My sister is dating a man I can’t stand. They’ve been together for eleven months. I keep a handwritten list of his faults that is ever expanding. One day I will give the list to Kate and she will escape with her life in the nick of time.
Here are the first ten items:
1. His name is Todd.
2. His eyes are constantly open too wide, as if he just sat down on a thumbtack.
3. Even on the weekends, he combs industrial-strength gel through his hair, so it smells of engine grease and remains stiff and unmoving in the face of hurricane winds.
4. He’s a loud breather.
5. He says fustration instead of frustration.
6. His big toes are monstrosities. They look like massive swollen thumbs. He wears sandals far too often, considering.
7. He gardens for fun.
8. Most of the stories he tells revolve around how his father made his fortune out of nothing, which taught the whole family a valuable lesson about hard work.
9. When he walks down the street, dogs bark at him and the happiness is sucked straight out of children who were previously dancing in the sprinklers under the summer sun.
10. His smile is lopsided to the point where it’s a problem.
I keep this list in my desk drawer and add to it whenever he unveils a new fault. There is nothing egregiously wrong with Todd, but there’s also nothing right. He’ll just never make Kate happy, and my little sister needs to be happy.
Andrew, my closest friend, agrees with me about the whole Todd thing. At Burr’s Diner we criticize him while eating ice cream. The waiters all know us there. We don’t have to tell them which flavor of ice cream we want. Andrew and I have known each other over twenty years, most of our lives, and we value our traditions.
“It’s the way he holds his mouth,” I say between licks. “His lips are pressed so tightly together.”
“You know, Sam, I know what you mean. His lips are usually pressed pretty tightly together.”
Today we’ve exhausted the Todd subject and move on to sports and then to a discussion of the little pleasures in life.
“The satisfying crunch of stepping on dry leaves,” Andrew says.
“Watching a kid drop an ice-cream cone.”
“Getting a back massage by a naked woman.”
I shift on the cracked booth cushion and glance at the penny gumball machine beside us. When we were ten, Andrew accidentally knocked the thing over, the glass bulb bursting and the gumballs scattering across the floor, each in its own direction.
“How’s the wife, by the way?” I ask.
“Off at her mother’s in Oakland right now. But she doesn’t leave often so let’s not talk about her. I’m not done with our list of pleasures. How about, on burning hot days, diving into the freezing water of the river, like we used to do all those summers.”
In elementary school, Andrew (Andy then) and I had joint birthday parties at my house. Our birthdays were a day apart. We staged wars with toy guns in my backyard, darting around the miniature forest of pine trees, charging toward the wooden play structure that served as the enemy base, cradling guns as if we were brave, rescuing the group of stuffed-animal hostages. My mother made dinner—freeze-dried astronaut spaghetti, and for dessert, freeze-dried astronaut ice-cream sandwiches. We slept in tents outside. Those nights the stars were bright—my family lived deep in a wooded area of the suburbs where there were no street lamps to compete with the sky.
My mother’s smile lit the birthday candles. My father’s laugh shook the crows out of trees. But it’s been over three years since I’ve heard them speak, seen them outside of pictures.
Cancer. One after the other. As if they got the same disease.
After they died, we were about to sell the house but then Kate offered to move in. She wasn’t yet ready to let go. I would have moved in myself but I was living with my girlfriend at the time, Emily, and we had a place of our own.
Now Todd spends a few nights a week under that roof.
When I die, I want a picture of me in my obituary with the caption, “This photograph was taken on the day of Sam’s death.”
So every day I take a picture of myself. Of Kate and Andrew, too, as often as I can. You can never have too many pictures.
I’m at Paradise Island, a rundown theme park off Arden Way recently renamed The Point because someone must have decided the first name raised people’s expectations too high. Kate and I used to come here all the time as kids, with Mom and Dad, after school and on weekends. Bumper boats, batting cages, the arcade, the huge purple slide we rocketed down on potato sacks, terrible pizza. Dad loved the bumper boats even more than we did, loved letting us splash him, and I came here with him long after the rides lost their thrill for me.
Now I’m here at thirty-one years old, playing miniature golf with Kate and Todd in the broiling heat.
