“Still, I shall not put too fine a point on it. . . . If you had gone on living at the edge of the earth, nobody would have heard you.”
I need your help.
I am twenty-eight years old. White. A redhead, in fact. My hair is its natural color. I have done nothing to it. Ever. This is an accomplishment in some books. When the trucks blow by, my hair flies in the wind, dry and light as autumn leaves.
My name is Nevermind, how’s that?
Do I have children? Yes. Two. Their names? I gave them beautiful names. Extraordinary lives are lived by people who can brace for the uneven hand of fate. If you have an ordinary name, nothing will ever happen to you. So from the beginning my children knew, they had to know, they would never be safe.
No. They are not with me now.
‘Motherhood can be a crushing disappointment,’ my mother once said.
I am passing through a Texas suburb. I’ll spell it for you: P-F-L-U-G-E-R-V-I-L-L-E. Don’t ask me how it’s pronounced. I am traveling in an eighteen-wheeler. My Flying Dutchman. The driver is a man I met in Phoenix. He says he has been sober six years, four months, and twelve days. He’s managed to do this without surrendering to a Higher Power.
“A woman at my AA meeting used to say Bob Dylan was her Higher Power,” he says, “then later she changed her mind and made it the ocean.”
“That’s funny!” I laugh and the man claps his hand on my leg.
“I used to wet myself at night. Like a baby. Got so drunk I pissed my pants in front of everyone at my twenty-year high school reunion. It was My Bottom.”
“Brother, there is no bottom.” I smile at him. But I smile at everyone. It’s too much.
Somewhere around El Paso the truck driver pulls me by the hair and holds my face in his lap. My skull is empty except for him. Afterwards I wipe my face with my sleeve.
“I’m going to vomit, okay?”
“Okay, sweetheart.” He takes off his hat for me to get sick in. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he says again. “You can toss that hat right on out the window. I’ve got plenty.”
He is just a man, I tell myself. He is not my husband, not family, not my people. I am a visitor in his life right now. He is not in my life at all. How can he be? Not even I am there. I roll down the window and the hat drops away behind us.
I know all about the domestic violence shelters. I’ve stayed in them before. They are full of women I have nothing in common with. At the shelter in Toledo, there was a trans woman. Somehow they found out about her and made her go to a motel. The shelter paid for it, I think for two nights. So that’s what I say now: I’m a trans woman on the run from a violent lover. They never ask me to prove it. They wouldn’t dare.
It’s better for everyone this way. I ought to be alone. All those women and children in flight, huddled together on the itchy shelter couches, talking about the ones who hurt them. Talking and crying. I keep my mouth shut.
“Sometimes there are no words,” a counselor once told me. I will never forget her, that Martha. Or Hannah. Or Meg or Peg. Whoever. She wore loose linen dresses and heavy stone earrings that pulled her earlobes half way to her shoulders. Those aren’t earrings, I would think, they’re a daily rite of torture. Disgusting, barbaric lobes of flesh, her ears had become, long as tongues. This counselor was always making us do emotional exercises. Write with our non-dominant hand, breathe in strange patterns, finger paint. She passed out construction paper and magic markers and told all of us living at the shelter to draw pictures of our particular ache. All the women drew hearts cracked down the middle. I drew a map of the American highways.
I’ve met women who were set on fire. I’ve met young, young children more cynical and tired of sex than most of the women. Almost all of them want to go back.
I can never go back.
• • •
My husband. God . . . my husband. And we were legally married, I want you to know. Might still be. Can you divorce someone who’s disappeared? Legally, I mean.
I met him when I was a teenager, a young girl skinny enough to push over with a flick. He was born more than a decade before me. This story. You know it like the words of an old song.
I was babysitting a brood of rotten children, trying to make an honest living. Every afternoon I would walk them to a park and let them run ragged so they’d be tired when they got home, which their mothers appreciated. They were either ugly and scrawny or ugly and fat, and all of them had lice in their hair. They hopped from head to head all spring long. We could never seem to get rid of them. I used to sit each of these kids down with a comb and harsh shampoo. Tiny white bugs leapt from their scalps like ash flying from a fire.
On that fateful day, we were all lying in the grass at the park, staring up at the dark lumpy clouds. The children were scratching their heads and kicking holes in the dirt. “We’re bored,” they whined. “Tell us a story.”
I told them about the witches who were hanged three hundred years ago on the very ground where we lay.
“If we were alive then, we could’ve all gone to watch the hangings,” I said. It’s a true story, engraved on brass plaques throughout the park. But these children could not read.
“Were the witches naked when they died?” one of them asked, her face burning in the sun.
“Duh,” I said. “They were being punished. Humiliation was at least half the point.”
For nearly ten years, the four of us were incredibly happy. But you don’t want to hear about that.
A man walked up to us, sat down in our little circle, and folded his legs. As if he already belonged, as if he’d always been there.
How long are you allowed to look at someone? Because he seemed to just look at me and look at me. I continued telling my stupid stories. I have no idea what came out of my mouth, because though I would not allow my eyes to look at him, he was all I could see. He was neither short nor tall and had thick blond hair that framed his face like a lion. He wore a tan leather jacket with a wide pointed lapel. I noticed his watch was heavy and silver and that the time it told was wrong.
“Are all these children yours?” he finally said.
“No,” I laughed and yanked the rubber band out of my hair.
“You have very pretty eyes.”
“Everyone’s eyes are pretty,” I said, rolling mine.
“That’s not true. The woman at Dudley’s Liquor has an oozing red sore in hers. I would never say she has pretty eyes.”
“She usually hides it behind her hair. Do you live around here?”
“Just passing through.”
My stomach growled loudly. One of the children buried his face in my lap and belched. He was the slow one, nine years old and couldn’t yet count past ten.
“Sounds like we could all use a snack,” the man said. “Would you kids like that?”
They were quick with their list of demands: ice cream, Caesar salad, chop suey, hamburgers.
The man said he’d be right back and trotted off. I watched him go.
“She’s going to fuck him,” one of the little girls said.
“She’s going to mwaw mwaw mwaw all over him and show him her boobs,” a younger one squealed. She yanked down the collar of her T-shirt and showed us her little brown nipple.
“Harder, harder!” one of the boys said, thrashing his hips against the ground.
I was not a virgin. My mother encouraged me to lose my virginity as soon as possible. Once I turned thirteen, she started bringing suitors to the motel where we lived. A couple nights a week she would introduce these men to me, fix us drinks, then after taking some money from them, excuse herself from the room. Afterwards she would come back, the man long gone by then, and search my face.
“How are you? Okay?” she’d ask. If I nodded, she would smile in a satisfied way and not bother me for the rest of the night.
The blond man in the leather coat returned with a large white trash bag filled with popcorn. The children ate so fast they almost choked. What we didn’t finish we dumped in the ocean and watched the seagulls swarm. It was a beautiful spring day, the sky an unbelievable blue. The children, the man, and I walked to an arcade. It was once an amusement park, now a shabby row of clapboard buildings with saltwater taffy and a slow, malfunctioning merry-go-round. The children played Skee-Ball in a dull trance, tossing ball after ball into the fifty-point hole. The man paid for everything and not one of the children thanked him.
“I’m sorry,” I finally said.
“Don’t apologize for them,” he said. “It’ll be different with your own.”
The next night I introduced this man to my mother. We were living in a motel with a large television bolted to the dresser and a kidney-shaped pool that gave me ringworm the one time I went in. Amber curls of flypaper dangled from the ceiling of our room like decorations for a morbid celebration that would never be cleaned up. My mother put on her reading glasses and peered at the man’s face. Was there any history of eczema in his family, she wanted to know. Diabetes, depression, buckteeth?
‘I’m going to punch all your babies. Punch them dead.’
“Where did you ever get these blond curls?” she asked him. “And this face.” She took it in her hands and slapped his cheeks. He blushed a dark red and the corners of his mouth dimpled in two deep stars.
