“I’m leaving your father,” my mother said, her voice tinny in the cell phone’s echo.
“Oh,” I said. I’m not sure I really heard her. Or if I believed her.
Behind me, the baby banged her spoon. “Maw,” she yelled, pleased with the sound of her voice in the tiled kitchen. “Maw, maw!”
“I can’t take it anymore,” my mother continued. “I’m done.”
I opened the refrigerator to get more yogurt. In my house, it’s bang and demand that gets the quickest response.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“Mom!” my son yelled from the bathroom. “Maw!” the baby screamed, impatient.
“Can I call you back?” I asked her.
“The plane’s about to take off,” she said. “Can you come get me at the airport in three hours?”
“Jesus Christ, ma,” I said. This was typical mom, dramatic and demanding. She wanted me to be shocked, to insist that they patch it up, but if I’ve learned anything about marriage, it’s that, like chess, marriage is a game for only two players.
Tan yelled louder. “Mom, I’m ready to be wiped!”
“Can’t you stay with Mira?” I put the yogurt in front of the baby. She squealed with delight. If only we were all so easy to please.
“I don’t understand why nobody wants me.” My mother sounded hurt.
In the background I could hear an announcement over the plane’s PA system. “OK,” I said. “Outside baggage claim.”
* * *
The car door opened as I was digging Cheerios out of the passenger seat well. Lana had dumped them out, excited to make a mess. Then she realized they were gone and burst into tears. Tan refused to help her; he made his action figure dance and shoot along the arm of his seat. He probably couldn’t have reached anyway.
My mother sat in the passenger seat and closed the door behind her. “Hot,” she said by way of greeting. I turned around slowly; my back tends to seize when I twist quickly.
“Hi, mom.” I gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Can you help with my bag?” she asked.
Obediently, I got out of the car. She was right; it was a particularly warm day, the California sun shooting arrows of targeted heat. She hadn’t packed lightly. I heaved the suitcase into the way back. She was talking to the kids, making faces at Lana and holding out her hand to examine Tan’s action figure. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad.
I got back in the car and pulled away from the curb. “I don’t suppose you’re going to let me smoke in here,” she said.
I gave her a stern look.
She turned around in her seat. “So, what are we going to do now I’m here?”
My kids were not the type to answer with cute quips. “Tan?” I asked, after a pause.
“Grandma’s not wearing her seatbelt,” he said.
“Ba ba ba!” Lana yelled.
My mother turned back around to face forwards, as though her question had been satisfactorily answered.
“How long do you plan on staying?” I asked, brightly.
“Forever,” she answered.
* * *
I left her suitcase at the bottom of the stairs. Either she could unpack down here and carry up a smaller load, or Josh could do it when he got home. “The house looks nice,” she said, emphasizing the word house so that it appeared that something else did not look good. This was a habit my mother had, of making a compliment insult you, and leave you searching for what it was that was substandard.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
“What are you offering?” I handed her the baby, and she propped Lana on her hips in the style I imagined all ’70s mothers employed, all the better to hold a cigarette or martini with the other hand.
Josh didn’t like to be phoned at work, but he tolerated it if there was actual information I needed to impart.
“My mom’s here.”
“What, in L.A.?”
“In our house. She’s left my father.”
Josh sighed. “That was a long time coming.”
This surprised me. I had convinced myself that they were long past any former troubles, if not happy, then resigned to each other. Actually, I rarely had time to think about them, a stark contrast from my constant worry as a child. I’d go into my sister’s bedroom late at night after our parents fought about money, or my father’s work hours, or his traveling, or the state of the house, or my mother getting a job. “Are they going to get divorced?”
Mira was unsympathetic. “How should I know?”
Most of my friends’ parents were divorced, and though it seemed more like an inconvenience than a problem, I still prayed for it not to happen to my parents. Sometimes I wondered what I could do to get them to stay together, get better grades, take on extra chores. But I knew it wouldn’t work. Parents stayed together or got divorced, and there was nothing a teenager could do.
“And who cares?” she added.
I continued to worry. “Do you think mom’s an alcoholic?” I called to ask Mira in college.
“I don’t know. I guess. I mean, what does it matter, now?” We were both out of the house.
Mira got a degree in social work. “I think dad has a borderline personality disorder,” she confided to me one Thanksgiving.
