New Mother

Julie Marie Wade

You cannot go back.

Leah had sketched the words on every scrap of paper, every grocery list, even the coupons she handed over at the store, the newspapers she bound with string and set out for recycling.  They, too, bore her new mantra beneath the bylines—four words from a soft-tipped pencil she rarely sharpened.

Leah was a lucky new mother in that her child slept well.  She could lay him down after lunch and not hear him again until close to supper.  These were the hours she had been told to savor—to do something special for herself. “You should take hot baths and read books you never thought you’d have time for,” her mother advised, the faraway voice on the telephone she no longer recognized.  But no sooner had she settled into the tub than she heard the buzzer on the dryer and realized it was time to change loads—transfer the wet ones, fold the warm ones, prepare for another cycle of burp cloths and bibs.  The clothes, it turned out, needed the bath more than she did. 

Sometimes Leah sat a long time at the bottom of the stairs, the soiled garments at her feet, the soft light streaming through the cellar door.  She watched the day stretch ahead of her, then beyond, wide as the winter prairie, bare as the winter prairie, and she feared she would never again glimpse what was buried under that snow.

You cannot go back.

“Hello? Leah?—I tried knocking, but there was no answer.”  She heard the thump of thick heels, and then Zoe appeared on the landing.  Zoe, like no,  one syllable without an umlaut.  Seeing Leah below her, she called out, “Oh my God!  Are you in pain, Lay?  Did you fall?”

“No, nothing like that.”  Leah turned slowly—she had lost her speed, surrendered it all to caution. “I was just sitting here.  I was just—waiting for the laundry to dry.”

“You have chairs for that, don’t you?  A comfortable couch?”

“I know it sounds silly,” she said, pushing herself up with her hands, “but sometimes I think I just get up there and I have to come straight back down here again. I know I shouldn’t be—I sleep a lot now—but I still can’t seem to shake this tired.”

“Can I help you?” Zoe offered, her hands outstretched.

“Really, no, I’m fine.  Embarrassedactually.  It’s one o’clock, and I’m still in my bathrobe and slippers.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Zoe smiled, wrapping an arm around her friend and leading her through the pantry to the hall.  “I’ll make some coffee, and—I brought a Bajan sweet bread.”

“You didn’t.”

“I did. They’re back by popular demand at the bakery, and you know I can’t sell them without taking some home.  That would be a far too efficient business model.”

Leah leaned against a cushioned bar stool and watched Zoe work her way around the kitchen: every gesture smooth and precise, the way she had of making slicing and serving a dance.  Zoe stood tall in high boots and tight-fitting jeans—dark denim with slim, pointed pockets in back—and a lavender fleece vest, the perfect complement to her spume of red hair.

“I shouldn’t be eating any of this,” Leah sighed.  “At the rate I’m going, I’ll never get my figure back—such as it was.”

Zoe ground the beans, scooped them generously into the waiting filter.  When she looked at Leah, her brows were knit in problem-solver fashion.  “You need to start being nicer to yourself,” she said. 

“Nicer doesn’t take the weight off—and neither does your devil bread.  But it isdelicious.”

***

Leah spread a white linen cloth over the polished mahogany table.  The woman Michael had hired—the one who came once a week, avoided Leah’s eyes, and didn’t do laundry (it was in their agreement that she wouldn’t “operate machinery,” which included the vacuum cleaner, too)—seemed to have a particular passion for what could be done with an old rag and a bottle of furniture polish.  She liked to make all the surfaces shine.

“The house is still filthy when she leaves, Michael,” Leah had complained.  “The only difference is that it looksclean.”

“I’ll have a talk with her,” he said.  “Where she comes from, women don’t do the negotiating.  Instructions come from the man.”

Leah didn’t know where she came from and didn’t care to.  In fact, she fantasized the next time the woman arrived she would play a tape-recorded Donald Trump shouting “You’re fired!” and see if that voice was manly enough to convey her message.

“Lost in thought, are you?”  Leah refocused her eyes, and there was Zoe, still smiling, holding out a slice of warm bread propped on the saucer of a piping hot coffee cup.

“You do everything so fast,” she remarked.  “Since I had Liam, it takes me forever to get anything done. Mostly, I don’t.”

“Isn’t that typical, though?  I bet a lot of new mothers feel that way.”

There was that phrase again—new mother.  Leah had heard it so often in the last four months she feared it would replace her name.  Before long, she wouldn’t be a “new mother,” yet she would always be a “mother,” and in time, an “old mother,” someone even Liam didn’t want around.  The thought of it—this word competing with her own name, competing even with her general name of “woman”—threatening to replace them both as the truth of who she was—caused Leah to brace her hands on the chair and stand bent over, gasping for air.  This happened from time to time and had been happening more since the birth of her child. Michael called it a “momentary lapse” and told her she should drink more tea, get more rest, stop pushing herself so hard.  She scowled at him: As if there was any choice.  By the time Zoe returned from the kitchen, Leah had taken control of her breath and posed herself on the chair, not wanting her friend to see her that way, not wanting to appear any more pathetic than she already felt herself to be.   

“Do me a favor,” Leah said.

“Sure. Anything.”

“I don’t want to talk about myself today—or the baby.  I want to talk about you—maybe do a little vicarious living.  Do you mind?”

“No,” Zoe replied, “I don’t mind.  I’m just afraid I’m going to disappoint you.  I have nothing sensational to report.”  With that, she tore a small piece of bread dusted with powdered sugar and dipped it into her coffee.  “Hmmm…manna from heaven,” she sighed, and closed her eyes with the impossibly long lashes.

“Then make something up.  I don’t care what it is, so long as it takes me far away from here…Are you seeing anyone?”

“No one of interest.”

“Trust me—I’m interested.  I watched a two-hour special on dung beetles yesterday.”

Zoe laughed and sliced more bread.  “Well, when I say no one of interest, I mean no one of interest even to me.  I’m beginning to think all the nice girls are straight, and all the straight girls are married.”  She handed Leah another slice, which she declined at first, then reluctantly accepted.

“Michael says it’s important not to eat your pain.  That’s why he bought me the exercise bike—so I can ride it when I’m feeling hopeless and out of control.”

“Is it really hopelessness?” Zoe asked.  “I mean, I know it’s hard, and Michael has to travel so much, but Liam’s getting bigger now and sleeping through the night.”  She hesitated, picking small dried cherries from the bread.  “I thought this is what you wanted.”

Leah sipped her coffee to keep her lips from trembling.  “Let’s talk about you,” she said. 

“What do you want?”

“Some version of what you have, I suppose—someday, not now.  A person who holds my interest, a house with window treatments, maybe a big, drooly dog of some kind.  I’m not sure about motherhood, though I’d consider it,” she sighed—“but if we have a child, I’ll make her carry it, whoever she is.  Giving birth is noton my life’s to do list.” Then, Zoe laid a thin, freckled hand on Leah’s, which was dark and plump by comparison.  “Nothing against you, of course, or of all the women who do it every day.  I’m just a big chicken when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“I am too, apparently,” Leah murmured, thinking of her sliced stomach muscles, the scar that stretched like street car tracks across her abdomen. 

You cannot go back.

***

“I ran into Missy Compton the other day,” Zoe remarked.  “I guess it’s Missy Jordan now.  At any rate, she was all atwitter about the reunion, and she asked if I was going, and I couldn’t bring myself to say yes.  I mean, I’m not going, but if anyone could convince me otherwise, it would be you.”

“Do you think I want to see those people?” 

“Well, you’ve got something to show off,” Zoe teased.  “C’mon, that rock alone could make some heads roll.” 

Leah looked down at her diamond studded with sapphires, the coveted Marquis cut that twice she had let slip down the drain and had to retrieve with the rusty head of a hanger.  “Fifteen years.  That’s something.  Is the future what you thought it would be?”

Zoe walked over to the window and slid open the interior shutters so they could see the street in the distance and the flower boxes brimming with snow.  “Just about,” she said.  “I wanted a bakery, you wanted a family—we did our thing, and for the most part, it seems to be working out.”

You cannot go back. 

Leah wanted to say it aloud.  She wanted to clutch Zoe’s wrist-bone in her rising panic and shout at the top of her lungs: You cannot go back!  Instead: “How are you not terrified?” she asked, her voice tiny and solemn, her face but a shadow in the frugal January light.

