[TOKYO. Sunday; local time: 8:13 AM. LOS ANGELES. Monday; local time: 4:13 PM]
In early March, Jessie Andersen made the first phone call to her father, Stephen. He and his late wife Gwendolyn had raised four daughters, who were known as the Andersen sisters. The Andersen sisters followed simple rules, agreed upon and codified following the death of their mother. Please carefully re-read those first three sentences. It will make things easier for you.
Andersen Sisters Rule #3: all the Andersen sisters were to inform their 75-year old father of any possible bad news as soon as possible.
Jessie was nicknamed “The Shark” by her sisters because she appeared to be in constant motion. She was president of a theological seminary in Berkeley, the kind of work that tends to keep any holder of this or similar offices constantly in motion. When any of her sisters used the nickname in her presence, Jessie pursed her lips in a manner that all the Andersen sisters learned from their mother.
“Well, dad, the conference has been very good so far,” she told him. Jessie was in Tokyo attending International Conference on Christian Philosophy and Theology. “I never thought being a Unitarian would be such a big deal in Japan, especially at a so-called Christian conference. They just wanted to talk to me about Greta Gerwig and St. Vincent. Have you heard of them, dad?”
“Of course, I have, girl,” he said. “I read The New York Times every morning. Do you know them?”
“No, I haven’t met either of them,” Jessie explained,” but I guess people assume we Unitarians all know each other.”
“Excellent news, my girl,” he said. “Any news from Mason?”
“Nothing new since we last talked,” she answered. Mason was her husband, a professor of anthropology at Stanford. Currently, he was engaged in a research project at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. He was due to return to California in late April; in summer, he would begin his appointment to an endowed chair across the bay at Berkeley. Years earlier, when she was serving in ministry with a congregation in Palo Alto, she and Mason had bought a home in Menlo Park, which Stephen had helped finance. With Mason’s move to Berkeley, the family was finally ready to move into the seminary president’s manse.
“Dad,” she said from her hotel room in Tokyo, “you might have heard news about a new virus in the Far East. They’re calling it the ‘coronavirus.’”
“Yes, girl, I saw something about it in the newspaper,” her father replied. “Did I mention that I read The New York Times over breakfast every morning?” He referred to all his daughters as “girl.”
“I have been infected with the virus,” she explained calmly. She did not want to betray the panic that was surging through her body. “I am going to the hospital. I don’t know which one. I don’t want you to worry. I have been assured that the doctors here in Tokyo are very good. I will find a way to tell my sisters.”
Andersen Sisters Rule #4: cloak any potentially bad news conveyed to their father in euphemisms or using soft, deflective language, and always assure him that everything would be fine.
“I love you and will be praying that you come home in one piece,” Stephen said. A widower for five years since his wife had died in a multi-car pile-up on Interstate 10 near Pomona, he lived in Los Angeles by himself, in the only home his daughters had ever known. He doted on his four children and seven grandchildren, but he did not meddle or foist unsolicited advice on them.
“Roger that,” Jessie replied, using the term all the sisters used with their father, an Air Force veteran who had served as a mechanic at Bien Hoa during the Vietnam War. She allowed herself a smile. Her father was an atheist who had never prayed in his life.
Goddammit, Mason! Jessie was thinking. Why did you have to go to the fucking South Pole? I could really use a responsible husband right about now.
[TOKYO. Sunday; local time: 9:42 PM. EVANSTON. Monday; local time: 7:42 AM]
Jessie planned the call to her son Mason, Jr. between his morning run and breakfast, and his Monday morning class, “History of ColonizationTheology of Fleabag.” Mason was a freshman at Northwestern, north of Chicago.
“Mace, are they talking about the coronavirus at school?” she asked after reaching him on Facetime.
“Mom, it’s just about the only thing people are talking about,” he answered. “It’s getting annoying.”
“Annoying? Hmmm. Mace, I tested positive,” she announced. “I am at a hospital in Tokyo.”
“What? Tokyo?” he asked. Mason, Jr. was a smart kid, but he had the long-distance runner’s narrow range of focus. He mostly thought about the study of history and girls. He was planning to get a tattoo of Emilia Clarke on his bicep. She would be paired with a James Joyce quote: “History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” He thought it was funny. He had a West Coast appreciation of history. What was considered old was built circa 1937. On his first trip to Europe with a high school class, he was exposed to buildings circa the 12th century.
He would tell his mother about the tattoo when he got home in the summer. Mason, Jr. was training intensively for the Big 10 outdoor track and field championship in May, where he was hoping to place in the 10,000 meters.
“Did you get my itinerary for the Japan trip? I emailed it to you weeks ago.”
“Of course not,” she said. “Listen, Mace. I am in Japan for a conference. You do remember that your father is at the South Pole, don’t you?”
“Don’t make fun of me,” he answered. “Let me get this straight. You are in a hospital in Tokyo, Japan, with the coronavirus.”
“Of course you are,” he said. “If there is a cutting-edge news story anywhere in the world, either you or dad are at the tip of the spear.”
“I did not go out of my way to get infected, if that’s what you mean,” Jessie said, with more than a soupcon of tension in her voice. “Mace, listen to me. Your life is about to pivot in a way you could not have imagined. Prepare yourself.”
As far as he was concerned, Mason, Jr. was “out of the house for good,” and not focused on his parents’ housing situation. He had vaguely agreed to his mother’s request that he return to California for the summer to help with the move.
“Would you do me a favor, Mace? Would you tell your sister? And email your father? I will contact my sisters. Your grandfather Andersen knows.”
