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The Cookout

By Laura Gabel-Hartman


Published:

The TV show opened with exotic produce, sexual fruit that could energize a relationship. Avocados, the way they hang in pairs, suggest testicles, and some nutrient in their creamy fruit could potentially revive passion. Fresh figs, cut in half, suggest female genitalia. Texanna muted the TV and snuggled up to Dan. They were still waiting for their daughter Gwennie to fall asleep. Texanna arranged Dan’s arm around her shoulders. She liked it when his beard was scruffy. It matched his hairy body, which reminded her they were just primates. It was easy getting her hand inside his elastic-waist pajamas.

“Sorry I’ve been blah lately,” Dan said.

Texanna thought back to his explanation: I just need to schedule it, so that you’re not asking me every night, and I don’t feel bad saying no. I don’t want to keep rejecting you all the time, and I don’t want to keep feeling deficient.

“You look pretty.” He pushed back her hair and ignored her hand.

Her brown hair was naturally wavy; her brown eyes were big enough to warrant liquid liner. She wasn’t so lumpy that anyone would notice with clothes on. Getting close to thirty, she’d finally accepted the gap between her two front teeth. As early as third grade she could remember telling another girl’s mother, “I hate my teeth.” The mother had said, “Oh, baby, you’ve got to learn to be happy with what you’ve got.”

In high school, in the tiny town where she grew up, she had divided her time between running, studying, and being a drum majorette. She was a little too pretty, even though braces had not been an option, and one of her mother’s husbands had been a little too interested. She learned that girls who were abused often went through a promiscuous phase and later had to train themselves to think that sex wasn’t dirty. Lately she’d been writing an article titled “Embrace your inner Aphrodite.” Or maybe she’d switch “Aphrodite” to “Aphrodisiac.” She’d meant to go to paralegal school but had ended up working at Frantic Framers, where she met Dan.

Dan reached for her hand and held it. “Would you mind waiting a night?” he asked in the middle of a yawn.

“Waiting a night?” Texanna had about died when he suggested the once-a-week plan. It wasn’t so much the infrequency that bothered her, it was the schedule—in her mind planning it could only dehydrate romance and passion. Yet she had agreed to the schedule, in part because then sex could be counted on, now that after six years of marriage Gwennie was the biggest thing in their lives, and it could rarely be spontaneous.

In fact, Gwennie was still singing in bed, a made-up song about gibbous moons.

“She’s precocious,” Dan said.

“Verbally, at least, for a four-year-old,” Texanna said. “Well, closer to five. Can you believe she knows about gibbous moons?”

“I’m sure she knows a lot more than either of us did at her age.”

“I thought The Matriarch worked with you on that kind of thing.”

“Not really. She was busy golfing,” he said. In the bluish light of the streetlamp outside their window, the shadow of the cleft of his chin made a crater.

“What’s wrong?” she asked him.

“I’m just tired,” he said. “I’ve been working too much. Don’t I look tired? Get me some under-eye concealer.”

It was always a bad sign when Dan tried too hard at humor. She suspected that the problem wasn’t only the long hours during tourist season but the work itself. They’d moved from Jacksonville to Cedar Key for this job idea, opening a gallery in the touristy center of town, and although they were making it financially, Dan was souring on the idea. The gallery had begun as a home for serious art, realistic and abstract. In the beginning the realistic work tended to be more gestured, implying something beneath the surface. He prided himself on his sense of design and occasionally hung his own work, most often charcoals with little realism, which he said were too inaccessible to sell. Even Texanna sometimes needed to ask him, “What were you thinking when you made that one?”

Over time he’d gotten disillusioned with what sold and what didn’t, and, weakened under pressure from artists clamoring for representation, chose beach scenes with bright colors, stained glass ornaments, and coffee mugs. He used to carry real art supplies, and paper and sketchbooks, but no longer did. Sometimes Texanna filled in at the shop, and she knew that the shelving unit right in front of the register, loaded with briskly-selling, machine-made Florida souvenirs, gave him a pang.

“You’re tired,” Texanna repeated. She rolled onto her back, doubled her pillow. It was almost too hot to touch, anyway. The A/C ran nonstop, unable to keep up.

The TV host held up two mangoes for breasts.

