[A novel in progress by Janine Gleason. Artwork by Janine Gleason and Karen Drastal]
CHAPTER 3: Toil and Trouble
Gabby speed-dialed Brian’s number. He didn’t answer, so she called his office. The receptionist said he was in a meeting and put Gabby through to his voicemail.
“Brian what the hell! You have a lot of nerve! Call me!” She slammed her phone down on the bed and went to dry her hair in the bathroom.
Gabby sometimes derived pleasure from being angry, working herself into a heightened state of indignation and finding additional reasons to prolong it. She wasn’t sure whether to be concerned about it. I must get Lola’s thoughts at our next cake conference. At any rate, Brian would be getting an earful later. She mentally jotted down some talking points, rehearsing her side of the imagined conversation.
1. I’m already registered for classes.
2. My top priority is finishing my degree.
3. Our whole family has fair skin.
Gabby grabbed a towel to dry her rain-soaked hair and rasped absent-mindedly at her scalp.
4. You promised to start helping me with the laundry. I’m still waiting!
Brian had revealed his keen interest in the naturist movement a year ago when he began emailing articles to Gabby about its purported health benefits. She originally dismissed Brian’s fixation as a mid-life crisis, but she dutifully skimmed a few of the articles anyway. They described nudist resorts as wholesome places that celebrated nature, the family, and relaxing recreation.
One night recently when it was late and Gabby was sprawled on the sofa staring into space, Brian had plopped down next to her.
“Nature camping!” His voice oozed with enthusiasm. “It’s the perfect way to spend our three weeks of summer vacation this year! Shannon and Axel are interested, too!”
Gabby did not believe for a second Brian’s claim about Shannon and Axel. She had overheard Shannon telling her best friend Mo that she had no intention of going anywhere where she would have to look at her parents parading around naked.
That night on the sofa Gabby had told Brian that she was too exhausted to discuss their vacation plans. “And as I’ve said before, I’m not warming up to the idea of hanging out with strangers wearing nothing but sandals.”
“Well, I’m sorry you’ve lost your sense of adventure, Gabby,” Brian said.
“So tell me, what does one say when nature campers meet other nature campers?” Gabby mimicked a voice of false politeness. “Oh, it’s so nice to meet you. I see you found literally nothing to wear when you looked in your closet.”
Having dried her hair, Gabby needed to focus. It was time to go meet her new academic adviser, Dr. Jamal Tucker. She changed into dry clothes, a white cotton shirt and black pants. She wanted to convey the image of a mature student who was serious about learning. The long hiatus from her engineering studies would soon be coming to an end. If all went according to plan, she would have her master’s degree by the time of her next teeth-cleaning.
As a young girl growing up in the city, Gabby was upset to see the garbage barges in the East River head out to sea to dump loads of trash at the edge of the continental shelf. Her passion from a young age was to study the pollution caused by plastic in the oceans. She had read everything she could find about the gigantic fields of garbage—much of it tiny pieces of plastic—that swirled out at sea. Most recently, the work of the Dutch inventor Boyan Slat had inspired Gabby to return to school and finish her degree.
* * *
When Gabby arrived at Professor Jamal Tucker’s office, her first thought was he looks like he’s 17 years old.
They discussed her coursework in synthetic biology and the writing of a thesis to complete the degree requirement. Jamal—he insisted that she call him by his first name—was friendly and helpful. Gabby admitted to him her anxiety about returning to campus after several years’ absence. And she knew that combining the study of biology with engineering was going to be a hard slog.
“I won’t lie to you, Gabby,” Jamal said. “As a mature student, you’re going to encounter some unique challenges. Let me assure you, I will be here to help you every step of the way.” Gabby thanked him and thought his gaze into her eyes lingered for a second too long.
