Knowing it would be the least daunting hurdle of the day, Toni wrestled her younger daughter into a pastel pink snow suit and stoppered all extremities with matching boots and mittens. Claire fought her down parka (zebra print) and fleece hat (hot pink) tooth and nail until Toni threatened to remove the night light from her room. Anything to get out the door.
Things would be different if they could afford a second car. She'd enroll Claire at the Montessori in Monte Vista and get a solitary drive back home out of the bargain. She and Alan had started a joint savings account just before Claire's birth in a moment of hope, but the balance now stood at $0.07: the total interest that had built before they cleaned it out to buy their elder daughter's glasses last August.
Elise was eight, and, being the more pliable of Toni's two children, was far less invested in testing the limits of her personal autonomy than her sister. She favored her mother in appearance: dark-haired, dark-eyed, weak-chinned with a downturned mouth, her face now framed by tortoiseshell cat-eye glasses that Toni had picked out. She had also inherited her mother’s self-seriousness and a round-shouldered bearing that made her appear sullen even when she smiled. She was home for the week on winter break and Toni had made a list of tasks meant to occupy her every afternoon—some chores, mostly things that must have registered as homework to Elise. She had finished it all by the second day, and had spent this, the third morning of her winter break, mooning around the house as she heaved sighs of boredom and brushing up against Toni’s hips like an overgrown cat. Her bangs were falling into her eyes. Toni had the sudden urge to march her to the kitchen, place a ceramic bowl on her head, and cut around the rim.
When Toni mentioned that was how her mother had groomed her for her first grade portrait, Alan had told her he thought it was just one of those maternal archetypes, the myth of the Mom Pushed Past Her Limit. She was not good at knowing, before she began the telling, which of her childhood stories would be funny and which would be horrifying. Alan’s features began migrating toward the center of his face when she veered too close to the pitiful, and that’s when she knew to shut off the spigot of her memory. He had been raised in a supportive and loving family. His parents were still together, and both of them were very kind to her, which made her suspicious. They were the first people to make her feel truly ashamed of her family.
“Mom,” Elise said.
Toni opened the front hall closet and pulled down a scarf from the top shelf. Elise came to stand by Toni's elbow.
“Mom,” she said.
Toni wrapped the scarf around her neck and put on her down parka.
“Mom,” Elise said.
Toni zipped up her parka and hoisted Claire into the stroller.
“Mom,” Elise said.
“Can I watch TV?”
“Fine,” Toni said. “Shut the door behind me, but don't lock it.”
Elise nodded, tilting her chin toward her chest but still looking up at her mother, bug-eyed, her expression grave. She looked like a monk in a medieval painting, minus the tonsure. She also looked a little like one of the demon sidekicks in Hercules, which was the last movie anyone in the family had watched. Toni felt herself rolling her eyes as she wheeled the stroller outside.
By the time she got to the end of her block she felt like she was fighting against the day. There always came a point in the season when she began to relish the idea that the weather was punishing her. When she pushed the stroller along in front of her, shot through by the wind, watery-eyed and snot-nosed, she secretly liked to imagine she was the only true source of kinetic energy in the world. If Alan knew she did this, he would never let go of it. Sometimes she thought they were together because he was a physicist, or an almost-physicist. Whatever kind of physicist a post-doctoral candidate was, he was. What he saw as her refusal to comprehend even the most basic scientific principles tickled him endlessly. She never felt more like a waitress—not a human but a waitress, with a chemical makeup distinct from that of people who get waited on—than in the moments she allowed him to talk about his work in any detail. When they met she had been a program associate for a human rights organization.
Toni dreaded the day, now fast approaching, that Claire would outgrow the stroller. This was not only because her daughter was a particularly unmanageable two-year-old—at nearly three feet tall and not yet in full command of whatever motor skill was required to stop throwing everything on the ground—but because her morning walks had become a sacred ritual. She liked to walk until the wind crept up the cuffs of her jacket sleeves and forced her to admit that Nature, or whatever, was a terrifying thing. At that point it would always occur to her that the out-of-body experience that also occasionally overtook her during long trips on public transportation had ceased, and she would feel diminished. But then she would check the pedometer app on her phone and see how many calories she had burned. By the time she returned home she would be ready to believe it was bearable.
