The minute Fin got married, she started to sleep with other guys. Not because she didn’t love Wyatt—she totally did—but because now it meant something different from before, when they were living together and sometimes she’d go clubbing with friends and flirt with some guy and things would get out of hand. Now if she had sex, it was like she was holding on to a part of herself she was being told to lock away. Plus she was too young to have given everything up.
Of course she loved Wyatt. She met him eight years ago—the summer after sophomore year—when she was doing an internship at the Register, writing obituaries. She was living in the dorms at the community college where Wyatt was taking a few summer classes and working with the groundskeeping crew to pay for them. At night, they would sneak into the fruit tree orchard. They would lie on a blanket and eat fallen plums and look at the stars and Wyatt would point out Orion, which was pretty much the only constellation he knew, because of the Belt. After they had sex, she would rest her head on his chest and feel his wobbly, pounding heartbeat and suck plum juice off her fingers and think how lovely it all was, something she would always remember because of the jumble of romance and moonlight and danger.
Now they lived in a one-bedroom in Irvine, where she worked in the front office of a company that distributed specialty car tools. At first she made a lot of jokes about “specialty tools” with her friends, but the fun of that wore off pretty fast. Now she dreaded just walking in the door. She could not believe this was where she’d ended up, when what she’d really dreamed of was being a reporter who exposed government fraud.
Wyatt—who’d liked groundskeeping so much he forgot about a degree and got a job in a nursery—made more money than she did, but they were still struggling. No take-out, or trips to Comic Con, or even shopping at Whole Foods. At night they’d boil cheese ravioli and watch YouTube videos. “Sugar, babe, it’s the opening night of ‘Cats,’” Wyatt would say and then Fin would imitate Kristin Wiig pretending to be Liza Minelli.
In bed Wyatt needed to turn the white-noise machine on high because of all the trucks on the 5. They hardly had sex at all.
The first guy Fin slept with after she got married was Antonio, who was one of the accountants. He asked her to stay late so he could go over some of her data-entry mistakes. She thought he might try to have sex with her on the couch in the conference room, in which case she would have said no, because she didn’t need to see that couch every day and always wonder if he was going to make some sleazy joke.
Instead he asked her to go get a drink. At the bar he leaned close and shouted lots of personal details about his ex-wife, who was probably bipolar from what he’d read online.
“One month Hannah bought twenty-three pairs of shoes!” he yelled. “That’s not normal!”
“What kind of shoes?” Fin asked, being a fan of shoes herself, even though she couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought any.
“Who the hell knows?” Antonio said. “I don’t think she knew. She never even took most of them out of the boxes!”
It wasn’t until he’d had another Stubborn Mule that he admitted he still loved Hannah. It was a weird thing to yell close to her ear in a noisy bar. But she could tell he meant it: He blushed red like a tomato, embarrassed at being so whipped. She could imagine Wyatt telling some girl something similar if they ever got divorced. He would complain about how her nail-polish remover stunk up the whole apartment, and by the third cocktail he’d be all “I’ll never love again!” and sobbing in his soup.
They had sex in the back seat of Antonio’s Kia, which smelled like a Carl’s Junior. He had to push a lot of papers and empty grocery bags onto the floor. Strangely sexy in its own weird, urgent way. Driving home after, though, she thought it was about as opposite of a blanket under a plum tree on a hot summer night as it was possible to be.
It wasn’t like Fin was some kind of slut, fucking strangers every weekend. But when she’d been married about two years, she realized there’d been a few. The guy at Dave & Buster’s who had a thing for Pretzel Dogs. Bennett, who was wearing a “Why Go to College When You Can Go to Pitzer?” T-shirt that night at Vons when she’d gone out to buy Dove Bars. Julio, who manned the food truck where she sometimes got lunch if she’d been too lazy to make her own.
And some others. She was beginning to lose track.
Her parents had been married forever and were happy enough since Dad quit having affairs and Mom weaned herself off the Effexor. For a while, Fin worried she was just following in her father’s footsteps, but she knew that couldn’t be true. His hookups were sloppy and public; he wanted to be known as the guy who fucked around. He liked making his family miserable, smiling when her mother left the house sobbing that she couldn’t stand it anymore. Fin wasn’t doing anything like that.
