Monday, March 16, 2015

Cool aunt


There was something soothing about it, holding the green plastic egg in her hands and lightly stroking it with her fingertips. She absently swirled the fingers of her left hand over the top while cupping the egg with her right hand. Ovoid. There was that word from her old SAT-preparation book. The egg was a party favor at the Easter-themed baby shower for Marta in the break room at work. Beth had been instructed, like the others, to take a plastic egg from the basket when she entered the break room, and not to open it. Three people in the room had prize-winning tickets inside their eggs, and everyone else had small pieces of chocolate wrapped in foil. The chocolates were consolation prizes for the people who hadn't gotten prize-winning tickets and won something bigger.

Beth had settled into a chair against the wall. The break room was festooned with plastic banners, pastel-colored images of rattles and strollers. The banners were draped across cabinets filled with the office's shared Tupperware containers and coffee mugs. Luca, who had organized the baby shower, had gone all out. There were even Easter-themed centerpieces on each of the tables, little baskets of shredded-plastic Easter grass. Beth wondered how many people had made the same series of associations that she had: Easter, rebirth, spring, green grass and baby lambs, fertility. Fecund. That was another one from the SAT book.

Marta entered, her floral-print top flowing softly over her round belly. Her husband had been invited, and she took the seat beside him by the mound of wrapped gifts. She said she'd had no idea that this had been planned for her, and made a short speech about how moved she was. She unwrapped the gifts: tiny pink pajamas with the feet built in, a gingham dress in "newborn" size, shoes so small that the women all gasped and cooed, little thimble-sized socks. Most of the others had disobeyed Luca's instructions, had already cracked open their plastic eggs and eaten their chocolate pieces inside. Beth held hers in her lap, a little awkwardly. After the presents, Luca announced that it was time to see who'd had the winning tickets in their eggs. Ovoid... ovulation. Beth twisted hers open. There was no ticket inside. 

***
A seven-minute commute wasn't long enough for all the fragmented moments of the day to gestate into fully developed thoughts. It was barely long enough to get through two and a half songs of a CD. Most of Beth's drive to and from work was spent at red lights, or waiting for a break in traffic so she could change lanes and get around the long line of cars queued up at the on-ramp to the Capital Beltway. She missed the drive she'd had to her summer job in college: forty-five minutes of steady driving, first down the parkway along the Potomac River, across the bridge, then twenty miles of Maryland Interstate. She'd gone against rush-hour traffic, so it had been a smooth, seamless, dreamlike trip. The old commute had cost her more to fill up her tank, of course, more hours of her life whittled away on the road, more wear-and-tear on her car. But these short commutes felt like missing out on the R.E.M. part of sleep, like missing out on dreams.

The apartment made her think of a word that wasn't in the SAT book: ghetto. Cars in the crowded lot whose smashed windows had been bandaged with duct tape. A soiled armchair sitting by the Dumpster for a week, and a forlorn sneaker on its side beside it. Cockroaches streaming from the cracks in the sidewalk, shady hustlers on the street corners at night. Broken beer bottles in the grassy strip along the curb, and young people speeding along in cars, basso profundo of hip-hop music sending tremors through the earth. There were large immigrant families crammed into one- and two-bedroom apartments, single moms who walked or took the bus to their jobs at grocery-store cash registers, lonely pensioners who walked slow laps around the neighborhood, and a few young preppy kids who were probably just living there long enough to pay off some of their college loans. Beth wasn't from a place like this. It wasn't where she'd thought she'd be at 35.

In the hall, someone else's crumpled flyers had been on the floor for most of the week. Beth picked them up, slotted the key into its groove, and turned it. In the early-evening gloom, Eric sat on the floor, his back against the couch, still in the boxer shorts and T-shirt he slept in. His long hair was matted; he hadn't showered yet. Last night she'd made a quick trip to the 24-hour Rite-Aid for some ibuprofen and Icy Hot patches. He'd had unbearable back pain the last few days, a new ailment. He'd taken the ibuprofen with his Wellbutrin and Lamictal, anti-depressants. Beth declared him as a "dependent" when she did her taxes. He'd been jobless for the seven years since their wedding day, and another seven before that, back when they were dating, back when she'd thought of her role as the sole breadwinner of the relationship as merely unconventional and figured he'd make a wonderful stay-at-home dad one day. When she ticked the box next to "dependent" on the federal income-tax form, she thought about how the word was not just a noun but also an adjective. 

