Nellie Aberdeen

Armadillo

Natalie tells me she is leav­ing while we are look­ing at hous­es in Florida. Big flat ranch­es with mushy backyards—Natalie needs a writ­ing stu­dio with a view of some kind, I need a large clos­et that can be sound­proofed for vocal record­ing. The first few hous­es, dis­cus­sions about neigh­bor­hoods and school dis­tricts, all feels sat­is­fied and pur­posed. We are going to have a house for our child to grow up in. A house with neigh­bors not attached, but in their own pri­vate enclo­sures. I saw her eyes widen. She talked about a dog, every boy should have a dog. About the lizards. Her child grow­ing up near the ocean, not the ocean like Queens. That ocean doesn’t even smell like the ocean and a day at the beach is spent try­ing not to think about tam­pon dis­pensers and oth­er hor­rors crash­ing onto shore. Our son, Ben, thinks the Florida trees are fun­ny. They are Seussian and unclimbable, but per­fect for hang­ing a ham­mock. A boy and a dog in a ham­mock.

The air is damp. Natalie’s hair begins to shirk into curls and she says she can feel it mov­ing on her head. She looks younger, the spi­rals sweet and puck­ish. I have been offered a job down here begin­ning at the end of the month. We are mov­ing because Florida is where the voice over indus­try is, and we’ve been weary of the city for years. She says, “you love Florida,” and I do, but most­ly I don’t love New York. So we are doing it, tak­ing our shot at a sin­cere­ly adult life, with those things—the house, back­yard, rea­son­able schools with­in walk­ing dis­tance. And then she says, stand­ing in an emp­ty kitchen, her head ducked in an open cab­i­net door, “There’s no refrig­er­a­tor,” and “I think I am going to stay in New York.”

I might have argued, thought she was needling for reas­sur­ance, but her casu­al­ness stops me from ignor­ing her.

I’ve already put in notice,” I say, but it comes out regret­table, coat­ed in whine.

Right, you should move. We’ll just stay.”

I look at Ben, the oth­er part of the “we” who will just stay, and for the first time since her preg­nan­cy, I am eject­ed from the unit. They are the unit. I am the tran­sient. I am the weird ten­ant who gets too famil­iar with the land­la­dy.

We don’t talk about it again, but we stop look­ing at hous­es. We get back into the car and go back to the rent­ed time­share, word­less besides plas­ti­cy exchanges with Ben. Natalie takes Ben into the bed­room and the two change into swim­suits. When they head out to the pool, I stand in the cen­ter of the liv­ing space for some time. Eventually, I find myself lying on the floor. The thin brown car­pet smells like mush­rooms, and I don’t like it, think­ing about the job of mush­rooms, the wet decay, but I stay there, star­ing at the whirling of the ceil­ing fan, try­ing to stop the blades with my mind. They hov­er in place, shak­ing and blurred, until I have to blink and then they take over, push­ing my eyes out of focus.

The pair, my fam­i­ly, stay away for a long while. Natalie comes into the time­share loud­ly, “Steve, oh, we fell asleep. We are so hun­gry.”

I fell asleep too, arms splayed in a cru­ci­fix on the car­pet. “You fell asleep by the pool?”

Under an umbrel­la.”

That’s real­ly dan­ger­ous. He could have fall­en in while you slept.”

She squints, “Well, we’re alive aren’t we? If we aren’t starv­ing to death.”

It’s a late din­ner, after eight o’clock, much lat­er than we let Ben stay up. Later than ever, and it doesn’t feel impul­sive or fun. It feels like miss­ing a flight or for­get­ting some­thing crit­i­cal. At home, when I take Ben out for an evening movie or a boy’s night, the feel­ing is dif­fer­ent. The tyran­ny of bed­time creeps up my spine, like the need to smoke. Itchy, too sweaty, but not hot. Like I am in trou­ble. Like I am a fuck­ing kid and she’s mak­ing all the rules. Tonight, there is none of that. Natalie is care­free. I dis­crete­ly take a pic­ture of her with my phone. She is smil­ing down at Ben, seat­ed next to her, two emp­ty wine­glass­es in the fore­ground. I am grate­ful for our sucky wait­ress, who has failed to clear the dish­es. Natalie, hit­ting it hard, red­faced, and grin­ning on the night she dumps me.

This is how I will build my case, in the event I decide to fight. Semantics are crit­i­cal. She’s not leav­ing me, she’s let­ting me leave while she stays. She is mak­ing me choose, while sug­gest­ing I make the wrong choice. I need an inter­nal armistice, a but­tress of self-con­trol. As fast as she aban­dons ship, I will plant my feet.

Irrevocable, that’s what this is. Am I sup­posed to ask her what I can do to change it? Am I sup­posed to beg? Like break­ing some­thing irreplaceable—what is she always say­ing? “There’s noth­ing pre­cious here,” when some­one comes into our house and attempts to polite­ly remove their shoes. “No, no, don’t wor­ry, there’s noth­ing pre­cious here.” She thinks it’s Buddhist, but it’s actu­al­ly a hor­ri­ble, obnox­ious state­ment. And when she says “you go, we’ll stay,” I want to do some­thing dan­ger­ous. Stab her in the hand with my fork. Smack her face, just a smack. Some phys­i­cal humil­i­a­tion. Something that says, this hurts, you wan­na know how this hurts? It hurts like a big, heavy-palmed man-smack to the face. Haven’t had hurt like that, have you? Well, now you know.

