Janie kneeled on the pink tile in her best black dress and tried to quiet her mind. Dirty bathwater oozed across the floor, dampening the knees of her stockings, spotting her velvet hem. She’d always liked the dress because its high waist was sympathetic to her figure, and the velvet gave it a festive, bohemian air, but now, streaked as it was with egg yolk and bubbly patches of shampoo that shone like spittle, it had transformed into her most opulent rag.
They couldn’t help but wonder (they didn’t say it but it was there, in the reverberation of their voices, in their easy laughs) if all that yearning might be ending very soon.
She pulled herself to her feet, glanced in the mirror.
She was a mess, all right. Her mascara blackened the area under her eyes like a football player; her eye shadow left sparkly bronze streaks across her temples; and her left ear was bleeding. Her hair still looked good, though, billowing and curling around her face as if it hadn’t gotten the message.
Serves her right for thinking she could take a night off from Noah.
And she had been so excited, too.
Janie had known it was probably irrational to get worked up about a date with someone she hadn’t actually met. But she liked Bob’s photo, his open face and kind, squinting eyes, and she liked his humorous voice on the phone, the way it vibrated deep within her body, waking it up. They had talked for over an hour, delighted to discover so many things in common: they had both grown up in the Midwest and made their way to New York after college; they were the only offspring of formidable mothers; they were decent–looking socially competent people, surprised to find themselves single in the city they loved. They couldn’t help but wonder (they didn’t say it but it was there, in the reverberation of their voices, in their easy laughs) if all that yearning might be ending very soon.
And they were going to dinner! Dinner was unambiguously auspicious.
All she had to do was get through the day. It was a trying morning, more couples therapy than architecture, as Mr and Mrs Ferdinand dithered about whether the third bedroom was an exercise room or a man cave, and the Williamses confessed at the last moment that they wanted to cut the baby’s room in half since, actually, they’d need two master bedrooms instead of one, which was fine; she didn’t care if they slept together or not, only why couldn’t they have told her before she’d finalized the plans?
Throughout the day, in between these meetings, she’d found herself checking her phone as Bob texted her in thrilling bursts ‘Can’t wait!’ She imagined him (Was he tall or short? Probably tall . . . ) sitting in his cubicle (or wherever programmers worked) perking up when his phone buzzed with her response ‘Me 2!’ – the two of them texting away like a couple of teenagers, getting through their day like this, for everybody needed something, didn’t they, to pull them through?
And, to be honest, she was looking forward to a night away from Noah. She hadn’t had a date in almost a year. The dinner with Bob had inspired her, reminding her that she was not living the life she’d planned.
The sacrifices of the single mom had been her mother’s refrain throughout her childhood, delivered always with the same ever–so–slightly rueful smile, as if giving up the rest of your life was the price you had to pay for the only thing that mattered. Try as she might, it was impossible for Janie to imagine her mother other than she was: her nurse’s uniform neatly pressed and tightly belted, her white shoes and bobbed pewter hair, her sharp, knowing blue eyes untouched by time or makeup or any palpable regret (she didn’t believe in it).
You didn’t mess with Ruthie Zimmerman. Even the surgeons she worked with seemed a -little afraid of her, wincing nervously when she and Janie ran into them in the supermarket and Ruth’s eyes followed an unmistakable path from her own vegetable–and–tofu–laden cart to their six–packs of beer and packages of bacon and chips. Nor could you ever envision her going on a date or sleeping in anything besides her plaid flannel pj’s.
When Janie decided to have Noah, she’d been determined that she would do things differently. Which was probably why she had stuck to her plan that night, even when things started to go so palpably awry.
She’d arrived ten minutes early at Noah’s school and spent the time alternately checking for texts from Bob and spying on Noah through the window in the Fours room. The other children were doing something that involved gluing blue–painted macaroni on paper plates while her son, as usual, stood right by Sondra’s side, tossing a Play–Doh ball from hand to hand as he watched her supervise. Janie quelled a spike of jealousy; from his first day at preschool, Noah had been inexplicably attached to the serene Jamaican teacher, trailing her like a puppy. If only he had liked any one of his sitters half as much, it would have made going out so much easier . . .
Marissa, the head teacher, a -woman brimming with natural cheer or caffeination, spotted her at the window and waved her arms as if she were marshaling an airplane, mouthing Can we talk?
Janie sighed – again? – and plopped on the bench in the hallway under a row of construction–paper jack–o’–lanterns.
‘How’s it going with the hand–washing? Any progress?’ Marissa flashed an encouraging smile.
‘A little,’ she said, which was a lie, but better, she thought, than ‘Not at all.’
‘Cause he had to skip art again today.’
‘That’s too bad.’ Janie shrugged in a way she hoped didn’t denigrate the macaroni project. ‘He seems okay with it, though.’
Oh! She felt a current of heat run through her body, as if she’d swum into a warm patch in a cold lake.
‘And he’s getting a little . . .’ She scrunched her nose, too polite to go further. Just say it, Janie thought. Dirty. Her son was dirty. His every ex-posed bit of skin was either sticky or smudged with ink or chalk or glue. There was a red smudge from a Magic Marker that had been on his neck for at least two weeks now. She’d done her best with wipes and coated his hands and wrists with hand sanitizer, which seemed to seal in the grit, as if she had laminated him.
Some kids couldn’t stop washing their hands; hers wouldn’t go near a drop of water without a battle. Thank god he hadn’t hit puberty yet and started to stink, or he’d be like the homeless man in the subway you could smell coming from the next car over.
‘And, um, we’re cooking. Tomorrow? Blueberry muffins? I’d hate for him to miss that!’
‘I’ll talk to him.’
‘Good. Because—’ Marissa cocked her head, her brown eyes welling with concern.
The teacher shook her head. ‘It’d be nice for him, that’s all.’
It’s only muffins, Janie thought, but didn’t say. She stood up; she could see Noah through the little window. He was in the dress-up area, helping Sondra pick up hats. She playfully dropped a fedora on his head, and Janie winced. He looked adorable, but the last thing they needed right now was head lice.
Take off the hat, Noah, she silently willed him.
But Marissa’s voice was chattering in her ear. ‘And, listen . . . Can you ask him not to talk about Voldemort so much in class? It’s disturbing to some of the other kids.’
‘Okay.’ Take. It. Off. ‘Who’s Voldemort?’
‘From the Harry Potter books? I mean, I totally understand if you want to read those books to him, I love them, too, it’s just that . . . I mean, Noah’s advanced, of course, but they aren’t really appro-priate for the other children.’
Janie sighed. They were always making the wrong assumptions when it came to her son. He had a miraculous brain that picked up information seemingly from the air – some stray comment he had heard once, perhaps, who knew? – but they always tried to make it mean something else.
‘Noah doesn’t know anything about Harry Potter. I’ve never even read the books myself. And I would never let him watch those movies. Perhaps another child here told him about them, one with an older sibling?’
‘But—’ The teacher’s brown eyes blinked. She opened her mouth again to say something and then seemed to reconsider. ‘Well, listen, just tell him to lay off the dark stuff, okay? Thanks so much—’ she said, opening the door to a mosh pit of four–year–olds covered with blue paint and macaroni.
Janie stood in the doorway, waiting until Noah spotted her.
Ah, this was always the best moment of her day: the way he lit up when he caught sight of her, that crooked, face–splitting grin as he tumbled forward, taking a running leap across the room and hurling himself into her arms. He wrapped his legs around her waist like a monkey and placed his forehead right against hers, looking at her with a merry gravity all his own, as if to say, Oh, yes, I remember you. It was her mother’s eyes looking back at her, and her own eyes, too, a clear blue that looked quite nice thank–you–very–much on her own face, but on Noah, surrounded by the profusion of blond ringlets, took on another dimension entirely, so that people always did a little double take upon looking at him as if ethereal beauty, located in a boy child, was some kind of trick.
His capacity for joy always stunned her, something he taught her merely by looking in her face.
Now she stepped outside with Noah into the darkening October afternoon and felt the world telescoping momentarily to the small figure bouncing on his toes beside her. They walked hand in hand beneath the trees, rows of brownstones flanking the sidewalks as far as they could see.
The phone buzzed in her pocket, bringing her back, suddenly, to Bob, that invisible collection of traits (deep voice; delighted laugh) that hadn’t yet knitted together into a whole human being.
Feel like I know u already. Weird?’
‘No!’ she texted. ‘Same here!’ (Was this true? Maybe.) Should she xo? Or was that too forward? She settled for a single x. He responded immediately: ‘XXX!’
Oh! She felt a current of heat run through her body, as if she’d swum into a warm patch in a cold lake.
They walked by the café on their corner, and the scent drew her in; she decided to fortify herself for the conversation ahead. She pulled Noah inside.
‘Where we going, Mommy–Mom?’
‘I just want a coffee. I’ll be quick.’
‘Mom, if you drink coffee now you’ll be up ’til dawn.’
