Personal Time: Chapter One

Personal Time

Chapter 1

First Kiss

This morning, someone shit on our lawn. Not something, as I’ll tell my wife. But someone. I’m sure of it. I’d gone to pull the car out of the garage, and when I stepped from the driver’s side, I saw it near the hedges, a brown smear. It might have been a dog. That was my first thought. But then I spotted the soiled paper towel tangled in the branches and thought, Son of a bitch, and turned to get the hose to wash it into the lawn, spread it out, dilute it. A couple flies darted off when I hit it with the spray, but they returned, taking up trace amounts I couldn’t clean off. As for the towel, I went inside for a pair of plastic gloves to pick it up. Then I took it to the trashcan, folded the band of latex over it, and dropped the whole thing in.

I go to the kitchen to wash my hands.

I’ll have to make sure Sadie doesn’t play out there. At least until it rains.

At the sink, I close my eyes and see it again. Light tan coloring, beaded with pale yellow. Enough to put me off corn for life. Splashed against the garden plot where the former owners had grown herbs—basil, parsley, thyme. We hadn’t tried to grow any there ourselves. We’d opted for planting boxes on the back deck, and if someone shit on those, my wife would lose her mind. Not that she’d show it. She’d growl, then get silent and try not cursing. She doesn’t want us cursing in front of our daughter. But I’d feel it in the way she carried herself, rigid, back tense. She’s needed an adjustment for a while but hasn’t had time to get one. Neither of us have time for much.

“Something shit on our lawn,” I say, as she walks into the kitchen. Sadie toddles along. “I mean pooped. Something pooped on our lawn.”

“What?” she says.

“A dog. I think. I washed it off with the hose.”

She gives me this why are you telling me? look and opens the fridge.

We have our morning routine. I pour our daughter milk and pull out the car. My wife packs her lunch. I shower and dress while she watches Sadie. Then we switch roles. Things have been this way for over a year. We have it down to a science, division of labor, the same actions each day, no primary caregiver or stay-at-home parent, just the two of us feeling our way through, doing what needs to be done. Most days it’s tough, and a lawn shitter doesn’t help.

He couldn’t have gone somewhere else?

I’m not sure whether I’ve said this aloud. I’ve been doing this more and more: letting the things I think become vocal. I’m often unaware I’m doing it, but I hear the thought crossing my lips: “Somewhere else, somewhere else.”

This guy—for it had to be man—could have at least had the courtesy to hide it. The trees behind our house. But no, the shitter shat there. Then he wiped his ass on a paper towel and shoved it into our bushes. This implied premeditation, suggested he’d taken his time, chosen the spot, relished the act. Had we pissed off any neighbors lately?

Shitter shat there, shitter shat there.

Had I said this aloud? If I had, I would have heard, “Could you not!” Which is what my wife shouts whenever I curse in front of Sadie. Then again, I mutter these things beneath my breath. There are times I know it’s happening, times I feel it coming on and pretend I’m singing some amorphous tune, a few random notes that transform as I go. This morning they morph into, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the song I sing Sadie before bed. The song’s pretty but hard to sing on key. Even humming it, I sort of botch it, the shift between some and where too wily for my voice. I have to remind myself to start low. Otherwise I can’t hit the high notes. Go bass with some so I’m only at baritone on where. Start at the wrong spot and I’m warbling soprano like a dog in heat. Sadie loves it, but right then, in the kitchen, my wife glares at me like, what the fuck are you so happy about?

I keep humming.

The act of talking to myself is spurred on by pleasure or shame. In the shower, hot water hits my shoulders and I moan and say, “That feels good,” or I’ll think of some idiotic comment I made years ago and shake my head and bark “No!” But the words come from anger too.

Why’d that son of a bitch drop his pants on my lawn?

I stand there thinking about it. Who could have done it? There’s a college up the street. Some frat boy maybe? On a dare? Some kind of hazing ritual? But what kind of frat boy carries paper towels to wipe his ass? Then I think of the post office. The building is right behind our house, across the creek. It’s one of those things we hadn’t considered when moving in. The noise. The early morning frenzy of trucks pulling up, men shouting, palettes slapping concrete. Beep! Beep! Beep! The bang, clatter, clap. Could this have been one of them? Some of the carriers park in front of our house. Some of the postmen look like they live in their cars. Bottles and cans littered across the seats. McDonald’s bags, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups, empty cartons of cigarettes, beat-up air fresheners dangling from rearview mirrors. I can only assume some keep paper towels beneath the seats. But don’t they have a bathroom inside? Why our bushes? Couldn’t he hold it those last two hundred feet?

