It's summer, and Matt Domino thinks its a good idea to share some writing. Why? No one knows. Especially not these words. This is just sub-hed text.
Hello again, my Puddlers,
Not much of an update needed this time around—you already got the long and short of it last time around. With my days as busy as they are, I'm trying to get back in the habit of being a somewhat active participant on the Internet. Though I'm helping publish great work on a daily basis at Artsy, writing and performing in sketches, and writing fiction in short bursts longhand and then typing it up on the weekends, I haven't been in my old habit of writing something each day and seeing how it comes out on a glowing screen in front of me.
Maybe it's better off.
But then why do I feel a certain emptiness without posting?
I don't know.
(Sorry, pulled a Knausgaard there. I just can't wait until Volume 6!)
In any event, it's hot out (and its hot too). Outside my window, there's summer and plenty of it. So I'm writing and trying to get better at it and I've decided I'll keep sharing little bits here. Maybe the fiction will turn into something. Or maybe it won't. Or maybe I'll get back in that rhythm of banging out essays and think pieces again.
While you wait in suspense to find out what conclusion I come to. Here's a scene of fiction.
In the living room, heavy maroon light came from the corner lamp. Peter sat in his chair, with his feet up on a flowered ottoman. The pattern was dark, intricate, there were sweeps of petals, curls of buds, stiff, dark-hued stems. He folded the newspaper and set it down on his lap. He reached for the glass next to him. It was a short, rounded high-ball. He took of drink of his Spanish brandy. It was all he drank now. There was something about the sweetness of it, something vanilla but also hard and bitter as well. He loved dessert. As he’d gotten older, he’d developed an insatiable sweet tooth. In fact, it took the greatest self-discipline for him to not sneak some kind of chocolate or cookie during each day. The struggle for him to cut out his nightly dessert had been gargantuan.
Though he’d always been thin, he had to watch his weight. And he had to watch his blood sugar as well. Diabetes ran on his mother’s side. There was a chance he could develop it late in life as his Aunt once had. Since he couldn’t eat sweets, instead he drank his brandy, admiring the warm brown color, its reddish glow, the way it looked like syrup poured healthily in a glass. As he drank and felt the warmth of the liquor in the back of his throat, his eyes returned to the story he was reading in Newsday. There was a fire in Brentwood. A house had burned down. An entire family had burned alive—a mother, father, three children. There was a small square photo of the wreckage. A charred doorframe stood in the bottom corner. The photo was grey and unclear. He felt the hollowness in his stomach that he always felt when he read about a tragedy in the paper or saw it on CNN. First, empathy ran through him, from his gut, up into his chest. Then his shoulders tingled, goose bumps rising and falling down the slowly wrinkling flesh of his upper arm. And after that, his mind wandered. He thought first of the family and what their final moments might have been like. The heat of the flames, the smoke, the burning, the dire knowledge of knowing there was no escape. His mind danced around these gruesome images, stepping forward entranced, before retreating. And he then began to wonder what would happen in the wake of the fire. What people or parties would account for the family’s property: their home insurance, their taxes, their mortgage, all of the lost items. Who would take control of the property? The Town of Brentwood? Once he dismissed these petty, insignificant thoughts about money and paperwork, he felt a general emptiness and confusion over why the world continued to be so terrible day after day. His mind was cloudy—from the brandy, from his increasing age, from tiredness and from the fact that perhaps he just wasn’t very intelligent.
He sifted through the paper, his eyes darting from headline to headline. Justin had gotten him a subscription to the Times for his iPad, but he didn’t care to read anything on the screen. The white of the page was too bright; when he scrolled, he lost track of where he was reading too easily. Justin had told him there were things he could do to adjust the reading experience. There were settings, apps, all kinds of small inventions, each with their own small, clipped, catchy name and incandescent logo. Justin even offered to show how to install these things, to tweak settings so that he could use his device to the fullest. But Peter didn’t have the energy or the patience for it. Not that he didn’t appreciate Justin’s efforts. He was a good son. He offered his time without complaint or motive. When they talked on the phone or sat in this room together, Justin would ask him question about being a father: the methods Peter had used for getting he and Sonja to sleep through the night, or to eat vegetables, or to potty train. Justin asked him for financial advice even though Peter was no expert. He’d saved money conservatively and invested without flash or aggression and things had worked out just fine. There were Roth IRAs, small trusts, savings and a general money market account—all accounts accrued modestly. Peter did impart whatever wisdom he had gained over years of routine, of worry and of living life practically. He watched as Justin listened intently, his round cheeks and low-hung jaw would quiver and tighten with focus, the light veins along his temple would emerge. Peter often marveled at the fact that he had a son whose face physically altered itself when he was thinking. People always furrowed their brow or said they were thinking, but for Justin it almost appeared to be a physical act. In so many ways, he and Sonja could not have been more different.
