The House of Blumenthal by Garrett Socol

When she began to vomit on a twice daily basis, Janice Blumenthal took a home pregnancy test.  The following afternoon, she saw a doctor who confirmed the result of the home pregnancy test.  Janice had no idea who the father of the fetus might be.

Her first impulse was to schedule an abortion.  Her second was to carry the baby to full term, then place it with an adoption agency so that she’d make a dream come true for some barren couple.  Her third impulse was to have the baby so that this child would be a companion and love her unconditionally for ten to twelve years.

Her fourth impulse was to kill herself before she became fat.

She had no idea what the fuck to do.

One unexpected result of expecting a child was that Janice’s desire for tumultuous sex on a daily basis no longer existed.  It was dead.  Gone.  Decimated.  The mere thought of being naked with some strange man revolted her.  She didn’t know why and she didn’t question it.

Each passing day, each passing week, brought final decision upon final decision.  In the middle of Janice’s fifth month, she made the final decision to go with the adoption idea.  This would be her gift to humanity: a life.  Then she would take her own.

       *

In the Blumenthal family, the boys had the better gig.  Despite the progress of the times – women executives, female Vice Presidential nominees – Janice and her sister were being groomed to become housewives and mothers.  On the other hand, by the age of nine, the eldest son Jeremy was encouraged to attend an Ivy League university and become a doctor like his Uncle Phillip or a CPA with his own accounting firm like his second cousin Stuart.

The Blumenthal births occurred two years apart: boy girl boy girl, as if the kids were being seated for a sweet sixteen party.  Janice was the second to arrive, the first female of the family, which brought no privileges.  It was the boys whose opinions were sought after and needs were met on an hourly basis.  Not that the girls were neglected; they were provided with food, shelter and the occasional doll and DVD, but their hopes and dreams were never taken seriously.  It was as if they had no hopes and never dreamed.

When Jeremy turned thirteen, his Bar Mitzvah overshadowed just about everything in the House of Blumenthal, as Janice came to call her home.  (She believed the house could breathe, the way haunted mansions in movies did.  And this particular house suffered from bad breath.)

The superstition had been passed down from generation to generation: the number thirteen signified bad luck.  Janice learned that certain high-rise buildings and upscale hotels didn’t have a thirteenth floor; they progressed directly from twelve to fourteen.  She found this insane and fascinating.  Some individuals suffered from triskaidekaphobia, a fear of anything related to the ghastly number.  These sufferers didn’t budge if their digital clock read thirteen minutes past the hour.  At the strike of fourteen minutes past, they were able to breathe easily again.  Janice found this insane and fascinating.

For some Jewish boys, this belief made perfect sense.  Thirteen signified the birthday when they were forced to endure the ritual known as the Bar Mitzvah.  It wasn’t merely the pressure of performing in front of a large, sweaty congregation that terrified a Jewish teenager, it was the frightful reception where the young man of the hour and his siblings pretended to enjoy being pawed by Mom and Dad’s intoxicated friends as well as oddly groomed relatives they’d only met at the funerals of great grandparents.

The Blumenthal parents, Ruth and Marvin, were determined to throw the most lavish, impressive Bar Mitzvah reception, at the finest hall, wearing the most dazzling clothes, hiring the coolest band and choosing the perfect menu.  Janice knew exactly what this was about, and it had nothing to do with religion.  Lie number one.  The purpose of all the fuss was to outdo the other Bar Mitzvah receptions that had recently taken place in the neighborhood of Scarsdale, New York.  With its stately homes, old oak trees, and underpaid housekeepers, this was an upscale, picturesque town.  The house itself, a five-bedroom colonial with gray clapboard siding and taupe shutters, looked like it had always been there.  Every spring, the barbecue was taken out of storage and placed on the back patio.  The ping pong table came out as well as the L.L.Bean cotton hammock.  An idyllic setting, it seemed like the kind of place that would breed happy, successful children.

Jeremy didn’t seem the least bit happy, bubbling with frustration thanks to the hoopla surrounding the big event.  One week before the extravaganza, he confided in his sister.  “I wish the whole damn thing was over.”  Because Janice was closest to him in age, he tended to confide in her – which gave her a feeling of responsibility.  She loved him to death for it.

