My wife, Beth, knew something was wrong, she told me, but she ignored it. She drove home from her job where she was a plastic surgery nurse and went to sleep. She ignored it, she said, when it felt like a bubble bursting, then like she had to pee, then throw up, then die.
This was all after the fact, after they had had to remove the babies early and take them away before we could even hold them.
There was something wrong with both of our twins. The boy we named Jonathan seemed slow. The girl's feet turned in awkwardly and the doctor said she might never learn to walk. They came out so small at first, they thought they might die.
My job was an hour away, an hour and a half at rush hour. I drove on the freeway, listening to talk radio. I woke early so I could go to the gym first, then off to the office where I was in charge of sales for a large air conditioning company. I had a secretary who was a grandma type. I had a picture of Beth from when we were first married on my desk.
When the twins first came home, we put them in a room that my wife decorated: a pink side for the girl, a blue one for a boy. When they cried after we put them to bed, my wife ignored them. She was training them, she said, to sleep at night, so I ignored them too. I liked them, and sometimes I wanted to hold them. Sometimes I wanted to get between them, one baby beneath each of my arms, and lie down in our bed, but my wife said they couldn't sleep with us because we might crush them.
Three weeks after we brought them home, Beth brought the babies to the doctor again. That night she told me how it was her fault things went wrong. Then she told me what the doctor said: that Jonathan had lost air when blood had flooded into his part of her belly. She said that they didn't want to give a name to the problems Emily had. Yet.
We were on the deck, sipping white wine. We had a pool and lived in southern California in a new development that looked out over a big piece of dirt land. One day our view would be crowded with houses just like ours.
Our house was on the first set of streets that were built. The houses were the same inside, but my wife had decorated ours in her own way. When friends came over, they were impressed by how she had the time to do it all: work, mother, and even decorate. I looked out onto the land. There were still shrubs growing there. They hadn't finished building the pool, but it would be done soon.
We had bought the house right before the babies were born so Beth could get it ready. The other houses on the street were just starting to fill up. When I walked the twins in their carriage on weekends, I waved to our new neighbors and sometimes stopped to talk. You couldn't tell there was something wrong with the twins yet, so all the women cooed over them, asked to hold them, kissed the top of their downy heads. Sometimes I took them past our development and over to the hill where new developments were being built.
I was careful to hold their stroller tight. I would lock the wheels, then sit down next to them and point to the sky and the clouds. I would say the words "sky" and "cloud" and make funny faces to make them smile.
While my wife took her weekend naps, I told my children stories about how tiny they had been at first, how they had been strapped with tubes in the nursery for weeks because their mother, who was supposed to be on bed rest, had decided to work instead.
It was hard to be mad at my wife. She was busy, and cheerful, and seemed to have an answer for everything that had to do with the twins. She had tried to breastfeed at first, lying on the carpet in the living room and pumping her breast pump. She had breast implants a few years before that her boss had given her for free since it was good advertising for the patients. She also had her lips tattooed in pink so that when she woke in the morning, she looked like she had already put makeup on.
The breast pump didn't work, so we fed the babies formula. On weekends and at night we would each take a baby in our laps and let them suck, hungrily, happily, on their bottles. They would drool and slurp, trying to get bigger and better. They had certain feeding times, but sometimes I wondered if we should feed them more.
One Saturday, while walking the twins down the street, I saw a moving truck outside a new home.
"Hey," I waved to a man with no shirt on who was coming out of the house.
The man had a brown mustache and a hairy chest. We shook hands; we both had sturdy grips.
"I'm Hal," he said.
"Welcome to the neighborhood, Hal," I said, "I'm Mike. We live down at number eight."
Hal looked down at the twins and smiled. "Looks like you got yourself a handful," he said.
Then Emily started to cry so I undid the belt and picked her up while Jonathan slept.
"Mary!" Hal turned around to his house and said, "Come meet our new neighbors!"
A woman came out from the house with black hair tied up in a ponytail. She was overweight, but with a pretty face.
She shook my hand with light, cool fingers, and I saw that she had strange green eyes.
"Oh, look at these gorgeous babies!" she said, taking Emily from my arms and rocking her until she stopped crying.
"God, I need a break." Hal said, "Want a beer?"
I pushed the double stroller with Jonathan still sleeping in it up the driveway and into their backyard. Their pool was finished and had a waterfall made of fake rocks. We sat on the grass and Mary brought out a cooler. I put Emily on her stomach so she could roll around.
"My wife decorated our place," I told them. "She's done a great job. You'll have to come over for a barbecue."
Hal and Mary told me how they worked at a grocery store but had saved up for years to buy a house.
