Stu and Jess have made too many commitments to turn the car around, and the girls are getting restless in the back seat. As they sit in traffic, Jess can’t help but imagine how life would have been had they gone a different way. For now, they seem to be getting nowhere.
About the AuthorSara Lippmann's debut collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts and her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Front Porch, Midnight Breakfast, Wigleaf and elsewhere. She teaches with Ditmas Writing Workshops, co-hosts the Sunday Salon, a monthly prose reading series in New York's East Village, and lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn. For more, see saralippmann.com.
We are stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. It is noon on a Sunday so a drive is expected; like everyone else, we oblige. Not to would be unpatriotic. Stu chose the tunnel instead of the bridge but it hasn’t made a difference. There are cars and more cars.
Should we cut across town? Stu eyes the clock.
I don’t know, I say. This is true. I’m lousy at options. All I know how to do is stay put. Again we’ve overscheduled, made too many promises. It is impossible.
How much time do we have?
Of course, Stu says, the East Side could be worse, with those cancer walks every other minute. Plus, what’s-his-name at the UN. Have you heard anything?
I change the station but it’s more Christmas songs. Too loud, the girls protest from the backseat. They are watching a movie. My little one scratches tights flecked with glitter. My nine-year-old sucks her thumb, forefinger stroking the bridge of her nose.
The doctor says it’s time we do something about it.
A white limo inches alongside us, rolls down windows. It is an advertisement for a morning after, absent ofshame: bottles dangling, limbs, the metallic strap ofa sandal. Music pumps. Hubcaps spin in circles. The glass ascends.
It is holiday season.
We are headed to Westchester for Stu’s firm’s partner’s annual party. Canapés and crudités and meat stuffed in pastry, greasy on square monogrammed napkins. It is the same each year. Stu will drink eggnog and espouse the health benefits of raw yolk to anyone who’ll listen. The kids will sit on Santa and tug at his fluff and rattle off wants then say, duh, they are Jewish.
Murphy’s Law, I tell him. If we take the FDR, watch, a truck will break down right in front of us.
We don’t chance it. We sit.
New construction surrounds. Mirrored facades, scaffolding, cranes. Parallel to the gridlock runs a path usually populated by joggers and cyclists, but the weather has left it deserted. Beyond that lays the flat gray slate of the Hudson.
Call your parents, Stu says. Tell them to start without us.
His parents are dead. Mine have lived in Mamaroneck for the last forty years. Down by the water, so loud the ducks are afraid ofthem. Plates crash into storm windows. They try to run each other over whenever the temperature drops but no one says they would love any better had they stayed in Queens.
We were due for brunch. My father canceled his tennis game for us. Stu says there will be other matches.
I pull down the visor even though it’s not particularly sunny. The light pops on as I open the mirror. Nose and teeth fill the frame in a way that is human to the point of grotesque. I inspect. Pores pitted like rind. Frown lines.
Plus, Stu says. It behooves us to visit open houses while we’re at it. I shut the mirror. Return the visor to its place.
We grew up like this: good schools, team sports, kick-the-can beneath street lamps on cul-de-sacs chasing coffee tins before they slipped down sewers. Later, cars parked in fields, kegs rolling downhill along with loose sneakers, our stoned drunken selves.
Ours were idyllic childhoods.
Enough, Stu says, of my fidgeting. I clasp my hands to still them but I’m restless. I peel the skin around my nails. What’s wrong with you? he says. Nothing. I press my palms between my knees. Did you take something? I do finger push-ups. I check all the vents. We creep. Through the sunroof it looks like the skyscrapers are shifting only it’s the clouds. Light streams in invitation but clouds don’t stop for me much less for anyone. It’s a childish longing. They break apart and reform, in continual motion. You can never rest your head there.
He says: Don’t you want the same things for our kids?
In the back seat our girls sit glazy eyed, as if they were watching a tiger maul a slab of meat at the zoo.
I pick up Stu’s phone from the cup holder between us. Unlock it. I scroll through his apps. Candy Crush. Zillow. Dow Jones. Angry Birds.
This is what happens when you live for others: My mother is up to her elbows in pulp, her ring cold on the kitchen sill cluttered with bamboo plants for luck and fortune. She will cut and squeeze and pour fresh juice into a pitcher laced with grape vines and we will not come to drink.