It was on the fateful night of his Bar Mitzvah that Jeremy took his first hit of marijuana with his friend and the local pothead Larry Rothstein.  This eventually led to harder, more dangerous stuff, and the family Blumenthal noticed a dramatic change in him – he became depressed, downbeat and feckless.

Living in an altered state, Jeremy stopped confiding in Janice.  “When he turns eighteen, he’ll become a mench,” she heard her mother quietly say to her Aunt Phyllis.  She was happy to hear those words, thinking Jeremy would return to his former self and confide in her again.  But this was not to be.

Sunday 1 AM.  Siren sliced the silence.  Victim rushed to hospital.  No heartbeat.  No pulse.  Death by respiratory failure.  Just shy of his eighteenth birthday, Jeremy overdosed.  (Willie Maxwell, with whom he was using, was fine.)  Lie number two:  Janice’s brother would always be there.  She felt like a landmine blew up in her face.

At the funeral, Janice said a few words that Jeremy had once confided in her.  “He told me, ‘If I ever OD, let everyone know it’s better than spending a weekend in the Catskills.’”  She recited this with no attitude, no satirical bent.  Her words were met with a few chuckles, but she could see the disapproval on her mother’s stern face.  Frankly Janice didn’t care.  She was growing up, becoming her own person.

After the funeral, everything moved in slow motion, as if each member of the family had been injected with a heavy dose of morphine.  Ruth was hit the hardest; she could barely take a few steps without literally falling to the ground.  For the first time Janice could remember, her mother became uncharacteristically quiet.  This was incomprehensible to anyone who knew Ruth Blumenthal.  It was as if she’d moved into her own silent world where the closest neighbor was miles away.

Janice missed her brother terribly, but he had really left the year before, when hard drugs had grabbed him by the gut.  Still, she craved the brother she once had, the one who confided in her. There were times she hated him for leaving, but her feelings of love were so profound that her hatred never lasted longer than seconds.

“At least he didn’t kill anyone,” she once whispered into her pillow late one night.  Janice had sensed a scary streak in Jeremy; she wondered if he might have become so rebellious that he would’ve resorted to violence one day.  She hated herself for thinking this, but she wondered if Jeremy’s death, in the end, was for the best.

Ruth Blumenthal never recovered from the loss of her son, and less than one year after the tragedy, she was diagnosed with a late stage of pancreatic cancer.  She didn’t deny, didn’t become angry, didn’t bargain and didn’t become depressed.  She went straight to the acceptance stage, as if she’d willed herself to become sick.  What she didn’t expect was the excruciating pain associated with her particular illness.  Until the drugs kicked in, she would writhe and scream and beg to be taken out of her misery.  “This is not the way people die in movies,” Janice said to her best friend Lily.  “In movies, the deaths are always so smooth and easy.”

“Right,” Lily agreed.  “A cough here, a cough there, and they’re toast.  Love Story.”

“Terms of Endearment.  No screaming in pain, no writhing in agony,” Janice said.  “So fucking phony.  I swear I’ll never see another movie unless it’s a comedy.”

Even with a full-time nurse on duty, Janice did whatever she could to care for her mother.  It was arduous to watch this woman waste away to eighty pounds.  Janice prayed for the agony to end, and eight months after Jeremy OD’d, it did.  Lie number three: her mother would always be around to protect her.  That was the last time Janice prayed.  Not that she’d ever had strong religious beliefs, but now she was a devout, shout-it-from-the-rooftops atheist.  She couldn’t imagine any god taking her brother away at eighteen and mother at forty-one, and in such horrible ways.

The new Janice dressed in funereal colors and painted her fingernails dark purple.  She colored her mane of auburn hair a shade called suddenly sable, as close to black as possible without being black.  Her appearance reflected what was going on inside, and inside she was in mourning, present at the death march of her life.

She would see women over forty strolling down the street and wonder why they were so special, why they weren’t struck down by disease.   She felt the same way about young men over eighteen, wondering why they managed to survive their drug phase and her brother didn’t make it through his.

Relief from the gloom was desperately, gravely needed, and gradually the eldest Blumenthal girl lost herself in a newfound pleasure.  The first two times weren’t terribly pleasurable, but by the third time, she understood how to enjoy the experience.  She didn’t care who knew.  She didn’t care if she was labeled a slut.  For her, sex was an escape from reality.  It was sport.  Entertainment.  It was her drug of choice.

She was convinced she had control over her own recklessness, marveling at the mystery of the male body and how it could satisfy her in ways that bordered on miraculous.  Then one day it hit her: she was an addict.  If she didn’t have some kind of sexual encounter on any given day, she would go to sleep that night unsatisfied.

Dropping out of school seemed the wisest thing to do; she needed some kind of income and her wealthy father was a stingy bastard.  A large man with an old fashioned silver-gray moustache, he despised his daughter’s radical new look and threatened to throw her out if she didn’t change her appearance and abide by his rules. He called her a hellion, a criminal in the making.  A wave of heat rose in her neck and she had to hold herself back from strangling the man.  After weeks of feverishly searching for a job, she found one as a manager’s assistant at an ad agency.  In Seattle.  Moving as far away from the House of Blumenthal as possible (without considering sunny California which seemed like a perpetual pool party) brought Janice something she hadn’t had in years, a sense of hope.

  *

The rainy, gloomy weather of the Northwest agreed with Janice Blumenthal. She was ecstatic to be away from sunshine, barbecues and ping pong tables.  Thick dark clouds made her feel protected, as if the sun couldn’t shine on the minutiae of her life.

In order to become a professional member of the work force, Janice’s goth look had to go.  The hair became a light chocolate brown and the fingernails a metallic tigerlily red.  But the sex addiction remained.  In fact, toiling at the advertising firm eight hours a day fueled it.  Not only did she sleep with several members of the staff (both single and married), every client who walked through the door was potential prey.  Janice feared that, at twenty-four, her days of being young and attractive were numbered, so she took advantage of her age and looks and grabbed any opportunity that came her way.

Soon the sex became less pleasurable.  Janice often needed a fix the way a drug addict needed to shoot up.  She realized she was on a dangerous, lonely rollercoaster ride, but she couldn’t help herself.  Attending meetings of Sex Addicts Anonymous were more entertaining than helpful. They seemed to be social gatherings, not a means to combat an illness.  Still, she heard some startling cautionary tales: the female executive who pleasured one man after the next in a dimly lit parking garage; the middle-aged man who had sex twenty-four times in one day;  the victim of childhood abuse whose needs for recreational drugs almost exceeded her desire for kinky, violent encounters; the father of two who was arrested nine times for having sex with men in public places.

Janice’s experiences were always impersonal, with bodies unfamiliar and occasionally less than beautiful.  But the faceless men needed to connect physically, to fill a need, like Janice did. Never did she invite her sexual partner to sleep over at her small, austere apartment.  Often she would doze off, and when she woke up she barely recalled the encounter.

Janice’s new best friend Kim, a freckled caterer with shining brown eyes, wasn’t on the prowl for passion.  Instead she was looking for true love, the kind only found in sappy romance novels, and often wouldn’t sleep with a guy until the fourth or fifth date.

“Why don’t you have some fun while you’re single and searching?” Janice asked her one evening over chicken with red curry at a Thai restaurant.

“I do have fun,” she said.  “It’s just a different kind than you have.”  Kim knew that Janice was somewhat promiscuous but had no idea her friend took part in behavior that was even in the neighborhood of addiction.   (Janice deliberately withheld information from Kim, only sharing some of her experiences.)  “I like the suspense of romance,” Kim explained.  “Will he call?  Will we hold hands?  Will he try to kiss me?”

“What century are you living in?” Janice asked.

“I know I’m in the minority.  I know that most people hook up on the first date.  I’m just not like that.”

“Well, you might not be like that, but I guarantee you’d like it,” Janice said.  “It’s like avocado.  If you tried it, you’d like it.”

“I tried avocado, remember?  And guacamole.  Hated it.”

“Think of the time and energy you’d save.  If you find out you’re sexually incompatible at the beginning, you don’t have to go through the middle and the end.”

Some of the men Janice slept with wanted to see her a second time, but the
feeling was rarely mutual.  Only Brian Maynard, the burly, thick haired manager of a container shipping company, interested her enough to see more than once.  He looked like a mall cop but spoke like a scholar.  There was certainly no love on her part, but he was such a hot sexual partner that she wanted him on a weekly basis, like a B12 shot. When he asked her to join him and some of his container shipping cohorts for dinner, she froze.  “I don’t think so,” she finally said.  “That would turn this casual thing we’ve got going into something more serious.”

