Solitaire

By  |  September 16, 2014
"Untitled, 1976-77," by Jo Ann Callis; Courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY "Untitled, 1976-77," by Jo Ann Callis; Courtesy of the artist and ROSEGALLERY

Martine calls Mamadou at three a.m. even though she knows he won’t answer—it’s not the hour, it’s that he never answers. “Hi, I’m not available to take—” She hangs up in the middle of his voice-mail message. She stopped leaving messages last year because he never listened to them. But she always wants to hear his voice say “Hi, I’m not available—” She knows she’s pushing a little pain button like a rodent in a science experiment but she does it anyway.

He calls back. He never answers but sometimes he calls back. 

“You called?” Not Hello.

“Are you playing solitaire on your iPod again?” She won’t say Hello then either. 

“Yes. Since one.”

“Thought you were going to quit.” 

“Can’t read any more shitty essays.” 

“I’m pregnant.”

“What?”

“I’m pregnant.”

“Well.” He scoops the word at the end to mean “Fuck.” 

“Well, what?”

“Well, fuck.”

“Yeah.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m coming over. I thought you were on the Pill.” 

“I am.”

“So what the fuck then.”

“I know. I don’t know.”

“You promise you were on the Pill.”

“I promise. I was. I am.”

“Are you sure it was me?”

“Yes.”

“Not Mason.”

Calmly, sleepily, as if she just wants to understand his thinking, she says, “It’s three a.m. and I have class in five hours and you’re implying I called to let you know I’m pregnant even though it’s because I stopped taking the Pill to sabotage law school and the inseminator was not you but Mason, who is in California and has been there for approximately one year.”

“Okay. Okay okay okay. I’ll be there in a minute.” 

 

Barbara didn’t understand why Martine mentioned Mamadou now and then but after almost five years she and Curt had yet to meet him. He taught jazz studies at UT and his parents were from Angola but he grew up in Chapel Hill. That was about all they knew about him until Barbara Googled him one night, concerned that maybe there was something actually wrong with Martine and she’d made him up. But there he was. He even had tenure. He had a big smile with a lot of very white teeth. She imagined the photo on his faculty profile suddenly coming to life. “Hi,” he’d say, “I love your daughter, and I’ll tell you exactly why you’ve never met me.” Barbara was afraid it was because he was black and Martine thought they would disapprove. But their son Sean had always had black friends who came over and Curt had chosen a black girl—a Pentecostal—to be drum major last year, so she didn’t want to bring it up with Martine, preferring to assume her daughter didn’t think them racist.

 

She opens the door.

“I should have worn a condom.” Not Hello.

“Hello. Say hello. Say hello, how are you now that you’re pregnant.”

“Jesus Christ Martine, like you just said it’s three a.m. and I have to teach in eight hours. I’m here, would I be here if I weren’t concerned?” Not How are you?

 

Barbara didn’t know if Martine was on Facebook. After her conversation with a colleague who was Facebook-following her daughter’s attempt to read all the books on the BBC’s 100 Greatest Books List, she wanted to get on there, tamping down her sense of the medium as tinny. This is what you do, she thought. She and Curt shared an email address: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. They used to have This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. but Sean told Curt Gmail was better and he should switch them so he did. Sometimes Barbara was put off by how readily Curt did whatever Sean did. He was even drinking Blue Moon with orange wedges now because Sean was. He’d started listening to CD mixes Sean made him, instead of the wind symphony recordings of Percy Grainger and Camille Saint-Saëns compositions she’d always found stirring. They also used to listen to the Chieftains, who had melody and spirit, neither of which Barbara heard in the new Sean music.

Perhaps Facebook would reveal Martine’s life to them in what passed for fullness now. As it stood all they had was her Gmail status dot, which used to be green when she was online but had changed to the red with the line through it, meaning Busy. Then even the red dot had disappeared.

Martine was not on Facebook, or her profile was not viewable. Barbara composed an email:

M,

Are you on Facebook? I can’t see you. We are on there now. Can we be friends?

Love Mom.

But she hated having to ask her daughter such a goofy question and hated also how accurately the question expressed what she was trying to accomplish with Facebook, so she left the message in Drafts.

 

After class the next day she meets him at Güero’s, their spot for tacos on South Congress.

“You look tired,” she says. I didn’t say Hello, she thinks. “Hello,” she says.

“I got you a margarita,” he says. Not Hello. “Top shelf.” 

“So I guess we know what your preferred option is.” 

“What . . . because I got you a margarita?” he says, making a show of having had to work hard to follow her logic.

“Does that mean you don’t even want to talk about it?”

“I have no money.”

“I want it.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Technically, I can, unless you kill me or injure me in such a way as to cause a miscarriage.”

“Jesus. Here we go. What I meant was, it’s a bad idea.”

She drinks the margarita. One margarita won’t hurt it. Lots of women in the Fifties and Sixties drank and smoked all through their pregnancies.

