Vivian spends most of the afternoon naked and strapped to the giant ottoman in the interior decorator’s office in Bethesda. When he finally unties her, the sun is low and she’s shaky and exhausted. He paddled her hard at some point, and that hot stinging is what hurts the most as they clutch each other on his cool leather sofa and slowly return to themselves.
The final hour of their session, she struggled to remain present, despite the pain, because she’d remembered that she needs to ask for a refund from Silver Stars, her youngest son’s gymnastics camp. They have a draconian refund policy, which she’s dealt with before. Staring at his burgundy pants puddled around his ankles as he stood over her, she’d contemplated what she might say to Samantha, the manager at Silver Stars. She shouldn’t have registered so early, but July sessions fill quickly, and now it turns out there’s a conflict with her in-laws’ family reunion in the Catskills.
Hurrying back to her car in the frozen stillness of dusk in late winter—that old hollow sensation sinking as the endorphins recede—she calls Silver Stars. “Hey, Samantha,” she says with as much grim resolve as possible, “it’s Vivian, and I’m really sorry to do this again, but something’s come up . . . ”
That evening, after the kids are in bed, Vivian’s husband silently inspects the bruises and lacerations on her ass. It isn’t clear if he feels anything, although she finds it humiliating to show him.
They’re going to have sex, or that’s the idea, but he starts talking about the new president’s pick for secretary of education, who, he says, is a perfect distillation of all that’s wrong with this administration.
“How so?” Vivian says. Now it’s her jeans at her ankles.
Her husband is meaty and bearded, strong and fat at the same time, like a retired athlete—he’s sitting up on their bed in his boxer shorts, his thick legs crossed at the ankle. He glances occasionally out the window at the darkness behind their house. “She’s just looking out for herself.”
“The education secretary?”
He nods. Her husband is a lawyer and a senior fellow at a left-leaning think tank that specializes in education policy, and he’s taken the election hard. At first, he spent hours every day wincing at Facebook. It’s been a month since the inauguration, and he’s finally beginning to relax. You can get used to anything, they say. And it’s true. Acclimating is what people do best. “It’s not even about power,” he says. “She just wants to have the experience of being in charge.”
“That sounds like power.”
“But just the superficial stuff, like it’s fun to fly around in a helicopter and people applaud when you enter the room.”
She pulls up her jeans. There’s something different about his disgust here, with one of the few women in the cabinet, but it’s not a subject she cares to explore with him. “Maybe these people will ruin everything, and in four years the Dems will sweep and undo it all forever?”
“In the meantime, we’re all fucked.”
She smiles. “Not me.”
“Oh—I’m sorry. I’m just not here.” He shakes his head. Even his skull is colossal—very few hats fit him. “I can’t stop thinking about these fucking lizards slithering around the White House.”
She wants to point out that they aren’t lizards—they’re people—but he’s not ready for that, either. Instead she says, “Lizards don’t slither, snakes do.”
He frowns, staring out the window at nothing.
After the election, she sold all of their stocks: everything in both Roth IRAs, the college savings accounts, and all of the seventy thousand they’d managed to sock away in their brokerage. Too much risk, she believed. In the months since, their future assets have been suspended, waiting for a collapse, at which point she’ll buy in again.
But Wall Street has been rejoicing the outcome of the election, even now—a month into this catastrophic presidency—the markets are still posting new highs every week. And she feels the loss of her decision every time NPR announces that the S&P is up. Before this, she’d always done an outstanding job of managing their accounts.
The market is being insane—even those who like the new president say this is irrational exuberance.
“It’s purely the result of sentiment,” this man on CNBC says to this other man on CNBC.
“You mean the rally isn’t supported by funda—”
“I mean there’s nothing here, it’s not real—it’s just emotions.” This man seems very tense. He’s wearing a light blue tie, and the other guy is wearing a dark blue tie. “I don’t see a bubble, but everyone’s so excited, and that makes me wary. If you look at the average P/E ratio, there’s nothing to be excited about.”
“Not nothing, but look at the VIX, too, we’re—”
She puts them on mute and pulls the box out from under the bed, removes the towels, examines her options. The Hitachi wand is too much, makes her come too quickly. She requires something more difficult, something hard-won. The new metal dildo looks like an obtuse wishbone, thicker on one side, with a bulbous tip. It’s the only thing that has ever given her a purely vaginal orgasm. No clitoral stimulation at all.
At the sex shop, the saleswoman said to be careful with it. “Your Kegels will clamp down, and it’ll get stuck inside. Just chill. Relax. Wait a minute, and then pull it out. We’ve had some women call up panicked, unable to remove it. You’ve got to get back to yourself.” But she likes to tug hard when it’s stuck there, to feel the strangeness of her body refusing to let go.