I told them about my job in sales and about my wife and her job as a plastic surgery nurse.
"Wow!" Mary said. "She must have some interesting stories."
Before the babies, my wife and I would go out to dinner on the weekends. We would drink wine and she would tell me funny stories about her job. Once she told me that a man had come into her office and wanted breast implants on his back. I liked to look at my wife across the table, laughing while she talked. This seemed like such a long time ago.
Suddenly, Jonathan woke up and began to cry. Loud music came from the front of the house.
Mary said, "Oh, I'm so sorry. That's our daughter and her boyfriend."
Car doors slammed, and a girl giggled. Mary rolled her eyes.
"Kelly! Come back around. Meet our new neighbors," Hal said.
I looked behind me as a girl opened the gate on the side of the house. She wore only the top part of a bikini with shorts and her bellybutton was pierced. A black guy with no shirt and a carved-out body followed behind her.
"Hey," the girl said, kneeling down next to us. Her breasts were the kind that held themselves up. Natural.
She picked up Emily and bounced her up and down.
"They are gorgeous!" she said.
Introductions went all around.
I shook the black guy's hand.
"Elvis," he said with a strong, dry palm. He nodded his head.
"I'll get us some beers," Kelly said. She got up and walked inside. Her ass was huge and came out of her like fake breasts on her behind.
After a few beers, I told them how I needed to wake my wife, so I put the twins back in their carriage and strapped them into their seats. Then I walked out to the front of their house where Kelly's black sports car was parked.
The top of the car was down so I looked inside. There were menthol cigarettes on the armrest. The license plate said "MCBOOTY."
When I got home I put the babies in their cribs. They cried so I closed their door. I went into our bedroom, which Beth had decorated in a leopard, safari-like theme. She had put candles in tall dark wood holders, but we hadn't gotten a chance to light them yet.
Beth had not wanted to have sex since she had the babies. She wore big pajamas to bed and turned away when I tried to touch her. When she was asleep I jerked off next to her, my thigh touching her on her thigh, and concentrated on that one small part of me I could feel her with.
In the bedroom Beth was lying down in her sweatshirt and watching TV.
"Hey," I said, taking off my clothes and climbing into the bed next to her.
"Where were you?" she asked, not looking at me.
"Oh, I met some new neighbors. You would like them. Nice, down-to-earth people. Hal and Mary," I started to rub her arm but she pulled it away.
"Great," she said. "You smell like beer. You could have called me."
"I'm sorry," I said, "I thought I'd let you sleep."
"Whatever," she said, getting out of the bed. "I'm going to order fish tacos and pick them up. What do you want?"
I went in to look at the twins while Beth went out, but they had already fallen asleep. When she came home we went out to the deck and ate our dinner. We drank wine, watched TV, and went to bed.
The next day was Sunday. I took the kids out again for our walk. Instead of going out of the development, I walked to Hal and Mary's house and rang the doorbell. Kelly's car was in the driveway.
"Hey, neighbor," Hal said when he opened the door.
He was shirtless again and motioned me inside. I parked the carriage on the lawn and unstrapped the babies. Hal picked up Jonathan and I picked up Emily.
"Want a beer?" he asked as I followed him inside.
"Sure," I said.
Their house was the same as ours except on the opposite side of the street. This meant that it was also turned around: a mirror reflection of our place.
They had done a lot of unpacking in only a few days. They had had the front hall painted a pinkish color. Mary was arranging dolls on the mantle piece.
Mary took one of the dolls and brought it up to Emily. She made the doll's hands wave, "Hello! How are you?"
I followed Hal into the kitchen.
"Mary does the decorating," Hal said, winking and giving me a beer.
The kitchen had stools by the counter, and white wall-paper with small blue whales on it. In our development you pick from a selection of different paints and wallpaper. The builders put it up for you before you even move in. Beth had picked tan for our living room; Mary had picked dark green.
"This was my idea," he said, pointing to a big fish above the TV. "I caught this one—had it stuffed."
We walked out to the backyard where they had already set up their lawn furniture. Kelly and Elvis were swimming in the pool.
Hal talked about fishing and I watched as Elvis threw Kelly up in the water. I watched as she got out and then dove off the side of the pool.
When they got out of the water, Kelly put a towel around her waist and twisted her hair around and around like a towel to get the water out. Hal handed both Kelly and Elvis a beer.
Kelly took Emily and bounced her on her knees.
"You're so lucky to have twins!" she said.
I wondered when what was wrong with the babies would begin to show. They still couldn't crawl.
I told them how the twins had been premature and in the hospital for a long time before we could bring them home. Kelly listened and nodded, and Elvis took Jonathan and held him up in the air.
"I would love to have twins," Kelly said, rubbing Elvis's knee. "We're engaged, but we haven't gotten the ring yet."
"Congratulations," I said, watching as they held my babies.
The gate on the side of the house made a loud sound and we all turned toward it. Beth, wearing a bikini top and a sarong, walked into the backyard.
"Hi," she waved. "I'm the wife."
She came over and kissed me on the mouth. I could smell wine on her breath. Then she took Emily from Kelly's arms, smiling with her lips closed.
I introduced everyone to Beth and she waved.
"Have a seat," Elvis said, getting up for her to sit down.
"Thank you," she said. Once she had told me she liked Shaquille O'Neal, which surprised me. I watched Beth's eyes to see if she was looking at Elvis. I looked at Kelly and caught Beth's eyes on mine.
Mary came out and we drank some more. She put chips on the table and Kelly put a bunch in her hand and ate them all. Beth sipped her wine.
We talked about the development and how the realtor had promised that in a few years more businesses would move out here. When the development was finished, there might even be a mall.
It was getting dark, and the babies began to cry. I told our new neighbors that we would love to have them over some time.
As we were leaving, I watched Kelly and Elvis jump back in the pool. I saw Elvis pick Kelly up again, the pool lights on her. She put her feet and hands out like a statue or an ice skater. She became completely still, her face looking up at the sky. He held her in the air in his hands like that for only a moment, then grabbed her waist and threw her back in.
After we put the kids to bed, Beth broke out another bottle of wine.
"Boy, babe," I said, "I'm tired."
"Fine!" she said, pouring herself a glass. Her sarong had fallen off and she stood in the kitchen in her red bikini. Her Caesarian scar had faded, but I could still see it. It reminded me of how stubborn she was when the doctor had told her to stop moving.
My wife had a bruise on her thigh.
"What?!" she asked, standing there.
"Nothing," I said.
I wished our pool was ready. I had called the contractors twice on Friday. I would call them again tomorrow.
Beth sat down in the den and turned the TV on.
"You know," she said above the sound, "that Kelly is a little whore. Did you see her license plate?"
"McBooty," I said.
"She has the biggest ass I've ever seen. Someone should put her on a diet."
My wife's body was thin and curved but she was not shaped like Kelly.
"McBooty!" my wife snorted and laughed. "What the fuck is that?"
The next night I got home from work early and took the kids out while Beth made dinner.
"Don't be long," she said. She was in a good mood and making pork tenderloin. She had dressed up and painted her fingernails.
I walked the kids down to Hal and Mary's. Kelly was in the driveway wearing the same jean shorts and bikini top she was wearing the night before. She was watering the plants with the hose.
"Hey," she said.
She came over to look at the kids.
"What does your license plate mean?" I asked. Elvis was not around.
"Oh," she said, standing up, "the kids used to call me that in high school, you know, cause my ass . . . "
"Oh," I said, "so the name stuck?"
"I guess," she said, laughing.
"I'm just taking the kids for a walk before dinner. Beth is making pork loin," I said.
"That's nice," she said.
"I better get back," I said, and started the stroller up the hill. Then I felt water on my back. I turned around and Kelly was standing with her legs spread, holding the hose like a gun, laughing with the setting sun behind her.
"What happened to your shirt?" Beth asked. She picked the twins up one at a time and put them in their high chairs.
"Oh, Kelly spritzed me while I was walking the twins."
"That big ass girl needs some serious lipo," she said.
Jonathan squirmed, trying to use his arms.
"Hands down!" she yelled, suddenly, hitting Jonathan on his arms. "Down!"
Jonathan began to cry and Beth took two bowls of Spaghettio's out of the microwave. She put one bowl on each of their trays.
Beth had set up the dining room with candles. She turned the stereo on to classical music and left the kitchen.
"We'll eat in here," she said.
"We won't be able to hear the kids," I said, following her into the dining room.
"Oh, they're fine," she said.
We had a babysitter from Tuesdays through Thursdays. Monday and Friday, Beth stayed home from work to watch the kids. Their nanny was sweet and made them homemade soups. I would eat their leftovers sometimes when I got home.
Beth brought out the tenderloin and salad, and we drank red wine and ate. Later, for a surprise, she brought out a chocolate cake.
Drinking, I noticed the grains in the table, my fingers, the way Beth looked in the glow of the candles. I could separate the colors on her face into different zones, like states on a map.
Beth smiled when I looked at her.
"What?" she asked, gently.
"Nothing," I said, and I could tell she thought I was thinking something nice.
When everything was done, I followed her into the kitchen. The babies were still in their high chairs, both leaning out of them, sideways, asleep. They had Spaghettio's all over their hands and faces.
"I'll just dunk them in the bath," my wife said.
"Isn't it too late?" I asked.
She ignored me and picked Emily out of her chair. I followed, holding Jonathan. She lay Emily down on the bathroom rug and stripped her. Emily woke up, crying, while Beth put her inside the bathtub and started the water. It was nine o'clock already. We usually put the kids down by seven.
"Give me him," she said and did the same to Jonathan. She took a sponge and began to scrub their faces. The twins did not seem to be looking anywhere. Their eyes were wet and wouldn't look at me.
When Beth was done we wrapped them up, all wet and tired, into towels. The top of Emily's head was soft and smelled like soap.
We put them in footsy pajamas and put them in their cribs.
"I'm beat," I said.
I got into bed and Beth came out of the bathroom dressed in a purple see-through gown. With the bathroom light still on behind her I could see everything.
"Wow!" I said.
She came over to me and I lifted her onto me and began to lick her.
I could hear her making the sounds she used to make, and I brought her down to kiss me.
"Ouch," she said, suddenly. "Your stubble hurts. Don't you ever fucking shave anymore?"
She turned over, and when I tried to hold her she pushed me away.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing," she said.
"Are you angry?" I asked.
"You know why," she said, quietly.
We had two twins with real problems and it was all her fault. We lived in a nice neighborhood so there was no reason for her to get mad at that. I bought her the things she asked for and I liked the way she decorated the house. She hit my kids who had something wrong with them and they cried, but I didn't get angry. My babies cried, unable to control where their hands went, which made their mother mad.
"I don't know why, Beth," I said.
"Well, then, if you don't know, there is nothing I can do about it."
I lay there, listening to her whimper. I began to touch myself on my side of the bed. She cried and cried and I took myself down the street where I picked Kelly up in her pool and held her above me, light as a dove.
The next morning, I woke at my usual time and went to the gym. I watched myself in the mirror. I went to the office and had a usual day. I drove home to my wife and two children.
When I went in the house I found Beth at the kitchen table, crying.
"They know!" she yelled.
"What?" I asked. "Know what?" I went over to Beth who let me hold her while she sobbed into my shoulder.
I waited for her to catch her breath, running my hands down on her spine. She felt small and fragile and good.
"The . . . the kids. Someone said something today . . . I saw two ladies talking in the grocery store . . . they could tell there was something wrong with Jonathan."
"What about Emily?" I asked.
"What the fuck does that matter?" she yelled, looking at me with black eye makeup running down her cheek. Her next procedure was supposed to be tattooed-on eye shadow.
She ran into the bedroom and I followed her. The door to the twins' room was open but they weren't in their cribs.
"Where are the twins?" I asked.
Beth was on the bed with her head in her hands.
"I left them with your new friends," she said. "I needed to be alone."
"You mean Hal and Mary?" I said. "They're babysitting?"
"Yes!" she yelled.
I was confused, but I did not want her to get angrier.
I walked over to the bed and sat down next to her and began to rub her back.
"They're our babies," I said, "and we love them. It doesn't matter what other people think."
Beth looked up at me again from the leopard bedspread.
"Are you a fucking idiot!?" she yelled.
I stopped rubbing her back and put my hands in my lap. There was no reason for her to be angry at me.
I got up from the bed and walked out of the house to get Emily and Jonathan. I did not want to impose on Mary and Hal. I tried to imagine our babies the way a stranger would see them. I wondered if you could really tell that something was wrong.
Kelly was sitting on the front lawn, smoking a menthol cigarette.
"Hey," she yelled, waving at me. She was wearing a different bathing suit top but the same jean shorts.
"Jonathan and Emily are sleeping inside," she said.
"Good," I said. They were safe.
I sat down on the grass next to Kelly. The ground felt nice and I felt tired. I looked over at Kelly who stubbed the cigarette in the ground. She smiled at me but didn't say anything.
I began to tell her that I had a dream where at first, it seemed to be taking place at my house, but then everything turned around, and it was at hers. I told her how we were swimming in the dream, she and I, in the pool. In my dream, the waterfall was bigger than it really was and there was a waterslide that came out from it that went all the way down the valley.
In the dream, I told her, we went down the slide together. It was wide enough to sit beside each other, so we went down holding hands.
She looked at me, twisting a ring on her finger. It was an engagement ring. We stared at each other, and then she smiled.
"Shut up," she said, laughing, pushing me sideways. "Stop joking around."
I could have told her I was making it up, that I hadn't dreamt this at all. It would have been the time to do so, if I ever had that kind of dream.