It was Kurt’s turn to host the neighborhood playgroup, and he felt uneasy as he located the Equal packets behind the sugar bowl. The women attending his little gala – his nascent fête – were all women who discussed him. He was a topic. He was the man who stayed home. At the playground mothers stepped away from him to husband-bash, then returned to ask, coyly, “So, what do you do?” As if the set of baby swings, missives filled with his progeny, were merely a cover for some stunning and mysterious profession. When he admitted he was a “stay-at-home,” the women went from thinking him exotic for being on the playground at eleven a.m. to cocking their heads with pity. It only slightly helped to think he was lumped in with the other schmucks who’d lost their jobs in the downturn.
Kurt put himself on mind-numbing autopilot: cleaning the kitchen and playroom, stashing piles of clutter in laundry baskets, washing dirt streaks off the bar of soap in the bathroom. When things were presentable, he cradled sleeping three-month old Paige – in her one ridiculous French outfit, deliberately washed but not ironed – in the crook of his arm while he and Ian started a wooden Pooh puzzle. Ian kept trying to jam pieces together that obviously didn’t fit. Ian knew the pieces didn’t fit, but he wanted them to fit very badly, and the angrier Ian got, the harder he tried to make his anger into something that would change the way things worked.
They put the puzzle away. A house cleaned for no reason was depressing to Kurt, that crisply toxic Pine-Sol oblivion. They sang Twinkle Twinkle in heavy metal; they misted the plants, somewhat inaccurately; they did superball tricks in the kitchen involving the refrigerator magnets and ceiling fan.
Then, right when he thought they wouldn’t, the women arrived. Babies yowled in bucket car seats and toddlers clung to legs and sucked their thumbs, and suddenly Kurt had nine women standing in his kitchen: low-slung-jeans, overstuffed diaper bags, and assorted states of recovering blond (you can’t dye your hair during pregnancy, Kurt had learned, and not from his wife), extracting themselves from jackets and baby slings. They furtively studied the interior of his boxy, almost-new colonial – just like theirs – studded with toddler art projects, books stacked on the floors (art within art, Abbey liked to say, fanning the piles), and a series of damp and moldy-looking terrariums in plastic cups he and Ian had been creating to fend off the doom of impending winter. There was little remarkable about the house, inside or out, and Kurt preferred it that way. He tried to forgive his neighbors their massive Childlife swingsets, lawn services, velvet window treatments and the general heaviness of people who have everything they want but nothing they really need. Abbey said anyone with half a load of self-respect or iota of creativity wouldn’t keep house the way they did: the original blazing white paint job, the cheap pine crap they had adored in their youth. The way Kurt saw it: this was a house full of love. In more honest flashes, he was grateful to Abbey for not insisting her house reflect the level of refinement and prestige she had at work. He wasn’t sure he’d do the same if the situation were reversed, but he’d squandered his own long stab at a career.
Jessica, Mia, Deb, Lorie, Shelly, Tova, Kate, Justine and Ruthie: full attendance. They gripped his forearms and called him Honey until Kurt felt like the gag gift that has unexpectedly reappeared in an inappropriate place. Edible underwear at your mother-in-law’s birthday party; a vegetarian at an NRA convention; a man in a woman’s playgroup. He lagged behind to start more coffee as the children dragged their mothers off to find the toys they knew to be lurking. Playgroups were invented as a social outlet for mothers; to the children, the sharing issues and sudden blasé treatment made them act like heads of rival states, and all eventually resorted to primitive self-preservation tactics like hitting and biting.
“Let me see,” Mia said, lingering in the kitchen with him, clapping her hands to take Paige.
Kurt reluctantly gave up the baby.
“How is Abbey?” Mia asked, brushing Paige’s cheek with her finger. “I wish she was around more.” She stuck her nose into Paige’s neck.
“Busy. Her client base is expanding a little fast.”
“What does she do, again?”
Kurt paused. What did his wife do? She drove forty-five minutes into the city dressed in fine three-season wool, bought her lunch at a Vietnamese noodle shop, was always clean, made more money than he had ever contemplated, sat through meetings with would-be clients who bragged about how many millions in seed money they’d squandered, and never arrived home before 7 PM. He shrugged. “She’s in finance.”
Mia turned. “My husband’s in finance, too.”
Kurt hooked his eyes on Mia’s, and they laughed. She had short brown hair, darker brown eyes, and wore enigmatic Chinese silk-screened shirts that showed off her breasts and the thin map of her collarbones. She nursed her children well past age two, but didn’t flaunt it. Mia made no effort to dress herself up; she wore clothes appropriate for paint, snowball injuries and vomit.
