The glass of juice in Claudia’s hand, she meant to use as a solvent for the frenetic specks marring her composure. It didn’t kick in immediately. The bottle’s base hitting the counter made a louder echo than she intended—she’d intended no echo—as she pushed it down with her grip, shifting her weight forward to top off her lungs. He probably heard that. Her chilled hand squeezed the bottle’s neck tighter. Even the smallest puff of warmth would be enough, and without the buzzing in her head she’d planned on when downing a brunch’s portion of juice, thawing herself was her own responsibility. Al mal tiempo. Inez’s words ignited behind her eyes, the force had her envisioning what it would be like to smash that bottle a second time on the counter and see those shards fly in an explosion of the royal-burgundy nectar that’d stopped and started millions of fights, to hold the jagged neck in her hand and feel the precious substance mix with her own blood and she wouldn’t give a shit. She was getting out. Buena cara. One plan failing wasn’t all plans failing.
What mattered here was time and it wasn’t like Claudia had no self-preservation left, so for now the bottle was safe in its little corner of the counter. Juice couldn’t fully incapacitate her. If she could think, she could come up with another plan. Maybe it even worked in her favor if she felt nothing so whatever she was planning didn’t creep out of her head and onto her face. Der gedanken sind frei and all that. Whatever, Aileen was her best bet. Aileen, by virtue of being somewhere else right now, could create some excuse for the man on the couch to be somewhere else as well, and by virtue of being a professional author and all the armchair-psych and storytelling chops that come with it, could invent some reason why Claudia had to hang back. Or Aileen could invent some spa- or coffee-related ruse to leave with Claudia—possibly this was easier to execute but not ideal because it’d force Claudia to forfeit her kids’ birth certificates, drawings captioned “MOMMY” or “MOMNY,” amateur clay soap dishes with the tiny fingerprints still fossilized in, the tortilladora that used to be her mother’s. Fuck, she didn’t know. There’s some crisis at the W.C.P.D. with Charlie’s case and they needed some form of government I.D. and would stop putting feelers out unless a disturbed relative bribed them with fresh tortillas? But her husband would want to be at the center of anything that involved her son’s disappearance; her husband who took the day off to spend time with her, mind you. Or Aileen could find something he wasn’t interested in and take her then, or something he couldn’t resist so he’d be distracted long enough for her to get her things and slip out the back door. Or she could make a break for it and then what?
And she realized she could only envision these possibilities and their superimposed endings because nothing had happened yet. She searched her brain, just now beginning to tingle with nectar, for a reason why her id—horrible, nasty, primordial thing—should be begging to bowl over all that Higher Logical Processing she was doing and not stop till she reached Aileen’s front door, husband’s reaction be damned, priceless trinkets be damned. What her body was reacting to was beyond her. He’d never threatened her life. He’d never hit her. He’d never raised his voice. Aileen was out there, those Higher Logical Processing centers said, and there was no earthly reason for her to feel the dreadful urgency that was holding her back. Now the juice had quieted the factions and she was able to sink back into that blissful space of ignoring both, pros and cons and suffering-minimization strategies be damned, she was in her own house behind her own bar. Speculate on the race when it’s too early to call and you’ll usually be wrong.
But the feeling pressed forward: maybe she was concerned about not being able to freely contact Aileen; that was the source of her anxiety. Anxiety. Not real fear. Anxiety over not being a damn psychic, worry that Aileen had only one shot. And—oh, for fucks sakes, she could have organized this prized-possession hunt last night. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Now her idiot self’s stuck in this manufactured fiasco and she was wasting time reflecting on how stupid of an idiot she was instead of checking her phone. She pulled it from her pocket. She could multitask.
Two unread texts from Aileen. If communication was going to be an issue, and if all planning had to be done on the fly, better to dump all her ideas on Aileen now and hope to play off of each other later. If ever she could pause time, this would be the moment. Inches from the plastic lime container holding its dozen-or-so limes neatly out of spectator view, she thumbed through the five texts before her forced reply.
Do not hesitate to request this. Hard to carry through. Remarkably easy to parse. Bernard’d had practice making his texts accessible to modern sims.
