Candy Cane

Lea Carpenter

Summer 2019

That night, Mark and Virginia had argued about The Great Gatsby. They’d both been English majors, and when literature came up, as it actually rarely did anymore, they took everything else out on each other through its lens. Mark was high on the specialty Scotch his boss had given him for Christmas and Virginia was high on Vicodin stolen from their older son’s medicine cabinet—thank you, seventh grade football injury; thank you, lazy school trainer. Lazy, generous, it depends, doesn’t it. They had two boys—both were trouble. Two boys and two black labs and leased matching racing green Range Rovers, one of which they kept “out East,” which was how they referred to the Hamptons, a place Mark hated and Virginia loved. The East End of Long Island has an all right surf break but is mainly a place for transactions, Mark thought. And that was his business—transactions. Finance. Being near his boss had helped when his boss was in the Hamptons, before he traded up to the Vineyard. If you’re killing it, you don’t spend much time in the Hamptons. The Hamptons is for comers. Once you’ve arrived, you end up elsewhere until eventually you’re on a boat that just keeps moving. Like sharks, guys who’ve arrived will die if they stop moving.
 
 
Mark stared at the ceiling. “You’re just so wrong,” he said, quietly.

Virginia held her stance. “It’s a book about money. Gatsby even says Daisy’s voice sounds like money.”

“It’s a book about war,” he said. “About coming home from war.”
 
 
Mark felt like he was coming home from a war every night now. Work was merciless, but you can’t give up work if your entire life depends on it. Which he felt his did. On that, they could agree. But he didn’t want to agree that night he wanted to argue. And so, after a long pause, he said, lighting the match, “you think everything’s about money.” And because she was far more mature than he would ever be, his wife simply stood up, kissed his forehead, and left the room.
 
 
Mark overheard his sons playing Fortnite. “Head to Tilted!” one said. The other said, “I’ll give you a medkit for your gold Scar.” Mark thought, they’re happier than I am. He fell asleep watching the playoffs. Before dawn he woke to one of the labs licking his face. Which was the first time someone had licked his face in, like, a decade.
 
 
It was actually a pretty great marriage, it was just that they were both exhausted all the time, and maybe a little embarrassed that their lives had changed so much but not quite enough to make them happy. They had more, in some ways, no doubt about that, but less in others. More restaurants. Less hunger. More schedules and routines. Less variety. Economic insulation cushioned the blow of existential terror, at least until the day the beast creeps inside your home and hides under your bed, waiting. The beast followed them out to Long Island weekends and through Tribeca weekdays. The beast is when one of you launches a revolution from within and says, I’m done. The beast is the risk that one of you might call the bluff on this whole situation, this institution, those Verdura rings on your ring fingers.
 
 
“Take care of her,” Virginia’s mother had told Mark at Thanksgiving. She was concerned.

“I do take care of her,” he said. All he did was take care of her, in his mind.

Lea Carpenter is the author of the novels eleven days (Knopf 2013) and red white blue (Knopf 2018). 

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