About the Feature
Christmas music at the mall, plastic reindeer in the neighborhood. Cards crowd the mantle with pictures of everyone’s merry children, sending tidings of joy and minor sports triumphs. At the airport, the holiday travelers funnel through—the excited, the weary, the primed-for-disappointment. Dora, the baby, travels from room to room in her portable bassinet, in her six-week-old world of light and movement, her parents’ faces looming large and important, like in an Ingmar Bergman film. Someone has sent her a red-and-green knit hat with a bell. Someone else has sent her a board book called Baby’s First Hanukkah.
Four years ago, Jack Keeling left his software-development job, and his estranged wife, and began teaching math at a progressive private high school. Tracy Goldman, five-year-veteran English teacher, coached him through. They went out for beers on Friday afternoons, spent the weekends grading together, shoving stacks of student essays and trig tests aside to have sex on Tracy’s couch. Two summers later they married at the courthouse, with the assistant principal and her husband serving as witnesses. Jack didn’t want to suffer through a second wedding. Tracy had never wanted one to begin with.
So now, in this winter-break stretch spanning Christmas and New Year’s, their families are coming together to meet the baby, and also to meet each other for the first time. There’s Jack’s brother, Peter; his wife, Michelle; and kids, Christina and Luke. A blond, big-boned, toothy clan: the adults outfitted with it’s-all-good smiles, the kids on the verge of adolescent blowout. They squeeze into Jack and Tracy’s bungalow: the pull-out futon in the upstairs office for Peter and Michelle, sleeping bags on the floor of the basement family room for Christina and Luke.
A few doors down, at the house of some neighbors away for the holidays, Tracy’s mother, Ruth, who carries her widowhood like a hernia, is staying along with Tracy’s sister, Jessica; her husband, David; and six-year-old Ari. They’re a slight, brooding, olive-skinned trio, as dedicated to sulking as the Keelings are to aggressive cheer.
And finally, staying at a hotel—a nice one, with fluffy robes and chocolates on the pillows—Jack’s parents, Adele and Nicholas. They are pasty-skinned, in Brooks Brothers clothes. They have money they don’t mind spending on their own comfort.
“It’s supposed to be a vacation,” Jack had said to Tracy before the Christmas plans were set, when they were counting their daughter’s life in days. “I’m not sure we should have everyone at once.”
“Who do you want to say no to?”
“How about all of them. Just to be fair.”
“Don’t worry, she’s our alibi.” Tracy stroked the baby’s cone head. “We’ll hand her over and then go hole up in the bedroom. Let everyone get to know each other, or kill each other, or whatever.”
“Did you hear that, Dora?” Jack cupped his hands into a megaphone. “We’re sending you out as our envoy. Just call if you need a wire transfer. Or military assistance.”
Dora started in with her frantic head-banger moves, which meant it was time for Tracy to unlatch the giant nursing bra. She steeled herself for the pain the lactation consultant told her she shouldn’t have if the baby was feeding correctly. Jack sat back against the couch pillows and watched Tracy wince. He restrained himself from further commentary on the proposed familial onslaught.
“Remember, she’s the boss,” the ob had said to him at one of Tracy’s prenatal visits when they were discussing the birth plan. How was he supposed to respond to that? Yes, Ma’am. If she changes her mind and demands an epidural, I’ll bring it in on a tray with a cup of coffee and a vase of fresh flowers. A month later he sat uselessly in the hospital room for hours, patting Tracy’s back while she sucked wild-eyed on popsicles and screamed her labor screams. He’d wanted to seize power, demand a stop to this archaic-seeming ordeal. What was wrong with a nice, efficient C-section? He couldn’t help feeling that his wife, the ceo, was dying, and he was just an incompetent, low-level employee, watching it happen.
They overwhelm the small living room—the Keelings and the Goldmans—three generations of eyes and mouths, hair and noses, skin tones and face shapes. The baby has been scrutinized for inherited traits and deemed a mongrel by Nicholas, her paternal grandfather. In her Christmasy hat, she perches on Tracy’s mother’s lap, an air of aloofness in her rainwater eyes. Ruth removes the hat, smoothes Dora’s brown fuzz. It upsets her, the tree in the corner, delicately adorned and unassuming as it is (tiny white lights, a laughing Buddha instead of an angel on top). She still can’t accept that such a thing stands in her daughter’s house. The fact that Jack was raised Unitarian and thinks Jesus was nothing more than a do-gooder type who came to an unfortunate end makes it only a little bit better for Ruth.
“You’re Jewish,” she’ll whisper later to the baby, when they can be alone. “Dorit. Which means generation. Of this era.” When she’d asked, Tracy had said vaguely that Dorit was Dora’s Hebrew name. But Ruth knew there’d been no naming ceremony, no rabbi’s blessing. The child was adrift in this world.
“My turn,” Peter says, sticking his arms out. “Hand her over.” Ruth reluctantly relinquishes her granddaughter to this louder, burlier version of her son-in-law.
“What do you think, hon?” Peter addresses Michelle. “Should we make another one?”
Michelle smiles with her preternaturally white teeth. “I always wanted three.”
“Oh my god,” Christina says.
“Aren’t you too old?” Luke says, which makes Peter laugh and Michelle’s smile waver.
Luke and Christina, eleven and thirteen, are used to spending winter break at their other grandparents’ house, in Florida, at the beach. A new infant cousin doesn’t make up for being stuck in a small Oregon town instead, in a house that doesn’t even have a tv. They have three cousins already, on their mother’s side, close to them in age, and with the benefits of a ping-pong table, the latest generation Xbox, a cupboard full of non-organic snack food, and parents too preoccupied with their own affairs to worry about what the kids are doing.
The little boy, Ari, technically not their cousin, hangs shyly around Luke, hoping for attention from this boy almost twice his age and height, who carries around his own phone and has a dog back at home. Ari would like to have a brother, an older brother, if such a thing were possible, through some form of time travel perhaps. He isn’t sure exactly how babies are made, but he knows it has something to do with the mother and father being close to each other, loving each other. His own don’t sleep in the same bed anymore. When the cleaning lady comes over, they take the sheets off the couch in the family room so she won’t suspect that his dad has been sleeping there.
“So what does everybody want for Christmas?” Nicholas says in his booming, Santa-Claus-for-hire voice.
“Not everybody’s Christian,” Christina says.
“He meant Christmas in the secular, materialistic sense,” Jack says. “Right, Dad?”
“Everyone’s so sensitive these days.” Nicholas looks at Luke, as if his grandson will back him up on this assessment. “No one’s opposed to presents, right? Everyone’s getting presents?”
“They’d better be,” Luke says. “And not cheap, educational crap either.”
“Good health,” Ruth mumbles, from her corner of the couch. “That’s all we should wish for.” It’s been nearly two years since her husband died from the cancer that invaded his brain. If he were here, he would lie next to her in bed later that night, eloquently bemoaning the shallowness of these people. Oh, Ruthie, he would sigh. When the Israelites came out from Egypt, they had nothing at all.
By ten o’clock on Christmas morning, the living room is a wreck of wrapping paper and ribbons, cards and gift tags tossed aside in the rush to get to the goods, which pile up in colorful, half-forgotten heaps. Midway through the rampage, Dora starts crying, which gives Tracy an excuse to leave the room and go nurse her: a dubious privilege. Though she’s finally toughened up a bit to the job required (now she understands the origin of the expression tough titties), it still feels more unpleasant than plucking her eyebrows. What is this breastfeeding bliss she’s heard tell about?
Five minutes in, her sister knocks on the bedroom door. Jessica is skinny as ever in her eighties-style denim jacket and jeans, a look that used to be cool but that now screams suburban Jewish mom who’s trying too hard. They haven’t talked, just the two of them, since Jessica arrived. And it’s been years since they’ve been close. They used to sit on each other’s bed while Jessica, three years older, would warn about all of the boys she should steer clear of in a way that made Tracy ache to feel their depraved hands on her skin. Jessica was bold and forthcoming then—not so nice to Tracy as a general rule, but her freely dispensed worldly wisdom made up for it. Tracy was the one who loved to read, but it was Jessica who could tell stories. And then she left home, went to college and business school, got married, and became tightlipped and parochial.
“She seems to be nursing well,” Jessica says, leaning over Tracy and Dora in the glider. “So sweet. I miss it.”
“Really? I can’t wait to go back to keeping my boobs to myself.”
“It’ll get better,” Jessica says vaguely. What everyone says.
“Do you think you’ll have another one?” Tracy asks. Also, she knows, what everyone says to the mother of one child.
“I doubt it,” Jessica says.
“You don’t want to? Or David doesn’t?”
“I don’t know what he wants anymore.”
Tracy looks at the trembling corner of Jessica’s mouth with a sliver of hope. Maybe she can finally get something raw and real out of her sister again.
“It’s a little weird, having Christmas,” Jessica says finally. “You don’t mind?”
“It’s nothing: a bunch of presents, some chocolate Santa Clauses.”
“Tell that to Mom.”
“She has to learn to accept it. I didn’t marry Michael Rosenberg. I’m with Jack, the atheist, who thinks having a tree in your living room once a year is kind of nice.”
“Since Dad died, I’m the one who listens to her all the time. All her grievances.”
“I know,” Tracy says, trying to be patient.
“You could call her more often.” Jessica sweeps her springy curls away from her face and crams them into the scrunchy she keeps ready on her wrist. It’s an action so old, so her, that Tracy suddenly sees it as a mark of character: her sister trying to control a force that can’t possibly be controlled.
“I call her once a week. Usually.”
“She’s our mother. We should be grateful for everything she’s done for us.”
“Jesus, what happened to you?” This is about as long as Tracy’s patience lasts these days. “You used to be a slut, not a priss.”
“Don’t be mean to me, please.” Jessica’s face crumples, her heavily lined eyes welling up.
“I was joking, Jess. I’m sorry.”
“Everything’s falling apart.”
“You mean with David?”
“We’re barely even speaking to each other.”
“I don’t want to discuss the details right now.”
But the details are everything, as Tracy’s constantly reminding the high school students in her English classes. The details are what count. Without details, you can’t expect people to care about anything you have to say.
“Well, how’s Ari doing? It must be hard, dealing with relationship stuff with a kid.”
“We don’t discuss it with him. Obviously.”
“No, but kids pick up on things. Look, I’m asking for my own future reference. What do you say to a kid when you’re fighting with his dad?”
“You don’t say anything. You keep things as normal as possible.”
During their father’s illness and his dying, Jessica managed most things with a professional competence that Tracy was thankful for, but sometimes she’d wished her sister would want to talk about existential angst instead of estate planning, would just admit that the well-meaning hospice nurse was incredibly dumb.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Jessica says.
“Like you’ll be such an open and honest parent all the time.” Jessica points an accusatory finger at Dora. “You’ll lie to her too. Don’t think you won’t.”
The hall closet overflows with coats, scarves, boots, hats, unmatched gloves, and makeshift sleds. The refrigerator amasses an unsavory collection of leftovers. Only Adele, mother of Jack and Peter, seems to feel the responsibility to keep things orderly, including herself. Every morning in the hotel room, she applies her full complement of makeup while Nicholas flips through channels before settling on some golf game or wwii documentary. Adele believes people, especially women, should maintain themselves, preserve their dignity. Christina and Luke don’t call her Grandma, or any of the other silly old-lady names, but by her own given name. When Dora can talk, she will do the same. Adele finds it embarrassing and, frankly, disappointing the way Ruth babies her grandson, Ari, and the way she sulks. It must be terribly difficult to lose one’s husband, but Adele knows plenty of women who have, and after a time they’ve increased their volunteer work, planned trips with friends, signed up for extension classes at the nearby university. One need not leave one’s hair untended and scowl from a corner of the couch.
At Jack and Tracy’s, where the floor is always cluttered with toys and the coffee is never hot enough, Adele does what she can. She putters around, straightening books on the bookshelves, returning the perpetually left-out milk carton to the fridge. Being the mother of two boys, she should have become inured to messes long ago, but she could never quite get used to the chaos, the constant interruption and upheaval. Her life for years now has been calm, tastefully unhappy. She and Nicholas don’t fight the way they used to, when the boys were still at home—mixing drinks at the bar in the basement late at night, and then laying into each other. It was a kind of sport; it made her furious and strong. When she bathed afterward, by candlelight, in the beautiful master bathroom, with its marble floor and river-stone walls, she imagined leaving everyone behind and going to live in an old farmhouse in the country: just a sturdy kitchen table, and a well-made bed, and a stone fireplace, like her grandparents had. She scrubbed herself clean; she blazed with the desire to uproot everything. But now she and Nicholas are older than her grandparents were when they died, and he’s had several heart surgeries, and their calendar is full: charity events, and season tickets to the symphony and theater, and travel to the nice places one should see before one dies. After all these years, instead of arguing, Nicholas turns on the tv and Adele goes to bed early. She spreads the lavender satin eye pillow over her eyes, listens to the way the silence in the room isn’t really silence. The most soundproof place in the world is actually right there in Minneapolis, in the city she lives in, a chamber built into a laboratory, where you can hear the loud thump of your own heartbeat. You have to stay seated in that room, she read in the newspaper. Otherwise you’ll get dizzy and lose your balance in the absence of exterior sound cues, in the utterly disorienting chamber of your own body.
For a year now, Adele has had a secret. A childhood friend of hers named Raymond, whom she hasn’t seen since high school, got in touch with her last Christmas, and they began emailing, then talking on the phone: long, warm, flirty conversations about everything and nothing. Since his wife died five years ago, Raymond lives alone in the south of France, and he wants her to come visit. “Or you could just move in,” he said last week, just before she left for Oregon. “There’s plenty of room. And a view of the sea. Water blue as your eyes. I remember how blue they are.” He knows, of course, that she’s married, that his proposal is absurd. Still, as if there’s some understanding between them, he says Je t’aime at the end of their conversations, and she laughs that such foolish romance, such clandestine lightness, can exist in the world. It gives her something to think about at times when she feels utterly outside of life, standing here for instance, in her younger son’s ramshackle house, holding her infant granddaughter with one hand, and with the other wiping the dining room table that everyone has scattered with donut crumbs.
They’re running out of food, and Tracy had planned on going to the grocery store herself. What was once a chore has become, since Dora’s birth, a snatched hour of solitude. But Ruth insisted on coming along, and now, as they fill the cart to capacity (the sole benefit of this accompanied shopping trip is that her mother will pay), Ruth grills Tracy. How is she feeling, physically and mentally? Is she drinking enough fluids? Is she experiencing postpartum depression?
It’s always been Ruth’s way to introduce sensitive topics in public, as if she’s specifically stored them up for a time when a retreat to one’s private bedroom is impossible. In department store fitting rooms, customer-service lines, and waiting rooms at doctors’ offices, Tracy has endured questions about her love life, her diet, her personal relationship with Judaism, her opinions about abortion and euthanasia.
“How’s Jack adjusting to fatherhood?” Ruth asks, while they’re waiting for sliced cheese at the deli counter. “Is he giving you the support you need?”
Tracy hesitates. It’s her policy never to criticize Jack in front of her mother or to suggest any argument between the two of them. With his non-Jewishness already a strike against him, she doesn’t want to provide anything further for Ruth to file away under some banal category: shortcomings of my second son-in-law. And yet, these days, Tracy is feeling frustrated. She has some sympathy for Jack, certainly, having to drag himself to school every weekday morning and impersonate a smart, patient, quick-on-his-feet teacher, instead of a dazed new dad. On occasional nights he’s up at whatever hour, feeding Dora from the precious stash of pumped milk, tending to her diaper. Most nights he moans like a man from whom the world is asking too much, pulls the covers over his head, and leaves Tracy to it. In any case, he hasn’t retreated to sleep in a different room, like other new fathers they know, though whether that’s out of loyalty to Tracy and Dora or devotion to the memory-foam mattress is up for debate. The truth is, she feels like she’s doing everything. And though she won’t always be the child’s sole source of nourishment, she’s afraid this might continue forever: the lion’s share of domestic tasks falling to her, the way they do to so many women, even in the twenty-first century.
Tracy grabs a plastic deli container and begins packing it with olives. “He’s really sweet with Dora,” she says. “But I don’t think he gets how much work it all is.”
“Ach, isn’t it?” Ruth gives her an encouraging smile, and Tracy softens for a moment. When she and Jessica were kids, her mother had a full-time job as a paralegal and a husband who acted like those orthodox Jewish men who believe their lives should be devoted to Talmudic study while the womenfolk take care of earthly matters. How did she handle it all?
“Make up a chart of tasks,” Ruth says. “Show him in black and white how much is actually involved and ask him what he wants to do. Then pencil his name in. He’s a quantitative guy. He should get that.”
What he’d get, Tracy knows, is that she’d be trying to control him in the way he most hates: telling him what to do under pretense of letting him choose. What Jack loves about math is not its methodical logic but all the complex steps it takes to arrive at the solution to a problem over which he is the master.
The deli clerk hands them their cheese, and they wheel the cart over to the bakery aisle. Tracy wants it all. She wants all of the rich baked goods a breastfeeding woman deserves. She grabs an apple pie and a loaf of chocolate banana bread. Ruth, who has a history of needling her about her weight, will not say anything today, when they’re shopping for a houseful of people.
