“A coyote ate a three-year-old not far from here.”
“My uncle told me.”
“He said, ‘Don’t leave those babies outside again,’ as if I already had.”
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Can I Break It?
“Come on.” An answer less precise than no.
“Why’s he monitoring coyote activity up here?”
A wild dog with a tender baby in its jaws disappearing into the redwoods forever. My uncle’s so good at imagining things, he makes them real. “Yeah. It’s just what he does, a habit.” Or a compulsion.
“I don’t get it.”
But I do. Every real thing started life as an idea. I’ve imagined objects and moments into existence. I’ve made humans. I tip taxi-drivers ten, twenty dollars every time they don’t rape me.
The last time my husband and I had sex was eight months ago, and it doesn’t count because at the time my boobs were so huge from nursing that their power over him, over all men, really, was supreme. Now, instead of sex with my husband, I spend my nights imagining dangerous scenarios involving our children. It’s less fun.
“Watch out,” my uncle says. “Watch out,” taking refuge in right-wing notions, living his life terrified of differences.
Once, I was a drug dealer, back when pot was still illegal here. I’m a writer now. I haven’t made any money writing yet; still, that’s how I spend my days, putting things down on paper. People continue to come to my house to buy pot and I sell it to them even though I’m no longer a drug dealer and they could get this shit legally, even though I’m sick of the people who pop their heads in my door, all friendly-like: “Hi. How you doing?”
“Fine,” I say, but I mean, Shut up and buy your drugs and stop thinking you’re better than me.
When I was young, I shopped at the Army-Navy with the thought that if I bought these clothes and wore them I would prevent some beautiful young man from being killed in the garments. I’m romantic like that.
I’m telling you about the coyotes, the kids, the taxi-drivers, the drugs, the writing, and the romance because I want to be as honest as I can here. As I said, thoughts become material. I’m not hysterical or crazy. I’m laying the groundwork for real honesty.
I had great hopes that the threat of Lyme disease would revitalize our sex life. “Will you check me for ticks?” You know, and things would go from there. Grooming each other as monkeys do. In that way, at least for a while, I got him to touch me again and it felt good, but then Lyme disease never really took off in California like it did on the East Coast.
The men I know speak about sex as if their needs are more intense or deeper than women’s needs. Like their penises are on fire and they will die if they can’t extinguish the flames in some damp, tight hole. Through high school and college, I believed men when they said their desires were more intense than mine because they talked about sex so much. They developed entire industries devoted to their desire. The aches! The suffering of the boys! The shame and mutual responsibility for blue balls. The suffering of the boys. Poor boys, I thought. Poor boys, as if I were being called upon to serve in a war effort, the war against boys not getting any.
The only desire I have that compares to the way men talk about sex is my fervor for rehashing the past. I relive the exquisite pain of things that no longer exist: my father’s jean jacket, my father, Travolta’s 1977 dark beauty, how it felt to be alone in the house with my mom after my siblings left for school, the hypnotic rotations of my record-player spinning the Osmonds and Paper Lace, the particular odors of a mildewed tent in summertime. Memory as erogenous zone.
Then I realized that men think they are special because someone told them so.
Then I realized that I, too, have begun to burn lately, and, while no one wants to hear about middle-aged female sexual desire, I don’t care anymore what no one wants. There are days I ache so badly, the only remedy beyond a proper plowing would be a curved and rusty piece of metal or broken glass to gouge out my hot center from mid-inner thigh all the way up to my larynx. I’d spare my spine, brain, hands, and feet. I’m not irrational.
The list of potential reasons that my husband and I no longer have sex wakes me up at night. If I’m not already awake thinking about the coyotes. The first reason, and the wildest, craziest reason, is that maybe my husband is gone. Maybe one night a while back I kicked him out after a fight and maybe, even if I didn’t mean everything I said, he went away and didn’t come back. That would certainly explain why we don’t have sex. Maybe I’m just imagining him here still. It can be hard to tell with men, whether they are really here or not. Especially a man with a smartphone.
The second reason I develop to explain why my husband and I no longer have sex is that my husband is, no doubt, gay. A faultless crime, though not without its heartache and deceit.
