Kate’s two sons, engulfed in their hoodies, were waiting in line at the pizza counter behind Alex. It was startling to see them in person. Alex had never met them, only glanced at pictures of them around Kate’s house when he slept over on nights when the kids were with their dad. In the pictures, they were smiling, their arms around their mother, sporting polo shirts and respectable haircuts. Dad was not in the pictures.
Now the sixteen-year-old wore all black. The younger one, thirteen maybe, was in camouflage. They weren’t smiling anymore. They wore flat-brimmed baseball caps over shaggy skater curls and grim masks of teenage boredom. Alex ordered his slices and a local pale ale and sat down in a booth near the window. He opened Tender Is the Night, which was going quite slowly, and tried not to look over at the kids, who, of course, sat down at the table next to his.
“Yo, can I get that Parmesan?” the older one said, suddenly looming over him. Jason, that was his name. Alex passed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said. Then, under his breath, he added, “Faggot.” Alex tried to make his face look stern, like a disappointed adult.
Jason and the little one—Matthew?—covered their mouths and mimed silent laughter. Alex was a twenty-four-year-old bookstore manager, which made him twenty-two years younger than Kate, the kids’ mother, who, she’d made clear, was not his girlfriend. He was too old to pick a fight with her children, but still young enough to feel the sting to his pride. The fact that he could say “I’m having sex with your mom,” the ultimate adolescent trump card, gave him some peace. The fact that he could also say “I’ve been wearing your mom’s panties all week,” and “I recently spent the night under your mom’s bed at her request,” was maybe more ambiguously triumphant for their age group.
He read and listened to the boys discuss an episode of South Park in which the citizens of South Park are plagued by a sound that makes them uncontrollably flatulent. When the kids got up to leave, Alex looked up from his book.
“You know, guys,” he said. “It’s not cool to commit hate crimes against random strangers.”
“Stop checking out my dick, dude,” Jason said. Matthew giggled and looked at Alex expectantly.
“I know your mother,” Alex said.
“Cool, bro,” Jason said. He inexplicably switched to a terrible British accent. “You probably shouldn’t tell her you were examining our willies, mate.”
“Oy, mate!” Matthew added, in an even less accurate accent. “Oy! You’re fatter than Batman!”
They threw their plates in the trash and walked out of the restaurant.
Alex and Kate had started sleeping together three months earlier, after meeting at a scantly attended honky-tonk concert at the VFW Hall on Main Street. Kate was the executive director of a women’s health nonprofit in town, and Alex heard her “community connection” PSA on the local NPR station twice a day. He told her, numerous times, that she was “too hot for radio”; she had a freshly bleached, very short haircut and tall boots. She was in the process of divorcing her husband due to a “whole truckload of bullshit,” and she’d talked to Alex at length about that, and about her recent obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction, and Gillian Welch, until the bar closed. Then she’d surprised him by inviting herself back to his messy apartment out by the Walmart. Once there, she ordered him to his knees. It was a strenuous, educational night, significantly more demanding than his previous casual encounters. He drove her back to her car in the morning.
“Is that how things usually go with you?” he said.
“Boy, you have no idea.”
Alex had assumed this was a one-shot deal, something to be brought up in a drunken bout of sexual trivia someday. But instead they started spending a few nights a week together, at his place or at her empty new rental on the north side. Kate, straddling his chest, said he was “boy cute,” and praised his pliant body, which was flattering since he had started on a serious beer gut and was careless about his grooming. She had very specific notions about the tenor of their relationship—she was having new kinds of fun in the wake of her marriage’s collapse.
Once she was done working him over, Kate asked him questions about his friends and ex-girlfriends and family, even though he saw his life as a minor farce compared to hers, with the soon-to-be-ex-husband, the budget cuts at her organization, her mother in a long-term care facility, the kids crashing toward and through puberty. She chided him for thinking that way. “Your problems aren’t less valid just because you’re young,” she said. Except, of course, that they were.
A couple of nights after the pizza shop incident, Alex was at Kate’s place, reading Cynthia Ozick essays at the kitchen island while she made spaghetti sauce.
“You doing anything fun this weekend?” she said over her shoulder.
“My dad’s visiting, actually,” he said.
“Oh, that’s fun,” Kate said. “Am I gonna get to meet him?” “Do you want to?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “Unless it would make you a worried little puppy.”
He thought about this. There were a couple of levels of difficulty. He didn’t want to ask Kate to clarify their relationship, for fear of messing with a good thing. But he was also wary of her interacting with his father while they occupied this ambiguous sexual space. He didn’t care for Kate to be a subject of contemplation for his father at all, really.
“It would be fun if it works out,” he said—diplomatically, he hoped. She was silent. He stumbled forward, trying to move past the subject.
“I saw your kids at Good Pie the other day,” he said. He regretted it before it was all the way out of his mouth.
“Oh?” she said.
“Yeah, they sat down right next to me.” “And did you…interact with them?”
“Well…” The die was cast, if that was the right saying. “Jason called me a faggot,” he said.
“That was a joke,” he said.
“No, seriously, Alex, what did he say?”
“He asked me for the red pepper, I passed it to him. He said, ‘Thanks, homophobic slur.’”
Kate turned back to the pot of sauce. “I mean, I could have misheard.”
“Jason doesn’t like red pepper,” she said quietly.
“Look, it’s not a big deal,” Alex said. Why had he lied about the condiment?
“You’re telling me my son is going around saying hateful things to strangers.”
“I’d like to think he’s just misinformed,” he said.
She shook some oregano into the sauce and then went to the sink. “You shouldn’t be talking to them,” she said.
“I’m sorry I brought it up,” Alex said. “They’re great-looking kids.”
“Yeah, I know,” Kate said.
She started chopping vegetables, and Alex stared at her back over the top of his book. She was wearing a tight faux-leather skirt that Alex couldn’t be sure was intended for his appreciation. Of course, he shouldn’t have mentioned the boys. File under shit you don’t learn by dating twenty-two-year-olds.
They ate dinner sitting side by side on the couch, their plates resting on the coffee table that Alex had cleared of her books for the occasion. Kate had lived here for three months but refused to decorate it or even unpack all the boxes, since it was only supposed to be until the divorce settlement was finalized, when she would “have a better idea of the ol’ finances.” The clutter helped bridge the age gap for Alex; he felt comfortable in squalor.
“I want to see that violent Ryan Gosling movie,” Alex said, after five minutes of silence.
“I can’t remember the last time I even went to the movies,” Kate said.
“We should do it.”
“Movies are expensive,” she said. “And usually terrible.”
He put his hand on her knee, and she looked down at it, then back up at him, before shifting away.
“I thought it would be weird not to mention your kids,” he said. “Right,” she said. “Because you’re a baby and have no manners.
If I wanted a mature, concerned boyfriend, I’d get one.”
She had never spoken to him this way outside the bedroom, and he wondered disconsolately whether this was the way she actually saw him. His only plausible weapon now was silence, so he ate his pasta and stared at a pile of books on the floor. On top was a collection of stories about “the West” that a friend of his had told him was “the worst book ever written.” As a result, Alex had never read it. There were a lot of books like that. He wished, sometimes, for a less mediated life.
When they finished eating (Kate had stared at a week-old copy of the Times Magazine for the second half of the meal), Alex collected their plates and took them to the sink.
“I’ve got some work I need to do tonight,” Kate said from somewhere behind him.
“How am I supposed to interpret that?”
“That I’m not going to fuck you,” Kate said. “And not in a fun making-you-wait way, either.”
“I guess I’ll leave, then,” Alex said. “I didn’t come here to wash dishes.”
“Good, you’re terrible at it.”
This had escalated fast. He’d been pretty sure he’d be able to work things back around to getting laid. Now it looked like this friendship, relationship, whatever, might be ending.
“I’m going home,” he said. “I’m sorry, I guess. Or not. I don’t know what I thought this was.”
She cocked her head, a mirrored pantomime of him thinking. He walked out of the kitchen and out the front door to his car. In the passenger seat was the clean shirt he’d brought to wear the next day. It was only just starting to get dark out.
Two nights later, he sat on his front porch after work, drinking a beer. It was his fourth fall here, and he couldn’t imagine getting sick of the evening light. He’d come to town as a transfer student at the university after two years of misery at Amherst, where both his parents and three of his cousins had gone. He hadn’t been able to deal with all the New England horseshit—the Barbour coats, the sports, the interest in the goddamned leaves. Plus, he was on the verge of failing out. On a trip home, a pothead friend from high school rambled at him about how state schools in the West loved out-of-state underachievers because they were usually willing to pay the hiked-up full tuition. Alex applied to the universities of Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico without telling his parents. When he finally told his father that he’d gotten into UM, his father told him he was disappointed that he wouldn’t graduate from Amherst, but not about paying twenty-five grand a year less for his education.
And, surprise, in a direct rebuke to American good sense, getting two thousand miles away from Massachusetts brought out a latent interest in literature and philosophy. The weed was better, the beer was cheaper, and he had teachers who were impressed by what he’d picked up in his previous years of overeducated sleepwalking. He managed to talk his way into some masters’ seminars in English and film—“Women’s Pictures: Pym, Stanwyck, and the Uses of Melodrama”—and graduated with good grades and moderate camping skills. He stuck around town doing what there was to do, stocking shelves at the organic grocery store, hustling the occasional band profile for the alternative weekly. When the lone full-time employee of the small bookstore followed his girlfriend to Seattle, Alex was the first person the owner called, since he was the only customer under forty who bought hardcovers on a regular basis. He’d been writing staff picks and restocking the shelves now for a year, despite his father’s biweekly pleas for him to come back East and get a real job, or at least go to law school.
And he did still feel the melancholy of being far from home, the huge, teeming country between him and everyone he’d grown up with. He spent his Sunday mornings watching football games alone at the cinder-block dive in the center of town, regretfully eating two to seven slices of the free pizza provided by the guys from the Philadelphia-themed sub shop across the street. He would order something easy on the stomach to start—a Miller Lite, maybe—and work his way up to the hearty local beer by half-time. He’d smoke cigarettes outside at commercial breaks with the scruffy guys in hunting gear, looking at the photographs of large dead animals on their phones and resisting the urge to snicker at their outsized pride. Together they watched the college girls following their own weekend rituals, some in sweaters on their way out to brunch with their parents, others disheveled in skirts and heels, still trying to put an end to the night before. Watching them, only two years out himself, he found himself grateful that he had made it through that part of his life alive and relatively unscathed.
Now his father was due for a visit, his first since Alex had moved to Montana. He wasn’t dreading his father’s arrival, exactly, but he also wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. His parents had gotten divorced soon after he left for Missoula, and Alex had maintained a cordial, if not overly warm, relationship with his father, visiting him for meals and holidays but usually sleeping at friends’ houses. He’d consistently encouraged his father to visit, in vague terms, with the fairly doubtful promise that if his father saw it out here, he’d understand the appeal. His father was not the outdoor type, though he’d been a Boy Scout, and thus thought of himself as a person who appreciated nature. He was most appreciative of nature when it could be quickly followed, or, preceded, by a decent glass of Pinot Noir. (The same was admittedly true of Alex, though man of the people that he’d become, he preferred a shot and a beer.) Luckily enough, Missoula had recently been blessed—cursed?— with its first fancy wine bar. Alex was torn, in his imagining of the visit, between his desire to show off the town’s timid flickerings of culture and wanting to drag his father to one nightmarish hovel he frequented after another. You call yourself a Republican? Welcome to the real America, Dad. It’s full of cheap shit and alcoholics. He would probably strike some kind of balance, like a sucker. His phone buzzed, and Kate’s face flashed on the screen.
“I’m sorry I got nasty the other night,” she said. “I’m stressed, you know?”
“It’s fine if you don’t want to hang out anymore,” he said. “I’m going to be pretty busy for a while.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” she said. “I’m just glad I got my shot.” “I mean, I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
“Do you want to hang out?”
“Well,” she said. “I did think we were having fun until things got off track.”
He didn’t know whether this was genuine solicitude or an elaborate, backhanded way of dictating his actions. In any case, it had quickly worn down his resistance.
“I’m free tonight, actually,” he said. “Should I come to you?” “You could come now,” she said. “Or, well, how about this:
The next evening, Alex put his car in short-term parking—it would cost him two dollars at most—and waited in the small airport for his father’s plane to arrive. It was a half hour late, and he stood in the arrivals area reading D. H. Lawrence and glancing up at the television showing CNN. Breaking news: cable news was fucking terrible.
Finally, the arrivals board signaled an arrival, and a few minutes later a small stream of wary visitors emerged from a set of automatic doors. Alex’s father was in his customary traveling uniform: wool sport coat, button-down shirt, and pressed khakis. He was trailing at a polite distance behind a large, slow-moving man in an oversized T-shirt and baseball cap. His father’s shock of remaining hair was whiter than Alex remembered it, and he was, very uncharacteristically, wearing a pair of rimless glasses instead of contact lenses. He gave Alex a tired, grateful smile upon recognition.
“Oh, hello there, Son,” he said, stepping into Alex’s one-armed hug. The brief scrape of his father’s stubble against his cheek set off a burst of childish, slightly unwelcome affection.
“Good to see you,” Alex said. “How was the trip?”
“To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have minded a bigger plane on that last leg,” he said. “Little bit tight. But, overall, not too too bad. At least I can say I’ve seen the Salt Lake City airport.”
“You look good,” Alex said. He did look good, or fine, at least. He didn’t not look old, but he wasn’t not old.
“You, too,” his father said. “Except for this hair…situation.” “It’s the West, man. Don’t be such a square.”
