Fiction

The Last Frontier

By: Alan Swyer

“What?” Eddie Faber asked, answering his cell after seeing his ex-wife’s name on caller ID.

“I need you back in LA,” Carolyn announced.

“I’m covering the Dodgers in Spring Training.  I can’t just leave.”

“Nicky’s in the hospital,” Carolyn said painfully.

Faber gulped.  “Is he sick?  Hurt?”

“They, umm –”

“Yeah?”

“Think he’s had a breakdown.”

“Whoa!” said Faber.  “14-year-olds don’t have breakdowns.”

“Ours did,” Carolyn replied unhappily.

Faber’s first call as he began the long, lonely drive back to Los Angeles was to the sports editor of his paper.  Avoiding details, he attributed his departure from Arizona to a family emergency.  Then, after phoning a couple of sportswriter friends, he reached out to a Dodger coach, plus one of the team’s assistant general managers.  With each, he asked to be kept in the know about personnel decisions, potential trades, and even scuttlebutt.

For the rest of the journey, it was his son, and only his son, who occupied his thoughts.  Fear was Faber’s foremost emotion, plus an inescapable sense of guilt.  How much, he couldn’t help but wonder, did his divorce contribute to whatever Nicky was going through?  And how much of Nicky’s problems owed to extended work-related stretches away from home?

The result was a car trip that felt more like six weeks than six hours.

Per a text from his ex-, a road-weary Faber trudged into the hospital coffee shop, where Carolyn looked frightened, yet somehow, to his bleary eyes, still stunning.  “Any update?” he asked. 

“Zero,” she replied.  “You okay?”

“Peachy.  Now you can tell one.  How is he?”

“Like a zombie.  He’s sedated.”

“Can I see him?”

“On one condition.  No interrogation.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because,” replied Carolyn, “asking questions is what you do for a living.”

Faber frowned.  “Anything else while we’re at it?”

“You can’t start getting impatient.”

“When,” asked Faber, “am I impatient?”

“Truthfully?  Any time you’re not sleeping.  You’ve got ants in your pants – what your friend Meltzer calls schpilkes.”

“I’ll try,” said Faber with a shrug.

“You’ve got to do more than try,” answered Carolyn.

“Hey, champ,” Faber said as, together with Carolyn, he stepped into the hospital room where his son smiled groggily.  Fighting to keep his fear, distress, and anxiety from showing, Faber approached and patted Nicky on the arm.  “Anything I can do?”

Looking more like an automaton than an ebullient teenager, Nicky shook his head.

Less than an hour later, Faber and Carolyn were led into a small hospital office, where a bearded man in a white jacket stood to greet them.  “Dr. Lenz,” he said, introducing himself to Faber.  “As I told your wife –”

“Ex-wife,” Carolyn corrected.

“I read your stuff regularly.”

“So tell me about Nicky.”

“As I’ve explained to your… umm… ex-, there’s clearly been a serious trauma.”

“What kind?” asked Faber.

“That’s the mystery.  Right now the key is what I call the Three P’s – psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals, and patience – in the hope that we can not merely control the situation, but actually –”

“Cure him?” Faber interrupted.

“As I’ve explained to –”

“Carolyn –” she interjected.

“With psychic or emotional wounds, cure is not the operational term.  It’s more a case of enabling him to resume a normal, healthy life.”

“Which can take –?” asked Faber.

“To be determined,” replied Lenz with a shrug.  “So tell me, how do the Dodgers look this year?”

“So?” asked Carolyn, as she and Faber started down the hallway.  “You staying?”

Faber took a deep breath.  “Yes.”

“For?”

“However long it takes.”

“For real?”

“When do I lie?”

“Really want an answer?” asked Carolyn.

Faber bit his tongue.

Day one of the vigil, which was interrupted by occasional visits with Nicky when he was not involved with physicians or the staff psychologist, was difficult for Faber, whose strength was neither forbearance nor serenity.

Day two was harder still, though Faber was determined not to give Carolyn an I told you so moment regarding his lack of patience.

