That was the year all the tomato plants started dying off, and hoarders stockpiled pizza-flavored hot pockets and individually-sized ketchup packets. On late-night television, the President attempted to reassure a wary nation. “Let us turn our attention to the many other great vegetables,” he said, the stripes on his necktie fuzzing together in the square of the TV. “Broccoli, carrots, peppers—both red and green—rutabaga, onions.” All the lanes on the highway had been turned into carpool lanes and friendless Americans, desperate for passengers, roamed the streets in search of companionship. And in the cities, the smoke from the factories had begun to smell delicious, like flavored chapstick or reheated leftovers. Commuters stepped from the subways each morning with briefcases in tow, their nostrils open wide as opera singers’ mouths.
It was the year Amy and Evan, both Jews, exchanged personalized rubber stamps for Christmas and then began to mark their respective possessions with their respective stamps. The diet cola: Amy’s; the other diet cola, with the different kind of fake sugar: Evan’s. The zigzag carpet, bought used and laced thick with someone else’s pet hair: Amy’s; the vinyl beanbag, relentlessly abuzz with the secondhand warmth of someone else’s ass: Evan’s. And then, one evening, after a particularly lackluster round of halfhearted sex—which, since their sex had been consistently halfhearted for months now, was more like quarterhearted—Amy’s breasts and buttocks themselves: Evan’s.
This was not how things were supposed to work. True, the winter they’d first met Amy had given Evan a Valentine’s Day card that said, “I’m yours,” but she hadn’t really meant it. No one could ever really belong to anyone. Like the clouds—everyone had thought they belonged to the sky, until they’d started falling out and collecting on the sidewalk in little misty puddles. Or Alaska—everyone had thought it belonged to the U.S., until it’d detached itself and drifted away. Now nobody knew where it was. Amy had heard rumors that it’d gone around to the other side of the map and joined up with Australia, but if that was true Australia wasn’t saying anything.
So Amy said, “You can’t stamp me.”
“I didn’t know there were rules,” Evan said.
“Fine,” Amy said. She reached for her stamp and used it to stamp his stamp—now they were both her stamps. And when Evan gave her a tilted look she said, “I didn’t know there were rules.”
They sat there on the edge of the bed, thigh to thigh, the ink still moist on Amy’s chest. That was the first of many last straws.
Amy worked three days a week for a company that assisted university professors with the implementation of psychological experiments. Today’s experiment would measure the effects of an attractive woman’s presence on the arithmetic skills of teenage boys. In the corner of the room, the attractive woman sat waiting, narrow-eyed and ambiguously multiracial. Amy wondered if she was married, or if she’d ever been married, or if she’d ever thought about being married, or if she’d ever used the word “married” in a sentence.
Amy’s boss was a woman whose main qualification seemed to be her vast collection of business attire, pleated skirts and photocopier-grey pantsuits. “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have,” she’d said. “Of course, the distinction is purely academic in my case, since I already have the job I want.”
“Sure,” Amy’d said, nodding her head up and down like a basketball on its last dribbles.
Later, as the attractive woman changed behind a backlit privacy screen, Amy sat in the waiting room next to the mother of one of the teenage boys. “It’s such a shame,” said the mother. “What’s happening to the trees. And the birds—just today, Dennis saw a sparrow drop straight out of the sky. Dead, just like that!”
“Dennis,” said Amy. “Your son?”
“Oh, no,” said the woman. “My husband. Our Peter would never notice a sparrow. He likes those plastic people that you melt in the microwave.” She turned to Amy. “Do you have any children?”
“I’m not even married,” Amy said. “I don’t believe in it.”
“Oh, honey,” said the woman, her brow spread wide. “Everybody believes in marriage. Just look at that man with the smooth hair, the one on all those magazine covers.”
“The shampoo guy?”
“No, the other one. He’s married. And the President. He’s married!”
“He’s not really married,” Amy said.
“No,” she said. “It was all a scam, to get reelected. They make his wife with computers.”
Amy’s boss appeared as if teleported. “Halfway point,” she said. “Would you tell the boys?”
Amy stood. “Won’t she distract them?” The mother asked.
“Oh, no,” said Amy’s boss, her head ticked slantways. “We have the attractive woman for that.”
Out to lunch with his mother, Evan tried to identify the menu’s fonts. He knew what would happen when their waiter approached: his mother would insist that they were ready to order, then spend five or six minutes talking to the waiter about everything but what she wanted to eat. Evan would get something that came with fries and his mother would raise an eyebrow and say “Fries?” even as he asked if they could substitute something else.
Evan’s mother was so old that her mere presence seemed to be a mockery of all other old people. She wanted only to talk about Amy, or Evan’s father, sometimes alternating between them so quickly that Evan suspected the two were becoming confused with each other in her mind. Evan had been with Amy for a long time, but not for long enough that his mother didn’t remember Cheryl, who had come before Amy, and Katherine, who had come before Cheryl.
Evan’s mother scooped butter onto her bread and said, “Have you picked a date yet?”
“Mom,” he said. “We’re not getting married. You know that.”
“Of course, sweetie,” she said. “But that’s no reason you can’t pick a date anyways, just in case. You’re not required to use it, you know. Pick a date—March 25th let’s say—and why not a place too, while you’re at it—and then if you two do end up deciding you want to tie the knot, well, you’ll already know when and where.”
Evan said nothing. His mother was afraid—they all were. The couple at the table next to them, the man with his napkin crunched up like a just-drunk soda can and the woman with those big glasses she probably didn’t even need. Their waiter, with his separate-but-equal moustache and beard, the two parts reaching longingly for each other across the arc of his face. Even Amy, although she said she didn’t believe any of what everyone was saying about the world collapsing in on itself, or bursting open like a bag of drugs in a smuggler’s bowel. Evan’s mother said that too, but Evan’s mother never said what she really meant. March 25th was less than three weeks away.
“Your father feels the same way, you know,” she said. “He’s sorry he couldn’t be here, but you know how his work is.” Evan wasn’t sure he knew how his work was. Once, when he was just a boy, his father had been let go and had told nobody, rising each morning just as he always did and sliding into one of the identical suits that lined his closet like little deflated people. He did this every day for weeks and weeks, until he was hired for another, similar position. Only then did he tell Evan and his mother, in the same sentence, the same breath, that he had gotten a new job and oh, also, been laid off from his old one.
“Amy’s a wonderful girl,” his mother said. There was more butter stuck to the edges of her knife than there was on the piece of bread that bulged, clenched, in her hand. “We think she’s just great. Of course, we think anyone is just great who you think is just great. But we’d think Amy was just great even if we didn’t have to.”
Evan played with something in his pocket. He tried to visualize exactly what Amy’s naked body looked like and then, when he couldn’t do that, he tried the same thing with her face. He had some trouble with that too, but he got it in the end, although he’d put her together with glasses like the woman at the table next to them had, and Amy didn’t wear glasses like that. She didn’t wear any glasses at all.
“Evan,” his mother said. “Evan, you know I can tell when you’re not—”
“I’m listening to you, mom,” Evan lied.
With the arithmetic experiment over, Amy’s company moved on to their next assignment. This experiment would measure the impact of visible road kill on the speed and tactics of highway drivers. The roadkill, which Amy’s boss insisted was fake, had been provided by an independent contractor. Earlier that day, a young girl in a loose uniform had dropped off a cardboard box filled with massacred squirrels and gruesome, bisected chipmunks. Amy had stared at the box for what must’ve been hours, unable to look inside and unable to look away.
“I touched them,” Amy’s boss said. “Rubber. Like fake tits. Don’t let anyone do anything stupid with them, by the way. This office won’t tolerate pranks.”
“Right,” Amy said.
“This whole experiment is a waste of time, anyway.” Amy’s boss leaned against her imported desk. “With the animals all dying on their own. Soon there won’t be anything on the road left to kill. Except other drivers, I guess.” She laughed, and Amy laughed too.
The drivers they had enlisted for the experiment were all men, regular Joes with beer bellies or burger bellies or flat bellies of muscle and fuzz. One of the big car companies had rented them a fleet of identical sedans, cars with made-up names like Aspix and Procura. The loaner men were apportioned into the loaner cars one at a time, the cars and the men each in their own single-file lines. It was then that Amy decided to have the affair. These men were all attractive, she thought, not to her but surely to someone, somewhere, or else they were just one degree away from being attractive, scale models of attractive men, men made from the same parts as attractive men, men who would give off the same smells as attractive men.
Of course, she would have to pick one of them—not one of the drivers necessarily, but one of them, one of the world’s men—and he would have to pick her in turn. They would have to learn to recognize the secret meanings of each other’s movements and intonations. And arrangements would have to be made—a hotel room, or perhaps a friend’s woodside cabin, borrowed for a weekend escape. She would have to make a friend who had a woodside cabin.
Now that she thought about it, affairs were a lot of work. Of course, relationships were a lot of work too, that’s what everyone said, Evan’s mother and the woman from the waiting room the day before and the man with the smooth hair in that magazine and the President, too, she remembered, from somewhere, although that had probably been a part of the reelection scam. Maybe that was why he had his wife added in post-production, because it was less work. But the work of a relationship wasn’t work you had to do. You could stop doing it, if you wanted; you could take extra-long bathroom breaks and you could use all your vacation days in one big lump and you could start calling in sick multiple times a week. What were they going to do, fire you? They’d never find someone else for the job, not in this economy. And the costs of training your replacement… No, you could get away with murder, like the drivers who’d hit all that roadkill, assuming her boss had been lying about it not being real.
It was the idea of the affair, then, that was important: to permit yourself to have it and to force yourself to confess it. Because that was, after all, the right thing to do.
That night, Amy and Evan lay on their bedroom’s bulge of a mattress, circumscribed by the television’s stuttering light. The President was delivering an address, his wife by his side. “Americans,” he said. “People of the Americas. That is, people of the United States of America. Not of the other ones, although I care about you as well.” The First Lady was wearing some sort of designer bonnet. Amy could’ve sworn she saw her flicker in and out, but it was probably just her imagination. That’s what Evan would’ve said, if they’d been talking.
The television, according to the stamp, was Evan’s. The mattress was Amy’s. The labels on Amy’s breasts and buttocks had been smudged off somehow, although she hadn’t showered. It could have been perspiration, or her clothes rubbing against her skin, or small, wiggly bugs that fed on stamp ink and made their homes in her underwear.
“The results came in,” said Amy. “The effects of an attractive woman’s presence on the arithmetic skills of teenage boys are statistically insignificant.” She shifted beneath the blanket. “We’re still waiting on the road kill data.”
Evan reached for the remote—Amy’s remote, actually, if you believed the stamp—but it wasn’t where he thought it was. “My mother wants us to get married,” he said. “Do you want to propose?”
“No,” said Amy. “Do you?”
“No,” said Evan. “Do you want to pick a date anyway?”
“No,” said Amy.
“I don’t either,” said Evan.
“I’ve been having an affair,” said Amy.
“I’ve been having one too,” said Evan, even though he hadn’t been.
Amy considered this. “Well,” she said. “What do you want to do about it?”
“Well,” said Evan. “I guess we should stop.”
“Having our affairs.”
“Probably,” said Amy.
“Do you want to leave me?” said Evan.
“Not over this,” said Amy.
“Good,” said Evan.
They lay back in bed. Either Evan had his arm around Amy or Amy was lying on top of Evan’s arm, depending on how you wanted to see it. The President was saying something about the wind, and the television was showing pictures—there was either too much of it, or too little, or just the right amount but too much or too little of something else. Then on to the states: they were losing track of their borders, Iowans waking up as Nebraskans and vice-versa. And the Supreme Court: the Justices were delivering opinions about everything, the musicians they thought had died too young and their favorite dishes to order at Japanese restaurants. The Chief Justice’s was General Tso’s Chicken, which, he acknowledged, was not actually a Japanese dish—but it was just so good.
Outside, the tree trunks swayed like drunk teenagers. In the bed, Amy and Evan reached for each other, or maybe just vaguely in each other’s direction. And on the TV, the President said, “In conclusion,” but he turned out not to be anywhere near finished.