At the Fourth of July picnic put on by the homeowners’ association, he could not decide whether to watch the fireworks show or to watch his young son’s face watching the fireworks show. That was many years ago. It seems to him now the last time a better instinct contended against his worse ones. He is wrong about that but not terribly so.
With his bowtie hanging untied from beneath his collar, he stood behind her and clasped her pearl-spaced choker while thinking better of saying something trite like can we just get through tonight in reference to an argument that ended eight minutes ago — one she is no longer thinking about. “You look …” he searched for a compliment, which should have been easy enough given her well preserved beauty, but his voice trailed off.
“I look what?”
“Well,” he said, “you know how you look.”
“Most of the mirrors in this house are yours, Steven, but, yes, I know how I look.”
“Forget I said anything.”
“I already have.”
They will not kiss again for another three weeks. When they do it is like half-sleeping children leaning up for cough syrup.
She has a recent habit of taking phone calls on the carpeted stairs, which suggests an affair or a terminal diagnosis. Later at the neighbor’s party of joyless cocktails, he’ll refer to that affair — his, not hers — as “benign.” Or maybe it was hers. Who has the energy for such tangled accounting.
Discretion is more important than quaint honesty, all in attendance agree without saying so. Plumed in dark finished worsteds, the serious men in serious shoes cluck at one other like chickens who have eaten all the day’s grain yet are not sated. If he remarked that he hoped his in-laws died at convenient times of year, they would nod in knowing consensus. One of them is suing his adult daughter. He sees no other way. They will attend Episcopalian services once every two months until they realize air travel provides enough ritual and deprivation.
“This wouldn’t be happening if I’d married beneath myself,” a woman nearby says. Others in a half-moon around her laugh as though what she said were not true.
After half of the two children are admitted to a lesser ivy, he’ll move to the city, or perhaps the country. She might go with him but probably not. She will make a decision unrelated to this matter while he is many miles away staring at the four-sided clock of a train station. He is thinking about his new tendency to add by accident an extra zero to the microwave timer.
The morning after the party, she sighs on the terrace while dangling a cigarette from her fingers — fingers he once described as “composed.” The other hand is tucked into the crook of her elbow. He is just beyond the open french doors considering a sweater and attempting to log in to his account. A message on the screen of his laptop reads in a confrontational font, “Please Call for Assistance.”
I shall do no such thing, he whispers.
(Photo via Los Angeles Public Library)