How To Be a Man
The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series
“That was boring,” Sarah says when we get out.
“Martha liked it,” I said, “Didn’t you Martha.”
She’s asleep again.
“Martha, wake up,” Sarah says.
“Leave her alone,” I say. I am the father. I am Dad. I can talk on the phone to whomever I want. I look again in the rearview mirror. Sarah’s glaring at me. Her brow is pinched.
She says, “Green light.”
Ten minutes after I drop Sarah at the dance studio and Martha at playgroup, I’m down the expressway and a couple blocks from Diane’s apartment. I am ready to break it off with her. It’s been months since we first started sneaking around, but looking back it doesn’t feel so long. I don’t treat Diane well. We ignore each other at the office, which makes sense, but it’s more than that. I’m rough with her. When we have sex I flip her on top of me and grab her hips and shake her hard. I don’t try to please her. There was only one time she stopped me, she said I was actually hurting her. She got off and rolled onto her side, her knees up against her chest.
“Shit, why didn’t you tell me to stop sooner?”
“I know you didn’t mean to. I’m fine now.”
That was the first time we talked. She told me about her family, about school and what she thought about her job. It was a month into the whole thing, and it was the first time it felt like we might actually be getting to know each other—not just having sex, but talking the way you do when you’re dating. That night we reached that moment when you begin to learn about a person so that you can, maybe, build something together. Later, when I went home, I had a huge argument with Libby. She was complaining about my late hours at the office and in the middle of it all I heard a hint of the generic British accent Diane would do when she imagined Libby. They were two women, separate, whole, and then suddenly they crossed into one. I slept on the couch that night, and then decided I’d have to end it. But I kept putting it off. I had never been the one to break up with someone before.
I pass the exit for Diane’s place and have to cross three lines of traffic to get off at the next one. I realize I’m both nervous and excited. I tap my hands on the wheel. I’ve rehearsed what I want to say, as if it’s a presentation for work. Simple, direct, to the point. I make a sharp left onto Diane’s street. The building is old and stately, overlooking the promenade. It has dark red brick and green fire escapes. When we drove past, on our way to the airport, I pointed the building out to Libby. I don’t know what I was planning to say; maybe I wanted to ask her what she thought about the old brick next to all the new condos. But before I could say anything Libby shivered and said she hated that building. When she first moved to the states for college, it had been a home for disabled children. The nurses would lay wooden planks over the gratings on the fire escapes and roll the kids’ wheelchairs out onto the balconies. From the park on the other side of the highway, she said she watched their yellow faces and blank stares. I decide I won’t go out on Diane’s balcony.
I ring the buzzer and lean in close to hear the sound of Diane breathing.
“Hello?” she says.
“Oh! Come on up.”
When she opens the door she asks, “Where’s my soup?”
“You said you’d bring soup. I’m sick.” She holds her arms across her breasts.
“Whoops, I forgot.” I walk past her, accept a kiss on the cheek. Her lips are dry.
“I really wanted soup; I’ve been thinking about it all morning.”
She sits down on the couch with a huff, pulling her flannel pajama pants up to her knees.
“You’re really sick?”
“Yes! I’ve had a fever since Wednesday. You and your kid germs, probably.” She pulls a blanket off the arm of the couch and wraps it around her shoulders. “What’s up?”
“I guess I just needed to talk to you.”
“I don’t feel well. And the couch is coming today. I thought you were going to be the couch.”
“We’re sitting on the couch.”
“I’m getting a new one. A white one. I’ve always wanted a white couch.”
I move slightly away from her so I can turn and face her. Sick Diane seems especially weak and frail. I think about Libby and imagine the way her presence would intimidate her, how Diane would crumble next to the goodness of Libby and her long beautiful arms, her soft chin, her powerful hips.
“Could you make me tea?” Diane asks.
Diane’s refrigerator is yellow and old-fashioned with a large metal door handle, a quirky piece. I fumble with the mug and it echoes on the sink. We’re through, I say in my head. Over. I feel firm and strong and, more importantly, right.
I boil the water in the kettle on the stove and then open several cabinets until I find where she keeps her tea bags. They’re in a large plastic box, divided by type. She asks for peppermint. We don’t have peppermint tea in my house. I bring her the tea, cloyingly sweet, and sit down next to her.
“We can’t see each other anymore,” I say.
“Why? Can we do this later?”
“No, I mean it.”
“I’m tired. And sick. We’ll talk about it later.”
“We need to now.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
I smack a magazine off the couch and she jumps back as if I’ve hit her.
“Jesus,” she says. “Are you always like this when you don’t get your way? Such a temper—just like my father.”
I stand up. I walk over to the magazine and pick it up and put it on a table.
Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki is trying to overturn Jesse Friedman’s 1989 Great Neck molestation conviction