About the Feature
That fall, I was living in Connecticut with my mother. She had cancer of the bone. Don’t worry—this isn’t that kind of story. Already the doctors were predicting she would survive. I was the one people worried about. Twenty-four, and I’d just been fired from my sixth consecutive job. So my mother called me up and asked if I’d like to spend a few months living with her. In exchange, I could help take care of her baby boy. I hadn’t lived with her since I was nine.
I slept in an apartment over her garage on a futon her new husband, Frank, picked out at Goodwill. Frank seemed like a good man, and I was determined not to like him. That part was simple; he was out of the house every day from sunup to sundown working in a crash test laboratory. Every morning he pushed the buttons of a remote and drove cars packed with cadavers into walls. He broke their arms, their legs. He learned which type of crash was most likely to fracture the neck.
Meanwhile, my mother stayed at home. Each morning I sat with her and rubbed coconut oil onto her bare scalp, the skin around her eyes. I helped her wrap her head in silk scarves. Then she walked out to her studio, where she taught music lessons to children under the age of ten. I could hear them out in the garage, the halting pull of the children’s hands across the strings, my mother slowly plunking out harmonies on the piano.
It was difficult to tell how the baby felt about the noise. He often moaned a little while the lessons went on and chewed at the long ends of my hair. I liked to lie on my back and drape the baby over my chest so his face pressed into my shoulder and I could feel his small hands gripping at my hair, my neck, the point of my chin. Sometimes I would fall asleep that way, wake to the feeling of Frank arriving home from work and pulling the baby off me.
“Look at you,” he would say. “You’re a natural at this.”
* * * * *
After a few weeks living with her, I got a job working as a substitute teacher in a second-grade earth science class. My mother drove me to school in the mornings. She dropped me off in the same lane that parents dropped off their children. Once, I joked that this was the first time she’d ever driven me to school. She didn’t find it funny, dug for a tissue and coughed into it once, dry, as if reminding me that she was sick, that I wasn’t allowed to hold onto those things about her that had made me angry for so long. After that, we stopped talking in the car. Instead, I turned on the radio and played my father’s station. He was a recurring guest on a nationwide sports show. My mother drove us through the rain, the morning fog, the sun, with me in the passenger seat, the baby in the back. If I shifted in my seat, her hand moved immediately to the volume dial, turned it up so my father’s voice took up all the space in the car.
* * * * *
Or, sometimes, we talked about the baby.
“Oh,” she would say, coming into a room and spotting me holding him. “I didn’t see you there.” As if I had just popped into existence in her house.
* * * * *
Let me be clear: I had none of the qualifications a science teacher should have. But this school was desperate. Their teacher was on maternity leave.
“Fact,” I said to my students. “At any moment in your life you are no less than thirteen feet away from a spider.”
“Even if you’re inside a mansion?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Even if you’re swimming in a giant pool?”
“What if you were standing at the top of a building that was a hundred stories tall?”
I didn’t know if any of those answers were true; I knew very little about spiders. But my blue teacher sheet—Fun Facts! Earth Science!—insisted that we were never less than thirteen feet away from a spider at any moment in our lives, so I insisted that my students believe the same.
I popped in the assigned video about spiders. A fishing spider skimmed across the surface of a pond and Timmy Flanders, who sat in the front row, paled at the cheeks and dropped to the floor with a soft sound, like a cotton sheet.
Timmy had a very fragile constitution. Videos about swamp alligators and pond-water bacteria made him vomit. Documentary specials on our changing oceans gave him hives. He had to close his eyes when he washed his hands. The theory around the faculty lounge was that all this trouble stemmed from a particularly graphic film his mother had shot of Timmy’s water birth. She showed it to him often and we, the teachers, believed this was responsible for his queasiness with regard to currents (as well as blood, bodies, and the color blue).
I had mentioned the matter once to his mother when she picked him up from school.
“It’s important,” she said, “to expose a young man to the realities of the female form. What better way to do it than through his entrance to the grand stage we call life?”
