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Better to Give by Kim Freeman

Better to Give by Kim Freeman

Fiction, Vol. 3.3, Sept. 2009

Em is struck by the handwriting on the note from Kathryn. It is neat, small, and sharp, almost like type, or the tiny teeth on a saw. Kathryn has listed the Christmas gifts she is buying for Tommy: a Skywalker ski parka, a Star Wars bedding set, and a Revenge of the Sith Attack Battle Set, General Grievous Flagship. She signs off with a tepid “best,” calling herself Kate instead of Kathryn though she addressed the note formally to Emily, a name Em never goes by except on legal documents. There’s a P.S., the handwriting a little looser, slanting upward across the bottom corner. The holidays are such a pain, it says. Kathryn punctuates it with a smiley face. Em buries the note in a pile of receipts and notices she’s been meaning to file in her important-stuff drawer. There are still pumpkins rotting near front doors. Christmas feels as far upstream as retirement. No, as far upstream as judgment day.

From the window over the sink, she can see Tommy in the jacuzzi. She read somewhere a child can drown in only a few inches of water. He’s in at least three and half feet. She wonders what the depth is for pre-teens. He doesn’t have a jacuzzi at Kathryn’s, and he wanted to go in first thing. Phil had to run to the office, leaving Em alone with his son. It’s the first time they’ve been alone for more than the duration of Phil’s shower or nap. Phil kissed as her as he left, as if this was custom. But motherhood is still a shock to Em’s system. Her plan, for lack of a better word, is to approach it more like sudden grand-motherhood. She indulges Tommy’s every whim. She’s learned to bake brownies and make homemade fudge. She watches Tommy pour water from the jacuzzi back and forth between test tubes from the science kit Phil gave him when he arrived that morning. The water spills, rushing down the surrounding lip of concrete into the new lawn, the chlorine washing over the grass. She says nothing.

Em tries to refocus on making Tommy’s sandwich, bologna and Miracle Whip on white bread with the crust removed. She tosses one of the unwanted crusts into her mouth and lets it dissolve on her tongue, telling herself she hates waste, though she wonders how many Weight Watchers points a quarter piece of crust will cost her. She knows a whole slice of bread is two. Calculating the fraction makes her dizzy.

She and Phil have only been together one Christmas, and they had their own gift-less celebration on the twenty-sixth, Oysters and champagne at a waterfront restaurant. Phil toasted Boxing Day. A flight attendant, Em usually worked the holidays for the bonuses, a reason not to go to her parents, and the distraction from not having any better reason not to go to her parents. As she cuts Tommy’s sandwich in half on the diagonal, the freak-out hits. Stockings. Trees. Ornaments. Lights. Toys. Sugarplums. Fairies. Nutcrackers. Do they open presents in the morning or at night? Do they sing carols? Do they expect snowflake and snowmen cookies? Will she have to cook a goose? Make eggnog? She can see Kathryn, her nearly black hair cut so sensibly, her thin lips pursed, pushing a red pin into a map on a bulletin board at her command center, like in those old war movies on channel thirteen.

Done jacuzziing, Tommy settles, still wet, onto the couch. Em can’t bring herself to tell him to change. She hopes chlorine won’t damage brown velvet. She represses images of little yellow spots, like coins that have fallen from someone’s pocket, trailing over the corner of the cushion. Em hands him his sandwich. He’s told her he’s not allowed to eat on the sofa at his mother’s, that he’s not allowed to eat and watch T.V. She knows she scores by letting him. “Hey, what do you want for Christmas?”

He looks at her as if she has asked about something too personal, like how many times a week he masturbates. She finds herself wondering if he does. How old are boys when that stars? “I don’t know,” he says.

“Well, let’s see. I know what boys like,” she replies, not thinking about the sexual innuendo until it’s already out there. “Barbie dolls, tutus, lip gloss” she tries to recover. She’s not sure if he’s beyond the age of the gender-tease, or if it’s not done any more, or if it matters to a ten-year old. She thinks about tickling his bare belly but doesn’t. She’s afraid to touch him. At the reception last summer, she had danced with Tommy, who nestled his head between her breasts, his lips resting uncomfortably close to her nipple. It seemed something between nursing and foreplay. She didn’t feel too young to be Phil’s wife, but she felt too young to be Tommy’s mother.

“You’ll choose something cool. I trust you.” He hits the remote. They watch a man with a microphone interview seemingly random women who testify to the wonders of dual-system facial cleanser. He eats his sandwich slowly. A little ribbon of bologna skin trails down his chin. He slurps it in like a noodle. He watches Em sidelong. She laughs, a fake one but convincing. He smiles and does it again.

“I like Star Wars stuff, I guess,” Tommy offers.

“Star Wars? Like Luke Skywalker and all?”

“Yeah.”

Star Wars came out when she was Tommy’s age. She’d liked it as a kid, wanted to marry Luke Skywalker for a little while before she fell for Christopher Atkins in The Blue Lagoon. She’d forgotten about it until she met Michael, her first husband. It was his favorite movie. They would get stoned and eat pizza and watch it over and over again. It was fun, though she didn’t understand the fuss. Like they didn’t know Han Solo was going to save the day and that the rebels were going to win. But Michael thought she didn’t get it, said the plot wasn’t what mattered. It was mythic. The sounds, though, Em thought amazing. She would close her eyes and listen to the throbbing swish and swoop of the light sabers. Let the rumble of the ships and explosions shudder through her body, the heavy, steady, creepy breathing of Darth Vader strumming over her spine like the stroke of a bow on a cello. Michael said it was just the extreme volume. The point was the archetypes. He said she was missing what was most important.

“You’d better get out of these wet clothes before your Dad gets home,” Em says, trying to sound maternal and authoritative. Tommy doesn’t move nor look at her for a few minutes. “Don’t make me repeat myself,” she says, hating how much she sounds like her mother and struggling to think of something she might use as a threat. She thinks of running into Tommy’s soccer coach at Chuck E. Cheese a few weekends ago. Tommy was playing Skee Ball. The coach gave Tommy a high-five then shook Phil’s hand. Phil introduced Em as his wife. That’s when Tommy said it: “She’s not my mother.” His ball landed right in the gutter. They all smiled and shrugged. Kids. The darndest things.

“You need to redo your toenails,” he says and gets up. She looks at her feet. He’s right. The polish has peeled into scraps of opalescence, like discarded fish scales.

It saddens her that Tommy likes Star Wars, and not only because so little seems to have changed. It’s how lazily he wants it, like he’s already learned how disappointing desire can be, like he’s put himself in neutral. Em remembers being ten and wanting completely, hunger as big and deep as the sky, hunger as if she were all mouth. All she has left now are faint inclinations, slight preferences, paper instead of plastic, the toilet paper rolling over instead of under. When Phil asked her to marry him, she didn’t even really say yes. There was a full moon, there were waves splashing onto the sand breaking the moonlight into shimmering bits, there was a breeze that smelled of gardenias and salt and brushed her hair back from her face and blew her dress against her body, there was warm sand cradling her feet, there was rum coursing through her blood and heating her brain and heart, there was a man, who was successful, steady, and nice enough, holding her hand, a man who was dark where her ex was blond, who seemed all solid lines where her ex was hollows. She said “why not?” And he laughed. He spent the rest of the trip making plans. Em was flattered by his enthusiasm. She didn’t really have the guts to take on planning a second wedding herself.

*

Kathryn gives them Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Eve for Christmas morning. Em has yet to understand the method of their negotiations. They seem to happen in silence, maybe telepathically. Or maybe, she wonders, they continue to use lawyers. They do Thanksgiving up right. Em roasts a turkey and makes cranberry sauce, green beans amandine, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Even pumpkin pie. It is, by most measures, a success. They dine in the dining room, which they almost never use. They watch football with Tommy until Kathryn honks from the driveway to pick him up. Then Phil helps Em clean. He walks up behind her at the sink, slipping his arms around her waist and subtly thrusting his hips into her backside. She thinks her doing the dishes is turning him on, some sort of fifties housewife fetish. He tells her she’s wonderful, that she’s found her calling. She sinks her body back into his.

“Let’s hit the malls first thing in the morning,” he whispers, his breath tickling her neck, making the rest of her body tingle. “I’ll set the coffee and alarm for five.”

“The malls?” she asks, feeling him start to pull away.

“Christmas shopping. I’m cleaning the stores out. Kathryn was always worried about spoiling him. We’re going to spoil him blind. I never understood why we had to hold back if we’ve got it. Poverty sucks.” He tosses his dishrag onto the counter and grabs the coffee beans from the freezer.

“It’ll be great,” she says, her voice drowned out by the whirr of the coffee grinder. She nibbles on a leftover piece of skin. It’s cold now and the fat and salt coat her tongue in a way that is both disgusting and delicious. She resists the urge to have another. This would, Em knows, be a good time to mention Kathryn’s note, but she doesn’t want to kill the moment.

As she closes her eyes to sleep, she sees Kathryn saluting. It’s one of those half-sleep images she can almost control, though not quite. Kathryn’s hair is pulled back tight and tucked under one of those Army green hats that look as if folded from paper. The image jerks her from sleep. She wishes she had mentioned the list to Phil. Now it seems too late, that by waiting, she’s sided with one of them, though she’s not sure with whom. Phil breathes slow and deep, curled up on his side facing away from her. It sounds a little, she thinks, like Darth Vader. She tries to match her breath with his, hoping it will make them one and pull her into sleep as easy as his. But it’s no use. The image of Kathryn saluting returns, the same commercial on every station. She slips out of bed quietly, trying to avoid the tight corner where she often stubs her toe, but she underestimates the distance again, sending a small quake rippling over the bed and pain shuttling through her body. She bites her lip. Phil stirs, but she doesn’t think he wakes. She is wrong.

“What are you doing?” Phil asks when he finds her. She has every scrap of paper she’s saved since they moved in together scattered around her on the kitchen floor. It looks like a ticker-tape parade passed through. She’s not sure what’s important and what’s not. He stands in the doorway in his Thanksgiving boxers, orange with little brown turkeys. They were stocked near the checkout line at TJ Maxx. She always falls for impulse buys. His erection pulls the cotton tight. “I reached for you and you were gone.”

“I lost it.”

“What?”

“The damn list.”

“What list?”

“Kathryn sent me a list of what she is getting Tommy for Christmas, so we wouldn’t get the same things. And I fucking lost it.”

“So what. We’ll buy him whatever the fuck we want. Fuck her.”

“She’s just trying to make things easier on him.”

“He seems all right to me. Don’t let her get to you. I’m divorced, Goddamn it.” He walks toward her, paper crunching beneath his feet. “I’ll clean this up,” he says. “Go up to bed.” As he bends over, she sees he has tired, withered.

“Some of this stuff is important.”

“Yeah,” he says, sweeping everything into the garbage. The authority in his motion worries her. She’s never seen it in him before, and it is too much like Michael’s, like their last dinner together at the TGIF in the mall. It wasn’t just the noise and the fake antiques that made her nervous at places like that. It was the overwhelming menu. Decisions, especially simple ones, had become harder and harder for her. Restaurants were nearly paralyzing. Michael stopped waiting, and motioned to the waitress. He ordered the shrimp scampi, and the waitress turned to Em.

“I’ll have the scampi, too.”

“But you hate scampi. You think it’s too greasy. You don’t even like shrimp, not really.”

“O.K.” She paused for a minute, her mind blank and heavy. “Give me the steak fajitas.” There was a huge poster for them at the entrance. The waitress nodded.

Michael looked exasperated. He stared at a sepia photograph of an old football team that was on the wall above them , as if scanning it for someone familiar or thinking of something educational to say. Then he slapped his hand down on the table. “Why do you always have to order the loudest fucking thing on the menu?”

She tried to point out that everyone was ordering them. And it was true, waiters brought out sizzling, steaming plates to nearly every table. She tried to laugh, but it was more like a whimper and he knew it.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “The herd. My darling lemming.” They hardly spoke for the rest of the meal. Something had emptied itself and expired; it lay dead across the table. After the waitress removed the plates—Em’s still full of food, Michael’s wiped clean—he told her he wanted a divorce.

