The following is excerpted from All My Mother's Lovers, the debut novel by Ilana Masad. Masad is a queer Israeli-American fiction writer, essayist, and book critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, the Paris Review, NPR, Buzzfeed, Catapult, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as several others. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories podcast and a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
This latest excursion—a boutique wine maker conference—had been relatively simple, but she was relieved to be home. She had a whole week ahead of her without traveling, a rare treat, and she meant to take advantage of it. Peter was already up and at it when she got out of bed—she could tell because the house smelled deliciously of coffee, the hazelnut kind he indulged in on weekends. Ariel was still asleep, she was pretty certain. She hoped so—she didn’t feel like getting fully dressed yet, and she knew that her bralessness inside one of the many ratty t-shirts she slept in made him uncomfortable. She’d noticed him averting his gaze before. It was heartbreaking, how she’d become old and repulsive to him at some point, her body’s existence embarassing him. She wasn’t sure when it had happened, and she knew it was normal, but she still felt a twinge of pain when he looked away from her like that. A reminder that the last link of intimacy between their bodies, once babushka-dolled one inside the other, was severed for good. She put her hand on Ariel’s shut and locked door and silently bid him to sleep a little longer, just until she had the energy to get dressed.
“Hello, sleepyhead,” Peter said when she passed his office. Iris waved but kept going to the kitchen and coffee. He followed her there and hugged her from behind as she poured herself a mug.
“Mmph,” she said, elbowing him to let her go, and got the milk from the fridge. He put his hands up, surrendering with a grin. “It’s Sunday, and it’s morning, stop being so perky,” she groaned at him. But she didn’t mean it. This was Peter, and she loved how unfairly upbeat he was.
“What are you up to today?” he asked, leaning against the kitchen island. Without waiting, he went on, “I have some errands to do, and I’m catching up on that project for the museum, they’ve asked for some more adjustments, but—”
“Honey, why-oh-why don’t you put it in your contract that you’ll only do two or three rounds of changes before adding an additional fee?” Iris shook her head. Peter was a good artist, a good graphic designer, but not the best businessman. She should know; she was the one who did their taxes and dealt with their finances. Some years he barely made a profit, what with the subscriptions to various software and the way he took his time with projects. She was the one who’d really kept them afloat. Peter’s income was chump change in comparison to the fees she charged her corporate clients.
He shrugged. “They’re a nonprofit. I’m okay with doing a bit more work.”
It was heartbreaking, how she’d become old and repulsive to him at some point, her body’s existence embarassing him.
Iris didn’t understand him in this way, how much he seemed to enjoy the work in itself and how little monetary value he placed on his time. She took a sip of coffee and decided she didn’t care. This was an old argument, a boring one, and they were doing all right right now, still paying the mortgage, alas, but also building their savings back up, preparing a small nest egg they could hopefully leave their children. Which reminded her. “You know, Anya asked me yesterday when I’m planning to retire?”
“Yes, she really did. I think she didn’t mean it to sound so rude. But she’s more ambitious and grasping than she even realizes.”
“Are you dangling that in front of her now?” Peter asked. Iris raised her eyebrows. He knew her well. It was a good way to keep the excellent assistant around, hinting at a possible promotion, a passing of the baton she wasn’t planning on anytime soon. “Anyway, sorry, what did you say you were doing today?”
“I didn’t yet, but yeah, I have to take my stuff to that dry-cleaner that’s open on Sundays, you know the one, the Ocean Breeze place or whatever it’s called. Other than that, I’m going to relax a bit. Oh, and volunteering tonight,” she added, offhand, though of course she hadn’t for a moment forgotten about it.
“Ah yes, my wife the do-gooder,” Peter said. “Well, I hope you relax in my office at some point. I’d love a nap on the chaise with you.” Iris palmed his cheek before hugging him. She reveled in the way his arms squeezed her torso just a little too hard, anchoring her. She’d only been gone three days, but still, it was always so good to be home.
By the time Ariel emerged from his bedroom, Iris was dressed in her weekend clothes, a pair of loose-fitting slacks and a light cotton long-sleeved shirt, and was lounging on the living room couch with the latest Faye Kellerman novel. He traipsed in with both his hands scratching around inside his gray sweatpants and yanked them out when he saw her like a child caught with his fingers in the cookie jar. “Hi,” he said. “I thought you were coming back tomorrow?”
“Nope. How’re you doing, kiddo?”
“Still no word from…” She struggled to recall the name. Lena? Leonora? Leanna? “…that girl you like?” she ended up saying.
“I don’t like her, Mom. It’s not like that. We’re friends.” Ariel stomped to the kitchen and put his head in the fridge.
“Right,” Iris murmured, only half to him. The girl in question had been friends with Ariel all through college so far, and had visited with him for Thanksgiving once and for spring break another time, and Iris was fairly certain Ariel was in love with her. She could picture the girl’s sweet face, her clean-cut girl-next-door looks, the drab brown hair that always looked like it just needed a good shampoo commercial makeover to make it shine. But her name—Iris was bad with names, some days. She always had been, especially outside of work, but she wondered idly if it was getting worse. Or if she was being paranoid because she was in her sixties and was expected to be decrepit. Her own mother at this age had looked and acted so much older than Iris looked or felt, which made sense, of course. After all, being humiliated and marked and moved around, suffering a terrible loss, living through a war, and then emigrating to the United States ages a person. “Hey, Ariel, want to come with me to the dry cleaners?”
He lowered a bottle of orange juice from his mouth, where he’d been sucking on it ravenously. “Um. Not really?”
Iris laughed, loving him for his honesty. “Fair enough.”
In the evening, Iris gathered her purse and keys and set out for the second time that day. Peter didn’t know what she was really doing at the Caring Place, the assisted living facility she’d been visiting almost weekly for the past couple of months. There were plenty of things that Peter didn’t know about the way she spent her time, and she was sure there were just as many things she didn’t know about how he spent his. Still, she felt uncomfortable—she wouldn’t say guilty, but only because she’d tried to scrub that useless emotion away a long time ago—having a secret so close to home, to Peter. She wasn’t worried about Ariel, since he’d never expressed much interest in her life outside of her involvement in his, though as he got older, she supposed that would change. It had for her. But home was hers and Peter’s sacred space, and though he was the true homebody of the two of them, Iris had enough respect for him and for what they’d built together to have a modicum of guilt.
Not that it stopped her from going.
On the drive there, she caught herself touching the sides of her lips over and over again, making sure her lipstick hadn’t strayed or smeared. It was ridiculous, she thought, being nervous now, at this point, with all that history behind them, with him in the state he was in now. But it didn’t make any difference; rediscovering him, and them, had kept her giddy for weeks, aching to get home for more than the usual reasons.
She parked in the visitors’ section and pulled down the mirror to check her lips one last time. She noticed a bit of sleep in her right eye from the nap she’d had earlier with Peter on his favorite piece of furniture in the house, the jade green chaise longue, its velvet long since hardened and scratchy. Still, he loved the angle, the way he could hold her on his side just right without his shoulder pain getting in the way, the way he could scoop her close to him and wrap one leg over hers. She was truly one of the luckiest women alive, she thought, though she knew only a fraction of it was luck, really—she’d created circumstances for herself over and over again. Like this, here, now.
Her low heels clicked across the smooth parking lot, the lines of the spaces recently repainted and sharply white, almost gleaming in the twilight. Inside, Darlene, the Sunday evening nurse, greeted her with a smile. “Harold is having a good day,” she said. “He’s in the rec room.”
“Oh good, thank you,” Iris said. At the doorway to the rec room, she saw Harold sitting, a bit slumped, watching a rowdy card game that several gentlemen were engaged in, along with a lady Iris hadn’t seen there before. She smiled at the curses the players were hurling at each other as they demanded the woman make her move to call or fold, but she was holding her cards in her lap and waving a disapproving finger at them, insisting they give her the proper time to consider her odds.
“She’s counting cards, you idiots,” Harold boomed suddenly, and Iris laughed. He heard her—he was blessed with better hearing than Iris’s own which was beginning to fail, a fact he relentlessly teased her about, since he was two decades her senior. When he turned to look at her, his face, normally a distinguished craggy mask, spread wide with his smile, causing his cheeks to further wrinkle up towards his eyes even while his jaw seemed to smooth out. Iris was herself fairly lined but she’d been watching the people here since she began visiting, fascinated by the many ways skin could weather the years. “Well, look who it is!” Harold called out.
Deliberately, slowly, Iris walked forward, her thick hips swaying, and released her hair, which had been up in a high bun, from its clip. Her wavy almost-black hair with its unevenly dispersed streaks of gray tumbled down to her shoulders, and Harold wolf-whistled as she shook it out behind her. She knew other women her age who felt at peace with their looks, but she could never quite tell if that meant they also still felt sexy at times. She did, at least in moments like these. The card players clapped and whooped for her, the lady winking and grinning widely, showing off a single missing tooth.
“Hello, Iris,” Harold said as she pulled up a chair and sat down. The card players included a couple of Harold’s new friends though she couldn’t recall their names, and the woman just waved and then asked the others if they were ready to play or if they wanted to keep gawping at young women. Iris laughed at this. She was certainly not young, and her skin showed far more wear than other women her age. Still, the lady had a point—every time Iris came here, she registered a shock at seeing so many old people in one place, before reminding herself she too could be considered old, that people on the street probably thought of her as such.
She knew other women her age who felt at peace with their looks, but she could never quite tell if that meant they also still felt sexy at times.
“It’s busy here tonight,” Iris said. The room was relatively full, visitor sitting with residents, children running around with the kind of pack mentality that kids thrust together seem to acquire quickly.
“No busier than usual,” Harold said. “But let’s go to my room and open a bottle of wine, shall we?”
“Hubba-hubba!” one of the men said, raising extremely bushy gray eyebrows.
“Now, now, be nice,” Iris said as she helped Harold up. He leaned on her, the exertion of rising showing in his pained face. “Where’s your walker?”
“I got here without it today,” he told her proudly, but she could tell that he was tired, his knees wobbling a bit. Darlene had said he was having a good day, but Iris wondered how much of that was Harold feeling well and how much of it was shame over his need for assistance. His face began to redden as they walked slowly towards the elevator in the hallway by the rec room, and Iris wanted to suggest a rest, or that she borrow a walker from the room they’d just left, but he looked determined, mouth set in a hard line. She didn’t want to ruin his good mood.
The elevator was equipped with a small bench, and Iris maneuvered Harold to it, and sat with him for the short ride up to the third story where his room was. He wasn’t panting, but he wasn’t comfortable, and even as he gripped her hand, he looked away.
“Penny for your thoughts?” she said.
“Darling, pennies are worthless and you know it. Make a man a better offer than that.”
From All My Mother’s Lovers: A Novel by Ilana Masad published by Dutton, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Ilana Masad