by DANIEL HOLMES
She told Thomas it started with the Golden Gate Bridge. Amy’s parents had taken her as a child: one of those cheesy trips to San Francisco where her dad labored to align their itinerary with that of every other tourist. They still had the photographs of her as a nine-year-old pretending to mope in a cell at Alcatraz, happily flashing a peace sign in Golden Gate Park. But the bridge, which had sprawled dramatically near the family’s vantage on Telegraph Hill, was the only thing she really remembered. It towered over the water. She’d noticed how sensitively it was sewn into the soft hills flanking the foggy bay. And its color, a bright but earthy shade blandly designated international orange, took hold of her mind and branded itself on her memory. It stayed with her for twenty years. The bridge was a piece of transportation infrastructure, a marvel of engineering, sure, but to her its status had risen to that of a monument. A monument to what, exactly, she could not say. She had ideals she comprehended only as gray abstractions of feeling—longing, hope—and the most she could say about the bridge that had so captured her imagination was that its aesthetic gave her energy, that it was, she told Thomas, “a breath of fresh air, architecturally speaking.”
He played along well enough, Amy remembered, but in retrospect she felt certain he hadn’t understood a word of it. Now she stood at the kitchen counter, peeling carrots that were to be cut into sticks and served as the healthy side to their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
She glanced at Cody in the living room. The two-year-old lay on the couch, his eyes flatly drinking in the PBS cartoon that blared from the television opposite him. It was the only normalcy. The rest of the scene was deconstructed, with brown boxes and Tupperware bins arranged in suffocating stacks all over the living room floor. The pictures were gone; she took them down first thing whenever she moved house. Her thinking was that it changed the feel of the place so drastically she had no choice but to take seriously the task at hand. She would be more likely to pack in advance this way, to work hard and be prepared for the destabilizing chaos of moving day. But now the bare white walls made her feel like a stranger.
She lined up the carrots on the wooden cutting board, took up the first one, cut it into thirds, cut those lengthwise, and divided the orange sticks with the heavy knife. She would not cut herself. She was devoted to precision. Something about chopping vegetables made her think too much, she knew, made her vulnerable to the despair that encroached whenever her mind was still. She was so sick of moving. When she and Thomas bought the place she told everyone she knew—she cringed at the memory—how much she wanted this to be the house Cody grew up in. It was enough to put her mood into a free fall. Precision, she told herself, carefully slicing the last carrot and grinding her teeth, was something to hold on to.
She heard the door to the garage open and close. Thomas stalked into the kitchen, sweat beading on his high forehead.
“How long till lunch.”
“Just a few minutes,” she said.
A cursory note in his tone annoyed her.
“No,” she said, almost to herself. “I’ve got it.”
“Good.” He pulled at the front of his black t-shirt to circulate the air and then called into the living room. “How you doing in there buddy?”
Cody didn’t answer. He was staring at the screen.
“That television,” Thomas said. “I’ll be in the garage.”
She heard the door close behind him. He would be in the garage! How novel! While she packed the clothes and the books and the electronics and the toiletries and the dishes while trying—insufficiently, pathetically—to be an attentive parent to their child, Thomas claimed as his task the preparation of a single space of thirty square feet. And most of the crap out there was already in boxes.
She took down their plates and laid them out before her: one, two, three.
Even this simple task would not hold still. Next week she would need only two plates; she would make only two sandwiches. Her routine would have to be constructed from the ground up, its most miniscule components reconsidered.
A pale ray of afternoon sunshine lit the dining room table. It reminded her of the larger world outside, and her spirits lifted just enough for her to take some small pleasure in practicality.
Napkins on the table. Glasses of water.
“Cody,” she called. “Lunchtime. Can you turn off the television?” He didn’t respond.
She retrieved the plates, each with a sandwich and a small pile of carrot sticks. “Please turn off the TV or I’ll have to do it.”
He didn’t move.
“You have two minutes.”
She placed the food on the table and adjusted the napkins. The place settings around the table looked nice in the sun. She was a little proud of herself—not for throwing the meal together or setting the table but for making this moment of normalcy in the midst of irrevocable change.
“Cody,” she said. “One minute.”
The toddler walked over to the television and stopped to stare at it from three inches away.
They would have a nice little lunch together. She and Thomas would be the good parents they knew themselves to be; they would provide structure for their son. They would show him the way forward.
She passed through the kitchen, cracked open the door to the garage. “Lunch is ready.” She moved into the living room where Cody stood nearly engulfed by the wide screen.
“Five,” she said, donning maternal authority like a weather-beaten jacket. She and Thomas would drive right to the brink of chaos and emerge intact on the other side.
These last meals together would forge a template for the future. “Turn it off or I will.” The volume was too loud. “Three.”
They would establish a newnormal.
“Two.” She was walking toward the television.
“No!” cried Cody, waving his arms at her.
It would be okay, she thought. “One.”
And when she glanced over at their corny family portrait, saw how the three of them once beamed with the focused vitality of a single star, she told herself: this is it.
“Now,” she said, reaching for the power button.
This is the end of our lovely little family.
After her freshman year in college, Amy went along on what would be known afterward as the road trip. It felt silly to her now, she’d told Thomas on their third date—too obvious. But at nineteen years old she and three friends piled into a Volkswagen Golf and drove from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. The July heat was relentless; the a/c in the car did not work. She sat in the passenger seat chewing gum and fanning herself with a road map. Then, as they entered the city, the humidity softened and blue patches of sky peeked through the white wash of clouds, and it was at this moment the sunlight strengthened, the air became clearer and she saw, for the first time in person, the towering Washington Monument. The obelisk rose as the car hurled forward; it appeared sturdy and dense, rising from the swamp to offer an oddly martial reassurance, standing, she thought, as a father might stand, having risen from his seat after glimpsing the approach of his daughter.
She waved off the metaphor and tried again. “It was a feeling,” she’dtoldThomas, who looked bemused as he sipped his wine. If they were to be together, she said, he would have to understand where it all came from. How it started. When the girls got to the Lincoln Memorial that day, as she’d gazed up at the statue of a seated Abrahamwhose resolute gaze she’d known from postcards, she recognized the sounding of a note she’d first heard a decade before in San Francisco. She’d wept there, in our nation’s capital, for reasons she could not fathom. She felt someone was communicating with her. She did her best to make Thomas understand. And Thomas, for his part, had done his best to make her believe that hedid.
Now he chewed the sandwich with his mouth open and said, “I got guys coming over at four. We should decide who gets what.”
She didn’t know how he could have been more tactful, but she was sure he’d missed the mark.
“My like carrots,” Cody said, munching.
“What do you want to take?” Amy asked, bracing herself.
“Want is a relative word,” he said. “I’m just hoping for fairness.” He dropped his food on his plate and looked at her. “I assume you want the bed. So I’ll take the couch.”
Her eyes instinctively glanced at their rust-colored sofa bed in the living room. She hadn’t considered the prospect of buying a new couch.
“Fine,” she said. She pictured the tiny living room in her new apartment, empty. “I want this table and chairs.”
“Fine. The guys will have to take care of all the heavy stuff today. Which dresser should they take?”
“My like carrots!”
She brought her face close to Cody’s, trying to placate him with amplified attention. “You like carrots, sweetie?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding. “My do!”
“That is so great. They are so good for you.” She looked at Thomas. “I don’t know. The taller one.”
“The one with the crack in it.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes. It’s been like that forever. It’s perfectly fine.”
“You think that’s fair? We bought them together.”
His eyes watched hers. His hair was swept left over his forehead, and his unwashed skin shined slightly in a way that was not off-putting. She could tell he was ready to argue. She looked over his head at the naked wall behind him. The old Monet was gone. After each move she found a space to hang it near the dining room table. It was something of a tradition, even though she’d long grown tired of looking at it. Now it was tucked away, wrapped in plastic with theothers.
Amy bit a carrot. “You want me to take the cracked dresser,” she said.
“No, I just don’t know why I should get stuck with it as a matter of course.”
“Thomas I don’t really want to argue about this now. I have to go to work in a couple of hours.”
“It needs to be discussed. Cody, please take another bite of your sandwich.”
“We’re going to need more help moving next week. We can discuss the rest before then.”
Thomas clenched his fist. “So you’re going to put me off? Wait until you have more leverage?”
“Am I so conniving?” she replied. “You’ve known me how long and you accuse me of manipulating you?”
He coughed a derisive laugh down at his plate. “No comment,” he said.
She closed her eyes and prayed, meditated, sought quiet—she didn’t know what you called it. She directed all of her energy toward some even plane before her, some point of solace and release in the foreground of her thoughts. Imagine if they’d married! Imagine lawyers and courts! Sitting across a table like this one, facing each other as they did now, except it would be on the ninth floor of an office building with dour attorneys whispering strategy into their ears.
Cody was slamming his palm on the table. “Hammer!”
Amy caught his hand and moved it into his lap. “Take whatever you want, Thomas. Just remember Cody will be with me half the time. He’ll live there too.” She looked at the boxes in the living room. “I assume you’ll be able to keep him tonight while I work?”
“Not really!” He looked shocked by the assumption. “Should we get a sitter?”
“On an hour’s notice? On Saturday?”
Painfully predictable, she thought. Thomas always suggested compromises that were impossible to realize. He would not give an inch, but wanted it to look like he was trying.
“I don’t know why you can’t explain this to your friends,” she said.
“Then what,” he snapped. “Draw pictures with Cody while they do the heavy lifting?”
“Let’s drop it. I’ll bring him. Just don’t ask me about the furniture.”
“Fine!” he said. “I guess I’m the asshole for trying to sort it out!”
He stood up.
Cody was kicking the bottom of the table. Their dishes rattled; the arguing was making him wild.
Amy caught the boy’s leg. She stuck a finger in his face. “Stop it!” Then to Thomas: “I didn’t say you’re an asshole. Can we keep this constructive?”
Models of maturity or nattering cliché? Stable parents or catalysts for their child’s future therapy? She could not decide which was more reasonable to expect. She took a desultory bite of her sandwich. She thought of her job as a fundraiser for public projects; she considered what she would have to do later that afternoon. The room of well-dressed donors would offer her a side of skepticism with every game handshake. She thought of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument—what it meant to their city. Or what it should have meant. What it could mean. She would have to change minds, elicit unforeseen commitments. She considered how difficult it would be to bring Cody along.
She spoke with her mouth full. “When is the realtor?”
Thomas moved to the wall and fell back against it.“Tuesday.”
“My get down?” asked Cody.
“Not yet, honey. You have to eat more.” She looked at Thomas. “Will we be ready by then?”
He shrugged. “Ready is a relative term.”
She wanted to snap back: Every term is relative! That doesn’t help me! Instead she tried to let it go, to ignore his annoying ticks and repetitions, the redundancies of his personality.
“I want us to be ready,” she said.
Cody pushed his plate away. She slid it back sharply. “Eat.” She looked at Thomas, who leaned against the wall with his hands in his pockets. He was staring at his shoes. “Do you think we can do it?” she asked. “Get it all together by then?”
“We’ll have to,” he said. “Neither one of us can afford to pay rent on top of a mortgage.”
Amy lost a moment in sympathy for him, for herself, for all of them.
Cody pulled his sandwich apart and laid its goopy halves on the table. She looked at the half-eaten sandwich on her own plate. It had been seven years since she’d told Thomas about San Francisco and Washington. Seven years since he started spending the night.
“My get down?” Cody asked, pulling the straps on his booster seat. A purple smear of jelly colored his round cheek.
“We’ll get through it,” said Amy. “We have to stay positive.” With effort, she softened and placed her hand on her child’s sticky cheek. She smiled at him. “We just have to be nice to each other.”
“My get down peez!”
Thomas raised his eyebrows at her. This was how he asked what she thought. A shorthand drawn from the trove of familiarity they’d accrued over several years. She was not immune to being touched by the intimacy of it, by the unconscious way they consulted each other on matters of discipline. She sighed. “Fine by me.”
“Alright buddy,” said Thomas, leaning to wipe Cody’s face with a napkin. “You’re a free man.”
He unlocked the straps and brought Cody to the floor. He kissed the boy’s sandy hair, tickled his ribs and nudged the giggling kid toward the living room.
Thomas’s eyes met hers. He almost smiled.
She gathered the plates. How ludicrous it was to dismantle the household. They still found one another attractive; they still had the same tastes and goals in life. Why couldn’t they get it together? No one had cheated, and even if someone had, she doubted it would have broken them up. If only it were as simple as sex! After all, one reached an age where one knew what one was doing; it was not all so subjective. Sex could be fixed. Affairs could be forgiven. No, the truly punishing fact of their impending separation was that it was all in their minds. Try as they might, their personalities had carved out separate bunkers from which to spy the world, and they could not help but view one another as adversaries. It didn’t matter that their understanding told them otherwise. They could not, for the life of them, get along. They bickered and griped and sneeredand baited each other. And when it got bad—well, neither of them had been hurt, but they’d come terrifyingly close on more than one occasion.
This was the failure for which Amy could not forgive herself. Its illogic made her hungry for clarity. She placed the white plates in the sink. She heard the television come on. She heard the familiar production theme; Thomas had selected a PIXAR movie. She looked at the plates in the sink and at her long, thin fingers on the counter.
How could the concrete—the actual, the here-and-now—be an escape?
Thomas was not a bad guy. The brunt of her frustration came from something else, something to do with how close to perfect they were for each other. How maddeningly, insufficiently close.
When Thomas came into the kitchen, she stiffened but did not turn around. A moment passed where nothing happened and she was only aware of his distance, his proximity.
“Amy?” His voice was soft. “You need anything?” She watched the plates. The actual was not an escape.
There were so many things they knew about each other. She knew what grew in the silences between them. She knew the chill of alienation and desire’s mute entreaties.
He did not move. She would need to clarify. Her right hand fell near her hip and she opened it behind her.
It was a long, lonely moment, reaching.
Then she felt his rough fingers interlock; his palm grazed hers. She leaned back into him, and the breadth of his body fell over her; she closed her eyes, turned her mouth toward her right shoulder, and they kissed. Then his hands were on her, and she turned around, and it was not an escape because it was actually here. And it was practical because they might never do this again, and it felt good, and why should they resist this because their relationship was in shambles? Why should this have more or less meaning than anything else? It was true: they might never do this again.
The film had begun. An onslaught of color and song exploded from the screen. Cody was horizontal on the couch. Rapt.
Amy and Thomas looked at each other. They did not speak but shared a common calculation. They could count on ten minutes—maybe more—before Cody realized they were gone.
They moved to the half-bath in the hall near the kitchen. The room was small, little more than a closet with a sink and toilet. Boxes filled the far corner. Amy carefully shut the door and turned the lock. Then they hurried; she sucked in her stomach to unbutton her jeans while Thomas unzipped his pants, the metal on his belt buckle tittering like a cheap bell. Their pants were down and kicked aside, and they were kissing again, their hands searching and finding the other with terrible familiarity. She felt his teeth on her neck.
She leaned over the sink.
He was there behind her. Was it wrong that she felt relief? They moved as if resuming a suspended endeavor. Her hands gripped the edge of the sink. It was better, it was worse than usual; it was a powerful simulation that couldn’t be more real. Now they were communicating; they found each other and reacted, working in silence. She thought of Cody’s burgeoning awareness on the couch, an awareness she sensed or maybe projected; she thought it would be better if Thomas finished soon.
