Authors: Hannah Pittard
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For Noah and Greta
…as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.
n June 16, at roughly eight thirty in the morning, I get the phone call that my father is dead. Actually, that’s not quite right. At eight thirty in the morning, still on June 16, the plane I’m on takes a detour and lands two hundred miles south of its destination (Chicago) because of a massive storm system that’s closed both O’Hare and Midway. We sit on the runway for an hour. As a concession, the flight attendants pass out bottles of water and tell us we can turn on our cell phones until it’s time to redepart. I have three messages. They’re all from Elliot, my brother, who I talk to a few times a year, which would suggest we’re not close, but we are. We don’t see each other much, but when we do, it’s like everything catches up immediately, like the time between meetings never happened. We are thick as thieves, but we suck at the phone. It’s a different thing with my sister. Nell and I talk every day, whether we want to or not. We are addicted to conversation. We are in love with ourselves and our banter and maybe even with each other. That’s the family joke, anyway.
now being only me, my brother, and my sister. We do not count our father. Nor do we count the stepmothers and half siblings. There are too many to count.
The first message is Elliot asking me to call him. The second message is Elliot telling me to call him ASAP. The third message is Elliot delivering the news that our father is dead, that he’s walked onto the back porch of the condo in Atlanta that he shares with his fifth wife and shot himself in the head.
So I’m on this plane, which is growing increasingly muggy and cramped. The sky outside has become a hostile blue-black. There are multiple babies on board, all of whom have started up with these tiny high squawks, and now my skin is itching. I’m feeling guilty as hell about my contempt for the screaming babies, so I’m practicing this insane smiling technique that my husband (soon-to-be ex-husband, sadly, if he gets his way and I can’t convince him otherwise) says is far, far worse than if I would just let my face match up accurately with my true feelings (this, he says, is one of the reasons that he doesn’t want to—
—live with me any longer: my true feelings are buried under manure and turds and more manure and turds). But that’s not how I was raised. I was raised to smile. I was raised to sit through suffering. I was raised to think that if the yelling got too loud or the humiliation got too painful, you just ignored it. You just ignored it because there was nothing you could do.
And so I am smiling and—if Peter, my husband, is right, which he probably is because he always is, and I mean that seriously and not in any sort of passive-aggressive way—I’m also looking kind of unhinged, and over the PA system, like a bad joke, one of the flight attendants has just announced that the toilets are backed up—both of them—and all I can hear is Elliot saying over and over again, “Dad’s dead, Kate. He’s dead.” And I realize with a start that the people in front of me have turned around to look at me and the old man next to me—Frank from Wisconsin, die-hard Packers fan and, at least according to the past two hours, incredibly decent human being who has loved only one woman in his life and loved her well—is staring at my lap. All this because apparently I’ve enabled the speaker function of my phone and Elliot really is saying it all over again, only saying it now to an audience of strangers.
Remember that head-scratching final scene in
Four Weddings and a Funeral
—an otherwise decent movie—when Andie MacDowell’s character claims not to know it’s raining? “Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed.” It was universally regarded as a preposterous line—who, after all, has ever stood in the rain and not been aware of the weather?—but what made it even more pitiful was the acting. (They say screenwriters always blame the actors, and it’s true. We do.) The point is, whenever I’m embarrassed, I like to think of that scene. I like to think,
Well, this is awkward, but at least I know when it’s raining.
I silence my phone and look at Frank.
Well, this is awkward
, I think. “I’m sorry,” I say.
The people in front of us reluctantly turn away. I feel like crying.
“Did you just get that news?” asks Frank. He is still staring at my lap, where the phone is stationed like a forgotten extra. “Just now? Just
I give a little shrug.
Frank is an old man. He’s about my father’s age. I’m guessing he knows that. I’m guessing at this very minute he’s imagining not my father but himself, lying dead on the back porch of some tawdry condominium in Atlanta.
“Do you need a tissue?” he says. There’s a tremor in his hands. My money’s on early Parkinson’s.
I shake my head. Frank feels worse than I do. I wish I actually
crying. He’d feel better about things. We’d both feel better about things. But my hormones have let me down.
The thing is, my hormones are constantly letting me down, and recently, they’ve been letting Peter down, too. Maybe they’ve been letting him down all along. I didn’t want a baby when we married. I don’t want a baby now. But Peter. Poor Peter. Over the last half decade, his hormones have matured, while mine have stayed miraculously immature. We were young when we married, but nobody told us that. Nobody said, “Twenty-six? In ten years—strike that—in
years, you’ll be a different person. Twenty-six is nothing. Twenty-six is still a kid.” Nobody said that. I’m not shirking responsibility, though it would have been nice for someone to have at least
to pass me the note. But then, who would that have been? Not my father, who stopped being an engaged parent the minute he married my first stepmother. Not Elliot, who was and is the poster boy for marriage. Certainly not Nell, who, though she had only just filed for divorce at the time of my engagement to Peter, still believes long-term commitment is the golden ideal.
Frank from Wisconsin has turned away from me. He’s writing his obituary in his head. I can practically see him sitting at his desk, lining the paper himself with a ruler and a pencil. He’ll write every bit of it down longhand. His life. Letter by letter. Word by word. People are predictable. That’s just the way it goes.
I lean back in my seat. The lights in the cabin dim. As if on cue, a voice like God all around us says, “We’ve been cleared for takeoff.” There is a pause, a general murmuring, and then all the other passengers erupt in applause. Frank doesn’t look at me while he claps, and I don’t look at him. I turn off my phone and close my eyes.
My father is dead. He’ll still be dead in forty-five minutes when we land in Chicago.
here are three of us. Elliot is the oldest and, somehow, the most normal. At least, he’s the most outwardly normal. He has a wife, he owns his home, he has three little girls, each with a different color of hair. They all have blue eyes. They don’t go to church, but they do go to private school. On the weekends they go climbing together. The five of them. They pack up the Range Rover, gear and everything, and drive from Colorado Springs in the direction of the San Isabel Forest and they climb. The littlest—Ellie, the blonde—is a demon on the mountains. Rita, Elliot’s wife, worries that her youngest is going to want to free solo some day. It’s almost a guarantee, in my opinion, but I don’t tell Rita that. In fact, I think free soloing is the least of their worries. I think they have a base jumper on their hands. But, again, these are opinions I keep to myself, and by keep to myself, I mean share only with Nell, my sister.
So Elliot is oldest and has this adorable nuclear family. I’m not trying to oversimplify his life by calling it nuclear. I’m just saying that he has the whole package. Are there ups and downs? Of course. He works a hundred hours a week doing something I don’t understand. He works from home but he still doesn’t see his girls as much as he wants. His wife is lonely. I know this because she’s told me so. She’s told Nell, too. She has friends. Of course she has friends. But friends aren’t a husband. There’s this grad student who lives across the street from them. Rita’s told me about him. I don’t know his name. He leaves tomato plants in coffee cans on the front steps. Sometimes he writes her notes. I’ve asked, “Is this a problem? Is this boy going to be a problem?” She said, “He’s renting. There are two other students. They’re renters. They’ll be gone in six months. He’s not a problem.” I called Nell. I said, “Do you know about the tomato plants?” Nell said, “Yeah, right? So suspicious. Apparently he’s really good with Joe.” Joe—the redhead—is their oldest girl. She’s taller than Rita already and, I suspect, will soon be taller than me. She is a complete knockout and I worry constantly both that she’ll figure it out too soon and that she won’t figure it out soon enough. “Wait,” I said to my sister. “This grad student is
really good with Joe
? Nobody’s worried?” Nell laughed. “You’re so dark,” she said. “Not everyone is obsessed with sex. He’s never alone with her.” It was the first time I’d been accused of being obsessed with sex. I wondered if she had me confused with someone else, but I said nothing. We talked for a few more minutes. Mostly about Rita and the tomatoes and whether we needed to say anything yet about this grad student to our brother.
Nell and Elliot and I don’t believe in adultery—not that we don’t think it exists, but we don’t condone or excuse it. Our father was a philanderer. After our mother died and he started marrying women like it was going out of fashion, he became an outright expert in infidelity. The word
doesn’t even begin to cover it. And so, as a fairly obvious psychological result, my siblings and I are hard-liner opponents. At least in theory. There are things Nell and Elliot don’t know. Things I don’t want to tell them. They’d call me a hypocrite if they knew certain things and they’d be right, but it’s complicated. It always is.
So there’s Elliot and his family in Colorado Springs. They’re getting by. They’re living life. I worry about them in the way that you worry about anyone you love, but mostly I think of them as settled. Mostly I think,
Good for him. Good for them. Proof that it’s possible.
Sometimes I get sad when I think about the three of us as little kids. I get this bunched-up feeling in my stomach that reminds me of the last day of summer camp. Does everyone feel this way? I’m not talking about the people who think the best years of their lives were in high school—not at all; I feel
for people who think that. I’m talking about this other feeling. I’m talking about closing your eyes and seeing yourself as you used to be: not in high school and popular or not popular, but in lower school, in middle school. As a clunky little kid with knees like a giraffe’s, wearing her older sister’s uniform that’s still too big. As a child who carried a Strawberry Shortcake lunch box and whose biggest concern was whether there would be Goldfish or a Fruit Roll-Up packed inside, even while she didn’t know which she really wanted, only that whichever one was there wouldn’t be the right one. I get sad when I think about those times—when I think about all of us still being young, still having everything ahead of us instead of things behind us. And sometimes I get jealous that we’ve grown up, that we’ve moved on, that we’ve started these other lives that don’t revolve around each other. I think maybe I didn’t get the instruction book. Other people make it look easy. Elliot makes it look easy. But who knows? Maybe he wakes up at night and goes to the kitchen by himself and wishes, really wishes, that it was still just the three of us—just me, Nell, and him against the world. Maybe.
Next there’s Nell. She’s in San Francisco. She’s a producer, of sorts. She bosses people around. She hires and fires. She approves spreadsheets. She makes money. She wears nice clothes. She invests. She has a fourth-floor condo that you could shoot for a spread in
on a last-minute whim and everything would be perfect. There wouldn’t be a shoe out of place. When I’m not in Nell’s condo—which is most of the time, because I live in Chicago—I am perfectly happy living without the things that she has acquired. But when I
in Nell’s condo, I feel this ache in my bones to possess things—things I never even knew I wanted that suddenly feel like necessities. For starters: her outdoor furniture. I never knew a person could covet outdoor furniture. But when I’m there, in San Francisco, I do. I
it. I understand the word when I’m there. Understand it in a biblical way. Other things: her espresso machine, her kilim pillows, her antique brass bed. I want these things so badly I get dizzy. I turn wonky. But then I go home. Then I go back to Chicago and, yes, there are things that aren’t right in my life—plenty of things, in fact—but the material longings fade away, and for the most part, I don’t even think about them.
Nell is one year younger than Elliot, which means they were friends with all the same people growing up. Nell dated Elliot’s friends, Elliot dated Nell’s friends. They had parties together, they smoked pot together, they got suspended from school together. Everything you could possibly dream of as a younger sister, those two did together. When it was my turn for high school—four years later—they sat me down and explained that it was up to me to get it right. It was up to me to be the straight one. “Do it for us,” they said. I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Nell likes to call herself a divorcée. In her twenties she married a ghoul from Spain. The marriage lasted six months. The divorce lasted three years. Immigration was all over them at first. They thought the entire thing was a setup. Nell says sometimes now that it was. But it wasn’t. They were in love. For a minute. I think she got swept up by the row house and the ring, then they got to know each other. But this is almost a decade ago now. She hasn’t remarried. She says she’s okay with being single. She says San Francisco sucks for women nearing forty. She says the worst part is not having someone to hug every once in a while. “Not every night,” she’s told me. “I don’t need it every night. But sometimes, walking through the front door after work, I just wish there’d be someone there. Standing right there. And he wouldn’t even need to say a thing. We’d just hug. That’s it.” Nell can depress the hell out of me sometimes.
Then there’s me and Peter. We live on the North Side, on the second floor of a three-floor walk-up. Peter is a therapist; I’m an assistant professor in screenwriting. My job pays next to nothing—just over thirty grand—but thanks to Peter, we pay our bills on time, and sometimes, late at night, lying in bed, we talk about the possibility of one day buying a cabin somewhere up north. Anyway, we used to.
About two years ago, and out of nowhere, Peter brought home the most adorable little pamphlet. On the front flap was a picture of a baby swaddled in fabric. “Precious,” I said. “That baby is eat-up with cute.” I put the pamphlet back on the counter and turned away, fully prepared never to think a second thought about that baby. Fully prepared to forget about it the way you forget about the day’s most recent kitten meme.
“Kiddo,” he said. He touched my waist. I brushed his hand away and slipped on an apron. It was my turn to cook dinner. I kissed him on the cheek. This is my version of events.
“Can we talk about this?” He held the pamphlet toward me again. I looked at the baby, toasty and comfy in its folds of blue cloth. Then I looked down, beneath the baby, and saw the word I’d somehow missed before.
“Where did you get that?” I said.
“From Dan.” Dan is Peter’s doctor and also his best friend.
“You talked to Dan about this?”
“He’s my doctor.”
“Before you talked to me?”
I moved toward the basket of vegetables and grabbed an onion.
“I wanted to know what the possibility was—” He made an awkward circling motion in front of his belly. “Of undoing—” He was talking about his vasectomy, the one he’d had eight years earlier so I could go off birth control and because we knew we didn’t want children. He gestured in front of his belly again. He looked ridiculous. I knew exactly what he was talking about, but I wouldn’t say the word and neither would he.
“And?” I said. I sliced the onion in half. My hand was shaky. My eyes were starting to water.
“Because of the complications, two percent. Not good.”
I nodded and made another slice into the onion. Peter’s vas deferens had become infected after the surgery. Dan explained to us when it happened that a reversal probably wouldn’t be possible, but we hadn’t been troubled. We both agreed that talking about a vasovasostomy while you’re still recovering from a vasectomy is a little like planning a prenup and a wedding at the same time. What’s the point?
“He said two percent and then he—what? He just handed you that brochure? Voilà?” I gestured toward the pamphlet with my knife. I couldn’t look at Peter.
“No.” He was beside me again. His hand was on my waist again. “I asked for it.”
I rubbed at my eyes with my knuckles. He didn’t move away.
“When we got married—” I said. But then I stopped short, realizing I was terribly close to quoting a line from
Two for the Road
Mark: We agreed before we were married we weren’t going to have any children.
Joanna: And before we were married we didn’t.
Only, in this scenario, I was Albert Finney and Peter was Audrey Hepburn. I wanted us to be better than that. I wanted
to be better than that, and so I did this monumentally dim-witted thing. I lied and said, “Okay.”
I turned to face him.
“We can talk about it,” I said.
Understand: Because of Peter, we pay the bills. Because of Peter, we live quite well.
“We can start talking about it,” I said. “Sure.”
And we did start talking about it. We included Elliot and Nell in the conversation. Rita did research. Once a week, she’d email the names of agencies, with lists of pros and cons. E
t called every few nights, which wasn’t like him. “I think this will be good for you,” he said. “Man, I think this will be really good. This is exactly what you two need.” Everyone seemed so happy, and I liked the feeling that gave me. But every time Peter brought home another stack of paperwork, I felt sick.
It took twelve months of talking and researching and signing various pieces of paper—until the interviews were just about to begin—for me to tell him. There wasn’t a maternal instinct in me. That’s what I said. He disagreed. At first in this really loving way, like, “You’re amazing, you’re so caring,” et cetera, et cetera. Then, after a few weeks, in this more aggressive way, like, “You don’t know what you want. You have no idea. It’s turds. It’s manure. Everything you say. Turds and manure.”
Nell called. She was understanding, but I could tell she was disappointed. She’d been fond of the conversations during which she’d list baby names and I’d rule them out one by one. She said Peter would get over it.
Elliot called too. He was less understanding. It broke his heart. That’s what he said. Those exact words: “It breaks my heart.” He said his girls would grow up without cousins. I said, “Cousins? We didn’t have cousins. Who needs cousins?” He said, “You don’t get it. And you won’t. You can’t. Because you don’t have kids.”
Peter and I stopped having sex.
Strike that: I started going to bed earlier than Peter.
Yes, it was deliberate. And yes, it was that simple. At first I claimed headaches. I’d go out of my way to pop an aspirin or two while he was watching. But it was too sad, how obvious I was being. And so I stopped claiming headaches and joined the gym. I got up at five and was outside the gym by five thirty, just as they were unlocking the doors. At night, after class, I’d look at Peter and say, “I’m beat.” And I was. My body was proof. The new muscles and drawn face were evidence.
So we stopped having sex, and the fact of the matter is that it was a relief. I liked falling asleep—though it would only be for an hour or two—without him. I liked not having to worry and wait and see if tonight was one of the nights when he’d want to be quote-unquote intimate, which would always begin with a slow dance of familiar limbs that never tried anything new and end with me in the bathroom alone, wiping between my legs and putting on a fresh pair of underwear.
The thing about cheating—the thing Elliot and Nell may or may not understand, and this has
to do with my father, this is just a fact—is that it’s easy. It’s the easiest thing in the world. My sister says she has a hard time meeting men; she says San Francisco just doesn’t cut it for straight women. But she’s wrong. All you have to do is put yourself out there. All you have to do is take off your ring and make the decision that you want to have sex. It’s a vibe. It’s a smell. It’s an animal instinct. I never told Peter. But a month ago he found out. Husbands are always finding out.