The Changed Party




This piece appears in the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 20  Childhood
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¤

 

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. She pulled out some crumpled plastic and old food, examining each item carefully before setting it on the counter. My plum dripped dark red drops into a coffee cup filled with water. I struggled toward a casual intervention.

“What are you doing there, honey?” I said.

“Checking to see if I threw anything away by accident,” Amanda said. She held up a yogurt carton and shook it deliberately over the counter, sending tiny purple splatters across the tile.

“Are you missing something?”

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m looking.”

The logic was just short of airtight. 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. 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. This was an escalation.

“Honey, I think you need to stop now,” I said. “There’s nothing in there.”

“You don’t know,” Amanda said.

“Trust me,” I said. “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. Amanda watched accusingly and picked at the back of her scalp.

“Why don’t you go find Patrick and I’ll take you guys to the arcade?” I said. It was raining again and we’d already seen two loud, terrible movies.

Fine,” she said, and slumped out of the kitchen.

We’d been at my mother’s beach house on the Jersey shore for three days, with four still to go. My wife Lisa and I were there with Amanda, plus our friend Mike and his wife Victoria and their son Patrick. (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. For a variety of reasons, that was only going medium-well.

Lisa was in Atlantic City with Victoria for the day. They had been very clear that Mike and I were to interrupt only in the case of life-threatening emergency. 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. Mike and I had spent our day off watching insignificant sporting events in the cavernous, gaudily renovated bar in the middle of town. I’d stopped drinking, out of necessity, after my third beer, but Mike, as far as I could tell, hadn’t stopped at all.

Now he was in the Florida room, shirtless, drinking vodka out of a tall glass. 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. He was still, as my mother would say, a nice-looking man, as long as you didn’t focus on his belly.

“Al Pacino is shit,” he said, jerking his drink toward the TV. “Godfather, Serpico, sure. After that? Garbage.”

“I’m going to take the kids to the arcade,” I said.

“Didn’t we take them yesterday?”

“Two days ago,” I said.

He sank deeper into the couch. “They should use their imaginations. Do a play for us or something.”

“I already told Amanda,” I said. “You can stay here.”

“Nope, nope.” He hoisted himself to his feet. “Gotta support the team.” He patted his pockets. “Wallet, phone. Good to go.”

He pitched forward and caught himself, then snuck a glance at me to see if I’d noticed.

“Why don’t you stay here?” I said.

“Gonna find that kid,” he muttered and walked toward the kitchen.

Amanda was sitting by the front door putting on her shoes.

“Patrick is being weird,” she whispered.

“That’s not nice,” I said, though of course he was weird. Patrick was prone to alternating bouts of hyperactivity and glassy-eyed silence. He was a couple of years younger than Amanda, but they’d always gotten along all right before now. And — of course I couldn’t say this — who was she, given our kitchen debacle, to talk?

“He keeps playing the same song over and over and he won’t let me talk or anything when it’s on,” she said.

“What song?” I said.

“‘Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.’”

“At least it’s a good one,” I said.

“It’s okay,” she said.

“You guys coming?” I called back into the house. Patrick and Mike shuffled slowly around the corner like they were expecting a Minotaur. Mike had put on a neon orange polo shirt with a dark stain on the belly. He had a can of beer in his hand and another bulging from the pocket of his khaki shorts. Patrick’s sneakers were untied and he was wearing a Spider-Man bathing suit and no shirt. They stared at me with the same half-lidded eyes, awaiting instruction.

“You really don’t have to come,” I said.

“Whaddya think, bud?” Mike said. “Watch the end of Devil’s Advocate with Daddo? Blurred out boobies?”

“Arcaaaaade,” Patrick said, jogging in place.

“Right you are!” Mike said. “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. Mike fell into the passenger seat and put on the pink sunglasses he found in the cup holder.

“Seatbelts!” he hollered, facing forward.

“Patrick needs a shirt,” Amanda said.

“It’s not the fucking yacht club,” Mike said.

“Hey,” I said.

“Gosh, I’m sorry, honey.” He twisted around in his seat. “Uncle Mike didn’t mean that. It’s not the stinkin’ yacht club, right? We don’t need no stinkin’ yacht club, right? No?”

