Driving under a forested canopy where slivery needle-nosed pines and slender white birches brushed along the top of my black Mercedes SUV, squeezed among the redwoods that dominated the landscape above the Santa Clara Valley, had me gaping, my mouth opening like a fish gulping on dry land. New housing kept to a minimum thanks to strict zoning laws preserving the redwoods, making the California forests a haven for nature lovers. Halfway home, the more vocal of my eight year old twins, Seth, screamed that he forgot his new jacket at the soccer field. That had me so rattled that I turned my new ride around to go back and inadvertently plowed into a hydrant that had been hidden behind a profusion of plant life lining the roadway. There was a loud smack and the fender took a big dent. Wordlessly, I contemplated the damage. My hands shook on the wheel. The boys must have understood because they quieted down and began drawing letters with their fingers on the steamed up windows, leaving me to my musings. I wondered what was eating me lately. I got so flustered when my kid said he lost a piece of clothing that I had recklessly spun the car with bushes all around, and assumed wrongly that they were empty of obstacles. It would not have mattered so much, but it was my fourth fender bender for the year.
When we got back, thinking to get it over with, I left the boys playing in the family by themselves and went to my husband’s home office where I suspected he would be. I knew he’d be angry. The man was a cyclone, barking into his phone, jiggling his hands and feet, nothing unusual there. Behind him, the credenza was crowded with grown-up toys: 4-LOM and Jar Jar Blinks from Star Wars, assorted vintage cycling helmets and a windup Sandy Kaufax. In the back of the room, crouching in the shadows, its presence a constant reminder of our current money woes, sat the long, slender lines of an Italian leather sofa which I had lined with plushy, damask cushions in my bid to be interior decorator of the year, back in the day when everything around us screamed comfort and opulence, at a time our tech stocks were riding high. Now all we could afford—food and gas, everything else was too much.
“Make it next week,” David yelled into the phone. He was what they call a yenta.
What grabbed my attention, his expressive face, never could hide what he was feeling. When he spotted me, the sudden shift of emotion around his cratered eyes and wide mouth as multiple smile lines traveled the length and width of his face.
“Sweetheart,” I said softly. My voice came out as a squeak.
“Shelli.” His smile widened, if that was possible. “Back already? I didn’t expect you for another hour.”
“The coach had to end the practice early.”
I went to him and stood on my tippy toes, lightly dusting his proffered cheek with my lips, wondering with what magic I could coax him to forget our loss of fortune. In the old days, before the downturn, I could tell him about a bent fender without him hitting the roof.
He finished his call. Outside the window, the sheltering hills reared up, slanting, unlikely marvels. I decided to tell him later, thinking about the night ahead. I did not want to ruin things with the bad news, and sighed with relief to think that our boys would be going to a friend’s house on an overnight. It would be nice to have a night to ourselves, and I resolved to do everything in my power to make the night special, and make him see that questions of money should not matter as much as he thought. We still had our home and our cars, our children were well cared for, what more could we want? There was such a thing as wanting too much. The first time I came home with a fender bender, he had waxed philosophical, the second time he made biting comments about my driving ability, and the third time, he screamed at me, calling into question my sanity, and calling me the kind of names I would hesitate to pin on anyone, even the most obdurate. I tried to say something about the fender and ended up sputtering nonsense. I was deathly afraid of my husband’s temper. Never hit me yet, thank God. Paying for the repair with cash from money I had saved seemed like a good plan instead of spending it on a winter coat I had my eye on. I thought I could get away with not telling him about it and planned to do it on the down-low to keep him off my back. No way did I want to go to the insurance company; they would jack up our rates. Later, as we were getting ready for our evening, I started doing the shimmy in front of the mirror. It was only lately that I had begun to enjoy what I saw reflected back at me in its shiny surface, yet I still did not quite believe my muscles popping out everywhere. My personal trainer told me that’s what happens from weight lifting a couple times a week for a few years, along with eating a strict diet of whole grains and vegetables, and much less meat.
“You’re looking hot.” David whistled softly from his perch on the bed, his eyes playing over my toned limbs.
Gratified that he openly admired what my dedication to the gym had accomplished, I put renewed energy into my dancing, hoping my movements galvanized him to think sexy thoughts. I prayed that he had it in him to want sex with me later that night. His upset over the stock market had caused his libido to nosedive of late, and I was on a tear to get him back up to speed. I hoped his current malaise would not be something that dragged on.
“Thanks,” I said, warming to the touch of satiny underpants and matching bra. “I couldn’t have done this without your encouragement.”
My words put a smile in David’s face. The real truth of the matter, after the boys were born, he never stopped with comments about my ass turning to flab and my thunder thighs going south. Years later, my body still looked like I had just given birth. I went to the gym initially to shut him up, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed it, and now I was reaping the rewards. In retrospect, my workout did not take much effort, and yet, for the life of me, I did not know why it took me so long to get to the gym. Sometimes a person needs a dot.com crash to get off the couch. I left the mirror to give him a juicy kiss. His lips tasted like spun sugar. Right on cue, he pulled my bra straps down and reached his hand to a nipple, sending a shiver down my spine. Too soon, he pulled his hand away.
“Hotshot, don’t we have a party to attend?” he said, pointing to his watch. He was not one to be late for anything.
I tried to keep up a buoyant front, thinking he would rather pass up sex with me to be on time for a party, but of course, we were longtime married, no surprise boredom had set in. After fussing a great deal with my undergarments, making David laugh from sheer joy at my silly antics, the way I jumped around and teased him, I finally settled down and dressed a tad more daring than my usual boots, tight jeans and tee, opting instead for a transparent sweater with the bra showing through, just for the thrill of it. Being daring was new for me, born of my newly chiseled body, and I smiled to think what our friends’ reaction would be. Later I went to the boys’ room and packed their PJs and extra clothes and waited with them downstairs in the family room with their coloring books for their ride to arrive. The mother of another boy was picking up my boys and a few others, and driving them to the party at a home on the outskirts of town, which we all appreciated, for the home was hard to find in the middle of a maze of lookalike housing. They promised to be good and kissed us both. Seth looked excited. Micah seemed hesitant; possibly he was not sure if he wanted to be away from home. I told him if he did not like the party, I would drive their friend’s house and pick him up. Micah stoutly affirmed that he would be fine. We went out to the garage where David’s sporty dark gray roadster was parked next to my Mercedes. He walked around his car and spotted my bent fender. I acted surprised, clapping my hands to my face and opening my mouth like I was staring at nightmarish scenario, and wailing “Oh my god” as if to top of the nightmare, the sky had fallen, and maybe it had. It was jarring to see the mashed metal, scrapes of red paint zagging over the black under the harsh garage lighting. Feeling constricted, as if the hills outside had knocked my breath away I struggled over a cough that appeared out of nowhere.
“How did that happen?” David gasped.
“I don’t know,” I said, my voice sounding equally distraught. “Someone must have backed into me in the parking lot at work. I didn’t notice.”
Immediately I hated the lie. And blamed him. What struck me just then is how many hoops I had to jump through on a constant basis to please this man. Every misstep, every mishap he placed under a microscope to be inspected and analyzed. Ditto on David’s grumbling about my spending on even the necessities, making me leery of his reaction to anything. I wondered if he cared for me anymore, the way he criticized me. Lately, it seemed I could not do anything right in his eyes. For hours it seemed, he ranted on, describing in detail the damage from each accident, and how much my poor driving skills were costing us. “It’s the same story every time,” David said. “You never knew what hit you. We could go on several vacations for the money you’re costing us.” I listened to his harsh admonishments without saying a word in my defense as he continued chide me for being late for a party hosted by good friends, like he was the final arbitrator of politeness and good sense. I felt intense relief flood my soul when he left off detailing my faults to turn his attention to the driving of his car. Leading to a big earthshattering sigh from me, bringing back his stare, shattering my calm. I felt like a trick horse, my insatiable audience demanding that I jump through hoops in an endless circus act. Being evaluated and found wanting, knowing that he thought me incompetent. The way I had handed the fender benders had caused him to dislike me. This realization hit me like a ton of bricks and left me reeling.
“Oh well, one more time is not going to ruin us,” he said, his mouth turned down. “Not unless you keep it up.”
His note of resignation did nothing to alleviate the low-grade anxiety stealing over my limbs and giving me the shivers. Why it hit me now when I had been living with this stress for months I could not fathom. I felt like a racehorse anticipating the starting gate, too preoccupied to do much else than snort madly at everything, my fears that his attitude had become a permanent thing making it impossible for me to concentrate on anything for longer than two seconds. I began wringing my hands as if they were washcloths I wanted to clear water from. I thought if anything would make me get into another fender bender, it was my sense that he judged me with a singularly critical eye.
At the party, David made a beeline for a group of guys he knew, mostly co-workers. The party was in David’s team’s honor, they were top earning sales team for the year. It was held along the Monterey waterfront on a block where cottages were kitschy and well preserved, salve for the soul. I headed straight to the kitchen. Along the way, people I barely knew asked if I was okay. I looked at them strangely, not aware how panicked I must have appeared, hyper, a bit crazed even. I could not carry on a conversation with anyone for long, my thoughts kept wandering to my current situation, embroiled as I was with young sons, and a husband who scorned me. I thought of the man at work who flirted with me nonstop and marveled at myself for actively discouraging him. With my marriage in precarious straits, knowing that my husband actively flirted with some of my women friends, and yet I was in no mood for an affair—I said something to that effect to my amorous co-worker, pretty much derailing a possible thing. But then I had a history of fucking things up with men, thought I felt that I was the victim here. Somehow, everything seemed to occur at my expense, and yet I felt powerless to change my circumstances. Thinking like this I could not breathe correctly, and rushed to an open window, but the fresh air little to revive me.
I knew where David had stashed his keys, in the pocket of his jacket that had been hung up in a closet near the front door. On autopilot I grabbed the keys and went out to his car, got in and turned the ignition on as if someone else was telling me what to do. With the seat warmer going full blast, I headed up Highway One, though in the twilight there was little to see, I enjoyed views of ocean peeking through the cliffs tufted by yellow scrub driving toward San Francisco, and breathed the lovely salty air filled with the cries of seagulls, trying to drive the switchbacks with care. Plenty of people derailed on this road, having barreled over steep cliffs to their deaths. I did not want to be among them, even in my black mood. Thinking about my situation while viewing the sunset in a breathtaking beautiful environment did not provide the needed illumination I sought and I shuddered to think of the past few months, the coffin lid closing in. As much as I thought I had gone as deep as a person could go, I sunk deeper, each point of crisis riskier than the last. At first I merely gambled with my weight and then it became an issue of health, and finally through Herculean effort I muscled together a perfect body and someone at work started to notice. I flirted with the dude, because he lit a corner of my heart that had been slumbering for months, maybe years, but then I got scared and out of the goodness of my heart, driven by my feeling that I should put my energies into my marriage, which seemed to have gone dormant, I offered my husband as much as he wanted, nothing for anyone else, my libido on overdrive, but he acted like a cretin and ignored my overtures. Rather than play the role of the spurned wife, I did what I could to make him happy, showing love to him and our children, and also to his mother whose rudeness I could not stand, and to his extended family, and not demanding that he do the same for me or my siblings. Any other guy would have been ecstatic.
Perhaps I should have kept it all to myself or handed it over to the co-worker on a platter? Maybe there was another woman in his life, and accounted for all those business trips out of town. But it was just as likely he was so immersed in his work that he could not see past his elbow. Those guys he was talking to at the party all worked with him, his best buddies. I was alone. My so-called friends talked a good game, but where did their sympathies really lie? All they cared about: who did my hair and where did I get that dress? There was no way I could tell them my real troubles. I wanted love, yes, that was a given. But a girl had to be practical. Above all, I did not want to end up a single mother and poor. Not for me a life shunting in and out of McDonald’s and eating food off a conveyer belt. Nor would I go after another man. Knowing that if my husband had a whiff of me gallivanting around, he’d cut my lifeline so to speak, and end this debate, but I also realized there were few other options out there. Maybe but I could get everything I wanted, house, children, and hubby might again be persuaded to be the lover of my dreams. I resolved to tough it out. Driving as carefully as I could muster, my eagle eye checking for obstructions and errant drivers, I thought this thing over carefully. The right course of action seemed plain as the nose on my face: I had to right things with David. But most of all, I needed to convince him that he and I were in this together, and be as alert as possible while driving, which necessitated staying off the pot and booze, like the lives of millions of people depended on my behavior. I had to show him I could be a careful driver. And pledged to myself that I would obey every traffic law and observe all guidance, and never back up or make a roundabout turn without checking everywhere for hydrants. I owed my sons that much. I tightened my hands on the wheel at the specter of ending up with nothing, no husband, no money, no prospects. Eyes straight ahead, I drove past the blocks of decrepit housing and failing businesses ringing the outskirts of San Francisco like a vice, congratulating myself on my good sense in the matter of love. Good that I had not acted on that co-worker’s suggestive comments. If I was careful, no one would raise the ugly stink of my past fender benders. And the lovers I had in the past would simply be a dream, a memory. The possibility that I would continually bash up the car made me breathe quickly. I felt like I was running a marathon. Why both could get what we wanted out of life? The problem was in the details. Getting down to it, playing a humble subservient role to hubby was not something I longed to do, but I could see no other way.
Smack in the middle of my ravings, I realized I had to go back to the party. I had been gone at least half an hour, maybe more. If I went back now, I was certain my husband would never know I had left in the first place. If he did question me, I had a ready answer. I’d say I started my period. And then, of course, I got lost trying to find a store. I hit the accelerator speeding past the tattoo parlors, check-loan agencies, motorcycle sales lots, and endless rows of seedy bars. The public signs along the highways had reflective coatings to discourage gang tags, a godsend for folks like me. Taking the overpass, I headed south, back to the party. This was no time to fuck things up. My husband was becoming a megastar. Not only was he handling sales for a major tech firm, he was branching out in real estate. He said it was too easy to make a killing in housing, and he was a natural. For the first time in his life, he had a vision larger than his own small needs, benefiting the public as well as his own coffers. He never told me the particulars of his plan to create a housing development with walking trails and a park near Salinas. For some reason I could not fathom, I started to cry, castigating myself for not applying myself harder and being a better helpmate. What had I done? Had I destroyed everything with my bad attitude? I hoped he would come around, and see that he could have it no better with anyone else. I was even willing to forgo sex and accept a weak facsimile in return for the security he offered. Having lovers might have seemed the perfect arrangement, but David was not a child, I did not have to spell it out for myself here, did I?
It would have been a blunder to start something with someone on my team; inevitable that I would run afoul of my husband. I realized early on that I could not keep parts of my life neatly filed away in different compartments, too much always seeped in. I knew my weakness when it came to sex; I was the kind who would spill all. Way back when, if I had been listening to my cerebral cortex, my more advanced analytical function would have realized how harebrained my scheme to find lovers to make up for the deficit at home. I was glad I never went through with it, never started playing around, although I had plenty of opportunity. It seemed wrong somehow, though, that I could not as a married woman collect lovers like some people collect cars. David would guess immediately if I did. He demonstrated an uncanny ability to read my face, and I always seemed to reveal too much. Something always muddied the picture, a thought, a word, a smirk. I would never mean for it to get very far, but likely somewhere along the line I would tip my hand. Maybe I already had? I could not be sure. I stopped at a stoplight a block away from the waterfront. But then I heard the sound of metal hitting metal, shattering my sangfroid and my blood turning to ice. The thought of how this would affect my sons made my heart stop. That sharp pain in my chest, was I having a heart attack? I clutched my chest and saw the faces of my children as I wept. Through the wet netting of my eyelashes, I looked at David’s beamer up close, and saw nothing marred its smoky gray surface, the paint was pristine, everything like new Was I going crazy? And then I saw that few cars ahead of me I saw the pileup: a fancy looking Porsche reeling from its encounter with a nondescript Honda, having smashed its rear end.
Back at the party, I slipped in unnoticed and went to get a drink and look for my husband. I could not find him anywhere. A stranger started talking to me and drew closer, his eyes roving my body. I could not understand what he said. On the other side of the room, I spotted my husband talking into the ear of a good friend, or at least I thought of her as a good friend. David peering down her bodice partially exposed. The female friend’s hair was all over the place, a rats’ nest, and her smudged eye makeup making her look like a raccoon. Leading me to wonder what he had been doing with this woman? David saw me and smiled his naughty smile. I smiled back and decided I would try and get it out of my friend later; I did not want him to think me jealous. Better to act like it was nothing.
After soccer practice the next day, my boys held a contest to see which one could slide the fastest through wet grass buoyed by limitless energy, which they had to act out again in the station wagon, pushing each other along the long bucket seat in back. I pleaded with them to stop so we could leave. They upped the ante, started dive bombing from the window and then sliding upside down against the ceiling, staring at me with wild eyes. After a time they wound down and plopped down, seemingly exhausted. I started the engine and before taking off, wringing my hands, I checked the mirror. The two tow-heads were at it again, smashing each other, snapping their seat belts, rocking the car with raucous laughter, taking turns describing in gory detail the soccer they played, with big boasts of how they kneed and elbowed their way to the goal several times without getting killed. Leading me to grind my teeth. Ever since I forgot their water bottles and cleats at one of the soccer practices, I’d been a mess. I recalled having to hustle back home to pick up the missing items, feeling rushed and stupid, wondering if I was exhibiting early Alzheimer’s. How could I have forgotten the most essential items needed to play the game other than the boys themselves? My worries did not at the time appear groundless: my memory loss had started earlier that day at breakfast when I forgot why I opened the refrigerator. I closed it again and went back to the table. The more vocal of the twins wondered why I neglected to bring back the milk like I said I would. So when I went back home for the gear, I stood motionless by the car for several precious minutes, lingering, trying to sort out my muddled brain. During the drive back to the soccer field I found it impossible to calm down and relax, worried that I had forgotten something else as yet undefined.
I was still breathing hard when we arrived at the soccer field. Talking with other mothers, I gradually quieted. But my calm did not last long. By the time the game was over, my good cheer quickly turned into a big wince at the lovely way my sons fought, tooth bared and claw sharpened, tussling over some rap song. It took all my persuasive powers to break them up. I had too much on my mind to care about their silly fights. The minute they got home, they ran screaming by with a speed that made me wonder aloud if they were being chased by packs of vicious dogs. I recalled David saying earlier that he had picked up some new video game, which probably accounted for their excitement. Must be radar imbedded in children’s brains that detects the presence of toys, I thought with a smile. With David home, they ran around nonstop, stirring the heat even more and getting on everyone’s nerves. Out of desperation, I directed them toward the family room, where they could comfortably play their gaming machines on the couch. The two boys bounced off each other like a couple of ping pong balls, caroming around the room as if they indeed had turned physically around and their insides were loaded full of springs. The differences between them were slight, a matter of Seth being more outgoing, always first with a comment, usually cynical; Micah came off generally more thoughtful, the peacemaker. Micah generally looked to his brother for leadership, which Seth both resented and craved, thus creating a lot of friction between the two, adding to the usual jostling that occurs between brothers.
David said something I could not hear, too preoccupied with the shenanigans of our boys to pay much mind to anything else, calling each other ‘stinky’ and challenging each other’s gaming skills. But David did not seem to mind, it was obvious the way he hugged and kissed them that he loved them a lot, and fell on the couch next to them and just sat there, staring at them like a zombie. I sat next to him, and gave him a hug, which he returned. It was an awfully crowded couch, but I loved that we were sitting together and having a good time. I found that my love bubbled up despite—or maybe because of—all that displaced energy. We both watched our boys with lovesick eyes.
Micah reminded me that their birthday was coming up in a couple weeks. At the mention, the other boy’s head jerked up, as if an invisible cord had been yanked.
“I want a new game,” Seth shouted.
“Me, too,” Micah seconded.
“Turn down that machine.” I grumbled with the weariness of the long-suffering. “You’re breaking my eardrums.”
“If he gets a game, so do I,” Micah said, his voice piercing.
“Of course,” I said with the patience of Job.
“Good,” Micah shouted before diving back to his hand-held entertainment center.
“How do we know you’re not just saying that?” Seth always bored down to the essence of the matter.
“We always follow through on our promises,” I said.
“No, you don’t.”
They kept on like that until I threatened to take their machines away. Most of the time, they listened when they sensed I was absolutely at my wits’ end, and this time was no exception. Seth did not say another word, glowering. Even Micah kept his mouth shut. They got busy again manipulating the technological gizmos that filled their days. With his earphones on, Micah had turned into a shadow of himself, seemingly in another world, staring aimlessly with a dreamy expression while the other merry prankster worked his handheld game machine full throttle, his eyes shooting sparks, drilling holes into the screen. An avalanche could descend and they would not notice.
Joanna Kadish’s short fiction has been published by Potato Soup Journal, Literary Orphans, Cultured Vultures, Quail Bell Magazine, Citron Review, Urban Arts Magazine, and Crack the Spine. She was a finalist in the Black Coffee & Vinyl Presents: Ice Cultures project, summer of 2018, Cutthroat 2016 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Contest, and received honorable mention in GlimmerTrain’s Emerging Writers Contest for 2015 and 2016.