Authors: Claire Lombardo
“That’s me,” Marilyn said. Only he could hear the sadness in her voice.
“Have you guys decided?” the waitress asked, and for a moment he wondered if somehow she had entered into their deeper conversation but Marilyn slipped the menu out from under his wrists and opened it. He’d completely lost his appetite but his wife was ordering elaborately, no mayo on her burger, fries
a salad, extra dill pickles on the side.
“Eating for two!” the waitress remarked. It drove Marilyn crazy when people commented on her pregnancy. He could tell that if she weren’t putting on this show of competence for the waitress she’d be weeping into her iced tea. “And for you?”
He got a deer-in-the-headlights look sometimes, she told him, when people asked him routine questions.
So lost in thought,
she’d say, cupping a hand to his face.
My mad scientist.
“He’ll have the same,” Marilyn said, stepping in. “Except
mayo, Swiss instead of cheddar, tomato on the side. And no salad. And I’ll take his pickle.”
“Are you a ventriloquist?” the waitress asked him. “I barely saw you move your mouth.”
Marilyn’s façade was fading quickly; he saw the muscles along her jawline that appeared when she was grinding her teeth.
“My better half,” he said, because apparently they were all in a community theater production together, something clichéd about marriage and pickles and barely contained despair. “Thanks,” he said, handing over the menus, begging her with his eyes
please, please, please go away.
Her name tag read
. It wasn’t her fault. Blessedly, she retreated to the kitchen.
Marilyn’s eyes had filled. She was playing aggressively with her straw wrapper.
He reached for her hands again. “I’ll do your homework for you,” he said, glancing around him to make sure no one was listening. He could redeem his ungenerous thoughts by supporting her, whole-hog. “And the final. You’ll just copy the answers in your own writing.”
“Sweetheart.” Her eyes welled up and she smiled a little at him. “First of all, don’t you think it might seem suspicious if I’m suddenly getting As after two months of Ds?”
“Shakespeare’s all Greek to me, honey. We’ll bring you up to a solid C average.”
“Second of all,” she continued, “I’d never let you do that. You could get expelled. I’m just going to quit while I’m ahead. Or not—not quite
“Well,” he said. “One less class? It’s time for you to start taking it easy anyway.”
“Grady’s wife reversed the fees for all of my classes. I decided to just call it what it is, David. Think of how helpful that money’s going to be.”
“You—you already did this? Without talking to me?”
“I figured I’d take care of it all at once.”
“You quit school.”
” she said sharply, frowning at him. “It’s a— It’s better for us.”
“But it’s not better for you; it’s— This is the exact opposite of what you wanted.”
“I’m exhausted,” she said.
“Well, with good reason. But your teachers have been pretty understanding, haven’t—”
exhausted. More than just— It’s something more than— It’s like my
is tired, David; I know how that sounds but I—”
He’d broached the topic once before, to her dismay, but now he tried again: “Sweetheart, this is why maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to go and—you know, see someone. Talk to someone about—you know, feeling down. Especially given your mom’s history.”
“My mom drank herself to death because she was chronically miserable,” Marilyn snapped. “Just because I’m a product of her genes doesn’t mean I have some depressive cross to bear. Jesus. I’m overwhelmed. I’m lonely. I’m hormonal. That doesn’t mean I’m
“I never said— If you’re lonely, I wish you’d talk to me.”
“We need a crib too,” she said, firmly enough that he knew they’d be moving on from the subject whether he wanted to or not.
They’d had it figured out perfectly, an English degree knocked out in five semesters, maybe six. She’d waitress nights, they thought, and then get a more serious job in town, the newspaper or something clerical. Then next steps: maybe a graduate degree for her, a bigger house, a baby. Not until later, those things.
“We’ll work it out,” he’d said, back in the spring when she told him she’d missed two periods, an absence suggesting a presence, and until that moment, in the too-bright restaurant with Janet, they had been. She’d chewed her way through bottles of chalky antacids while she took a summer class in Irish poetry and she started showing as the fall semester began. She particularly loved her medieval lit class, sometimes read aloud to him from
as she marked up the margins in bed.
“What about Arthur for a boy?” he’d ask, trying to tease her, his hand on her abdomen to see if he could feel the baby move. “A daughter named Chanticleer?”
But she refused to engage, just smiled like the Mona Lisa and pulled the covers up to her shoulders; she seemed far less enchanted than he was. “Chanticleer’s male, honey,” she’d say, or “My body temperature is twice what yours is these days, darling; can I have my space?”
He’d still held out hope that they could find a way to be happy. At the table, while watching her, his confidence faltered.
“I don’t want to fight,” she said, and her resignation made him sadder than anything. “I’m sorry I did it without telling you. It just seemed like the most painless way.” She looked at him with a bitter, greenish smile on her face. “I figure if I’m going to ruin my life, I should at least do it as cheaply as possible. We might as well get a Swyngomatic out of it.”
The waitress returned, moon face grinning over the plates balanced along one forearm. He felt another irrational surge of anger, at her smile, her obliviousness, the showy way she was carrying their food though she could have easily held a plate with each hand.
“Anything else I can get you two?”
He watched his wife, smoothing a napkin over what was left of her lap, raking her hair away from her face, already commandeering a dill pickle, starving, powerless before the demands of the half-formed person who would reap the bounty of her disappointment.
“A hundred thousand dollars,” Marilyn said. “And a time machine.”
The waitress’s smile faded. Marilyn bit into the pickle.
“Maybe some extra napkins,” he said apologetically, and Janet skittered away. “Next year,” he said. He reached for her knee under the table. They’d already planned that—she would take off spring semester to be at home with the baby and head back in the fall. “We’ll start again next year. All three of us.”
She didn’t reply.
hen his wife came to join him in bed after putting the baby down, he was already in his underwear, sitting up against the headboard. She turned her back to him and undressed shyly, as though he were not her husband but some kind of predatory swim coach. She pulled on one of his T-shirts, the hem to her knees, before she lay down next to him. She seemed back to her old self, unrested but happy, affectionate in a motherly way—touching the space between his shoulder blades, ruffling his hair, kissing him on the forehead at the breakfast table. Now she hugged his arm to her chest like a stuffed animal. “She’s stopped keeping her little hands in fists all the time, have you noticed?”
Wendy was two months old, and he was intoxicated by her, enamored, humbled by all that she demanded of them and transfixed by the unfathomable intricacy of her face, embracing his exhaustion because now he had her to look forward to at the end of each day. He had to confess, though, that he missed his wife, missed her attention and her energy, her surprising ardor, the way she could make him laugh even when she was only half-awake.
He kissed the top of her head. “I’ll have to pay attention tomorrow.”
“Your Sunday homework,” she said, and then she paused. “Is tomorrow Sunday? God, I don’t even know what day it is. I haven’t known for— I can’t think about it.”
know what time it is?” he deadpanned, but she had grown serious.
“How tired are you?” she asked.
He wasn’t sure how to respond. Their foreplay rarely required dialogue. “Oh, I’ve got life in me still, I think. How about you?”
She kissed him in a way that felt inquisitive. “Sure. Me too. I was thinking that we…”
Of course it excited him, the thought of being with her again. The eight-week marker had just passed; their daughter was fifty-nine days old. He slipped his hand under her shirt and began to feel his way upward, but she stiffened.
“Hang on,” she said. “Can I be—can we—” She was suddenly straddling him. “There.” She dipped her face to kiss him. “Or I could— If you wanted I could— If you’re not…” She stilled, above him, and he watched her face turn. “If you wanted me to—I can just—” She sat back astride his thighs.
“What?” he said. “Honey, come here.” He took her hands and pulled her to him once more. They kissed for what felt like only a few seconds, and then she pulled away again.
“But I could also”—she slid her hand into his briefs—“I can just take care of you.”
“Hey, sweetie, no, let’s— Unless you’re—are you nervous? About it being—painful?”
She sat there, holding him in her left hand. She shook her head.
“Honey,” he said. “What is it?”
She rolled off of him, pressed her hands over her eyes. “The only reason I know it’s been eight weeks is because the checker at the grocery asked me how old the baby is and I realized it had been eight weeks and that’s when the doctor said we could start having sex again. But I don’t recognize my body right now, David, and I hate feeling that way especially when I’m with you, because it’s a real source of happiness for me, our being alone together.” She was, strangely, not crying; she sounded impassive. “My body isn’t my own anymore. I’ve lost myself. I know everyone says that happens but I—I guess I didn’t believe them. And I’m so tired. I’m sorry. I feel like I’m doing a botched job of this.”
But in fact he was in constant awe of how she was with Wendy, how she’d learned to operate with one arm, how she’d resumed her reading of
while Wendy slept against her shoulder, how she sang “Blue Moon” and “Unchained Melody” to Wendy in a voice so soothing that it made him want to fall asleep too. He was blown away by all that her body was capable of, by how immediately, visibly transformed she’d been by motherhood.
He took her hand. “Honey, you’re not. You’re doing a great job.”
“Other people are better at this than I am, I think. I saw this woman at the library today with three kids and the youngest was about Wendy’s age and she looked so—
. And there I was wandering around the new fiction, not even
really, and I realized when I got home that I had one too many buttons open on my shirt and you could see my whole bra, and I feel like I have this
about me—do you smell it?”
Truth be told, he could: her regular perfume had been replaced, after eight weeks of round-the-clock infant care, with something distinctly human. But he found it sort of arousing; he felt like he was getting to know a whole other side of her.
anymore,” she said. “I’m not— There’s nothing exciting happening, ever, and I’m just—I’m just this
. I barely
“Hey.” He chanced to pull her against him again, and she allowed it, and she really believed all of this, he knew; she really saw herself as someone amorphous and inert and unsexy. “You exist,” he said quietly. “You’re the beautiful, remarkable mother of our daughter, and I’ve never loved you more.”
She looked at him, faces only inches apart so he couldn’t make out her expression, only the openness of her eyes, her big olive irises.
He kissed her eyebrow. “Thanks for having our baby for us.” And her cheekbone. “Thanks for keeping her healthy.” And her lips. “And safe.” And her throat. “Thanks for bringing me so much happiness.” Her hand now: he kissed the bases of each of her fingers. “Thanks for being here when I get home.” He stroked her hair. “You’re doing the best job,” he said, and she tilted her face up to kiss him.
A few weeks before Wendy’s first birthday, Violet was born.
“I never have to worry about you, Lize,” her mom had said once, standing at the window over the kitchen sink, looking vacant and exhausted; this was during the Gillian year, the year when her parents had stopped speaking.
mean?” she’d replied, because it was nice to be worried about occasionally; she didn’t want her mother so casually validating the rhetoric about forgotten middle children right there in the kitchen, washing a bushel of broccoli.
Her mom had turned to her, face restoring itself to something present and recognizable, and smiled wanly. “I mean you’re a good one, honey. That’s all I mean.”
A good one: Liza, nineteen years later, thirteen weeks pregnant, on her back in the bed of Marcus Spear, PhD, her colleague, her superior; a professor, perhaps ironically, of industrial/organizational psychology, and a superfan, from what she could see of the bookshelves from the vantage point on her back in his bed, of James Patterson. She’d been impressed by the confidence in her own voice, earlier that day, when she’d asked Marcus, with whom she had always shared a light and easy banter, if he wanted to take a walk with her. Marcus Spear, bless his heart, quiet and thoughtful and so soothingly self-possessed, charmingly awkward in bed, so intent on not doing anything wrong that he didn’t notice anything askew, didn’t notice her swollen breasts and didn’t notice afterward that she was trying not to cry. He was deft and careful and she’d wanted it; she wanted it all the time lately, just not with Ryan; she’d masturbated in the handicap bathroom on the fourth floor yesterday, braced against the wall thinking, inexplicably and sort of predatorily, of that kid from the Twilight movies, the boy vampire who drove a Volvo.