by Jessica Barksdale
Deirdre runs naked down the long path in her front yard, chasing her boyfriend Rob, but she’s thinking about the limerick her sister Becca recited to her mother’s bridge group. This was years ago, in the early 70s, before sex education, the internet, or even cable. Out of the blue, without warning, eight-year-old Becca walked into the living room and intoned:
“There once was a man from Nantucket
Whose dick was so long he could suck it.’”
The bridge ladies leaned back, card hands held to their chests. They stopped eating M&Ms and Lays potato chips.
“Becca!” Deirdre’s mother said. “That’s—”
Becca planted her feet, ignored her mother, unwilling to stop now. “And he said with a grin, as he wiped off his chin—”
“My word,” one of the ladies said.
Everyone else chuckled.
“’If my ear were a cunt, I would fuck it.’”
As she loops down the path, Deirdre says the words cunt, suck, fuck. She steps on a rock, hops, sucks in air. But there’s no time for pain, Rob slipping away. As she keeps running, she imagines her mother and her friends, loosened by wine, laughing. It became family lore, the story of Becca’s saying the words cunt and fuck without having (hopefully) a clear idea what either meant, a favorite at holiday tables, though mostly, her mother said “the C word” and “the F word” when retelling it.
“Becca had no idea!” her mother Jan would say. “She thought I’d be so pleased that she could memorize a poem.”
Her mother would pause for the laughter and then pass a bowl of mashed potatoes or a boat of gravy.
That wasn’t all Becca was doing, Deirdre knew. Even back then.
But now Deirdre has to focus. Rob is headed to his truck, and because they were just in bed and they just moments ago F-worded, she is naked. They are fighting, again, and because it’s a summer night, warm and waxing mooned, she jumped up out of the tumbled bed and followed him. In the winter, she just lets him go.
“Rob,” she whispers as loudly as she can, wincing as she steps on something sharp, a stone, a hardened piece of clay soil from the hillside. “Don’t go.”
“I can’t hear you,” Rob says, though, of course, he has.
She wants to yell, but her next door couple neighbors hate her and her dog, Callie, often glaring out their bedroom window at Deirdre, four bespeckled eyes. They hate Rob, too, closing the blinds when he pulls up in his truck. Of greater offense is Deirdre’s old Volvo 450, which sounds like a banshee when started—or how she images a banshee sounds, broken bagpipes gone flat and bad. The couple leave quiet, modulated phone messages about mufflers and timely car maintenance. Their voices sound like green tea and bamboo flooring and vegan muffins.
“Rob!” she says now, a yell in her almost quiet voice. She crunches down on a garden snail, feels the slick crispiness under her right big toe.
But now Rob is by his truck, and she hears the beep of his lock.
“Go inside,” he says.
She makes it to the truck just as he opens the driver’s side door. Her feet prick with gravel, and a slight summer wind wraps around her waist. She shivers.
“Don’t go,” she says.
“You always say that.”
“And you always go,” she says, thinking, and then you always come back. She wants to say, “Let’s eliminate the middle man” but she doesn’t.
He sits in his seat and tries to close the door but she grabs the handle, surprised by how hard she has to yank it.
“Jeez,” she says, talking now, whisper gone.
“Let go,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“But you already have.”
“I told you this would happen,” he says, pulling on the door again. “I told you one last time.”
“Why is this the last time? How can you know that?”
“I just know.”
Deirdre can barely see him there in the dark truck cab, his long, lanky body only a shadow, his eyes the muted reflection off his glasses. This time, at least, he had the presence of mind to grab them as he stormed out. After their last fight, he drove from Oakland halfway to San Francisco using his uncorrected 20/200 vision.
“I am stopping. Right now.”
Deirdre blinks, tries to ignore the neighbor’s front porch light flicking on. Her heart sinks, her stomach rolls over its own empty fist.
He’s never said it that way before.
“Come on, Rob. Come back inside.”
“Let go,” he says, and this time, he takes her by surprise and pulls the door shut, a metal crack in the night.
“Rob,” she says, but he starts the truck and then it’s only the reverse sound of tires over gravel, then acceleration, and then nothing but the whine of motor and then nothing but the feeble sound of two-in-the-morning crickets.
Deirdre stares at the place Rob’s truck was parked, breathing in rock dust and wet air, fog beginning to swirl in from the bay. Callie pads out invisibly from the back dog door, her collar clicking, and she whines a little as she sits down against Deirdre’s right leg, warm and furry. Deirdre pets her dog’s head, blinking, trying to go back to a place in time when this hasn’t happened, the time before they finished having sex and she said, “If that was a metaphor for how much you love me, then I guess I’m out.” She wants to transport back to the time before he didn’t say anything after she said that, before he didn’t laugh. The time before he rolled her off him and got out of bed.
After a fight with Rob, Deirdre relishes his return. In fact, usually, she’s already counting: one, two, three, four, five, ten, twenty. Maybe 50. Or 96. And then from over the hill, she’ll hear his truck, the wind up over the first hill, the big engine roar as he accelerates back to her.
Now, nothing remotely truck. Only night sounds, her dog’s breathing, some irritated noise from the neighbor’s: a window closing, a door shutting tight.
Deirdre’s nipples ache with cold, her body awash with gooseflesh. She pulls her foot from under Callie’s rump and turns back toward the house, the dog following behind her. If it were any other time but 2 am (3 even, maybe 4) she’d call her best friend Kris, who lives in Chattanooga. She’d relate this latest fight, waiting for Kris to say what she always does, “Ah, Deeds. He’ll come back. He always does. He’s just so sensitive. You’ve got to remember that.”
In all those conversations, Deirdre agrees, and then, like magic, forgets.
Her feet are dirty with dust and snail slime, and her heart is halfway, almost broken, once again. Deirdre breathes in and walks fast to the backdoor, Callie trotting behind her. Next door, the light turns off, on, and off again.
One Christmas Eve when Deirdre was twelve, Deirdre suggested to her family they dress up for the holiday meal. In movies, she’d seen families sitting down in dresses and suits, eating off china and silver under crystal chandeliers, the large Christmas tree lit and twinkling in the background. Soothing music croons from what? A Victrola? Adults smoke cigarettes from holders, men puff on cigars. In the kitchen, the staff slice homemade gingerbread and fruit cake.
Sad news was she couldn’t do much about the setting of their 1970s slab foundation rancher—all avocado and orange and wood paneling--but she could do something about their outfits. Deirdre put on the only partially trashed red velvet hand-me-down dress from her cousin Tina and curled her bangs with her mother’s curling iron. She put on the pearl earrings her grandmother had given her for her tenth birthday. Before dinner, she sat down in the living room, waiting for her mother and sisters to emerge from their rooms, dressed up like characters in her favorite novels, some sort of Little Women and Gone with the Wind contemporary combo. Or some sort of English meal, with “My dears” and “Splendids.” How surprised all their relatives would be.
Suddenly, a door banged open, and Becca raced into the living room, her face painted white, her eyebrows etched in black, her smile tucked inside a wide, red lipstick smile. But her real smile inside the fake smile was huge and proud. She spun in the middle of the room. On her head she wore a chartreuse cap with a silver bell on the tip, wide red plastic shoes on her feet. Her one piece outfit was recycled from a Halloween gone by, the collar and sleeves wildly ruffled. She’d dressed up as a clown.
“What? You said dress up!” she said, hands on her hips. “I’m dressed up.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“So what!” Becca threw up her bangled arms, bracelets, charms, medical alert bracelet, and bells clanging and clattering. She smiled her red smile, her blonde hair curled and gleaming.
And even though Deirdre begged her to change into something else, something better, Becca pushed up her sleeves and sat through the whole dinner in her clown outfit, eating ham off china and laughing with their cousins, lipstick on her fork and spoon.
At work, Deirdre sits in a meeting, listening not to what anyone is saying but to the playlist of her failures. Before Rob, there was Shaun. Before Shaun, there was Max. Before Max, Timothy. She’s had so many before, she’s losing track, but the one constant has been the endings.
In her big skirt pocket, her phone vibrates, loud enough that her colleague Neal nudges her arm and makes some comment about bad students and cell phones during class time. He says something about detention and punishment, a slick and oily innuendo in his words. Deirdre slips her hand in her pocket, presses the phone silent, and stares at Swarup Gupta who talks about the Learning Management System recently purchased for the entire district. She’s been on this committee for a full academic calendar, and it has taken that and now part of the summer vacation to finally pick the system that the entire community college district will use for online teaching. Deirdre wishes that the committee could be online, too, especially today.
“We have an 18 month window for conversion,” Swarup says, and Deirdre actually hears it as “Wa wa wa wa wa,” as if Swarup were a Peanuts parent, loud background noise when the real world is in her phone. Rob hasn’t called, and though she’s obsessing about the missed call being Rob, she knows it’s probably Kris.
Neal comments. Others comment. Deirdre stares out the fifth floor window at the bay waters, the bridge, the freeway.
“So if there are no further questions, I’ll present this to the board on Thursday.”
Deirdre has further questions, but none that Swarup could answer. She has questions that Neal would like to have the answer for, but she stands and leaves before anyone else can say a word.
Kris has always said the right thing. The best ever was, “You’ll do what you need to do until you don’t have to do it anymore.” Deirdre took this to mean that she would act out and out and out until she didn’t have to. But Kris said this years ago, and Deirdre seems to still be doing it, though Kris hasn’t restated her wisdom for a long time, at least two boyfriends worth.
Kris has said, “Keep a steady strain,” as in, keep on moving. Do what you need to do and do it as you move forward.
Kris has said, “You can’t force the universe,” even as Deirdre has been wrestling whole galaxies.
Now Kris seems to be sighing even as she listens to Deirdre tell her about “the” conversation, Rob’s getaway, and now subsequent silence.
Finally, she says, “Jeez, Deeds. Did you really say that? Then? Right after sex?”
“It’s been so terrible lately,” Deirdre says. “I just didn’t know how to bring it up.”
“Don’t you think bad sex does say something? About the state of your relationship?”
“My point exactly,” Deirdre says.
“But, really. You impugned his manhood. You questioned his prowess.”
Only Kris would say impugned like she meant it. And she did.
Deirdre shakes her head as Neal approaches. She’s sitting on the steps in front of the district office.
“Cheers!” he says, taking the hint. “See you later!”
“Who was that?” Kris asks.
“Just a douche bag from the committee.”
“Did you just say douche bag?”
“He is a douche bag.”
There’s a pause, and Deirdre presses her ear closer to the phone. Finally, Kris sighs again. “What is going on with you?”
“Nothing is going on with me that hasn’t been going on with me. Rob just flipped out.”
“So running outside naked isn’t flipping out, too?”
Deirdre’s mouth and jaw and cheeks and eyes fill with tears. “Whose side are you on?”
“I’m totally on your side, Deeds. But you’ve . . .” Kris pauses again, and in the background, Deirdre can hear Kris’ real life, her colleagues at the law office in Chattanooga. Sometimes when she calls, Deirdre can hear Kris’ two children, the squawks of baby Shelby, the long strings of stream-of-consciousness play from two-year-old Dylan. Now Kris whispers something to someone in the background, and Deirdre knows she has only twenty-five percent of her friend’s attention.
“What?” Deirdre asks, swallowing.
“Look, I can’t talk now. But this is the fifth fight you’ve had with Rob in what? A year? You fight, one of you comes back, there’s a brief spell of okay-ness, and then boom, naked running in the front yard. How long are you going to do it?”
“I must still need to,” Deirdre says, her voice flat and hard. “You’re the one who told me I should.”
“I was wrong,” Kris says. “It’s time to stop. You need to do something about it. Okay, okay. Look, I have to go. I’ll call you later.”
And then Kris clicks off and away, and Deirdre is left on the steps, staring out over the parking lot. A breeze whips up the stairs, under her skirt, around her body, over her arms. Fog is creeping in from the Pacific Ocean, and soon, it will be 24 hours since she last saw or heard from Rob.
How long was she going to do this? she wondered.
Deirdre picked up her bag and stood up, brushing off her skirt, putting her cell phone in her pocket. And what was it, really? If she didn’t know what it was, how could she stop doing it? Who could help her not do something if she didn’t even know how to name it or even see it?
From here, on these steps, she is a thirty-five-year-old mostly broke economics instructor with no boyfriend and a beat up, used car, and a best friend who lives three thousand miles away. Her mother lives in an assisted living community, her father dead almost thirty years, her sister Rachel in Australia raising a tribe of children and running a family medical practice.
What was she supposed to say to someone—a therapist, she supposes Kris meant.
I’m nothing, she thinks.
“Aren’t you going home?” Swarup Gupta whooshes out of the building on a breeze of air conditioning, his briefcase swinging in one hand. “I would think with your fast exit, you’d be halfway to London by now.”
“Sorry,” she says.
“No matter,” he says. “Learning Management is not the most enlightening topic in the district by any means. But it’s over for now.”
Deirdre nods, suddenly realizing that she will miss the weekly meetings, the ardent discussions, the way she was able to pretend she actually cared about any of it.
“Do you want to go for a coffee?” Swarup says. “Maybe in celebration? To all good endings.”
Deirdre looks up into his eyes, the color like a caramel in the candy bin of her childhood. His hand that clutches his bag is smooth, hairless, dark. Something shifts inside her, moves Rob and Kris and everything else to the side.
“Yes,” she says. “I’d love a coffee.”
Back when Becca got engaged to Jeff, their mother threw an engagement party. Jan was glittery with excitement, thrilled that twenty-year-old Becca had found the perfect man and was going to have the perfect wedding and then the perfect life. After a lifetime of routine celebrations, Deirdre hadn’t known her mother had it in her, all those tables, tablecloths, place settings, flower arrangements, seating cards. Deirdre was with the cousins, that vagabond foursome from Vallejo, all clumped in age around Deirdre and none of them successful or married, something Deirdre’s mother thought a good sign.
“We certainly don’t need more of them. Even their mother finally admitted that,” Jan said. “Tina’s okay. But mostly, I’ll only allow they can get married once they’re infertile.”
“Mom!” Deirdre said. “That’s horrible!”
Jan waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought the same thing. Come on! Those ears! Those foreheads! It’s like the new stone age family.”
Deirdre was shocked that Jan remembered The Flintstones.
And yet where had Jan seated Deirdre? Next to her cave family, all of them—including her—drinking the champagne that the catering staff kept pouring.
“Is the marriage going to work?” one of the cousins asked.
Deirdre had a yes on her tongue, but something inside her kept her quiet. She shrugged.
Cousin Tina, already tipsy, said, “Work or not! Here’s to the happy couple!”
Deirdre drank, knowing that this was the nicest thing anyone had said so far. Later, she remembered it as the nicest thing of all.
During the dinner, Becca sat next to their grandmother and uncles and their mother’s special friends, the ones they’d known since they were all born. Deirdre and Becca always endured this group, the slow talk about nothing important, their grandmother talking about people they’d never met, their uncles about nodding over Parcheesi, dam engineering, asparagus planting tips. The old friends went on and on about bridge hands, sidewalks, and the local drugstore.
Rachel hadn’t been able to make it to the engagement party, already in Australia doing her residency, though she promised to come for the wedding weekend. Becca smiled with her bright white teeth, a trembling glow about her, her eyes wide and brown and hopeful. Jeff sat to her left, his arm around her, holding onto her knobby shoulder. Now and then, Becca would turn, looking for Deirdre, finding her and giving her the signal, the one she and Deirdre had perfected throughout their childhood. No one, not even Rachel, understood how to do it or what it meant.
Raised eyebrows, wide eyes, slightly (if studied) scary smile.
Help me, the look broadcast. Get me the hell out of here.
Later, after dinner, the party retired to Jan’s living room for coffee and dessert. Deirdre went to the kitchen to hide in the pantry, staring at the rows of beans and jars of olives as the catering crew bustled around the sink and dishwasher. In a flash of fluorescent light and laughter, Becca burst in and closed the door behind her.
In the dark, it was like when they were girls, both of them hiding from something (probably Rachel), whispering secrets, waiting for something exciting to happen.
“My god,” she said, grabbing onto Deirdre and pressing her tight. Becca’s skin was slightly clammy, her cheek warm. She smelled like sugar and flowers, her breath almost as visible as cotton candy. “God, Dee Dee. Save me. Get me out of here. They’re all talking about Parmesan cheese!”
As Deirdre had imagined during their walk, chat, coffee, flirting, heat, Swarup was smooth, strong, and married, his wedding band a slick gold skid over her skin. He made love silently, using neither Bengali, Hindi, nor English to communicate anything. His hands did all the talking, slippery and fast like brown fish in a swift stream. Before she knew it, they were both done and both satisfied.
Now as she watches him dress, she uses all her powers to keep the ugly thing at bay. But the ugly thing is big and dark and powerful. Not even good sex can keep it from driving up to her house in its Jeep, stomping up the front path, barging through the door, and pushing open her bedroom door. Unlike Swarup, the ugly thing talks, and now it’s whispering things that she can almost hear:
You are sad and…
You don’t know what love…
Your mother was right about…
No one really…
Swarup tucks in his shirt, zips his pants, and buckles his belt. With a slight shudder, she sees his slip on, probably-not-leather shoes, and the ugly thing grows louder.
You did it again. What a sad piece of work you are. Have you really taken a look at this guy?
Deirdre sees that Swarup hears his own ugly thing, too. He rushes with his shoes, his jacket. Already, he’s back at home with his wife, eating vegetarian curry, and hoping he doesn’t reek of Deirdre’s scent. He wishes he could ask to take a shower, but he doesn’t want to stay one more second in her house.
“I’m . . . Well,” Deirdre begins.
“I know,” Swarup says. “It’s sometimes amazing how these things happen.”
He won’t meet her gaze, fumbling in his shirt pocket for his glasses. “I hope you have a very nice summer break. I’ll see you in the fall.”
By fall, Deirdre will have gotten off the committee, moving on to something else. She’ll never have to go to the district office again, only seeing Swarup's name in emails about server, internet, and technical issues.
“Thanks,” she says as she swings her legs over the side of the bed, clutching the top sheet to her body. At her movements, Callie raises her head, tags jangling.
“See you soon.”
Swarup nods, looks at her for a half a second, and then ducks out of her bedroom. In a one two, she hears the front door open and close.
With a start, Deirdre realizes she hasn’t thought about Rob since her phone call with Kris. As she sits on the bed, she tries to pull close something important about Rob: his voice, his smile, his work, his eyes. She can see all of him—even his ratty flip flops he wore around his house and hers—but nothing moves her, her vision dead calm, even flat dried-out.
She tries to conjure forth something novel about Swarup, something that shocked, amazed, inspired her, but their lovemaking has already faded into a memory, tucked next to the other memories of not-so-much.
Not one part of her wants to chase him down the front path and into the driveway. Not one part of her cares.
One evening in the second year of Becca and Jeff’s marriage, Jeff sat in his most comfortable living room chair watching the Raiders struggle to remain relevant. Heading out of the kitchen, Becca walked past him and down the hall toward their bedroom.
“I don’t feel good,” she said.
“Get some sleep,” Jeff said, probably wishing he weren’t glad he had this football game all to himself.
But two hours later—the game over, the loss recorded as the terrible finale to the worst season of all time—he walked into the bedroom to find an almost comatose Becca.
He shook her, and she mumbled, “Leave me alone.”
And then she died.
Of course, it didn’t really happen like that. First, there was Jeff’s frantic 911 call. Then the EMTs and their machines and questions. There were Jeff’s answers: Type 1 diabetes, sick, neuropathy, kidneys.
There were the other terrible calls to Jan, to Deirdre herself, and, later, to Rachel, who finally managed to make it home from Melbourne, she the one finally able to convince Jan that nothing, nothing, nothing was left of Becca’s brain. Then there was the hospital vigil, the family, the relatives, the oldest friends, the crying, the talking, the pulling of all the plugs that kept Becca alive for five long days.
And then, really, she died.
Deirdre has turned in all her grades and now sits on her porch. No one drives down the road. Not a plane flies overhead. Even the neighbor’s next door are on vacation, they cautiously telling Deirdre they’d be away. In their eyes, she could see their belief that she will ransack the place.
But she has no energy for wrack and ruin, even though she’s sure there’s something better to eat in there than in her own house, her kitchen a picked-over disaster.
Callie lays on her side, tail flopping. She knows that Deirdre is thinking about her, and that’s enough to make her happy to thump thump her tail on the old porch boards.
Robins haggle for berries in the overgrown privet. Titmice chitter in the oaks. The sun goes down, leaving nothing but orange glow.
She’s so tired, she wonders if she siddles up to Callie and falls asleep, if she will stay asleep. Is what Becca thought after all the years of struggle and ignominy? Needles, tests, hospitalizations. All that urine in cups. All that blood on sticks. The toe. The ovary. Gone.
Maybe Becca didn’t need to do it anymore. She loved her family. Her sisters. Her mother. Her husband. But enough was enough. She’d been done. She knew what she was doing. Same as with the limerick. Just like with the costume. Everything for effect. All Becca had to do was lie down and then there would be a party afterward. Everyone would dress up. Everyone would pay attention.
How was Becca was always in control of her life? How could she see everything? On that day of football, did Becca know there was nothing to live for? Is there? Deirdre can’t answer that. But she gets off her chair, sits next to her dog. Callie is warm and furry and smells like dust and the day’s heat. Deirdre puts an arm around her, opens her eyes to the yard. Waits.