At the time of the accidents, my husband and I were trying to lose weight. Or at least we were talking about it. The websites he’d found encouraged losing weight with a partner. The websites used phrases like The Buddy System. They said things about the efficacy of mutual support; what they were talking about was sharing in the trials. The websites said encouraging things about losing weight with a spouse. They made it sound like fun, like a way to get the marriage off its ass and into a world of fulfillment and charm. He’d brought up the idea of losing weight together, and he hadn’t ever brought up the idea of us doing anything before, and so I’d said, Sure, I’ll lose it if you will.
We are pretty famous, Janus and me. Or we used to be. You know us or you used to know us because a few years ago we were on a show about women who are going to give birth while their man is in Afghanistan or Iraq killing terrorists.
That was us. Janus was in Afghanistan killing terrorists, or at least chasing them around. I was hugely pregnant but not necessarily hugely sympathetic. I was the least loved woman in America. That’s what it said one day on a website where people go for news about the Kardashians. I was the least loved because people didn’t think I was handling the situation well. They didn’t like that I flirted with a man in almost every episode. They thought that a bisexual woman should have the decency to flirt (innocently and lightly, hair flips and unconscious lip-pursing, friendly gazes and elbow touches) only with women while her man was in Afghanistan. They didn’t like how I treated the obstetrician. They didn’t like my acne.
There was a woman with tall hair named Morgan. The viewing public loved her. Her fiancé was killed by an IED, and she played her guitar on the season finale. She’d written a song about her dead fiancé’s eyelashes and how he’d proposed to her. Now, she helps judge a show where single, wounded service members go on dates with sexually adventurous, but outwardly Christian, cheerleader types.
Janus killed a few bad guys, I know, but it’s also possible he killed some regular people who lived in a shitty place. I don’t care what anyone says. Afghanistan and Iraq are shitty places. I’ve never heard of anyone going on vacation there and absolutely loving it. In the video I’ve seen of Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s not a lot of fun being had. I can’t imagine anyone there having the time to think about perfecting a dance move or building an amusement park. Everything seems dusty and sad.
I gave birth to our daughter on the season finale. I wasn’t flirting then. It was the most pain I’ve ever felt, I’m sure, but whenever I think about that day I think about this thing I once heard about happiness: people don’t experience it; they only remember it. Pain’s different. I have all sixteen hours of uncut footage on DVDs the producers gave me. I didn’t give her a middle name. She has Janus’s last name. I never expected to be a mother, and most days I wouldn’t call myself one. Janus didn’t see her in the flesh until she was six months old.
At the time of the accidents, Janus was my husband of two years. Our daughter was about to turn three. Janus was about fifty pounds overweight, and I was probably twenty. I carried my extra weight in my calves and my arms. So, I could hide it pretty well. Or so I thought. And my ass was good, considering.
And Janus? Well, he’d the fifty extra pounds. More important, he had an unfortunate beard. Since returning from Afghanistan, Janus had gone through a few different styles of facial hair. I liked him clean-shaven, but he didn’t care about me anymore. When we started acting like we were going to lose weight, Janus had a thin strip of hair that ran from his ears all the way around his chin. He called this one a Chinstrap. I thought it looked like the outline of a beard.
That outline beard and the fifty extra pounds, and probably his voice, which up close sounds like that deep-voiced guy in the back of the movie theater who won’t stop murmuring—all this made Janus unappealing to me. He was my husband, and sure we’d been together a long time, and sure we’d had this daughter which had made us famous, and sure I was once the least loved woman in America, and sure I had a memory of looking at him in his fatigues for the first time (I was 19 then) and getting the warm tinglies, but anymore he was nothing I wanted to look at or listen to or make any more babies with. That’s the truth.
I was twenty when he got me pregnant. I had to drop out of college to have the baby. I thought I was going to be an advertising executive or an elementary school teacher. Luckily I got chosen to be on the show. Otherwise, well.
