In the kitchen, the dry-erase board reads: Welcome home! It’s the realtor’s signature touch of certainty or faith, something Horace should’ve expected; though standing in the kitchen, staring at its startling condescension—whether aware or unaware, he could care less—he can only tell his wife the board is not theirs. Left behind, maybe—an exception of familiarity; an oversight, he wants to qualify. She’s asking if he’s read the board. He’s just returned from a ten-day project in Honolulu. He’s tan and tired from the Midwest red-eye flight—tired and vaguely disappointed his stop-over in Portland fell through. He really doesn’t feel as bad as he’s told he should, all things set in line—after all, he’s here, for however long; he could have stayed in Hawaii, though now he’s wavering earlier than he’d assumed on the flight—foggy recollections of swearing off irony, the Salsa dancer he met in Hawaii, poised somewhere. Regardless. His wife, Kelly, is holding a knife. She’s pulled it from the block on the granite countertop. Their dog nearly died while he was gone; he’s not sure how, still unclear about that.
Why didn’t you answer your phone? she’s saying.
What happened? he says again, as though sheer repetition of any tone outside of what the situation demands may be enough for her to understand he has no part in all of this; he isn’t necessarily part of this progression. It’s out of his control—it’s been out of his control for some time now.
Why didn’t you answer your phone?
Third grade reading—who knew it would take so long. Plus, the client. Dinner every night.
Who was the client?
A bunch of old Chinese ladies from Hawaii’s D.O.E., you know that.
You couldn’t answer your phone? You couldn’t call your wife?
Put the knife down.
Your dog almost fucking died, she says. He knows, she says. He knows what’s going on. You should see him. He’s so sad now. He can barely stand up. He’s trying to kill himself. He just can’t, because he’s a fucking dog. He doesn’t know how. Or what that even means. You’re such a fucking asshole. I hate you. Why are you doing this to me? She’s holding the knife in the air. She’s pretending to know what to do with it—he can see this in her face, suddenly insecure, as if struck by a moment of self-awareness.
What happened? he says again, though at the mention of the dog he can feel a few tears on his face. It’s involuntary. He loves this dog. The dog is hiding behind the couch in the family room. He can see him from where he stands in the kitchen. What did you do to him? What the fuck? What’s been going on around here?
I could kill you. I should kill you.
What’s going on?
You really want to know what’s been going on around here? Are you fucking serious? I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you what’s been going on around here. I had to move our whole fucking house by myself. And your fucking dog almost died. He tried to eat the whole fucking house. The vets didn’t think he was going to make it. And you wouldn’t even answer your fucking phone. I had questions. Who the fuck were you with? What whore was it on this trip? God, if only I would’ve known you were such an asshole. How could I have been so stupid? You’ve ruined me, she says.
I called. Put the knife down.
Oh, how fucking thoughtful. She waves the knife in the air, lunges.
He’s never felt so firmly grounded in cliché, the sudden out-of-body experience, as he watches her move the knife toward him.
The counselor understands. She asks him about the foundation and his eyes and breath. She watches him drink water from the water-cooler, tell her someone tried to choke him in the bar last night. A bar fight, he says. The bruises are dark and track as if a hand had grasped them. She watches him cry, uncontrollably for minutes at a time, on the couch next to his wife. She talks about her kids, her lesbian partner. How she has to pick them up from school soon. She picks up a picture from the table beside her chair. Of her children. Her eyes water; they have been watering the whole session. She is fat and he can see the gout in her hands as she holds up the picture of her kids. She holds a tissue in the other hand, to dab her eyes. She has some condition, she says. Her eyes water constantly, she says. All the time. At the grocery store, she says. Even then. But this is sad, she says. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything this sad, she says.
That’s what you always wanted, isn’t it?
Not feel guilty for having a drink?
Killing yourself? Depriving me of you?
Five beers and a couple of cigarettes—I’m slaughtering an innocent family, throwing a sack of kittens in a lake. Supposed to be fun.
Mangos. Grocery stores. I don’t know. What the hell?
Who else do you buy mangos with? Is this the girl with my name again? Why would you make that up? Why would you tell me she has the same name as me? Is that supposed to be mean?
That’s her name. What’s the difference, anyway? I don’t believe in irony anymore.
What the fuck does that mean? Why do you have to believe in it?
Or God. But we’re beyond that now, aren’t we? I’m so glad we didn’t get married in a church.
Clichés, religion—I get enough of that at work.
We could be on our way to church right now. If I never took this job, we’d be on our way to church now, I know this. I can’t believe this is happening.
I don’t go to church.
Of course. How could I forget? You might as well write that on your fucking forehead. Why do you want everyone to know you don’t go to church? What’s the big fucking deal? You can’t take a stance against something else? Like being a fucking asshole?
Those marks on your neck, the counselor says. We can see the makeup. I don’t want to seem like we’re ganging up on you. But those are hickies, aren’t they?
Like I said, I got in a bar fight last night. At the bar across from the hotel.
You never fight. What’s happening to you?
The counselor takes a deep breath, opens her fingers out over her knees. I’m proud of you for coming, the counselor says. It took a lot of courage to come here, she says. After everything you’ve done. I can’t believe half of it. I was really curious to meet you. I’m glad I finally got a chance to meet you. This will help us a lot with the healing process.
The guilt will be awful for you. You should really start dealing with that.
It doesn’t have to be this way. You can come back.
I can’t. Tell her I can’t.
He’s right, the counselor says.
He brought a girl with him. Can you believe that? She’s waiting for him at the hotel. Could you imagine being her?
You really need to start thinking about her. This is really hard for her. She’s a good person. All she’s ever done is help people. And think of others. She says you are a good person, too. You had a horse in Arizona, didn’t you? A thoroughbred off the track, right? But he died before you moved.
We had him cremated. His ashes weigh eighty-four pounds. I weighed the box one day.
Your job sounds quite interesting. Could you speak to that? I know you were both quite proud of it.
I never said that.
It’s okay. Tell us about the job.
I train people how to score standardized tests. Make sure whatever state fulfills benchmarks however predestined. Get the schools their money. A hilarious industry. I don’t know what else to say. If I have to hear one more teacher complain about teaching the tests . . . I guess I could say that.
I don’t think you two should ever talk again, she says, finally.
He texts: In town, could you open up the garage? The girl from Portland has opened a bottle of champagne in the hotel room, though the occasion isn’t too thrilling: It is almost winter, and he needs his winter things: snow boots, etc. He knows he probably should have texted earlier, finds himself waiting in the early-fall cold for his wife to finish some forgotten feel-good errand, maybe, or a quick drive by any of the other open houses, indelible possibly, as if they exist as anything other than sentimentality: the house with the deer trail in the backyard, reed-marsh frozen in dead-leaf space separating the far-off back rim of homes; the house on any other new-construction sprawl edge, neatly plowed and graded lots, corrugated pipe, transfer boxes, everything stacked against the irrigation ditch berm, corn and soybean squared in the distance. It’s almost enough to feel light tears run to the corners of his mouth. The new house smell. Empty, clean new construction.
He ashes his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, lights another.
She’s moving down the narrow winding driveway now, slowing around the fallen branches. I’ll get those, he says to himself, though he feels petty for thinking this just to feel better a moment.
You smoke Parliaments now? Is that what she smokes?
It’s all they had.
He holds a shoe box in his hands. He needs something to say. What’s this?
She cries. She turns from him, holds her mouth. He opens the box. The shoes he wore at their wedding. He remembers driving with his father and uncle in a thunderstorm. His uncle was moving in with a younger woman. They had a mattress in the bed of the truck, some boxes. He clutched the lava lamp in his lap in the cab between them. He was ten.
I didn’t realize. Is this everything?
She’s moved into a condo somewhere close by. She won’t say where.
Where were you this morning? he says, though immediately the entitlement in his voice grabs his chest. It is exactly the kind of thing he hasn’t allowed himself to say or think throughout all of this. He doesn’t care.
The grocery store, she says.
Sorry, he says flatly—he’s been saying this too much lately and to too many people and he’s not sure what it means anymore. It’s amazing how many people you have to apologize to when you go through a divorce.
Why? she says.
Nothing, he says.
He opens the gate to the backyard, the overgrown weeds and scrubs, the birch trees they’d planned on clear-cutting, the vaguely marked property line he had planned on fencing.
You don’t know what to call me anymore, do you? Why don’t you say, Hon, or Baby? She steps in front of him, holds him close, runs her hands over his ribs, chest. She kisses him, pulls away.
For a moment, he considers how he will never see her blow-dry her hair naked again.
They walk toward the path through the black ash and birch scrubs leading to the trail to the marsh. He stops in the gravel sitting area and stares at the rocks arranged to suggest a fire. He kicks a rock, across the fire pit, against another rock. They’re deceivingly light, bouncy, like scoria or pumice. He considers the Salsa dancer’s curious passion for geology, though his awkwardness lets his wife suddenly take his hand and lead him up the deck stairs, into the house. He expects the dog to be there. At the door, wagging his tail. Maybe scrambling frantically for a toy. There’s an emptiness to the house, obviously, as they start on the stairs. They laugh awkwardly; she walks ahead of him, looks back and smiles. The carpet in the first bedroom is dark green, though beige throughout the house. The kids wanted it this color, the realtor said, and put up his hands. They haven’t set foot in the room since. He remembers imagining kids in the room.
She leaves their bedroom door open. He looks down at the carpet, the indentions from their bed frame. He lifts her shirt; she stops him.
What are you thinking?
Aren’t I good in bed?
Then what is it? I can tell you what to do, if that’s what you want. She brings her mouth close to his, as if she wants him to kiss her. You don’t need someone like yourself. Isn’t that the line? You know about that one, right? No one likes themselves in the end. That’s another one. You like that one too, don’t you?
He lifts her shirt, pushes his hands against her bra. He breathes deeply on her neck. Then he un-straps her bra and lets her breasts fall. He kisses her small, blonde nipples carefully and then brings a hand behind her neck and kisses her mouth. He feels his chest against hers. He lays her down between the indentions. He lets her help him slide her jeans and panties over her ankles. He kisses up her thighs.
No, not like that, she says.
He holds himself over her. He studies his shoulders and forearms, his hands set in the carpet—he lingers over her, feels sweat drip. He lies on his back, aware he’ll have to use the shower before he leaves. He lies on his back a while, it feels, before he considers if the house has been winterized.