When Amy whispered in Russ’s ear that what he wanted her to do would cost him fifty bucks, she meant it to be sexy. She imagined him slapping a bill down on the nightstand, next to the philosophy textbook she’d been muddling through in an effort to better endure conversation with the other mothers chaperoning tomorrow night’s eighth-grade dance. She imagined Russ tying her wrists to the bedpost the way he used to do before they had the kids, before they had the house – only an apartment with walls so thin, their neighbors’ pot smoke seemed to pass through them by osmosis. In those days it hadn’t mattered that they were broke, because sex was free entertainment. Nor had it mattered that Amy was loud in bed: it was appropriate retaliation for the neighbors’ incessant Grateful Dead. Though sometimes Amy had felt fidgety when she passed Charley and Rhodes in the hallway, swinging their pungent take-out bags. Even with her eyes downcast, Amy could feel them exchanging a snickering glance, telepathing, “There goes The Moaner.”
But Russ just said, “My money is our money. That’d be like me buying groceries and calling it a gift to you.”
“Groceries?” Amy said. “A gift to me?”
From above her, where he kneeled next to her face, Russ grinned.
Amy sat up. “My money is our money too. And for the record: buying groceries is a gift. Of time. Between the list-making and the driving and the shopping and the putting things away, I probably spend four or more hours a week offering you and the kids the gift of groceries.”
Now Russ fished his briefs from under the sheets and pulled them back on. Because she’d referenced the kids.
Russ contended that mentioning the kids during sex was akin to loudly announcing to deer that you’ve come to hunt them. You might as well forget about killing any deer. Amy had always found this metaphor puzzling. For one, Russ had never hunted. He didn’t even fish. Two, what represented what in this metaphor? Was his erection the deer? And who was the gun? Ludicrous to imagine sweet, brown-eyed Oscar in the role: eight years old, yet still sleeping with the stuffed rabbit he’d won at a carnival when he was four. Or Vera either: always with her head in a book, that one. Daphne, their middle child, was a better fit: there was something fierce and smoking about her. Amy knew from her friend Elise that one of the other moms, Rachel McKay, had recently called Daphne a bully.
Amy watched Russ pull on his tee-shirt and considered the expression, “holding one’s tongue.” The list of things to not say during sex had grown ridiculous. Russ could vocalize any banal sentiment that came to mind, and Amy had to not object to his paucity of diction: wet, hard, turned on. Surely someone college educated could be more original? Whereas she had to tread cautiously. It was like when her mother had made soufflés: tiptoeing around the kitchen, softly closing the fridge, because any moderate noise could deflate the thing.
God forbid Amy mention the thoughts drifting through her head when they fooled around, not just the internal wincing at Russ’s hackneyed sex talk, but also the mental post-its she would write herself: don’t forget to go to the hardware store on Eucalyptus tomorrow, the only place that sold the special lightbulbs for the bubble chandelier. Don’t forget to thaw the chicken for dinner. Russ was like an exotic orchid that would only flourish under optimal conditions, a flower that required a heat lamp and spritzing from an atomizer.
In the kitchen the next morning, Daphne was saying to Oscar, “There’s no such thing as a soul. The brain and the body are just a machine.”
“Like a computer?” Oscar said. He poked the pastry tart on his plate and then jerked his finger back again. Too hot.
“More a computer is like a brain,” Daphne said. “Only not as interesting because computers have to be programmed. Of course, brains can be programmed too. Like when people raise their kids to believe in things like souls and gods, instead of just letting them think for themselves.”
This conversation told Amy that Russ was either out running, or Daphne was looking for trouble. Russ never pressed religion on the kids. He wasn’t the evangelical type, nor would Amy stand for preachiness. But he got prickly when Daphne spoke dismissively of religion or anything else he cared about, namely football and the summer sausage at Dick’s Delicatessen.
Amy was relieved when Russ appeared in the tee-shirt he’d slept in—not because this proved that Daphne was trying to rile him up, but because Amy felt excused from the burden of getting exercise herself.
“I wonder where she got that from,” he said to Amy as he poured coffee into her I-Figuratively-Die-As-I-Hear-You-Literally-Abuse-Words mug.
When Amy answered that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Russ fired back, “Where’s my damn apple? Three kids and they’re all your apples?”
Oscar said, “But Daddy, you don’t like apples.”
