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152| Here & Not Here: New Love Bearings

Jennifer Murvin

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Here

My son Ethan came to the front door after the three days wearing clothes I did not buy for him. We said a quick goodbye to his father, my former husband. We did not watch him walk or drive away.

“Who bought those for you?” I asked Ethan about the shoes, which were Pumas. I asked him even though of course his dad had bought them. They were white and sleek and thin on his growing feet. They had velcro instead of laces. They were beautiful shoes. I had bought him three pairs not long before. Shoes from Target. He was five years old; he had scuffed them all in a week.

“Dad.”

“I like your shirt,” I said. White, with little red stripes across the front, a tank top, perfect for summer. He had new pants on, too, a bright orange. He would have not looked out of place in Cancun or south Florida or Whole Foods. He was a little boy going places. He had the look of a young man at a party who knows everyone, who makes a margarita with a secret ingredient as simple and brilliant as beer.

Every time he came home, there was an awareness of time passing, of time already passed. When I snuggled him at bedtime, he held me to his chest.

“We went to the mall,” he said now. He was casual, making his way to the Legos.

“Oh,” I said. I did not ask, did you get a cookie? A soft pretzel? Did someone hold your hand in the parking lot? “You are so handsome,” I said. He was a little different every time he came home from the three days away from me. His eyelashes were darker, like a Spanish woman’s. He had new words: ridiculous, Mississippi, Titanic.

Not Here

On Sunday morning, I bring Ethan to his father’s condominium to begin their three days together. This is the routine. I’ve been inside the fifteenth floor apartment, mostly in the early days of the divorce when the former husband and I thought we could be friends, better friends even. We didn’t have to lose anything. One of the rooms in the condo has a wall entirely made of mirrors. This room is where he has put the pool table, which we bought while I was pregnant with our son, thinking it might be a thing to do during the nights home with a new baby. We had sex on it only once. In college, I had taught him how to play nine ball, to use the stick to imagine angles for a ricochet.

The condo has three bedrooms and two balconies, which star in my nightmares: Ethan wanders outside, unsupervised, and somehow climbs the chair to look at the view. The nightmares stop there, him peering over, fifteen floors up, maybe a bird or snow, a feeling of horror. The hallways are carpeted and smell like spices or wet towels or old cologne, carpet that has known a lot of cooking but cooking not performed by the same person. The doormen are both in their seventies. One told Ethan he had been in the air force and that he loved the feeling of flying, like a superpower. He imagined Ethan might like comics. In Springfield, Missouri, the Ozarks, all hills and churches and small restaurants and trucks and phrases such as, “I am tickled to see you,” or, “What time to you get home of an evening?”, Ethan rides an elevator up to his condo and has a thirty-four inch flat screen television in his own room. His room’s large windows overlook the city’s regional baseball field, and on the rare Friday night he is at his father’s condo, Ethan can watch fireworks explode below.

Here

The grocery store is the scene of our showdowns. There could be whistling, a tumbleweed. I could be wearing a long coat that dusts the road. Ethan could be approaching, hand to hip, his father’s eyes framed in my mother’s lashes, narrowed.

“Can I play on your phone?” No. When he has my phone he bumps into the cart, wanders like a drunk man.

“Can I sit in the cart?” No. He is far too tall, too big now, almost six years old. When he sits in the cart, in the little front section where he faces me, his legs get stuck, his shoes bent in odd angles, my purse hanging awkwardly from my shoulder, full of books, my students’ paragraphs waiting to be graded.

“This is the worst day!” he says, small fists thumping against his thighs. This woman smiles, that woman frowns, that man examines a pineapple. “Why do you always take me to the store? Why do I have to go to the store? Why can’t you go without me? I never have to go to the store with my dad! I want my dad! Why am I with you so much? I’m with you for a hundred days!”

The butter is on sale. I might make cookies. I should take some to the neighbors like my mother would.

“Can I have a chocolate milk?” No. Too much sugar this close to dinner time.

He is so thirsty. He is so thirsty, he is going to die. I am going to let him die of thirst.

Pringles? No. Cookies? No. No no no. I grab his arm a little too tight and pull him toward the cart.

“You’re hurting me!” The cart is squealing. “It’s not fair! You don’t let me stay with my dad! You have me for a hundred days!”

“I love having you. I’m lucky to have you.”

“Stop bragging!” His voice carrying across the tomatoes.

Sugar-free pudding for his lunches this week. Almonds. I won’t have time to shop after this, more snow is coming.

We could have chicken pasta tonight, spaghetti. I could splurge, make Chicken Marbella, the dish my childhood best friend’s British mother cooked for birthdays and graduations before the colon cancer strangled her from the inside. Ethan loves the prunes, cooked in olive oil, garlic, oregano, capers, brown sugar, wine. I need the smell of it tonight, I decide. The memories it brings to me this far from where I grew up in California.

I have explained again and again. The cereal aisle my witness. His dad and I love him, we both want him, I get him four days, Dad gets three, I get weekends so it feels like more. He can call his dad any time, I didn’t make the decision. I love having him with me, I feel lucky to have him, I always want him. His dad always wants him. No chocolate milk this close to dinnertime, no cookies before dinner. Fruity Pebbles are bad for him, I don’t care if he gets them at Dad’s, Mommy has Honey Nut O’s. He will not die of thirst, suck it up, swallow your spit.

By the time we are in line, he is crying. I am the meanest Mom on earth, I never let him have anything. When he has children, he will give them whatever they want, all the time.

“Will that be it, ma’am?” The cashier does not look at me.

In the car, he wants to play on my phone.

“Absolutely not.” In the quiet privacy of the car, I am able to raise my voice. I ask, How could he do this me? Embarrass me in the store like that?

He hates this! He hates the store! Why do I do this to him?

I say, He is pushing it, really pushing it. Does he want to lose his bedtime story?

No, no, he’ll be good, he’s just so tired, no recess today, again! It’s so cold! They won’t let him out for recess! He loves me!

I love him, I always love him, but he cannot keep doing this in the store!

He’s sorry, Mommy. He is the worst!

He is not the worst. He is not the worst. I always love him. I would like the put the store behind us. Should we start over?

Yes, he’s sorry for being naughty. He loves me. He wants to start over.

Great, good.

(Pause.)

Can he play on my phone?

Not Here

A week after living my new house, I discovered that when I filled up the bathtub, the power went out. Not just my power, but the power to the entire block. This happened often enough that I understood the two events were connected, like the moon and the tides. Turn on the hot; watch the lights flicker; listen to the airy electrical sound as the light bulbs burst dead; observe the sparks from the transformer in the backyard trees like a failed firework; walk naked over wood floors.

The water in the bath, in the dark, was lavender, warm, amniotic. In the bath, I observed my stomach, my thighs, my freckles, shaved bubbles from my legs in strips. Here, tiled walls made every move echo-worthy. Here, I made lists: milk, toilet paper, crayons, swing set. I read books with lines like, “There have been three presidents since I held her in my arms.” This night, Ethan was at his dad’s house, and so his room a door down the hall was empty. I had been in the house two weeks. I had begun to close Ethan’s door the nights he was not here. He was only four and did not know what it meant that his parents had divorced and he lived in two houses now. I did not know what it meant. What he did know: A boat will sink when filled with too many Legos. Water left inside the plastic whale makes it smell. What I knew: The lavender I grew in a pot on the step could be dried and combined with oils and Epsom salts in an airtight container and in my bath, its grains crunched pleasantly under my back. I could afford the mortgage for the new house on my own without the alimony but not without the child support.

The three nights a week my son was at his father’s house, and I took long baths and too often, the power went out. I was not afraid of the dark, but dark water made me afraid.

My house and the houses around mine plunged into primal, historical night. My bathtub controlled the electricity of a block of houses in the small neighborhood just south of the university where I taught, blocks away from a Spanish professor, the English Education professor, houses with dogs and children and retired grandparents and gardens. Springfield, Missouri, home of my son’s father, his father’s mother and father and sister and brother, birthplace of Brad Pitt, headquarters of Bass Pro Fishing. My neighbors couldn’t make sense of the power outages. On these nights, typically between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., they might have to rush to their children, to their candles and flashlights. The television show was recording, hopefully, but what if it wasn’t? They’d been waiting all week for the new Mad Men. This activity was because of me, my bathtub, the new-to-me house with the 1950s stove that pulled out from the oven like a secret room.

I didn’t call the electrician for a long time.

Instead I thought about how my widowed aunt left a pair of man’s shoes outside her front door to imply that a large, formidable man lived there, too.

I imagined what it would be like to call the electrician, to answer the door with my hair wet. What if I saw the electrician and I wanted him to put his hands on my hipbones? What if I wanted him to kiss me, fill me with his electrician smells of lightening and drywall dust? What if I asked him to please stay while I took a bath, please guard outside the door? Please come in, I am so lonely in the darkness.

In my mind the electrician comes to the door with one of those old Victorian lamps. His eyes are glowing orbs and his teeth are very white as he tells me how beautiful I look in candlelight, how he will fix everything that needs to be fixed, how everything is under control.

Here

October. Mums like jewelry on porch steps, leaves the color of amber beads, rust, dying coals. There is rain in the wind even when the sky is clear, rain coming from the leaves themselves.

Ethan’s 6th birthday party will be at my house, will include my parents and pregnant sister flown in from California as guests, my best friends and their children, some new friends made in the few months Ethan has been in kindergarten. The former husband has called to insist on bringing his new girlfriend to the party. Cassie is twenty-one years old to my thirty-one, a fashion major at the university where I teach, and she is blond and petite and the opposite of myself in the way that I have dated men who are writers with no money and beautiful words and tortured childhoods.

I have met Cassie a few times; she is pretty, girlish. Her slightly crooked front teeth and high voice bring out motherly feelings. If she were my student, I would find her open face comforting, I would want to teach her something. She reminds me of a babysitter, old enough to drive a car, young enough to make this barter because every night for her can be a weekend night. She is, in fact, the perfect person for the former husband: grateful, sweet. She is kind to Ethan, plays with him, takes photographs. She smiles at me when I see her and is eager to chat if I ask her a question.

But I say no, she can’t come. I tell him, Fuck. You. It is the period of time after the divorce when I speak to the former husband primarily in curse words.

He says it was my choice to have the party at my house, I could have had it at a neutral location, and I say, like last year in that fucking shithole?

“Yes, like last year at Incredible Pizza,” he says.

I do not say, I want a party for Ethan like the parties we had before the divorce, parties at our home where I have planned crafts and gift bags and cooked pots of chili and baked loaves of pumpkin bread. The phrase lands softly in my mind: a family party.

“Fuck you fuck you fuck fuck you,” I say, because my life right now is the redefinition of the word family and that work is exhausting me, especially when my only language is curse words.

Of course, Cassie will come to the party.

The morning of the party, I imagine Cassie in my bathroom, her eyes over my soap, my perfume the former husband might recognize from the twelve years that came before her, the years she was ages nine through twenty-one.

In the hour before the party begins, I leave to pick up cupcakes and choose this time to call and inform my former husband of his half of the party bill.

“Do you have receipts?” he says.

“Asshole.”

“It’s not that I think you would lie about the amount, I just want to know what the money’s going to,” he says. He is very rich. He makes ten times the salary I earn as a college instructor.

“No. Fuck you.”

“You can’t call me the hour before my son’s party and tell me I need to bring a check!” he yells.

Why have I called? I have no idea. It’s our son’s party. I paid for the cupcakes and the woman at the bakery had been kind, worn a scarf on her head and flour on her hands. My parents are looking at me like I have been diagnosed with a terminal disease. My father has noticed two kinds of wood in my floors. My sister’s belly is beautiful with my niece growing inside.

When I arrive at home with the cupcakes, my mother recognizes the look on my face and removes the boxes from my arms. The cupcakes are red velvet, lemon, pumpkin, chocolate, sweet cream, some with little candies on top in corresponding flavors and shapes. I tell her, I want the party to be perfect. I tell her about the fight, and I can see her shoulders actually, physically square up. She will protect Ethan, myself, from this emotion she sees in my face. To call it anger would be too narrow, to call it grief would be closer, but I am not jealous of the new girlfriend. The emotion is Ethan turning six years old, those years passing like waking up in the dark. The emotion is his large white shoes, the memory of fall afternoons as he kicked me from the inside, kicked me all the way out. The emotion is my new house where I have painted the walls a soft pale green, the rooms clean and open and vulnerable. My parents’ casual, fundamental partnership. I do not know enough ways to curse.

Ethan never stops smiling during the party. He is swinging on the new swing set, my birthday present for him, with his friends. He is swinging into the sky. He is pretending to be a pirate and there are enough children for a thorough pretending. Soon he is eating pizza, eyeing the presents piled up on the piano. He is eating a pumpkin cupcake, he is shining as a room of thirty people who love him sing Happy Birthday. I breathe. My closest girlfriends flock around me in protective detail. One, I notice, is posted to the kitchen, another outside. I have lit a fire in a fire pit installed days after Ethan drew a picture in school of his “Favorite Things,” which featured a mother and son roasting marshmallows. Former husband and Cassie remain at a careful distance from me. They chat with my neighbor. I see my former husband’s sister touch my sister’s pregnant stomach.

Everything is fine. Most of this is love.

After the kids assemble construction paper and small puffy balls in the shape of turkeys, we go outside for the piñata. It is shaped like a spaceship.

Somehow the children are lined up and I have taken on the task of wrapping handkerchiefs around their heads and the former husband is supervising the spinning and the hitting. We move in a sort of tandem, circling children through the line, wrap the head, hand over the bat, moderate the swinging. He and I fall into rhythm, both taking the lead in this final activity at our son’s birthday party.

My parents and my sister and the friends who knew us when we were married watch this. I watch it myself, the two people whose son was born to them six years ago, this man and woman who used to share a home, a bed, a life, a name. But there is no more shock or sadness.

Like driving by a house you had lived in once. The emotion is the new paint, the uprooted tree. And you drive on.

Not Here

How does the mother sleep in a house while her child’s bedroom is empty? Is she even a mother in those times, or something else? What would that something else be? When he is not there, she cleans his toys, washes his laundry, reaches across his cartoon yogurts toward the wine. She does it because this is the life she has chosen.

Did she choose this? It seems melodramatic to say it was this or die. Even that is a lie. The only way she could choose this life is that she had no idea how it would feel to sleep in a house where her child’s bedroom is empty. She understood this only after she had decided, which was the only way she could have decided, in the fog of that ignorance. But she cannot undo the awareness any more than she can undo this new life.

“Are you happy now?” the former husband asks her.

Hope is itself a form of happiness.

The mother has a job teaching creative writing at the university. She writes comments on her students’ stories such as, “Is this ending too tidy?” She reads their stories about cancer patients, grandparents with dementia, zombie lovers, neglected children, abusive husbands, cheating wives, serial killers, trees that talk, detectives who are the criminals, landscapes, the first hunt, the first kiss. She corrects commas, throws names of stories and writers out to them like confetti. Her former students visit her with new stories for her to read. They lend each other books and she feels in these moments not completely emptied.

She meets her friends for breakfast crepes and baked cinnamon apples, laughs and discusses their children and love lives and divorces and new jobs. Sometimes she reads the women lines from her new essays and they listen for the parts where they are the characters. She calls her pregnant sister and helps plan the baby’s going home from the hospital outfit, white with pink bows, a pink headband from Etsy, white booties. She orders her pregnant sister a necklace with the new baby’s name on it, the baby’s birthstone. She books flights. She cooks small dinners and doesn’t do the dishes until the next day. She meets friends at 8 p.m. at a local wine bar that makes its own coffee. Her baths are made of lavender and books and the dog who won’t stop licking her shoulder.

Her bedtimes are made of setting the house alarm and checking email and dreaming about men she has known and not known, their hands and mouths, the weight of their bodies, and sometimes the imagining is enough but mostly it is not.

In all of these hours, she is wondering if her boy is safe and if he is happy. What he is eating for lunch. Does he have his gloves? He would love this song. Did he turn in the form to his teacher? Did the former husband remember to bring snack? Is her boy brushing his teeth? Is he in bed now? Is he up yet? What were his dreams? Does he remember her. Will he come back.

When he is here, her parenting is in gesture – her body as mother, the physical business of loving and caring for a child. He climbs her, pulls on her hair, pokes her face, refuses to put on his shoes, takes off his socks because the seam feels wrong. She moves the hair from his forehead, rubs his back, flips his eggs, heats milk for cocoa, tends his dishes. She absorbs his accusations, his refusals, his resistance, his deep and trusting love. He tests, she explodes, he cries, she cries. She makes choices and she instructs, apologizes and makes mistakes and learns and makes mistakes and feels radiant and guilty and defeated and there is nothing, nothing like this love.

This is the work. His fingers run along her arm as she reads the words of his books. He takes her pillow, sleeps with his feet against her chest, breathes little boy breath into her face. Her home is an extension of her body, her body being his first home. The curtains over his windows, the quilt chosen for its warmth in weight and color, photographs of the faces of the people cast into and out of his life. The choice and the action and mess of Legos and airplanes and puzzles and superheroes and books and his endless art, his jeans and shirts and sweaters and jackets and socks and shoes. Her body is tired at the end of these days, she sleeps hard if not dreamless after the work of her mothering.

When he is not here, she must turn all of this inward. Maybe not unlike how it was when she carried him within her, when parenting was simply and not simply an awareness of him, a fundamental rooting from which he is free now. It was an utterly intimate, private change, a rewiring. When he is not here, the mothering turned inward overwhelms everything else. This does not stop her from teaching, writing, cooking, eating, cleaning, walking the dog, kissing an artist, planting her roses. It does not stop as the rivers do not stop even as they are being shaped by the earth. It does not stop as the wind does not stop even as it is funneled through trees and hair, as the words in a book do not stop haunting the reader until she can come home, unfold the page, take up the story.

Jennifer Murvin's essays and stories have appeared in The Sun, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Bellingham Review, Midwestern Gothic, Baltimore Review, Revolver, and Huizache, among others. She teaches writing at Missouri State University and holds an MFA from Pacific University. For more of Jen's writing, please visit jennifermurvin.virb.com.

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