The Mermaid of Brooklyn
Before I died the first time, my husband left me broke and alone with our two tiny children and it made me feel very depressed, etc. It’s the same old story: He went to buy cigarettes and never came home. Really. Wouldn’t you think you’d want to pack a bag or two, leave a forwarding address? Couldn’t he have at least taken the dog? These were the things I wondered in the beginning. Not: was he having an affair, or: was he mixed up in something nefarious, but: I can’t believe he wouldn’t bring his datebook, his favorite loafers; I can’t believe he didn’t change the lightbulb in the hallway before deserting us. He knew I couldn’t reach that lightbulb. The whole thing was unlike him. Then again, I was the one who died, which was unlike me, too.
I would be lying if I said his leaving wasn’t a tiny bit of a relief, at least at first. My initial thought—due mostly to sleep deprivation, the effects of which, as any mother or political prisoner knows, never entirely fade—was that once the girls were in bed, I could ignore the dishes to be done and laundry (still in a compact three-day-old brick from the Laundromat drop-off service) to be put away; I could take a bath and then sleep (until Rose’s next feeding) in a big empty bed with pillows mounded up on either side. I
wouldn’t need to make a grown-up meal for Harry, who annoyingly preferred dishes seasoned with things other than butter, and who inconveniently favored dinner conversation consisting of topics other than whether or not mermaids existed and, if so, whether or not their mommies made them take baths. I would not need to stifle the yawns that he mistook for boredom as he dramatically recounted the undramatic details of his day. I would not need to come up with a compelling excuse to avoid sex and then feel guilt both at the refusal and at the unoriginality of the desire, the undesire.
I know this doesn’t make me sound like the nicest wife. But back then I only thought he was late coming home from work. I didn’t know he would be gone so very long, that it would take him months and months to battle his way home, as if he were returning from the Crusades and not the Ever So Fresh Candy Company headquarters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It didn’t occur to me that nothing would ever be the same.
I forgot and didn’t remember for some time that I actually had spoken to him on the evening in question. My days had a habit of bleeding together, and it was often difficult for me to pinpoint whether we had indeed talked a few hours earlier or whether I was remembering the day before. But no, I think it was that night, that fateful night, when, believe it or not, it was raining ominously, a storm of Great Plains–style velocity, unleashed by restless nymphs polluting the city’s clouds, must have been, because there was such vindictiveness in the thunder rattling the kitchen window and spooking the imminently spookable baby so that she was wailing into my collarbone as I called Harry’s phone, wanting to know if (oh God, so typical) he could pick up some milk, a request that was met with irritation—he didn’t see why I couldn’t take care of these things without involving him. Betty sat on her booster seat,
swinging her legs with a buoyancy that belied her scowl. I looked over just in time to see her open her mouth and hatch a mound of chewed grilled cheese onto the table.
“Jenny?” Harry answered, sounding confused. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, sure. Just another day in paradise,” I said. Rose quieted, distracted by a hank of my hair.
“I miss you,” Harry said. “I miss the girls.” He sounded sad, or maybe just tired.
“Well, you’re in luck,” I said. “We’re all right here, and we’re taking visitors.”
“I wuv you, you wuv me,” Betty sang to her grilled cheese. The girl had a passion for dairy.
“Shh, baby, please,” I said to her, to Rose, to the thunder that grumbled a little farther in the distance now, to the world. “What, Harry? I’m losing you.”
“I’m going to stop for cigarettes on my way home,” it sounded like he said.
“So you’re not quitting, then,” I said, having forgotten all about the milk. I would remember only when I poured my dinner bowl of Cheerios at eleven p.m., which I ended up eating with water, as I’d done more times than I cared to admit. Then he was gone. He would stay that way for a while.
When Harry left and I died it was the beginning of a desperately hot summer, a long sun-scorched stretch of days determined to silence doubters of global warming. The sidewalks of Brooklyn baked all around us, Prospect Park an expanse of brownish hay. I had these two babies, and people were always saying that my whole life was ahead of me—nosy grandmothers on the subway tugging
at Rose’s bootie or boinging Betty’s curls, neighborhood eccentrics dispensing unsolicited advice from their bodega-front benches. I nodded and thanked them, or sometimes rolled my eyes.
My life with Harry had begun five years earlier, right around the time I started feeling my biological clock doing the My Cousin Vinny thing. I was working an exhausting job at a magazine that I was just starting to realize was not going anywhere: not the magazine, not the job, not me. I was officially Single and Loving It but in reality too tired by the end of the day to do anything more fabulous than drag myself home and watch fabulous amounts of television. (Romantic comedies counted as educational if they were in black and white. “We all go haywire at times, and if we don’t, maybe we ought to,” I’d mouth along with The Philadelphia Story.) I was too old to still have a roommate who called it “cooking” when she added pepper to her ramen; I was too young to retreat to the Midwest, capitulating to a life with many cats. It is annoying to find yourself living a cliché. It is doubly annoying to turn your life upside down only to settle into a fate even more banal than the one you were trying to avoid.
I met Harry on my thirtieth birthday, which I took as an omen. It was a few weeks after September 11, the bad one, and everyone in the city was feeling existentially wigged out, nostalgic for things we’d never noticed before. There was a barbecue on one of the last warm days of the year in someone’s closety backyard, morning glory strangling the brick. (“Those vines are lovely,” I told my host, trying to be friendly. She’d frowned, confessed, “They’re killing everything.”) I didn’t know these people well, but in those weeks everyone was overly solicitous and given to gallows humor, getting together to consume comfort food and avoid the subjects of death and patriotism in favor of those vaguer favorites, What Was So Great About Our City and The Things That Really Mattered. It
smelled like burning rubber in Brooklyn. Every night I dreamed I had children who got lost in my pockets. In other words, it was a dangerous time to meet someone new.
