Colleen’s eyes were a flat silver-green, and her gaze rested on Theo as if he were a tree stump or a fire hydrant. “My dad said he’d promised I’d sit for you.” She whirled and sat one step lower than Theo, her biceps brushing his knee.
“He was only supposed to ask if you were free — I just mentioned it to him at tennis. You could’ve said no if you had plans.”
She didn’t answer and without her looking at him, Theo couldn’t gauge if she was listening. “But thanks. It’s only dinner, a couple hours. Rae wanted to go. For dinner.”
The baby squirmed towards Colleen’s voice, flailing her now-limp cracker. Theo flipped the baby against his chest. “Rae’s not here yet.”
“Did she say when she’ll be?”
“Just working late, I think.” He could feel wet over his left nipple, but Marley’s face was pressed too tight to see if it was drool or sick. “She might’ve called, I guess. The machine’s getting a little shaky. But I don’t think it’s been eating messages yet.”
They watched the traffic easing off rush hour. A motorcycle drowned out something Colleen said. At least, he thought he’d heard her voice. He leaned forward, Marley against him. “Sorry, what?”
She turned, gave him the glint of her eyes. “What?"
Joe had mentioned that Colleen had been consistently furious lately. Theo couldn’t think of a safe thing to say. “I didn’t . . . hear you.”
She seemed to consider this. Finally: “It’s good you two are going on a date.”
Jake, somewhere unseen, was singing. Theo hadn’t realized that Colleen knew about the separation. “Well . . . We’re going for Vietnamese, this restaurant we love.”
“Good for you.”
Jake scootched back into view, his voice a high soprano bleat: “Faa-laa-laa-laa-laa, la-la-la-la!”
“Jake, it’s summer,” Colleen snapped.
“I’m playing pretend.”
Marley turned towards the sound of her brother’s voice. Often both children seemed unaware that each was not an only child, but occasionally they noticed one other.
“Hey, Marley, hey hey!” Jake danced on the spot, with jazz hands, badly, all the fingers scrunching closed at the same time. The baby waved her own hands, mirror-like enough to be spooky.
“Hey, Dad? I bet Marley would like to ride on your skateboard, eh? I’ve got a rope an’ she could hold onto the rope an’ I could pull her around an’ — ”
“Babies aren’t too good at holding on, Jakey. And where did you get a rope?”
“But it’s — it’s not fair. She never gets to skateboard and I always do. Marley should get a turn.”
Colleen muttered, “I dunno about this generosity. The last time I babysat, he grabbed a cinnamon heart out of her mouth.”
Marley beamed at the porch rail.
Jake stamped his foot. “When’s Mommy getting here?”
Colleen sighed. “We don’t know. Phone systems are down.”
“No, no, the phone’s probably fine, she’s just late. Jake, you take Marley for a ride in her stroller, ok? Promise you won’t undo the straps?”
“That’s not as fun.”
“Promise?” Theo knelt awkwardly in front of the stroller and shoved the baby in. It was while he was fumbling with the harness that Theo suddenly realized, “The baby’s not supposed to have hard candy! She could choke.”
No one answered. The baby kicked him in the face. Not hard, but it took him a moment to recover. “Guys?” He could feel a welt rising hot on his cheekbone. “Where would Marley get a cinnamon heart?”
“We got a whole bucket at the drugstore for two bucks.” Jake was already jiggling the stroller, making it nearly impossible to fasten the clasps. The boy had to reach above his own head to reach the handles. This was starting to seem like a bad idea.
“But who gave it to her?”
Colleen answered, “Dunno. She’d had it for a while, though — the red was all worn off. Jakey grabbed anyway and put it right in his mouth, dintya, Jakey?”
“Dunno. Can we go now, Daddy?”
The clasp slid into place. “No, you cannot push your sister down the stairs.” Theo picked up the stroller with both hands, above Jake’s head, making Marley screeeee with wonder. Once the wheels were on driveway, Jake was zooming off.
“Be careful,” Theo wailed.
The weedy lawn slowed them down enough that Theo’s heart calmed somewhat. Jake only went a little farther before losing interest in locomotion entirely and flopping down on the grass beside the stroller, apparently talking to Marley.
As Theo sat back down beside Colleen, his bare knee brushed hers. Her skin was cooler than his and he jerked away. “I don’t think she’ll be long. But I’ll pay you for whatever hours you’re here, obviously. And the bus fare.”
“Good. Are you sure she’s coming?”
“Yes. You know not to give a baby hard candy, right? Despite the expression?”
“Yes. Was the date really her idea?”
“Yes. But is it still a date if it’s with your own wife?”
“Is she still your wife if you’re separated?”
This “Yes!” was rather sharp but she didn’t react. The children were no longer visible, but the hedge was shaking. “She’s still my wife.”
“But the separation is what makes it a date, anyway. You don’t date your wife. You date someone who isn’t a sure thing.”
“I heard you threw a shoe at your father.”
“Not hard. It didn’t even bruise. Much.”
Theo touched the baby-kick bruise on his own cheek; Joe hadn’t mentioned that the shoe had struck flesh. There had been just a tiny rough edge to Joe’s voice, the pub was too dim to see a not-much bruise, and Theo was immersed in his own troubles. He asked his babysitter what he’d forgotten to ask his friend: “Why?”
Colleen shrugged. “He was being a dick.”
“That takes in a lot of territory. Specific dickness?” He was pleased with that.
“He was on me because I stayed out all night. I was only at Andy’s — where does he think I was? And what business is it of his, anyways?”
“Indeed. Indeed.” He couldn’t think why she was offering this now when the week before she’d refused to tell what was playing on her iPod. Was it a cry for help, a confidence, a compliment to his powers of empathy? Or a challenge? He fished for something to say that wouldn’t get a shoe thrown. He tried what he in fact felt, blunt curiosity, hoping it was somehow also the responsible, grown-up thing. He could always report what she said to Joe. “So what did you do?”
“Well, you know, all night...” He tried to sound knowing but not too knowing — as if teenage sex amused him slightly. But as soon as he said it, Theo was terrified of what she might reveal, what news he might have to break to her father over beers, Joe’s quivering mouth only half-obscured by the top of his glass.
“You want to know if I’m still a virgin?”
Now he didn’t want to know at all. But he’d started it. “You don’t want to discuss it with me?”
“Why would I?”
“Then why tell me where you were? It’s not my business if it’s not your father’s.”
“You’re not my father.” She tipped back on her elbows, looking up at him.
Theo pushed his mouth into a grin. “Nope. Pretty sure not. So, you’ll tell me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But will you? It’s easy — I’ll ask, you answer.”
“That’s too easy.”
“Ok. What would be harder? Do you want to embed your sexual status in a crossword clue and have me work it out?”
Her smirk went blank. “No.”
Was the joke too complex? Theo was trying to think of a suave explanation when he heard a shriek. He stood abruptly, knees crackling, as the stroller emerged from the bush, leaves in the spokes and through the front bar. The children were both screaming, but with faces neutral, as if the noise were only an assigned task. Jake, now hatless, shoved the thing through the yard, onto the driveway, then out of sight towards the backyard. Theo took a step after them.
Colleen said, “He does that all the time when I sit. He’s a good stroller-pusher.”
Theo sat back down on his step. He really hadn’t wanted to pursue or punish.
Colleen said, “It’s six twenty-nine.”
“She’ll come. She’s coming.”
“Wouldn’t she have called if she was running late? She’s a half-hour late.”
“She didn’t...” Colleen didn’t interrupt, so Theo was forced to finish the sentence. “. . . didn’t say six exactly. She said after work.”
She rolled her eyes, but not in a teenaged who-cares way. This was an adult, pitying eye-roll, such as any of his tougher friends would have given such banal manipulation. Joe was not one of his tougher friends.
“So, really, she could show up anytime. And I rushed for nothing.”
“She usually gets home around six, anyway.”
“How do you know her usually if you haven’t lived with her for six months?”
“She still has the same job. And we’ve talked since then. We talk all the time.”
Colleen silently tugged her tunic over her knees, over and over. It wasn’t long enough not to flick right back up over bare round knees. Flick up, tug down, flick up —
“It doesn’t fit,” Colleen said without stopping. “I’m going to get in trouble on uniform day for showing my panties on the stairs. They’ll think I’m like those hiked-up whores who do it on purpose.”
“It’s just because you’re tall, though . . . right?”
“Right. But the VP is an asshole.”
“I am the king,” Jake announced. The kids had re-appeared in front of the garage without Theo noticing. Jake was standing on the underseat rack of the stroller, his head between the handlebars. “I am the master of everybody.”
