Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Writing Exercise

The grass in the backyard had grown long again in circular patches, deep green and bright. Rings of it marred the otherwise pristine lawn like docile alien crop circles.
Steven would be furious. He’d blame Jamie for not mowing the lawn well enough last week, no matter what I told him about underground heat from the septic tank. There’d be a fight. Everything these days lead to a fight, it seemed.
I pulled on a worn pair of boots and shuffled through the dew to the shed, sorting clumsily through gear until I found the weedwackers. After a few uneducated attempts, I succeeded in starting it, and allowed myself a moment of triumph. I’m unfamiliar with tools, with gardening gear, with anything related to the Great Outdoors. The Outside is Steven’s domain, not mine. This was “Man’s Work.” He always said it jokingly, but underneath his words I felt the tension in them pressing upward like water moments before a fish breaks the surface. He would be quietly furious if he knew I was encroaching.
Regardless, after a few practice strokes I felt confident enough to turn my new weapon toward the grass, and evened out the grass relatively well. The few gashes in the earth where my hand trembled I pressed down firmly with my heel, none the wiser.
Satisfied, I cut the engine and listened for a few moments to the serene noises of the neighborhood; children laughing as they darted through a cold sprinkler, the slow rumble of a car engine, birds competing with a distant lawnmower. I returned the weedwacker carefully back to its rightful place and trudged inside.
Days are busy. The morning is for cleaning—dusting, straightening, vacuuming, and doing the breakfast dishes. A cup of coffee at noon and half an hour of television, and then it’s assorted paperwork, usually bills but often times mailings and pamphlets for whatever charity needs my assistance that week. Hungry children and homeless wildlife plead at me from colorful pamphlets and I, God, pick and choose those worthy of my attention for the month. I settled on Make a Wish Foundation this time around. I liked the idea of those dying children with their optimistic chins in the air, meeting princesses and actresses, staging shows, traveling, living and laughing, their reality blurring as sickness and fantasy intertwined.
At three, dinner is planned, arranged, and put it in the oven, which leaves about an hour before Jamie and Hannah get home from school and Steven returns from work expecting his dinner. Which, at exactly five-thirty on weekdays, I set on the table with perfect practiced ease.
Tonight it is vegetable lasagna, an attempt to work in slightly healthier meals to combat Steven’s slightly high cholesterol. The moment it is placed in front of him I can see that he’s displeased. He has eyebrows like storms, and they’re brewing, moving in a front across his face. I set my shoulders and brace for an argument, but Jamie saves me the fight.
“What is this crap?”
Steven turns to him immediately, switching on. “Jesus, Jamie, watch your damn mouth. Don’t talk to your mother that way.”
Jamie casts a baleful brown-eyed glare at me from across the table, and though it has been years since he’s been permitted to say the words aloud, I recognize them in his expression: She’s not my mother. Steven has thrown fuel into the fire with that jab, and Jamie stares at me, the one who will be punished.
“Just take one bite, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it,” I offer quietly.
I smell like grass for you, I want to tell him. I am not your mother.
It’s too late, however. Jamie has presented his father with an opportunity, and Steven, whip-smart and determined, never hesitates to reject an opening.
The shouting starts, escalating like an oil fire, and within two minutes Jamie has slammed down his plate and stormed from the room.
Steven sits at the head of the table breathing heavily. There’s a look of satisfaction on his face he tries to hide. The storm eyebrows have ebbed, draining downward into something like contentment.
I take a small bite of the lasagna, which for all the complaints is really quite good.
“Can you believe that kid?” Steven demands, his eyes still bright with adrenaline. “What the hell has gotten into him lately?”
“He’s fifteen,” I offer passively, not interested in getting dragged into another round. This is Steven’s game, not mine.
Steven shakes his head, my answer doing nothing to placate him. Something new is bubbling in me. His eyebrows have cleared, but I have summoned his storm into my gut.
“I didn’t talk to my father like that when I was fifteen. And if my mother put dinner on the table, we ate it, none of this complaining bullshit.”
Abruptly I stand, dropping my fork on the table. It falls with a clatter, louder than I anticipated. Hannah, always quiet, who sits so still in these moments I often forget she exists, raises her wide cartoon eyes to me and I almost hesitate.
You were going to say the same fucking thing,” I hiss. The storm seeps out of me into those words, setting them ablaze. It shocks Steven for a moment, this reaction from me. It’s enough time for me to retreat before he yells his usual lines at my back.
This is my house. No one respects me. I keep a roof over your ungrateful heads…
His bluster fails to impress me anymore. He wants me to return, to scream and yell, but I’ve found over the years that refusing to rise to his bait is the only way to truly disappoint him.
Jamie’s room is unusually quiet, and I knock tentatively.
“Can I come in?”
“I don’t care.”
Gingerly I eases the door open a crack. Jamie is prone on the floor, sorting through albums. He’s nostalgic, at fifteen, for an era he never experienced.
“Do you want me to bring you a plate?”
He doesn’t look up.
“There’s a pizza in the freezer; I could warm it up for you…”
“I don’t want anything!” he snaps, looking over his shoulder at me with all a teenager’s ferocious disdain. “Just leave me alone, Kendall. For fuck’s sake.”
He adds the curse carefully, gauging me. I meet his eyes firmly and nod, though my feelings have been hurt. I search for something to add, something to bridge the gap between us, but his attention has already been drawn back downward, to faces of dead vocalists and retired druggie guitarists he’ll never see play in person.
I have been effectively dismissed, and I close the door gently and walk away.
I can hear the television in the living room, which means Steven had taken his meal in there and was probably relaxing with a beer. Silently, I returned to the dining room and gathered up the untouched remnants of the dinner. My lips tight, I scraped the pan into the garbage and began running hot water for the washing.

That weekend, thank God, was an “off” one, when Jamie and Hannah’s mother Meredith screeched up in her perpetually shiny Lexus and loaded them disdainfully into the white leather back seats.
A divorce lawyer for the wealthy, Meredith had deemed herself too busy to maintain full custody of her children. An excellent attorney, her and Steven’s divorce had been a breeze, their split as neat and tidy and shiny as the Lexus.
I knew she hated me, the New Wife. But not for the usual reasons. As she careened into the driveway and instructed the kids to get their things, she fixed me with one of her long, measuring looks, and I knew, as always, she found me horrifyingly ordinary. A B-cup of disappointment. The other flashy ex-wives had bleach blondes with big teeth they could complain about over espressos, tsking in disdain over the predictability of men, but I gave her nothing. If anything, Meredith was far more glamorous than me. Slim-hipped and tall, she was constantly aglow and pristine, like one of the posters between the mirrors in a salon. I pictured myself pointing to her unsmiling face and telling a stylist with long silver scissors, That one. Give me the success and cold sexual charisma.
I was younger than her, at least. I had that cliche going for me.
“Kendall,” she greeted me. Never a Hello, or a How are you today, you terrifically boring creature? I didn’t take it personally. Meredith spoke to everyone like she was about to begin a sudden business meeting that would end in at least three terminations.
Sometimes I marveled that she and Steven had made it as long as they had: two Type A’s, equally convinced of their own superiority. Meredith didn’t grasp his attraction to me, but I did. Meredith was work, commitment, difficulties. My blandness is a blessing: I am easy. I am a relief.
I could almost see the same thoughts flitting through her mind as she sized me up. I’ll bet she found them comforting.
With a slight smirk and a toss of that unrealistic hair, she picked up Hannah’s makeup case and settled it into the trunk, long nails catching the sun.
“We’ll be back by noon on Sunday,” she told me briskly. “I have an appointment at two I can’t miss.”
“I’ll be here,” I laughed forcefully. She smiled, almost genuinely, and I knew she took some pleasure from that image of me awaiting their return.
Where else would I be?
“Bye, guys,” I called, tapping on the windows. Hannah, small and delicate in the front seat, waved timidly, but Jamie pretended not to hear me over the noise of his headphones.
Meredith chuckled, observing the exchange. “Don’t take it personally. Teenagers.”
“Little pricks,” I offered with a smile, waving once more at the boy who was ignoring me as hard as he was physically able. “But that one sure can be a piece of shit when he wants to be.”
I managed to startle her. Perfectly sculpted eyebrows rose and she paused, seeming to see me for once. Boring, bland. Critical of her parenting. I saw her writing my pink slip in her mind.
Kendall,” she laughed breezily, in a chiding manner. Jamie’s attention had been pricked; I could see him listening hard through his self-imposed distraction. The windows on the Lexus were cracked. Hannah was watching me nervously with her always-anxious eyes, darting them between her brother and her mother and back to the woman that cleaned her house and made her dinner.
“Sunday. Noon,” I repeated, reverting to my docile expression. “We will see you then.”
You will. Isn’t Steven out of town this weekend?”
The barb was pointed and it hit its mark. A retaliatory reminder of my station. I was Steven’s servant, here to collect his children, to send them out again, to clean up after them and to never, ever to call them pricks.
“Denver, yes. Back Monday, though. Just a short trip this time.”
That perfect smirk.
“You’ll have a quiet weekend. I’m sure that will be nice.” No one wants to be around you.
“I’ll enjoy it.”
A tight smile, and one more wave to Hannah. Meredith loaded into her seat, and I watched them with a strangely distant feeling as they drove off. I wondered what my step-daughter would grow to be. Would she be cold and firm like her mother, controlling and abrasive as her dad, or had she somehow escaped those genes?
I felt sorry for her. Sometimes she seemed the only normal one in the family, the only soft creature in our hard household. I had no skills as a mother, and I knew that. She couldn’t rely on me for aid.
I was left alone.
Meredith was wrong though, thinking she could lord that over me. I was used to an empty house, my confines every day as Steven worked and the kids studied. This was no punishment; this was my habitat, my territory. Every afternoon they came back and invaded it.
Today, the animal in me was awake, and wanted to pace.
I had crossed a boundary, just then, with the Ex-Wife and Mother. She would report my words to Steven, I had no doubt. Probably she was already texting him.
Keep her in line.
Steven would be furious. I would be scolded like a child. Jamie would bear the brunt of it, too, sparking that constant storm that brewed in my husband. There was a hole in the hallway, fist-shaped. I pictured it getting a twin. A physical reminder of anger when words wouldn’t linger. Look at how strongly I feel. I feel more than you.
I should have been worried, but instead I felt oddly elated.
Mice bite, too, I wanted to tell them.
Maybe if I punched the wall, they’d consider my feelings relevant.
The house was unappealing, and I took the keys, eager to roam. My interaction with Meredith had left me restless and raw. I needed to walk.
I went downtown, a mile or so away. Our town was small and unassuming, cobblestones and black streetlights designed to look like they burned natural gas. Quaint, but trying hard to be. Jack the Ripper meets high-end designer cardigans and gastropubs.
I picked a cafe I knew had good coffee and sat outside on the patio. Summer was winding down, and the breeze was cool, sun warm. One of those few perfect days in Michigan, wedged between the desperate humidity and the unforgiving snow.
It was still early, and the patio was largely unoccupied. A woman sat a few tables away from me, my only companion, her face hidden by large sunglasses. She nursed a glass of wine with the attitude of someone who was getting bored with drinking but had already committed: pinky out, glass trembling slightly. There was a green bottle beside her. Sun shifted and I could see it was nearly empty.
Caught staring, she smiled at me, and raised the glass a little unsteadily in a cheers.
“I’m celebrating,” she said, with a tight grin.
The waitress brought me my cappuccino and set it down unobtrusively, casting a worried glance at the drunken woman before sliding away.
“Congratulations,” I replied with a tight smile, disinterested. I took a dismissive sip of my drink.
“I’m getting divorced,” she continued. I could feel her sharp gaze latching onto me, even through the thick sunglasses.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I offered politely. I wanted quiet, today, and I had chosen the wrong company.
“Are you married?”
“I am.”
“He’s cheating on me. My husband.”
I didn’t want to encourage her, but my curiosity had been piqued. I couldn’t help it. I turned slightly, opening up my body to her conversation, and she clutched her wine closer to her with satisfaction.
“Cheating,” she continued. “I knew he was. I hired a private investigator. With his money. There’s a whole notebook, every detail of his affair. Schedules. Pictures. Proof. It’s like something from a movie. Long lenses and trenchcoats.”
She held up the nearly empty bottle, offering me the remnants, but I shook my head. She shrugged and took a sip from the long neck, ignoring the dark red dredges waiting in her cup.
“We’ve been married fifteen years now. That’s a long time, in this day and age, isn’t it? The funny thing is, my husband, he has a lot of money. A lot. We signed a pre-nup, fifteen years ago. With a cheating clause.”
She laughed, sharply.
“It was his idea, this clause. Maybe he was trying to control himself, somehow. I don’t know. At the time I was almost offended. I was sure he meant me, that I would be the one to cheat. But he wrote it himself, every bit. And now I have pictures and proof that he’s having an affair. I’ll get everything. I’ll get everything.”
“That’s lucky, I suppose,” I offered, unsure of how to contribute to this one-sided conversation.
“I’m forty-five years old,” she carried on, finishing off the bottle and holding up her glass, studying the oily finger smudges that caught the light. “I loved my husband, when we got married. I stopped loving my husband a few years ago, and I think, for him, more than that. And now I’ll get everything. A lot of money. I can start over. I can build a new life.”
The fern leaf in my drink had melted into nothing but thick white-and-caramel swirls, but I studied it, listening to her. Her voice rose and ebbed as she spoke like the lake licking the shore. Wine colored it, and I heard the uncertainty and the fear in her tone. Tomorrow she would wake and take two aspirin and drink a glass of water or orange juice, wash her face, and call her lawyer, voice firm and decisive as she made the arrangements to take it all from her husband and build this new life. Today was her brink.
“What would you do?” she asked. “If you could start over?”
The foam in my drink clung to the side of the cup, lace corpses of bubbles staining the ceramic.
What would I do, if I could start over?