Over by the fence was Harry. He was wearing a leather jacket that was too warm for the weather, which I didn’t question at the time. His white shirt gaped open at the collar. I first noticed that triangle of neck. He stood talking to a trio of pretty blondes, and I couldn’t hear what he said but all at once, as if choreographed, they threw back their heads and laughed. Here was Harry in one of his—of course I couldn’t have known this then—manic highs, characterized by bravado and boisterousness, beloved by all. I thought (ha! ha!), There is an uncomplicated man. Having split recently from a morose Bushwick-loft-inhabiting artist, I looked at Harry and my gut said, I know him. He is happy. He knows (he knocked back a swig of microbrewed beer, squinted at something over my head, the fire escape maybe) how to enjoy life. People are always saying to follow your gut. Unfortunately, as it turns out, my gut is kind of stupid.
You know you’re in trouble when you refer to your own relationship as a “whirlwind romance.” Harry was fond of this phrase, which to me stank with a rot-sweet whiff of desperation. It’s true that it all happened very quickly. There was something deeply flattering about his passion for me, how he had to have me immediately and forever. His professions of affection were always larger than life. Two dozen white roses would greet me at work on a gloomy Monday, to the cooing envy of my coworkers. Or I’d wake on a weekend to a homemade cappuccino, a new pair of golden gladiators (he’d pinpointed my weaknesses), and marching orders—“Get up, get up! We’re going on a helicopter tour of the city in an hour!” My therapist posited that Harry was the Un My Father, what with his charisma and spontaneity and vague sheen of hazard.
She called him the Prince of Darkness Charming. She called him James Dean Lite. I called her Not My Therapist Anymore.
Within a year Harry and I were married (he wanted a Vegas wedding but worried it would kill his mother), and I’d traded my Xanax for prenatal omega-3s; a year after our wedding, Betty was born, and not quite two years after that, Rose. I’d been in college longer than I’d known my husband. I’d had a more protracted relationship with my academic adviser than with the father of my children, the man whose DNA I’d chosen to tangle with mine. And now here we were, piled into the crummy two-bedroom rental that was all we could afford in Park Slope, the yuppie neighborhood we clung to because I was afraid to bring my kids anywhere else in the city. Or here I was, anyway. Who knew where Harry was.
When I awoke at three a.m., Rose howling wolfishly at a blackout-curtain-defying streetlamp, Betty standing in the hallway with her hands over her ears, and Harry still wasn’t there, it occurred to me to worry.
“Rosie, Rosie.” I launched myself from bed, the sheets withed around my legs, only to step squarely on the dog. Oh. The dog. I was perpetually forgetting about the existence of Juniper, Harry’s scraggly, immortal mutt. Our mutt now, of course. Had I taken her down to pee before bed? There were too many creatures’ bodily functions to keep track of. The dog looked up at me mournfully. I apologized, stumbled into our nubbin of a hallway. My legs were stiff, Frankensteiny. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d exercised in any way more significant than a walk pushing the stroller around the park, which I hoped counted for something. Every day I promised myself I’d at least stretch out before bed, and every night I was twelve times too tired to even consider it. Anyway, “going to bed”
was more like waiting for Rose to relent and then immediately applying myself to my mattress.
Rose had hiked her swaddle up around her neck in a sort of haute couture cowl and was inching across the crib like a demented caterpillar. She stopped howling when she saw me, grinned toothlessly. “All right,” I said. “You’re very charming.” I pulled the swaddling blanket off of her and lifted her out. Betty followed us back into my bed. I didn’t bother trying to stop her. I nestled Rose down in the center of the mattress, and she immediately started snorting with the pre-meal enthusiasm of a true Lipkin. I lay down beside her and offered her the boob with the less destroyed nipple. Betty lay down on the other side of Rose.
“Mommy, where Daddy?”
Rose popped off and craned her neck curiously toward Betty.
“Sweetheart, please don’t distract the baby,” I said as dread gripped the top knob of my spine. Right. Where was Daddy? “Daddy’s, um, at work.”
Betty considered this. “Aren’t the lights off?”
Rose latched back on. I closed my eyes and allowed the pull of sleep to drag me under the surface. Sleep was like water, my brain thought, unoriginally. And as with a river, you never stepped into the same sleep twice, it was always a different texture somehow, there was a different current tonight, something roiling in the distance. What was this dream that I—
Without really waking up, I said, “Yes, honey, the lights are off. He has a flashlight.”
Rose stopped nursing to stare up at Betty again. “Please, no talking, Betty,” I said, already mostly asleep. I was so tired that it hurt to wake up and fall back asleep. It was like how it used more energy
to turn something off and on than it did to— But the thought stopped making sense as I thought it, breaking apart like bread dropped in water. I was dimly aware of Juniper jumping onto the bed and coiling up behind me. Being sandwiched between little bodies this way seemed cozy for about thirty seconds, until my leg wanted to stretch and couldn’t. It was another hot night, the mugginess unfazed by the air-conditioning unit lodged in the window, and here we were glued together by sweat and spit-up and dog hair. It was all very glamorous.
When I awoke again—five minutes later? an hour later?—Rose was snoozing with her mouth slightly open around my nipple, milk pooled on her tiny tongue. Betty and Juniper were curled together at the foot of the bed. The room was shadowy, lit by the streetlamp, the lights of night-owl neighbors, the lights of early-rising neighbors, the hazy undark of the city at night. And really, now, where was Harry? Alarm rang through my limbs. I tried to temper it with some Vulcan logic, a technique I’d had to teach myself over and over, every night of my anxiety-laden first year of motherhood. No, no, he wasn’t dead in a ditch, that wouldn’t make any sense— He had said something . . . Oh. He was going to stop and buy cigarettes. My brain, still half-sleeping like a dolphin’s, invented a story: He’d gotten a call from his alcoholic brother, Fred, he’d gone over to comfort him, he’d probably called my cell phone but I hadn’t gotten the call because the phone was loitering as usual somewhere deep within the diaper bag. He had ended up spending the night at Fred and Cynthia’s place near the office and had texted me so as not to wake up the girls in the miraculous case that one or both of them might be sleeping and when I saw him tomorrow, today, whenever, he would chastise me for not paying more attention to that particular hunk of electronics, which, it was true, I saw more as an emergency distraction device for Betty than as an actual tool
for communication. Okay, that made sense. I was drifting back to sleep, so tired that my joints felt jumpy, my skin prickly. I couldn’t process whether I’d fallen asleep or else had slept for hours when there was Betty, patting my cheek.
I opened an eye. Rose sprawled out on her back, taking up more room than seemed geometrically possible for a person who weighed twelve pounds. It was a good thing Harry wasn’t here, actually. He hated when I let Rose sleep in our bed. “You made me buy that rocking chair for the nursery,” he’d say crossly. “I thought that was for nursing. It’s not safe to sleep with her in our bed.” I had a mature, reasonable response to this, being the excellent wife and mother that I was: I waited for him to turn around, and then I stuck my tongue out at the back of his head.
“Mommy. Cookies?” Betty said experimentally. When I opened both eyes, I saw Juniper behind her, wagging her tail. When Juniper diagnosed me as awake-ish, she leaped up and started pacing around. “No and no,” I said to both of them. I probably fell back asleep. “MOMMY,” Betty said, patting my cheek harder. Okay, hitting. Smacking my face. Her hand was sticky, somehow, already. It was a lovely way to wake up. It wasn’t even light out yet. So, four forty-five, maybe? Juniper jumped up onto the bed, and Rose’s eyes popped open.
“Oh God,” I said. Every morning I lay in bed thinking, I cannot possibly do this for one more day. Then I got up and did it for one more day, every day. All parents did, I told myself. My exhaustion was nothing special. And likewise, the moments in which I managed to cope in a halfway-decent way were not exactly the triumphs of maternal spirit I liked to pretend they were—more like basic competence. “Tell Daddy to take out Juniper,” I said.
Betty shook her head. “It’s too far.”
“What?” I lifted Rose, who belched loudly, looking surprised
and pleased, a diminutive frat boy. I hadn’t burped her after her last dozy feeding. Another habit Harry hated.
“It’s too far. Daddy at work.”
Thirty seconds later, I was wearing the same T-shirt and shorts I’d worn the day before; Rose and her diaper, transformed into an anvil of pee, were tucked into the sling; Betty was dressed in her pajamas, a tutu, and pink Crocs her grandmother had gotten her expressly against our wishes; Juniper was harnessed into her leash. The whole happy family clambered out on the street. It was already about eighty degrees out, the world damp and steaming from the night’s rain. Day-old spit-up baked on my shirt, emitting a not entirely unpleasant bready odor. The sun was just beginning to rise, a bright sore bleeding over the park. Juniper peed in someone’s tree box, irrigating the “Curb your dog” sign. Some days the city seemed almost supernaturally beautiful to me. Then there were days like this, when unforgiving light revealed rats performing acts of daytime derring-do, when everything in sight—a withered crone collecting cans, a paralyzed poodle dragging its hind legs on clanging wheels—looked damaged and deranged. It was garbage day, and stinking boulders of trash punctuated the sidewalk, which reminded me that I hadn’t taken down our recycling, a thought that filled me with despair. Betty toddled over to a rank pile, lifted up a diseased-looking teddy bear.
“No!” My voice startled Rose, who started to cry. It was easier to have sympathy for her, I found, than her sister, the toddler terror. Rosie couldn’t help it. She was a baby. Her crying was uncomplicated. When Betty turned on the waterworks about one of her complex big-girl issues, like not getting an eighth Dora Band-Aid with which to decorate the dog, my skin curdled with irritation. But the baby I could deal with. I wasn’t that heartless. Usually.
“Shhh.” I swayed back and forth, extracted a pacifier from my pocket, and plugged her mouth. “Betty,” I said in the creepy-calm voice of fake parental patience. “Put that down right this second. Haven’t you ever read The Velveteen Rabbit? Scarlet fever! Bedbugs! Death!”
Betty knitted her brow.
“Drop it!” I said. Juniper stopped walking and looked at me. “Not you.”
Betty released her treasure and poutily stuck her thumb in her mouth, the same thumb that, moments before, had been caressing the grimy toy’s eyeless socket. I closed my eyes. I’d been awake for two minutes and already felt overwhelmed by the length of the day ahead of me. I was officially over Harry’s disappearing act.
After Juniper had crapped a portentously watery crap—“What did you feed her?” I asked Betty, who pretended not to hear—we made our way around the block, dotted with trucks making their deafening morning deliveries to the corner store, the bakery, the bar. We trooped back upstairs. I finally changed Rose’s diaper. She grabbed at her crotch, grinning. We went into the main room, a relentlessly cluttered living room with an open kitchen, which had seemed like a good idea before we had kids. (“Perfect for entertaining!” Harry had said when I moved in. Ha!) Betty sat cross-legged next to Juniper’s bowl, crunching.
“Oh dear God, what are you eating?” I said, depositing Rose into her bouncy seat. She promptly commenced howling. I picked her up despite the twinge between my shoulder blades. Betty put her hand back into Juniper’s food bowl and then froze. “Please do not eat dog food,” I said halfheartedly. I searched for my phone in the diaper bag, which seemed to contain everything we owned except diapers. I heard Betty crunching again. Juniper lapped at her water. Betty splashed in Juniper’s water. Rose snuffled around at my chest.
I only feel like crying because I am so tired, I told myself. It’s just that my eyes are all dried out.
No messages on my phone. No missed calls. Staying calm for the sake of the girls took all the energy I had. Which made me mad at Harry—what a jerk, to put me through this, and on such a hot day!—which made me immediately bite the inside of my cheek, hard, to punish myself for thinking such mean thoughts about someone who was maybe missing and in danger, or maybe just a huge fucking jerk, or maybe a huge fucking jerk who was nevertheless missing and in danger.
I called the office (neck prickling, lungs hollowing out), but no one answered. It was too early for anyone to be there in any normal sort of capacity. I pictured Harry asleep in his chair, head cocked back at a terrible angle. Okay. That would make a funny story someday: He was so tired, because you never slept, Rose, that one night he called to say he was on his way home and then promptly fell asleep in his chair. Cue Harry rubbing his neck ruefully, as if remembering the pain upon waking.
After all, he had been working a lot of late hours recently. I coped by changing into my pajamas at six p.m. every night and entertaining Betty and myself with elaborate, magical bedtime stories. He was the one missing out, I told myself, on these great bonding whatevers. After all the moments of parenting that, let’s be honest, really sucked, I lived for that twilight time when Betty snuggled up and prompted me, “Tell the fishy.” Then my oft-mocked master’s degree in Russian folklore (it sounded good at the time) got its moment to shine. “Yes,” I told Betty, working a comb through a post-bath snarl. “Once there was a fish-woman who lived at the bottom of the river. Every night she came out and danced in the meadow by the light of the moon.”
“At the park?” In Betty’s two-and-a-half-year-old mind (as in mine), all woodland adventures took place in Prospect Park.
“Yep. In the big field on the way to the carousel. And she would dance and dance. And sometimes climb a tree to brush her hair.”
“But only if her mama there.”
“Right. Exactly. For safety. And so one night a man walked by . . .” Betty loved when these ghostly mermaids lured children with fruit snacks and Pirate’s Booty (hey, water spirits know what little kids like) and especially when they tickled men to death.
“But not wheely? She tickle him? But not wheely.”
“Well . . .” And then would come a tickle to end all tickles. The fish-woman stories had emerged from a fit of overparenting pique, when it was revealed that while babysitting one night Grandma Sylvia had exposed my daughter to Disney’s insipid Little Mermaid movie, with its teeny-bopper heroine. I’d relented on a lot of the perfect parenting ideals I’d had as a pre-parent, but this was too much. Mermaids had been my favorite figures in the Slavic fairy-tale pantheon, but it was because they were weird and powerful and a little scary, not because they looked great in clamshell bikinis. I admit that I tended to neglect the girls’ wardrobes—the cuteness quotient of their coats and dresses not nearly as high as one might expect from a pair of brownstone-Brooklyn babies—and things like clipping their nails and educating them about etiquette or God or non-microwaved cuisine. But simpering female role models and saccharine fairy stories? Come on. I left out the parts about mermaids being the unavenged spirits of suicides, forsaken girls, betrayed brides, unwed mothers-to-be. I figured that stuff could wait at least until pre-K.
Bedtime, sleep. I never would have thought these would someday be my obsessions, occupying such large portions of my daily consciousness. Starting at around four p.m.—the witching hour, when
all down the street you could hear children begin to howl like werewolf cubs: my mind clicked with calculations: If everyone has dinner at four-thirty and then baths at five and then cartoons for Betty during Rosie’s bedtime and then assuming Rosie stays asleep for Betty’s bedtime, it’s possible I’ll get some time to sew before Harry gets home—and I’d start zooming toward bedtime in a maniacally unsoothing manner. The day ended definitively around dusk, and I never left the building after dark, but when your kids are little and wake up all night, you don’t ever get to clock out. I fantasized about a sexy eight-hour block of sleep. I salivated while telling Betty the part of Sleeping Beauty where the princess snoozes for a century.
Such luxurious lengths of sleep were not to be, not in this lifetime. I remember reading—it must have been soon after Betty’s birth, when peaceful nursing sessions mellowed into snuggling naps, when she would snooze on my chest while I browsed child development books (nowadays taking care of one baby sounded so easy, total amateur hour)—that infants need something like twenty hours of sleep a day, and that by four months old they will sleep through the night and take at least two naps a day. Which is how I knew that Rose was an exceptional human destined for great things. Think what an advantage it would be not to need sleep! This was what Harry and I had joked about before we were too tired to joke, when Rose was a squalling kitten balled up in blankets; we assumed this would all be an amusing anecdote someday. “We have here,” Harry announced into a rattle, “the parents of the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner, Rose Lipkin, who credits her extraordinary body of work to the extra hours she has to work, as she only sleeps for forty-five minutes a night. Now, tell us, Mr. and Mrs. Lipkin, did Rose ever sleep like a normal person?” And while the old me would have answered in some funny, snappy way, I’m sure, at the time I smiled wearily into Rose’s sweet-smelling scalp. Even Betty, who seemed to
forget about her little sister’s existence for hours at a time, eventually commented on the situation, strutting into the room on chunky toddler legs and pointing and saying, “Baby needs night-night,” furrowing her brow in droll fury. Baby needed night-night, indeed.
As a result I was worn down by exhaustion, my edges rounded, like a giant ambulatory pebble. My brain didn’t work the way it once had. I felt at all times an instant away from tears. I expended a lot of energy I didn’t have convincing myself this was due to being tired. I didn’t want to believe that it was, as my well-meaning psychiatrist sister seemed to be hoping, postpartum depression, which she insisted on calling, awfully, “baby blues,” as if describing Frank Sinatra’s eyes and not a mental health condition. Still, Sarah had called once a week from Seattle since Rose’s birth, the way she had with Betty—making small talk before edging up to the subject and finally saying, her voice taking on the queasy sheen of sympathy, “So, how are you feeling? Any baby blues?”
I knew the answer she was looking for. “No,” I’d tell her almost apologetically. “Everything’s great. I’m just tired.”
“Okay,” she’d say, exhaling. “Okay, good. Because after Max was born, I was a wreck, and I didn’t feel like I could admit it to anyone—”
“I know, Sarah, I know.”
“I hate that you stopped seeing your therapist. I just want to make sure you have someone to talk to.”
“Okay. The only reason why I mention it is because for someone with your history of depression, it’s really common. And there’s nothing at all the matter with it. You need to know it doesn’t mean you’re a bad mother or that you don’t adore your kids. Really, did you know that twenty percent of woman experience postpartum depression, which can lead to postpartum psychosis—I mean, of
course, not you—and especially women who have to go off their depression meds when they have their babies—”
“Yes, I know. Thanks a million for the cheery call, Sare, but I really have to go now. Time to drown the children in the bathtub.”
“That’s not funny. Jenny. Jenny? I do not like that joke. Jenny?”
