Sarah had this rule about not talking shop over dinner. She told me before Jerry and Jean came over that I wasn’t to bring up basketball or the university. Even after thirteen years coaching together, Jerry and I mostly just talked about the team. I watched him cut up his steak. I couldn’t very well ask how things were going with Jean, because she was sitting right beside him, and I didn’t think that was what Sarah wanted anyway. It seemed to me Sarah wanted to pin the poor girl down and see inside her. She said it all the time: Jerry and Martha had twenty-four years of marriage, and he only mourned her for nine months.
We’d met Jean a few times before. She was at commencement and most of the games. But this was the first time we’d had them over for dinner and it was long overdue. I had to force the issue, because Sarah always said she was too busy with work or too tired from gardening. These people are our friends, I had to say. I wanted her to let me back in. I wanted our old life back, and it seemed she didn’t, and so we ended up screaming at one another in bed, like we were kids again. I slept on the goddamn sofa over it.
The only thing I could think to mention was the boat. I told them I had my eye on a Kayot V220. Big enough for the four of us to go out on the bay on a Sunday afternoon. Small enough to tow with a pickup. We’d dock it in East Greenwich and take it out on the bay every weekend. Jerry said it sounded great. He said that Jean loved the ocean. She smiled and she looked like a toothpaste commercial, her teeth were so white. It was settled. They would help christen it. Sarah said I shouldn’t count my chickens, and then Jerry said something about ordering new swim trunks. Sarah made a nasty face.
“What? We talked about it,” I said.
She shook her head and when I asked what again, she kicked my leg under the table. Before they arrived when Sarah was boiling the water for the corn, she almost put two fingers in the pot to test its temperature. Probably would have too, if I hadn’t yelled hey, what the hell? She wasn’t the absent-minded type—she was a thousand miles away.
Before Martha died, it was the four of us, almost every weekend. Sarah and Martha would walk around the neighborhood every morning, and talk on the phone every night. They read the same books. They got manicures together every week. They went to this yoga retreat out in the Berkshires every fall with a silent breakfast, where they would stare at one another over bowls of oatmeal. And now, here was Jean, sitting at our dinner table in a short dress with postcards and roses printed all over it, ignoring her tomato salad and corn on the cob, tearing through a strip steak with a paper napkin on her lap, smiling like Jerry’s entire life hadn’t burst apart.
She was thirty-five, thirty-six maybe, fifteen years or so younger than Jerry. He was one of those guys who went gray in his twenties and looked pretty much the same from twenty-eight to fifty. He was in great shape too, but chasing balls around and hollering at kids all day helps with that.
After a minute or two, he asked if I had watched the Bonnies tape yet.
“Tonight. Those kids dribble so goddamn much it’ll help me fall asleep.” Sarah cleared her throat in this obviously fake way, but what was I supposed to do?
“The freshman point guard, Graves? He’s quick,” Jerry said.
“Does Jerry make you watch tape in bed?” Sarah asked Jean.
“He doesn’t make me,” she said as she took another bite of her steak.
“I have a sleeping mask and earplugs on the bedside table.”
“I don’t really mind,” Jean said. “I like to watch.”
Jerry blushed a little. He didn’t notice Sarah rolling her eyes.
“Martha was just as sick of it as I was,” Sarah said. Jerry ate a forkful of tomato salad and sort of nodded in agreement.
“You ever been married before?” I asked, even though I knew she hadn’t. That was the first thing I asked Jerry about her when they met. He was blue skies and sunshine then, in a way I hadn’t seen him since before Martha was sick. Jean said no.
“You were waiting for the right guy,” I said. Sarah usually went for the lovey dovey stuff. Destiny. The celestial plan. But it sort of just hovered over the table. She wouldn’t give Jean a goddamn thing. Not an ounce of approval.
Jerry watched the cuckoo clock above the old-fashioned refrigerator. The yellow cuckoo shot out six times on a short, accordion arm before it went back into hiding. He’d seen it all before, of course, but Jean said it was adorable. She asked Sarah if it was an antique, but it was the wrong thing to ask.
“Does it look like an antique?” Sarah asked. She was cruel and I couldn’t help but wince.
“I guess I don’t know that much about cuckoo clocks,” Jean said.
“It probably cost five dollars in 1973.”
“It’s still an antique,” I said. “It was my father’s. My mother hated it, and now Sarah hates it for both of them.”
“I do not.”
“She does too,” I said.
“Well I love it,” Jean said. She took another bite of her steak and added, “I think it’s cute.”
The bitch of it was, Sarah wasn’t like this. She used to be welcoming and generous with everyone. And even though she had her no-basketball-at-dinner rule, she was more than happy to have the boys over. She loved them. She’d cook enough for four most nights, just in case. Then Martha got sick and everything sped up so fast. We hadn’t had the team over in three seasons. It got to the point where the juniors didn’t even know it was something we did.
“You have a beautiful home,” Jean said. “I love the open floor plan.” Jerry chewed his steak and nodded in agreement.
“Thanks,” Sarah said. She hated the kitchen. Company could see the dirty pots and pans on the stove. She’d hide them in the oven before our guests arrived, like a lunatic. I wondered if the corn pot was in there. She wanted to redo the kitchen and dining room, but I liked going to St. Croix every May, and she liked it too. She liked it much more when Jerry and Martha came with us, but still.
“So,” I said, “what else do people our age talk about?” Jerry and Jean laughed.
“Their kids,” Jerry said.
“Good one,” Sarah said.
Jerry and Martha never had kids either, but Martha never wanted them. She didn’t think it would be fair, she used to say, having a dad who had to pack up and move them all over the country at the whim of an athletic director. The irony was that Jerry never moved again after URI. Two Atlantic-10 titles and four twenty-win seasons in his first nine years was better than anyone could have hoped for. The program wasn’t exactly a powerhouse before we started. But anyway, right before Martha’s cancer, they had been talking about adoption. For a few months, it was the only thing that Martha and Sarah talked about. Sarah had asked me about it, too. It was something we all could do together, she had said. Our kids could go school together and I could coach their AAU teams. We spent a lot of nights in bed talking about it, and I’m sure Jerry and Martha did, too. That ate at me as we watched her die. She never had the time. I had to go into the handicapped stall at the funeral parlor to pull it together.
“This steak is delicious,” Jerry said.
“New York strip on the grill. Can’t do much better than that.”
“What do you put on it?” Jerry wasn’t the type for small talk, but it was so quiet, you could hear our silverware echo off the tiled floor and backsplash.
“Salt, pepper, and garlic powder,” I said, playing along. I smiled at Sarah to try to get her to warm up, even a little bit, but she didn’t get my meaning.
“Garlic powder,” he said, “Martha used to put that in everything.”
Jean didn’t seem to mind when Jerry mentioned her. I looked into his eyes and thought about how I could never do what he did. The guys joked around with me—they respected Jerry. He was a leader. He could pick them up and carry them through anything. He was a better coach than me, and a stronger person, too.
Jean continued chewing and admitted she wasn’t much of a cook. She had a sweetness to her. A childlike sort of quality. She seemed the kind of person that police let go with a warning instead of a speeding ticket.
“Martha could really cook,” Sarah said. “You should have seen the holidays at their house, Jean. Scalloped potatoes, perfect turkey, that banana cream pie. But of course you couldn’t have.”
“It was really something,” Jerry said.
“Something special. It takes a special person to be able to do all of that. And she was perfect. Really,” Sarah said, “truly perfect.”
I would have paid her back with a little kick under the table, but Sarah walked to the counter to refill her wine glass. I asked Jean about her job and she said she worked for an insurance company in Providence and commuted thirty minutes each way from Kingston.
“That’s a long way to drive,” Sarah said, sitting back down at the table.
“Don’t mind her. She won’t even drive to Providence for Waterfire,” I said.
“We have a perfectly good fireplace. If you love Waterfire so much, make a fire and put on some Tchaikovsky.”
Jean said she liked the commute because it helped her wake up in the morning and wind down on her way home. She had lived in Rhode Island her entire life. I asked if she ever thought about moving out of state, and Jean said no the way the freshmen say no to running extra suicides.
“I talked to her about retiring down in Fort Myers a couple years from now,” Jerry said.
“But you’re in no rush to move on,” Sarah said.
“We’ll see what happens the next couple years,” Jerry said. He was doing that thing I hated, where he indirectly referred to his contract. He had two years left, but he was superstitious of speaking about it directly.
“It seems pretty ironic to me,” Sarah said. “Martha wanted you to move down there years ago, but you were always so busy with the team.”
This time, I squeezed her knee under the table, but she just stared at Jerry like she wanted a fight.
“Priorities change,” Jean said. We all looked at her, and I squeezed Sarah’s knee even harder so she wouldn’t snap back. Sarah scrunched up her face, the way she would before a sneeze.
“You know what I love about Rhode Island?” I asked. “I love that people care about one another here. The way you know people everywhere you go. It reminds me of Saratoga.”
“Sure,” Jerry said.
I found a few more ways to say absolutely nothing, about the weather and the beaches, and how excited we would be to have them on our boat. Saying nothing was better than whatever Sarah was up to. The pouty look on her face meant that I’d get an earful as soon as Jerry and Jean cut out.
Jerry said that either way, he was about ready to sell his house. “I don’t need the space. It’s too much for me, you know? Too much for me and Jean even. And besides, all of the memories and everything.”
“Oh yeah, you have to forget about those,” Sarah said. Jerry made a sort of “hmm” sound and Jean mentioned that they’d be moving in together. I noticed Sarah staring at Jean’s plate. The steak was gone, but she had left Sarah’s tomato salad and corn on the cob alone.
“You don’t like tomatoes?” Sarah asked. “Or red onions? Are you allergic to onions?”
“No, I love tomatoes,” Jean said. I could tell Sarah hated her, if not the person Jean was, at least the idea of her. We would probably spend the rest of the weekend talking about what Martha would have preferred, with me arguing that she was a pragmatist who would have been happy for Jerry, and Sarah picking apart each of Jean’s quirks.
“It’s okay if you don’t like them, you can say it.”
“You don’t have to lie to spare my feelings.” Sarah said. Under my breath I told her that was enough. In twenty years, I’d never seen her go after anyone this way.
“I’m not lying,” Jean said with a laugh. She seemed nervous, like she didn’t know where any of this was headed. I had to say something to break it up.
“Did a ton of research, but the V220 is the way to go. Like I said before, easy to tow. Fiberglass lasts forever. Not a ton of space, but hey, not a lot of maintenance either. And really, who needs deck space when you’re cruising around on a Sunday afternoon?”
“Will you shut up about the goddamn boat? I’m sick of hearing about the boat. It’s all you ever talk about. That and the team.”
“He’s excited,” Jerry said. Sarah got that crazed look in her face where she turned red and pulled her lips into a flat line. She used to be different. I never saw that look before Martha’s diagnosis. The night they brought in hospice was the first time I ever heard Sarah scream. She screamed it wasn’t fair, and she cried in the shower. I waited for her on the other side of the curtain with a towel, but she pushed me away when she stepped out of the bathtub. And now the smallest things set her off. She was about to explode, and I pulled my chair closer and rubbed her back with my palm, but she swatted it away. I asked if she wanted to help me pick out another bottle of wine in the basement, even though Jerry knew we weren’t exactly connoisseurs.
“No. I don’t,” she said.
Jerry focused on what was left of his steak, but Jean went into this frantic fit and started eating everything on her plate.
“These tomatoes are delicious,” she said.
“Don’t,” Sarah snapped.
“No, honest. I love them. Balsamic vinaigrette is my favorite salad dressing,” she said. “Ask Jerry, I eat a salad with balsamic vinaigrette every day for lunch.”
“You’re making her uncomfortable,” I said.
“Who’s making anyone uncomfortable? Am I making you uncomfortable, Jean?”
“No. I’m great.” I swore she’d pull a muscle the way she was smiling.
“She’s great,” Sarah said.
“Great,” I said.
I asked if anyone wanted more wine. No one responded, so I said I did and I got up. I grabbed the corkscrew from the counter and walked to the cellar door. We kept a rack with seven to ten bottles next to the washing machine. I turned the light on and walked downstairs. I didn’t want to go back upstairs, so I read every bottle. There were three merlots, one cab, a screw cap pinot noir with a child’s drawing of a crocodile on the front, and two bottles of shiraz. I settled on the shiraz from 2011. I uncorked it and took a long pull from the bottle.
When Martha was too weak to get out of bed, Sarah acted like everything was the same. She walked the neighborhood alone. She read on the divan, by the window. At Martha’s bedside she’d have these one-sided conversations about the books she was reading. And Martha would just lie there, trapped inside her own head. When she finally died, I tried reading with Sarah. I tried walking beside her. I tried to give her everything I could, but she said she needed to do it all by herself for a while. She never stopped, and we were alone together.
When I came up the stairs, Sarah was at the sink, her back to Jean and Jerry, scrubbing the dinner plates. They were sitting at the table, looking at one another, trying to decide if they should head out.
“Can’t that wait?” I asked. Sarah said nothing, so I asked again, louder and meaner than the first time.
“I just want to get it over with,” she said with her back to us.
“I think we’re gonna split,” Jerry said.
“Or do you need a hand?” Jean asked from the table.
“It’s okay,” I said to Jean.
“Well anyway, thanks for having us,” Jerry said. “Everything was delicious.”
“Why don’t you guys go watch that Bonnies tape? I’ll help Sarah,” Jean said. “Go relax.” She cleared the rest of the plates off of the table and brought them to the sink, beside Sarah.
“It’s preseason. It’s an exhibition. You don’t have to—” I said.
“No, I insist.” She grabbed a tea towel from the front of the oven and began drying the plates that Sarah had placed in the drying rack. “I got it.”
“It’s fine,” Sarah said.
“Jeannie,” Jerry said.
I watched it happen in some other kind of time. Sarah lifted the stack of plates gracefully, with both of her hands over her head and then, a tomahawk dunk—she slammed them into the steel sink full of water and silverware. The sound was a thunderclap over the running water, and for a moment, I could see the soap bubbles and food particles and water molecules and tiny specks of porcelain floating through the air, settling all over the kitchen. Then I could hear the crickets and beetles outside our house, I could hear the Rossi’s sprinkler system next door, and I could smell the individual blades of grass from our kitchen as the dusk settled in all around us. Sarah lifted her hands out of the sink, and they were covered in sudsy blood.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Are you alright?” Jean asked. She fiddled with the faucet and told Sarah to run her hands under warm water.
I jogged to the bathroom and came back with a box of Band-Aids and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
“It’s just a little cut,” Sarah said. She was holding some of the broken pieces of the plates and Jean was instructing her to hold her arm over her head, and Sarah was half listening and half falling apart. She was shaking, the way she shook at Martha’s funeral, crying without her eyes. I watched the ribbons of watery blood run down her pale arm, to her elbow, and splash on the linoleum. I grabbed her around the waist and whispered I was sorry. I thought we could all be together again. It would be like old times. I tried to fix everything and I was stupid and wrong. I was sorry about all of it.
“Let me see your hands,” Jerry said.
“Sarah,” Jerry barked. It was his coaching voice. This booming, ferocious, competent voice. I’d never heard it outside the gym before, and it felt twice as commanding in our kitchen. I took the plates from her hand and threw them in the trash bin. She turned to face Jerry and held out her arms.
“Get me some paper towels.” he said. I brought the entire roll. Without another word, he took Sarah’s wrist in his hand, tore off two perforated sheets, and held one against her open palm. He let the paper towel soak up the blood and the dishsoap, and I uncapped the hydrogen peroxide and moistened the other sheet. Sarah didn’t fuss, she didn’t argue. She stood there with a blank expression. He said that the peroxide would sting, but that he needed to do it. He pressed the damp paper towel against the wound with one hand, and squeezed Sarah’s free hand with the other. They stood there, across from one another, holding hands, like dancing children, in our kitchen.
“I used to do this for Martha, when she hurt herself.”
“I know,” Sarah said.
Jerry pulled her closer.