Alan Rossi ~ Our Last Year


In the kitchen some­time before sev­en in the morn­ing, after wak­ing before sun­rise to the fig­ure of his three-year-old-daugh­ter, their youngest daugh­ter, pulling him out of bed by grab­bing his arm and say­ing, pull, pull, pull, he was stand­ing in the dark, hav­ing for­got­ten to turn on the light, prepar­ing to take their youngest daugh­ter to school, think­ing that he need­ed to put grass-fed, organ­ic mac and cheese in a Tupperware con­tain­er then organ­ic straw­ber­ries in a small­er Tupperware con­tain­er then organ­ic, non-GMO veg­gie straws in a small, brown, com­postable sand­wich bag, all things he had done the morn­ing before and the morn­ing before that, with small vari­a­tions, and which, he thought, he was about to do again now, and which he would do – feel­ing the almost effort­less stu­pid­i­ty of it – for many more days after this one, dis­lik­ing that he was doing it, until, most like­ly, he no longer had to do it any­more, until both his daugh­ters were grown and there was no longer any need to pre­pare their lunch­es in the morn­ing. Now, think­ing of that future moment in which he no longer had to make his daugh­ters’ lunch­es, rather than feel­ing relief that he would no longer have to devote time mind­less­ly to doing the same mun­dane thing every morn­ing, he knew he would miss it, and not only miss it but nos­tal­gi­cal­ly want that time back, want the doing of it back if not the think­ing about the doing of it, and so he told him­self to appre­ci­ate what he was doing, to be grate­ful for it. Though he wasn’t. He knew he wasn’t.

While he was pulling with his hands – he didn’t both­er to get a spoon – some refrig­er­at­ed mac and cheese from a large Tupperware con­tain­er and putting it into a small­er Tupperware con­tain­er, his youngest daugh­ter was run­ning around the kitchen, yelling, Daddy, dad­dy, pink yoghurt, pink yoghurt, and he told her to hold on, he was fin­ish­ing mak­ing her lunch, and when he fin­ished putting every­thing in the appro­pri­ate con­tain­ers, as soon as he found the pink yoghurt in the refrig­er­a­tor, opened it, got a spoon from the draw­er for her, and hand­ed it to her, she stopped run­ning and looked at him plain­ly and direct­ly and said, No. Veggie straws please. He said, Okay, re-cov­er­ing the organ­ic Greek yoghurt with plas­tic wrap. He quick­ly rinsed his hands at the sink. Then he went to the pantry and sur­veyed it, box­es and box­es of non-GMO, organ­ic, processed food. The types of snacks that he and his wife bought for their daugh­ters had caused them to slip into a vague­ly sar­cas­tic form of jok­ing about their own sup­pos­ed­ly sus­tain­able prac­tices: they called their daugh­ters the non-GMO-daugh­ters because they tried to feed them organ­ic foods, which includ­ed all of the processed foods they bought, like Cheetos and tor­tilla chips and gum­my bears and break­fast bars. He thought of being at the gro­cery store one day with his wife, and while she placed ten box­es of organ­ic, non-GMO mac­a­roni and cheese in their cart – it was on sale – he had loud­ly said just as anoth­er moth­er and father were enter­ing the aisle that he was real­ly glad both of their daugh­ters were one hun­dred per­cent organ­ic humans. I’m proud, he had said in a seri­ous, politician’s voice, that our daugh­ters are all-nat­ur­al, organ­ic beings. Not only that, his wife had said, her face strick­en with seri­ous­ness, they’re cer­ti­fied non-GMO. They’re deli­cious, he had said, look­ing vague­ly in the oth­er par­ents’ direc­tion and into their cart as they’d passed, smil­ing at their cart in mock judgment.

He smiled while he recalled this as he once again retrieved veg­gie straws for his daugh­ter. He’d already packed them in her lunch and now they were out again as her break­fast. He’d giv­en some to their old­er daugh­ter as well. She’d caught the bus, it was her first year of doing that, and he already missed that she no longer need­ed him, or her moth­er, for every­thing. She could get to school on her own. Though, now that she was near­ly six, she often told him that she need­ed an extra bag of veg­gie straws for the ride home, which he knew she trad­ed for can­dy. Now, he put some veg­gie straws, again, in a small, com­postable brown bag and hand­ed the bag to his youngest daugh­ter, who said, Thank you dad­dy, and began run­ning in a small cir­cle in the mid­dle of the gal­ley kitchen. His think­ing, he saw in this moment, was bare­ly think­ing: he under­stood he was bare­ly awake and didn’t want to be doing right now what he was doing but he was doing it, though he was bare­ly awake, and was try­ing to be okay with doing it, and he fur­ther under­stood that he woke in an awful mood, feel­ing point­less and con­fused and frus­trat­ed that he had to do this day – a day he had done over and over again – again, now, once again, but none of that felt like actu­al think­ing, he thought. It felt like his reac­tive response to a sit­u­a­tion he didn’t feel like being in and to doing some­thing he didn’t feel like doing, and so his think­ing felt more pro­grammed than actu­al, more reac­tive than active, as though he wasn’t real­ly liv­ing his life but was on sleep mode and was only observ­ing the pro­grammed respons­es his mind and atten­tion and con­scious­ness were all mak­ing from some dis­tant place deep behind his eyes. His patience with his youngest daugh­ter while she ran in cir­cles around the kitchen – sort of in his way – there­fore, was not actu­al patience, just basic, semi-annoyed respon­sive­ness to what was before him, an unen­gaged bore­dom, which he hat­ed and wished he wasn’t feel­ing. It was the same way, he thought, that he and his wife had been inter­act­ing late­ly. With a kind of basic dis­in­ter­est, the same unen­gaged bore­dom, which he thought was just a phase, and which he thought was because she was in one of her depres­sive modes, in which she ate less, was often qui­et, and seemed to view him as an annoy­ance in her life, and which he knew there was no real rem­e­dy for. It would pass or go away or what­ev­er. She had told him recent­ly, apro­pos noth­ing, that they need­ed to stop being robots. He’d looked at her and pre­tend­ed to move his head mechan­i­cal­ly and inquis­i­tive­ly, like he was an android who didn’t under­stand her state­ment. But she’d said, Seriously, we’re on autopi­lot, it sucks. Standing in the kitchen, he could bare­ly even see the real thought beyond all this, but it was there, a small crea­ture in the grass­lands of his mind, with this moment in the kitchen pack­ing his youngest daughter’s lunch as evi­dence: he was bored with life, and what was worse, what made him feel worse, was that he didn’t think he was a per­son who should be bored with life, and at the same time, he had no idea how that feel­ing had begun nor how to stop that feel­ing, how to feel some­thing else.

Above the sink, the sky was just light­en­ing, the trees and leaves and misty morn­ing seem­ing to come into exis­tence as though some great being were undim­ming the inner light of all things, those things becom­ing more and more real, as though in the dark out the win­dow only moments ago the things of the phe­nom­e­nal world hadn’t been there at all. It was the sun ris­ing. He didn’t notice this. Though of course, that was not an accu­rate descrip­tion of what was actu­al­ly occur­ring: the sun was ris­ing only in rela­tion to cer­tain beings on the sur­face of the plan­et at this par­tic­u­lar moment in time, and in real­i­ty the sun was nei­ther ris­ing nor descend­ing, though it was mov­ing, mov­ing around the cen­tre of the galaxy, orbit­ing the cen­tre of the galaxy in the same way the earth was orbit­ing it, and the sun, in the same way the earth spins on its axis, was also rotat­ing on its axis. What it was doing was only what it was doing, not ris­ing, not falling, but mov­ing, being what it was, send­ing ener­gy to the sur­face of the plan­et, unwit­ting­ly, just doing what it did, and while momen­tar­i­ly, in this par­tic­u­lar city in this par­tic­u­lar part of North America, the sun was not obscured by cloud and the day would be clear for some hours, to the east of the city a large storm sys­tem was mov­ing, itself caused by the sun and many oth­er fac­tors, and would arrive in some hours.

In the kitchen, putting a Tupperware lid on the con­tain­er with the organ­ic straw­ber­ries, he didn’t see the morn­ing, didn’t notice the light out the win­dow, but he heard the girl’s moth­er doing some­thing in the bath­room. She was putting on make­up, comb­ing her hair, and was, he knew, late for work again. She yelled some­thing, then he realised she was talk­ing to him, she was ask­ing where her keys were. There was a clear frus­tra­tion in her voice, an almost easy­go­ing annoy­ance, like clear­ly it was his fault that her keys were miss­ing, though she nev­er put them in the same place, and he yelled back that he was get­ting lunch ready, and her cof­fee, and he didn’t know where her keys were. Maybe she should try putting them in same place, though he said the last part qui­et­ly so that she couldn’t hear, because he knew that if he said some­thing like this to her direct­ly, though it was the truth, it would prompt an argu­ment in which she accused him of always point­ing out her flaws, accused him of look­ing for ways to blame her, which he had recent­ly begun to feel like doing more, and after which she would refuse to engage with him for the rest of the day and night and pos­si­bly for the next day or so as well. It was like this, he thought: they could make jokes, watch movies, smoke pot but they could not talk seri­ous­ly about what they saw as each other’s short­com­ings with­out devolv­ing into some sort of soap opera-ish argu­ment. Even the world, he thought, would sud­den­ly become melo­dra­mat­ic in those moments, with a Vaseline haze blur­ring the edges of their lives, and as they began argu­ing he’d so feel he was in some role that he didn’t want to be in that it was almost as though he could per­ceive his hair becom­ing lac­quered in the style of a nar­cis­sis­tic banker while her jeans and t‑shirt would be replaced with a gaudy pink dress suit and pearls, and they’d yell stu­pid­ly at each other’s faces, only to come out of it hours or days lat­er, apol­o­gis­ing but nev­er know­ing what the actu­al prob­lem was. Not only this, but late­ly he had locat­ed some irri­tat­ed nar­ra­tor in his uncon­scious mind tak­ing con­trol of the track of his think­ing, whis­per­ing to him almost with­out him know­ing: the thing about her is that she can’t take respon­si­bil­i­ty for cer­tain things, this voice would say, she can’t take respon­si­bil­i­ty for her mis­takes, her mis­takes aren’t mis­takes in her mind, see, they’re things she uses to blame you for, which means that she uses her own feel­ings to blame you for how she’s feel­ing or fail­ing to be feel­ing, which of course means that she uses her feel­ings as weapons to defeat your feel­ings, that is, she uses her feel­ings to show you how wrong you are not only about her, not only about your­self, not only about your daugh­ters but about every­thing, every­thing. Not only this but she can’t clean up after her­self, can’t decide any­thing on her own, you live with anoth­er child, that’s what’s occur­ring here, you live with anoth­er child, and, like a child, she’s inca­pable of con­sid­er­ing any­one else’s feel­ings unless that oth­er person’s feel­ings are pos­i­tive, and if some­thing occurs that she doesn’t like, espe­cial­ly if you’ve done it, then her anger is both beyond rea­son­able and, for her, jus­ti­fied, which makes you angry, and yet your anger is then your fault and just anoth­er thing that is frus­trat­ing to her, like a child. This lit­tle hum of thought occurred in the back­ground of his mind, run­ning right below his more obvi­ous con­scious thought and lived expe­ri­ence, like it was now: of course she was once again annoyed at him to start the day, of course there was some­thing that he had noth­ing to do with that she was find­ing a way to make his mis­take, find­ing a way to blame him for: he’d lost her keys, was what she was say­ing. He stood blankly at the sink, drink­ing his cof­fee, notic­ing the way he was think­ing. He had been notic­ing it more and more. Standing in the kitchen with his cof­fee, he thought that think­ing in this way had become so rote in the last month that he would almost not notice it, and then sud­den­ly, as he just had, he would take note of it and feel awful that it was a part of him. He took a sip of cof­fee and thought that he didn’t even real­ly believe these were histhoughts: he didn’t want to think them, he didn’t like them, and he didn’t actu­al­ly feel this way about her. It was almost as though he’d feel some frus­tra­tion from her – as he just had with the keys thing – and this annoyed dia­logue would bloom into life of its own accord, his think­ing think­ing itself, rather than him being in con­trol of it. Though he knew that wasn’t true. He knew that was an excuse of some kind. These were his thoughts, he thought in the dim kitchen. He knew what was true was that his own frus­tra­tion engen­dered the thoughts, that his frus­tra­tion brought the thoughts into being, and when­ev­er he noticed he was hav­ing them, as he was now, he tried to silence them with oth­er things he felt about her, in order in some way to take con­trol of his think­ing: she gave him time, he thought now, she gave him time to work, and over the past six months in par­tic­u­lar, when he’d begun the new series of paint­ings for his first large gallery open­ing, she’d giv­en him time for the qui­et and silence he need­ed to cre­ate, a much more impor­tant kind of time, which she under­stood he need­ed, which meant, he tried to think on these occa­sions, that she was under­stand­ing, that not only was she under­stand­ing, she under­stood, and what she under­stood was him, and she sup­port­ed him and his paint­ing – she took the kids to the pool or the park or the muse­um while he paint­ed, and in turn he made them all din­ner and cleaned up after­wards, and then he was back at it while they watched a movie late into the sum­mer night – and he knew, he tried to think on such occa­sions, as he was think­ing now, that she was not try­ing to annoy him by being messy or by seem­ing to out­source all of the house­work to him, she wasn’t try­ing to frus­trate him, she was just messy and that was noth­ing to be annoyed about, and addi­tion­al­ly, he tried to make him­self think, she was a car­ing moth­er but also busy, two kids were not easy, and also, he thought, she was the only per­son he could open­ly talk to, be ful­ly him­self with, and she accept­ed every­thing about him, or almost every­thing, most­ly every­thing, though she could get resent­ful that he need­ed to be alone to work, that he need­ed to be alone, that he had always need­ed it, it was a part of him she refused, though she tried, he thought. Also, she could get upset that they didn’t have much mon­ey, that, even with two chil­dren, they were liv­ing pay­check-to-pay­check, on teach­ers’ salaries, that he had nev­er done what she’d thought he’d do, which was become a teacher who was paid well, an artist whose art was actu­al­ly sought after, and so they con­stant­ly felt the pres­sure of not hav­ing enough mon­ey, of always bare­ly hav­ing enough, though she didn’t blame him, except when she got very angry. In actu­al fact, she sup­port­ed him, had sup­port­ed him for years while he was paid much less than her, and he need­ed to con­sid­er that, need­ed to con­sid­er that she did these things for him, things that were not easy – he was not easy, he knew, and his lifestyle did not make things easy for them, and there was the con­stant wor­ry­ing in the back of their minds that they were not putting near­ly enough away for their daugh­ters, that they weren’t pro­vid­ing for them in the right way, not pro­vid­ing for their children’s futures let alone their own – and yet she was there for him, she had been there for him, he need­ed to be aware of that. He washed his hands in the sink, though as he did he realised he had just done it a few moments ear­li­er after putting his youngest daughter’s lunch together.

He picked up his cof­fee and took anoth­er sip. It was warm, steam ris­ing out of the blue glazed mug that a stu­dent had made him as a gift. The stu­dent had made one for his wife, as well, though his wife had at first been jeal­ous rather than grate­ful, and she rarely used the mug. He thought that the rea­son this attempt at a shift in think­ing towards some­thing less neg­a­tive didn’t real­ly work, and why he always end­ed up think­ing in the oth­er way, was that the shift itself had become bor­ing and rote, as though he were seek­ing some anti­dote but didn’t know what the poi­son was. In his mind, he just saw two oppos­ing things: the things he liked about his wife and those he dis­liked. He saw these same things about him­self. He saw the way he want­ed to be, but he couldn’t embody it. He saw some place that his life should be, but it was like the land­scape as por­trayed in a bare­ly glimpsed Polaroid from years ago: he didn’t know how to get there and stay there. Where was that place? A place where he was present, avail­able, able to work on his paint­ings, taught well and dili­gent­ly, made between ten and fif­teen thou­sand dol­lars more a year, put mon­ey away for his daugh­ters and him and his wife, and was an atten­tive, car­ing father and hus­band, was play­ful, fun, not moody, not depressed, didn’t look at soci­ety in despair, though saw it need­ed work and so vol­un­teered in a soup kitchen or donat­ed his time and ener­gy to habi­tat-for-human­i­ty, bought a hybrid car, and saw both things inside him­self and out in the world as man­age­able, and thus didn’t inter­nalise things he didn’t like about the out­side world, and accept­ed him­self for who he was. It seemed like some impos­si­ble place to get to, he thought. Even worse, peo­ple had it so much hard­er than he did that he felt bad even think­ing in this way. What about the poor, the dis­en­fran­chised, the mar­gin­alised? He was a white male, he told him­self, a straight white male, he had every­thing he could pos­si­bly need, and yet he was still lost. How could that be? He took anoth­er sip from the mug, con­sid­er­ing the mug, feel­ing sud­den­ly more awake due to the cof­fee, and then, as he con­sid­ered the mug, he realised that he didn’t remem­ber even pour­ing him­self a cup of cof­fee, let alone adding cream and sug­ar, which felt por­ten­tous in a remark­ably banal way: if he hadn’t noticed that, what else was he not pay­ing atten­tion to, and sud­den­ly this ques­tion felt like a metaphor for his life. This was the fail­ing, he told him­self: his lack of atten­tion. He felt like chastis­ing him­self for it or pos­si­bly being self-pity­ing all day, but then he thought that this was noth­ing new. This was noth­ing new at all, he thought, like a chant. This is not new. He didn’t like it, but it was not unique. He already knew this, he already knew he dis­liked these things about him­self and the world, and yet there was no way out. It was just how things were, how he was.


Alan Rossi’s sto­ries have appeared in Granta, New England Review, The Missouri Review, Conjunctions, The Florida Review, and many oth­er jour­nals. His fic­tion has won a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Prize, and he was a Bread Loaf Scholar in 2017. His first nov­el, Mountain Road, Late at Night, was pub­lished by Picador in 2020. His sec­ond nov­el, Our Last Year, is forth­com­ing in the UK in Fall 2022 from Prototype. He teach­es high school in South Carolina, where he lives with his wife, daugh­ter, and son.