When Vivian’s younger brother, Bertram, had a stroke last year, he lost his ability to speak and read. Bertram was only thirty-nine but had been enthusiastically wasted since he was a teenager, blow and alcohol and God knows what else. No one found him for two days after the stroke. All that time he lay on the kitchen floor in his apartment, the faucet running. That time there on the floor made everything worse, medically speaking. They ended up having to amputate his legs below the knees.
Once he stabilized, it became clear that Bertram needed real care, and none of his friends in Los Angeles were up to the task, so it fell to Vivian. She found a long-term care facility in Fairfax, twenty minutes from her house in good traffic, and had him shipped across the country. Now she visits every Tuesday. It’s on her calendar.
Bertram is speechless, will never speak again. When she visits him—and she’s the only person who visits him, although she’s tried to arrange other visitors, mostly old friends of his—he just looks at her with this gaze full of love, but there’s something desperate about it, some terrible pressure inside him. It’s clear he understands her when she talks to him. He’s almost all there, locked inside. He’s already lost most of the weight he used to carry from boozing and eating at all hours.
His only advocate, she talks to all of his doctors, his friends, his nurses. She’s like his translator, but she doesn’t speak his language. She talks to him, too, tells him about her days, about her boyfriend, her husband, and she reminisces about their childhood, like the time he came downstairs in her nightgown and she was so angry, even though she knew already, even then, that he just wanted to be like her. Every time before she leaves she smells his temple, where that little vein throbs, where he still smells just like he did when they were kids.
When they move him, they have to use this sling contraption and a little crane, and she has twice caught a glimpse of his diaper. Once, his diaper was twisted and his penis was hanging there between his legs like a dead squid.
Nothing will ever be recovered. But when Bertram stares at her with his giant pale blue eyes, the pupils constricted by the drugs they feed him, and this silent emotion screams out toward her—this is when she knows that she can never allow herself to die this way. Anything but this. If Sir would saw off her arms and legs and fuck her throat until she suffocated to death, that would be considerably better. Here is her brother, though. Her only family. In this place with the asphyxiating plants and the heavy smell of cafeteria food and those teal trays on which every food group gets its own private indentation: the sober huddle of peas in the upper-left circle, a single wheat roll in the next circle over, an apple juice in the upper-right square, and in the largest, most central spot—wet slabs of alabaster turkey blanketed in a half-congealed gravy, which appears to be sliding down, revealing ever more flesh.
Although her husband sleeps with a lot of women, the relationships usually fizzle. Not that she has the best track record either, but her Sir has been with her for a year now. And it’s getting better with him, actually, despite the fact that some of the emotions have grown bigger and more unwieldy than anticipated. For example: she loves him. And he loves her, too, even if he doesn’t want to see it.
The problem for her husband is that he’s a decent person who craves tenderness and romance. But the women he likes hope to be the wives of men like him, not this other thing. Making matters worse, he’s a lawyer, and a notable presence on the pro-teacher side of the education debate, so he’s attractive in all the wrong ways. He ends up having unpleasant dates with women who turn out to be deviants, like his wife, or they’re frustrated by his boundaries. He gets to occupy all that real estate in their lives, but they don’t get to claim any of his real estate.
There was one woman he met at a higher-education policy conference, a black lady from Atlanta who ran marathons, a renowned economist at George Washington, she sounded incredible, but even though she adored him and they had fun, she got sick of the boundaries around his arrangement—never meeting each other’s friends, rarely spending the night together. It felt illicit even though it wasn’t. When she gave up, no one was surprised.
Meanwhile, his wife just wants to be stuffed with as much terrible desire as possible, wants to feel it crushing her lungs. All she needs is someone to smack her hard, grab her by the throat—and then she can be right there, transfixed by the gorgeous stillness of the moment.
Once, she met a man she liked quite a lot, a former colleague from when she worked at Marriott, before she went freelance, and when she touched his cock she got flustered, started to have a panic attack. She left abruptly and apologized profusely by text message that evening. Assuming it had been too “intense,” he assured her everything was okay. Eventually she had to tell him that she was a size queen. “If I’m not stretched, I get anxious.” Within ten minutes, he’d unfriended her on Facebook. She tried texting him again to apologize once more, but she’d already been blocked.
These men and their real estate! Now she prefers to pick her struggles.
When she was younger, she wanted to teach men the truth. These days she just needs to take a deep breath and feel the straps grow tighter.
Bertram’s physician has arranged for him to have a six-week trial with this fifteen-thousand-dollar machine called DynaVox EyeMax. If the trial goes well, he’ll be allowed to keep it, and Medicaid will—in theory—cover most of the bill. The machine is a bulky tablet mounted in front of his face with a tiny camera trained on his eyeball.
He’s had it five days when she comes for her Tuesday visit. Entering his room she finds him buzzing with excitement, that ghoulish lopsided smile on his face.
“Wow, look at this!” she says. It’s an effort to not speak to him like a child. He’s all there, even if some of his memories got scorched, they were probably vanishing anyway.
He shakes his head in the way that he does when he’s trying to nod.
“How does it work?”
He stares at the screen and blinks twice. “Hello, my sister,” a soothing mechanical voice says.
“Oh my God!” She covers her mouth. There’s just enough of him there, somehow, calling her “my sister,” and also in what’s left of his smile, what’s in his eyes, too.
He points his eyes elsewhere on the screen and blinks twice, again. The voice says, “This is my new voice. Do you like it?”
She nods vigorously as tears begin to blur her vision. “Yes, of course.”
“Liar,” the voice says.
She laughs, wipes away tears. Her throat aches—the joy and the love and the pity are more than she can withstand.
“What do you want to talk about?” she says and sits down.
“To speed things up, I have loaded some sentences just for you,” the voice says.
She laughs again. “I’m flattered.” Down where he can’t see, she begins digging her thumbnail into her wrist. “And you don’t need to speed things up.”
He blinks twice, unleashing another prewritten line of dialogue. “When are you going to bring your children again?”
“Oh!” She wasn’t expecting that. She shrugs, flummoxed. She’d brought her kids once to visit, shortly after he’d arrived, but never again and hadn’t planned on it. He never seemed that interested in her kids, or kids in general, before.
“You wish we could go back to when I could not talk,” the voice says. Also preloaded.
“No, of course not,” she says, but she can hear the hesitation in her own voice, and surely he can hear it, too. She’s wondering what other phrases he has queued up.
He smiles in this contorted way, like he’s straining or in pain, which is what he does when he’s laughing at her.
She smiles, gamely, and says, “With the kids—I’m sort of just glad to get away from them for a moment. I think I’ve said as much to you at some point during one of these visits.”
He cocks an eyebrow, skeptical.
“Look, I know it’s not something—” but that would be mean. “Jesus, I actually get along well with my kids! How many of my friends can say that? Even Ash, in those few moments she’ll talk to me, we get along. But most of my adult life I’ve been a slave to them. And now that the youngest is in seventh grade, Ash can drive, it’s like at last they don’t need a full-time slave anymore.”
As it often does, his mouth twitches as he listens intently. It’s hard to read his face, but he seems content, maybe he’s glad that he can finally respond to her. His eyes move around the screen for a while, and then there’s a sentence that was not pre-scripted: “So now you are slave to boyfriend?”
“Okay, I walked into that,” she says, and he does his pained grin, the one that means he’s laughing at her. “But it’s like at last I don’t need to be constantly cajoling my kids into brushing their teeth or bathing and a hundred other unbelievably monotonous things. But I’m still responsible for everyone, and it’s nice to let go sometimes.”
He looks away. Then he looks at the screen and blinks several times. His eyes point elsewhere on the screen and then blink once, and the voice says, “I have a difficult favor to ask.”
“Anything,” she says, which is not true, but it’s what you say.
Bertram looks at her kindly for a while, very serene. And then he looks at the screen again and blinks twice, and the voice says, “Please kill me.” Before she can respond, he blinks twice more, and the voice says it again: “Please kill me.”
She shakes her head.
“I love you,” the voice says.
She puts her hand over her mouth—her eyes squeezed shut.
“I’m sorry,” the voice says. “I have thought about this.”
She won’t stop shaking her head.
“Bring your children to see me,” he says, “and then kill me.”
When she’s tried to instruct her husband on how to be with her, how to touch her, how to talk to her, he becomes uncomfortable and they end up fighting. Once, he said, “Do you want me to be real, or do you just want me to perform?”
She tried to say that she wanted him to be real sometimes, and she also wanted him to perform sometimes. Over the years, she’s grown kinkier, and he’s stayed the same. Fine. But they need to work together.
“How do I know when to do what?” he said.
It was a very good question. “I’m sorry that I’m so difficult,” she said. He could have taken out his frustrations on her, of course, and maybe they’d have both felt better, but the last thing he wanted right then was for her to tell him what to do.
In the morning, after the kids have gone, she takes the car to the Jiffy Lube out on Old Georgetown. It’s a bright and cold day, and the stupid stock market is up once again. Meanwhile, protesters are out every day, clogging downtown: there’s a grim tirelessness to them, as if they won’t accept that this is actually the world. She hopes they’ll never let go, she hopes they’ll paralyze everything forever.
