Paintings by Julie Adler
lready, what a day. The bird is battering itself against the window. There’s a nest somewhere over the doorframe. Claire can’t open her eyes because of what she might see—their clothes scattered on the floor, the glass of orange juice and water on the bedside table with the pulp settled to a cloud at the bottom and her lipstick blotted on its rim, accusatory somehow, as the glasses she unloads from the dishwasher, clean save for her stubborn lipstick, are also accusatory. She has to wash them twice. In the kitchen now is a stack of dirty dishes, though when she and her husband, Hal, returned from last night’s party she plunged her arm into the greasy gray dishwater to scoop the drain free of food. She had walked with the oatmeal slop in her hand to the bathroom to blame him. “This is truly disgusting,” she said. “This is what happens when you don’t rinse them.” But it was her fault, too, for making oatmeal every morning and leaving the dirty pot on the stove.
After that they fought because she had wanted to leave the party earlier than Hal did. He was drunk, and he left the fight to take a shower. She followed. He stood under the stream of hot water with his eyes closed and his hair plastered to his forehead while she talked at him. And then, unexpectedly, she was sobbing. Hal hugged her, and the water streamed between their stomachs.
As she was crying there was a real, solid kind of grief in her chest, but there was also a cold part of her that rose out of that to watch. That part knew that by crying she had won Hal’s tenderness, and a portion of the hot water. She had won by making him feel guilty.
The watching part of her was emotionless, in a way Claire never was. For her, it felt like everything, joy or sadness, took root. Twenty-eight was too young for the broken blood vessels under her eyes. It wasn’t just bags but tiny purple veins, as though burst from the effort of crying.
But then there was this cold entity that watched. Werewolf, she thought, and this disturbed her. She had rarely acknowledged this second self, not because it was small or didn’t often make an appearance, but because it was ever present. And in the past, when she had become aware of it, her private thought was that this witness-self was something that brought her close to God. She had never thought it was malicious. Werewolf. The water ran between them, and her stomach turned. She thought, What if I am bad?
In bed she climbed on top of Hal and had sex the way she did when she was drunk. To fall asleep she said a mantra to herself so she would stop thinking about badness or goodness.
The next morning she isn’t thinking of those things. She is thinking of the hangover she may have, and she’s afraid that opening her eyes will confirm it. Hal’s arm is slung over her body. Some drama peaks in his dream and his hand spasms, squeezing the little pouch her stomach makes when she lies on her side. It startles her. The sudden awareness of her sagging stomach makes her queasy. Though she shouldn’t feel that way. It is a good body.
It’s hangovers that make her body feel uninhabitable—physically but also, perhaps primarily, because she is wracked with guilt. She is married, she has her own family unit now, and soon, perhaps in a year or so, she hopes to have a baby. Still, the morning after she drinks, her mind goes right away to her parents. And thinking of them makes her feel sad, as though she’s let them down. It makes no sense.
She wants to sleep all day, but today is her Sunday with Paul. Though the idea of driving to get him, eating cheap pizza, and going to the trash kind of movie he likes feels nearly unbearable.
By now Paul has probably showered, dressed, and put on his cologne, and is waiting outside for her, as he does even on the coldest days, even when she calls to tell his aide she’s running late. Or once, when she had to cancel, the aide couldn’t get him to come back inside. Not for a couple hours.
She gets out of bed, knowing she can bear it. Even Paul’s cologne (her own doing, a present from the discount bin) that he douses himself with is something she will bear.
Today needs a lot of makeup, and she takes her time bringing her face back to life. Her eyes are rimmed red from the crying. Hal comes into the bathroom and runs his nails across her bare back. “That was some hot lovemaking,” he says. Their lovemaking, like her crying, is slightly hazy. But she knows she was somehow different. Better, maybe. As in, wilder.
Hal is in and then out of the shower, and she is still finishing her makeup. The mirror keeps fogging with his steam so Claire has to wipe it. He wraps his arms around her and puts his mouth to her ear: “Hello, werewolf.”
The sudden clarity of that word, breathed against her ear, jolts her. It was like gunpoint, which is crazy, but that was her thought—a gun.
It’s like he’s found her out.
“Don’t call me that,” she says.
“You’re pretty proud of yourself aren’t you? Fooling everyone.”
