How To Be a Man
The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series
“I thought you were seeing someone from Legal,” I said, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Oh.” I got dressed and then said, “We shouldn’t do this again.”
“I know, but I think we will anyway.” She kissed me. “It was good, right?”
I guessed, later, that the knowledge that I was now having an affair was part of the pain that I felt, that sick feeling. I was cheating on my wife. I would do it again.
When I got home I told Libby I’d had too much to drink with the boys after work. I made myself vomit in the bathroom as evidence. I crawled into bed and listened to her as she took the girls into the bathroom for their baths and then read them their bedtime stories. I pretended to be asleep when she turned off the light and curled into bed beside me. She kissed me on the back of my head and said, “You’re too old to drink like a college boy.”
I mumbled an apology.
She hugged me and rolled over. I farted and tried to fall asleep.
But I was awake for hours. I watched Libby in the dark. She was a restless sleeper. She turned back and forth, moved her pillow, pulled on the blankets. I tried to nudge myself under Libby’s heavy head, to wrap my arm around her tossing body.
“Stop,” she said, half awake.
She fell asleep again before she even turned over.
I wait for Libby to leave for her sister’s and then call Diane to see if I can stop by her apartment after I drop the kids off. She says she’s sick and, on top of that, she’s waiting for her new couch to be delivered.
“How sick?” I ask.
“I haven’t been in work the past two days.”
“I was on vacation.”
“Well, can I come by? I’ll bring you soup.”
When I look up, Sarah’s there. She’s standing at the corner of the desk, already dressed in her leotard and pink ballet shoes, rocking back and forth on her heels.
I try to ignore Sarah, but she’s looking at me with her big, dark eyes. She sits down at the edge of the bed and waits for me to get off the phone.
I keep talking to Diane. I say I need to stop by, that I want to talk. I say I can help her with the couch delivery. Sarah’s standing on the bed now, watching me speak. I tell Diane if she hears the buzzer, it’ll be me. Sarah pliés and arabesques. I hang up the phone.
“Who was that?”
“Is that any of your business?”
“But Dad, who were you talking to?”
My heart is fast; I can feel my blood moving through my body, the throb of the pulsing vein at the top of my right temple. My father died of a heart attack a few years ago, and when I feel my blood moving through my body, and I hear my heartbeat in my ears, I become aware that there might be plaque or fat deposits somewhere in my arteries—just like his—and I’ll go the same way. There isn’t any question whether someone will call 911 or if I’ll be saved; I will just, certainly, die. I don’t care what happens to my organs or when they pull the plug, but I want there to be a document for the last words I hear, what I will be able to take with me. I want to hear my daughters say the word dad.
“None of your beeswax,” I say.
“Was it Aunt Catherine?”
“Will Mom know?”
“I’m going to ask her.”
“Sure,” I say, “Fine.” I walk around the room and into the bathroom and shout for her to make sure her sister is ready to go. I wash my face in the sink with the broken plug and watch a few of my hairs fall out and float in the dirty water. “Ask Mom,” I shout.
I don’t know if Sarah knows I’m doing something wrong or if she’s upset at me because I’m keeping something from her; hiding something she, as my daughter, thinks she deserves to know. I hope she’ll forget it by the time she’s home from dance class, been fed, done her homework. But she’s so smart, my Sarah, and she’s at an age where her mind grasps on to everything and holds tight. I decide to fill her day to the max, to pump her little head with so many things that by dinner she won’t remember anything about the morning, the phone call and the look on my face when I realized she was listening.
I start by taking the kids to the carwash. Sarah’s says she doesn’t feel like going to the carwash. The vocalization of feelings that go distinctly against everything she’s told to do only started after her sixth birthday. I have visions of the future, images of her sneaking out her bedroom window to meet a boy on a motorcycle, climbing down a sheet knotted to another sheet. The boy revs his engine and says, Come on, baby.
“Come on, baby,” I say, “We’re all going to the carwash.”
At the red light before the turn that takes us to the carwash, I reach my hand through the space between the seats and touch Martha’s dangling foot. I can see her strapped into her car seat behind me through the rearview mirror, but I want to touch her just to confirm she’s really, physically there. A minute ago she was reciting lines from the Princess Pony and now she’s asleep, her head almost touching the window, then not, then almost touching it, then not. I think she might have narcolepsy. Sarah’s staring out the window, her knees curled up to her stomach, too far away to reach.
When we pull into the carwash Martha wakes up. She starts clapping her hands and then says, “Dad, do the man.”
I put my hand up to my mouth and muffle my voice to make it sound like it’s coming through a speaker in a safari jeep. We lock into the ramp and I say, “We’re entering the Car-Washii jungle.” The brushes at the sides are the wild brush boars. Monkey-spit soapsuds cover the windows. A rubber-fringed curtain—the deadly vines—makes a smacking sound against the windshield. Then a rainstorm of water jets sprays down the hood of the car and makes everything inside echo. We are trapped in a metal bubble moving through darkness. The tour guide is the hero, the protector.
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki is trying to overturn Jesse Friedman’s 1989 Great Neck molestation conviction