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Issue #4 |

Newfound Facts

sacramento men work

Our wives turned fifty and returned to school. We’d been warned to expect it, been told by other men at church, the high priests who have more gray hair than we do yet, to get ready. Set aside money. And time.

Learn to make dinner once in a while.

The men laugh as they say this, as if to suggest, don’t worry, we survived. You will, too. These are the men who watch basketball from the sidelines, who say their knees aren’t what they used to be.

So we did. We got ready. We went to work and came home early and raked the leaves, creating small huts all over our backyards where the dogs couldn’t help themselves and lifted their legs to pee. And then we went inside, made mac and cheese for dinner one night, picked up pizza another. There’s a new place in Foothill Village that makes them lickity split, hot out of the oven, $7.99 each. Our teenagers loved that, loved that we did not push vegetables, save those on top of the pizzas. You know, we said, mid-bite, red peppers ought to count. We folded up the pizza boxes, took out the garbage, saluted the moon just starting to appear over the Wasatch Mountains, the ones we know so well, the ones we’ve looked at all our life. We said out loud, At your service, ma’am. We felt energetic and proud. Proud of ourselves and proud of the fact that our wives liked this too, that three times a week, we did our part.

Take your time! we told our wives. Enjoy yourself! You need time for your homework. This is for you, your time, your shot. We’re happy to help out.

Our wives wore pantsuits to class in dark colors and washable wool. They carried messenger bags made of canvas, not backpacks, came home wearing a glow we had not seen since the early days of motherhood, when they felt the first flutters, when they first learned of the new baby to arrive, in September one year, in early March for the next, in May for the next one, then in June, then July, all those months of pregnancy tallied that were hard, months when they said, it’s too hot, I’m exhausted, look at my feet, they’re as big as small boats, and this is ridiculous, mark my words, never never never again.

Our houses then burst at the seams. With babies, with applesauce, with pacifiers and clean sheets, with recipes cut from Bon Appetit, pinned to the bulletin board above the pantry sink. Our living rooms were full of soft toys in bright colors and thick hard copies of The Velvet Rabbit and Goodnight Moon. Our wives then spoke of fevers and sleep, then first-grade field trips to see Shasta, the tiger-lion, at Hogle Zoo. On Sunday mornings, when they stood at the stove and we reached for them, kissing their necks, they smelled of bacon grease and baby powder.

Our children grew and we added onto the house, building a large room where our girls practiced ballet and our boys could roughhouse and we wouldn’t lose sleep and there were sleepovers and videos played late at night and one could spread out supplies for yearbook in her junior year and another could do seventy-five sit-ups without breaking a sweat and where, we said, that couch is so filthy, let’s give it away only we knew no one would want it and we were right, no one did.

Our wives put on weight, then starved themselves eating cabbage broth to lose it again.

When blood stopped, ambition returned.

And now here we are, here they are, speaking a new language, saying over dinner they might wake up early. Go for a hike. Sketch in the morning during the alpenglow.

We still do what we used to do. We still go to work where the younger men say, welcome to my world, where the men not of our faith look at us as if we are throwbacks to another, earlier, day. We want to tell them we are not so different after all. But we are not so sure of anything anymore.

At church we gather in a circle to put our hands on the heads of our congregation’s eight-year-olds. We give blessings. We baptize. We teach Sunday School. We coach ward basketball. But we do more around the house and this makes us proud. We vacuum the living room on Saturday morning, we rejigger our schedules at work, we pick up the kids in carpool. We serve salads now, romaine lettuce alongside our pizza. Turns out, we too missed the green. We go grocery shopping at Dan’s, finger the tomatoes, cut up cucumbers, put the oil and the vinegar in pretty bottles, out just like our wives did, just like they would want us to. We use the good plates, the ones our mother-in-law gave us for our tenth anniversary, silver edged. We set the table in the dining room. We light two candles. Our daughters laugh. Why all this? Why not just eat straight out of the box? We laugh nervously, but why not? we say. Why can’t take-out be special too?

*

One night we look at wives after dinner, after they have blown out the candles, saying, we don’t want to burn the house down, not now. They seem so far away.

Would you like more water? we ask. We want them to know we appreciate them, that we are happy to do our part, to wait on them the way, for so long, they waited on us.

Not now, they say. I’m not thirsty. But I wouldn’t mind you as my interlocutor.

Your what?

My companion, my commentator.

We remain confused. So we shift to more neutral territory. We try again. Are you cold? Would you like the heat turned up? Tonight is the first night of snow. Outside is a skiff, a smattering that makes the neighborhood quiet, as if we’re hiding underneath a quilt.

No, our wives say. We are cyrophilic now.

Is this the night we begin to see that we do not understand everything they say? Is this the night we decide what we will do is listen? Or try to? We wait for the snow to melt. For the semester to end.

Our wives take classes in geology, astronomy, musicology, art. They read Dickens, not just Great Expectations but Bleak House. We make jokes. We say, What about Bleaker House? They don’t laugh. We get mad. We say under our breath, bleak, bleaker, bleakest house. They speak now about Virginia Woolf’s innermost flame. They say things like, “They brush the surface of the world. Their nets are full of fluttering wings.” They explain things to us as we fall into bed. How an isthmus, for instance, is a narrow strip bordered by water, connecting two bodies of land. How these days they feel insouciant. We fold ourselves into the flannel covers, sheets we now wash and dry. Afterward, they pause. This too is new. This waiting a beat before saying something else. You know, they say. Free from worry. Carefree. Nonchalant.

We yawn and say, we’re tired tonight, so very tired. We can be, we think, nonchalant too.

They buy new bags, leather this time. The canvas, they say, was getting soiled and falling apart. Leather lasts longer.

How much longer? we want to ask.

*

One night in bed, very late, we say so softly we are almost embarrassed by this—the tentative nature of our own deep voices—we miss you, we do, it’s silly but true. And they say sharply, cupidity is nothing to be proud of, you know.

We think we misheard them. What did you say? we ask.

Not stupidity, they say. Cupidity. An eager or excessive desire.

We rise quickly. Go to the bathroom. Run the water. Pretend to shower. Make a plan. When we open the door, our wives say they are sorry, they didn’t mean to be so cruel. They see they have crossed a line, that they have said something that cut to the quick. We say, no problem, then put on our bathrobes, say, we forgot to take the garbage out. We take our time. We let our wives stew.

But when we open the door quietly on the darkened room, when we attempt to return to bed, our wives are not there. We see a thin ribbon of light from beneath the closed study door. So we go downstairs again. We go outside. We frown at the mountains, ignoring the moon. The moon is bright. We want to salute the moon once more, to say, we are happy, truly we are, taking our marching orders from you. But we are tired, exhausted. The moon is just the moon tonight. Enigmatic. Unable to show its face. And we have to be up early, 7 a.m., for carpool, our daughters’ swimming practice, then work, work, work. The office never ends.

*

The next days we go through the motions, go to bed early, say—and it’s true: our throats are scratchy—we are coming down with colds. But then on Saturday night, our wives make a cake from a mix and top it with candles and serve it for dessert and when you ask, what’s the occasion, they smile and hold up a quiz with a red mark at the top, 99/100, and the next day, Sunday comes and our wives take our hands during Sacrament meeting, setting aside the manila folder of articles to read for school, the one they have, each week, hidden under the hymn book to read while the rest of us sing.

We will try harder next time, we decide, as the first counselor from the bishopric gives his talk, quoting scriptures that instruct us to rejoice and be full of cheer. To be positive, he says, does not mean we have to be ignorant. He quotes someone from the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, then the Doctrine and Covenants. With faith and obedience, we can live lives of joy, he says. Our afflictions shall be but a small moment.

Our wives turn to us. Smile. We put our arms around their shoulders, resolving to do better. To understand. To cover our shame. To set aside our petty hurts. At home that night and in the nights to come, we ask them to tell us about this class or that one, to regal us with all their newfound facts.

They shine as they talk, looking younger every day. We tell them this. They say, oh, you mean, just like The Picture of Dorian Gray? We say we will read that this year. Then we do. Or we try. Mostly, though, we listen. They love to talk now. They are full of information, full of facts.

The moon, they tell us, one night, has no form of plate tectonics. Because it’s small, it cools more rapidly. The lunar surface has been formed by volcanos. Its body is made up of crust, mantle, and core. Because so much of lunar surface has not been explored, many geological questions remain.

Carefully we ask, can we quiz you? Our wives love questions. They are like those plants that perk up with water whenever we ask. We know our wives must study the elements known to be present on the lunar surface: oxygen, silicon, titanium, iron. So we sit at the dining room table, notecards in hand, asking questions, checking each element off. We check off this one too: Nitrogen present in traces left from solar wind.

The moon is shrinking, our wives say, after the test.

The history of the moon began 4.5 billion years ago. There were tidal forces. An ellipsoid. Crystallization. Minerals that sank.

They show us pictures of cliffs of the lunar crust, black and white squares in their textbooks. Sad empty landscapes.

We have to look away.

All of this information takes its toll. We recognize this too. We wake in the middle of the night, worried about all we are accustomed to worrying about: our jobs, our children, our bank accounts, our cholesterol. Bu now our minds have new worries too: the shrinking moon! We look at our wives who are sleeping soundly, at their hair that spills out in ways both familiar and new, and we want to ask them, what about the shrinking moon, what should we do? But we do not want to interrupt their sleep. Instead, we stare at the crack of light seeping in through the curtains, wonder how much black-out curtains cost, wander the house with its healthy, sleeping teens, take stock of the pantry. Beans, we think. We make a grocery list. At the top, we write, 5 lbs., lentil beans.

Finally these months, these years pass. Our wives finish their degrees. Or they don’t. We make soup now with lentils and cilantro, which everyone says is delicious, surprisingly so. Our wives are home now every night. They have no more tests to take. No reading list to check. They look different. Not older as we do but younger, full of something bright, maybe cooler blood. They stand straighter now, as if they have doing yoga, not hunched over, studying, for all this time.

One night, over dinner when the kids are away, we watch as our wives looking out the window to the Japanese maple in full red bloom. They do not look longingly now but with a prescience. Spring will be coming soon. The gray rabbits we used to joke are sixth generation, specific to this neighborhood, this yard, they too will return soon. Our wives say they are so glad for the time to study. But they are glad to be home now too. They have missed certain things. Like sleeping late on a Saturday morning. Like watching a movie. Like reading for pleasure instead of a test. Like making pies. Like making jam.

One night when we come home from work, there is no jam. There will never be jam again, in fact. But there are fresh raspberries waiting in the sink, a whole strainer of them, newly washed. The color surprises us, its bright darkness, something we’ve never seen.

Is this the night it comes to us? That our wives do not belong to us? That they never did?

We stand in the kitchen, eating right then and there, our wives alongside us, not talking but laughing quietly so now we are too, the berries so fresh, we’d forgotten their taste, the berries staining our newly married hands.

Photo courtesy of Jirka Matousek. View more of his work on Flickr.

Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country. Recent essays and short stories have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, Southern Review, and Best American Essays 2018. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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