We’re not together anymore, Janus and me. He’s no longer my husband. Now, if it even matters, he weighs 180. That’s what he weighed when he enlisted. He dates an officer with a little boy; he’s in the first grade, the little boy. Our daughter likes this woman’s son, talks about him like he’s her big brother. Everything’s warm and familial over there. Still, I don’t think I’ve forgiven Janus, so I hate even the idea of this little boy. I hate him pretending to be my daughter’s big brother.
At the time of the accidents, I was working as an executive assistant at a small law firm in St. Jerome. I’d been the least loved woman in America, but around St. Jerome most everyone treated me regular, which meant they probably found me forgettable or annoying. I’d like to think the people of my town had forgiven me and were glad to be around someone who used to be on TV.
Every day I answered the phone, Dryden and Stearn, and whoever was calling told me he’d just been picked up for parole violation or he had a DUI and did people usually get representation for DUIs or she’d been smacked around for the last time and was gonna leave the sonofabitch finally. Sometimes it was just a court clerk saying she needed to talk to Dryden or Stearn.
One of the two paralegals at Dryden and Stearn was this woman. I want to say she was easy to forget about. She had pale, pasty skin, and she didn’t smile enough, and she didn’t like to make small talk at the office with me or Dryden or Stearn or the other paralegal. Once, Dryden asked her if she’d watched me on television, and she gave him this lost look like he’d asked her the capital of Mozambique. Her name, this pale, pasty one, was Dani.
Once, I saw Dani at a coffee shop near the law office having what seemed like bible study with a lonely-looking college student. I was in line ordering an Americano, and Dani and the college student were at a table yapping about how tough physics was and how going to a professor’s office hours was a good idea. And then I looked over and they were holding hands, just sort of gently clutching each other’s fingers, a hesitant kind of hand-holding, and praying to their Lord and Savior, Almighty Jesus Christ.
Hallelujah, I sometimes say, when I’m sufficiently blotto.
When I’m sober, the language of prayer I find offensive. If there’s one thing I know I don’t like it’s two women in a coffee shop praying so everyone can hear. If I hadn’t worked with the paralegal every day I would’ve said something about them getting a room already or finding a goddamned church. I would’ve told Dani enough’s enough.
She was easy to forget, even though she had all these unforgettable features. Dani had one of those balloon asses that you sometimes see on a woman and think, How unfortunate. It wasn’t just a balloon; it was like the weirdest balloon I’ve ever seen. It was like a balloon with other smaller balloons, or maybe some tumors, inside it. I saw that ass and couldn’t get over how much bigger her ass was than her torso. My first week at Dryden and Stearn I saw that ass and thought about how tough it must be for her to find pants. Then I remembered that other women took things to the tailor, and I started wondering whether I was ever going to be that kind of woman, one who bought clothes and within the week took them to the tailor, and then I didn’t think about unfortunate balloons anymore.
When the show was on, I hadn’t had to work. I’d dropped out of college, but at least I didn’t’ have to work. Janus was getting active duty, and we were getting paid for being on the show. Not an ungodly amount but enough to buy a baby bed and some outfits and not have to worry every thirty days about the gas bill. But they had some screwy rules about how much of the money I could spend and what I could spend it on. Part of the drama, the producers told me, was in how tough it was to get by when your man’s in Afghanistan. They talked about how important it was for viewers to sympathize with my hardship in making ends meet. We did a whole show about my credit card getting declined at the Hy-Vee, which was some producer’s idea. It wasn’t even my credit card.
Dryden and Stearn paid me thirteen bucks an hour. Janus was unemployed, and the only thing that seemed to interest him was the possibility that we might lose some weight together, even though we weren’t working on it—and there wasn’t any end in sight.
Did I mention my daughter’s name? It’s Jennie.
For motivation, we watched a show on television—one that, it turns out, replaced the one we’d starred in, same time slot, same channel—about the seriously obese. These seriously obese would be berated by a woman with a toned body and a lopsided face. The woman was so fit that she looked a little mannish, and a lot of internet garbage was made about how this woman was probably a dude who’d had a sex change. I didn’t care, really, about how she looked, but I guess the idea was that the seriously obese were wanting to look like her. And she’d yell at them until they did. So I suppose how she looked was important.
The seriously obese, according to this lady, needed to be subjected to painful workouts if they were ever going to lose weight. I thought this strange, and it made me not want to watch. Clearly these people just needed to eat less, and maybe try some different foods. Maybe then, once they’d lost some of the weight, they could do cardio. You know, once they felt better. I thought it cruel to make a four-hundred-pound man run a mile. Why not let him walk two or three instead? Seems like you should slim him down to two hundred first, maybe by walking him a few miles a day and feeding him whole grains, and then he can start jogging. The show was about turning lazy farm animals into real people, by making them more attractive, possibly happier.
I’d complicated feelings about becoming more attractive or happier. Trying to become more attractive, trying to attain happiness, these seemed to me childish ideas. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t making any progress losing weight.
Janus usually got hungry during the show and made us popcorn or quesadillas. I’d say, No thanks, I’m not that hungry, but by the time the quesadillas or popcorn were ready, I’d nearly always developed an appetite.
The accidents. Oh, well.
The first wasn’t really an accident. It was more like Janus being a bonehead and a tough. It was more like not realizing you’re not in Afghanistan anymore. It was Janus playing citizen soldier, and then one guy has a broken foot and the other, my husband, has this pain radiating up his leg—and it won’t go away.
Here’s the story, according to Janus:
So see I’m waitin in line at the Gas ‘n’ Go. Some guy I don’t know standin in front of me. He’s got this little girl four maybe five I don’t know. Still she’s a little girl pigtails overalls shoes that light up the whole thing. Like Jennie. And she just points doesn’t do nothing but point at the candy. You know they’ve got all the candy there right where you check out. She’s not doing anything but pointin at somethin she wants and maybe politely sayin May I have it daddy. And he freaks out on her. He yanks her arm. I can’t hear all of what he says but I hear somethin about her not deservin it. And I would have let it go no problem it’s your life. Last thing I want’s some idiot tellin me how to parent. But then he yanks her again and I can see he’s about pulled her arm from its socket with this second pull and she starts bawlin and now I have to say somethin. So I say That’s enough. And he asks me what I said. And I say I said That’s enough. We’re in public though and there’s the cashier there probably scared to death and a few people goofin around the store and don’t forget the little pigtails just looking at him wantin candy nothin more by his side. So I’m not going to do anything I’m thinkin. This isn’t the war. But he does this move I can’t stand where he kind of snakes his head toward me you know where he steps to me and is cockin his head at the same time. I completely hate that snakin head move. And when he raises his arms to push me I don’t know I guess I’m ready for him. I’m holdin him by his arms just sort of manhandlin him I guess and at the same time with my boot I’m stompin his foot which is the best idea I had at the moment because this idiot’s wearin sandals.
The VA doctor didn’t even make him take his clothes off. He just looked at Janus’s chart and said what Janus has probably isn’t that serious. He said it’s probably a pinched nerve. Janus didn’t feel like doing the x-rays. So, I walked out of there, half-hoping that whatever was wrong with Janus would somehow get more serious, and Janus rolled beside me in a wheelchair we’d rented for fifty dollars a week.
The second accident might not have been an accident either. If I tally up the ledger, the second appears the opposite of an accident; it appears a choice.
Here’s the math. Janus: no job, fifty pounds overweight and gaining, attacks strangers at the Gas ‘n’ Go, demands continued rental of fifty-dollar-per-week chair, killed terrorists and possibly regular people in Afghanistan, Chinstrap.
Me: barely, barely, barely gainfully employed at small law firm in St. Jerome, twenty pounds overweight and gaining, unhelpfully complicated feelings about happiness and attractiveness.
The second accident was that I accepted the move made by pale, pasty, lumpy-assed Dani and basically made her my girlfriend for five hours.
I think of it as an accident because I wasn’t intending to go home with her, never mind helping her to ease her trousers off her hips. Never mind giving her the long luxurious kiss of lust. Never mind devoting myself to her orgasm like it was going to pay me back.
So, we’re standing at the conference table in the small conference room at Dryden and Stearn. The other paralegal, a ponytailed guy named Gil, is having his birthday. He’s turning something gloomy like 41. On my lunch break, I used the firm’s credit card to buy Gil an ice-cream cake. The cake does not say, Happy Birthday! The cake says nothing. A dumb blue horse gallops across white frosting. We have plastic utensils, cardboard plates. Everything on the table looks cheap. The lights overheard are blaringly fluorescent. There’s no natural light anywhere. We are trying to sing. We do not sound good together. I am beyond sad.
Dani slices the cake. She hands Gil his and smiles. Wordlessly she hands Stearn and Dryden their paper plates. They stand with us a moment before making their usual, small jokes about getting out of people’s way so that everyone else can have a good time. Dani takes a plastic fork from the box of plastic forks. She looks at the fork and looks at me. Gil’s there, but who’s paying attention to dumb Gil anyway. I’m watching her. Dani, I can tell, is contemplating something significant. She’s thinking about the world she inhabits, moves around in every day, the other side which she perhaps imagines for herself. In this moment, Dani is thinking about the totality of the living she’s done so far. She is contemplating what it is that she’s about to do, and what that contemplation means about who she is and who she has been.
She’s looking at me as direct and true as can be when she says, You’re not having any?
I’m on a diet, I say. Least that’s what I keep saying.
She looks down. She looks at the table for a long time. But her eyes are doing that thing where I can tell she’s not only looking at the table. She’s looking at something inside her mind. She’s trying to picture something she wants to see.
Suddenly she snaps out of it and looks up. She says, You wouldn’t want to eat this in my car, would you?
You’re asking me to take a piece of cake to your car, where I would eat it, violating my diet?
That’s what I’m asking.
You’re asking me to go downstairs with you—
Stop, Dani says. You’re mocking me.
I slice myself a piece of cake. I put the piece on a cardboard plate. I choose a plastic fork from the box of plastic forks. We walk wordlessly out of the conference room and out of our office suite and out of the building.
A few minutes later, and now we’re in Dani’s car. We’ve been eating our cake silently for a while now.
Look, she says, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something. She looks down her nose. She isn’t wearing glasses, but still she manages to look down her nose. It’s not something, Dani says, that’s important or anything. I know we haven’t ever really talked before. I know I don’t make the best impression on people. I know I could do more to make friends at work.
No worries, I say.
I guess you could say, she says, I’m having a kind of crisis. I thought you’d be the person to ask.
The mind, she says, doesn’t just want one thing. Yours, mine. It doesn’t have one thing it wants, which it then pursues. It doesn’t decide that it has a goal, and then it goes after that goal. I used to think that way, but I don’t anymore. That’s not how the mind works at all.
Yeah, I say. I’m not really listening. I am thinking in this moment mainly about milk. I am regretting that I hadn’t thought to bring a cup of milk to Dani’s car.
There’s this man—
Something is momentarily the matter with Dani’s neck. Once, right after he got back from Afghanistan, Janus took me hunting. We got a babysitter for the morning. We hadn’t seen anything and we were heading to the car, and he was getting antsy about it, and so he shot a rabbit with a .22, which was the gun I was supposed to be using. The bullet nicked its neck. For about twenty seconds, before Janus was able to get to him and stand over him for the head shot, the little thing was twitching and thrashing all over. We weren’t even in the woods anymore. We were walking back to the car, which was in this little gravel lot off the highway. The sun was full up in the sky. I was already starting to think about getting home, getting back and paying the babysitter so she would leave. I didn’t like the thought of someone sitting in my house and watching my TV. The twitching rabbit caused these little puffs of gravel dust in the parking lot.
What’s happening to Dani’s like that, a miniature version of that twitchy rabbit on the gravel.
——oh, this is embarrassing.
