The moment Didi hears the Millers are selling their house she tells her husband the news. “Finally,” she says.
“That place across the street?” he says, crunching his salad loudly. “You’re kidding me.”
“Yes. No, I mean I’m not; it’s really for sale. I’m not kidding. It really is.”
“You’re kidding if you think I care,” he says. “Maybe someone will finally scrap it and put in something nice.”
“We talked about maybe buying it someday. We used to always talk about it.”
“That’s news to me. I never had that conversation. Hand me that pepper. This house right here has good bones,” he says and pounds his feet on the floor to prove his point. “A good foundation is key.” Everything on the table rattles.
“There might even be three stories, depending on how big the attic,” she says. “I would love to live in a house with all those stairs.”
“Try living in a house with stairs,” he says, “and you will come to hate those stairs. You will pray for a ranch.” He’s bald, Joe is, or at least four-fifths bald, with a small island of hair, a swoop, sitting in the middle of a sea of pink scalp.
“I’m in good shape,” she says. “I would love stairs.”
“Goddamnit, Jade,” he says, aiming his fork at their daughter. “How many pieces of bread is that?”
Didi kicks him under the table. “Don’t count what she eats.”
Jade, who is close to thirteen, yawns without covering her mouth, aiming it toward her father. While not quite fat, she is soft, with soft legs and soft arms, an even softer belly and a round, pretty face, skin as pale as winter, hair as black as midnight, lips in a bee-stung pout. Her eyes are a translucent blue, like her father’s.
“My counting isn’t the problem,” Joe says. “The counting is simply a measuring device. A way for me to measure the problem. The problem is the problem.”
“This neighborhood is improving,” Didi says. “We can stay in this neighborhood and still have a bigger place. We have the money. Joe. You know we have that money.”
“Improving? If you heard what I heard on the radio today you’d know nothing’s improving. Nothing’s getting better. People are angry. I’m buying a gun. I’m buying a gun and we’re all going to learn how to use it. I mean it this time.”
“Will we be selling our furniture and buying gold, Dad?” Jade says.
“I love that house,” Didi says. “If it was a person it would be a very happy person. Not angry at all. It would be kind and generous.”
“It would be a pedophile,” Max offers. He just turned twelve and looks like his mother, down to the large brown eyes and long thin legs, the slender arms, tan no matter what time of year.
“If it was a person,” Joe says, “it would be begging to have someone take a gun and put it out of its misery. It would be begging to have someone pull the plug. Don’t mock gold. It has a worth we can all agree on. We need a consistent currency. That will be the first step. And I’m not moving. I won’t be chased out of my own city center. Not yet, anyway. A strategic retreat, maybe. Look, I was thinking if we ever do go anywhere, if we ever do sell this place, if it ever gets bad enough, we’ll go out to one of those new subdivisions. With all the foreclosures we can practically steal a place. Gated communities. Less crime. Way less toleration for crime. Rules. Act like an asshole and they throw you right out of there,” he says. “Rules that people are expected to follow.”
“I think Dad wants to move us to Dachau,” Jade says.
“You might be going to live out there,” Didi says. “But we’ll be staying right here. I wouldn’t live out there if it was free. Every one of those houses looks exactly the same. They don’t even have libraries out there. Tell him, kids. No libraries.”
“Dad,” Max says. “Jade made a Holocaust joke. I bet she hates Israel.”
“Nice try, douche,” Jade says, giving him the finger. “This entire country blows,” she says.
“Jade, put your goddamn finger down before I break it off,” Joe says.
She rolls her eyes at the sound of his voice, grabbing another roll with one hand, twirling long strands of her thick hair, shiny with grease, with the other.
Didi pushes the butter dish her way. “It’s okay, honey,” she says. “Eat as much as you want. You’re going to give her a disorder, Joe. You know that, don’t you? You give people disorders. You spread them. They don’t even have libraries there, Joe. Did you hear what I said?”
He picks at his teeth with his fork. “Yeah,” he says. “Libraries. When is the last time anyone here has even been in a library? Anybody you know? Anybody I know?”
“People go to the library,” she says. “People do.”
“Homeless people are there all the time,” Max says. “I think it’s where they live.”
“Why do we even have libraries?” Joe says. “They steal customers from bookstores. They serve no purpose, not a government purpose. Our founding fathers would shit if they could see this country. The government lending books. What lunatic came up with that idea? This is not what was envisioned,” he says, shaking his head sadly.
“Ben Franklin,” Jade says, shaking hers in a like manner.
“Our library is full of homeless people,” Max says.
“You love the library,” Didi says.
“You aren’t even allowed to talk there,” Max says.
