Authors: Claire Lombardo
“It’s not about being smart,” he said. “It’s about knowing the right people.”
know the right people.”
“You don’t get it,” he said. “I’m not trying to be a dick, but you don’t.”
Sometimes he did things during the day that were nice. He was a meticulous laundry folder. Occasionally, he washed the cars and vacuumed the interiors. He changed lightbulbs and talked to his parents on the phone so she wouldn’t have to. She tried to be effusive with her gratitude for these things, kissing his neck and purring that she never would have remembered to get the oil changed, which was
but not, she thought, necessarily worthy of any flowery thanks. Mostly, though, when she came home he was watching TV or sitting stagnant before his laptop and it would take her several intensive seconds of cognitive restructuring before she could even say hello to him. Because his salary had helped them buy their house but it was her salary, alone, that was paying for it. Because one of the disgusting grad assistants had made a pass at her and there was nothing she could do given that he was the protégé of the department chair. Because she just wanted to come home and have a glass of wine and talk to someone about these things, but her someone was deeply embedded in a season of
and wearing the same gray sweatpants that he had been wearing since December and he didn’t want to hear about the pedestrian struggles of functional people because his trials were far direr.
She couldn’t explain this to her parents and she couldn’t explain it to herself. She couldn’t explain how much it hurt—
made her bones ache—when she went to kiss him and he turned his face away and muttered
not a good time.
Or tonight, when she’d been offered a tenure-track position—at
—and come home with her face almost cracked in half from smiling, bearing ice cream sandwiches from Mumbles and a sixty-eight-dollar bottle of pinot noir (champagne gave her a headache), all the windows on the first floor shut though it was a gorgeous spring evening, to find him pajama-clad and catatonic on the couch. She couldn’t begin to explain what it felt like when he looked up at her and could tell she had exciting news and started crying.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he said, now additionally racked with guilt. He leaned into her because she’d gone to him, startled by the bleak lighting and the stale air and how
things felt in their home. She’d dropped the ice cream sandwiches in the foyer and set the wine next to them and thrown her raincoat on top of her little celebration to avoid making him feel even worse. She had wrapped her arms around him as tightly as she could and he buried his face in her breasts and wept like she had never seen an adult man cry until she met him. “I’m ruining this, Lize; I’m so sorry,” he said, and she rocked him back and forth, now crying a little bit herself despite her near-delirious happiness moments earlier.
“Of course you’re not,” she murmured, kissing his hair—and she was reminded, horrifyingly, in that moment, of soothing Gracie once after she had tumbled backward out of their Radio Flyer when they were having races up and down the jagged slate sidewalks in front of the house on Fair Oaks. “You’re the reason I’m here, love,” she murmured, and then she began to worry that he would misinterpret it, think that she meant
You’re the reason I’m stuck here;
which surely she didn’t, probably. “You could never ruin anything,” she added, and knew immediately that this was wrong too, because he might take it to mean
You could never be capable of ruining anything because you’re completely insignificant
He proceeded, once he’d calmed down, to speak to her in a meandering, disinterested monotone, about how terrible he was feeling, and how it sucked because he had no idea why, but he had a suspicion that his pitch to LemonGraphics wasn’t going to be well received and so maybe that was it; he didn’t know. Once, early on in their relationship, he had looked at her desperately and asked her,
How can we make this stop happening?
And it had broken her heart because he had been so hopeful that she had an answer, some sort of solution buried in her bullshit grad school textbooks (which described depression as “a condition lasting for two weeks or more in which people experience a depressed mood or a loss of interest in their usual activities”; which said absolutely nothing about thirty-three-year-old men sitting catatonic in their boxer briefs, talking to their girlfriends about how they’d had dreams since age eleven of sitting in the garage with the car turned on because it
the most humane way to go
). She’d hugged him then, too, at a loss for what to say, and finally murmured something about
getting through it together,
and he’d looked so disappointed, so crushed by her failure to fix things. He had not since then asked her how to make it stop.
Now she whispered “I love you” into the top of his head, and then she just kept saying that, because it left very little room for misinterpretation. They sat for over an hour like that until she desperately had to pee.
“I’m going to go to bed,” he said when she got up. “I’m so tired. I’m really sorry, Lize.” He was looking at her searchingly, and she knew she had to say something but all she could feel in that moment was
because she’d actually had to pee since noon, since her meeting with the dean, which had been followed immediately by a meeting with her department head and then by an ill-planned sit-down with a student in her 324 class who was overwhelmed and overworked and possibly abusing Adderall, judging by the twitch in his left eye. It was now 8:25 p.m. and she was at imminent risk of pissing her dean-meeting cashmere pencil skirt, but she had to stop and take Ryan’s head in her hands and kiss his salty wet face.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
His face darkened again; his eyes filled. “Fuck. I hate that I’m doing this to you.”
“It’s okay, love. It’s going to be fine.” Her declarations became less eloquent as she focused on the agonizing pressure of the thirty-eight gallons of urine trying to escape from her body.
“I just don’t know if I…”
I’ve had to pee for, like, eight hours.” She hadn’t meant to be so harsh. He looked immediately wounded and she hated him then, for just a second.
She started away from him in an awkward gallop. “Sweetheart, I love you, it’s fine; just give me ten seconds, okay?” She dashed off to the bathroom and just as she was releasing a joyful, racehorse-caliber, orgasmically gratifying stream of pee, he appeared in the doorway. He looked like a baby, like a sleepy, agonized toddler, and she felt any annoyance melt away.
He leaned down and kissed her head. “I have to go to bed.”
She finished and stood up, not bothering to wash her hands lest he slip away from her in those few seconds. “Good, sweetheart. I’ll be up soon.” She reached for his wrist and pulled him to her once more. “Get a good night’s sleep,” she said, rivaling her mother, the parent of four recalcitrant kindergarten dodgers, for most placating send-off ever. He shuffled upstairs and she waited until she heard the squeak of their bed frame to retrieve her mess from the front hall. The ice cream sandwiches, delightful monstrosities the size of human faces, had melted beneath her raincoat in a disgusting, sticky pile, and the liquid had pooled around the bottle of wine so that when she lifted it there remained a coagulated white ring around a stark circle of hardwood.
She came down the next morning to find him making breakfast.
“To celebrate,” he said, turning to her, a smile arranged dubiously on his face. “I’m really proud of you, Lize. Congratulations.”
Her eyes filled unexpectedly. She came up behind him and wrapped her arms around him. He turned in her embrace, and she cupped his face in her hands, able, suddenly, to see a glimmer of something she recognized.
It was less outright desire than a kind of willed optimism, a possibly pathetic longing for what they didn’t have anymore, for the ability to be the kind of couple who easily celebrated each other’s achievements over blueberry pancakes. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d had sex, for she had not been aware, whenever it was, that they were headed somewhere so dark.
“I’m wet,” she said, and Ryan said, “Why?” and she said, “I don’t know
” and they made love against the kitchen counter with an ease and urgency of better times.
She would try, ardently, not to associate the baby with the day it was conceived.
endy had left her numerous voicemails after their failed lunch, but Violet waited three days before calling her back. Wyatt was at preschool and Eli was napping and she paced around her first floor as she mustered the confidence to dial the number. Matt had discouraged it over his Grape-Nuts that morning, telling her that Wendy was unfairly fucking with her and that she needn’t engage. And her husband was right, but that didn’t change the fact of the boy. Matt had left without kissing her goodbye. She pressed her fingers into the soil of the pygmy date palm. She’d printed up a watering schedule for the housekeeper, but she had suspicions about Malgorzata’s English literacy and she was afraid that chastisement would be politically incorrect. She went to fill the watering can, aware that she was procrastinating. There was a chance, of course, that the boy wasn’t who she thought he was, but the messages Wendy had been leaving suggested otherwise, as did that feeling in her gut.
She paused midway to the kitchen and dialed Wendy’s number before she could stop herself.
Get it over with,
as though calling her sister were the final act rather than the very beginning of what she suspected would be a long sequence of events.
“Am I hallucinating?” Wendy asked.
She bristled. “
actually don’t get to make jokes,” she said to her sister.
“I’ve called you eighty times. I was starting to think you’d finally transubstantiated.”
Violet reminded herself that she had a law degree. That she’d once talked a major airline into shelling out seven figures over a case of rancid in-flight OJ. “You had no right,” she said. “You had absolutely no right to put me in that position.”
“Did you listen to my messages? I
that, Viol, Jesus. I misread the situation.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Her voice hit the vaulted ceiling of the sunroom and bled down the walls. They weren’t a yelling household. She didn’t often get upset. It was embarrassing to hear her own hostility. “Wendy, that was— You know how hard that— The universe in which it’s even remotely okay that you—” She pressed her forehead against the window glass, looked into the yard, at the custom cedar tree house that had convinced them to buy the main house in the first place. She resented this conversation encroaching upon the fine-tuned landscape of her life. She resented all the ways it would inevitably encroach beyond this afternoon. “Tell me how you found him,” she said.
“It’s kind of a long story,” Wendy said.
“No shit it is.”
“I got curious,” Wendy said. “A while ago. And I—did a little digging.”
“How long is a
“I get to decide what’s important and what isn’t.”
“It was a one-off thing, Violet, okay? Christ. I talked to his foster mother once. Ages ago. I never expected to hear from her again. But she called me a few weeks ago, and— God, Viol, if you think
flaky; this woman’s like fucking Joan Baez. And she had this whole thing about how she felt like my calling her in the first place was a
harbinger of change,
She quickly lost her ability to follow the narrative thread. “Wait, what do you mean—it was a closed adoption; what do you mean
mother, Wendy, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“I told you it was a long story.” Wendy’s voice softened, sounded suddenly to contain an amount of compassion similar to that of a normal person.
Violet sank onto the chaise by the window and closed her eyes. “What happened?”
“The adoptive parents—died. Car crash. Total freak thing.”
There was a feeling she experienced when her sons were sick, an internal weakening, sympathetic infirmity. When Wyatt used to cry before preschool, she would too; she felt Eli’s encroaching teeth pressing painfully against her own gums. The feeling originated from a hot mass behind her heart, and she felt the spot pulsing now, thinking of the boy—she still hadn’t asked his name—loving other people, people who loved him back and then one day failed to come home. “How old was he when it happened?”
“Christ. So he’s been—”
“Foster care. Repeatedly. And then a residential place. Lathrop House? Remember there was that kid when we were in grade school who lived there and it used to make Mom so sad?”
Unable to speak, she nodded.
“That’s where he met Hanna,” Wendy said. “Mother Earth. The space cadet. She took him in. They actually only live about half a mile from Mom and Dad.”
“I know; how weird is that? Anyway, he— According to Hanna, it was all just a big bureaucratic clusterfuck. Under normal circumstances he would’ve been adopted by another family in a flash, but he just—wasn’t. Fell through the cracks. He was in a bunch of short-term placements—you know, those, like, child-collecting people who do it for the stipend?—but nothing terrible, Hanna said. She said he’s been
relatively, and I don’t even want to think about what the fuck that means. Then he ended up at Lathrop House, and he and Hanna hit it off, and he’s been with them for about six months. Hanna says he’s so quiet it’s easy to forget he’s around, which is pretty much true, from what I can tell.”
“Jesus Christ.” She tried to picture Wyatt being ferried through the system like that, tried to envision either of her kids experiencing anywhere near that kind of instability.
This is going to open doors you don’t want opened, Violet,
Matt had said to her this morning.