FICTION: Incompatible Ideas

Ben and Miriam were sitting on the stoop of the playhouse in the backyard of what had been, for twenty-two years, their house—Ben still thought of it as their house, instead of merely his. As a child Edith used to carry a laundry basket packed with her stuffed animals and Pepperidge Farm cookies to the playhouse, where she’d conduct vigorous, complicated tea parties. Sitting here, Ben and Miriam were far enough away from the baby shower to have some privacy, close enough to watch all the young people milling around the deck. Strung to the potted Meyer lemon tree was a bunch of blue and pink balloons. “Mom, must you be so gender normative?” Edith had said, but allowed the balloons to be tied there nonetheless. Miriam had retorted, “What, do you want rainbow?”

“‘Arlo?’” said Ben now. “Are they serious? It sounds like the name for a dog. Or a Martian.”

Miriam laughed. “Keep that opinion to yourself. It’s not your child.”

“My grandchild!”

“Exactly: not your child. Just cross your fingers and hope it’s a girl. I think ‘Adelaide’ is very pretty. I didn’t much care for that other potential boy name, though. ‘Django’: that would be a pain in the ass to have to spell for one’s entire life. Who is Django, anyway?”

“Some musician, I think?”

“Well, I prefer ‘Arlo’ to that one, given the spelling issues. But that’s between you and me. Seriously, Ben, keep your opinions to yourself. Remember how awful your mother was when we told her we wanted to name our baby Edith? We were at that waterfront restaurant that serves the great lobster rolls with the waffle-cut chips. I remember she made a sour-lemon face and said, ‘Edith: that sounds like a witch.’”

Ben laughed and shook his head. “My mother never had much of a filter.”

“There are certainly easier mothers-in-law out there, I’ll grant you! I have to say Lester’s mother is a peach. She’s always emailing me recipes for cobblers. Your mother never much liked me, and she never bothered to hide it.”

“Yep,” said Ben.

His normal impulse would be to say something reassuring, but he’d never been able to pull that off with Miriam. Miriam had no patience for white lies. “As if calling them ‘white’ makes them anything other than deceit!” When he was with her, the rules of social politesse fell away. Miriam was bracing air—chilly, invigorating. The real reason Ben had always suspected that his mother hadn’t liked Miriam, had eyed her skeptically for years, had less to do with Miriam’s affect (Miriam was always perfectly polite, even uncharacteristically nervous, around his mother), and more to do with the way she rubbed off on him. How in her company Ben dispensed with social lies like some discarded coat. He laughed, suddenly, remembering the shocked way his mother had looked at him when he pronounced her boeuf en daube “overcooked.”

Miriam smiled, as if she could hear his train of thought. That was the other thing that always felt exceptional about her: the way she could look right through him, into that folded up, interior self. Of course, her acuity had its downside, but it was why he still missed her every day.

“Lillian was difficult,” Miriam said, with an emphatic nod—these nods were a kind of tic with her, a pat she would place at the end of sentences. “But honestly, Ben, I always liked her. I was really sad when she died last year.”

“I know. I appreciated your being at the service. And coming,” he paused. He had been about to say, “coming alone,” but caught himself.

Miriam raised her eyebrows, to indicate that the pause was noted, then let it pass. “I went to visit her, did I tell you that? When she was sick but not sick-sick. Still able to fuss over making tea. She gave me a hard time, I have to say! Looked me straight in the eye—she actually removed her glasses to give me the full force of that Lillian Wetherby penetrating glare—and said, ‘What are you thinking, leaving Ben for some fellow? Are you a grown woman, or a damn teenager?’”

“Oh Lord. I’m sorry, Miriam.”

“No, it’s good she said it. It cleared the air. I laughed, actually. I said, ‘Lillian, you didn’t want me to marry Ben, and now you don’t want me to divorce him.’ And she laughed too and quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald. Something about how the sign of a first-rate mind is being able to hold incompatible ideas at once in one’s head and not go insane. So I said, ‘Well, cheers to having a first-rate mind,’ and then we had a nice visit together. I thought about that conversation, when you called to say she died.”

It was very Miriam, Ben thought, to say ‘died’ in her blunt, declarative way, to have no patience for ‘passed away.’

“Well, if it’s any solace, she gave me a hard time too about us splitting up,” Ben said. “I was fully expecting, I’ll confess, some maternal sympathy. What I got instead was Mom wagging her head at me very censoriously and saying, ‘You’ll regret this for the rest of your life, letting her go.’ As if it were my decision! I felt pretty damn resentful, to be honest.”

“Classic Lillian, to make us both feel in the wrong,” said Miriam.

Ben scanned for their daughter, but she wasn’t on the deck. Most likely Edith was in the kitchen, mixing the special cocktail she’d come up with for the shower: “bun in the oven,” she called it. No doubt sneaking sips of it herself. When Annika had gotten pregnant, after several insemination attempts, Edith had sworn off drinking for the duration in solidarity. But Ben suspected that out of Annika’s sight, Edith hopped off the wagon. There were ways his daughter sharply reminded Ben of himself.

“Annika looks good,” said Miriam, and Ben glanced at his daughter-in-law. She was wearing a green dress with a calla lily print; her hands were folded over her pregnant belly. Ben had never found Annika particularly attractive, with her thousands of freckles and red hair so voluminous and fluffy it reminded him of cotton candy. Whereas William, his former son-in-law, had been a nice looking man. Nerdy and bespectacled, but handsome. Edith’s prom date had a similar Clark Kent-ish look. At one point, Ben had felt fairly certain about his daughter’s physical type, a thought which now amused him. But he had to agree with Miriam: Annika was one of those women beautified by pregnancy. Whereas Miriam had been the opposite: pregnancy had made her dour and aggrieved, her feet so swollen they looked like puffy loaves of bread.

“I wonder if my mother had the more sensible approach,” said Ben. “If a parent should give their child a hard time about getting a divorce, rather than being supportive or neutral. Not be all ‘Whatever makes you happy.’ Just three years ago Edith was getting married to William right here. And after a mere twelve months, she’s done with him, and has taken up with Annika. I don’t know about you, but I never gave her any grief about it. The most I said was, ‘Are you sure, sweetheart?’ To which she said, ‘Of course I’m sure Dad!’ That was the end of our discussion, if you can even call it a discussion. But of course young people in love are sure! That’s what’s intoxicating about being in love, that’s the essence of the condition: false certainty. I wonder if we made it too easy for her.”

He remembered how he used to spy on Edith’s playhouse tea parties, peering through one of the small, dusty windows. Watching her unload dolls, stuffed toys, plastic plates from a laundry basket, he’d felt a blend of delight and concern. Wasn’t Edith too old to spend afternoons talking to toys?

“Well, it’s like the baby names again, right?” Miriam said. “It’s not our place to weigh in. Besides, it would be pretty damn hypocritical.”

“True that,” said Ben.

“Listen to you! Been re-watching The Wire?”

“One can never see The Wire often enough.”

“True that,” said Miriam, and Ben laughed. “Though you know, I tried to get Lester to watch it, and he couldn’t get into it. He said the cast was too big. He couldn’t keep track of who was who. And the characters all had funny names.” She and Ben exchanged a glance. “Don’t give me that look! It doesn’t mean he’s stupid. Or racist.”

“I said nothing of the kind,” said Ben.

“No, you only looked it.”

“William seems like he’s doing well, anyway,” said Ben, after a minute. “I got an email from him last week. He’s dating some doctor. Amy, I think is her name. The man must have a thing for doctors.”

“You know Edith and Annika invited him? He couldn’t come, which is probably for the best—he has some work thing—but he sent a present.” Miriam gestured towards the fold out table on the deck, stacked with presents wrapped in paper that, Ben noted, seemed every shade but blue and pink.

“I guess this is the trend: civilized divorces,” said Ben.

“A good trend! Though speaking of divorces…” Miriam splayed her fingers and looked at her hands. Her hands were one of the first things he’d noticed about Miriam, back in Soviet Former Policy forty years ago, taking rapid notes with her fat blue pen. They were large—strangely large for a petite woman, as if someone else’s hands had been grafted onto her wrists. But for all that, beautiful: she had long, pianist fingers. He was still unused to seeing one of those fingers unadorned, though there was a pale stripe of skin where her wedding ring had been.

“Yes?” Ben said at last.

“Well, don’t you think it’s time we made it official? I mean, it’s been three years.”

“For what purpose? You have your life; I don’t interfere with it. Why pay lawyers a bunch of money to settle something we’ve already settled? Oh, don’t tell me.” He looked at her. “You’re not thinking of marrying Lester?”

Miriam continued to study her hands.

“Seriously, Miriam, what’s the point? You’re fifty-seven. Can’t you just peaceably live in sin?”

“It’s about his kids,” said Miriam, finally. “The son is fine, but his daughter—Jesus Christ, Ben, Lisa is a piece of work. I think she has some kind of personality disorder. She’s fucking erratic. Anyway, Lester is worried about whether he’ll be able to take care of me in his will, if we don’t make things official.”

“That seems like a very,” Ben hesitated, “pragmatic reason to get married.” He’d been about to say “lame reason.” “Lame” was a word that Edith as a teenager had tossed around constantly—cardigans were lame, pot roast was lame—and it had insidiously infected Ben’s speech. Though a few years later, Edith, returned from college over winter break, had been aghast when Ben pronounced the neighbor’s plastic Santa Claus “lame.” “Dad! That’s so able-ist!” she’d said. As if it wasn’t her own fault the adjective had leeched into his vocabulary.

“And what’s wrong with pragmatic? Aren’t most reasons to get married pragmatic? To have children together? For taxes, for health insurance?” Miriam said. “Lester worries that Lisa will not want me to have a dime, will evict me from my house. It’s my home, Ben.”

‘Home,’ Ben thought. A prickly, insinuating word. On the phone two months ago, Edith had said to him that she wanted the baby shower to be ‘at home,’ and then assured him, “But don’t worry, Dad, you’re only hosting! Mom has promised to do all the real work.” He’d thought at the time it was funny that his thirty-two year old daughter, who had not lived under this roof in fourteen years, and had had two spouses since, still called his house ‘home.’ It had both pleased and worried him, brought back memories of those tea parties he used to spy on. Was there something stunted about Edith?

Yet irrationally it pissed him off to hear Miriam describe this other house, thirteen miles away, with a garishly yellow garage door, ‘home.’

“Anyway,” Miriam said, after an elongated pause that seemed to stretch to the young people gathered on the porch, so more than one of them turned their heads to look at him and Miriam sitting on the stoop, “Something to consider. Nothing that we need to deal with overnight. I just wanted to broach the topic.”

Ben nodded. “Noted.” He watched the young people. Annika returned his stare, and it seemed to Ben there was something alarmed about her face, though that was probably just an impression created by his daughter-in-law’s strangely bulging eyes. He’d often wondered if Annika had a thyroid condition.

Miriam followed his gaze. “You know, Edith says one of the best things about now being a lesbian is her wife can be the pregnant one. She’s not wrong! I certainly found it a miserable experience.”

“I recall,” said Ben. The memory made him smile: Miriam stretched out on the couch, his old rugby shirt lifted up over her belly—she’d preferred old shirts of Ben’s to maternity wear—groaning about her bread loaf feet. Her legs across his lap, while he’d stroked something called body butter over her swollen belly. Supposed to reduce stretch marks, it had smelled like coconut. He remembered Miriam complaining, and his own obverse feeling of utter relaxation. Rubbing lotion on that strange purple zipper line arrowing from Miriam’s belly button (popped out, like the rubber tail of one of the balloons) to her crotch.

“Why couldn’t you have been gay?” he said, suddenly. “Did you hear that Betty Sarlo left Tim and is now shacking up with some woman? That seems more the trend for middle-aged women, speaking of trends.”

Miriam snorted. “Would you prefer it if I were?”

“Honestly, I think it would be easier.” But was that even true? Perhaps it would feel like a more sweeping repudiation.

Miriam gave him a searching look, and then touched his left knee, the knee next to her own. It was not a seductive touch: it was like being tapped by a fan.

She said, “I’ve thought in the past that it would be easier to be gay. That women are kinder, more rational. But alas! What can I do? I’m straight. It’s the bane of my life.”

“Bane of your life, huh?” Miriam had that effect on him, still; in spite of his best effort to cling to some resentment, some sense of being wronged, she could always make him smile.

“Bane of my life,” she repeated, this time more tenderly. Once again, she tapped his knee. “Up you get, Boots. It’s time to open presents.”

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other journals. Her story "Madlib" was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story "Surfaces" was selected for Wigleaf's Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

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