Liz shut the door behind her, leaving me alone in the humid heat, and I fell back to cleaning my paint trays before sitting on the wet concrete steps and rubbing my eyes.
It was over, the anxiety of being watched, the fear of someone knowing. The flight was over. Wiping the sweat from my face, I tried to allow myself some sense of relief. I walked into the kitchen for a beer and went back outside to sit on the steps again. A palmetto bug struggled by while I waited for my shoulders to relax.
But I felt no sense of relief or closure, no flood of happiness, no sense of freedom. Again, a wave of anxiety; again, I feared some mistake had been made, convincing myself that some international police force had concocted this plan as they waited for rights of jurisdiction. They were coming for me, and I would spend the rest of my life in a Pakistani prison.
I walked the back yard, pulling a few weeds under the oak trees; my catastrophizing building as I circled the wide trunks, the Spanish moss about to drip onto me. I was whipping myself to frenzy. “Calm down,” I demanded. “Calm down, calm down, calm down.”
“Anthony, you finished?” Liz asked; I jumped at her voice. “Wow, why are you so wound up?”
“Sorry, was just out in la la land,” I answered.
“Well, snap out of it; you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said. “Can we have dinner in one of those Hyde Park bistros?”
“Want to see if the Snyders want to go?” I asked.
“I don’t feel like talking; I just want to relax and people watch.”
“Let me take a shower,” I said. “I’ll only be a minute.”
The heat and humidity pulsed into the evening as we walked to the Cactus Club.
“We’d like a spot inside…that one if possible,” I said, pointing to an empty table looking out to the street below.
“Of course,” he replied.
Once seated, Liz and I surveyed the trendy scene around us. From our perch, we watched the neighborhood sway with life below us.
“Our lives have changed so fast,” Liz said while looking over the menu.
“And its only June. We still have over a month before school starts.”
“I’m going to teach,” she said. “I can’t believe it!” Liz took a sip of water before continuing. “I’m a little nervous. Kids like you; I hope they’ll like me.”
“They’ll love you, Liz. You just have to stand there. The boys will all have crushes on you; the girls will want to be you.”
Liz stretched her arm over the table to hold my hand. “We’ll have lots of time for us.” Liz looked out to the people walking by.
“We can go to the Cape for the summer or travel,” I answered. “I hear the Keys are great; we can get scuba certified, drive to California.”
“I already feel so much more alive here than in Missouri,” Liz said. “We need bikes, Anthony, and a calendar where we can write down our plans for each weekend. There’s so much to do here.”
“In October, Chris Isaak’s playing at a place called Ruth Eckerd Hall,” I added, catching her enthusiasm.
“Let’s go,” she said. “We were in the middle of nowhere in Matanzas. It’s nice to be so close to so many things.” Liz then smoothed her napkin before giving a quick nod of finality before settling in to say something important. “Anthony, this is a perfect place to raise a family.” She pushed her sunglasses into her hair revealing eyes lit wide but I became agitated, not wanting about babies again.
“I thought we agreed on waiting,” I began. “You want to be pregnant during your first year of school? You remember how busy I was during my first year, don’t you?”
“I remember, but your first year was at a boarding school. That’s more work than I’ll ever have.”
“Let’s slow down. We haven’t seen how much we’ll be bringing home, haven’t even made a mortgage payment,” I countered. “And, honestly, we’ve been through a lot in a short time, moving, two new jobs, Prateek.”
Liz bolted upright. “Are you always going that against me?” she snapped.
I tried to remain calm as Liz became indignant. “No, I’m not…but I think we’ve had a lot thrown at us.”
Liz crossed her arms, and we sat silent for a few moments.
“I don’t want the pressure of a baby right now. I’ll be busy with 100 students, more than I’ve ever had.”
“There’s never a good time to have a baby,” she pled. “I told you; we’re not going to get pregnant right away. It could take a year or more.”
“We’ve been damn lucky so far; you’d get pregnant the first time we try,” I answered. “Weren’t we going to wait half a year?” I asked again. “Start our teaching jobs, get into a routine? We should know if we like our schools by November. Can we start trying in December?”
“Fine,” she surrendered. “December will be okay.”
Liz and I spent the rest of the summer driving the back roads of Tampa Bay, eating lunch on the Sponge Docks of Tarpon and enjoying Clearwater Beach. My two-hour summer review course in the morning was a joy to teach, and by the time our school meetings began in Mid-August, both of us wore the honey brown skin of native Floridians.
For $1900 we bought a ‘89 VW Jetta. Parked under the bungalow’s carport, our Cabrio sat idle, driven less now that it had been caught several times with its top down in mid-afternoon downpours.
Once school started, Liz and I settled quickly into a routine; up at five for workouts, breakfast, last minute revision of lesson plans, and then on to work. After school, I coached soccer and Liz coached volleyball. On the nights we didn’t have games or practice, we ate supper together before heading to our homemade desks to prep.
By mid-October, our routine included Friday nights Scrabble with a married couple who taught with me and Sunday night dinner and movie at the Snyder’s across the street.
During those first three months, Liz and I were once again happy newlyweds. Our careers had started off well, our relationship felt strong, and we were making good friends. However, one Sunday night at Claudia and Tim’s, Liz’s passive resentment surfaced. Allan and I were helping Tim install surround sound speakers; wires spread across the living room as we measured and spliced; Claudia and Liz in the kitchen; their voices rising with their wine consumption.
“Everything’s the same, get up, work out, come home, eat and work,” Liz announced as she poured herself another glass. “Even the weather’s getting dull.”
“…honeymoon’s over,” Claudia said, rolling her eyes. “There’s a reason the fairy tales stop at ‘happily ever after’, honey.”
I worked on the wires in front of me but kept my ear trained to their conversation. Claudia tried to comfort Liz by making jaded comments about husbands not living up to expectations and listing the joys of living the middle class dream.
“I want a baby,” Liz told Claudia. “I’ve been married almost three years.”
“I love my kids,” Allan said from across the room. “Kills me every time I have to send them back to my ex.”
“You’ve been divorced for how long?” Liz asked.
“Three years,” Allan answered as he screwed a speaker to the wall. “Married too young.”
“We probably did, too,” Liz said.
Her comment stung for a moment, but, hell, maybe she was right.
Getting up from the floor with a couple remotes in his hand, Tim shoved Fargo into the VCR to make sure everything was working. We all sat down to watch. Claudia and Tim took the loveseat while Liz and Allan and I sat together on the sofa. Halfway through the movie, Allan passed out. Liz nudged him awake, but he dozed back to sleep a few moments later.
“We should have a New Year’s Eve party,” Liz announced after the movie. “You guys have been so welcoming that the least we can do is host a party,” she glanced at me for approval, though I knew her mind had already been made up.
“Sounds good,” I shrugged.
“New Year’s is a couple months away; plenty of time to plan,” Claudia said before kissing Liz goodbye. “That sounds wonderful, darling. We could walk home instead of driving, half in the bag like usual.”
“I don’t need another DUI,” announced Allan. “I’m up for it.”
“We’ll discuss it next Sunday then,” Liz stated and then filled her cup for the few steps home.
Once in bed, Liz took out her notebook and brainstormed for the party, pen tapping her lips as she thought it all through. “It’ll be a potluck party,” she said. “Everyone’ll bring something. And we need a better stereo.”
“You’re really getting into this party, Liz. Aren’t you tired?”
“All we’ve done is work, work, work, work since school’s started,” Liz snapped. She placed a hand on her temple as if she were building up to frustration. “I want this; it’ something fun. Don’t spoil it for me.”
“How am I spoiling it for you, Liz? I just asked if you were tired”
“You never want to do anything,” she accused. “No baby, no party, nothing.”
“I knew you’d be negative; I should have just let Allan have the party at his house,” Liz snapped.
“Allan wants the party at his house?” I asked.
“No, but it was his idea for the New Year’s Ever party.”
“When did you talk to him about it?” I asked.
“When you were at Home Depot.”
“At 8:30 this morning?” I asked.
“Are you angry about me going to Allan’s?” Liz answered.
“No, should I be?” I snapped back.
“No,” Liz began. “When you left, I went to our mailbox. He was bringing back his garbage cans,” she said, her tone softening. “He made me some coffee and I came home with it. You didn’t leave me with much.”
Liz curled up beside me, whispering in my ear. “Are you really jealous of Allan?” she began. “It’s cute.”
I did feel the sting of jealousy; it rose over me, familiar and comforting, ready to build me into intensity. The emotion excited me, and Liz and I began kissing; I closed my eyes and thought of Allan’s hand on her shoulder, his mouth on hers. As Liz and I made love, it was not me in her; I pretended I was Allan; it was over in a matter of seconds.