Day three started even worse, with Carolyn arriving as though she hadn’t slept a wink, then giving her ex- the cold-shoulder.  Faber made an attempt to engage her first with empathy, then levity, before accepting the strained silence with a frown.  When, however, while sipping a bowl of soup in the coffee shop at lunchtime, Carolyn started to shake, Faber reached out for her.  “What is it?” he asked, only to have her swat his hand away, then storm out the street entrance.

Throwing down some money, Faber followed, then took hold of her arm.

“Leave me alone!” Carolyn demanded.

“Not until you tell me what’s wrong.”

“Everything.” Carolyn said sadly.  “Nothing I do is right.”

“C’mon –”

“My son, my marriage, my life –”

“We’ll get through this –”

We?” demanded Carolyn.  “When were we ever a we?”

“So it’s all my fault?”

“Not all.”

“Just most of it?”

Despite herself, Carolyn grinned.  “Well –”

“Okay, blame me.”

“I’m not blaming you –”

“Have you listened to yourself?”

Carolyn took a deep breath.  “I’m sorry,” she said softly.

“No apology necessary.”

“Think we can make it through this?” she asked fearfully.

“We have to,” Faber assured her.  “We will.”

That night, like the previous two, Faber wolfed down take-out Thai food in the still largely unfurnished Highland Park apartment he rented after the breakup.  Then, filled with withdrawal symptoms from a day away from the world of sports, he made phone calls and caught up on texts and emails before scanning a dozen websites.  Taking a deep breath, he proceeded to labor over an email to his sports editor, promising, despite the lack of certainty, that his leave of absence would be neither long nor indefinite.

Wearily, he finally crawled into bed, hoping that sleep would bring some respite to his worries.  Such proved not to be the case.

The following afternoon, Carolyn and Faber were summoned to Dr. Lenz’s office, where the physician looked up from some paperwork as they were being seated.  “It seems we finally have some understanding.” he announced.

“Of?” asked Carolyn.

“What precipitated the crisis.  Nicky, it seems, had an involvement with a teacher.”

“Define involvement,” Faber said testily.

“Sinply put, sex.”

Faber nearly exploded.  “Whoever the guy is, I’ll kill him!”

“That’s not helping,” interjected Carolyn.

“Thank you,” Dr. Lenz said to Carolyn.  “For the record, the teacher was not male.”

“Whoa!” said Faber, throwing up his hands.  “Can I get this in English?”

“We hear about male predators again and again,” stated Lenz, “and for good reason.  But more and more, we’ve come to realize that that the monsters – a term I don’t use lightly – are not only men.  Sociologically – psychologically – this is called  ‘The Last Frontier.'”

“So what happens to her?” Faber demanded.

“We’ll get to that,” explained Lenz.  “Your son, it seems, was able to handle the situation when it was exclusively sexual.”

“But?” asked Carolyn.

“When it started turning romantic, he grew increasingly uncomfortable.  Then –”

When Lenz paused, Carolyn leaned forward.  “Yeah?”

“The teacher started making plans.”

“What kind of plans?” demanded Faber.

“For the two of them to run away.”

“Holy shit!” exclaimed Carolyn.

“Exactly how your son seems to have responded.  On the one hand he was flattered –”

“And,” sighed Faber, “thinking with his dick.”

Dr. Lenz nodded.  “But he felt he had no one to talk to –”

“Including us?” asked Carolyn.

“Especially the two of you,” answered Lenz.  “At that age, awkwardness about love, sex, and communication, when combined with a developing body and a still largely undeveloped set of social skills, makes even commonplace situations difficult to discuss.  And this, as you can imagine, was far from commonplace.  As a departure date was discussed, he found himself flattered, yet scared out of his wits.”

“I bet,” said Carolyn softly.

“And when it neared,” said Lenz, “he flat-out panicked.”

While Carolyn sighed, Faber banged his fist down on Lenz’ desk.  “So what do we do about this woman?” he hissed.

“More importantly,” insisted Carolyn, “how do we help our son?”

“Speaking up, which Nicky did this morning, is the first and most important step,” Lenz explained, addressing Carolyn.  “So I’d say the healing has now begun.”

“Does he need to remain here?” Carolyn asked.