“No one likes apples,” Daphne said. “Apples suck. That’s why it makes no sense for Eve to get herself and Adam kicked out of Eden for an apple! At least make breaking the rules something worth mortality and pain in childbirth forevermore. Though who knew God would fly off the handle like that? I mean, over-reaction much?”
All three of the humans who were not Russ, Daphne in particular, flicked their eyes his way, to see how Russ would take this pronouncement. Russ blinked, then said, “I told you not to say ‘suck.’”
Amy’s thought, fleeting and disloyal, was what a hypocrite her husband was: he’d used that verb the night before, admittedly applying it in a literal sense.
Daphne waved dismissively. “Mr. Benn says fruit is a symbol for temptation in all those old myths.” Again, everyone’s eyes cast to Russ, to see how we would respond to this application of “myth.”
“Take poor Persephone. She gets stuck in the Underworld, for six months out of the year, and you know why? For the great, great crime of eating six seeds of pomegranate while Hades kept her captive! At least pomegranates taste good; at least they’re not a completely lame fruit, like apples. But doesn’t six months in the Underworld for all eternity, for eating six seeds, seem a trifle excessive? I guess in the olden days, people didn’t have much else available to represent temptation.”
Daphne contemplated the uneaten half of an Old-Fashioned doughnut in her hand, then looked wonderingly at Amy, who wasn’t sure how to interpret the look. Did Daphne want confirmation of her insight about symbolism? It was one way Amy bonded with her middle child, listening to Daphne spin theories about song lyrics, the president’s tweets, the rotten state of the world. Or was Amy supposed to be some kind of native informant from the olden days herself? Amy resisted the urge to curtsey, or to say “Milady.” Instead she changed the subject to the dance.
“I’ve changed my mind about not caring if you sit this one out,” she said to Russ. “I want you to be my date.”
Russ squinted at her over the rim of her coffee mug.
“When’s the last time we danced together?”
Russ said, “You make fun of my dancing.”
“Because you have no rhythm,” Daphne said before Amy could.
“I feel like I’m moving to the beat.” He opened the pantry and closed it, opened the refrigerator and closed it, went back to the pantry again. “Is there nothing to eat in this house?”
Amy said, “You’re so off the beat sometimes, it’s like you’re dancing to a completely different genre of music.” She stared at the back of his head from where he stood before the pantry, willing him to surprise her with a dip or spin. But when he did turn, he gave her a look like she’d just shoved him, and now he was deciding whether to hit her back or to walk away.
He said, “I’m not going to that dance.”
Oscar pointed to the box of pastry tarts. His mouth full, he mumbled, “There’s food.”
Vera returned from spending the night at her friend Samantha’s house while Amy was making a grocery list. Amy could swear she smelled the cat on Vera whenever she returned from Samantha’s. That girl’s family had, no joke, eight cats, and when Vera slept over there, the cats piled around her sleeping bag and her face. As soon as Vera closed the door, her hand went to her tongue, no doubt removing a feline hair. Then she said, “FYI: the trees are wrapped.”
“Knox!” Daphne said. She dropped her phone and ran outside.
“Not again,” Amy said. This prank-off between Daphne and fellow eighth-grader Eli Knox had taken Hatfield-McCoy proportions. It was one thing when the pranks merely affected the two participants. Then they had been charming. Amy had particularly admired the one where Eli had used a fine-point pen to draw X’s on the eyes of Daphne’s animal crackers, rendering them all unconscious or dead. But of course it was the nature of feuds to spin out of control, to suck into their vortex hapless innocents. Last week Bryn Knox had sent Amy a JPEG of all the Knox garden gnomes walking the plank – the plank being a two-by-four extending from the Knox’s treehouse, over which hung a paper banner depicting a skull-and-crossbones. Amy had found that funny, too, though Bryn had not been amused – one of the girl gnomes had fallen into a flower bed. A second photo Bryn sent had documented her shattered bosom.
“Why can’t kids flirt with each other like we all did?” Amy said to Russ, who was looking out the kitchen window, assessing the damage.
“All I know is I’m not cleaning up any of that toilet paper,” he said darkly.
She wasn’t sure what generated his grumpiness – if this was about the dance moves, or about last night. But Amy regretted the timing. All week she had been stressing about this eighth-grade dance. Elise, Amy’s only real friend amongst the parents at Daphne’s school, her dearest friend in town, in fact, wouldn’t be there because she had enough shit on her plate lately with her husband’s early-onset Parkinson’s. Not to mention she and Jonathan had twin five-year-old boys. When she was in one of her better moods, Elise joked that Jonathan’s various extracurricular activities – swimming, climbing, cycling, and boxing; exercise was one of the few things proven to help maintain some mobility as the disease symptoms progressed – competed with her four kids’ activities combined.