“You need to pull it together,” I said quietly when he’d turned back around.

He cracked open a new beer.

Ever-Body! Ever-Body!” screamed Patrick. “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. In the rear-view mirror, I saw Amanda with her face pressed against the window.

We pulled into the parking lot and ran through the rain and up the steps of the small boardwalk to the arcade. It was a buzzing, crashing place, with prize shelves piled with boxed blenders and stuffed animals. I’d loved arcades and all manner of nonsense when I was a kid, but now it gave me an instant headache. I fed a five-dollar bill into a change machine — the saddest action of fatherhood? — and the quarters crashed into the metal dispenser. I scooped them up and dropped them into Amanda’s clear-plastic ticket bucket.

“Don’t use these up too fast,” I said.

“I just want tickets,” Amanda said. She hadn’t cashed in the ones she’d earned on Monday, and she still had reams left over from last summer as well. She wouldn’t tell me what she was saving them for. It wasn’t clear that she knew.

“Do you need money?” I said to Mike. I asked nicely. Mike never had cash when we went places but he always paid me back. 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.

“Nah, Patrick doesn’t want to play any games,” he said. “Do you Patrick?”

This set off a high-pitched whine.

“Use your words,” Mike said.

Games,” said Patrick.

I put another five bucks in the machine.

“Don’t mess with him, Mike,” I said.

Mike scooped a handful of quarters from the dispenser. “I’m gonna go play the gator whack,” he said to Patrick. “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 looked around for Amanda and saw her by a big machine with a multicolored light spinning around inside it.

“What are you playing, honey?” I said.

“If you stop the light in the right place you get a thousand tickets,” Amanda said. “And if you get it close you still get some tickets for trying.”

“Is it fun?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said without enthusiasm. Amanda was such a serious kid, incredibly smart for her age, and lacking any useful outlet for her grimness. 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. What would happen to her in her life? Could her brilliance outrun her anxiety? I spent a lot of time worrying about it.

I watched her play the game. It was hypnotic, and I found myself willing the stupid light to stop in the right place for her. It wasn’t happening. 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. Mike was rolling the wooden balls too hard, beer in hand, while Patrick clambered up and down the machine next to his.

“Offa there, Pat,” Mike said.

“Throw it to me Dad!” Patrick said. He was perched at the top hole of his skee-ball machine, clinging to the protective netting. Mike ignored him.

“So Lisa says they’re bailing on AC,” I said. “They’re on their way back now.”

“Guess we should cancel the strippers,” Mike said.

“Let’s sober up,” I said. “I don’t want to go through the Eugene O’Neill routine with you and Vic.”

Mike took off his sunglasses. “Old buddy, with all due respect, I can handle mywife.”

“Great,” I said. “That’s great.”

“Dad, we need more balls!” Patrick shouted.

“Let’s go get a prize, Pat,” Mike said.

“We didn’t get enough tickets,” Patrick said, but he followed him to the counter. I got Amanda and stood with her outside under the awning, watching the rain. Mike would probably apologize when he was sober, but I wasn’t sure what good it would do. Time had run out on this thing we’d had, maybe. I heard him yelling inside.

“Look man, he wants the ninja turtle. The thing’s been on your shelf since 1989. I’ll give you 20 bucks. Tell your manager I wouldn’t take no for an answer. Because I fucking won’t.”

“Stay here,” I said to Amanda. 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.

“I don’t want to call the police,” the kid said.

“Well, sir, that’s just silly,” Mike said. “I’m trying to fucking pay for it.”

“That’s a ten-thousand ticket prize,” the kid said. “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.

“Let’s leave, bud,” I said. “He’s got to follow the rules. 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. 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.

“Good customer service here,” Mike said. “Call me if you ever need a job.” He dropped the ninja turtle on the floor and hoisted himself clumsily over the counter.

“Don’t you ever come back in here,” the kid said to Mike’s back.

“Hey, I’m sorry about all this,” I said to the kid, taking out my wallet.

“You too,” he said. “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. 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. (Best not to count the months on that one, actually.) These were good years. 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 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.