Now that his father was before him, the idea of taking him to one of the dives in town revealed itself as the impossibility that it had always been. He would take his father to the nice-for-Missoula restaurants that he rarely patronized on his own. It was easy to forget, when he didn’t see him for a while, that he might actually enjoy making him happy.
They drove out of the airport, down the lonely stretch of highway toward town.
“The air out here’s really incredible,” his father said. “Are those the mountains?”
“That’s them,” Alex said.
“Huh. I thought they’d be a little bigger.”
“We have to drive a little bit to see the big boys. Are you hungry?” “Oh yeah. You have to practically beg for peanuts on the plane now.” He decided to take his father to the Robber Barons, a spot favored by university faculty and grad students for its decent cocktails and bison burgers. It was also where he’d told Kate they would probably end up, if she felt like saying hi, as part of his extended apology for mentioning her children’s terrible behavior.
They were seated and talked about baseball for a few minutes, until it became clear that Alex didn’t actually follow baseball anymore.
“So are you seeing anyone?” his father said.
“Nothing that serious,” Alex said. “I’ve had a few internet dates.”
“You know, Ellen was saying the other day—and she’s sorry, again, that she couldn’t make it—that all of her friends are on dating sites now. Even”—he leaned in—“some of the married ones.
“Wild times, A.”
“You think Ellen would be all right with you being on a dating site?”
His father ran his hand over the top of his head.
“Oh, not me,” he said. “I didn’t mean…No, Ellen would not be happy about that.” He’d been married to Ellen for three years now, and they both treated her, conversationally, as a totemic figure.
“They have giant gin and tonics here,” Alex said. “And they’re really cheap if you get local spirits.”
“Gin isn’t supposed to be local,” his father said.
This struck Alex as one of the more profound things his father had ever said. Still, he ordered a double Montgomery gin and tonic for himself. His father had a vodka martini, seemingly scared off the idea of gin entirely. They talked pleasantly about the family— who was living where, which cousin had produced yet another grandchild for her grateful grandmother. Moments after they were served their burgers, Kate approached the table from deeper inside the restaurant. Had she been watching them this whole time?
“Alexander, you didn’t tell me your brother was coming to visit, too,” she said. She gave a toothy smile.
“Shameless,” Alex said.
His father smiled emptily, waiting to be told what was going on. “Sorry, I’m Kate,” she said. “I heard you were in town. Alexander’s been a very dear friend to me during a difficult time.”
“Tom,” said Alex’s father. “Yes, he can be moderately helpful when he wants to be.”
There was a momentary hesitation, each of them a hair too polite to make the respective invitations and excuses required of them.
“Join us for a drink?” Alex’s father said finally. “If you don’t mind watching us eat.”
“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt your reunion,” Kate said. “It was nice to meet you, Tom.”
“No, no, stay,” Alex said. “I’m trying to show my dad the best of Missoula. But you’ll do for now.”
He was thrilled to get another big-time smile out of this silliness, the first of those he’d provoked since she’d chewed him out the other night. He was pretty sure he wasn’t in love with her— that would be pretty stupid, no?—but still, it was great when she smiled at him.
“So you’re just here for the weekend?” Kate said.
“Wish it could be longer,” said Tom. “I love it here already.”
“I’ve been here for…God, almost twenty years,” Kate said. “If you’d told me when I was a surly Boston teenager that I’d live in Montana for the length of my adult life, I’d have, I don’t know, put my cigarette out in your eye or something.”
“I still can’t believe I live here, either,” Alex said. “It seems like a weird dream sometimes.”
“Don’t put it in his head that he’s going to stay for twenty years,” his father said.
“It’s a good place to raise a family,” Kate said. Alex watched her face harden as she contemplated that.
“We miss seeing him, that’s all,” his father said to him. “The only reason your mother calls is to ask if I know when you’re coming to visit.”
“Well, it’s good you’re talking,” Alex said. “How long have you been divorced?” Kate said. “Oh…What? Four years? Five?”
“I’m in the process now,” Kate said. “I can’t even see the end of it.” “Not fun,” Tom said. “Not…fun.”
Alex checked his old, semi-dormant outrage at his father’s callousness. Even though he’d been twenty years old when his father left his mother, he’d felt a buzz of betrayal that lasted longer than he thought was socially acceptable for someone of his age and political affiliation. He told himself, and others, that he was mostly upset on behalf of his mother, whom he’d seen treated unkindly. He remembered, while waiting for a flight home from the last vacation they all took together, his father berating his mother for reserving coach seats, returning again and again to how much pain his knee was going to be in as his mother pleaded with the ticket agent to change their seats. Eventually she had managed to get his father to the front of the plane, while she and Alex and his sister, Elyse, sat together in coach behind the inevitable screaming baby.
“I just can’t believe he hates me so much,” his mother said to them. “I know he’s not happy, but why is he so angry?”
“It’s just a midlife crisis,” Elyse, sixteen, said, as if she had any idea.
In Alex’s first semester at UM, he’d endured marathon phone sessions with his mother in which she raged operatically while he watched football games on mute to keep from losing his mind. He’d mostly ignored his father’s calls, watching his phone jump while the voicemails piled up, only summoning the courage to listen to and delete them when they filled his inbox and prevented “new messages from being received,” as a patient, recorded voice informed him.
Even when relations were at their worst, though—when his mother would not countenance the word Dad spoken in her presence, and Elyse had been too overwhelmed by the situation to attempt diplomatic outreach—he had, on winter break, gone alone to visit his father in his furnished, ridiculously expensive apartment downtown. They’d traded updates on old family friends and their children, then sat on a suede Crate & Barrel couch in front of an enormous flat-screen television for an entire meaningless college football game, drinking light beer and expensive wine, respectively, silent save to acknowledge a particularly aggressive hit or egregious call. On the dark wooded drive back to his mother’s house, he castigated himself for not confronting his father. He was embarrassed to feel so much, too embarrassed to express it. Of course, as everyone counseled him it would, time had taken the edge off his feelings. And now he could feel guilty about that, too.
“So you guys are going to, what, go hiking?” Kate said now.
“Fishing? Do you fish, Alexander?”
“Never,” he said. “I haven’t even read A River Runs Through It.” “It’s actually really good,” Kate said. “I mean, I don’t think it’s just Stockholm syndrome. Missoula syndrome.”
“How do you two know each other again?” Tom said. It seemed that something in their familiarity had suddenly tipped him off. Alex caught Kate’s eye. He felt himself blushing, though he wasn’t sure his face actually did that.
“I’m a bookstore fiend,” Kate said, which happened to be true. “I think fifty cents of every dollar I spend is at Marlowe’s.”
“Yeah, most of the money they pay me just goes right back in the register,” Alex said.
“I have to say, Tom, for someone his age…,” Kate said. “How old are you again, A?”
She knew exactly how old he was. “Twenty-four,” he said. “Wow, twenty-four,” she said. “Jesus. For someone his age—I mean, any age—he’s incredibly well read. Are you a big reader, Tom?”
His father finished his martini and rolled the olive into his mouth, chewed for a moment, and swallowed.
“Nonfiction,” he said. “I read some history when I have time. Biographies. I don’t know where Alexander got his, ah, bent.”
“My mother’s an English teacher,” he said.
“Right, I meant besides that,” his father said. “Obviously.”
“Neither of my boys likes to read,” Kate said. “It kind of breaks my heart, but I’m holding out hope that they’ll come around.”
“Well, Allie took his time getting started,” Tom said. “Little bit of a rough patch. But he got through it.”
“Mostly I just fucking hated Amherst,” Alex said to Kate. His father’s face fell. He looked younger when he was pouting, for some reason.
“You never know what’s going to be the thing that inspires you,” Kate said. “I thought I was going to be a modern dancer in New York, and I ended up running a nonprofit in Montana.”
“Right,” Tom said. He wasn’t really listening. He was looking for the waitress. He’d been wounded by the one-two punch of talking about his ex-wife and the Amherst dig. Okay, Dad.
“Should we go to that new wine place tomorrow?” Alex said brightly, like one would offer a walk to a sulking dog. “There’s this new wine place that’s supposed to be really good.”
“You haven’t been?” Kate said, catching on to the need for a change of tone. “It is good. As long as you don’t mind a little bit fancy.”
“Well, I don’t know if I packed for fancy,” Alex’s father said, glancing vaguely down at his torso.
“You’re wearing a sport coat,” Kate said. “You could be the mayor of this town by morning.”
“All right, then,” Tom said. “Twist my arm. Wine bar tomorrow. I’m going to hit the men’s. If you find the waitress…” He snapped his credit card down on the table. “Make sure they include your friend’s drink, too.”
As he walked away, Kate put her hand over Alex’s.
“Just imagine how bad it would be if you weren’t here,” he said.
“You’re really lucky,” Kate said. “Some people have really shitty parents.”
“You don’t know the whole story,” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I’m just telling you, objectively speaking. You got a good deal.”
“Sure,” Alex said. “I’m a solvent white American.”
“You’re not that white,” she said. She removed her hand and sat back. “Dad at four o’clock. Or, well, something o’clock. Give me a text when you guys are done, okay?”
When Tom sat back down, he put on his reading glasses and held the check close to his face, then put it back down on the table. Alex watched him add a generous tip, then scrawl a signature identical to his own. Short swoop, long line.
“I hope we see you again,” Tom said, as they all exchanged hugs in front of the restaurant.
“Well, I’m around,” she said. “You guys have fun tomorrow. Watch out for bears!”
“Really?” Tom said.
“Naw,” Alex said.
There really were a lot of bears.
He drove his father toward his hotel out on Reserve. He’d offered to let him sleep on his pull-out couch, but Tom had turned him down, and Alex was glad he hadn’t had to make his place clean enough to host a parent.
“That was a good pick,” Tom said. “Good food. And, I have to say, your friend Kate is very cool.”
“She’s great,” Alex said.
In the silence that followed, Alex was seized by the urge to tell his father about their relationship, or whatever it was. But he couldn’t bring himself to cross that gulf. Let his father think he had a chance; or let him suspect, if only in the very back of his mind, what his son was up to.
“She’s my favorite person in this town,” Alex said.
He kept his eyes on the road but he felt his father’s glare in his peripheral vision. Alex turned and caught his eye for a moment.
“I’m looking forward to the grand tour,” his father said finally.
Alex pulled up in front of the hotel. He unbuckled his seat belt and leaned across the car’s center console to hug his father, who hugged him back harder than he expected him to, harder than he had in a while.
“Be good,” he said.
Kate carried two glasses of bourbon on ice into the living room. She’d changed into a sheer purple negligee thing, the kind of thing that Alex had only seen in the display window of Victoria’s Secret. She was playing the new D’Angelo album through her laptop speakers, and Alex got caught up in it, even in that tinny state.
“Family stuff stressful?” she said.
“I didn’t think so,” he said. “Do I seem stressed?”
“Preoccupied,” she said.
Alex took a sip of his drink. It was much better than that lousy gin and tonic he’d insisted on having at the restaurant.
“Do you like me, Kate?” he said. “I don’t mean love or anything. But do you, like, like me?”
“Aw, little baby,” she said. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t mean for it to be a thing,” he said.
“Do you think I like your dad?”
“I definitely didn’t say that.”
“He’s sweet,” she said. “I mean, he’s got an ego, obviously. But so do I. I imagine we’d get along under other circumstances. You’re lucky you’ve still got all your hair.”
She ran her hand through it, kissed his neck. He was vaguely ashamed at being easily turned on. But maybe, if looked at from a certain angle, he was the one who had the power. Because he was the one being acted upon, which made him the necessary medium for power, something like that. He was overthinking it. He didn’t have to make a decision about how he felt about any of this right now. That was something he’d only just figured out. It helped with sex, keeping an open mind. It was better to be led. Acted upon.
“Time for bed,” Kate said after a few more minutes. She took his hand, and he followed her up the stairs, past the framed family pictures he didn’t particularly care to see. The kids belonged to her, he thought, like he belonged to his father, if he still did. At a certain age the roles reversed. But, Lord willing, that wouldn’t be for a while.
She kissed him again at the bedroom door. “You good?” she said.
“Like you care,” he said.
He tried to look serious as they sat down on the bed.
In the morning, Kate woke him from a dream of an apocalyptic road trip.
“Time to go, boychik,” she said. “Kids are due, and you’ve got to show your dada Big Sky Country.”
“Noooooo,” he said.
“Don’t make me get the spray bottle,” she said. “C’mon.”
Alex collected his clothes from the floor and put them back on slowly. His father had told him that despite the presence of five local coffee shops in town, he strongly preferred to begin his day at Starbucks. There was one out on the highway in the vicinity of his father’s hotel—he would take him there on their way out to the valley where he liked to hike, a stretch that was picturesque but not too steep, undamaged but not too remote. Plus there was a brewery nearby.
He trundled downstairs feeling unwashed and sleepy. “Kate, I need coffee,” he said in a parody of a whiny child.
Her two boys were standing in the living room, a duffel bag and backpack, respectively, over their shoulders staring at him with their dead eyes.
“Uh, Mom?” the older one called toward the kitchen. “No worries,” Alex said. “I’m just on my way out.”
The kids remained in place, impassive. At the front door, Alex turned back and saw Kate coming out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel, a rigid smile on her face.
“Guys, this is Alexander,” she said. “He’s just…”
“Your boyfriend?” the little one said.
Alex caught her eye, took his hand off the doorknob.
“Oh no, honey,” she said, playacting, he hoped, disgust. “He’s my friend’s son.”
The kids looked at Alex uncertainly, the little one with the parakeet head-tilt he’d clearly picked up from his mother. It was not at all clear to Alex how this served as a reasonable explanation for his presence in their house at 8:00 a.m., but it seemed to have at least diverted their attention.
“Have a good day,” Kate said. “Tell your dad I said hi.”
The older one fell into an armchair with a sigh and took out his phone. The little one wandered toward the kitchen without saying anything. Satisfied enough, or already bored. Both.
“You need breakfast, Matt?” she said. She gave Alex a small nod and followed her son out of the room. Alex opened the door and then paused at the threshold.
“’Bye, Jason,” he said.
The kid was still staring at his phone.
“Yes, he’s rather a fat Batman, I do say,” Jason muttered in a British accent, not looking up.
“Listen,” Alex said.
This, this would be the moment to tell the kid what was really going on with him and Kate, to lay some truth on him. It was an awful generational cliché, but really: the kid still hadn’t looked up from his fucking phone! The roof could come down and Jason wouldn’t notice. He wouldn’t even know if Alex walked out the door without finishing his sentence. And, in fact, that was the only adult option available.
He’d been on this hiking trail at least a dozen times, but he knew his father would be impressed by it, and he was feeling a stronger than usual desire for his approval. He wondered if his father wanted to strangle his stepchildren the way that Alex wanted to strangle Kate’s kids. Probably more, but in a different way, since he actually knew them, and the feeling was probably tempered by the fact that he was a sixty-year-old man who had raised two children of his own, and knew, maybe, not to let them wield power over him.
Walking alongside and a little behind his father, he remembered Tom’s rare bursts of unbridled anger. Once, as a child, Alex had found a new Pirates hat, tag still attached, sitting on the kitchen table. Assuming it was a gift for him, he’d put it on and spent the afternoon running around the yard wearing it while kicking a soccer ball with his sister. When he came in for dinner, he thanked his father for the gift, and was unsettled by the stony expression on his face. The hat had been meant as a gift for his cousin’s birthday. How many hats and shirts and everything else did he already have? Why would he take something without asking? And then ruin it? He’d handed the hat to his father and gone to his room crying, not coming down for dinner despite his mother’s coaxing. It was too much—the humiliation of having believed he deserved something he didn’t, the scowl in return for his good-kid gratitude. He didn’t want to live. When he finally crept downstairs, to the rest of the family watching television without him, his father silently got up and microwaved him a Hot Pocket. A Hot Pocket! Why didn’t he give him leftovers? Was it an apology? Further punishment? He loved Hot Pockets, but even he knew that they weren’t really dinner. Then they all watched Frasier like nothing had happened.
He wondered what he imagined all kids wondered about their parents—did they forget their cruelties, their accidental bursts of raw emotion? Or did they just try to cover them up in the hope that the kid, the sieve-headed nonentity, might be the one to forget?
Probably, Alex knew now, nobody forgot, and life accumulated these misunderstandings until somebody died. Kate had said that his father wasn’t so bad, and maybe it was best to simply believe her, since it was possible that she was in a position to know. Her father had probably been a real shit. Then again, her kids were assholes. But then again, they were just kids. Then again and again. “Really wonderful out here,” his father said, as they overlooked a perfect stream trickling from a rocky outcropping. At this point it was all so much natural wallpaper to Alex, a late-nineties screen saver.
“It’s nice to be somewhere you can think,” Alex said. They were competing for a place in the World Series of banality. Dad Sox versus the Alexander Cardinals. Dad in five.
“Don’t want too much of that!” his father said, picking his way closer to the water.
The morning was starting to feel like a commercial for a drug to help you painlessly dispose of your demented father. That was a bad thing to think; it would be terrible, Alex knew, if his parents came down with terminal diseases. Unbearable. But worse, for them, in a way, if he did while they were still relatively lucid. It would be best if, somehow, none of them developed degenerative illnesses. He felt guilty for the entire line of thought and sought to ameliorate it.
“How’s Ellen?” he said. “How are the girls?”
“You know, everyone’s doing pretty good,” his father said. He spoke in the slightly higher-pitched voice that he used when he was avoiding content. “Lily’s soccer team is doing really well, actually. She’s actually a pretty good player.”
He sounded amazed at this—had there been some suggestion that Lily, and Lily’s team, would perform substandardly in their recreational soccer league?
“That’s great,” Alex said, trudging conversationally forward. “And Ellen’s good? Work and everything not too bad?”
“Not too bad, no,” his father said. “Up and down, but overall pretty good.”
“Are you still in touch with what’s-her-name?” his father said finally. “Lisa?”
“A little bit,” Alex said. He and Lisa had dated at Amherst four years ago, then broken up when he moved. “Why are you asking?”
“I liked her,” his father said. “You could tell she was a good person. I thought she was really good for you.” Alex felt unexpectedly exposed.
“Don’t you think I’m a good person?”
“Of course,” he said immediately. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know, it just seemed like you went out of your way to describe her as a good person. Like, I don’t know, I need a good person in my life, for some reason.”
“Don’t overanalyze it,” his father said. “I liked her. She was a pretty girl and a smart girl and she cared about you. But it seems like you’re doing just fine. I’m very proud of you.”
But why, now, was he proud? Good, proud. The words had no meaning. They were stand-ins, maybe, for more complicated feelings his father wouldn’t express. Alex wanted to be someone who could communicate, who might be able to formulate his thoughts in such a way that they did not require Talmudic study. He thought, to that end, that he should tell Kate that he loved her, maybe, even if there was no future to the relationship, just so that she could hear him say it. He knew he should tell his father that, too, but he didn’t think he would hear it the way he wanted him to, now. He’d hear it as an apology, or an accusation.
“Thanks,” Alex said. “You want to turn back soon?”
“Whatever you think,” his father said.
That night, they had a long dinner at the expensive restaurant in the old hotel on Higgins, followed by wine at the new wine bar.
“Just so you know, this place is not, like, the real Missoula,” Alex said. He was tipsy. His earlier seething ambivalence had been sanded down and he was in the mood to share.
“Seems real enough to me,” his father said. “You choose the Matrix,” Alex said.
“Like in The Matrix. The guy’s eating a fancy steak and he’s like, ‘I choose the Matrix.’”
“You’re very strange,” his father said.
“You say that, but, I mean, I’m your son,” Alex said. “If I’m strange, you’re a big part of it.”
“I’m a lot of things, Alexander,” his father said lightly. “But I’m not strange.”
“Well, maybe your, uh, assiduous attempts to suppress your strangeness are what did it, then.”
His father finished his final inch of wine in a long sip. “I’d be looking at your mother if I were you,” he said. “You’re all strange. Her, your sister, you. I’m not being critical. I’m fine with it. I’m very proud of you no matter how strange you are.”
That old pride again. His father paused and signaled with his empty glass to their waitress, a friend of Alex’s, that he urgently needed more wine. Then he leaned back against the padded booth, holding his glass at a tilt as though waiting for it to be filled.
“I mean, I’m glad you’re not one of these little pony boys,” he continued. “I’ll say that much at least. I told you about this, right?”
“I think I would remember that, whatever it is,” Alex said.
“No? I took Lily to an author signing because she’s very into the My Little Pony books right now. They’re back, apparently, the ponies. And really, she’s into the dolls, and the show, not the books, but whatever. We get her the books, it gets her reading. It’s all good. Anyway, we’re at the bookstore, waiting in line, and there are all these guys, boys—I mean, men, really—your age, some of them, some older, even, a lot older—dressed up as the My Little Ponies. With these pink tails coming out of their pants, and pink hair, the whole thing. And I mean, I don’t know, I’m saying to Lily, like, ‘Are you seeing this?’ I’m a little bit skeptical, let’s say. And Lily of course is totally unfazed. She’s like, ‘They’re being ponies, Tom. It’s a whole thing.’ And I’m thinking Oh-kay. And, like, how must that guy’s parents feel? So anyway, I don’t care that you’re strange. You’re barely strange, Alex. I’m just teasing you. But since you’re not a pony boy, as far as I know, I’m glad you’re not. That’s all I’m saying.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know,” Alex said. Casey finally came and filled Tom’s glass.
“Thank you, dear,” his father said abstractedly. He sipped, frowned, and leaned forward.
“There are things a father doesn’t need to know,” he said. “But you might be surprised by how unsurprised I would be.”
This did not have the force of revelation, but that was all right. He didn’t want to confess anything to his father. Instead, he grinned across the table at him like a monkey.
“What?” his father said. “Are you a pony boy?”
“Maybe,” he said. “You know that it’s, like, fairly prevalent in the world, right? Like, that’s actually really normal. People do all kinds of things.”
“What would be the worst thing to you?” Alex said. “Like, what would you really not be able to handle?”
His father seemed to grow smaller with the shift in tone. “Alex,” he said, leaning forward, “as long as you’re happy, and not hurting anyone, I can make my peace with anything.”
“Not hurting anyone? That’s your rule?”
“You know,” his father said, “you can be very passive-aggressive.” Alex’s mind had drifted back to Kate. She knew from passive-aggressive. When he told her about this later, she would smirk and say, “You’re too passive to be passive-aggressive,” and he’d accept it.
He could be her pony boy, he thought. He already was, basically. Pony man. Maybe that was the right way to describe his orientation. Was a pony man just a horse? No, he remembered. Ponies were not baby horses. The main difference between ponies and horses was their height.
Andrew Martin is the author of Early Work and the story collection Cool For America.