By Andrew Nicholls
Gregory looks not-too-closely at the babysitter in her tight jeans with her tiny teeth and tries to remember his age. When did kids get so brash with their elders? He would never have asked his friends’ parents how old they were.
“Forty-three or forty-two,” he answers. “I forget which.”
Jennifer’s forehead wrinkles. “How can you not remember how old you are? I thought that didn’t happen until you were like ninety.” The rise-and-dive on the last two syllables confirming her youth, her generation’s protective mockery.
Gregory stands at the kitchen island, Jennifer perches on one of the three tall stools with the wicker seats. Beth’s out at her group. With the hanging copper pots and new cabinets in light polished wood his kitchen looks warm, welcoming. Last night during dinner he asked Beth, how come our parents’ kitchens never looked welcoming? Because, she guessed, their remodel cost more than half her father’s annual salary.
“I started mentally adding a year when I was twenty-eight to help me get used to thirty,” he says, “so it wouldn’t be a shock when it dropped.” A word he’s heard kids use for movie openings and albums.
“Weird,” Jennifer laughs. She has her plum-dark hair done up behind her head in a complicated braid-thing, the two ends connected with a clip at the back so the top of her head looks like a stove ring. With her black ironic glasses and admirable posture at the kitchen island she’s like a miniature secretary awaiting dictation. Her head’s small, as are her hands, even, Gregory thinks, in proportion to her light frame. Puppet hands. She folds her arms beneath her breasts and bounces rhythmically against the butcher block. A girl is not a woman scaled-down, Gregory thinks. It’s a different proposition. Over her yellow tee Jennifer wears a brown cardigan, a Christmas gift, with half a bear face on each side, so when it’s done up the bear halves come together and the pockets are cheeks. It’s buttoned now; he’s turned the house heat down for the night.
“My dad’s forty-eight,” she says. “He never forgets to tell us. You’ll have to lift it, sweetie; I’m forty-eight here!” She laughs again and he sees her slim tongue. She’s pretty and confident, if a little theatrical. Gregory can see why his three-year-old daughter loves her. She’s smart, funny, someone for Kimmy to like but also to aspire to be. Thinking of this, he loves the babysitter too. He wants to hug her, to encourage and inspire her. She’s like a sprig of something, she freshens the room.
“You’re seventeen, right?” he asks. “I know it’s seventeen or sixteen.”
“Sixteen,” she says, mock-offended. In an exaggeratedly mature voice: “Why, I can’t even remember being sixteen.” She laughs and stretches.
“Okay, seventeen, sorry.” He likes this goofy conversation, and the fact that she’s seeming to enjoy it, isn’t trying to be friendly just because it’s Friday, the day Beth pays her. “So you’ve got college lined up? The deadly academic grind? We already talk about this?”
“Holyoke,” she says, turning down the corners of her mouth, warding the evil eye off her ambition. “Biology.”
Gregory gets himself a glass of water. “Want some?” She says please. He could see her as a teacher – the love of children, her attention to detail. “So what’s cooking these days in Bio?”
He runs it till it’s cold. The ice machine on the new fridge is broken; they’ve been using a tray, which he doesn’t enjoy handling, the spill and slop. When he was a boy in his mother’s kitchen he’d take the tray from the freezer after half an hour and shake it to watch the bubbles dance, then poke his finger through the yielding skins, crushing ice-alien eggs. It made him feel complicated, as though he might build himself out of thousands of such small experiments. Now he’s pretty well built, finished and done.
She says, “For this year’s science fair I did a study of how hunters in different cultures use animals’ own instincts and behavior to trap them.”
“Yeah? Like how?”
“Well,” she says, shimmying on the stool, eyebrows arched, her mouth professorially exact, “there are, in alphabetical order, Deadfalls, Nets, Pits, Snares, and Specialized Methods. Want to know more about the Specialized Methods?”
“Sure.” He does want to know. He can keep learning all his life, then he can teach everything to Kimmy.
“Okay!” Jennifer makes church hands and looks over his shoulder into the middle distance, her bright academic future. “Some Eskimos? will plant a sharp blade upright in the ice and wet it with rabbit blood. A wolf comes and licks the blade, so it cuts its own tongue, but keeps licking because it keeps tasting blood? So, it bleeds to death.”
She hugs her bear-chest, frowning. “Or, for example, lynx don’t like to get wet. They’re cats, right? So trappers in the northwest – no, wait! No, that’s right, northwest – put a trap on top of a log and put the log over a stream. Mister Lynx uses the log as a shortcut to stay dry and… snap!” She bounces joyfully on the stool. “Or, in Newfoundland there’s a weight attached to muskrat traps, because when a muskrat’s caught, its instinct is to swim deeper?” She muskrat-swims, making bubble sounds. “So when it dives down, it pulls the weight off this shelf it was balanced on? So it drowns.”
“Pretty grim study.” College will chip the question marks out of her speech, he thinks. He can see her a few years from now as someone’s favorite teacher, a life-saver in a small town.
“Yeah. But it was interesting, especially if I decide to become a trapper. So where’d you go for college? Was it any good?”
“Are you kidding? Look at me,” he says. She laughs. He’s in sweats and tennies but tonight he’ll probably give the whole exercise thing a pass. “Dartmouth,” he tells her. “Didn’t finish,” he says, sliding the water over next to her half-a-Pop-Tart. “I picked up most of the computer stuff on my own. I was a tech Wild Man.”
He wants to be an example of a fun adult so she knows there are some, that not everyone his age is just a job title, a parent. Jennifer had a problem with a former employer, her mother whispered to him and Beth. Some inappropriateness. He feels he has to make up for that too. He hopes that if for example Kimmy had puked on Jennifer so she had to shower before going home, and if the guest shower was broken so she had to use theirs and she walked into their bedroom naked while he was in there reading, with her small breasts and unassuming tuft, that he would turn his eyes away, make a joke, tell her where to find a robe. He doesn’t want her to believe all men his age are lechers, although in his experience he’d have to say they mostly are. He’d like her to believe some adults are capable of restraining themselves. That some of the mothers in town, when they say they’re going to a group once a week without their husbands, a group that ends at no fixed time, are actually going to a group.
“College is gonna be fun,” Jennifer says. “I’m looking forward to all the reading, believe it or not. My Mom’s a reader. My dad isn’t.” She’s on the middle stool so he has to sit beside her with his water and a ripe tomato on a plate with the new ceramic knife which is supposed to never need sharpening. She smells of lavender shower soap. Her clean, compact existence. She could probably put her whole life in two storage boxes.
“Sometimes I look at the two of them and I can’t imagine what they ever saw in each other. I looked under their bed last week, just to get some clue to who either of them are, what they’re into? All I found was my mom’s stupid Cosmo Quiz: Do You Seek Enough Pleasure? And my dad’s sad jerk-off mags.”
Gregory slices the firm tomato and pretends not to understand. “Everyone’s a jerk about something,” he says, not looking up. “He’s your dad, you’ve gotta cut him some slack.” He hopes the pretense of misunderstanding will end it neatly right there, put him on the other side of a firm divide.
She laughs pityingly, just like that becoming older than him. “Not about being a jerk,” she says. “Jerk-off magazines, with pictures. Old school. Some movie star wannabe on the cover and cigarette ads on the back.”
He dips one half of the tomato in his salt but doesn’t put it in his mouth.
“Which made me wonder, do my parents even have sex any more? Like, do you think it’s all over for them at forty-eight and forty-five?” There’s a covert searching as she finds his eyes. He pretends not to know that look. “I’m guessing you didn’t ask them that,” he says, breathily. He reaches for more salt though his plate has a pile.
“Are you kidding?” She licks one fingertip and dabs her pink Pop Tart icing crumbs. “They’re both wound up like clocks. They never even gave me The Talk.” Dab, dab, lick. Gregory tries to think of a way to craft this into a parable about babysitting or animals of the northwest but his mind comes up blank. What else is Jennifer into that they can discuss? Wasn’t she in the school musical?
“Seriously though, do you have those magazines anywhere in the house?”
He subroutines the conversation, looking for a safe way back to the dock. “Most men probably do,” he tells her, studying his tomato. “My dad did.” Trying to make hers seem less of a freak. The truth is, he does have one, the first he bought in years, which he picked up because he heard at work that it had an interview with a 1980s programming whiz he admires. Or, that was the excuse he gave himself. There are girls in it half his age. One day, he thinks, they’ll be a third of his age, then a quarter.
“But not you,” she says teasingly. “Because you’re either forty-two or forty-three.” He reassures himself he can’t possibly appear attractive to her in his baggy sweats and after-work hair. Is this hazing something all today’s kids do, some new conversational meme he’d be familiar with if he watched more sitcoms?
“I didn’t ask you how Kimmy was today. You guys have fun?”
“You’re blushing,” she says, holding her mouth comically open. Why isn’t she? There’s no boyfriend, he recalls. A few months back Jennifer complained braggingly one night about an annoying boy at school who pushed love notes through her locker vent. He wonders if she could still be a virgin.
“I don’t find anything embarrassing about curiosity,” she says with a frank jut of her head, “Even if it’s curiosity about something sexual. I asked you your age too, I know some people think that’s rude. I don’t.” She interlaces her fingers beneath the sweater-bear’s eyes, doing a back exercise. He takes his plate to the sink. He’s not guilty of anything.
“Anyway, I don’t have many friends who are mature enough to talk to about stuff like this.” She leans her hands across the polished wood, fingers clasped, stretch-sliding until her head rests on the canoe-front of her paired arms.
“I find that hard to believe, a…”
“A cute young thing like me?” She tap-taps her heels against the stool’s crossbar. It feels to Gregory as if she has a rope around the back of his neck. He’s revealed nothing that could be used to compromise him. If she tells her parents or a friend what Gregory has or doesn’t have under his bed she’ll just come off as silly and self-serving. She watches him wash his plate. He says with a forced laugh, his back to her, “I feel like a study subject for one of your classes.”
“That’s all I need, something else to study,” she moans. “Is that Beth’s car?” He looks up, hopeful. “Nope. So, if you were my study subject, what class would this be?”
“Ancient History,” he says, then winces at the thought this sounds like an invitation to protest you’re-not-that-old.
“Biology,” she says, bringing her plate to the sink, beside him. “Sex Ed.”
He returns to the center island, trying not to look as though he’s running away from her. It’s nine-thirty, where’s his wife?
Jennifer hooks her elbows behind her on the sink. “We actually had a guy named Ed in my class when I took Sex Ed. Awkward.” The baby monitor on the counter rustles and its red light flashes.
“I thought boys and girls didn’t take it together.”
“We didn’t.” She follows him back to the center island, balancing heel-to-toe with one foot inside each tea-colored Mexican tile. “They took us out to a separate room. Unclean! You really don’t have any of those magazines? I should have studied my dad’s, found out what all the fuss is. I mean, what could possibly be in them that’s not on the internet, right? What I can’t help thinking is, doesn’t it bug my mom, him staring at pictures of naked girls?” She poses, her feet at a Degas angle. She has a slightly forbidding mother, Gregory recalls, the kind of woman who irons the guest bathroom hand towels.
“It probably does,” he says. “Bother women.” This is slightly better. More PBS, less HBO.
“It’s the biggest drive in every post-adolescent male’s life,” she offers scientifically. “All they want to do, or anyway what they want to do most. Sometimes I hear my Mom…” Gregory prepares to be consoling but she lets the thought drop, shakes her head. “So what if I fall in love with a guy at college and we get serious? What’ll it feel like for me if he’s all scoping-other-women?”
Teen insecurity, dating, college: better. Gregory nods, lower lip pouched.
“So tell me,” she says, pivoting toward him, one of her hands on the island, a ballerina pose, her face raised high, daring herself, “when you look at pictures of naked young girls, what does it feel like in your mind? And in other places?” As his lower body responds, in a flash Gregory knows what she’s doing. Jesus Christ, he thinks. After all this time.
Seven years ago, when he proposed to Beth on a rumpled bed at a beach inn in Hyannis Port, she’d been doubtful. She loved him, she said, but come on. She touched his face. Come on what, he asked. He didn’t have a ring but there were two jewelry stores on the plaza level.
“We both know I can’t trust you.”
“Trust me?” As though he couldn’t fathom.
She tendered a frown, tweaked his nipple. “Me, Diana, Llewelyn’s crazy Goth sister. The girl at the airport Ramada? The girls when you were in Philadelphia. And that’s just last year, and only the ones you told me about.”
“I told you all of them,” he said. “And you’re counting yourself, which doesn’t seem fair.” Adding, “I’ve been honest.”
She rolled onto her side. “I don’t think you can do it.” Not meanly, just a statement of steam-pressed fact. “What? Monogamy?” he asked, like it was a beginner’s dance step. “That’s what a proposal is,” he said. “That’s what I’m saying: I’ve looked all over the world and decided I only want you.”
“When you’re in bed with me you only want me.” She sat up, pouffing him with a pillow, affectionate but coming on sad. “I don’t believe a person can control what they deep-down want. What their history’s shown they want. So how do I know you won’t cheat on me, which would destroy me, Greg. It really would.” She pulled the dark hair from her face, hooked it over her ear. He thought of the names she’d listed. There were two others she didn’t know about. But last year they were only dating, neither had made promises.
“Because I’d be married to you,” he offered, weakly.
“Even tonight, after we checked in. With me right beside you.”
So she caught that. The slightest twist of his neck to acknowledge the slinky catwoman in the business suit at the bar. But he knew he could turn that off, could admire and not touch, be changed by Beth. Now she looked hurt, a look that slayed him, made him feel like a monster cradling a damaged bird.
“With your past, and what you told me about your urges, how could I ever trust you?”
“I don’t know,” he said hopelessly, casting his mind as far as it would go for an answer.
The next morning he had a call. She began breakfast outside without him. He came into the café, moved the daffodils in the silver vase to one side and took her hand holding the fork. “Test me.”
She laughed. “For what? Salmonella?”
“Here’s what you do.” During his call, doodling breasts on the phone pad, he’d thought, what if each white sheet represented one woman in his future? How many woman-pages were in that pad? Fifty? He thought of Beth meeting all the women he’d know for the rest of his life, beating him to them one at a time, one sheet ahead, warning them off, he’s my husband, stay away. If she could only do that, he thought, he’d be safe.
Then he had a revelation. She didn’t need to meet all the women to be certain. All she needed was to meet one of them, one somewhere in the middle, and for him to not know which one.
“Find a cute somebody,” he told Beth, pulling off her sunglasses. “A sexy actress, someone you know that I don’t. Hire her to flirt with me. In a city I’m visiting for business. Have her come to me at the conference, the bar, with any kind of run-up: I know her, I don’t know her, we’re co-workers, booth neighbors. Get her to hit on me.” Beth looked at his hand on her arm then back at his face, appalled and intrigued.
“Do it once a year. They’ll all come back to you and tell you I said I’m flattered but I’m happily married to the woman of my dreams. You have to do this, Beth. I want you to do this. This is how you’ll know.”
Now he watches Jennifer remove the hair clip from the back of her small head, place it on the center island with her glasses and unbutton the bear sweater. Her dark tight hair swings forward. The baby monitor plays his lovely daughter’s even breathing. He feels a swelling of admiration for his wife. He tastes the blood on the knife.
Copyright Nicholls 2022