Em didn’t know what to say, so she just said. “O.K.” like he was asking if she didn’t mind picking up his dry-cleaning.

In the parking lot, she steadied her nerves. “Because I ordered fajitas?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “because you asked that question.” She half expected a comedic drum roll.

She knew now it wasn’t because they lost the baby. She’d had a miscarriage the year before and used to think that was the beginning of the end, but she’d begun to suspect that Michael was secretly happy about it, thankful that he was let off the hook. Now, she wouldn’t put it past him to have somehow arranged it. She hears Phil’s footsteps on the stairs. She closes her eyes and pretends to sleep. She hates that she is secretly happy about losing the baby too.

*

The mall is dressed up for Christmas. Lights sparkle in the trees that grow in the planters along the sidewalks. Christmas carols pump through speakers on top of lampposts. Giant, white tinsel snowflakes float awkwardly on wires over the walkways. Banners depicting bells, elves, and reindeer fly from evenly-spaced flagposts. And Santa has a village, complete with gingerbread house, a mammoth candy-cane gate, and, of course, mounds of fake snow. Em tries to let the season infuse her, even humming along with “Deck the Halls.” She wants the world to smell of wintergreen. But the smell of fried food saturates everything. Phil heads straight for the toy store.

The first floor of the toy store—it is three miraculous stories high—smells of cheap plastic. The shelves are crammed from floor to ceiling with highly breakable-looking dolls, cars, guns, figures, and magic sets. There are bins here and there spilling over with more dolls, Nerf balls, and stuffed animals, many of indeterminate breed or genus. And children sprout up from the floor, playing with various things, their parents nowhere to be seen. One girl crawls between them, chasing a mechanical dog that stops every so often to sit and let out a sharp yap, the kind of gift people give to other people’s children. The place looks too much like the other side of Christmas, a wasteland of trinkets that will clog dumps for decades to come. A synthesized glockenspiel ditty rings repeatedly from a moving clock in the center. It all makes Em feel hung over.

They go first to video games, and there are hundreds, a whole library. Some meant for one machine and others for another. Phil tosses a few in the cart, pausing to hold one of them in his hand. “It feels like nothing. Toys used to weigh something,” he says. Phil picks up a machine too. They wander through bulkier items, rows of models, but they can’t see Tommy sitting there for hours with glue. Bikes. Skateboards. Instruments. Karaoke machines. Drum sets. Phil grabs things here and there, almost randomly. But he seems more frustrated with each thing he touches. He stops the cart in the middle of an intersection, forcing everyone else to maneuver around him.

“It’s sad, you know.” Em waits for an explanation. He wants her to read his mind. She can’t. “How little I know my son. He could have most of this stuff already. I don’t even know what he likes.”

“You could ask him.”

“I shouldn’t have to ask.” Phil starts down another aisle without her.

“Well, I know he likes Star Wars,” she shouts after him, saying it with an upward lilt, as one does a question.

Star Wars has its own section, and the choices are stupefying. There’s not just a red or blue light saber. There’s a multitude, each specific to film and character, some for Skywalker, some for Darth Vader, some for Anakin. There are Rebel Snowspeeders, Storm Trooper Blasters, electronic Millennium Falcons, Classic Imperial Destroyers, A-Wing Fighters, Fleet Electronic Star Destroyers, and Power of the Jedi Carbon Freezing Chambers. There are T-shirts, pajamas, mugs, hats, and books. There are bedspreads and sheets, posters, lamps, and bulletin boards. There are even dog and cat food bowls. They laugh at these, imagining pets’ indifference, imagining a house done completely in Star Wars décor. There is something desperate about it. Phil looks happy again. There are one-foot tall Pez dispensers. Phil grabs a Yoda. Toward the back of the row, there is a locked glass case, with a note telling customers to “Please Ask for Assistance with Collectables.” Inside are an ATAT Imperial Walker, with a price tag of $1,200, and a four-foot high Darth Vader figure, complete with breathing sound for a mere $800. One can push a button through the glass to hear him. Phil pushes it joyfully. He whispers, “you would look good with your hair swirled in braids around your ears. And so fuckable going braless in that white sack.” Em smiles.