Almost five months later, not much had changed except that Betty had taken more of an interest in Rose, so now neither of them slept. I would jerk awake in one odd situation or another—sitting in a kitchen chair while breast pump parts boiled, lying on the baby’s blanket surrounded by toys—to find Betty lugging Rose into her lap or the two of them huddled in Rose’s crib. “Betty! What did I tell you about the baby—gentle touches! Gentle touches!” I would cry ungently. Betty would stare up at me, green eyes wide, grubby fingers tangled in Rose’s scant strands of hair. Or Rose would be about to relent, her eyes rolling shut, as Betty would toddle in with the toy Harry had been entrusted to hide, a plastic meteor pocked with buttons, each triggering a mechanized song more eardrum-busting than the last. Who in the world designed those things? The wardens at Guantánamo Bay?
It wasn’t only the sleeping, either. Rose constantly wanted to nurse, but would stay on the breast for about thirty seconds before absentmindedly pulling off. Whenever I put her down, she wailed. “She’s spoiled,” Harry’s mother, Sylvia, said. “You carry her around too much.” “Early teething,” said a lady on the train. “It’s reflux,” diagnosed my sister, Sarah, long-distance. The pediatrician shrugged, not unsympathetically. “She’s a baby,” he said. “They cry.”
So you couldn’t really blame Harry when he started working later and later into the night. He swore up and down it had nothing to do with me or the girls, that he wanted to be home to help me
but things were not looking ever so good at Ever So Fresh and he was needed at the office. “Never go into business with your family,” he grimly told Betty one morning as she fed Cheerios to her plastic cash register. She looked at him for a long moment before offering a delicious choking hazard to Rose, who was doing her baby cobra pose on the floor nearby. “Nononono!” We rushed forward in unison. (It was our fault, my mother-in-law informed us, that “no” was Betty’s favorite word. Before I’d had kids, I’d never known this was a thing, how you weren’t supposed to use the word “no.” I still didn’t get it. What else could we say to her as she, for example, lurched toward the busy avenue we lived on? Un-yes?)
What with the economy, and the recession, and the “crazy food faddists” (according to Sylvia, as if believing candy to be unhealthful were some wrongheaded new idea), sales were down at Ever So Fresh. Harry’s year-end bonus had been a bulk-size bag of stale fruit gels, disgusting enough when new and, by the time we encountered them, chewy as sugar-shellacked beef jerky. His brother was busy divorcing his second wife, one of those gently psychotic types who enjoyed visiting Disney World despite being a childless adult, and baby-talked to her houseplants. Therefore, Harry was needed at the office later and later into the night, each night, and sometimes on weekends. Allegedly.
The morning after the epic cigarette run: “You’re sure it’s only . . . work?” My friend Laura puckered her forehead. She knew Harry was working crazy hours, but I’d left out for now the part about how he’d never come home last night. We’d been putting in extra-long hours of our own at the playground. Laura’s husband worked a lot, too. Then again, Laura’s husband was a surgeon. Their apartment could have fit four of ours inside, and contained within its
original-prewar-detail-adorned depths a washer, dryer, and dishwasher, oh whirring objects of my most fervent desire.
Betty and Laura’s daughter, Emma, busied themselves palpating an anthill with bendy straws. I squinted at them, pretending to watch them play instead of mentally critiquing the cute-but-slightly-misaligned sailor dress I’d made for Betty. I would never admit to being happy to have girls strictly for the wardrobe options, but I will say that as an amateur seamstress, jacked cotton dresses for unpicky models were sort of my specialty. Betty offered Emma a wood chip, which she sucked on tentatively. I took in a breath to tell Laura about the woodsy snack and then didn’t, for some reason.
I stood near the fence, swaying back and forth with Rose sleeping fitfully in her sling. She seemed determined to sleep only when the nap could be of no use to me. I felt the sleepy weight of her body, not looking at her, and for a moment imagined she’d been replaced with a Tereshichka-like wooden block. Checked. Nope, just a regular human, non-imp-from-a-folktale baby. Phew. I wondered if all adults had similar moments of panic caused purely by overactive imaginations. It seemed like a question you couldn’t ask without seeming, you know, crazy.
“I mean,” Laura said, “Harry’s a great guy—I’m sure he wouldn’t—but—”
“Oh, please,” I said. My bravado sounded forced even to me. I felt close to tears because I was so tired, I told myself as usual, just because I was tired. “Harry hates everyone. He doesn’t have any friends. How on earth would he have a girlfriend?”
Laura smiled, sort of. We both knew this wasn’t remotely true. He was moody at home with me, but out in public Harry was the life of the party, gregarious and large-hearted. Somehow, everywhere we went, people knew his name.
“They’re really super busy at Ever So Fresh,” I added. Now
Betty was sampling the wood chips. I again took a breath and then stopped. I had learned to conserve my energy; I only had so much left, and the day was long. Besides, Betty was building immunities. I was pretty sure I’d read that somewhere. A childhood spent nibbling Brooklyn dirt could only result in an iron stomach, right? I pictured a twenty-year-old backpacking Betty impressing her hostel-mates by devouring street food in Indonesia. You’re welcome, grown-up Betty, I thought. My mother had encouraged quiet play indoors and endless hours of television, had suffered a phobia of dirt so debilitating that I’d never so much as seen a sandbox until I had kids of my own, had taught her girls that trying anything new would bring only trauma. I did what I could to escape her with every parenting move I made.
“Girls!” Laura interrupted. “No eating wood chips!” She turned back to me. In her mirrored sunglasses, I looked overly round and worried. I focused on relaxing my brow and applying a small smile. “Didn’t you say business wasn’t good there, though?” Laura said. I loved her, I did, but sometimes her attention to detail was exhausting. I closed my eyes and jolted them open. Was it possible to sleep standing up? If I fell asleep standing up, would I fall down? When I fell down, would I stay asleep?
“Well, that’s why he’s so busy,” I said, starting to feel confused.
“Hmm. Okay,” said Laura, frowning into the distance. “Emma! No!” she called toward the girls, who looked back at us and retreated farther into the dusky distance beneath the slide. It was one of the curious qualities of our friendship that Laura and I never looked each other in the eye as we spoke. Maybe this was how it was with mothers of small children. When I thought about it, I wasn’t exactly sure what Laura looked like, though I knew Emma by heart. Laura and I sat side by side, quietly heckling the park populace like a non-Muppet Statler and Waldorf. “Is he trying to drum up new business? Or something like that?”
