The dick-drawing gang is at it again. I took my daughters to the splash pad this afternoon and during one of our timeouts (excessive unsafe running), the five-year-old put her hand on the bench right where one of the dick drawers had gone to work: a black Sharpie doodle of an erect penis complete with low-hanging balls and sporadic scrotum hair. I swatted her hand away. “Don’t touch that!”
Sun’s down and Karen and the girls are asleep. Doors are double deadbolted. Alarm system’s armed. I’m in the garage, under the harsh glow of a 100-watt bulb, trying on the camo vest Hal from work had given me. It’s a tight squeeze. Also, it’s riddled with dried splatters from last week’s office paintball social. But having a little piece of Hal with me is comforting.
Historically the dick-drawing gang has at least respected boundaries, limiting their “urban art” to neighbourhood fringes: underpasses, dumpsters, the alley behind Roderick’s Convenience. Lately though it seems they’re branching out, mixing things up, drawing more dicks in more places, expanding their dick-drawing minds. Hydro boxes, playground slides, the catholic school (the west-facing gymnasium wall, perfectly positioned to capture the majestic gleam of the evening sun). The dicks, they’re spray-painted, they’re carved, they’re papier-mâchéd and dangling from trees.
They’re even starting to get abstract: like the chalked circle with the line down the middle on the sidewalk—innocuous until you realize it’s a straight-on perspective, that line down the middle being one of the gang’s first documented dick holes. They’re sampling the proverbial teat of variety, tasting the sweet taste of defiling respectable family areas, and it’s only swelling their hunger. Their hunger for drawing dicks.
Last week is when it all changed for me: Hal and me under the seats in that charred school bus, sweating it out, listening for movement, anything indicating an incoming. Hal’s hopper empty, my gun jammed, we heard a twig snap. I whimpered and Hal said shut the fuck up, you’re going to give away our position. Hal and I were buddied up. I requested Jim, my colleague in Standards, but the paintball social was supposed to be about bonding with someone you haven’t already bonded with. And that’s what happened on the sooty floor of that gutted school bus (firebombed during some riot and subsequently acquired by the Explosive Release Paintball Corporation)—we bonded, me and Hal from IT. By day, Hal fixed paper jams, fought off hacker security breaches, and snuffed out viruses when staff clicked links in “penis enlargement” or “fuckbuddy request” messages. In the killing fields though, the guy was a face-painted, camo-clad hero. It’s always the ones you least suspect. Another twig snapped, much closer than the last.
A cricket chirps somewhere inside the garage. Cockily. Like he’s reporting to his friends that he’s invaded my space and I’m not man enough to do anything about it—like, rendezvous point in here, boys. I’m tying my boots and one of the laces snaps, the torn thread dangling limp in my hand, probably foreshadowing how this evening’s going to turn out. Arrogant cricket sounds like he’s behind the paint cans. If I find him he’s hunkered down at his last rendezvous point.
I don’t know that they’re an actual gang, the dick drawers, but I imagine they travel in numbers, egging each other on, engaging in groupthink and one-upmanship. Whether or not they’re actively recruiting, I can’t be sure. Do they require a portfolio of previously drawn dicks or initiate new members (like, go draw a dick on that guy’s windshield)? Who knows. What I do know is that they’re getting bolder and soon I won’t be letting my kids outside, not in this dick-peppered neighbourhood. Karen says I’m overreacting. Also that I stifle the girls. But she’s okay with the new sex-ed curriculum—like, sure, let’s show our kids porn and teach them to whack off—so, you know, grain of salt.
I had this instinct to protect Hal, to prove my worth, so when Alpha Squad breached the school bus, I leapt into the line of fire and took a riddling to the chest. When I dropped, they riddled Hal. He later said, “‘A’ for effort, buddy.” With Hal and I down, Alpha Squad parted, allowing Alpha Squad Leader (my supervisor, Judith) up the narrow aisle. She stood over Hal and I and asked me if I thought I was a hero, to which I said no ma’am, of course not. “That’s right,” she said, gun nonchalantly askew, pointed at my crotch. She looked away, cracked her neck with mid-level-management swagger, and pegged me one in the testicles, finished me.
Hal visited me in the hospital, gave me the vest, said I earned it.
I mentioned the dick-drawing gang.
“Bunch of repressed Catholics,” Hal said. “Small potatoes. You could peg them off in one night.”
I move the paint cans and sure enough there’s the cricket. Silent. Still. I step on him, put him out like a cigarette, and leave the smear as a warning to the others.
I pour paintballs into the hopper, snap it onto the gun, and smack the button for the garage door opener. Up rises the garage door, panel by panel, revealing the night—and the droopy dick (with telltale mushroom of circumcision) scrawled on the windshield of my Volkswagen. Skunky permanent marker fumes waft my way. It’s fresh. I slink out to the driveway, deflated, hollow, vulnerable, but also enraged and resolute. I disengage the safety on the gun with the emotional detachment of a special-ops commando. I survey our corner of the subdivision.
The door to the laundry room opens and there’s the five-year-old in her pajamas.
“Why’s your face painted, Daddy?”
“Back inside, baby. Lock up.”
“Where you going?”
I enter the password on the keypad and the garage door comes down between us.
“For a walk.”
I start toward the playground, unlaced boot rattling around loose on my foot, not sure if she heard me.
Adam Giles's short fiction won the University of Toronto Magazine Short Story Contest and was longlisted for PRISM international’s Fiction Contest, the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Story Contest, and the Penguin Random House Student Award for Fiction. He has stories forthcoming in Riddle Fence: A Journal of Arts & Culture and other literary journals. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario with his wife and two daughters. On the Interwebs: www.adamgiles.ca. On Twitter: @gilesadam.
Years ago, when I was living in South Korea teaching English at a private institute, I became involved with a reserved but adventurous man named Kang Jae Hoon, a cook in an upscale restaurant known for its traditional royal cuisine. Sometimes, especially at first and whenever we had company, Jae Hoon would spend hours in our little kitchen preparing those elaborate royal meals with their multitude of small, finely prepared side dishes. Most of the time, though, after a long day spent cooking, he would come home and boil a package of ramyeon instant noodles for a late-night dinner: the potato salad and pasta and the few other things I was barely capable of making didn’t entirely agree with him.
Not for me, was what he actually said, as he rooted through the cupboards in search of a small saucepan.
After five years, not long after we broke up, Jae Hoon met a grey-haired American businessman who took him back to the US as if Jae Hoon were some sort of exotic pet or an abandoned orphan in need of sheltering. There was no anger or bitterness between us by this point. We had both moved on to the next phase in our lives and continued to be friends, emailing each other often, even after he had moved to the States and I was still in Korea, teaching.
Finally, he’d written in one of those emails, no more questions. Meaning: no more of the kinds of questions that many Koreans typically posed to strangers and were just a normal part of everyday conversation: How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Why not? Here, he wrote, no one asks and no one cares. He emailed pictures of the white brick suburban split-level he and Bruce (that was the man’s name) lived in, the sumptuous dinner parties they’d thrown, and the weekend trips they’d taken together around the U.S. And although he hadn’t expressly said so, you could see he was very happy with his new life, the adventure of it and the direction it was heading. I was happy for him, if not a little envious.
One day, less than a year after his arrival in Atlanta, he emailed me saying that he had cancer. It was something the doctors suspected he must have had for quite some time, but it had gone unchecked until it was too late. No one predicted the cancer would take his life as quickly as it did. He had been diagnosed in May, booked his return flight to Seoul for August, but by the middle of July he was too ill to fly and by the end of the month he was dead.
Everybody gotta die some time, I remember he said when I called him about a week before he passed away, sounding astonishingly matter-of-fact about the whole thing.
When the urn containing his ashes arrived in Korea, Jae Hoon’s mother and father didn’t attend the funeral. I was not surprised that his father wasn’t there. I’d always known they’d had a rocky relationship, and I had more than once heard Jae Hoon say that he hated the man, although when pressed to explain he’d just shrug and talk about something else.
Surprisingly, though, shortly before he left for the US, Jae Hoon had decided to spend the Lunar New Year’s holiday with his father. I suppose he wanted to make one last attempt at salvaging their relationship, to settle something maybe or come to some kind of resolution. And although I don’t know what they talked about, I do know that by the time he left on the third day, he said they had fought so fiercely that he knew he would never have anything to do with his father again.
His parents, I recall when I run through what details I know of his family, had divorced at a time when hardly anyone in Korea divorced—unlike today—and that his father was an alcoholic and was likely abusive, since most men of his generation typically were. His father was also heavily in debt—gambling debts; a passion for cards—which was probably the leading cause of his parents’ divorce. Originally, Jae Hoon’s family was from a small town at the southern tip of the peninsula, just outside of Kwangju, the city where the pro-democracy riots broke out in 1980 and where hundreds (some say thousands) of protesters were gunned down by government troops. Jae Hoon was a little boy at the time, ten years old, and Korea was a different country back then, he said. It was also much poorer, not like today, and his family was also poor when the violence erupted and everything in society, from the government on down, began to change.
That same year, after his parents separated, his father drifted across the country doing odd jobs: factory work, farm labour sometimes, but it was mostly in construction that he found steady employment. When Jae Hoon decided to visit him for the last time, his father was still in the construction industry, even living on construction sites in the kind of portable corrugated steel huts you often see in such places, only now he was the night watchman: a token title, I imagine, bestowed onto an otherwise old and shiftless man who likely did more sleeping than any vigilant watching. And so I picture them, father and son, together spending the Lunar New Year’s holiday in one of those cold and dirty huts on an empty construction site, the two of them sleeping on a plywood floor in a draughty room heated by a propane heater. I see them boiling ramyeon noodles three times a day on the portable gas range and drinking soju at night. I picture them playing hwa-tu, a card game I’ve often seen accompanied by much drinking and cursing and loud throat clearing, and I see the father berating his son for being nothing more than a cook—ah, yes, I remember this was something he said his father disparaged: such an un-manly occupation, what shame! And why wasn’t he married, anyway? Thirty-five and not even married! And why was he going to the States? Why did he need to go there of all places to study cooking?—(the pretext for his move)—Why was he wasting his money? What did he hope to accomplish? Who!—his father shouted, boiling over with drunken anger, pounding a fist down onto the low wooden table, upsetting the little piles of cards and the shot glasses of potato liquor—Who did he think he was?
And I can see the terrible argument that would ensue, and Jae Hoon saying things he might later regret, but perhaps also thinking at the end of those three days that at last something was resolved, that at last he was unburdened of a heavy load of hate and guilt. Well, he might have said to himself as the plane lifted off from the runway, at least I don’t have to see that man again.
Of course, all of this is simply conjecture.
But what really surprised me was not to see his mother at the funeral. How strange, I remember thinking, that she should be absent while his eight sisters (Jae Hoon was the only son, the youngest child) wailed and cried, angrily shouting at the urn that hot summer’s day: Babo! Babo! You fool! You fool! Why did you have to leave us? Why did you have to go?
They had informed their father, they said to me after the funeral, when they first learned of their brother’s death. Ji Yeon, the sister he was closest to, the second youngest, had made the trip to the steel hut on the construction site outside of Seoul to tell him in person that Jae Hoon had passed away. But the old man, she said, only shook his head and told her he wouldn’t be coming.
That didn’t surprise me. But when I asked about their mother, why she hadn’t come, the eight women just smiled sadly and looked askance.
We decided not to tell her, Ji Yeon said after a silence, hesitating at first.
She wouldn’t be able to handle it, added Su Hyun.
It’s better this way, said Yeon Hye.
I shook my head, incredulous. Who would do such a thing? I thought, and have often thought since. Not to tell a mother her child has died?
In the days following the funeral, I mentioned it often, to the other teachers at the institute, to my friends, both Korean and foreign, trying to make sense of it. But everyone said the same thing: Maybe the mother wasn’t quite right in the head. Maybe she was too mentally unstable to take in such news. But I couldn’t buy it. I’d met his mother once before, years ago, not long after I first met Jae Hoon, when he and I and all his sisters and brothers-in-law and all his nieces and nephews travelled to that small town in the south of the country for the Lunar New Year’s holiday and the enormous meal his mother had spent days preparing. She never struck me as odd or mentally unwell. Moguh, moguh, she had said to me—Eat, eat—when we all sat round three low wooden tables pushed together to accommodate everyone, tables on which every available square inch was covered in tiny little side dishes, bowls of rice, soup, and plates of fried fish. Of course no one suspected who I was in relation to Jae Hoon; I was simply the Canadian friend. Nothing more than that because that was a Western phenomenon, unknown in Korea. And when I looked across the table I saw a tiny woman with a head of tightly curled grey hair and a mouth like a puckered apple. Your typical halmoni, I remember thinking, your typical grandmother.