Rachel McKay labelling Daphne a bully was not something Amy could will away. As for brushing up on Socratic reasoning, what had begun as an earnest effort to remind herself to question her assumptions and to be more open to alternative viewpoints had devolved into a stockpiling of arms. Amy pictured her questions like fiery cannonballs blasting Rachel McKay into the gymnasium’s walls: Did you know that your precious Lana nicknamed Daphne “Bleeder” because of her heavy periods? Who’s the fucking bully now, Rachel?
So much for the artful establishment of common ground.
If only Russ would come! Russ was so much more genial. There was an inverse correlation between quality of talk and his aptitude: Russ improved with each downward gradation, excelling at the smallest of talk.
Also, Amy felt particularly close to Russ when it was the two of them together versus some external, hostile force. In their own house, he could sometimes seem like the enemy. But outside, they were a team, and a damn good one. When their neighbor came home with a dog and then left the poor thing chained up in the backyard all day and night, where it barked at all hours, she and Russ had taken turns blowing a dog whistle. When that didn’t work, Russ had climbed a ladder at midnight to rig up an ultrasonic device under the cover of darkness. Amy had held the ladder, handed him pieces of duct tape.
She slipped her arms around him from behind and pressed her cheek against his back. Russ remained rigid, though. When he acted like this, she always thought of the biggest fight they’d ever had, which had been over her getting an abortion when she ended up pregnant unexpectedly. Oscar hadn’t even been two yet. He’d still been nursing. A third child had been harder than she’d anticipated – starting all over again when Daphne had finally begun kindergarten. She’d worried for her mental and physical health if she carried that baby to term.
“If you’ll come to this dance with me, I’ll be in your debt. Anything you want,” Amy said. She reached a hand up under his shirt and caressed the hairs on his abdomen.
“What I want is that toilet paper cleaned up before it rains,” he said.
She followed his gaze to where dark clouds had gathered.
“You’re on,” she said and booked out to the front yard before Russ could respond.
Removing the toilet paper from their three trees, which Eli had wrapped so meticulously that they looked like powder puffs, reminded Amy of taking down the Christmas tree. Decorating the tree was always festive, the family all in it together. The kids would erupt in squeals when they unpacked from bubble wrap their particular special ornaments. For Daphne, it was the little girl with red braids and three freckles on each cheek, the girl who had been Amy’s own special ornament when she was a kid. Taking down the tree, however, was another story. Amy was on her own then: no one wanted to help with that depressing chore. Little could make Amy feel quite so sorry for herself, so burdened with every repellent task, than taping the little girl with the braids back in bubble wrap, sweeping up the dead pine needles, untangling the stringed lights.
And the toilet paper was more of a pain in the ass than the Christmas lights, because it was so fragile: it kept tearing as Amy yanked it down. The only procedure that worked, she discovered, was to hold one end gently and walk around and around the tree, looping the paper over her hands so it looked like she was wearing white boxing gloves. She tried to feel zen about revolving in endless circles. Hey, she was getting exercise, after all!
Oscar had asked her recently what superpower she’d choose if she could have any superpower she wanted, and Amy had said the power to complete chores at the snap of her fingers, like Mary Poppins. Oscar had looked disappointed, said she wasn’t taking his question seriously, but, of course, she’d been dead serious. She’d said that if he had to do half as many chores as she did, he’d think her choice both desirable and astute. He’d shrugged and left her to finish scrubbing the toilet.
Daphne, assigned to the tallest tree, made slower progress. “Knox is fucking dead,” she kept saying. But Daphne sounded more energized than angry. Like Russ when they were housesitting years ago and he cheered on their friend’s cat Starfucker as it cornered a tiny, trembling mouse beneath the friend’s wine cabinet.
By the time they were pulling the last of the toilet paper from the top branches, Daphne wedged in the fork of the ornamental plum tree, the rain started splashing down. Amy’s paper boxing gloves transformed into a clumpy, sticky mess, like plaster. She felt as though she’d barely dodged a catastrophe. Like the time she almost hit a pedestrian crossing the street. The elderly woman had been perfectly concealed by the strip of metal between the car’s front window and the driver’s side window. That, and Amy had been flustered by construction delays – Oscar sure to be tardy at school yet again. The woman’s eyes had widened as Amy slammed on the brakes. Amy wondered still: if she had hit the woman and there’d been any way she might get away with lying about how it had happened, would she have? She’d lied to Oscar that morning, claimed the woman had not been paying attention. She’d used the incident as an opportunity to remind him to be cautious when crossing streets.
Amy called Elise on the way to the grocery store, to find out if she needed anything. Elise didn’t live particularly close, but Amy was sensitive about being a good friend to Elise. They’d known each other since their oldest children were newborns, born on the same day in the same small birthing center. Amy had labored overnight, given birth to Vera early on a Friday morning. When a few hours later she’d heard a woman screaming bloody murder down the hallway, she’d laughed out loud, even though the laughter had been painful. Difficult to explain to Russ why the woman’s screaming was funny, so soon after she’d been screaming like that, but it was. Amy loved the woman right then and there. When they did meet, at the birth center’s mom-and-baby group a week later, they’d bonded with a fierceness Amy hadn’t experienced since high school.
“I’m not going to lie,” Elise said, “I could really use a fucking slice of cheesecake right now.”
“I’m bringing you a whole cheesecake,” Amy said. “Chocolate?”
Elise said, “No, no. I’m just kidding.” Then, “Actually, I’m not kidding.”
The hard thing, or maybe the good thing, depending on how you looked at it, about having a friend in Elise’s particular situation, is that it wasn’t as easy to feel sorry for yourself. Amy had once read a Stanford study that concluded people’s contentment was not based on the real circumstances of their lives, but how well they measured up against their peer group. Subjects of the study reported feeling “poor” when their friends were better off, despite their lack of debt, or all their material goods; other subjects, with lower income levels, but less affluent peers, reported feeling “well off” or “lucky.” Happiness was relative.
Though forty-five minutes later, sitting in Elise’s kitchen, the two of them forking up giant wedges of cheesecake, Amy felt less satisfied with her own relative comfort. Elise poured them each a glass of milk, and, drinking it, Amy couldn’t help comparing now to back when Vera and Owen were babies. Then it was mimosas, not calcium-fortified milk, and Elise poured the champagne with a free hand. Vera and Owen rolled around on the exercise mat, while their mothers played desultory games of Scrabble – one baby usually cut short the game by needing a nap – got tipsy, and gossiped about the most annoying mother in the mom’s group, the one who bragged about her son’s developmental skills under the guise of asking questions. “Are your babies crawling yet?” When Amy was on her own, this woman made Amy feel awful, worried that Vera was developmentally delayed, and that these delays, though seemingly small, represented more than Amy could see, the way that a centimeter on a map might be equal to a hundred miles in the real world. But Elise, like the champagne, fortified Amy. Then the mother became mockable.
“Damn, Elise, I wish you were going to that dance tonight. I need you.”
In the living room, the twins yelled, “Take that!” “No, take that!” They were sword fighting with cardboard wrapping-paper rolls.
“Believe me, I wish I could. But you’ll have Russ.”
Amy registered everything underneath the two statements. Jonathan’s medication conked him out. He was half asleep by dinner, snoring by 8 p.m. many nights, leaving Elise to put the twins to bed. Was Elise pissed at her, or was she just imagining it? Could anyone resent a friend who brought them cheesecake? She wanted to press Elise for details about what exactly Rachel McKay said about Daphne. Elise had been weirdly vague the other day, reluctant, volunteering only, “Daphne said something obnoxious. Something about Lana being ugly.” When Amy had said, “That’s ridiculous!” Elise had gone silent, and soon after said she had to go because one of the twins had gotten out of bed and was complaining of growing pains. Only later, replaying their conversation, did Amy realize Elise had reported, “Daphne said.” Not “Daphne allegedly said.”
“Hey, do you remember?” Amy said. “That weird, braggy mom from moms’ group? You called her Ms. Fine Motor Skills?”
Elise looked blank, then said, “Oh yeah. Stephanie, right?” She tilted her face, quizzical. “What made you think of her?”
When Amy didn’t answer, Elise pressed the back of her fork onto the spongy top of her cheesecake slice, then turned it sideways and pressed it again. The crosshatch looked like griddle marks on a steak.