I now understood why I didn’t want to a child. For me, the future had ended; reserved for those capable of creating momentum, but I would forever be checking myself, fearful of my emotions.
Liz and I flew to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving Break. Our somber little party spent the four-day weekend in her mother’s dark home, watching TV, the heavy drapes pulled tight against the invading draughts and streak of daylight. Accustomed to the Florida sun, I felt claustrophobic and became irritable and morose by the gloomy, silent sterility around me.
The one bright moment during our trip was going to Liz’s uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. The extended family, large bellied, pale Norwegians lived in a house brightly lit through skylights and sliding glass doors. These relatives reminded me of Santa’s elves, only bigger. However, Liz was persistent for a baby which caused some embarrassment during dinner when Liz brought up her desire for a child at the table.
“So, Liz, you two settled in Florida now?” asked Liz’s uncle while passing around his homemade lutefisk.
“We’re in a great place and everything’s going well,” Liz turned her head to look at me and patted my thigh. “And we’re going to start a family,” she announced.
All eyes bore into us, waiting for Liz’s announcement. I wiped my dry lips with my napkin, waiting for someone to say something. Liz seemed shocked at the quiet of the table.
“Liz! I’m going to be a grandmother?” her mother stated with a curling smile.
“No, no… not just yet,” I rebutted, shaking my head. “Liz just means we’re starting to think of having a family. She’s not pregnant.”
“The journey’s just as important as the destination,” Liz’s uncle said, clearing the air. “Enjoy the process is what I say!” and he raised his glass to toast. “Here’s to practice!”
“Well, I’m excited that you’re at least thinking about it, dears,” Liz’s mother beamed. “The winter months are romantic, if you know what I mean.”
“Mother,” Liz groaned. “We live in Florida.”
“Been to Sarasota yet? I love Sarasota,” bellowed Liz’s uncle, and the dinner conversation turned with no further mention of a baby.
That night, against the winds howling outside, as I tried to fall asleep, Liz wound our conversation tight around her desire for a child.
“Anthony, our baby will be so beautiful,” she said. “It’ll have big brown eyes like yours…your curly hair.” She played with my hair before getting on top of me and slipping off her t-shirt. We rocked slowly, afraid the bed would creak; I tried to hold it in but couldn’t. If it happened, maybe a child would temper my emotions and force me to think of the future rather than dwell on the past.
The night we got back from Wisconsin, Liz approached me strong and fast, a cheetah in for a kill, no foreplay, no soft caresses or slow moans as we built. Afterwards, she got right up and washed off.
“Thanks; honey, I needed that,” I said afterwards. She had come towards me with the aggression of a pit bull. Two nights later she attacked me again.
“What the hell!” Liz yelled from the bathroom on our first Friday morning back in Tampa.
“What’s wrong?” I answered, running to the bathroom door.
“I’m starting my period!
“So?” I asked to the door.
“So? You’re probably happy!” Liz snapped back.
I ignored her comment. “Liz, you told me we’d wait until December, remember? And that it would take a while.”
“Yes, but the best chance of getting pregnant is the five or six days before a period,” Liz said as if reciting a how-to manual.
“Liz, aren’t you trying too hard?” I asked.
“Leave me alone. I know you don’t really care,” she answered.
“Of course I care, Liz,” I said. “I’m sorry you feel like I don’t,” I said, relieved that she wasn’t pregnant.
Sunday night at the Snyder’s house, Liz told Claudia about our attempts, darting quick and sharp glances towards me as the guys watched the end of the football game.
“We’re trying…well, at least I’m trying, but it doesn’t seem to be working.” She looked up at me.
“I’m not complaining about trying,” I said trying to keep the conversation light-hearted.
It was Allan who first broke the tension. He finished his can of beer and waved to Liz for another. “You can’t just want a baby and get one. Maybe you’re trying too hard.”
“How can I be trying too hard?” Liz asked. “We have sex; we get pregnant. That’s it.”
“What’s the hurry?” Allan asked.
“I’m twenty-four, Allen,” she answered, rolling her eyes in disbelief. “I’m not getting any younger. My clock’s ticking.”
It was Heather’s turn to speak. “Baby, your clock is always ticking. That doesn’t mean the alarm’s ringing.” She patted Liz’s hand. “You have plenty of time. Just relax; let it happen on its own.”
“Not to change the subject, but, Liz, I know you like Tom Cruise. Got the new Mission Impossible for tonight!” announced Tim, holding a shiny unlabeled DVD in his hand.
