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 delicate mirror 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 and 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 smile 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 dusty 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 7 12:02:14 AM): Claudia?