“He needs treatment, but it needn’t be here.  Though I would say a couple of more days would be appropriate, if you’re willing.”

When Carolyn nodded, Lenz turned to Faber.  “Regarding the teacher, the authorities will be notified, which means criminal charges will almost certainly follow.  That answer your question?”

Almost certainly?”

“I can guarantee it,” said Lenz.  “Any other questions?”

“I’m sure a bunch will come up,” replied Carolyn.

“You know where to find me,” said Lenz, who turned toward Faber.  “Mind if I ask you a question?”

“Fire away.”

“Any chance of getting Dodger tickets?”

Restraining himself, Faber got up and left without answering.

As Faber was stepping into an elevator, Carolyn caught up to him.  In silence, the two of them went down to the first floor.  There, Faber headed for the exit, with Carolyn close behind.

“Stop!” Carolyn yelled as she followed him out into the street.

“Why?” asked Faber.  “You want Dodger tickets, too.”

“I think we’re past I told you so’s,” said Carolyn.  “Are you okay?”

“About as okay as you are.”

“How could we not know?”

Faber shook his head guiltily.  “As caught up as I am with work, plus so much time on the road?”

Carolyn sighed.  “But what about me?”

“Tell me truthfully,” said Faber.  “When you were growing up, how much did your parents know about all that you were up to?”

Carolyn grimaced.  “They thought they did.”

“So did mine.”

“When in truth they knew –?

“Nothing. Nada.  Zip.  You can’t blame yourself.”

“Are you going to tell me,” asked Carolyn, “that you’re not blaming yourself?”

“Of course I’m blaming myself,” Faber acknowledged. 

To Carolyn’s dismay, Faber then started to chuckle.  “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“You’ll hate me if I tell you.”

“I hate you already?”

“Really?”

Carolyn bit her lip.  “Not always.”

“Do I get a reprieve on alternate Sundays?”

“As different as we are,” said Carolyn, “how and why did we ever get involved in the first place?”

“Because we were so different.  You were nicer, smarter, more full of life than anyone I’d ever dated.”

“Not cuter?” Carolyn teased.

“Much cuter.”

“So what were you chuckling about?”

“It’s terrible.”

“Tell me.”

Faber took a deep breath before speaking.  “It’s just that as crazy as what Nicky was going through – “

“Yeah?”

“He was getting a whole lot more than me.”

Carolyn took a moment, then shrugged.  “Than me, too.”

Both of them sighed, then again Carolyn spoke.  “So what now?”

“What I’d like to do, if he’ll let me, is do more of the things I should’ve been doing.  Playing catch.  Shooting baskets,  Going to ball games.  Hanging out.”

“Not hunting and fishing?” asked Carolyn.

“Where’d that come from?”

“Since you’re talking male bonding.”

“Can you picture me hunting or fishing?”

Carolyn shook her head.  “But what about your schedule?”

“What you’re saying is, as compulsive as I am –”

“I was trying to put it nicely,” explained Carolyn, who then pointed a finger at Faber.  “And please don’t say For once.”

“I’m still your biggest fan.”

“Except when we’re together.  But seriously, with your job –”

“Then maybe it’s time for a new job.”

“As what?”

“Something other than a beat writer.”

“But it’s what you love –”

“Not as much as I love our kid,” said Faber.

“Mean it?”

“More than anything I’ve ever said.”

“What about, after seeing Nicky in a little while,” said Carolyn, “the two of us grab dinner this evening?”

“So that we can argue for the thousandth time over where to eat?”

“We can go anywhere you want,” Carolyn assured him.

“Ethiopian?”

Carolyn shook her head.  “Except Ethiopian,” she said with a smile.

“I forgot.  Somebody doesn’t like onions.”

“Onions don’t like me.”

“You pick,” offered Faber.

“No, you pick.”

“Remember that little Moroccan place on Robertson?”

“Haven’t been there in ages.”

“Think we can get in?”

“After I got the waiter Laker tickets once-upon-a-time?  You bet.”

Carolyn smiled.  “We’re in this together?”

“Absolutely.”

“You know it may not be easy.”

“Nothing worthwhile is easy,” Faber replied.

Categories: Fiction

1 reply »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.