Joyland

Vancouver |

Getting Out

by Cedar Bowers

edited by Carleigh Baker

The husband’s back is taut, turned Margaret’s way. It’s an evening when anything could start it. They both know this. Avoid eyes. The husband stirs mushrooms in the smallest cast iron pan. Onions in the bigger. The BBQ wafts ribbons on the small, step-out balcony, the leaves of the ancient chestnut on the boulevard warble behind the heat waves. Windows propped open with hardcover books, the door held ajar with the garbage can; both begging for a cross breeze that hasn’t yet showed up. The table is for two, but small. When they sit down, their knees will hit. Sometimes this is nice. Sometimes it’s not. 

Margaret must say something. Ease them through dinner. She thinks: comes up with nothing. “How was your day?” she asks.

The husband pauses, then, “Is that a question you want answered?”

“Of course.”

“It was fine,” the husband says. He is a good cook. Two burners, the oven, and a BBQ; all that energy just for burgers. But the waste is worth it. Delicious. No longer is there a need to eat out.

“How about you?” he returns the question more gently than Margaret had expected. Maybe he’s sorry for being short, maybe his thoughts had been elsewhere before, and he’d only now clued in to her presence. It’s hard to tell what someone really thinks of you, how they feel about you each moment. You’d think it would get easier with time.

“Fine too, I guess,” she answers.

“Why do you ‘guess’?”

Questions. Sometimes she wishes she could abolish questions. It was a day. Who could remember it? She won’t say this though. “It was great actually.”

Margaret is going out tonight, she's meeting Able—the woman from the bench—in thirty minutes. Get out the door. That’s all she must do. She rarely bothers going out anymore, either alone or with the husband. He is a good cook. Who needs restaurants? 

Or is this a failure? She can no longer tell what is what. The apartment is small. The table is tiny, their faces pressed together, too close.

The husband tongs the onions and mushrooms on the brown floral plate, the one Margaret had brought when they’d moved in together—the last of the set unbroken. Margaret has a penchant for breaking things. The husband does not. She’s considered having it framed, catching its significance behind glass. The old Margaret. The before Margaret. Or she could put it on one of those little plate stands? Display it on a mantel—if they had one. But this is something she won’t get to.

“Careful with that plate, okay?” she instructs, watching the husband.

“I’m not the one who breaks shit,” the husband's voice is almost teasing, this is good.

The tiled floors and walls, laminate countertops, a newly renovated kitchen when they’d moved in; they’d marveled at their luck. Now the fake marble plastic has chips. The cupboards have seen better days. Sticky rings on the shelves. They spend so much time in this little kitchen together. But, just there, outside the open door to the balcony are voices, many. People. An abrasive laugh, arguments over phones, all that under their second story window. They live in the densest part of the city.

Able—the woman Margaret had met on the bench last Saturday—had this electric energy. She’d wormed her way into Margaret’s brain nearly every hour since. But really, Margaret doesn’t know her at all. A new friend? At this age it should be impossible—especially without children or pets.

Beating sun. Jazz quartet. Wasps circling for water, low in the crispy, August grass by their ankles. The women had laughed, exchanged numbers at the edge of the farmers market. What were they? Lovers? That had been the joke: are we picking each other up? Cloth bags of farm fresh vegetables wilting away on their laps.

As Margaret recited her number, she’d begun dreading home. What did it mean that she’d been more forthcoming, more herself, on this bench with this stranger, than she’d been with the husband in years. Why would that be?

 

“Speaking of breaking things,” the husband says, focused on his prepping hands. Two plates on the table. Small bottles of artisanal condiments. Margaret’s thighs haven’t seen the sun in eons. She has the habit of stripping down to her underwear in the heat. The husband used to love this: Margaret, half-naked. Her stomach, a band of lonely skin between panties and bra: black, tan, black.

Margaret no longer knows what she looks like; who does she look like? The apartment is too small for a full-length mirror, the only proof of her physical existence coming in flashes when she catches her reflection in store-front windows, warp and wobble.

