The winter months dragged on and Margie went about her routine. Her Pinterest printouts piled up, as did the projects around the house. She busied herself by renovating the playroom—mentally not physically—which meant first getting rid of a few extraneous items: a mounted buck head with a lazy eye and a crushed ear, a stuffed armadillo with a Coors Light can propped up in its little rat-like hands, and a mystical creature known as a jackalope, created when deer horns are grafted onto a rabbit’s head. This particular jackalope looked even more sinister with its wandering eye following Margie around the room.
Taxidermy was a hobby Jack had picked up in his early twenties before he started yard work. He had said it was a creative outlet, that he had enjoyed preserving nature, shaping them, breathing new life into the bodies. Had said once that getting the eyes just right was the hardest part. Apparently, thought Margie. These were the only relics he had left, and she knew purging the creepy critters would be a challenging task.
Then again, Margie wondered if Jack would even notice if she disposed of them on the sly. He didn’t really concern himself with interior design and made little effort to help out around the house. The last few months the only way she knew he lived there was the seemingly infinite amount of empty Diet Coke cans he left around like a trail of breadcrumbs for her to pick up. In fact, Jack had spent much of the last couple of months hiding out in his laundry-office-workout room watching You-Tube videos on gardening and working out, while slouched in his office chair in his airless office.
Any domestic contributions he made were sporadic. If she asked him to help clean the kitchen he would not do the dishes but instead mop every inch of the floor, then focus on the spice rack, scrubbing the racks and then each bottle thoroughly, almost violently. Unhappy with the results, he might then build a new spice rack entirely (after watching several videos), spending hours or days on the project. When it was finished the area would gleam, but dirty dishes would still be overflowing in the sink. She would stub her toe on the power tools he’d left lying around. Exhausted, feeling that he’d gone above and beyond the call of duty, he’d slouch around for the next few weeks afterwards. Jack was in one of these stages now and she knew broaching the subject of selling his precious menagerie would rouse him.
“Jack,” she said, interrupting a reclusive-looking middle-aged man on the screen speaking in a monotone voice from a dingy basement. Jack didn’t take his eyes off the instructional video.
“Jack!” she shouted. “Can you turn that thing off for a minute? I can’t hear myself think! I’m redecorating the playroom… I want to hang all different sized mirrors on the wall by the stairs. It is the cutest thing—here she handed him a clipping—and it will make the room look way, way bigger. So we need to get rid of those animal heads. I mean, really, they’re just hanging there sort of decaying as we speak. Maybe we could sell them or something.”
“Are you shitting me? No way! That is nature, God’s fucking creation, stuffed with my own two hands. And you want to replace it with some crap you’re gonna buy at the mall?! I don’t think so. You can’t put a price tag on that kind of craftsmanship!”
“Well, yes you can, apparently. I found tons of them on eBay starting at $50 and some going for as much as $250!” Margie responded.
He looked back at the monitor and went silent, indicating that the conversation was over.
She dropped the subject, not having the energy to argue, and then dropped the playroom project altogether, blaming Jack. “C’est la vie,” she mumbled to herself.
Instead she busied herself with work, monotonous as it was, and squeezed in time for the kids, who were hauled around town, shuffled from the Manscaping Van to the sedan, from soccer matches to art classes to skating parties. Occasionally the four of them would find themselves in one place for a pizza night or a movie at home, after work but before Margie’s nightly routine, almost as involved as the morning but in reverse, taking off layers of makeup and applying various ointments and anti-wrinkle, age-defying creams.
Warm weather arrived early, in late February, and with it, signs of life from Jack. One particularly nice evening, while Margie was applying a facial mask, Jack disappeared into the garage and dug out the antique churn. In town earlier he had secretly bought the ingredients to make homemade ice cream, a kind of tradition in their family on the first warm day. As frightening as it was, Texas winters were benefitting from global warming, and the pleasant day snuck up on them on the heels of a rainy cold front and intense electrical storm. The kids watched in anticipation as Jack churned the cream vigorously, only stopping to add rock salt and sugar. Margie emerged from her bedroom in full mask.
“You look like a scary bird, mommy, like a mean owl!” Oliver said.
“Hoo, hoo, who wants some ice scream,” Margie teased in a haunting voice, sneaking up behind Aimee and then chasing Oliver around. They all laughed together in between spoonfuls of fresh, sweet ice cream.
Margie appreciated these small gestures from Jack. Thinking about it lying in bed that night, she was glad that Jack was satisfied with the little things in life. She, however, wanted big things. Had big dreams. In her mind it came down to having ambition. And the next big thing she needed was ambitious indeed: identical new iPads for the children with designer colored cases she had Pinned—she would let them choose the colors to assert their individuality and allow them self-expression, which was why she didn’t want them to have to share.
The next morning when she brought it up, Jack was against the idea. He felt they were too young to have their own hand-held devices.
“But how can someone be too young to stream movies?” Margie argued. “It makes no sense! At the hospital I see young children, toddlers, fully capable of using iPads, looking thoroughly absorbed, and I don’t want Aimee and Oliver to fall behind the curve,” she said.
She herself loved being online and knew firsthand how entertaining it could be, spending hours a day posting and checking statuses on social media. Jack argued that they should wait until next Christmas, that it was too extravagant a gift to buy for no reason. But next Christmas was ten months away, and there was no way she could wait that long; Margie had convinced herself they needed them now.
Lately she had been taking their boredom as a personal affront, them staring up at her with big needy eyes while she was updating Facebook—well it nearly broke her heart! This was something they could all do together, sitting on the sofa, clicking away. And didn’t Jack say she should spend more quality time with them?
She didn’t exactly need his approval on the purchase and really didn’t have to tell him at all. When she had gone back to work after Aimee was born she had opened up her own checking account after discussing it with Jack, into which she would put a certain agreed upon amount aside for “me money.” But when she shopped for the kids, the “me money” became “we money,” so she needed more and more of it.
At first she used the debit card linked to the account. But she soon outgrew it, her compulsive purchases exceeding the limits of available funds. Between the new duvet cover and matching pillows, the silver rowboat-shaped salad bowl with wooden oar serving utensils, the kaleidoscope necklace for Aimee, the microscope for Oliver, and so on and so forth, the demand simply surpassed the supply. The bank began to contact her by mail and follow up phone calls to see if she would like to upgrade to a credit card associated with the account and she said yes, flattered to have been chosen. And when they kept increasing her credit line, she also took that as a compliment.
Margie never told Jack about the upgrade, since the credit card was tied to her own private account, and therefore really none of his concern. Jack sometimes questioned where the money was coming from, or at least he used to. Other times he seemed to play dumb. But then she constantly fed him little fibs, omissions, and exaggerations—that would soon evolve into flat out lies.
She began to rack up reward points, which she was thrilled about, along with debt, which she was less than thrilled about, but tried not to dwell on. The deeper the hole she dug and the more impossible it became to pay off, the more she spent. After all, what’s more impossible than the already impossible?
One evening, she sat with Aimee and Oliver after dinner, one on each side of her with their orange and green covers respectively, busy retouching a recent photo to upload to Facebook. Using Photoshop, a program she learned from a friend for this very purpose, she altered reality in virtually every picture in this virtual reality. Beyond doctoring the photos, she promoted herself to plastic surgeon, removing her slight double chin, erasing crow’s feet, and performing instant Botox—with the clone tool she could wipe away her forehead wrinkles with one fell swoop—and finally implementing liposuction all over, removing ten pounds.
Yet as far as updates and activities she was truthful, posting action-packed pictures with her adorable children, and occasionally Jack. Always supporting her friends and relatives, she was a loyal Facebook friend, preferring positive profiles rather than bitching and moaning, ranting, pet peeves, politics or prayer requests.
After another successful procedure, she clicked upload, waiting eagerly for the “likes” to pour in. Meanwhile she read posts, seeing what the rest of the world was up to this evening. There were birthday parties, anniversaries, people eating out, planting gardens, running marathons—everyone’s life looked so damn great. And maybe hers looked great to other people too, but was it, was it really? Well she was content at the moment at least, with Aimee and Oliver by her side generating a communal warm spot on the sofa. They busied themselves with games, educational, she hoped.
She did a double-take as she scrolled down, the computer refreshing rapidly, struggling to keep up with her. Was that Stephen Singleton? She stopped mid-feed and scrolled in reverse. Yes, it most certainly was. Tagged by a classmate from high school, he had been a friend with whom she’d had a close, flirtatious relationship. He was a still a major hottie, unlike most of the middle-aged men her age that popped up on her feed with massive beer guts hanging over their wranglers.
She clicked on his profile, but being that they weren’t “friends,”—not yet anyway— she didn’t have access to many photos. She studied the available images intensely, analyzing the angles, zooming in, searching for full body shots. He still had that devilish grin. Good Lord, those dimples! That cowboy hat! She felt flushed as she zoomed in closer and closer on his aquamarine eyes, as clear and bright as the pictures she’d seen of the Caribbean Sea. Elfin, laughing eyes that when directed on her, she remembered, made her feel extraordinary. In high school he had been the perfect mix, a bit of a player but a “sensitive asshole,” pretending to be arrogant and removed on the outside so that when he finally did give you full his attention, even as a friend, it made you melt on the inside.
Thinking back, she was surprised that they had never hooked up in high school or when they were both home from college or hanging out in Dallas; it wasn’t as if she’d never had the chance. She had spent two semesters at University of North Texas in Denton before transferring to a community college downtown, and for many years he had attended a nearby university, though she didn’t think he’d graduated. He had hit on her at house parties but she had chosen the friend route, probably afraid of his reputation. She remembered the rush of stealing street signs with him her freshman year of high school in the dead of night—he was a couple of years older and had just gotten his driver’s license and picked her up after she snuck out of the house. She stood guard, drinking wine coolers in the back of his truck, his trusted accomplice in vandalizing the neighborhood. Another time she ran into him totally randomly in South Padre on spring break, and they partied together the rest of the week, doing ten-cent shots in Mexican bars wearing matching panchos, stumbling back across the border drunk each night. Why, oh why hadn’t she slept with him when she’d had the chance? She always wondered what he’d be like in bed, and never more than now.
“What is that, Momma?” Aimee asked, looking at the giant eyeball staring back at her.
“Oh, it’s no one. I mean, nothing. Just a guy I used to know.”
Oliver looked over, getting a good look at Stephen Singleton as Margie was zooming out before clicking on close, her finger having a seizure on the button.
That peaked his interest even more. “Who was that man in the hat, Mommy?” Oliver asked.
She was trying to decide how to answer when Aimee started back in.
“I want to see again. Show me, Mom. Go back!” she demanded.
The kids seemed to sense Margie’s frenetic energy, with Oliver running around the couch in circles, chanting, creating a silly song: “Show me! Show me! I wanna see that man in the hat!” Aimee joined in, even though she was entirely too old for that kind of behavior.
Oh, God. They wouldn’t let it go. What on earth had gotten into them? She answered that it was an old friend and it was time for bed.
Yet as she tucked them in she couldn’t get Stephen Singleton out of her mind. He went by his full name the way ultra-popular kids did—not just any Stephen but Stephen Singleton. You had to say both names so everyone knew which Stephen you were talking about. He was Stevie once she got to know him better. She wondered if he now went by Stephen or Steve and what he did. Finance maybe? A lawyer? He hadn’t been an honor roll student, so maybe car salesman or restaurant manager would be a better guess.
With the kids in their beds and Jack still upstairs, Margie sat on the sofa and sneaked another peek, sending a friend request before she could stop herself. She had been weighing the pros and cons for the last couple hours as she went through her nightly skin care routine. He had been a platonic friend, and what was the harm in reconnecting? In fact, it would insinuate something if she purposely avoided befriending him.
Flipping through a magazine, Margie checked Facebook every few minutes, her fingers activating the screen on their own accord before her brain even registered the action. She was an excellent typist and knew her keyboard by touch, barely glancing away from the article she was perusing. Finally, a tiny red notification appeared on the screen in her peripheral vision, and yes, he had accepted! That very evening! She was disappointed that there was no private message, lost in thought analyzing what that could mean as she pored over his profile.
“Do you want some ice cream?” Jack startled her, staring at her from behind the kitchen counter.
Margie jumped, pulling a muscle in her neck while clutching the items in her lap—but didn’t miss a beat. “Homemade?”
“Then no thanks.”
She gave him a quick smile and got back to her magazine. Underneath which was her laptop, generating so much heat she thought it might burn through her stretch pants as she dug deeper into his feed.
Now that they were “friends” she had access to more photos and saw someone who might or might not be his wife, and a couple of kids, much older than her own. She saw that he lived in Charleston, North Carolina. The fact that he was so far from home indicated a certain amount of success in itself. She had never been there but loved the way it rolled off the tongue, so southern, so charming.
She read a month’s worth of posts. With no mention of a wife and no cheesy date night posts, it looked like he could be divorced. The mystery woman could have easily been an office buddy or a cousin. If he was married they clearly led completely separate lives, and if it was a loveless marriage that was practically the same as being single. She scolded herself for even dignifying that line of thinking. Then again, of course she was curious about an old friend; she would be coldhearted not to be. Before bed, she sent a message to his inbox: “Long time no see! How the hell are you?”
That night she made passionate love to Jack, taking him by surprise. She hadn’t planned on it herself, hadn’t prepared. Always hygiene conscious, she usually washed her nether regions with a washcloth and sprinkled the area with baby powder before lovemaking, but this session was spontaneous, raw—and dirty—in a good way.
Her exhaustion should have sent her right to sleep, but lying there, the afterglow lingered. Her thoughts kept drifting back to Stevie, or perhaps they had never left him. Lately, she had been having trouble sleeping, an avalanche of thoughts rushing through her head. Her mind had a mind of its own, and she seemed to have less and less control over it. There were other things she was losing control over: her spending, her kids, her time.
