“Where’s Michael?” Victoria said. “Don’t you ever come back in here,” the kid said to Mike’s back. I opened the latest book about how badly we’d fucked up Iraq and watched Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis out of the corner of my eye. It wasn’t happening. “And if you get it close you still get some tickets for trying.”
“Is it fun?” I said. It took me a long time. “Onward, Christian monsters!”
I would have insisted we walk, since it was only 10 blocks away, but since it was raining — always — we piled into the Outback. So far, she liked scary movies and building things; the happiest I’d ever seen her was when she helped construct a haunted house with her friends and then played a screaming, bloody murder victim in it. Amanda was off by herself, staring at the sidewalk. “I’m going to check on Amanda and see what Victoria’s story is,” I said. When she went back to work for an environmental nonprofit, Amanda was in preschool, and I was able to fix my schedule around picking her up and watching her in the afternoons. On our way back to the house, Victoria stepped into Tom’s but Mike wasn’t there anymore; she tried his cell phone and got nothing. “He was being very sweet, actually.”
“That’s what he does,” Victoria said. They were my thoughts on these things. When I pressed her on the reason, she told me, after a few deflections, that she’d been sleeping with her friend Tim, with whom she’d gone to Dartmouth, and felt terrible about it. We don’t need no stinkin’ yacht club, right? “Christ.”
I took the bulging garbage bag out to the curb and went to get another one. “You know how much more I appreciate what we have now. I walked back to the ice cream line. “What should we do tonight?” I said. Mike ostentatiously drank water at dinner, but he was glazed over, and I figured he was sneaking vodka. I walked through the Florida room and saw them on the back porch. She’d commute or work from wherever they were living, or something — for all I knew Vronsky was promising to take care of her with his trust fund. Victoria rented a car and drove up there to deal with him, so Lisa and I watched Patrick for the rest of the week. “Seriously,” Mike said. I fed a five-dollar bill into a change machine — the saddest action of fatherhood? Mike’s wife Victoria was a notable exception. I had a dismal record in our arguments. I really was puzzled, but I know it came out glib. “I’m gonna go play the gator whack,” he said to Patrick. And — of course I couldn’t say this — who was she, given our kitchen debacle, to talk? I’d already tried complacency with Lisa, I thought, and learned that it bred disaster. “He’s taking a walk,” I said. Amanda begged to stay there, stuck like that, even when the wind picked up and Lisa made the call that it was time to head home. “I really can’t go through the Long Day’s Journey routine right now.”
At least our points of reference were still aligned. “We didn’t get enough tickets,” Patrick said, but he followed him to the counter. “Trust me,” I said. “Yeah, well, the result is the same,” Victoria said.
Lisa and I went to our room under the pretext of getting ready for bed. “Not here?” I said. For a variety of reasons, that was only going medium-well. “Honey, I told you to stop with this,” I said. “Amanda!” Lisa called, moving into the house. They stared at me with the same half-lidded eyes, awaiting instruction. “Goodbye!” she called to our backs. The ice cream place came into view, the line of families and dogs stretching around the block. “Good customer service here,” Mike said. “Winona Ryder, goin’ inside her,” he said gravely. “You want to be able to talk to a person. “But when I look at it, I can’t imagine being as articulate as I apparently was. Mike and Lisa walked ahead with the kids while Victoria and I hung back. Fine enough.”
“Are you?” Lisa said. We turned on the TV and watched an awful show about a sex-murderer. “Hey, I’m sorry about all this,” I said to the kid, taking out my wallet. Good to go.”
He pitched forward and caught himself, then snuck a glance at me to see if I’d noticed. I made sure to keep my voice even. I was done taking responsibility. That first night she stayed home while I went out for a drink with Mike. “Don’t use these up too fast,” I said. “Why is it so impossible to just relax and be a person?”
It still seemed to me, then, that it was wrong to relax, that it was better to fight against Mike’s drinking and Lisa’s inconstancy and Amanda’s whatever-it-was than to accept things for what they were. I’m pretty impressed slash shocked by where you guys are at.”
“We put on a good show,” I said.
