My wife’s friend—my friend too, she reminded me—was coming over to conduct some nude drawings. Maybe conduct isn’t the word. She was coming over to look at my wife naked, for a while, and I was told it didn’t matter if I was around or not. I had errands to run. It was a Sunday, after all; I’d be in and out, in and out. Tate was her name. Like the museum? I’d asked her once. Tate had shrugged, like maybe she hadn’t even heard of it. Strange, because she was an artist. An upscale furniture maker, doing wooden sculptures on the side. Well, first Tate would draw, taking stock from all directions. Then, back in her studio maybe, she’d carve. Someday soon a dead log would take the shape of my wife, knotted breasts and rings cinching through her soft belly. Fine, that’d be fine.
Tate was standing outside the front door, looking down at her phone, when I stepped out to take Andy for a walk. Flustered, you might say.
“Oh hey, Jake. I’m a few minutes early.”
“No problem, how are you? Good to see you.”
“You too. And well! I’m well.”
“She’s good! Yeah, real good. You two should come over for dinner once it gets warm enough to sit on the new porch.”
Maybe it was the circumstance, her bag being full of tools to draw the image of my naked wife. There was an awkwardness to it. Tate and Sandy have come over for dinner plenty of times. This was different. I told her to go right in and quit standing outside like a Jehovah’s Witness. I said I’d see her in a few.
When I came back from walking Andy, my wife was naked. She was sitting on the dark blue rug with her legs kicked out to the left and her hand reaching down on the right. Her white bathrobe lay beneath her like a picnic blanket. I thought about the first time I took all her clothes off outside. Two striped towels formed a blanket over the tall grass. I had a vision of little black spiders climbing onto us the second I entered her. I couldn’t get rid of the thought. When I finally finished it was like a school opening its doors to summer. All that brainpower, trying so hard not to think about those little black spiders with my wife’s legs tight around my hips.
Tate arranged her pencils. The square of white was empty in front of her. My wife looked up at me without moving her head.
“Did Andy do his business?”
“Shat all over the Greggorys’ lawn.”
The dog was barely trained, still a pup. We never used phrases like “do his business.” This was strange coming out of my wife’s mouth, like she’d aged twenty years in front of me. The light from the southern windows fell over her in pinstripes. I wanted to cup the little fall of her belly in my palm.
“Well, I’m off to the grocery store,” I said. “Do you want me to take Andy with me so he doesn’t bother you? Not too hot out there, I can just roll down the windows for him.” My wife is very nervous about dogs in hot cars. It was only May, but I wanted her to know I was thinking about this—always thinking about it, like her.
“He can stay, it’s no problem,” said Tate. I hadn’t been asking Tate, but I nodded. Okay.
I ran into two of my students at the grocery store. It’s a small town, so it happens more than you’d think.
“Looks like you gals have a big night planned,” I said, eyeing their boxes of brownie mix.
“Just a regular Sunday-night Marlon Brando marathon,” said Erica. I let out a big fake laugh. We’d just finished Heart of Darkness the week before, and I’d made them watch Apocalypse Now for Friday’s class. You think you’re doing a nice thing, letting 15-year-olds watch a movie for class, but they hated it. Talked the whole period. Every time the camera panned to Marlon’s blank face one of them would jump in to narrate his thoughts. About drove me nuts.
“Funny,” I said to Erica. Erica was one of the good ones. Some teenagers just know how to keep up their end of the conversation with adults. It’s refreshing—rare, too. You don’t think about that unless you’re a high school teacher. Her friend Eleanor, also my student, wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“Well,” I said, “gotta get back to”—and then I held up the box of Sudafed in my hand—“the lab.” It was a joke; it just came out. Like, the meth lab. I shouldn’t have said it. Erica smirked, like she got the joke. I wished she hadn’t.
“Anyhow, I’ll see you girls tomorrow,” I said, and we all parted, thank God. I had vegetables and cheese to pick up, too; I should have grabbed a basket.
On the way home I thought: I really shouldn’t have made that joke. High school teachers have certainly been fired for less. If it came up at school the next day, I could mention my sinus infection, say something about meeting Scott over at the high school, preparing our classrooms, etc. Scott teaches chemistry in a laboratory classroom and we’re good friends; we eat lunch together most days. Scott is older and softer and balder than me, a distinction likely lost on anyone under 19. My wife says Scott’s wife is cheating on him. She met the woman once at a faculty picnic and then came home from dinner with one of her girlfriends saying she saw Scott’s wife—really! it was her!—sipping wine and whispering something “very sexy” (she didn’t hear it) into the ear of some other gentleman at the restaurant’s bar. I’ve never brought it up with Scott, of course.
