Further From Unusual | by Alexandra Chasin
This year, I love a man with a hole in his plan.
Long-fingered and dry-palmed, Wyatt seems to insinuate sex when he hands me his phone number and drawls an invitation to come out to Middleboro and see him sometime. Soon as I do, in less time than it takes the door to shut behind me, he pulls the fruit from my hand, puts it on his clean kitchen counter, yanks my undies down and off, straightens my skirt, and pushes me back outside for a short walk.Holds me by the hips and tips me forward over the train tracks but doesn’t let me fall.Minutes later, a patrol car’s headlights swing by the spot where he had me by the hips; minutes after that, the longer, wider, higher, brighter beam of the commuter train barrel through, appearing pushed by, or perhaps pulling, the train itself. There goes the purple-stripe logo headed for the hub, frick-fracking its way downtown, making lots of local stops – like Wyatt’s – until it arrives, turns around, and heads out again. It’s not every night that people creeping up on middle age score down by the tracks. Wyatt and I variously pull up, pull down, rebuckle, and smooth, as we climb back up the embankment. Train honks from a distance, or early geese do. Safety gates lift. We go back to his place in the sub-hubs and eat the berries I brought, first gray light in our hair reflecting the dark red juices.
At the side of Wyatt’s bedroom closet, looking like the proverbial steamer trunk with stickers from destinations reached, stands a suitcase dented in a couple of places, kicked in, as though he had left it in the aisle, pulled his long legs into his personal space, and gone to sleep before the other passengers had finished boarding. I touch HighSchool in the Rural South, College Up Here, Downtown, Suburb. Backyard.Atattered Americanflag decal curlsnearby.Backyardis alittle smoky, with a grill still cooling down.
Across town, Wyatt’s girls, soon-to-be women, Lucy, Lainey, and Kara, dream air-conditioned dreams of boys or girls or both. They have a mother I haven’t met. Downtown, my own much littler girl lulls, stirring now and then to suck some more pink polish off her tiny finger tips and sink down even deeper into sleep. Her babysitter, sitting on the couch, lists toward a Russian novel. Shining through the window, the city lights form a tiara, askew on her head.
Originally, Wyatt was going to go places ungone to: discovery or invention would make him rich. Not only did he need a wife to share the triumph,but he needed to get her before he got rich, so he would know she loved him for himself. She showed up at a friend’s wedding, other side of the aisle. One aisle led to another. They set up house, backyard, swing set; they balded the tires of two cars on his commute to and from work, hers around and around the neighborhood, shopping, pick-ups and drop-offs, at school, playdates, practice. The endless practices and occasional games. The old analog odometers told it all: ten digits on each of seven little wheels, ratcheting up from zero to nine, and from nine up to zero again, numbers changing every minute in the decimal place, once a year in the ten-thousand place. Somewhere upwards of 100,000 miles, he no longer trafficked in the unknown.Then there was me.
It’s almost fall.
My girl knows what almost means. She knows one and she knows two. Three is a bit murky.
Except, Wyatt has three daughters, and my girl knows their names. She chants, LucyLaineyKara, like a song. She loves all three even without knowing there are three of them. Kara teaches her This old man, he plays three.Wyatt plays knick- knack on my knee. I teach Lainey how to apply mascara. Lucy watches and waits her turn. The doorbell rings –– and the girls proceed to vacate the bathroom. Craning to hear the voice on the other side of the front door, I catch myself in the vanity, a frozen woman with a wand in hand, just this side of rude enough to obtrude into the scene and get a glimpse of the ex, or is it get glimpsed?
I have an ex-plan too: I was going to work until I had enough money to cover a backpack and a plane ticket with enough leftover to hike through a few countries, excluding those where a Romance language is spoken.When my funds ran out, I would stop, learn the local language and expatriate myself. Halfway up the first mountain, my passport still story less, I was turned around by a sherpa with a message. A common myna read it out loud from a rock: your father is sick and will turn out to need long-term care. Sisterless, I would be the one to give it, sorry though he was to have to ask,. I stayed with him forever and Everest has had to wait. But in the meantime, born abroad and as wanted as any baby has ever been – by me, just me, not for lack of lovers or birth mothers – my daughter is the pinnacle. The multi-colored wool hat hangs on the wall over her bed.
Wyatt and I were both whiz kids, a thousand miles apart. When we were very young. Later, we converged on this greater metropolitan area for college at the same time, coming, like the other students, hither, from out there, by plane, bus, and car; we didn’t meet. We were still ahead of the learning curve in our classrooms, racking up the GPAs.As we reached graduation, the fork in the tracks, we both slowed down.That was the point at which, unbeknownst to each other, he went to the western suburbs to be normal and I took off to pretend I was otherwise. Maybe the twain should never have met. But now comes the part where we run into each other – it doesn’t matter where – and kaboom.
Now we are sex.
Now we live five highway exits from each other, Wyatt in the small town that revolves around my larger one. We blow by the exits, and bank perilously on each other’s off-ramps, hurrying between bedrooms.The sex misleads us into thinking we have more than one thing in common.Our political views still live a thousand miles apart, but we both have girls – and weekends to while away with them – and we share a sense of humor. Mine.We meet in the middle of the loss of our polarly-opposite dreams.
Wyatt got divorced. But before that, he and his wife had the three girls.Now, I love him for himself:his taciturnity, his mistakes,his long fingers.Whatever he might have called riches, he sends on down the line in the form of alimony and child support. Marriage is a dinghy. Or is that divorce? Or is it a life boat?Women and children first.
It’s not every day that someone takes the little hammer and breaks the window on the train, signaling emergency. That people emerge sideways.
Pages flap off the calendar. One hits the floor with the weight of more than paper: the day I come home from Wyatt’s to find my girl in her booster seat eating breakfast with the babysitter. Stubbornly, my girl refuses to look at me. Deliberately, gently, partially, she upends her cereal bowl so that the milk runs in a little stream onto and off the table and onto the floor. Milkfall, she says.Headline in the paper the babysitter is reading: Neglectful Mother Seeks Pleasure in Usual Places.
Needing new treads for this gig, I buy a car. I buy the car the salesman says has the best cup holders in the industry. I drive a lot now. Out to see my lover at night, back at dawn to be sure my girl doesn’t wake up to the babysitter again. Over to daycare, mornings, to drop her off, from there to work, then back over to daycare, evenings, to pick her up. Until I rack up 100,000 miles of circles around this city, every number on the odometer is the zip code of a place I will see in two dimensions, this side of the windshield.
Wyatt plans an apple-picking expedition for a nearby Saturday, on which it rains, that act of God causing us to cancel.
Sooner or later, I’ll be a sticker on that suitcase. He’ll be looking back, saying to the next ex-wife to be, I used to have a girlfriend who
People lose things, all day every day. Now it is one week, now it is the next. My girl loses her plastic dog one day, first toy she ever named.Maybe we have left it at the playground, which we go to after daycare every Wednesday from April to November. Doggie’s name is Sorry.
Fall is soccer season in the suburbs.Any as-yet- unpicked apples fall to the ground in an orchard a few miles from here. By the side of the playing field, my girl finds a ball that comes up to her knees and topples herself over, rolling around with her belly on the ball, sputtering with laughter. Stubble shimmering in the chilly sun, the man I love picks up my girl and throws her in the air. Suddenly, she cries. Weird, he says to me, handing her over. Usually, kids like that.
The soccer field at JeffersonMiddle School,with its lime line lying up the middle. Easy for me to say, but how can it beat Abruzzo, Hue, Chittagong, County Cork, or Danzig – for beauty, for Mama and Papa, for locating yourself most precisely on the great big aquamarine map – yet endless streams of stinking immigrants made their way to a house and a lawn within a five- mile radius of Jefferson here and Jefferson there and Jefferson in Delaware. McKinley, Monroe, and Madison. Kennedy, Lincoln, and Kennedy. And Lincoln–here, and in Illinois. Middle School America. Boats and decades later, soon-to-be parents are still and always finally arriving, plunking down suitcases, staying put, and spreading in the middle.
Feet, which during the week wear pumps and loafers, all leather,flap around the margins of play in sneakers.They look so very Saturday. I feel the rigor mortis setting in.
We pull up collapsible lawn chairs at the side of the field, where a friend of Wyatt’s girls, a boy named Tommy, holds up his hands to show the score: 1 to 1. It must be Tommy’s dad on my right saying, Tommy grew up and I’ve had the same job the whole time. From when he was born until now.I’ve been living in the same place since Tommy’s older brother was born, same freaking garbage pail. Next, we’re going to hear someone else’s wife’s low tones, aural aspect of sympathy, responding.We’re going to hear him pull himself up inside his windbreaker and say, too strenuously, Nah, it’s not Tommy. It’s me: I’ve been in a rut.
All the inertia, the death drive, the has-been hovering over all of our heads is turning me on. I would crawl under some bramble or crouch behind the bins over there, propose toWyatt, Let’s do it right here and now. But the public sex is less frequent now. Not here, I’ve heard him say. I must be having a perverse reaction to the suburban scene because I’m about ready to stop any guy in this sleepy town with both halves of a smile and say, Excuse me, sir, do you mind stepping into the bushes fora moment?
Or what if Wyatt’s ex-wife turned up? That would heat it up. I’d like to see her shoes, and show her mine, judge her, and be judged.
Jefferson’s mascot is a falcon, played by someone’s little brother, plastic feathers crying by the arm of a lawn chair, mother’s jacket sleeve looking away toward someone else’s father.
We caravan home after the game. Him, his girls, his car, ahead. Me, my girl, my cup-holding car, behind. Suddenly, his car starts to buck,Lucy’s water bottle flies out of her hand, and I can see the girls rocking with laughter on the TV of the rear windshield, the backs of their heads out of control. I can’t hear him, but I can see his hand slam the wheel, and I can see the back of his head lurch as he shouts what I know must be, Shit. We pull over. He gets out, walks over to the window I have pulled down, and says into space, Flattire. Needless to say, not in my plans. But why not laugh,it’s a lovely day,and our girls are lovely, and where were we going in such a hurry anyway?
Early one morning, before I can pull myself out of Wyatt’s bed and push myself out the door and into the car to head home,I lie quietly fingering a hole in the sheet –oh, here’s another – and another. But who’s counting. I hear a zipper zipping somewhere; I just can’t tell whether it’s going up or down. Or whether there’s a difference between the two.
Another morning, following a night on which I have brought my girl along for a sleepover, I hear stirring in the bedroom the girls share. Shortly, Lucy and Lainey dress for the all-ages Spelling Bee at their school, while Kara, already dressed, teaches my girl to count her third finger. We all pile intoWyatt’s car, my girl illegal on my lap, and then we pile out of it, and into the “cafetorium” of the girls’ school, where Kara climbs the stage to join her team, the Brain Drains, captained by a local plumber.
We, the audience, sit on the mid-sized chairs, too big for kids, too small for adults. Kara waves from the stage to someone behind us – her mother, Wyatt tells me. His ex. Really? So this is it.I am dying to get a look at her.I try sideways.I go so far as to try to get my girl to crawl or toddle some which way where it would not be too obvious or amiss for me to turn, but my trawler only has eyes for Kara up front, so I must content myself with the possibility of being viewed from behind by the ex. Somehow, I must show her I care.I put my hand at the back ofWyatt’s neck, thrum the buzz cut. Not here, he says.
The commuter rail toots in the distance. Even on Saturday.After all, the people must shop. The plumber correctly spells prehensile. The officer captaining the next team looks familiar. Kara’s team gets knocked out in the next round when she misspells peregrine. She leaves off the e.
Sometimes, it seems like a string of weekends, like there are no Wednesdays in winter, only blanks on which Wyatt and I work at jobs – not vocations, just well-paying jobs – to pay the cable bills for the three households – his, hers, and mine – in which all our young learn TV vowels, learn the call of more channels than you can count on two hands, and learn to like and be like each other. Weekends come around every week. Wyatt sleeps with his hands between his legs, not mine.His plans wither in the dark, where I nurse mine.This year, two of his three girls become women according to some nearly universal standard which – naturally – came across on the boats from everywhere.I offer to explain what their mother has, naturally, already taught them about feminine hygiene, so thanks but no thanks. My own girl toddles ten, eleven, twelve years behind; she’s still trying to become a child. We play charades: Lainey looks likes he’s flying south for winter. Or is she flying north? Lucy is not paying attention, she’s singing to my girl,This old man, he plays one, he plays knick knack on my thumb and trying to pull my girl’s thumb out of her mouth; the latter laughs but holds tight onto her thumb.
Fuck, it’s cold outside in this sector of the peregrine nation. My girl startles at the sight of her own breath. She think it’s funny. I make, I make, I make, she says, gesturing at what has already evaporated. Shall we bobtail it out of here, honey?Fly or float away? I say to the backseat. For pretend? she asks. Or by purpose? On our way to pickup Wyatt, I stop to fill the tank, reset the trip meter at zero with frosted fingertips.
Wyatt, my girl, and I enter the Jefferson Middle School gym, upstairs from the cafetorium. Lucy and Lainey are playing basketball today. The stands on both sides are underpopulated with several mothers; I’m hopeful. Several men, coaching, officially or otherwise, stand with their toes in play. Some of them are still cute, including my lover.In this chapter, divorced dads are everywhere – losing their ambition – and appealing to girls who have become women who have become mothers – and are also losing their ambition. Worn bulletin boards, almost naked, hang on the walls, wearing only staples and corners of former announcements. Chipped lines of fair and foul play scar the scuffed wood floors. Kara, who has just arrived from her home across town, is now crossing the gym to come sit by my lover,who will be scoring. Officially. All the girls, his, mine,and theirs, are shiny and new, unlike the gym. How did it become this moment – middle school, middle age – divorced and other been-had people going around again, again, the girls warming up, running up and back and dropping (you couldn’t say dribbling) the ball.