If she couldn’t control her waking hours she would at least control her sleeping hours, so Margie resorted to taking some sort of sleeping pill almost every night. Self-educated on the subject, she had learned the difference between benzodiazepines and non-benzodiazepines just by looking at the hospital patients’ charts and judging each individual’s anxiety levels and mental problems as they sat in the waiting room. You don’t have to have a medical degree to observe someone walk in a complete nut job and walk out a calm, functioning member of society. Prescription drugs were discussed around the water coolers at full volume in regards to effects on patients, as gossip when it came to the doctors’ and nurses’ use, and in whispers when it came to personal use. And the meds were easy enough to get ahold of in the break room in the context of one stressed out mother to another.
Other than alcohol, Margie never did drugs of any kind when she was young, so she was in her experimental phase. She was currently switching between Xanax, Ambien and Valium most nights, gauging their effectiveness not only in treating insomnia but also their capability to blot out bad thoughts, eradicate awful memories, and obliterate future worries. She analyzed the subtle highs, the weightlessness versus heaviness, some sending her hovering slightly above her pillow as free as the air she breathed while others sank her, sucked her into a dark place as warm and welcoming as the womb. That night she chose a Xanax, which made her melt rather than float, before it rocked her to sleep.
The next morning she felt groggy even after her shower and made a mental note that 10 milligrams might be a hair on the high side. Before leaving the house she checked her Facebook feed. Instead of the one line she expected, hoped for, she was pleasantly surprised to get a long-winded two paragraphs from Stevie, lengthy enough for him to have put some thought into it but not long enough to appear psychopathic.
He started the email “Large Marge!” a nickname that stuck from high school as a joke when she was stick thin. She cringed, wishing she was ten pounds thinner now, twenty-five to match her high-school self.
He recalled a couple of their college memories, and explained how he’d ended up in Charleston after falling in love with the town while on vacation five years ago, applied for jobs and up and moved there. A beach bum at heart, he enjoyed living on the coast. He’d managed to reveal certain things about himself while hiding others; although he said he enjoyed spending time with his kids, who were both in high school, there was no mention of a wife, a divorce, or a separation. It was friendly, funny in parts, and grammatically correct. He ended the message with the line: “Hope life has treated you well.”
As she drove the kids to school she repeated the line to herself again and again. Even though it was a simple wish, a polite closing and not at all unique, it seemed like the most thoughtful, genuine thing anyone had ever said to her. In fact, she wondered if anyone else really cared how life had treated her—until now no one had thought to ask. And what’s worse, she realized she didn’t know the answer. She was happy in some ways, but had it really treated her, well, well?
It was hard to say. Life had actually treated her badly at times, and up until now it had been average at best.
Now she had the challenge of responding to him with a private message of equal length, depth, humor and quality. Without over-sharing. She worked on the rough draft at work and fine-tuned it that evening before dinner, changing her mind about the meal she was going to prepare and pulling out frozen dinners instead. While the kids worked on their homework she worked on hers, brow furrowed, careful to keep her screen at an angle just out of view. She reread her final draft, torn over whether to call him Steve, Stephen or Stevie. He had signed off with Steve but that just didn’t sound right to her.
So good to hear from you! Your life in Charleston sounds lovely; I’ve always wanted to live near the beach. I’m still landlocked here in Prairie Mound. Ha ha! I work here at the local hospital, checking patients in at the Emergency Room. I suppose life has treated me pretty well, overall. Thanks for asking! I have a ten-year-old daughter, Aimee, and a son Oliver, six. They’re sweet kids, my pride and joy. She didn’t feel the need to mention Jack or that she was married, since he didn’t divulge. But her husband was listed on her Facebook page while no one was listed on his. I was remembering all the adventures we had in high school driving around in your old pickup truck—we were quite the little hellions! Those were the days. I have thought of you often over the years. I’m so glad we reconnected!
She pushed send just before bed, the word “often” causing her to toss and turn with anxiety. Was that too much? Was it even true? She had thought of him from time to time but wasn’t sure how often qualified as often. In any case she felt the phrase had a nice ring to it. But she wished she could shut down the frantic feed that kept scrolling through her head! After trying to drift off on her own for an hour, she pondered upon which pill to pop, settling on a strong dose of Valium to suppress her raging emotions before sending her soaring.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose work has most recently appeared in Salon, The New York Observer and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. While living in the West Village she was a regular contributor to the West View News, and currently writes travel essays for various publications. You can read more of her work on her blog. She is working on her first novel.