Authors: Amy Shearn
Now he looked at me. “You know what? Never mind. I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.”
I didn’t turn around. “Me? When
like this? When I’m like
“You don’t believe in me. You would rather I stay in a job that—”
“Look,” and now I whirled around, wielding a dripping spatula, my comically ineffective weapon. “Do you think anyone is happy a hundred percent of the time? Life’s tough, baby. That’s just how it is.”
“Oh,” he said quietly, as if talking to a tiny scuba diver deep in his drink. “I see. So from someone who drinks lattes on the playground all day, that’s very nice. I should keep slaving away selling
because you don’t want your pretty little life to get shaken up.”
“My pretty little life? Really?” I was gesturing wildly with the spatula, Jackson Pollock-ing the kitchen with spatters of sudsy water. “You think this is how I envisioned things turning out? Stuck home all day with two screaming children in a shoe box because we can’t afford more because you—”
“Don’t say it, Jenny. You just—just watch what you say.”
It was hard for me to look at him when we fought like this. His whole being was transformed, the man I loved possessed by someone so ugly, so dark and twisted, that he was rendered unrecognizable. I pushed because I couldn’t help myself, because I was tired and annoyed that there wasn’t enough soap and that Rose would surely wake up in a few minutes, and I got up in his face, and hating myself, I said, “People work, Harry. Men work. It’s not the hugest tragedy in the world, you know.”
work. You—” He was looking at me like a blind man. It was impossible to find him in his eyes.
“I what. I
. You think this is easy? You know, the work I’m doing is actual work with intrinsic value, you know, even if I’m not getting paid,” I said, quoting some women’s magazine he apparently didn’t read.
“Great,” he said. “Let’s pay our rent with some of that intrinsic value this month.”
For a moment I saw myself through his eyes: squat and plump and disheveled, wearing a too-loose nursing bra and a stained tank top, angry and flushed and nostril-flaring and hair-flying, waving around a spatula deformed from when I left it too close to the stove’s flame. That afternoon we’d strolled through the park, Rose staring at the sun in the leaves, Betty chattering happily. Betty and I had shared an ice cream cone. It
easy sometimes. It was literally
fun and games. I liked it usually, and I hated that I felt like I had to be unhappy in order for it to count as important, and I hated that Harry felt like he shouldn’t have to work, like everything should be handed to him, and I hated the city for being full of people who
have everything handed to them. I hated that this was our life, that this was our conversation, that this was the world we were creating for our children. I felt rotten, soggy and black inside, like falling-apart bread from the back of the fridge.
Harry sat there tapping his thumbnail on the side of his cup, his leg bouncing, not looking at me.
I wouldn’t look at me if I were him, either,
I thought, and without warning, I started to cry.
” he said. “That’s so unfair. You make everything about you.”
Only later did it become clear to me that our problems were excruciatingly average. We both felt, like everyone does, underappreciated and put upon. But at the time I knew only my own feelings, or rather, I didn’t know them well enough. That night I dropped the spatula in the sink and went to lie down on the bed.
It was a miracle that one or both of the girls hadn’t woken up. You could breathe the wrong way and Rose would start yodeling, but here we were shouting at each other while the babies dozed fitfully a few feet away. I closed my eyes in the brilliant dark of our bedroom, trying to remember when things had been different, when we’d appreciated each other and been kind.
It was hard to remember a perfect time. Harry had always been tempestuous, and it’s possible that he would have said the same of me. In good moments he was magnanimous and sweet and charming, expansive and warm; in good moments I couldn’t, sometimes, believe my luck. How was it that this man loved me? But you never knew when a good moment would sour, when his brow would lower and everything would darken.
