Everyone knew Claudia habitually overreacted to each new room she stepped into, and so it was the first thing they looked forward to when they invited her over. 8 Landgraab, which sent the average threshold-crosser into such severe awe they forgot which celestial temple they were entering, left Claudia scrambling to find enough superlatives for the superlative view even on the fiftieth-odd visit; here the door hadn’t closed before she started delivering an endearing improvised string of gasps and adjectives. She was looking at Toast Cat but speaking to Xiyuan.
Indeed, the furniture looked almost edible, washed with sunset in a candy-coating gradient in a scene pulled straight out of Veruca Salt’s dreams. A thick impasto blocked the southern windows and nearly also the balcony entrance, reminding visitors that first of all, this was a workspace, and second of all, the living room being a workspace means they can’t entertain guests at a moment’s notice—they don’t even have a TV—so there’s not really much to do if you drop by, Victor and Lily. The impasto couldn’t be moved before drying.
Xiyuan interrupted Claudia’s monologue, encouraging her to come here, you sweetheart, and bringing her in for a hug.
It was customary on any visit here, as it was on any visit to Aileen’s, for Claudia to bemoan how long it’d been since they last saw each other, that the number of times they saw each other was never enough. She didn’t do this when everyone lived in the same house. She delivered and solicited the customary whitewashed single-word summary of one’s current mental and physical condition, shifting with minimal prompting into a whitewashed summary of her past mental and physical condition during the Selvadorada trip, all while concealing a sigh of relief as she, parched, found her way to the bar and an open bottle of Von Haunt Estate Meloire.
As the first drops of nectar touched her tongue she apologized for unevenly sharing too many of her summaries and not listening to enough of his, chasing the Meloire with a seven-letter query on his son. She would have questioned his blunt noncommittal reply and decision to continue calling his son by his full name, but he expertly deflected the conversation by dropping her youngest’s name mid-sentence. Hector got an A in school. Hector is learning gourmet cooking. Aileen’s ‘expert cheater’ joke popped into her head but she didn’t bring it up.
Xiyuan broke Hectormania three minutes in. “And how’s Mike?”
“Thank you for reminding me! Actually, that’s what I came here to ask you about. You know a lot about Mike, right?”
“I’d expect you to be the expert by now.”
“No, like—you knew him before. You know what he does when I’m not around. Do you,” she rotated both hands as if trying to grab the best phrasing, “do you think he’s a good person?”
“Ah, uh.” For Xiyuan to be tripping over his words was a bad sign. He’d spent two years of boarding school speaking pidgin Simlish and failing to make friends, the eight following years hiding in his room with his books and violin, and the final three vindictively telling his xenophobic classmates that the phrase they just used, ‘the reason is because,’ is pleonastic, actually, and other call-outs a self-identified ‘persona non grata’ would consider worthy of a mic drop. This is in addition to simultaneously being a concertmaster and little kid. “Let me talk through this.”
“Go back to when you first met.”
“Honestly? Before he met you? It’s debatable. To clarify”—he searched his memory—“I haven’t seen him connect on an emotional level with many people, but to my knowledge he hasn’t been violent or done anything unforgivable.”
“That’s very vague. Do you remember anything specific? Like, for example, with women?”
“Only secondhand accounts and half-remembered snippets. I stayed out of that for reasons that are obvious now but weren’t at the time.”
Sensing Claudia’s bemusement, he cut off the thread of conversation to spin it. “And of course, nowadays, I wouldn’t be worried about it; Mike does have a soft side and I’ve never seen anyone bring it out quite like you. More importantly, why do you ask?”
“That’s right; I also wanted to ask some questions about the divorce.”
“Oh heck, Claudia. What’d he do this time?”
“That’s what I want to know! But when you divorced Aileen, how did you know? How did you know it was time?”
“Oh, that? That was clear-cut. The parameters changed; it wasn’t what either of us had signed up for.” He stared at his hands, as if talking to himself. You can’t make eye contact when you’re talking to yourself unless a reflective surface is also involved. You also can’t simultaneously avoid an accusatory glare and give yourself one under any circumstances, though such conversations are totally possible. “That didn’t make it any easier.”
