Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
On a freakishly warm Saturday last November, a day when children pulled out their sand pails and last summer’s shorts, and overdressed parents stripped off layer after layer of their own clothes, revealing pale, hairy bodies meant to be concealed at this time of year, a day on which my wife Serena was pretending yet again that our neighbor’s toddler Casey was her own daughter, I found a camera at the playground. Someone had obviously put it down to chase after a child and forgotten it. I held the sleek, brushed chrome form in my palm. Serena was speaking eagerly with another mom, both of them watching Casey and the woman’s little boy on the bouncy horses. Serena had her concerned face on, nodding while leaning forward to grasp Casey’s shoulder when she began sliding off, and giving her an encouraging, distracted smile, just like a real mom. I examined the camera openly, and then placed it alongside my leg, not hiding it exactly, just obscuring it somewhat, my fingers protectively laced through its strap.
Around me the playground rang with cries of adulation:Great, honey! and Good job. Serena caught my eye and gestured at me to come over. I could imagine the frothy excitement she would have fabricated over her new friend and whatever advice the other mother had given her: rice milk better than soy, or bananas too binding for her son’s stomach, or freezing apple slices to help with the teething. Magazines on child rearing already populated the table by our bed, one or two splayed open recently to articles on infertility. I knew Serena had left them for my perusal and I knew she thought I hadn’t noticed. I yawned broadly and blinked a couple of times, then picked up my newspaper.
Wails erupted from the sandpit. “Did that bad boy hurt you?” a woman asked her weeping child as another mother propelled a screaming toddler onto a bench. “It’s okay to be angry,” the second one said, “but it’s not okay to throw sand. If you’re angry, use your words.”
“Hi, honey, I waved to you but I guess you didn’t notice.” Serena sat down beside me, Casey in tow. Casey’s pink sweatpants drooped dangerously and she stank. Serena lifted Casey onto her lap, bent her face down to play nosey, then pulled back and began singing patty-cake.
“Want Mumma,” Casey muttered, one wet thumb in her mouth.
“Shh.” Serena jiggled her more forcefully. Distracted, Casey sucked her thumb, then reached for my collar with her other hand, dragging herself halfway over to me. I patted her gingerly. “You’ll make such a good dad,” Serena said and smiled at me. I looked at her soft face, at her unnaturally light blue eyes and her large coarse nose. Serena’s face was not pretty and yet she was often beautiful, a fact I had been puzzling over for eight years. I pulled the camera closer to my leg, out of the way of Casey’s thrashing feet.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Serena said, jabbing me. “Isn’t it great that there’s a playground so close to our house? “Then, as if remembering she was supposed to be Casey’s mother, and this was supposed to be old hat, she said, loudly, “I could stay here all day, it’s so beautiful, but we’ve got to get this kidlet home for a nap.”
“And a new diaper,” I said. “Maybe her mother will do it.”
“Oh, I’ll do it, it’ll take a sec.” Serena started burrowing through the diaper bag our neighbor had packed. “Here, you hold Casey,” she said, passing her to me.
I tried to contain the squirming little girl on my lap. Serena stood up and pulled out a diaper, wipes, and a plastic changing pad. Casey started crying when she saw all the paraphernalia and I gripped her tighter, then shoved her away from me when I felt the seepage through my pants. “Oh God,” I said.
Serena brandished a clean pair of midget overalls. “It’ll just take a second,” she said. “Come on, Casey-case, I know you hate this. Sean,” she added, her voice laced with frustration, “can you throw away this wipe?” I wanted to get up and walk away, abandon her to this sorry situation. Instead I played the good dad, took the wipe and tossed it into the trash can.
“God, my husband never comes to the playground, you’re so lucky,” said the mother Serena had been chatting with, coming near.
“Oh, Sean hardly ever does either,” Serena said, smearing Casey’s butt with Balmex. “Want Mumma!” the outraged toddler shrieked. “Hush,” Serena told her.
“My son hates being changed. HATES it.” The woman was carrying her kid on her hip and he struggled to be free. She had an attractive, careworn face and blond hair, lighter than Serena’s, to her shoulder blades. I imagined her dumping her child off at home and meeting me in a bar somewhere and how she would confess that she couldn’t stand her son and it had all been a big mistake.
“Can’t you just hose them off?” I asked. “Keep them in a rubber room?”
The woman laughed. “My husband keeps saying, you mean we can’t return him?”
Serena chortled, too loudly, and turned her attention to diapering the wailing Casey. Grudgingly I admired her determination and in a few moments the change was complete. Casey bolted into her stroller and was placated with a bottle.
My fingers traced the camera’s smooth lines.
“What’s that?” Serena asked.
“A camera,” I said.
“Where did you find it?”
“But does it belong to someone? It must belong to someone. Let me see it.”
Reluctantly I held it out. “That’s a nice camera,” the woman said.
“Too bad it’s not ours,” Serena said.
“Do you want me to keep it? I’m here all day,” the woman said, reaching for the camera. Her son reached as well and she pushed his hand out of the way.
“I think the owner left,” I said. “It’s been here awhile.”
“Did anyone lose a camera?” Serena called out to the group at the sandpit. A few heads shook.
“You know, anybody could claim it,” said the woman, tucking a lock of champagne-colored hair behind her ear. “They could just say it was theirs.”
“I know,” I said, taking the camera from her. “I thought of that. That’s why I’m going to hold onto it.”
“You mean, take it home?” Serena asked, forehead furrowed.
“Well, what if the people are on their way home and they remember and they come back and it’s gone? I think we should at least drop it off at the hot dog stand.”
“Are you serious? That is so naïve; that’s like giving it to the guy who works there. I might as well just take it to him and say, Here bro, here’s your lucky day.” Serena tried to shush me but the woman was laughing. “Yeah,” I said, riding the joke, “that’s real smart.”
“Sean,” Serena said in a plaintive voice. “You’ll wake the baby.” Casey had fallen asleep, the rubber nipple still attached to her mouth by a strand of drool.
“What we’ll do is take it home and leave a note,” I said.
“Yeah, if someone calls you could ask them to tell you the make and describe it for you,” the woman said.
“Exactly,” I said. We exchanged eye contact and she blushed slightly.
“Well, I don’t have any paper,” Serena said. “And how are you going to stick it up? Sean? I really don’t think you should.”
But I was already walking over to the notice board. “At least this way,” I heard the woman say to my wife, “it’ll go home with someone honest.”
Serena and I didn’t speak on the way home. We probably looked like any other young couple in our neighborhood, the camera dangling from my wrist, our kid resting in her stroller, returning on a summer’s day from the park. Except that it was November and about 80 degrees and our world was going to hell in a diaper bag.
“That was a fun outing,” I said, when we reached our gate. We owned the upper floor of a three-story brownstone; Casey’s parents, Barbara and Dave, lived downstairs. Serena looked at me with happy surprise before she realized I was being sarcastic.
“It was fun,” she said mildly. She fussed about Casey, adjusting the overalls so the copper button didn’t poke into the kid’s face. “That woman in the park was nice,” she offered, not looking at me. “Her little boy was so cute.”
“You think all kids are cute.”
“They are. And ours is going to be the cutest.”
“If we have one.”
“Oh, Sean.” In our five years of marriage—and probably the three before that—I must have heard Serena invoke my name at least once a day, in exactly that pained tone. It might have been effective at some point but now the thought of us in our old age, her pestering me, me always outraging her in some new way, made me panicky.
“Why can’t you just be hopeful?” Serena asked. “Why can’t you just say, I hope so. Would that be too hard?”
Barbara must have seen us through her window because she unlatched the metal grate under the stoop and came out into the yard. “Are you even taking your vitamins?” Serena hissed at me. Vitamin E for sperm density or some such crap. I wasn’t but I didn’t tell her that. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
“Is that actually Sean?” Barbara asked, wiping her hands on her dress.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Well nice to see you, stranger. How’d it go in the park?”
“Great,” Serena gushed. “We brought home your little punkin’, safe and sound.”
“I really appreciate it,” Barbara said. “Dave took Thornton to soccer and I had”—she looked at her watch—“amazing, an hour and a half to myself.”
“What’d you do, bake bread?” I asked.
“As a matter of fact, I did.” Barbara gave me an appraising look—God, was I nuts, or was there something seductive about it? “You know me too well.” Her blue dress flounced over her pregnant belly as she laughed.
“I wish I could do that,” Serena sighed. “Bake bread.”
“Oh, it’s easy, I’ll show you sometime.” Barbara was talking to Serena but looking at me.
“Has neither of you heard the expression ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread’?” I asked. “Is the concept of bakery bread a foreign one?”
“Sean thinks he’s witty,” Serena said, pushing Casey’s stroller over toward Barbara and squatting to get something from the bag.
“He hasn’t tried my bread yet,” Barbara said. “So Casey was okay, not too much trouble?”
