Four Calling Birds

This is the fourth installment of the series, “The 12 Days of the Tilley-Blandin Coronavirus Christmas.” More stories about the Tilley-Blandin family universe can be found here.

“Max, what did you learn today, dear?” Ingrid asked her 8-year old son. His brother Alexis, two years younger and seated across from him at the table, squirmed in his chair.

Both children dreaded this question, asked of them every dinner. Their mother, herself raised with the credo “you learn something new every day,” demanded curiosity and profundity from her offspring. The boys found it harder to satisfy their mother without their father pre-gaming dinner, feeding them answers such as “I learned that the isosceles triangle has two sides of equal lengths” and “I learned that the monarch butterfly is the only butterfly that migrates back and forth.” Their father made sure to provide enough detail in the answers to ensure no follow-ups from Ingrid as well as enough information about the world around them that might result in actual learning.

Even Ingrid had noticed the drop-off in the quality of their answers after her ex-husband Hopper had left the family’s pandemic bubble.

When Hopper left the family bubble and moved to Washington DC, the boys hoped their mother would forget about the ritual. However, Ingrid, a pediatrician accustomed to the rigor of science, herself had been asked the same question by her father every day over dinner and was not about to abdicate this family tradition. When Ingrid’s answer did not satisfy her father, he would remind her of what her sisters Heidi and Birgit had learned by the same age. At the time, Ingrid’s sisters were either already off at college or out making their way in the world. Ingrid had been a “whoops” child in their parents’ marriage, with the result being that Heidi and her sister Birgit functioned more like distant-but-cool aunts than co-conspiratorial siblings. She felt naked in the face of her father’s rhetorical assault.

On this day, Max had what he thought was a clever answer for his mother, related to the gourmet dinner she had prepared for them. Everyone loved Ingrid’s meals. She was a professionally trained chef. Sometimes a plus-one dinner guest would gush over the entrée and state, “Ingrid, you should open up a catering business.” Ingrid would just smile graciously while the companion of the plus-one would discreetly whisper in the offender’s ear that Ingrid made a living as a practicing physician.

Max answered his mother, too quickly, “Well, mother, I learned today that I do not like capers.”

Ingrid had prepared a simple-but-exquisite fettucine with capers, pine nuts, and yogurt sauce. She thought it would be a crowd-pleaser for the boys with a hint of sophistication. “Our sons should develop sophisticated palates,” she told Hopper after the boys had spit out Mexican chocolate ice cream, which contained cayenne pepper. “They are growing up in a world where they need to know the difference between sea salt and kosher salt if they want to get anywhere.”

Ingrid loved her sons, and had genuine fondness for both of them, different as they might be from her and each other. Max was the physical and fearless son. He was learning to ride a horse and, if left to his own devices, would spend the day running like a maniac, then running some more. Ingrid played tennis with him three times a week, trying to get him to understand the concepts of lines and borders. Under the strain of pandemic confinement, she had let him slide on music lessons. She could not admit it out loud but listening to him struggle with the piano got on her nerves — she received some less-than-gracious comments from the parents of her patients who could hear Max’s piano playing in the background during their Zoom consultations. Ingrid envisioned Max as a future Olympic 10,000 meters champion, then enjoying a distinguished and lucrative career in a field that required more chutzpa than intellect.

“Capers?” Ingrid questioned her son. “In all the hours of consciousness you experienced today, the one thing you learned is that you don’t like capers?”

Max could tell that his mother was not buying it. He shrugged his shoulders.

“How about this instead?” she began. “How about you learn about the word ‘fallacy.’ Do you know the definition of fallacy?”

“No” he whispered.

“A fallacy is a mistaken belief, especially one based on an unsound argument,” Ingrid recited like a schoolmarm. “It was a mistake to believe that I would accept your answer. What I wanted to hear was not your particular reaction to an ingredient in your dinner. I wanted something more…profound.”

“I know what ‘profound’ means, mom,” Alexis jumped in, responding for his older brother. “And isn’t it profound that you now know to not put capers in Max’s dinner anymore?”