“No, I’m not asking what made you leave. I’m asking what made you stay.”
“You may have already guessed, Claudia, haven’t you?” She had, and half-shrugged to indicate so. “I was originally planning to leave after Xishu’s next birthday. And who knows—maybe if I’d stayed, he wouldn’t be making these bizarre decisions. He’d certainly be a different person.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, get over it. He’s a good kid and he loves you.”
“Well, true, I know that. But I can’t help but feel my absence was partly responsible, and you can never really know for sure.” There are plenty of children of divorce who aren’t career hedonists; what he actually felt guilty about was passing on a predisposition to concupiscence without teaching his son to sin discreetly like a gentleman. It’s a mystery how culpable he was, him or Aileen, for his son’s refusal to get a real, rabbit-hole job—but he was clearly the reason that, thirty-four stories below and two neighborhoods away, his progeny was being escorted out of the 5:10 showing of Crazy Rich Asians in a fit of uncontrollable laughter by two ushers and as many girlfriends after Gen interrupted the first scene to ask whether it was true his dad owned the Casbah Gallery, and would shortly be asked to please leave this Panera Bread after Gen suggested his dad may want to invest in local cinemas.
His train of thought was interrupted by a thick clack. Before Claudia even realized this clack was the front door opening, Xiyuan had wrapped his arms around his husband.
Claudia growled to herself. She’d picked a time when Bernard was at work on purpose. Between his accent and grotesque Victorian word choices, she could understand at most half of what he said. Plus, whether the couple intended it or not, they would always eventually give each other a look so natural, so hopelessly poetic, you couldn’t help but picture the stretch and shrink of your own pink bar as the motion of a shadow on a cave wall. Essentially anyone whose last name wasn’t Feng had at most an hour to talk with the pair before their retching timer ran out. She tried to delay hers by projecting her frustration at the carpet while Bernard cooed and ran his fingers through his husband’s hair.
“Claudia’s here!” She looked up from the carpet, attempted a half-smile and -wave, and looked back down. Bernard took the other end of the couch. “And to what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Mike-related incident,” Xiyuan whispered, sitting down inches from Bernard.
“Well, I can hardly claim to be surprised. What’s he up to this time?”
“That’s what I want to know!” She yelled this at the ceiling in frustration. “All I know is, he was hitting on other women in Selvadorada—“
“—Oh, honey,” Xiyuan muttered.
“—and who knows what he’s doing when I’m not around? I’m not going nuts, right? This is exactly what happened to Aileen right before all this mess.”
The two men shared an uneasy look. “Okay,” Xiyuan commented, “I feel called out, but that wasn’t unwarranted.”
Bernard spoke. “So you’re coming to us as the experts in matters of infidelity?”
“I mean, or at least to see if you’ve heard anything. If anything were going on, wouldn’t his best friend hear about it?”
“Look, I’m as in the dark as you are. He hasn’t said anything during the last few weeks about another woman—or women—if I’m remembering correctly? Dear, back me up.”
“To divulge something in this house would be nothing short of preposterous!” See? This is the kind of shit that got on Claudia’s nerves. “You know this one: the last time he tried to keep a secret, it ended in divorce. As did the penultimate time, I might add.”
“You two are really letting me have it today.”
“So you haven’t heard anything.” Claudia was trying her best to hide her frustration. “But still, no one knows me or Mike better. No one wants both of us to be happy more than you do. And look, I don’t want to hurt myself, I don’t want to hurt him, I don’t want to hurt Hector, I don’t want to hurt the people around me. I want to do what’s right.”
Of the phrases that can kill a conversation, ‘what’s right’ is one of the most humane and concise. Caught off-guard, ‘right’ is something none but the most solipsistic Sims would claim to be, so the utterer buys themselves a plus-size moment of dramatic pause while the utterees scramble to create an event space and priors for what ‘right’ would be in the situation. This was the moment for instant gravitas; this was the time for Claudia to break out the special phrase. This was her chance to end the silence.
