July 10, 2020
Any Color You Like
By Jake Ashland
At the dinner table, Pat Stevens hears stories of the outside world.
As told by her husband Ryan, these stories involve a trip to China. They involve a major advertising account, millions of dollars, first class airline travel. Men named Fang, Li and Huan.
Pat watches their three-year-old son Tim playing on the floor in the living room with his favorite toy of the moment, a miniature pirate. When an ad comes on the TV for a chicken sandwich and the corresponding movie tie-in, Tim stops playing and points at the screen.
“Hey Mom!” he says. “Look! Pie-wats!”
Four-year-old Melissa comes in from her bedroom. “Why is Daddy eating now?” she says. “It’s seven o’clock.”
“He’s on Pacific time, honey,” Pat says, not sure if that’s even right. “He was in China,” she clarifies.
“Well, he’s here now and we eat at five in America.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ryan says, saluting her. “I’ll be on time tomorrow.”
“Better be,” Melissa says. She trots off to dress her Barbies.
The sex that night is labored. Ryan’s body seems foreign, absent.
“Tomorrow,” he says.
She is asleep in seconds.
It’s only days later when Ryan leaves again.
Outside in the world, things are happening. News is being made. It is reported, but Pat has nothing to do with it. She’s just here to receive it. She’s not sure she wants it.
She indulges in cop shows, doctor shows, lawyer shows, game shows. A humorous sitcom about aliens in Las Vegas. In this manner, TV fills the cracks of time like weather foam.
Shopping is an excursion. Kids in tow, it’s not easy. The streets teem with people who don’t appreciate her children, yet she must do it. If she doesn’t get out at least a little, she feels too contained, like a house cat.
Melissa is not much trouble, but Pat is constantly at the mercy of her son who spouts off the words gimmie, mine and no with the bleating regularity of an insatiable dictator.
This is her only social life. Tim, Melissa and the minute conversations with sales and grocery clerks.
Hi. Hello. Here you are. All set. Thank you. Good day.
The brief touch of a hand when receiving change.
Everyone wanting to remain that way.
In college there were friends. Art classes. She loved ceramics. Pottery-making. Good times. She and her friends were fiery, political, beautiful.
Now these classmates are spread throughout the country. Years between them. She’s friends with some on Facebook, but it’s like being friends with a radio station.
Cups, saucers, and plates lay in boxes, unpainted. Her pottery wheel is in a storage locker a mile away, clotted with dry clay. Her hands once defined by satisfying callouses are infuriatingly soft.
Ryan returns and there are more stories told in ad-speak: Mind Share, Q Score, Ad Creep. Men named Luis, Gabriel, and Carlos.
There were deadlines, presentations; he’s exhausted.
He takes a week vacation, planning on spending it with the kids. Even at home, he cannot relax. Can’t stop himself from answering email, phone calls, texts. By day three, he’s bored and is meeting Roberti and other colleagues for lunch and drinks. Going to the track, to poker games. Any reason not to be home. Their sex life is encased in Lucite. It’s there, but impossible to really get to. They cannot seem to agree even on simple things—the color of one of his suits going to the cleaners.
“The blue one on the bed?”
“No, it’s black. The black one on the bed.”
How can this be? Pat thinks. Are we living in different worlds?
“Any color you like,” she says, giving up. “The black one, then.”
Ryan leaves again, this time for Japan, tenth trip, to meet with executives from Hiroguiciyama, the athletic clothing manufacturer.
Pat looks at their wedding photo and considers that at the time, she thought she was marrying a man. Flesh and blood. A warm body beside her in bed. Actually, she was marrying an idea. An income.
One Friday night, there is a party next door. Pat has received an invite from the new condo owner, a long-haired man named Christopher she met in the hallway. Until tonight, she hadn’t really considered going.
But now that she is sitting here listening to the party with the TV muted, she is envious of the fun. She has the need to hear unrecorded voices, unrehearsed speech, even for just a short while.
After many agonizing minutes, she applies make-up and puts on an under-worn dress. She checks on her children and finds them both sound asleep. She’ll spend ten minutes there. Fifteen tops. She takes a bottle of pinot noir from the wine rack and darts across the hall.
The party is crowded with young people in their twenties and early thirties. Everyone is rubbery, smiling, colorful. Pat is accepted somehow by this shifting mass of bodies.
She seeks out Christopher and meets his wife, a willowy, honey-haired woman named Sally.
“Hey, glad you could make it,” Christopher says. “Your husband able to come?”
“He’s out of town. He travels a lot.”
“That’s too bad. Get you a drink?”
“Oh, I’ll just grab some wine I think . . .”
She is given a water glass filled with an inferior cab, but it tastes wonderful, like freedom.
A handsome man with intense eyes starts talking to her. He’s a graphic designer and musician named Lars. They talk about art. She is surprised how much she remembers about art history; the names, the movements come rolling off her tongue.
The conversation is rushed. The bad mother clock is ticking. Before long, she says she has to go.
“I have kids next door. They’re asleep. I just popped out for a minute to say hello to Christopher.”
“May I come over for a bit?”
“Well, OK, for a little while I suppose,” she says.
They cross the hall to Pat’s condo. She feels the nervous energy of a criminal committing a robbery. Lars’s presence in her home is exotic and terrifying.
Wine is poured, the conversation continued. Pat draws the pocket door across so Melissa and Tim don’t wake up. They talk about politics, this fucked up administration, about the Ashcan artists, the bleakness of Hopper.
An hour later, when Lars moves in and tries to kiss her, a static shock discharges across their lips.
“Oh my God,” Pat says, touching her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Lars says, laughing. “That was weird.”
“I’m sorry too,” Pat says, pulling away. “I thought we were just talking.”
“We were. Just talking,” Lars says.
At that moment, the door slides open and cold terror fills Pat’s veins. But it’s just Tim standing, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
“Who’s that, Mommy?”
Grasping for a response, Pat’s eyes seize on the muted TV which is showing an exercise machine that looks like a metal grasshopper.
“This man fixes TVs,” Pat says quickly. “He came by to look at ours.”
Tim looks at the TV.
“Yes, it is . . . now. Now go back to your room, Hun. I’ll be in to tuck you in in a second, OK?”
Tim pads off to his room.
“You really should go.”
Lars gets up, disappointment written on his face.
“It’s OK,” Lars says. “Maybe another time?”
“I don’t think so.”
She sees him out and locks the door behind him.
Once Tim is tucked back in, she kisses her son on the forehead.
Pat returns to the front room and regards it like a crime scene. The ghost of her guilty self hangs in the air. She smooths the blanket on the couch, buries the wine bottle deep in the trash and puts the wine glasses in the anti-microbial dishwasher.
She returns to the front room to turn off the TV and finds a familiar commercial on, a forty second spot Ryan worked on for a home supply business a year ago. Pat always disliked it.
It features an oafish man on the couch being urged by his wife to handle some overdue remodeling project.
The supposedly funny part is the man. The couch potato. He’s into football. The house is falling apart around him, and he doesn’t notice it.
This man, it’s like he’s not even there.
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