I Know, But This Is Nice
I get up at 5:45 a.m. and tiptoe to the office, take a seat at my desk. A half-hour later, the pocket door slides open a fraction, quietly, slowly.
“Hey, Bud,” I say to the darkness that hides my two-year-old son, Gus.
My voice gives him permission to start his day. With his eyes half-covered by his hand, he runs behind my desk and crawls up into my lap. He buries his warm face in my chest.
“Did you have good dreams?” I ask him.
“I pooped my pants,” he says.
“It’s okay, you wore a diaper to bed. But let’s go get you cleaned up.”
“Accidents happen, Daddy.”
“I know they do.”
He runs through our dark house to his room at the end of the hall and waits for me by his changing table, where I strip him of his pajama bottoms. I remove his diaper, but there is no poop.
“You didn’t poop,” I say.
“Yes, I did,” he says. He’s so sure of himself.
“You peed, but you didn’t poop,” I say. He looks at me like I’m insane.
I turn on the television for him, then walk back to the bedroom where Liz is just waking up. She leans into me and groans her sleepy groan.
“I need to send some emails before I get started with the pressure washer,” I tell her.
“I need some coffee before I do anything,” she responds before heading toward the kitchen and settling into an episode of Leo the Wildlife Ranger with Gus.
I borrowed the pressure washer from my friend and down-the-street neighbor, Matt. I backed my truck into his driveway yesterday and he put it in the bed, then we stood ten feet away from each other and talked about the coronavirus pandemic. We discussed the ways in which we are isolating our families from the rest of the world.
In twenty-one days, I’ve been to the grocery store three times, Liz has been to work at the hospital twice, Gus—who is asthmatic—has gone nowhere. We are all experiencing a bout of cabin fever.
Pressure washing the house isn’t a part of my regular morning routine, but we have a real estate photographer coming this afternoon. Before this pandemic tightened its grip on society, Liz and I fell in love with a house across town, a few blocks from Gus’s Montessori school, down the street from Liz’s nursing school, and practically in the backyard of my cousin Will’s family. We’re already daydreaming of teaching Gus to ride his bike in the big Methodist Church parking lot across the street from it. We would have made an offer on the house the day we looked at it, but we hadn’t even begun to prep our current house to sell. We came home that night and began to declutter. We hired a man to paint the walls and floor of our sunporch, fix the ceiling in our bedroom where a leaky roof had left water damage—brown stains on our white ceiling—and replace the second-story wooden deck off the back of the house. The deck was rotted enough that I haven’t let anyone step foot on it for the last three years for fear they’d fall through. It used to overlook an old concrete pool that leaked. For two years we fought that pool and the countless oak leaves, then we had it filled in.
Now, we are nearly ready for the photos. We don’t know when we’ll be able to put the house on the market because it’s not like we are willing to show it during our quarantine, but we at least want the photos taken. That way when the flood gates open back up and normalcy comes rushing in, our home will be available to potential buyers and we can make our offer on the other house.
On our kitchen wall hangs a framed newspaper clipping from 1966 that includes a picture of the former owners of our home—a family of three, just like us; a couple with a son—who were recognized by the city as having the yard of the month in August that year. We’ve got a long way to go before we can reclaim that title, but we are one step closer after I spend an hour of my morning using the high-pressure water hose to blast green and brown algae from the side of our house and the concrete patio. The bricks, mortared together in 1964, look nearly new after I am finished. I make a mental note to pressure wash things more regularly. The work is not fun, but it almost is. And I feel like Mr. J.M. Steward, always watching us from that framed newspaper clipping—always passing judgment with his tucked-in shirt and his hand on his hip—would appreciate it.
Inside, Liz frantically vacuums and moves things. She makes a plan to sweep the newly painted sunporch floor.
“I might have to mop it,” she says. “There’s dirt everywhere.”
I want to tell her that that’s unnecessary, but I know she believes wholeheartedly that it is necessary.
“I’m just letting Gus keep watching TV,” she says. “Just because we have so much to do.”
“Yeah, definitely,” I say to let her know she’s not a bad Mom, that he won’t turn into a zombie in one day. That’s the reassurance she needs to move forward.
At lunchtime, Liz puts some dinosaur-shaped chicken and veggie nuggets in the oven for Gus, and I step out on the front porch to record my daily Facebook Live video for the reading series I run. Since we cancelled all our reading events, I record myself reading something five days a week at 12:30 p.m., usually at my desk after Gus has gone down for a nap, but he isn’t going to nap today. Since we are short on time, I read a single poem by a friend of mine who teaches at the University of Nebraska.
When I come back inside, Liz is in a full-blown panic, bouncing from room to room, various cleaning tools in hand. Gus has pooped his pants. This time for real. We both talk to him about it, but he shows no real remorse, no matter how sternly we speak. The clock is ticking, but we’re almost finished getting the house picture-ready. Liz will clean right up until the camera clicks, no matter how clean the house is. Her heart is racing as she runs the vacuum cleaner. I know not to tell her things will be fine, but I can’t help myself. I can hear her huffing in the next room. I worry she might have a panic attack.
“Babe, we have plenty of time,” I say.
“I’ll be fine if you just keep helping me,” she says. It’s her polite way of telling me to shut the hell up.
In that short exchange, I have said my piece, and she has said hers, and then we continue tucking stray items of clutter into hidden corners.
When our realtor pulls up outside, I greet him in the driveway from a safe distance. He says things in the real estate game are coming to a grinding halt. Clients are cancelling showings across the city. Everyone’s anticipating a shelter-in-place order from the governor. We are one of five states not to have issued one yet. We are in infamous company with the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa.
Our realtor decides to stay outside and let the photographer, Michael, go into the house with me. Gus and Liz also move outside. Michael opens doors with his elbows and doesn’t touch anything but his tripod and his camera. We move from room to room and I stage items in the shots for him. The house is awkwardly silent, so I turn on the record player.
“Is this Willie Nelson?” he asks. “Stardust?”
He tells me it reminds him of his dad. His own son is twenty-one years old and has gotten into vinyl. They are bonding over bands Michael used to listen to decades ago.
“How’d it go?” Liz asks me after they have gone.
“I think it went well,” I say, “but we’ll find out when we see the pictures.”
It’s nearly 2:30 p.m. and Liz and I haven’t had lunch yet. I make myself a turkey sandwich and her a turkey wrap. I pour salsa into a bowl and empty the bottom of a bag of tortilla chips onto my plate, but little pieces of chips scatter all over the dining room table.
“Shit,” I say.
“It’s okay, the photographer’s gone,” she says.
We laugh. It feels good to relax and get back to our regular rhythm. We are not dirty people, but sometimes we are too tired to immediately clean up the chip crumbs. Or the dirt that I have probably tracked in from the backyard after playing ball with Suki. Sometimes when we take Gus to the bathroom to clean the ketchup smears from his face after lunch, we forget to also clean the ones from the table top. The dog is always shedding. I’ll take off a jacket and not hang it up. Liz will leave coffee cups all over the house. We have a Paw Patrol action figure infestation. Play-Doh balls that didn’t make it back into the container, left neglected under the activity table, dry to pebbles. Cap-less markers have died similar deaths. Dust accumulates. Little Gus handprints end up all over the sliding glass door to the sunporch. A stack of unopened mail, most of it junk, sits on the bar or my desk. Legos disappear for months under furniture. A puzzle piece packs its bags in the night and buys a one-way ticket to an unknown destination. A stray dish left on the kitchen bar. The recycling bin overflows. The kitchen trash is so full the bag slips from the rim of the container. Gus has pulled the little wooden drawers of the jewelry box out again and left them strewn about. A stray crayon. A stray shoe. A stray sock. Sometimes it feels like we are running a shelter for stray parts of pairs. The laundry is done but it is stacked on the chair and needs to be put away. Why is the floor wet? Have you seen my phone charger? Gus, where did you get that? Don’t run from me. Are we out of rice milk? Don’t put that in your mouth. What time is it? We don’t throw books.
This is our life.
I spend the afternoon at my desk, having virtual meetings with coworkers through Microsoft Teams and Zoom. I like conducting all my business from my home office. I like getting to wear what I want. I like sending an email and taking video calls thirty seconds from pressure washing the house in the backyard. Ironically enough, my coworkers seem more accessible now when we’re all working at home than when we’re in the office together, in the same space. I can see their faces in two clicks, rather than having to walk to their desk only to discover they’ve stepped away for a second.
Our human resources department put out a survey this week to gauge employees on their experience working remotely. Ninety percent said their productivity at home matches or exceeds that of their productivity while in the office, and they’ve cited improved quality of life due to factors like less commute and more family time. We’ve always had the data to know millennials have the self-discipline to work from home, but now that we finally got the VCR installed for the boomers, turns out they really like it, too.
I hope we emerge from this experience with a changed mindset. I can’t stop thinking that now is the time, if it’s ever going to happen. This virus has forced us all to stop and take inventory on every level and I hope it opens some eyes. I hope all the people who say major structural change to society can’t happen can see now that the virus has already taken the hardest steps toward change for us. All we have to do is get a little bit inspired to work together and keep going. I’m not optimistic we will at a quick pace, but I am optimistic that we’re going to at least make some shifts to lessen the intensity of the rat race.
Liz rolls back the pocket door to my office and sticks her head in. “How late are you working?” she asks.
“I’ve got a small crisis to handle,” I say, “but then I’ll be finished.”
“What’s the crisis?” Her eyes light up, ready for drama, for gossip. She’s probably hoping for an executive to have distributed a Jerry McGuire-style memo.
“I shouldn’t have said crisis,” I tell her. “We just sent a company-wide email out with a broken link.”
She’s bored with the explanation before I’ve even gotten it out.
Half an hour later, I sign out from the chat and remove my headphones.
“But, Gus, why did you pee-pee in the floor?” I hear Liz asking loudly.
“Because I did,” Gus responds.
“We don’t pee-pee in the floor. What do we do when we need to go pee-pee?”
“I need to go pee-pee and poo-poo on the toilet, Mama and Daddy!” He says it with glee. Like we’re going to shower him with chocolate and candy canes for just talking about properly utilizing the latrine rather than actually doing it.
When I meet Liz in our hallway, she glares at me. “Your son peed in the floor.”
I sit with him for a minute, asking questions, recapping the reasons why we use the toilet.
“Sor-ry,” he says in the most adorable voice.
“It’s okay,” I say.
“Will you play Paw Patrol with me now, Daddy?”
Before I can answer, Liz says, “Are you cool if I take my test on your computer. I don’t want to have to wait until we put him down.”
“Will you play Paw Patrol with me now, Daddy?” Gus says again.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” I say to Liz.
“Thank you.” As she reaches for the door to the office, she adds, “I don’t know what we’re having for dinner.” And then closes it.
“Daddy, will you play Paw Patrol with me now, please?”
I want something special for dinner. It’s rare that I’m the one in the kitchen cooking dinner. I make breakfast sometimes (scrambled eggs or French toast) or lunch (sandwiches or salads), but not dinner. This suddenly feels like an opportunity. I crack a tiny can of some kind of pre-mixed cocktail my mother-in-law put in my stocking way back at Christmas. I assume it’s a whiskey-based thing because the branding has a rugged vibe, but when I taste it, I can’t identify any specific flavor. It tastes like a Kool-Aid suicide. I scrunch my face, but vow to finish it.
I turn the Willie Nelson album back on and stand at the open refrigerator to inventory ingredients I might be able to use to throw together dinner. It’s been almost a week since my last grocery store run and we only have a few fresh items left. A head of cauliflower, half a bag of Brussels sprouts, an onion, some snow peas. I pull it all out except for the snow peas. I cut the cauliflower in half, break it down to florets and throw them in a pan. I quarter the Brussels and throw them in another pan. I want her to like what I’m making, so while the vegetables sauté, I look up recipes and find one for veggie enchiladas.
“Oooooo….” Liz says after her test, when she walks in to find me in the kitchen. “What are you making?”
“I’m not sure,” I say, not confident enough to tell her I’m making enchiladas. I’ve already decided to bail on the enchilada sauce because it has too many steps.
She pulls out a wine glass and makes what we call a diet wine. She cuts Chardonnay with whatever gourmet seltzer I’ve stocked her with. “What are we going to put with those veggies?” she asks again.
“I was kind of thinking about trying to do veggie enchiladas.”
She pulls out her phone to look for a recipe. “Cauliflower and Brussels sprout enchiladas!” she says when she finds one. It’s the same one I found, but I don’t tell her that. I’m not sure why. Maybe I want her to think I’ve got this chef inside me who can just innately know that cauliflower and Brussels will go well in enchiladas. Even after four years of marriage, I want her to think I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve than I actually do.
When I walk to flip the record, she installs herself at her regular spot in the kitchen, in front of the stove. She is stirring my Brussels. She walks to the spice rack and says she’s going to put something together.
“I was thinking taco seasoning,” I say. “Do we have any taco seasoning?”
“Okay, yeah!” she says. She likes it when I make decisions like this.
The part of me that was excited to prepare dinner for my wife is hyperaware that she has taken over the kitchen.
Gus grabs at my left leg. “Hold me, Daddy!”
I pick him up.
“Will you come play with me?” he says.
Liz pulls a packet of taco seasoning from deep in the cupboard, somewhere behind our olive oil and our coconut amino acids. I never would’ve thought to look there for taco seasoning. In a flash of an instant, the McCormick logo sends me deep into my childhood. I am standing in the kitchen of my mother’s old house and she is making magic. I wonder if there are things happening in this kitchen that will imprint on Gus’s brain so that when he is thirty-eight years old, he will stop for half a second to remember it. I wonder if it’s happening now.
“If you’ll take him, I’ll finish up dinner,” Liz says.
She has no idea I want to finish dinner. That I want to do something for her. Something that will remind her how great it is to be married to me.
“Let’s eat on our new deck,” I say.
“Okay,” she says, and I can tell she is contemplating logistics, imagining scenarios in which Gus squeezes through the spindles and falls to the ground while we stuff our faces with veggie enchiladas. But she can also tell that I want this. She doesn’t know why, but she knows something is off about me.
“Come on, Gussy,” I say. “We’ve got to do some prepping.”
“Oh! Can I help, Daddy?”
“Yeah. I need your help. We’ve got to carry a table and some chairs upstairs.”
“Can I come upstairs with you?” He is so used to us telling him what not to do—“We don’t stand on tables!” “We don’t eat Play Doh!” “We don’t pee-pee in the floor!”—that he needs constant reassurance that we will let him help us, even after we’ve asked for his help.
“Can I bring my Paw Patrols, Daddy?”
“Yeah, we’re definitely going to need your Paw Patrols.”
I take his owl sound machine and his books off his bedside table, which is the closest thing to a bistro table we have.
Liz smiles at me as I carry it through our house, Gus running behind me with no pants on. This suddenly feels like an occasion, like something we might remember years from now.
“I’m climbing the stairs like a cat!” Gus says. And he is—on all fours. “Can you climb the stairs like a cat, too, Daddy?”
“Not right now,” I say. “I’m on a mission.” And I am—assembling and arranging furniture on this deck will be the thing that reminds Liz how great it is to be married to me. I will position the table and chairs in a way I know she will like. It seems simple—and it is—but she will love it, I decide. Aesthetics matter to her.
Gus stays upstairs while I run down to grab chairs from our dining room. I snag a smaller table from the sunporch and grab a small chair from Gus’s activity table.
“Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes,” she tells me. “Should I…put my dress on?”
“Yeah, Honey.” I say it with affection thinly veiled as annoyance. It’s a tone—a game— we adopted from her father and his wife four years ago.
The next time I come down, Gus tells her he needs to go pee-pee on the potty. I open my closet and pull out my suit. The pants are missing, but the jacket is there.
“Honey, do you know where my suit is?” I call to her in the next room.
“Is it not in your closet?”
“My jacket is, but my pants aren’t. And my black suit’s missing.” I have two of the same suit, a charcoal one and a black one, purchased three years later because I liked the charcoal one so much. “Didn’t we get them dry-cleaned? Did you ever pick them up?” I ask, walking to our bedroom, where she’s putting Gus in his tuxedo onesie.
“I don’t remember dropping them off at the dry-cleaner, but I can call up there tomorrow.”
I walk back to my closet and unzip a hanging bag. There is my black suit. I sigh, knowing I must walk back to our bedroom and explain to Liz that I instinctually created a story to explain the missing suit and that in that story I painted her as the villain—the forgetful wife who left my good suit at the dry-cleaner months before.
“Uh-huh,” she says.
But my charcoal pants are still missing. After thinking about it, I know I wore them the day before we began our quarantine, so they must be in our home somewhere because I haven’t gone anywhere else in the last three weeks. I search the closet, hanger by hanger, but come up with nothing. I end up putting my black suit pants on with my charcoal jacket. I pull the white shirt from the hanging bag. I haven’t washed it since I last wore it to a conference back in October.
We walk in a line as a family upstairs to the deck. Liz in her dress, Gus in his tux, me in my suit and blue tie. We carry plates with veggie enchiladas on them, and drinks—Maker’s on ice, diet wine, rice milk.
“This looks great,” Liz says as we put our plates on the table.
I follow her eyes and know she’s wondering how we’re going to light the four candles I cobbled together—they’re all scented. I pull the lighter from my pocket.
“Good job, Honey.”
I am proud of myself for having grabbed the lighter from my desk drawer. No clue where I got it. I haven’t bought a lighter since college.
“Before it gets too dark, let’s take a picture,” I say. I step through the doorway and grab the hotel-style folding luggage rack from the room we use as storage as much as a spare bedroom. I grab the case of Bota sitting there and put it on the luggage rack. I scoot the whole things to the door and balance my phone on top of it. I set the timer, then hit the button before running over to my seat and doing my best to look as casual as I can in the picture. As the timer counts down, the light on my camera flashes faster and faster and we get more and more desperate in our pleas that Gus look toward it until it finally clicks. In the photo, he is looking off into the distance while Liz and I look at him and point at the camera lens. I wear the stern look of disappointment. I look like an asshole Dad. Liz looks composed and beautiful in her dress, just like she did four years earlier, on the day we got married in these clothes, standing on my mother’s porch.
After dinner, we take Gus out of his tuxedo and put him into pajamas that double as a Sheriff Woody costume. Liz brushes his teeth and I read him books and kiss him goodnight. I make myself another drink and the two of us sit on the hearth downstairs.
“I think this is probably my favorite anniversary,” she tells me, leaning in for a kiss.
“Mine too,” I say.
We wait until we’re sure Gus is asleep before walking the stairs back up to the deck. We sip at our drinks and remind each other how far we’ve come in four years. Of course, none of it compares to the feat of having successfully raised our boy for two and a half years. When the neighbor lets his dog out, we stop talking and watch.
“Asher…” Liz whispers, talking to the dog.
“Stop,” I say.
We barely know our neighbors and getting caught whispering to their dog at nine o’clock at night in wedding attire during a global pandemic doesn’t feel like a good way to progress the relationship.
“Asher…” Liz says a little louder this time. She laughs at the fear on my face. We both know I will be the one to have any conversation with the neighbors if her game with the eighty-pound Pyrenees mix gets out of hand.
Finally the dog goes inside and I offer to read Liz the letter I wrote her for our anniversary.
“You wrote one?”
I write one every year. Her love language is words of affirmation. I emailed it to myself earlier so I could read it from my phone, which feels cheap, but I have no other option. This is the first year I haven’t printed out a hard copy because I haven’t been around a printer in three weeks.
The letter summarizes the past year of our marriage from various angles. It gives me a chance to acknowledge when I could’ve been better, and when she stepped up to improve our lives, which happens a lot. I used to try to hand her the letter to read, but she always makes me read it to her. By the time I get to the last paragraph this year—and probably every year—we’re both wiping tears from our cheeks. It feels sappy to write about it now, but it’s an important part of what has become our anniversary tradition.
After reading the letter, Liz sits in my lap and we hold each other for a while before she takes her seat across the table from me again. We look up at the branches of the oak trees hanging over us against the night sky. Trees Mr. J.M. Steward probably planted.
“This is beautiful,” she says.
“Yeah. This deck is a game-changer.”
“Maybe we should just stay here,” she says, referencing our recent push to sell the house and move to the one we like in Hillcrest, across town.
I want to agree with her, that we should stay in our house. Because this is beautiful, and we are happy here.
But then I remember these are not normal times. I am happy here in this house because it is the space in which I am getting to spend all of my days and nights with Liz and our son. Because I’m not having to add forty minutes to my commute when I take Gus to school or go pick him up. Proximity to our favorite bars and restaurants don’t matter when we can’t leave the house. When the bars and restaurants are closed. When I’m not going to work. When we can’t even hug our loved ones. When we are scared.
When we are scared, we cling to stability, to the knowns in our lives. Liz and I are clinging to each other. We are wrapping our arms—tightly—around the child we love during this strange time.
“When things get back to normal…” I start to tell her, but she interrupts me before I can finish my sentence.
“I know, I know,” she says. “But this is nice, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I say. “It is.”