Sunday Stories: “Chemical Reactions”


Chemical Reactions
by Marti Trgovich

Holger doesn’t come home from work on the weekends anymore. The first time it happened, he sent Sarah a text message at three in the morning: drunk. at dereks. see you morrow!

Derek was his best friend, so Sarah figured it was okay. She pictured them spending all their ones on Murphy’s jukebox, then heads hung low like flamingoes at the wooden bar. Holger used to take Sarah there when their apartment was just down the block, in the East Village, before they married and moved up to Pelham.  

In the new house, Holger had diligently hung framed photographs in the living room. Sarah protested a small gilded oval that housed an image from a photo booth, the old-fashioned kind that dives used to have. In it, a college-age Holger was liplocked with another man—not a peck on the cheek, but seriously sucking face.

“It doesn’t even fit the frame; it’s all wrong aesthetically,” Sarah had said, but Holger saw through the pretext.

“I minored in theater,” he argued in his sticky accent. “Everyone experimented.”

At 10 p.m. on Saturday the pizza boy comes—the only constant in Sarah’s life. She signs the credit card receipt and slips him a five, feeling guilty that for the past nine weekends he has witnessed this disappointing glimpse into adulthood: greasy hair, a cheap diet, sometimes tire streaks of mascara that Sarah doesn’t know exist until the bathroom mirror tells her so. She eats one slice of pepperoni, then two. By the time Law & Order is finished she has downed the whole pie—a new ritual. On the sofa, through a slit in her terrycloth robe, she glances at her belly, the way it thrusts itself out, exercising authority over the rim of her underpants below.

In three months she has gained at least ten pounds, maybe more. At first she kept weighing herself, concerned, but after she hit 145 (a whopper on her tiny frame), she gave up and stowed the scale in the garage. Done, problem solved.

The worst part about Holger being away is not Holger being away. The worst part starts when he struts in on Sunday evenings, visibly fatigued, and fans out in the middle of the sage velvet couch that Sarah remembers so gingerly deciding upon, once upon a time. His hands rest across the tops of the cushions; he takes up all the space. Sometimes he groans. He says, “My god, I’m exhausted,” and scratches his bald head. Sarah wants to say, “It’s your own fucking fault,” but instead she forces a smile and asks quietly, “How was your weekend?”

Often on Sunday nights Holger wants to have sex. It’s like he’s testing her, to see how much he can get away with. She acquiesces, even though sex with Holger has started to feel dirty, like the one-night stands she had after college, but not as fun. It’s become perfunctory and mechanical, what one might expect from a man who spends his days in a laboratory. Mostly there’s the sense that words are being hidden, unsaid, the way Sarah curls up under the covers afterward, afraid to ask questions for fear of what might unravel.

Afterward Holger sometimes remembers to ask, “So, how was your weekend?”

“Fine,” Sarah says, with nothing to report. And that is the worst part.

By midnight she is uncorking a second bottle of wine. This brand is piss-yellow and too sweet, but she stops noticing the taste after a few sips. A late-night TV movie is interrupted by a string of commercials, and Sarah hits mute to erase the sound of a car-dealership jingle. That’s when she hears the other noise: the low buzz of a bass. She hurries across the living room and pushes back the heavy damask curtains, heaves open the sliding glass door, and pokes her head out. Her own backyard is pitch-black, but the new neighbor has a patio floodlight that illuminates all sorts of lively silhouettes, like some life-size shadows she once saw at MoMA.

It must be a party! Of course she has no formal invitation but who is to say that the neighbor did not casually invite Holger one weekday as he walked down the driveway to his car for work? Perhaps he had meant to tell her and forgotten.

Holger often forgets to say things: The neighbors are having a party, please dry-clean my wool pants, I love you. Holger is a research scientist who is trying to save things that are not his marriage. On their first date, at an Indian restaurant on 6th Street, he held Sarah’s hand across the scratchy white linen tablecloth and told her, “Oxygen is a toxin. We don’t need it to survive until we have it the first time—a drug.” He said this with the flourish of an actor, what he had really wanted to be, had his physician parents in Hamburg approved.

