Excerpt

Likes

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

September 1, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's new novel, Likes. Bynum is the author of the novels Ms. Hempel Chronicles, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and Madeleine Is Sleeping, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Best American Short Stories, and the O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Los Angeles.

Ever since the California economy collapsed, people have been coming to our street at night and going through the trash. That sounds worse than it is—I guess if it’s recyclable then it’s not really trash. They sort through the blue bins that during the day were wheeled out to the curb, along with the black and green bins, by the gardening crews. The people who come at night are like a crew too. You used to see just solo collectors but over the past few months they seem to have joined forces. They’re efficient, with one of them holding on to the grocery cart and organizing things while the others pull out bottles from the bins. At first they carried flashlights but lately they’ve taken to wearing headlamps.

My neighbor Betti isn’t happy about the situation. She stands on my porch, waving her extra-sharp tweezers in the air. She came over with a splinter lodged under her fingernail, and after a little poking around I got it out. It’s the middle of the afternoon but she knew I’d be home. Now that the splinter is gone she’s free to be irritated by other things, and my trash cans, lined up at the curb, have started her thinking about the recyclers. “I moved here to get away from this shit,” she says, and even though she talks in kind of an ugly way, Betti is one of the most beautiful people I know.

She has arching eyebrows and the smallest possible pores, flat red lipstick that never rubs off on her teeth or crumbs up in the corners of her mouth. Shining dark hair smoothed back in a high ponytail. Toreador pants and little ballet flats so silvery and supple I hate to see them touching the sidewalk. The math still shocks me: she must be at least 45 years old! You’d never know it, because her skin is amazing.

I used to look at her picture in magazines, ages ago, when I was a regular girl going to middle school and she was a popular person going to gay dance clubs in New York. Her friends were graffiti artists, punk bands, drag queens, rappers, gallery owners: everything was all mixed up then, in a good way. I used to read those magazines monkishly, over and over again, late into the night, as if they contained a key to unlocking a secret world of happiness. And maybe they did; maybe they taught me something important. Or maybe it was just a way to kill time until I could grow up, get a job, find a partner, buy a house—

A house four doors down from Betti Pérez! The houses are small but they cost a lot. What I mean is that they look sweet on the outside but there may be comedians or talent managers or people like Betti living inside.

“The other morning I’m standing in my kitchen,” she says, “still in my nightie, trying to get the toaster to work, and I hear something funny. A rustling-around kind of sound, like a rat makes? And I look over and there’s a little man right outside my pantry window! Ten feet away from me! Digging away in there, helping himself.”

I used to read those magazines, over and over again, late into the night, as if they contained a key to unlocking a secret world of happiness.

“You should get your gate fixed,” I tell her.

She raises her black eyebrows at me. “Don’t make this my fault.”

“Secure the perimeter, that’s what Officer Cordova said.”

“I’m trying to tell you a story.”

“Didn’t I give you Manuel’s number?”

Betti scowls. “I’m going to get mad if you don’t stop busting my balls.”

A wave of happiness rushes over me. Here I am, fussing at Betti Pérez, and here she is, fussing back at me. I want to reach through time and squeeze the arm of my 13-year-old self: awake at one in the morning, sucking on Altoids, studying the captions in PAPER magazine . . .

Betti doesn’t know that I liked her back when she was an underground queen of New York. She probably thinks I’ve seen her on the HBO show, or remember her from that recurring role on the one about the lawyers. The fact is, I don’t watch too much TV, but there’s no way I can say that around here without sounding ungracious.

“I wasn’t wearing any panties,” she says, suddenly thoughtful. “It made me feel sort of frozen in place. Like one of those bad dreams where you can’t move your legs and you open your mouth but no words come out. The only thing I could do was grab my phone off the counter and shake it at him.”

I tell her that the next time she should grab her phone and call Officer Cordova.

“The point is, they’re not waiting for trash day anymore,” Betti says. “The point is, they’re encroaching.”

