Appears in Other Voices #42
After we drop his kids at Gillian and Frank’s, Ethan and I go to the batting cages. We still can’t agree on the cats.
“Females are the best mousers,” he says. “They are the hunters.”
“The boys are too lazy?” I say.
“Something like that,” he says, swinging a few times, holding his follow-through so his bat is aimed directly at an overweight father whose face is turning scarlet. This is due to the weight his screaming son is putting on the shoulder he’s thrown the boy over.
“I’m not a big fan of cats,” I say, trying to stick my fist through the chain-link behind the plate. It doesn’t go easily, but after some twisting, it comes out the other side. “They are arrogant animals.”
“As opposed to what? Humble mice? We should let vermin invade our home because they have a better attitude?”
I give him my best expression of exasperation and pull my hand back through, watch the father put his child down in front of the plate. He positions the bat, gives the kid’s back a slap and points to the benches beyond the fence where his mother and sisters sit. This is the usual Family Funland crowd, families from the naval base in Bremerton that is south of the island we live on. The boys all have buzz cuts and probably salute their fathers before being tucked in at night. The girls have the same mannerisms as their mothers, heads perpetually down as if anything they had to say were important only to the floor.
We live in-between these people and the rich of the island, comfortably, but with less money than most of our closest neighbors. I went to college at the UW, then left for a long time. It wasn’t a place I pictured the rest of my life happening. Ethan is the only thing in this world that could have brought me back to stay.
Ethan builds custom furniture and I teach art classes at the community center, showing bored housewives how to draw their fruit bowls, encouraging the rare natural to drop my class and take a course at the art institute in Seattle. I am not really qualified. I took a couple of painting classes when I lived in L.A. because my acting coach thought it might increase my creativity as an actress. It didn’t. But now I know enough about the rule of thirds and the concept of perspective to sound convincing.
“I have a confession,” I say, “but I want you to confess something first.”
“Are we done with the cats?” he says.
“For now, yes.”
“Have we made a decision?”
“Is this a big confession?”
“Fairly big,” I say.
“I’m not confessing first. I don’t have a confession, you do.”
“Should I wait,” he says, “or do you want to tell me during?” He taps the far edge of the painted home plate in front of him with the bat and moves it up to his ear, tensing his body as he makes tiny circles with it. I push the button instead of answering, and the electronic pitcher winds up, throws the first ball.
Ethan knocks it up into the nets above us; it is easily a home run. The ball falls back behind the pitching system, is swallowed up by the ground and dropped on the conveyor belt to be sent out again.
The next ball comes and I say, “I think I want to have a baby.”
He hits it even harder than the one before, then proceeds to whack the next twenty-two balls against the fence or up into the nets, each sent hard enough to break a femur or render a person unconscious. When he finishes, the sweat escaping from inside the helmet is running down his cheeks.
“Are you ready for mine?” he says.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“In high school, my brother and I were the stars of the football team. We won the state championship three years in a row.” He pauses to slide the helmet off and leans the bat against the fence. “It was the last game before I graduated, and we were down in the middle of the fourth quarter because the other team’s quarterback was amazing, ran in for two touchdowns without anyone getting close to him. Max and I decided to double team him, maybe sprain an ankle or dislocate a shoulder, hurt him enough to take him out. We hit him at the same time from different directions, practically snapped that kid’s spine in half. He’s never gotten out of the wheelchair. Max went to see him, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I still dream about him. I’m always standing at the edge of his hospital bed, wanting him to punch me, but knowing he can’t move.”
“That’s a horrible thing to have to carry around,” I say.
“It’s never very far away from me,” he says, rubbing the knuckles of his left hand. He can’t stop touching them when he gets upset. He told me he broke them in a bar fight years ago, but Ethan that angry is like Ethan snapping someone’s spine in half. It’s not something I can comprehend.
With Ethan and me, it was one of those across-a-crowded-room things that I never believed in and every therapist, mother and self-help book warn you about. I stopped asking for love from men in my twenties, and when I met Ethan, I was thirty, seeing a married man and had stopped asking for much of anything at all. It had been that way for a few years and it was almost not making me sad anymore.
I was sitting in the Burbank Airport, waiting for a flight to New York. I glanced up from my book and saw him standing on the walkway of the gate, looking past me out the windows. A triangle of lazy, late afternoon sun stretched out to him along the carpet, leading back to a sky that was pink-orange at the ridge of the mountains and a faded blue above them. He stood with one hand over his chest and the other hooked in the pocket of his jeans like he had no plane to catch, like he understood there were only a few minutes in a lifetime that Burbank could be beautiful. Then he walked over and sat down, took my book and put it on the chair next to him. Up close, I noticed the cowlick at the part of his light brown hair, and that his left eye was half hazel, half blue. He took my hand and held it for a full five minutes before he said anything. I felt the cold of the two rings he wore, thick bands of silver on his middle and index fingers. I could have fit both of my hands in one of his palms and this, for no rational reason at all, made me feel safer than I ever had in my life.
“You look like her,” he finally said, showing me a wallet size of his daughter. I don’t look like Katie—she’s blond, I’m brunette, she has blue eyes, mine are brown. But I wanted to believe it and so did he so neither of us let go or looked away from the picture. He had a son too, he said, and he was married.
“Also, Lizzie,” he says now, “what I just told you is a confession, not a demand. There is a difference.” He turns to put more tokens in the machine. “You said you didn’t want any. You said Katie and Jonah were enough.”
“I’m not the same person anymore. You’ve changed all that.”
“Well, maybe you should go back to being your former self.”
“Because I fell in love with you, and then I fell in love with your children.”
He pushes the button, and the balls start coming again. Ethan swings and swings at the white streaks as if he can find the weak spot in the netting above us, break through to the other side.
The first time Ethan took me to the cages, it was four years ago, and it was because of his wife. Two months after we met, Gillian found out about us. After a few packages of dog shit were UPS’d to me and she’d taken to calling me every hour on the hour most days, I unplugged my phone and stopped answering my door.
When Ethan flew down to tell me he was filing for divorce, I told him it wasn’t going to work. I told him I dated married men for less complications, not more, and that my life was currently designed around the premise of not caring about much, aside from going to stupid PR functions to promote stupid celebrities and figuring out what outfit I would wear to the next party in the Hollywood Hills and that the last thing I wanted to do was break up happy homes or become a part of one and what about his children and the Northwest was somewhere I’d left on purpose and I wouldn’t stop yelling.
We ended up at some godforsaken amusement center in Sherman Oaks, and while Ethan decided what speed I could handle (Very Slow, Slow, Medium, Fast and Very Fast), I leaned against the chipped white board that separated one batter from another and watched a school field trip traverse the miniature golf course across the way. The teacher was trying to establish some authority, which mainly involved grabbing kids by the elbows when they tried to bolt off the course’s Astroturf hills or jerking them down by their pants when they attempted to change the time on the giant windmill clock by hanging on one of the hands.
Ethan held out a bat to me and I shook my head.
“We will not yell at one another,” he said. “We will release our feelings productively.” I knew it was not all about resolving conflict, that Ethan had romantic notions about athletic women. He once said he liked the idea that I could crush him between my thighs if I were so inclined.
“For the record, there will also be no wars waged using silence or passive aggressive tactics,” he said, and pointed to the speed control. “I put it on Medium.”
“I think I would prefer Very Medium,” I said, and folded my arms across my chest. He moved the lever up a notch to Fast, pulled the scuffed batting helmet farther down on his head and waited.
At that point in my life, I wasn’t used to listening and didn’t see the point of fighting without shouting or not speaking for days at a time. At least that’s the way I’d always done it with other men. But then that’s why I married Ethan. This is a man who when we argue usually starts out by saying things like “Trust,” and “I love you,” and I never thought I’d get tired of hearing those three little words, but there it is.
I finally took the bat because of romantic notions of my own, not because Ethan wanted me to. They were a combination of the fact that I really did love this man and I had played Little League in the second grade. I guarded third base with a glove that was so stiff balls bounced right out of the pocket. They never had a chance of staying in.
“I had quite an arm,” I told him. “I could throw all the way from third to first, no problem.”
“I am not interested in your throwing abilities,” he said, “I just want to see how far you can hit that ball.” The machine released a pitch and I swung hard, making contact with nothing but the air in front of me. I imagined that I was strong and fast enough to split those molecules open, leave a mark in the space between us.
“I’m not asking you to leave her,” I said, as the next ball came. I was suddenly terrified.
“I know you’re not,” he said, “but I am.”
A week after my confession at the cages, two days before Halloween, Katie stands in front of me in the dim light of our basement, frowning at the misshapen head of her bunny costume. It is deformed in such a way it could be the result of negligent animal testing.
“This won’t work,” she says, patiently. “The ears are uneven and the nose isn’t in the middle.”
“I know,” I say, “I think the pattern was wrong or something.” The head reinforces the fact that just because my mother sewed and knitted and cooked doesn’t mean I can do any of these things. “Listen. Can’t we buy you something instead?”
I’d never wanted a costume from a store when I was a kid, always wanted my mother to make me something. The only time she bought me one was the year my parents got divorced. My mother said she didn’t have it in her, and presented me with Wonder Woman in a box. There was no gold rope or gold cuffs and it smelled like plastic and the suit came with pants. Pants that had Wonder Woman’s legs drawn on them. The lack of accessories I could handle, but Wonder Woman did not wear pants and I refused to trick or treat until she let me cut them off and wear red tights instead. We were living in Montana then and there was already snow on the ground and I’ve never been so cold, but when the moon or a porch light caught on my legs, I felt like they looked just like hers, long, lean and strong enough to escape any kind of danger.
Katie holds the head gingerly, deciding. “I don’t think so,” she says. “Can’t you try again?”
She steps forward and I take it from her. I think about the body, the monstrosity it will be compared to the head. She won’t look away and clasps her hands in front of her, tiny, almost eight-year-old hands. Then she shoves them into the pockets of her pink corduroy pants that are flared at the bottom and cover her feet. She sways from side to side.
“What are you going to be this year?” she says.
“I don’t know yet.”
“What’s Daddy going as?”
“You know what,” I say, and she starts to laugh. Ethan goes as the same thing every year—a priest. A friendly one, who watches basketball and would rather ruffle a kid’s hair than lecture him about sin. His costume consists of a Celtics baseball cap, a T-shirt with the imprint of a priest’s collar and smock on it, a pair of Levi’s and his favorite Adidas sneakers. Sometimes he shakes it up and chews on a cigar for the duration of the night, squints like Robert DeNiro when he talks. Says it gives the priest a little edge.
“He’s always the same,” she says. “Isn’t that kind of boring?”
“It’s called stability, sweetie.” She scrunches her nose at me, bats her eyelashes and does an impromptu “Katie Dance” around the old beige couch that sits in the middle of the damp room. There are high kicks and a few cartwheels, impressions of moves Ethan has taught her—the sprinkler, the swimmer, the twist. Then she collapses on the rug in front of the TV.
“He’s the best, everybody thinks so,” she says. She loves her father as much as I do, and I can’t say I blame her. It’s the arms that do us both in. He can wrap himself around the two of us at the same time, and clasp his hands at the place where our bodies meet. He’s slept on the couch since I told him about wanting a baby, which I pointed out was a classic passive-aggressive tactic, but he hasn’t come back to our bed yet. After three years of being married to him, I take for granted being able to roll over into his chest in the morning, put my mouth in the space between his ribs and breathe him in. I miss his smell, a mixture of sawdust and the ocean, a salty, woody musk like what comes off the driftwood Katie and Jonah drag up from the beach and leave to dry on the front porch.
“He is,” I say. She stretches her legs and arms wide on the floor, her chest rising and falling as she catches her breath. She had nightmares for months after Ethan and I got married. Once, half-awake, she climbed into bed with us and thought that I was Gillian. She wrapped her arms around my neck, nestled into my collarbone and whispered, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” until she fell asleep.
She starts to move her arms and legs as if she’s on her back in the snow, trying to make an angel. I turn back to the sewing table determined, and begin to rip out the stitches around the bunny’s nose.