She opened her eyes. These walls, too, were bare. There was nothing wrong with what they were doing, but she could not give herself over to him, could not stop analyzing the distance this closeness emphasized. It was no longer their home. She knew it was the wrong thing to think: better to be present, to invest, and she was glad to hear a change in Thomas’s breathing, to feel new urgency in the way he held her waist; he was close, he was here, she was swept up in spite of herself by his irrevocable commitment. She reached back and took hold of his hipbone. It was all real again. They were going somewhere; they were going somewhere together.
The doorknob rattled. They froze.
Thomas cursed under his breath. They did not separate.
The doorknob rattled. Amy sighed, bowed her head, saw her long hair fall around her over the sink. Thomas pulled away and was putting on his pants.
He spoke to the door. “Just a second, buddy!”
He was hurrying. She was slower. She crouched and reached after her panties with a desultory swipe, stepping in to them and listlessly pulling them on. The house had meant something to her. A marriage of aspiration and becoming. Two floors, three bedrooms, a garage and a yard—they’d marveled at all the space. What will we do with it all? But after Cody was born, the house came to breathe with them, to fit and encompass the enormous but fragile fact of their new family. This marriage of form and function was no small achievement: why else would she cherish her image of the Golden Gate Bridge all these years? It wasn’t the bridge itself, of course; it was what the bridgemeant—something Thomas, tightening his belt and slipping discreetly through the door to Cody, seemed unable to comprehend. Something about the ways commitment changed you.
How we are created by our actions.
That was the last time, she thought, looking at herself in the mirror.
She exited the bathroom. Cody ran to her; she stooped to hug him. She smoothed his soft hair, held his small face in her hand. “Cody, do you want to go on a journey?”
The boy touched his chin thoughtfully. “Yes,” he decided. “I get my shoes first.”
She and Thomas discussed details of furniture and childcare, but their conversation did not live long in her memory. What survived was the impression of driving her car afterward, rumbling over poorly repaired potholes as she approached downtown Atlanta. Of Cody kicking the back of her seat as the historic neighborhood on her left gave way to a wide freight yard, canyoned on the horizon by dead factories covered in bright graffiti. And the look of her face in the rearview—the unpruned eyebrows, her tired eyes.
She did not like to take her son to work. It seemed to make it twice as hard to perform half as well, but as she passed the large Victorians of the Old Fourth Ward, threading the hot, lumpy sidewalks crowded with pedestrians, she was glad her son was with her. The trees along the street flashed green leaves like conspicuous wealth. Cody said, “Hewocopter,” and she believed him. She believed in the word and the spirit in which he spoke it.
She would show him the park she was working for, the park she loved.
She would take him in. She would show him how, drawing nearer the tombs of Dr. and Mrs. King, the sound of running water swelled from the wide reflecting pool. She loved its simple effectiveness, its consistency, its careful spatial rendering of the essence of its subject. And she loved to think that as she moved forward, she would be released into the quiet, into the open air under which the tombs stood innate as boulders, clean and white, but undernourished, in need of a pressure wash, a touch up, a skim of the algae—in short: in need of funding. It had yet to become fully enmeshed with the city’s conception of itself.
“Too bright,” Cody would whine, as they inched forward toward the sunny glare of the pool.
“Close your eyes and hear the water,” she would whisper, leaning near him. “Do you hear it? The pool is catching all the light.” It would be a kind of nonsense, sure, but he was at an age when even nonsense had its uses.
She looked forward to this as she squeezed her sedan into a shady space along the sidewalk. A historic neon sign marked the Ebenezer Baptist Church on the building beside her. The sun was out, and the people were walking.
The world was just as she remembered it.
Daniel Holmes holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and currently teaches at Georgia State University in Atlanta. His recent writing has appeared in Paste, Numero Cinq, and Digital Americana.