Bet You’re Wond’ring How I Knew
by Daniel Paisner
Okay, so the first thing that needs doing is nothing. That’s all. Just lay here a while longer, maybe try not to move. Keep totally still. Let the day find you—that’s the phrase she runs through her mind.
Shari Braverman figures this is something she can handle. It’s like she’s left herself no other choice. Jana has left her no other choice. Shari can’t even remember Jana crawling into bed with her, but here she is, this child, splayed across the body pillow they’ve apparently been sharing. Jana has always been a restless sleeper, so Shari is careful not to wake her. Rest with intention, she tells herself. Shouldn’t be too, too hard, right? And yet, move a muscle, breathe too loudly, get up to pee and the day will run away from Shari Braverman, just as all the days now run away from her.
Basically, she wants to keep the world from spinning.
There’s a fine fur of soft down on Jana’s arms that seems to Shari to have been windswept across her daughter’s skin in a perfect pattern. Look carefully or you might miss it. There. . . there it is. Shari looks on and wonders at the confluence of DNA at play in this child that leaves her sprouting these perfect puffs of arm hair, breathing these short, rhythmic breaths that leak from her sweetly pursed lips like a half-remembered lullaby. With Jaxon, when Shari watches him sleep, her thoughts run to the bundle of energy he is in his waking moments, in much the same way she might marvel at the tiny Bose speaker she just bought with the credit card she once shared with her husband, wireless, which when idle gives off nothing of the deep wall of vibrant sound it is capable of creating. It is as if the one thing has nothing to do with the other, beyond the thing itself. It is what it is until it asks to be something else. And yet with Jana she can lose herself in the quiet miracle of creation. Who is this child? Shari wonders. What am I to this child? Where are we going, together?
In therapy, and among her growing collection of divorced or otherwise unattached friends, there is a lot of talk about the ways we travel through this life in the arms of our children. Beyond the sanctuary of her bedroom—IRL, in the textual parlance of her plugged-in kids—the phrase sounds like it fell from the back of a greeting card truck. But here, now, it strikes her as meaningful, insightful, and Shari Braverman wonders if this is so among the freshly-singled men in her acquaintance, if they define themselves as they are defined by their children. Probably not, she’s betting. Probably, none of them are lying awake, a little too careful not to rouse a sleeping child next to them, a little too mindful of what the day might hold, a little too desperate to remain in a moment such as this one for longer than the moment might require. They might be good dads, some of them, but they’re not wired in quite this way. Her Brian certainly wasn’t.
That’s another thing, comes up all the time with her therapist. The way Shari tends to speak of Brian in the past tense, as if he’s no longer here. He is and he isn’t, of course. What she means, Shari, is that he’s not, you know, dead or anything. But he might as well be. Married fifteen years, together three or four before that, and she finds him in the garage one Saturday afternoon sucking off their neighbor, Fred. That’s the phrase she always uses, when people ask what could have possibly happened. Sucking off our neighbor, Fred. Like in speaking bluntly she might dull the pain of the moment, maybe take back some of what was taken from her. Oh, you can’t imagine. People write New York magazine cover stories about such as this. There are movies, television shows, “60 Minutes” segments. . . it’s become, like, a cliché, the long-suffering, ill-married husband who can’t seem to find the courage to take it up the ass the way he was meant to all along. Until one day a sweet, dolled-up drag queen named Epiphany or Courage or Truth comes along and tears him a new one. Oh yes, oh yes, it’s become a thing.
And yet Shari Braverman can’t shake thinking she loses a piece of herself, a piece of whatever it was she had with Brian, whatever they were building with Jaxon and Jana, whatever future they meant to share every time she scrolls through her Netflix options and tries to ignore the Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin series that seems to always taunt her in her “Recommended for You” queue. “Grace and Frankie”—about the wives of two law partners who find themselves in just about the same situation. But here’s the thing: these ridiculous comings out crafted for our mass entertainment do not get at the essence of how Shari’s life now seems to her. They make it like they know, the writers of these shows, but they cannot know. They can only imagine. . . and this, too, is a thing. Imagining what it must be like, on the inside of such as this. Lately, Shari’s been on the receiving end of so many concerned looks from her presumably well-meaning friends and acquaintances she can see them coming. There’s a pattern to them, she’s now realizing. She’s made a study of it, determined there are notches on the familiar tilt of the head that finds her in greeting as she moves about in public. Each notch is somehow aligned with a measure of concern. There’s the first-level tilt when Shari sees someone who knows only the broad strokes of her story, that she and Brian are divorcing. There’s the next-level tilt, with the ear now approaching the corresponding shoulder, meant to show even deeper concern. This is how it almost always happens, as the details of her divorce come clear, as the size and shape of Brian’s transgression begin to form, each notch a further indication of her perceived state of suffering—until, eventually, she’ll be made to consider the ultimate-level tilt, as the angle widens and the troubled head snaps from its base and tumbles to the floor.
