It was too late to be a lunch, too early to be a dinner, this disappointing collection of food Greg was packing. He was leaving in the odd smear of time between the markers of his day. Not in the morning, not in the night. Not even in the mid-day. After lunch, before dinner. The sun was out but getting lazy. Everything starting to give over, accepting that this day’s moment was swiftly passing. Maybe that was why he finally left. He had to get away from the giving over, for once. His son had been missing three weeks.
He was packing a meal using what he had in the fridge. A buttered heel of bread, a rhombus of stiff cheese, a puckered tangerine, its skin loose around the wedges inside it. When had he last bought tangerines? It had been months. Maybe a year. Sometimes what he thought was a long time passing ended up being only a few weeks. Hey, when was that, last summer? Last Christmas? And his wife answering, Honey, that was only just last month. So who could know when anything actually happened? When he was a child he often had to mark time for himself. Today is Tuesday, that I know for sure. At least I know that for sure. He was already looking forward to ignoring the lunch, stopping somewhere along the way, having a conversation with a waitress. I’m looking for my son. What came next? Shock? Admiration? He liked anticipating these kinds of things.
The house was implacable. Quiet and unaffected. When he left, for all the time he’d be gone, the items in the house would stay in the same place. The house was not asking him for anything; the house wasn’t begging him to stay. Instead it was watching him go.
“Couch,” he whispered. “Ottoman.” Marking time, marking stasis. Then he said his own name: “Greg.” He could just as easily have said the other names he was known by: Honey. Gregory. Dad. But at the end of the day, he thought of himself as only Greg. The buttery yellow light coming in through the plate-glass windows, at least, offered its confetti of dust. A stingy fanfare. His wife dusted often, almost daily, but sometimes you can’t win for losing.
You can’t win for losing; there he was. His son. Greg Junior. GJ. Had he said it to GJ, or had GJ said it to him? And when? On how many occasions? GJ as a child, crying over a bloody knee. GJ on the phone, calling from rehab. GJ drunk on the couch. On Couch. Likely they had said it to each other, neither truly listening. GJ with his big paw hands, his oily T-shirts, his face getting fleshy, then gaunt, then fleshy again. Beautiful boy, my beautiful boy. Greg’s eyes felt warm. But was he crying for himself or for GJ? Did he think he should cry or did he actually want to cry? These were the thoughts that kept him from the trip for the past three weeks. For his whole life. That kept him from life. Again he felt like crying, but stopped himself, his throat pained, feeling stretched like it was making room for something. He didn’t feel allowed to cry just yet.
He had seen a woman on one of those Saturday-night crime shows talking about her own missing child. I know she’s alive, the woman said, tears erupting from her eyes, I feel it inside. I know she knows I’m looking for her and I won’t ever, ever stop. Greg didn’t have that same certainty. He could never feel absolutely certain about anything, least of all GJ, who felt as elusive and slippery as his own beating heart. But he felt sure, objectively, that he should never, ever stop looking for GJ, even if GJ was standing right in front of him, right this minute.
He put the lunch into one of the huge Ziploc baggies his wife saved and placed it by the door so he could grab it on the way out. The grandfather clock made a few halfhearted tones: it was 3:15. He hurried upstairs to pack a bag. The bedroom always smelled familiar, sweet and clothy. His and his wife’s scent, their signature. Did they leave it behind them at restaurants, at church? Was the smell the same for her as it was for him? Sometimes he felt exhausted by all the not knowing, by all the wondering. Wandering.
The oval full-length mirror next to the bed offered him a framed portrait of himself, standing in his exhausted slippers, his calves still strong, though too pale, and disturbingly hairless. The frayed hem of the purple gym shorts he wore daily now, because their elastic was shot, and because they stopped the laborious swinging of his balls, caged them in a calming inner mesh pouch he had come to love. The XXXL undershirt, the V of his chest hair, still mostly brown, something he never failed to notice or feel thankful for. His belly straining at the shirt, pushing out out out, like it was pleased to meet the world. Greg often attempted to quantify its heft: a belly pregnant with triplets; the hull of a small boat, taking on water; a laundry sack filled with beer. He carried it around, this heavy impostor, day after day, his back giving and giving. There, too, were his hands, thicker than they had been when he was a young man, when his fingers were long and his knuckles seemed an afterthought, not the bulgy crooks they were now. His acned neck; he never had figured out how to avoid shaving rash. He had tried steam, lotions, shaving in the other direction, all to no avail. And the large anvil of his head and face, his chin and neck connected by a flap of flesh, a sheet on the line that had grown into the pin and the grass. He could see the pores in his cheeks and nose from where he was standing, his face sprouting leaks and caving into sinkholes, consuming itself. The gnarled, tortured dough of his nose. His hazel eyes, which could still appear blue or green under the right circumstances but were always too wet-looking, like he was on the perpetual verge of a sneeze. The jagged hedge of hair, graying but still thick, a small mercy. He took it all in, as he did when he could stand to, If this is what GJ has to look forward to in his old age . . . and then he looked away, thankful to have a task at hand.
He found a crumpled duffel bag under the bed, shoved clothes and his toothbrush inside it. More than enough socks. He’d read a war novel once that said wearing wet and dirty socks was worse than getting shot. He decided he needed to throw in a pair of nail clippers as well. Then he decided to bring his father’s pocketknife, though it was dull and mostly for show at this point. An item of remembrance. Another marker of time.
“Honey?” His wife was in the doorway; he hadn’t heard her come in. Crisp white button-down tucked into a flowered skirt; feet planted shoulder-width in their white sneakers, sturdy freckled calves. Hair pinned back out of her eyes. Purse snug under her arm. Nothing worrisome; nothing out of place. His wife was a relief to his brain. Everything about her made sense.
“When was the last time we bought tangerines?” he asked. He had a ball of socks in each hand, and it felt good to have something to hold, to have a purpose for each hand.
His wife took a step into the room, then stopped. “Well, I was just at the store, should I have . . .” She looked at the socks in his hands, at the duffel on the bed.
“I was just wondering how long it’s been.” He transferred one sock ball to the other hand, so he could have a free hand for gesturing. Natural gesturing.
“I guess I don’t really remember,” she said, putting her purse onto the chair by the door, where it relaxed and slumped in on itself, like a teenager. Not remembering was often good enough for his wife, and though he admired this about her it also made him feel panicked on occasion. “I believe we had some in a salad about a month or so ago. Remember the night we had salmon steaks?” She took another step toward him. His wife knew he felt more comfortable knowing; he could see her trying to bring up the memory, force it into existence.
He did remember, though he remembered raspberries in the salad that night. He slotted in the tangerine wedges instead and decided to leave it be. He had only brought it up to buy himself some time.
“You’re going after GJ,” she said, sitting on the arm of the chair. “I thought we talked about this.”
“We did, we did.”
“You know that he might not want to be found, Greg, right? And if you do find him he might . . . you might not want to see him that way.” She had picked up her purse again, was moving the straps in her hands like she was trying to figure out what they were made of. She was not GJ’s mother, though she had mothered him when GJ stayed with them, and Greg sometimes had ugly thoughts about how she could never understand. She had once had to stick her fingers down GJ’s throat, had caught his vomit in her shirt the way one catches falling apples. She had said soothing things, patted his back, led him into the shower, but then she had not slept in bed with Greg that night, or the night after that. They did this to each other: traded rage back and forth when GJ wasn’t able to take it.
“He knows I’ll come for him, Deb. I can’t ever, ever stop coming for him.” He felt ridiculous saying it out loud. Overly dramatic. But Deb was crying now, holding the backs of her wrists up to her cheeks, so maybe it had been the right thing to say.
“I just want to know when it will end,” she said, her voice pinched, almost whining. She was not a whiner. They had both retired early, within six months of each other, had made promises about cooking classes and tennis and trips. We could take naps, Deb said, and then in the same exact tone had said, We can have sex in the middle of the day, under the dining table. They had rejoiced in leaving the pressures of work behind. They were both accountants, she for a firm and he for a small group of wealthy idiots. One of his clients, a young man who owned three barbecue restaurants, had once asked him if laundering money literally meant washing it. But there was pressure in idleness, too. Mostly they kept the TV on and went from room to room, like they were playing a slow game of tag. Deb had invented reasons to leave the house: daily grocery shopping, book club, swim lessons. But for Greg life had started to reveal itself as a series of distractions. It felt real only when he was quiet and still, emptied. Life felt real only when he felt like a ghost. Ha! Another dramatic thing. Well, now GJ needed him, and that was a welcome distraction from himself.
