josie and I were lying on the kitchen floor in the middle of a particularly animated free-association session when she prompted me with a tricky one-worder: “Concerned.”
“Stingy tourists, lack of sales, Polar Possibilities going bust,” I answered, then prompted her with something easier, what should’ve been a softball: “Us.”
“Concerned,” she said. “Very concerned.”
Right then the sound of footsteps on the driveway made us pause. Personally, I couldn’t have been happier for the interruption. Josie, on the other hand, still had some free associating to get out of her system.
“Polyamory,” she said.
I sighed. “Excuse to cheat and ruin marriage and probably contract herpes.”
She laughed, but not at all in the way of someone having fun. “Monogamy: way for husband and wife to grow sick of each other as fast as possible.”
“No prompting yourself,” I said, reminding her of the rules (her rules). “That’s why these sessions aren’t working.”
“You want to know what I think isn’t working, Rusty?”
Josie had spent much of her first trimester arguing in favor of what she called her latest Life Initiative: sleeping with other people. Polyamory, to her, represented some ultimate rite of trust—an insurance policy against boredom, proof I’d stick around. She claimed these were naturally occurring pregnant-lady beliefs, which seemed doubtful, but I’m not the kind of guy to tell his wife what to think. Polyamory, to me, was not a Life Initiative but a horrible idea, something that belonged in a category with mosquitoes, final notices from the bank, our only customer, Mrs. Cobblestone, and other things I couldn’t tolerate—especially during episodes such as this morning’s, when Josie hinted that our philosophical differences could undo five years of objectively delightful marriage, as well as torpedo what everyone promised would be an occasionally frustrating but overall rewarding joint venture into parenthood.
From outside came the clatter of someone taking the porch steps two at a time. Knocking. Light murmuring, unintelligible but urgent.
“We seem to have a visitor,” I said.
Josie said, “Visitor: individual open to idea of meeting other people.”
I said, “That, or deranged psychopath.”
The door flung open. A lanky young man stumbled in, shut the door behind him, and cupped his hands around the peephole to peer outside.
“Hi there,” Josie chirped, assuming a cheerfulness she hadn’t shown all morning.
The man jumped, probably a little startled to see two strangers lying head to head on the kitchen tiles in their underwear. He’d sure startled me.
“Apologies,” he said. “I only need a moment to catch my breath.”
“Of course!” Josie stood and pulled on a nightshirt she’d left draped over a chair. “Can we offer you some tea?”
“Peppermint if you have it,” he said, and returned his attention to outside.
Open Doors Open Hearts had at first involved propping open all our doors, day and night, which we did until the mosquitoes and raccoons convinced Josie to compromise. Closed doors were now acceptable. Locks were not.
The kettle clanked as Josie set it on the stove. She shot me a glowing, told-you-so look. One of her recent Life Initiatives—Open Doors Open Hearts—centered around the theory that by physically closing ourselves off to the outside world, we were blocking positive energy from entering our lives. The universe might be trying to send us something—a new customer for Polar Possibilities, our boutique iceberg business; a winning Maine MegaBux number; a healthy baby—and we were shutting ourselves away, shunning opportunities to earn good karma points. Open Doors Open Hearts had at first involved propping open all our doors, day and night, which we did until the mosquitoes and raccoons convinced Josie to compromise. Closed doors were now acceptable. Locks were not. Some people—people like me, for instance—argued that this was not safe homeownership. People like me said: What’s to stop deranged psychopaths from walking in and doing deranged, psychopathic things to my pregnant wife? To which other people—people with zero street smarts who grew up on a rural new-age commune, for instance—responded: Deranged psychopaths are in the mind of the untrusting beholder, Rusty. All anyone wants is someone to listen and a cup of tea. Generally peppermint.
I got off the floor and stepped into my pants. Josie stood by the stove, hands on her hips. I gave her a look that said: JoJo, I want good karma points as much as the next guy but he might be dangerous. Also: Your nightshirt is a little short for company. Would it kill you to put on a pair of pants?
She jutted her hips and arched an eyebrow, a look that said: Rusty, cut it with the jealousy crap. Also: Quit being rude, make our guest at home.
I turned to the stranger and stuck out my hand. “Rusty. And my other half, Josie.”
“Hi again!” Josie smiled.
