“Alyssa’s reading with her now,” Eric said, shuffling down the stairs to where Amy was waiting by the front door with the bottle of wine. “She seemed pretty set to go down. We should be fine.”
Renee had been fussy ever since dinner. She treated every time Amy and Eric left the house as a personal abandonment and punished them for it. It was something they were working on.
Neither Amy nor Eric wore jackets as they walked outside, though it was a foggy San Francisco evening. They were only going next door, to the basement apartment of the chipper young woman who had pulled up with a U-Haul and baked them cookies earlier in the week. Amy thought she must be getting old, because the girl had seemed impossibly young when she showed up on their doorstep with her tupperware.
An elderly couple owned the house and lived on the floors above. For the first six months after Amy and Eric had moved in, they were ushered into a cabal of neighbors who eagerly told them between yoga studio recommendations and nanny website advice about the couple’s son who lived in the basement apartment, rent free, who they were certain dealt drugs. They wanted Amy and Eric to become allies in their outrage and schemes to kick him out of the neighborhood. Eric was concerned—he didn’t want to live next door to a drug dealer. Neither did Amy, of course, but she couldn’t help but be put off by the fact that these neighbors had had kept these suspicions for years and had yet to call the police. They enjoyed their self-righteousness, and the thrill of having a drug dealer on their block. It didn’t amount to anything in the end, anyway. Before any action could be taken, he overdosed, and then the apartment sat empty for three years. When this new tenant—she had introduced herself as the couple’s granddaughter—invited them over, Amy couldn’t help but be a little indecently excited about finally seeing the inside of the apartment that had been the center of so much controversy.
Eric knocked on the door, harder and more times than Amy thought was necessary.
“Stop, she’ll think it’s the Gestapo,” she said. Eric inhaled to reply, but Amy saw his retort reach his brain before his mouth, and instead of saying anything he exhaled slowly.
The door opened to reveal Brianna, wrapped in an apron with a watering can painted on the front.
“Welcome, welcome!” She stepped back and motioned for Amy and Eric to come inside. Amy offered her the wine, which she exclaimed over, before leading them into the kitchen where she promised to pour them a glass.
The apartment was mostly in boxes, with little corners perfectly put together. It still smelled faintly of a recent paint job. Eric and Amy sat at a table in the kitchen where plates and silverware were already set, and a clay pot of African violets nestled on a saucer in the center. Amy offered to help—there were three burners going on the stove, and Brianna was ignoring all of them, intent on opening the wine. But she was rebuffed and made to sit back down.
“Everything’s almost ready—you two just sit and tell me about yourselves,” Brianna said, popping the cork at last. “I also want to apologize in advance for dinner. I used to fancy myself a pretty good cook, but my ex-boyfriend was much better at it than me so I had two years off from the kitchen. Still getting back into the habit again!”
Eric said he was sorry to hear about the breakup. Brianna waved him off, and went to poking at the chicken cacciatore in one of the pans.
“That’s life, you know. It was all for the best. And now I get to live in this beautiful apartment, and decorate it exactly like I want!”
Amy took a sip of her wine and tried to remember a time when breaking up with a boyfriend would have been for the best. There had been times between when she had met Eric and the wedding when they almost drifted apart, and that may have been for the best. But they always pulled back together in the end, afraid of what would happen if they really made a rift. It felt too much like making a rift in oneself, so they clung together.
When they met, Eric was a graduate student at Stanford and Amy was performing occasionally and teaching piano at the Conservatory, only a few years out of school. She was instantly attracted to him—dark-featured, quiet, a deep thinker, he distinguished himself without trying from the other students. Most of them were fresh from undergrad, encouraged by the Peninsula culture to drink and spend money excessively, told and shown that the world belonged to the young. Eric liked to cook, to hike, to read. He always picked up the bill and let Amy be the first to walk into rooms. He had every situation in hand. It was the sort of old fashioned chivalry that Amy appreciated on an instinctive, primitive level that coursed beneath her intellectual feminism. What’s more, Eric was patient, protective—he had all the qualities of an excellent father, and Amy was surprised to find herself in the stage of life where she was intensely drawn to that.
But that feeling of being entirely taken care of, that had been so warm and safe for years, had recently begun a subversive permutation. It started to feel oppressive, paternalistic. She felt her own voice subsumed by Eric’s constant use of “we,” when he really meant “I.” She kept waiting for this bitterness to push through to the other side, for her indignation to run its course and her appreciation for Eric to return. But the longer it took, and the more they bickered, the more she worried that their love wasn’t cyclical after all, but something that could slowly and irreversibly decay.
Amy had called her mother to babysit earlier that day. Renee put up less of a fuss when she was handed off to her grandmother, as though the parental abandonment stung less if she could keep a semblance of the family unit intact. But to Amy’s surprise, her mother had plans—she was beginning a new art class in Berkeley, “doing something for herself for a change.” Amy tried to wrap up the conversation as quickly as possible, hoping to call Alyssa before it got too late.
“Before you go, I just want to ask you about something,” Amy’s mom then said.
“Sure, Mom, what is it?”
“When I picked Renee up on Tuesday, she asked if we could build a fort in the couch. I said sure, and asked her which one, and she said ‘the one Dad sleeps on.’”
The bottom of Amy’s stomach fell out. She went into crisis mode, and, always good in a crisis, lost no more than half a second before laughing into the phone.
“Oh, Mom, there’s nothing to worry about. Eric’s back was hurting him again, so he was sleeping on the couch for a few nights. I guess we should say something to Renee. I’m sorry, though, I really have to call Alyssa now.”
She hung up but left the iPhone screen on, wanting to text Eric, or call, or wait. She thought they had been so careful—Eric always replaced the linens in the closet before Renee woke up. Had she gone downstairs in the middle of the night and seen him? Had Eric said something behind Amy’s back? As a parent, Amy believed she had unfettered access into Renee’s thoughts. She had created her, had made a study of her for every day of her life. That Renee would have some awareness that Amy didn’t know about, and that it would be something she couldn’t even explain to her, was disturbing.
“Here we are,” Brianna said, holding a wooden spoon aloft as she turned off the burners one by one. “I’m sorry, but I have no idea which box my serving bowls are in, so why don’t you bring your plates over here and serve yourselves?”
Eric and Amy did as they were told, and allowed their portions to be garnished with parsley Brianna plucked from a plant on her counter.
“So, how long have you been in the neighborhood?” Brianna asked, untying her apron and ducking out of it. She had a head of explosive blonde curls that funneled through the apron’s neck then sprang back to full volume. Underneath, she was wearing a shift dress of deep burgundy, either vintage or made to look so. She fell into her chair heavily. Watching Brianna’s movements, Amy was reminded of a baby elephant—abrupt and solid, but endearingly adroit.
Eric took the floor, talking about buying their place when Renee was three, their last railroad apartment proving too cramped with a child who was on the move. The housing market had just crashed, and the previous owners of their house had put the place up for sale for fear of foreclosure. Amy remembered feeling a bit like a vulture, inspecting the house when its owners were clearly not ready to part with it. When the realtor showed them around it appeared more personal than most open houses were. Family photos were still on the coffee table, children’s lunch boxes were in the hall. They were snatching away someone’s life partway through.
“We’ve really loved living here,” Eric ended, smiling at Amy. “We can walk to Mountain Lake Park, or Toy Boat on Clement. We hit the jackpot, with finding a place for Renee to grow up. The area is getting younger, though—I’ve been seeing more bars and things popping up. How long do you plan to stay in the neighborhood?”
“Oh, sweetie, she just moved in,” Amy laughed. Eric was a planner; he was direct. He carefully considered his actions, and expected that of others. So Amy often found herself in the position of tempering his social interactions. She hated anyone to feel they had to justify anything to him, or her by extension.
“No no, it’s fine,” Brianna replied. “I’m actually not sure what my plans are, at the moment. I just got a job at a graphic design firm downtown, but the client is in New Orleans, so I think there’s going to be a little bit of travel involved. Which I’m looking forward to, because I’ve never been.”
“Oh, we love New Orleans!” Amy exclaimed. “Well, we’ve only been once, when we first started dating. But we’ve wanted to go back ever since.”
That trip to New Orleans, passed in a tipsy, sex-heady cloud, was when Amy had first realized she loved Eric. Not that she had said anything—that would come later. But before saying the words she felt it first, and she enjoyed the period of carrying it alone. Unspoken love for another person felt delicious, illicit somehow, even if he felt the same.
Amy told Brianna the story of their dinner at Restaurant August, a staple in their dinner party conversation repertoire. Eric provided the punctuating sounds and comments that had slowly become a part of their choreography with each re-telling.
During that New Orleans trip, Eric had insisted on splurging for what he assured Amy was one of the best restaurants in the country. And they would do the tasting menu, wine flights, the works. He was still in the wooing phase of their relationship.
After they were seated, a waiter was at their side every five minutes. He explained each small dish as it came out—stuffed squash blossoms, tiny knots of pasta with shavings of things Amy could hardly taste—and was accompanied by the sommelier, who explained the history and distinctness of each wine he poured them generous glasses of. Amy and Eric were both desperate to appear natural, as though they did this sort of thing all the time and weren’t relatively broke twenty-somethings putting on airs. So Amy, not a heavy drinker, downed each glass of wine so as not to offend the sommelier. But as the dinner wore on, the rich, Southern food and different kinds of wine began roiling in her stomach. Finally, before dessert, the sight of the sommelier coming towards them with a fresh bottle was more than she could stand.
Thankfully, she didn’t throw up in public, and was able to make it to the bathroom. Also thankfully, she was decidedly tipsy, so only noted that she ought to be mortified before letting the thought scroll by. She washed her mouth out and returned with dignity to the table, where she told Eric, in what was hopefully an undertone, that he had to eat the rest of her food and drink her wine while the staff wasn’t looking, because she really couldn’t.
Back at their hotel, she threw up again before passing out. In the morning, Eric woke her, asking, with genuine concern, how she felt. With the crutch of alcohol gone, the full embarrassment of what she had done came crashing down. Amy pressed both palms to her eyeballs.
“You spent so much money!” She moaned. “I ruined everything!”
“You threw up,” Eric said, removing Amy’s hands from her face and leaning in. “At Restaurant August.”
“I totally threw up at Restaurant August.” Amy repeated. They both clutched each other, then laughed uncontrollably.
The morning after was not a part of the version of the story Amy told Brianna, but she did remember it after the punchline about telling Eric to shovel her dessert when she gave the signal. She looked at Eric, who was chuckling, and noticed a stray bit of sauce on his chin. For some reason, it made her angry. He didn’t look terribly different now than he had at twenty-four, but he had become someone completely divorced from that earlier version of himself, with whom she had laughed and rolled around in a New Orleans hotel bed. The memory of past tenderness had surprisingly little effect on her current feelings.
“That’s hilarious,” Brianna laughed, throwing down her silverware in appreciation. “And thanks for the advice—if I go there, I will not get the wine flight.”
“How long will you be working with that client?” Amy asked.
“The contract’s for about six months. After that, who knows if I’ll even stay here in the city. This apartment just sort of fell into my lap, so I’m here for now. It used to be my uncle’s, but he died a few years ago. I don’t know if you knew him?”
Eric and Amy both leapt at tactful responses, which ended up conflicting slightly. Eric seemed, for some reason, to be responding in the affirmative, so Amy set things straight.
“We didn’t move in too long before he passed,” Amy said. “So we never really got to meet.”
If Brianna picked up on any awkwardness, she didn’t show it. She was tucking into her dinner enthusiastically, letting conversation barrel on.
“Well, he lived here for a long time. He had some issues, you know, with drugs and stuff. Never was able to really get back on his feet.”
