national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2011

What Did You Expect?

T.M. Kipling  • 
Prescott College

Beth comes home that day and tells him she has kissed a bald, French ski instructor at the resort where they used to go with the kids to cross-country ski, and that she is leaving him. Or really that he is leaving her, is leaving their “there,” because she will keep the house. Because she is the mother of their children. They have four children, and he knows they have failed them miserably. It is amazing to him how within minutes he can become such a statistic, one of the millions of parents across the United States whose children will look back and talk about how their notion of love and parenthood has been irrevocably fucked up. He should be thinking, Don’t leave, I love you or Why are you doing this? Or even, What about the kids? But all he can think is, This means change, this means I don’t know where I’m going. Where do you want me to go now that you’ve found your bald Frenchman?

He realizes it’s possible that she’s been carrying on with this man, whom he vaguely remembers from past visits to the ski resort, without his knowledge. He thinks of himself as a perceptive individual, but this woman, this wife of his—no, this soon-to-be ex-wife, he thinks, seized by sudden bitterness, the profound sullying of one of the two spheres of his life, the family sphere wrecked, wrecked, wrecked by this bitch who has tormented him for so long now—is a master at sneak attacks on his emotions. She draws from him an anger that he can’t recognize, anger that builds up over months and months of time until he finds himself chasing her around the house with red in his vision and some vague intention of violence, and then sees his children’s frightened faces and hates her so intensely he can’t bear it because he never wants his children to be frightened of him like that, never.

He’s seized by a sudden fear of her. He cannot predict her actions. She could take the kids from him in a moment. It would be so simple for her. She came to him to confess in anger and sadness, in tears. She is always in tears when they argue. When they unmask their emotions, she always has the upper hand because he seems so removed from the situation, so cold and cruel. She has never met a situation that didn’t elicit an emotional response. Still, he believes that she can be calculating. She can use the accusations she makes against him to take his children away.  As it has been since the day they met, she directs the action in his life. Helplessness is thrust upon him like a mantle.

He is sitting now in the living room, across which enormous duffle bags are strewn. A pair of ski poles is propped up against the couch. He glances at the fireplace and sees, on the mantle above, this year’s recently-taken Christmas/Hanukkah/Winter Holiday picture of his kids. He had been there when it was taken, watched six-year-old Isabel fidget and whine next to Matthias, his only son, at whom Beth always yelled during these annual photography sessions because he seemed incapable of smiling without looking like a total goofball in that way that twelve-year-old boys do. Leah stood next to Annette, smiling so that her whole face crinkled and made her eyes into two tiny, joyous slits. Her father remembered how Leah rarely smiled at the camera when she was younger, but instead sat looking hilariously contemplative. She had learned how to pose at some moment when he wasn’t watching and was now an eight-year-old with two front teeth fully grown in. Annette was wrapped in her sixteen-year-old veil of elusiveness, wary of the camera and its intentions, her wild, coltish beauty contrasting sharply with the soft-faced youth of the other three. He and his wife used to be in these pictures too, but at some point they couldn’t bear their marriage’s being represented so falsely in smiles on a postcard and made a tacit agreement to stay out of the frame; Beth had never liked to be photographed anyway. Now it was only the children who could pose with their arms around each other and not a shred of the pretense that belonged to their parents.

His children. A desperate need to be with them at this moment grasps him, and he wonders where they are. Had they heard him talking with their mother? Would the younger ones even know the significance of what had passed? Pain washes over him at the thought of their fragility. He wants so badly to keep them all away from this. He wants to take them all now and run, to forget that his wife has ever existed and leave with the only product of their relationship that he will ever miss.

There is Annette now, standing in the doorway to the hall. Has he spoken to her since they arrived home from the trip? He realizes that he is sitting cross-legged on the floor, staring into space. He never sits on the floor. Will she notice? What does she know? He looks straight at her, trying to divine something from her eyes, and realizes she is doing the same. So she does know. She probably has known longer than he has; she had been at the scene of the crime, he thinks, probably saw her mother flirting with that man—the bitch, the fucking bitch, carrying on like a whore in front of their children, flaunting her newfound happiness in front of his Annette.    He has no idea what to say.

“I’m going to go for a drive,” he tells her. His daughter.  She seems startled by his voice.

“I’m going to go to the store. We need…dinner. Maybe hamburgers.”

She nods. She will play along; she will give him space to process this new reality. He tries to catch her eye again, to show her his appreciation, but she has already turned away and is walking back to her room.

Well, she has her sister. Despite the eight years difference between them, Annette and Leah share a remarkable bond, an intense understanding of each other. Thinking of the two of them, he realizes how entirely alone he is.

A failure.

 

The heater in the cabin rattles and coughs out air, hot and stale and itchy, like the wool underclothes clawing at Beth’s skin. They had arrived three days ago, leaving Arthur home to work and feed the dog while she and the kids visited a place where winter actually meant something: snow, cold, a world so insulated in magic that every sound seemed to hearken to a lost world. Her children are somewhere in the main lodge of the ski resort, kept occupied with arts and crafts that call for hideous numbers of popsicle sticks—the bane of trees—and drinking too much hot chocolate with cubes of sugar and undersized marshmallows. Later they will return home with heavy wet clothing and jittery fingers from too much sugar, crowding the cabin like a small herd of elephants. And Beth will sigh with relief when it comes time for the buffet-style dinner at the lodge, with its overly-mashed potatoes and endless refills of fruit punch. She places her hands over her womb, remembers the soothing firmness of new life beneath her skin.    Somehow four beings had grown inside her and then detached themselves, miracles on two legs. Now it is as though four pieces of Beth Tischman wander through the snow outside; if she thinks hard enough, she can feel them, can say exactly where they are and what they are thinking.

Six months ago she’d been pregnant for the fifth time since she’d been married. Her husband and mother insisted she abort it. Her mother had never been on her side; that was no surprise. A woman whose social life had forever been more important than her children, of course Sylvia Goldberg would only deign to give Beth advice for the sake of image. Five children was so very untidy a number, though Sylvia showered more attention on her grandchildren than she’d ever given her own babies.

Why do I even tell her these things? Beth wonders. Why should she know that I’m pregnant? What am I seeking from a woman I can hardly call Mom? Beth’s children will never have trouble calling her Mom; of that she has always been certain.

Arthur’s behavior had been a stronger betrayal, albeit not unexpected. No question about it, having another child would be ridiculous. Four were plenty on their budget, plenty on their time, and Isabel was still in diapers. She’d aborted several that had been conceived with other men before the birth of Annette, her eldest—a history her husband knew—so Arthur had assumed it was all routine and sent her into the clinic alone, through the hordes of screaming evangelicals.

He assumes many things when it comes to their marriage. She hasn’t learned to assume the worst of him, though. The illusion of closeness they’ve created through sixteen years of marriage, the ways in which they always agree upon the relative merits or, with relish, the flaws and intolerable qualities of their friends, neighbors, and workplace acquaintances lend their casual conversations a seamless, impenetrable character, a sense of implicit secrets, inside jokes. Others assume they are a single unit, unbreakable and infinitely, profoundly intertwined. The Tischmans: a concept. They almost believe it themselves sometimes—that their façade is proof of great love between them; that the enormous, unbearable closeness of shared public moments can heal everything, can overwhelm the many conflagrations at home. It seems unthinkable that two people who enjoy each other’s company as much as they do can be so fatally flawed in marriage. At social gatherings, surrounded by others, they are each other’s comfort zone, their shared interests and histories a beautiful tapestry that they hold up to the light: look at who we are, the choices we’ve made, what we represent. They nurture a sense of superiority, a belief in a shared sense of refined taste, the perception that they are above and beyond the petty world of others; they respect and appreciate one another, and share glances that say, You are the only one who can ever represent the other half of me as I’d wish to be represented; we are the only ones who are good enough for each other, darling. Yes, in these moments they are like any other happy couple, better in fact, savoring an idealized and illusory existence. Yet give them an empty room and they are nothing but two people broken by past wrongs.

If he’d ever known her at all, if they had ever had a partnership together, he’d turned his back that day at the abortion clinic. She couldn’t believe it still; it was the pinnacle of neglect. The husband stops the car in front of the clinic, and his pregnant wife steps out alone to face the jeering crowds. At any moment they might start throwing things, pulling hair, shoving her to the sidewalk. He drives away as she goes in, completely alone, to abort a fetus whose future she had never been given a chance to decide on. And if anyone ever accuses me of being anti-choice for these thoughts, I’ll tear their skin off, she thinks. No one gave me an ounce of choice, not an ounce. I might as well live in the fucking Middle East. I’m pro-choice for my daughters, not so that my mother and husband can wave abortion like a gun at my head, accuse me as if my love of babies or my fertility is some personal act of rebellion, like I became pregnant to bring them down!    

Where is he right now, that bastard husband? At work, she assumes, while she swelters in this godforsaken cabin surrounded by snow. He’s always loved being at work more than being home or on vacation with her and the kids. He defines himself by his career. She, too, takes pride in her job as a Spanish teacher. Her classroom, like the newsroom where he works as an editor, represents a clearly defined space; she knows the code of behavior, how to perform and meet expectations, the rules of engagement. But she also maintains control of her own little empire at home. She arranges everything, knows everyone’s schedule, makes certain that no child ever misses a doctor’s appointment or forgets to hand her a field trip slip.

For him, home is harder. He was made for formal relationships; the vagaries of emotionally-based contracts exceed his realm of understanding, his capacity for logical discourse. He relates best to the children when he coaches them in soccer; he can apply himself in that situation just as he does at work, with a clear sense of his talents and competency that brings him the fullest measure of satisfaction. He loves the kids—that much is obvious—and he isn’t wooden in his love. He doesn’t suffer from an inability to be affectionate, at least not with the girls. But he never takes the reins of their day-to-day life, never moves from being a presence to being a parent, because he does not understand the parameters of parenthood.

He predicates everything in his life on the idea that he is, above all, an independent being, and has no true need of other humans; she has spent her adult life seeking out unconditional love in the arms of various men and has only found it with the arrival of her children.  He has never respected her or anyone else’s need for love, regarding it as an unpardonable weakness to rely on others, especially for something so nebulous and volatile. How did she marry someone so inherently incapable of understanding others that he routinely makes and breaks promises to his own children? How many trips, how many activities has he spoken of—spoken of in great excitement—only to forget those same plans at the slightest career-related provocation?

He hasn’t called once since they left for the mountains. He never remembers to call anyone, unless it has to do with work. When she is home, they rarely touch. They only have sex these days when they’re drunk enough to forget each other’s faces. She can’t bear his body now, its weight an unconscionable reminder of the burdens they place on one another. Beside him, she feels denuded of her sexuality, as if to demand physical affection from him would be an unpardonable sin at this point in their relationship. She doubts that he wants her anymore.

But she was born to be passionate. Every day, why shouldn’t I have sex every day if I want to? Just because I’m a mother doesn’t mean I’m not a woman. Fuck you, Arthur Tischman. You wouldn’t know a woman if she kicked you in the face. You fear the consequences of loving too deeply. A coward. You left me alone when I needed you most. I have never been, our family has never been, the most important thing in your life, and that’s the truth of the matter.

The tears surface again. She wants so badly to love him; she wants even more for him to receive the gift of her love as though he understands its great weight, the infinite value she places in his hands. He doesn’t think her love has any weight, though. He thinks she gives her love too freely, spending it on the most worthless humans, in parking lots and at parent meetings. She can appreciate just about anyone. He sees this as a flaw, a lack of discrimination. He believes that humans can be worthless. He could be perfectly fine alone, he says, perfectly fine. And in saying this, he has given her permission to do anything.

It has grown dark outside. It is nearly time for dinner; at any moment her children will come back to the cabin to gather round her. They will troop back to the lodge together and find a table, and at some point during the meal the ski instructor will find a seat beside her and look her in the eyes as he tells her about France, the snow forecast, how he feels about American politics and American movies and the way Americans put ketchup on their food. He will joke with the children and then keep sitting with her after everyone has cleared their plates, and they will talk about her kids and her marriage and his dreams. He has met Arthur before and likes him, respects him —because Arthur is the kind of man who demands both liking and respect from other men—but Beth will be able to tell from the hunger in this ski instructor’s eyes that he likes her body more, that he needs her companionship, her motherly warmth and womanly allure and her willingness to love. He is a man who is willing to love, to whom love is not a weakness. He will tell her he is lonely and they will bury themselves in their common ground for a moment, feeling their shared sense of need. They will touch hands beneath the table and she will close her eyes, ready to render her life anew.

 

Arthur looks at the walls around him and realizes this place doesn’t belong to him anymore.    Beth and her tendency toward the preemptive strike have done away with his share in this room.    So he walks over and opens the front door, steps down onto the woven black mat that vaguely resembles rubber—how had they acquired that mat, and why? Nothing equals it for pure geometric ugliness. Moving down the concrete path, he passes the large plastic alligator in the grass that scares visitors, and the calla lilies he had lovingly planted in the yard because he and Beth share an admiration for Diego Rivera. He wrenches open the door of his navy blue BMW with the wind-up windows, a car so small it looks like a tinker toy. The size reminds him of the best car he’d ever had, the bright red Alfa Romeo that he sold after Matthias was born, because no man with two kids could rationalize owning a two-door sports car.

He slides the key into the ignition and puts the car into reverse, rolling down the driveway. They’d had the concrete refilled last year after an enormous Santa Ana storm sent one of the oak trees in the front yard crashing down, landing squarely on their brand new Saab and leaving a fault line on the driveway, like a model San Andreas. The mailbox, too, is new, a stucco-and-redbrick affair that looks ready for a canon battle in its oversized solidity. They decided on these things together, on the repairs and the additions, because they took pride in their home. One could see it in the art on the walls, Beth’s rose garden in the front, and the cactus garden in the back where he and the kids plant every weekend after trips to the nursery. The neighbors had landscapers and gardeners, but the Tischmans tilled their own land. He had rigged the irrigation system because they wanted to live differently; to have a sensory connection to the world around them.

At the end of the driveway he realizes he has no idea where to go. He is suddenly, brutally dispossessed. What had he told Annette? That he was going to the market, for hamburger meat. What the fuck? He finds himself driving too quickly up their street, as he always does when he’s angry. Beth has a habit of yelling at people who speed on Meddler Lane. He drives faster, past all the houses that have steadily appreciated in value over the eight years they’ve lived there. All his financial plans, the security of the life they’ve built together, lie in shambles before him. Because, she said, she had to find a way out. Because this wasn’t a life, because he didn’t even give a shit about all she did, because she wanted more from life and he would just wait and wait and wait forever as long as things stayed the same and she couldn’t wait anymore.

He hates her in stitches of pain that begin at his elbows and slowly prick their way up his arms. She is capable of ruining universes, mangling worlds. How has he ended up here, so tightly bound to a future with her—he who has never wanted to be so tightly bound to anyone? It is almost as though destiny has pressed itself down on him, insistent in its irony, and all the while he keeps saying But I don’t believe in destiny. I don’t believe in any of it. He believes in the great Russian authors, in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and Chekhov, in their incisive social commentary and clear-sighted view of human greed and driving desire and how such earthly feelings only force us all to ruin. He believes in the philosophies and intellectualism of the German masters, of Wittgenstein and Thomas Mann and Hegel. These men taught him how to think and be after he’d escaped from the cloisters of Topeka, Kansas, hopped a plane to Denmark at nineteen. He’d traveled through Europe and then made a home in California, falling into a job as a newspaper editor because he never could figure out a way to make a career of philosophy.

In California he’d met Beth, a California girl, with all the implied qualities. He knows quite clearly he hasn’t been the perfect husband, but is it possible to be the perfect anything for a woman whose natural state is chaos? She would go off at the slightest provocation. She felt slighted, unappreciated, bereft of love and support in life, yet she rebuffed every attempt at reparations as inadequate, incompetent, or insincere. Sixteen years of life spent returning home each night with a growing sense of dread, nausea in his throat, because God knows what she’d explode over this time. Volatile, a cannonball; he’ll be so much better off now.    He has been released.

I should go fuck a prostitute, he thinks; but he can’t let the thought take hold because it disgusts him.    He’s never fucked a prostitute before. It’s pathetic, really, that a man could demean both himself and another being in an act—a quick, dirty, sad and lonely a—sanctioned by nothing more real than money. The sex between him and Beth has been nearly nonexistent in the past six months. Ever since she terminated the pregnancy, he has become aware of a creeping revulsion that she feels towards him, her desire to cast him off like an old coat, something ready to be cut into rags; and he can’t touch her without mistrust, certain that a child will once again take root, that the woman beside him is determined to wrest control of his life from him even in the act of love. But there was a tenderness before, after the initial sexual magnetism that drew them together, a tenderness in the knowledge that they belonged to one another, that they had created beautiful children together, that they were with each other not for money or status or any paltry reason but because they believed in the life and love they had built together. Their marriage bed had rarely been devoid of danger, but every touch between them had carried the integrity of profound connectedness—and he is sure, he must be sure, that their intentions had been pure, every embrace an expression of belief in their marriage. A five-minute quickie followed by an exchange of cash—a sordid, shameful act—could never approach such intimacy.    He feels pity, the strongest pity for the whore who finds herself beneath those sheets. Maybe her husband had left her for a French woman and she had nowhere else to go. Life allows for no straight trajectories.

He eases on down the main boulevard towards the grocery store, vociferously cursing at the cars in front of him but all the while engulfed by a sense of great calm, of normalcy.

“Asshole! Motherfucker! LEARN TO DRIVE YOU PIECE OF SHIT. If you ever want to make it across this fucking intersection you’ve got to get out in the middle, you IDIOT.” He wishes that all living would allow for such unvarnished statements as these, but against individuals he feels no such desire for malignancy; trembling human skin has little in common with the hard-shelled car and its arbitrary movements, its lack of facial expression. He hopes the hamburger meat won’t cost too much, idles into listlessness as he parks in front of Ralph’s Supermarket, leans into the sharp-smelling metal of a shopping cart, and rolls forward.

He passes the salad bar and prepared food, most of it fried or drenched in creamy sauces, then on past the bread and baked goods section, where once a week he furtively but shamelessly buys a pie to bring home and cut up to share with the kids. Beth claims to not like pie but will go out to the kitchen at strange hours of the night and pick off all the crust, so that the dessert appears neutered, divested of form in the morning. This used to infuriate him. He couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just cut a slice like a normal human being, instead of ruining the pie for everyone else. Now he sees something endearing in her furtiveness. Only a husband or child would know this about her. He missed these things, he always misses things; he knows this.

He has arrived at his destination. The meat section strikes him as very red, almost scandalously so, as though the blood of a fresh kill is slowly seeping into this superiorly hygienic business model and no one has been called for aisle clean-up. Hamburger meat, $3.95 a pound for the decent stuff. What the hell, he wants to celebrate the perversity of the day. He picks up three packages; it feels like too much, but with four kids you can never be sure. Maybe a bottle of wine from the liquor aisle, something really red.

The cashier asks him how his day has been, and he almost replies honestly, but she looks so assaulted by the world that he leaves it be.

He listens to NPR on the way home. The rich, rhythmic bell tones of the broadcaster’s voice lull him towards oblivion.

 

She sees him standing in the doorway with four pounds of hamburger meat: her soon-to-be-ex-husband and his awkward gestures of appeasement when she is the one leaving him, when he should demand apology from her, this night. She will marry the Frenchman, have a baby, experience many revelations that will play on her life like mere wisps of the revelations of Arthur. Within two years she’ll divorce again. The second man won’t hurt her because she has chosen him for his lack of anything that represents Arthur Tischman, his inability to penetrate and debilitate her; he will pass like vapor or a breeze, his only contribution to her life the baby she will claim from their dalliance. It could just as well have been Arthur’s. To her it doesn’t matter; the baby is just another vessel to love and be loved by.

And in spite of her longing for love, she is strength itself, Amazonian in her compassion and resilience, her untiring maneuvers through life. She will not be a bitter woman; that is not her lot. Her mind is too quick and excitable to settle into a rut, her energy too fearsome to succumb to despair, her passions too fleeting to hold a grudge.

Arthur is her reckoning, though. They could have done so many things right together, except they couldn’t.  She has wanted him to change too greatly for too long to think of reconciliation. But she can’t dismiss him easily. There has been too much between them for her to forget everything that drew her to him before, all the things she respects—cherishes—even now, even here at what feels like the end. His brilliance, for one. She has always been able to ask him any question about any historical event, no matter how obscure or far back in time, and he will know the answer. How many times has he won in their family games of Trivial Pursuit without even seeming to try?

And their shared passion for a more intellectual life, something neither of their families understood. Their families, who had always been shopkeepers and businesspeople—how could they understand Beth and Arthur’s love of travel, the time they spent together in Mexico and Guatemala, how the dinner table conversation in their home was dominated by discussion of political events, cultural concepts, literary and historical references?  Beth loved Arthur at that dinner table more than anywhere else. She loved how he prodded the minds of their children, how he glowed with pride and joy when one of the kids appeared to grasp whatever issue they were discussing and, even better, posed a penetrating question in response. How intelligent their children were, how entirely engaging and aware and alive! And Arthur never ignored or discounted any of their thoughts or ideas, he valued those thoughts and ideas as deeply as if they were his own.

So even now, in the first throes of separation, even this soon after her declarations of leaving, she sees the years spanning before them in endless conflagrations and reconciliations, four kids spread like a line of buoys in a deep sea to whom they’d cling to keep from sinking as they reach towards one another. She thinks this and she smiles at him with the fondness of a mother.

 

Her face when she smiles reminds him of every single one of their children, and for a moment she is so beautiful he forgets her name and nearly reaches for her hand, but instead holds out the grocery bag.

“I got hamburger meat. The fridge is empty.” As soon as the words leave his mouth he senses their inherent foolishness. Standing there offering her hamburger meat; what is he trying to say, to prove? That everything is normal? Nothing is normal, nothing.

“Do you want to take the kids and the dog for a walk while I make dinner? They were in the car all day.” He can’t understand her tone. Is she being sarcastic? Is she criticizing him? He can’t tell. He has expected her to be on the defensive, ready with more justifications for her actions; she always has to justify herself, always has to prolong discussion of an issue until it has been exhausted.

“Well, I was going to make dinner. Why don’t you go for a walk and stretch your legs? I’ll cook.” He hopes she sees the generosity in this offer. He doesn’t know why, but he feels he has to be generous with her. It would be so easy to blame her right now, too easy.

“Arthur, they’ve barely seen you for a week. Take your kids for a walk. They want to see you.” She won’t take their kids from him, he thinks. The greatest gift in this day of taking.

He will not grab her now, hold her, make her his again in gratefulness. He will not apologize for known and perceived sins. He will take the kids for a walk, under a tail-end sun, and they will come back and have hamburgers on white buns with copious amounts of ketchup. The last day of a marriage that never ends.