Next to the case are the battle sets. Phil puts the Revenge of the Sith Micro-Sith Attack Battle Set, General Grievous Flagship in the cart, heading toward the checkout, his cart full and bulky, vulgar. Em opens her mouth to say something but stays mute as a storm trooper. Some kid pushes the button again and Darth Vader breathes heavy and insistent. Even the dark side has its shades and tints, variations. Em knows what she is doing and she lets herself do it.

*

Em asks Tommy to pour the tomato sauce over the meat. He’s helping her make meatballs for their Christmas Eve dinner. She cracks an egg and sprinkles the seasoned breadcrumbs. They count to three and dive in, mixing with their hands. The meat is wet, cold, and slimy. Em brushes against his fingers—his hands already the size of her own. Their fingers are small, hungry animals. He raises one fistful, cocking his arm to throw it, but then holds it above the bowl, slowly tightening his fist. The meat oozes through his fingers, falling limp and defeated. Under the tomato and oregano, Em can smell the metallic sweetness of the meat. She starts to sing Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Tommy joins in. They only know the chorus though she’s surprised he knows that much, so they repeat it over and over again. Phil joins in from somewhere down the hall. After dinner, they settle as close to the tree as they can get.

“What should I open first?”

“Anything you want. No rules here.” Phil waves his hands in the air.

Tommy starts with the biggest package, the mammoth Pez dispenser.

“Thanks, “ he says. “Yoda.”

“You know for these,” Phil snaps Yoda’s head back, revealing the candy.

Tommy’s attention has shifted to the next biggest package.

“What? You’ve never had a Pez before?” Em asks him.

He shakes his head.

“Here, open this one,” Phil pushes the wrapped Play Station toward him, but Tommy looks confused as he unveils it. “Thanks, Dad,” he says. “But I’ve got one at home.”

Em sees Phil cringe a little when Tommy says the word “home.”

“I know. That’s for here.”

Tommy is meticulous and slow in opening his gifts. He says thanks too many times, each tinged with something like disappointment. It seems to Em that he’s trying to convince himself of his gratefulness, but that none of this is what he wants at all. Tommy leans over to break off a needle, sniffs it and hands it to Em. “Mom’s allergic. Ours is plastic.” He says this objectively, scientifically.

“Ummm, smells nice. Smells like snow.”

“I’ve never smelt snow,” he says, sitting on the arm of her chair. “What’s it smell like?”

“Well, like Christmas trees,” she says. She tickles his sides before she has time to think about it. He falls from the arm into her lap. Her arms slide easily around his waist. She is surprised by how light he is, how fragile he feels.

“Well, I guess we need to take you to see some snow,” she says.

*

Kathryn waits in her doorway, wearing a Poinsettia-red turtleneck and black corduroys. She’s lost weight. Her hair is braided in a tight rope. Her lips are holiday red. She looks beautiful.

“Merry Christmas!” Em blurts, but from the look on Kathryn’s face she might as well have shouted your mother fucks elves.

“I guess it is for some of us,” Kathryn responds. “Huh, Tommy? Look at all of this stuff.” Kathryn tries to sound excited for him, but she’s not much of an actress.

“I know. Check it out,” Tommy says, not sensing her sarcasm. He lifts the battle set box up to show her.

“Oh, nice,” she says and folds her arms across her chest. “Why don’t you take it upstairs?”

They watch Tommy cross into enemy territory. Phil motions for her to follow him, but Kathryn steps forward, blocking them with her body. It’s the nearest to Kathryn Em has ever been. If she dared to she could lean forward and kiss her.

“Don’t take a step inside this house,” Kathryn says, her voice a hard, strained whisper. Behind her Em can see Tommy’s feet stopped on the top step.

“Whatever it is I hope it can wait,” Phil says.

“I want a word with your wife,” Kathryn emphasizes that last word. If she were to write it, it would be in blood .

“What?” Em asks.

“She knows what’s wrong,” Kathryn says. “Are you really this stupid or is this just a game?” she asks.

“You’re way out of line,” Phil comes to Em’s defense.

“No, I don’t think I am. Thanks for ruining Christmas for me, for Tommy. I’m not sure what I’m going to do now. The whole fucking holiday was built around that gift. Just give me the rest of his stuff. I don’t want either of you in this house.” Phil looks like he’s struggling. He can no longer say it’s my house, too, you know.

“Don’t be a bitch. I’m sure this was an accident,” Phil says.

“Was it?”

They both look at Em.

“I’m sorry. I lost the list.” She knows it sounds as thin as it is. A heavy silence drifts over them. And Em sees them as a pair, their whole history welling up between them. They have looked at each other so many times before. Em wonders when the last time was that one of them said to the other “I love you” or “happy birthday,” or “I miss you,” or “it’s going to be o.k.” or “I’m sorry.” Em wonders when Phil proposed to her, when Kathryn told him she was pregnant, when they knew they were in love. All that happiness now worn and tattered, shuffled off like old clothes. It is worse than pornography. Em averts her eyes, following the curve of Kathryn’s cul-de-sac. It’s so similar to the one she and Phil live on, made up of creamy stucco houses with smooth green lawns and wide driveways. She’s sure the backyards look out over the same sort of tumbling canyons. The roofs offer the only visible difference. Here the roofs are chocolate-colored shingles. Theirs are red, terra cotta tiles. Although it took thirty-five minutes to drive here, she feels as though she’s on a treadmill, expending a hell of a lot of effort to go nowhere. Kathryn could open her door and inside she’d find their house. When she turns back, she can see herself in a mirror in Kathryn’s entryway. How much she looks like Kathryn shocks her. She has never noticed it before. Tommy’s feet are no longer on the stairs. She knows Phil and Kathryn are waiting for more. But she has nothing else to say.

“Kate,” Phil whispers. His sudden tenderness startles Em. “I want Tommy to come live with us. I’m going to sue for full custody.” Phil’s words crackle in the air like the end of a live wire. Em hopes Tommy is upstairs constructing his battle set, clicking girders together, snapping walls into place, fusing all those prefabricated plastic pieces engineered to fit just so, to be built up and torn down over and over again. It is a moment before she notices that Phil has been looking at her as he makes this declaration.

“Please just leave,” Kathryn says carefully articulating each word. Phil drops the bag right where he stands. Em expects its slap to echo, but it falls dead. Em places hers at Kathryn’s feet, as if it’s an offering. As she stands up she can smell Kathryn’s perfume, a musky fragrance. She stops herself from saying sorry, realizing that she’s not. She thinks about the pleasure of Tommy’s body on her lap. Yes, she understands, pleasure is the right word. The pleasure of Phil’s body behind hers. She feels like she’s coming out of a coma, with a husband and a child waiting for her to awaken. Her life ten years ahead. Rip Van Winkle returning to his village. She walks back to the car slowly, measuring each step, keeping time, though she wants to run. Getting into the car feels choreographed.

“I didn’t mean to ask it like that,” Phil says, as he whips the car into reverse, making a screech against the pavement. The street sparkles in the moonless night, red, green, and gold from ornamental Christmas lights. He doesn’t have to tell her he meant to discuss it with her first.

“I know.” Em glances over her shoulder at Kathryn. She has turned to stone, frozen in her own doorway. She might be there for centuries, or she might crumble into a thousand pieces at the slightest touch. She looks back at the road in front of them. She waits for Phil to ask her whether she knew about the battle set. He doesn’t. She sees herself push a red pin into her map with as much force as she can muster, breathing steady and deep as Darth Vader. She is suddenly surprisingly hungry. Em slips a hand behind Phil’s neck. His skin is hot, almost fevered. He doesn’t say anything more. She could sink her nails into his flesh. Mine, she thinks. He flinches, but she keeps her hand there, steady, letting her hunger gnaw. It radiates from her belly through her bones and muscles, tingling under her skin. It’s big enough to swallow them all.

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