I finish washing my hands and turn to face my wife.

Whenever I wash my hands, I spatter the floor while reaching for the towel. This makes her glare, but she holds her silence this morning. I know what her silence means. She’s pissed off, and it goes beyond the droplets of water. Her silence is something I’ve never grown used to in eight years together. The way she gets angry and quiet all at once. Some of the time, I don’t know what’s wrong. Most of the time, I do but pretended I don’t. This morning wasn’t any different. Last night, I’d come downstairs after tucking our daughter in. We’d planned to watch TV. It’s rare we find the time to sit together, even for something as mindless as a show, and I’d been looking forward to it. She’d waited until I’d made myself comfortable, then looked up and said, “Did you eat both potatoes?”

The answer was yes, I had. But as I sat, staring, hoping through some subconscious act of will to remove the empty Ziploc from the trashcan and fill it with the starch digesting in my stomach, I struggled to find an excuse. I’d had reasons, but it was only under cross-examination that my reasons seemed weak, my logic crumbled. My wife had been working on our laptop. I nodded, and she flipped the laptop closed.

“I don’t feel like watching TV,” she’d said, and stormed upstairs.

We’d gone to dinner at my parents’ on Sunday night. My mom sent us home with two twice-baked potatoes, the presumption being one for each of us. And while I’d had mine the next afternoon, Justine let hers sit for two days. Two full days. I could see it every time I opened the refrigerator. Cheese and sour cream spilling from the top, pleading for someone to eat it before it spoiled. I didn’t want it to go bad. It seemed she’d forgotten about it, so I took it.

Then, too, there had been extenuating circumstances. I’d come home after picking up Sadie from daycare. I’d put on rice and defrosted the three-bean chili I’d made last week. Sadie had started to fuss, and as I went to comfort her, I’d knocked my bowl onto the living room rug. I’d been looking forward to it all day, the steaming ladle of rich tomatoes and beans with avocado and black olives slathered over rice, the cheese melting on top drizzled with hot sauce. There had been two bowls left, and I’d given my wife the other and took the last potato as consolation. I’d worked hard all day, faced down rush hour traffic to pick Sadie up, and all I’d wanted was a decent meal. I get Sadie at the end of the day, and she’s harder then. In the morning when my wife has her, she wakes and gets dressed, sits and sips milk, watches Sesame Street. My wife packs her into the car and takes her to daycare where she gets wound up and primed to aggravate me on the way home.

“Can we go to the park?”

“We have to go home and make dinner.”

“Can we go to granny’s?”

“You’ll see granny tomorrow.”

“Can I have a treat?”

“You have to eat dinner first.”

“I want a treat now.”

It’s at this point, the point of not getting what she wants, that she squeals. My muscles grow tight. My fists clench up on the steering wheel. My shoulders hunch. I pull to the side of the road, scared we’ll have an accident, scared that the high-pitch sound rattling around in my head will make me ram the car in front of us, swerve into oncoming traffic, pull up on the railroad tracks and kill the ignition. Some days, I shout. “Shut up! Just shut up!” I can’t stop myself. She doesn’t know what she’s doing, how it’s affecting me. Yet, I can’t help seeing something insidious in her ceaseless repetitions. I attribute her with some unwitting notion she knows I’ll give in to keep her quiet, though I never do. This doesn’t happen every day, but it happens often enough that I resent my wife’s mornings. I wish we could switch. I’ll drop Sadie off, shoot the shit with her teachers. My wife can do the late-afternoon nervous run-walk to the station, catch the train back to the suburbs, rush to daycare so they don’t charge us extra for watching our daughter after hours, endure the high-pitch banshee wail.

Every day, I stand on the platform, watching the digital scheduling board slip from “5 min late” to “10 min late,” because the train’s always late unless I’m late, in which case the train’s early. Once I’m home, I have to make dinner. Otherwise, we eat after dark. So, I took the potato. I should have asked but didn’t. And the reason I didn’t was I knew she’d say no. I’d taken it in a fit of foul temper but wasn’t ready to admit this.