“That must have been really hard for you to watch,” Amy said. “I’m sorry.”
“Well, it all happened in such slow motion, over so many years, you know. And I never saw him much, really. I grew up in Sebastopol, up North, and he used to come up a lot when I was little. He took me to the park and the movies and stuff. I came down here every Halloween, and he dressed up with me and we passed out candy from my grandparents’ upstairs. Is this still a good trick-or-treating street? I remember some houses around here gave out huge candy bars.”
“Renee loves Halloween here,” Amy said.
Eric, latching onto a subject he found more comfortable, continued, “And she can point you to the houses with the big candy bars.” Amy laughed, patted Eric’s arm.
“I can’t wait. It’ll be fun to pass out candy again. Anyway, my mom eventually noticed he started coming around high. You know, a bad kind of high. And she didn’t want him taking me out alone like that. So that was that.”
“How old were you? When that happened” Amy asked.
“Oh, I guess I was about ten. I remember asking in middle school why we never saw him anymore, but I don’t think my parents gave me a straight answer, actually. It’s one of those things you just sort of piece together. Like figuring out our next door neighbors were gay. I mean, obviously, it’s not like that, but it’s just something you grow up with, not knowing what it is, until you just sort of do.”
Amy made a sympathetic noise, which Eric echoed, both with mouthfuls of pasta.
“Anyway, enough of being such a downer,” Brianna laughed. “Tell me more about Renee.”
It is a dangerous thing, to ask parents to talk about their only child. The rest of the meal was dominated by Amy and Eric’s relating various anecdotes about Renee. She was a fastidious child, a strict rule-follower. These were likely qualities inherited from a strong strain of Eric’s DNA, but Amy found them too adorable in her daughter to resent them. She did worry that, like many only children, Renee had a bossy streak that should be tempered by a sibling. Her parent’s actions must seem so absolute and coordinated to her that she felt the need to be difficult or obstinate at times to retain some power of her own. A younger sister or brother, a variable she could not control and must learn to cope with, would be good for her. But after Renee’s birth, Amy had gone back on the pill, intending to just go back off in a year or two when they were ready to try again. Though Renee had reached age six, and that had yet to happen.
Finally, Amy announced they should get back before it got too late—they didn’t like being late on Alyssa, who probably had other plans for that Friday night.
Brianna thanked them enthusiastically for coming, and they promised to find a time for her to come over to their house soon.
“Dinner was delicious; don’t sell yourself short,” Amy told her. “And if you find you need any more furniture for the apartment, let us know. We have some old chairs and end tables and things in the garage, if you need something like that.”
“You shouldn’t have told her she could have our stuff,” Eric said as they walked up to their own front door. “We didn’t really agree on that.”
“It was a nice thing to do,” Amy replied. “And we’re not using them, are we?”
“That’s not the point,” Eric began, but Amy cut him off before he could go any further.
“I don’t care about the point. Can you pay Alyssa? I want to go to bed.”
Amy went upstairs, Eric to the living room where Alyssa was watching TV. On her way to the bathroom, Amy peeked in on Renee, who was sleeping soundly. She had recently developed a tendency to build a fort of her stuffed animals around her back as she slept, unfazed sentries looking out behind her. These had been displaced some in her movements in sleep, but between the doorway and her daughter Amy saw at the usual guard lined up dutifully, doing what was expected of them. She left the door ajar and crossed to the bathroom.
She flipped on the light and pulled her hair back to wash her face. There was a faint whoosh of plumbing from downstairs as Eric flushed the toilet from the hall bathroom. He had started keeping his razor and toothbrush downstairs, tacitly relinquishing the upstairs bathroom for the past week of ceasefire since their last blowout fight. Amy tuned out his movements with her own tap, lathered her face. Renee had left a pearl of bubblegum toothpaste on the basin edge, and Amy nudged it away with her little finger. She wondered how much longer she and Eric would be able to hide their splintering from Renee, what more of it she would have to find out, and how much she already knew.