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The Top of Something

ISSUE:  Winter 2019

Illustration by Lizzy Stewart

My parents live in Los Angeles, in a shambling three-story in the Hollywood Hills. Inherited, my mother’s father’s mother a minor star, silent films, with what they used to call a Cupid’s-bow mouth and a smart bob. She bought the house with her first paycheck—financially savvy and good thing, too, didn’t survive the transition to talkies, or maybe it was giving birth to my grandfather, how the pregnancy changed her body, the softness around the middle she never lost. Don’t like it—them, my parents. Talking about them, I mean. Not being modest when I say shambling, my grandfather and my mother, both only children and too good for any kind of regular work, the house decaying and no money for repairs. There’s a picture on the wall along one of the staircases. Not a picture, a page from an old tabloid, framed, newsprint, a shot of my great-grandmother, in low heels and a dress with no waist, on the arm of Rudolph Valentino. I have been, in my life, just close enough to wealth to touch the rotting lace of its hem. Another way to put this: My family has been, still is, richer than most.

What happened was my friend got divorced, and then, for a while, she went to live with my parents. She said that she wanted to spend some time with people who liked her. I lived in California, too, though up north, with my husband. My friend did not ask if she could stay with us. I guess I was a little offended. Maybe she wanted to be tended to, knew I would not tend to her and knew my mother would. I was also relieved. Just then we were trying to have a baby. Baby books everywhere and me lying on my back, in bed, a thermometer in my vagina, trying to take my basal body temperature so I’d know when to fuck my husband. This, we’d been told, was the most natural way. My mind so filled with this one desire—baby, baby, baby—it might as well have been blank. Dutiful copulation. Tension and resentment packed into each of our small rooms like pudding into pudding cups. “Do you think,” my friend asked me, “that it’s ethical, right now, to have a baby? Considering where we are. In late capitalism, the life cycle of the planet.” I hung up. My husband and I did not end up having a baby, though not for ethical reasons. Later we also got a divorce. Having a baby, in any case, is never ethical. I don’t mean it’s unethical, just that that’s the wrong question.

“How is she?” I asked my mother.

“Oh, a little brittle,” my mother said. I could hear the clink of ice, a gin and tonic, I guessed, almost seven, a weeknight, would be her second. “And sad, of course, but that’s normal, that’s only natural. You know we were talking, yesterday—the day before yesterday?—and I was telling her—” is where I stopped listening. My friend, her name is Laura, thinks my parents like each other and this may also be true, but mostly they are just drunk enough not to be bothered.

I met Laura in graduate school, where I also met my husband. They were dating when I met them, Laura and my husband. My ex-husband. That’s not true. I did meet both Laura and my ex-husband in graduate school, but they weren’t dating. That would be a better story. I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring. We were in class together and became friends, the three of us. I was dating a professor at the time. Sleeping with. That sounds like a good story but it’s not, it’s been told too many times. He had a beard and a jacket with elbow patches. I wish I were joking. Made good martinis, had hollow cheeks (explains the beard), hated his ex-wife. All pretty standard.

After graduate school, my husband—future then, ex- now—and I ended up in the same city. That makes it sound accidental. Actually I couldn’t get a job, and the city where my husband was moving because he could, and did, was also a city where I had some family. Lincoln, Nebraska. I don’t know why I’m being so cagey. I mentioned this to him. “Come,” he said. “We’ll split a two-bedroom,” he said. “Do you even know how cheap rent is in Lincoln?” And I said, “Actually, yes, I do. My uncle lives there.” We’d all gone to grad school straight out of undergrad, so even five years later we were still pretty young. The reason I couldn’t get a job was I hadn’t finished my dissertation. Still haven’t. Anyway, I moved. That was when we started dating, me and my husband (or ex-husband). Not that it matters. Laura got a fellowship in Michigan and we moved to Lincoln and we fell in love. Who falls in love in Lincoln?

Laura met her husband in Mississippi. After the fellowship in Michigan there were two years in Arkansas and then a spot opened up in Mississippi, Oxford, Ole Miss. Not an academic, the husband, but he ran a bookstore, was well read, which we cared about then, whether someone had read the same books we had, and which I try to (have to) care less about now. Hadn’t gone to college though, which made Laura’s choice unusual. Exotic, even. How she told me, breathless, on the phone, that he’d worked in construction, and not just during the summer for extra money between semesters but as a job, full-time, for years. They met and were married in nine months. And then some time passed and Laura’s contract was up and she got a new job, tenure-track, in California, and her husband—his name was Dylan—he didn’t want to leave. Laura moved in with my parents right after she filed the paperwork.

What I care about—what I try to care about—now: a sense of humor; kindness, whatever that is; knowing who the good teachers are, how to get my kid into their classes. I did have a kid, eventually, but not with my ex, not with anyone who’s still around.

