By Mary J. Marcus
Mark opened the bedroom closet to retrieve his leather carry-on bag. He arched an eyebrow. Erika had removed her clothes. His good mood shut down like a shorted modem. A glance at the naked hangers tensed his solar plexus. He would actually be steamed at Erika right now if he were constituted that way.
Here he’d cleared out half of his closet for her clothes. She’d brought over dozens of outfits in various shades of her signature green, and now everything was gone. Two days ago, when she’d removed her precious waffle-maker, an appliance they’d both come to rely on, he felt bereft as well as unsettled. What could be more satisfying at midnight than a pecan waffle slathered in butter and dripping real maple syrup? A perfect ending to a sixteen-hour day. They both thought so.
He’d confronted her about it. “What are you doing, Erika? You need to be moving more of your stuff in. Not out.”
“My plants need to see more of me,” she said curtly.
That response was whimsical—not at all like Erika. It meant she would need to drive almost an hour from her apartment in the ’burbs, where housing costs were less stratospheric, to her job at his investor funded start-up. Conversely, his condo was only three blocks away. What was the point of being a Silicon Valley entrepreneur if he couldn’t provide his girlfriend a decent place to live in San Francisco?
Erika surely wasn’t the type to withdraw or to mope just because her boyfriend wasn’t into pomp and circumstance. Girlfriends from his past had expect a wedding ring. With Erika, he’d merely pointed out the illogic of unnecessary and expensive marital rituals, and she’d conceded without an argument.
Glancing down at the closet floor, he winced. She had taken her extra pair of Merrill hiking boots. Lethargy slackened his motions as he plodded into his airy living room. None of her stuff was in there either. Not a thread. Pale gray and beige hues harmonized the minimalist design of the room. Once soothing to him, the space now felt like an elegantly appointed prison cell.
What was the cause of Erika’s new independent streak? When had she started to move out? Her puzzling behavior had begun about a week ago, after the night he told her he would be flying to his parents’ home in Oklahoma City for the holidays. It would be a brief obligatory in and out, he’d explained. Erika, smiling, had offered to accompany him.
“No way, babe.” He tightened his tie as they dressed for work, side by side. “There’s absolutely no need for both of us to experience the ordeal.”
At that, Erika’s face had taken on that pinched look of concentration it got when she was writing code and a particularly thorny problem presented itself.
“Erika, you’d be bored.”
She was silent a moment, but then brightened. “I never go anywhere without my tablet.”
“That’s no solution.” He shook his head and gave her a wry look. “They’d make you feel guilty about it. My parents are…problematic.”
Erika turned away. “I’ll see you at the office.”
The waffle-maker disappeared the next day.
Mark returned to the bedroom, packed enough for two changes of clothing, and transferred the overnight bag from the bed to his shoulder. She simply hadn’t understood that he was sparing her. When he was back in town he would invite Erika to dinner at Chez Paul and do a better job of explaining his family to her.
He seldom needed to provide explanations to Erika. Since they’d more or less lived together, Erika often seemed to understand him without words. When she walked into his office ten months ago with her Stanford degree, her smiling green eyes, and her abundant cinnamon colored hair flowing like liquid down that delicate feminine spine, a sigh had escaped his throat. His admiration had only grown after they had put in sixteen-hour days together.
They shared a passion for Diana Krall’s silky jazz, so he’d chartered a plane to fly them to New York for a Krall concert. A magical first date.
Late to the airport, he coded the front door, raced to the hired limo idling in front, and threw his bag into the car before climbing in. His mood lifted a little on the ride to the airport. What was there to be bummed about? He’d have Erika’s green eyes glowing again. Just let him get the parent thing over with. The damn parent thing.
* * * *
Mark emerged from a yellow cab in front of the middle class brick ranch house on the outskirts of Oklahoma City. It might be his home town but to his mind it was, especially in the brownness of winter, the ugliest city in America.
The front door swung open and his parents stood there, both grayer than last year. Dad had put on a few extra pounds around his middle. Mom’s eyes were sunken and her skin like parchment. His parents had a way of smiling without really changing their expressions.
“Markie!” His father took two steps toward him.
“Hi, Dad, Mom. How’re ya’ll?” The years fell away, and he was a kid with an Okie drawl again.
He shook Dad’s hand and gave Mom a careful hug, his nostrils twitching from inhaling talcum powder.
“You took a cab,” Dad said, with a hint of disapproval.
“I didn’t want to waste time renting a car,” Mark said.
“There’s an airport shuttle.”
The three of them exchanged pleasantries until the leaden meatloaf topped with a streak of marinara sauce was served. They were sitting in their traditional places around the dining table.
“How’s business, Dad?” It was a no-win conversational gambit. If he hadn’t expressed interest in the vacuum cleaner repair service that consumed his father’s life, he would have faced an unspoken accusation that he didn’t give a damn. Mentioning the repair shop, on the other hand, opened up unpleasant history. Dad naturally had expected his only child to take over and expand the family business after graduation from OSU. Instead, Mark had grabbed his business degree and run for his life.
“Just fine,” Dad said.
“Keeps him going.” Mom passed the meatloaf
Mark reached for a goblet of syrupy sweet tea, awaiting his turn to speak. In his family, the conversation was polite and steady as a metronome.
“What are you up to now, son?”
“Doing great, Dad. My company…” That would sound grandiose to them. “I mean, my friends and I… We’ve developed an app…”
They glanced at one another with blank looks.
He tried again. “You know…an app is one of those icons you push on a smartphone…” Oops, they had the old landline. “Anyway, it’s a device on your cellphone that lets you do things. You take your phone in the car and our app lets you know if there’s an obstruction on the road up ahead—a crash or construction work—anything. It helps you find your way. You can get to your destination faster because you avoid any hold ups.”
Mom gasped. “I thought you weren’t supposed to use those fancy phones in the car.”
“It’s voice-activated, Mom.”
“They’ve got electronic signs for that here in the city.” Dad reached for the bowl of mashed potatoes.
“Yes, Dad, but this app puts you in control. You don’t have to wait for some civil engineer…” His child’s mind gave way for a moment to his adult one. Why was he trying so hard? It was like climbing steep stairs to nowhere.
“Anyway, Micro Systems wants to buy our app”—his voice had taken on some steeliness—“for quite a bit of money, actually.”
Dad shoveled a large lump of mashed potatoes into his mouth and swallowed. “People want things fast today. They want things easy. Don’t want to work. It doesn’t surprise me somebody’d pay money for a thing like that.”
Mark thought of his childhood, of a time when the family had gone to Colorado on vacation. His parents had rented a cabin near Pike’s Peak. He went off on his own one morning to explore a cave he’d seen from the car. When he stepped into the shadowy den, he found himself staring into the glassy eyes of a huge brown bear. He scrambled out of the cave and ran like hell. When he got back to the cabin and told his parents, they acted unimpressed. Dad had scoffed. “That wasn’t a bear, son. Just some smaller critter.”
Looking at his parents now he realized that his app was like the bear. Not that big a deal. It was some smaller critter.
Christmas Eve day was cheerless, overcast. That evening he had a choice: go to Mass with Mom or stay home with Dad and watch Wheel of Fortune. He sat next to Mom in a pew down front. Her face, turned up to the priest, glistened with rapture.
“May the Lord be with you,” the priest intoned.
“And, also with you,” the congregation chanted.
Mom leaned toward him. “You should go to church more often.”
Anyone else saying that would have gotten a piece of his mind—heard his views about useless old rituals and relics, about the hocus pocus of religion.
He gave her a slight nod and made an effort to smile. This was his once-adored mom speaking into his ear. Mom had embodied everything warm and safe once, a long time ago. The mother he had worshiped was still somewhere in this frail gullibly religious stranger’s body.
“Take communion,” she urged.
He gave his head a swift shake.
“Okay,” he capitulated.
But when the wafer was dissolving on his tongue, he made himself a promise. He pledged he would never again, ever, enter the bear cave alone.
The morning after Christmas, a cab idled out front. He hugged Mom, slung his bag over his shoulder and shook Dad’s hand. They’d talked a little more freely on Christmas Day, after a couple of potent eggnogs.
“Come back and live here,” his parents said. Cheeriness laced their speech. They always enjoyed the holidays.
“Come out to California,” he said. “Retire.”
“Expensive,” Dad said.
“I’ll buy you a house.”
“Don’t take what I don’t earn,” Dad replied.
Standing beside the cab, he gave them a wave and a strained smile. He slid into the interior, so relieved he was on the verge of shedding giddy tears, but he choked out the word “airport.”
At Will Rodgers International, he sat, fidgety, waiting to board the plane back to California. He whipped out his phone, dying to talk to Erika. She was probably busy with her relatives, so he settled for texting her. He needed to say something, yet he hesitated. This wasn’t the proper way to ask….She’d be pissed at him. On the other hand, Erika was thoroughly post-modern, and she was the most digitally connected person he knew. Furthermore, he was, above all, a risk-taker.
He texted her. “Will u marry me?”
Mark sat, waiting for her answer. He stared, unseeing, as throngs of passengers trudged down a concourse, pulling their wheelies in the direction of the security check-in. He was too hot in his leather jacket, but he didn’t think to take it off. Minutes seemed to stretch into hours, as they say. Then, miraculously, her message popped onto the screen.
A smiley face and a heart.