It Isn’t Anything Real

Jeff Sanders lay in bed recalling scenes from the night before as if he were watching a blurry, fragmented film. No evidence of bad behavior, which didn’t mean there hadn’t been any. It only meant that he couldn’t remember any. Regardless, he knew Sarah would wake with a vague sense of embarrassment. She always did. It was as if there were some shameful unremembered act that was always just beginning to reveal itself to her but never quite did. He felt bad for her because of this.

She was lying next to him, still sleeping. She was on her back and one of her pale breasts was uncovered; it bulged to the side and rested against her arm. Her mouth was open slightly and Jeff could hear the dry rhythm of her breathing. Even like this, she was beautiful to him. No matter the circumstances, she was a knockout. She was clearly out of his league. He knew it, and so did everyone else. His friends liked to tell him about it too. They made jokes, stuff like, “You must just keep her drunk all the time so she is always looking at you through beer goggles.”

He scooted over to the edge of the bed. He paused and then walked haltingly into the bathroom. He had a pulsing erection and had to sit down to go. He held his aching head in the palm of his hand.

Jeff walked back through the bedroom where Sarah was still in much the same position on the bed, but now her eyes were opened and her errant breast had been covered up. She watched him. Her eyes looked almost reptilian.

“Ibuprofen, water, slice of bread, please.” She whispered the six words in a husky, moisture-deprived rasp.

In the living room, Roslyn, their five-year-old, was already up and was sitting on the couch watching cartoons, holding her Fluff Ball, a blue pillow-sized sphere with big oval eyes, a toothy grin, and long skinny arms and legs. Jeff didn’t know what Fluff Ball was supposed to be, or if it was even supposed to be anything, but Roslyn loved it and carried it with her everywhere.

“Morning, Roz,” he said in as pleasant a voice as he could muster.

“Daddy!” She was excited to have company. She got up from the couch and followed Jeff into the kitchen. She was wearing bright pink-and-yellow pajamas and was holding Fluff Ball the way another little girl might hold onto a docile cat.

“What, Roz?” he moaned. “What do you want?”

“Well, um,” she said, “the thing is,” she held up the stuffed creature. “Kiss him!” She smiled. She was missing her two front teeth on the top row.

“You do it, Roz.”

You do it.”

He bent over and kissed the strange thing on what he surmised was its cheek and asked Roslyn if she was satisfied. She was. She skipped back into the living room.

She’s so chipper, he thought. I just want some coffee.

Back in the bedroom, Jeff handed Sarah four 200-milligram Ibuprofen tablets and put her glass of water and slice of bread down on the bedside table. She sat up with her back against the headboard. The blanket was still pulled up over her otherwise naked body.

Jeff got in the bed and lay down next to her.

“Roz okay?” She sipped her water and then took a nip of the bread. She had a blond-highlighted rat’s nest of hair on the side of her head.

“She’s fine. Watching cartoons.”

She bit at the bread again and then put it down on the little table and turned toward Jeff and pulled up the covers until her head was the only thing showing.

“Did we last night?” she whispered.

“Pretty sure.”

“Really?”

“You’re naked.”

“I know.” She closed her eyes. “Why is it always me in the morning? You always seem fine.”

“I don’t feel that great either.”

“You look fine now.”

“I guess my body takes the abuse better. Remember, I come from pure peasant stock.” He pounded his chest with his fist. “You’re more like a dainty little princess.” He was trying to bring some levity to what he thought was an otherwise tedious conversation.

“It’s unfair.” Her eyes were still closed. She let go a resigned sigh and then burped.

“Are you going to go back to sleep? Feel free. Roz and I are fine.”

She stared intently at Jeff. “Did I say or do anything regrettable last night?”

“Oh, come on. Who knows? Who cares?”

She sighed again and softly touched his shoulder with her thin fingers and then put her hand back inside the covers. “Yes,” she said. She closed her eyes again and quickly moved her legs around under the covers. “I’m going back to sleep for a while.”

Jeff went back into the kitchen and fixed a cup of coffee and then made a bowl of oatmeal for Roslyn. She called it “eatmeal” and ate it to the exclusion of all other breakfast foods. They’d long given up asking her what she wanted for breakfast, except for occasionally in jest. Roslyn never got the joke, though, which is what made it amusing. “Well,” she’d always say, with a confused look on her face, “I just want eatmeal…like always.”

Once her oatmeal was ready, she and Jeff sat together at the table in the kitchen, she with her “eatmeal” and he with his coffee.

“Why isn’t mommy awake?” She blew on a spoonful of oatmeal.

“She’s not feeling well.”

Jeff got up and poured Roslyn a small cup of milk.

“I want you to drink all of this, okay?”

“Okay,” she said. “But, daddy. I need to ask you an important question.”

“Go for it.” He sat down again. He thought he could feel the morning’s Ibuprofen finally taking effect.

“Is mommy sick?”