“I might murder Michael,” she said. I had some weekend adventures (piano bar to hotel bar to hotel room) and some long nights with the HBO Go roster. Over Amanda’s screams, I told him to cut it out. “Hey. “Don’t mess with him, Mike,” I said. “Anyway. — and the quarters crashed into the metal dispenser. “It would have been awesome if you had told me that, dude,” she said. “Amanda, go inside,” I said. “Right you are!” Mike said. He sank deeper into the couch. Blurred out boobies?”
“Arcaaaaade,” Patrick said, jogging in place. He stalked off in the direction we’d come from. Mike came in wearing boxers, toweling his hair. I felt a flood of protectiveness toward her, and some concomitant, uncalculated desire. Patrick and Mike shuffled slowly around the corner like they were expecting a Minotaur. “Do you ever feel this way, Gary?” Lisa said. “So Lisa says they’re bailing on AC,” I said. This was an escalation. It scared me. It was so far from the way she’d handled her life in all of the preceding years that I couldn’t imagine it was permanent. “Godfather, Serpico, sure. I’d stopped drinking, out of necessity, after my third beer, but Mike, as far as I could tell, hadn’t stopped at all. “Honey, I think you need to stop now,” I said. (She also, according to both mother and daughter, hadn’t introduced her new friend to Amanda, which must have been logistically difficult.) Another obvious possibility — that she was a fundamentally different person from the one I’d always thought her to be — was so painful that I tried not to let myself entertain it too often. I put his blanket over him, and he quieted down. 20 Childhood
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase a copy at your local bookstore. “I’ve got to find somewhere to piss,” Mike said. When I got to the point where I was hallucinating extra presences in the room from exhaustion, I went back in to our room to lay awake next to Lisa. Well, she’d wanted to be in love with a new person. “It’ll be hard for him. Victoria got up from the chair and sat down on the couch next to me. I thought he might come back out, or get shoved out like a saloon cowboy, but he didn’t. He had a can of beer in his hand and another bulging from the pocket of his khaki shorts. Because wasn’t this what I’d said I wanted? “I am not trying to be a hard-ass,” Lisa said. “‘I’ve gained 10 pounds?’ I wasn’t perfect before but I don’t think I’m worse now.”
“So you’re saying it’s me,” I said.
“I don’t know what the ‘it’ in that sentence refers to.”
She’d been deposed many times, most recently in a dispute between her group and the West Virginia state legislature over acceptable level of bacterial pathogens in ground water systems. She had just turned seven, and we agreed to spin the separation as a work-related necessity until we figured out something better. I asked nicely. He reached below the counter, snatched a plastic basket of bouncy balls, and chucked a fistful of them into the arcade, where they careened off of the machines and rolled crazily across the floor. She looked at me with a warning: Don’t destroy this peace, ephemeral as it may be. If you put a gun to my head I wouldn’t be able to tell you about … I don’t even know what. She wouldn’t tell me what she was saving them for. “My sister thinks I should call the police if I think he’s a danger to himself or others,” she said. You see things differently, I get that, but what about you? “Still pissed at me, got it.” He walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Watch the end of Devil’s Advocate with Daddo? On a Sunday afternoon in March, she drove from our apartment in Boston out to Western Massachusetts, taking her clothes, books, and some random kitchen supplies. “Why don’t you go find Patrick and I’ll take you guys to the arcade?” I said. “Wash your hands and go watch the movie with Patrick.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but then thought better of it and went. “Look man, he wants the ninja turtle. (He was an assistant literature professor at Amherst, but his guy was Wallace Stevens. “That’s not nice,” I said, though of course he was weird. Victoria gave Mike and me a glance and headed off down the hallway to the bedrooms. I jogged half a block to catch up with him, saw him sip from a battered Poland Springs bottle and grimace. Mike scooped a handful of quarters from the dispenser. Could her brilliance outrun her anxiety? What would happen to her in her life? She missed me (well, compared to that guy, sure), missed Amanda (obviously), hated Amherst (tell it to Emily Dickinson). They had been very clear that Mike and I were to interrupt only in the case of life-threatening emergency. He looked me right in the eyes and raised the half-full water bottle of vodka to his mouth, sucking hard on the white spigot and swallowing theatrically. As a gesture of solidarity, you couldn’t ask for much better. I understood this on an intellectual level, but I couldn’t bring myself to empathize. I watched her play the game. “You need to stop with this,” I said. “Gonna find that kid,” he muttered and walked toward the kitchen. “We’ll sort it out.”
