At the barbeque I tell myself I will kiss Lance Goldstone by the end of the evening. He’s the principal of the elementary school where my girls go and looks like a cross between Leonard DiCaprio and 1970s Burt Reynolds. Instead of Reynolds’s ’70s porn-star variety, Lance’s moustache is dark blonde and progresses tastefully into a short beard on his prominent chin. He’s flipping smoking meat on a gas grill and laughing with some of the other dads from the school as kids go streaming across the yard in pursuit of a tennis ball planted between the jaws of Lance’s dog. The four-o’clock sun spilling across the yard causes him to squint, which invites an arrangement of lines around his eyes that makes him all the more striking. He’s the kind of guy that hugs you tight when you see him even if you’ve only met him once or twice.
He’s married to a cute first grade teacher named Celia. They have two twin boys who are in the fourth grade at a private school in the foothills. Their life is like a snapshot you see in catalogues advertising beachfront time-shares in the Caribbean or a linens sale at Macy’s. Right now, Celia is laughing and chasing their dog barefoot in a bright blue sundress, her dark pixie haircut slightly messed up in the back. She is the embodiment of carefree sunny days. Maybe I’ll kiss her, too. Perhaps some of her contentment will rub off on me.
I didn’t plan on coming. Nobody expects to see me at these things. I’m supposed to be home, feeding my husband, Drew, soup that he can’t feed himself – not teetering in red heels and wearing matching lipstick. But Celia, begged me to come when she saw me at Safeway last weekend. She said she thought it would be good for me to get out if I could manage it. I think she feels sorry for me. I think most of these people do.
It’s a spectacular spring day in March. The temperature has been in the 80s all afternoon and the smell of orange blossoms has permeated the air. We’re eating off paper plates that keep blowing across the yard in the dry wind that whips up the napkins and the blue plastic tablecloths. I’m drinking Maker’s Mark out of a white tumbler with rainbows on it, watching Lance make the rounds. He brushes his hair with the fingers of his right hand when he’s uncomfortable, which he’s doing right now as he’s being cornered by Joyce Monroe. She is no doubt giving him her thoughts on how the school needs a new garden coordinator—something she recently bitched to me about. I’m lucky if I can remember to put on both shoes in the morning let alone worry if the school’s garden coordinator is up to snuff.
I have my Nikon D5300 around my neck. Lately, I’ve been using it in ways that are not as refined as the ways I use it while I’m working. For instance, earlier I got a great shot of Lance’s ass in the tight Levis he’s wearing. I suppose taking photos of hot dads makes up for all the happy, vital couples whose weddings I photograph every week. Now I aim my camera for the group of girls turning cartwheels on the grass, but I’m really trying to get a shot of Oliver Greer—a local musician whose band is reportedly big in Europe, but can hardly fill an Elks Club here in Tucson. He’s also the school’s music teacher, which is how I know him. He’s tall with a head full of dark hair that meanders in ways that make him look rumpled yet robust, like he could whip together a jazz ditty on his piano while half asleep. I’ve sat in school meetings and stared at his full-lipped mouth while he’s talked about the upcoming spring concert my girls would be in. Now I focus in on him as he talks to Lance. I release the shutter. Snap. Take a photo of his hand minus the wedding ring he used to wear. Snap. He and his wife Charlene recently separated. Apparently she left him for a young roofer with amazing forearms. I drop the camera back around my neck and move into the house.
This is where I bump into Joyce, who is coming out of the bathroom. She is everywhere at once all of the time.
“Mattie,” she says, doing that thing with her face that people have been doing since Drew’s accident. She’s cocking her eyebrows in a concerned way and smiling while looking frightened. “Good to see you. Where are the girls?”
I tell her they’re at home with my mother, that they weren’t up for the barbecue.
She nods knowingly.
“It must be difficult for them to see the other families here with dads . . .”
I swallow hard, wanting to smack her with the hand that has the heavy citrine ring on it that Drew gave me a few years back. Instead I smile. Who the fuck says something so insensitive? Why doesn’t she just come out and say “unlike your family that now has a broken dad”? In reality, my mother is watching the girls and looking after Drew. I told the girls the barbecue would be boring and most of the kids would be out of town since it’s spring break. I didn’t want them to see the way I’ve been behaving lately. Nobody here knows I’ve slept with fourteen men since Drew’s accident five months ago. There is a certain way a woman whose husband has been bed ridden for months is expected to behave, and sleeping around certainly isn’t one of them. Every one of the men I’ve slept with has been some stranger I’ve met in a club out near the airport where they come and go on business. Every one of them was surprised they didn’t have to pay, that I wasn’t the whore I’m acting like. Now the temptation to take it within our social circle is cracking. Being with the strangers has become commonplace and I want to feel something real. The only men I’m sure can make me feel that at this point are the ones that are truly forbidden—the ones I see on a daily basis, the fathers of my daughter’s friends. Joyce’s eyes fall to the camera around my neck.
“I’m glad to see you’re still the designated photographer. Be sure to take some photos for the school newsletter,” she says and walks into Lance who is walking back into the house. I want to talk to him, but don’t want to get caught up in any additional bullshit that Joyce has to offer, so I stand by and lean against the counter while trying to avoid small talk with strangers and people I know from the school. Having a crippled husband has its advantages. It means less people want to talk to you. You’re suddenly a social outsider because people don’t know what to say or are afraid to say the wrong things. I nibble some carrot sticks and listen to her talk to Lance about one of the teachers who was recently out of school for a two weeks with the flu. Once they’re done, he makes for the kitchen, but is conveniently blocked by yours truly.
“Mattie,” he says readily. “I’m so glad you could make it.” And there’s the hug, this time extra tight and for a beat longer than usual. He smells like smoke and charred meat. As I let go and back away, his eyes fall to the subtle cleavage I’ve chosen to disclose.
“He’s okay. Still not walking. The doctors say it could be months.” Before he can give me the I’m-so-sorry-to-hear-that look, I conclude with, “But he gets stronger every day and should be back to normal soon,” then lop off the end of a carrot stick between my front teeth. The truth is the doctors say he may never walk again and he’s not healing the way he’s supposed to. In fact, since he’s come out of the coma six weeks ago, there have been talks of another spinal surgery because the swelling around his spinal cord hasn’t gone down the way the doctors expected it to.
Lance nods and offers a flicker of a smile as if to say, well that’s good. This is when I realize I don’t want to kiss him anymore. The way he’s looking at me, his big blue eyes brimming with concern and feigned relief, makes my original idea wither. And then Celia is there, too. She’s hugging me and saying how glad she is to see me and how are the girls and is my mother still in town. Forget it. I walk away from the conversation deflated.
Once I see Oliver Greer again in the backyard, looking back at me and waving, I have renewed hope.
“You can tell Daphne I’ve got her flute in my office,” he says, squinting against the sun as I cross the backyard in his direction. “She left it at rehearsal.”
I nod and smile. As my eyes settle on the gentle slope of his mouth beneath his mustache, I know without a doubt that it will be Oliver who I will try to kiss tonight instead of Lance. Even though he probably won’t reciprocate because he’s a good man, the impulse to kiss him is solid. I tell him I want to ask him something and look around nervously to give him the hint that we should take our conversation somewhere more private.
“Let’s find some shade,” he says, leading me back to the property line where the trees stand tall and cast long shadows over the backyard. As we climb the hill leading to where the trees thicken, I aim and take fire at the landscape. Lance and Celia have one of those yards that most of us desert dwellers think of as a crime. It’s lush and green and sucks up water we can’t afford to use on something as frivolous as a lawn. In fact their yard, edged with lofty eucalyptus trees, could pass for a yard in the Midwest or one on the East Coast. Through my lens, the grass is a heartbreaking green that has cropped up in my recent dreams. I find Lance in my viewfinder. He and Celia and the twins are now throwing a Frisbee between one another as the dog chases it around inside the square they’ve created. Their laughter echoes through the yard as the sun begins its slow decent down the horizon. I snap a photo of Lance and his family. The click of the shutter makes a hollow sound as I release it.
“I heard you might be taking a job at Grantstone High School?” I say, dropping the camera back around my neck.
This is true, but I know he won’t be taking the job. Our loquacious friend Joyce has already filled in half the school on Oliver’s offer and his decision to turn it down, but I needed an excuse to get him alone. Oliver smiles as he looks out at the yard and shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “I was offered a position as the band director by my friend who’s the principle there, but I couldn’t leave.”
I put my hand to my heart to show how relieved I am.
“Thank god,” I say. “I’ve had enough loss for one year.”
As I say the words, I realize how ridiculous they sound, like I could equate his leaving our school with the almost-death and subsequent paralysis of my husband. But I can’t think too much about it. I am on a mission after all. Oliver gives a small, tight laugh and rubs the back of his neck. Looking up at him is like looking at a statue that can’t figure out if its young or old. He’s got the prolonged limbs of a boy coming into his teenage years even though he’s probably in his late forties or early fifties. Briefly I imagine leaving him with “The Mark of Mattie”. This was my hallmark as a teenager—a heart-shaped hickey that the boys in school would recognize and josh each other about. Lately, I’ve given a few to the men at the club by the airport. Rewinding to a simpler time has kept me sane.