How happy could her parents really be, though, retired and living in a tiny Vegas condo, both of them with smokers’ coughs and brown skin slimy from tans the Spray Valet lady gave them twice a week in the half bath off the front hall? “You don’t need to do it so much!” Fin told them whenever she visited. “You’re addicted!” “What are you talking about?” her father grumbled, and her mother would say, “It’s organic!” which was one way she shut down a conversation she didn’t want to have.
Fin wanted to say, “Just look in the mirror,” but that seemed mean. Plus she knew they couldn’t see themselves. People just couldn’t.
Anyway. Happy enough.
She had three older sisters and a brother, and they were all married with kids, except Kayla, who lived with her lesbian partner and thought marriage was an instrument of the patriarchy.
Nobody, as far as she knew, was sleeping around.
She was twelve years younger than Kayla, born when her mother was forty-two. “I thought I was finished with all that chazerai,” Mom liked to say. Her parents were older than her friends’ parents and therefore more embarrassing, but she was allowed more freedoms, forgiven more easily. “For Chrissakes,” Dad said when she drove the Rav4 into the back wall of the garage, and then it was like he forgot the whole thing.
Maybe, being so much younger, she’d missed all the talks about being loyal to one person, her father being a piece of shit notwithstanding. Or maybe her siblings had taken stock of their parents’ snarling fights and door-slamming exits in the middle of the night and decided they wanted something more for themselves, wanted to do better.
She had no idea, but she wanted to get to the bottom of all this and figure herself out, even though deep in her bones she didn’t really feel like anything was wrong with her.
Still. She decided to cut down on the whole sleeping-with-people-she-didn’t-know-very-well thing.
At work she answered the phones, kept the conference room tidy, worked on inputting AP and AR. She memorized the stock numbers of the most requested tools: gasket scrapers, Flexclaw pickup screws, 24V circuit testers, battery terminal spreaders. She did not make jokes about universal nut crackers (stockroom number 555-6501), even though she wanted to.
She and Wyatt set about trying to live better lives. They steam-cleaned the carpet and did the dishes every night and threw away leftover antibiotics and scrubbed the hard-water stains in the shower. Sometimes, numb in front of the TV while Wyatt tried to find videos they hadn’t watched yet, Fin couldn’t tell whether she was performing all these tasks to be a more responsible adult or to distract herself from thinking how life was like a spill on the counter.
“What are your goals?” Wyatt asked her one night, both of them collapsed on the floor after completing ninety-second planks, which was the one thing they had started doing that didn’t involve cleaning.
“I mean, what are some things you want?”
When she didn’t say anything, he said, “I want to have kids someday. And live on a houseboat.”
“A houseboat sounds cool.” But she thought all that sloshing around might make her sick.
“Two kids,” he said. “How many do you want?”
“Can four people live in a houseboat?”
“It’s like those tiny houses. You have to have a place for everything. You have to live minimally.”
“Then two is okay.”
“What other things?” he asked.
She knew he really wanted an answer, not just her saying whatever he said was fine. “I don’t want to hurt anybody. Ever. I want to live so nothing I do is bad for anyone I care about.”
He smiled. “That’s a nice one.”
For the first time she felt like she was lying to his face.
“And maybe do more karaoke,” she added.
One morning in the three-story garage where she parked before work, she saw a guy sitting cross-legged and shirtless on the ground, leaning against the driver-side door of a rusted-out Corolla, a bucket of sudsy water at his side. He seemed to be washing his hair.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“This is what you do when you live in your car,” he said, smiling broadly. “I’m fine.”
His dark chest fur was wet from the hair-washing. It looked like a nuclear mushroom cloud rising between his nipples.
She began fumbling in her backpack.
“You’re not giving me money, are you?” he asked, still smiling.
“Just for breakfast,” Fin said.
“I don’t need it. I have a job.”
She had no idea what that was. “It sounds like you should have enough money for an apartment.”
“I do.” He stood up and reached through the open car window to grab a towel, then bent over, letting his straight, dark hair flip forward to drip. He rubbed it partway dry. “I’m saving money to buy a house.” He straightened fast; his hair flipped back. He held out his hand. “Elliot.”
His palm against hers was wet from all the water, not sweaty. She felt a little shy.
“Do you want to get a doughnut?” he asked. “My treat.”
Over apple fritters he told her he had his MBA from UCI and he liked identifying birds and writing poems. “Poetry keeps me alive,” he said. “It’s what I really love.”
“Why’d you get an MBA, then?”
“Pay the bills. Have the life I want fast. You know. A family.” He licked glaze from his lips. “What’s your favorite poem?”
She actually read quite a lot of poetry, but she was in that jittery state of knowing something was happening and not being sure what it was. “I can’t think of it right now.”
“I didn’t used to get poems. I was good at numbers,” Elliot said. “Then I realized words are like numbers, sort of. If you use them right, put them in the right place, it’s like you’ve solved a problem. Does that make sense?”
He’d missed some glaze. She couldn’t stop staring at it, the way it had settled in the corner of his mouth like a nest of wild bees under an eave.
“What’s this bird thing?”
“Sometimes after work I drive around, find a place with trees. I park and roll down the windows and listen. I have my field guide in the car. When I’ve identified a bird definitively, I make a note in my bird journal.”
“What do you mean, ‘definitively’?”
“When I’m sure.”
No, she thought, I mean, how do you know?
“My best find was the common poorwill. It’s very unusual among birds. It goes into torpor for weeks or months. That’s like hibernation. It spends the winter that way, camouflaged in piles of rocks.”
“You’re a bird nerd,” Fin said, suddenly jealous of the common poorwill.
“Oh, I’m totally a bird nerd!” That smile again. “What’s your favorite bird?”
Panicked, she racked her brain. She didn’t want to be someone who couldn’t come up with a favorite poem or a favorite bird. “Pelicans,” she said. “I love how awkward they are on the beach, how they kind of hoist themselves around with their big, flappy wings. And then when they fly, how they glide and dive, like they’re saying, Watch this, motherfuckers.”
They both laughed. She thought of that moment on the rickety stage, all the drunk kids hooting, when the lights shone on just her and she opened her mouth, the words right there on her tongue—“Jolene, Jolene” or “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” or “Darling, you got to let me know”—before she knew if she’d be a hit or not. Toppling at the edge of an abyss, all the danger in the dark below.
A week later, they rolled down the Corolla’s windows just outside Cabazon to let in the desert smell of rain. “From a shrub,” Elliot said as they drove down an empty road, away from the outlet malls Fin and her mother used to go to and the giant dinosaur statues that once stood in front of the Wheel Inn Café. Now they were part of a Creationist museum.
They finally pulled over near a clump of Wiggins’ cholla. “Where cactus wrens nest,” Elliot murmured before he kissed her. How, she wondered, did those birds find safe shelter in all those spiny stalks? How did they thrive on spiders and overripe cactus fruit that smelled like bad butter? How did Elliot know so much and not sound like a total douchebag?
They kissed after the sun set and the wrens went silent. “Does he know where you are?” Elliot asked once, pulling away from her lips. “He thinks I’m working late,” she said, and he nodded, like she had chosen just the right words to explain herself, put them in proper order to solve the problem at hand.
She would have had sex if he’d wanted to. The back seat was immaculate. But finally her body, which had raged for hours with wanting, settled into the knowledge that kissing was going to be it for the night.
After they pulled apart for the last time, they reclined the front seats and sat, not touching. Listening to the thick, continuous bleating of crickets, which made Fin think if she took a single step, they would crunch under her shoe. Elliot fell asleep, head tilted back and up. She could make out the craggy ridge of his profile—peaks of nose and chin—backlit by the romance of a crescent moon.
Was there a reason he hadn’t wanted to fuck her? Did he have a girlfriend or a wife? Was he pining for an ex? The kind of guy who took things slow as a matter of routine? Maybe, she thought, he was just careful with his heart, and then, finally, the lines of the poem she couldn’t call to mind that first day came to her in a sudden burst.
Maybe the reason he’d been happy with kissing was trivial: chronic exhaustion or insomnia the night before. Maybe he was the kind of guy who was just really into kissing.
But watching the fall and crest of his slow breaths, the sharp edges of him under moonlight, she knew that old drumming in her chest was a warning.
She and Wyatt spent the weekend scrubbing the toilet and using toothbrushes on the grout between the bathroom tiles.
On Monday morning, she found Elliot in the garage, hair already washed. He was sitting behind the wheel of the Corolla, scrolling through messages. She opened the passenger door and slid into the seat. Elliot glanced at her and beamed.
“I’m going to park somewhere else from now on. I can tell you have feelings,” she said.
He swallowed hard.
“I love my husband,” she added, not to be mean, but because that’s what was preoccupying her, the problem she was working out in her head
“It’s only been a few days,” he said, “but I am starting to love you a little.”
She thought, O never give the heart outright.
“You have a lot going on. You have goals,” she said. “It’s better this way.”
He nodded a little sadly, which made her think he didn’t really love her at all to be giving up so easily. He just had feelings that seemed bigger than they really were. Which wasn’t a problem she cared about at the moment. Her problem was real love when it wasn’t fun anymore, when it was work, the slog through someone else’s sadness, the endless questions to be answered to another’s satisfaction, the daily drowning in sameness. The way you missed not knowing what the next day or week or month would bring, because life was already mapped out and apportioned and you had memorized down to the second how long it took him to floss, the number of times he sneezed in a row, how many fried jumbo shrimp he would put on his plate at Home Town Buffet.
“I think you love me a little, too,” Elliot said, like maybe he felt it was unfair that his love had been mentioned and hers had not.
“That’s neither here nor there,” she said, which was an expression she never understood, but which seemed to cover a lot of bases. She got out of the car, making an effort not to slam the door but knowing her not sticking around for a longer conversation was going to piss him off anyway. Maybe that was a kindness.
As she walked down the stairs, she thought how eventually she would remember the whole thing as though it was the future and she’d read about Elliot’s death in the newspaper: how knowledgeable he was, how driven, how he freely shared his love of poetry and birds with everyone he met. A glimpse into a life, a way of making people who’d never known him feel as though they had.
It took her another week to tell Wyatt she was moving out.
“You want a divorce?” he asked, looking stricken, and she thought her heart would bleed inside her body for the rest of her life.
“This marriage thing isn’t for me,” she said, tears coursing down her cheeks.
“What did I do?” he asked. “Is it being too controlling? Not cleaning up enough? Watching too much TV? Is it sex?” Now he was crying too. “We can have sex more.”
“It’s none of those things,” Fin said. “And before you say anything, it’s not because of love. I really, really love you.”
She didn’t know how to explain about not wanting that.
“We don’t have to live on a houseboat,” Wyatt said.
“That was your goal,” Fin said softly. “You really wanted to.”
“Not without you.”
It was like a vise, all his wordy, weepy declarations: It squeezed her lungs into limp, airless balloons until she had to gulp to fill them.
In the end he called her a selfish bitch and left the apartment. “I need some air!” he said, which struck her as hilarious, given how she was the one suffocating. The silence gave her time to think. What was she going to do for the rest of her life: hang out in cheap bars? Eat Thanksgiving dinner alone in front of the TV? Have sex in the backs of cars?
But this was what she couldn’t get around: All she really wanted was the loveliness, the mystique, a yellow moon rising over the desert, the smell of an orchard at night. The perfect moment in time. She wanted lots of those moments. She wanted to collect them like bracelets or thimbles or souvenir spoons from all the national parks. Things that could be looked at and admired under the right light. They would remind her of being young, orgasms blooming without effort from the lightest touch, a man’s words, which maybe she’d heard before but this time were arranged in just the right way to set the sky on fire.
Love with a back door she could duck out of. Before he did. If he did it first, that would be unendurable, more than she could bear.
Gina Willner-Pardo has written short stories published in The South Carolina Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Bluestem, Boomer Lit Mag, Pleiades, COG Magazine, Crack the Spine, Five on the Fifth, Litbreak Magazine, Louisiana Literature, Mad River Review, Origins Journal, Slippery Elm, Streetlight Magazine, Summerset Review, White Wall Review, and Whetstone, which awarded her story “Accident” the John Patrick McGrath Memorial Award. She has also written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarion or Albert Whitman. Gina’s novel Figuring Out Frances won the Josette Frank Award, presented by the Bank Street College of Education, to honor a book of “outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.” Gina has a BA in English from Bryn Mawr College and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley. She has studied with James Frey.