While waiting in Jiffy Lube’s tiny overbright waiting room, which smells of tires and chlorine and stale coffee, she gets a text from Sir: Go put your butt plug in
She responds: Okay. Will take me half an hour. I’m getting oil changed
She inhales sharply. I meant: Yes Sir
She goes out and tells the mechanics that she needs to leave immediately—something’s come up. But the lanky guy who’s in charge says that they’re almost done.
“I really need to go,” she says.
The way he looks at her, this pasty blond man, skinny and young, maybe in his midtwenties, she might as well be naked and on her knees with her mouth open. “Let me check you out,” he says. “They’ll be ready by the time we’re done.”
“What did you just say?” she mumbles, blushing. She wants him to say it again.
He’s confused, though. “I’ll ring you up while they finish,” he says and points toward the computer with his grimy hand.
“Okay. Yes, please. I’ll pay now.” She’s practically hyperventilating.
At home, she looks in the box, but it’s not there. It’s not just under the bed, either. She can’t find it anywhere. She texts her husband to ask if he’s seen it, but just writes plug in case one of his colleagues sees his phone.
No, he answers. You meeting him today?
I don’t know. He just told me to put it in
Although her husband despises all of this stuff, tells her it’s disgusting and that he doesn’t want to know about it, she has told him that she will never lie to him again whether he likes it or not. So usually he doesn’t ask. But sometimes he does—he can’t help himself.
Recently, she has actually started to lie to him, a little, just because she knows exactly how he’s going to react, and what’s the point? Maybe she also wants to protect what she has. This is important for her. She won’t let him take it away. And if it came down to something where she had to choose between her husband and Sir, of course she’d choose her husband, of course, but part of her could never live with that choice. Part of her has to have both things. Is she really that greedy? Yes, she is.
Her phone chimes, and she looks, sees another text from her husband: You saw that Ash’s history teacher wrote to say that she never turned in her paper?
She’s well ahead of him. Was already texting with Ash about it, and said she’d check her progress tonight. Ash said that the paper was stupid, that the teacher has backward ideas about gender fluidity and that’s why she ignored the assignment. The conversation is getting there. Ash will be fine. Her husband isn’t talking about Ash. He’s saying he wants his wife to be home later. He’s saying he doesn’t want her running around Bethesda wearing nipple clamps, sucking off this interior decorator in the bathroom of Trader Joe’s, or whatever. It’s all, to him, totally deranged.
“I thought you were a feminist?” he once said after she explained what she’d been doing that day.
But she was ready for this, and replied, “No, you don’t get to evoke your concept of feminism to shame me out of my kink.”
When they went as a family to the Women’s March the day after the inauguration, all five of them wore pink pussy hats, but of course she had knit them all herself. No one even pretended to want to help her.
She writes one more message to her husband: Bertram wants me to kill him
Jesus, he responds.
Then she sends the same message to Sir. Just copies and pastes it.
Her husband sends a long note, but she doesn’t read it right away. A couple minutes later, Sir answers: That sounds difficult. Let me know if I can help
Thanks, she replies. Then she writes: I can’t find the butt plug
I know. I came over and took it.
At first she writes, You broke into my house?? but she doesn’t send that message. She erases it, and sends another: You came into my place?
Open your underwear drawer.
She opens it.
Her phone buzzes. Smell
She inhales and yes, there’s a faint aroma of semen. She pats her hand around inside, but feels no dampness.
What now? she writes.
Go downstairs and look in the freezer.
This is not good, not okay, him breaking into her house. Not sexy at all. Unless it is? Maybe . . . ? Sometimes she doesn’t know how she feels until it’s over. This is certainly scary. Did he steal a key, copy it, and then return it? Maybe as an interior decorator he knows something about locks? She opens the freezer and is astounded, first, to find that it’s completely clean. This morning the freezer was an overstuffed graveyard of forgotten, half-finished packages of fish sticks and vegetables. Now it’s spotless. The frosted butt plug sits there on the gleaming wire rack. How did he have time to do this? Must have been outside, waiting for her to leave. She doesn’t know whether to be flattered or frightened, so she accepts both feelings. She turns on the hot water and puts the plug under the stream, feels the water warming. With her other hand she texts him: I’m putting it in now. It’s so cold!
Good girl, he writes.
When she returns the following Tuesday, Bertram is watching CNN. There are two screens now: the one that’s right in front of his face and the television that’s been mounted on the wall all along. She sits and mutes the television. “You have more preloaded dialogue for me?”
He points his eyes at his DynaVox and blinks and the voice says, “No.”
“How are you?” she asks.
He glances at the muted television. The agony of his situation is so total it’s almost impossible to bear witness. It somehow feels cruel to be here, in his presence, when he’s in this condition, but leaving is worse. Neither option is acceptable. Eventually, he moves his eyes around the DynaVox, and when he’s done the voice says, “I’m almost alive, Vivian. You.”
That “you” is confusing at first, but then she realizes it’s a question—the voice doesn’t know how to inflect. “I’m not good, Bertie,” she says. She sighs, and then says, “Yesterday, while I was getting the oil changed, my lover broke into the house, cleaned the freezer, and jerked off into my underwear drawer.”
Bertram grimaces in quiet laughter. He looks so much like he did as a child now, maybe because of his weight loss, maybe for some other reason.
He had his stroke the day after Thanksgiving—she hadn’t spoken to him in a month. On Thanksgiving, her husband had reminded her that she should call him, but she didn’t do anything. The next day, she’d texted. It might have been the last thing he read before his stroke. The time line was confusing, and she never asked him for details—his memory of that time had been blown anyway.
On her phone, the text conversation they’d been having all these years ended with her apologizing for not inviting him to Thanksgiving, and asking if he’d like to come out for Christmas. She’d hoped he would decline. She’d also hoped he’d say yes, because she did miss him. She just wanted him to show up with a different biography, and maybe a slightly different personality. Not a complete overhaul, but it’d be a lot easier if he were less troubled.
Now he’s even more troubled, and he’s moved across the country to wither to death where she can watch in weekly installments. And yet it’s actually a lot easier to be around him, even now that he can talk. And she loves him as much as ever, but she feels it, at last, or the love is really up there on the surface, where it should have always been.
“No one ever loved me enough to clean my freezer,” the voice says, at last. It takes him a while to write certain sentences. He’s supposedly improving.
She wants to say, “Not yet,” but who would she be kidding. “Honestly,” she says, “part of me feels—I’d like to disappear with him. I can’t, of course. I know. But—” she stops there and tries to shut off her mind.
He stares at her in an inscrutable way. There will be no spontaneous or unedited utterances from him anymore.
“Look, I’ll bring the kids next time,” she says, although it’s a lie. She plans to continue dangling the offer of the kids until he stops firing off that preloaded request that she kill him.
He blinks three times and the voice says, “Thank you.” Then he looks back at muted CNN.
Last night, her husband sat on the edge of their bed hunched over his phone for half an hour groaning at the news while she casually toyed with her clit. She prefers to have at least two orgasms per day, and she’s been that way since she was twelve.
Today, with Bertram, she looks at CNN and sees that the familiar host is talking to someone labeled “Cyber Crime Expert.” The cyber-crime expert is a man whose eyeglasses have orange frames, but otherwise he looks a lot like a young version of the pediatrician whom she and Bertie saw when they were growing up. The pediatrician was named Dr. Wiseman, of all things.
Last time she saw Wiseman was twenty-five years ago. She was a senior in high school, and she reported that she was smoking weed and having sex. He said it was quite normal, and then he pressed the nicely cold stethoscope against her exposed back, she inhaled deeply, exhaled, and he moved it. She said that her boyfriend kept ejaculating onto her labia.
“Please be quiet,” he said. He finished listening to her lungs and then dropped her shirt. “So what’s the problem?” He was a kindly Jewish man, bespectacled and slight in his white jacket.
She looked at the floor and said, “Can his, you know . . . can they swim up all the way, you know, from out there?”
“Oh, God no, sperm are as blind and stupid as the humans who produce them. But if you don’t use any kind of contraception, you’ll probably get pregnant.”
“I don’t like condoms,” she said.
“Nobody does. There are options. Look, more importantly, please stop smoking. The sooner the better. Grass is fine, not great, but quit the cigarettes.”
“You know, none of the boys I see smoke, but all the girls do. Why is this?”
“I don’t know,” she said, although it actually made perfect sense to her.
The next time she sees Sir, he summons her so that he can masturbate and then ejaculate into the crotch of her underwear. It’s a quick thing he does once a month or so when they’re pressed for time. They kiss in his office after he closes the blinds and locks the door. And then she drops her jeans and pulls out the front band of her underwear, so that he has an easy target.
It doesn’t take him long.
Once he’s done, she pulls up her jeans and buttons them, impatient to go home and take care of herself—but also she’d just like to stay there with him and get falafel sandwiches from the good Mediterranean place across the street. If they had time, they could lean against each other on his new sofa and talk. She’d like to talk about her husband, and her kids, and her brother, this fucking idiot in the White House, and how she’s hoping to start making more fine art again. Although she doubts he loves her pictures, he’s generous with his flattery and tells her she should throw everything into her art and quit her part-time freelance graphic-design work. Last year she made one-tenth as much money as her husband, though, and if she made nothing at all, she’d feel trapped.
“Are you okay?” he says. There’s a new kindness in his manner, the inflection of his gaze. He is slender and aquiline, and anyone with any sense of anything would assume he’s gay, but it turns out he’s resoundingly heterosexual.
“What do I do about my brother?”
“I don’t know. It’s cruel to say no. A request from a person that powerless—it means more. But if you say you’re open to this, he might get his hopes up. People have no fucking idea what they want. They need instruction. You don’t want to accidentally teach him to want this.”
“But if he does want it? Really wants it. Should I kill him?”
He thinks about it for a while. “I don’t know.” He goes and washes his hands.
The walls in his office have this wood paneling—wainscoting, he calls it. All of his overprecise terminology amuses her, and he likes it when she laughs at him. There are animal hides on the furniture, too, sultry lighting. The wall behind his desk is upholstered with this sumptuous fabric, there’s a word for that, too, but it’s French. The fixtures in the bathroom are so amazing, so heavy, like carved stone—everything feels imbued with the weight of permanence, of hard, resilient wealth. But he’s not actually rich. He’s fine, but he’s not even as comfortable as she and her husband are, and they have three kids. It’s all veneer with him, part of the job.
It hasn’t really occurred to her yet, but if her brother weren’t paralyzed she’d just tell him that she couldn’t kill him. But this is different. As is, he literally can’t do it himself—she is the only person who can.
He returns, hugs her, kisses her on the temple. “What do you need?” he says, surely unaware that by asking that question he’s already given her exactly what she needs.
When her husband comes home, she’s cooking dinner and the two younger kids are in the basement making a lot of noise, while the older one is upstairs in her room, texting and doing God knows what. Her husband opens a beer, sighs.
“I went and saw Bertram.”
“Seriously?” she says. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Wasn’t planned. I was thinking about him today, and that machine, and half the office is out sick.” He shrugs. “So I just went. He’s doing well, I think.”
“Did he ask you to kill him?”
He shakes his head. “That machine is cool. He’s getting there.” She drops the pasta into the water, gets the new peas out of the spotless freezer. “He asked if you’re okay,” he says.
“I said you’re getting weirder by the day.”
She nods, and pours some of the icy peas into the boiling water and it calms down.
“You cleaned the freezer,” he says.
She just stares at the peas.
“Did you see him today?”
Pretending to misunderstand, she says, “No, I only go on Tuesdays.”
“I’m not talking about Bertram.”
She looks at him like, You really want me to answer?
He grunts, not quite a laugh.
“Can you cut up the cucumber?” she says. “Those kids need to eat some fucking vegetables. This can’t go on.”
That night, her husband watches CNN while she talks to their son, the middle child, about his new boyfriend, a kid named Aiden who claims to be bisexual but might just be attention seeking. Aiden’s father died in a plane crash in Pakistan. He was State Department, or maybe secretly CIA—you never know in D.C. Ever since then, Aiden has been outrageous, jumping on tables and singing Taylor Swift songs whenever the teacher leaves the room for a minute. A bizarre reaction for a twelve-year-old to having a parent die, Vivian thinks, but what does she know?
Last year, her son stopped asking her for advice, but tonight he wants advice, and she’s just glad that he’s there, asking for something again.
They talk while she does the dishes. At some point he says his sister isn’t really boycotting that essay because she’s offended by her teacher’s old-fashioned ideas about gender.
“Oh yeah?” she says. “She’s just lazy?”
“No, Ash wants everyone to love her because she’s fighting injustice. She doesn’t really care about it, though.”
“And who are you to make this claim?”
“I’m her brother!”
She loves that confidence in him. Reminds her of her own brother. “Yeah,” she says, “but you’re also a white boy, and white boys often say things just like this.”
“Oh come on, Mom.”
“Seriously. Just try to trust people when they say they’re offended,” she says and starts scrubbing the cast-iron skillet. “It’s one of the few ways in which being a white guy will require you to bend into an uncomfortable position.”
“She just wants people to admire her.”
“There are worse things than wanting to be admired for your righteousness.”
“But it’s not real, Mom.”
“Oh God, here comes reality again!” She turns the faucet off and sets the skillet back on the range. “This goddamned idiot becomes president because he seems authentic. But he’s just too dumb to pilot his nuance! And now Ash isn’t authentic enough for you? What’s so fucking amazing about expressing your feelings?”
“Mom.” He’s pretending to be bothered by her profanity.
“It’s true,” she says. “But that’s just my little opinion.”
Once, when Vivian was at Rehoboth Beach with Ash—this was before her sons were born—a huge seagull floated down to the blanket where baby Ash lay and grabbed Ash’s teething biscuit. The bird hopped away and was about to take off again when Vivian bounded over in two big steps and kicked it, hard. Heavy as a soccer ball, the bird rolled across the sand, and then stood up, its wing extended fully. It tried flapping aloft, but it was no good. She watched it walk around, confused by its broken wing dragging through the sand.
Everyone’s always acclimating to the new normal. This new president is not acceptable, is a self-styled real-estate mogul, although most of his ventures have failed. He’s really just selling a brand, which is built on a fabricated story of his life. But then he’s hosting a state dinner at the White House or conferring with aides aboard Marine One, and in a certain light he might be mistaken for someone who belongs where he sits. He is sitting there, after all.
Despite all of her own acclimating, she still can’t stop thinking about that incident with the gull sixteen years ago. After watching it for a while, she collected Ash and went back to the beach house. The top of her foot hurt where she’d kicked it. To this day she regrets not finishing it off. She should have clubbed it to death with the umbrella.
On his webpage, her interior decorator has images of rooms he’s designed. Opulent and masculine, his spaces feel warm, nestled within deep banks of luxury. The oxblood leather, a desk made from the salvaged wing of a World War II fighter plane, the huge Art Deco street lamps that accent someone’s cavernous dining room. There’s an outrageous confidence to it all. Of course he’s popular in D.C., where power-obsessed men in double-breasted suits still suck down martinis at steak lunches. As if nothing’s changed. But everything has changed. And one of these days they’re going to have to deal with it.
The cruelest thing she ever said to him was two days after the election: “I’m sure you’re going to get a lot of business now.”
He just shook his head.
She was wrong. His deviance is far too visible for them. For a while, she thought he might be unfeeling, but it turns out he’s just entranced by beauty—the interplay between tenderness and agony, between surrender and strength—and he wants to create spaces that resemble where we dwell in those dreams that linger.
But he’s a bullshit artist, too, of course. A professional seducer of rich people, he works them like a matador—or a gigolo, if you prefer—knowing when to stand tall, chest puffed, and when to step aside. The men are often lean, as he tells it, they wear penny loafers, pressed khakis, have gleaming teeth, neatly parted sandy hair, and they gaze at him with a mixture of bemusement and condescension. They are lawyers, all of them, but do not practice law because they’re advisers, or they write white papers like her husband does. For them this decoration is necessary—bolstering the desired appearance—but it’s also revolting and feminine, hazily arty.
Still, he studies their every move, anticipating every flicker in their eyes. And in this way he’s always in control. Except for now. The way he looks at her: he’s not in control anymore. She did this to him. They did this to themselves, and they did it to each other.
To Bertram she says, “Give me a year. If you still want to die in April 2018, I’ll look into it. But you have to erase that fucking phrase from your machine. It’d be a very short trial with that kind of evidence lying around.”
He blinks at her in thanks, and then casts his eyes around the screen, and the voice says, “Thank you, sister.”
“Also, I’ll bring my kids again, really, but I need you to myself for a while more.”
“Vivian,” the voice says.
“Look, I don’t want to be selfish, I’ve tried to bring people here, I’ve tried to arrange visitors, I’ve offered to drive them—Bertie, I’m trying to make this okay for you. But the world is spinning out, ruined. And I need this time with you to myself. At least you can’t move.”
Bertram blinks at the screen a number of times in a row and the voice says, “Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
She shakes her head. “That’s nice, Bertie. Really nice.”
She gazes up at the television, but it’s not on today. The new president has showered Syria with missiles because he was watching the news and saw images of dead children and it stirred something within him. He was supposed to be an isolationist, but he’s unthinking and excitable—that’s his authenticity—so when he’s alone, standing in the White House’s kitchen in his bathrobe watching Fox and chewing leathery slices of dried mango, he’s vulnerable to whatever emotion he encounters.
At last the mechanical voice says, “Tell me more about your boyfriend.”
“Well . . . ” She sighs, pictures him in a crisp white shirt showing her how he likes to stitch the flaws in antique tapestries himself without paying for real restoration artists, because the moneyed philistines who hire him will never know the difference. “He is in over his head with me, and I think he sees it now. Too late.” She winces. “Were you ever into BDSM?”
He casts his eyes around the screen and then the voice says, “Not like you.” Then his eyes move more, and the voice says, “Sounds fun.”
She shrugs. “It is. But it takes up a lot of space.”
