Curt was in Bernadette’s Studio City apartment on a visitation. He picked the twins up, one in each arm, and crooned, “Do you still love me? Do you like me at least? You do, don’t you? C’mon, give your daddy a kiss.” They squirmed and kicked their pajamaed legs until the babysitter came forward worriedly. She was a junior at USC, her chest in its sports bra one large seemingly unbifurcated bosom, her eyes stuck onto her face like pins. Curt put the twins on the carpet and reached out and ran his hand down her arm. Her skin was cold. He had no interest, but he was pretending.
Pretend harder, he thought. He ran his hand up her arm this time, as if a different direction would change everything.
“Bernadette told me to expect this from you,” the babysitter said.
“She doesn’t know me,” Curt said.
“She said you’re a jackal.” The babysitter addressed the twins. “That’s like a dog, sweeties.”
“Doggie!” Bruce sat back on his bottom and pointed up at Curt.
Curt had given up his peppermint schnapps with his marriage, which was a shame, because the schnapps would’ve made this moment funny and humane. He would have been filled with a swell of fellow feeling for this persnickety undergrad, who was standing in front of him as if she were the rightful caretaker of his children, and fallen a little in love with the corona of youth that she wore as casually as a headband. But he was sober and tired and constipated. He reached down and swatted Bruce’s finger away harder than he should have, and then, as his son began to cry, said, “I’m just kidding.”
The babysitter scooped up Bruce and let him bury his head in her chest.
The next morning, waking in a single bed in the basement of his mother’s house, Curt realized he had not been kidding. He had really wanted to pulverize that little finger, destroy it. It had pointed at him with the directness of innocence, and Curt was not innocent. Curt was ridiculously guilty. He stared at the cracks in the ceiling, leftovers from small earthquakes, got out of bed, went into the bathroom and plucked some nose hairs from his nostrils with a pair of tweezers. His eyes watered, and he slapped his cheeks as if dealing himself harsh handfuls of aftershave lotion. His face wore such a scrabble of contradictory emotions that he wanted to turn away.
That face had been on TV. That face—wincing now under the fluorescents—had delivered the Southland’s news. Curt Quick. Quick at 6:00 p.m.
It was a good show, a quality broadcast, not cheesy or homespun. It was Los Angeles, a big market. What can he say about those years? How can he explain the feeling of being as happy and as miserable as he’d ever be? Freighted with ambition, dying under it. Bernadette was an actress. She played a figure-drawing model on a show called Still Life. A cool wind came up her throat when they kissed. Her tongue was long and her legs were insured. She ate a serving of asparagus a day for its diuretic properties.
When she got pregnant, they married, and she gave birth to twins. Those first few months he carried his schnapps from room to room. The neck of the bottle kept showing up in pictures of the twins. He didn’t hit Bernadette. Apparently he jabbed her and pinched her some. Apparently he came home late with glitter in his eyebrows. To know so much about him, all the things her lawyers purportedly knew, they must’ve had bionic ears and bionic eyes. They must’ve been able to see through walls and hear his memories and taste his fear rising like mercury up his throat.
Bernadette moved out and began dating one of the show’s writers. Curt couldn’t afford anything in LA, so he bought a vacant lot thirty-five miles east in the little town in the Inland Empire where he’d grown up, in Fairmont, a no-man’s-land.
He found out that she won custody of Tyler and Bruce two minutes before airtime. Livid and weak-kneed, he began reporting a story about a class-action suit against a battery-manufacturing plant, but in his mind the phrase asshole fucking grubs kept repeating itself, meaning lawyers, his and hers and the world’s, and as the segment went to commercial break he exclaimed that same phrase—asshole fucking grubs!—into the black gumdrop head of his live microphone. The cameraman reared back as if shot through the eye.
It was not a phrase the network or the advertisers or his followers on Facebook took kindly to. Not even when he posted about the unfairness of the world and the stupid, aching race to the top and the terrible pressure on men to succeed when he just wanted to live his life with the freedom to feel, like women did. It all came down to his own mother, who made great mayonnaise-based dips but never kissed or hugged him. He could have her on the show to verify that, he could get an exclusive with her, ha-ha, but OK, seriously, he apologized for what had happened, his little outburst, he took full responsibility for it, and he did not think most lawyers were grubs at all, OK?
The next morning he was fired but not before he did penance at the desk of the network CEO. The man looked like one of those mysterious heads on Easter Island. The more heartfelt Curt’s apology, the more the CEO turned away from it, as if its sincerity proved the heinousness of the crime. Everything Curt said, everything he promised, was for naught. The show went to Curt’s underling, Alyssa Chow. Chow at 6:00 p.m. sounded, frankly, ridiculous, which was the only comfort to be had.
. . .
Read the rest of this story in the Kenyon Review Mar/Apr 2016 issue, on sale now!