Authors: Claire Lombardo
He remembered that his mom had soft red hair and the sheets on his bed had windsurfers on them. He remembered waffles from the toaster, their squares full of syrup. He remembered running through a sprinkler in his boat bathing suit. How his mom smelled like bread. How people always honked their horns at his dad because he stopped too long at stop signs.
How one day they just stopped being there. How a lady with her hair in a bun said that their car had run into a
How after that he stayed with his first foster family in a town that smelled like cows and at night he fell asleep listening to the cicadas and wondering if his mom and dad could hear them too. How he then went to stay with another family, and then another. How sometimes the people in the families yelled, or were mean to their dogs, or forgot when it was dinnertime. How two years ago, one of them took him to Lathrop House, and he moved into the Tween Room with four other boys.
“You disappeared,” Wendy said. She was smiling at him from across the patio, her face soft with wine. “You okay?”
He nodded. There weren’t cicada sounds at Wendy’s house, just the whoosh of traffic going by below and the gremlin hiss the wind made blowing from the lake. If you went inside and closed the sliding doors, it was like vacuum-sealing a bag; the noise went away entirely except for internal sounds, which meant Wendy, which sometimes meant off-key Mariah Carey songs or occasionally those sounds from her bedroom that he tried not to think about.
“Hey, Wendy?” he asked. “Do you know who my dad is?”
Wendy coughed up some wine. “God, give a girl some warning.” But she got serious, fast. “That’s a loaded question, J,” she said, lighting a cigarette. She dipped her head back and exhaled. “I do know who he is, yes. He came home with Violet for Second Thanksgiving. That’s the only time I met him, I think. They dated for a couple of years when she was in college.”
He stared at her, waiting.
“The thing is, J, is that this isn’t exactly my information to share.”
“You’re the one who found me, aren’t you?” He’d once, eavesdropping, heard Hanna say as much. “Isn’t telling Violet about me the same as telling me about my dad?”
Violet about you,” she said. “It’s not like she didn’t know you existed. She was sort of an integral part of your being born.”
“You know what I mean.”
She took another swig of wine. “I do. And you have a point. But what say we do this whole thing one step at a time, huh? I don’t want you suddenly dredging up God-knows-what when you haven’t even had a chance to meet
“Can you tell me
him, at least?”
Wendy seemed to consider how to proceed. “I don’t remember much, to be honest. Not a
guy, just not the most interesting? As per usual with Violet; vanilla’s an acquired taste. He was getting a PhD in some kind of science. Are you good at science?”
He shook his head.
“Well. Maybe you’ll be a late-blooming physicist. I have a vague recollection of a pasty, awkward guy in a short-sleeved button-down. I don’t remember much else, honestly, Jonah. I’m sorry. I wish I did.” She sighed. “You know, my husband was raised by his stepmom. His mom died in childbirth. His dad remarried a year later, before Miles could remember anything else. He didn’t even know his mom wasn’t his mom until he was a teenager.”
“That’s fucked up,” Jonah said.
“Well, sort of. But I guess I’m just saying that—genetics aren’t everything.”
He was tired of the topic, disappointed that she didn’t have more information. “What’s Second Thanksgiving?” he asked, and Wendy laughed.
“Oh, what surprises await you,” she said.
There was something about the color of their kitchen in Iowa that made Marilyn immediately want to leave it whenever she entered. The cabinets were a sickly chartreuse and the floor a muted mustard; when she made coffee in the morning she kept her eyes in slits, focusing on the task at hand before hightailing it into the beige living room, which she didn’t love but could tolerate for long enough to read the paper. She was becoming preoccupied with the ugliness of their house. It wasn’t all bad: from the outside it was positively charming: dark green paint, yellow flowered bushes—forsythias? She was trying to learn—and a mailbox at the end of the path with their name on it, a little sticker that read
that made even picking up the phone bill feel festive and romantic.
She was trying hard to look on the bright side. Their relocation hadn’t happened as smoothly as they’d planned. She’d ended up staying in Chicago for a few extra months, easing the transition for her father while David moved them into the house on Davenport Street. She’d lost credits from UIC when she crossed state lines, so she was taking a handful of mind-numbing classes at the community college until she could enroll next semester at the university. Winter had descended early and with it came a months-long anemic pallor that seemed to bleed into every facet of their life, cold air seeping through gaps in the windows and slate clouds covering the sun for weeks on end. It did not lend itself to boosting her morale, though by March most of the snow had melted and the sky was beginning to rid itself of the winter gray. Assuming she was admitted to the university, she would start school again in the summer as a transfer student, but for now she was responsible for getting them settled, hanging funky thrift store art and making curtains for the big windows in the dining room and trying to make their house feel like it wasn’t inhabited by a couple of kids. She was finding it harder than she’d anticipated, was starting to realize that she’d taken for granted her mother’s eye for design, that drawers didn’t organize themselves, that dust could and would accumulate overnight if you didn’t keep an eye on your flat surfaces.
She’d imagined married life as a kind of prolonged sleepover, a cozy, athletic marathon where they would spend all their time in bed and eat makeshift meals and break only to spend their evenings outside on the porch, breathing smog-free rural air and befriending quaint neighborhood cats. But David was engulfed in his coursework, a rigorous roster of embryology and neuroscience, left most mornings before she awakened and usually got home after she’d fallen asleep—at first she’d tried to wait up for him, but her intermittent insomnia coupled with her newfound habit of drinking half a bottle of wine at night made it difficult to stay awake. She was bored. Iowa was boring. She went for long walks along the river, alone, and sometimes she visited David on campus to bring him a sandwich, give him a hug, but he was clearly distracted, surrounded by other go-getters and jittery with fatigue. She was ready for her life to settle into something more comfortable—she and David both students, both busy, both useful.
The decision to paint the kitchen was impulsive. She’d bought the paint at 9:00 a.m. and come home and started immediately, and by the time David finished his day, over twelve hours later, she was asleep at the kitchen table, the unimposing pale blue drying around her.
David woke her gently, holding on to her shoulder. “Honey, the fumes,” he said. Her head was buried in her arms, her cheek resting against the cool Formica of the kitchen table. “Marilyn, you’ve got to get out of here.” He was opening the windows, waving dramatically at the air with one of his textbooks.
“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s almost dry.”
“Come here,” he said. “Come out on the porch. Jesus, how long have you been sleeping? Did you pass out?”
“Of course I didn’t.” She got up and followed him. David pointed to a chair but she sank down onto the stairs instead and after a minute he joined her.
“What’s going on with you?” he asked, more candid than she was used to. Another unforeseen downside of marriage: David’s sudden comfort with speaking to her openly. “Are you— I mean, you can’t just fall asleep in a room full of paint fumes, Marilyn; we haven’t even talked about painting the kitchen. Isn’t that something we’re supposed to talk about together?”
“Don’t you like it?” she asked.
“That’s not the
” he said. “Am I—should I be worried about you?”
” she said.
“It’s not like you to do something so reckless.”
“It’s not like I painted the walls with napalm. God, I was trying to do something nice— I was trying to make our house less
“Since when do you think it’s hideous?”
“I know you’re never around in daylight, so maybe you neglected to notice that our kitchen looked like an insane asylum before I decided to do something that I
you would like; I even tried to match the swatch with the tie you wore at our wedding but of
you’re only concerned that I acted without consulting you. Is this what I have to look forward to? This chauvinistic husband bullshit?”
“You’re kidding,” David said. She could see that she’d hurt his feelings. “I was asking you how you’re
” he said. “Because in my opinion—yes, as your
which I wasn’t aware was an insult—you’re acting a little crazy.”
“But it doesn’t occur to you why I might
crazy? Because you’ve set me up in this fucking dollhouse and left me to do all of the boring stuff while you get to go be productive and never spend any time with me?”
“You think I
this? For Christ’s sake. Are— You sound insane, do you realize that?”
“Perfect,” she said. She stood up and went back into the house, surveying her handiwork—she’d need to do a second coat tomorrow—as she went for a bottle of wine, struggled with their cheap corkscrew.
“Just going to start drinking, then? Is that how this works?”
“I am having a glass of wine,” she said. “Because my life is incredibly dull and my husband doesn’t care about seeing me anymore and I live in
apparently, which nobody warned me would be so goddamn—mid
ern.” She slammed her glass onto the counter, watching a wave of merlot leap over its lip and bleed onto the drop cloth she’d put on the floor.
“You agreed to this. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say. I’m sorry? I’m sorry. Sonofabitch. Sorry things are exactly how I told you they’d be and you’re disappointed anyway. What the hell is it you’d like to hear from me?”
” she said, breathing hard, holding her glass so tightly that she worried it might break. “You’ve never yelled at me before.”
” he said, which was true.
Later, she couldn’t help but pin Wendy’s conception to their first fight, to her
I’ll show him
decision to forgo her diaphragm after they’d argued over her perceived lack of perspective. She couldn’t help but equate Wendy with some convoluted part of her own entrance into adulthood and with the time that David first swore at her—
And when she was feeling generous, years down the road, during happier times, she could trace Wendy back to the most primitive expression of her love for her husband: that night, the time that they, too exhausted for anything else, once again found each other.
he was sitting at a table across the restaurant, framed by a halo of hair. David liked watching his wife like this, when she didn’t know he was looking, especially in public. Something seemed different about her when she was out of the house; she was less familiar, more composed, pretty in a different way. He went over to join her, bent to kiss her hello.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I called the hostess and— Long day.” He smiled sheepishly as he slid into the seat opposite her. “I’m happy to see you.”
“You too,” she said. He took her hands across the table.
“How’d it go?” he asked, though he could already guess, from the droop of her shoulders, that it had not gone well.
“I’m failing,” she said.
“Well, I’m sure that’s—”
“I’m at a fifty-eight percent.”
“Still in the top half,” he said feebly.
“My only point of redemption—if I passed it;
—would be the final.”
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, then we’ll cram for it together.”
“It’s scheduled for the seventeenth,” she said. The baby, pushing out the gauzy blue material of her shirt, quiet between them, was due on December ninth.
“Okay, but we knew that,” he said. “We knew that you’d have to maneuver around finals. You said he’d let you do a take-home. We’ll just—”
There was a faintly perceptible shift in her eyes, a little blurry slip from panic to pity, fear to superiority. As in
you sweet misguided thing,
don’t even pretend you have any idea.
He almost wondered if she enjoyed it, if she derived some pleasure from getting to play the adult in the situation. He supposed he wouldn’t blame her if she did.
“Professor Grady’s agreeing to let me drop,” she said. “And his wife works in the registrar’s office. They took pity on me. They’re refunding my course fees.” She looked then like she might cry. She deserved to finish college: if he got to, she should too. But he couldn’t help but feel a trickle of relief. She made him nervous, working as hard as she was—all-nighters, the full-body panic that seized her before exams—when she was so far along. And were they really going to leave their baby to be raised by strangers, spend money they didn’t have on daycare so his wife could get a degree in
of all things? These were mean thoughts, fueled by exhaustion.
“You found her, I see,” the waitress said, appearing ghoulishly at his elbow. She was beaming at them. People here were so nice that they seemed almost deranged. The Northwest Side of Chicago had never felt like the big city until he arrived in Iowa.
He blinked. “I’m sorry?”
“I talked to you on the phone. Blond wife, blue top, baby on the way?” Was that really how he’d described her? He’d been so startled by the idea of rendering her physically to another person that he’d stalled. It was like being asked to describe his own hand. He studied his wife now.
Apparently he’d come up with
blue-shirted blond pregnant lady.
She, the English major, deserved better adjectives.