Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press). His stories have appeared in Ninth Letter, Tin House, Booth, Willow Springs, Masters Review, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.
“Heart of Gold” is the fiction winner of the 2018 Prose & Poetry Contest, selected by Belle Boggs.
We’ve fallen in love. In lust. In something, anyway. In any case, we have fallen. We tumble madly, swooning for the Bellamys.
Even their name means beautiful.
It’s been two weeks now since they moved in. David and Jasmine. They’re in their twenties, early thirties at the latest. He’s a throwback movie star, Cary Grant with broader shoulders, tall and tanned and almost preternaturally healthy-looking, as if he wakes up by rolling off a Ralph Lauren magazine ad. She’s more old school beauty. Mike says she looks like Cleopatra, and I can see that. Honey-colored, thin but shapely, with a yoga instructor’s butt and Arctic blue eyes. We live in a high-end part of suburban Washington, full of nice homes—our own is smaller but expensive—but the people here don’t look like Cary Grant and Cleopatra. Even the Jennifers look bland and weathered by comparison.
“Her skin must be like butter,” I say. “And I mean the really good butter, the exotic stuff.”
“Sure,” says Mike. He’s standing by the island, reading the news on his phone and sipping coffee while I watch the Bellamys through the kitchen window. “The kind that’s infused with orchid petals and whatnot.”
Our houses face each other on the cul-de-sac. Out on the Bellamy driveway, Cary Grant leans down to kiss Cleopatra’s neck as they stand, perfect torso to perfect torso, beside his Mercedes. The morning sunlight glints off her eyes, dazzling me. She doesn’t lift her foot as he kisses her, but I feel as if she does. I feel like a better human being for having seen this.
“You don’t understand.” I turn to him. “When she smiles, a thousand angels get—”
“Wings?” he asks, still reading his phone.
Mike looks up, nods. “So gross.”
“He kissed her neck,” I say, turning back to the window. “That’s foreplay. That’s essentially foreplay. Before going off to work.”
“Maybe her lips are dirty. Scabbed.”
“That’s gross. And blasphemy.” I take our cups to the sink and rinse them, place them in the dishwasher. “I think I can see them glowing sometimes. Is that possible? Is it possible they’re actually glowing?”
For two weeks I’ve watched them. In a friendly and completely non-skulking way. It’s not that either of them is perfect. I haven’t yet found any physical flaws, but I assume they’re not perfect. Maybe he has thick coarse back hair, or a porn addiction, or something. She may have a secret moustache. She may wake up at four in the morning every day to tend to her secret moustache. I’m nothing if not a realist. It’s just that they just look so damn young. So untouched by anything. And more than that, they look as if they’re genuinely in love. It’s in the small things, the gestures: the neck kisses, the tilt of her head when she listens to him, the way he scoops up their daughter with such abandon when she runs out to greet him.
Their daughter. Oh dear God. Lacey. I thought it was Tracy at first—her mother never yells the name (obviously!), so it isn’t easy picking it up when I’m out killing things in the garden or standing by an open window. Clearly not a Tracy! She’s a china doll version of her mother, the same light blue eyes, the same perfect face but dimpled with baby fat. She can’t be older than four or five. By the tilt of her head and the way she watches the other neighborhood children from the shadows of the Bellamy porch, I can see she’s shy, quiet, unusually thoughtful. I’ve spotted her on the porch with a book in hand. A book! Probing little being of light.
“Is today the big day?” Mike asks.
He means the day I make contact. I introduced myself to Jasmine the day they moved in, walking past with Ernest Hemingway Junior, our miniature dachshund. But I haven’t yet gone over for a full-fledged conversation, the kind where she invites me in and we bond over petit fours and mimosas. Three times now I’ve been thwarted, by the weather and diabolical delivery people and not having any good reason to go over. “You think it’s funny. But she’s basically my best friend, only in the future, and we’re both denied our friendship here in the past, or rather the present. It’s like grief.”
I wave a dish towel at him. “If you lost your best friend, wouldn’t you grieve that you didn’t get to spend more time together, doing friend things? So why not also grieve that you didn’t spend more time together in the other direction, before you met?”
“Your logic,” he says.
He arches an eyebrow. “Just that. I’m trying to identify what that was.” He reaches an arm around my waist, leans down to place his mouth on my neck, tickling me with his stubble. The stubble is a new thing. He says it goes with the salt and pepper hair and the new wrinkles he’s “growing” around his eyes. Grizzled chic, he calls it. It’s an annoyingly good look for him.
“That doesn’t feel awful,” I admit, still looking out the window. David drives off, and Jasmine waits a few beats before turning her perfect butt in our direction, heads coolly back inside. My stomach flops.
“You taste good,” he murmurs.
“Like butter made from angels.”
Which makes me laugh.
My plan is to bring welcome brownies over sometime late in the morning, so I get started as soon as Mike leaves for work. I’ve never made brownies before but I find a recipe at DivineBrownieGoddess.com. DivineBrownieGoddess’s real name is Rachel, and she says it’s critical to use room temperature eggs, so I remove the egg carton from the fridge and leave it on the counter. This feels like progress, like I’m delegating work to the eggs. I have no idea how long it takes for eggs to get to room temperature, but in my supervisory capacity I imagine it takes an hour, so I open my laptop and place it on the kitchen island and get busy.
