It’s a cold October night, and you are watching your son play soccer. In the bleachers, your ex is snuggling with his new, younger wife. The cruel wind cuts through your coat, a reminder that you are merely a womb and have served your purpose.
At sunrise she met her girlfriends for breakfast – she recently apartment-dwelling-divorced, they china-pattern-married. Women can spot a French bath and dry shampoo. They knew she had been out all night. Soon her girlfriends would be weekend-family-full while she would be shared-custody-echoes.
My ghost is wearing my red sweater. After papers were signed and locks were changed, I realized I left behind the sweater as well as a French cookbook. Would she try to cook from it? I’m telling you now she will suck. She doesn’t have the finesse that comes only with age. And a lot of cooking.
She is straddling the stadium seat and laughing hard at something my ex is saying. Her hair falls down beneath the hem of the sweater, something I’m sure pleases him. Men pass by and stare at her backside.
She attends a funeral of a family member of my ex’s, someone I knew for over twenty years. We were close. But I was not invited. I text my ex, force my way in. She is there beside him.
“What is she wearing?” I hiss to my sister. She wears a short strapless dress and summer sandals. I have gone full-on Jackie O.
“You are just like Mom,” she says.
I bring a flowering rose bush over to my ex’s Christmas Eve. I feel a little guilty for the grief I may have caused.
My son is there. I say hi.
My ghost takes the bush and doesn’t thank me. She’s wearing my red sweater.
The moon kisses my head through the open sunroof on my way to midnight mass.
I don’t care anymore.
I just had to see my sweater one more time.
She knew she was getting over him when she threw his shriveled dead flowers in the trash. They had been drying in the sun on the bookshelf next to the window. When she had received them she put them in a cream china vase, a wedding gift from long ago. She had received a life and home from someone else back then as a bride and now in her townhome life of temporary lovers on the outskirts of town she received flowers not from a husband, but from a friend who is a man.
She put the flowers in one of her favorite vases and displayed it on the black table in the middle of her living room, taking a picture for him, showing her friends and her sister. She then moved the flowers to the top of the fireplace where it half obscured the tv and she welcomed the intrusion. That was before he came over for the last time.
When things began to fall apart only a week after she received the flowers, this the landmark of their three months together, she moved the flowers out of her line of sight, over on the kitchen counter, though at that time the flowers were still opening and drinking in water. She kept them there because she didn’t know if the man would call again. She couldn’t bear to get rid of them altogether. Maybe there was still hope. She called him. She received no response.
She moved the flowers over to the window, on the bookshelf, an out of the way place. But she couldn’t throw them out, not quite yet. Soon a pizza box was set beside the flowers, a used box which needed to go out with the garbage. Dried flowers drifted to the kitchen floor, a floor which needed to be swept and mopped. There were a lot of things she needed to attend to after the breakup. She tried to reach him again, No response.
She replenished her kitchen with the little money she had left, picking up a basil plant she loved to have on hand, a little indulgence. The bag clerk at the store had asked her what it was and sniffed it deeply.
At home, the woman put the basil plant next to the vase of drying out flowers, on top of the pizza box, its simple plastic container holding a plant that would last her the summer.
The man’s flowers dried and drifted down. They became ugly.
She watered the basil and put some fresh leaves in a dish to make it more fragrant and flavorful.
Someone else called her and showed her kindness, another man. She felt: What usefulness, drying flowers? There is no call.
She threw out the dried flowers into the plastic bag in the garbage container and shoved them down so their stems broke. How much she had felt for this person. Tomorrow she would clean out the vase. Tomorrow she would put soap into its creamy cavity as well as warm water.
Maybe when she got her house cleaned up and her sink fixed she would make a meal for the new person. But for now she would let him treat her. She would leave her house behind for a couple of hours. And she would try to forget about this man, whom she loved.
She held the vase and felt its coolness in her palm. Its smoothness was like a good love that should only hold living things. It was a beautiful vase she got for her wedding many years ago. It had always been one of her favorites. It didn’t matter it had served another purpose in a previous life. It was still hers. To do with as she saw fit.
She had come late to making biscuits. Divorce. Cancer. A child left for college. She had come late to keeping flour on hand. Buttermilk. Cold butter. She had cooked a lot of gourmet in her married years, and been on too many fad diets. And now it was just her and the dog. And later this weekend a stranger who wants to meet her, sleep with her, the last of his kind, she imagines.
She turns on youtube music starting with her midlife music crush John Prine singing with Kacey Musgraves on a cruise ship. “Mind your own biscuits,” is the heart of the song. She smiles at Kacey and John singing and strumming and gives her dog a treat she keeps in the crystal biscuit barrel, a very expensive gift from her marriage.