Timmy’s mother did not have many friends. Neither did Timmy. Still, he was a beautiful boy. His mother kept his chestnut curls long so they dipped around his ears. His eyes were wide and blue, like those oceans he could not stand, and often watery as well. Each afternoon at the end of class, he wrapped his two arms around one of my legs and squeezed. Miss O, he would say, I love you. School policy prevented me from saying that I loved him too. Besides, my feelings for Timmy were complicated by the fact that I was currently carrying on an affair with his father, the school’s principal.
* * * * *
I met the principal at a bar called the Eternal Cellar. I bet you can already picture how it looked: “dank” would be the best word to describe it. They kept the Jim Beam on the top rail. If you were foolish enough to put your hand on the bar, it stuck. I spent a lot of time in the Eternal Cellar that fall, trying to convince myself that I was not the kind of girl who believed in love. The principal was perfect for that. He complained loudly about his wife—how they’d had sex only twice since their son was born, the fact that she’d made him move away from a very fancy private school in Buffalo. All the clichéd things that women do to their husbands.
You’re nothing like her, he would say to me, pushing up my shirt.
You’re not like any woman I’ve ever known. This said as he was leaving me, naked, in the bed above my mother’s garage. His car parked one block over. Walking down the steps without his shoes, so that sometimes it was impossible for me to tell when exactly he disappeared.
Then he would make up with his wife, and I wouldn’t see him for weeks on end.
There were other men I spent my time with the nights that he didn’t show up. There was Billy, a coxswain from a nearby college; Michael, who worked in a factory that made latex gloves; or Drew, a man with a nearly infinite collection of pocket squares. Then the principal would return, and I would forget about all of them for a week, a month, however long he remained unhappy with his wife and happy with me.
* * * * *
A few weeks after I started teaching, my mother told me it was time to start dressing like an adult. She gave me two hundred dollars to go buy myself some appropriate clothes, so the baby and I went down to the local mall, where I pushed him around in a stroller. It was difficult shopping with a baby. People kept stopping me to touch him on his head. They called him precious, compared him to the size of a pea. All of them wanted me to know how much he looked like me.
That much, at least, I’d expected. The baby was not my first half-sibling. My father had another girl as well—Beth—and when the two of us went out together, people instantly recognized us as kin. I used to spend my summers taking her to the pool. This was when I was still in high school. She would pretend to be a water snake and bite me on my ankles, or she was a mermaid that had been cursed by an evil queen. Rescue me, she would shout from one end of the pool, and the mothers would look at me with their indulgent grins.
“You’re so good with her,” they’d say. “You’ll make an amazing mother someday.”
* * * * *
After earth science, my class moved on to simple physics. I tried to explain Newton’s Laws in a way that a seven-year-old could understand. I took them out in the hall, and we rolled plastic balls down the linoleum until they hit a wall and stopped. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. They picked up on it quickly, but I didn’t want to take them back inside the classroom. Instead, we sat out there for the entire period, tossing the balls down the hall and then chasing after them. Their sneakers made that delightful gym-class noise.
I watched them and thought about collisions. My stepfather was the one driving me to school now, and while we drove he talked about his job. He had explained to me that we knew almost nothing about what happened to the body of a child in a collision; only eight parents had ever donated their children’s bodies to science. When they wanted to test how a car’s safety devices protected children, they had to use the bodies of young kangaroos. He claimed the location of their organs was almost identical to a child’s.
The children started kicking the balls at each other. Another teacher on my hall poked her head out of her door and glared down at my class. The children were so small and pale. You could practically see the blue veins pumping beneath their skin.
* * * * *
The next night, the principal took me to a nice bar. The walls were chrome gray and the cocktails he ordered for us were made with egg foam. It was such a novelty to me. I dipped my pinky into the white froth and sucked my finger.
“Tell me about your first kiss,” he said.
“It was you,” I said. “You were my first everything.”
“Liar,” he said, laughing.
Still, I knew he liked me more in this imagined form. Just as I had liked him more the first time I saw him wearing his ring.
* * * * *
My father kept calling me on the phone and asking me to go visit my sister. She lived just fifteen minutes away, where she was attending an elite prep school.
“She’s very lonely,” he said. “She would love to see a familiar face.”
