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The Husbands


Nora is not in a fight with her husband.

She thinks about the phrasing conjured here: “in a fight.” An idiosyncratic idiom dredged from her middle school years and with it a vision of long-sleeved Hollister T-shirts, chopsticks through buns, and I’m-not-speaking-to-you-this-week. She’s thirty-five now, long past the stage of brushing her tricky curls into a cloud of frizz, but not so far that if she were in a fight this wouldn’t be an appropriately moody, anxious, and adolescent way to describe it, especially given the number of times Hayden has asked “What’s wrong?” and she has responded with “Nothing.”

“Nothing” is what you say when to say “everything” would be ridiculous.

She’s being a “drama queen”—that’s the term for it. But only in her head, where it doesn’t really count.

At a stoplight, they sit in their different silences, hers brooding, his oblivious. She’s a passenger in her own SUV, Hayden the driver, as she prefers, even though, with the seat pushed way back to accommodate a thickset former rugby player, it jacks with her settings. Hayden has a bullish neck and a smattering of bald scars cut into his hairline from where he’s had stitches. She finds them sexy even when she’s pissed, which, as a reminder, she’s not. Also, he’s got a fading blue tattoo peeking out from the hair on his right forearm, and, more often than she cares to admit, she finds herself feeling proud, because she never would have guessed she’d have grown into the type of woman to marry a man with an arm tattoo.

“It’s kinda far,” he says, not meaning anything by it.

“It’s not that far,” by which she means: Don’t start with me yet. “Look, it’s on the left. Here. See?” She points out the windshield to the neighborhood’s grand entrance, walls decked in hill country stone with the name DYNASTY RANCH spelled out in slanting cursive across its side. A fountain sprays a plume of water. It’s, yes, a bit ostentatious, but there are worse things, aren’t there?

Dynasty Ranch is an enclave community ten minutes outside of Austin’s city limits, nestled into a land of self-serve frozen yogurt shops, movie theaters with enormous reclining seats, and chain Mexican food restaurants that all boast kids’ playscapes. It’s quite exclusive. Or at least that’s what the tasteful home brochure had claimed when her secretary had dropped it into the mesh mail bin on her office desk. Really, they must have spent a fortune on advertising. Hayden grunts and steers into the left lane without using his blinker, a mistake which she hand-to-heart doesn’t mention.

“We’re only here to look,” he says. “We have plenty of time.”

Plenty of time, like the growing bulge of her stomach is a ticking time bomb, but Hayden, apparently, is happy to procrastinate for a little while before getting around to the tedious task of dismantling it. She thinks: Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to neutralize the threat straight away, have time to spare on the back end, a margin of error, a cushion? While Hayden believes: It will get done.

Often, it doesn’t.

He will take out the trash later. Do the dishes later. Clear the table later. She waits, she bides time, she goes with the flow, and her world goes kablooey. It’s happened before. And before and before and before.

It will get done. But the part that he leaves out is that he’ll have nothing to do with the doing. It’s like he thinks their house, their toddler, their lives, are kept on track by magic. As though she is the family Rumpelstiltskin. He goes to bed and—voilà—see, Nora? All taken care of! And, my god, woman, why are you so sweaty?

She stews.

They follow the notice for the open house, sign staked into the ground on flimsy tongs. But the first actual home doesn’t appear in Dynasty Ranch for nearly a half mile, which does seem like an awfully long way.

Vegetation is sparse. Where present, though, it’s meticulously manicured, making things feel organized and stress free. When they come across a house—mansion, more like—what she imagines inside is a large, walk-in pantry with those clear plastic bins lined neatly on the shelves, the ones with vacuum-sealed tops and black chalk-pen labels denoting the type of fibrous cereal inside. That’s the vibe of Dynasty Ranch on first glance.

They pass a man unloading groceries from the back of a Tahoe. He waves to them, the way that people do with passing boats.

Then—“What do you suppose happened there?” Hayden slows to a stop where on their right sit the scorched remains of a house. Black soot has been spat onto the grass and splashed up the rickety frame, but the feeling of black is all over, like Nora’s looking into a hole. Yellow caution tape crisscrosses where a door would have been, and sunlight catches the shards of broken glass that have been left behind. “You think anyone was inside?” Hayden asks, pressing the button to roll down her window for a better view.