In bed that night Sarah dreamt she ran out of oxygen and died. She felt a shiver across her legs, and she knew she was being cremated. She braced herself against the boxcar of the cremation chamber, like she used to as a child waiting for the roller coaster to plunge. Once disintegrated, she was surprised to learn she could still think, even without a body. Her ghost-self spied on Holger, who was whipping magic powders into the air; they whirled into a dervish and enveloped her spirit and she morphed back into her human form—whiskey hair and pointy nose and all. She awoke feeling he had restored her, that maybe she owed him something in return.

She’s no longer sure.

Now he spends his days performing experiments on white rats, killing them with a series of chemical reactions and plugging hydrogen sulfide into their environments to bring them back to life, like a bad sci-fi movie. He thinks he can save humanity this way, just maybe. Death doesn’t result from a lack of oxygen itself, he says, but this series of bad chemical reactions. Sarah doesn’t hear the word chemical.

In the upstairs bedroom Sarah attempts to hike up jean skirt after jean skirt but none of the five fit. She finally picks a pea-green tent-style dress that was decidedly loose upon purchase but that now has conformed itself to her body’s insistent curves. She practice-smiles in the bathroom mirror (no mascara trails—a feat!), swirls bronzer over her cheeks, and walks downstairs.

Earth from far away looks like pretty, green velvet, but when you zoom in it’s lights and chaos and Times Square. Harmless silhouettes become real, live people and Sarah wonders if the new couple is just out of college; their friends could pass for teenagers. Next to a Jacuzzi, a tall, lithe man with a yellow bandana on his head is praising the virtues of communism to a group of young women in halter tops.

“I mean, the media’s made it out to be this, like, malevolent suppression of free will and death to the individual, but it’s actually a very logical governmental system,” he explains to blank faces.

Holger would hate this guy. For a second, just a second, she wishes he were here. For support or solidarity, how she thought it would be in the beginning.

She walks up behind the bandana, looking for a casual way to enter the conversation. Some of the women smile politely, though uneasily, as she joins the circle. The bandana makes another point, throws a hand up—fingers splayed, like something blowing up, Sarah thinks—and strikes her in the face with his elbow. He keeps talking and doesn’t turn around until one of the halter tops coughs and glares at Sarah.

“Oh god!” He shouts over the music. “Are you okay? I thought I hit the tree trunk.” He taps a birch as evidence. “I didn’t realize you were a person. Is that ridiculous?”

Sarah pictures Holger offering a similar apology: I’m sorry I haven’t been home much, Sarah. I didn’t realize you were a person. Is that ridiculous?

“It’s okay.” Sarah rubs her nose. “I kind of snuck up on you.”

“You’re such a dick, Mahoney,” one of the girls teases.

“Hey now, I’m offering an official apology to—what’s your name?”

“Sarah. I live next door.”

“So you’re Jeremy’s neighbor?” There’s a catty tint to Mahoney’s voice, as if something naughty has just occurred to him, and Sarah swears the halter-top girls are holding in their snickers, and she knows now that she’s never going to get that apology. She takes note of anything that could be responsible for this rudeness: the snug dress, the probability that she is at least ten years older than anyone here, the possibility that she is drunker and sloppier than she realized.

“It was nice to meet you all,” she says with finality. All she wants to do is retrace her path home, but it’s likely that choice would reinforce the snickering, whether real or imagined. The back windows of the house are lit up, warm as a golden stained glass—it seems a good sign. In the kitchen there’s the smell of rum, suntan lotion, cigarettes. Also: an island and skinny girls with impossibly gold bodies teetering on stilt legs. They wear bikinis and their slick skin is wet like the surface of a seal.

“Hey there,” Sarah says shyly.

They nod nervously.

“Is there a beer I could have? In the fridge maybe?”

They nod again. “There’s also a keg in the backyard, by the Jacuzzi,” the tiniest girl says, and the tallest one elbows her.

“I was just saying,” she barks in defense.

In the living room, the music is too loud again, obviously some hot-shit rapper, the kind of thing Sarah would have known about five years ago but has ceased to keep track of. There is a seemingly expensive couch and bay window and someone screams “Fuck!” when a plastic cup of beer waterfalls onto the cream carpet. A chubby, curly-haired kid wearing a “Virginia Is For Lovers” T-shirt under a blazer runs over to reprimand the clumsy guest, but he stops short when he sees Sarah in the threshold.

“Oh shit,” he mumbles. He shuffles over to Sarah and grabs her gently by the arm and says, “I’m really sorry. Is it the noise? It’s kind of loud, huh, ma’am?” He yells over his shoulder, “Johnson! Turn it down!”

The music disintegrates into a whisper before it erupts into an ear-deafening blast.

“Goddamnit, Johnson!”

“Fuck you, Jeremy!” Johnson shouts back, and the sound level returns to normal. Sarah decides this must be Jeremy’s party. He appears nervous, a sweaty teen who probably thought he could get laid if he supplied everyone with a roof and alcohol.

“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” Jeremy says. “You’re not going to call the police, are you?”

“Maybe if you don’t stop calling me ma’am.”


“I’m not here to complain about the music. I came for the party.”

“Are you Jenny’s older sister?”

“Who’s Jenny?”

Jeremy shrugs. “Okay, just make yourself at home.”

He seems relieved to return to his friends, away from this woman who represents a possibly sour future, the lemon that is middle age. She accepts that he prefers the teenage debauchery: couples with bad skin awkwardly making out on the sofa, Newport Lights being smoked and coughed back out, girls with bleached hair flashing tits at boys they’ve met twice. These are not honors students, not even the athletes. These are the kind of kids who smoke dope and pull fire alarms, Sarah thinks. These are not even the kind of kids she would have hung out with when she was 17. She knows this means it is time to go. In the kitchen the gold-limbed girls are still there. The tall one is telling a super tall one that she is better off without someone named Ben, but they go hush when Sarah enters. Empty beer bottle in hand, she is looking under the cupboards for a garbage can but doesn’t find one.

“Do you guys know where I can throw this out?” Sarah asks, and the Ben-less girl points to a bin in the corner.

Sarah pitches the bottle and starts to leave.

“Excuse me?” The tallest girl has spoken. She looks at Sarah, lips parted. “It’s none of my business, but it’s like Motherhood 101 that you shouldn’t drink when you’re pregnant. It’s really bad for your baby. Maybe I shouldn’t even say anything, because it’s not like it’s my baby who’s going to have fetal alcoholic syndrome. But we learned about it in health seminar, and I feel like it’s my job to speak up. It’s like, have some class, you know?”

The other neophytes nod in agreement.

Sarah slams the screen door.

Past a blur of yellow, a rush of gem-like aquamarine ripples (a naked girl stepping out of the Jacuzzi!), through the lush green lawn, into the blackness of her own backyard, she sinks to the ground. On her back she gazes past stars in an inky sky; people always cite the ability to see stars as a reason to leave the city, but Sarah doesn’t give a shit about stars. She’d rather gaze at a clean, somber slate.

The ground beneath the grass feels moist and strong, and she lifts her dress up over her expansive belly. She imagines something with the consistency of a jellyfish swishing around. She places her palms on either side of the protrusion, expecting a sign: a kick, some sort of movement. Nothing. She suspects the baby has already given up, a stilted stone inside her, waiting to be shucked out and discarded.

I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were a person. Is that ridiculous?

If she schedules the appointment on a weekend—a Saturday morning, probably—Holger will never even know.

“And how was your weekend, Sarah?” he might say Sunday evening.

“Fine,” she could say, really meaning it this time.

Marti Trgovich is a copy editor in New York.

Photo: Sean Hobson via Creative Commons

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