The third reason I concoct to explain why my husband and I no longer have sex is that he must be molesting our children when he puts them to bed each night. This reason does double duty for me, cultivating worry about both my marriage and my kids at the same time. Such efficiency.
The fourth reason is that I must look like a chubby English maid: bad teeth, mouth agape, drooling ignorance and breast milk. This reason sends me onto the Internet for hours, researching various exercise regimens and diets hawked by self-tanned women with chemically bruised hair. In the middle of the night, it’s easy to hate myself as much as the world hates me. A few years ago, my husband bought me a short black wig as part of a sex-toy package. His ex-girlfriend has short black hair. I know the chemistry of other people’s desire is not my fault, but the wig, so fucking blatant, really hurt.
Finally, the last reason I imagine for why my husband and I no longer have sex comes almost as a relief, because it requires very little imagination or elaboration and after I think it I can usually go back to sleep. My husband must be having an affair.
I have a friend from college. She’s a real New England Wasp, with a fantastic secret. Her family pays for all those Lilly Pulitzers, summers on Nantucket, and boarding schools from a fortune made manufacturing dildos and vibrators. I love that secret. One of the biggest sellers is a set of plastic prosthetic monster tongues, some forked, some spiky, most of them green or blue, all of them scaled for the lady’s pleasure, especially a lady with a lizard fetish.
This friend once asked me a greasy question that returns on nights like this one: “Are you the kind of woman who would want to know if her husband’s cheating on her?” And she left the question dangling. Her mouth may have even been slightly open. People cheat because they are no longer running away from sabre-toothed tigers. I get that. Adrenaline insists on being taken out for a spin. But there was an indictment inherent in either answer I could give my friend, so I stayed silent and wondered, Was she asking because she knew something?
We moved out of the city because there’s no room for non-millionaires there anymore. In the country, life is more spacious. We bought a king-size bed. Some nights we snuggle like baby snakes, all five of us. Those nights, our giant bed is the center of the universe, the mother ship of bacterial culture, populated with blood, breast milk, baby urine. A petri dish of life-forms. Like some hogan of old. Those nights I know we are safe. But when our children sleep in their own room my husband and I are left alone on the vast plain of this oversized bed feeling separate, feeling like ugly Americans who have eaten too much, again.
The plague of perfectionism on parenting blogs is rancid. Alice in Wonderland birthday parties; Spanish-speaking nannies; healthy children harvesting perfect blue chicken eggs from the back-yard coop; homeschooled wonders who read by age three; flat, tight bellies; happy husbands; cake pops; craft time; quilting projects; breast pumps in the boardroom; tenure; ballet tights; cloth diapers; French braids; homemade lip balm; tremendous flat pans of paella prepared over a beach campfire. What sort of sadist is running these Internets? And, more important, how do these blogs not constitute acts of violence against women?
I glimpsed a huge beyond when I became a mother, the immensity of an abyss, or the opposite of an abyss, the idea of complete fullness, small gods everywhere. But now all that the world wants to hear from me is how I juggle children and career, how I manage to get the kids to eat their veggies, how I lost the weight.
I will never lose this weight.
When we encounter a mother doing too many things perfectly, smiling as if it were all so easy, so natural, we should feel a civic responsibility to slap her hard across the face and scream the word “Stop!” so many times that the woman begins to chant or whimper the word along with us. Once she has been broken, we may take her in our arms until the trembling and self-hatred leave her body. It is our duty.
I once thought motherhood loosened a woman’s grasp on sanity. Now I see it is the surplus and affluence of America. Plus something else, something toxic, leaking poison, or fear. Something we can’t yet see.
I’d like to post some shots from my own childhood, a version of my parents’ parenting blog, if such an abomination had existed back then. In these photos, through the fog of cigarette smoke filling the living room, across the roar of Georges Moustaki blasting his sorrow from the record-player at midnight, it would be difficult for a viewer to even locate the children in rooms so thick with adults acting like adults.
I’ve been thinking about drafting a manual for expecting mothers. An honest guide to a complex time of life for which no one’s ever properly prepared. After I became a mom, I asked an older friend, “How come you never told me I’d lose my identity when I had a kid?”
