Annie's husband Mark, unsettled after leaving San Francisco, is having an affair with Jeff - how will Jeff's girlfriend Trang respond? By Kevin Lavey.
"I haven't played much chess lately," Mark said.
"Who has?" Jeff said.
"Mark's not telling the truth," called Annie from the kitchen. "He plays on websites."
"Yeah, but I lose all the time."
Jeff glanced through the open sliding glass doors at Annie who rinsed vegetables at the sink. Adjacent to the kitchen was the sunroom with bamboo furniture, TV, Bose speakers hooked up to an iPhone stereo dock, large potted plants, and bookshelves. Annie washed her hands then wiped them with the kitchen towel.
"I'm thirsty. Anybody want anything?" Jeff said to Mark and Trang. He would cadge a moment alone with Annie.
"Grab some beers," Mark said.
Last time Mark and Annie had Trang and him over, they showed off their new deck, and Annie had become a vegan. She made a meat loaf from tofu and seitan which everyone, apprehensive at first, declared successful. Mark spoiled the evening by drinking too much and insisting that libertarianism could solve... many things. By the end of the evening he pointed and shouted.
Jeff walked through the sunroom into the kitchen. He grabbed Annie's wrist, and they stepped into the pantry.
He put his fingers through her hair. They embraced and kissed for a long, heart pounding minute. "My love," he said.
"We've hardly talked the past two weeks," she whispered.
"I know." He held her in his arms, out of view of one husband and one girlfriend sitting on the deck. "I know. I know."
Mark and Trang had run out of things to say when Annie and Jeff saved them.
"Where's the beer?" Mark looked at empty-handed Jeff. "Dereliction of duty, my friend."
"I'll get it."
He returned, sat down, hoisted his bottle to the group. "Ahoy."
Annie asked Jeff, "How's your research going?" She lighted a portly green candle sitting in the center of the glass patio table.
"It's fascinating, wonderful, exhilarating, challenging. It's sort of hard to stop talking about it."
"Wasn't the field of sociology eliminated in the Reagan era?" said Mark.
"Sociology is one of the most highly valued disciplines..."
"Last time you were here, Jeff, you said you had a big deal meeting coming up with your advisor." She wore the silver pendant he'd bought her. She caressed it now while looking at him.
"That went well. It was a mid-point review. I'm making headway on my dissertation."
Trang watched with flat eyes. She wished these people allowed cigarettes.
"And it's been at mid-point for how long?" said Mark.
"Secrets of the trade," said Jeff. He paused for a moment. "Ethnographic studies of applied theory across grade levels of inner city schools in a two state..."
Mark looked at Trang. "He can say all that without inhaling."
Trang saw that Annie avoided looking at Mark, her husband.
"You were thinking about buying a condominium in Towson. What's news on that front?" she continued with Jeff.
"Sad face on that one. I couldn't pull it off. I'm still an apartment rat." He looked at his shoes, a brand new pair of high top Converse All-Stars.
"Just think of these as the good old days," said Mark. His voice was loud.
"'Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.'" Jeff said that to her last time when they finished their lovemaking downstairs in the basement guest room.
"Old black ram? You do have visions of..."
"I love tupping. I had never heard of tupping before..."
"Why don't you get your teacher's certificate and be a high school English teacher?" she'd said.
"And leave my graduate school bubble? And go out into the world?"
"But Jeff, you would like teaching. I like teaching. We could be teachers together."
"It's scary out there. Besides, I've told you, I want to write commentary and essays about the state of the world. How can I be aloof at the same time I'm involved? Too messy."
He and Trang seemed lovey today, thought Annie taking a sip of wine, and she could enjoy that for him, except that Mark had hit the firewater, as Jeff one time said, too early in the evening so she wasn't ecstatic about Jeff and Trang's lovey-ness.
"Shall we play a game?" asked Mark.
"Mark, put the chessboard away. We have guests."
"That's why he came over, Annie. God damn..."
"He was supposed to come over early so that you two could play before Trang and I joined you..."
"She's right, Mark," said Jeff.
Jeff turned his lovely handsome face toward her and she thought, oh for crying out loud. Why can't we simply put a stop to this? She and Mark would divorce, and she and Jeff would do the only sensible thing: marry and have children. Trang would go off to the land of ex-girlfriends who are almost fiancées. Mark could return to San Francisco and be a loner who rode his expensive bicycle and pontificate on the vile nature of Consumer America, or the American Nightmare, or whatever he called it these days.