Lately Eric had started killing time playing blackjack with an imaginary dealer. Beth didn't completely understand what he meant by this, and thought it sounded worryingly crazy. He told Beth he had gotten good at counting cards and memorizing sequences of numbers that have something to do with playing blackjack. "I just won $30,000," he might say one evening, sitting on the living-room floor in unwashed jeans and a T-shirt with some joke or comics character on it. The $30,000 was imaginary, of course.

Now Eric groaned that the forces of the universe were conspiring against him: the back pain, the gray weather, the noisy upstairs neighbors, the shitty reception on the TV (their TV had an old-fashioned antenna on top; they couldn't afford cable). As he ranted, Beth looked at the wooden floorboards, making a private game of seeing what words she could think of to describe them: worn russet, whorled knot in the grain. There was an SAT word that meant "of or pertaining to wood," that began with an "x," with a Latin or Greek root, but she'd forgotten it. She didn't use those kinds of words at her job; her bosses even sometimes asked her to "dumb down" the articles she wrote for the association's strictly pragmatic e-newsletter. Sometimes she remembered that she had once wanted to be a novelist, and when she did, she laughed. She didn't remember that "x" word now. You bury the things you don't need.
***
One week the bulb in the streetlight closest to their apartment was busted out, shards of glass in the road, and instead the moon came in through the blinds. Beth saw the opal glow on the blanket, and thought about how the moon was democratic; it even came to those who lived in the ghetto. Moonlight on the hustlers, moonlight on the cockroaches.

Eric was still awake in the living room. He normally stayed up late -- he said he had faulty biorhythms, something to do with the manic depression -- while she went to bed early so she could get up for work. She could hear the dull roar of the TV and prayed for good reception.

Beth lay on her back, looking at the stripes of moonbeam on the ceiling, and felt a hard pang. The pang was due to a hole in her life, the loss of something she had never had. It hit her mostly when she was alone and in the midst of something pretty. She pressed her face into the pillowcase, first the wet left temple and then the right. She said aloud: "I have Chloe."
Beth thought: The lies we tell ourselves when we're old

The streetlight's bulb was replaced the following week, and after that the light that came in at night was the same sickish pink-orange as always.
***
They were taking a road trip in a few weeks, Eric and Beth and their niece, Chloe, Beth's sister's daughter. The weekend of the road trip, Dawn would be busy with her younger kids (Tristan and Ethan had teeball games that Saturday, and there were Rice Krispies treats and German chocolate cake to make for the bake-off at Charlotte's day-care center on Sunday), so Beth had volunteered to take Chloe to the concert up in Boston.

Chloe referred to Beth as her "cool aunt." Chloe had spent the night at the apartment once, that time she'd "run away" from home. It had taken Dawn and her husband four hours, with all the attention demands of the younger kids, to notice that Chloe was gone. That was last year when Chloe was 13. She'd been wearing chipped black nail polish and a black T-shirt with the name of the band My Chemical Romance on it. Chloe had just shown up and knocked at the door that night, having taken the Metro and walked to get from Dawn's condo to Beth's apartment in the ghetto (the corner hustlers had left Chloe alone, she said, to Beth's enormous relief). Beth had agreed to not call Dawn right away. Chloe and Beth had gone to Giant for chocolate-chip cookie-dough ice cream and stayed up late even though it was a weeknight. For not the first time, Beth had imagined that Chloe was hers.
***
Pinkish-orange light from the streetlight fell in lazy slats on the wall. Sounds of the young guys upstairs, bouncing basketballs and listening to hip-hop, muffled, seeping into the bedroom. The bedroom door was closed, but the lamp in the living room was on, and so was the TV, and after this, Eric would watch late-night talk shows and drink a glass or two of wine, and she would go to sleep so she could get up for work. He kept the bottles of wine on the shoe rack in the closet; they joked that the shoe rack was their "wine cellar."

Usually he climbed over her body, under the covers, and she lay on her back, a sort of cushion for him. But tonight, because of Eric's back pain, he sat up straight against the headboard (a secondhand bed, from her parents' basement, given to Beth and Eric out of pity when they'd moved into the apartment). She knelt over him, her knees on either side of his hips, and slowly lowered herself down onto him. The novelty of the position excited him, but his back hurt too much, so they cut things short. Still aroused, he jerked himself off while she sat beside him on the bed, lull of TV commercials, slits of light falling on a laundry basket full of dirty clothes. She leaned down to kiss his thighs, she let him touch her breasts. 