“ ’Cause it’s temporary. They give you a new one. And I kind of forgot.”
When I sit down to begin my manual, I realize how specific my guide is to one demographic. So then, O.K., a mothering guide for middle-class, heterosexual women who went to college and are gainfully employed. But once I’ve arrived there, my pen raised and at the ready, I realize I actually have very little wisdom. So: a brochure. Pen in hand. Until I realize that what I’ve learned about being a middle-class, hetero mother who went to college could actually be boiled down to one or two fortune cookies. I write, “hormones are life. hormones are mental illness.” I write, “equality between the sexes does not exist.” And then my job is done.
A few days ago, I was scrubbing the rim of the upstairs toilet because it smelled like a city alley in August. My phone dinged. I’d received an e-mail. I pulled off my latex gloves to read the message. Who am I kidding? I wasn’t wearing gloves. Real honesty. I was scrubbing the toilet with bare hands. I was probably even using the same sponge I use on the sink, that area right near the toothbrushes. The e-mail was from my husband. “Thought you might like this,” he said. It was a link to a list of life hacks, simple tricks designed to make one’s life easier: use duct tape to open stuck lids, keep floppy boots upright with pool noodles, paper-clip the end of a tape roll so you can find it easily.
I wrote him back. “Or you could marry a woman and make her your slave.”
He never did respond.
I’m not saying that men have it better or women have it better. I don’t ever want to be a man. I’m just saying there’s a big difference between the two.
When I swim at the public pool, I wear sunglasses so I can admire the hairless chest of the nineteen-year-old lifeguard. I love it that he, a child, really, is guarding me, fiercest of warriors, a mother, strong as stinky cheese, with a ripe, moldy, melted rotten center of such intense complexity and flavor it would kill a boy of his tender age.
Once, I woke Sam in the night. That’s my husband’s name, Sam. “Honey,” I said. “Honey, are you awake?”
“I think I’m dying.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Uh-huh.” And then he went back to sleep.
Presumably my husband likes stinky cheese and the challenge of living near my hormones. Presumably that’s what love is.
Another night, also in bed, I woke Sam. I do that a lot. “I want you to agree that there is more than one reality.”
“I want you to agree that if I feel it, if I think it, it is real.”
“But what if you think I’m an asshole?” he asked.
“Well. Then that’s real.”
“What does that word even mean, ‘really’?” I started to scream a little.
“The word ‘really’ suggests that we all see things the same way. It suggests one reality. Right?”
“Sure. Right. Really,” he said. Really.
One huge drawback to my job as a drug dealer is that, while I grow older, passing through my thirties and into my forties, the other drug dealers stay young. They are almost all in their twenties. Normally, I don’t socialize with the other drug dealers, but one night a group of the twenty-year-olds asked if I wanted to join them for a drink. I almost said no, but then decided, why not.
All the motions at the bar were familiar. It’s not as if I forgot how to go out for a drink. I know what kind of wine I like. I had no trouble finding a seat. After our first drink, some of the young drug dealers disappeared to play pool, some wandered off to greet other friends. Halfway through my second drink, I was holding down the fort alone, a couple of purses, packs of smokes, and cocktails left in my charge. No problem. I didn’t mind a moment of silence.
But then a young man—handsome, long hair, strong hands—joined me at the table. I started to panic.
This, I suddenly thought, is what it means to go out for a drink. This is the entire purpose. Have a drink, meet a stranger, have fantastic sex all night long. But I didn’t want to blow up my life. I love Sam. I love our life. Still, there was this young man beside me, interested in me, nervous even.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m a friend of Alli’s.” One of the twenty-year-old drug dealers.
“Hi.” I tried not to, but I imagined him naked, me naked. I imagined him accepting the way my body has aged naturally, despite the near-certainty that that would never happen. Very few bodies this close to San Francisco are allowed to age naturally.
“Alli told me you’re a mom.”
“That’s right.” It wasn’t the sexiest thing he could say, but maybe, I thought, this is how it will work, how he’ll appreciate the lines and rolls of my abdomen.
“I was thinking, since you’re a mom, you might have some snacks? I’m really hungry. Like, is there anything in your purse?”
After a short excavation, the highest humiliation. He was right. I found a bag of baby carrots and a granola bar in my purse. I passed my offerings across the table to the young man.
“Thanks,” he said, disappearing with the food. “Thanks.” Some mother’s child, some mother who had at least taught her son to say thank you.
“Can you check me for ticks?”
Sam switches on a light, picks me over, stopping at each freckle. How lucky I am to know such love, to momentarily remember what it means to have the body of a child, ignorant of age’s humiliation. “O.K.,” he says. “You’re all clear.”
“Thanks. Should I check you?”
“Nah. I’m good. There’s no Lyme disease in California. Not really.” He switches off the light and now it’s night.
What’s the scariest sound a person can hear?
In a quiet country house where the closest neighbors are pretty far away, the scariest possible sound is a man coughing outside at night. Because why is there a man standing in the dark, studying the sleeping house, licking his lips, coughing? Why would someone be so near to my home, to my children, in this place that is not the city?
I know the sounds of this house intimately. I know the difference between the mailman and the UPS man, the garbage truck, the school bus, the washer-dryer in the basement. I know each door. I know the sound of a man outside coughing.
“What was that?” But Sam is already asleep. “Wake up.” I whisper so that the coughing man won’t know we’re onto him. “Wake up, hon. Someone’s outside.”
“Sh-h-h. I heard something.”
“There’s someone downstairs. Someone’s outside.”
“A guy. Please.”
In the dead and dark of night, I send away the only man who has sworn an oath to protect me. I must be an idiot. I must be really scared.
Sam disappears in his underwear and bare feet, leaving behind the retired baseball bat he once thought to stow under the bed for just this sort of occasion. The soft pads of his feet go down the top few steps and then there’s no more sound. He’s so gone I have a sense our entire downstairs is filled with stagnant black pond water through which he’s now wading, swimming, drowning, trying to stay quiet so the bad guy, whoever he is, doesn’t hear him, find the staircase, and tear our tiny world apart.
The uncertain position we all maintain in life asking when will violence strike, when will devastation occur, leaves us looking like the hapless swimmers at the beginning of the “Jaws” movies. Innocent, tender, and delicious.
“Sam?” I call softly, so the bad guy won’t know we’re separated.
There’s no answer from downstairs. Why is it taking him so long to come back?
I hold the night the way I would a child who has finally fallen asleep. As if I were frightened it will move. I am frightened it will move. I am scared my life will suffer some dramatic, sudden change. I try to hear deeper. I try not to shift at all, not to breathe, but no matter how still I stay there’s no report from downstairs. What if Sam is already dead, killed by the intruder? What if the bad guy, in stocking feet, is creeping upstairs right now, getting closer to my babies, to me?
Part of me knows that he is. Part of me knows that he always is and always will be.
Where we live there are squirrels, rabbits, all manner of wild birds, foxes, mountain lions. There are rednecks getting drunk at the sports bar three miles away. There are outlaw motorcycle clubs convening. There are children dreaming. Other living things still exist in the night. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.
Sam is probably fine. He’s probably downstairs on his computer. Barely Legal, Backstreet Blow Jobs.
Night ticks by.
“Sam?” There’s no answer and the quiet becomes a dark cape, so heavy I can’t move my legs. I can’t move my body. I am only eyes, only ears. The night asks, Who are you? Who will you become if Sam has been chopped to bits by the guy downstairs?
This is a good question. Who am I? Who will I be without Sam? Without kids? I can hear how well-intentioned people at Sam’s funeral will say, “Just be yourself.” But there is no self left. Why would there be? From one small body I made three new humans. I grew these complex beauties. I made their lungs and noses. It took everything I had to make them. Liver? Take it. Self-worth? It’s all yours. New people require natural resources and everyone knows you don’t get something for nothing. Why wouldn’t I be hollowed out? Who can’t understand this math?
The strangest part of these calculations is that I don’t even mind. Being hollow is the best way to be. Being hollow means I can fill myself with stars or light or rose petals if I want. I’m glad everything I once was is gone and my children are here instead. They’ve erased the individual and I am grateful. The individual was not special in the first place. And, really, these new humans I made are a million times better than I ever was.
The bedcovers look gray in the dim light of chargers, laptops, and phones scattered around our bedroom. In this ghost light I am alone. The night asks again, Who are you? Who will you be when everyone is gone? My children are growing, and when they are done I’ll have to become a human again instead of a mother, like spirit becoming stone, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar. I’m not looking forward to that.
Who are you?
The answer is easy in daylight. But the night’s untethering almost always turns me into someone I’m not. I spend nights thinking about the different women I become in the dark. Where am I keeping these women when the sun is up? Where do they hide, these women who have breached the sanctity of my home, who know things about me so secret even I don’t know these things? Maybe they are in the closet. Maybe they are hiding inside me. Maybe they are me trapped somewhere I can’t get to, like in the DNA markers of my hormones, those proteins that make me a woman instead of something else.
You may ask, Are these women who bombard me at night real, or do I imagine them? You may eventually realize that is a stupid question.
I think about fidelity. To Sam, to myself. The light is still gray. The night is still so quiet. I let the women in, an entire parade of them, the whole catalogue, spread out on the bed before me. Sam is gone and these women keep me company. Even if they terrify me. I let the other women in.
An author lived for a time in a modern house behind mine, on the other side of a eucalyptus grove. She had recently divorced. She is a great writer, though she has written only one book. The book takes a frank approach to sex and bodies. I try to copy her writing. Her book is about prostitutes, so I assume she was once a sex worker. Or maybe she just wants her readers to believe that, for street cred at book parties, in university settings.
I could kind of see into the rear windows of her house at night with a pair of binoculars. These voyeur sessions never lasted long, because all she ever did was sit there. Maybe once or twice I caught her walking to her kitchen. It was boring. She was alone all the time, and while she was no doubt thinking amazing, fantastic thoughts about the nature of art, my binoculars could not see those thoughts.
The town we live near is so small, it was inevitable that we would meet. We did, many times. We once even shared the dance floor at the local bar, a Mexican restaurant, really. We momentarily danced together like robots from outer space. But then each time we met again it was, to her, as fresh as the first time. “Nice to meet you,” she’d say. Once, I had to deliver a piece of misdirected mail and she invited me in for a glass of wine. In an instant, I developed a fantasy of the famous writer and me as best friends. I dropped that fantasy quickly, because it was clear that her alien-robot routine back in the bar had not been an act.
When I mentioned that I had three children, her jaw came unhinged. “Oh, my God.” Her hand rose to her face as if I’d said I had three months to live. Maybe that was what children meant to her.
“Needs more bread crumbs.”
I went to hear her read at the local library once when I was very pregnant. During the Q. & A., she spoke of child rearing with great disgust. Likening motherhood to a dairy operation. She said that children murder art, and though it was easy for me to dismiss her comments as ignorance—she’d never had a child, she’d never made a life or a death—I could not prevent the other people in the audience from looking at me with pity. “How did you like that?” a number of my neighbors asked me afterward.
“I enjoyed it very much, thanks.”
When I was at her house she dismissed me after one glass of wine. “I have to eat my sandwich,” she said, as if that sandwich were something so solidly constructed it would be impossible to divide, impossible to share. I left.
The next time I saw the famous writer, she was in the grocery store. Once again, she didn’t recognize me or acknowledge the four or five times we’d already met, the wine we had drunk together, so I was able to freely stalk her through the aisles of the store, to spy the items of nourishment a famous writer feeds herself: butterfly dust, caviar, evening dew.
I stood behind her in line at the fishmonger’s counter, my own cart bulging with Cheerios, two gallons of milk, laundry soap, instant mac and cheese, chicken breasts, cold cuts, bread, mayonnaise, apples, bananas, green beans, all the flabby embarrassments of motherhood that no longer embarrass me. I heard her order a quarter pound of salmon. The loneliest fish order ever. I stepped away without ordering, scared her emaciated loneliness might be contagious. She kept her chin lifted. Some people enjoy humiliation. Maybe I used to be one of those people, but I don’t feel humiliation anymore. The body sloughs off cells every day, aging. After all that, what is left to feel humiliated? Very little indeed.
The commuter bus that runs between here and the city is one small part of America where silence still lives. It’s a cylinder of peace moving through the world swiftly enough to blur it.
Once, on a return bus, there was a woman seated in front of me. People do not speak on the bus. At least, no one who rides with regularity. We understand that this hour of being rocked and shushed is the closest we’ll get to being babies again. But this woman was not a regular. She’d gone down to the city for the day. She was ten to fifteen years older than me, mid-fifties, though I never saw her face. I could feel she was buzzing. She’d taken a risk travelling to the city by herself, such a risk that accomplishing it had emboldened her to try other new things, like the voice-recognition software on her smartphone, that newfangled device purchased for her by an older child who’d grown tired of having a mother who lived in a technological backwater.
There was nothing wrong with her hands, but she wanted to demonstrate that even though she was middle-aged and less loved now than she’d been in the past, she could be current with the modern world. She could enjoy the toys of the young. So, on the quiet bus, she began to speak into her phone as if recording books for the blind, loudly and slowly. Everyone could hear her. There on the silent bus, the woman shouted multiple drafts of an e-mail to a friend, laying plain her regret, fumes of resignation in the tight, enclosed area.
Hi. Just on my way home. I spent the day with Philip and his glamorous wife. He had a concert at the conservatory. I hadn’t been back in years. It was great to see him. His wife is gorgeous. They live in Paris. Ouch. I just
The woman paused and considered. She tried again. Her voice even louder, as if it were another chorus, a building symphony of mortification.
Hi. I’m on the bus back from San Francisco. What a day. I saw Philip. He had a concert at the conservatory. His wife is gorgeous, glamorous, everything I’m not. They live in Paris and their kids
She paused again. Take three. Loud and utterly desperate. Words falling apart.
Saw Philip and his gorgeous wife. Conservatory. Paris. Kids. I just
I turned to the window, which, although sealed, at least reminded me what fresh air meant, what it was to breathe without the toilet leaking air freshener, without having to hear that woman’s echoing regret.
People should be more careful with their language. People shouldn’t infect innocent bystanders with their drama.
There’s a man I hardly know, an academic. He began sleeping with a graduate student when his wife was pregnant, but everything was cool, because, you know, everyone involved read criticism and all three of them really wanted to test the boundaries of just how much that shit can hurt.
I imagine that shit can hurt a whole lot.
Every time I hear about another professor with a student, I think, Wow, that professor I know is way more messed up than I ever thought. Stealing confidence from eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-olds.
This professor, he cleared the fucking of the graduate student with his pregnant wife, and for reasons I don’t understand the wife allowed him to dabble in younger, unwed women while she gestated their child, while her blood and bones were sucked from her body into their fetus.
Though the wife is an interesting part of this triangle, it’s neither her nor the husband I’m thinking of here in bed while Sam bleeds out his last drop of life on our living-room floor. I’m thinking of the poor, stupid graduate student.
She and the academic attended a lecture together one night. After the lecture, there was a party where she was in the insecure position of being a student among people who were done being students. And though everyone was staring at her—they knew the wife—no one wanted to talk to her or welcome the grad student into the land of scholars.
This was not acceptable. She liked attention. She liked performance. She cleared her throat—and the noise from the room—as if readying for a toast. She stood on a low coffee table. Everyone stopped drinking. In a loud, clear voice, one that must still reverberate in her ears, the academic’s ears, everyone’s ears (it even managed to reach mine), she said, “You’re just angry because of what I do with my queer vagina.”
On my living-room wall I keep a photo of my Victorian great-grandmother engaged in a game of cards with three of her sisters. These women maintained a highly flirtatious relationship with language. “Queer” once meant strange. “Queer” once meant homosexual. “Queer” now means opposition to binary thinking. I experience a melancholy pause when meaning is lost, when words drift like runaways far from home. How did “queer” ever come to mean a philandering penis and vagina in a roomful of bookish, egotistical people? How did common old adultery ever become queer?
