Authors: Amy Shearn
” Betty kept saying on the walk home. My first thought was to call Harry with a report. It wouldn’t feel real until I had told him, until he bore witness—I typically called him throughout the day to run the day’s insanity by another adult. “Well, sounds like everyone’s okay now,” he’d say. “You’re a good friend to have helped out.” Or that’s what I would call hoping he’d say. Usually, he was busy and distracted as I spoke to him, so there was a delay before his responses, as if he were a correspondent reporting digitally from Karbala; when he did respond, it would be in the form of some non sequitur like “Oh, did you pick up my dry cleaning?” and I’d stare off into the distances of the messy apartment and get preemptively mad for when he came home, looked around wearily, and said, “What do you do all day, anyway?”
But of course he wasn’t at his desk. The cell phone went straight to voice mail. Oh, that’s
—he’d disappeared, or left me, or been murdered, or was making some extravagant statement or another that I was unable to process. He was gone, and Laura and Emma were gone, and all I could think was, numbly,
Now what are we going to do?
Just when I’d thought nothing could get worse, it did. We were out of dog food. Betty pointed it out to me when we got home from being dragged by Juniper down the block for her evening constitutional. I slumped into a mysteriously damp kitchen chair. It honestly felt like the end of the world.
I can’t do this. I can’t do this with Harry, and I certainly can’t do it without him.
You’d think I would have gotten used to myself by this point in my life, how a little thing like the absence of dog food could shake me loose, send me bobbing along bummed-out riptides. Rose was squirming around on her play mat, contented for once, batting at a plush giraffe with a rakish grin. I peered out the window. I could see the corner store from here. I would be gone for a minute, maybe, tops. Rose wasn’t rolling much, really . . . no, no. Not today. Today had proved itself to be unlucky enough already. I felt terrible for even being tempted. I squinted at the open cabinets. Rice cereal? Goldfish crackers? What was that humped in the corner—a molded lump of wheat bread? Juniper leaped dangerously close to Rose’s head. I would have to remember to move the play mat before anyone came over. No one could know I’d put my baby anywhere near this floor—studded with ancient crumbs, patterned in black spots fused to the plastic tile like gum on a subway platform.
“Juniper! Want some Cheerios?” I said. Juniper cocked her head at me, the only mannerism of hers that looked halfway intelligent.
“Mommy,” said Betty, and when I turned my head, I started—she was standing on a chair, so close to me that our faces were touching, which made her giggle. “Won’t Joomper get a tummy-ache?” It was true. Last time I’d tried to fake her out with a ham sandwich in lieu of kibble, we’d all woken up to a rancid volcano of vomit, right in the center of the Oriental rug Sylvia had loaned us.
And so, into the sling went Rosie, into one rain boot and one ruby slipper went Betty, and we headed downstairs once again. The last time I’d seen my sister, Sarah, she’d said, “Wow, Jenny, your calves look amazing.” I had laughed: all those fucking stairs. It was the one selling point of the loathsome fourth-floor walk-up. My middle may have been soft and bulbous, my breasts alternately cartoonishly large and sadly deflated depending on where we were in a feeding cycle, my hips wide in a way that seemed unlikely to subside anytime soon, but at least my calves were amazing.
Unfortunately, I was also starting to resemble a baobab tree, especially on days when I didn’t get around to washing (okay, or brushing) my thick, curly hair, which had been transformed by the relentlessly steamy summer into a caricature of itself. I’d always prided myself on not being obsessed by my body or weight, with being healthy but eating a cupcake now and then, with not agonizing over magazine spreads like the girls I worked with, who sat around admiring the models’ gaunt cheeks. I’d always scoffed at actresses who claimed their boob jobs had been about improving their self-esteem. But I had to admit, feeling so frumpy all the time was starting to get to me. I was reaching the age where a little bit of obsession over my personal appearance might not be such a bad thing. My clothes did nothing to help. My look, if I had a look, said, “I’m about to do yoga,” but I wasn’t about to do yoga. No, there was no excuse for the elastic-waisted pants and T-shirts that were somehow both too large and too small. Where I lived, you couldn’t even comfortably employ the new-mom defense, surrounded as I was by women who wore eyeliner home from the hospital—or, excuse me, the birthing center. The very sight of my feet depressed me: the toenails scabbed over with ancient burgundy polish and cracked as a Renaissance fresco; the thinning rubber flip-flops I’d trimmed with a pair of scissors to make fit. Saddest of all, I’d tried—what a joke—a
“quick and easy” hairstyle I’d seen in a magazine borrowed from the library, and gotten interrupted before I could perfect the effortless look, so my hair was incoherently gathered in a half-braided updo that was part Audrey Hepburn, part squirrel’s nest.
Naturally, there he was at the bodega. Cute Dad.
He wasn’t remotely my type. I wasn’t sure he was that cute. Water in a desert was what he was, a pin-up poster in a prison. But he was
. And he was really sweet to his kids, and his daughter was really sweet to Betty and Emma, and he was just so . . . nice. And—he ducked his head as he waved—he was
. “Hi, Jenny.” I didn’t mean to, but I grinned. My limbs shot through with something. What on earth had we needed from the store? Betty meandered down the narrow aisle, bopping her stuffed monkey’s head on each dusty can and jar.
“Oh. Sam. Hi.” Harry, Emma, everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours conspired to jar me loose, to make me forget how to be normal. “Hey. What’s going on with how you are?”