Alan liked to tell her the story of the first time they met. They had both gone to a rooftop barbeque in the middle of summer. She had worn sunscreen that was supposed to smell like lavender—though if he remembered that he left it out—and a sundress that blew up past her waist in the breeze within thirty seconds of her arrival. She had punched it down, gripped the hem in each hand, and held it against her thighs for the remainder of the party. Alan had turned his head at the sound of the door to the roof slamming shut behind her just in time to witness a fact he was fairly sure most of the other guests had also noticed: she was not wearing any underwear.
They were living back east then, she in her early twenties and he a decade older. They shared a few mutual friends, all of whom later registered to her as people she would lose should she and Alan ever split up, since they had known him longer and, in any case, liked him better. He liked to tell her about watching her move around the roof on the day of the barbeque, her hem in one hand and a red solo cup full of wine in the other, visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of sustaining conversation with any of the other guests. Here was the point in the story where he would tell her he was a mess back then. Every time, he'd follow up that pronouncement with what he considered the end of the story:
“I kept looking over at you. We were both very drunk, and I kept thinking, why do we do this to ourselves.”
Toni had never figured out what he meant when he said this, but she knew he thought it was very romantic. He probably liked to believe she had saved him from himself. But she hadn't been drunk. She didn't remember feeling any more anxious than was normal for a twenty-three-year-old who had to go to work the next morning. In fact, the only thing she remembered about that day was how angry the afternoon heat had made her, and how little she wanted to be there.
The first thing Toni did when she returned was strip Claire down to a t-shirt and diaper, then plop her in the playpen (which, like her stroller, she would also soon outgrow).
Elise came into the hallway from the living room, dragging her feet. Toni could hear the opening credits of ER emanating from the television her daughter had left on, the volume as high as it could go.
“Mom,” Elise said.
“Turn off the television,” Toni said.
“But Mom, I'm watching Urr,” she said.
“It's E.R. It's an abbreviation.”
“What's it stand for?”
Toni wrestled with her scarf, threw it on the floor, and shook her winter boots off her feet. “Emergency Room. Now turn off the T.V., sit at the kitchen table, and spell those words out for me fifty times over.”
“Mom,” Elise said, steamrolling the vowel the way only kids can. Mawm.
Children took so much longer than the span of their infancy to become actual humans. Toni wanted to fast forward eight years into the future, when she could finally be Cool Mom. She had a vision of herself collecting car keys and distributing red Solo cups after a Homecoming dance, still looking the right side of 35, presiding over a living room full of kids sleeping it off in the predawn hours. She and Elise would be best friends, like Toni's mom and grandmother had been. That kind of relationship is so rare and intense it had to skip a generation, but it ran in the family on her mother's side. This was another notion Alan would deride if he knew she took it to heart. She could picture him shaking his head and smiling, beneficent. Don't you know how DNA works? he would ask her. If she had wanted to know that she would be a biologist right now.
“I'm taking a shower. When I get back downstairs I'll check your work.”
Elise said nothing, but Toni could see a sulk begin to work her face over. She turned and climbed the stairs before her daughter could finish devolving into full brat mode.
In the bathroom, she ran the water as hot as she thought she could physically stand. The showerhead sputtered to life, and she stepped under the stream. It took her less than five minutes to scrub down, shave, and wash her hair. She devoted another three to masturbation. She had discovered, since she and Alan had moved to South Fork, that she actually preferred physical contact to be brief and straightforward, even when it came to touching herself. She was proud of her proficiency.
Toni figured she had maybe ten minutes left before one or the other of her children started screaming. She nudged the faucet dial just a little bit in the direction of hot, faced the showerhead, and looked at the ceiling. She had the idea that the fastest way to get warm was to position her sternum just below the stream of water. She thought of Little Women, of the nights the Marches must have sat up and tended to their perpetually ill sister, applying various tinctures. She wasn’t sure such scenes occurred in either the book or the movies, but she had administered Vicks to Elise when she had the flu in October.
She arched her back, looked at the tiles on the wall above the far end of the tub. This was one of the ways she tested out the theory that she was getting old. Most of the others involved anti-aging creams. The blood rush started to give her a headache, so she brought her chin to her chest and looked down the line of her sternum. She saw that the skin above her heart actually moved in time with her pulse. She was beginning to overheat.
Toni turned off the shower, toweled off, and stepped out of the tub. Outside the door, the girls were suspiciously quiet. It occurred to her that today might be the day that Claire outgrew the playpen, that she had escaped and something terrible had befallen her. Or, as would more likely be the case, Toni would open the door to the hallway and find her daughter coloring over the decrepit paisley wallpaper with scented markers. Whatever. That would constitute home improvement. She imagined the clink clink of glass on glass and Claire sitting outside in a dirty diaper, whispering, Mommy, come out to play-eee-yay.
She leaned over the sink to wipe the condensation off the mirror above it with the palm of her hand and peered into the glass. She looked like shit. She opened the medicine cabinet and took out a shade of lipstick called Neon Red and smeared it over her upper and bottom lips in a single stroke. She still looked like shit. She didn't wipe it off. She took a few swipes at herself with some Wet n' Wild mascara, dabbed some anti-aging cream under her eyes, and didn't look into the mirror again.
In the bedroom, she left the towel on the floor and struggled to pull a pair of well-worn jeans past her hips. They were a signpost from another time in her life (pre-babies, post-eating disorder), but she could still get them buttoned and zipped. Over her jeans she threw on a flannel shirt that had once belonged to the fourth ex-boyfriend in line behind Alan. The guy had been a greasy Nicolas Cage lookalike, an artist with the requisite drug habit and an ex-fiancée ten years his senior with whom he still shared an apartment. Their relationship had ended unceremoniously, as had all his previous involvements, but Toni looked back on their time together with fondness because she had kept a good chunk of his wardrobe. She didn't know where he'd ended up, but she was sure he would've had something nasty to say about her present set of circumstances. She took comfort in the thought that someone had probably found his used-up body in a drainage ditch back in 2009.
Downstairs, Claire lay facedown in the playpen, one arm around a stuffed rat Alan had brought back from their latest Ikea run, snoring. Toni walked into the kitchen, her chest filling with a warmth that signaled either love or relief. Elise was sitting with her legs crossed under her at the kitchen table, pencil in hand, brow furrowed in concentration. It took Toni a few beats to realize that the sheet of notebook paper on which her daughter was supposed to be writing was sitting to the right of her, under her elbow. Elise was carving something into the table itself.
She took a few steps closer and tugged the back of Elise's chair away from the table until its legs hit the baseboard of the wall behind it. Elise gripped the seat to keep from being thrown off, her eyes glassy and saucerwide. Toni stepped into the space where the chair had been and looked down at what her daughter had written:
She was irritated that Elise hadn't bothered to spell out both words properly. The table had been a wedding gift from Alan's family. It was made from reclaimed barn wood, and it was still the most beautiful thing she had ever owned.
“Give me the pencil,” she said.
Toni watched Elise consider her options. She climbed off the chair and handed Toni the pencil, her eyes on the linoleum tile.
“Now give me your hand.”
Elise snapped to attention and instinctively clasped her hands behind her back. “No,” she said.
“Now. Give me your hand now.”
Toni grabbed Elise by the elbows and wrestled one of her hands free. Elise threw herself in the other direction with all the force that her panic afforded her, but Toni tightened her grip on her wrist. She bent down, brought her daughter's hand to her lips, opened her mouth, and bit down hard. Elise shrieked and would not stop shrieking. In the living room, Claire woke up and started to cry.
“Why did you do that?” Elise wailed. Toni let go of her hand and she plopped down on the chair to nurse her wound.
“Why'd you do that?” Toni countered, indicating the table. She wondered if Alan would be able to sand down the spot Elise had marred.
“I. Know. How. To. Spell. Emergency. Room!” Each word was punctuated by a sob. Elise was beginning to hyperventilate.
Toni planted a hand on each hip and watched her daughter’s face until it was almost purple with rage. It occurred to her that Elise might actually pass out if she followed through with this meltdown. It had happened before. Her daughter was dedicated that way, and Toni had to log at least seven more hours with the girls before Alan would be home.
Toni walked over to the freezer and pulled out a popsicle. She unwrapped it, took a bite, then brought the remainder over to her daughter. “Whether or not you could spell it wasn't the point,” she said.
Suspicion overtook Elise's features, knotting them together in a way that reminded Toni of her husband. She knelt on the kitchen linoleum and held the popsicle level with her daughter’s face.
Elise stopped crying and took it.