Calypso, p.1David Sedaris
Copyright © 2018 by David Sedaris
Cover design by Peter Mendelsund
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Acknowledgment is made to the following, in which the stories in this collection first appeared, some differently titled or in slightly different form: The New Yorker: “Company Man,” “Now We Are Five,” “Stepping Out,” “The Perfect Fit,” “Leviathan,” “A Modest Proposal,” “Untamed,” “Why Aren’t You Laughing?”; The Guardian: “Calypso,” “The One(s) Who Got Away”; The Paris Review: “A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately,” “The Spirit World”; Condé Nast Traveller (UK): “Your English Is So Good”; Esquire: “And While You're Up There, Check On My Prostate.”
Now We Are Five
A House Divided
The Perfect Fit
Your English Is So Good
A Modest Proposal
The Silent Treatment
The One(s) Who Got Away
A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately
Why Aren’t You Laughing?
I’m Still Standing
The Spirit World
And While You’re Up There, Check On My Prostate
The Comey Memo
About the Author
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For Joan Lacey
Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room. Some people get one by default when their kids leave home, and others, like me, eventually trade up and land a bigger house. “Follow me,” I now say. The room I lead our visitors to has not been hastily rearranged to accommodate them. It does not double as an office or weaving nook but exists for only one purpose. I have furnished it with a bed rather than a fold-out sofa, and against one wall, just like in a hotel, I’ve placed a luggage rack. The best feature, though, is its private bathroom.
“If you prefer a shower to a tub, I can put you upstairs in the second guest room,” I say. “There’s a luggage rack up there as well.” I hear these words coming from my puppet-lined mouth and shiver with middle-aged satisfaction. Yes, my hair is gray and thinning. Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I’ve zipped my trousers back up. But I have two guest rooms.
The consequence is that if you live in Europe, they attract guests—lots of them. People spend a fortune on their plane tickets from the United States. By the time they arrive they’re broke and tired and would probably sleep in our car if we offered it. In Normandy, where we used to have a country place, any visitors were put up in the attic, which doubled as Hugh’s studio and smelled of oil paint and decaying mice. It had a rustic cathedral ceiling but no heat, meaning it was usually either too cold or too hot. That house had only one bathroom, wedged between the kitchen and our bedroom. Guests were denied the privacy a person sometimes needs on the toilet, so twice a day I’d take Hugh to the front door and shout behind us, as if this were normal behavior, “We’re going out for exactly twenty minutes. Does anyone need anything from the side of the road?”
That was another problem with Normandy: there was nothing for our company to do except sit around. Our village had no businesses in it and the walk to the nearest village that did was not terribly pleasant. This is not to say that our visitors didn’t enjoy themselves—just that it took a certain kind of person, outdoorsy and self-motivating. In West Sussex, where we currently live, having company is a bit easier. Within a ten-mile radius of our house, there’s a quaint little town with a castle in it and an equally charming one with thirty-seven antique stores. There are chalk-speckled hills one can hike up, and bike trails. It’s a fifteen-minute drive to the beach and an easy walk to the nearest pub.
Guests usually take the train from London, and before we pick them up at the station I remind Hugh that, for the duration of their visit, he and I will be playing the role of a perfect couple. This means no bickering and no contradicting each other. If I am seated at the kitchen table and he is standing behind me, he is to place a hand on my shoulder, right on the spot where a parrot would perch if I were a pirate instead of the ideal boyfriend. When I tell a story he has heard so often he could lip-synch it, he is to pretend to be hearing it for the first time and to be appreciating it as much as or more than our guests are. I’m to do the same, and to feign delight when he serves something I hate, like fish with little bones in it. I really blew this a few years back when his friend Sue came for the night and he poached what might as well have been a hairbrush. Blew it to such an extent that after she left I considered having her killed. “She knows too much,” I said to Hugh. “The woman’s a liability now and we need to contain her.”
His friend Jane saw some ugliness as well, and though I like both her and Sue and have known them for going on twenty years, they fall under the category of “Hugh’s guests.” This means that though I play my role, it is not my responsibility to entertain them. Yes, I offer the occasional drink. I show up for meals but can otherwise come and go at my leisure, exiting, sometimes, as someone is in the middle of a sentence. My father has done this all his life. You’ll be talking to him and he’ll walk away—not angry but just sort of finished with you. I was probably six years old the first time I noticed this. You’d think I’d have found it hurtful, but instead I looked at his retreating back, thinking, We can get away with that? Really? Yippee!
Three of my sisters visited us in Sussex the Christmas of 2012, so Gretchen and Amy took a guest room each. Hugh and I gave Lisa the master bedroom and moved next door to the converted stable I use as my office. One of the things he noted during their stay was that, with the exception of Amy and me, no one in my family ever says goodnight. Rather, they just leave the room—sometimes halfway through dinner—and reappear the following morning. My sisters were considered my guests, but because there was a group of them and they could easily entertain one another, I was more or less free to go about my business. Not that I didn’t spend time with them. In various pairings we went on walks and bike rides, but otherwise they sat in the living room talking, or gathered in the kitchen to study Hugh at the stove. I’d join them for a while and then explain that I had some work to do. This meant going next door to the stable
One of the reasons I’d invited these three over—had gone so far as to buy their tickets—was that this felt like a last hurrah. Except for Paul, who has no passport but tells me with great certainty that, according to an electrician he met on a job site, it is possible to buy one at the airport, we are all in our fifties now. Healthwise, we’ve been fortunate, but it’s just a matter of time before our luck runs out and one of us gets cancer. Then we’ll be picked off like figures at a shooting gallery, easy targets given the lives we’ve led.
I’d counted the days until my sisters’ arrival, so why wasn’t I next door, sitting with Hugh in our perfect-couple sixteenth-century kitchen with its stone floor and crackling fire? Perhaps I worried that if I didn’t wander off, my family would get on my nerves, or—far more likely—I would get on theirs, and that our week together wouldn’t be as ideal as I’d told myself it would be. As it was, I’d retreat to my office and spend some time doing nothing of consequence. Then I’d head back into the house and hear something that made me wish I’d never left. It was like walking into a theater an hour after the picture has started, thinking, How did that kangaroo get his hands on those nunchakus?
One of the stories I entered late concerned some pills my sister Gretchen had started taking a year and a half earlier. She didn’t say what they were prescribed for, but they were causing her to walk and eat in her sleep. I saw this happen the previous Thanksgiving, which we spent together in a rental house in Hawaii. Dinner was served at seven o’clock, and around midnight, an hour or so after she’d gone to bed, Gretchen drifted out of her room. Hugh and I looked up from our books and watched her enter the kitchen. There, she took the turkey out of the refrigerator and started twisting off meat with her fingers. “Why don’t you get a plate?” I asked, and she looked at me, not scornfully but blankly, as if it had been the wind talking. Then she reached into the carcass and yanked out some stuffing. This was picked at selectively, one crouton mysteriously favored over another, until she decided she’d had enough, at which point she returned to her room, leaving the mess behind her.
“What was that about?” I asked her the next morning.
Gretchen’s face adjusted itself for bad news. “What was what about?”
I told her what had happened, and she said, “Goddamn it. I wondered why I woke up with brown stains on my pillow.”
According to the story I walked in on late, Thanksgiving had been a relatively good night for Gretchen. One morning a few weeks after the turkey episode, she walked into her kitchen in North Carolina and found on the countertop an open jam jar with crumbs in it. At first she thought they were from a cookie. Then she saw the overturned box and realized she had eaten something intended for her painted turtles. It was a nutrition bar, maybe four inches long and made of dead flies, pressed together the way Duraflame logs are. “Not only that,” she said, “but when I was through, I ate all the petals off my poinsettia.” She shook her head. “I noticed it on the counter next to the turtle-food box, and it was just a naked stalk.”
I returned to my office more convinced than ever that this would be our last Christmas together. I mean, flies! If you’re going to eat your pets’ food in your sleep, why not think preventatively and exchange your turtles for a hamster or a rabbit, something safe and vegetarian? Get rid of the houseplants while you’re at it—starting with the cactus—and lock up your cleaning supplies.
Later that evening, I found the sisters stretched out like cats in front of the woodstove. “It used to be that whenever I passed a mirror, I’d look at my face,” Gretchen said, blowing out a mouthful of cigarette smoke. “Now I just check to see if my nipples line up.”
Oh my God, I thought. When did that start happening? The last time we were all together for Christmas was 1994. We were at Gretchen’s house in Raleigh, and she started the day by feeding her bullfrog, who was around the same size as her iron and was named Pappy. He was kept in a murky, heated thirty-gallon aquarium on her living room floor, next to three Japanese newts who lived in a meatloaf pan. It was a far cry from a normal Christmas, but what with our mother recently dead, it seemed better to break with tradition and try something completely different: thus my sister’s place, with its feel of a swamp rather than the house we had grown up in, which now felt freighted with too much history. Gretchen’s waist-length hair has gone silver since that Christmas, and when she walks in her sleep, she limps a little. But then, we’re all getting older.
On our first day together in Sussex, we piled into the Volvo and rode to the town with the thirty-seven antique stores. Hugh drove, and I crawled into the way-back, thinking happily, Here we are again, me and my sisters in a station wagon, just like when we were young. Who would have imagined in 1966 that we’d one day be riding through southern England, none of us having realized the futures we’d predicted for ourselves? Amy was not the policewoman she’d so hoped to become. Lisa was not a nurse. No one had a houseful of servants or a trained proboscis monkey, yet we’d turned out OK, hadn’t we?
In one of the antique stores we visited that afternoon, we saw a barrister’s wig. It was foul, all the colors of dirty underpants, but that didn’t stop Amy, and then Gretchen, from trying it on.
“That’s OK,” Lisa said when it was handed to her. “I don’t want to get y’all’s germs on my head.”
Their germs, I thought.
The sun set at around four that afternoon, and it was dark by the time we headed home. I fell asleep in the way-back for a few minutes, and when I awoke, Lisa was discussing her uterus, specifically her fear that its lining may have grown too thick.
“What on earth gives you that idea?” Amy asked.
Lisa then mentioned a friend of hers, saying that if it could happen to Cynthia, it could just as easily happen to her. “Or to any of us,” she said.
“And what if it does?” Gretchen asked.
“Then we’ll have to get them scraped out,” Lisa reported.
I lifted my head over the backseat. “What’s a uterus lined with, anyway?” I imagined something sweet and viscous. “Like whatever it is that grapes are made of.”
“That would be grape,” Amy said. “Grapes are made of grape.”
“Actually, it’s a good question,” Lisa said. “What is a uterus lined with? Blood vessels? Nerves?”
“Your family,” Hugh said. “I can’t believe the things you talk about when you’re together.”
I later reminded him of the time his sister, Ann, visited us in Normandy. I walked into the living room after returning from a bike ride one afternoon and heard her saying to her mother, Joan, who was also staying with us, “Don’t you just love the feel of an iguana?”
Who are you people? I remember thinking. That same night, after my bath, I overheard her asking, “Well, can’t you make it with camel butter?”
“You can,” Mrs. Hamrick said, “but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I thought of asking for details—“Make what with camel butter?”—but decided I preferred the mystery. That often happens with company. I’ll forever wonder what a guest from Paris meant when I walked into the yard one evening and heard her saying, “Mini goats might be nice.” Or, odder still, when Hugh’s father, Sam, came to visit with an old friend he’d known from the State Department. The two had been discussing the time they’d spent in Cameroon in the late sixties, and I entered the kitchen to hear Mr. Hamrick say, “Now was that guy a Pygmy, or just a false Pygmy?”
I turned around and headed to my office, thinking, I’ll ask later. Then Hugh’s father died, as did his old friend from the State Department. I suppose I could Google “false Pygmy,” but it wouldn’t be the same. I had my chance to find out what one was, and I blew it.
One of Hugh’s greatest regrets is that his father never saw the house in Sussex. It’s the kind of place that was right up Sam’s alley: a ruin transformed in such a way that it still looks pre
I made up my mind eons ago that I would not let that happen, that I would also die at sixty-two. Then I hit my midfifties and started thinking that perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Now that I’ve scored a couple of decent guest rooms, it seems silly not to get a little more use out of them.
When visitors leave, I feel like an actor watching the audience file out of the theater, and it was no different with my sisters. The show over, Hugh and I returned to lesser versions of ourselves. We’re not a horrible couple, but we have our share of fights, the type that can start with a misplaced sock and suddenly be about everything. “I haven’t liked you since 2002,” he hissed during a recent argument over which airport security line was moving the fastest.
This didn’t hurt me so much as confuse me. “What happened in 2002?” I asked.
On the plane, he apologized, and a few weeks later, when I brought it up over dinner, he claimed to have no memory of it. That’s one of Hugh’s many outstanding qualities: he doesn’t hold on to things. Another is that he’s very good to old people, a group that in the not-too-distant future will include me. It’s just this damned middle-aged period I have to get through.
The secret, of course, is to stay busy. So when the company leaves, I clean their bathrooms and strip their beds. If the guests were mine—my sisters, for example—I’ll sit on the edge of the mattress and hold their sheets to my chest, hugging them a moment and breathing in their smell before standing back up and making my rickety way to that laundry room I always wanted.
Calypso by David Sedaris / Humor / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes