Recently I was part of a panel discussion on “The Man Behind the Woman” for the local chapter of the National Association of Career Women. The basic idea was three guys with less stellar careers than their wives talking about how we navigate this gender-flipped territory. Two of us (including me) work from home and two of us (not including me, though I’m hoping that will change on Sunday) have our own incomes.
There was a lot of talk about what it’s like being the at-home parent, being responsible for more of the housework, and how we dealt with presenting that house-husband face to the world. Even friends have asked me, “What do you do at home all day, Larry?” Apparently stay-at-home moms get asked this question too, which is just unconscionable. I focused, a la Amanda Palmer, on the guilt any artist feels about making sacrifices for their art, and the pressure from many directions to “get a real job.”
Thinking about all this, I realized that at least two of the three stories in my forthcoming chapbook, Desert Trilogy, deal with exactly these issues of how a couple navigates the rocky territory of what each will give up in order to make a life together. Competing careers, where to live, when or whether to have children: all tough decisions that have led to the demise of many relationships. These being genre stories (two are a little bit Sci Fi, and one is a little bit horror), those issues get worked out in surprising ways.
In “Chill Out,” a young couple faces the decision of when to have kids, with the issues of careers and where to live already worked out in the husband’s favor. (The fact that he looks at it as “in his favor” should tell you something about this guy. “Three assholes in the desert” could be an alternate subtitle for this book.) Here, Brad is ruminating on the conflict as they take a drive into the desert northeast of L.A.:
More recently it was the Kids Now or Kids Later decision. For Brad, the math major, it was the inexorability of the numbers. They wanted two kids, they wanted them two or three years apart. That already pushed them into their early thirties for their second one. Parenting a teenager when he was 50? Sure, people did it, but to Brad it sounded like a perfect version of hell. “Someday” was now.
Amy wanted more time to establish her career as a writer. She had already published three stories in small journals, she said she was just hitting her stride.
“Domesticity is the death of writing,” she argued.
“What about Alice Munro?” he argued back. It wasn’t as if he didn’t read.
“Bad example. I’m not waiting ’til I’m forty to publish my first collection.”
“Barbara Kingsolver, then.”
“Better. But still.”
Then there was her attitude toward their neighbors, especially the stay-at-home moms. They crowded the sidewalks with their strollers, and on weekends the SUVs were filled with kids going to soccer and T-ball games. He looked forward to all that. She described those moms as if they were the Stepford Wives, with their designer jeans, perfect makeup and hair highlighted to just the right shade—outdoorsy, Californian, but never so bleached that it entered blond-joke territory.
She kept her hair its natural light brown and close tabs on her wheels of Alesse.
I’ve left the ending open to a wide variety of interpretations, many of which could be rather dark. But no matter what one thinks about what happens to Brad and Amy, it’s an extreme form of “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” A longer excerpt is here.
“What I Did for Love” is a horror-romance that begins with a guy drilling a hole in his girlfriend’s skull. (I guess that behavior goes beyond “asshole,” doesn’t it?) They’re camped far out in the desert and the issue that lies between them is again careers versus place. Dave is a carpenter and surfer who loves the desert just as much as he does the ocean. Jane is a marine biologist studying salmon who has just finished her PhD at Scripps Institute in San Diego and is considering a job offer in the Northwest. Here’s the scene where they begin to try to figure that out:
I got home one day, checked the mail, and found an envelope from the University of Washington, addressed to Jane. I put it on the bare kitchen table, sorted the other mail, opened a beer and sat down at the table to wait.
Jane froze when her eyes lit on the envelope, cut off in the middle of asking how my day had been. She sat down slowly, looked up at me and then back at the envelope.
“Here it is,” she said, to herself more than to me.
“Here it is.” I sipped from my beer, then got up to open one for her.
“It’s probably not the final decision.” She was still staring at the envelope, ignoring the bottle I set down before her.
“Why don’t you open it?”
She looked at me again, then opened the envelope and read the letter. A grin played across her face as she glanced at me and then back at the paper. I could see the UW emblem through the back. It was that creamy, heavy sort of paper used for official business, not a photocopied rejection letter.
“I’ve made it into the final round,” she said, really looking at me for the first time. “They want me back for another interview, meet the rest of the department.”
“That’s good, Jane,” I said, and looked away. “That’s really good.” I got up, kissed her, and went outside and up the stairs to the roof. I sat on the edge of the low wall at the roof’s edge and stared out toward the ocean where the last glimmer of the setting sun tinged the horizon a dull red. I looked down at the people on the street, couples heading down to the boardwalk, an older man walking his dog, a young surfer walking back from the ocean with his board under his arm. I wondered why I wanted to stay here so badly. I’m dug in here, I told myself—finally worked my way into a good job I believe in, I love being able to surf in the winter, and our trips to the desert seem like the most important part of my life. But in the back of my mind, I knew my reluctance to follow Jane might have more to do with pride.
I sat there for half an hour or so, until Jane came up and sat beside me. “Hey, Surfer Boy,” she said. “How’s it breaking out there?” But her eyes were on me.
“What if you get it, Jane? This was supposed to just be a practice application.”
“What am I going to do in San Diego with a PhD, Dave? Marine biologists are a dime a dozen here. Scripps and UCSD are full up.”
I thought about listing the other universities in town, the community colleges, the environmental groups, post-doc opportunities, but we’d been through it already. I knew, and Jane knew, that it was the salmon. She had her salmon, I had my desert and my surfing—and my pride.
“I’m tired of following you around the country, Jane. I’ve followed you this far, and I thought we’d be staying here. I don’t think I can move again.”
“What if I get it, Dave?”
“Good question, what if you get it?” We looked at each other for a long time, each searching the other for some sign of relenting. Finally, Jane turned around and went back downstairs to her computer, to polish the last chapters of her dissertation. I stayed up on the roof for a long time then, staring out at the ocean, finally realizing that I had come to hate it, a rival for Jane’s heart greater than any man could be. No wonder I had come to love the desert so much, a kind of ocean in its own way, but without the water—and without the goddamned fish.
Here’s a longer excerpt, featuring more of the gruesome bits. (Maybe here I should reiterate that this is a horror/romance, and I’ll have to hope that’s enough of a hint.)
Even “Glass,” which focuses mainly on a guy being an asshole with his Google glasses while on a hike with friends, deals with these issues in the background. The day turns out to be a turning point in the relationship of the couple he’s hiking with. That was originally going to be a larger part of the story, but point-of-view considerations led me to give just a hint of it at the end. An excerpt from the beginning of the story is here, and one from the middle, when the newly released version of Google Glass’s augmented reality begins to merge with ‘real reality’, is here.
If these excerpts whet your appetite, I hope you’ll consider pre-ordering the ebook. You only have a little more than a day to get it for just $0.99. On Sunday, that price will go up to $2.99. Find out where to pre-order Desert Trilogy here. For you dead-tree readers, a print version is still in the works, but I have several details about distribution still to work out. Fill out the form below to receive updates on when the print version might appear.
*Oh, and the view in the photo at the top of this article? Now destroyed by wind turbines.