“Don’t listen to him,” Jade says. “I love the library. I still love going there,” she says. “The smell, the way the dust floats through the light. All the hidden corners.”
“She likes watching the homeless touch themselves,” Max says. “Getting molested would be like a date for her. In her special hidden corner. Her first date ever. That smell is urine, by the way.”
“Give me the bread,” Jade says.
“More empty calories,” Joe laments. “Empty as in good-for-nothing. Your mother’s side of the family has the fat gene. It is at your heels, Jade. It’s beckoning. With a roll in its hand. A buttered roll. A plate of bacon. It’s ready to grab you by the throat.”
“Mom’s skinny,” Jade says. “Really skinny. I think she needs to gain weight. There’s no fat gene there.”
“Fat skips a generation,” Joe says. “It doesn’t matter what your mother is. Besides, you eat and your mother starves herself. Either way, it skips.”
“It’s called recessive,” Max says. “Just like the bald gene. A recessive gene. Right, Dad?”
“My mother wasn’t fat,” Didi says.
“No, not at all,” Joe says, glaring at Max.
“She had a goddamn tumor,” Didi says. “It made her look pregnant. Jesus, she hardly weighed anything when she died.”
“Sure,” he says. “She weighed nothing. Light as a feather. And I didn’t sprain my back trying to lug that coffin down the aisle. As it is I ruined my brand new shoes.”
“My mother always said a two story house is a sign of class. She said she wished she could visit me in my house with stairs someday. ‘Didi, maybe someday you’ll have stairs, maybe someday you can take a Christmas picture of your family on stairs.’”
“Is that why she never visited you, never visited us, not once after we bought this house, because we don’t have stairs?”
“We could always use more room,” she says. “We’re living on top of each other.”
“I haven’t been on top of you for over a year,” he says. “Our house is fine.”
“I wish we had more rooms,” she says. “More rooms would be nice.”
“More rooms? We’ve got an extra bedroom as it is,” he says. “We have an empty room as it is and you want even more empty rooms?”
Less than three weeks later the house sells to a family from out-of-state, shortly after which, Joe drives a new SUV home, dragging behind it a boat, an eight passenger pontoon. “The best in its class,” he says, tossing the keys onto the counter. “This close to the water and we had no boat. How ridiculous is that?” He stands grinning in front of her, waiting for applause or at least approval, waving his key ring back and forth in front of her face like a hypnotist, and then launches into an obviously rehearsed speech. “A boat will be good for us,” he says. “It will be good for all of us. You don’t even have to get dressed to be on a boat. You can wear anything, depending on the season. Robes, pajamas, bathing suits, the whole gamut. Wear anything you want. We don’t need a new house. A boat is better than a new house. The salesman said it would be therapeutic. That’s the main reason people buy boats. Therapy. That and for the recreation,” he says. “Therapy and recreation are going to be even more important once the kids are gone. I bought it for us. For our future health. That’s what the salesman said. Turns out me and him were at the same rally last month. He gave me a terrific deal.”
Before the new family moves in, trucks come and go. Plumbing trucks and cooling and heating trucks. For weeks and weeks, dumpsters sitting in the drive are filled and hauled away only to return and the process repeats. It’s white, with black shutters, a large front door that was once a bright red but for some years now has been faded. Sometimes she sees herself already in the house, standing at the top of the staircase, someone other than Joe waiting at the bottom for her, ready to catch her when she falls.
The new family keeps to itself. It’s a pleasant looking man and his two boys. Twins. They look younger than Max but only by a grade or two. No wife that Didi can see. He fences the yard and soon peacocks appear. They have the run of the place.
Sometimes for weeks at a time an older couple shows up. Then they disappear for a few days, only to return again. The grandparents, she assumes.
She studies him at the school bus stop. His face is interesting. Always unshaven. He wears a backwards cap or a sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight on his head, and sunglasses. He also sometimes wears something called a beanie, a tight wool cap pulled down tight on his head, no matter the temperature. His children strike the same style of dress, so maybe it’s a tribute to his closeness with them that he replicates their look. Or that they replicate his. His hair peeks out of the ends of his hat and it seems thick and black and curly. His children are just smaller versions of him. One time she dares to stand right next to him and smells pot. She likes that, she respects anybody who left adolescence and entered adulthood with all their fun habits intact. She never does anything fun anymore. And he is tall. Obscenely tall. Didi is tall herself and growing up had always seen herself with a much larger boy. Instead she married Joe, who barely reaches the bridge of her nose, leaving her to stare at that ridiculous swoop of hair on his head.
The neighbor doesn’t seem to have a job, or a regular one, at least. Perhaps he’s an investor. A writer, she hopes. He is most assuredly a thinker. Often midday while she’s staring through her front window she sees him sitting out on the front porch smoking and staring off into space, a book on his lap, lost under several layers of thought. Joe is many things but he definitely is not a thinker. One time she came home and caught him reading a book and the sight was so foreign she was afraid she had walked into the wrong house.
She starts thinking about him, about her new neighbor, as she drifts through her days. She sees herself sitting next to him on a couch, a couch in the Miller house, sipping wine, reading magazines, soft jazz on the stereo, both of them in slippers and robes. A fire all year round. The kids, all four of them, on their own upstairs studying, and the dishes already put away.
She wonders where the mother is. The twins always seem to be with him, with their father. Maybe she’s dead, she dares to think. Maybe the wife is dead.
When the postman drops off the package Didi at first thinks it is for her. The name is an unfamiliar one but when she reads the address she knows who it is meant for. It’s a spring morning, and the dew sparkles on the grass. The first sprinklers of the season are just starting to run, each an instrument in a grand symphony announcing the end of winter. She looks out her front window. His car is gone. Or truck, actually. He drives a truck with wide tires and chrome trim. A big black truck.
First she strips and studies herself in front of a full length mirror. Other than the stamp of two and three-quarters pregnancies, she thinks she looks much the same as she did when she was seventeen, give or take a few pounds and a requisite number of creases. Her posture is ramrod straight from a childhood spent in dance classes at the community center, the place the poor kids went after school. Her mother used to pinch her hard on the arm whenever she slouched, more than once bringing her to her knees, and so now she throws her narrow shoulders back in an exaggerated manner and her small breasts are always pushed forward as if she is continually presenting herself for inspection. Joe somehow finds it necessary to remind her of her breasts’ diminutive state three times a week. Then when she reacts as any woman will, he’ll say, but they’re so cute, which makes her even angrier. But now, as the big breasted girls her age sag embarrassingly low, except for the ones who have surgery, Didi possesses an advantage.
She tries on several combinations of pants and blouses and skirts and finally settles on a pair of black pants and a white silk blouse. A sheer white camisole instead of a bra.
She sits on the couch and waits. She has convinced herself that she just wants a tour of the house. She remembers vividly her mother dating someone with a house one summer, the summer Didi was Jade’s age, and what it felt like at the time to spend days and nights in a place that was unconnected to all the places around it, to not have a parking lot for a yard, to be able to look outside of an upstairs window while still lying in bed and gaze upon lawns and trees and patio tables instead of a sea of rusted cars. There was an above-ground pool and a tree house and Didi would spend most days in the pool, becoming as dark as a foreigner, and most nights in the tree house, drinking strawberry wine and smoking cigarettes and weed, letting neighborhood boys put their fingers inside of her, the boys’ arm wrestling over whose turn came next.
She’s still on the couch when the kids walk up the sidewalk to the house. She must have fallen asleep. She’s forgotten to meet them at the bus stop. Joe insists she take them to and meet them at the bus stop every day.
Jade stands in front of her, her school blouse already untucked and partially unbuttoned, scratching her upper thigh, lifting her skirt high enough so her underwear is exposed. “At least you’re not in bed,” Jade says.
“You’re all dressed up,” Max says.
“Those kids from across the street,” Didi says. “Was their father at the bus stop? Did they get off the bus? Jade, cover yourself.”
“Like I’d notice those creeps,” she says from the kitchen.
“Don’t slam the refrigerator,” Didi shouts.
“I’m going to Lindsay’s,” comes the response, followed by a jar’s rattling slam.
“Have her come here,” Didi says. “Why doesn’t Lindsay come here anymore? Why are you always there?”
“Why would anyone want to come here?” Max says.
Joe’s working late so dinner is just some leftovers from the freezer. Afterward she showers again and gets ready for bed, her black hair stuffed into a shower cap. She wears a white cotton nightie with nothing underneath. Her evening wear, as the kids playfully call it. Mom’s in her evening wear, one of them will announce. She found it in a box of her old things stored in the garage and the top is still tight enough to accentuate the rigidness of her breasts and nipples. Her makeup is gone and her face is dotted with zit medicine. The ends of her hair are wet and hang limply.
When the bell rings, Max immediately runs and flings open the front door. Didi stands frozen right in the line of the neighbor’s vision. Oh fudge, she thinks. Ryan is the name on the package. Ryan Leonard. He doesn’t seem to notice her, which is good. She was dating Joe for weeks before she let him see her like this. There is an exchange of mumbling at the door and Max turns and yells, “Mom, the guy across the street wants to know if we got a package for him. Mom,” he repeats, this time at twice the volume.
“I heard you,” she says. “We’re on the same planet, okay? You don’t have to scream. It’s over there on the table.” She hears a chuckle and realizes her neighbor is laughing, having heard her admonish Max. He certainly must know what hardship boys can be, what with raising two on his own. Twins. It takes a special kind of man to raise children on his own.
She feels a kinship with him that at that moment is larger than her insecurities. She grabs the package from the table and comes to the door herself. He’s wearing a hooded sweatshirt; the hood pulled up tight over his head so only a quarter of his face shows. And he’s grinning. His eyes are shot with blood and she is sure she can smell pot on him again. Maybe if he had a woman in his life, not a girl but a woman, one with experience, he wouldn’t feel the need to constantly numb himself with drugs, she thinks.
“Oh, hey,” he says, looking at the box. “Excellent.” He is like a child in his excitement, she thinks. He shakes the box and seems delighted. “Thanks.” He saunters out the door and down the porch steps. Didi catches up before he even hits the sidewalk. The ground is cold and damp under her bare feet. Branches shiver in the wind. A handful of porch lights, hers included, still glow, casting a yellow light.
“Wait,” she says.
His jeans are too big for him. They’re hanging below the waist. The poor thing probably doesn’t eat, she thinks. “I’m Didi, Didi from across the street. I mean, you live across the street from me.”
Both of his hands are buried deep in his pockets, the package tucked securely under his arm. He’s staring right at her breasts. Ogling, that’s what he is doing. The wind is blowing toward her and the nightie forms to her body, her dark pubis faintly visible against the material. His eyes are moving up and down on her. He’s mentally stripping her, she hopes.
“You did some work there,” she says. “Last year, before you moved in, you had work done. You didn’t change much, did you? I hope you didn’t change much.”
“It doesn’t look any different to me,” he says.
“I wanted to buy the house,” she says. “My husband didn’t want to. He thinks it looks gloomy.”
“I guess,” he says. “It’s okay. It’s a house.”
He’s humble, she thinks. He must be gentle with the children, not turning everything into a contest. She can barely drag Joe away from the umpire during Jade’s softball games, and just once it would be nice if he could play catch with Max without all the screaming and the tears.
A dead wife will be hard to compete with. Dead wives don’t have days when they feel like they want to kill everyone within 100 feet of them. Didi has those days. Most people, most women in her situation, do. She is sure of it. Instead of competing she will join Ryan and his boys in honoring the memory of their mother. Her picture can hang above the piano, right with the rest of them. Maybe off to the side or on a different wall, altogether. She hopes the wife wasn’t a large-breasted woman, for a second she angrily imagines her prancing around topless, blonde hair to her waist, showing off her big tits, lording about with them. Girls with large breasts are always like that, Didi thinks. Show offs. Girls with big boobs were always the most popular with the boys when she was in high school. Popular with the boys who mattered. She wonders if they keep statistics, do girls with big boobs get cancer more than girls with small ones? It wouldn’t be fair, otherwise. Maybe the picture can hang in a room nobody uses, like in the attic.
“That it?” he says.
“Wait,” she says. “Can I get a tour?”
He doesn’t answer and instead stares at where the wind is lifting her nightgown almost to her waist. She lets him look. The way she is feeling he can stare at her for as long as he wants to stare. Her head is light and she fights to steady herself. A siren wails two streets over, its red lights reflecting faintly off the sky. “I’ve never really seen the inside,” she says. “It’d be my first time.” There is a piece of string on his sweatshirt and she picks it off, making sure to allow her fingers to linger on his chest just a moment longer than necessary. “It would be my first time inside,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be in there.”
He doesn’t even pause. “I can take you inside,” he says. “We can go right now. Let’s go right now.” His smile is radiant, she thinks.
“Tomorrow,” she says, already regretting the word before it fully passes her lips, but also knowing that she doesn’t look quite her best. She knows she can do better. “I’ll bring lunch,” she says.
“It’s all cool,” he says.
She watches him walk back across the street, big, loping steps, fading into the dark.
Ryan, she thinks. Ryan. It’s a contemporary name. But it also speaks of the upper class, invoking images of yachts with giant sails, manors in the country, drinking champagne and playing tennis, cuddling after fucking and not farting in bed like Joe is always certain to do.
The next morning, after breakfast, she’s in her robe, the front open, sipping coffee and looking through a recipe book. “Jesus, Didi, at least put some underwear on,” Joe says. “You and your daughter both sit like whores.”
“Mom,” Jade complains, her legs splayed open as she sits on the kitchen floor filling her backpack. “Mom, make him stop.”
“I won’t do this,” Didi says. “Not this morning I won’t. You two play your little game without me.”