She laughed; it was like something a grown-up might say. ‘You’re right, Noey. I’ll have a decaf. Okay?’
‘Please don’t go.’ But his voice wavered, as if he knew the jig was up.
‘And can I have a decaf corn muffin?’
‘All right.’ It was too close to his dinnertime, of course, but what the hell?
‘And a decaf smoothie?’
She ruffled his hair. ‘Decaf water for you, my friend.’
The coffee was fragrant as they finally settled down with their bounty on their stoop. The sun was setting beyond the buildings. The light, rosy and tender, brought out the blush in the brick town houses and the brownstones, glancing on the loosening leaves of the trees. The gas lamp out front was flickering. It had been the deciding factor convincing her to rent the place, despite the fact that it was expensive, on the garden level, and had no direct sunlight. But the mahogany woodwork inside and the pleasant hedges and gas lamp out front made her feel cozy, as if she and Noah could burrow together there safely, apart from the world, apart from time. She hadn’t counted on the fact that the always–flickering flame out the front window would catch her gaze at odd times during the day and reflect itself in the back kitchen windows at night, making her startle more than once with the feeling that the house was on fire.
She cleaned Noah’s grimy hands with an anti-bacterial wipe and handed him his muffin.
‘You know, they’re making muffins tomorrow in school. How about it?’
He took a bite, triggering a cascade of crumbs.
‘Will I have to wash up after?’
‘Well, cooking is messy. There is flour and raw eggs . . .’
‘Oh.’ He licked his fingers. ‘Then, no.’
‘We can’t keep doing it this way forever, bug.’
She didn’t bother answering him – they’d been around and around this, and she had other things she needed to say.
‘Hey.’ She nudged him gently.
He was busy, working away at his corn muffin. How could she have let him order that? The thing was enormous. ‘Listen, I’m -going out to-night.’
He stared at her. He put down the muffin. ‘No, you’re not.’
She took a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry, kiddo.’
A wild light shone in his eyes. ‘But I don’t want you to go.’
‘I know, but Mommy has to go out sometimes, Noah.’
‘So take me with you.’
Because it wouldn’t kill Mommy to get laid at least once before you go off to college. ‘It’s a grown-up thing.’
He blitzed her with a desperate, crooked smile. ‘But I’m precocious.’
Good try, buddy, but no. It’ll be fine. You like Annie. Remember? She came over to Mommy’s office last weekend and played Legos with you?’
‘What if I have a nightmare?’
She’d considered this. His nightmares were frequent. He’d had one once while she was out networking at an industry event; she’d returned to find him glassy–eyed and shaking in front of a Dora the Explorer video while the sitter (who had seemed so high–spirited! Who had brought homemade brownies!) lifted a few fingers in a limp wave from where she lay, haggard and shell–shocked, on the couch. That one had never come back, either.
‘Then Annie will wake you up and hug you and call Mommy. But you won’t.’
He was no fool. He had calculated that the thing he hated most in the world was worth tolerating in order to keep her home. He had wanted her there that much.
‘What if I have an asthma attack?’
‘Then Annie will give you your nebulizer and I’ll come home right away. But you haven’t had one in a long time.’
‘Please don’t go.’ But his voice wavered, as if he knew the jig was up.
She was already dressed, fussing with her hair while half–following a YouTube video of a giggling teenager showing the correct way to put on eye shadow – which was surprisingly helpful, actually – when she heard Noah’s high voice summoning her from the living room.
‘Mommy–Mom! Come here!’
Was SpongeBob over already? Didn’t they play those shows in an endless loop?
She padded to the room in black stockinged feet. All was as she’d left it, the bowl of baby carrots un-touched on the leather coffee -table, SpongeBob bellowing as he ambled on his weird bowlegs across the screen, but Noah was nowhere in sight. Something flashed in the pass–through to the kitchen. Was it the reflection of the flickering gas lamp?
‘Hey, look at this!’
It wasn’t the flickering gas lamp.
As she rounded the corner and caught a glimpse of him, standing by the kitchen counter next to an open carton of organic omega-3–enhanced brown eggs, smashing one after the other over his springy blond head, she felt the night slipping away from her.
No; she wouldn’t let it. Anger rose from no-where: her life, her life, her only life, and couldn’t she have a little bit of fun, just one night? Was that really too much to ask?
‘See, Mommy?’ he said, sweetly enough, but there was no mistaking the willfulness glowing on his face. ‘I’m making egg–Noah. Get it? Like eggnog?’
How did he even know what eggnog was? Why did he always know things that nobody had told him about?