“Uh-huh,” I said. It wasn’t that I no longer cared, but that I wanted their influence on me to be over. Yes, they still had the power to wound and comfort, but I was sure I was no longer theirs to mold and form. I was hardened, and any damage they had done had long been forgiven, or forgotten.
Now, Josh said, “Tell her my mother’s coming on the 15th and we need the guest room by then.”
“Then your mother has to actually come,” I said.
“Christ, Julie, can’t you just take care of this?” he said, knowing full well that taking care of my parents, my self-assigned role, was the one I was least suited to play.
Lana got cranky. “I’m going to take her for a walk,” I said. “Can you watch Tan? I’ll set you up with some Play-Doh.”
“I’ll walk Lana,” my mother said.
“So you can smoke.”
“I’ll smoke first.”
“It’s OK. I’ll walk her. We have our routine.”
Outside, the air seemed to have cooled. Lana quit crying almost immediately. She knew where we were going.
It was about a mile to the store. Lana and I could do it in 21 minutes, if I hurried. I pushed the stroller in front of me, then hurried to catch up with it. I suppose this might be considered dangerous behavior, but it was never more than a couple of steps out of my grasp. Lana loved being let loose like this. She could sense from the lurch when she was outside my grip and giggled hysterically at the freedom.
The store was nothing special, just a Quick Stop on a corner across from a veterinarian. They kept the air conditioner on full blast so that condensation formed in the windows, creating a constant winter wonderland. Lana began to shake with excitement as we neared.
I knew Tom’s schedule. “Hi Ms. Butler,” he said, as I struggled to get the stroller in the door. “Hi Miss Lana,” he added.
“Hi,” I said. I undid Lana’s buckle and took her out of the stroller. She catapulted forward as though I had stretched her on a bungy cord and was letting her go. The first few times she had pulled things off the shelves and tried to eat a cheap MP3 player, but now she knew that if she behaved, we could stay.
“How’s the studying?”
“You know,” Tom said. He pulled the book out from behind the counter. “Do you know about geometry.”
He knew I did. I was a math teacher before I adopted my kids. He opened to a page and slid the book towards me. I could hear Lana talking to the soda in the refrigerator. Tom pointed and leaned toward me. He still smelled like a boy, his sweat sweet instead of funky. I could smell, too, the hair product that he used to tame his curls, a coconut scalp moisturizer I spent days in the ethnic care aisle of the drug store trying to find. Just below his sideburns there was a thin coating of hair that he’d forgotten to shave.
“Remember,” I said, “When there are two parallel lines crossed by another line, all the big angles are equal and all the little angles are equal.”
“Right,” Tom said, “duh.” And he straightened up, reaching for a pencil to solve the problem. “Does that look right?”
“They want Y, not X.” I checked over my shoulder for Lana, who had moved on to the newspaper racks and was singing them a song she’d made up.
“Thanks,” he said. He smiled; one of his front teeth had a slight discoloration. “Hey Miss Lana, want a lollipop?”
Lana toddled forward, tripped, then decided she’d rather have the lollipop than sympathy and continued without crying. I unwrapped it for her and handed it to her. “No running with it,” I said.
“Don’t worry, Tom, you’ll pass,” I put my hand over his and squeezed.
The door bells chimed someone’s entrance. I put Lana back in the stroller; she was now as docile as if I’d given her Benadryl instead of sugar.
“See you, Ms. Butler,” Tom said.
“Yup,” I answered.
* * *
When I got back home, Josh’s car was in the driveway. He hadn’t put it in the garage, and it poised on the threshold, as if trying to decide if he would stay home or go out. Inside, I found him coming down the front stairs. He was out of breath; he must have carried the suitcase up.
“Heavy,” he said.
I raised my left hand as if to say, “Don’t start.”
He lifted Lana out of the stroller and frowned at her sticky hands. I shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “Kids, what can you do?”
“Hi, Princess,” my mother called from the kitchen. I wasn’t sure if she was calling me or Lana.
All the windows in the kitchen were suspiciously open, and Tan was playing docilely at the kitchen table. I decided not to say anything. Josh would make it a bigger deal than it was. Mom was just testing the waters, seeing how far she could push. She’d settle in soon, start respecting the rules.
“Hey Tanster,” I said.
“I made a Batman scene.”
Josh said, “You mean the Batcave?”
“No,” Tan said, drawing out the word as if Josh must be slow. “A diorama. See? Here’s Batman’s bedroom, and his mom and dad’s bedroom. Here’s the garage and the Batmobile’s in it. This is the kitchen.” Tan had constructed a house including only the rooms that were important to a six year old.
