Tracy O’Neill

A Couple of Specks

There are times like this morn­ing, and it’s like I’ve got to fix my rep­u­ta­tion with my own wife or else, else. You can’t argue with heart­beats. I’m up against the good life. Suddenly I’m the bad guy even though I’ve nev­er been a man moth­ers warn daugh­ters about.

So this morn­ing, this night— you tell me what’s more impor­tant: the dark or the let­ter before the M when there are green num­bers flash­ing two one one—I heard her come in. I was lying on our couch with the tele­vi­sion on, which had had a movie run­ning and gone into late night bogus gad­get adver­tise­ment stuff. I could’ve surfed around, but real­ly, I just want­ed the sound of someone’s voice in the room to feel like a kid again, like falling asleep to muf­fled adult con­ver­sa­tions com­ing from the kitchen.

Anyway, it’s like such: I hear Margarita lock the door behind her, then the jan­gle of putting her purse down, and when she comes into the liv­ing room, I grab her by the belt loop to get her onboard the H.M.S. Couch— that’s a lit­tle joke I had to clar­i­fy to her the first time— and pic­ture this: I am all kinds of excit­ed because there is a rock exhi­bi­tion open­ing at the muse­um in two days and I am plan­ning to take her. Rocks are not just big dirt, as I’ve explained to Margarita. Rocks are the super­heroes of the nat­ur­al world: strong, silent, immor­tal. This will be maybe our best day besides our first, where she ate three slices of pep­per­oni and I start­ed singing this song I made up on the spot about how she made my heart feel like dough get­ting thrown in the air to make a per­fect piz­za pie. But she said rocks aren’t even alive, and any­way there’s her hair appoint­ment. “They need me,” she said, loos­en­ing her­self of me.

She has changed, won’t take flow­ers. She says it makes her sad to see them so pret­ty, petals opened to the brink, when she knows they’ll be noth­ing but dead by Thursday. She thinks about cho­les­terol. She wants to cut her hair off and give it to bald peo­ple with can­cer. I loved her the first sec­ond I saw her. I spread that hair over my chest like a blan­ket the first time we made love. That night, when every­thing that has hap­pened was still to come, I swam in that hair of hers straight to the hori­zon and touched the ris­ing sun of us. She was a strip­per then.

And my dis­ap­point­ment goes beyond the exhi­bi­tion since it was this hair that first caught my atten­tion when I saw her in the sub­way sta­tion and when she thought I was a creep­er who fol­lowed her from the club and when I said what club and when she said nev­er mind. I said to her that her hair was like this rock I’d heard about, obsid­i­an, and she asked if I was a geol­o­gist. A geol­o­gist! Well that just bowled me. I am in love with that girl who thought I was a rock doctor.

How many heads are there in the world?” I asked, as she stepped away from the couch. “And it has to come from yours this Friday?”

Mine. Exactly,” she said. “Or I sup­pose you think yours?”

I don’t know when this mine and hers thing start­ed, but it’s def­i­nite­ly after we were mar­ried. It’s like she’s been writ­ing up a post­nup­tial prenup­tial the last year. Your fear, she says like an accu­sa­tion. My body, she says like I’m crazy.

They’ll exhib­it shale and crys­tals, the milky white stones. You like those, don’t you?”

Do you see what’s become of us?” she said.

I see a girl healthy as a horse. Black Beauty. Legs longer than the gro­cery store line on a Sunday. My girl,” I said.

A horse,” she said. “Now I’m being com­pared to a horse.” Potentially, I was still a lit­tle dopey from smok­ing while she was at work but truth is, high or not, late­ly it’s like I’m watch­ing her tele­scope through a hole in the fence, but we’re in the same room. It’s not just the hair or the flow­ers; she has been mak­ing my ears spill over with exer­cise tips and she wants me to get a bet­ter job. She asks me how we’re ever going to have a future as if it’s not pass­ing through us and dis­ap­pear­ing, turn­ing into after­thoughts every minute.

These days, the only way I can look at her is gap­ing. I’ve watched her los­ing her big butt with grass juice she juices her­self. I’ve seen her call­ing doc­tors, swal­low­ing med­i­cine-mush­rooms. I find on cof­fee tables the med­i­ta­tion books and prayer books and books that claim to sell the secret in five easy steps. It’s enough to make my head go to marsh­mal­low fluff, think­ing things about how when she cross­es her arms it’s an issue of per­spec­tive, so that it’s either as if she’s hold­ing a baby in the pret­ty slope of her elbows or mad as hell. I tell her I’m tired, just woke up; maybe it’s a con­ver­sa­tion for tomorrow.

I’ve been at work all day, and you’re tired from sleep­ing?” she said.

Whenever we fight, my dog, Skipper, he throws a tantrum like a lit­tle kid. He bares his teeth and runs around the room, over the fur­ni­ture, climb­ing up the walls prac­ti­cal­ly, cir­cling, this cir­cling mer­ry-go-round hound. Margarita hates this, gets angry to the point of Spanish. The last time I point­ed out we weren’t even speak­ing the same lan­guage non-fig­u­ra­tive-like, she said she wished she’d nev­er mar­ried me for a green card.

Why don’t you go drink some arugu­la juice,” I said. That was the best thing I could come up with. She apol­o­gized lat­er, but she didn’t take it back.

So this morn­ing, it was that whole ordeal again. Skipper was giv­ing us the three-six­ty, Margarita start­ed yelling words I’d need a curse dic­tio­nary to under­stand, and I want­ed to lie down and close my eyes again, but I had the feel­ing this might be anoth­er Black Beauty.

Did you even walk him today?” she asked. “Stop it, Skip! Stop it!”

Don’t yell at poor Skippity-Do-Da,” I said. “He’s just demon­strat­ing for world peace.” Then I start­ed singing that song, the old hip­pie one about all we are ask­ing is to give peace a chance, and made bun­ny fin­gers and start­ed sway­ing side to side.

You’re high,” she said. “You refuse to try again. You won’t floss once a day, and you spend half your time sleep­ing, the rest wallowing.”

I wasn’t raised on floss­ing, honeybuns.”

I’m going to my sister’s for the night.”

But you don’t eat the cuchifritos any­more,” I said. Because that’s the kind of good food her sis­ter cooks when we go over for sup­per and because frankly, I blame her sis­ter quite a bit for this hair cut­ting busi­ness since it’s her sis­ter who says Margarita needs to change her life, start­ing with the small stuff.

My first hus­band, the lin­guist,” Margarita said. Then she put the par­ka back on and went around pluck­ing things up and putting them in her purse, enun­ci­at­ing her breath­ing like she’d been sweat­ing to the oldies, before walk­ing out the door.

So, I tried to make it up to Skipper with a kib­ble feast drenched in melt­ed peanut but­ter. Then I laid him on his back and sang to him— “This land is your land, this land is my land”— until his tongue relaxed out the side of his mouth and he fell asleep. I looked at his fat lit­tle bel­ly, and I knew that lov­ing is the eas­i­est thing I’ll ever do. I nev­er want to fall in love again.



My whole con­cept of cook­ing has always been melt­ing cheese on some­thing that isn’t cheese, but last week, I decid­ed to make Margarita a real din­ner: steak and pota­toes and a lit­tle haystack of cut veg­eta­bles that restau­rants and oth­er scam artists call juli­enne. The steak end­ed up a meat taffy and Margarita refused the wine the wine guy said had a “robust bou­quet,” but she laughed at my Which One Impressions— David Lee Roth or the Karate Kid? Rambo or Kiss?— in a way that made her ear­rings jin­gle. I hadn’t heard those lit­tle charm bells, it seemed, in months.

It was a good night, until she took her top off and start­ed doing some­thing lurid with her­self. The doc­tor says that what hap­pened next isn’t uncom­mon, and yet, appar­ent­ly, there’s noth­ing wrong with my plumb­ing, only me. When he asked if I’ve tried videos, I shook my head that doesn’t coun­te­nance bon­ers any­more. “I love my wife,” I said.

Except Margarita didn’t see it that way. She just start­ed up with the my-and-yours­es. “Calm down. Keep your clothes on. You’re freak­ing me out,” I said. Then, I don’t why, I just sort of pulled on her pony­tail, not hard, just fun­ny sort-of.

That’s when she turned into a big pud­dle, cov­er­ing her swampy eyes, whis­per­ing, “I love you and I wish I’d nev­er met you, you son of a bitch.” Maybe she thought the clothes remark had some­thing to do with her for­mer pro­fes­sion, though in fact, it had every­thing to do with my soft serve dick.

Still, the more ques­tions I asked about how could I fix this, the more she said I didn’t under­stand, and the more ques­tions I asked about what didn’t I under­stand, the more evi­dence she was cor­rect. So I just kind of went German Shepherd on Margarita, rang­ing her to the bed­room. Then I got into the bed with her and start­ed touch­ing her hair, braid­ing it, say­ing, “I wish I’d met you when I was a lit­tle boy so we could grow up togeth­er. I’d braid your hair every day until we were big enough to run away togeth­er and get married.”

We already are mar­ried, idiot,” she said. But it got her to stop cry­ing. So we took out the chess set, and she beat me, like she always does, prob­a­bly with­out even try­ing. When she first came to the coun­try as a kid she didn’t know English, but she knew chess, so she most­ly just played with her dad. Then he died. But she can still knock your pawns out in about a minute flat. She says you don’t have to fight when you play chess because you already are and there is noth­ing left to do but tac­ti­cal­ly respect the oppos­ing mind.

I hate knights,” I told her. “They’re the only bas­tards on the whole board that move in two directions.”

You’ve just got to think ahead,” she said. “Don’t wor­ry. You’ll get bet­ter. Check mate.”

Which was not skin off my nose. I just like doing some­thing with her, even if the premise is we’re ene­mies. When she con­cen­trates, she gets a uni-brow, and her hair hangs over the chess­board like the­ater cur­tains. I imag­ine her face as this stage for dra­ma, lights and props and lines you can’t take your eyes off, a world of pre­tend where ghosts puff out of graves to right the wrongs of their lives and war­ring hous­es learn their lessons from dead kids. I would’ve liked to have told her this, but she thinks metaphors are for ass­holes. “A dog is not a child,” she says.

What she’s refer­ring to is Exhibit B in the Museum of My Disfavor, the Aureliana Wing. See, owing to a per­son­al­i­ty like a sec­ond degree burn, Margarita’s sis­ter Aureliana has nev­er been my favorite of her sib­lings, and their par­ents had only two chil­dren. You can think the worst has tran­spired with her, but then she’ll bub­ble up even larg­er. On Easter this year, for exam­ple, when old Skip jumped up on Aureliana while she was hold­ing her baby daugh­ter, she insist­ed that I put Skipper out­side. Then, once I’d done that, she declared she’d nev­er come back to vis­it again unless I got rid of “the dog.”

A moth­er must make dif­fi­cult deci­sions,” she said like not even a screen actress, but a the­ater actress, the kind that plays to the cheap seats in the back.

Skipper’s not going any­where. I’ve had him longer than you’ve been a moth­er,” I told her, count­ing months on my fin­ger. “By six years!” I added, because she was look­ing at me like I’d done my math wrong.

Thank God you nev­er had a child with him,” she said to Margarita, look­ing right at me as she spoke. “The clos­est he’s ever come to repent­ing is say­ing ‘excuse me’ when he sneezed.”

Gesundheit,” I said, and then I opened the door for her to leave.

It hasn’t been easy between Margarita and me since then, but of course, I can’t blame Aureliana any more than I can blame myself. All the roman­tic sym­bols are bro­ken-assed antiques. Doctors fail you. Valentines are just cards sent in February, and at the ancient blush of rose quartz, Margarita these days says she can’t think in eons. She is focused on her life­time. She cares about organ­isms with ass­holes. So you watch tele­vi­sion. You keep the beers com­ing. You remem­ber, Margarita and I, we’ve been through the thick of it and end­ed up on the thin side again.



Somewhere in the vicin­i­ty of mid­night, my old friend Fat Ted comes by with smok­ing pro­vi­sions. He’s try­ing to lose weight with a diet to the tune of only eat­ing when he smokes, prob­lem being he’s been a five-a-day smok­er long as he’s been out of his mother’s house. So when he turns up at the door, he’s rounder and loud­er than ever, fin­gers fat yet deft on the paper.

