9 January, 2018
On Saturday morning, I sit in bed and scroll through my phone and try to remember when, exactly, weekends became something to be endured. I text Madeline to ask if she and her girlfriend, Lauren, are going to Alice’s birthday party. Madeline is the one friend I have who does not require a week’s notice to make plans. The rest are married, with an assortment of children.
I toss the phone on the bed and consider my options. I could trim my beard. I could scramble eggs. I could research memory foam pillows to replace the sad sack pillow I currently own. Instead, I pick up my phone and go to my ex-wife’s Facebook page. My ex-wife and I are no longer friends on Facebook—all I can see is her profile picture, which has not changed in several months. In the picture, she sits in an Adirondack chair, grinning, wearing a dress I don’t recognize. The dress is blue and looks a lot like a nightgown. I look at the picture and wonder, as I always do, when my ex-wife started to wear dresses that look like nightgowns. I wonder if her life now, six months after our divorce, more closely resembles the one she wanted.
My phone buzzes.
Lauren’s sick, Madeline says. But I’ll go if you go.
At Alice’s birthday party, Madeline pulls a beer from a cooler mixed with juice boxes and hands it to me. “I did the math, Sam,” she says. “By the time Alice is fifty, I’ll be dead.”
Alice is three. She is dressed as a hotdog, though it is not a costume party, and waving an orange popsicle. From the deck, we watch as she drops the popsicle on the lawn, picks it up, and sticks it in her mouth. “Where’s Nicholas?” I ask. Nicholas is Alice’s father. He, Madeline, and I shared a house on Calvert Street a decade ago, in our twenties. Madeline refers to them as the Ball Sack Years.
“Hiding,” Madeline says.
“He said there would be other childless people. And he promised a moon bounce.”
“Well,” Madeline says, “Nicholas a liar.”
Seven or eight children wander around the backyard like drunks, weaving through the sprinkler, crashing into stationary objects. A handful of parents gathers around the kiddie pool, casually vigilant. One of them is a red-haired woman in a gray shirt tucked into slim black shorts. She pulls a bottle of sunscreen from a bag and slathers it onto the arms of a small red-haired girl. “Should we go talk to them?” I ask.
The small red-haired girl lets out a long, piercing scream.
“No,” Madeline says.
Nicholas appears with a store-bought vegetable tray and sets it on the table next to the cooler. “Good,” he says, “you found the alcohol.” He opens a beer. I met Nicholas at a party when we were twenty-six, after I overheard him tell a girl that he was deeply interested in ancient civilizations. I have come to learn that women find Nicholas appealing, regardless of what he is deeply interested in.
The red-haired woman walks up to the side of the deck. “Is there another one of those?”
Nicholas fishes a beer from the cooler, twists the cap off, and hands it to her.
“Who’s that?” I ask, after she goes back to the kiddie pool.
“Kate Holiday,” Nicholas says. “Her niece is in daycare with Alice.”
“That’s not her kid?” I ask.
“No,” Nicholas says. “Why?”
“Sam likes redheads,” Madeline says. “Even though they make him miserable.”
I finish my beer and open another. “I’m not always miserable.”
“Remember the time I came over,” she says, “and you were eating yogurt with a fork?”
“I was out of clean spoons.”
“You were unkempt.” Madeline raises her beer, in a toast. “Less so now.”
Alice climbs onto the deck. Her hotdog costume is a red tube with a yellow strip of felt down the center. She runs past her father and wraps her arms around Madeline’s legs. “I don’t get it,” Nicholas says. “Kids love you.”
Madeline crouches to Alice’s height. “What do you have there?”
Alice holds up a plastic cow. “A dinosaur.”
Nicholas shrugs. “She’s into dinosaurs.”
“What’s your favorite dinosaur?” Madeline says.
“T-Rex,” Alice says. “But his little arms make me sad.”
“Honey,” Nicholas’s wife calls from the lawn. “Could you bring out the cake?”
Nicholas’s wife is wearing an off-white dress with a leather belt knotted at her waist; she gives the impression of someone who rode horses as a child. She has excellent posture and, the first time I met her, seemed either very shy or mildly disdainful. The second time I met her, she told a long, filthy joke about a priest and a prostitute and Darth Vader, and I started to understand her appeal.
“The birthday cake?” Nicholas says.
“Yes, the birthday cake,” she says. “For our daughter’s birthday.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s an ice cream cake. I’ll give you three guesses.”
Nicholas takes a sip of beer. “Should I do the candles?”
Nicholas’s wife gives a big, dazzling smile. “How about you find a big box of matches,” she says, “and ask our three-year-old to light the candles?”
Madeline and I exchange the look we reserve for when other people’s relationships seem unenviable. Nicholas finishes the beer, tosses it into the recycling bin, and goes into the house. Alice sets the plastic cow on the deck and covers it with a paper napkin. “Be quiet,” she says. “The dinosaur is sleeping.”
Nicholas produces an ice cream cake without candles. We sing and eat the cake and the children run in literal circles around the backyard. Someone gives them water guns, and someone else wonders aloud if water guns promote gun culture. Madeline opens two beers and gives one to me. “If I drink too much and make a scene, maybe Nicholas will ask me to leave.”
“Do you want to leave?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “I want to complain.”
We look at the adults on the lawn and play the game we sometimes play, where we try to guess the last time each of them had sex. “Your problem,” Madeline says, “is you think only good-looking people have sex.”
“Content-looking people,” I say.
“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “Sex has nothing to do with being content.”
“Interesting,” I say. “You and Lauren seem content.”
I had dinner at their place the week before last: Lauren roasted a chicken, and the three of us split 2.5 bottles of wine. We talked about how Madeline’s work nemesis talked incessantly about toxins, and how Lauren was much better at smoking pot than Madeline, and how I should find a woman on the Internet because that was the whole point of the Internet, and because I still had a full head of hair. At the end of the night, they walked me to the front door, and Lauren hooked a finger through the pocket of Madeline’s jeans in a way that made me realize, acutely, that I would be going home to an empty apartment.
Madeline picks at the label on her beer.
“You’re not content?” I say.
She shrugs. “It’s like a video game. I thought when I met Lauren I had won the game. But then it kept going.” Her phone chimes and she looks at the screen. “Sometimes it’s hard,” she says. “And sometimes it’s boring.” She puts the phone to her ear, opens the door to the house, and closes it behind her.
I stand there, alone, and look at the yard. Nicholas sits on the lawn, arm extended, as Alice slides colorful plastic bracelets over his hand. Nicholas’s wife joins them, settling on the grass in spite of her off-white dress. She leans over and kisses Nicholas on the cheek. I watch them for about thirty seconds before I start to think about the phone in my pocket and how, if I wanted to, I could look at it. That’s when the red-haired woman climbs onto deck. Kate Holiday.
She smiles. “You look confused.” She opens the cooler, sifts through the contents.
“Oh,” I say. “I am sometimes.”
“All the beer’s gone.” She looks at me. Her cheeks are flushed.
“Do you want a juice box?” I say.
“Tempting,” she says.
I hold out my beer. “Do you want mine?”
To my surprise, she steps forward, pulls the bottle from my hand, and takes a sip. It occurs to me, distantly, that my heart is pounding. I wonder if there is a medical term for when that happens. I wonder if there is a medical term specific to when it is induced by another person.
“Your beer’s warm,” she says.
“Yup,” I say.
She grins and sets the half-empty bottle on the railing. I pick it up and we stand there, leaning against the railing. There is a breeze in the air. The sun drops behind a passing cloud and reemerges. The color of the grass shifts from a dark green to a lighter one.
Somewhere in the backyard a kid starts crying—the small red-haired girl. “Oh dear,” Kate says. I watch as she walks down the steps to the lawn. When she reaches the grass, I pull out my phone, tap on Facebook, and search for Kate Holiday. I find her profile, which is only semi-private, and scroll through her seventeen pictures. Kate next to a cardboard cutout of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kate in sunglasses, holding a coconut drink in one hand, a champagne glass in the other. Kate swinging in a hammock, laughing, the right side of her face hidden behind a white paper fan.
I look up and see her on the lawn, a plastic wand poised at her mouth, blowing soap bubbles. She tilts her head, watching the bubbles float above the kiddie pool, brushes a strand of hair from her cheek, and hands the wand to the small red-haired girl. It would be so easy, I think, to join her there. To ask for her phone number.
I imagine sitting beside her at a low-lit bar, drinking a second glass of bourbon, sharing a tiny, seven-dollar dish of olives. I imagine her swiveling on the bar stool, rolling an olive between her fingers, popping it in her mouth. I imagine a series of dates: different bars, different drinks, a slow and steady reveal of our imperfections.
I look back at my phone and tap on her list of friends. I pause. I draw the phone closer to my face. Kate Holiday has a friend who looks a lot like my ex-wife.
It is my ex-wife, I realize. She changed her profile picture.
In the new picture, my ex-wife stands in front of a brick wall painted bright green. She wears a blue t-shirt she bought years ago, from a truck that sold t-shirts and live goldfish in tiny plastic bowls. Her smile is big, her hair unruly. Snaked around her waist is a man’s arm. It is impossible to tell who the arm belongs to, because he is cropped out of the picture. It could, conceivably, belong to no one of significance. It could belong to my ex-wife’s brother, even though he lives in Lansing, Michigan and has not spoken to her in three years.
The phone, suddenly, feels hot and slick in my hand. It occurs to me that my wife is not my wife anymore, for a variety of tangible and less tangible reasons. She will never be my wife again. It occurs to me that I am thirty-seven years old and drunk at a child’s birthday party. There is a neat, searing pain in my right temple.
Madeline returns to the deck. “You look like you’re about to throw up,” she says.
I finish my beer. “I have a headache.”
She reaches over and presses a finger to my forearm. The imprint turns pink. “You’re burning,” she says.
The house is cool and dark, the curtains drawn, the central air humming. The kitchen counter is littered with juice boxes and plates smeared with melted ice cream, the dining room carpet strewn with towels and alphabet puzzle pieces. I follow Madeline into the bathroom and watch as she pulls different bottles from the medicine cabinet. “There’s no headache stuff.” She closes the cabinet and brushes past me. “I’ll check upstairs.”
I go to the living room and sink into the couch. I look at my reflection in the television. I look like somebody’s sad, drunk uncle.
Alice walks into the room, holding an assortment of jumbled towels. Her hotdog costume is bedraggled, the strip of yellow felt trailing behind her. She approaches the couch, takes the beer bottle, sets it on the floor. “Lie down,” she says. I stretch across the couch. “No.” She points to the carpet.
“Down there?” I say.
“On the floor,” Alice says, solemnly.
The carpet is plush. I lie on my back. “Close your eyes,” she says, and I close them. “You’re sleeping,” she says. She puts her hand on my forehead, and then covers my face with a damp towel. At first, I wonder why the towel is damp. At first, I make a list of all the liquids it might be damp with. But the cloth is cool, and it smells like laundry detergent, and it feels pleasant, like a spa treatment. Alice covers my chest with a towel. She covers my legs with a towel, my feet. “Goodnight,” she says. I listen to her pad away on the carpet, into the kitchen. I listen to the back door open and close. I listen to the sound of my breaths, in and out.