“It pains me to say it but it’s how you two sit,” he says. “It pains me even more to see it happen.”
“Mom,” Jade says.
“They need a ride home,” Joe says. “They need a ride from the school because their concert finishes after the bus. Throw some clothes on and go early. See the damn thing. That way I don’t have to go. You go instead. They’re going to be late.”
“I have plans today,” Didi says. “Jade, Max, take the bus home and walk from there.”
“Plans?” Joe stammers. “You have to give them a ride. Did you forget what I just said? I just said there’s a concert. It’s going to make them miss the bus. Do I need to write this stuff down for you? They have to be picked up. I’m not having them walk home. This country’s a mess. Read the newspapers. You know how easy it is to grab a kid off the street? Goddamn easy. Things are different now. People are being decapitated. They’re finding bodies in the desert. Fuck, I’ll take them. But you are driving them home. Write it down on your arm if you have to. Tie a string around your wrist.”
“Try to come, Mom,” Jade says. “Otherwise someone might kidnap me and then chop off my head. Dad claims it’s a real possibility. Apparently it’s happening right outside our front door. Or in the desert, which is what, like 500 miles from here? Maybe that’s just where they dump the bodies.”
“Someday someone’s going to kill you, someone is going to rape then kill you and your last thought will be, My dad was right. But it’ll be too late because you’ll be dead.”
“Dead and naked,” Max offers.
“Mom,” Jade whines.
“Go on,” Didi says. “You’re going to be late. Leave. Everybody just leave.”
“You are driving them home,” Joe says, slamming the door angrily behind him.
Maybe he isn’t actually being so unreasonable. The man across the street meets his sons almost every day. Ryan. Ryan does. Maybe men know something that she does not. Women ponder the specific fears, a child falling off a bike, a swimmer too far from the shore, unexpected blood in the toilet. They always hold out hope for happy endings. She assumes men see the world for what it really is, for what it always has been and always will be. Us versus Them.
She prepares lunch, macaroni salad and cheeseburgers, which she’s already shaped but will cook across the street. She’s dying to use that kitchen. Just the sight of the raw meat, the pulverized flesh, makes her gag, but she knows she can do this. She will do this. After much deliberation she settles on a bottle of white wine and another of red and she grabs a pack of cigarettes from the back of her panty drawer.
This time she goes with a plaid skirt of Jade’s. Jade hates wearing a school uniform, no matter how cute those skirts can make even the plainest of girls look. She claims it’s the West’s version of a burqa. Didi just thinks it makes Jade’s pale chubby legs look thinner. She knows it makes her own look like toothpicks.
She finishes the outfit with tennis shoes and high bobby socks, and an ultra loose green v-neck sweater, loose enough so that when she bends even slightly forward both of her breasts are fully exposed. She considers a thong but doesn’t have any clean ones and so goes without any. If she needs to spell it out for him she will. She will spell it out for him in the boldest of letters.
The front room is much smaller than she imagined it would be. It feels suffocating, dark walls, thick drapes covering the only window, heavy wood framed furniture. The floors are uneven and patched in sections, at least three different kinds of wood, and the stairs, while impressive, are covered in worn and mismatching carpet and a rail is missing. The kitchen is huge. It is bigger than a kitchen in a restaurant, and more of a mess, as well. A vegetal odor is overwhelming. Paint is flaking from the ceiling from an obvious water leak. Cardboard patches cover several panes of glass. Cereal bowls from several mornings are on the table and the counter and there are two empty pizza boxes along with several empty ice cream containers on the island, at least one growing mold. He shoves these aside to make room for her bags.
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head and pointing at the mess. He has the sweatshirt on again and the same pants, whiskers darkening his face.
“I know how busy life can be,” she says, touching his arm in sympathy. “There’s never enough time to do anything,” she says. “I see you outside so busy with thought. Every day I see you out there. I know how easy it is for someone to think their way to exhaustion.”
He clears the table while she does the dishes, although he seems almost too helpless to even manage that small task. He mostly just stands in the way and two or three times it seems to Didi that he tries to grab her. She playfully pushes him aside each time, just as she does whenever she has to get around him. She purposely comes toward him as often as she can, each time taking him by the shoulders and steering him a different direction. He helps himself to her cigarettes. The sink faucet is dripping and the noise comforts her. He drinks coke while she starts with the white wine. He doesn’t drink at all. Maybe there is a problem somewhere in his background, maybe having to do with his wife. Maybe she couldn’t handle her drink and killed herself behind the wheel. She probably ran into a school bus and slaughtered an entire neighborhood of children. Good children. Good, clean children. Ryan must have had to identify her body, what little would have been left of it, her face probably mangled beyond recognition. Or no, not beyond recognition. Instead she looked like a horror show version of herself and every time he hears her name that dark vision floods his thoughts.