It was nearly four by the time Amy got home from the grocery store. She had to be at the school gymnasium by half past five to report for duty. That gave her little over an hour to put away the groceries, feed herself and her family something quick and easy (for that, she’d picked up deli meats and sliced cheeses), shower, and get dressed. No sweat, assuming Russ was cooperative. But when the garage door retracted to reveal Russ, still unshaven, punching the punching bag, Amy took a deep breath.
“Just so you know, we need to leave in fifty-five minutes,” she said, stripping off fifteen minutes. Russ was always running late, even for events he wanted to attend. Because he was always misplacing things – most commonly, his wallet (which unnerved Amy to no end), but also his car keys, his phone, his belt, his razor, you name it. To make matters worse, he became crazed when frantically searching for some lost item. He tore through the house like The Hulk, obliterating anything or anyone who got in his way.
“Got it,” Russ said.
Amy hesitated. “You’re planning to shower and shave, right?”
“Plenty of time,” Russ said.
“Can you maybe do it while I put the groceries away and make sandwiches?”
“What’s the worst that can happen?” he said. “If I’m not ready in time, you can always just go without me.”
“That’s not funny,” she said.
Russ winked at her. Then he punched the bag so hard that she flinched. She considered sprinkling powdered laxatives into the mustard of his sandwich.
Inside, Daphne and Oscar were watching a shark documentary, Daphne painting her fingernails black. Amy was relieved that Daphne’s hair was wet, that they wouldn’t all three be competing to shower at once. Also, she was impressed at how breezy Daphne was, sitting there in a tee-shirt and shorts, watching sharks rip apart prey, instead of anxiously primping in front of a mirror. Vera wasn’t a primper either, but that was different, because Vera didn’t even go to her eighth-grade dance. At Daphne’s age, Amy hadn’t had a fraction of her confidence. If she could recover the hours she spent messing with her hair and her skin back then, she could probably write a fucking book, or learn a foreign language.
Of course that premise assumed Amy would use her salvaged time productively, instead of, say, the way this day had gone: unspooling toilet paper from trees, checking the expiration dates on packages of bacon, searching for Russ’s high-protein chocolate pea milk, surreptitiously squeezing mangoes because Vera would only eat unripe ones, flesh barely yellow, so unripe that when Vera bit into them, they crunched. In fifth grade, Amy’s math teacher, reviewing long multiplication, had once casually announced to her class that the average person, dying at age 80, lived 29,200 days. That number had horrified Amy and stuck with her ever since, a mote she couldn’t quite get out of her eye.
Time may be habitually wasted, but it also rushed by much too quickly. Amy, taking too long to figure out what to wear, never had a chance to eat one of the sandwiches she’d made, so at the dance hovered over the refreshment table, nibbling her third frosted sugar cookie. The cookie didn’t even taste good, she decided. It had no nuance. It reduced itself to one-word adjectives: “sweet,” “crunchy.” Elise called food like this, food that supplied no pleasure, which one ate purely because of biological imperative, “food product.”
Russ, despite his endless complaints, looked perfectly content, leaning against the wall talking to Paul Hoberman. Those two were probably dissecting the Dallas Cowboys; it was a topic Russ could go on and on about. “Conversation product.”
The gymnasium was decorated with columns of silver and seafoam green balloons. “Under the Sea” was the theme. More like “In a Vernal Pool,” Amy thought.
Before her field of vision sprinted a boy in a thrift-store jacket with large silver buttons. Amy admired the jacket before she processed the kid’s face, and when she did, she pointed, and said more loudly than she intended, “Eli Knox! You’re so dead.”
Eli Knox looked at Amy as one might a never-before-seen species of animal through the safety of a thick pane of glass. Neither fear nor remorse showed on his face, just curiosity. He had no idea what she was talking about. The expression on Rachel McKay’s face, on the other hand – she looked up in the midst of refilling the punch bowl – was unmistakably judgy. “It’s no mystery where Daphne gets it from,” Amy imagined Rachel saying to a group of the other mothers. She pictured Elise in that coterie too, serving up slices of the cheesecake Amy had brought her. (And mimosas!) “Did I tell you all about the time Amy scared off some woman from her yoga class who was interested in the house up for sale next door to her? Made up shit about pack rats and scorpions, just because she didn’t want this woman living so close to her,” Amy imagined Elise saying.
“You had nothing to do with the toilet paper that mummified our trees this morning?” Amy said to Knox, lowering her voice.
“Honestly, I didn’t,” he said. “I told Daphne already. I mean, she does have it coming, you have to admit. But that wasn’t me.”
