Authors: Amy Shearn
I couldn’t think of any decent response, so I said, “When you said you were going to wait to see what happened today before you contacted the police, I guess I thought you meant, like, this afternoon. Or after, you know, nine a.m.”
Sylvia held a delicate china teacup over the sink and let it drip before wiping it efficiently with a clean dish towel she’d produced from somewhere, possibly her palm, like Spider-Man. So I had used every coffee mug and started in on our wedding china. So what? “Or if we think he was kidnapped,” she said.
Betty skidded across the wood floor. “Okay! Toys in the bucket! Wantto see?”
Sylvia peered over the counter into the living room. “What about those puzzle pieces?” Betty skittered off, miraculously into the game. Sylvia lowered her voice, turning off the water, running a
damp sponge across the counter: “Or if he had any dangerous enemies.” I was annoyed at her cleaning and at the same time so thankful. I knew I should stop her; I was aware that it was humiliating. But at the same time, the dishes were clean. I studied Rose’s scalp, telling myself I was too busy with her cradle cap to worry about anything else. I flaked off a particularly satisfying clump. She murmured in protest, and I sniffed her sour milk breath. Intoxicating.
“I don’t know, Sylvia. I mean, I don’t think he had any enemies.”
Sylvia froze. “What did you say?”
She finished wiping off her hands deliberately, took a tiny sweatshirt off the other kitchen chair, folded it, and sat down. “You said ‘had.’ Past tense.”
“No, I didn’t. I said ‘has.’ I don’t think he has any enemies.” I ignored the warble in my voice, the crying-fit tell.
Sylvia looked at me hard. “Okay,” she said finally. “So I’m asking. Jenny. Do we think this was voluntary?”
I tipped my head back. The last thing I wanted was to cry. “God, it is so hot in here. Isn’t it? How hot is it today?”
“Sylvia. What do you want me to say? I mean, no, I don’t think he was kidnapped. Of course not. Right? Jesus. I feel like I’ve already said this a million times. I think he’s just off—you know. Blowing off steam. It’s only been two nights. I mean, is there something you’re not telling me about? Actually, wait, seriously. Is there something I don’t know? I guess he could have enemies. When I think about it. Someone he owed money to? I don’t know. Jesus.”
“Okay, dear, now don’t panic—”
“I’m not panicking,” I interrupted in panicky protest.
Sylvia clicked her nails on the table as if calling me to order. “I don’t know anything you don’t. I’m just asking. Fred thinks if he’s
gone a week, we should hire a private investigator. But I don’t like the idea of some stranger knowing all our family business.”
Betty was back at my elbow like a witch’s familiar. The mischievous look on her face made me nervous. “Oh, Gwaaaamaaaa,” she singsonged. “I’m fiiiinished!” We turned around to look at the living room. Everything that a two-and-a-half-year-old was capable of lifting had been piled atop the toy bin: throw pillows, blankets, the remote control, an unread paperback on sleep training, a scented candle, the last sad potted plant to survive the children. A glint of something that was probably my keys. A few loose diapers she had fished from the diaper bag. Betty waited for us to see what she had done and then threw herself onto the floor with exaggerated laughter. I had to admit, the living room did look better for it. We all watched the potted plant—a money tree, ha, picked up on an ambitious outing to Sunset Park, forty blocks south, for dim sum and exotic produce a year or two earlier—slide, settle, slide some more, and then catapult off the top of the pile, greens down, onto the rug. “Why do I even have a rug?” I wondered aloud.
“Because I gave it to you,” Sylvia said, sounding sad.
“Oh. That’s right. Um, thanks.”
Sylvia wanted me to go out, to get groceries or get my “hair done,” as she said—as if I had ever had my hair done in my life. I wasn’t sure what she meant, how that worked. Did you stroll into the salon and say, “Do my hair, please”? Did she mean I should get it cut or something else? Blown straight or spun up in curlers and devoured by a dryer resembling a space shuttle? Maybe I should go stand by the sink and “do” my hair all off with the shears I used to cut up chicken. Then it would be done, all right!
“Go ahead, Jenny. I don’t have to be to the office until noon. You know I’m happy to watch the girls. You poor thing, with
Harry gone and all. Go on.” I was annoyed by the suggestion that I couldn’t handle what I obviously couldn’t handle. I was annoyed that I didn’t have any pumped milk in the fridge to leave for Rose (“Oh, that’s right, I keep forgetting you’re still
feeding,” Sylvia said every time she saw me, as if I were the first person in the history of the world to nurse a young baby, as if it were some wacky idea I’d come up with myself out of pure perversion), so I couldn’t go far. But I did desperately want to leave the apartment, so I scooped up as much laundry as I could carry into a big blue IKEA bag and spent a blissful hour and a half in the Laundromat down the street, staring into a take-out cup of coffee that seemed to always stay full, an enchanted goblet with a plastic lid.
By the time I got home, Betty was perched on the couch, hypnotized by a strictly forbidden non-PBS cartoon, Rose was sleeping in her crib huffing the ragged, snuffly breathing of a long cry’s aftermath, and the apartment reeked of bleach. It was as if a domovoi had escaped from a Slavic folk story to help with the household chores. The thought made me chuckle—such household spirits appeared as small hairy beasts with tails and horns, so I pictured Sylvia in this form, rocking her tracksuit and careful hair—but my chuckle was oddly timed and strange-sounding and earned a sharp look from Sylvia. Anyway, where had she found bleach? All I had were ineffective sprays in bottles with trees on the labels. For the rest of the day, after Sylvia left, I found evidence of her in unexpected places—the bed had been made despite Juniper’s occupation of the bedroom, there were no dog hairs in the tub of margarine. Had she really cleaned out the margarine? How were her fingers so nimble, complicated as they were by those impressive claws? And how had this orderly creature produced my emotional mess of a husband? Maybe by being such a slob, I would produce two girls who rebelled by having firm grasps on reality and organized billfolds. Maybe, just
maybe, some good would come out of my perpetual confusion. Or anyway, this was what I had to tell myself over and over again.
There’s nothing that sends a person from brain-tingling joy to tapped-out despair as often as parenting young children. That night at five p.m., as on pretty much every day at five p.m., an evil demon possessed Betty, and together they tore through the apartment, methodically getting into every single thing she knew she wasn’t supposed to—oven, toilet, dresser drawer, outlet, dresser drawer, toilet, oven—like a palindrome of misbehavior. After a tearful time-out, she disappeared and then padded out of my closet in a pair of pumps that cost more than the copay for her birth. Telling myself she was trying to push my buttons did nothing to prevent those buttons from being pushed. How I longed to have a temper tantrum right back at her! What a luxury it would be to hurl myself to the floor and kick and wail—or at least to be able to turn her over to her other parent, home from work and brimming with kid love!
After Betty’s bedtime, as I was congratulating myself on not throttling her, Rose picked up where her sister had left off by screaming so lustily that our downstairs neighbor thumped on the floor with a broom handle. Helpful. Then Betty locked us out of the girls’ bedroom, pushing the rocker against the door and refusing to come out or admit the squalling infant. Even Juniper slunk away to sleep on the couch like a disgraced husband. I am not exaggerating when I say I tried everything there is to try with a crying baby. I changed her bone-dry, factory-fresh diaper. I sang her every lullaby I’d ever heard, with a few Christmas carols and aged TV jingles thrown in for good measure. I nursed. I rocked. I walked. I swayed. I put her down. I picked her up. She wailed until
she was hoarse. My brain thought without ceasing,
Oh my God will you please SHUT UP baby I love you but SHUT UP SHUT UP!
By midnight I understood why the hospital made you sign a form after you gave birth promising you wouldn’t shake your baby. Two hours into a crying jag, a vigorous shaking honestly doesn’t seem like that bad an option. I sent text messages to Harry that I was pretty sure he wasn’t getting: “Pls come home Harry pls come home.” Finally, I lay down next to Rose on the bed and sobbed, and in that manner we fought our way to sleep.
Sylvia took to coming over every other day or so. It was the
most I’d seen her in, well, ever, and it was simultaneously a relief and a pain. One steamy day she tired of circling for parking and ordered me into her car. I sat behind the wheel, confused by my moment of freedom, watching the familiar street transformed by the frame of the windshield. After a few seconds (and a honk; someone else wanted my double-parked hydrant spot), my autopilot kicked in and I drove to the new Fairway in the gently gentrifying, cobbled, and sea-stained neighborhood of Red Hook. I walked slowly up and down the grocery store’s aisles, holding a paper cup of coffee, my iPod blaring music I liked in high school, music I knew was cheesy, that Harry had always made fun of, but that reminded me of some nascent part of myself, some innocence I’d had no idea was innocence at the time. Morrissey, the Replacements, the Pixies. Soul Asylum, dear God. The songs sounded like dispatches from another world: grungy and crackly and distorted, luxuriantly whiny. Now that I actually had something to be upset about, their angst seemed vestigial. I missed Harry, I hated Harry, I loved Harry; I was embarrassed, I was stunned, I was at sea. My anger wasn’t enough to dull over the layer of pure anguish, like
snow camouflaging ice; I could hardly walk without slipping on a patch of unseen sadness and losing footing.
I tried to focus on the task at hand, which I was pretty sure was how people dealt with such things. I bought the groceries. Grocery shopping without the girls was almost too easy. Where was the challenge when no one was lunging from the unsanitary shopping-cart seat, straining to yank anything shiny or remotely pinkish from the shelves, reaching out for the hair of everyone who passed by, begging for fruit snacks or any package with a happy-looking animal on it? As a result, it took me much longer than usual. I examined each apple, avocado, mango, pear like a scientist evaluating an alien specimen. I browsed through ingredients. I constructed a ziggurat of canned goods in my cart. I stopped at the café in back and bought a sandwich and sat outside, staring into the inviting blue blur of the harbor, at the barges piled high with pallets in
Princess and the Pea
mattress stacks, the sailboats with their peaked caps like friendly gnomes, everything just so, sparkling in the incessant sunlight. There was the Statue of Liberty with her silent wave, an old acquaintance reluctantly admitting to having spotted me in a crowd.
I found myself stuck there by the edge of the bay, frozen goods melting in my cart left behind in the store. The water looked delicious. I could see how fishermen in folk tales were always doing things like trading their firstborn in order to commiserate with water nymphs. It looked so damn refreshing. I was thirsty all the time, between the heat and the nursing and the coffee, so much so that I stood there and thought,
The only way I will ever not be thirsty is to leap in that water, to feel its scummy smoothness covering my head.
I often had this feeling when standing at the edge of a precipice, by a crease of shore or on an elevated bridge, and on this day I was afraid I would do it, leap right in. My brain said things to me like
Then Harry will be sorry!
The girls would really be better off without you. It’s no good to have a crazy mother.
And I would say things to my brain like
I’m not crazy.
And my brain would say,
Fine, then sad. You can’t say that you aren’t sad.
And I would say,
Why shouldn’t I be sad? My husband has left me!
And my brain would scoff at me like a snotty teenager and tell me to buck up. Then I would turn up my iPod in an attempt to drown out the whole stupid conversation, and sit back down like a totally normal person and finish my sandwich, and make a concerted effort to think totally normal things like
This is a good sandwich. I enjoy the pesto
and, thinking of pesto, would throw out my paper plate and return to my cart and continue the expedition.
Pesto, pesto, pesto.