One night, Lisa came home from a fundraising trip asking for an open marriage. 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. She cried, I cried. She agreed to break it off, then didn’t. The other guy made his case for true love, reminded her life was short — all that 19th century shit. (He was an assistant literature professor at Amherst, but his guy was Wallace Stevens. 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.

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. It was an indefinite experiment. 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. We agreed that Amanda would visit her on the weekends and during school vacations. She had just turned seven, and we agreed to spin the separation as a work-related necessity until we figured out something better.

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. I had some weekend adventures (piano bar to hotel bar to hotel room) and some long nights with the HBO Go roster. 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 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. (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.

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. She cried, I cried; she begged forgiveness, I held out. Tim was an egomaniac, she said. He’d expected her to keep house for him while he worked on his book and schmoozed for tenure — Shirley Jackson all over again. She missed me (well, compared to that guy, sure), missed Amanda (obviously), hated Amherst (tell it to Emily Dickinson).

That first night she stayed home while I went out for a drink with Mike. Sure, he agreed, it was shitty, but if I still loved her, I had to forgive her and try to fix things. Because wasn’t this what I’d said I wanted? And, more importantly, wasn’t it the best thing for Amanda? Some version of this thought emerged as the consensus among my friends, family, fellow content aggregators. Mike’s wife Victoria was a notable exception. 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! Vic was not convinced.

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. Why, if he was so awful, did she destroy her life to be with him? Well, she’d wanted to be in love with a new person. She knew now that she hadn’t been. He talked a big game but at the end of the day he was a selfish partner and a derivative scholar. I understood this on an intellectual level, but I couldn’t bring myself to empathize. 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. I deserved a beer, and my head was pounding, but I didn’t want to temper my self-righteousness. 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.

Mike came in wearing boxers, toweling his hair. “Word from the girls?”

“No,” I said.

“Still pissed at me, got it.” He walked into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. I tried to focus on my book, the movie, anything but Mike’s intake. 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.

“Winona Ryder, goin’ inside her,” he said gravely.

Patrick crawled up onto the couch and squeezed in between us. When our wives came in, Mike was nearly done with his second drink.

“Isn’t this cozy,” said Lisa. “Where’s Amanda?”

I looked to the floor where she’d been sitting.

“Not here?” I said. I really was puzzled, but I know it came out glib.

“Amanda!” Lisa called, moving into the house. Victoria gave Mike and me a glance and headed off down the hallway to the bedrooms. I watched the movie for a couple more minutes, but when Lisa didn’t come back I got up to find her. I walked through the Florida room and saw them on the back porch. 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. I gave myself a three count before sliding back the glass door.

“Yes, you will get sick playing in the trash,” Lisa was saying. “When things rot, they decompose, and they grow mold. 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.

“Honey, I told you to stop with this,” I said.

Lisa pivoted, shifting her anger toward me like a heavy suitcase.

“She was going through the garbage in the kitchen earlier,” I said.

“It would have been awesome if you had told me that, dude,” she said.

“Amanda, go inside,” 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.

“I am not trying to be a hard-ass,” Lisa said. “But this really is not good.”

“I’ve been babysitting Mike and the kids all afternoon,” I said. “It’s been, you know, raining and about to rain.”

I didn’t even get a raised eyebrow.

I came home to Amanda going through used tampons.”

“I don’t know how it happened!” I yelled. “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. “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. “We’ll sort it out.”

“Is Michael drunk?”

“I mean, he’s drinking.”

“Victoria is going to kill him,” Lisa said. “I really can’t go through the Long Day’s Journey routine right now.”

At least our points of reference were still aligned. We bent down and started putting the trash in the big kitchen bag. As a gesture of solidarity, you couldn’t ask for much better.

“What should we do tonight?” I said.

“I was thinking four-way,” Lisa said. 

“That tank-top on Vic?” I said.

“Yeah?” Lisa said. “You like that?”

“In a pinch, sure.”

“A pinch,” Lisa said. “Christ.”

I took the bulging garbage bag out to the curb and went to get another one. Victoria had taken my seat on the couch with Mike and Patrick. She looked at me with a warning: Don’t destroy this peace, ephemeral as it may be. Believe me, I tried to convey back telepathically, it’s the furthest thing from my mind.