Natalie offers me a spoon­ful of the brown sticky dessert she’s shar­ing with Ben, a glob of which has found itself on her chin. I tell her to wipe it, and she does, but ungrace­ful­ly and she miss­es the bulk of it. I don’t cor­rect her, and I don’t eat the dessert, slump­ing fur­ther into my uncrowd­ed side of the booth. “Let’s have anoth­er drink,” I say.

Lots of times I wor­ry about being ugly in pub­lic. Natalie doesn’t wor­ry about this stuff. She thinks every­thing she does is cute, like every­thing is charm­ing because she’s a thin and attrac­tive woman. On the flight down here, we were split across the aisle, Ben and me on one side, Natalie on the oth­er. She want­ed to rest, and she did. Openmouthed, dry, chunky sound­ing snores clang­ing out her wind­pipe. I kept think­ing I should wake her up, it was bor­der­line grotesque. I didn’t wake her. I left her hideous and intru­sive on all those around us, and this frail mem­o­ry is one that keeps me from say­ing ugly things to her in front of our son.

I could fight this. I think of me through Ben’s eyes, a shad­ow Dad. Reluctant absen­tee, oh god, and I want to throw up. How will I con­vince him this wasn’t my choice, that I’m not a run­away? I could take her to court and maybe win. Men some­times win. Get him all to myself. But, that means tak­ing him from his moth­er, and I don’t think I can do it alone. I want­ed to do it with her. Even still, I still want to do it with her. Why did I have a kid if she was just going to take him? Why did I do any of this? This feel­ing, this heinous hard knowl­edge, this heavy giant hand on my shoul­ders push­ing me down down down and scream­ing every­thing is about to nev­er be the same.

How does she think she can do it with­out me?

It’s time to go, she says.

I pay the fuck­ing bill.

Ben is wide awake, his voice careen­ing in song sweet­ly from his carseat direct­ly behind me as his moth­er buck­les him in. I put my hand behind the head­rest to feel his lit­tle hand give me a com­rade­ly slap.

I put the car in reverse and know straight­away I am too drunk. I don’t usu­al­ly have access to cars, we don’t own one in New York and I for­got to curb my drink­ing, for­got I’d have to dri­ve us back. My face warms up, like a dread­ful secret. Natalie is way too drunk to dri­ve, I have the evi­dence. I can’t tell her. I think about telling her, as I con­tin­ue onward out of the park­ing lot, but I won’t be the fail­ure tonight, I won’t be the slop­py fuck up. I focus all my ener­gy on the road and fol­low­ing the rules, click­ing my blink­er, and yield­ing to yel­low. I shut her out with a mono­logue of GPS in my mind, how to get back to the time­share. Don’t get lost, don’t go too fast, god, don’t go too slow. How many did I drink? Only three. It’s ok, I’m not drunk, but almost. I’m the hero, I am get­ting us home safe.

Stop the car,” she says.

We’ve made it to the park­ing lot of the time­share. The relief is real. It’s all that mat­ters.

Goddammit, I said, stop the car!” she screams, one arm push­ing against the dash, the oth­er fum­bling with her seat­belt.

What’s wrong?”

We are going to miss it.” Natalie opens her door while the car is still mov­ing, eas­ing into the park­ing spot.

Jesus, wait!’’ I say, very care­ful­ly guid­ing the car to a stop.

She ignores me. “Come on Ben! Hurry.”

Ben is still strapped behind me. Natalie hops out of her seat and runs around the car to Ben’s door, fling­ing it open like a lunatic. Don’t fuck up the rental car, we didn’t buy the insur­ance. Remember you said for­get the insur­ance! She unbuck­les Ben and yanks him out of the car. Holding hands, togeth­er they scur­ry through the park­ing lot and dis­ap­pear into a wall of shrub­bery bor­der­ing the side­walk.

I fol­low behind, slow­ly. I hear Natalie coo. It must be an ani­mal. This is how she talks to ani­mals that she doesn’t live with.

Out from the shrubs erupts a white armadil­lo, its skin pris­tine like the moon. It isn’t shooed, or both­ered by the dis­rup­tion of my fam­i­ly, its nose close to the ground and root­ing.

Look at him, Steve. He doesn’t even know we’re here. Look, did you know there were armadil­los in Florida? I had no idea,” and then she is silent.

He looks like a minia­ture pig, but dif­fer­ent. An alien pig in a chain­mail. But, he is the whitest, stark­est thing I have ever seen. Glowing, absolute­ly bril­liant, illu­mi­nat­ing our faces, and light­ing sparklers in my wife and son’s eyes. I want this moment of beau­ty to mean some­thing about us. But it’s a soli­tary, shal­low armadil­lo, who doesn’t give a fuck about me and the end of my life. I resist punt­ing it across the park­ing lot.

It nev­er occurred to me that we would do these things in pieces.

Natalie puts her hand in mine. “What is your prob­lem? You’ve been a jerk all day.”

A boy, a ham­mock, and an armadil­lo.

~

Nellie Aberdeen is a book­seller study­ing Midwifery in New York City. She has been pub­lished in Literary Orphans and Shotgun Honey.