Authors: Amy Shearn
Within a year Harry and I were married (he wanted a Vegas wedding but worried it would kill his mother), and I’d traded my Xanax for prenatal omega-3s; a year after our wedding, Betty was born, and not quite two years after that, Rose. I’d been in college longer than I’d known my husband. I’d had a more protracted relationship with my academic adviser than with the father of my children, the man whose DNA I’d chosen to tangle with mine. And now here we were, piled into the crummy two-bedroom rental that was all we could afford in Park Slope, the yuppie neighborhood we clung to because I was afraid to bring my kids anywhere else in the city. Or here I was, anyway. Who knew where Harry was.
When I awoke at three a.m., Rose howling wolfishly at a blackout-curtain-defying streetlamp, Betty standing in the hallway with her hands over her ears, and Harry still wasn’t there, it occurred to me to worry.
“Rosie, Rosie.” I launched myself from bed, the sheets withed around my legs, only to step squarely on the dog. Oh. The dog. I was perpetually forgetting about the existence of Juniper, Harry’s scraggly, immortal mutt.
mutt now, of course. Had I taken her down to pee before bed? There were too many creatures’ bodily functions to keep track of. The dog looked up at me mournfully. I apologized, stumbled into our nubbin of a hallway. My legs were stiff, Frankensteiny. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d exercised in any way more significant than a walk pushing the stroller around the park, which I hoped counted for something. Every day I promised myself I’d at least stretch out before bed, and every night I was twelve times too tired to even consider it. Anyway, “going to bed”
was more like waiting for Rose to relent and then immediately applying myself to my mattress.
Rose had hiked her swaddle up around her neck in a sort of haute couture cowl and was inching across the crib like a demented caterpillar. She stopped howling when she saw me, grinned toothlessly. “All right,” I said. “You’re very charming.” I pulled the swaddling blanket off of her and lifted her out. Betty followed us back into my bed. I didn’t bother trying to stop her. I nestled Rose down in the center of the mattress, and she immediately started snorting with the pre-meal enthusiasm of a true Lipkin. I lay down beside her and offered her the boob with the less destroyed nipple. Betty lay down on the other side of Rose.
“Mommy, where Daddy?”
Rose popped off and craned her neck curiously toward Betty.
“Sweetheart, please don’t distract the baby,” I said as dread gripped the top knob of my spine. Right. Where
Daddy? “Daddy’s, um, at work.”
Betty considered this. “Aren’t the lights off?”
Rose latched back on. I closed my eyes and allowed the pull of sleep to drag me under the surface. Sleep was like water, my brain thought, unoriginally. And as with a river, you never stepped into the same sleep twice, it was always a different texture somehow, there was a different current tonight, something roiling in the distance. What was this dream that I—
Without really waking up, I said, “Yes, honey, the lights are off. He has a flashlight.”
Rose stopped nursing to stare up at Betty again. “Please, no talking, Betty,” I said, already mostly asleep. I was so tired that it hurt to wake up and fall back asleep. It was like how it used more energy
to turn something off and on than it did to— But the thought stopped making sense as I thought it, breaking apart like bread dropped in water. I was dimly aware of Juniper jumping onto the bed and coiling up behind me. Being sandwiched between little bodies this way seemed cozy for about thirty seconds, until my leg wanted to stretch and couldn’t. It was another hot night, the mugginess unfazed by the air-conditioning unit lodged in the window, and here we were glued together by sweat and spit-up and dog hair. It was all very glamorous.
