"Better Off" by Sarah Gilligan
Tonight was the big debate--the election was just a week away--so Karen got the kids to bed a little early while I washed up the dishes. She came back down, turned on the TV and changed the channel before flopping onto the couch.
“Want a beer?” I called from the kitchen, looking into the fridge.
“No, Coke’s good.”
I opened her can and my bottle and brought in a bag of pretzels. While Carter and Reagan and the moderators were introduced, I got settled and put my feet up on the table. I nodded toward the screen as the first question was asked. “Let the carnival begin.”
I was just so sick of Carter and his weak ways and the high interest rates and all of it, even his dumb accent. It was obvious we needed a change--needed to be America again. I was hoping Reagan would just shut Jimmy down fast tonight, but they got going and after a while, my mind started wandering.
We’d been watching for almost an hour when I heard it. “He asks his thirteen-year-old daughter for advice? Really?”
Karen nodded. “I get that he’s a family man, but still.”
“Amy Carter for President.” I got up to take a leak and grabbed another beer on my way back.
“Nothing for me, thanks,” Karen said in a flat tone.
“Oh, yeah, sorry.” I sat down, ate the last pretzels and took a good, long drink. “What’d I miss?”
“Carter’s calling Reagan dangerous and radical.”
I snorted. “Better than a do-nothing wimp. Go back to the peanut farm, Jimmy.”
“He means well. I just don’t know if he has what it takes. But that Reagan, he’s such an actor.”
“Karen, of course he’s an actor. They’re all actors. But Carter, he’s just a loser. Can’t even get our hostages back. Who wants a loser running things? For Christ’s sake, the whole country’s been sitting around, licking its wounds and feeling bad about itself. So tired of it. Reagan’s gonna make things happen.”
“Reagan’s telling us what we want to hear. People gobble that up.”
“So you’re saying it’s all a scam?” I drank, picked at the label, then drank again. “I think I can tell if someone’s bullshitting me.”
“I didn’t say that, Jeff,” Karen said flatly. “You’re the one who said they’re all actors.”
“Yeah. So you choose the movie you want to see. You want action or a boo-hoo weepie?”
Karen didn’t answer and we went back to watching. During the closing statements, she started to nod off. Finally, she stretched and said she needed to get to bed.
After she went upstairs, I listened to the commentators talking about what Reagan had said: are you better off now than four years ago? Sitting there on the couch, I thought about my life four years ago. Heather was barely two and Michael was a baby and we weren’t getting any sleep. Four years before that Karen and I were newlyweds, crowded into my crappy old apartment, and I was just getting started selling insurance.
And twelve years ago? I was twenty in ’68 and working drywall for my uncle. The war was getting crazy but I had a deferral thanks to my penicillin allergy. How funny was that? They didn’t want me to fight because I might die. Still, I felt like I could be dragged in at any time. Like they could change their minds and say, “You. Now.” I remember all that year feeling like my life was hanging in the air, dangling, waiting for me to reach out and grab it before Uncle Sam took it away.
And of course, I thought about Rocco, my buddy Rocco. One day toward the end of that summer, we called in sick, went down to Misquamicut and met these two girls from Warwick on the beach. They had these broad Rhode Island accents--“Rawww-co!”--but they were really pretty, so we joked and flirted with them all morning, then grabbed some lunch and beers together. Back on the beach, I fell asleep on my towel to the sound of the girls gabbing and laughing. Next thing I knew, somebody shook my arm and I woke up all groggy and buzzed, the sun stinging my shoulders. I opened my eyes to see one of the girls, Michelle, sitting next to me. She had a head of soft black curls and her belly spilled a little over the top of her bikini, but not too much. She told me the others were in the water, then she leaned down and kissed me. The sun had been pounding on my face, so bright, until Michelle’s head blocked the light and everything was suddenly cool. I tasted the sourness of beer and the sweetness of strawberry lip gloss. We sucked face for a while, then got up and ran into the ocean together. Rocco and the other girl were heading back to the towels, so Michelle and I hung out past where the waves were breaking, bobbing up and down, kissing some more and slipping our hands inside each other’s bathing suits. Twelve years later and I could still remember her hands and lips, the chill of the ocean and the sharp heat of my body.
On the drive back from Rhode Island, I told Rocco about me and Michelle in the ocean. He didn’t believe me, kept telling me I was full of shit. I showed him Michelle’s phone number written down on a paper bag, but he grabbed it and started goofing around, and as we flew up Route 2 he let it slip out the window. I socked his shoulder and yelled at him for a while, but he swore it was an accident, and by the time we hit the Hartford traffic, we were laughing about it. What the hell, it was like it had never even happened, like I had made up the whole thing.
A month later Rocco got called up for the draft and the next spring he was KIA on Hill 937, and that was that.
On the TV, the so-called experts were done talking, so I got up and shut it off, carried my empties and Karen’s soda can to the kitchen and turned off the lights. Upstairs in the dark, Karen snored softly, and even though it took me a long time to get to sleep, I left her alone.
©2017 Sarah H. Gilligan
About Sarah: For Sarah, it’s all about the words. She is currently completing The Genius of Connecticut, her collection of linked short stories; has previously written a series of essays about her tangle with breast cancer; and has helmed Cerebration, her writing and graphic design firm, for more than twenty-five years. She recently earned an honorable mention in the 2017 Short Story America Prize. Sarah lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters.