What Happy Couples Do
Anna Cox’s writing has appeared in “The Chronicle of Higher Education”, “RVA Magazine” and in the anthology, “P.S.: What I Didn’t Say”. As a photographer she exhibits her work nationally and internationally. She combines letterpress printing, photography and sleight of hand at her website, benevolentvirus.org. Anna is currently writing a novel about women with fantastic, but useless, abilities.
I told my husband to move out, and then I went to the grocery to buy more limes. After paying, I pushed my shopping cart out of the store, past the cart corral, past the Dollar Store, the video store, and the shoe store that sells knockoffs and smells like cold French fries. Past the mattress store, the newspaper boxes, and the coin-operated horse stalled mid-jump with a mouthful of broken teeth. Past the nail salon and past the drugstore where a tottery old man waved his arms, trying to open the automatic doors. When the sidewalk ended, I pushed into the parking lot, past side mirrors, dented passenger doors, panting dogs, and empty baby seats. When I passed my own silver two-door, I waved. When the parking lot ended, I pushed into the turn lane and waited with the cars. When the light turned green, I merged with traffic, and when the guy in the Mustang cut me off, I flipped him the bird. When I changed lanes, I signaled but people honked anyway.
After a few miles, I turned left and pushed through the wide streets of my neighborhood, past tidy lawns and swaying ferns. After a few turns, I knew I was home because I recognized the perky blonde woman on the for sale sign. She smiled while the cart and I circled her. After three loops, her blonde hair was matted with mud, after six she had a grassy beard, and after eight her Satisfaction Guaranteed! was in a swamp. On the ninth loop, I leaned over and said, “Hi Honey, I’m home.” With one final push up the front walk, the muddy wheels were through the front door, down the hall and in the kitchen, which is where the cart is now. It’s been a week since I brought it home. It’s pleasant enough company but I’m going to return it when I’m done—not a marriage, more like an affair.
My mouth tastes like metal. It’s been that way for a few days. It’s probably a brain tumor. I looked it up on the Internet. The symptoms are simple: a headache, followed by death. Who doesn’t get headaches? Aspirin is everywhere. Everyone has headaches. How am I supposed to know what is a bad headache and what is a death headache? By the time I realize what’s happening, it’s too late. Just another question of scale. It takes me awhile to answer the phone because I’m not sure if the ringing is my phone or my tumor.
“What took you so long?”
It’s my mother. She calls me every day asking if I’m packing and getting organized. I say yes, because in a way, I am. For the past few days, the cart and I have drunkenly orbited inside the house shopping for things I’ve already bought.
“My mouth tastes like metal.”
“Have you been eating metal?”
“Why would I eat metal?”
“I don’t know. Why else would your mouth taste like metal?”
“I looked it up on the Internet. I think I have a brain tumor.”
Through the phone I hear something muffled. She’s probably wedged the phone between her ear and shoulder. She forgets you can’t do that with phones anymore, now that they are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. For most of her life, telephones were tethered to a wall and a receiver, bell, and cord connected by wires. We had an avocado-green rotary phone, mounted to the kitchen wall. Its cord would uncoil from the kitchen to the dining room to the hallway to the den. When my mother eventually exchanged the wall-mounted phone for a cordless one, the phone company sent a technician to remove the old unit. My mother’s first call on the cordless was to tell me about the phone-shaped void on the kitchen wallpaper. She couldn’t believe the wallpaper was once so vibrant.
I say it again. “I think I have a brain tumor.”
She’s not answering. I put the phone in my palm and look at the display where listening and talking and ringing are combined, no more cords. I bring the phone back to my ear. She inhales sharply. “No. That’s just divorce. I’ll be there soon.”
Before Isaac left, I made margaritas one at a time, measuring tequila and squeezing fresh limes, their citrus spray mixing with the dust illuminated by late afternoon sun. After a week of vacation days spent packing and watching daytime television, I scoop generic limeade from a paper can and pour tequila directly into the blender, skipping the formality of a glass. The ladies of daytime TV told me that happiness comes from simplifying my life. I swallow last night’s vitamin with this morning’s margarita.
