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They had no trouble finding Tansy’s place, a large studio in a renovated factory that sat on a low hill along the Fox River. The visit was part reunion, part congratulations dinner. Jeff had gone to grad school with Tansy in Chicago, where they earned identically impractical MFAs in painting. Now, five years later, she was engaged and had moved to Green Bay with her fiancé, and wasn’t it just swell?
The whole thing irritated him. Why did she have to come to the place he had found for himself after those striving and ultimately wasted years in New York? He’d met Jill here, who convinced him to say screw all that East Coast bullshit and start painting again. He’d found a good day job, something that didn’t make him want to hang himself out of boredom, and he had plugged into the small but active arts community. When Tansy called, having gotten his number from Mary Foy, another classmate, he’d been taken by surprise. Because he couldn’t think of an excuse and didn’t like to be rude, he’d agreed to dinner at her place. On the bus ride across town, he’d briefed Jill in their jokey caveman voice: “Tansy not much fun. Michael don’t know.” Jill, as usual, was up for anything.
They entered through a revolving door and climbed a staircase to the second floor. In the middle of a long hallway lined with bright blue doors, they found 210 and knocked. Tansy answered, looking fashionably dishevelled and smiling her lopsided smile. They were ushered in, their coats taken, and issued wine. After introductions and oh-my-god-look-at-yous, they took their glasses to a pair of opposing loveseats done in orange crushed velvet at the centre of the apartment. There was also a galley kitchen, a spiral staircase leading to a small loft bedroom in the far corner, and Tansy’s easel and gear beneath the large south-facing windows. Quiet jazz drifted from a large-screen Mac that sat on a desk against one wall.
Conversation began among all four, but quickly split into women and men talking amongst themselves. Jeff learned that Michael was a code jockey, apparently of the hotshot variety, because he managed to slip in the fact that he and Tansy had bought their apartment outright. He worked for a tech start-up downtown, he played pick up hoops at a nearby park (Jeff should come out!), he was trying to teach himself guitar, and he couldn’t wait for his bachelor party in Vegas in two months.
When they occasionally switched conversational partners, like couples at a square dance, Jeff got to hear the Story of Tansy. She told him of her return home after school with no plans and then her impulsive move to San Francisco, which she totally loved and where she got work at a nonprofit and painted like mad and where she met Michael, who was wonderful and the man of her dreams. They’d come to Green Bay because his family was from Fond du Lac, and he’d gotten an offer to join a local company developing a potentially killer travel app. She’d begun to meet people in the scene and hoped to exhibit at the ARTgarage before the year was out. Everything was coming up roses.
At one point, Tansy and Michael went to the kitchen to bring out some crudités and dip. Jill leaned close and said, “More fun than barrel of monkeys.”
They were finishing their third bottle of wine when things went off the rails. The discussion had turned to the never-ending revelations of living together. Jill and Tansy were taking turns sharing tales of “things he does that drive me nuts,” which ranged from a laissez-faire attitude toward laundry duties to leaving the toilet seat up. Jeff and Michael listened, smiling with mock sheepishness.
Jill upended her glass, letting the last few drops fall theatrically into her open mouth, and said, “I’ve got a real prize-winner for you. Listen to this: I come downstairs to the kitchen yesterday morning to make some coffee before work, and while it brews, I sit down to read some headlines. I open the laptop, and what greets me but a porn site, with giant penises doing the Roto Rooter routine in sidebar ads and selections like, Horny co-ed seduces lucky teacher. Lovely way to start the day!”
Jeff shook his head. “Damn cat must have figured out the Wi-Fi password again.”
“Porn is disgusting,” Tansy said.
“Yeah,” Jill said, “but they all watch it.”
“Michael doesn’t,” Tansy said, laying a hand on his knee.
There was a moment of silence. Then Jeff and Jill looked at each other and said, nearly in unison, “Yeah, right.”
“He doesn’t watch porn,” Tansy repeated. “I asked, and he told me he doesn’t.”
“Oh,” Jill said. “Okay.” She smiled, crinkling her eyes and using her soothing, “whatever you say, dearie” tone, which Jeff had come to know well. She bumped her shoulder against his in an exaggeratedly cutesy way. “Not every guy is a caveman, then.”
“Oh, please,” Jeff said. “All guys watch porn. Or they have a stash of magazines or something. It’s no big deal.” He gave Tansy a broad smile, enjoying the way her face seemed to be slowly tightening like a fist. Beside her, Michael sat silently. Jeff continued, “What’s to be ashamed of? It’s normal, so why hide it, right Jills?”
“Right.” Jill smiled sweetly. “But next time maybe you could close the browser when you’re done, huh, honey?”
“It’s disgusting and degrading,” Tansy said. “I don’t know how anybody can watch it.”
The vehemence with which she spat her words was irritating. Jeff stood. “Let’s go pop another bottle, Mike. Too bad you don’t have a laptop in your kitchen, or we could watch some porn.”
“Enough, Jeff,” Jill said, her eyes flashing a warning.
“Yes, Jeff, enough,” Tansy echoed. Her voice was cold.
Jeff took in her tight lips and her skirt smoothed primly across her thighs, and remembered how pretentiously arty she had been at school, as if constantly trying to prove something. It was all surface, though; she was as conventional as they came. She wasn’t a bad artist, pretty good at portraiture, but she always seemed to sour the mood in social situations. She could be preachy and sometimes made little disapproving faces when she disagreed with people.
He recalled a late-night conversation between classmates at Bar None, the local art student hangout, about Bill Clinton. Jeff said the whole impeachment thing had been a pointless distraction, and Tansy spent ten minutes reading him the riot act about gender politics and the importance of taking a stand against the patriarchal power structure. There was a local woman at the bar he had been working hard to impress, but by the time Tansy was done she had drifted away to calmer waters near the billiard tables, and he had gone home alone.
Tonight was the first time he had ever been with Tansy in a small group, and he decided it would probably be the last. She and Michael had moved to Green Bay, wonderful, and now they had been officially welcomed by an old acquaintance, but he felt no obligation toward an active friendship.
“I’ll bet you five hundred bucks Michael watches porn,” Jeff said. “Right here in this apartment.”
“You’re on,” Tansy said, now looking almost smug.
“Shut UP, Jeff,” Jill said. She smiled apologetically at Tansy. “I forgot to bring his leash.”
“Yeah, Jeff, give it a rest,” Michael said. His voice was hard, but his eyes seemed more imploring than threatening. “Can we just change the subject?”
They were all staring at him, and while he felt embarrassed, he also felt supremely pissed. Who the hell was Tansy to judge him and all men? She was like a child. And what about the poor slob sitting next to her who was signing up for a relationship built on lies? Suddenly it seemed important to call bullshit and expose some truth. “Man, come off it,” he said. “You know you watch porn sometimes. Who cares?”
“I care,” Tansy said.
“Okay, then, let’s check your computer. I’ll show you proof that someone has been watching porn on it. Five hundred dollars.” He moved toward the Mac on the desk. “It’s either in the history or it’s in the cookies.”
Michael rose quickly and stepped into his path. “Cut the shit, Jeff. I think it’s time for you to leave.”
Jeff laughed. “Why? Afraid you’ll be out five hundy?” He started to push past, but Michael grabbed his arm.
“Let him go,” Tansy said. “Let this ASShole, who I can’t BELIEVE I invited over for dinner, learn that he’s not always right and all men aren’t disgusting pigs.”
Michael stared into Jeff’s eyes. “Get out. Now.” He scooped up their coats and thrust them at Jeff. “Goodbye.”
“Michael,” Tansy said in a quieter tone, and he turned his head. She was looking at him consideringly. “Let Jeff use your computer.”
“Tansy, no,” he said. “Why are we even listening to this guy? You said it yourself, he’s an asshole.”
“Let’s go, Jeff,” Jill said. She took the coats from Michael. “NOW.”
“Show me, Jeff,” Tansy said.
“MICHAEL. Be quiet.”
Jeff glanced at Michael, who looked stricken, and felt pity. The guy obviously thought he was going to be in trouble. It was ridiculous, but it was written all over his face. He knew he should let well enough alone, but Michael was trapped in a relationship that was bound to go bad. All night Tansy had been interrupting him, contradicting him, correcting this detail or that in stories he told and things he said. It was a “yes, dear” relationship already, and they weren’t even married. Better to help them communicate and work things out now than to say nothing. And Tansy could learn that she wasn’t always right.
He didn’t even have to check the cookies or the IP log. Mister high tech had left the URLs right there in his browser’s history: Anal Asians, willing MILF takes three, deep throat with BBC, more. They stood around the computer like witnesses at a crime scene.
After a moment, Jeff said, “I’ll take my five in Benjamins.” He meant it to sound light, but when he looked at Tansy, there were tears in her eyes. She lowered her face and they dropped silently to the floor.
“Tansy,” Michael said. “Honey.”
“We’re going,” Jill said. “I’m so sorry for this.” She tugged Jeff toward the door. As they stepped into the hallway, he glanced back. Tansy had her arms crossed tightly across her chest, head still down. Michael stood by, hands half-raised, unsure if he should touch her or not. Neither looked his way.
Jill was already striding down the hall toward the stairs, and he didn’t catch up until they reached the lobby. “Jills, wait!” he called. She crossed to the revolving door and swooshed outside. He followed, and they stood at the curb in the fading light of the September evening. She stared at him, face blank.
“What?” he said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble, I swear. She started it with her ‘porn is evil’ bullshit.”
“Couldn’t you just leave it alone? Don’t you know when to do that?”
“Look, I did them a favour,” he said. “They have no business being together. If they’re lying to each other about shit like that, they’re doomed. You know it’s true. I was just trying to save them some misery.”
Jill twisted the engagement ring off her finger and held it out to him.
He stared at it, confused. “What are you doing?”
She gave a small, sad smile. “Saving myself some misery,” she said, and walked away.
About Ian Breen
Ian Breen is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has been published in The Atlantic Online, Five Chapters, Roanoke Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Front Porch, and elsewhere.