Ethan brought Jonah and Katie to visit me in L.A. once when we were dating, bribing them with Disneyland and Hollywood and a resort pool bigger than their backyard. This worked on all of us for a couple of days.
“I have no idea how to talk to children,” I said to Ethan on the phone a few days before they came. “I never really babysat growing up. I stopped doing it after a horrid weekend in a hotel where I was trapped with a nine-month-old all day while her mother attended a conference downstairs.”
“Talk to them like they’re people, and you’ll be fine. In fact, I have no doubt you’ll be great.”
“Ethan, the kid cried non-stop for two days and there was a very real moment where I considered dropping it off the balcony, even came up with a plan as to how to explain it. I felt like I was never going to get out of that room.”
“Everyone has those moments,” he said. “You’re normal.”
“You can’t be serious.”
On the way to Disneyland, Katie spotted the Matterhorn from I-5, sticking up from the concrete sprawl of Anaheim like a giant gray and white sore thumb.
“Daddy! There’s snow here and it’s June! Let’s go there, let’s go there, let’s go there,” she shrieked, and Jonah joined in, neither of them stopping until we pulled into the parking lot. From there, the ride was no longer visible.
“Where did the mountain go?” Katie said.
“It’s there,” I said. “Trust me.”
“Why should we?” said Jonah, and after a small pause, Katie echoed him. I had no answer. It is difficult to explain what it feels like when a four- and seven-year-old leave you without words.
“Be respectful,” Ethan said to them in the calmest tone I have ever heard a father use. “I am not rude to your friends, so I expect you to be polite to mine.” Jonah sighed loudly and kicked the back of my seat as soon as Ethan turned around.
We rode the gondola first and somewhere over “It’s a Small World” Ethan admitted to his fear of heights, wincing as Katie jumped up and down and made our carriage swing.
“Does it matter how far up you are?” I asked.
“No, anything more than a few feet off the ground isn’t so good. I’m a nightmare to fly with.” He was drenched in sweat by the time we got off and Katie patted the back of his leg and told him it was going to be O.K. It’s the only time I’ve seen him afraid of anything.
By noon, we had seen Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap, John Boy’s favorite perch in the Swiss Family Robinson tree house and the Prince kiss Snow White. During these festivities, Jonah was doing his best to have as little fun as possible, but Katie forgot the objective of that mission once we stepped through the gates. Between sights, she wanted to swing between Ethan and me, float above the spotless sidewalk as high as we could lift her, then land hard.
Jonah maintained his distance until we rounded a corner and the Matterhorn came into view. He ran ahead, and we met him at the end of the line. Ethan figured the wait to be around two hours, and he shook his head, but I said yes more than once and the three of us stood in line while he went in search of food. Sipping lemonade and sharing nachos a half an hour later, I could have sworn Jonah smiled a little and Katie stood closer to me than she needed to.
Ethan wouldn’t go on the ride no matter how much they begged, so it was me in the middle and one of them on each side. As we climbed, Katie pointed out Cinderella’s castle and the gondolas and everywhere we’d been that she could see. Jonah sat silent.
“It’s Dumbo!” she said, pulling at my arm so that I would look.
“My mother hates you,” said Jonah. The track creaked and we rattled, and I wondered if the sides of the cart wouldn’t simply peel away when we plunged, drop us all into nothingness.
“Well, I suppose she has a right,” I said. “So do you hate me too?”
“I don’t know yet,” he said, and then the coaster took us over the peak, rushing us towards the ground. I screamed and whatever else Jonah wanted to say was lost in the wind.
“The mice have eaten their way through the designs for the Ashtons’ dining room table,” Ethan says to me the next morning at breakfast. He stands over the stove frying bacon, and there is a groove along his cheek from the edge of a couch cushion. “They will be working their way in here soon.”
Jonah sits with his elbows on the table, staring into space over his Captain Crunch. I buy things like that for them, even though Ethan doesn’t approve. Twinkies, white bread, sugary juices, chocolate-covered Oreos. Everything I was deprived of in childhood. Katie is still upstairs and the hairdryer is going. It is Friday, and we have the kids for two more days this week. Half a week, every week, that’s what Ethan and Gillian agreed on. When I first moved here, she wouldn’t let Ethan see them at all. He had given her full custody and their house as a way to apologize for the affair.
“We have mice every fall,” I say. “Why is this year any different?”
“Jonah,” he says, “wouldn’t it be fun to have some cats around here?” Jonah looks up tiredly. He reminds me more and more of Gillian lately. He has her small, round ears and the same smattering of freckles across his nose and cheeks.
“I’d rather have a dog, Dad.”
“Can dogs kill mice? I think not, and that is the problem at hand here.” He drains the grease into the garbage, serves a few strips to Jonah.
Jonah eats each piece with the least amount of movement possible. He has been prone to sulking lately, which I take as a sign that being ten is not so far from adolescence. Ethan watches him from the sink. He walks back over to the table, sits down next to his son.
“Are you O.K., buddy?” he says, putting a hand on top of Jonah’s head.
“Yeah, Dad, fine,” he says, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Do I really have to go to the Halloween thing? Everyone else is going to Carla’s. Her dad is getting dry ice for the punch so they’ll be all that cool smoke stuff coming out of it and her mom’s putting gross-feeling things into boxes that people have to stick their hands in.”
“Like what?” I say.
“Like peeled grapes that feel like eyeballs,” he says and gives me a smile. I give him one back.
“Lizzie has painted a mural that covers half the school gymnasium—”
“Helped to paint,” I say to Ethan. “Helped.”
“Helped to paint,” he says, turning towards me, “but she designed the entire thing herself.” He turns back to Jonah. “Don’t you think it would be cool to be one of the first kids to see it all finished? Plus, your mother is in charge of this whole festival and you know she wants you there.”
“Yeah,” says Jonah, plopping his spoon against the top of his cereal, splashing milk onto the table. “Could I go to Carla’s after?”
“Maybe,” says Ethan, taking a few napkins from the holder on the table and wiping up the mess. Upstairs, the hairdryer stops. “Go grab your sister, would you? We’re going to be late.”
As Ethan loads them up and they pull away, I think about what I used to do when they left, before I stopped wondering how it was I was supposed to live this life and quit looking for sun in a sky that was always releasing some measure of rain. Often, I would put on my highest heels and a black dress that hung open in the back, down to the top of my tailbone and stand in front of our bedroom mirror until I was certain there was no way anyone would mistake me for a mother.
Now, all I can do is stand in the dewy grass in my bare feet, wearing the robe with clouds on it that Katie gave me for my birthday last year, staring up into the giant pines that line the yard. Their branches are never without protection, their needles rarely go brown. I take in their wide trunks and I feel the way I do in front of a room full of art students—like some kind of fraud. Like the woman on the front of the paint by numbers kit I found in my grandmother’s closet one summer. She sat on a low stool in front of a bay window, dabbing paint on an easel. Her hair was cut into a 50s bob and a tight emerald-colored headband held it in place. The picture she was painting seemed to be an early morning landscape of a lake in the middle of a forest. She smiled brightly as the caption, “The woman painting this picture is not an artist,” ran along her clean carpet, right beneath her sensible pumps.
“The woman taking care of these children is not their mother,” I say to the trees. The old lab across the street perks up his head, gets up off his haunches and moves towards me. Then he hears something and takes off barking, his breath in the morning air leaving a faint trail behind him.
When I walk into the gymnasium, it is full of women. Gillian stands in the middle of them, handing out job assignments. As I get closer, they scatter out into the hall or form clusters around the tables in the corners of the room that hold various decoration necessities. Suddenly it’s just the two of us at the half court line, facing each other like we should be getting ready for tip-off.
“Lizzie,” she says. “Wonderful. So glad you’re here. There’s just a few touch-ups that need to be done and then I think we’ll be in great shape for tomorrow.” Today she wears a magenta sweater and a cream wool skirt and several gold chains around her neck. She’s only thirty-five, the same age as Ethan, but at each of these gymnasium encounters, she seems to grow older, more mature, more organized. The Bainbridge Island Elementary School Fall Festival and Halloween Adventure wasn’t something I imagined being an integral part of. When Gillian suggested I help her create a mural of the island and the city at different times of the year, I said to Ethan, “And I should do this why?”
Whether she is aware of it or not, and I tend to think she is at some level, this project has become a device of quiet torture, safely tucked under the guise of school spirit and camaraderie. I have accepted it as a part of my penance for taking Ethan away from her, and know that it is mild compared to what could be happening to me. The first few years were tense, but she became less and less hostile over time, things settling into a negotiated kindness after she married Frank last summer. He is loaded and they live in a house three times as big as ours on the other side of the island. She invited Ethan and me to the wedding, and at the reception, near the end of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” she pulled me into the bathroom with her. She didn’t say anything for a while, instead stood in front of the mirror re-pinning sections of her hair and removing imaginary flecks of mascara from her eyelashes.
“I was afraid before,” she said, without looking at me. “When Ethan first met you. It wasn’t about losing him, really. I don’t think he was something I ever had.” She fluffed her veil and made eye contact with me in the mirror. “It was my family I didn’t want to lose; the shape of it.” She hesitated then, as if she might reach out to me. She didn’t. “You’ve been good for them, I think,” she said, widening her mouth to check for lipstick on her teeth. Then she turned and left me under the soft lights of the vanity room.
When we started planning the mural design, I told her my ideas and she said they sounded great and whatever I wanted to do was fine, I was the artist, not her. But then she became worried that the city was too far in the background and maybe it should figure more prominently and she wasn’t sure about having Mt. Rainier that large in the middle of everything, since that wasn’t really accurate and was it the best idea to have it in the perspective of someone standing at the ferry dock on the island?
Now, we walk over to the mural together and she points to a part of the water that she thinks should be darker and an area of spring that needs a few more flowers. Most of it has been painted by volunteers and art classes at the school and these last few meetings with her have just been to fix mistakes or change something she doesn’t feel is right. She goes on and I nod as she talks, looking at the birch tree she originally had me draw in fall, but was worried that it really belonged in winter.
“I just can’t decide,” she’d said. “Wait, I know. Can’t you paint half of it on one side and half on the other? Right down the middle, like it’s stuck between seasons?” So I did, and it looks like it wasn’t brave enough to leave the past behind and step into the future.
“I should get started,” I say, and start to open the cans of paint and search for the right size brushes. “I’ve got to go into the city this afternoon and find a costume.”
“What are you going as this year?” she says. “I know what Ethan will be, so I’m not even going to ask.”
“A cat,” I say.
“Catwoman?” she says.
“No, just a cat. A black one.”
“Oh,” she says, perplexed. “Well, Frank’s dressing up as a dashing vampire and I’m going as Elvira, the witch.”
“I’m not sure she’s a witch by definition.”
“Oh, that’s right,” she says, a slight bite in her voice. “They call her ‘The Mistress of the Night.’”
I don’t answer her and she doesn’t say anything more as I try to make the ocean lighter and fix the edges of spring.
When I get back from the city, it is after eight and Jonah is in the middle of the house in full costume hiking a football to Ethan. The jersey hangs down past his knees and Ethan’s old pads give him the shoulder width of a child Frankenstein. Katie is slumped on the couch behind them. The bunny head, sans nose, is in her lap and she’s wearing the paws like mittens. They like to dress up the night before Halloween and make sure all the details are right.
“Lizzie,” she says, jumping up. “Where’s the rest of it? It needs to be finished by tomorrow.” Ethan tells Jonah to go long and he runs down the hall to catch the pass.
“I’ve got a surprise,” I say, and pull out Bugs Bunny in a box. I know it won’t go over, but I give it a shot.
“That?” she says, and the tears start. “That sucks.”
“Katie,” Ethan says, “That’s not very nice. Lizzie did the best she could and you will still be a bunny, right?”
