Authors: Kaui Hart Hemmings
“Whoa!” his son yells. “Whoa, whoa, fuckin’ whoa!”
“Whoa!” his daughter yells. She has just appeared in the doorway. She hangs her car keys on the hook. Henry thinks she has been drinking because she looks really happy.
“What’s going on here?” She looks around the room at the boys. “What’s up, losers?”
“S’up,” Shipley says.
She’s only two years older than they are, a freshman in college. The boys are looking at her legs in the skirt, slung low on her hips. Her T-shirt reads,
LOOK ME IN THE EYE, ASSHOLE
, and Henry notices their eyes dart from her chest to her face. Her hair seems damp, and black eyeliner smudges the skin below her eyes.
Henry tries to catch Kate’s eye.
This is what you were like, remember?
But she’s looking at her two children with worry.
“Why do you look damp?” Kate asks their daughter.
“I was at a concert.”
“Which one?” Tupp asks.
“Oh, I love them.”
“Please,” his daughter says. “You probably don’t even know their first album was released in ’ninety-six.”
“I do now, killer,” Tupp says.
“You missed out,” his son says. “Mom and Dad are telling us how to get laid. It seems they have different approaches.”
Henry can feel his face tensing. He wants to hear the end of the story. This isn’t a big joke to him.
“You don’t have to convince a girl to do it,” his daughter says. “Just convince her you won’t tell. Believe me, they want to do it as much as you. They’ll even make playlists of songs you can do it to.” She opens the freezer and unwraps an ice cream sandwich. “On second thought. You guys hang with those prissy bitches. They won’t give it up unless you buy them all kinds of shit, and they’ll be all stupid about everything. They’ll own you, basically. Go for the punk girls. They’re still sensitive, but they won’t let you know.”
“That’s what I said,” Henry says. “What did I tell you?”
His wife seems crestfallen that no one’s paying attention to her anymore. But that’s what happens, right? The boy paid attention, made her feel special, she revealed herself, and now he is gone. It was a trick. She was tricked. Henry feels he knows the end of the story. The girl got pressed against the wall. The girl was happy for a while, the good feeling still pulsing between her legs, until she realized it was over, not the relationship—that’s not what she mourned—but the feeling, the possibility. That was over, and here she is, back where she started. A husband, two teenagers, and a toddler sleeping upstairs. She can’t be anything, anyone. It’s too late. Or is it?
Henry walks toward his wife. “The girl really did it, didn’t she?” he says quietly.
The boys aren’t listening anyway. They’re busy with the girl in the room, asking about her night, asking about her friends, trying to im
press her by throwing another apple at the fridge. Henry’s wife turns and walks out of the kitchen unnoticed by all of the boys.
* * *
She hasn’t yet reached the stairs, so Henry knows she wanted to be caught up to.
Her back is to him. Her shoulders are slumped, and the back of her neck looks fragile and thin. He quickens his steps, and when he gets behind her he turns her toward him. She’s crying, but her expression isn’t angry. It looks defeated, or maybe just tired. He holds her shoulders, and he moves her against the wall right outside of the kitchen. He almost leans in for a teeth-to-teeth kiss, but it would be a ridiculous thing to do. She sniffles, and then to his surprise she raises her arms and he walks into her embrace. It feels like a final embrace, but most likely they will embrace again, no matter what the outcome of all of this is. He holds her hair. He thinks about pulling.
“What’s happened to us?” she asks.
“You cheated on me with Greg Dorsey,” Henry says.
His name rhymes with
“That’s what’s happened. In a nutshell.”
“And now?” she says.
He resents her not denying it, even if honesty is the entire point of the evening. Now that it’s out there he’d like a little room to hide in. He wonders if this is how people feel after they remodel to an open floor plan with floor-to-ceiling doors and windows.
“I’m very tired,” he says. “Aren’t you? Aren’t you just . . . tired?”
The question seems to devastate her. A grave diagnosis.
“I’m going to bed,” he says. “I think that’s what we should do for now.” He lets go of her hair, then walks up the stairs; a chorus of laughter comes from the kitchen. When he wakes up, his marriage may be over. It will be over.