“Cool,” Josh said. “Where’s the bathroom?”
Tan stared at him. “It’s imaginary,” he said.
Tan had very little patience for his father. In general, he had little patience. It’s unclear where he picked up this character trait it; he couldn’t have gotten his way very often in the orphanage. But patience, like stubbornness, must be a quality you’re born with. When we got him home at 18 months (though he could barely sit up, and wasn’t walking at all) Tan demanded. We couldn’t understand the language (it might have been some obscure Cambodian dialect or something he had made up), its meaning was patently clear. He has been ruling our house ever since.
Lana we got when she was just a few weeks old. She’s American, or African-American. And she was as accommodating as an infant as she is now a year and a half later.
It was important to Josh and me, if we couldn’t have biological children, that we adopt those who might otherwise be overlooked by adoption agencies. Josh put his foot down on special needs children, although it seems clear that Tan’s path through school is not going to be easy. Some obvious ADHD, maybe dyslexia, or dysgraphia, or both.
“I’ll start dinner,” I said.
“I’ll help,” my mom said.
“Don’t bother,” I said. “It’s pasta, so there’s not a lot to do.”
“I can make a salad,” she said.
“I buy it pre-made.”
“No one needs a mother anymore.” My mother sighed.
“I do!” Tan said. He paid attention to adult conversations.
“I don’t need your criticism on my homemaking,” I said, perhaps a bit more harshly than I meant.
“I’m not criticizing, I’m just—”
“Go up and unpack,” I said. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
When she left, Josh came up behind me and put his hands on my hips. He kissed the crown of my head, then patted my rump twice affectionately.
“Wanna go toss a ball, Tan?”
And then it was just Lana and me in the kitchen. She climbed up onto the breakfast bench and with one blow smashed Batman’s bedroom. There would be tears. I wondered if I could blame it on my mother.
* * *
“Mira, I mean, she can’t live here.” I whispered to my sister on the phone.
“I think she might be already.”
I looked at Lana, sleeping at the foot of our bed, curled in her baby blanket. “I can’t take it.”
“Then you have to put your foot down.”
“I’m not good at that.”
Mira sighed. I could hear background noise. She was out somewhere. A party? A bar? Since her divorce, Mira was secretive about her whereabouts. She probably wanted me to think she’d joined a swingers club or something, but I know Mira well enough to know that her secret was probably really banal, like a Weight Watchers meeting or a divorce support group. Whenever anything exciting happens to her, she likes to tell me; it’s only the daily stuff she makes a mystery out of.
She cleared her throat. “Did you get a chance to talk to her about it? Is it for real? Have you talked to dad?”
“No,” I said in response to the first question. “We went to bed early. Tan had one of his meltdowns.”
“I’m not going to say it again.”
“Therapy, I know. As soon as school starts.”
“Sooner. Early intervention. And look at the bright side; you don’t even have to blame yourself.”
I expected this kind of insensitivity from my sister. Her training as a social worker did nothing to help her empathy skills—again, a trait you’re born with or without. And the only reason it rubbed me the wrong way was of course that I felt that way sometimes myself. I wondered, looking at Lana who often covered her ear with her hand, if her mother did the same thing. I imagined Tan’s father, some teenager in Stung Treng, picking rice for one minute, then running off, leaving the task unfinished, to fiddle with his cell phone the next. Maybe Tan’s mother pursed her lips the same way when she was about to cry. Maybe Lana’s father laughed easily too, eager to please.
“We have to get them back together.”
“You do,” my sister said cheerfully. “She’s not bothering me.”
* * *
“If she were truly unhappy,” I whispered to Josh, “then I wouldn’t, but, after forty years, come on, hasn’t she learned to live with the guy?”
“Maybe he did something,” Josh offered. He was wearing boxer shorts and trouser socks to bed. It was a shared habit of ours, wearing the day’s socks at night. I got naked quickly, put an old shirt on with my back to my husband.
I have changed as though I gave birth to these two children, spreading around the middle, like I was squashed by a rolling pin. My breasts point towards the floor. Josh doesn’t seem to mind—he has a small bowling ball where his flat stomach used to be. The hair on his chest is going gray and seemed to grow longer now that we were in our 40s. The body’s evolution towards protoplasm begins long before we die and decay.
“Something he hasn’t already done?” I asked, getting under the covers.
“Maybe it was too hard for her to ignore this time.” Josh kissed the top of my head. I tend to burrow under the covers, especially as I’m falling asleep; the crown of my cranium was all that stuck out.
“She’ll tell me,” I said.
The phone rang the next morning before I was fully awake. Josh was in the shower, and I had to roll over to his side to answer it.
“Is your mother there with you?” My father’s voice was wavering. It hadn’t occurred to me to call him, or even to ask my mother if she told him where she was going, and I felt bad that he seemed to have been suffering.
“Yeah. What happened?” I asked, before I remember that I don’t want to know.
“What happened is that she’s gone completely off her rocker.”
“Hmm,” I said. “Want me to have her call you? We’re not up yet.”
“No. I don’t want to talk to her. Tell her she can call me when she’s ready to apologize for what she said.”
“I don’t really want to get in the middle.”
“No, tell her that she should have a nice fucking life.”
“How about I just tell her you called?”
“No. Let her think I don’t care.”
“Goodbye, dad. I’m going back to sleep now.” I hung up the phone.
“Who was that?” Josh stuck his head out of the bathroom door. Steam emerged with him as though announcing the appearance of a genie.
“Oh. I thought it might be work.”
This struck me as odd, as it was not yet 7:15. “Why would work call?”
“Oh for Chrissakes, who knows?” he said, angry at some workplace irritation he didn’t share. He closed the door and the steam dissipated.
* * *
I wanted to wait until I could talk to my mother alone, and so it wasn’t until Lana took her afternoon nap, and I had Tan in front of the electronic babysitter watching cartoons that I could speak to her. “Dad called this morning.” She went outside to smoke, and I followed her, sitting in the lawn furniture that seemed a necessary purchase, but that we’d sat in perhaps three times in the four years we owned the house.
“I thought that might be him.” My mother took a thoughtful drag. Now in her mid-60s, her wrinkles started to sag, her skin taking on that waxy tone. She smelled like her mother did, floral face cream. It was a comforting smell, even as it seemed foreign on my mother.
“What did he want?” Mom asked.
I shrugged. “He sounded worried.”
“He should be,” my mother said. “After what that asshole said, if I never speak to him again, it will be too soon.”
“Don’t ‘look’ me.” She pointed her lit cigarette at me, suddenly angry. “I’m not your child.”
“It just seems kind of strange to be with a man for thirty-five years and then suddenly leave.”
“It seems strange?” My mother laughed a fake mirth. “Talk to me after you and Josh have been married that long. It gets less and less strange with each decade.”
“I don’t know what he did, or what you did—“
“I’ll tell you what he did—“
“I don’t want to know.” I fought the urge to cover my ears with my hands, the way Tan does when he doesn’t want to hear that he has to go to bed. But it wouldn’t work with my mother any more than it did with me. “It’s none of my business.”
My mother looked sad, suddenly. The anger fell out of her face, and the skin slackened. I thought for a moment that this might be what she would look like when she’s dead, and then I felt horribly guilty as though I had wished her dead.
My mother stubbed her cigarette out on the flagstone. I could see tears brim in her eyes and then disappear. When she straightened up she was back to normal. She put the butt on the plastic table.
As if on cue, Tan ran out the door. “Lana’s up,” he said. Usually he paid absolutely no attention to his sister, as though she were my imaginary friend and eventually I would grow out of this nonsense. I was happy to see that he had at least noticed she was awake.
“Tan, sweetie,” my mother said. “Throw this in the garbage for Grandma? Thank you.” She hands him the cigarette butt.
“Mom,” I said sternly, but when she looked at me I saw she had just done this to upset me, and to treat it as anything but a joke would be declaring myself a poor sport.
“Yeah,” I said, “throw that gross, gross trash in the garbage, yuck!”
“Yuck!” Tan said and went back inside.
I followed him and saw that the cigarette butt had only made it as far as the kitchen floor, and not in the cabinet that held the garbage. I picked it up. Lana was caterwauling loudly through the baby monitor; it must have been interrupting Tan’s show.
When I went to get her, she glared at me, narrowing her brown eyes. Her eyelashes were swollen with moisture and I saw that she had had one of those explosive shits that would require me to spend the rest of the afternoon doing laundry and wondering why I thought it would be such a fantastic idea to have children.
* * *
“Do you mind keeping an eye on Tan again?” I asked my mom, once I had Lana bathed and reclothed. “We’re out of milk.”