After a while, I got up and made spaghetti. Patrick dropped all of his silverware on the floor. Mike ostentatiously drank water at dinner, but he was glazed over, and I figured he was sneaking vodka. The rain let up and we decided, why the hell not, to walk for ice cream. Mike and Lisa walked ahead with the kids while Victoria and I hung back.

Victoria had cut her hair short and I wasn’t sure yet how I felt about it. 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. Ahead of us, I saw Lisa with her head inclined toward Mike while he made extravagant arm gestures. Watching them walk together I remembered how much Lisa had actually liked him, way back before everyone had to take sides.

“I hope Patrick normalizes,” Victoria was saying. “It’ll be hard for him. Otherwise.”

“I was pretty hyper when I was that age,” I said. “He’s a good kid, though. That’s the important thing. Probably.”

“Are you worried about Amanda?”

“I suppose I’m concerned,” I said. “Do you think I should worry?”

“I just know it’s hard to see your kid unhappy,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to provide the opportunities for happiness, but we can’t make them be happy.”

“There’s therapy,” I said. “Drugs.”

“You’ve got to be careful with that though,” she said. “Once you start trying things — the drugs, I mean — you’re kind of obliged to see it through. It can get really hairy. 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. “Anyway. Lisa seems better. Right? 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. “But I think we’ll probably stay together until then.” 

“Why?” was my obvious follow-up question. But Patrick came running toward us, crying that it was too far for him to walk. Amanda was off by herself, staring at the sidewalk. I left Victoria to deal with Patrick and caught up with Lisa and Mike.

“Do you ever feel this way, Gary?” Lisa said. “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. “But when I look at it, I can’t imagine being as articulate as I apparently was. It’s kind of interesting.”

I did not weigh in on the likelihood of alcohol-induced brain damage.

“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. “It was full of all this detailed analysis of Renaissance sculptures. And they weren’t just notes copied from the board. They were my thoughts on these things. And now it’s all just gone. If you put a gun to my head I wouldn’t be able to tell you about … I don’t even know what. I just looked at it and I still don’t remember the names. Boccio? Is that one?”

“It’s in there somewhere,” I said. I hoped it was.

The ice cream place came into view, the line of families and dogs stretching around the block.

“C’mon guys,” I called back to the kids, trying to wrangle them before the line got longer.

“I’ve got to find somewhere to piss,” Mike said. “I’ll meet you guys there in a sec.”

“Why don’t you just wait with us?” Lisa said. “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.

“I told you what I’m going to do,” Mike said.

“Then take Patrick with you,” Victoria said. “He needs to go too.”

Ice cream,” Patrick said.

“Go with your father,” Victoria said. “We’ll be in line when you get back.”

“He doesn’t want to go, Vic,” Mike said. “I’m not gonna drag him screaming into the bathroom with me.”

“You are an incredibly selfish person,” Victoria said. “That’s the last thing I’m going to say.”

“I doubt that,” Mike said. He stalked off in the direction we’d come from.

Go,” Lisa stage-whispered to me. I jogged half a block to catch up with him, saw him sip from a battered Poland Springs bottle and grimace.

“Cavalry’s here,” he said. “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. We were in front of Tom’s, the last dive bar left in town. Torn down now, of course. 

“You know I don’t want to babysit you,” I said.

“Seriously,” Mike said. “You want to be able to talk to a person. 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. But he pulled away from me. 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. The plastic crumpled loudly in his hand as his face grew red and his eyes watered.

“Like a house on fi-yah,” he said when he had finished it.

“Let me take you home,” I said. “Before you fall over.”

“Naw, gonna check this place out,” he said. He went in and I stood outside, staring at the door. I thought he might come back out, or get shoved out like a saloon cowboy, but he didn’t. I walked back to the ice cream line.

“Where’s Michael?” Victoria said.

“One guess,” I said. I hated to see her shudder, but I was also relieved. I was done taking responsibility.

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. When we got back to the house, he wasn’t passed out on the couch, as I’d stupidly hoped he might be. We waited an hour and Victoria drove out to check the other bars on the island. She phoned me from the last place: should she call the police? It had only been a couple of hours, I told her. If he wanted to be out without answering his phone, he was allowed. She came back and the three of us put the kids to bed. We turned on the TV and watched an awful show about a sex-murderer. By the time the news came on, Victoria was pacing the room.

