Mixed Doubles

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By Daisy Alioto

We meet the couple at a farmer’s market. He asks you about your needlepoint belt, the one with the ducks on it. You inherited it from your father. He tells you he had the same one in college, everyone in his fraternity did. “What a coincidence,” she says, coming up behind you with a bag of apples. I smile at her and introduce us.

You think the invitation to play tennis is a little odd. We’ve been alone for a long time, too young to have so few friends, but that’s just the way we live now. “Remember The Comfort of Strangers?” you ask. I look down at the hole in the floor of our truck and think about a photo I saw in National Geographic of the last refugees leaving Venice. The children smiled and waved from the side of a repurposed Carnival cruise ship. Their parents stood behind in the shadows. The caption of the photo explained that many older people refused to leave the sinking city. They broke away from their families and jumped into the lagoon, slipping down into the silt-filled undertow. You used the magazine to start a fire in the fireplace last winter.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I say. We pull up in front of their house. I count ten windows across the front. The lawn is long and the tennis court is cracked. They don’t seem to notice. It is hard to find help these days unless you are willing to house them, he explains, and usually, they want to bring their extended families. The locals stick to selling produce and other assorted items. We are locals, I guess.

The game is lively. You feel your serve coming back. Memories of boarding school in the wake of your father’s death. Scholarships to spend the summer on campus and row. Sex with the coach’s daughter (that was me). He asks if we want to stay for dinner, start a fire, and roast some sausages. You say “sounds great,” your face flushed with exercise. I can tell that they won you over. I step inside to help her carry stuff out of their giant refrigerator. I see lots of white marble, lots of dust, a Turner painting. Imitation or original? I think. The diamond on her finger says original. Your eyebrows say I want.

After dinner, they want to show us something on the property. I ask if we should put the fire out first. “No need,” she says, pulling out her phone. The app is called Mother’s Little Helper. I recognize the logo from boxed meals with my dad after the divorce: a gloved hand with a red nose. A face appears on the screen. A blonde woman sitting in front of a window. I see palm trees, the sky an unnatural salmon. “Just watch the fire,” he tells her, jiggling the smartwatch on his wrist. It will vibrate if we need to come back.

“The other day one of them taught me a recipe. Tuna casserole,” she says. She says it with pride like it was coq au vin. They haven’t had help for two years now, but she’s still getting the hang of doing things herself. You ask what he used to do (manage other people’s money).

We lived in the city, too, but chose the wrong careers. Always middling, never quite knowing how to get comfortable-comfortable. There was money around but we couldn’t find it.

They show us the edge of their property. The body of an Italian sports car — another project. She rolls her eyes and waves her hand at an invisible web. You accidentally walk into a real one, spitting to get the fibers off your lips. Bats fly overhead. When we get back to the fire, the window behind the woman has turned red. The palm trees are silhouettes. I guess it’s sundown where she is.

Daisy Alioto‘s creative nonfiction has appeared in Longreads, Paris Review and The Cut and her poetry has been published by Unbroken Journal and Triangle House Review. She is also a journalist with bylines at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and The New Republic.

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