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Larry Fischer had a new bitters kit he wanted to try, the artisanal kind packaged with letterpress and pipette. It came with his Cocktail of the Month membership, which we’d sprung for his 50th birthday. Rich and I were beat but it was an invitation, so we went over. The Kaplans came too, as well as Bonnie and Stu Friedman. Soon our kids would be leaving for college, and then what? Larry wheeled out his bar cart, petri dish of garnishes, fussy peels straddling the rims of his lowball glasses like showgirls. Eagerly, he mixed.
Music crackled through invisible speakers, too loud, better suited for a funk fest than a living room. The drinks were effective and balanced and not just the humdrum Manhattan, either. Bearded Lady, Boomerang, Dying Bastard. Larry read off an alphabet of possibilities from his pocket-sized handbook. We had a few, then a few more. No one was counting. It was Saturday night.
The trick is not to let a little thing become something bigger. Climate change, the common core: there is only so much to talk about before it’s pulling teeth. After a while, the air felt muggy, stale. It was too cold out to keep the windows open, too hot to keep them closed. Four rounds of Phyllo triangles and napkins had been abandoned on chairs and nesting tables, crushed like winter tulips. Someone suggested charades, one of those stylish German board games intended for adults as much as for children but that would require real concentration. Nobody wanted the headache of retrieving the box, least of all Larry and Gayle, of upsetting the perfect balance of items carefully stowed away in the sideboard. We settled into the couch, beige washable linen shaped like an “L,” our heads slumped on cushions and shoulders. A photo-realist painting of the Fischer family presided on the wall above the fireplace. Rich stared at it; my eyes watered. We were infected by yawns.
Gayle said, “What’s with you? Your face is halfway down your face.”
Leave it to Gayle. Our sons had gone to nursery together, what, how many years ago? I swiveled my drink, ice cubes tinkling.
“Allergies,” I said, coughing. I crossed and uncrossed my leg, the embarrassed chuff of my body coming up against itself. It wasn’t like me to wear pantyhose and a skirt, not that it’s a crime to dress up for no reason. Gayle nodded. The right thing would have been to follow her into the kitchen to plate the dessert, to make myself useful, but I was comfortable stuck where I was. To my left Jeff used summer as a verb, as if any of us ever ventured past the county tennis center. This year there’d be a new snack bar, Shelley said. I dabbed my makeup in the corners where it had bled.
Gayle stood, one hand steadying the mantel the other on her hip. She shook her hair. It didn’t move. “Coffee, tea, me?”
Oh but we lived for easy laughs.
When she returned with petit fours, I swept a tissue through the air.
“It’s our circadian rhythms,” I said, popping a cake. I thought I sounded normal, but apparently, this was not my indoor voice. My hands looked grey at this angle. I blinked and sniffed; we were friends as much as neighbors.
I said, “Rich can’t sleep. I can’t stop sleeping.”
“Trouble in the sack?” Bonnie cut in. Stu looked over. They wore matching slacks and squeezed each other’s knees like they might wring water from them. Jeff and Shelley Kaplan perked up, too. Shelley had been tucked under Jeff’s arm, more like a chokehold than an embrace. When we first moved in, the Kaplans had us over for their annual White Night, which culminated in Shelley tossing herself by accident on purpose into the pool. It was shaped like a magic bean and glowed like a higher planet and everyone followed, shedding layers, even the people you’d least expect, themed parties being all the rage, more popular than in high school, wet T-shirt contests and Footloose dance-offs. By now, we mostly recycled past events. Larry had a cannabis cave and retro Atari in the basement but even nostalgia gets old. No one was venturing downstairs with a hot hand and bag of Cheetos. It was not that kind of night.
Rich looked at me, eyes haggard, tense in the jaw, like he used to get after a night out in the city. “Do you really think this is the time or the place?” Which was sweet, if you think about it, the quaint way he clung to any last vestige of privacy.
Bonnie clasped her palms together. She was wearing a tight purple turtleneck, which made her look like a bottle of salad dressing. “I had that with my first husband, Roy. New job, new pressures, and before you know it – ”
Shelley said, “Don’t overthink it. Thinking is the kiss of death.” She wore rings on all of her fingers, big dark gems that looked like 8-balls. “Maybe it’s just the moon, Joyce.”
“One course online and she’s an expert,” Jeff said. He’d dropped considerable weight since his brother’s heart attack, his shirt blousy, like a boy in his father’s clothing.
“Rain on my parade,” Shelley pouted, needle-like grooves in her lips. Once we’d all been smokers but we’d since swapped out bad habits to offset our family histories.
Gayle smiled a smile that said, Smile. She’d had a double mastectomy at 39 and understood the power of positive thinking. Larry swung through the kitchen wearing an apron that said Bareback Your Bar-back, sleeves rolled, a towel on the shoulder. Larry always looked the part. He raised his eyebrows, shoved both hands in his armpits as if trying to warm them.
“OK, who died?”
Rich stood. He palmed my head like a skullcap, said it was getting late.
In the morning, Rich looked like hell, his hair all grizzled and spiky. I had the spins and a metallic taste in my mouth but otherwise felt as I always did. I don’t remember if I dreamed, we’d been drinking, so who knows. It’s easy to blame one thing and crowd out all others, but whatever. We’d split enough hairs. We reaffirmed our commitment, dedicated our tongues to words like effort, exercise, herbs. We drank green smoothies with bright flecks of ginger. Cheers, Cheers. We downloaded apps for timed meditation. Digitized voices spoke of enlightenment as we sat on padded mats in our bedroom, Rich and I. We fanned our fingers out in front of us without touching, bowed heads, we drew breath when our phones said to breathe.
The question: Why now, after 18 years? Why anything? My cough progressed to a gravelly wheeze; Rich’s dry eyes bulged like a fish. Friends cited environmental factors: vitamin D, Monsanto, hygiene. We read the same papers. Others had it far worse. But the discomfort persisted. We’d never been allergic before. Sure, eventually all things pass. Easy for me, I could sleep through it.
Behind closed doors Rich wanted to talk. “Why must we brush everything under the rug?”
I said that’s housekeeping.
“You know what I mean.” In bed Rich tossed and turned. I reminded him it had only been a few days. Rich said it felt like forever. He punched the pillow.
I brought him a glass of warm milk.
“I’m not an infant,” he said.
“Patience,” I cooed. We may live in a world of instant gratification, but things like insomnia take work. “You can’t just snap your fingers,” I said. I splashed Bailey’s in his cup and held it to his lips as an offering. I dug my pregnancy pillow out from storage. Some of the stuffing had started to poke through, dingy duck feathers, the case yellowed, mealy. It was hard to believe I’d kept it for this long. The shape was long and curved like a body. Fifteen years ago he called it my bitch. Now Rich hugged her for dear life.
Of course, no one starts out like this. We were the couple on a sunset promenade, wind blowing, salt-licked, the works. Once Rich clasped a chain to my neck, plated halves of a charm that opened and shut on a latch. We ate grapes in the rain and took photos in ideal light, just the two of us, fiery heaps of autumn leaves. On vacation, we snapped our kids into travel packs and hiked the Grand Canyon. We took them to Florida, to the zoo.
When Gayle got sick, we pitched in without question. That’s the beauty of community. Rich was the one who said there is more to a wife than a meal. The whole thing was his idea. Everyone agreed: How charitable! Gayle took the gift in stride, and I was plentiful, progressive; there was ample me to go around, with Larry, forever grateful. Sometimes Rich would watch in the dark while Larry flipped me over. I braced myself against the headboard and curved my back into a bowl, smooth and still as shale, a receptacle for something, Larry’s hope or Rich’s bounty, an infinity pool in perpetual motion, to never fully be emptied or filled.
“Promise me,” Rich said, in the bathroom, the sink clogged with my masks and powders and accumulated creams. He wants me to get rid of this gunk and clutter, which is simple for him. What does he need? I dipped my mascara wand. Reflex – my jaw goes slack when I do my eyes, only today they kept leaking so the ink wouldn’t go on straight. He tossed his towel in the hamper and looked at me struggling with myself in the mirror.
I said, “I promise.”
Gayle rang that day but I didn’t have the energy. She was the last person I had in mind. My chest hurt. The more I slept the more sleep I craved, like a junkie. Maybe that didn’t make sense but there it was. I got in my car, threw my bag on the seat.
I said, “Have you ever felt like this?” I was beginning to sweat, beads on the lip, as I backed out of the driveway. I drove past her house. The curtains were closed. “Do you have any idea?”
She paused. I heard rustling.
“Hello?” I said, “Are you even there?”
But her voice sounded distant, like she’d gone through a tunnel.
“We’ve tried everything,” I said. In the produce aisle of the market I saw Shelley sniffing the tush of a melon and waved, indicating the phone on my ear. I pushed my cart.
Gayle said, “What about intimacy?”
I said, “What about it?”
Slowly, my dream life began to take over. I could feel my REM patterns stretching longer and deeper as my subconscious pulled me into a heavy, sustained slumber. Some mornings I couldn’t get up. Why bother? I spoke in an alluring British accent in dreams; I solved high-profile crime and wore killer suits and heels. I floated down the Seine in orange gauzy silk with a straw basket on my wrist because lost in La-La land my body was like that – buoyant and hungry and young.
“What have you done with my wife?” Rich said when he came into the bedroom tonight. I tried to laugh but my face was stiff. Bonnie had been raving about this new beauty tape to patch up frown lines and you never know. Placebo can be its own cure. If you can’t look like a mummy in your own home, a patient from the trauma ward, then where can you be yourself? I mean, honestly. He rubbed two fingers on the silk of my pajamas.
“I’ll get nightmares,” he said.
“You have to sleep first,” I said, shutting the light.
This was the marriage dance. I bought new shams and a mattress topper, bedding of Egyptian cotton. I doused Rich’s side with lavender oil, hung fragrant satchels off the bedposts like lucky little cocoons. One night I even tried singing lullabies acapella until my voice gave up because that’s what you do in life when you want what’s best, what I did for the kids, but Rich swatted his book at me and said, “Stop, just stop. Please.”
I rolled over and faced the wall. Rich gritted his teeth. I suggested a bite plate.
I said, “Larry will fit you one in his office for free.” I mentioned meds, over-the-counter and prescriptions, but Rich said, “You and your pills for everything.”
A part of me loved him for his idealism.
The other part wanted to say, You and your expecting too much.
“I don’t know what my problem is,” I told Shelley. I told Bonnie, Gayle, anyone who’d listen. We were always on the phone. “I could sleep all day and then sleep all night.”
Rich walked in to the kitchen. He was back on coffee. “Your problem is – ” he said and then something else, but it was a mutter. When you’re that exhausted and grumpy there’s no telling what. You’ll say anything.
As for the kids: they hardly parted their beaks other than to ask for allowance, the car. What else is there? At some point, I guess, people have to help themselves. The kids walked into the house, dropped their bags, beelined for the bathroom, loaded up on snacks, then went upstairs in their combat boots, their arms full of things. I could hear the keyboards of their laptops clicking away as I paused in front of their closed doors, as I called out: Good night, nobody. Good night, mush.
There was only bad news on TV.
“Turn it off,” I said.
“This is our world,” Rich said, but I already had my knees bent like a contortionist, as if wedged into a tight spot for Hide and Seek.
“Ssssssshhh,” I said. He clicked through the channels. “Pretend it’s not there.”
I woke to the sound of sawing. I’m not sure what time it was. He-haw the whole bed shimmied and shook, as if we were in a cheap motel and a coin had been dropped in the slot. I sat up. Rich’s forehead glistened as he muscled the rough blade of his handsaw back and forth along the seams of the bed frame.
“Couldn’t you wait?” I shouted.
“Almost done,” he said. His tongue darted around like a turtle’s head while he worked. Finally, he said. He was being proactive, I had to give him that. The bed fit like a coffin, his legs cramped, he was simply too big. In fact, he was shorter than me, but I stayed quiet as he took matters into his Paul Bunyan hands, slicing and dicing, grunting and gasping until the thick wood panels thunked to the floor and sawdust flew up in a cloud around us.
I looked down at our mess.
“We could cage a family of hamsters,” I said, the tickle of dust scaling my throat. When the kids were small, Rich rescued a pregnant mouse from his lab and brought her home as a pet. Momma gave birth to a dozen red runts in a glass cage then proceeded to eat the two smallest, dark and curled as snails. “Remember?” I said. A little thing, but a half-smile crept onto his lips. Rich had the vacuum ready. I propped up and watched him suck up the soft piles of debris, cross-hatched kindling, using the nozzle attachment in tough corners, against the wall, behind the night table, gently and lovingly under the bed until we were clean.
Afterward, Rich conked out in minutes, but my rest was over. I thrashed from side to side, like any second I might forget where I was and fall off. I hacked so hard I could lose a lung. Kill me now, I thought, which, fine, was dramatic. My nose dripped. I cut my finger on a splinter of wood. The puncture wasn’t deep only broken skin so I nursed it, gathering the shadows of the room like a blanket, a dental X-ray vest. The hours ticked toward dawn. Rich didn’t stir. When day broke, I got up. The bed tipped to one end.
“Better?” I said, tasting blood. “Happy now?”
Sara Lippmann's debut collection DOLL PALACE was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, Wigleaf, Fiction Southeast, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere.