He was not a man who could take a door off the hinges, trim it to size with a circular saw, and rehang it. He was not a man who would comfortably fist bump with other men in a room full of men who fist bumped. He was not a football player. He was not a badass. He was a man who liked lying in a hammock, who liked food and pleasure and who drank too much most nights not to gear up in a Stanley Kowalski way but to untether and unreel into bed and dreams. But in spite of what his wife, Kit, thought of him, he was not a pussy. He could rake a yard full of leaves into four lawn-and-leaf bags in under an hour. He could sit through a sleepless night on the bathroom floor cracking bad jokes while his three daughters took turns vomiting, at first every five minutes and eventually every thirty minutes until they were all asleep at dawn in a pile of pillows. He could manage a restaurant wait staff full of young and beautiful women and never once cross the line with even one of them. “There is strength, and there is strength,” is what Mike wanted to say to his wife. But months ago, years ago maybe, it seemed she had stopped listening.
He was forty-two and all his friends’ lives were crash-landing into divorce. He had spent many hours overhearing Kit’s phone conversations during which she paced around the house spot cleaning and picking through the minutiae of the demise of multiple marriages. And he’d felt smug a lot of that time, even though his marriage had troubles, even though they’d been through ten years of counseling, even though their sex had been sporadic. His fourteen-year-old daughter, Esther, his oldest, had even said to him, after eavesdropping on yet another of his wife’s phone conversations, “Name one relationship that isn’t just drama and shit,” and he’d said, “Well, look at your mom and me. We’re good,” and his daughter had rolled her eyes. “I guess so, if you think general avoidance and living under the same roof constitute good.” He should have acted parental and annoyed at the tone, but he was pleased with her correct use of “constitute” and her enviable subject-verb agreement, so he looked at her blankly and asked about archery lessons.
And so he was shocked when his wife of fifteen years, with whom he’d had three children, had had sex countless times, had traveled to forty-eight states, had been to seven funerals, and had opened the restaurant that was now his livelihood, told him it was over, that there was someone else but that the someone else wasn’t the point, that the point was that the universe was taking them in different directions. She’d really said exactly that while he’d stood in their carefully curated living room and puzzled over how he had ended up fifteen years into a marriage with someone who talked about “The Universe,” capital U. Kit wiped imaginary sweat off her face, a nervous tic he’d seen a million times. The first time had been at a Bikini Kill concert years before marriage and children, back when Kit chain-smoked and Sharpied her eyebrows and wore cutoff mailman shorts with fishnets and was always looking for an argument or at the very least a vehement debate. That Kit had been enlivening but a little scary. And, as most people’s did, her electrification level had ratcheted down as she made her way into her thirties. It had amazed him how in a decade she’d taken what seemed like an amorphous and un-encapsulated anger and energy and fine-tuned and focused it on things that at twenty-five would have mattered to her not at all. As most people did, as he did, she had actual conversations about savings accounts and desktop clutter. But sometimes, after their girls were asleep and they had a night off from the restaurant, they’d take cigarettes and whiskey out into the backyard and sit cross-legged in the dirt with the chickens, and he’d give her a half-joking argument about something that they both in reality agreed on—the superiority of Scandinavian education, for example, or the ridiculousness of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate—just to see her ignite in that half-drunk way that he missed and loved, and he’d thought that that was definitely sustaining enough, but clearly, he now knew, it hadn’t been.
He didn’t react to her divorce news in what he thought of as a television way: break all her carefully amassed vintage dishware or rip the buttons off her button-tufted Design Within Reach couch. No, the house was her setpiece, and she had worked at composing it, and sometimes she walked around the living room moving objects infinitesimally when she thought no one was looking. That kind of direct-hit cruelty had never been his thing.
Instead, he packed a bag with a wok, his phone charger, some old sheets his girls had most likely peed on many times and that his wife had then hot-water washed with lavender, a couple changes of clothes, and a toothbrush, and walked through the alleys to his friend’s empty rental house. It wasn’t a car and street kind of night, and the walking, through puddles, next to frogs, beside people’s restless backyard chickens, helped him. Oh, and the smoking, which he couldn’t do in their house and usually only did on the back step of his restaurant, that helped, too.
The house where Mike spent the first night in years away from his wife was empty except for a few craft beer cans on a windowsill and a mattress on the floor. It was a rental his friend owned, and someone had skipped out on the lease.
At first, Mike felt invigorated by the empty space and aloneness. He found half a chicken in the freezer, defrosted it just as you weren’t supposed to under warm water, and then cooked it in large caveman chunks with some old walnut oil he found in an otherwise empty cabinet. Maybe I’ll die of food poisoning, he thought. When the chicken was ready, he heaped it Jenga-style in a pile that looked just one step up from pet food onto a paper plate, took a Hipstamatic photo of it, and put it on Instagram with the tag line, “And I shall call it dinner.”
He stayed up for hours in his friend’s house watching, on his phone, a show about catastrophically obese people who lost half their body weight and then re-emerged transformed into their lives months later holding up their old enormous clothing as their family members screamed and cheered and cried. “I always knew this man was buried inside of you!” one wife said to her reduced husband. By the set of her face, the faraway-ness of it when she had told him, Mike felt sure his own wife now saw herself projected out into the future as some better, stronger, more self-actualized version, the badass self she was supposed to be before getting bogged down in the business of child-rearing and space sharing, or as some newer, sleeker thing the old Kit never would have imagined. But it was impossible to think of himself as free-floating and detached from all of the girls and women that had composed his world. He closed his eyes and saw them lined up by age and dressed for some reason in stripy antiquated swimming costumes, first Kit and then Esther, Ruby, and Bea, first just in a row and then in a ring around the rosy. He fell asleep after 4 am, repeatedly reloading Facebook on his phone, only to see in his dreams trickster puppies dancing with the children of his friends from high school.
He slept until 6 pm, a full fourteen hours, the longest he’d slept in any one sitting since college. It was a crazy luxury, the sleep, but he woke feeling as if elves had dipped into his ear and snipped out a portion of his brain. Something essential was missing, and he had trouble even walking to the bathroom, which was littered with cans, was without toilet paper, and had green mildew in the shower. After a few hours of addiction recovery shows, backyard phone photo shoots (“the fence at dusk!”), regrettable Facebook messages to near strangers, random sketching with a pencil on the bathroom wall, and the ingestion of half-thawed frozen egg rolls, he couldn’t take it and so he walked to the restaurant. He was late, but he felt he was permitted a day of not caring.
It was just after the main dinner rush, but all the tables were full of people eating espresso crème brûlée and drinking cocktails with bits of serrano pepper floating in them or yellow with limoncello. From the front, the place was glistening, a perfect but unfussy jewel case, just as his wife had made it: the full exposed stone wall, the burnished metal chairs outside, the hand-hewn wooden tables, the opal crockery, a hundred Edison bulbs hanging at random heights above the bar.
Virginia was at the door, and Addison and Frank were bartending. The servers were spinning around the room with trays, full and then empty, and with their wooden sandals clacking on the floor. The special was cod, and the chalkboard at the door read “Cod-omatic for the people.” At first, he’d believed entirely in their mission: good, local food, reasonably priced, a beautiful space but not so stuffy that you couldn’t walk in underdressed and with your children and a Ziploc full of crayons. And then his wife had gotten a job at a design firm, and the place became more his than hers, and it was a few months before the whole thing had started to annoy him. The foodies who came at Happy Hour and gorged on cheap appetizers, the small-towners who went onto Yelp minutes after returning home and bemoaned the fact that it wasn’t Olive Garden, with truckloads of butter-soaked breadsticks and a mountain of salad so tangy it hurt your tongue. And still, he was there nearly every day, all day, with red wine in a coffee cup and his face glowing from too much alcohol and too many cigarettes and the general buzz of being the person at the place. When he was there, he couldn’t sit at the bar without people thinking he should be working or that he wanted to be talking, so tonight he walked straight past the tables and then outside where the brick building across the alley was painted with “go home you schmuck” in gold cursive, and there was the skittering of what he presumed to be rats under the wooden pallets stacked beside the dumpster. But the sky was navy and there still was a shard of light, just enough that he could see the filmy outline of clouds against the blue.
When the back door opened, it was Virginia. She hosted five nights a week, and each night she showed up in clothes from a different era, as if in costume. On this night, it was an almost floor-length white crocheted ’70s vest over a flowered dress and knee-high moccasins. The night before, she was all Joan from Mad Men, orangey-red lipstick, a fitted ’60s shift, and red pumps. She was twenty-one and a classics major, a kid from the suburbs who used her bipolar status and corresponding medication to cultivate interest.
