How To Be a Man
The latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series
“You’ll be back. You’ll miss me. You’ll miss all of this and be back. You need me now.”
I go back inside and wash my face in the kitchen sink. When I turn around Diane is standing over the couch, surveying. I watch her pull the plastic off and then she asks for my help pushing it to the center of the room.
“Are you going to tell your wife?” she asks.
“Yes, I think so.”
“They always do.”
She sits down on the new couch and holds her arms out.
“You know, I always wanted a white couch and now it’s ruined. This will always be our fighting couch.”
I put my hand on Diane’s shoulder. The couch is ugly. It’s modern with thin square cushions and an exposed steel frame. It’ll be filthy in a week. If she ever has kids, that couch is a goner.
“I’m leaving,” I say. “I won’t be back.”
Then my cell phone rings.
“Dad?” It’s Sarah.
“We’re waiting for you. All the moms came and left.”
“I’m on my way,” I say.
“Where are you?”
“You shouldn’t be talking on your cell phone in the car.”
“I know. You’re right. I’m sorry. I’ll be there soon.”
Diane watches me hang up the phone. She shrugs her shoulders and starts to cry. I lift my hand up to her and wave. A long, slow, beauty-queen wave. I open the front door and walk out into the hall and down the stairs.
I drive too fast down the expressway. I eye the dent as I drive. It’s big. The faster I drive, the more drops of tea ride up on the window. I keep the wipers on.
I pick up Sarah at the dance studio, hug her, and apologize for being late. I hear the rustling of her leotard against my shirt. The dance teacher pulls me aside and says that Sarah’s been roughhousing with the other girls. There was a note Sarah was supposed to bring home last week but I never saw it. I ask what she was doing and the instructor, a heavy woman with blonde pigtails, whispers that she was pushing other girls into the mirror.
“Not hard, mind you. Sort of playfully, but she made two of the girls fall.” Then she whispers, “She’s sort of a bully.”
I wonder if Libby saw the note. I will talk to Sarah about it when we go home, without telling Libby, because in a way I think it’s my fault Sarah is a bully. Sarah gets into the car and I look at her in the rearview mirror. I try to see if she knows what the dance teacher has said, but she’s smiling at me like there is nothing wrong in the world. We go to the playgroup to get Martha. I decide to take them to the car wash again just for the hell of it. I scare the living daylights out of them. I tell them the giant vacuum sucks up all the little girls into the belly of the jungle; I tell them the hoses are snakes that bite off girls’ toes when they’re bad and push other kids down, when they talk to boys, when they’re mean to Mommy. I wait for them to call out “Dad”—my name—the only word that matters.
“That was good this time,” Sarah says. “Do it like that more.”
Martha is awake, alert. She’s repeating words, snakes, jungle, Mommy. Sarah tries to get her to say Sarah. Outside the carwash the sun is hot and bright. When we turn into our driveway Libby is there. She comes close to the window and I see her see the dent in the hood of our car. I can feel my phone vibrate in my pocket. It rings again and again. Through the closed window I can hear Libby ask, “What happened? What happened to the car?” and I take a deep breath and feel, with a buzzing inside my chest, that I will love, with my whole heart, all the women in my life.
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