‘Watch.’ He picked up another egg, swung his arm back, and hurled it at the center of the wall, whooping as it splattered. ‘Fastball!’
‘What is wrong with you?’ she said.
He flinched and dropped the egg in his other hand.
She tried to modulate her voice. ‘Why would you do such a thing?’
‘I don’t know.’ He seemed a bit frightened.
She tried to calm herself. ‘You’re going to have to take a bath now. You know that, right?’
He shuddered at the word. Egg was rolling down his face, oozing into the hollow of his neck. ‘Don’t go,’ he said, blue eyes nailing her to the wall with his need.
He was no fool. He had calculated that the thing he hated most in the world was worth tolerating in order to keep her home. He had wanted her there that much. Could Bob, who had never even met her, compete with that?
No, no, no; she would go! For god’s sake: it was enough! She wouldn’t succumb to this kind of blackmail, especially from a child! She was the adult, after all – wasn’t that what they always said in her single moms’ group? You make the rules. You need to hold firm, especially because you’re the only adult. You’re not doing them any favors by giving in.
The scream could probably be heard all the way down Eighth Avenue.
She lifted him in her arms (he was light; he was only a baby, her boy, only four). She carried him into the bathroom and held his squirming body tightly in her arms as she turned on the water faucet and checked the temperature.
He was writhing and screeching like a trapped animal. She stepped to the edge of the bathtub and placed him on the bath mat (legs sliding, arms flailing), somehow managing to pull off his clothes and flip on the shower.
The scream could probably be heard all the way down Eighth Avenue. He fought as if his life depended on it, but she did it, she held him there under the water and squirted shampoo on his head, telling herself again and again that she wasn’t torturing anybody, she was only giving her son a very–much–needed washing.
When it was over (a matter of seconds, though it felt endless) he was lying in a heap on the floor of the bathtub, and she was bleeding. In the midst of the chaos, he had craned his neck and bitten her ear. She tried to wrap him in a towel, but he wrenched away from her, scrambling out of the tub and into his bedroom, skidding on the floor. She took some antibiotic from the medicine cabinet and applied it while she listened to the howls reverberating throughout the -house, filling every cell in her body with woe.
She looked in the mirror.
Whatever she was, she was not a woman going out on a first date.
She walked to Noah’s room. He was on the floor, naked, rocking, with his knees clasped between his arms – a puddle of a boy, pale skin glimmering in the green light cast by the glow–in–the–dark stars she’d pasted on the ceiling to make the tiny room feel bigger than it was.
He didn’t look at her. He was crying softly into his knees. ‘I want to go home.’ It was something he said in times of distress since he was a toddler. It had been his first full sentence. She always answered in the same way: ‘You are home.’
‘I want my mama.’
‘I’m here, baby.’
He looked away from her. ‘Not you. I want my other mother.’
‘I’m your mommy, honey.’
He turned. His doleful eyes locked onto hers. ‘No, you’re not.’
A chill ran through her. She was aware of herself as if from a distance, standing over this shivering boy under the eerie light of the fake stars. The wood floor was rough beneath her feet, its knots like holes a person could fall through, like falling out of time.
‘Yep. Your one and only.’
‘I want my other one. When is she coming?’
She pulled herself together with an effort. Poor kid, she thought; I’m all you’ve got. We’re all we’ve got, the two of us. But we’ll make it work. I’ll do better. I promise. She squatted by his side. ‘I won’t go, okay?’
She’d send Bob an apologetic text, and that would be the end of that. For what could she say? Remember that adorable son I mentioned? Well, he’s a little unusual . . . No, theirs was too fragile a connection to withstand those sorts of complications, and there was always another lonely New York woman waiting in the wings. She’d cancel the sitter and pay her anyway, because it was the last minute and she couldn’t afford to lose another one.
‘I won’t go,’ she said again. ‘I’ll cancel Annie. I’ll stay with you.’ She was grateful, not for the first time, that no adult was there to witness this weak moment.
But who cared what other people thought? The color rose to Noah’s face, a blossoming of pink on clammy skin, and his lopsided grin knocked her sideways, blotted out the room. It was like looking at the sun. Maybe her mother was right after all, she thought. Maybe some forces were too strong to resist.
‘C’mere, you goof.’ She held out her arms, throwing all of it to the wind: the dress, the date, this thrilling night and perhaps all the thrilling nights left to her, a woman aging by the moment, squarely in the -middle of her one and only life.
Here, in her arms, was what mattered. She kissed his sweet, damp head. He smelled nice, for once.
He lifted his face. ‘Is my other mother coming soon?’