Significant Other


When Avery hit the button to grind the coffee in the morning, a door slammed and a gaunt man with gray eyebrows hurried into the kitchen to yell at her. His gums were recessed, making his yelling ugly, this man who still paid the bills for Avery’s dental insurance. He wore a faded grey sweat suit printed with the name of the college that Avery attended, or as he had put it last Christmas, “one of the many institutions that we are paying for a degree.” The fancy coffee machine purred and snarled as Avery’s father yelled, “What are you doing!” and Avery withered with guilt.

“I—Coffee?”

“You brewed a new pot on top of a pot. See?” He held the sodden coffee filter under her nose to show her the wasted grounds.

Her father did not like change. Avery had inherited this trait. How to explain the shock and the dread of a broken coffee machine? How little it took to convince one that it would be impossible to ward off chaos with routine? Here was her father with a daughter in private school, a son on the brink of probable engagement, a wife on Prozac, a company in the toilet under new Chinese management, and a conference call in progress in the downstairs office behind the door that he had slammed. The skin on his scalp that showed through his thinning hair was the most vulnerable shade of pink.

“Do I need to refresh your memory about how to use the French press correctly?”

Avery had returned late last night from a year abroad in Seville, disguised under the kind of adobe-colored tan that you achieved by burning first. Her skin turned a shade lighter than her natural skin tone when she poked it. Neither of these colors looked all that human. She took a cab home from the airport and let herself in without waking her sleeping parents. Jetlagged and sleepy, she was concentrating on not slipping back into speaking Spanish, and she did not even speak great Spanish. Like her father, she did not much like change, but she had not expected to feel at home in Spain.

Her mother scooted a chair up to the kitchen island. She was wearing a new robe that looked old: an old robe, new to Avery. “Welcome home,” her mother said. “Avery Josephine, are you crying?”

Because she could not say what she wanted to, which was, “Who on earth are you people?” and “I am so very sorry for thriving on your sacrifices,” Avery said, through the undeniable tears, “I’m just trying to make coffee.”

“You wait for this dude, this cat, this button to come on first, this little red light on the side. It’s easy.”

“She didn’t know, Herb. She didn’t know.”

In every household, there must be similar scenes. It must be the case; you could understand why no one would talk about them if they did happen. You could imagine that conversation: “Your dad yelled at you about coffee grounds? That’s awful! How childish.”

“No, no, no, you don’t understand. That’s the way my family is. You have to know my family.”

When missing home while she studied abroad, Avery craved her childhood and pancakes shaped like dinosaurs and Mickey Mouses and hearts and other things that were not pancakes. Home or abroad, she missed the joking, mustached, Sunday morning version of her father draped in her mother’s frilly apron printed with kiss marks, this loving performance of her father’s that she used to believe represented his entire personality.


Avery’s mother was making French toast for tomorrow, for the company. Parker and the new significant other landed at Detroit Metro at 8:37 that night. The blueberry cobbler was in ramekins in the fridge. The timer on the coffee machine was set to brew decaf at 9 PM exactly.

Avery and Parker had shared the Jack-and-Jill bathroom when they were children. As Jack and Jill grew up, this became predictably awkward. Parker moved across the hall into the guestroom, so that Avery, the girl, would have the big bathroom to herself. In retrospect, they should have also considered the siblings’ relative degrees of extroversion when selecting their bedrooms. Avery never brought home friends or boyfriends. They would be so out of context here. As a consequence of this oversight, whenever her brother’s friends visited, Avery ended up sharing a bathroom with them. She would creep downstairs to use the bathroom at night because her options were either to flush loudly or leave urine to be discovered in the morning, closing the toilet lid as a sort of warning and apology.

In preparation for the arrival of the significant other, Avery’s mother cleaned each of their sixth bathrooms. No matter where Joanna went, it would be clean.

According to Avery’s mother, Parker called her Jo. Did she go by Jo, or was that his name for her? They did not know. She was Joanna to them, just in case.

On the phone, Avery’s mother asked, Did Joanna remember to pack a bathing suit? Parker said, Mom, this is the only about the fourth time you’ve asked me that.

Avery’s father mowed the lawn around the patio and replenished the chemicals in the hot tub so that it would be spotless.

Joanna did not eat meat. What about eggs? Avery’s mother asked before she dunked the French toast into the egg wash. She drizzled melted butter and brown sugar over the pan of sliced white bread and said, “The best thing about this recipe is that it looks like a lot of work.”

Avery acquired a mosquito bite right between her eyes. She was sent on an emergency run to CVS Pharmacy for anti-inflammatory gel, orange juice for the mimosas, and adobe-colored concealer. She backed out of the driveway as slowly as possible, almost not moving. The neighbors were having another one of their family reunions, and based on the fact that there was no room for Avery to back out without hitting one of the parked cars, their definition of “family” must be quite elastic. She steered with care around the mailboxes, exhaled hard and shifted into drive. Twenty children leapt out from behind the bushes by the mailboxes and screamed as loudly as they could at the car. They scattered in the headlights, laughing, probably siblings and cousins.


How to explain the nausea and the disorientation of a delayed flight? The anticlimax? The entropy?

The coverings over the cobbler-holding ramekins deflated and sunk, and a layer of blueberry filling stuck to the plastic. The coffeemaker scared the family when it brewed by itself when they were heading up to bed around nine.

The couple did not arrive until the stroke of twelve.

Avery saw her brother’s car rounding the cul-de-sac and snuffed her bedside lamp, heart pounding, guilty. She worried that Parker and the significant other had seen the light, perhaps even seen her peeping through the window at them like a voyeur. She had not wanted to meet Joanna in her polka-dotted pajamas, but if they had seen her, how was that going to look?

In the kitchen, there were voices, pewter plates and stainless steel silverware hemming and hawing as they were placed on the granite countertop. Had they found the sticky cobblers and the cold coffee that had been intended for them?

“You’re so small!” Joanna must have found the family photos.

Her voice did not match her pictures. She was a pretty, dark-haired, big-eyed girl with pearl studs in her shell-shaped ears who could pull off an intentionally messy bun. Her voice sounded like it could belong to a chain-smoking matron with languid eyelids, except that it had a teenage girl’s interrogative lift.

As their mother would comment later to Avery, “Parker likes to date girls with unusual voices. Have you noticed? Remember how Golf Girl had nodes? Joanna’s voice is similar, don’t you think? Grovelly.”

“I’m pretty sure the word is gravelly.”

“I mean grovelly. Isn’t that interesting?”

In the morning, there was a floral girly smell in the Jack-and-Jill bathroom. Left in the trash was the plastic casing from a new razor: pink. Joanna had risen early. She came downstairs for breakfast in Super Bowl XLV sweats, which was not what they had been expecting. She sat with and talked at their father while he drank his French press coffee, sniffing and sighing after each sip, and he pretended, with uncharacteristic success, that he was not irritated by the interruption. Their mother apologized that they were not ready. The French toast was still cold in the middle. The landscaping crew was still working on the broken sprinkler heads on the back lawn. Joanna didn’t mind; she would take a shower while she waited.

As their mother would comment later to Avery, “I liked how she came down in the morning in her sweats to meet us. Relaxed and natural. Not high-maintenance at all. Your brother has mentioned this about her. I think it’s a good sign, don’t you?”

Avery had intended to wake up before Joanna, but she slept through her alarm. As she told her parents before the guest arrived, “I’d like to shower before I come down for breakfast.”

“You don’t have to do that! Just be yourself around her. Were you going to leave your hair all wet and curly and snarly, or are you going to actually style it?”

Avery wore a pink silky sundress, heeled sandals, and a little bit of blush, but she had spitefully allowed her hair to dry kinky.

The table on the patio was wiped clean and set with the gold-rimmed mimosa glasses. The house was spotless. Everything was special because Joanna was a stranger and they wanted to make her feel welcome. Avery saw Joanna’s leather jacket before she saw her. It was draped over one of the barstools in the kitchen. She was seized by a mad urge to try it on and see if it fit.

“Excuse me?” It was Parker, shirtless in basketball shorts. The girlfriend lingered behind him on the stairs, wrapped in one of the guest towels. “How do you turn on the shower in your bathroom? Did Mom have a new faucet installed, do you know? We couldn’t figure it out.” He cleared his throat. “Joanna tried it by herself first. Then she came into my room and woke me. And then I went into the bathroom and I tried while she waited outside.”

“Hi Avery, I’m Joanna.”

“Nice to meet you,” Avery and Joanna said together. “Jinx,” said Avery, sounding like a kid. Joanna held the towel closed with one hand and gripped Avery’s hand with the other.

“You have to run the bathtub faucet then pull on it to make the water to come out of the showerhead. There’s a spring. It can be tricky.”

Together, the three of them left the kitchen where their mother fussed over the raw French toast. As she climbed the stairs, Joanna’s shoulder blades rose and fell above the wrapped towel, right then left, expressive as hips. Avery averted her eyes until Parker and Joanna disappeared back into the bathroom. From the other side of the door, Avery coached them on how to turn the tub into a shower.

At the sound of running water, the three of them cheered. “I never would have gotten that on my own,” said Parker’s voice. “Never would have guessed that was how it worked.” There was running water; there were soft voices. “Got it? Good to go?” The door handle turned.

Parker joined Avery in her room as their mother called. She had turned up the oven a few hundred degrees so that the French toast would be ready in five minutes. The shower turned off and Joanna came out of the bathroom, still wearing the Super Bowl XXV t-shirt. Her hair was not wet; she did not have enough time to shower before breakfast would be ready. She shrugged at Avery. “Never mind?” she said, and then, “Thanks so much anyway?” Avery wanted to laugh but was not sure if this would dispel the awkwardness of the moment or insist upon it.


Avery and her father sipped their coffee on the deck together, waiting for the others to fetch the soy milk for Joanna and join them outside. The workmen were still there, digging up the broken sprinkler heads, the armpit stains on their shirts smudged with dirt, their knees grassy. The champagne for the mimosas sat in an ice bucket on the table between Avery and her father. Everything so fancy for their company. The champagne was so cold, it was not even sweating. Avery began to giggle. Following her thought through an exchanged glance, her father began to laugh with her.

“When we pop that cork,” Avery choked out, “it’s going to make a huge sound.”

“I feel like the goddamn Great Gatsby,” said her father.

“A fountain of bubbly is going to rain down on them from the deck and onto the lawn, and they’re going to be like, fucking yuppies. They’re going to think we do this all the time.”

“Do you think we should invite them to join us?”

“Invite who?” Avery’s mother placed Joanna’s coffee on the place setting beside Avery. Joanna, following her, looked relieved that the decision of where to sit had been taken out of her hands. “What are you two laughing at?” Parker was pouring the champagne into the mimosas. When had he opened it? Avery had not heard a thing.

“Come on, Parker!” said their father. “If you’re going to do it, own it! Pop that bitch! Remind those landscaping men of their place in the world!”

“They’re used to it. We only do this every morning,” Avery said. “Dah-ling.” She and her father started coughing into their napkins; her mother glared at them.

“I didn’t want to be obnoxious about it,” Parker said in an undertone, looking down at the lawn.

One of the men waved up at him. “Cheers!”

Joanna giggled, looked around at the rest of them, then snuffed her mouth with her small pale fist.

“I didn’t know you liked sports!” Their mother said at Joanna. Whenever she tried to be friendly, she became surprised at everything!

“I don’t, really? Parker thought the extra-large Super Bowl tee would be bigger?”

Joanna took a flinching sip of mimosa.

Despite herself, Avery found that she was rooting for Joanna because she was shy. Parker’s girlfriends were usually of the type who monopolized the conversation with their friendliness, who, as her mother would comment later, “made themselves right at home.”

“We heard you in the kitchen last night!” Avery’s mother marveled aloud.

“Joanna hadn’t eaten dinner.”

“I am so sorry!”

“There was leftover Chinese takeout in the fridge.”

“It was very good,” Joanna said, as though this were a compliment. She flushed. “This French toast,” she said with emphasis, “is very, very yummy. You made this?”

“How does the Windsor Casino sound for later?” Avery’s mother proposed. “We could always stay around and relax at the country club pool! We could even eat dinner poolside—though Windsor does have the best Italian restaurant in Canada! It’s called Spago! That way, we could save the country club for brunch tomorrow!”

Joanna smiled. “My family is like that? Always planning the next meal while we’re eating?” The family laughed nervously.

“Joanna, I hope that Parker remembered to remind you to bring your passport!”

“This is the way we do things in Michigan, Jo,” Parker said, winking at his father and sister and then at his girlfriend. “We jet off to a foreign country whenever we want to go out for a nice dinner.”

“Oh.”

“Joanna, he’s joking!”

Everyone was coming to dinner. The family, six of Parker’s friends from high school, his group from college. Joanna had already met everyone; they had common friends. Avery could not help but think that if she set all the people who she liked around a big table, they would break bread for her sake then break off into warring factions. They would speak as many different languages as possible, just to make a point of it. Her conservative family would butt heads with her flaming liberal friends, who would lose ground by dividing into hostile subgroups: her smugly understated academic cohorts versus her darlings in the fine and performing arts, with her Midwestern high school pals looking on good-naturedly, smiling enough for everyone. That would be the worst part: the smiling.

“Don’t forget your passport! As is, Canada never wants to let you go!”

“Mom,” said Avery, “I think Parker is the one who needs reminding. He has a history. We don’t want him to come back from Canada without pants.”

Joanna burst out laughing. Parker touched her hand on the table, smiling.

Parker and Joanna worked for Google, he in advertising and she in software. They had not met at work but at a house party in the Hamptons on the Fourth of July a year ago. Parker had gone home in his swim trunks, forgetting his pants at the party. Joanna had found them under the couch; to be more exact, her parents had. It was their cottage in the Hamptons. The pants were a joke, corduroy shorts patterned with little boats with red, white, and blue sails, purposely too small for Parker; the vacuum had sucked them up when Joanna’s father was cleaning. How was that for a first impression.

“My dad calls Parker Cinderella,” Joanna said. “He thinks he’s being funny.” She turned and kissed Parker on the cheek. “You got me,” Parker said. The two of them were so cute retelling this cute story, heads tilted together like literal lovebirds.

“It’s not as fancy as it sounds, having a house in the Hamptons,” Joanna said. “Just FYI.”

“It’s like having a house up north here,” Parker added. “It’s just a thing that most people from there do.”

Joanna had finished her mimosa and stopped uptalking. She asked Avery questions about Spain in a tone that made them sound more like statements.

Avery spoke six languages and, after she graduated, might end up as an interpreter for some diplomat—but for the present, she wanted to drift. There was a freedom in places where nobody knew you and you had no memories and no expectations. You did not know better: what to want, what you might be missing.

Joanna was an attentive listener, and Parker was spooning strawberries onto her plate for her. When she looked down and saw them there, she started then shook her head at Parker. She had a friendly way of laughing at everything you said. It came with the odd side effect that whenever she did not laugh after you spoke, you felt offended and glanced over to see if she had been listening.

Once the plates were empty, Avery picked up a bowl stippled with sausage fat and excused herself. “I’m taking a nap.” She was still jetlagged, and the mimosas had made her sleepy and irritable.

“When should I wake you,” her mother said, “to give you enough time to change your dress for dinner?”

“I was going to wear this dress.”

“That’s interesting.”


Parker and Joanna would wash the breakfast dishes. Joanna would shower in the Jack-and-Jill bathroom, and Parker would sit on the guest bed noodling around on Avery’s guitar as Joanna blow-dried her hair at the mirror.

“It’s hard to play and sing at the same time,” he would shout.

“What?”

“It’s hard to play and sing at the same time.”

“I’ll bet.”

Avery would try and fail to nap.

As Joanna dressed, Parker would pack for the pool and the casino. Avery would see his backpack on the kitchen counter with a gold Coach makeup bag sticking out of the front pocket. He would be leaning on the banister with a pair of high-heeled strappy sandals in one hand and, in the other, a pink brush twisted with strands of long dark hair. He would call up the stairs.

He would call, “Jo?” To Avery, he would say, “She’s always late. It’s kind of her thing.”

From the beginning, Avery had been certain that she would be the one who ruined it. When the couple arrived at midnight, they would catch her in the spotless kitchen extracting a tin of facial wax from the microwave with oven mitts, stubby black lip hairs floating in the amber liquid. She would leave behind a single pubic hair on the floor of the shared bathroom. She had already picked one up with a tissue, not sure who it belonged to and knowing that if the other girl saw it, she would be similarly uncertain. She would leave her dirty dishes in plain sight on the kitchen island. She would forget to flush. She would call the significant other the wrong name or the name of the previous girlfriend. If she were to, say, slip up, just say that she did, which one of these things could she do without embarrassing herself, too?

Joanna came down the stairs, late as always, late because it was her thing. Like their father, Parker was methodical, diligent, regimented, but if he felt impatient with Joanna, he did not show it. She helped herself to another cup of coffee, and he said that he would wait for her. As she drank, Parker leaned across the breakfast table where the used champagne glasses had been abandoned, upturned and fingerprinted, but still so formal and fine. “I just wanted you to know,” Avery’s brother told the significant other, “we aren’t always like this. This is special. All of this is for you.”  

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