“Something like that, yes,” I said. “And in the meantime, I get the shitty parts of being a single mother without any of the fun. Like dating. Maybe I should start dating.”
“I hear it’s not as fun as we remember it.”
“I don’t remember it being all that much fun, so I probably wouldn’t be disappointed.”
“I just— I would just watch him, you know? Remember what happened to Jeanie and Jon, is all.”
“Geez, Laura. You’re a real ray of sunshine.” These Park Slopeians we vaguely knew had been the talk of the playground for a few weeks, when Jon absconded with the nanny and Jeanie had to sell their condo at a huge loss. I hardly saw the parallel. If there was a lesson to be learned from them, it was that, hello, when hiring live-in nannies, you went for the overweight grandmotherly type, not the hot recent college grad with an education degree. I mean, didn’t everyone already know that? I’d never be able to afford a nanny anyway, let alone a hot one.
Laura didn’t respond for so long that I finally looked up, and—oh! Cute Dad. She nudged me. “Stop that,” I said.
Sam held the distinction of being the least uncute stay-at-home father we knew, and accordingly had been mythologized as Cute Dad. I think we just needed a Cute Dad in our lives. We saw him nearly every day. We’d once followed him around the entire loop of the park, like giddy preteens. Our shared crush seemed totally innocent to us, but I admit it probably would have struck our husbands as a little creepy, possibly predatory, had they known. “Shh!” Laura giggled. Cute Dad flashed his famous smile as he fast-walked past, trailing his kids on their scooters.
“You’re terrible,” I told Laura as we watched him disappear into the woods. “The timing of this is highly inappropriate.”
“Timing of what? I’m just waving hello to a neighbor.”
“I am not.”
But she was. I mean, we both were.
When Harry hadn’t shown up or answered his phone by ten a.m., I called Sylvia at her desk, across the office from Harry’s. I could practically see her frowning at Harry’s empty desk, then picking up her phone gingerly between her flawlessly manicured fingertips. She kept a pencil near the phone for dialing, one of many household items that had been transformed into prosthetics to accommodate her metallic magenta talons.
“Ever So Fresh,” she droned, the antithesis of fresh. They had to be the last place of business in New York, perhaps the world, to not have caller ID. Or a receptionist. Sometimes if she was feeling playful, Sylvia imitated a dial-by-name directory, but that was about as technologically savvy as they got. They didn’t have a website, not a single sad page with their contact information.
“Sylvia,” I said. My voice cracked unexpectedly. I was not used to sharing a great deal of emotion with my friendly but brittle mother-in-law, and here I was, wet-faced, snuffle-nosed. Betty stopped running a crayon over Juniper’s back and stared at me. Rose grinned toothlessly from her swing, a plastic contraption that took up half our living room.
“Hello? Hello?” I could hear another phone ringing in the background. Was someone calling Harry? The police, having found his wallet floating in the Hudson? A not-so-secret secret girlfriend? I tried to pull myself together, pressing at my eyes with my fingertips. “Sylvia, it’s me, Jenny.”
“Hi, dear. What’s the matter?”
It was difficult to speak.
“Honey, let me put you on hold.” On hold! I sat there, listening to the hold music—an ancient assortment of Rat Pack crooners Harry’s father had chosen before he died, nearly three years earlier—feeling more and more depressed. I dabbed my eyes with a burp cloth that smelled of sour milk. “Mommy?” Betty said hesitantly. I shook my head, voiceless. Then Sylvia was back. The other phone had stopped ringing.
“Is it so bad having Harry home for the day?” Sylvia had the lox-y voice of a lifelong smoker, which was enough to annoy me on a day like today: the unhealthy rasp of her stretched-thin voice.
“Home? Sylvia, I haven’t seen Harry since yesterday morning.”
There was a pause. “You mean he’s not home sick?” It was amazing how we’d all figured out ways to explain it—explanations that demanded so much work on our parts! The mental calisthenics! I heard a muffled sound, as if Sylvia had placed a hand over the receiver and started talking to someone else.
“I was hoping he’d—I don’t know—fallen asleep at the office. And forgotten to call this morning. I guess. Or something.” It sounded incredibly stupid when I said it out loud.
“Wait, what? Jenny. Have you tried his cell?”
“Of course. It goes straight to voice mail.”
“Why didn’t you call earlier? He could be bleeding to death on a subway platform somewhere!” I had always thought Sylvia was given to histrionics until Betty was born. Then I realized there was nothing crazy about believing your constant vigilance to be the only buffer between your child and the abyss, about feeling sure that you could keep your baby safe by sheer force of anxiety. “Have you called the police?” Hearing her say this made it sink in. Something had gone very wrong with my husband. People didn’t just not come home and then not call. Well, okay, Harry did, now and then. But it wasn’t something you got used to easily. “Should I call the police? Jenny? Hello?”
“I don’t know. What if he’s—you know. In Atlantic City or something.”
A chilly pause. In my panic, I had broken the unspoken Lipkin rule: You don’t talk about the Lipkins. Even to the Lipkins. Especially to the Lipkins. You don’t talk about Fred’s drinking problem. You don’t talk about the paterfamilias’s obesity, and when he dies of a heart attack, you act like no one ever saw it coming. You don’t talk about Harry’s obsession with gambling, even when it’s painfully obvious, even when he’s your own husband and it’s your money being frittered away on poker nights and Vegas weekends. It was all very suppressed, very 1950s. Sylvia wasn’t going to rescue me, either, or heaven forbid admit that I sort of had a point. That it had sort of happened before. Finally, I said, “Is Fred there? Has he heard from Harry?”
“He’s here. He doesn’t know anything. We assumed Harry was home sick, or that maybe he’d taken the day to spend with the family. He’s been so upset about everything lately, and—”
“About what?” I interrupted.
Sylvia paused. Was it a knowing, considered pause? Or the normal pause of the interrupted? A paranoid queasiness percolated in my gut. “I’m sure he’s told you business is bad. And I know you kids are looking to find a bigger place, and it’s stressing him out, and that you, you know”—and oh, duh, I got it—“you haven’t been feeling well . . .”
“All right,” I said. “I didn’t know if there was something else. I’m feeling fine, by the way.”
“Of course you are, dear.”
“I’m just tired. You know? Rose doesn’t sleep. It’s tiring. Betty, no! Do not feed boogers to the baby!” I said it a little too loud and right into the phone.
Sylvia paused. “Dear, why don’t I come over.”
I looked around the apartment. This was not one of those “Oh, ha, sorry it’s such a mess” moments. It was dangerously messy. It was call-child-services, doubt-the-mental-health-of-the-mother messy. It was TLC-reality-programming messy. We cohabited with dust bunnies I knew by name, tiles that were actually milk spills. The windowsills were furzed with old-building lead dust. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the jumbled hall closet mobbed by mischievous gnomes. Moments earlier Betty had been sitting on the kitchen floor playing with “ladybugs,” a friendly assortment of crumbs and shed paint chips.
“No, no,” I said too quickly. A weepy weight welled in my throat. “No, thank you. We have a ton to do today. But—keep me posted.”
“If we haven’t heard from him by tomorrow, I’m calling the police,” said Sylvia. This was a small victory: Her all but admitting that Harry might have gone off to gamble, that there might be a reasonable, unreasonable explanation for everything.
“All right,” I said.
“You don’t think he might be—”
I pretended not to hear and hung up the phone. When I turned around, Betty’s face was screwed up bulldoggishly.
“Wanttoo talk to Grandma!” she wailed.
“No, you don’t,” I said. “Trust me.”
Getting to know Harry after we’d married was interesting, I’ll give it that. The gambling problem, for example. Who knew there was such a thing? When we were first together, he’d taken me to hipster poker nights in smoky speakeasies, tucked into warehouse warrens or behind doors hidden in brownstone bookcases. I loved the whole secret-supper-club phenomenon for the retro charm, the sense of
in-crowd illicitness, and most of all, for the excuse it gave me to wear high heels too impractical for real life. Besides, Harry looked so cute leaning over in his pressed dress shirt, his hair slicked back like a movie gangster’s, calling someone’s bluff. I was enjoying myself, infatuated with being infatuated with him. I didn’t realize that for Harry, these nights were about the shuffle of cards, the plunking down of dollars. Which is to say, I didn’t think about the poker part of things much at all.
Once we were married, I would wake up in the middle of the night and wander into the living room to find him up in front of the computer, his face flickering in the light of an online poker site. I never suspected that this was his intermediary fix, like a junkie trying to take the edge off with drink. When I was eight months pregnant with Betty, he disappeared one Friday, just never got to work, without calling or answering his phone or responding to the dozen texts I sent. I dedicated that Saturday to calling every hospital in New York City, spent Sunday-brunch time hysterically camped out at my local police precinct, scored an exclusive tour of the Kings County morgue to view a baseball team’s worth of frozen white men. Needless to say, when he reappeared, rumpled but triumphant, in the meager light of Monday morning (having weekended in Atlantic City and doubled the money we’d received as wedding gifts and had been saving as a down payment for something or other), I was a hormonal mess—relieved, furious, exhausted, overjoyed, threatening murder and/or divorce. “I looked at dead people!” I’d screamed. “You made me look at dead people!” The fight that ensued caused both our upstairs and downstairs neighbors to call 311 on us. (No one thought to knock on the door to make sure the shattering plates weren’t meeting skin—thanks, Brooklyn!) Still. You wouldn’t think this of yourself—I know I didn’t—but it so happens that it’s easier to forgive when your
wrongdoer (contrite, begging your pardon, crying for the first time in your presence) has suddenly become twenty thousand dollars richer and apologizes with a weekend at a SoHo spa. It sounds shallow, I know, but hold judgment until you’ve had a Thai herbal rub applied to your extremely pregnant belly.
So here was this man I’d married, revealing himself to me as we formed our family together. A gambling problem! Either he was really good at hiding it or my powers of denial were superhero strength, because by the time I understood the severity of his sickness, our lives were so entangled that it became my problem, too. I remember wishing (and then immediately taking it back, pretending not to have thought it) that he could have had a health problem instead—something I could feel sorry for him about, something we could try to survive together. The gambling thing was embarrassing. It was something I’d never heard of, which made it feel somehow weirder than something like plain old alcoholism.
Once, before I knew better, I mentioned it to his mother. She was so offended, I feared I’d caused irreparable damage to my standing among the Lipkins. Which I had. I’d been unintentionally offending my in-laws ever since I’d arrived on the scene and their mistrust of me—an overeducated gentile from Minnesota—metastasized when I refused the ridiculous job Sylvia offered me when Harry and I were first married.
The thing was, I actually loved my job as an editor at a home-decor magazine in Midtown. What was so confusing was that I’d thought it was something Harry liked about me—that I had a career, that I had ambitions, that I was, modesty aside, a really good editor. I worked long hours, sure, but I was happy there in my tweed skirt, biting a pencil (a prop, as I typed away) in the buzz and flicker of my cubicle at nine p.m., ordering in sushi on the company card and trying to sift the various pieces of interviews and
research and background material into a story that read smoothly, that illuminated the photography, that expressed its meaning and humor and good taste in a breezy but not too breezy manner, that people would read, admittedly, on the toilet (but that was hardly the point, now, was it?).
My job held no allure for the Lipkins. They’d never heard of my magazine and had only a fuzzy concept of what it was I did. (I once overheard Sylvia at a family Passover seder describe me as a “sort of a newspaper columnist.”) So when we’d been married a month, they banded together, decided that I would be happier writing advertising copy, managing contracts, and answering phones at Ever So Fresh. It had been a whole thing. I was horrified at the thought and even more horrified that Harry, the stranger I had married, would think I would want to do such a thing. I loved my job. I complained about it constantly, but there was no denying the thrill of excitement I got every time I walked into the cavernous lobby of my fancy building near Times Square. I spent a lot of time getting dressed in the morning, blow-drying my hair, de-scuffing my oversize, overpriced handbag, selecting my shoes.
Sometimes I think what I liked most about working was the shoes. I had always been on the shrimpy end of the spectrum and, in adulthood, had topped out at barely five feet tall on tiptoes, with a size-four foot. In New York this was weird enough, but back home in Minnesota, land of big-boned Scandinavians, it had been downright freakish. My whole life, large-limbed friends had gasped at my feet and told me how lucky I was, but in truth there is nothing so great about having to special-order every single pair of shoes you own. As a result, my shoes were stupidly expensive and carefully chosen. A cobbler’s sample here, a ballet slipper there, perhaps in a pinch a child’s extra-large patent-leather party shoe. Working had given me an excuse to collect more variety in footwear than I’d
ever had in my life. I’d spring out of the shower and pace in front of my tiny closet with its tidy racks of shoes. The evilly pretty sling-backs (Marni, snakeskin) I blew my first paycheck on? The buttery calf-skin boot brought back from a friend visiting Japan (that mythical land where an elf like me wore a medium)? The Manolo Blahnik d’Orsays (feathered, like the bird-human hybrid feet of a sirin) presented by Harry, flying high from a big win at poker? I had shoes no one back home had heard of. I minced through the city like a salaried Cinderella.
Harry found it all faintly ridiculous. It was all faintly ridiculous, but I didn’t care. I’d call and apologize for missing dinner when I had a housewares store opening or cocktail party to go to (in the stalky, sparkly stilettos I kept stowed under my desk) or when I was just mooning around the office, waiting to sign off on a proof during the crazy monthly close. I would take home each issue as soon as the glossy tablets arrived, and show Harry—“This is the architect profile I edited, God, that guy was a douchebag”—and he would flip through it with very mild interest.
One night—I was drunk, admittedly, from too much champagne at a going-away party for a coworker—Harry finally said, “It’s just that you’re so smart, Jenny. You should be writing for The New Yorker or working on a book or something.” I’d reeled. “What’s that supposed to mean?” It stung because I knew the magazine was idiotic, I knew it took over my life in an idiotic way, and also because it implied that I had the ultimate choice in the matter, as if I could say, Hey, ya know, that sounds great, I think I’ll start as the features editors of Time next week! I busted my hump all month, endured tirades from the fascist editor in chief, worked and reworked stories and spreads endlessly, all for a wage slightly higher than a waitress’s and far less than a stripper’s. But I was a good editor. I knew I was a good editor. And I’d had the job (complete with
business cards and a line on the masthead) only a few years, having suffered though several horrid assistant positions to get to where I was. I certainly didn’t need Harry saying, “There’s hardly any words in it.” I knew that. Obviously, I knew that.
The magazine folded while I was on maternity leave with Betty. I never got to clear off my desk. It was what was happening. Even my bookish friends took to saying things like “Well, we all know print’s dead!” and then laughing nervously, like they’d gotten away with some outrageous joke. So in that way, the working/not-working conundrum decided itself for me, and for a while things were fine. I was home with the girls, which was its own kind of interesting. Though I could never say it to Harry, there was so much he missed during the day. I knew my babies. I knew every inch of them, every predilection, every habit, every experience they’d ever had. I saw Betty’s giddy joy when she took her first drunken steps; I memorized Rose’s constellation of recurring diaper rash.
Still, it took a leap of faith not to think about what I would end up doing once they went off to school—getting into, one prayed, G&T, which in our strange new world meant not an alcoholic beverage but the much less refreshing Gifted & Talented public school program. When I did think about my future, I became immediately nauseated, headachey, heavy with fatigue. I was either harboring some serious self-doubt or had hepatitis B. It was the same life crisis everyone I knew was having, the same conversation all Park Slope moms shared around the swing set. But my production company! My teaching degree! My doctorate! Blah, blah. My work had been kind of my deal. It was who I was. And now? I dreaded meeting new people and facing the inevitable What Do You Do?: “Oh, this,” I would say sheepishly, gesturing toward my sweaty offspring. Or else: “Nothing.” Nothing. How I would have loved a day to do nothing, to lie perfectly still on the couch and stare at the television.
I would have to do something eventually—we couldn’t afford for me not to be working, not financially and certainly not mental-healthily—but all my work up until now had earned me a whole lot of experience in a field that barely existed anymore, that might have vanished by the time my kids were in school. Well, I’d gotten that sweet master’s in Russian folklore that I was still paying for, from the small liberal arts college in St. Paul where I’d puttered around before gathering up the nerve to move to New York. So! That was sure to come in handy amid recession and growing unemployment.
In the meantime, I stayed at home with the girls and sewed and baked cookies (and then, unfortunately, ate the cookies) and went to a lot of sing-alongs and story times. It was a pleasant enough life crisis. I admit there were plenty of times when I was walking with the girls at seven a.m., trying to convince Rose to take a morning nap because she’d already been up for hours, and I’d see women going to work, hurrying toward the subway in skirts and heels, and I’d feel a pang of—something. At least, as Sylvia was always reminding me in a tone I knew was meant to be conciliatory but which struck me as foreboding, there was always a place for me at Ever So Fresh. Jesus. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted out of life, or even who I was, but one thing I did know was that I didn’t want to end up in that stuffy Bay Ridge office with my in-laws, selling jelly rings in bulk to grocery stores and bars. And they sensed it. The Lipkins knew. They knew me for the superficial snob that I was.
Meanwhile, my own family could not have been farther away while on the same continent—my pathologically busy sister, Sarah, all the way in Seattle, my travel-averse parents marooned in the Midwest. Every time I spoke with my mother, she said something like “Gosh, it sure does kill me to be so far from those sweet grandbabies of mine,” so I’d been calling her less and less frequently to avoid the guilt trip. My pre-baby friends in New York were
magazine people who had visited with flowers and impractical gifts—dry-clean-only onesies that buttoned up the back, gorgeous picture books for clean-fingered six-year-olds—when Betty was born, and most of whom I hadn’t seen since. I didn’t have a job or my own money; I couldn’t see past my own nose, really. And now I was alone with a toddler and a colicky infant, and it was hot, and I was tired, and Harry was gone.