Oh, she is not shy about sharing. Up until the Fred-suck, as she has taken to calling it, Shari was a fairly private person. Her business was her business. Their business was their business. She wasn’t one to talk about her personal life, even with her good girlfriends, even in the way women sometimes do when they get together around a couple bottles of better-than-decent wine and start talking about the guys they dated in college who could get them off just by looking at them. And yet here she is, now, spilling the intimate details of Brian’s latent homosexuality like she doesn’t give a plain shit—as, indeed, she does not.
Let Brian deal with the mess he’s made, she thinks. Let him be embarrassed, make repairs with his children, whatever. And Fred? Fuck Fred. Let him sink under the weight of all those therapy bills that will surely come his way once his wife and kids are met with the full force of Shari Braverman’s blowback.
The Fred-suck, she has come to believe, was an especially cruel and exponential betrayal, because in pressing his lips to their neighbor’s penis her chickenshit husband didn’t just step outside their marriage. He also took a pick-axe to the very foundation of that marriage, to Shari’s sense of self, to her underlying worldview. Jesus, the whole time they were together, the bastard wouldn’t even kiss her after she swallowed his cum, the one intimacy apparently too much for him to take on the back of the other, and like an idiot Shari Braverman had simply assumed this was a kind of knee-jerk homophobia on Brian’s part. Like an idiot, she continued to love him and blow him and make a life with him.
She hates how her sudden and surprising hatred of this man with whom she once believed she’d been necessarily joined must now cast her as homophobic herself, although she’ll argue the point. She doesn’t have anything against homosexuals in general, just this one in particular, and in the space where this man had once been in Shari Braverman’s life there is now a kind of oppressive sadness, a feeling like her life has been wasted—better (worse!), like it hasn’t even been lived. She has been left feeling taken, duped—and yes, there are these lovely parting gifts in the form of her two beautiful children, but still. . .
She reaches for the fine hairs on her daughter’s forearm and begins to trace them with the tippy-tip of her fingernail, but even this soft touch is too much for Jana to endure in sleep. She is startled awake, rubs the dreams from her eyes, sighs theatrically, buries her face in her mother’s body pillow—says, “Good god, woman. What do you want from me?”
# # #
On this particular Saturday morning, after a night’s sleep truncated (and, just as accurately, highlighted) by Jana’s wee hours visit, Shari is back into whatever mode. There is no school bus to catch, no meeting to attend, no housekeeper to direct or admonish, no soccer game to get to, and so she leaves her kids to feed themselves. A certain measure of independence, Shari Braverman has come to believe, is a good and necessary thing, and in this one small way she likes to think she is pushing her children in the direction of self-reliance.
Jaxon, down first for breakfast (ahead of Shari, even), appears to be waiting for a plate of food to appear in front of him, his head resting on the table on the pillow of his arms, as if the very weight of it is too, too much for him to carry at this moment. Shari cannot guess how long the boy has been sitting like this, cannot at first think what to say to him in greeting.
“Morning,” she says.
“Morning,” she hears back, muffled through the fleece knit sweatshirt he’s wearing, neon green, a couple sizes too big, with the words “I Survived Jordie’s Jew-asic World” silk-screened to the back, in a typeface and style meant to evoke the “Jurassic World” movie poster—a bar mitzvah giveaway Jaxon seems to have plucked from the ever-growing pile of hoodies, pajama bottoms and long sleeve t-shirts he’s collected from the weekly rites-of-passage-fests that have lately filled his calendar. Don’t get her started on these relentless comings of age, commemorated by these brightly-colored souvenir garments that will likely as not wind up on the backs of area landscapers and housecleaners, owing to the misplaced kindnesses of their clueless clients eager to clean out their kids’ closets to make way for the next batch of swag.
There is no end to these celebrations, these days—and, more and more, no point as well. It’s gotten so Jaxon and his friends have taken to judging each event based on the goodies they get to take home, the name-brand rappers hired to freestyle with the guest of honor, the arcade games trucked in to distract the children from the misbehaving adults in attendance. On some weekends, Shari is made to shuttle Jaxon back-and-forth to two or three parties, each one more over-the-top and devoid of spiritual meaning than the last, some of them running on past one o’clock in the morning, and all of them costing more money than her first apartment.
Once, in an elaborate show of kindness and preparedness, she pulled up in the parking circle of a nearby golf club that had until the financial crisis of 2008 been disinclined to admit Jews as members—disinclined, as in had absolutely no fucking interest in doing so—and was greeted by a team of lovely female valets offering hot chocolate and warmed Cronuts, indicating to Shari that she was meant to enjoy these seasonal treats in the comfort of her car while she waited for the party to end. That it was the week before Christmas and these lovely valets were dressed suspiciously like Santa’s elves only added to the solemnity of the moment.