“Smoke?” she said, gesturing to the American Spirit box in her hand, and he jumped up from the stoop and lit her cigarette. She was balancing a piece of pie on a plate in the other hand, the pie’s lattice work gleaming and berries shining through, and she set it on one of the crates before sitting down beside him. “I don’t like pie,” she said, “but I’m trying to teach myself. I think I would be a better person in some way if I ate pie.” He wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he leaned over, picked up the piece, and bit off the tip. “There, I started things off. Your turn.” She laughed and took the lace vest off and folded it into a square so it looked like a dead rabbit in her lap. Her dress was strapless, and she was as tall as he was and not thin and breakable looking like his wife. She was substantial and ripe, and he thought if they arm wrestled it might end in a tie. It was something he and his wife had fought about, the way he was too gentle with her, the way he wouldn’t take charge. But the fact was his wife seemed like someone who needed that much of the time, needed to be in control but to be tiptoed around, and it was an impossible balance. If it were fifteen years earlier, he would have found himself in a men’s group in the woods telling stories about childhood around a fire built of wood they’d chopped into logs themselves. But in 2015, it seemed that all you could do about your masculinity was cultivate an unkempt beard and wear plaid shirts and hope it meant something.
It was nine, and there were carloads of high school boys from the outlying small towns trolling the streets of downtown and yelling out of car windows. There were groups of college kids shuffling to and from parking lots, and he was amazed by how little their guise had changed. Still with the big black glasses that he could remember from his days of being twenty but now with more impressive beards and more fashionable jeans. He’d worked in restaurants since he was that age, and even though he’d considered other things, there was something about the rush and rhythm of it, the intensity and then the almost luscious quiet and ease of after, that he couldn’t shake. When he’d gone from managing another restaurant to actually owning his own place, it had seemed like the only possible next step.
He and his wife had three girls in fairly quick succession, and now they slept through the night and had Instagram accounts and could make pasta Bolognese from start to finish, including the cleanup. It had been intense and sometimes painful, but the initial part when they needed him every second had gone quickly. And now he was a side note and even sometimes a joke in their lives, the crazy dad who came home long after bedtime, stumbling from too much wine, the insomniac who made life-sized cartoon cutouts of them on a large role of white paper while they were sleeping and then taped them to their bedroom doors, and who in the morning made pancakes shaped like rats or chickens slathered in his homemade Nutella syrup. But raising three girls to this point had wrecked him for women, really. When he looked at any grown woman now, he saw the child, the shirtless girl in the backyard rolling in chiggers and laughing or the scared pajamaed one in the middle of the night or the almost teenager throwing her milk cup in anger and watching astounded as the impact turned it to pieces. He thought being surrounded by all that girlness for all those years would help him better understand them, but it left him even more mystified. And it wasn’t a Mars and Venus thing, it wasn’t that he just thought men could never understand women and vice versa. It was more a human thing, that watching his three daughters grow, and watching his wife whisper to them and chatter and giggle and fight and make up, he’d become convinced that only for moments here and there could any person really see into and connect with any other person, and then the curtain went down again, and people were right back to it, retreating into the unknowable or coming at each other with meanness and expectation and letdown. But he wasn’t a pessimist, really. Each evening, just as he did on this one, he sat on the back stoop of the restaurant and marveled at the way the night hung down on the buildings, the way it buzzed and vibrated and then settled, the way people came out hopeful each evening, emerging from houses and apartments and from the constraints and visibility of daytime into the murky wonder of night with their hands out for the possibility.