When she leans forward, he can see straight down her sweater. A couple of times she looks over at him and his erection is obvious. It’s either that or his jeans have simply bunched up to make it look that way.
He ignores the macaroni salad but eats not only his own burger but reaches over to her plate and grabs that one as well. He scrapes off the cheese. She doesn’t touch anything. She is far too nervous to eat. He doesn’t even ask, just grabs it as if they are already an old married couple and he knows she won’t complain. It must be impossible to maintain manners in a house of just men, she thinks. Without women, the world would be one big frat house, pranks and all. She should be impressed that he at least isn’t farting in her face, a common habit of Joe’s. And he wonders why she won’t let him near her.
Ryan doesn’t say much, mostly he just grunts at her while she speaks, and openly stares down the front of her sweater, which she makes easier for him by practically splaying herself forward over the table. He seems nervous, shy, perhaps Didi is the first woman he has been with since the tragedy, and tragedy is how she pictures it, all those little dead bodies spread out on the snow, their jackets and mittens and boots a riot of color against the white background. Or maybe it was a disease. Maybe a disease took her. A long and protracted disease. Something non contagious, she hopes, though severe enough to have made the big-titted bitch sorry she had ever been born.
She controls the conversation, steering it any which way she wants. She hasn’t felt like this in fifteen years, not since late night gossip sessions in the dorms with her college roommates, none of whom she keeps in touch with anymore. She rattles off stories about herself when she was in high school; she talks about the one other guy she thought she might marry before and what a shit he turned out to be. She tells him how much the guy liked to fuck, how they would do it everywhere, how he was indefatigable. And she is sure to communicate via her facial expressions that her life now is absolutely nothing like that. “Joe’s different,” she says at least five times. “Joe’s not like that. He never was like that. I’ve always had greater needs than him. Much greater needs.” She even shares with him her pet name for her vibrator.
He looks slightly more alert when she talks about her favorite movies but yawns when she talks about the French New Wave, then regains his interest when she talks about the amount of sex and nudity in European films and describes scenes from her favorites, leaving no detail to his imagination. He doesn’t need to talk. She doesn’t care. Just being near him, being in this house is enough. The house does need work. A lot of work. Some of it they can do on their own. She’s sure of that. But most will have to be hired out. They can start in that front room. That front room has to go.
“Shit,” he suddenly says. “Fucking airport. My parents. They’re going to be pissed. They hate when I’m late. I’m always fucking late. It’s who I am but they don’t understand it. It’s what you get when you get me. They should know by now.”
It’s a regular soliloquy coming from him, she thinks. “Oh,” she says in her most understanding voice. “Grandparents mean well. They must love to see your boys.”
“Whatever,” he grunts. “Awesome burgers. You take that salad thing. Nobody here will eat it. It’s got vegetables in it.”
Outside a cold wind whips at her legs and lifts her skirt as she walks back across the street. A horn brays angrily and she has to practically jump out of the way to avoid being hit when the black truck tears out of the driveway and peals down the street, Ryan’s arm hanging out the window, a cigarette in his hand.
She’s at the kitchen table when the front door slams.
“Didi,” Joe shouts. “What am I smelling?”
She lights another cigarette and blows the smoke in his direction. She goes to pour more wine for herself but the bottle is empty. Both bottles are empty. Joe grabs her arm. “Goddamn you, Didi. Where the hell were you today?”
“Don’t you dare touch me,” she says.
“Are you going to a costume party, dressed like that?” he says.
“Don’t overreact, Mom. He didn’t touch you,” Jade says. “Or he barely touched you. You could have come,” she says.
“I almost did come,” Didi giggles.
“You weren’t home,” Joe says. “I called ten times. You weren’t here.”
“I called too,” Jade says.
“Jade, why do you always take your father’s side?” Didi says. “Both of you kids always take his side.”
“His side?” Jade exclaims. “I’m all you have left,” she says. “I am your entire side.”
“I had plans,” Didi says.
“Plans? You didn’t have any plans,” Joe says. “Two bottles of wine. I hope you had help drinking those. Tell me you had help. Who helped you drink them?”
“I told you this morning that I had plans,” she says. “Nobody helped.”
“Look,” Joe says. “We’re obviously under some sort of stress here. I’m going to take a deep breath. Forget about today. It’s over. Everyone’s here now. How about all of us take the boat up to the lake this weekend? The water will relax us all.”