Maybe if we’d talked more that night, maybe if I’d had sex with him before Rose woke up screaming for her eleven o’clock feeding, maybe if I’d been able to be a little nicer, to dredge up an ounce of sympathy, to recall, in the way of the married, what it is that once made this man so irresistible to me, to remember that we were two people who once were strangers who, for some reason, decided to become less strange (and thus, more strange) to each other, who chose to become a family. But all of that is a lot of work, the kind of work that, like pushing myself to sweat on the elliptical machine, I was not cut out for. There were certain challenges I was cut out for. Reading a long, difficult book: I seemed to remember that I once was good at that. Editing an unruly article about historically accurate building renovations, okay. Sewing a baby dress without a pattern, sure. But willpower, or maybe I mean patience, or maybe I mean compassion—it was tough for me. Anyway, whatever it was I should have done, I obviously had not done. And now our lives had become a baroque mess I’d need a miracle to escape. I mean, fix.
By the second day, Harry’s absence had taken up residence in
the apartment, a deadbeat roommate in an invisibility cloak who never took a turn doing the dishes or walking the dog. A waft of his scent beneath Juniper napping on the nest of his coiled sweater, a residue of shaved stubble gunking up the bathroom sink, his running shoes taking up an aggressive amount of space on the shoe rack in the closet. I was beginning to realize how many things he normally did around the house, even with him working such long hours. Our household was, after all, a decently oiled machine, but it worked only when Harry was there to reach the glasses in the high kitchen cabinet, to take the meticulously sorted recycling down to the street, to read books to Betty before bed while Rose nursed like her life depended on it. What made me feel like I was drowning was not wondering where he was but realizing there was a mouse carcass mummifying in the trap beneath the sink and no one but me to disinter it. The worst was Betty, who kept saying mournfully, “Daddy’s
” “Yes, honey. He’s on a business trip. So we won’t see him for—a little while. You’ll just have to wait.” Here she was, looking to me for some explanation for this strange occurrence, for some
information about the world. As always, my response was cruelly incomplete.
At an unsettlingly early hour in the morning, the buzzer rang. We all stopped what we were doing. Betty looked at me questioningly. “Gwoceries?” she guessed. “Chinese food?” Rose dropped the rattle she’d been turning over in her hands and scrunched up her face. “Uh, hello?” I called into the pointless intercom. An energetic exclamation of static replied. I pushed the button to unlock the front door. Meter reader, UPS man, Jehovah’s Witness, jewel thief. I guess my heart lightened a little. Maybe it was Harry. Having lost his keys. With some story of mischief and hijinks that would explain it all, perhaps a souvenir. Or, more likely, someone for one of the neighbors, confused by our doorbell’s cryptic arrangement of buttons, numbers, and names. I had practically forgotten about it when, nearly a minute later, the apartment door opened. “Jenny?”
Sweet Jesus. Sylvia. I cast a panicked look around the apartment. The sink contained a bulbous moonscape of plastic plates and sippy cups, the kitchen table glossy with a sealant of juice. Every toy that had ever been invented, sold, resold at a stoop sale, or abandoned at the park by a thoughtless child with an unvigilant nanny congregated on the living room floor—a good distraction from the weeks’ worth of crud stiffening the rug. I am not exaggerating when I say there were tumbleweeds of dog hair. I could smell milk rotting somewhere but had not been able to ascertain the source. Betty sat under the overturned toy bin, still in her pajamas, which she had also worn the day before and the night before that, eating her breakfast. Rose was trying her darnedest to roll directly beneath the couch. When Juniper heard the door creak open, she leaped over Rose and threw herself at Sylvia as if they were long-lost lovers.
Sylvia, perfectly turned out in a tidy jogging suit, gasped and staggered back. “Oh God, this dog.”
“Juniper! Juniper!” I impotently waved a rectangle of graham cracker. “Here. Come
.” I lunged forward and grabbed the scruff of her neck. When Juniper was stashed in my bedroom, scratching at the door and whimpering pathetically, Sylvia stepped all the way into the apartment. “Sorry, Sylvia. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Clearly,” she said, jabbing her nails into her stiff hairdo, as if even Juniper’s attentions could shake loose a shellacked strand. Sylvia’s silvery helmet of hair reminded me of the antique taxidermy at the American Museum of Natural History, resembling something living but only distantly. She’d had her boys later in life, and Harry was a little older than I; more than once I’d accidentally referred to her as his grandmother. The few times she’d met my parents, it had gotten even more confusing; she was a New York City seventy-five and my mother a Minnesota fifty-five, which netted out to be about the same.
“Gwamma!” Betty erupted from beneath the upturned bin, spilling her bowl of Froot Loops dangerously close to Rose’s head.
Sylvia received the embrace without removing her steely eyes from me. “Why was she eating cereal under a trash can?”
“It’s a toy bin,” I said, as if this explained anything.
“I see.” Sylvia patted Betty’s back. “Okay, dear, hello. And where’s our little Rosie?” Betty looked around, as if having been alerted to the presence of another child. “Wosie?” she said vaguely.
I took this as my cue to step over and lift the baby, who was only halfway under the couch. “She’s getting good at rolling.”
I handed Rose to Sylvia and hefted my sewing machine off the table and onto the floor. “Can I offer you some coffee or something?” I swept the table ineffectually with my cupped hand.
Sylvia kissed Rose’s drooly mouth and then handed her back and began to roll up her sleeves. “No, dear, thank you. Betty, honey, if
you’re finished with breakfast, then why don’t you put your toys in the toy bin? Show Grandma how many toys you can put in there.”
“WOTS!” Betty leaped into action.
“Okay, to be clear, she wouldn’t do that if it were me asking,” I said, watching Sylvia dab at the spilled milk on the rug with a wet paper towel. The cereal had stained the milk a gruesome pink. Betty’s entire digestive tract was probably dyed the same color. “You don’t have to do that.”
Sylvia reached beneath the sink to throw away the paper towel and the handful of soggy loops. Without taking her eyes off me, she washed her hands and began to run water over the sticky mound of dishes. “It’s my pleasure, Jenny. Is everything okay?” The sympathy in her voice made me cringe. “I mean, I know you don’t like to talk about this, but do you think you, I don’t know. Need to.
I studied Rose’s fingers. Rose studied my mouth as if lip-reading. “Hey,” I said, as if that were an answer. “Tell me your house never got crazy when the boys were little.” She didn’t respond. It probably hadn’t. Fred and Harry were seven years apart and not exactly little at the same time. On the days Sylvia had gone into Ever So Fresh, her mother had come over to watch them. On the days Sylvia was home, Harry had told me, she cleaned the house herself—the same tidy home in Bay Ridge that was spotless whenever we visited. She didn’t play with the kids or arrange playdates or take them to the playground or toddler tumbling classes or baby swim lessons—and she took no pains to hide how ridiculous she found our child-rearing philosophies—but her house was always immaculate. And so was her hair.
“Of course, dear. Why don’t you sit and relax a minute? I’m happy to do this. Fred is holding down the fort at the office today.” How reassuring. Sylvia made a face at the squeeze bottle of hand
soap teetering suicidally at the sink’s edge. “That’s dish soap,” I lied. She nodded and commenced to wash the dishes more thoroughly than I ever had, quickly and with those inch-long nails, all while talking to me over her shoulder.
“So they want to know if he’s endangered.”
I bounced Rose on my knee and squinted out the window. The thuggish squirrel that patrolled our fire escape stood with its claws dug into the screen, looking in at me. I swear we maintained eye contact for a good five seconds. I blinked first. He vanished. “Endangered? Like a panda bear?”
danger. The police will investigate the disappearance of an adult if he is believed to be endangered. Or if the disappearance was involuntary.” The words clamped on to my skull like a large, cold hand. Honestly, it was a possibility I hadn’t allowed for. I kept telling myself he was off being irresponsible, which was annoying but survivable. I knew how to be annoyed with Harry. I didn’t know how to be afraid for him.