The Housewife and the Healer
My eyes scroll open. The skylight above me threatens daylight through the veil of December’s first snow. Bluejays cackle. Beside me Neil’s soft, pale shoulder rises and falls, his pillow wadded into a ball, sealed tight in the crook of his elbow. Lying there peering at him, a wave of nostalgia sweeps over me, for the fleeting womb of darkness I’ve just emerged from.
I lurch from bed, clutch my lower back and hobble into the bathroom. I prepare my toothbrush and one for Neil, a romantic relic from our early years, all the while regarding my reflection, as if to catch myself in the act of looking effortlessly dewy, carefree and beautiful. Instead I see the puffy eyes and lightly lined face of a woman too young for an aching spine and too old to be playing Vogue magazine games with herself in the mirror. When he wakes in a couple hours, the house will be silent and the pearl of toothpaste on his toothbrush will have hardened.
Inside my vanity drawer is a cardboard rectangle whose sole job is to hold a row of black hairbands. I take the remaining three off the thick white card, grab a pen from atop Neil’s crossword puzzle, and scribble—Dissatisfied housewife dying slow death in suburbia...becomes pill-popping zombie. Swallows a cursed Xanax that turns her into a stinkbug...
After a shower I dress for yoga—an Old Navy sports bra, bleach-stained sweats and one of Neil’s threadbare ultimate Frisbee T-shirts. It’s a far cry from Lululemon but it will do. Right now the priorities are mortgage, car payments, preschool tuition. Neil’s middle management salary discourages even filling an on-line shopping cart, let alone pressing the scarlet CHECKOUT button.
I have made exactly three hundred and twenty-five dollars since the kids were born—on Indonesian rights for Professor Brooklyn’s Brownstone Booty-Call —my advance checks long-ago spent, the Mini Cooper traded for a mini van. Even though my mother assured me my book was a riot and a half, lecherous one-armed English professors did not prove very popular after all. Sales peaked the balmy night of my book launch, a glorious display of fireworks that fizzled into an ocean of far more buoyant pink-jacketed novels featuring lovable neurotic urbanistas. My naive hope of landing a guest spot on Oprah was replaced with a shame that steered every subsequent creative effort into a corner.
I keep a picture of my old car in the bathroom, tucked into the mirror’s edge. In the photograph I sit behind the wheel of my black Mini giddy with success. I keep another photo hidden in the drawer, of myself pressed against the hood of the car, cheek smushed against the hood, my tears baptizing the cherubic little chariot. It was the day we traded it in. Sometimes I hold the photograph, cradle it in my arms as if I can heal the weepy paper woman.
On my way to grab a pair of socks I see that Neil has taken over the bed, his pale form splayed out like a puff-pastry Jesus on a dingy white cotton cross. He snores softly, a tiny feather from one of the pillows caught in the net of his silvery stubble. His hands lie open to the ceiling, eager to receive any shining symbol of hope. I wonder, as I pull on my socks, how did his armpits get so big?
Downstairs the Christmas tree greets me, still lit from the night before. In the dining room Neil’s cuckoo clock, salvaged from his boyhood, marks each interminable second with its faux wood maple leaf pendulum. When he first hung it I thought it looked hip and camp. Now I just want it to stop. My mother put it nicely. She waltzed in one evening, took one look at it and said, “Oh, so now you have a goyishe tchotchke to announce the passage of time. Aren’t the children enough for you?”
The sinkful of crusty dishes and crumb-scattered kitchen counter cause a cascade of anxiety that begins in my gut and radiates until I feel its dull throb against my skull and the base of my spine—my soul perhaps—groping for an escape hatch. I grab a napkin and a pen. I write, Suburban house comes alive. Eats occupants through garbage disposal then flies to the rugged Irish coast, finally free…
That’s when I notice something new outside the window: a for sale sign, staked in front of the neighbor’s house. Its owner died over the summer from lung cancer. I’d see her every now and then toting an oxygen tank in her driveway. There’s a rusty old swing-set in her yard. No one ever touched it so one day we asked if we could have it for the kids. She clutched her throat with indignation. I keep it for my grandchildren, she'd said. But her grandchildren never came. No one did. The swing-set just sat there. It’s sitting there still, home to a family of house wrens. Maybe we should get it while we can.
