Jane bought a dining table as a way to show off—one of these floating furniture pieces where the legs retract into the body of the table and the thing just hangs suspended in midair while you eat. Her goal was to stair-step our dining room toward relevance, God bless her, and the table was the jumping-off point.
They shipped it from Sweden in a flat brown box, bound together with a thousand staples, to a warehouse in the industrial part of downtown. It took me most of a Saturday to get down there, load it up, and get back to the house. When I got the box inside, Jane kept lifting it off the living room carpet with one finger and remarking on how lightweight it was, and she was right. Its weight didn’t feel nearly equivalent to the $8,000 price tag.
“Why a floating table, exactly?” I had asked when she started getting serious about it. “Why would a scientist spend their time on something like that? And why would anyone buy it?”
“Why not?” Jane responded, tossing some junk mail into the recycling chute. “Why’d they develop that pill you’re taking to regrow your hair?” she said, turning to face me, and I had nothing further to say on the subject.
Jane had a bit of a drug problem in college but mostly kicked it by the time we got married. Her hobbies had been shifting toward quiet, domestic pursuits as we aged, although she often went about them with an addict’s feverish mentality. She took art classes at night, then drew calming landscapes in the office until three or four in the morning, bent over the desk with her hair tied up above her head.
She unpacked the table and put it in the center of the dining room, atop a fraying rug, then stood smiling in the doorway, running a finger along her collarbone. I couldn’t have been more disappointed with the way the thing looked. It was a thin panel of synthetic material made to look like wood, with four legs each the diameter of a pool cue. And it was nearly two-dimensional. If you looked from the correct angle, it would disappear from your sight entirely. The underside was protected by a clear plastic plate, beneath which was an expanse of pinions and gears and colored wires running in untraceable mazes.
Jane washed an old linen tablecloth and pulled it across the table with the care of an army nurse spreading a blanket over a wounded, sleeping GI. We realized quickly that something was wrong when I switched it on for the first time. After an hour spent flipping through the instruction manual, I figured out the tablecloth was blocking the hovering agent’s exhaust vents and the thing was overheating before it could get off the ground.
When I mentioned this to Jane, she went to the office and found a very specific type of tablecloth on the Internet that has holes fashionably cut out for the exhaust vents, and so we spent another $500 right there.
She and I began our relationship in college, in love, in a state of performance, probably not unlike anyone else. We were highly attuned to one another’s desires and fears, terrified of rejection by the other, but at some undefined point we each settled into who we really were. And then the years began to bleed together. We started making our own way, searching for things that could possibly make us happy: I taught English and tried to write stories on the weekends. Jane did the drawing classes and shopped for expensive furniture online.
She invited Joe and Tori over for dinner to see the new table. Tori was our old college friend, and Joe was her slick investment banker fiancé who liked to speak on involutions in the economy in a way that diminished the people who were listening.
I was secretly hoping for the day this engagement fell apart. Joe was the definition of smarm, and Tori was still in that performance mode around him—acting more carefree and fun-loving than she really was. He’d given her an engagement ring with a round diamond the size of an Alka-Seltzer tablet.
Jane bought steaks for me to grill. She led Joe and Tori by the hand into the dining room to show them the table the second they got there. Joe lifted up one corner, looked underneath.
“Where’s it plugged in?”
“It has a six-hour battery,” Jane said with a not-insignificant amount of pride.
Joe nodded. “Nice.”
Tori was impressed, too. And she was beautiful, and I knew things about her that Joe would never know. Like the way she pinched cigarettes when she used to smoke. The sound of her crying in a limousine on the way to her brother’s funeral. Tori, in her yellow bikini at 19, on the sun-drenched sand of Puerto Vallarta.
This was a problem for him—being on the outside, looking in—at dinners, at weddings, where the old stories were hauled out of reserve and paraded around. He would listen with a restless, artificial smile, his eyes wandering off, fixing on the farthest point he could find.
Joe was a reality-show baby—one of these “rabies,” as they call them—his parents having met decades ago on some season of the Real World. You may have witnessed his conception on the third episode from a grainy night-vision camera mounted in the corner of a cast-house bedroom. Such a strange pair, his parents—his mom a beautiful blonde, and his dad a ragged, racist Midwesterner—every moment of their odd, drunken beginning on the neon-soaked streets of Las Vegas recorded for eternity.
Joe would talk about his family, if you asked him, in a hardened way that must have developed through years of abuse on the subject. His parents broke up before the season wrapped, right after the revelation that she was pregnant, and I don’t know that he ever met his dad, but Joe turned out successful and now made enough money to drive a dark green electric sports car and buy recreational drugs whenever the mood struck him.
He was handsome, too, despite an underbite that made him look endlessly annoyed. His other physical blight was his left foot, which was turned noticeably outward, a congenital condition, causing him to step in a delicate way so that he bounced as he moved. I noticed, not long after we first met, that he used various tactics to hide this. He would stay seated for long periods, or he would make his way across a room in segments so that a person couldn’t observe the irregular line of his movements long enough to notice anything. They were impressive, these tactics, the strategies of a severely self-aware person.
When the dinner was laid out and steaming on this $8,000 piece of plastic, we circled around it, standing before our chairs, and I couldn’t help thinking there was something prayerful or sacrificial about our arrangement. Jane flipped the switch, and after a moment you could hear the whirring sound of the hovering components warming up. Joe lowered his ear to the tabletop. Soon, the fans began to run, making a sound like water swirling in an inlet, and Joe jerked upright, a dazzled smile coming across his face. The table then rose a few inches off the ground, gently, so as not to disturb the glasses and cookware, and the legs folded up with an electric whine.
Floating, it resembled a ghost, the tablecloth running over the edges and fluttering slightly in the fans. Joe looked underneath again, maybe to ensure it wasn’t an optical illusion. When he was satisfied he began to clap politely, and then Tori joined in, and then all of us were doing it. Jane started laughing and took a bow like she had invented the thing. We sat down and passed the dishes, one person to another. I watched Jane, opposite me, put her hands beneath the table and enjoy the cool sensation of the fans.
When dessert was over, Tori said she felt bad for not bringing anything and offered to go buy some marijuana from the after-hours kiosk in our grocery store parking lot. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and left through the front door with her purse trailing behind her. “Help with the dishes,” she said to Joe over her shoulder.
I had to go to the bathroom, then went to fish my cigarettes out of the sock drawer. I don’t know why I kept them there, just a routine from my formative years that never stopped feeling right. I’d puff cigarettes while they smoked their weed, since getting stoned made me lose my shit.
When I walked back into the dining room, the table was mostly cleared, still humming evenly. From the kitchen came the sound of running water and light voices. I took a few steps in that direction and could see Jane standing elbow to elbow with Joe at the sink, their backs to me, a stack of dirty dishes to their left. They were rinsing and placing items in the dishwasher, cleaning the wine glasses and steak knives by hand.
Sometimes you can tell, even from behind, when two people are smiling. Joe scooped up some soap bubbles and blew them into Jane’s hair, and she laughed and bumped him away with her hip. There was a familiarity between them, an easiness. I stepped back into the shadows and watched. It might’ve been innocent, but they were finding an entertainment in washing dishes that was not normal.
Whatever was going on between them, I felt jealous and irritated and surprisingly aroused—my emotions like several colors painted over the same spot until the result is something muddled and near-black.
Their imaginary affair storyboarded before me: the lying, the intuitions, the attempts at guessing passcodes, the gruesome discovery. The divorce. Would Joe and Jane get married to each other? Would Tori and I bond through it all? Would Tori and I get married?
I was still standing in the dark when Tori came in the front door, waving the hermetically sealed bag of drugs. “Line at that thing was insane,” she said. “The old guy in front of me apparently had never paid for something with his retinas before.”
The three of them smoked a joint, and I lined my cigarettes up individually on the coffee table like I was playing a game against myself. The girls began laughing and howling in the familiar drug-induced way they did—like they were the only two people remaining on earth—and Joe and I were left staring at each other.
“You hear about this Hendrickson guy over at Bank of North America?” he said, tapping ash onto the carpet, his eyes glassy. “This guy offloads a half trillion dollars into some Brazilian civic renovation project that’s a cartel front and nobody notices for an entire week. By then, he’s vanished from the face of the earth and the money’s off to God-knows-where.”
There was some sense of delight in his voice, in bringing up a topic that I wouldn’t be able to discuss with any sophistication.
“A bank that’s getting too big for its own good,” I said.
Joe halfway frowned and nodded at this, like he was in agreement with me, but that his reasoning was better. I wanted to never see this person again for the rest of my life.
Some hours later they drove home, Jane and I waving from the front porch, the wind blowing dried leaves in through the door. In our bedroom I watched Jane undress, revealing the lovely curve of her back, the white of her calf. Her clothes ended up in a pile by the window. She came at me in bed, the moment cheapened somewhat by the smell of weed on her skin. I pictured her coming at Joe, expecting to feel repulsed by it. But I wasn’t.
The next day I had some kind of a breakthrough, the feeling of something being jarred loose. I started working on a new story, my best idea in years, about a successful novelist who begins to believe his wife is having an affair with a man who has a prosthetic foot. The novelist isn’t even mad about the affair, he’s mainly just curious about what she sees in the one-footed man, so he starts following her around, doing little things that entice them into meeting each other. My thoughts were consumed by it.
At school, I started neglecting various teacherly duties—canceling StuGo meetings and tutoring sessions—and instead writing in my classroom with the lights turned off, a square of late-afternoon sunlight making its way across the floor.
I gave Jane an early draft to read, but it sat untouched on the table for a week, so I took it back. Against my better judgment, I made 20 copies in the teacher’s lounge and had my class read and workshop the story, trying to pass it off as the published work of a fake author named Lonnard Croyle. As soon as I spoke Croyle’s name out loud, they searched for him on their learning screens (which I should have anticipated), and after some pretty stiff questioning, I was forced to admit the story was mine.
They started whining about how creative writing didn’t fit into their curriculum, that they didn’t think I should use their class time to explore my own personal hobbies. I had never before felt this vulnerable, being lectured by children, and something inside me snapped. I raised my voice and heard myself saying things to them I would not believe later:
“This class has sucked all semester, and everyone in this room knows it.” I walked to the center of the room and loomed over them. “Fuck your curriculum. The workshop is moving forward, like it or not.”
The class went silent—you could hear Mrs. Daley diagramming sentences next door. I regained some composure: “Do this for me, and I’ll do something for you guys when it comes time to turn in grades.”
There may have been one or two bits of worthwhile commentary that came out of the “workshop” (I liked it, It’s funny, Not too long), but they mostly just critiqued with the easy cruelty found only in people who haven’t begun to think about their own death.
Regardless, I was energized by my present circumstances, this sudden outpouring of writing, feeling myself in abundance. This was the beginning of some change, some fortuitous shift in my work.
I devised a motto for myself to help me seize writing opportunities and wrote it on a card taped above the mirror. It read TODAY! in blue marker, but after a few consecutive days of laziness, Jane crossed it out and wrote Tomorrow… beneath in eyeliner pencil, along with a little happy face.
I’m not sure how long I stood there staring at it. At first, I was surprised that an eyeliner pencil could be used so effectively to belittle someone. The surprise quickly turned to total outrage.
I retaliated in the first way I could think of and drank a bottle of wine she was saving for the Oscars while she was at her drawing class that night. I sat facing the door to the garage so that she would see the empty bottle and my smiling purple teeth the instant she walked in. But she did not come home, and it got late, so I crept into bed and sent her a text:
saw ur artwork on the card THX FOR THE SUPPORTTTTTTTTTT
I wondered if she was with Joe, late into the night. She might have been off somewhere working on her drawings. When I left for school in the morning, she was asleep on the couch, in her clothes. That afternoon an email arrived from her:
C— I’m truly sorry if I hurt your feelings, but you need to TOUGHEN UP. The only thing I know about the art world is that the thin-skinned have no place in it. You are great at what you do. I was trying to help you WORK HARDER, to GET BETTER. It was not the right way to go about it though, you’re right. Our acct is overdrawn btw, but I’m going to see Joe to get the charges refunded. —J
That weekend she cleaned off my writing desk that had become cluttered at the edges with objects of hers—an old phone, some candles, pages and pages of drawings. She bought me a new coffee mug, one that glows bright blue when the coffee is hot, and encouraged me to spend time at the desk. She reiterated my writing was important to her. She put a new TODAY! card above the mirror and asked where the defaced one was. I said I’d thrown it away already, but it’s really folded up in my sock drawer.
I am taking a pill that was just released in the last year that regrows your hair, and it’s going pretty well. The main problems are that the new hair is a bit darker than my natural color, and the follicles curl once they reach a certain length, like something that would look more appropriate growing out of a melanoma. Jane hates the whole idea behind it, thinks I’m taking poison, and says she likes the way I look naturally. She talks about the pill like it’s an organism with thoughts and decisions to make.
“How does it know to grow new hair on your head, and not your knuckles or the bottoms of your feet?”
Joe makes fun of me about the pill. He likes to remind me to take it when we eat together ever since he found out I can’t ingest it on an empty stomach or my risk of stroke goes astronomical. Everyone gets a good laugh out of it, especially Jane. Her hope is that I’ll be shamed into not taking it anymore. She’s going to have to keep on hoping.
It quickly got to the point where the table was collecting dust, all four legs on the ground, and Jane and I were eating quiet dinners on the high-backed stools at the kitchen island, a disconnect settling between us.
Jane’s clutter that used to populate the empty spaces of my writing desk migrated to the table so that eating there would’ve required cleanup beforehand. I would stand in the dining room in the dark some nights, just wanting to kick it, an imaginary neon price tag suspended above. I tried to remember how I pictured the table in my mind before we owned it, but I couldn’t do it. It was just like how I could never remember the way I’d first envisioned a vacation once it was over.
Joe had a big fat gift card to Outback Steakhouse, so the four of us went out for dinner, and Jane’s table sat alone in the dark of our dining room. As was typical, the conversation eventually turned to the topic of my writing. Usually, I had to rouse myself into the faux-enthused state I had perfected to ward off any concrete discussion of my work. I liked to present myself as someone who was naturally gifted at writing, but who didn’t really have the time to explore it to the fullest extent of my talents. This, I thought, made my continued failure much more understandable, and really a little tragic. But on this night, my enthusiasm was real.
“I’m working on something exciting.” My voice was humming, electric. I tried to tone it down a little. “It’s tough. You know—with family stuff.” Here I gestured towards Jane. “It’s tough to get any work done.”
“You’re getting good feedback though?” Tori asked, wide-eyed and encouraging. A tray passed behind her balancing a giant fried onion and a foot-high cheeseburger.
“He is,” Jane put in, clasping my forearm. “He has a manila folder that’s six inches thick from good feedback.”
“Proud of you, Charles,” Joe announced. “I’m always worried you’re gonna say you’ve given up.” He was eating cheese fries from a plate at the center of our table. “All that mental isolation. People go insane from that.”
And then, like we’d had this dinner a thousand times before, we moved on to a discussion of Joe’s days as a creative writer, two years of precocious success as an undergrad, before he’d fortunately switched majors to something that was actually worth his time.
After the dinner, the four of us moved to the Outback bar, under its friendly red glow, and I drank and drank and got the bartender to crank up the music to a level that caused some people in the restaurant to cover their ears. I went to the bathroom and on my way started chatting with a redheaded woman who had stress acne around her mouth and forehead. She wore yellow tights and a jacket with brass buttons. She was an art teacher in the same district as me, and we knew a lot of the same people. Most of what she said I couldn’t hear over the music.
I was only able to admit this to myself later, but when I talked to her, I tried to imitate Joe. He does this thing where he aims his thumb at your chest while making a point, and it makes you feel as if the ideas he’s explaining were ones you came up with yourself. It’s such a strange gesture, but I’ve always wanted it for my own. It seemed to be working on the redhead, because she was transfixed on my every word. We talked for a long time, and I felt an odd power over her.
When I started complaining about what Jane had done to the TODAY! card, I realized in the slow blink of the art teacher’s eyes that she wasn’t transfixed by anything I was saying—she was just luxuriantly drunk. There was nothing in her face that registered she understood me, or the card, or that anything beyond today even existed.
Around this point, I noticed Jane out of the corner of my eye, wearing her coat, her anger apparent, jangling the car keys at me as if I were an escaped dog she was coaxing back out of the woods.
Well before Jane and I began dating, Tori and I had this weird moment in college. On spring break in west Florida, we spent the day drinking and lounging by the pool while the rest of our friends toured around off the coast on a fishing boat. A storm blew in that afternoon, unlike anything I’d seen before, the wind bending the palm trees so far it seemed they would snap, and our friends had to stay overnight in Miramar Beach. I have some memory of that night alone with Tori in the rain-battered beach house, sitting close on a white couch, a bottle of Parrot Bay in my hand or hers, having some debate over whether Jimmy Buffett had been a musician or a restaurant. The next day I couldn’t remember if I’d made a move on her or if I’d just imagined everything in my head. She and I never discussed it, and our friendship went on as normal.
But she and Jane were such good friends in college, I’m sure they talked in private about every detail of that night. I feel like something happened. Maybe not sex, but something weird. If it had, then Jane certainly knew everything about it—the way I’d tasted to Tori, how long I’d been able to perform. All of this made it quite possible that my wife knew things about my own past that I didn’t even know myself.
Jane came to school one day to have lunch with me in my classroom and carried with her a little white box tied up with a bow. She handed it over, trying to act reserved but clearly brimming with gift-giving excitement. Inside the box was a large white plastic die she’d ordered on the Internet, about the size of a baby’s fist, something you might see in a role-playing board game. Etched in black on each of its 12 faces she’d had it customized to read TODAY!
“You just roll it. Like this,” she said, gently tossing it across my desk. It landed on my grade book. “You just give that thing a roll whenever you feel like putting your pencil down.” Looking down at it, I found myself wanting to ask how much it had cost. But I didn’t.
I thought of college, when I felt so many cloying things about Jane to my very core. I could never express anything out loud or in writing to her without sounding stupid and lame, just like all the other heartsick couples around us. Eventually I gave up trying to tell her anything at all. Whatever I had said at the beginning, though, was enough for her to want to marry me. She had to prod me into proposing. I’m still so embarrassed at the way that I did it.
For just a moment at the desk there, with the TODAY! die facing up at me, I felt hopeful about our marriage, like she and I were floating on the glass of the ocean at night, and there, in the distance, we could make out lights from a ship.
But there was something in imagining her leaning across the sink with that eyeliner pencil, thinking it was so funny, thinking she was helping me, that I wasn’t ready to let go of.
“This is so great, thank you,” I said. “And isn’t it funny? It’s energized me to get some writing done this very lunch hour.”
I leaned back in my chair and waited.
Her face soon darkened.
“Oh,” she said, and she began to collect her things, pausing to brush hair away from her face. “You want me to leave.” She walked to the edge of the classroom, calm and controlled. “You’re an asshole, Charles. A fucking baby.”
It took a couple days to get her speaking to me again. I apologized, in ways that are not easy for me. This pattern was typical and nothing to worry about. The hurt person withdraws, the offender pursues, switch sides, etc. I did my best to put it all behind me.
Joe and Tori invited us over to his house for dinner for the first time ever. Jane drove and I sat next to her complaining that we didn’t have better friends to eat with. I was frustrated and irritable because the cuckolded novelist story had ground to a halt. He was following his wife around, taking notes, acting as this weird sort of puppet master, but everyone somehow ended up in Paris, and I couldn’t figure out how to get them out of there.
“Do you want me to say no next time they invite us somewhere?” she asked, sounding tired.
“I don’t know. Are they ever going to get married? Joe—he’s just—can’t we start to spread ourselves around a little bit?”
“I’m curious to know who else you’d like to eat dinner with.”
“People that don’t make me unhappy,” I said. “The Ellisons?”
Jane was baffled. “The Ellisons? That we met the one time? The Toastmasters Ellisons?”
“They seemed interesting.”
“You thought she was interesting.”
“Dead wrong. You are so dead wrong about that.”
Jane leaned forward into the steering wheel, like she needed to rest herself on it.
Joe’s house was at the end of a sloping street in a neighborhood with tall fences designed to keep people out. The driveways were long, with steep gradients that ran upward, the houses peering down at us from on high. Tori still kept a condo downtown, but most of her stuff was already moved into Joe’s.
Some days Joe’s foot seemed worse than others. This night it was worse. When we walked inside, he bounced around the corner and handed us little eight-ounce glasses filled with a smoothie he’d made from his neutron-beam juicer. It had kale and pineapple in it, and several other ingredients that he mentioned after I stopped listening. It tasted like sunlight breaking through a wall of winter clouds.
Of course, they’d bought a dining table just like ours, only theirs was better, made by a higher-end Swedish manufacturer, with a genuine pine finish and stone warming panels to keep food hot. Our dinner floated before us, and I was so mad I couldn’t see straight.
“Wait, wait,” Joe said, stopping everything before we started to eat. “We’re forgetting something.” He looked off into the distance for a long time. “Oh, yes,” he said, tapping his temple. “Your pill, Charles.”
Jane didn’t even seem to care that they’d copied us—she seemed genuinely happy for them and their table, which was confounding to me. What was the point of purchasing the thing if it didn’t serve as some kind of one-upmanship? I mean, what is really the point of having your food floating in front of your fucking face if everybody else is doing it too? I was so pissed at Jane for making me care anything at all about furniture.
After dessert Tori made another trip to the weed kiosk, and I again watched Jane and Joe rinse the dishes in his massive kitchen, their elbows literally rubbing, me sitting on a couch in the adjacent living room beneath a domed ceiling that resembled what you’d see at an indoor arboretum. I remembered feeling strange when I first saw them interacting this way, not sure how to define my emotional response. They knew I was watching them this time, and it didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm at all.
Joe was running steak knives under the faucet, then wiping them clean with a towel on his shoulder, when something suddenly came to me and I realized what I needed to do with the novelist story. It was such a divine sort of feeling, shot up inside as if through a vein, that I nearly jumped off the couch and cried out.
I realized, sitting there, that Joe was evoking something complicated within me, something I couldn’t quite describe. Whatever it was, it made me focus. Being in his presence brought about perspective, just like how I could only appreciate feeling normal when my body was racked with sickness.
When we left, Jane and Tori embraced like this night was the last they’d ever have together, although there’d be too many more to count. I shook Joe’s hand on the way out, feeling a strange gratitude for him.
I drove home because Jane was too stoned, and she apologized for scoffing at the idea of the Ellisons. She reached over and ran her fingers through my hair.
“I’m proud of you for wanting to branch out, Charles.”
“Well, I’m sorry about suggesting I don’t want to spend time with Joe. I really do want to spend as much time with them as possible.”
“That makes me so happy, honey. They really do love you,” she said. She sounded half asleep. “And I love you.”
“I love all three of you,” I said, the car racing through the lamp-lit street, the moon keeping pace in the window.
It was late when we got home. I made some coffee and went to my desk to write all of this down. The night carried on, hours passed perhaps, and then I heard the even humming of the table from down the hall, and the electric whine of the legs retracting.
Jane had moved all the clutter into an armchair in the corner and was lying flat on the ground beneath the table, the only light in the room coming from streetlamps flooding the window. She’d taken her shoes off, and her white socks were the only part of her I could see, sticking out from beneath.
“This is fun,” I said, giddy from my writing, as I crawled underneath beside her. It was like spring down there, the fans cool and light in our faces.
“I was scared to get under,” Jane said.
“I thought my body might disintegrate or something.” She laughed, but she seemed to be crying a little. “I’m so high, Charles.”
“That’s okay,” I said, and I snuggled up next to her. We lay for a long time in silence.
“Charles,” she said, and now she was really crying, “I’m not sure I’ve been as good to you as I should have been.”
This felt like some momentous confession coming on.
“No, no, no,” I said, and I shushed her. “We can talk about it tomorrow.” At least for tonight, I just wanted to imagine what she’d say.
Some time later she fell asleep. I carried her up to bed, then went back to my desk. Long after the coffee went cold, I nodded off in my chair.
I forgot to switch the table off, and I awoke to find it lying on the floor, the battery dead, the legs still retracted. It must have crashed to the ground in the middle of the night, but we were both sleeping so soundly, so peacefully, floating in dreams as rich and radiant as the day we first met, that neither of us heard it.