The thing was, he was a touch soft around the middle. His attire was all that was terrible about Brooklyn dad-dom: baggy cargo shorts, a T-shirt advertising his kids’ tony private school, Crocs. Crocs! And messy too-long hair at an age when too-long hair was no longer in any way appropriate. And the biggest darkest eyes I’d ever seen, fringed with ridiculous Minnie Mouse–pretty lashes. And a scar on his left cheek that deepened the dimple. Overall, he was quite teddy bear-ish. But so
. And artsy! I’d seen him clacking away on his laptop in the coffee shop on weekends when his wife was home to watch the kids, and when I’d asked him about it once, he’d revealed that he was writing a screenplay. When I’d mentioned this to Harry, he’d snorted dismissively. “You’re kidding. A white guy in Brooklyn who sits in a café writing a screenplay? How
.” But I liked that Sam had this project, this creative inner life. When Harry came home from work, he flipped on the TV and swore at sporting events. It didn’t seem so terrible to me that someone should spend his free time making something. And Sam’s wife, whom I saw around the neighborhood on the weekends, was sort of grouchy and not very pretty, which made me love him even more. She was a lawyer who worked in some way that managed to benefit minorities while making her family rich enough to own a co-op on the park and send their kids to St. Ann’s. The
fancy private school.
I even loved their kids, Maude and George, both adorable and brown-eyed like their dad, and so sweet and polite that you could tell Sam and Juliet were really good parents. I guess I was sort of in love with the whole family—the calm, happy way they lumbered down the sidewalk in a pack while I watched, not as creepily as it sounds, from the living room window. I was in love with six-year-old George and his guitar case. I was in love with four-year-old Maude and her obsession with ladybugs. It was the way you knew people in the city—I’d seen them around when they were little and before my kids were born, and over the years I’d seen them so many times that eventually we all somehow knew one another without ever introducing ourselves. I experienced a jolt of happiness when I saw them take off on their bikes, Maude and Sam perched on a bicycle made for two, George pedaling along furiously on his Huffy. I imagined they were going to the farmers’ market to carefully select vegetables they would all make into a delicious and well-planned dinner. Kale! Endive! Rutabaga! This was a family that feared no produce! I was sure their lives were purer and tidier and lovelier than mine because of Sam and his intense sincerity, his glowing kindness.
“I’m doing well”—of course he was!—“and you? Getting any better?”
Any better? Was it that obvious? Did my erstwhile Upper East Side therapist use my face on her business cards or something? But Sam was winking at Rose. “Oh, her? Not really. I think we went straight from colic to teething.” I tried to say it lightly, shrugging off the juicy heat that swelled beneath my eye sockets. Betty appeared at my elbow with a can of sardines. She held it out in both hands, like a precious
want this,” she said, her voice tinged with insistence.
Sam smiled and knelt down. “You like sardines, too? I didn’t know that! I love how slimy they are.”
Betty peered dubiously at the tin, which featured a yellow crown that I guessed had been the appeal. A can of princess power. “Um,
“I love those little fishies,” Sam said. “I love how they squish and crunch between your teeth.”
Betty frowned. “Be wight back,” she said, holding the tin between two fingers.
Sam rose, laughing.
I love you,
I thought accidentally. Harry would have just roared at her to put the tin back. He didn’t believe in parenting sleight-of-hand. He felt that children ought to obey their parents because their parents were their parents. It was an attitude that, while not unreasonable, seemed to me to come from not spending very much time with children.
“How’s Harry?” said Sam. “Still working such long hours?” People brushed past us in the tiny market. Nearby at the counter, a squat woman in a housedress was meticulously ordering scratch cards. “And a cherry,” she said. “Wait, two cherries. And one little luck.”
“Yeah,” I said. The phrase “one little luck” echoed in my head. It was all anyone needed, wasn’t it? One little luck. Although if Harry knew what was good for him, he was hooking up with a huge, voluptuous beast’s worth of luck. “Looooong hours. Very long.”
I realized then that I wouldn’t tell anyone besides Laura that Harry had gone missing unless it became absolutely necessary. It was embarrassing to admit that I didn’t know where my husband was, that I had married someone who would leave his wife and kids alone for a day, a week, who knew how long, that I was the kind of woman you would leave. It would be even worse to have to explain why my demeanor was one of long-suffering irritation rather than the alerting-the-authorities hysteria you’d expect of a loving wife, of a wife pretending to be a loving wife. What could I say?
Oh, Harry’s run off somewhere, but it’s okay because he does this every once in a while. He’s probably gambling away our life savings, ha! Oh, well, it usually only takes a few days for him to find his way back!
Like a puppy with a cracked homing instinct. “Really long hours,” I added.
Sam studied me. His expression revealed something to me about my expression, something I didn’t like. I turned away. “Well, we better pick up a few hundred more tins of sardines.”
He hefted a box of butter in his large, clean hand and smiled. “Sounds like a delicious dinner.”
I looked over my shoulder and said, “Jealous?” immediately blushing to the roots of my hair and diving into the ice cream aisle. I was so bad at whatever I was trying to do. Sam laughed politely behind me. I listened to his banter with the man who owned the store. He even remembered the names of the man’s many similarly named children—Hassan and Bashem and Bassam and so on. God, he was good. Then the doors tinkled and he disappeared.
We had all just had our bath—it was so much easier to do it that way, and besides, I was sure all the kid pee was great for my complexion—when the phone rang. Sylvia. “I’m calling the police.”