They met in the pit of despair. They didn’t know it then. They couldn’t see outside of the context they lived in. Context is an interesting word for drugs and alcohol and sickness. He bought her roses on Valentine’s Day, but she didn’t know they were dating. She went out drinking and saw his cousin at the bar. First, the cousin took the tambourine and then he took the beer. Slamming it on the counter and telling her to go home. Home she thought was an interesting choice of words. She did not live with them. She lived on a loveseat without explicit permission from its owners. “He has roses,” the cousin said, “and he’s waiting for you.”
The cousin who introduced them had a cousin who was dating her cousin. It was a complicated web. At any rate, the girl was too young. At the bars at seventeen, spinning with the Dead Heads and shooting tequila shot for shot with a friendly bartender. The boys — or were they men? The lines get blurred — didn’t care much about her age, but she didn’t care much about them. She cared about the next shot, the next dollar to buy it, the next fix. In an apartment in the city, the boy’s cousin came out to a man hitting on her. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “Let me take you somewhere where there are at least people your age.” He took her to the boy’s house. She borrowed a t-shirt and was warned by the cat, pushing its paws into the girl’s chest, claws out, just enough, to let her know as it stared into her face, who was the boss. Years later, he would accuse her of having slept with the cousin. An accusation founded on mist, clouds and a friendship that she held dear because most men in her life at that time weren’t worried about how old she was or the company she kept.
She was moving halfway across the country and didn’t tell him. It came up casually in a phone conversation. “You’re leaving?” He asked. It was a valid question. It hadn’t occurred to her that this might be of interest to him. “I’m leaving,” she said. “In a week.” She was going far away. She was going to school. She didn’t want to, but her parents said she had to, and she didn’t have anywhere to live, so she went.
She took a road trip in her grandparents’ Winnebago. Two professors and her, detoxing while she listened to the Indigo Girls burned onto a cd because that was how people did things back then. Her grandparents said no to wine and there were no drugs to be found and she had one carton of cigarettes to last her three weeks. They ate whole wheat Sun Chips and put fresh tomatoes on pizza. All of which tasted weird to her.
She didn’t last long out there. You know what they say, you follow yourself wherever you go. It was true for her. When they finally arrived at a college campus surrounded by corn fields, she found the nearest frat boy with an ID and asked if he’d get her a bottle of tequila. He would and he was kind. He locked her in his bedroom when she got too drunk and tried to give her sound advice. She met a different boy a month later and fell in love. She would break his heart in the months to come but she couldn’t know that yet. She tried to get it right. She tried to drink less, go to class, show up for work. Then 9/11 and the world fell to shit and it seemed like a good enough excuse to go to shit with it.
She came back with a low GPA and decided not to return to school. Got a job and fell back into the habits she was trying to get away from. She called the boy and he came. They moved in together too fast. It was too fast. She needed a place and he had one and so he opened it up. She smashed all his dishes. He pushed her in the hallway. She crashed his car into his truck and into the sushi restaurant where she waited tables and into another car on the way to another restaurant where she waited tables. He decided to fix his life and wanted her to fix hers. “I didn’t sign up for that,” she said. She didn’t want to fix her life. “My life,” she told him, “is just fine.” She moved out into a basement apartment that sat behind a pizza restaurant.
Her life wasn’t fine.
Eventually she came around to the idea. That she needed to fix her life. It started with her dad fixing his life. She would have done anything for her dad, so she agreed to give up drinking in solidarity. She did for a few months. She went to AA meetings with him. Then moved back in with the boy. And then she turned twenty-one. It was a Tuesday, midnight. She put on her best Carrie Bradshaw outfit – pink skirt, tied up white button down, checkered fedora – and found her way to an open karaoke bar.
The boy thought he was a savior though and he never quite let that go.
They knocked down a wall in his apartment and painted another wall red. They got bored with painting and left a rolled-on smiley face until he hired one of his dad’s painter-friends to finish the job.
The boy’s mother didn’t like the girl. She still doesn’t like her, though she’s kind enough to not admit it. Back then she did. “Sometimes two people can love each other and not be right for one another.” She would come to wonder, in the years to come, what the mother could see that they couldn’t. If it was just the mess they were both living in, or if there was something else.