“Is Michael drunk?”
“I mean, he’s drinking.”
“Victoria is going to kill him,” Lisa said. And that I know now what I don’t want, and how important that’s been for me.” It was a speech she’d given before. When we got back to the house, he wasn’t passed out on the couch, as I’d stupidly hoped he might be. I stood up and let my thoughts settle. That’s the important thing. Patrick’s sneakers were untied and he was wearing a Spider-Man bathing suit and no shirt. I’ll give you 20 bucks. “Nah, Patrick doesn’t want to play any games,” he said. “You like that?”
“In a pinch, sure.”
“A pinch,” Lisa said. “Once you start trying things — the drugs, I mean — you’re kind of obliged to see it through. That day is vivid in my mind, too. Look at me.”
I did. She cried, I cried; she begged forgiveness, I held out. “I just want tickets,” Amanda said. Do a play for us or something.”
“I already told Amanda,” I said. “Offa there, Pat,” Mike said. I left Victoria to deal with Patrick and caught up with Lisa and Mike. “Gosh, I’m sorry, honey.” He twisted around in his seat. “Patrick needs a shirt,” Amanda said. She phoned me from the last place: should she call the police? I looked around for Amanda and saw her by a big machine with a multicolored light spinning around inside it. Amanda was such a serious kid, incredibly smart for her age, and lacking any useful outlet for her grimness. Victoria had taken my seat on the couch with Mike and Patrick. The thing’s been on your shelf since 1989. “Go to sleep. “‘Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.’”
“At least it’s a good one,” I said. “It’s our responsibility to provide the opportunities for happiness, but we can’t make them be happy.”
“There’s therapy,” I said. I hated to see her shudder, but I was also relieved. Eventually she lay down with her head in my lap and fell asleep almost immediately. “What are you playing, honey?” I said. “Do you think I should worry?”
“I just know it’s hard to see your kid unhappy,” she said. Torn down now, of course.
“You know I don’t want to babysit you,” I said. “Before you fall over.”
“Naw, gonna check this place out,” he said. I tried to focus on my book, the movie, anything but Mike’s intake. “We’ll be in line when you get back.”
“He doesn’t want to go, Vic,” Mike said. Patrick crawled up onto the couch and squeezed in between us. After that? Some version of this thought emerged as the consensus among my friends, family, fellow content aggregators. Mike was rolling the wooden balls too hard, beer in hand, while Patrick clambered up and down the machine next to his. Mike had put on a neon orange polo shirt with a dark stain on the belly. Lisa was in Atlantic City with Victoria for the day. “You guys coming?” I called back into the house. “Do you Patrick?”
This set off a high-pitched whine. “You go if you’re worried. Patrick dropped all of his silverware on the floor. “I don’t want to go through the Eugene O’Neill routine with you and Vic.”
Mike took off his sunglasses. “We all do.”
“It’s just exhausting,” she said. “Like a house on fi-yah,” he said when he had finished it. I got Amanda and stood with her outside under the awning, watching the rain. Mike ignored him. I’d loved arcades and all manner of nonsense when I was a kid, but now it gave me an instant headache. Tim was an egomaniac, she said. “Let’s go get a prize, Pat,” Mike said. “Yeah?” Lisa said. “He’s a good kid, though. He was still, as my mother would say, a nice-looking man, as long as you didn’t focus on his belly. Mike and I had spent our day off watching insignificant sporting events in the cavernous, gaudily renovated bar in the middle of town. When our wives came in, Mike was nearly done with his second drink. “Al Pacino is shit,” he said, jerking his drink toward the TV. You you.”
“What do you want?” she said. “Yeah,” she said without enthusiasm. “Uncle Mike didn’t mean that. Otherwise.”
“I was pretty hyper when I was that age,” I said. Victoria had cut her hair short and I wasn’t sure yet how I felt about it. My plum dripped dark red drops into a coffee cup filled with water. Amanda was sitting by the front door putting on her shoes. “But this really is not good.”
“I’ve been babysitting Mike and the kids all afternoon,” I said. She agreed to break it off, then didn’t. Dignity isn’t transmitted via dissertation.) My reliably cynical wife, with a degree in art history and a master’s in water engineering, bought it. He cracked open a new beer. And all you get is this shit.”