“She has it coming?” Amy glanced at Rachel McKay.
“That was my mom’s favorite gnome,” Knox said. “Her best friend gave it to her. I had to hear all about it.”
Amy scanned the room until she spotted Daphne on the dance floor in her stunningly simple black dress. Many of the other girls looked like overpriced candies in their fuchsias and sapphire blues and emerald greens, their dresses adorned with tulle and lace and sequins. Amy remembered her own eighth-grade dance, how her hair had been stiff as meringue with all that hairspray, her dress pink and glittery, like something out of Cirque de Soleil. In contrast, Daphne reminded Amy of Melanie Pierce, the girl who had always seemed effortlessly beautiful. God, how Amy had hated Melanie Pierce. Had Melanie ever done or said anything mean to Amy? Honestly, Amy couldn’t remember, only that Melanie’s very existence had felt like an assault. It was that Stanford study again, contentment measured in comparison to one’s peers: Melanie Pierce was the benchmark that made Amy gawky, shaggy, pathetic.
“But if you didn’t toilet paper the yard…” said Amy.
“No clue,” said Knox. “You know Daph: it could be anyone.”
Amy watched him walk away, a pseudo-aimless, meandering stroll that, she could see, had as its poorly-disguised destination point the girl in the black dress on the dance floor. Her daughter, a thirteen-year-old mash-up of Audrey Hepburn and the Godfather, surrounded by scheming enemies with toilet paper rolls in their holsters.
She studied Rachel McKay, who was stirring the punch so aggressively, orange slices whirled in a gyre. Rachel McKay looked up, and the two women exchanged a glance that dispensed with various pretenses.
“Oh come on,” Rachel McKay said. “I’m an adult. I didn’t toilet paper your frigging lawn.”
“Then—” said Amy.
“You heard that kid! ‘It could be anyone.’ Sounds like your daughter isn’t particularly popular.”
Though they both knew that the opposite was true: Daphne was popular, as Melanie Pierce had been popular, and popularity begat its own venom. Amy suddenly knew, or rather recognized something that she had subconsciously always known, that Melanie Pierce had never done anything mean to her, ever. No doubt Melanie Pierce would be confounded to learn that forty-four-year-old Amy (if she even remembered Amy) was still obsessing about her.
All pointers from Socrates fled Amy’s brain. Rachel McKay’s round, white face reminded her of the dim sum she and Elise used to order at Shanghai Palace – the puffy pork buns. The McKays had moved from Arkansas just last August, and Amy had only seen Rachel McKay in person two or three times. She was far more familiar with her Facebook profile picture. Rachel McKay had ignored Amy’s one friend request, lobbed at her several days ago, but she was friends with Elise. In the profile picture, Rachel McKay was in Halloween costume as Princess Leah, the giant Cinnabon buns of hair competing with the roundness of her face. She looked much less ridiculous in person.
“Why are you so anti-Daphne?” Amy said, at last.
Rachel McKay looked taken aback, then unhappy. Two vertical pleats appeared around her mouth. “Your daughter called my daughter a dog,” she said at last.
Amy followed Rachel McKay’s eyes to the girl talking to the DJ. She was barefoot, a pair of red kitten heels dangling from her hand, yet still taller than most of the kids in the room. She had a head of big, beautiful, curly, brown hair.
“That’s your daughter?” Amy asked.
“Lana,” Rachel said.
“Okay, one, I’m confident Daphne wouldn’t call another girl a dog, and two, there’s no way she would call your daughter a dog. She’s gorgeous!”
“Lana heard her,” Rachel said.
Amy understood there was much she would never know about her children, or Russ, for that matter. She accepted that fact, even appreciated it. How boring if people were static and transparent—no mystery, no nuance, no surprises. She thought of the sheet that always came with furniture you had to build yourself: “Before beginning to assemble, make sure the following items are included in the package. If anything is missing, contact the retailer.”
When Elise had first told Amy about Jonathan’s early-onset Parkinson’s, Elise said she felt betrayed, as though she’d discovered Jonathan had cheated on her or depleted their 401K account or, heck, murdered somebody. “I know that’s a completely unfair analogy,” she’d said, “that Parkinson’s isn’t a secret he was keeping from me, but already, it’s like he’s a different person. And it’s going to get so much worse.”