“She was a sweetheart.” Serena glanced at me, to ensure my silence about her charade at the playground, I imagined. “Sean helped change her diaper.”
“What are you doing this afternoon?” Serena asked.
“Well, the midwife is coming over to give me a checkup.”
“Barbara’s having a home birth,” Serena told me. “Her third.”
I had a flash image of a supine Barbara pulling the placenta out of herself. “Super,” I said.
“Do you guys want to come over later? Hang out?” Barbara asked.
“Sure,” Serena said. “If Sean wants to, I mean.”
“You go, I’ve got some reading to do.” I had the rest of the paper to read. Also, a new microbrewery had opened down the street and I wanted to sample the pale ales and Brooklyn lager. “I might check out that brew pub.”
“Sean has a professional interest in beer,” Serena told Barbara. “He’s looking into distribution.”
“Really?” Barbara asked. “Well, don’t give up your day job just yet.”
“I won’t,” I said. My “day job” was writing an in-house newsletter for a hair care products company. Not the most exalted work, okay, but I could do it at home, and supposedly pursue my real interests, though those had gotten a little hazy with time. I thought about telling Barbara that for her information, there was a revolution in beer going on. “A true renaissance,” I might intone. Instead I envisioned Serena hanging out with Barbara and Dave and was overcome by stupor. Afternoon would turn into evening and the three of them, plus whatever other neighbors dropped by, would order dinner and eat out back in the garden. “Can you believe how warm it is?” they would repeat periodically, as if it had just occurred to them.
“See you,” I said as I mounted the steps to our apartment.
“I’ll be up in a bit,” Serena called to me. I waved but didn’t look down.
Our “starter” apartment was the top floor of what had been a relatively nice house in the early 1900s. Ninety odd years later it was old and dingy, the details blunted by a thick crust of paint, and by such depressing modernizations as fake wood paneling, cheap Formica and thin peel-back linoleum flooring. Because we had no money, because we had cobbled together the down payment on this “fixer upper” from every possible source—including a grandparent’s ex-second husband—we had been unable, even though we’d been here a year, to fix it up. Cans of paint stood in the hallway, where I’d set them down the day I’d bought them. A pair of shutters were still stripped of paint only halfway—I’d stopped when I realized what a job it was, and my fingers ached from the lead. Serena kept nagging at me to finish. One of the problems with Serena being around so many lawyers—she was a paralegal—was that her memory for promises I’d made was becoming acutely sharp. She took seriously things I said simply to get her off my back. Things like, Yeah, sure, I’ll build bookcases for the living room, or regrout the bathroom, or Of course I want kids.
I could hear creaking downstairs, chairs scraping, footsteps. Dave and Thornton home probably. Serena and I had picked this area of Brooklyn because of the good public school (important for resale), the almost affordable housing, and because of the neighborhood’s reputation as a community. I wished when people told you about the neighborhood, along with parking and public school and crime info, they warned you about your neighbors. About our neighbors. Barbara ran a Waldorf playgroup in their dining room and Dave was a social worker for an inner city clinic. In our neighborhood of liberal underachievers, they were the ideal. Next to them, Serena was a corporate drone and I a dilettante. But, as I sensed all too well, there was always the chance to redeem myself. If I started writing a newsletter for Greenpeace, say, or Zero Population Growth, and became the primary caretaker of our child, well, that would be a different story. Instead I wrote about shampoo.
Neither Serena nor I, typical refugees from the city not yet ready to move to the suburbs, had anticipated that we would respond so differently to the situation. To me, being neighborly meant five-minute chats on the front stoop, comments on the weather, exchanges of misdirected mail. Serena, who was raised in a wholesome suburb of Boston, slipped into the situation like a fish going home to spawn, like a curl to relaxer, like a … whatever. Lately Serena visited Barbara and Dave nightly on her way home from work and often bemoaned the fact that I didn’t want to hang out with them, and no, I did not, the three of them (Dave too!) talking about kids and kid stuff for hours. Once, when Serena was just getting to know them, and hadn’t yet bought into their worldview, she told me that Barbara kept a whole separate set of children’s books for Casey. She was raising her to be an ultrafeminist and had editorialized all of these books: The Runaway Bunny was a girl, as was the baby bird in Are You My Mother? and Babar’s mother didn’t die after all, but was just very sick; Curious George never left Africa. (All right, I made that one up.)