Nine months later she was sober. She was in AA. She was building up her life one apology and credit score fix at a time. She was working as a temp at a greeting card company. She was struggling to pay her car insurance and half the rent and groceries. Her boyfriend was always financially fine. She was too proud to ask for help most of the time, but one time she needed it. She asked him to borrow the money to pay her car insurance. He said yes and then no and then yes and then no again. He said she needed to learn how to fix her own problems and he couldn’t bail her out all the time. “All the time?” she asked. She’d never asked him for anything. “I’ve been fixing my own problems my whole life.” Fate worked it out and she got a back-owed check from the universe, but it stuck with her, that he felt that way. That he was bailing her out all the time.
Truth be told, he was doing the same things she was. Living the same way. He just came from a different background and had more opportunities at his feet.
She got a job making better money. She worked hard and got promoted. She was proud of herself. She drove a shitty car and someone in his family didn’t like the way it looked in the driveway. He took her to buy a new car. One she didn’t have a down payment for. He offered to give it to her and then brought it up all the time. This stuck with her too.
Her mother is like that. Or at least she was when the girl was young. Maybe she’d changed. Everything given is something owed. The girl learned early on not to ask for things. She never wanted to be a taker. This was one thing she couldn’t see with him. She saw a prince in some shining armor. She saw every girls’ dream. She saw it and didn’t know it because she had never expected it or wanted it or had even known to look for it. The dream had seeped in while she was still sleeping.
She hit the one-year mark in sobriety. He asked her to marry him and she was nervous. She wasn’t sure she ever wanted to be married at all. She wasn’t sure she believed in that sort of thing, legally binding contracts of love. She didn’t know what to say but there he was on his knee with a ring and she mumbled some questions and tried to buy time and then she said yes. She just said yes.
She walked a lot the year they were getting married. He never noticed. She was always gone, walking, just one step after the other. She let her maid of honor plan the wedding and her father pick the place and the boy, a man now, pick the song. She didn’t want cake. She didn’t want too many flowers. They bought a house with good bones. He was angry all the time about everything to do with it. By the time she put that dress on, when he spun her on the floor where their first dance floated, she was too thin. Her dress fell, it just slipped right down, and she caught it and ran to the bathroom.
“Sometimes when I date a girl, I check the size of her jeans.” He’d sad this to her once, years earlier. “I check the size when they’re on the side of my bed.”
He didn’t check anything when her wedding dress fell. He did when she bore his children.
They got pregnant on accident. They didn’t mean to that fast, but there she was with a child growing inside of her. The first doctor prescribed her anti-nausea medication and then Xanax for the anxiety they would later learn came from the anti-nausea medication. Xanax is not safe for pregnant women and she was smart enough to look that up. She wasn’t smart enough to connect the anti-nausea medication to the anxiety. She had a dystonic reaction. On a walk around the town, her jaw froze. She couldn’t speak. She had to go to the hospital.
They made the decision that she would leave work because he thought it was a good idea. He wanted a childhood like his own. “I’m not your mother and I never will be.” She told him. It made sense though, for her to stay home. He wasn’t earning enough to justify daycare and she wasn’t earning enough to be the primary provider. So, that was it. She would stay home with their daughter.
Fourteen hours of hard labor. A doula in training telling him, “I don’t think she likes that.” He was offended. He needed a smoke. “I held you in the tub for hours,” he likes to say, “because you were finally comfortable.” The woman wasn’t comfortable. She was in labor. And he didn’t hold her for hours. It was maybe an hour.
Then she came. Their little girl. The wife never loved another living being so much so fast or felt so much love in return. She’d also never had so little sleep. The husband wasn’t helpful. He didn’t know what to do with the child. He blamed breastfeeding. He blamed the mother. The child’s crying, he said, made him see red.
“Only children are weird,” and “you only want one child so it’s easier to leave me.”
The woman didn’t want a second child. She hated the way her husband was with the first. She felt lonely all the time. She had no one to talk to. His sister said his mother said that she was there too much. She didn’t tell either of them that the husband had asked her to be his mother’s friend. She didn’t say that he hated the way his father was to his mother and he hated how much his mother had on her plate. The wife didn’t tell the husband that she could identify with the way his mother might feel because, although she very much liked his father, all the things he complained about the father doing, she felt her own husband was doing to her.
Not until years later. Then she told him, but he laughed it off and told her to stop being such a bitch.
They had a second child.