So Laura got divorced and moved in with my parents and after a while I went down to visit. We went for a hike in Griffith Park. The winter and the first half of that spring, it rained, really rained, for the first time in years. Thunderstorms taking drivers on the 405 by surprise. Record snowpack in the Sierras. This was June and people were skiing. In Griffith Park the bloom had peaked in March but wildflowers were still sprouting, an embarrassment of petals, yellow and burnt sienna and ripe purple, pale-green stalks. The top layer of earth was a soft powder, a light brown so anonymous and uniform it was almost colorless, and Laura talked and I listened. I walked ahead of Laura because I am by nature a competitive person and also because Laura was talking and so was slightly out of breath. She talked about Dylan. I’d only met him once, at the wedding, their courtship had been so rushed and then also their marriage.

Dylan had been raised by his aunt and uncle. His mother had died in childbirth or just after—an infection contracted at the hospital, not as rare as you’d think—and his father, devastated, had driven from Belzoni, Mississippi, to Salina, Kansas, the baby in a drawer liberated from the bedroom dresser, and knocked on his dead wife’s sister’s door. At least, Laura said, this was how she imagined it. The father driving the eleven hours straight, though of course he must have stopped for gas, to feed the baby. The drawer part was true, Dylan had told her that, had said the aunt and uncle still had it, though this didn’t make sense to Laura. Wouldn’t Dylan’s father have needed the drawer, back home? But Dylan had shrugged, had said probably he was too ashamed to ask for it back. Didn’t spend the night, had a cup of coffee and then he was back on the road. Dylan swore his father hadn’t called ahead, hadn’t asked his sister-in-law and her husband whether they wanted to take the baby. Laura had asked and Dylan had shaken his head, back and forth, his head drooping so that Laura could see the bald spot, a perfect circle, like a monk’s timid tonsure, blooming at the top of his skull. I loved that bald spot, Laura said, that soft little belly he carried at the top of his head.

We were drinking whiskey, Laura said, and it was late. All I did in Mississippi, Laura said, was drink whiskey. Summer nights, we’d drive out into the country, start with beer, Budweiser, nothing fancy, then a beer and a shot, the beer going down easy, how slippery the bottle was in my hand, on my neck. You know, out in the country even the bars didn’t have air-conditioning, just ceiling fans. The whole state was like a proof of concept for the idea of sweating. By the time he got to this part of the story we were drinking whiskey straight. We’d known each other a few weeks then, and he wasn’t trying to seduce me. He didn’t need to, for one, I mean we fucked the night we met (the word fucked here standing in for Laura’s anger, and I stumbled as she said it, small rocks on the path coming loose under my feet as the word came snapping out of her mouth), but also it wasn’t the story you’d tell if you were trying to get a woman to sleep with you. It was the story you’d tell after, when you’d decided you wanted to sleep with her again, and again after that, maybe wanted to keep sleeping with her for a while, but also you were a man and so you couldn’t come right out and say it because telling people what you want makes you weak. That, Laura interrupted herself, I actually believe. Telling people what you want, speaking desire, and I could hear the air quotes in her voice, the ones she used when she slipped into grad-school vernacular. It’s like telling people how to hurt you, Laura said, handing them instructions. I think, Laura said, the fact that women are better at asking for what they want, that we have to be otherwise we’ll never get it, and even then, even asking, mostly we don’t, I think this is why we’re stronger than men in general. But anyway, Laura said, what Dylan said was after his mother died there was a funeral, and at the funeral his aunt asked if they needed any help. And his father said they would be fine. My father, Dylan said, was a man of few words. Probably he was still in shock and didn’t know it, that’s what my aunt said. So six months went by and every week or so my aunt would call my father to check in on us and every week my father would say we were doing just fine, thanks for asking. And then one week my aunt called and my father didn’t pick up, the phone just rang and rang and the next day he was at my aunt’s house, we both were, him in a suit looking sheepish and me in the drawer, over- heated. They thought I had a temperature but I was just swaddled too tightly. My aunt thinks he had a breakdown. I think he came to his senses. I think, Laura said, that’s the night I fell in love with him. If he’d asked me to marry him that night I would have said yes. It wasn’t the story itself but how he told it. No anger in him, just sorrow. Not for himself but for his father, how scared he must have been. His father was dead by the time Dylan moved back to Mississippi. It wasn’t forgiveness in his voice. Laura shook her head. It was more, it was beyond, it was like—like forgiveness was something he could turn around and look at, like that’s how far in the past it was, like that’s how still it was for him, how sure. And I thought that was beautiful. It was a religious feeling I had, sitting across from him, like I was in the presence of something holy. And I don’t think I was wrong, but I do think I saw him for a moment and thought I’d seen him whole, only that’s not how it works, is it. The whole is the whole, the moment can’t stand in for it.