“Well, she’s just not feeling well. Not sick, exactly.”

“Is she not feeling well from beers?” The question didn’t surprise Jeff. At the age of five, she’d already developed an acute appreciation for the straightforward. He stalled:

“What makes you think that?”

“Last night Brittany said all the mommies were gonna be sick in the morning from too much beers and wines. Brittany’s mommy was at our house last night. I wonder if she’s still in bed at her house.”

Brittany, Mike and Julie Frank’s seven-year-old, delighted in imparting adult-themed information to all the other children. Mike and Julie were very liberal with what they allowedBrittanyto be privy to. She was usually the last child to bed during get-togethers and often appeared, as if out of nowhere, at the precise moments when adults were discussing things emphatically not meant for a child’s ears.

“Well, Brittany is always saying things like that, isn’t she?” It was all he could think to say, and he knew it was a kind of lie, a pathetic evasion, and he was disappointed with himself for giving such a feeble response to his daughter’s perfectly reasonable question. Roslyn deserves better, he thought. But she didn’t inquire further, and they both let it go.

 

Sarah walked into the living room. She looked much better now. Her hair was brushed back into a tight ponytail and was still damp from the shower, her face still pinkish from the hot water. Her eyes looked bright, alert.

“Hey, you two.” She walked straight through to the kitchen and poured herself a mug of coffee.

“Mommy!” Roslyn got up from the couch and followed her.

“Have you two already eaten?”

“Roz has.”

“Daddy had coffee.” She pointed to the coffee pot. “Can I have coffee?”

“Of course not!” Sarah picked up Roslyn and sat her down on the kitchen counter. She told her she was getting too big. “Pretty soon I won’t be able to pick you up anymore.” Roslyn smiled proudly, clearly pleased with the prospect of being too big.

Sarah walked over to the cupboard.

“My thanks to whoever cleaned up last night. I was expecting a disaster out here, but it’s not too bad.” She bent down and examined the contents of the bottom shelf and then shook her head.

“That would be Linda and Julie.”

“Saints. Thank God for them.”

“I took the garbage out,” he said with a wink.

“How good of you.” She opened the fridge and stood in front of it. “I need something bad. I can’t eat anything we have here. I need something bad.”

“I could eat something bad.”

 

Their favorite breakfast place was a 1950s-themed diner about four miles from their house. It had a teal-and-pink color scheme inside, and there were framed posters on the walls of black-and-white photographs of era-appropriate pop icons: James Dean, Marilyn, Martin & Lewis. They liked to go there because it was clean, the food was decent, and because they served Mimosas, Red Eyes and Bloody Maries in the morning. The dry-erase board by the front door proudly announced, in red and green marker, “Morning-After Specials!!! $3.50!!!” It was not unusual for them to run into some of their Friday friends there.

The waitress sat them in back, by the jukebox. Jeff ordered a coffee for himself and chocolate milk for Roslyn. Sarah ordered a Bloody Mary.

Sarah pointed at the menu where there was a picture of a huge pancake with a smiley face made of whipped cream on it. “Look, Roz. A smiley face pancake! Doesn’t that look delicious!?”

“I’ll have some more eatmeal?”

“Rats!” said Sarah. “She just can’t get enough of the stuff.”

“The girl loves her eatmeal,” said Jeff.

The waitress returned with their drinks.

“Do you have any eatmeal today?” said Roslyn.

“Oh, I don’t know.” She glanced at Sarah and then at Jeff. “But I can check.”

“Thank you,” said Roslyn.

“It’s okay,” said Sarah. “Don’t go to too much trouble. She’s already eaten. But if you have some, that’ll be great.”

The waitress smiled and walked off.

Sarah took a sip of the Bloody Mary.

Roslyn took a sip of her chocolate milk.

“Just what I needed,” said Sarah.

“Me, too,” said Roslyn. Fluff Ball was in the booth squeezed between Roslyn and the wall. She pretended to give him a sip of her chocolate milk.

“Your drink is pretty,” Roslyn said. “Can I have a sip?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Sarah looked at Jeff for assistance.

“It’s a special kind of drink for mommies who don’t feel good, and mommy needs to drink all of it or she won’t feel better. It’s like medicine.”

“Medicine for mommies with hangovers?”

“What?!” Sarah pushed her drink toward the center of the table. “You don’t know what that word means.”

“Yes I do. It means you’re sick from beers and wines.” Roslyn sat up straight in the booth and looked proudly around the dining room as if there were an audience present.

“Oh, just forget it,” said Sarah. “Here comes the waitress.”

 

On the way home in the car Roslyn fell asleep almost immediately, which was typical. When she was younger, a toddler, she had had trouble sleeping in her crib, so Jeff would put her in her car seat and drive around the block until she fell asleep. She was usually out by the time he’d got halfway around the block.

“Can you believe she said that?” whispered Sarah.

“The hangover business?”

“Yes. Where did she pick that up?” Sarah picked at the steering wheel with her thumb nails. Jeff was surprised by his wife’s naïveté. Where had she been the last five years?

“She’s probably heard us use the word a hundred times, Sarah.” A hundred is probably a conservative number, thought Jeff.

“I know. I just don’t like it. It makes me sad to hear her use words like that. She’s just a little girl.”

“She’s going to hear things and see things. Things a lot worse than the word hangover.

Sarah pulled the car onto their driveway but did not turn the car off.

“You know, some people don’t ever have hangovers.”

“Yes, and what truly boring people they must be.”

Sarah turned and looked back at Roslyn sleeping in her car seat. “Look at her. I love seeing her this way, watching her sleep. She looks like an angel.” She said this as if it were the last time she’d ever see her sleeping again.

“She looks like a doll. She almost doesn’t look real.” Jeff put his hand on Sarah’s thigh.

Sarah turned the car off.

Roslyn opened her eyes and stretched.

“I was sleeping.” She picked up Fluff Ball and hugged him.

 

They all sat around watching TV for the rest of the day. Sarah and Jeff were too tired to do anything else. At first Roslyn was very energetic, trying to get them to play games, go to the park, go for a bike ride, but after being rebuffed over and over, she eventually settled down on the couch, resigning herself to watching movies with her parents. It made Jeff feel somewhat guilty. He wanted to do something with Roslyn, but he just didn’t have it in him.

“I tell you what, Roz,” he finally said. “Tomorrow is Sunday and we will go go go all day long, okay?”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“Can we go to the park with the bridge?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“I will remember forever if you are lying.” She held up Fluff Ball. “Fluff Ball will remember, too. He has a memory, you know?”

“Yes, I know. I wouldn’t lie to you—or Fluff Ball.”

She paused, and then stuck her tongue out at Jeff and made a farting sound with her mouth. He did the same. This was like a handshake between two gentlemen. They’d reached an agreement.

 

Roslyn was in bed for the night, and Sarah and Jeff were back on the couch watching TV, but with the volume down so low you could barely hear it.

“I’m so tired,” said Sarah.

“Me, too.” He felt an urge to get up and get a beer from the refrigerator, but decided that doing so would probably upset Sarah, so he didn’t.

“Can you believe Roslyn is already five?” Sarah looked at Jeff with a truly amazed look on her face.

“It happens so fast.” Jeff looked toward Roslyn’s room.

“Are we bad parents?”

The air in the room had a muffled, almost humid feel to it. Jeff kicked off his house slippers.

“If we are then everyone we know is.”

Sarah was silent.

“I always try to do the best I can,” he added. “And you do too. You’re a great mom.”

“Well, maybe everyone we know is a bad parent. Don’t you think that’s possible?”

Jeff sighed and kicked at his empty slippers.

“What are you getting at, Sarah?” He was getting irritated.

“Forget it,” she said. She picked up Fluff Ball who had been lying on the floor next to her feet the whole time. She stared at the thing, and she caressed it. She turned it around a couple times, as if she were examining it.

“Fluff Ball,” she said.

“Good old Fluff Ball,” Jeff said.

“Why does she love this stupid thing so much?” She laughed awkwardly. “I don’t even know what it is. Is it supposed to be something? Is it an M&M? Is it one of those California Raisins? Is it a Muppet or something? Where did it come from? Do you remember?” Sarah had an incredulous look on her face.

“It’s just…Fluff Ball. It isn’t anything real. It seems like it’s always been around. I don’t remember buying it.”

“I wonder what Roz thinks it is. I’ve never asked her that. Have you ever asked her that? I bet you haven’t.”

“Jesus! It’s just a stuffed…thing. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything.”

“Well, whatever it is, I better go put it in bed with Roz, so she doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night and go searching for it. You know how she is.” She hugged the ball of fluff.

Jeff nodded.

Sarah quietly opened the door to Roslyn’s room. One of the door’s hinges squealed and she stopped, lingered at the threshold for a moment, and then quietly disappeared into the dark of Roslyn’s room. Jeff vaguely considered the things Sarah and he had talked about, but he was too tired to give them any serious attention. He only hoped it would eventually all blow over so that things could go back to normal. That’s all he wanted. He stayed there on the couch, staring at the flashing images of a man and women in a black-and-white movie on the TV. They were in a big room, some kind of apartment living room, and they were furiously arguing. After a few minutes the man yanked a coat off a coat rack and stormed out. The woman, who was very beautiful, flopped down on a couch and started to cry. When it became clear Sarah was not coming back, Jeff got up from the couch and went to bed.

Steve Lambert (Gavin S. Lambert) was born in Bossier City, Louisiana, in 1974, and grew up in Central Florida. He now lives in Saint Augustine with his wife and daughter.

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2 Responses to It Isn’t Anything Real

  1. Julie says:

    Beautiful writing. I wanted to keep reading and reading.

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