Josie, when she smiles, has the sweetest dimples, and her eyes go all soft green like sea glass. Sometimes, even after a rough morning of free associating, I’ll watch her do something as simple as waiting for the kettle to boil and my stomach will twist in the good way that happens when you feel like you’re a character in a movie but then realize, Nope, this is real life.
“Pleasure,” the man said, not taking his eye from the peephole. “I’m Martin.”
Although this represented a missed opportunity to teach Josie a lesson, I was relieved that Martin appeared neither deranged nor psychopathic. He appeared to be a student. I’d visited every campus in the state, pitching Polar Possibilities icebergs to the aquatic centers and fraternity houses with swimming pools. Lots of students had Martin’s look: rail thin with rounded glasses, tired eyes, messy hair, a few days of patchy stubble. In other words, about as threatening as a dishrag. His temples glistened with sweat. This was late July, the thick of a heat wave that should’ve been a boon for Polar Possibilities, if not for the shortsightedness of the summer tourists. I’d audited enough of Dr. Proxim’s online business-negotiation seminars to know that the timing wasn’t right to ask Martin if he owned a swimming pool. He was too hot to talk business.
He wiped his brow with a sleeve and, staring outside, said, “Thanks for allowing me into your beautiful home.”
Most people walk through life blabbing constantly without knowing it, and Martin’s dying-baby-bird hand told me: Right now I’m genuinely scared, Rusty, so there’s nothing for you to worry about.
His words sounded rehearsed, lines he’d rolled out a thousand times. Our house, a foreclosure special called “cute” with “lots of possibilities” by the auctioneer, was a run-of-the-mill ranch home in need of a serious paint job and gutters—a fixer-upper at best. Even Josie at her most optimistic wouldn’t have described it as beautiful. I momentarily wondered if Martin wasn’t so unthreatening after all. But then he pulled himself away from the peephole to shake my hand, and his palm was sweaty, soft and trembling, bringing to mind a dying baby bird I’d once found fallen from its nest. A key concept behind Dr. Proxim’s seminars involves nonverbal cues. His research proves that 97 percent of what we say doesn’t come from our mouths. Most people walk through life blabbing constantly without knowing it, and Martin’s dying-baby-bird hand told me: Right now I’m genuinely scared, Rusty, so there’s nothing for you to worry about, especially since I look like an underfed student while you look like a bouncer and / or an amateur body builder.
The kettle whistled. Josie poured water into a mug and dunked a teabag. “Are you fleeing someone, Martin?” she asked. “Your physical behavior speaks heavily of avoidance. It also speaks of exhaustion. And a possible magnesium deficiency.”
Josie was auditing Dr. Proxim’s seminars with me. She called it another Life Initiative, but honestly it was a last-ditch effort to avoid bankruptcy. Josie’s not the type of person to pretend everything is okay when it’s not. And because Mrs. Cobblestone was the only tourist from Kennebunkport to Bar Harbor willing to pay for the pretty incredible opportunity of having stunning, hand-crafted icebergs delivered to her pool, Polar Possibilities was far from okay.
“I’m uncertain about the magnesium,” Martin said, oddly unfazed. “But otherwise you’re correct.”
I scratched my arm. “I’ve never harbored a fugitive before.”
“I’m not a fugitive.” He gave us a look, like: Can I trust you guys? and I guess Josie and I give off a trustworthy vibe, because he said, in a low, just-between-us voice, “I’m with the League.”
I nodded in a way that said: Huh?
“The League for the Abolition of Unwanted Noise,” he said, as if it should’ve been obvious. “I’m a revolutionary—one of the good guys.”
“I love revolutions,” Josie said. She squeezed the last drops from the teabag. The spicy smell of peppermint filled the air.
“Funny,” I said, “I didn’t know of any revolutionary movements afoot.”
Our neighborhood, one of those planned communities built overnight in what probably used to be a potato field, was dotted with bank owned signs, and generally quiet.
“We keep pretty hush-hush,” Martin said. “Remember the rash of leaf-blower thefts last month? That was us.”
I shook my head. “We don’t have much time for current events.”
“What about the stolen police-car sirens? The construction-site jackhammers? We made national news. Our manifesto went viral.”
“We’ve been awful busy with work.”
“I’ve harbored fugitives before,” Josie said, cracking ice cubes from a tray and plopping them into Martin’s tea. “Back in high school. Our commune took in two brothers. Eco-activists, running for the border. They’d torched an SUV dealership.”
“You never told me that,” I said.
Martin looked up from the peephole. “Did they make it?”
“One did. The other put his hands up my shirt. My father locked him in the canning yurt and called the sheriff.”
“I’m extremely curious that I’m only hearing of this canning yurt thing now,” I said. “Curious and surprised.”
“Oh, Rusty.” Josie left Martin’s tea to cool, walked over and clasped her hands around my neck. She’s two heads shorter than me, perfect nuzzling height. Her dark hair glistened and smelled like a rich dessert on account of the coconut oil and cacao butter she’d been rubbing into her scalp (one of the top ten most dehydrated parts of the body, according to a blog she’d read). We’d met five years earlier at the State Fair’s Miracle of Birth exhibit, locking eyes across the sheep pen as a bleating ewe lambed triplets. I’d wager those lambs hadn’t learned to walk before we’d exchanged and consummated our vows. Five years of free-association sessions later, we supposedly had no secrets. Extreme Honesty, Josie called it, our oldest Life Initiative, and although there were one or two things I wasn’t ready to tell her—mainly my shameful financial arrangement with Mrs. Cobblestone—I assumed that Josie was always honest with me.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, Rusty.” Her breath was warm and a little yogurty from breakfast. “It wasn’t a secret, it just slipped my mind.”
“Well, I’m sorry for raising my voice.”
I squeezed her hips, pulled her tight, felt the slight bump of her belly and pulled her tighter. This was make-up nuzzling, a crucial juncture in our morning ritual. On a good morning it would come after our free-association session / argument and before our make-up make-out session, which, on a supergood morning, would be followed by mixed martial arts, meaning sex. A good morning ritual could set the tone for the day, and as Dr. Proxim says, Tone is everything. (Bad morning ritual: no MMA, more arguing, frustrating day cold-calling country clubs / hotels / estates, blaming each other for lack of sales, etc.) Some people enjoy the rollercoaster drama of a rocky relationship. Personally, the ups and downs exhaust me. I never seriously believed Josie was testing me to see how much I could endure, but the thought sometimes crossed my mind.
“I wouldn’t think you could lock someone in a yurt,” Martin said. “Aren’t the walls made of canvas?”
A week or so earlier, on my drive back from Mrs. Cobblestone’s, I turned down a gravel road for a minute alone, as usual, and accidently surprised a well-dressed teenage couple going at it on the hood of a shiny new Porsche. The Porsche had New York plates, and in my mind’s eye, as I backed out, making apologetic gestures, I imagined swapping places with the boy. I saw myself roaring into Manhattan to attend charity balls and benefit galas, get drunk in hotel rooms with killer views, and do whatever else people do down there. No Mrs. Cobblestone, no Polar Possibilities, no free associating, no Life Initiatives. Later, it struck me that, A, I’d been envious of a teenage kid, and, B, my vision had not included Josie. It hadn’t involved the girl on the hood of the Porsche either, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, I’d been all by myself in my New York fantasy. And you know what? It was kind of wonderful.
“I wouldn’t think you could lock someone in a yurt,” Martin said. “Aren’t the walls made of canvas?”
“Sheepskin,” Josie said, her voice muffled against my chest.
“Maybe the brother didn’t want to escape,” I said. “Maybe he didn’t want to live a life underground, always checking over his shoulder, haunted by his secret.”
I held Josie at arm’s length for confirmation. (She’d tripled our daily magnesium intake—another Life Initiative, it lubricated the cross-synapses between our brain lobes—and lately conclusions had been drawing themselves. That very morning, while free associating through our philosophical differences—POW!—this great new business plan had popped into my head: we’d freeze candy and toys inside our icebergs. Melting, they’d release goodies into the pool. Slow-motion piñatas. Josie thought it was brilliant, and added that she didn’t actually want to sleep with other people, just wanted to know that I’d be okay with it if she did. And was I?)
“Why wouldn’t the brother want to live underground?” Martin said. “I live underground. It’s fantastic. Always seeing new places, meeting new people. I’ve never felt so free.”
“Maybe he couldn’t admit that he was afraid,” I said, not ready to let it go. “Maybe getting caught was his least cowardly way out.”
“Or maybe, Rusty, he just really, really wanted to feel my boobs.”
Josie and Martin shared a laugh that was a little too comfortable, and I was pretty sure I caught him checking out her legs.
I yanked her back to nuzzling position. “Sexual assault isn’t a joke.”
“Relax. It was ages ago. And consensual.”
“Yeah?” I whispered hotly into her delicious-smelling scalp. “What else has slipped your mind?”
She stepped away. “You’re seriously jealous about one time I got laid ten years ago?”
“I knew it,” I said, my voice louder than intended. “You said he only felt your boobs!”
Josie fluttered her hands in the way I’d seen deaf people applaud. “This is exactly what I’m talking about. We need trust, Rusty. The trust that others place in you is your grace!”
Josie was fond of the organic tea from the co-op, the kind with little inspirational messages printed on the labels at the ends of the strings. She’d memorized every one with “trust” as a central theme.
“How are we supposed to make this work without trust?” she went on. “Trust creates peace!”
“Quiet,” Martin hissed, peering outside. “They’re driving by. Shut up!”
Josie and I locked eyes. She puffed out her cheeks and wiggled her ears. I made buckteeth and flared my nostrils. Spontaneous play is an easy way to encourage cell regeneration, Josie had read, a secret fountain of youth. She developed this game as a Life Initiative for whenever someone ordered us to quiet down, follow a rule, pay attention. Did it work? I couldn’t say for certain, but it sure made boring places less boring. (Example: the cathedral walking tour we’d taken while visiting Josie’s brother in Montreal; we thought the docent would never ask us to leave.)
The game ended as usual when I went cross-eyed and did the thing with my tongue against my cheek like I was giving a blowjob. Josie covered her mouth, but she may as well have been trying to hold back the Penobscot River.
She snarfed into her hand. “Enough. You win!”
“Shut up!” Martin’s voice cracked. “They’re stopping. And—oh my freaking God—they’ve got the anechoic chamber. Shut the hell up.”
Josie wiped her hand on her nightshirt and gave me a look that said: Who knew Martin was such an ass? Also: Anechoic chamber?
I gave her a look back: Ass, indeed, but scared—why don’t you get him his tea, and while you’re at it sneak a peek out the kitchen window?
“Martin,” I whispered when Josie was out of earshot, “on a scale of one to ten, how concerned should I be right now?”
“You? High two, low three.”
That felt manageable. “What about you?” I asked.
“Oh, not at all,” he said, a little on the sarcastically cruel side. “It’s only the Movement tracking me down with an anechoic chamber. No biggie.”
I waited a second, then asked if he owned a swimming pool.
He shook his head, no, just as Josie padded over with his tea. She shrugged, figuring he’d changed his mind, and handed me his mug.
I kissed her forehead. “What’d you see?”
“A box truck parked by the Whitney’s driveway.”
Martin let loose a soft, patronizing snort. “Box truck—that’s rich. One hour in there and you’ll forget what sanity is.”
I ignored him. “By box truck, JoJo, do you mean a cube truck like ours, or a truck filled with boxes?”
She wrinkled her nose. “How could I know what a truck’s filled with?”
I thought for a moment. “The walls could be see-through. Made of Plexiglas.”
A smile spread across her face. Those dimples. “Rusty, if people could see Polar Possibilities icebergs during deliveries, imagine what it’d do for business!”
I tapped my forehead in a way that said: Thank you, magnesium.
We shared Martin’s lukewarm tea while he remained glued to the peephole. Then Josie said, “You know who wouldn’t want everyone to see what they’re hauling around?”
“Smugglers!” we said at the same time, and high-fived.
“Oh, come on!” Martin snapped. He glared at us, then back outside, and suddenly the poor guy was shaking. “They’re coming. Hide me. Please.”
Magnesium-laced synapses crackled between my brain lobes. I thought of floundering Polar Possibilities, the bank’s final notices, Open Doors Open Hearts, this unexpected chance to earn some good karma points. The solution couldn’t have been more obvious.
“The locker, JoJo. Go!”
Josie grabbed Martin and hurried him away.
I took his place at the peephole, expecting police, bounty hunters or mentalward orderlies, but it was only a trim young couple, dressed as if headed to church or a corporate picnic. They climbed the front steps and knocked. I waited a few beats before answering.
“Good morning, can I help you?”
The man frowned. “Were you waiting on the other side of the door?” His hair was combed and slicked back, his teeth unnaturally white.
“We didn’t hear any footsteps,” the woman said, her eyes light blue and questioning.
“I’m known to have a light step,” I said.
They shared a look. Tanned, disturbingly attractive, somehow not sweating despite the heat, they instantly struck me as wealthy, target Polar Possibilities clientele. Yet something told me not to trust them, something more than Martin’s panic. Then I saw it: I couldn’t read their nonverbal cues. They were muting their physical chatter. More worrying still was how they examined me, as if they’d not only taken Dr. Proxim’s seminar but finished the whole fifteen-week program, assignments and all, which was more than Josie or I could claim. I leaned against the doorframe, trying to prevent my body from giving off information.
“Known for a light step,” the man said. “How—odd.”
“People are known for their generosity,” the woman said, “their banana bread, their ability to read in a car without motion sickness. But a light step?”
“Are you two lost?” I said. “Looking for the highway?”
“We’re looking for a friend,” the man said.
“A specific friend, or a friend in general?”
“Specific.” The woman showed me a photo of a scrawny guy in glasses who was unmistakably Martin. I swallowed as subtly as humanly possible and leaned even harder against the doorframe.
“Never seen him,” I said.
“What do you do for work?” the man asked.
I dug a Polar Possibilities card from my pocket.
“Boutique swimming pool icebergs,” he read. “Perfect for parties, fun for families, a spectacular spark to any summer. Custom designs available.”
“And they naturally replace water lost to splashage,” I added. “Do you own a pool?”
“Can’t be very environmentally responsible,” the woman said. “Refrigeration costs must be through the roof. What’s your monthly electric bill?”
“We’re saving up to go solar,” I told them, realizing as I said it that they were answering all my questions with questions of their own. Classic Dr. Proxim. They were good.
“Anybody else home?” The man craned his neck to look inside.
“Just my wife. She’s napping.”
The woman checked her watch. “Nine a.m. Early for a nap. She’s unwell?”
A lump of pride-worry-excitement (mostly worry) wadded in my throat, as it always did when I told people we were expecting. I saw pregnant Josie alone with Martin in the iceberg locker. What if my initial dying-baby-bird assessment of him was premature? Josie was a mixed martial arts yellow belt, but what they don’t tell you about MMA is that until you’ve trained for a billion hours, it’s a pretty lousy form of protection. It probably didn’t help that the course Josie and I took at the Y was aimed more at youths than adults and prioritized self-discipline over self-defense. The only time we practiced was in the bedroom. Erotically fulfilling, sure, but I doubted Josie had learned the first thing about fending off attackers.
“Is he dangerous, this ‘friend’ of yours?” I made air quotes with my fingers.
The woman laughed a short, high laugh. “You’re not familiar with the League for the Abolition of Unwanted Noise?”
“Not at all.”
“A radical activist organization.”
The man hummed. “Fanatical. The League will do anything to achieve its goals. Recall the wide-scale cementing of motorcycle exhaust pipes a couple weeks ago? The vandalism of ice-cream truck speakers?”
“Someone swiped our old AC. Could that be related?”
“Not the League,” the woman said. “Too petty. Probably Students for a Noiseless Society. Maybe the Silence Brigades. Fringe organizations. Harmless.”
I pointed to Martin’s photograph. “To clarify then—not dangerous?”
“Yes dangerous,” the man said. “An ideologue. His weapon is his mind.”
This was great news. If Martin’s weapon was his mind, Josie was fine. She’d graduated at the top of her commune’s homeschool class and had been president of her 4-H club. She could complete the daily crossword puzzle in an hour, add the grocery bill in her head before I finished with the calculator, think up a brand new Life Initiative practically every month. Granted, not every Initiative was a ringing success, but she was actively trying to better our lives, which is more than most people can say. Even lately, her brain flooded in hormones, Josie was the smartest person I knew. The only reason I hadn’t lost faith in Polar Possibilities was because she insisted we’d be okay.
The man waved Martin’s photograph under my nose. “He’s planning something big. The League’s flagrant disregard for the law could derail our entire cause, set us back decades.”
The woman touched my hand gently, the way I used to greet my Great-aunt Connie after she’d become too frail to hug. “The unchecked rise of noise is the greatest epidemic facing us as a society.”
“Hearing impairments, heart disease, psychological imbalance.” The man ticked off symptoms on his fingers. “Excessive noise wreaks havoc on the human nervous system like you wouldn’t believe.”
“There are laws to keep our air smoke-free,” the woman said, “but what about free from damaging noise?”
“Don’t we have the right not to listen?” the man asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, captivated. “Do we?”
Their salesmanship was impeccable. I pictured Josie and me working even half as well, going door-to-door as a team.
“That’s what we’re fighting for,” the man said, “the right to silence.”
I massaged the corners of my eyes. “Listen, I’m not very political. Whose side are you on?”
The woman handed me a card. THE MOVEMENT FOR A QUIETER TOMORROW. COMMUNITY OUTREACH TEAM. No names, only a phone number. “We lobby for pro-silence legislation, network with local leaders, foster public-private partnerships, get out the vote. Whose side are we on? We’re with the good guys.”
“We are the good guys,” the man added. “There’s a big difference between fighting destructively against noise and working constructively for silence.” He pocketed Martin’s photograph. “Please call if you see something.”
“And if I call with good news?” I asked. This is what Dr. Proxim calls planting the seed, a subtle first volley to kickstart any negotiating process.
A calculating look passed between them. I knew to let the silence sit. The neighborhood, quiet and still, simmered in the heat. Trees in the yard seemed to sag. A dissolving vapor trail streaked the sky. The only activity came next door from the Whitney kid, uncoiling a garden hose.
The woman nodded at her partner. He turned to me. “Help us and we’ll help you. Movement headquarters has an expansive swimming pool, if you catch my drift.”
“We may be a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit,” the woman said, “but we have very deep pockets.”
They smirked, clearly pleased with themselves. It was the first nonverbal cue I’d read off them and it made me feel as though I’d won a prize at the State Fair. A small prize, but still. I wished Josie could’ve seen.
The three of us shook hands. From the porch I watched them approach the Whitney kid and show him Martin’s photo. He shrugged. They handed him a business card, then crossed the lawn, climbed into a truck and drove off. The truck was white with BOX COMPANY printed in bold letters across the side.
What I did next did not fill me with husbandly pride. Instead of retrieving my pregnant wife from the locker, I sipped cold peppermint tea at the kitchen table. The refrigerator motor sputtered to a start, droned on, wound down. I placed the Community Outreach Team’s business card on the table, leaned back and crossed my legs. My knee gave a satisfying pop.
Other than my deliveries to and from Mrs. Cobblestone’s, I didn’t get many moments alone. Don’t get me wrong—time with Josie was great—but all this talk of silence made me crave some for myself. It was easier to think this way, and right then it felt as though an awful lot needed thinking out. I shook a magnesium pill from the bottle to encourage my cross-synapses, and, for good measure, chased it with a prenatal vitamin.
I stared at the business card. One phone call. Then no more worrying about the bank, the electric bill. No more humiliating myself weekly in Mrs. Cobblestone’s pool. But it didn’t feel right, snitching on Martin, even if Martin was a bit of an ass. Josie knew Polar Possibilities hadn’t sold as many icebergs as our business plan called for, but she didn’t know the full extent of our financial situation—how close we were to losing the house, for instance, or that the only thing keeping us afloat was Mrs. Cobblestone’s poolboy fetish. But Josie, I knew, would agree that throwing Martin under the bus would equal big-time negative karma points. Our kids might one day ask how we became king and queen of the boutique iceberg industry, and I didn’t want to have to tell them: We sold out a revolutionary. I wanted to be able to look them in the eye and say: Your mother and I had a dream, took a chance, quit our jobs, emptied our savings, worked hard, succeeded. Also: What great kids, maintaining eye contact like this, asking such mature, thoughtful questions!
“I finished my tea and removed the teabag from the mug. The label at the end of the string read: WE ARE SPIRITUAL BEINGS HAVING A HUMAN EXPERIENCE.”
But then, of course, if I was going to be an honest dad, which was the kind of dad I hoped to be, I’d have to also tell my kids how I used to float around Mrs. Cobblestone’s pool on an iceberg, posing in a banana hammock while she ogled me and swam nude laps of elementary backstroke. Such details, I knew, would require an awful lot of honesty, and probably lead to a discussion on why grownups sometimes do things they don’t want to do, things that hurt on the inside, things that cause them to pull over on the drive home for a quick little cry, etc. The kiddos, understandably, would have questions. For instance: What’s a banana hammock? All this, I foresaw, would be difficult to explain, eye contact or not. Difficult and uncomfortable. Might leave scars.
I swallowed another prenatal vitamin, finished my tea, and removed the teabag from the mug. The label at the end of the string read: WE ARE SPIRITUAL BEINGS HAVING A HUMAN EXPERIENCE. I let out a sigh that felt a bit melodramatic, since I was the only one to hear it, and reached for more magnesium. This was how Josie found me later: popping supplements, sighing melodramatically.
From the kitchen doorway, she cleared her throat and gave me a look: We need to talk.
I let out another sigh, a real whopper. “Where’s Martin?”
She padded over and straddled me. Her nipples, hard from the frigid locker air, poked through her nightshirt. “Okay, mister, Extreme Honesty time.”
I shuddered, nauseous, and before I knew it I was telling her how we were going to be poor and homeless, a lifestyle that she might be okay with, but which worried me greatly as I hadn’t grown up on a rural new-age commune. “How are we going to afford diapers? Baby food? Bassinets? What the fuck is a bassinet?”
She pressed a finger to my lips. I took a deep breath, and then, because she’d asked for Extreme Honesty and there was only one way she’d understand how desperate this human experience of ours had become, I spilled it: Mrs. Cobblestone, banana hammock, elementary backstroke, everything.
Josie kissed my nose. “I know. It’s so admirable of you, bringing happiness to an old lady.”
I stared at her, like: You know?
She fidgeted in my lap. “Mrs. Cobblestone called me ages ago. She wanted to make sure I was comfortable with the arrangement. Anyway, this isn’t the Extreme Honesty I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about Martin. We had sex. We’re not in love or anything, we just had a moment. That, and we had to stay warm. You left us in there forever.”
I removed Josie from my lap in a way that I considered admirably gentle given the situation. I didn’t make surprised sputtering sounds, or knock over my chair, or throw my mug against the wall. I stumbled across the kitchen and vomited in the sink, but this wasn’t so much because of Josie’s confession as because I’d overdosed on supplements.
“How many did you eat?” Josie read from a label—“Accidental overdose of iron-containing products is a leading cause of fatal poisoning in children under six”—and gasped. “It doesn’t say anything about twenty-seven-year-old men. Should I call poison control? How do you feel?”
I felt like rinsing my mouth, walking into the locker, and punching Martin in the gut. I’d gut-punch Martin and tell him that I was calling the Movement for a Quieter Tomorrow and the look on his face would improve my mood. Then Josie and I would have a free-association session to end all free-association sessions. It would be long and awful and we would come out of it changed, one way or another. I stared out the kitchen window and tasted vomit and saw this future very clearly. But it wasn’t the future that happened. Martin was gone.
Our locker (formally our two-car garage) has space for four icebergs, each about the size and shape of a dumpster. Only so many places to hide. I checked behind the cooling system, kicked through the mound of ice chips by the sculpting station, used the shop crane to hoist myself up and look on top of the icebergs.
“Where is he?”
Josie leaned against an iceberg scheduled for delivery to Mrs. Cobblestone’s. An unintended but neat effect of the locker is how the overhead fluorescent lighting refracts through the ice. It creates a minty glow, like sunlight through stained glass, but with more depth. Sometimes Josie and I would arrange lawn chairs in front of the icebergs, drink tea and listen to a tape of Tibetan singing bowls, a Life Initiative she called Sensory Stimulation. Very peaceful. Right now, though, I found nothing peaceful about the bluish aura that haloed my shivering wife.
She watched me with a nervous expression, scratching a fingernail against Mrs. Cobblestone’s iceberg. Shavings fell to the floor. “What’re you going to do now, Rusty?”
I threw up my arms. “I don’t know. Go inside and be mad at you.”
“Deliver Mrs. Cobblestone’s iceberg. Humiliate myself like usual.”
“Then what? Will you come home?”
“Of course. It’s my night to cook.”
At this, Josie began crying. Not unusual behavior on her part lately, but instead of consoling her, I grew defensive.
“What? You want Martin to make dinner?”
She leapt onto me, legs around my waist. Her tears ran warm down my neck. “Martin and I didn’t have sex. I just had to see what you’d do if you thought we did. I don’t want you to leave, Rusty, not for anything.” She tried to initiate a salty make-up make-out session, as if I’d already forgiven her. I hadn’t.
“What the hell happened to Extreme Honesty?”
“I know, I know.” She hung low off my neck. “I’m being honest now. Extremely.”
“Then where’s Martin?”
She let out a half-laugh, half-sob. “I kicked him out. He wouldn’t stop lecturing me about the League, the revolution, how Polar Possibilities is so bad for the environment.”
“Did you tell him we’re saving up to go solar?”
“He said it didn’t matter—not with all the gasoline we burn on transportation.”
I looked at the iceberg scheduled for Mrs. Cobblestone. Maybe it wasn’t so environmentally responsible, but nobody could say it wasn’t beautiful. That had to count for something.
Josie wasn’t finished. “He said we’re lousy, uninformed citizens who’ll be bad parents because we don’t care what kind of world our kids grow up in.”
“What an ass. Almost wish I’d turned him in.”
“Turned him in?”
I told her about the Movement for a Quieter Tomorrow, my perceptive negotiating, their offer, and so on. “While you were busy thinking up ways to test me, JoJo, I was channeling my Dr. Proxim, working to improve our situation. That’s what normal couples do.”
Josie frowned. “How much were they going to pay?”
“Doesn’t matter. Snitching on Martin would’ve been major negative karma points.”
“Rusty, sometimes you have to be like, fuck karma! We have a baby coming!” She wriggled out of my arms, suddenly all business. “We’ll call, tell them which way he went. Maybe they’ll still offer something.”
I followed her inside to the kitchen. There, sitting at the table, was the Community Outreach Team.
Josie, sharp as ever, didn’t need any explanations. “He ran to the highway,” she blurted.
The woman pursed her lips. “We know. Your neighbor Mr. Whitney called.”
“He was seen fleeing from your garage,” the man said.
“He barged right in,” I said.
Josie shot me a look, like: Why would you tell them that? Then she said, “We didn’t know him.”
“It’s true,” I said. “We hope you catch him. He’s a real ass.”
“So you do know him,” the man said.
“We’d like you to come with us,” the woman said.
The man nodded at our front door. “You should get some locks installed. It’s not safe if anyone can barge right in.”
an anechoic chamber, it turns out, is an enclosed square space lined with wedges of waffled, sound-absorbent foam. The minute you step inside, it’s as if all noise has been pulled from your ears with a pair of tweezers. Josie and I sat in opposite corners as the truck bounced down the road.
Icebergs—“immensely powerful, tremendously silent”—were to represent the new face of the Movement for a Quieter Tomorrow. And not just any icebergs. While Josie and I had been hashing things out in the locker, the Community Outreach Team had apparently called management and sold Polar Possibilities in a big way. Top brass was very impressed, they told us. Graphics was already drafting a new logo. Facilities was planning a swimming pool expansion. Accounting had drawn up contracts dealing with delivery schedules and product licensing. Josie and I would be generously compensated, they promised—all we had to do was drive to Movement headquarters and sign the dotted line. They even offered us a ride.
Now I’d always imagined that the moment our financial troubles were solved, all fighting would seem silly and end, but that didn’t appear to be true. Josie wept in her corner of the chamber while I stewed silent and resentful in mine. The air was stuffy with the scent of her cacao butter and coconut oil. A dome light shone overhead. For all its sound-absorption properties, an anechoic chamber isn’t half as quiet as you’d think. Blood whooshes around the skull. Each sniffle makes a wet, piercing rasp. I saw how an hour alone with the sloshing and gurgling of the body might be a slow torture. I couldn’t bear another second.
“How am I the bad guy here?” My words came out flat, dying in the foam wedges. I had to enunciate: “You lied to me. I’m the one who gets to be mad. Why are you upset? Everything worked out.”
She swallowed loudly. “Maybe this time. But what about later? When we’re sixty and suddenly I do want to sleep with other people? Or you want to? At some point we’re going to do mildly terrible things to each other. Everyone does.”
I buried my head in my arms. My heartbeat counted the seconds. I thought about the rich couple on the hood of the Porsche, how easily my mind had led me to a Manhattan hotel room with a killer view. I figured Josie was right. She usually is. I wondered if we would ever get a break from this, if we would ever again be fun and light and easy more often than not.
“Rusty? What about then? When we’re sixty? Are you listening? Can we at least try to have a conversation? This is really important. Pay attention!”
I went cross-eyed and pumped my tongue against the inside of my cheek. It made a repulsive squelching sound, like a dog licking itself. Josie smiled, which sounded equally repulsive. We laughed. She crawled to me. I grabbed her by the hips and swung her to the padded floor. The truck lurched, thumping over a pothole or a small animal. Face to face, I gave my wife a look: Listen, JoJo, this is our life, me and you, beautiful things and mildly terrible things and all, and that counts for something. To which she responded: It does, Rusty, it totally does. Then she wrapped her legs around my waist and cinched her ankles at the small of my back, a maneuver that even an MMA white belt would recognize as the most classic of opening moves.