Max laughed out loud at his brother’s clever response. Far too loudly for Ingrid’s taste. She could not help herself, and she laughed too.

She composed herself, turned to her younger son, and asked, “And what did you learn today, Alexis?”

“I learned how to ride a bicycle, mother,” Alexis said matter-of-factly. “I also learned that I don’t like capers, but Max already said that.”

Of her two sons, Alexis was the more thoughtful and compassionate boy. He asked a lot of questions and was gifted musically. He had started taking violin lessons at the age of four and had been doing well with the lessons; however, he had also picked up several other instruments randomly: drums, guitar, keyboard, and, oddly enough, oboe. Though his fingers were too small to achieve any kind of virtuosity, he seemed to have a knack for music. Every day since the beginning of the pandemic, Max music practiced assiduously, then joined Ingrid for her daily 30-minute walk where normally peppered her with questions about her day and caught her up on his reading of the Harry Potter series. Every day, no matter the weather, Ingrid set her cellphone’s timer for 15 minutes and embarked on a swift walk to nowhere, then turned around as the alarm sounded and returned home. On some of the warmer days, she would allow Alexis to play his oboe while they walked. She found it soothing.

Alexis had never mentioned that he wanted to learn how to ride a bicycle. Shortly after Hopper decamped for Washington DC, she and her sons also left the family bubble, what had become known as the “Tilley-Blandin Fortress.” Hopper’s parents had turned their vacation home/retreat/compound near the Delaware Water Gap into a pandemic pod. At one point, it housed the “Almighty Eight,” as Hopper’s father called the group: Hopper’s mother and father; Hopper’s sister Olympia and her boyfriend Huey; she and her sons; and her ex-husband Hopper.  Hopper’s mother insisted that Ingrid join the pod with her sons. “Don’t you think Max and Alexis will feel safer if they can quarantine during this scary time with family? And it would be helpful to all if we had a doctor among us.”

Hopper’s mother was a very successful writer who had mastered the dark arts of persuasion and propaganda. She – and subsequently everyone in the pod – elided over the subject of Ingrid and Hopper living under the same roof. At first, she and Hopper settled into familiar habits with each other. More precisely, the familiar habits that reflected their better angels. Hopper seemed less self-absorbed in his own activities, engaged with his family, and cut back on the acerbic commentary directed at his ex-wife. Ingrid went out of her way to compliment Hopper for his acts of kindness, she smiled most of the time he entered the room, and she invited him to help her with simple tasks in the kitchen while she prepared dinner. He told her a funny story about one of his graduate students at the University of Chicago mishearing the word “feces” for “theses” during a lecture, then repeating the mistake in an exam. She laughed. She told him a poignant story about one of her patients who was being cyber-bullied in Zoom chatrooms. He teared up. Slowly, the physical distance they consciously maintained between each other melted away with the realization that neither would bite. While the world around them seized-up in panic and anxiety, Ingrid and Hopper became more comfortable around each other. When the Almighty Eight gathered after dessert to watch a movie each evening, Ingrid and Hopper sat next to each other and Ingrid would fall asleep on Hopper’s shoulder. It came as no surprise to her when, one afternoon in the pantry, he clasped her hand in his, pulled her close to him, and kissed her on the mouth. It came as no surprise to her, either, when all the good memories they shared flooded through her brain and she returned his kiss.

Ingrid and Hopper tried to keep their affair secret from their children and the other members of the family. They admitted to feeling a sense of shame about their renewed sexual affair, mixed with a lot of confusion.

“Remind me, Hopper, why we got divorced?” she asked him while they lay in bed.

“I am not sure,” he lied.

Hopper knew exactly why they got divorced. It was a sequence of events he had replayed in his mind almost every night before he went to sleep. The failure of their marriage chipped away at all the good times he tried to relive in his mind. He had a been, at best, an indifferent partner who was obsessed with his career and unwilling to commit to emotional honesty with Ingrid. He liked the good times — the dating and the sex and the laughter. He was not so much a fan of the schedule juggling, the discipline of parenting, and how much Ingrid needed him to be at his best. Back in the normal world, it was too much. Cooped up together in the Lillie-Blanton Fortress, he could handle the cognitive dissonance of their liaison. Until Ingrid began to want more. As in, let’s get back together when this is all over. She did not say it, but he could feel the sentiment forming around the edges of her sentences. They even did counseling over Zoom. The counselor told Ingrid that she was projecting some kind of Fantasy Hopper into their future.

“When I am honest with myself,” Hopper told Ingrid and the counselor, “I recognize that I still love you and part of me will always love you. But love isn’t enough, Ingrid. We are eventually going to drive each other to distraction. Again. You and I are just a mismatched pair.”

Hopper had broken Ingrid’s heart once again. Shortly after, Hopper did what he felt was best and left the Tilley-Blandin Fortress to move in with his sister Silver in Washington DC. Silver had decided that she preferred living and working in the belly of the beast than with a family pod carefully curated and manipulated by her mother.

After Hopper drove away, his father had made a pass at Ingrid. His father was a critically and commercially successful painter with a certain reputation regarding indiscretion. Hopper told Ingrid on their second date that his mother and father had reached an accommodation in their marriage. Ingrid had not been expecting the accommodation to sit beside her on the sofa and say, “I think it’s nice for a woman to have a man around” with a glint in its eye.

Ingrid’s sister Heidi, a rare woman in the world of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and wealthy beyond the bounds of morality, offered Ingrid refuge at her ranch about a half hour’s drive south of San Francisco. A private jet was sent for Ingrid, Max, and Alexis. Twenty-four hours after Ingrid rebuffed her former father-in-law’s advance, Ingrid and her sons arrived at a working ranch that even employed a cowboy, who then began to teach Max how to ride a horse. And, apparently, Alexis how to ride a bicycle.

“Can I watch you ride your bicycle tomorrow,” Ingrid asked.

Alexis nodded, then asked, “Mom, what did you learn today?”

Ingrid pursed her lips, then said, “Alexis, I learned from your brother to never again put capers in your dinner.”

They all laughed.

Ingrid wept while she laughed.

*****

Ingrid grew disoriented when her sister Heidi mentioned on Facetime that the actress Charlize Theron was sleeping in the bed that Ingrid’s ex-husband Hopper had used as a teenager.

Ingrid had lost track of the blog that was keeping tabs on her and Hopper’s families, so this bit of news caught her by surprise.

Shortly after the presidential election was called for Joe Biden, Heidi left her ranch. She had received a call from Biden’s transition team. They were dangling directorship of the National Institute for Standards and Technology in front of her. She moved immediately (“Gawd, I gave the Democrats so much money. So. Much. Money”) into the Fairfax on Massachusetts Avenue (“I was told it’s the same floor where Al Gore was raised”). The purpose of her Facetime with Ingrid was to check in with her sister on her search for a residence in Potomac, near Glenstone, where she would live and entertain during her term of public service. She valued Ingrid’s opinion on upscale residential real estate. Their sister Birgit, the investment banker with Goldman Sachs, was the one with a knack for commercial real estate.

Heidi also wanted to check in on her sister. She was worried about Ingrid in the way that older sisters always worry about their younger siblings. Birgit constantly scolded her, “Ingrid got herself through Harvard and medical school. She got married and had kids, which neither of us managed to do. She got divorced. She is a grown-ass woman. She will figure it out.” Birgit also worried about Ingrid but was more circumspect about her concerns.

And then Heidi let the piece of gossip about Charlize Theron drop like a cement brick on a sheet of glass. During their Zoom counseling sessions over the summer, Ingrid had been surprised to learn that her ex-husband had been involved with the actress. She had been assured that her husband had been Pandemic Ghosted by the actress, but the news Heidi had just delivered cast doubt on her belief.

“Are we gossiping now?” Ingrid sputtered. “You’re the one always talking about how we are supposed to surround ourselves with people who discuss visions and ideas, not other people.”

“Don’t make it sound like I live my life on some kind of Pinterest journal,” Heidi said.

“No, of course not.”

Under a pseudonym, Heidi did actually maintain a Pinterest account for girls devoted to numbers and measurements.

“When we talked last week, Hopper didn’t mention anything about her sleeping at his parents’ apartment,” Ingrid mused aloud.

“Wait, are you still talking to Hopper?” Heidi asked. “That can’t be healthy for either of you.”

“How can it hurt?” Ingrid responded. “We’re on opposite coasts now. Whoever invented ‘opposite coasts’ for relationships was a genius.”

“Honey…”

“I bet he doesn’t even know!” Ingrid shouted. “I bet Hopper doesn’t even know that his so-called girlfriend is sleeping in his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bed. Serves him right. Ha!”

“Ingrid, honey, can we change the subject?”

Ingrid stretched her neck right, then left, and said, “Sure. I am struggling to keep up with the Mandarin lessons. Do you want to practice with me?”

“No, Ingrid,” Heidi responded. “I am about to become an important person. I am not supposed to have any free time. I will find and pay for someone to practice with you. It will be my Christmas gift, OK?”

“OK…so…well, isn’t it crazy that David Chang won a million dollars on that TV show?”

“I saw Silver yesterday,” Heidi announced, ignoring Ingrid’s question. She did not watch TV, nor did she know what made this person David Chang person famous. “I parked outside her duplex. I stood on the sidewalk and talked to her while she stayed in that little patch of dirt she calls a garden. I swear, it’s no more than 12 x 12. There’s some kind of statuary in this garden that I swear is from Home Depot.”

“Did you see the boyfriend, Louie?”

“It’s Louis. Now who’s gossiping?”

“Guilty!” Ingrid laughed. She treasured the infrequent moments when she could allow herself to laugh.

“Louis stepped outside for a few minutes,” Heidi continued. “Even with a mask on, you can tell that he is handsome and charming. A musician, which I love, and very brave, from what I read on the blog. We talked very briefly about how this presidential election voter-fraud nonsense would have been handled under Napoleonic Law. I think people like him from New Orleans are obsessed with Napoleon. You should have seen the way Silver looked at him. I think Silver is in love.”

“Silver Tilley-Blandin in love?” Ingrid squealed. “I thought for sure she had sworn off men after those boy disasters while she was in college. Isn’t that why she moved back from Oregon, to get away from men?”

“All I can tell you is that boy is nice, and Silver looks fat and happy. Well, she’s never going to be fat. That family is always going to be rich and thin,” Heidi responded.

“You got that right.”

“So, what else you need to know?” Heidi asked. She was feeling that they had entered the polite phase of the conversation, which marked when the conversation stopped being interesting for at least one of the participants.

“So, what about that craziness with Mitch McConnell?” Ingrid was expert at turning conversations at 90-degree angles and inexpert at identifying the polite phase of conversations. “We heard over the summer that he had died from coronavirus. Then he just up and reappears before the election?”

“Word is that he just wanted to lay low for a while after people started showing up at his home in Kentucky,” Heidi answered. “A little like Elvis or Tupac. He knew that people in Kentucky would still vote for his corpse over a Democrat and a woman. There’s even talk that he’ll allow a vote on that goddam stimulus bill.”

“I’ll believe it when it passes,” Ingrid spat out. “So…you got plans for Christmas?”

“Christmas? What’s that?” Heidi chuckled. “I have now entered the zone where the only things I am allowed to celebrate are legislative, regulatory, or legal victories for the Biden Administration.”

“That’s kind of grim,” Ingrid commented.

“Yeah, I guess,” Heidi responded. “I guess that I we can do some kind of Facetime or Zoom with Birgit. Exchange gifts over Amazon. Pray that we stay healthy while we wait for the vaccine.”

“I don’t see you cowering in some corner, Heidi,” Ingrid said. “You are Spartacus.”

“Spartacus with a face mask, goggles, and nitrile gloves.”

“We can sing Christmas carols with Max and Alexis,” Ingrid said. “You, Birgit, and I can make it like karaoke and pretend that we’re young again.”

“Sister, I think you mean drunk,” Heidi said.

“Young. Drunk. What’s the difference?” Ingrid replied. “You live, you laugh, you cry, you love, and every day you learn something new.”

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