Eight Maids A-Milking

This is the eighth 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.

“Let me get this straight,” said Ingrid. She was seated in the dining room of her sister Heidi’s ranch house in Woodside, California, talking on the phone with her ex-husband Hopper, who was standing on the corner of Washington Street and Bethune in the Far West Village of New York. “You want me, your ex-wife, to refer you and your girlfriend the movie actress to a clinic where you can get quick COVID tests so that you can fuck?”

“Well, there’s also her two children,” Hopper replied. “But, yes, that’s the essence of it.”

“In what world would I want to do this favor for you?” she asked incredulously. “Now I have to go to bed tonight with the image of the father of my children in bed naked with another, more glamorous woman.”

“First of all, Ingrid,” Hopper said. “You are a beautiful and accomplished woman, and I think you know that men have always found you attractive and irresistible.”

“Thank you, except men are creeps,” Ingrid said. “I live in fear that our sons will grow up to be creeps playing ‘Marry, Fuck, Kill’ with their fraternity brothers.”

“With you as their mother, they will grow up to be feminists. And they will never join a fraternity,” Hopper stated. “Second, you are a better person than me. Your first instinct is to think of others and how you can help them. You are not a selfish, self-absorbed bastard like me.”

“True,” she answered. “You can be a selfish, self-absorbed bastard. Like all good ex-husbands.”

“And there are the innocent children,” Hopper concluded. “Children who are innocent of their parents’ sins and transgressions. You are a pediatrician. My god, it’s imbedded in your DNA’s mission statement to provide assistance. Do I need to remind you that 3,000 people died yesterday from COVID.”

“I hate you,” Ingrid said. “I will call this doctor I know from medical school. I hate her, too. She is located on lower Fifth Avenue. I will text you the address once she’s agreed to see you. I will also text you her fee. It will be in the thousands, probably in cash.”

“I have kept about $10,000 on hand just in case since, you know,” he said. “How long will the results take?”

“You should have the results in a few hours,” Ingrid responded. “Do you think you can keep your thing in your pants long enough?”

Ha, ha, ha,” Hopper deadpanned.

“Are you going to do any Christmas shopping while you are waiting for the results?” she asked. “I heard that, even amid the pandemic, people are still Christmas shopping in New York. Mostly just the big stores. I’d love for you to get me that Alexander McQueen dress from Bergdorf Goodman. I’ll text you the details. You know my size.”

“Have you by any chance put on the Pandemic 15?” Hopper asked.

“You motherfucking son of a bitch,” Ingrid shouted.

“Well?” Hopper asked. “If I am going to plunk down a few grand on a dress, I want to know that it won’t be sent back.”

“No,” Ingrid responded. “Not a pound more since the last time we fucked.”

“I love you, too, Ingrid,” Hopper said. “Tell our sons that I love them.”

“Tell them yourself,” she said. “You are scheduled to Zoom with them tomorrow at noon your time.”

*****

Hopper Tilley-Blandin paused at his latest crossroad. This time, the choice was not between this random thing or that random thing. It was not even a choice between the two women, his ex-wife Ingrid Brzezinski or Charlize Theron, the girlfriend who had been on-and-off ghosting him since the onset of the pandemic. No, his choice: retreat to the safety of his family or move forward with someone outside the protective, insulated shell provided his family. He had made that choice once before, with Ingrid. The result was two beautiful sons and an acrimonious divorce.

If his COVID test, or that of Charlize, or those of her children came back positive, his choice would be made for him. He managed his risks and measured his risk tolerance every time he walked out the door. He was reliable. He could be counted on. His parents had made the wise choice to trust him with their financial affairs. He had continued to do Ingrid’s books after they were divorced until her lawyer found out and insisted that she hired a proper accountant. With any positive tests, he would drive out of New York and ride out the pandemic with his parents and sister Olympia near the Delaware Water Gap.

Ingrid had told him that he was a Boy Scout, always seeking approval and awards. “This personality trait of yours,” she told him the night that she informed him she wanted a divorce, “has driven you to success and prevented us from becoming partners. I have never been anyone you needed to impress. I think you are going to need to find someone with basic insecurities, who will want to provide you with the audience you crave. Try a beautiful woman instead. Beautiful women are wracked with insecurities.”