Afterward, gasping for breath in the darkness, he said, "Are you OK?" She said that she was, and hopped up to get him some toilet paper to clean himself off.

A few months ago, they'd had another false alarm. (They had long ago stopped timing intercourse, because if he knew it was "go time," during her "fertile window," the performance pressure was too much for him and he could not become aroused.) For not the first time since they'd been together, she'd bought a home pregnancy test. It was negative. It was always negative.
***
Eric and Beth didn't have a GPS device, and all of Dawn's were built into the family cars, so Chloe had looked up their route using MapQuest and had printed out the directions. "I made a playlist for our trip!!!" she'd texted to Beth. It was a road-trip-themed iTunes playlist, with songs like "King of the Road" and the ZZ Top version of the song about getting your kicks on Route 66 -- not that the route from DC to Boston would take them anywhere near the old Route 66 out West. Chloe hadn't been on many road trips; Dawn's family traveled by plane. Chloe was looking forward to getting Slurpees and little bags of chips at gas-station convenience stores. She was looking forward to uninterrupted hours on an open road, crossing new state lines.

Years ago, in their twenties, when they'd first started dating, Eric and Beth had driven from the East Coast to California, a manic idea of Eric's that became an obsession until they finally did it. They'd used up much of Beth's college-graduation gift money to take the trip. Whenever they drove inside the urban, central part of a city (DC, or Baltimore or Richmond, or, on another manic road trip, in Nashville and Birmingham and finally in New Orleans, their destination) Eric did all the driving. Despite the many years with no job, his mind was sharp and logical, and he wasn't afraid to do city-driver things like butting into a jammed lane or parallel parking with a line of honking cars behind him. Cities, with their grids of downtown streets and their one-way roads, the cloverleafs that sprang off expressways, made sense to him. 

On road trips, Beth took care of the long hauls, the country driving between the big cities. While Eric snoozed on the passenger side, his seat reclined, turned uncomfortably on his side, she did the late-night Interstate driving. She drove them across the desolate expanses, flat dark farmland in Arkansas and Texas, primeval black Spanish moss blotting out the starlight above them in Mississippi and Louisiana, her headlights the only ones on the road. Sometimes she'd listen to the radio (at low volume, to not disturb Eric). Sometimes she drove in silence, alone with her thoughts and the open, interminable road, sure behind the wheel, dependable.

Eric found this kind of driving -- hours of monotony, drone of wheels on asphalt, unchanging scenery -- unbearable, especially late at night. He grew bored when he didn't have city streets to figure out, a turn to watch out for every few minutes, landmarks and people to watch. But Beth was suited to this kind of driving. She thought of night watchmen; she thought of a Mama Bear. 
***
"Do you want to borrow the car tomorrow?"
"What?"
"So you could maybe... go out. Apply at a few places."
"If my goddamn back ever stops hurting long enough for me to get a few hours' sleep."
"What about that job in the stock room at the Total Wine warehouse? You could check back in with them and see if there's an opening now."
"Maybe."
"Want me to wake you up in the morning? So you can drop me off at work and take the car?"
"We'll see. I don't know. I've been looking through the classifieds... We'll see. I don't know."
***
On the day of the wedding, Beth had been young and foolish enough to think that the situation was funny. They'd had no money, so it was just a small party in the back yard of her parents' affluent-suburbs house, after the brief church ceremony. She and Eric used to joke, when they were engaged, about how "ghetto" their wedding was going to be. How they weren't even going to have a wedding cake, just a pyramid of these white Little Debbie cakes called "Fancy Cakes." Back then, the fact that something called "Fancy Cakes" cost about $1.90 for a box of twelve at Wal-Mart was hilarious to Eric and Beth.

"Come to our ghetto backyard barbecue wedding!" Beth's e-mailed invitations to her friends had read. "Dress casual -- wear jeans if you like." Her parents had tried to pretend it was a legitimate wedding, although it was nothing like Dawn's gracious, carefully planned celebration at the country club, where Dawn had worn their mother's floaty white princess dress -- almonds coated in a pearly-white sugar glaze in little bags at the tables, thank-you notes on special monogrammed stationery. For Beth's ghetto wedding, her grandmother had dressed up in a long dress and pearls, and had gotten her hair done, as if it were some real, proper wedding. Beth didn't remember too much from her own wedding day because she'd quickly gotten drunk on the champagne -- a good vintage, selected by Eric, the one classy touch. 

Why did they stay so poor?

Beth had a bachelor's degree, a white-collar job at a desk with health insurance and two weeks of paid vacation. Where did the money go? To two or three kinds of anti-depressants, depending on what was working for Eric at the time. To a bottle of that good whiskey he'd wanted to try, a surprise to cheer him up after one particularly bad depressive episode. To gas and motel rooms on a random road trip to Arizona during an especially brutal mid-Atlantic winter -- an obsession of Eric's that they'd had to make a reality just to keep him alive. To high rent in the DC area for even a crappy apartment. To buying Eric comics at the comic shop on Saturdays, to keep him occupied during the day because they couldn't afford Internet or cable. To countless little things, some ordinary and some to make up for when the universe conspired against him.
***
"Mom and Dad hate him. They think he's a loser." 

Chloe was struggling with the plastic wrapping of a CD she'd just bought. Her generation was used to the instant gratification and clutterless intangibility of mp3s, but this band didn't want their songs iTunes for some obscure political reason. She was sitting next to Beth on a bench at the mall, where they'd gone for a few last purchases before the road trip. The goth look that Chloe had adopted last year in junior high was still en vogue among disaffected adolescents; she was wearing elbow-length black-and-white-striped gloves with the fingers cut off, a new purple streak in her dyed-black hair. Chloe was talking about her boyfriend. 

"I like the purple. Did you do it yourself?"
"Yeah, Manic Panic dye. They sell it at Hot Topic."
"Manic Panic? They still have that?" For the billionth time, Beth thought how odd it was how much they had in common; maybe some of Beth's DNA had somehow diagonally made its way to Chloe. "I remember that from when I was in high school. I had this great nail-polish color they had. It was called 'Tramp.'"
Chloe gasped in delight. "You're so cool. Why can't you be my mom?"
It was a casual remark. Chloe had said this before.

She was still struggling with the CD packaging.
"God! Why do they have to make these things so difficult! No wonder they're going extinct." Chloe's nails were short and bitten.
"Here, let me try." Beth expertly slid a long, oval-shaped fingernail beneath a flap in the wrapping. It opened a streak across the back of the CD.
"Merci. Brett likes 'industrial rock.' I thought I'd see what it sounds like. He recommended these guys to me." She scraped off a strip of tape, then flipped the case open and examined the lyric booklet.
Chloe's head was bowed, and her lanky bangs flopped forward. Her eyes were edged with black eyeliner, like Beth's had been at that age. Beth remembered doing that, scouring lyrics booklets for clues about the hearts of the uncommunicative boys she'd liked.
"Yeah, I feel your pain. My parents will probably never forgive me for marrying Eric. My mom even said once, a few days before the wedding, when she realized I was actually going to go through with it, 'You're breaking my heart.'"
"Ouch."
"I know." 
***
One time Beth had the crazy thought that to have a baby would be a betrayal to Chloe. It would mean Beth's devotion would necessarily be split. And Chloe deserved all of it. It was different with the other kids; Dawn and her husband had them during their own personal "baby boom" after things settled down at Dawn's job and she could afford to take off work and just breed. The other kids had been meticulously planned, and they grew up a little differently, with regimented extra-curricular activities and "play dates." Chloe hadn't been planned, and had even shown up at what was then an inconvenient time for Dawn and her husband, some kind of "crunch" at Dawn's job at a time when they had badly needed the money. Not that Chloe knew about any of this. She spent many years as an only child before the others arrived.

Then the twins came, and then another girl. Chloe had never seemed to mind, and was even a very good, fun babysitter for her younger siblings. 

Still, Beth wouldn't do that to Chloe. It didn't have to make sense.

That one crazy month, on the night the calendar said she was due to ovulate, Beth went to bed in ugly flannel shirt-and-pants pajamas, without making even one transparent advance toward Eric.

Just you 'n' me, kid.
***
"Beth Miller?" 