I feel the grad student’s late-blooming humiliation. How she came to realize, or will one day soon, that her words were foolish. I remind myself there in bed, Don’t talk. Don’t say words to people, because words conjure images. Her words created a likely unwanted idea of an organ that, like all our organs, is both extraordinary and totally plain. Some flaps of loose skin, some hair, some blood, but, outside the daily fact of its total magnificence, it is really not queer at all.
I am alone with these thoughts, these women.
What is taking him so long to come back?
“Sam?” I climb out of bed. “Sam?” I call from the top of the stairs, placing my hand against the window in the hall. There, I hear that awful sound again. A man outside coughing in the night. “Sam?” Each step down the stairs takes years. I’m frozen by terror. The photos lining the stairwell don’t anchor me. Pictures of my girls at birthdays, the beach, riding ponies. “Sam?” I call from the bottom stair. The front door is locked, but the knob begins to turn against the lock and I can’t move. Someone is trying to get inside. He’s here, the man who has come to chop us into bits. The lock holds, but I am petrified. The man tries the doorknob again. “Sam? Where are you?”
“I’m out here.” He turns the locked knob.
“You?” Sam is the man. “How’d you get locked out?”
I grab a corner of the kitchen table.
“Are you kidding?” He coughs again. It is Sam. He’s at the door. I see him through the glass, coughing. Sam’s the man who’s come to chop us to bits. No wonder I kicked him out. No wonder I changed the locks. Sam cannot save me from death and I am so angry. If he cannot stop me or my babies from dying, what good is he? Why is he even here?
“Open the door.”
I look at the night that absorbed my life. How am I supposed to know what’s love and what’s fear? “If you’re Sam, who am I?”
“I know who you are.”
“Who am I?” I ask. Don’t say wife, I think. Don’t say mother. I want to know if I am anyone without my family, if I am anyone alone. I put my face to the glass, but it’s dark and I don’t reflect. Sam and I watch each other through the window of the door. He coughs some more.
“I want to come home,” he says. “I want us to be O.K. That’s it. I’m simple and I want to come home and be with my family.”
“But I am extremely not simple,” I tell him. My body’s coursing with secret genes and hormones and proteins. My body made eyeballs and I have no idea how. There’s nothing simple about eyeballs. My body made food to feed those eyeballs. How? And how can I not know or understand the things that happen inside my own body? There’s nothing simple here. I’m ruled by elixirs and compounds I don’t even know. Maybe I love Sam because my hormones say I need a man to kill the coyotes at night, to bring my babies meat. But I don’t want that kind of love. I want a love that exists outside my body also. I don’t want to be a chemistry project.
“In what ways are you not simple?” he asks.
I think of the women I collected upstairs, how they’re inside me. I’m thinking of molds. I’m thinking of the sea and plankton. I’m thinking of my dad when he was a boy, when he was a tree bud. “It’s complicated,” I say, but words aren’t going to be the best way here. Don’t talk. How can I tell him something that’s just coming into existence?
“I get that now,” he says. “But you’re going to have to try to explain it.”
We see each other through the glass. He lifts his hand to my face. We witness each other. That’s something, to be seen by another human. Sam’s seen me since we were young. That’s something, too. Love over time. Love that’s movable, invisible, love like a liquid or a gas, love that finds a way in.
“Unlock the door.”
“I don’t want to love you because I’m scared.”
“So you imagine crazy things about me? You imagine me doing things I’ve never done to get rid of me? Kick me out so you won’t have to worry about me leaving?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Right.” And I’m glad he gets that.
Sam cocks his head the way a coyote might, a coyote who’s been temporarily confused by a question of biology versus morality.
What’s the difference between living and imagining? What’s the difference between love and security?
“Unlock the door,” he says again.
This family is the biggest experiment I’ve ever been part of, an experiment called: How do you let someone in?
“Unlock the door,” he says again. “Please.”
I turn the knob. I open the door. That’s the best definition of love I can imagine.
Sam comes inside. But when I go to shut the door behind him he tells me no. “Leave the door open.” As if there were no doors, no walls, no houses.
“What about skunks?” I really mean burglars, gangs, evil.
“Let them in if they want.”
If they even exist. If I didn’t make them up. “Really?” I ask.
“Really,” he says, and pulls the door open wide, as open as it can be.
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