By this time we’d hiked to the top of something—a ridge or hill, not a proper mountain—and so we paused and stood together for a moment, silent, looking out. Also, Laura said, I didn’t realize how many times he’d told the story. I should have known, considering how polished it was. The practiced hesitations. I thought he was opening a door. And that on the other side of the door was—intimacy, I guess. Only it was just a room. A crowded one. Laura made a sound like she’d started to laugh but forgotten how partway through. I looked at her. Since we’d reached the top of the hill or ridge I had only been half listening, had been thinking, instead, about what it would feel like to push Laura over the edge. I mean literally. Not that I was angry at her. Just, I’d been having these kinds of thoughts. On the freeway, looking at the bumper of the car in front of me, at the low fence separating asphalt from dirt and then rocks and then ocean. Thinking the word temptation. On balconies and sidewalks, my mind flipping back and forth between jump and push.

It might be worth mentioning that at that moment I hated Laura, was glad her marriage had fallen apart, that her ceaseless trust in the world had at last been proven foolish. Finding friends in every city she moved to, marrying a man on the strength of what, who knows, everywhere manufacturing happiness, happiness, happiness. But her luck had run out. Her story was still the better story, but finally, thank God, she was miserable in it.

Also that I’d started involuntarily imagining what it would be like to fuck every man I came into contact with. What it would be like if the power went out and everyone else in the room were raptured and we just had to do it right there on the conference-room table for the sake of, you know, humanity, his hand in my hair, pulling, and me opening my mouth to protest, the words dying in my throat. Involuntarily, right. I was working in HR at this point, is the irony of it. Probably this was connected to the fact that I’d started watching porn. Every morning, right after taking my basal body temperature, as if putting a thermometer in my vagina gave me the idea. As if I couldn’t think about making a baby without thinking about making a baby. In retrospect I think I was mad at my husband. Is that too obvious? Remarkable how hard it is for women to admit they’re angry. Not annoyed or upset or irked or miffed or any sentiment that might be captured in a text message that ends in a series of exasperated question marks. Angry.

The fantasies I kept having, I hated not the form of them but the content. Not that they were pornographic but that they were clichéd, that even the sex I let myself imagine having was boring. Another cliché: My husband was having an affair. No, not another cliché, a lie. Actually, I was the one who cheated, and not on a conference-room table post-rapture, but in a hotel room (there’s the cliché) up in the city, San Francisco. Then I came home and told my husband. This was later.

Up on the ridge or hill I turned to Laura and said, “Why did you tell me that story?”

“I think,” she said, “I thought I was telling you a story about how we fell in love.”

We started back down the path. “What do you think the story is about now?” I was again in front of her and so had to turn around to ask this question.

“Sometimes I think it’s a story about being tricked. Not that he did it on purpose, but it wasn’t accidental, him confiding in me, just then.” Of course every confidence is a kind of manipulation. Or calculation. I trust you with this. Or maybe it’s I want you to think that I trust you with this.

“And other times?”

“A low bar. I’m not—I mean, your mother dies and your father abandons you, I’m not saying that’s not rough. But the man tells me one sad, you know he shares one feeling—not even, he sort of implies emotional depth, and I’m ready to marry him. We ask too little. Or I do, anyway.”

We got to my car and I drove Laura back to my parents’ house. She asked me if I wanted to come in and I said I didn’t, but tell them I said hello. Then I drove back up north, to Marin County, which was where we lived. You know Marin County: clogs and herbs in window boxes and cleaning with white vinegar. Inconveniencing ourselves, yes, but only if we were guaranteed an aesthetic payoff. Good intentions, sure, but when have they ever been enough? And my herbs were dying. Some wanted water and some wanted sun and some needed shade and a good talking-to and I couldn’t bring myself to care which ones were which. Anyway, even the aesthetics we could barely afford, how we thought we were going to manage with a child I have no idea. When we split I moved in with my parents. My ex-husband had to get a roommate.

Two things Laura said: the part about “speaking desire” and also the part about the low bar. I started thinking about how I’d told John—my husband then, ex- now—that I wanted a baby, and he’d said Okay, like that, no conversation just Okay, like it was my decision, how endlessly supportive he was every month when I got my period, never angry, never sad, like it was something that was happening not to us but to me. And then I thought about how what I wanted was not a baby, not a baby with John, what I wanted was to go into the glass-fronted cabinet we’d bought at an antiques fair and restored (John was handy, he had that going for him, all those summers working construction) and remove the tea service his parents had gotten for him, for us, a wedding present—Limoges china, floral pattern, delicate handles, those rims so thin you wanted to bite right through them—and smash it, smash every single piece. Twelve cups and twelve matching saucers and the teapot, bulbous, mocking. A bizarre gift, his parents weren’t particularly rich or particularly British, something they said they thought I’d like. Maybe because I was, am, a snob.

So I opened the cabinet and I took the teapot out but then instead of smashing it I set it down on the ground and I removed its dainty lid and I unzipped my jeans and I pulled down my underwear and I pissed in it. Wiped the spray away with the bottom of my T-shirt, put the lid back on. Lifted the teapot, put it back in the cabinet, closed the cabinet’s glass-fronted door. In my hand the china felt, just slightly, warmer. It stayed there for a year. Then I had my affair and I got my divorce and I gave John the teapot and now I live somewhere else with my kid. He’s a boy. Laura I haven’t seen in years. 


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