Stupid T-Shirt

by Kelli Perkins-Bauer

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Stupid T-Shirt

 

Nate always hated Saturday mornings.  It was a hate he accredited to the last decade or more, but one to which he had grown accustomed.  Most people who work in an office like him would probably look forward to their weekend morning affairs, but not Nate.  It was a dread that crept up as early as the evening before, when he laid down to sleep.

It was a ritual of sorts.  Just one he didn’t appreciate.  It always started first with his cup of coffee, to get him fired up, as if the black elixir was his inspiration instead of the fruits of his labor.  It’s the lawn.  He hated mowing the lawn.  But he knew if he didn’t do it, she would throw a fit.

Each Saturday, he would step outside with a manner that projected he was defying every ounce of his manhood. Usually bright and early before humidity took control of the day.  To make the chore more tolerable, he would slip on some old swim trunks and a rock concert t-shirt that would eventually stick to his back, since most of them were dark in color, and the sun would beam down on him as if he was a magnet for heat.  It was the only time he was allowed to wear them.  Anna would fuss  over how stupid he looked, and many times she threatened to throw the t-shirts out.  But when he convinced her it was necessary to dress grungy when doing yardwork, she acted as if she had an epiphany.  Nate was then allowed to keep those articles from his youth.

Anna and Nate had two kids.  Every Saturday morning, as he reluctantly cut the lawn, the kids would stay inside, setting up something to do with their friends if they hadn’t already, or sleeping in.  They were teenagers now.  For some reason it never occurred to him to have his kids do the lawn, probably because he was used to doing it for so long, as much as he hated it. It was his time to think without being bothered. Random thoughts would cross his mind to serve as a juxtaposition to the uniform, manicured rows he created.  He would think about the kids when they were younger.  He would think about a time with no kids.  He would think about who Anna was planning to leave him for after the kids moved out.

“You should probably fertilize.” Anna was outside already, and he hadn’t yet started up the mower. She was tending to the flowers.  She was good with flowers, and spent a lot of time on them every year. He would give her that.  Although to Nate, having the perfect lawn was a death sentence. Some mornings he would dream of just setting it all on fire,  even their planned development house, then walking barefoot over the warm carcass of dirt, as if it was a spiritual calling.

“I already did it not that long ago.  We don’t want to over do it.”

“Then water it.” Right before he started up the mower, he heard her grunt, without looking up.  Her body was curved over the flower bed, a careful length of beauty.  Over the years she had maintained herself, but sometimes Nate thought perhaps too much.  She looked young. At times it was overwhelming.  Even for a quick grocery store run, she would take half an hour to get ready.  “I don’t get it.  You keep your hair shorter now.  You’re just grabbing a few things you missed on your list the other day.” She would get mad, throw down her flat iron, not return for a couple of hours.

The family had their other rituals.  Every Tuesday evening, her parents would come over for dinner.  And during the summer, they would spend every other weekend at her parent’s lake house.  It was the only time Nate would find some retreat, because he got out of dealing with the yard until at least Sunday evening.  Anna would watch him pack furiously whatever handful of outfits he wanted to bring when he returned from work, and hustle the family out the door.  This time he slipped in a concert t-shirt. The hour and a half drive then started, and he attempted to relax.  The kids listened to music on their phones.  On most trips, Anna would either read a gossip magazine, or talk to her mother on the way up there (as if they would have no time to talk once she arrived), where Anna would give her mother crap about not selling this place, and electing to get different property that was more secluded. Or sometimes she’d torture him with a conversation piece about the neighbors.

“I’m telling you, Rebecca is going to leave him soon if he doesn’t shape up. I always see him pacing around the yard doing nothing.”

“Interesting.  Never noticed,” Nate said.

“I mean, the guy is a total complainer.  He does nothing.  Apparently, he thinks going to an office all week makes him such a hard worker.  Like office work is so depressing and difficult. I can’t believe she’s still with him.”

“I guess there’s worse things.”

“What? Oh, of course you would say that,” she huffed, leaving an emphasis on you, while rolling her eyes under sunglasses. She looked out the window briefly, and then pulled out a magazine from her straw tote with some brunette on the cover in a movie she’d just watched.

 

***

 

Most weekends the shared beach by the lake house was crowded.  This is the part that made it tolerable.  Nate wasn’t much for lakes anyway, but he could at least pretend to enjoy the weekend when there was a  crowd of people who allowed him to fade into the day. He could lay there and merge with the sunshine and no one would bother him.  Sometimes he’d nap. Sometimes their kids would come down by the water, and humor him with funny high school drama.  Anna would stay up in the screened porch and talk with her parents. But today, she came down and sat next to him, complaining about the loud groups and the sand possibly ruining her pedicure.

“Seriously, isn’t it like exfoliating or something.  You need that for those hoofs,” Nate joked without looking at her, knowing very well that her feet were perfect.  He had a stick in his hand, and drew circles next to him with its pointed end.

“No.  I mean, I could come down here with my sandals, but it’s almost pointless.”  She got up to walk over to the water, slipping out of her flip-flops, reaching down to grab and hold them both in one hand. She dipped one toe in the foam that’s left behind from the miniature waves, but that’s as far as she’d go. Toes only. Her legs were long and slightly tan, just how he liked them. He remembered when he would move his hands up them.

“You should go in more.  It’s nice.”

“I don’t feel like getting wet.”

She stepped back around, looking Nate in the face.  The sun was almost resting behind her, as if she was an element that came down from the sky, the light upon her toned shoulders. He tried to be moved by this image.  For a moment, he even thought she looked sad, but if she did, it was brief and passed quickly.

“You need to come up and help my dad get ready for tonight.  We have some people coming over for dinner.  I’ll be in the kitchen with mom doing prep work.”  And with that, she walked by Nate and headed up the hill towards the house, not even leaving footprints, as the sand caved in quickly to fill the void left behind.

 

***

 

Nate got up not long after she left.  He didn’t want to piss her off any more and headed towards the house.  It was just this past Thursday evening they’d decided to go out to dinner, and as he was pulling into a parking spot, Anna groaned.  “Don’t pull in here. There’s something nasty in that spot.” Nate looked carefully, noticing there were spots of what appeared to be vomit.

“Some child must have puked on the way out,” he said without concern.  He started to pull in again, and Anna lost it, yelling about the vomit, how it was going to get on their vehicle.  As Nate situated the car, she continued.  He turned the car off and told her to shut up.  “What’s the big deal.  They’re fucking tires, Anna.  Fucking tires. It’ll wash off the next time I drive through a fucking puddle.”  She opened the door, walking into the restaurant without him.

He felt guilty later.  As he laid in bed that night after the parking incident, he purposely strained to hear her breathe.  It was a reason to get closer. She never snored.  And her breath was so distant and faint he often would wonder if she was alive.  He continued to get close, unbeknownst to her, almost against her will. He inhaled every inch of her. The scent was intoxicating.  In the beginning he would take her hair (when long) while she was awake, and caress her chest as she  watched, facing each other lying naked. He would tease her by licking softly on the strands as their breath would pace in unison, hers harder in anticipation. He couldn’t get enough of her.  Anna. He has said that name countless times.  But this night when she didn’t respond, he rolled over to take his part of the bed once again. Each time he would come home from lunch to surprise her, she wouldn’t be there.  And when he would leave something behind to announce he had come home – such as unwrapped bread left on the counter, or his water bottle – she would simply put it away without an utterance.  He’d ask quietly where she’d been, perhaps after dinner when the kids had excused themselves, or after he watched her methodically put dirty dishes in the dishwasher while he imagined sucking that hair from two decades ago, she’d reply she’d already forgotten without even looking at him.  And he’d ask her to try and remember, to please look at him and try and remember (because he preferred her when she looked him in the eyes and remembered things), so she would say it was perhaps errands (with nothing purchased), or maybe she met Cindy at the park for a run (Cindy didn’t run).

 

****

 

On Sunday they usually would get up early, and after brunch, head back home.  Anna was chipper and convinced them to stay longer.  She even suggested the entire family go down to the beach and enjoy some sun before they leave.

Nate decided to throw on his old swim trunks and the t-shirt he’d packed.  At first he thought it could be to spite his wife, but when he walked out of their room, she smiled.

Down at the beach, instead of sitting in chairs, she spread out a large blanket for everyone to sit on.  Even Anna had put on a bathing suit and lathered herself up with sunscreen.  As she sat down beside Nate, he thought for a moment she was trying to say sorry for something, maybe he’d been reading her wrong. The kids joked around.  Her parents yelled from the lake that the water was perfect and they should all come in.  Anna waved back, pushed the kids to go in, and laughed – a guttural laugh he hadn’t heard in years. She stretched out beside Nate, almost touching him, almost like she was about to wrap her legs around his body even in that heat, as if they were born to be attached.

Perhaps it was the sun glowing down perfectly.  Or perhaps it was the lake’s calm noise, its waves becoming a surround sound of beauty.  Whatever it was, it brought Nate back to when they were younger, when he would stare into the ocean.  Days when he was willing to challenge something more ancient  or powerful than he could imagine, attempting to tap into its knowledge.  Nate looked tenderly at his wife. Her arms laid beside  her, graceful.  His heart laid inside him, beating.  He remembered the night they met.  It was a friend’s wedding, a beach wedding on the Pacific coast.  She was wearing a strapless dress.  Her cheeks flushed, her hair long and damp from the ocean spray, dancing barefoot in the water. He asked for a dance around the fire, and she said yes, and teased him about his swim trunks and t-shirt.  His hair was longer back then, and she liked it. He felt an electric feeling when he touched her arms, and when they kissed that night, she tasted of salt and love and the setting sun. It didn’t take long before she lured him in, convinced him to move to Michigan. And for the first time in a long while, at this moment, his  entire being swelled – under that day star, in the presence of that lesser body of water.  Even if he had to mow the lawn for another twenty years, he’d do it.

“Let’s take next week off, and get in our car and just drive.  I want to drive anywhere. I want nothing planned out.  All I know is that I just want to head towards the ocean.” He said it to her in a desperate whisper.  Anna looked over at him, not a drip of sweat trickling down her brow, as if only she is exempt from the perils of a midwestern summer. Her sunglasses perched perfectly across her nose.  But even with their lack of being askew, he could see her eyes, how they came back to herself, the eyebrows connecting in a frown.  “Now where did that come from. And take off that stupid t-shirt,” she said in a flat tone.

“I don’t know. I want to go somewhere, away from here.  I want us to know each other again.”

“Well, that’s dumb. We already know each other. And next week we have Landon’s game.”  She rolled over and turned away from him with her arms now stretched out of view. “Put some sunscreen on my back.”

Nate grabbed her shoulder, and turned her towards him with force.  “Kiss me,” he said coarsely.

“Excuse me? That’s silly.”

“I don’t care.  Kiss me. Like it’s the first time we’ve ever kissed.  Like you don’t care what these people think.”

She let him lean into her, where he kissed her, for as long as they both could stand it.  This is where he tried to find what was missing. This is where he thought, perhaps, his search had started, and where it should end. So he searched. He searched for the elements. He searched for grit. He searched for the ocean on her tongue.  He searched for something, anything.  And as he searched, he longed for the taste of salt and sun and love; but instead, he found she tasted of nothing. Nothing at all.