Lauren didn’t realize Rick’s ass had gotten so hairy. Flabby too. Not totally unattractive, but definitely on a downward spiral, especially considering the man’s only twenty-three years old and he used to have an ass she could hold on to for dear life. Something she used to admire when he was on his way out of the shower, or those times he’d head to the bathroom after sex to go pee or wipe himself off or whatever it is Rick does in the bathroom post-coitus.
This is the first time she’s noticed the deterioration though. The thought disconcerts her a little, she admits. Not so much the fact that his ass is in this condition, but that it took this particular situation for her to notice it. It’s not like this is an overnight development; Rick’s ass quality has to have been falling off for a while, yet she can barely remember the last time she really paid attention to it. It makes her wonder—for just a second—if this is her fault.
Admittedly though, Lauren hasn’t really had any recent or particular reason to pay close attention to Rick’s private parts. Honestly, who really studies their spouse’s ass on a daily basis? Unless it’s the increasingly rare occasion where they’re in the bathroom naked together, she still wouldn’t be staring at it, and definitely wouldn’t be seeing it in this current light: as the cheeks clench and unclench with each thrust while Rick plows into another woman’s vagina. Ideally, Lauren would be that woman, and therefore couldn’t possibly have the viewpoint she has right now, peeking around the corner of Justin’s—their two year old son’s—bedroom door and watching Rick grab a handful of Natalie’s—their barely-turned-eighteen-years-old babysitter’s—hair and pull her head back, thrusting deeper. Natalie lets out a scream/moan and Lauren flinches.
Yet even in this moment, the only thing Lauren’s really trying to figure out is why Rick’s home in the first place. He should be at work right now. And Natalie? Justin’s at day care until 5:00, so she has no reason to be here either. Unless you count what they’re doing right now. Which is a pretty legit reason when Lauren thinks about it.
She wonders for a second if Natalie is skipping a class. Composition I, or College Algebra, or Intro to Psychology or some other shitty freshman course. Skipping out on a day of education to come here—to Lauren’s apartment—and fuck her husband.
Rick lets go of Natalie’s hair and bends further over her, so his chest is touching her back, his grunts accentuated by her impassioned whispers and moans, which seems to be creating a kind of sound-cocoon for them. Natalie throws her long, dirty blonde hair around and arches her back, raising her ass to receive Rick, digging her nails into the carpet. Her thigh muscles taut, dimples in her lower back glistening with sweat, she whimpers as Rick crouches over and buries his face in her neck.
It’s almost professional how they’re doing it, and it’s then Lauren realizes this definitely isn’t the first time they’ve had sex. They’re too in tune to each other’s movements. The way Lauren and Rick used to be. Also, neither one of them have noticed Lauren’s here. It’s like they’re in another world.
Lauren considers saying something, but her mouth is stuck in a thin line on her face which she keeps trying to shift into a grimace or a frown or a sardonic smile or anything capable of emitting sounds, but it won’t budge. It’s like she’s stuck in viewer mode, and she really can’t help feeling like she’s seen all this before. Not Rick, not this situation in particular, but some version of it, somewhere else. It’s almost like she’s stuck in a Garry Marshall movie, and any minute now Garry’s going to step out of the bathroom to her left and yell “Cut!” Julia Roberts will be standing next to him, pleasantly annoyed and ready to give Lauren pointers. Garry will tell her to take her place in the bedroom, then roll his eyes and move her to the spot himself then hand her a copy of the script when it becomes obvious that she has absolutely no idea what her lines are.
Needless to say, she’s flustered by all the options she has. She could take the What the fuck is going on in here?! approach and watch Rick’s acid reflux flare up so suddenly he’d probably vomit right in Natalie’s hair.
Or she could go with the more passive approach, the throat clearing and solemn stare at them as they both scramble to put their clothes on inside out.
She could even let them finish—watch until Rick’s face clenches up, his eyes roll into the back of his head, and he does that little convulsive head nod that is characteristic of Rick’s orgasms. She could wait until that precise moment to step into the room, pat him on the back, and say something slick, like Nice job, Tiger.
Let’s be real though: Lauren’s a smart chick. On some level she knows she’s in shock right now. She hasn’t actually moved much more than her eyes in the past thirty seconds. Not since she heard a moan, peeked around the corner and saw her husband bent over the girl who’s been caring for their son every other Friday and Saturday night for almost six months now.
Rick and Lauren met Natalie at the same time, at their apartment complex’s swimming pool one Saturday back in April when they went down with Justin to spend the afternoon sunning and barbecuing. That day they’d struck up a conversation with her while she was sitting at the picnic tables with her mother and her friend, the two of them weeks away from graduating. Natalie’s mother had seemed nice, and Natalie had seemed so trustworthy then, and young—though, now that Lauren thinks about it, she’s only, what? Five years younger than her and Rick? So funny how perceptions of time can fluctuate.
It seemed like an easy choice back then, and Justin had taken an instant liking to Natalie that day. And hell, Natalie and her mom lived one building over, which made her easily accessible. Obviously too accessible.
Lauren’s options right now all seem out of reach though. The outcome of each course of confrontation will be inevitably dramatic, too much for her to deal with in conjunction with the situation itself. She hates drama (not just the way most women she knows say they hate drama but actually relish it, depend on it, thrive on it; no, Lauren legit hates that shit).
She doesn’t want to deal with this right now. Part of her just wants to forget it all, come home later tonight and make dinner, eat with Rick and Justin like they normally do.
But she knows she can’t.
This isn’t going away, and there is no backtracking on something that’s already taken place.
No matter what she does right now, Rick will still be fucking their babysitter.
So she watches them for a moment longer, watches as Rick wraps an arm around Natalie’s waist, flips her over and starts to drive his pelvis into hers, her entire body shifting across the carpet as she wraps her arms around his neck, and Lauren tries to think of reasons why this isn’t the end of the world. Then Rick’s groans get louder and his toes start to clench and he starts thrusting harder, and it’s all a little too much for her to handle.
Lauren turns and heads quietly through the living room, past the large leather couch and the IKEA coffee table towards the front door, picking her purse up off the hangar near the closet and slinging it over her shoulder just as something catches her eyes, a hint of unfamiliarity near the dining table.
Turning, Lauren sees Natalie’s book bag slung over the chair. She knows it’s Natalie’s because of the handwriting, the scribbled band names and phrases on the book bag matching the image in Lauren’s mind of curly print on the notes Natalie leaves for them the nights she babysits. The bag is weathered and torn in what seem to be strategic positions, a carryover from her recently relinquished high school career. Last Lauren checked, Natalie’s enrolled at Miami-Dade College—formerly Miami-Dade Community College—and Lauren finds it odd that she wouldn’t buy a new bag for this new phase in her life. Lauren would have.
Lauren considers picking up the bag and taking it outside, walking down a ways—towards the stairs and the elevator—and holding the bag over the railing for a second, studying the White-Out sketches and letting them sink into her eyes, her mind, her body, then tossing the bag over the edge and watching as it lands on the concrete below, splitting open and spilling its contents across the ground like a suicidal jumper. Notebook, pencils, pens, paper, a textbook or two, all strewn across the sidewalk.
But that would be yet another choice on the long list of ways to respond to this, a decision she’s not willing to make right now. So, instead, Lauren opens the door, walks out, quietly closes and locks it, then heads back to her car.
In their son’s bedroom, Rick raises his head from Natalie’s bare chest.
“Did you hear that?” he asks.
“No,” Natalie says, pulling him towards her. “Stop being paranoid.”
And even though Rick’s pretty sure he heard something, Natalie’s extremely persuasive.
Sean’s cell phone rings at 11:02 am. It rings again at 11:03, then 11:04, and when it rings again at 11:05 he’s ready to throw the thing through a fucking wall.
Sean snatches the phone up, looks at the time and the caller ID and curses under his breath as he presses talk and jams the phone against his ear.
“What?” he yells.
“Sean.” On the other end, his brother’s voice.
“Marcus,” Sean says. “What the fuck? I told you no calls before 12.”
“I need a ride home,” he says. “Asap.”
Sean wraps his pillow around his head, smacks his lips. Tongue pasty, breath like a bird shitted in his mouth while he was asleep. Sean glances at the phone again, at the time, then something clicks and he says:
“It’s eleven o’clock.”
“I know,” Marcus says.
“Since when did they start letting you guys out at eleven?”
“They don’t,” he says. Model of concision.
“Ok, am I missing something?”
“I got suspended,” Marcus says, exasperated, like Sean should’ve already known. Which, he guesses, he should’ve, since this is the third time this year.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” Sean says.
“This is ridiculous, Marcus,” Sean says, but he’s already hung up. Sean tosses the phone on his nightstand and it immediately rings again. He groans and picks it back up but it’s his mother, and it’s obvious she’s already heard about Marcus when she yells:
“Sean! It’s your mother!” And before he can respond, hisses, “I’m getting so bloody sick and tired of his crap. Can you believe this? This is just outrageous. I have no idea what we’re going to do with him.”
Sean doesn’t even know how she knows he’s on the fucking line. He hasn’t said hi or anything, not even a word. He just picked up the phone, pressed talk, and there she was, in all her glory. And frankly, he doesn’t plan on saying anything until she’s done either. Situations like these, he knows anything he says will only piss her off even more, or worse: redirect her rage at him, like he’s the one who put Marcus up to whatever shit he got himself into this time.
Last time Marcus called Sean to pick him up from school, it was because he’d been caught piercing some freshman chick’s nose in an upstairs bathroom using a sewing needle dipped in rubbing alcohol and a lighter flame, an ice pack held against the girl’s nostril until it was practically blue and she couldn’t feel a thing. Marcus had somehow convinced the girl he knew what he was doing, even though he didn’t and admitted to Sean afterwards that he’d Googled “how to pierce someone’s nose” in his iPhone the night before.
“He’s really outdone himself this time,” Sean’s mother says probingly. She waits until she’s sure Sean’s not going to take the bait, then sighs. “Your father’s blood pressure is going to be miserable tonight. I’m sorry to bother you, honey, but can you please pick him up?”
“Already on it,” Sean croaks.
“He called you?”
“He called me,” Sean says.
“Of course he did,” she says, sarcastically. Sean has no idea what that’s supposed to mean. He sits up and scratches his chest, trying not to groan when his neck and back pop and a slice of pain cuts across his forehead.
“Ma,” he says. “Have you ever thought that there might be more to this than Marcus just being an asshole?”
“Language,” she says.
“He’s a teenager,” Sean says. “Teenagers are all depressed. This is what they do. They do stupid shit. You should be happy he’s not one of the suicidal ones or something.” Sean pauses, not actually knowing if any of that’s true. All he knows is Marcus isn’t nearly as much of a dick around him as he is at home. “He just needs somebody to listen to him.”
“Don’t give me that nonsense,” his mother yells. “We do listen to him. Marcus isn’t some extraordinary case who deserves special treatment. Your father and I just had to postpone our anniversary cruise, did you know that?”
“No,” Sean says, with sadness in his voice for her benefit, though he has no idea what the hell that has to do with this situation.
“Your father can’t get the time off,” she continues. “I was really looking forward to the trip and yes, I’m extremely upset. You don’t see me getting suspended or fired or arrested or wherever else your brother’s heading. He’s completely destroying his future.”
“Aren’t we exaggerating just a little bit, Ma?”
“We are not exaggerating anything,” she hisses. “That’s exactly the mentality that gets him into these things in the first place, Sean. Leniency is not what your brother needs. He needs discipline. Discipline and a firm set of rules.” Her voice rises to shrill levels. “How can you say I’m exaggerating? Do you even know what he did?”
“Ok, God,” Sean says. “I’m sorry, Ma. You’re absolutely right.” He pauses for effect. “What did he do anyways?”
“Ask him yourself,” she spits. “I’m done with this. I’m much too busy and I don’t want to bother your father at work right now, so please, just pick him up and tell him something.”
“I’ll talk to him, Ma,” Sean says, knowing that it’s pointless to argue with either of them, his brother or his mother.
“Thank you, honey,” she says, her friendly psychiatric tone slipping back into her voice. “Maybe he’ll listen to your brand of reason,” she adds.
Sean wonders what the hell that’s supposed to mean, but stays quiet.
“How are you?” she asks, her voice softening. “I never know how you’re doing anymore. You never call, never visit. You live five miles away and it’s like you’re in Alaska.”
“Sorry, Ma,” Sean says. “I’ve been busy.”
There’s a long pause and he braces himself for a probing conversation, maybe another one of her passive aggressive rants about how he needs to start doing something with his degree and how he can come intern at her office until he starts grad school (for some reason, Sean’s parents—particularly his mother—have been under the very confident impression for an extremely long time that he plans on going to graduate school to get his doctorate in psychology, like his mom did. He doesn’t know who gave them that idea. It certainly wasn’t him) but she surprises him instead by saying:
“Well, happy birthday anyways, honey.”
Sean’s eyes shoot open and there’s his Hooter’s calendar on his door but, still, the thing’s outdated, so he takes his phone away from his ear and sees on the digital display that, yes, it is indeed October 29th. His birthday. Exactly two and a half decades since he was born. Exactly 53 weeks since Maria packed her shit and walked out. Exactly one year since his best friend splattered his head all over the hood of his car.
“Thanks, Ma,” he says, only his voice cracks near the end so all that comes out is “Than—”
“Try and enjoy yourself today,” she says, and he hears somebody yell in the background. “I have to go handle some stuff, I’ll talk to you later.”
Sean hangs up and lies there for a minute, trying to put the birthday thing out of his head. It’s like a looming monster in his consciousness though, and after a moment of hard breathing he turns to his night stand and grabs his pipe and the small bag of weed sitting next to his lamp. Opening the bag and pinching off a piece of the two small buds he’s got left, he sprinkles the flakes into the charred bowl of the pipe and grabs his lighter. Within seconds he’s got the flame held to the bowl and he’s inhaling, pulling in as much as he can fit in his lungs then sitting there holding his breath, letting the tingle hit his chest and the back of his throat and his mind before he finally exhales in a cloud of smoke.
A moment later Sean’s head is buzzing and thoughts of his mom and Maria and Leon and birthdays are gone, and instead he’s thinking about Marcus. He probably should talk to him like his mom wants him to. But—knowing Marcus—whatever just got him suspended was probably something relatively epic, in the relatively epic universe of high-school-dom; some act with just enough cool and dumb in it to boost his popularity without actually fucking up his already elevated chances of going to a kick ass college. Marcus is a smart dude (an understatement), smarter than most other seventeen year olds. One of those rare combinations of people who get straight A’s yet are so laid back and make it look so easy that you can’t call them a nerd without looking stupid.
But Sean’s supposed to act like what he’s feeling is disappointment rather than envy that his brother figured out how to navigate the upper echelons of high school better than he ever did. Sean says fuck it. Marcus can handle himself.
Sean’s finally getting out of bed with a groan and snatching his Shambles uniform off the carpet when there’s a knock at the door. Derek pokes his head in, looks him up and down. Sean remembers the tantrum from last night and waits for Derek to tell him again how much of a dick he is. Instead, he smiles wide.
“Hey,” he says. “You’re awake. Happy b-day, bro.”
Sean sticks his tongue out and Derek laughs.
“Don’t know what’s so happy about it,” Sean says, wading through the pile of empty beer cans on the carpet until he stumbles past Derek, out into the hall and into the bathroom at the end.
“Can you stop being pessimistic for once in your life?” he calls out to Sean.
“No,” Sean yells back.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“I know that, dick,” he says. “I mean after.”
Sean stares at himself in the mirror, his bloodshot eyes with bags the size of pants pockets under them, skin the color of a Butterfinger someone dropped in a muddy gutter.
“Maybe heading to Dill’s,” Sean says, though Dill’s Tavern is pretty much a guarantee for him after work these days.
“Hit me up when you get out,” Derek says. “I’ll join. Birthday shots on me.”
“Joy,” Sean grumbles.
He brushes his teeth and washes his face and a couple of minutes later he’s in his car, blinded by the sun, even after he puts the shades on. The buzz of the weed was supposed to dull these proceedings, but he can still feel the poke of a hangover in his left temple and his driver’s seat is fucking baking, so he just sits there for a moment taking deep breaths and letting the air conditioner blast the car with heated air that takes forever to cool down. And in that moment he seriously considers just saying fuck it all and heading down to the Keys, selling his piece-of-shit car and figuring out the rest from there. It’d probably suck for a while, but at least it would be different. This shit right here’s getting monotonous, like he’s sleepwalking through his days. He can’t even remember if he got dressed or not before he walked out, and wonders for a second if he just got in his car wearing nothing but his underwear.
Then Sean’s vision clears and he touches his chest, feels the top button of his Shambles uniform, looks down and brushes a piece of lint off his work pants. He sighs, turns on his car and pulls out of the complex, headed towards Sideview High.
Lauren doesn’t notice she’s been sitting at the stop sign a block away from her apartment until the person behind her starts blaring their car horn. Lauren raises her hand in apology and pulls off, turns a corner and drives into the first parking lot she can find, outside of a self-storage building. Putting the car in park, she resumes staring into the distance, not really looking at anything physical, rather the stretch of memories involving her and Rick, miles worth of images that lead all the way back to the day they met.
Rick’s parents initiated their first meeting in fact, starting a conversation with Lauren’s mom at her freshman orientation at FIU almost six years ago. The conversation went pretty well, considering it was Lauren’s mom. She only questioned Rick’s parents a couple of times about their divorce (uncomfortable, probing questions; standard for her mother) before she noticed Lauren’s glares and subsequently limited herself to comments on the various buildings and college majors. Rick’s parents joined her in the observations and Caitlyn (Lauren’s younger sister, sixteen at the time, already uncannily beautiful and wearing tiny shorts and a midriff shirt, reveling in the stares of every college boy who passed by) wandered off into the student union, which left Rick and Lauren alone.
Those first few moments standing away from their parents were awkward. Lauren hates being tossed into situations where she’s supposed to make friends with people she doesn’t know. It always feels so forced. Rick didn’t hesitate though.
“You excited?” he asked, strolling a couple of feet to her right. The air had that sticky quality summers in Miami tend to give everything, and Lauren used the orientation pamphlet to fan her forehead.
“Pretty excited,” she lied. Excitement wasn’t exactly the word she would have liked to use to describe how she felt. Fearful, maybe. A little disappointed. She had wanted to leave Miami for school, but her mother had guilt-tripped her into staying and going to FIU. She cried to Lauren during the application process as Lauren sat there filling out forms for USC and NYU and Duke, telling Lauren that she couldn’t abandon her. She didn’t come right out and say it, but she knows her mother wanted to add “Not like your father did.” Which seriously pissed her off.
And yet, she’d stayed.
Lauren didn’t tell Rick any of this until way later though. During that first meeting, all Lauren did was just smile and nod.
“Me too,” Rick said, then frowned.
“You ok?” Lauren asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I just”—he paused, scratching his head absently—“FIU was my last choice. I only came here because they didn’t want me to leave.” He motioned to his parents, then shook his head. “Up to me, I’d be at UCLA.” Staring at his shoes, he kicked a pebble off the sidewalk. “But whatever, it was too expensive anyways.”
Something clicked in Lauren then. It wasn’t like she knew then that they were going to eventually start dating, that two years in she’d get pregnant, drop out of college and marry him. There’s no possible way a person could know any of that in a moment so fresh, though it would be interesting to see how many people would still go through with it all if they did. Lauren felt something that day, not a complete feeling—nothing identifiable—but more than she normally would have for somebody she’d known for all of five minutes.
They exchanged numbers, texted each other a couple of times in the week after that, and pretty soon they were hanging out regularly. They didn’t date right away; there was nothing but the slightest romantic tension for almost a year. It turned out that Rick had a girlfriend when they met, and by time they broke that off, Lauren had met an FIU baseball player who she embarked on a six month tryst with, which ended abruptly when she woke up one day and realized the last thing she wanted to do was eat lunch with the guy and listen to him talk about his batting average again.
Lauren thinks deep down she and Rick knew what would eventually end up happening though. Either way, she was still surprised when she broke up with the baseball player (“I can do better than you anyways,” was his response) and wanted nothing more than to tell Rick about it. Not just talk to him, but see him. And when she did, she knew. That day, she met up at the Pollo Tropical on campus and, as he approached, she felt something twist itself into a totally new shape in her chest. He’d been single for a couple of weeks then, and it was the first time both of them had been single at the same time. She also realized that, at some point in their year long friendship, she’d fallen in love with him.
It wasn’t one of those drawn-out scenarios that took place after the realization, where Lauren hesitated then waited weeks or months to tell him. Rick really was easy to talk to, and he kind of drew information out of people without even trying. He was intuitive like that. So that day, the moment he got within speaking distance of her, he knew something was up.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I dumped him,” she said.
“Batting average guy?”
“Cool,” he said, smiling. “Can I ask why? Or do you not want to talk about it?”
“Because,” Lauren said, staring at him and trying to gauge his internal compass. She opened her mouth but the words wouldn’t come out, so she took a deep breath and finally blurted “I think I’m in love with you.” Then she covered her mouth, her face instantly turning red.
Rick stared at her for a long moment—an unnervingly long moment—then laughed. Not a that’s ridiculous laugh—thank God, Lauren would have had a heart attack—but more of a get out of here, are you for real? laugh. They stood a foot away from each other and she remembers how his eyebrows rose, surprised and disbelieving. She kept eye contact with him and nodded in response, then he leaned in and kissed her. Then they went back to his place and had sex. And Lauren can’t remember ever being happier than she was that entire day.
Two years later she woke up and puked into the garbage can next to her bed.
Lauren had a part time job back then, at the same CVS pharmacy she works at full time right now. She had to work that morning and had never been the type to be spontaneously sick. So, as soon as she got to work, she walked down the family planning aisle, scanned the place for anybody she knew who might see, and when the coast was clear she picked up a pregnancy test and ran to the bathroom.
Sitting in the stall with the test between her legs—steady stream of urine falling on the little white strip—Lauren remembers feeling so young, like when little girls play with dolls and pretend the plastic molding is an actual child. Her child. She didn’t know when she’d gotten old enough to be able to seriously take a pregnancy test. To be at work and taking a test right there in the handicapped stall of the bathroom.
Lauren finished peeing and stuck the test on the corner of the sink to sit for the full two minutes instructed, all the while thinking that she was being ridiculous, though her nausea hadn’t subsided. Then she peeked over to see the results. Then she sat and stared at the wall for a while before she stormed out of the bathroom, stole six more various tests and took them all.
And we all know how that story ends.
She had pondered the situation prior to that day (show us a girl—especially a girl in love—that says she doesn’t think about getting pregnant and we’ll show you a goddamn liar) but had never thought it would actually happen, at least not so soon. She always thought Rick and her getting married was a possibility, even a future guarantee. So were the inevitable children. Lauren loved—loves—Rick and wanted—wants—to be with him, and she loves kids and always wanted at least one, if not two. So it wasn’t like her being pregnant was a tragedy.
Yet still, she thought she had time. She had plans. Graduate school, some traveling, a whole slew of things she wanted to do with her life and with Rick before they settled down into the married-with-children lifestyle. But that day, that part of her future had suddenly become very immediate, right there in her face.
Though she didn’t know that explicitly right away, she admits. She wasn’t sitting there thinking about all the things she was about to do, all the near-future obligations, all the things she couldn’t do anymore.
Sitting in the bathroom at her job that day, all Lauren really saw were the lines: blue and red lines (and one test with a little happy face on it) strewn around her. It was the only thing her mind could process. Which is probably why she didn’t cry or smile or do anything but stare at those pregnancy tests and the door of the stall until the pattern of the wood and the colors of the test results blurred together into a swirl of brown and red and blue and white that made her feel like someone had flung piles of dog shit all over the American flag. The thought drew a fresh lurch and she turned, dry heaving into the toilet.
Lauren told Rick that night and he was supportive, or as supportive as a twenty-one year old college student who just found he’s going to be a father can be. Everything else that happened after—from the dropping out of school to the small family wedding to the apartment in West Kendall to Rick having sex with their babysitter—is, as they say, history.
Lauren blinks a couple of times, coming back to the present and looking around the car as if it just materialized around her. And in that moment of confusion, Justin’s tiny face pops into her mind, right in front of her eyes as if he’s sitting in the passenger seat next to her. Without hesitation she starts the engine and pulls out of the parking lot, headed towards Children’s Fantasy Preschool to pick up her son.