It's late, and we still have to make it through one more night together.
I ask if he thinks the people at the gas station across the street can hear us. He says no. We're sitting on the narrow, half-rotted balcony, and even in the dark I feel like we're on a stage, as if the patrons of the Gas-N-Go hang on our every word.
A couple jogs by beneath the streetlights. I have seen them running here before, always at night. The woman's ponytail bounces steadily, keeping time behind them. Maybe this couple will run all the way to the country to tell my parents that I'm single again. They cross the street, matching each other's stride, dodging the shattered glass of multiple accidents at the dark, unguarded intersection below us.
We go to bed quietly. He tucks the sheets in on his side and leaves them out on my side so I can poke my feet out when the nightmare-crawlies come for me. After we turn out the lights, I scratch behind his ears and down his spine. With these habits, now loveless, we take care of each other.
"These are bad for you," Nora says to me. She throws my cigarettes out the car's open window. She has destroyed property for which I have no defense. Nora is my nine-year-old niece, and I'm proud of her instincts. She continues to dig through my purse. I'm merging into traffic, unable to stop her investigation. She pulls a picture from my wallet.
"Where's he been?" She's pouting. The last time I gave her a ride home from school, the two of them had teamed up and badgered me into buying ice cream.
"He left," I say. I stop for a red light. I've become part of the parade of parents picking their kids up from school. We move into the streets: an invading force, or maybe a decamping occupier.
"Did he join the army?" Her voice cracks a little. She's holding the picture in her cupped hands as if it's a baby bird fallen from the nest. She's been watching too much CNN. Her mother warned me about that.
"No. He's fine." We're stopped by the liquor store. I never realized it was so close to the school. A few ladybugs have caught up with us. It seems too early in the season for them, but there they are, flitting around like speculative suitors. I roll up the window.
"Did you get divorced?" she asks. She may have gotten that from TV, or she may have heard it at home.
"We weren't married." This doesn't seem to make her feel better. He was going to teach her how to play hockey this winter on Lake Wakomet.
"Are you an old maid?" She tries to turn around in the seat without unfastening her seatbelt. She makes it halfway through her turn and almost knocks over the open purse. The threat to the purse stops her short, and she returns to her starting position.
"No, I'm not an old maid. There's no such thing." I run a stop sign, but no one honks at me. We're on Seventh Street. Once we get home, I can distract her with coloring books and whatever miscellaneous toys have been left in my closet.
"Are you a spinster?" Nora asks.
"Where did you get that from?" Her mother has obviously coached her.
"It's a word," she says.
She pulls a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses from my purse and puts them on. They are gigantic on her little face. She's got a slight gap-toothed overbite. It runs in the family, but I know that hers will be fixed with braces. She pushes the glasses up her flat nose and smiles.
She is my co-pilot. She could spell spinster in a heartbeat.
That night, Nora and I finish a large, greasy, sausage-and-cheese pizza, and I eat a party-size bag of M&Ms. She gets at least a handful. We must have eaten the same percentage of candy relative to our body weight, because we now seem to have the same size tummy ache. She's piled all the pillows she could find onto the floor and is sprawled stomach-down on them. Her butt sticks up just like when she was a baby with her bouncy crawl. Hooper, my mutt, takes this opportunity to lick the grease from her hands and then goes for her face. She groans a cranky tummy-ache groan.
Her arms flop away from her sides and then she is still. Every limb has found a different direction, reaching to cover the four corners of the Earth. Her long, weedy hair, slightly green from swimming lessons, launches out from her head. There's so much hair that I'm not sure where her face is. I want to scoop her up and cuddle her like a little bunny, but she's too big for that now. When Hooper gets too close to her ear, she emits a tiny growl from within the pillows. When he licks her nose, she squeaks.
He's uncovered her air supply. Strands of hair fly when she exhales.
"You're all cattywampus," I say to the blowhole.
"Go away," the blowhole snorts. I don't know if she means Hooper or me, but neither of us move. I'm on the couch, and even though I know no good can come from it, I reach for the last of the M&Ms. Chocolate may have a reputation as a decent substitute for sex, but eating junk food until I puke is a poor stand-in for a relationship.
Certain historical facts support the chocolate-equals-sex theory. According to a confection catalogue I get every year around Thanksgiving, the Brigittine monks cook up some of the best fudge ever made. And when chocolate was introduced to Europe—I can't even imagine how long ago that must have been—the nuns spent all their time making and eating the candy. They became so distracted that the Vatican had to ban chocolate. I saw it on TV, late at night, but I believe it.
Sex isn't the most important thing, or so I hope. I'd wanted to think that what really matters is having someone who gets your nighttime neuroses. When I woke up in the middle of the night, convinced that tiny creatures are running up and down my legs, we had an unspoken routine. I'd squirm and rub my hands over my skin, but they wouldn't go away. So I'd tap him on the shoulder to bring him out of sleep so slowly that he thought it was his idea. I'd tell him about the spider feeling. He'd grunt a muffled military phrase, like "Affirmative, red leader," then scoot down in the bed a little and start on my feet. His thumb would search between my toes without tickling. He'd run his open hand over my ankle, and I'd feel the calluses on his palm and the ridges of tiny cuts on his fingertips. I'd be asleep before he reached my knees. I'd wake up happy in the morning, his hand warm on my stomach. I miss that. I guess there's never just one thing that matters.
After the Great Pizza Sickness of Friday Night, Nora requested to spend the rest of the weekend with me. We've got plans to watch The Lost Boys, but there are errands to run first. At Sud's Laundromat, I let her hold the quarters and push the buttons. She's probably never even gone into the laundry room at her own house, so the novelty of these old rusty appliances appeals to her. She plunks a few quarters into an empty machine while I fold sweaters.
"You'll owe me a dollar if I don't see you throw some pillowcases in there," I say.
She climbs up on top of the washing machine. "I don't have any pillowcases," she says matter-of-factly. A young woman dressed in black from head to toe walks in. She has a basket of white towels and a Physics textbook under her arm.
"You should sit on one of these," Nora says to the woman. She has a way with people. She kicks her heels against the machine. The woman smiles and asks why.
"It's supposed to feel sexy," Nora says.
I freeze. This is not what my niece should be saying. Our history together is brief, but I know her. She has chocolate cake on her face in every single birthday picture I have ever taken with her, although a nascent preference for cleanliness threatens that tradition. She was born during a blizzard. She weighed seven pounds, three ounces. She does not say provocative things to strangers.
"I saw it on TV." She has not stopped talking. She has more to say. "Baby baby," she squeals in a high-pitched voice. I wonder if her mother has heard this voice. "Baby baby!" She shakes her head around wildly and slams her hands against the unmoving machine. The stranger chuckles. I want to laugh, too, but I suddenly feel responsible for the moral upbringing of this kid.
"Nora Alison Simon!" I yell, because I don't know what else to do. I hope her mother has instilled in her the implications of a full-name reprimand.
"My middle name is Andrea." She hops off her ride and runs out the door. The day is hers, there isn't a breeze or a cloud that can contend with her. A small contingent of ladybugs lands on her shoulders. They don't frighten her. She doesn't brush off these living epaulets. Colorful against the dimming horizon, they lift her; she's gained an inch of confidence already.
Five miles away is the ethanol plant. Every day it eats up corn, ferments it, and releases an acrid odor. I have learned to ignore it, but Nora brings it to my attention whenever she visits. "We've all been exposed! There is no cure!" she yells to the empty street. She spins around and clutches her throat as if she's been poisoned.
She falls down on the sidewalk. The ladybugs flit around her. She holds one on her fingertip. She looks like she's talking to it, but I can't hear. She laughs loudly. Through the glass, her laughter sounds throaty and heavy, a hint of how she'll sound when she's grown up.
I trade crayons with Nora—the blue for the green. The apartment, abuzz with her compact energy even as we sit silently, no longer feels half-abandoned. She's staying in the lines of a Scooby-Doo scene, and I'm drawing a landscape I saw a year ago on a flight over the east coast.
Between Charleston and Myrtle Beach, about 700 miles south of JFK, two river legs join together to form the thick, fresh-water hips of a topographical woman. The northern hip is wide and green from the islands that slow its progression. The southern hip is slender, straight, and fast moving.
I don't know the names of these rivers. White-crested waves surge to the woman's chest, crash against the beaches of her arms, and come together again at her slender neck. The waves fan out into the ocean, forming her ever-changing face and hair. Her expression shifts every second. She never rests. She could move out over the sea at any time, but she stays. There are people who move with her. I am too far away to see them, but I know they are there. They sit on the fringes, surf on her curls and swim in her currents.
I draw a picture of this scene on construction paper and give it to Nora. She hangs it on the lampshade, next to her bed. She doesn't see the waterways or the dancing woman. For now, it's a kaleidoscope, a stained-glass window, the curtain for a shadow play. She traces over the waxy curves on the paper with her finger. I made this map for her, and she loves it. She'll love it for a day, maybe a week, and then it will slip under the bed, forgotten.
Alone on the balcony, I watch the neighborhood wake up. I'm looking for him, waiting for him without reason. There are no men walking the sidewalks this morning, not yet. Three girls, chattering loudly and sending gossip out on the breeze, stroll toward the bakery at the end of the block. One of them laughs, and for a moment I think it's Nora, but these girls are older, independent. Hooper whines and shakes his collar and I know it's time for our walk, but I just want to finish this cup of tea and watch for another minute. I will call him, I tell Hooper. I will call him and tell him that he's my bedrock and I'm his tide, and together we can keep moving.
Notes from the Author
For me, the gem of this story is the view of the river from above. This was something I saw for myself on a flight from Florida to Minnesota, and knew I had to fit it into a story. It was a beautiful sight, and I don't know if words do it justice. I hope the power of metaphor conveys a bit of the wonder that view provoked. (Always take the window seat!) A little fun fact: the dog, Hooper, is named after Richard Dreyfuss' character in Jaws, just for fun.