When your son is an addict you can think things like He is missing and that is a welcome distraction and not feel like a monster. Can’t you? He had become inured, maybe. Was that even the right word?
“It will end,” Greg said. “This is the end.” It was certainly an end to something, even if it was only the end to the day.
Deb sniffed three quick times, getting herself together in her efficient way. GJ’s mother was the kind to let her face get messy, to fall into itself, to let the snot flow right into her open mouth as she cried. To use her face, her feelings, as weapons against him. He felt a surge of love for Deb; they were the same kind of person. He understood her and she understood him. He almost asked her to come along; in fact, it had been what he meant to say even as he began speaking. But instead he said: “I won’t be gone long.” Which was possibly a lie. And Deb would never come along, anyway. There was the matter of the errands she needed to run, the dusting, the swimming, the dishes, the endless circuit of keeping up. Greg could not keep up. He no longer wanted to. In this they were diverging, like someone had switched the tracks at the last minute, separating their train cars. They were waving at each other from windows, promising to meet up soon. So they were both lying.
“I don’t even know where you think he is.” Deb’s voice had righted itself, unclenched. She was ready to move on from the emotions to the details. “Will you take the Volvo?”
“No, no,” he said. They only had the one car. “You keep the Volvo. I’m going to rent an RV.”
Deb stood up, smoothed her skirt, which accordioned back into wrinkles immediately. “Well, I’ll drive you to town, at least,” she said. Like the house, she wasn’t begging him to stay. She was watching him go. He wished he could see himself from her eyes; wished he could be in her brain, which was probably already on to planning the next few weeks, all the things she’d do while he was gone. Plant things. Dig things up. Arrange and rearrange. Grocery shopping. Satisfaction. No staring just to the left of the raging television, no letting noise just wash over her. They had never had sex under the dining table, and he thought maybe he should attempt it now, before he left. But that felt like a planting all on its own. He’d be exhausted after; he had a sudden vision of all the shifting and wiping they’d have to do once it was finished. And during, there’d be all the thoughts they were having, apart from each other, about each other. Then he’d tell himself he’d leave the next day and then he never would.
“Deb,” he said. She was looking around, her eyes searching out something to add to his duffel, something necessary, logical, something he could be grateful to her for. Above everything, Deb valued being useful. What did he value above everything? Oblivion.
Deb looked at him, waiting. He cleared his throat. “I took the last of the cheese.”
“Oh,” she said. “I can get some more after I drop you off . . . Where should I drop you off?”
He didn’t know, but these were the things Deb was good for. She logged on to the Internet and found a company a half-hour’s drive away called Go West. By the time he was coming down-stairs with his duffel bag she’d rented him a vehicle.
“They call it a nineteen-footer. It’s a compact,” she said, a pad of paper balanced on her knees, her ankles together neatly. She tapped her notes lightly with her pen. “Since it’s just you I figured that was okay. Plus you’re not good at parking larger vehicles.” She was referring to the time, years ago, when they were moving GJ into a new apartment nearby and Greg had backed the U-Haul into a motorcycle. In fact, it had terrified him; even now he found himself snapping awake after a dream where he’d backed the U-Haul into Deb or GJ or a small child that was probably also GJ.
“Thank you,” he said. She was still sitting, looking up at him with her eyes wide the way she tended to when she was being a know-it-all, something he found endearing. She looked almost childlike. Deb, in her mid-fifties, with threads of silver shooting through her blond hair. He could see what she looked like as a child. Pretty and serious.
“You know,” she was saying. She handed Greg her paper and pen; she often handed things to him to put away, maybe because it spoke of their partnership, their two sides to the same shell. “I think this might be a good thing.” The windows behind her showed the tall trees they had in the yard, oaks and elms and a few firs, decades old, older than GJ, swaying like her backup dancers. “I think . . .” She was starting to cry again, Greg saw, tears surfacing and sliding down, one after another. He put his hand on her shoulder, but then she laughed, a half bark that brought her hand up to hold the other half in. “Greg, I think I might feel relieved.” She laughed harder now, her mouth open, looking into his face the way people do when they want to make sure their partners are getting the joke. Greg took his hand away, but it hung in the air like it was the one part of his body that wasn’t made out of flesh. Like it was a metal claw or a balloon. He couldn’t figure out what to do with his hand, or how he should help Deb, or if she even needed help. Her shoulders shook; she was making a silent cackling noise.
“Relief is good, right?” Greg said. He also felt relieved, was the thing. But he and Deb had an unspoken agreement not to call a spade a spade when it came to moments like these. People had complicated emotions: that was understood between them when they began getting serious twenty years ago, and there was no need to discuss it. He had gotten fat in retirement. He had gotten slow. Even more tired than he ever had been working. He carried his lethargic body as far as it could go; even lying down felt like he was being asked to wear a suit made of mud. He felt assaulted by the possibilities of the day, exposed by the sun. Deb had quickly learned to call him half an hour before coming home in the afternoon so he’d have time to rush around and tidy up, change out of his pajamas, brush his teeth, pretend he hadn’t been sitting in the same place for hours and hours. There was no need to discuss it; Deb understood and Greg understood that she understood and he was grateful not to have to explain himself, because he didn’t even know where to begin. Because how can you start at oblivion?
Deb voicing her relief was a change. Almost a betrayal. But he didn’t have time to get into it; suddenly he had to get out.
“It’s okay to feel relieved,” he said.
“I just mean . . . you’re doing something. I’m relieved to see you doing something. You packed a lunch!” She was holding her hand out, palm up, to where he’d dumped his Ziploc of fridge orphans.
“I did. I even buttered a piece of bread.” This made her laugh even harder, her elbows on her knees, both hands over her mouth. He laughed, too, both of them laughing at Greg, this Greg goof who was basically a lump with eyes.
Deb inhaled, a big shuddering gulp. She’d had her fill of laughing for now. She took his hand, the metal claw, enfolded it into the soft warmth of her palms. “But Greg, I just want you to know that GJ is beyond us now. This will probably not end well, do you understand?” Her voice was so tender, so gentle. She was trying to ready him for destruction. GJ had never gone missing for more than a couple of days, and even then it had been easy to find him in three phone calls, tops. She was telling him that GJ was dead, or as good as.
He did not agree. He did not understand. One summer evening many lifetimes ago, he’d been the one to tuck GJ into bed. The boy excited, a treat to have Greg all to himself. The boy reaching under his pillow, whispering, Dad, look what God has been leaving for me in the yard. A baggie of spider’s eggs, brown and fuzzy. Greg had yanked the bag from the boy’s hands, run through the house, stomped the baggie to a pulp on the driveway before he’d thought to explain to the boy what he’d actually collected. GJ crying so hard that he made no sound. Openmouthed grief. Greg had had a fight with GJ’s mother that night. His emotions were right there. His rage. He’d been so young then. Why hadn’t he just emptied the eggs into the yard? How could GJ be suddenly dead? None of it computed, none of it fell into place.
Deb was standing now. “When you’re ready,” she said. GJ had gone through a phase of mimicking her mannered ways. Napkin in lap. Elbows poised, just off the table. Saying Many thanks instead of Thank you. Then he had entered a phase of despising her every move, as if her way of living, her clean, ordered, thoughtful way of living, was in direct insult to his. There were moments when Greg felt the same way. When you’re ready. Like he was one of her clients during tax season. But then she reached out, ran a finger-tip across his cheek, cold and soft as a paintbrush. He hadn’t known he was crying, despite himself, until then. He felt foolish, judged by the air he was breathing. Simpering old man. Ottoman rigid with embarrassment for him. “I’m ready,” he said.
From Eat Only When You’re Hungry. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2017 by Lindsay Hunter.