Excerpt from "How to Lose a Husband"
by Meg Tinsley
Walter would have called it a simple coincidence, and maybe it was, but after the new neighbors showed up, Barbara finally shucked her bathrobe cocoon, rinsed off the despair that was threatening to swallow her whole, and took up station by the kitchen window to watch their progress. In a sense, then, it would be her curiosity that would save her.
The white sun hunched over the El Cerrito hills, and there they were, hauling their couches, breakfront, and recliners out of the moving truck next door and tossing them like Styrofoam into their house. It was surreal, like those early Star Trek episodes Barbara had watched with her kids in the ’70s when Kirk and Spock threw weightless rocks around a cheap alien set. And odd that they moved in just after dawn, as if stepping out of the night. The woman was tall—taller than the man—and broad shouldered. She had over-tanned skin, that burnt orange color, a halo of white straw hair with careless dark roots, bright purple nails, and form-fitting spandex in psychedelic swirls, like a superhero.
What they did after that wasn’t odd. They flattened moving boxes and stuffed them into the blue recycling bin at the curb. They left the front door open and yelled back and forth to each other about furniture position, backyard chairs, and laundry hampers. The woman drove the truck back to the rental, and the man followed in a low-riding Porsche, like an animal on the prowl. New money, Barbara decided. She wondered why the woman drove the truck and thought about offering them her blue bin, which she barely fills in a month. But she hadn’t spoken to anyone in days and didn’t trust herself to sound normal.
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Today, the woman teeters on wedge sandals in nothing but a robe, dragging a white lounge chair from the side of the house onto the front lawn. Her toenails are purple too. Was it Barbara’s mother who told her that matching toe and fingernails are tacky? As she watches the woman shed her robe, Barbara nearly chokes on her toast, thinking there’s nothing underneath. But no, she sees the neon-green string bikini—actually laughs out loud—“Ha!” This would never fly on the Air Force bases she and Walter have lived on. The woman’s husband would have gotten demoted for that kind of shameless display. And why on earth doesn’t she set up in the backyard?
A few days later, just after the early morning BART train rouses her from sleep, the idea comes to Barbara like those hot flashes from her fifties—sudden onset, all-encompassing. The lawn had always been Walter’s obsession. He spent more time on it than he had ever bothered with her.
She will destroy it.
If that woman can prance around her lawn with her butt cheeks hanging out, she thinks, I can do what I want with mine.
She dresses in sweats and hiking boots and marches outside. She finds the shovel leaning against the garage and begins tapping at the matted grass, looking for a soft spot. She’s managed to remove a square foot of grass and sandy soil when the woman hobbles out and over to her chair. It’s hard to tell her age because of the sun damage, but Barbara guesses about forty, younger than Ellie.
The woman is out there every day after that, even when the wind blows cold from the bay. Ten to two—Barbara pulls from the recesses of her teen years—the tanning hours. She shoves the spade forward, pushing with the sole of her foot for leverage, jabbing under the grass until she can hoist another clod onto the growing mound at the edge of the sidewalk.
“Big project, huh?” the woman calls out while setting down her cup. Barbara looks away when she shucks her floral drape, embarrassed for her.
It’s the first time they’ve spoken. The woman’s voice is low and even, without a lot of inflection. A matter-of-fact tone.
“I’m taking out the lawn.”
“All by yourself?” the neighbor asks, removing her sunglasses and running her eyes over Barbara’s flabby belly, reddened face.
“Yes.” Barbara braces herself for an admonition.
“Good for you.” The neighbor settles into her chair and adjusts the hip straps on her suit, as if returning to important work. Barbara waits to see if anything else will happen, but it doesn’t, so she resumes her labor.
By two o’clock, her arms are rubbery from digging. Her neighbor has just gone inside. Barbara imagines her camped by the soaps for the rest of the afternoon.
She’s never heard the woman raise her voice to the man, even the night he came home late and parked on the lawn. One time while she was tanning, the man came out of the house and got in his car and left. The woman hadn’t even looked up.
Barbara leans the shovel against the house, not daring to enter the garage, filled as it was with Walter’s tools, his scent. She removes her gardening gloves and tucks them under her armpit. She surveys her work—a raw, brown wound, encircled by discarded mounds of dirt and grass. She claps her hands once to shake the dust off, as if banishing a spirit, and walks into the house.