“Not a real bunny, a lame ass cartoon bunny,” she chokes out before beginning to wail for real. Jonah returns with the football and the three of them look at me to see what I will do next. I walk away, towards our bedroom and hear Ethan tell Katie she needs to go to her room until she’s ready to apologize. She pounds up the stairs as I lay down on our bed, running my fingers along the cherry wood headboard. Ethan built the frame for me as a wedding present and rubbed it with oil every few months the first year we were married. Gradually, it got darker until it reached the color of rhubarb pie and held there.
Ethan and Jonah toss the ball for a while longer, until Jonah tells him he’s hot and wants to go watch TV downstairs. I can hear Ethan in the kitchen, then the front door open and close.
I go out to his workshop, standing outside in the darkness for a few minutes before walking in. He is bent over the Ashtons’ dining room table, measuring its width.
“Well, that was a total disaster,” I say.
“She’ll be fine,” he says, “she’s just disappointed.” I walk past him to his desk and sit down. There is a picture of me I didn’t know he kept out here stuck to the side of his computer. I have one hand in front of my face in protest and Venice Beach is in the background.
“What about kittens?” I say. “That would be more fun for the kids than used cats.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says, “We’d have to train them and there’s no guarantee they’d be good mousers.”
“Why won’t you talk about this with me?” I say.
“We are talking about it,” he says. “In the wild, the lioness is the hunter. The family depends on her for survival.”
“I didn’t hunt you,” I say. “You found me.”
“Do you want to put up with sounds of mice in the walls all winter?”
“I’m just asking you to consider it,” I say. “The way we usually consider things. You’ve stopped playing by the rules.”
“What about just trying to be happy, Lizzie? Everything has finally calmed down—you, the kids, Gillian. We’re settled and you can’t stand it, so this is what you do.”
“Do you really think I can’t be happy? You’ve made me happy, Ethan, but in the process, I had to give up another life.”
“Here’s another confession for you,” he says, holding up his left hand. He has a look on his face I’ve never seen before, and I realize it is something approaching rage. My husband will not hit me; I know this. His fingers look swollen, which masks the unevenness of his knuckles. “I’ve broken this hand more than once. I put it through a wall when Gillian told me she was pregnant. I was twenty-four and my life was narrowed down to one option in a single moment. I’m asking you not to put me in that position again. I love my kids, but once Katie and Jonah grow up, you are supposed to be the rest of my life. You are the only thing I’ve ever chosen.”
As his face softens and returns to the one I know, I am reminded of when I first met him, how I would wake up in the middle of the night and make sure he was still breathing, put two fingers on his neck to double-check his heartbeat. He turns away and starts the sander, begins to move it in small gentle circles on the table.
“What if I’m not enough?” I say, but he is focused, striving for a surface that will be unmarred, perfectly smooth.
“You’re going as a cat?” Ethan says, as I pull on the black jumpsuit and boots. “Hilarious.” He is rolling a cigar between his thumb and forefinger, watching me from the bed. His baseball cap is stained with sweat and the “C” is starting to fall off.
I watch him from the mirror wanting to feel the weight of him, the press of his palm on my stomach, in the hollow of my hip, the crease of my thigh, and hear him say, “Here…here… here,” before he puts his mouth in the same places.
“A sexy cat,” I say, bringing the hood over my head, pulling at the ears so they stand up straight. I draw on whiskers and color in the tip of my nose. “I’ll seduce the mice.” He puts the cigar in his mouth and smiles.
“How’s Katie doing?” I say.
“She wants you to go up there and help her.”
Jonah is ready to go, having slept in the bulk of his costume last night and refusing to take it off today. He sits in the kitchen, drawing plays that he will stick on a clipboard and carry around with him. Ethan tried to tell him that the captain of the team doesn’t use a clipboard, the coach does, but he wants to take it anyway. He says he’d like to be seen as a jock with some brains.
Katie is sprawled out on her bed, face up, in her pajamas. Bugs Bunny is still in his box. I sit down next to her and she moves her head enough to take me in.
“I don’t want to wear that,” she says, pointing. “You said you’d make me one and you didn’t. You lied.”
“I didn’t lie, honey, I just promised you something I wasn’t capable of. I didn’t know that when I promised.”
“Whatever. I’m not going.”
“Is there anything else you would go as?”
She shakes her head vigorously, then stops with her face towards the wall. “I want to be a grown-up,” she says. “A fancy grown-up going to a fancy party.”
It is the six of us in the gym for the unveiling—a priest, a football player, a cat, a witch, a vampire and a nine-year-old in a black Dior cocktail dress. I stitched up the back for her and cut the bottom so that it fell to her ankles and would twirl up if she spun around fast enough. My heels were secured to her feet with ribbon, but now they are off and she is sliding around in her nyloned feet. Around us are tables decorated with orange and yellow squash, Indian corn, cornucopias stuffed with candy. Skeletons dangle from the basketball hoops and a row of jack-o-lanterns sit on the middle step of the bleachers. They are lighted and cast shadows that jump and bounce, making the room seem alive.
Gillian stands on a ladder at the edge of the mural, clapping us to attention before letting the tarp drop.
“Cool,” says Jonah, and I can tell he means it. I take it in and decide he’s right. Despite Gillian’s directives, the seasons blend into one another naturally and everything seems to be the right size. I look at the area that I had to repaint several times, a rendering of the city’s skyline at night. The light from the buildings illuminates the water beneath them, reflecting back a warped version of their hard profiles. I try to remember how I got it to work, but it is too complicated to fully recall.
“Wonderful perspective,” Frank says, and he winks at me through the white make-up that covers his face. His widow’s peak has been drawn too far down on his forehead, making it look like he’s losing more hair than he actually is.
Gillian comes down off the ladder and saunters over to us, doing her best sexy witch. She is wearing a red satin skirt that pulls, twisting the lines along the back of her fishnets around to the sides of her legs as she walks. “I think the two of you should climb up there for a picture, before the rest of the school and their parents arrive,” she says, pointing. “Right there, above the island, near the top of Rainier.”
“It’s beautiful,” says Ethan. “You deserve to be up there by yourself. I didn’t have anything to do with this.”
I drew a sketch once of the married man I was with before Ethan and I met. It was for his birthday, not the first we’d spent together. His wife always went to St. Bart’s in March. I’d drawn him at the window of their bedroom, which overlooked Malibu Canyon. He’d get up to stare at that reserve of green hills right after we finished sometimes, stand with his back to me. He turned around once, his eyes lingering on my body and that was the look I’d drawn, a tired but handsome face, with just the slightest bit of remorse around its edges. He looked at it for a while and put it down, then thanked me as he picked it up again.
“It’s very good,” he said. “But it doesn’t look that much like me.” I compared the two and saw he was right. The man in front of me was the same stranger he’d always been. The man I thought I’d known well enough to draw never existed.
“You had everything to do with it,” I say to Ethan, and move him towards the ladder. He stays close behind me as we climb, and when we get to the top, he puts his arm around my sexy cat waist. He’s shaking a little and won’t look down.
“Sleep in our room tonight,” I say, putting my hand on the back of his neck and slipping my fingers inside his shirt. “I miss you.”
“We’re right here,” Katie says, standing below the harvest moon, touching the trunk of the tree caught between fall and winter. She runs her hand along the wall, stopping at a bunch of daffodils painted at the far edge of spring. “How long until here?”
“About six months, sweetie,” Gillian says. And to us, “Move a little closer together, and I’ll take it.”
Gillian keeps moving backwards to get more of the wall into frame, lowering down then standing up, striving for the best angle. Frank pats Jonah on the shoulder, which makes Jonah fidget with his pads and tap his clipboard against his side. He’s trying to feign interest, but keeps glancing into the hallway to see they’ve opened the doors yet, if any of his friends have arrived. Katie steps back from the mural and looks up at us.
“I’m not just any grown-up,” she announces, “I’m Lizzie.” She flips her hair back over her shoulders like I do when it’s in my way, but she does it with more flair and precision. It’s then that I see it, the resemblance that Ethan has tried to convince me of from the beginning. It’s the nose more than anything. The bob of it is the same; it angles up the way mine does. She’ll be prettier than I am and I’m not even a little jealous.
“They love you,” Ethan says, and we hold onto each other as Gillian takes the picture and the sound of other families begins to fill the halls.