“So you don’t want it,” she says.

“You just got started at the best law school in the state.” 

“So you don’t want it.”

“No. Eventually you’ll see this was the right decision.” 

“I haven’t made it yet.”

“Two more, with salt,” he says to the waiter.

 

Barbara didn’t use the Facebook account, but Curt became obsessed with it right away, using it mainly to communicate with Sean. It didn’t bother him to see so many photos of their son drinking with young women who had orange, radioactive tans and whose thick rings of eyeliner reminded her of the eye black Sean used to reduce the glare of the stadium lights.

“I don’t understand,” said Barbara. “I thought you emailed him all the time anyway.”

“This is faster,” explained Curt. “Less work, more up to date. It’s casual. Email is a commitment.”

 

“Is it because of Angelique?” she asks.

“I see her maybe once a month. It’s not because of her.”

Angelique is on Facebook. Martine knows her last name because he puts everyone’s last name in his phone. Angelique is beautiful. She has that redbone skin and a lot of very white teeth. Her sons are tall and have closed masculine looks inside their boyish faces. She’s in one of his graduate classes and when his dad died she sent him a scented note of condolence so he invited her over and slept with her.

Martine has been looking at his phone, usually when he’s in the shower. Two nights ago, the night she found out she was pregnant, she was going to say the words I’m pregnant when he got out of the shower. Instead she looked at his phone and saw the message he sent Angelique right before he got in the shower: I think I was trying to blow the pussy up last night.

Mami, he said to Martine after he got out of the shower and got inside her, do you know how much I love this.

Not you.

Are you trying to blow the pussy up Papi? she said.

Not I’m pregnant.

“If I agree to have an abortion will you tell me why you never approved my Facebook request?” She licks the salt off the second margarita.

“No, because I already told you. I’ve been busy.”

She takes a sip. “You have 435 friends,” she says. “It’s a click.”

“This is the shit I hate.”

“This is the shit I hate. Say you don’t want me to have your baby.”

“I don’t want you to. You have a lot to lose too, though, Mami.”

“You can’t use that nickname now.” 

He sighs. He looks away.

“Are we friends?” she asks.

“Of course. We’ll always be friends, Martine.”

“Then why wouldn’t you?”

After the second margarita she is drunk so he takes her home. He licks her with special passion and tenderness because she finally said she would do it. He thinks of the special tenderness as sympathy. She thinks of it as the back end of extortion: each lick says Good girl.

 

In the middle of the night she wakes up. She knows if she moves she will wake him so she just stares at him. He is beautiful and clean. He’s always bathing and his nuts always smell like shea butter and he shaves his head. She likes to rub the stubbly wrinkles on the back of his neck while he’s down there doing good work. No one’s ever made her feel like that, like she was punching through to some other dimension. And name any jazz, blues, rock, pop, or hip-hop artist of the past eighty years and he can tell you their history and their place within the form and he’ll play a track for you because he owns 50,000 songs. Not one of them will explain why a man who’s up so thick in beauty and gets it so right can be so cold. She touches his leg. He says immediately, “Don’t. What is it?”

“Is it that I’m white?” she asks him.

“No,” he says. “Lots of people are white.”

“I want it,” she says, “I want it.”

In the silence she can hear him looking at the ceiling, strategizing. He pulls her to him, meaning he’s all in on the next play. “You’re still drunk, Mami. Want me to lick it again?”

“You want to lick my pregnant pussy twice but I can’t be your friend on Facebook?”

 

In a matter of weeks her belly gets a profile. She notices as she steps out of the shower and walks past a mirror. “Shit,” she says, the hairs on her neck screaming for another look. The belly of a milk-full puppy, stretched and soft.

When they fuck that way where they’re on their sides and he’s behind her he used to put his left hand on her left hip, his long fingers reaching almost to her navel, but now he just grips her hipbone pincer-like. It’s awkward, like he’s holding his body in a weird position on a crowded subway to keep from bumping someone else. It’s because without thinking about it he put his hand where he always did but when he felt the ultrasoftness and the little slope he jerked his fingers back.

 

“I’ve been looking at your phone,” Martine tells him, four weeks after the abortion. They’ve met at Güero’s for tacos again. 

“Why would you do that?”

“I feel like I don’t exist.”

“Because of the Facebook thing?”

“No, because you need Angelique and Caroline and Jenny. None of your friends know me and we sleep together almost every night. If you died no one would tell me.”

“Why do we have to have the same friends?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Caroline was just once. Jenny I’m not fucking. Angelique is not my woman the way you are my woman. Shouldn’t you know all that if you’ve been looking at my phone?”

“I deactivated my Facebook. So I won’t ask you about that again.”

“Should I not be angry about this?”

“You should.”

“Why did you even tell me?”

“Because I’m quitting and I wanted to be honest with you.” 

“Quitting what,” he says. In spite of the flat, non-interrogative tone of his delivery of this line, and the way he signals for the waiter as he says it—as if more chips and whatever she says next can go together—she realizes he is afraid she means she wants to quit the relationship. She meant she was going to quit looking at his phone.

“You. This.”

 

She doesn’t talk to him for eight days. He sends her text messages. He emails her. He calls. He actually leaves voice messages. He tries to chat with her online, even though she’s invisible. are you there? pops up on her Skype, her Yahoo Messenger, her Gmail. Sometimes he switches tactics and emails her articles, as if nothing has changed, subject line: did you see this? She returns to sleeping diagonally in her big bed, splayed like a chalk outline, instead of on the westernmost sliver. Mamadou approves her Facebook friend request, seven months after she first submitted it. Since she’s not on Facebook any longer she gets an email that says Mamadou Wanga wants to be friends on Facebook. Finally he comes to the library. When she looks up from Miranda v. Arizona there he is, holding his hat, the gray Kangol that covers his head when he hasn’t had time to shave it.

“Here you are,” she observes. Not Hello. Or Get the fuck out.

“I need you,” he says. “Are you not getting my messages?”

 

One night Barbara decides to see if Mamadou is on Facebook. He is, and he has 436 friends. His profile says Single. 

“Curt,” she calls to him in the living room, where he’s reading The Snow Leopard in the good chair, “I think Martine broke up with Mamadou.” She realizes as she says it that maybe it was the other way around. “Come here,” she says to him. She hears him clear his throat and tuck in the bookflap to mark his page.

“What is it?” he says. The computer is in the bedroom, set up on the sewing machine table, which hasn’t been used since Barbara made Martine’s prom dress. The sewing machine hangs upside down, dormant like a sleeping bat, underneath the computer.

“Look,” she says, pointing to Single.

“Well,” he says, scooping the word at the end to convey acknowledgment without further opinion.

“Well, what?” she presses. His Well means “So they broke up. Whatever happened, this is how things go and we shouldn’t bother her about it. Don’t meddle.” Barbara knows this but she can’t stand to let him just come in there and say Well and go back to the chair.

“Well, I guess we should call her. But I don’t know what we can do. You know she doesn’t talk.”

This is the most sincere and expressive thing Curt has said to Barbara in some time, and she feels like they are in the same parenting golf cart for a moment. Usually she imagines they are driving separate carts, she with Martine, who sits on the backward-facing padded bench and reads a book as Barbara drives to the next hole, and he with Sean. Sean drives the cart while Curt sits in the passenger seat and holds Sean’s clubs with one hand, the other gripping the roof because his son drives too fast.

Curt goes back to the chair, Barbara’s feeling of togetherness dissipating as she realizes “we” meant “you” and Curt feels no urgency about the matter. She calls Martine’s mobile phone. Martine hasn’t recorded a personal greeting on her voice mail. Often when Barbara leaves a message Martine will call back in the next few minutes and say “I just saw you called,” and Barbara will repeat whatever she said in the message because Martine never listened to it. But this time the electronic voice says “The mailbox for the telephone number you have called is full.”

 

He teaches Martine how to shave his head. He’s eight inches taller than she is so he sits in a chair and his head is right there at her chin. She tries not to nick him because even though she had the abortion she knows he’ll take the clippers away from her and say Never mind if she does. “Talk to me about Monk,” she says.

“You need to concentrate,” he says gently. “Don’t fuck up and I’ll eat your pussy. Is it healed yet?”

 

Since Martine isn’t answering her phone Barbara sends a text message:

Your mailbox is full. When are you coming home again? Love Mom.

The next day she gets a response:

spring break bringing mamadou if thats ok

A-OK!! We will be happy to meet him. So you two worked things out?

what do you mean

We thought you broke up. His Facebook said ‘Single.’ 

never together

So . . . he’s just a friend?

no, open relationship

Oh. How does that go?

it doesnt

Well, let me know what kind of food he likes.

everything & he cooks

At this Barbara imagines Mamadou in her kitchen, wearing an apron and stirring three pots on the stove with a wooden spoon. Three women who all look more or less like Martine, child-size, hipless, with big gray eyes and long black hair, stand in the kitchen with him, not saying anything. Two rest their heads on his shoulders and one massages his neck.

She knows what an open relationship is but she has found that often when she knows what something is that makes her want to Google it more, like holding a paint swatch up to a wall after it’s been painted. Making sure the hue was advertised accurately. In the search box she types “what is” and pauses, deciding if “what is open relationship” will result in any porn sites, which she tries to avoid. She thinks there should be some kind of special Boolean operator that equals “not porn.” While she is thinking about this the search box has suggested a list of the most popular “what is” searches: the first is what is my IP address, and the second is what is love.


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Merritt Tierce is the recipient of a 2011 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and is a 2013 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" author. Her first novel, Love Me Back, came out in September from Doubleday. She lives near Dallas with her husband and children.