Fencing Lessons

by Emily Kissell

 

“Please, pass the peas please!”

“Timmy, we are not eating peas tonight so I can’t pass them to you, no matter how much I’d like to.” My husband Doug looked at our son seriously, as if this was an important life lesson he was imparting.

“Please, pass the peas please!”

I froze with my arm half-extended across the table, a dish of steamed broccoli in my hand. On one hand, Doug and I had a policy of not contradicting each other in front of the children. On the other, my eight-year-old son was not only willing to, but eager to, eat vegetables.  Why should Doug care that Timmy had misidentified the vegetable in question? Doug hadn’t been above telling Timmy broccoli were actually miniature trees a few years ago.

Our older son, Calvin, pushed away from the table, took his plate to the sink, and left the dining room. Doug did not call him back. Calvin was auditioning for Resentful Teenager of the Year, but in Calvin’s case, Doug had decided upon a hands-off policy. Doug claimed Calvin’s anti-social behavior was a phase, and it would past faster if we pretended it was no big deal.

I wondered if this seeming contradiction in Doug’s parenting policy came from the fact that Calvin’s problems were too deep to be solved at the dinner table. It was easier to take a stand over correct phrasing than figuring out why your teenager hated you. This way Doug could pretend he was actively involved in making our sons better people while also working sixty hours a week.

“He just likes the alliteration, Doug. Please pass the broccoli doesn’t have the same ring to it.” I didn’t understand how passing a bowl of broccoli had become an ethical parenting dilemma, but it felt wrong to give Timmy the vegetables without Doug’s permission. “Vegetables have vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are good,” I continued. I wished I could remember the exact health benefits of broccoli to support my case, but all I could think to add was, “It’s green,” and this didn’t seem particularly persuasive.

“Fine,” Doug said in a tone that indicated I was making a mistake, but that it wasn’t his place to stand in my way.

After dinner, Doug announced he had some paperwork to do. I knew that he would retreat to the bedroom and I wouldn’t see him until I was getting ready for bed.

“Could you take out the garbage first?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said, but this time it wasn’t hostile.

I cleaned up dinner and started the laundry. Timmy and I watched contestants on a reality TV show betray each other in a country I couldn’t have pointed out on a map. After they voted off the compact, pugnacious Asian chick, I told Timmy to brush his teeth. I read him a story and laid a goodnight kiss on his forehead. I folded the laundry and drank a glass of wine.

At eleven, I told Calvin to turn his music off.

“Come on, it’s not like I have to get up in the morning,” he said.

School had let out the week before, and Calvin didn’t seem interested in getting a summer job. He’d quit his paper route last fall, when he had begun quitting everything. Soccer. Tennis. Studying, to judge from the grades he got in the spring. Even hanging out with most of his friends.

I agreed with Doug’s assessment that it was better to ignore Calvin’s resentfulness. At least theoretically. In practice, I couldn’t help trying to bribe him out of his funk. “If you join the high school debate team in the fall, maybe you’ll be able to argue your way out of your curfew,” I said and turned off his bedroom light.

When I went to take a shower, I noticed Doug was missing. I expected him to be sitting on our bed, with his laptop and multiple manila folders of paperwork. The last time I’d seen him he’d been taking the garbage out after dinner.

“Doug,” I called, walking down the driveway in bare feet. The garbage was in the can at the end of the driveway, and both cars were still in the garage.

I looked down the street toward Derby Road, but all I saw was the blur of SUVs driving past. We lived in a cul-de-sac a few blocks off a two-lane highway with gravel shoulders, two miles outside of Maybelle, Florida. Our backyard ended in boggy woods. Even if Doug had gone for a walk–not that he was in the habit–he should’ve returned hours ago. There was nowhere to go.

I wondered momentarily if he was having an affair. If he had arranged for his mistress to pick him up for a few hours in a semen-stained motel room with floral wallpaper, a Gideon bible lying amidst discarded condom wrappers. But Doug was too polite for that kind of behavior. If he’d wanted some time out of the house, he would’ve made up an excuse: drinks with coworkers, a poker game, paperwork forgotten at the office. He hadn’t been acting strangely, and he wasn’t a cheater by nature.