On cue, my dog starts barking crazily from behind the picture window, as if he knows exactly what encroaching means. He’s a big dog and his bark is loud, fast, and desperate. Though I’ve been living with him for over a year, his thinking remains mostly mysterious to me. I apologize to Betti and we look at my dog making a steady stream of sound, the wetness from his mouth spraying onto the glass. “Quiet, Hank,” I say, but he ignores me, which isn’t unusual for us. Betti says she has to leave. She’s informed me before that when he barks, it’s clearly audible at her house, even with her music on.

“Tell Amy I’m still waiting to hear from her,” she says, leveling the tweezers at me, then she pivots on her soft silver shoes and walks away.

When I go back inside, my dog is lying attentively on the carpet, cheerful and calm, as if he truly has no idea who that maniac was, barking his head off.

I should say our dog, not my dog, because Amy and I adopted him together. We biked to the farmers’ market one morning to buy some strawberries and salt and eggs and came home instead with a dog; they told us he was a shepherd mix but I suspect he’s more mix than shepherd. The various rescue organizations are clever and set up shop all along the sidewalks on Sundays, so you can’t buy a muffin or pick up your prescription without encountering at least a dozen beautiful animals needing homes. It’s like running the gauntlet except instead of being pummeled with sticks you’re pierced by the sad eyes of kittens and stray dogs, and the less expressive eyes of rabbits. There are always a couple of weeping children too, who want the animals but can’t have them.

I wanted a child but couldn’t have one, which is partly why we got the dog. Or maybe the dog is our warm-up to having a child—this is how Amy, who is plucky about nearly everything, looks at it. I’m the defeatist. I think the game’s already over. I think of Hank as a consolation prize, a loud and needy consolation prize who sheds huge amounts of hair, but that could just be the hCG. Now that we’ve started on injectable cycles I’ve been feeling blue. “Get out,” Amy tells me. “Take Hank for a hike.” Which always seems like a reasonable idea until I try to execute it. Amy says that the problem is my car; if I had a bigger car it wouldn’t be such a major production. She’s been researching hybrid SUVs and threatening to take me on a test drive.

As for me, I don’t want a bigger car. I miss the days when we didn’t even own a car. I mean before we came to California, when we were still working crummy day jobs and living in New York. It used to take me 12 minutes to walk to the C/E station from our apartment on DeKalb. I used to bury my nose in my scarf and finger the smooth, flimsy MetroCard in my coat pocket and think about the magazine I would read once I got a seat on the train. Usually I would read for only a few minutes before I fell asleep, lulled by the shaking train and the warmth of other people around me reading and sleeping. If I had to get to work early, I would walk the extra distance and take the D/Q line from Flatbush Avenue, just because I looked forward to the moment when the train emerged from the darkness to make its slow, rattling way across the bridge and the morning light would pour slantwise through the girders and spill over all of us sleeping inside the subway car, our hands folded and our heads nodding, me cracking my eyes upon for only a second to see this and love this and then go back to dreaming.

*

The next time Betti appears on my porch she is holding a blue ice pack on top of her head. The rest of her is perfect: jersey wrap dress in navy, big gold hoops, long gold chains looped around her neck. She says that she needs me to see if she is bleeding.

“Should I take you to the hospital?” I ask, trying to keep Hank from wriggling past me and out the door. With all my blood tests I go to the hospital like a regular. “I know a great place to park.”

“It’s only a bump,” Betti says. “I bumped my head like an idiot. You better get some hydrogen peroxide, just in case.” I find it in the downstairs bathroom along with a little plastic packet containing two quilted cotton pads that Amy must have taken from a fancy hotel. I think that Betti will like how neat and individually wrapped they are. She sits on the lower step of the porch and I sit on the higher one, leafing through her hair. She’s released it from its ponytail. “I don’t even want to tell you how it happened. It’s stupid, fucking stupid, and it’s going to make me mad all over again.”

But of course she tells me. She tells me that the little man came back. He startled her when she was wiping something off the kitchen floor and she stood up too quickly and banged her head on the corner of an open cabinet door.

“Really hard,” she says. “I could practically see the stars and tweetie birds flying around. I did that concussion test, the one where you close your eyes and touch your nose. I’m okay in that regard.”

I can’t find a scratch anywhere. Just pale, clean scalp and the dark roots of her hair. I can see where she hit it, because the skin is pinker there and cold from the ice. But no blood. I split open the plastic packet and unscrew the cap from the bottle of peroxide. When I touch the wet pad to her head, Betti sighs with pleasure.

“Oh boy. I feel like I’m in the nurse’s office at school. She used to go through our hair checking for lice. Every week, with her rubber gloves and a cotton ball soaked in alcohol.” She laughs. “See? I told you I’m from the ghetto. That’s what Catholic school was like in the Bronx. Back in the day!”

I love her so much. I don’t even bother to ask if she has Manuel’s number. I’m just going to call him myself, like I did when her sprinklers were flooding the sidewalk. Done: no more bottle-pickers breezing through her broken gate.

“Is it bad?” she asks soberly. “Is it deep?”

“It’s nothing to worry about,” I say, and smooth my hands over her shining hair.

“Thank you, bunny,” she says, placing her ice pack back on her head, but now at an angle, like a beret. “It’s hard living alone sometimes.”

I know how she feels, even though technically I’m not living alone. Betti and her husband, Rick, split up six months ago. He’s a contractor, with a show on a cable network where he rescues people from home improvement projects that have gone terribly wrong. It’s called DIY Undone. It’s funny because DIY used to mean something positive to me; it meant publishing your own magazine or starting a record label or making documentaries on borrowed cameras about homeless LGBT teenagers living in Morningside Park. Now DIY just makes me think of Rick and the look of relief on homeowners’ faces when he pulls up in his vintage pickup truck. On the show he is heroically competent but I’ve noticed that a lot of things at Betti’s house don’t work as well as they should, like the gate. He redid the whole house himself as a wedding present to her. “You want to come inside?” I ask. “Everything’s a mess.”

I love her so much. I don’t even bother to ask if she has Manuel’s number. I’m just going to call him myself.

Betti stands and studies Hank through the picture window, as if calculating how many dog hairs are going to attach themselves to her navy dress. “I’ve got a meeting. A big one, maybe. In Santa Monica.”

I knock my knuckles against the nearest porch column. “I think this is wood.”

“Speaking of which,” Betti says, “has Amy said anything to you? I feel like I’m stalking her.”

“Not yet.” I wasn’t expecting this, and now I have to pretend to sort through the contents of our mailbox. “She’s super busy. Even more than normal. She hasn’t even had time to do her laundry.” Which doesn’t sound very convincing, so I hear myself adding: “There’s a huge pile of unwashed clothes stinking up the back of the closet.”

I don’t know why I offer this detail; why, in my panicked effort to make another person feel better, I always end up exposing Amy in an exaggerated and totally unnecessary way. The sickness I feel afterward somehow doesn’t stop me from witlessly doing it again. Her adult ADD, her iffy eating habits, her dirty clothes . . .

Betti looks away, embarrassed—for Amy? for me? “She’s seen my work, right?” Oh! For herself. It makes me want to hold her hand. “You think I should tell my agent to send over some DVDs?”

“No! Don’t. We’re really big fans.” My voice gets a little throaty from the relief of finally saying it. And it doesn’t seem wrong in the moment to say we, even though I’m actually just speaking for myself. “We love you. We’ve loved you forever.”

“Seriously?” Betti asks. She smiles, her face opening. Everything about her softens a little. “You guys. You kill me.”

“Like, forever.”

We grin at each other. I want to tell her that she’s the reason I moved to New York.

“So you get why this is such a good idea,” she says, before I have my chance. She removes the ice pack from her head and leans in as if she’s telling me something new. “It’s a no-brainer. It’s my retirement fund.”

