Sitting in the front room, the sun over her shoulder, Esslyn flipped through a magazine on house design, not reading but letting the images and bolded typefaces pass her eyes. There was oatmeal boiling on the stove for dinner, and she couldn’t remember if she’d set the timer on the stove or not. She had an impulse to check her phone for the time and judge it that way, but she knew she be unable to stop at just the clock, and she didn’t care if the oatmeal overcooked or even burned. She’d given up her phone for Lent. Or something similar. She wasn’t Catholic or Lutheran but the exercise of self-denial seemed like a good idea, so when Peter suggested, no insisted that she was addicted to the device, she gave it up for Lent.
She listened for the gurgle of the oatmeal but could only hear Sophie somewhere in the room licking her feet. Sophie liked to hide between things like the couch and the coffee table, the stereo system and the ottoman. She also licked her feet to excess, so much so that Peter bought some bitter apple spray for the dog. She licked off the spray, threw up grass on the rug, then continued to lick her feet.
Esslyn realized she should both stop Sophie and check on dinner, but the rhythm of turning the pages of the magazine in the washed out sunlight hypnotized her, and she did nothing but continue to turn pages. A low burnt orange couch. A huge expanse of concrete counter space. A washed out white living room with large framed art on the floor leaning up against the wall. Stacks of booked in various places. A small, fuzzy dog on one end of the immaculate sofa. A papillon, she supposed.
She thought she heard the oatmeal sizzling a little, gurgling maybe. She’d probably not put in enough water or left the heat up to high. She should have stirred occasionally. But it was Peter who insisted on eating oatmeal for dinner, and it was he who also insisted on buying steal cut oats that took twenty minutes on the stovetop. Before he’d bought them, Esslyn didn’t even know oatmeal wasn’t just adding hot water and stirring. Peter had bought a Mennonite cookbook at a garage sale and was enamored with the simple recipes. It wasn’t for health reasons, which she might have acquiesced to with less irritation, but just because he liked the simplicity of the recipes. Nothing canned or store made or exotically imported from Europe or Southeast Asia. Each recipe included an estimate of cost per serving. Twelve cents per person, the oatmeal recipe said. Although they probably didn’t account for buying hand cut organic oatmeal at a grocery store with a formagier on duty. Any irony was lost on Peter, and he had asked for oatmeal again for dinner.
The magazine over, Esslyn had no more reason to not check dinner and was relieved it wasn’t burned, although it had boiled down enough to stick to the pan. She who cooks, doesn’t clean, she thought before checking herself for being petty. Peter still wasn’t back from a day of paddling, even though he’d insisted he’d be home by three. It was close to six. He’d gone with Alex and Jeff, which meant a few hours of beer tasting. They’d argued, well disagreed, about it the night before.
“I promise I’ll be home by three, and I’ll fix the sink in the bathroom, and I’ll do the sheets,” he said.
“You won’t be back by three. Alex? That’s a six-pack. Or two. At least.”
“Six pack? Alex brews his own beer.”
“Why do you have to be so critical of them?”
“That wasn’t criticism. It was an observation.” Esslyn stirred the oatmeal as she reviewed the exchange again. Had she been critical? She’d not even meant it as a fight, more a clarification.
“You insist on being right about him so…insistently,” Peter had said. Esslyn shrugged her shoulders just then as she stirred the oatmeal in the pan once more. She shrugged as if Peter were standing in front of her. And then he was.
“Sorry, babe,” he said. His nose was roasted and his kayaking costume, as she called it, was rumpled and splattered with mud.
“I made oatmeal again,” she said. “It’s kind of lumpy.”
Esslyn tried to break up the mass into something that resembled what she remembered from cold childhood mornings, but it wouldn’t cooperate and sort of lurched from side to side in one congealed mass.
“I’ll do the bathroom first,” he said. “The sink.” He stepped into the kitchen on tiptoes, and it was then Esslyn realized he was being overly precise in his speech and movements. Just enough drunk to recognize it, but not enough drunk to not care.
“How was paddling?” she asked.
Sophie had wandered into the kitchen. She took a seat between them and balanced on one back leg while vigorously scratching her ear with the other paw.
“Don’t be mad,” he said and took a small step then small stumble toward her. The movement startled Sophie enough that she stopped scratching and regarded him with disinterested suspicion. “Jeff got stuck on a strainer and it took awhile to pull him out. Otherwise, we would’ve been back. I’d have been back by three. Maybe four.”
Esslyn stopped mangling the oats and looked at Peter. He gave her a weak smile. “You should get cleaned up,” she said and set the spoon down on the stove and put the cover back on the pot before going back to the living room.
He called after her. “Are you mad?” Then again, “don’t be mad,” followed by “hi, Sophie,” and one more “are you mad?” nearly whispered before he must have existed to the bedroom. Esslyn heard the shower running.
She sat in the same chair and picked up the same magazine, but the sun had fallen behind the house across the street and the chair felt cold and dark. She walked back to the kitchen and looked at the pan of oats on the stove, cooling. Cold now, probably. Sophie had flopped down in the middle of the floor and watched Esslyn with upturned eyes. “Do you like oatmeal?” Esslyn asked her. Sophie responded only with her tail, sweeping across the floor behind her. “You’re getting too old, too fast girl,” she said. She took the pan of oats and dumped the contents into the dog’s bowl. Sophie, eager for something new, trotted over to investigate. But after sniffing and taking a tentative mouthful, she turned away and walked into the rest of the house. On her retreat, she left faint bloody prints on the linoleum, the result of licking her paws all day. The house design magazine sat on the counter next to the stove, where Esslyn had absently set it.
“An old dog with a white couch,” Esslyn said, “that would never happen here.”
Ivan Faute has recent prose in Blotterature and Small Po(r)tions. His plays have been performed in New York and environs and near his home in Virginia.