Give or Take

Nina and her daughters are waiting for the slowest elevator on the lower campus. Emma is stomping around, pressing the up button and yammering “come, come, come” in her four-year-old fashion, while Carmen, age eighteen months, is sound asleep, stretched out in the stroller, one shoe dangling perilously from her stockinged foot. Nina exhales theatrically as she watches their blurry reflections in the elevator’s chrome doors, wondering whether Oscar will be pleased to see them once they reach his office.

There’s a man waiting for the elevator too. He’s in his fifties, balding, bearded, and Nina can see that he had probably once (at some point or another) been handsome. Nina is of the opinion that people who have lost their youthful good looks still hold themselves as if they should be admired, as if daring the world to look away. It’s a sort of muscle memory tied to vanity. He takes one look at Nina and she senses he has pigeon-holed her too, as a slightly faded and harried thirty-something with an occasional chip on her shoulder. She doesn’t say anything to the man, but smiles cordially at him. It would be just her luck if he turns out to be from Oscar’s department.

There had been a welcoming party at the beginning of the semester, but how can she be expected to remember anyone from that? It happened over two months ago and her thoughts at the time were still fixated on the move, the unpacking process and settling in. The girls hadn’t come to the party, of course, but were back at the new house (under-furnished and cluttered at the same time) being watched over by Oscar’s flighty cousin. Lora, the cousin, also works at this prestigious college in the Midwest and was the only person they knew when they arrived here, which is why she’d been asked to babysit. Lora is not on the faculty like Oscar, but works in some vague, Gulag-like capacity for the admissions office.

Getting the position here, teaching Latin American Studies on a tenure track, is a huge opportunity for Oscar and there was no question of him taking it, but in many ways it seems like they are starting from scratch. Their support network, which included Nina’s closest friends, her parents and two sisters (both of whom have kids roughly the same age as Emma and Carmen) are now nine hundred miles away in Seattle. To say Nina feels overwhelmed is an understatement. Her to-do lists are endless and almost comical. Will they ever really get around to re-grouting the bathroom? Mostly she settles on the standard maintenance stuff, food, laundry, basic hygiene ― keeping their lives sputtering along, like so many boat motors. But they still need to find a decent pediatrician for the girls, a nursery school for Emma and some part-time care for Carmen too. Maybe then Nina can actually get back to her web design business, though she assumes its resuscitation will likely require heart paddles at this point.

There is still no sign of the elevator. Looking at Emma, antsy and spinning, Nina says, “We’re going to surprise Daddy today, aren’t we?” She reminds herself to repeat the phrase in Spanish. (“Vamos a sorprender a papá hoy, ¿verdad?”) Oscar’s mother will be visiting from Bolivia for the holidays and so they are teaching Emma some basic communication skills (Oscar has insisted) to surprise and charm her grandmother, though Nina is hardly fluent and her accent is nothing to brag about. The man who used to be handsome stares at Nina as she translates this simple phrase and she can see that he thinks she is a pretentious twit, showing off by speaking various languages to a toddler. But it’s not as if Emma has responded to either version, as she is now playing a game with herself ― cheerfully bouncing off the elevator doors.

Oscar’s language assignment reminds Nina of an old I Love Lucy rerun she saw as a child, the one where Lucy tries to learn Spanish because they are taking a trip to meet Ricky’s family in Cuba. When they get there, she calls Ricky’s uncle a Big Fat Pig by mistake and then all hell breaks loose. Ricky was played by Desi Arnaz, of course, the bandleader and Lucy’s real-life husband.

The elevator finally arrives and the man holds the door for Nina as she maneuvers the stroller inside, as Emma skips ahead, but Nina can tell the man’s assistance is grudging, as if simple kindness is the tariff he reminds himself to pay every once in a while so he can still call himself a human being. On the elevator, Nina pushes the button for the sixth floor and then adjusts the thin cotton blanket over Carmen’s legs in the stroller.

“There, pumpkin,” she whispers.

“Pumpkin?” Emma snickers. “If she’s a pumpkin, let’s cut her up and eat her.”

It was Halloween last week. They had carved pumpkins and made a pie. Emma was a generic princess with a painted face and meerkat ears. Carmen was stuffed into a baby sunflower costume, but her petals kept falling off.

“Let’s cut her,” Emma says again.

