At Once

There is nothing more capable than an Apple font for undermining her self-esteem. She thinks, a nagging woman isn’t flattering, fact of ’Merica, probably world, and these words are not hers but phrases her next door neighbor spoke, a kid with a faux-hawk and cargo pants. This is the sort of nonsense that, floating in the ether of her brain, drifts to consciousness when she is at a loss for what to say.

The husband says, “I don’t like to go on walks.”

The wife says, “You haven’t seen me all day.”

He stares at the computer screen, and she says, “Cycle.” Then, “Look at me.”

He clicks a bit and types a bit. He turns his head slightly as if to say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’

She taps her foot—she’s that kind of woman.

She taps her foot toward a stretch of back.

The clock on his computer states 10:05 in Helvetica Neue.

“It’s ten o’clock,” she says.

“I know, I know,” he says.

“We are going for a walk,” she says.

‘At once,’ she wants to add.

“We are going for a walk,” she repeats.

“It’s too cold for a walk,” he says.

“You have coats. You can put on a hat and gloves.”


“You have gloves,” she says again, “and a hat and coats,” as though reverse order will be more persuasive.

He clicks a bit and types a bit and does not turn his head slightly as if to say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’

She taps her foot. She crosses her arms. Her anger, as much as it comes from self-defense, makes her feel ugly and craterous, a little absurd.

“Give me a minute.”

“Don’t lie.”

“No, no, I’ll be there.”

She has become this kind of woman, the kind of woman who demands ‘At once, without delay.’ She has been remade in the image of those so desperate they cannot wait. Helvetica Neue is thin and elegant, thinner and more elegant than she. She has told him as much. He has said, “That’s ridiculous.”

“I know,” she replied. “So why are you doing this to me?”

These were not the right words because he groaned and put his head in his hands. The computer screen lit up his skull where his hair did not cover it.

Not saying anything feels like a self-inflicted wound.

“You are my husband,” she says. This is a statement of implication.

“You are my husband,” she repeats. This is a plea to buy into a certain construction, to go through the motions of a role.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes, I heard you,” he snaps.

In the ether of his brain are not ones and zeroes but steely routes of logic. She doesn’t know how to speak that language or her own.



The wife’s friend takes the wife to a rodeo.

In the parking lot as they get out of the car the smell of bull crap wafts under their noses and the wife inhales and exhales. Her chest expands to the size of the moon.

“This bull crap smells good,” the wife says.

“No,” the friend says. “Say it like you mean it.”

“This bullshit smells amazing,” the wife says.

“That’s better,” the friend says. “Now loosen up some more.”

“Lord, this bullshit smells amazing,” the wife says. “I’ve been needing real bullshit.”

The friend says, “That’s right. Look how relaxed you are.”

The wife lets her shoulders shrug and the friend puts out a hand to stroke her hair.

The hand stroking makes the wife feel good. The friend is a free spirit, a comforting suggestion to the wife that taking pleasure in small things, little moments of contact, is sufficient. To take pleasure in a walk, the smell of animal droppings, a hand caressing—sufficient for what? And yet here is an answer. She can no longer imagine infidelity as a substantial betrayal, or kissing a woman as unnatural.

“You are going to like the rodeo,” the friend says. “It’s just what you need.”



Young men, leaning on walls, watch women walk by in cowboy boots and then look back down at their phones. A group of girls to the side of the entryway look at the men, dreaming, with their meticulously drawn-back hair and glittery eyeshadow, of capturing their gaze. A chilly draft follows the wife and friend through the wide doorway—chilling with the rising volume of the rock music near the arena—until, higher in the stands, the air warms.

When the announcer booms out the next match-up of bull and rider the names cannot be heard—only the country twang of the announcer’s voice, the auctioneering tone atop the music. People beat their feet on the bleachers.



“These two chipmunks spend all day running up the wall to the windowsill of my office. They just cram their cheeks with food. When they first started visiting they were as wide as a walnut. Now they look like stuffed socks. And they don’t want each other around.” Her words hit his ears as so much chatter, but she goes on anyway.