When I awoke again—five minutes later? an hour later?—Rose was snoozing with her mouth slightly open around my nipple, milk pooled on her tiny tongue. Betty and Juniper were curled together at the foot of the bed. The room was shadowy, lit by the streetlamp, the lights of night-owl neighbors, the lights of early-rising neighbors, the hazy undark of the city at night. And really, now, where was Harry? Alarm rang through my limbs. I tried to temper it with some Vulcan logic, a technique I’d had to teach myself over and over, every night of my anxiety-laden first year of motherhood. No, no, he wasn’t dead in a ditch, that wouldn’t make any sense— He had said something . . . Oh. He was going to stop and buy cigarettes. My brain, still half-sleeping like a dolphin’s, invented a story: He’d gotten a call from his alcoholic brother, Fred, he’d gone over to comfort him, he’d probably called my cell phone but I hadn’t gotten the call because the phone was loitering as usual somewhere deep within the diaper bag. He had ended up spending the night at Fred and Cynthia’s place near the office and had texted me so as not to wake up the girls in the miraculous case that one or both of them might be sleeping and when I saw him tomorrow, today, whenever, he would chastise me for not paying more attention to that particular hunk of electronics, which, it was true, I saw more as an emergency distraction device for Betty than as an actual tool
for communication. Okay, that made sense. I was drifting back to sleep, so tired that my joints felt jumpy, my skin prickly. I couldn’t process whether I’d fallen asleep or else had slept for hours when there was Betty, patting my cheek.
I opened an eye. Rose sprawled out on her back, taking up more room than seemed geometrically possible for a person who weighed twelve pounds. It was a good thing Harry wasn’t here, actually. He hated when I let Rose sleep in our bed. “You made me buy that rocking chair for the nursery,” he’d say crossly. “I thought that was for nursing. It’s not safe to sleep with her in our bed.” I had a mature, reasonable response to this, being the excellent wife and mother that I was: I waited for him to turn around, and then I stuck my tongue out at the back of his head.
“Mommy. Cookies?” Betty said experimentally. When I opened both eyes, I saw Juniper behind her, wagging her tail. When Juniper diagnosed me as awake-ish, she leaped up and started pacing around. “No and no,” I said to both of them. I probably fell back asleep. “MOMMY,” Betty said, patting my cheek harder. Okay, hitting. Smacking my face. Her hand was sticky, somehow, already. It was a lovely way to wake up. It wasn’t even light out yet. So, four forty-five, maybe? Juniper jumped up onto the bed, and Rose’s eyes popped open.
“Oh God,” I said. Every morning I lay in bed thinking,
I cannot possibly do this for one more day
. Then I got up and did it for one more day, every day. All parents did, I told myself. My exhaustion was nothing special. And likewise, the moments in which I managed to cope in a halfway-decent way were not exactly the triumphs of maternal spirit I liked to pretend they were—more like basic competence. “Tell Daddy to take out Juniper,” I said.
Betty shook her head. “It’s too far.”
“What?” I lifted Rose, who belched loudly, looking surprised
and pleased, a diminutive frat boy. I hadn’t burped her after her last dozy feeding. Another habit Harry hated.
. Daddy at
Thirty seconds later, I was wearing the same T-shirt and shorts I’d worn the day before; Rose and her diaper, transformed into an anvil of pee, were tucked into the sling; Betty was dressed in her pajamas, a tutu, and pink Crocs her grandmother had gotten her expressly against our wishes; Juniper was harnessed into her leash. The whole happy family clambered out on the street. It was already about eighty degrees out, the world damp and steaming from the night’s rain. Day-old spit-up baked on my shirt, emitting a not entirely unpleasant bready odor. The sun was just beginning to rise, a bright sore bleeding over the park. Juniper peed in someone’s tree box, irrigating the “Curb your dog” sign. Some days the city seemed almost supernaturally beautiful to me. Then there were days like this, when unforgiving light revealed rats performing acts of daytime derring-do, when everything in sight—a withered crone collecting cans, a paralyzed poodle dragging its hind legs on clanging wheels—looked damaged and deranged. It was garbage day, and stinking boulders of trash punctuated the sidewalk, which reminded me that I hadn’t taken down our recycling, a thought that filled me with despair. Betty toddled over to a rank pile, lifted up a diseased-looking teddy bear.