I say, There’s nothing embarrassing about having an interest in a man.
It’s not that, she says. I don’t even know him.
So, you’re a distant admirer.
No, I’ve never even seen him, she says. But he’s written a book. It’s quite wonderful. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Oh, listen, I don’t know.
Dani looks at me now, and somehow I know what she’s about to say when she says it. She says, I think I’m going to kiss you.
The man was Graham Blouy. The book he’d written was Neural-Democracy and You, and I learned all about it that evening, after Dani and I had done what she wanted to do, what she’d told me in her car, after we’d kissed a little, she needed to do with me and right away. Let’s just say we kissed and kissed. Let’s just say we kissed so much that even I knew we had to do the next thing.
Blouy was a neuroscientist, and the book’s premise was that the brain was not as previously thought like an abacus or an assembly line or a computer. The brain worked more like the U.S. Congress, like an elected group of sometimes inflamed, sometimes derogatory, self-important, half-smart-half-dumb political rivals. Sometimes an impulse—to eat cake, say—was a blowhard from the political machinery of Alabama, who spun countrified metaphors and appealed to certain instincts about, well, the ingestion of sugar and the preservation of fat. But that impulse didn’t hold the floor. There were other competing impulses, and they all had their own congressional districts and stylists and electioneers.
So, this is the perfect example, Dani said. The cake thing.
We were in her bedroom in her apartment, a modest, uninteresting two-bedroom in a complex in the eastern, rarely visited, part of St. Jerome. It had that beige carpet that apartments in apartment complexes seem to favor. I don’t remember what her couch looked like. I’m fairly certain she owned a TV, but I don’t remember it. I’ve no idea whether she stacks her cereal boxes on the refrigerator, or whether she puts them in the pantry or somewhere else. Her sheets were cotton, and cheap. One thing I learned when we had a little money from the show was the difference between sheets. I know a little something about the difference made by thread count.
I had put my bra back on, and for some reason I was hesitating to put on the rest of my clothes. Janus had a bad habit of throwing himself out of the bed a minute after we’d done it and picking up his clothes and heading for the bathroom. I didn’t want to seem like I was regretting what had just happened, even though I was regretting it big time.
Before I worked at Dryden and Stearn, Dani said, I worked at the school district office. There were about twenty of us who worked there, probably half of us women. And every other week there’d be a little party for someone, or a celebration about achieving re-accreditation or some other thing. And so they’d put out some nuts and punch and cake. And even though this happened every other week, even though it was something you could pretty much set your watch by, the women would just stand around this table, acting like there wasn’t any cake there. Nobody would walk up and take a piece. Nobody wanted to be the first one. Even when one of the guys would come by and fill a plate with cake and peanuts, the women would stand around. The reason we were in the room was cake, but the women wouldn’t touch it. Not until some agreed-upon amount of time had passed, like ten minutes or something. Then everybody’d get themselves a piece.
Dani was completely naked. And even though I’d had my head buried in her crotch a few minutes before, and even though this—her and me naked in a bed together, doing whatever she wanted to do—would most likely happen again, or at least I assumed then it would happen again, I wanted her clothed. It was her talking about cake, sure. It was that ass, sure, all forty pounds of that ass hanging off of what was a nice regular-sized torso. But it was also something about her being exposed. And something, too, about seeing her face a few minutes before, when she finally came. I didn’t think much about what I was doing while I was doing it, but when I felt her breathing quicken, and when I could sense her tensing up for a big release, I looked up, and I saw her face contort in pleasure. I’d messed around with a girl in high school, and in my two years in college I’d only dated women. So it wasn’t that I was confused sexually. It wasn’t that at all. I looked up at her face in the moment she was coming, and I knew that this wasn’t the life for me—cheating, sure, but also making a choice so easily, without really feeling like I’d made a choice. I wanted to live deliberately, and, when I saw her face and didn’t feel the pangs of lust, I knew mine wasn’t a deliberate life.
I also knew that saying as much could be a mistake, and maybe she’d freak out if I told her that I didn’t want to go down on her fat ass ever again.
So I tried to sound cheerful when I said, I think we should get up. No need to stay in bed all night. Probably need to get on home to the family, you know. So, I’m going to get dressed now, I guess.
No need to make an announcement, Dani said.
Something snapped in the back of my brain. I could almost hear it. For sure, I could feel it. I wanted to hurt her, so I wasn’t trying to make her laugh when I said, How do you think doing me will go over with your bible study?
Janus knew right away. It was nine or so at night. I came in the door, and he and Jennie were in the room we called a family room. He was seated on the couch. He had something balled up in his fist, but I never saw what it was. The wheelchair was crammed into a too-small space between the couch and the coffee table and the television. One of Jennie’s shows, the one with the big orange porcupine, was on. She was standing near the couch. She was absentmindedly rolling a toy car on the seat of the wheelchair. The wheelchair partially blocked the television. She looked like she was trying to keep her TV-watching a secret.
Honey, I said, let me move that out of the way.
No, she said. No, no, no, no, no.
Where have you been? Janus said.
I said, Honey, let’s move daddy’s obnoxious chair so you can watch your show.
Jennie said, No move.
Janus said, A woman or a man?
Don’t be ridiculous, I said. I was trying to make the face that convinces. I was trying to look annoyed. I was willing myself to keep this secret from him.
On the coffee table was an opened bag of potato chips, a cereal bowl filled with what looked like salsa and melted sour cream and a two-liter of cola.
What in the hell is this? I said. I was still making the annoyed face, and I’d convinced myself for the moment that that was my mood. I said, If you are serious about losing weight, buddy, you can’t be eating this. Do you hear me? This will make you fat. Correction: this will make you fatter. Fatter than you already are. Bigger. More blubber. Get it? Less attractive to me, to the world, to anyone with eyes or hands. All right? You hear me?
So who were you with?
I was alone, I said. It just so happened that I needed a little time to myself. That is something that I’m entitled to, as the breadwinner——
Janus stood up. He realized, I think, that he didn’t have the strength to come at me. That’s my best guess. He stomped the floor, rattling the glass in the coffee table and the toy car on the wheelchair seat. The toy car fell to the floor. He stomped the floor again, and again. It was his good leg, I’m pretty sure, but he stomped it hard. I didn’t at first see what he’d done to himself, probably because Jennie burst into the cloying, whiny, tearless crying of a kid who’s being simultaneously frightened and ignored. Janus worked his mouth into a strange shape, like he was thirsty. I told Jennie to shut the hell up, which made her cry louder. I told her I never should have had her anyway. She was a mistake. She was the second-biggest mistake of my life. I was letting her have it because I couldn’t look at Janus’s face. And I was pretty sure Janus was going to kill us both, then and there, if he could only will himself to move. It wasn’t something I thought about. I just knew it, and I didn’t pray.
He worked his mouth. It was a blunt and open and serviceable mouth. Suddenly I imagined his tongue, and I was thinking about the first time we kissed. It was one of those kisses that you don’t know you’re about to get. It was a surprise in every way. I hadn’t known it before this moment, but it seemed to me then that I’d been thinking about his tongue and the first surprise of it for most of the drive from Dani’s, for most of the past ten minutes.
He was accepting something. He was moving his tongue over the thing he’d accepted. When Janus spoke he said the words individually, slowly, taking long pauses in between. He was more eloquent somehow. The man in the back of the movie theater was describing the plot to an idiot he’d made the mistake of inviting along.
You have just had sex, he said. Don’t ask me how, but I can tell. You are not entitled to anything. You may not talk to my daughter like you just talked to her. And for sure you may not talk to me about breadwinning.
I didn’t interrupt. It was the most deliberate thing I could think to do. Janus was the least loved of us in the room, after all, and, when he’d said the words MY DAUGHTER, I’d seen an unhealthy amount of blood easing down his good leg and pooling at his bare feet like black depthless mercury.