For the last few years I’ve been doing freelance editing of women’s erotica. Right now I’m editing Moon of the Black Wolf, a novel of forbidden werewolf love written by my friend Anna. We met at a writing workshop in the city. I was working on a novel about a woman who miscarries because she’s secretly an alcoholic. It was also a detective story and a buddy comedy. Anna’s story for the workshop was about a woman who one day tells her husband she can only get off if he dresses up for her. So he dresses up as Little Bo Peep, and then as Snow White, and then as the Little Match Girl, and she has mind-blowing orgasms. It turns out she’s discovered he’s having an affair and she’s getting revenge by asking him to dress up, but by the end they love the outfits and the orgasms so much they decide to stick together. Anna and I hit it off right away. When I abandoned my own novel a while later and conceded, at Mike’s urging, that I needed something to fill my time, I accepted Anna’s offer to edit the book she was trying to sell. She ended up with a three-book deal, and passed my name around to her erotica buddies as her editor of choice. It keeps me busy.
The chapter I’m editing includes “the big knotting scene,” according to Anna. I’m not familiar with the term so I have to look it up. In the writing group we talked a lot about verisimilitude. One writer in our group used to just say the word “verisimilitude” when he wanted to offer a criticism. He’d say it very seriously and with a good deal of self-satisfaction. Anna and I now say it all the time, for no reason, because we found it so entertaining.
For my abandoned novel, I attended AA meetings for two months so I could learn how alcoholics hide their drinking problems from spouses. One man said he’d pour vodka into water bottles and keep them in his office. He always kept the vodka in Dasani water bottles, he said, so he wouldn’t get them confused with the other bottles. Aquafina was for white rum. Poland Spring was just Poland Spring. I started drinking during the day just to see what it was like. It was a mild short-term alcoholism, for purposes of verisimilitude.
The knotting scene should gross me out more than it does. I make a few notes about the characters’ physical positioning in the scene, the improbability of the angles of insertion and so on, then trim the dialogue down. Anna gives me carte blanche on the dialogue. Overall it’s a solid chapter, though. Disgusting but solid.
I take a break to bond with Ernie. He’s eight now, and we should be closer. I think he mistrusts me because I once drove home from the dog park without him. I remembered quickly enough, but when I drove back I found him apart from the other dogs, eyeing the parking lot in a way that would have to be considered woeful. Mike had Ernie Senior when we first met, and when he passed on—that’s how we talked about it, as if the dog had advanced to a higher level of being—Mike thought getting a dog of my very own would be therapeutic. That was a year after the miscarriage. I think sometimes that Ernie knows he’s a double replacement dog. For Ernie Senior and for the baby I lost. Hard to live up to that, I imagine.
Ernie lets me rub his stomach as our bonding activity. After ten minutes of this, I remember the eggs, the brownies, and Jasmine Bellamy. Once the brownies are in the oven, I set the timer, go up to shower, then take my time straightening my hair and finding the right outfit, as well as a good angle in the mirror. Standing halfway behind the door seems best. I need something casual, but intelligent, but sexy, but effortless, but striking, but unremarkable. Something effortlessly glorious. Then I realize nothing in my closet will look anything but casual to Jasmine, which makes it easier.
An hour later I’m at her door, heart-shaped brownie plate in one hand and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot in the other. After ringing the bell I turn to look out at the cul-de-sac. Our house is the oldest of the six on the street, and the smallest, though still in my mind absurdly large. The place Mike and I had in Petworth, in the city, was 1,500 square feet, and you couldn’t open the refrigerator door if someone was standing behind you. But it was in the city. I could walk to the coffee shop. I could walk to the metro. I could, if I wanted, walk by the old Lincoln Cottage six blocks away. In my abandoned novel, my heroine is visited by the ghost of Mary Todd Lincoln, who—this is true—once sewed $56,000 of government bonds inside her petticoats, before her oldest and only surviving son had her committed to an asylum. I thought that would make my heroine seem quirky.
Inside the Bellamy house I hear noises, voices, but no one comes to the door. I ring the bell a second time. Through the sidelight I have a narrow clouded view of the great room. I know it’s the great room because I dragged Mike into the house one night when it was under construction. I think I see Lacey sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. The muffled sound I’m hearing could be her cries.
I should just leave. In thirty seconds I’ll leave.
Somewhere behind me a front door slams. Without turning I know it’s the blond-headed twin sons of one of the Jennifers, tearing out of the house at the end of the cul-de-sac. They start bouncing a basketball as loudly as I imagine it’s possible to bounce a basketball, and immediately their voices are joined by others, all boys. It sounds like a hail of rubber bullets, the summer afternoon coming under siege.
Jasmine slips into view behind the glass, dressed in yoga pants and a sleeveless top. She squats down, with her back to the door, to face her daughter. Talks to her in what I imagine is a soothing honey-soaked voice. I’m admiring her back muscles—marveling that there are such things as back muscles—when I watch her grip the little girl by the shoulders and shake her, twice, hard.
I turn quickly and leave, embarrassed by what I’ve seen.
At two o’clock Mike calls. He calls every day at two o’clock. I set aside Anna’s manuscript on the laptop and tell him what happened.
“So we have brownies at home,” is all he says.
“I threw them out. You’re funny.”
“Nobody knows anything,” he says.
It’s one of his lines, a Mike-ism. He says it to remind me not to read too much into anything. Because we can Never Really Know what’s going on in someone else’s life, in someone else’s head. Which I get. Obviously. Be generous with people, Mike says.
“I’m not saying anything,” I tell him. “I obviously don’t have experience raising children.”
“And yet,” he says, with terrible patience.
“It’s just that obviously she has problems. The girl.”
“Interesting,” Mike says.
“I mean yes, of course my initial thought was different. But then. Then I thought—you’d be proud of me—I thought, I shouldn’t just assume anything.”
“I’m always proud of you.”
“Sure. Anyway I thought, what if the little girl just has all these problems we don’t know about? As perfect as she looks? I mean, maybe she’s one of those kids who slams her head against the wall when you’re not looking.”
“That’s a thing?”
“Maybe. I believe it is.” I drum my fingers on the counter. “I mean I’m not sure, even if that were true, that you’d necessarily shake a kid as a solution.”
“Maybe her shoulders were out of alignment,” Mike suggests.
“You’re not even trying.” I sigh. “Home early?”
“Ish. Feed Ernie. Be good.”
At 6:30 Mike calls to say he’s running late and for me to eat without him. The thought of eating leftover vegetarian lasagna alone at the island saddens me, so I make myself two pieces of toast and pour a vodka tonic and stand by the kitchen window, looking out over the cul-de-sac. The Two Jennifers are on the sidewalk in front of the Bellamy house, talking with Jasmine. I should capitalize on the opportunity and go out to join them, introduce myself, but I don’t. For one thing, I can’t bring the brownies and champagne out with the Two Jennifers standing by—it would look as if I were trying to show them up. For another thing, they always look right through me. Or not through me exactly, but just over my shoulder, as if they’re keeping an eye on someone or something far more interesting fifty feet behind me and to the left. It’s an odd phenomenon that began a few months after the miscarriage. First they took pity on me, and then, when they discovered I had no interest in getting pregnant again, they simply moved on. Or maybe I was left behind. When I was around them I felt as if I were dead, as if my ghost were only flickering at the edge of their vision.
For my writing group I wrote a short story called “Dead Woman,” about a woman named Marie who haunts various houses in her neighborhood. She stands in hallways and watches her neighbors sleep, looks over their belongings, has some encounters with family pets, touches things to mark her presence. Moves things around just a little. I was here, she thinks. I was alive here, once. The twist is she’s not actually a ghost. She thinks she is, but really she has a neurological disorder called Cotard’s syndrome. I’d read a story about a soldier in England who had it. He slowly starved himself because he thought he was already dead, and therefore had no reason to eat. So I afflicted Marie with Cotard’s syndrome. She’d also had a miscarriage, but it wasn’t relevant to the story. I had her crawl in one house through a doggy door in the back, an idea I found in an online forum for reformed burglars to share security tips. I tested the idea out on a house down the street when the family was away on vacation, just to make sure it would really work. In the story that’s when you realize something’s going on with Marie, when she’s shimmying through the doggy door in her pajamas. That’s when you’re like: What the fuck, Marie. Then the family who lives in the house wakes up and finds her hovering in the kitchen. The kids start screaming. Marie thinks they’re afraid of her because she’s a ghost. That’s the funny part of the story. The writing group said I needed more humor. Fear me not, she wails, fear me not, my children. Waving her arms spookily/comically. The police arrive and Marie slips away and sneaks out the back door. But the police have the place surrounded, and when she comes outside they shine a massive spotlight on her. She still thinks she’s a ghost so she ignores them when they tell her to freeze, and keeps walking toward the light. So they shoot her and kill her. (“The story ends a little abruptly” was the common thread in the criticism from the writing group.)
Outside, one of the Jennifers points to each of the houses on the cul-de-sac in turn, while Jasmine listens, smiles, nods, says nothing. When the Jennifer’s arm swings around and points in the direction of our house, I slink back from the window and carry my drink and my toast to the other room.
Later Mike and I lay together on the sofa and I let him rub my feet while we watch Home Dream Home. Mike likes the show because he says it gives him ideas for our retirement. I like the show because the couples always have amusing and inexplicable jobs. Tonight, a couple from Portland, Oregon, is looking for a home on Bali. The husband from Portland designs grandfather clocks. His wife runs a meditation center for troubled cats. They’re looking to spend no more than $2.5 million.
I ask him if he’s heard from Tina lately. Immediately I regret it, and I apologize.
“Where’d that come from?” he asks in the space that follows. He stops rubbing my feet but keeps his hands on me. This isn’t a fight, is what he’s saying.