But I knew that couldn’t be true. Beth and I had the same face and I knew how the two of us looked in the mirror: a serious wrinkle between the brows, the kind of countenance that meant she’d been mistaken for an adult by the time she was thirteen. She was just like me—the kind of girl who could never be lonely.
* * * * *
The healthier my mother became, the more she started talking about her sickness like it was a still present thing. She bought cookbooks intended for women with cancer, begged us all to eat macrobiotic rice and excessive amounts of kale. She canceled all her music lessons, claiming she was too tired to teach. She could go entire days without seeing the baby, foisting him off on me and then her husband when he returned home. The illness has become a part of her identity, her doctor told me. It will be hard for her to let it go.
* * * * *
Two months, and the science teacher was still on leave. How much longer could this go on?
“In Sweden, mothers sometimes take off work for an entire year.”
This helpful input was provided by the principal, who was currently fighting with his wife about purchasing an organic mattress for their son. We were sitting on a bench outside the Eternal Cellar and he was smoking a cigarette. He’d brought a new sweater to change into after, asked if he could leave the smoke-incriminated sweater at my place. I told him he could. When he handed it to me, I promised myself that I wouldn’t do anything too girlish or mopey, like sleeping with it in my bed. I tossed it into my lap and worried at the sleeves.
The principal started talking about the mattress again. Timmy didn’t need a mattress that cost half as much as a new car. He was growing up too coddled.
“You know,” I said, looking at the end of my cigarette butt, “I think I could be a good mother.”
“Sure,” he said, not listening, already pulling the cigarette butt out of my hand. “Maybe someday.”
* * * * *
In November, it started to rain. It rained for three days without stopping. On the fourth day, the sun came out and the kids were finally let back outside for recess. The rain had pooled and puddled in the sand beneath the monkey bars, and kids were hollowing out trenches, sailing boats made of leaves. Digging beneath the slide, one of the horse girls found a small, dead mole. You know the kind of girl I mean: friendless, braids on either side of her head, pink shirt with a black pony and a flowing mane. The girl picked the mole up in her palms like she was cupping cold water, clenching her fingers tight while recoiling from the chill. The recess monitor told her to drop it. The girl shook her head. She lifted the animal up by its wiry, stiff tail and dropped it down the front of her pants.
The recess monitor, a young man, reached toward her and then paused. He looked around the playground. He must have thought about how bad it might look for a man his age to reach down the front of a little girl’s jeans. He gestured to one of the nobler, more tattle-prone girls, and sent her cantering and careening down the empty school hallways, searching for a female teacher.
She found me.
I followed her out into the gray New England day. The principal stood, arms crossed, observing the entire situation with a smirk on his face. Timmy pressed his hands to his father’s leg and hugged him.
“Oh good,” the principal said, looking at me. “You’re here. I think this situation requires a woman’s touch.”
Other situations in which he had said this exact phrase to me: in bed with no lights on, the time he lost a button from his coat, the first night his wife ever traveled with Timmy out of town. I did not think this situation needed a woman’s touch; I thought it required a team of professional experts. The girl with the baby mole was standing on top of the monkey bars, barely balancing, as she pulled the wiry curl of the tail left and then right inside her underpants. I walked toward her, hands raised like cops on TV when facing a man holding a bomb.
“Please,” I said to her, attempting to imbue my tone with feminine energy. “Come down. Take that mole out of your pants.”
The girl did not jump down. She pulled the dead mole out of her pants and held it over her upper lip like it was a mustache. She laughed. She let the mole slip lower until it rested perfectly centered across her mouth. She smiled around its matted, oily fur. She opened her mouth and the ribs of the mole slid inside her jaw; we heard them crunch as she bit.
Then, in the exact moment I lowered my arms in horror and began to back away, she leapt from the monkey bars, toppling me over and landing, clinging with her mole-gutted hands in my hair.
* * * * *
That night when I got home, my mother was sitting on her front porch, smoking a joint. I watched her hold the smoke in her lungs, nodding her head up and down with her lips pursed. Then the release.
“You know,” she said. “I won’t miss much about cancer, but I will miss this.”
I laughed exactly the way I knew she wanted me to laugh. She looked up at me and wrinkled her nose, asked if I’d noticed the smell. I thought, I could tell her about my day. It was certainly interesting enough. I could tell her how after the girl let me go, after her parents came and she was sent home, I’d held my head under the sink in the teachers’ lounge, seen a mole lung skitter down the drain. I could tell her how long I’d sat in my classroom, waiting for the principal to stop by and see me, to ask if I was okay.
But I said none of that. I sat next to her on the steps and took the joint when she offered it my way. I stared up at the halo of our porch light, the dim pricks of stars beyond, and suddenly, without knowing what I was going to do, I started to cry. My mother opened her eyes and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Oh honey,” she said without asking me what was wrong. “He doesn’t deserve you.”
But I wasn’t crying about the principal, or any man; I was thinking about Timmy. He was so tender and young, and he would not stay that way—I was sure of it. Where could a boy like him go in the world? He was too gentle, heart like a fat flour sack. Soon, that soft boy would be swapped out for something new, similar in some practical ways, but mostly unrecognizable. Just like those kangaroos my stepfather stuffed into cars.
* * * * *
The principal didn’t call me the next day. Or the day after that. I convinced myself that I didn’t want him to call, that I’d had a true epiphany that night on the porch: I needed to be a better kind of woman, the kind that could, one day, turn into a mother. I went back to the Eternal Cellar and let Billy, the coxswain, take me out on a real date. We had a good time. Billy, who was only five feet tall, liked my size, wanted me to hold him down with both arms later in the night when we were in his bed.
The next time we went out he looked, impossibly, even smaller. He told me he needed to lose five pounds before the next race, ordered a Diet Coke and nothing else. I told him I didn’t think he had five pounds to spare, and he laughed the same way a girl does when you compliment her on her size. But I wasn’t trying to be kind; his body looked like a body trying to hold a tree inside its skin. But I let it go. I even promised I would come see him in his race. I really thought I would follow through with this promise, imagined myself by the side of the lake, watching the boys slide across the water, Billy’s small body curled behind them, shouting.
I even went to see my sister, that’s how much I was trying to be better. It wasn’t late, but she answered the door in her pajamas. Down the hall, I could hear the sounds of other girls laughing, and the scent of Chinese takeout filled the hall.
“Did I pull you away from your friends?” I asked.
Beth shook her head. We walked into her dorm room.
“Dad said you might want me to stop by,” I said. “He said you might like some company.”
She shrugged. It was like having a conversation with myself—of course she wouldn’t admit she was lonely. We sat in her room for a few minutes and I asked her about her classes, picked random books up off her shelves and asked her to tell me about them. She said next to nothing, sometimes only nodding her head. It was difficult to even share a room with her.
My phone began to buzz.
“Who’s that?” she said.
It was the principal. When I didn’t pick up, he sent a text asking to see me.
“You should go,” my sister said. “Honestly, I’m fine.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yes, I think I will.”
It happened that quickly; I didn’t even have to think. I asked her if she could point out the bathroom to me—I wanted to freshen up a bit before I headed over to his place—and she pointed me down the hall.
I was ashamed by how relieved I felt the second I was out of her presence. I slipped behind one of the cloth shower curtains, leaned against the wall, and held my head in my hands. In the distance I could hear girls who were not my sister laughing. I bent and picked up a bottle of shampoo. There were dozens of them scattered around the floor—most in pink bottles, some claiming to be “tearless,” clearly intended for children. There were a few loofahs hanging on a hook in the corner and one of them had a plush bear’s face embroidered into the center.
I palmed my phone and wrote back to the principal, see you soon, then pulled open the curtain, walked to the sink, and started washing my hands. The water slid down the sink’s drain with a chattering noise like summer and cicadas. I pressed my tongue behind my teeth and looked up into the mirror. I saw exactly what I’d known I would see: the face my sister and I both shared, the watery eyes, that look of hopelessness, of a small child, waiting for someone to comfort them.
About the Author
Caitlin Fitzpatrick holds an MFA from UVA. Previous work of hers has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, West Branch, and Green Mountains Review. She is the recipient of the 2015 Driftless Prize from Devil’s Lake and a Peter Taylor Fellowship from the Kenyon Review. She is currently at work on a novel.