My Cousin Phil

by Ruth Z Deming

Cleveland, Ohio wasn't big enough to hold all of the warring Blumenthal family. We were as territorial as birds in the Amazon jungle. Still, when something happened - a death, a romance, a diagnosis - it took less than two minutes before everyone knew about it, thanks to their smart phones, which seem to have replaced face to face communication.

Well, I would have none of it. I would see my cousin in person. He was the most controversial person in the entire family, except for Aunt Mildie, who got herself pregnant with a famous television personality - "Dan the Exercise Man" - and moved to Chicago to seek her fortune and raise her son.

What was the problem with Cousin Phil? How can I put this delicately? He loved women. Couldn't keep his hands off them. I doubt that the painter Renoir had affairs with all his models. Phil, on the contrary, tried to. And succeeded handsomely.

His paintings were in the living rooms or art museums all across the country. That man had talent to spare. When I attended Shaker Heights High School, he brought me down his family's basement to paint me. In one corner were the washer and dryer. The rest was consigned to his easel, his canvas, which he stretched in front of me, and, on the ping-pong table, paint brushes, jars of mineral spirits and turpentine.

I had no idea that my cousin was a lothario, not then, anyway. It would take a few more years.

Cousin Phil was my mentor. He taught me all about art - Picasso, Caravaggio, Romare Beardon - and music - Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, Bach's Musical Offering, Ginastera's String Quartets. We'd go up into his bedroom, which was next to our grandmother's, and he'd play me the music, while narrating like a disc jockey.

Barbara Levin came into his life at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he was an assistant instructor. He was a magnet for the women and she won his heart. Even I loved her with her immense blue eyes, curled eyelashes and flashy clothing.

On the eve of his wedding, he said to me, "Julie, let me show you the apartment where we're gonna live. You will love it."

"Sure," I said, suspecting nothing. We left the family home and began walking. How I loved being with my cousin. We bounced down the stairway of his house and headed for the school yard. A few dead autumn leaves skittered across the playground. Perfect fall weather. I jumped on a swing and Cousin Phil pushed me back and forth. I couldn't stop smiling.

Finally we reached the apartment. He fiddled in his pocket for the keys and unlocked the door. A smell of fresh paint surrounded us.

"Julie," he said. "I should have married you instead of Barbara. She's too conservative for me. Thinks I'm after all the girls. But now there's only one for me, my cute little cousin, Julie."

Before I realized what was happening, he locked me in an embrace, so tight, I could barely breathe.

He cupped my cheeks and got ready to kiss me. "I've lusted after you since you started developing."

"You are disgusting! Absolutely lecherous, you bastard."

I started for the door, but he grabbed me, threw me onto the carpet, and ripped off my clothes. "My god," he said, as he lay on top of me and pushed himself inside. "We'll have to arrange for conjugal visits when Barb isn't home."

That was the last I saw of Cousin Phil for many years. I forbad myself to even think of him. I got married, had two little boys, and divorced my husband. A top attorney got me quite a settlement.

Then I heard the news. Phil had suffered a stroke. Not a terrible one. He was sixty-one years old, had appeared on national talk shows because of his work, but was now consigned to the Wylie House, one of Cleveland's finest assisted living facilities.

Of course I was going to see him. I wanted to see him suffer.

First, I went to my hairdresser. Lied to her and said, "I've got a new boyfriend. Want to look special for him later this week."

"Oh, Julie, you look special all the time!"

We decided on a sassy auburn color, with bangs, and cut just below my ears.

At home, I stood before the mirror trying on all my sexiest outfits, things I wore when I'd go on first dates. I was the kind of girl, that, even in my early fifties, men still lusted after. Nothing made me feel better than when construction workers whistled at me. Someday I hoped to lure one of them home.

Black was a sexy color. When I walked into Wylie House, where I'd visited our family's elders, the place they'd go to die, I wore black net stockings, a short skirt with lace on the bottom, and a hot little top that hugged my body.

Paint me now, you bastard!

The home had that certain special smell. Cordon Bleu wafting over Depends diapers the aides hadn't had time to change yet.

Cousin Phil's room was on the second floor. In my heels, I walked confidently toward his single room.

Opening the door a crack, I said to him, "This room 202?"

He stared hard, seeming to stare through my clothes and my very being.

"See!" he said. "If I'd married you I wouldn't be in this situation."

I laughed, as I stripped off all my clothes.

I made up some little dance as if I were Marilyn Monroe. My cousin simply watched with a little smile on his face.

"Get over here now, Julie, you wild thing, you!"

I ran my fingers through my new hair cut, twirled around, while I decided what to do.

Easy. I climbed into bed with him.

"Do what you want with me," I said, looking at his handsome, unshaven face.

Lust isn't such a bad thing.

I left as dinner was being served, never intending to return.

He summoned me a couple more times. I haven't returned. Yet.

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