“Pass This off as Love” appears in the upcoming story collection Strays Like Us by Garrett Dennert.
That summer, they watered their garden with Super Soakers. Once around 8:00am, and again around 6:45pm, when my parents and I would sit down and search for conversation in our hunks of meat loaf. You’ve seen it: that grimace on my father’s face, that wad of chest hair above the white v-neck he still tugs on each night after work. You’ve never seen my mother’s tools to counter, though: a feigned disinterest plastered onto her face, the swirl and sip of cabernet sauvignon, her mind on rough seas but sturdy enough to will the waters still. All the while wondering—perhaps hoping—that my father’s scoffs were directed at her, and not the eccentric couple next door.
Looking back, focusing strictly on that summer, strictly on our dinner table, my father could have been scoffing at me. It isn’t often that thirteen-year-old boys and their fathers see eye to eye, but especially not when one “ungratefully” ignores the food placed before him and instead gawks out the slider door at what he has convinced himself is greener grass.
My interest wasn’t just in how they’d water that garden. It wasn’t in how Otto, after strutting across his lawn in his slippers and straw hat, would stand at the northwest corner and pump pressure through the green and purple compartments of his Super Soaker before arcing his stream on the zucchini, cilantro and tomatoes. It was how Teegan, at her post in the southeast corner, would look at him. It was how she’d stop shooting, stop pumping, stop whatever she was doing to peek at him through the corn stalk leaves. It was how he’d stare back. It was how, after a moment or two, they would circle one another, maintaining their gaze all the while. Above the rows of carrots, above the broccoli, above all that they’d planted together. It was how Otto wouldn’t stop circling. It was how he’d chase her. A man just shy of middle age, playfully chasing. And it was how it wasn’t a chase at all, how, instead of running, Teegan would drop the Super Soaker, wrap her bronzed arms around him and then, letting go of the embrace, point to her lips, adorably demanding what had become routine: a kiss; love.
Twenty years later, I can interpret Otto and Teegan in this way. I can say now that what I saw was love. That it was genuine. At thirteen, though, I don’t know if I really understood what I was watching. A TV show. An odd soap opera. Some play on what I believed to be reality. That said, I still like to think that part of me knew. That my emotional IQ was high and made me wise beyond my years.
“They’re the creepiest fucking people I’ve ever seen,” I remember Darren, from across the street, saying. You haven’t met him but, that summer, and for a long time after, up until he left Kenosha to study architecture in Madison, we were close friends. We’d ride our bikes together; we’d aim our pellet guns at raccoons terrorizing the suburb’s trashcans; we’d spend hours and hours in the tree house Darren’s father built, listening to CDs, dreaming of high school, of adulthood, of anything but being a thirteen year old boy. I believe the tree house is Darren made that comment. Yeah, that’s right. It was there. I remember at that moment having an elevated view of Otto and Teegan in their driveway, setting up for what would admittedly be the most bizarre yard sale I’ve ever attended—a dozen different sets of Russian dolls, sandals Otto claimed to be woven by Kalahari Bushmen, a US Navy diver’s mask, and plenty of other items they had to have known wouldn’t sell in a neighborhood as conservative as ours.
When Darren made that comment, though, I didn’t know what to say. I remember staring at him, silently debating whether to agree with his assessment or to confess my fascination.
“I saw them naked in January,” Darren said. When I turned to him, he shrugged the shoulders he’d soon grow into.
Darren nodded. A certain degree of distress narrowed Darren’s eyes then; that look when something you’ve spent days burying jukes its way back into your brain. “They were out in their yard. Nothing but boots on.”
Without my prodding, Darren went on to say that their bodies were streaked in red, something he at first thought was blood but, after a few moments, understood to be lipstick. Smeared across Teegan’s face and thighs; thick lines of it on Otto’s torso, in the shape of an N, from rib to nipple, nipple to opposite rib, and back up.
In living next door to them for two years, I’d seen nothing like it. But I didn’t find myself alarmed by this information. Instead, it was like gas thrown on the fire. My intrigue intensified.
“What were they doing?” I asked, picturing a scene not unlike the garden, just without clothes. Playful, not primal. Just another product of their passion.
“They just stood there,” Darren said. “For five minutes, they did. And then they held hands.”
The last time I saw my parents hold hands was when I graduated from high school. You’ve seen proof of that moment, that framed photo in my mother’s den, on the wall, of Darren and I in cap and gown, his wide eyes and crooked smile aimed directly at the lens, mine angled elsewhere in both pride and confusion at what I hadn’t seen for some time, taking place just feet away, on the edge of a handicapped parking space. My mother and father must’ve been feeling something similar—pride, in me, in themselves, wrecked only by the confusion of how to express that physically, involuntary flutters stabilized by the touch of a partner they know deeply and not at all.
It didn’t last long. Twenty seconds or so, a window inched open just far enough for me, and them, to escape. To forget those dinners, the weekends of neglect, of him twirling his welder’s mask in the shed, of her phoning her friends in the kitchen and jotting down what they’d list as tent-poles in their lives—where the kids are now, where the next vacation would be, where one could find the best loaf of sourdough. Always, “Where”. A profound word for a woman with no place to go but work. Her there, jotting her husband’s poison: the evolution of others.
Twenty seconds. Twenty seconds and, poof, gone. Like magic. Like a comet overhead, in motion for ages but fleeting to the curious eye straining in the night to see what decades later they won’t remember was there at all. That was my parents’ love, and those were the last seconds of its pitiful existence.
I went out that night, got drunk at a bonfire, and came home to find them sleeping for the first time in separate rooms. Months later, legs dangling over the wooden frame of my dorm room bunk, I got a call from my mother that, in summary, confirmed that it was over, that my home would become his house and that, at forty-three, she was going to be redecorating her childhood bedroom.
But you know that. And you know how upset I was. What you don’t know, what I’ve only realized in the weeks since Jesse, is that I was wrong in thinking that it was me, their only child, that kept them under the same roof, and able to squeak by as civil. No, what did, what kept them talking, was shared envy—that place where his anger and her sadness could mingle.
Dinner table memories of such:
My father passes along that a coworker made a hefty down payment on a new car:
Mother: “How the hell can they afford that?”
Father: “I guess that’s what happens when you stroke boss man’s pecker.”
Or: months before graduation, after Darren announces that his aunt will be paying his tuition, no matter where he goes:
Mother: “That must be nice, you know, not having to worry about all that nonsense—bills, and life, and whatnot.”
Darren: “I’m beyond grateful.”
Father: “If only thank yous came with dollar signs, right?”
One or two lines each. That’s all, and that’s all it would take for one of them to crack a smile, to grab the other’s metaphorical hand and squeeze through that same window of escape. I saw it. I heard it. But it didn’t make me sick then like it does now, looking back. I should’ve said something, done something, complained or set them straight. I should’ve had the spine to tell them that, together, they weren’t good people. Yet I didn’t. Not when they coyly ripped on Darren. And certainly not that summer, the night before Otto and Teegan left for a weekend in Ontario.
From my bedroom, I’d watched them load their Isuzu in the rain, Otto carrying the luggage as if it were a sleeping infant, careful, not at all rushed. Teegan, to her credit, did carry a few small bags, the contents of which I will never know. And, as far as I could tell—my window being shut after a cold front spun by, my angle too obtuse, the sky too dark to spot defined facial expressions—no words were said. On they went, like ants in a colony of two: lift, carry, close door, lift, carry, close door. It wasn’t until my parents reached the staircase that I heard any words at all.
Father: “That really chaps my ass, Karen.”
Mother: “Which part?”
Father: “That those two dipsticks over there can afford to take off whenever they damn well please. All summer, all goddamn summer, all they do is fuck around in their yard, shooting their water guns.”
Mother: “I know, Ted. I do. I see it too.”
Father: “And it doesn’t piss you off?”
Mother: “It breaks my heart.”
After she said that, the door to their bedroom shut—softly, in sadness, not slammed in anger. I like to think that I spent the better part of that night imagining the dialogue that would continue behind that closed door, but I don’t think I did. I doubt I thought about them at all, other than wondering why they couldn’t be more like Otto and Teegan. As free-spirited, as wholesome, as fun, as loving.
It was around 7:00am on a Sunday, and I don’t know why I was awake. But I was. And there he was: Otto, passed out on my parents’ back deck, shorts around his calves, drool pooling on the wood beneath his cheek. An empty fifth of Popov near his shoulder, its cap somewhere on the dew-soaked lawn.
Most kids, I assume, would’ve left it at that—hurried upstairs and either woken up their parents or said nothing at all about the incident until years later, over a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine, let the moment breathe, let it transform into a joke, a punchline: “Pants down, dick in his hands, honest to God.”
But I didn’t look at Otto, even in that moment as something to run from. Nor was I like my parents, who if it had been them that had woken to Otto on their deck, would’ve snickered over their oatmeal and waited for Otto to rise and look at them in shame. No, as I’ve made clear to you, I’d come to admire Otto, albeit from a distance. As I’ve said, he was playful. But he also was careful. He possessed the ability to love things, an attribute I envy still, if only because I fear that neither you or I possess it. What laid before me, I knew then, was the product of something in his life that went awry. Otto needed help. Otto needed to be woken.
And so, as quietly as I could, I, still in my pajamas, opened the slider door and walked out onto the deck. Moisture met my toes; boards creaked beneath my weight; the sour smell of Otto clung to the breeze. Once close enough, I squatted down and poked Otto’s bare shoulders. Once, twice, three times. Not a peep from him. Not even a snore.
“Hey,” I said. I poked him again. “Hey. Hey. Hey.”
When Otto finally did wake, it was in absolute confusion. He had no idea where he was. Didn’t know whose deck he’d slept on. Didn’t know whose lawn had yet to be cut, whose hands had painted my father’s shed midnight blue. He didn’t know why his shorts were down. Then he looked at the Popov bottle. He stared at it some more, sat up, ran his fingers through his matted black hair, and redirected his gaze to his own home. The only trees in their yard having just been planted that spring, there was nothing there to fracture the sun—brightening the dull green siding, glaring off of Otto and Teegan’s windows. At that moment, I remember thinking it looked like a home stumbled upon by weary children trapped in a fable. Without turning his cheek, he called me by name.
“How long have you been standing there?” he asked. His voice was deep, and hoarse, something stuck in his throat, something large. Embarrassment. Still seated, he calmly slid his shorts up over his groin.
“Not long,” I eventually said.
“Good.” He cracked his neck. “Your parents see me out here?”
He nodded and then tried to stand, making it only to a crouch before easing himself back to the porch, still drunk. Dizzy. Dehydrated. “Think I can get some water?”
I hurried across the deck, through the slider door I’d left open, and to the kitchen. I grabbed a glass from the cupboard, filled it, then returned to Otto just as quickly as I’d left him.
I felt like an idiot standing there, watching him guzzle that water. As if I were witnessing something I shouldn’t, a play I shouldn’t have tickets for, an intruder on my own deck. So I turned around, intending to go back inside, to the living room at least, if not to my room, letting Otto leave when he saw fit.
“No,” Otto said. “Stay. Sit down.”
So I did. I walked closer and, like him, sat on the edge of the deck, my heels on the lawn. We stayed like that for a minute or so, my attention only on him, his on a pair of crows circling his garden. He squinted and, contrary to all I’d seen of him before—the sandals and straw hat, the yard sale circus, the garden games—it made me see him as some character in one of the westerns my father would watch on holidays. The strong cheekbones. The angled nose, the wiry beard. That gaze into what bystanders interpreted as nothing.
“Stupid birds,” I said, feeling it to be an appropriate thing to say, an easy way to interrupt the hum of silence.
Otto shook his head. He sipped the water. “They’re not stupid,” he said. “They’re just doing what they do.” He ran his fingers through his hair again. “What’s stupid is that fucking garden.”
I was, of course, surprised to hear this. After a moment, I said, “I like it.”
“You want it then, kid?”
Otto sipped the water. Once, twice. “I’m going to tell you something that nobody else will.” He watched the crows. “See, everybody has something to say about love. That’s because the experience of love is specific to the individual. Do you know what I mean?”
I doubt I did, but I nodded.
“What people don’t tell you—what people say they don’t want to talk about—is change.” He set the glass down so he could speak with his hands. “Change scares the shit out of everyone, enough for us to declare that we want nothing to do with it. ‘I’m happy,’ we say. ‘I wouldn’t want it any other way.’” He dropped his hands. Shrugged his shoulders. The tone of his voice heightened. “But we’re lying, kid. We all are. You want to know why?” He waited for a response I didn’t know how to give. “Because we change each and every day. We buy a khaki jacket to wear instead of the old denim one in the closet. We go from mop-top to buzz-cut. We shave our faces, and legs, and armpits. We put in premium instead of unleaded.” He must’ve seen then how lost I was. “Let’s try this: what kind of soda do you drink? What’s your absolute favorite?”
“Dr. Pepper,” I said.
“Okay, so let’s say you go to dinner every day. Every single day, you’re presented with the choice of Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew and Pepsi. You think you’d choose Dr. Pepper every time?”
“For a while.”
“But you’d choose something else eventually?”
“I’d get sick of Dr. Pepper.”
“Exactly. There’d be no more excitement with Dr. Pepper, right? We humans have this innate ability to detect the wads of stagnancy within ourselves, a lack of exploration. We do it day after day after day without even realizing it, and then, poof, the change seems drastic when it wasn’t drastic at all.”
If I could go back, if I could, at age thirty-three, sit down once more with Otto and have this exact conversation, I think I’d actually have something to say, something meaningful to add. I’d talk about you. I’d talk about how your ribs continue to swallow your stomach. I’d talk about Jesse. I’d talk about us. We could talk for hours about change. As it was, feeling my young mind to be too inept to contribute, I again opted for silence. I just remember staring at him, wondering if we’d ever be that close again.
“I used to wear a suit every day,” Otto said, filling the silence. If he was still drunk, I couldn’t hear it in his voice, in his cadence. “I’d wake up, take my favorite coffee mug out of the cupboard and set it on my beautiful granite countertop, put on a pot of French roast, shave my cheeks clean, shower, tie my tie in silence… I used to live in Milwaukee. Had an enormous office overlooking Cathedral Square. Drove this flawless Jaguar for years. Clean, I’m talking clean, kid. Spotless automobile. Used to have friends, too, friends that actually talked about life, about reality, not about what song they’ve been singing to their lettuce patch.”
“Soda,” Otto said. He looked at his house again, at the bay window’s blinds being shut. “Soda happened.”
I watched Otto track a flock of geese over the treetops, the crows over his garden long gone.
“Ever been in love, kid?” Despite the “kid”, he asked this not in a patronizing way, but in a way that somehow transcended our age difference. Like I wasn’t too young to have those feelings. Like I wasn’t young at all.
I thought I had, and told him so. Explained to him in detail how Bree Higgins walked, how, despite the lisp, her voice made me think of songbirds. I told him how infatuated I’d been with her since 5th grade. And he listened to all of it. He smiled as if what was coming out of my mouth was mending whatever had gone wrong, whatever had driven him to sleep on the deck. He was lost in my words.
“Have you kissed Bree?”
“I can’t even say my name in front of her.” I couldn’t. Funny now, frustrating then.
“It’s better that way,” Otto mumbled, as if his heart were torn with what his brain had told his tongue to shape. “I don’t know. Just be careful. The closer you get, the more out of love you tend to fall.”
Otto handed me his glass of water and stood. He stretched like a cat waking from a sun-drenched nap. He thanked me again for the water, and then he was gone, walking across our lawn and into his. Not once did he look at the garden. Nor would he be standing out there that night, or the next morning, Super Soaker in hand, nozzle aimed at the cilantro. The last I’d heard of, or spoken about, Otto was the last time I spoke with Darren, two Christmases ago, over the phone.
We talked about work first. Then his children. Then you. Then his wife. Then college. Then high school. Everything in reverse.
“You remember Otto?” he asked.
“I do,” I said. I told Darren that I hadn’t thought about him in years, but that wasn’t true. Truth is, I still think of Darren and I examining the criss-cross of rubber the Isuzu left on our street that afternoon of mine and Otto’s first, and last, conversation.
“I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately,” Darren said. He paused. “Crazy fucker, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Crazy.”
When I stop to consider love, that’s what I return to: two warped examples of relationships I witnessed as an adolescent. To slow implosions. Painful, yes, throbbing, yes, but the victims are still functional, for years able to experience fleeting moments of pleasure, that pain vacuumed out by the finality of distance. That’s what I return to: to the wounds of others that I’ve allowed to shape me.
It’s only when I go deeper that the murk begins to clear. Because, maybe for the first time in my life, I see myself for what I really am, and have been since seeing my parents hold hands that last time: immovable. Fortified. Unfair. You’ve tried, for years now, to shove, to scale the walls. I know you have. And I’ve resisted, but politely enough, and with just enough reason, for you to at first retreat and then return with your invented glimpses of hope. To that vision you still have of me sitting on the front porch of our imaginary suburban home, our sons or daughters lining the top step, sunlight waning while older children pedal by, all voices brimming with joy. To the dream vacation you spoke of no more than two weeks ago, to Bruges, pitching me yet again with, “quaint,” and, “cozy,” and, “romantic”. To when we are old and frail, and it takes both of us to drag a skimpy Christmas tree from the car roof to the living room, but we do it, and it looks like hell, but a necessary hell, our grandchildren there the morning after, still in their pajamas and sliding gifts to one another, indifferent to the eyesore they sit beneath, the bend of its branches, the needles that have fallen and turned.
I know why you believe that man to be me, Chelsea. It’s because of where and what we’ve explored these last seven years. It’s because of where we have failed to go. Where I have failed to go. This apartment has become our home, but only because, outside of work, we do not leave. Our friends are gone and we do not visit. We have flown together only once, and that was for your dying father. We don’t have enough space to plant a garden. There is no ring on your finger. There is no child in your belly.
This is a scenario that drives a determined woman like you. A canvas with only one corner colored breeds hope: for improvement, for change. And, in grasping for that hope, in grasping for me, you have only changed yourself.
Your hair is short now and, in the past six months, you’ve dyed it on three separate occasions—blonde, blue, and violet. Each time, you have framed your face with your hands and asked whether or not I like it, to which I have responded: “Yes. I do.” In truth, all it has done is make me want it long again, and black, and down, like it was when Grady introduced us.
You wear perfume now. Two different scents, actually, that you alternate depending on what mood you think I’m in.
You’re at the tanning bed as I write this.
On the calendar, it says that you have an appointment with a nutritionist next Friday. You wrote it in all caps. You even drew a smiley face next to it.
You want me to notice these changes, to see them as new. You want me to be enticed. Attracted enough to act. You want your changes to change me. But you want me to do so without thought. You want the effect without me knowing the cause. But I have thought, and I have followed, and I have wrestled, and I have dug, more so lately than I ever have.
I knew I hadn’t looked at you in months. Really looked at you—at your eyes, at your breasts, your legs, nothing. I’d see in your face that you were starting to believe that you were the ghost I was making you out to be. Not seen. Not heard. I caught you looking at yourself in the mirror one night, too, pinching your inner thighs, pulling on your cheeks to deflate the bags beneath your eyes. It made me feel guilt. And pity.
And that’s why I came to your office for lunch that day. That’s why I carried a bouquet of daisies for blocks, countless blocks. Because I wanted to do what all other boyfriends do when they realize the love has gone stale and the motivation to find another has run out: lie. But I spent hours convincing myself to believe the lie—the apology, the promises to do more, to get us out of the apartment and into a house, to do whatever it would take to make us happy again. Seeing you like I had, taking the time out of my day to do something I hadn’t done in so long, it actually had me thinking it was possible. I could fix us.
So I walked in. I walked past the restrooms, past the drinking fountains, and to the glass doors. The front desk looked empty, unattended. So I opened the doors and veered right, down the hallway that leads to your office. The soft, “Hello,” is what stopped me. I turned. Up from behind the desk came Jesse. I said, “Hello.” She smiled. I smiled. She asked who I was. I told her.
“Oh!” Jesse said. “She’s going to love those.”
“Think so?” I asked.
“Of course she will.”
I asked if you were in your office.
She said you were. Then, before I took my second step, she asked, “Can I smell them first?”
To which I said, “Sure,” and tilted the bouquet her way.
That’s what you saw. That’s all you saw. You grabbed your coat. You glared at her on our way out. You tossed your purse against the booth. You barely touched your food. And when you eventually asked, “Do you think she’s pretty?” I was anything but surprised. I said nothing. I shook my head. I sternly told you to drop it. And you did.
And that’s how we carried on. For three weeks we did, just as we had. Work, home, bed, work, home, bed, work home, bed. Dozens of words exchanged, at best, each one generic, each one a fraction of a charade that long ago had lost its meaning. But then, that night—
She was crying, Chelsea. Naked, and confused, and wiping her eyes on our quilt. She cried when I took the duct tape off of her mouth and cut the rope off of her wrists and ankles. She cried the whole way home, too, no matter how much I apologized, no matter how many times I said, “You won’t lose your job over this. You won’t. I promise.” The tears stopped only when the interior light kicked on, when she grazed her thumbs over the ropeburns.
And what did you say when I got back? Do you remember? I stormed in to find you in your sweats and over the bathroom sink, brushing your teeth as if nothing had happened, as if it were any other night. You spat into the sink and said to the mirror:
“I’m just trying to give you what you want.”
I should’ve left then, right then, or, if not then, sometime in the night—just waited for you to fall asleep, then tiptoed to the closet, thrown on another layer, and taken off. But you didn’t fall asleep that night, did you? What about the night after? I could tell. I said nothing, but I could tell. I still can. A month later, it all continues to eat at you. Your posture says so. Your eyes say so.
And I’ve had enough.
I’ve waited far too long, but I must leave you now, Chelsea. I must go far, far away, and I ask only that you leave me be. If you come after me, or try to contact me, I will turn you in. I’ll repeat that so that it’s as clear as it can be: I will report you to the police if you come after me, if or if you try to contact me.
It’s important that you know, though, that I did love you at one time. Very much. But that love vanished as each of our conditions evolved. You see those now, don’t you? You have to see it—what we have is conditional. Your conditions aren’t being met. Neither are mine. You buck against that fact and replace it with the notion that you’d do anything for me. But you won’t. The lengths you’re willing to go aren’t for me. They’re not. They’re for you. They’re for hope. And you pass that off as love. But it isn’t. It’s an attempt to reverse the implosion. It’s just as warped of an idea of love as any.