He was a beautiful boy and he came like lightning. Forty-five minutes and a son. They named him Jameson but then someone called him James and she scrunched her nose. They changed it to something new. She had a hard time when the baby came home. She doesn’t want to admit that in case, like herself, the boy grows up to think it means something it doesn’t. He’s a saving grace, that boy. More like her than she could have ever imagined but she didn’t know that then. Then, she couldn’t produce enough milk and she was frantically losing weight to please her husband and she still wasn’t sleeping.
A new mother sits in a rocking chair. She is depleted, utterly depleted. She hasn’t slept a full night in almost two years. Between the breastfeeding of the first baby and the pregnancy with the second that resulted in the crying newborn she now holds. “I need help,” she whispers. “I need sleep.” In a backlit doorframe her husband says, “I never expected this from you. That you’d turn into such a nag. I’m going fishing.”
She stopped nagging. She adhered to Pinterest-standard motherhood. Finger paints, and hidden items in rice. Healthy foods made from scratch. Mommy-and-me playgroups. Library visits and parks. Letters, A-B-C, taped to walls so they could be early learners. Tummy time and bath time with lavender and always a book before bed. She sang lullabies and slept on the floor of her daughter’s room because she couldn’t stand to let her cry it out alone but wanted her to learn to self-soothe. She sat in her bed for two weeks, a toddler in tow, on a nursing vacation begging her body to produce her boy some milk.
The husband never listened, watched, saw. He never asked. He muttered an “uh-huh” when she told him her mid-wife was concerned about the quick weight-loss. And an “uh-huh” when she threw out the term post-partum depression. And an “uh-huh, I don’t want to talk about this right now,” or “can’t I just watch tv,” whenever she was reading a parenting book or seeking his advice or sharing something about the quotidian affairs of her quotidian day.
“Little bunny-foo-foo went hopping through the forest, scooping up the field mice…” and kicking them to death with the small pitter-patter of the tiniest furred feet.
“You’ll go back to work when he’s in kindergarten.”
Why wait? she thought. She didn’t feel appreciated or valued. The house was never clean enough, and the dinner wasn’t cooked often enough, even though the husband could never be home at the time he said he would be to eat it.
Nag, nag, nag. All you do is nag.
She stopped waiting to cook dinner. She ate when she was hungry.
“I have an interview at a photo studio.” She might as well have been clapping.
“You can’t work now. Who will take care of the children?”
She signed up for school. A community college. She could do most of it online. She killed herself to work in the hours when the children were sleeping. She didn’t want it to affect their lives. Mary had a little lamb and the lamb broke the rules, but it was still Mary’s fault, all day long with the nursery rhymes and the kitchen and the vacuum. All night long with the papers and the studying and the reading.
She started to realize she had been her own savior all along.
She kept going.
Every Christmas she wanted to give her husband something nice, thoughtful, worthy of his gaze. She worked parttime so she could contribute to the groceries on her own and she saved from the $84 she made weekly for months, so she could actually get him something that he didn’t have to pay for. One year she made some art out of local photos and put it on social media. People asked to buy it. She toted her kids in carriages and backpacks and took pictures so she could sell them. And it’s true, he built her some frames. It was his slow season. He’d always liked to work with his hands. She admired him as he worked, and she spent every bit of money she made on his Christmas present that year. She was proud.
He wanted to know if she had deducted the purchase of materials from her profits.
“I need help. I can’t keep up with the kids and the schoolwork and the weeding and the house.”
Hire a gardener. Hire a maid.
“I don’t want to hire a maid. What kind of stay-at-home mom hires a maid? I just need help. I hate washing the floors. Can you just wash the floors?”
He hired a gardener.
He told her to hire the maid.
She fell into it for a little bit. It was easier. Like the shiny lure a fish goes after before the hook sticks right in their mouth.
Sometimes she wakes up before the children, in the chirping of early dawn, after a dream about a watermelon. In the dream she holds onto the fruit, its weight heavy in her hands, and lifts it, almost tosses it, just a little, up and down. Sometimes she throws it, hoists it, hefts it right up from her waist to her chin or her eyes. Every time she is disgusted with it and she lifts it high over her head and smashes it down. The seeds get tangled with the shell and the pulp. She doesn’t worry about cleaning the kitchen floor or spraying it off the driveway. She just admires the mess thinking at least it’s something. At least it’s not just another load to bear.
She’d dreamt it five-six-seven times before she started to ask herself what the load was. She dreamt it ten-eleven-twelve times before not being able to figure that out really started to bother her. She had dreamt it several nights in a row when she actually smashed a watermelon or pieces of a watermelon, after a party, carrying in a domestic tray, carrying in too many things for one person to carry.
And then there on the porch in the heat of August was a pile of seed and shell and pulp in the flesh. A sticky mess waiting to be cleaned up. Too many things to put down, to get from the car, with kids running through it with bare feet tracking the juice in the hallway, and then the kitchen, and then, before she could put all the things down and stop them, onto the rug.
The husband was still at the party at his parents’. Entertaining some colleagues. An annual thing that she had been helping with since its inception. Earlier, she had come to help set up. She was moving tables while he yelled at her about how difficult she was. He was stressed.
Today he sent her a message about how she never helped him at work. How it had helped her so much, her family. He employs some relatives. The last time he brought this up, she found some sketches in a notebook she had done for a new logo. She left it on the bed. She has planned other things for him, too. She has counseled and advised and listened for hours she cannot keep track of.
In August though, with the watermelon, something broke.
There are things that cannot be unsaid, actions that cannot be taken back. They stick in a body, get lodged in the muscle or the fat or in some associative part of the brain so that when the refrigerator door gets open and only the light from inside shines out to create a silhouette of a man she once loved, she can only see him fake scoffing food after she’d just told him she was pregnant with his second child. “I’m pregnant.” Refrigerator door. Hand to food. Food to mouth. “Scoff, scoff, scoff.” Or else maybe it’s in the fat just below the stretchmarks on her stomach from the first child. The ones that make her wonder whenever she looks in the mirror if anyone else could ever love her. The ones that remind her of comments like “You know sexual attraction is a large part of a marriage, right?” and “why is your wardrobe all of sudden only cotton,” with a newborn in the next room and eyes that cast down to the very area that grew with that child’s life. Then again, it could be stored in the muscles in her jaw that haven’t loosened yet, even after the adrenaline in the hospital to get rid of the dystonic reaction. There’s a fear that motivates it, if teeth unclenched, a past version of self might come flying out.
Hold it together. Hold it together.
One Mary had a lamb and another Mary had an immaculate baby, a savior, and another Mary had a reputation. That’s the Mary she prays to. The one with the reputation. Some say she was a prostitute but if you do a little digging you can find out this wasn’t true. That was a different Mary from a different town. The wife likes to call her Maggie (for her last name). It helps reduce confusion about who exactly she’s praying to.
One fish, two fish, one foot in and one foot out. Did you see the one where the wife slaps her husband in the face with his own trout?
Snap out of it. That’s what the slap meant. Snap the fuck out of it.
Maggie? Can you…authorize me?
A lot of people have died in the last two years of this woman’s life. At the first funeral, she couldn’t believe he was dead. He didn’t look like himself in the casket. He was too young, in his forties, and gravity was doing things to his face because the years hadn’t yet gotten to the muscle and elasticity. He looked uncomfortable and she wanted to adjust his head so he could breathe better until it resonated that he was no longer breathing. He was like a brother to her. Not just in the colloquial sense but in the sense that he lived with her as a child and grew up alongside her even though he was her uncle’s son. He taught her how to drive in a Jeep Wrangler and she almost killed them when she switched lanes. He hit her brother when her brother punched her in the gut, hard, at their grandmother’s house. He lent her a couch to sleep on when she had nowhere to go. She wrote his eulogy and was sad at how much she remembered that she hadn’t thought of in years. How much of herself she had let go.
At the second funeral she was devastated. Her grandmother, who raised her, raised a lot of her family, and whose bed she sat in for days while she was dying had left this world for a better place. She had sung to her. She had whispered in her ear. She had bathed her with a washcloth and later with a pool of energy she didn’t know she had. Her palms to her grandmother’s feet, chest, stomach. A yogi said this was the woman’s way of helping her grandmother let go. “She must have really trusted you and you her. That’s the only way.” She wrote her grandmother’s eulogy and she cried while she read it. This is not something she’s used to. Crying in front of room full of people, but it was fine. “It would be easy to see our grandmother as a woman of her time,” she told the church, “the world she was born into was so different than the world she left…As I watched our family orbit around her this week, I was solidified in my understanding of her though. She was exactly what and who she wanted to be…She would have chosen this life, full of family, no matter what year she was born.” She stepped down and wondered, am I? Would I?