Jamal stressed the urgency of getting a jumpstart on her research. He said he had just the project for her. A former student of his had left the biological engineering program before completing his degree. Jamal told Gabby she could take over the project and complete the aquatic research for her thesis. The two of them would be taking the Callisto, a research boat, out on Jamaica Bay to collect water samples. He would show her how to operate the plankton tow net on the boat, but the bulk of her work would be analyzing the collected water samples in the lab to look for microscopic pieces of plastic.
After her meeting with Jamal, Gabby texted Lola as she went to pick up Axel after school.
GOING TO LEARN HOW TO PROGRAM BACTERIA TO EAT PLASTIC! MY ADVISER IS SOOO YOUNG!!
* * *
With Axel in tow, Gabby wanted to stop at the neighborhood diner for coffee and search online for clothing-optional nature camps. Now that she was signed up for summer classes, she wanted to get this whole business about summer vacation settled with Brian. She could claim the moral high ground if she presented a compromise solution that didn’t require postponing her classes until fall.
Axel insisted on walking in slow motion most of the way to the diner and Gabby was not happy. After she and Axel got settled in a booth and put in their orders, she quickly became engrossed by several websites that advertised clothing-optional camping. She ignored Axel—that is, up until the moment of impact. Exclaiming loudly “Five at once!” Axel had opened five packets of Sweet’N Low, tearing them down—instead of across—so that the sugar substitute exploded over the formica tabletop and Gabby’s keyboard.
Hearing his mom shriek, Axel slumped in the booth like a scolded puppy, keeping his head down and trying to be small. “You’re a pain in my butt crack,” he muttered. He was afraid to look up at his mom’s bulging bug eyes. He did not like looking at all the tiny red veins in the white parts.
“I heard what you said,” Gabby told him.
* * *
By the time they got home, Gabby felt fried. After dinner, she motioned for Brian, Shannon, and Axel to remain seated at the kitchen table. She took a deep breath, pushed her plate forward, and placed her folded hands on the table.
“There are some things we need to discuss. Axel, let’s start with your toothpaste messes in the bathroom. Every day that I have to clean toothpaste off the mirror and out of your hair is a day closer to my giving you a sponge for your birthday. And I’m not even kidding.”
Axel said nothing and fixated on his mom’s knuckles turning white as she gripped her hands.
“Secondly, about your language. I heard you tell Shannon that she smelled like a scrotum. Where are you learning these things?”
“It’s a real word, mom. It’s in a health book at school.”
“Axel, I am well aware that scrotum is a real word,” Gabby said.
“And you, young lady, are not innocent either,” Gabby said. “I’ve heard some coarse language come out of your mouth.”
“I never use bad words,” Shannon protested. “Maybe once I swore at some moron at school. But, that was forever ago.”
Gabby turned to Brian who was looking at his phone in his lap.
“Our children are using vulgar language much too casually,” she said. “Anything you’d like to add?”
Brian’s eyelids hovered at half-mast. He pursed his lips and said nothing.
“OK, then,” Gabby said, “let’s talk about nature camping this summer.”
“Yes, let’s,” Brian said.
“Axel, it’s homework time,” Gabby said. “Shannon, please stop chewing on your hair. And Robert needs to go out.” Robert, their maltese, was whimpering by the front door.
“Later,” Shannon said, pushing her chair away from the table. “I don’t feel like it right now.”
“Do you want to know how many things I don’t feel like doing every day?”
Shannon rolled her eyes at the air quotes her mother used when she said feel.
“No,” Shannon said.
“Shannon. Take Robert out.” Brian used his deep authoritative voice.
Shannon pretended not to hear her father and left with Robert.
With Axel and Shannon gone, Gabby pulled the offensive camping brochures from her bag and tossed them on the table in front of Brian.
“Did you listen to my voicemail today?”
“Sorry, no. I didn’t have time,” Brian said. “I was too busy showing around the new intern that our office hired.” He was still staring at his phone.
“Well, I don’t need to see these brochures ever again,” Gabby said as she started to clear the table. The silverware clanked against the plates as she stacked the dinner dishes by the sink.
“Never mind,” Brian said. “I’ll give them to Roxanne.”
“The new intern in our office,” Brian said. “She told me she loves the outdoors.”
Gabby saw that Brian’s face was flushed. I wonder if Roxanne loves the outdoors in the nude …
“Is Roxanne the reason you were unavailable when I tried calling you a second and third time?”
“No,” Brian said. “Roxanne had nothing to do with that.”
“I am going to summer school, Brian!” She spit out the words like hot tacks. “I am trying to be reasonable about your fascination with nude camping! Are you going to meet me halfway, or what!”
Brian looked up from his phone. “Where does all your anger come from, Gabby? As usual, you get all indignant and go right to combat mode. Straight to eleven.”
“Well, at least I don’t drop f-bombs like you do in front of the kids. No wonder they use bad language. Why are you against my plan for summer school?”
“Why is summer school so frigging important right now?”
“For the same reason it was important to you when you got your degree in architecture.”
Brian stared at the brochures strewn on the kitchen table. He took off his glasses. Taking a deep breath, he rubbed his eyes.
“Gabby, I have a confession to make. I did something very stupid.”
Oh, here we go! Drum roll please for Roxanne.
“It pains me to say this,” Brian said. “I’ve been living a lie.”
Gabby imagined a swarm of invisible particles colliding in the air around her head, making Brian’s voice sound far away.
“Go on,” she said.
“I never finished my Master’s. For the past seven years I’ve been putting the architecture degree on my resumé.” Brian was staring hard at the table.
Gabby couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Brian continued. “This afternoon, the head of the firm called me into his office. I thought I was getting assigned a big project. Instead, I’m probably going to get fired. A prospective client did a background check on us and discovered my made-up credential. I’m in big trouble.”
* * *
That night, Gabby stayed up late, staring at the syllabus outlines for her courses. She thought about Brian’s indifference about summer school. It all made sense now. Brian couldn’t bear the thought that she would have a degree and he didn’t. His co-workers would soon find out about his lie—if they didn’t already know. It was going to be a scandal.
Stretched out on the sofa, she drifted into a twilight state of mind, her thoughts flitting like fireflies. She wondered how life could get so complicated without even trying. Listening to Brian reveal his long-hidden secret was a shock, but in a way seemed like progress. The fresh air of truth felt cleansing. On the other hand, if he got fired she would have to postpone school to look for a paying job. Gabby wondered if she could even trust Brian anymore.
After all this time, maybe I don’t really know him.
When Gabby went into the bedroom, Brian was talking in his sleep. It sounded like gibberish. Then she heard him clearly say “Roxanne.” It was definitely Roxanne. Her first impulse was to wake him up and demand an explanation. This was the last straw! She saw his cell phone in its usual place on the bedside table. Quietly picking up the phone, she held it near his hand. She knew he could access his phone by using his thumbprint—she had seen him do it many times—and his right arm was conveniently draped over the side of the bed.
Gabby could see that Brian was deep into REM sleep, his eyeballs darting beneath closed lids. She gently pressed his thumb to the phone screen. Eureka. His phone unlocked, his digital private life now ready for viewing. She silently stepped away from the bed and into the hallway, closing the door behind her. She tapped on the Contacts icon and typed Roxanne in the search bar. Roxanne’s contact details filled the screen as if to goad her. Gabby checked the log of calls made to the number. It was quite lengthy.
Gabby grabbed a scrap of paper from her desk and jotted down Roxanne’s information, leaving no evidence of her digital intrusion. She shut off the phone and carefully replaced it in the same spot next to her snoring husband.
Gabby’s head was spinning. Brian might lose his job. And now there was Roxanne to worry about. And what about her young adviser? Was Jamal going to be a problem? He had touched her arm. Twice. Was she imagining over-familiarity when there was none? She knew it would be prudent to tread thoughtfully and carefully—even though she wanted to overreact with every fiber of her being.
To be continued …