New Mexico or Arizona
by Ethan Klein
How it had come up at dinner that day, I can’t remember now, but I do remember that it was around my seventeenth birthday when my mother laughed about my father being too busy at the firm to even find the time to cheat on her. My father grinned at her claim like he was embarrassed by the conversation or that infidelity was so totally beyond him, a fiction, something he was completely incapable of. Though, I had seen his smile another way, that maybe he found my mother’s words unfortunately true and was embarrassed that he lacked a quality he knew some of his friends and colleagues possessed, a quality that suggested a certain courage he could never muster.
But then, a few months later, I went to the door to meet my father returning from work with the dinner guest and found him standing with a woman I didn’t recognize. She wasn’t someone my mother knew or worked with either. My mother didn’t socialize with many people because she worked from home and didn’t like going out, and so the only people she saw with any frequency were my father and myself.
“This is Darcie,” my father said, introducing the woman, and I remembered the dinner with my mother’s laugh and my father’s deflated look. Now, my father spoke eagerly like he’d been waiting a long time to introduce this woman, like she was his answer to his wife’s derision.
She was in her late forties, like my parents, and wore these beaded earrings and a turquoise bracelet, jewelry like my mother sometimes wore. When Darcie shook my hand, she had a certain easiness in her face that echoed my parents’ post-retreat glow when they returned from the deserts of New Mexico or Arizona. However, where this energy subsided in my parents, it seemed more permanent in Darcie, more part of who she was, like problems didn’t exist for her or that she was just good at hiding them.
My father closed the door on the autumn air. It was early evening but already dark and cold enough to smell and taste the approach of a long winter. They put their coats on the couch and removed their shoes at the door even though the only other place where I saw this ritual performed was in homes newer and larger than our small two-bedroom, the home my parents bought at the beginning of their marriage. We lived in a neighborhood close enough to the airport where we could see planes taking off and landing, but far enough away where the noise was never too loud. Still, my mother wanted to move to the suburbs north of the city where it was generally quieter. She would remind me, however, that my father was cheap, and that he refused to move us to a better home even when they could afford it on his salary alone.
“Are you a friend of the family’s?” I asked Darcie, feeling it was more appropriate than ‘who are you?’
She and my father looked at one another and smiled as if they’d come to a silent agreement on the best answer.
“Yes,” she said.
“A new friend,” my father added. He removed his glasses and wiped them with the sleeve of his sweater. When he returned the glasses to his face he looked to the kitchen where my mother had her back to us as she chopped vegetables for a salad.
“Has there been any work for her today?” my father asked of my mother.
“I don’t know,” I said, because I usually didn’t know exactly how much time she spent at her little desk in the living room before I arrived home from school. But also, because he liked to—according to my mother—keep a running tally on her usefulness to the family. I didn’t want to play favorites. Work had been infrequent for my mother since I was born. She had her own business editing print materials for different clients, most of them from around the region. This was how my parents met, the business my father had worked for being one of her clients. And while my father moved on to a better job shortly after I was born, my mother had to reduce her clientele to have time to raise me until I was old enough to go to school. Unfortunately, she was never able to get her business back to the way it was. Now, she spent most of her time at home watching public television or reading books on New Age religion. I think if she wasn’t married, she would have gone to live in a commune or ashram or something similar to one of these things. The self-actualization retreats in New Mexico or Arizona (depending on venue availability) were her way, I think, of getting as close as possible to that life without making it seem all about her—that the message of the retreats would benefit them and their marriage. Maybe her need to convince him of their usefulness was one reason why the retreats never actually worked for them even after five years and thousands of dollars spent.
“Mmm,” was all my father managed, sounding disappointed by my response. He laughed to himself and shook his head and then went with Darcie into the kitchen. I followed.
My mother removed her apron from over her dress and met my father and Darcie by the kitchen table. She hugged Darcie with emphasis like she was a member of the family we were just getting to meet for the first time. “It’s so good you’re finally here.”
“Art, can you get the wine from the garage?” my father asked me, and I knew then this was a special occasion and that this person named Darcie was somehow fundamental to it. But I didn’t know why she mattered, and more, why my parents had neglected to tell me.
I went into the garage for the wine because my parents didn’t keep any alcohol in the house. Out of sight out of mind was probably their logic, although who this was directed towards wasn’t clear. I never knew my parents to be big drinkers and I’d never really acted out or been disciplined. Maybe this was a result of the alcohol being slightly less on-hand for all of us, and ironically why I lacked a fear of retribution from stealing their only bottle in the first place.
A few months ago, they had left to catch an evening flight to one of their marriage-saving getaways—Arizona that time. I had a couple glasses of the wine and when the drunk heaviness came on, I went outside and brought the bottle with me. I walked the dark streets of our quiet subdivision, passing windows that radiated warm lamplight or the sharp glow of a television screen. Inside each home I could make out families huddling comfortably together on couches, people standing solitary in their kitchens for reasons unknown to me, or couples sauntering off to bed. Above me, when I’d catch a plane blinking red and rising through the sky, I wondered if my parents were on it and if they could somehow make me out below them as I intentionally tried to drink myself to amnesia because I’d seen people do it in movies when they struggled with their feelings. I knew my parents would return from their trip rejuvenated until my father began to obsess about work and my mother felt stuck in her unfulfilled life with him, leaving me to wonder, as I often did, if I had ever factored into either of their lives.
When I opened the fridge, I found the replacement bottle of unopened white wine. I’d purchased it at a liquor store known for selling to underagers if they carried themselves in the right way. Standing just shy of six feet and dressing in well-fitting hand-me-downs (including some from my father), I was able to act with natural purpose in the unfamiliar store. It also didn’t hurt that the clerk was expedient about the transaction and wanted me gone so he could get back to whatever was on the small television behind the counter. I brought this unopened bottle now into the kitchen. My father stood by the sink while my mother spoke with Darcie by the table. He opened the bottle with a corkscrew and poured three glasses.
“Do you want one?” he said, gesturing with the bottle. “There’s no harm in having a little bit.”
“Good.” He smiled like it brought him relief to know I was joining him although I didn’t know why. He poured me a glass. “Things will be different now,” he said, but I think he said this more to himself than to me.
I followed him over to Darcie and my mother. He handed them their glasses of wine and then he began to drink. Seeing this, I did the same.
“Gabe,” my mother said, like she’d caught him doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing.
My father quickly brought the glass away from his mouth. I did too.
“What is it?”
“Well, aren’t we going to make a toast?” she said, as if it should have been obvious.
His words were straight and low. “You don’t toast for this.”
And my mother looked at him with a tight face, embarrassed and sad all at once, and I turned away from my mother because it hurt to see her upset. I thought if I looked away, she would go back to being alright. My father would apologize for talking without thinking because that’s what he usually apologized for whenever he made my mother upset with him over something he had said. But this time he didn’t apologize. Instead, he took another drink from his glass, pretending he hadn’t said anything wrong.
Darcie addressed my parents. “Gabe, Marta, you both have been waiting a long time for this.” Her words were measured and matter of fact. A reasonable voice. “Am I right about this?”
“Yes, a long time,” my mother said.
“Too long maybe,” my father said. “Maybe this just isn’t for us.”
“No,” Darcie said, answering like it absolutely couldn’t be any other way. “Let’s just sit and eat and enjoy,” she said, this last word echoing and hanging in the air as an incantation. “We’ll start there, don’t you think that’d be best for everyone?” She looked to me then for only a moment, like she wanted me to know I wasn’t forgotten about, that I was as much a part of what was going to happen as my parents were. It unsettled me and I didn’t want whatever it was that was going on between the three of them to occur.
At the table, my mother peeled back the tin foil from the lasagna, which was next to a large bowl of pre-dressed salad. The lasagna was plated and the four of us began to eat underneath the solo light of the kitchen.
Darcie leaned over to where my mother sat, off to her right. “It’s very good, Marta,” she said, quietly, but loud enough for my father and me to hear so we knew to speak up too.
“It’s always good,” my father said, and he looked across the table at me, fishing a compliment for my mother.
I couldn’t think of anything original or meaningful. “Yeah, it’s really good,” I managed, and continued eating while trying not to draw attention to myself. Through most of the meal my parents and Darcie spoke between bites. It became apparent she was going to be helping them with their marriage, fix whatever it was the retreats had been unable to do for them. I suspected it involved her having a certain permanency in our family, and I didn’t like the thought of this. I would have preferred my parents going back to not knowing how to deal with one another if it meant a third party didn’t have to be involved.
“Can you pass the salad, Art?” Darcie said. I did this without looking at her. When she filled her plate she asked, “how’s school going?” as if she knew me and genuinely cared about my wellbeing. I pretended like I hadn’t heard her.
“Art, don’t be rude,” my mother said.
“If he doesn’t want to talk to me…” Darcie started.
“No. He’s going to have to accept this,” my mother said, looking to my father for rare support.
“Please, Art,” my father sighed. “It’s difficult for us too.”
But I felt this change in our lives wouldn’t be difficult for him based on my mother’s complaints. He spent most of his time at work and when he wasn’t at work, he’d pretend to find work around the house because he wasn’t good with tools like other fathers were. This would lead him to wander, going in and out of rooms trying to find purpose—something to do, only to forget why he had entered the room in the first place. And here is where my mother would make it clear to me that he did this to purposely avoid us, that he had exhibited this kind of behavior towards her before I was born. It never crossed my mind until years later that maybe all my parents needed was to be more open about their own needs and less subversive towards each other. But honesty, I would come to understand, often feels harmful in the moment, cutting, and therefore, unfortunately, often avoided. And although I couldn’t identify this at the time while they were together, I could still identify they were failing each other in a more final way than they were letting on.
“You can tell me it’s a divorce,” I said.
My father paused and I could see in his face that he was worried about a truth spilling over. “That’s not what this is.” He looked to my mother for reassurance.
My mother took a moment, an almost unrecognizable moment like there was a part of her that doubted now what it was. “Right, no, that’s not what this is. Divorce is final and we don’t want anything final because you can’t go back on something like that.”
“Right,” my father said and then went on, which exposed his discomfort more. “It’s messy and final and nobody wins in the end. Just one big mess.”
He was convincing himself of this and I hoped by the time I was his age I wouldn’t need to do this in front of my own children. If I had children. I was not sure if I wanted them or if they would end up as afterthoughts. Would I only be there for them when it was absolutely necessary? Would I consider that as good parenting, as caring like they did?
I remembered then the time when, at eight years old, I had left the house while my mother had fallen asleep to the television. She must have woken up soon after I wandered off on that cold spring day because I remember I wasn’t gone too long, that I had made it only three or four blocks before I heard her call my name from down the street.
I think about what would’ve happened if she hadn’t woken up as soon as she did. I would likely have been returned to my home by a well-meaning couple, but sometimes I wonder if the same couple might have taken me home with them. Maybe they couldn’t conceive, and I would somehow be the ticket to their happiness? Other times, I imagined reaching a nearby park and a family of wolves taking my small shivering body to their secret den to bring me up as one of their own, wolves like those I’d heard who raised orphans in cold faraway countries. But no wolves lived in this city. Just skittish coyotes, animals that would have left me to my fate on that gray day. Would my parents have been happier people if I had disappeared from their lives? Not happier right away, but maybe one or two years later they would accept how the loss did not feel so bad, that it was liberating in fact.
“Then what is it that’s happening?” I said. “What’s so difficult?”
“A smooth transition,” Darcie said, addressing me now with that all-knowing easiness to her words as my parents nodded in agreement.
“We need help,” my mother said. “Like the retreats, except…” she searched for a word.
“More personalized,” my father offered.
“Yes, that,” my mother said.
They were pretending to explain everything while explaining nothing.
“Personalized how?” I pressed.
“It’s complicated,” my father said. “Like…”
“Like you couldn’t go to a library and find a book about it,” my mother said, saving him now.
“Then explain it to me,” I said.
My parents collectively sighed and looked to Darcie as if I was being overly difficult, and that they needed to turn me over to her. And this felt wrong to me, how they were the ones who were supposed to be more-or-less in charge of the family. I had always felt I could at least rely on my parents’ ownership of the family, even if it was by no means strong or even healthy. Now, they appeared to be completely giving this up.
Without many choices to exit, I noticed most of my wine was still in my glass, and I hoped this would help dissociate me from the current reality, buy me a little relief. Darcie began to speak, but she cut herself off when I poured the whole glass down my throat. Except it went down the wrong way. An itchy heat radiated from my neck and face, and I coughed trying to clear my windpipe.
“Do you need some water?” Darcie said, beginning to stand. “I can get him some—.”
“He’ll be fine,” my father said.
“Just the wrong tube,” my mother added.
Darcie sat, and they waited until I stopped coughing.
“All better?” my father said.
“Yeah, just the wrong tube,” I coughed between words, pointing to my throat.
“Where did you pick that up?” my mother said.
I cleared the last cough. “Pick what up?”
“What do you mean?”
“What are you getting at, Marta?” my father also asked her.
My mother gestured to my glass. “He was drinking so fast, like an alcoholic or something.”
“No, don’t start that,” she said. “This isn’t the time for ‘Mom pleases or ‘I don’t knows.’” And she said this like they were excuses regularly coming from my mouth. My mother laughed and refilled her empty wine glass with what was left in the bottle. “No, you don’t do something like that unless you’ve done it before.”
I didn’t like where this was going, how my mother was turning the attention from their poor marriage, and Darcie’s control of our lives, to this stupid thing with the wine. At the same time, my mother and father seemed more engaged with me now. They were disappointed, like parents who actually cared about the well-being of their child. Even though it came in the form of frustration, it was their genuine attention I subconsciously craved.
“What’s with the wine then, Art?” my mother said.
“I wanted it,” I said.
“Wanted what?” my mother said, drawing it out of me.
Then my father’s turn, “So, you and some buddies then—.”
“No, just me.”
“Just you?” my mother said, sounding both concerned and mystified.
“It was a stupid thing, I know, I know.”
“It wasn’t stupid.” It was Darcie now and not my mother who said this. And my parents suddenly had these stony looks on their faces, like they had stepped back from the conversation and it was now just Darcie and me. The light seemed dimmer in the house, or was it that everything had turned stagnant—the light and the air and time itself? My skin felt tighter as if I’d outgrown it, and I couldn’t breathe right. “You knew what you were doing and so it wasn’t stupid. It was thought-out.”
“Right, you’re right,” I said, barely able to get the words out and nodding my head with my eyes in my lap, thinking that would settle things and stop her talking.
“Your parents and I are just looking out for your best interests. You can understand that, can’t you?”
I couldn’t understand it, because I was confident they had no interest in my future, no concern about what it held for me. I’d be graduating high school next year and was convinced I’d be off to do my own thing after that. But I didn’t know what I’d be moving on to. I only worked part-time at a grocery store on the weekends, and I would need to find other work to afford living on my own. I thought I might also attend a technical school, but I couldn’t expect much help from my parents, nor did I want it.
I kept my mouth shut about all this though—leaving I mean—because while I didn’t believe my parents would stop me, I felt Darcie had the ability to compromise my plans in some way. Like she could convince my parents to keep me here in this home out by the airport until, before I knew it, I was inheriting the house and looking after my father and mother as their bodies slowly stopped functioning. It would be a gradual deterioration I could even project myself into at seventeen, when my entire life was supposed to be ahead of me. But I couldn’t envision Darcie aging; she was independent of it somehow, as though the forces of the everyday didn’t apply to her.
“No, I can’t understand it because I don’t think it’s true,” I said. My parents still appeared detached and cordoned off from the present, stuck somewhere outside of it. “What are you going to do? I mean what’s your plan for them?” Darcie closed her mouth with this pensive straight look, which didn’t give me much confidence she even knew. “I need to know they’ll be alright,” I continued. And maybe I shouldn’t have cared how they ended up, but it didn’t feel right to offer them up to her as they had done with me.
“Well, I can’t promise that. This is self-actualization therapy. Anything can happen.”
“So, you’re from Arizona or New Mexico, then?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, Arizona.”
Her attitude was more identifiable now, its connection to the comfortable dry heat of the Southwest, that ideal of a person my parents aspired to be.
“They always came back better, but it never lasted long,” I said.
“Well, that’s why I’m here now, and we’re going to make it work.”
“But I don’t think it will work for them.”
“They’re determined.” Her answer sounded canned, like she had given this simple solution to a complex issue before.
“If they were determined they would have figured themselves out already.”
“These things take time. You’re still young and you can’t fully understand it.”
There it was, that pejorative. I laughed to myself and a warmth stirred at the base of my neck. “Do you even understand relationships?” I asked.
“Most of the time I do. But I’m human like everyone else. I miss certain things.”
I was doubtful of that part, her being human and flawed. I pointed to the two of us. “Then what about this exchange? How come they can’t hear us?” I said, looking to them.
“We’ve been drinking. That can change things.”
“I don’t think it can. I don’t think that’s how it works.”
She closed her eyes, nodded to herself, then opened them. “And I don’t think you can know how any of it works until you’re in their position,” she said, gesturing to them.
“I won’t be.” My words were pointed and raised now.
She grinned. “You can tell yourself that.”
“It’s getting late, Gabe.” It was my mother’s voice. She and my father had returned to the foreground, and unstilled the dust and light around the table. My mother stood up and addressed my father. “I have to take care of a few things, but how about you grab the rest of that ice cream out of the freezer?” She then went to the back of the house and into their bedroom.
“Help me clear the table, Art,” my father said.
Reluctantly, I joined him in stacking dishes and collecting utensils and bringing them to the sink. Darcie tried to help as well.
“No,” my father said, stopping her. “You’re still a guest for tonight.” His attention then wandered for a moment to the back of the house.
“What’s she doing?” I said.
“Let’s see what flavors we have,” my father said, ignoring me. He opened the freezer and removed a white container from a local ice cream shop. He examined the lid and the small smudged script. “Butter pecan.” He pronounced pecan with flat vowels like he was rhyming it with toucan. “You know that’s my favorite, Darcie.”
“I didn’t,” she said.
“Well, now you know.” He grinned then like it would be a joke between them. He set the ice cream in the center of the table along with three bowls, three accompanying spoons and an ice cream scoop.
“Isn’t Mom going to have some?” I said.
“I don’t think she’ll be in the mood, Art,” my father said. He sat down and began scooping the ice cream into the bowls.
“Why not, Dad?”
He screwed up his mouth and shook his head, either because he thought it wouldn’t make sense or any sort of difference if he told me. He returned to serving and spoke as if I wasn’t there or couldn’t hear him. It seemed he was trying to move past the changes that were coming for us all, and I was mad at him for this. I wanted to hurt him, but I didn’t know how. My vision narrowed and blurred.
My father jerked in his chair. The scoop clanged on the wood tabletop. I became dizzy and breathed hot through my nose. When my vision straightened, I could see the ice cream already melting its way towards the edge of the table.
“What are you talking about?” I asked again, but he wouldn’t look at me or Darcie. Instead, his attention was in his lap, hiding as I had done only minutes before. It was as if the reality of what was occurring was too painful to witness, that if he turned his eyes away it would disappear for him. I asked myself if people really grew up or if they more or less stayed the same while their responsibilities increased, while they came to occupy people’s hearts and time and more parts of the world around them.
Darcie reached out her hand to my father, but he pulled away. “Don’t….” She left him to hang there and my mother came into the room.
She had a rolling suitcase in one hand and a small duffle over her shoulder. She must have packed them in privacy over the course of the week, adding to them as she remembered a certain shirt or pair of pants she couldn’t be without for longer than a few days. My stomach tightened, becoming uneasy at the thought of staying here with just my father and Darcie.
“What happened?” she asked.
“Butterfingers,” my father said, forcefully grinning and wiggling the digits of his right hand. He looked like he was about to cry.
She gave him a small smile, trying to tell him, I assumed, that it would be alright. “Don’t worry, Gabe. This’ll all work out and I’ll be back before you know it.”
My father appeared defeated by their circumstances, but he still lifted his head to answer her, like it was an obligation he reluctantly accepted. “Right, of course.”
“There are some other things I’ll need brought over for these first few weeks.”
“Just call, Marta.”
It was clear now that Darcie was here as a sort-of replacement, but to what extent and for how long I had no idea.
“And Art needs to be the one to bring them remember,” my mother said.
“Yes, of course.” My father nodded. “He can take a taxi to you.”
There was an order to what was occurring, guidelines they needed to follow to improve their own lives, but clearly not mine. I had wanted to disprove this for a long time, however, to ask them after they returned home from one of their retreats if I mattered to them. I had hoped their newly elevated moods would produce a desirable answer. But now, seeing my mother and her bags and my father and his hopelessness, it was apparent the answer was no longer of any use to me. It was the first night of their separation, although they didn’t know this yet, still believing their relationship worth saving.
Ethan Klein was born and raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he earned his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. He’s trying to do this writing thing while still giving meaningful time to family and a complicated 15-year relationship with long-distance running. Currently, he lives with his wife in Eugene, Oregon, where they share a home with their dog and two cats who are always vying for their attention.