“Do you think Jessica and David are okay?” Tracy asks, not wanting to violate whatever code of sisterly confidentiality she and Jessica might have left, but curious about what information she might get out of her mother.
Ruth waves away a dismissive hand that comes back up with a box of molasses cookies. “They adore Ari too much to do anything about it.”
They pass the time in various familial configurations of walks around the neighborhood, sledding in the park, board games, kitchen duty, and sitting around. There’s talk of snow, snow tires, summer vacation plans, cell phone plans, things you can do with kale, the next presidential election, congressional gridlock, cats, dogs, magic tricks, the tricks behind magic tricks, the opinion that there’s nothing to do here, and the opinion that children who say there’s nothing to do must be dull people to think that. There’s checkers, Monopoly, Pictionary, Boggle. There’s looking at phones and YouTube videos and broken things in the house that Peter attempts to fix and Dora’s sweet, oblivious face. Each day is divided into periods of eating and not eating. Each person is divided into parts they allow others to see and parts they try to hide.
“Who’s made New Year’s resolutions?” Nicholas wants to know. “Who’s ready to become a better person in 2012?”
“I’m gonna start lifting weights,” Luke says. “Get strong enough to kick some Iranian butt.”
“We’re all joining the gym,” Peter says. “Family membership. Right, Chris?”
Christina scowls. Her dad knows she hates exercise, sports, anything that calls attention to her body. Her weight-loss plan involves making herself throw up like her friend Amelia does. She hasn’t worked up the nerve yet, but in the new year she’s resolved to do it.
“Who else?” Nicholas says. “Jessica? David?”
Jessica and Ari are doing a puzzle on the dining room table: the solar system in two hundred pieces, which she agreed to work on with him after Luke said no. It pains Jessica to see her son keep hanging on Luke, begging for attention from this awful boy, who responds in a gruff way that Ari is old enough to understand as a rebuff, though he’s not old enough yet to quit trying.
“I want to do more for others,” she says. “Volunteer at the soup kitchen, like I’ve been meaning to do.”
Sitting behind a newspaper at the other end of the table, David flinches at her piety. If she wants to do more for others, she could start with her own family, consider letting his increasingly frail mother move in with them, instead of blowing up whenever he mentions it.
“I’m going to get things in order,” he says, because something is clearly expected of him now. “Clear out all the clutter.”
“Noble pursuits,” Nicholas says. “Now how will you all stick to them? Every year my wife resolves to bring me breakfast in bed, but does she do it?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Adele says.
I’m not, Ruth thinks. She’s had enough of his bluster, his obnoxious jokes. “What about you?” She looks up at Nicholas, into the face that must have been handsome once and that still shines with arrogance. “How do you plan to improve yourself?”
“Do I need improving? I see you think I do,” he laughs. “What would you suggest?”
“If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.”
Nicholas laughs again, the kind of booming laugh deployed as a ready shield to deflect any arrow of criticism. He turns to Peter and strikes up a conversation about fantasy baseball.
Adele hasn’t been asked what her real New Year’s resolutions are, and in that moment she makes one. Somehow, she will see Raymond this year. Fly to France, sit down across a table from him, look into his eyes, and listen to the voice inside herself that will say she is crazy for going there, or crazy to go back home.
Colorful foil horns and take-out Chinese food. Pale ale and Pepto-Bismol. The indignity of not having a tv in the house on New Year’s Eve has been remedied by David, who’s unplugged the neighbors’ nineteen-inch Panasonic and carried it over to Jack and Tracy’s, set it up in a place of honor in the living room. Now everyone can watch that stupid ball descend into Times Square, people screaming for no reason, for the one-digit change in the Gregorian calendar. Jack wants to object—leave Alan and Betty’s TV alone!—but he feels a little sorry for David, whom no one in the assembled company seems to take much interest in. So let him have his one triumph. Let everyone do what everyone does on New Year’s Eve: same old, same old.
Peter and Michelle sit shoulder to shoulder on the couch, cozying into conversation about the celebrities at the on-screen bash. On the floor, Christina and Luke text furiously. Ari rests against Jessica, determined to stay up until midnight. And Dora is awake again, with her late-night burst of cranky energy. Jack carries her into the kitchen, where Adele is putting silverware away. “Mom, you don’t have to do that,” he says.
“Who will do it then?” she protests. She touches Dora’s cheek, the shocking softness. “Do you ever talk to Claire?” she asks.