I grab the coffee, measure five generous scoops into the machine. I need all the help I can get since the days are endless. The year however, passes in a blur. I’ve Googled the expression but don’t know its origins. Maybe it’s one of those Jungian universal truths—the days are long but the years are short. So as the days, weeks and months congeal into taffy ribbons, calendar pages flutter in my hand’s weary wake, and by the time my index finger depresses the start button on the coffee maker, it is January. Scattered around our house like large, disturbing flakes of dandruff are scraps of paper scrawled with half-sentences, character sketches and aborted story ideas. The For Sale sign next door is still there; I’ve watched from my window as various young couples and families have come to consider the little white bungalow with the weathered aluminum siding.
The Douglas Fir is crisping nicely in the living room, shedding its needles and beckoning me to drag it to the curb. I stare it down. Next year we must make more Hanukkah ornaments to keep Christmas from completely eclipsing the festival of lights—dreidels maybe. Gelt. It’s a holiday tradition, neither fully embracing my Judaism nor my husband’s Lutheran upbringing, instead mashing the two holidays into something lopsided and confusing—wearing Santa hats to light the menorah. The blue and silver Star of David tree topper.
Chloe is still lying in bed when I open her door in February. A handful of valentines from her classmates at preschool litter the top of her Ikea cubbies. The snow outside has wizened like an old crone, glinting like flattened aluminum under the white sky. I grab a pair of frayed Sleeping Beauty underpants, a floral print dress I bought on clearance at Target, and a pair of fuchsia and black striped leggings from the neighborhood consignment shop.
“Good morning,” I say, easing into the bottom bunk.
“Mama,” she croons and holds out her arms.
“Chloe,” I say, and lean in to receive her embrace. I soak up her affection, smell her morning breath, which I could huff like glue. Her fine brown hair explodes into a nest of tangles. “The elves were here again last night,” I tell her, fingering a lock of frizzled strands.
“Do they really live in my pillow, Mommy?”
“Do you think they do?”
“No. That’s silly,” she says and snarls.
I slip off Chloe’s butterfly printed pajama bottoms. Then I reach for the hem of her top.
“I’m tired,” she protests, refusing to lift her arms.
“Yeah, me too. Hands up.”
“I’m cold!” She whines.
“Then let’s get it over with. Come on.”
“I don’t want that dress,” she pouts.
“Then go pick out one you want.”
She lifts the covers over her head, curls into a tiny lump.
“I’m so tired,” I say and lay my head on top of her. Muffled giggles escape her cottony cocoon as I survey the room. Her book shelves are a mess, there are marker streaks on the walls, and the carpet grizzles with brown leaf crumbs, glitter, and dried globs of spilled yogurt squeezer. Tiny puffs of shed wool orbit the perimeter of her room like blurry stars. Stick-on earrings dot the floor, shiny plasticky bumps on the old pine planks, long forgotten by my fairy princess. Is it a cruel joke that they refuse to stay on her ears, resulting in sobbing, earsplitting heartbreak, yet I’ll have to use an X-acto blade to pry them off the floor? Chloe writhes beneath my head, then emerges from her quilt and sticks her tongue out at me.
“Hands up,” I say.
Sam emerges from his room across the hall in March, a few days after his sixth birthday. Outside the snow has given way to mud and flattened yellow grass. Tender green shoots get a thrashing from the wind that whips circles around our yellow stucco house. Crocuses push their brightly colored heads through the hard-packed soil, fearless leaders in springtime’s parade. I sigh with relief when I see that he is already dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and track pants. Maybe today won’t be so bad.
“I’m going to be in trouble Mommy,” he wails and falls to the floor.
“Why, honey?” I say, trying to sound like Florence Henderson, who resides in my psyche as an omniscient parenting guru. As a child of the seventies I spent more time with Mrs. Brady than with my own mother. Carol always knew just what to say in the smoothest of tones in times of trouble.
