Deb’s lying on the couch, shivering beneath the big down comforter I’ve thrown over her. “I know I have a fever,” she says. I feel her forehead with the back of my hand, the way we used to do with the kids. But sometimes my hands aren’t the best thermometers and I move my cheek down to her forehead.
“You don’t have a fever,” I say.
“I do!” she says. “I do have a fever! I’m freezing!”
“No you don’t. Maybe you have a hysterical fever.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Like a hysterical pregnancy,” I say.
“Why would I have a hysterical fever?”
I call Lucy, who had agreed to babysit.
“Don’t bother to come home,” I say.
“You could have phrased that better,” says Deb.
“I know,” I say. “It sounded like I was disowning her. Hey. What do you say we watch an episode of Loui?”
Deb nods eagerly. Like a little girl.
“And how about some hot chocolate?”
Deb nods again.
I fetch the hot chocolate and we start Loui. Halfway through, when Louis CK is checking out teachers at his kids’ school and imagining how they might be in bed, I pause the DVD and transfer some fish sticks from the freezer to the oven. Back in front of the TV now: Loui meets a woman at a bookstore. She shows him children’s books on flowers. I pause it again to check on the fish sticks. Now Loui’s new girlfriend is getting denied service at a bar. They already know her too well. Deb reaches over and grabs a fish stick. Then another. Deb eats all my fish sticks. After Loui, I put on the Guardians of the Galaxy music mix and Deb and I dance around the house to Redbone’s Come and Get Your Love: “Hey. Hey. What’s the matter with your head? Yeah. Hey. Hey. What’s the matter with your mind and all your sighing? Oh Yeah.”
“That’s the one when he’s entering the cave, right?” says Deb. “And he’s kicking the lizards?”
I arrive approximately on time. “Where’s Deb?” says Billie, looking past me. “Is she out in the car?”
“No,” I say. I’m uncertain how to explain. I know I can’t say Deb’s sick. Because, first of all, she’s not. Secondly, everyone will think I’m a carrier. At the same time, I can’t say she’s fine. Because then it’ll seem like she didn’t want to come to the party. “She thought she was getting a fever,” I said. “And we cancelled Lucy. And then she was fine. She wasn’t really getting a fever. And then we tried calling Lucy again, but it was too late.”
I should have made something up, because my story sounds too ornate to be the truth.
A bohemian mix at the party: players of mandolins and guitars, singers and playwrights. “We’re the only ones who aren’t alcoholics,” says Evan, a writer, producing a bottle of Maker’s Mark. “So we can drink.”
Evan insists on this particular brand because he has recently completed a novel in which his protagonist exclusively drinks Maker’s Mark and he wants to prosecute it. He pours me a shot and we salute before we take a taste.
“It’s a little antiseptic,” he says.
“I like Jack better,” I say.
I seldom leave the house this time of year. I stay at home with Deb and Mike in the evenings watching movies or television shows. Loui is just a brief interlude. I can’t watch more than two in a row without getting itchy. Our longer-term commitment is with The Sopranos. We’re in season four. Tony, already a murderer, is becoming increasingly greedy and childish. And we used to like him so much in seasons one, two, and three. Once in a while we’ll have crackers and cheese. Mike will need a bath. And then we’ll read in bed.
At one thirty in the morning, Markus Lamb, a psychologist and musician, is unearthing a string of Lucinda Williams’ songs. “Did an angel whisper in your ear? Hold you close? Take away your fear? In those long last moments?” Evan sneaked away to bed hours ago. Lawrence and his daughter are long gone. Estella yawned and Bill said, “I’ve got to get this one home.” Zeke and Lisa left at midnight, fearing they’d become pumpkins. Anna, our best harmonist, drifted away at the stroke of one.
I spent most of the evening leaning toward Anna, trying to pick up on her harmony so I could construct another one two octaves down for myself. Harmony, however, is something that has always eluded me. Even though I’ve sung in a gospel choir for five or six years now, I’m only beginning to get a feel for it. The few tenor parts I have learned, I’ve needed to drill into my head. Ten times. A hundred times. And still, when the sopranos start in with their strong melody, I follow along like a little duckling, two octaves down, and ruin the whole thing.
On rare occasions, if I can find my first note, I am sometimes able unearth an underlying harmony and it feels like a great discovery, those lines that come into existence at the moment of melody, those series of notes that require a certain tilt of perception to hear.
At two in the morning, only four of us are left – Markus, Billie, Kiki and I – croaking out sad tunes by Leonard Cohen, a Jewish man who writes a lot of songs where God and Jesus make appearances. None of us but Markus knows the words. “You guys don’t know Cohen? You’re really missing out, man,” he says. I can no longer sing. Even with the Maker’s Mark, by now my favorite, warming my throat. And still it’s hard to leave.
At seven o’clock in the morning, I watch Deb make her way down the hallway from our bedroom. I stayed on the couch because I didn’t want to wake her up in the night. She stops in at Mike’s room and jostles him. We do this in the morning in an attempt to stop any possible seizure activity. It’s usually when he’s surfacing from REM sleep that they come. I close my eyes. When I open them again, Deb is standing in the living room, hands on hips, giving me the eye. Because I’m content, I assume she’s content as well. And I assume she’s looking at me in the same loving way I’m looking at her.
“I got in past two,” I say, laughing.
“I know,” she says, not laughing.
“It was great,” I say, throwing off my blanket. I’m still fully dressed. I push myself up off the couch and walk past Deb on my way toward the bedroom. “I got to know Bill a little bit. He’s a great guy,” I’m saying. “And it was great to see Zeke and Lisa. And Kiki. And Bill’s wife. And everyone.” And I go on and on without pausing to gauge Deb’s reaction. Now I’m lying under the covers, ready to finish off my night’s sleep. “Everyone was asking about you,” I say, airily. “They all were bummed out you weren’t there.”
“What did you tell them?”
“I told the truth. But I don’t know if they believed me.” I laugh, closing my eyes. “It sounded like a lie.”
“I’m mad at you,” she says.
I open my eyes.
“And I realized it last night, and it was bothering me all night. I’m really mad at you.”
“Why?” I say.
“You said I had a hysterical fever.”
“That means you thought I didn’t want to go to the party. But I love Evan and Billie. And I really did want to go.”
“So why are you mad at me?”
“You know why I didn’t want to go.”
“You just said you did want to go.”
“You know what I mean. I did and didn’t.”
“Why did you not want to go?”
“Because I CAN’T SING! You told me I couldn’t sing and now I feel all self-conscious about it. Like at Christmas? At church? We were singing O Holy Night or whatever and you had to step out into the aisle to get away from me. That’s an assholish thing to do.”
“You’re mad at me because you think you can’t sing?”
“No! Because you think I can’t sing!” she shouts. “You were the one who told me! I used to really like singing! And now I’m ashamed! You know that sing-along we went to last week at Uptown Bills? And I forgot my glasses? I didn’t really forget my glasses. I was embarrassed to sing!”
“Deb, you don’t understand. It’s not you! It’s me!”
“That’s the oldest bullshit thing to say of all time!”
“No! You don’t understand. If I don’t step away, I can’t sing. It’s not that I don’t want to. I can’t. So I just stop. I don’t do it to try to make any statement or anything.”
“You said I can’t sing.”
“No. I didn’t say that. You switch keys is what you do. I couldn’t do that if I tried. I don’t know how you do it. You change keys back and forth.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“I’m going to yoga.”
It’s a punishment. For being an asshole last night and all these years. Deb knows I can’t go back to sleep because I need to be awake for Mike. The previous night, he ransacked the kitchen. It looks like we had a few raccoons loose in the house. Two bags of flour have been removed from the cupboard and ripped open. The soy sauce has been drained. As well as the sesame seed oil. All the pictures have been taken down from the walls. And the fridge is wide open. These things happened while I slept on the couch. I never woke up for it.
By the time Deb returns home, I have the place clean. Pictures back on the walls. Deb has two cups of coffee in her hands. One for me.
“He drank the sesame seed oil,” I say, taking the coffee. “Thank you. And the soy sauce.”
“That’ sort of makes me angry,” says Deb. “That sesame seed oil wasn’t cheap. Why would he want to drink that?”
I’m standing at the sink. Holding my coffee.
“I’ve decided to forgive you…” I begin.
“I forgive you for being such an asshole,” says Deb.
“—for being such a bitch,” I continue.
“This morning and last night,” continues Deb.
“About singing,” I continue. “You just don’t understand—”
“And ruining singing for me forever,” continues Deb.
“—about the singing thing,” I continue. “It’s a weakness of mine. I don’t have a strong voice. I just end up singing whatever the person next to me is singing.”
“Joe, you made me feel bad,” says Deb. “About the way I sing.”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s all right,” she says.
“I suppose you’re going to write another crappy blog post about this.”