Jack’s surprised at the question. They haven’t mentioned his ex-wife since he’d started seeing Tracy, before the divorce was finalized.
“No. It was a pretty clean break. What made you think of her?”
“I was just thinking that it took courage to start over again like you did,” Adele says. “New job. New wife.”
Jack laughs. “When you put it that way, it sounds callous. I don’t know that I’m brave. It might be that I just didn’t try hard enough.” Dora squawks, and he shuttles into motion. “She wants me to keep moving.” He begins swinging her, toward Adele, then toward the refrigerator; Adele-bound, then fridge-bound again.
When Dora was born, he did think of Claire. During their last real fight, before they settled into the cold, final certainty of separation, she’d screamed about wanting to have a baby with him, how she might never have one now. He hoped that wouldn’t turn out to be true.
“It’s time!” Michelle calls from the living room. “Adele. Jack.” And they’re drawn to the tv, to the countdown, like everyone else. “Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one.” As if the new year is a space shuttle about to blast them into a different zone of being. Only for Dora, Jack thinks. Only she will change that much in one year.
“Let’s toast,” Peter says, pouring champagne into assorted glasses, Martinelli’s cider for the kids. “To the newest member of this great extended family. To Dora Keeling!”
Jack notices Ruth flinch, as if her granddaughter’s full name hurts her. Tracy had suggested once, near the end of her pregnancy, that they might give their daughter her own last name, her dead father’s name. But Jack was bothered by the idea. Tracy carried their child in her body, was going to give birth to her. Let his daughter at least have his name.
Everyone clinks glasses, sips quietly, as the tv dance party rages on.
“Right now,” Luke says. “Now the psycho killer’s gonna break down the door and shoot us all.”
“What are you talking about?” Christina shrieks.
“That’s when it always happens,” Luke says. “When everybody’s happy and celebrating and not thinking they’re going to die.”
Around twelve thirty, when the party breaks up, Jack and Tracy dress for bed the way they do now, since the baby. They used to sleep naked, had declared to each other, as part of their private marriage vows, that they always would. But if you have to get up multiple times on a cold winter night, it turns out it’s best to be fully clad in flannel pajamas and wool socks. They kiss chastely and say goodnight, then roll their separate ways in bed. Just after three a.m., Dora awakens, bleats her milk-starved bleat. Tracy brings her into bed, pulls her own pajama top up, and glances at the clock radio with its glowing announcement of the hour. A friend had told her it was best not to look at the time when the baby woke you in the middle of the night, that it just made you feel more exhausted to know. But Tracy can’t not look. One day at school last year, when she returned to her classroom after lunch, she found that some prankster had covered up the clock face with a homemade sign: “Time Does Not Exist.” She kept it up there for the rest of the day, as a philosophy lesson, but it drove her crazy; she gave herself an F.
Jack stirs and strokes Tracy’s arm, and she sighs, flinching at the tug of Dora’s unforgiving mouth. “Why did we do this?”
“You mean have a baby? Or let everyone come here?”
“Well, both. But at least she’s cute,” Tracy says.
“Yeah, imagine if we’d had an ugly baby.”
“But do you think we’d even recognize it? Maybe she’s not really that cute.”
“No, she’s very objectively cute.” Jack’s still stroking Tracy’s arm, from the shoulder on down, and then gripping her wrist tight, and she’s hit with a charge she hasn’t felt since before Dora was born: the effect his body can have on her body.
“I just keep stupidly hoping that they’ll become people I can actually talk to,” she says.
“No, they’re stuck being a bunch of sourpuss Jews.”
Tracy pulls her arm away. “Well, your family’s a bunch of out-of-touch wasps.”
“Hey, it was a joke.”
“Yeah, it was as funny as your dad’s.”
Dora’s sucking has stopped, her eyes shut up tight. Tracy lays her back down in the bassinet. In her long white sleep sack, she looks like the angel that’s missing from their Christmas tree. Is it wrong to feel the most affection for her daughter at this moment, when she’s absent from the sentient world, in need of nothing and no one? Back in bed, Jack’s body gives off heat. “We’ve made our own family,” he says.
Tracy could press against him, draw that heat into herself. Enough time has passed; the bleeding ended weeks ago. Instead she lies still, thinking of her father. He comes to her at night, the way he looked in his hospital bed—desperately ill, his lecturing voice silenced, his solemn expression gone slack. Even when he was well, even knowing him for thirty years, she didn’t know what, if anything, truly brought him any joy.