Pivot? Prepare? What?!?!
[CHICAGO. Monday; local time: 4:32 PM. PASADENA. Monday; local time: 2:32 PM]
Mason, Jr. waited until 14-year old his sister Margaret was out of school to Facetime her and express his dismay about “this coronavirus thing that everyone’s freaking out about.” During the transition to the “other side of the bay,” she was spending the semester staying with her aunt Beth and 12-year old cousin Shannon in Pasadena.
“They’re saying it’s not such a big deal,” Margaret said. “President Trump just said that not very many people in this country have caught it.”
Mason, Jr. hated that his sister listened to anything coming out of the mouth of the man he called “President Voldemort.” His aunt Beth was a professional conspiracy theorist, in his opinion, and he was concerned that his aunt’s delusions were starting to infect his sister. Mostly, in his opinion, Margaret was obsessed with Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, and Christina Aguilera, whose popularity as singers rose, crested, and washed away before she was born. However, he respected his sister’s drive and ambition.
Margaret Sanger Andersen-Larsen had her life planned out in five-year segments. By age 20, she would be a junior at Harvard and have a boyfriend. By age 25, she would be editor of the Harvard Law Review and have a boyfriend. By age 30, she would be junior partner at Andreessen Horowitz, married, and have her eggs frozen. By age 35, she would be general counsel at Google. By age 40, she would be a mother of two children born by surrogates. She had not shared the rest of her plan with anyone, but Mason, Jr. assumed it was straight line filled with happiness, meaning, wealth, power, and a handsome man like Jake Gyllenhaal by her side.
“Wait until you have science in high-school,” he said. “Then you’ll learn something about diseases and how they are spread. Look, the mayor of Chicago is talking about closing schools. Northwestern might shut down. And then I’ll be fucked.”
“Mom says you’re not supposed to use words like ‘fuck’ in front of me,” Margaret giggled. “And besides, why don’t you call mom? She’s in Japan and maybe is feeling lonely.”
“Oh, right, I forgot to tell you,” he said. “Mom did call me earlier today. She said something about being in a hospital and infected with the coronavirus. I hope they don’t close down travel from there. But if we close down, I can’t go back to Berkeley. I don’t know where I am supposed to go.”
“You are so conceited!” Margaret said. “Like this only affects you.”
“You punk, at least you’re lucky enough to have a safe place to hang.”
“As Aunt Stephanie says, ‘sometimes you get lucky, but you have to make your own luck,’” Margaret stated matter-of-factly.
“Aunt Stephanie’s the funny Andersen sister, but neither of us should be taking advice from her. She can be cray-cray sometimes.”
“We can never repeat these comments to our mothers,” Mason, Jr. said, concluding their conversation.
Andersen Sisters Rule #8: Use each other’s children as intelligence officers in the Andersen Sisters web of family information, either willingly or unwittingly.
The children who had reached double-digit age were painfully aware of this rule.
[MADRID. Monday; local time: 4:00 PM. LONDON. Monday; local time: 3:00 PM]
Stephanie Andersen Facetime’d the father of her 5-year old daughter Emily using Facetime. Stephanie worked as an obscure administrator at the Tate Modern in London and was working to secure an exchange of paintings with the Prado in Madrid. She was not married to Emily’s father Paul, but she hoped that he would change his mind on that subject. Paul was born in Cologne and moved to London to work as a trader with Deutsche Bank in the City.
After graduating from NYU, she had come to England to study the work of Francis Bacon at the Royal College of Art, met the first of three men who would propose marriage to her, and decided to stay. “My life,” she explained to everyone who met her, “is based on a foundation of hope.” Life had not always cooperated. The Englishman who had proposed to her had taken her to Wales for holiday and beaten her to a pulp after an argument in a pub, resulting in a three-day hospitalization. When she was released from the hospital, he broke off the engagement. She accidentally learned from the Italian’s phone that he had another wife – and three children – in Milan. When confronted, the Italian broke off the engagement. She broke the heart of the Frenchman when she refused to enter the church in Paris where the groom, the priest, and their assembled families were waiting. “He isn’t Mr. Right,” she explained to her parents and sisters. “Don’t worry, Mr. Right will come along.”
“Paul,” she announced, “I’m fine.”
“I’m hearing more and more people start conversations that way,” he replied. Stephanie liked his fluent English spoken with German accent. “Glad to hear it. Ich bin Gesund.”
“I’m glad to hear that you are well. Thing is, love, that one of the people I’ve been negotiating with has just tested positive,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means, well, that I will have to self-quarantine for 14 days,” she answered. “They’ll put me up in a hotel room by myself and I’ll get room service meals for two weeks. Binge-watching movies and raiding the mini-bar. I will have to figure out a workout schedule I can do in this room. Yoga should work. They won’t let me use the hotel’s gym. Maybe I can squeeze in Pilates. Ten hours of yoga and Pilates each day doesn’t seem too extreme, does it?”
“Komisch,” he answered. “So, what you mean is that I have Emily for another two weeks?”
“Looks that way.”
“I understand,” Paul said. “Don’t you worry about us. We’ll be fine. Pass auf dich auf.”
“Thanks. You take care of yourself, too, Paul.”
Stephanie thought that Paul was Mr. Right. She told her friends that he was a “stand-up guy.” Very formal and proper. Responsible. Her friends told her that he was a stand-up guy in all matters except her. They pointed out that Stephanie and Paul were no longer living together or even dating. They pointed out that Paul had a girlfriend whose mother lived in Cologne. They pointed out that Stephanie was active on Tinder. Stephanie pointed out that all these arrangements were temporary, until Paul came to his senses.
Andersen Sisters Rule #1: Hoes Before Bros. Translation: no husband, boyfriend, or baby daddy would ever come between the sisters. See Andersen Sisters Rule #2 for clarification. Also, note that Stephanie has violated this rule at least five times, always to her detriment. See Andersen Sisters Rule #10 for clarification.
[MONTCLAIR. Monday; local time: 3:00 PM. NEW YORK. Monday; local time: 3:00 PM]
Danielle Andersen Berenson called her husband Jonathan at his Goldman Sachs office in lower Manhattan from their home in Montclair, New Jersey. They had a standing phone call at 3:00 every afternoon for her to report on her condition. She was due to give birth to her fourth child in the next two weeks.
“Dani, how are you feeling?” her husband asked.
Jonathan worked in structured finance. At parties, he requested that people not ask him to explain what he did for a living, fearing that he would never be invited to return. “Let me just say that it’s lucrative and legal,” he would tell people. He had a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Cal Tech. In meetings with counterparties, he was introduced as “Dr. Berenson, who is literally a rocket scientist.” He hated when people did that. He met Dani when she was handling his parents’ divorce. Dani was representing his mother. The “unprecedented settlement of its kind” warranted mention on Page Six of the New York Post.
“Other than anxious to get back to work, just as well as yesterday,” Dani answered her husband. She was not lying to him, not directly. In her mind, she was sharing a perspective and a feeling, not stating material facts.
“You were anxious to get back to work yesterday, too,” he reminded her. He suspected that his wife was lying to him about work, but he loved her and knew better than to get in her way.
Jonathan’s colleagues who knew Dani reminded him that he had better love her because the day he stopped loving her, she would take all of his money. The name Dani Berenson was famous in Manhattan social circles as one of the best divorce attorneys in New York. The words “dogged” and “obsessed” most frequently described her, and she had earned the nickname “The Gila Monster” for her determination. She was the youngest of the Andersen sisters, but she was every bit as formidable as Jessie.
Dani had wanted to leave California after watching re-runs of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She imagined herself as Mary, tossing her hat into the air after arriving in the city off the farm or wherever she had been raised. She wanted that feeling of being on her own and making it.
“Besides, the weather in southern California is so utterly, relentlessly nice,” she explained to people, “and I always felt that I was three hours behind what was really happening in the world.” She chose college in Philadelphia because she liked the “Rocky” movies. At Columbia Law School, she decided to pursue divorce law after watching “Kramer v. Kramer.” Her father had remarked that Dani was the “perfect child of Hollywood.”
“I’m worried about Jessie,” Dani said. “I haven’t heard from her. Damned time difference. She’s in Japan in the middle of all this, and when she gets back, she has nowhere to live.”
Andersen Sisters Rule #5: They would not text or email each other important news, family drama, or other information that weighed heavily on their minds, or in times of national emergencies. They needed to hear each other’s voice or see each other’s faces on Zoom or Facetime.
“I feel you, babe, but if there’s one person on this planet who knows how to navigate through systems and power structures to get what she wants, it’s your sister Jessica,” he said. “She will figure something out.”
“You’re right, my love,” she said. “What do you want for dinner?”
“Tamales,” he said. “The kids have been begging me to ask you for tamales. Yours are better than any restaurant. You should quit law and open a restaurant. Then get your own Food Network show. ‘Garden State Gourmet’ or ‘The Saucy Saucier.’ You’d make a killing.”
Dani genuinely enjoyed her husband’s attention. She did not have many friends. “Actually,” Jonathan once said, “you have hundreds of acquaintances and clients, three children, but no real friends except me.”
The remark stung, but in her rare moments of introspection, she had to admit that he was correct. But, she rationalized, with three children, a husband, and a list of people waiting for her attention at the lowest point in their lives, he did not have the emotional capacity for real friends. In her mind, they were right out of “When Harry Met Sally.”
[LOS ANGELES. Monday; local time: 6:00 PM. PASADENA. Monday; local time: 6:00 PM]
Beth Andersen Farrell called her daughter Shannon from her office in Los Angeles. Normally, Shannon would only respond to text messages, but she made an exception for her mother. She would never admit it to her cousins, but she loved her mother.
Beth, who was divorced from an Irish actor who had removed himself from southern California and decamped to New York, was in the process of changing her legal name back to Andersen. “When you are 18,” she told her daughter, “you can make your own decision about whether you want to carry that scum-sucker’s name.” Shannon, who shared her mother’s opinion about her philandering father, could not wait until she turned 18.
Beth had stayed close to home and her parents, graduating from UCLA and sliding into television production. She had carved out a reputation for plot development, sensing and visualizing plausible relationships between people and events that most other people could not detect. It was no small irony that she had totally missed all the signs of her ex-husband’s infidelity. Over and over again. “Never believe in love,” she concluded. “Believe in the fantasy of love.” Her role model became the character of Clare Underwood in the show “House of Cards.” Currently, she worked for Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine.
“Shannon, honey, I won’t be home for dinner,” she said. “I’ve got spinning class, and then I promised you know who that I would stop by her house to discuss you know what. And they’ll probably feed me. You and your cousin Margaret can heat up that lasagna I made last night. It’s a new recipe from Samin Nasrat. You can eat that with a salad for dinner. There are also those cookies I baked for dessert.”
Andersen Sisters Rule #2: Kids Before Sibs. Translation: no one would ever come between a sister and her children, not even another sister. In some cases, this rule also applies to nephews and nieces.
