How To Be a Man
The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series
The girls have American passports so I have to take them. I hike Martha higher up on my hip and she readjusts her warm body against my shoulder without waking. Sarah pulls at my hand and says “Dad” half-a-dozen times until I look at her and she shows me she’s holding the diaper bag and helping. I tell her she’s being a good big sister. My wife Libby hands me the girls’ passports from the red travel wallet she keeps all our documents in and then goes to the line on the left.
“Let’s go, girls.”
But Sarah points back towards Libby, who’s calling my name and running back over to us.
“Thought you might need this,” she says, and hands me my own passport.
I mouth thank you; it’s clear I need this woman.
The airport is cold and bright in the early morning. Three planeloads of passengers are snaked around the white-tiled immigration hall. When the small TSA agent in her tight blue blazer speaks, everyone stops their tired whispering and allows her voice to echo. She instructs us to move forward and we obediently inch towards the front of the line. I look to see if Libby’s line is moving but it’s not. The non-Americans get grilled coming into the country. We keep shuffling along with indiscernible steps, and Sarah uses all her strength to keep our diaper bag off the floor.
Martha wakes up before we’ve reached the front of the line and starts a high-screeched cry that shakes everyone in line awake. The other passengers look at us, sigh deeply, and rub their eyes. Martha screams mommy in between choked and panicked sobs. I do the dad-jiggle, bouncing up and down, cooing. I wipe her dripping nose with the edge of my sleeve. I tell her that we’re going to see mommy very soon.
The TSA agent comes over to us.
“The long flights are hard,” she says.
“Are you going to see your mommy?” the agent says, running her finger along the bottom of Martha’s socked feet.
“My wife’s just on the other line. She’s British.”
“Right there, in the back of that line.”
We both turn towards the other line. Libby is looking at us, the sound of Martha’s crying having alerted something primal in her. She’s on tiptoes, peering over the crowd. I can see the worry on her face. She is a tall woman and her thin, long arms are braced on her hips. For a second she looks like someone else; without the stroller and diaper bag and two kids hanging off of her, she seems younger than herself. Still looking at us, she shifts from side to side, pulls her short brown hair into an angry ponytail, leans over the retractable divider. Her thick-framed glasses suggest a young professor or an art student. Martha’s cries get louder, more panicked. Finally, the TSA agent makes an exaggerated wave and Libby jumps over the divider in one long leap, like a high-school hurdler, her legs high and straight.
“What’s wrong,” Libby says, taking Martha, “Is everything OK?”
Martha quiets down right away. Libby’s voice is calm and precise. The way Libby rocks, too, moving back and forth, twisting at her hips, instead of up and down, seems more soothing.
The rest of the line smiles at us; they make sympathetic eyes. We are no longer bad parents, but loving and good. We know how to control our children. We are a strong family unit. I absorb their gazes, I smile back. Martha rests her head on Libby’s shoulder, and I can hear the loving tisk of all the women on line. They smile at my daughters, both of them, and try to catch their eyes.
“You guys can all go through here together,” the TSA agent says. “You’re all better; right, baby girl? Now that your mommy’s here?”
I poke Martha to look at the woman, to show some sign of appreciation, but her head is buried in Libby’s neck. I lift her small curled hand and make her wave to the agent. We’re called to the next window. Martha’s cheeks are red, and her wet face looks fresh and new. I take the baby bag from Sarah.
“You’re the best,” I tell her, “So grown up.”
I take Libby’s passport from her and hand all four of them to the immigration officer so they snap on the counter—three blue and Libby’s purple one.
“She’s supposed to be on the other side,” the officer says. He stares at us, unmoved by the beauty of my children.
“The agent moved us over here; the baby was crying.”
“Martha’s not a baby anymore,” Sarah says.
“No, you’re right, she’s not.”
“Ma’am,” the officer says, “your work visa’s expired.”
“Right,” Libby says stepping closer to the desk. “Yes, I know. I’m on a temporary visa while my green card is being processed.”
“You two are married?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And you’re getting a green card?”
We both laugh.
“Wait, are you serious?” Libby says. “Does this look like a scam to you? We’ve been married for eight years. These are our kids.”
The officer is a young man with a blue, ironed uniform buttoned up to his neck. I think he must be new on the job and doesn’t know how funny the joke he’s making is. I try and think about this straight talking, buzz cut dude who, when he’s not on the job, probably has a regular poker night, or likes to kick back with a local beer and a video game, and I think about what he must love because this dude, by the very nature of his joke, is threatening what I love. I smile at him like we were friends, but he stays thin-lipped and straight-faced. I realize that it’s not a joke. He asks Libby for her right hand for fingerprints and she passes Martha to me before she puts her hand on the scanner. She looks in the camera and has her picture taken. I stand rocking Martha the way Libby did before, and I watch the government via this young, hard man order my wife around. I could lean into the booth and punch him. There are at least 15 other officials in the hall, but I could get at least one punch in before they got me. I’d have to put Martha down first.
“We were on vacation,” I say, too quietly.
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to go with this gentleman,” the officer says to Libby.
“We’ve never had a problem before,” I say.
“Her I-94’s still attached, which is the first—”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Libby says, grabbing her passport.
Libby stomps after the man in the dark suit and walks down a long white hallway away from us. The immigration officer stamps our three passports.
I put the passports in my back pocket—Libby took our travel wallet—and switch Martha to my other shoulder. We go towards the baggage carousels.
“She had to talk to those men about England.”
We watch the bags not come out. Martha is fidgeting and slipping out of my arms. I have to tell Sarah four times to stay still. She keeps inching away. She wants to know if the bags have fallen yet, if she can help more by getting a cart, if she can get a soda, or a candy bar, if she can go down the hall and look for mom.
“Sit,” I say.
“On the ground?”
She sits down, and I put Martha on the floor in front of her, and Sarah tries to teach her a new hand-clap game. I feel stiff from the plane, from holding Martha, and from the waiting. I stare at the baggage carousel: Bags fall but none of them are ours. If Libby were here, somehow it would be better. I’m having trouble focusing, my eyes blurring. For a moment I think about what it would be like if Libby were gone. If she were not just in a room down some mysterious hallway, but if she disappeared—even died—and I was alone. I look down at the girls on the dirty airport floor. I think about how it was on the plane, as if it were a far away memory. We had three seats in a row. Sarah was at the window so she could see the ocean. Martha was on my lap. People were nervous as they passed—a baby on the plane—but then they saw little Martha’s big gray eyes, her silent smile. Sarah sat, looking out the window, with her little hands folded in her lap. What beautiful children, people said as they passed. What a lovely couple! Now Libby is gone, and our baggage is floating somewhere in the ocean. I miss her clothes. I would be the type of widower to roll around in Libby’s shirts and socks, to want to breathe her smell.
Our bags fall down the conveyor belt. I’m left watching them go around the hall and back out again because I can’t bring myself to lift the girls up, carry them over to the bags, find a cart, have them stand still while I get the bags and inevitably turn my back on them, just for a second, while I lift the overweight suitcases off the carousel—the impossibility of even moving from this very spot is overwhelming. There’s a tightness in my chest. Indigestion, or worse.
Then, like light, Libby is in front of us.
“What a load of tossers,” she says.
“Oh, Mommy said a bad word.”
“I’m sorry, bunny,” Libby says, patting Sarah’s head. “American bureaucracy at it’s finest.”
I kiss Libby, my nose hitting her glasses as I push myself onto her face. I pick up Martha but before I give her to Libby I squeeze her between us—a family hug—and Sarah grabs my leg and hugs too. Martha laughs her wonderfully sweet baby laugh.
“Everything OK?” I ask Libby.
“Right as rain,” she says.
“Dad, the bags have gone around three times!” Sarah says. She takes my hand and we run to the baggage carousel. She hunches down until she sees the bags coming around the corner and then springs up. I lift the bags off the conveyor belt like they’re made of air. I pile them together like Tetris pieces so I can wheel them at once.
My family is whole again. We head for home, relaxed and happy. In the taxi I decide I’ll cook a big pasta dinner. We’ll all watch a Princess Pony movie and get the kids to bed early. And I decide that tomorrow I’ll definitely break it off with Diane. After that, I’ll tell Libby. I’ll come clean about the whole thing.
My boss, Ronald, has a habit of blowing up at everyone. One time after he got chewed out at a board meeting, he pushed over a filing cabinet in the middle of the office. I had a really good line telling him to calm down, something I came up with the last time he’d yelled at all of us, and I said it, the way I’d practiced, in the silence of the office after the bang of the falling cabinet. Ronald was embarrassed. We all laughed and he eventually bent down, in his three-thousand-dollar suit, and picked up the papers. I was a hero that day. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and actually thanked me. Diane had been getting the brunt of his yelling since she was his secretary, so she was especially appreciative. She organized the whole office to take me out for drinks.
A couple of months before, at the Christmas party, I had made out with Diane in the mailroom by the fax machine. I don’t remember how we got there, but it was dark and I was full of good vodka and mini quiche. There was a knock at the door and we quickly straightened ourselves out. It lasted less than a minute. She turned on the lights, and I stood by the soda machine and tried to push in a twenty-dollar bill. When she opened the door, it was someone from Accounting.
“That’s weird, why did that door lock?” she said as she walked back out to the party.
We never talked about it; she never smiled shyly at me or blushed. We went on working through the winter as if nothing had ever happened. So, I wasn’t thinking about it while we all walked downtown. I was excited and talked loudly to everyone at the bar, repeating my line to anyone who had missed it. I accepted drinks. At some point, late in the night, it was just me and Diane, putting back shots. She touched my leg and ran her spidery fingers around my knee. When she stood up suddenly she had to steady herself on the bar. She said it was past her bedtime and that I had two choices—I could go with her, or I could go home.
I went with her.
We took a cab back to her place. I kept my eyes closed; the jostling of the taxi made me queasy. In bed I was very quick and she was loud. I barely got it up before I came. Then my chest hurt. Like heartburn made of needles, a stabbing pain. I waited for my left arm to go numb, but it didn’t.
“I have to go,” I said, even before I got dressed.
“I know,” she said.
I was attracted to Diane. She wasn’t prettier than Libby; she had a small, thin body and brittle blonde hair. Pretty, but plain. I knew it at the bar, and when I was undressing her, and in bed, after. Plain. But there was something about her, and seeing it everyday awakened whatever it was that made me attracted to her. I didn’t not want Libby; I just also wanted Diane. So, in bed that first time, I reached for her cheek and held it in my hand for a moment, and knew that I had started something.
“I thought you were seeing someone from Legal,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Oh.” I got dressed and then said, “We shouldn’t do this again.”
“I know, but I think we will anyway.” She kissed me. “It was good, right?”
I guessed, later, that the knowledge that I was now having an affair was part of the pain that I felt, that sick feeling. I was cheating on my wife. I would do it again.
When I got home I told Libby I’d had too much to drink with the boys after work. I made myself vomit in the bathroom as evidence. I crawled into bed and listened to her as she took the girls into the bathroom for their baths and then read them their bedtime stories. I pretended to be asleep when she turned off the light and curled into bed beside me. She kissed me on the back of my head and said, “You’re too old to drink like a college boy.”
I mumbled an apology.
She hugged me and rolled over. I farted and tried to fall asleep.
But I was awake for hours. I watched Libby in the dark. She was a restless sleeper. She turned back and forth, moved her pillow, pulled on the blankets. I tried to nudge myself under Libby’s heavy head, to wrap my arm around her tossing body.
“Stop,” she said, half awake.
She fell asleep again before she even turned over.
I wait for Libby to leave for her sister’s and then call Diane to see if I can stop by her apartment after I drop the kids off. She says she’s sick and, on top of that, she’s waiting for her new couch to be delivered.
“How sick?” I ask.
“I haven’t been in work the past two days.”
“I was on vacation.”
“Well, can I come by? I’ll bring you soup.”
When I look up, Sarah’s there. She’s standing at the corner of the desk, already dressed in her leotard and pink ballet shoes, rocking back and forth on her heels.
I try to ignore Sarah, but she’s looking at me with her big, dark eyes. She sits down at the edge of the bed and waits for me to get off the phone.
I keep talking to Diane. I say I need to stop by, that I want to talk. I say I can help her with the couch delivery. Sarah’s standing on the bed now, watching me speak. I tell Diane if she hears the buzzer, it’ll be me. Sarah pliés and arabesques. I hang up the phone.
“Who was that?”
“Is that any of your business?”
“But Dad, who were you talking to?”
My heart is fast; I can feel my blood moving through my body, the throb of the pulsing vein at the top of my right temple. My father died of a heart attack a few years ago, and when I feel my blood moving through my body, and I hear my heartbeat in my ears, I become aware that there might be plaque or fat deposits somewhere in my arteries—just like his—and I’ll go the same way. There isn’t any question whether someone will call 911 or if I’ll be saved; I will just, certainly, die. I don’t care what happens to my organs or when they pull the plug, but I want there to be a document for the last words I hear, what I will be able to take with me. I want to hear my daughters say the word dad.
“None of your beeswax,” I say.
“Was it Aunt Catherine?”
“Will Mom know?”
“I’m going to ask her.”
“Sure,” I say, “Fine.” I walk around the room and into the bathroom and shout for her to make sure her sister is ready to go. I wash my face in the sink with the broken plug and watch a few of my hairs fall out and float in the dirty water. “Ask Mom,” I shout.
I don’t know if Sarah knows I’m doing something wrong or if she’s upset at me because I’m keeping something from her; hiding something she, as my daughter, thinks she deserves to know. I hope she’ll forget it by the time she’s home from dance class, been fed, done her homework. But she’s so smart, my Sarah, and she’s at an age where her mind grasps on to everything and holds tight. I decide to fill her day to the max, to pump her little head with so many things that by dinner she won’t remember anything about the morning, the phone call and the look on my face when I realized she was listening.
I start by taking the kids to the carwash. Sarah’s says she doesn’t feel like going to the carwash. The vocalization of feelings that go distinctly against everything she’s told to do only started after her sixth birthday. I have visions of the future, images of her sneaking out her bedroom window to meet a boy on a motorcycle, climbing down a sheet knotted to another sheet. The boy revs his engine and says, Come on, baby.
“Come on, baby,” I say, “We’re all going to the carwash.”
At the red light before the turn that takes us to the carwash, I reach my hand through the space between the seats and touch Martha’s dangling foot. I can see her strapped into her car seat behind me through the rearview mirror, but I want to touch her just to confirm she’s really, physically there. A minute ago she was reciting lines from the Princess Pony and now she’s asleep, her head almost touching the window, then not, then almost touching it, then not. I think she might have narcolepsy. Sarah’s staring out the window, her knees curled up to her stomach, too far away to reach.
When we pull into the carwash Martha wakes up. She starts clapping her hands and then says, “Dad, do the man.”
I put my hand up to my mouth and muffle my voice to make it sound like it’s coming through a speaker in a safari jeep. We lock into the ramp and I say, “We’re entering the Car-Washii jungle.” The brushes at the sides are the wild brush boars. Monkey-spit soapsuds cover the windows. A rubber-fringed curtain—the deadly vines—makes a smacking sound against the windshield. Then a rainstorm of water jets sprays down the hood of the car and makes everything inside echo. We are trapped in a metal bubble moving through darkness. The tour guide is the hero, the protector.
“That was boring,” Sarah says when we get out.
“Martha liked it,” I said, “Didn’t you Martha.”
She’s asleep again.
“Martha, wake up,” Sarah says.
“Leave her alone,” I say. I am the father. I am Dad. I can talk on the phone to whomever I want. I look again in the rearview mirror. Sarah’s glaring at me. Her brow is pinched.
She says, “Green light.”
Ten minutes after I drop Sarah at the dance studio and Martha at playgroup, I’m down the expressway and a couple blocks from Diane’s apartment. I am ready to break it off with her. It’s been months since we first started sneaking around, but looking back it doesn’t feel so long. I don’t treat Diane well. We ignore each other at the office, which makes sense, but it’s more than that. I’m rough with her. When we have sex I flip her on top of me and grab her hips and shake her hard. I don’t try to please her. There was only one time she stopped me, she said I was actually hurting her. She got off and rolled onto her side, her knees up against her chest.
“Shit, why didn’t you tell me to stop sooner?”
“I know you didn’t mean to. I’m fine now.”
That was the first time we talked. She told me about her family, about school and what she thought about her job. It was a month into the whole thing, and it was the first time it felt like we might actually be getting to know each other—not just having sex, but talking the way you do when you’re dating. That night we reached that moment when you begin to learn about a person so that you can, maybe, build something together. Later, when I went home, I had a huge argument with Libby. She was complaining about my late hours at the office and in the middle of it all I heard a hint of the generic British accent Diane would do when she imagined Libby. They were two women, separate, whole, and then suddenly they crossed into one. I slept on the couch that night, and then decided I’d have to end it. But I kept putting it off. I had never been the one to break up with someone before.
I pass the exit for Diane’s place and have to cross three lines of traffic to get off at the next one. I realize I’m both nervous and excited. I tap my hands on the wheel. I’ve rehearsed what I want to say, as if it’s a presentation for work. Simple, direct, to the point. I make a sharp left onto Diane’s street. The building is old and stately, overlooking the promenade. It has dark red brick and green fire escapes. When we drove past, on our way to the airport, I pointed the building out to Libby. I don’t know what I was planning to say; maybe I wanted to ask her what she thought about the old brick next to all the new condos. But before I could say anything Libby shivered and said she hated that building. When she first moved to the states for college, it had been a home for disabled children. The nurses would lay wooden planks over the gratings on the fire escapes and roll the kids’ wheelchairs out onto the balconies. From the park on the other side of the highway, she said she watched their yellow faces and blank stares. I decide I won’t go out on Diane’s balcony.
I ring the buzzer and lean in close to hear the sound of Diane breathing.
“Hello?” she says.
“Oh! Come on up.”
When she opens the door she asks, “Where’s my soup?”
“You said you’d bring soup. I’m sick.” She holds her arms across her breasts.
“Whoops, I forgot.” I walk past her, accept a kiss on the cheek. Her lips are dry.
“I really wanted soup; I’ve been thinking about it all morning.”
She sits down on the couch with a huff, pulling her flannel pajama pants up to her knees.
“You’re really sick?”
“Yes! I’ve had a fever since Wednesday. You and your kid germs, probably.” She pulls a blanket off the arm of the couch and wraps it around her shoulders. “What’s up?”
“I guess I just needed to talk to you.”
“I don’t feel well. And the couch is coming today. I thought you were going to be the couch.”
“We’re sitting on the couch.”
“I’m getting a new one. A white one. I’ve always wanted a white couch.”
I move slightly away from her so I can turn and face her. Sick Diane seems especially weak and frail. I think about Libby and imagine the way her presence would intimidate her, how Diane would crumble next to the goodness of Libby and her long beautiful arms, her soft chin, her powerful hips.
“Could you make me tea?” Diane asks.
Diane’s refrigerator is yellow and old-fashioned with a large metal door handle, a quirky piece. I fumble with the mug and it echoes on the sink. We’re through, I say in my head. Over. I feel firm and strong and, more importantly, right.
I boil the water in the kettle on the stove and then open several cabinets until I find where she keeps her tea bags. They’re in a large plastic box, divided by type. She asks for peppermint. We don’t have peppermint tea in my house. I bring her the tea, cloyingly sweet, and sit down next to her.
“We can’t see each other anymore,” I say.
“Why? Can we do this later?”
“No, I mean it.”
“I’m tired. And sick. We’ll talk about it later.”
“We need to now.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
I smack a magazine off the couch and she jumps back as if I’ve hit her.
“Jesus,” she says. “Are you always like this when you don’t get your way? Such a temper—just like my father.”
I stand up. I walk over to the magazine and pick it up and put it on a table.
“Did your father have affairs with stupid women too?”
“Well, actually,” she says, “he did.”
I feel bad. I feel bad for her, and for me, and of course for Libby. It’s a shitty situation. I messed up. I go to the window and look out at the traffic. Diane asks what I’m doing, and I say I’m looking for the delivery truck.
All of a sudden I am thinking not about Libby or Diane but about Sarah. I wonder if she’ll be able to piece it together in a few years. Maybe she already has. The phone call this morning could be one of those memories that is burned upside-down and backwards in the deepest part of her brain, so that when she thinks hard and long about me and her childhood it will unravel. It will fall into her lap that her father was a cheater and a liar.
“Does she know?”
“Your wife, does she know?”
“No, thank God. But this needs to end. I want to be a good husband.”
“You’re not, you’re an adulterer.”
Diane puts the tea down and comes to stand by the window with me. I realize I don’t know what she’ll say because I don’t really know this woman. She’ll probably cry, softly. Maybe she’ll kiss me on my cheek and then we’ll part, and in work she might say something small and acerbic to me, but in time we’ll loosen, and maybe even forget, just like at Christmas, and then this part of my life will be over.
“You can’t do this,” she says, taking my hand.
“I won’t let you.”
“We said this was casual.”
“What is this, actually? We’ve been seeing each other for almost five months. I told you I loved you. And now this is casual? What are you? My boyfriend? My lover? Who do I tell people I’ve just been dumped by?”
“I have a fever! Why are you doing this when I have a fever?”
“And what happens when the couch comes?”
Diane opens the glass sliding door with a sweep of her arm and walks out onto the balcony. A gust of warm wind blows in and rattles everything that’s not secured down. We are high up and the wind is strong, so she has to push into it to get outside. The sound of traffic fills the apartment. At this moment I miss Libby in my bones. My knees ache to see her again. I want to put my face in her wiry black hair and inhale her sweet, almondy smell.
I’m afraid I’m going to have to quit my job to get away from Diane. I’ll probably have to be unemployed for a while, with the economy the way it is. But there’s only so long we can exist on Libby’s income. I’ll have to send out applications tomorrow. I’ll tell Libby; I’ll be honest and explain everything, and my honesty will save us. I think back to our vacation in snapshots—holding her hand as we walked down the beach, the girls running into the ocean; staying up on the balcony and sharing the one cigarette I got from the street-hawker, the horrible cough that reminded us we were adults now, with children.
Diane turns around and looks at me, backs up against the balcony railing.
“You’re a jerk,” she screams.
Her hands are wrapped tightly around the railing, the whites of her knuckles glowing.
“I’m sorry. It was wrong.”
“Of course it’s wrong. Doing the secretary is always wrong.”
I reach for her arm to pull her back inside but she pulls away. She kicks at me.
“Diane, please. I’m going now,” I say.
“If you go, I’m going to jump.”
She switches back and forth, from tears to laughter. I don’t know if she’s crying or laughing anymore. All I know is that this other, mixed emotion is much more serious and much more dangerous.
Diane leans out over the balcony and looks at the highway. I think about telling her I need to do it for my daughters, to use my girls against this woman, their sweet faces. I have pictures in my wallet.
I start crying. I feel the tears before I know what they are. They fall down my cheeks, warm then cool as they slip off my neck and onto my shirt. I look at Diane and I hold my hand out to her and I know I’m crying in front of a stranger. She’s still backed up against the railing, but the tightness in her face is gone. My eyes keep getting full and I stop wiping them and then I can no longer see Diane’s expression, and I can only make out her silhouette against the white sky.
The door buzzes. I wipe my face with the back of my hands and then the bottom of my shirt. It rings again, but Diane doesn’t move from the balcony, so I answer it.
“Sit On Us.”
“We got your couch,” a man says.
“Third,” I say.
I open the door and look down the staircase at two Hispanic men in blue jeans with matching white T-shirts. They’re wearing those thick mustard-colored belts weightlifters wear. They look up and wave.
The couch is wrapped in plastic. The movers lift it with careful ease. They hold it at chest level pushing it out towards the middle of the building as they turn the corners of the landing. Their agility amazes me.
“That was quick,” I say as they approach the front door of the apartment.
“Yeah,” one of them says. He has gray hair and the other is bald. They look like boxers, both of them; they’re not big men and I can see the lines of their smooth muscles on their hairless arms. They don’t smile.
I move out of the way and they put the new couch down in front of the old one. I wonder if my face is red, if I look like I’ve been crying. I clear my throat, noisily swallow a wad of mucus.
“This one going?” the bald deliveryman asks.
We all look out the window at the same time. Diane is sitting in the corner of the balcony and her flannel pants are flapping in the wind. Her hair is wild like a storm.
“Women,” I say.
The deliverymen look at each other and then the one going gray hands me a receipt to sign. I sign Diane’s name and he folds the paper up and puts it in his back pocket. I go to the old couch and take off the blanket and put it on top of the plastic of the new couch. It slides off and onto the floor.
The deliverymen are still standing there. I realize they’re waiting for a tip. I reach into my pocket and pull out a $10 bill—it’s all I have.
“I’m sorry. Can you split it?”
They take the old couch and I close the door.
“Can you bring me my tea?” Diane asks.
I bring her the cup of tea, now cool. She takes it from me, coughs, and takes a sip. Then she leans over the edge of the balcony. I pull her away from it but she shakes me off and throws the mug down towards the street. I go to the edge of balcony and lean over, next to her now, and see the mug shatter on the front of my car, her tea splashed against the windshield, a giant crack in the hood.
“Fuck, Diane. Fuck!”
“Wow,” she says.
“What the hell?”
“I didn’t think my aim was that good.”
She pulls me back from the balcony and kisses me. I make my lips tight and don’t breath or open my mouth.
“You’ll be back. You’ll miss me. You’ll miss all of this and be back. You need me now.”
I go back inside and wash my face in the kitchen sink. When I turn around Diane is standing over the couch, surveying. I watch her pull the plastic off and then she asks for my help pushing it to the center of the room.
“Are you going to tell your wife?” she asks.
“Yes, I think so.”
“They always do.”
She sits down on the new couch and holds her arms out.
“You know, I always wanted a white couch and now it’s ruined. This will always be our fighting couch.”
I put my hand on Diane’s shoulder. The couch is ugly. It’s modern with thin square cushions and an exposed steel frame. It’ll be filthy in a week. If she ever has kids, that couch is a goner.
“I’m leaving,” I say. “I won’t be back.”
Then my cell phone rings.
“Dad?” It’s Sarah.
“We’re waiting for you. All the moms came and left.”
“I’m on my way,” I say.
“Where are you?”
“You shouldn’t be talking on your cell phone in the car.”
“I know. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll be there soon.”
Diane watches me hang up the phone. She shrugs her shoulders and starts to cry. I lift my hand up to her and wave. A long, slow, beauty-queen wave. I open the front door and walk out into the hall and down the stairs.
I drive too fast down the expressway. I eye the dent as I drive. It’s big. The faster I drive, the more drops of tea ride up on the window. I keep the wipers on.
I pick up Sarah at the dance studio, hug her, and apologize for being late. I hear the rustling of her leotard against my shirt. The dance teacher pulls me aside and says that Sarah’s been roughhousing with the other girls. There was a note Sarah was supposed to bring home last week but I never saw it. I ask what she was doing and the instructor, a heavy woman with blonde pigtails, whispers that she was pushing other girls into the mirror.
“Not hard, mind you. Sort of playfully, but she made two of the girls fall.” Then she whispers, “She’s sort of a bully.”
I wonder if Libby saw the note. I will talk to Sarah about it when we go home, without telling Libby, because in a way I think it’s my fault Sarah is a bully. Sarah gets into the car and I look at her in the rearview mirror. I try to see if she knows what the dance teacher has said, but she’s smiling at me like there is nothing wrong in the world. We go to the playgroup to get Martha. I decide to take them to the car wash again just for the hell of it. I scare the living daylights out of them. I tell them the giant vacuum sucks up all the little girls into the belly of the jungle; I tell them the hoses are snakes that bite off girls’ toes when they’re bad and push other kids down, when they talk to boys, when they’re mean to Mommy. I wait for them to call out “Dad”—my name—the only word that matters.
“That was good this time,” Sarah says. “Do it like that more.”
Martha is awake, alert. She’s repeating words, snakes, jungle, Mommy. Sarah tries to get her to say Sarah. Outside the carwash the sun is hot and bright. When we turn into our driveway Libby is there. She comes close to the window and I see her see the dent in the hood of our car. I can feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. It rings again and again. Through the closed window I can hear Libby ask, “What happened? What happened to the car?” and I take a deep breath and feel, with a buzzing inside my chest, that I will love, with my whole heart, all the women in my life.
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