She continues, “I don’t know if it’s two males or two females, or if it’s a male and a female and it’s just not breeding season, but each time one of them sneaks up the wall, the other one races up the wall and chases the first off. And then the first one has to wait until the second one has shuffled through enough of the seed before venturing back up. And they both go through so much seed—digging and shunting off most of it until they find what they want—and by the time they go down their cheeks are super puffed out. And they take this food back to their homes—one lives across the street, one around a building and out of sight—drop it off and come back for the same thing all over again. They do this all day. And I don’t know that it’s good to eat that much. Or to waste so much. Or to fight with each other so much. Or why nature is like that to begin with.”

They momentarily go off the sidewalk and into the road to avoid shattered glass.

“They’re small,” she says as they step back up, “so why can’t they get along?”

He does not respond immediately.

“It would be one thing if there wasn’t enough to go around. But there is enough to go around. They just can’t make the right use of it.”

“Hm,” he says.

They walk for a few minutes silently. She is hoping he will comment. Instead, they reach the top of a hill and he begins to shiver.

“Hm?” she presses.

“What’s that?”

“You said ‘hm’ before.”


“What were you going to say?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks.

“Um—I don’t know.”

She blows out hard and her breath forms a cloud between them.

“You don’t know?”

“I’m not really sure. I guess I was thinking about this thing called Cassandra.”

She tries to be patient.


“It’s a database,” he says.

“Of course it is. So you were thinking about Cassandra.”

“This is why I don’t like to answer you.”

“Oh, this is my fault,” she says.


“All right,” she says.



“Say something,” she says.

“I’m cold. Let’s go back.”

“You’re cold? It’s warm. Feel my hands.”

She takes off her gloves and presses her hands against his face.

“Well, I’m cold,” he says. He takes off his gloves and tries to touch her face.

“Don’t put your hands on me,” she says.

He puts his hands in his pockets and says, “God. You’re always so mad.”

“I don’t want to go back,” she says.

“So don’t. I’m going back.”

“You’re just going to leave me in the street?” she asks.

“That’s right,” he says, or she thinks he says. He’s down the street and at the corner and she can’t see his mouth and his footsteps blend with and muffle any distinct words.



A lull descends when the men ride. The only sounds then are thudding hooves, snorting bulls. And it is not that time has slowed down but that the crowd pays attention to each millisecond of it, each millisecond important.

This one kid, skinny and young and swallowed by flannel and jeans, drops onto a brown bull of moderate size.

The kid puts up an arm and grips with his legs, simulating what he has seen. Then the buzzer goes off and the bull bucks forward, seesawing, out of the gate.

He stays atop it for one second—just that one—

Falls at the end of that second, shocked and unprepared for the sensation of the bull beneath him. The bull goes on, unaware at first that it has lost his rider. As it turns, it sees the man on the ground, struggling to get up.

The clown runs between, whipping and waving the red flag.

The bull repositions. The men yell to get the rider’s attention, to get him in motion. Though near the gate, the rider won’t make it back, slow as he’s rising, the length of the journey increasing with his increasingly sluggish effort—

A heavy front hoof knocks him down.

The crowd gasps.



At the look on her face he says, “I’m sorry.” His expression is not tender but responsible.

“Don’t say it, if that’s all,” she replies.

He says nothing, and then she says, “Whatever,” in a small, manipulative voice.

“I’m sorry,” he repeats.

“You would leave me at night in the street.”

He sighs, exhausted.

A car’s headlights fall on them. They move back onto the sidewalk.

“You would abandon me at night in the street,” she repeats.

“I need to get away from you.”

“Get away from me then.”

“Look, let’s move on.”

“Move on back home?”

He turns down a side street as a kind gesture she both wants and does not want. Following feels equal to putting a pacifier in her mouth.



“Knocked breathless or crushed?” the wife asks the friend.

“Crushed,” the friend says. She laughs. “Don’t be so horrified. He’s probably fine.”

“Is this normal?” the wife asks.

“Not normal—but it happens sometimes.”

The music cranks back up in the interim as the crowd recovers.

The next rider is larger and more muscular than the last. He climbs onto a tan bull stamping at the dirt. When the buzzer goes off, the crowd falls silent.

Four, five, six seconds in, and then they start screaming. At this point the rider has accomplished something; there are stakes. They whoop until eight, nine, ten seconds, and then they are quiet again, on the edge of their seats.

Bullshit that you can’t change the other person, the wife thinks. She has found herself changing on account of the husband, talking more relentlessly, turning silent for long measures, feeling smaller and less capable and drained, not knowing what to do to earn affection, becoming more dependent, needy, womanly. Had he changed? Her actions did not seem to affect him, except that they irritated him, and he had not seemed to be, originally, an irritable person.

It’s a simple and visceral pleasure, watching the bull rider, being caught in the grip of her friend, who has reached for her arm. The crowd roars again.

“Yes,” the wife shouts back. The friend can read her lips if she can’t hear her.

The friend smiles and the wife cheers like she wants to rip her throat open. The friend must like to hear her use her voice in this way because she grips back harder. They squeeze as if they would break each other’s hands, and then they let go laughing as the rider falls off the bull at eleven seconds, his short burst of strength a marathon.



“Let me feel your hands,” the wife says.

The husband puts out his hands obediently. She brushes her fingertips over them. They feel icy and dry.

“If you went outside more, you’d acclimate.”

“It’s freezing,” he whines.

“You sound like a girl.”

“How cold do you think it is? Ballpark the temperature.”

“I don’t know. Forty? Fifty?”

He pulls out his phone and opens Apple’s weather app.

“Thirty-four,” he says.

“Apple says it’s sunny and it rains, or that it will rain and the sun shines. I don’t know why you think they’ve got the temperature right.”

“I’ll buy a thermometer,” he says.

Amazon’s orange and white home screen lights up the night.

“Stop buying a freaking thermometer,” she snaps.

He grins because he thinks he’s being funny. At the mercy of his perceptions, she asks, “Why can’t we just go for a walk?”

“We are going for a walk,” he says.

“You just ought to love me,” she says.

“I do love you,” he answers.

“Liar,” she says—not the right word.



People trample straw and peanut shells into an already tamped down dirt floor. Peanut dust lingers in the accordion-like folds of the stands; here and there spots are dusted clean from bored audience members taking their seats.

The wife thinks how the best riders could hold their legs and torsos still, a hand focused on the braided rope.

The friend says, “Don’t ever watch bull riding on YouTube. Makes it look easy, when every bit of time they stay up there is so hard.”

This strength is rewarded with loud roars and then with hot dog wrappers and empty drinks cans strewn carelessly around the stage.

The wife pulls the friend out of the stream of people leaving and gives her a quick kiss on the lips. The friend returns the kiss, pushing back in a fraction of a second. They are both hungry and eager. The friend does not even seem surprised, as though she always believed this possible of the wife.

This acceptance makes the wife push back.

The back of her neck—that’s what the wife wants. The friend answers by grasping the wife’s arm, a match of force with force.

The longer they do this, the more exhilarated the wife feels. She decides that love demands aggression. She pulls away from her friend and shakes her head, a firm, if slight, ‘no.’

The friend laughs. “Of course not,” she says. “This is therapy.”



When they reenter the apartment a light is still on. She switches it off. In the dark, he stumbles into her.

She does not give. As he falls down, she says, “Well, I’m sorry.” And it does not sound sorry, is just on the other side of it, close enough he won’t call her on it, far enough that she has not capitulated.

This kind of control is what he must feel all the time, and that’s why he doesn’t need love.

“You ought to use your phone’s light,” she says, but she is really thinking about the use of force to get what you want. “I did mean to make you mad,” she says. “Does that make you mad?”

“Shut up,” he answers.

She grabs his arm. “Don’t be so mad,” she says.

He jerks away from her, but she knows if she pushes him hard enough, he will have no choice but to push her back.