“Look, this isn’t the first time he’s done this,” Lisa said.

“I have a really bad feeling,” Victoria said. “I just have this feeling that he really doesn’t want to come back.”

“He seemed fine when we were walking,” Lisa said. “He was being very sweet, actually.”

“That’s what he does,” Victoria 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.

“Yeah, well, the result is the same,” Victoria said.  

Lisa and I went to our room under the pretext of getting ready for bed.

“Do you think he’s okay?” Lisa said. “Should we go look for him?”

“He knows where the house is,” I said. “He’ll come back if he wants to.”

“Why are you being like that?”

“Because I’m tired,” I said. I made sure to keep my voice even. “You go if you’re worried. Hey, bring the kids.”

“You’re pissed at me?”

“Not particularly,” I said.

“Right, so, in short, yes,” she said. “I know I’ve said it a hundred times, but you can’t be mad at me forever. 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. “Hey. Look at me.”

I did. Her head was cocked and I knew she was on the verge of breaking out a sympathetic smile.

“It’s just me,” she said.

“How do you think you’ve changed since we got back together?” I said.

She canceled the smile and sat up straight.

“You know how much more I appreciate what we have now. 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.

“Right, but how are you different? You see things differently, I get that, but what about you? You you.”

“What do you want?” she 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. I had a dismal record in our arguments.

“The changed party,” I said. “That’s the ‘it.’ Maybe I’ve changed.” 

“You seem the same to me,” she said.

I stood up and let my thoughts settle.

“I’m not being very articulate,” I said. “I’m fine, I guess. Fine enough.” 

“Are you?” Lisa said. I knew she actually cared, and I wanted to know the answer, too.

“I’m going to check on Amanda and see what Victoria’s story is,” I said. 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. Night creatures.

“We can’t sleep,” Patrick said.

“Where’s Uncle Mike?” said Amanda.

“He’s taking a walk,” I said. “Honey, get in your own bed.”

She clambered up to the top bunk, and I tucked her in.

“Patrick and I were trying to figure out what I threw away,” Amanda said.

“You need to stop with this,” I said.

“I need to look in that barrel at the arcade,” she said. “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. It was a small mercy. “Go to sleep. Maybe Mom can take you to check in the morning.”

Patrick whimpered in the bottom bunk. I put his blanket over him, and he quieted down. In the living room, Victoria was in the armchair, texting ferociously.

“My sister thinks I should call the police if I think he’s a danger to himself or others,” she said.

She put down her phone and sank deeper into the chair.

“Vic, you deserve better than this,” I said. “We all do.”

“It’s just exhausting,” she 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’d already tried complacency with Lisa, I thought, and learned that it bred disaster. 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. It took me a long time.

Victoria got up from the chair and sat down on the couch next to me. I rubbed her back and mouthed empty clichés as she sat hunched over and watched Big on TV through her fingers. Eventually she lay down with her head in my lap and fell asleep almost immediately. I felt a flood of protectiveness toward her, and some concomitant, uncalculated desire. I registered the shifts Victoria made as she slept, felt the wistful texture of her fluff of hair. It scared me.

I put a blanket over her and gently shifted her head from my lap on to the couch cushion. She made an unconscious murmur of protest and settled back into sleep. I sat down to read in the armchair across the room, but mostly just watched Vic’s breath rise and fall. 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.

Mike did come home, close to dawn. He and Vic had a fight that left a picture frame broken and the kids in tears. When I stepped out of our room he went out the front door and took off in his car. He got arrested outside Pittsburgh after crashing through a toll lane barrier with a .21 BAC. Victoria rented a car and drove up there to deal with him, so Lisa and I watched Patrick for the rest of the week. 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.

Patrick, who is growing into a smart, kind man, says he doesn’t remember that. He remembers burying Amanda up to her neck in sand on the beach after the rain finally let up for good. That day is vivid in my mind, too. 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. Patrick got frustrated and started digging up the sand around her neck, flinging it into her eyes and hair. Over Amanda’s screams, I told him to cut it out. 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.

“Goodbye!” she called to our backs. “I love you! 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. 


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