“Don’t plan on me ever stepping a foot on that boat,” she snaps. “It was that boat or my house and you picked that boat. Don’t you dare even say a word to me.” She brandishes her still burning cigarette. “Come closer and I’ll stab you in the eye.” She drops the cigarette in the sink and goes to bed, locking the door and refusing to open it despite intermittent knocking. She is sure she is a fair judge of herself. She is objective when it comes to her looks. And her conclusion is that while she is flawed, she is far less flawed than most people and her flaws are slight and insignificant when placed head to head against her many strengths. And Joe had the nerve to grab her. And he did it hard, she thinks. He grabbed her. And that little bitch Jade took his side. Her arm begins to ache. Well, he won’t intimidate her. She is not easily intimidated. Not by anyone.
The next morning she looks out the window and watches as Joe hitches the trailer to the truck. The kids stand nearby wearing sweatshirts, their faces frozen in hopeful anticipation that he knows what the fuck he is doing. He is an idiot. He can’t help it. She is sure he will fuck this up. He is hard-wired to be a dick, only his dick, she thinks, is not wired to be hard. She laughs out loud. At some point in the outing there is bound to be a meltdown from him. All three of them look half-asleep, their breath visible in the cold air.
After they finally and thankfully pull out, she switches windows and looks across the street. Jackpot. Ryan is outside in nothing more than his boxers and a backwards hat. Lean. No tattoos, thankfully. And relatively hairless. He’s going to catch his death from the cold, she thinks. His legs look so skinny and hairless.
The twins, Ryan’s twins, are in the back seat of a car, and the old couple is in the front, with a boat attached to the back. What is it with people and boats? Didi thinks. What is the great fascination with water? Oh sure, she likes to look at it, to walk along its edge, to watch the sun disappear behind it, she knows that her ancestors used to live beneath it and perhaps some still do, but she does not feel the need to actually be on top of it, to be floating on such an unstill surface, a surface with such give.
Before he walks back into the house she is sure he looks at her, that he can see her face through the window. He looks over at her house.
She is tired of caring about everybody and everything other than herself. And Ryan. It would be nice to care about someone who cares about her back. She cares about him. It’s about time someone cares about him. That poor thing, she thinks. Outside without a shirt on. Men have no common sense. Normally a whirligig of uncertainty, she is no longer uncertain. She strolls confidently across the street. It is cold. She’s shivering in just her robe. They just don’t have any common sense. She knows if she rings the bell, in the time between her finger touching that button and him opening the door, she might lose the nerve. She walks right in and straight back through to the kitchen. It’s already a mess again. He’s leaning against the counter and shoving spoonfuls of cereal into his mouth when she comes upon him. He tilts his cereal bowl, and its contents splash onto her head, as she is already on her knees, pulling down the front of his boxers. It immediately springs out. She gathers him in her mouth.
“Whoa,” he says.
It’s big, bigger than Joe’s, or bigger than she remembers Joe’s being. It’s like a rocket ship, a rocket ship hurtling into the space that is her mouth and throat. Her face begins to ache, it has been a few years since she has stretched her mouth so wide for this purpose, and her knees are becoming uncomfortable. She remembers what she read in a women’s magazine. Just run through the alphabet with your tongue. It makes it less boring. He has his hands on her head, pulling it back and forth, back and forth, sometimes so roughly that she has to gag. Thankfully he’s quick and is done before she gets past the letter K. And for the first time in years she feels that vaguely familiar surprise in the back of her throat. She tries to swallow but there is so so much. “Ah,” he says when he comes. “Ah.”
He’s still leaning against the counter when she stands. She’s dizzy and puts her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. She tries to kiss him but he pulls away. Of course, she thinks. When Joe used to put his mouth on her down there, back when he did it, she never liked kissing him afterward. Nobody wants to taste their own sex organs on the mouth of another. She rinses his cereal bowl and spoon, sets them on the counter and leaves. She understands. He’ll need a little space and time. Everyone does.
It takes every part of her being to keep from dancing and singing and shouting when she gets outside. She catches herself skipping. She is sure that if she wants to, she can still manage to pull off a respectable cartwheel.
She spends most of the rest of the day curled up on the couch, watching television, still in her robe. Pieces of cereal are dried to her hair and she does not bother scraping them out. She can still taste Ryan by running her tongue over her lips. At times she’s not able to help herself and goes to the window and stares at the house. His house. Peacocks, she thinks. What an interesting person.