And it wasn’t that he hated electronics or had no use for them. He loved his iPad or, at least, he admired it. He admired the look of it, the flatness, its solidness, the sheen of the dark surface like a volcanic stone, the way it looked laying in contrast on a couch or chair that seemed to say, yes, this is the future right here in front of you, this is the future, alive and multitudinous, in this small, shimmering rectangle. He couldn’t remember feeling that way about any television or VCR or DVD player or even a computer. But despite all that, he preferred reading on paper. The constant folding of a newspaper, the breaking in of a spine, the burdensome weight of carrying books and magazines in the carry-on bag for a flight. He knew it made him something of a Luddite, not to mention stubborn and probably impractical when it came to maximizing packing space and his own personal comfort, but he couldn’t help it. He wasn’t a crafty or tool-savvy man, so he had to savor the tactile where he could.
After sifting through the paper from front to back once more, he neatly creased it and placed it on the floor. He couldn’t focus on anything—not local Long Island news, not the Mets, Yankees or Knicks, not Obama or Syria or Russia. He lay back in his chair and took up the glass of brandy again. The shade was drawn next to him, but the bottom of the window was visible. He saw his neighbor’s back porchlight shining against the pane. Drops of rain clung at odd angles, their edges silver. Peter pulled at his shirt, touching the round, contained paunch of his belly. He palmed it like a worn, deflated basketball. He was tired and he’d been tired for some time. No matter what he’d tried to do to shake it, he couldn’t knock the malaise off. More vitamins, more sleep, less coffee. Nothing worked. He’d started running more. His doctor had given him the name of a sports medicine specialist who he’d been seeing for more advice on how to stay fit, to keep his legs and hips and back in better shape. Peter had become a runner later in life and wanted to continue on as long as he could. Hip bursitis had nagged him for the last five years and sometimes it overtook him. And he knew that if he wasn’t careful that at some point he’d have to get a hip replacement. That would be the end of it. The operation would relieve the pain, but made you stiff. Didn’t make you the same person you once were. He didn’t want that. He wanted to keep all his original parts.
It would be easy to say that his malaise was due to Sonja leaving the East coast, to the fact that they rarely spoke anymore. And he wouldn’t fault anyone or having that theory. Their closeness was the treasure in his life. It was embarrassing in a way how much he had wanted to do nothing more than impress her. Especially as she got older, it became to odd to him, discomforting. At times he felt like a teenage boy trying to impress a crush. And it was his own daughter! But she was intelligent. She had a voracious appetite for books, for knowledge of all kinds. She was a natural musician as well. It had started with the clarinet at age eight. Each grade had a certain allocation of instruments. No one had wanted to pick the clarinet. For girls, it wasn’t the flute; for boys, it wasn’t the saxophone. So Sonja had picked it. She said she liked it anyway. It wasn’t as obvious as the gold of the saxophone and as delicate as the flute. She said she liked the black and silver—it reminded her of a zebra’s leg or queen’s scepter. She picked it up right away. They moved her to the sixth grade band. Her little head barely popping above the music stand as she sat next to red-faced adolescent boys and long-necked twelve-year-old girls.
That was only the beginning. At twelve, she wanted a guitar. He couldn’t say no. he got her a used, cherrywood Cort. She’d come home from school and practice every day. First it was songs on the radio. Spice Girls. Oasis. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Then as she grew up, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Bob Dylan. Then it was REM and Pavement. Chiming, wordy, intelligent music. And she started a band with her friends when she was fifteen. They needed a bass player. She learned how to play bass; she bought it from her friend’s brother, along with an amp, for $100. When Peter asked her if she cared that she couldn’t play guitar, she said she didn’t mind. Paul McCartney did the same thing. She’d loved his songs the most. The guitar isn’t the best part of “My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The bass is. He’d been surprised and pleased to hear that. She was fifteen and if felt like she was teaching him a lesson. It was one of those unexpected moments a child will spring on you that makes you pause and smile involuntarily. And, at the time, he went back and listened to the song. And she was right.
The sound of the garage door opener buzzed through the walls. Nancy was home. He waited a few moments. Heard her shuffling steps in the garage and then metallic opening of the door into the house. Levon’s collar rattled and he trotted down the hall, his brown and white spotted tail wagging. He nosed up to Peter. Peter leaned forward, he gave Levon his hand. The dog licked it and then curled his haunch up to be scratched. Nancy emerged down the hall. Her hair was pulled in a pony tail behind her head. Her glasses were on, but tilted slightly. Peter noticed that her hair was a lighter color than it had been in the morning. She’d had a hair appointment today—he’d forgotten.
“How were the ladies?” Peter asked.
Nancy walked in and sat on the couch facing him. She slipped off her thin, short boots and rested her feet on the glass coffee table. “Business as usual,” she said. “Darcy can’t get Michelle to lose weight. Stephanie takes an eternity to show pictures of her grandson on her phone. Caroline drinks all the wine.”
Peter looked at her and smiled. “It seems like you may have helped her out.”
“I only had a little.”
“Don’t you drive our dog around drunk.”
“How dare you insinuate such a thing. Come here, Levon,” she said. Levon curled his lip and half-walked, half-bounded over to her. His rear bouncing from side to side, his haunches sheen and shining in the sleepy maroon light.
“And how was class?”
Peter waved his hand. He pointed at her. “Your hair looks nice.”
Nancy put her free hand up to her head and closed her eyes. With her free hand, she scratched Levon around his drooping jowls. She looked girlish and embarrassed, a schoolgirl who’d been asked out by the wrong boy. When she had any alcohol, her adolescent tendencies rose in her like the flush to her cheeks. She had vitality and she was still spirited. She was her daughter’s mother.
“Oh, she did a terrible job.”
“That’s why you have it pulled up.”
Nancy nodded. She leaned her face down to the top of Levon’s head. One dogseye peeked above the table. It looked first longingly, then contentedly over at Peter.
“She did a fine job,” Peter said. “It looks like maize.”
“Maize?” Nancy stuck out her tongue. “Please, Peter. Is that the best you can do?”
He took a drink of his brandy. There was just a drop left now. He wanted a little more, just one more innocent pour before bed. He could taste the last sweetness, the caramel burn, leaving the edge of his parched tongue.
“You didn’t answer me,” Nancy said.
“How was class?”
He finished the last of the brandy and held his glass on his stomach. A sigh escaped his lips. It surprised him when he heard the sound in the air.
Peter shook his head. “I don’t know why I sighed like that.” He got up from his chair and felt a twinge in his right hip. He was used to it now. The pads in his shoes were wearing out. He’d need to replace them and then the soles as well. Really, he should be using that roller to stretch out his thighs and hamstring, but it was easy to forget. Another thing to do, another bit of maintenance. He retrieved the bottle of brandy from within the squat liquor cabinet at the back of the room. Nancy watched as he poured just a splash into his glass. In the silence Levon panted, yawned, panted.
“Class was nothing special,” he said, sitting. “It was one of those nights where for the first twenty minutes I thought I’d have them the whole time.” His waxy, flushed cheeks were like two rounded halves of apples. He swirled the brandy. “But after that, I got the usual questions. Why did so many sad things happen to Jane Eyre? Did it have to be so long? And, of course, one student had gotten confused and read the Sparknotes to Emma and referred to all the wrong characters.”
Nancy took off her glasses. She folded them and leaned forward on the couch. “That’s just how certain classes can be,” she said. “You should be used to it by now.”
“Its still frustrating.”
“Then retire,” she said.
“Just because you did?”
“Yes!” Nancy said. “Not teaching trigonometry to sixteen year olds has made me a younger woman.”
“And keeping my books is better?”
“There’s less profanity working for you.”
Peter laughed. He sat straight up and bent one leg toward him. He put pressure on his knee joint, stretching his hip. “I don’t know, Nancy,” he said. “I just don’t think anyone wants to learn anything anymore. They just want to know.”
“How many have you had?”
Nancy lay down on the couch. She placed her feet on the arm. They looked tiny from across the room. She massaged her toes in their black stockings.
“Don’t just complain,” she said. “Tell me about it.”
“Maybe I’m wrong,” Peter said. “But with all these devices, all anyone does is look up answers. If they don’t know something, they can just look it up. No one remembers or learns anything. No one goes through the work.” Peter wiped his mouth. He knew he sounded old and irrational. Nothing was ever any one way. People never did only one thing. Somewhere in the world at that moment, a student at MIT or Harvard or, hell, even some state university in Nebraska or Idaho was sitting up trying to learn—to truly study biochemistry or politics, computer science or law. Computers or iPads or iPhones weren’t crutches, they were tools. It was obvious. He knew it. But it didn’t stop him from feeling the way he did. He was tired.
“That’s one way to look at it,” Nancy said.
“I had to drive a student home tonight,” Peter said.
“Was that his iPad’s fault too?”
Peter laughed in the middle of a sip of brandy. He almost spat out the liquor but kept it down. It burned sharply in his throat. “No,” he said, his voice squeaking. “Just classic car problems.”
“Who was it?”
“This kid, Jonathan. One of those boys that just seems kind of lost.”
Peter shrugged. “Maybe. He just said he’d messed up a lot. That can mean a lot of things though.” He was quiet for a moment and thought of Jonathan Pomerantz’s white doughy face, how it was almost porcelain in complexion. “He’s a nice enough kid. Not very bright.”
“Did you have to drive far?” Nancy fought through a yawn.
“No. He actually lives off Wireless. Near where Melissa Murphy used to live.”
“Oh, Melissa,” Nancy said. Her voice was soft; she almost sang the words. And he could see his wife’s own memory of the girl, as if it filled the room.
“You know its been seven years since Sonja moved out west. Seven years exactly today.”
Nancy clicked her tongue. “Peter, you’ll lose your mind keeping track of time that way.”
“Maybe I’ve already lost it.”
“No,” Nancy said. “You’re not casual enough to be crazy.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” Nancy said. She yawned again.
Peter stared at his glass. He felt the sweetness of the brandy coating his back teeth. He rubbed his tongue along the broad edge of his molar. “She hasn’t called you or anything has she?”
Nancy sat up and looked at him. Her eyes were small without her glasses on, but she stared at him intently. “Don’t you think I’d tell you that?”
“Sometimes you haven’t in the past. And she’d be more likely to call you than to call me.”
“Children go through phases.”
“She’s almost thirty. This isn’t a phase.”
“Well, then, people also go through phases.” Nancy turned her legs and feet off the couch. She leaned forward, locking her hands together. There was a practice to her movements. So much poise and control had been ingrained in her from years of posturing before her students, in front of competitive and cynical teachers, in front of worried, hovering parents. “You know your daughter better than anyone. She wants what she wants.”
“But I don’t understand why she wants this,” Peter said. “Why she wants to cut me out.”
“She loves Lee. And she wants to live her life with him out there.”
“At this point its more than that.”
“Maybe she thinks you expect too much of her.”
“Did she say that?”
Nancy shook her head. “No, but don’t you think it might be true?”
Peter tightened his mouth. His lips were dry and he felt the ends of his chapped skin. He wanted to picture what his daughter looked like, but he couldn’t. She didn’t have Facebook, there was no online presence he could find. The extent of his searching was limited to typing her name in Google and then clicking through a few pages of results before he got anxious and gave up. The last time he’d heard from her was an email about six months earlier. It had been brief and professional as usual. Her written sentences were pointed and sharp—they’d always been that way. And he’d admired it. When she wrote a letter or a note, she said things plainly and clearly. But nothing seemed labored. Her thoughts weren’t pored over or revised, her thoughts came fully-formed and she had no problem laying them bare. It was odd. She was a passionate person, she was nimble, fiery, a shade to the right of mercurial. But her words were cold and dispassionate, colored only black and white, letters on a screen.
“Only she knows what she wants,” Peter said.
Nancy stood up from the couch and walked across the room. She crossed her arms and held her neck high. It gave her a thoughtful look, as if she were surveying a painting alone in a museum. Levon lifted his head to inspect that everything was as it should be. Seeing that it was, he dropped out of sight behind the coffee table and let out a sigh. Nancy stepped behind Peter and put her hands on his shoulders.
“Don’t sound so defeated,” she said. “Its spring. Life can change.”
Peter was tempted to put his hand on hers. He could feel her warmth through the back of the chair, along his shoulders and neck. But he was tired and maybe drunk. There was work to do tomorrow at the office and then there was class to teach in the evening. His weeks were regimented and they had a habit of dragging.
“Life is what it is,” Peter said. “It will never be anything else.” He felt Nancy’s hands lift from his shoulders. She stepped around the chair and began walking to the hallway.
“On that note,” she said. “I’m going to sleep. Don’t stay up too late wallowing.”
He watched her leave the room. Her small upper body turning into wide, downturned hips, which then shrunk to her thin, stockinged legs. Levon begrudgingly pulled himself off the floor and trotted after her. He never let her out of his sight. Peter shook his head and finished the brandy. He muttered, shit, for some reason. The room felt warm and pleasant, the dimness, the maroon light felt like a barricade, a refuge from the damp night. The ache in his hip throbbed, but he stood anyway. Blood rushed to his head, making him confused and dizzy for a moment. Life is what it is. It will never be anything else. Did he believe that? And was it true? Sometimes he said things just to see what Nancy would do. He’d done it for years—he didn’t know why. More and more it seemed as though he didn’t truly know anything. He left his glass on the small round table next to the chair. He went to the window and looked out. Fog and mist were visible through the backyard. He stared at the porch light against his neighbor’s home. Tree branches still bare in early spring dripped with slow rolls of water. After a moment, his neighbor’s light switched off. He felt like going to sleep.
When he’d had a glass of water, brushed his teeth, relieved himself, stretched his hips, undressed, and put on his white pajamas with dark blue trim, he lay beneath the covers next to Nancy. The scent of his toothpaste filled the air immediately around him. Nancy rolled on her side. He could make out the outline of her face in the dark. Her cheekbones and skin, slightly loose, silver and slightly liquid without light.
“I know this is hard for you,” she said. He didn’t know she was awake. “It is for me too.”
He reached down and grabbed her unseen hand. It was warm. And in a few moments he fell asleep. Levon was lying on the floor.