My husband and I do this terrible thing every two weeks. We call it Date Night, like we're living fast city lives and have to designate time to have fun with each other. But here's how Date Night goes: we go to a bar full of other couples, one of those candlelit places with red velvet on the walls and low tables made out of black marble, and we sit for hours, getting drunk and smoking and talking to the other couples. I try to keep up with the conversations the wives are having, but they have age-appropriate jobs and they use phrases I don't understand, like "acquisition cost" and "lead conversion rate." They talk too fast, they wear heavy earrings, and the drunker I get, the more their lips seem to twitter and metal sparks flash all around their heads. They asked me once what I did, and I told them that just that morning I had been on the phone for two and a half hours listening to an old man tell me his life story and why I should publish it. I had just listened, I never bothered to tell him that I had no say in the matter. The flashy wives weren't sure what to say to this story, it was a very uncomfortable moment. Someone muttered "Oh, wowww," and everyone silently nodded, until Karen or Jessica said something interesting.
What do I say? "I'm 32 and I'm a publishing assistant. It means that I get paid $400 a week to make copies. Sometimes I answer the phone. Usually when it rings."
So I pretend to listen. I stare into the back of the bar. The DJ plays slow, thick beats that are supposed to make people want to have drunk sex when they get home. The bartender adjusts pieces of his bangs so they fall over his eyes just so. Across the table, in the piss-colored candlelight, my husband sucks on his beer and talks about the goddamn dog.I want to throw my glass at his stupid fucking face.
I should make it clear that this whole thing is someone else's fault. If it weren't for Jennifer Fucking Wilson, none of this would have happened. I don't know what got into me, but I knew from the moment I heard the sound of Fat Megan's panty-hosed thighs rubbing together as she ran down the hall that something had to change. Fat Megan only moved from her desk when someone brought cake to work. There had been some buzzing around the office that someone was going to be promoted to assist the director of marketing in the New York offices. We all knew who would get it. So Fat Megan smelled the cake and wriggled past my office like someone had set fire to the stuffed get-well pig that had been on her desk for three years, and we all filed into the conference room to congratulate Jennifer Fucking Wilson on her stupid promotion.
When she sat on my desk later, her legs took up the whole room, they were so unbelievably long. That day I wanted her out of my office more than I ever had, but we were supposed to be office friends since we were the closest in age and since she was the only person I talked to when I ate in the break room. I humored her, but I almost wanted her to see what I'd just written on the desk calendar under her ass on the 15th of the month: Rat-Faced Whore Goes to NYC. Now that she had her promotion and was on her way to the city of dreams, where she would finally move in with her long-distance boyfriend, who would no doubt propose to her upon her arrival, a thousand pink roses in his arms and a thousand doves flying out of his ass, she tried to counsel me on my life.
"You're cute, you need to get out there and find someone," she said, in that I'm-not-going-to-say-"before-it's-too-late"-but-that's-what-I-mean kind of way. She pointed at the framed Successories poster on my wall, the one with the guy swimming through the sunlit ocean on his way to the sailboat. "Opportunity: Don't wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it!" she said. She had a huge mouth that looked like a flesh wound.
"But I like my independence," I said. "I like living alone."
"Well that's good, because 'independence' is just a nice word for alone," she smirked. I hoped my calendar was burning "rat-faced whore" into her ass. She was so unbelievably stupid and someone needed to tell her.
"Well, that's not my poster anyway. I tried to take it down ages ago. It's drilled into the wall."
"You're so funny," she said flatly, like she was diagnosing a fatal illness she didn't really give a shit about because she knew she'd never contract it.
That was when I was a 29-year-old publishing assistant, and my mind was a small, deserted town, every job and every man a boring corner I'd spent too much time on.
As predicted, she sent an e-mail to the office a few months later announcing that she would soon be Mrs. Jacob Fucking Andrews. The 17th time someone forwarded it to me, I had a panic attack and ended up mashing my face and chest against the window in my office because I thought my skin was on fire. It happened that fast, like a waterfall of poisonous, deadly fear crashing over my head: the realization that as terrible as I thought she was, Mrs. Fucking Wilson-Andrews had gone about her life the right way, and now she was riding high on a wave of money and self-worth. I started interviewing for every promotion and job I could find. I always got hung up at the same part of the interview, when they say something like "We know you like to read, but tell us some more about yourself." I always panicked at this part, because, what do you say?
"I love to drink. Give me any kind of alcohol and I'll drink it."
"I have a blog about all of the stupid people I work with. I get, like, 40 hits a week. I think that's pretty good."
"I can look at a person and know exactly what to say to make them feel like shit. I don't know, it's this uncanny ability I've always had."
I could never fill out those online "social networking" things because they, too, wanted to know what I liked. I always said something awkward, like "Oh, I enjoy long, intellectual conversations." Then I prayed that nobody would push for an example.
Mark isn't a bad looking guy. He's got that little ring of chub around his waist that squeezes out just a little when he wears suits, but that's about all I would change. He was nothing like the men I'd dated before, it wasn't like I looked at him and immediately wanted to fuck him, but those kinds don't get married. Those kinds know what women think when they look at them, so every one is like a stop on the sexual freedom road. I'd had those, and from what I could tell, they were only good for a couple months of fun and a few bruises on the back of your thigh from the keys in their pockets, because they didn't bother to take their pants all the way off. The day I first saw Mark, he was dressed like he was kind of an asshole, collared shirt, torn jeans, and a backwards hat, but he was stapling up a lost dog poster, which, I thought, meant that he was sensitive and caring. He glanced at me bleary-eyed as he turned and continued walking down the street, and I waited until he disappeared into the grocery store before ripping the first one down and running inside with it. LOLITA IS MISSING, the poster proclaimed.
"I found Lolita," I said to myself over and over, changing the inflection in my voice until I hit on something that sounded as much like Jennifer Fucking Wilson-Andrews as I could stand. "I found Lolita," I said over the phone when he answered. "She's in my backyard."
"Oh, no!" he said when I showed him the hole underneath the fence, the hole I'd dug the night before, alone and in the dark, with a broken plate, hoping my upstairs neighbors wouldn't see. "So close, so close!"
"I'm so sorry! I hope you'll let me make it up to you!" I used my special inflection to make it sincere. He was leaning over staring at the hole. Then he stood up straight and laced his fingers behind his neck. "Let me buy you dinner." I bent my knee in and stuck my hip out, tilted my head and made my body an uneven, vulnerable curve. He looked at me strangely. I was blinking excessively because I was nervous, and the glue from my fake eyelashes was itchy.
I've never been a good listener, but I've always been good at making people think I listen to them. There are easy steps to this. You have to concentrate on making your eyes express concern for what they're talking about, but you can't get too involved in your own thoughts because then you'll have that blank look, like you're staring through their head at one of those Magic Eye pictures, searching for the motorcycle. You have to nod and purse your lips and click your tongue at the right moments, but not too much. Other than that, you're free to let your thoughts roam where they will.
Mark was a good person to pretend to listen to. He was so wrapped up in the loss of his stupid dog that he just wanted to talk about her. It didn't matter where I worked, how long I had been in the same job, the same apartment, the same skirts. We talked about the dog. We put up more posters. We kept hope alive that the dog would come home. I hoped it wouldn't because eventually I was spending a lot of time at Mark's condo, enjoying his great couch and giant TV and wine from his special wine refrigerator. The sex was good, even though he was the type that didn't make any sound at all, and sometimes got tears in his eyes and started thrusting all slow and meaningfully, like this was the last time we'd screw before the ship went down. Still, I didn't want a big black German shepherd coming in and getting hair all over the bed, licking my toes when I stood barefoot in the kitchen, barking at the TV, taking up the couch. I could tell from all the framed photos of the damn thing all the hell over the place that Mark was the kind who would probably let the dog shit on the dining room table in the middle of Christmas dinner if that's what it wanted to do.
I moved in because I thought the dog was most likely dead. I saw a show on the Nature Channel about dogs, and how some of them leave home just to lie down and die. I wanted to tell Mark about it, but I didn't dare, because once, during an argument, I'd told him he was totally gay for the dog and I was sick of it. He didn't talk to me for a week, but when he did, I had him apologizing to me for being offended by my comment. We didn't have a lot of arguments, and the condo was nice, and Mark's job was good. We got married because everyone thought we should, or thought we already had, and it didn't seem like such a big deal. I got a card at work, signed by everyone, and two weeks of vacation time. Jennifer Fucking Wilson-Andrews e-mailed me her congratulations. Six months later, I finally got back to her, and I spoke her language:
"Hey! We are doing awesome! Except marriage is BORESVILLE!!! LOL! Well got 2 go, Friday sales reports are piling up! Laters!"
That's when the shit-mouthed Queen of Great Ideas suggested we have a date night. To give us something to look forward to. Since all of her other ideas had worked out so well, I told Mark about it. That's how we ended up going to the same bar to meet the same people every other Friday night.
So Mark can sit in a corner and talk about a dog that's probably rotting underneath a fucking Dumpster somewhere.
"I'd had her since college," Mark says, and all the women squash their lips together and say ohhhhhhhhhhh poor thing.
"She used to catch Frisbees," Mark says, and all the men say jeeeeez, that's tough, man, and shake their heads. He opens his wallet to show proof of her existence, and flips past the one picture of me. I'm standing at the kitchen sink, smiling seductively over my shoulder at him, oblivious to the fact that he's taking the picture because of the blob of chocolate icing smeared on my ass that makes it look like I've shit my pants. There are seven pictures of Lolita, from puppy to adult, and she's smiling in every one of them, running, jumping, and beaming back at him, her glossy coat brushed to perfection.
Lolita is the only thing we ever fight about. If we get into an argument about the dishwasher, it comes back around to Lolita. If Mark forgets to do something he says he'll do, I throw a picture of him embracing Lolita against the wall, denting the frame and knocking out a chunk of plaster, and we argue about that. It's hard to be angry at Mark for anything but Lolita. He's like an inanimate object in our marriage, a pillow on the bed, half a cup of cold coffee on the table, until the dog comes into it, then he's a raging fire, pulling his hair, crying angry tears into his horrified mouth and telling me I'll never understand him. He goes off somewhere to compose himself, and that's when I fantasize that it's one of those magical two-month periods in the summer when it seems like everyone is single and spiteful. I imagine what it would be like to go out and drink and dance until I puke, bring someone home with me that I don't want to see the next day, and wake up to a clean, empty coffeepot, instead of the cold remnants of Mark's breakfast. In this fantasy, I'm still driving Mark's car, living in Mark's condo, fucking in Mark's bed. Mark is dead, or has magically disappeared, gone forever to some place that requires no display of emotion or feeling of loss on my part.
In September, I tell Mark I want to quit my job. "It's really not doing me any good, and it's not like we need the money," I say. "I hate it anyway."
He looks surprised. "I thought you loved your job," he says, and I can't blame him. Any rational person would think that this is why I have continued to do it for almost eight years.
On the next Date Night, we tell our Date Night friends about my decision. The women get excited, they think it means I'm going to start dropping kids like a Coke machine. They look at me in a new way, a way that I'd like to think is jealousy but it could be condescension, when I say that I'm just going to take some time to find myself.
I find myself at the craft store, and end up using Mark's black American Express card to buy rug-hooking kits. I sit in front of the TV all day long, looking away from the shows only long enough to glance at the photo grid. A lady on Oprah says that "love is when you look at him and you don't know what you'd do without him." I say out loud "No way. Love is when you look at his stuff and you don't know what you'd do without it." I laugh loud at my own jokes while I hook an octopus rug for the bathroom, I think they're the kind of thing you'd read on a funny card, that I should start writing down all the ideas for funny cards I have while I watch daytime TV. I make up jokes and hook rugs like there is no tomorrow. I hook a horse rug for a welcome mat. I hook six flower rugs together for our living room. I replace the Italian rugs by our bed with a Mona Lisa for me and a German shepherd for Mark. I am so good at it that I get Mona Lisa's smile right with only bits of yarn, and Mark won't step on his German shepherd because it looks so real. I cover the kitchen floor with hooked rugs and replace them within an hour when I spill something on them. I hook rugs so much that my wrists ache at night and strange, bony lumps rise underneath my skin, right at the joints. I join online rug hooking forums. I hook an Oprah rug and send it to Oprah, and I include my cell phone number in case they call while I'm out buying rug kits to invite me on the show. I hook still lifes and martini glasses for our Date Night friends on special occasions. They look at me like I'm ridiculous and also a little fragile. I tell them that when I start my rug hooking business, I'll call myself the Rug Hooker. "Someday I'd like to make my own rug pattern," I say, because this is something I know about that they don't. "I'd like to do something without borders, something that isn't dictated and decided by the rug kit company." I laugh at my own idea because it's way over their pretty heads. I e-mail Jennifer Fucking Wilson-Andrews and tell her all about my rugs, but she never writes back.
In April, Mark comes home from work with a puppy. A German shepherd. It only takes five steps into the house on its long, dangly legs before it pisses all over the koala bear rug. We have a screaming fight that night, and I tell Mark it's like he decided to go out and adopt a baby without telling me. Mark says he already loves the puppy and that it's the only way to get over Lolita, so he's keeping it. I insist that he keep it outside. He says he wants it to sleep on the bed, like Lolita used to. I tell him that Lolita is gone, gone forever, probably dead, that it's been three years for Christ's sake, and he's going to have to man up and get used to it or I'm going to kill him.
I burn the koala rug in the backyard that night, I take the grate off the grill and torch it. He comes out and says he's not too happy that I'm using his grill. I say I'm not too happy that his fucking dog pissed on my rug. I tell him that the dog is going to be the cause of our divorce, and the flame chews the edges of the rug as I start to cry. I say "You don't want that to happen, do you?" When I say it, my voice takes on that pleading inflection, a practiced, calculated tone that comes out without my even meaning for it to, and I'm afraid it's stuck that way, it will sound like that forever.v