Mom and Dad are giving marriage another go. No point asking why. Dad boxes up his janky suite at the La Quinta. Mom unearths the banished Dad photos from the crawl space and sprays their frames with Pledge and wipes. Then there’s that Pledge smell, all through the house. They call a family meeting in the family room, perch on either arm of the Bad News Couch. Their eyes are cult recruiter eyes. “This is what’s best for us,” says Dad. “For all of us,” says Mom.
Dad has agreed to rebuild “Santa’s Miracle Factory.” Before The Divorce, Dad was locally famous for converting the yard into a low-rent Christmas spectacular. There was a giggly, pedophilic Robo-Santa, a manger of marionettes, multiple Rudolphs whose noses buzzed red. Minivans idled by at all hours, like giant, B-movie snails. On Christmas Eve, Dad would sync the whole shebang to twinkle along to Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” But last year: no Santa, no Springsteen. Just a wreath nail-gunned to the dark front door by Mom. Dad promises, “Never again.”
Mom doesn’t approve of a friendship with Kaylee Sanders. She never has, and The eBay Incident hasn’t helped. What happened was: Kaylee stole a bunch of Jimmy Choos from some rich bitches’ lockers and sold them on eBay. When she got caught, Mom lost her shit—banned Kaylee from sleepovers; said she deserved expulsion, maybe juvie. Central High School disagreed. All Kaylee got was ten days OSS and a comprehensive repayment plan. So instead of gym Kaylee has eighth period study hall, which is a happy coincidence, because she skips every day to buy multicolored Fantasia cigarettes at 7-11. And she shares.
Dad is taking over The Drive to School until he finds a new job. He used to be a sales rep for MillerCoors, “the best Jersey for a stretch of the early 00’s.” A stranger would ask him, “So, whaddaya do?” and he’d exclaim with genuine pride, “I drink for a living!” But he got laid off in the lead up to The Divorce. Now he changes the channel when Heineken commercials play during Devils games. Now he sips wine spritzers and begrudgingly does The Drive to School, both hands on the wheel, so his crooked veins show blue.
Mom always closet-smoked, but after The Divorce she went public. Before she’d Krazy Glue her Virginia Slims to the back of the toilet, or tuck loosies into the fingers of summertime gloves. Now she smokes openly and constantly, indoors and out, no explanation provided. Dad moving back in hasn’t changed it. Ashtrays dot the kitchen counter, the patio chairs, cigarettes inside them like crushed question marks. One night she straight up lights up at dinner. Dad says, “You know, there’s a reason they call those ‘death sticks’ in Star Wars.” To which Mom replies, exhaling smoke cinematically, “Cool observation.”
Dad caught Mom, that’s how this all started. He was at a traffic light on Route 9. That morning, his boss had chewed him out for some inappropriate comments he’d made to a buyer, comments Dad—drunk—didn’t remember making. He’d decided to go out to lunch for once, to offset how shitty he felt. He pulled his Camry into the turning lane for Subway. Mom was in the Range Rover next to him, her tongue down the throat of a development contractor, a builder whose properties she regularly bashed at dinner. “Who’d want to live in those monstrosities?” she’d say. “So unimaginative.”
Dad cheated too, way before Mom did. In the early 00s, when he was the best beer rep in Jersey. “The Whore,” as Mom affectionately called her. Scratch that: calls her. Dad met her at a tiki bar down the shore. When his day trips became two-day trips, Mom combed through the Camry and found his second cell phone. Next day, the Bad News Couch got its name. A call from the school office. Early dismissal. Mom did the impromptu drive home from school, bloody-murder yelling Shania Twain songs. Dad went to live with Uncle Randy for six months. Then he just moved back in. Never mentioned again.
Mom doesn’t like her therapist; Mom loves her therapist. Never has the word “love” left her mouth so enthusiastically. Every Monday after work, Mom drives two towns over to meet with Dr. Barb, whom she loves. As part of the conditions of his return, Dad tags along for “Couples” on Wednesdays. From five to nine the house is empty, its ceilings seem an eerie inch higher, so Kaylee comes over to get stoned and watch Netflix and eat Dominos. When the delivery boy rings the bell, she peels off her leggings, winks, and answers the door in just a shirt. Her long legs gooseflesh in the draft. Ha, ha.
Dad has decided to start playing guitar again, for the love of god. He buys a “sweet hollow-body Epiphone,” “a vintage Fender Reverb,” prints out pictures and brings them to family dinner. The print cartridge has been out of color for months, and his pictures look like the drawings of a sad, color-blind artist. Mom doesn’t look up from her manwich. Chewing, she asks, “Which credit card did you use?” Dad says, “The one that’s linked to the PayPal.” Mom says, “The one connected to my checking account?” “No,” Dad says, mouth full. “The one connected to our checking account.”
Mom thinks she knows Kaylee but she doesn’t, really. According to her, every teenage girl has “a Kaylee,” “herself included,” and “the sooner they’re ditched, the better.” Her Kaylee was named Melody. The only talent Melody had was getting knocked up by dirtnecks. Mom doesn’t want to hear that Kaylee is smart, not school-way smart but like witty and observationally smart, like if Aziz Ansari was a poor white girl. All Mom sees is Kaylee’s Jersey-haired mother on breaks in her bartending shift, unmarried, barely thirty, vaping outside of Outback. Like Mom could ever in a million years survive on her own.
Dad tells his bi-monthly poker buddies that it was all his idea to get back together, which is a lie. Mom sells the same schlock to her Lupus charity ladies, also a lie. Never will you hear about their life fails: about Mom’s contractor beau dumping her at an Applebee’s, or Dad washing up shirtless in an Atlantic City drunk tank. That’s not how the story people need goes. That’s the story of two desperate assholes deathly allergic to being alone. Nonfiction. It’s always about this “ineffable feeling,” this “connection” that can’t “really be put” into “words” between “them” and only them.
Mom is this year’s top selling realtor in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Time to celebrate! Mom doesn’t knock, creaks the bedroom door, pokes her chipper head in. “Any interest in mani-pedis?” she asks, her tone like her own mother put her up to it from the grave, as if the answer will be anything other than “no thanks.” When she gets back from the mall, five hours later, she’s shopping bags to the elbows. She sports a fresh blowout, acrylic nails with little palm trees painted on them, so small Dad has to lean in to see. Look at that.
Dad has contracted “dos Mexicans” off of Craiglist to help him assemble Santa’s Miracle Factory. Their names are Walter and Jose, and they hail from Peru. As Dad cites sciatica from the lawn, Walter and Jose knot Christmas lights to gutters, toss soggy handfuls of dead leaves from the roof to the flowerbeds. Around noon, all three men take lunch in the toasty garage. Dad listens to their broken English stories, bizarrely and unbelievably curious. Their mother was killed in a bus hijacking; Jose’s wife and daughter are awaiting deportation somewhere in Texas. Dad leans in, like he cares. Ten days till Christmas.
Mom seemed happier without Dad, for a while. She bought mani-pedis for two on Groupon, dished about the pervy E-Harmony suitors who took her to Café Italia and babbled about their ex-wives. And Dad was better too, all things considered. There were matinee movies and Cherry Coke; him for once asking, “butter or no butter?” There were day trips to the shore, Sicilian slices as big as couch cushions, him sweetly half-trying at skeeball. He is very scary-good at skeeball. Mom and Dad used to play on the boardwalk when they first started dating in the 80s, apparently. Not anymore.
Dad has sideswiped a Smart Car on The Drive to School. “Shit fuck,” says Dad. Not “Are you okay?” or “Sorry, my fault.” Simply “shit,” then “fuck.” The Camry isn’t damaged, but the Smart Car’s hood is swirling smoke like a busted toaster oven. Dad does an unprecedented amount of apologizing to the completely understanding driver, a college-aged girl with reflective aviators and a killer ombre. He recites mom’s insurance information like a love poem. The girl is just happy no one was hurt. Dad agrees, too eager to be genuine. He couldn’t be happier that no one is hurt.
Mom paid a shitload for SAT tutoring, but sneaking out after attendance is too easy, and Kaylee’s apartment is just across the highway. Kaylee answers the door, sweating in a sports bra and booty shorts, and apologizes for the garbage bag covering the window. She’s been playing Just Dance for Wii. “Care to join?” she says, then, disappointedly: “suit yourself.” Kaylee punches the air, stomps her lead-heavy feet. Complaining voices rise from below, but Kaylee dances on. She pants, squees, shakes her ass like she’s in a Drake video. At the end of every song, she joyfully collapses onto the couch, legs splayed, panting.
Dad meets UPS at the door when his guitar stuff gets delivered. He’s been tracking the boxes on Mom’s iPad for days, screaming waypoints out from the family room in his boxer briefs. Portland! Des Moines! Reading! When he opens the box you’d think there was a shrunken head inside. The guitar is fucked. The metal bridge that holds the strings is cracked in half; the dented amp is missing its power cord. He storms to the computer, where the seller’s eBay account has vanished. He slams the keyboard once, fist balled, leaves it there. Gibberish fills the address bar: fguyvjkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk.
Mom likes asking questions whose answers she has no interest in hearing. Apropos of anybody’s guess, she’ll materialize outside the hallway bathroom, or a DVRed episode of Once Upon a Time will be winding down, and she’ll plop down at the far end of the couch. There are things she wants to know the bare minimum about. “Whatever happened to what’s his face, the lacrosse manager? Did things not work out? What about Kaylee? They still haven’t expelled her, huh?” To these longwinded questions Mom requires the absolute shortest muttered replies. “No idea. Guess not, Mom. Fine.” Oblige her.
Dad doesn’t get why Mom is in such a state about his little fender bender. Mom says that’s her point exactly. They’re in the mudroom, just off the kitchen, whisper-yelling where they think nobody can hear them. Like old times! Imagine the Ghost of Arguments Past twirling into the house in a Technicolor robe, dropping a cornucopia of emotional trauma onto the kitchen table. It’s like that. Dad calls Mom what he always calls her, Mom returns the favor. No one mentions seat belts, or safety, or whose side of the car got hit.
Mom swore she was done with Dad, as Dad swore he was done with Mom. “Once a cheater, always a cheater,” is a sentence their mouths made a lot, for various periods of time. In conversation, Mom unceremoniously re-branded Dad as “Your Father.” Dad deemed her “Your Goddamn Mother.” But say anything negative about Mom and sudden wrinkles would divide Dad’s forehead into dry, worried quadrants. Mention Dad to Mom and she’d yap about how his Polos were too tight for his beer belly, but still cute. In retrospect, it seems almost cordial, nice.
Dad is following Mom around the kitchen, scream-reading a list of jobs he’s applied to. At breakfast, Mom had referred to Dad’s job hunt as a “job hunt,” sending Dad in a waddling rush to shoot down those quotation marks. He reads bombastically, like you would from a scroll, like any of the jobs have called him back, which they haven’t. Junior Sales Rep at PepsiCo. Assistant Bar Supervision Specialist at Friday’s. Part-time Day Manager at the Spirits on 9. He trails her every step in the kitchen, as diligently and effectively ignorable as a ghost.
Mom has been snooping again, likely for Kaylee contraband. Someone has deleted the MacBook’s search history. A pair of polka dot socks, certainly un-balled prior, have been mysteriously balled. (In the face of unseen disarray, the woman cannot restrain herself.) This is how she expresses her concern, by not-so-secretly rooting through unhidden things, so whoever she sees as the guilty party knows she’s been there. Not by asking about anything. You’d think sixteen years of motherhood and semi-functional adult existence would grant her greater emotional maturity. You would be wrong.
Dad loves telling his stories about his “druggy period,” like when he saw Van Halen at the Spectrum “effed up out of his gourd.” So when Kaylee brags during study hall that her cousin in Colorado is shipping her a candy bar of weed chocolate, and she offers to share a square, is it morally wrong to say “hell yes”? Dad did it. Mom, though she’d never cop to it, did too. They were on-and-off dating circa 5150. Plus, Kaylee is probably lying. It’s not like you can legally ship weed bars across state lines. Can you?
Mom has too much Francis Ford Coppola wine at dinner and, once Dad is upstairs watching Sportscenter, she whispers, “We both know why he hates me.” According to Mom, all their problems started when she got her tubes tied. The operation knocked her hormones completely out of whack, and things were more or less “the pits” in the bedroom from then on. She says, “The moral of the story is, never underestimate hormones. We’re only one blown circuit away from madness. Thank god I didn’t have more kids. Imagine how screwed up they’d be?” Yes, Mom. Imagine.
Dad has, against all odds, rebuilt “Santa’s Miracle Factory.” It’s dusk on Christmas Eve, and no less than fifteen actual families have gathered for the unveiling. A pregnant woman sips cocoa in a collapsible plastic chair. Children sit in a semi-circle around creepy Santa, waiting for him to ho-ho. Dad stammers an unplanned speech about the importance of family, togetherness, giving, etc. Mom plants one puckering kiss on his cold-flushed cheek. Back in the garage, Jose starts flipping the breakers. One by one, the scene brightens, comes to glimmering life. Santa bellows, “Merry Christmas.” The children can’t contain themselves.
Mom has driven Dad to Giovanni’s Brick Oven Pizza to accept her real estate award, and, back at home, Kaylee is stretched out starfish-style on the floor of the family room. Turns out, she wasn’t lying about the weed chocolate. It’s been ingested. She’s sprawled on the family room carpet, whispering to its threads like a gardener to baby plants. The weed is stupid strong, makes everyday air feel like Jacuzzi water. How was Dad able to navigate a sports stadium under these conditions? Somehow, Kaylee speaks. Based on the words she makes, Dominos has been ordered. Someone moans, “Fuuuuuuuckkkkk yesssssssss.”
Dad originally said he was cool with Kaylee coming over, as long as Mom didn’t find out. “Little secret,’” he’d said, rubbing his hands like a cat-petting villain. There was once a long tradition of little secrets with Dad, minor childhood transgressions that Mom was never made aware of. An early dismissal in elementary school to see Revenge of the Sith, midnight runs to IHOP when chocolate milk hankerings became unbearable. But even Dad, eager as he is for parental preference points, will have trouble getting behind Kaylee, her super weed, the blatant FU to Mom.
Mom would like Kaylee more if she knew how soft Kaylee’s feet feel when you’re stoned. This is what happened: Kaylee ordered Dominos, took off her leggings per tradition, said she “needed to experience genuine human contact,” so . . . is that the doorbell? Suddenly Kaylee is vertical and wobble-running out of sight. From the floor, the Bad News Couch looms, building-tall, windowless, like an under-funded prison. The lamp in the corner is confounding, an impossibility of human engineering, but Kaylee is gone for so long it reverts back to being just a lamp. When Kaylee does return, it’s with the Dominos guy. “Name’s Mark,” he says.
Dad wasn’t able to sync the lights of Santa’s Miracle Factory to Springsteen this year, sadly. Though she won’t admit it, Mom sold the control console on eBay after Dad moved out, then deleted the transaction from her history when he moved back in. Like a dad, Dad spent five stubborn nights unpacking boxes in the garage, searching for the machine that would make his music play. Obviously, he didn’t find it. He played Nebraska on the mini-iPad while he searched, mumbling the lyrics he’d forgotten. Well I got a job and put some money away. But I got debts that no honest man can pay. He was untangling Christmas lights until long after the iPad’s battery had died.
Mom must never know that Mark the Dominos Guy is sitting on the Bad News Couch doing bong rips. (Who just drives around with a bong on them?) Mark is exhaling smoke into Kaylee’s O-ed mouth, and Mom must never, ever know. Right now, Mom is thirty minutes south, basking in the heatless warmth of realtor handshakes and no-salt margaritas. Is this what Mom and “her Kaylee” did? Whatever her name was—Melody? Was that it? Melody? Like Mom is so superior. Smoke winds through the front gap in Kaylee’s teeth. Guys say it’s hot. Hard to argue. “Join us,” she says, patting the couch. It was Melody.
Dad sends a text: “partys over, mom not happy,” and somewhere upstairs an unseen flip phone glowingly displays his message. Meanwhile, in the family room, Mark From Dominos is explaining what his tattoos mean. This Chinese character translates to “Trust No One.” This jaguar is for his friend who OD’d and liked jaguars. Kaylee runs her soft-looking hands over the designs, eyes closed as if she’s reading Braille. Outside on the lawn, a stranger takes a selfie with Robo-Santa. But it’s too bright; the flash barely exists. Kaylee’s hand moves toward Mark’s zipper. From Domino’s. Another Dad text: “on wayhome now.” Again, the message goes unread.
Mom is somewhere on the Parkway, driving back from the award ceremony, and she is not happy. Apparently, being the highest grossing realtor in Upper Saddle River doesn’t entitle one to a speech at the awards dinner. Speeches are reserved for regional greatness, lifetime achievement awards, retirement. Mom got handed her award at the door, as did seemingly most everyone there. She speeds home, passing too-slow cars on the right, rocketing toward Mark From Domino’s, oblivious as a crash test dummy. In the passenger seat, Dad is smartly silent, content to load and reload his sports scores. Loss. Win. Loss.
Dad opens the back door, screams “we’re back,” only seconds after the garage door had emitted its heart-stopping groan. Suddenly, he’s leaning against the arched doorway of the family room, head lolling like a zombie’s. If he has any idea that Kaylee and Mark are crouched behind the Bad News Couch, he doesn’t let on. Dad sways, sniffing the air like a drug dog. “What’s that I smell?” he says. His eyes open, sober with knowing. He sniffs again, puts his finger to his lips, and makes this sound for nobody: shhhhhhhhhhh.
Mom tells Dad to go the hell to bed, creep. Dad complies, shuffles upstairs like a sleepwalker, then Mom is in the family room doorway, smelling whatever he missed. The real estate trophy is upside-down in her hand, at its most stab-ready. Mom crosses the room in her pantyhose feet, angry wine eyes watery, and sits on the far arm of the Bad News Couch. “He used to be a good guy,” she says. “The wives of people he worked with, they’d come up to me in the produce aisle in Pathmark. They thought he was the tops.”
Dad turns on the shower upstairs, a soft roll of pipe thunder in the walls. Mom is still sitting on the couch arm, still talking: “You can really know a person. Anyone who says otherwise is a freaking liar.” She swallows, like she’s about to vom. “The problem is when someone knows you know them. …They think it’s about keeping you interested, but it’s not.” She shakes her head. “Please get these fucking drug addicts out from behind my couch.”
Mom is sitting at the kitchen table the next morning, a Zip-Loc of pot on the placemat in front of her. She has already called Kaylee’s mom, who didn’t answer—big surprise—but she left a carefully worded voicemail. At ten, she’ll call the Domino’s on Route 9, because she’s sure Mark’s manager would love to hear about his employee’s escapades on her couch. Mom doesn’t want to hear excuses. Mom is done. Rebellion phase ends here. If she ever hears the name Kaylee again, it’s transfer time. She’ll have the Dean of Lakewood Prep on the phone like that. Come hell or high water. Don’t test her.
Dad stomps downstairs in his hangover robe, bringing good news: he will be interviewing for the Part-time Day Manager position at Spirits. Mom pushes out her chair, hugs him like he’s just returned from war. In retrospect, this embrace will reveal itself as a turning point. From then on, Mom will wait outside SAT Tutoring, ensuring no lessons get skipped. Dad won’t get the job, but he’ll drive to Syracuse, Penn State, Rutgers for college visits. Kaylee will become just a friend, a wave in the hallway, forgotten. The embrace was when things started looking better, before they became irreparably worse. In retrospect these were the good times.
Mom and Dad go to Café Italia for New Years. No invitation extended. They don’t get back until two, and, weirdly, they’re laughing super loud, a laughter that asks to be joined. Martha Stewart pots clang in the kitchen. Someone turns on the TV, cranks the volume on Once Upon a Time. But what’s weirdest is the smell of pot, moving down the hallway like a fog, earthy, unmistakable. It’s all through the house—the smell, the TV, their laughter. The timer has long since killed the Christmas lights, but a few cars drive by, late to the party. From outside, it has to be clear: this is where a happy, well-adjusted family lives. The laughing couple downstairs shining brightly, and the child soundly asleep above them, little square window dark.
Carmen Petaccio received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University. His fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have previously appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, PANK, and Tin House online. He lives in Austin, Texas.