by Sarah Kahn
“Breakup sex is excellent,” Anjali says over eggs. The steam rises with the smell of cheese. I don’t know how to take that. I don’t know what we were. I’m not broken up over it. I’m not the girl who cries on the floor. And she’s not the girl who makes me cry.
Anj stabs her fork into the eggs, holds it out over my plate. A bright red corner of tomato sticks out from the cheese. I say, “Thank god you aren’t my girlfriend. I’d have to pretend it’s romantic that you think I can’t feed myself.”
Last night she said, I love doing this with you. And I said, what are we doing? And she said, breaking up. I didn’t say anything. Like, breaking up what?
“I’m gonna shower,” I say, and Anj stands to follow.
“You have a date tonight, you douche,” I tell her. “You have to shower solo.”
She told me that last night, too—that she had a date—which is maybe what prompted the breaking up comment. I don’t care who she’s chasing. I don’t need anything from her.
We both step into the shower, and what does it matter? It’s only one more morning like all the other mornings. I’ll never do it again. I’m bargaining now—thirty-eight minutes until I have to leave, not yet.
Afterward, standing in the shower, lukewarm water running over us, I say, “You want to come to Katie’s play with me?”
I wish I hadn’t said anything. Why would she want to go to my niece’s play? Only love can drag you to a kindergarten rendition of Cinderella.
“I have a couple things to do first. Maybe I’ll meet you there later. I’ll text you.”
And the smell of her shampoo, clean and sweet. And the warmth where her skin grazes mine. And the way she wrings the water from her hair, the way she looks back at me, and me still standing under the water, watching her walk out into the hall.
I’m not following the play. Katie is Cinderella and Cinderella is a cow. It feels unnecessarily complicated. The drama teacher is a tall, mullet-sporting woman with the artistic inclinations of a golden retriever—big-hearted, sloppy, and frank. I think she is trying to make a statement about appearances. Or something.
I’m sitting next to my brother and his wife, Carly. Technically, Sam’s my half-brother, but that’s not how it is with us. He’s my brother. I mean, I lived with him until I was seven, when he went to college. Christ. That was fourteen years ago.
Carly has her blond hair teased into a bump and tied behind into a tight bun. Her silver earrings dangle and her shirt has carefully placed holes and ropes of fabric weaving across her back. I can’t help looking at her legs, the way her two-hundred dollar jeans show the muscle in her narrow thighs. I kick the toe of one Jordan up onto the leg of the chair in front of me and wish I could crawl into another body, peel off the parts of myself that feel thrust on, not mine. The play seems to be culminating in an ensemble song, lyrics incoherent. Every time a verse winds down and the kids pause, the chorus repeats again. It is the longest song I have ever heard.
Post song, Katie is left on stage, in the center (well, a bit off center) of the spotlight. She lifts her little cow-masked face and says, “No matter how I look, my prince sees me, the cow he danced with, and that’s true, forever love.” The shit we teach these kids. Then she veers left and—arms swinging—cow-strides offstage. Well, she’s the cutest damn Cowerella I’ve ever seen. My back is aching from the acute angle of these school theater chairs. Does this mean I’m getting old?
There’s an “X” made of white tape pressed to the floor in the hallway where Katie told us to meet her. She sprints over, cow pillows flapping, and leaps at me. I scoop her up and bear hug the whole squishy package. She is talking nonstop about who messed up during the song and how she almost forgot her line and wasn’t it funny when the pig and the horse danced and Max is a really good actor and her best friend Jamie made up her own line because she forgot it but it was even better and did we see? Did we see it?
I settle her on the floor.
“But Max and Jamie said we could go get ice cream, can we, please? We are going to do our scene again for you because the lines got messed up and we want you to see how it was supposed to be and the song, too, because some people didn’t sing it right.” Jamie is coming over, dragging her mother by the hand.
“No desert before dinner,” Carly tells Katie. My brother looks at her over the kids’ heads.
“Come on, babe. Just once can she celebrate? My kid’s going to be maladjusted.”
Max arrives just in time for the three of them to chorus together, “Please, please, please,” which devolves into the more demanding, “ice cream, ice cream, ice cream!”
Carly presses her mouth into a flat little dash. “How about we have homemade ice cream?” she asks. She means the organic yogurt she puts in the freezer and sprinkles with berries and nuts.
There’s a girl coming out of the theater; she was standing by the door and must have come in late. I can’t see her face because she isn’t looking this way, and then she looks up and smiles at me, just this disarmingly kind smile, like she’s been looking for me and she’s so happy I’m here. But it isn’t Anjali. I wasn’t looking for Anjali or anything.
My brother shoves his hair back. “OK,” he says. “Coming, Rae?”
“Yeah, of course.” Katie, who has recently been plucked up by Carly, struggles in her mother’s arms and begins to shriek.
Katie looks back at us over her mom’s shoulder, bleary-eyed. “Daddy,” she weeps, and it’s the saddest noise, like something’s breaking her heart. She’s not usually like this; she’s usually overflowing, ready to love everything she sees.
“Full-time job,” I say, nodding towards Carly, who shoots us a beleaguered look over Katie’s now-limp body.
“You’ll want kids one day,” my brother says. “Biology will strike. All women hit that age.”
“I’m happy with yours,” I say. “Got one perfect one. Why push our luck?” Katie’s tears soak Carly’s red shirt as she struggles to open the car door without putting Katie down.
I take the keys and open the door while she settles Katie in the back seat, then I slide in the back next to her. Carly gets in the driver’s seat and we wait while she flips down the visor and messes with her makeup.
Carly was an editor for some fashion magazine when she married my brother. She got knocked up right away so she could quit her job and be a mom. Katie has everything. Horse lessons, piano lessons, structure, a fair and thoroughly explained judicial system, and frozen yogurt. I don’t know exactly what Carly’s childhood was like. Her parents were gone a lot. They didn’t have money. Or something.
My brother wanted to wait before they had kids, but she had to get pregnant right away. And now she is just My Brother’s Wife.
“My tummy hurts,” Katie says, her voice dragging through the lull of tired tears. “I just want ice cream,” she adds, burrowing against the seat of the car and promptly falling asleep.
“We should call the other kids and tell them not to come,” Carly says.
“She’s just tired,” Sam argues. “It’s her big day. Let them come.”
Carly puts her mascara down and looks over at him, her hand pausing over the ignition. “Something’s wrong,” she says.
“Dramatic much?” Sam says, but then he sees her face. He cups her neck in his palm and pulls her toward him, kisses her hair. “She’s fine, Car.”
Anjali and I are lying on her bed, watching The Wire. It’s hot, Walnut Creek summer, and we’re spread out on top of her bunched comforter, trying to keep any of our parts from touching.
“I really like this girl,” she says to the ceiling. “But I think she wants to be, like, my girlfriend.”
“Jesus, Anj, you just met her. She’s a fucking starfish. Save yourself.”
“Starfish?” she asks, laughing a little.
“Have you ever seen those things? They just face plant onto their rock and never let go. They don’t even move or do anything. Stage five clingers.”
“Ah yes,” she affirms. “The stalking starfish.” She rolls up on her elbow. “But, I mean, down the road, I think that’s what she’s looking for.”
“Is that what you’re looking for?” I don’t get it, why people have to label everything and fuck everything up. I’ve slept with other girls, but I’ve never dated one. I don’t need that in my life right now. I need a job teaching. I need to quit at the grocery store, and tutoring, and the hotel. I don’t need to trade good sex and a good friend for worrying about what someone else is doing, when I can’t even seem to get what I’m doing right. Anyway, I didn’t think Anj was the monogamy type.
“Well, you’re not exclusive yet,” I say, pulling her towards me, grazing her jaw with my teeth and thumbing the waist of her shorts. I work the button loose, touch my tongue to the skin of her neck; lavender soap, her grapefruit sweat.
She moans, “Fuck, I love you,” when I touch her. People say things.
So familiar how she reaches for me, how she finds whatever exposed inch she can touch. All of a sudden I want to pull away, but it’s too late.
When I pull up outside Sam’s house, Carly isn’t there. Or her car isn’t. I borrowed Sam’s car to go to an interview at Marin Academy, a private high school school for kids distantly related to Reagan or closely related to celebrities, which I completely bombed. They had misread my resume and thought I had substituted for the entire year, instead of seven days this entire year, at Urban High School. It was so awkward that I literally couldn’t swallow while I was teaching the mock lesson. I thought about explaining that I was thrown, that I’m good at this, that I’m not supposed to drag zucchini over a scanner for the rest of my life, but instead I shook the principle’s hand, ran to my car, and changed out of my collared shirt and cardigan at the first gas station I passed.
When I get inside, Sam gets off the couch and I go to the fridge for two PBRs.
“What a classy lawyer,” I say, handing him one. I sit like he does, feet on the wood coffee table, something Carly never lets him do.
“It’s an antique,” he mimics.
“Our feet are on priceless, hand-carved art,” I say. We pop our cans at the same time, knock them together, knock the table, then knock a few good gulps back. It’s something we always do with the first beer.
The door swings open and Katie runs past us, waving, followed by Carly. Our feet are on the floor and Sam has grabbed coasters from the drawer under the coffee table. Carly glances at this but doesn’t say anything.
“What did the doctor say?” Sam asks. “Just a flu?”
“Yeah,” Carly says. “He thinks it’s nothing. They did a few tests.” Her face is tight and still as plaster.
I look at Sam but he’s taking a long pull off his beer, smiling. “Sounds good, babe.”
“How was your interview?” she asks me.
“Awful,” I say.
“Well. It’s good practice. What did you wear?”
I look down. “I mean, a different shirt.” My pants are creased slightly off center and my shoes have tiny dents along the heels from my old roommate’s puppy.
Carly looks at me. “You’d be surprised how important the way you look is. How much it tells the interviewer about you.”
Well. She can walk her perfect, unchewed heels to hell. She can do hot yoga there.
It doesn’t matter what I wear. I look broad shouldered and awkward in dresses. In heels, I walk like I’m crossing a creek on uneven stones. I can’t ever remember to cross my legs in a skirt. All of that is easy for Carly. Even when she’s in a T-shirt and too-big jeans, you can’t help but still be aware of the slender curl of her body making a soft, girlish shape.
“Who are you dating now?” Sam asks.
“My friends want boyfriends,” I say. “Not me. Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Sam and I try to work this lyric into as many conversations as possible. He cracks up, but Carly doesn’t laugh.
“Don’t give it away,” Carly says. “You deserve a man who will take care of you.” Carly has one of those faces: high cheekbones, blue thumbprint eyes, lips like smooth chewed gum. Sometimes I think Carly’s problem is that she’s never considered that the world treats her differently. “You know the saying. Why buy the cow?”
“If you live in the 1940s—“ I start, but Sam the Mediator cuts me off.
“It’s not so black and white.”
Carly says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—I think it was just seeing my dad’s girlfriends that made me swear I’d never be that girl, letting a guy just take what he wanted, you know what I mean?”
Which is news to me, because as far as I know her parents are still together. Sam drops his half-laugh, says, “You could never be that girl. To anyone.”
He’s looking at her so tenderly when he says it, so I don’t say what I want to. Maybe I’m trying to piss her off, or maybe I’m trying to see whether it will piss her off, daring her to react, but I say, “There’s a girl, but she’s trying to wife up, so I might be over that soon.”
Carly shifts, crosses her legs, and gets out, “Well, that’s too bad.”
My brother looks at me, just says, “Good for you, then.” I know what he means but it feels like he’s offering approval, and I didn’t ask for it.
“What do you want for dinner, babe?” Carly asks. I’m never going to wait on anyone like that.
“Steaks,” he says. Carly doesn’t eat red meat, but she goes into the kitchen and starts banging around. The noise is irritating, like a drunk drummer, and I want to go in there and rip all the perfect mahogany cupboards down, all the little wrought-iron handles. “Where’s the steak?” she says, and her voice sounds desperate. “I swear I got you steak.” I can hear tears cracking her voice.
I look at Sam like she’s crazy, but then we hear her crying and I wish I weren’t here anymore. Sam goes into the kitchen. Katie wanders out and stands in the hall, looking exhausted, staring at the doorway to the kitchen. I go over to her, pick her up. In the kitchen, I can see my brother put his arms around Carly, hold her against his chest. How much it must hurt to love like that. How little of herself must be left that she hasn’t given to my brother.
“I just want to hear back about her tests,” she weeps into his shoulder. “He said—he’s testing her for leukemia.”
I feel like throwing up. I want to leave, to take Katie back to her room and play some stupid game with her, but I can’t look away from them, their bodies like a single stipe of seaweed waving in a tide.
Anjali and I are sitting on her front porch and I’m checking my messages—at first I can’t understand what he’s saying, but then I realize it’s the principal, asking me to come in for a second interview. I stare at Anj.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. He called.”
She gets up and stands behind my chair, wraps her arms around my neck. “I knew they’d want you,” she says. “Of course they’d want you.”
“All I can think about is what I am going to wear.”
She laughs. “What does it matter?” But it does.
“Can you read my teaching statement?” I ask.
She sits back down, opens her laptop. “Sure, if I have time. I have to write this paper for that dumb-fuck psych class and I’m hanging out with the girl this afternoon.”
“Oh. The starfish.”
“Rae, there’s nothing so wrong with dating someone.”
“Monogamy is a social construct. Who decided that we have a limited resource of love? Like giving it to another person would somehow shrink what you can give to the first.”
“Haven’t you ever been in love?”
“Yes,” I say, maybe too snappily. But I have. I’m not a kid. I’m not an idiot or naïve because I don’t believe we all have to grow up to create a family unit, and I’m not just pretending not to need that.
“With Eric,” I say. “Maybe.” We’d been together a little less than a year when he told me. He was sitting on the end of the bed and I was standing between his knees in one of his t-shirts. He told me it was stupid, a mistake, that he loved me and he would do anything to take it back. I wanted to be mad, but I just felt ugly and exposed.
He was snot-and-spit crying, he was pressing his face to my stomach, and I was thinking about the soft, rolling shape of it against his cheek. I was thinking about how much I wanted him to stop, how pathetic he looked. I stepped away and pulled on pants.
I didn’t say anything for a long time, just changed into my own shirt and picked up my keys while he watched me.
Then I said, “It’s okay. It’s just sex.” At the time I thought I was being understanding, so understanding that he would realize what he was taking for granted: the coolest girlfriend there was. Looking back, I see that I was saying the thing I thought would hurt him most.
Outside his apartment, I drove around the corner and sobbed with my forehead to the steering wheel. I felt the ache of self-pity roll through me, rock in my bones, and I wanted to die. After that, we were friends. I asked about his new girlfriend. I stayed around just to care and not care.
“Why are you so into having a girlfriend all of a sudden? You never go on dates with me.” I wish I hadn’t said it, but I did and it’s done.
“You know that’s not what we do. You hate dates. And, I don’t know, I want to try going out with someone I haven’t slept with.”
Which is whatever. It doesn’t make any fucking sense but whatever.
“I can’t believe I have a second interview,” I say, and lean over to kiss her.
She turns away. “Rae. We can’t do this anymore.” I open my laptop and we sit in silence, typing until I think it’s been long enough for me to get up and leave.
Sam calls me while I’m biking over to their place. I don’t pick up in time because I’m fighting up a hill, half-tipping over, fucking San Francisco. So hard and easy to love. They’re way out in the Marina but I love the ride from Bart.
When I knock on their door, it’s Carly who runs to get it, beaming. “She’s okay,” she says. “Celiac, poor baby. But she’s going to be fine. No more bread and she’s already feeling better.” I didn’t know how terrified I was until I heard her say that; relief washes through me like liquid in a basin.
Katie pokes her head out of the fort she’s building, and she does look much better. Her friend crawls out behind her, tugging her arm to lead her back under the sheet hanging from the dining room table.
“Fight Club, Boondock Saints, or something new?” Sam asks.
“I just can’t wait to see a fucking movie,” Carly says. “It’s stupid, how much you miss the little things—you’ll see, when you have yours.”
When I have mine. When I am you. I nod.
It was supposed to be just Sam and me, a tradition he started when he was at Stanford and I was a kid—first Sunday of the month, Sunday Funday. It was rollerblading once, biking in the park, ice cream; then it was brunch, bottomless mimosas; then it was every other month, when he wasn’t working some crazy lawyer overtime, and it was rollerblading or biking again, renting surries that he and I would end up pushing while Carly and Katie sat in the front, trying to steer, all of us laughing until we couldn’t breathe.
We watch The Fighter, which is really good, and Carly seems really into it, but three quarters of the way through, Katie and her friend come out and stand in front of the TV. Katie says, “We’re starving to death.” She says it so matter-of-factly, like a public service announcement. I can’t help laughing.
“It’s late, poor thing,” Carly says, getting up. “What do you all want?” The light of the TV makes her look cast in black-and-white, the flare of her sweetheart dress making her look like a fifties housewife.
“Movie’s almost over,” Sam says. “You can finish first.”
“It’s okay. I’ll watch from the kitchen.” You really can’t see the TV from the kitchen.
“OK,” he says. “Pasta then. I’m also starving to death. You’re going to have one dead family.”
“Hey, Marvin,” I say, which is the name we use to replace dickhead when Katie’s around, “gluten-free.”
“Pasta isn’t gluten-free?”
“It’s okay. I have quinoa pasta for K.” Carly is in and out of the kitchen for a while. I watch the steam rise over her as she drains the pasta. Why does she do that? Why does she wait on my brother like that? He can make his own fucking dinner.
Anjali texts me. The girl stood her up.
I have really good dinner reservations, the text says. And no girl to waste my money on.
Maybe after this movie, I text back. Sorry you got stood up.
After the movie ends, Sam says he’s going to catch up on the last of his work. He and Carly are supposed to grab drinks after. I go into the kitchen and ask if Carly needs help. Katie and her friend already got a plate and are eating it in the fort, the compromise they made because “this tastes funny.”
“Almost done,” she says, stirring the pasta.
“Carly,” I say. “You spoil that guy. Too much.”
“I just want him to be happy,” she says. “You know?”
But I don’t know. Pasta just seems so impossibly far from happiness.
“He is.” It’s all I can think to say. Her pasta is getting cold on the counter. I want to hate her for being this way, but I just feel sad for her.
“I don’t mind—I got a movie in today, and we’re getting drinks with some friends tonight. We’ve been putting it off since Katie’s been sick. You don’t know how long it’s been since I went out.”
The phone rings and Carly answers, says okay, it’s fine, hangs up, and pushes her clenched fist to the counter.
“Sitter cancelled,” she says. Then she straightens and smiles. “So how was your day?”
I wasn’t going to tell anyone. I was going to keep it my thing, but I say, “I got a second interview. At that high school.”
“Oh my God!” she says, finishing up Sam’s pasta and walking down the hall with it. Not like it was the biggest news.
When she comes back, she’s carrying an armful of hangers. She spreads them out across the backs of the kitchen chairs. A pale green blouse and a pink cardigan and black pants with the pockets that make your ass look good.
“Thanks,” I say. I feel stupid somehow.
I look down at my phone and there’s another text. We can skip dinner. Katie scoots something around in her fort.
Sam comes out and there’s a spot of marinara on his cheek. Carly wipes it off, chuckles. “You big child,” she says. “The sitter can’t make it. I’ll call Max and Frances.”
I don’t mean to, but I blurt, “I’ll watch her.”
Carly looks like she’s going to kiss me. “Really? You’re a life saver! You’re a wonderful girl, Rachel.”
She’s the only one who insists on calling me this. She sounds so desperately grateful that I can’t change my mind now.
Sam rubs my head, messing my hair all up. “Thanks, sis.”
As they say good-bye to Katie, I get another text from Anj. Come on, don’t fight it. I know you’re going to cave.
Can’t, I text back. Babysitting tonight.
I think about Carly in the kitchen, how she pushed so close to my brother that if he had let her go, she’d have fallen. How she demanded the right to love him that much.
“Go,” I say. “We’ll have a good time.”
When the door shuts, I open my phone and type to Anjali, I don’t want to be the second person you call.
Then I put my phone down and go check on the girls. As Katie ducks out, she cracks her head on the table and her friend gasps, hands clasped to her mouth. I think I can see the first glint of tears in Katie’s eyes. But she doesn’t cry. She hugs me, no explanation, and her fingers grip my back.
She presses her face to me, seeking any exposed part of me she can claim. I’m flooded with unexpected gratitude. If this is what I have to offer. If this is what there is to take.
Sarah is a second-year MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana. She has stories in Map Literary, Cobalt Review and an essay forthcoming in Sweet.