“My family is Belgian with a good dose of Irish,” he explained.
“The Belgians are the most ruthless colonialists in history. Practical, not merciful people,” my mother said. “The Irish are known for drinking and tall tales. Nothing to be ashamed of there.” She opened a second jug of wine and refilled our glasses.
“We have intelligence in our family,” she assured my friend. “I went to Waldorf schools. She would have gone, too,” she said pointing to me, “if her very birth wasn’t the cause of my ruin.”
Love made me unbearable, my mother said when he left.
“Honestly, look at yourself,” she shuddered. “I can’t stand the sight of your face when you’re like this.” But a month later, she agreed to come with me for the annual wedding-gown sale at the Basement. We got to the store early in the morning. Women were already camped out on the sidewalk waiting. A guard unlocked the door and we all charged inside. A frenzy of white. Dresses were ripped right out of my hands.
“Honey, that will never fit you,” my mother said to a girl as her sister helped her squeeze into a dress. It was long and plain, a slip you would wear underneath something else. She took it from them and gave it to me. I stepped into the dress and twirled around.
My mother pinched my waist and cringed.
“What can we do?” she said, not without affection. “It’s too late now.”
I was leaving her, never to sleep beside her again. It was something we both knew and felt no need to admit out loud.
• • •
In the beginning my husband and I could not keep away from each other. We fell into bed more often than we ate. My pants grew so loose they slipped off of my hips while still buttoned. I nearly disappeared.
You would think all this love would beget even more love. That two beautiful people would produce even more beautiful children. You would think. Beware the surplus: cells turn to cancer, water to floods. Love is just as brutal in these quantities.
Both of my children arrived small, sick, and too early. I knew the moment I saw my first child, a girl, that I would outlive her. Four years later, I had a boy and the same knowing seeped into me as I kissed his face for the first time. They were precious and temporary and I loved them more than life. My son had the wrinkled skin of an old man and a bald veiny head shaped like a light bulb. My daughter was hardly bigger than her baby brother. Her right arm was six inches shorter than the left and she held it folded against her body like a broken wing. Both children were practically blind and wore very thick glasses that made their eyes look swollen.
Sex is a secret you tell with your body. This is how I first learned that my husband was leaving.
“Motherhood can be a crushing disappointment,” my mother had once said. Not for me. It was joy. I always felt a pang of sadness Monday mornings when my husband left for work and the children went to school. I’d follow the paths of my family’s forgotten things as I cleaned our house, meditating on each object I put away. A sweater on the stairs, a pair of dirty sneakers inexplicably bereft of their laces, a notebook of words in alphabetical order, each written three times: Curtain, curtain, curtain. Explain, explain, explain. Tread, tread, tread.
My husband and I ran a successful landscaping company. I grew rare flowers in the greenhouse in our backyard and my husband planted them with a crew of local men. Flora that had no business on the East Coast blossomed under my care. Our children babbled and toddled, talked and walked. For nearly ten years, the four of us were incredibly happy. But you don’t want to hear about that.
• • •
They say the shelter in Little Rock will hold a bed for me but only for the next eight hours. I meet a trucker hauling out to Virginia. He says he’ll take me there. It would be his pleasure.
These trucks make me feel like I’m inside an animal, something monstrous and huge that lives only to feed. The driver is a quiet man with hairless arms. He offers me a bag of sunflower seeds and a paper cup for their shells.
“Do you have anything else?” I ask him. “Like maybe some cheese? I can’t remember the last time I had a glass of milk.”
“We’ll stop at the next place. I’ll get you something.” He bows his head slightly and covers his mouth when he talks. Six feet tall and shy as a geisha. It’s the ones who are already ashamed that scare me.
When we finally stop, I try to get away, but the man catches me by the arm and pulls me inside the travel plaza. There is a gift shop where everything is printed with the image of an armadillo—postcards and ceramic spoons, pewter bells and shot glasses. “How ’bout one of these?” The driver hands me a stuffed animal, another armadillo, with goofy plastic eyes sewn into its head.