“Am not,” says Claire. “I hate that game. I hate being werewolf. It makes me so nervous. My main strategy is just pure ignorance.” She does, she hates the game.
He runs his hands over her hip bones.
“Hello, it’s me,” he says. “I’m your husband, remember? You can’t fool me. I see you. You’re playing the game right now.”
“Please,” she says, and can feel her palms and feet begin to sweat, like they did when she was picked as the werewolf. “I really don’t. I don’t get it.”
“Come on, now. Drop the fake-innocence shtick. There’s no one watching.”
“Give me a break,” she says, applying her lipstick. She feels like she is shaking but draws her lips in neatly.
She turns around to kiss Hal. His beard is wet, and his mouth tastes of mint and last night’s drinks. He tries to dart his tongue into her mouth, but it is too fast and wet for her to enjoy. She pulls her mouth away and burrows her face into the warm, soapy-smelling darkness of his neck.
Hal does know her, of course he does, and he’s right, of course. She’s still playing.
Then she thinks, but I really don’t know how the game is played. And it really does make me nervous.
And who is defensive in this way? It is the werewolf. She thought it was Claire for a moment, but it was still the werewolf.
Well. The game does make her nervous. Last night, when the party was winding down and the group gathered to play Werewolf, Claire’s feet and hands began to sweat. And yet she announced to Hal, just loud enough for the circle of players to hear, that she was scared to death of being chosen as werewolf. That whoever was God, who did the choosing, better not pick her. She was naïve, she was nervous. But the werewolf was not. Through announcing her fear, she ensured she would be chosen as werewolf, and that the others would not suspect nervous, sweet Claire. Already the werewolf was strategizing. But Claire was separate from that. Claire was afraid.
In the beginning, she really didn’t understand just how the game was played. At least, certain minor components, like the detective or the guardian angel. But what she did understand was her own role as werewolf, in which everyone would close their eyes and pretend to be a town that had gone to sleep, and then God, played by one of her friends, would tell the werewolf to open their eyes and “kill” someone. At this point she felt her face change from its peaceful, sleeping state to something maniacal and feral, and she’d open her eyes and point to the person she wanted to kill, careful not to rustle her dress as she pointed. Then she’d return her face to its sleeping peacefulness so she could wake authentically as a townsperson and talk over who they all suspected the werewolf to be.
After each killing, Claire tried to be kind—defensive of those who were accused of being the werewolf and suspicious only of those making accusations. And throughout each round Claire asked questions about how the game was played, whose answers, in all honesty, she did not have figured out. (Though again, was that the werewolf playing the game, posturing innocence even in her private thoughts? Yes, it probably was. This freaked her out.)
She reapplies her lipstick, which is smudged from kissing Hal.
It was effortless to play the part of a townsperson. She just played herself. All she had to do was shut off the part of her brain that knew she was the werewolf. In that way it didn’t feel like lying. She was a terrible liar (or rather, lying upset her, so she chose to be terrible at it) but in high school and college had been a good actress, and between killings she thought nothing of the werewolf.
At the end of the game, once everyone had been killed off with no votes accusing her, she revealed her identity. Her friends shook their heads in disbelief and laughter, and glanced sidelong at her, saying things like, “You think you know someone.”
Because she couldn’t deceive her closest friend at the party, or Hal, she killed them off in the first and second rounds so she wouldn’t have to.
She says to Hal, “You’re right. I’m a mastermind, and I’m playing the game right now.” It comes out sarcastic when she means it to sound genuine, a confession to uproot the werewolf’s strategy.
How absurd, to be thinking mastermind about a silly game that necessitates manipulation and deceit. That’s just how you play if you want to win.
But it’s not the game, she thinks, in the car to pick up Paul with the radio blasting for distraction. It’s what the game reveals: that all the sweetness and kindness and feelings and tears that she displays to the world could be driven by some essentially bad second self.
She isn’t sure what that second self wants, but it has something to do with winning.
As a child, she was a liar. She remembers only three lies, but with a clarity that recalls the cold watchfulness she slipped into during their aftermath.
Only one of them seems to matter, but she lingers in the other two.
The first, she was waiting for the school bus with her dad in his truck. It was raining. The bus sped past their driveway without stopping, so her dad honked the horn and the bus pulled over. She had to get out and run through the rain. When she boarded, a girl who was in her first-grade class said, “Hey, isn’t it your birthday?” The way she said it was somehow mean, because the girl was a bully. The bus lurched forward, and Claire nodded yes and braced herself down the aisle of seats. It wasn’t her birthday. It was the day before her birthday. The bus driver overheard and he made the bus sing. At school they announced the lie over the intercom, her class sang also, and her teacher gave her a doughnut with a candle in it.
She cried as soon as she came home and saw her dad. He listened to what had happened and lifted her into his lap, even though her rain gear was dripping wet. The next day, her real birthday, passed like any other regular day.
The second, playing Marco Polo on the playground, she ran with her eyes closed into the slide. She’d just grown in her front tooth the month before. Her mouth was bleeding, and she ran her tongue over the jagged stub where her front tooth had been. When she opened her mouth, her friends gaped and said, “Oh my God,” some screaming and some laughing. The teacher let her look into the classroom’s bathroom mirror, and then her parents came to pick her up.
She told them that someone had pushed her into the slide. They wanted the bully’s name. In Claire’s teens, when her fake tooth still gave her problems (a root canal, bloody gums), her dad said, “Come on, out with it, stop protecting that little fucker.” But she laughed out of fear and shook her head. She couldn’t confess. Too much time had gone by.
And then there was the third.
She was sitting on the pink window seat at her grandma’s house. It must have been Christmas, because Paul, her cousin, and his little brother, Reuben, were there with their mom, Aunt Ray. Claire was six at the time, which would’ve made Reuben seven and Paul nine. She can even remember her shirt: plaid and red. Her mom knew something was wrong, even before Claire left dinner and went to the window seat to be alone. Her mom followed.
Here’s what she didn’t want to tell, what she had yet to tell anyone: earlier that day, a man who worked on her grandmother’s farm took her into an old gardening shed that had been converted into a playhouse for the children. There were bunk beds inside the playhouse. They climbed up to the top bunk. The man took his pants off and asked her to touch him. She doesn’t remember if she did or not. All she remembers is that he kissed her, deeply enough so that she could feel that he had no teeth, even though he was a younger man. She wanted to get away, but was afraid of going down ladders.
So instead she told her mom that she’d been playing with her cousins in the bath that day, and Paul went outside and came back with a stick and poked her with it.
Her cousins were upstairs getting ready for bed, and her mom took her hand and led her to the bottom of the stairwell, and yelled up for them, her voice shaking in fear and anger. Paul and Reuben came and stood on the stairs, in the Christmas hats that Grandma had knit for all three kids, lumpy hats with bells and too many points.
“Paul,” said Claire’s mom, “did you poke Claire with a stick?” “What?” asked Paul. And her mom said, “So you didn’t go get a stick while Claire was in the bath and poke her with it?” Paul shook his head. Rueben shook his head also and said, “We didn’t even have a bath today.” Then Aunt Ray came to the top of the stairs and Claire’s mom explained again what had happened. Ray went down to where Paul was standing on the stairwell, his cheeks red as he started to cry. She put her arms over his shoulders and asked, “Did you hurt Claire in the bath?” And Paul said, “No,” and Reuben said, “I swear it, he didn’t.”
Reuben was always defending Paul, because Paul had Down syndrome and was smaller than Reuben, though he was two years older. It went like that for a long time, her cousins, who were her best friends, looking down at her in bewilderment and her aunt with her arms over Paul’s shoulders, saying, “But it’s true, I gave them their bath last night. They didn’t take a bath today.”
Why Claire told this lie she doesn’t understand. She said Paul had poked her, but she doesn’t remember specifying that he poked her between the legs, though she must have said so. And she remembers the lies she told in the doctor’s office later that week so vividly, as though the resolution of her life was turned up for that one moment, but turned down again for the part where he examined her, which she doesn’t remember at all. She remembers sitting on the edge of the exam table in her paper gown, searching her imagination for details to make the lie richer—Paul went outside (here she imagined him going out the back door) and found a stick in the snow (she imagined him searching by their grandma’s hedge) and brought it back inside, where he jabbed it at her. “It still had some snow on it,” she told the doctor.
Years later her mom would remark on the calmness and clarity with which Claire was able to express what had happened to her. And at only six years old. Her mom recounted the story many times, but only to Claire. How brave Claire was for such a little kid, and how her mom had known, had just known, that something wasn’t right. Her mom used the word “abuse” for what had happened with the stick in the bathtub. Though of course it was complicated, since Paul was also so little, since he had Down syndrome.
Why Paul? She could just as easily have accused Reuben. Or was it possible that even at age six she knew that Paul was the weaker one, that people would only believe the lie if it were her word against his?
Afterward, at family dinners, whenever Claire spoke, Aunt Ray watched her with a knowing look that said, They think you’re so sweet but I see you. She’d draw her son into her lap and stroke Paul’s hair and cheeks and let him eat with his fingers off her dinner plate, and she’d watch Claire. Or so it seemed. Claire—with her good grades, dance recitals and plays all through middle school, and then high school while Reuben stole candy, then lighters, then beer, and Paul got fat. Paul ate and ate and ate at these family dinners, heaping his plate with spaghetti and garlic bread; and though as a little boy he was so thin his skin was almost translucent, he grew into a 200-pound, five-foot-tall teenager. One summer night their grandma had yelled at him across the dinner table, “Stop jamming your face,” and said to Ray, “Your boy’s a pig. Why don’t you teach him manners?”
“You’re all a bunch of assholes,” Ray said. She pushed her chair back and it fell over. She went out on the porch, slamming the door so hard behind her that it bounced back open and stayed that way, as Ray’s cigarette smoke came into the kitchen.
“Oh that’s good, swear in front of the kids,” Grandma yelled out to her. “No wonder your boys are such animals.”
Paul continued eating his spaghetti, neatly dabbing his mouth with a napkin after each bite. Claire began to clear the table. “Good girl,” her grandma said.
And through boarding school and college and afterward, when she brought home clean-looking boyfriends and then married one of them, she was a good girl. She picked up Paul from his group home every Sunday, and they went to the Y and floated around and then they went to Denny’s for dinner, or sometimes the sub-sandwich place, and afterward a movie at the theater or else she bought him VHS tapes for a dollar apiece at the Goodwill. She never watched those tapes with him though—she’d only once visited his group home, a trailer that smelled of overcooked batches of hamburger meat that the aide cooked up for nightly dinners of Hamburger Helper. On the night she had stayed for dinner, the aide, a slouchy, nearly humpbacked woman on oxygen named Pam, had them all take hands (sticky, clammy hands) while she recited the Lord’s Prayer. After Pam prayed, Paul said he would like to say a prayer also, and he put his hands together in front of his heart and said that the Lord had made this his family, and would He please protect them all, and then with his eyes squeezed closed, he said he could hear Grandma saying from heaven that she loved everyone and that Claire was an angel, amen. Claire forced the gray meat into her mouth and drank the glass of water full of ice cubes that tasted like freezer. The other kids were looking at her, but they weren’t really kids—they were one man and one woman, though the woman kept licking her hands and the man wore a bicycle helmet with neon-green racing stripes down the sides.
After dinner Claire sat on Paul’s bed and watched one of the VHS tapes she’d bought him, Air Bud it was called, about a golden retriever that played basketball. His room smelled of dampness, dirty hair, and potato chips, and there were two towels tacked over the room’s only window. An air-conditioning unit was on, and the air fluttered the towels out into the room. There was a knocking noise, which Claire thought was someone at Paul’s bedroom door, but when she answered it, she saw it wasn’t someone knocking on the door but the boy with the bicycle helmet banging his head against the hallway wall. She never visited for dinner again. But afterward she kept Paul out for longer and took him to the nighttime movies sometimes, which cost $5 more than the matinees, and let him get whatever he wanted at Denny’s, though she knew it was wrong to let him eat like that (double bacon cheeseburgers with ketchup and extra pickles, but no onion, mustard, lettuce, or tomato) with his weak heart and all. That people with Down syndrome died early was a thing she knew but didn’t understand, had never looked into enough to understand; and she couldn’t look into it, could hardly think about it. She had never seen a person with Down syndrome that had gray hair or wrinkles, but then again she hadn’t seen many others with Down syndrome at all, only a memorable few, perhaps a dozen.
Excerpt from the Novel ‘Family Life’
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