“I’ve never heard of a man too tired for sex,” Texanna said. His sex drive had never been overactive, and sometimes she wondered if that was why she had chosen him, why she had always felt safe with him.

“Can you remember the last time I painted?” he said. “Or exercised?”

He was probably depressed again, maybe needed to check in with the psychiatrist and refine his medication. “Maybe you need some of that sexy fruit,” she said. “Or some oysters. Maybe we should change the cookout to an oyster roast.”

“It’s not a month with an R in it,” Dan said. There was that rule: only safe to eat oysters during months with R’s in them.

 

The day of the cookout Dan had a list of projects he was supposed to attend to, including hanging a spice rack in the kitchen and cleaning the grill. Instead, he was defrosting the freezer. Texanna looked at the pyramid of frozen foods on the counter and took a deep breath. She stacked magazines on the coffee table. She moved her guitar from the couch to the corner. She’d never had a case for it and didn’t plan on investing in one now that Gwennie was the only one to take it out and pluck it. She used to enjoy guitar before she got busy with motherhood. She used to have calluses. She’d even written a few songs, including one in college about a guy she had a crush on: “Conversations About Big Ideas,” which relied heavily on G chords. The guy had played guitar himself, which was one reason she got interested in it. He had very little body hair except for his head, where it frizzed and puffed out spontaneously, much like his personality. She tried something new with the college guy, waited for him to make the move on her, for an old-fashioned, slow-to-develop teen relationship, like a good girl would have. He never said he liked her—she had the sense she wasn’t sophisticated enough for him—but her roommate dated his roommate, so sometimes they ended up together by default. The song was about the night they lay in his bed, waiting for their two friends. The hairs on Texanna’s arms stood straight out when they got near his hairless ones.

Once he’d reloaded the freezer, Dan started organizing his compact discs. He was transferring them all to his computer so he could listen to music on the iPod.

“Is that a priority before the cookout?” Texanna said.

“What about these computer cables? I’m going to get some tubing.”

“What about turtles? You know, those round things you can coil cords up in,” Texanna suggested. “But is that a priority?” She said each word with a punch. Her chest felt tight. “You get sidetracked with the stupid CD organizing. We’re having a cookout, for God’s sake.”

“You don’t have to get bent out of shape about this cookout. Our friends don’t care.”

Clive and Beth, the couple they hung out with the most these days, didn’t care. Beth still had the plastic wrappers on her lampshades and kept her furniture covered in sheets so the boys wouldn’t mess it up. Some of Dan’s artist friends had interesting houses, minimalist, with contemporary art or else with lots of quirky collections. Texanna liked Beth, but she didn’t care for Clive. That Texanna went with that kind of boy in high school, that she had not been a nice girl back then, that she never used protection—it was surprising she hadn’t gotten pregnant with one of them and sentenced herself to that kind of life, hanging out in the Ramada Inn bar with her mother. She thought she was smart until she met Dan, whose family was educated and fully of pretensions. The Matriarch repeatedly pointed out the chambered nautilus fossil imprisoned in the limestone floor of their foyer. Before that, Texanna had never heard of limestone floors.

“I care,” Texanna said.

He twisted his watch to the top of his wrist. “Look, I’ve got to check in at work before this cookout.”

 

At the grocery store Texanna and Gwennie gathered hot dogs and ground beef, buns and condiments, ice cream and brownie mix. Texanna thought she’d have a look at the exotic produce. She scanned the fruit and began to lose her sense of what was sexual and what wasn’t. Ugli fruit, watermelon, lemon, and lime, she decided—not sexual. Orange, pineapple, cantaloupe—she couldn’t decide. Papaya? Kumquat? The exotic fruits felt more sexual than the everyday ones, yet some of them looked old, bruised, and molding. The Matriarch bought fancy fruit on a regular basis, but maybe most people didn’t know what to do with it. It was certainly too expensive for everyday use. Texanna stared at a lone guava, blue tendrils of mold erupting like pubic hair from the part where the fruit had broken from the stem.

In the checkout line Gwennie asked for almost every junky candy. “Can I have one of those? Please!” Now she was begging for Reese’s Pieces.

“No,” Texanna repeated. She’d have to think of a strategy for when Gwennie could read the tabloids and women’s magazine headlines in the checkout: “Orgasm Every Time” and “Mind-blowing Sex Moves.” Maybe then she’d let her pick out candy as a distraction.

Gray clouds were easing in by the time they got back home, and Dan was still out. She lifted Gwennie onto the counter. They shaped the hamburger patties and mixed the brownies. Gwennie accidentally cracked eggshell into the mix, but Texanna just beat the batter hard enough to break it up. As the time for the cookout grew closer, Texanna stopped the food prep to get them both ready. She chose dressy jeans for herself with a new blouse with a plunging neckline and empire waist. She wondered if the blouse was too young, too sexy, but she wore it anyway. Then she fixed Gwennie up in her poppy-colored Sunday dress. They still had half an hour before guests would arrive. Dan would be home any minute.

“Let’s go ahead and cut up some of this fruit,” Texanna said. “I never realized quinces were so hard. Look at the star of seeds. It’s like an apple in the middle.” She took a small bite and made a face. It was sour. Too sour to serve.

Gwennie looked at her, a little worried. “I don’t like sour things.”

“I think you’d hate it,” Texanna said. “Now this is called a star fruit.”

“Star fruit? That’s a funny name.”

“Because when you cut it, it makes a star, see?” The star fruit was also harder than Texanna imagined, scattered with seeds so that it wasn’t possible to slice paper-thin, like she’d intended to do. Its aftertaste reminded her of a sweet fruit drizzled with lemon juice to prevent browning. The black seeds in the middle of the papaya looked like roly-poly bugs, with the greenish tint of capers. Gwennie held an orange kumquat in each hand.

“It’s the perfect size for holding,” Gwennie said, rubbing the fruit, smooth as a stone with a green spot on the end. Texanna cut one in half, removed the tiny seeds, and licked it. She made a face. It was even sourer than the quince.

“But I’d hate to eat it,” Gwennie said.

“You would hate it. Now this is called a blood orange.”

“Eww, we don’t want to eat blood. It has blood in the middle of it. Steak has blood. It’ll be yucky.”

“But you might like it,” Texanna said. Just then, Dan walked in with a box from the liquor store, kissed her on the lips, and headed up to put on a fresh shirt. It was almost six o’clock; people would arrive any minute. Texanna was still working on the fruit when there was a knock at the door.

Clive, Beth, and their two sons, Clive Junior and Dylan, showed up first. Dan and Clive had grown up in the Panhandle, and although they weren’t friends at the time, later they pieced it together that they’d played basketball against each other. Coincidentally, they’d both ended up in Cedar Key. Clive, a clam farmer, clearly prided himself on his body and encouraged a tan. Texanna had never seen him in long pants—he wore shorts and work boots exclusively. It was obvious to Texanna he wanted to show off his legs. She imagined Clive’s walrus mustache twitching up and down, at her.

Clive Junior and Dylan had cute little faces but such short hair that Texanna wondered if they’d recently had head lice or ringworm. They’d grown much bigger than Gwennie since the last time she’d seen them. They were only five and six but big for their age, and wearing skull and crossbones T-shirts.

Right away Texanna sensed Beth noticing all the picking up they’d done. Beth poured herself a whiskey and poked her head behind a door. “Did you move things around?” she asked. “The house is so clean.”

Texanna blushed. Somehow it was more comfortable having Beth over when the house was messy.

Beth stood near Texanna as she cut the fruits into a salad. “Didn’t know this was something fancy.”

“Oh, don’t worry—it’s not.” Mango juice dripped around Texanna’s wrists as she sliced the peel off and cubed its innards. Texanna liked the mango best so far—fragrant, juicy, and sweet, with a hint of tang. “You’ll love this one,” she told Gwennie, and Gwennie smiled after she licked a piece of mango. Texanna laid the star fruit slices across the mango cubes like a veil. She pictured Beth’s not-so-nice house, the furniture covered in sheets.

Other guests trickled in, including two of Dan’s oil pastel artists, both men. Dan introduced her to their wives, “This is my wife, Texanna,” he said. But please just call me Tex, she wanted to say, and thought, better yet, just call me Anna. Then came an acquaintance from the neighborhood and her husband, Murph, a local TV reporter. They’d left their teenage children behind.

“Gwennie, show Clive Junior and Dylan around the backyard,” Texanna said. “Open up the sandbox for them.”

Gwennie and the boys raced toward the hammock. Texanna watched Gwennie push them in it and was surprised at her strength. They pretended it was a pirate ship. Gwennie pushed the boys so high that the hammock almost flipped. Dan talked art, drank beer, and laughed loudly between manning the grill and passing around plates of juicy, greasy meat. Texanna relaxed more than usual, mostly since the food was being grilled and not assembled in the kitchen. She thought it so nice to be able to visit at her own party. For a while, she and Dan talked with Beth and Murph about Jimmy Buffett’s fascination with Cedar Key. She was aware Beth had had too much whiskey. When Murph held out his hot dog, Beth took it in her mouth and pushed it in and out. Murph’s wife laughed nervously, and Texanna and Dan looked sideways at each other.

“Time for dessert?” Dan asked, code for we’d better not keep these people too late.

“Good call,” Texanna said.

About the time she brought out the ice cream, brownies, and fruit, it began to rain. First just a drizzle, clumping them under the trees like cows, but then a hard rain, coaxing everyone, even the children, under the awning that flanked the entire back of the house. The water fell in waves—white, gray, and silver on the cement patio. The gutters overflowed, and Texanna’s new sandals grew slimy and began to chafe her little toes. Not wanting everyone inside, she started a conversation with one of the artists, who stood next to her. Where do you find supplies? And do you use your fingers or a chamois to blend the pastels? She only knew the right questions to ask because of Dan. The artist gave a long explanation for his mix of technique. It was nice to look over at Dan and see that he didn’t seem worried about the weather; he was slipping his feet out of his flip-flops and rinsing them in rain. But as the artist droned on, Texanna began to wonder about Gwennie.

“Excuse me a sec,” she told the artist, holding up her finger. Then she craned her head out to the edge of the awning, almost into the wall of rain, looking for Gwennie. She saw her daughter at the other end of the house, down by the back door leading into the kitchen. Everything looked fine. Gwennie and Clive Junior were sitting on the step, looking like they were having a nice conversation, just like the grown-ups. Clive stood next to them, talking to Murph. Texanna watched her daughter say something to Clive Junior and make her eyes big and her mouth in a wrinkle. She imagined Gwennie was talking about a gibbous moon or about geckoes, or Charles Darwin. Then she saw her daughter’s hand disappear inside Clive Junior’s elastic-waist pants.

Texanna ran around the people under the awning through the rain. Clive and Murph were oblivious, or maybe Clive had seen, but did nothing. He fingered back his layered, brassy hair while the kids played at his feet. By the time she reached Gwennie, Texanna was soaked. The boy looked at her and laughed. She picked up Gwennie as fast as she could.

“You okay, baby?”

At first Gwennie’s face looked blank or surprised, and then it looked like she might cry.

“I just wanted to know what was in there,” she said.

Texanna carried her through the back door and up the stairs. She tried to be calm. If she got too intense, she knew she’d upset Gwennie. “Gwennie,” she said. “Gwennie, we don’t do that.” Gwennie was quiet.

Any one of the adults could have seen what happened, but it appeared they hadn’t been paying attention. They hadn’t reacted, hadn’t seemed to notice, hadn’t offered to help. In a way, that was a relief. She’d just as soon keep it private. Then Gwennie burst into tears, and Texanna knew it was her own intensity that caused the upset. Gwennie cried whenever Texanna’s heart raced or legs shook, or throat hurt. It was a little scary that a kid could read her so well. That a kid could want to take care of her.

“Why’d you do that anyway?” Texanna asked, trying to keep it casual.

“No reason.”

“Did they do something first to you?”

“No.” Gwennie smoothed Texanna’s hair. “I’m sorry,” she said. Texanna carried her into the bathroom and ran her a bath.

“You scared me,” Gwennie whined.

“It’s okay,” Texanna said. “It’ll be okay.”

Dan poked his head into the bathroom. “What the hell?” he said.

“Gwennie put her hand in Clive Junior’s pants, just to see what was in there,” Texanna said.

Texanna perched on the edge of the old porcelain tub, long since settled on the pink-and-white tile of the bathroom floor, all so quaint. Dan stood in the doorway. Gwennie dunked herself, and then drips of water dribbled down her forehead into her eyes.

“ I need a washcloth,” she said.

“Would you mind grabbing one?” Texanna asked.

Dan handed Gwennie a washcloth.

Then Texanna started to laugh. Gwennie and Dan looked at her, puzzled, while Texanna’s laughter bubbled up even harder. She felt like she needed a good laugh, like she needed a good cry. “Don’t be scared. I think Mommy just got all worked up.” Then tears filled her eyes, and she didn’t know if she’d laughed so hard she cried or if she was just crying.

“Just go tell them I had to put Gwennie to bed.”

“O-kay,” Dan said, like she was crazy. He looked puzzled. He went back downstairs. People must have taken the mention of Gwennie’s bedtime as a cue to leave because Texanna heard people filtering out.

“’Member how I told you private parts are just for you?” she asked Gwennie.

“No.”

“Anything in your underwear. And other people’s privates are for them.” She lifted Gwennie onto the mat and wrapped her in a towel. They both got their nightgowns on. Texanna snuggled with Gwennie in her little bed and held her until she fell asleep. Texanna heard Dan knocking around downstairs. She could hear him lock the front door and see the hallway dimmed when he turned out the lights. She moved into her own bed, and he came upstairs and lay down beside her. Texanna was still thinking about Gwennie. She lay on her back, hands folded over her belly.

“You okay?” Dan asked her.

“Your good-for-nothing friend,” she said, rubbing her eyes.

“Clive?” He propped himself up on one elbow.

She closed her eyes and nodded.

“You blame him?”

“I just feel like he and his kids are a bad influence. Why’d you have to get in touch with him?”

“You can’t blame me for that. I like Clive.” Dan lay on his side, facing Texanna. “I find him refreshing.”

Texanna knew what “refreshing” meant. It was code for uncouth, unaware of etiquette, even rude. But with Dan’s spin, it almost sounded like a compliment.

Dan inched toward her and tried to hug her, but she stayed on her back, so he just patted her arm. “She’s curious,” he said. “We know that about her.” He nuzzled Texanna’s hair. “Did it ever cross your mind that what Gwennie did was normal curiosity?”

“How would you know what’s normal?”

“That’s not fair,” he said.

If only Dan understood how much more difficult it was to grow up female, and the risks and pitfalls of raising a daughter. Her mother had had trouble raising a daughter, with her bad judgment in men and her idea that entertaining a child could be done at the Ramada Inn bar. Texanna felt overwhelmed by the responsibility for Gwennie. It was hard to know how to think of what had happened—and with that boy. Her mind jumped all the way to Gwennie’s losing her virginity, hopefully not as early as Texanna had, though these days, kids did it in junior high, out behind the Indian oyster mounds. How would she live through that?

“I can’t shake the image of Gwennie’s hand down that boy’s pants,” she said.

“Try to forget it, Tex. Don’t let it be so big in your mind. She’d know what was in there if she had a brother.” Dan let out a long breath that ended in a whistle. “Tell you what was strange, that Murph and Beth thing,” he said.

“More like something we would’ve done in high school,” Texanna said.

“Made me worry about Beth and Clive. Their marriage, you know?”

She rolled on her side to face him. “We gotta keep working on us,” Texanna said.

“It’ll be okay. Really, it will. We’ll get Gwennie raised great. We’ll be okay.” He moved toward Texanna, reaching out to touch the gap between her two front teeth with the tip of his little finger, something he’d often done in the early days of their relationship. They lay facing each other, Dan’s arm draped over her hip. Then Dan inched toward her. She thought of the uneaten fruit downstairs, wondered if Dan had tasted any, and then if he’d thought to wrap it up and put it away. Downstairs was a mess now. But the front of his body fit well against the front of hers. The temperature had cooled down after the rain, moderate enough now that tonight there was the potential for being naked and easy together.


Laura Gabel-Hartman is a native Floridian living in the Boston area. Her work has appeared in Carve Magazine, Feedback, and Rio Grande Review.

Photograph by Johnathan Crawford

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