It’s not like it is on TV. Isaac didn’t stand outside our bedroom window and raise a boom box over his head, blaring Peter Gabriel. Isaac doesn’t like Peter Gabriel or dramatic gestures. I like Peter Gabriel, but I pretended I didn’t. For our first anniversary, Isaac gave me a blender. That was fine. What’s not to like about a blender and really, Peter Gabriel is overrated. All that drama, all those duets. Sure, everything is great, everything is just fine.
Until one cloudless Tuesday afternoon when I picked up the phone like I always do except my brother said, “Dad’s dead.” My father and I weren’t exactly close. He spent Friday nights in the driveway, passed out behind the wheel of his car and Saturday mornings drinking rummy coffee out of mug decorated with cartoon vultures that said: don’t let the bastards get you down. He wasn’t a Super Dad but, still. Dead is dead, and suddenly dead is super-dead. Months after the casseroles stopped arriving, my friends assumed I was still crying because I missed my dad. They suggested a support group? Talking to a professional? I listened, and I nodded but I never went. My father’s sudden death wasn’t the problem; my limited life was the problem.
People drop dead, sure, but even scientists can’t say with certainty if another meteor is going to hit earth. All they know is that we’ll feel gravity the most just before it releases us. At some point when Isaac and I were still having sex, he told me that the universe was constantly expanding. “It turns out we can just keep going, there are no edges anymore.” We were lying on our backs and my head was on his chest. He fingered one of my curls—pulling it straight and then releasing it, fascinated by how it would always curl in on itself. It made my hair hurt. The universe’s constant expansion must mean that back here on earth, human-sized stuff like commitments and twelve-piece place settings are contracting. There are edges. I rolled over. Not you. Not this. Not when the meteor strikes.
Our friends were surprised when I asked Isaac to move out. They called and in conspiratorial tones, told stories about husbands who left wet towels on the floor, slept around, or wouldn’t scoop cat litter. Ruth, they said, what do you want? Emily decided I just needed to go shopping. Surely a mani-pedi and matching bra and panties would fix this. When I refused to be soothed by matchy-matchy and push-up technology, we found the nearest bar. Waving my scarlet nails at the bartender, I ordered a drink.
“Ruth, don’t you know you have a better chance of getting struck by lighting, then finding someone at your….” Her voice trailed off and she placed her hand on top of mine. Emily’s cuticles were freshly cut, her nails were shimmery pink. Her wedding diamond ring was big and her diamonds for birthing three kids were even bigger. She didn’t need to finish her sentence. My middle age: a rocky womb filled with rolling tumbleweeds. When she asked me to explain what was wrong, she got mad because I compared my marriage to a banana. “Would you rather I use a snack cake or instant soup?” I asked.
A few years ago, my mother took me to Hawaii. By this time my parents had married and divorced each other twice, and my mother was having an affair with a married man. The trip was a company bonus for making her sales quota, and since she couldn’t take another woman’s husband, she took me. We played tennis, we walked on the beach, we twirled paper umbrellas in rum cocktails while the sun set. One day after tennis we picked bananas from the tree that grew by the baseline. Hawaiian bananas are the same yellow and the same curved shape, but their familiarity is deceiving. From curve to stump, the banana revealed itself, and with each bite I realized all previous bananas were banana-flavored shams. Holding a half-eaten banana under the Hawaiian sun, I understood that I didn’t understand shit.
“Isaac is nice.” Emily says, patting my hand.
“I’ll have another.”
When I said banana, I meant the rupture of a ringing phone and mistaking familiarity for intimacy. Isaac likes his coffee black, and he’s a lazy flosser. Cilantro, yes. Anchovies, no. Mountains, not the beach, and between flight or invisibility, he always chooses invisibility. That blue oval nestled under his left shoulder blade isn’t a mole, it’s a lead remnant from a childhood fight when he fell on a sharpened pencil. In ten years of snow shoveling and lawn mowing, Friday nights and Monday mornings, cold cereal and fried chicken, the privacy of Sunday newspapers held in front of faces, I’d accumulated a decade of life’s details without acquiring any knowledge. Super.