“Tell me, what can I do that is best for both of us? What would you do in my shoes?”
“I think I understand now.” Xiyuan shifted in his seat to face Claudia. “So what you’re hoping for is a resolution that goes smoothly for both of you? Claudia, someone’s already been hurt; you’ve been hurt.”
“But leaving would be awful for both of us, and awful for Hector.” Kendra’s off doing her own thing and Charlie was unavailable to comment. Neither dog cares. “Okay, so what I get is, it was clear to both of you that your previous marriages had run their course. For me, it’s not so clear. You see? It’s not a bad thing, to have a spark of hope. It’s not unreasonable to have doubts about throwing away thirty-five years of my life. Why can’t anyone see that when they tell me to just leave? What harm is there in searching for a better solution?”
“You have a point.” Xiyuan was weak to any sort of thought experiment. “You’re both my best friends. I don’t want to take sides—“
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Bernard interrupted. “Claudia, my darling, it wasn’t you who chose to throw away those thirty-five years: it was him. If you felt those thirty-five years were a waste, what would be the purpose of staying? To make it an even thirty-six? An even hundred? Of course nobody wants this to happen! What harm is there in searching for a better solution—why, great harm to you, of course! And a better way for whom? Suppose there were such a possibility. Now consider me and Mimsy. Now tell me this: after I killed her, whose responsibility was it to atone?”
“Yours,” Claudia nodded.
“And when he found me and I lost myself—when soul met soul on lovers’ lips—would the act of disuniting us be any simpler than plucking a raindrop from a river?”
“Nor could she control its flux. And, dear, my poor dear husband who forces me to counter his dreadful advice, this is the trolley problem. What do you think works better: self-sacrifice, or sacrificing the git whose poor organization put two separate groups on the tracks to begin with?”
“Assuming some single entity is responsible, sure.” This was mumbled.
“Point withstanding, Claudia, he is pushing forwards, and to stop him, you are pushing backwards. Cease supporting his wretched weight and leave him fall by his own hand.”
Claudia looked expectantly at Xiyuan, who leaned in. “He’s telling you to back off and let Mike deal with the fallout.” She performed a wide-eyed half body-roll of recognition.
“Look, I get what you’re saying, and it makes sense, but,” and this is where Claudia set in, Claudia around whom all others orbit, “I don’t know if I can do this to the people I love. I need to know if there’s a way to prevent hurting anyone else.”
“Well,”Xiyuan started, “you know who the most important member of your family is, Claudia? Who spends every bit of their energy making sure everyone is protected, nourished, cared for? Who gives until they have nothing left? It’s you, Claudia, whether you like it or not. You want to save your family? You are the core of your family. You are essential. Please, it’s not selfish; not if you take care of yourself for the sake of others.”
“You really mean that?”
“Claudia, we love you. Whatever you need: if you need us there or a place to stay—“
“—No. He can have the guest room. The person who did nothing wrong shouldn’t be kept from their own house.” There was no formal requirement that every serious adulterer should live at 8 Landgraab at some point; it was only common because Bernard rarely passed up a chance to lay down the law. “And given our history, we’re in an ideal position to handle this fellow ourselves.”
“Right, right!” Claudia caught herself smiling. Being cared for was new, and it felt wonderful. Her smile fell as she remembered her friends could only go so far. There were actions she alone had to take. “But I’m still scared to do it. I just don’t know what’s going to happen, you know?”
“No one does. But you can do what you’re best at, Claudia: you can trust in hope. ‘Till hope creates, from its own wreck, the thing it contemplates.'”
“Beyond this point, I’m afraid I have no insight to offer.” Bernard wrapped his hands around his husband’s waist. “It was a long wait but an easy call.”
“Very easy call.”
“You know what? You guys have been a great help. Thanks.” Her timer hit zero; every bone in her body begged to leave this wretched adorable hell.
“Wa-wa-wa-wa-wait.” Xiyuan had broken free. “You’re not going back to your house, are you?” She shrugged while continuing to stride towards the front door. “I guess it’s your decision. Keep us in the loop, alright?”
Claudia passed two different Fengs on her way out.
The J.-E. foyer was partly-intentionally yellow. They kept the lights warm, and their yellow was deepened by the lit fireplace in mid-summer—Mike didn’t turn it off and Hector certainly wouldn’t think to. Both fireplace and air conditioner roared in violent equilibrium. The stereo by the front wall was perpetually broken; Mike was Handy, capital Handy here referring to the reward trait that lets you insta-repair things, but smashing his screwdriver into that remote for eight hours did nothing to progress its repair. Claudia, sighing, put out the flame in a gesture that took less than a second.
All she had to do was pause and process. It was all so clear when they were talking; it was clear they were right. But not in the foyer, not in her safe space. Just one more boost, if she could, she convinced herself—
She yelped in genuine shock at her son’s appearance and clarified that sorry, he hadn’t done anything wrong, she just hadn’t seen him there. Well, there he was. And there she hadn’t been, all day, what she was up to? He reasoned it was something fun: if he made a hypothetical wager with a friend that his mama’s day was fantastic, he’d be getting back his money and then some. That sure. He was stabbing multiple pieces of lettuce with a fork to create these unsteady towers held in place by tines and Caesar-salad-dressing surface tension. It was 11 P.M., under an hour before bedtime. Hector had no gastroesophageal disorders. Claudia shrugged and told the truth: she’d been out visiting friends all day. Across from Claudia, in a seat where Hector wasn’t, a voice for radio asked why wasn’t he involved. The tone was joking-but-not-really.
Claudia felt her ribcage and shoulders medially contract at the sound of this voice. Now the voice was parroting Hector’s statements; she pretended to listen to the spew of flattery from someone whose word was as good as coal while actually questioning what his high opinion of her really amounted to.
The voice told Claudia that their relationship may have some setbacks, setbacks in the abstract, and that they were strong enough to get past this: a reassurance repeated nightly. Hector had no idea what these hypothetical “setbacks” could be, just that his mother required a lot of patient explanations of why they were unimportant. And wasn’t it impossible to prove Mike couldn’t change—wasn’t assuming so that deepest of crimes to a man like Mike? Wasn’t it unfair?
That wasn’t what Aileen and Xiyuan—and astoundingly Bernard—had said. She closed her eyes to broadcast snippets through her mind. You don’t have to pretend to be happy all the time. You can’t control him. Dump the bastard. You are pushing backwards. The core of your family. We love you. She tried to imagine Aileen behind her, sniping each of Mike’s syrupy claims though the windows of both houses. Counter it. Counter my inner monologue.
Time was on Claudia’s side tonight: the only thing Claudia gained from the positivity vomit was relief when it ended. Relief when the speaker informed her he was going to bed and left. You made it through, Claudia told herself.
And Hector should go to bed, too, right after he runs out of raw material for salad stacks. He gestured with one as he talked. You’re going to bed too, Mom, right? Genuinely excited for you, Mom, sweet dreams.
God, now Xiyuan’s line about leaving Shu was hitting her at full force. There was no doubt Hector would prefer to live with her. Right? But in any case, it was late today; why the hell would she drop this on a school night with one party already asleep? Which she felt she should. Sleep on your decisions, Inez said, it won’t to do rush.
“Goodnight, Hector. I love you.”
Two words bubbled up from some long-dormant part of her psyche. Wrong door.
*converted from Sim time scales yada yada
BONUS: Happy new year, everyone! Here’s what you can expect going forward: Simister is millions of nested mind-states deep in a new chapter of Gnome Dome, Catastrophe Theory is only four chapters from the end of Part II, and after Part II is complete I’ll be taking a break to avoid burnout. Best-case scenario, expect a spotty posting schedule until September: if new posts are infrequent, that means I’m mentally healthy enough to focus on things that are more important than learning Blender or remembering technique for close-contact dances. (Legit gotta dial it back. Spending so much cognitive energy on a blog isn’t good for me *or* humanity’s progress in expanding our collective body of knowledge.) Still! Cute!