Virginia reached over and handed him the plate of pie, half-eaten. “I can’t do it,” she said. “Not my thing. Pie. The pie-ness of pie, all oozy inside. Serious yuck.” She lit another cigarette. “I should get back in, shouldn’t I? Boss?” They almost never called him that, and so it was always a little funny when one of them did. The darkness of her hands was beautiful, met her palms. Was she Indian? he wondered. He thought he could remember her imitating her parents’ accents, but now he wasn’t sure. She put her free hand onto his leg, just above the knee, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to pat her head or kiss her. “You okay, boss?” she said, and it broke the spell. He got to his feet and brushed pie crust crumbs off his jeans. She stubbed out her cigarette under the heel of one of her moccasins. “In,” he said, and held the door for her, but she paused just behind the glass and leaned over and kissed him very lightly on the mouth. “Feel better, boss,” she said, and then they were both sucked into the clatter and whoosh of the restaurant at nighttime. The diners had thinned, but the bar was full, all those bulbs sparkling over the heads of the drinkers. As Virginia swished past him back to the hostess stand, he paused by the back door, not knowing how to react to anything, and it was this pausing, this Prufrockian inaction that his wife had needled him about for years. He’d never blamed her for hating it. He hated it, too, and envied her the ease of springing forth, of spilling everything at the beginning. At that moment, looking into the restaurant’s open kitchen, he had a flash of being seven, a child in some classroom, standing in front of a bowl of apples and picking each one up, examining each one for bruises or damage, for color and perfection, until the teacher pushed his hand back harder than maybe she should have. “Just choose an apple and move on. Nothing is ever perfect,” she’d scolded, and he’d walked back to his desk empty-handed.
As he walked toward that bar, he heard what he thought was his wife’s loud laugh. He’d always liked it, the volume, the cadence, the way it stood out above others but not in a grating way. He could remember first meeting her, the way she told him everything about herself in one hour and two drinks, and how he’d found himself vacillating between listening intently and looking down her shirt. The way she stood at the kitchen sink barefooted and scratched her calf with her other foot’s toenail. The way she chased their chickens around the backyard. The way she twisted her hair up on her head before sleep. The way her easy disclosures to strangers made everyone like her immediately. The way that ease covered for a mania that drove her to sweep her arm across the clutter on their girls’ desks so that it clattered into a pile on the floor and then to fight and make up with them with equal intensity. The way she believed in the storybook version of them so hard that she almost made it happen.
It was his wife at the bar, her legs twisted around each other and ending in tall, wooden-heeled sandals. For the first years he’d known her, she’d never worn a dress or a skirt. She secreted away his clothes and mutilated them and rehashed them until they suited her, but here she was in a dress and jewelry and sitting at the bar with her hair rippling around her face as she laughed at something someone sitting on the stool next to her was saying. He didn’t recognize the man next to her, didn’t think his wife had known him until the second she took a seat at the bar, but still. He could see the way she was talking to him. He recognized the conspiratorial lean, the hair settling like a cloak around her face, and then the dramatic shift back into the laugh. There was no reason for her to be here on this night, and he couldn’t imagine why she’d thought it was a good thing to tell him their marriage was over and then the next night situate herself right in front of him like this. He’d been the man on the stool for a long time, and now he wasn’t. It was going to be that simple, he thought, the displacement. That simple replacement, but then all the other shit would whorl around it with the girls and the possessions and the houses and the lifetime of holiday sharing and the fucking messiness of it all.
And it was with this in mind that he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her up off the stool and slapped her. This wasn’t who he was. He’d never slapped anyone. He’d never been in a physical fight at all. In junior high school, someone had punched him, and he’d gotten up and started laughing so hard that he fell back down again. His eldest daughter had kicked him in the balls the year before when he’d told her she couldn’t go on her school trip because she’d lied about something important, and he’d almost grabbed her hard but instead had walked into the yard all the way to the back and kicked the fence and stood there with the chickens pecking patterns in the grass around his feet.
But suddenly that moment with his wife he was another person. And he was pulling her by the arm toward the back door of the restaurant, and he could hear the way the noise of the restaurant had resolved into absolute quiet around him and he could see Frank coming out from behind the bar, and so he shook his head to keep him from advancing and then nodded slowly to show he’d calmed down, that he could handle himself and there wouldn’t be any more hitting. He let go of his wife’s arm, and he could see she had started to cry because she wasn’t the kind of person who could stop herself. He should have walked away right then, but instead he brought her out behind the restaurant and pushed her up against the wall, pulling her dress up. This is what you wanted, he wanted to say, and he thought of all the times she’d told him to be assertive, how he’d told her in therapy that women really wanted excitement and danger and couldn’t deal with the safe monotony of the simple domestic life.
She should have been furious, and later she would be, but right then her mouth was a little bit open with shock. It was a confusing part of it all for him, of sexuality, of masculinity, really, how to be in charge but not too much, how to be a man but not overbearing, how to be powerful but not painful. He started to undo his jeans but then stopped. He couldn’t do this. And so he let go of her and walked away, down the alley. He waited for her to yell something at him, something like “This is it,” or “Now it’s really over,” but there was nothing, no screaming or drama, just the crickets and the fryer grease and the moon. There had been a thousand moments in his life like that, the could-have-beens, the pauses, the inaction, and that’s where he lived, in the hum of before and the buzz of after, and he liked it.
Walking to the rental house that will become his new home, he is pleased by the activity after midnight, the familiar looseness of it and the unpredictability. There is a man pulling his toddler out of a coffee shop, the boy half asleep and crying, the man trying to light a cigarette with his free hand. A car full of sorority girls stops at the corner, and they are all singing along to the radio, top volume. Their faces glisten with makeup and anticipation, and when the driver backs into a parking place, they open the doors and tumble out before the car’s even stopped moving. The homeless man who rides around town all day pulling a grocery cart attached to his bike by a belt is singing some blues standard, and his voice is barreled and spiked. Bearded boys smoke in front of a bar. Their girlfriends have tattoos of fruit or stars or mermaids up and down their arms. He wants to drop to the ground and yell to all of them, “Tell me how to do this,” but instead he keeps walking, feet going forward.
A few years before, he had taken his family to California, and in the early
mornings with the mist hovering over the beach, he and the girls would go into the cold green water. They had laughed and shivered, and he could remember catching flashes of white in the water as their arms and legs smashed through it. His heart beat faster than he could remember it ever beating before, and then they fell onto the sand into towels and blankets and it was over. When his wife came out in her running pants and her hair in a bun, he felt a little less himself, like her emerging had taken something from him, but then the girls were all over her, and they coaxed her into the water.
It was like this, his life: living and then dying and then living again and then dying again. There was no constancy to anything, and there never had been.
Just before he crosses over from the business part of town into the dark neighborhood with most of its people sleeping, he steps into the only open store around that’s not a bar or a restaurant. There’s the sign “Urban General Store” on the window, a fifty-something woman in a Snow White costume at the register, and the place is full of pricey and unnecessary gifts, things like wall-hanging foldable cell phone holders and paw wax for dogs and cats. Above the register is a sign that says “Happy One Year in Biz-ness,” and there’s a half-eaten sheet cake on a card table. “Want some?” the woman in the costume asks and hands him a piece on a paper plate before he has even answered. Balancing the cake in one hand, he walks to the corner of the store, which is laden with baby things, for that time in parenting when you’re obsessed with adorning and decorating your children. In the small display of craft items, he sees a package of erasable and scented markers and then grabs the designer construction paper and neon green tape sitting next to it. When he pays, he stuffs the cake into his mouth in one mannerless bite and then hands Snow White the plate. “Happy anniversary,” he tells her, and he walks out.
From the alley, he can see that the lights in the rental house are on, just as he left them. When he goes inside, he opens all the windows so that the sounds of the night fill the space: the pulsing of the toads that have made a visible carpet on the back patio, the crickets, shrill and then fading and then shrill again. Somewhere down the block, someone yells, “Shit, yeah, I’ll have another. And then another, and another,” and then there is a chorus of male howling.
He opens two beers to prepare himself, so he won’t have to stand anytime soon, and takes the sheets of construction paper and tapes them together until he has assembled a huge patchwork page that fills the empty living room floor so that it looks the way a room does when you’re about to paint the walls and don’t want to splatter the floor. With the markers, he makes the shapes of his three girls all lined up and holding hands, life-sized and two-dimensional in the way of murder scene outlines. He scrawls and doodles inside the edges, shapes and patterns that if he squints become what he wants them to be: great blue herons with wings stretching desperately out beyond the edges of each girl’s left foot, clouds trickling off their fingertips, tiny cities running down forearms, clocks and books and boys, all in the bright and scented markers so that the room now smells like a marzipan factory, and he feels dizzy and more than a little nauseated.
He downs the second beer without breathing. He hears a girl screaming down the street, and he can’t tell from the tenor if it’s pleasure or pain. The frogs and crickets take off in unison, a tense prehensile barking. Black marker in hand, he keeps going: the small treasons, the tiny thefts, the sex in dark cars on Midwestern nights, the losses that feel like an actual hole carved straight through, filling up every tiny blank spot until he falls asleep in his clothes, face down on the hard floor, the full world still spinning off outside the open windows.
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