I am sitting by my terminal thinking that if I cut out 15 minutes early, Blue Health will not cease to exist. In fact, the way the thought first takes me is that if I strip stark naked and do a complicated Indonesian dance among the coiled computer cables that connect us all to information and electricity, no one will likely notice.
The phone rings. I pull out the electric plug. No matter who it is I will say, “I’m sorry, our computers are down. Please try Monday, and thank you for choosing Blue Health.”
My job is to approve or deny benefits that have been denied at least three times before they get to me. I am the court of last appeals. But no one can expect me to play King Solomon without my electronics.
I pick up the phone on the tenth ring. Anyone who hangs up before that does not have the necessary staying power to represent himself in the arena of managed care.
“Hello, my name is Carlton Bennett. I am calling concerning a claim which has been denied.”
This last line is one I’ve heard before. The name however gives me apoplexy. This is a voice I know, one I would recognize were I unconscious. “Yes, Mr. Bennett.” I’m test-flying my vocal cords, giving our caller a fair shot at recognizing me. Carlton Bennett is my ex. My first ex. My only ex. My first husband. A man I haven’t spoken to in 15 years, five lifetimes ago.
“How may I help you?” I’m being ironic.
“I was told I could appeal a denial on a claim submitted for my son.”
His son? Carlton never wanted children. It was one of the top ten reasons we broke up. I woke up one morning ready to get pregnant and Carlton developed a serious case of not wanting children.
“How old is your son?”
“Ten, the first of June.”
Carlton doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t recognize my voice at all. It’s like our marriage. He never knew with whom he was dealing.
“Let me pull up your record, sir. Could I please have your member number?”
“776-42-9816,” Carlton says. “Oh, sorry, that’s my Social Security number.” Eight digits that once were slated to bankroll my old age. I might pretend that Carlton’s Social Security number sounds familiar, but I don’t even know my own. “1456-6-779.” Carlton enunciates each number. He always was a crisp, clear speaker. I punch the numbers in and stare at the blank screen till I remember I unplugged it. I plug it in again.
Subscriber: Bennett, Carlton Wilder. Address: 435 North Grant Avenue, Weston, MA 01090.
Weston. He lives not 20 miles away. I had always imagined him living still in Albany where I left him. I’m scrolling through the narrative of Carlton’s new life. Well, new to me. If I wanted to, I could access every cough and cold and strep infection in his replacement family. If I wanted to, I could work out all their maladies. I don’t want to. Disease and illness scare me silly. This is the last job I should have. Half the time I’m terrified to look at the computer screen.
“The treatments for my son were medically necessary,” Carlton says. Loud rock music is pulsing in the background. It must be his kids. Carlton can’t be playing it. Nobody changes that much. “We took my son to a practitioner of acupressure who was able to successfully treat him.”
The Carlton I knew would not have known what acupressure was. Also, he would have split his infinitives only if he were nervous or uncertain of the legitimacy of his claim.
“What were the dates of service, please?” I’m leading Carlton down the garden path here. Blue Health pays for alternative medicine about once every 37 years.
“The treatments began last July and continued weekly for eight months.”
The man would stand a better chance of having us build a clay tennis court in his backyard.
“The practitioner’s name was Paul Johnson,” Carlton says, as though this might strengthen his case. Ideally, we like to see a long string of letters after the name of anyone we write a check to.
James Bennett. Etiology: Rule out father’s exposure to butoxyethanol, Gulf War. Claim referred to Veteran’s Administration.
Butoxyethanol? I used to wonder if Carlton might have contaminated me by his exposure in Iraq. I worried that what I might have taken from the marriage was some unhappy rearrangement of my genes from some nasty chemicals. I fretted that when I least expected it, I would contract some strange disease I picked up in some careless marriage.
Diagnosis: Profound Insomnia.
I breathe a sigh of relief. Number one, Carlton’s kid doesn’t have something terminal, and number two, butoxyethanol is not our problem here. Young James didn’t get insomnia from Carlton’s Gulf War experience; James got insomnia from Carlton, who probably got it from his father, who got it from his father, going back to Adam, who probably never slept the same after that little catnap when God took his rib and gave him Eve.
Carlton was a card-carrying insomniac. By the middle of our marriage, which is to say when we were 18 months into the thing, we moved for the third time because of Carlton’s inability to sleep. We were always being driven out by nighttime noise. In our first apartment the irritant was what Carlton referred to as black slack, a name he never would have acknowledged as having the slightest racist tint, but a name he never used with anyone but me. That’s what marriage is: a place to be a bigot, if that’s what you are.
Ancient African rhythms gyrated out of gigantic teakwood speakers in the apartment below ours. My bare feet would absorb the rhythm through the floor, the music throbbed like a mean toothache in the left bicuspid of the world, and five nights a week Carlton would get out of bed and go downstairs and knock briskly on the door and act all ROTC and explain how he wouldn’t mind the music at all only he had to study, and the husband and the wife would raise uncomprehending eyes and gaze through Carlton from underneath smart Afros that gave them each a good six-inch height advantage and never say a word.
And Carlton would come back upstairs and put his ear to the gold shag carpet and register with his red face the fact that they had turned the music down so imperceptibly that the overall effect was as though they had turned the volume up.
We moved a month before our lease was up to an apartment in an ugly building with thick concrete walls and heavy metal doors designed to keep noise and silence in entirely separate spaces. But our Cornell neighbors overhead owned amplifiers guaranteed to wake the dead and make them wonder, and their rock band played every day from mid-afternoon till 4 a.m., except for those odd moments when they took breaks to smoke dope and make love not war or to drink and fight. I tried to convince Carlton that we would surely find ourselves slaughtered and tossed in the leafy ravine behind the dumpsters if we complained. In that marriage, nighttime noises always ended in fantasies of our abrupt demise.
Our new landlord had an unlisted number (we were not his first tenants), so we would lie in bed and fret and sigh, longing for the gentle rhythms of Africa still pulsing in our last apartment.
In three months time we moved again, this time to the second floor of a house owned by a quiet if hard-of-hearing couple in their sixties who watched television every night from eleven until 2 a.m. We would lie in bed electrified, on edge, through jokes and interviews and monologues, every word as clear as day, and twitch and start with every wave of laughter, and Carlton would pick up the telephone and we would lie listening to it ring downstairs unheard by the snoozing husband and his snoring wife. “I wonder if they’re both asleep,” Carlton would say as he pulled his raincoat over his pajamas to go downstairs. In the end, we were asked to move.
“This is our home,” the landlord said. “We need to feel free to live our lives here.”
It seemed reasonable even at the time.
That retired couple were living their lives. We weren’t, not a bit. Carlton and I weren’t living anything. We were just trying to get some sleep. We spent our whole marriage trying to get everybody in the universe to turn the volume down so we could get some sleep. I should approve Carlton’s request for payment of his son’s treatment for insomnia just because of the grief it will spare the young boy’s future bride. Carlton and I were the oldest couple in America. We could have been out dancing. We could have been home loving.
“I think I should tell you,” Carlton summons me back to our afterlife in Massachusetts, “I know something about the law. I am an attorney.”
Hello? I know that. I put you through your last two years of law school.
“My question is,” Carlton uses his lawyer voice, “on what grounds exactly is this claim being denied?”
“On the grounds of gross insensitivity,” I want to say. “On the basis of gratuitous unkindness.”
A week or two before we married Carlton told me that if I ever got sick, contracted some horrible disease, lost my sight, or was suddenly disabled, he would leave me. He said he just wanted me to know so I wouldn’t go into marriage with any false expectations, and I said, “Okay,” and then, “I do,” a few days after that. I guess I figured I’d stay healthy. Someone should have kicked me around the block a hundred times. I should have kicked myself.
Then three years later with no one sick or lame or blind, Carlton took off as he had promised.
“My main concern,” Carlton says, “is how much more of my valuable time am I going to be required to waste on this claim? I have a life, you know.” Carlton has the temerity to say these words to me.
He has a life. No small thing that. I push some buttons at random and massage the mouse and try to decide if I can make a similar claim. I have my Jake, who is a sweetheart of the first water. I have a job that keeps me off the streets. I have a house and a gym and a church and a well-worn library card and a couple really funny friends. But a life? Do these all together add up to a life? A life with a big hole shot through the middle, a gaping hole where a child should be, a little girl named Eliza, a little boy named Junior Jake.
And on whom do I blame this life? I know for certain if I hadn’t married Carlton, I would never have married Jake. I wouldn’t have taken the winding snake path that brought me to the town. Carlton was the bridge I took to get to Jake, the road I traveled on to get here. And so, I hold Carlton personally responsible for all of the particulars of my current life. Nobody can tell us for certain why Jake and I cannot conceive a child, but I know the reason. Some way or other, the whole thing’s Carlton’s fault. And I didn’t realize before this moment that that is my belief.
“I have made this appeal three times.” Carlton’s voice grows testy. Not a first in my experience. “A subscriber pays his premiums,” Carlton says. “And what does he get in return?”
I gave you my youth, buster. My twenties. My only twenties, although I did not know it at the time. The best years of my life. Only that’s not quite the truth. They weren’t the best. In some ways they were the worst. The now is so much better. Even I know that. What I have with Jake is solid and kind, warm and openhearted.
Only half the time I can’t see it because of this child of ours who will not come to be.
“I sincerely hope we can conclude this business with this call.” Carlton’s voice has become seriously annoying.
The phone rings again.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I say. “Would you hold please?” I push the button before he can start to sputter. For some reason I am entirely out of patience with the man. He kept me waiting nine months while he was making up his mind on a divorce. It won’t kill him to wait five minutes.
“Mattie, I can’t find the metal file box with our taxes.” It’s my Jake. “It’s not in the kitchen or in the closet in the hall. Mattie, tell me you didn’t give it away or throw it out.”
“I did neither.” I am almost certain that the words I speak are true, or very nearly. “Jake, I’m busy here.” I only say this to put things on a more equal footing. As it happens, I am not averse to keeping Carlton on the line till Christmas.
“Sorry,” Jake says. “But where could it be?”
“Are you in the den? Look in the window seat.”
“Hold on. Great. Terrific. Here it is. Good girl.”
I forbear to bark as he reaches through the wire to pat my head.
“Jake,” I say. “I’m thinking maybe we should reconsider that adoption thing.” I had not a clue that this was coming. The thought did not exist inside my brain before the words came out.
“What? I thought you said it was out of the question. The last time we talked I pretty much thought that it was.”
“Well, maybe it was, and now maybe it isn’t anymore.”
“Well,” Jake says. “Well. Good. Well good. Well, fine. Okay. Let’s talk about it. We really could use another tax exemption.”
“I know,” I say. “That’s what I was thinking.”
After Jake hangs up I sit here palpitating up a hurricane. I cannot believe what I just said. I’ve always thought that adopting was the one thing I could not do. Too many unknowns. Too many variables. What kind of child might you get? (Unlike having your own baby where it’s all written down in ironclad guarantees.) And, it only hits me now. Adopting a child is no more of a crapshoot than anything else you do. It’s an illusion that anything is guaranteed. Life is a free-fall, start to finish. Name one thing in life that worked out the way I had it figured.
When Jake and I were sure that we would never have a child, not even with space-age sextuplet drugs and obscene medical procedures, Jake started talking adoption. I said we were too old. We’re 79, if you add our ages up. “Who adds up ages?” Jake said. “Our baby won’t.”
Jake hasn’t mentioned it for weeks, but I know he still thinks about it. I saw a book in his car about foreign adoptions and he goes out of his way to talk to Paul and Chris across the street who, at the combined age of 97, adopted a little girl, flying all the way to China to bring her back to grow up on our street.
I want a baby as much as Jake does. More, I think. It’s just that I have always been afraid to take the chance. Then Carlton calls up from the long past to remind me about the shelf life of a sure thing. When I married Carlton, I was signing up till death did us part and then for six weeks after that. Carlton was the surest sure thing I ever knew. Mr. Forever.
Adopting a baby. If anything comes of this and then goes badly awry, I’ll blame Carlton. It’s nice to have someone to blame your life on. If I hold him responsible for my serpentine life up till now, I might as well blame him for the rest. He’ll never know. Or, I’ll drop him a line when I’m 88: “Dear Carlton, Thanks for the phone call at Blue Health 50 years ago. Our daughter Eliza turns 49 today. She is and always has been the joy of my life.”
Carlton. Geez. I push the button on the phone to reconnect us.
“Carlton?” I say.
“Yes.” His voice hints at a decided preference for last names here.
“Carlton Bennett?” I say, regrouping.
“Yes,” Carlton says, all spit and vinegar.
“Yes, well thank you for waiting,” I say. “Sir. Your reference number for the approval is 33987.” I make the numbers up. I’ve found people like to have a number to wrap their amazement in, on those rare occasions when we agree to pay.
“Did you say approval?” Carlton sounds something in the neighborhood of pleasant.
“Yes, we are approving your claim for reimbursement.”
It seems the least that we can do.
“Call me again sometime,” I say.
“What?” Carlton is bewilderment in ten-pound, wing-tip shoes and a three-piece suit.
“I mean if you have any additional questions.”
“Oh.” I think for the first time Carlton recognizes my voice or wonders if he does. “Right, thank you very much.”
“Thank you,” I say. I mean it. “And thank you for choosing Blue Health.”
(Linda McCullough Moore’s newest book is This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon, lindamcculloughmoore.com)