“Jake, you can be king with your feet on the ground, please. And where’s your toque? We can’t buy another if it’s lost — they’re not for sale in summer.”
Marley’s tiny fat hands waved like a conductor’s.
“Marley is my slave. I am in charge. I am the king.”
“Jake, really. Down, now.”
Jake stood perfectly still and screamed, “You aren’t the king. Where’s Mommy?” He began to bounce on the rack, bending and straightening his knees, not actually jumping, though the whole contraption jiggled. Marley tossed her head
as if to see what disaster had befallen her. Her navy eyes were humungous.
“Mommy’s on her way from work right now and she’ll be so mad to see you jumping on your sister’s stroller.”
A bark of laughter from Colleen.
Marley began to punch the air, loudly cooing, “Ohmmy ohmmy ohmmy!”
Startled by the noise, Jake jerked backwards, fell, heaved up and grabbed the stroller to push it full-tilt back into the bushes.
Colleen nodded slowly, as though her chin were weighted. “They say divorce is always hardest on the children.”
Theo jolted to his feet, conscious even as he did of how awkwardly similar his motion was to the six-year-old’s a moment ago. “We’re not getting divorced, we’re working through this. What did Joe tell you, anyway?” Theo wasn’t actually sure he was right about the divorce, and less sure he could convince Colleen, who was quite capable of eavesdropping on his sad drunk conversations with Joe. Or just reading his mind.
A breeze lifted snarls of ginger curls around her shoulders. “He said it’s a trial separation. And that I shouldn’t ask about it.”
“And how are you doing on that?”
“Yeah, Joe accidentally put the hydro bill into a recycling bin instead of a mailbox yesterday. I don’t obey him on principle. Am I getting dinner tonight?”
Theo willed his ribcage to expand with air, then contract to press out all the frustration and tension and rage. He’d been doing Rae’s yoga DVDs after the kids were asleep, but by then he was so exhausted he might not quite have had it right.
“There’s, yeah, some scalloped turnips in the fridge, just microwave’em. And tofu steaks from the weekend, if you want. The kids will probably just want the turnips, but give them the tofu if they ask.”
Colleen put her face on her knees. “The kids will want scalloped turnips?”
“It’s a free meal, Colleen.”
She raised her head, suddenly bright and interested. “Are we going to argue?”
“You sounded . . . exasperated. If I’m mean, will you be mean back?”
“I wasn’t being mean, I just didn’t want you to — ”
“Yeah yeah yeah. Better than Joe, just sitting there like a lump of — ”
“That’s why you threw the shoe? Because your father is an insufficient debater?”
“He didn’t even make a sound when it hit him. That’s how I know it didn’t hurt.”
“That’s not a way to know. Especially with Joe.”
“She’s not coming, you know. This is a joke.”
He sighed, and then tried to make the sigh into a yoga breath. “You can’t make me angry, and you can’t make me think Rae won’t come. People get held up at work. Buses get stuck. Those are reasonable explanations. And there are others.”
“Not for why she wouldn’t have called and used two 3-cent cellphone minutes to tell you that.”
“There might be something wrong with the — ”
“There isn’t. Just for argument’s sake say there isn’t.”
“Fine. But how do you explain why she’d ask me to dinner and then not come?”
“Separation doesn’t mean Rae hates me. Even divorce wouldn’t mean that.”
“Doesn’t have to have hate involved. Might not even be about you, or anyone. Some people are just naturally cruel.”
“Rae is not cruel,” he said fast and involuntarily, words expelled like the whoosh of breath that would have come out had Colleen punched him in the stomach.
“Marley, sit down. It won’t work if you do that.”
The children were at the backyard gate, almost behind the porch. Marley was flopped forward over her chair-bar, with Jake in front of her, a long stick in his right hand, drawn up as if to stab. But of course he would not do that. Theo gathered himself to speak sharply, to take the stick away, to parent.
Without turning her eyes from Marley and Jake, Colleen murmured, “Do you think I’m cruel?”
Theo froze half-standing, in a kind of pre-modern hunch. “Cruel?”
“Because I threw a shoe at my father, who is basically a nice person that just doesn’t know what the hell is going on? Should I just have let him be, in his ignorance?”
Theo felt his shoulders relax, let himself sink back onto the step. He suddenly knew what to say. “I do think you should have let him be. Because the punishment didn’t educate him, did it? There should only be punishment when it has the capacity to reform. Otherwise it’s just energy wasted, pain — cruelty. Joe learned nothing about your wish for privacy from that shoe, so nothing was gained. You were cruel.”
Colleen seemed to slip backwards without actually moving, shrink into herself. But then she said, “So you’ll learn nothing, then, if Rae stands you up tonight?”
“Colleen, I told you, she’ll — ”
“There is no lesson she could teach you, that she could be hoping to teach you, by not showing up tonight?”
He gave her his gaze again, though he was starting to suspect he shouldn’t. “What could I learn, from that?”
She wiggled her whole body, a wave from ankles to ears. “Oh, you know, that she doesn’t love you, that you shouldn’t be married to her.”
He ignored the soap-operatic tone, the high-schooler’s conception of marriage as a poker-hand that can be won or lost once and never replayed. He concentrated on she doesn’t love you, tried to hear it as a statement, and then to believe it.
It didn’t take — he just pictured his wife bent over a tortoise skeleton at the ROM, then her pacing the living room with Marley in her arms and graham cracker crumbs down both their sweaters. Then Rae with her head thrown back at orgasm, mouth open pink, dark hair strewn on an orange-juice stained pillow.
“Maybe I got the date wrong. Or she did.” He was pleased to hear ease in his voice, dreamy absent-mindedness, and assurance.
“I’m not a virgin.”
He choked on air.
She gazed at him, the green of her eyes greyer than her father’s, more muted, although not dull. Like a camouflaged python. “It’s your turn to talk.”
“That’s not a rule that’s strictly observed.”
“I’m observing it.”
“So . . . are you ok with that?”
“Well, I wasn’t raped or anything.”
“I’m just not certain what you want me to do with this information,
“Do? Does anyone do anything with information? It’s just for knowing.”
“Some information, yes, requires a reaction.”
“So what could be the reaction I want? What could I want you to do?”
“I can’t tell you what you want.”
“I’m not asking that. I didn’t know I could want anything. I’m asking you to give me a list of options and I’ll choose.”
“Well . . .” He knew he was being baited, but Jake was at the hedge unfastening Marley from her stroller, his best meal all week had been turnips, and his wife was a) in her Post-it feathered cubical, b) in her snug bachelor apartment, eating spaghetti out of a tin and thinking of the lesson she had taught him, c) fucking a stranger or, at least, a stranger to Theo, or d) something he couldn’t ever imagine.
The worst part was that he knew d) was correct and no matter what course the future took, he would never know what Raeanne had been doing at six that evening. At least Colleen was there, with her ugly dress high on her straight narrow thigh, which was parallel his Zellers jeans. He loved her because she was there, speaking to him, passing the time. This had always been his undoing.
“Well, Colleen, if you don’t see any options, there probably aren’t any. Really.”
“That’s how it works?”
“In this case. It’s not like a menu, the lemonade or the boilermaker. These are internal choices, about what you want.”
“It’s a drink, a beer and a shot . . . It doesn’t matter, you’re too young to drink.”
“Oh, god, what part of teenager class did you miss? You don’t tell your dad’s friends this stuff.”
She nodded as though taking notes on the customs of foreign tribes.
“. . . .unless you are seeking some sort of reaction from them, which you claim you can’t even imagine.”
“But you choose your reaction. So how should I know what you’ll do?”
“So you told me about losing your virginity . . . to see what I’d do?”
For the first time that afternoon answers didn’t bounce out of her throat the moment he stopped speaking. She flicked the skirt up, down, up. Finally, with the whisper of a smile on her chap-stick lips, she said, “More or less.”
Theo let the silence slide on. The children had laid themselves down on the grass, side by side, either sleeping or pretending to sleep, probably not dead. He didn’t know how Jake had wrestled Marley out of the stroller, got her lying supine in the grass, high blades nearly covering her pink arms and legs. Jake himself was facedown in the green, apparently taking no questions. It was nearly seven o’clock by the thin silver hands of his watch.
“Dolly . . .”
Colleen smiled more broadly in answer, a half nod.
Theo turned his head to the west, where his wife would come from, and to the pink hot beams of the setting sun. He wondered what she would see if she came walking down the street right now. Or whenever she finally did.