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.
“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.