“The cat thing,” I say. Tina had a cat, or perhaps still has one. That’s how I found out. Mike kept coming home covered in cat hairs. It was two years after the miscarriage. They never fucked, he said. It was just an emotional affair, an emotional affair that included him being around her cat. I think, looking back, he wanted to be caught. Not to get out of the marriage, but to make something change. I told him that made sense. I knew it hadn’t been easy. I hadn’t been easy. He said he loved me and wanted to make it work, and he hated the thought that he’d broken my heart. You didn’t, I said, and somehow that was true, though it was terrible to say. Not long after, I began writing a story about a married woman named Etta who gives a blowjob to a stranger outside a bar. She doesn’t know why. Then she goes home and has great sex with her husband. The sex is explicitly rendered. I mean, I didn’t just say “she had great sex with her husband.” The word cock gets thrown around a lot. Etta decides she likes it, the thrill of the secret blowjob and how she feels afterward and the incredible marital sex. She doesn’t really know why. I figured I’d discover the reason as I wrote the story, or that in the end it wouldn’t matter. My plan was for her to start placing personal ads to find men during the day. I hadn’t gone down on Mike in quite a while at that point—it just seemed to fall off the regular rotation after the miscarriage and everything—so to research the story, I created an online ad saying I was a married woman looking to give oral pleasure. I just wanted to see what the responses would be like, how men would describe themselves and try to stand out. I began corresponding with a man named Frank, or at least he told me his name was Frank. I told him my name was Clementine. Frank said he had an average-sized penis, was in a sexless marriage, and did renaissance faire reenactments every other weekend in the summer, which I found charmingly stupid. I wanted to understand the logistics of how it might work, so we planned a meeting. He suggested we meet at a park, a park they used for reenactments, during one of the off-weeks. He said maybe I could go down on him in his car while he kept lookout. I agreed. I wasn’t planning to go. But then I decided it was important to know what my character would be thinking as she drove to give this person a blowjob, if she would be nervous, or excited, or guilt-ridden, or all or none of those things. But I also knew I wasn’t going to do anything, so it was hard to know if I had verisimilitude there. I decided I’d get in the car with Frank, which was risky, but also the only true way to inhabit my character. Once I was in the car (I imagined all this, on my way to the park) I’d tell him I was really a writer, and apologize, and that would be that. There was the possibility I might have to put him in my mouth for a few seconds as a show of good faith. I decided that would be fine as long as it went absolutely no further. I pulled into the park and waited for an hour, but Frank never showed up. I never ended up writing that story. I was going to call it “The Head Mistress.”
On television, the grandfather clock designer and the cat therapist are discussing if they can make it work even though the master bedroom’s walk-in closet is inadequate.
“You know I love you,” Mike says. Rubbing my feet again.
I close my eyes. “I know it,” I tell him. And the thing is, it’s true. I do know it. I really do.
. . .
Later in the week I have lunch with Anna and we talk through Moon of the Black Wolf. I tell her I’m starting to like the werewolf but I can’t figure out yet if I’m supposed to like the heroine.
“Do you have to like her?” she asks.
We’re sitting at an outside table at a restaurant near the old house at Petworth, drinking mimosas. Anna is younger than me, with good skin and wonderful fake boobs, but she also has hard lines around her mouth and eyes, which she calls divorce lines. She says she could pay to remove them but she doesn’t. Her eyes look bright and young, though. They look merry. Right now they’re hidden behind dark sunglasses which reflect my own dark sunglasses back at me.
I shrug. “You know your audience.”
“I know nothing,” she says.
The server comes past and I tip the champagne glass, say I’ll have a second. Anna lowers her sunglasses as the server walks away, notes, “I think that’s three. I add because I care.”
I move lettuce from one side of the salad bowl to the other, then go to work separating the walnuts and the bean sprouts. “I’ve been baking lately,” I tell her. “Well not really. But I might start.”
“That’s fascinating. So, hey. Dawn wanted me to ask you again. About the thing.”
Dawn’s her editor. Her real editor, I mean, at the publishing house. The thing is a part-time job.
“Ask me again in a year,” I say. “Five years. Tell Dawn to keep the seat warm for me for five years.”
“Just think it might be good.”
“Might be, sure.” I accept the drink from the server, then lean forward to say, “My plate is full right now, is the thing. My salad bowl is full.”
“I see that.” Anna sits back and appraises me silently, draws conclusions, fills gaps in the negative space between us, and then moves on in a span of a few seconds. “Well. How do I get you to like my heroine then?”
“Show me,” I say, “that she’s got a good heart.”
. . .
Clouds are rolling in by the time I get to my car in the parking lot, and it’s raining as I leave the city. I pull into the cul-de-sac and as I do, I see Lacey Bellamy standing on the corner in the rain, soundlessly crying.
After parking the car, I grab an umbrella and retrieve the girl. She takes my hand and lets me walk her to the covered porch. Leaning down and pulling my head close to hers so she can hear me above the rain, I ask her where her mother is. She tells me she doesn’t know, gathering panicked lungfuls of breath between each syllable. I place my hand on the doorknob and twist. The door swings open.
“Let’s go inside and wait for her to come back,” I say.
The house is predictably gorgeous. Dark hardwood floors, cavernous stone fireplace, Sub Zero and Wolf in a kitchen of glittering steel. I follow Lacey to the living room and we sit amidst her books and toys. I ask her questions to distract her but she refuses to answer, only sets about the task of arranging a sort of domestic diorama on the floor, Barbie in a glittering black-and-gold gown rocking a baby panda to sleep in its crib.
There’s a thumping above us. Lacey and I both stop and look toward the ceiling. Seconds later, Jasmine comes down. She’s dressed in sweats and a tank top. Her hair is pulled back and her face is red and puffy, as if she’s been crying. Or sleeping.