The man shoots Nina another glance, this time startled, and possibly horrified, as if he is witnessing the taunts of a novice serial killer. It probably doesn’t help that Emma starts to chant, “Cut her up, cut her up, cut her up” in the droning cadence of an anti-war protestor.

She touches Emma’s shoulder and says “Enough” (“Suficiente”) whereupon the chants don’t really stop, they just get creepier because Emma’s voice becomes soft and breathy.

Nina imagines the man is the type of person who has already raised his family, but is often on the lookout for lapses in public conduct, behavior his own children would never have been allowed to indulge in while they were growing up. He will no doubt report these instances to some equally judgmental spouse when he gets home. I rode the elevator today with the most murderous little family; Nina can almost hear him say.

As the elevator begins its lurching, sluggish ascent, she thinks again of what she just told Emma about surprising Daddy. It’s true. Oscar isn’t aware they are on campus. She’s not sure why she hasn’t called or texted to let him know that they are headed his way. And why does the word surprise suddenly sound so lurid to her? What if, when they get to his office, Oscar answers his door sweaty and unzipped, with some girl’s thong twisted around his neck, a flash of terrified and naked flesh dodging for cover behind his back? What if Emma (and even Carmen) will remember this day as the one where they caught Daddy messing around with a sophomore comparative lit major, leading to a lifetime of trust issues for both of them? (“problemas de confianza”.)

Nina remembers a Meryl Streep movie she saw once, where Meryl discovered her husband cheating. Meryl didn’t say anything to her husband at first, but ended up throwing a cake in his face at a party and then she left him and took their two daughters on a plane to New York City, where she planned to dream another dream ― or something like that. It’s what Meryl said right before she made her big exit while her husband was wiping frosting off his face. The husband was played by Jack Nicholson, in his lovable asshole mode, so you weren’t supposed to really hate him and Meryl wasn’t doing an accent so basically the movie was a comedy. Nina imagines if she catches Oscar cheating, she’ll do exactly what Meryl Streep had done. She’ll wait for a while and then throw a cake in his face at a party. Maybe even while his mother is visiting. She wouldn’t have to take the girls to New York though, because they could just go back to her parents’ house in Washington with its lovely view of the Cascades and then she’d dream another dream there.

But she doubts any of this will be put in motion today, as it is unlikely that Oscar would be stupid enough to literally screw up his career at this point ― and then there’s the fact that he’s not exactly the cheating type, even if he must experience some moments of temptation now and then. Oscar is, after all, a fairly handsome man, tall and somewhat fit. Nina even thinks he looks something like Desi Arnaz. She is reminded of Lucy again. Not Lucy on the show, but Lucille Ball, the person. She’d put up with her husband’s infidelity for a long time. Nina had read that somewhere or seen it on an A&E biography. It must have been rough on her. People forget this, but Lucy had been a great beauty once and had even been a showgirl, which was like being a Victoria’s Secret model back in the day. But then she got into television and had to tone herself down or maybe getting older had done that or maybe it was just the stress of living with Desi Arnaz.

The elevator has finally reached the sixth floor and Emma has stopped fidgeting and chanting and is looking hard at her mother, as if she can read her thoughts. What a mess that would be, Nina thinks ― old pop culture references, movie plots and catastrophic divorce scenarios! But nevertheless she feels guilty over not doing a better job of keeping focus, even during a brief elevator ride. She’ll add it to the list of scheduled improvements, right there next to the bathroom grout. The bearded man is getting off on the same floor. He probably does know Oscar, so Nina smiles again, but this time more benevolently. And once more he holds the elevator doors as Nina eases the stroller past him.

“Thank you,” she says, as warmly as she can manage.

“You have lovely children,” he remarks with a tight smile.

Nina looks down at the girls. Carmen’s face is flushed and blotchy. She’s snoring faintly while drool snakes and bubbles from her mouth. Emma is still squared off, glaring at her, eyes hooded and lip curled.

A response seems unnecessary.

“I hope you realize how fast it goes,” the man is saying now. “In no time they’ll both be students here.”

He laughs at his own words, but it’s an alarming and raspy sound, as if he’s choking on sand.

This kind of comment, from an older person, has always sounded like a criticism to Nina, as if no one but old people can possibly understand the passage of time.

