My friend Austin is paying us a surprise visit this afternoon, and he’s bringing along his fiancée Rachel, and her kid Hugo. I say “surprise” like he hasn’t given me a heads-up. He called. They’re headed to KC by way of Denver—where they live—though before we got off the phone I had tried to suggest that this wasn’t the best time. If he asked why, which I was sure he would’ve, I had already decided not to get into it. I’d suggest that we could have them over when they circled back around. That way would work better for Kristen and me. I hardly got in a word before he started saying how they passed Salina 20 minutes ago. That they were excited to see us. They’d be here within the hour.
I’d taken the call out onto the front porch. When I go back in, I’m chilled from the mixture of the A/C and sweat that’s dampened my skin. I go in search for Kristen and find her on the dining room floor, sitting with her knees tucked to her chest, painting her toenails. She hums a made-up song, or one I don’t recognize, and gives off the impression she doesn’t have a care in the world.
“Your voice carries,” she says.
“You already know Austin and Rachel are stopping by, then.” I consult the time before slipping my phone back into my pocket. “They’ll be here around three,” I say.
She bobs her head yes and keeps painting.
“They’ve got Hugo with them. Her kid, not his. He’s four. Could be five by now.”
“Did he mention why they were coming?” she says and dips the brush into the jar of red polish, which I now smell the sweet, chemical pungency of. “I mean, are we putting them up? Or is this more of a we’re-only-passing-through kind of thing?”
“Just a pit stop,” I say.
She pulls the brush out and wipes the beaded excess polish off using the inner rim of the bottle. Some dribbles.
“Should you be doing that in here?” I say.
Finally, Kristen looks at me. Her black hair is all over the place, waving away from her face in every direction. There’s a fading, crosshatched imprint on her left cheek from the blankets—a sleep scar, she calls marks like them. She’d been taking a nap when Austin called. It’s why I went outside. Kristen’s been napping lately.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried about the carpet,” she says, and scoffs. It’s carpet that came with the house. It’s made of stiff material, yet sinks a great deal when you step on it. On hotter days—like today—the house develops a slight, funky smell that now nail polish likely covers. Kristen blames it on the carpet. “We’re going to tear it up at some point. I’m praying for oak floorboards. Might even settle for pine.”
“I don’t think the whole thing will take more than an hour or two,” I say.
“Here I thought we were having a nice discussion.” She performs several precise brush strokes. She parts her knees and leans between them to blow on her toes. “I’m thinking,” she says. “I’ve met Rachel, haven’t I? And what about Hugo? It’s Hugo, right?”
It takes me a second.
“Let’s see. Rachel—yes. She’s about your height with brown hair, green eyes. Deepish voice. Her father’s from Iran,” I say. “Austin brought her along about six months ago. They were on their way back from Arkansas. She has some family there. Little town. Beebe, I seem to remember. They weren’t engaged yet. Hugo was with his dad that week.”
“Right,” Kristen says, and blows on her foot again. I can’t tell if she pretends to remember or if she’s actually remembering. “Rachel’s the therapist?”
I nod yes.
“See? It’s all coming back to me,” she says. “We took them to dinner at Dempsey’s. You forgot she was a vegetarian.”
“Luckily, a black bean burger.”
Kristen dunks the brush into the bottle, twists the cap closed, and gets to her feet. Without a word she crosses through and out of the living room. The cabinet in the bathroom pops open, slaps closed. She loudly pads into the laundry room, returning a minute later rolling the vacuum behind her. There’s a rag wedged beneath the trigger of an all-purpose spray cleaner I hadn’t noticed her carrying. She sets it on the table.
“Mind giving whatever you think needs it a quick once-over?” she says and looks around like she’s dropped something. “I wish I had time to mop the other rooms. But I guess this’ll just have to do.” She bends down and unravels the cord to the vacuum; plugs it in. “And please don’t forget to tidy up the couch.”
The couch is more of a loveseat. It hardly seats the two of us. On it is the pillow and blanket I’ve been using. This is the longest conversation we’ve had in over a week.
“Watch your feet,” she says, and kicks the vacuum on.
Kristen believes the state of a person’s home is a direct reflection of themselves—of how their lives are going. And while things might not always be clean and in order, if you’re going to bring people into it you might as well take the time and make the effort to make it look like it is.