Nothing is unsexier than a school gym until you realize how all these teeny critters get here: there is fucking in the suburbs. Daddies lying every which way with mommies, doing it ‘til they drop. This could go on forever – the wiggling around – the familiar white leak – why not.The grandchildren of people from far away blossoming on the floor in front of me. And all those girls will be sexy soon themselves; it’s their turn now, the little wiggles.
Mid-court, my lover sits, Kara on one side, me and my girl on the other.Across the court, a woman waves down to the home-team bench, and, in unison, Lucy and Lainey wave back. Ta-dum.The ex-wife.But I mustn’t look directly at her.So I wait until after the toss, when the pack of girls heads over to one basket, and then again back to the other – and so, offensive drive by offensive drive, I piece together a look at her, through. Only, that is, when the passing girls camouflage my gaze, which is frequently, since the ball changes possession every ten seconds.The one in the robin’s-egg-blue shirt, with the land legs crossed in slacks, and the uncorked hair, looking like a person among people, but that is not the point. She is the ex-wife. I’m not. I’m all kinds of ex, but not his. Could I be someday? Let’s just say, it’s not in my plans. Somebody’s dad is coaching the visiting team. He has a regional accent, graying hair, and hands, and he returns my daughter’s grin. If he looks at me sideways, I might go home with him, because what else do I need in a guy. Then he recedes.
I’m looking down the business end of a telescope, only for her. The mothers seem very far away.
My girl has bobbled the inflatable basketball that Wyatt has given her to hold. She struggles to get out of my lap and go follow it. Suddenly, across the court, she spots a plastic doggie just like the one she lost. She lurches over the white line to retrieve it, but the visiting coach quickly scoops her up, and hands her back to me, with a tsk tsk tsk and a sly smile.
Wyatt keeps the score… slowly… since that is how the girls make baskets. I guess the sight of his ex-wife reminds Wyatt of something. He says, The house, half a million. Another scorecard rears up. I am surprised because I like to pretend he’s not bitter. I liked it better when he allowed for some mystery, as when he told me about the moment that they first saw that unexceptional ranch house, pre-girls. There’s a law, he had said, that real estate agents must disclose unusual circumstances regarding property for sale. Like Indian bones. Relics. Or if there used to be a gas station and the toxins lie just below scuffing. I could pretend there was a story.
Sorry. But there is no story, as betrayed by the fact that this here is the climax. Her. She is: the ex-wife. For a brief instant, I am more engaged than I have ever been by him, including the moment on the train tracks, back in the season of fruit and fun. It’s perfectly clear that – finally– seeing, and being seen seeing by, the ex-wife is the climax. But.
The circumstances could not be further from unusual.It is Saturday, the last home game of the season. The girls’ team’s hopes flow effulgently, but counter clockwise, following their parents’, down the drain. Skip forward half a generation, where his are recast as adults, and mine is recast as a teenager. Likely, they will have changed their points on the circumference, their seconds of longitude and latitude, but the gyroscope will spin all the same. I know I should say I only want my girl to be happy, but the truth is I hope she won’t be headed into jail or Jesus or sales. I hope I will be worthy of her tether to me. I would backseat drive her to freedom, coach her through the unknown, hold her through the uncoachable, never mind the score.
Meanwhile, if this is as hot as it gets….
Get me the fuck out of here. I sit through the first half, waiting with the falcon for our chance. Then, during the break for water and pep, I get up and go to kiss Wyatt’s sweating girls. I watch their mother watch me do it. Lainey feints backward to wipe her forehead, smiles at me, and says, I’m really aspiring. I whisper Sorry into the pretty teenager’s damp hair – to her, her sisters, her mother. I hoist my girl on my hip, and head out. Once in the car, I mistake aisles between rows of cars for exits from the middle-school parking lot, and when I pull out of it and aim back over the tracks for the urb, I can’t find my way home.
When I get there, I’ll check the machine for no messages. The phone will ring or it will not ring. Most likely, it will ring when I don’t want it to and it won’t when I do.That way, Wyatt and I will miss each other from now on. I reach back with a cup of orange juice lifted from the holder where it has been sitting and freezing. I hand it to my girl,my fledgling, my everything – Sorry to you too, darling–who is trussed up in her deceptively safe safety seat. Nine, ten, begin again.
Outside of my car, the social contract is still in effect. The people are driving in lanes. Headline digitally ticker-taping its way across the bottom of the billboard for the Eagle-Enquirer hanging at the side of the highway: Woman Rescued From Giant Sinkhole.
The cup holders are – as promised – perfect.
My girl pipes up from the back seat, sippy cup tipping asI take the turn off the home-team off-ramp. Mama, we are there yet?