Some days when I thought about Dave and Barbara right there below me exuding good faithmanship and positive vibes in their plastic-free, organic household, I wanted to smoke crack cocaine. Though I tried, it was impossible not to like Dave and Barbara. They really were kind, good people, willing to cat-sit (if we had one) or pick up mail or receive packages, willing to run upstairs and check the gas when we thought we’d left it on or lend us their car when ours was on the blink. And despite the fact that they were so encumbered, so domestically weighted what with two kids and a third on the way, they usually did us the favors. Dave always shoveled the sidewalk when it snowed and put out the garbage, even though half of it was ours. I’d taken to coming home late on Thursdays—hitting the bars, doing “research”—because I couldn’t stand the noise of the garbage cans scraping along the bluestones and Serena’s reproachful gaze that yet again Dave had got to it first.
Poor Serena. I knew she thought she’d married the wrong guy (where was Dave when she was looking?) and I knew, because it was her way, she was putting the best face on it. She still believed in the myth of ourselves. She still believed in my potential, and in her ability, over time, to make me into what she desired. I remembered how when we first met she used to trace cartoons and then pretend that she could draw freehand; she had the idea that I wanted an artsy girl. The weird thing was that even when I caught her in the act of tracing, she denied it. I thought of her sometimes beautiful, piggy face and icy blue eyes, of the dangly earrings she wore that stretched the holes in her ears, and I felt not love, not dislike even, but something in between, some irritating, affectionate disharmony that grated like sandpaper and stuck like honey.
The brew pub was new but made to look old with wood paneling and green tinted lamps. Today it was dark and hot but the game was on and the place had an appealing greasy smell. I pulled up a stool at the bar, ordered a lager, and set the camera on the counter before me. It had to be worth 175, maybe 200. I stroked the camera’s face, opened and shut the lens cap. When I turned it on, it made an agreeable whirring sound as the lens jutted out, ready to shoot. None of that complicated stuff about f-stops and ASA settings and film speeds that my dad used to lecture me about when I was a kid.
Owning the camera gave me a boost. I’d left my number at the playground but somehow I knew nobody was going to call. This baby was mine. I wondered what was on the film inside. Maybe there would shots of a naked woman captured in a whole array of kinky acts. I thought about how I would roam the neighborhood looking for her, and how one day I would spot her and she would know just by looking at me that I was something special.
The beer, when it came, was yeasty-smelling, amber, and sweating. I began to think about myself, Mr. Big, kingpin of a beer distribution company, leaning against the bar of my own brew pub in a leather jacket. I had the flair for it, right? I could distinguish the different flavors of beer within a few sips, I could learn the lingo, I’d be good at greeting customers. Serena would manage the books, she’d already told me that. It was the rest of the stuff that didn’t appeal to me. In fact none of it really appealed to me. I just liked to drink beer. I wondered how much longer I could play out the pretense. Serena should be used to my schemes by now. But somehow she always believed me. I hadn’t told her my latest idea, something I swear to God I was sure would happen should I live to see the day: pubic hair care products. A whole untapped market for glossy, sleeker hair. Special shampoos and conditioners, toners and detanglers—the possibilities were limitless. I’d already thought of a tag line: Take the stigma away. Or Doesn’t your most intimate hair deserve the best? I might even broach the concept to my boss.
I was finishing my second beer and intending to hunker down for the afternoon when I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard a woman say, “Hello, stranger.” I thought for one split second that the blond from the park had followed me here and my skin prickled. Then I realized it was Serena. This was an old joke, from when we’d been dating about a year and would pretend in the corniest ways we’d just met. “Uh, do I know you?” I’d say in a dopey voice. Or she’d ask, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”
“This seat taken?” she asked as she sat down next to me.
“What a surprise,” I said. I thought maybe she’d come after me because the last time she’d had dinner with our neighbors, she’d returned home and found me pretty drunk and watching a porno movie, crumpled tissues littered on the floor around me.
She shrugged. “I missed you.”
“Something to drink?” the bartender asked.
“Diet ginger ale, please.” No alcohol, no caffeine, no sugar. What did she live for?
I ordered another beer.
Serena played with the paper from her straw, folding and unfolding it. She started to speak several times, then stopped. Finally she said, “Did I tell you two women are pregnant in my office?”
I shook my head. I didn’t ask which women, did I know them, or when were they due. I didn’t ask her to please shut up either. Instead I took a long swig of my beer. Then another.
“Sean, it’s a beautiful day. Don’t you want to go outside? We could go walk in the park. Or let’s go to the furniture store and look at new sofas.” Be a couple, she meant. Show others what a great couple we are.
I put my glass down. “Serena,” I began. I meant to tell her something. I meant to somehow draw her attention to, to articulate the frayed edges, the dissolving core of our marriage. She looked at me with those clear, hopeful, ice blue eyes.
“Sean.” Her chin lifted, full of resolve. I had disappointed her countless times, but if she was sad, she didn’t show it.
In college, where Serena and I met, I was studying philosophy, wanted to be fucking Hegel. Though not, obviously, in bed with him. Only there wasn’t much call for a career as a philosopher. Apply to graduate school, she had urged, but also to bank training programs, just in case. Only I didn’t get into the training program at J. P. Morgan either, or any of the other banks. After we graduated and she was hired by the law firm, I dicked around for a while—copy-shop clerk, bike messenger, temp, bus boy, parking attendant. Serena stood beside me all the while. Finally I landed a “real” job, at a record company, and we got married. When I complained about corporate life, she found the newsletter job for me. I knew she would stand behind me if I really wanted to attempt beer distribution, even God knows, if I tried to hawk “personal” hair care products. A more steadfast woman I’d never find, I told myself. Ball and chain, I told myself.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hay is for horses,” she said. And then she giggled. “On the other hand,” she said, leaning against my shoulder so that I might nuzzle her hair, “we could just go home.” Her glossy hair smelled of bananas (free sample, courtesy of my job) and I breathed in deeply. I also rubbed my fingers along her back, and then quickly, like a kid on a date at a movie, dug my hand as deep as I could in her pants.
I slapped some money on the counter and grabbed the camera. As we walked the block home, our hips bumped together. In the foyer, between sets of double doors, I pressed her against the wall, shoving my knee between her legs and pinning her wrists above her head. I suddenly couldn’t get enough of her. She closed her eyes as we kissed and her body went slack. I became aware of my tongue in her mouth, the blood pounding in my ears. Just as I began to find her passivity distracting, she wriggled one hand out of my grasp. We fumbled with the lock, each of us trying to turn the key I had set into it, and then I pushed her inside, onto the hallway floor. My unshaved chin roughed her soft, pale cheek and I tried to suck her nipples through her shirt. Through the thin wall came the wail of a child, Casey or that mama’s boy Thornton. “Shit,” I said.
“Come,” she said, reaching for me.
We stumbled, half undressed, upstairs to our bedroom where I made her, laughing and flushed with excitement she was trying to conceal, strip and lie naked and spread-eagled on the bed. She felt self-conscious, I could tell, but she was a good sport and she wanted me to make love to her so she could get pregnant. I reached for the lubricant.
“Oh Sean honey, not that one, it kills sperm,” she whispered. “I don’t need it anyway.” Wishful thinking but I let it go.
“Close your eyes,” I said and ran downstairs to dig the camera out of my jacket pocket. “Keep ’em closed,” I yelled as I barged back in and clicked, once, twice, three times. Each time the lens jutted and the camera whirred.
“Sean, what the … ?” Serena yanked the sheet over herself, then sat up and threw pillows at me. She had a mean throw from playing softball in college and when the pillows ran out, she started grabbing books and magazines from the night table and slinging them at me.
I ran around the bed, yelling, “Ow, ow,” and threatening to take her picture again.
“What is your problem?” she asked. “I can’t believe you did that. Fuck, Sean, it’s not even our camera.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t really do it. I was just pretending.”
“It’s true. Come on, Serena, it was a joke. I’m sorry.” And after a few moments she let me make love to her even though halfway through I noticed she was weeping, one wet eye socket cradling my shoulder. I came with a shudder and rolled off her. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, unable to look her in the eye. Serena just assumed her typical post-coital, pregnancy-enhancing position, legs up in the air. “Sean?” she asked, pulling a sheet over her torso and a book over her face, “Will you go? I want to be alone.”
The only detail original to the house was an elegant marble mantelpiece in the living room, and on top of that, between our obligatory wedding photo and the shot of us as new homeowners, I rested the little camera. It had, I noted, three pictures left.
It was amazing how technology worked, how things were getting smaller and more sophisticated all the time. You see, I felt like saying to my father, I didn’t need to learn any of that stuff about light meters. It’s all obsolete anyway. ASA. F-stop. I didn’t even know what that meant, just that it was the name of our subway line. People were always asking me that on the street. Where’s the F stop? Fuck Stop.
Serena didn’t leave the bedroom for a long time though her presence emanated across the apartment. The beers had worn off and I’d forgotten to buy more at the brew pub. I considered going out but settled for cooking wine from the big jug instead. When Serena did appear I was in magician-in-the-kitchen mode, whipping up some leftover Chinese food. “Hi Sperma,” I said. “I knew the smell of food would lure you out at last.”
“Are you an asshole on purpose or is it just your nature?” Normally Serena hated to say mean things, hated to quarrel at all, would go out of her way to keep everything happy, happy, happy.
“Serena,” I said. “That’s not nice. I said I was sorry.” I went to hug her, but she was icy. “Oh boy,” I said.
The camera was the focus of the argument. She stood in sweats, arms crossed, on one side of the small kitchen while I stood on the other, stirring hot sauce into the moo shu vegetables. “Speak up,” I said, “the fan’s going.” Here I added soy sauce. She felt that for some time now I’d been drifting into a spineless relativity without purpose in life, and that this act, this most recent egregious act, showcased my moral instability, and my lack of upright character. Amen, I thought, adding a dash of fish sauce. She seemed to expect some kind of reply. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Especially coming from a baby snatcher.” This could have gone one of two ways: the unspeakable or the funny. And for a moment it looked pretty grim there in the sweltering kitchen as I shook the pan to keep the vegetables from burning, and at the same time tried to delete from my mind the look of pinched horror on Serena’s face. Luckily, she laughed. But then that backfired because there she was, all weepy and needing consolation and trying to ram goddamn counseling down my throat, and doctor’s visits, not to mention the state of our apartment, my “career” (even in tears she managed those quotes in the air with her fingers), her drudgery and on and on in a miserable cycle. I was waiting for her to say, I don’t think you really want a kid, and then I could tell her. But she didn’t, and I didn’t. And anyway, I had promised, and I couldn’t get around that, not in this lifetime.
Sighing inwardly I turned off the stove and held her. What else could I do.
When the blond woman from the park called a few days later and said she was the owner of the camera, I believed her for one split second and felt my heart race. She told me she was kidding and I could imagine her tucking her hair behind her ear as she spoke on the phone, in her kitchen or her bedroom, her voice low and sexy. “Sean, right?” she asked, my name in her mouth a sweet sound. She was Deborah. She was calling to ask Serena about a play date. I told her Serena was at her job. “Do you work at home?” she asked, the hesitation in her voice ripe like fruit. I told her yes, my computer was humming that very minute. She wanted to know what I did, so I told her I was a beer critic. And when she said, “Cool,” I knew I was right to lie. “If I don’t get outside I’m going to go stir crazy,” she said. “I love my son, but there’s only so long I can go without any adult conversation.” Her son was down for a nap now, she told me, but maybe the kids could get together later? Did Casey nap? How did I get anything done? “She’s at daycare,” I said, after a moment. The weather had turned cold, too cold for the playground, but Deborah thought she might go to Bootsie’s, a café in the neighborhood that catered to moms with kids. I asked what time she would be at the café and added that it might be good to break up the day, get some coffee. “Tell Serena I called,” she said.
When I got off the phone I peered at myself in the reflecting side of the toaster oven, high-fived an imaginary bro, and said, “Score!” I felt kind of dumb for a moment so I pretended there really was a baby in the house and sobered up. “You’re a father now,” I said. “Be serious.” I imitated my dad’s mirthless breakfast table expression. Then I imagined Deborah tossing her head back to drink Chablis, her neck a delicate bridge. I wondered if I could possibly scout up Casey for an afternoon outing and let my mind linger in a fantasy that took place along the back wall of Bootsie’s and involved Deborah’s buttons and breasts pushing out of some kind of lacy undergarment. On the tide of ebullience I whipped off enough verbiage to finish the piece I was composing on the latest technologically inspired product called “the new nude,” a gel that, I concluded, “added an invisible layer of very visible sheen. Spread it on, baby, and cast luster and sparkle on even the drabbest hair. Your nights will never be the same. Yow!” As I deleted that last bit, I speculated on whether it would work on more personal hair.
Then, steadfastly ignoring what were supposed to be my tasks (dishes, laundry, recycling) while Serena was at the office, I picked up the phone and called Barbara. As I listened to the phone ringing in stereo, downstairs and in my ear, I tried to remember when Serena first borrowed Casey, though that’s not how she phrased it. “Giving Barbara a break” was how she phrased it.
“Hello?” said a voice in my ear. I forgot for a second who I was calling. “Hello?”
“Barbara,” I said, in a rolling senatorial voice I didn’t want to be the author of, “This is your neighbor, Sean.”
“Hey, Sean,” she said. Then, not to me, she said, “You can have that in a minute, honey. Yes I will, I promise.” To me she asked if everything was okay.
“Great. I was thinking, it’s such a nice day,” I squinted to look out the window, “maybe, you know, Casey might like, you might like a break from Case—maybe I could take Casey to the park? Just for a little while.” I could hear the pleading in my voice and cringed.
“Gee, Sean, that’s really sweet, but I’m all set. We’re making pretzels and then we’ve got some other activities planned.”
“She was so great the other day, she really had fun. Are you sure?” I was sweating.
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t trust me, is that it?” I laughed.
“You trust Serena, but not me?” Thinking, Gotcha.
“Sean, I said no. It’s too cold out, for one thing. For another … just, no.” She sounded like she was going to hang up. Then she asked in a voice that managed to combine coy flirtatiousness with maternal concern, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I said. Just hang up, I told myself. “Did you know I’m considering writing a newsletter on population control?” I blurted. “I’ve been approached by several very important organizations. In fact, you ought to know this, they’re planning on targeting families with more than one child. Especially people who think they’re exempt, who think their children are more special and worthy than little Chinese kids. There’s a whole movement to target middle-class American families.” The words bubbled out in a frothy concoction. “You should watch that home birth. I’ve heard of threatening letters, candlelight vigils. People might picket. Baby go home, they chant. Sometimes, I hate to worry you, they kidnap a kid. Just for a couple of days. It’s called enforced sharing—”
“Sean, what are you talking about?”
“Population control. It’s the new terrorism. Get out now, maybe you can make it to the mountains.” I made the sound of an air raid.
“I think this is a joke, but it’s not funny. It’s actually very hostile and inappropriate.”
“Don’t tell me what’s inappropriate—I’m not one of your goddamn kids!” It felt good to yell. “And stop fucking with my wife.”
“She’s obsessed, in case you haven’t noticed, with babies.” The room vibrated around me and I felt lightheaded. “Well, Serena was a little bit weird before, I mean she used to trace drawings and then say she’d copied them, but she wasn’t like this. She’s turned into a freak.” I laughed nervously. “I mean, no offense, but you’ve been a terrible influence.” I hoped she would laugh. “Terrible. Barbara? I don’t mean—”
The silence was icy. “I don’t think Serena is the freak,” Barbara said finally.
“Barbara—I, oops, computer running out, bye.” I forced myself to sever the connection. “Shit,” I said. Computer running out? I’d always comforted myself with Hegel’s dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Someday I was going to have synthesis. But now it seemed my real life existed on a parallel course to this, my fake life, and somehow I’d slipped into the wrong one by mistake and there was no going back.
Well, forget Casey big time. I liberated the camera from the mantelpiece and slipped it around my wrist, imitating a sour face as I did. I don’t think Serena’s the freak, I mouthed.
“Fuck this shit,” I said out loud, grabbing my leather jacket and heading downstairs so hard that the old floorboards thudded and the carved balustrade winced.
Even on the short walk to Bootsie’s the cold penetrated my bones so that I had to wipe my eyes and blow on my hands when I got inside. Deborah sat with another mother across the room. Deborah’s kid and the other woman’s snot-faced toddler wandered around them like satellites. Did mothers always travel in packs? I thought irritably. “I brought the camera,” I announced, approaching their table.
“Oh, but I was joking,” Deborah said.
“I thought maybe you wanted it.” I held it out to her.
“I couldn’t take it.” Her hand arched over her heart as if in self-protection. Instinctively she glanced at her child, then back at me. “Sean, right? Have you met Joyce?” I nodded at the other woman, not really seeing her. I did notice that Deborah wasn’t that attractive after all. In fact her nose was red and raw from the sniffles and her champagne hair looked rusty. She could have used the “new nude.”
“So, no other calls?” she asked, pulling out a tissue.
“Nope, nobody’s claimed it.” I was still standing, waiting to be asked to sit down.
“Sean’s daughter is in day care.”
“Oh really, where?” asked the other mother, leaning forward, already making some judgement about me.
“Someplace, I can’t remember the name.” I waved broadly. “Butsy Dootsie, Pinkie Piggy, you know they all have these ridiculous names,” I added, when I saw something more was needed.
“Little Bagels?” Deborah asked. “We know someone there. Does she like it?”
“Loves it. So,” I added, pulling up the chair next to her and speaking in a low voice that only she could hear, “about this camera. I’m thinking of getting the film developed. And since you were at the scene of the crime, I thought you should take equal responsibility.”
