Accidental Improvementsby Kimberly King Parsons
They fight in cars—in his Volvo or in her Volvo, in the backseats of cabs. It’s been like this since the beginning of them. They used to do it in her old pickup, in his father’s borrowed hatchback. When they were young it was dangerous. They’d swerve in anger, shove past speed limits without noticing. Once she punched the steering wheel so hard she broke the horn mechanism and the car—it was the hatchback then—wailed for miles. Another time, on a drive down the coast, he threw her purse out the window like trash.
She brings this up in couple’s therapy. Was it a thing—road rage but directed at each other? After all these years? It’s quite common, the therapist says, but later, on the drive home, she turns the words over with dark suspicion.
Isn’t it a therapist’s job to tell us that? she says. Isn’t “quite common” what we pay for?
It’s only a thing if you make it a thing, he says.
Everything was already a thing. She wants to slam on the brakes, wants the Kleenex box from the back window to fly like a brick and maim him a little. But now they only bicker and whine, abide by traffic laws. They fixate on the proper way to load the dishwasher, how a particular kid likes a particular food. Ever heard of scraping the plates first? one of them will say. Cut the crusts off or she will make you regret it.
All of this pointlessness is cut through with the occasional vicious truth: The sound of your voice is ruining the world. It’s being buckled in maybe, being trapped together in such a small space. It makes them brave.
Inside the gates of their darkened community, he gets out of the car to check the mail. His date-night jeans are new, though the ass is already sad and baggy, some failure of denim science. She watches him step under the awning and put his tiny key into the bank of metal boxes. Dinner was nice, but on the drive home there was an argument about the piano, if they should allow the older daughter to quit playing it. He’s in favor of natural consequences, letting the girl give up. But didn’t he see that the failure would be theirs, as parents?
We paid for the thing, we paid for the lessons, she’d said. We’re the ones who’ll suffer.
She’ll only resent you, he said. You can’t nag.
For her, fury begins with numb hands, excess saliva. Don’t say nag to me, she said. Don’t you dare.
We can’t force her, he’d said.
It’s like saying bitch or cunt, she said. It’s worse! I can’t stand the sound of her playing anyway, he said. She’s so, so terrible. That’s suffering! His anger comes with a slight lisp, the repeated scouring of his eyeglasses on whatever shirt he happens to be wearing.
Because she doesn’t practice! she said. She could be a prodigy if she practiced!
That’s not how prodigy works, my friend, he’d said.
He flips through their catalogues and bills, stands there sorting in the arc of streetlight while she waits behind the wheel. She turns off his terrible music. What kind of person, when confronted with a universe of streaming choice, chooses the pan flute? She points hot air at her face.
On his way back to the car he is jaunty, smiling and holding up her favorite magazine. Now that he’s out in world, he loves her again, forgives her everything. He’s forgotten how vile they are, how ashamed they should be—for owning a piano in the first place and for fighting about it, for being exactly who they are. At home, they will overpay the babysitter and quietly slip off their shoes. They will stand in their big, white kitchen and smoke a joint. They will watch a competitive baking show and fuck. But for now she’s savoring the dregs of this delicious rage, seething with car feelings.
At home, they have a Composure Jug—a mason jar full of glitter water they keep on a table in the front hall. She’s taught the girls to shake it when they’re angry, to breathe deep and let the turning galaxy settle them. There’s also the Gratitude List she has them recite each morning, the guided meditations she forces them to do in the family room each night. She discovers these tips in her magazines, recipes for household peace.
Maybe we need a mini jug for the car, she suggests to him one day as they back out of the drive. For us, I mean.
Sure, he says. Or some kind of soothing commute music?
This is not a good idea—this is maybe the worst idea. She doesn’t respond for a while, until she’s driven them down the block, through the gates.
I could go for pink noise, she says. Soothing music is, I don’t know, subjective.
Yeah, he says. Yes. But what about some worldbeat? he says. He turns the knob on the satellite radio, already scanning for steel drums and digeridoos and god knows what else. It soothes the world, you know? he says.
Was it so long ago that they’d writhed in a warehouse together under epileptic strobes, their pupils pinned, some DJ in a horse head mask inflicting glorious, permanent damage to their hearing? Worldbeat! Who was this person?
Maybe let’s just try contemplation, she says, batting his hand away, snapping off the music. Silence. Starting now.
It’s so easy to be cruel—everything she hates about him is everything she hates about herself.
Yeah okay, he says and his sudden aggravation makes her wildly, maniacally happy.
Hey, she says. Bicycle. She’s his passenger, doing her makeup in the lighted visor mirror, one eye shut. Still, she knows more about what’s going on in any given crosswalk than he does. Yo, she says. Hey.
I see it, he says. He’s doing Tranquil Voice—something she taught him—because the kids are in the back or because he wants to be superior to her or both.
Bicycle, she says. Bike! He brakes just in time, somehow doesn’t ruin all of their lives. She is reminded of that cautionary Drivers’ Ed tale: The Woman Who Punctured Her Eyeball with a Mascara Wand. She snaps her little kit closed, flips the mirror, gives up on being presentable. She has a bald slash in one eyebrow, a childhood scar—from a bike accident!—she usually fills in with blond powder. She licks her thumb and runs it over the naked stripe. It’s going to drive her crazy all day.
I saw the guy, he says. He’s bouncing to the click-click-click of the turn signal, weird little thrusts in his bucket seat.
Asshole, she says soft, like a song. It’s a child.
That? he says. No—short guy.
Who’s a child? the younger daughter says from her booster seat. Her current obsessions are other children, granola bars, and the videogame Animalmash. Their older daughter, a listless, glassy-eyed tween in headphones, stares straight ahead. She’s recently gotten oblivious and sad, a sullen void neither of them knows how to deal with just yet.
The cyclist gives them the finger and speeds furiously away. See, her husband says.
The guy is in fact a guy, but he’s tiny, like a jockey. Anyone could have made the same mistake.
Who’s a child? the younger daughter says again. Nobody, they say and the girl goes back to her little screen, her bizarre conjoined creatures. Short but spunky, he says. Cyclists! She flips down the lighted mirror again. She should do her lipstick at least. Otherwise, work people will ask if she’s tired, if she’s coming down with something.
They want to be treated like pedestrians but they want to be treated like cars. They want it both ways, he says.
Either way, she says. You yield! She raises her voice but she’s not really that mad. She’s trying to rile herself up, to feel a feeling. If he uses the word “shrill” she will open her door, calmly tuck and roll herself into traffic.
She paints her lips and lets something new bother her. The thing about The Mascara Wand Woman—it goes against what she remembers from her own personal, if limited, eyeball- puncturing experience. In 7th grade biology they’d dissected pigs’ eyes and an attractive male teacher—some bewildered, unlucky substitute—had to help each student make the first cut. The corneas were tough, not gelatinous as everyone expected, the scalpel too hard to push. The eyes kept slipping out from under the students’ tools—some popped off their trays and rolled onto the floor. Even after the sexy sub had muscled the first incision for her, she’d had to lean her full weight on the blade to make any progress at all.
They pause their bickering at drop off, so Ruth the Montessori aid can greet their girls at the car. The bicycle fight was actually an interlude in their original fight, which he had picked seconds into their commute. It was the very worst kind—a laundry fight, a folding fight.
Ruth holds the door open. She eyes the daughters’ iPads, now switched off but not stowed away, high-fructose granola bar wrappers on the floorboard. She is scripted and cold, everything she wants to say caged by some mysterious educational dogma. It’s fine—the school is highly rated. This brand of awkwardness is what they pay for, probably. Ruth has a fat fever blister. She’s heaped herself in shades of polenta—a cowl neck sweater, some kind of downy cape.
Have you said your goodbyes? Ruth says gravely. They have, and so the girls tumble out of the car and into the swarm of small bodies.
He rolls down the windows. I do the laundry, she says, once they’ve lost sight of the girls’ fluorescent backpacks, pulled away from Ruth’s sour gaze. I do.
You do the machine part, he says. But who folds? Who made a bunch of improvements to the entire process?
He makes a right on red, puts his stupid arm out the window to surf the air.
Your improvements, she says, are accidental. Her hair whips around. In the side mirror, she looks ancient and unhinged.
I set up a light basket and a dark basket! I hung a line! You scoop and pour powder, turn a dial and push a button, he says.
That’s laundry! she shrieks. No, he says. That’s fun.
They are watching the show where guys smelt their own swords. Forge them, whatever. It’s competitive, and these guys are experts in their field, pushed to the very limits of bladesmithing. They know about the crusades and they know about decapitation. There’s a red Jell-O man they have to slice through at the end to prove the strength of their weapons. They win cash, but it’s more about honor, she thinks.
He loves this show, loves the peanut butter he’s heaping into his mouth, but she’s too stoned, everything tinged with a kind of hopeless longing, even the sex they just had, which was uncharacteristically good. She asks him to do some yoga with her, just a sun salutation or two.
Nah, he says. Let’s do the opposite of that.
Their legs are twisted together. His shins are only slightly hairier than hers. Sometimes I forget which one I am, she says, wistful. Mmmh, he says. He spoons peanut butter into her mouth. We’re fused, she says, smacking. It’s forever. She looks at the slack, naked tangle of their bodies. Their nipples are the exact same shape, size, and color. Somewhere deep in the house, a smoke detector beeps. The idea of solving this issue exhausts her—so many rooms, such tall ceilings. She thinks, for a second, about people in the world without access to clean water.
We’re such assholes, she says. We’re the problem!
It’s the killshot! he says. The Jell-O man is strung up. She thinks their marriage, like most, is an endless series of gesture and phrase, looping repetitions that obscure the point where one of them ends and the other begins. Then she’s thirsty, or maybe he is.
These guys have never seen a vagina, she says, cotton mouthed.
Please, he says. He’s got his hands in the air like a little kid, giddy for each slash to the body. These guys get so much P.
Truthfully, they’re on their third Composure Jug.
Why not plastic? he says when that one, like the others, is flung on Spanish tile by a screaming daughter. Something tough? He is on his knees in his socks, smearing the shattered mess around with too many paper towels. She files his dumb comment away and goes after the girl, comes back with the mop.
That rainbow bullshit is in my eye, he whispers later from the couch, the calm daughter asleep upstairs in her canopy bed, the wild daughter asleep right there on his chest. Get it out, he says.
She shines a light in his face but doesn’t find anything. It’s there, he says. It’s every time I blink. Hmmm, she says then. She pretends to catch a spark. Yellow, she murmurs. Embedded.
She hopes it will haunt him, a fear she’ll feed or mitigate, depending on her mood, for as long as it entertains her. She imagines checking it nightly. It’s finally resorbing! she’ll say. Your body is winning! Or, Oh no, I think there’s a callous forming around it?
She clicks off the flashlight and goes to clean the kitchen on tiptoe. She scrapes the dinner plates in slow motion, sprays the counters, turns off the lights one by one.
Want me to take her upstairs? she asks him once the house is pristine and shut down. Nah, he says. Go get the other one. Let’s all camp out together. It’s a sweet thought but it’s not going to happen. You couldn’t pay her enough to wake a sleeping child. Instead, she’ll go upstairs and get into bed blissfully alone—spread out like a greedy, flabby monster. She’ll dream she’s young and drunk, flat-backed in the bed of the old pickup truck, some stranger with strong forearms driving her through an endless pink tunnel.
Tomorrow she’ll replace the glass jar. She’ll make a dozen more if she has to, a hundred, each one more dazzling and brightly colored—more delicate—than the last. She’ll make everyone in this family understand, eventually, that fragility is the fucking point. Glitter too.
ContributorKimberly King Parsons
KIMBERLY KING PARSONS is the author of the short story collection Black Light (Vintage 2019). She lives with her partner and sons in Portland, OR, where she is completing a novel (forthcoming from Knopf in 2020) about Texas, motherhood, and LSD.