How long could they keep up this charade? I’ve often wondered as the months and years went by. Continuing to make up stories about Jae Hoon’s life in the US—the imaginary cooking courses he was taking, the fictitious job he landed, the nonexistent Green Card—yet never once receiving a single long-distance phone call? What were his sisters thinking? I was angry with them and told myself what they’d done was shameful.
More than ten years have gone by since then. I live in Canada now and although I’ve long since lost touch with Jae Hoon’s sisters, I think about them often, if they ever ended up telling their mother the truth about Jae Hoon and how devastated she would feel, betrayed and angry. But it was only when I sat down to write this little story that everything unexpectedly became clear, even stunningly obvious, the kind of thing that only time in its steady march can reveal: Of course his mother had known.
They’d all known Jae Hoon was gay, that that was what he had told his father the week before he left the country, the thing that unleashed the terrible fight, and that his father had likely told Ji Yeon when she visited him in the steel hut. Or maybe even before that. Maybe he called her up after Jae Hoon had left, or maybe he called his ex-wife to tell her. No matter: one by one they all found out, suddenly reconfiguring in their minds who Jae Hoon was, who I was, everything now making sense. And of course they told their mother that he died. How could they not? And like her ex-husband, she too had made the deliberate decision not to go to the funeral, probably turning back to the pot she was scrubbing in the kitchen sink when she received the news. His death was the likely outcome of the kind of lifestyle he’d chosen, she might have reasoned. Cancer! Bah! Don’t lie to me. It was AIDS.
She’s from a different generation, I imagine his sisters wanted to tell me the day of the funeral but at the last moment felt that they couldn’t, not knowing a tactful way to bring it up. She doesn’t understand such things, they might have wanted to say.
But, of course, this too is only conjecture.
Ron Schafrick’s stories have appeared in a number of journals, both in Canada and abroad. His story “Lovely Company,” which first appeared in Plenitude Magazine, was reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2015 and, most recently, in The Journey Prize Stories 27. For nine years he lived in South Korea but currently calls Toronto home. To find out more please visit www.ronschafrick.com.
Sometimes she sniffed the couch cushions after he left for the day, disguising her fetishizing as obsessive cleanliness in front of her family. His smell was complicated and uncatalogued, heady with sweat. In her fantasies that played in her mind like reruns, he worked with his hands all day and enjoyed rough sex, but he could also be soft and sensible, eschewing deodorant because it caused cancer.
And today she was going to meet him at last.
The alluring scents of her early-morning reveries were eclipsed by something putrid, and she stirred a little, making tiny fists under the covers and preparing to go to war on the harsh battlefield of Wednesday. Hump Day. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know the stench emanated from their youngest son in the crib, which had been stowed in the walk-in closet because they’d sacrificed a nursery and garage in the suburbs for a decrepit two-bedroom in Brooklyn.
Her husband Ken snored slowly and methodically with his mouth open, stale breath filling the air between them. His half a head of hair looked greasy and clung to the white pillowcase. She sensed Matty, her toddler, at the foot of their bed. He’d just finished tickling her feet judging by the lingering itchiness on the soles. He giggled and ran off to the living room, and she sat straight up in a panic. But when she located the alarm clock under the bed and saw that it was already 7:15, she relaxed back into the mattress. The couch surfer was gone for the day.
It had been three years since she’d woken up naturally and every day it got harder to function, as if she were a bucket of water with holes that could only be plugged with deep sleep. She shook Ken a little roughly. “Shitty baby diaper or rogue toddler? Which one you want?”
He answered, “Coffee.”
Sitting up in bed, woozy, she caught her reflection in the antique dresser mirror. Her dark hair was piled into a big bun atop her head like she was wearing a hat with an enormous pom pom. Her baby weight still hadn’t shifted and her double chin drooped unappealingly. Her eyes had folded into their bags and she had a bad case of acne on her chin.
The dizzy spell passed. She couldn’t remember how much she’d drank the night before, but she'd started long before making dinner, and the family had to put up with frozen French fries and chicken nuggets for the fourth night in a row. It had been easy enough to pull the meat and vegetables out of the fridge. But on her granite kitchen counter, the raw ingredients had seemed to band together in abject rebellion.
She tiptoed past baby Geronimo in the closet. He was sprawled luxuriously on his back, legs wide. His poo would have shot straight up his back, overstepping the diaper by a few inches and forming a big brown spot on the crib sheet, the under sheet, and probably the mattress.
She crept up to Ken who had fallen back asleep and whispered in his ear, “OK, I’ll chase Matty and make coffee. You’re on poop patrol.”
In the living room, Matty was sitting on the floor flipping slowly through the latest edition of The New Yorker, lingering on each page to earnestly scrutinize each cartoon. His blond curls shot out from his head in every direction because he’d gone to sleep with wet hair after his bath last night—that much she remembered.
She eased herself quietly onto the couch, careful not to disturb Matty’s rare silence, and unfolded the first blanket on the pile that the roommate had left behind. She pulled the woolen comforter over herself, letting the fibers caress her. She inhaled the exotic smells and even detected warmth in the fabric, left by his body when he vacated the apartment not even half an hour ago.
She had 15 hours to go before he would return.
Ken would be upset if he saw her on the couch. He’d deemed it a no-go zone, which enraged her because it had been his idea not hers.
When he told her what he’d done, she said, “A couch surfer?”
“Yeah, I think that’s what they call it.”
“In our living room?”
He sighed. “Kate, we’re barely making rent with Matty’s preschool fees. You told me to take care of it so I did.”
“I meant broker a deal or kiss some client’s ass. Whatever the fuck you do at work.”
He shook his head. “You didn’t used to talk like this.”
“So crass and—.”
“A stranger, Ken. You’ve invited a stranger to sleep on our couch every night and you want to talk about my potty mouth?”
“Look. The place is set up for it—with the ensuite bathroom and the connecting doors in the bedrooms. You have a better idea?”
She glared at him.
He shrugged. “Money is tight.” He said this with the hint of a smile. Their relationship had moved into a new realm: inflexibility and vindictiveness had long replaced compromise and compassion. Instead of not going to bed mad, they welcomed it and grew high from the hostility. Anger was easier to deal with than whatever else it was they were feeling. Plus he blamed her for their financial problems, for moving to Cobble Hill and pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone. She had insisted on this neighborhood because it had one of the city’s best elementary schools and living in a brownstone townhouse had always implied success to Kate—even if they only rented one sloping floor of it. Her rationale had been that it was cheaper to pay high rent than put two kids in private school, but he’d been satisfied to move upstate and commute. She told him the suburbs would make their kids fat and sheltered and boring.
Most of that was true, but there were deeper and stronger allures to positioning Ken in Brooklyn, just a ten-minute subway ride from his office in Lower Manhattan. A long commute would afford Ken space and autonomy, while she languished in some cookie-cutter subdivision and spent her afternoons trapped in an SUV, shuttling her kids between strip malls and play dates. Her biggest fear was that he’d become addicted to the freedom. It would start with after-dinner drinks with colleagues and then graduate to, “Work was nuts today. Think I’ll just crash at a hotel in the city.”
Most aspects of her life were slipping out of her hands, but the reins on her marriage were firmly in her grasp. She would not, under any circumstances, let them go.
After Ken had left for work, Matty had been safely deposited at his preschool a block away, and baby Geronimo had gone down for his first nap of the day, Kate consulted her to-do list. This always revitalized her, as if seeing the items that comprised her week reinstated the control she’d lost after having kids.
The first three tasks were already checked off. Call PS 29 and ask, yet again, if the status of Matty’s application for pre-K in the fall had been successful. Done. The second and third involved cleaning, which she had already finished in the morning while Geronimo sat in the bouncy chair and sucked on a hair scrunchy.
Next up was laundering the couch surfer’s linens. She picked them up, one by one, and breathed in the fantastic smell. Although she’d only heard him coming and going, and once caught a glimpse of his profile as he headed out the front door a few minutes late, she felt like she knew him. He was tall and thin, while Ken was short and squat. The evidence he left behind in the garbage suggested that he used Crest and ate Clif Bars. Once there was a used ticket stub for a concert in Bushwick, and she dug it out and tucked it away in the drawer of her bedside table.
Something about the way he folded the blankets and stacked them, with the ends facing out, rather than the smooth round parts, intrigued her. He was unabashed about leaving the toilet seat up. She was determined to meet him tonight.
The weather was nippy for April and Kate was already counting the minutes until she could leave before she’d even unlatched the heavy gate to the playground. She kissed Genevieve’s cheek and smiled at her son Bernard, who was several days younger than Geronimo but somehow bigger and more engaged in the world.
They maneuvered their strollers into the play area and secured their children in swings. Once Geronimo felt the wind on his face, he beamed, and Kate began to relax a little. She asked Genevieve, “You up for lunch today?”
Genevieve’s high-pitched baby voice rambled in French and Bernard nodded yes.
“OK let’s just give them a sec on the swing. Tire ‘em out,” Kate said.
She got into the rhythm of pushing the swing and sunk deeper into her thoughts. Genevieve chattered about all the restaurants in the neighborhood and this and that dining review. She was into a high society; she could match celebrities with the local café or restaurant they frequented. Even before having children, the only work she did was hosting and attending galas and fundraising events with her husband, Jimmy. Despite her lack of conventional beauty—she had a big nose and her eyes were spaced apart too far—Genevieve was the perfect dinner party companion because she was well spoken, worldly, and intelligent. She had a masters degree in international development policy.
Kate said, “You decide the restaurant.” She was anxious for Genevieve’s incessant chatter to stop so she could figure out a game plan for later. Genevieve knew nothing about the couch surfer. None of her friends did. Neither did her family back home in Indiana. She’d never admit financial trouble or that it was a mistake to leave her copywriting job to be a stay-home mother, just like she’d avoid mentioning that she sometimes fed Matty Cheetos for dinner. Or that she knew that the three hours between playschool and Ken getting home equaled 18 episodes of Curious George.
Genevieve took them to a slightly upscale sit-down restaurant on Smith Street that served ironic twists on comfort foods—at exorbitant prices as the menu in the window indicated. Geronimo fell asleep in the stroller just before they entered. Kate’s joy at anticipating a lunch without having to rock and entertain a whiny baby eclipsed the fact that she couldn’t really afford to eat anything.
When the waitress came to take their drink order, Kate said, “Do you have lunch specials?”
The waitress’s smile faded slightly and she put a little too much pretend empathy into her reply. “Sor-ry, we don’t.”
Kate waited for Genevieve to order, using the extra time to scour the menu for something meal-like, but appetizer-priced.
Genevieve said, “You know it’s my birthday?”
“Oh yeah?” Kate tried to remember if this was new information or something she should have been prepared for. “I didn’t know?”
“I kept it secret because I was sort of dreading it.”
“It’s the big 3-0!”
Kate’s mouth fell open slightly. She had always comforted herself with the fact that Genevieve was older. After all, she owned a whole brownstone and hired a nanny, a housecleaner, a man to do the garbage, and a second man to move her car when the street cleaner came. Kate assumed she was closer to 40 and immaculately preserved because she was French and glamorous. Kate swallowed the realization that Genevieve was actually five years younger and it settled in her stomach like indigestion.
Her voice trembled a little in the effort to sound convincing, “We should celebrate.”
Genevieve, impervious to Kate’s inner turmoil, pounced on the opportunity to brag. “Oh no, Jimmy have big plans!”
In an effort to change the subject, fast, Kate said, “Really. I insist. How about a glass of champagne.”
“Oh no. It’s really expensive.”
Something about the way she lingered over the word expensive and let the corners of her mouth curl up just a little triggered a defensive reaction in Kate.
“You know what?” She said more to the waitress than Genevieve. “Make it a bottle.”
“Kate, it’s too much.” Genevieve put her hand on Kate’s.
Kate pulled her hand out and placed it on top of Genevieve’s and patted it gently. “Nevermind. Nothing is too much for my playground buddy!”
Kate tried to instill the word buddy with the same level of hostility, bitterness, and derision as Genevieve’s expensive, but Genevieve only clapped her hands together and giggled, “Fun fun fun!”
Genevieve fussed over Bernard, while Kate grew gloomy over the fact that she had just overcommitted financially to someone who was barely a friend. Despite the sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, lighting up the bottles behind the bar and the modern art on the walls, there was an unfathomable darkness all around her. Every day she sunk deeper into it. At first she thought it was jealousy, then shame. Or was she just sleep deprived? Wanting to meet the couch surfer felt urgent like a full bladder, and relieving it would somehow fix everything.
