Was Hamlet’s death Hamlet’s fault? she asked.
I’m not so sure. The play is named after him, though, Ira-Taylor replied, half-laughing.
Yeah, and I choose to buy sheer tights, black ones, at the CVS off the street where the man always smiles at me, Helen said and looked aside. And I think, what makes me depressed, you know, is, like, that I hate it when ankles show.
I don’t know what that has to do with religion.
Yeah, but what about—‘Reader, I married him,’ she said. That’s my favorite.
Back then, they were standing so demurely next to the big black garbage bags, which Helen thought looked similar to the Roman Colosseum she visited on her senior year abroad. In the night, their stacked, shiny, plasticky darkness, how great arcs of light spun every time a car or truck’s headlights grew closer closer then farther gone. Just then, after another Nissan zipped by, and as if in defeated response, Ira-Taylor’s legs went to a sort of drunken contrapposto. Helen wished to grab his left knee and realign him back to another safe demureness. She licked her lips and faced the street.
By the year that the stock market crashed, Ira-Taylor had finally stopped picking at his fingers. Helen was making a sandwich. Ira-Taylor stood up from the kitchen table and announced to her that he would be a counterfeiter—the one to straighten his back and wring his hands, dry wintery knuckles against a slow-pounding pulse. But at the moment, for all he could decide, he was a lucky man—he gave a small Buddha smile to Helen.
Will you marry me?
Helen let the ham fall on top of mayonnaise, crinkled her mouth straight, then upwards, and she said yes. Reader, she married him.
They had a loud wedding. Ira-Taylor’s brunette counter-clockwise curls winked against Helen’s auburn in the little picture that they hung up in the foyer. His skull pressing tight against his skin with a wide “I-just-got-married” twinkle, her half-gaped parted lips which were either modelesque or graceless. And that Sunday, the clammy hands of Helen’s parents and cousins and second aunts thumbed the New York Times’s nuptials section, which read:
“Ira-Taylor Groff and Helen Sandoval were married Aug. 10 at the groom’s Cape Cod family home. Cantor Beverly Kang officiated. The couple met at the ‘Smorgasburg’ food festival in Los Angeles, when they were introduced at a vegan Peruvian taco stand.”
Ira-Taylor had taken great care to put a portrait of the two’s post-domestic life into his head. He thought of the computer room’s grey swivel chair, which oscillated between a low, stable height and a wobbly three feet. He pictured the primordial earthiness that would tinge his eyes, with its Whole Foods bags and reading glasses and Sawdust Festivals. His medicine mixed with hers in the downstairs cupboard. These images were fiendish, burrowed furiously into the corner of Ira-Taylor’s abdomen — but he reminded himself they were facsimiles of virtue, stability, love.
Walking to the powder-room, Ira-Taylor looked toward the cold porcelain of the toilet. Sat down on the equally cold black-and-white tile and closed his eyes. He clung to his luckiness, swallowed it. He raised his body so that his brown eyes shone in the mirror. Gradually, Ira-Taylor’s eyes stood still, then rippling, then flickering, then free as two things that finally suggested something beyond the chilled stone of the Groff-Sandoval powder-room.
Helen stepped toward the bathroom, cradling Polonius, the cat. Hearing her, Ira-Taylor dumbly stood up before Helen turned the corner.
I am scared that Polly is constipated, she spoke.
You know you’re bad at cooking.
Brussel sprouts shouldn’t do that to him.
Hi, Polly. You’re giving us trouble, aren’t you, he said. Ira-Taylor hugged the cat quietly.
In a keynote lecture to fleece-swaddled joggers turned Tuesday-workday-microdosers, Helen’s mother Aster Sandoval would say that there were two types of Buddha smiles. The first was a lush satisfaction plastered gummy over cheekbones. Maybe a misguided grasp at stylish purpose, but Helen interpreted these comments as praise for a secularized but monastic commitment.
Helen’s younger brother Toby gave a good one when he read to college girlfriends.
To speak of the sincere doctrine or the sincere religion, Toby Sandoval, twenty-two year-old purveyor of knowledge, recited, was to say that it had not been corrupted.
He ended this with a Buddha smile, which was a Buddha smile not because he was necessarily satisfied with Grace or Olivia or Sophia’s nods and hums. Toby had this smile because he was the True Witness of his own consciousness. He was subject not to his phone that had e-mail, but to the temper of his own mind. Toby possessed, controlled, and loved this smile. He held it as deftly as an oyster fork, which pricked and pushed at the fleshy wet lump of capability.
The second type of Buddha smile is born quietly in the corner of an eye, where sand and dust and other little things collect. Fifteen years ago, wrestling with his sons, Ira-Taylor’s father let a smile slip and creep into the sponginess of March suburban lawn. Jonathan Groff shakily exhaled as his right ankle was wedged between Ira-Taylor’s head and another son’s knee. You got me, Jonathan said, but what he really wanted to say was, I think I’m like the Original Man. Jonathan was forty-four then. But when he looked at the red perspiring faces of his boys, decorated with his own knobbed chin, Jonathan Buddha smiled. His right eye conferred the smile, passed it to the handsome dimple which guarded his left canine tooth. The smile hinted at a vague sense of self-preservation, of longevity and connection to those outside of Jonathan’s navel-gazing. He rubbed his boys’ chins with a weathered thumb. In his mind, he kissed these chins.
And Helen went crazy for Ira-Taylor’s Buddha smiles—the sharp indent in the parabolic curve of his mouth, but corners cautiously lifting. She thought they were the second type. But that night, all Ira-Taylor was non-Buddha-smiling about was that Sam Conradt died, remember my literature teacher? And in the twenty-nine-year-old man’s eyes, the living room reflected his momentary anxieties: the six mirrors, the bell-curved light fixture, the browned carpet stain that was either Polly’s shit or Polly’s shit tracked from the bottom of a boot, he couldn’t decide.
Ira-Taylor sat stiff on the sofa, one foot crossed under his thigh, and Helen let her hand fall on his shoulder. The center of her palm fit perfectly into where the bone dug out of his olive shoulder-y flesh, where his clavicle pushed through. She caught it like Mike Piazza in a 1997 Dodgers game.
Four years later, Helen had a dream of squashing ants. She could go on about how this dream was symbolic of this problem, and that issue, but really she enjoyed the stern transference between wake and sleep. Her hair, still wet from a bath, stuck to the sides of her face, creating scar-like indentations here and there. A small daguerreotype-type print was taped to the wall of Helen’s side of the bed. It was of a young sort of solemn-like man sitting on a wooden, straight back chair. She looked at the photo sometimes when Ira-Taylor showered, the sounds of his feet kicking up water, shampoo bottles pealing.
Mostly, this time around, Helen felt skeptical of even the most stolid—her parents, the knob in her left pinky finger—but she was twenty-eight now, so this was expected. On her phone, Helen thumbed past notifications of look, Jennifer is finally getting married to her super-normal-sane boyfriend, Neil can put his wrist-watch to a cash register and buy an oat milk latte, Georgia Renkinoff is now a popular poet among East Coast intellectualia, Toby thinks his sister has a B12 deficiency.
The day Ira-Taylor lost his cell phone downtown it was muggy, and at first he was uncomfortably sweating, but by dusk the sheen of perspiration had cooled into a kind of silvery gloss mask over his face, like one of those Jesus Christ linen shrouds. His laptop, tucked into the crook of his arm, live-tracked his phone’s location as he walked to coffee shops and park gazebos. The glowing, green dot tread steadily across the city.
He sent Helen an email, subject line: News!
iphone still lost should I convert to luddism?
An hour later: real news!!
Jogger lady found it… Will be home soon also should we go to this tmrw? Toby invited us
Toby was an entry-level movie producer, and he had helped coordinate a famous director’s film retrospective at a local university. Helen remembered Ira-Taylor called the director’s work too unemotional, too removed when they once drove past a little light-pole banner with his face blown up to an uncomfortable proportion. She read Ira-Taylor’s emails laying down on the bed, looking up intermittently at the little upside-down daguerreotype man. His face, vaguely stoic, resembled her husband’s. Helen let them look the same.
The next night, as they drove down Pico, Helen fantasized about turning left to face her beloved, besotted Ira-Taylor, and maybe doing something unimaginable. Like pushing his head into the dashboard or forcing his body into the steering wheel, probably just to see what would arise. Panic, anger, fear? She pictured a great, mutual act of violence. Something that would zealously compel both of them to ridiculous action. Would he commit to her combativeness or meet it with tenderness? Ira-Taylor’s straight brow furrowing into an unfamiliar, irate arch? Thin hand pressed to her temple, like she was thinking, the woman looked at the man, and her thought experiment was already over.
They were coming from the retrospective, which was for the thirty-five-year-old visionary prodigy director Eric Lim-Andersson. Toby chose to program Lim-Andersson’s film, which was about this man who, after going through an existential crisis, walks through the desert for forty days and nights. Eventually, the man summons up memories of his dead son, his French exile, and scenes of his wife washing her hair. He dies alone. After the film ended, Helen’s brother introduced Lim-Andersson to the stage, where, to great applause, Lim-Andersson was given this delicate, glassy laurel-kind-of award for whatever generous contributions, monetary or metaphoric, he made to the university.
Helen and Ira-Taylor were late to Toby’s post-screening dinner at this New American cuisine place, with all of his happy screenwriter assistants’ depressed sons of directors’ bigshot nobody friends. The couple looked for a parking spot. One of those felt bobble-head puppies (a brown dachshund) continuously nodded on the car's dashboard as Ira-Taylor stopped and started, started and stopped the car.
I think I saw one on the left, Helen said, stretching to rub out her eyeshadow in the rearview mirror.
I already saw that, the guy in front of us has it.
Okay, let’s keep looking. Maybe the place has, like, a back?
Wait, this is all metered. I don’t have change, Ira-Taylor said.
And so Helen went inside a Thai dive to buy seafood pancakes, or another dish that could be easily packaged, with a ten dollar bill, while Ira-Taylor slowly drove up and down the block. He finally found a spot near what looked like what his dad would call a crack house.
At dinner, what can Ira-Taylor make of the tapioca fritter turkey tails, the crumpled eyes of men he barely knew and their wives, and Helen’s leather purse, which she tucks politely under her leg? Plates clack, and a small hour passes. A man mentions an experimental media company that Toby should freelance for, he’ll connect him; Helen scratches her nose bridge in muted reply. Toby shines and turns back to Helen and says, Remember what Mom would talk about? I think I am doing that, you know—Buddha smile!
After one couple leaves the restaurant, the rest of the guests immediately putter out the same way, because maybe humans beings really are spiritless and accidental. Toby, visibly drunk, slouches in the back of Helen and Ira-Taylor’s Volkswagen. He stretches and crumples his pretty shirt and just makes a sound like Hah. We should just give your brother a ride, Ira-Taylor says to Helen, and she says, OK.
For some reason Ira-Taylor settles in the back seat, behind the driver’s, next to Toby. As if to choose a Sandoval sibling to re-marry, as if he prefers Toby’s fraternity to any tender, extra-emotionally-intelligent email exchange between Helen and himself.
Helen drives. Toby sleeps.
Exiting from the freeway, toward Toby’s house, they pass by this encampment by the river. Helen always looks at this one part, where someone had collected and displayed an enormous horde of tchotchkes on the top of a wall. The number almost scares her. Ceramic praying angel children, brassy Buddhas, miniature Michelin men, large wooden crucifixes, bakelite roller-skate clocks, copper turtle ashtrays—they glow under the fluorescent street lamp, enveloped in a sort of artificial yellow-green-ness, like they are all projections of someone’s deepest material desires. The car pauses next to the great wall of tchotchkes. It’s a miracle that the city hasn’t torn it down—Helen likes to think that they purposely ignored it, their cold hearts touched by the wall’s tangible humanity.
Is it crazy that people just keep these things, forever? Ira-Taylor suddenly asks, looking out the window. He’s talking about the trinkets. That we hold on to them until someone calls us crazy?
Ira-Taylor’s face is relaxed, absent, disciplined in idleness. And he looks at Helen through the rear view mirror, at how the moonlight washes out her face. She doesn’t reply, but she notices the hard pressure of Ira-Taylor’s knees digging through the back of her carseat. Helen doesn’t know whether she should move the seat forward or not, and she doesn’t want to ask, so she just keeps her hands in her lap, neutrally folded. She then pretends to concernedly look at her sleeping brother Toby before looking out to the river once more, with its deeply ornamented wall of cartoon figurines and austere crosses. And Helen invents a little quiet god in her head for all of them to mutually revere, to watch, and, in return, she lets the god watch over them all.