In June, she’s sitting in bed with her husband one night and she realizes that all this time she thought he was looking out their bedroom window at the darkness, he was actually looking at the reflection of himself in the window. It had never occurred to her to look for herself out there.
It’s July when the stock market finally loses its footing and falls inelegantly through the cardboard floor upon which it’s been dancing. Not a giant crash, but the party is over. By then their pile of savings feels stale to Vivian. And she has to will herself to log on and start hunting for buying opportunities—something distressed, but promising.
By then, her son has broken up with Aiden, and her brother does not want her to murder him anymore. Or he’s stopped asking, but she can tell that he’s not interested anymore. After they agreed to let him keep his DynaVox he really settled into the tiny life he’d landed within. His expectations fell that far that fast.
By July, it’s also the case that her dear husband, the man she has slept beside for almost exactly half of her life, is not so sure that he wants to be her husband anymore. She could have told him that he felt this way a decade ago. In fact she did! But the last time things were very difficult, he made the big sacrifices, and he saved the marriage, so it’s her turn this time to accommodate him. At least until the kids are all out of the house, and then who knows? So she makes adjustments.
Her Sir doesn’t really want to be her Sir anymore, anyway: he’s edging into full-blown boyfriend territory—or he wants everything, and also a lot less than everything. And her husband isn’t having this, any of it, the drifting boundaries, has decreed that they must totally shutter the open part of their marriage, and despite what she’d told herself she’d do—despite the fact that she believes you can never close this kind of door, because history doesn’t disappear if you turn away from it—she consents.
She tells her Sir that they have to stop. No more funny business.
But once a month they can meet for coffee at the unhappy Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue, two blocks from his office. She prefers to make schedules for everything that excites her, to fabricate constraints for herself, so she tells him that she’ll be there on the second Saturday of every month at eleven a.m. And if he shows up, they can sit and talk for an hour. No touching. Not even a hug. She will wait the full hour, whether or not he shows up. And she will do this every Saturday as long as she is physically capable, for the rest of her life, or until her husband releases her again.
Although he is heartbroken, her Sir consoles himself with his belief that she’s not really in control of this piece of real estate, it’s her husband’s, and she’s just policing the borders.
Meanwhile, she’s learned that Bertram will be there at Thanksgiving owing to this electric wheelchair—“my electric chair,” he calls it—that his home will lend them, along with the van that transports the chair. Vivian must learn how to operate the chair, and how to drive the van, and she must learn how to tend to his diaper, his feeding. Once she’s learned all of this, he can be there with the kids in their own home, and he can unleash whatever torrent of preloaded phrases he wants upon them all.
When no one is watching, she’ll mash up his turkey dinner, spoon it into his crooked mouth, wipe his lips, and like the nurses do every day, she’ll clean off his penis with a warm washcloth after he urinates messily. And she won’t be alone, and he won’t be alone, none of them will be alone, and the television won’t be on—not even football, not even CNN, no matter the news.
On their first of these monthly meetings, the man who used to be her Sir, whose given name is Bruce, arrives at exactly eleven, dressed immaculately, entirely in black. This man, this Bruce, doesn’t order anything—doesn’t want to waste time. He removes her handbag from the chair she’s reserved for him and sits, crosses his leg, and stares at her, half smiling, as tears shimmer in his dark eyes. “It’s good to see you,” he says, although she’s never seen him so wounded before.
She just nods. She’s dressed up for him, too, wore the turquoise dress that he likes, even though she’d never normally wear something so provocative outside.
This Starbucks is terrible, narrow and L shaped, always crowded, with lots of windows. You’re always tightly sandwiched between a window and a wall. She came early and reserved the best seats, the only comfortable armchairs there. He cares about these things. Although she won’t tell him so, she’s worn the butt plug, and has avoided it for weeks so that it’ll hurt more. And it does.
She asks about the business. He asks after her work, the children, her husband. They speak in simple terms, pausing often. Mostly, they just stare at each other across the crumb-strewn table. Despite his fascination with dwellings, Bruce doesn’t actually own any real estate. He rents his office, rents his apartment. He can’t afford to own anything.
When their time is up, Bruce stands and hesitates—almost does something, or says something, but thinks better of it. He says he’ll see her in a month, and then he’s gone.
No one knows what they want until they do, and then they know nothing else. That’s what she thinks. And she’ll see to it that she loses nothing. In the end, she’ll lose no one. They’re all nicely mashed together now. Our history is inside us, and can’t ever be extracted because it hasn’t been inserted, it lives between the membranes, saturating the soft tissue—it lurks within the cells, glowing gently, warmly, illuminating us from within.