“Ah, darling, it’s been too long,” she said, illuminating with her presence a room not unlike one dreamed up by a kindergartener in their geometric phase who wanted to capture the informed nostalgia of life as depicted in vintage photographs but whose understanding of both causality and color-negative film left something to be desired.
Aileen really popped from her foyer—designers will tell you things Really Pop if they’re in a central area or done up in a contrasting color, though beings who aren’t traditional interior design elements can achieve poppiness through other means, like moving, which is what Aileen was doing now. To pop. She could also make sounds such as “Yeah, I don’t know why we don’t see each other more often. We’re right across the street.”
“Oh, you know,” Claudia shrugged, “busy.”
Clearly ambiguous, Aileen thought, priming herself to extract whatever hid behind Claudia’s shadow of a smile like she would a cockroach from the ear: the harder she tried, the further inward it’d go. Or at least that was the take of the guy who everyone at Aileen’s elementary school loved because he floated through classrooms delivering cautionary tales of horrible fates met by children just like Aileen etc. for fairly innocuous reasons. What stuck with Aileen was a story about a little boy who stuck his oil-and-breading-covered finger in his ear after eating fried chicken, which, while he was sleeping, attracted a cockroach who’d been tricked into thinking there was fried meaty goodness at the end of that organic tunnel rather than the brain and eardrum of a newly traumatized child, and it took several hours and cotton swabs and adults and tears and ounces of rubbing alcohol to coax the bug out. “The cockroach really wanted that fried chicken,” the guy would say, dragging out the word fried and condensing chicken to where it was almost monosyllabic. That line always got delivered at the story’s climax, where both parents were on the case but the roach had dug past cotton-swab-able range. Eventually the roach floated up and out of the ear canal in a sea of rubbing alcohol, but what the alcohol couldn’t do was it couldn’t scrub the memory from the roach-eared boy’s brain, like how Aileen had to live into her forties with the mental image of a scrambling otic roach who really wanted that fried chicken.
“Let’s move to the living room and you can tell me about your trip.” When Aileen walked, the way the legs of her jumpsuit sheared past each other was satisfyingly hypnotic. Matt’s at work, if you’re curious.
“Oh, Aileen, how beautiful! I love what you’ve done with the place.” Claudia was the only burst of summer in a room so quintessentially Aileen it made her feel like a bacterium in a sterile dish. To comment on the living room was mandatory given its shared Jeong-Espinosa-Liu-Jensen history: initially purchased by Mike and Xiyuan, eventually plus Claudia, plus Aileen, plus childproofing, eventually minus half the population to make it a single-family house again; multiple rounds of de-Xiyuan-ification later it had been fully reclaimed by its sole owner. This was a missed opportunity for a white couch, Claudia noted with jealousy. Her couch only escaped becoming a collaborative mixed-media art piece (Juice, Spaghetti, Dog Spittle) because any entropy-increasing addition was covertly soaked in vinegar by the person who would have otherwise ruined Aileen’s.
“Can I get you anything?” Aileen had picked up on Claudia’s discomfort but didn’t try to guess at the source. She wasn’t supposed to project a source, she remembered.
“No.” Yes. Notable in its absence was the bar; no matter how many times Claudia’s eyes found the room’s southeast corner where the bar used to be, it refused to materialize.
“So, Selvadorada. Is it as pretty as it is in the pictures?”
“Oh, much more beautiful.” Selvadorada had some personality that couldn’t possibly be communicated by a visual medium, plus the visual medium itself was limited at best: the blues weren’t as heavy and greens weren’t transcendent enough. Selvadorada’s market had conflicting smells that Aileen could replicate at home if she wanted—here outside there’s a bunch of dirt so you can smell dirt, but it’s different dirt, and of course Claudia can eidetically rattle off the ingredients and preparation of every local dish. Claudia’s eyes continued to dart from barless corner to barless corner accompanied by an endless stream of superlatives. Selvadorada reminded Claudia of home in a good way. Her panicky tic didn’t go unnoticed by Aileen. Selvadorada was full of things Aileen would find interesting and inoffensive, and not much else—the fewer close friends one has, the greater the risk of coming off as a sad sack and not being invited to their house anymore.
“I’m going to stop you right there.” Claudia stopped. “It seems like there’s something else going on? Something you’re not telling me?”
“Nothing you need to worry about, darling.”
But Aileen really wanted that chicken. “Look, Claudia—this is my house, and in my house, you don’t have to pretend to be happy all the time. I’m not going to berate you for complaining. You’re allowed to have a crappy time on vacation and not be shamed for it, you know.”
“No, trust me, you don’t want to hear about it. It’s just going to make you unhappy.”
“Well, the only way to make me happy is to tell me what’s going on.”
This caught Claudia off-guard, which let Aileen know she was actually listening. She could converse without speaking where others could speak without conversing. That is, both Aileen and Claudia had been in plenty of so-called exchanges where their conversational partner was happy to simply project on either woman what they believed she would say, freeing them from having to listen to what either woman actually said. Aileen took to writing books so no one could interrupt her. Claudia found her role as a conversational mannequin freeing, in a way, and her vocabulary ran the gamut from ‘oh, how nice’ to ‘ah, que linda.’ But now she was stuck with having to think about what she was saying. Instinctively she suppressed her next breath, a privilege she alone could deny herself. “Aileen, let me ask you something.”
“Have you ever seen Mike flirting with anyone?”
Aileen twisted her face in almost comical disgust, remembering years of borderline-inappropriate comments Mike had made on her appearance. She hadn’t said anything. She hadn’t said anything because there are two possibilities: the statements were innocuous or they weren’t. And as long as the first possibility existed, the glass-half-full types had hope to latch onto be it a teaspoon or ocean. That was the problem—not optimists, not pessimists, but people who declare the glass half-empty or half-full before checking the water level. Glass-eighth-empty or -eighth-full, those. “Oh, hell, Claudia, what did he do?”
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” When Claudia was frustrated, she put more stress on her syllables as well. “What I know is, in Selvadorada, he was flirting with other women right in front of me.”
Getting a direct admission out of Claudia modulated Aileen’s mood up a half-step and generated a radial burst of joy that flung her arms to the sky, which relief she disguised as anger by converting her open palms to fists halfway through their downward arc. “That bastard!” Her fists landed on her thighs. “In front of you? And Hector? On a family vacation?”
“I know, right?” Claudia’s voice was re-rising in audacity, the sheer audacity. “They were two random strangers! Right in front of my eyes. I just started thinking, what does he do when I’m not there? You know? You know what I’m saying?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more you don’t know about. That’s not unlike him.”
“Well”—here Claudia self-interrupted—“he’s not all that bad. He’s been such a good husband and father for a very long time.” Mike had told her this, and Mike’s experience was valid. So to speak, her ear was half-full of roach. Filled with half a roach. “But I tell you, Aileen, something changed. You went through this with Xiyuan, right?”
“Kind of, if you ignore temperament and gender.”
“So like, were there signs? Did he start behaving differently?”
“I mean, Claudia, you’ve heard the story, and your situation is totally different. What do you get out of understanding what happened with that man?”
Information our magpie-brains compel us to collect. The peace of mind that comes from knowing a situation is well studied. “I’m just trying to learn in order to come up with a plan.”
“Oh! That, I can help with.” If Claudia really wanted, she could take one of Aileen’s texts from the bookshelf on the right. Claiming Control: How to Regain the Reins and Reap your Gains was stuffed with empowering language to compel her out of her seat. Or there was He Said, You Said, encouraging her to trust her perception at least as much as she does Mike’s, ideally higher if she updates her prior to reflect one party’s unreliable narration. Absent from the shelf was How to Fix Your Relationship with Mike Jeong Specifically: Claudia This is for You Read This One, but if there were something akin to zodiac signs for jackass husbands she might have been able to use it. “I have the guest room upstairs—if you need it—and of course, I’m always here to listen.”
“Guest room?! Thirty-five years*, Aileen! We’ve been together for thirty-five years*!”
“You really think it’s unfixable after thirty-five years*?”
“I didn’t say ‘unfixable.’ I’m just saying, I have extra space if you need it.”
“If I need it. That would be my absolute last resort.” Her voice softened. “Ok, look, I’m not an idiot. I know I can just leave. What I’m asking, what I’m really asking, is what the steps in between are. What I can do to fix things.”
“Claudia, please. That’s not your responsibility. You’re not the one causing problems. You can’t fix them alone.”
“So you’re saying there’s nothing I can do?”
“No, just that you can’t control him. You can only control yourself.” Aileen’s input got less specific as she started to lean on previous works. “You’re thinking about what’s best for you and Mike as a couple. Is Mike doing that? If not, there are two people looking out for him and only one looking out for you. And if he’s flirting with other women he’s clearly not. You want to even things out, either he has to give up the benefits of this one-sided relationship or you have to stop making excuses for him.”
Even things out. The words rang in Claudia’s head. “Ok, I see what you’re saying—I have to accept that I can’t control everything—“
“And I can’t control him—“
“And I can’t trust that he has my best interests at heart—“
“And so then what’s the best thing for me to do?”
“That’s what I can’t tell you. You know who tells you what to believe?” Claudia shook her head. “Manipulators. Manipulators like Mike whose biggest threat is you acting in your own interest. People who respect you trust you to choose what’s best.”
“But aren’t you a self-help author?”
“Yes—and that’s why it’s called self-help, not giving advice from on high.” Two book-related data clicked in Aileen’s mind. “Oh! I forgot! I have this present for you.”
Claudia perked up at the word ‘present’ and was surprised when Aileen dropped a book in her lap. She wouldn’t admit it but her archetypal image of a present was a cheerfully wrapped cubeish box with a loopy ribbon. This wasn’t it. Hardcover, no title, nondescript. Black, of course, if it was one of Aileen’s. “What’s this?”
“It’s called the Book of Life, and it’s bound to only you. A compendium of Claudia.” She’d already delivered the Showcase of Shu, and was secretly glad she and Xiyuan were on shaky terms because she couldn’t come up with anything for that. “If you’re ever feeling alone, or worthless, or like no one cares for you, read this. There are so many people who love you. This is proof.”
“Aileen, how beautiful. Thank you.” Claudia caught a tear on her left pointer knuckle. “I love it, but I don’t know how it’s going to make this any easier.”
“And I’m doing my best to make this as easy as possible for you—but just like you can’t control Mike, I can’t control how you feel. Just think about it. Or, I mean,” she scoffed, “you can also ask my ex. The expert cheater.”
“That’s all you can do?”
“Then tell me this, Aileen. What would you do if you were me?”
“Easy,” she said, drawing on years of adultery experience. “Dump the bastard.”
*converted from Sim time to human time
Enjoy the half-chap, folks. As we reach the end of the year, I want to say how grateful I am for each and every one of you. I can’t express how honored I am that even one other person would spend time reading this. CT truly does have a special place in my heart: I laugh uncontrollably while writing it, I break down; I knock myself back and build myself up. It’s given me purpose on my worst days. No matter how you got here or why you read, thank you. Thank you for joining me in this messed-up world. May your holiday be the exact opposite of Guide Me, North Star.