Table of Contents here.
June 16, 2022 – As Hopper and his editor Lola jostled over the subject of marriage in the near-empty dining room of Eleven Madison Park, they heard the opening chords of the Pixies’ song “Where is My Mind” emanating from Hopper’s blazer pocket. This was the ringtone Hopper assigned to the actor Edward Norton. Hopper did not know Norton very well, but they had begun to converse with some frequency. He was still confused about whether to call him Edward, Ed, Eddie, Eduardo, or some secret nickname that had not yet been shared with him. Hopper called him Mr. Norton.
Norton had been cast to play Hopper’s father in a movie whose production had been sidelined by the pandemic. However, Norton seemed determined that the film get made and was fiercely intent on getting into the character of Hopper’s father. “Between your mother and Charlize Theron,” Norton told Hopper, “your father will end up on the big screen.” Charlize Theron had been cast to portray Hopper’s mother, who was also writing the film’s screenplay. Norton was quite cinematic in tone and language even on phone calls.
Since Hopper’s father was dead, he was far less concerned about an accurate portrayal. “You can’t offend the dead,” he told Norton.
Norton had decided that Hopper would be the subject matter expert for his research into what drove one of the country’s most noted artists. For years, Hopper’s father had painted in relative obscurity. However, when Hopper’s mother became a best-selling novelist, her notoriety created a halo around her husband. His wife’s success attracted clients to her husband. He began to achieve commercial success after he left the gallery of Mrs. Bellingham for Larry Gagosian. At the time of his death, he was commanding $200,000 to paint portraits of wealthy patrons taking the Dolly Parton Challenge.
Hopper did not like to be impolite, so he did not ignore the actor’s calls, even when Norton began to describe his father using words like “enigmatic,” “passionate,” and “charismatic.”
Hopper was honest in their conversations. “I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, Mr. Norton. My father was uncomplicated. He was a narcissist, intent on his own path,” Hopper said in their last conversation. “He always wanted more or something else. His children existed for his own amusement and disappointment. We were his accoutrements. He tried to seduce my ex-wife. In the end, he was a self-parody who died as he lived.”
“Well, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” Norton had responded. “I’ll have more questions.”
Hopper let Norton’s call go into voicemail and returned his attention to his editor.
“I have never been so sure about an idea for a book,” Lola said, slamming the palm of his right hand onto the tablecloth, rattling their water glasses. Their waiter, alarmed by the noise, began to rush towards their table, but Lola waved him off.
Hopper sat back in his chair and inhaled. He had just spent the last 30 minutes describing his idea for a book examining the changing patterns of marriage in 21st century United States.
“What you should do is drop all the academic-sociological-anthropological stuff,” Lola continued, “and just focus on what you call the ‘Non-Marriage Marriage.’ The story about you and your ex-wife is absolutely riveting. A memoir of how the two of you have negotiated your relationship following your divorce could be the blockbuster we have been awaiting. It’s touching and awkward as hell and salacious all at the same time.”
“Um,” Hopper responded. He had mentioned to Lola that he and Ingrid had briefly revived their sexual relationship during the pandemic while living under the same roof as his parents. He also had described the way their third child had been conceived.
“Look, Hopper, I’m sure the University of Chicago Press would love to publish the book you described. I’m sure you would get some nice reviews. But the story about you and Ingrid is real human-interest stuff. I think it would help a lot of people in their own lives. A whole lot of people. Dr. Phil’s audience would eat this stuff up.”
“Um,” Hopper responded again. Hopper was an ambitious member of the faculty at a prestigious university. He enjoyed the esteem of his peers and the satisfaction of research and discovery. However, he was not blind to the impact of good book reviews, publicity, and sales figures on his ability to leverage himself within the university and among his peers. The last time anyone from his department was interviewed by Dr. Phil was…never.
“I see on your face that you have some thoughts,” Lola said. “Just know that you have your publisher’s full-throated support for the Non-Marriage Marriage.”
A pause. Hopper was staring at the ceiling.
“You could leapfrog your mother in popularity among the book-buying audience.”
Hopper’s head whipsawed back to level at the mention of his mother. All the Tilley-Blandin children felt the strong pull of their mother’s coattails. It was difficult, if not impossible, to separate them from their mother in the eyes of most people they encountered. Hopper felt certain that his sisters would celebrate someone other than their parents being feted by society.
“Let me talk to Ingrid about this,” Hopper responded. “There’s also our children to consider.”
“Of course,” Lola said, a smile spreading across his face.
As Lola asked for their check, Hopper thought about his last serious conversation with Ingrid about family. By serious, he meant life-altering or, in this case, life-creating. Ingrid had taken Hopper by surprise during a family dinner with their sons, Alexis and Max. They were having pizza at Geno’s East. These outings were mostly light affairs, mixed with teaching moments for their sons. He was surprised and dismissive when Ingrid expressed her desire to have another child.
“That’s interesting,” he said. “I think we should order the Burgers and Fries Pizza. The boys love it.”
Ingrid grimaced. “You’re not taking me seriously, Hopper,” she said.
“If you want me to take you seriously, Ingrid, and you want my opinion on this subject, I suggest we have this conversation in someplace other than a pizza parlor with our sons present.”
“Fine,” she said.
Hopper remembered that they sat at the table in silence, looking at anything but each other for about five minutes while they waited for the pizza. Ingrid called him later that night after she had put their sons to bed.
“I want to have another child, Hopper,” she said. “I am almost 40 years old. I want one more shot at having a daughter. I want a daughter named Elizabeth, after Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in this country.”
“Just to be clear,” he said. “You actually want to have another child?”
“Are you going to use the sperm bank route?”
“Do you have a sperm donor in mind?”
“Yes,” Ingrid answered. She paused and then continued, “You.”
Hopper was silent.
“Well?” Ingrid interjected after about 30 seconds of silence.
“Let’s continue to be clear about this,” Hopper began. “You want your ex-husband’s cooperation in getting you pregnant?”
“Whatever you call your sperm, yes.”
“And you want to do this…how?”
“Fuck, Hopper,” she said, sounding exasperated. “I hate when you make me spell out what should be obvious to you. By fucking, Hopper. I will call you up when I am ovulating. You will come to my home, fuck me as many times as you can ejaculate, and scuttle back to the safety of your fancy Hyde Park apartment.”
“Just keep it simple, stud?”
“Just keep it simple, stud,” she repeated. “You are good at fucking, you are a good parent, and you have excellent sperm. This time you don’t have to worry about me. I am not asking anything extra from you. No cuddling, no pillow talk, no entanglements other than the parenting thing, which you seem to handle just fine.”
“That sounds so…clinical,” Hopper said, sounding hurt.
Ingrid sighed. “My dearest Hopper, again I have to explain it to you. You are so attractive, but so goddamn emotionally unavailable. I can see why Charlize Theron liked you. You are good at the beginning of things, but you are so exhausting. You wore us out.”
“What do you know about Charlize?”
“We talk,” Ingrid said. She could hear him slump over the phone.
“Is this some kind of conspiracy to cancel out Hopper Tilley-Blandin?” he asked.
“No,” Ingrid said. “Just two girls who have something in common and who are struggling to understand that thing.”
“Why should I do this for you?” Hopper asked. “We’re divorced! We don’t owe anything to each other.”
“On a practical level, it will ensure that Elizabeth, Max, and Alexis are fully siblings sharing the same parents,” Ingrid responded. “None of this half-sister, half-brother business.”
“What about the non-practical level?”
“Again, let me explain it to you, Hopper,” she began, “even though you already know the answer. You are a jerk and impossible to live with – and I am grateful for our divorce – but we are always going to have something between us. It’s like we are still married even though we stopped being married. It’s both disconcerting and wonderful that I can always count on my ex-husband to have my back.”
“If I agree to go through with your plan, what will we tell people?”
“The truth, Hopper. People who know us – even your mother — understand that you and I are…I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, but they know. And they will love Elizabeth…or if we have another son, whatever you decide to name our son.”
“What do I get out of this devil’s bargain?”
“The usual,” Ingrid said. “As little or as much as you want.”
As Lola paid the check for their lunch, Hopper asked him if he knew Stephen, the poet. He did not mention that he had seen him earlier that day.
“Yes,” Lola replied. “He was one of the few white poets whose work I could read without twitching. He understood the existential crisis of white people. Not from the perspective of being outnumbered by black people, brown people, and cool yellow people like me. Rather, he understood how self-destructive white people could become when faced with adversity of their own making.”
“I knew Stephen when I was younger,” Hopper said. “He seemed interested mostly in real estate.”
“That’s funny,” Lola said. “Terrible ending, though.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Didn’t you hear? Stabbed to death on a deserted subway platform,” Lola said. “He bled to death all alone. He was found dead at the scene. Great funeral, though. The Campbell funeral home was thick with writers and agents. Your mother was there. I remember that about half the women under 40 were visibly pregnant. Anderson Cooper was seated in my pew. He was watching everyone. He was assessing everyone’s potential for inclusion in an appreciation of Stephen he was writing. Apparently, I didn’t warrant mention. Motherfucking Anderson Cooper.”
Continue to Chapter 10 here.