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Surface Tension

Published: December 17, 2012

Dr. Job Ridley stood in his stone-tiled kitchen and stared at brand-new wallpaper towering over him like barbed wire sparking electricity. His wife, Caren, had fallen in love with the “electric blue” pattern on some home fashion website several weeks ago. He remembered suggesting it’d be cheaper if they allowed their daughter, Hope, to scribble over the cream-coated walls with her Crayola crayons, but that didn’t stop Caren from hiring a whole team of interior designers. Job moved over to the marble counter and poured himself a glass of Maker’s Mark before stepping outside to the patio.

It was a rare, mid-autumn day in the Southeast when the drowning season of summer bursts from the surface, gasping for another breath. To his right, Hope had her arms wrapped around Lex’s hind legs as the dog paddled her around the pool. Job couldn’t decide if Lex was struggling to tear out of his daughter’s grasp, or if the animal’s survival instincts triggered and he was swimming to prevent himself from sinking underwater.

Job took a sip of whiskey and glared down the driveway. He felt as if the barren tree branches lining down the cobblestone path were pointing at him from their deathbeds.

“Drinking already?” Caren emerged from the pool house, holding a glass of iced tea. His wife’s hazelnut hair flowed down the contours of her back, tan skin contrasting with her teal, two-piece bathing suit.

“I’ll spend my afternoon the way I want to.”

“Not with your daughter?” Caren replied. Before Job could answer she continued, “You promised you’d spend more quality time with her.”

“I’ll read her a bedtime story tonight.”

“Christ, Job, she’s not 3 years old anymore.”

Job sipped his drink. “What do you want me to do, play Barbie dolls with her?”

“She doesn’t play Barbie anymore.”

“Of course not.” Job kept at it, “Why don’t we all dress up and throw a sparkling beauty pageant then? The dog can judge the winner.”

“Can’t you at least pretend to have fun with your daughter?” Caren stared at him, daring him to take another sip. “Just once?”

She turned away and shouted at the pool, “Come on, Hope. Out of the pool. Almost dinner time.”

Hope swung open the pool gate and ran across the driveway, her wet feet trickling traces of water into the cobblestone cracks. The child’s skin was brown from tanning with her mother by the pool all summer. Job noticed Caren had dressed their daughter in a teal bikini identical to the one she was wearing. Hope’s natural hair color was dirty blonde like his—several months ago she begged and begged to have it dyed hazelnut. Job had argued for weeks that she was too young, but on Hope’s 10th birthday Caren surprised their daughter by taking her to the salon while he was at work. He remembered how Hope couldn’t stop brushing, curling, and modeling her new hair in front of his wife’s handheld mirror. That evening, Caren asked him over and over “Doesn’t she look so pretty, Job?”

The girl lunged between them and thrust her arms around her mother’s waist, out of breath.

“Mom, look how wrinkled my fingers are.” Hope backed away from her parents and shoved out her palms.

“That’s from swimming for too long, honey,” Caren responded.

“Then I’m never getting in that pool again.”

Hope glanced up at Job. She turned to face him slowly, almost robotically. At that moment Job imagined the girl as some miraculous feat of engineering—white eyes powered on and beaming with electricity. He felt as if she were scanning his body from head to toe, memorizing each wrinkle of his forehead, the sharp edges of his jawline, the shadows sinking into his cheekbones. His daughter was a machine hardwired to learn who he was, but every time Hope addressed him she transmitted a frequency he struggled to adjust to.

“Will you watch American Idol with us tonight, Daddy?”

“Not tonight. I think I’ll read in the study.”

“With the Kindle Mommy and I bought for you?”

“No, paperback. I prefer writing line notes.” Caren glared at Job.

“Daddy’s no fun, darling,” Caren said. “Let’s go inside, we’ll make brownies for dessert tonight.” She grabbed Hope’s wrist and led her into the house, closing the door behind them.

From the living room, Job could hear his wife and daughter laughing in the kitchen—he could smell the brownies baking in the oven. Instead of joining them he stood at the liquor cabinet and topped himself off another whiskey on the rocks. He watched the sour mash dissolve the edges off amber-flushed ice cubes, then glanced down at Lex. The dog was sleeping on the rug next to two mahogany leather couches and a cherry-wood coffee table, exhausted from swimming. Caren made Lex stay in the garage every night because the dog would chew and scrape the living room furniture with his claws. Job sipped his drink and grinned at the thought of letting Lex sleep in the house after Caren went to sleep, and how the next morning he’d praise the dog with treats for chewing up and destroying all the furniture in the house.

Job’s attention shifted to the golden retriever’s paws and limbs. They were twitching. Brain signals were sparking dreams down the animal’s nerve-endings, causing its legs to convulse wildly. He hoped Lex was dreaming about digging his nails so deep into those mahogany couches he’d rip out the yellow foam and metal springs. Or that his jagged teeth would clamp so tight around the coffee table’s legs he’d break them off in his mouth like an old bone or some chew toy. Job wondered if dogs had recurring dreams like he did, and thought about how fortunate animals are for being unable to distinguish dreams from reality. Lex could ruin every piece of furniture in the world whenever he went to sleep and upon waking up, he’d never realize none of it actually happened. Job downed his whiskey and slammed it on the windowsill. He looked up at their 64-inch plasma screen TV, powered off and mounted on the back wall—a fabulous, grand portrait of nothing.


At dinner that night Job couldn’t decide if he was eating in his own dining room or inside the pages of a Better Homes and Gardens magazine. He glanced up at the crystal chandelier glimmering down on his wife’s stainless steel silverware collection. Caren had carefully laid the utensils atop ecru linens garnishing an antique, oak wood table. Abstract paintings decorated burgundy walls, glowing softly from the dim lighting. After serving Hope a thin slice of pot-roast at the head of the table, Caren placed the dish between two crimson colored candles. Job poured a glass of Cabernet from the wine decanter at the opposite end. He took a sip and stared at the three empty, gold-rimmed plates set around them.

“Why didn’t you serve our guests?” He pointed his fork at the plates and unoccupied chairs.

“They’re displays, Job. Why don’t you serve yourself some roast?”

“I can’t reach from over here,” Job grinned and took a sip of wine. “If only we had guests to help pass the meal around.”

Caren glared at him across the narrow length of the table.

“Anyone want some brownies?” Hope asked. She grabbed the glass pan and tried cutting the dessert into perfect squares.

“Why didn’t we use the china tonight?” asked Job.

“China’s only for special occasions,” said Caren, picking up her silverware.

“What could be more special than this quality time with my wife and daughter?” Job smiled, “Is the pool only for special occasions, too?”

“No. We were at the pool all day.” said Caren. She cut her knife into the meat while Lex whined outside the closed dining room door.

“I hate swimming in that pool,” said Hope, forking out crumbling brownies, “It gives me wrinkles.”

“Exactly,” Job responded, pointing his knife at Caren. “I hate swimming, you hate swimming, now Hope hates swimming.” He took another sip of wine. “Yet we own the most expensive pool in the neighborhood.”

Caren jolted out of her chair, its legs screeching against the wood floor.

“Come on, Hope. Let’s eat in the living room. Our show starts in half an hour.” She snatched up their dishes and Hope lifted the pan of brownies off the table. Caren balanced their meals on her forearm as she swung open the dining room door with her free hand. Lex burst through the opening, knocking into Caren and causing the plates to slide off her arm into midair. In a golden flash the dog leapt onto Hope’s shoulders, licking her face as the dessert pan slipped out of the girl’s fingers. The dishes shattered to pieces as roast, green beans, mashed potatoes, and brownies spilled across the hardwood floor.

“Dammit!” Caren screamed. Hope began to whimper. Tears slid down her face as Lex licked the floor clean of meat juice and chocolate icing.

“At least Lex still swims in the pool,” said Job.

Caren helped Hope through the door and whipped around toward Job. She shook her head and slammed the door in his face—somehow wishing it would rip off the hinges and splinter him through the chest.

Job smiled as Lex trotted over to his side, tongue rolled out and panting.

“Hear that boy? We bought a $20,000 pool just for you.” He scratched the dog behind its ears and gulped down the last drops of his Cabernet.


That night Job couldn’t sleep. Shut away in the guest bedroom, sweat seeped out of his pores, dampening the oversized pillows and covers as the recurring dream revisited him. Every night he stared into the black abyss of a spiraling corridor covered with his kitchen’s electric blue wallpaper. He’d walk into darkness for miles as echoes of Hope’s laughter and pool splashes reverberated down the narrow hallway before fading into silence. That’s when the oak wood doors would melt into the walls. Someone—or something—would knock from the other side but he had learned never to open them, and to awake as soon as they appeared.

So every half hour his body sprung up from the mattress, short of breath and gripping white bed sheets as he examined the closed guest room door. This time he wiped the sweat off his brow, exhaled, and switched on the bedside lamp. He opened the nightstand drawer and rummaged his fingers through it before pulling out an orange prescription bottle labeled “Eszopiclone,” Lunesta sleeping pills. He popped open the cap and poured two OxyContin tablets onto his palm. The bottle was now empty. Job tossed the pills into his mouth and swallowed them down with a glass of water on the nightstand.

Instead of sleeping, he got out of bed and creaked open the guest room door. And before he knew it, he was standing in the doorway of his kitchen, staring at the thin, silver-blue lines slashing down the walls like steep staircases. He thought of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and lightly traced his index finger up one of the wiry lines. He told himself the wallpaper in his dream was different—an illusion sculpted by his subconscious, which may as well be someone else’s conscious altogether. Job the doctor, the husband, the father was an iceberg at the surface; what lurked below was a separate individual whose intimacies should be ignored. Like a stranger he passes on the street, or perhaps a patient whom he prescribes pills once a month.

Suddenly, he found himself standing outside the house at the edge of the pool, gazing at the water’s turquoise surface, smooth as an arctic glacier. The underwater lights illuminated its depths into a palette of sprawling blues, while the surrounding yard was black beneath the blanket of a moonless sky. As if the pool was filled with not only water but light. A distant star sewing a blue thread into a dark hemisphere composed of dead air and nothing else for as far as Job could see.

He tore off his shirt and dove into the pool, piercing a hole through the fragile surface. He thrust his cupped hands through the liquid and imagined himself slicing apart each molecule with his fingernails. He kicked at the water until it surged white, plunging his legs into the depths like a waterfall’s torrent pounding into a lake. While swimming, he generated his own currents with each successive stroke, shoving his feet off the walls until jagged rapids collided, shattering like liquid glass on the poolside. Above the surface, the violent thrashing of waves bothered him. He submerged to escape, and the silence made him regret he’d ever run out of breath. Underwater, he could exhale all the air he inhaled above the surface. He stopped. Floating six feet beneath the molecular boundary dividing two worlds, he wondered why the most habitable one was uninhabitable. He wrapped his arms around his knees and sank to the bottom of the pool. His lungs deflated and pockets of carbon dioxide desperately scrambled toward the liquid ceiling as if committing suicide, or seeking liberation. Job followed them, legs propelling his body off the porcelain pool base until he burst to the surface.

“What the hell are you doing?”

Job brushed the wet hair from his eyes and gazed up at Caren. She stood at the pool gate, dressed in a light-pink nightgown.

“Thought I’d go for a midnight swim,” said Job, breathing heavily as he drifted to the shallow end.

“Midnight?” Caren rubbed her eyelids. “Christ, Job. It’s 2:30 in the morning, you have work in five and a half hours.”

“That late already?” A soft wake trailed behind him. “Must’ve lost track of time.”

“The dog started barking in the garage,” said Caren. Her eyes locked onto the pool’s rippled surface. “I finally heard him when I took my earplugs out to get some water.”

“Is that so?” Job waded neck-deep in the water.

“Then I noticed all the doors in the house were open.” She covered her face with her hands. “Even the front door. I ran to the guest room and you were gone.” Her voice choked between sobs. “I was so scared Job. I thought we were getting robbed—that Hope was getting kidnapped.”

Caren slumped against the gate and slid down the iron rails. She buried her head between her legs and wept, tear drops mixing with chlorine on the wet deck tiles. Job could have thought she was freezing the way her body seemed to shiver and how each facial pigment burned a varying shade of red. Somehow it reminded him of when they lived in an unfurnished, one bedroom apartment in South Chicago. Before he earned his MD. Before Hope. Back when they shared nothing but a king-sized mattress and a 10-inch, box-shaped television monitor—cracked screen, no cable. Those mornings he’d have his arm around her, pointing the remote at that static square, flipping between infomercials and local news until she’d wake up, smiling, on his shoulder. She’d make him coffee and organize his MCAT papers while he made her laugh with his impersonations of Billy Mays and those clueless, deadpan news anchors.

Job emerged from the shallow end, sloshing up the pool steps. He gripped the silver railing as warm water wrapped around his legs, pulling at his ankles while the night air chilled his soaked skin. He stepped out and walked over to Caren, body dripping as he helped her off the ground.

“No more late-night swims,” Job said.

“Promise?” She released and wiped her nose.

“Absolutely,” Job grinned, “I hate swimming.”

Caren stared at the water’s coarse surface. Thousands of blue and turquoise ripples were blinking at her as if something in the pool had been awoken.


After work the next day, Job sealed the pool with a winter tarp. Over the following weeks he joined Caren and Hope to watch their favorite television shows in the living room. He’d tell them American Idol contestants lip-synced, The Bachelor was scripted, and the Golden Globes were rigged. When he grew weary of his own commentary, he read from his Kindle and wrote line notes in a journal Caren supplied him. Every night he tucked Hope in bed and read her chapters from the Vampire Diaries—Caren’s suggestion—until she dozed off. He moved back into the master bedroom and always made sure to kiss Caren goodnight before going to sleep. Throughout all of this, he limited himself to one drink a night. But he kept having the recurring nightmare, so he had a colleague write him another prescription for OxyContin.


After returning from the pharmacy, Job pulled his Chevy Tahoe into the garage, yanked off the ignition, and clicked the button to close the steel garage door. He sank into the leather seat and stared at the gray, insulated walls surrounding his vehicle. Soundless. His eyes shifted to the silver keys dangling in the ignition, and he wondered what carbon monoxide tasted like—that is if it wasn’t tasteless. He imagined it smelling like strawberry anesthesia, and how it would resemble cigarette smoke lingering in the air of some bar. He glanced down at the shining, plastic Walgreens bag lying in the passenger seat. It made him wonder if carbon monoxide produced a high like OxyContin, or even alcohol, when the fumes filtered into someone’s lungs. A euphoria that would quench his sober, dried-out organs, which he felt were flaking off like dead brown leaves buried beneath a skin of white frost. Something to lubricate his muscles and bones, which moved like rusted gears grinding metal against metal. Only this time it would last forever. It’d be like drowning, as if the garage were a pool. Similar measurements, water replaced with gas. No more dreams. No more irony of having to take painkillers to tuck his daughter in bed and kiss his wife goodnight. His hands trembled as he reached for the starter key, moistening the black, plastic Chevy logo as he pressed it firmly between his thumb and forefinger. One twist. He closed his eyes.


Job’s eyes flashed open. Hope stood smiling at the opened kitchen door.

“Are you trying to take a nap in the car, mister?” She placed a hand squarely on her hip, just like her mother. Job slid the keys out of the ignition and grabbed the Walgreens bag.

“Unlike you, I couldn’t get any sleep last night,” said Job. Hope stared up at her father as he got out of the car and shut the door. He forced a smile, “Too many nightmares from reading you The Vampire’s Diary.”

“It’s Vampire Diaries scaredy-cat.” She laughed, hopped off the door step, and hugged him. Her head rested just above his waist, inches away from the bottle of pills rolling around in the plastic bag.

“What you got here?” Hope snatched the bag from Job’s fingers and ran to the corner of the garage. She pulled it open and peered down at the fluorescent orange prescription bottle.

Job took a deep breath. “Those are Daddy’s sleeping pills.”

“Why do you have to take pills to sleep?” she asked.

“Because Daddy gets restless from working all day.” Job approached his daughter, arm extended. She pulled the bag to her chest.

“Shouldn’t that make you tired instead?”

“Not always—”

“Can I try sleeping pills?” She interrupted him.

“No, Hope. Pills are for adults only.” Job tried to speak in an authoritative, fatherly tone.

“Why are they only for adults?” Hope asked again. Job shook his head, cornered the girl, and reached for the bag. Her eyes darted to the floor and she handed it to him.

“Because adults need them.” Job folded the bag into a wad and stuffed it in his pocket.

“You know who you remind me of Daddy?”

“Who’s that, sweetheart?” He reached out and stroked his fingers through her soft, hazelnut hair. He examined each follicle, trying to remember how his daughter looked when she was dirty blonde.

“A combination of the Grinch and Simon from the X-Factor,” she said. His daughter smiled so hard he thought her cheeks could touch her eyebrows. Job grinned.

“At least they have reasonable taste,” he said.

“Whatever, Simon.” Her face froze briefly before beaming up again. “Aren’t you excited about America’s Got Talent tonight?” Job looked down into Hope’s eyes. He sometimes forgot they were dark-brown, just like his.

“Yea,” he responded, “I am.”


Later that evening, Caren set the dining room with her typical choice of candles, linens, and favorite assortment of silverware. Only this time she decorated the table with her pearl china. It was the season finale of America’s Got Talent, which qualified as a special occasion for the Ridley family. Caren poured herself a rare glass of Chardonnay at the head of the table, while Job dined across from Hope instead of his usual seat at the far end. Caren carefully measured the proper portions of turkey, gravy, stuffing, and asparagus before scooping them onto the decorative dishes and serving them to her daughter and husband.

“Cabernet, Job?” Caren asked, leaning over the table to hand him his meal.

“Sure, why not,” he replied, grabbing the pearl plate. “No work tomorrow, plus it’s the last supper before our favorite show ends.”

Caren smiled and walked out of the room, stepping over a lounging Lex to pour her husband a glass of red. She grabbed the wine bottle and paused. The dog had been sleeping a lot lately. She wondered if Lex was getting sick or needed to see a vet.

“Your favorite show?” Caren called from the kitchen. “You made fun of the contestants all season.”

“True, but I’ve learned to sympathize with them,” he said, smiling at Hope. “Especially that juggling mime, what the hell’s he gonna do with his life if he gets eliminated?”

“Language dear—”

“What about the dancing ninjas, Daddy?” Hope interrupted her mother.

“I’m sure some spoiled teenage girl with an MTV show will hire them for her birthday,” he winked at Hope as Caren handed him the wine. “But employment rates for mimes have to be plummeting in this economy.”

“At least he juggles,” responded Hope.

“Cheers to that,” said Job. The three lifted their glasses over the center of the table and touched the rims together. Lex’s ears perked up at the noise. The dog’s eyes opened. They were bloodshot and he started to growl.


That night in Job’s dream the electric blue corridor burned fiery red. Black smoke flooded into his nostrils, mouth, and lungs, suffocating him as if the dark abyss broke down a levee and splashed down the hallway in an ashy deluge. Orange embers melted the blue bolts off the walls, revealing glimpses of scorched, wooden beams stretching across infinite nothing—the foundation of his dream cracking and splintering under quick whips of fire. The entire corridor turned like a cylinder rolling down a concrete slope, gaining speed, spinning faster. The hallway seemed to breathe—expanding, contracting, hyperventilating like Job, who collapsed on the stone tiles gasping for air. An oak wood door smashed on the ground in front of him, emitting a shockwave that brought the red carrousel of flames to a halt. Someone—definitely someone—pounded from behind the closed door. Job wrapped his fingers around the door knob and pulled his body off the floor. He knew he’d die, asphyxiate, if he didn’t open it and the dream stopped.

Just an oak wood door and nothing else. A silent fixture standing in the limitless space of his skull. Job was deep inside his own brain, wading through the ocean of his mind—calm water he’d walk on every day before drifting to sleep, where the undertow always dragged him into the depths. The electrical surging of his neurons calmed to a gentle pulse. In that instant, the door became who he was, a single image created by billions of intricate cells not so different from stars lighting up a universe. He took a deep breath, twisted the knob, and opened it.


In the morning, still half-asleep, Caren thought about how lovely her husband had been the night before. The way he clapped for the dancing ninja’s—Hope’s favorite—while secretly pulling for the juggling mime. Not to mention his playful sarcasm at dinner. It seemed to erase the wrinkles from his forehead and rejuvenate his graying hair to the bright blonde that caught her eye so many years ago. She smiled in her almost-awakened state when she thought about his ‘Job’s Got Talent’ rendition. He had wrapped a black T-shirt around his head to resemble a ninja, and then dropped half a dozen airborne tennis balls while trying to juggle. She had never seen Hope laugh so hard before.

Eyes closed, she rolled to her side and reached out her hand to graze his warm body. Except he wasn’t there. She opened her eyes and saw only the white, ruffled sheets and gold covers hanging over the bedside. Pillows were strewn across the carpet. She removed her ear plugs and grabbed her phone. The screen flashed 9:02am. She slid out of bed, put on her pink-nightgown, and noticed Job’s orange prescription bottle of Lunesta lying open on the floor. Round, light-green pills were scattered across the ground. She bent over, picked one up, and read two letters etched in the circular tablet. O C. She dropped it instantly and covered her face with her hands. Tears watered over her eyes. Outside, Lex was barking. Her blurred vision shot over to the window and she saw the dog whining at the crystal blue corner of the pool. Someone had removed the tarp.

Caren swung open the front door and stood frozen in the driveway, all quiet except for a gentle breeze blowing through the wind chimes. Eyes wide, jaw hanging open, she stared at the pool. The black gate was flattened, rammed to the ground and twisting different directions like curled fingers. Both mahogany leather couches were submerged in the pool as if they were jagged rocks jutting out of a shallow shore. Their soaked, brown armrests floated inches above the surface along with the oak wood dining table, which bobbed like driftwood in the middle of the ocean. Amid the pieces of furniture towered the back wheels of the Chevy Tahoe. Its silver rims gleaming under the morning sun, entire vehicle vertical and sinking underwater except for the tail lights, backdoor, and license plate. From Caren’s perspective, it looked like a ruined grand vessel, its steel wreckage plummeting into the sea, the hull shredded to shrapnel upon colliding into an uncharted iceberg. Surrounding the destroyed SUV were wooden furniture legs from a dozen chairs and the cherry-wood coffee table, poking out of the water like thin crosses pegged in a graveyard.

She sprinted over the mangled gate and ran to the edge of the pool. The plasma screen TV was crushed under the front tires of the car, power cord floating over a white web of cracks spreading across the black LCD display. The car windows were shattered to pieces, shards of glass mixing with the crystal chandelier that had sunk to the bottom of the deep end. Her eyes darted to the driver side door, dreading the thought of Job’s gray, lifeless body fastened in a seatbelt or floating between the car-seats.

“I’m sorry Caren.”

Numbness settled into her stomach. Her veins pumped ice as she turned around to face the voice of her husband. Job walked out of the garage, drenching wet and wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. Lex twirled around his legs, sniffing at his waist as the man approached the pool and his wife.

“I guess you saw the pills,” he continued.

The wind dragged dead leaves across the driveway between them.

“I’ve been taking them on and off for a couple months now.”

“Why?” she asked. She cupped her hands over her lips.

Job nodded to the pool.

Caren squeezed her eyelids shut, so hard they started to hurt. Job moved closer to her.

“What made you get out?” she asked without looking, “Why didn’t you just stay in that car and die?”

Job stepped over the ruined gate and stopped inches away from her. He put his wet hand on her dry shoulder. Caren swatted it away and stared into his dark-brown eyes.

“Don’t touch me.”

She left him. Turned away from him and the pool. She walked across the cobblestone driveway and went inside the house.

Job stared at the pool and its wreckage. He stood motionless as Lex licked his fingertips. Dead tree branches swayed to the wind chimes.

He heard the door slam shut. Footsteps approached him from behind and then ceased. Several feet to his left, Caren thrust down a cardboard box filled with her pearl china, candles, linens, and silverware collection.

“Are you and Hope leaving me?” he asked.

Caren opened the box and pulled out a pearl dish. She held it close to her face and gazed at her circular, faded reflection. Then she launched the plate into the pool, shattering it to pieces against the sinking vehicle. Its fragments drifted down to the broken chandelier at the bottom of the pool.

Upstairs, peering out her bedroom window, Hope watched her parents throw plate after plate after plate into the pool. When they were all out of dishes, they snapped the candles in half, ripped the linens to shreds, and dumped them all into the deep end along with the silverware. Her mother and father faced each other from opposite ends of the pool, all the stuff between them soaked, ruined, under water. When the ripples finally calmed at the surface, Hope thought the only things left in the house would be her parent’s king-sized mattress and that old, dusty television monitor hidden away somewhere in the attic. SEP Logo Reverse


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