She heard the shuffle of fabric on fabric before she saw him.
By the time he’d gotten both feet on the ground and emerged from behind the bookshelf, Claudia was mixing a cocktail with her usual flair. He helped himself to one of the stools, letting an aaaaahh escape as he sat.
“So. What did you have planned for your day off? Maybe I can help with the chores so we have time to do something.”
Though it’d be considered too unhygienic for the restaurants she worked at, she left her phone on the counter so he wouldn’t see her frantically stuff it into her pocket a second time. She hadn’t been able to fire off even an Ok to Aileen. “Uh, well, let me see.” Mona skipped up to beam at both of them with wanting eyes.
He reached to scratch her behind the ears. “Aww. Hi, Mona.” This was the man she’d been so frightened of, the one reassuring this dog she was a Good Girl while she closed her eyes and aimed her canine grin at him, offering her chin to be stroked. An animal trusts him with her throat and Claudia couldn’t trust him with a smile. Whatever was fucking wrong with her that she saw him as a lion ready to strike needed to shut up so she could think.
“Oh! Right!” It had hit her. Another third party could get him to leave. “We haven’t walked the dogs yet.”
“I promise I’ll walk the dogs later. What else ya’got? Dishes? Trash?”
“I mean, if you don’t want to leave the house, I could do it.” She could walk right out the front door. She could pretend to get a ball from the back, from that crate that her family constantly felt compelled to interact with if they sensed a ball on the floor several yards away in a different room, and instead go through Hector’s room, where most of the child-J.-E. paraphernalia was still kept. She could already feel her mother’s tortilladora in her hands as she fabricated a lost box of dog treats to search for in the cupboards. And Mona! Oh, Mona! She’d resigned herself to smuggling personal effects whose absence wouldn’t start a fight, but now leaving without her pet seemed inhuman and cruel. Could she separate Mona and Perry? That was another reason to contact Aileen. Her, Shu, the painters: no Liu or ex-Liu would let an animal into their home without carpeting it, the home, in pee pads, so she’d—
“—Nah, I’ll do it. But what’s the rush? It’s still early. You still have to finish your drink. Let’s sit and talk.”
“I mean I could—“
“—Sit. That’s your problem, you’re always running around.”
Claudia didn’t understand why she obeyed. But if he remained fully placated, cross one thing off the dozen-item list she had to worry about, the husband’s mood placing above the spice mix Hector made her for Winterfest and below getting the hell out of there today.
“Good girl.” The intonation suggested his phrasing was a joke.
The juice was beginning to kick in and ‘real’ Claudia was taking over. Real Claudia, the daughter Inez could be proud of; the positivity black hole; Real Claudia who could take a ribbin’ and keep on grinnin’; the heavyweight champ who could be slapped with the mother of all burns and turn back to her opponent with a smile that resembled a Scantron; she who eternally put on a happy face and went in her happy place; the magical girl who was transformed by juice like Sailor Moon and emerged from her light-and-liquid montage a bulletproof, goddamn invulnerable force of nature. The goddamn heart of this goddamn family. The goddamn center of J.-E. mass not because she wanted to be but because she had to. See, it wasn’t a role anyone else could fill; remove her and what happens? Eh? Kendra or Hector or Jo or, please no, Jasper, drowning in the negativity she soaked up like an emotional sponge? It was her role, her fault, anyway; that push-and-pull notion was backed up by thousands of years of night-day, yin-yang, etc. concepts and why would they survive thousands of years unless they were right?
Real Claudia didn’t have much of anything to say.
Real Claudia sat in silence and sipped her drink until something happened to her.
He restarted the conversation the second time she brought the glass to her mouth. “So was that show Hector was watching funny?”
See, like, this is where a weaker J.-E. or general person would have blurted out a meek I guess. They’d be so buried in their own angst they’d forget to act like a person. But she could make this work. She was the only one. She could remember the entire point of the talk-show host and the bits of the cartoon she’d been able to catch while Hector was explaining the parts she hadn’t, deliver them in a way that made the unnaturally peppy bird look like it started as a rock and stuck that way after the ancient Mesopotamians carved it. No one in her family could stay lucid enough to pull that off. What woul—
What would Hector do if she wasn’t around.
“Sounds pretty funny.” But what; you know if he’s praising something, there has to be a catch. “But you know what’s even better?”
“Remember that prank I pulled for our 35th wedding anniversary? The Rube Goldberg thing? I was totally the roadrunner there. That would have been so epic if you hadn’t messed it up.”
“I’m still so sorry about that.”
“But it was still pretty good, right? Oh—and that one year for your birthday where I was sick of you complaining about how there’s never any good fruit here, as opposed to the magical Simpeche where the water is wetter, so I fruit-ed the entire house?”
“Oh, of course I remember the fruit. I finally noticed a tiny toy avocado when I was watering the plants the other day.”
“That kind of prank, you can tell it’s a good prank if you’re still finding drawings of fruit, photos of fruit around the house years later. You pop open the dictionary and there’s a picture of a banana under the word ‘appealing.’ You open the cupboard where we keep all the random appliances you have but don’t use and a sticky-note snake with a little dancing apple drawn at the end pops out at you.”
You open the piano and there’s a rotting kiwi. As she was cleaning that up, Claudia reflected back on all the trouble he’d gone though to make her 40th memorable. “That was a good one.”
“And then when we went to that meeting with the principal and it turned out Kenny had been leaving like toy octopuses and octopus drawings in this little boy’s things, like because she’d found out he was really grossed out by tentacles? I bet she got that idea from me. He was bawling his eyes out right there in the office, and Kenny just looks over at him and makes this wiggling gesture with her fingers, like a swimming octopus? And he runs out of the room screaming? The face she made? Oh, she nailed the timing. Would have done the same thing. That was great.”
“Ha! That’s our Kendra!” It wasn’t funny at the time; it was funny now, but only because the little boy himself hung the drawings on his dorm wall so he had a cool story to tell girls. Claudia wondered if he, like Kendra’s dad, failed to mention that the drawings were an act of retaliation. Kendra also contributed art to the fruit thing. She was very young, so every so often a guest would ask why there was a drawing of a crappy circle behind the spare toilet paper roll. “And what about the time you gave Hector that recipe generated by an A.I.?”
“That one was near-inedible. It’s too cheesy.”
“Cheesier than your jokes! At least it kind of made sense.” In his dramatic voice, calibrated so that it shook the walls, he recited phrases that sounded like nonsense but were actually what a Python program thinks humans eat. He’d memorized whole inedible recipes after a memorable night two years before their wedding, almost to the day, on which Claudia fell so hard for the high-tech gibberish he might have lost her forever due to a self-induced aneurism, though the opposite happened: that night cemented that he’d always have her by his side and also her brain was A-Ok. He spat the instructions so that they rang over her uncontrollable cackling.
“Stop it.” She was wheezing. “You’re making my face hurt.” Oh, but the good parts were so good. No one made her laugh like he did.
When she was able to open her eyes, she met his loving expression. The same one that melted her when she walked down the aisle. The littlest things never changed. They were lucky like that. She could pour another drink, but it wouldn’t wash away 35 years of history.
Noon, and all she had of Claudia were questions left unanswered. No palm on the window either. Now it’s possible Aileen could have missed him strutting through the front door—I mean it’s not like she could see a creature stir from this distance and the Newcrest city planners weren’t doing her any favors with those meridian plants—and it’s true Claudia could’ve had particular trouble tracking down something she’d wanted to bring along, but the worst option started to emerge as the most likely. Aileen could’ve run out of fingers counting the alternate scenarios. But she wasn’t. Claudia’s chances were best if Aileen could skip up to the front door like she needed a cup of sugar, as opposed to her entire friend, and Aileen’s mastery over meditation had proved useful in this respect.
One more message and then she’d head over.
Aileen Jensen (Summer 11 12:02:14 AM): Claudia?
15 thoughts on “Sunshine and Laughter (Part VII)”
I guess she can’t really talk to him about what’s going on, because he’ll lie and she can’t trust him and she’ll be even more stuck? It’s a lousy situation. I’m glad you interspersed relief from your happy domestic partnership.
True, proper communication does solve some relationship issues. There are hints hidden throughout this chapter (meaning the whole chapter, starting from Part I) as to why she’s not doing that. Him being a manipulative bastard is part of it.
Actually, this particular chapter hints at something that would be rewarding for a reader to catch. I won’t tell because I want someone to get that OOOOH DANG moment. Aileen will spell it out in Part IX anyway.
I debated typing this because this is all a rant but lol I typed it so I’ll share it.
I don’t like this guy’s humor AT ALL. Out of the 20 (?) types of humor, his kind (mordant and sophomoric) are the ones I don’t get because its so easy to cross over and hurt the other person unknowingly and then all he has to do is hide behind his/her joke when it blows up in their face and blame it on the other person for being a lousy sport. And imo the things he say crossed over to not-a-prank-anymore but full on insults and subtle put downs. “Cheesier than your jokes?” that was uncalled for. I rather take self-deprecating humor even though that’s as damaging.
And I would so kill my s.o. if I find a rotting kiwi in my piano. He will bet his lovely bottom he’ll clean up all that crap and on his own. And pay for maintenance. I’m so concerned Mike’s children are groomed to take on his humor. I mean, sure some people like humor like that, but a child will not know the boundaries of this kind of humor and Mike imo is not a great role model to teach them where to draw the line. But that’s just me and my preference.
This all makes me wonder if she’d conditioned herself not to react to the put downs or she simply never knew he was corroding her character. I mean, from what little I read since I only picked it up from Part I and it looks like this story has been going on way before that (I clicked the links), his true nature was mostly hidden in Part II when they met at the gym and then the date, and after that just seem like she’d lost herself. Even the baby part where she was clearly stressed out and he offered to help and I remember thinking to myself how could he have thought that little bit of help he gave her was a huge help (no its not) and warranted some of the things he said, but she let it go. Wait I’m going to check. Ok I’m sure now. She definitely shouldn’t have let it go! Is it her personality that makes her let go of being made second grade citizen/spouse/w.e? Or does Mike do something to her when things don’t go his way? She wants to ‘placate’ him a little too much so I thought maybe there’s more.
HELL YES. This rant is totally 100% justified. Sunshine and Laughter is supposed to wrap up Book II and set the stage for Book III, so it has A LOT of stuff going on. Those are two of the big themes I want people to pick up on: that humor can be used as a weapon and that wearing people down by emotional abuse is such a slow, insidious process that it can destroy someone before they realize what’s happening.
You’re right that Claudia has both conditioned herself to put up with his put-downs (couldn’t resist) and still doesn’t understand what he’s doing to her. She fried her brain with booze and she doesn’t know why. She’s terrified of him and she doesn’t know why. She’s agonizing over what will happen to her children if she leaves and she doesn’t know why. And because she can’t come up with a rational explanation for her fear, as the first few paragraphs here clarify, she pushes it down.
Idk how much of my conversations with ferosh you’ve been reading in the comments, but this chapter is meant to help people recognize and defend against this sort of mistreatment. Most people don’t even recognize derogatory humor as abuse. If this ever breaks mainstream (not holding my breath), I’d almost certainly expect people in the comments defending Mike. But that’s the reason I made Mike empathetic and charming to begin with (and wrecked it in the first few chapters with bad storytelling, lmao): the message isn’t that bad people like Mike do these things, the message is that WE ALL cause harm without intending it sometimes, even if it doesn’t seem “that bad” to us. They wouldn’t be excusing Mike’s behavior for his sake. They’d be sympathizing with Mike and defending themselves. But more on that in Part X.
And, ohoho, I am SO GLAD you mentioned the effect this would have on their kids. Children in abusive households turn out all different ways, don’t they? That definitely pops up later. Heck, you may be able to pick up on themes that don’t surface until Book IV if you read the story through that lens. Some context you might find helpful is that the toddler we met in the previous part grows up to be a fan favorite, a high achiever who is also insecure, indecisive, and deeply unfulfilled by his accomplishments.
“An animal trusts him with her throat and Claudia couldn’t trust him with a smile.” Jay-sus. Reading about Claudia making herself small for Mike was…brutal. The juice isn’t there to help her think or give her courage, its there to keep her compliant and make it bearable.
I really like how you revealed something that doesn’t often come up in abusive relationships: you want to leave, you gotta get out of there, but there is a part of you, insidious and small and sick that feels a little bit proud, gets a wee bit high off the fact that you are the right person to be able to manage your abuser’s bullshit.
And sure, it’s hard to leave because of the stuff and the logistics and what will people think, but most of all, it’s hard to leave your identity–the person you’ve become with the abuse. It’s hard to leave that high that you get when you’ve made your abuser happy because it tricks you into thinking you can figure it out, you can get it right. And when you’re starved for affection and praise, you’ll take anything. Anything.
Now, onto the funny stuff. I died at Taco Soup Soup. Also, kudos on your plan for the post-life communication. Obviously that is romance to me. Husband and I have our plan if being turned into vampires doesn’t work out: we get our hearts buried together…but our bodies will go in separate grave, just in case there is a zombie apocalypse. We can zombie without our hearts, but not without our bodies damn it.
Oh sorry, I’m also so glad someone else is picking up on how Mike’s abuse doesn’t have to be physical to make an impact.
Yeah, I didn’t even think of Claudia being proud of herself for being able to manage all the put-downs and other assorted bullshit, but that’s true! There’s this compulsion to try and get someone who’s supposed to love you to see how much they’re hurting you. And if they never do, and keep gaslighting—yeah. It’s also not clear how divorce will impact the kids: her biggest fear is that Hector, being Mike’s next-closest of kin, will become his main target if she leaves.
Uh, did you get that heart idea from Mary Shelley? She’d approve. I also approve. The biggest problem there is figuring out whether you actually want the hearts buried or whether they should be on someone’s desk, and whose.
haha I used to work at a Victorian cemetery doing events, tours, burials and it was a pretty popular thing! dang, it would be fancier on someone’s desk…selfishly want it to be mine…
Oh HELL yes. Those wacky Vics, totally obsessed with death and partly obsessed with impropriety but also Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman are hooking up.
Ok yes, the “good girl” part was pretty creepy, made me want to puke in my mouth a little.
He clearly knows she was intending to leave so he’s laying it all on here. They’ve probably done this dance before.
So yes, I get it more in this part, definitely reads toxic. I guess my confusion is that it seems to have come out of nowhere for me, clearly I must be very bad at picking up on things. Don’t get me wrong, I read Claudia as depressed and deeply unhappy since book one, but I always perceived that as being more her own making and her relationship being lackluster, not manipulative, at least that’s how it read to me in the earlier chapters, that they didn’t have that much in common but decided to stay together out of habit and being set in a routine, letting the days slip by. So the onset of sinister Mike in Sunhine and Laughter for me came out of nowhere. But that could definitely just me misisng red flags left, right and centre!
Ohohoho, if it came out of nowhere, you’re in a position to gain a lot from this chapter. It’s probably also that I was crappy at fiction for most of the series and this is where it really begins to cement. The earlier book was more about how Self-Assured isn’t a positive trait—possibly also how dangerous Comedy is, given the mechanics—and now I’m drawing on experience & research for insight on how the most toxic Self-Assured people (cough) operate.
He’s absolutely picked up that she’s acting off, as well. Absolutely deliberate.
(Fig) First of all, I want to say my WordPress became severely fucked and logs me off everytime I visit any page and also won’t load my notifications anymore, so the only thing I can still see is activity on my own blog, meaning I can’t see any replies you add to comments I made on your blog, so if I don’t respond to those it’s not that I’m ignoring, it’s just that WordPress apparently really wants me off my blog LOL. Then I also want to say that you write the alcoholism so accurately, so accurately in fact that as someone who has dealt with alcoholism with someone very close to me and had to go to clinics with them, it’s a tad too triggering so I’m sorry for kind of skimming over those parts in my comments, all I can say is… they read very, very accurately! LOL.
Mike responding to his “sit,” after which Claudia sat, with a “good girl”…. I was ready to punch the man. Even if he meant it as a joke, which apparently he did, god… men.
Claudia thinking about how “the good part were so good” and no one made her laugh like he did.. man, that’s always the case, huh? If only it were as black and white as break-ups are portrayed often in teen shows and such.. in real life, so often when you break up with someone, there’s still so much love between you. If only there wasn’t. You definitely portrayed this so well—the fact that these kinds of lifechanging decisions are just so hard, because there are so many angles and there will (almost) always be a lot of love, and with that doubt, left. It makes it so much easier to convince yourself that this old way of life isn’t so bad at all, because man.. it’s so hard to say goodbye.
Oh, yikes, WordPress. So if you ever get to see this comment (how did it even get so messed up?!), hi.
Wow. Oh dang. I’m not sure if I should put trigger warnings for specific things along with the general warning on the splash page that CT is absolutely pitch black most of the time. I’ll ask you later, probably over email.
About the break-ups: right?! You don’t need to be told that a lack of nuance grinds my gears. That destructive belief that everything has to be black and white is what keeps people stuck in abusive relationships. “He can’t be abusive, he’s so good with the kids! He’s funny! He loves you so much!” No, for fucks sake. No. All four things can be simultaneously true. And when we do get portrayals of abuse, they’re the obvious ones that the author expects the audience to recognize as bad, so the more insidious forms of emotional abuse go unchecked. I’m glad the conflict is resonating with people. Most mainstream narratives make me feel alone because they’re so oversimplified. No one’s an evil villain who walks up to you and says “Hello, I am going to abuse you now.” It’s so, so much harder than “just leave.” Totally agree.
Wow, wow. It’s incredible how this chapter begins with an anxiety spiral (from one person who loves to write massive walls of introspective stream-of-consciousness to another, big kudos on the intro) but begins to loosen up once the juice kicks in. You can just feel the tension uncoiling — but that’s not a good thing. The tension and anxiety were Claudia’s driving force. When it’s juice + husband, she’s cornered. She never looks at her phone once he sits with her.
I couldn’t help but notice that buzzed Claudia is referred to as the “real Claudia.” Ouch. You’re making the bar flashback hit even harder. So let me say it again: She didn’t drink before she met Mike. But getting back on track, it’s obvious from the contrast in execution pre- and post-juice’s kicking in how passive Claudia gets; the narration gets sparser and less frantic. (I mean, it’s mostly because the dialogue takes over, but still. That’s the effect I’m getting.) Her sitting there chatting with Mike feels natural.
But the fruit prank is still a dick move, I mean, c’mon, setting aside the fact that if someone put a kiwi in my piano I’d rip their face off, the “joke” was Mike’s retaliation to Claudia’s “complaining” (scare quotes, ’cause I’m taking his comment with a grain of salt) about the fruit being better in Simpeche. And I’m using the word “retaliation” because it’s the same word you used for Kendra’s terrifying taunting via tentacle art; the kid was probably bullying her. But the parallel you’ve drawn should make us uncomfortable: why do I side with Claudia in the first case, Kendra in the second? This is something we need to evaluate in ourselves re: our actions and reactions.
(Aside: nothing beats the sheer chaotic energy of AI humor. Thank you for the links.)
Another thing I’ve noticed is how punchy the language you’ve used for Mike is: a voice “calibrated so that it shook the walls,” “spat the instructions”; Claudia’s “self-induced aneurysm” because she’s laughing so hard. But Mike’s just joking around, right?
Just wanted to shout out how harrowing every step of this is. The details and nuance are excruciating. The tension is gripping. The sheer complexity surrounding the question of why doesn’t she just leave is so painfully explored. There’s so much nuance to uncover here but I almost don’t want to right now because I just have to keep reading. For now, I’ll just enjoy (is enjoy really the right word for this?) the experience and maybe come back later to analyze how this story is managing to do the things it’s doing to me.
Seems reasonable! There’s certainly a lot to unpack from this megachapter. Although I am interested to hear your take, of course, feel free to keep it on the back burner, percolating, for as long as your brain needs!
I hope it wasn’t too harrowing, because it doesn’t end here. There’s still one more chapter in Book 2—but I am very interested to hear your take on it without having read RWE, the next chapter, because you’ll almost certainly end up siding with one character over the others. Or just leaving it nebulous. CT, yo.