Authors: Jennifer Weiner
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I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away
For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.
âBOB DYLAN, “ISIS”
I don't answer. I shut my eyes and hold my breath and hope whoever it is will think I'm not here and go home.
Knock knock knock,
and then my name again. “Rachel, are you in there?”
I twist myself more deeply into the sheets. The sheets are fancy, linen, part of the wedding haul, and they've gotten silkier with every trip through the washing machine. I pull the pillow over my head, noting that the pillowcase has acquired a not-so-fresh smell. This is possibly related to my not having showered for the last three days, during which I have left the bed only to use the toilet and scoop a handful of water from the bathroom sink into my mouth. On the table next to my bed there's a sleeve of Thin Mint cookies that I retrieved from the freezer, and a bag of Milanos for when I finish the Thin Mints. It's spring, and sunny and mild, but I've pulled my windows shut, drawing the shades so I can't see the members of the mom brigade ostentatiously wheeling their oversized strollers down the street, and the forty-year-old guys with expensive suede sneakers and facial hair as carefully tended as bonsai trees tweeting while they walk, or the tourists snapping selfies in front of the snout-to-tail restaurants where everything's organic and locally sourced. The bedroom is dark; the doors are locked; my daughters are elsewhere. Lying on these soft sheets that smell of our commingled scent, hair and skin and the sex we had two weeks ago, it's almost like not being alive at all.
Knock knock knock
. . . and thenâfuck meâthe sound of a key. I shut my eyes, cringing, a little-girl's game of imagining that if you couldn't see someone, they couldn't see you, either. “Go away,” I say.
Instead of going away, my visitor comes and sits on the side of the bed, and touches my shoulder, which must be nothing but a lump underneath the duvet.
“Rachel,” says Brenda, the most troubled and troublesome of my clients, whom I'd been scheduled to see on Friday. For a minute I wonder how she got into my house before remembering that I'd given her grandson Marcus a key the year before, so he could water the plants and take in the mail over spring break, a job for which I'd paid him the princely sum of te
bucks. He'd asked me shyly if I could take him to the comic book store to spend it, and we'd walked there together with his hand in mine.
“Sorry I missed you,” I mutter. My voice sounds like it's coming from the bottom of a clogged drain. I clear my throat. It hurts. Everything hurts.
“Don't worry,” says Brenda. She squeezes my shoulder and gets off the bed, and I can hear her moving around the room. Up go the shades and window, and a breeze raises goose bumps on my bare arms. I work one eye open. She's got a white plastic laundry basket in her arms, which she's quickly filling with the discarded clothing on the floor. In the corner are a broom and a mop, and a bucket filled with cleaning supplies: Windex and Endust, Murphy's Oil Soap, one of those foam Magic Erasers, which might be useful for the stain on the wall where I threw the vase full of tulips and stem-scummed water.
I close my eyes, and open them again to the sharp-sweet smell of Pine-Sol. I watch like I'm paralyzed as Brenda first sweeps and then dips her mop, squeezes it, and starts to clean my floors.
“Why?” I croak. “You don't have to . . .”
“It isn't for you, it's for me,” says Brenda. Her head's down, her brown hair is drawn back in a ponytail, and it turns out she does own a shirt that's not low-cut, pants that aren't skintight, and shoes that do not feature stripper heels or, God help me, a goldfish frozen in five inches of Lucite.
Brenda mops. Brenda dusts. She works the foam eraser until my walls are as smooth and unmarked as they were the day we moved in. Through the open window come the sounds of my neighborhood. “The website said Power Vinyasa, but I barely broke a sweat,” I hear, and “Are you getting any signal?” and “Sebastian! Bad dog!”
I smell the city in springtime: hot grease from the artisanal doughnut shop that just opened down the block, fresh grass and mud puddles, a whiff of dog shit, possibly from bad Sebastian. I hear a baby wail, and a mother murmur, and a pack of noisy guys, probably on their way to or from the parkour/CrossFit gym. My neighborhood, I decide, is an embarrassment. I live on the Street of ClichÃ©s, the Avenue of the Expected. Worse, I'm a clichÃ© myself: almost forty, the baby weight that I could never shed ringing my middle like a deflated inner tube, gray roots and wrinkles and breasts that look good only when they're stringently underwired. They could put my picture on Wikipedia: Abandoned Wife, Brooklyn, 2014.
Brenda's hands are gentle as she eases me up and off the bed and into the chair in the cornerâa flea-market find, upholstered in a pale yellow print, the chair where I sat when I nursed my girls, when I read my books, when I wrote my reports. As I watch, she deftly strips the sheets off the bed, shakes the pillows free of their creased cases, and gives each one a brisk whack over her knee before settling it back on the bed. Dust fills the room, motes dancing in the beams of light that push through the dirt-filmed windows I'd been planning to have cleaned.