“I didn’t do my homework!” he shouts as if I should know.
“What was that math Xerox we did last night?” As the words emerge from my mouth I know I’m fanning the flames by not knowing what he’s talking about. I reach out to stroke his hair but he bats my hand away.
“Not that!” He snaps.
“What then? And please talk nicely.”
“Daddy’s still asleep!” he wails.
“What does that have to do with anything?” My jaw tightens.
“My homework!” He shouts. Then, “I want Daddy!”
It’s been this way since he was born. He’s always preferred Neil, gifted with the ability to remain immune to our son’s panic attacks. Maybe it’s because my husband’s anxiety level typically tops out at mild concern. Maybe it’s because Neil’s mother actually was Florence Henderson, the Pennsylvania Dutch version. Instead of chocolate-chip cookies she baked something called milich schlabbe.
Chloe pipe up from the bathroom. “Mommy, he’s hurting my ears!” she cries.
My son arches his back, balls his hands into fists and grimaces at the ceiling all while emitting a sound that could annoy the dead. I wish I could scoop him into a hug that would exorcise his demons and relieve us both. Another part of me wants to throw him out a window. Still another part wants to run away, to Morocco maybe, like Jeremy Irons did at the end of that movie where he slept with his son’s fiancée. Swollen with indecision, I stare at the wall above his writhing body where a cluster of framed baby photos mocks me. I think, Devil’s spawn possesses mother. Takes her to the underworld where he builds a boat and uses her femurs for oars.
“Look, I am on your side,” I finally say through gritted teeth, feeling the anger and frustration rise inside me like a wave of nausea. “But you cannot talk to me like that. We haven’t even said good morning.”
“Good morning!” he hollers.
Well, at least he said it.
“Good morning. Now. What is your homework?” The words slide out on steel blades.
“Um, fire drill?” Sam says, still lying on the floor, up-talking like I’m an idiot. How can this be the very child who once upon a time inspired five A.M. tears of gratitude?
I turn to the ceiling where Jesus might live, to gather strength. I say very slowly, “Just tell Mrs. Dermott you had a busy night and that you’ll do it today.”
“But I’ll be in trouble!” he repeats, panic swirling, refusing to believe there’s a way out of his predicament.
“She will understand!” I shout, possessed, hating myself for it.
“No she won’t!” and with that he stomps his bare feet against the wall so hard that the photos tremble.
I seethe, resisting the urge to tear one of the picture frames from the wall, the one of my son as an infant, when even the 0-3 month socks were baggy on him, and hurl it across the room. I slump in the doorway and close my eyes. “Oh my God,” I whisper.
“Mommy, It’s Oh my gosh,” Chloe corrects from her top bunk where she perches, surveilling, naked. “Remember, Granny Vy doesn’t like it when you say Oh my God.”
“Thanks, honey,” I say, tight-lipped.
Sam’s keening continues to shred the morning. A leaden weariness settles into my heart. The floor is covered in dust. The white painted molding around the doorway has turned grimy gray. We are going to be late. Again.
Watching him writhing around on the floor I realize that the only way out of this particular burning building is through. “Can we just have a fire drill without Daddy? Pretend he’s wearing an oxygen mask?” I say.
“Oh, all right!” Sam shouts, kicking the wall, and the matter is settled. I clench my fists and mouth YES at the ceiling.
Minutes later he finally settles down to a bowl of Cheerios. As he eats, dribbling milk all over the table, I chase Chloe around the house with a brush. I give up on the fifth lap when she runs face-first into the guest room door. I hold her on my lap, soothing her while she wails so loudly I might go deaf in one ear, itching to brush her hair even though I’ve promised not to, hypnotized by her fat, silvery tears. Once all shoes are on, we stop, drop and roll our way across the living room.
By the time I open the front door Chloe’s nose is turning an unsettling shade of purple, as April rain plummets outside. It muddies the stone pathway that leads from the house to the driveway, pounding the tulips until they bow their fleshy heads and kiss the ground. We head out, suited up in plasticky rain gear, and run to our designated meeting spot under the dead neighbor’s crabapple tree, while Neil sleeps through our imaginary fire. Beside the tree the For Sale sign boasts a jumbo SOLD sticker. Sam seems satisfied at last and we pile into the minivan.
As everyone buckles in, the rain evaporates. Chloe’s bruised nose has faded. Her nose is almost as pink as the magnolia petals littering the sidewalks, heralding the arrival of May. The Scotch broom that abuts the west side of our house accessorizes herself with tiny yellow flowers which shiver in the sunny breeze that caresses everything as it skips by. We celebrate a spate of birthdays—Neil turns forty-two. Chloe turns four and I turn forty-one. To celebrate we pig out at the local Chinese restaurant where Sam and Chloe delight in slipping down to the brackish floor from the duct-taped booth while I avoid making eye-contact with fellow diners.
I back out of the driveway, past the giant rusty container sitting in front of the house next door, overflowing with construction debris—great gray ribbons of aluminum siding, antique two-by-fours, blackened and frayed knob-and-tube wiring, the rusty old swingset. Tepid coffee spills down my chin. This jars my memory. I forgot to make sure the kids brushed their teeth. Chloe’s hair is still a knotty mess. Shit. Shit. Shit.
In front of the school entrance Sam nearly leaves the van without his backpack. When he retrieves it, he swings it into his sister’s head hard enough to elicit tears. I glance at his feet just in time to see that his shoelaces are already untied. Chloe wails.
“Have a good day, honey,” I say. “And try not to breathe on anyone.”
“What?” Sam says.
He reaches into the car one more time to grab a Pokemon card from the floor.
“Leave it!” I hiss and he drops it, mercifully.
The car behind me taps their horn. I remember the principal’s speech to us when we gathered for Kindergarten orientation. I have nothing to do with the carpool line. It’s a self-correcting system. The cars behind you will let you know when you’ve made a mistake. He held up his hands, showed us the smooth white terrain of his palms and smiled.
Ten minutes later at my daughter’s preschool, I kiss Chloe goodbye and she skips off to play in the dress-up corner. She is already fighting over the pair of red sparkle shoes when I slip out of the classroom. I walk through the emptying parking lot exhaling great gusts of relief. And drive away. Alone.
Back at home it’s June. The morning glows chartreuse, edged with steel. The sea grass flanking our front door glimmers with droplets from fresh rain. The sun and clouds vie for position above our little bungalow, which grows shadier by the day as the neighbor’s house swells. A spigot in the sky turns on and off, testing the water. The humidity has arrived and with it, the mosquitos. Just a few weeks left of school.
In her driveway my new neighbor confers with the contractor about her ever-enlarging house. If she sees me, she doesn’t indicate. I am momentarily blinded by the bright white Tyvek paper wrapping her house like a giant’s holiday present. She gestures in broad strokes, her shiny nails leaving coral tracks in the air. Three boys circle her like scavenging dingos—the oldest, a teenaged, graceful limbed ladykiller; a thuggy blond who looks about Sam’s age, and a puff-cheeked, Uggs-wearing toddler. Her gauzy white tunic dress and gold gladiator sandals seem out of place on this sleepy suburban street where most inhabitants strive for couch-potato functionality. A white Mercedes SUV sits obediently at the curb. I exit the van, feeling a stab of pain in my spine as I offer an unreturned wave.
The coffee is still at the same level in the pot so I know Neil hasn’t woken up, nor does he have to, since his work day doesn’t start until four. He works second shift, which ends at midnight. It was the only job he could get when we moved and it throws everything off—dinner, breakfast, weekends, conversation, and sex. On the back of a receipt I write, Part-time single mother gets shiny new neighbor. Homicidal bloodbath ensues.
Before I leave I check on him. The room smells of stale breath, dirty laundry and Pantene. Neil is draped diagonally across the bed with a pillow over his head, hopefully due to the construction and not to any noise I’ve made with the kids. Either way, he’ll be tired all day. The sheets splay every which way as if he fought off a werewolf while I was gone. I take a step toward him but the floor creaks and he shifts, groaning. I decide not to risk waking him, turn and tiptoe out of the room.