He looked so bereft in that moment that I put my hand on his shoulder, a prelude to a hug, I thought, or at least a sympathetic gripping. I was a senior editor at a news aggregator, a job I didn’t have to care too much about, and Lisa was able to quit her EPA job to stay home with Amanda for the first couple of years and get by with some consulting on the side. “When I was moving stuff a little while ago, I found an old notebook from college,” Lisa said, quickly moving ahead before mentioning why she had been moving her stuff. She cried, I cried. She cited “trust.” But see, I said, I wouldn’t ever trust anyone again, so if you looked at it that way, she was only as untrustworthy as everyone else! The rain let up and we decided, why the hell not, to walk for ice cream. “Word from the girls?”
“No,” I said. “That’s great.”
“Dad, we need more balls!” Patrick shouted. He remembers burying Amanda up to her neck in sand on the beach after the rain finally let up for good. One night in October, she crept back into our room and we had the kind of terrifying sex that can only be had by an emotionally drained, long-separated couple trying to prove something complicated. We stopped seeing the therapist and, at least for a couple of months, fucked our way to some kind of détente.
Back at the house I coaxed Mike into taking a shower and put Beetlejuice on for the kids for what must have been the 10th time. “They should use their imaginations. Boccio? It was hypnotic, and I found myself willing the stupid light to stop in the right place for her. Now he was in the Florida room, shirtless, drinking vodka out of a tall glass. Tell your manager I wouldn’t take no for an answer. That’s not going to work.”
I sat down next to her on the bed.
“‘Indefinitely’ isn’t a great time frame either,” she said. “Are you missing something?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m looking.”
The logic was just short of airtight. And they weren’t just notes copied from the board. The other guy made his case for true love, reminded her life was short — all that 19th century shit. “You really don’t have to come,” I said. It was a small mercy. “Yes, you will get sick playing in the trash,” Lisa was saying. When I stepped out of our room he went out the front door and took off in his car. He went in and I stood outside, staring at the door. That old Davy Crockett song became his tune of choice (he had a CD of Disney classics stashed away somewhere), and when I think about those days, I hear “killed him a bear, when he was only three” in that goofball old-timey voice. She made an unconscious murmur of protest and settled back into sleep. Patrick, who is growing into a smart, kind man, says he doesn’t remember that. We’d been at my mother’s beach house on the Jersey shore for three days, with four still to go. “I was worried I’d be trusted on my own for a fucking second.”
He offered me the water bottle, and, forgive me, I took a small, bitter sip. Ever-Body!” screamed Patrick. We waited an hour and Victoria drove out to check the other bars on the island. Patrick got frustrated and started digging up the sand around her neck, flinging it into her eyes and hair. But this was before I understood that going through these problems again and again — and we would, for a few more years to come, be in a similar place, medicating our children, trying to tame our wayward partners — was the worst kind of complacency, a refusal to take responsibility for our own happiness. “Go,” Lisa stage-whispered to me. “Seatbelts!” he hollered, facing forward. It was a buzzing, crashing place, with prize shelves piled with boxed blenders and stuffed animals.
I was eating a plum over the sink when my eight-year-old daughter Amanda slipped into the kitchen and started picking through the trash. Mike did come home, close to dawn. If he wanted to be out without answering his phone, he was allowed. “It takes a shit-ton more than twenty bucks to win that many tickets.”
I felt a surge of solidarity with Mike — even 20 bucks was an absurd price for this junk — but also, he was being an idiot. Maybe Mom can take you to check in the morning.”
Patrick whimpered in the bottom bunk. Amanda had woken up in the middle of the night a few times in the past month, coming into our room to tell us she was worried she’d left something behind at her day camp or at a friend’s house. “I’m not gonna drag him screaming into the bathroom with me.”
“You are an incredibly selfish person,” Victoria said. I registered the shifts Victoria made as she slept, felt the wistful texture of her fluff of hair. “I know that’s where it is.”
“Where what is?”
“Something important,” she said.
I remembered that we weren’t allowed back in that arcade. I got a text from Lisa: “AC’s kind of a drag, we’ll be home in an hour.” I was glad they were coming back but I worried about the scene that would ensue.