He trudges on.
He strains to hear the voices of the children—it’s like a song, exiting music.
“You don’t even want to know,” he hears his daughter say. “Like for real it will make you cry. Cry or laugh your ass off.”
“I doubt it,” he hears his son say.
“I’m telling you,” his daughter says. “It will.”
I’m not hatin’ on them because they don’t speak English. I am not racist. FYI I have
of foreign friends. My favorite person in the world is German, my other favorite is Venezuelan. They love me and I love them. I was furious yesterday because my son flew facefirst down the slide. He was hurt. I saw the whole thing because I watch—not like those other parents. If they are living here illegally and I threaten to call the authorities on them, maybe they’ll avoid me and my problem is solved.
Renee—you have every right to be upset when someone, English-speaking or not, unjustly bullies your child. However, the language you have used in your grievance is quite disgusting. Perhaps an overview of bullying philosophy might be helpful. Powerful nations have used their military to bully other nations (including their children) for hundreds and thousands of years. Some English-speaking armies are bullying quite a few non-English-speaking people around the world right now. To what extent are you complicit in that? I suggest the following books, with all sincerity:
A Theory of Justice
by John Rawls,
by Derek Munson, and
by Noam Chomsky.
—Marina Willis, A non-English-speaking U.S. citizen
I also suggest you read
Marley and Me
Bedding the Wrong Brother
—A.L., West Portal
Please list any awards you’ve won in your life, or accomplishments. What are your strengths?
Tonight I was awarded by a very tired child who expressed her fatigue with actual words. I was lucky. Gabe left the park howling, poor Georgia, tense though calm like a nurse getting a drug addict through a bad trip.
We left a bit later than usual—I was talking with Henry, listening to his story while imagining and inventing the details. It’s exhausting sometimes—I feel like a medium—and I don’t know if I’m a better or worse listener because of it. Do I tune in more clearly, squeezing out the juice? Or do I insert myself into things, missing the point? Whatever it is, it’s something I’ve always done and I’m not sure if I’d call it a strength. It could be a useless portal. Even now I’m still thinking about Henry, trying to imagine his home, his stairs, his kitchen. I can see him in that space, licking mayonnaise from the corner of his mouth. Sorry. You don’t know what the sauce I’m talking about.
Awards: none. There are no pictures of me in magazines crouched on my knees and looking up into the lens like it’s a hand offering kibble. As I’ve mentioned, I wanted very badly to be a writer—I even went to school for it and wrote about things like immigrants struggling to save their families by selling tropical fruit in a marketplace. I thought I was going to be around rebels. Visions of hunting, drinking, and traipsing through Paris danced in my head, but instead I found myself at parties with cheap wine, SUV-size blocks of cheese, and boys talking about their latest accomplishments, like being published in the
. In class they’d keep telling me to earn things—my endings, my beginnings, my metaphors. Then they’d look at the professor. See, the main goal in a writing workshop is to say something that makes the professor nod emphatically. If the professor didn’t nod, I’d look at my classmates and think, Earn this, losers. But
alas, I never made it. I succumbed to rejection emails, telling me that “at this time we don’t have a space for this story.” But I’m back at it, I guess, in cookbook form.
I don’t feel particularly accomplished from the job I had last. I was a menu writer—that’s how I met Bobby, head chef at one of those old, manly steak houses in Union Square whose menu used excessive blurbs to sell different parts of a cow: “Mouthwaterin’!” “Whoppin’ huge!” and so on. I suggested less punctuation. I suggested the sides have more description. Instead of “creamed spinach,’ why not ‘Sonoma creamed spinach with a dash of nutmeg”?
Bobby suggested a booth and a Bordeaux. We dated for almost a year. I fell in love with him. He was mouthwaterin’ and yes, whoppin’ huge. Four months into the relationship he opened his own restaurant out in Sonoma, using all of the ideas we had gone over—huge windows, a hot young butcher, open kitchen, a whimsical menu, a communal table, and using only local foods because when you put “Local” on a menu people come in hordes, feel great about themselves, and are willing to dish out forty bucks for a chicken wing. Ten months into our relationship I got pregnant. Oh, the stories I wrote, the movies I made in my head. My mind was on fire. I would be more than a chef’s wife, I’d be a partner, creating a restaurant of substance. After establishing a cult following, I’d create a cookbook that was surprisingly popular with millennials—Alice Waters, French Laundry—that was their mothers’ thing. They liked the lady with the radish tattoo (or perhaps a little pig). We’d have a beautiful home in the valley, rolling hills, regal oaks, a pool, and a detached office/studio, and a place where I could write, both fiction and non. A studio of my own. My profile in
would be brilliant. I’d wear makeup that didn’t look like I was wearing makeup. My baby would be six weeks old, and the interviewer would exclaim: “You don’t even look like you’ve had a baby!”
“It’s the breast feeding,” I’d say.
But then the scene cut to Bobby, his expression when I broke the news. I was radiating hope and confidence and pure love. Sure, I made room for worry and fear, bewilderment. But we had talked about what we’d name our children. We had long postcoital conversations about dream houses and vacations. We had gone snowboarding with each other. I knew he had a special uncle who died when he was twelve. We had reached the gas-passing phase with one another. We were there! I had even told him what I wanted to do in my life—the embarrassing I-want-to-be-a-writer admission. When a man says “I love you” and “I love what we have,” I don’t think to question it, and so I never predicted his reaction or his words:
“I’m kind of already engaged.”
* * *
So, no. No major accomplishments for me, per se, though I suppose I helped create a restaurant, I’ve supported local farmers—I’ve practically married one off. My other accomplishments for this week include reading Ellie the whole series of princess stories without skipping ahead or stopping to insert my views on the princesses’ hopeless futures—cleaning, breeding, and endless blow-jobbing. This week I’ve pushed back my cocktail hour to five thirty, and this evening, I came up with a dish after having talked to Henry.
Seems like his already troubled marriage reached a new low. I knew something was going on. He was looking so dazed and slumped where he usually sits up straight or moves around the park as though he were at a cocktail party. The nannies light up when he opens the gate, except for one named Hilda, who wouldn’t light up unless you set her on fire.
He told me that his wife finally admitted to what he’d been suspecting for a while. She was having an affair with another man. It shocked me to think that women do this. Men get horny. I can see that, but
as a woman with a baby, it’s the last thing I’d want to do. It would be so much work.
Henry looked confused versus angry: stupefied. Twenty-one years of marriage. You keep building this tower together and then someone decides to knock it down. My tower was only a year’s worth of work. But maybe Henry will rebuild. His wife seems to like remodeling. Yes, they could build an even better tower. Not that I know what he’ll do or that I care. I mean, I care. I’d support him either way. God, I sound like Bobby after I told him I was pregnant.
“It’s your decision,” he said. “I’ll support you with whatever you choose,” all the while I imagined he was chanting to himself:
abort, abort, abort
, as though Ellie and I were a mission gone wrong.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to Henry today. We hadn’t made eye contact. The closest I got was looking at his leg next to mine.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess you . . . you’ve dealt with this. You’re dealing with this. Though it’s different, I’m sure.”
He refilled my plastic cup, and for a second I had a feeling of nostalgia for something I’ve never known: a husband refilling my glass of wine. I often joke and make light about the single life, forgetting that it’s something that may last forever, that it might not just be a stage like teething.
“It’s different,” I said, though I’d be hard-pressed to choose between the two blows. There’s no catalog of pain where we can choose our hurt, but if there was I wonder what mine would cost compared to Henry’s.
“At least we have each other!” I finally looked at him. I meant the humor in my voice to mask the truth of the matter, the feeling that Henry’s misfortune had somewhat depleted a bit of my own and that we were in on something together. I wanted to give him a hug, but in a friendly way. “You are my friend!” I wanted to say. “Perhaps my best friend lately. I don’t have friends like this. And neither do you.” He has
told me that his so-called friends actually seek advice on what to wear and how and whom to entertain. “We are unexpected! I love you!”