They had argued this morning. She stated firmly that she liked the car they bought. She was proud of the fact that they could afford two nice cars - though they couldn't afford two nice cars, not at the moment, but that was neither here nor there, she thought. "You don't look like you're suffering." She patted him on the stomach, no longer flat. That's when he began his four thousandth harangue about the vile nature of the...
Mark, the thirty-six year old with a wooden chess set that somebody gave him in college, she suspected a woman, ponderously fitted the pieces back in the case like an unappreciated craftsman, just to let everyone know he was making a big-boy sacrifice. Christ, she thought, she should stop.
"Have you noticed, Mark," she said, "how many things need to be fixed around here?"
"That railing going to the basement is still loose. The upstairs bathroom tile is coming up. I don't know. The handles to the cupboards."
She called Jeff on the phone before he was supposed to come over at three-thirty to play chess with Mark and told him she was pregnant. "And, Jeff, it's not Mark's."
"How do you know?"
"It's yours, Jeff. It's yours."
Half-slope they called Trang on the playground of that northern Virginia public school. She spoke flawless English, practiced immigration law, and bought a house down near Patterson Park which was now worth one hundred and fifty thousand more than she paid for it three years ago. Before that, she lived in an apartment by herself and saved money and helped get whichever member of her family over here who wanted to come. She loved it, loved it that her grandfather was an officer in the North Vietnamese Army. He'd met Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap and stormed into Saigon with the NVA. Who liked the Communists? But stories of her grandfather's surviving bombs and months in the bush sustained her. She'd had it rough, a transplant to America: she never met her G.I. father, and her mother, who managed a few verbs and nouns in English when first here on American soil, cleaned toilets in an office building so that they could eat. Trang came from people who were fighters, and she was a fighter.
Mark snapped the chess case shut. "That crap will get fixed. Anybody want another beer? More wine?"
"Didn't Jeff just bring some out?" said Annie.
"I need another one."
"While you're in there, get those appetizers in the refrigerator, would you?"
"I've only got three hands."
"Are you looking forward to going back to school?" Trang asked her.
"Yes and no. I took a class this summer, so I'm further along in my master's work, and it's always fun to implement new strategies in the classroom. But, you know, I love puttering around the house. I love the garden. I love our dogs and cat... and when the school year starts I leave everything until summertime. It all floats away for ten months. I can't wait to have baby number one." That came right out of her, and she was a little shocked. She flushed.
Mark opened a couple of Bass Ales for Jeff and him in the kitchen, and carried them out. He returned for the plate of appetizers - cheese and Greek olives and a vegan pâté and brie. One of the dogs, her dog, whimpered at his legs. He kicked it in the ass sending it skidding across the floor. Jeff saw it. He'd come in to help.
"Bad dog?" said Jeff.
"Bad bitch," said Mark.
"Can I carry something?"
"Get that other bottle of wine, would you."
"Sure." He opened the refrigerator door, got it, and started to go out. Mark hadn't moved.
"What's up?" said Jeff. Mark was once upon a time his closest friend. He bedded his wife, but, hell, that kind of thing started pre-history. It would stand in their way later, but not at this precise moment.
"Doesn't this heat get to you?" Mark said.
"Yeah, it sucks."
"In San Francisco it's foggy and cool and mellow. Like right now, we'd be wearing jeans and sweaters. God damn it's beautiful there." The left side of his face winked. He seemed unaware of it.
"You should have come out."
"I know, I know, I know. But damn, Mark, you were only out there, what, two years? I couldn't just pack up at a moment's notice and visit in that time frame."
Mark laughed. "Mr Stay At Home. What is it with you?"
"Hey, what's there, really, in the big bad world? Nothing. I got my desk, my books, baseball on TV, the Sunday New York Times," said Jeff.
"But you've got to see San Francisco. There are a lot of people like you."
"The great dass of misaffected."
"Yes, right. You get to sort of share auras with people without the nasty downside of friendship. I mean, you could commit suicide and nobody would really care, which is deeply liberating if you think about it. Nobody truly gives a shit about you, but you don't truly give a shit about anybody either."
"It sounds healthy. A really balanced sort of thing, very rich sense of community," said Jeff.
"The only thing you have to worry about is keeping your bike in highly functional working condition, joining the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and going for rides on the weekends."
"And you couldn't get Annie to go there? Who wouldn't want to participate in such a humane, warm, caring city?"
"Fellas," called Annie. "We're out here and you're in there."
He and Mark joined them.
"We need to get lamps, Mark. I saw some coach lamps on sale at Costco that would be just right."
"In both of those corners over there." She pointed to the interior sunroom.
"Why not just light candles? Who wants another beer?"
"I'm okay," said Jeff.
"That was fast," said Annie.
"This one might be faster," he said. He got up, returned with two more. He made a point of guzzling half of the first one in front of them while they watched silently.
"Trang, what are you up to these days?" said Mark, bouncing attention off of himself.
"Oh, working a lot, and still getting relatives situated who come over here."
"What do most of them do in Viet Nam?"
"Farmers. A few have shops. One of my uncles is a commercial fisherman. But the Communists... they take too much. Everybody bribes everybody. You make a life, but nobody gets ahead. Thank God I work in immigration law."
"Are they religious?"
"I go to the temple with Trang," said Jeff. "I'm thinking about converting."
"I've always wanted to be a Buddhist," said Mark quite innocently.
"That's one of those things you might share with your wife," said Annie.
A cat scrambled up the support beam of the deck from below and made its way to the railing then walked back and forth sniffing, glancing their way, stopping, alertly listening, nosing the succulent plant. It lowered itself, feet tucked into sphinx position, and squeezed its eyes shut.
"Mark's been feeding that cat. I think he's trying to steal it from one of the neighbors."
"Whose is it?" asked Jeff.
"I don't know," said Annie. "Whose is it, Mark?"
"Those people who moved here from Virginia. With the BMW."
"We haven't met them yet."
"Who would want to?" said Mark. "Their own cat doesn't like them. They already had one of those lawn companies come over and drench their yard with chemicals. Assholes. I hear them watering their lawn at night."
"Is that against the water restrict..." said Jeff.
"It should be."
"I thought you got to water your lawns at night, between the hours..."
"That restriction or lack of restriction is a way to keep the capitalist class appeased."
"It usually takes a six pack for Karl Marx to emerge. Did you start early?" said Annie.
"I mean it. I'm sick and tired of people like that taking more than their share. I bet you fifty bucks he's a venture capitalist. Doesn't produce a thing. Look at their cat. It's some sort of exotic..."
"It's a mutt, Mark," Trang said. "That's a typical short-hair American cat with a thousand strains in it."
"Well, because of the company it keeps, it's uppity."
What do these people want, thought Trang.
The phone rang and Mark jumped up to get it.
"Let it ring," said Annie.
"I need another beer anyway."
"Hello," they heard him say. He walked out of earshot.
"Jeff," said Annie. "Your buddy, your comrade, what am I going to do with him? I can't seem to get his attention."
"Since... that's a good question, Jeff."
Trang sipped her wine and peered at them.
"He returned, what, a year ago?" said Jeff.
"A year and a half ago."
"You guys got married pretty quickly. Is he having a guy reaction to that? Freaked out a little bit?"
"Probably. Are men the biggest babies in the world or what, Trang? Jeff, would you massage this knot out of my neck?" Without hesitation, Jeff stood behind Annie's chair and put his hands to shoulders.
He became attentive. Annie dropped her head forward. Then, remembering, Jeff looked at Trang.
"That do it?" he said.
"I guess you should stop," she said.
Jeff kept his eyes to himself and sat down. No one spoke for an uncomfortable few moments.
"What about work?" said Jeff.
"His business is not going well," said Annie, spreading her toes in her sandals.
"Well, that can..."
"Was I too forceful when I pulled him out of his womb in San Francisco? Should I have just let things be?"
"What would solve everything?" he asked.
"We haven't played that game in a long time!" She turned to try and see Mark in the kitchen. "The solve everything game. I've forgotten about it," she said. "Did you ever play it, Trang? Did Trang ever play it?"
"No, I don't think so," said Jeff.
"What would solve everything is that Mark needs to get a job that pays more."
"What's preventing that from happening?"
"Mark won't get a job working for quote unquote asshole greedheads. He wants to run his own business. He told me that it's his way of being an artist. That's all he's got, he told me."
Trang shifted in her chair, crossed left leg over right.
Mark came onto the deck. His smile was glassy. He'd taken a couple of shots of liquor in there, thought Jeff. That was his 2:00am party smile.
Trang turned to her left and looked out at the overhanging branches, swaying in the hot breeze. She could see through the spaces in the wooden railing to the far edge of the yard below. Their property was fenced off from a neighbor's large back yard. In Viet Nam these would be mansions, palaces. Her relatives would gawk at a house like this.
Mark sat down. He had a fresh beer in his hand, though he'd left one unfinished by his chair. He tipped it up, drank, then held it against his thigh and belched softly, as if to himself.
"Who was that on the phone?" Annie said.
"Oh, I gave this guy my number and told him to call anytime."
"A customer. We put in a network and... seems it's got a lot of bugs. Crashes all the time. Or... I don't know."
"What kind of place is it? What's the business?" said Jeff.
"What the fuck does it matter?" he said.
The four of them sat with that, doing their best to avoid eyes.
"You know what, Annie," said Jeff. "Those coach lights would look good over there."
"Look," said Mark. He rubbed his face. "I'm getting eaten alive at work. I have to lay off two of the four people working for me. One of them's got a kid six months old. The other one... it won't matter. She's having her first post-college work experience so it'll be good for her to get fired and feel like shit about herself. But this other guy, man."
"Well, seniority. I just look at it as a seniority thing."
"Are the ones you're keeping just as good as he is?"
"Yeah. And they have kids and houses and dogs and..."
"But what else is it, Mark?" said Annie, examining him.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean what else is it?"
Mark blinked, stared to the sky. He breathed slowly. "I left my heart in San Francisco."
"So, let's go back."
"I can't go back there, not now."
"Of course, I don't mean tomorrow. I mean, let's sell the house..."
"Your father'd be pleased with that."
"That fifty thousand dollar down payment he gave us. I knew we should have never taken it. I just fucking knew it. We could have put some bucks together and lived in an east side neighborhood with the hillbillies, but you wanted to live in Roland Park so here we are."
"I thought we wanted the house, Mark."
"Twenty-eight ninety-five. How are we supposed to turn that nut every month?"
They heard frantic scratching. The cat had slipped, tried to recover, and fell off the railing. They heard a thump and a cat-voice, as if squeezed from a bagpipe.
"See, even the animals around here are attempting suicide."
"I have to get up early tomorrow," said Trang, standing. "Jeff, why don't you stay." She'd had enough. Thankfully, she had driven.
Jeff said, "Trang, where are... Stay a while longer."
Once more, Mark hoisted his beer bottle. "To Trang staying." He drank then cleared his voice. "I borrowed money from an asshole."
Trang sat down again.
"What asshole?" said Annie with great calm.
"I got sick of going to your father to bail us out."
"Who did you borrow money from?"
"Some guy. A customer."
"The guy who called."
"What kind of money are you talking about?"
He rubbed his eyes. "I owe him six thousand dollars on Monday."
"Jesus, Mark." She stretched out her legs and propped her feet on the glass coffee table. "Honey, do you still keep cigarettes in that drawer?"
Trang said, "I have some right here."
"Dunhills," said Annie. She looked at Trang with attention for the first time. "Very nice."
Trang smiled and both women smoked.
"It's sort of a side business with this guy. We worked out a plan."
"We could have borrowed six thousand dollars from my father, Mark."
"I borrowed thirty-thousand dollars. Six thousand is an interest payment."
"Mark, you continue to surprise." She tipped her head back and opened her throat and exhaled a clean stream of silver smoke.
"I don't have the money."
"You don't have six thousand?"
"No, I do not."
"We go to my father anyway, then, don't we?" Remembering, Annie snubbed out her cigarette.
"More wine?" Mark asked.
"No. Jesus, no," she said. "Just soda water now. Jeff, would you get one for me from the refrigerator?
He brought out four and handed them around. Mark shook his head, tapped the beer bottle with his forefinger.
Annie looked at Jeff. "What do we do?" she asked him, invited him in right in front of her husband.
"Well, the first thing you need to do is pay off the guy."
"Then that solves everything," Mark said. He laughed. "Jesus Christ, you two. I owe everybody money, what does it matter?"
"It solves one thing," said Jeff.
"How did we get into this?" he said.
"I mean this." He waved his hand, including everything.
"We became grownups, Mark," said Annie.
"But we didn't have to..."
"Of course you have to."
"Yes, Mark, this." She said it calmly, without biting.
Jeff shifted his eyes from Mark to her. The light from the sky was fading. Twilight bulged in from all sides. Her eyes were bright and hard as two marbles.
Looking at Jeff, she said, "We're going to have a baby."
Mark closed his eyes. He put his face into his hands.
"Mark, we belong here. I would move to San Francisco with you if you insisted, but not to some one-bedroom apartment. I'm not interested in taking my clothing to the laundry anymore. Jeff, I need a glass for my soda water." While he retrieved one for her, the other three remained static, as if responding to a pause command. When he returned, she said, "I like it here fine, Mark. Let's stop struggling with how we're paying our bills. We go to my father when necessary, more than we'd like right now. But who cares?"
"What if I do?" he said.
"That's not a problem I can solve."
Wind rushed through the tops of the trees.
"I need to go up and shower," said Mark. "Then I'm going to bed." He walked into the house without saying goodnight.