“I thought you went to the grocery store this morning,” she said.
“I forgot to get it.”
“Forgetty-Betty,” my mother taunted. “Now who’s having senior moments?”
“Back in a flash,” I said, “Lana and I will walk there.”
“Leave her,” my mother said. “You’ll go quicker.”
“I don’t want to leave you with both,” I said. “It’s too much.”
“If you don’t recall,” my mother said, “I raised two children at the same time, and often your cousin too.”
Yes, I thought, but it took us years to undo the damage.
I pretended not to hear her. “See you soon, alligator!” I said to Tan. He didn’t even turn his head from the dinosaur show on television.
“See if you can get him to turn that off,” I said, knowing that nothing short of an actual dinosaur appearing in the backyard would get him to stop watching television.
Once we got outside, Lana spontaneously giggled. I envied her ability to forgive so generously. She had been so angry at me just a short while ago, as though the colossal crap were my fault, and I was further torturing her by wiping her sore bottom. And now I was her best friend again, taking her to the store.
It was hot, and I was sweating when we reached the store.
Tom was talking to a girl. She couldn’t be more than fifteen. Her shorts rested on hips barely formed and a bra peeked through her tank top. How do teenagers grow legs that long, I wondered, and where do those legs go at twenty-two?
“Hey, Ms. Butler, this is Amy.”
“Hi,” I said, brightly. “Lana, can you say hi?”
Lana stared at the girl as if unimpressed. She said nothing.
“She has kind of a crush on Tom,” I said. “Now she’s jealous.”
Tom said, “Ms. Butler used to be a teacher; she’s helping me study for the GED.”
“Oh,” the girl said slowly. It was unclear what the syllable was supposed to mean.
“Just getting milk,” I said. Lana wiggled, her patience to be out of the stroller at an end. But we weren’t getting out today. I went to the refrigerator and picked up a quart of milk, the smallest container possible. I didn’t really want to carry it back. I heard Tom murmur something and Amy laughed, a little too loud. It was impossible that they were talking about me, but I still felt the back of my neck burn.
Amy moved out of the way as I paid for the milk with crumpled bills. Tom came around the counter with a lollipop for Lana. She was fully thrashing now, desperate to get out of the stroller. She paused just long enough to take the candy from Tom before she continued to throw her body from left to right.
“She says thanks,” I said. “Did you figure out that parallel line problem?”
“What, oh yeah, thanks. I can’t believe I forgot that. Duhhhh,” he slapped his head theatrically.
“Oh my God, I hate geometry,” Amy said. “Algebra is so much better.”
Now Lana raised her voice. “Ba!! Ahbaa!” she demanded.
“We’re leaving. Thanks Tom.” Outside, it seemed to have grown even hotter; the weeds in the cracks between the sidewalk squares drooped, depressed.
On my mother’s third day, I took her and the kids out to lunch at the diner. Lana put a french fry up her nose, and her brother laughed, encouraging her. Mom ordered tuna salad and a quesadilla. She ate the quesadilla and left the tuna salad. Afterwards, we went to the park by the lake. It had cooled off, and it was not unpleasant to sit by the water and watch the kids.
“You let them play in the sandbox?” my mother asked. She lit a cigarette and held it down by her knees, as though that would camouflage it from the children.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty high rent neighborhood. Sand’s OK.”
My mother exhaled disapprovingly. A fought a flash of annoyance.
“Mom, you can’t stay forever.”
“Sick of me?” she asked, a fake lilt in her voice.
“What are your plans?”
She shrugged as though she was a petulant teenager. “I’m waiting for your father to apologize,” she said, finally.
“And if he doesn’t?” I heard Tan scream and I quickly found him on the playground. He was chasing another Asian child his own age; the yelp was part of the game. Lana was organizing the resident sandbox toys.
“He needs me more than I need him.”
Another mother arrived with three-year-old twins. When she unbuckled them, they both made a beeline for the sandbox. I knew what would happen, but I waited anyway. She had to learn sometime.
“Are you sure, Mom?” I asked. After I spoke, I realized I didn’t make it clear if I meant that she was sure he needed her or if she was sure she was doing the right thing.
Before she could answer, Lana screamed, her precious organization of the toys upset by the marauding twins. I stood up to go get her. I could see the twins’ mother sizing me up. How could I be Lana’s mother if I’m white? Her eyes darted back and forth looking around for another possible mother.
“Lana,” I called. “Share the toys.”
“Nahhhh,” Lana screamed. “Nah-bah!” It sounded as though she was saying “Never!”
“Hi,” I said to the other mother when I got close. “Sorry.” I picked Lana up, and she sagged, relieved to not have to struggle to hold on to what was hers. “Lana’s concept of ‘share’ is still in development.”
The other mother laughed nervously. I found that my children often had this effect on people. In the abstract, they believed in interracial or international adoption, fully supported celebrity adoptions, cooed over their gossip magazine pictures. Most people even said they wanted to adopt some day, though of course their husbands didn’t want to. But when they were actually confronted by my brood they looked at me as though I was a monkey trying to raise penguins. How did I know how to do her hair? I have been asked. Do I speak Cambodian?
“That’s so great, what you’re doing.” The woman said. She looked about 10 years older than I, and her skin was pulled tautly back against her ears, her lipstick mostly gone.
“What?” I said, baiting, because I knew.
“Adopting these kids from abroad. It’s really admirable.” She smiled wanly, uncomfortable. Usually I let these kind of comments pass; they weren’t worth addressing. But, like Lana, I was itching for a fight.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Suddenly, I understood Lana’s frustration, and her relief at being removed from having to fight the battle she was too tired to sustain. I felt as though I would like to crawl under the sand, leaving my mother to deal with her marital problems, burrow down into where there was no light and cuddle my children.
“I mean, it’s good of you, as a person.”
“Better than having in vitro twins at forty-five? I’d have to agree.”
The woman made a little humph noise, as if she couldn’t believe anyone would actually say something so offensive. I immediately felt like apologizing, but it was too late. I called to Tan, who pretended not to hear me.
“Let’s go,” I said. “I’m counting to three.”
He giggled and ran around the other side of the swings. Instead of my usual cajoling, I did what my mother used to do. I simply turned around and walked toward the car. My mother saw me coming and hurriedly stubbed out her cigarette. I must have been doing my “purposeful walk.” Lana clutched my neck like she was afraid she’d fall off.
“Tan,” my mother said. “We’re leaving.”
We got all the way to the car. I strapped Lana in and opened my door when Tan finally realized we were really leaving. He streaked across the playground, screaming, “Mom, wait for me! Don’t leave me!” The twins and their mother stared from the sandbox. I would win no parenting awards today.
When Tan leapt into my arms he was crying. He didn’t usually cry. When we got him, he didn’t cry at all, just grunted or screamed until we changed him or spooned more rice cereal in his bowl. He never cried for attention or out of exhaustion. Only when he was actually hurt did he let himself experience emotion.
“Shhh, it’s OK.” I smoothed away his tears, wiped the hair out of his face. I promised him a cartoon when he got home, that he could have a pass on the day’s vegetable. My mother watched from the front seat.
We started to drive, and almost immediately Lana’s head lolled to the side in a position that couldn’t possibly have been comfortable enough to sleep in.
“What did she say to you?” mom asked.
“You can tell me,” she insisted.
“She didn’t say anything,” I said.
My mother watched me as I make the kids dinner. I took frozen chicken dinosaurs (they’re organic) and put them on a plate, covered by a paper towel. I microwaved them for two minutes while I took baby carrots, smothered them with margarine and honey and waited for the dinos to be done so they could have their turn in the nuker.
“The all-microwave meal,” my mother said. She was munching on what looked like a plastic straw: a nicotine inhaler, so she didn’t have to go outside as often.
“Well, excuse me, Julia Child.”
My mother laughed. “I’m just joking, sweetie.”
“I’m not in the mood.”
“Well, sor-ry,” she said, like a child.
“Why did you leave dad?” I asked. My voice sounded annoyed, accusing.
My mother took a long drag off her plastic cigarette. “It’s complicated. You can’t really know what exactly it’s like in someone else’s relationship.”
“Come on,” I said. I slammed the door of the microwave a bit harder than I meant to. “I’m married, I have children. You can’t bullshit me.”
“I thought he was having an affair, OK?”
“Dad?” I laughed before I could stop it. The thought of my father, flaky skin, sagging jowls, slack belly, attracting anyone was more amusing than grotesque. Plus, after the prostate surgery, I didn’t think sex was first on his priority list (or even on his to do list). I wonder, then, if my mother were the one having the affair. Mira said that I accused her of doing things that I felt guilty about having done, that that was a common way of dealing with feelings of shame.
“I know, it seems ridiculous. He wasn’t having an affair, I don’t think. Wait, do you know something?”
“You look like you know something.”
“It was just that when I confronted him…” My mother trailed off in thought for a few seconds. “It was like he didn’t care enough to deny it. It was so ugly. I felt this wave of… apathy and I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing’?”
I put out a dinosaur plate and a princess plate, and filled the M&M mugs with milk. “Did it ever occur to you that he didn’t deny it because it’s such a ridiculous suggestion?”
My mother sat at the table, resting her head in her hands.
“Don’t leave that there,” I said, pointing with the carrot bowl to her inhaler. “I don’t want the kids to get a hold of it.”
“Your whole generation treats them like they’re made of porcelain.”
“Trying not to repeat the mistakes of our parents.” The conversation had become suddenly acrimonious. I realized I was very tired and it was making me more belligerent than I really felt.
“I’m sorry that I failed you,” my mother said. “You’ll see, when Lana and Tan are older, how they accuse you.”
“Maybe I’ll do a better job.”
My mother snorted as though this were ludicrous.
“I won’t go around accusing my husband of something that I did.”
There was a brief silence. I had said too much. We had agreed to never speak about my mother’s infidelity again. I hoped, desperately, that the argument had ended, but it seemed as though my mother was only retrenching.
“You watch your loveless marriage turn to shit, too poor to leave, too scared, and then come back and talk to me.” I had never seen my mother so angry. Her face was red, her neck veiny. At that moment she seemed taller than the one inch she had on me.
“You watch your grown children criticize you for what you did or didn’t do, and then come talk to me. And they’ll hate you,” she laughed mirthlessly, “because they have real parents. Real parents who wouldn’t have screwed them up.”
My arms tingled and my armpits got clammy. I wanted to throw something. “Get the fuck out of my house,” I yelled.
Josh ran in. “What’s going on? You’re screaming.” But I didn’t want his comfort now. I wanted to be angry, really angry, to hold onto this feeling. Because of course my mother hit on my worst fears, that my children would have been better off with someone else, that our purchased accessories wouldn’t hold Josh and me together.
My mother stormed upstairs. I could hear drawers opening and closing. “What?”Josh asked. “What happened?”
I shook my head, sadness having replaced my anger. I began to cry; the carrots swam in their bowl. I placed it on the table and walked outside. My SUV seemed hulking, a monster from a children’s book. Still, I got into it and started the engine.
I hardly knew where I was headed until I stopped in front of the Quick Stop. Though it wasn’t dark, the inside was brightly lit. Tom wasn’t there. Instead, there was a man who must have been the owner. He slumped against the counter flipping channels on the television above the register. The wind was still; the flags hung limply from their streamer. I parked across the street and watched people come in to buy cigarettes, beer, coffee, a slushie, a magazine, some chips. But the store was open twenty-four hours, so no matter how long I sat here, I’d always be the first one to leave.
* * *
By the time I got home, the house was quiet. Josh left the hall lamp on for me, the way I did when he was traveling for work and got home after I went to bed. I peeked in the kitchen, but the dishes were all done, the table wiped.
I could hear the soft hum of Lana’s humidifier as I passed her room. She was sleeping with her bottom in the air, her crib full of books and animals that couldn’t be comfortable to sleep on. Across the hall, Tan was belly-up in his race car bed, his hands next to his ears in tiny fists. He had kicked the covers off, but I didn’t pull them back up. He was always hot.
The guest room was empty, the sheets stripped and the blanket folded neatly on the naked mattress.
In our room, Josh was nearly asleep, propped up by pillows with his eyes half-closed.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I took her to the airport. Claudia put the kids to bed.”
“There was a flight this late?” I asked.
“I didn’t ask,” Josh said. He slid down onto his side to face me. “There are hotels. She has credit cards.”
I sat down on the bed and began to remove my shoes.
“Want to tell me what happened?” Josh asked.
“Didn’t she already give you her version?”
“She was actually very uncharacteristically silent on the topic.”
“It’ll blow over,” I said.
“Good,” he said, sleepy. “I almost feel sorry for her. She’s doing the best she can.”
I took off my shirt and scrunched it into a ball.
“It’s sad to watch someone try so hard and fail so miserably,” Josh said, his voice quiet, his head lolling back.
I threw the shirt at the hamper where it caught on the wicker and hung limply, half in and half out, sliding inexorably toward the floor.