“You don’t want something more serious?” he asked.

“Not at the moment,” she told him over a shrimp salad at one of Seattle’s more elegant restaurants, a bandage covering her right pinkie.

“Why not?”

“Because it would end.  Everything good ends except the rain in Seattle.  You can always depend on the rain in Seattle.”

“You are one odd bird.  Only girl I ever met who didn’t want something serious.”

“That’s why you like me.”

“Well,” he admitted, “you’re definitely eccentric and I find that intriguing.”  He fidgeted in his chair.  “What if I told you I was falling for you?”

“I would say you’d be better off falling down a mine shaft.”

“You have an answer for everything,” he said, nodding, as if her response was expected.  “What’s that bandage on your finger?”

“Paper cut,” she explained.  “At the office.”

“You should be more careful.  More like other people.”

She laughed out loud.  “Other people?  I’m bitter, jaded and depressed and not even thirty.  Can you imagine what I’ll be at forty and fifty?  A grotesque, frightening, heavily medicated zombie.”

“I wonder what I’ll be like at forty,” he wondered.

“You’ll have a second wife with two kids from the first marriage and one from
the second, and you’ll look exactly the same.”

A strong wind whipped the trees outside, causing the leaves to move in thick manes like hair in front of a blow dryer, and ripping the petals from the red roses in the nearby garden.  Janice watched from her window seat as if witnessing her life.  Her hair flew wild, legs tried to remain steady, and her spirit was streaked with blood.  It wasn’t just the paper cut; it was the scissor cut the week before and the nosebleed the week before that and the heart bleed she’d felt since the night her brother was taken.  Just then, coffee arrived in bone china, and Brian’s thumbs were too thick to navigate the dainty handles of the cup.  He struggled and struggled, finally deciding to cradle the cup between his palms like a gorilla maneuvering a grape.

The check came, then Brian drove Janice home as the wind continued to rip and roar.  People rushed through the streets, face down.  Hanging traffic lights swayed and threatened to fly away.  Brian waited for an invitation to join Janice in her apartment, specifically her bed.  But she begged off.  “I need sleep,” she told him.  She kissed him on the cheek and then slowly emerged from his battered old Buick, sauntering off, allowing the wind to attack her and destroy any semblance of a hairstyle, knowing this was the last time they would see one another.  Brian was a puzzle she had already solved.

Janice’s suicidal idealization grew at a gradual pace.  Her life had turned into one unexciting encounter after another, and one blatant lie after the next.  Tired of the routine, waking up and getting out of bed each morning became a major chore.  Hopelessness consumed her, and agoraphobia seemed like a perfectly acceptable alternative lifestyle.  She couldn’t imagine living the rest of her life this way, but she was afraid death would be just as boring.  If she was given absolute assurance that heaven was a haven, a magical wonderland filled with love and desserts, she would’ve killed herself, no questions asked.  But nobody could make any guarantees.  No one could even guarantee that guacamole was available. Still, she was leaning toward taking her life.

Janice imagined rotting in her apartment for weeks before anyone found her body.  This was a rather unpleasant scenario, so she decided she would check into a hotel and swallow a bottle of potent sleeping pills.  The chambermaid would undoubtedly check her room the morning after her demise as long as she remembered to remove the Do Not Disturb sign from the door.

Janice’s pregnancy turned out to be a fairly easy one; the vomiting had stopped after six or seven weeks.  Then, during her eighth month, she began to experience an inordinate amount of pain.  When she was doubled over in agony, a taxi rushed her to the hospital.  The baby arrived more than two weeks early, landing at a dangerously light three pounds.  There were serious difficulties with the delivery including the mother’s excessive bleeding.  Despite the intense work of the doctors and nurses, she didn’t survive.  Janice was gone.  Luckily, she had arranged everything with the adoption agency.  After learning the surname of the adoptive couple –  Thatch – she named the baby Timothy Ninja so that his initials would be TNT.  Thanks to his biological mother, this boy would be dynamite.


Garrett Socol's first collection of short stories, Gathered Here Together, was published in 2011 by Ampersand Books.  His plays have been produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse.  He created and produced a long list of cable TV shows including “Talk Soup” and “The Gossip Show” for the E! Network.