In the beginning it was an in-ground swimming pool Ruth wanted, but she got over that idea pretty quick — too expensive, all the upkeep. She first mentioned koi on her birthday, about two months after Ken got the job at Hofstra and they moved to Freeport.
She had always liked koi, she explained — their unreflecting googly eyes, their fussy barbels. Their toothless mouths like open sucking nostrils. It was impossible for a koi to smile, Ruth said. This stayed with Ken, because she herself was smiling when she said it, like it brought her true joy, this other creature’s fixed expression of stalking hunger. He was struck by her insistent preference for white longfins splashed and ringed with orange flames. She, usually so silly and loose, became specific and grave over the matter of the orange flames. She knew about them. She was reading things when Ken wasn’t around, or maybe right under his nose, clandestinely.
All of which is to say that Ken knew that Ruth wanted koi but also that she liked talking about things more than doing them, which suited him fine. She threw out the idea now and again, and for two years Ken never denied that they had the perfect setting: a hi-ranch at the end of a cul-de-sac, a half acre of fenced-in yard flanked by shrubbery and shaded by the neighbors’ trees. A stone patio jutted out from the back door, providing what the real estate agent called a “transition.” Their old house had been a Trinity with plush aquamarine wall-to-wall and a poured-concrete outdoor space; it had soft insides and hard outsides. This new one was the opposite, and Ruth was surprised at how often she missed sitting cross-legged in comfort, and burying her face in carpet as comedic protest when Ken said something she didn’t like.
It wasn’t clear, when Jeff and Terri announced that they had built a koi pond, whether they had known that Ruth had been so long suffering for one. The two couples were sitting in Jeff and Terri’s living room on a stiff modern sofa that lacked arms. They never stayed at Jeff and Terri’s long enough to relax, mostly because it was horrible sitting there. Terri worked on visual culture and talked a lot about “clean lines” and the “provenance” of this or that object — a planter, a frame. There were other rooms in the house, rooms that were habitable or looked to be in passing, but Terri always shepherded guests to this room, which she repainted every two years a different shade of neutral. The current color was Butter Cookie, a name whose associations did not at all capture the feeling of being in the room. Ruth preferred it to Oklahoma Wheat, which had been insincere, but was looking forward to Lemon Sorbet, which promised to be cleaner, more open to the future.
“Lemon Sorbet is the color of the year,” Terri said, and Ruth imagined Terri fingering the paint strips, holding them up to the window, examining them against her skin, licking them in surreptitious delight.
Jeff and Ken and Terri taught in the same department; that’s how they all knew one another. Ruth had recently acquired a real estate license but she didn’t define herself by her work.
Jeff and Terri were much better looking, in a conventional American way, than most professors: lean, elegant, small tactful features. This fact was starting to bother Ruth less, but it had been a problem, historically, in the foursome. Things work better when everyone is about the same degree of good-looking, and in the same way. People have known that for centuries.
It seemed like Terri was going to say they were having a baby. She acted just like women act when they announce they’re having babies. She smoothed her stretchy black pants and she looked sideways at Jeff and twisted her wedding ring and grinned ear to ear like the cat that et cetera. When she said, “We built a koi pond!” Ken asked her to repeat it, because he had been busy preparing his baby face and thought he must have misheard.