“Listen, I’m not naïve about my kids,” Amy said now to Rachel McKay. “I know they can be heinous. But the thing about that comment – Daphne would be politically opposed to it. She would consider it misogynist.” Rachel McKay stared back at her, unconvinced, biting her bottom lip. She seemed to be in the process of eating her own mouth. It was a weird, startling image that reminded Amy of an ouroboros, the snake that consumed its own tail. As if this image shook something loose, Amy said, “Wait. Is Lana the girl who’s always scratching?”
The question made Rachel McKay eject her lips, restored her face into its prior expression of righteous indignation. “What!?”
“She has some kind of rash on her arms? What I mean is, is it possible that Daphne said Lana was ‘like a dog,’ meaning she scratches herself like a dog, and what Lana heard was, she merely was ‘a dog’?”
“I don’t get the distinction,” Rachel McKay said, but then stopped, and in that unfolding pause Amy felt like an oracle, channeling Socrates himself. Skewering opponents was not Socrates’s mode. He wanted to get the naysayers on his side. His remarks to them were not points scored; they were invitations to consensus, one his opponents couldn’t see coming, admittedly, but that Socrates, always with the long view, spotted on the horizon. To be generous! Russ had that facility. “Honey, everyone screws up,” he’d said to her when Amy told him, in the middle of the night, about the old lady she had almost run over.
She waited for Rachel to look her in the eyes, and then began, in her most cajoling voice, to reassemble her evidence: their own beloved dog Meteor, dead two years, constantly clawing himself, because he had a skin condition; Daphne’s aversion to all misogynistic rhetoric – her debate topic for Humanities, that she had to get special permission from Mr. Benn to broach, given its controversial subject matter, was on the problematic word “bitch”; and finally, the objective reality of Lana, standing fifty feet away, radiating beauty like a sprinkler dispensing arcs of water. “I mean, come on, look at her,” Amy finished. “Your daughter is hot!”
Rachel McKay shook her head. “That’s a weird and inappropriate thing to say.” But Amy saw that Rachel McKay was fighting a smile, and she did her damnedest to conceal her own.
Amy found Russ on the other side of the double doors connecting the gymnasium to the rest of the school. He was staring down the long hallway lined with blue metal lockers. Before he turned to look at her, she snaked her arms around his waist, and pressed her nose against his back. He covered her hands with his own. Neither of them said anything for some time. Something about that space – maybe the familiarity of it, maybe the uniformity of the landscape, and maybe too that each locker was occupied temporarily by one individual, but over time by dozens of students – made Amy feel as though she and Russ were on some kind of spacecraft, traveling high above Earth’s surface. That reminded her – she still needed to replace the piece of luggage that had lost a wheel on her last flight.
Russ said, “This is nice, but I think I should tell you that I’m a married man.”
“That’s too bad,” Amy said.
“Seventeen years now,” Russ said.
“That’s a long fucking time,” Amy said.
She’d read in a magazine once that a good test of whether a troubled relationship could be mended rested in the couple’s ability, and willingness, to remember the early days of their relationship, to see their partner again as they had long ago. She remembered saying to Russ, “Isn’t that sort of like looking at a half-eaten and browning apple—or maybe even a shriveled, rotten core—and seeing it whole and ripe again? Isn’t that just delusion?”
Now she said, “Did you toilet paper my house last night?”
“You got me,” Russ said.
“I’m going to have to get you back now, Russell Monson.”
“Oh yeah? How?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Amy said.
Russ squeezed her thighs. “I’m starving,” he said.
“Me too. All I had for dinner was three terribly subpar sugar cookies. And lunch was cheesecake!”
“Those cookies were bad,” he said.
“They were a sad imitation of sugar cookies, like AstroTurf is to real grass. Like cookies a robot would make.”
Russ said, “I saw you talking to what’s-her-name for a long time. What were you talking about?”
“You mean Rachel McKay? A lot of things. I told her about condiment cake. It’s some new crazy trend: mustard cake with ketchup frosting. Or maybe I have that reversed. Maybe it’s ketchup cake with mustard frosting.”
Amy reflected, then said, “Agreed.” Sometimes things just were what they were, and the literal adjective – wet, hard, sweet, disgusting – encapsulated them just fine.
“To Be Generous” by Michelle Ross and Kim Magowan appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Passages North, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She’s fiction editor of Atticus Review and was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. http://www.michelleross.com
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, and other journals. She’s fiction editor of Pithead Chapel. http://www.kimmagowan.com