For a while she’s been wanting to pitch a kids’ show to Amy, because that’s what Amy makes: half-hour television shows for kids. And that’s how we get to live in this house! To be clear, Amy’s show is not the educational kind, it’s more like the kind that parents complain about, but the writing is smart and these kids are lovely to watch, bright-eyed and funny and quick. Real actors, grown up now, with serious careers, have gotten their start on this kind of show. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not dreck, and Amy turns out to be very talented at it, even though it’s given her sciatica and a sleeping disorder. How does a slightly graying lesbian documentary maker know exactly what eight-to-twelve-year-old girls will enjoy watching while curled up in their beanbags, eating snacks? “It’s my uncanny ability,” Amy likes to say, half joking and half amazed. But we’re just like those girls; we’ve always been interested in teenagers too, so maybe it’s not such a leap after all.

In Betti’s show there’ll be two teenagers—the finicky older brother and the gorgeous, unmanageable sister—and then a couple of younger siblings thrown in for laughs and relatability. Betti’s plan is that one of the little ones will be an adopted kid from Asia or Africa. Or even better, both of them could be adopted! But definitely from different continents. Anyway, four kids at the very least, though she’s open to more. And an uptight, standoffish dad—think Captain von Trapp as a captain of industry—plus probably one more adult for good measure: A Scottish housekeeper with fluffy hair? A snooty building manager? Someone to balance out Betti—because the whole idea is that Betti’s character isn’t really an adult. She’s the wildly inappropriate babysitter.

Former denizen of downtown clubs, former B-girl, former hairdresser, former bad girl from the Bronx, with the accent to boot: guess who’s taking care of the kids! She’s faked her résumé; she has no business doing this; all she’s got is a tube of Chanel lipstick and her street smarts. When they push her, she’ll push back. Sass, life lessons, more sass. Thrift-store shopping, gum snapping, wisecracking, popping and locking. In the pilot she’ll enter the little ones in a citywide dance contest.
It makes sense, I can see that. I can see the appeal. Objectively it’s not sillier or more overcooked than any other show on Amy’s network. But the idea of Betti pausing for a laugh track still makes me more depressed than I can say.
She reminds me that the concept has already been done, which is apparently what makes it such a sure bet now. “That went for six full seasons,” she says, “and ended a decade ago. It’s way overdue for a relaunch.” She hoots to hear herself talking this way. “Jesus Christ! I sound like my fucking manager.”

“He isn’t concerned,” I ask, “about going in a different direction? Because the stuff Amy does, it’s not exactly—”

“My manager! Please. He’ll pimp me out for any old thing.” Betti gives me her ice pack so she can use both of her hands as she’s talking. “And so what if it’s not high art? I did that. I made those movies. I love independent film as much as the next girl. The first film I ever did? It went to Cannes and came this close to winning a Palme d’Or. So what have I got to prove? I like working. I like making money. I’ve got a mother I want to take care of. Is Rick still paying the mortgage on that house? I don’t think so. And most people don’t know this, but HBO residuals are shit. So what this show’s not going to Cannes. You want to criticize me for trying to get my hustle on? Fuck you. Someone’s got to pay my bills.”

I think I must look a little stunned, because Betti touches my arm.

“Oh bunny, I didn’t mean you. It’s just a colorful expression.”

“I know that,” I tell her. “I say it sometimes for emphasis too.”

“You’re funny.” Betti shakes her head and walks down the steps, sending a goodbye wave over her shoulder. “Now all we have to do is come up with a name.” She looks back at me like she’s not sure I’ve been keeping up with her. “For the show!”

It’s two days later when Manuel rings the doorbell. His white truck is in the driveway, its bed stacked with cedar planks. After saying hello, I point down the street. “It’s Betti’s gate,” I remind him, “not ours.”

“Surprise!” He laughs softly. “I’m here for you.” I notice how young he looks with his new haircut, and I notice the pleasant, artificial scent of laundry soap that his shirts always let off at the beginning of the day. If we lived in New York, and I had taken a seat next to him on the subway, I might have fallen asleep on his shoulder.