I huddle in my nightgown, shoulders hunched, knees pulled up to my chest. “Why are you doing this?” I ask.
Brenda looks at me kindly. “I am being of service,” she says. She carries her armful of soiled linen out of the bedroom and comes back with a fresh set. When she struggles to get the fitted sheet to stay put, I get up off the chair and help her. Then she goes to the bathroom and turns on the shower. “Come on,” she says, and I pull my nightgown off over my head and stand under the showerhead, with my arms hanging by my sides. I tilt my head to feel the warmth beating down on my cheeks, my chin, my eyelids. Tears mix with the water and wash down the drain. When I was a little girl and I'd come home from the hospital with Steri-Strips covering my stitches, my mom would give me a sponge bath, then sit me on the edge of the tub to wash my hair, pouring warm water over my head, rubbing in the shampoo, then rinsing, then conditioning, and rinsing again. She would touch the thick, braided line of pink scar tissue that ran down the center of my chest, then gently pat it dry.
My beautiful girl,
she would say.
My beautiful, beautiful girl.
My sheets are silky and cool as pond water, but I don't lie down. I prop myself up against the headboard and rasp out the question that I've heard hundreds of times from dozens of clients. “What do I do now?”
Brenda gives a rueful smile. “You start again,” she tells me. “Just like the rest of us.”
Half a Heart
was born with a broken heart. This was a line that got me a lot of sympathy from preschool through sixth grade, when I decided that a congenital heart condition was not what I wanted to be known for, and stopped talking about it at school. My condition was called tricuspid atresia, which meant that on the right side, the valve between the upper and lower chambers of my heart wasn't formed correctly. Blood that should have flowed smoothly from my heart to my lungs moved instead in a sluggish trickleâa lazy schoolkid who'd overslept and couldn't be bothered to run for the bus. Not a good thing if you want to, as the doctors say, survive.
I'd been diagnosed thirty-six hours after my birth, when I'd done the docs the favor of turning a lovely shade of plum. At the local hospital, they didn't know exactly what was wrong, only that they couldn't fix it, so they airlifted me to Miami Children's Hospital, where I received something called a Blalock-Taussig shunt to give the blood an unobstructed path.
Once I'd recovered, my terrified parents took me home, along with an oxygen tank and instructions about what to do if I turned blue or started gasping. For the first year of my life, I slept in a portable crib pushed up next to my mother's side of the bed, with her hand on my chest. Photographs show a tiny, wrinkled raisin of an infant floating in her onesies, with none of the succulent, squeezable plumpness of normal babies. “Failure to thrive” was what they wrote on my charts, and my mother took it like a straight-A student receiving her first failing grade, like she'd been the one who'd been unable to successfully nurture me, instead of me being the one who hadn't grown. Before I was born, she'd been a librarianâjust part-time after my brother had come, but it was work she loved. After I was diagnosed, she quit and devoted herself to my care.
“We used to put olive oil in your baby food,” she told meâthis was when I was a teenager and had embarked on the first of many lose-five-pounds-in-a-weekend schemes, that one involving grapefruits and cucumbers. She would melt butter in my rice cereal, slather it on bread and crackers, feed me milk shakes where other kids just got milk. Still, it was years before I crept into the very lowest height/weight percentiles for children my age, years before I graduated to my own bedroom, where, all through my childhood and into my teens, I would wake up at least once a week with my mother's hand on my chest and her face twisted in fear that would melt into relief when she was sure that I was still breathing, that my heart was still beating, that I was still alive.
“We thought we would lose you,” she told me, over and over. I couldn't blame her. Besides all the surgeries and the risks they involved, when I was six I'd had pleurisy, a lung infection that made my oxygen saturation levels drop dangerously low. My parents brought me to my cardiologist, who sent me straight to the hospital, where the surgeons performed an emergency procedure that night to close off veins that had gotten too big, in a misguided effort to help my body deal with the faulty valve. I'd gone home the next day, even though my mom said she'd begged the doctors to keep me longer, that she didn't think she'd be able to stand it if she found me turning purple again. By my seventh birthday, I'd been hospitalized six timesâonce after the pleurisy, once with pneumonia, four more times for cardiac catheterizations so the doctors could check the shunt.
When I was eight, I went back to Miami Children's for open-heart surgery, a hemi-Fontan procedure that would replace the original shunt and would keep me in the hospital for a month. My mother had been terrified about the operation, of having my chest cracked open again, my poor battered heart exposed to the world. Every Friday for three months before the big day, she would drag me to synagogue and, when the rabbi asked if anyone needed a
a special prayer for healing, she'd march me up to the bimah, the altar in front of the Torah, so he could put his hands on my shoulders and pray. I didn't tell my mom that I was secretly almost looking forward to the surgery. Once I'd had it, maybe she would stop worrying so much, and I could spend my Friday nights watching TV.
The only thing I remembered from the operation was Dr
Bob, the anesthesiologist, telling me to count backward from ten. “Ten . . . nine . . . eight . . .” I said . . . and then I woke up in the recovery room with my mom next to the bed, crying. For the first few days I was on a ventilator. My mom would hold my hand, refusing to let go, eating the sandwiches and apples she'd packed for her lunch one-handed, talking to me constantly. My father would come after work, bringing a stuffed animal every timeâa fuzzy yellow duck, a teddy bear, a pink bunny with silky, fur-lined ears. He would tuck each new toy into the crook of my arm and deposit a kiss on my forehead.
“She's a fighter,” he would tell my mom, handing her tissues, patting her back. Then he'd sit in the corner, reading magazines, while my mom would comb my hair and fuss with my gown and cry when she thought I was sleeping. “My number-one mom,” I would say, and she'd give me a brave, tremulous smile. I spent days, and a few sleepless nights, trying to figure out the right words, something I could say that would comfort her and would also be true.
I promise I won't die
was the obvious choice . . . but I wasn't sure I could promise that, and I didn't think she'd like knowing that I thought death was even a possibility. I stuck with “Number-one mom,” which was what it said on the mug I'd painted for her birthday.
At eight o'clock they'd finally leave. My mom would kiss me, her freckled face pale and her curly brown hair, which was usually blown out straight and meticulously styled, pulled back in a careless ponytail. My dad would steer her out the door, one heavy hand between her shoulder blades, rubbing in little circles. Sometimes I'd see her rest her head on his shoulder. Sometimes I'd hear him whisper “I love you” in her ear.
By the second week, I was still in bed, still on a feeding tube and a cannula, with drains sticking out of my chest. “Lookin' good!” said my hospital friend Alice, popping into my room even though I didn't think she was supposed to be leaving hers. When I'd arrived there'd been a big sign reading
MASKS AND HAND-WASHING MANDATORY
on her door, and I'd heard the nurses scold her for wandering. Alice was twelve and in sixth grade, but she was so small that we were basically the same size. Alice had had leukemia as a baby, and it had affected her growth. She would always be short, even as a grown-upâ“That is, if I make it that long,” she would say. For a while, the doctors thought she was cured. She'd made it past the five-year mark without a recurrence. Then, when she was ten, she'd started getting sick again. Still, she'd been out in the world long enough to tell me about the roller rink, where my parents never let me go, and about PG-rated movies, and what kind of homework you got in sixth grade. She had kissed two boys playing Seven Minutes in Heaven at a friend's birthday party, and she'd seen
to which my parents had said, “Absolutely not.” They hadn't even wanted to buy me the soundtrack. I'd had to get Nana to buy it for my birthday.
By the third week, the doctors said that I was healing beautifully, and that I was well enough to eat real food. My mother's tears slowed to a trickle. Instead of tucking her hair back into a scrunchie, she'd coax it into ringlets and then do my hair, too. She'd stopped wearing T-shirts and jeans and was back in her usual uniform, crisply ironed cotton blouses and linen pants with narrow leather belts, and I got to swap the hospital gowns that opened in the back for pajamas. We'd play Boggle or checkers, with the games set up on the hinged table that rolled in place above my bed, and she'd let me try on her makeup when she went outside to speak quietly to the nurses and the doctors.
My father would still stop by at night, bringing me things that I could do, not just holdâhundred-piece puzzles, a Walkman with new tapesâWham! and Madonna, Whitney Houston and Billy Ocean. When my parents weren't there, I would take my new gifts to Alice's room. After I'd scrubbed my hands and slipped on a surgical mask, we could sit on her bed and listen to music, stretching the headphones wide so that she could hear the music in her left ear and I could listen with my right.
“Take that stupid thing off,” she'd say, pointing at my mask. “Like that's going to help anything.” Alice was terminal. “That means I'm going to die,” she'd told me the first day I'd gotten out of bed, when we were in the playroom, together on a couch. It was September in Florida, sunny and warm, and we could see palm trees outside the windows and hear the drone of the mower as a man in a khaki uniform steered it across the lawn. A five-year-old who'd come for a kidney transplant ran around pretending he was a fireman. A little girl with a bald head sat reading
The Cat in the Hat
with her mom. “They don't ever say it in front of me. But I know.”
I wanted to know if she was scared, but I didn't want to insult her. “Does it hurt?” I asked instead.
She pointed at the bag of clear fluids dripping into the IV attached to her arm. “They give me dope.”
I nodded. After this most recent surgery, I'd had a button that I could press whenever it hurt.
Alice looked down, adjusting her scarf, so that I couldn't see her face when she said, “I think maybe, by the end, it's going to hurt a lot.” Then she raised her head, tossing one of the long, trailing ends of the scarf over her shoulder.
“Very.” Alice always wore bandanas or fancy fringed scarves in beautiful patterns, turquoise and hot pink and gold. Once, I'd been walking past her room and she'd been cross-legged on her bed with her scarf beside her, and I'd seen her head bare. She had only a thin coating of pale blond fuzz where her hair had been, and there were pink scars crisscrossing her scalp. The night after the playroom I'd had a terrible nightmare, a dream where Alice turned into a cat and came and sat on my chest. Cat-Alice clamped my nose shut with her paws, and when I opened my mouth, she breathed into me, blowing her sickness down my throat so that she'd be healthy again and I'd be the one who had cancer. “It's going to hurt a lot,” Cat-Alice hissed, and I woke up sweaty, my heart beating hard enough to scare
“Will Alice get better?” I asked Sandra, my favorite of all the nurses. Sandra was sure-handed and gentle when she had to give me a needle or start a line, and she'd always say “Lunch is served, madam!” when she dropped off my tray, lifting the plastic lids off the food like it was something great even when I was just on clear liquids and Jell-O. When the bed next to me was empty, she'd fill it with my swiftly expanding collection of stuffed animals, arranging them in funny displays, the bunny with its long ears spread out against a pillow, the monkey hanging from an IV pole by its tail.
Sandra turned her head from side to side, like she was shaking water out of her ears. “We aren't supposed to talk about other patients.” Then she smiled, to show that she hadn't meant to hurt my feelings. She had a pretty accentâher parents had come from Cuba, so she'd learned to speak Spanish before English. Her hair was dark and shiny, her eyes were merry and brown, and she wore a sweet, flowery perfume. I'd take deep breaths whenever she was close, and try to hold the scent in my nose to overpower the smell of the hospital, floor cleaners and chicken soup and pee.
“I hope she'll get better. She's my friend.” Sandra didn't answer, but I saw her lips tighten and heard her ponytail whisk against her back as she turned her head away. That, I was learning, was how grown-ups told the truth, not with words, but with what they did. The next night after dinner, I was walking up and down the hall, the only exercise that I could do, and I saw a woman in a skirt and high heels, not scrubs and clogs, talking quietly to Alice's parents outside of her room. I didn't see the name on her tag, but I saw the words
I thought. Alice's mom was pale and silent, but her father was crying, big, heaving sobs that made his shoulders shake while he covered his face with his hands. I walked away fast, pulling my IV pole behind me. I was used to mothers cryingâat least, I was used to my mom doing itâbut it was unsettling to see a father like that. My father was big, broad-chested, and strong. I couldn't imagine him crying, and I didn't know what I'd do if he ever did.
By the fourth week, I was feeling almost completely better, but Alice was sleeping almost all of the time, and the novelty of hospital life was beginning to wear off. My mom would come every morning, bustling around, rearranging my blankets and books and stuffed animals and the get-well cards that she'd taped to the wall. She'd sit on my bed with me and watch
The Price Is Right.
We'd call out our bets for the Showcase Showdown, keeping track of who won. When dinner arrived at five-thirty, she'd watch me, monitoring every spoonful of soup and cracker that I ate, and if the food wasn't something I liked, she was ready with a tote bag full of jam-and-butter sandwiches, out-of-season cherries, and Fritos (“Don't tell Dad,” she'd whisper, passing me the bag). On Friday nights she'd make my brother, Jonah, come with her, and when they left they'd go to Shabbat services, this time to pray for me to get well. In khakis and a button-down, with a yarmulke in his pocket and clean fingernails that I knew my mom had inspected, Jonah would stand in the doorway, mouthing the words
when my mom wasn't looking. I didn't mind. At least he still treated me like a normal little sister.
After dinner was more TV, and then story time. I had a big book of
Grimm's Fairy Tales
ânot the Disney versions but the original stories, where Cinderella's wicked stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to cram their feet into the glass slipper and the illustrations showed the blood. “Are you sure this won't give you bad dreams?” my mother would ask. I shook my head, not mentioning the dream I'd had about Alice, not asking her any of the questions I had. It would upset her to have to think about a kid dying, even if it was someone else's kid.