“Can we invite Jack over for dinner?” Shannon asked. Jack was the cute 16-year old neighbor who lived across the street. Beth was relieved when her niece Margaret moved in, because it meant that there was always going to be a third person in the house when she wasn’t home. Margaret was the insurance policy that Jack and Shannon would not do anything they would later regret. For all her hyper-awareness about people and their secretive plotting, she did not sense that Jack was gay. Maybe because Jack was not aware of it either. Shannon knew. So did Margaret.
Andersen Sisters Rule #11: use your children’s friends as sources of information of your children, either willingly or unwittingly. Jack was a reliable source.
“Yes, you can have Jack for dinner, but don’t let him eat all the cookies,” Beth answered. “Also, he has to leave after dinner so you both can get your homework done.”
“Yes, Beth,” Shannon said. Beth was the parent who allowed her daughter to call her by her first name, a habit Margaret has not acquired under strict orders from her mother. Shannon worshipped her older cousin. She did not want her to move back to northern California. She wanted to keep Margaret. Her only distraction was tennis. She was ranked #2 in her age group in the state. Being ranked 28 in California in the 14 and under age bracket could give a 12-year old girl realistic dreams of becoming the next Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova, depending on, as her mother put it, “factors such as how you emerge from puberty, the right kind of training, luck, your focus, and how these factors impact the other girls.” Shannon, for all the adulation she bestowed on her mother, had no idea what Beth was talking about.
“Has Margaret heard from her mother?”
“No, but Mace called, and Margaret said he didn’t sound too happy.”
“I wouldn’t be happy if I were him, either,” Beth said. “I have heard that the mayors of Chicago and Milwaukee are planning a joint strategy to confront this so-called coronavirus. It involves some kind of pincer movement around Evanston. Mace is located right in the path. Don’t tell Margaret I said that!”
[TOKYO. Tuesday; local time: 4:14 PM. MADRID. Tuesday; local time: 9:14 AM]
Jessie had waited to call Stephanie until she felt assured that her sister would be awake. She normally called Stephanie first among her sisters. Stephanie would not drive her crazy. Stephanie was fun and empathetic. Beth always drove her crazy with her conspiracy theories. Jessie and Dani competed for most competent sister, which was not always healthy.
Andersen Sisters Rule #6: Respect time zone differences, except in case of emergency related to their father, another sister, or a child.
“Are you stuck?” Jessie asked.
“Yes, I was exposed to the virus, but I’m testing negative. I am a prisoner in my hotel room for the next 12 days and 15 hours,” Stephanie replied. “How are you?”
“Infected,” Jessie said. “I don’t feel right, but at least I’m in a hospital. The translators have been a godsend.”
“Who have you talked to?”
“Dad. Mason. I am working my way across time zones. Dani, then Beth,” Jessie replied. “By the way, this conference was a bonanza. So much money. So, so much money. They had me going like the Energizer Bunny. If I survive, totally worth it. If not, tell Mason that I loved him even though he did not deserve it. Have you heard from anyone?”
That remark about Mason Larsen brought back a vivid memory for Stephanie, to a time when a crack appeared in the façade of the Jessie-Mason marriage, which appeared to the world as rock-solid. It was Christmas, the year before their mother died. Everyone was gathered in Los Angeles at the Andersen home, even the Berenson’s. Dani had converted to Judaism and agreed to raise their children in the Jewish faith on the condition that they celebrate Christmas. “The atheist’s Christmas,” Jonathan called their holiday. There was a Christmas tree, presents, the kids played the dreidel game, and they sang Pete Seeger songs while Stephanie played the guitar and Beth played the piano.
A fight between Mason and Jessie erupted in the second-floor room that had been Jessie’s growing up, and in which they were sleeping on this trip. Her parents had removed all her childhood memories from the room and settled on a Scandinavian motif. Everyone but Stephanie was outside in the back yard. She had just emerged from the downstairs bathroom when she heard Jessie screaming, “Does her pussy feel that much better than my pussy? Pussy is goddamn pussy, Mason!” Stephanie had never heard Jessie use the word “pussy” before, and not since. Stephanie had placed that memory in a Tiffany blue box, tied a red ribbon around it, and put it in the back of the closet of her memory. No one would ever hear that story, unless Jessie and Mason ever divorced.
“Just Paul,” Stephanie answered when she returned from her reverie. “But it’s early in the day. I will try to call them today. By the way, we got the El Greco we wanted. Had to give them two Picasso’s. They’re such toads. They kept talking about us ‘returning’ them to Spain, as if we had absconded with them.”
“Well, the Brits have a reputation…”
“I’ll ignore that since I’m honorary British.”
“Have you been meeting anyone?” Jessie asked. All of Stephanie’s sisters asked her this question. They believed that she was obsessed with men.
“No, no one serious. Not like Paul,” Stephanie spat out. “I don’t obsess about men the way you think I do.”
“If you were stuck by yourself in a hotel room for two weeks, your mind might get distracted.”
“Don’t you ever get distracted,” Stephanie asked.
“Distracted by grant proposals,” Jessie answered, using the code words denoting the end of the conversation.
[TOKYO. Wednesday; local time: 6:22 AM. MONTCLAIR. Thursday; local time: 7:22 PM]
Jessie called Dani when she felt sure that the Berenson’s dinner was over and that her 12-year old nephew Drew was doing his homework and 9-year old Stacy and 7-year old Sarah were planted in front of the Disney Channel. Normally, she would have worried about interrupting Dani and Jonathan in the middle of sex. They had sex scheduled for early evenings on Tuesday and Thursday while their kids spaced out in front of their screens, but Dani had told Jessie that they stopped having sex three weeks earlier.
