NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO GET EXCITED ABOUT
Dottie was the first woman I dated who was taller than me, though by just an inch or two. Her bed was also very large and high off the ground and climbing on it required a running jump. If I sat on the side, my feet dangled a good six inches off the floor. She was from New Hampshire and played bass in a band and had dated, up until me, only women. It’d been over five years since I last saw Dottie, and considering it was an ad for a nanny and only mothers and fathers ever post ads for nannies and she was not a mother five years ago, I was forced to a very hasty and panicked arithmetic. Five years minus nine months divided by naïve boy who thought he alone could transcend sexual binaries equaled: panic. I scoured the email for clues. She had two children, boys, ages 4 years and 6 months, and only needed childcare a couple days a week.
She didn’t mention her enormous bed, or me, or whether or not the children had different fathers, but said she was encouraged by Janice’s affability, and that her gentle personality was evident in her application. She said she couldn’t pay much, but that her home would be a warm and welcoming environment. I couldn’t help but think of this email as a boilerplate of our first date. She looked forward to Janice’s reply, and if she had time a list of her personal references.
I could simply delete the email. A couple hours of work a week even under the table was not worth navigating the discomfort of one girlfriend working for another. She didn’t mention her hourly but I doubted it was anything that would make this discomfort worthwhile. Even if it was, and commensurate with the going rate for a nanny with no previous experience, still hardly worth it. I deleted the email. Almost immediately, the internet asked if I was sure I meant to delete the email and, if not, offered me the opportunity to take it back. I was reminded, not for the first time, that the internet was not my friend.
Of course Janice was over the moon when she finally read the email later that afternoon, and why wouldn’t she be? This was the first viable opportunity she’d had in months. She asked my help in crafting her reply, which was my opportunity to point out Dottie’s name. “Dottie?“ was what I should have said, “that’s an unusual name. You know I dated a Dottie a couple of years ago: gay, played bass, from New Hampshire. I wonder if it’s the same person,” and then leave the reckoning of arithmetic to Janice. That was what made sense, and the only thing keeping me from saying just that was maybe I wanted Janice to take the job, and not just because we needed the money.
For the past two days I’ve felt as if an ant or spider were crawling up the length of my arm, navigating through and around the hairs, and even though I know there’s nothing there because I look and there’s nothing there, I still keep slapping myself. I slap myself, I look, there’s nothing there. I come home from work and there’s a bouquet of tulips in a vase on the kitchen table, and between one tulip and another a single strand of spider web, no spider. “Janice?” I call out. “Are you home?” I walk into the bedroom and she’s lying on the bed with the computer in her lap. “Flowers?” I say. “You know we can’t afford flowers. Flowers are a luxury.”
”On the contrary,” she says. ”Flowers are a necessity. And anyway they’re tulips, which are cheap, and they’re celebratory because I love my job.”
The youngest is learning about object permanence, she tells me, and this is exciting! She’s excited! I wish I could be happy for her. I’m happy for her, but I really wish I could be happier for her than I am. Already I’m recalibrating in my mind the new arithmetic, the budget her new job will allow us and the luxuries to which we will grow accustomed. Tulips on the kitchen table every week, for example, and tulips are fine, pretty, and I have nothing against the Dutch, but even a part-time job under normal circumstances getting paid under the table and for so many hours would not allow us the luxuries to which we’ll grow accustomed, and these are hardly normal circumstances.
Object permanence sounds like something I should know but don’t entirely, like gerrymandering or carpetbagger. “It’s when you recognize something exists even when you can’t see it,” Janice explains to me.
“Like love?” I ask.
“Aw,” she says. “No, stupid. Like a toy. Like peek-a-boo or hide-and-seek. Like when you’re looking at something, like a toy, and then the toy goes back in the box. Realizing that the toy continues to exist even inside the box. Dottie says it’s them understanding that the world is beyond what they can just see or hear.” That sounds like some kind of milestone, I think. I think, I’ll believe it when I see it. “What about the other one?” I ask. “The older one?”
“Who?” she says. “Oh. He doesn’t talk much.”
We go out to a bar to celebrate. I order a beer while Janice finds a table and has me order her a Sex On the Beach, which is definitely the most embarrassing drink a straight man can order at a bar. If I didn’t already think so it’s confirmed by the two guys drinking tall boys at the end of the bar sniggering. “If you’re going to ask me to order you a drink,” I tell Janice when I return with her Sex On the Beach, “could you at least ask for something a little less emasculating?”
She takes a sip from her drink. “That,” she says, “would be impossible.” She’s being feisty. She’s always feisty when she drinks. We go outside and share a cigarette and it’s nice. There’s music playing over the speakers that reminds me of high school. She takes a drag from the cigarette.
She tells me that the only thing besides Dottie’s breast that the baby will take in his mouth are edamame beans, and that if she had to do it all over again Dottie says she would have continued to breastfeed his brother long after nine months, which is when she stopped because he was starting to teethe. It’s hard to imagine Dottie as a mother. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I think it’d be hard to imagine even if I saw the baby pushed out of her myself. I guess it’s not the biological component that’s hard to imagine so much as the responsibility. Her on a computer emailing with Janice about their dietary restrictions and nap times is hard to imagine.
Janice is too drunk to drive home and gives me the keys. I probably shouldn’t be driving home either, but it’s a $20 cab fare on top of the tip, on top of the tulips and the drinks, and three beers isn’t anything I can’t handle. Is not nothing I can handle. I can handle three beers. Halfway home, Janice says she thinks she has to vomit and I say, “We’re almost home,” and she says she really thinks she has to vomit and I say, “I can’t drive any faster,” and then we’re home, thank god, and I pull up in front of the apartment to let her out so she can go vomit while I park the car. When I walk inside I can hear the sound of her retching from behind the bathroom door. Somehow the cat has jumped up on the table and knocked over the vase of tulips. The water is still dripping on the floor. “See?” I call to Janice. “This is why you shouldn’t buy flowers.”
The next morning she’s still asleep when I have to go to work. The cat is lying in bed next to her, its head resting on her blanketed thigh. It watches as I walk out the door and when I turn to look back at them immediately looks away. During my lunch break I look up child support on the internet. I am left-handed. I have brown eyes. Brown hair. White skin. My genetic material is wholly unremarkable from millions of other people but I’m almost certain if I could just get a look at this child I’d know for sure. I email my mother and ask her to send me some photos of myself when I was 4. “It’s for Janice,” I tell her. “She wants to see what I looked like when I was little.”
She writes back almost immediately. “Does this mean there’s something I should be getting excited about?”
The mystery of the two children’s fathers has become a game for Janice and I. Dottie is with a woman now, Janice reports, or was with a woman up until recently, who stills maintains some kind of custodial presence in the house. “Though not custodial in the sense of cleaning up,” says Janice, “because the place is a fucking pigsty.” I suggest that maybe both children are adopted and that Dottie has been inducing breast milk. “Is that possible?” I ask. “Is it possible to induce breast milk?” Her hypothesis is that Dottie railroaded two different men into getting her pregnant, which accounts for their lack of resemblance.
I think she has to be fucking with me. She knows. Either she figured it out or Dottie figured it out and told her or this entire situation, the emails and job and Dottie and the child is all some kind of long con to an end even more malicious than some money grift. I don’t say anything. I look her in the eyes. I look her in the eyes and don’t say anything past a point when my wordlessly looking her in the eyes could be construed as anything but an admission of guilt and recognition. I look her in the eyes and I don’t blink because this is the game. When two people look into each other’s eyes, the game is to see who will blink first. Whoever blinks first loses. I don’t blink and neither does Janice, but my eyes are starting to sting, they’re starting to water. Finally I have no choice but to blink. “I guess that’s possible,” I say. I choose to believe that we blinked at the same time, and because I was blinking I couldn’t see her blink, and because she was blinking she couldn’t see me.
Dottie and I only dated for about a month. I’ve had relationships that ended with tears and heartache and terrible things said but this wasn’t one of them. She was too tall for me, I might have told her. I was too male for her, she might have said. All in all, not the worst possible things to say to a person.
What I remember most vividly about that month is the night she was eviscerated by a tiger. Of course she wasn’t really eviscerated and this is what I kept trying to tell her, after she’d woken me up by punching me as hard as she could in the stomach. She punched me as hard as she could in the stomach because she thought I was a tiger trying to eviscerate her, and I woke up in incredible pain and she was thrashing about the bed, her enormous bed, and after I caught my breath I tried to calm her, convince her that I wasn’t a tiger, that I hadn’t just eviscerated her, tried to convince her that I was both a man and not a tiger and that she was alive and not dead, all the while trying to catch my breath. “What is happening?” I thought, as I held her as close to me as possible, both to comfort her and prevent her from punching me in the stomach again. “Who am I trying to convince?”
Dottie confessed to me the next morning that she got night terrors. We were staring at the bruise on my stomach in the bathroom mirror, already turning yellow. She said she used to get them much worse as a little girl, dreams of being murdered, being chased, dreams of being eaten. That she used to wake up and chase her older sister around the room, still certain she was trying to kill her. She said she once fractured her older sister’s rib, and then she poked me in the bruise.
“Ouch!” I said.
“You got off easy,” Dottie said to me, and then poked me again, hard, to emphasize the point.