When he opens the shutters, Oliver isn’t sure at first what he’s looking at. From their bedroom window, the shimmery cluster of bees on their mesquite tree looks like a scrap of one of their younger daughter Harriet’s sequined dance recital costumes. The bees occupy an approximately twelve-inch long segment of tree limb, but by Oliver’s estimate, there are hundreds of them, possibly thousands.
Robin says not to worry; they’re just swarming.
“Swarming sounds like a verb to worry about,” Oliver says.
“Well, it’s not,” she says. “Their colony has split in two. It’s like cell division. Mitosis. These are the bees that left. They’re starting a new hive.”
She tucks a vibrator beneath her pillow as she makes their bed. This is an example of habit stacking. You pair cues for new habits you want to form—having orgasms, in this case—with habits you’ve already formed—sleeping. Since she started seeing a therapist, Robin is on a mission to improve her life one habit at a time.
The vibrator is also an example of an old habit, though—Robin’s theater-prop (or call it passive-aggressive?) style of communication. The vibrator beneath the pillow is intended to communicate something to Oliver. He considers that the pink aquatic-looking device could be an invitation, only he already knows that Robin thinks it’s his fault they haven’t been having sex lately, so more likely the vibrator is an accusation. Her words last week: “You never look at me. You never touch me.” His reply: “You’re always angry at me.” Her reply to his reply: “Always?! That’s so absolute and unfair.” His reply to her reply to his reply: a blank stare. In this context, Robin intends the vibrator to be like the protein bars he packs in his travel bag on the rare occasions he visits his father (Oliver doesn’t take his family with him, and his father has never said a word in all these years about wanting to meet them). The man lives out in the sticks in Alabama, and not only is there almost never any food in that house other than canned beans and potatoes, there isn’t a decent grocery store within a hundred miles.
Oliver ignores the vibrator for now because there are more immediate things to worry about—bees, for instance. He imagines terrible scenarios: their five-year-old, Harriet, poking at the bees with a stick; their fifteen-year-old, Elspeth, bumping into the bees in the dark after sneaking out of her bedroom window late at night to be with that boy with whom Oliver’s brain always pairs an image of that black-and-gold box of condoms because the boy’s name is Magnum; both scenarios resulting in Oliver’s daughters ending up so covered in welts that their eyes are swollen shut, their throats constricted.
“Save your worry for the bees,” Robin says. “We should be grateful to be a safe haven for a colony of bees.”
Besides the bees, of course, there’s also Magnum to worry about. Of Elspeth sneaking out the house last night—which they know because Elspeth neglected to take a house key, and so rang the doorbell at one in the morning—Robin said, “She knows you don’t like Magnum. She doesn’t want to be subjected to your judgment.” This was after Oliver went to the door with a baseball bat, only to find their daughter standing at the door, shame in her eyes.
Now Robin says, “It’s the old queen that moves out with half the worker bees. The new queen, whom the worker bees create by feeding one of their sister larvae royal jelly, inherits the old queen’s digs. A shitty deal, right? Hard to pave your own way when you’re still in your mother’s house.”
Oliver suspects this talk of queen bees is another prop. Robin’s told him several times now that her therapist says Oliver is like her mother, that Robin inadvertently chose Oliver because he’s like her mother. This is another subject he doesn’t wish to discuss.
He says, “What are we going to do about Elspeth?”
Last night, he’d wanted to tear into Elspeth immediately, but Robin had followed him to the front door. Rather than scold Elspeth, she put her arms around their daughter and told her to get to sleep and that they’d talk in the morning.
“I think we should ask her why she snuck out and listen to what she has to say. And don’t forget that she wanted back in so badly, she rang the doorbell,” Robin says.
Oliver fears he already knows why Elspeth snuck out—to have sex with that boy in his orange Jeep Rubitrux. The idea that their daughter might be having sex while he and Robin are not is the kind of thing Oliver can imagine laughing about if it were an anecdote delivered on stage by a comedian, say—if the parties involved were not his own family.
As Robin stares out the window at the bees, Oliver thinks about how he has no idea how her mind works. People are alien civilizations. Every encounter is fraught with danger because every encounter is fraught with the potential of miscommunication, and all parties are afraid and armed to the teeth.
But what is also true, if you can believe science fiction movies, is that in the face of even more alien encounters, humans quickly overcome these barriers. They realize just how much they have in common.
Oliver wants to say that it’s not that he doesn’t like Magnum, except he realizes Robin is correct. Magnum reeks so strongly of cologne, musky and slightly sweet, that Oliver can smell the stuff on his own clothes after an encounter with the boy. Worse: he can smell that cologne on Elspeth. Last night, for instance, when he opened the front door. Oliver smelled Magnum before he saw that the person at the door was not, in fact, Magnum, but his daughter.
In most parenting matters, Oliver eventually defers to Robin’s wisdom, which, bewilderingly, almost always proves to be in stark contrast with his initial instincts. One might think she’s better at this shit because, unlike Oliver, she had a nurturing family. Not so. Her mother was an alcoholic depressive. Robin was cooking her own meals, and her mother’s, by the time she was eight, and with scarce resources. Shitty parentage is what Robin and Oliver have most in common. It’s part of the reason they fell in love. But whereas Oliver’s shitty parentage seems to have left him bereft of wisdom, miraculously, Robin has developed into a woman who says things like what she says now, “We are not our parents. Thus, what we should do right now, what we will do before we do anything else, is go love our daughters.”
Then she turns to him, her face wide-eyed and tender, and Oliver joins her at the window. He thinks about how vulnerable the bees are out in the open between hives, and how brave.
© Michelle Ross
[This piece was selected by Rachel Wild. Read Michelle’s interview]