Andersen Sisters Rule #12: Do not call Dani at 3:00 PM Eastern time while she is in her last trimester of pregnancy, unless their dad was dying.
“I have been worried about you,” she explained to Dani.
“Good, because that’s all I need to focus on right now, my delivery date,” Dani replied.
“The tone in your sarcasm is reassuring,” Jessie said. “I hope I’m not bothering you. I know that your days and evenings are busy with your power phone calls.”
“Nope. My only phone calls are with my afternoon check-in with Jonathan, then there’s the kids’ schools, moms from the kids’ schools, my partners, and about five clients who want me to go in and have labor induced so I can take on their cases.”
“I presume you are undercounting,” Jessie quipped. “There’s your mother-in-law, Jonathan’s sisters, the editor of whatever the Montclair newspaper is called, your contacts at the Times and the Post, the chair of the county Democratic Party, the chair of the state Democratic Party, and, oh, do I need to go on?
“Thank you for your judgment of my life, Jessie. Just remember which sister bears the nickname ‘Shark.’ Not me,” Dani replied. “Don’t you remember the last two weeks before you gave birth? How much you focused on nesting? I am not nesting. I have already nested. I need to get back to work.”
Andersen Sisters Rule #9: You will be judged by your sisters. Deal with it. Corollary: No one other than an Andersen sister is allowed to sit in judgment of a sister.
“Sound to me like you are already back at work,” Jessie said.
“I’ve had three little darlings already,” Dani said. “I know the drill. I breast fed during depositions and changed diapers in the bailiff’s anteroom.”
“And what about that time you met with a client three hours after giving birth to Stacy?”
“That client paid for our house. Stacy was fine.”
“You remember how mom yelled at you about that at Thanksgiving?”
“I have managed to compartmentalize everything about mom,” Dani said. “Jonathan tells me that I have ‘mommy issues,’ whatever that means. So, what are you going to do when you get back from Japan?”
“I have to tell you something,” Jessie said flatly.
The words that Jessie had chosen, mixed with her tone, sent a chill down Dani’s spine. Everything, all the truths and fears she harbored for her older sister, flashed in front of her.
“Are you infected by the coronavirus and lying in a hospital bed in Tokyo?” she asked.
“Yes,” Jessie replied. “I’m sincerely sorry.”
“Goddammit! Why do we women always have to apologize for things that aren’t our fault? Rain? Tornados? Earthquakes? We feel that it’s all our fault,” said Dani. “I’m sorry that I ranted at you. What can Jonathan and I do for you?”
“I don’t know yet. I am worried about Mason. I’m stuck here. His father is stuck at the South Pole. He is about to be kicked off campus. I don’t know where he can go to be safe.”
“Well,” Dani said. “We have some time. The virus really hasn’t hit these shores yet.”
“But you know it will.”
“I fear it will. Jonathan’s partners at Goldman out of their mind, running all kinds of models. It could get bad here. Very, very bad. I’m worried about us, about Beth, about Stephanie. The time difference is crazy. I will call Beth.”
“Stay safe, sis.”
[MONTCLAIR. Thursday; local time: 8:05 PM. LOS ANGELES. Thursday; local time: 5:05 PM]
Dani looked at her phone. It’s never a good time to call Beth. She called Beth.
“Whoa, a phone call during your sexytime!” Beth said when she answered. “Wait, is dad dying?”
“You’re not as funny as Stephanie, sis,” Beth said. “I just got a call from Jessie. She is in a hospital in Tokyo. She’s tested positive for the coronavirus. I didn’t know what to do or say.”
“That’s a first, counselor,” Beth said. Dani was supposed to be the calm and collected one. Everyone always worries about me falling apart.
“Dad knows,” Dani said. “This is not a time to panic.”
“Says the movie character right before panicking…”
“Beth, this is serious.”
“Yes, I can understand that you would think it’s serious because you believe everything the lamestream media tells you.”
“Beth, I don’t want to get into it with you now,” Dani said. “You know. All the sisters know. Dad knows. One of us will figure out what to do about Jessie.”
“Isn’t that usually Jessie’s job?”
“Maybe it’s someone else’s time, Beth.”
This is real. This is real. This is real. Beth kept repeating to herself. Keep it together. What would Jessie do? She would call Dani. Dani always knows what to do. Why doesn’t Dani know what to do?!?!
[MADRID. Friday; local time: 6:15 PM. LOS ANGELES. Friday; local time: 9:15 AM]
Stephanie knew that Beth would still be at her office when she called. She hoped to catch her alone.
“I’m in a meeting with Reese,” Beth said. “She’s looking at me. Have you heard from anyone?”
“Dani is her usual high-strung self. Destroying other people’s marriages while keeping her perfect life intact. No movement on birth yet. Jessie called me yesterday…wait, am I on speakerphone?”
“Hi, Stephanie!” It was Reese Witherspoon.
“Hello, Reese,” Stephanie replied. “Beth, I’m sorry to barge in on your meeting like this, but, as you probably know, we are having a brewing family crisis.”
“No worries,” said Beth. “Reese and I have been talking about our little family crisis, and Reese is prepared to offer the Andersen sisters her support.”
“I need to process that,” Stephanie replied. “I talked to Jessie and she tries to make everything seem fine and that she’s got it under control, as always, but I’m worried about her, the situation over there in Japan, and what’s going to happen to Mace in Chicago.”
“You know, Beth, I think this virus situation is not going well. Not well at all,” Reese stated more than asked. “I hope your sister can get out of Japan.”
“What about me? I tested negative, but am self-quarantining in a hotel in Madrid.”
“Amazing!” said Reese and Beth erupted simultaneously.
“Jinx!” they both giggled like tweens.
“Look, there’s no way Mace can go to New Jersey with Dani about to give birth,” Beth said. Reese could tell that her wheels were spinning. She was hoping they were spinning in the right direction, because, well, she was a conspiracy theorist. “The only logical place for him to go would be here. Rent a car and drive, what, 2,000 miles across the barren wasteland known as the heartland of America? A son of Jessie Andersen should be able to do this in his sleep.”
“Beth, did you come up with this plan? Stephanie asked. “Because I am going to consider that a formal offer.”
“Whatever,” Beth responded. “How’s my niece Emily?”
“With Paul,” Stephanie answered. “He’s got it covered. He’s perfect, don’t you think?”
“Perfect, maybe, but not for you,” Beth answered. “How are you holding up?”
“Whatever a girl can do in confinement,” Stephanie replied. “Work email. Work phone calls. Stalk ex-boyfriends. Email ex-boyfriends. Call ex-boyfriends. Engage in virtual sex. The usual.”
“And how does one engage in virtual sex with ex-boyfriends?”
“Comedy gold,” Reese interrupted. “Beth, we’ve got the makings of a coronavirus sit-com here. We’ve got to set up production capabilities for people who are isolated in their homes or hotels. I want you to stay in constant contact with your sisters, our writers, and our lawyers. I’m sorry about your sister Jessie and nephew Mace. I’m sorry, Stephanie, that you have to masturbate in your hotel room. At least you get room service, right? I almost feel like you are part of my family. As I said, this is comedy gold. If ya’ll survive.”
“Wait…are the Andersen sisters being exploited and taken advantage of?” Stephanie sighed.
Andersen Sisters Rule #7: You will not use your dark arts on a sister. Corollary: You may use your dark arts on a niece of nephew.
“Get over yourself, sis,” Beth said. “Stop playing the victim. Oh, and stay safe.”
“Yeah, stay safe, sis,” Stephanie said as she disconnected the call.
[LOS ANGELES. Friday; local time: 10:45 AM. MONTCLAIR. Friday; local time: 1:45 PM]
Beth called Dani.
“You hear from anyone?” Dani asked.
“I talked to Stephanie. She talked to Reese, too.”
Dani expressed her surprise. “You and Reese Witherspoon talked to Stephanie?”
“Yes. She called this morning and interrupted our staff meeting.”
“What did you talk about?”
“What do you think and why do you sound so suspicious?”
“Should I not be suspicious?”
“Well…it’s not like we are producing a sitcom based on the Andersen sisters during the coronavirus thingy. Yet,” said Beth. “Reese thinks it’s going to be a lot bigger than the government is letting on. I have to agree with her on this now. I heard this is a move by the Chinese government and Jack Wa to take over the online retail space from Jeff Bezos. Trillions of dollars are at stake.”
Dani ignored her sister’s theory. She also knew that Beth and Reese Witherspoon were talking about a show. “And so we get to star in a Hello Sunshine production?” she asked. “We didn’t ask for this, you know. Ouch! The baby just kicked me.”
“Your baby will be fine,” Beth said. “What are you going to name it?”
Dani and Jonathan had not revealed anything about the baby. Not gender. Not name. “We’re going old school,” Dani had told her sisters, “like in ‘Knocked Up.’”
Beth continued, “Everything will be fine, and all the family members will get compensated and credited. Do not get in front of the Reese Witherspoon steamroller. How soon will you be back to work?”
“Don’t tell Jonathan, but I never stopped working. I am juggling three nasty divorces and two amicable divorces right now. Thank. You. Zoom!”
Andersen Sisters Rule #10: Any violation of the rules will eventually be forgiven after an appropriate amount of passive-aggressive punishment.
“Good for you!” Beth said. “Don’t worry about Jessie. Or Mace.”
“I’m a mother,” Dani replied. “It’s in our job description to worry.”
[TOKYO. Friday; local time: 10:31 AM. EVANSTON. Saturday; local time: 8:31 PM]
Jessie was able to reach her son Mace by phone.
“How are you doing, Mace?” Jessie asked.
“What does that mean, you tested positive?” The news she had shared with him on Monday had finally hit him during interval training on Thursday. “Are you going to die?”
‘I don’t really know,” Jessie answered. Mace could not recall his mother ever answering a question that way. She either already knew the answer or was able to intelligently speculate. “They aren’t telling me very much. I feel very sick and weak. This is much worse than that time I had bronchitis. You remember? I’m waiting to either get much worse or much better. They are mostly treating me very nicely.”
“Mom, I think they are going to close the university. Where am I supposed to go?”
“Mace, I want you to talk to your aunt Beth. I think you are going to have to find a way to get to Los Angeles.”
“I have to go,” Jessie said. “I love you and Margaret so much. And your dad, too. Can’t forget him, can we”
[EVANSTON. Saturday; local time: 9:11 AM. PASADENA. Saturday; local time: 7:11 PM]
Mace called his sister Margaret five minutes later, but he went right into voicemail. Then he remembered that she was still at tennis group therapy. It was a Saturday evening USTA social for juniors involving a mix of actual group therapy, sports psychology, and pizza. All the cell phones were confiscated, turned off, and returned just before everyone went home.
[EVANSTON. Saturday; local time: 9:13 PM. LOS ANGELES. Saturday; local time: 7:13 PM]
Mace called his Aunt Beth right after he left Margaret a voicemail. Like she’ll ever check her voicemail. He texted her to call him as soon as tennis group therapy was over.
“I can’t talk right now,” Beth said. “I’m about to start yoga class.”
“Do you know if grandfather Andersen knows about my mom?”
“Yes, he knows.”
“Let me call you back after my class is over,” Beth said. “Everything’s going to be fine. We’re handling it.”
“Reese Witherspoon and I,” she answered. “You’ll be fine. Your mother will be fine. We going to be famous!”
Before Mason, Jr. could say another word, his aunt disconnected the call.
“I feel ridiculous,” Jessie said to herself, out loud. “Utterly ridiculous.” The nurse, not understanding English, just nodded and continued with the blood draw. Jessie could not tell if she was smiling because of the mask covering her mouth and nose.
She lay still in her hospital bed. The conference organizers had arranged for the accommodations for her, in her judgment, to the best of their abilities. She felt powerless, locked in an institution that did not employ the Latin alphabet. Over and over again in her mind, she built and reorganized a list. Her father. Her son. Her daughter.
Stephanie in isolation in Madrid. Dani about to give birth in New Jersey. Beth doing just fine in Pasadena. But could Beth really be counted on to take care of their father, not to mention her daughter and niece, if things got bad? And what will happen to her niece Emily if something bad happens to Stephanie while she’s in Madrid. And Dani? God, she’s about to give birth! And Mason, Jr. He’s alone. He doesn’t know anyone in Chicago. His father’s great, but currently useless. Think, Jessie, think. You can figure this out.
[MONTCLAIR. Saturday; local time: 5:16 PM. LOS ANGELES. Saturday; local time: 8:16 PM]
Dani called her father.
“Hi dad, it’s Dani!” she said, trying to sound upbeat.
“Dani! How’s my girl? It’s good to hear your voice,” her father responded. “Have you given birth yet, little girl?”
Stephen Andersen loved all of his daughters and they loved him back. He sometimes resented that they treated him as though he were a doddering, drooling old idiot. However, he admitted to himself that playing the fool encouraged his daughters and grandchildren to pay more attention to him. They half-believed that their next conversation with him could be his last. He maintained this illusion by omitting certain facts from any communications and by having his attorney call each of them twice a year to make sure contact information was updated.
After he returned from Vietnam, Stephen Andersen began investing in car washes. In southern California, where people spent a lot of money on their cars because they spent so much time in their cars, the car wash business was lucrative. Stephen made enough money washing people’s cars that he could afford to invest in real estate. He made enough money in real estate to invest in small technology companies in the 1980’s that became military-industrial publicly owned corporations in the 1990’s. The IPO’s proved that he was a Forrest Gump with money, but he never talked about money around his daughters. The Andersen Sisters believed that their father was well off, but he never moved to a tony neighborhood. He drove a pre-owned Prius. They had no idea that he was wealthy. Eight-figure wealthy.
The Andersen sisters also did not know that their father still played competitive doubles three times a week at his tennis club, held an 8 handicap in golf, and maintained ongoing, intimate relationships with three respectable women.
“Not yet, dad,” Dani replied. “You’ll be the first to know when you have another grandchild, after Jonathan, of course.”
“How is Jonathan?”
“Jonathan’s great, as always.
“And your kids?”
“Drew is still docile. But he’s 12. I dread dealing with him in a year or two. He’s doing well in his studies for bar mitzvah. Little League. Screens. So many screens. Frankly, I think he’s a boring northern New Jersey kid. He needs to be kidnapped or something to wake him up. Stacy and Sarah are perfect dolls. I have no idea what goes on between their ears, but at nine and seven, maybe there’s nothing there yet except princesses and unicorns and ballerinas. I wish my kids knew their cousins better. They seem like strangers sometimes because they live so far apart.”
“Maybe when they get older, they’ll become more like their mothers,” he observed. “You girls weren’t all that interesting, either, or close when you were kids. Jessie couldn’t wait to get out of the house when she went to college and, I swear, the two of you didn’t talk for about 10 years.”
“About Jessie, dad,” Dani paused. “She is in Japan…”
“I know. That girl, always traveling around the world,” he interrupted. “And now she’s gone and gotten herself sick with the latest virus around.”
“That’s all I know, too, dad,” she said. “I am trying to find out more.”
After a few moments of silence, Stephen said, “That’s all you and your sisters can do, girl.”
“Try to find out more,” he said. “You girls think you can bend the rotation of the earth to your will. You think you can fix everything. Your mother was the same way. Sometimes, Dani, sometimes you just have to sit back and let the pros from Dover do their jobs.”
“Roger that, dad,” Dani sighed, although she didn’t believe him.
[MONTCLAIR. Monday; local time: 2:53 PM. NEW YORK. Monday; local time: 2:53 PM]
Dani called Jonathan.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is it time?” She would only call before 3:00 if something were wrong.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she said. “I am worried about Jessie. And about Mace. The news reports keep changing.”
“What do you mean?”
“One day, Trump’s saying the world is up. The next day he says it’s down. We still don’t know what the plan is. It’s like he’s waiting for a magical unicorn to come and spread fairy dust over the land to kill the virus. I don’t know what we are supposed to do, Jonathan. Should we stay or should we go?”
“Nice Clash reference,” he said. “Can I do anything?”
“No. By the way, I am feeling fine. The baby’s feeling fine.”