“Oh my god,” she says.
Rising to my feet, I say, “She couldn’t find you, that’s all.”
“Bad,” Lacey says, her body tense, her small voice almost a whisper.
“I’m Kay. From across the street. Welcome to the neighborhood.” I’m aware of how ridiculous this sounds. “Look, I should go.” Behind me, I hear Lacey’s feet pad across the rug back to the sofa.
“I’m sorry,” Jasmine says, though I’m not sure if she’s speaking to me or to her daughter. She leans back for a moment against the wall, and I can see her mentally drawing a breath. Even in her sweats, even sleep-addled—or is it something else?—she’s stunning. “Fuck,” she adds. “Having a day, you know. You ever have one of those?”
I nod. “Couple years’ worth.”
That brings a wary smile. Up close, I can see she’s younger than I thought. The makeup—and her height, and her figure, and her attractiveness—hides her youth.
“I’m not doing anything right now,” I say. “If you need a break, I mean.” Which I realize must sound offensive, coming from someone she doesn’t know.
Jasmine starts to say something, which I’m guessing will be What the hell does that mean? But she stops herself, and looks down at the floor, and then puts her hands on her head and looks back at me. Studies me, or herself. “Okay,” she says.
. . .
“Show me what you got,” I say to Lacey.
We’re upstairs in Lacey’s bedroom while Jasmine sleeps on the sofa. After a half-hour of reading aloud—she reads better than most of the adults in my old writing group—Lacey is now giving me a comprehensive tour of her dollhouse, a two-story Arts and Crafts number with a wraparound porch and gazebo in the back. It’s the size of my first apartment out of college. We lie on the floor beside the dollhouse and discuss what they’re doing inside, and Lacey suggests that maybe they’re lying on the floor together too, the dollhouse people, looking into an even smaller dollhouse.
“And inside that dollhouse?” I ask.
“Even smaller one,” she says quietly, eyes wide. Then she freezes as a thought strikes her, and she sits up straight and looks toward her bedroom window.
“Worth checking,” I say. We both stand and go to the window, but we see no giant eyeballs looking in on us.
“Yeah, worth checking,” she says. Ruefully, I think. She takes my hand and leads me back down to the floor.
I ask if she has a secret name.
“What’s a secret name?”
“A name,” I say, “that you wish you had but you don’t. I had one as a little girl.”
Her eyes are saucers of aquamarine. “Can you tell me?”
“Technically no. I mean, it’s a secret, right? But I’m old now so I can tell you. It was Clementine.”
She laughs. It’s a light airy sound, like bells ringing in some farther room.
“It’s true. My dad used to sing this song about a girl named Clementine, and I thought it sounded pretty. It’s what I told my dolls to call me.”
“And did they?” she asks.
I nod. “Otherwise, you know—I had to pop their heads off.” Which makes her laugh again, and her laughter makes me laugh.
Jasmine opens the door some time later. She walks me downstairs to the door, gives me a quick hug. She smells like vanilla and honeysuckle.
“Thank Miss Kay,” she tells her daughter.
Lacey waves me down, so I crouch low until we’re face to face. She cups her delicate hand to her mouth and whispers in my ear. “Charlotte,” she says. “My secret name is Charlotte.”
. . .
The next day, Jasmine waves to me from the porch as I’m finishing a walk with Ernie. Lacey, seeing the dog, runs down the steps to greet him.
“She keeps asking for one,” Jasmine says, a little later. We’re sitting on the porch while Lacey rolls on the grass with the dog.
“I’ll ask Ernie if he’s available.”
There’s no trace of the Jasmine I saw yesterday. Gone is the helplessness, the sense of disorder about her. Her hair, her face, her summer clothes—everything is put together. She looks at ease. Not only with her body but with everything. Seeing her on the porch, long legs catching the sunlight, I’m struck by how well she fits here. I’d thought she didn’t belong in this neighborhood, just as I don’t belong, but I see now that I was wrong.
“I want to apologize,” she says, dropping her voice so Lacey won’t overhear. “Just about yesterday. About the way I was. And you—you were great.”
I shrug this off. “The kid’s easy. And sweet.”
“Easy,” she says, and I can’t tell if she’s agreeing with me or not. Then: “Guess I’ll be the talk of the town now.” She tilts her head at me for a moment, then looks away. “Sorry. Just seems like the kind of neighborhood where things get around.”
“You mean the Jennifers.” When she looks a question at me, I say: “The blondes.”
She smiles at this. “Oh. I thought one of them was named, like, Janelle?”
“But which one?” I ask. “I can never remember.”
She laughs, and it’s the same bell-like laugh of her daughter’s. “I think I like you,” she says, leaning back again in the chair.
“Then it’s all going according to plan.”
Now Lacey is leading Ernie, or being led by Ernie, in a high-speed chase around and around the cherry tree in the center of the front yard.
“She really is a great kid,” says Jasmine. “She just gets anxious sometimes. Wandering outside in the rain—that’s new. My fault. I should’ve… I don’t know why it’s hard sometimes.”
“Everyone gets tired,” I say.
“Not everyone hides in the guest room to take a nap.”
I’m not sure what the response to this might be, so I let it sit there between us.
