Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
“And since the baby?” Vivian asked.
She was good.
The housekeeper was only there three days a week, and Claire didn’t like to leave Sebastian with her for more than an hour or two at a time. Sometimes she went to the makeup counters at Barney’s and Bloomingdale’s just to see what was new. She’d review the products to herself and the salesgirls. “This
one is a little sticky, don’t you think?” she’d say, tapping a red stain across her lower lip. “This feels awfully thick. God, my pores are clogged already. Can’t you see that? Look, can’t you see my pores getting totally clogged?!” The salesgirls would take turns responding, humoring her. Claire always cried in the taxi on the way home. New York was good for that, providing transportation and anonymity simultaneously. Some of Claire’s friends from college had moved to Connecticut and New Jersey, and they were trapped. It was harder to drive and cry than to sit in the back behind a partition and just watch the streaky city go by.
According to Vivian, Rosemary was a people-cat who had been driven from her family by a mixture of anger and envy. Often people didn’t understand how to ensure their pets’ happiness surrounding the arrival of a new addition. It was a common mistake. Just closing some doors in the middle of the night wasn’t enough. Vivian said that she would meditate and get back to Claire when she had more information. Vivian was patient and explained the process. Clearly, she’d had to do it before. “I can tune things in and out. It’s not like in the movies, where dead people talk and ghosts ride the subway. It’s just another frequency, like on an old-fashioned radio, only all the knobs are in my head,” she said. Claire got it. If Vivian sat still and kept her eyes closed, she might hear something new. She had to pay attention.
Black cats were bad luck; everyone knew that. Matt had been wary of Rosemary from the start. She was skinny and mean to everyone but Claire, and sulked loudly in the middle of
the night when she felt that her needs were not being taken seriously. Matt said that they should get rid of her as soon as Claire got pregnant. If the cat woke
up at three in the morning, why wouldn’t she wake the baby?
“What about when he starts to crawl,” Matt said, “and starts getting kitty litter all over his hands and knees. Isn’t that unsanitary?” He didn’t seem to notice that they paid someone to clean the floors, cat or no. He floated the idea of a dog. Matt had always liked that idea: a boy and his dog. They could make it their Christmas card. Claire had been firm. They already had enough on their plates. It was a discussion for the future.
Claire stopped going to the postnatal yoga classes. It was too tempting, the thought of ninety minutes with nowhere she had to be. At first, she used the time to hang flyers with a black-and-white picture of Rosemary and her telephone number, along with the promise of a cash reward. Then she started to run.
There were paths through Prospect Park where she could have seen flowers and trees, but Claire preferred running straight down Court Street and over the Brooklyn Bridge. From her house, it was only three miles there and back. There were some women she passed who always ran with their strollers, the ones shaped like boomerangs, pushing their babies in front of them like so many carrots on so many sticks. Claire preferred to run alone. She liked it when her breathing evened out into a shallow pant, and her thigh bones felt hollow. Maybe that’s where Rosemary had gone, inside. When she was pregnant with Sebastian, that internal
connection had been her favorite part. She could feel him in ways that no one else could. His elbows, his feet. His hunger. It was better than having Matt around, or any of her girlfriends. Sebastian—they’d had the name from the very beginning—was closer. She imagined the cord between them as wide as the woven rope bracelets she’d worn as a teenager, inches thick, and heavy. When Sebastian actually arrived, they hung a sheet at her midsection so that she couldn’t watch them cut into her flesh and pull him out. Matt, on the other side of the sheet, had been surprised by the amount of blood, the surgical nature of what followed. Claire was only surprised at how empty she felt with no one inside her, no one but herself.
When she first started to run, Claire would notice small aches—her shins, a hip. After a couple of miles, though, the aches would soften and vanish, leaving her body with a warm hum. It wasn’t as if the pain had never been there at all, it was just as if the pain had changed shape, or gone slightly out of focus. Her sneakers would continue to hit the ground, one after the other, until the rest of her body seemed to float there, inches above the gray concrete. Some days, Claire would hit the Manhattan side of the bridge and just keep running. Once she made it all the way to Union Square before catching sight of the time outside a bank and turning around.
The doorbell rang and Claire was in the kitchen—too far to get there first. Matt beat her to it.
“Can I help you?” he asked, in the voice he used for homeless
people and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Matt had the square look of a hockey player, his jaw and shoulders both straight, thick lines. Next to him, Vivian herself looked like a skittish cat.
“I’m Vivian,” she said, walking toward the doorframe. Behind Matt, in the dark of the house, Claire and Sebastian moved toward the door. Matt blinked; he clearly didn’t recognize the name. “The psychic.”
“The what?” Matt’s voice was almost a laugh. He thought that she was joking. Claire’s pace quickened; she barreled down the hall, Sebastian’s legs bobbing up and down. She looked at Vivian and shook her head.
. Claire was now right behind Matt, peering over her shoulder. He turned to face her.
“Did you hire a psychic?” He was amused, not angry, but his voice was loud. Vivian saw Claire glance up toward the street, clearly worried that passersby would hear. “Is that what you do with your days? Ha!” Only parts of his face were smiling.
“She costs less than the reward, which you already agreed to, so I don’t know what your problem is.” Claire was hissing. She cupped a hand to her forehead and pushed her hair back. It was warmer with their three bodies so close together, Sebastian between them like a beach ball with arms and legs.
“What, Rosemary? Is that what this is all about? The fucking cat?” Matt’s voice got even louder and roused Sebastian out of his half sleep. His mouth widened, and at first nothing came out. The noise grew from nothing until it spilled out into the air: a siren. “Give me the baby,” Matt said, and pulled
Sebastian out of Claire’s arms. He roared past her ear, and she winced, as if struck.
Empty-handed, the women walked back outside and sat on the front stoop. Half a block down, a single daffodil had raised its yellow head. Vivian pointed it out, and Claire nodded.
“I almost feel sorry for him,” Claire said. She didn’t have shoes on, and placed her palms over the tops of her feet, as though that would protect them from the ills of the outside world.
“I’m sure Sebastian will be fine.” Vivian sat on the next step down, and tucked her legs up against her chest. The sun warmed the parts of their hair.
“I meant my husband.”
“Oh. Him, too.” Vivian smiled. It was like being girlfriends, sitting this way. They could have braided each other’s hair and sold lemonade, or smoked furtive cigarettes.
“It’s just that, no matter how hard he tries, he’s never going to love Sebastian enough. It’s physical. I mean, I know that sounds bad, but how can he expect to feel what I feel?” Claire stared across the street at nothing in particular. Her jaw hung heavily, pulling her mouth slightly open.
“And how do you feel?” Vivian asked, following Claire’s stare to the opposite sidewalk.
“I don’t know,” Claire said. She wasn’t sure if this counted as one of their sessions, or if they were just having a conversation. “Like a rock. Or maybe like something at the bottom of the ocean.” She stuck out her tongue and made a noise. “Maybe
I should start going back to yoga.” Claire picked up a twig and started poking her big toe.
“Do you want to know about Rosemary?” Vivian said, finally.
Claire inhaled. “Yes,” she said, finally turning her face toward Vivian.
“Well,” Vivian said, and started. She told Claire how Rosemary had understood that it was her time, and that it would be easier on the family if she went away. Claire recognized the kind of story Vivian was telling her. It was the same kind of story she used to whisper toward her own belly button, when Sebastian was still inside. It was a fairy tale, full of hope. Vivian was telling her something she wanted to believe.
“So she’s dead,” Claire said, cutting Vivian off.
“Well, yes, I think so.” Vivian looked startled. She wanted to keep talking.
Claire bent her knees and stood up, brushing off her jeans. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.” Then she turned around and went back inside. Vivian heard the locks click into
he Palm Springs airport was more outside than inside, all sun-soaked breezeways and squinting white people in golf shirts. I waited for my sister at the door to her gate, stretching my pasty calves into a patch of direct light, the first light of any kind my legs had seen all winter. It was February, and I’d only barely remembered to shave in preparation for the trip. Of course, Abigail would have noticed that first, my prickly legs. She wouldn’t even have said anything—just given a long, slow look.
I rarely flew, but the trip from New York had been easy enough. I’d had a window seat, and the women sitting next to me had chatted amiably to each other the entire way about the fitness conference they were both attending that weekend. When Abigail arrived, I’d tell her all about it—the booths!
The demonstrations! The great strides in moisture-wicking fabric! But no, Abigail wouldn’t care about that. Abigail wouldn’t even think it was funny. Once she’d started meditating, Abigail’s sense of humor had vanished.
Moisture-wicked right out of her body
, I thought, and started to laugh to myself, already goofy from the heat. I cupped my hands around my eyes and waggled my feet back and forth in my sneakers, making little semicircles on the dusty concrete.
“What are you doing? You look like a crazy person, Dumbo.” Abigail stood in front of me, blocking the sun. I looked up, my hand in salute position. My sister was coming from Los Angeles, a puddle jumper, if the desert was a puddle. She was already dressed for the weather, in loose, light layers that floated around her body like a hippie nimbus. Even her hair looked well rested, her soft blondish curls bouncing up and down from her shoulders, sprung springs.
This was the first vacation of its kind: no parents (ours), no husband or kids (Abigail’s). Just sisters. I couldn’t remember whose idea it was, or how it came to pass that tickets were purchased and a hotel room booked, when clearly (it was already so clear) this should have been yet another generous, twinkling thought that floated away as soon as it was spoken aloud.
Abigail slung her bag off her shoulder and let it hit the ground with a gentle thud. She was six years older than me, and so many steps ahead that it hardly seemed we were on the same track. By the time Abigail was twenty-nine, my age, she was already married. Two years later, she had her first baby, and another two year later, her second. Abigail owned
a house, a car, a swimming pool. She practiced yoga and made giant vats of her own juice and mayonnaise.
I stood up and let myself be folded into my sister’s embrace. “Hi,” I said, into Abigail’s shoulder. “Welcome to California.”
“I was already in California, Dumbo,” Abigail said, pulling back. She held me at arm’s length, gripping both shoulders for several seconds before letting go. My sister’s face had all the elements of mine—blue eyes, long nose, pale skin—but arranged slightly differently, with a strong jawline that had come out of some deep corner of the gene pool. No one ever came out and said it, but it was the truth. I was forever a watery Abigail.
“Oh, right. Well, then welcome
,” I said. I was sweating already. Was it always so warm here? Why hadn’t we gone somewhere temperate, somewhere with things to do, and a thousand people to disappear into on every corner?
“It’s so good to see you,” Abigail said, scooping up her bag and pulling me back into her arms, shoving my face neatly into her armpit. “You’re so skinny, I can hardly stand it.” The damp cotton smelled like flowers that had started to decompose. It was probably Abigail’s chemical-free deodorant, the kind that looked like a giant crystal, but I wasn’t sure.
The rental car was small, so small they called it a compact, which sounded like a way to shame customers into spending more money, but Abigail didn’t budge. It seemed pointless to offer to drive—I only barely had a license anyway, and driving Abigail would have been like driving our father, a perpetual
drivers ed class, with lots of fake brake pumping and wheel grabbing. It was better just to let Abigail be in charge. Palm Springs was made up of golf courses, motels, and green-brown palm trees that stretched perilously into the bright blue sky. I’d forgotten my sunglasses and saw spots whenever I turned away from the window.
“So, how are Jack and Violet?” My niece and nephew both had names for older children, for grown-ups. At two and four, it seemed like satire.
Abigail waved her hand in front of her face, moving it in a circle. “They’re amazing! They’re everywhere! You should see Jack, he’s a little man. Running, talking, thinking all the time. He’s on a soccer team. Which I wasn’t sure about, you know, all the competition. But he really loves it, really loves it. And Vi! Oh, Vi.” Abigail paused to look at me, the corners of her mouth pointing toward her chin. This was her serious face. Violet hardly spoke and liked staring at the ground. We all suspected there was something wrong, but didn’t dare say so. “She reminds me of you. So quiet and careful. It takes her eons to do anything. Really such an artistic soul. You should come see them. It’s been over a year, you know.”
I unfolded the map from the car rental agency, which seemed to have only four streets on it, and realized I was holding it upside down. “Uh-huh,” I said, and flipped it over before Abigail noticed. I was still lost. “Turn left on Alejo. I think.” Single-level motor lodge motels lined every major street in town, and I couldn’t remember which one was ours—Abigail had booked it, and I’d only had to say yes, to get on the plane, to show up. Even without the map, Abigail seemed to know where we were going, and made a few more
turns, finally pulling into the parking lot at the hotel. The sign for the Orbit Inn was five feet high, orange, and shaped like a boomerang.