Across the street from him, in his parents’ apartment in Westbeth, a beautiful woman waited for him and the results of their COVID tests.

*****

Charlize Theron was seated at the kitchen table of the apartment where Hopper and his sisters had been raised. It was still his parents’ primary residence, but at the outset of the pandemic, they had retreated to their vacation home, which the family called the Tilley-Blandin Fortress. Charlize and her two children were staying in the apartment as a kind of halfway house between South Africa and the location where her next movie would be shot. Through a deal with Reese Witherspoon, who was producing Theron’s next movie, and Hopper’s mother, who was writing the screenplay for the movie, she and two children found themselves in New York.

Charlize was working on her laptop computer, reviewing some documents for her foundation, the Africa Outreach Project, when she received a Facetime request. It was Ingrid.

“Do you know who I am?” Ingrid asked when Theron accepted the request.

“Yes,” she responded, “How did you get this number?”

“When my ex-husband and I were staying at his parents’ vacation home, which I have to assume you read about much to my humiliation, he used my computer more than once to Facetime with you,” Ingrid answered. “He does not quite possess the vigilance about secrets as his sisters.”

“So, I can expect more surprise calls?” Theron asked. “I’m sorry. That was a bit catty.”

“A bit, yes.”

“I suppose at the risk of being indiscreet, I should thank you for the assistance you provided Hopper with the tests.”

“And you,” Ingrid stated. “And your children.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you.”

“If I may, what were the damages?” Ingrid asked.

“Oh, $5,000 for the tests,” Theron said. “And another $3,000 for the dress. I am sure you will look ravishing in it. That is, whenever we get the chance to wear nice things again.”

“Look, I really am sorry about intruding,” Ingrid said. “But it’s the mother in me that compels me to warn you about Hopper and the Lillie-Blanton family ‘dymanics,’ as his sister Olympia refers to them.”

I am dealing with the ex-wife who still loves her ex-husband, Theron thought to herself. Just hear her out. Listen. Listen. Listen. Nod your head. Smile. Don’t commit to anything. Don’t reveal anything.

“Thank you for your concern, Dr. Brzezinski.”

“Hopper is such a starfucker,” Ingrid began. “Wait…I don’t know why I said that.”

Ingrid paused. Am I the starfucker? she asked herself.

“Hopper likes the beginning of things. He likes the excitement and challenge of the pursuit and the romance. He is not so good with the day-to-day battles of relationships and families. He doesn’t handle relationship complexities as well as he thinks he does.”

Theron composed herself and considered her next words.

“And yet?” she asked.

“He has remarkable character and qualities that women find attractive.”

“And you still love him, don’t you?”

I will always love Hopper,” Ingrid said.

“But?”

“You have nothing to fear from me, Ms. Theron,” Ingrid said. “May I call you Charlize?”

“Only if I may call you Ingrid.”

“Charlize.”

“Ingrid,” Charlize said. “Something tells me this will not be the last time we talk about Hopper Tilley-Blandin. I hope that we will be able to confide in each other. I think we have a lot more in common than either of us realizes at this moment.”

“Indeed. I hope you and your children have a Merry Christmas,” Ingrid said. “New York is the best city in the world during the holiday season.”

*****

Hopper let himself into his parents’ apartment with his own key. People trusted him with their keys. He had keys to his sisters Silver and Olympia’s residences in Washington DC. At his ex-wife’s request, he even kept a key to Ingrid’s house in Evanston.

He had gone shopping for Ingrid at Bergdorf Goodman. He knew what color Alexander McQueen dress Ingrid wanted and knew her size. The store clerk read his type – man, alone, hates shopping — and moved quickly to allow his successful escape as soon as she took the address of Heidi Brzezinski, Ingrid’s sister. Ingrid (and their sons Alexis and Max) would be living at her sister’s ranch for the foreseeable future. Hopper then walked down Fifth Avenue to a nearly deserted Washington Square Park and then around Greenwich Village waiting for the test results of the COVID test.

“Oh, hello,” Charlize said, rising from the living room sofa where she was reading “The Stinky Cheese Man” to her children to greet him. She kissed him chastely and they hugged for three one-thousands. It was the copy that his parents had read to him when it was first published. They had kept all his, Olympia’s, and Silver’s children’s books in anticipation of grandchildren.