The parade of goodbyes seems to lighten people’s moods, or Jack’s anyway. “Be well! Thanks for coming!” he says, doling out hugs as everyone sets out for the airport. Ruth is the last to leave. Unlike the others, cheerful in the face of farewell for who knows how long, Ruth, who has made plans to visit again in three months to see her granddaughter, dissolves in tears. She stoops down over Dora, who’s nodding off in her swing, then comes back up with a wince and a moan: emotional torment, plus bad knees.
“Take good care of this darling,” she says.
“We will,” Jack says tightly.
“And of my daughter,” Ruth adds. “She’s tired and she doesn’t have any family here, any community, to help out.”
“Mom,” Tracy says. Her face is sallow, depleted. Her hair stands out from her scalp. She looks like her mother.
“We’re doing fine,” Jack says. “Oh, and have you noticed how great things are going with your other daughter and her nice little family?” He knows he shouldn’t, but he can’t help himself. “They can’t stand to look at each other, but they live fifteen minutes away from you in the great state of New Jersey, and they go to temple every Saturday.”
“Jack.” Tracy’s mouth is turning down. She’s preparing to cry the way she does, as if everything’s his fault.
Ruth’s tears have stopped. “It’s lonely, isn’t it?” she says, matching Jack’s hard stare with her own. “Being better than everyone else? Believe me. I know very well. I know what loneliness is.”
January 3: a date steeped in doom. It ends here—the winter vacation that had seemed so long and luxurious at the start. Jack hurries out the door before seven to scrape ice and snow off the car. The day stretches in front of him, one of those days where he wonders what he’d been thinking, trading his well-paying, moderately stressful, slightly boring job for teaching high school. Now that he has a child himself, he has no energy for other people’s children, for the combination of teen drama and general laziness that gets in the way of what is supposed to be their work—but many of them don’t see it that way. They’re kids, not colleagues, and today he feels defeated already by that fact.
Tracy is taking this whole year off from teaching, a privilege they had planned for, saved for, but hearing Jack’s car start up while she sits on the couch with Dora, she wishes that she were headed back too. She misses talking about books, even the same old books, accompanied by the commentary and questions she’s heard herself repeat so many times, and the mixed reactions of students, some of whom see reading as a lifeline and others who see it as a death sentence. At least students are people whose brains have developed enough—for the most part—to imagine other worlds, articulate coherent thoughts. If only she had a nanny, or better yet, a mother nearby: not hers, certainly, but one like her friend Dana’s mother, wonderfully sane and thoroughly capable, who would come over during the day and take care of the baby for free.
It’ll go by so fast, both Ruth and Adele had said to Tracy, as if they were confiding some profound insight, some realization about parenting that had never been voiced before. Enjoy it. As much a rebuke as a blessing. Okay, so they’re getting to be old women—they have the right to be wistful about the passage of time, to romanticize the babyhoods of their practically middle-aged adult children. But it doesn’t feel fast to Tracy. It feels slow as snow falling.
“What do you think?” she says aloud to Dora. “Anything at all. Just whatever’s on your mind.”
It’s quiet but for the rush of the furnace shuttling into gear. They live off the main road, away from traffic. The neighbors who keep pets have quiet cats, nary a barking dog on the street. The mail carrier doesn’t come by till late afternoon. Tracy sets the baby down on the couch, where, being too young to do anything but flutter her hands and feet, she will stay put.
Dora looks up—not a blank look, not a dumb look. In just these two weeks, her vision has sharpened. Colors are coming in. The red of her mother’s bathrobe, the blue of the couch cushions. And distance, too, a sense of how matter aligns itself in air. The branches of the Christmas tree have assumed a branchlike structure, definition instead of blur. Dora can focus her eyes and track the movement of objects. She can see the strings of lights, descending from the tree now and disappearing into a box. The front door opens to whiteness, a blast of cold. The tree moves farther and farther away until it’s out of sight. For a moment she’s alone. Where to look? Where to look?
And then—ah, there it is. That face, returning. The most familiar thing, and still for now, for that reason, the most interesting thing, the most pleasing thing. She looks and looks as if she can’t get enough, as if her mother’s face tells her everything she needs to know.
About the Author
Polly Rosenwaike’s fiction has been published in Prairie Schooner, Copper Nickel, New England Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, and elsewhere. Her book reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University.