"Yes," she said to the ghost of his presence. She and Jeff stared at one another. Night had come down through the trees and up from the distant neighborhood.
Trang touched Jeff's arm which broke the spell between him and Annie. He looked over at her as if from the gunwales of a close-by sailing ship. He had kept himself unkempt - hair too long, pants and shirt too baggy. He wanted to be a free floating electron, but no one was that past thirty, Trang thought, and he was well past thirty. Past thirty you were in some sort of orbit.
Trang leaned farther forward and bit Jeff hard on the upper arm, to the side of the biceps. He jumped out of his chair. "Ouch! Shit! What the..."
He pulled up his t-shirt sleeve and exposed the ring of teeth marks. "Look at this," he said, pointing the spot toward Annie.
"I see," she said. Her eyes rested on Trang.
"We're out of beverages, Jeff," said Trang. "Could you do something about that?"
"Well," he said. "Well, well."
"I'll have a glass of wine," she said. "Annie? More soda water?"
Jeff went into the kitchen and the two women were alone. Trang lit up another cigarette. A tiny smile creased her lips when she offered one to Annie.
"I mustn't," she said.
Jeff filled glasses then sat down.
"You're pregnant now," Trang said.
"I am," she said.
"You and Jeff must be proud and happy."
"I'm happy," said Annie without a hint, without a shade of defensive aggressiveness. "I have known Jeff a long time."
"He's a good boy," said Trang.
"Now, shit," said Jeff. He tugged at his billy goat beard.
"No, no," said Trang. "No meanness. I don't want to be mean." She tapped out her cigarette. "It is not for me to judge, but what are we going to do about this?"
"Mark has lost his bearings for a while, Trang, but he'll come out of it. So it's uncomplicated from my perspective."
"Will Mark know?" she asked.
"I'd rather that not happen."
"He won't ever get it?"
"Mark has a capacity to deny the obvious, and it will work to everyone's advantage."
"How will it work to mine?"
"Yours?" Annie sipped soda from a wine glass.
"Well, Jeff is the father and friend of the family. And you are..." She paused.
"I am a person in need."
Jeff surfaced from his silence, his watching, his uninvolved involvement. "Trang, I'm not sure what's happening here. We came over to talk and have some drinks."
"Now there's a whole big other world."
He loved her body. Tall for a Vietnamese woman. He thought of her as lean, but right now he realized that lean was American. Lean lingered from adolescence or devolved from adult pudginess. She was thin and bony and supple and uninhibited. He suddenly wanted to marry her. He thought that she had not found him out, that her Vietnamese-ness protected him from the bald scrutiny of measuring up: the thirty something graduate student without a plan of attack for the post-thirty something years. He thought he had her distracted by his earnest and over-earnest interest in eastern philosophy and meditation, his intellectual curiosity, his pro-fruits-and-vegetables stance, his cat care-taking chores when others were away, his non-Mark like lack of appetite for Eddie Bauer sweaters. Trang made far more money than he did as an adjunct professor with his patchwork of classes, a fact he hoped they had tucked away in a locked closet.
The only light other than that coming from a small lamp in the sunroom was cast from the silken straight flame of the stout candle on the glass top table around which they sat.
"I have three more relatives in Viet Nam that I need to bring over here. There are visa problems that have come up."
"Trang, you know that's..." said Jeff.
"Jeff, honey, let's listen," said Annie.
"And my cover has been blown. It was a matter of time. I've gotten many of them out. I've paid off the right people, used straw sponsors, been discreet. No footprints. Well, that can only go on for so long. You know, people quietly leave a district, after a while it gets noticed. And the wrong person over there has noticed. He's a government official who's got both legitimate businesses and rackets - drugs, prostitutes, gambling. A very distasteful guy. Anyway, I've got two problems. I need twenty-five thousand dollars to pay him off and a genuine, honest-to-goodness sponsor for the three relatives."
"Surely you can find other means," she said. She touched a finger to lip, contemplating. Shadows wrapped about her.
"Very delicate situation," she said. "I've used all of my contacts and resources for the others. There have been so many. I have no more willing sponsors. There can be no protests with this guy. No noise. No gamesmanship."
"Twenty-five thousand dollars," Annie said.
"And that means?"
"Meeting with immigration officials. Signing papers. Guarantees of help looking for work. Finding suitable housing. Some of it posturing, some of it not."
"Well," she said. "What did you say? A whole big other world? We've arrived at a rather extraordinary place together, haven't we Trang?"
Trang smiled. "Mark, you, Jeff, and me. What do Americans say? Strange bedfellows?"
"How can we resist?" said Annie.