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.
“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.”
“You know, anything. Anything else.”
“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.