I put the blender in one hand and the cart’s handle in the other and push the cart out of the kitchen and down the hall and park it in the bathroom. The baby blue sink and the white counter with gold flecks are things we said we’d change but never did. After ten years, we stopped seeing the things we said we’d change. Now the baby blue is someone else’s problem or delight. After a swallow of margarita I open the bathroom closet: it’s full of towels, hotel shampoo, toothpaste, and aspirin. The towels are fluffy, folded, and stupid—waiting for a wet man to need them again. I grab a few towels, a tube of toothpaste, and a wad of overnight maxis and throw them in shopping cart. Behind the overnight maxis, I see a few ovulation sticks and pregnancy tests from when I thought that was something that might help us. There were no sweeties or honeys between Isaac and me, and there were no babies. Isaac didn’t want children, he was certain he wanted to spend his time in other ways. My reluctance wasn’t as much a time management issue but a failure of imagination. I couldn’t conjure the miniature combo of he and me, needy and swaddled.
Although a few months before that Tuesday phone call I did go through a phase. It was near Christmas, and I was on the phone with my mother arranging travel plans. I imagined the mail basket in her front hall looked liked mine—a minefield of red envelopes full of pictures of smiling babies and letters bragging about first words and lost teeth. Isaac could walk by the basket and not even notice the cards, which was good, because I didn’t have to explain why I couldn’t open them in front of him anymore. I buried the cards underneath the W circulars and unopened bills. When he wasn’t home, I’d open the cards, hold them beneath my nose, and breathe deeply at the sweet spot on top of the baby’s head. It surprised me something distant and flat could feel so close and full. I couldn’t see the approaching edge, but my mother could. She only mentioned it once, which was how I knew how much it meant to her.
“You should freeze your eggs.”
When she first said it, I thought she was relaying a cooking tip.
“I’ve got fresh eggs.”
And then, a pause, “You don’t have forever.”
That night over boozy eggnog Isaac and I laughed.
I put the blender into the front seat of the cart—where a baby should go—then throw the pregnancy tests into the hall. The mirror above the sink is so wide it nearly covers the entire wall of the bathroom. Behind me I see where the grout has chipped and a few tiles buckle. Toothpaste dots the surface of the mirror. Under the baby blue sink there are six drawers, three on each side. I open all three of my drawers and look down at the Möbius strip of womanhood—potions of addition and subtraction to reach a sum that makes it look like I haven’t done anything. I grab a few bottles from each drawer and throw them into the cart. Something misses the cart and hits the wall. I watch the creamy fluid leak onto the floor, reach for the blender, and drink.
Isaac’s drawers were never crowded, like mine. He cut his own hair and shaved with clippers, rarely using a blade. He never wore cologne, although I kept buying it for him. Something is in his middle drawer but I can’t tell what. I haven’t opened the drawers since he left, but the house sold a few weeks ago, and I’m supposed to clean up and move out by tomorrow. I kneel on the floor, in front of his drawers. There’s dark stubble, scattered all over the bottom of the white drawer, where he kept his razor and clippers. I put my index finger in my mouth and feel the crags of my back teeth. I suck on myself like a lover might, like he sometimes did because I always need help getting started. I drag the pad of my wet finger over the bottom of the drawer, coating my whirls with a constellation of his discards. I put my finger in my mouth and swallow him. The hair doesn’t stick in my throat like I thought it would, it all goes down, like it was never there. I stand up, face the mirror, and open my mouth wide. No trace. None at all.
