It’s five o’clock in the afternoon and you’re laying beside your husband, Pat. You’ve had sex above the covers, and now you throw an unclipped bra across your chest; one you purchased to accommodate the breast implants you thought were going to make you happier at this age.
Once you were eavesdropping on two waitresses in the back of an Applebee’s. One said, “Bottom line, there’s a difference between fucking, having sex, and making love.” This is something you fear not ever understanding.
You are sucking the opal pendant on your silver chain, sliding the loop between your bottom teeth. Without so much as turning his head, Pat pulls it out of your mouth. It lands wet against your chest.
“Nervous habit,” you say.
“I know,” he says. Now he looks at you, and you at him, into his face branded by alcohol’s red thumbprint. “You’re nervous?” he asks.
You frown, shake your head.
Pat’s hair, once thick as honey and yellow, has turned white from midday lawn-watering—every day, now two years into his retirement. At first you thought he liked it; you did, taking photos every Sunday to see how much greener the grass had become in a week. But two months ago he told you there was simply nothing better for him to do at two o’clock in the afternoon.
You like to garden in the twilight hour, when the parsnips and carrots cast shadows across the mulch, and as the sun goes down everything appears to be changing. Usually Pat taps the kitchen window and asks if you need anything, and usually you tell him no. Then you begin a reverse meditation, during which you are the only moving object in a pocket of overgrown stillness. The yard is silent, save for the sound of slicing as your shovel grazes a stubborn radish beneath the surface.
Air in the garden tastes like fresher herbs, fatter bulbs, fuller dirt than the day before. Pat deprives himself of knowing such progress, nodding off on the couch while the TV glows and drones before him.
You met Pat at an AA meeting, and though it’s hard to imagine life without him, you do. You imagine what you would be like if you’d never gone to an AA meeting, if you hadn’t decided to outlive the glitter, the headaches, the glass bottles. You’d be more like your mother, though even now you catch yourself mimicking her quirks a hundred times a day—removing lipstick before you eat, for one, because it leaves a trashy stamp on forks and glasses—and it seems impossible that you could be any more like her, even drunk, pretty, and sleeping with every poolboy in Santa Barbara.
Maybe that’s why you moved to New Jersey and never had children. You wouldn’t want to scar them how your mother scarred you. You told her that once, on the phone after therapy, when you were thirty-five and finally growing up. She said, “I kept my nails short and my palms flat. Shouldn’t be so much as a bruise on you, Kitten.”
Suddenly it feels like you should ask him, “Pat? Did you want children?”
“I had two,” he reminds you, but you know that, know Katie and Elizabeth. They spend paychecks on handbags, holidays in your dining room, and midnights on the other end of the phone whenever something goes wrong with a car or a boyfriend.
“I mean with me,” you say, and he shakes his head.
“I was fifty-two when we met.”
“But I was forty-five.”
“Then the child would be ten now,” he says, “and in a few years we’d be paying tuition.”
“As opposed to what?” you ask. He shrugs, and his shoulders crinkle the bedding around them.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“Because we haven’t talked about it.”
“Right,” he begins, “because you have a couple years left at the pharmacy and we’ve got time to, I don’t know, make a plan?” Pat rolls onto his side, rests his cheek in his palm, and looks at you sideways. “What’s up?”
You bite your lip and shake your head. “Nothing’s up.”
He settles for that answer, and so do you. But you’re settling for other things, too, like cheek-kisses and recycled compliments and dinner dates that feel rehearsed.
If for a moment you thought there was someone else, you would’ve found her by now. You would have something to fix, and you would be fixing it. Your biggest problem is, in fact, you don’t have a problem at all. No matter where you look, what you try—and you’ve been trying—you don’t know how to eliminate a feeling brought about by nothing but the untriggered realization that the glitter, the headaches, the glass bottles will all outlive you. The softness of these blankets, the whimsy of your garden, everything that’s been good to you is just as infuriating. Your throat is dry, thirsting for something that burns on the way down.
So you pop the opal pendant back into your mouth and grab Pat’s hand, and you try to remember what you’re holding onto.
LOLA TODMAN is from Red Bank, New Jersey. She is a junior at Interlochen Arts Academy. She has been recognized for her achievements in writing by the YoungArts foundation as well as the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards.