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The Other Cuff by Lindsey Harding

The Other Cuff by Lindsey Harding

Fiction, Vol. 8.2, June 2014

Last Mother’s Day weekend, I took the girls to the beach. We flipped a coin: heads, a picnic at the park; tails, the beach. I was glad we ended up driving down to Madeira. Car rides soothed me—streaming traffic, the buzz of backseat chatter, movement toward a destination. Alexander had to work, which was fine by me. I wanted the trip to be ours, a girls’ get-away. I wanted to hear little voices ride the waves. I wanted to see the intricate patterns of sand in the soft fuzz of forearms. I wanted to wrap terrycloth towels around blanched shoulders and kiss salty foreheads. Vivian and Claire loved the water. I wanted to do this for them.

All morning the girls splashed and swam in the surf. I watched from a beach chair as they chased each other along the coast and bobbed in the waves, their heads playing peek-a-boo with the cloudless sky. I thought about taking a walk, but I had promised Alexander I would keep my eyes on the girls at all times. If I got up at all, I knew I’d be tempted to start going and not look back.

In the afternoon, we built a sandcastle together, one with twenty bedrooms and a wide, wide moat. “What about a drawbridge?” I asked. “How is the royal family going to get out, go for a stroll in the countryside?” I pushed my toes deeper into the sand. The girls worked together on a lookout tower, more mound than tower.

“Why would they want to leave?” Claire asked. She was two years younger than Vivian but always the first to speak.

Sand covered my feet up to my ankles. I wiggled my toes and watched the sandy surface ripple. “Good question,” I said.

“Look, Mom,” Vivian said, pointing toward the ocean. She was six, but her voice was wonderment and wishes. I looked up. I studied the water for a dolphin cresting the surf or maybe a shark’s dorsal fin weaving amidst the waves. I guess I wanted to see something special, something that would mark the occasion. But there were no mermaids, no pirates; just a pair of jet-skiers churning the blue-gray water into white foam. “Can we ride jet-skis? Can we?” Vivian asked. She plopped into my lap, facing me. Sunscreen residue outlined her nose, and twin dollops sat in the corners of her eyes. The request was radical, especially from Vivian, sweet and sensible Vivian. She didn’t even ask for strawberries at the grocery store unless they were on sale. Did she have the urge, too? She stared at me with pleading eyes. She clasped her hands together. “Please,” she begged. No, I decided, exhaling. She was just a kid who wanted to grow up too fast.

“Not today, sweetie,” I said. I lifted her off my lap and stood up. I shook the sand from my feet. Then I pressed my hand to my daughter’s head. “You need to be at least this tall—” I moved my hand up until it was level with my chin— “before you can ride a jet-ski.” Claire and Vivian both pouted as they surveyed the distance between my hand and their own blonde heads. “But,” I continued, “you only need to be this tall to eat ice cream.” I dropped my hand to my knees. The girls lit up again, their emotions fickle, easily manipulated. Claire was shaking her head.

“Mom,” she said. “No one is that short.”

“You were,” I said. “Once.”

The next day, I gave notice of my resignation. I cited personal reasons. Two weeks later, I left. I caught a Greyhound at midnight, bound for New York.

*

Freshman year of college, I traveled at least one weekend a month on a bus out of Manhattan. Usually, I flipped a coin to determine destination. Heads, home to Pittsburgh. Tails, somewhere else. Sometimes up to New England. Sometimes into the heart of New York state. Sometimes south, as far as middle Virginia. I stayed with high school friends attending James Madison University, Boston College, Yale, Penn State, and Colgate. I waited at Port Authority on Friday nights with other college students reading Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kuhn, or the Bible. The rest of the line winding back from the door in neat, roped-off rows was filled with weary men and women who ate Honey Buns for dinner and shouldered sleeping children or seam-stretched duffels. I could see the longing in their eyes for a far-away place, somewhere they wouldn’t suffer evictions or mice or subway-induced inertia. Somewhere, I suspected, rent worries didn’t disturb their dreams. That was the fairytale I imagined for them on Friday nights.

But come Sunday, they would be back, these men and women. Most of them, anyway, lulled into return by the memory of early morning automobiles, subway screeches, a thousand simultaneous conversations: the city’s symphony. Fear, too, drove them back into Lincoln Tunnel, fear of giving up whatever dream had brought them to Times Square in the first place: love, fame, money, a small bite of the city’s bigness, a particular hunger to rush, rush, rush somewhere, anywhere in a black trench, stopping only for coffee in the morning, a drink after two. Back on the congested sidewalks, the time away must have felt squandered, misplaced. For some, New York is impossible to leave.

For me, it was like that. How sweet the return was. For nearly three days, I would relish the city’s exigency, feel its pulse in mine. After Monday’s classes, I traveled to the village for a baguette, a hunk of foreign cheese. On Tuesdays, I went out with my roommates. Once, we took the 1 train to the Financial District, dressed as older versions of ourselves in boutique pumps and pencil skirts. At Wall Street bars, we flirted with brokers and market analysts until, giggling, we excused ourselves to the restroom and fled. We hailed a taxi to take us home, up the Westside Highway, the Hudson glistening in the city’s eternal glow. On our necks and wrists, the scents of working men, of married men, lingered.

At some point on Wednesday, I crashed. I wondered what I was doing in a city with so many people, so lost and alone, so cold and tired. Joni Mitchell and Dar Williams failed to calm me, and my Dirty Dancing and Sixteen Candles posters inspired only a sinking nostalgia. I struggled to make sense of my place, my purpose, the past and the future. I wandered Broadway in the rain, the night dripping and puddling around me.

Eventually, life got too busy to leave. Upper-level classes, business internships, study abroad, graduation, marriage, job interviews, contracts, and finally babies. Alexander and I first moved to Cincinnati for his finance job. Two years later, we relocated to Dallas for mine, a top-tier analyst position at a big firm. Long days at the office, long nights with newborns: dizzyingly full hours that satisfied my urge to go beyond the mailbox, the water cooler.

But by the time we had moved to Tampa, both girls were in school and Alexander was traveling more for work. Home life became an automatic routine, locking me into its prescribed program of wake-up, meals, after-school activities, and bedtime. Then it began to encroach on my career. Illness, field trips, sports, and clubs—everything the girls did required more of me. More time. More money. More detergent. More commitment. Last September, I turned down a promotion because I couldn’t work weekends. In October, I turned down another one because I couldn’t miss the girls’ harvest pageant to attend a training conference in Atlanta. My name stopped coming up after that. I had a performance review in January. Distracted. Inconsistent. I had fallen so far, so fast.

So I started to leave again. In little ways at first, ways that didn’t disrupt the tedious to-do lists. I went to the grocery store after I put the girls to sleep and pushed an empty cart up and down the aisles. I walked the suburban streets outside my building on my lunch hour. I browsed destinations online, telling myself—and Alexander—that we needed a family vacation. But when I tried to book trips to Arizona, the Bahamas, Canada, I entered 1 adult, 0 children, and stopped there.

*

A woman sat down next to me on the bus. She didn’t smell. She didn’t crowd the arm rests or invade my leg room with her jean-wrapped shins or clog-covered feet. I pulled a book from my purse, a self-help paperback from Alexander. A box of these sat behind my shoe rack in the closet. I scattered a few throughout the house—one in a bathroom drawer, a couple on my bedside table, three or four between the fairy tales on the shelves in the girls’ room. This was the first one I intended to read. The genre appealed to me now as it hadn’t before, and my husband’s passive attempt at outreach seemed less threatening now. Kind. The cover promised A Brand New You.

Air conditioning blew bitter gusts up the vent below the window. The night was typical Tampa in May: hot but breezy. I leaned into the cold air. Before and during my two pregnancies, I had grown cold easily. Once I had weaned Claire, my body’s internal thermometer reset. Since then I’ve sought drafts, wind. I started adding ice to my drinks.

I took off my jacket, a lime green wind-breaker that had been enough insulation from Florida’s elements no matter the season or forecast. I balled it into a crinkly nylon pillow and propped it against the window. At the front of the bus, the driver slid into his seat and pulled a lever. The door whooshed. The engine rattled. Over the intercom, he mumbled an announcement, but I could only make out “miles,” “stop,” and “smoke.” From my seat, I could see the back of his head, dark and fuzzy like a bruised peach. I wondered if he had wanted to be a pilot but had become a bus driver instead. Wasn’t that what happened to all of us? Would-be models became department store clerks. Aspiring chefs wound up on the line at Waffle House. Me? I wanted to be someone, but I became a spouse and a mother. Someone else’s someone.

I planned to read and sleep for the whole trip. All twenty hours. I wanted to steal back into the city under cover of mass transit alongside travelers who smelled of sunscreen and cigarettes. I knew I would have to avoid looking directly out the window at the passing cars, the lights, the billboards. If I paid too much attention to the ride, I’d dwell on what I left behind, the lives tucked between star decals on the ceiling and stuffed animals scattered across the floor.

*

I can still see the parallel constellations of stars and stuffed animals now. I can’t, however, still smell my daughters’ hair, winding and wet after their baths. A park mid-morning in April? The evening ocean? Frosting, maybe.

*

Beside me, the woman shifted in her seat. She looked old enough to be a grandmother: wrinkles like wings batted by her eyes, short hair like stone-ground oatmeal. She wasn’t wearing any make-up. I half-watched her take off her eggplant cardigan. The action was neither smooth nor quiet. I heard tinkling and scraping as she fought to free herself from the sweater. I almost offered to help. With a final tug, the sleeves went slack. Out came her arms. Her arms and everything she had wrapped around them.

Yes, I stared. At first I tried to be discreet, but I couldn’t help myself. The woman smiled at me and introduced herself. “Hi, dear,” she said, extending a heavy arm. “I’m Betty.”

I shook the hand she held out, but I didn’t lift my eyes to make eye contact. “Bianca,” I said.

“Sure am tired,” Betty said. “Not much of a night person anymore.” I nodded but couldn’t get a response out. Betty didn’t seem to mind my quiet, relentless stare, and she didn’t comment on it. She stretched her sweater across her lap and leaned back. Already she was settling into sleep. I continued to stare.

It was amazing and horrible and wild, the jewelry—if you could call it that—she had amassed on her wrists and arms. At a glance, hers looked like mannequin limbs in a store window display, stacked with bracelets and baubles in an accessory buffet. But closer, the display became something more, something beyond style. Here was a garage sale. Here was a scrapbook. I still remember the objects wrapped around her exposed skin like a set of sleeves cobbled together one purchase, one memory at a time. She had nine hair ties of varying thickness and color, but mostly black, seamless elastic cuffs; three paper bands, the kind affixed by gate attendants at state fairs; two laminated hospital bands; one leather watch, oval face, hands unmoving; two copper bracelets, probably purchased from a mall kiosk as energy balance and mood boost aids; three wide wood bangles, each engraved with a unique arrangement of swirls and leaves, raindrops and stars; two woven string bracelets, the colors blurred together, like a smear of dinner left on Claire’s plate; one beaded bracelet, twinkling with shiny glass beads; shoelaces, wrapped and then tied in a bow with big floppy loops; two bills folded into neat rectangles and tucked into hair ties, denomination unknown; a soup can label, folded into a half-inch strip, Campbell’s, creamy tomato; a pearl necklace, twice wrapped, missing at least a dozen pearls, like a half-chewed candy bracelet; and a single handcuff on her left wrist.

The bus lumbered north on I-75. Betty slept. The driver turned the overhead lights off. I thought back to the start of the trip, probably thirty minutes ago. Had the woman stowed a purse above or beneath her seat? Did one of the duffels sliding around in the lower storage compartments belong to her? I liked to think that this was it, the whole of her possessions. That thought comforted me. But what did the paraphernalia mean? And why bracelets? Why not necklaces, a library of lockets draped against her chest? I touched my own bare neck.

*

I had crept into the girls’ room after calling the cab company. Along the back wall, their twin beds were already tangles of sheets, blankets, arms, and legs. Moonlight splintered through blinds on the right, casting bright designs on a desk scattered with crayon drawings. A wooden dresser stretched along the left wall, and two pink piggy banks sat on display. The floor was a forest of plush creatures. I walked to Vivian’s bed first and crouched beside it. I lifted her head and wrapped my grandmother’s cross around her neck. I held her soft curls to my nose once more. Summer? Is that what I had smelled on her hair that night? I knelt beside Claire’s bed, too. I knew if I touched her, she’d wake up. Outside, tires grinded against the curb. I left my pearls for her on the corner of the dresser. I didn’t blow kisses. I didn’t glance around the room one last time. I closed the door behind me. Then I walked downstairs and into the night.

*

I woke up later. Three hours later. Betty was still asleep. I could hear the clink, clink, clinking of the turn signal. The bus moved onto an exit ramp. I played with my wedding band, sliding the thin gold circle around and around. Why didn’t Betty wear rings? A diary of stones and shapes narrating her knuckles. On my finger, I could feel the pull of home—Alexander on his flight back from his meeting in San Francisco, the girls in their beds. But almost 200 miles away, the tug was distant, dream-like. Was my ring, like Betty’s hospital bands, a placeholder of a certain time and all the moments folded into that time? Marriages and hospital stays had a lot in common. The scars. The paperwork. The misunderstood communication. The sacrifices. The shiny atrium. All that white.

*

The bus reached its first stop. Again the bus driver mumbling. The overhead lights turned on. Now the sounds of passengers righting themselves, shaking out sleepy feet, retrieving purses that had moved from laps to floor in transit. Betty started to stir. I squeezed past her to join the exodus in search of bathrooms and coffee, smoke and snacks. Neon signs in the Travel Plaza’s windows advertised burgers, boiled peanuts, and hot cakes.

I had promised the girls pancakes in the morning. I told them I would make them pancakes for breakfast.

I went to the bathroom first. After washing my hands, I used my hip to open the door. I think it was Claire who taught me that. Heavy doors were hard for her. She would throw her little backside against them, bending and pushing, hands held out in front of her as though she held an imaginary balloon. “You’re going to hurt yourself,” I told her once.

“Germs, Mom,” she told me. “Gross.”

I walked through the convenience store, down aisles of candy and motor oil, around sunglasses and doughnut displays. Past the cooler of boiled peanuts, I found the coffee counter. I filled a 20-ounce Styrofoam cup. Black and honeyed, steaming. I had stopped drinking coffee when I was pregnant with Vivian. Alexander had read something about caffeine and miscarriages on the Internet a few weeks after I tested positive. The report soured my mornings. I tried to switch to decaf but stopped after a week. I didn’t see the point, so I cut coffee out completely. I had withdrawal headaches for a month, but I thought it would be easier that way, to just be done, for good. Now I took a small sip. Though it had been years, seven years, the dark drink tasted familiar, reassuring.

Back on the bus, I cradled my coffee cup in both hands. The smell made me giddy. I took a greedy sip, scalding my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I didn’t care. I took another sip. I filled my mouth. Hot liquid dripped onto my pants. I gulped anyway.

Betty sat back down. “Be careful,” she said. “You won’t sleep another wink tonight.”

I smiled. “That’s fine,” I said. And it was. Would I ever sleep again? Here I was heading back to New York without telling Alexander while my daughters slept in their princess pajamas, hair like tangled ribbons threaded across their pillows.

*

In the morning, Claire would lift her head first, survey the room. She’d sniff the air, certain she smelled syrup. “Viv,” she’d call. Then again, louder. “Viv. Pancakes. Mom’s making pancakes.”

And then Vivian would stir. She’d open her eyes and listen for the sizzle of bacon. Wrapped in their blankets, the girls would make their way downstairs, the hardwood cool on their bare feet. They’d argue about which show to watch.

“Mom,” Claire would call, stopping at the bottom of the steps. “Vivian doesn’t want to watch Eloise.”

“It’s my turn to choose a show,” Vivian would say. “Right, Mom?” The girls would start walking again, but slowly now, aware of the quiet, the soft echo of their words. They would have no reason to believe I wasn’t standing at the stove, wasn’t wearing the apron they had decorated for me last Christmas in lopsided hearts, the words World’s Greatest Baker and Mom a puffy red blaze across the middle. In the empty kitchen, they’d start to cry.

Alexander would find them, huddled together under the table, shaking and bleary-eyed, an hour later. He’d hold them until they settled. He’d tell them I was fine and not to worry. And after he carried them both to the couch, he’d let out a long sigh. So this is how it happens, he’d think. At least the waiting is over. Let’s see how long it lasts.

*

The bus merged onto the highway. The driver turned off the overhead lights. In fuzzy darkness, I listened to Betty remove her sweater again, uncover her rattling wrists and arms. I couldn’t quite pin the effect the objects had on me. They intrigued me. They depressed me. I finished my coffee in three mouth-filling swallows.

“You headed to New York, dear?” Betty asked. Her voice was a tired warble. A night murmur.

I nodded. Then remembered the darkness. “Yes,” I said.

“Got family there?”

I shook my head. Then, “No. Just a job.” I hoped she wouldn’t ask anything else. I didn’t know if I would be able to answer, to explain. I had tried to explain to Alexander early in our marriage—my fear of domestic doldrums, the urge to leave everything behind and just go. “We’ll wait and see,” he had said. Then we had children, and I think he thought the girls were like handcuffs for me, binding me to our busy life together. What sort of mother leaves her babies? What was there to escape from?

“My Michael’s there,” Betty said. “Right in the city.” I could hear the wooden bangles rub together. “Been there a long time now. I’m staying with him.”

I got stuck on the word my. The word was so authoritative, so assuming, so bold. If I were a different sort of mother, I might have basked in its use: my husband, my daughters, my golf course view, my special recipe for sweet corn bread. Tonight I applied it locally: my purse, my empty coffee cup, my seat. My wasn’t permanent. What could you hold onto? Perhaps only what you wore.

Betty continued, “—too busy to call. Seems to forget that I washed and folded his boxers for eighteen years, that I cooked him eggs for breakfast and read two stories to him every night. Now I’ll get a call in the early evening once a week, maybe. I know he’s calling on his way home from the office. He walks three miles to and from work. Only if it’s pouring does he take a taxi.”

“I see,” I said. I wondered how well Betty knew her son. Did he ever step out of his apartment and not feel like walking? Maybe summer’s heat was too much for him. I bet he at least rode the subway for most of those three miles.

“—this here hospital band? Mikey, that’s what we had called him when he was little—little Mikey. He fell down the stairs outside our building. First time for him seeing snow. Couldn’t wait to open up his mouth and taste a fleck. Needed two pins in his ankle and casts for almost a year. The other one, hospital band that is, is mine.” This is what I had been waiting for: Betty to explain her wrist-ware. I didn’t even need to ask. She talked about the outpatient surgery she had had a month ago to remove a few sun spots and asymmetrical moles. “Never used sunscreen when I was your age,” she said. “And they didn’t have it when I was younger.” She visited her sister in Florida a couple times a year. They used to spend days camped out on the Gulf. In the high soft sand, they would sip wine coolers and let the sun char their bare skin. “That’s why I was in Florida. To spend a week with my sister. We call it vacation even though we don’t do anything special. Every time we get together, it’s vacation.”

Is that what the girls would think, that I had left on vacation? That my absence was temporary? Of course they would. And maybe it was. That would explain the cell phone left on the counter, the toothbrush alongside the bathroom sink. Those items could be forgotten for a trip but never forsaken. But then they might think about the necklaces I had left for them. They’d question the curious nature of midnight gifts and broken pancake promises. I hoped they’d never be tempted to leave. I knew they wouldn’t.

*

The first time I talked myself out of leaving, I had been folding clean clothes. Laundry was the only domestic chore I enjoyed. Before our first anniversary, Alexander and I had made a deal: he would do dishes, and I’d do clothes. I loved the washing machine’s swooshing cycles and the dryer’s whirling. I loved the smell, the feel of refreshed fabric. I loved the restoration of order: from pile of twisted shirt sleeves, floppy pant legs, scrunched socks, and inside-out underwear to neat little piles, clothing ready to be worn again.

Alexander sat in the reclining chair typing his March expense report. I usually brought work home, too, but night after night, the files stayed in my briefcase or unopened on my computer. The girls lay on the floor, taking turns brushing each other’s hair in front of the TV. I stood next to the couch matching socks. I picked up a striped one and couldn’t find its mate anywhere. It was one of Alexander’s dress socks, one the girls had picked out for his stocking last November. I rummaged through the garments left in the basket. I scanned the couch, the floor. I retraced my steps to the laundry room. I checked the dryer and the washer. No sock. I made my way back to the living room, eyes on the kitchen tile, then the living room Berber. “Has anyone—” I started to ask. Then I looked up and stopped.

There they were, Alexander and the girls, so neatly arranged in a cozy scene of post-dinner family life, and I stood on the outside, holding an orphan sock. I could go, I thought. Just turn around and leave. I imagined returning to the kitchen, exchanging the single sock for my keys on the counter, sliding my purse onto my shoulder, and walking to the car. But the fantasy ended when I considered the laundry I had left on the couch. Who would ball the matching socks? Who would hang the little dresses I had draped over the armrest? Who would throw out the wrinkled dryer sheet? These questions kept me home. The following week, I found the missing sock in the bottom of the hamper and started looking online for jobs in Manhattan.

*

“My sister makes these,” Betty said, holding her arm up toward me and pointing to the wooden bangles. In the dark, I could no longer make out the designs. The bracelets all looked the same: heavy and thick.

They’re beautiful,” I said.

Betty said, “Evelyn, that’s my sister, she buys the bangles unfinished from a flea market in Starke. She goes once a month. Drives four hours each way. But she etches and finishes them herself. A boutique on the beach stocks them. Sells to tourists mostly, but now she’s thinking about selling online.”

“She should,” I said. “Online marketplaces are booming right now. My husband works for one.”

“That what she’s worried about. Her hands are starting to hurt. It’s hard enough for her to keep up with the demand during spring break season.”

*

The next time I resisted the urge to go, spring had begun in earnest and I was waiting to hear back from two companies. The roads glistened in April afternoon sun, still wet from a mid-day rain. The air carried the tang of citrus, the cool crunch of cucumber. I was in the van waiting for chess club and soccer practice to finish at the girls’ school. I had parked along the curb outside the entrance. In front and behind, more vans and SUVs idled. A wagon-train of waiting parents. Most talked on their cell phones. A few texted. One mother flipped through a magazine. Another read on her Kindle. The time was 5:03. Soon the mass exodus would begin. Children would flood the sidewalk in leotards and baseball uniforms. Viola cases would bump into shuffling feet. Someone would drop piano music or an art project on the pavement. Pages would scatter. Paint would splatter. Then the tears. A panicky wail or sniffling sob. Every day, it was something, and every day, someone’s child went home crying. Meanwhile parents would honk and wave and shout: “Bobby! I’m right here!” “Get in, Em. Do you want dinner to burn?” Then kids climbed into their boosters. Automatic doors clicked close. Vehicles peeled away from the curb. Families would head home for the night, home to casseroles or crock pot roasts, home to baths and bedtime.

Just then, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I didn’t want to go home. 5:06. I turned the car on and slid the gear shift to drive. My hands spun the wheel. I pushed down on the pedal. I took a left out of the parking lot. Left toward the highway.

But I only made it as far as the second red light, not even three miles from the school. I started to think about the girls left alone on the front porch of the elementary school. Principal Maggie would be standing with them in her navy skirt suit and three-inch heels. She would ask for the third time, “And you’re sure your mother said she’d be here?” Claire and Vivian would be sitting on the concrete, their twig legs crossed beneath them. They would pull their book bags into their laps and hug them to their chests. They would nod their heads calmly, the alternative inconceivable. “She probably got stuck by a train,” Claire would offer. Vivian would add, “Tuesdays are her busy days.”

I pulled a penny out of the cup holder we used to collect change. Heads, home. Tails, somewhere, anywhere else.

When I pulled back into the circle, the scene wasn’t at all like I had imagined. A handful of kids were clustered around two teachers. The girls had their backs to me. They were looking over a smaller boy’s shoulder. One of the teachers waved to me and tapped the girls on their shoulders. Neither girl budged. She tapped again and pointed to me. They started to creep backwards.

“Girls,” I said, calling out the window. “Let’s go.” Finally they turned and started running for the van.

I pushed a button to open the sliding door, and Vivian hopped in first. Claire stood in the open doorway. “Mom,” she said in the urgently breathless way of 5-year-olds. “Timmy Masters has an iPhone, and his birthday is two weeks after mine.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “Get in.”

“Vivian wants one, too. We could share it.” Of the two girls, Claire was the conniver. Vivian was either collaborator or collateral.

“You could.” We had had a similar conversation last week when Stephanie, a girl in Vivian’s class, started bringing her iPhone to school. Today it tired me. “I should have kept going,” I said. The words just came out.

“Go where?” the girls asked together.

*

“Need a hair tie?” Betty held out a glittery purple elastic band. Claire would have liked it, but Vivian would have wrinkled her nose. Already she was cultivating a more refined style. “Glitter is for little girls,” she’d told me a couple weeks ago when I asked why she didn’t want to wear her sparkly red ballerina flats to school.

“No. Thank you, though.” My hair was down, already a tangled mess, but I didn’t want the girlhood reminder either.

“I used to run off to school and then work without a hair tie when I was younger. And I had long hair then, half-way down my back. By the end of the work day, I’d lose pencils and paper clips in my hair. I worked as a secretary, and my boss used to tell me I’d get it stuck in the typewriter if I wasn’t careful. I’d laugh and remind him that my long hair got me the job. Then he’d laugh and nod. ‘Hair like that is dangerous,’ he’d say. ‘It’ll get you killed or pregnant.’”

*

After our day at the beach, I had returned to the girls’ room late at night. Claire had crawled into Vivian’s bed. They lay on top of the covers with their bodies softly arcing together. I knelt down beside the bed. I placed my hands on each of their chests. When they were newborns, this had been part of my nightly routine. A tactile lullaby. I counted thirty breaths. Then I traced the glide of their calves, the spongy divot between their thumbs and fingers. I checked their palms. As babies, their tiny fists had gathered lint, and I would pull out the clumps and strings of fibers every night before laying them in their cribs. Now their palms were clean. I kissed the clean, doughy skin. I watched their limbs twitch, their parted mouths exhale puffs of air. At some point, Claire started to stir, but I told her everything was fine. She rolled over, muttering in her sleep. A little while later Vivian curled her feet into her chest. Finally I stood up. I had been kneeling a long time, and my knees ached as I straightened them. At the door, I stopped and turned around. “My lovelies,” I whispered.

A job offer was on the table. I had only to accept. I had only to say yes, to puncture the helium balloon holding our world together, and floating, and floating, and floating. That night, I knew I would leave. The question was when. When would the balloon hit the ground? When would the gas run out?

*

“You ever work at a summer camp?” Betty asked.

“What?” I asked. She was getting more tired, and her words slurred together in a sleepy slush.

“One of those places young people go to learn about etiquette and archery.”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“My niece braided these string bracelets for me the summer my sister sent her to camp in the mountains of North Carolina. Must have been fifteen years ago. Nicole, my niece, she was miserable the whole time. Hated the dining hall’s food, the smelly fires, spiders everywhere. She’d fall asleep sweating every night and wake up freezing. She told me all about it when I came down for vacation that summer. She gave me the bracelets and said, ‘We had to do arts and crafts every day. They made us.’ Nicole’s boys aren’t old enough for summer camp yet, but she says she won’t send them. She doesn’t want them to suffer.”

*

I didn’t buy my bus ticket or think about packing until the night I left. Until a few hours before I left. Dinner dishes soaked in the sink. Soap suds lingered in the tub. Alexander had just called from the airport. His plane was on time. He’d be home by eight in the morning. He’d be home for breakfast. The girls were lying side by side in their matching princess pajamas, pink gowns with wide, lacy trim along the sleeves and bottom. They were coloring a card for their dad to welcome him home. He had left on Monday, five days ago, and they missed him terribly. They talked to each other as they worked.

“What’s daddy going to bring us?” Claire asked.

“Stuffed animals,” Vivian said.

“What kind?” asked Claire.

“A crab. Maybe a hippo.” Vivian’s assessment satisfied Claire, and I marveled at the limited trajectory of their conversation, how easily they operated in the now and near future. Crayons scratched against paper. The girls’ feet fluttered occasionally. I went into the office. First I paid bills online. Then I checked the weather, my e-mail, a couponing website. I clicked from one screen to the next in an organized, purposeful, and completely absent manner. Eventually I was staring at Greyhound’s home page. I looked up schedules and ticket prices. A bus bound for New York was leaving at midnight. I had three hours to get the girls to bed, pack, and have a cab take me to the station. I could be ready by then. I’d probably even have time to read the girls an extra story if they wanted.

For a moment, I fought the urge to shout, to share the exhilaration swelling within me. I resisted the impulse to run into the living room and sweep the girls into my arms. There, I’d hold them. I’d dance with them. The girls would wrap their willowy arms around my neck. They’d bounce on their toes with the nameless delight of their mother’s sudden, frantic joy. The three of us would celebrate my escape, laughing as the future unfurled before us in glittery uncertainty.

“Momma?” Vivian asked, staring over my shoulder.

I closed the browser. “Ready for bed?” I asked. My heartbeat pulsed in my neck and ears.

“Can we read in bed for a while?” Vivian asked, her hand a gentle weight on my arm.

“I’ll read to you,” I said.

“Mom, we’re too old for that. Remember?” Claire was standing in the doorway. The girl could only recognize a handful of words, but since her sister was reading on her own, she decided she would read by herself, too.

“I keep forgetting,” I said. “At least let me tuck you in.” I stood up and herded the girls toward the stairs.

“Race you to the top,” Claire said, and she and Vivian clambered upward. I watched from the bottom as they tugged at each other’s nightgowns and pounded their feet against the wooden stairs.

“Who won, mom?” Vivian asked when I reached the top. They were both stretched out on the hallway floor, chests heaving, faces bright.

“A tie,” I said. I sighed. Their race exhausted me. How many times had they run up these stairs, fighting their way past each other? Every night, the story was the same. Drowning in boredom, that’s what motherhood felt like: buoys of births, milestones, and the rest of it a sea of cluttered and near-constant minutiae.

“You always say that,” Claire accused, folding her arms across her chest.

“And you always complain,” I said, stepping over her. The three of us entered the bedroom. I turned on the light. Claire ran to her bed and hid under the covers. Vivian pulled her chapter book out of her backpack and propped her pillow against the headboard. She sat down, and I pulled the covers up to her waist.

“Tuck, tuck, tuck,” I said as I pushed the sheets around her. “There.”

“My turn,” Claire called. I crossed the room to her bed and pulled the covers up to her shoulders. I framed her body with the bedspread. “What about my book?”

“Where is it?” I asked, looking around the room.

“On the floor.” Claire pointed to a thin hardback book poking out from beneath Vivian’s bed.

I passed it to her and smiled. “Good night, Claire-Bear.”

“I need some water,” she said.

“Me, too?” asked Vivian, not looking up from her book.

“I’ll bring you some in a little while,” I said. Already I was deciding what to wear. What I would bring with me. I had another week until I started my new job, but already I was leaving.

“’Night, girls,” I said, turning off the light.

“Mom,” Vivian called.

“Sorry,” I said. I put the light back on.

“Don’t forget our water,” Claire said.

“I won’t,” I said. Halfway down the stairs, I remembered something. Something I needed to ask the girls. I poked my head back into their room. “Girls,” I started. I wanted to ask them if they would be alright. If they would understand. “Do you want pancakes in the morning?”

“Chocolate chip pancakes?” Claire asked, looking up from her book.

“And bacon?” asked Vivian, her head surfacing, too. “Daddy says you can’t have pancakes without bacon.”

“Of course,” I said. Then I walked to my room and sat on the bed. I hadn’t planned to lie like that. I think I wanted to know the girls would be sleeping happily when I boarded the bus. Maybe I wanted them to know the pain of anticipation and loss wound so tightly together.

I didn’t bother writing a note. I didn’t bother changing or packing. I forgot about the girls’ water. This time I didn’t flip a coin. I called the cab company and arranged for an 11:15 pick-up. I sat on my bed until it was time to go. At 11:10, I stood up and smoothed the comforter with two quick sweeps of my hand.

*

Betty had nodded off, and the trinkets on her arms creaked and thudded against each other as the bus heaved forward in the night. I pulled out my book again. Already I was bored by Betty’s jewelry despite how unconventional it was. Her stories about her sister, summer camp, and sun spots had dulled the accessories. Sleep, too, bored me. When was the last time I had slept so little? Nursing newborn Claire? Rocking Vivian after a bad dream? Such a waste, sleep seemed. Every hour now seemed infused with possibility, the potential to be remade. Remade and undone. Lost and found.

I don’t think I even got to page ten before I started to doze.

*

The bus rumbled on. Betty told me about the rest of her arm accoutrements, although I can’t remember the stories anymore. I was only half-listening. My fascination for the objects had dissolved somewhere in the Carolinas. The rest of the ride passed in a blur of interstates, rest stops, and longings. My own couch. A window looking down on Broadway. A room full of coin-operated washing machines and dryers. Hours of uninterrupted productivity at the office and at home. Attention to projects, proposals, and reports undivided, whole. A single bowl of cereal to pour in the morning. A fresh pot of coffee.

I was asleep the next night when we arrived in Manhattan. The bus was parked in the arrival terminal at Port Authority. I sat up and surveyed the nearly empty bus. A couple passengers remained, moving down the aisle or pulling stuck bags off the overhead rack.

The seat beside me was empty except for a pile of beads and a single white string. Betty’s bracelet must have snapped when she climbed out of her seat. Had she heard the thread pop, felt the beads trickle through her fingers? Or had she failed to notice in the frantic rush of passengers moving quickly toward busy streets and subway cars, all too ready to return to apartments, their loved ones, their day-to-day existence?

In the dim garage, I watched steam rise from grates in the ground. I thought about Vivian and Claire, who by now would be back in bed, hugging their new stuffed animals and looking for me in their dreams. I thought about their dreams, their thoughts, their emotions—sandcastles subject to capricious tides. I thought about Alexander sitting in the office, scanning the computer for signs of where I was and why I left. I thought about Betty’s single handcuff locked around her wrist. I thought about the force that must have been required to rend it from the linking chain. Where was the other cuff? Whose wrist was it on?

Anything but Sweet by Joan Hill

One Last Time by Brandon Daily

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