I found him with Patrick at the skee-ball machines. After a while, I got up and made spaghetti. He’d expected her to keep house for him while he worked on his book and schmoozed for tenure — Shirley Jackson all over again. He got arrested outside Pittsburgh after crashing through a toll lane barrier with a .21 BAC. He worked for an investment firm and made more money than Lisa and I combined — he and Victoria had a house in in Newton that I would have envied if I cared about things like that. But as terrible as I felt — and, according to my friends, I was nearly catatonic for significant stretches during this period — I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be how things ended with Lisa. “It’s okay,” she said. “He keeps playing the same song over and over and he won’t let me talk or anything when it’s on,” she said. Patrick was prone to alternating bouts of hyperactivity and glassy-eyed silence. By the time the news came on, Victoria was pacing the room. Amanda watched accusingly and picked at the back of her scalp. “Ever-Body! It was an indefinite experiment. “Gotta support the team.” He patted his pockets. “Patrick is being weird,” she whispered. “Games,” said Patrick. And now it’s all just gone. “I don’t want to call the police,” the kid said. “Call me if you ever need a job.” He dropped the ninja turtle on the floor and hoisted himself clumsily over the counter. I watched the movie for a couple more minutes, but when Lisa didn’t come back I got up to find her. I sat down to read in the armchair across the room, but mostly just watched Vic’s breath rise and fall. We packed up all of our things, making a big singsong show of leaving without her, and then, when she made no attempt at escape, we started trudging up toward the dunes to the street. “One guess,” I said. “Hey,” I said. “They’re on their way back now.”
“Guess we should cancel the strippers,” Mike said. “It was full of all this detailed analysis of Renaissance sculptures. “Where’s Uncle Mike?” said Amanda. She is very pretty, but she has large, expressive features, and her eyes and nose now seemed almost abandoned without her long hair to frame them. “Why don’t you stay here?” I said. “He makes you think everything’s okay just so he can go and destroy it.”
“I don’t think it’s intentional,” I said. It had only been a couple of hours, I told her. “What are you doing there, honey?” I said. Lisa pivoted, shifting her anger toward me like a heavy suitcase. “Right, so, in short, yes,” she said. Mike fell into the passenger seat and put on the pink sunglasses he found in the cup holder. He was a couple of years younger than Amanda, but they’d always gotten along all right before now. “Do you think he’s okay?” Lisa said. And if you touch them, and you touch your face, even if you don’t mean to, you get very, very sick.”
“I’m not playing,” Amanda said. “You can stay here.”
“Nope, nope.” He hoisted himself to his feet. Believe me, I tried to convey back telepathically, it’s the furthest thing from my mind. “I love you! Ahead of us, I saw Lisa with her head inclined toward Mike while he made extravagant arm gestures. “Didn’t we take them yesterday?”
“Two days ago,” I said. No?”
“You need to pull it together,” I said quietly when he’d turned back around. My wife Lisa and I were there with Amanda, plus our friend Mike and his wife Victoria and their son Patrick. “Go with your father,” Victoria said. “It’s been, you know, raining and about to rain.”
I didn’t even get a raised eyebrow. “It’s not the fucking yacht club,” Mike said. Right? “Let me take you home,” I said. “I have a really bad feeling,” Victoria said. “Use your words,” Mike said. I put another five bucks in the machine. He was perched at the top hole of his skee-ball machine, clinging to the protective netting. “Old buddy, with all due respect, I can handle mywife.”
“Great,” I said. We had a big family wedding at a hotel down the street from the beach house, soon after which Lisa got pregnant and had Amanda. “It’s so hard to figure out where your head’s at, and if she’s a mess…”
“We’ll do what we have to do,” I said. Because I fucking won’t.”
“Stay here,” I said to Amanda. In any case, after months of minimal communication (necessary kid stuff only), I brought Amanda home from day camp and found Lisa sitting on the couch, wearing the flower-specked sundress I’d bought her for her birthday the year before. “Wallet, phone. Night creatures. “Do you need money?” I said to Mike. “I said I was sorry, right?”
She exhaled slowly.
“I really hope this doesn’t become more of a thing,” she said in a smaller voice. Why, if he was so awful, did she destroy her life to be with him? “You too,” he said. I heard him yelling inside. Lisa or I would walk her back to her room and go through her possessions, accounting for everything of value, but it didn’t seem to settle her. He talked a big game but at the end of the day he was a selfish partner and a derivative scholar. “There’s nothing in there.”
“You don’t know,” Amanda said. It’s not the stinkin’ yacht club, right? “Right, but how are you different? “Let’s leave, bud,” I said. “I hope Patrick normalizes,” Victoria was saying. “I need to look in that barrel at the arcade,” she said. “I’m trying to fucking pay for it.”
“That’s a ten-thousand ticket prize,” the kid said. Probably.”
“Are you worried about Amanda?”
“I suppose I’m concerned,” I said. I gave myself a three count before sliding back the glass door. “I’ve been alive a long time and I’ve never thrown away anything by accident.”
I threw my plum pit in the bin for emphasis and brushed the trash she’d put on the counter in too. Watching them walk together I remembered how much Lisa had actually liked him, way back before everyone had to take sides. And, more importantly, wasn’t it the best thing for Amanda? “Let’s sober up,” I said. “Checking to see if I threw anything away by accident,” Amanda said. “C’mon guys,” I called back to the kids, trying to wrangle them before the line got longer. “Honey, get in your own bed.”
She clambered up to the top bunk, and I tucked her in. Her head was cocked and I knew she was on the verge of breaking out a sympathetic smile. The plastic crumpled loudly in his hand as his face grew red and his eyes watered. “Cavalry’s here,” he said. “Isn’t this cozy,” said Lisa. In the living room, Victoria was in the armchair, texting ferociously. It wasn’t clear that she knew. “Throw it to me Dad!” Patrick said. “Then take Patrick with you,” Victoria said. It can get really hairy. “I’m fine, I guess. I deserved a beer, and my head was pounding, but I didn’t want to temper my self-righteousness. “I’m not being very articulate,” I said. “It’s just me,” she said. I mean, whatever, you know I’ve been medicated since I was 16, I don’t know why I’m being cagy.” She took off her glasses and pressed her palms into her eyes. “That’s the last thing I’m going to say.”
“I doubt that,” Mike said. Lisa slept in the guest room while we went to twice-weekly therapy sessions, during which she apologized and heaped scorn on the erstwhile emperor of ice cream. Hey, bring the kids.”
“You’re pissed at me?”
“Not particularly,” I said. We pulled into the parking lot and ran through the rain and up the steps of the small boardwalk to the arcade. She pulled out some crumpled plastic and old food, examining each item carefully before setting it on the counter. “Should we go look for him?”
“He knows where the house is,” I said. She put down her phone and sank deeper into the chair. I went back into the arcade and saw that Mike was behind the counter, with the wispy-bearded employee blocking him from escaping with the toy. She held up a yogurt carton and shook it deliberately over the counter, sending tiny purple splatters across the tile. Garbage.”
“I’m going to take the kids to the arcade,” I said. “She was going through the garbage in the kitchen earlier,” I said. “But I think we’ll probably stay together until then.”
“Why?” was my obvious follow-up question. “I was thinking four-way,” Lisa said.
“That tank-top on Vic?” I said. I rubbed her back and mouthed empty clichés as she sat hunched over and watched Big on TV through her fingers. I knew she actually cared, and I wanted to know the answer, too. She came back and the three of us put the kids to bed. But he pulled away from me. “How do you think you’ve changed since we got back together?” I said. I struggled toward a casual intervention. “I came home to Amanda going through used tampons.”
“I don’t know how it happened!” I yelled. Mike never had cash when we went places but he always paid me back. “Fine,” she said, and slumped out of the kitchen. At the time, I resented the fact that Amanda’s upkeep stopped me from drinking myself sick and calling every former classmate and co-worker I’d ever wanted to sleep with, but in retrospect that was for the best. It was raining again and we’d already seen two loud, terrible movies. “You can come, or you can stay here by the quarter machine being an asshole.”
Mike started walking and Patrick clung to his shirt, letting himself be dragged off to a corner of the arcade. “I just have this feeling that he really doesn’t want to come back.”
“He seemed fine when we were walking,” Lisa said. He and Vic had a fight that left a picture frame broken and the kids in tears. “We were having a good talk.”