“I just mean the girls love you,” I say. The smile feels tight on my face like it’s been slapped on. I look at the dark whiskers stippling his jaw. Then I do it—I put my hand on his hand, which is resting on the back of a rogue lawn chair that’s somehow ended up all the way at the back of the yard. And just like that, Lance pulls the plug on my plan.
“Who’s up for a game of Gin Rummy?” he calls into the backyard.
Six of us decide to play the game while we eat at the picnic table. We pass around a platter of ribs, steak, and barbequed chicken. I pick up a rather anemic-looking, scrawny chicken leg. Immediately, I’m reminded of Drew’s once-firm abdomen becoming a pale concave scoop beneath his pajama top. There’s no doubt the chicken leg will sit on my plate untouched and taking it will only be a mercy serving, so I take a hunk of steak as well. I turn my attention to Oliver who is sitting across from me, holding his cards close to his face, looking them over seriously, and transferring them around in his hand. I’ve switched to iced tea while everyone else is sipping beer or wine. I can’t afford to get sloppy. I try to focus on my hand, which is made up of mostly random numbers and one king of clubs, but I keep looking at Oliver. I want to take a picture of his mouth—its perfectly rounded edges, the pouty lower lip. Maybe I can tell him I need pictures of his mouth for an upcoming ad campaign we’re doing at the studio that will feature something like bits of people’s faces in various states of joy about their upcoming nuptials. Or maybe I’ll just take some when he isn’t looking. Now it’s his turn and he puts down a run: a jack, queen, and king of spades.
“Look at you,” I say in a toe-curling Jessica Rabbit tenor that takes even me by surprise. I didn’t mean to be so obvious.
Reel it in, I say to myself. To try to ease over my overtness, I go straight into a sober-sounding, “Good run” accompanied with a resolute nod of the head.
He smiles and takes a sip of his beer, leaving a little foam on his mustache. I’m thinking about licking it off when suddenly Joyce leans over and says, “It’s good to see you’ve bounced back since everything and that you’re out of the house again. It must be a good sign.”
Oh really? Bounced back? If only she knew. I inhale sharply but quietly. Not only is she insensitive, she’s onto me. I understand that now looking at the wry curve in the corner of her mouth. You can’t get anything by on this broad. I once overheard her talking about the way Maryanne Winchester, the school librarian, was undressing the fifth grade teacher, Lester Ramiro, with her eyes at the family dance. So she is sure to have noticed me looking over Oliver like he’s a juicy Easter ham.
And then just when I’m about to get back to watching Oliver’s face tense in concentration, Joyce lays down a handful of coordinated flushes and runs and says, “knocking.”
Of course. She’s one of those know-it-alls who, despite having a husband who is in Dubai on business fifty percent of the year, is always able to get her kids from parent pickup on time, at all the PTA meetings, and super involved in her kids’ schooling. Why wouldn’t she be “knocking”?
It’s not long after this that I realize she is also hitting on Oliver. While she’s usually bragging about her husband, Rick, whenever she can (“Rick says we need to ski Aspen next winter” or “Rick only skis double black diamond trails.”) now she’s laughing in an odd fashion at nearly everything Oliver says. She’s twisting her mouth up and making an obnoxious clicking noise with her tongue that I imagine is supposed to come across as teasing, but really comes across sounding like the cocking of a gun. She’s also whipping her head to the side as if she’s tossing long hair when she wears her hair short. I wonder if she ever wore it long and this is a leftover habit. Or maybe she imagines herself owning a cascade of dark curls. Whatever it is, it’s annoying and I notice she does it when she’s nervous or trying to assert herself. When Oliver mentions something about how strong the vodka tonic she made him is, she does the hair-whipping thing and laughs and says, “Are you accusing me of trying to get you drunk, Mr. Greer?” I could roll my eyes so hard they would look back into my brain, but I play it cool, trying to focus on the game. However, it’s hard. I just want to reach across the picnic table and grab Oliver by the wrist and yank him out of the game and into the tree line again that is now darkening as the sun gets even lower in the sky.
I wait until he goes into the house for another beer and get up to follow him, falling into step with him as he crosses the lawn and walks into the house. As he leans down to fish another beer out of the fridge, I check my reflection in the hallway mirror. Although it’s dark, I can see that my lipstick is still in tact and my hair is okay.
“Can I get you anything?” he asks.
“No, thanks,” I say.
Just as I’m about to try to lure him toward the dark hallway by telling him I could use his help finding the light switch, Joyce leans over my shoulder (when did she show up?) and says, “The kids are playing a game of Crazy Eights out back. It would look great in the newsletter.”
If I could growl and get away with it I would, but I nod and exit. What am I going to say: No thanks, Joyce. I’d rather stay here and try to fuck Oliver? or Stop trying to cock block me with this newsletter business? I can’t think of anything to say that would get me out of doing what she asks, so I head out to the back porch where I take aim at the kids who have taken our place around the picnic table in the yard. The sun has lowered itself beyond the horizon, but there is enough light to see them through the viewfinder. I don’t walk all the way out the sliding glass door so I’m able to keep a peripheral eye on Joyce. I hear her laughing at something Oliver has said and can see from my side eye that she’s doing that hair-flipping thing.
When I turn my attention back to the viewfinder, I see Joyce’s son, Eric, standing next to the picnic table, wrenching the cards out of Lance’s son James’s hands and throwing them on the ground. This is surprising to me for two reasons: 1) Eric is soft-spoken and would normally never act so aggressively toward another kid. Despite what I think of his mother, I have always been fond of her son; and 2) Nobody is paying any attention to what’s happening. Everyone is off in their own corners of the yard, slipping deeper into their drinks and conversations.
I have forgotten Joyce and Oliver and follow the scuffle through my lens as I walk back into the yard. It’s gotten cool fast and I shiver, wishing I’d brought a sweater.
“My dad is not leaving my mom!” I hear Eric yell as I get closer. He has that sad wither in his voice most twelve-year-old boys possess before their voices drop to the painful pitch of adulthood. I put the camera down.
“I didn’t say that! I just heard my father say something to my mom last night about your dad not being home much. That’s all I said!”
I clap my hands, startling them both.
“Hey, hey! What’s going on?”
They are both looking at me wide-eyed in the fading light.
“Nothing,” Eric shrugs, putting his hands into his pockets and sulking away into the dark yard where some other kids have gathered.
“Are you okay?” I ask James, leaning down to pick the bent cards out of the grass and smooth them out on the table.
He nods and I nod back in a firm way that I hope conveys: You’ve got this. You’re going to be okay. He turns and leaves, heading toward the other kids.
Before I can put the cards back in their box, they are swept up in a swift breeze. They look like fluttering dove feathers as they ride the air. I’m reminded of the day last year before Drew’s accident when a cooper hawk went speeding through our yard and left an explosion of feathers in its wake. I never even saw the dove, only the greyish feathers that circled in the aftermath. I think of Drew hacking through the unbreakable caliche soil of our backyard with a pickaxe just so the girls could bury an empty matchbox representing the dead dove. I think of the pained look that glazed his eyes as he picked up some of the feathers and placed them inside the matchbox. It was as if he knew he would soon be as destroyed as that dove.
I’m gripped by a sudden need to get home to see Drew and the girls. It feels like one of those dreams I’ve been having where I’m running but getting nowhere. I race into the house, and almost past the kitchen where Joyce is splitting a cookie with Oliver. It’s one of those big black and white Italian cookies. She’s kept the vanilla half and given Oliver the chocolate half. I stop and lean over her shoulder and say in a low voice, “You might want to go check on your son. He seemed pretty upset a few minutes ago.”
She says something akin of “oh no” and goes out toward the porch. I genuinely feel bad for her, but payback is a bitch.
I tell Oliver I need to leave.
“Is everything okay?” he says. He has a few cookie crumbs in his beard and I reach up and brush them off with my thumb. The feeling of his chin in my hand is electrifying and when he cracks a smile and a blush spreads over his face, it feels like someone has reached inside my chest and pried my heart loose. I’m reminded of the way Drew used to look at me when his eyes were bright and responsive.
I know I have to go, but I linger. It feels like when I’m in an airport and the plane is going to leave and I run to use the bathroom one more time and chance missing the flight. It’s the exact opposite of the fleeing feeling I had a minute ago.
“Yeah, everything is okay. I just need to get home.”
“Of course,” he says.
Just then the kitchen is flooded by kids who have come inside in search of marshmallows. I grab a few of the kids I know and say I want to get a picture for the newsletter.
“Go stand next to your music teacher,” I instruct them.
They flank Oliver and smile. The kids love him. Someone is hovering their two fingers above Oliver’s head like rabbit ears as I take a few frames. Then I zoom in on him from the shoulders up, momentarily imagining The Mark of Mattie that will not make it to his neck. I zoom in closer to that perfect mouth of his, swollen like a cluster of ripe grapes, and get one more picture. That one is for later.
Outside the moon has taken the sun’s place in the sky, shedding its waxen light on the lawn. I run to the car and shut myself in. I’m about to take the camera off from around my neck, but stop. I decide to take a picture of the dark inside the car in one last effort to capture something from this night that goes beyond the pretty mouth of Oliver Greer or Lance Goldstone’s great ass. I want to shoot something that represents my life at this moment. I want to shoot something real.