When Geronimo stirred in his stroller several hours later, Kate’s champagne buzz had already started to wear off. Bernard had been sitting up in Genevieve’s arms through the first half of lunch, then, for the second half, slumbering against her chest like he was an extension of her body. Of both her children, only Matty had fallen asleep and stayed asleep on her once and that was only because she’d read the bottle incorrectly and accidentally given him too much Advil.
Kate let Geronimo fuss a little while she checked her phone. There were 17 missed calls and 3 texts and she realized her ringer was off. She silently fumed at Matty for playing with her phone again and putting it into silent mode, but then felt instantly guilty when she realized she’d forgotten to pick him up from preschool. The phone display said it was almost 5 pm. She scrolled down to the last text message from Ken.
Got him. Almost home. Where are you?
She texted back quickly the name of the bar and then immediately regretted it.
Geronimo was growing more agitated in the stroller. She pulled him out and held him tightly. It was too soon, though, and he was disoriented and angry. His flailing limbs knocked over her water glass. When he began howling Kate burst out in tears. Genevieve reached her hand across the table and said, “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot Matty.”
Genevieve let out a cinematic gasp. “I assumed that Ken was home today.”
There she went annunciating again. Kate bubbled with anger. “Why would you assume that?”
“I just thought—.” Genevieve balked from Kate’s tone.
“Because Ken’s job isn’t as important as Jimmy’s?”
Genevieve dabbed her napkin against the sides of her mouth even though they’d finished eating an hour ago. She maintained her composure. “I think we had better get going.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Kate said.
Genevieve stood up and tucked Bernard into his bunting bag and zipped it up while he cooed softly. She said to Kate, “Do you want some help? Can I take Gerry?”
Kate’s hands gripped the side of the distressed wood table. “His name is Geronimo. Not Gerry or Ger-Ger.”
Genevieve whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Kate caught a whiff of Genevieve’s perfume and it sobered her up a little.
Nausea and fatigue hit her hard. She squeaked out an apology but she knew it was too late.
Genevieve brushed past her on the way out of the restaurant and said, “Thanks for the birthday drinks, ma chérie.”
Ken and Matty showed up two cocktails later. It was dark outside. She could tell by the way the door chime jingled in that hesitant manner that they were behind her, entering the restaurant, and looking for her table. She could sense Ken’s apprehension and hear his deep intake of breath in her head, as he prepared himself for battle. The restaurant was busy by this point and Geronimo had settled into a slow but steady wail. A few diners looked relieved to see Ken arrive, hoping he was the more sane parent, who would shush or rock the baby to calm him down rather than just sit and drink and stare.
“What the heck?” Ken said.
Kate passed Geronimo over to him. “Take him. That one, too.” She pointed at Matty. “And go away.”
Ken hissed, “You’re drunk, I get it. But pull yourself together.”
“No thank you. Good bye.” She kissed Matty mechanically and whispered in his ear, “Mommy’s not feeling too well. Go with Daddy."
Ken stood mouth agape for a few seconds, but Kate went back to hunching over her drink and sipping it slowly until they left. Then she ordered a shot of tequila from the waitress and waited for 10 pm to arrive.
Kate thought it was quite remarkable, how one little rip and life could fall apart at the seams. She couldn’t imagine Ken putting the boys to bed without her. He usually came home after they were asleep, crack open a beer, and then watch some spy drama on the iPad mini with his headphones on.
She drank more to steady her nerves, which had begun to fray by 9:30 pm. When the server refused to sell her more alcohol, she declined to argue. Instead, she retaliated by leaving a small tip after she’d gotten over the shock of her credit card not being rejected. When she rose, she wobbled a little and the candle on her table, which she couldn’t remember the waitress lighting, blew out. A diner at the next table got up to help her.
“Can I call you a cab?”
“I don’t think you should walk.”
She leaned over as if to pat his shoulder and reassure him she’d be fine, but she lost her balance and crashed into his chest. When he tried to steady her, she reached up and grabbed his face, her lips lunging for his. He pulled away quickly, turned her around, and pushed her out in front of him. He guided her toward the door at a safe distance. She began to cry and mumbled, “I have to exit.” The man said, “Yes, let me help you outside. I’ll flag down a cab for you.”