“Can I tell you something?” Her voice, now, is even lower. She’s still cool, still in control, but she isn’t looking at me. “I didn’t want a baby,” she says. “I was twenty. Jesus.”
I nod, though she isn’t looking my way. “Tough situation.”
She shakes her head. “It’s selfish. But then, then. You know how you’re supposed to just fall for the kid when she’s born? I just—didn’t. I love her, you know. I swear I do. But I didn’t feel that thing you’re supposed to feel.” She looks me, finally, in the eye. “How bad is that? To say that.”
“Why did you tell me?”
She hesitates, chews her bottom lip. “Because you don’t have kids. I know that sounds awful.”
“Couldn’t have kids,” I say. “I have an incompetent cervix. So I’m told.”
“Oh.” She blinks. “Oh, I didn’t mean—it’s only that I heard. Well.”
I never told them, the Jennifers, that I couldn’t have children. I told them I didn’t want any. That I was relieved after the miscarriage. I don’t know why. To upset them, maybe. To distance myself from them. Their pity bothered me. And anyway, couldn’t it be two things? Couldn’t I be barren, or hopelessly damaged, and also have no interest in having children?
I suggest a babysitter. They can obviously afford one.
“David’s against it. He says that wasn’t the deal. First five years are critical. Formative.” She pulls her legs up under her on the chair, and just like that she looks like a teenager. “Besides, she’s great. You said it. Easy. I just get tired.”
In the yard, Lacey is flat on her back, exhausted. The dog licks her face, making her laugh.
In the evening, Mike sits doing work on his laptop while I stretch out on the sofa and drink and watch Home Dream Home. (He’s a puppeteer. She designs leotards for little people. Their budget is a cool $3,000,000.) I tell him I talked with Jasmine. He doesn’t know about yesterday’s babysitting adventure.
“And?” he asks. “Was it everything you’d hoped?”
He’s joking, but there’s something less than charitable in his voice tonight, a sneaky indifferent cruelty that I’m probably only imagining. Maybe he’s tired.
“She’s just young,” I say. “Younger than I thought. A sweet kid.”
“Should invite them for dinner,” he says.
“I should,” I say. I sip my wine, and play with my loose tooth. It’s on the left side, on the bottom. I should see someone about it but I haven’t yet. I mean I can’t imagine it’s a good thing to have a loose tooth at my age. I can’t imagine the dentist saying there’s nothing to worry about there. Later, before the bathroom mirror, I try out my smile to see how it would look without the tooth. I decide I’ll have to alter my smile. Nothing drastic. Just a more low-key version. A forty-five watt smile. Mike may notice, or he may not. He may just think it’s a sign of my advancing age, like sagging breasts or far-sightedness. A winding-down of my smile.
As I fall asleep I think about the things Jasmine told me on the porch. I picture the four of us standing by the kitchen island, hanging out, cocktails in hand, while Lacey rolls on the floor with Ernie. I imagine David laying his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it, while he tells some story about their trip last year to Venice. Mike, touching my hair as he goes past to check the oven, letting his fingers slide across my waist as he tells his own story about the time we got lost in Florence in the rain, leaving out everything in the story that mattered. Both men, laying claim.
. . .
Later, in bed, we have great sex. I think it’s great sex. In any case I’m very vocal. To turn myself on I try to imagine Anna’s sexy werewolf, but instead I keep picturing Etta, from my story, running out the back door into a spray of police gunfire. I say Oh God a lot.
“Okay,” Mike says, in the dark, when it’s over. “That was interesting.”
“Interesting good?” I ask. Then I realize if I have to ask, it’s probably not good. “Sorry. Tired I guess.”
“Just talk to me,” he says.
“Oh, Mike.” I turn toward him, though we’re both invisible to each other. “Haven’t we talked everything out?” I try to say it tenderly.
He says, “We can’t change things by wishing for them, love.”
I put my hand on his cheek, rough and warm. “Can’t we?” I ask.
“Ah, babe.” He sighs and rolls over.
Once, I wished to not be pregnant, and then I wasn’t any more. The doctors said it might have been, probably was, congenital—my incompetent cervix. Mike believed that. I didn’t tell him the truth, that I’d made it happen, until much later. This was after Tina. I told him I was sorry. My magic was weak, I told him. Like my cervix. That’s why, though I’d only wished for this one thing to die, everything else was poisoned too.
. . .
The place we had in Petworth was small, but it had a private garden in the back, with a stone bench in which two gargoyles had been carved on either side. I could never grow anything—it was all just wildflowers and weeds after the first season we moved in—but I liked sitting out there on the gargoyle bench, reading. An overgrown hedgerow shielded the garden from the neighbors. Because you stepped down into the garden, and it was hidden as it was, Mike called it my hollow. Kay’s Hollow.
We sold the place to a younger couple who already had a child of their own. The Bradfords. They tore out the hedgerow as soon as they moved in, and made a proper vegetable garden. They got rid of the stone bench, too. After a few years they had another child, too. And they got a dog. Now they have a perfect little family of four, plus the dog, and they’re still living there, which is how I know the house was always big enough for us.
At least once a week I drive by to see if it looks any different. Newspapers are piled on the front step this week. They vacation at Cape Cod for two weeks at the end of every summer. One of our old neighbors told me.
I pretend, sometimes, that they are us, or we are them.
. . .
As August moves on, I see Jasmine more. We don’t become best friends. We don’t drink mimosas and eat petit fours. But we talk. She talks, mostly, and I listen. She’s lovely and effortlessly sensual and pleasingly honest, and I find myself rapidly losing interest. She asks me to help sometimes with Lacey, and I’m happy to oblige.
I make my way through Anna’s novel. Turns out the werewolf isn’t a werewolf. He’s not a man who occasionally becomes a wolf but a wolf who occasionally becomes—terribly—a man, and when he lies dying at the end, he’s revealed in his lovely natural lupine form. When I get to the end, I cry for twenty minutes. Then I pour myself a drink.
Two o’clock passes, and the phone doesn’t ring.
. . .
“What do you miss the most?” I asked Mike, once.
We were sitting on the deck of a house we’d rented at Lake Anna, early evening on the last day of a good trip we took last fall.
“About what?” he asked.
“Who we were.”
Maybe it was the light going down. The way the shadows of the tall trees around the lake fell across us both. He looked old to me then, in that moment. That’s why I asked him the question. I loved him still. But in his face I thought I saw all the ghosts of the men he’d once been, and I wondered.
His eyes tracked me through the shadows as if he could read my thoughts.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, and if he had a smile on his face, I couldn’t see it. “We used to be,” he said, “our favorite subject.”
I don’t know why I remember that now. But it’s what comes to mind in the silence of the two o’clock phone call that doesn’t come. The phone calls were Mike’s idea, or the therapist’s idea, I don’t remember now. To rebuild trust. I said I didn’t need them, didn’t want them, and anyway he’d get tired of it eventually.
I open my laptop and take notes for a story. In the story, a woman’s teeth are all falling out. One by one. She’s a mother, with many children. She hides the truth from her husband, who is amazing, because with each tooth she loses, the lives of their children get better. Bonnie makes first violin chair, Duke loses his stutter, Elizabeth’s rosacea clears up. Etc. Meanwhile she has this sandwich bag full of teeth she’s hiding. She goes to the doctor and he says it won’t end there. He means it won’t end with the teeth. He shows her a picture of what she’ll become, and the picture is of an old hag. Thin brittle hair, a mole on her chin, a long hair growing out of the mole on her chin, a stooped back. The works. So she says to the doctor, Fix me, and he says, It’ll cost you. Like, for each tooth he replaces, or any time he gives her back something she’s lost, something bad has to happen to her husband or to one of the kids. She thinks about it for a long time. Then she says, Well, how bad exactly? That’s the kicker. That’s when you’re like, Fuuuuuuuck.
I don’t know what any of it means, or if it has to mean anything. I don’t know how she feels about her children, or why her teeth are falling out in the first place, or why her amazing husband doesn’t notice. Who wouldn’t notice his wife turning into a hag?
I close the file without saving it, and then I call Anna.
“What is it?” she asks. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I say. “I finished your book.”
“Okay, you sound weird. Why do you sound weird?”
I feel some sob building up in me that won’t ever, can’t ever be released. It’s not even a sob. It might be laughter. I can’t tell. “I get like this,” I tell her, “at the end of things.”
. . .
August winds down. The summer is dying away. It feels like it will be the last one, though I know it won’t be. I think that every summer.
Maybe it’s only that this morning felt different from other mornings. It’s the little things. The quotidian details, as we used to say in the writing group. The new lines suddenly visible around my eyes in the mirror. The way my hand shook when I poured a vodka and orange juice. The fact that Mike’s hand didn’t linger on my shoulder before he left for work.
I’m writing up my final notes on Anna’s manuscript but having trouble concentrating. Because of this being the end of everything. I set my notes aside, sip from the Aquafina bottle, and watch the shadows creep down the kitchen wall as the sun rises in the sky.
In my novel, the one I didn’t finish, the heroine’s name is Kate. Kate is riddled with guilt because of the miscarriage. She loves her husband but she keeps the truth from him, the truth that she killed their child. Then most of the novel is about Kate having these different adventures, surrounded by quirky characters. You sort of forget about the miscarriage and the alcoholism and all that. It’s just fun, and you like Kate. She’s endearing. You think she’s on a quest, and you want her to be happy. But really she’s about to hit rock bottom. That was my plan, at least. The novel faded away. I didn’t get very far. But I had this big final scene in mind. I was going to have her survive all her adventures and then come home to her husband, and tell him some ridiculous lie to explain where she’s been the whole book. And miraculously, stupidly, he believes her. Or maybe he doesn’t believe her, but he accepts what she tells him. She can see that all he cares about is that she’s home. Because he loves her, see. And you think: Everything will be okay. Her secrets are safe. It’s undeserved, it’s completely undeserved, but as the reader you don’t care—I want you not to care—because you want it to work out. Oh, how you want it to work out. Kate’s husband goes off to work. She sits alone on the sofa for a while—I was going to really drag this part out, to up the tension—and then she all of a sudden gets up. Starts drinking. Drinks all day, just sitting there in the living room. She leaves the empty bottles of vodka and white rum on the coffee table. She hauls out her secret Dasani water bottles and drains them, throws them on the floor. Then she calls her husband and tells him to come home. She starts to black out and she thinks: This must be the end. I was going to end it with the sound of the garage door opening.
My phone buzzes. I need you. From Jasmine.
I sit, for a while, listening to my breathing. It doesn’t sound like mine. It sounds like an old woman’s breathing. I force myself to breathe like myself again, easily, capriciously. Then I walk across the street, and put my arms around Jasmine, and tell her everything will be fine, and send her off to bed. When the door closes, I join Lacey in her room. We talk about the Little Prince and whether Ernie can see rainbows and what clouds might taste like. I ask if she wants to do errands with me, and she says yes.
We stop at the bank, then the dry cleaners. We grab frozen yogurt in Clarendon, and then stop for lunch—Mediterranean salads with French fries. It’s warm outside but not humid. Clouds glide across the azure sky. I wonder if it’ll be the last perfect day of the summer—because there will be a last perfect day, there always is, though we never know it until it’s gone.
After lunch we drive to the grocery store, and I tell Lacey she can pick out anything she likes, her favorite things. When we’re back in the car, I ask if she wants to play a game, and she nods eagerly.
“For this game,” I say, “you will be Charlotte. And who will I be?”
She doesn’t hesitate. “Clementine,” she says, beaming.
It takes fifteen minutes to get to the old house. She talks nonstop, and though I’m listening to her and responding, I’m listening, too, for something else. For some signal. From what or whom I couldn’t say. But I only feel lighter and lighter as the streets grow more familiar. There is no signal. By the time I find a parking spot around the corner from the house, I feel weightless. Like a girl myself.
I lead her around back, carrying the grocery bags. Through the gated fence and past the garden to a patio of dry-laid stone. The doggy door is too small for me now, but not for a four-year-old girl. She crawls through, grunting and giggling, as I watch for neighbors. Her feet slip through and then a second later the door swings open.
We explore together. Though I lived here once, it feels new again, and not only because the walls have been painted and the furniture replaced. Charlotte takes my hand. We talk in whispers at first, as we try out the sofa and the two small chairs in the living room, and look over the books on the shelves, and run our hands along the smooth granite counter in the galley kitchen, and delight in the miniature scalloped soaps and the mermaid-themed hand towels in the second bath. But her favorite room is the small second bedroom where the two Bradford girls sleep. It’s less than half the size of her room at the Bellamy house, but hand-painted vines climb the pale lavender walls and ceiling, and rose petals float lazily on an imaginary breeze. She lies on one of the beds and sighs. “I wish,” she says, “we could stay here.”
We open all the windows in the house. Sounds as familiar as an old sweatshirt are carried into the house on the afternoon breeze—distant car horns, screen doors closing, music from a passing car, a far-off siren. Charlotte joins me in the kitchen to help with the brownies. I hold the eggs in my hands and wonder if they’re warm enough. They are, I think. They must be. We slide the brownies in the oven and wait. While we wait, she tells me her secrets, and I tell her mine. Not all, though. Not all.
Here’s a secret I don’t tell. A few months ago I came out of the bedroom and overheard Mike on the phone with his sister, Jen. I knew it was Jen because Mike wasn’t saying much, but now and then I heard him say, Yeah, I think you made your point. The first time I ever talked with Jen, when I came to Mike’s parents’ house for Thanksgiving a few months after we started dating, she pulled me aside to tell me how rough a time it had been for Mike. His ex had left him for a crossfit trainer and was married and pregnant within a year. The point is you can’t break my little brother’s fucking heart. She’d been drinking a lot when we had this talk.
From the top of the staircase I heard Mike’s half of the conversation:
Maybe, I don’t know.
I never said that.
And then, after a seriously long pause:
Because she’s got a good heart.
I walked away after that. I thought of asking him about it, but I didn’t. It couldn’t be something I wanted to hear. To have a good heart is to be secretly good, to be redeemable in some way invisible to the eye or the mind. And because! That’s what killed me. That’s an answer to another question, one I didn’t, then, wish to know.
The afternoon slips quietly away. I remember Ernie, who hasn’t been fed, and I turn my phone on briefly. Dozens of messages come through. Without reading any of them, I turn the phone off and set it aside, and watch Charlotte as she sleeps beneath an afghan on the sofa. The light’s starting to fall. I settle into the chair beside her and close my eyes. I’m tired.
I think: Something, now, will happen.
A sharp sound wakes me. A car backfiring. I check the time and see it’s grown late. The lights in the house are all off, but in the twilight I’m able to make my way to the sideboard and find candles and matches. I light two candles and bring them with me back to the living room, where Charlotte is stirring. She sits up in the flickering darkness and begins to cry.
“We’re still playing the game,” I tell her. “Just a little longer, Charlotte. First we’ll have dinner.”
I think: He’ll come. He must come.
If he comes, it’s because he understands everything. How can he not understand?
Sirens wail in the distance, then come closer, and closer still. My body tenses, then eases as the sound changes pitch and begins to fade.
“I’m afraid,” whispers Charlotte.
I take her hand. “So am I,” I tell her. “But it won’t be long.”
In her small hand I think I can feel her pulse, racing wildly. But it’s my own heart I feel. I can almost hear it beat, trace its restless movement, an animal thrashing in its cage.
A car approaches. I let out a deep breath, not knowing I’ve been holding it in all this time, as the car’s headlamps sweep across the walls of the dark room, and fill them with light.