I push the cart down the hall and into the bedroom. The mattress and box spring lay on top each other, naked and indifferent. Isaac left the wire hangers when he took his clothes. I pull an armful from the closet and throw them in the direction of the shopping cart, but my aim is lousy so thin triangles ricochet in the empty room. Leaning in the closet, I push my arms sideways, a referee interrupting a scuffle between my fabric selves. Button down the front, zip up the back, snap at the neck, tie at the waist, there are so many ways to keep things together. The sleeves of my hooded green sweatshirt smell like frying bacon and ink from the Sunday newspaper. The cold lining of my gray pantsuit smells like anxiety and early morning conference calls, despite perfume cover-up and dry cleaning. My clingy date-night dress sulks in the back of the closet, her plunging neckline sagging like an aging soap opera vixen, still working, but past her prime. All my doppelgängers hang in suspended animation. It may not be my destiny, but it is my history: it is my junk DNA. I’ve moved enough times that muscle memory should take over, but staring at my hands doesn’t make them separate winter from summer, fill the box, and then tape it shut.
The backyard is bloated with rain, and it takes both hands to steer the cart so that I don’t spill the blender. My backyard faces the alley, and like most of the neighbors I have a wooden privacy fence. After a long swallow of margarita, I take a hanger, step back from the cart, and flick my wrist. The wire sails over the cart, thuds into the wooden fence, and lands in the yard. I broaden my starting position and spin as fast as I can. Hangers stick in bushes, disappear in weeds, and thud against the wooden fence.
“Ruth?” It’s my neighbor.
“What are you doing over there?”
There is one hanger left when I hear my mother’s car horn. I push the cart inside. Clumps of dirt and wet grass fling themselves on the hardwood floors. I leave the cart in the hall and before I open the front door, I take a deep breath. Through the peephole, I see my mother bent over, one hand on her lower back, the other deadheading the flowers lining the walk. When she hears me turn the deadbolt, she quickly stands up and catching her reflection in the glass top part of the screen door, throws her shoulders back, tucks in her shirt, smoothes her hair, and takes her ring fingers and rubs them against the corners of her barely opened mouth to clean up any lipstick that might have bled in the heat. Then, she smiles.
My mother and I haven’t always gotten along, and I blame Jane Fonda for some of that. Jane’s aerobic-fueled rise to exercise stardom paralleled my mother’s violent marital decline. My mother must have liked the simplicity of knowing exactly what to count on: twenty-five step touches followed by twenty-five leg lifts. As a teen, I would set my alarm but it was never enough to get me out of bed, so my mother would awaken me during her three-minute Jane-drills. She’d throw open my bedroom door and flip on the light. “The world is passing you by. Get up.” All the while doing jumping jacks in her maroon leotard, silver leg warmers, and matching head and wristbands. She had to come into my room at least two times.
“Wake up. Wake up.
“The world is passing you by.
“The world is passing you by!”
I hated my mother, but now that I see my girlfriends struggle with their daughters I feel differently, although I still hate maroon. As I turn the doorknob, I straighten my spine. My mother’s posture, even in her late sixties, is perpendicular to a world that she will never allow to pass by her. I open the door, and the sun and my mother are beaming more brightly than I understand. She hasn’t seen me in a few months, and the way she clenches her teeth and forces a larger smile tells me I have lost more weight than I realized. She steps in the house and hugs me; everything about her is tucked in, smoothed out, and perfumed.
My last childless friend gave birth a few weeks ago, thanks to a large trust fund and an indifference to needles. The other day she called to tell me the thing about newborns and their mother’s breasts that all my friends tell me. A newborn can identify its mother’s breast by smell, and if left alone, immediately after birth, it will instinctively crawl to seek out her nourishment and warmth. I’ve heard this many times, but each time a girlfriend tells me I pretend it’s the first time. Oh, yes, how amazing, and oh yes, you really did make a miracle, I say while biting my cuticles or washing a greasy pan. My mother pulls back and looks at me from arm’s length. I keep my eyes on her neck because it’s all I can do to not crawl up her ironed blouse. I reach past her and pick up the boxes she has left on the front porch. She forces a smile.
“It’s a beautiful day! Isn’t it a beautiful day? I have to pee.”
I look at her and then walk in to the dining room and dump the empty boxes and bubble wrap onto the dining room floor. One of the boxes was filled with packing peanuts she must have been saving for months. They’re now in a heap on the floor along with a Sudoku book that fell out.
My mother walks back to the bathroom. “Ruth, there’s a shopping cart in the hall.”
She does Sudoku to calm herself. She’s anxious about a lot of things, but the thing she’s most anxious about is losing her memory as she ages. I put the Sudoku on the kitchen counter and wish I could forget and be blank—a dry, white plate. I’ve avoided packing the kitchen because holding a fork means remembering culinary progress from the tiny apartment where we ate wooden soufflés until two apartments and one house later, when I perfected a cheese soufflé so light it was like eating air. Wrapping the knives means remembering the summer we bought a grill, slicing through perfectly rare steak, soaking up the blood with bread. The spoons are the worst, because they do what happy couples do.
My mother comes back into the kitchen and together we stand in front of the cabinets. I pull one plate, one cup, one saucer, and one bowl from the cupboard. I put them on the counter and then pull and one fork, one spoon, and one knife from the drawer.
She reaches into cupboard and pulls down one more plate, one more bowl, one more cup, and one more saucer, and then she reaches into the drawer and pulls one more fork, one more spoon, and one more knife from the drawer. And when she is done with those, she pulls one more of each until she has a set of four; the plates stack on each other, the bowls nestle each other, the empty curves of the spoons hold each other.
“You’ll need these. Eventually.”
She walks into the dining room and picks up a box and a handful of newspaper. Using one sheet of newspaper at a time, she wraps the plates and cups as if only her care would ensure their survival. I stare at the rest of the twelve-piece place setting. All the things I wish I’d said, and all the things I wish he’d said, and all the things I wish I hadn’t said, and all the things I wish he hadn’t heard were just words—floating somewhere far away suspended above my head in the kitchen and far above his head, wherever it is. A lost galaxy of should-haves and never-saids that I can’t conjure and trap in hard clay. But a twelve-piece place setting of dishes is different. It bounces light off its blank surface, illuminating the difference between takeoff and reentry.
My mother walks in and out of the kitchen, wrapping flatware in newspaper. I turn my back to her, open another cupboard, and pull down the coffee. I fill the kettle, pour beans into the grinder, and after grinding, invert the grinder so that the ground beans fall into its lid. There are more grounds than space so inverting the grinder spills grounds on the counter. A few weeks ago I stopped sweeping them into the trash and instead started making a topographic map of coffee grounds and pink salt. I found pink salt in a gourmet market and brought it home because it seemed like something that would distract me from us. One night at dinner, I ground pink salt on top of baked potatoes and said to Isaac,
“Look,” I said. “The salt is pink. I didn’t even know salt came in colors, did you?”
Salt—something I’ve used my entire life—pink salt, what else am I missing? The kettle is whistling. My mom takes it off the stove and turns off the burner.
I pour the boiling water into the French press and watch the grounds swirl. She closes a box, pulls tape and a thick black marker out of her purse, and tapes the box and labels it: kitchen: dishes. She moves the completed box into the dining room and returns with an empty one.
I sit down on the couch and stare at the one box in the middle of the nearly empty dining room. The same couple that bought the bed frame and dresser also bought the dining room table. Newlyweds. My mother finishes another box, and through the steam rising from my cup, I see her put it on the floor. She sits next to me and puts her hand on the middle of my back. We stare straight ahead at the packing peanuts.
“You’ve never adjusted well to change”
“What do you mean?”
“Even as a young child, you never dealt well with change. You cried every day before kindergarten.”
“I was five.”
“The other children didn’t cry.”
“Because no one else cried, I’m supposed to feel bad about that?”
“Ruth, people make mistakes, people die, people get divorced. I don’t understand what you’re doing.”
“What are you talking about?” I’m yelling but still facing the packing peanuts. “I’m not supposed to think this is a big deal, that I screwed up so much, and I should just go on?”
“Like you did?” I say her response to myself before she can get it out.
“I did the best I could.”
I’m tired of the line but it seems true; life is a series of unappreciated, dumb sacrifices.
She walks into the kitchen, and I stay on the couch. The house is quiet except for intermittent sounds of taped yanked off a roll and then torn with teeth.