I take the spray bottle in one hand, the rag in the other. Looking around I’m not sure where to start. Everything looks fine to me.
Not too much later, Kristen and I decide in addition to having made the house more presentable, we should also be made more presentable. We should shower. We should change.
For the nine days or so she hasn’t left the house but to check the mail. She has worn little else aside from a rotating collection of cotton shorts and sweatshirts.
So, pardon me for staring.
In front of the body-length mirror that hangs from the inside of the bedroom door, she collects her hair—still damp and glistening, smelling of bergamot and lavender—in both hands and expertly fixes it into a tight bun that sits on the top of her head. For half a second we lock eyes in the mirror before she bends over and steps into an ankle-length skirt and pulls it up over a pair of black underwear—she’s only been wearing black underwear lately—and tucks in the brown tank top she threw on a moment ago. The skirt is the same vibrant red as her toenails.
Earlier I was surprised to find her painting her toenails. People who plan to see other people do that.
Normally, Kristen is a people person.
“I probably should’ve consulted you first,” I say, fastening my belt.
“Did you need to use the mirror?” she says, glancing at me, the shirts, using the mirror.
The bed has three shirts laid across it. I’m being indecisive, which is stupid. Coming over are our friends plus a kid. Still, I worry what people think when they look.
“I should have told him to hold on,” I say.
“Do you know what that would have accomplished? Turning me into the bad guy when you came back with a ‘no,’” she says.
“You don’t want them to come over.”
“It’s not like they’re carting around a newborn,” she says. “I think that might’ve been too much.”
“I’ll call,” I say. I say, “There’s still plenty of time for me to call.”
Kristen turns sideways to assess herself in the mirror. She pushes out her stomach and sucks it back in.
“I haven’t worn this shirt in ages,” she says. “And don’t bother. I put on makeup. And who knows? This might probably be good for me.” She places her hands beneath her breasts, lifts them up, then removes them and lets gravity do its thing. Now, she turns toward me. “Is it inappropriate if I don’t wear a bra?”
“I’m not sure Hugo’s at that age yet,” I say.
“Maybe he’ll turn out to be a little shit,” she says. “One of those kids you see at the mall or grocery store causing a scene in the snack aisle. The kind of kid who makes you go, ‘Christ, I sure am glad I don’t have one of those.’” She laughs in a fake way, two blunt ha-has. “He might could try to stick a fork in a light socket. In one of our eyes. Start climbing the bookshelves like a spider monkey.”
“That’s a nice outfit you’ve got on,” I say.
This obvious redirection she appears more than happy to roll with.
Kristen pinches and pulls out the sides of the skirt and curtsies.
“Wear the denim one with the shiny snap buttons,” she says, jutting her chin toward the bed.
“You don’t think denim on denim isn’t too much?” I say.
“If you think that then why did you take it out in the first place?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “A second option, I guess.”
“I think it’ll look cool. You’ll look cool. Like you’ve got the kind of attitude where nothing much bothers you,” she says and turns suddenly serious. “Like you aren’t bothered by anything at all.”
“Is that what you think?” I say. “That I’m not bothered?”
“Could be,” she says. “If anything just look at it this way: now in that manner we’ll be dressed alike. I mean—look at this.” Kristen spins around once. The skirt billows and I catch a glimpse of her legs, which are freshly shaved. I expected the tank top to come untucked, but it doesn’t. “I mean or I could always change back into something even more comfortable.”
Austin and Rachel should be here any minute. Kristen comes out of the kitchen with a tray of veggies. She’s peeled and sliced cucumbers into discs, and piled cherry tomatoes, and sweet red peppers, clusters of broccoli, and celery ribs around a glass ramekin filled with some kind of dressing. “All we had was honey mustard,” she says when she sees me staring, and sets the tray in the middle of the table. “Honestly, it’s a coin toss—honey mustard. Can you name a single person who doesn’t like ranch?”
“I’ll get napkins and plates,” I say, and rush to the kitchen and come back with a stack, and a roll of paper towels that I’ve tucked into my armpit.
The doorbell rings.
“No, no,” Kristen says, waving her hands when I place the paper towels down. “Not the clear glass plates.”
“What’s wrong with these?” I say, holding them up.
“They’re from Target. They’re cheap. They’re whatever. The sort of plates I don’t mind eating breakfast on when it’s just you and me. If one broke in the dishwasher, big whoop,” she says. “Grab the small white ones. The small white porcelain ones with the ridges. They’re more…I don’t know—they’ll match the tray.”
The tray is also porcelain.
Hurrying, I put the clear plates back and take out the porcelain ones from the same cabinet. They’re much lighter. And I have to admit, a lot more stylish. The sort of dishware a salad of microgreens with a drop of aged balsamic are served with. On my way back the doorbell rings again, keeps ringing.
Kristen shrugs and smiles sarcastically. “Off to a great start,” she says. She sticks out her tongue, crosses her eyes, and pokes the air a bunch of times. “I’m feeling much better about everything already.”
“I used to do that with elevator buttons,” I say, sliding the plates next to the tray.
“I was a quiet, polite kid,” she says. “All pleases and thank-yous.”
The bell continues to ring.
“I’ll go get that,” I say. “Maybe then something to drink?”
I open the door and Rachel is hunched down, pulling Hugo back from the doorbell by digging her fingers into his armpits. He’s laughing, has his arms outstretched and claws wildly at the air in front of him.
“Remember the good old days, man?” he says, like we’re elderly and not hardly into our thirties. “Back when something like a rock or stick could occupy you all day.”
We hug. And while we hold each other I can’t help but feel depressed. Like this is a terrible idea. That I’m the worst friend because now that they’re here I don’t want them to be.
“Hey, Rach,” I say when Austin lets go. After she and I hug I wave to Hugo. He’s not laughing any longer. “What’s up, Little Dude?”
He doesn’t say or do anything but blink.
“You remember Ben. Don’t you, bud?” Rachel reaches down and messes with his hair, and he looks up at her and smiles. When his eyes slide over to me his demeanor shifts. He looks suspicious. Like he’s put off by the very idea of my existence before he turns to wrap his arms around Rachel’s leg and buries his face into her thigh. “He’s just exhausted from being on the road,” she says. “I’m sure he’ll warm up to you in no time.”
“Come on,” I say, waving them in to get out of the heat. “Kristen is excited to see all of you.”
Kristen stands poised in the entryway of the dining room with hands clasped at her chest, smiling. Her smile doesn’t look sarcastic. She has arranged several cans of soda water on the table. There’s lemon, lime, apricot, and the coconut kind she likes, but I don’t because I think it tastes chlorinated.
She clears her throat.
“That was some drive, huh?” she says.
Austin and Rachel both groan. They take turns talking about how boring I-70 through Kansas is. Neither can believe there isn’t a small casino, or at the very least a proper rest area with vending machines to break up the monotony of the sprawling fields along either side of the seemingly endless stretch of highway. During this, Kristen’s eyes drop to Hugo, who clings still to Rachel’s leg. Though now he goes from hiding behind it to revealing himself, playing a little game of peek-a-boo with her.
Rachel smirks when she hears him laughing.
“Oh, apparently now he’s turned into a big ol’ flirt,” she says. Looking down at him she says, “That’s Kristen. I don’t think the two of you have met.” Rachel looks to Kristen. “Do I have that right?”
“First time,” Kristen says.
“Why don’t you go over and give her a hug if you want to?” Rachel says.
Hugo lets go of her leg and stands there for a second, thinking this over. Kristen has unclasped her hands and now it looks like she isn’t sure what to do with them. They rest at her sides, fingers fussing with the waistband of the skirt. When Hugo begins to rush forward Kristen teeters between standing fully erect and squatting, rocking like a buoy. He’s two or three feet away before she crouches and I get the awful feeling that Hugo is about to plow right into her knees; but at the last second Kristen drops them to the ground and they embrace. Hugo turns his head so it’s pressed flat against her chest.
“Oh my gosh,” Kristen says. Her voice is shaky, delicate. I check to see if this has registered with Rachel or Austin. It doesn’t look like it has. Rachel takes Austin’s hand into hers, leans her head against his shoulder. Meanwhile, Kristen slowly puts her right arm around Hugo and with the other gently cups his head. “Hi, honey. Hey, you.”
She sniffs and blinks and looks away, trying her best to smile.
