had started singing Scarborough Fair in some far away, echoey nook in her head.
“Oh, who do you know on Scarborough?” Jen smiled. She seemed happy to know they might have a mutual friend.
“What a lucky coincidence that of all the houses around here, yours was the one where I landed!” Lexie rolled right over the question. The muck in her brain couldn’t coalesce enough to come up with a name.
“I guess that is lucky,” Jen said.
“Well, I better get outta here.” Lexie looked back at the bed as if she had forgotten something.
“No! You have to stay tonight,” Jen said. “It’s not safe to drive with that stuff in your system and we have plenty of bedrooms.”
“Short half-life.” Lexie waved her hand. “I’ll be fine.” She knew she was far from reaching the half-life of anything.
“Oh please stay. I’ll blame myself if something happens to you on the road.” Jen extended a hand and placed it on Lexie ’s forearm. How odd to be touched by the wife of your lover. It was such a gentle touch, so natural. And yet, Lexie hated it—it stirred up a soupy guilt for acts that had, in the past, felt wonderfully liberating.
“She’ll be fine.” Daniel went to the bedroom door and stood there, stiffly, as if to escort Lexie out.
“I’m sorry,” Jen said. She shot her eyes toward Daniel to scold him for his rudeness.
“Oh, no, I’m sorry.” Lexie felt a sheen of shame growing on her flesh like a fish skin coat.
“Should we look for your shoe?” Jen glanced around the room.
“My shoe?” Lexie looked down at her leather sack-like purse that sat on the floor by the bed. The rubber edge of Jen’s vibrator peeked out the top of Lexie’s bag like a periscope. Lexie swooped down and hoisted the bag up on to her shoulder. She shook the bag a little, allowing the vibrator to burrow out of sight. “No, don’t bother. I’m pretty sure I left it at my apartment.” Lexie forced a smile and then shrugged her shoulders as if this were a comical, weekend mishap. Something that might happen in a sitcom or a romcom starring a sitcom star.
For a moment, Lexie, Jen and Daniel all stood motionless as if they were in a play and had each forgotten their blocking.
“Well, walk her to the car, at least Danny!” Jen said at last.
Danny? Lexie had never heard that one before. “Thank you Mr. Waite,” she said. The Mr. felt foreign now, like a tin coin in Lexie’s mouth, the edges beveled and sharp. Daniel once told Lexie that the moment he met her, he craved her body with the hunger of a starving man in a Turkish prison. Lexie had been meaning to look up Turkish prisons ever since, to see if they actually starved people in them. Her sense of Turkey was that it was a pretty cosmopolitan place as long as you stayed on the European side. But like so much else the past few months, looking up Turkey was something she’d never gotten around to.
Jessica Anya Blau was born in Boston and raised in Southern California. Her novels have been featured on The Today Show, CNN and NPR, and in Cosmo, Vanity Fair, Bust, Time Out, and other national publications. Jessica's short stories and essays have been published in numerous magazines, journals and anthologies. Jessica co-wrote the script for Love on the Run starring Frances Fisher and Steve Howey. She has taught writing at Johns Hopkins University, Goucher College and The Fashion Institute of Technology. Currently, Jessica divides her time between Baltimore and New York.