Trivial Pursuits {?} - Chapter 2, Part 2

Objectively, she wasn’t angry with Greg; she knew she had no valid reason to be. It was no one’s fault. She knew this; it was into the fissure between that rational knowledge and her need for an explanation that this fury had seeped.

P.J. had died because of no one’s negligence, no one’s failure. It was unfathomable and unacceptable. Suddenly, at home, the obituary had read, as if to remind them that even the comforting shelter of home was not beyond the capricious reach of senseless death. More and more, lately, the phrase suddenly at home struck Amy as more like a title for a horror movie than a polite euphemism for newspapers.

It hadn’t been Greg’s fault that P.J. had died in her crib while they’d made love on a Sunday evening. She knew this, and yet her desperate, blinding need to hate someone had no use for what she knew. It had use only for its own skewed, righteous quest for clarity, for simple morality, for superheroes and bogeymen. For a guilty party. Greg, conveniently, was there. Sometimes, it seemed, he was there for that very reason.

They’d waited for over three years to adopt P.J. She was a humorous, robust little creature with spiky brown hair and the most prescient, dazzling brown eyes. These eyes, they locked onto you as if to say, oh, we are going to have some fun. So startlingly intelligent and expressive were these eyes that Amy sometimes had been pained by them, overwhelmed by the force of her love. Yet that pain, now, seemed like paradise, an embarrassment of riches. Its absence was like the dull throb of a phantom limb, occupying the space where pain had once been. In its place was only memory, which, in its gross, boundless inadequacy, turned out to be the worst ache of all.

P.J. had been eight months old on that Sunday evening. She’d been entering that phase where a child seems to undergo subtle changes literally every day: a little bit more hair, a slightly more defined face. She laughed constantly, she laughed at everything, as if laughter were an excess energy she needed to discharge, an energy that bubbled up in response to the pure absurdity of the world.

That night, P.J. had had her bath; it was a favorite time for all three of them. Amy and Greg cherished the soggy, baby shampoo-scented sleeves of their shirts after bath-time—inevitable, even with the sleeves rolled up. Amy sometimes said she wished they would never dry.

This bath had been usual. P.J. had scribbled all over the tub with the waterproof crayons Greg’s sister had bought for her. Her etchings were complete nonsense, really, except for one random shape Amy insisted was a heart.

“Now you’re really reading into things,” Greg had said, shaking his head with friendly mockery. “Next you’re going to find the Virgin Mary in there somewhere.”

“Wait, wait,” Amy said, “Look over there by the soap dish… there she is, the Mother of God! And she’s wielding an axe, my goodness! Look, P.J.! Call the news stations!” And P.J. laughed raucously at her mom’s silly voice.

Greg grabbed the purple crayon, which was worn down to a nub because it was her favorite, and wrote, Mommy is silly, on one side of the soap dish, and We love P.J., on the other side.

They’d been having a particularly good week together after a few rough months at the very end of winter, and they were flirting. Greg’s bathtub graffiti was really the equivalent of foreplay, she thought later, as she scrubbed it away furiously.

They’d put P.J. in her summer pajamas with lions on them. The elastic bands of her diapers stuck out like deliberately clownish frills from the onesie bottom as she kicked her chubby legs in riotous play. They laid her down in her crib the same as usual. Then they went off to their room and did that thing, the thing that had failed to create P.J. in the first place. They went through the motions of this fruitless ritual, this sad acting out of their ineffectiveness together, as the baby they loved—but for whom their love was somehow insufficient—ceased to exist. It was as though their insistence on this empty, sterile coupling of theirs had actually dimmed the one flicker of light that had gotten into their lives in spite of it.

He’d gone downstairs to get a snack when he found her. Her big brown laughing eyes had been open, looking beyond them.

Later, they’d searched frantically for something they’d done wrong, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to find something. Not wanting to, because they didn’t want to know it was their fault. Wanting to, because the horrible randomness made it too hard to wake up, to follow schedules, to make plans.

Lynette was becoming too drunk. She had absolutely no interest in football, and watched only in this way, with Amy, to deride Greg. Her face was suffused with a mercenary hate that Amy didn’t understand, maybe didn’t want to understand. She was like a pit bull that’s been trained to perform specific acts of compliant aggression, but could at any moment swerve into its own rogue malevolence.

Amy forced a yawn. It was meant to be a cue for Lynette to leave, but as soon as she did it, she began to feel genuinely tired.

A few minutes into third quarter, a running back for Clemson incurred a particularly sickening bone fracture. As the camera zoomed in on the fallen player, Greg’s face was inadvertently captured in the frame. He was simply standing there, irrelevant; none of his levelheaded determinations would be useful to this situation. He couldn’t make a pronouncement and change the outcome; his power was limited to the machinations, the choreography of this made-up game. Yet there he was. It seemed almost criminal to show him this way, she thought.

It was the closest, most candid look she’d gotten at his face in a while, and it shocked her. He looked lost, as if he were waiting for something, but was so sick of waiting he barely cared anymore. His eyes had the same look she’d sometimes glimpsed when he looked in the mirror at home: tired, staring at his own reflection but not really seeing himself. Seeing his face only in terms of utilitarian upkeep: hair to be shaved, teeth to be brushed, a mask to be properly maintained. Confronting himself painlessly, because he was not really there. If such a thing were possible, she would have to say he looked haunted and dead at the same time.

Mercifully, the program faded to commercial. The boisterous jingle for Taco Bell reminded Amy of the gaudy distraction of Lynette, who she’d momentarily forgotten.

“Lynette, I’m really tired,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry. I think you’d better go.”

Lynette, whose outward show of arrogance had been so convincing up until that moment, revealed herself with the sudden force of a natural disaster. For a moment, the impenetrability fell away, revealing vulnerability that made Amy feel ashamed. Looking at this woman, whose eyes baldly displayed the panic of an abandoned child, Amy understood something terrible about herself: She’d allowed herself to believe in the myth of Lynette’s toughness and cruelty, not because Lynette had wished it so, but because she had. Because it had allowed her to make use of Lynette without regret or guilt.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was a strangled whisper.

But Lynette was not about to allow the moment to last. She collected herself so quickly that Amy would later question whether the lapse had even occurred. She willed her nerves and muscles back into the veil of apathy and scorn that people recognized as her face.

“Suit yourself," she said with a shrug, slipping out the door in a manner Amy would almost have to call gentle.

Georgia Tech won by only a field goal, and Amy watched Greg walk off the field, calculating based on this when he would walk through the door. She had mastered these logistics long ago and for many different purposes – at first, to greet him at the door with a kiss and a loud, glowing fire in the fireplace; later, to arrange P.J.’s bedtime so he could read her Goodnight, Moon. Then after that, to avoid him, and to avoid his knowing. But she sensed this was something new.

She drank the rest of the wine waiting for him to come home, imagining the exponential purpling of her teeth with each glass.

When he walked in the door, his white cap in his hand, she was there on the couch, maybe losing her nerve as she looked up at his tired face. She stood up and her legs were asleep, until the slow surge of prickly pain brought them back to life. His blue eyes were webbed with frank worry and something like visual disbelief as she took another wobbly step closer. More than anything, she wanted to congratulate him for his win or console him for his loss. She would let him tell her which.

[Don't forget to come back tomorrow for Chapter 3!]

Check out previous chapters of Trivial Pursuits {?} right here.

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