“Everything always works out,” Zoe promised, pulling her chair close and leaning her body closer.  “Part of it’s just the winter.  You always feel a little sad in winter, a little scared—everyone does—but it passes. You’ll see.  Six months from now, you won’t even remember the way this feels.”

What Leah remembered was the way Zoe used to look at her in high school.  She was famous for her impish grins, her Anne of Green Gables earnestness, the way she would lie to the math teacher right to his face and never flush, walk away breezily with a homework extension or a higher grade.  But Leah had intercepted glances, had caught Zoe smiling shyly in her direction, with nothing of her signature moxie.  She found herself wishing that her boyfriend John—and later even Michael, her husband—gazed at her with such attentive eyes. 

Zoe snapped her fingers.  “Lay? Post-hypnotic suggestion?”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. 

“You’re tired,” Zoe said, patting her hand and standing up to collect their cups. “Shall I get you more coffee, or would you like to lie down for a while?”

“I was just thinking how I’ll never go parasailing.”

“What?”

Parasailing.  I always wanted to do that.”

“So you’ll do it,” Zoe replied.  “You’ve still got a few good years left” and grinned at her friend.  “Sometimes I think I’ll never have sex again, but it always turns around.”

“You don’t understand.”  Leah’s desperation was mounting, but Zoe seemed impervious, refused to permit it. “There are things I won’t do now, not because I can’t do them or because I’m too old to do them, but because it wouldn’t be responsible.  I could get hurt, and then where would my son be?  Michael says we can’t think about ourselves so much anymore—we have to think about the future with Liam in the foreground.”

“Well, he gets on a plane every week, doesn’t he?  That’s dangerous.  Driving is dangerous.  Hell, people fall getting in and out of the bathtub, and you’re not going to stop bathing, are you?”  Zoe came and stood behind her, stroking her hair.

“It’s greasy. I’m sorry,” Leah winced.

“Don’t apologize to me—for anything.  We’ve been friends too long for that kind of formality.”  Leah closed her eyes and let her shoulders settle again, her hands unclench from the seat of the chair.  “Why don’t you let me draw you a bath?” Zoe offered.  “It’ll feel good—and I promise it won’t kill you,” she whispered in Leah’s ear.

“I have laundry—”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“I have to spot-treat some of the shirts for the next load, and—”

“Lay, I know how to do laundry.  I may live in Single Land, but we still have washing machines there.  Next week they’re even sending us samples of Clorox color-safe bleach.”

“I’m sorry—”

Zoe slid her long, pale hand across Leah’s mouth.  “No more apologies.  No more protests aimed at people who are trying to help you.  All right?”

Leah nodded. She brought her own hand to her face, stretched it over Zoe’s, kissed the deep crease in her palm.

“You’re sweet,” Zoe said, and kissed the crown of Leah’s head, there where the first silver hairs mingled with the brown.  “Let me start the bath.”

***

When she heard the tap at the bathroom door, Leah startled.  Had she fallen asleep?  Had she been dreaming?  The water was cold now, her toes badly pruned.

“Look who’s here,” Michael smiled, stepping in from the hall with Liam in his arms.

“You’re home.” Her voice was flat, though she had meant for it to rise.

“I got an earlier flight,” he said.  “I thought maybe we’d get dinner out.”

As Michael approached the tub, Leah felt herself shrinking, had to fight the urge to cover up. “That would be nice.  Just give me a few minutes to dress.”

Michael sat down on the toilet seat and gazed at Liam.  “Look at how perfect he is.  I’m so jealous that you get to see him every day.”

“I’ll need to nurse before we go,” she said, her voice so low it seemed like growling.  Michael didn’t notice. 

“Where are we going?

She glared at him, but he was busy adoring their child.  “To dinner—where do you think?”

“Oh, I thought we’d stay in,” he said.  “I can pick up some take-out, or we can have something delivered.  I’m up for anything.  You choose.”

You cannot go back.  The words flashed, marquee-style, on the tile walls.

“I’d rather go out,” she said.  “I haven’t left this house for three days.”

“Don’t you think it’d be easier—and then if he starts crying and we’re in the restaurant—it’s too late to ask anyone to babysit.”

“Maybe Zoe would.”

“I ran into her,” Michael smiled.  “She was just leaving when I arrived.  She left us some bread from the bakery and folded all the clothes.”  Leah watched the tassels on his shoes twitter as he tapped his feet on the checkered floor.  “I always liked her.”

“Everyone likes Zoe,” Leah sighed.  “Don’t you know—she was voted Best Personality Girl of the Class of 1995. And Best Legs.  And Most Likely to Get into a Bar Brawl.”

Michael rocked the baby without looking up.  “It’s still so funny to me that she’s gay.”

“Why is that funny?”

“Well, not funny ha-ha, but amusing, I mean.  Do you know how many men in this town—”

“What does their desire have to do with hers?” Leah intercepted him.  She pulled the curtain closed before she rose to her feet, using the towel bar to steady herself.

“Do you need some help?” Michael asked.

“You have your hands full,” she replied, “and I’m fine.”

“It’s nothing against Zoe,” he continued.  “I’m not trying to say she shouldn’t be who she is.”

“Then, what areyou trying to say?”  Leah poked her head out from behind the curtain and studied him as he stared enraptured at their child.

“Nothing,” Michael replied.  “I don’t want to start anything—”

“Could you leave then?  I’d like some privacy.”

***

An hour later, they sat together at the dining table, Chinese food cartons bulging before them, Leah in her bathrobe again with a fresh towel wrapped around her head. 

“Shall I fix you a plate?” Michael offered.

“That’s fine.”

“Tell me what you want.”

“Does it matter?”

He stopped, laid down the spoon, let his eyes roam the length of the table until they came to rest on Leah’s vacant face.  “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” Michael asked, loosening his tie and letting his collar fall open like a torn sail.

“How is it for you?” she replied.  “Do tell me. I’m dying to know.”

This,” he said, gesturing toward her with a wide, emphatic palm.  “It’s either sarcasm or silent treatment.  It has been the last few times I’ve been home.”

“Interesting.” Leah folded her arms and leaned back in the chair.  “I’m curious. Why do you think it’s been like this—” mimicking his gesture, then resuming her pose.

“I don’t know. Dan says it could be hormones, that Shelley had a hard time adjusting after—”

“So you talk to Dan about me?”  Michael scratched his light stubble and looked down, guilty.  “What do I have to do to get on that list?”

“What do you mean?”

“The list of people you talk to about me.”

Michael was pretty, Leah thought, observing her husband like a specimen, something apart from herself and bound by her purview.  Too pretty to be faithful?she mused.  His slender face and hazel eyes.  His softly clefted chin.  Leah wondered what Michael had been voted in high school.

“I can’t play these games all the time,” he said, rolling up his sleeves now, becoming determined.  “Tell me what you want, and I’ll do it.” 

“I did tell you what I want.  I said I wanted to go out to dinner.”

“Lay!”

“You explained why it wasn’t practical.  I understand. I am familiar with the strength of your veto.”

“Do you want some of this or not?” Michael demanded, his cheeks flaming beneath the gold shadow of a new beard.  When Leah said nothing, he served himself and ate hungrily, angrily, in silence.  She wrote You cannot go back in junior high school cursive with her finger on the dustless table.  

Then, Michael softened.  His mood changed.  “Maybe we could go away next weekend,” he said.  “Someplace warm?  Miami maybe.”

“Sounds impractical.  Who’ll take the baby?”

Michael cocked his head.  “We will.”

“I don’t see how that’s much different from staying here,” she said.

“Bright sun? Palm trees?  Strolls on the beach?”  His lips turned up gently.  “Room service?”

“It’s a long way to fly with a baby,” Leah replied.

“It’d be worth it.  It’d be—” he groped for the word, that helpless, pretty specimen of hers—“romantic.

“Since when are you interested in romance?”

“Leah, for Chris sake, just say what you mean!  I’m sick of all your little codes and rhetorical questions.”

“All right. Eight months.  No sex.  What now?”

He looked down again, cracked the fortune cookie in his hand—not the usual way, but single-fisted, so it shattered, a confetti of hard flour on his plate.  “It’s not for lack of trying,” he muttered at last.

“You never had any trouble trying before.  You were always so persuasive in that department.”  Leah was strangely enjoying herself now.  Everything out on the table, Michael squirming under her gaze.

“You never had a baby before!  I don’t know the wait time…I figured you would let me know when you were ready.”

“I did, Michael. Two months ago.  But you were so tired from the red eye, and then six weeks ago, but the baby was crying, and then a month ago—”

“Stop.”  He held up his hand like a pretty, helpless crossing guard caught in the intersection without his vest or flag.  “This isn’t about blame.  This is just an observation.”  She watched his chest rise and fall under his wrinkled shirt. “You’ve been distant.  Everything seems to mean the opposite of what it used to mean.  I didn’t want to force anything on you—”

“I appreciate your concern,” Leah said, rising slowly and walking around the table to where Michael sat with his sleeves rolled up, his collar gaping.  “I just wish I believed it was really concern for me.”

Michael’s brow creased, and he looked up at her, puzzled.  Leah lifted his fortune from the plate.  You like Chinese food.  “Who else would it be for?”

Leah patted his cheek before turning around.  “My mother always warned me—don’t marry a man who’s prettier than you are.  Nothing good will come of it.” 

They did not go to Florida.  Michael fired the housekeeper, and Leah kept the exercise bike as a makeshift garment rack. When he left for the airport, they kissed tersely in the dark, and he promised to call.  Leah invited Zoe to come for lunch the following day.

“What’s with the formal invitation?” Zoe asked.  “You usually just text something like get over here.”

“It’s not that kind of lunch,” Leah said, a lilt in her voice.  “I’m serving white wine and tuna niçoise—made from scratch, mind you—and it’s going to be…lovely.  Restaurant quality, but without the noise.”

“You know, we could goto a restaurant.  Save you the trouble.  Let someone wait on us for a change.”

“No,” Leah replied.  “I want you to come here.  Consider this a thank you for all the help you’ve given me these last few months.”

“I won’t come if it’s some kind of payback,” Zoe said.  “But if it’s just a lunch between friends—no gratitude involved—then I’ll be there.  What can I bring?”

“More wine. I only have one bottle.”

“Aren’t you nursing?  I mean—is that allowed?”

“Bread, then,” Leah said, and hung up the phone.

***

When Zoe arrived, the note on the kitchen door read Come In!  Zoe rubbed her heels on the old straw mat, brushed off the snow, and when she came inside, she left her ear muffs dangling over the door knob so she would remember them when it was time to go.

“Leah?”  She set a Tuscan boule to warm in the oven, then wandered into the dining room where the table was set, the white tapers already burning.

“Zoe.” Leah whispered her name so softly Zoe didn’t hear her at first.  When at last she turned, there was Leah holding a vase of tiger lilies, effusive and orange, her long hair pulled back from her face in an elegant twist, her lips set to smiling.

“You didn’t tell me this was a formal affair,” Zoe smiled.  “Look at you—you look beautiful.”

“Not beautiful,” Leah said, “but better,” setting the vase on the table and touching Zoe’s shoulder as she passed. “Take off your coat.  Stay awhile.”

“Is there something I can do to help?” Zoe asked, watching Leah glide about the kitchen in her handkerchief skirt and stockings, a little cloud of perfume trailing behind her.

“Not a thing. Sit down.  Make yourself comfortable.  I’ll serve the wine.”

“All right,” Zoe replied, unzipping her boots and folding one leg under her body as she perched on the chair.  “You get three guesses who came into the bakery today—ordered a cake for his three-year-old’s birthday party.”

Leah stood close to her, pouring the wine into both their glasses.  “No idea.”

“Peter—” When Leah’s expression didn’t change, Zoe clarified—“Peter Schoenlaub.”

“Oh.  So I take it he’s married then?”

“To Jeanette Farrow, no less.  That threw me for a loop.  Lay—” Zoe intercepted her with one finger to the wrist—“aren’t you going to ask me how he looked?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, peering down at Zoe with her wide gray eyes.  “I don’t need to know about Peter Schoenlaub.  It was prom, it was sex, it was over.  I doubt he even remembers me.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint you,” Zoe replied, toying with her silverware—“this is nice, by the way—”

“Wedding gift. We hardly ever use it.”

“He asked about you.  He remembered we were always friends in high school, and then he offered to set me up with one of his single friends.”  She rolled her eyes and slipped the napkin onto her lap. “Just when you think you’ve gotten the word out, another well-intentioned man with a friend comes around.”

“Maybe he meant a woman,” Leah offered, and hurried to the kitchen for the rest of the meal.

“No—an army buddy named Carl.”

“So you told him, I presume.”

“I did, and it was awkward—but you know I kind of like that part.”  Zoe winked at her in a way that made Leah feel vaguely like a math teacher.  “Then, he back-pedaled and stopped just short of the some-of-my-best-friends speech. That’s when he asked about you, actually—if we still kept in touch.”

Leah almost did it then, almost reached out and touched Zoe on her cheek.  When she couldn’t, she sat down beside her and began to serve the food.

“There’s bread in the oven.”

“Yes, thank you,” she whispered, her breath caught somewhere deep in her chest.

When they had been eating and drinking awhile, Zoe with her easy way of keeping the conversation alive, Leah felt a new urgency rising up from her toes, the way she couldn’t sit still without her ankles twisting, her knees bending out and in like butterfly wings.  “I’ll be right back,” she promised, excusing herself, but instead of the first-floor powder room, she climbed the stairs to the master bathroom. 

***

You cannot go back

She watched the words materialize, one by one, in lipstick on the mirror.  For a moment, she almost believed she had written them, until she blinked and they slowly disappeared.  Leah splashed water on her face, added color to her lips, then removed it quickly.  What did Zoe like?  She didn’t know.  Michael thought her lips were thin and liked when she traced them with pencil, then colored between the lines—something glossy and pink.  Would Zoe like that? 

Leah lowered her hand to her chest, just below the gold necklace Michael had given her. “It looks like a cutlass,” she had told him, surprised.

“Happy birthday, warrior woman,” he said, kissing her eyelids.

The hard clavicle bones were harder to find now.  She missed the way a crevice used to form when she bent forward—large enough to rest a finger in.  One button at a time, Leah opened her blouse until the lace camisole was showing.  Was it sexy? Was it trying too hard?  Why could she never call to mind the faces, the bodies, of any woman Zoe had ever brought home?

“Knock, knock.” Zoe peeked her head in.  “The door was ajar, and the bread was getting cold, and I wanted to make sure you were ok.”

Now Leah’s whole body flickered like a pilot light.  “I’m fine—I”

“You look flushed.  Are you running a fever?”

It was not what Leah wanted—not sympathy, not mothering, not the concerned hand to the flaming forehead.  She leaned against the counter as Zoe approached her.  She said, “Everything’s fine,” but Zoe wouldn’t take no for an answer.  This was the wrong way.  This was not how Leah had envisioned it.  When the hand stretched toward her, she intercepted it. When the face bent toward her, brows knit with concern, she brushed her lips against Zoe’s curious mouth, set always in the shape of an “o.”

“Oh,” Zoe murmured, stepping back.  “I’m sorry. I—didn’t expect that.”

Now the balance shifted.  Leah was the one standing tall, leaning forward.  She kissed her again, surprised by how small her mouth seemed compared to her own.  Or were they both small?  She had never kissed a woman before.

“Leah?” Zoe receded again, hands pressing lightly on her shoulders.  “What’s going on?”

Zoe like “no,” without an umlaut.

“Do we have to say anything?”

“I think we might.”

“Why?”

“Because—” Zoe looked helpless, startled—“you’re a married woman, and my friend, and—because—”

“Don’t you dare say new mother!”

“I wasn’t. It isn’t about Liam, or even Michael exactly.  I think it’s about you, Lay—I think you’re a little mixed up right now.”

“I don’t understand.”  Leah’s temples pulsed, and she felt the tears prickling behind her eyelids.  She wouldn’t let them out—she wouldn’t.  “I thought this is what you wanted.”

Zoe leaned against the bathroom wall, tucked her hands deep in her fleecy pockets.  “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me.”

“Oh, come on!” Suddenly, instead of tears, it was rage. “Stop pretending, Zoe.  I know how you feel about me.  You make a good show with all the girlfriends, but you’re never serious.  You never want to settle down.  And now when I’m finally interested in reciprocating, you decide to play like it never crossed your mind before!”

Zoe raised her hands, like a helpless, pretty crossing guard caught without a flag. “You’re my friend, and I love you—I really do—but not that way.”  She bit her lip.  “And not this wayeither.  This isn’t the Leah I know.”

“There are things I’m never going to do now!” Leah exclaimed, almost like an accusation.

Zoe’s face began to turn to match her hair.  “By things, I hope you don’t mean that grand, elusive lesbianexperiencethat earns you a merit badge in some sorority circles.”

Leah wasn’t listening.  “I admit it. I should have slept with you in high school.”  The tears came anyway, even against her will.

“Who says I would have slept with you?! I was in love with Tracey Carmichael, and you were my best friend!  This is absurd!”

Stunned, Leah took a step back.  “What about the way you used to look at me?”

“What way?  Leah! I’m a forthright person.  I’m an honest person.  Do you think I’m going to carry a torch for—for almost twenty years—and never let on?  You’re like a sisterto me.  Jesus!

“But—this doesn’t make any sense.  You always come here and touch me and—you’re always so warm.”

“That’s just how I am, Lay!  That’s how I am with everyone.”  Her brows knit in disappointment now, then rose again in indignation.  “Did you honestly think I was flirting with you all these years?!  Did you think I was just waiting for you to give the go-ahead so I could what—what did you think I was going to say?”

“I thought you—” Leah’s breath was fading again, the tears falling faster than she could wipe them away—“I thought at least you would—” gasping again.  “Oh, Zoe, are you sure?”

Zoe, like no, without an umlaut.  She stood with her legs spread, the door between them.  “I’m not what you need,” she said, softly now. “I’m not even sure I’m what you want, but I can tell you this—I’m not what you need.”

“I think you could be,” Leah murmured mournfully.

“I’m your friend,” Zoe said, firming her lips, the color draining out of her face.  “I’m not your parasail.”

“That’s not—”

Leah’s protest was interrupted by Liam’s cry.  She had just laid him down an hour ago.  “He never cries,” she said, incredulous.  “Not at this time.  Can you wait?”  Zoe stepped aside to let her pass.  “Can you wait for me?  Please?”

Zoe kept her head down, refused to meet her eyes.  “Just wait for me, Zoe.  I can explain everything.”

Leah walked into Liam’s room and lifted his squalling body from the crib.  He was screaming now, and she tried to console him, even as she listened for Zoe’s footsteps in the hall.  “It’s all right, it’s all right,” she promised, sinking down into the rocking chair.  “You cannot go back,” she said.  “Remember that, baby.  You cannot go back.”

When he stopped shaking and began to coo at last, Leah heard it—the kitchen door snapping shut, and one flight below, the dryer buzzing to announce another load was done.

Pobrecita: A Blanquita’s Guide to Love

  1. You’ll stumble over the pronunciation of her name. When you ask your friend Aida, who is Puerto Rican, how to say it, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t know and that all Dominicans have fucked up names. Kate Scarpetta
  2. Her accent will make you melt like passionfruit sorbet; you’ll call it “cute,” and her eyes will narrow—she’ll hate that you used that word.
  3. She’ll drink Mezcal—if they have it – tequila if they don’t. You won’t mention stereotypes.
  4. Outside the bar, it will be raining. You won’t have an umbrella. She will smile at you and say “pobrecita.” When you ask, she’ll explain it means “poor thing.” She’ll pull you under hers—she always has one to protect her hair—and she will kiss you so hard that you’ll nearly fall over. You’ll take her home.
  5. Her breasts will be perfect. Your friend, Alexis, who is also dating a Dominican, assured you they would be.
  6. Her ass will be perfect too.
  7. She might be the sexiest person you’ve ever slept with. (She definitely is).
  8. You will always wake up before her.
  9. She will always roll over, grab your arm and hold it to her chest. You’ll be wide awake, but you won’t move. You’ll be as still as you can be, as you smell her hair and kiss her neck.
  10. She will always be cold. You will always be hot.
  11. When she comments on how quickly you sweat, you will feel like a failure—even though it’s July in Manhattan and the windows are closed in the bedroom and she has you under the covers trapped with devoted hope.
  12. You’ll do things wrong in bed, because sex is still awkward for you without drinking.
  13. You’ll lie about why you don’t drink.
  14. You’ll tell her half the reason when she notices the pills on your nightstand.
  15. She’ll claim that your “condition,” that’s what she’ll call it, doesn’t scare her. You know it does by the way her hand falls out of yours on 24th Street.
  16. She will cook for you and you will cook for her. You will fall deeper in love.
  17. She will dump you on the train back from Tarrytown. She will say that she debated going on the trip. You will pretend that you’re not hurt—that this rejection doesn’t just feel like one, but all of the past ones combined. There’s a villian somewhere causing this pain. You just can’t see him.
  18. You’ll get numb and then you’ll get very, very angry.
  19. When you go for a run, you’ll cry. It is really hard to keep running, because you basically can’t breathe, but you’ll do it. Fuck her.
  20. She’ll text you sometimes. Never enough though.
  21. You’ll read Junot Diaz’s “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” over and over again. You’ll wish you wrote it. You could have written it.
  22. You’ll set the filter on OkCupid’s ethnicity tab to “Latin/Hispanic” and only respond to girls who list Spanish as a language. You’ll skim their profile looking for grammatical errors, because this might mean they have an accent. You’ll never admit this to anyone.
  23. You’ll download Duolingo, because you think that reading Neruda in Spanish will cure something that she broke inside of you.
  24. You’ll uninstall Duolingo, because you’ll run out of data.
  25. You’ll go out and you’ll see her at Cubbyhole. Your hair will be done and you’ll talk and dance and she’ll kiss you and it will taste like fresh rain on your tongue.
  26. You’ll ask her to come home with you, but she’ll decline. You’ll go numb again. You’ll wonder what the fuck her deal is anyway, but you won’t say this. Instead, you’ll continue to be too nice. That’s what ruins you. That’s what gets in the way of all the “good” you want.
  27. She’ll text you the next day and you won’t respond. You won’t look at your phone. For an hour—at least—you won’t respond.
  28. You’ll take a nap and wake up and because she’s not there and you want her to be you’ll call. You’ll call and she’ll answer.
  29. “I miss you,” she’ll say and you’ll believe her.
  30. You’re in love again. Poor thing. Pobrecita.

Second Attempt

Jonathan Sala

Here was the game plan: we were going to sneak into Mom’s house, stuff her cats into sacks, and drown them in the lake. A backyard bonfire for everything else—the towers of mildewed newspapers reaching almost to her living room ceiling; the army of painted figurines standing at attention all over the floor; the endless calendars dating back to the years before Dad died. But Wendell thought the main thing to get rid of was the cats. He said that above all else they were weighing Mom down, making her a harried wreck. I didn’t agree. I thought everything should go except the cats. That the cats are the one item you take away and are then looking at some serious psychological fallout. But then again Wendell and I have never agreed on anything. Jonathan Sala

At the wheel of his pickup, Wendell boomed out of the city and onto the rural streets that would rise and fall and wind their way to our mother’s house. He assumed his usual posture in the driver’s seat: hand at the top of the wheel; back hunched; eyes laser-focused on the road. Able to avoid but willing to maim any animal that ran in front of his truck. As always, his face was unshaven and his limbs were jittery with caffeine. I sat shaking my knee and watching autumn trees pass by. From the passenger side, I turned to him to tell him something.

“If Mom comes home early again,” I said, watching his face for change of expression, “I’m out of there.”

I knew Wendell’s response before he opened his mouth: “Pussy,” he said, spitting out the window. “You’re already worried half to death?”

I reflected on my words before I said them. That’s my style. “It’s not that. It’s just if she catches us again, that’s the final straw. We’re then looking at permanent madness, if you ask me.”

“For the fiftieth time, that’s why we have the masks. Even if she comes home and finds us—which she won’t—we’ll be covered.”

“Right,” I said, “she’s going to feel great when she gets home and finds masked men prowling around her house.”

Wendell turned to me and gave me the look. It’s the same one he’s been giving me since we were kids playing in the backyard—the we-can’t-be-related look. I turned away when his sardonic eyes met mine. 

“You spend every minute of every day cooking up worst-case scenarios, don’t you?” he said.

“Yes, I do.”

“And that’s why you can never get anything done. You have a sick addiction to disaster, my friend.”

As if to show me how to get things done, Wendell gunned the truck and sped up to eighty miles an hour. Eighty in a forty. The autumn views zipped past, which was a shame, since trees were providing a gorgeous display of flaming oranges, yellows, and reds. Because it was a Sunday, roads were clear and Wendell could go as fast as he wanted.

“Besides,” he continued, “This isn’t like last time when I only thought I knew when Mom was coming home. Yesterday I found her service’s start time posted in front of her church: 10:00. And those services last two hours. If you do the math, Professor Einstein, I think you’ll find that we have enough time, if we move.”

Wendell’s explanation made me feel a little better. Not much, though. I know how his mind works. Let’s just be nice and say that he doesn’t value objective facts. He knows his gut contains all the facts. Which has at least kept him alive this long, but it doesn’t exactly make you feel at ease when you’re riding shotgun in a blue Ford with him at the wheel, about to try to pull off a mission which, if it fails, could finish the person you care about most in this world.

I stayed quiet the rest of the ride to Mom’s house. I tried to trust in Wendell’s planning and driving ability. As we careened past a stretch of farmland, I thought about Mom. The truth is that she’d always been eccentric. She’d always been into memorabilia and knickknacks and the like. She’d always been a cat lover. And she’d always been particular about the placement of her collectibles in the house, as well as everyone’s treatment of her treasured pets. But when Wendell and I were kids, the quirks were under control, charmingly weird aspects of a well-intentioned personality.

Then Dad died—sudden massive heart attack while he was outside shoveling a blizzard. Dad. A monument to cleanliness and organization, tucked and wrinkle-free, grammatically flawless. Whose anxiety and eye for detail I inherited. Without him, Mom’s quirks degenerated into an avalanche. First came dirty laundry piled all over the couch; dishes overflowing the sink. Next, the ordering spree: books and figurines and paintings and furniture and clothes, along with the gradually increasing towers of newspapers. Then, after Wendell announced to us on a Monday that he was moving out and did so that Tuesday, Mom set food out for the strays around the neighborhood.. Finally I’d had enough. I moved without breathing a word to anyone. The next day Mom let in an unfixed male and female and didn’t take them to the vet. The rest is cat history. The explosion of animals brought a landslide of litter and toys and catnip and excrement and urine.

Now, I can admit that for years Wendell and I didn’t do much to help her. But in all fairness, Mom likes help about as much as she likes trash day. She’s as amenable as a cat. And, like Wendell, she’s feisty.

Finally, after miles of farmland, foliage, and interchangeable New England towns, we approached the woodsy hill that composed Mom’s driveway. Wendell parked about an eighth-mile down the road from the hill, around a bend, in case of the “highly unlikely event” that she came home early. He pulled a cigarette out of the pack in the bulging pocket of his shirt and lit it. He puffed silently for a minute, cracking his neck and facing the ceiling of the truck as he stretched.

“Aright,” he said, taking the cigarette in hand, “let’s review. While you’re stuffing Fluffy and the bunch into sacks, I’m pulling the living room junk out the back door and lighting it up. When everything’s burned and the cats are loaded, we split. Then it’s to the lake to finish.”

My hand shot right up, as if I were a traffic cop halting a driver nearing a construction zone. “Why is it my job to handle the cats? I want to be the firestarter.”

Wendell smirked and dropped his cigarette out the window. He’s never taken full advantage of his cigarettes. “You expect me to trust you with fire? No thanks. You stick with Fluffy.”

I tried to stand the ground I felt slipping out from under my feet. “Well, what if I told you I’m not handling the cats? I’m not handling them. There, I just said so.”

“What’s the problem? It’s a straightforward job. You’re putting cats in sacks. I’m not asking you to catch the wind.”

I could feel the effect Wendell’s words were having on me. He was pulling me in the direction of his desires, as usual. “I’m not saying I’m not doing it,” I said, “but I am saying that if one of those cats scratches my eye out I may experience a change of heart.” I looked at Wendell and saw, by the shape of his mouth, that he was irritated. Whenever he’s annoyed, he opens his mouth and stares ahead, as if a gaggle of idiocy circulated between the ears, lowering his IQ. Then he closed his mouth and smirked again.

“It seems to me,” he said, “that it would be wise for you to follow the plan. You know, it’s not impossible for me to tell Mom I know nothing of her cats and burning garbage.”

“Well, it’s not impossible for me to say the same thing.”

“And it’s not impossible that I might slip in a hint that her weirdo son Henry may have had something to do with it.”

“Yeah, and it’s not impossible that I might slip her the same hint about you.”

“Sure,” Wendell said with a chuckle, “but who’s she going to believe?”

Check and mate. Wendell had me and we both knew it. For reasons I will never understand, Mom always believed every story that came out of Wendell’s mouth, even the most outlandish ones, while I couldn’t tell her the sky was blue without being taken for a liar.

“Enough talk,” Wendell said, opening the door and hopping out of his truck.

From out of the truck’s bed Wendell pulled down the gear he thought we’d need: masks, sacks, cardboard boxes, canisters of kerosene, and a wheelbarrow. He let a large mass of stones lie in the bed to be used when we were ready to start the bonfire.As he tossed the smaller items into the wheelbarrow, I made one last plea regarding our assigned duties.

“Now, I was thinking…”

“Just shut up,” Wendell said. “The last thing I need to hear right now is another verse from Henry’s bible of self-doubt.” Pointing at the wheelbarrow, he said, “Come on, kitty man. You push the barrow. I’ll provide guidance and directions.”

Groaning, I got behind the wheelbarrow, lifted its handles, and began wheeling it in the direction of Mom’s house. I nearly upended its contents when a car came honking around the bend, too close to the side of the road, almost clipping me and bringing a swift end to the day’s plans. Nervously, I wobbled the barrow the rest of the eighth-mile and climbed the hill. At the top, I took in a sweeping view of the front yard, in which autumn trees had already deposited their first layer of fiery leaves.

“Why don’t we just rake the leaves today?” I said to Wendell, whose rushed, rigid gait put him several steps ahead of me.

He made a faint sound of derision. “Who has time for that?” he said. “Only Dad made time for leaves.”

Wendell’s reference to our father brought a new subject to mind—Dad’s favorite cat. The last time I’d visited Mom, this cat had been our main topic of conversation. For the sake of distraction, I found myself telling Wendell about her, even though I didn’t think he’d be interested.  

“Hey, do you remember that really fat three-colored cat?” I said.

“Which one?”

“The one that was always in the corner of the living room. That always hissed at you when you walked by. Dad’s cat.”

“You mean Jumbo,” Wendell said, keeping his lead as we walked. “I remember. What about her?”

“She’s still alive.”

“Impossible.”

I pushed the wheelbarrow faster to get closer to him. It felt urgent that he hear me out about Jumbo.

“No, I’m serious. She’s still stuck in one spot, except now that spot is in the hallway, by Dad’s old office. Mom said she’s almost blind now and barely eats anything.”

He laughed. “It’s a miracle that thing managed to move more than three feet its whole life. Talk about a charming cat. If I were you, that would be the first one I’d put in a sack. Just to get the bulk out of the way.”

Glancing at the sacks in the wheelbarrow, I almost said “I don’t think I can do it,” but then I thought better of the idea.

At last we approached the house that was so familiar to us. From the outside it still looked like a reasonable place to live. Mom’s house is a modest brown ranch with a sloping roof and two windows out front. The surrounding woods lend it the aura of a cabin, although it isn’t a cabin. It’s a plain old house. Nothing to shout about as long as you’re looking at it from the outside.

At the front door, Wendell asked me to remove the ski masks from the wheelbarrow and hand him one. I did so, and then we took a moment to pull them on. Wendell inserted his key into the lock and turned to me. It was eerie how quickly the mask transformed him into one of those surveillance camera robbers broadcasted on local news.Even more unsettling was the haunted look that it gave his eyes. Some aspect of Mom’s—the almond shape? long lashes? dark circles?—An irremediable sadness. He’d also inherited Dad’s high cheekbones, prominent nose, and thin lips, but with the mask covering Dad—it was Mom looking back at me through Wendell’s eye holes.

“Let’s review this one last time,” he said, his eyes still trained on mine. “As soon as we step in there, you begin loading cats and I begin removing crap. If you can move faster than a snail, you’ll finish before me. After you put the cats in my truck, you come back and help me. Got it?”

“Got it,” I muttered feebly.

Wendell continued to watch me. “I said, have you got it?”

I didn’t say anything for a few seconds. I wasn’t going to let him have all of my dignity. “Sir, yes, sir,” I finally said, sarcastically.

Wendell opened the front door and backed the wheelbarrow in. I followed right behind. Immediately the smell of the interior hit us. “Pungent” doesn’t begin to describe it. Nor are “stinking,” “ripe,” “rank,” “fetid,” “zesty,” or “reeking” at all adequate. The interior was a buffet of bad smells, an olfactory overload. Cat litter plus poo plus urine plus the general must of an old home with an old person living in it.

“Chee-rist!” Wendell said as he stepped into the living room. Just as he put his foot down, we heard the sound of a creature in great pain. Looking at the floor, we saw the agonized face of Darling, a small black cat with a nervous temperament who usually lurked unseen under furniture or in shadowy corners. Wendell had pinned Darling’s tail to the floor with his first step. He let the panicked animal writhe and howl for a moment before removing his foot from its tail. Then Darling sped away.

“Fucking cats,” Wendell said.

“There’s an auspicious beginning,” I said. “A howling black cat.”

“Shut up, Henry.”

I stepped out of the doorway into the living room and took in the view that never failed to amaze me. There it was: the room that had been so cleanly decorated in my childhood; so well-suited to four people who wanted to stretch their legs or kick their feet up after a work or school day. There were the papered walls, barely visible behind decades worth of family photos and paintings and posters and calendars and exotic souvenir clocks. There were the couches and ottomans and love seats and stools and chairs, piled high with washed and unwashed laundry. There was the center coffee table engulfed in Bibles, Bible encyclopedias and commentaries, hymnbooks, fiction, poetry, history and—sitting atop the heap within easy reach of Mom’s favorite seat—our beloved family scrapbooks. There were Mom’s finished and unfinished art projects scattered about the floor—paintings, drawings, sculptures, and figurines. And there, several steps from the bulky TV, in the corner by a window, Mom’s twin skyscrapers of decayed newspapers rose up like the tallest buildings in the city, their aged stacks in danger of being toppled by a light push or an especially strong breeze. But those aspects of the living room were only a preparation for its most bothersome feature. Most disconcertingly, there was Dad’s old, deep-red easy chair lounging beside the newspapers, clear of all items, available to be sat on, perhaps touched not one time since his passing, as though Mom was still waiting for him to come home from work, make a cup of coffee, sit down, cross one leg over the other, remove a paper from one of the piles, open it, and begin reading.

“Some things don’t change,” I said.

Wendell turned to me. “Don’t say that.What are you waiting for? Get your ass in gear and load those cats.”

But as I surveyed the living room, I saw that aside from Darling, there were no animals to load. Which was highly unusual and more than a little curious. Normally, the living room was the main critter hangout. “What cats?” I said.

“I dunno,” Wendell said. “We both know they’re around here somewhere.”

But my persistent doubts wouldn’t let me move from my standing position. I found myself composing an argument to persuade Wendell to delay dealing with the cats.

 “Why don’t I help you take the living room stuff out first?” I said. “Then we can tackle the cats together. We’ll finish faster if we team up.”

But Wendell had already moved into the kitchen and sat down to build cardboard boxes. “Dammit, Henry,” he said from his seat, “can’t you just follow the plan?”

“The plan doesn’t…”

“Follow the plan, I said.”

Seeing no way around Wendell’s command, I moved out of the living room, through the kitchen, and into the hallway that led to other rooms. As I walked I found myself besieged by my father’s old curse: an array of unproductive thoughts. It occurred to me that I should have rejected Wendell’s plan outright, when he’d first asked me if I’d have a second go at cleaning Mom’s house. But there had been no mention of cats during that conversation; Wendell had only talked about cleaning rooms in a general way. It was only later, in the moments before we got in the truck, that he’d started acting like I’d signed a contract detailing my duties as cat exterminator. He was almost politically tricky. I realized that my best option, if I had the guts to do it, was to keep walking on through the back door to a bus stop. Then again, I didn’t want to leave Wendell alone to take care of a job that truly needed to be done. 

To my surprise, the hallway was clear of all cats except Jumbo, who sat in front of my father’s office with the old enlightened feline look on her face. It appeared that Mom was right about her; Jumbo was clearly much less than half the cat she’d been in her prime, in my father’s years, when her lustrous fur had covered rolls of fat. Now her formerly healthy body was diminished to a scraggly, matted bundle, while her cataract-clouded eyes suggested that she wouldn’t see my hand reaching down to pet her. But I was wrong. As my fingers neared the neighborhood of her fur, she scrunched her face and hissed at me. Startled, I straightened up and faced the doorway. Then I knew what I had to do.

Taking a breath, I opened the door and stepped into Dad’s office for the first time in fifteen years as Jumbo, disturbed by my movements, waddled to the other side of the hallway.Instantly I was transported to my childhood, when I’d walk in to find my father erect in his seat, working with uncanny stillness and concentration on the biology lesson plans that he taught at the local high school. Because—I blinked a few times to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing—the office looked exactly as it had always looked. That is to say, all objects in the office were in their familiar places. There was my father’s ancient boxy computer atop his rich brown wood desk; his filing cabinets full of family and work documents organized by date; his fish tank replete with castle, scuba diver, and plastic plants. Most sentimentally, there was the telescope that Dad had never failed to take out during celestial occurrences. It was still set up by the large picture windows at the end of the office, where he’d call Wendell and me over to let us have a look at a comet or a seldom-seen planet. I found it odd and more than a little unsettling that he hadn’t put the telescope away before his untimely death. Had something happened in the heavens just before his heart attack? One observation led to another and I realized I was wrong—everything in the office wasn’t the same. In fact, the last goldfish to live in the tank had been removed and flushed. Mom had at some point entered the office for the sole purpose of flushing that fish. But she hadn’t touched anything else. With two troubling thoughts in mind, I exited my father’s office and shut the door.

“How’s it going over there?” Wendell called from the kitchen.

“No cats yet.”

“Make sure you check all the rooms,” he said. “By the way, could you just do me a quick favor?”

“What’s that?”

“Could you hurry the hell up?”

“You’re too polite,” I said.

Next, I stepped across the hall to the door of his old room, where Jumbo once again expressed her dissatisfaction with my presence by shuffling at turtle speed away from me down the hallway. Although I was curious about the state of Wendell’s room, I was sure I had a ballpark notion of its condition. Before Mom’s breakdown, Wendell had easily been the messiest member of our family. His hockey gear, tools, clothes, and CD’s had been jumbled up like their owner didn’t differentiate between objects. It wasn’t hard to picture him showing up at the game with a wrench or working on his car with a hockey stick. So imagine my reaction when I opened the door to his room and found all his old stuff not only still in there but carefully set apart and organized. Hockey gear was in its own corner; tools were in their cases; CD’s were in a rack; clothes were hung up. It was possible to walk around in Wendell’s room without lifting my legs high. The truth was no less strange than it was obvious: Mom had been cleaning and organizing Wendell’s room all these years. Feeling a shudder coming, I opened the door and sped out of there. From her new post at the end of the hallway, Jumbo offered her best cat sneer at the sound of my footsteps.

Then came his unnecessarily loud voice again: “What are you doing? Playing with yourself? Where are the fur sacks?”

“There isn’t any fur to put in sacks,” I replied.

“Get moving, Henry. We have time but not an eternity.”

That left me with only one room to investigate. But I had no desire whatsoever to investigate it. I probably would have preferred throwing ten bags of cats into a lake over so much as peeking my head into this room. For this wasn’t just any room: it was my old room. I hadn’t been in it since ten years earlier when, in a frenzy of decisions and hesitations and revisions, I packed my bags in the middle of the night and left home without telling Mom I was doing so. I’d tried to forget about this room, just as I’d tried to repress the memory of my cowardly method of escape from Mom’s house. But trying to forget the room hadn’t made it disappear. It was still there, all right—a small, almost perfectly square room adjacent to his more generous living space. I remember how, late at night sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, Wendell would go to the wall in his room and drum soft patterns against it, requesting a reply from me. And if I was still awake, I would answer as best I could, tapping out imitations of his rhythms with my knuckles. It was one of the few activities between us that didn’t feel like a competition. It was a nice little game we had.

I approached the door to my room, grasped the knob, and took a deep breath. Counting to three, I opened it slowly, carefully, as if the door could have been linked to explosives. Without yet seeing the condition of the room, I lifted my foot to step in, but in the same moment, as I cracked the door, I found that foot automatically stepping aside. Because—out the door—in a panicked, headlong rush like a herd of gazelle escaping the king lion—came a stream of cats so thick and desperate that I had to move to avoid being overrun. Every sort of cat there is—black and white and orange and gray and long-haired and short-haired and sick and healthy and male and female—bolted out of my room down the hallway, their eyes wide and amazed at freedom.

“My God!” I cried out.

“What is it?” Wendell said, and then, a moment later: “Holy…cats!”

When the entire crew had finally passed through the hallway into the kitchen and living room, I stepped into my old room. But I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d closed the door, turned away, and gone back to work. Because for the rest of my life I’ll have to know what Mom had done with my room in my absence. I’ll have to compare the state of it with the museum-like preservation of my father’s office and the loving organization of his room. Worst of all, I’ll have to know what Mom did with all my old stuff—my bed, my dresser, my baseball card collection and video games and books and Yankees posters. She’d thrown everything out to make room for cats. She’d replaced my belongings with litter boxes, food bags, toys, and soft cat homes. My room had been turned into a cat motel.

Distressed, I shut the door and hurried back to the living room, where I found Wendell adrift in a sea of what looked to be thirty or more animals milling about, meowing, fighting, hissing. In their frenzy, the cats had found a way to knock over the unstable newspaper towers, spreading the papers over a significant portion of the living room floor.

“You won’t believe what Mom…” I said.

“I don’t care!” Wendell snapped. “Get these cats out of here!” Turning to him, I saw his eyes wide the way they are when his anger is beginning to get a stranglehold on his more rational emotions.

Taking a sack in hand, I approached the fallen towers of newsprint. Immediately the most nervous cats scattered, leaving several calmer creatures in my vicinity. I scanned the stolid crew and chose the one who looked most ready to endure traumatic change—a short-haired black-and-white who had the demeanor of a friendly puppy. I scooped him up and lowered him into the darkness of the sack where, upon realizing his lack of light and space, he underwent a dramatic personality change. His genial stillness and silence gave way to kicking, twisting, and thrusting in the sack, crying out like Darling beneath Wendell’s foot. His contortions caused the sack to jut out in unexpected directions. I had to move with its movements—dance with the sack, so to speak—to prevent the black-and-white from spilling out.

“Tie it off,” Wendell commanded. “Make sure Sylvester stays in there.”

I did so. As Sylvester continued his manic dance, I said, “Now, how do you expect me to get another cat in there? Two are going to be at least twice as spastic as one.”

“I don’t particularly care how,” Wendell said, his tone of voice impatient. I surveyed the select few cats who’d remained near me during Sylvester’s tirade. All of them were unfamiliar, and one choice seemed as bad as the next. Then I noticed a lean, shy-looking tri-color who had the look of a bookworm about her. She sat calmly pawing a page of newspaper, as if to smooth out its wrinkles to read an article. In a burst of motion I got my hands on her, but as I lifted her from the surrounding newspaper, she kicked her back legs, claws out, against my forearm, streaking red gashes in my skin as she lifted off and hit the ground running. I imitated Wendell when I said, “Goddamn it!”

“Let me handle this,” he said, snatching the sack from my hand, “since you’re incapable.”

Wendell whirled about the room to find the next candidate. In no time he zeroed in on an animal, reached down to the floor, and picked up a cat that seemed a most understandable choice: Riley, a daring old gray Maine Coon who’d once sneaked into Wendell’s room and relieved himself on his most prized hockey gear.

“And who do we have here?” Wendell said, his eyes lighting up at the sight of his old nemesis.

To my surprise, Riley didn’t turn or flinch or even seem to notice when Wendell got both his arms under him and lifted him off the ground, as though he accepted his dismal fate as punishment for past sins.

“You see?” Wendell said. A hint of a smile joined the twinkle in his eye. “There’s nothing that a capable hand can’t do.”

With ease and assurance, Wendell untied the sack in which Sylvester had gradually resigned himself and relaxed. He lowered the Maine Coon in and tied it off again.

But the calm didn’t last long. A moment after the sack was tied, an extended hiss came from one of the roommate cats, followed by several high-pitched meows from both parties. Then the sack began punching out at crazy angles again while the antagonists screeched and wailed.

“Untie it!”

With trembling fingers I got the sack undone. After a few extended moments of brawling, the fighters realized they had paths to freedom and sped off in opposite directions.

“I guess you were right,” I said to him, whose eyes were beginning to lose their luster. “There’s nothing that a capable hand can’t do.”

“Shut up, Henry,” Wendell said, considering the best way to proceed. “The hell with the cats, then. Bring the wheelbarrow back to my truck and haul those stones into the backyard. I’ll clear leaves out of the way for the bonfire. Then we’ll unload this kingdom of crap.”

It took three energy-sapping trips from Wendell’s truck to the backyard to get all of the stones arranged in a large circle in the portion of grass that he had raked. Then we were ready for the most strenuous part of our plan. Two boxes at a time, one piece of furniture at a time, we carried the contents of the living room into the backyard, where we piled everything into a junkyard heap within the limits of the stones.While Wendell went to work on books, artwork, calendars, and more, I tackled the newspapers. We handled the furniture together. Within an hour, Mom’s living room was spare of all items except some necessities: couch, coffee table, TV, a few tasteful wall hangings, and the family scrapbooks. Because we’d had to leave the back door open while emptying the living room, the troop of cats had rushed outside and begun exploring the backyard. Most of them chose to poke around the pile of formerly interior items, while others took off for the woods.

“If only we had a mop and bucket,” I said to Wendell as we stood taking our last survey of the living room. “To take care of this smell.”

“Kerosene and a match, more like,” he replied. “Come on, Henry,” he said. “Let’s finish this.”

Outside, Wendell and I each picked up a canister of kerosene and began pouring clear liquid over the pile. Several cats scattered when drops of fuel rained on them. When our canisters were empty, I said, “That’s enough to start a fire, right?” But Wendell wasn’t through. He emptied one canister and then another, and so on down the line, until the empties littering the ground resembled a drunk’s daily collection of consumed cans.

“Don’t move, kitties,” Wendell said to the select cats who remained in the midst of the heap as he shook the rest of the contents of his final canister out.

I looked at him in disbelief. “Are you going crazy?” I said. Stepping up to the circle of stones, I did my best to shoo those overly brave creatures out of the trash and away from their doom.

Wendell tossed his final canister in with the rest of the refuse. Then he dug a pack of matches out of the same shirt pocket in which he’d stored his cigarettes. He tore a lone match out of the pack and held it for a moment as he observed the pile.

“May this fire bring serenity to the Morgansen family,” he said as he stared into the damp contents of the trash. “Or if not serenity,” he said, “amnesia.”

Then he struck the match and dropped it onto a stack of kerosene-soaked newspaper he’d told me to lay down at an easy-to-reach spot within the stones.Flames rose up and quickly spread, from newspaper to artwork to furniture, until the bonfire we’d envisioned had become a reality. The heat was such that I had to take several steps back. But Wendell didn’t move. He stood mere feet from the inferno, staring into it with his mouth open, mesmerized.

“Why don’t you hand me the key?” I said to him circumspectly. “I can lock up now. When the fire dies down, we’ll be ready to split.”

But he was unresponsive. He silently watched the flames consume the items that had once, years ago, been family treasures.

“Not yet,” he finally said in an uncharacteristically bland, disconnected tone. “There’s one more thing.”

“What’s that?”
Wendell’s voice wasn’t much more than a mutter: “The scrapbooks.”

“What about them?”

When he turned to me I immediately averted my eyes from him. But it wasn’t the childhood look—the we-can’t-be-related-look—that made me do so. There was nothing sardonic about his expression.In fact, his eyes had taken on the look of a possessed character in a horror movie. It wouldn’t have been a total surprise to see his irises turn red to match the fire.

“Those are going to burn today too,” he said. “Go fetch the scrapbooks from the coffee table.”

I failed to prevent the disgust I felt from showing on my face. Our whole family had watched Mom lovingly compile those books through the years with photos, journal entries, and occasional newspaper clippings and miscellany. These were the books that contained pictures of Wendell smiling in his oversized hockey helmet just before his first game; of report cards from my high-achieving school years; of lesson plans written in Dad’s inhumanly neat handwriting. These were the books that had pages of flower petals from gardens Mom had once kept.

“Are you out of your head?” I said. “Those books are priceless. And we need to keep them to pass on to our chil…”

“What children?” Wendell said. “You live like a monk and I don’t want any brats running around my house. If you’re too scared to burn them, I’ll do it myself!”

“Oh, really?” I said. “I’d like to see you try.”

In a flash Wendell was gone into the house. As I glanced at the cats having a literal field day as they explored the backyard, I assumed the posture of a basketball player guarding the opposing team’s star: feet spread, knees slightly bent, hands at the ready. My eyes as alert as those of a predator cat. In what seemed like little more than an instant, Wendell barged out the back door, his arms laden with the four thick books. He sprinted toward the fire as the mini-tower of family history wobbled in his hands, threatening to spill onto the ground.

“Out of my way, Henry!” he growled as he rushed within twenty feet of me. I had two options: knock the scrapbooks out of his hands while standing or tackle him to the ground and take my chances in a contest of strength. But Wendell was running too fast and hard—his legs lifting high, his arms pumping—for me to take the books out of his hands. In those final moments, just before he reached the point where he could have tossed them over me into the fire, I made my move. Lowering my head, I barreled into him with as much impact as my lean frame could muster. We fell to the ground along with the tumbling scrapbooks. Then came a jab to my chin and a knee to my groin. I groaned and threw an elbow. A brief period of grappling followed.

“Incompetent weakling,” Wendell said among a steady flow of curses.

“Psychopath,” I breathed. “Pyromaniac.”

But Wendell was too fast and strong. Soon he was standing with his foot firmly on my chest as I lay supine, my breathing as labored as that of a pummeled boxer in a late round.

“Listen,” he said, breathing hard himself, “you’re going to lie still while I burn these books. Try to stop me and I’ll finish you. Understand?”

My energy depleted, I could only nod and mumble: “Do what you want, Wendell.”

He removed his foot from my chest and picked up the scrapbooks. I watched him as he approached the fire and held the books aloft like an offering to satiate the god of family affairs.

“Just remember,” I said, “if you burn those books, there goes what’s left of our childhood. There goes Dad’s history. There goes Mom’s hard work.”

“That’s gone, anyway,” Wendell said. “This is for Mom.”

The back door creaked open just as Wendell stepped forward to finish his task. I flinched at the sound; he snapped his neck toward the door. For a moment all went still and quiet as Wendell and I found out who was there. Then I found that I couldn’t move as Wendell turned and split toward the front yard, his eyes manic, his legs and arms pumping hard again, running with the urgency of a hunted rabbit around the house, into his truck and, it was safe to assume, out of town. He was so rattled by the sound of the door that he hadn’t even had the presence of mind to reach out and place the scrapbooks in the fire. He’d dropped them inches from the blaze, in danger of being licked by a flame. I lay stunned by the sudden change of circumstance, trying to summon the nerve to stand up.

Of course I knew who I’d find at the door when I turned back to it. There she was. Mom: tall, full-figured, overflowing in her flowered Sunday church dress that reached down to her ankles; in her frilly church hat that spread out over her head; with her oversized, Bible-burdened pocketbook swinging on her shoulder. Even from my grassy seat in the backyard I could make out her face mangled red with anger under that hat. She adjusted the pocketbook strap and pointed her index finger at me.

“You!” she cried out in a voice like a police siren. “Don’t move!”

Her command was wholly unnecessary. As she descended the back steps, marching through crunching leaves, her gait rushed and rigid, her nose crinkled between two fierce eyes, I sat clutching my shaking knees with hands that shook no less. As I sat afraid, it occurred to me that it wasn’t too late for me to stand up and run out of the yard like him. Sure I could. After all, Wendell and I had already accomplished everything we’d set out to do. We’d already cleared the living room of its refuse. We’d already built our bonfire. To my surprise, we’d even managed a merciful decision about the cats. And this wouldn’t have been our first time hurrying away from our mother’s home while trying to clean it out. Neither of us had been ashamed to escape it when, six months earlier, we’d high-tailed it out the back door at the sound of her back from church a full hour earlier than we’d expected. This time was different, though. This was our second attempt. Running away from Mom again wouldn’t only be cowardly; it would be an evasion of fate. Because—sneaking a glance at my watch as Mom drew ever nearer—I saw that she wasn’t home early. In fact, she was right on time. It was Wendell and I who had stayed late. His plan—our plan—had simply failed.

In no time Mom was within a few feet of me, towering above in her dress that, up close, was like a wearable flower garden. Once more she jabbed that index finger at me, saying “Too scared to move, I see” in her voice that had passed down its tone of pure dissatisfaction to Wendell. “Shaking like a teenager at prom,” she said. “At least your partner had the nerve to save himself.”

Despite my desire to sit still and look up at Mom, I found my hands and knees uncontrollable, my eyes stuck on the grass surrounding my feet—not unlike the few times I was scolded in childhood.

“Or maybe you’re not a coward,” Mom said, her eyes seeming to penetrate my depths. “Maybe you’re more like a teacher who hasn’t read the textbook. Maybe you’re just incompetent.”

I felt a faint stirring of irritability within me, but my eyes still wouldn’t rise from the grass; my limbs wouldn’t stop shaking.

“Either way,” Mom said, her tone of voice positively cutting, “You’re pathetic.

Just then I felt my wobbly legs involuntarily lifting my resistant body from the ground. Maybe it was the harsh sound of that “pa” that got me moving. Maybe it was the accumulation of Mom’s insults. Or maybe it was what she’d done to my room. Whatever the reason, I soon found myself standing mere feet from Mom, unable to look at her even with the mask hiding my identity; even with her insults still echoing in my head.

“Can’t look me in the eye,” Mom said. “Too scared to stay and too nerveless to go. Or too stupid. That’s ok. The police will be here soon.”

Up went my eyes, slowly, steadily, taking in all of Mom above the waist: the garish purple flowers that stood out most in the pattern of her dress; the loose fold of flesh hanging from her neck; the cheap makeup smothering her cheeks. At last came her eyes. Those Morgansen eyes. Wendell’s eyes—the dark circles, almond shape, and curving lashes—irremediably sad.

“At least you’re looking at me like a man now,” Mom said. “At least you’re taking your punishment standing up.” The intensity of her stare made me blink. “Now I want you to explain something to me: what sort of degenerate breaks into an old lady’s home and sets fire to her possessions?”

“Mom,” I said.

A flicker of recognition in Mom’s eyes. No words. Then her mouth opened ever so slightly; her eyes went wide as they examined mine. The hand that controlled that jabbing finger fell to her side. Her tall, proud, erect posture eased as she tried to decipher which of her sons was standing before her.

Then the inevitable move: my hands rose to the top of my head, grasped the ski mask, pulled it off. A flick of my wrist tossed it to the ground. I looked at Mom.

“Henry!?” she said in a shocked tone that evoked the sound of her voice during countless childhood crises.

I wanted to speak, but for some time found that I couldn’t get a single syllable off my tongue. Maybe it was the chaos of the hours spent in Mom’s house that left me silently stunned. Maybe it was the shock of my own brother abandoning me at the moment I needed him most. Or maybe it was something even more overwhelming. Maybe it was my knowledge of the duties that were at hand for me—putting out the bonfire; making explanations to Mom that wouldn’t be believed; covering for Wendell as I accepted responsibility for carrying out the plan that he himself had conceived. The sheer size of the challenges required that I call up courage—a quality I’d never believed I had in me. 

The words I’d been searching for to say to Mom—so elusive as I looked her in the eye—came to me at last.

“Yes, it’s me, Mom,” I said, steeling myself in the face of familial earthquakes of the future, present, and past.