“Me?” Deborah said, color rising to her cheeks, making her almost pretty.
“Yes. Come with me to one of those one-hour photo joints. Maybe you’ll be able to recognize the person in the pictures. Serena’s busy at work,” I said, brushing off the doubt I saw gathering in her face. “I’ll show her later. Anyway, you probably know more people in the neighborhood.”
“Oh no, I don’t. I know hardly anybody.” She picked at the plastic lid on her cup, opening and closing it. “The coffee here is just so overpriced,” she said to her friend.
“Isn’t it?” Joyce said. She had a face like a sponge.
“Brian,” Deborah called to her son. “Come here.” Brian looked at his mother, shrieked and bolted for the stairway at the back. “Oh juice,” she swore. “Excuse me.”
“So day care, huh? I don’t think I could do it,” the other mother said, holding her child. “Kids really need their parents.”
“Some parents have to work,” I snapped.
“Oh, I know. I’m just saying, for me, I don’t think I—”
Deborah sat on the floor at the back of the café, cradling a sniveling Brian in her lap. His head was actually tucked under her shirt and I couldn’t figure out what he was doing until I realized he was nursing. Forget that lacy bustier. “Hush, bunny,” she droned, kissing his hair. “Sorry,” she said to me, “he got really frightened.”
“So, you coming?” I asked.
“What? No, I can’t.” Deborah’s nose dripped, distractingly. “But tell Serena to phone me sometime, okay? Good luck,” she called after me. I didn’t bother to remind her I didn’t have her number.
It wasn’t until I was at the Photo Hut and opened up the camera to take out the film that I remembered about the last three shots. I cursed, fearing I’d just overexposed the roll. But where a canister of film should have been, there was only a black hole. A void. “What the … ?” I murmured, wondering if maybe there’d been no film all along. The clerk was wiping off the scratched glass counter with a dirty rag, periodically squirting a cleaning bottle that was virtually empty. The nozzle spat and sputtered white froth. It felt like the past week had evaporated.
“Help you?” the guy asked.
I shook my head. Then, mesmerized by the fizzing foam, I asked if he had a roll of film under Serena’s name. He shrugged, put down the rag, and after thumbing through a spiral notebook, informed me she’d already picked it up.
At home I fortified myself with a glass of scotch. It took me a while but I found the folder of photographs shoved in a handbag in Serena’s closet. I had to sit down on the bed before I could open the envelope. For a moment I imagined it would contain pictures of the two of us, Serena and I, from our wedding, our life together, or maybe, miraculously, from our future, images of the child we would have, our “spitting image.” I allowed myself to believe that life could only be better, that I would look into these photos and recognize some extraordinary, graceful truth.
Then I unsheathed them and held the cool, slightly sticky pictures in my hands. I had not seen them before, nor did I recognize the people in them, but I thought the woman could be Serena. She was about the same age, and although her hair was dark where Serena’s was light, there was something about her expression that I recognized. The woman held a child, a little girl or perhaps a little boy. The baby was nearly hairless and naked except for a diaper, with fat pudgy feet planted on the ground and fat fingers clutching a strand of the mothers hair. The mother nuzzled the child’s luminous, soft skin and I knew she was thinking it was the tenderest, sweetest texture ever known, ever smelled, ever experienced. I knew too that right off, just from looking, Serena would know what it would be like to hold this child, to feel that solid weight on her lap, to sense and smell that skin. And the mother, it seemed to me, had a slightly dispossessed feeling, a feeling of being grateful and overwhelmed at the same time. She took it for granted, this surfeit, and at the same time savored every moment.
I felt queasy looking at these pictures, as if I was a voyeur, as if by seeing these private moments I had stolen them away from this unknown woman, as if I had some claim on her that only the photographer should have. But I felt worse when I came to the three of Serena naked. She didn’t look glamorous or sexy. She looked swollen. The angle had not flattered her, the light was too harsh. I forced myself to stare at the pictures, to really see them, to own them. I sipped my drink and as the scotch burned my throat I thought how imperfect reproduction could be. Hegel argued that change comes through the irresistible tendency of the human mind to create through opposites. I set the photos aside and turned to the last three, the three I didn’t take. And there I was: unconscious, sleeping. I looked like a fat, bloated pig. Serena had captured me, cruelly, I think, at my most defenseless moment. With each shot she moved closer and closer until, in the final one, my face was just a blur.
Alexandra Enders is at work on a novel, a chapter of which appeared in the British journal, Critical Quarterly. She received her MFA from Vermont College, and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.