I wake up in the night, and the dining room is filled with boxes labeled in stoic black marker. pantry: food. kitchen: baking pans. bathroom: towels, misc. There are several large ones labeled fragile. The shower turns off, and then the bedroom door closes. I walk into the kitchen and make a pitcher of margarita, not blending the ice just plunking in cubes. The cabinets are open and bare, the sink is so reflective that I can see the yellow haze of the alley light. The inside of the refrigerator is white, all evidence of rotting spinach and questionable takeout erased. The room smells like a mother—order and lemon detergent. My map is gone but the bag of coffee and the grinder are on the counter, and the kettle is filled, everything measured, waiting for morning.
After Isaac left, I kept trying to prop up my books on the bookshelf, but they kept falling without the additional weight of his books. I pull the cart close to the bookshelf, like parallel parking. I pull Moby Dick from the shelf and put it on top of the box of overnight maxis. I loop through the den, into the living room, around the pile of boxes in the dining room, through the kitchen, and back into the den again. I pull The Playboy Bartender’s Guide from the shelf and then keep on going until I run out of books and then run out of tequila. I park the cart in the dining room and try to fit one of the fragile boxes into the cart but the box is too big, so I prop fragile on its side. I pass out on the couch in my clothes.
Early the next morning, my mother, fully dressed wearing plum lipstick and gray eye shadow, stands at the foot of the couch, coffee in one hand, two aspirin in the other.
“Here. For your hangover and your brain tumor.”
I take it, the way a child takes from a parent.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She leans forward and pats the top of the sleeping bag that I’ve been using as a bed. I had to stop sleeping in bed because I didn’t know where to put with my arms while I slept. The sleeping bag is mummy style, and it’s so tight I have no choice. My arms rest palm side down on the outside of the bag.
“I know you are. It’s time to move.”
As I sit up to swallow the pills and take the coffee, I see something in the corner of the room that looks vaguely metallic.
“So, get up now, it’s time to move. It’s moving day.”
I rub my eyes and see another shopping cart full of perfectly arranged boxes. In the front part are all the clothes from my closet, neatly folded and in the main compartment are shoeboxes cushioned with folded tea towels, socks and T-shirts. My mother must have rearranged my cart this morning. I sit up and unzip the sleeping bag and look in the dining room where I see my cart, dirty wheels, crammed with books and towels and maxi pads, one wire hanger sticking out of the edge.
“Mom, did you steal a…?”
“Ruth, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Get up.”
All the drawers in the bathroom have been emptied and wiped out. My toothbrush and toothpaste are the only thing left. I splash water on my face, brush my teeth, and try not to look at myself in the mirror. When I walk back into the dining room, my mother is behind her cart, ready to go. I push my cart so that I’m even with my mother, and she puts her hand on my back.
“So, good. You’re ready. Let’s go.”
I hold open the front door, and she pushes her cart out of the house and waits for me at the end of the sidewalk. I push my cart out the front door, past the smiling bearded lady, and down the sidewalk to the street. I stop on top of the oily stain where Isaac used to park his car. The dented metal garbage cans have been out so long they’re early.
My mom and I push our carts past my house and past my neighbors’ house with its ever-changing arsenal of seasonal flags. Today’s flag is pale pink with a white bunny. His long ears flap in the wind. The sun glints off the metal carts.
We push past the next house with the small pink shovel and a plastic sandbox shaped like a turtle. The turtle’s back is bright green and patterned to look like a shell. To play in the sandbox, you have to pull the shell off the turtle. A man in his bathrobe and slippers walks to the edge of the sidewalk, picks up the Sunday paper, flips to a section, turns around, and walks back to his house without seeming to notice the two of us. Further down the block, my mom stops to admire someone’s ferns, and as she’s looking, the owners come out of their house. It’s an older man and woman: he is wearing a suit, she is wearing a hat. My mother waves and greets them.
“Good morning. Lovely day, isn’t it? It’s a lovely day.”
They return her wave but don’t say anything. As they get in their car and drive away, I watch my mother, ahead of me, pushing.