The new house’s living room was so terrible that the hippo chair blended right in. Milton carried it into the house while Emma, his kid, danced in circles around him, pointing at it. Its frame must have been of balsa wood or fiberglass because it was so light that even a very small person could easily pick it up. Arla was standing in the living room when they brought the hippo chair in, and the minute she saw it, that’s what she wanted to do. Lift it over her head and throw it somewhere.
It sagged in the middle. It was so low to the ground that anyone with knees would have a hard time getting into and out of it. It was a weird size–built for two children who didn’t mind leaning onto each other, or most likely, one very slouchy person playing video games in a basement. Its brown, fake fur upholstery was in okay condition, but the shape originated in the stoned mind of a 1970s designer, the armless seat wide and ovular like a hippopotamus’s jaws. It harmonized well with the blue-tacked music poster aesthetic of the living room, planting the decor theme in post-divorce Generation X territory.
“What is that?” Arla said.
“It’s a hippo chair!” Emma squealed.
“Someone freed it away,” Milton said, referring to the East Portland practice of leaving furniture on the curb, free for anyone driving by. In the past, she had picked up some of these things, then put them back on the curb when she realized they smelled like cigarettes or animal hair. Their new house was on the west side, where curbside furniture isn’t really done.
Arla was trying not to be a jerk. The house was hers on paper, but she wanted everyone who lived there to feel like it was theirs, too. She was the one who had suggested that Milton and Emma move in; she was the one who thought it was a good idea to make the quantum leap from friends with benefits to blended pseudo-family.
“We need another chair for the party,” Milton said. They had a housewarming thing planned for the following day, an inaugural celebration for their new living arrangement. The mishmash of objects they had brought together hadn’t gelled yet, so the living room felt both cluttered and spare. The hippo chair wasn’t helping.
Just before guests started arriving the next afternoon, Arla had bigger things to worry about than the hippo chair. June, Arla’s daughter, had just graduated from high school and had nothing better to do than go over the Evite and question the guest list as Arla searched for plasticware.
“You invited Dad?” June said, staring at Arla.
“It’s been two years,” Arla said. “I think things have cooled off enough.”
“I don’t,” June said. “If Dad comes, he’ll bring Ramona.”
“She’ll be on her best behavior,” Arla said.
“You hate her,” June replied.
Arla didn’t say anything.
“Who else is coming?”
“Richard and his kids, Milton’s ex-wife Lisa, and her dad and her stepdad. Bunch of Milton’s friends and other people you don’t know.”
“So, it’s an ex party,” June said.
“A what?” Arla was distracted, scraping ranch dip from a sour cream tub into a crystal bowl with a rubber spatula.
“An ex party. A party full of exes.”
“Go play with Emma,” Arla said, but June just sat there.
A few hours later, Milton’s ex-wife, Lisa, and her new husband, Bogie, arrived. Their relationship started when they were co-workers at a fancy law firm. Their affair had broken up both of their marriages, and they had six children between them. Emma had been holed up in her room all morning, but when Lisa arrived, Emma ran to her mother, who kissed her all over her face.
Arla had never seen Lisa and Bogie together, and expected that they might skulk around, ashamed of the whispering that would attend their arrival. Instead, when Milton opened the door for her, Lisa breezed into the house like a sailboat in a black sundress. She walked straight to Arla and gave her a long, sincere, shameless hug that worked on her heart, pulled her over to Lisa’s side of the scales of divorce justice. What am I doing with this woman’s ex-husband? Arla thought. She shook it off, smiled her best, and chatted with them politely for a while before pointing Lisa and Bogie to the patio outside where people were starting to congregate.
Arla walked into the kitchen and saw that her own ex and his girlfriend, Nate and Ramona, had arrived while she was hugging Lisa.
She first saw Nate and Ramona from behind. Ramona was wearing perfectly snug white chinos; from the back, she looked only forty. Nate was in new jeans and his butt looked great, too. Arla wondered if maybe they had gotten a Peloton or he had started running with Ramona. Running gave him sprained ankles. He wore an earthy, cream-colored linen shirt of a cut and hand that he never would have chosen for himself. She dresses him, Arla thought. Because she insists, or because he asks her to? Arla felt a twinge of something scarily close to remorse. She pushed it away, pouring herself a glass of sangria from the refrigerator. She worked up her courage to greet them, blurting out a slightly too loud “Hello!” when she was about a foot behind them. Ramona startled at Arla’s voice, and as she turned, her hand jerked, sloshing red wine onto Nate’s beautiful shirt.
Arla felt a surge of Schadenfreude, then immediately felt terrible.
June was right, she thought. I hate her.
“Oh, shit–I’m sorry,” Arla fumbled. “You’re supposed to put something on it to keep the stain from setting–salt? Is it salt?” She reached for the handle of a cabinet door, avoiding Nate’s whipped, soft-focus gaze.
“It’s white wine,” Ramona said, scrubbing maniacally at the front of Nate’s shirt with a paper cocktail napkin as he stood there wimpy, arms at his sides. “White wine takes out red wine.”
Arla didn’t quite believe it, but because Ramona loved Nate more than she ever had, Arla went in search of white wine. She knew Milton had bought some, and it was probably in the ice chest next to him outside, because that’s all she would let him drink until their guests went home and he could start his real drinking.
Arla found Milton on the patio talking with his friend Chad, a bankruptcy lawyer who had formerly been his law partner. Chad was not Arla’s favorite person.
The last time she and Milton had socialized with Chad (which was only a week before the ex party–now she was calling it that, too), was at dinner with Chad and his wife, Jacqueline, at their home. They had margaritas and Mexican food, then, during the post-dinner drinking phase of the night, Milton tried to convince Chad that his desperation-partying had run its course, and he was on the post-divorce straight and narrow.
“I’m a changed man,” he bragged, crinkling the corners of his blue eyes that used to look a lot more like Emilio Estevez’s. They were all lawyers, well, all of them but Jacqueline, and Chad delighted in cross-examining Milton’s reformation by pouring him one tequila shot after another, egging him way past the point of a socially-acceptable dinner party buzz.
Arla drove them home after dinner. Milton was too drunk to speak. She started crying when they parked in the driveway of her house, their home, the one they’d only occupied together for a month, where June was inside waiting for them.
“What am I supposed to do with you?” Arla wailed, hitting her hands on the steering wheel in frustration. “My daughter is in the house!” Milton doubled over, his forehead banging softly against the padded airbag dash of the car, resting there.
“Agggh,” he said.
Arla had experienced other kinds of abuse in her marriage to Nate, more covert forms–lying, cheating, et cetera. But this fresh abandonment, the total drunken dissolution of a person who had claimed to love her just a few hours before, this was a new thing for her.
Arla hated Chad after that. He had arrived at the ex party with a bottle of Scotch, and when Arla walked outside looking for white wine, he stashed the Scotch behind him, out of sight. Arla rummaged through the ice chest near the two men, ignored them, found the sauvignon blanc and headed back into the house. By the time she returned to Ramona and Nate, the stain on his shirt had become a fist-sized wet spot just above his heart. Somehow Ramona had gotten the wine out. Arla raised the bottle to Ramona, who acknowledged with a nod that it was no longer needed. Arla put it in the fridge and veered into the living room.
There, June was talking with Lisa’s dad and stepdad, Chuck and Dwayne.
“This is so inspiring,” Chuck was saying, “that your parents can do this–divorce with so much cooperation and peace.” June listened while Chuck went on. “I mean, it’s just beautiful. My generation, Lisa’s mother and I, we couldn’t have gotten divorced this way. Everything was a giant shitshow and everyone knew it.”
Arla stepped in before June could say something. “Well, it’s not perfect,” she said. June gave her a mother-daughter look, invisible to bystanders. “But we’ve worked hard.”
“It’s paying off,” Duane said. “This is just so wonderful to see.” June took advantage of Arla’s appearance in the room to slip away. Arla changed the subject to gardening, and she and Duane talked blandly about the lilacs and tulips they could see through the picture windows.
Arla spent the rest of the party trying not to mentally keep track of Ramona and Nate and their appraisal of her cobbled-together life in the new house. She tried not to notice when Ramona and Nate sat down in the living room and started talking about the furniture layout, the shag rug, still creased from its recent travel in Wayfair packaging, and, to Arla’s total embarrassment, the hippo chair.
Linlin, one of Arla’s friends from her old job at legal aid, was there with her baby on her hip. She started chatting up Nate and Ramona: where they lived, what they did for fun.
“We live on the east side,” Ramona said, “which is nice, because we can get to the Gorge easily. We’re outdoors a lot.” Linlin smiled, and Ramona started telling her about the backpacking trip they were planning near Mt. Rainier the following weekend. “We were buying gear before we came here–had to get bear mace. Bear mace, can you believe it!” Linlin shifted her baby from one hip to the other, raising her brows to show that she was amazed.
Arla left before she could be drawn into a seated conversation about Ramona and Nate’s sportiness. Later, in the back yard, Arla looked away from Ramona and Nate on the porch swing as they talked inaudibly together, the sun sinking between the fronds of Arla’s bamboo.
In her mind, Arla tried to make the party about other things. Anything but a pathetic effort to show the exes they were happy and fine. A housewarming, she thought. This is a housewarming for me and Milton and our kids. We’re warming the house. She didn’t feel warm. She badly wanted to feel warm and plush and soft and safe, but she didn’t. She felt as thin and brittle as the top of a crème brûlée.
When Nate and Ramona left the party after a couple hours, saying goodbye to them was unavoidable. Nate’s shirt had dried, the linen pilled and crinkled where the wine had landed and Ramona had washed it out. He trailed a step or two behind Ramona as they headed for the door. Arla met them in the entryway.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I know this was kind of weird.”
“No, it was awesome!” Ramona said, “Thanks so much for having us.” She put her hands on Arla’s shoulders and pulled her in for a crisp embrace, bringing her close but under her control, so that their bodies didn’t actually touch.
“You seem like you’re doing a lot better,” she said quietly in Arla’s ear, then released her and stepped away.
“Thanks,” Arla said, not meaning it. She couldn’t believe that Ramona had congratulated her on recovering her mental health. Ramona, of all people. Arla bit her tongue and thought, I’m crazy because Nate made me crazy. Nate looked at Arla plaintively, then raised his hand to wave goodbye and he and Ramona left.
Lisa and Bogie made a huge point of their magnanimity by leaving last. It was time for Emma to change houses, so she accompanied them, leaning against Lisa with her arms full of her American Girl dolls and a neon duffel bag. As they all waved goodbye, Lisa and Bogie said how cool the new house was, and other things that could be said painlessly by people whose Raleigh Hills spread totally trumped Milton and Arla’s squeaky, shacked-up situation.
They started cleaning up as soon as everyone was gone, moving recyclables, picking up paper plates to compost. Cleaning was never something he complained about. She gave him an affectionate pat on the arm as he passed her on his way to the kitchen with an armload of cans. What a guy, she thought, he’s hardly even drunk.
“I’m here to testify that you were the hottest girl at your party,” Milton said. “It definitely wasn’t Ramona. Ramonas are a dime a dozen in Portland, with their water shoes and recycled Patagonia running parkas. She’s got nothing on you.”
Arla smiled, forgiving Milton’s folksy sin against feminism: calling her a girl when she was forty-eight. In this context, ‘girl’ sounded sweet. He had his moments. At least he didn’t lie–well, about drugs and drinking, maybe, but not about things like this. He never flattered her, which made his salty way of negging Ramona more gratifying.
“Ramona said I’m doing better,” Arla said, raising an eyebrow to fish for reassurance.
“She doesn’t live with you,” Milton said. Arla decided he was being funny.
Arla picked up her phone and summoned June with an intra-house text message, seeing if she wanted to watch RuPaul, since they hadn’t gotten to the finale the week before. Milton flopped into the hippo chair–and then, defying its low and squishy gravity, he popped back up faster than he had flopped.
“It’s wet,” he said, looking down at the seat. You couldn’t tell just by looking at it.
“It’s wet?” Arla wrinkled the space between her eyebrows, got up from the couch, and took a step toward it as Milton moved things around the chair, looking for a spilled bottle or cup, something that might explain the wet. Arla sniffed it.
“It’s pee,” she said.
“No,” Milton said, their eyes meeting for the first time that day.
June drifted into the room and stopped.
“What’s going on?” she said.
“There’s pee on the hippo chair,” Arla said, still holding Milton’s gaze.
“Pee?” June said, confused. “Cat pee?”
Milton had brought his cat into the shared household, and he wasn’t getting along well with Arla’s cat. It was a good hypothesis, that maybe one of the cats had done it. There was a houseful of company and an ongoing feline turf war. Arla leaned tentatively toward the hippo chair for another diagnostic sniff, relieved that June had thought of a more-or-less benign explanation.
The alternative was unthinkable: that some human being had found it fit to urinate in Arla’s living room. At her party. A person she knew. Someone she had invited. There was no way that human pee could be an accident. It portended danger, blood, vengeance, psychopathy. She didn’t want to go there. But Arla’s second whiff destroyed the bright-side delusion.
“It isn’t cat pee,” she said. It was human, definitely. Primal instinct put her hair on end, a cold chill creeping up her hands to her forearms. How did this happen? Why? The shock was still sinking in, and it stunned them all into silence for a few moments.
“There was a baby at the party,” Milton said at last, trying to rescue everyone from the descending horror. “You know, your friend from legal aid had her baby with her. She was probably a year and half, two at the most. It must have been her.”
“Linlin’s baby?” Arla shook her head. “No. She was wearing a diaper. No way she could have peed through that. Those things have silica gel or something in them, they hold like half a gallon. But Linlin would have said something, anyway. She’s a nice person.” Arla was a little hurt by Milton’s suggestion that her friend would allow her baby to do something so gross.
“Who else could have done it, then?” June asked. There were no more polite guesses.
Milton left to change his pants. He returned with the bottle of Nature’s Miracle and doused the center of the hippo chair. He pushed it off to the corner of the room. They put on Drag Race and tried to stop thinking about the pee.
Maybe June and Milton could put it out of mind, but something about the pee triggered Arla. She felt a familiar unpleasant emotional state settling over her the rest of the night; thoughts and feelings chasing each other’s tails, Milton springing up from the hippo chair on a mental video loop, over and over, her pulse thready.
She lay in bed that night haunted by the smell of the hippo chair. It reminded her of the tangy slap of urine in the SmartPark stairwells when she worked downtown, always catching her off guard as she ran to an appointment. It wasn’t cat pee. Arla was positive that it wasn’t Linlin’s baby’s, either. She felt a dark obsession brewing. She needed to know who peed.
Arla developed a theory that centered on Milton’s known false friend: Chad. As Chad and Jacqueline had left the party, he laid squealing tire marks on the street in front of Arla’s house. He didn’t know Arla was watching, but she saw him flip the bird as they drove away, with Jacqueline shrinking in the passenger seat. Apparently, Arla’s feelings about Chad were mutual. Her growing suspicion that Chad had peed on the hippo chair made her feel better, since she already believed Chad was evil. If he did it, she wouldn’t need to discover another enemy. That comforted her.
But what if it wasn’t him?
Who else at the party had a motive? Most were casual work friends, people from the kids’ schools. She couldn’t think of any man there who hated her, no one who needed to passively express murderous rage. She had already ruled out the female attendees, because practically, it had to be a man. The logistics were too risky for women. They can’t just flop it out.
Could it have been Nate? He was still hurt that she had left him, but he seemed more beaten down than vengeful. And now he was with Ramona who, despite not being impressive to Milton, was a catch. She was beautiful, assertive, and athletic–dominating, even. Except for the wine-spill moment in Arla’s kitchen, Ramona was never sheepish or submissive. Ramona liked to hike. Arla was sure Nate was happier with Ramona, and that whatever he had lost when Arla left him was recovering. He didn’t seem angry enough to be the culprit.
Ramona, though. What about her? It’s a really weird thing, Arla thought, to dislike the woman who’s with the man you don’t even want. She knew lots of women did, though. Maybe it was primal. Some lizard-brain resource-guarding that happens when you have a kid with someone and split up. It’s more than that, Arla thought. I actually hate her. I’m not jealous. I just hate her. I’d hate her even if she weren’t boning my ex.
Arla couldn’t sleep after her mind landed on Ramona. She couldn’t stop ruminating about her. Did Ramona hate her, too? Did she hate her enough to piss on the hippo chair? And if she did, logistically, how could she even do it? Arla remembered the plastic cups, the white wine. People had access to the bathroom. It could be done, she thought. Bathroom, plastic cup, no one’s looking, slosh, ha-ha!
She remembered Ramona’s odd, remote embrace, her Judas’s kiss and whispered condescension. It dawned on Arla, as she was working out the hypothetical details of Ramona’s party sabotage, that she had gotten completely into Arla’s head. She knows I’m not better, that goddamned bitch, Arla thought. She clenched her jaw, felt her thighs tense, her temperature rising from somewhere deeper than she wanted to deal with.
I’m not better.
Arla’s sinuses stung as her forehead tamped down an impatient burst of grief.
I’m not better.
Milton snored boozily in bed next to her, and Arla’s nails dug into the flesh of her palms as her face contorted. Nate and Ramona and their perfect butts; their hikes that required bear mace.
I’m not better.
She stopped breathing to silence the sob, and her tears welled, sliding down both sides of her face at once, from eye to ear in watery synchrony. She lay still and let it happen for a while.
Just let go, she thought, or some saner part of her thought, her ribs shuddering in the dark. It passes. It feels like it won’t ever stop, but it will. She was right. She cried, and it took a while, but eventually it passed through her and was done.
Arla wiped her face with the top sheet and quietly crept out of bed in her underwear. She went to the living room, keeping all the lights off. She stood in the dark for a moment, wondering if what she was about to do was crazy. She propped the front door open. Then she picked up the hippo chair from the corner of the room, carried it outside, lifted it high as she could, and threw it toward the street.