WISH YOU WERE HERE by Claire Vaye Watkins: An Excerpt

tahoeby Claire Vaye Watkins

It begins with a man and a woman. They are young, but not so young as they would like. They fall in love. They marry. They concieve a child.They buy an adobe house in a small town where all the houses are adobe. The McDonald’s is adobe. The young man is named Carter. Carter often points to the adobe McDonald’s as proof of what a good decision they made in moving away from the city. The woman, Marin, is also glad they’ve moved here, but she misses her friends, and the constant sound of city traffic whispering like the sea. She feels this little town tries too hard.

As soon as Carter and Marin learn they’ve conceived the child, they begin to argue about it. What will they feed it, what will they teach it, what of this world will they allow it to see? They fight about these things before the child is more than a wafer of cells. Before the child is anything, it is a catalyst for fights.

All the fights are the same fight: Carter wants to be sure Marin will change for their child. She has irresponsible habits. She eats poorly. She never exercises. She is terrible with money. She smokes and watches too much TV and gets bored easily and antagonizes people at parties.

Carter used to be fine with her habits. They were the things he once loved about her. Marin points this out, many times.She asks who it is he thinks he married. A child changes things, he says. A child is sacrifice. This is inarguable, and eventually she gives up arguing it. Each day he has a new stream of questions about what kind of mother she will be.

Does she plan on using disposable diapers?

Of course not.

Will she allow the child to watch television?

Only in small amounts. No. No. Not at all.

Will she use a microwave to heat the child’s food?

Never.

When he was a boy, he says, his family had a garden where they grew fresh fruits and vegetables. He’s told Marin about this garden, many times. The garden was monstrously fecund. His mother spent days and days in their basement, canning its yields. He wants to know, Will she garden? Will she can?

Of course, she says.

Why does she say this? She doesn’t know. She is not willing to can.

When he was a boy, Carter says, his family never ate out. He and Marin are always eating out. Their refrigerator is crammed with wire-handled Chinese takeout boxes and containers of pasta with the lids pinched on and Styrofoam clamshells of crab cakes and vegetable quesadillas and leftover restaurant steaks wrapped in aluminum foil. Marin pretends to be apologetic about these—it’s just that they’re so busy, she says. But she likes eating out. She is comforted by the choreography of a restaurant. And she likes to bring the leftover steaks to bed and gnaw on them, cold, while she watches TV.

Marin never cooks. For dinner, she likes to make herself cereal or cheese and crackers or half an English muffin with mayonnaise and a microwaved egg on top. This is another thing that will have to change. Carter never cooks either, but this is not something that will have to change. Carter has seven brothers and sisters and when he was a boy, he says, his mother made them all a healthy, hot meal, every single night. She never used a microwave.

A memory Marin often excavates during their arguments:

They’d been dating only three months when Carter asked her to meet his parents. It had just rained and the two of them were walking to the BART station, trading easy jokes about the terrible, bombastic movie they’d just seen. Carter stopped on the shining, still-wet sidewalk and took her hand.Come home with me, he said. She loved the urgency of the question, and how fearlessly he asked it.

The next morning they drove from San Francisco to Seattle, then continued north to a suburb of Seattle. It was his mother’s fiftieth birthday, and their visit was a surprise. When they arrived, Carter’s mother held Marin as though she were her own baby.His mother did not have a bank account, Marin learned. His mother did not have a driver’s license. She was cooking her own birthday dinner.

In the kitchen, Marin wanted to seem helpful. She opened the door of the pantry to reveal a wall of hand-canned fruits and vegetables. The stained-glass colors of tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, and green beans. Carrot spears, halved beets, apricots, rings of apple. Small shriveled pickles and relish and a row of homogeneous dun-colored jams. Pearl onions like eyeballs.

In the pantry Marin said, I need some air. No one heard her.

She walked to the tennis courts across the street and smoked just a tiny bit of a stale joint she kept in her compact. Small white moths flitted silently in the halos of the court lights, and she watched these until she felt a little better. She returned to the house and over dinner she saw quite clearly that she was attending the birthday celebration of a fifty-year-old woman who had never had an orgasm.

On the long drive home, Marin sat silently with her anxieties, turning them over in her head. She had a tendency to be self-destructive, she knew. Before Carter, her life had been a string of beautiful, aloof men with names like the four legs of a very sturdy table. Even now she had the urge to call one of them up and see if he still knew his way around her. She could pass a whole day inflaming the listlessness inside her with erotic fantasies of men who, for the most part, had been unkind to her.

When was she going to grow up?

She looked at Carter. He smiled, bleary-eyed from the drive, and put his hand on the back of her neck. She was twenty-nine. He would be a good husband. A wonderful father. He loved her as though it had never occurred to him that he could feel otherwise. She wanted to be someone who deserved a love like that. She smiled back at him and cracked her window, feeling the stale air sucked from the rental car. She inhaled deeply, and when she exhaled she let her doubts slip out the window with her breath, littered them all along I-5.

Six months later, in April, Marin and Carter were married beneath a copse of papery crab-apple blossoms in Golden Gate Park. Carter had already found an impressive job in the progressive high desert town with the strict zoning laws. A place to raise a child. They bought their first car and hitched it to their moving truck and towed it out of California. Every hundred miles or so Marin asked Carter to pull over, and when he did she opened the door of the U-Haul and vomited on the side of the road….

To read the rest of the story, order your copy of Issue 24.1-Winter/Spring 2012 today.

Watkins-150x150Claire Vaye Watkins was born in Death Valley in 1984 and raised in the Nevada desert. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, One Story, Ploughshares, Glimmertrain, Best of the West: New Stories From the Wide Side of the Missouri and elsewhere.  She has received a Father William Ralston Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a Presidential Fellowship from the Ohio State University, where she received her MFA. A graduate of the University of Nevada Reno, Claire is an assistant professor of creative writing at Bucknell University.  Her collection of short stories, Battleborn, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.