“Did you sleep all right?” I say.

I want to gauge how mad she is, so I ask benign questions to see if she’ll answer. She pretends she doesn’t hear me. Maybe she doesn’t. It happens even when she’s not mad, that she doesn’t hear. So, I can’t be sure how angry she is. I should say, “I’m sorry I ate your potato.” Instead, I say, “I’m heading out.” I bend to kiss our daughter and take her in my arms. “Daddy’s going to work. Are you going to miss me?”

She nods the way children do. Up and down, staccato.

I often worry I’m not enjoying this as much as I should—being a father. I’m always telling her not to do things, “Don’t play on the stairs,” “Don’t stand on the ottoman,” “Stop eating dirt!” By the end of the day I’m sick of my own voice. Last Sunday, I took her to the library. She sat in a corner looking at books. Then she got up and played with a puzzle. When I said it was time to leave, she darted into the shelves and did her best to evade me. When I caught her, I picked her up and she bit me, opened her mouth wide and buried her incisors into my arm. I raised my hand and brought it down on her bottom. One of the librarians glared like I’d just clubbed a baby seal.

“If you can’t behave,” I hissed, “we’re never coming back.”

But that wasn’t true. There might have been a better way to handle this, but I’m not sure what it was. Should I let her run wild? I’d get a different kind of look then, a look I’ve seen with other children, other parents. “Can’t you control your kid?” I tried pulling her aside. “This is not how we behave!” But my heart wasn’t in it. Now I’d spanked her once, her diaper padding the blow. That doesn’t make me abusive, does it? There’s part of me that questions discipline, questions the reasons I want her to stop doing things that are socially unacceptable but completely innocuous. Why shouldn’t she run around, get excited at the sight of books? It’s one of life’s great joys. I can’t leave a library without checking out one or two. And there are plenty on the shelves at home I haven’t read. Where’s the need for quiet stem from? Did I make a mistake chasing her, getting mad? I wonder what I’m doing right, what I’m getting wrong, and standing in the kitchen this morning before I leave for work, I clutch her close and kiss her cheek. She’s had a cough the past few days and feels warm to me, but not enough to keep her home. I place a hand on her chest. Her heart races so much faster than mine.

Why is that? I wonder. Hummingbirds, I think.

I stand and take my wife by the waist, but she turns away.

I hate this, the brush off. Her anger’s a sandstorm that sweeps through me, a stream of grit that wears away my resolve. I’ve learned to deal with it by holding my tongue. My own anger’s volcanic, hurtling, a swirl of flame and ash. I’ve grown good at containment, stepping away. Not that it’s easy. Whenever she turns her cheek, I want to lash out. It seems like hate, the opposite of what we’re supposed to feel for one another.

I go to the front door, open and close and lock it behind me.

I’m the one who apologizes regardless of who’s at fault. At least that’s how it feels. We had an exchange on chat once where she typed, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the one who’s always apologizing. I don’t think you’ve ever apologized.” And these words, flashing across my screen, made me stand and take a few laps around the office. I’d almost responded by typing something sharp, but part of the reason our relationship has lasted this long is that I’ve learned to try and see her side of things. I searched the archives, typed “Justine” and “sorry” into the engine where eight years of exchanges were saved. The results confirmed she’d written, “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “I’m sorry you feel that way,” but never, “I’m sorry.” I replied, “Do you mean I never apologize in person? Cause I feel the same. I never hear it from you. And I just looked at our chats and see dozens of instances where I’ve typed it, but none from you. If the problem is that I need to do it in person, I’ll make more of an effort, but I say it when I’m wrong, and I think you know that.”

For a while, there was nothing—a blank beneath the text I typed. Then she wrote, “We’re either not listening to each other or not speaking the same language.”

Her response was diplomatic, evasive. While I’d taken the tack of acknowledging her complaint and countering with evidence, she’d dodged to the left and come back with a sly political maneuver—rhetoric both meaningless and full of punch. I let it ride. I hate fighting. Most of all, I hate fighting her. It had been easy to avoid arguments when we first met. We never fought. We’d been friends. Two people who hung out in Rittenhouse Square late at night, telling stories. I’d like to think those conversations didn’t require as much strategizing, but they did. Just of a different sort: concealing character flaws, relying on any charm I had to make me look better than I was. Still, I’d been more willing to express how I felt, freer to speak. How fondly I recall sitting on the stone wall that encircled the courtyard, strands of bright bulbs hanging from trees above us, lighting her face in the dark.

