My son Felix carries salt packets in his back pocket for good luck. He is eight years old and already assumes the worst of things. Always has, in fact. As a baby, he would wake in the middle of the night, his soft limbs flailing against his crib, bruises accumulating, all because he needed to eat. “Infant amnesia,” I would tell Gregory, husband, husband that could not possibly be sleeping. “I always feed him. I’m a good mother. He is not starving.” One day, I bought a medium-sized stuffed giraffe for $3.99 at the supermarket. It had been misplaced in the produce, wedged between organic cucumbers. I put the giraffe in Felix’s crib, and that did it. He no longer cried for food, but I still checked on him every night, thinking he must be choking or dead because the house was silent. But he was only sleeping soundly.
I met Gregory in a barn. We both had green frosting on our lips from the green happy faces drawn on the chocolate cupcakes. It was a wedding reception. The barn had been converted into a venue for events—this is what happens in Kansas. I’d known the bride since preschool—also something that happens in Kansas. Gregory had been seeing the groom secretly for months, since the first day Gregory moved here from L.A. He told me at the reception that he’d sucked him off that morning, and to this day I believe him. Gregory doesn’t tell lies even if his life is a lie, a lie that feels like bubble wrap, according to him—it keeps him from getting cut, but every movement produces a loud, long pop in his ear. I understood. My eyelashes felt like sticks, and I couldn’t blink. But I didn’t know why I understood. There was nothing about me in hiding, at least not that I could articulate. “You can’t be who you are,” I said. “Neither can I.” “Who are you,” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “A bitch, maybe?” “We should get married,” he said. “That way, you can be whoever you are or aren’t on the inside and it won’t matter, because the outside’s taken care of.”
The first time Gregory said, “Please don’t kiss me goodnight,” I knew this whole arrangement was no longer a joke.
Gregory said he’d give me a child under the following conditions: I wear a man’s wig, I turn around, I let him have my ass first, I only say the words fuck, blood, and man during sex, he only has to do it the other way, the wrong way, at climax. I agreed. I hated him. Then I stopped feeling. “Do you hate me?” he always asked. “No,” I said. I developed a yeast infection. Treated it. Got another. Treated it. Pregnant. A baby! At the birth, Gregory cried. He coughed through his tears and fell to his knees at the foot of the hospital bed. “You are a woman,” he said. “A remarkable woman. I really don’t deserve you.”
The giraffe’s nose leaned into Felix’s small lips during the night, almost as if each one breathed a code into the other’s mouth, a code I imagined would be soft and blue and calming, blue bits of code linked in a chain that went back and forth between them. For years, after he could walk, Felix carried the giraffe around everywhere, kissing the giraffe every now and again, walking on the balls of his feet, leaning into the wind—the giraffe’s stuffing had absorbed all of Felix’s fears and digested them. But as Felix aged, he began to feel as if people were staring at him, and slowly self-image became more important than mental comfort. Eventually, he found a way to have both. That’s why he now carries salt. A replacement for the giraffe. That’s what he says. I don’t quite understand.
Gregory and I were married in the courthouse a week after that barn reception. It sounds pretty fucked up. We high-fived instead of kissed. Our decision to run with nothing, no passion, no heartache, no tumble of feelings to trip us up, was liberating in its own way. The courthouse was experiencing electrical problems, so the lights flickered the entire hour we were there. And every blink of the light, the playful hope in Gregory’s eyes became a little more desperate. Would this beige exterior we had elected to contain the chaos of his blood, and the ambiguity of mine, be enough? Would our world be content enough to last? Or would it unravel just like any other marriage, and leave us heartbroken that our plan, our expectations, didn’t play out?
“Mommy,” Felix says. “Daddy said a bad word. Daddy said ‘duck.’” “It’s fuck, Felix.”
“For the love of God, Margaret. Stop kissing me goodnight.”
Gregory came home dressed in drag one night while I was pregnant. We spread a blanket on our back lawn and played backgammon in the moonlight. We drank mint tea and shot it at each other through our teeth, laughing. He told me he’d started seeing a man named Giraffe, pronounced Hee-ra-fe. “Where’s he from?” I asked. “Michigan,” he said. We laughed again. He asked if I was tired. I said no. A streetlight flickered. I told him I wanted to start a garden and paint over our ugly garage door, that these kinds of things would add value to our house in case we ever decided to sell it. “I think I’m starting to understand you,” he said. If I think about it too long, my eyes burn like they did that next morning from lack of sleep.
I heard my window open, but did not open my eyes. Gregory was out, and I must have been dreaming. I felt a pair of large, soft, cool lips on my cheek. Kiss after kiss. I reached up to feel a giraffe, that pair of balls that stick up from their heads. I guided my hands down its neck as far as I could reach.
It’s Felix’s birthday and he wants to go to the zoo. Gregory wears nice slacks, a t-shirt, and slippers. I wear a dress with sunflowers, the state flower, on it. Felix wears overalls with long, deep pockets, which he fills with salt packets. Gregory spends the car ride apologizing for things he hasn’t said yet, but probably will. “Forgive me, will you?” he says. “I need to feel loved.” “I love you, Daddy,” Felix says. “I love you, Gregory,” I say. As the car pulls into the zoo parking lot, I see Felix in the rearview mirror. He isn’t smiling, but he would if he looked at me. I can put money on it. Felix is my baby, and I am Felix’s mother. I decide that’s who I am—a person who waits in silence for that loving recognition from her child, a recognition that signifies importance, an identity, even if she can’t come up with one for herself, knowing it’s there in some form is enough. I reach my hand back to touch Felix’s knee, and he turns my hand over and gives me a salt packet. Then we are walking away from Gregory’s crooked parking job and Gregory trips over a fallen branch and tweaks his ankle. Felix puts a salt packet in Gregory’s pocket. Gregory’s face is now cranky. But when we reach the giraffe exhibit, Gregory’s words are cranky. “That’s just perfect,” he says. “He’s fucking everywhere.” “It’s ‘ducking,’ Daddy,” Felix says. “Margaret, get the kid a funnel cake or something, anything to get us away from those creatures.” “Funnel cakes are at a fair, not the zoo, I don’t think. Felix,” I say, and he looks at me and smiles. I ask him if I can have a minute with his father. Then I look at Gregory’s small, pinched face, the direct sunlight causing him to squint. He tells me that Giraffe (Hee-ra-fe) is gone. Gregory’s feet are turned in. I take him in my arms and squeeze until I feel Gregory hugging in return, his gold rings dig into my back. “What kind of person lives this life?” he asks me. Instead of answering, I point to Felix, who has torn open a salt packet. A giraffe is licking the salt from his hand.