It starts at dinner one night. She’s been home with the children all day (because it is summer; and because they decided early on that this year camp was out of the question, given the expense; and because it is easier for her to work from home, or so he argued and she agreed, though she knew even then how the children can get to squalling and bickering and vying for her attention at every turn—as all small children will do).
It starts at dinner on an evening that is strangely, unseasonably warm for Seattle in July—so warm that by the time she sets a plate of cold sandwiches and a bowl of cold pickled onions (the evening’s “vegetable”) on the table, she is tired and sweating into her underwire and worrying at least a little bit in the back of her mind about climate change and the incredible, stubborn ignorance of American government on this issue, and she is simply not in a temper receptive to even benign criticism when he sits down and says, “Sandwiches for dinner?”
Jesus fucking Christ, she thinks but does not say, because they long ago agreed to try not to swear in front of the children. Instead, she says, “I forgot drinks,” and she gets up and goes to the kitchen and stands for a long minute with her body wedged between the opened French doors of the refrigerator and freezer letting the draft of mechanically chilled air nook into the damp places beneath her t-shirt while she looks at the paper milk carton and the neat row of juice boxes and finally locates at the very back of the fridge two long-necked bottles of beer lying like downed troops on their sides.
Two hours later, the children have been bathed and brushed and bored into sleep by the long passage she’s read to them from The Hobbit, and she climbs into the shower herself and has only just begun to suds-up her hair when his face appears around the curtain. “No,” she says simply. She doesn’t even mean to, but she also raises her hand while she says it—an involuntary gesture exactly like the one she makes when telling the dog to sit and stay.
So that’s how it continues, their fight, though fight is too active a word for what they’re doing, which is more like declining to get along.
He drops the shower curtain, and for a few minutes she hears him at the sink, brushing his teeth and doing whatever that thing is that he does with the floss and his tongue. She hears him pee and flush and open and close the medicine cabinet’s mirrored door two or three times, and when he goes, he shuts off the bathroom light so that she has to holler, “Hey?” And then the light is back on, without comment or apology.
“The fuck,” she says to herself, under her breath, but only because the shower is running and the children are presumably asleep, and there is no one to hear her.
In bed a while later, they lie back to back as always, and he says, “Night,” and she says, “Night,” and within seconds—truly, seconds—he is breathing the deep sighs of sleep. She thinks it’s this she most resents, actually—this easy ability he has (and has always had) to sleep no matter what has just transpired between them. He has the body-brain divide, she thinks. She’s recently discussed this with a woman friend—the body-brain divide that, the friend has posited, must be one of the male-specific genes carried only by the Y chromosome. Yes, she thinks now, and she considers that one of the trials of her day was that, while cleaning the bathroom, she discovered that her son—a nine-year-old, who has otherwise shown signs of being very intelligent and, according a standardized test administered by the school district, even measurably “gifted”—has been periodically peeing into the waste bin next to the toilet. Why? she questioned the boy when she discovered the reek and then opened the bin’s lid to see a visible puddle of urine collected in a pool at the bottom of the plastic liner. Why would you do this? And the boy just shrugged, an expression of not-exactly-remorse but (at least) embarrassment on his face. I didn’t think, I guess, he said.
“Uh huh,” she now says aloud in bed, and her husband rolls toward her and makes a sound of semi-consciousness, and she pats his shoulder the way she used to pat their sleeping babies, and she rolls to her other side so that she doesn’t have to be face-to-face with him, breathing in his expired air. Goodnight, love.
It’s the next day, or maybe a couple of days later, when she meets a different woman friend at the park, and they sit together on a blanket underneath a maple tree on a hill crowded with other mothers on other blankets, all of them watching their children run screaming between the metal bodies of several brightly colored Dr. Suessian structures that either spout or gush or dump great quantities of chlorinated water. The day is once again unfathomably warm, and she and her friend repeat laments they’ve made before about the heat and about potentially carcinogenic sunscreen and about the irresponsibility of parents who let their kids bring water guns fashioned like assault weapons to the playground. As they do this, they open their soft-shell coolers and unload snacks—plastic containers filled with washed and cut baby carrots and sliced strawberries and snap peas and chickpeas and snow peas. Waxed paper baggies filled with rice crackers and puffed rice and little organic cookies shaped like farm animals. They eat while they unpack, and soon enough the conversation comes around to a place where she can mention the sandwich comment from dinner. “He didn’t mean anything by it,” she says, not certain why she’s excusing him other than that she doesn’t want him to look like a tyrant—he’s not a tyrant. He’s not cruel. And, moreover, she’s not the sort of woman who would let herself be roped into a marriage to a cruel tyrant.
The friend sighs, says, “Look, they don’t think about what it took to get those sandwiches on the table.”
She thinks about this. “Don’t they, though?” she asks. And then, hesitating, adds, “I mean, also, did it take that much, really, for me to make sandwiches? Wasn’t the point of sandwiches that they don’t require very much effort, and is that so bad after a long day? Am I supposed to be up to coq au vin every night?”
“Oh, god,” the friend says. “Don’t start questioning yourself.”
“This is why those blog-women love their crock pots,” she says.
The friend shakes her head. “Don’t get me started on the fucking crock pots,” she agrees.
For a moment they both pause and scan the riot on the playground for their children’s particular wet heads among the chaos of other children’s wet heads. Check and check. Everyone accounted for and upright.
“I just think,” she begins again, “I don’t know how we got to this place, you know? In our marriage.”
“Inertia,” the friend says.
“Right. But still. I thought it’d be easier.”
“Everyone thinks that.”
“I thought we were a post-domestic partnership.”
“Everyone thinks that.”
“This isn’t even the fight I really want to have.”
“Right,” the friend says.
From the playground, a shrill chorus of screams. The big bucket has filled and it is tipping, tipping. There’s a break in the voices as the water crashes down on the little heads, a splat as it hits the pavement, and then the children scatter, yawping, hooting. She spots her own daughter—dark ponytail, round little bottom in a pink frilled suit—who is galloping, clapping, soaked to the bone. This is the girl who is afraid of a full bathtub; who, the last time they all stayed overnight at a hotel, insisted on wearing her life-vest even in the shallow end of the hotel pool, for fear she’d sink. And yet she loves this mock-drowning on the playground, her girl.
“You know,” the friend says, “there are all kinds of marriages. I met a woman at the co-op playgroup a while back who told me in confidence she was doing boudoir photos for her husband.”
“Those are still a thing?”
She groans. “Why?”
“He likes them. It was his birthday. Who knows.”
“I don’t see that. I don’t see the appeal.”
The friend lifts her eyebrows. “I took a burlesque class once at the rec center when I was getting tired of yoga.”
She shakes her head. “Again, I just don’t see the appeal.”
The friend laughs—one loud ha! “You’re prudish, though. You have all these principles that make you prudish.”
This stings a bit, but it would be worse to deny it. Instead she repeats what they’ve already agreed on: “There are all kinds of marriages.”
The friend nods. She’s wearing large sunglasses that obscure not just her eyes, but most of the upper half of her face. “Right. Maybe yours is just more traditional than you thought.”
The word’s such a sinker—traditional.
“Don’t take that the wrong way,” the friend says, laying a hand on her arm.
“Mine’s traditional, too. But that’s just me. And you. Maybe some people
have worked this all out.”
Down below, on the playground, the bucket is nearly full again, and a crowd of children—hers included—stand below it, shoulder to shoulder, hands clasped, like tiny political protesters, waiting to be doused.
Later, at home again, she makes the children strip to naked in the laundry room, throws their wet suits directly into the wash, and sends them off to separate bathrooms for showers. The laundry room has acquired its summer smell—the mildewy funk of wet towels and sweaty socks. The tile floor is skimmed in a layer of beach sand and playground dirt and backyard grass. She’ll do the laundry later. She’ll mop later, she thinks. She’ll do the whole house. She’ll move the couch, too, and get whatever’s underneath it—a colony of dust mites and lost Legos and great clouds of dog hair, no doubt. She should have done this already. Why is it so hard to keep ahead of all this mess? Domestic entropy, she thinks. But no—more like a dust ball at rest stays at rest.
She stalks into the living room and gets down on her hands and knees in front of the couch, her face to the nub of the area rug, to look beneath it and confirm, and yes—there it is, all of the detritus she’s predicted. When she stands, she sees dust on the bookshelves, too. Scuffs along the baseboards. And that place in the corner—where it took her husband five tries to get the Christmas tree wired to the wall securely the first year they were childproofing—it’s still un-repaired. There they are: five dark dots of the nail holes, never filled. The stigmata of our marriage , she thinks. Ha! But, no, that’s not funny. It’s too much. It crosses a line. Is she saying she’s a martyr to something? Or they both are? What is she really saying? She doesn’t know, but shit, she’s spinning, and why? And for what?
When her mother said traditional, she meant safe. And who doesn’t want to be safe? Especially right now, when the world is draining into the sea, and smart women have started actually paying to be photographed in their thong underwear. Isn’t she supposed to want to be safe? Isn’t everybody?