He keeps patting his front pocket, even though his cell phone isn’t in there. He tells me that he’s going to build a chicken coop in my backyard.

I can’t help repeating it. “A chicken coop? In our yard?”

But he’s already back by his truck, hoisting planks onto his shoulder.

“Is this Amy’s idea?” I call out.

He nods, which is difficult to do with all the wood that he’s balancing. “She wants to give you a surprise.”

“I didn’t think Amy even had your number,” I say pointlessly. I’m still trying to get my bearings. “You talked about where she wants to put it?” I ask as I follow him down the driveway.

Without grunting, he deposits the first load onto the grass. “I think you’ll like it,” he says. When he straightens, he pauses for a moment, then smiles. “The dog is quiet today.”

It’s true. Hank is miraculously silent. Usually he goes bonkers whenever Manuel or any other male sets foot on the porch, or the driveway, or especially when someone dares to venture into the backyard. “He’s getting to know you,” I say brightly, but I am disturbed. His insane barking is what reminds me that Hank has a past, and memories from a time before we knew him. I can’t understand why he is now soundlessly watching us through the glass of the back door.

Manuel says that the coop will be big enough to hold six chickens. “That’s many eggs,” he observes, and I inwardly sicken, and it occurs to me then that neither he nor Amy has any idea what a bad, bad joke this whole urban-agrarian cedarwood surprise is. I gaze at him dumbly as he digs his little dowels into the ground and then uses string to mark off the dimensions of the chicken structure. I know Manuel is just doing what Amy asked him to do, and I know Amy is just trying to keep me balanced and upbeat, but think about it: While she’s out in Burbank making kids’ shows, and the chickens are out in the backyard making eggs, I’ll be in the kitchen making rosemary cookies to bring as a gift to my reproductive endocrinologist. Sometimes, as I’m sanding the cookies with granulated sugar or sticking myself in the stomach with a disposable needle, it’s hard to remember that I used to make other things, and who cares if in the end they never found distribution, I made them. Amy and I made them together.

“Knock knock,” says a voice coming down the driveway, a voice so recognizable that Betti has wondered aloud on occasion why she doesn’t yet have a voice-over career. “What are you kids doing back here? I saw the truck.”

Betti’s shoes are very pointy in the toes and high in the heels, so she can’t step onto the grass to take a closer look at the construction site. “Where the heck do you get the chickens from?” she asks.

“I have no idea.” I sink into a stackable chair left over from our last cookout. “Though I imagine Amy already has somebody working on it.”

I say it so dryly that I surprise myself.

“You be nice!” Betti says, aiming a tapered red fingernail at me. “I finally got a meeting with her. Next Monday, and I’m a fucking nervous wreck, and I couldn’t have done it without you.”

She dips her hand wrist-deep into her purse and delicately shifts things around until her hand reappears, flourishing a business card. “I’m giving you a session with my acupuncturist. He’s going to seriously help you. He says no more cold drinks. No ice cream.” She passes me the card and heads for my back door. “You got to keep everything nice and warm in there. Okay? Like a greenhouse. Don’t move; I’m getting you a cup of hot water.”

To her credit, Betti opens the door only a crack and inches herself through sideways, but Hank is fast and unfathomable, and after all that weird stillness and silence at the back door he now squirms past her and comes hurtling out into the yard. Manuel and I freeze. The last time this happened it was bad; Manuel said afterward that it was okay, it was just the edge of his shirt, an old shirt, but I’m not so sure I believe him. I was straddling Hank and gripping his choke collar and both the dog and I were panting. I don’t think Manuel told me everything in that moment, and I failed to ask him about it again. But today Hank goes right past him, past the cedar planks, past the paloverde tree and the big bank of native grasses, straight down to the fence, where he begins to sniff about with a frantic sort of urgency.

“I was nervous there for a second,” I say, half laughing, ashamed.

“My fault!” Betti calls from behind us. “Everyone all right?” Without comment, Manuel stands formally and adjusts his position so that he can keep his eye on the dog as he works.

I watch Hank patrol the fence, his nose to the ground, snuffling in and around the wood chips. When we first had the plantings installed, we thought Hank was chewing on the leaves and making himself sick. While walking across our new yard, Amy and I would find large puddles of vomit sitting neatly on top of the mulch. We decided we had to keep Hank shut inside, we had to live with his miserable yelping and barking and door-scratching, me more than Amy because I’m the one who’s at home with him, and still we continued to wake up and find the foamy yellow pools scattered among the plantings. This led to escalating passive-aggressive insinuations about who was breaking the rules, and when that got us nowhere, to the reconciliatory writing of an angry letter to the neighbor (not Betti, who’s allergic) about her failure to contain her nauseous cat. Thank God Manuel stopped us before we slipped the letter under her door. “It’s alive,” he told us, and sure enough, there it was on the internet, even yellower than ours, with a name that was gross, funny, sublimely exact: dog vomit slime mold. Truly! It pops up overnight, like magic, spreading spore and discord. But now with the drought we don’t see it anymore.

Betti returns, carrying two steaming cups, and drags over another chair. “Salud,” she says. She taps her mug to mine. “Don’t get excited. I’m way too old. I’m just keeping you company.”

It feels strange to be drinking something hot that doesn’t have any flavor. I wonder if I should offer some to Manuel. I always offer him sodas or lemonade or filtered ice water, and he almost always refuses. He says he keeps a cooler in his truck.

Betti’s talking earnestly again about her show. “The Caregiver. Too heavy, right? And I kind of liked The Giver, but then my manager told me that’s the name of a book the kids all have to read in school.”

“The Sitter?” I ask.

“I like that, I thought of that too. My manager says it sounds like a horror movie franchise. Then I had a dream and the name Sitter City came to me in the dream and I figured that was a sign, that was it, but after a day of loving this name I ultimately realized that it sounds like there are lots of sitters on the show, an entire city of sitters, when in fact it’s only me. I’m the sitter.”

“Sitter in the City—”

“And that was my major breakthrough: Me! Why not embrace it? There’s a great tradition.”

She takes a long, careful sip of her water and looks at me expectantly over the rim of her cup.

I hesitate. “You want to call the show Betti?”

She stomps her right foot, and her pointy heel sinks into the space between the pavers. “How did you know!”

For a moment it’s unclear whether she’s angry or delighted.

“It works, right?” She bends down and extracts her shoe. “It was staring us in the face the whole time. I mean, think about it: Alice, Maude, Rhoda, Phyllis . . .”

“Betti,” I say. “It’s easy to remember.”

“Right? Pretty catchy. I’m so fucking relieved. I mean, it’s the name of my character, Betti Escobedo,” she clarifies modestly, “and even though it’s an ensemble cast, she’s the heart of the show.”

“Betti,” I repeat, and she lets out a sigh.

I look over: She isn’t kidding. She is genuinely relieved. She is in fact awash in relief: eyes closed, head dropped back in her chair, face turned to the sun. All it took was a name? A meeting with Amy, and a name? This is the closest I’ve ever come to seeing Betti in a state of rest. You could even say she looks at peace, though not in a dead way. But the relief does do something strange to Betti’s face.

For the first time I see a trace of looseness there. Tipped back, at rest, it reminds me of what a circus tent might look like from a distance in the split second after the tent poles have been pulled down by the carnies. The tent hasn’t started to sink yet, but you can see that it’s just about to. That last moment of tension before everything gently ripples, then gives way. Now this is a ridiculous comparison for me to make because I’ve never in my life seen such a thing occur, and I don’t even know if they dismantle the tent poles first, or if carnies are the ones to do it, or if that’s even the correct word for people who work behind the scenes at a circus. But it seems easier to imagine a sight I’ve never seen before than it is to notice the slight heaviness under her jaw, or how her foundation lies dustily on top of her skin. Pouching. Crepey. Horrible words! Criminal to even think them in a sentence.

I sip my hot water and try to visualize my warm, humid interiors. I can’t tell if this is an inane or a marvelous thing to be doing. I guess, like Betti’s face, that its integrity depends on the angle you see it from. Because in some lights my life appears grotesque to me. Here I am sitting in the sun, holding a mug and having a chat as if there isn’t a man on his hands and knees just a few yards away from me, being paid to do something I could very well do myself, something I could be doing instead of half listening to the career plans of an aging character actress as we both gaze absently at the manic, aimless behavior of my traumatized rescue dog. What a ludicrous scene! So absurd and rotten. So disgusting that it makes me want to throw up—yes— right there on the mulch.

But the thought of dog vomit slime mold cheers me up a bit. As Manuel said, it’s alive. It’s part of a much bigger system, all of it growing and decomposing and feeding off one another. And sometimes, if I tilt my thinking a little to one side, I feel like I live a magical life and am part of a huge and beautiful system. I think about the chickens I’m going to raise, and the healthy child I’m going to have one day. I think about the people at night with their headlamps and how I’m supporting a struggling economy just by putting out my recycling every week. I think what a blessing it is to be drinking hot water with Betti Pérez, who seems as wonderful to me now as she did 25 years ago, when she was operating the hand-crank elevator at Danceteria.

One of Amy’s favorite phrases to say to me is “Don’t overthink it.” She says it when I get flustered and worked up over something. She said it when we were deciding to buy this house, and when we redid the landscaping, and again when we were standing on the sidewalk, looking at Hank huddled inside a plastic crate. And in most cases, she’s been right. The dog, for instance. He’s crazy and unknowable, but he loves us absolutely. When he’s not acting in an alarming way, he’s a great comfort to be around. It can make me happy simply to watch him, like now. He lopes easily back and forth across the yard—once, twice, three times, ignoring Manuel all the while, then finding a spot that he likes near the fence, he settles back on his haunches, collapses onto his side, stretches out his front legs, and lays his head down on the grass. My good boy.

“Guess what.” Betti’s eyes open; her head pops up. “My little man came back! And this time he actually smiled at me.”
All her old indignation has turned into high spirits. Again, Amy? What an effect. But now I am the one who feels relieved: Betti’s face has come back into focus.

“And you know what? He has a humongous gap between his front teeth. You could drive a truck through there.”

“I thought Manuel—”

At the sound of his name, Manuel glances over at us, alert.

“Oh, he did. He did. The gate’s working again. It’s fine.” Betti waves at him. “Thank you, Manuel!” She says his name not like I do but with a good accent, the a sounding as if it’s been flattened by the warm palm of someone’s hand.

Then, without warning, they begin speaking to each other in Spanish. Energetically, as if they have a lot to express. I didn’t know before now that Betti could speak Spanish, and at some points I’m uncertain if she actually can or if she’s just delivering a few key words with the help of many eloquent hand gestures. I wonder if they’re discussing the gate repair, because in the midst of their back-and-forth I hear my own name, but soon I think that the scope of their conversation is wider than that, because occasionally I catch Amy’s name too. Listening to them talk about us but not understanding what they’re saying doesn’t feel as bad as you might think; in fact it feels like pulling a blanket up to your chin and resting underneath it.

Betti says something that makes the two of them laugh. “He’s being nice to me. I can barely put a sentence together.” She gives Manuel another wave. “But we agree. The gate doesn’t really make a difference, bunny.”

Her chair scrapes against the pavers as she scoots closer.

“According to him, a gate doesn’t do shit!” she says gaily. “I get it. The little man’s just trying to handle his business. Just doing what he’s got to do.” She leans across and pokes me in the arm. “I bet he likes eggs.”

She winks at me. Now she looks perfectly herself again: immaculate, ironclad, ready for anything.

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Excerpted from Likes by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. All rights reserved.




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