She turned from him and said, “Hopper, I’d like you to meet my children [Redacted 1] and [Redacted 2].

The children greeted Hopper with a certain disdain and distrust, but nonetheless shook his hand and grunted appropriately in response to the mercifully few questions he asked. The more he talked, the less they seemed to totally resent his presence. Hopper asked if they wanted to play Jenga, Uno, Go Fish, or Connect Four. He knew exactly where his parents stored their children’s games in anticipation of grandchildren. His children, Max and Alexis, had spent hours on rainy afternoons playing these games with their grandparents while he and Ingrid enjoyed adult recreation in the city. Hopper figured he could also teach [Redacted 1] and [Redacted 2] how to play poker and gin rummy.

He played Uno and Go Fish with Charlize and her children until it was time for dinner. He let the kids win and rejoiced their victories.

After she put her children to bed, Charlize walked into the living room, where Hopper waited for her. He had one thing on his mind. She had another.

“Ingrid called me,” she said as she poured a glass for herself of very nice B Vintner’s “Black Bream” Pinot Noir. “This is a nice South African wine. You can’t get many of the good South African wines in the States. Would you like a glass while you think about the conversation I had with your ex-wife?”

“Yes, please,” Hopper responded.

“We had a nice talk. We’re on a first-name basis now,” Charlize said, as she poured. “She wanted to warn me about you and your family. At first, I thought she was jealous, but I think she really wanted to make sure you would not hurt me.”

“I have no intention of hurting you,” he said.

“Yes, and there’s an old saying about how the road to hell is paved,” she answered.

“Are you worried?” he asked. “I have my share of suboptimal qualities as well as those you could find spectacular. Have you checked my Yelp reviews?”

“Funny man. Let’s be clear about two things,” Charlize said. She sipped her wine and turned to face Hopper square on. “I am not Ingrid and I do not want from you what Ingrid wanted from you.”

“I never compared you to Ingrid,” Hopper said. “But tell me more about these ‘wants.’”

“It’s simple, Hopper. Ingrid wanted love and romance and marriage and family until death do you part. She bought into the dream. I have not, and maybe that’s why I have not let you get close to me these past few months. You are a conventional man and you think about the world in conventional ways. Me? I don’t want marriage and I have already made my family. I asked you here because maybe you have convinced me that you don’t want marriage again and that you are satisfied with the family that has blessed you.”

“And as for the love and romance?” Hopper asked.

“Let’s start with companionship and sex, shall we?” she answered. “I don’t want to fall in love. I do not want to be in the thrall of any man or woman. I want someone who is reliable, companionable, and smart. And I want some friction between us. Until one of us doesn’t want that anymore.”

*****

“Ingrid, dear, if I had any idea that Charlize Theron was going to be staying in our apartment, Hopper’s father and I would never have agreed to let her stay.”

“What exactly did Reese Witherspoon tell you?” Ingrid asked.

“All she said was that one of the actors in the movie needed a place to stay in New York as a stopping-off point before traveling to the movie location,” she said. “It needed to be discreet. Everything has to be discreet these days with actors, so it didn’t seem such a strange request.”

“Well, Hopper is there with her. Right now. And I aided and abetted it,” Ingrid spit out. “I know that I am supposed to be adult about it – and I have been so far – but I am ready to scream!”

“Hopper’s mother and I are not very happy about it, either,” he said. “Westbeth is a subsidized community for poor artists. Did you know it used to be a Bell Lab and they broadcast the first TV show from there? Anyway, we moved there when we were poor artists like everyone else.”

Hopper had told Ingrid all the stories about growing up in Westbeth. And then he had written about growing up in Westbeth for a chapter in his book. Sometimes it felt to Ingrid as though Hopper knew every important artist, writer, and musician in the United States. When he and his sisters were young, Patti Smith babysat them when she visited New York. He went backstage to every big show and concert at Madison Square Garden. All the literary, art, and performing arts stars came to the parties hosted by the Tilley-Blandin’s. Hopper had his photos taken with hundreds of people whose names graced the pages of newspaper and magazines. All the artists, writers, and musicians loved Hopper, Olympia, and Silver. There was something carefree about his childhood, where he was surrounded by people focused on creating beauty. As he got older, however, he became uncomfortable with that carefree spirit. He became the student focused on goals and objectives. He grew into the young man who worried about who was going to pay the bills and less about the romance surrounding his memories.

“Truth is,” his father told Ingrid, “we are too damn rich to live in Westbeth now, but we love it. If it gets out that Charlize Theron is staying there, it could be trouble for us. At our age, who wants to move?”

“I’m curious,” Ingrid asked, “just how are you able to stay there? Both of you are public figures.”

“We throw a lot of parties, throw some money around, stay friends with the important board members, and a retain a terrific lawyer with a reputation for expensive litigation,” Hopper’s mother answered. “People like us there and it’s easier for everyone to ignore the situation, but my husband is right. This thing with Charlize Theron is a brewing scandal that could tip things against us. Christ, could you imagine us living on the Upper West Side?”

“So, you have to get them out of there,” Ingrid responded. “What if you let them come stay with you in the guesthouse?”

“Normally, dear, that would be an excellent suggestion,” his mother said. “But…our friend Fiona Apple has come to stay in the guesthouse. After quarantine, she will celebrate Christmas and New Year with us and Olympia. She is planning to livestream a New Year’s Eve concert from our living room.  You should consider signing up. It’s on Live Nation. She could sing a song for Alexis and Max!”

“I guess you didn’t stay mad at her long for telling you she was dead,” Ingrid remark.

“At our age, who wants to stay mad?” Hopper’s father laughed.

“Let me tell you a secret, dear,” Hopper’s mother said. “We love Hopper, but we always liked you better than him. He’s kind of miserable to be around.”

“Thank you,” Ingrid replied. She already knew that secret. It was actually no secret at all. Hopper knew it, too. “What are you planning for Christmas?”

“This year, with just the four of us, we are going to cook, eat, open presents, play bridge, and watch movies,” he answered.

“And maybe drink some adult beverages,” she added.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Mostly we are going to get drunk.”

“Would you stay sober enough to Zoom with your grandchildren?” Ingrid asked.

“What would Christmas in 2020 be without Zooming with the grandchildren?” she responded.

“One more question?” Ingrid asked.

“Certainly, dear,” Hopper’s mother answered.

“Does anyone think it’s a bit Oedipal that Hopper is sleeping with a woman who is going to portray his mother in a movie?”

*****

Hopper and Charlize woke up in his parents’ bed to the sounds of [Redacted 1] and [Redacted 2] trying unsuccessfully to make breakfast for themselves. Hopper could hear the sound of a glass shattering on the kitchen floor, turned to Charlize, and said, “Do you think we should intervene?”

“Knock yourself out, sport,” she laughed. “I need some more time under the blankets to think about what we can do today.”

“I was thinking that we would do some work on the movie.”

“Hopper, that Zoom with Reese Witherspoon was a disaster,” Charlize announced. “Reese is ‘faking it until she makes it.’ It will be a miracle if the movie starts shooting next month, with the script your mother delivers, directed by Greta Gerwig, co-starring Edward Norton. Amanda, my publicist, told me last night that Greta has dropped out. We don’t have a director.”

“When did you hear that?”

“Amanda called me when you were brushing your teeth,” she said. “Reese is just going to steamroll everyone on every issue until someone just says, ‘fuck it.’ I’m only committing out of perverse curiosity. I want to see how your whole Tilley-Blandin circus plays out.”

“Huh,” he responded. “I’m going to address the issues in the kitchen.”

Hopper cleaned up the mess and found enough ingredients to make banana waffles. Charlize walked into the kitchen dressed for the day. “I saw that ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ got picked up for a fifth season,” she said. “Good morning, my precious ones! Good morning, Hopper!”

She hugged Hopper and kissed him on the mouth. “Can you make me one of those waffles, too?”

“Sure,” he said. “What is the plan for the day?”

“Bundle up the kiddies and explore the city for artifacts of Christmas,” she answered. “The big stores have window displays. The weather will hold up. We can get some exercise.”

“No high-kicking Rockettes at Radio City?” Hopper asked. “No Santaland?”

“Don’t be sarcastic. There are children in this room,” she responded. “We want to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.”

“I heard it was a disaster,” he said. “Tree just fell apart as soon as it arrived.”

“They fixed it!” [Redacted 2] shouted.

“Yeah, they fixed it!” [Redacted 1] screamed. “We wanna see it!”

“Hopper, you don’t have to be such a New Yorker bored with it all,” Charlize said. “We’re tourists. We want to embrace tourism. Play with us!”

“But I am bored with it all,” Hopper complained. “I have Balanchine’s ‘Nutcracker’ memorized from all the times my sisters and I got dragged to Lincoln Center.”

“Huh. I just realized something,” Charlize said. “New York is Bethlehem and Santa’s Workshop all wrapped into one. New York is Christmas Central. All the beauty and majesty and glory of Christmas emanates from New York. Probably your neighbors here are the masterminds. How can you deny your roots?”

“I give up,” he said. “I can’t spend Christmas with my kids. I might as well spend them with your kids.”

“My kids are not some consolation prize.”

“You’re right, but I still need consoling,” he said. “I’m in Santa’s Workshop and I have no toys.”

“You have me.”

“Can you wrap yourself up, place a bow on your head, and place yourself under a Christmas tree?”

Absolument, mon cherie!”

“In that case, I will shed my ennui,” Hopper announced. “We are going out and practicing a socially responsible and safely distanced New York Christmas day. With masks.”

“Good boy,” Charlize said.

*****

Ingrid was settling in at her sister Heidi’s ranch. She did not have to go grocery shopping; Heidi’s staff made sure that every ingredient she needed for her most ambitious cooking project was made available. Saffron. Black garlic. Ostrich. Yuca. Heidi’s wi-fi was better than any Ingrid had experienced, making tele-medicine consultations at her pediatric practice and his son’s school connections better than ever. There was plenty of air and space for her sons Alexis and Max; they had ranch hands who became very skilled playmates with the horses and farm machinery.

Ingrid knew she was better off than almost anyone she knew, but she also felt as though everyone had deserted her. She had liked being with Hopper and his family at the Tilley-Blandin Fortress. And then she liked being with her sister Heidi. But Hopper was now with another woman. The singer Fiona Apple had replaced her for Christmas. And Heidi had decamped to Washington DC to take over the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Out in the middle of the country, she felt both cooped up and alone. As a medical professional, she recognized that she was displaying the signs of depression. At least three times a day she just wanted to scream. If her sons were outside, she did not repress the urge.

Heidi and their sister Birgit could see the signs for themselves. They both tried to call or message or Facetime with her on a daily basis. But in the Age of COVID, there were limits to what even the One Percent could provide.

“Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe what Trump has done to science!” Heidi shouted on a Facetime with the exasperation of a mother whose children could never follow instructions or fit into social structures. “It’s mind boggling.”

“I guess you will have your work cut out for you, sis,” Ingrid said, trying to be encouraging.

“Oh yeah, that,” Heidi began. “Turns out it’s not going to be my work after all.”

“What?!?!”

“I got snagged in a pre-nomination screening,” Heidi said. “Everything was good until a so-called journalist with ‘Mother Jones’ did some digging on me and found out about Sequoia Capital’s – and my – involvement with…well, my firm and I did not cover ourselves in glory with a Silicon Valley startup and a horrible, horrible man about 20 years ago. We managed to avoid prosecution, but, as it was explained to me, this is the kind of stain on my record the Biden administration does not need coming out of the gate.”

“Did you break any laws?”

“I don’t know, but it was one of those situations where it was either Sequoia getting the business or another venture capitalist,” Heidi explained. “I was younger and, well, you know that I am ambitious and competitive. At the time, everything seemed fine. The investment did not work out, and I figured everything would be surrendered to the black hole of historical amnesia. Turns out I was wrong.”

“I am sorry this did not turn out well,” Ingrid said.

“Three good pieces of news out of this,” Heidi announced. “First, Biden will get someone good in the job, even if it’s not me. There is no shortage of brilliant technocrats out there ready to stop the ship of state from sinking. Second, I never got to closing on the house I was ready to buy. Third, you will have another adult to help celebrate Christmas. I am coming home, sis!”

“Woo-hoo! Are we baking cookies?”

“Cookies, cakes, pies, whatever,” Heidi said. “We are going to blow Christmas out of the water! I may even decide to retire and become a full-time auntie.”

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