Shari’s friends tell her she’s crazy to drive her kids back-and-forth to these events, reminding her there’s usually a subset of Jaxon’s friend’s parents already in attendance as invited guests, happy to offer a ride—like she’d ever put him in a car driven by some drunken dad whose idea of a good time is to day-drink with his fellow masters of the universe and circle the dance floor ogling the inappropriately dressed middle school girls who trade turns bumping and grinding and lasciviously mimicking the also-inappropriate moves of their favorite music videos.
And the thing of it is, these day-drinking louts had been Brian’s friends, their friends, until Brian went and sucked off their neighbor Fred. So now Shari is made to take in these proceedings in a once-removed way, having been once-removed from a few too many guest-lists. She tells herself this is no big deal. She tells herself the last thing she wants is to spend a Saturday afternoon on the receiving end of so many head-tilts—the pitying glances tossed her way by the distaff halves of her couple friends who seem to Shari to want to feel a little better about the fallings short in their own marriages by tsk-tsking at the falling apart of hers.
Jaxon’s own bar mitzvah is coming up on the calendar, and this too has been weighing on Shari Braverman, reaching back to those first mornings in her quiet kitchen after she’d asked Brian to move out. The date had been assigned by the synagogue when Jaxon was ten years old, along with a three-page explainer detailing the policy for switching dates with another family, outlining the community’s “expectations” of b’nai mitzvah families, and answering every conceivable question that might arise with regard to same. Shari wonders if she bothered to keep the document but guesses the synagogue’s ritual committee didn’t think to address the appropriate etiquette for when the father of the bar mitzvah has been caught sucking off his neighbor Fred.
At the time, she never thought to ask, but here, IRL, she’s got some questions.
Like, is she meant to stand on the bima with her ex-husband and expect those in the know to refrain from imagining him on his knees sucking off their neighbor Fred?
Is she meant to address her former in-laws and the rest of Brian’s extended family with good cheer and expect them to refrain from imagining their brother/cousin/uncle/whatever on his knees sucking off their neighbor Fred?
Is she meant to assume that the whispering and tittering that will surely pass among Jaxon’s little friends, seated in the back rows of the synagogue and plugged into the world around through social media and their own gossiping parents, will have nothing to do with the ways they will surely be imagining Jaxon’s father on his knees sucking off their neighbor Fred?
And what about their neighbor Fred? Do he and Mrs. Fred rate an invitation? There had been a time, not too very long ago, when they would have been near the top of their guest list—a wistful thought that now leaves Shari wondering crudely if he was the top in this relationship with Brian, or how that even works.
The sight of Jaxon in his fleece sweatshirt fills Shari with anxiety—only, when she goes to “unpack” her emotions, in the language of her therapist, she realizes that what she’s anxious about is not the bar mitzvah itself, or the many details relating to it requiring her attention, but the fact that she will have to share the day with Brian and his family. On a kind of public stage. The thought leaves her stomach doing flips, but she has learned over these past months to power past her own anxieties and turn her attention to the care and feeding of her two children.
“You hungry?” she says to the spot on the table where her son’s head has come to rest.
In response, Shari Braverman thinks she detects a shrug at the mass of wildly indifferent flesh beneath the bunched-up hoodie that may or may not correspond to Jaxon’s shoulders. It’s a wonder she happens to be looking her son’s way when he just happens to be shrugging.
“That a yes?” she says, trying again.
There follows another apparent shrug—and this one, Shari chooses to ignore. She figures a cup of coffee will fill the time between the proffered breakfast and the actual preparation that might go into it, so she reaches for one of the unmarked Nespresso coffee capsules she keeps in a Lucite rack on her kitchen counter. Not incidentally, these unmarked capsules have become one of the small frustrations that color her days, for the way she is made to guess at what’s inside. More and more, she has had less and less patience for these small frustrations. Her aggravation is plain: the capsules are color-coded to correspond to descriptions on the package sleeve, but once she’s removed them from the box she’s got no way to know if she’s making herself a cup of Melozio or Elvazio or Voltesso, with its distinctly sweet aroma and surprising biscuit notes.
She’s flying blind, and as she brews her single cup she half-wonders if this is some sort of metaphor for the life she is now living. If she has been reduced to someone who is meant to move about the planet like she remembers the color codes to connect the life she imagined to the one now at hand.
Excerpted from the novel Balloon Dog, by Daniel Paisner, to be published by Koehler Books in June.
Daniel Paisner is an American journalist, novelist, and podcaster. He is best known for his work as a ghostwriter and collaborator. He has published more than seventy books, including seventeen New York Times best-sellers. Balloon Dog is his fourth novel. He is also the author of Obit, Mourning Wood, and A Single Happened Thing. Paisner hosts the podcast As Told To, in which he interviews other authors about their experiences ghostwriting and collaborating with notable figures. Visit him at www.danielpaisner.com or on the Twitter: @DanielPaisner.
Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash