I’m Hungry if You Are
The call comes from a number in Todos Santos, Mexico, and at first I do not register what that means. One student has just left and I have ten minutes to clean, breathe, return emails, collect myself, finish paperwork, use the bathroom, drink three glasses of water, be a different person, and wipe down the yoga ball before my next student arrives. I let the call go to voicemail.
The office for my occupational therapy practice is a trailer parked near the edge of the school’s property line. My job is to take jittery, brickled children and send them back to their classrooms calm. Or take low-tone, gloopy children and send them back full of verve. To accomplish this, I have an office that looks like the props room for a failing circus. I have a slackline, acres of Velcro, and a pillowcase full of stress balls. I have sequin cloth made for petting—one way and the sequins flash silver, the other way purple, and the children never seem to tire of this predictable transformation. They are amazed every time.
My school is not private, I correct people, it is independent—as if it’s just learned how to do its own laundry. It’s mostly white, though you wouldn’t know that from the website, where photos flash in rotation on the homepage. Two Asian American girls pose with their apple dolls. A Black boy angles a magnifying glass over a bug. The one Latina teacher writes an algebraic equation on a smartboard. The school has money, and so they have me.
On Tuesdays, the diffuser gurgles tea tree oil.
“Tuesday smells terrible,” Neve says when she bangs through the trailer door.
She is a loud, rumpled child, constantly tugging at her clothes as if they’re trying to kill her. She wears dresses that look like they were stitched by an embittered grandmother who believed in the reforming possibilities of high necks, lace collars, and lines of tiny buttons, as hard as experience. Neve’s fingernails are long, with black crescents of dirt. Once, I showed her how to scoop the grime out with a toothpick; the sensation made her twitch and writhe, even when she tried to do it herself. She is the kind of white child whose paleness appears bluish from her veins, the kind of girl whose hair has a constant snarl left from sleep. Every day, Neve comes to me like a newborn foal. She walks as if the ground is pudding, her legs nothing but knees.
“I’m in the red,” Neve says, as always.
She points to the top of the Feelings Thermometer on the wall. Is she sure? Not the green, or the yellow, or the orange? Her whole body shakes, thrashing like a severed wire. Red is angry, scared, out of control. Red means the weighted blanket or, in Neve’s case, her beloved tub of dried beans. The tub is deep enough for Neve to submerge her hands up to her wrists. Her favorite thing is to bring her hands out slowly and level, her palms down, carrying a layer of beans on top. Before the beans, I make Neve run through the exercises she likes less, starting with infinity breathing, her finger tracing a lopsided figure eight in the air. Next, I tell her to hold plank position while she lists the classmates she likes from least to best, because that’s more interesting than counting. Her bare legs shake. Her mussed braids sag onto the floor. She likes everyone the best.
Imagine living all day for fifteen minutes with a tub of beans. Neve plunges her hands in and sighs. As she curls and uncurls her fingers, the beans shift and click, though these aren’t the sounds that catch my attention. Hee, hoo, haa. I turn, expecting to see my mother, because those are the precise noises she makes whenever she enters a body of water. Like breathy laughter slowed down. Hee, hoo, haa. I see her so clearly—she walks into the pool in her condo building, her face cast in orange from her visor. The chemical clarity of the air. Her shirt ballooning around her hips.
Hee, hoo, haa. The phone call from Todos Santos. Where my mother lives. And I think, Something has happened. And I think, When was the last time I sanitized these beans?
“Sausage roll?” Hank asks later when I tell him I’m worried.
Hank is the teacher I’m not married to. He is half Chinese and often featured on the website kneeling next to his students in his khakis, which ride up his legs to reveal wacky socks.
“Sausage roll,” I answer.
Nodding, Hank arranges the weighted blanket flat across the scratchy carpet. I stretch myself along the edge, and he rolls me up. I’ve asked Hank to join me before, but he always says no. He’s too fragile for infidelity. Still, it would be nice to be in the roll of blanket with his body, his erection nudging me in the butt, that funny way the penis has of advocating for itself.
“I thought the two of you don’t get along,” Hank says, meaning me and my mother. The layers of blanket between us muffle his voice.
“Is that a reminder?”
“I guess it’s a question.”
Inside the tight roll of blanket I struggle, enjoying the feeling of confinement, the idea that Hank could do whatever he wants to me.
“Silence,” Hank says.
My trapped breath spreads back over my face, a warm, stale fog, a cheesy smell.
“Did you listen to the message?” Hank asks. “If you’re worried, why don’t you call back? I guess I don’t get why you’re worried.”
I tell him about the sounds, the hee-hoo-haa, and, Hank being Hank, he understands that is enough.
At home in our kitchen, Pat doesn’t understand. Pat is the doctor I am married to. Eight months ago, I found his texts with a colleague named Yvette. I imagined her tidy, pink vagina, like a tasteful seashell. If her vulva were a living room, it would have white curtains and neatly stacked piles of Good Housekeeping.
What did I expect, marrying a man? This from my mother on the phone when I told her. We really did talk on the phone sometimes. We did.
Pat wipes the cast iron with its special rag, then anoints the pan with oil. He tells me I cannot know my mother is dead from imagined sounds. “Auditory hallucination,” he says, “is very common. Unbelievably common. Ask me how many times I have patients who come in because they heard the voice of their grandfather or their boss. Ask me.”
I don’t ask him.
Maybe Yvette would like to ask him.
“Please, let’s not bring Yvette into this.”
But she is, always, into this. She is the kind of woman whose hands are like a purse made of veal. She probably didn’t even use lube when she jerked my husband off in the medical supply closet. The worst part? I always begged Pat to play doctor. He never, ever would.
Actually, that isn’t the worst part. Couples counseling has been the worst part. Now that Pat’s working through his own issues with his father, it seems that my opening to leave him has narrowed. Who leaves a man mid-breakthrough? So great that he’s working on himself, my friends say. They can’t stop saying how great it is. But he crashed the goddamn car! He crashed the car and now he gets credit for the repairs.
Pat smears the oil around the cast iron with a paper towel, and I try to not feel jealous of the tenderness he shows to our kitchenware. When the second call comes from the same Todos Santos number, I’m not ready, and I back away from the phone. Pat takes it. His Spanish is better than mine. As he speaks, I dedicate myself to picking bits of food from the sink’s mesh guard. In this moment, I would convert to a religion that required the cleaning of mesh guards. Egg, it looks like, congealed over the mesh in a gummy paste. I scrape at it with steel wool.
“Hey.” Pat’s hand rests between my shoulder blades. “Hey, hey.” I scrape harder, strands of the steel wool unraveling. “Look,” Pat says. “Something has happened.”
I drew a cartoon once of a steel-wool ranch where shiny sheep looked sadly at regular sheep. Can’t remember what was supposed to be funny about it. No, Pat doesn’t know where that cartoon might be now. Nor does he think I missed an opportunity to have a career as an illustrator.
Don’t I have anything to say?
Only one thing.
“Told you so.”
In the morning I find Pat on step seven or eight of the process he believes is the only correct and civilized way to make coffee. Much equipment is involved, beakers and a silver scale and a thermometer with coarse wires. It is both tiring and comforting to watch him, this specific person who, for reasons I cannot remember this morning, is in my house, making coffee. White-robed like he’s in a hotel. Gray chest hairs. He still has a beautiful neck. The skin has started to loosen, but this only makes his neck seem more vulnerable—so exposed and hairless—and often, I have the urge to wrap it up with a scarf, or with my hands.
“I thought you were going to take the day off,” he says, smoothing the thermometer’s wires.
“Why would you think that?”
His neck skin creases when he looks up to the ceiling, beseeching God, maybe, to grant him patience. Years ago, before our relationship crossed the boundary between having fun to something serious, Pat told me that he liked that I was complicated, as if I were a tricky crossword puzzle, or a trade deal. But it gave me permission and a role to play. I suppose the trouble is that Pat expected to solve me eventually, that I would loosen like a plied knot. I sense that he hates me a little because I am not solved or loose, and I hate him a little, too, for wanting me to be different.
“Why do they call it a wake?” I ask.
“Your mother wasn’t Catholic,” Pat says, as if I forgot.
“You know what they should call a wake? They should call it ‘Remains to be seen.’”
Pat looks at me in a way that feels like he’s trying to figure out what stage of grief this is, the cracking-jokes phase. I’m aware that I should feel sad, or something more profound than sad—but I don’t. I feel like I’ve misplaced something vital. Where is my mother? Surely she’s in her condo in Todos Santos, just waking up, dissolving pellets of instant coffee in a mug. Pat says that we can talk tonight, because we should really discuss arrangements.
Ah, arrangements. The prospect of complicated logistics—it comforts Pat. Now this is a project.
“You’re in shock,” Pat says. “That’s normal.”
Never happier than when he’s diagnosing someone. Here is your problem, see? Right here. Your mother is dead.
Sometimes I need to escape Pat when we’re in the same room, so I travel back to yesterday, when Neve’s eyes went wide as I plunged my hands into the beans next to hers.
“Grown-ups need beans, too?” she had asked.
Shocking to feel, in a bucket of dried beans, the warm aliveness of one of Neve’s knuckles.
To Neve, I answered, “Not all grown-ups.”
This early, the school is dark, the copy room empty. In the teachers’ lounge, I flick on lights and press a new filter into the coffeepot. I check my mail cubby in case someone has, overnight, decided to give me a raise, or an award. My cubby holds only catalogs, thick publications featuring children whose smiles suggest coercion, that a nefarious someone is forcing them to be thrilled by mini-whiteboards, plastic counting bears, bags full of foam shapes.
The copy room is an open nook off the teachers’ lounge that feels more private than it is. I like the smells and the warmth, the reams of copy paper still wrapped. The sense of organization—letter size over here, the card stock over there. This morning, I feel odd affection for the sign someone typed and printed, its repetition soothing: Cardstock is ONLY for VERY special projects ONLY.
Strange how marvelous it is, a death. At least in part, at least this morning—how free I feel from all the little tasks I had been using to tack together my life. These papers I need to copy, I don’t really need to copy them. And the students on my schedule today, they will be fine.
“Knock, knock.” Hank lifts his arms, hooks his fingers onto the upper door frame, and leans forward, his chest out. He always arrives early because he’s dedicated, the kind of teacher who remembers, even years later, all of his students’ names. I’d like to wrap my legs around him. Grind against his hips until I turn his bones to gravel.
“Did you call your mom?” he asks.
And I realize that other people don’t know. It’s unfair. It’s dumb. That I must tell them and make it true all over again.
Hank holds me. Through his shirt I can feel the nubs of his back moles.
“It’s OK,” I tell him, because he seems to need to hear it. “We weren’t that close.”
But Hank only squeezes me tighter. He is so ready to be the person who allows me to cry, and who am I to not let him be that person? But I do not cry. Hank talks into my scalp, and I imagine his words seeping through my skull, sliding into the, my brain that does not understand yet what is happening. My brain where my mother is still unquestionably alive, shelling peanuts, flicking her cigarette ash, saying she is bloated, insisting that she is not asleep when she clearly is. She is asleep in the orange recliner, our macaroni dinner burning on the stove.
At ten, I go to Hank’s classroom to shadow Neve. He leads the class in song. Hank’s eyes follow me as I make my way to the rug, and it is impressive how, though he stares, he does not break the rhythm: “Hi! My name is Joe! And I work in a button factory.” The song has movements—“I push the button like this! I turn the knob like this!”—and Neve cannot keep them straight. She yanks the button, punches the knob. Kids nearby give her a wide berth.
In the copy room, Hank had asked me, “Should you be here?”
I suppose no one wants to be around the newly bereaved. We might as well be corpses ourselves, flailing about, our skin rotting off, trailing a slick of internal juices, pointing to others at random to remind them that they will die.
When it is time to sit in a circle, Neve tents her oversize T-shirt across her knees, her arms disappearing inside, the sleeves flappy. She rocks back and forth, and I whisper, “Whole-body squeeze.” She compresses into a ball, holds, then releases. From across the room, Snakey Wonder seems to want my attention. The snake waves her head behind the glass, looking like a puppet.
“Are you my mother?” I ask the snake, in a whisper, from the rug.
“Pardon?” Hank asks.
Twenty-one pairs of eyes fix on me. Hank looks concerned. He has, for a reason I have missed, a sock puppet of a fox on his hand. The sock puppet also looks concerned.
“Sorry,” I say. “I thought the snake was someone I know.”
Candace wrinkles her nose. Wise Julian nods with understanding. Several children sit up on their knees, craning to check if Snakey Wonder is someone they know, too. Hank regains their attention with a singing bowl, then carries on with his lesson. The fox wants to play with the duck, the squirrel, and the mouse, but they do not want the fox to play with them, I assume because the fox is a predator.
But no. Hank asks for suggestions from the crowd. Why do we exclude?
“The fox has shoes that don’t match,” says Candace. She is the kind of child who looks like she could give me unflinching advice about my marriage.
“The fox had tuna fish for lunch,” says a boy. “And tuna makes your breath stinky.”
“That isn’t nice,” Julian says.
The tuna fish boy shrugs. “Sucks to suck.”
Neve is about to blow. She quivers. She has started to hum under her breath. Candace tells her to shush. I tell Candace to shush. Hank is very involved in making the fox puppet cry. Now he wants solutions. What can be done to solve this problem?
“The fox should go play with someone else,” Candace says. “It’s obvious they don’t like her.”
Candace looks pointedly at Neve, who does not seem to notice because she is struggling to extricate one arm from her T-shirt tent while holding her other hand over her mouth to prevent herself from speaking out of turn. I pinch the back of her shirt to hold it in place. Her arm flies free and smacks Candace in the face. Hank sets his puppets down. “Peace Place,” Candace says. Hank nods. His eyes ask me to help and also question whether this is a good idea.
The Peace Place is a table covered with a batik cloth; sitting on the table are a snow globe and a lavender sachet. The snow globe contains a surly-looking dragon and features a banner with the words GREETINGS FROM EPCOT. Candace shakes the snow globe while taking deep breaths, taking her time to choose her “I” statement from a list: I feel … hurt, confused, angry, upset, worried, excluded, sad.
“I felt hurt when you punched me,” Candace says.
“It was an accident,” I say.
Neve looks up at me, sucking on the end of her braid.
“She’s supposed to echo,” Candace tells me.
“But it was an accident,” I repeat.
“It doesn’t matter,” Candace says. “Hank says only feelings matter.”
Of course. Such a Hank thing to say. I had argued that I should be allowed to sleep with Hank as a “freebie.” Pat and our counselor disagreed. Hank himself also disagreed. Perhaps that is why I chose him. Always, always, this urge to destroy. Hi! My name is Joe! And most of the time I feel dead inside!
“So, you felt hurt when I punched you in the ear,” Neve echoes, hopeful.
“Like you mean it,” Candace says.
Quickly, I imagine killing Candace.
Neve echoes Candace’s words again, pressing her hands on the table and pushing off in little leaps. Now they are to shake hands. Candace holds out limp fingers.
Neve skips away. She thinks this has gone great. With a clatter, she knocks over a wooden display of the solar system, and planets roll across the rug. Candace looks at me over the rim of glasses she will one day wear.
“Are you, like, Neve’s mom or something?” Candace asks.
Candace knows who I am. All the children do. I stare Candace down.
“Her mother died,” I say, the lie coming easily. “So you better be nicer to her.”
A flicker of confusion crosses Candace’s face, and a satisfying amount of worry. When I turn, Julian is there, holding out his hand. Mars, Jupiter, and tiny Neptune.
“It’s OK,” Julian says, setting the planets onto my palm. “Neve does that every day.”
In our weekly counseling session, Pat says I do not give him the right kind of affection. That I colonize our relationship with my anxieties. I imagine tiny me planting tiny flags of worries. I claim this hour for plane crashes and house fires and earthquakes!
Our counselor clears her petite throat. She owns the same sweater in several different shades of oxblood. It is a wrappy, drapey affair, and it makes her look like an abstract painting of a human heart.
She writes something in her notebook.
“What’s the score?” I ask her.
The point of her pencil hovers. She wants to know what I mean.
“What I mean,” I say, “is who’s ahead?”
“That’s not what we do here,” she says.
I rise from the couch and lie on my back on the floor. The ceiling is made of those speckled panels, the kind you can push out of their frames.
“So would you say that I am now losing?” I ask. “Because of that question?”
I can feel Pat and the counselor look at each other over my body. Near my face, the counselor’s feet are crossed primly, one ankle over the other. Under her chair are dust bunnies and the anguished cage of a dead spider’s upturned legs. Pat would like me to please get up now.
I could. I could get up. Sit back on the couch beside my husband. But if I did, I might slap him, and then I would truly lose points with the counselor, whose right foot turns in small circles like it is telling time. I could get up from the floor. Or Pat, he could join me.
I should, apparently, not be ridiculous.
But. A shuffling of wool. The setting down of a pencil on a hard cover. Our counselor’s body is unbelievable, even when it lies next to mine. I can feel her breath in the way her arm draws close, then retreats.
“It is healthy,” she says, “to change perspectives from time to time.”
What does Pat think? Impossible to tell. He is on his best marriage counseling behavior. He does not join us. His leg does that jiggy bounce that all men’s legs do when men are forced to sit still and have a conversation. Our counselor does not want this gamble to be a failure. She hates to insist, but Pat ought to try. So he sighs, and rises, and stretches flat, managing it all without touching even one part of me. The three of us splay on the carpet, waiting for one of the others to do it, to be the first to change.
Our counselor, inspired by her own quirkiness, says we both ought to say something we have never said aloud before. Because I am understanding and good and easy, I let Pat go first.
“Sometimes I think the reason I cheated on you is because you deserved it.”
The speckles on the ceiling panels are manufactured to look chancy. Planned randomness. Because you deserved it. The counselor says nothing. She thinks I deserved it, too. Now it is my turn to share something I have never said aloud.
“Someone ought to vacuum under your chair,” I say.
The counselor turns on her side to face me, and her posture feels so intimate, my eyes bristle.
“Do you want to change?” she asks, her head propped on her hand. “Most people, they would rather die than change.”
The counselor’s lipstick is two shades darker than her sweater.
“All right,” I say, “but are those my only options?”
Friday, again. Eucalyptus. On lunch break, Hank stretches an elastic band in my office, rolling his shoulders. He straddles the exercise ball. Bounce, bounce. Next week is Thanksgiving.
“Who’s taking care of Snakey Wonder over the break?” I ask.
“Makes sense. Not a burner.”
When Hank bounces, the flaps on his jacket pockets lift.
The first time we spoke, I caught him returning office supplies that he had borrowed. He was crouched in the closet with all the sticky labels, paper clips, and whatever toner is, the back of his pants pulled into a V to reveal his boxers: purple, with little white dots. A rip in the waist, elastic bulging. I told him he could keep the whiteboard markers and no one would mind. He said he would mind. There is something frightening about his sincerity. But he would also be the first man to break my string of partners who have names that are also commands: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. And he has a sense of humor about working with children. Some days, we play Burner-Not-a-Burner during recess duty, where we decide which children will one day attend Burning Man.
I had told my mother about the pattern with names: Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat.
“You always liked to be told what to do,” she said.
Of course, there were other men. Scott. Two Jeremys. But I told my mother only Bob, Neil, Phil, Pat. Because I thought it was funny. And unique. And because I knew she would make a quip of it, or a barb. Of most of my life, she made so very little.
“Let me take the snake.”
Hank, finally, has stopped bouncing. “Julian will be disappointed,” he says. I can see him arguing with himself: Disappoint a child, or disappoint this woman who frightens me?
Am I sure? Also, isn’t Pat afraid of snakes?
Why yes. Yes, he is.
But Pat is in Todos Santos for the holiday. Retrieving my mother’s body. Closing up her condo. Immersing himself in his beloved logistics and working up an appetite from the strenuous effort of not sleeping with other women. He’d bought two tickets, but then I discovered my passport had expired. Pat was annoyed but also pleased: my lapsed passport confirmed my flakiness, my hopelessness with life’s fundamentals. It was just as well, because I couldn’t face my mother’s last house, the bed where they found her. I’d have to imagine her slack mouth, her blue lips slid back and away from her teeth. Her body. The stubborn, sad fact of it. “Stroke,” they said. “No pain,” Pat said. Best-case scenario.
Taking care of a snake, it turns out, is not a good way to fill time. Every day, I check Snakey Wonder for signs that she is my mother. In a leather miniskirt and silk camisole, I ask the snake what she thinks of my outfit. Does her snake tongue flicker in judgment? I don’t know. She’s a fucking snake.
Leave it to my mother to not bother to haunt me. The day I left for college, she said, “Having kids, it’s just preparation for death.”
Another thing my mother said: “Life’s motto is don’t get too attached.”
So she practiced. From when I was little, she kept her distance. Summers, we watched her soap operas all day. What else can I say about her? She always smoked outside, never in the house. We lived together for eighteen years like two sovereign nations with equally catastrophic arsenals. Peace through stalemate. You can’t destroy me if I destroy you first. But she was my mother. The only one I had.
I open the school’s website and bide my time through the rotation of homepage photos until I see Hank. I try to take a screenshot, but the transition is too fast and I end up with a copy of a Black girl’s flying braids as she runs full tilt. So I wait. I know it is sad and a little ridiculous, that the only comfort I can find is the sight of Hank’s socks—green with pink arrows pointing this way, that way, this way—and imagining him sheathing his bare feet in the privacy of his mornings.
Pat calls from Mexico. Says if they cremate her there, it will be cheaper, easier. All right? All right.
“I kind of miss you,” he says.
I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of saying it back. I say it back.
“Quickie?” he asks. He sounds like a little boy, but I am achingly horny. It becomes apparent that the woman Pat is imagining sucking his penis, making coy eye contact—she is not me. But it is OK, because the man eating me out, he is not Pat. He is not Hank, either. He is no one I know, and he is every man I have ever fucked, and he is me, watching, as my husband’s voice encourages me—gently, with a kind of love—to come. We stay on the phone breathing.
“Leave it to your mother to fix our dry spell,” Pat says.
I still hate him, but I laugh.
“She never liked you,” I say.
I want him to say, She never liked you, either. I want something unforgivable, a clear door to walk through. This is over. But Pat cannot say that. Because I am in grief, he has to be patient and understanding with me.
“How’s the snake?” he asks.
“Withholding. Mercurial. Bit of a cunt.”
“So. Just what you like.”
Thanksgiving. I order takeout Thai and eat rice and green curry and pad see ew in one big heap from the last clean plate. “And what are you grateful for?” I ask Snakey Wonder. She is small and beautiful. Cream-colored, with thick orange stripes and thin yellow stripes and red eyes. The frozen mouse I left for her thaws near the water bowl. This is promising. My mother also had a strained relationship with food. When I was old enough to cook, she left meal planning to me. For a time, I treated it as an opportunity to please her. Spaghetti? Garlic bread? Omelet? Are you hungry?
Even when my mother wasn’t smoking, she exhaled as if she were.
“I’m hungry if you are,” she said.
It’s a terrible thing, to be a child in charge of an adult.
The internet tells me how to trick a snake into eating an already dead thing. Warmer than room temperature, the internet says, so I microwave the mouse. When I open the door, its fur steams. I tie a string around its gummy tail and “walk” it around Snakey Wonder’s enclosure. The mouse rakes moss and sawdust and snake shit with its limp paws.
Inside her hollow half log, Snakey Wonder’s coils tighten. I leave the mouse tied to its string. The mesh cover of the tank, along with the rock that secures it in place—I leave those on the floor.
The next morning, the mouse is gone. Also gone is Snakey Wonder. Part of me is impressed that the snake, who had shown so little interest in anything, would muster the energy to escape. But then I think of Hank. Why do other people occur to me too late?
The internet is too cavalier about my situation. A video says: “Your Snake is Loose! Now What?” Make sure no windows or doors are open. If they aren’t, your snake is in the house, and he could be hiding just about anywhere. Look in warm, cozy places, along baseboards, behind books and knickknacks.
In this way, I discover that Pat and I have no knickknacks. What have we been doing? Perhaps this is the source of our problems: a lack of evidence of our years together, our time served. Couples who tchotchke together stay together. Because they realize what a fucking hassle divorce would be, divvying up commemorative shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers shaped like the Pietà.
Think like a snake, not a human.
This stumps me. I can think like a snake as much as I can think like my mother. Still, for Hank, I try. No snake behind the liquor bottles, or in the tub, or in the bed. Just in case the snake is somehow harboring my mother’s wayward soul, I turn on daytime television, hoping a soap opera will tempt her from her hiding place. On the show, little has changed since I was a child. The living rooms full of tropical plants, the light striping through the blinds against the walls, the long conversations that include at least two moments when a man grabs a woman by the arm and spins her to face him. There is much brooding, punctuated by sudden outrage. My mother’s favorite was General Hospital. She had been a high school math teacher, so summers we were stuck together, time sliced into blocks of programming. The morning talk shows until eleven, then Jerry Springer, then the soaps through the sleepy afternoons, then Jerry Springer again. She pointed out things about Springer’s guests: “Look at all those piercings!” “That man couldn’t possibly be the father, look at how tight his pants are, he’s probably sterile.” Many of the women on the show dressed like teenagers or little girls, in cutoff overalls over Mickey Mouse T-shirts, their wrists strung with those thin plastic bracelets that everyone had in the nineties. Something terrible had happened to them. The women were stuck and stunted, slouching in their chairs as they told Jerry about their troubles. In one episode, “My Mom Stole My Man,” a white girl with cornrows chewed the insides of her cheeks. When Jerry introduced her mother, the audience booed. The mother carried a small purse that she clutched with both hands in front of her belly. When she sat, she set the purse in her lap. She stared at an anonymous spot on the floor in front of her feet, which were small and clad in plain white sneakers. As the daughter told of how her mother had tried to seduce her boyfriend, the audience jeered, and the mother stared at the spot she had chosen until, swiftly, she swung her purse and whacked her daughter across the face. The daughter fell and screamed, and the audience rose to their feet, and Jerry shook his head. The mother stayed in her seat. The daughter pointed and fumed and cried. The mother crossed one ankle over the other.
“See?” my own mother said at the commercial break. “I could be worse.”
On Saturday, Pat returns with an infuriating tan. He bends to kiss me and at the last moment I offer my cheek, which flummoxes him. His kiss lands on my ear. Pat sets something heavy and pale on the coffee table. A box. White cardboard. Its edges neatly taped.
“She’s smaller than I thought she’d be,” I say.
“It’s pretty big,” Pat says.
My ear is still wet from his mouth.
Pat sighs, says I would not believe the paperwork. The number of times he had to initial. His hand practically fell off from filling out forms. “Good thing you didn’t try to handle it yourself. Very complicated. Anyway, how was your time at home?
And why is there a blanket over the snake’s tank?”
For you, my dear idiot husband. For you.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break all move toward one anticipation: Revels, the annual all-school holiday performance. In my office, Neve tells me about Wee Willie Winkie with her hands in the beans. The second grade always does “Wee Willie Winkie” and she really wants to be chosen as Wee Willie Winkie, and she might be, because the music teacher says she is doing better in class since she started seeing me and do I think she will be? Chosen?
“I have no idea.”
The selection process for Wee Willie Winkie is both secretive and utterly predictable. A quiet, pliable, coordinated second grader, not the most popular or powerful, but someone everyone likes, the child equivalent of Dolly Parton. With her wayward limbs and cement-shoed feet, Neve does not stand a chance.
Later, I carry Snakey Wonder II in her tank to Hank’s room. Outside, the children’s recess games proceed as usual, in continuous near disaster. I check the snake, curled inside her hollow faux log. Not bad for a replacement, if a bit smaller than the first Snakey Wonder.
From behind me comes a small voice. Neve is lying on her belly in the Reading Corner, singing a little jumbled song. I tell her she ought to be at recess.
“Hank lets me sharpen the pencils,” Neve says, log-rolling across the circular rug. She joins me and Snakey Wonder II, pressing her nose to the glass.
“I don’t like recess anyway.”
All the typical responses flash through my brain: fresh air, exercise, “I bet you’d like it if …” If you could run without tripping over your own legs. If you had the right clothes. If you didn’t wear dresses that looked like haunted nightgowns.
The warmth from the heat lamp makes my skin feel tighter. I ask Neve if she wants to practice for Wee Willie Winkie.
I have seen the dance every year for the past three years. As pairs of kids link arms, turn right, turn left, then patty-cake, Wee Willie Winkie flits between them, holding an old-timey lantern. When the pairs lift their linked arms, Wee Willie Winkie passes beneath the bridges. Then the children fall asleep, slowly melting down to the stage.
Between the tables, Neve does not flit. She skips, trips, rises, and resumes her jerky cantor, like a drunk horse with a limp. She spins with her arms straight out, making the posters on the walls lift at their corners. Inevitably, she crashes dizzily into a chair. “Ouch,” she says, and keeps dancing. In no way does she follow the steps, but what she does is better, weirder; she is a chaotic Wee Willie Winkie, a delirious spirit, the embodiment of frenzy. I cannot take my eyes off her. When I tell her to go under the bridges, she drops to her knees and crawls under the tables, twisting and writhing over the carpet. Army-crawling, she collapses at my feet, breathing hard. Her face when she looks at me is red and beaming.
Hank conducts a Class Meeting. He reads from the notebook of Community Problems where children have written down what they have noticed. Sam has noticed how kids are still hiding pencils in their cubbies. Marla has noticed that the class is leaving crumbs and wrappers after snack. Hank leads the class in earnest discussion about the problems, and there is something hopeful about it, even when Liona, wearing what appears to be a leather shirt, suggests that children who hide pencils in their cubbies should no longer be allowed to use pencils and should have to dictate all of their work to other students and skip lunch.
Hank dismisses the students for snack in groups. First, everyone wearing blue shoes, then everyone wearing stripes, then everyone wearing fancy socks. He leaves it up to the children to determine whether or not their socks are fancy. Neve’s socks have a scalloped trim, and even though they also have several brown stains at the edges, I assure her that they are, in fact, quite fancy.
Hank turns on the audiobook the class listens to during snack. I have missed the beginning. There is dramatic music and the sounds of a storm. A woman speaks in a squeaky voice that sounds like an impersonation of a mouse on amphetamine. The children munch and slurp. Neve still hasn’t returned.
I find her sitting on the floor in the hallway. When I ask what’s happened to her snack, she shrugs. In the depths of her backpack, which is full of crumpled papers and hair bands woolly with strands of her tangled hair, I find her lunchbox, the plastic filmy with age, on the front a faded image of princesses, or so I assume, in dresses the color of tongues.
“Here it is,” I say. “What’s the problem?”
Inside the lunchbox is the problem. I drop the lunchbox and it lands, gaping, on the floor. Inside is an ancient-looking sandwich in a cloudy bag. An apple core. A sticky thermos. All of it crawling with ants.
“My parents never remember,” Neve says.
I kick the lunchbox closed and tell her to follow me.
On one wall of the teachers’ lounge is the graph of Our Strengths, an activity from the August retreat. According to the quiz, my top three strengths are Thinker, Ruminator, and Individualist. Every teacher’s name except mine is listed under Nurturer. Even Brenda, the vice principal with her scary suits and dead tooth, is a Nurturer.
The teachers’ lounge is reliable as a source of coffee and free food. Around the holidays, the table fills with boxes of chocolates and homemade cookies and Toblerone bars. Today the table has all that, plus a pink box of donuts, grease darkening the paper. I gesture to Neve to take what she wants. I feel bountiful, generous, as if any of this feast were mine to give. Neve selects a donut with frighteningly pink frosting and brown sprinkles. Like a predator with a kill, she crawls under the table.
“You don’t want to go back and hear the story?” I ask, folding myself to fit under the table.
Already, Neve’s mouth is stained magenta. She shakes her head and I understand. Based on what I heard, I wouldn’t want to listen to the story, either.
“Do teachers get to eat donuts every day?”
“Yes. We don’t need to drink water, did you know that? We only drink hot chocolate.”
“That’s not true. My mom drinks tomato juice.”
I think: I’m pretty sure that’s not just tomato juice.
“How come you never write in the Community Problems Journal?” I ask.
“About not liking recess.”
“It never helps,” Neve says.
She holds the last bite of donut in both hands. She tries to make the frosting last, darting her tongue to lick it off in tiny specks.
“Do you want another one?”
I know that sugar is the last thing this kid needs. Her body, on a normal day, is already gripped by a tremendous and savage energy. But that is a problem for later.
For now, there is no sugar crash. Now there is only airy dough and pliant frosting.
Secret fillings of jam. And sometimes we need exactly what we don’t need.
At least that is what I tell Hank later in my office when he describes Neve’s sugar-crash afternoon. Two breakdowns, he says. She couldn’t complete any of her work. I have a hard time accepting donuts as the cause. But it’s not just about the donuts. Candace told Hank that Neve’s mother died.
“Why’d you lie?” Hank asks. He is unusually still.
I tell him the truth, ridiculous as it sounds.
“I thought it might help Neve. Get her some … sympathy from other kids.”
“You see other students,” Hank says, as a suggestion.
It is the meanest thing he has ever said to me.
“Sausage roll?” I ask.
“No sausage roll.”
Whatever was not happening between us, it has just ended.
At the trailer door, Hank says, “Julian’s gonna be Willie Winkie.” As if I didn’t know.
I run low on ways to tell Pat without telling him that I have no interest in touching him. In one week, I have suffered five headaches and two bouts of probably-just allergies.
In counseling, Pat says he feels I’m not supporting his self-actualization.
Our counselor looks at me from the coils of her oxblood wrap.
“But I do support that,” I say.
“You see what I mean?” Pat asks the counselor.
The counselor snuggles down into her sweater.
“I do see what you mean.” She turns to me. “Do you see what he means?”
“It’s triggering,” Pat says. “My dad, you know, I never felt supported by him, either.”
Then Pat is crying, and our counselor is thrilled, handing him a flurry of congratulatory tissues. All I get are side scowls that indicate I have failed at counseling. No points for second place.
I do not feel the right feelings. I am supposed to be sad about my mother, but the greater sadness came years ago, when it became clear that she was not interested in making up for lost time. I visited her in Todos Santos, thinking maybe Mexico had loosened her in that vague, romantic way foreign places are supposed to stretch you at the seams, make you think of your life in America as unbearably >small and too full of parking lots and cheeseburgers and class envy. My mother’s condo building resisted the town’s charms. No bougainvillea. No phallic cacti in artisanal pots. Inside her condo, we could have been anywhere. We watched television with the blinds drawn, ate microwaved meals. We walked by the ocean and swam at Punta Lobos beach. We did not talk more than we had before, which is to say, we talked very little. My mother was happy to have me so long as I could fit into her version of time—a silent shadow, a temporary guest. The visit was sad and confusing. I looked at her in her recliner, rocking, content. And I thought: Why don’t you want more? Why are you happy?
Lack of recognition, though, travels both ways. She could not understand why I wanted to marry Pat when there were hundreds of thousands of men left to screw.
“What a waste of the good skin I gave you,” she said. “And great hair!”
On that trip, I felt so enlightened, so superior. But what did I know? My mother knew what she loved—ocean swimming, convenience store Chardonnay, talk shows with surprise paternity tests—and she loved it without apology.
“Nice visit,” my mother said at the bus that would take me back to Cabo. It broke my heart that she meant it.
“I know she loved you a lot,” Hank had told me.
Maybe. But she loved her freedom more.
And I—I can understand that.
The weekends become long stretches of freeway Pat and I must drive straight through. Saturday night, I call Pat from the laundry room. He is on the couch.
“Tell me what you’re wearing,” I say, even though I know what he’s wearing: sweatpants and a button-down.
Something clanks in the dryer. A zipper maybe. Loose change. I can’t dip into the image of myself watching as I eat myself out. Clank goes the thing. I stop and kneel to tug warm, damp clothes from the dryer. The clothes are streaked with something pink and oily. I find it, the clanky thing, a tube of my own lipstick, the pink leaking out from the seam. Why this, of all things, should make me cry is not clear. Pat must think my sounds are ones of pleasure, because his breath quickens as I bury my face into the pile of ruined clothes, melted lipstick smearing into my hair as I rend the strands. And there is something thrilling about that, about my body knowing what to do, and it is not so different from sex, in that one way. I rend and rend.
The heat has left the clothes by the time Pat nears the big finish. When I get up, I will gather what I need. What do I need? Only the snake, who I had seen earlier in the living room near the heating vent behind the sofa. When I reached to grab her, she slinked away, and I thought, All right.
“Oh,” my husband says, “oh my, oh my.” Pat gasps, grunts, sighs. I love that moment, with all men, how tender they are, how in those seconds you can tell exactly what they looked like as scared little boys. What do I need? I have no idea, but I do know exactly why I keep the phone on speaker. How rare it is, clarity. Better than happiness, because I don’t need to share it with anyone, not with my husband. I leave him on speaker because I know his sounds—this sound, and that one—are part of the last time.
Neve and I practice the steps for Revels. Left, right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up, then fall asleep. Neve wants to fall asleep all at once, as if she’s been shot. “Slow,” I tell her. Together, we fall to the ground like melting candles.
“Where have you been staying?” Pat wants to know on the phone. “Hotel,” I tell him, though really, I have been sleeping in my office. It gets cold at night, but there is a nice view, and I can leave the diffuser on as long as I want, pouring every oil into the tank until the smell feels like someone yelling right into my nostrils.
“You can come by and get your things,” Pat says, “whatever you need.”
He cannot believe how generous he is being. How well he is handling this.
“Don’t need to,” I say.
I have toiletries, a sleeping bag, and my mother, tucked in the cupboard under
the sink where I now wash my underpants. “There is,” Pat says, “one more thing. Yvette and I, we’ve been spending some time together.”
“It’s been very hard on me, this whole thing. It hasn’t been easy, you know.”
This whole thing.
On the wall, the Feelings Thermometer tells me I should be in the red, but I am not. I am in the green—calm, content, in control—when I tell Pat he should have the house. Outside my windows, the woods do nothing. Nothing falls or snaps or bends in a breeze. Everything stands still as if suspended in gelatin.
Pat can have the house? With Yvette? Am I sure?
I hope it happens while they are making love. All that human warmth. Snakey Wonder will not be able to resist. Sensing the heat on the tip of her papery tongue, the snake candy-canes up the bedpost, slithers under the sheets. Silently, I cheer her on, that future snake. Not there, Snakey Wonder, don’t stop—go further, toward the warmest, wettest place you can find. Go.
The night of Revels, the parents arrive with their children. What is it about children in Christmas clothes? I do not hate it. The preponderance of small red sweater vests and gingham dresses with full skirts is festive in a recognizable way, the way a commercial is festive. In head-to-toe velvet, including an odd red velvet hat, the music teacher is stressed and loving it, darting between parents, bending low to give children last-minute reminders. “Come in with the violin on the eight, remember? The eight!”
I expect Neve’s dress to be tragic, but it’s surprisingly modern and fashionable, a purple tube slick with sequins. Someone in her household has sense: the dress is short. One less thing for Neve to become tangled in. She wears the same old tennis shoes as always, shoes that were probably white once. When I reach her through the lobby crowd, I tell her she looks nice.
She shoots glances this way, that way, her nervous system overloaded with sound. As she brushes and brushes the sequins of her dress, several fall off and flicker to the carpet.
“You can always do a whole-body squeeze,” I tell her. “No one will notice.”
Neve drops, right there, and hugs her knees into her chest, her eyelids wrinkling with effort. When she releases, she sighs massively and stretches over my feet like a cat.
“Where are your parents?”
“Not here,” Neve says from the floor. Nearby, a boy turns and stares. When his mother catches where he’s gazing—at Neve splayed across the floor—she does that mother-arm-shoulder thing and draws him back, protective, as if Neve were dangerous.
“What?” I say, too loudly, to the woman’s back.
can tell the woman hears me, because her shoulders tighten beneath her glossy bolero, the color a sickly-looking silver, the shade of paper money.
“Do you have something to say?” I ask.
She turns, her arm still wrapped around the shoulders of her son. She looks at me, then down at Neve, then back to me.
“A shame,” she says. Mock pity.
“Sucks to suck,” I tell her.
Now she has both hands on her son’s shoulders. He wriggles underneath her grasp, trying to shake free. Then the lights flicker and save us all, and the woman strides away, or strides as best as she can manage while also trying to steer her flailing son. Neve leaps up. “I have to go,” she says, and dashes away.
Inside the theater, the stage is ringed with fake wreaths and electric candles. From the dark, the piano starts with a slow “Deck the Halls” as fifth graders file onto the stage with bells on their ankles. They dance, followed by fourth graders in formal wear, boys and girls struggling not to giggle as they link arms. Half the third grade wears reindeer antlers, the other half bejeweled clogs. They jig and lift their arms and the audience claps asynchronously, and it all feels like being inside someone’s addled mind. Lights down, lights up. Second graders flitter onto the stage, now dressed in matching plaid pajamas and nightgowns. They sing, high-pitched and haunting:
Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town
Upstairs and downstairs in his nightgown
Tapping at the window, crying at the lock
“Are the children in their bed, for now it’s ten o’clock?”
Neve and her partner spiral left, spiral right. Arms up, arms down. Link arms, turn, link arms, turn. Patty-cake, arms up. Julian brandishes his lantern and weaves under the arm bridges, his old-fashioned nightcap flying behind him. Then they do it all again, singing, and Neve only becomes confused once, when she turns the wrong way. Patty-cake, arms up. Neve falls asleep. Beautifully. Just as we practiced, and better. She falls slowly, fake-yawning, stretching. She is the slowest, the last child to lie on the stage. The crowd makes a collective “Aww” and there is
the silence that happens just before applause.
Neve sits straight up. The rest of the children are still asleep, as they should be, eyes closed. Go back to sleep, I plead silently. She smiles out to the crowd. She stands. The piano player, courageously, plays through the last bars again. And Neve. She takes a breath. Lifts her arms. Cartwheels. Bows, then falls asleep again.
And I am on my feet. It doesn’t matter that when she goes over, her nightgown slides up and shows her baggy underpants. It doesn’t matter that I have no fucking idea how a child who cannot cross one foot over the other figured out how to cartwheel. It doesn’t matter that her classmates stay asleep, that they don’t know why the applause has come three notes before the actual end.
In the lobby rush, I try to spot Neve, to tell her how great she was. The crowd is hard for me to see, though, because I am thinking about my mother again. How she came to my performances, all of them. Sat in the back with her purse in her lap, the strap held together with staples. Did I ever thank her?
Through the lobby windows, I see Neve skipping. Beside her, a white-haired man, her grandfather, I assume. He wears one of those thin khaki jackets that are issued to all men when they reach a certain age. He nods his head at Neve’s endless monologue. He holds her hand while she leaps and hops, yanking his arm. It must be uncomfortable. But he doesn’t let go.
After, I return to my office, unroll my sleeping bag. The trick is to stay and help clean up after school functions. People cannot help but offer you bottles of opened wine, platters of picked-over food. I bounce on the yoga ball, and eat pepper jack and honeydew and salami. I drink a third of a bottle of table white, then half a red.
When I turn off the lights, the woods out the windows undarken a little, and the Douglas firs lace over one another. Neve’s grandfather’s car probably has one of those pine air fresheners dangling from the rearview. Is he mad at Neve? No. He is amazed by her. What guts! What gusto! Just like him. Who said that children are our way of casting ourselves into the future? They might be, but they do just as much casting themselves, sending us back into the past. Neve’s grandfather played Sky Masterson in high school, I imagine. He sang “My Time of Day” like Marlon Brando, with wounded longing. That’s what Neve reminded him of, I think—himself, young again, feeling like Marlon Brando.
And what did I remind my mother of? I can easily make up a whole life for Neve’s grandfather, but for my own mother—impossible. Like a dream you know you’ve had but can’t remember.
I lay out the weighted blanket, stretch, and sausage roll.
Just when we thought it would never come, it arrives, the last day before break. Like any other day, except with an exhausted kind of anticipation in everyone’s tone. It is also, as it happens, my last night in my trailer. I have found an apartment, a secondfloor studio in a part of town too young and hip for me. I will miss the hours at the school when no one else was around, when I could wander the dim halls, through the patchy glow of red exit signs.
I have gathered my belongings back into my suitcase. My mother, I feel, I cannot pack, so I set her on the kid-size table. I use child-safe scissors to cut through the tape. Inside is a plastic bag. The ash looks dusty, like it would stick to my hands, and it does, I find, after I open the bag and plunge my hands down in.
The trailer door bangs, and I withdraw my hands quickly, sending some ash into the air. Wearing huge rain boots under her dress, Neve clobbers over, unsteady as ever, dear as ever, and kneels and puts her hands in the ashes. Part of me wants to yell—yes, it does—but that part is small and mean and I don’t have to listen, because as her hands work under the surface, Neve settles. Her body relents and releases her.
“What do you think?” I ask.
“It’s weird,” she says, “but also nice.”
I put my hands back in. Sometimes I feel Neve’s fingers and sometimes I don’t. The ash is soft, speckled with harder bits that I know are my mother’s bones. We don’t talk. We stay like that for a long time.