At parties, Johnny calls their new neighborhood twiggy and unestablished. He is speaking mainly of the trees. If the conversation permits it he or his new wife, July, will mention the neighbors from Ghana—they cook pigs feet in their garage!—or the large Greek family that lives across the street.
To new acquaintances they say: Yes, it’s Johnny and July, not April, May or June. But our early romance was as torrid as Johnny and June’s, they joke. Cash and Carter, they sometimes have to specify. Those are not the fun parties.
After these post-graduate parties, Johnny and July almost always make love. Once, crossing the threshold into their white, high-ceilinged foyer and still in their shoes. It is cacophonous and hurried as if someone will catch them.
July, recently unemployed, spends her days in their new place trying to feel comfortable. A task she tackles with projects designed to make a house into a home. She paints the room at the top of the stairs, after consulting numerous sources on the psychology of color, a yellow concoction called limoncello. The room is empty except for an old metal filing-cabinet given to July by her mother. She paints that yellow too. When Johnny sees it, he says filing cabinets aren’t meant to be painted.
“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go in there,” she says.
He does go in the yellow room, though, while July is at her parents’ house collecting dresses she wore on momentous occasions in recent history. Johnny wants to see what the room is used for. All the rooms in the house are named, vaguely, for their use: the computer room, the exercise room, the sun room. There is a television in every other room because July hates a quiet house. So, she always says, T.V. room isn’t an adequate modifier.
He wants to open the filing cabinet. The metal still reeks of paint, never really soaking it all in like the walls. He jiggles the handle on the top drawer and slides the little square piece toward the handgrip with his thumb. Nothing. He tries the remaining two drawers. All locked.
When July returns home, Johnny asks what’s in the yellow cabinet.
“I’ll show you,” she says. July keeps the key on a skinny silver chain around her neck for no other reason than she likes the way it looks. When she opens the first drawer she laughs in a soft, jingly way.
“There’s nothing,” she says, “except for a poem I wrote in college about blue candlesticks and a wandering pervert in a puffy red vest. It didn’t win any awards.”
“I don’t see why not,” says Johnny, grabbing the folded paper from her hands.
He reads it in his best slam poetry voice and tells her it is—with all the red, white and, blue imagery—very patriotic. July bows graciously.
“Why do you keep the poem locked up?” asks Johnny.
“What place is there for it? Besides the shredder,” she says.
In college, July—an English major—dated a guy who liked to dabble in artistic endeavors. He was tall and boyish; he liked to dance and cared about his looks and the environment. July wore black and liked to smoke cigarettes while riding her bicycle. She wrote poems in a leather-bound journal that nobody knew about. In the Spring semester of her third year, she submitted a poem in a competition along with her environmentalist beau. On the day of the award’s ceremony, she smoked an entire pack of cigarettes outside of the ornate-gothic English Department. Then she took a seat inside one of the department’s stinking and cavernous auditoriums, next to her boyfriend. She waited for victory. But his poem, an ode to one persisting dandelion after a nuclear fall-out, took first place.
“Your poem belongs in a frame,” says Johnny.
“This old thing?” says July, borrowing from her mother’s native Tennessee-Carolina vernacular. She tries out the accent too. Her tongue lobs lazily, nostalgically against the roof of her mouth. When July and her mother cleaned out the junk room of her childhood home, it took hours. Cross-legged they excavated the paper records of their past. July’s mother handed her a terse rejection letter she received from a White House staffer. The letter, dated 1991, arrived after she applied to be part of a think-tank assembled to tackle fetal alcohol syndrome. July thinks of the things her mother might have said if she suggested they frame it.
Don’t know why I kept this old thing, is what her mother actually said. It probably ended up in the toss pile along with decades-old credit card statements.
But July cannot keep or toss the untitled poem. She does not object, though, when Johnny leaves the poem under their second-hand copy of Merriam Webster’s for a week to iron out the creases.
July’s maiden name, the one she still absentmindedly signs checks with—an error that caused the electric cooperative to turn off the power during the first unseasonably snowy spring they were married—floats in the upper left-hand corner of the wrinkled computer paper. When she sees that familiar heap of letters her body aches. It aches for a time when she didn’t have to put much thought into what to wear because almost anything would exude sex. For a time when she didn’t impulsively buy products proclaiming youth on their labels. She longs for a space—her old body, another body—she used to inhabit.
Eventually, Johnny hangs the poem in a cheap black frame above their shared desk in a room with fresh carpeting, mismatched bookcases and a leather chair that swivels. The couples’ diplomas, matted in expensive frames, hang side by side. According to July’s mother, the room screams success.
When they finish furnishing the house, Johnny and July host a party for a small circle of college friends—July’s—and co-workers who are willing to commute to the suburbs. July meets Garrett and Colleen in the Kiss-n-Ride lot at dusk. They are the only couple she knows from college whose relationship has weathered graduate school, ramen dinners, and diminishing egos. She drives them just three blocks, pointing out the Greeks’ house. She notices—aloud—a lone, freshly-mulched crape myrtle standing in the amber radius of a scarce streetlight.
“There are no sidewalks here,” says Colleen.
“An affront to pedestrians everywhere,” says Garrett. “The extra-wide SUVs necessitate the extra-wide avenues,” he adds.
“Truth! I hear this area is a veritable melting pot, though,” says Colleen. It occurs to July that this is the neighborhood’s only saving grace, the reason why she and Johnny always regale their hosts with anecdotes about its residents and the reason why—buzzed and confident again in their life-choices—they make love when they get home, as if it were simply a logical extension of the night’s events.
Johnny ushers July and her friends through their recently painted front door. He has already begun the house tour and his co-worker, Jane, lingers in the home office. For a woman who spends her week in a cubicle making spreadsheets, she has an eclectic wardrobe. July notices Jane’s neon blue tights and then her empty wine glass, which she dangles against her thigh.
“Red or white?” says July.
“Red, please,” says Jane. She hands July her glass and their manicured fingers intertwine. They stand close enough to make July blush. She can smell the wine on Jane’s breath. It is floral but dirty, like the soil of a pungent potted-plant. “Johnny was just showing me your poem,” says Jane still holding onto the stem of her wine glass. “He was saying that you’re such a talented writer,” she adds. The compliment causes July’s pastel blush to burn deeper, almost plum.
Johnny herds everyone else into the office now. With one hand he pulls July’s black-skirted hip against his own so they are conjoined. This causes July’s fever-blush to recede and for a moment she feels collected. Then, with his free hand, Johnny points to the poem on the wall. “Would you look at that,” he says. He is really saying: Look at my wife’s brain. Look at my achievement.
Colleen and Garrett lean over the desk with their hands clasped behind their backs. “It is so sweet, this gallery wall you’ve got,” says Colleen when she finishes reading.
July wants to tear the thing off the wall. She wants to smash the frame and show Johnny what’s written on the back of his sweetly curated poem. A note to another man: The Environmentalist. She wrote it, the print small and palsied, because she couldn’t say it, I’m pregnant. And blacked-out underneath of that, I could never leave you. Now July, seeing the fruition of things, thinks it should be the other way around—the redacted line.
But she does not show Johnny the message, the little joke really. Instead, July slips out of Johnny’s lasso to refill Jane’s wine glass.
After the party, they do not make love. She climbs into bed where Johnny is reading nonfiction.
“It’s anachronistic,” she says.
“What is?” Johnny asks
“Only everything. I mean, you work for a company with a family-friendly insurance plan for chrissake,” says July. Look at my achievement.
“I do. And?”
“And you always know what the next step in going to be,” she says.
“That’s not entirely true,” says Johnny. It was true. It’s one of the reasons why she married Johnny.
“What’s the next step then? A baby?” says July.
“I’m not following you here,” he says.
“I know,” she says. Look at my wife’s brain.
But July knows that he’s probably seen it, the message scribbled on the back of the poem. She equates his silence about it to thoughtful self-restraint, another reason why she married Johnny.
The morning after the party, July locks the poem into the yellow filing cabinet again. She wears only her robe and the chain around her neck. She thinks about swallowing the key. Outside something rattles in the street.
Eager for another story, she peers out the curtain-less window, the sky like a dusty drape over the earth. A shirtless old man is making repairs to the gray sedan parked across the street. It occurs to her that there is always someone around to fix things. Another saving grace.
Then she sees them walking in the extra-wide avenue. Two immaculately dressed women embrace at the elbows. Only a sliver of space cuts between their mother-bodies. They seem to sway. Another one, the mother of the neighborhood twins, sashays behind a double-wide stroller where the matching toddlers are fastened. The women’s colorful espadrilles tap and then pound the asphalt. The Greeks are dancing in the street. The beat they imagine predicting all of their jubilant steps. And still the curly-headed babies slouch into their morning naps. Those bouncy baby cheeks, hot with sleep, July could just devour them. She could devour it all.