“Artists don’t retire,” he chuckles, stretching his body on the yoga mat. “They simply die.”
She places the torn magazine page on the benchtop. She can’t tell if she should be offended by his words or not. “Okay.”
Noticing her reaction, or lack thereof, he packs his mat up, pauses just outside the patio door, glances one last time in his wife’s direction, then lets himself fall on the grass like a windblown shawl. She dashes her eyes to their five-year-old son as the father anchors his body on the ground like a rock, then rocks himself like a baby, knees against his ribs, cracking an eye open to check what the rest of his family is up to.
“You’re not quick enough,” he observes.
Another email notification beeps its way onto their patio like the manifestation of bad air between them.
“I really have to finish this before I go,” she says, gesturing at the open magazine page before her, as if she’s the one who has some explaining to do.
“You know,” he says, still on the ground, “if I actually had a stroke or a heart attack, I would’ve probably been dead by now.”
Their kid runs rocketing from the vicinity of the doghouse and flounces his body on the grass. He places two fingers on his father’s forehead and shouts, “Bang, bang, you’re dead, papa. You’re dead.”
The father rolls over on the grass and looks at his partner in a way that says, See?
She sighs watching the two men in her life muddle about like glorified apes. “What does my lunch break have to do with any of this?” she demands.
“That’s not the point,” he says with this new rhythm in his breathing that she used to associate with anger in the earlier days of their marriage. “If we, I don’t know, got lost or stuck on a mountaintop or something”—he lifts the kid up from his armpits—“would you be quick enough to help?”
She sighs. “Why do we need to climb a mountain in the first place?” she asks, busy plucking the blobs of dried glue on her fingertips. “That doesn’t even make any sense.”
“Just answer me,” he says. “Would you or wouldn’t you?”
She gets up from the bench and picks up the magazine she bought from the secondhand store the other day. She steps over her husband on her way back into the house. Hours pass until she calls it another day in the world of collage-making. She and the kid cook some schnitzels for dinner and watch a crime show together while the father resumes his silent protest outside.
“Is Dad all right?” the kid asks at one point, smelling of his father’s aftershave cologne.
The mother gives his question some thought. God knows these outbursts happened twice before in their relationship. The first incident was the sudden, inexplicable purchase of Bernie, their golden retriever. He said they should see the animal as an emotional investment to their family and that he had their future in mind when he brokered a deal with the breeder. In the only other incident, he sprinted up to the attic in the middle of a fight and started breaking her favorite vinyl records using his weak leg and bruised his kneecap as a result.
“Do you really even care?” the husband now says with a pang of resentment surfacing in his voice; she has come out into the backyard to serve him his dinner.
“Of course, I do,” she says, following a pause. “You know I do.”
“Do I?” He laughs with a mock showing of disbelief. “Look, I just want a girlfriend that I can trust, all right?”
She steals an apologetic glance at an invisible audience on their patio. “I just want a boyfriend who would come inside with me.”
The kid observes his parents’ drama from the patio door but soon gets bored and grabs his nerf gun to run all the way and harass Bernie; Bernie whimpers hungrily while gazing into the untouched plate of schnitzels by the father’s side on the lawn.
“Tell you what, though,” the father starts again ten, fifteen minutes later; he has proceeded to lying sideways on the living-room rug for a change of scenery. “Climbing a mountain together is probably the best thing that could happen to us. You know, like, a real relationship test. Like 127 Hours but without the dismemberment part.”
For a second, she imagines them setting out on a day trip in nature and going through hours of mixed emotions all the way up on a mountain. The thought is an overkill: the puppy expectation in her husband’s eyes; the boy’s kitten-like voice crooning between them all night; the bedbugs. The false pretensions of how they reach the top should really mean something and determine the future of their relationship.
“Why won’t you get up now?” she tells him, turning the TV off with the remote.
He pretends not to hear her.
“Where does it all come from, anyway?” She sighs, getting up from the couch to place the dirty plates into the dishwasher. “Why won’t you just let me have a day in peace?”
The kid mumbles something as he passes by the kitchen door.
“You know you can simply hold me up, right?” The man calls out from the living room. “And it’ll be over just like that.”
She shrugs and sulks up the stairs. She turns the lights off on both floors. She brushes her teeth and tucks her kid in. The kid looks back at her with expectant eyes, unable to fall asleep. She reads to him from a children’s book that the kid already made her read hundreds of times before, without showing any sign of remorse.
“Mama.” The kid stops her at some point, his breath smelling of dog poop and melted butter. “Are you okay?”
Bernie barks at no one in particular outside.
“Just go to sleep,” she says.