She learns that when you are the eulogist everyone wants to hug you. She never liked hugs. She doesn’t like breath on her face, and she doesn’t like pretending and she doesn’t like to smile graciously when she wants to be a heap on the floor. No one warned her about this part, or she might have declined.
At the third funeral her aunt died leaving behind her husband, two daughters and a son, and a beautiful new granddaughter. Her aunt’s life was cut short after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Her cousin called and asked if she’d help her with the eulogy. She did. The cousin told her about the time her mother filled up an above ground pool with blowup whales because the cousin wanted to be a whale trainer. Years later, over a decade later, her mother took the cousin to the aquarium on her twenty-first birthday to swim with belugas. The cousin’s sister chimed in, “and she bought me that horse. She went back to work so I could have that horse because I wanted to race. How many people can say that?”
At the fourth funeral the world was in the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The wake had a ten-person limit. The woman sat in the car and waited for a casket. She drove in the procession. She wore a mask and stood far away from the people she loved. Her cousin Hope had died, and the name had a dire meaning given global circumstance. But there, in the midst of an otherwise sunshiny day, came hail. Small pellets dropping to the ground. Her cousin’s daughter, twenty-two and heart broken, spoke words she could not hear with body wrenching she could see. Her name is Hailey.
She took off the mask and got in the car. She drove home. She stood for a moment in the driveway looking at the very expensive back yard remodel full of Techno Blocks and useful only three months out of a New England year. She wanted a $249 Intex pool from Ocean State Job Lot. She wanted to fill it with things like whales. She wanted to keep the trampoline and the zipline and the slackline for the kids. And she wanted a garden, despite killing everything in a pot on the inside. She’d had some success with herbs and vegetables on the outside. She wanted her hands in dirt.
She wanted to cancel the gardener.
There comes a moment in life when everything that came before suddenly makes sense. It’s like a gush of water, a force that can’t be ignored and one that can’t be held. Its movement is swift, and it exists in a realm that we, members of a first world, don’t like to acknowledge or rely upon. What if this is the truth though? What if this is the problem with our world today? Our constant refusal to get in the water?
In the house, the husband went to hug his wife. For the previous three deaths the best he could do was get out of the way and, then, she was grateful. At least he had stopped asking her to give when she was depleted. But with this death, with the quarantine and the isolation, with the stress mounted onto his back at work, he couldn’t offer this. He offered a hug. “What the fuck is wrong with a hug?” The wife wanted a bath and to sink her head under water so she couldn’t hear anything. She wanted to get in the water so she could talk herself out of the proverbial water, again. “When have I ever wanted a hug in moments like these?”
I need space.
He couldn’t give her space.
“I’ll sleep at my sister’s.”
He got a very expensive lease with a two-car garage. Made plans to buy a house in the fall. Sold his play car. Told her to get a credit card. Called the gas and electric to switch names on the service. Called the cable. Said unkind things in the garage and in the living room and on the phone. All the while saying he changed. All the while, as he sent an email with a DocuSign listing what would happen with their, his, assets, saying he never wanted this. It was all her
“I want a divorce,” she said crying. “I want a divorce.”
In an unused cottage near a beach, she writes a list trying to articulate the how’s and why’s. She is waiting out the time there until the moveout date. She has bathed her children there and kept them entertained without cable or Wi-Fi. They made a snail village and her son named all twenty-six of the snails Gary. They have walked and found shells and walked and watched waves and walked and talked about what life would be like after the change. Her children will be alright. At the dinner table they said they’re kind of excited, they could sometimes hear them fight. Her heart broke again because in that moment she knew, leaving would be painful but staying would be too.
“I see you now as I pack up this house and reflect. The home you tried to create. The life you tried to make.”
“I’m thinking of you now and I hope you have a good night.”
“I still have hope.”
Maggie? Maggie, can you hear me?
“I don’t want to be married to you anymore.”
Breathe. You’re going to be alright.
Undulations. Grief. Loss.
Support, overwhelming support. Action. Plans.
Undulations. Action. Support. Plans. Grief. Loss. More undulations. So much sadness. Reading, “take your foot off your throat,” take your foot off your throat, takeyourfootoffyourthroat. Take. Your. Foot. Off. Your. Throat and breathe child. You’re going to be all right.