The Lake Season
Iris should’ve had her nervous breakdown that morning. But there just wasn’t time.
Instead she found herself bent over the ironing board in the laundry room, one puffy eye fixed on the driveway, where Jack, Sadie, and Lily awaited the bus, and the other fixed on the miniature Girl Scout badge she was attempting to iron onto Lily’s uniform. Today was Thursday: Girl Scout day. And there was Lily standing uniform-less, once again, at the mailbox, while her mother frantically willed the iron to heat up.
“Damn it!” Iris singed her finger and stuck it in her mouth. She examined the Girl Scout patch, a small green circle containing a lone sheep. Had it been for farming? Or spinning wool? She couldn’t remember. Nor had she remembered to iron it onto the uniform when Lily earned it, well over three months ago. Lily had refused to wear her sheep-less uniform to school one more day.
“It’s embarrassing, Mom. All the other kids have their sheep.”
Iris didn’t blame her. The troop leader, Mrs. Crum, a sturdy woman with thick knees, had noticed, too. In fact, she’d asked Iris at the last meeting if perhaps the patch had been lost. Had gone so far to suggest, in a concerned tone, that Iris could indeed buy a replacement at the local hardware store that carried the badges, for cases like these. But Iris had no trouble deciphering the Mother-to-Mother Code: Your kid was the only one to hand
in her cookie sales proceeds late this year. And that was after you lost thirteen boxes of Do-Si-Dos. Are you going to screw this up, too?
After singeing her finger twice more, Iris angrily flipped the patch over. She cringed at the melted brown plastic oozing from the underside. Of course: she’d forgotten to remove the sticker covering. Which she would have known to do if perhaps she’d read the directions in the first place.
“Crap!” She yanked the iron’s cord from the wall. “Krazy Glue,” she decided aloud, rummaging through the laundry room’s overstuffed drawers. “Mrs. Crum will never know.”
No sooner had she affixed the damaged badge than the kids and the dog stomped back into the mudroom.
“I did it!” Iris exclaimed, holding up the sash victoriously, careful to conceal the half-melted sheep with one finger.
“We missed the bus,” Sadie announced, glaring accusingly at her mother.
Jack shrugged. Samson whined.
“Again?” Iris groaned.
As if in reply, there was a deep wretching sound at her feet. Iris looked down just as Samson threw up all over her fuzzy slippers.
“If you hadn’t made me change . . .” Sadie muttered, staring pointedly out the passenger window.
It was too early in the day, and besides, Iris’s head pounded from sleep deprivation. She fumbled with her hot coffee as they pulled out of the driveway, choosing her words carefully. She’d learned this.
“That skirt was too short, Sadie. How about I take you to the mall this weekend for something new? Something that fits.”
“It fits just fine,” Sadie said.
Iris bit her lip, keeping her response to herself. Not if your underpants flash every time you sit down.
Ding, ding, ding. The car chimed, and she glanced quickly at the dashboard. Was a door open?
“Besides,” Sadie went on. “Amy’s mother bought her the same skirt. In three different colors.”
Iris sighed, three tiny skirts dancing across her mind: pink, red, blue. Each the size of a napkin. She turned to Lily in the backseat. “Here, honey. Put your Girl Scout sash on.”
Lily pulled it over her head and peered down at her chest. “Mom, why is the sheep brown?”
The chiming continued, loudly. Absently Iris pushed the nearest button on the dash. The window went down, then up. She swiped at another. The radio crackled.
Ding, ding, ding.
“Mom. Seat belt,” Jack reminded her gently.
Behind Iris, Lily’s shoes tapped the floor in rhythm to the music. Iris reached toward the backseat, grasping her seven-year-old’s purple Mary Jane and giving her toes a grateful squeeze.
Sadie riffled through her book bag and pulled out a lip gloss Iris didn’t recognize. “I have talent-show tryouts today. Remember?”
Iris hadn’t, of course. She had not slept in weeks. But at Sadie’s mention of it, she recalled her daughter and her friends strutting around the bonus room to the tunes of Lady Gaga. Where had they learned to sway their hips like that? she’d wondered.
“I remember,” she lied. “I’ll pick you up at four.”
“No way!” Sadie snapped the lip gloss shut. “Everyone’s walking to the diner afterward. I already told you.”
Iris turned, careful not to stare at her vampire-red lips. Pick your battles. “And your dad and I told you, we don’t want you leaving school property and walking down a main road.” She paused, considering her footing. “I could drop you and Amy off at the diner.”
“Like some nursery school carpool? Are you insane?”
Clearly, yes. “Then I’ll see you in the auditorium at four.” She’d tried. Secretly Iris hated the other parents for so blithely turning their heads as their teenagers traipsed all over town, or stayed until closing at the mall, always unsupervised. Where the hell were these mothers, anyway?
“Mom?” In the rearview mirror Jack peered earnestly at her. “We need lunch money.”
“But I packed chicken salad. Your favorite.”
Sadie snorted. “Yeah. Yesterday.”
Iris scanned the car, eyes roving over the seats, across the floor, before a fuzzy image of three lunch bags flashed through her mind. All sitting on the kitchen counter, empty, three miles behind them.
“I could have sworn . . .”
Lily had already retrieved Iris’s wallet from her purse. She and Jack counted out five dollars—they were short. “It’s okay, Mom. I can borrow some lunch money from Mike,” Jack said.
Iris wasn’t sure which was worse: her eldest child’s relentless disgust with her, or her younger children’s tireless empathy. To be honest, she didn’t feel she quite deserved either. And, resentfully, she couldn’t help but think it was another one of those things their father somehow managed to evade.
As they turned onto the main road toward school, the car bumped over a pothole. The coffee mug lurched, drenching her lap in a ribbon of tawny liquid.
Sadie scowled at her mother’s stained sweatpants.
Was this Iris’s fault, too? She blinked, cursing the tears that threatened to leap from the corners of her eyes. Damn, Paul. She was coming undone in front of the kids.
But she was overcome with gratitude when Sadie didn’t comment, and instead rummaged through the glove box for a napkin. Finally she pressed a wadded bunch in her mother’s outstretched hand.
For a second their eyes met, and Iris smiled hopefully, blinking.
Sadie pursed her red lips. “For God’s sake,” she muttered. “Doesn’t this car have a gas pedal?”
She hadn’t told the kids. Not yet. Despite the fact that it had been two weeks since Paul had dumped the news on her. He’d sat on the edge of the bed with his back to her, fiddling with the TV remote, when he’d said it.
“This isn’t working, Iris.”
She’d kept reading, stifling a yawn. “I think there are batteries in the drawer,” she’d said.
“Not the remote, damn it. Us.”
She set her book down.
Paul wanted a separation. No, a divorce, he’d said at first. But he’d withdrawn the jagged word when he saw the look on her face. As her whole body crumpled against the pillows, weakened suddenly by the suffocating air in their bedroom.
“A separation, then,” he’d offered, backpedaling, as if it were somehow kinder to ease her into a dismal room for a time, before ushering her down an eternal tunnel of darkness.
She’d put her hand to her mouth, as if reaching for words. But for once she hadn’t any.
And so he’d filled the space with his own. Paul was good at that. Litigation attorneys usually were.
“Come on, Iris,” he’d said impatiently. “This can’t be news to you. It’s been dead for a while. Right?”
It had been, of course. But she’d refused to agree. She wouldn’t give him that. Not after hanging on to the fabric of their family so determinedly for so long. If Paul was quick with the scissors, then Iris was deft with the glue.
With each rift, each disappointment over the years, she’d felt him pull away. Looking back now, she caught fleeting glimpses of it; a decline that crept from the shadows of their shared life. The threat was present, but always retreating, brushing up against them every now and then like an ominous black cat. If she forced
herself to reconstruct the last few years like a jigsaw puzzle, she could see it in the background. A whisker here, a flicked tail there, until she couldn’t deny the full feline form.
Ever since that night two weeks ago, Paul’s demand had consumed her. Immobilized, she’d spent each morning in her bathrobe staring out the living room window at the magnolia tree in the front yard, trying to come to terms with the vibrant pink buds that somehow managed to thrust themselves into her now disjointed world. She wandered through the house entranced, only pulling herself together at three o’clock, right before the bus delivered her children home.
If she were honest, she supposed she could see it coming. They were very comfortable now in their Newton Victorian, but they hadn’t always been. In the early years, things were tight. Paul was a junior associate in his firm, logging painfully long days, even weekends, for the senior partners. And when there was a big case, which there always seemed to be, he’d be called on day and night to research and file. Surely, Paul had felt those pressures. But what about hers? Staying home alone, year after year, resigned to a uniform of spit-up-stained tees and nursing bras. She remembered those early milk-drunk months viscerally, where she’d barely untangle herself from the bedsheets to nurse at all hours of the night, only to roll herself out again each morning to face yet another full dishwasher, another basket of laundry, and the seemingly eternal trail of toys that coiled from room to room no matter how many times she bent to retrieve them from the unmopped floor. The late-night coughs, followed by long waits at the doctor’s, where equally weary parents comforted runny-nosed tots in an overheated waiting room. Friends had warned her about the fatigue. About the mood swings, and the monotony. But they’d also warned her about the fierce love that would pull her through.
Besides, there was such irreplaceable, seeping-into-your-bones joy that came with the sacrifices they’d made. The smell of a baby’s downy head, warm with sleep, and Iris’s own grateful
tears in those middle-of-the-night rocking-chair moments. The raw hormonal surge of a love so urgent as she pulled her newborn to her breast, the silent reverberations of love coursing as steadily as her milk.
“Don’t you miss your colleagues?” Paul asked once, somewhat incredulously, when her maternity leave from Sadie was up and she’d declined to go back. “Wouldn’t it be nice to go in on the ski condo with the other guys from the firm this season?” She had enjoyed her work of course, but not in the way he meant. She did not long like he did for the fancy vacations or the sleek thirty-foot Hatteras that gleamed at the end of the neighbor’s driveway. Perhaps Paul missed her old life more than she.
To appease him, once the kids were in school Iris had gone back to work. Sort of. She took on a few private writing clients of her own, and carved a small office space out of a corner in the upstairs hallway where she reviewed manuscripts and contacted publishers as a freelance agent. But while she initially relished the foray back into work, and the opportunity to prove herself to Paul, Iris often felt she was straddling a perilously sharp picket fence. On one side her family shouted her name, holding up empty dinner plates and feverishly waving incomplete homework assignments. On the other side loomed her clients, a less boisterous, but equally needy, crew. New writers expected scrupulous feedback, and established authors awaited overdue royalty statements. With one foot in each world, Iris teetered unnervingly in midair, never quite feeling like she fulfilled the demands of any of her flock. And in the rare instance that she even considered her own well-being, she found herself in jeopardy of landing hard on the pickets in an oh-so-private place.
But all of her efforts had gone unappreciated anyway, because once he made partner, Paul pulled a 180 on her and insisted she quit work altogether. By then she’d gotten into the swing of working from home. She enjoyed the creative outlet; she needed it. They’d argued about it for months. But the point was lost on Paul. He insisted they did not need her income, especially given
how small it was. It was a kind of old-fashioned machismo Iris detested, and she further detested the creeping sense that she was a kept woman.
Then there was sex. Or the lack of it, truth be told. Admittedly, there were nights when Paul reached for her in the darkness and she’d roll away, mouth ajar in a rehearsed snore. But there were also nights she asked him to set down his BlackBerry, pressing suggestively against him, and he’d wave her away, blaming an early meeting.
But for all the challenges of raising a young family, Iris had muddled forward each year. Strode, even. Sure, there were days when Paul arrived home to find her weeping quietly at the kitchen table, face in her hands as the kids crawled through the spilled contents of the pantry that sprinkled the floor, tiny floury-white handprints inviting him into the living room; smashed chocolate chips that caulked the cracks of the antique wooden floors rather nicely.
“What on earth?” he’d asked, mouth agape in the doorway.
To which she’d wiped her eyes and replied evenly, “They wanted to bake.”
That was the rarity. Most days Paul had arrived home, his own hair askew, flinging his briefcase onto the table with barely a hello to Iris, sinking into the toy-filled recesses of the couch as the kids clambered across him.
But in the end, Iris figured they’d made it. Just look at what they’d accomplished! The kids were healthy. They did the ski trips to Utah, and they joined the tennis club. The house was finally renovated. For her fortieth birthday Paul had shocked her with a Range Rover, a car she was embarrassed to drive, but secretly loved. He was a partner now, he reminded her. By both of their definitions, they’d made it.
Which is why she was so shocked when Paul came to her late that night two weeks ago with his decision, after she’d tucked the last child into bed. Laid out. Bowled over. This was their family. It was not perfect, but it was the way they’d done it for
so long, in such silent seeming agreement, that she’d never seen it coming.
“There’s someone else, isn’t there?” she’d howled. It was the only answer that made sense.
Paul had denied it, and in a way that made her feel small. “Come on, Iris. Don’t be so cliché.”
Now, waiting in the long drop-off line at the school entrance, Iris watched her children hurry through the school doors, her heart in her chest. The driver behind her laid on the horn, jolting her.
She needed a plan. A lawyer. Something. Back at the empty house, Iris tossed her keys on the antique table by the door and took the stairs two at a time. She contemplated Paul’s golf shorts on the bedroom rug. Out of habit, she bent to retrieve them, along with a dirty pair of balled-up socks, but then changed her mind and kicked them across the wood floor. Let him wash his own damn clothes. What she needed was a shower. Had she even had one yesterday?
At the sink Iris caught her reflection in the mirror. The creased eyes, the pallid complexion. Paul had spent two weeks sleeping on the couch, while she stared numbly at the bedroom ceiling overhead, willing him back upstairs. She teetered unnervingly between the urge to either throttle him or pull him under the covers and press herself against him. But he never came. Each morning the blankets would be folded neatly in the hall closet, the throw pillows politely replaced on the sofa. She knew it was to protect the kids, but the practiced ease with which he went about this new ritual stunned her and infuriated her, too. And now, after keeping a silent front for the last two weeks, she wasn’t sure if it was him or herself that she was more disgusted with.
Despite the steady stream of the shower, Iris walked past it fully clothed. As the windows of the bathroom filled with steam, she climbed into the claw-foot tub in the corner, sank into its cold embrace, and wept.