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Fiction: Laughter by Marie Chow

Part Two in a 3-Part Series entitled "The Fourth Player"
They met online. Nora was cuter than the other women he’d been matched with, and he wasn’t particularly surprised when she ignored his first message. He knew that he wasn’t a physical ideal for a lot of the women out there, and understood that online dating sites were more or less tilted in favor of the women having the power to pick and choose as they pleased.

Henry bided his time, went out with two other women, and then emailed Nora again, just in case. 

“Tell me something funny,” she’d commanded, in one of her first replies. “I need a man who can make me laugh.”

He’d appreciated her frankness, how she took control of their conversation, how she made it clear: impress me, or else.

So Henry had searched for the best jokes the internet could find, thrown in a couple of Tom Swifty puns he wasn’t sure he’d truly understood, and even embellished a few childhood experiences. Teasing another girl by calling her “skunk head” became a daring escapade in which Henry had captured a possum, spray-painted a white streak down its back, and then brought it to school, resulting in detentions, a parent-teacher conference call and a near-suspension. Henry was surprised at how much he enjoyed these exaggerated versions of himself, and began to think himself quite entertaining: daring, creative, and interesting in a way he never had been. He told himself he wasn’t lying, not really, not the way most people did online. Hadn’t Henry himself already suffered through several disappointments that had been the result of grossly inaccurate self-portrayals? Most of the women he’d met in person were older, more garish versions of what they’d presented in their profiles, heavier-set. He’d gone home afterwards, staring at their online profiles, trying to find what, if any, architectural similarities existed between the women he’d met and those he thought he’d be meeting.
Henry always updated his pictures, and though he was careful not to pick photographs where he stood next to something or someone who dwarfed him, this was not truly a deception. 

Henry wasn’t short, he just wasn’t tall. He was slightly below average, but not frail. Lean, was what his mother called him. He liked that description, as it was antonymous with characterizations like bulky, fat, overly-muscular.

Still, another month had gone by before Nora finally consented to a phone call. It was obvious she’d had better offers, but she never admitted it. She was polite, and told him that she’d let her account become inactive for some months, but had decided to give the whole online dating thing a second chance; that was why it’d taken her so long to respond.

Henry let her have this little white lie, because he’d already experienced its alternative. More than one woman, at the end of a mutually disappointing meal or outing, had told Henry quite bluntly, “No one else was free this weekend.”

Their first date had been imperfect – she’d laughed a little too much, and had been borderline pushy about whether he wanted to stay at the restaurant for another drink, followed by a coffee, and another coffee. He’d felt vaguely bloated by the end, and wondered if Nora had expected him to kiss her, had been prolonging the date to give him more chances. He worried about it all night, wondering if he had somehow given her the impression, through his embroidered accounts of himself, that he was a more daring, aggressive person than he actually was – would possum-streaking-Henry have kissed her?

He’d thought and fretted and finally had waited only a day and a half before calling. There were simply too many things he liked about her to let the faint niggling annoyances deter him. He liked her faint perfume, which he’d only smelled when he’d leaned in for a hug, which hadn’t clung to his clothes or permeated the air. He liked the way Nora ate, liked that she was as attractive in person as she had been in the pictures she’d posted. Finally, he thought, here is a woman without artifice, one who doesn’t present a fictionalized ideal.

“But you didn’t wait three days!” Nora had complained. They’d talked about the movie Swingers before they’d ever agreed to meet. They’d laughed together about the rules and strictures that seemed to govern the natural progression of a relationship.

“Should I have?” he remembered teasing. He had wanted to wait, had told himself he would, and then thought: what the hell. 

“Oh definitely.” She had paused meaningfully, and he could almost visualize her playing with her curly red hair, the way she had done over their dinner, debating between treacle tart and tiramisu. “Now that I know how interested you are, I’ll always have the advantage. You might as well fold now.”

There was something soothing about Nora: other than futzing with her hair, she didn’t wear much makeup, and wasn’t obsessed with the latest clothes and fashion trends. He could relax with her, and he liked that she was educated. She had just started coursework for her master’s in education, and Henry appreciated that she wasn’t just another schoolteacher, waiting for marriage. Clearly, she was going places. She wanted to be an assistant principal, a principal, maybe even a superintendent. She was ambitious and bright and his friends approved – they nudged him at parties and winked conspicuously. He was thirty and she was twenty-eight, and they were both on their way. Right place, right time, right woman. Take the leap, everyone seemed to be saying. It’s now or never, old boy.

Also, he felt protective of her, which was rare for him. At five foot seven, he was shorter than most men, but Nora barely topped five feet. And it wasn’t just that she was petite, it was how she had no pretensions of being taller or prettier than she was. She complained that her feet ached when she wore high heels, which meant that Henry could easily swing his arm along her shoulder, resting, allowing her tiny frame to absorb some of his weight. They fit together, he and Nora. 

They even had a similar sense of humor, and though Nora didn’t always get his jokes and puns, she always tried.

They’d be arguing about something Henry knew little about, education policy for example, and he’d say, “Take this with a grain of salt.”

“How big of a grain?”

“Large.”

“How large?”

“As large as a salt-lick, on a farm.”

And next time, when they were around his friends, someone would say, “Take this with a grain of salt --” and Nora would interrupt with, “A salt-lick grain?” To which Henry, and only Henry, would laugh.
They were finally one of those couples – and Henry couldn’t have been happier. 

They were engaged after a year, and married before their two year dating anniversary.

Henry had been in and out of love before, and he had always found it an easy, though rather passionless, experience. In marrying Nora, he finally felt safe, settled. Finally, he had found a partner to accompany him for the rest of his life. He looked at her sometimes, her widow’s peak and her dainty little feet, and thought he could happily gaze upon her, his little redheaded pixie, for the rest of their lives, could happily laugh at their inside jokes while others looked on, perplexed and annoyed, for an eternity.

He felt lucky to have found her, and didn’t need Nora’s gentle hints to convince him that this was the truth – she could have had, if not anyone, certainly better. They both knew this, and it comforted them each in different ways. 
---
Henry and Nora had discussed having kids in the hypothetical way, but somehow, they were pregnant before either of them had really committed to the idea. He had always been ambivalent about the idea of children. Not that it had ever been a deal breaker; he would have told Nora the truth if he’d loathed the idea, especially since she was a teacher, and clearly children-oriented.

In theory, Henry was sure he liked children. At the very least, he understood the genetic necessity and predisposition to copulate and reproduce. Yet -- it seemed to be somehow egotistical, this idea of parenthood, to declare: my genes are worth passing on, my essence deserves to be replicated and multiplied. And, he couldn’t help but wonder: did the world need another child? Henry had double majored in electrical engineering and economics, and had learned that everything needed to have a balance, a structure to adhere to – in terms of supply and demand, it seemed clear to Henry that the world was producing infants at a rate far greater than it needed. He trusted in the natural order of math, and that the cycle would have to be broken, perhaps forcibly, at some point.

Now, it seemed he would enter this dangerously unstable sequence, if not unwilling, then at the very least unprepared for the magnitude of such a commitment. Henry had never thought of himself as one of those men – who balked at long-term relationships, monogamy, et cetera. He had been quite content with the idea of being engaged and then married, but a child seemed somehow unalterably, unavoidably binding.

Still, when Nora told him, he’d tried to keep the shock out of his voice, and he’d tried to sound happy, because that’s what good husbands did. She told him via a phone call, while he’d been about to enter the all-hands engineering meeting, and he had felt harassed, had behaved poorly. He’d said, “Thank you for telling me.” And then, realizing the inadequacy of such a remark, gone on with, “I’m so very happy.” Which had somehow been even worse, an over-reaching lie that he couldn’t take back. Now he would have no room to back down, to have a discussion. He’d told her he was happy, and happy he would have to be.
So he’d bought her flowers and chocolates and had picked her up as soon as he’d seen her that night, reaffirming again how joyous the news was.

He never asked: how did this happen? He never questioned whether she had been taking her pills regularly, or if she had somehow planned this, preemptively. Henry understood that this was part of marriage, of the adult life he’d dreamt of having, and that this was the hand he’d been dealt. “Do you want a boy or a girl?” he’d asked, massaging her shoulders gently that night, pushing her curly hair aside and dropping a light kiss on her shoulder in the way she liked.

“Oh, a couple of each I would say.”

This had been news to him. Before marriage, they had agreed, again in theory: maybe one, maybe two -- they’d talk about it later, when it came up. If it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. His fingers had stilled and she’d grabbed at his hand playfully, “I’m kidding. God. You take everything so seriously. We’ll just play it by ear and see how it goes.” She didn’t want to take too long of a break from her studies, after all. Nora had taken a break from her master’s degree to plan the wedding, and then had somehow never restarted after the honeymoon, but she had plans. She wasn’t just going to stay at home all day, butt-sitting.
“Butt-sitting? As opposed to baby-sitting?”

“You can’t babysit your own child. Then it’s called being a stay-at-home.”

“Which you don’t want?”

“God, no. Can you imagine?”

“You have a very nice butt, to sit on.”

“Can you be serious for once?”

Henry wanted to protest – how could he too serious, and not serious enough, all at once? Instead, he squeezed her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, that won’t be me. I’ll pop the baby out and be back on my way. You’ll see.”
---
Nora’s pregnancy was not a normal one. Where some women complained of morning sickness and got better by drinking ginger tea and nibbling at crackers, Nora was sick, violently so (or it seemed to Henry), for almost the entire nine months. Unwilling to try medication, Nora had stoically eaten and then thrown up every meal, every snack, day after day, week after week. Henry would sit in the living room, flicking through channels, trying to drown out the sound of his wife retching into their toilet, the basin of which had to be scrubbed almost daily, was bleached constantly with Ajax, and was still somehow filthy despite this.
After the initial couple months, Henry began to suspect Nora enjoyed it. She ate more, blaming it on her changing hormones, and though she always threw up a percentage of every meal, her weight increased gradually, inexorably. Added to this were her swollen ankles, feet, wrists and hands.

Pregnancy was not a good look on Nora.

Some women glowed while gaining, but Nora ballooned. Her skin took on the reddish-orange-hue of someone who had stayed too long in a tanning bed. His friends stopped coming over as often, because in an apartment as small as theirs, they too would be forced to listen to Nora retching after each meal. They still nudged and winked, but it seemed more half-hearted.

“It’ll pass,” they told him.

“It’s within normal bounds,” another said.

The doctor told them that sexual intercourse during pregnancy was not only allowed, but in many ways, encouraged. Pregnancy was a normal occurrence, part of the natural cycle; she urged Henry and Nora to explore different positions if they were uncomfortable, and handed them a pamphlet, “Don’t Be Shy, Give Sex with a Bump a Try!”

But Nora was never really in the mood, and secretly, Henry was relieved. He didn’t recognize her body any more, and was terrified that he’d need outside stimulation to perform. He’d always been attracted to Nora before, and didn’t want memories of pregnant-Nora tainting real-Nora.
She went on disability at the eight-month mark, and stayed home, ostensibly planning the nursery, but really allowing herself to grow addicted to any number of reality shows. When Henry got home from work each day, Nora rarely asked him how his day had been. Gone were the days when they shared the little jokes and foibles of their days. At one point in time, Henry could have listed almost all of Nora’s coworkers. He knew which teachers she liked and which she didn’t, how well the principal did her job, and which parents were the most tiresome. Similarly, Nora kept track of Henry’s boss, always asking about his upcoming reviews and if there were any work functions that might be coming up.

Now, even when she asked how his day had been, there were never any follow-up questions, never any real interest in what had happened to Henry.

He told himself it wasn’t about him – Nora no longer asked, because Henry’s day was no longer a prelude to Nora’s stories, a prequel to how Nora’s day had gone. Because Nora’s days were all the same now. She watched television. She ate. She vomited. He told himself that things would get better, after the baby. She would go back to work, she would have friends, go out, and once she had her own set of stories to tell, Henry was sure she’d be interested in his stories again.
---
The doctor pulled him aside one day, after asking Nora to produce another urine sample. She was 38 weeks pregnant by now, and any day now, Henry was sure he’d get his Nora back. He’d even thought about having sex with her, as he’d read something somewhere about sex inducing labor. 

“You realize of course, that because Nora has a history of depression, she’ll be more susceptible to postpartum. I’m not trying to worry you, but it’s definitely something to monitor.”

“Postpartum,” Henry repeated the one word he’d understood, because none of the rest made sense to him. Nora had never told him she’d been depressed in the past. And, as far as Henry could tell, Nora was already depressed. He was no doctor, but weren’t these the classic signs? Sitting at home all day, eating and eating and eating. He didn’t want to sound insensitive, so he nodded appropriately while the doctor explained a term he already understood, and went through the warning signs and signals.

“Yes. Yes.” Henry’s head bobbed up and down while he eyed the door and wondered when Nora would return. “What can I do? To help?” 

“Be supportive. Try to be understanding.”