“No!” My voice startled Rose, who started to cry. It was easier to have sympathy for her, I found, than her sister, the toddler terror. Rosie couldn’t help it. She was a baby. Her crying was uncomplicated. When Betty turned on the waterworks about one of her complex big-girl issues, like not getting an eighth Dora Band-Aid with which to decorate the dog, my skin curdled with irritation. But the baby I could deal with. I wasn’t
“Shhh.” I swayed back and forth, extracted a pacifier from my pocket, and plugged her mouth. “Betty,” I said in the creepy-calm voice of fake parental patience. “Put that down right this second. Haven’t you ever read
The Velveteen Rabbit
? Scarlet fever! Bedbugs! Death!”
Betty knitted her brow.
“Drop it!” I said. Juniper stopped walking and looked at me. “Not you.”
Betty released her treasure and poutily stuck her thumb in her mouth, the same thumb that, moments before, had been caressing the grimy toy’s eyeless socket. I closed my eyes. I’d been awake for two minutes and already felt overwhelmed by the length of the day ahead of me. I was officially over Harry’s disappearing act.
After Juniper had crapped a portentously watery crap—“What did you feed her?” I asked Betty, who pretended not to hear—we made our way around the block, dotted with trucks making their deafening morning deliveries to the corner store, the bakery, the bar. We trooped back upstairs. I finally changed Rose’s diaper. She grabbed at her crotch, grinning. We went into the main room, a relentlessly cluttered living room with an open kitchen, which had seemed like a good idea before we had kids. (“Perfect for entertaining!” Harry had said when I moved in. Ha!) Betty sat cross-legged next to Juniper’s bowl, crunching.
“Oh dear God, what are you eating?” I said, depositing Rose into her bouncy seat. She promptly commenced howling. I picked her up despite the twinge between my shoulder blades. Betty put her hand back into Juniper’s food bowl and then froze. “Please do not eat dog food,” I said halfheartedly. I searched for my phone in the diaper bag, which seemed to contain everything we owned except diapers. I heard Betty crunching again. Juniper lapped at her water. Betty splashed in Juniper’s water. Rose snuffled around at my chest.
I only feel like crying because I am so tired,
I told myself.
It’s just that my eyes are all dried out.
No messages on my phone. No missed calls. Staying calm for the sake of the girls took all the energy I had. Which made me mad at Harry—what a jerk, to put me through this, and on such a hot day!—which made me immediately bite the inside of my cheek, hard, to punish myself for thinking such mean thoughts about someone who was maybe missing and in danger, or maybe just a huge fucking jerk, or maybe a huge fucking jerk who was nevertheless missing and in danger.
I called the office (neck prickling, lungs hollowing out), but no one answered. It was too early for anyone to be there in any normal sort of capacity. I pictured Harry asleep in his chair, head cocked back at a terrible angle. Okay. That would make a funny story someday:
He was so tired, because you never slept, Rose, that one night he called to say he was on his way home and then promptly fell asleep in his chair.
Cue Harry rubbing his neck ruefully, as if remembering the pain upon waking.
After all, he had been working a lot of late hours recently. I coped by changing into my pajamas at six p.m. every night and entertaining Betty and myself with elaborate, magical bedtime stories. He was the one missing out, I told myself, on these great bonding whatevers. After all the moments of parenting that, let’s be honest, really sucked, I lived for that twilight time when Betty snuggled up and prompted me, “Tell the fishy.” Then my oft-mocked master’s degree in Russian folklore (it sounded good at the time) got its moment to shine. “Yes,” I told Betty, working a comb through a post-bath snarl. “Once there was a fish-woman who lived at the bottom of the river. Every night she came out and danced in the meadow by the light of the moon.”
“At the park?” In Betty’s two-and-a-half-year-old mind (as in mine), all woodland adventures took place in Prospect Park.
“Yep. In the big field on the way to the carousel. And she would dance and dance. And sometimes climb a tree to brush her hair.”
“But only if her mama there.”
“Right. Exactly. For safety. And so one night a man walked by . . .” Betty loved when these ghostly mermaids lured children with fruit snacks and Pirate’s Booty (hey, water spirits know what little kids like) and especially when they tickled men to death.
? She tickle him? But not