Beth had been idling at a cart in the mall corridor, "bling-bling" rapper-style jewelry and cell-phone accessories for sale. Chloe was inside Hot Topic, sifting through goth clothes, hoping to find something cool for the concert. The store made Beth feel claustrophobic, the aisles narrow, an off-putting sterile scent mingling with the air conditioning. Beth had let Chloe know before slipping outside into the main stream of the mall. She had been staring at a furry pink leopard-print cell-phone case when she heard her old name. 

It was Xavier Duncan from high school. He was in town to visit his family. He'd been a grade younger than Beth. He'd been artistic, wore his long hair in a ponytail, sat at the back of the classroom drawing or reading a paperback sci-fi book, quiet. He was taller now, and his ginger-colored hair flowed down his back freely. His once-awkward features -- gaunt cheeks, prominent nose -- now looked iconic, like a rock star or an avant-garde artist. They'd known each other from the high-school newspaper; she'd written articles and became an editor her senior year, he'd done all the photos and illustrations. They hadn't been close, but she'd always been fond of him. He'd gone on to study art, he was telling her now, was living in Richmond but moving to New York soon to help a friend start up a gallery. He was living the life he should be living, Beth thought.

"It's actually Beth Jamison now." 

What was she up to?
"I still live here. I edit e-newsletters for a national trade association, with a lot of statistics in it."
"I thought writers were supposed to suck at math."
"Oh, I do. I just put their newsletters together. I don't have to crunch any numbers or anything." 
She laughed a feeble little laugh. She knew how she appeared to him. Her own mediocrity had never felt more acute.
Xavier smiled and had a faraway look, as if he were reminiscing, or trying to.
He said: "I always thought you and Tara were the coolest girls at our school. I remember on our New York field trip when you guys snuck off to Strawberry Fields in Central Park to leave a notebook of poems for John Lennon -- you made us late for 'Cats,' and Ms. Jones was pissed."
They both laughed at the memory, then he said: "I liked your writing. I always figured you'd wind up in New York or L.A."  

On the drive to drop Chloe off at Dawn's condo, Beth regaled Chloe with some of the old high-school stories. The prank calls, midnight breakfasts at Denny's with Tara and Jerry, changing the marquee lettering outside the baseball field so it spelled out Dadaist poems, smoking pot on Tara's roof. Wearing ripped fishnets with denim cut-offs and army boots from the thrift store as she sat at a computer in the journalism classroom, typing up feature articles and music reviews. Poems in the school literary magazine, writing and performing plays with her friends, winning creative-writing contests, getting a near-perfect score on the verbal portion of the SAT. The English teachers who'd said she had potential. Tara was in Guatemala now, helping low-income single mothers learn how to start their own small businesses. Jerry led acting workshops at a theater in Chicago. Beth had stayed here and married Eric.

As Beth heard herself veer into "coulda been a contender" territory, she could have sworn she felt Chloe peering at her from the passenger seat. The question hanging in the air, but unspoken, was: "Why are you still here?"
To which Beth would have had to reply, "I don't know."
xyloid: of or pertaining to wood
Beth remembered that impressive word. Maybe she would have stuck it in a highbrow novel, the footnote-riddled kind David Foster Wallace wrote that sent readers scrambling for their dictionaries. Maybe she would have taught it to a high-school English class, young minds she was helping to mold. The bosses that she had now would never allow it. She had no use for it, just knowing it for the sake of knowing it.
***
"In pitch dark, I go walking in your landscape." Years ago, on the road trip to New Orleans, it had been a surprise to find a radio station playing a decent song in the inhospitable Louisiana wilds. The cypress trees closed in around the Interstate in the darkness. It was a Radiohead song, from their then-new album, that she and Chloe both liked. Beth had caught the song at the very beginning, and that first line suited the scene: jungle-dark, thick soupy air drooping the Spanish moss that laced the trees, no other cars for as far ahead or as far back as Beth could see in all of her mirrors. The song was like a message, staticky and crackly around the edges but the meaning coming through clear and pure. Eric slept in the passenger seat, so obscured by blackness that he ceased to exist to her. It was just Beth, and the midnight highway, and the miraculous song from another world.
***

Something buzzed insistently in the dark.

It was Chloe.

Beth picked up her phone, which was re-charging on the dresser, and peered at it with contact-lens-less eyes. “Would it be OK if Brett came with us? Please don’t tell Mom.”

The first thing Beth noticed was that she had taught Chloe well – Chloe was one of the few people, along with Beth, who actually used upper-case letters and punctuation marks in text messages, even though it took an extra second or two. The second thought Beth had was that Chloe was a polite person, and it wasn't like her to invite someone -- even her boyfriend -- along on a big trip at the last minute. Beth was sure Chloe must have been pressured into it by her boyfriend. 

Strike 1, Beth thought, like some mom in a sit-com.

It was Friday morning, the morning of the road trip; the concert was Saturday night. They had it planned: one day of driving to Boston, one day to be tourists in town then get ready for the show. Sleep, and then drive home. Beth had asked to take a precious vacation day off from work without hesitation when Chloe had pitched the road trip to the concert. They were hitting the road in about an hour.

“Of course.”
Beth typed the reply before really thinking about it. Her answer to any question Chloe asked was always some form of “yes.”

Eric was still asleep on the couch. Beth silently moved through the motions of her morning routine, packing up items as soon as she used them: contact-lens case, contact-lens solution; toothbrush, toothpaste. Pairs of things. She had expected to feel excited, but instead she felt glum thinking about the new dynamic. Instead of Eric playing the stoic chauffeur while Beth got to chat with her niece, it would now be: Eric and Beth as the old chaperones, the ol' fogeys taking the youngsters to a "rock-and-roll" show. Chloe and Brett would hold hands in the back; one of them would sleep on the other’s shoulder. Beth would be unsure of what to say, what topics were taboo to bring up around Brett, what his particular emotional minefields might be – and most important of all, what topics might be embarrassing for Chloe with Brett around. Beth found herself sulking about the situation in old-fogey language: “They’ll be back there mooning all over each other, making googly eyes.”
***
Chloe and Brett were waiting by the curb outside Dawn’s condo, Chloe with the wheelie suitcase she used on family trips to Orlando, Brett with a battered black backpack. A few minutes after they had climbed in, both of them looking bleary from being awake so early, Chloe mentioned that Brett didn't have a ticket to the concert, and Brett added that he planned to buy one outside the concert venue, from “a scalper.”

Beth thought of the plastic egg she’d been given at Marta’s baby shower, the egg that hadn’t had a ticket in it. She thought about how much it sucked to be the person in a room without a ticket. She said to Brett: “You can use mine if you want.” But Chloe said that Beth had to come to the show with them -- "This band is supposed to be awesome live! You're gonna love them!" -- so Eric offered his instead, said he wasn’t that familiar with the band and could kill time at a bookstore instead, and nobody protested.

“Thanks, man,” said Brett, as if they were equals, testing out manhood.
***
Of course Beth had seen them. It was the first thing she had noticed.
You don't live fourteen years with a suicidal man and not notice these things.

Brett had faint scars shaped like cuts all along the inside of his left forearm. He had lifted Chloe's suitcase and pushed it far back into the trunk, into a safe empty nook. It had been a gallant, helpful thing for him to do. Beth had opened the trunk for them; Brett had extended his T-shirted arms to give Chloe's suitcase a good nudge. The scars were pink; not red as in brand-new, but they didn't yet match the rest of his flesh, so they weren't too old either. He was probably so used to having the cuts that he sometimes forgot they were there.
That's how Eric was -- he'd be wearing a T-shirt on a summer day, holding open a menu at a restaurant, oblivious to the waiter or waitress staring. Beth would blush and stare hard at the words on her menu. Appetizers: stuffed mushrooms (rosemary sausage, parmesan), cheese fries, bruschetta, crab dip with crackers. 

Beth thought how odd it was, how much they had in common.
***
“What do you think of Brett?”

They had stopped at the Delaware House, the same place where the bus had customarily stopped years before during Beth’s field trips to New York with Tara and Xavier and the school-newspaper staff. Beth was pleased to see that the fiberglass Bob’s Big Boy was still there, and she thought of the photos – analogue, developed at the one-hour place at the mall, pre-digital – she and Tara had taken of each other pinching Big Boy’s ripe, plump ass. Chloe had bought a mocha frappuccino. Beth wondered, as she often did, if some future medical study would show that it was bad for so many young people these days to be hooked on coffee. Beth thought of the green Starbucks mermaid as the new Marlboro man.

“I like him! He seems nice. He’s cute!”
These bland pronouncements were mostly true. Beth did like him, although some of this was in the form of a charitable sort of pity. She worried about him. Beth had gathered from their conversation in the car that he was flunking too many things in school, and she had picked up socioeconomic cues (the ratty backpack, bad teeth -- no money for braces -- and poor grammar) that made her think he most likely didn’t have the sort of wealthy and well-connected family that could compensate for Brett flunking everything.

Beth tried to see into his future, without being too judgmental. He would work on cars, or join the Army. Maybe a friend would hook him up with a construction job, some carpentry thing. Beth had known guys like him in school, flunkies from the wrong side of the tracks, and this was what they did. It was human to want to better oneself, though -- he might take a class or two at community college then fizzle out. He might toy with the idea of taking a business class, savoring the word “entrepreneur" as if it were an attainable thing for him, or take something computer-science-y through a for-profit online university, the kind that accepts anyone able to pay the small tuition fee. The last of these was probably the best she could hope for him.

It was fine – it was more than what Eric did, which was nothing. Besides – what did she do?
***
A few years ago, she had some tests.

It all averaged out to something like a B-. No clear indicators of what might be causing her infertility.

Beth thought, What about my Appalachian great-grandmother who had 17 kids? Aren’t I supposed to come from fertile stock?
Fecund.
Is it because we waited too late?
Is it because we never have sex, because Eric’s medications kill his libido?
Is it because the universe doesn’t want us to raise a kid in the ghetto? (Even though millions of other kids are born into the ghetto?)
Is it because... is it because... is it because...?

***
In the car Chloe tried to keep her spirits up even though the traffic going north on I-95 was depressing.

“Woohoo!” she’d cheer every time they crossed a new state line, doing a one-person “wave” in the back seat like people do at ball games.

Beth glanced back. Brett was playing a game on his phone. “Woohoo,” he muttered politely without looking up.
 

Strike 2.
***
Once they reached their exit, Eric navigated the city streets and Beth tried to do math in her head. Xavier was right; she was no good at it.

Four people, two beds, one hotel room.

What was the appropriate arrangement? Before, it was going to be Eric and Beth in one bed, Chloe in her own. But the addition of Brett threw a wild variable into the equation. No way could Beth let Chloe and Brett share a bed – Chloe was 14 years old, and Brett was 15. Not even the coolest aunt on the planet would allow that. She decided: It would be girls in one bed, boys in the other. Two nights of awkwardness for the guys was better than – the alternative.

It was late at night when they checked into the hotel and brought their things up to the room. Brett and Chloe crashed onto the far bed together, a continuation of the sleeping-on-each-other’s-shoulder routine from the car. They still had all their clothes on, so Beth tried to calm her panic by reasoning that they hadn’t really gone to bed. They still had to brush their teeth, put on their jammies – jammies; she really was starting to think like an old fogey.

Beth and Eric quietly unpacked. Eric turned down one side of the bed nearest the door, and slid beneath the blanket and bedspread, exhausted.

“Chloe?” Beth whispered.

In their bed, in their goth-y black clothing, Chloe and Brett looked like teenage angels – like some doomed couple from the 1950s who had jumped off Lovers’ Leap.

They were out cold.

“Hey,” Eric said, peeling down the other side of his bed, inviting her in. There was something in his eyes, something lonely and sad, and Beth realized in a flash that she had only been aware, until that moment, of her own loneliness.

Beth joined him and let the teenage angels sleep.

Only for tonight.

I am the coolest aunt in the world.

***
There'd been a time when Beth had been madly, passionately in love with Eric. “Madly.” “Passionately.” That was how she had thought of her love for him back then, in pop-song language.

When they first met, right around the time Dawn became pregnant with Chloe, Eric had a job. It was a bad job. He had worked the “graveyard shift” at a steel foundry. This was so long ago that the details weren’t clear to Beth now, but the foundry had made vague metal parts for truck engines. Sometimes the machines jammed, and a worker would have to walk across a narrow balance beam, over (what Beth envisioned as) bubbling cauldrons of molten metal, to get it unjammed. Eric had worn steel-toed boots and a hard hat; he still had a scar on his shin from where a swinging piece of metal machinery nearly took his leg off.

Men who had worked there for years looked prematurely aged, blackened and grimed, pits in their teeth from blasted sand in the air.

Eric read poetry – Lord Byron, mostly, a fellow manic-depressive – during his breaks. He knew that this alienated him from the rednecks and macho immigrants who worked there with him, but he didn’t mind. He was glad to distinguish himself from them – he had only taken the foundry job because a more interesting one in the company’s science lab was supposed to be opening soon. Eric loved science; although he had dropped out of community college, he regularly read high-level scientific journals and was an autodidact, sometimes ordering college textbooks for classes he wasn't even taking, for the pure pleasure of learning.

Sometimes during middle-of-the-night “lunch” breaks, Eric would drive to the hip independent movie theater across town. It would be closed for the night, but he’d look up at the retro marquee sign and feel comforted just to be there amid the aura of culture, of intellectualism.

The job in the science lab never opened up. Eric quit that job, and it was the last job he'd ever had.
***
The air conditioner hummed. Beth lay awake in bed next to Eric. She worried that Chloe and Brett were cold, so she got up and peeled off the quilted-polyester bedspread from her own bed and draped it over the sleeping angels.

Why don’t you just give them a condom?
she thought, chastising herself. Why don’t you just put on some Marvin Gaye?
***
On Saturday evening, after they'd all had dinner at an oyster bar Chloe read about in a Lonely Planet guidebook, Beth got ready for the concert in the main part of the hotel room with the beds in it, so Chloe could have the bathroom. Brett, whose pre-concert make-up routine was limited to eyeliner only, was downstairs listening to his iPod in the lobby. Standing in front of the big dresser mirror, Beth pondered the question of how much eyeliner to put on. It had been more than a decade since she’d worn it thick and raccoon-style, like Chloe wore hers, like many young people would be wearing theirs at the concert. Beth didn’t want to be that sad old person who was still trying to be cool. And most of all, she didn’t want to embarrass Chloe.

But what would it mean if she accepted her chaperone role now, and came to the concert looking like… a mom?

I am not a mom. I am a cool aunt.


Beth put on more eyeliner than she’d worn in years.
***
“This is our song!”

Chloe beamed at Beth; Chloe was standing in the dark crowd with Brett’s arm around her shoulders. Beth couldn’t remember ever seeing Chloe look so wildly happy. She had meant Brett – it was Chloe and Brett’s song.

Colored lights crawled over the crowd in waves. The music was hard-edged, cacophonous. Gentle was uncool. Beth thought of her and Eric’s song, the acoustic one they’d slow-danced to at their ghetto backyard wedding: “Because I’m still in love with you… I wanna see you dance again… on this harvest moon."

The moon was democratic. It fell on everyone.

Beth thought of Eric reading alone at the bookstore, having given up his ticket for Brett. She remembered how it had felt to love Eric.

Brett had a rapt, beatific look on his face. He pulled Chloe closer to him and kissed her hard on the lips.

The moon falls on everyone.
***
Beth could see a 35-year-old Chloe living in the ghetto, coming home to a husband who slept until late in the afternoon because he had no job, unhappily childless, checking the box next to the word “dependent.” Bringing home some of that fancy whiskey he liked, as a treat to cheer him up.

She imagined Chloe saying: "But we don't have tickets." And Brett saying: "That's OK -- we have these pieces of chocolate."

Is it my fault?

***
On a Sunday morning Beth and Chloe had scored the comfy chairs by the window at a Starbucks. Beth tried to ignore the green mermaid leering at them from the window, from their napkins and cups. Chloe was saying that Brett had so much fun at the concert, that he doesn't get to do stuff like that a lot because his family is poor and he can't afford it. He was playing guitar more, and was thinking of forming a band with some friends.

Chloe said: "I don't know if you guys noticed anything on the trip, but Brett has manic depression. That's what Eric has, right?" The look on her face was one Beth knew well -- anguished resignation, like when you know that your egg will never have the prize-winning ticket inside it.

Beth blustered through some Pollyanna talk about how depression is more like a spectrum, and not everyone on it is as bad as Eric.

What could she do?

Beth said: “You know that song you said was ‘your song'? I liked it. That was a good song.”

I am a cool aunt.

***
"Why are you still here?"

Because I'm still in love with you... on this harvest moon.
***

Sometimes she drove in silence, alone with her thoughts and the open, interminable road, sure behind the wheel, dependable.

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