Mykelle Thompson-Graves - Fiction
by Mykelle Thompson-Graves
On her forty-fifth birthday, Janine decided her life could best be fulfilled in pointless tasks. She had reached the part in her own story in which things would be summarized. She undertook only functions that would be quickly undone, without any effort from her. You might find this a strange decision to make, but, really, her resolution came easily. She merely continued to do what she’d always done, with a few slight modifications.
Early in their marriage, Janine and Joe had decided the bed-making would fall to the last one in it; and even though Janine almost always woke before Joe, she stopped getting up before him. That way, she would be obliged to smooth the covers and plump the pillows, tucking in the sheets. This was an obvious first step, the undoing of this labor assured by the end of the day. From there, it got even easier.
She cooked, of course, and that’s self-explanatory. Two hours of baking cookies left barely a trace once her daughter and three sons came home from school, especially if they brought friends home, which Noah almost always did. She washed the dishes and found them dirty again in the sink. She hadn’t even planned for that one; she’d taught the children to clean up after themselves, but she hadn’t accounted for them rushing out the door to soccer practices and play rehearsals. She dusted furniture; she cleaned bathrooms; she sewed buttons onto young Henry’s shirts—she could count on him to pop them off again within the month. He never unfastened clothes properly, but merely grabbed the tops of the shirts and yanked. Her scheme was working splendidly.
Janine worked part-time, the perfect amount of hours for a mother of four, as a paralegal at the small firm Hardwell, Johnson, and Cripes. According to her education and training, she should have been meeting clients, but Johnson felt strongly that her erratic hours made her unreliable as a client contact. Instead, she researched precedents to be argued against, wrote interrogatory responses to be discredited, left voicemails to go unanswered, and made the coffee. Janine’s coffee was perfect, neither bitter nor weak; and everyone drank it, including the clients who couldn’t rely on her.
Janine stood seven months into her resolution when all four children had retreats and play dates, slumber parties and ballgames on the same Friday night. A miracle worth celebrating, Janine arranged to meet Joe at the tavern after work. He said he was bringing a friend.
Janine’s eyes adjusted to the dim light in St. William’s Pub when the door closed behind her. She spotted Joe sitting at a high-top near the bar. With a woman. He lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave like acknowledging a roll call: Present and accounted for. “Janie,” he said, “this is Becka.”
“Thanks for inviting me,” the young woman said, smiling through her creaseless mouth. She wasn’t altogether that young, but there’s a before-and-after line drawn at 40. Janine could tell where a woman lay along this graph by how she held her shoulders; Becka still leaned into her life, whereas Janine had tilted back, and then some.
“My pleasure,” Janine said, looking into her husband’s face, but he only betrayed the usual twinkle of a night away from the kids, a childlike baldness enjoying his beer, which she once found charming. Didn’t she still?
“Do you work in Joe’s office?”
Becka blinked rapidly. “No,” she said, “I’m writing Joe’s ads. I work for Earhart Advertising.”
“Not that bit with the alligator, I hope?”
Becka smiled pleasantly. “That would be Earl. He retired the end of last year.”
“To Florida? For the gators?” Janine asked.
Joe laughed again, but Becka said, “To take care of his wife. Some heart condition.”
How satisfying that Becka could undo Janine’s joke so seamlessly.
Janine spent the rest of the evening scrutinizing her husband. She looked for him to brush the tops of Becka’s fingers when he passed the salt; she waited for him to anticipate the young woman’s order by suggesting one of her favorites; Janine crossed and uncrossed her legs many times just to bump knees with the other two and take inventory of how each leg lay positioned under the table. This was silly, of course. If her husband had a mistress, he surely wouldn’t invite her to dinner. But maybe that’s just how mistresses begin. A friendship could be undone by becoming lovers. Maybe Janine and Joe were on the same track.
They drove their separate cars home, giving Janine a few minutes to think. She’d surprised herself by reacting jealously, even if covertly. It really wasn’t like her—Joe could hardly be considered a philanderer by anyone’s standards. Joe constituted the solid sort, practical and reliable. Twenty-two years of marriage could also be undone, she knew all too well, but Janine wasn’t sure this was what she’d had in mind.
She walked into an unnervingly quiet house, and the silence could only be undone by talking. “Joe,” she began, “why didn’t you tell me your friend was a woman?”
“Does it matter?”
She slid beside him on the couch, snaking her arm inside his so her hand rested on his thigh. “It just surprised me, is all.”
“She’s new to town,” he said. “I don’t think she knows many people yet.”
“It can take a while to meet people,” Janine agreed. She put her free hand on his arm and caressed it.
He smiled at her and said, “But it shouldn’t take her too long with that charm. She’ll be fine.”
“She’s very pretty,” Janine confirmed. She dropped her hand from his arm, adding, “But she could use some help with social boundaries.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well,” Janine tried to sound as detached as possible, “usually single women don’t impinge on married men. Unless they’re after something.”
Janine’s plan was working out splendidly. Tenderness could be undone, too. Within the hour, two of their children returned home.
Janine worked a knot free from Henry’s shoestring, advised Noah on the girlfriend problem that had sent him home early—surely wasting her breath because the young man picked at his thumbnail while she talked—and tucked Henry into bed. The boy padded downstairs fifteen minutes later to drink a glass of milk. Janine poured herself a vodka she knew she would drink much too quickly and took one to Joe. “What’s this?” he said.
“Friday night,” she answered, resettling beside him in front of the TV.
“I thought we were done at the pub.”
“Night cap,” she said, “the usual.”
Joe raised his glass to her, “Our perpetual end.”
Janine thought she shouldn’t read too much into his toast. They both will have forgotten it by morning.
Two weeks later, Janine found herself driving past her husband’s office at lunchtime. She’d noted at St. William’s Pub that Becka climbed into a red Camry. She wouldn’t say she spied on Joe exactly, or even really suspected him, but his office lay only four blocks out of her way. She’d worked her half day and had some errands to run: the children had eaten practically everything in the pantry. Would it mean anything if she saw a red Camry? They could be meeting for business, that’s all. Once she’d committed by turning down Lark Avenue, she realized she could undo this drive-by quite simply if she refused to look. As she cruised past the parking lot for Joe’s building, Janine gripped the steering wheel with both hands. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a smear of red, but she did not turn to see the make of the car. Plenty of people drove red cars. It’s quite common.
The supermarket was crowded and overly warm, so Janine didn’t think about Camrys. Janine stalled at the heads of aisles, waiting for buggies to pass one another, and stood in a line four carts deep at the check-out. Her cart had been artfully loaded, boxes of cereal and bags of frozen vegetables piled a foot over the rim. The bagboy couldn’t fit it all back in and followed her to the parking lot with a second cart. They worked together loading the grocery sacks into the back of her minivan, so she could take them out again at home and unpack them into the pantry and fridge, from which they would be removed and eaten—a never-ending cycle that repeated much more quickly than a reasonable person might think.
As Janine put away the groceries, Shannon came home from school, chattering about this friend and that, a boy she met ice skating, and whatever else occupies the minds of freshmen girls. Janine could barely hear her because she was not thinking about Camrys.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Can’t believe what?” Shannon grabbed her backpack and headed toward the stairs. “You weren’t even listening.”
Janine’s words were working out splendidly. Usually, that was the correct response, the one a teenage daughter needed, a commiseration for the bad, a celebration of anything exciting. Janine couldn’t believe the stock phrase hadn’t fit this time. The words undid themselves. Brilliant.
After Janine had finished the groceries, the trash can overflowed with soda rings, juice-box cellophane, cardboard boxes, and egg cartons—time to empty the cans that would fill back up again. Janine walked around the house with her garbage bag, emptying the small basket in the den, the can by the craft table, and the one in the master bathroom. But when she dumped the can from the children’s bathroom, she heard a plunk from what had looked to be all tissues. No used toothpaste tube, no ratty brush, not a single cap from mouthwash or shampoo. Janine shook the bag and peered inside.
Something had been wrapped tightly in toilet paper, wound round and round like the mummies of birds and baby crocodiles in the Natural History Museum. Janine sat on the lid of the toilet. She unwound the paper until she reached the core. Not a bird or a crocodile, but something that bit her: the plastic wand of a pregnancy test.
Janine’s first thought was Joe, but that was pure foolishness. A mistress does not take such things in her lover’s bathroom, and certainly not in his children’s. She merely conflated her own decision with Joe’s state of mind. Janine flipped it over and took a deep breath when she read it. Negative. Nothing to undo here except the knowledge the test had been taken. Surely not Shannon? She was only fourteen and had only just met this boy, the one she prattled on about when Janine hadn’t been listening. Janine removed the thought of Shannon from her head when she remembered Noah’s Friday night; his argument with Claire must have been more than Janine guessed. Advising the boy to distance himself if Claire had a predisposition toward melodrama, how silly Janine must have sounded!
Even if she’d been better informed, there would have been nothing for her to do. A boy doesn’t want a condom lecture from his mother. Sometimes, a father can do it, but a stranger is best in these circumstances. Noah stood on the cusp of manhood, which meant he wouldn’t want her. She had no idea what to say to him—this boy who once told her everything—and all her years of parenting were so easily undone.
Janine’s life was working out splendidly.