Home

Current Issue

Poetry Prize

Unsung Masters Series

About Us

Submit

Visiting Writers Series

> News

Back Issues

 

59 Ways of Looking at Domesticity
by Christine Sneed

59. We had two cats, one black, one yellow-striped with tall, jutting ears that looked like they had plans to take over her head. We also had a black dog, a cross between a pug and a Pekingese. The dog’s name was June. The cats’ names were Larry and Curly. Sundays we all slept in. None of us saw a therapist, at least not for a while.

58. Jules and Jim were the names I wanted for the kittens, but Scott had made up his mind that they had to be Stooges and that was that. A few months later when we adopted the dog, I chose her name, which was also my paternal grandmother’s name. She was from a small town in central Wisconsin. The canine June was a rescue dog from somewhere in Missouri.

57. A pastry chef lived across the street from us in an old Victorian that resembled a wedding cake. He had two young daughters who were oddly thin. On some mornings, his wife left the house dressed like a lawyer, other mornings like a recent arrival from a Polish shtetl. Scott speculated that she was CIA.

56. Other things that we owned and/or maintained together:

—a pygmy bonsai tree acquired in Kauai on a trip I took with two college friends

—a viola he bought at an auction which we both intended to learn to play but didn’t

—a satellite dish with access to channels that at any hour of the day showed highly choreographed hunts for dangerous fish, the gory transactions between African lions and hapless zebras, harrowing skateboard competitions, and corpulent or svelte people having sex with other equally corpulent or svelte people

—a garden plot that featured tomatoes (yellow, green-striped, and red), zucchini (a bumper crop that we tried to share with friends, but most waved us away, having their own bumper crops or else an

aversion to tubular dark green vegetables), cucumbers (ditto), peas (with waxen pods but sweet berries inside), sunflowers (frivolous, Scott argued; necessary, I insisted.)

55. We were friends, not a couple. He was in love with someone who lived in Sacramento, California. This person’s name was Robin. He did not love Scott back. At least I don’t think he did.

54. Scott rode a bicycle to work or else took the train. He did not like to drive, though he had a car, a pristine silver Acura that I drove whenever he let me. He was an ER doctor and had seen a lot of car crash victims, some in need of extensive reconstructive surgery or prosthetic limbs or an undertaker. A bicycle, especially at night, which was when he often rode home, didn’t seem much safer to me than a car. He scoffed at this, claiming a heroic imperviousness to harm, in other words: chronic lunacy. At night, he did wear a helmet, a safety vest with glowing reflective strips, and three manically flashing lights. “I’m not going to stop riding it,” he said.

“Not unless some idiot driver stops you,” I said. To this he said nothing, a knot of angry muscle appearing along his jaw line.

53. He was broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted, quick to laugh (with other people, if not always with me), dark blue eyes, full lips. I did not understand why this Robin person, before I met him, wasn’t also in love with Scott. A gorgeous doctor! How many were there, especially of the young, single variety? My friends thought I was in love with Scott. Some of them were his friends too and teased me in front of him.

Feeling cornered, I once said, “He killed a bat one night when he could just have opened the door.” This was true, for the most part. Scott was angry that I told people about this. The story sounded like a joke at first because he killed the poor bat with a bat, the Louisville Slugger that he kept near the back door in case of burglars.

52. We slept on opposite ends of the apartment, a long hallway and a heavy oak door separating our bedrooms. I brought my dates home through the front stairwell that came up from the foyer where our mail and our neighbors’ mail was often tossed onto the aging gray linoleum by the street’s surly postwoman. Scott brought his dates home through the door off the kitchen that led to the back stairwell and the alley where dogs barked at each other when out for walks with their owners, and where stray cats in heat or otherwise in an uproar yowled and pranced, sending the housebound Curly and Larry into hysterics, the two of them ping-ponging around our place in search of an escape hatch they never found. June chased after them, yipping and panting until they paused to hiss at her. This hurt her feelings terribly.

51. I soon learned that Scott’s primary fears were food poisoning, car wrecks, snakes, and flesh-eating bacteria. He also worried about dying unloved and alone. He was twenty-three when we met. We moved in together when he was twenty-seven; I was thirty and already but nec­essarily divorced. His worst fears stayed the same, for the most part, during the five years we lived together.

50. Many days I did my dishes directly after each meal, and kept my shoes, jackets, hairpins, underwear, grief, workout clothes, grudges, petty grievances, more or less out of view.

49. My nickname for Scott was Walt. He loved to watch Disney mov­ies, especially after a bloody day. His nickname for me was Mom, which I thought spiteful, he clever.

48. His dates, the ones he introduced to me or I caught glimpses of on my way to the bathroom or kitchen, were usually much better looking than my dates. There were also quite a few more of them.

47. I was a registered nurse at the hospital where he eventually was matched for his residency. He did not remember meeting me when he was twenty-three, which had been at a party where I got very drunk because my husband disappeared with a woman he was later spot­ted kissing near the coat closet. Despite the drunken melodrama, I remembered meeting Scott that evening. He held my hand and patted my arm in a nurturing way when news about my husband and the woman started to circulate around the party.

46. If June had not been walked one last time and Scott came home very tired, I volunteered to take her out, even if I too was very tired.

45. My fears centered more on rapists in poorly lit parking garages, cancer, the sudden grisly deaths of my parents and close friends, ra­bid animals such as squirrels and raccoons, insomnia, birds acciden­tally flying into my hair and not being able to disentangle themselves without being cut out.

44. His favorite saying: Instead of random acts of beauty, practice mindful acts of cooking and cleaning every day. I asked him if his mother thought he was funny. No, but his father did.

43. When Robin visited from Sacramento, which he did twice while Scott and I lived together, I was asked to stay somewhere else. The first time I obliged, the second time I did not.

42. During that second visit, I seriously considered slipping an emetic into one of Robin’s (several) gin and tonics but my conscience was still in working order. I did, however, hide one of Robin’s expensive Italian wingtips and did not give it up before he left. After he flew back to California, I threw it in a garbage can on the street.

41. If the person you love is not being very nice to you because a third person is not being very nice to him, you learn to look past this shortcoming by leaving the house and buying chocolate donuts. You might eat four of them in your car before going to a movie where you quietly suffer indigestion before calling an ex-boyfriend to ask if he’s interested in having sex with you one more time.

40. Provided the ex-boyfriend says yes (and if he seems sincerely happy to have sex with you), the night will not be a complete loss or a humiliating exercise in self-pity and self-loathing.

39. Despite his high regard for Disney movies and their soundtracks, Scott did not, thank God, like musicals without cartoon characters very much.

38. Conveniently, we did not have opposing political views, except Scott thought movie stars made good politicians, many having learned early on to pretend they were someone else in front of the camera. I wanted more sincerity. “For that, you need a time machine,” said Scott. “Stalin was pretty sincere, I think you could say. And Mussolini and Hitler.” I retorted that not all honest politicians were murderers. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” he said. “The U.S. is not a dic­tatorship,” I reminded him. “It’s screwed up no matter what,” he said. “Might as well have someone in the control booth who at least will be an expert at giving self-aggrandizing monologues.”

37. It surprised me that Scott was jealous when I found a boyfriend a year after we moved in together. When the boyfriend, Brice, brought me flowers, the next day Scott brought me a potted plant, a cutting of a friend’s lantana that was more suited to the outdoors in a tropi­cal climate instead of the interior of a Midwestern condominium. It also attracted gnats and needed water almost every day. Still, I was flattered.

36. My girlfriends thought it creepy and invasive that Scott asked if I had done my monthly breast self-exam, but I reminded them that he was a doctor, and it was nice of him, in any case, to be so concerned about my health and well-being.

35. These same girlfriends would then say, “But he’s not your boy­friend or your friggin gynecologist, is he?” And, “I thought he was gay. Why is he ogling your breasts?”

34. But like any good roommates, we looked out for each other—I reminded him to make sure he opened his mail every ten days or so; he reminded me to give my tits a monthly once-over. It seemed a fair exchange.

33. We did our laundry separately. He was not as observant during laundry duties as he was in the emergency room. More than once, a new pair of blue jeans or a red T-shirt worked its way into a load of whites.

32. I was a weeder—of our community garden plot and of our clos­ets and cupboards. Scott was basically a hoarder, and this, ultimately, more than the friction over Robin and one or two other problems, led to our household’s eventual dissolution.

31. We did not label our food like college students or other territorial roommates do, as in “Scott’s organic peanut butter” or “Karen’s balo­ney.” We kept communal cupboards, fridge, and freezer. If I wanted his peanut butter or he wanted my baloney (unlikely), we helped our­selves but declared our sanctioned thefts on the Dry-Erase board clinging magnetically to the outside of the stainless-steel refrigerator.

30. But Scott did draw the line at the contents of his wine refrig­erator, an expensive gadget of the class wars that he bought to keep his favorite Rieslings from Alsace at the precise temperature recom­mended by Wine Spectator. Those prized French possessions I only tasted if he was there to pour me a stingy glass.

29. He was almost legally blind and had laser surgery to correct his myopia because he did not like to wear his glasses in public if his eyes were too tired for contacts. For weeks after his surgery, he pretended to stumble over his feet at the top of the stairs, which scared me badly and then made me furious.

28. His favorite movie was Gandhi. I tried to watch it with him one Sunday night but fell asleep about an hour into it. He kept nudging my shoulder, but after about the ninth time, I got up and went to bed.

The next morning I asked how much weight Ben Kingsley had to lose for the role.

Scott looked at me, his disappointment plain. “You would care about something like that.”

“I’m a nurse. What do you expect me to say? He likely did irre­versible damage to his metabolism and maybe his liver too.”

“That’s not the point,” he said. “Mahatma Gandhi means ‘great soul.’ Did you know that? I bet you didn’t. That’s what you should be thinking about.”

“If I didn’t know it, how could I be thinking about it?”

27. I did not expect to change him. I never held out hope that he’d suddenly decide he preferred women over men or was equally happy having sex with a woman or a man. For a while, I simply liked being near him. He made me happy. Many people did not.

26. Neither of us wanted children. Nor did we want the things some of our relatives or friends tried to convince us we needed: an SUV, a riding lawn mower, a pet monkey that gamely wore bowties, a three-tier wedding cake, an African safari or an Antarctic cruise, or the deed to a former truss factory that could be renovated into lofts and sold when the market recovered.

25. Scott took a lot of aspirin and a few Ambiens now and then, but he did not, as far as I know, take anything stronger, other than a new and powerful antibiotic that killed off the bronchitis he imported from the hospital one day not long after we moved in together. I also got the infection, and Scott smuggled some of the same antibiot­ics home for me, which, I realized in retrospect, I was irrationally touched by.

24. Free medical advice: he gave it without complaint, mostly, when I asked (and sometimes when I didn’t.) As an RN, I also knew a lot about human health and could self-diagnose, though the perils of such a thing are well-documented and can lead to hypochondria, in­somnia, various pernicious phobias and other nervous disorders. For several months, I worried about developing tardive dyskinesia, having seen a rash of patients coming through the hospital with it, though I had never been on any of the drugs that sometimes caused this incurable, embarrassing condition where one’s face is frequently the canvas for disfiguring tics.

23. His parents lived in Milwaukee, and he had three older sisters who also lived in or near Milwaukee. His parents knew that Scott had no intention of marrying a woman and producing children of his own but they preferred to act as if he might one day change his mind. His mother called every Sunday, though Scott was sometimes at work when she called. Nonetheless, she continued to call every week at 2 p.m., after she and Mr. Kalek had finished their lunch of roast beef, creamed corn, and mashed potatoes before washing and drying the dishes.

22. My parents were divorced and I had one brother, Andy, who was ten years my junior, his father my mother’s second husband. Andy played football in high school and in college, something Scott considered a very bad idea. “Brain damage,” he said. “Most helmets aren’t designed properly. I’m sure you’ve seen the studies.”

“So if the helmets were designed properly, you wouldn’t think it’s a dumb sport?”

“I have nothing against football players,” he said. “Big men can be beautiful too.”

“Unlike big girls,” I said dryly.

My brother was good-looking but not a goliath. His position was running back. He had numerous girls pursuing him, my mother report­ed during our infrequent phone conversations; unlike Scott’s mother, she called me once a month, maybe less. When Andy came down from Milwaukee to visit the summer before he left for college in Texas, he and Scott instantly hit it off. I admit to feeling some jealousy one night when I woke at two a.m. and heard them laughing in the kitchen. When I went in to check on them, they were both shirtless and side-by-side in front of the stove, bare feet splayed, bowls of Fruity Pebbles in their hands, something Scott ordinarily would have been as likely to put in his body as a spoonful of lye. He gave me a strange look when I appeared in the doorway, my face, I’m sure, showing my dismay. With infuriating reluctance, he offered me a bowl of cereal, but I said no. I also said, “Don’t you have to work in the morning?”

He nodded. “Yes, I do. I’ll be fine, Mom,” he said, which he and Andy both thought very funny.

Andy likes girls! I wanted to yell, but I left them alone instead, and we said nothing about this late-night, shirtless interlude for the remain­ing two days of my half-brother’s visit. Nor have I brought it up since. What, after all, would I say? “I know you wanted to fuck my brother.” Or, “Did you fuck my brother?” Neither is a question that I wanted an answer to.

21. A household is a complex ecosystem with a balance that can easily be upset by leaking ceilings or diabolically rattling windows, dirty dishes neglected for more than a day and a half, dingy toilets, shower mildew and bathtub rings, a sick cat, a cherished wine glass or serving bowl carelessly broken, unconcealed sex toys (or as one Russian boyfriend of Scott’s called them, “sexy toys”).

20. He thought I was a poseur because I liked to go to the annual gay pride parade at the end of June, which took place in a neighborhood seven miles south of us. “There are more heteros there than queens,” he complained. “I’m a voyeur,” I said. “Not a poseur. You don’t even go, so why should you care?” “Because I’d belong there if I did want to go. Heteros have to co-opt everything. Our society is already hetero­normative enough. You need to leave our parade to us.”

The thing I eventually realized is that he was happy enough with our society when it suited him, which seemed to be most of the time. He never wanted his patients to know he was gay and took pains to seem hypermasculine and on occasion flirtatious while at work, which bewildered the female relatives and friends of his patients who even­tually found the courage to ask him out and were politely but abruptly turned down.

19. He never changed the toilet paper roll. He thought I should learn to use less. I told him yes, as soon as I figured out how to grow a penis.

18. I said “coo-pon” and he said “cue-pon.” This caused stupid argu­ments. He also once said the word dildo in front of my father.

17. As alluded to in #22, do not ask questions for which you do not want honest answers.

16. I was offended but tried to laugh it off when Scott bought me a wig for my birthday one year and said, “You’d have better luck with men if you had long hair, and until you grow it out, you can wear this. It’s real hair. It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”

There were two problems with this: one, I was not blond, and two, what did he think a man would say when I took it off or it went askew in bed?

15. My girlfriends were appalled by the wig gift, even apoplectic in a few cases. (“Just because he’s a hot doctor doesn’t mean he gets to mess with your head, Karen!”) My male friends were embarrassed for me, but I could tell that they thought Scott had a point. I did not wear the wig. Not outside of the house, at any rate.

14. There will come a time where one will need to say out loud or in one’s head, “I will not put up with that. I will not be a frigging/effing/freaking/fucking doormat.” This usually occurs near the end. Or rather, it should occur near the end. Sometimes it occurs near the middle, or even in some unfortunate cases, near the beginning.

13. I tried to enjoy Scott’s antic sense of humor—the wig, the “sexy toys” left on the sofa or on the floor near the breakfast table or in the bathroom on the edge of the tub, the Steve Martin imperson­ations, even the party where he insisted that our friends dress up like characters from Steve Martin movies. I went as Bernadette Peters’s character in The Jerk and wore the blond wig Scott gave me as part of my costume. I had to buy a crimping iron to get the right effect and stuff my bra (a little).

12. He did not comment on my weight, in part because I wasn’t fat. I might have worn outdated clothes such as a pair of high-waisted jeans once or twice in his sight or favored a too-short hairstyle, or bought shoes from the nurse’s catalog that were not the most fashionable available, but I was (and still am) a sincere person. That mattered more than how I looked on any given day, for God’s sake.

11. It was important, my therapist told me more than once, in a mater­nal but severe tone, that I not focus so much on other people’s faults. That I look the other way from time to time when it concerned my books being lent out without my consent, or my silk scarves from a va­cation in Florence with an ex, or phone messages not being passed on.

10. Did I have rhythm? Did I have soul? Was I born a poor black child like Steve Martin in The Jerk? No, I did not and no, I was not.

9. He showed a great, soothing gentleness when he spoke to our houseplants as he watered them and misted their leaves and fronds, when he lovingly pulled tomatoes and cucumbers from their parent vines in our community garden plot. The small things. The small plea­sures, yes.

8. When a tornado touched down one July in the town next door, I cowered in our building’s basement with Curly, Larry, June, and our neighbors. Scott went and sat in the park a block away because Robin had just called to tell him that he was seeing someone else, though Scott insisted the two events were not related, that during the tornado threat, he only wanted to “see what he would see.”

7. Along with Gandhi and Steve Martin, Antonio Banderas was a frequent visitor to one member of our household’s fantasy life, espe­cially in his Zorro incarnation.

6. Working at the same place as Scott and observing him with his comet tail of adoring groupies and lackeys on a regular basis was not the most effective way for us to maintain domestic tranquility or per­haps, more realistically, apathy.

5. When after five years together we decided to part ways, I tried to keep Lincoln’s proverbial better angels in mind when it came to who owned what or who owed whom how much for the last two month’s groceries and utilities, not to mention the dry cleaning I so often picked up and paid for, the Riesling and pinot noir I purchased for his wine-and-cheese party, one he hosted for his friend the dissolute, misogynist playwright from Poughkeepsie.

4. No matter how much of a Pacifist you are or else how blissed-out on antidepressants, some days, I quickly realized, will be filled with frustration. There might also be shrieks that alarm your pets and pos­sibly, your neighbors, both the ones next door and across the street, but eventually it will all blow over. Unless one of you decides to go on a nationally broadcasted talk show to discuss the perils of modern cohabitation in both heterosexual and alternative lifestyle households. One topic of discussion on the program: fights over money are often fights about sex masquerading as fights about money, whether you’re having sex with the person or not.

3. It didn’t take too long for both of us to figure out that shopping trips to stores such as Home Depot, Crate and Barrel, Costco, and Target should not be undertaken during peak hours such as Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, unless we were a) both on a mild sedative, b) impervious to rudeness and spoiled, screaming children, or c) one of us was allowed to wait in the car with a library book while the other did the shopping on his/her own.

2. Despite being medical professionals, we broke the following im­portant rule several times: Keep drugs and alcohol out of reach of childlike adults and house pets.

1. Dear Karen, I know I wasn’t terribly easy to live with and that I didn’t always treat you as well as I should have, but I hope you can forgive me. I learned several things from you that I won’t ever forget. One of them is that most pickles take a long time to go bad—years, in fact. The same with olives. I also learned that it is good to know a foreign language; in this case, the language of middle-class women with unacknowledged inferiority complexes. This is the lingua franca of our times, I have to think. In all fairness, that is no fault of your own. Yours, S.

Coda

I had the coveted last word. I put together a PowerPoint, a how-to guide for living with a handsome, highly educated egomaniac that I modeled in part on the fatally enterprising Duke co-ed’s rankings of the jocks she had sex with. My own PowerPoint also went viral. Scott did not sue because he was never named, nor were any too Scott-specific characteristics cited. He is still doctoring intelligently, riding his bicycle, and probably continues to pine for Robin who is nothing like the men he usually goes for. Among other things (such as church-going Republican), Robin is a college economics professor with a much-younger wife and two small children. I’m not sure what Scott expected to happen. That is what one often says though, I sup­pose, when trying not to say something harsher.