Hugo begins to wriggle and Kristen loosens her hold on him.
He looks up at her.
“Do you have any games on your phone?” he says.
We all laugh.
Everyone is at the table. Austin and Rachel on one side, Hugo and Kristen on the other. Hugo was more than happy to settle for YouTube. Rachel offered Kristen the name of several kids’ shows to choose from. “Doesn’t matter which,” she said. The volume is low and on the screen is a trio of cartoon kids in superhero masks. Hugo is transfixed. He moves only to reach out every 20 or 30 seconds to take a cherry tomato off his plate, which Rachel has drizzled with the honey mustard. “It’s his favorite,” she told us. I’m sitting at the head of the table, sipping one of the lime-flavored soda waters while Rachel begins telling us a story about their babysitter, whom they’d recently fired.
“The whole thing was just so embarrassing, and terrible,” she says, dunking a cucumber slice into the ramekin of the mustard. “For everyone. I cried. I mean, Madison—that was the sitter’s name. She’s such a nice girl. Great with Hugo, too. Really gets him. But, you know, we’ve got one of those nanny cams—”
“I hate when you call it that,” Austin says.
“That’s what it is,” Rachel says. “What else am I supposed to call it?”
“A hidden camera.”
“That makes it sound too espionagey,” she says, and slips the cucumber slice into her mouth.
She chews. Austin shakes his head. “The lens is this big,” he says, and brings his thumb and index fingers together so they’re almost touching. “It’s installed inside a fake smoke detector that hangs above the living room door.”
“That is just like something straight out of a spy movie,” Kristen says.
“Espionagey,” Rachel says.
“Sure,” Austin says. “And you should see—”
Rachel punches his arm.
“Please let me finish the story?” she says.
Austin laughs and raises his hands above his head. Hugo laughs at the video and reaches for another tomato, but overshoots the plate, patting the surface of the table a few times.
“The floor is yours, babe,” Austin says.
“Anyway, we were out having an after-dinner drink at this little champagne bar in Larimer Square that I’m obsessed with. Kristen, you’d love it. Anyway, the hidden camera is linked directly to our phones,” Rachel says. “I decided to take a peek while Austin went to the restroom. I mean, he’d been gone a while already.” Rachel winks at him, then clears her throat and leans in, setting the hook in her target audience, which is Kristen. Kristen places her elbows on the table and cradles her chin in her hands. Austin rolls his eyes, smiles, and leans back, threading his fingers together to support his head. Rachel continues in a whisper. “And there’s Madison on our couch. Naked from the waist down—”
“I don’t mean to interrupt…” Kristen says, ticking her head toward Hugo. She continues in a whisper. “Won’t he, you know?”
“Are you kidding me?” Austin says. He extends his arm across the table and snaps near Hugo’s head. Hugo is oblivious. “Kid is in the zone.”
Kristen shrinks back into her chair. “Sorry,” she says.
“It’s no problem,” Rachel says. “What part was I at?”
“Waist down,” Kristen says.
“Right. She’s half-naked. Legs in the air. Phone in her left hand and—get this—masturbating with Austin’s electric shaver. I couldn’t believe it. Thank God there wasn’t audio.”
“You’re kidding,” Kristen says loudly, genuinely shocked. She lowers her voice. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Where was—”
“Asleep,” she says.
Austin laughs. “I’m not sure I believe it either,” he says. “But, you know. I can’t really vouch for any of this because Rachel refused to let me see.”
“You’re such a pig,” Rachel says, smiling.
“How’d you confront her about this?” I say.
“I had to do it over text,” Rachel says, cringing.
In his attempt at blindly grabbing a tomato, Hugo knocks the plate off the table. It must have nicked the side of his chair on the way down. There’s a light clink before it hits the carpet where it rests in three pieces. A few tomatoes have rolled along the carpet, leaving thin trails of honey mustard.
“Come on, man,” Austin says, leaning forward now, hands on the edge of the table like a swimmer about to push off from the side of a pool. He pushes off. “I’m sorry you guys,” he says.
“I’ve got it,” Rachel says to Austin as he tears off a sheet of paper towel.
Hugo’s bottom lip is sticking out, quivering.
“It’s all right,” Kristen says, and places a hand on his shoulder. “Did any of the glass get you?”
Hugo shakes his head. “No-o,” he says, and starts to cry.
Rachel reaches across the table and silences the phone. Now she’s up, grabbing the sheet of paper towel out of Austin’s hand and rounds the table.
“Careful,” I say, but see she has sandals on.
“I’m so sorry,” Rachel says to Kristen after seeing the mess. “Would you just look at that? It’s like a Pollock painting,” she says. “And the plate. Do you have Venmo?”
“Really, it’s not a big deal. Plates can be replaced. Ben and I were just talking earlier this afternoon about how we’re going to tear up this carpet anyway,” she says. “None of this matters.”
Kristen’s up. On the way to collect the shards she steps on a tomato.
Now, with the pieces in hand, she goes to one corner of the room.
“Hugo,” Rachel says, holding out the paper towel. “Would you clean up your mess, please?” He nods, wipes at his eyes, and sniffs before taking it. Rachel helps him off the chair. “Watch where you step,” she says.
Kristen sits sideways with her back to us and begins to saw at the fringe of the carpet with one of shards.
“Kris,” I say. “Honey, what are you doing?”
She begins to saw even faster.
In a minute she sets the shard down with the others and with both hands yanks the carpet, grunting with each pull. A staple pops. Another.
“It’s all right, Kristen,” Austin says and laughs awkwardly. “You proved your point. The carpet’s got to go.”
He looks at me and mouths, Is she okay?
I shake my head no.
Several more staples pop free, all at once, and a large corner of the carpet comes loose. Kristen falls back onto her ass, almost plopping right down on the jagged pieces of the broken plate.
On my way to her, I move around Hugo, who lifts a tomato, and step over lines and splotches of honey mustard that have already started to sink into the carpet.
Kristen’s on her hands and knees now. Pinning the part of the carpet she’s folded back with a knee.
“Oh my God,” Kristen says. “All of you. Come here. Check this out right now. It’s incredible.”
It isn’t oak. It isn’t pine. From what I can tell the tile is as old as the house. It’s white and blue. A pattern of offset rectangles. Gorgeous.
“Why would anyone ever dream of covering this up?” Rachel says, shaking her head.
“It looks like the carpet preserved it perfectly,” Austin says.
“Let’s just hope that’s true for the rest of it,” I say.
Kristen runs a hand along it. The tile becomes whiter. The blue now more of a light blue. She turns to show me her dust-covered palm, then rubs it off on her skirt.
“Hugo,” Rachel says, fixated on the tile. “Do you want to come see?”
When he doesn’t answer we all turn around.
Hugo’s staring in our direction, but past us, like he’s trying to focus on a faraway object. Honey mustard is smeared around his lips, which have started to turn blue along with the rest of his face. His little hands are tightly balled into fists. The guts of a tomato squeeze through his fingers.
“He’s choking!” Rachel yells.
Before any of us react, Kristen is up, pushing through us. She gets behind Hugo and bends down to place her right fist on his stomach and clenches it with her other hand. She performs several, quick, upward pushes.
“Come on,” she says through tears. “Come on, goddamnit.”
All we can do is watch. Rachel is crying, her hands held up in front of her with her fingertips touching. Austin’s jaw is clenched, lips pressed together so tightly I can’t hardly see them.
We all hear it. The tomato hits the carpet soundlessly and rolls to a stop inches from our feet. Hugo takes a deep breath before letting out a loud wail and all I can think is that this is the most beautiful sound I have ever heard. Kristen spins him around, lifts his arms, and hugs him. She lifts Hugo and begins to bob and shush him. She keeps saying, “It’s okay, baby. You’re okay.” Rachel rushes over with her arms out and Kristen turns her back, shielding Hugo from her.
“Give him to me,” Rachel says.
Kristen slowly turns around, but takes a step backward. She holds Hugo’s head against her shoulder, her fingers buried into his hair.
“I need a little more time,” she says, pleading. “That’s all. A minute, please. Maybe two. That’s all. Just give us a minute, will you?”
Rachel puts a hand over her mouth.
I try to convince myself one day this will be nothing more than an anecdote we’ll tell at parties.
Then Austin’s hand is on the back of my neck. I don’t need to look to know he’s looking at me. He says, “Oh, Christ.”