Word Count 3,894
By Ray Squires
I’m standing up to my shins in dirty clothes, staring at him through the open laundry room door and wondering how anyone can be so completely selfish.
He’s got his back to me, sitting at the breakfast table, wearing reindeer boxers and his last surviving fraternity shirt, which pulls a little, now, around his stomach. His calves are still muscular, though, and he’s got them crossed under his chair. One toe balances on the floor and wags his whole body as if he has to pee or something while he reads his iPhone. Our old glass and rattan table looks ridiculous in this kitchen with its mallard duck paper still clinging to the walls. I haven’t had a chance to tear it down yet and paint over it, and his presence in our new house this morning is almost as annoying to me as that.
“Come on,” he says, projecting his voice over the washing machine’s spin cycle. “It’ll be fun. I met ‘em last night while I was walking Charlie. They’re awesome, and she’s really cool.” He chews a hangnail on his thumb and readjusts his feet.
I don’t say anything. This is typical of him. Mike thinks everybody’s awesome. We’ve been here two months—although he hasn’t slept in this house ten nights—and somehow he’s best friends with the neighbors.
“Come on. They’re just down the street.” Now he turns in his chair to look at me, but I know where they live. I’ve passed our new neighbors 30 times already, pulling in and out of this subdivision, and I’ve gotten lost 30 more trying to find doctors’ offices and stores to buy school uniforms and backpacks. Mike’s been traveling non-stop since we left Orlando. And this week, while the kids started their new private school, I’ve been getting things organized and interviewing for jobs. Mike, on the other hand, has been on a team building exercise out in Napa Valley. Give me a break.
“I’m exhausted, Mike. I don’t feel like going to a party where I don’t know anyone,” I say and continue folding towels. “The kids just started their new school, and I start a new job on Monday. Did you forget about that?”
“It’s just part time, Sarah. Jesus.”
“Are you serious?”
I hear Kendall, our 12-year-old, open the refrigerator. “Hi Dad. Hey Mom, what’s for breakfast?”
“I’ll make you guys some waffles in a minute.” I call to her. “Kendall, if you spill that juice, wipe it up.”
“Listen to your mother,” Mike says, back at his phone.
“What’s her name? Alicia?” I glare at him.
“Our neighbors who are having the party that you want us to go to so bad.”
“Oh, yeah, totally cool,” he says. “She reminds me of Tracy.”
What an asshole. He’s always hated Tracy. He’s just feeling guilty because I have no friends anymore because of him.
Kendall emerges from the refrigerator. “Oh, are you guys going out tonight? You don’t need to get us a sitter.”
“Come here,” Mike reaches out to her. “I haven’t seen you in a week.”
Kendall closes the fridge door, shuffles over to her father, and drapes herself against his back. Mike clasps one of her arms and continues holding his phone with the other.
“We’ll talk about it, Kendall.” I can see her giving me a look as she heads back to the refrigerator, but I’m not done with Mike. “You can’t stand Tracy.”
“I know, but she seems like a cool Tracy.” He puts his phone down and stands up. I freeze as he comes into the laundry room. “You need to make some friends here, Sarah.” He puts his hands on my shoulders. “I know you’re lonely.”
He hasn’t touched me in three weeks. I don’t know where this part of him goes when it’s not here. I almost can’t recognize it. We embrace for a few moments, and I soak his body in. But, he pulls away, too soon, and looks at me again. “You feel small. You been eating enough?”
We agree to leave Kendall in charge. The two younger ones have built a fort in the downstairs den out of some of the leftover moving boxes, and they’re all going to sleep down there.
Mike and I step outside our new front door. I smell a fire place. “I think I’m going to ask both our parents to come for Thanksgiving.”
Mike drinks out of his red Solo cup. The sweetness he showed earlier is gone again. “Whatever you want.”
We walk in silence to Alicia and Paul’s house. I’m wishing I’d worn something else. I have lost a few pounds with the move, but my skinny jeans might’ve been a bit too ambitious. Everything seems weird with this new haircut I’ve got anyway. It’s shorter than I’ve ever worn it. I cut it just to spite Mike because I know he hates short hair, but I hate it, too. It’s like what little sensuality I had left went with it.
“I don’t want to do this,” I say as we reach the front door. Alicia and Paul’s house is just three driveways down from ours. It’s the biggest one on the block, a two-story stone and stucco, and an overwhelming sense of inadequacy is shrouding me.
“Just be nice. These women are all very nice,” Mike says.
“I know, but, just hang out with me for a little while.”
Alicia opens the doors wide as her lips part in an equally wide smile, white teeth contrasting with red, polished lips. She’s got slacks on and a blouse with something shiny on the shoulders. “Oh I am so glad you two made it.” She gestures for us to come into the foyer.
I’ve seen Alicia jogging through the neighborhood in full makeup a couple times. She’s got my same haircut. She hugs each of us, and Paul comes up behind her.
“Alicia, let ‘em in. Christ. Mikey, how’s it goin’ buddy?” He and Mike pump hands as if their bodies are about to take off in flight. Paul looks like his body might benefit from a little more time actually engaged in a sport rather than just watching one on ESPN. He’s wearing a huge football jersey and flip-flops.
“Hey come on, the game’s started. They’re gonna kill ‘em.” Paul corrals Mike toward their downstairs basement where it sounds like the game is being played live. Mike raises his eyes at me, as if he’s helpless. I just stare at him. His selfishness absolutely amazes me.
“Ugh, football. Come on, Sarah. Come in the kitchen. Let me get you a glass of wine. The girls all want to meet you.”
I follow Alicia, careful not to walk too loudly on her hardwoods. I hear the music of John Mayer coming from the kitchen as we approach. Alicia presents me to five women standing around a huge granite island, each with a glass of red wine from the stem of which dangles a tiny charm. A bevy of interesting cheeses, breads and fruit are laid out on different wood boards on the granite. It’s like a picture from a magazine. I’m jealous.
“Wow, your kitchen is so modern,” I say as Alicia draws a wine glass from a rack overhead.
“Oh thank you.” She looks down as she pours from an open bottle into my glass.
“They remodeled last winter. What was your name again?” says a woman who keeps her eyes fixed on me as she takes a sip of her wine. She’s petite and sort of Goth looking with jet black hair that’s even shorter than mine and highly arched eyebrows.
I clear my throat. “Sarah. My husband Mike and I moved up from Orlando two months ago.”
Alicia hands me a glass. “You’ve got the baby charm, Sarah.” She’s referring to the miniature rattle dangling from my glass. “Better be careful.”
“Oh yeah.” I force a laugh and take a big gulp.
“How many do you have?” the Goth asks.
I give the name, sex, and age for each of my three children: Kendall, girl, 12; Cameron, boy, 8, and Tracy, girl, 6, and then ask her the same question back. I’m just making conversation because I could really care less. She looks weird to me.
By my second glass of wine, though, conversation seems to pick up. The Goth and her husband are apparently going to counseling. He slept with her younger sister a couple years back, and they’ve decided to work through it. All three of them I’m assuming.
I’m about to ask about her relationship with her sister when a cool draft blows through and tickles the back of my bare neck. A tall, broad shouldered woman with shoulder-length brown wooly hair is closing a door off the kitchen which leads out to Alicia’s back patio. I hadn’t noticed it before. She’s carrying a bottle of wine. Alicia walks up to her.
“Gloria, I told you that you didn’t need to bring a thing. Just yourself.” Alicia embraces the woman.
As they approach the granite island, I hear Gloria explain something about a friend of hers having dropped off a case of the wine last week. “It’s amazing, and she instructed me to share it.” Gloria bows her head as she hands the bottle off to Alicia, who studies the label as if she were going to copy down the ingredients. With her hands now empty, Gloria leans them on the granite counter and scans her eyes around the island.
Now I am not gay, and I don’t think I’ve even had a conversation with a lesbian since college, but I recognize immediately that Gloria prefers women.
Gloria makes her rounds saying hello to several women, and when she gets to the Goth, the Goth introduces her to me.
“Gloria, this is Sarah. I think your yards back up to each other.”
“Yes, they do. Hi Sarah. Nice to meet you. You guys getting settled in ok?” Gloria bows her head again on this last question. Her blue eyes suggest that she’s already aware of our progress.
“Well, my children and I are anyway. My husband travels a lot, and a lot more I guess since we moved here.” As soon as this comes out of my mouth I regret it. I don’t usually give away so much information. I know the Goth is filing that bit away to share with the other ladies later.
“Yeah, I hear that can be tough.” Gloria holds up her glass of wine. “Well, I’m pretty handy. If you ever need help with anything. Please don’t be shy.” She winks and leaves me with her dangling invitation as she walks to the other side of the kitchen to answer a question that’s been thrown to her from three blondes.
“She’s a great neighbor.” The Goth sips at her wine. “Helped me put up some closet racks last summer.”
I spend more time listening to the conversations around me and sipping from my glass, which I refill from the bottle Gloria brought. It is really good, a 2007 Cotes du Rhone, too good. By my second glass of it, the juice is gliding down my throat, and I follow the gravitational pull of the group into the living room where the music is louder, shoes are off, and legs and feet are tucked under bodies and sofa cushions.
“So, Sarah, what’s going on in your life?” Gloria has graced me with her attention again and adjusts a throw pillow next to me to make room for her on the couch. I’m quite high and relaxed by now.
“Well, let’s see. I start a new job day after tomorrow.”
“Really? What do you do?”
“Oh.” She hesitates. “How’s that working out for you?”
“I hate it actually.”
Gloria laughs, and I smile. “Then why do you do it?”
I adjust my position on the couch, tuck my feet more securely under my thighs and run my fingers along the sheared edges of my hair in a futile effort to tuck it behind my ear. I keep forgetting there’s not much there anymore.
I don’t know how to answer, but Gloria gives me her full attention and I want to keep it. I find myself creating an explanation of how I got into office management a year ago in Orlando. I tell her how an old college friend with an optometry practice needed someone she could trust to manage a second office right when my youngest started kindergarten. How I’d even thought about going to optometry school.
“It’s an amazing science. You can see inside a person’s body by looking with a special microscope into their eye.”
“That sounds pretty cool.”
“Yeah well, we were lucky to find something for me in Atlanta so quickly,” I take a sip of the Cotes du Rhone. “Only it’s a dermatology office.”
“We need the money. Mike wants the kids to go to private school. And I mean, I do too.”
“So, I guess no eye doctor college for you then?” Gloria’s eyes are an intense blue.
“Yeah, I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” I stand up. “I’ll be right back.” I’m really buzzed and need a minute to pull myself together. As I walk past the door that leads to the basement a wave of male enthusiasm roars up the stairs and crashes with the score of a touchdown or something climactic like that. I stumble but recover.
In the guest bathroom I lock the door and stare at myself in the mirror. My eyes are crazy, and little red lines are surfacing on my nose. I know I should stop drinking and stop talking with Gloria. I haven’t felt this drawn in by someone since Kendall was born. But I’ve never told anyone that I’d even considered going back to school. And Mike is still down in that Goddamn basement.
I don’t remember getting into my bed. Mike is lying next to me, facing the other way. The clock says 5:30.
My head is heavy, and there’s an orb of adrenaline glowing in my chest. I think I might have kissed Gloria last night! When I returned to the couch, she was waiting for me and had already refilled my glass. I think I broke it or spilled it. And then we left, snuck out like teenagers, and came back here. No, I’m sure we just talked, and maybe listened to some music in the living room. I don’t remember clearly. Or maybe I dreamt all of it.
I need water. It’s dark and suffocating in this bedroom. But I don’t want to wake up Mike, so I feel my way to the bathroom. Going straight for the faucet, I stick my face under it and let the cool water run into my mouth until it breaks the seal of caked saliva on the back of my throat. I lean on the cold porcelain for a moment and hang my head. What did I do?
The way back is easier, and I slither back under the covers. I try to go back to sleep, but I’m too anxious. My open eyes stare at the ceiling while images from last night roll through my mind. I notice my body combusting heat, and I kick the covers off again. The back of my neck is soaked. I try to cool my forehead with my palm, but my hands are hot too. An unfamiliar sour scent momentarily gags me, and then I remember the new job I’m supposed to start tomorrow. Oh God.
I blink my eyes and realize I can see. That means my contacts are still in. I peel the filmy plastic rounds off one at a time, and flick them onto my night stand. Then I turn back on my side, facing Mike, and stare at his blurry back. I reach out my hand and rest it against his bare skin.
The next time I regain consciousness it’s morning. I think it’s raining. Mike is sitting on the edge of the bed forcing his big feet into his blindingly white running sneakers.
“Honey, my head,” I say with a soft, strained voice and cover my eyes.
“You were a freak last night. I can’t believe you got that wasted. You gonna be ok by tomorrow?”
I move my hand and can see him looking at me as he wrestles with his feet. He’s seems more scared of me than angry, like he doesn’t know me right now or himself maybe.
“I’ll be fine.”
He finishes and stands up. “I’m taking the kids out for breakfast. They don’t need to see you like this.”
“Thank you,” I mouth. No sound leaves my lips, and I watch him walk out of the room. I don’t know what he knows.
On the other side of the door, I hear Kendall. “Why isn’t Mom coming?”
“Mom’s not feeling good,” he says, and then I hear sneakers squeaking on the wood floors as they all head for the garage. I hear the door open, the car start and pull out and then the garage door screech back to its resting position. Silence again. I’m totally alone.
After 30 minutes of staring I give up on sleep and decide to get out of the bed. I take a deep breath, put on my pink terry cloth robe and slippers and head for the coffee maker. As I walk into my new kitchen I wince at its horrible wall paper. What were those people thinking?
I swallow two burgundy pills with the sweetest most refreshing glass of orange juice I’ve ever tasted, and then start the coffee pot. As it brews, the bitter steam from the new organic, free-trade African blend I picked up the other day bores a tiny path through my clogged nasal passages. I fix my favorite red mug with cream and sugar and with the first gulp I can feel the caffeine ease the roar of blood rushing through the arteries in the back of my neck. Thank God.
I open the dishwasher to put my juice glass in and realize Mike must have been in here. The whole thing is rearranged from last night’s dinner. He never does anything around the house but rearrange an already packed dishwasher, and he still doesn’t turn it on. My knees creak as I bend down to grab the liquid detergent and then squirt it into the soap cups. A blob lands on the floor, and it seems funny to me. But before I close the door I notice two wine glasses on the bottom rack. They’re not mine. I scan the kitchen. Over the refrigerator is a half empty bottle of Gloria’s Cotes du Rhone.
Like a home intruder slipping from the scene of the crime, I slide my fingers through the handle of my red mug and glide into the living room. The stereo is off, but the CD’s look array. Yep. I must have totally led her on. We’re gonna have to move.
I sit on the sofa and look at the floor just a few feet in front of me, trying and trying not to remember. I raise my head and gaze out the huge picture window at our new backyard. It’s beautiful really. Five huge oak trees form a canopy over the far right corner. Their leaves are magnificent right now, red and tangerine colors sharpened by the rain. Some have fallen in wide circles on the ground.
Beyond them is Gloria’s house. I can see just the back angle of her yard and rooftop. She has a fire this morning. Even without kids to tend to, she must be an early riser. Smoke from her chimney billows just past the tops of the oak trees in whispers as it blends in with the grey sky.
I feel a desire to get out of this house. I should go meet Mike and the kids. I need to get my head on straight. I hope they didn’t go without me to that little diner I’ve been wanting to try. I miss them with urgency. Desperation clears a path in my mind. I get up and head for our bedroom to get dressed.
The phone rings. Mike!
I pick it up from the dresser. But it’s not Mike. It’s the dermatologist who just hired me. He proceeds to tell me that the woman I’m supposed to replace has decided not to move.
“I know you were hoping to have a couple more weeks to get settled into your new home anyway. I’m hoping this might work out for the best for you. You’re very qualified. If you need a reference, please feel free to use my name.”
I force myself to speak. “Thank you. Yes. That’s fine,” is all I can manage.
I press the end button, but it rings again. I think I’ve pressed the wrong button, but I see it’s Mike. I try to sound neutral. “Hi Honey.”
“When are you guys coming home?”
“I’m taking the kids to the Funzone. I figure you could use some sleep.”
“Oh. That’s sweet of you.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not the one who drank three bottles of wine last night while the kids were just downstairs.
“You guys eat yet?”
“We just had breakfast at that place you’ve been wanting to go to.”
“Damn it, Mike! I wanted to go there.”
“I saw our neighbor, Gloria.”
I don’t speak.
“Yeah, she was just heading out when we got there. I’m glad cause I was afraid you insulted her last night.”
“I figured you said something about her being gay or something like that. She left around the same time you did.”
“Why would I– How did you know she’s gay?“
“Duh, Sarah. It’s pretty obvious.”
“You were really wasted last night. You totally embarrassed me. I think you stole some of Alicia’s glasses.”
He absolutely amazes me. He’s still talking while I walk back to the living room to find my coffee cup. A familiar awareness of disgust fills me.
“Gloria invited us over for dinner sometime this week,” he says. “Maybe you can go over there if you feel up to it. She seems pretty cool for a dyke.”
“Uh, I don’t know. Hey, I just got a call from the derma–.“
Mike cuts me off. “Babe, I gotta go.” I can barely hear him now. The kids are laughing and yelling at each other. I think he says something about enjoying my recovery time and then the call ends.
Unbelievable. He thinks I insulted Gloria. I slide the phone into the pocket of my robe and pull it closer around me. What an asshole.
I look out at the backyard again. The rain is starting back up, but lightly. I see the smoke from Gloria’s chimney seems to be billowing stronger now. I take a long sip of coffee, and the John Mayer song I heard as I walked into Alicia’s kitchen last night plays in my head. Mike can ask for a raise if he wants the kids to stay in private school so bad. I wonder how handy Gloria is with wallpaper?