• Marital Problems

    Robin Romm

    Fall 2022

    Victor and I crouch in the yard, trying to find where our five-year-old daughter, Lucy, has buried the bird. She made it a coffin—sweet, except that she made it out of my husband’s father’s binocular case. My husband didn’t know his father, a birder—a deadbeat birder to be more precise. So the binocular case came to him in a roundabout way a few months ago.

    Junk from the kitchen remodel litters our yard—an old sink, pieces of hacked-apart tile—a hazard, a disgrace, a child’s wonderland. As we search, Victor piles the debris in the corner.

    “That fucking guy,” he says, trying to move a cast-iron sink basin.

    We’ve been remodeling our kitchen for the better part of a year. That makes us sound fancier than we are. In truth, a guy’s installing Ikea cabinets and tile we got at a seconds sale. New lights, new wiring. For this budget refresher, I interviewed seven men in Carhartts, many of them hazy-pupiled, a few of them so expensive I couldn’t bear to relay the bids to Victor. I settled on Marco.

    Victor would like to sue Marco for leaving us without a working kitchen for months on end. Victor would like to take a cosmic flyswatter and squish him against the wall. Cork him in a bottle and sink him to the bottom of the sea.

    “I think Marco’s having marital problems,” I tell him, moving a rock and peering under it, testing to see if the earth’s been disturbed.

    “Whatever,” my husband says. “He can still find some guys to move this shit.” He has dirt on the top part of his shaggy sideburn. If he swipes at his brow again, he'll wipe it into his eye. I don’t mention this to him. “His wife has nothing to do with this job.” Victor takes a piece of wood and hurls it at the corner. “Anyway, what makes you say that?”

    “I can just tell,” I say.

    Whenever I predict the dramas of other men, Victor frowns and squints his eyes. He doesn’t care, really, if I know such things about my female friends. He’ll often jump into the fray with that sort of gossip. He loves a good postpartum depression story, a colicky baby, an eating disorder. But when I surmise a man’s emasculating salary, his attraction to domineering women, his obvious lust for a clichéd paramour—a nanny, a personal trainer—Victor recoils. You don’t know that, he’ll say, and it becomes clear to me, the boy he was at sixteen.

    “He wants to talk about it, but I never ask,” I say.

    Marco’s hair curls around his forehead and his lips form surprisingly soft little pillows above a very perfect knob of a chin. He looks like Hansel all grown up, a fairy-tale boy with his tool kit and leather belt and paint-spattered ladder. Except that he isn’t happy, our Marco. He hasn’t figured out how to throw the witch in the oven. Instead, he finds himself married to her.

    This is, at any rate, my theory, assembled through tattered bits of small talk. His wife, a Brazilian woman named Rosie, wants kids. Marco mentioned this once while doctoring his coffee. But he doesn’t want the complication. He had a daughter from another marriage, and that child was the reason for the divorce. Marco always talks to me—no matter the subject (hardware, contracts, his wife) with a sultry little smirk.

    I get the sense that Marco figures if he lingers in the kitchen long enough, I’ll finally lose my inhibition. My obvious attraction to his compact body, those muscles that look carved from soap, will overwhelm me. I’ll descend the stairs in a negligee, a look of raunchy hunger thickening my gaze. But I don’t feel like telling this to my husband. It’ll make him even more furious at the asshole hijacking our home. He’ll ratchet up the rhetoric against Marco until we have no choice but to fire him. And who will complete this half-finished budget remodel in this expensive city if not Marco?

    Lucy didn’t actually bury the bird. Had she buried it, we could ask her where. Instead, while Victor and I attended an actual funeral for a colleague of mine who died of ovarian cancer at thirty-two, Lucy put the dead bird in its coffin and then lost interest in it. The babysitter, a woman we hired through a service, didn’t want to leave a dead bird lying around, so she went ahead and buried it. The babysitter hasn’t responded to my emails or calls, and so somewhere in the yard lies the bird. Or so Lucy told us. She’s frequently entranced by the notion that truth is a malleable thing, so who knows what to believe.

    Most of our yard is compact soil, nearly clay-like. Any disruption to it causes lumps and crumbs, which makes this bird burial particularly perplexing. We’ve tried places that appear to be stirred up, mostly near the fence or under vines, but so far they’ve yielded nothing.

    “He might just be depressed,” my husband says. “Or hate being a contractor.”

    “Maybe,” I say.

    “Or maybe he doesn’t like you.”

    “No, Marco likes me.”

    “I don’t know why you think you know everything,” my husband says. “Did he tell you that he has marital problems?”

    “He definitely has marital problems. Think about it. When we ask him to do something, he sulks, he looks at the ground and acts like he hasn’t heard. The kitchen job was an eight-week job. He’s been here nine months, and it’s not even done. When you follow up to see if a small task has been completed, he just stares. Can you imagine being his wife?”

    “Yeah, that’s true,” my husband says. “What a dick that guy is.”

    “He’s not a dick. He’s just really passive. And slightly incompetent.”

    “Why do you defend him?” Victor asks.

    “I’m not,” I say.

    “I should kick that guy’s ass,” my husband says. I try to imagine my husband taking down Marco. Victor used to have muscles like Popeye, bulbs sprouting seemingly off bone. But over the years he’s become just plain skinny, with a small and polite little potbelly, a purse of flesh that Lucy likes to lie against while they read.

    “Victor.” I say his name sharply, like I’m snipping a thread.

    The person Victor would really like to beat up, of course, is the deadbeat birder, but any man who comes around and tries to pull a fast one gets a tiny dose of Victor’s ancient, private rage.

    Several months ago, we got a call from a biological half-brother of Victor’s who’d located Victor through a DNA testing service. Victor had sent off for results a few years prior, inspired by a longing for a clan after his mother died.

    But he never did much with the information, so it surprised us when the half-brother, Quinn, emailed and asked if Victor wanted to meet. He detoured to Portland after a friend’s wedding in Port Townsend, showed up for dinner bearing flowers, a bottle of expensive wine, their father’s binoculars, and a dog-eared copy of Birds of America.

    He worked as a paralegal for a big firm in San Jose. I thought he might be gay, though he never said as much. He exuded a tidiness, the kind that usually means that no woman washes your boxer shorts or puts away your laundry, enabling you to enjoy a lifetime of hetero-slovenliness; a tidiness that comes from doing all that bodily and sartorial maintenance yourself. He charmed us both. Lucy kept walking around his chair, gripping the back rung and shyly smiling, though Quinn didn’t know what to do with a child and kept inching his chair closer to the table.

    Robin Romm is the author of the books The Mercy Papers, The Mother Garden, Double Bind, and a forthcoming story collection, Radical Empathy. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, O magazine, Tin House, One Story, Wired, and many other magazines. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family.

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