The house was probably lovely. She feels sorry for whoever lived there. And now all of it—photo albums, carefully selected furniture, artwork bought together on vacation—up in flames.

“I don’t know.” Nora flattens into her seat. “But we probably shouldn’t stare.

Hayden leans into the steering wheel, staring. “Remind me to check the smoke alarms, will you?”

Nora’s fingers tense at how easily her husband drops one more responsibility into her cup. Remind him.

She will, of course. Because she, in fact, does not want to die in a fire. But sometimes (meaning at all times, obviously) she feels as if there are no spare folds of her brain in which to cram the minutiae of their lives that she’s been charged with tracking.

He eases off the brakes and the wheels begin to roll and the neighborhood resumes, as if nothing happened. A left turn and then another—stone, brick, freshly painted wood siding, each neat, picturesque, the American dream—and soon they’ve arrived.

2913 Majestic Grove sits on a generous corner lot. A Texas star is embossed into the smooth surface of its circle drive, a cast-iron door at its crest.

“First impressions?” Nora asks, putting on her let’s-make-the-most-of-it voice.

“I don’t know.” Hayden climbs out of the car, puts his fists into the back of his hips, and stretches his crotch forward. “There’s not much walkability.”

“Where do we walk to now?” She comes around the hood of the car to meet him.

They bought their town house in the heart of Austin seven years earlier when Nora and Hayden had imagined a future strolling to brunch on South Congress, biking to work, and buying their produce from a local farmers’ market. Nora had loved the cracks in the bright yellow walls, the uneven tiles, the stairs that creaked. What she never imagined was the number of times she would add “call a plumber” to her already lengthy to-do list, or the fact that her garage door wouldn’t work for fourteen whole months because she had no idea what sort of person fixed garage doors, or the stark reality that after their daughter, Liv, was born, the two flights of switchback stairs would transform from charming feature into evil nemesis. All this before the accident. Before the idea of another baby in that house became wholly untenable.

“Yeah, but it’s the ability.” Hayden has kind eyes with happy bursts of wrinkles, the result of sun more than age, fanning out around the corners.

“Keep an open mind. Please,” she implores. Nora has already run the math. The only way they’re going to afford more space is if they make substantial sacrifices in the cool, hip location department. Given that she’s never really been all that cool or hip, the decision feels relatively easy.

He takes her hand and squeezes. The fight they are not in, after all, is only in her head, and so anytime she wants she can choose to make up. Even now, for example.

On their way up the walk, a squirrel darts across their path and up into an oak tree. She watches it hunker in the branches, nose twitching. A woman in a trim blazer and a sleek, black ponytail greets them at the door. She is High Energy.

“Welcome, welcome. I’m Isla Wong.” She foists a business card into Nora’s hand. “Is this your first visit to Dynasty Ranch?”

According to her card, Isla is Travis County’s number one selling agent, three years running! Is she really number one? If she is, then that is actually impressive. Something to be proud of. Well, she is proud of it. Obviously.

She leads them into the foyer, which echoes with the sound of her pointy-toed heels. Hayden arches his neck to peer up at the high ceilings.

“It is. Our first time,” Nora answers. The house is even better than in the photographs, which almost never happens.

“Great, then let me tell you a little bit about our community. In Dynasty Ranch, we consider ourselves family-forward. We have a wonderful set of amenities for a very reasonable homeowners association cost. People are always surprised by all that we have to offer. We have a beautiful community pool and clubhouse, a sport court and—Hayden, do you golf?”

“Not well,” he says with a chuckle. Nora doesn’t think she’s ever heard of a Joe Schmo who golfs well. She thinks that’s why they like it so much, all equally terrible.

“I like to golf occasionally,” she says, mainly because the question felt sexist directed only to Hayden and she’s trying to do her part.

As for the house, it’s a one-story ranch, an architectural term that, Nora has recently learned, has almost nothing to do with actual ranches. An open floor plan merges a spacious living room with a chef’s kitchen. Nora can’t help but linger on the oversized stainless-steel refrigerator with the extra bottom freezer space, can’t resist fantasizing about an end to the avalanche of corndogs, tater tots, and steam bags of broccoli that fall on top of her every time she jiggers open her slender freezer door at home.

“There’s a gorgeous golf course at the back of the neighborhood,” Isla is saying. “Golf carts included. I hope you’ll go see it on your way out. And Nora—may I ask what you do for a living?”

“I’m a lawyer”—she clears her throat—“and a mom.” Should a Realtor be asking her what she does for a living? Nora is under the impression that to ask a person’s profession in polite conversation is a bit of a faux pas nowadays.

Isla is probably trying to sort out whether she and Hayden can afford the place. Like a car salesman.

“Wow.” Isla clasps her hands together. “What kind of law do you practice?”

“I’m a litigator. Personal injury, mostly. I work at Greenberg Schwall,” says Nora.

Nora is a plaintiff’s attorney, or, in more cynical circles, an “ambulance chaser.” She’d always wanted—maybe as a “screw you” to her father, a philandering commercial defense lawyer—to make her path representing the little guy. Yes, as far as personal injury firms go, Greenberg Schwall is a bit “establishment,” but it wasn’t as if her goal had been to turn into one of those cheesy PI lawyers with billboards declaring themselves the “Texas Hammer” or the “Legal Eagle.”

“I remember now.” Isla touches her cheek with her gold-painted fingernail. “You’re the one who went to Dartmouth. Isn’t that right?”

Nora’s taken aback. “Yes, but how would you—”

“The alumni network.”

“You went to Dartmouth?” There’s a small thrill. She hardly ever runs into East Coast grads here in Texas.

“God no, I’m not that book smart. I’m more of a people person. Targeted advertising. That’s what I mean. I don’t like to throw spaghetti at the wall. It’s a waste of time.” Isla beckons them farther into the home, trailing her hand over a set of built-in cabinets. “We have a very active networking group here as well that I think you might really benefit from. One of the small quirks of Dynasty Ranch is that there’s an application and short vetting process conducted by the homeowners association. But honestly”—she drops to an exaggerated whisper—“I have a good feeling about you two.”

So maybe the ad’s claim of exclusivity wasn’t all fluff.

“But I do have to show you this.” Isla holds open an innovative, revolving door for them to pass through. “One of my favorite features. The dedicated playroom.”

Without exaggeration, the very notion of a place for Liv’s toys that is not inside her formal dining room takes Nora’s breath away. She strides the perimeter of the room, Hayden following.

“I know it’s a luxury, but it’s so much easier to keep the home from being overrun by stuffed animals and LEGOs and plastic fruit. You get it.”

And Nora does get it. The toys that multiply. Artwork that can’t be tossed out. Stuffed animals and tents and miniature indoor trampolines. Contigo water bottles and sectioned-off plates and bento boxes spilling out of cabinets. With each year of Liv’s life, their “cute” two-story house shrinks. And in six months a fourth family member will join, and it’s like the Spangler family is part of Alice in Wonderland and can’t stop eating the damn cake.

Next, there is the roomy master with his and hers closets and a stand-alone bathtub, a backyard already fitted with a swing set, then back to the kitchen, where Nora peeks into the walk-in pantry and recalls what it’s like to fall in love.

“Remember when we used to crash these things?” Hayden murmurs in her ear. Sundays used to look different.

“What questions do you have for me?” asks Isla.

Hayden looks to Nora. She used to like that, the way he defers to her, always waiting for her to take the lead. It seemed so modern of him.

“I do like that there’s a little gym already built in.” Hayden pushes his hands into his pockets. “That’d be a nice plus for me.”

Nora imagines herself getting “in shape,” doing those Beachbody at-home workouts all the preschool moms are going on about. She could be a suburban mom, drink wine in a Yeti tumbler, that sort of thing.

“Why are the current owners leaving?” she asks.

“Wife got a fancy new job. They’re moving to Princeton, New Jersey.” Isla opens a folder and thumbs through a few loose-leaf sheets. She hands Hayden a glossy pamphlet in the same style as the brochure she received earlier. A group of middle-aged men play pickup basketball on the cover.

“You said ‘we’ earlier,” Nora says. “Was that a figure of speech or—”

“Oh! I live down the way on White Mare, second house on the left. We’ve been here five years now. It’s been a real game changer.”

A game changer. Well then.

Nora’s phone trills from inside her purse. “Sorry.” She digs it out. “Probably our daughter’s grandparents. They’ve got her for the afternoon.”

It’s not. It’s the office, calling on a Sunday. She clicks the button on the side of her phone and lets it go to voice mail. But within seconds, she has a push notification from Outlook. She tilts the screen to read.

Copyright © 2021 by Chandler Baker

The Husbands
by by Chandler Baker