The Things We Do to Thrive
Read the same word, or write it, or say it, over and over again, and before long it changes shape, loses its meaning, takes on a sinister tone—it makes you start to question its own reality, and you start to wonder if everything you’ve ever known is false. For Peppi, relationships were the same way. The people were always good on their own and at first, but then the mere repetition of actions made both parties grow at first bored and then unnerved. You never were who you thought you were in the beginning, and by the end you wonder if the person you love is really who you thought they were. So, when Peppi met Jo, after a few successful—magical—dates, she downloaded the app Forever on her phone and vowed to herself that she would do all she could to keep this relationship alive, fresh, and special.
“What is that you’re always doing—some kind of app?” said Jo, glaring at Peppi from across the bedroom.
Peppi’s phone buzzed again. “Take her to a nice restaurant,” it said, like a well-meaning but busy-body mother. Usually, its intrusions were comforting. Now, though, Peppi was lying in bed and Jo was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed, a disgusted look on her face. They had been talking about work. The whole sharing your day routine. And Peppi’s mind had wandered—what movies were out now, what she’d have for breakfast—when suddenly her phone had buzzed. “Say you understand how she feels,” it had said. Jo must have gotten pissed when in the middle of this fairly important story, Peppi had checked her phone.
And now—“Take her to a nice restaurant.” The app knew things had taken a turn for the worst, and they were full-blown fighting.
“It’s this app,” Peppi stammered. “It sends out reminders.”
“Why are you getting stuff about work at eleven o’clock at night?”
“Not about work. About us.” Peppi took a deep breath. “It’s that app, Forever?”
It was a stupid thing to say, and Peppi felt the familiar sense of shame instantly. She had said the wrong thing, screwed everything up. Jo had an expression of absolute shock on her face. “So you need an app to be a caring human being now?” she said, her voice flat.
Her voice was what Peppi had fallen in love with. Not a timid voice but not forceful either—it sounded like the wind against the plains, steady and sure but gentle, full of whispers and warmth. And it came along with the way her eyes crinkled with joy when she spoke, the way her lips curled up at the corners, her smile open and always ready to leap to the surface. Even during fights, she smiled.
“I can’t believe this,” she said. “You’ve been doing this for years? Have you done this since we started dating?”
Perhaps Peppi had gotten sloppy. At first she had been so ashamed of it, of needing it. But it had been harder to hide, since they’d moved in together a few months ago, and Peppi had been so scared—the first time she’d lived with someone this way—that she’d come to rely on it more and more. And they’d both been so busy—with the staff cuts at work, Peppi had to cover more stories. She had just gotten so tired. They were both tired. Tired of hiding, tired of going through the motions.
“Where are you going?” Peppi said.
Jo stormed down the hall. “I’m sleeping on the couch.”
They had the same kind of bubbles. Surely that counted for something—that they were at least in some small way meant for each other.
Their bubbles came out a mossy green, growing only on the backs of their hands or, occasionally, the backs of their elbows. They only grew when they were tired—after grades were due for Jo’s high school ag classes, after the completion of a long investigative piece in Peppi’s newsroom, after a sloppy and emotional fight between them. The bubbles were always a sign they needed rest.
Jo had noticed Peppi’s bubbles first, after a few initial, timid first dates when they were young, right out of college. Peppi had immediately known that she loved Jo more deeply than she had loved anyone before—Peter or Rosemary, Sadie or Dave—and as a result had stressed herself out. How would she keep this relationship alive? She had craved it, craved keeping it, wanted it to remain pure and special for the rest of eternity or at least for her own selfish, mortal life. She put, perhaps, too much weight on such a young relationship, but its fragility terrified her. Jo’s timid yet tenacious, always smiling voice and the kind crinkles around her eyes. Peppi had sweated out entire nights, awake, thinking about her and about their relationship, how to keep it going. She became exhausted, consumed by it. Finally on the fifth or sixth date she had broken down, saying in a horrible, whiny voice and half-crying that she’d never been good enough, that their relationship would never last, that she was calling the whole thing off right now to avoid that awful, inevitable ending. They had been standing in front of this ridiculous downtown bar called the Blue Penguin. A neon penguin in the window waved at them and the other scattered passersby in the street. And Jo had stared at Peppi, absolutely shocked, and then had laughed.
She had reached out and touched the back of Peppi’s hand. “You have my bubbles,” Jo had said.
After their big fight about the app Forever, Peppi sat behind her desk at work and couldn’t get the image of the neon blue penguin out of her mind, or Jo’s words, You have my bubbles. “Take her to a nice restaurant,” Peppi’s phone had dinged all day.
It was a fine suggestion—it couldn’t hurt. But the suggestion didn’t address Peppi’s main question, the one that brought her a chill of terror—what was she supposed to say? The lack of words, the way they never seemed to flow in the right moments, had ruined all her other relationships. A familiar and icy stretch of silence, the inability to communicate and connect, creeping into the space between two otherwise compatible, loving people. She and Jo had been together barely over a year. Peppi feared that her persistent silence had already burrowed into the cracks between them, threatening to widen and then melt in a way that destined to break them apart.
She was supposed to be reviewing the final copy of this month’s magazine. When she had started this job, her first full-time job with a publication, she had copyedited every proof in-depth in a way verging on nit-picky. Lately, she signed off on pages without fully reading them. She had learned through the last few years that it was rare they caught errors this late in the game, anyway. Tonight, she could hardly focus on even the few pages she wanted to read. She cupped her hands around her face like a race horse’s blinders, trying to will her mind to focus, her thoughts, about Jo and Forever, to still. Peppi was the only one left in the office, the light over her desk the only one left on, and the lonely hum of the air conditioning was deafening.
She jumped when something rustled beside her desk.
Jo stood small and shy as a shadow in the doorway.
Peppi’s phone buzzed again, “Take her—,” and Peppi scrambled to swipe away the notification.
“Jo.” She stood as if she’d just sauntered out of a black and white crime movie, like she was about to pull a gun from her coat pocket or had caught Peppi having an affair, or some combination of both.
Instead, she just lingered there in the doorway of the open-space office, the empty desks strewn with pens and phone cords and coffee-stained papers.
“Take me to dinner?” she said before Peppi could apologize or stammer out anything.
Peppi’s favorite sensation was gentle fingertips on her cheekbones. It was where her grandmother had touched her when she was sick, her father when she was hurt, and Jo when they were just waking up in the morning, about to decide who would put on the coffee. A face is much sturdier than it feels under a loved one’s fingertips. The skin and bone feel thin as paper, fragile as a fallen leaf.
Sitting across from Jo at dinner that night, Peppi ran a worried hand across her own cheekbone as Jo read and re-read the menu in silence.
When they had first started dating, Jo had told her about an incident at work—how one of her students was trying to nurture back to health a calf who, for no good reason, was dying. Not eating. Losing weight. Lethargic, as if worn down inside by a terrible depression. What the vet called “failure to thrive.” Later, Peppi had talked about her own job, putting together magazines while all the pundits and experts claimed that print journalism was dying. They had both, or at least so Peppi had imagined, felt so special then—crusaders against the world’s unforeseen curses.
Jo finally put down the menu, ordered with arms crossed on the table in front of her. The restaurant was nice, for them, used to grabbing dinner at some fast food place or splurging on a Saturday-night trip to Chili’s. But Peppi wanted to make it clear—she was sorry. She wasn’t sure what she’d done wrong, but still she felt it, her wrongness, her distance, and was sorry.
“Say you’re sorry,” her phone read, lying in her lap on top of her neatly-folded napkin.
“Are you sorry?” said Jo.
Peppi’s mouth was dry. “Things haven’t been going right for awhile, have they?” she said.
“Things haven’t been going right with you,” said Jo softly. “I still love you, Pep.”
Peppi glanced down into her lap. Say you’re sorry. “Forever is supposed to help us,” she said. “I’ve never used it with anyone else.”
Jo put her phone face-up on the table. It had the app Forever downloaded, a small pink square all alone at the top of one of her home pages. “I haven’t signed up yet. But is this what you want?”
The food was brought, salads stabs and steaks sliced, the wine filled and refilled. About halfway through the meal, in between soft exchanges about being better, Peppi excused herself.
Bathrooms are strange places caught in between, a breath in the space of a building. Familiar, yet always quietly different in ways that were slightly unnerving, only because of their mix of familiarity and difference. No matter the fancy amenities, thousands of dollars dumped into remodels, they always have the same fixtures for the same purposes. Peppi knew bathrooms so intimately because of all the ones she had escaped to through the years, panting, her heart slamming in her chest, her hands shaking, tears burning down her cheeks. The bubbles were rising from the backs of her hands. She washed them off in the sink, the fixtures gleaming bronze. After drying off, she took out her phone. Marked that she had taken Jo to a nice restaurant. Little pink hearts rained down her screen.
“Surprise her at work tomorrow,” came the next suggestion.
Surprise her at work.
Peppi closed her phone, nearly unable to breathe. The bubbles had grown again, mossy on the backs of her hands and beginning to drip into the floor. She washed them again, splashed water on her face, looked up at her blotchy red face in the mirror.
It was all a lie, then. Jo had already been using the app too. Jo had already been using it, had already gotten the message to surprise her at work and had acted on it. During this first year of marriage, they had both been circling one another, cautiously becoming too real, cautiously avoiding becoming normal and human and broken and un-special. People fell in love so easily. And they kept falling, kept falling and trying to regain their footing forever.
Peppi tried to calm herself. Her bubbles, like Jo’s, were scentless and tasteless and could barely be felt on her skin and soon disappeared without a trace. When somebody else came in the bathroom, Peppi straightened and pretended to be smoothing back her hair in the mirror.
Did it matter, though, if it were all a lie? All a trick they played on the world—if they played it together?
Jo had irises the color of a ripened plum, dark, nearly brown, but nearly purple too—shimmering with beauty and sweetness. Somehow their darkness and beauty matched the way her voice smiled when she spoke.
The night after their make-up dinner, Peppi and Jo were side-by-side in bed, both on top of the covers, fully clothed, full and exhausted. Jo wore a dress that fit snugly around her hips, pulled tight across her so that there was an empty triangle of fabric below her pelvis. Say you’re sorry, Peppi’s phone had said. “I’m sorry,” she said. Surprise her. She pressed her lips together. “I’ve been so distant lately, haven’t I? It’s work. It’s work, darling, I promise. It has nothing to do with you.” She sniffed, straining against her instinct to crane her neck around, to look at Jo lying there, to gauge her reaction and change what she needed to say in order to reach her. But no, Peppi wanted to, for once, say something without circling around Jo like a lion locked in combat with a tamer. “Sometimes I don’t know why we do it. Nobody reads print media anymore. The magazine is hemorrhaging money.”
Jo put her hand over Peppi’s.
“But people still seem to want them, for some reason,” continued Peppi. The ceiling fan above them was unmoving, casting crooked fingers of shadow across the white paint. “They don’t buy them, but they want them.”
“It’s comforting,” murmured Jo sleepily. “They want the stories to exist, even if they don’t read them. They want to know that if they wanted to read them, they’d be out there.”
Jo rolled over, putting her hand now on Peppi’s stomach. Peppi got no warmth from it, through her shirt. They were supposed to make it, as crusaders against the curses of the world. Nothing would be right again, if they didn’t make it. And that very desperation was what kept them together, what could make them special, together lonely outlaws against the opposing forces of the universe. “I want you to use the app,” said Peppi suddenly. “I want you to use Forever.”
Jo said nothing in return. In fact, at first she didn’t even move to acknowledge that she heard, that she agreed or disagreed—her stillness proved that she had expected Peppi to come to this decision and had resigned herself to it. “I’ll create my account in the morning,” she said, her breath hot against Peppi’s arm.
“We’ll share it,” Peppi said to the unmoving ceiling fan. “That’ll make it better. Special. For us.”
Peppi added, “Whatever happened to that calf you told me about a long time ago? The one that was diagnosed with failure to thrive?”
“Calf?” said Jo.
“A few years ago.”
Peppi tried to remind her in a few other ways, telling the story again and again in different words, but in the end Jo just said, “Sorry, babe, I don’t remember,” and they went back to lying there quietly. Peppi didn’t know if she’d really set up the app tomorrow, if she’d really end up using it. She couldn’t imagine Jo opening it, inputting the information about their relationship, inputting the information about herself and her lover, noting which of the suggestions she took and the ones she ignored. Then again, it was a compromise, so important for relationships, and Jo had always been good at compromise. For her, love had always seemed to come so easily. Easy as her smiling voice, her plum eyes, the smooth shadows that slipped from her body as she had stood in the doorway of Peppi’s office, waiting to be noticed. Easy as they had made up, in such a sudden way that Peppi felt it wouldn’t last.
For Peppi, love wasn’t so easy. It was a tightrope, balancing every step with the last, one distraction away from danger. She couldn’t imagine Jo being the same way. She couldn’t imagine Jo balancing above a chasm of destruction.
Peppi reached over, put her hand on the loose fabric of Jo’s dress.
At breakfast, their phones sat on the table in front of them.
“What do you have today?” they asked each other.
“What time do you think you’ll be home?”
“We should make time to eat out more often. That was nice, last night.”
Their phones dinged. One of them sat out the cereal and milk and the other made the coffee. And Peppi thought, today I’m going to read every bit of the magazine copy. Every word, front and back.
But she didn’t. Slowly, the day progressed, and suddenly it was over, and they were laying back in bed next to each other, and Peppi was staring at the unmoving ceiling fan. Because the days were long and the years were short, before they knew it years had gone by. Bubbles had come and had been washed away, and they grew closer together in ways that had nothing to do with their shared bubbles, nothing to do with the app Forever. They never talked about it again. They didn’t need to, now that they both used it, both considered its algorithm-based suggestions and let the technology work out the kinks of their relationship, as around it and through it they kept on living together, through the years.
Now and again, though, Peppi would think back to this—their first serious fight as a married couple, the first one that resulted in one of them sleeping on the couch, the other spread out, insufferably hot, on the bed alone.
She couldn’t believe that Jo had not remembered the calf who had been diagnosed with failure to thrive. She could not believe Jo had never told her more about it, followed up later with what happened—the calf died or the student graduated or the calf made a comeback and won a blue ribbon at the county expo show. Or maybe Jo had said, and Peppi had forgotten or had been thinking about work, not listening. The incident sat unsettled with her. Not so much how she would never know what happened with the calf, but how strange it was that she could remember one thing and Jo could remember something else, their memories never quite matching up.
The app couldn’t help with that, and never would. Peppi stayed in love with Jo for the rest of their lives, in a way because of unquenched curiosity—always halfway hoping the Forever app would ding to Jo: “Tell her about the calf.” And Jo would.