The passion had gone out of our marriage years before. Now, we were like business partners. We ran a family together. I nurtured, and Doug provided. In general, things went smoothly. Doug was too levelheaded to be off sulking about the broccoli debate, but he had left without a word.

I knew better than to panic. If I called the police, they would do nothing. I thought there must be a rational explanation. I fell asleep on the couch waiting for him.

The next morning I called the insurance office where he worked as an adjuster, but he hadn’t come in. I tried to change tactics, pretending Doug was sick, but I didn’t fool Marley, the office secretary. She’d been surviving on a diet of gossip for too many years for my stumbling ploy–that I’d actually been calling to say Doug wasn’t coming in that day, not to see if he had–to fool her.

Timmy was up by that time and asked where Daddy was over his cereal.

“Daddy had to go away for a little while,” I said. “But he’ll be back soon.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Is he on a secret mission?”

“Very secret,” I told him. “Top secret.”

I hoped that the joy of knowing his father’s secret would prevent Timmy from telling his brother as soon as Calvin got up. I could’ve used a few hours without my older son’s accusing stare. At fifteen, Calvin had decided the world had turned Brutus, and for some reason, he believed I was the one holding the dagger. Nothing I said to him was received with anything more affectionate than silence.

But betting on an eight year-old keeping a secret is like backing a guy with a knife to rob a gun store. As soon as Calvin emerged, matted brown hair sticking up in twenty different directions, Timmy rushed to tell him the news.

“Dad’s on a top secret mission for the FBI.”

“Great. Is there any coffee left?”

Calvin had started drinking coffee just after he’d begun quitting everything else. When I’d worried about it being unhealthy at his age, Doug had said, “At least he isn’t anorexic.” When I pointed out coffee wasn’t a food, Dough shrugged, “He’s still not anorexic.” And I couldn’t argue with that.

None of the details of Doug’s mission that Timmy’s imagination manufactured–lasers, Nazis, and UFOs–shook Calvin’s apparent indifference. He refused to make eye-contact with me, much less ask me about his father’s whereabouts. But I noticed that instead of spending the day in his room with the door shut, Calvin shot hoops in the driveway and read Dostoevsky on the porch. His surreptitious glances canvassed our property’s perimeter from woods to street. I took this behavior as his version of anxiety. Especially since the afternoon topped off at ninety-six degrees; June in Florida is only bearable air-conditioned.

That evening, Calvin and I ate tacos silently while Timmy explained the secret, sleeping-gas buttons Doug threw at guard dogs so he could sneak into enemy compounds.

“You mean cufflinks,” Calvin said.

“No, they’re buttons,” Timmy insisted. Timmy refused to admit he didn’t know what something was in front of his brother.

Doug came in the side door as I finished loading the dishwasher.

“Dad!” Calvin cried, forgetting himself long enough to take a couple of steps forward but not long enough to hug anyone.

“Did you kill them?” Timmy asked. “Did you kill all of the bad guys?”

“Not all of them,” Doug said. Then he came into the kitchen where I was standing, trying to decide if I was relieved or pissed off, and he kissed me like he hadn’t in years.

“Doug, what happened to you?” I asked.

That’s when I noticed he had a beard. Doug had been clean-shaven as long as I had known him. Still, sometimes when we went camping or he was feeling lazy on the weekend, he didn’t shave for a day or two. Now, he looked liked he hadn’t shaved for weeks.

“After you took out the trash last night.” I added, stupidly, when he didn’t answer immediately. I touched his beard to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

“Last night? Meghan, I’ve been in Saelinas for months.” For a moment, I thought Saelinas was the name of the foreign country hosting the reality TV show I’d been watching the night before.

“Is that where the bad spies are?” Timmy asked.

“There are some very bad spies there,” Doug told Timmy and took him to sit on the couch. “But there are also dragons and wizards and a very beautiful princess.”

Calvin snorted and slammed out the front door, but I knew he hadn’t gone far. I could still see his shadow in the porch light as he leaned against the wall outside the door.

“Doug,” I said, but I didn’t know what else to add. I couldn’t accuse him of liking to frighten Timmy with outrageous stories because he didn’t. Doug was disgustingly down-to-earth. I didn’t think I’d heard him say the word “dragon” before.

Doug ignored me and continued.  “When I took the garbage out–it seems like years ago–there were these golden orbs floating over the driveway. They looked like a curtain of fireflies. I went closer to see what they were, and I was transported into a magical realm called Saelinas.”

I went to the kitchen and looked for something to scrub. The dishwasher chugged complacently; I wanted to kick it. Outside, I could see Calvin’s shadow fidgeting. Doug droned on with his story of plotting viziers, skittish unicorns, and evil elves. Or maybe it was evil unicorns and skittish elves. I wanted to grab him and force him to tell me what had really happened. I didn’t have the patience to listen to him compose a fairytale for our son.

I opened the fridge and stared at the contents. “We need milk,” I announced and went to the store.

When I got back, Doug was sitting on the bed waiting for me. For once, his laptop was still in its case. After spending twenty-four hours away from it, I didn’t see where he had gotten the resolve to leave it untouched. He stroked his beard as if he was taunting me with my inability to explain its presence.

“Don’t you have some work to catch up on?” I asked.

Doug smiled and shrugged. “Probably. But I can’t remember what.”

I leaned against the closet door. “So what happened? Where did you go last night?”

“Weren’t you listening? Of course, I had to leave some of it out. The whole experience wasn’t exactly G-rated, but you got the gist.”

“Don’t give me this bullshit, Doug. If you went out and fucked someone, just tell me.”

Doug opened his mouth and closed it again. “It’s true. I stepped into these golden orbs, and I went to a place called Saelinas. The kingdom was on the brink of civil war, and I became a counselor to the princess Moriella. When have I ever lied to you?”

I stared at him. He looked convinced of his story, lifted directly from a pulp fantasy novel.

“I need a shower,” I said.

When I came out of the bathroom forty-five minutes later, Doug was asleep.

Doug had the sense not to try his Saelinas story on anyone else. He told his coworkers and friends that we had had a huge fight, a divorce-sized fight, and he had gotten so drunk he’d slept through work. Everyone knew we had a polite marriage; no one had ever witnessed an argument not resolved through reasonable discussion. Our voices were rarely raised in public. Everyone seemed to like the idea that when we had broken down and let our emotions out, things had gotten ugly. It was uncomfortable realizing that all of our acquaintances thought we were repressed hypocrites, but I kept my part of the bargain. We both implied but never stated that Doug had been seeing someone else.

At home, Doug stuck to his original story. He filled in details. He had slain a dragon. Revealed an assassination plot. Fulfilled a prophecy or two. Soon, Doug was the one in charge of Timmy’s bedtime stories, but all he told were his own delusional adventures. One night I passed the open bedroom door to hear him use the phrase, “Buxom wenches serving flagons of grog.”

I took long showers and wondered what Doug would do if I suggested he seek help. But I didn’t want anyone, not even a professional stranger, to know my husband was crazy.

Doug refused to shave his beard, but I kept trying to convince him. I wanted it gone. The beard was the only part of his story I couldn’t explain away. If I could make it vanish, I could believe he’d made everything up.

“Doesn’t it make your coworkers wonder?” I asked.

“They like the idea that when you go on drunken binges, strange stuff happens. I told them when I woke up by the side of the road, lying in a pool of my own vomit, the facial hair was just there. I told them I have no idea how it grew overnight. They all got a kick out of it. Laughed their asses off.”

“Isn’t it hot?”

“Protects me from mosquitoes.”

“Itchy?”

“Mosquito bites are itchier.”

Eventually, I ran out of arguments.

Every night after dinner, Doug went tromping through the mangroves behind our home. On Friday, Timmy asked if he could come too. The next night Calvin began reading beneath the porch light while they were gone, and I knew soon he would join them.

Before his disappearing act, Doug had spent his evenings on his laptop. Now most nights it never emerged from its case. Once I had resented it as if it was the other woman, but now I longed for the familiar sight of Doug’s hairless face illuminated by its glow.

The Tuesday night after his disappearing act, Doug was sitting quiet and shirtless when I reentered the bedroom wrapped in a towel. I felt strange dressing in front of him, but I refused to act like anything had changed. Nothing’s happened, I told myself. When I bent over to retrieve my pajamas from the bottom drawer, Doug’s hands settled on my hips. He kissed my back at the edge of the towel as I straightened.

“I missed you,” he said. “The whole time I was gone, I thought about making love to you. I’d forgotten how much I love you.”

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