She doesn’t make the biscuits fancy, cutting butter through the flour, rolling the dough out and creating a round with a cutter. She melts the butter into the buttermilk, mixes this all in with the dry ingredients and plops a spoonful of dough onto the parchment.
She doesn’t know how it happened to her, her life like this. She couldn’t even afford to fix her oven. She baked her biscuits in a small oven on the counter. What had happened to her dreams of hosting her family around dinner tables. She wasn’t sure. She didn’t even clean her house anymore, a place not even associated with her former life except for the occasional visitation of her son.
She slept with the strange men for free. She wasn’t even sure why. It occurred to her one day she was cheating herself, risking herself, and for what. Not even for a little compensation. All so she could pretend to feel better, pretend to forget. She should have charged them. For that she would put grape jelly on her biscuits when they were done. To take an edge off. Pretend she was special, she was love.
She knew how to take the pictures so she looked better, thinner. She would send the pictures to them to satisfy them, entice them, and hear them say they were interested. There had been a time she didn’t have to pretend and she wanted that feeling back, of having power. One of them had become so convinced she had tricked him into her beauty, he had brought a gun to the hotel where they met.
She had once polished her silver. Brought her whole silver tea seat and dishes passed down from gradmothers to a tea party at her son’s school. There had been enough silver to hold all the cookies and biscuits and scones.
What was she doing now, she didn’t know. Ruined, said Mama. Indeed, her younger self knew so many things. Thought she knew love which now she realized was only approval.
The biscuits looked done. She pulled them out, put a couple on a plate, a chipped plate with palm trees from a set she had purchased from a department store one Christmas to decorate her Mama’s table handed down to her, the antique purchased in Texas before she was born. How much perfection there was then, and the Murano glass candle holders containing the white tea lights.
Only briefly she had earned a living before she married and that not too much higher than the minimum needed to get by in her town. Now no work experience, and her looks faded, her age telling. What was there but biscuits. And on good days chili with good meat. On other good days, casseroles.
She holds a chunk of biscuit down for her little white dog who sits on the floor beneath the little makeshift oven. She feels her little mouth grabbing for the bread. There is just this, then. And she marvels she is still alive. Her dog’s little tongue, licking up the butter, feels good on her skin.
She had taken to calling her dog Biscuit, which was not her name. It didn’t seem to matter.
Just before Julie’s morning break, the security monitor flashed on a girl with black hair and kohl lined eyes. Julie zoomed in on her to get a better look.
The customer stood at the ladies’ jewelry counter, perusing a turnstile of watches. She then summoned Rosemary to unlock the clear plastic case. A few minutes later, she slipped a watch into her jacket pocket.
Julie was just about to alert her undercover shopper when the girl stopped and looked up at the camera. It was Chloe. Behind the dark hair and goth makeup was the face of Julie’s own child. Julie stroked the monitor with her fingers. Chloe hadn’t been home in a long time.
As if in response to Julie’s touch, Chloe shot her the bird. She then stormed off to the womens’ hosiery department. She slid the watch into a ladies’ pantyhose sleeve, holding it up so her mother could see what she was doing.
“Do you want me to go down there and handle it?” This was Julie’s boyfriend, having watched the events from the security room. He had been a witness to many such scenes between his girlfriend and her daughter, but nothing was ever stolen. Things were merely rearranged.
“Leave it,” she said.
The divorce had created a new child, someone Julie didn’t recognize. To make matters worse, her ex rarely called, and when he spent time with Chloe, it was to let her know her mother was a whore.
By the time Julie arrived on the floor, Chloe had gone. She tipped the watch out of the sleeve and held it in her hand until it was warm. It was deceptively heavy.
First appeared in decomP magazine.
At five in the afternoon in December the dark skin of night closes in over day. Across the street from Sabina’s townhouse the last glimmer of gold, the fire sky, simmers through the pines, the scrub oak, the palms, and she wishes to hold onto that moment of the final sun forever, a diamond in her hand, its flash, its promise. But of course there is no stopping the night. It shuts down a liveliness in her as if it were the coming of age itself, as if it were death itself come unbidden.
He would have called her melodramatic, “he” being her ex, of course. She would have said she was merely acknowledging her reality, this sense of being subject.
And so she plowed through on this Monday, with her experience, in this melodramatic frame, wondering this: What to provide her son for his dinner when he begins his week with her. When the earth shuts down, this is no small task. The weeks her child is with his father she eats only leftovers, scours the crisper and cabinets for anything that would serve as a food source. She is juggling bills and doctors and medicine and a crumbling house and car. She eats things past their due date, sometimes way past. One time she got sick.
