Dilshad, the husband in this piece, lurks in the background of the story, but he plays the anchor to the sometimes wind-thrown boat of the narrator’s emotions (you’ll get the pun later). I love how his emotional storyline creeps up and adds some wisdom in the end. The interplay here of past and present, and the tenuous nature of the future, feels true to the point in life at which the couple finds themselves. Children, a new job, change. It is an interplay important to how we form, and are always forming, our sense of ourselves, either as “good” people, or not. –-Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
When my husband, Dilshad, was hired as a partner by a small firm in Princeton, New Jersey, we—or, rather, I—decided the train back and forth from the city was too much to ask of him for the sake of friends we now would rarely see, or the playground in Central Park. He was working, so I did most of our house-hunt. Plus, he said, I’d grown up outside Philadelphia, and knew the area.
“You should look her up,” he said. “That friend, Kim.”
“Kimberly,” I said. “How do you know she’s still here?”
I was surprised he’d asked. He knew the story: when Kimberly—my best friend in elementary school—and I were 12, her mother had let their Newfoundland mix and German shorthaired pointer outside for air. The dogs came into our garage, where my father had made a bed of newspapers for a tabby I had found in our side yard. I had named the tabby Charley. The Newfoundland carried Charley, what was left of him, or her, home to Kimberly’s mother.
“What would I say now?” I said. “That I don’t think about it except when I do?”
“I guess that’s true,” Dil said.
He let go of notions as lightly as they came—a must, he said, if one was serious about venture capital. His parents had left Iran in 1979. He often gets mistaken for Latin. Sophie and Van were already showing his parents’ long beauty. I look as Swedish as my name (Ingrid), and trailing Sophie’s and Van’s unsteady cycling around our new, curving neighborhood—Sophie was 10, Van 7—I hoped I’d found us a bright June corner of the future.
Ron, the senior partner in Dil’s firm, invited us to a cookout our first Saturday. I had been interviewing sitters, and Dil said why not try out the girl I thought I liked, Angel, who came recommended by one of his clients. She materialized on our steps, a Mac laptop in her arms.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I have plenty to do.”
“I’ll call,” I said. “I always call.”
But as Dil merged onto Route 1, Angel’s potential oversights fell behind off-ramps and name-brand signs and midsummer woods spotted with raw circles where branches had been cleared for utility rights of way.
“Ron will talk tax cuts,” Dil said. “But he’s really a good guy.”
“And there’s Judith,” I said. Ron’s wife.
“She’s the only type that could handle him.”
“Why are only women ‘types’?” I can say these things to Dil.
Judith—knife-pleated, beige, with matching gold pendant and scallop earrings—led us past a wide fireplace and a low table cut from an actual totem pole, and through a granite and stainless steel kitchen.
“I thought we’d sit on the deck,” she said. “To me if someone doesn’t like heat, they don’t like summer, don’t you think?”
Breath lodged in my chest and my skin stuck as I arranged myself in the chaise closest to the door. The lawn sloped steeply behind the house, and I felt that somehow, if I sat with my back to the railing, it would give way. Ron offered around a tube of mosquito repellent he’d brought back from Belgium.
“Their colonial expertise is remarkably untapped,” he said.
“You couldn’t say that to some people.” Judith offered Dil the celery plate. “You’re not bothered, are you?”
“I’m only licensed to be offended for Persians,” he said.
“And you work?” Judith asked me.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Ingrid broke the Tragos story.” Ron extracted an olive pit from his lips and placed it on the rim of the hors d’oeuvres plate. “So watch your words.”
I had to explain blogs to Judith, that they had advertisers, that people took them seriously. I was explaining that online writing let me be home with the children (not the order in which things had happened), when the front door slammed and a couple entered: Eric, the other junior partner, and his wife, Tara, and their unleashed English setter, who skittered between Judith’s legs. Tara planted herself beside my chaise, feet apart, hands on hips. I remembered her, a graphic designer with opinions about bands I didn’t know.
“Hello, you!” She had her hair blonde and very short and was wearing a filmy mini-dress that made paisley rills across her (concave) stomach. We had been introduced in February when Ron had taken Dil and me out to a welcome dinner. She’d had a richly basted tan and when she wanted to say something she seemed not to notice anyone else talking.
“How are you?” she said. “Almost-neighbor. I read your last feature.”
“I don’t know how anyone reads on the computer,” Judith said.
Tara dipped her head and looked at me from the tops of her eyes. I didn’t know if she meant I should be proud of knowing something Judith didn’t, or that Judith never knew anything. Eric pushed past Tara with an uncorked wine bottle in each hand. I remembered how in February she’d gotten up from the table without glancing at him; he’d hardly looked at her when talking, something about a yacht, and Hong Kong versus Singapore (Hong Kong was better).
She made to sit on the end of my chaise. I slid my legs aside.
“I should have called,” she said. “Are you settling in?”
“Do you know we only get Philadelphia radio stations?” I said.
Eric looked as if I’d made some schoolgirl error. But it was true. Our house was on the south side of the first real hill one encountered driving from New York, and except at certain hours all I received was Philadelphia.
“I don’t think of it as being so close,” I said.
“Poor Philadelphia,” Judith said. “The dull girl at the ball.”
“I keep telling Ingrid it’s an opportunity,” Dil said. “Old acquaintances.”
I explained my growing up, moving away.
“I’m terrible,” I said. “But I have nothing to say to anyone I knew.”
“Right?” Tara said. “Why would I want to see anyone who remembers sixth-grade me?”
“I’d think you’d be fascinated,” Judith said.
Tara mouthed a pursed syllable.
“The thing is you don’t need to actually see people face-to-face anymore,” Dil said. “So there’s no reason not to be in touch. You never know what connections you’ll be glad to have.” I leaned over to his chair and placed my hand on his back where I thought it’d be hidden. There were entire years of his childhood Dil couldn’t recall.
“I wish you’d let me decide what to mention,” I said.
This was driving home, Dil silhouetted against a thick, red sunset.
“It’s just conversation,” he said.
“Of all the things for them to judge me on.”
“I don’t think they judged,” he said. “I certainly didn’t mean them to.”
“Of course you didn’t.”
Inevitably, if one of us says something that needs taking back, it’s me.
Wednesdays I took the kids to the fountain on Washington Street. I’d seen other mothers encamped there, with water bottles, diaper pads, magazines. On my bench in the apple-tree shade I felt my skin reddening. Van waded down the wide steps, making deep, kneeling swirls with both arms. Sophie told him he was splashing, and trotted around the fountain’s perimeter and stood ankle deep on the far side. A woman tailed by a golden retriever of a girl set her bag beside me.
“She’s beautiful,” the woman said. “It’s nice you could get a boy and girl together.”
We had gotten comments like that even in the city, always from women. I was so pleased with how reflexively unruffled I’d become at saying I was their birth mother that when my phone rang I answered without looking.
“Where are you?” Tara’s voice said.
I told her.
“Ice cream?” Tara said. “God knows I could use an early lunch.”
I was aware of liking that the woman was overhearing me, that I suddenly had someone to meet.
I had to hold Van and Sophie’s hands across Nassau Street. At Van’s pace the ice cream shop turned out to be 15 minutes’ away. It was next to a holistic pet store and a boutique selling the kind of fitted, acetate-lined clothes I hadn’t needed in years. The ice cream was soft-serve, or so warm as to be soft. I would have to remember to praise Sophie for not saying what her expression said. Tara insisted on paying.
“Since you’re stuck with kids,” she whispered. “I can get you the name of this fabulous day camp.”
“I don’t want to go to camp,” Sophie said.
“No one’s going to make you go to camp,” I said.
“It’s mainly for boys,” Tara said. “What do you do with them?”
“I didn’t know you had kids,” I said.
“I just don’t talk about them constantly,” she said. “You know the way some mothers do? I’m sure you’re not one of those mothers.”
What did she expect me to say? I pointed Sophie across the street to a bench in a little square of park. Sophie’s hair swung as she looked right and left up the one-lane, one-way street and sat straight-backed, licking the drips around her ice cream, only sliding aside for Tara and me at the absolute last second, glancing sidelong at two women in skirt suits who stilettoed past.
“We had the funniest thing happen,” I said.
I told Tara about retriever girl’s mother. Tara set her bowl on the sidewalk and laid her hand, still sticky, on my knee.
“She probably saw that you’re a good person,” she said. “I see it, too. The way you’re so strict with the kids. I can see you really care.”
That night in bed I recited the conversation for Dil.
“All I could think about was getting home and washing my knee,” I said.
“I think she and Eric are having a hard time,” Dil said. “It’ll be nice for her, having a friend in town.”
“How could she say I was strict?” I said. “She didn’t see anything.”
From one weekend to the next it was as though we’d always been in mid July, morning outlined by the songs of birds I didn’t know, noon trees sawing with mandibles, heat lidded over browned-grass housing developments and narrow towns cut from woods witched with white sycamores so that, driving to the supermarket, letting Sophie lift bags (which I asked the baggers to pack lightly for her) into the car, or stopping by the orchard early enough in the afternoon that half a cider donut wouldn’t ruin her appetite, I felt not that I was embarking on something new and grownup in which I instinctively reconstituted her and Van’s needs as my desires, but that I’d returned to where I’d been raised, a place which reliably grew red-faced men with paunches and pony-tailed, tennis-visored, fitness-panted wives portaging ill-content children from soccer to band to scouts. The neighbors I’d seen on our first days in the house occasionally waved from dark-windowed cars, or else had vanished to home countries (why not, in such heat?) or down the shore. My family had been one of the few I’d known, growing up, not to have a shore place.
“Kimberly’s family didn’t have one, either,” I said.
I was drying dishes after Sunday brunch. Dil had made us goat cheese omelets and was typing on his laptop, booking flights for the coming week.
“She kept her maiden name,” he said.
That was how he’d found her. She had a website. Two kids. She taught violin. She was first violin with the Wilmington Symphony, and played chamber music with the Philadelphia Orchestra. There was a photo of her onstage, still with big glasses, a black dress hanging loosely.
“She doesn’t say anything about a husband,” I said.
“Of course I am, now.”
Easy as that.
We could combine seeing Kimberly with visiting Philadelphia, or Valley Forge, or an amusement park, if Kimberly liked that kind of thing. Or we could leave Van and Sophie with Angel.
Sophie ballet-slippered from the living room. “I want soft pretzels. You promised.”
“You promised?” I asked Dil.
“We should see Philadelphia,” Dil said. “Kimberly or not.”
It exhausts me, sometimes, how he always has an answer.
“Eric emailed,” he said. Eric and Tara had invited us out on Barnegat Bay, the next Saturday, on Ron’s boat—the company’s boat, for taking clients deep-sea fishing, but since Eric and Tara had a place at the shore what more often happened was that they used the boat for friends.
“We made it onto the list,” I said.
“Eric loves being generous,” Dil said.
“Can we say no?”
“I thought you and Tara had hit it off.”
I hadn’t told him. Tara had been emailing me, sometimes daily, sometimes calling. She emailed movie stills marked lulz, pictures of cats, pictures labeled wurk lulz of herself grinning fish-eyed at her computer. She emailed question marks and asked if there was anything she could do. I stopped leaving my computer available for online chat sessions, though my editor expected me to be available when I was on deadline. Twice now, in the middle of an interview, Tara had sent chat requests: I’m thinking about after work, and I’m thinking bar.
“She’s kind of a know-it all,” I said.
“I’m a know-it-all, if it comes to that,” Dil said.
I am glad I have told Dil he is a better person than I am, by all the standards I judge goodness.
Angel was available Saturday. I said we might be late returning. All that shore traffic; you never knew in advance. Since I’d never been out on Barnegat Bay, and didn’t know whose mobile provider would have better service, I wrote Tara’s and Eric’s numbers on a note on the refrigerator.
“Friends?” Angel said.
“I baby sat for her.” Only a few times, she said, because Tara’s son had wanted to play hostage. He’d had a ball of twine and wanted to tie her to a chair.
“Did you tell Tara?” I said.
“Fuck yes, I told her,” Angel said. “She was all bug-eyed and asked what I’d done.”
I didn’t tell this to Dil. Passing scrub pines, headless sign poles, and shambling garden stores, I saw, in the morning houses beyond them, women calling upstairs to children who would rather stay online in their rooms, and I felt—well, loyal. I had my complaints with Tara; but there was such condemnation ready to be pulled down from movies, magazines, and cocktail talk onto any woman declared a bad mother. The sky was flawless, except for thin sea clouds holding steady over the sun so that through shadowless Freehold and Brick Township to Point Pleasant where at sidewalk sales people were strolling themselves awake, the day seemed paused for our arrival.
“We should have the kids along,” I said.
“We will, for Philadelphia,” Dil said.
He let me out at the marina entrance. I’d packed sunscreen and rolled-up windbreakers, plastic cups, and apples. I’d made roast beef sandwiches, and we had thermos coffee and almonds. The air put a cool edge to my face. Past white hulls, spars and masts, polished wood and brass, and what looked like a green-hulled schooner, I saw Eric wave and jump lightly to the dock over the back rail of Ron’s boat, Trade Winds II.
“Ready for anything?” Eric said.
“I hope so.” I tried to sound light. Other than taking my parents on the around-Manhattan tour everyone’s parents want to take, I hadn’t been on a boat since I was a girl, and then the boats had been canoes on lakes, and a Sunfish I had never learned how to sail. Eric extended his hand and drew me across the dark slap of dock water to the boat, though there was really no need; its back deck was low for fishing or swimming. There were built-in benches for six, and a centerpiece drain, and two sets of steep steps to a wheelhouse. Tara ducked out of the door between them, fluffing her hair, deeply tanned.
“Can it be?” she said. “Ingrid and no kids?”
“Looks like,” I said. “This is a real boat.”
“It’s got some muscle.” Eric leaned over the rail and patted the swell of its hull, 42 feet, he said. It was painfully white to squint at, except for a deep blue racing stripe and four portholes—sleeping cabins and kitchen, he said.
“No dog today?” I asked.
“Just me and the sea,” Tara said. “And you. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be either up front in the wind or down in the water.”
“I didn’t bring a suit.”
“You might fit in one of mine.” She held her bronzed lips slightly open, as though I might join her in being amused at the thought.
“I’m sorry I’ve been so busy,” I said.
“Don’t worry. You would have called if you could.”
Dil came smiling along the dock. I waved, and he waved, and stepped across the gap between the dock and boat. Eric extended him a needless hand. All Eric’s motions had a softball pitch swing, so different from the discomfort with bodies—their own and anyone else’s—I saw in American men after being with Dil. I could see why Dil liked him to work with, though I couldn’t see him contained in office clothes. He leaned over the low back rail and unlooped the ropes from the bollards.
“Ingrid,” Eric said. “You’re organized. Wind us up?”
I did like helping. With a rumble like a muffled lion beneath our feet the boat slid from the dock and left flat water swirling past Darling Bumpkin, Scarborough Fare, Hamfist, and Mayer’s Weinerhaus out into the green toss of the bay, Eric upright in the pilot’s seat on the right, Tara standing behind him, Dil and I at a small round poker table at the back of the cockpit. Mainland second stories slid by on our right, barrier island roofs far out on our left, behind them the turquoise ocean rim. Tara smiled at us broadly. The engine, wind, and white caps made talk across the cockpit impossible. I fit my head against Dil’s shoulder and felt his slow heaving.
“Happy?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. I decided there were friends you did things with and friends you could talk with; I shouldn’t expect conversation of the doing friends. I smiled back at Tara. She braced herself around the stairwell and sat beside me. We could moor by the state park for lunch, she said; then Eric was thinking we might take a turn in the open ocean.
“Do we have time?” I said.
“We always do this.” She touched my forearm. “Let’s get you a suit.”
Belowdeck was dim, and the cabin, almost as big as Dil’s and my old bedroom in the city, tipped to port and dipped fore and aft. Tara extracted a static-charged knot of swimsuits from a kind of locker.
“You’re so lucky, having hips,” she said.
“You’re so thin,” I said.
“Do you know how often I’m taken for a boy?” she said.
“I’d never take you for a boy,” I said.
“You should grow your hair out. You can always put it up.”
“Yeah; there’s always something I should do.”
“Who says that?” I said.
Stupid, stupid me.
She held up a black, white racer-striped suit.
“This would be good on you,” she said.
There were ice bins built into the cockpit sides, and as we rode at anchor, maybe 50 feet out from the marsh grass, I realized that while Dil and I had shared a sandwich and I’d sliced us an apple, Eric and Tara had finished a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
“Onward?” Eric said.
“Duh,” Tara said.
She’d decided on a two-piece with a Pollock paint-spatter pattern (“he was famous for paintings like that,” I’d explained). I’d taken a green towel to keep the sun off my shoulders, and underneath it I felt the straps of the racer-striped suit cut into my skin.
“An hour,” Tara said. “Then we turn back.”
“That should be fine.” Dil answered my look.
“Are you okay to drive?” I asked Eric.
“To drive!” he said. “It’s a big ocean, Ingrid.”
He throttled us out into the bay. The bow rose. The lion snarled; water burst white behind us. Tara kissed Eric, walked back, and reappeared outside the cockpit, crouching with a dancer’s balance, it seemed to me, on the narrow slant between the cockpit rim and outer railing; but when we thumped into a tall wake she was yanked out straight-armed and back onto her near shoulder against the cabriolet support.
“Want to take it easy?” Dil yelled.
“What?” Eric yelled, grinning.
“What is she doing?” Dil said into my ear.
I had no idea. Tara stepped sidewise hand over hand along the railing, forward from the cockpit and up the slanted foredeck to the bow, where the railing extended into a kind of gangway. Spray engulfed her. She turned toward us, backing onto the gangway, fingers tight on the rail. Eric eased off the throttle. The bow leveled. We dipped and rose and fell. Tara threw her head back and her lower body into scissoring showgirl kicks.
“Woo!” she screamed.
“Dil,” I whispered.
We had crossed the bay to the drunken phone pole end of a clam shack town sea-walled with concrete and railroad timbers that walled out ahead higher out into the bay. The tall wheelhouse of a deep-sea fishing boat, all lines and nodding poles, slid along their top. Two men stood in the boat’s wheelhouse gesturing with beer bottles. The wheelhouse slid to the end of the wall and the rest of the boat rode out beneath it, and the boat growled into the bay.
Eric walked back to us, a grin and sunglasses.
“Your turn.” He jerked his thumb toward Tara. “Women to the bow.”
“What about the turn outside the bay?” Dil said.
“Oh we’re taking it,” Eric leaned over the table. “Atlantic Ocean, baby.”
“A little lonely up here,” Tara called.
“Ingrid, go on up,” Eric said.
“I’m really not good with heights,” I said. I felt Dil’s arm along my shoulder.
“It’ll be like—what’s that movie?” Eric said, and yelled up to Tara, “That movie, the girls on the plane. Black and white. What’s his name?”
“What?” Tara yelled.
“I’m happy watching,” I said.
“Why don’t you let me drive,” Dil said.
“Do you think I’m drunk?” Eric stepped to my side of the table and reached out his hand. “Every speedboat needs chicks.”
“I’m not going up there,” I said.
“Come on.” He clasped my wrist. “Dil, tell her, man.”
“Jesus Christ!” I felt like I was pulling my hand from its skin. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Jesus!” Eric shook out his hand and backed up, looking at me.
“Eric,” Dil said. “Want to cool it?”
“It’s all right,” Eric said. “We’re all friends here.”
“I think it’s time to turn back,” Dil said. I felt my shoulder where his arm had been.
“We’ll turn back,” Eric said. “We’re all friends here.”
“I’m not,” I said. “I swear if anyone touches me I will fucking slit his throat.”
I saw the way Eric’s forehead worked. He had the blondest boy lashes. He couldn’t imagine.
“Dude,” he said. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
What could I say but that I was sorry?
That, I knew how to do.
Dil didn’t interrupt or question me on the drive home. I told him about Tara’s emails and attempts to chat; the way she had of finding things to correct when I’d gone along with her ideas.
“She’s not an easy person,” he said.
“I don’t want to see Kimberly,” I said.
“Not next weekend, no,” he said.
“Not ever,” I said. “Why would I want to see her now just because it’s easier? I moved down here for us, for you.”
Tara called me once, the week after. I didn’t listen to her message, but I kept it all the years I had that phone. If Eric mentioned anything to Dil, about me, or about what Tara thought, I didn’t hear of it. When the company was sold, avoiding the inquiries that overtook so many like it, Dil’s relief, telling me, seemed to me greater than it would have been over money. Only then did I tell him what Angel, who was in design school by then, had said about Tara’s boy.
“Didn’t you think you should tell someone?” Dil said.
“Who would I have told?” I said.
I couldn’t tell, from Dil’s lips, what he decided not to say.
Once, I asked how he was able to forgive the revolutionaries from whom his family, those who could, had fled.
“I don’t know if I’d say ‘forgive’,” he said. “If I thought about it, all I’d be is angry.”
This was at dinner, our second date. I remember leaning towards him across the table. I hadn’t ordered wine; I’d thought he kept halal. Actually, he wasn’t drinking because he’d driven a rental car from Connecticut to see me.
—photo Flickr/Stinkie Pinkie