The Parrish children were frighteningly blond—they had the kind of hair that made it seem like they’d been through a tremendous shock. My first impression is that they were ugly children, and yes, I know you’re not supposed to say that (it’s not their fault after all) but, objectively, they had inherited the least attractive components of each parent: Andrew’s overbite, Sarah’s porcine eyes. On an adult-sized head these features were easily overlooked, but on such small faces their prominence loomed.
Andrew was right behind them, hoisting a duffel bag over one shoulder with easy grace. His jaw line had softened, his hair grown thinner, but he still had that roguish smile all rich boys learn, that smile that means they get away with everything.
Sarah was as slim as ever, plus breastfeeding had given her tits for the first time in her life. Her hair was braided down her back and she looked very fresh, as if being stuck for hours in a minivan full of children agreed with her. We all shrieked “hi” at each other and offered one-armed hugs on the doorstep. I showed them in, offered coffee, helped steady the precarious pile of luggage in our tiny entryway.
Nick, whose mind hadn’t left the hospital in two years, had wondered aloud whether this was a good idea. It had been a long time since we’d had houseguests, and with the ebb and rise of case numbers, who knew if he’d even be home to see them. But the prospect of a joyous reunion had closed my ears to such practical concerns. When Nick pointed out that our tiny townhouse would be overrun by small children, I reasoned we could park them in front of Frozen while we sat around drinking wine. It would be like the old days. Andrew and Sarah had known me pre-wedding, pre-baby, pre-mortgage, back before the nebulous adult world had devoured my idealism.
I took the three eldest Parrish children into the small living room where my six-year-old, Archie, sat zombie-like before Clifford. He grunted hello when prompted, then rose to rake his action figures into a pile, over which he kept a suspicious watch.
Sarah was breastfeeding in the kitchen. Andrew asked for a shower. I showed him to the bathroom and fetched clean towels. Standing in the hall, I thought for a moment we might embrace. It was the first time we were alone together in almost a decade. He smelled like campfire and hadn’t shaved. I handed him the towels and he took them and I went back to the kitchen.
I wished for some small task to complete, dishes to load into the dishwasher or a counter to wipe, but I had anxiously scrubbed every inch before their arrival and now there was nothing to do but sit and talk to Sarah. We’d run in concentric social circles at college, but I’d never considered her a friend. She was annoying—one of those status-obsessed types who viewed each conversation as a competition. When Andrew brought her as a date to our wedding, I was astonished.
Still, I reasoned, that was a long time ago, and if Andrew chose her, there must be some hidden depths to her character. He had his pick. Maybe she had just been so anxious to find a husband. The little Christian college where we’d matriculated featured many such women; they perfected a performance of docile femininity. I loathed their obedience to norms, even as I found myself falling into marriage and motherhood. It had just happened—it wasn’t some sort of master plan. That felt an important distinction.
I asked Sarah if she was sure I couldn’t get her anything to drink? During those endless days of breastfeeding, I had always been so terribly thirsty, I said, offering it like a tiny morsel, as if to show that we were on the same side now.
She smiled serenely at her baby’s bald head. “Breastfeeding doesn’t make you thirsty as long as you hydrate properly.”
I pressed my lips together in a tight smile, which she seemed to take as encouragement. What relevance her breastfeeding diatribe had to me, the one-and-done mother of a child who had been weaned since before the last presidency, I couldn’t say. No, that’s disingenuous. I knew why she was lecturing me—it was the same reason she now asked where Nick was in that tone of faux-concern. She wanted to lord these things over me. She craved a tearful confession that Nick had left. Where the hell did she think Nick was? Had she forgotten his profession? Or that a highly contagious virus was sweeping the globe?
“At work,” I replied.
Sarah made a sympathetic little noise and nodded, as if this were some awful truth I’d learn to live with. My husband works. My husband can’t take six weeks off in the middle of a pandemic to drive his family across the country in a minivan.
Andrew sauntered into the kitchen, buttoning his blue Oxford at the wrists. I couldn’t believe he still dressed like that. I remembered once drunkenly flouncing into his dorm room, flinging open his wardrobe and gazing at all his dress shirts hung solemnly in a row. He had stood in the doorway, eyes ablaze, as if I were his Daisy Buchanan. There was some truth to it, I suppose, it was hard not to be impressed at the money and that accent which made him sound like a Kennedy. He was East Coast born-and-bred, beach house rich, sailboat rich. To a girl who grew up on an onion farm outside Boise, his Gatsby-resemblance was hard to look past.
Rumor had it he was a Harvard legacy, and that he’d gotten into several other Ivies besides, but had chosen our dinky little Christian college to “grow his faith.” That tidbit got him more admiration than anything. On our campus he became allegory—as if the rich man of camel-and-the-eye-of-the-needle-fame really had forsaken all his earthly treasures to follow Christ.
Sarah and he were still very Christian, as evidenced by the four children and the wholesome national parks vacation. His vows were a bright line he’d never come within a mile of, I knew that, but still the night before their arrival I found myself Googling things like “ethical nonmonogamy.”
Andrew was very deferential, sorry to miss Nick, up for anything I wanted to do. We chatted at the kitchen table until the kids started fighting, then I suggested we get tacos and eat them at the park. I knew the taquerias of the West Coast were in a different league from what they could get back home, and I hoped to subtly impress them without the appearance of wanting to do so. As we processed down the sidewalk, I started to point out funny graffiti and little shops with quirky specialties, then worried it was becoming obvious how starved I was for adult interaction, so I stopped. Back in college, I had this carefully crafted coolness. But once you spend your days wiping another person’s ass, that tends to go.
At the park, the Parrish children sat politely around the picnic table, quietly chewing. Even the baby gummed a piece of avocado. Archie complained that there wasn’t enough orange cheese in his quesadilla.
“Your children are such good eaters,” I offered.
“It all comes down to exposure,” Sarah explained, citing statistics that I already knew from late-night stress-Googling. I nodded, watching Archie climb up to the playground’s crow’s nest and sit glumly, glaring down any child who dare approach.
After lunch, Andrew lay down in the grass and closed his eyes while Sarah followed their toddler around, trying to keep her from putting wood chips in her mouth. I kept waiting for Andrew to say something, to crack a joke about how things had ended up this way—him married to Sarah, me to Nick. How we got so old and so hopelessly entangled in our own boring opinions.
He had adored me once, with a longing that had made me feel golden and effervescent. Nick and I were together by then, and I loved him. Nothing was complicated with Nick; he was honest, ego-less, the kindest, best person I’d ever met, and yet I flirted shamelessly with Andrew. I reasoned it was just a game between us. When he messaged about this cross-country road trip, I wondered if it was a game he wanted to play still.
“Do you remember the year we had a fancy picnic on the quad for Nick’s birthday?” I whispered. I didn’t look at him, but in my peripheral vision, saw him prop himself up on his elbows.
“I made a coconut layer cake . . .” Three perfect layers of airy sponge, which had, for once, risen to just the right height.
“Yes. It started to rain,” Andrew murmured.
A storm, out of nowhere. Laughing, I had run for the cake, trying to shield it with my body, the rain sticking my cotton sundress to my back. Sheltering under a large oak I’d watched Nick, rain pouring down his face, as he tried to load everything back into a borrowed picnic basket, laughing as it refused to close.
Andrew joined me under the tree, remarking with reverence that I was “soaked to the skin” and setting his leather jacket on my water-beaded shoulders. In that moment I was his, or I could’ve been. If Andrew had pried the cake stand from my cold fingers, maybe everything would be different.
The sun was beating down, our children shrieked and ran about the garish plastic playscape. I couldn’t look at him, unsure of what he would say or even what I wanted. While I dithered, Sarah returned, toddler in tow, to nag me about sunscreen reapplication. Her children wore those embarrassing caps with neck gaiters on three sides. I gave a tight smile and held out my palm. She squeezed a veritable lake of sunscreen onto it.
Nick surprised us by coming home early that evening, bringing an enormous fresh salmon with him. Things were quiet in the summer months; his attending had been able to spare him. I broiled the fish with lemon juice, garlic, and dill, grateful for something to do. Nick opened the wine, Andrew was smiling and clapping him on the back. Everyone seemed relieved that he had arrived.
Andrew raised a toast to Nick and me, thanking us effusively for hosting. He asked Nick what things were like at the hospital right now. Nick reported on bed occupancy with practiced stoicism. Things were certainly a lot better now than in the winter. We complained about restrictions and exchanged the requisite streaming recommendations. The more we drank, the further we were drawn back in time, until our conversation became exclusively about college. Andrew and I teased Nick for having always been so studious and serious.
“If, God forbid, any of you ever needs a bed in the ICU, you’ll be hoping for a doctor who didn’t spend college with his head in the toilet,” Nick smiled.
“Quite right,” Andrew raised his glass again. “To the studious types who keep the world running.”
We toasted. I made to refill our glasses. Sarah covered hers. Ah yes, breastfeeding.
She turned to her eldest, “What’s the matter, darling, don’t you like your fish? Normally, you gobble it up.”
“I don’t like it, Mommy, it doesn’t taste good.”
“It is rather salty, isn’t it?” Sarah agreed.
I rolled my eyes and glugged my wine. Sarah probably topped her fish with celery salt or fucking nutritional yeast. She probably baked gluten-free zucchini cake and used carob chips instead of chocolate.
After dinner, Andrew and I stood at the sink while our spouses put the kids to bed.
“May I?” Andrew reached for yet another bottle. I smiled at him but reminded myself to pay attention: in college he was forever topping up my glass, so that it became hard to count how far in I’d gone.
Evening sun poured in through the kitchen window, in its orange glow Andrew looked younger. I imagined I did too. We could be twenty-one again, if only through a squint.
“Isn’t this wild?” I asked, “this whole—did you ever think this is how we’d all turn out?” Above us, in Archie’s room, I could hear Nick reading a story in low, dreamy tones while Sarah’s lullaby drifted up, off-key, from the guest room below.
“I always thought I would do something with my life.” I continued. That last glass of wine had liquified my reserve; I was vaguely aware I was talking too much but didn’t have the willpower to shut up. “It sneaks up on you, the whole conventional-white-middle-class apparatus,” I joked. When he didn’t join me in a deprecating laugh, I went for it. “Are you happy, Andrew?”
“It’s really something—” he said to the stack of freshly dried dishes, “isn’t it? To build a life with someone, to have children with them.” It all sounded so generic, and I wondered if his sentiments were anything specific to his life with Sarah at all.
But then he added, “Sarah is such a good mother,” with such reverence that I could only drop my gaze toward the dirty water and murmur my agreement.
The spouses returned; we played cards and drank more wine, much too much. I vomited before bed and felt so horrendous when I woke up that I made myself vomit again. This, too, was like the old days. I rested my cheek on the cold toilet seat and reminded myself that, yes, I really had asked Andrew are you happy?
Breastfeeding Sarah and diligent Nick had escaped the hangover. She was drinking tea at the kitchen table while he made pancakes and advised her about Pike Place. I hoped a hot shower would be enough to make this not a horrible idea.
Unfamiliar travel toiletries and one of those excessively-bladed men’s razors rested on the tiny shower shelf. Every interaction of the past twenty-four hours pounded through my head. I must look so desperate, my eyes wide and begging, admire me, hold me, look at me the way you used to.
I’d always known he would marry. I’d just figured it would be after a respectable length of time—a few years maybe. He’d bring a serious girlfriend for a visit. She’d have long, dark hair like mine, the same taste in shoes. She’d be witty and unimpressed. The four of us would have dinner and get along famously, and I’d think that what had happened between us was a kind of dress rehearsal for the person he was meant to be with.
But if that person was a Sarah . . .?
It didn’t make any sense. We were not the same type of person at all.
I told myself it wasn’t that I wanted him to pine after me until his dying day; I just wanted to spend time with my friend without having to deal with this other awful person for the rest of our lives.
I stayed in the shower a long time, trying to regain my humanity. Nick poked his head in asking if I was going to make it. He was headed back to the hospital.
I wiped the water out of my eyes and looked at him. “I think I’m a bad person,” I said.
“No,” he replied, giving me the sort of patient smile generally reserved for children and the elderly, “you’re just hungover.”
As penance, I dragged everyone onto the light rail and through downtown, spooky, and half-deserted. Sarah complained about how dirty everything was, pointed out every suspicious man with a cart or a bunch of bags.
Pike Place was preferable without the crush of cruise ship passengers, there was breathing room. At a kiosk I bought a pack of Bubblicious, ignoring Sarah’s sniping about sugar content. I lead our little band down the cement staircase to every child’s favorite attraction: the gum wall. Their eyes grew wide at this many-colored grotto. I blew a bubble, popped it with my pointer finger, and brazenly stuck it onto the alley wall.
The children smacked their jaws artlessly, with squinted concentration and puffed cheeks aimed to inflate their gum. We wrung ten minutes’ joy from the absurdity and grossness. I was thinking of our next stop when one of the Parrish children, Matilda, grabbed a piece of used gum from the nearest brick and popped it into her mouth.
Sarah seemed to move in slow motion, head teetering and eyes widening. Then she began to scream. What was Matilda thinking and why hadn’t Andrew been holding her hand? Andrew thrust a palm before Matilda’s mouth, commanded her to spit with such force that the baby (who was lashed to his chest with a length of batiked fabric) looked like its head might wobble off.
Above, sneakers and sandals paraded by. Young people came into the alley, removed their masks, and took selfies as Sarah and Andrew yelled at each other and tried to pry gum from clenched toddler jaws.
Archie placed a tiny, warm hand in mine, motioned that he wanted to whisper in my ear. I crouched down and he said he was ready for these people to go away.
“I know, bud,” I replied. I felt it, too, the washing away of what could be for the realization of what was. This is who we were; neither golden nor effervescent, none deserving of worship. We were skin and blood, susceptible to pathologies foreign and domestic.
They left early the next morning, the children still in their pajamas. Sarah refilled a half-dozen water bottles, climbing over seats to stash them in cupholders. Andrew stacked and restacked luggage in the back of the van. They offered us stiff hugs on the front step. Andrew said something charming. And I stood on the porch, waving a final goodbye.
Katharine Strange has written for The Seattle Times and The Stranger. In addition to being a Moth mainstage storyteller, her short fiction has appeared in Literary Yard. She is a 2022 Jack Straw Writer. She is on Twitter @realstrangekaty.
Photo credit: Henni Stander, Unsplash