Paige woke and spit up, and Mia wiped it on her yoga pants.
“I want to ask your opinion,” she said, pertinently looking at the baby.
Abbey had chided him that morning for his nerves, joking that the women wanted him only to figure out what sports’ equipment to get their husbands for Christmas. He had squelched his response in order not to start an argument, one that would merely highlight his own insecurities. He had watched Abbey zip out of the driveway in the Infiniti – he drove the minivan, a car single-handedly designed to make you feel trapped in practicality, despite its splendid remote control sliding doors and heated seats – watching the way she smoothed her silk skirt beneath her so it wouldn’t get wrinkled, her coffee thermos in its slot, her mind neatly untangling itself from him and the children.
Mia herself was a Tuck MBA with seven years experience as a biotech CIO. Now she had three children under the age of four, chose unglamorous volunteer work (books on tape for the blind, town recycling initiatives) and showed off her elasticity at the gymnastics class their children shared. She was known for eschewing babysitters because at nine dollars an hour for a fourteen year old “they had better clean my house, too”.
“So,” Mia the Tuck MBA said. “Tova told me you used to be a cop.”
“She did?” Kurt felt socked in the stomach. They had lived in this town for three years, and his past life had never come up.
Mia cooed at the baby. “Let me get to the point. I’m being stalked. Any ideas on what I should do from here would be appreciated. Particularly from someone who has seen this kind of thing. I mean, you have, haven’t you?”
“You’re being stalked?” Kurt played his best shocked civilian self. Tova! He looked around for her, for anyone hiding, watching him.
Mia continued, waving her hands in the air. “Someone I didn’t like at work. Or let me put it another way: someone I didn’t like back. Remember I quit three years ago.”
“Define stalked.” Kurt tried to half-listen to her answer, fussing with the coffee machine.
“He follows me in the car. I have children in the car. He tailgates, he mouths things. If I leave my car doors unlocked, he leaves me notes. Once I found one wrapped around my toothbrush. So I guess he was in my house. He’s not dangerous, but he’s obviously got some sort of derangement issue. Some sort of obsession.”
“He’s not dangerous? What do the notes say?” A lascivious hunger rose in him, keen and familiar, that he wanted to punch in the face.
Mia shrugged, leaned back on her heels. “Mostly nothing. Like, I love that red sweater! I love the way you move in it. Suggestive and sophomoric and really dumb. It’s kind of flattering, to tell you the truth. I always look like shit. But ultimately, guys like this are the ones who end up pathetic and unmarried and unloved, because they never make it past bar games and rating women based on the size of their–“ She looked at Kurt. “They’re the kind of guys who make you feel hot. Right? The kind you wind up with for one night and regret it the rest of your life.”
Kurt swallowed. “Does Drew know?”
“He thinks it’s funny. Isn’t it cute how the twenty-six year old likes Mia! Look at how he grovels! Look what he can never have! He says it’s a little fantasy I’ve indulged myself in to relieve the monotony of being at home. It’s not my fantasy! No – it’s his! Wanting what someone else wants, right? And that’s not even the sad part. You want to know what the sad part is?”
Kurt could imagine the sad part, yes he could.
“I’ve led him on. I’ve done it by not being more aggressive in telling him to cut it out, and now I’m getting kind of scared. He’s not acting like the kid I knew. It’s like I knew him and it was cute, and then it got more like breaking and entering, and now I’m afraid he’ll be waiting for me sometime when I get home. He’s a big guy. Drew teases me because I’ve been setting the alarm! I feel trapped.”
Kurt wondered what was wrong with Mia’s husband. “Take out a restraining order. It’s a formal deterrent. Or you can press charges for harassment.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Mia sighed dismissively.
“You asked for advice. He’ll back off if you do it, trust me. What’s his name?”
“Bo.” She giggled nervously.
“Sometimes a guy like Bo really doesn’t understand what he’s doing, he doesn’t see it as compulsion until he gets the order. Embarrassment is like guilt. No one else can make you feel it, but nevertheless when it bubbles up it can be an effective tool.”
She sighed. “Bo wouldn’t know what embarrassed is.”
“You’d be surprised. That kind of guy thrives on power, what’s he going to feel when it’s taken away? When his little game is found out?”
“What if it just pushes him over the edge? What if I wind up dead?”
Dead? His eyes flickered over Mia. How much did she know?
“It’s very rare, but it happens.”
He sighed. “Yes. Unfortunately.” Kurt held out his hands for Paige.
“Well. Thanks for the advice.”
When Kurt walked in to survey the progress of the playgroup, eight women sat on the floor talking in the midst of ankle deep plastic. It was typically chaotic, the women trying to conduct three simultaneous adult conversations while acting as judges in sharing traumas, until he saw his son, Ian, in the corner. He looked baleful and lacking pants. In fact, he looked as if he had just peed in the corner, miserably mistaking his big red bucket for his training potty with handles. He was surrounded by cooing women, one of whom pinched his tiny blue underwear in her fingers.
“Ian.” Kurt ran over and scooped up his son with his free hand. Ian put his head down on his father’s shoulder and as they walked upstairs he said, “I thought there was a potty, Daddy, I thought there was a potty but I forgot I couldn’t find it.”
Kurt spent a long time upstairs with his son, talking. The fact there were guests downstairs made their conversation strangely poignant, as if they had to whisper, or were spies.
“I love you, Ian,” he said, over and over.
“I do too, Daddy,” Ian said, spacey. “Let’s play laundry basket.”
“Not now, sweetheart. We have to go back downstairs. There are people here. This is supposed to be fun!” This evoked his own experience of being a child. He knew Ian could only hate him for it.
But Ian completely ignored him – a lifeskill of the toddler set – and shot out five fingers. “Just five rides,” he said. Kurt saw his wife in him, a flash of her rational, mathematical self. “Just: one two three four five.”
Kurt couldn’t help it. He spun Ian around the landing five times in a laundry basket, all of them squealing, until Mia stood at the bottom of the stairs calling up.
“Everything okay up there?” she said. “Or are you just avoiding us?”
Kurt evened his breath and appeared. They went back into the playroom and sat down. The kids were already getting whiny. The women packed up their bags, putting tiny feet into soft leather walkers and Velcro boots. Kurt hadn’t really spoken to any of them. His careful tray of mini bagels and juice boxes was decimated.
“Time to go already,” Justine sighed. She was a redhead who wore hats. “We always seem to be transitioning, don’t we, Boo-Boo?” She said this to her six-month-old son, Milo, as she stuffed his head into a knitted peapod.
Kurt helped locate coats and shoes and tried to quell the depressed, scattered feeling he always had when people left. What was it he’d been hoping for? His maleness was immutable, and the women instinctively held back, or insulted him by overdoing the isn’t-he-cute eyes when he changed Paige, or tousled Ian’s hair, or interjected a comment about shopping for cases of diapers at Costco. If he was enlightened, why weren’t they?
Mia moved slowly at the door, taking her time with her children’s zippers and hoods. When she stood up she leaned in and kissed Kurt on the lips, just slightly longer than a goodbye peck. Kurt froze. Had she just lingered? Was she the only woman who’d kissed him hello and goodbye?
“Thanks for the advice,” Mia said, taking her baby in her arms and her toddler by the hand. She was on her way to pick up her four year old from nursery school. “You’re sweet.”
Kurt followed Ian into the playroom and they silently cleaned up while Paige slept in the swing that clicked like a metronome. When they were finished, it was time to make lunch and mix a bottle and Kurt was exhausted. Ian played a game on the computer and when Kurt asked him to stop to eat a sandwich he said no, and then NO NO NO NO NO NO NO and threw a pen at Kurt while his back was turned. Then he told his first deliberate lie.
Ian, did you throw that pen at me? After an entire minute – Ian shock-still, fingers stuffed in his mouth, weighing the answers, eyes darting – he said, NoDaddyNoDaddyNoIdidn’t.
Kurt felt Mia’s kiss again, her dry lips. He did not enjoy this new perspective. Every turn in life brought a new perspective, it seemed, and once you had it, there was no giving it up. This was not always enjoyable. For instance, his wife: she would not be pleased about Mia kissing him on the lips, and he would tell her about it if it would not upset her. But it would upset her. And he wasn’t willing to do that. And the very act of not telling his wife – this is what made him a man! – it made his dick hard.
That night when Abbey arrived, weary and wrinkled, he and Ian and Paige sat on the edge of the bed and watched as she undressed, putting her shoes in their place on the rack and unrolling her hose without using her nails and working slowly through each silky tucked-in layer until she stood in her underwear, poised to redress with sweatpants and a turtleneck sweater and woolly socks. It was silent and cold in the room, and Abbey smiled at them, and Ian marveled at her biceps and long hair and Kurt marveled at the girlishness of her thighs and the lovely supple jelly of her small tummy and Paige became agitated by her smell. This was Kurt’s favorite moment of every day.
Every Thursday night in winter Kurt met his friend Dennis at the hockey rink for men’s pickup. They skated an hour in full pads – it was a checking league – until Kurt waved himself off the ice, exhausted. In the locker room, waiting for Dennis, a kid – twenty-five or so – put on his pads with his buddies for the next game. Kurt toweled his hair and tried to get used to the static rubber floor.
“Christ, she’s awesome,” the kid said. “I keep telling her to relax. She wants to, I can sense that. She’s got the kids though. I never thought I’d find a woman like that attractive. I always thought, yuh! Over thirty, fat, kids, suburban housewife thing. But this one– I can’t get her off my mind. I leave her notes, I send flowers, I follow her around just for that eye contact. You know what I mean? That acknowledgment. I nailed her once in the conference room when we were both working late, and I can’t forget it.”
His friends snickered and Kurt could detect the ones who had girlfriends they loved by the way they studied the floor. It was easy to brag about love if your idea of it was breaking and entering and leaving a note wrapped around a married woman’s toothbrush.
“Bo, check out at that dude,” said one of the guys, nodding at Kurt.
He wheeled around. “What’re you smiling at, prick?”
Kurt swallowed his face. He should have known better. He looked behind him for Dennis.
“Me? I enjoyed your little story. Man meets woman, man harasses woman, man lies about having sex with woman to his friends.”
“Why are all married guys such pricks? You know what I think? You don’t even enjoy fucking your wife anymore, and you’re bitter. You’re bitter because all you can do is hear about it. You just keep focusing on the love, man. It’s all about the love, isn’t it? Isn’t that what you tell yourself?”
“Ha ha ha,” Kurt said. “Ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
The kid was short but wide, and tense with bunched-up anger, eyes dim with a mistake waiting to happen. Kurt worked hard to seem like he didn’t care, his body leaden, and he avoided the kids’ eyes like he would with a dog.
“Ge’th’fuck outta my way, prick,” the kid said, purposefully walking past Kurt with his shoulder down. Kurt saw it coming and treated it like a check. Hockey in the goddamn locker room.
“Whoa,” said Dennis, when he came in a minute later. “I guess we need to get outta here.” He cut his shower short.
At the Meetinghouse they sat at a table and had a pitcher of beer and potato skins, the tips of their hair still wet, their faces pulsing red heat.
“My mom’s sick.” Dennis was very good at trading one difficult topic for another. “I’ve been doing all the housework. You know.”
“Like me.” Kurt tried to say it with humor, the joke of his little life.
“I guess. Shit, I wish there were kids, at least it’d be fun.”
“It’s not always fun.”
“Bullshit. You have more fun than anyone I know.”
“So get married.”
Dennis was grave. “If I could just have the kids.”
“You’re missing the point,” Kurt said.
“Now if I could have Abbey,” Dennis said. “That would make things worth it.”
“Your kids would be ugly,” Kurt said. “Forgetaboutit.”
“Not with Abbey.”
“Stop about Abbey!”
Dennis was a carpenter who lived in his mother’s basement apartment in the town center. He hung out in his bedroom listening to Pink Floyd wearing the same rugby shirts he had worn in high school.
“I want your life, Patchen.”
“My life. Shut up, Den.”
“I’d be real good with the kids. It would be deeply meaningful. I could learn how to cook.”
“Leaving eight bucks under your dinner plate for your Ma is the most I’ve ever seen you cook.”
“Leave my ma alone. She’s not feeling well.”
For twelve years Dennis had joked about Abbey. How he wanted Abbey. He said tentatively, your wife. He called her, Beautiful. Hey Beautiful. Kurt had a moment of clarity he knew he’d regret.
“You fucking love my wife,” he said. “You’re fucking in love with Abs.” He guessed it was something he’d always known.
Dennis barked out a laugh. He held his stomach and leaned over the picnic table as if to retch. Then he sat up straight and grinned like an ass. He hadn’t changed at all from high school. Maybe none of them had. “You’re so fucking fucked-up,” he said. “My best friend.”
“Well, am I right?”
Dennis gave him a queer look, damning and innocent, the look of a man who’d always wanted the wrong things.
Kurt thought about the first time he saw Abbey, in high school at a swim meet. She wore an oversized sweatshirt over a keyhole navy suit and a stack of colorful ankle bracelets. He had kissed her two invitational meets later. She was a butterflyer and he had dreamed about the ridge of muscle in her lean shoulders, how she smelled like chlorine and sleep.
“My mom has a tumor in her spine,” Dennis said after a long pause. “Fuck.”
“Fuck,” Kurt repeated, because it was the most respectful thing he could think of.
The day Dennis announced, “No college for me, Ma! I’m going to Carpentry School!” She had looked at him – was Kurt there? and said, You’ll make a wonderful carpenter. It’s what you’ve always wanted, isn’t it? She fed him his favorite dinner that night. They still ate together.
Paige slept between them with her arms flung over her head; Abbey nursed her at night. During the day Kurt fed Paige bottles of formula or breast milk Abbey pumped with a contraption that made Kurt’s teeth hurt. Tonight Kurt dipped into the middle of the bed to lift his infant daughter out and into her cradle. Abbey stirred, and he could tell she had been crying by the way her eyes were puffy and her nose navigated air.
“Hey,” he said. He crawled into bed and put his arms around her. “What’s up?”
“You stink,” Abbey said, and curled up tight against him. “I was just thinking.”
“What time is it?” She leaned over to see the clock but Kurt held onto her. He could see her sweet ass. He put his hand down into her thin, stringy underwear.
She slapped his hand and said, “God, it’s one-thirty and I have to work tomorrow. How’s Dennis?”
“His mother’s going to die.”
“What?” Abbey tried to sit up but he held her down. He felt strong against her thinness. He smelled himself as he moved, pockets of soapy sweat tinged with smoke from the bar.
“She’s dying of cancer.” He put his hands back on his wife.
“I love that woman. Did you know she works at the soup kitchen near my office? She’s there every Thursday. She’s a chopper. She chops and chops and chops, and then someone else arrives to assemble and receive all the glory.”
“What were you crying for?”
“Ian,” Abbey said, resolutely. “I get the overwhelming sense that I’m missing everything. He grows from the moment I step out the door until when I get back. He looks different, he’s learned new words, he’s riding a tricycle. He’s made up whole games I know nothing about.”
“You could cut your hours.”
“I don’t want to talk about this! What would we do?”
“Should I answer that? I would get a job, and you would stay home.”
She shook her head. “It’s working. Right, Kurt, this arrangement is working? Because it’s easier to wallow in a little self-hatred than to fantasize about some life overhaul that’s never going to happen.”
Kurt thought of Ian naked in the playroom. The women had laughed, had called his penis cute things. He thought of Mrs. Stelf dying of cancer. He thought of Dennis taking care of her, and doing the housework and secretly loving Abbey. He put his hands back on his wife.
“You want to make love to me?” Abbey said.
Kurt gently flipped her onto her stomach and slid off her underwear. He had been the type of kid to cry at the sight of an old person, someone hobbling around in the middle of the street. Then, when he was older, they started falling in front of him, drawing blood. He usually rescued them and then became violent to get away. It had happened more than once. He lived his life like this.
“I’m going to be so damned tired tomorrow,” Abbey said, muffled by her pillow.
Kurt rubbed his palms down her spine on each side, along the muscles he loved. Abbey went limp. He was fierce with desire. He was usually so careful, so yielding. Now he worked her over, his hands rough and callused from hockey, working his imagination in ways he knew would shame him the millisecond it was over. But right now– right now it was what he wanted and needed, a want he could fill, and he closed his eyes, away from her, tunneling down the path of his own need.
In the morning Kurt pulled into Mia’s driveway. He wanted to talk to her, and he wanted to make his point in person. He left his children in the car and rang her bell.
She answered in sweatpants and a T-shirt, her hair sticking straight up.
“My God,” she said. “It’s the grim reaper.”
“I met that kid at the rink last night.”
Mia’s eyes shot open. “You what?”
“I saw that punk. Bo. The one stalking you? I came to tell you I think he’s dangerous. I think you should take out the restraining order. Now. Today. You have to do something. Have you?”
Mia yanked him inside by his sleeve. “How did you know it was him?”
“He mentioned you. Showboating for his buddies.”
“What did he say?” She slammed the door to the cold.
“Nothing that incriminating,” Kurt lied. “I just get the feeling I know what kind of kid he is. A loose wire. I think you’re wrong about knowing him, and I think you’re wrong about him hurting you.”
“Huh,” Mia said.
A child whizzed by in a cape. Someone screamed.
“We’re still doing Halloween,” Mia said. “My kids can’t let it go.”
“The kids all look cute until about second grade,” mused Kurt. “Then they start making themselves as unattractive as possible.” This year Ian and Paige had gone as ladybugs, Kurt as an aphid. “I just – you know. Thought I should say something. Had to say something, I guess.”
“I won’t ignore it,” Mia said, coming too close. “I was serious when I asked you about it. What I should do.”
“Well, that’s it. That’s all I wanted to tell you.” Kurt tipped back and forth on his feet, his mind thinking: KISS KISS KISS KISS KISSSSSSSSSS.
Mia studied him, and Kurt tried to contort his face with what he hoped looked like comprehension.
“Kurt?” Mia was too close; he smelled her fillings. He thought of what Bo had said about the conference room and shook it off like rain. He thought of Dennis wanting Abbey. He had stood on the threshold too long; Mia cocked her head in a question, and they were suspended there, a test of will and movement, of breath, of his future and his sad past.
“Maybe–”said Mia, taking a step back, slightly flustered.
“I should go,” said Kurt.
She seemed hurt, a little. Or was that disgust in her eyes?
Kurt told himself to stop creating the desire to protect something that wasn’t his in the first place.
He broke free and ran to the car, where the children were howling, cold and abandoned in their rocketship seats. He buried his face into each of their laps for forgiveness.
In Debbie’s basement – enviably finished – Ian played Tinker Toys with the “big kids”, all of whom were two. Kurt wanted to maim the person who invented Tinker Toys. They had been brought back for nostalgia in their chic cardboard tins, but every time Kurt tried to make the helicopter he decided they were only good for kindling. Nothing fit right, the holes were too small, and the wood naturally shrunk and swelled and splintered. The women spoke around him (was he the only one, goddammit, who ever played?), politely asking questions about Abbey (whether she was still nursing) and Paige (whether she was still nursing). He had to control Ian’s temper when finally they gave up on the helicopter (again) and someone said, “Is that just frustration or is he holding something else inside of him? Something bigger?”
It wasn’t until they were packing up to leave – the twenty minute ritual – that she said hello.
“Hi, Kurt.” Mia.
He stumbled on Ian’s toes, then put his hand over Ian’s mouth to stop the howl.
“Hi,” Kurt said. “How’s it going?”
Mia had dark circles under her eyes. “It’s going. I’m late. Nice to see you.” She struggled past him with her two kids. When her fleece jacket accidentally got caught up in the door handle she stumbled towards him and fell, and as he caught her his mouth barely brushed the waxy cup of her ear. She might have considered it an accident.
Sitting in his car, Kurt watched the rest of the women emerge. He studied them cruelly: dowdy dresser, fat hands, obsessed with cocktail parties. When had he turned into such a crank? He yearned for Mia’s smile, her small teeth, and when his mind moved over her, he felt the way he would have in high school, a terrible physical lurch. He was the last to turn on his car.
“Daddy,” Ian said, disgusted by his slowness, “Go.”
On Saturday, while Abbey finger-painted with Ian and Paige napped, Kurt went to visit Mrs. Stelf. Dennis’ truck was gone. He would be at the gym, pumping up for a Saturday night spent alone watching Comedy Central. Mrs. Stelf knew Kurt was coming; he had called ahead. She set out a box of Pepperidge Farm cookies on top of a thick plastic tablecloth, the kind with the furry bottom. She wore neatly pressed sweatpants with Keds, and became out of breath pouring tea.
“Air,” she said, waving her hands around her face. Mrs. Stelf was not a hugger, although Kurt had considered overwhelming her on the way in; until he realized, with no small amount of shame, that he didn’t want to touch her. Not because he was afraid of catching something, but because he was afraid she would disintegrate.
“Air,” Mrs. Stelf continued, “is not something you should take for granted.”
Kurt sat down at the table and dumped sugar into his tea. In the car on the way over he had rehearsed stupid euphemisms about dying, not one of which considered the apparent fact of not breathing anymore and how painful that would be.
“So I guess Dennis told you,” said Mrs. Stelf.
“I’m so sorry.”
Mrs. Stelf sat down next to him. “They want to know what I choose, Kurt. Fight the good fight or let nature take its course. Ultimately, I don’t think they can deny the therapy to anyone. If you’re willing to pay, to take that risk. Suddenly everyone wants to live.”
“Dennis thinks it isn’t an option. He’s spoken with the doctors. He thinks he understands the treatment, and the odds mean everything to him, that shred of hope. Thirty-seventy! Twenty-eighty! For me, the numbers are meaningless. What’s in a statistic other than a bunch of cold history? I’ll die at the end either way. We’ll rip through my savings and Dennis will have to sell the house, my only thing to leave him.” She looked directly at Kurt, and he could imagine the conversation he would have with Dennis.
Dennis: Fuck yeah she’s getting the treatment! She’s not going to just roll over and die on me! Fuck no!
They drank peppermint tea. Kurt remembered all the time he spent in this house as a child. Mrs. Stelf worked; in the afternoons the house was gloriously empty. His own mother was perpetually home, busy becoming a ghost of herself, one of those mothers who was so present that she somehow failed to exist. Mrs. Stelf used to arrive and clunk down her keys and change into matching pastel sweats and make them crackers smeared with cream cheese and pepper jelly. She would pour a glass of wine and sing Frank Sinatra at the top of her lungs. Her apron said Kiss My Cookies.
“But really,” said Mrs. Stelf now, “I don’t worry about Dennis; he’ll be fine. I don’t worry about the actual dying part, the departing. It’s the unknowable juncture of pain and death. I mean, is it necessarily unbearable and then you die? It’s very unpleasant to think about.”
The back door slammed and Dennis strode in as if were still in the gym, doing that ridiculous puffed up male thing in between sets. Kurt was not happy to see him. He would ruin the truthful cadence of the conversation.
“I’ve already told her,” Dennis said, gulping water at the sink, “that I would happily ensconce her in mind-relieving drugs if things got rough. Wouldn’t I, Ma?” Dennis draped his arms around his mother’s shoulders, and she visibly winced.
“Come sit.” Kurt patted a chair. “Here.”
“We were discussing options.”
“There are no options,” Dennis said. “She does the therapy, it goes into remission. It’s a no-brainer.” He shoveled a stack of cookies out of their crinkling plastic nest and popped them into his mouth.
When this was met with silence, Dennis said, “The doctors have no reservations that she can handle it. She’s in good shape. She’s always been perfect.”
“You sound like you are discussing a farm animal,” Mrs. Stelf said, not entirely annoyed. “I want to hear what Kurt has to say. He’s always had a fine opinion for what’s right.”
Dennis rolled his eyes dramatically.
Kurt nibbled on a Milano. He was thinking about how Ian, when he was nervous, screwed up his eyes and face and fists, then laughed hysterically.
“It’s not a question I could possibly answer,” Kurt said. “How could I? It’s not my body. It’s not my life, it’s not my mother’s life. I think if it were, I’d have to agree with Dennis. How could you not go for it? What if you could live in remission and get another good eight or ten years? What if you could get five, or two? Isn’t that something? But then, our idea of cancer treatment is barbaric. I know it’s gotten better, but it’s still barbaric. Not to mention humiliating.”
“That’s the other thing,” said Mrs. Stelf. “I don’t want Dennis taking care of me if I linger around here past my prime. Past when I can make my own decisions. How will he ever be able to meet someone, if his old ma is stinking up the house?”
“My number one priority is to see him get married before I go.”
Kurt said, “I agree with Dennis then. You need to live forever.”
Mrs. Stelf smiled. “He will find the right girl,” and the way she said girl, Kurt could see her own girlhood in her, the luck and the fresh love and the pining. His chest squeezed, and he thought about this other unmentionable sea of female love, and his own abiding love for Mrs. Stelf.
“The lawyers can help us, Ma,” Dennis said. “It’s all set up beforehand. You can do whatever you want, as long as you set it all up before. It’s just that not everything is foreseeable. Don’t you agree, K-man? Don’t you think there are things that are unforeseeable?” His voice broke.
Kurt left them sitting at the table. Dennis was terribly stubborn. His mother would die and he would continue to live in the basement of the house, maybe for years and years afterward, trying to conjure her up through casseroles and certain Lily of the Valley soaps. He would keep her clothes and the boxes of fake silk scarves and costume jewelry clunking around in beautiful wooden boxes Dennis made her in high school. Inside were dovetailed compartments and squares of coarse velvet he had meticulously sliced with an exacto knife.
Kurt knew he should hurry home. Ian would have lasted two minutes finger-painting and Paige would be squalling and they all had been up since five-thirty. He often wished Abbey would get flustered so he could rescue her with his skill. This would ensure that she still needed him. But parenting wasn’t skill, and the knowledge he banked – where Ian’s slippers might be hiding (behind his dresser), Paige’s sudden love for having her forehead stroked, Ian hating his favorite roasted carrots because yesterday he’d inhaled a stray piece of garlic – all seemed incredibly poignant now. There would always be things to know about his children, and different people would know them along the way. He was winning an unwinnable contest. His fear was that he would wake up one day and Abbey would be a brilliant financier and his children would have moved on, and him? His sporadic dream of becoming a science teacher – the hands-on, rocks and birds and skeletons of sixth grade science, before the gruesome stretching of amphibians on pins and the breaking up of everything into the tiny units of atoms, microns, DNA, cells – would have been forgotten. He would be wallowing in some gray area of empty-nest volunteer hell, and his knees would be too shot to play hockey. He would have the look of his own mother at four o’clock in the afternoon.
Instead of driving home, Kurt drove himself over to the police station. The woman behind the plexi looked at him frankly and then told him to hang on a sec, the way they did in towns where things rarely lurked or hunted or gave chase. The dispatch radio spewed pre-party DUI, kids on skateboards near the monument, a parking meter defaced; little things, really, compared to what men were capable of.
“May I help you?”
Kurt recalled the day he retired his badge. It was the worst day of his life, yet it freed him for less spurious lifetime pursuits. Was he here to make a confession? Compose a speech? It was the first time he’d dared step foot in a police station. It smelled familiar, like wet dog and paperwork and greasy lunch.
“My name is Kurt Patchen.”
He thought he saw a flicker of recognition.
“May I help you?”
“Maybe. I’m just wondering about certain protocols.”
“What kind of protocols?”
“You know. Restraining orders.” He coughed.
“Mr. Patchen? Is that funny?”
“Uh, it’s not for me. It’s for, um, a colleague. A friend who–“
The woman pointed to the shelf behind him. “Take a brochure. It has numbers to call, hotlines, lawyers, everything you need to know about harrassment.” She eyed him. “Take two.”
“Right. Okay.” She looked at him like she was flipping through her memory bank, trying to find him filed under psychopath. But maybe Kurt was just paranoid. He hoped she wouldn’t reach his particular history of disgrace. He’d been let go for falsifying testimony, having made up some reports to help a woman’s case. He believed her to be in grave danger. He had not been romantically involved, as speculated in the papers, but even Abbey didn’t trust his motives. He became obsessed with the woman’s safety, ignoring certain signs that she wasn’t well. He only did it to ensure she didn’t wind up – what was the term Mia used? – dead.
“Hey, thanks.” He felt strangely vindicated pocketing the brochures.
At home there was a double stroller by the front door. When he walked into the house, Abbey and Mia were laughing in the living room. Mia nursed her ten month old son Christopher, who turned to look at him. Kurt told himself not to stare at Mia’s breast, now pulled into a cone. He heard Ian and Mia’s other two children playing downstairs, and he had to stop himself from wishing it had been a harder afternoon for Abbey.
“Well well well,” Abbey said. “If it isn’t the knight in shining armor himself.”
“We were just talking,” Abbey said. “I’m catching up on everything you don’t tell me about playgroup.”
Kurt looked back and forth at the two women and they both eyed him with diminutive amusement.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious,” Mia sat cross-legged while Christopher nursed.
“Okay.” Kurt searched Mia’s eyes too long, and his wife looked at him quizzically. He’d just realized the kid Bo wasn’t lying about Mia. Of course! What an idiot he was. She’d been with the creep all along, and he’d fallen for her ideas of victimization. She didn’t want to file a report because it wasn’t like that: she had been willing.
“I just stopped at the police station,” Kurt said.
Both women looked at him with eyes so bright they could have been tears.
“You look very earnest,” Mia said. “What a big earnest guy.”
Abbey snorted. She looked at him strangely, and he felt the clobber of nervous sweat. “Whatever were you doing there?” She bore her eyes into his solar plexus. His firing was mixed up in notions of propriety – he was painted as taking advantage of a woman who turned out to be so semi-deranged and unstable, why, anyone in their right mind could see it! – and his wife’s amazed disappointment in his judgment was his never-ending penance. He barely had to breathe to be reminded of it.
Kurt looked straight at Mia. “Oh, you know. Looking for protocols.” His eyes lingered – yes! – over Mia’s breasts, which she had left exposed, after all, nipples erect and hard beneath her flimsy nursing apparatus. He turned and banged through the swinging door into the kitchen. He stood at the sink and drank water straight from the tap like Dennis, slurping and noisy, half of it running down his chin.
He saw the clock and reflexively barked, “Have you fed Paige?”
The kids were supposed to save him. Ian was born two months after he was fired. They moved to a different town and Kurt stayed home with the baby when Abbey went back to work after six weeks of maternity leave. Kurt enjoyed the flexibility of his time, and felt back in control of his life.
After a beat Abbey yelled back, blithely, “I fed her but she wasn’t really hungry. I put her back down. She ought to sleep for a while, don’t you think?”
It wasn’t Tova who told Mia about his disgrace. It was his wife.
Paige never slept for more than twenty minutes in the late afternoon. When he flipped on the monitor he could already hear her armadillo grunts, sucking on her wet fist, struggling to lift her head. He crept upstairs and into her room to to feast on her sweaty, hot neck, on the way her eyes sparkled at the sight of him.