“Good. I love you,” Jonathan said. “And Dani?”
“Where there’s an Andersen sister, there’s a way.”
[LOS ANGELES. Tuesday; local time: 3:05 PM. NEW YORK. Tuesday; local time: 6:05 PM. MONTCLAIR. Tuesday; local time: 6:05 PM. EVANSTON. Tuesday; local time: 5:05 PM. MADRID. Wednesday; local time: 12:05 AM. LOS ANGELES. Tuesday; local time: 3:05 PM. TOKYO. Wednesday; local time: 7:05 AM. PASADENA. Tuesday; local time: 3:05 PM]
“Dear family, thanks for joining this Zoom call on such short notice,” Beth announced. “We have tried to get everyone at the mutually most convenient time, and I would like to thank my colleagues at Hello Sunshine for arranging for all of you to be present.”
Dani spoke up. “Who is this public relations robot, and who has taken our beloved whacky Beth away from us?”
“This is what I love about the Andersen sisters,” Reese Witherspoon piped in. “The connections you have with each other are so precious.”
“Precious?” Dani replied. “Isn’t that a euphemism you Southern girls use for ‘you are retarded?’ And why are you on this call?”
“Shut the fuck up, Dani!” Beth shouted. “Reese is here because she is proposing a solution to our family crisis.”
“Beth,” her father interjected. “Your mother and I did not raise you to curse at your sisters that way.”
“Dad,” Beth replied. “I love you, but you should shut the fuck up, too.”
“Mom!” Shannon screamed. “That’s grandfather Andersen.”
“Who do you think taught me the word?” Beth asked. She meant it rhetorically. “He just didn’t want me to use it on family members.”
“OK, Beth,” Stephanie piped in. “We’re here for family bidness. This is your show. Proceed.”
“Through Reese’s connections, we have learned that Jessie is at St. Luke’s International Hospital. It’s OK, but we can do better and Jessie deserved better,” Beth continued. “She is very sick, but we all know that she is a fighter. She has the Andersen family gene. We’re peasant stock, giving birth in the morning and back into the fields in the afternoon. The best-case scenario is that when she recovers, she could be cleared and released from the hospital within days. However, getting her back into the U.S. could be problematic. I know you all depend on her to always come up with the solutions, but I think she is going to have to sit this one out. Sorry, Jessie, but you know I’m right. This time.”
She stopped talking to let everyone stew on the news. No one, not even Jessie or Dani, said a word. They all sensed a serious pivot.
“What Hello Sunshine is prepared to do is to have Jessie transferred from St. Luke’s Hospital to a private hospital that, quite frankly, has better doctors, better equipment, and a higher level of care,” Beth said. “Upon her recovery, she could be relocated to a private residence outside of Tokyo, where she would remain isolated and cared for until it is safe for her to return to California.”
“Now you sound like a goddamn lawyer,” Dani remarked. “And I am a goddamned lawyer.”
“There’s that Andersen sisters’ rapport and wit!” Reese said. “Are you taking notes?” she asked someone offscreen in the room with her and Beth.
“What about my brother?” Margaret asked. “What’s going to happen to Mace?”
“Mace,” Beth began. “I think you have to prepare yourself for Northwestern to close down and for you to leave campus. Even if they let you stay, I don’t think you will be safe. I have heard that the government is going to shut down everything between Columbus, Ohio, and Phoenix, Arizona. Nothing in or out. Black helicopters. Hazmat suits. The works. We’re past the point where you should be flying anywhere. With your Aunt Dani about to give birth, it’s not advisable for you to drive to New Jersey. Again, with the help of Hello Sunshine, we will arrange a car and a credit card for you so that you can drive to Los Angeles. You can self-quarantine in the pool house of one of my colleagues for two weeks and then get tested. If you are negative, you can move into my house with your sister and cousin.”
“This is a beautiful plan,” Dani said. “All nice and tightly scripted. Just like in that movie ‘Argo.’”
“Thank you,” Reese responded.
“I was being sarcastic,” Dani said. “What’s in it for Hello Sunshine?”
“Dani. Stephanie. Jessie. Dad,” Beth said. “If we sign with Hello Sunshine to tell our story, they will do everything in their power to make sure this family crisis has a happy ending.”
“Grandfather Andersen,” Margaret asked, “what’s going to happen?”
“I’m an Andersen, not an Andersen sister,” he answered. “I don’t know. I just don’t know. I believe that some bad things are going to happen and that a lot of people in this country are going to die. Mostly poor people. Stupid people, too. However, the people who take care of themselves and pay attention can get through this. And if anyone can get through this, it’s the Andersen sisters.”
“Does anyone else have a better suggestion?” Beth asked. “I don’t want to seem melodramatic, but time is seriously of the essence.”
“Beth, you and Reese can go to hell,” Dani said.
“Dani, I presume you are going to handle the negotiations on behalf of the family,” Beth responded. “You have my consent to represent my interests, as well as those of Shannon. Oh, and let’s not piss off Reese Witherspoon too much. She can hear you.”
Everyone could see Reese smiling and nodding her head.
Jessie spoke up. “I am sorry to have put you all in this position. This is not the perfect solution. That would be to have Bill Gates scoop us all up and take us off to Xanadu. But, you know that dad has been trying to get us to understand that we do not control the world or even our own destinies. Maybe we should let the pros from Dover do their jobs.”
“We have a great hit on our hands,” Reese said. “It will be a pleasure doing business with you. I’m telling you, the Andersen sisters are comedy gold.”
“Roger that,” said Stephen Andersen.