She sobbed, “Don’t you see? I have only one exit.”
It was well after 10 when she turned the key in her apartment door. It was dark, but she could smell the couch surfer. The front door faced the back of the couch and she could see the glow of an electronic device on the other side, shooting up toward the ceiling like a spot light. She heard a male voice and her heart began to beat even faster. All she would have to do is turn on the light or speak. It was the moment she’d been waiting for all day.
He whispered, presumably into a phone, “Hold on a sec.”
She was breaking all the rules, invading his space after 10 pm and her hands trembled as she unzipped her jacket and eased off her running shoes. The glowing device shifted, casting a flash of light around the room.
He murmured, “I’ll call you back.”
As the glow dimmed to darkness, she stood for a long time holding her breath. She was just a few feet from the couch and he was on it. She tried to propel her body forward, but couldn’t. She waited for something to happen to her. Her entire life hinged on this one moment, but she couldn’t make her feet move.
She said as loudly as she could muster, “Sorry.”
He answered her with silence and the rejection stung. It wasn’t what she’d expected, but then again, neither was motherhood—or marriage for that matter. The couch surfer shifted on the couch and breathed through his nose, but stayed quiet.
Despite the darkness, she could feel her cheeks flush, angry and humiliated. Ken always teased her when Matty burst in on her in the shower and she shrieked about privacy. Fart jokes made her eyes roll. Ken told her she’d better toughen up because she was raising two boys.
She ducked into her bedroom, a few feet from the front door of the apartment. Geronimo was asleep in the crib and Matty was curled up in the crescent formed by Ken’s body. Both of them were snoring softly. Her family was like the vegetables and meat on the kitchen counter, only they had assembled themselves, despite her dereliction of duty. Knowing they could survive without her was such a relief that she had to lean against the wall to keep from falling down.
She scooped up Matty and took him to his bedroom. Instead of using the door that joined their bedrooms, she carried him through the living room. The adjoining door squeaked and she hated to disturb Ken and Geronimo who were sleeping peacefully.
Kate felt her way along the walls and averted her eyes from the couch surfer. She was no longer eager to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle, nor was she going to remain quiet and timid in her own home.
In Matty’s room, she tucked him into his racing car bed and sat beside him. She held his hand and stroked his curls, breathing in the familiar smells of his bedroom. When she kissed his lips, she tasted Cheetos. Ken must have fed them to him and then forgot to brush his teeth. It brought tears to her eyes knowing that she wasn’t the only one making mistakes. As she closed his curtain, she caught a glimpse of a nearly full moon in the sky.
In her own bedroom, she peered in at Geronimo, the light from outside casting a glow on his crib. The top sheet had been changed and it no longer smelled like a dirty diaper. Now pink monkeys on the fabric’s pattern surrounded her son, hugging him and keeping him warm.
She left Geronimo and shut the closet door. Then she undressed and crawled into bed. She got on top of Ken and pulled down his underwear. He moaned in his sleep when she took him in her hands and she smiled. As he was no longer her enemy, she was eager to please him.
Moving around on top, him inside her, he finally reached some kind of consciousness. He wiped slobber from his mouth and said, “Kate. Stop. We have to talk.”
“No we don’t.” She stroked his chest.
“What about protection?” He was out of breath.
“I think we’re ready.”
“Ready for what?”
He tried to slow her down, but he was far too excited. They hadn’t had sex in almost a year. She covered his mouth with her hand and then pushed her naked breasts into his chest, rubbing them against his white Hanes t-shirt. He came quickly, and when she flopped back on to the mattress beside him, she lifted her legs up and rocked back and forth on her tailbone for maximum fertility. That was how she’d gotten pregnant with Matty and Geronimo—both of whom had only taken one try.
They didn’t talk, but almost an hour passed before he fell back asleep. Only when his breathing sunk into a deep, methodical rhythm could she say for sure that she was alone again. She put her hands on her stomach and kneaded her flabby flesh like dough, as if she had the power to affect change within her body.
Sarah Richards is an MFA Candidate at the University of British Columbia. She also works as a core writing mentor for Booming Ground and serves on the PRISM international editorial board.