Dressed in khakis and a suit jacket, sweat dripping out of his sleeves, hair immaculately parted on the left, Todd looks like he got lost on the way to a business meeting. He takes five minutes to set up each putt, ensuring his back is straight and feet are lined up perpendicularly to the desired path of the ball. He swings the putter from side to side for minutes at a time like he’s a human pendulum, convincing me God missed an opportunity to birth him as a grandfather clock.
Kate is winning. She’s a good golfer. I’m in second. I’m a good golfer too. Todd’s in third, and looks upset.
“The putter they gave me is way too small,” Todd says.
“That must be very fustrating for you,” I say.
“Do you want me to grab you another one?” Kate says.
“No,” he says. “I’m up for a challenge, Katie.”
I hate when he calls her Katie. That is what Dad called her. “I don’t think you’re taking enough time to line up your shots,” I say. “It’s all in the preparation, Todd.”
Kate scowls at me. Todd adjusts his hat and readies himself for the next swing. He looks back and forth between the ball and the hole six times. I counted.
Number 67 on the list: He’s a bad miniature golfer and a sore loser.
Sometimes I feel so isolated I can’t take it anymore. I go for walks at night because I don’t want to make it easy on myself. I want to face myself alone in the dark. But the leaves are a menacing shade of black under the moon. The crickets never stop their whining.
In the daytime everything is different. It is spring now, and I run around the track at McKinley Park. The rose garden loves itself this time of year. The people getting married under the arches of flowers play an adult version of Ring Around The Rosie, and for once they don’t think about all the saturated fat in the cake. The long grass bordering the garden folds under the push of the wind, bowed toward the ground like hair gelled and combed down. Squirrels chase after each other and wrestle on weak branches. It sounds too perfect to say that I hear children’s laughter, but it’s there, as they jump off the swings.
I get home after another half-day at work. I don’t have much to do now, ever since “Get The Fax Straight!” cut back on my work hours, because the boss can’t afford me right now, because, seriously, how can you support a whole business selling just fax machines?
My apartment is a few cramped cubes littered with dirty clothes. Even with the extra free hours, I’m still usually too lazy to raise the blinds. It’s like Alaska or Antarctica in here, where the nights last months. Mom always used to scold me for that, walk around the old house raising the blinds, humming “Here Comes the Sun.”
It kills me sometimes, wanting Emily back. Today is our two-year break-up anniversary. Officially longer than we were together.
I’ve seen her a few times since I ended things, or maybe it was more of a mutual ending of things, I don’t remember. We have coffee sometimes. Occasionally I’ll miss something she’s saying because I’m imagining her body next to mine in a bed too small for us both. It was for the best she moved out. Never enough space here. And I doubt I ever really liked her. I definitely didn’t love her, as I told her I did those hundreds of times. But her eyes were so unusually green. Whenever I told her a story, she kept her eyes steady on mine, her lips puckered in concentration.
I sit on the couch and write down the things I plan to accomplish during the rest of the day. Eat tomatoes for the cancer-preventing lycopene. Run in McKinley Park. Take a picture with Andrew at dinner. Later, if and when I do these things, I will write check marks next to each entry.
Suddenly the power in my apartment cuts out, forcing me to raise the blinds. Did I forget to pay a bill again? I never realize how loudly the refrigerator buzzes until the power goes out. Silence can always get more silent.
I turn on my battery-powered white-noise machine and select “Waves 2.” “Waves 1” just sounds like static.
At Burr’s Diner, Andrew gets a half sandwich of turkey with cranberries and a half sandwich of tuna, as always. I get the cheese dog sandwich instead of the regular hot dog sandwich. The waiter doesn’t seem to notice the change.
“His breath is always so minty fresh,” I say. “Todd seriously must brush his teeth five times a day.”
“And use Listerine mouthwash,” Andrew says through a mouthful of tuna.
“And he holds his lips so tightly together, like he’s struggling to hold himself back from shouting at someone.”
“I think we’ve already talked about that one, but I definitely know what you’re getting at.” He’s looking down, not meeting my eyes. Is he just agreeing with me to be agreeable? He’s a social worker at the UC Davis Medical Center and sometimes I think all his interactions are fake.
I decide not to ask a stranger to take a picture of us together.
The next day, I go for a run in McKinley Park and see Todd and Kate by the tennis courts. They’re sitting on the bleachers drinking grape soda (my favorite), watching middle-aged men grunt out a game of tennis. Kate waves me over.
“Don’t you work today?” she says.
“Took a day off. I’m sure the fax machines will be fine.”
“Did you call your boss?”
“Yes, ma’am. I officially have the stomach flu.”
Kate smiles. Todd looks straight at me. “I wanted to talk to you about something, Sam,” he says, eyes wide open. “There’s an internship open at my office. I could float you around to the guys.” He’s leaning forward, arms crossed. He taps his sandals on the bleachers. The big toes are out today.
“I already have a job, Todd.”
“I know. Just wanted to let you know.”
Pop pop pop of rackets hitting tennis balls. Number 28: He thinks he’s better than everyone else because he’s a senior analyst at a hedge fund.
I stand up. “I’m off to finish up my run. Best way to get over the stomach flu, I hear.”
Working at Get the Fax Straight! has taken a toll on my sanity. Customers are rare, the boss takes four-hour lunch breaks, and the phone rings so infrequently I’m starting to suspect it’s broken. All I ever hear is the occasional screech of a fax machine trying to commit suicide.
I imagine the various ways this place could be demolished. A flash flood tears through the building, picking up fax machines, carrying them out the door, down the street, and along I-80 for a hundred miles to the ocean. God chooses Get the Fax Straight! as the center of the apocalypse—fire eats at the wallpaper and the posters of people smiling while sending faxes, then the earth opens up and swallows dozens of screaming machines. And on and on.
I get bored and start riding the elevator up and down. Whenever I’m on an elevator, I stand with my face an inch in front of the crack in the metal doors, waiting for them to open. If someone turns out to be on the other side, they draw back in shock. Because I do this, someone else in the world must do this too, and one day we will both be doing this on opposite sides of the same elevator door. When the doors open our faces will be inches apart, as if about to kiss. This will be my future wife.
Todd invites me to a baseball game, Giants vs. Dodgers. We will get matching hot dogs and nachos and oversized barrels of Coke. Todd, being Todd, will buy lots of souvenirs, including one of those giant foam hands with the index finger sticking up. He’ll wear that on one hand and a baseball glove on the other, gawking at the game and preparing for the home-run balls to head in our direction. But when it does come, Todd will happen to be zipping up his zipper (having forgotten to do so earlier), and the ball will smash into his temple. A quick death. Kate will be sad for a while, of course, but in the end everyone will be better off.
I decline Todd’s invitation. Instead I go for a run at McKinley Park, enjoying the rose garden and the noises of people, and I feel good.
I’m thinking about buying a puppy, a Jack Russell Terrier like my childhood dog Chloe. Jack Russells bark all the time, and it will be nice to have sounds in my apartment again. Women love puppies, too, so a girlfriend shouldn’t be too long to follow.
A few months after Mom died, which was a year after Dad died, Kate and I went through old home videos—typical mourning routine, reliving childhood memories, etc. We sat there for hours, on opposite ends of the couch. Not much talking. I remember one scene: Mom filming, me at maybe four years old jumping on our parents’ bed, Dad holding out his arms to prevent me from breaking my neck. Kate was three, standing on the carpet, trying to climb onto the bed. The bed was tall and she was short. Gripping the top of the mattress with both hands, She kept trying to swing her legs up, but she couldn’t hurl herself high enough. After every attempt, she shouted, Can’t do it. Can’t do it. Slurred so it sounded like one word. Cantoit. Cantoit. I bounced on the bed, smiling, saying, Come on, little girl. You can do it, little girl. Cantoit. I could hear Mom’s laughter behind the camera, friendly laughter, not mean or mocking. She set the camera down, and for a moment it was pointed at the wall on its side, and when she picked it up again, my sister was bouncing on the bed next to me.
Kate and I should make it a tradition to watch our home videos every year, together on the couch, on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or one of their birthdays or their anniversary, June 6th, which is coming up. I call her.
“Kate, I just thought of something we—”
“Sam! I’m so glad you called!” Her voice sounds young, high-pitched, and happy. “Come over. I have news.”
The news is that Kate and Todd are engaged, as of tonight.
Todd’s lopsided smile. So wide it looks like he’s posing for a dentist’s advertisement. When he starts telling me the story of his proposal for the third time—down on one knee, tuxedo, nothing original—I leave, grab my running clothes from the car, and run to the downtown library.
The downtown library is an ugly brick building that has the luxury of being next to even uglier brick buildings so that it looks halfway decent by comparison. I pick out a random book and start reading. It’s about a man who challenges himself to go a whole year without spending one dollar to prove that the world doesn’t have to be based on capitalism and consumerism, which many of his friends deem admirable until he’s arrested for stealing vegetables from a community garden. It’s dull, so I put it back. But the author—I check the spine for the name, Jeremy Pickett—probably spent years of his life writing this thing. I feel the weight of all the years surrounding me on these shelves. Say each book represents the labor and pain and joy of five years of life, and say there are a million books in this library—that’s five million years of life within these walls. Exhilarating, but also sad, that all that life could fit inside one ugly building.
I run to the river.
I edge down from the levee to the bank, my shoes dislodging little rocks that tumble down the hill, sending up trails of dust like little horses riding across the desert in a grand western. I strip to my boxers and dive into the river. The sun is hot but never hot enough once the water wraps around my head. I swim to the other bank, stand up to feel the breeze and see the cottonwood leaves shaking in the wind and the golfers shielding their eyes from the sun. Is Kate getting married because she’s lonely? Because she still feels the hole left by Mom and Dad?
Teenagers have gathered above me on the bridge. A scrawny boy climbs over the railing, preparing to jump into the river, fifty feet below. Sound travels well across the water, and I can hear his friends encouraging him. “Do it!” “Don’t be a pussy.” Girls are there too. “Don’t think about it, just go.” “It’s worse when you think about it.”
“Let him alone,” I shout. “Someone else go, if you’re all so eager.”
The scrawny boy’s head swivels in my direction. “Mind your own business, asshole!” he says. And he jumps. He is silent as he falls. Then his feet break the surface with a crack. He emerges smiling. His friends look back and forth between him and me. One girl flips me off, then climbs over the railing herself, hops into the air, squealing.
I swim back to the other shore. I’m going to skip work until my boss fires me. Get a new job. Maybe the world will end because someone doesn’t receive a fax.
Kate invites me to a small celebration dinner, along with Andrew and his wife, and another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Something. We eat at Kate’s house, my parents’ house. As I enter the living room, I smell Mom’s grand piano before I see it, the fragrant wood, the ivory keys that still feel the weight of Mom’s fingers.
The dinner—spaghetti with home-made tomato sauce—is simple but great. Dad used to cook it all the time, saying the lycopene in the tomatoes reduced the risk of cancer. Todd carries plates to the table, his legs squirming close together so his pants make that swishing sound. Number 16: He walks like a duck.
During the meal, Todd tells the story of the engagement several times. Andrew interrupts the third telling to recount his own engagement story.
“Sometimes I think she acted for both of us,” he says. “She got down on one knee for me, and she asked herself to marry me. Then she said yes and I said whoopee! Then she said—do you know what she said?—she said, ‘It’s about time.’” His wife, Emily, was smiling but looking down into her wine glass, and she was blushing faintly. “And then I almost reminded her that we were still in our twenties, and she wasn’t even pregnant so what was the rush, but instead I said again, whoopee!”
It takes a lot of work to ward off the feeling that someone who’s been your lifelong best friend may, in fact, be a dick.
I deal that thought a killing blow by way of a large amount of wine. I take to staring unblinkingly at Todd. He places his hand on my sister’s shoulder, twiddles his fingers on her shirt, smiling and looking like he owns the world. The sounds of the dinner conversation recede, and all I can hear is Todd’s trademark loud breathing.
After dinner, Andrew thumbs at his wife and says, “Boss tells me we’ve got to go,” and they leave along with the other couple. I sit at the piano bench and rest my fingers on the ivory keys. Kate comes up and sits next to me.
“I love this piano,” she says. “I wish Mom had forced me to continue with lessons so I could do the thing justice.”
“Me too. Those piano lessons were awful though. That woman creeped me out, with her bright orange hair. People that old shouldn’t have hair that orange.”
Kate smiles. “Are you OK?” she asks.
“Of course. Why?”
“I don’t know. You didn’t talk much tonight. None of your jokes and stories about Dad or fax machine malfunctions.”
“The wine was just so good I couldn’t take my mind off it.” I play a single note on the piano and clear noise fills the room, like we’re in a soundtracked movie. “Are you OK, too?”
“Todd makes you happy?”
She seems to expect the question. “Look, I know you don’t like Todd, but—”
“I like Todd.” The single note echoes. I strike it again and press my foot on the pedal to make it linger.
“I know he can be annoying, believe me. He’s a strange one sometimes, the way he seems rigid and professional, talks as if life is a job interview. He wants people to like him, wants you to like him. And he gets nervous when he thinks he’s failing. Can you recognize why he might be nervous around you?”
I don’t say anything. The note from the piano finally dies.
“He’s different when it’s just us,” she continues. “He’s warm. He can be silly. He reads to me in bed, from books I’ve chosen that he would never read on his own, and he does voices for all the characters. He supports me and doesn’t try to change me. I love him.”
I look at her. She looks like our mother—her green eyes, the first hints of crow’s feet deepening at the corners, which don’t make her look older, just softer.
Todd walks up, puts his arm around Kate. “Did you tell him our plans, Katie?” He smiles. He’s always smiling.
“What plans?” I say.
“Todd’s moving in,” Kate says. “With me. Here.”
“I’m ditching my apartment, nice as it was,” Todd says. “Figured there was so much space here, might as well take advantage of it.”
“And we’ll never have to sell the home,” Kate says. She places a hand on my knee, and I stand.
“Congratulations, you two.” My face feels hot, and I smell Todd’s greasy hair gel. “Kate, I’m tired. Calling it a night.” She nods, looking at me as if she’s the older one, and I’m a helpless child.
“Need a lift home?” Todd asks.
“No thanks, Todd. I’ll walk.”
“Mind if I walk you out?” Todd says.
I start down the front steps and Todd follows, placing a hand on my shoulder. I cut across the grass, but Todd sticks to the cement path, extending his arm before releasing his grip on my body. He trots along the border of the lawn and catches up to me.
“Sam, I’ve got something serious to ask you.” Again he puts his hand on my shoulder. I stretch my arms and force a yawn, and he lets go.
“You’re having doubts?”
“No, no. Of course not.” His face is serious, stunned. Suddenly he laughs. “Are you joking? Yes, you’re joking. OK, are you ready?” He looks me square in the eye. “I was wondering if you would be my best man.”
I look at the ground, at my shoes. They’re covered in mud. The sprinklers must have just run. I forgot. Kate waters the lawn at night. That’s why Todd followed the path. He knows more than I do about my own home.
“Did Kate ask you to do this?” I say. Todd stands under a street lamp, and his face is streaked in shadows.
“No, she doesn’t know.” By the way he blinks repeatedly, which he rarely does, I know he’s lying.
“Don’t you have any friends to ask?”
“Yes. Of course I have friends. But you’re family.” He raises his hand to touch me but at the last moment pulls back. A lopsided smile tightens across his face.
Number 85 on the list: He tries too hard and has no spine. He’ll do anything to please my sister.
“Todd.” I kick some mud off my shoes and a few flecks land on Todd’s shiny loafers. He doesn’t notice because his gaze hasn’t left my face. “Todd, can you give me some time to think about it?”
“Sure. Sure, whatever you need.” He claps and rubs his hands together. “Let me know.”
“I will,” I say, already walking away. When I look back, I see Todd looking down at his feet. He licks a finger, bends down, and rubs mud from his shoe. Then he follows the path back to my parents’ house.
The night air is the perfect temperature for walking. It’s only a few blocks to my apartment, but I take the long route, around McKinley Park. The sounds at night are so easy to isolate in my mind. The friction of my shoes on the cement. The crickets. A car, probably up on the freeway.
I make my way to the rose garden and sit down on a bench in the very center of it. The flowers have lost their color to the night. A runner passes by without noticing I’m here. At the base of a nearby elm, a squirrel digs around in the dirt, looking for something it misplaced.
Matthew Farrell’s prose and poetry have appeared in Arcadia, The New Guard, Potomac Review, Rattle, Sixfold, and elsewhere. He received a BA in Film & Media Studies from Stanford University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Oregon. He graduated from medical school at Oregon Health & Science University and is currently a resident in radiation oncology at UCLA.