But I am, already, Henry wanted to say. The doctor’s words felt like an indictment against Henry, a personal attack, and Henry had trouble concentrating on the rest of the advice. He let it flow over him while he studied the paintings spread out around the room -- mostly calla lilies, surrounding a billboard of baby pictures parents had sent.
---
Everything changed with the birth of Annabelle.

Though Henry had thought himself in love with his wife, nothing he’d ever felt for Nora could possibly compare to Annabelle. Things that seemed normal in other children were somehow miraculous when his Annabelle did them – the first time she closed her fingers around his thumb, when she looked into his eyes with her long lashes. The combination of Nora’s hair and his mouth. It was overwhelming, the changes it brought to their lives.

But somehow, the more attention he paid to Annabelle, the more Henry helped with the feeding and changing and soothing, the more Nora seemed to withdraw. He wondered if, inconceivable as it seemed to him, Nora was jealous of her own daughter. Nora’s friends would come over and tell Nora how lucky she was, to have a husband who was so attentive, so capable and handy. But Nora never agreed. She would act petulantly, criticizing him in front of her friends.

“Of course he’s a good parent – he didn’t have to give up his body for the girl. No one asked him to sacrifice his looks for the sake of a child.”

Nora’s friends never knew what to say to such remarks. They would look at each other and shift in their seats. They would compliment Annabelle’s looks, and tell Nora she had a cute baby, a loving husband. They would pat her on her hand, not knowing if Nora, in her present mood, would willingly accept a hug. But none of it seemed to have any impact. Nora never spoke of returning to school any more, never talked about her master’s, her would-be promotions. And she never wanted to hold their Annabelle, even when the child was smiling, or laughing, or cooing in the way that all babies coo.

For the first time, Henry began to resent her, and felt the stirrings of anger rising in him. It had been one thing when Nora had moped during pregnancy, had allowed herself to become self-absorbed and indulgent. He hadn’t quibbled about her reality television and her binge eating. Not then. Now, there were responsibilities, duties that they should be sharing, shouldering together. Why couldn’t she see that?

One night, after burning the meal she’d been preparing, Nora declared that she just couldn’t go back to teaching, not yet, even though Henry had never asked, had never even broached the subject. He’d always assumed that she would want to stay with Annabelle for a few more months, would want to lose the weight and be more like herself before returning. Still, he made soothing sounds. “You don’t have to go back until you want to.”

“Oh thank you.” she said sarcastically, as if he’d told her the opposite of what she wanted to hear.
“Don’t start. I’m agreeing with you.”

“Yes, you’re agreeing by giving me permission. As if I need your permission.” Her eyes were watering again and Henry knew that if he didn’t say something, they would end the night in another bout of tears, with him holding her while she blubbered. For that was how he thought of her now, blubbering: noisy and loud and big in a way the woman he’d first married never had been.

Frustrated, Henry said the only thing he could think of. “Happiness is a choice.” As soon as he’d said it, he realized it was the truth, one of those absolute truths that not even she could deny. He felt a great sense of clarity in just saying the words, as if he’d finally found the solution that would reach through and bring the old Nora back. It seemed so obvious now that he couldn’t understand how he hadn’t thought of it before -- just as every step in their relationship had been predicated on personal choice, Henry choosing Nora’s profile out of the hundreds in the area, Nora choosing Henry’s email out of who knew how many she’d received. 

“Happiness is a choice,” he said again, knowing that because his words were true, she would have to hear them, would be forced to acknowledge it.

Instead, she looked down and clasped her hands around her belly, as if she were still pregnant. Annabelle was sleeping peacefully in the nursery, but here Nora sat, still bloated from weight, still leaden with fluids and hormones and postpartum.

“Tell me something funny.” she said, rubbing her belly as if soothing some imaginary baby that had yet to be born. “I need a man who can make me laugh.” She looked up and Henry wondered suddenly if he had somehow misunderstood her from the beginning. Had the inflection always been there, the need? Had depressed Nora always been there, just waiting for the right time to reveal herself?

Henry took a deep breath. He wasn’t a man who dwelled. He reached out and held her hand, which was still small and delicate, still fairylike, in stark contrast to the rest of her body.

He reminded himself that it didn’t matter now whether she had deceived him then. He’d been meticulously saving up his best jokes in the months since Nora had gotten pregnant, in the time she’d gone away from him, in every way that mattered. He was confident that he would find one that would work, a pun to make her laugh, a joke they could once again share.


He began.

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