“I don’t want one,” I say. The man folds his arms as though wounded and I suddenly feel sorry for him. I hear him tell the cashier that I am his daughter. She purses her pink cracked lips and hums. Her face looks like a wrung-out rag. She’s seen our kind before. What does she care?
The man and I go to a motel and rent a room thick with the smell of other people’s smoke.
“Are you hungry?” he asks.
How can you say I didn’t love my daughter?
I nod. I won’t speak. I’m already saving my breath.
Later that night I make my escape to a phone booth while he lies drooling in the bed. My heart is pumping heat up and down my legs. The sting of a bruise blooms on my face. I rip out pages of the phonebook and stuff them in my pants to catch the blood.
“I deserve this,” I say to the woman at the hotline.
“No you don’t!” the woman answers. She sucks her lip in sympathy.
“Oh, but I do,” I say. “I do, I do, I do.”
• • •
Sex is a secret you tell with your body. You tell it in liquid and pawing and breath. This is how I first learned that my husband was leaving. “Who is she?” I asked as he squinted and gasped, collapsing on top of me like a man just saved from drowning. I pushed him away and sat up in our bed. A warm trickle of his semen spilled onto my thigh.
“What are you talking about?” he said. But the fact lay between us, split open and weeping like a blister.
I was a good wife. Our house was clean but not antiseptic. There was always plenty to eat. I stayed flexible, changed my hair several times. I jogged. One day I returned from a long run and heard the sound of splashing in our backyard. My husband and a young girl were swimming in the pool. I remember their small wet heads floating on the surface of the water, their limbs tangled together like the stems of lily pads.
I wish I could say my pride kept me quiet, or that grief, coming on like a stroke, left me paralyzed and mute. But I took my place among the pantheon of wailing women and soon our kitchen resembled the Kristallnacht. I threw knives and my husband dodged them in a funny dance that made me want to hold on to him even more.
I loaded the children into the car and drove to see my mother. She was living in a housing project of red and white buildings built on top of a hill out of sight from the rest of the town. We circled the neighborhood several times before stopping. I had not seen my mother for many years, since the birth of my first child, when I’d caught her spitting into the baby’s crib and banished her from my life.
“This is my mother’s house,” I told the children as we got out of the car.
“You have a mother?” my daughter asked.
When I asked him if he loved me, he said, ‘I hate love.’
“But you’re my mother!” my son cried.
He stopped cold at the threshold of her door, afraid to set foot inside. My mother greeted us from where she lay on a living room couch. Her legs were elevated on a pile of cushions. They were almost completely useless now, she would say later. Dark clots of blood burst red and blue beneath the skin. I had to pinch the children gently on their shoulders to get them inside.
“You can’t stay here overnight,” was what she said first. “This complex has rules.”
I told her about my husband, about the young woman in the pool, and their plans to start a new life together in California. My mother smiled and raked her fingers through my hair. I cried until I became weak and eventually fell asleep beside her on the couch. The children played together on the floor, careful to remain just outside their grandmother’s reach.
An hour or so later I woke up startled and rose to look out the window.
“You were expecting him to follow you here? For him to beg for you back?” my mother said smiling. She lifted herself up as best she could and parted the slats of the blinds. “I don’t see him coming now, do you?”
Having nowhere else to go, the children and I returned to our home. I walked from room to room shouting at the emptiness. The children had a ball. They ate ice cream three meals a day, dressed for school in old Halloween costumes. They came home from school with well-intentioned notes. My children were Special Needs, ever under the state’s watchful eye. The notices started out concerned but soon the language became official and a social worker was due to arrive any day. I didn’t care.
• • •
My husband had bought them a dog before he left, a wiry deranged mutt with faint black spots under its white, almost translucent fur. “Angel,” my daughter called him. “Mud,” my son declared. They agreed to disagree and the dog’s ears stiffened in confusion.
Whenever the children left the house their dog would chase after them, smashing his head into the front door. Once they were gone I tried to let him out, hoping he would run away. The dog just shook his dopey head and curled up in a knot in the front hall where he waited silently for them to come home.
One afternoon I woke from a long, numb dream in which I was living my life as it had been before. It was not until I saw the dog at my feet, chewing diligently at a spot on his back, that I remembered everything that had happened. He’s gone. The pain rushed back into my chest and I felt everything as if for the first time. Outside I heard the gaseous release of a bus pulling up to the corner, the squeal of its stop, and the beastly roar of its departure. The dog lifted his head, his tail thumping wildly.
“It’s not them,” I said. “They’re at swimming lessons today.”
He jumped up and scratched the door. I closed my eyes and flicked him the middle finger. Suddenly there was a crash. The dog had jumped through the large bay window and was now sniffing the pants of a little boy on the sidewalk. I ran outside. The dog bounded up to me with his tongue lolling out of his bloody face. Bits of glass glittered in his fur. I wrapped him in a towel and threw him in the car.
“Wow,” the veterinarian said. “Now that’s an act of love only a pet can pull off.”
“Put him down,” I said.
“He’s not dying.” The vet’s voice cracked. He was young, practically a teenager, with a rash of pimples on his jaw. “He just needs, like, eight million stitches, and he’ll be as good as new.”
“I don’t care what you do. He’s yours now,” I said. I drove home to wait for my children.
As soon as they arrived home they threw off their coats and ran through the house as usual. “Where is Angel? Where is Mud?” they asked breathlessly.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let’s go find him.”
They jumped in the backseat and pressed their faces sweetly, hopelessly, against the window. They couldn’t have seen the dog if he were galloping alongside us. I drove all day and into the night. When they woke up the next morning we were halfway through Ohio and I was still driving.
“We’re going too fast,” my daughter cried. “He’ll never catch up with us here.”
To distract them, I told them long, intricate stories about animals in a great alliance against people, about animals that ate their own kind. The children clung to each other in the backseat, their weak eyes closed shut, pretending to sleep.
“See this river we’re crossing now?” I said. “It’s called the Cuyahoga and it caught on fire. Twice.”
“Woah,” I heard my daughter whisper.
“Where are we going now?” my son finally asked.
The dry gold plains unfurled in all directions like a cloth. We drove and drove until we came to the sharp peaked mountains of the West.
I left them there and drove away.
“Look,” my son said, gazing out the window. “The big mountains are the parents and the little ones are their kids.”
“Actually, the smaller ones are much older,” his sister said.
“She’s full of it,” he said burrowing his head into my lap.
“No, she’s right, Little Chicken. Remember the Appalachians, how they were so small and soft? It takes a long time to do that. They’re much older than the Rockies.”
“And you know what else?” my daughter added. “In the original French tale, Cinderella’s slippers were fur, not glass.”
“I don’t care,” my son said. “I hate Cinderella.”
“Why? Because she’s a girl?”
“Girls get to have babies,” she said.
“I’m going to punch all your babies. Punch them dead.” He picked a scab off his knee. It was dark and crusted, almost black. For one moment the skin beneath was moist and white. Blood rose up in tiny beads, trembling, then converged into one stream that spilled down his bony shin.
• • •
I’m not sure how long I drove, only that it took days and days. We stopped finally at the bed-and-breakfast my husband now managed. His girlfriend’s father owned the land and surrounding vineyards. I think he was grooming my husband to be his successor. It was this quasi-father-in-law who greeted us when we first arrived. He was a large, turnip-shaped man with thick womanly thighs and a bald spot like a tonsure. Not knowing who we were, he took us on a tour of the vineyards. I pretended to be impressed. Row after row of small, stunted trees bound cruelly to short posts. Afterwards we were served a snack of goat cheese and figs.
“Dinner is served at 6:20,” the innkeeper said grandly. “We ring the bell at six to remind you.” He showed us to our room. Before long, a woman came knocking at the door.
“I know who you are,” she said. She had a big, crooked nose and curly, dust colored hair. “I’m not stupid. He has pictures of them.”
“They want to see their father. That’s all.”
“This is stalking, you know.” She chipped away the polish on her long nails. “It’s against the law.”
“Let us talk to him once. I promise, we’ll leave in the morning and never bother you again.”
She called my husband on a gold cell phone. “They’re here,” she said sharply, hung up, and left.
My husband was my equal in every way. If I am a guilty of anything, so is he.
My husband arrived soon after and climbed onto the king-sized bed where the three of us were waiting for him. The children told him about Mud Angel, crying all over again. The four of us held each other in a tearful, sniffling heap. My husband scribbled a note on a sheet of complimentary stationery, signing his name with a large lasso.
“Here, my little ones. Show this to the cook downstairs and he’ll give you some ice cream.”
Once they were gone, we tore off our clothes. I pounded his chest with my fists. He ran his fingers over my face. “Stay here,” he said after, his head on my breast. “Sell our house, sell everything, and live here.”
“What about the princess?”
“We’ll find a place not too far from here and I’ll come see you all the time. She’ll never know.”
“You can’t have everything,” I said.
“Yes I can,” he said. “So can you.”
• • •
My husband was my equal in every way. We often found ourselves thinking the same thoughts. I’d be whistling a tune as I worked in our greenhouse and my husband would call me from his car, the same song playing loudly on his car radio. He was my double, my partner, my other half. If I am a guilty of anything, so is he.
• • •
After my husband left, I bought the children popsicles and we got back on the road. “I’m sick of frozen desserts!” they whined. “I’m sick of the car!” Their little shoes kicked the back of my seat.
“Fine,” I said. “Get out.”
It was a cloudy night and the moon was a yellow smudge. I pulled over and turned off the headlights.
“Here?” my daughter asked.
“Do you see that?” I said, pointing to the vineyard on the other side of the highway. The plants had all been covered with white nylon veils to protect them from nocturnal birds. They looked like little children dressed up as ghosts.
“I can’t see it,” my daughter said.
Of course not. Both her and her brother’s glasses lay solemnly on the dashboard, winking occasionally with the light of passing trucks. They couldn’t see anything beyond my face as I leaned in to kiss them.
“Listen. Can you hear that?”
The highway rushed beside us like a river.
“I think so,” she smiled. “What is it?”
“It’s Daddy calling for you. And your dog barking like crazy.”
“I can hear him!” my son said.
“No you can’t,” his sister scolded.
“Don’t tell me what I can hear.”
“Come on. He’s waiting for you.”
“But we can’t see.”
I opened the door, helped them out of the car, and set them in the right direction.
“Hold each other’s hands.”
• • •
How can you say I didn’t love my daughter? Among the few belongings in my bag is her copy of Murder on the Orient Express. Its pages are smudged with chocolate, ketchup, and blueberry jam. I remember the night she finished it for the first time, then crawled into bed between my husband and me. “Everyone was lying. Everyone,” she whispered. “But they were lying for each other and for the lost baby.” It was amazing to watch her on the couch with the book held up to her nose, gasping and clutching her small heart. She was nine years old when she left me. Her big ears poked through her hair, burned pink by the sun. When I asked her if she loved me, she said, “Usually.”
How can you say I didn’t love my son? Before his very last Christmas, I asked him what he wanted from Santa. “Rabies,” he said. How could I not love a boy like that? He was never afraid of the dark. He thought of death as a kind of magical darkness full of potential. “When I die, I’m going to grow a new kind of plant that can walk around wherever it wants,” he said. “When I die, I’m going to be taller and richer than everyone.” He was five years old with skinny bowed legs and freakishly large feet. When I asked him if he loved me, he said, “I hate love.”
I left them there and drove away. The dotted white line became a solid cord again. And soon I heard what I was waiting for, the sudden, hysterical gasp of tires.
• • •
It’s afternoon here and I’m still in Texas. The trucks grumble in the parking lot. My shadow, long and pointed, reaches them before I do. A driver’s-side door creaks open. A hand attached to a red sleeve releases it and withdraws inside. An invitation. I still have a chance to go somewhere else.