Yesterday I got a call from my friend Ruby. We used to be close. High school lab partners, we once chipped the scalp off a fetal pig as if it were a hardboiled egg. We paired field hockey kilts with fair-isle leg warmers and almost never stranded the other in an upperclassman’s basement, but she had this brother with a dragon tattoo that blew fire at me each time he flexed. I never told her outright but she knew. What’s the point of talking about stuff that goes nowhere? We were 17. His wide eyes trapped me like amber. I haven’t seen him since her wedding. I know not to ask. We’ve been through it, Ruby and me. We each have families. Still, it’d been a while.
You, Ruby said on the phone. She was driving and I could hear the desert wind push through her open window, sand kicking along the wheels. Let me figure out this damn earpiece. You first.
I had nothing and wasn’t in the mood to hide it. Thankfully, she’s not one to care about ballet recitals and report cards.
Same old, I told her. You know how it is.
Ruby is a wellness coach in Albuquerque. Part reflexology, part Reiki, equal parts acupuncture and herbs. In the past she’s offered breathing exercises, sent along self-help books she’s written with covers the color of silver fish, suggested a retreat of Buddhist celibacy. Get centered in six months, she’d say. No hidden clauses.
Who can go that long without fucking?
It’s got to mean something, Stu is saying. We are stopped at a light by Chelsea Piers. Guys in ski caps hustle the walk slugging hockey sticks and ice skates. I count them. Five, nine, thirteen. The car hums. I’m trying to follow which it he means. Otherwise, why bother. Stu says: Is it so wrong to want nice things?
I consider the cost of living. Notes folded like fortune cookies, from Ruby’s brother, buried deep along the floor ofmy closet. Hearts spliced into wings. All we need is right here, I say, and do my best to believe it. In this car: gently used, with heated seats and satellite radio and leather interior and a shiny DVD player that unfolds from the ceiling as if we were on an airplane soaring at 30,000 feet.
Stu hasn’t flown since the crash. Fuck it, I say, abruptly. I turn to him. Let’s road trip! Stu says get real. You sound like a car commercial with an ugly mouth. A pack of motorcycles roars by. Stu honks at their haughty rumps as they swerve through the mess onto freedom. We’re still not making progress. I am real but I don’t blame him. Everyone wants a reward for his efforts. I stare out the window.
First, let’s get to the suburbs, he says.
On the phone Ruby said, Swear on your life. I could hear her light a cigarette. It’s come down to this, she said. I am being realigned by this chick, this freckled stretch ofa healer, whose partner, God kill me, is a client. I KNOW. Everyone barters out here, but Jess, she starts working and I almost come right there on her table. Do you have any idea what that kind of touch is like?
Her brother used to make me cry with his hands.
Mind you, Ruby went on, this is all through a sheet. I am lying there lubed in lavender oil, but when I sit up and the sheet drops like a petal I don’t care. What am I doing, Jess. She just holds me.
Porn. Stu has porn apps on his Droid. Bright squares like mosaic tiles, slashed triple X, bundled into an innocent hub, a folder marked ME.
Last week I told Stu to get a hobby.
I click an app and it’s clinical: knees bent, legs spread, hairless cunt corked with a probe used to confirm pregnancy. Gynecological porn. I tap for a close-up but all I see are swaths of knuckle, a blurry magic wand.
Stu changes lanes. We are now sandwiched between a dented livery cab and a school bus stenciled with Hebrew letters. Children in scalloped collars and velvet smocks press worn faces to the glass. They look out, their hair wild from the static of dry heat, from lives spent indoors. Fingertips press like geckos. My girls do not notice. They are glued to their cartoon prince and castle.
That’s all it takes, Ruby said. Despite all my training, one touch and I’m gone. A touch like that on a set of scales, weighed against a box of brass grams, remember science lab? Against everything else—I have three goddamn kids!—and it’s no contest. Am I a monster?
Yesterday I told her she had it made. I said: You’re living the life. Touch is one thing. To feel is something else.
I swipe my finger across Stu’s screen.
Check out the Georgian in Bedford, he directs, staring into the windshield as I tinker on his phone. He looks over so I close the porn and open a listing from Coldwell Banker. The house has columns and a paved circular driveway. It looks expensive.
