The bees are in full voice today, Jim thought to himself as he tended to his rooftop apiary. The customers at Freyja, the café he owned in Ridgewood, would soon be clamoring for more of the bounty of these hives. It came from a special breed, Apis laboriosa, native to the Himalayas, who produced a honey less sweet than store bought, with strong notes of tartness. How like life itself, Jim thought. How like his life.
When he first opened Freyja, there was nothing around it for miles. They told him he was foolish to quit his job at Goldman Sachs and open a café where no one lived. Back then, the café’s only neighbors were a check cashing business, a down-in-the-mouth community center, and a hospital that would soon close down. Now people lined up at dawn on days when the honey was available. Jim could produce more of it, but the bees were sensitive. You could only ask so much of them. Also, he had received complaints when some of the oversized bees broke away from his colony and built their own hive in the jungle gym at the local playground.
A pair of these rare bees had nestled into his knapsack while backpacking through Kathmandu years ago, when he was a low-level hedge fund manager on sabbatical, attempting to find something that no-load mutuals couldn’t provide. The bees somehow survived the flight back to New York and didn’t emerge until he was safely back in the meager three-bedroom duplex in Greenpoint where he lived back then. The bees had survived the flight by clinging together like spent lovers. It was a small miracle. He captured them in an empty bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap and showed them to Karen. She was so overjoyed at the sight they made love in their humble backyard garden hammock. The physics of copulating in a hammock were complicated and sometimes the nextdoor neighbors would spray the hose at them or one of them would tumble naked onto the rusty Bustelo can they used for a backyard ashtray. All of this they could ignore, even the cops who arrived and asked them firmly to get back inside or at least put some clothes on. They were too young and foolish to care.
Now when his thoughts strayed toward memories of the hammock, they inevitably wandered further to Tamantha, Karen’s college friend. Tamantha had helped serve the kids quinoa pops at the café’s annual chicken pox party. He thought often of her prepping food in the kitchen, sweating over a pile of unprocessed spelt, her tanned, yoga-trained thighs straining at a pair of shorts. Jim tried to be discreet when studying those thighs. They were the exact dimensions of Karen’s thighs. They only difference with Tamantha’s thighs is that they were not Karen’s.
Jim looked out over this city in all its blinking buzzing glory, past the homeless encampment in the parking lot of the abandoned C Town, and wondered if Karen still loved him.
* * *
How had she become a mother? Karen pondered as she watched her son Hrothgar topple a breastfeeding literature display at the local coffeehouse. Of course she knew the biological answer to that question. She often wondered exactly where and when her son had been conceived. Was it on their trip to the Adriatic? During a break in the Intersectional Sestinas conference? Perhaps during one of her and Jim’s many trips to the hammock? That was a different time, a desperate and vital time. Bush was in office and so it seemed that everyone needed to make hay while the sun shone, however dimly it did. Now Jim had no time for anything but his café and his bees. Sometimes he would read funny tweets to her in bed as she drifted off to sleep but never dared to give her The Hammock Look that had once silently communicated, Let us quietly 69 in the backyard until the neighbors toss a bucket of mop water at us.
Yes, Karen knew in a very basic way how she had become a mother but not how she, personally, came to be called this thing called a mother. To her, a mother was her mother, chain smoking in the kitchen, commanding the maid to make sandwiches while she waited for her father to slosh off the 5:17 to Scarsdale. Now her each waking moment was dedicated to caring for another human who needed more than everything she could give, except for most weekdays when Jalima the au pair took over while Karen worked at the firm. It still did not seem possible that someone should call her of all people mom, she thought as Hrothgar poured a stranger’s latte on the floor.
Karen’s friend Tamantha was there with her adorable daughter Manasa, who babbled and scribbled with crayons on the parquet floor. They had been inseparable in college, protesting all the things that needed to be protested and smoking all the right drugs and once they threw some eggs at a problematic campus fire hydrant. Now they were both mothers before they’d even hit 40 and none of it seemed possible.
“I think Greg is cheating on me,” Tamantha said as Hrothgar dropkicked an antique gravy boat. Greg was Tamantha’s husband. He built an app that was like Uber but for boats.
Karen assured her it wasn’t true, and tried her best to meet Tamantha’s gaze as she said it. In truth, Karen knew Greg was having an affair because he was having an affair with her. They’d met for drinks one night when Jim was working late with the bees and Tamantha took the kids to mommy-and-me gender studies class. They shared a few laughs at their favorite cocktail lounge, the one that opened up around the same time that Freyja did in the space of the shuttered hospital. Greg and her chilled their hands on Manhattans with ice the size of a fist, then warmed them up on each other in the former ICU, where they made silent, accomplished love on a gurney-themed divan.
Greg was no more skilled a lover than Jim, nor was there any particular difference in the dimensions of his cock vis a vis her husband’s. She derived no significant amount of pleasure from their rendezvous, and she sensed Greg didn’t either. There was no real point their affair at all, which was precisely the point. It was nothing like the hammock days but at least it was something, Karen thought as Hrothgar threw brass napkin rings like ninja stars.
* * *
Jim’s next door neighbor Tony was banging on the front door. Jim wondered why he did not text him instead of interrupting his bee time, but then realized he had given Tony a fake phone number the last time he asked for it. Tony had lived in the neighborhood his whole life, even in the days when nobody lived here.
“I need to talk to you about them bees,” Tony said, talk emerging as tawk. Jim found it charming sometimes to know that some people still spoke like that.
“My kid keeps gettin’ bit,” Tony said. Bees don’t bite, they sting, Jim thought but did not say. It was hard for him to correct anyone right now, for his mind was once again on thoughts of Tamantha in short shorts. It haunted his dreams and all his waking hours. Yesterday he had nearly handed a customer a non-gluten free scone, which would have been a disaster. The café work was easier when he had more help, but he had to let Marisol go when she kept asking for overtime pay. He needed a worker whose mind was more focused on the customers.
“The rashes are real bad,” Tony said. “He’s scratchin’ himself like crazy.” Jim realized he couldn’t keep torturing himself like this. What good was staying together for the sake of Karen and Hrothgar if he was a wreck? He had to tell Tamantha how he felt, for all of their sakes.
“I tried blastin’ the bees with every spray I got but they don’t do nothin’,” Tony said. “My kid can’t see too good no more.” Jim thanked Tony, whose simple, earthy wisdom had helped him realize what he must do. He ran down the street, desperate to find Tamantha. He must tell her this instant. Tony yelled something about EpiPens as he dashed away, but Jim was too excited to listen.
* * *
Hrothgar spoke his first word. It was anhedonia. Karen wept, inside.
* * *
The hotel room Jim booked overlooked the new Whole Foods built on top of the old Whole Foods no one liked. He brought with him chilled champagne and prosciutto and melon. He’d even brought along a hammock to hang from the balcony, but the management said no one was allowed on the balconies due to the recent rash of bee attacks. He tried to assure them he was a trained apiarist but the philistines working the hotel counter wouldn’t listen.
Tamantha said she didn’t want to hurt Greg and Jim said he didn’t want to hurt Karen, and they agreed that the best way to not hurt their respective spouses was to fuck each other. Together they achieved perfunctory coitus on scratchy hotel sheets. Most of the prosciutto and melon went uneaten. Jim found himself much less entranced by Tamantha’s thighs once they were unbound by short shorts. He wished for them to be contained, and for himself to be truly free.
* * *
Karen and Greg met at a bar because their favorite cocktail lounge had closed down and been replaced by a new one. The older one specialized in Manhattans, while the newer one served old fashioned’s, which were favored by the neighborhood’s more recent arrivals. Her and Jim had been pioneers when they first arrived, before you could even find stevia at the local bodega. They had cleared a path for these people and this is how they were repaid.
“Tamantha knows,” Karen said before taking a tiny sip of her soy lager. She tried to not be distracted by the TV blaring over Greg’s head, which cut into a basketball game to report an update on the bee fever epidemic.
“We both knew this wasn’t forever,” Greg said, pausing to scratch at a small bump on the side of his neck. Then he grasped her hand in his, the grip neither constrictive nor comforting.
A street person lugging a garbage bag full of cans stopped at the open front windows of the bar to peer in, and Karen thought of the sad silent years that stretched before her. The bartender threw a brick at him.
* * *
Jim tended to his bees on the roof and Karen joined him. She grabbed the smoke canister from him and piloted it deftly. He admired her apiary aptitude. He should have known she would be good at this. Why had he never asked her up here before?
He reminded Karen of the two bees who had survived the trip from the Himalayas. They’d done so by clinging together. Did they love one another? They allowed each other to survive, so did it matter? Now look at what they had produced, Greg said as the bees tried to charge through the smoke.
Karen had heard Greg was very sick now with some kind of fever, perhaps that strange sickness that had been choking all the emergency rooms lately. Jim said he was sorry to hear that but in truth he felt nothing. A mysterious disease infecting other people was a strange, distant thing to him.
Jim tacked a hammock between the roof entrance and one of the hives. He and Karen performed admirably as the sun set, reaching several orgasms and fisting gently. When they were done, they admired what they could see of the stars. The unceasing blare of ambulances sounded to them like the helpless buzzing of bees.