You have to understand: my wife’s greatest flaw is that she believes in conspiracy theories. Very few people know this about her; they think she must be highly rational, being as blunt and candid as she is. But she is easily convinced of outrageous things. It’s an okay flaw to have; I am a lucky man, on the whole. But sometimes, you spend too many years with a woman like that, and the world starts to take on a stranger shape. Oblong, you might say. You think it’s round but someone in your ear is convincing you it’s not quite.
After I put away the groceries, I filled up the big plastic pitcher we keep under the sink and started watering the plants. My wife is always complaining about how little I water the plants. Once, I bought a basil plant and added it to the rest of the bunch, but she didn’t water it, just to make a point. She wasn’t trying to be passive-aggressive; she thought it was funny. Jake’s poor brown basil plant beside his wife’s forest of healthy herbs and vines. It’s still infrequent, but here and there I’ll remember to do the watering rounds. Today I just wanted a reason to go into the living room without them thinking I was hovering. Not spying, just saying hello.
“Well that looks really nice,” I said, when I saw what Tate was working on. There were about six little sketches of a faceless body on the paper, each one a little different—darker, rounder, sharper—though I could see my wife in each of them. I could tell I’d walked in on the middle of a funny story by the way they looked at each other sheepishly.
“Oh. Yeah, coming along,” said Tate after a long, pregnant pause. My wife was sitting with one leg stretched out and the other bent into a triangle. She is self-conscious of how long her legs are in comparison to her short little torso, and they looked as long as they ever have right there. Her elbow rested in the crook of her knee and she cupped her chin in her palm, as if she’d been trying to stretch, but had quickly given up. I watered the spider plants by the window and smiled at my wife as I left.
Let me tell you: staying in touch with family is important. It’s not easy, but I make a point of calling my parents every weekend. They’re old, my dad especially. After their divorce he seemed to get a lot older. He lives in a nice condo with other folks; it’s sort of like college, really. My wife and I went down there to visit him one weekend when he was performing in the talent show. He called his set “sit-down comedy”—everyone liked that. Then, at the end of it, he said, “If you all don’t mind, I’m going to read a poem.” And then he opened up a notebook and just sat there, eyes moving languidly across the lines of the page, not saying anything. My wife was the first person to start laughing. She was almost in tears, laughing so hard. A minute went by, then two. He was just sitting up there, reading to himself. Finally, some other folks caught on, started laughing as well. Then my dad shut the notebook, looked up, and said, “Ah, I do love Walt Whitman.”
Well, my wife still talks about that. The two of them get along real well. It’s like a Monty Python movie around the holidays; everything’s a bit. When my wife and I watch movies, we never find the same things funny, but I know exactly what will make her laugh. She’s got a nice laugh, all wild and uncontained, the way little kids howl when you pretend to steal their noses or pull things out of their ears. When she laughs, I do too. I can’t help it.
I brought the phone up to our bedroom. Dad picked up after about ten rings.
“My boy!” he said. He sounded drunk. “Listen, I’m heading out to the pool with a fine woman named Janet.” He enunciated her name like it was a code word between us.
“Just called to see how you were doing,” I said.
“And I’m glad you did! I’ve only got a few minutes, so tell me something good.”
“Let’s see. Well, we’re heading up to the mountains for Memorial weekend—I told you that, didn’t I? Renting a cabin.”
“Ah, a romantic cabin in the mountains,” my dad said, like the voice-over for a ski resort commercial.
“The pictures looked nice online. It’s got a big red hammock in the front. Reminded me of the house on Long Pond. Smaller, obviously.”
“Mmm, okay,” said my dad. My mother’s sister married very rich, and when I was a kid we used to stay at one of their lake houses, sometimes weeks on end. One summer—I must have been about eleven—my dad belly-flopped onto the hammock where I was splayed out, the full weight of him catapulting me off the woven ropes. He did his own version of a concussion test on me before my cheeks had even dried—reading numbers right to left off a piece of scrap paper—and passed me with flying colors. By the time I told him about my nausea that afternoon, my concussion score was already finalized and he instructed me to go sit on the toilet. If there’s one thing I know I will never do as a father, it’s to tell my sick child that he just needs to go to the bathroom.
I knew my dad didn’t remember the hammock I was talking about. To be honest, I’d mentioned the detail just to prove myself correct. He was old before I was even born, and these days I imagine being in his head is like driving for ten miles before realizing the radio station isn’t in English. I mentioned it to my wife once, after realizing he had no recollection of my being vaguely redheaded as a child and couldn’t recall my being engaged to a woman named Angelica for half a year in college. She cited his comedic timing as proof of adequate cranial activity for a man in his 80s. This I found preposterous. “You’re too sentimental.” That’s what she said. “Not everyone attaches so much meaning to everything, every little fucking memory,” she added. I know that sounds mean; she didn’t say it in a mean way, but I left it at that.
My dad was breathing heavily into the phone, probably thinking of what to say next, now that most of his memory had gone by the wayside. I knew what was coming, because it comes every single time we talk, the one question lodged in his brain like a permanent sticky note, so I stayed quiet and just waited for it.
“Well, I’m sure it will be a fantastic vacation,” he said. “Maybe so fun that you finally make me a grandbaby, ay?”
“Yup,” I said. “We’ll see.”
We’ve been trying to conceive for a few years, with no success. With no urgency either, I will admit. My wife is always saying things like, “I just want to live my life—if I get pregnant along the way, fine!” She’s been saying this for quite a while, in fact. At first this made me nervous—I want kids, I’ve always wanted kids. But we’d never discussed it in concrete terms before getting married. Then I realized, recently: of course! She’s scared of being a mother! She thinks she won’t be good at it! Her own mother was a menace—totally vacant, often cruel—and now she’s dead. Well, everything clicked. She wants a family—we both do—but who isn’t at least a little bit scared of it all?
These days I don’t bring it up too much. My wife does not like it when I talk about turning the little office that we use as an in-home storage unit into a baby’s room; she gets very quiet when I ask her opinion about a particular name. I try to keep it to myself, now. But if we don’t get lucky soon, I’ve got a list of all the good fertility doctors in a 50-mile radius.
A woman’s voice, presumably Janet, was getting louder in the background.
“Sounds like Janet’s ready to go,” I said. “Mind if I ask what decade she was born in?”
My mother was twenty-two years younger than my dad, but after they divorced, he dated a woman ten years older than himself for a few years. So, you never know. He’s a wildcard.
“Not telling,” he said. “Ha! The pool is calling my name. Thanks for calling, Jakey boy.”
After my dad hung up, I looked out our bedroom window for a while. We’ve got a nice vegetable garden in the back. Eggplants and squashes, tomatoes and spearmint. All the nightshades. Like I said, it was only May, but still nice to look at that patch of ground and imagine it late summer, all ripe and fertile.
I heard my name and turned toward the door, where my wife was standing with her bathrobe untied and hanging open in the front. She had one hand up against the door frame so that the edge of the fabric caught and rested against her nipple. You can see a woman naked every day and still, a sight like that will do something to you.
“What are you smirking at?”
“Nothing. You look very nice.”
“Yeah?” she said, lifting the other arm against the doorframe.
“Rather risqué,” I said. Of course, this is the most clothed she’d been all day.
“What are you doing up here?”
“I was talking to my dad,” I said, my pulse settling back down.
“Oh? How’s he doing?”
“It seems he’s doing Janet.”
My wife raised her eyebrows. I motioned for her to come over to where I was sitting on the bed. I wanted her to straddle me and wrap her robe around the both of us, but she only touched the top of my head as she walked over to the dresser.
“And what are you doing up here?” I asked. “You missed me?”
“Sandy called so we took a break. I need some socks. Can I wear these?”
She held up my warmest wool socks. I nodded, of course.
“I ran into some students at the grocery store,” I said. “Poet Laureate Erica and her angsty sidekick.”
“Your little muse,” said my wife. I went over to the dresser and put my hands on her shoulders.
“Actually, I believe I am her muse.” My wife’s shoulders went slack beneath my hands. I could tell she was smiling. She rested the back of her head on my chest. Until a few weeks ago, our fridge had featured a poem and accompanying picture of Erica that I’d clipped from the newspaper. I was proud of her for winning the local teen poetry contest. She’d written the poem in my class, after all. My wife hadn’t said anything about it, but then, one evening as we were cooking dinner together, she went to the fridge and pulled off the clipping.
“This is why I’m never having a teenager,” she said. “So fucking dramatic. Can I please recycle this now, sailor of scrolls?” I laughed and took the paper from her, throwing it into the recycling bin myself.
“That is you, isn’t it?” she asked me, a reference to one of the poem’s weaker lines: sailor of scrolls, my name upon the tip of your red felt pen. Oof. I shrugged and held her grinning face in my wet hands. Based merely on the number of times Erica stops at my classroom just to say hi or ask an inane homework question, it’s certainly possible that I was the object of her poem’s poetic longing. It was even true that I did all of my essay editing in red. Of course, I wouldn’t be the first English teacher subjected to the literary imaginings of a student.
For a while, my wife and I started calling each other sailor. If we were out and about and passed a flower shop or jewelry store, I’d say Should I pick up something for Erica? That always made her laugh. Not until much later did I finally have the stomach to bring it up, what she’d said that day.