Oh yes, I do realize that, feels like the safest answer, especially if he’s one of Oscar’s colleagues, so that’s what she goes with. Once they clear the elevator, the man moves in the opposite direction, away from Oscar’s office, and Nina is relieved because she’s not up to making any more small talk. But as he’s walking down the hallway he abruptly turns back and shouts, “You better appreciate what you have there, because it’s all gone in the blink of an eye ― give or take!!!”

Nina can’t tell if this is meant to sound as accusatory as it does or if it only came out that way because he was raising his voice to be heard. Perhaps the guy is just some cocky professor in the habit of pontificating to students and shouting directives at everybody else. Maybe he’s known for this behavior and even hated for it. At any event, Nina doesn’t have the energy to analyze it right now. She has too many notions in her head anyway and she doesn’t want to arrive on Oscar’s doorstep bearing any new ones. She’ll brood about the exchange later on. It’s what she does lately. She’ll bring the whole day, with all its petty intrigues, to bed with her, the way some people turn in with a good book.

Nina reaches up to smooth her hair and then looks down at herself. She can barely remember how she dressed today, as she was too preoccupied getting the girls out the door. Her skirt is stained with something she hopes is peanut butter and it’s too cold for the sandals she’s wearing. Her feet aren’t overly clean either. Nina begins to push the stroller toward Oscar’s office. Emma, who has stopped her silent treatment, is babbling again. She tugs at her mother’s untucked blouse.

“What did that man say, Mama?” she asks.

Nina doesn’t want to think about the man anymore. She’d prefer to say something sweet and lovely to her daughter instead. She remembers a book she loved as a child and read over and over again. The lead character, a servant girl in a rich household, was happy all the time and didn’t dwell on her rough lot in life; where she did things like haul pails of charcoal upstairs for some antiquated heating system and scrub stubborn stains from old rugs. The girl was always saying things to make people feel better about themselves, even the rich people she worked for, who only cared about money, a few of their horses and certain objects around their drafty house.

The girl’s favorite phrase was It’s a lovely new day that’s never been touched. Nina wants to say something like this to Emma, something simple and optimistic, but just then Carmen begins to stir. She often wakes from her afternoon nap cranky and demanding. Nina’s attention shifts and reboots. She pushes the stroller faster, but with only one hand. With the other, she is fumbling for a sippy cup lodged somewhere in the diaper bag slung over her shoulder.

When they reach Oscar’s office, he is very pleased to see them, a nice fusion of surprise and delight dances across his face. He kisses Nina sweetly while training his focus on Emma as she recaps that morning’s PAW Patrol episode, and then he sweeps Carmen up from the stroller into an extravagant cuddle. They are all buoyed by this unplanned midafternoon reunion, brimming with giddy affection for each other.

Much later, at home, with Oscar snoring softly beside her in bed, images from the day drift and flit through Nina’s mind ― the walk to campus with the girls, the elevator ride, the shouting, accusatory man, who Oscar did not recognize from his wife’s brisk description. Then Nina remembers that she never said anything sweet and lovely to Emma in the hallway. It didn’t happen afterwards either, not on the way home and not during their rushed dinner of mac and cheese and take-out food. It didn’t happen during the abbreviated bath time, with its splashing defiance, and certainly not before bed, when both children had been impossible, exhibiting operatic objections to the prospect of sleep.

Nina wishes she could be like the girl from the story who never forgot to ladle goodness around like soup and who saw love and hope and possibility everywhere she looked. But Nina has never been like that. In fact, she suddenly realizes that no one on the planet is like that, and it is quite useless to be comparing herself to this unrealistic fictional heroine who clearly had self-esteem issues and a co-dependency problem. However, this couldn’t have been the author’s intention, to elicit guilty self-appraisals in a sleepy woman from the future, a stranger with a cluttered home, a list of impossible chores, a handsome husband and two much-loved children. No, Nina thinks. The writer must have had real faith in the story as she wrote it and only wanted to touch some people and maybe even change her own world in a small, indefinable way. This idea pleases Nina, as she turns on her side, smiles drowsily and reaches over for Oscar’s hand in the dark.

About the Author

Bill Gaythwaite

Bill Gaythwaite’s short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Subtropics, Chicago Quarterly Review, Grist, The Meadow, Oyster River Pages, Atticus Review and other literary magazines. Bill has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize.