Singles by Kate Petersen
Most short stories either constrain themselves to one point-of-view or, if the writer is interested in presenting multiple points-of-view, each character receives his or her own section, often alternating between the perspectives. It often takes a real master to switch point-of-view seamlessly, to allow us to enter the interiority of multiple characters at once.
In “Singles,” Lisanne and Dale meet at a singles event at Costco. The story begins quite traditionally, with each character given a clearly delineated section of their own. But as the two characters become closer over the course of the story, the alternating perspective mirrors their relationship. There are moments when the point-of-view switches back and forth between them, paragraph by paragraph. It is this attention to craft, to the link between form and content, that makes Kate Petersen’s work such a pleasure to read.
Lisanne had known Mike-who-worked-the-door for so long that they no longer said anything to each other, and though he’d stopped carding her years ago, she still took hers out of her wallet and cupped it in her palm as she approached the Warehouse, just in case—even tonight, when you had to show a ticket instead.
“Good evening,” Mike said, taking her ticket.
Lisanne wanted to laugh as she put her card away, or curtsy, it was such an old-fashioned greeting, so un-Costcoey. But he was wearing a dress shirt instead of the usual polo, one his wife had probably picked out for him, and the tenderness of being clothed by someone else struck in her a kind of blow, which was the only way the world seemed to get to her lately—knocking at her from the inside with what was ordinary, with what she’d once had. “I hope you’re getting overtime for this,” she said, trying to shake it off. “You look nice.”
“Thanks,” he said, seeming embarrassed. “I like your coat. And you’ll pick up your wine over there by Photo before you leave—just show them this. Have fun in there.”
She waggled her ticket a little, like oh, she would. And then she was in: the First Ever Kirkland Signature Singles Night. A sucker. Instinctively she wanted a cart to hide behind, but they’d been chained together outside behind tasteful bunting. In the rafters, Nina Simone was singing about fresh-cut flowers in each room. Lisanne lifted her phone to her ear so she could say to no one: “You’ve got to be kidding.” She put it back in her purse and looked around.
Different: the bleachered lights inside the warehouse had been dimmed for the occasion. Cashiers she recognized were dressed, like Mike, in vaguely fancier attire, ushering attendees toward the back of the warehouse, where strings of holiday lights dangled from the rafters. No name badges on zip-cords, no carts to dodge.
Same: most of the action seemed to be toward the back, between Bakery and Meats.
On his normal trips to Costco, Dale skipped the bakery corner because Faye had had a breadmaker since they met, and made a good wheat loaf. But Faye and the maker were gone, and that’s where the bar was tonight, the pies and stollens replaced with modular setups like at baseball games or the symphony. Caterers in black button-down shirts and dark jeans stood behind them, taking orders. Dale stepped up to one and asked for white.
“I have a Sauvignon Blanc, and a Chardonnay from the Central Coast.” The man swiveled each bottle expertly to show Dale the labels. “Do you know about our reserve label?” Dale looked at the framed price list on the bar. Everything was three dollars.
“I’ll have a Chardonnay.”
The man poured and handed him a stemless glass that felt like real crystal, and Dale left a five, waved off change. He moved toward an end-cap between housewares and cheese, to get a feel for the room.
The women of Costco looked good. Lovelier than he remembered, out now from behind their carts and purses. Dale had grown up with older sisters, but he thought even if he hadn’t, he would still appreciate women for their unsaved generosity, all the effort they made. The chosen length of their clothes, for instance—sweaters that fell to just the right place, or how a woman could wear several shirts at once without them bunching up in a way that made just one shirt seem foolish.
Faye was on some sort of post-move-out pet-sitting tour, thankfully, had been since the breakup five months ago, currently somewhere between Portland and Seattle. He knew this because she’d been sending him occasional vague and unwanted text updates (In Yakima till 3-7. Remember Greg? Greg’s buddy has a dog) and Dale hadn’t had the heart or energy to change his phone number. He had no idea where she’d stashed her things.
“Is that the Kirkland?” a woman said to him. She wore her hair in a way that reminded him of Princess Di, and a pretty blue blouse that came high on her neck.
“I think so.” Dale looked into his glass. She had a red wine, filled as high as Dale’s had been. High.
“Isn’t it great? I saw a special on TV a few months ago about how Costco purchased its own vineyards. I think in the Willamette? Or maybe near Napa.” She swirled her glass and seemed to consider one of the buttons on Dale’s shirt. “Anyway, they’re right in there with the premiere vintners now. Have you been to Napa?”
Dale nodded, somewhat dismayed. It was one thing to like Costco. It was another, more depressing thing to watch a feature-length infomercial on it. And then another still to admit you’d watched that infomercial to a perfect stranger. Plus, Dale didn’t want to talk about Napa. Hadn’t this woman been something before single? You went to Napa with someone. A Faye, for example. “Good old Costco,” he said. He patted the square box of a combination food-processor-blender within reach, then swiveled it with his hand, as if to get a better idea. But Di was looking at him like it was still his turn. “What do you do?” he asked.
“Strategic communications,” she said. “Most of my clients are equine investors.”
“Equine investors.” Dale nodded, trying to sound neutral. He was thirty-eight. He guessed she was forty-five, not that it mattered, though it did, maybe. It would matter to one of them. She was probably nice. She was probably the nicest woman anywhere plus great genes plus diverse equine portfolio and here he was, next to her in their dim hometown Costco, not feeling anything, guessing at her age.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” the woman said, offering her hand. “Beth.”
Dale shook it, disappointed in her flimsy handshake, and then, in the same moment, aware that the flimsiness might be a comment on his behavior. “Dale,” he said. She wasn’t depressing, he thought. She was trying, like he was, only more. “I’m just not very practiced at this.”
Beth smiled at him, lips closed, as if to say fine but that was not really an excuse you could use here, and tilting her glass a little, she left him for a cart where a sullen-looking man in a beard-sling was slicing globs off a wheel of brie.
That Dale wasn’t very practiced was mostly true. Near the end, when their relationship had seemed more like a sad two-player game of who could stay at work later, he and Faye had brainstormed. Dale had said again how he thought they should get engaged. Joining their finances had made him believe, against mounting evidence, that she was in. Faye was too much of a grown-up for engagement, she said, rings were for twenty-year-olds, and if they were going to do that, why not just go down to City Hall? Dale didn’t have a good answer, though the two words depressed him for some reason, made him picture a plastic window with the little mouse hole cutout at the bottom and a blank-faced clerk, passing a pen sadly through. “Aren’t you bored by me, Dale?” Faye asked. She’d held her pretty arms up, hands buried in the cuffs of her sweater. “Don’t we look bored?” But he didn’t know how they looked. “Because you look bored with me.” “I’m not bored.” He was there, wasn’t he? That’s when Faye had thrown Open Relationship into the brainstorm. Just a trial period. It might rule out boredom, she said; remind them why they loved one another.
And because part of their relationship had always hinged on Dale being a good sport, and because he was desperate to save it, Dale had said yes.
So he’d tried. Gone to the least salacious dating site his friends could recommend, and was startled by how many women emailed him, referencing his eyes and/or the open relationship he’d mentioned (reluctantly) in his profile. After perfunctory dinners of seared ahi or roasted beet salads, they would go back to the woman’s place or his and fumble out of their clothes. Mostly the sex was sad, the kissing even. It was as if his love for Faye so specialized him that nothing translated: there were women, and there was Faye, and he’d forgotten one whole category. He pressed around them dumbly, eager to feel what Faye must have felt when she was with another man. Wanted. Or urgent again. He didn’t know. In memory, the experiment was two miserable months of putting his shirt back on and helping a stranger hunt for her keys.
But that was an old path and he didn’t need to go down it. What he needed was to regroup. He made a slow circuit, coming back up the aisle of toaster ovens and battery packs. Over the book tables, several groups of two or three women were talking, holding hors d’oeuvres aloft the way statues of Francis held birds. It seemed that the Costco event planners had not accounted for the gender differential. Dale should go over there. But he couldn’t. He stood still, thinking about leaving. How he could. The ground, he noticed, sparkled. They had glittered the warehouse for him. Dale was not a glitter person, he would not say that, but he felt touched by the effort. For such an effort, he decided, he could give it another fifteen minutes.
First he’d make a lap. A starting over lap. He headed for the front of the warehouse. A lone sample cart was stationed a few aisles down, away from the rest of the mixer. As he approached, the microwave beeped once before the aproned attendant had the door open, batting steam away. She was chatting with a woman in a black dress and black tights and a red coat. The red-coated woman had a pretty face, round and good for laughing, it seemed, and dark hair that was so straight at the ends it looked as if it must keep going, only invisibly. Dale couldn’t remember seeing such straight hair.
“I love how you use kitchen shears on everything here,” the coat woman said to both of them. “It’s so…botanical. Or medical. I don’t know. Falafel clipping?” she offered him a third of a falafel in a napkin.
“What brings you here?” Dale asked, accepting it, already kicking himself for the line.
“The prawns.” Lisanne gestured to a nearby end-cap display, on which she’d arranged a clear drink on a napkin, and a little tower of beveled tissue cups, each containing a sizable freckled prawn. “Or you mean, why am I single?”
He nodded, then wished he could un-nod. He gulped his Chardonnay.
“My ex-husband hit my kid when I left him to babysit,” she said.
Dale choked on his wine and dabbed his mouth with his napkin, took another napkin and coughed again, turning away from the cart. Where do you come from, Nina Simone asked from the rafters. He didn’t know what to say, but the presence of the cart attendant, her utter equanimity, seemed to prevent him from just walking away.
“I’m kidding,” Lisanne said. She rattled the ice in what remained of her tiny drink. In the last few months, she’d become a safety pin: harmless until pressed, at which point she drew blood. “It’s a joke. Sorry. That was terrible.” They’d begun to walk toward the bar, as if in silent agreement about something. “I’m Lisanne, terrible Lisanne.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to joke about that,” Dale said. He didn’t have kids (one of the two good things about this whole mess, Carol et al. had said), but he couldn’t imagine saying something like that, thinking it even. His college buddy Connor was a trainer in the NFL, worked with the player whose kid had just been hospitalized. There was nothing funny about any of it.
“I know. My doctor gave me a joke book,” Lisanne said, “but they’re no good.” She paused to accept a flatbread something with prosciutto, popped it in her mouth.
“I’m Dale,” he said. “Don’t worry. I can’t ever remember jokes at all.” He wanted to be pulled away by an errand, by having to get the usual 12-pack of paper towels or a bag of jumbo Fuji apples. But he still had six rolls left, had hardly used any since Faye had left. She’d accounted for most of their household’s paper towel use, one of the ten hundred things Dale hadn’t known until she was gone.
“Oh, I remember them,” she said, offering him a Dixie cup from a cart featuring grapefruit juice and Kirkland premium vodka. “They’re just crummy jokes.” He shook his head in a way he hoped looked chivalrous, so she sipped, then handed him the rest. “But you’re right,” she said. “That was way worse than the book ones.”
This was exactly why she shouldn’t have come. She’d gotten so pointy lately that even her attempts at soft, at letting everything be a Nerf ball—carefree, underhanded—seemed to sail out of her and land like an overthrown dart. She’d tried to explain this to Dara, how pointiness was not an ideal condition in which to meet strangers. Men. Dara, who conveniently did not have a Costco membership. Dara who’d said go. You need it, just go.
“Will you excuse me?” Lisanne said. Dale nodded and offered to watch her snacks.
The ex-husband part was true, in the sense that Lisanne had one. Also, she had a daughter, a daughter Josh would never ever ever have touched in a million years but who was nevertheless not okay. Nina, thirteen, was in her third week post-hospital, in Covington, a residential treatment facility for girls with severe eating disorders. Earlier, from the shampoo aisle, Lisanne had sent Nina her nightly text. (Regular positive texts were the preferred way to stay in touch, Dr. Beck had told them at orientation.) Lisanne asked how her day had been, said she hoped she was feeling good, and that she missed her (though Lisanne avoided saying how much, how stupidly caved-in she was with missing). She wrote how they were playing her namesake, Nina Simone, at Costco, wasn’t that funny? And goodnight angel, love love love you. Dr. Beck had told Lisanne and Josh not to expect a response always, that the girls were often seeking out new areas of control, but that receiving such messages was a great comfort, regardless.
Lisanne went two-thirds down an aisle before she pulled her phone out. Nothing. She put it back in her purse, facedown. She pushed on her cheeks as if telling them to stay. Stay there. Then she headed back to where she’d left Dale.
The joke book part was true, too: Lisanne’s internist had given her one, along with the name of a therapist, whom she’d seen a total of once. When Lisanne had tried a joke out on the therapist, he had said: “Vulnerability can be a more versatile tool than humor.” Lisanne had not called that therapist back, but she had started reading more headlines online, for perspective, which is where she’d read about that football player and his poor baby.
She waved. There he was, still guarding her shrimp. “Sorry about that,” she said. “Thanks.” What was this man with his kindness and his good smile lines and nice-fitting jeans still doing here, with her? “Tell me something about yourself, Dale.”
“My ex-girlfriend left me five days after I finished paying off her credit card debt.”
“Holy shit,” Lisanne said. “Someone get this man a drink.” She handed him her final prawn, and they walked.
“I mean, it wasn’t like Eden one day and she left the next,” Dale admitted. They got in line at one of the wine carts.
“Well, even if it was Eden, she’d have had to leave, right?” Lisanne looked at him earnestly. “I mean, that was Eden’s whole deal.”
Dale laughed. “Right. I guess you’re right.”
“But I’m sorry,” she said. “That sounds crummy. Tell me another thing.”
“You seem too fun for Costco,” Dale said, hoping she would take it the right way, which was the way he’d meant it. She looked down and smiled, and before he knew what he was doing, he’d reached out and tugged on a piece of her long, long hair.
In Dale’s garage, Lisanne came around to help carry the wine, but he would only let her close the tailgate. She followed him to a corner of the garage where he set down the box, the bottles ringing like unimportant bells. “We can open one, if you want,” he said.
“Oh, I’m set,” Lisanne said, “but tea sounds good.” They’d talked about tea in his car. This was after she’d lied and told him she’d drunk too much to drive herself home (she’d had only one sample size gin and tonic) and he’d offered her a ride. Yes, she’d said, because she liked his company, his neat haircut and the way he seemed prepared and unprepared at once. And after she’d said, “take the next left,” Dale had surprised himself by saying, “Do you want to come over? For tea or something?”
Dale turned off the alarm and offered to hang her coat, but Lisanne said if he did, she might forget it, and then they’d have to coordinate to get it back, so they agreed on an arm of the couch. Dale turned on lights with dimmer switches he’d installed himself. He hoped they seemed romantic. Based on the coat-hanging conversation, he was pretty sure Lisanne was not drunk. Which meant maybe she liked him too. He set water to boil and dug through a few drawers before remembering Faye had kept the tea in the pantry.
Lisanne sat down at a chair at the kitchen island. A nice condo to go with a nice man. She felt a little relief at the rashness of her decision. On the walls hung small photographs of skylines in expensive-looking frames. His blinds had been pulled, as if in routine preparation for night. She wondered whether he was one of those people who shoved everything into a closet at the last minute. But he didn’t seem as if he’d planned on this, either. The TV was mounted in a recess of an attractive shelving unit Lisanne wouldn’t know where to get. “I like your TV,” she said.
“Thanks.” Dale handed her a mug and set out a ramekin of possible teas. “Costco.”
“I don’t really do this,” she said, putting her spoon in the cup of water.
“Me neither,” he said. “I’m more of a coffee person, but no one seems to drink coffee after dinner anymore.”
“I mean go home with someone.”
“Oh, that,” Dale said, sitting down at the island next to her. He felt stupid. He hadn’t thought of it like that, because he was in his home, his default space, and felt none of the anxiety he’d expected to, bringing a pretty woman back to it. When he’d lived with Faye, he’d always been anxious about having people over, hated when she brought one of her girlfriends back without telling him. He was embarrassed about the stacks of paper she’d covered the kitchen with, the way she’d left her lunchbox on the counter after work, the half-eaten string cheese sweating in its plastic sleeve. “Well, it’s tea,” he said. “If that makes you feel better.” Dale pinched the little paper flag against his mug with his index finger in what he hoped was a conciliatory way.
Lisanne laughed, a thick, sucking-in laugh. “When you put it that way, it does.”
“But I can make up the guest bed down here. I’ll just grab the linens from upstairs. Or take you home. Whatever you’re comfortable with.”
“Guest bed, huh?” Lisanne put a hand on his knee, felt for its point with her thumb.
“Yes,” Dale said, unsure as to the exact nature of the question. He pushed her hair back from her eyes.
“Let’s assess this linens situation,” she said, putting a short kiss on the heel of his hand, and the question went away.
Before the Great Bailout (as Carol had called it once, drunk on Chianti from Girard’s), things with Faye had been good. They had. Before the hanging on and last-ditch efforts there’d been nearly three years of good. Dale and Faye had met through friends, the way happy people always said they met, and theirs was that same story: a few late nights leaning against a friend’s kitchen counter, or a parked car, keys jingling from their hands like technicalities. More nights, after that, laying out what few skeletons they had between them on the coffee table like cards, then the sweet forgetting of the game. All the mornings they’d lain there, still, watching each other dress. Faye was brilliant, elegant too, and so specific in her desires—she seemed to have chosen her whole life since kindergarten—that being chosen had felt like a miracle to Dale, and it had been a no-brainer, choosing back.
In the bedroom, Dale and Lisanne stood like kids, touching noses. They touched each other’s forearms like new things. A nightlight gloomed from the master bath. He had Lisanne’s shirt around her neck when she asked through the fabric, “How much?”
“Twenty-six thousand,” Dale said. It was the first time he’d said the number aloud to anyone but Carol and his attorney, and it felt lighter than he’d thought, to say, and then they were on the floor. He reached for the bedside drawer, and it was a jolt, being inside her, but a jolt he understood.
They kissed their way to the bed after, and he began to make little circles with his fingers. Though she was unmoved at first he seemed to settle in, to return from somewhere, as if her body was a thing he had known a long time ago but forgotten and had had to remember, and Lisanne felt the heat coming up through her, and kissed his intent face. She closed her eyes and tried to push her brain down enough so that she could feel her clit and the bright drummed places it opened in her, so she could feel not-ugly, which was a word—a feeling?—that had been arriving to her more and more lately, whenever she stood in front of the mirror toweling her hair, or looked down to fasten her bra in the morning before swiveling it around. Ugly. It was the closest Lisanne had ever been to loathing, herself or anyone else. The feeling was foreign: one she had miraculously avoided in girlhood, in her first round of single years, in marriage and in pregnancy, but which had arrived steeply that year, like a fact, latent but undeniable, and she wondered if genetics could work this way—backwards, late-onset—a trait sent up through some deep amniotic memory from daughter to mother.
In spite of her brain, Lisanne whimpered and arched. This man kept an arm behind her shoulders, and caught her in a way that was unnecessary but nice. She let him set her down.
They lay there, listening to the refrigerator, a car now and then. In the gray between his face and the ceiling Dale saw Faye, her long feet up on someone else’s coffee table, a bowl of dark greased popcorn kernels from the night before sitting on a stack of magazines and a terrier he didn’t know sprawled under her knees. There would be rain on whosever windows she was near, probably, and for a second Dale thought he heard it on his windows, too, had summoned it with his voodoo grief, but no: he could see the moon. Thinking of Faye and missing her were becoming two separate things, and he was glad for that, but he didn’t want to do either. “Now you get to have your life back,” she’d said the day she left, the front door jawed open, car already running, and he shouldn’t have even been there but he was, because you saw people out when they left, even when what they were leaving was you. She kissed him on the forehead then, a dry kiss, mothering.
“What life?” he asked.
“Hmm?” Lisanne said into his shoulder, her undervoice dividing the room again into then and now, and back in the now Dale said the only thing he could think of, which was, “Water?” and it only sort of rhymed. But this woman who claimed to be terrible was not, she was the opposite, actually—a saint, or close to it—because she said, “Please,” and lifted her head from his arm, smoothed her hair away so he could fumble to the kitchen without explaining. Downstairs, Dale rested his head against the fridge, felt it thinking, too, rummaging for a few cubes. He ran the water and held two fingers under the tap until it was cold and he knew where he was again. And after he’d turned it off the water still sounded, pouring over the sides the mugs he’d set to soak and he waited until that had stopped too, until everything was empty enough to be quiet again, and then he returned upstairs with the two full glasses.
“I’m sorry,” he said, handing Lisanne a glass, and then climbing in on the other side.
“Why are you sorry?” Lisanne said. She liked him, maybe even a lot (though how much was a lot, after you took out the part held back forever for Nina and Josh?) but she didn’t want to get into it, whatever it was he wanted to get into.
“Because I don’t really understand why people do this.”
“This as in sex-this?”
“This,” Dale said. His hands came up from the sheets to make a grand shape and fell, as if he was bowing on his back. One of them hit her thigh on its way down, and she caught and squeezed it.
“Oh,” Lisanne said. She was holding some part of her breath, trying to rid herself of guilt like the hiccups. She lifted her arms for Dale, who was holding a corner of the sheet up. He covered her breasts and then kissed them again, through the sheet. An eighteen-minute drive from there (according to Lisanne’s phone), her daughter was in bed, too, in a room free of sharp things, a room where a low light remained on all night and there were buttons leading to help in stations, and the bathroom was guarded by a woman with giant forearms named Marie. Lisanne had made a human, but now it took other humans, humans they were paying, to keep her from unmaking herself. Other people were doing Lisanne’s job now because she had not done it.
The week before they’d taken Nina to the hospital for fainting (bradycardia was a common but life-threatening complication of anorexia, the doctor told her and Josh outside the room), Josh had again suggested a residential treatment program. Again, Lisanne had said no. They’d argued about it a few times on the phone, after his weeks with Nina, how not only didn’t he think the anorexia was getting better, it was getting worse, that the once-a-week visits to a nutritionist their pediatrician had referred them to weren’t enough. Had she seen their daughter’s arms? Seen her eat close to the recommended daily calories? Lisanne fought him on these calls, refused. Of course she had seen Nina’s arms. You couldn’t un-see them, and Lisanne resented the way Josh’s questions made her feel like the divorce had been about her blindness. But she wasn’t going to ship her daughter out so someone else could try to feed her, when she could try. Let someone else check on her, when Lisanne could walk down the hall herself and look through the sliver of door Nina had asked to keep open ever since she’d moved to her big-girl bed.
So Josh stopped bringing it up, but the next week when he dropped Nina off, he’d left the pamphlets for a few treatment centers in an unmarked envelope on the shelf by the garage door. It was probably the right place, as innocent a place as you could pick in the post-divorce still-friends joint-custody clusterfuck they were in: an acknowledgment that he was no longer allowed to approach her desk, would not humiliate Lisanne or Nina by leaving them in plain view on the kitchen counter. But it was cruel, too, the same shelf where he’d left Lisanne notes those first years, torn from the kitchen notepad and folded into unsealed envelopes which waited for her as she got in the car mornings—remembering some part of her from the night before, wishing her a good meeting, or making a suggestion about the kitchen table, the shower, notes that sometimes made her touch herself through her clothes as she drove. And on the morning they decided to try, to try and have a baby, a Nina, the envelope had been red. – Here we go. Dear heart, let’s make another.
“Lately,” Dale said, “I say people when I mean myself.” His ear was folded on the pillow. “I don’t know why.”
“Knock knock,” she said. Reached for his ear, put a finger on the crease.
“Who’s there?” he asked, and pulled her a little closer while he waited for her to speak. She seemed to have forgotten the joke.
“Done it,” Lisanne said finally.
Dale frowned. They had, but not as a joke. “Done it who?”
“No, whodunit!” She tried to bat his arm but she was too close so she just let her hand fall there, between them.
“Oh,” he said.
“That one was in the book,” she apologized. “I’m going to shower, okay?”
He must have dozed because when he woke again Lisanne was in a different zip code, bed-wise. Back to him, she had her long wet hair pulled over her shoulder and where her part ended, a cul-de-sac of pale scalp glowed. Its lunarity made her seem farther away.
Lisanne wanted to braid her hair, a sooth from childhood, but didn’t want to risk any tell of awakeness. So she let the hair rest in her palm like it was on loan to her. This was the only way Nina would let her mother touch her anymore, palm flat, because otherwise she said Lisanne was pinching her.
He woke again to the pluck of floss. Lisanne had the door closed, but through it he could hear the fiber banjoing off teeth. Her thoroughness sent pity ringing through him, a feeling that in him had always grown too close to love. He dressed quickly so he could be downstairs, coffee made, when she came out. As he was pulling on a sock he heard her voice. “Don’t look.” Then water.
Lisanne put her finger under the faucet, shushing herself, watched the water curtain around her wide knuckle. (Wide since when?) Coaxed the water to her face, blinked into the towel and checked her phone. No answer. Finger-combed her hair into a bun. Checked her phone. Still nothing. She thought about texting Josh to see if he’d heard, but he’d already accused her of making a contest of Nina’s disappearing affection, and now everything was kindling. Lisanne listened a second before opening the bathroom door. Silence, everyone kept telling her, was normal. She looked around the room again to make sure she hadn’t left anything, but all she saw belonged to Dale: a James Patterson book, a pair of reading glasses standing in their fleecy pocket. Sheets she’d been kissed through.
“Would you like breakfast?” he asked when she got to the bottom step. “Well, first off. Tea, coffee?”
“Just coffee.” Wasn’t that a song? She seemed to be ripping off the world, lately, like that was the best her brain, under these conditions, could do: steal.
“Do you need anything?” Dale asked. “I mean, take. Take anything with your coffee?”
“Milk,” she said, and touched his back as he opened the fridge. A normal person’s fridge: full-fat dressing, two-percent, butter that had been opened and used. None of the little portion packs or high-calorie protein bars they’d had to order online. The light was the same as the light in Nina’s new bathroom—white, disinfecting. Last week, when Nina had gone in and Lisanne heard the industrial fan go, she’d peeked in the notebook the Covington counselors were having Nina keep. Hoping to spy: what—feelings? But the only things there were the same columns of calorie counts she’d found in journals at home in her daughter’s perky cursive:
Green Salad (no dress) = 45 cal.
Nonfat milk (1 cup) = 80 cal.
Bar (:/) = 250 cal.
Water ran, and she’d put the book back, opened her magazine again. These girl years were supposed to be an opera of feelings, a zoo. Was it possible Lisanne had let it go so long that even if they could get Nina’s body back to health, her mind was permanently stuck in column mode—unable to feel, just count? She couldn’t ask Josh this, because it was way out there in some okay version of the future, and beside the point, which was life. “Okay in there?” she’d asked through the door, instead. “Mom.”
“My daughter is sick,” Lisanne said now. “Shit. Last night, too. I should have said so before.”
Dale had eight questions but her expression right then precluded them all. He set the milk on the counter. “Where can I take you?”
“Just my car,” she said. “That’s fine, my car.”
Dale went and found her coat, held it out, and Lisanne turned, burrowed one arm into a sleeve, then the other. He touched her shoulders as if applying the coat to her, as if it were the last time he would be permitted to touch her. Poultice, his hands made her think.
“Thank you,” she said, parroting herself, like he’d only been watching her snacks this whole time. While Nina—. The sentence she couldn’t finish, would always be trying to.
Dale resisted the urge to pick a fuzz off one of the sleeves because he could hold her shoulders for a nanosecond longer that way, and did. The patch on her head was gone, covered again by her sweet hair, and this was how helping always went with him, how it turned into another thing: one of you was required to stand there while the other turned away, perfect-seeming but needing you yet, and maybe, maybe she reached back.
KATE PETERSEN lives in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, Zyzzyva, Epoch, Paris Review Daily, LitHub, and elsewhere. A former recipient of a Wallace Stegner fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, she currently teaches at Stanford University as a Jones Lecturer in creative writing.