For a while, Ted tries to talk up the stuff he’s brought, name like a fairy tale— Hawaiian Giant— and a tale of acqui­si­tion not much more impos­si­ble. The fire at the tip of the joint is brighter than the lighter fire. But the high’s got me thinking.

You ever thought—“

Nope, nev­er,” Ted says. Then he laughs his big turkey laugh. He takes a sip of cola and I swear a lit­tle fizz runs out his nos­tril when he starts laugh­ing again. “Alright,” he says. “Okay,” he says, “Go on.” It’s too late. The thought’s snapped before it was even full-grown.

So because we like doc­u­men­taries, we watch a real­i­ty show for a while. People are knit­ting togeth­er and being pushed out. Most of the exiled ones don’t see it com­ing. But then comes on this com­mer­cial of beau­ti­ful black cou­ples in can­dlelit rooms comes on the TV. There are pur­ple tex­tiles in the back­ground and song titles falling down the screen: “I Will Always Love You,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Can’t Get Next to You.” The cou­ples slow dance in front of open doors filled with bil­low­ing cur­tains. They hug in front of oceans. They’re the pic­ture of per­fect.  It’s like the tele­vi­sion is speak­ing to me.

The songs will be a fine cura­to­r­i­al job on my part, mix­tape bliss. Tomorrow, she’ll come home, and we’ll sway in the liv­ing room. She’ll shake her shrink­ing butt, for­get the Dorothy Hamill hair­cut. We’ll lis­ten until she says, “I want to ogle gran­ite with you for the rest of our lives.” Or at least, maybe, she’ll say yes to the rock exhi­bi­tion. I will take what I can patient­ly, like a sed­i­men­ta­ry rock mount­ing slow­ly from dust until stal­wart as time itself.

Aren’t you bushed?” I say.

Say no more,” Ted says.

Thanks, part­ner.”

No, real­ly. Say no more,” he says. But still, it’s a joke. We can laugh about the time as juve­niles we tried to steal a car togeth­er, but we can’t hug. We pre­tend to be angry with each oth­er to show we could nev­er actu­al­ly be.

Once he’s gone, I pull records from the shelves, records from the clos­ets, records from the top of the refrig­er­a­tor. I look under the bed with the filth-bun­nies. There’s my old tape deck form the nineties, when it was still com­mon enough to send your girl to the moon with oth­er singers’ words. Maybe I was just bet­ter-look­ing then. In fact, I was.

Nevertheless, side A I decide to start just like this fight, with mis­un­der­stand­ing, and I mean that lit­er­al­ly, as in the song “Misunderstanding” by Genesis. It’s hard to love a band with so much musi­cal chairs hap­pen­ing, first Anthony Phillips leav­ing, then Phil Collins replac­ing Peter Gabriel on vocals, then Steve Hackett quit­ting, then Phil Collins tak­ing off to be Phil Collins, then Ray Wilson being added. You think you know a band, get the T‑shirt and every­thing, then bang! So and so decides to call it a night for­ev­er. But “Misunderstanding” is pop canon 101, clas­sic, time-test­ed, a rock of rock.

Next, I go with “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” see­ing as how the aim is the exhi­bi­tion and see­ing as how dia­monds, like Margarita, are the hard­est sub­stance on earth. They’re the oppo­site of baby pow­der, so strong you need one to cut one. You could kill some­one with a dia­mond if you were a cre­ative psy­chopath. Also, they are the fra­ter­nal twin of obsid­i­an, just as beau­ti­ful, but inverse of dark.

Then, only because I like it, I pick “Cherry Pie,” the Warrant song that goes, “Swingin’ so hard we for­got to lock the door.” Perhaps it’s unortho­dox a choice, con­sid­er­ing the not-urol­o­gy prob­lems of my psy­che, but it’s always been a favorite. Jani Lane said he regret­ted writ­ing the song because it got so pop­u­lar and it wasn’t even Warrant’s best, but that’s the real­i­ty of suc­cess: it doesn’t always have do to with qual­i­ty, same as the art of the mixtape.

Like “I Fall to Pieces” is a beau­ti­ful song that will break a stony heart into a hand­ful of sand, but if you’re try­ing to con­vince your wife to go to the muse­um, maybe that’s not the sen­ti­ment you want to express. There are a lot of things to avoid: breakup songs, songs about affairs, songs like “I Will Survive,” which is all about Gloria Gaynor being bet­ter off on her own and not being afraid to die alone a crazy cat lady. Also, I try to avoid the songs with the word “baby,” because like Margarita says, “A dog is not a child.”

It’s exhaust­ing to real­ize that so many songs you love are ruined by one lit­tle word wrong with them. Sometimes you don’t even real­ize until you’re halfway through or more. There are decades of ruined love bal­lads on the floor.



The next day, while I wait for Margarita to return home, I watch an edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram. A guy, voice like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, nar­rates. It’s the kind of voice you imag­ine nature might have should it be kinder. His read­ing sticks an excla­ma­tion point after the bil­lion in 4 bil­lion years, the age of the old­est rock in Earth’s history.

The cam­era pans across Australia before the greens and browns and golds explode to reveal a zir­con old­er than any of us that will per­sist for the peo­ple we can’t imag­ine who will live when we’re dead. Onscreen, it’s big­ger than a head, but in real life, it mea­sures only the width of four hairs. That some­thing so small could sur­vive make you won­der, not in the ques­tion­ing way so much as the oth­er that prac­ti­cal­ly stops your brain with epiphany.

Sometimes it seems like sci­ence might just be an invis­i­ble sten­cil. We keep think­ing if we keep going there’ll be more neg­a­tive space, but all the time we’re bump­ing up on this shape we can’t see or feel. We’re push­ing so hard on the bor­ders and maybe we’d just be hap­pi­er if we knew what the edges were. Still, some­how there is com­fort in the shards and stones: igneous, sed­i­men­ta­ry, meta­mor­phic, those long, come­ly words like ice age mantras with their min­er­al grace. Igneous, sed­i­men­ta­ry, meta­mor­phic. I whis­per them when I think I can’t keep on much more. The syl­la­bles are songs them­selves, noth­ing like the mean tongue twisters of the DSM. Anancephaly means a half-formed head.

Like him,” Aureliana said last year, point­ing to me. Then she began cry­ing. She held one of Margarita’s hands, I the other.

For months, it’s true, I’d thought the numer­a­tor was the denom­i­na­tor too. My mind had been all tri­cy­cle and T–ball. I promised to be the kind of dad that teach­es his kid how to play the har­mon­i­ca, ride bikes. We bought lit­tle baby socks, lit­tle baby sacks with the emer­gency poop exits in the butt, lit­tle hats with the tassles on them. And I want­ed to name him Bud, because he was going to be my best lit­tle bud. But what is a name? The most beau­ti­ful rock for­ma­tion in Wisconsin was mis­trans­lat­ed as Bad God’s Tower. How was I to know that what seemed like so much was only a frac­tion of what was possible?

This is my child,” Margarita said to the doc­tor. “I won’t. It’s a mother’s choice.”

He put his hand on her shoul­der. There was sym­pa­thy to his touch. And so, because he want­ed her to live, he said, “It’s not a child unless it’s born.”

She closed her eyes. “His name is Bud,” she said.



Sometime after the Hadean Eon, I fall asleep, so that when I wake up, it’s to a vol­cano. Billions of years have passed, or mil­lions. What looks like the end of the world is only the begin­ning of rhy­o­lite. Skipper has chewed up my sweater, and there’s dog doo on the floor. Amok he runs on a crash course of cola cans and records: a warn­ing or descrip­tion in the lan­guage of canine dis­tress. Surprise is, Margarita doesn’t look like she’d like to punch my eye­balls out onto the dirty dog shit floor.

You’re just a tid­bit,” she says to Skipper, press­ing a tow­el over spilt soda. “So how do you make such a mess?” Everyone else she knows says she’ll be a won­der­ful mother.

Onscreen, the glam­our of por­phyrit­ic exam­ples show, hunks of crys­tal flash­ing like star­dust sequins. “Slow your roll, Skippy peanut but­ter boy,” I say.

He’s alive!” Margarita says.

Disappointed?” I say, but some­how it doesn’t come out like a joke, and she stays qui­et for a while, so I go to the stereo. The tape needs to be rewound. I want to be the con­stituent of Warrant, for Genesis to tell her. When Skipper comes, his head fur is ani­mal silk beneath my palm.

You’re a decent man,” Margarita says final­ly. She doesn’t add an and-yet clause.

As in the oft-spo­ken, “And yet, it’s mine to risk.” Or, “And yet, it could be whole this time.” Like I said, what I can do is gape. I remem­ber those days until the pro­ce­dure. I held her like an eggshell. Still do. “Just you wait,” I call toward the kitchen. “Just you wait.”

While I rewind the cas­sette, Margarita makes a din­ner of sea­weed purée. I can hear the blender in the kitchen. My eyes trace a crag­gy field of col­or formed by cool­ing mag­ma, intru­sive rocks pushed up through earth’s sur­face like rain­bow flames. “Wouldn’t you like to see the Reed Flute Cave?” I ask Skip, loud­ly. “Or even bet­ter the geode show tomor­row at the muse­um?” He barks, then tin­kles a lit­tle on my shoe. “Why don’t you even speak English?” I say.

A few min­utes lat­er, Margarita returns with a kelp bowl for me: “Just like pud­ding!” She would make a won­der­ful moth­er. The gloop stinks like low tide, but she eats hers in cheer­ful spoon swoops, as though she’s try­ing to show how G.D. deli­cious it is.

The heart holds many doors,” she says. “You must keep them unob­struct­ed. They’re called ventricles.”

With ocean mush?”

With ocean mush.” She smiles a gum-nud­ing smile that ought to be pre­served in amber.

So, I try to eat the green stuff. I pre­tend it’s pud­ding, like she lied, and turn on the mood music. The kelp tastes worse than mon­ey, which I know because once I lost a bet, the terms of which were I’d eat my own twen­ty dol­lar bill if I was wrong. The idea was eat­ing your words wasn’t enough. You had to lose some­thing besides your dig­ni­ty since most of us had already lost ours anyway.

You’re not eat­ing your din­ner,” she says.

Sure I am.”

You’re push­ing it around the bowl.”

Dipping the toes, as it were. All part of the process.”

Richie, look at me,” she says, even though I’m already look­ing. “I want to know that if some­thing hap­pened to me that you’d be able to take care of yourself.”

I squeeze my spoon. “What would hap­pen to you?”

Anything could happen.”

Like what?”

You know, any­thing. Anything else.”

I don’t.”

I used to be hap­py,” she says, not loud, not yelling, just an obser­va­tion. “I used to believe it was all just a mat­ter of time.”

I guess we both did. Now, every­thing I can think is a ques­tion. Like can light pass through obsid­i­an? How much salt must an ocean hold to make rocks float? If, as they say, the slip­page on the San Andreas Fault will make Los Angeles and San Francisco neigh­bors in 15 mil­lion years, what will hap­pen to towns in their path?

The thing to do is keep busy,” I say. “Maintain per­spec­tive. 200 mil­lion years from now, America and Asia will col­lide to form a super mass. Like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young! We’re specks, hon­ey. Nothing much more than specks.”

Margarita moves toward the coat rack, a mid­night pitch of hair swing­ing long down her spine. “Then why are you so afraid?” she says.

I don’t know; she’s big­ger to me than a mountain.

Genesis is singing it, and through space dark as obsid­i­an, white light is jarred by col­li­sion. The father­ly tele­vi­sion nar­ra­tor explains that once, when some­thing sized like a plan­et clipped the moon off Earth, our hum­ble globe glowed with the bril­liance of stars, those ghosts of light-years past. Now the satel­lite takes its carousel path around the world, show­ing a lunar face in mov­ing frac­tions, wax­ing answered by wan­ing. The kitchen win­dow fills with the incan­des­cence of that bro­ken-off mat­ter, and the mix­tape plays like a record of once-await­ed joy. But instead of hear­ing the songs I chose, I think of all the words I avoid­ed, believ­ing we’d sur­vive me.


Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful, for which she was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 and long-list­ed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize. In 2012, she was award­ed the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her fic­tion has appeared in Granta, LitHub, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Literarian and Guernica. She has pub­lished non­fic­tion online for The Atlantic, New Yorker, Bookforum, and Rolling Stone; in Grantland; and in the San Francisco Chronicle. She cur­rent­ly teach­es at the City College of New York and is pur­su­ing a PhD at Columbia University.