And it’s at just this moment when the front door opens—he’s home from work. “It’s too hot out,” he says instead of hello or how was your day, and he sets the clatter of his keys on the console near the door, empties his pockets onto the console—loose change and a wadded up parking stub from the downtown garage and a knot of lint that nearly pushes her over the edge. But before she can assemble an argument against any of it, he says, “I was thinking we should take the kids down to the beach tonight.”
It’s only once a summer or so that they manage it—a weeknight beach dinner. She wrestles the kids back into their damp suits, which they’d normally protest, but the prospect of the beach at sunset—the thrill of bucking the evening routine—has sedated them, shushed them, and they are all compliance and cherubic pink flesh and sweet coconut smell of sunscreen as she swats their bottoms and sends them, suited again, to fetch their sandals. The cooler is still damp too, but she fills it with more juice boxes, beers. She can hear him changing into his own swimming suit in the bedroom, whistling. Yes—he’s the kind of man who whistles. He once told her he learned to whistle at summer camp. That was the kind of childhood he had—campouts and summers in the woods and whistling contests with other boys—and there’s still something of that innocence left in him. It’s here, in fact, in his happiness at something as simple as taking the children to the beach for an evening. How can it take so little to make a person truly happy? This trait is charming, she thinks. It makes up for so much, his affinity for contentment.
They pile into the car, stop for take-out burgers and fries, then navigate the long route down to the beach, following the one-lane road that threads the hillside overlooking the water. She prefers this route, but rarely takes it because of its impracticality—because of the 20mph posted speed and a series of slow-S-curves. It’s beautiful, though. The road is lined on both sides by trees—maples and cottonwoods and alders—and tonight the evening light is like Karo syrup coming through their green canopy, slow and gold-white. Liquid seduction of summer. Beside her in the passenger seat, he is still whistling—a tune she doesn’t recognize now—and in the back, the kids are under the spell of the road’s bends and the swifting-forward of the car and the sound of their father’s song and the magic of a broken routine.
She remembers when the oldest one was an infant and they used to drive him around in the dark of late-night to induce sleep. This was poor parenting, she’d say now. Naïve parenting. She recalls the trouble they had later getting him to sleep in his crib, he’d become so accustomed to drifting off only with the motion of the car. But in those early days of their parenthood they were so tired and so desperate. She remembers the three of them—their tiny family—together, buckled safely into the bubble of their car. We are all here, she remembers thinking then. It was a complicated thought. It spoke both her joy and her fear. They were together. They were together. If anything terrible was going to happen, they were together.
Now, she looks over her shoulder at the two children in the backseat, both of them grown lanky. Both of them all skinned knees and sun-crisped hair and sweet stink of kid-sweat. The sunlight coming through the car windows flecks their freckled cheeks, spots their bare shoulders. The shadows of the trees flicker across their sleepy faces. Oh, how she loves them. Them and their father, too. Oh, how broken she is with love for them.
She reaches for her husband’s hand, and he pauses his whistling to say, “You okay?”
“Yes,” she says. “Fine.”
A few moments later, at the beach, he takes one end of the blanket and she takes the other. They shake it smooth against the sand and sit. Nearby, the children run at the incoming waves, the tide pulling up, imperceptibly but steadily, each wave a fraction of an inch closer to the wrack line—a fraction of an inch closer to the blanket, to high tide, to deep night. The children don’t notice this, though; they just keep leaping, scissoring their bare legs over the froth, shrieking when they stand still and feel the safe suck of the land slipping out from beneath their feet.
She used to play this very game herself as a child—trying to pin the water to the sand with her toes over and over again. Over and over again. Her heels sinking deeper and deeper into the cool muck of the shoreline with each wave’s retreat. What did she love about it then, this game she was guaranteed never to win? What do her children love about it now?
They holler to her and to their father from the shoreline. “Mom! Dad! Look at this! Look what I can do!”
“It’s dinner time,” she calls back. “Come eat your dinner before it gets too late!”
But they don’t come.
“We can let them play,” her husband says. “They’re so happy.” The sun is flush on his face, and he smiles at her, handsome, loving. Loved. And for a single, spinning moment—one of those mad, disembodied moments of clarity that come now and then in the course of family life—she thinks: It’s this! It’s this! What she means by “this,” she doesn’t know exactly, but it is a kind of answer, and it’s the best she’s got.
“Yes,” she agrees. “We’ll let them play. It’s why we’re here.”
She sits back on her elbows beside him. They’ll stay to watch the sun sink. They still have quite a while before the tide really starts coming in.