The apartment is small. When they’d first moved in they’d both asked, “How could we want more than this?” But it is tiny. The air struggles to move at all even with the windows open. It’s of course worse when her husband insists on turning all the burners on. But he is a good cook. It will be worth it.

“I found something you hid in the trash,” the husband continues. The Japanese knife he’d ordered online makes perfect, thin slices of tomato.

“I didn’t hide anything in the trash,” Margaret replies.

 

The husband barely leaves the house either, works from the couch on his back—or in the bed—the laptop warming his knees, lowering the sperm count they’d long ago decided they didn’t want: DIY birth control. Margaret goes out for her job but returns before dinner. Some days she brings home wine, and this is nice. It is nice when they manage to drain the whole bottle. When they forget about their shows.

It’s grown hard to leave the apartment at night, even more so when it’s not a plan they’ve made together. The husband says he enjoys an evening alone, but Margaret feels sick about leaving. A mini betrayal: moving outside the structure. Most often this mounting guilt makes her cancel. To the few friends Margaret still has, she’s known as a last minute ditcher. 

But Able. Margaret likes her. Who does that? Meets on a bench? Able had asked, “Is that your child.” Pointing at a messy-faced girl in the sand box, searching for her people. 

“No.”

“Your dog? Is it in there?” Able asked, thumbing the chain link around the gravel pit of the dog park. 

“No. No dog.” 

“And we’re talking without either!” she’d exclaimed. “Well this is a miracle.”

 

Everything would be fine once Margaret got out, if she could do it properly. That sounds ridiculous: properly. But it’s true. If she could open the door with the husband still teasing, with a kiss on the cheek or the lips. But most often it didn’t go that way. They’d manage to wrap barbed wire around their home by the time she needed to go, and Margaret would tear herself up scrambling out. She didn’t know who was to blame, with, what had it been? Almost fifteen years. The husband claimed their fights were born from her nervousness, her need for approval from an outside source. She asked for permission about the most ridiculous things: To shower. To make a pot of oatmeal. To buy a dress. To have a friend. Silliness. And what tension it caused. 

Margaret though, wasn’t sure. 

Sometimes she thought it was the husband who disapproved. “What could I possibly disapprove of?” he’d ask, frustrated. Margaret couldn’t say. It was a hunch. A hunch she’d had for fifteen years. More. Maybe it had started before she’d met him. Maybe the moment she was born.

 

She anticipates the fight. It sits right there in the corner like a punished child, waiting. It’s written on the husband’s tense shoulders too, in how he washes the lettuce leaves. The jerking motion in his arm as he shakes them dry in a clean dishtowel, letting the water rain through the cloth on the little balcony. Droplets scatter the BBQ with a sizzle. 

“Stop watching me,” the husband says, stepping back into the kitchen, stepping over Margaret’s bare feet. Blush pink nail polish.

That he’d brought up the trash. At a time like this. Right before Margaret needed to get safely out the door.

“Why did you have to bring up the trash?” Margaret can’t believe she’s talking. She’d promised herself to stay quiet, but yet, here she is poking the fire.

“Would it be better if I’d pretended I hadn’t?” Now the husband wasn’t teasing.

Here it is. No avoiding it now.

“What do you think I hid?” Margaret asks—knowing exactly what she’d put in the trash.

“Another straightener.”

“I didn’t.”

“I think you did.” Now, when the husband spoke? His voice thrummed with confidence.

“It was probably the same one as before,” she tries again.

“That was last week. Don’t be crazy.”

“It was the same one, I’m sure,” Margaret says. She is crying. Always crying. Her eyes are the leakiest. They wait for her to gather herself.

Silence is rarely a light, easy thing. Same with air, it never moves freely when you need it to. The husband pulls a tray of golden buns from the oven. Peels open a package of goat cheese to put in the new brown dish. Margaret had bought this dish at the farmers market the day she’d met Able on the bench. The cheese lands inside with a thud.

“It really was the old one.”

“Why are you crying if I’m not busting you on something? What’s the problem? I don’t even care that you lie, just say you’re lying.”

“I have to go soon. You remember? I’m going out.” Margaret finds herself at the point in their fight where she starts pleading.

“You are?”

“Yes, with Able, remember?”

“Why would I remember that?” the husband is exasperated. “And what has that got to do with the straightener?”

“I just want everything to be okay when I go.”

“What could be wrong?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t feel good now, between us? Do you think everything is okay?” She is using too many words.

“Margaret, please. Just shut up. If you’re going to do this and freak out, please do it by yourself.”

 

The burgers had been perfect, but who could taste them in this heat. Lumps forced down tubes. Leaving the apartment is often this way when the husband doesn’t kiss her on the cheek, doesn’t venture into the bedroom, catch a glimpse, or a touch before the dress slips over the secret of her body. 

“Bye,” Margaret says, peeking into the living room. “I won’t be long.”

The husband keeps reading.

“Should I cancel?”

The husband keeps reading.

“I don’t even know why I’m going.” Margaret leans on the doorframe trying to look casual, like the hour before never happened.

The husband sighs.

They aren’t mean. Never yell. Never. Best friends. No interest in doing it all over again with someone else. This fight? A million years old. Margaret is aware of the husband’s feelings. Him of hers. It’s not even interesting anymore, but they keep at it. Keep the script. Re-takes: Try it in on the sea wall. Try it in bed. Try it over coffee. Margaret, do it again, but with more emotion this time. Can you cry on command?

Yes. Yes she can. Margaret is an emotional woman. 

Suddenly she is outside, walking along the sidewalk, exposed to the world.

*

Able is waiting for their table. They’re the oldest in line. Youth caught up in collective flirting, girls tittering in cork wedged sandals. Waiters shout to the kitchen. The kitchen shouts back to the waiters. Octopus goes by. Flaming hotpot. Even in such heat people enjoy a fire. The only older people are two, largish parent-types; sitting with their still thin, twenty-year-old children. Not their sort of place. Sweat beads from their deep pores.

Able and Margaret are clumsier with words than they’d been on the bench last Saturday. They look around the restaurant too much. Speculate on wait times. 

Margaret asks, “Do you live close?”

“Oh sure. Comox and Cardero,” Able answers, digging in her bag for gloss.

“Not the pink building?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“Wow! I love that one.”

Only a block from Margaret’s. One of the few older places remaining: ivy, iron grating, planters built on railings brimming with herbs. When Margaret pops into the wine shop, she passes it en route home. She likes looking in the second floor apartments. Her favorite suite has beams blackened with age and many lamps glowing gold. The windows out are bordered in stained glass. Possibly every night she passes it, she manages to mention the pink building to the husband, wistfully. The husband likes the building as well. Margaret has this idea that if they move there, just down the block, life would… she’s never dared to complete this thought.

“Are you on the second floor?” Margaret asks Able, hoping.

“No, the fourth. Over the alley.”

“I see,” Margaret says, a little disappointed.

“How about you?”

“We’re just down the block actually, at Nelson.”

“Really! In the grey building?”

“Yes. That’s us.”

“So close. Crazy.”

Margaret uses the bathroom before they sit. It’s hard to eat out with someone you don’t know. The decisions are more difficult. Margaret thinks of home. Pats cool water over her face, dries it with hard, brown, paper towel then regrets washing; her face rinsed now from the coconut oil she’d rubbed in before leaving the apartment. All that’s left: a sting of salt and eyes still puffed from crying. Margaret tucks and untucks her hair. Leans towards the glass.

Just enjoy your stupid night out.

Able is waving from a back table. “I’m sorry,” she says, as Margaret arranges her purse between feet. “I have to confess something I’ve done.”

“Okay?” 

But Margaret is wondering. What if her husband had been right: had it been weird she’d given this stranger her number? He’d accused, “Don’t you think it’s bizarre she actually called you? Is she desperate or something?” It had made Margaret mad, how he’d doubted her. Questioning again. “Are you mad?” he’d asked right after. Of course she’d told him, no, no, it’s okay. But she’d wished she hadn’t mentioned anything to the husband about anything at all. You lose edges after a time with someone. What could or should be discussed.

Able is talking, “You see, I forgot I made plans with and old friend tonight too. She has this new baby. It was either go meet the baby, or invite her out with us. And I didn’t want to cancel with you, since… well… I don’t know you. I didn’t want to be rude. Oh, sorry, I’m babbling now. I’ve just been regretting it. She will show up any minute and she’s just awful. I’ll be introducing you to my worst friend.”

“Don’t worry,” Margaret says, worried. Maybe she should order an appetizer? It would be weird if she didn’t. Why had she let the husband cook when the whole time she’d known she was going out? But with the husband being such a great cook now, it is hard to mention such a thing.

“I do this sort of thing all the time,” Able is still confessing. At least there is ease now. A slight breeze reaches them from the open door. Air. Everyone in this restaurant is yelling. Joyful yelling. 

“What sort of thing?” Margaret asks.

“Make plans I regret. Not you! Sorry…” Able shakes her head, looks like she too could cry. “I live in a constant state of regret. Then I act weird and manage to let it ruin my evening.”

“I do similar things,” Margaret sympathizes.

“You do?”

And suddenly they are talking like they’d done on the bench Saturday. Margaret is describing her husband’s shoulders. The way they fight. Quietly. That she thinks it’s herself who brings it on. Or he does. Or she does.

“You live in regret maybe, while I live in sabotage,” Margaret says, feeling smarter than she’s felt in years.

“Yes. Sabotage. What a word,” Able sighs like she’s just been shown a diamond ring. “This friend of mine who’s coming, she’s going to ruin our first night of friendship. I can guarantee it.”

“Well. Let’s not let her,” Margaret says, swelling with confidence.

“Ground breaking! I like you.” Able picks up the laminated menu, and then puts it down. “So what did you and the husband fight about?”

Then Margaret is explaining it. The straightener. How her husband doesn’t believe in straighteners. Doesn’t understand how puffy Margaret’s hair is in the morning if she can’t smooth it a little. How a year ago she’d figured this out, after an extravagant hair appointment—$110 dollars—she hadn’t told the husband about that either. The hairdresser had chided her, “You silly girl. Just go get yourself your own!” 

Margaret explains how there’d been only two brands in the drugstore. Standing, clueless, in the florescent-lit aisle, choosing her first straightener at forty years old. Humiliating. So, she’d gone with the cheapest one. Twenty-nine something. The other being ten times that at least.

“And it broke?” Able is all over this story, leaning forward with anticipation. Margaret sits up straighter. Puts her elbows on the table. Her palms under her chin.

“Almost immediately. So I threw it away. Well, I hid it in the trash. I didn’t want my husband to know.”

Able is laughing and the restaurant is noisy. Another gust of air brushes Margaret’s back. It’s the same as in the park now. The husband: miles away, someone she adores, loves. Someone she is happy to have. Waiting for her. 

Look at Margaret out in this world.

“So I bought the same straightener again. I didn’t want him to know the first had broken. I hid the box in the recycling at work and brought it home in my bag.”

“Then it broke?”

“Exactly.”

“Oh my god. Too funny.” Able is still interested. “But why couldn’t you tell him?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t want him to ask questions. I didn’t want to talk about it. Obviously it’s a total waste of money, I know that… but it was like, I had to keep buying them until I was right.”

“So you wasted money to prove you weren’t wasting money?”

“Something like that. And the secret. I love secrets.”

“Oh my god, me too!” Able sighs the same way as before. She is someone who understands.

“But then he caught me, I think I was on my fourth,” Margaret goes on.

“Oh no.”

“He found it..”

“Was he mad?”

“No. He’s never mad. But he wanted to talk about it. We talked for hours.”

“Oh, your husband should meet my partner, they’d get along famously.”

“What does she do?”

“Design. From home.”

“Oh god. My husband works from home too! Or our bed, I should say.”

“Yep.” Able grins.

Margaret waits a perfect beat then says, “Okay, get this: then he told me, if I really want a straightener, to go get a good one that doesn’t break. Of course I already had new one in my bag, so I pulled it out.”

“So funny.”

“He looked at me like I was crazy. Then we just stopped talking, didn’t speak to each other for two days.”

A waitress comes by and asks if they’re ready. They’re not. They pick up their menus but neither look.

“So the straightener by this point is such a thing. Such an elephant. Every time I use it. Every time I turn the darn thing on, it’s just awkward. And then of course it broke, but I was smarter, I brought the broken one to work and threw it out there.”

“Ah ha!” Able says. “Good move. Then did you get the better one?”

“No. Of course not! Then he’d know he’d been right.”

“So you bought the same shitty one?”

“Yes.”

“And then it broke?”

“Yes. This morning. And each time it breaks the same way. Scorches my hair. Look at it,” Margaret says, holding up a lock of her mouse brown hair, littered with grey and frizzled by the shitty irons. “I’ve ruined my hair. It gets so hot the handle starts smoking. Anyways, I’d thought I’d hidden it extra good in the garbage. But he found it I suppose.”

“Is he digging in the trash?”

“I don’t know? I think he might be!” Margaret is doubled over laughing now. Her eyes are leaking. People at the surrounding tables glance over at them. Even with the din and comradely yelling. Margaret loves it that people look, she hasn’t had this much fun in ages. Able smacks the table, and a chopstick rolls onto the floor.

“Now what is so funny here?” a tall, blond woman asks, pulling out the third chair.

Able quiets. “Sorry. Hi Karina.” She gets up, picks up the chopstick, bumps the table, and hugs the woman quickly.

Margaret shakes Karina’s hand. They talk a bit about the heat. Margaret exaggerates how much she cares, when really she no longer does. There’s a lovely breeze in the restaurant. She barely listens to this new woman who sits with immaculate posture, instead still dwelling on her story of the straightener, the magic she’s found in it. She lovingly fingers the ends of her damaged hair. She hopes the husband is having a nice time. He shouldn’t be alone so much. Poor man. Maybe he’s just out of practice? Maybe they both are. You must work on living to get good at it.

Able and her friend discuss the baby. Karina places her phone, glass up, on the table. “Edie’s dad will text when they need me. We’re still on-demand nursing.”

“Right, of course,” Able says kindly, but looking at Margaret and giving her the quickest wink.

“He’s walking around and around the block until she gets hungry.”

“This block?” Margaret says. Weird that he’d do that.

More talk of the baby. Of adjustment. Being off work for the first time in god knows. Of neck muscles strengthening. Less scary to hold. 

Karina checks her phone again. Announces, “We’re still good.” Like Margaret or Able had been worried she’d leave after fifteen minutes. Karina’s husband is right outside the door—basically—Margaret could feel him hovering. 

“What were you two laughing about when I walked in?” Karina asks. 

Then it’s happening again. This time, Margaret describes digging under sodden things in the garbage. The smell. Like vinegar, but an unclean sour. It’s hard to hide a straightener well. 

“You can recycle stuff like that you know?” Karina says, confused. “I still don’t get it.”

“It’s about lying. It’s funny that I’m a grown woman and I’m such a liar,” Margaret finds herself saying joyfully. 

“I’m the same,” Able says.

“You are?” Margaret’s heart sings in the company.

“I hide groceries.”

“What? How?” Margaret is laughing again. Then the waitress. They haven’t even looked. Sorry. Karina steps in and orders for the table. Warm Saki. Two tall Asahis.

Able winks again at Margaret. Here they are: in on stuff. They’ve spent a total of an hour together, but they feel this comfortable. Friends give perspective. Margaret will have to remind the husband of this.

“What do you mean you hide groceries?” Karina asks. Concerned. She’s too dumb, too ordinary, to see this is the most amazing thing. Margaret doesn’t like Karina at all. Able had been right.

“Well, Yumi thinks we spend too much on groceries,” Able kindly tries to explain to her horrible friend.

“What does she care?” Karina snaps. Women like to hear women complain about their partners. What a waste of time. “You both have good jobs. You don’t even have children,” Karina is nearly shouting.

Margaret sees Karina has touched on something here. Able stiffens, but then regaining herself, she turns to Margaret and keeps talking. Talks over Karina as if the woman is no longer sitting with them. 

Able is a good person, understands that Margaret has just bared a bit of her soul, her gross, disgusting, lying soul. And now she is going to give back. It’s a gift to show off your diamonds. Everybody has them, but only some are brave enough to admit it. 

Karina pours Saki for Margaret and Able—she’d made a point of only asking for two cups. She pours herself a small amount of beer into her water glass, takes a sip so tiny the liquid level doesn’t drop. “I shouldn’t be drinking,” Karina explains, as if anyone gives a damn.

“I sneak in food.” Able continues. “I don’t want Yumi to see what I spend, so I smuggle the crazy expensive groceries into our house in my purse, just like you, Margaret! Unpasteurized cheeses. Smoked meats. Mangos flown in from France! All of it!”

Karina starts to say. Who knows? All kinds of stuff. She’s shocked to hear two grown woman talk this way. Hiding themselves. It isn’t right. It isn’t what women from the ages have been fighting for.

“It’s not her business,” Able snaps. “I need my independence.”

“That’s not independence, sneaking like that. Being dishonest.” Karina’s angular face is flushed.

“Yes it is,” Able retorts.

“Maybe you need something bigger to concentrate on? Dave and I talk everything through now. Edie needs me to demonstrate that, as a woman. You have to think this stuff through when you have a kid.”

“I’d still sneak,” Margaret interrupts. She’ll defend her new friend to the bottom of the ocean.

Karina’s phone dings. “There’s my bell,” she says smugly. Like it’s a good thing. Like sitting in a restaurant for not even thirty minutes is winning. Like not finishing one’s beer is better than finishing one’s beer.

“I’m sorry,” Able says once Karina leaves. “It’s not the baby. Karina has always been like that. She only met her man a year ago. She doesn’t know anything yet.”

“Bitch,” Margaret says, only joking of course—she hopes her new friend knows she’s only joking. Able pours the last of the sake in their glasses.

“You're right.” Able pauses, then exclaims, “But I did it!”

“Did what?” Margaret asks.

“I didn’t let her ruin our evening.”

*

“You’re a dork,” the husband says, waking as Margaret climbs into bed beside him.

“I know.”

“Can you just make me one promise?” he mumbles.

“Sure.”

“Stop hiding shit in the trash,” he says.

“I know. It’s so dumb. I’m sorry,” Margaret agrees, though she’s not sorry at all. She’s not going to stop. She will hide and lie and grow. Maybe about better things too. Maybe she’ll start smoking on the sly? Her heart flutters with the thought of it. She could change her outfit after leaving the house like she’d done as a teenager. She could keep a second, riskier, wardrobe at her office.

Margaret thinks he has fallen asleep again, but then he asks, “What’s Able like?” His lips graze the back of Margaret’s neck and she shivers.

“She’s fine.” Margaret pictures the face of the woman from the bench. She wonders if she already loves her.

“Boring?”

“Hard to say so soon. She’s invited us over though, next weekend. They live in the pink building.”

“Not your favorite suite with the lamps?” the husband asks, she can tell he is awake now. He is excited.

“No. Not that one. But maybe it’s even better? I feel like she has good taste. Maybe they could get us in?”

“You want to move?”

“I’d move if we could get in that building. Wouldn’t you?”

***