Nice, he says. His fingers catch my hair. Eyes on the road, I tell him. I flip. He has saved more than a dozen homes. A Tudor in Irvington, a contemporary in Rye, a Philip Johnson inspired mid-century modern in Pound Ridge, a front hall colonial in White Plains.
How could I ever go back? Ruby said. Forget assets. We have no insurance. The way Rich glues himself to the couch makes me sure I am fat. Other than the kids — what is there to split?
Ten years is a long time, I said yesterday of her marriage. If that were dog years I’d be dead.
In the car Stu asks: Well, what do you think? Where can you see yourself? The river chops at a barge towing freight. I try to picture. Dial the broker. Set it up. Did you remember the wine for the Halseys?
I rustle the cellophane-wrapped gift at my feet. After the party we’ll stop by your folks’ or wherever. My father glues model airplanes, my mother collects vintage frocks. Into the automated calling system I say: Lorraine.
There is trouble in the back. Dropped juice boxes. Spilled snacks. Used tissues and tears. My nine-year-old has clocked her sister with an elbow. Swats and hair pulls and words like I hate you. I spin around and ask if they need to be separated.
Not like there is a place to go. I unbuckle my seatbelt and lean over the front armrest to help them. I rescue the drinks from the floor mats. I scoop handfuls of fish, pick off the dust, stuff them back into their plastic spill-proof containers. As I reach my shirt rides up and my underwear crawls out the top of my jeans so my husband flicks the V of my thong the way a seventh grade boy might snap the back of a training bra.
Better? I say.
My five-year-old nods. My nine-year-old yawns. At night she stays up reading about a Canadian child who wished on a star and became an overnight pop sensation.
His story makes her weep. Adoration is rare. We’ve been backed up for an hour. The movie is almost done.
I tell Lorraine: Nothing split-level.
My husband calls me a snob. Look behind you, Jess. You with that iceberg shoulder. The line crackles then puffs; he’s muted the broker. Maybe you could do a shoebox forever but have you forgotten about us?
Ruby cursed the fallen ash in her thighs. Does everyone else just fake it? She said but didn’t wait for an answer. I had nothing to give. Trust me, she said. It’s not like I sit around thinking this is all there is, but then seasons shift and suddenly, everything’s missing.
Stu was my prom date. Because his pain was greater than mine, because I believed you could contain and shape things like loss. Because Ruby’s brother had moved on. Stu wore tails because that’s all the rental shop had left in stock, and my father spotted the corsage, a gardenia as big as my face, understanding Stu’s mind was elsewhere, cast over the Atlantic with the rest of the wreckage. We posed in front of a pasty blue backdrop like the entire class only our shot landed in the paper with the caption: Orphaned, with Love. People live for these kinds of endings. We were married at 23.
I lift my boots to the dash. You’ll scuff the interior. I plant my feet on the floor and scroll.
Cut the Rope. Mortal Combat. Angry Birds 2. Stu asks if I have directions. He’s your partner, I start but Google the home address anyway. His search history appears. There are no surprises. No heads. No features. Just flesh. Frames upon frames of flesh, spread, swollen, disembodied, pale as the belly of a pig.
Body scans from airport security machines. Spooky outlines of people, blue lit, the color of wax, their shapes lumpy and unforgiving. Legs hip width apart. Arms raised in surrender, arms held in a cross, arms clipped to the sides in resignation. The images go on for pages: Intimate and ethereal, male and female, cast in infrared, weapons saddling love handles. Each body I scour as a surgeon would an X-ray, for what, a malignant blot, a swallowed object, a memory left on a neck, there has to be something, but just as the search begins to feel endless the links peter out and the pictures cycle back on themselves.
Before we hung up Ruby said, Jess, how about you? I can’t imagine what you must do all day. My brother passed through the other night on his way out West in a car powered by French fry grease, hell-bent on saving the planet. He’s gone so Into the Wild you wouldn’t recognize him. He’s saddled by all these ideas. Do any women like their husbands?
The city is almost behind us.
The girls have fallen asleep. Stu retracts the DVD player, raises a brow across the gearshift. His lap is large enough to lie in. His smile, a shimmer. Are you done with my phone? It is not a question. I hand it over.