When it is time for her son to spend Christmas week with her she knows if she appears desperate or unorganized, she risks losing contact. She must address her responsibilities as dark skies threaten to sap her and so she takes a risk: She texts her son asking him for to pick up carryout on his way home from soccer practice.
“Does your ex think you unfit to parent?” This from her therapist months ago when Sabina was ordered to come off of a controlled substance for anxiety. She was strung out and barely able to carry a thought from one sentence to the next. She sometimes forgot words altogether. And yet this one word rammed through her: unfit. The word reverberated in her skull with no pill to protect her. This seemed unfair, outrageous, even, that she is both required to be free of a substance and then criticized for her withdrawal. After all, she and her eighteen year old had been through worse – the threat of her death and chemo treatments – and come out together, it seemed.
She left her therapist, sent her a text and asked her about that word – “unfit” – but then didn’t really try to understand her therapist’s return text, just told her she wasn’t going to see her anymore. Sufficiently vague. And when the sky fell early the following winter, there was no pill to guard against the effects of that hour of darkness.
Though she could speak this December, “unfit” would never leave her. And it unnerved her that her ex might see the text to her son to help her secure food. Would he see this as “unfit?” It is amazing how many things come out in a divorce, over a conference table, a smooth blond wood surface in a room across the street from the fountain Sabina described in her first published piece which her then husband proudly framed for her and hung on their wall. And yet, years later, at the mediation: All the small slights, the things told in confidence, trotted out, the hurts.
But there is also this: Had she not bought real maple syrup for her husband and son when she was married? And after the divorce, when she bought an imitation brand to save money so she could buy pancake mix too, and health insurance, her son spoke of his friend’s house, where he ate “real syrup.” This became for her a secret symbol of families who had not been broken, and almost all families in her son’s conservative Christian school were still intact, a school where Sabina now felt like a pariah though she had once felt close to many of the women, where she had even been involved.
Somehow Sabina knew the Jesus of the Christian school would have actually been eating imitation syrup with the tax collectors and sinners, the broken, the unwashed people scrounging to eat in the face of powerful ruling religious classes.
And at the outset of her son’s soccer season this year, coinciding with early darkness and regrets, her son greets her after a game on the sidelines and calls another woman his mom. Why do all the dramas of our lives get enacted on fields? Is there so much intensity there, invisible, that we slip into it whether the field be in the shape of a rectangle or diamond? And though there are things that are redeemed, there are also things lost on fields never to be found again.
Still, Sabina’s contest has always been with the sky, not a person nor a disappointment related to a person, not a field nor a disappointment related to a field. And so, she faces the murdering night on this Monday of Christmas week, waiting for her son to bring sustenance, determined to serve pancakes with syrup even if she must boil brown sugar and water over a meager stove for want of money, the little bit of money having been transferred to the carryout and the stores for the gifts under the tree.
First published in Writing in a Woman’s Voice
Remember that day I gave the man with a face on fire the one dollar bill when he asked for the fare to go home to see his family and he replied “I am probably the world’s only box dweller” and you said not to worry about it, not to think of him anymore even when he also said to me “you’re the reason vets like us come back from the war and shoot people.” We later went down to the beach on that holiday when we would normally have been with other people but here we were thrown together and in a hectic mass of humanity, down by the pier, as if the ocean had belched us onto the shore. People had set up make-shift encampments under the massive structure, deceiving everyone with its capacity as a bulwark against the elements though no one would be able to sleep there as shade was its only offering.
I said I will not take from the pipe even if I’m in a lot of pain and you said that is a lot of senselessness and I said there are a lot of ways people numb themselves. Whatever I said was dictated by my white girl reaction to the drum circle and the beautiful dancers not far away. You just can’t let go, can you, you said. I said so what. I was still upset by the box dweller, murderously unhappy with my dollar but the focus on what I believed I deserved was a relief. The world’s only box dweller had a point. The reason I was no longer a family with someone else was my fault which was the reason I was with you which was the reason I had come into contact with an angry vet who threatened to kill me.
You insisted on the tacos with the two tortillas, a huge dish. You insisted on the appetizer. You always made sure there was an equal division of expenditure. You wanted your pound of flesh though I’d not cheated you out of anything that I knew of but that was just it you had been sent to exact something from me, something I owed in a more universal sense and that close accounting I knew I deserved too. The restaurant on the pier was hot. I could not stop sweating. Below, the surf and bikini contestants were going home. I said do you love me you said yes of course and this kind of question and response had been as regular as the ebb and flow of the tide and so there was something unconvincing in it, of that I had felt since we first used the word love and how did I know that was the last time I would use this word with you and how did I realize there was no shelter.