While she wavers between awake and sleep, wondering what the next step will be and which one of them will take it. She wants him in her mouth again, she wants him in other places, she wants to spend a whole weekend in bed just kissing. But that will be after a year at least of constant fucking. She pictures his cock wearing a topcoat and a hat, looking gentlemanly, maybe even wearing a monocle. And then she pictures it changing clothes in a phone booth, bursting to rescue her. The kids are close in age. Blended families are the new thing. She is always reading something about them in the newspaper or seeing a special on television. They can make it work with counseling and effort. Or even if it does not turn out that way, even in the unlikely event that it fizzles, they can always be friends. What was the term she heard in a movie? A fuck buddy. A hook up. Everything has a name. What a clever time to live in. They can call each other, maybe go to the galleries. She can’t even remember the last time she went to a gallery alone, let alone with someone. They can read the same books. See a movie that lacks buildings blowing up and people dying. One that can be discussed afterward over an espresso. Maybe she will look into the schedule at the local ballet school. It’s been years since she has done anything for herself. Just herself. It will be nice for her, having a friend.
The sound of the boat getting backed into the driveway, the annoying beep beep beep, worse than any alarm clock, wakes her from a deep sleep.
Jade is the first one in, wearing nothing but a bathing suit. Her lips are purple. It’s obvious to Didi she has done some growing since last swim season. Her breasts are spilling out of her top and her bottom might as well be a thong. When did she suddenly grow up? Didi wonders. “Baby,” she says. “Put some clothes on. You have to be freezing. Is that all you had on all day? You need to wear a bigger suit.”
Jade shrugs in response. “You’re the one that needs to put clothes on,” she says. “Either get a better robe or wear something under it. Or at least close the one you have. Dad called me fat, by the way. It’s the first thing he said to me.”
“Learn to ignore him,” she says. “I learned years ago.”
“First thing he says while we’re still in the driveway. ‘You, young lady, are officially fat.’ Are you sick again? Is it a bad sick? Or a medium sick?”
“I’m not sick. Not that kind of sick.”
“Is it hospital sick? If you have to go somewhere I am not staying here. You can’t leave me here. Do not leave me here.”
“I told you I’m not sick. Not any kind of sick,” Didi says. “Not hospital sick. Not medium, not very, not any number on a scale from one to ten sick. Maybe you do look a little heavy in that suit.”
“Jesus. Take my head off why don’t you. All I did was ask a question. Don’t make me go out on that boat with him anymore,” she says. “He’s a total asshole. Max gets to steer even though he’s younger because he’s the one with the penis. Even though he’s a total fucking Trig. Dad called him a little faggot and that was the bright spot of my day.”
“Don’t ever let a man control you, honey,” Didi says, licking her lips.
“Right. Like that won’t happen. Grandma probably told you the same thing. And look what you ended up with. What’s that all over your face? It looks gross. Mom?”
Didi doesn’t answer. Boats, she thinks. Why anyone would want to go to all that trouble to float on a piece of wood is beyond her. All this fascination with water. She hopes Ryan doesn’t like boats. But a boat is parked there. Even though he didn’t go today, they obviously are a boating tribe. Well, they’ll deal with that when they get to it. She’ll go on the boat if he goes to the ballet with her, although he would certainly be getting the better end of that deal, the ballet being an art and a boat being nothing more than a big floaty toy.
Joe and Max are now next to Jade and they smell of fish.
“What’s that all over your mouth?” Joe says. “What’s in your hair?”
“Cover yourself, Mom,” Max says.
“Jesus,” Joe says. “What the fuck exactly have you been on lately? Or that you’re off of and need to go back onto.”
Max picks a piece of cereal out of her hair, looks at it and offers it to Jade. “Fruit Loops,” he says. “I thought we couldn’t have Fruit Loops. You said they had too much sugar. You said no sweet cereal. Jade, how many times did she say no sweet cereal?”
“I got good news,” Joe says. “I landed you an invitation to the house across the street.”
“The Miller house?” Didi says.
“You’re up to it,” he says. “It’s time for you to start being up for things,” he says.
“The house across the street,” she says.
“What am I saying here? The couple who bought it, the ones across the street. I met them at the marina today. The kids recognized each other. Apparently they go out of town a lot. Sales. They leave the two younger ones home with their other kid. He lives there too. I wouldn’t leave him in charge of my shit-stained underwear, and they leave two nine year olds with him. Sometimes I think the whole goddamn world has one large screw loose. You excited? I told them we’d need an hour. You’ve seen the one. He’s out there like a fucking zombie at the bus stop stoned every day. Apparently he’s just this side of retard. They don’t know what to do with him.”
Didi closes her eyes. She pretends Joe away. She pretends Max away and after just a slight hesitation Jade is also gone. She has not ever had children, not these or any other children. And she no longer lives here in this house. Instead she lives in a big house. A big house behind gates, surrounded by acres and acres of unfettered land, a high iron fence securing the property and keeping her safe. She knows if she pretends long enough and hard enough there is a very good chance it will come true.