Sometime after that Sunday night dinner, things fell apart for Liz and me. Used to snapping cold, hot chocolate, and wool sweaters, Christmas in Florida, with its commercialized Santas in Bermudas shorts and floral shirts, seemed so anachronistic to the season and added to the malaise in our house. The temperature never entered sweater weather, and the funk between us only intensified as we placated ourselves with a video of a yule log.
We sent the invitations to our New Year’s Eve party and busied ourselves with the end of semester grading, but we acted separately, speaking little to each other, the warmth gone. We looked like the young couple about town as we went to our school’s Holiday parties, but at home, the tone had become jaded and tense as Liz fought to get pregnant. She continued to climb on top of me, but her desire came from want not love.
On the Friday night after exams, however, I came home to a much changed feeling at our house. Holiday music played and Liz sat on a bar stool, casually sipping a brown drink in a tall glass, a happy, relaxed smile finally across her face.
“Hello, honey,” she said. “I’ve been thinking.”
I took a sip from her glass, iced tea; no sugar. “Hello back, honey,” I answered. “You’re in a good mood.” Then it hit me. The way she beamed at me, begging me to ask; I knew Liz was pregnant. “Are you pregnant?” I asked, trying to sound as enthusiastic as possible.
“No, Anthony, I’m not pregnant,” she answered. “But I do think I’ve been coming on too strongly. I did what I promised I wouldn’t do, and I’m sorry,” she said, rising from her seat. “What we need is to just relax and observe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Allan is stuck in Sarasota until around seven, but he has his kids this weekend. I told him that we’d watch them until he gets home. You know; play house like we used to with Emily and Sophie”
Liz took another sip of iced tea, waiting for me to say something. Allan’s kids, two tow headed boys aged five and three, had the energy of Border Collies and could destroy a room in seconds. They were not my ideal playmates on a Friday night after a week of teaching and coaching, but it would only be a couple of hours. And Liz was in such a good mood.
“What are we going to do with them?” I asked.
“We’re going to bake cookies and then make decorations for our party,” Liz answered. “I got Jack and Owen some juice boxes, and for us… tequila and chips and guacamole. Avacodo’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac.”
Liz opened the bottle and poured me a shot. “Karen, his ex-wife, should be here soon with the boys. Now go change; take your tie off and relax.”
“It’s gorgeous outside; could I go for a quick run?” I asked.
Liz hesitated. “I wanted us to spend the time together with the kids.”
“But the kids aren’t here yet…” I said before the light bulb went off. “Oh, I get it now; you want to get me to see what it’s like to have kids around.”
“Yes, Anthony,” Liz answered. “To see what it’s like to have kids around. You loved Sophie and Emily, remember?”
But if Liz planned on the night to cast some magical spell on me, it didn’t work. Liz had sole custody of their attention, controlling their movements and organizing their activities by the minute. Jack and Owen were so engrossed in the baking and decorating that I was able to grade fifteen exams. After Allan picked them up, Liz and I lay on the couch and analyzed the evening.
“You didn’t pay much attention to the kids,” Liz said.
“I just got into that grading rhythm,” I answered. “Got more done than I thought.”
“You could have engaged more, Anthony,” Liz chastised.
“You had it under control. I’d have just been in the way.”
“I wanted you to see how much fun it is to have kids in our lives,” she snapped.
“You could have told me about it a little earlier then instead of surprising me the minute I got home. I wasn’t expecting to play father tonight.”
“Sometimes you have to deal with the unexpected, Anthony. Sometimes you can be so inflexible,” Liz said. “Allan thought this would be a good idea too.”
“Oh, you and Allan planned this night?”
“No. When he called to ask for my help, he thought the night might change your mind about having kids.”
“Liz, I want a kid; I’m not preventing us from having one, am I?”
“But your heart is in it, which may be why I’m not getting pregnant.”
I looked up at the ceiling, took a slow breath and laughed. “Liz, my equipment is working; I can’t fake it.”
In the morning, Liz seemed to have forgotten our spat. She focused on next week’s New Year’s Eve party, rearranging furniture, buying decorations at Party City, and planning the food. No mention of babies or children invaded our conversation, and we held hands, talking in easy conversation while walking the aisles of Publix.
The day of the party, just after lunch, Liz and I placed the last of the decorations and rearranged the furniture one last time. We sat down, surveying our set up and decor with a satisfied air.
“I’m thinking we all go to the Ranch House for breakfast tomorrow morning. All that grease’ll be good for our hangovers,” I said.
“Claudia’s planning on sleeping in; Tim might go with us; Allan picks his kids up tomorrow afternoon,” said Liz. “I hope he doesn’t get too drunk tonight.
By 5:30 we sat in the quiet living room, waiting. We had a while before guests arrived, but we were ready. Liz adjusted the tray of Chex mix on the coffee table before getting up and putting a cd in the stereo. She looked into our back yard. The old Spanish moss I once thought of removing hung quiet and tranquil from the branches of our live oaks. Liz slipped into the kitchen and made herself a white Russian.
“Let’s see what’s on TV,” I said. “When was the last time we just sat and vegged?”
“I don’t even know what channels we have,” Liz answered. We settled on a Bewitched rerun before the doorbell rang. The Snyders were the first to arrive; Claudia presented us with a bottle of vodka.
“I can never trust what alcohol you’ll have in the house,” she said, rolling her eyes in feigned disgust at our cheap bottle of vodka. “Open mine. Let’s get this party started.”
“I’m on it,” I answered, taking out a bag of ice to fill the bucket.
“Tim has his beer, Anthony,” Claudia said. “Make our drinks on the stronger side.”
“I’m putting the Bowl Game on,” Tim stated. “Let the girls do their thing. Nebraska and Virginia Tech’s playing.”
Allan arrived and we watched the Fiesta Bowl as Liz and Claudia talked at the kitchen table. Engrossed in the game, Tim and Allan sat drinking beer. I walked over to the girls.
They were tipsy; Liz got up and put the music louder, raising her hands and swinging her hips.
“Well, I’m ready tonight!” she slurred as she danced.
“I don’t know what’s up with your wife, Anthony, but I think I like it,” Allan said.
“Have some water, Liz,” I said, handing her a cup. “We should pace ourselves.”
“Why?” Liz snapped. “Will I get lucky tonight?”
Partiers began arriving, and Liz regained her grace as we played the dutiful hosts. Near midnight, we all gathered round the television to watch the ball drop in Times Square. Glasses raised, toasts made, and heady from the night’s drinking, Liz and I lost each other in the drunken crowd.
With the climax of the night over, some guests began leaving while others stayed, drinking, trying to make the night last longer. As the guests stumbled out, I realized Liz was missing. I ran through the house looking for her, but she would not be found. A familiar but dormant, stomach-wrenching nausea came over me when I realized that I hadn’t seen Allen for a while either.
My knees buckled, but I approached the Allen’s house like I had on Kentucky Street a lifetime ago. Like before, I crept into the backyard. In Allan’s living room, two people groped together on the couch under a blanket. I turned to head back into my house but the yellow glow of the streetlamp attracted me like a bug.
Numb with shock and fear yet again, I crumpled down onto the curb beneath the lamp and rubbed my eyes hard. New Year’s Eve fireworks burst above and “Baby Got Back” boomed from my house. Alone under the light, my head collapsed. This time I felt no tears, no rapid beat of my heart, no metallic stabs of anxiety.
I had wrestled demons for her, changed my life for her, and killed for her, but it still wasn’t enough. I believed my love would heal her, make her whole again, but after six years of self-sacrifice and humiliation, she remained a hollow, beautiful shell.
Tomorrow, Liz would be resentful and angry, telling me again she committed an act so vulgar and heinous that she ruined the one thing she needed most. I would forgive, and we would stay together riding our roller coaster, year after year, dependent on the extremes on which we were now addicted. Maybe we would have children, maybe they would slow the dance down, maybe Joe Peak would offer me a position and we move to New England, but our dynamic would never change; we would be forever locked into this struggle between insecurity and forgiveness.
But now, I needed to think clearly as I had done with Prateek. I couldn’t act out of petty, jealous anger.
I walked next door to Allan’s again. Slipping into the house, I listened to my wife’s moans and his grunts before walking back out into the Floridian night. Music still beat from my house, but around me all was still as if I had headphones on.
Allan’s hatchback was unlocked. I opened it. Searching through the fast food wrappers, clothes, and other trash, I found a tire iron and held it up, feeling its weight before throwing it back in the car.
I had killed Prateek in a third world country; no trace remained of him, no connection to me. Reflecting on that feat, I smiled; I had finally freed him from my mind. But Allan and Liz were too close; I had to be more clear-headed and careful this time, and so I walked into the house with the clearest of intentions.