“Sorry, dear, I can’t be pissing my pants in front of all these respectable folks.”
“Michael, do not go have a drink,” Victoria said. “The changed party,” I said. We were in front of Tom’s, the last dive bar left in town. Mike would probably apologize when he was sober, but I wasn’t sure what good it would do. We bent down and started putting the trash in the big kitchen bag. I was resentful about having to even think the word “intake.” He came back in with a drink and sat down next to me, still wearing nothing but his boxers. (Best not to count the months on that one, actually.) These were good years. One night, Lisa came home from a fundraising trip asking for an open marriage. “When things rot, they decompose, and they grow mold. “That’s the ‘it.’ Maybe I’ve changed.”
“You seem the same to me,” she said. “Drugs.”
“You’ve got to be careful with that though,” she said. I hoped it was. She hadn’t cashed in the ones she’d earned on Monday, and she still had reams left over from last summer as well. “You should know better than to let people like that into a place full of kids.”
I mean, he was right.
Lisa and I had been together, happily unmarried, for five years when we decided to try to have a kid. (My mother was on a bus tour of the West with her no-longer-new husband.) Lisa and I had recently reunited after a six-month separation, and hosting our old friends was serving as a kind of official acknowledgment that we were recommitted to this thing. “He’s got to follow the rules. I just looked at it and I still don’t remember the names. Lisa seems better. We’ll pick up some stuff for the kids in town.”
Mike met my eyes and I saw a flicker of humanity — King Kong deciding not to throw Fay Wray off the Empire State building. She canceled the smile and sat up straight. I scooped them up and dropped them into Amanda’s clear-plastic ticket bucket. It’s kind of interesting.”
I did not weigh in on the likelihood of alcohol-induced brain damage. “We can’t sleep,” Patrick said. “Whaddya think, bud?” Mike said. Visit soon!”
Andrew Martin is the author of the novel Early Work, published in summer 2018 by FSG and chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. “He needs to go too.”
“Ice cream,” Patrick said. Amanda was sitting behind a pile of trash — not just kitchen stuff but bloody tissues and vacuum cleaner dirt and even a couple of diapers (from where?), with the tall kitchen bin and the wicker trash baskets from the house scattered around her. “What song?” I said. Vic was not convinced. I closed the door behind me before she could respond.
When I cracked open the door to the kids’ room, two sets of eyes stared back at me from the bottom bunk. His curly blonde hair had recently crept up to the top of his forehead, and his face was significantly wider and redder than it had been when we met as freshmen at Northwestern. We agreed that Amanda would visit her on the weekends and during school vacations. Time had run out on this thing we’d had, maybe. “If you stop the light in the right place you get a thousand tickets,” Amanda said. “Patrick and I were trying to figure out what I threw away,” Amanda said. “Ever-Body wants to be a cat!”
Mike turned up the volume on the radio until “Umbrella” blasted from the speakers for the thousandth time that summer. “Vic, you deserve better than this,” I said. Sure, he agreed, it was shitty, but if I still loved her, I had to forgive her and try to fix things. “I told you what I’m going to do,” Mike said. “Look, this isn’t the first time he’s done this,” Lisa said. “I’ll meet you guys there in a sec.”
“Why don’t you just wait with us?” Lisa said. I spent a lot of time worrying about it. Is that one?”
“It’s in there somewhere,” I said. “I know I’ve said it a hundred times, but you can’t be mad at me forever. But Patrick came running toward us, crying that it was too far for him to walk. “Well, sir, that’s just silly,” Mike said. DECEMBER 20, 2018
This piece appears in the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. “He’ll come back if he wants to.”
“Why are you being like that?”
“Because I’m tired,” I said. She knew now that she hadn’t been. “Mike was talking about how sometimes he’ll read a client summary that he wrote years before and not recognize it at all.”
“I mean, I’ll remember the act of writing it,” Mike said. I put a blanket over her and gently shifted her head from my lap on to the couch cushion. The men and women had been trading day shifts with the kids because we all agreed that a rainy day with all six of us in that house would end in at least one fatality. “Where’s Amanda?”
I looked to the floor where she’d been sitting. In the rear-view mirror, I saw Amanda with her face pressed against the window.