We’d taken a dance class together. This was how we got to know one another. I’d put a post online: “Looking to learn to dance. Signed up for Latin and seeking a partner. If anyone’s interested, hit me back.” It seemed strange at first, using the web for something like this. Friends had told me about social networking sites. They were new at the time. I signed up, posted pictures. One was a photo my friend Jasper had taken of me in Amsterdam. I was on a boat, gazing into the distance, my face serious, a world-weary traveler roughing it, backpack looming above the Jeff cap I’d bought in Paris to fend off the autumn wind. I looked good in it. I got messages from women around the city. For someone who’d never been adept at talking to them, this was an easier way to meet. I’d open my account and find emails. I was good with face-to-face interaction once I had a topic of conversation, but I never knew how to approach them without some prior connection. The sites removed this hurdle. I created a profile and volunteered what I wanted them to see, hid what I didn’t. It was advertising at its most fundamental. I wasn’t revealing myself but a representation of self. I created a troubled young romantic, more adrift than I was. Thick-bearded, wild shock of dark hair, quoting Neruda and Marquez. Whenever I had a date, and someone asked where we met and I said, “Online,” it felt like I’d turned to the Internet out of desperation. Yet, more people were doing it. I’d hoped to find love, but most of the time, settled for a fling. I was catching up on what my friends had experienced in high school or college through a series of short-lived affairs and one-night stands, making up for the time I’d spent celibate, studying, getting the best grades I could only to end up middle management, working for an academic publishing house. Given the salary I started with, the sacrifice hardly seemed worth it, but women responded to the quotes on my profile—the opening lines of Love in the Time of Cholera, a stanza from Shakespeare’s sonnets—so the English degree was good for something.

This was how I met Justine. I’d dated and broken up with her friend Darcy. After the breakup, Darcy and I hung out sometimes. One night, she invited Justine to a club with us, and later, I found Justine online. I didn’t have ulterior motives. It was how things worked. You met someone in real life, you looked them up online. And yet, coming off a breakup—not the one with Darcy, but with another, with Judy—I posted that message, “Looking to learn to dance. Signed up for Latin and seeking a partner. If anyone’s interested, hit me back.” And Justine had responded.

I’d wanted a fresh start. Most of my friends were barflies who frequented the same dive in the back of an Ethiopian restaurant, and I’d grown tired of this. It was where I’d met Judy, and that had ended badly. I’d made a list of all the things I wanted to try that didn’t involve getting drunk, and first was learning to dance: Latin. The sway of hips, the sultry twist of salsa, the slow seduction of rumba. I didn’t know if I’d be any good, but I figured I’d give it a try.

I’d been curious about Justine, though I hadn’t pursued her beyond our social-media connection. The night we met—the night Darcy invited us both to the club—she was dressed in black, both shirt and pants, though she claims she never dressed like that. She stepped on my feet, though she says I stepped on hers. The club was one cramped room on the second floor with a DJ booth tucked into a corner. We didn’t have a chance to talk. The music was so loud you couldn’t hear anyway.

“So, what are you into?” I asked when I saw her later at a bar.

“I like crafts. I just finished knitting a doll for my niece. She turned one last week.”

Justine told me she’d taken swing dancing without a partner, and I found this brave. It planted the seeds of learning to dance, though I hadn’t thought of asking her to be my partner.

I’d also asked Darcy about her.

“She doesn’t need a boyfriend. She’s fine staying home Friday nights.”

This was compelling, since most of the women I dated craved men’s attention. Whenever one split up with me, she had someone else lined up. They never left otherwise.

“But Judy was different,” I told Justine in one of our late-night Rittenhouse conversations. We were sitting on the wall in the courtyard. Crowds were leaving the bars. The fountain was on, its low bubbling in the background. The trees and grassy nooks where people spread blankets and had picnics on sunny days spiraled out around us. Justine leaned in, listening, and I tried to entertain her. “She pursued me. Most of the time, I’m chasing them. But there, the difference ends. When she had me, she decided I wasn’t enough. We broke up a few days after we saw Brokeback Mountain. She said we didn’t have that type of passion. Can you believe that I got dumped because we couldn’t generate the forbidden love of two gay cowboys in Wyoming?”

“It sounds like you’re better off,” she said.

We hadn’t considered dating. I was fresh off Judy, and Justine wouldn’t date the same men as Darcy.

“So, I’m off limits?” I asked.

“There’s got to be someone she hasn’t gone out with.”

“Good luck finding him.”

I didn’t mind. I liked spending time with her. She was attractive, the way she carried herself, strong, independent. She had brown eyes, wore her short, wavy hair in a bob to the nape of her neck. When we started taking dance classes together, she wore skirts. She was tall and slender, and they looked good on her. When we danced, I held her. The instructor told me to clutch her tightly, and I did. But I hadn’t considered her for me. She wasn’t like the women I dated—drunken, erratic. Which is why I had a problem seeing it. It took two years, during which we spent countless nights together, listening to music, watching TV. I can’t remember disagreeing in those first two years of friendship, and even after we got together, we didn’t argue. There had been tiffs—tiff seems the right word since they were short-lived—when we moved into our first apartment, but our fights had increased in frequency, if not severity, the older we got. It wasn’t that we disagreed about big decisions. We both wanted a house, children. But there was tension over details—whether to hire movers or do it ourselves, where to put certain pieces of furniture, who was carrying more weight with household chores. Underlying each of these arguments were principles. So the disagreement about eating her potato wasn’t about potatoes but something else: that I hadn’t asked, hadn’t checked with her; though a few years back, we’d had a similar situation with yogurt, and the arguments she presented then ran counter to the case I knew she’d lay out now.

We’d gone to the grocery store and bought yogurt. A few days later when I wanted some, I opened the fridge to find she’d eaten them all. When I brought it up, I received a lecture on sharing. “But you ate them all,” I said. “Every last one.” To which she’d replied, “I’ll go to the store and get more today.” And walking out the door this morning, I figure this is what I’ll tell her: “I’ll ask my mom for the recipe, make some more this weekend.”

When the yogurt incident happened, I’d wanted to say sharing means you get some and I get some. Not you get it all, and I suck it up. Today I want to apologize. But pride holds me back. Some of the time, I wish she’d let it go. I want her morning smile, her morning kiss. Instead, she holds her lips tight-pressed and offers the briefest peck, icy, unyielding.

Our sweetest kisses now happen at night. She goes to bed, and I come in after working out or writing or watching a movie and plant my lips on her forehead. She’s half-awake, and I tell her I love her, and she says it back and offers up her lips. In these moments, they’re softer, the kisses more meaningful. It’s as though between sleeping and wakefulness, the stress of the day slips off and she accepts my love in a way she can’t when she’s distracted, distanced from herself, the woman I know her to be, the one I fell in love with on a rooftop deck years ago.

How exciting our first kiss had been: a June night when we’d returned to her apartment after class and sat on her roof. She was renting a studio near Rittenhouse and had access to a view of the Philly skyline through a fire escape. Her apartment walls were thin, and we heard her neighbor—a student at the Academy of Arts—practicing Chopin on the piano. As we sat there, she told me about struggling with her mother’s bipolar disorder, how a therapist told her she didn’t have to make her mother’s problems her own. She talked about her father’s gambling addiction, how he’d taken her to casinos when she was young, left her at the buffet while he played the slots. I didn’t interject but sat next to her, silent. Our arms touched. We looked up, though the light from the skyscrapers blocked out the stars. The roof smelled of tar, the heat of the day. We heard cars passing below.

“I was listening to the radio when I woke up this morning,” she said. “They were talking about sunspots and coronas. How the sun flings its energy out into space. And it scared me. Thinking about how small we are. How big the universe is.”

She leaned against me, and I put an arm around her. She placed her head at the nook of my shoulder, resting the side of her face on my chest. I started trembling. It was one of those things she’d later comment on: how I trembled. I couldn’t control it. I was trembling, not with cold, but anticipation. I hardly realized I’d been waiting for this. From dancing, I knew the shape of her body, the way it fit with mine. She turned her head and leaned in. Our lips met. We kissed.

About the Author

J. M. Jones

J. M. Jones works as a writer and editor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His essays and fiction have appeared previously in Passages North, The Southeast Review, The Portland Review, Barrelhouse, and The Normal School.