Sleight of Hand
by Sarah Terez Rosenblum
I’m making tacos when the tour bus shows up. “Didn’t you buy avocados?” I call.
I can see them through the narrow kitchen windows. Little kids, noses glass-flattened, some dad type taking pictures, and bored teens scrolling their phones.
“Did you say something?” Meg wears a grey cardigan over cotton pajamas. Reading glasses on a silver cord around her neck. In the doorway, she’s shrouded in nighttime distance. She looks nothing like my mother. Nothing like the women I know.
“None were ripe. It’s November.” Meg’s from Anaheim; she knows when things are in season. I grew up in Idaho, so if it isn’t potatoes, I’m out.
On the bus, a gaggle of old folks knit and listen. The tour guide’s name is embroidered on his button-down. He still uses one of those mics with the curly cord.
“Last week, I ran into Gus at the drug store. I was picking up Mitchell’s prescription and he blew right past.”
“Like when I saw Katie Couric at Panera.” Meg settles at the kitchen table with her wine glass. “I kept waiting for her to know who I was.”
Door County’s growing; we’re not all on a first name basis. But I live in the house Gus shows up each week to describe.
“We’ve got carrots.” Behind me, Meg rustles through what’s left of Sunday’s paper.
“You want me to make guacamole with carrots?”
I line up three soft tomatoes for chopping. I bought them for the Meg’s cheese sandwiches, but they sat for two weeks in the drawer. After business trips, sometimes, I check the refrigerator to see what’s shifted. When I’m gone, Meg eats only olives and crackers. Sometimes, she forgets to eat at all.
In my family, wasting food is sinful. “Who needs a son?” My mom said when she toasted Meg at our wedding, but if she finds expired milk when she visits, she practically sits shiva. (“Look at this. Your grandmother is spinning in her grave.”)
“Are they still out there?” Beside me now, Meg nods to where the bus sits, idling.
“It’s five fifteen, they’re right on time.”
“Maybe this year the snow will come early.” She rests her head on my shoulder.
“I don’t know. I sort of like them.”
“It’s like when you got your tooth filed.” She means how for weeks after, I complained I didn’t know what to do with my tongue.
“Shit. Can you?” I nod at my phone, buzzing on the window ledge.
“Hmm?” Meg tips the last of the wine from the bottle. Her lip prints like frost on the rim of her glass.
“Mitchell’s calling.” I wipe my hands on a dishtowel, and Meg and the bus people watch me answer the phone.
When our son was eleven his teacher sent an email.
“Mitchell seems disturbed by our unit on Global Warming. Shall I set him up in the library till we’re done?”
We talked it through, the three of us. Our home, we said, is a democracy. Easy to say when you’re the parents. Mitchell pointed that out early; that he had only the illusion of control. Right, I told him. A democracy. No one thought that was funny but me.
In this case, Mitchell’s vote went for the library. “I’m not a kid anymore. I can’t keep crying in front of them.”
I spun his desk chair and straddled it. “Crying just means you’re smarter.”
“Tyler never cries, and when we did testing, he was 90th percentile.”
“How do you know?” Meg asked.
“He told everyone.”
“That’s inappropriate.” In Mitchell’s doorway, Meg leaned her head against the wall.
“Grades and money are private.”
Mitchell glanced between us. “But Mom tells everyone how much we paid for the car.”
“Okay, let’s not get distracted,” I said. “Mitchell, your kind of smart means you understand the real world ramifications.”
“You mean food security and the polar ice caps?”
“Exactly. This isn’t just science, it’s real.”
“Mom doesn’t mean science isn’t real.” Meg tugged her blue cardigan around her. I’m always offering to turn up the thermostat. But Meg says putting on a sweater is free.
“Right.” I said. “I mean it’s okay to have emotions about what he’s learning.”
“But he can’t let himself be run by them.”
“You can acknowledge your feelings without them running you. Self-awareness is different than being out of control.”
“Guys.” Mitchell waved his hands like a plane was landing. “I can learn in the library. I’ll take my textbook.”
Meg folded her arms. “Now it sounds like you’re just trying to get out of class.”
“If I cry there, no one will see me.”
“People will forget about that,” Meg said.
“No one in my school ever forgets anything.”
“It just seems that way, honey.”
“When I was your age,” I said, “I got hysterical when Mrs. Snow showed a documentary about Haiti.”
“Because of the poverty?” On his bed, Mitchell fiddled with his shoelaces.
“Because of the zombie witch doctors. My teacher had to shut it off in the middle and explain that part wasn’t real.”
“Did they laugh at you?”
“Totally. But the next week Beth Meeks threw up in the coatroom.”
“We’ll bring in a ringer, then.” Meg dusted her hands. “Problem solved.”
Mitchell hunched forward, poking the tip of his shoelace through the metal eyelet. “But when I cry, Anya keeps Snapchatting me, and also global warming isn’t not real.”
By the time I’m through security, Meg’s wish for snow is granted. The rinkydink plane still lifts and lands, somehow, but after that I’m stranded at O’Hare.
“Your turn.” The man in slim tweed pants looks like Stanley Tucci, and I spend our first drink assuming he’s gay.
“I didn’t know there would be something as formal as turns. I thought we were just chatting.”
Meg’s word. Jews don’t chat, we debate or we process; depends on which tribe we’re from.
“At work, we use a talking stick,” Tucci says. “God bless the millennials. They all think they have the right to be heard.”
We’re in this cliche of an airport lounge, drinking martinis. By our second, I know he’s meeting his wife in Berkeley. Their elder daughter has something academic requiring their presence; a debate, or a meeting, or a prize. As he talks, the details slip by. To me, martinis taste like medicine. When I fly, my drug of choice is Cinnabon, but what with the phone call, and the thunder snow, and all the texts Delta keeps sending about de-icing, I figure I might need a more traditional source of calm.
“C’mon. What’s your story?” Tucci sheds his orange sweater-vest.
“You won’t like it.”
“That’s why fiction’s better than life. You don’t have to like it for it to be good.”
“Didn’t you say you’re in software?”
“Fiction was my first love, before my wife even. But writing code’s not all that different. You fall in love with your lines, even when they’re not working. We’ve got just as many darlings to kill.”
He says he doesn’t code much anymore, not since he sold and runs his company. Big macher, is what my mother would say. Tucci’s the kind of guy she probably wishes I’d married. But I’m not his type either; when he shows me his wife’s picture, she’s blond.
“Once the girls are grown, I’ll get around to fiction.” Tucci’s still talking. “I wanted to write novels when I was a kid.”
“Meg and I used to talk about that. Everything we’d do once our son was in college-”
“At the graduation parties there was this rumbling. All the parents asking each other, what will you do now that you can?” Tucci crosses one long leg over the other. “Like when you’re a kid and some grownup’s always drilling you. We all had same answers, just delayed.”
“Right. But now that he’s a freshman, it just seems like he’s in a high school that’s farther away.”
“That’s how Cristina feels,” Tucci says. “But we can’t helicopter them. It’s enough our oldest’s still on our insurance and our phone plan-”
“We get Mitchell’s anxiety meds and ship them.” I watch the snow. “There’s just so much to be worried about.”
“What did we have, the Cuban Missile Crisis?”
“Barely, I was, what, two?”
“Now they’ve got Parkland.” Tucci sets down his empty glass. “My youngest was ten, and she was convinced her school was next. Even Hayden was upset by it, and she’s goddamn hard to ruffle. She’s my Berkeley girl. Cristina wanted us to tell her sister it wouldn’t happen at her school.”
“Meg’s the same.” I sip and feel my face twisting. What about this sensation is fun?
“I’m a numbers guy so I agreed it was unlikely, but I’m not going to lie to my kid.”
“Exactly. But with global warming Meg wanted him to white-knuckle it, just ignore the feelings it brought up for him. With North Korea, she wanted to tell him there was no chance.”
“Both are ways of lying.” Tucci signals for another drink.
“Personally, I blame Santa Claus. That’s what Meg grew up with, meanwhile, each year I get a lecture about how starting with Pharaoh, the whole world’s out for my blood.”
“L’chiam.” Tucci touches his glass to mine. “Let’s get you another.”
“You’ll catch up.” Tucci points to the window. Outside, the snow gusts, horizontal. The bartender’s already begun to mix.
“So how did you end up handling Parkland?” I ask.
“I sat down with my girls and I said you’re right, it’s a possibility, but the odds are low. Hayden’s pre-law now, so of course she argued. ‘We’re right to be anxious.’ Me, I majored in philosophy. I said, ‘Do you want to be right or do you want to be free?’”
“You sure you’re Jewish?”
“Maybe Cristina’s rubbed off on me.”
I accept my fresh martini from the bartender.
“Give me a wave if you need anything.” She smiles between the two of us. “It’s mostly vermouth,” she says low.
“What did you tell Michael, about the shootings?” Tucci’s four drinks in, so I don’t correct him. I’ve learned the conversations you have with a drunk person don’t matter, because really you’re having them alone.
“We’ve tried to teach him anxiety is like a phone ringing.” I eat my olive, which Meg says is just a garnish. “You can keep the conversation short and even-handed, but first you have to answer the call.”
I phone Meg from the Marriott the next morning. “My room has a coffee pot,” I say.
The joke’s from the first night we spent together. We were in our late thirties when we got married, and we both needed some convincing. As my mom said, “If I met your father now, I don’t know how I’d commit to him. Everything would seem like a red flag.”
All through my twenties, I’d done the typical lesbian overlap, each relationship averaging 3.5 years. One day, I was hauling my shit from the apartment I’d shared with my girlfriend to the one where my next one lived. On the way there, I remembered it was Sweetest Day. So I stopped at the first place I saw. Inside Jewel-Osco, it hit me. I had no idea how to grocery shop. With one girlfriend, I did what she called a ‘big shopping’ every Saturday, with another I haunted farmers markets, and with my last one, I’d grabbed TV dinners on the fly. All that flashed before my eyes like some kind of grocery near death experience. I had to squat down near the canned beans so I could breath. Once I got out of there, I put all my shit in storage. I crashed with a friend till I found a place of my own.
I met Meg a year or two later at one of my seminars. I’d founded Women Up to help women in the workforce. The idea was to provide tools to shift the culture; we shouldn’t have to act like men to succeed. Sounds obvious now, but I’d started it just out of college; back when secretaries padded their shoulders like football players, and Reagan’s paternalistic capitalism ruled the day. We’d spent years getting by on grants and donations. I fell asleep most nights wondering how I’d pay rent. Anyway, Meg says the meeting was in Middleton, but I distinctly remember the UW-Madison campus. They’d given us a sunny conference room with a broken coffee maker and a view of the lake. Either way, we wound up fucking. Meg had complained about the lack of coffee. “My room has a coffee pot,” I’d said.
After that we really had no blueprint. By then Meg’s first marriage was mostly tradition: summer barbecues at their Door County House, her husband’s five p.m. scotch and soda, and on Christmas, wrapping paper fed into the fire. Still, she was comfortable, sunk into her habits, and I finally knew how I liked to buy groceries, and neither one of us was ready to change.
“Have you seen him yet?” Meg says now, when she answers.
“It’s five in the morning. I didn’t even expect to get you.”
“You think I could sleep?”
In eighteen years with Meg, I’ve seen her sleep through: a 6.5 earthquake, The Chicago Air and Water Show, and the last four hours of my labor.Once at a hotel in Schaumburg, I woke her when the fire alarm didn’t, and made her race down ten flights of stairs.
“I’m meeting him for breakfast.”
“At his dorm?”
“I told him to take an Uber to meet me. He’s not feeling super comfortable on campus. Everyone’s asking why he withdrew from the brass trio and the lit magazine, and of course he’s not allowed to explain.”
“Do we know anything more about this girl?
“I told, you I haven’t seen him yet.” I picture Meg propped on pillows. More likely she’s spent the night curled on the window seat in the den.
“I thought maybe you’d talked with the university.”
“That’s not something they disclose.”
Through the line, I hear Meg breathing. I could pick her exhales out of a crowd.
“How’s it there?”
“Snowing. Right now the afternoon flights are still running.”
“You really can’t get Peter to cover?”
“This is the Parsons,” Meg says. “They’ve been with me since Mags was a pup.”
“Your work ethic is laudable, but-”
“They’re terrified. We won’t know how bad the cancer is until she’s on the table. And if we need to put her down, I should be there. You know all this.”
“And you know why we can’t meet on campus.”
“Excuse me, I’m exhausted. I forgot.”
When we hang up, I slid back the hotel curtain. Outside, the lush greens and milky fog shock me. No matter I’ve flown across the country: after two relentless days I expect to see snow.
When Mitchell was nine we hid his candy. It was Meg’s idea; he’d been complaining kids at school called him fat. I wanted to start by explaining refined sugar, and how to read nutrition labels. Give him the tools to consider, not restrict. But Meg felt a parent was only as good as her boundaries. (“Yours could use some work, as we both know.”) If we can’t agree on everything, we try to trade off victories. I’d just won our last debate, so we weren’t giving Mitchell Tylenol PM for his insomnia. Then we got the call he’d pushed Hope Clark.
“This is pretty out of character,” the principle said when I arrived, literally panting. “I’m hoping now you’re both here he’ll explain.”
“I cabbed right from the airport.” I’d been leading Women Up’s first seminar in Redmond. We were retooling as our market expanded. One of my exes had provided an in.
“I was at the baggage claim when—what do I do with-”
“You can leave that with the office gals if you want.” Dr Cobb held open the door to his office.
“Mitchell, what happened?” I dragged my suitcase into the inner office.
“He says it’s his business.” Meg gestured for me to take her chair.
“Do I have to say it?” Mitchell pointed at the principle.
“Dr. Cobb needs information so we can all decide what to do.”
“Can’t he just punish me?”
“Hope’s okay, isn’t she?” I asked Dr Cobb.
“Mrs. Haverford says he hardly touched Hope. Which doesn’t make it acceptable, of course.”
“Mrs Haverford?” I said.
“One of our lunch ladies.”
“This happened in the cafeteria?” I asked.
“Mitch, come on.” Meg had backed up to lean in the doorway. “Mom’s exhausted, and I have a procedure at three.”
“Don’t rush him,” I said.
“I’ve been here half an hour already. I don’t even know where I parked the car.”
“There’s visitor parking behind the kindergarten.” Dr. Cobb perched on the edge of his desk.
“Okay,” I said. “but truth takes time, we’ve talked about this.”
“In the real world, no one’s going to sit around waiting.”
“Mitchell might not even be fully clear on what he did.”
“Hope stole from the coat drive.” Mitchell held out his hands like a traffic cop.
“That’s why you hit her?”
“I saw her. She took the pink leather jacket from the bag.”
“A better option would be to tell your teacher.” I watched him.
“I was going to.” Mitchell scrapped his shoe against his chair leg. “but she said if I did, she’d tell you.”
“Tell us what?”
“Can I please just be punished?”
“Here, do you want to whisper?” When I set my hand on Mitchell’s back it was damp.
“Okay.” I said after he finished.
“Obviously you need to let us in on this.” Meg stuffed her hands in her pockets.
“Can I please not be here when you do?”
We watched him shuffle into the outer office. One of the secretaries handed him a Dum-dum from a bowl.
“Apparently Mitchell’s been buying chocolate milk instead of regular.” I watched Dr Cobb glance between us. “He’s supposed to limit his sugar intake. I guess Hope threatened to tell us if he told on her about the coat.”
“How did Hope know about his diet?”
“Oh, the kids know everything about each other,” Dr Cobb said.
Back home, I opened the refrigerator. “Jesus Christ, it smells like death.”
“I think it’s the tuna casserole.” Mitchell looked up from his stack of library books.
I slide aside the lid. “You guys didn’t have this for dinner Monday?”
“I think we had cereal.”
I tipped the mess of noodles and fish into the trash. “Can you take this out, Mitchell? And for once, don’t drag it. We’ve got that new sod.”
Upstairs in our bedroom, I moved aside the clutter of Meg’s glasses. They collect on the bureau when I’m gone. Once Mitchell walked in on us arguing about them, and Meg said we were just disagreeing on how to describe them. (“Mom thinks they’re half-empty and I say half-full.”) I set my suitcase on the bureau and unzipped it. Dark jeans and a blowdryer. Beneath that, a par of red-soled heels.
“What are those?” Mitchell said from my doorway.
“I must have grabbed the wrong suitcase from the carousel.”
“Not like with horses. You’ve seen them, the bags go around.”
“Hey, what do you call it when you take the wrong suitcase?”
“A case of mistaken identity!”
“Hilarious. Go share your comedic stylings with the garbage, please.”
I wasn’t lying. The shoes didn’t belong to some chick I was fucking. Loyalty is under-appreciated Maybe Meg would have wanted me more if I was.
Outside, the bus’s engine turned over. Somehow, Mitchell was outside already, dragging the bulging Hefty bag across the lawn. I turned back to my suitcase, still trying to square my expectations with what I saw.
The best thing about my job is hotel showers. Today, I wash my hair twice and leave all the towels on the floor. In the lobby, Mitchell’s already waiting. I thought he’d look different than he did at Thanksgiving; mustachioed and pock-marked. But he’s got the same thin blond hair that makes people think Meg gave birth to him. The same pale skin that goes pink when he eats wheat.
“Hey, honey.” I hug him. “You hungry? They have a buffet.”
In the restaurant, Mitchell loads his plate with ham and bacon and waffles and bagels. We order orange juice and coffee.
“He’s already decided he hates us.” I point at the sullen waiter as he leaves. Usually Mitchell and I dream up whole inner worlds for the servers—Meg thinks it’s ridiculous—but this time Mitchell won’t play.
“Where’s mama?” Eyes on his plate, shoulders slumped.
“The weather’s bad there, but she still might make it.”
“Did some important dog get sick?”
“You know how she is.”
“The thing is at four.” Mitchell rips open a stack of sugar packets.
“What do you want to do in the meantime?” I spread cream cheese on a sorry excuse for a bagel. ‘If it’s not boiled it’s just bread,’ my mom would say.
“Are you just going to act like it’s a normal visit?”
“I figured we’d get to it. But we still have to eat, am I right? Thank you.” I add cream to the coffee the server drops. “I don’t know why he’s so brusque. It’s not like it’s busy.”
“You sound like grandma.”
“Hey, there’s a knife right there on the table.” I mime stabbing myself. “You could have used that instead.”
“Mom.” Mitchell shovels in bacon. Around us, a few scattered business types are glued to their phones.
“I’m not trying to make light of this. I called a lawyer I know in the city.”
“How do you know a lawyer here?”
“She’s someone from my twenties.”
“The school said I don’t need one.” Mitchell adds two more sugar packets to his cup.
“I don’t know if we should believe that.”
Mitchell’s a young seventeen, certainly, but the innocence of his question curdles the cream in my guts.
“They said it has to be handled on campus,” he says.
“Right. Something to do with Title Nine. But Mitchell, what’s happened so far—the what did you call them? Interim restrictions? You can’t visit any other dorms, you can only go to the one dining hall. It’s affecting your whole college experience, and no one’s even proved what she said is true.”
“What did the lawyer say?” Mitchell gulps most of his orange juice.
Tabby didn’t say much I should tell Mitchell. Not how The Department of Education can cut all federal funding if they don’t think a school’s response is sufficiently aggressive, and not how she still misses the way I held her wrists above her head.
“She stressed the importance of getting help early.” I refold my napkin. “Why didn’t you say anything over Thanksgiving?”
“I thought I could handle it.”
“The thing is, it’s not like the court system. You’re not presumed innocent. It’s your word against the other student’s, and they only have to believe her a little more.”
Mitchell’s sleep issues started early. Everyone says night terrors are harder on the parents; your child flailing and growling, eyes rolled back into his head. By two years old, he’d grown out of them. In his next phase he refused to sleep alone. One night, Meg and I were both curled around him like parenthesis, all of us jammed in his bed.
“Honey, can you explain exactly what scares you?” I asked.
“It’s past midnight.” Meg touched his back.
“He doesn’t know how to tell time.”
“Yes, I do.” Mitchell pressed his face into his pillow.
“Mom and Mama have work in the morning, Mitch.”
The first time I heard Meg call Mitchell that, I felt like one of us three was a stranger, but I couldn’t tell you who. Meg’s the nickname type—her whole family is. It’s because they name their kids after living relatives, and then they’re stuck trying to differentiate. It’s how grown men end up with names like Junior and Tad. But Mitchell’s M is for my father, Moishe. Maybe it’s assimilation; we get to honor the deceased’s memory without having to saddle our kid with some old Jew’s name.
“What?” Now, Meg leaned toward Mitchell. “Babe, talk louder.”
“He said he doesn’t want to be by himself when he dies.”
“How does he know about death?” Meg propped herself on one elbow.
“Mitchell,” I said, “sleep is different. Sleep is just a break from thinking.”
He was crying and clutching his stuffed llama. “It’s not a break for me.”
In my memory, he was barely four when he said that; always advanced for his age. Babies don’t develop depth perception until the sixth month, but by five months he was pointing at the bus through the kitchen window. When he could toddle, he’d make a beeline. When he could talk, he’d ask “What dat?”
“Go bu!” He repeated after I told him. I thought my answers were age appropriate. When he was six: “Ghosts are made up stories about people who aren’t alive anymore,” when he was eight, “Ghosts are ideas about our souls.” Meanwhile, Meg stuck to her story: “Mitch, the bus comes here to visit us.” She thinks a parent’s job is to filter, not explain.
When he was ten, Mitchell started checking books out of the library. Most kids would have gone on the internet. Maybe it’s because our donor was an archeologist—Mitchell preferred words he could hold in his hands.
“Ghosts come from something called animism.” Mitchell sat at the kitchen table. “It’s ancient and—what does ‘attribute’ mean?”
“What’s the rest of the sentence?” I layered a flat pan with lasagna noodles.
“Animism attributes souls to everything in nature.”
Meg leaned in the doorway. “In that context, ‘grants’ or ‘assumes.’”
“What’s ‘context’ again?” Mitchell asked.
“The words around it.”
“How can a word’s meaning change because of that?”
“Words are flexible,” Meg said. “It’s like how Mom gets called sir a lot when we’re with strangers. Context affects how you’re understood.”
After Mitchell got through our tiny library’s ghost section, he moved on to astral projection. Then came cults and UFO’s. I don’t think his research affected his sleep habits. By his teens it was mainly insomnia. He refused warm milk and melatonin. One summer, he set up a tent on our lawn.
“You think it’s safe for him?” I asked Meg.
“Babe, it’s Door County.” On the couch, she sipped wine like liquid sunlight. We’d been to Stone’s Throw Winery earlier that day.
“What happens when it’s winter?” I lifted my arm so Meg could nestle against me.
“He’ll have some other new sleep problem by then.”
“I just seems counterintuitive. Why would he sleep better outside?”
“I slept great when my parents took me camping,” Meg said. “And at summer camp, my favorite was the overnight.”
“You went to sleep-away camp, the whole thing was an overnight.”
“Once per summer, the counselors would take us camping in the woods.”
“I don’t even like sleeping with the windows open. What’s that Woody Allen line? ‘I’m two with nature?’”
At least that’s one way Mitchell and I aren’t the same.
“I called her my little shut-in,” my mom told Meg at our wedding. “Every weekend, in her bedroom with the shades drawn.”
“Even in the summer?”
I knew Meg had spent her Saturdays horseback-riding, on Sundays she had church and flute lessons. In her white pantsuit beside me, she looked appalled.
“She’s exaggerating.” What I liked best about summer were the sealed up windows, the air conditioner’s low, constant drone.
“Your sister was much more social,” my mother said.
“Fuck lot of good that did me.” My sister scraped raspberry filling from a fat cube of cake.
“What about the Goldstein’s son?” My mother suggested.
“Mom, he’s been with his wife since grad school.”
“Well, I’m not sure how this became my fault.”
“No one’s saying that.”
My sister thinks all the good Jewish men are taken. Married to shiksas with kettle corn hair. Today of all days, I couldn’t contradict her. I held Meg’s hand and kept my mouth shut.
“You wore a night gown?” Meg asked, when mom had gone off to hug Aunt Rachel.
“My mom just called me agoraphobic and that’s the part that upsets you?”
Meg sipped champagne and leaned against me.“It’s a little like finding out your husband’s a transvestite.”
“Are you eating that?” My sister reached for Meg’s cake.
“You haven’t finished yours.”
“She only likes the filling,” I said. “If it helps, I don’t feel like I’m someone who wore nightgowns.”
My sister licked the tines of her fork.“But who you feel like isn’t always who you are.”
Meg doesn’t make it by four, but neither does the Dean of students. At three-thirty, we’re on benches outside the conference room, waiting. The building is graceful, a sort of rotunda. More benches curve away out of sight. At three-forty five Mitchell’s phone rings. I watch him. Hair slicked back, he’s changed into Dockers we bought him. The Marriott’s built above a mall.
“Okay. Okay. Right.” His listening expression is the same as always. No matter whether he’s attending to Blues Clues or Call of Duty or CNN.
“It’s postponed.” Mitchell slides his phone in his pocket.
“Same time tomorrow.”
“Did they give a reason?”
Mitchell stands. “The dean ate some bad shrimp is what the guy said.”
“I guess the good news is Mama will make it. The airport should have its shit together by tonight.”
“What do we do now?”
“Are you hungry?” I shoulder my messenger bag. “What do you feel like?”
“Let’s research what’s around.”
I look up from my Google search to see Tucci. Today his tight sweater’s bright blue.
“What a coincidence.” I turn to Mitchell to introduce him, but Mitchell’s skittered backwards, colliding with a plant.
“You okay?” I follow his gaze to the girl a few feet behind Tucci. Brown hair, green windbreaker. My mom would call her zaftig if she felt kind.
“What’s wrong?” When I turn back to Tucci his face has gone pale.
“I’m not supposed to talk to her.” Mitchell grabs the plant to stop it from falling.
“Are you kidding me?” Tucci glances between me and Mitchell.
“Come on.” A blond woman tugs at Tucci’s sweater. “Seriously. This isn’t the time or place.”
“You little piece of shit.” Tucci advances. Clenched fists and bald, gleaming head.
“Back off.” I step between him and Mitchell. Impotent, Mitchell still clutches the plant.
“Dad.” The brown haired girl whispers.
Tucci exhales. “Okay, baby.”
The blond woman takes Tucci’s arm.
I watch the group retreating. “She’s Stanley Tucci’s daughter?”
Mitchell releases the plant, finally. “Her last name is Kerplowski,” he says.
Meg swore her Door County house wasn’t haunted.
“Unless you mean by shitty memories.”
I set the box of kitchen stuff among the city of cardboard. I’d just done a seminar in Los Angeles— Women UP was finally gaining national traction— and now the boxes reminded me of Skid-row. “But you really want to live here?”
“I’ll make new ones with you.”
In my memory, she took my hand and led me upstairs to the bare mattress. Meg says we did it there on the floor. Later, we unpacked dish ware.
“How long does the guide’s spiel last?” I glanced through the window. While we were upstairs, the bus had pulled away.
Meg blinked at me. Her legs were bare beneath a worn Yale sweatshirt, her hair snarled up near the crown.
“Spiel means patter or little lecture. What happened here that got the house added?” I pictured blood dripping from the high beamed ceilings, chopped up bodies in the crawlspace beneath the stairs.
“It’s just a fun thing for the tourists.” Meg wandered to the table.
“There must be some specific reason.”
“It might be a burial ground, or else someone’s uncle hung himself?” Meg used the corkscrew on my pocket knife. “I always get this one and that barn down the road confused.”
I thought poltergeists might show up when Mitchell turned thirteen, or something. Like a paranormal bar mitzvah, which my mom’s still mad we didn’t have. But all that ever happened was explicable. A hornet’s nest in the attic. Creaky floorboards when no one was walking. A thunderstorm that brought down an old oak.
His senior year of high school, Mitchell’s English teacher emailed us. “It’s my belief that your son plagiarized his final paper.”
“I haven’t told the principle,” Mr Boyles said when I arrived.
“Why not?” I squeezed into the desk he gestured at.
“I’d like to think the three of us can handle this.”
“You me and Mitchell?” Sometimes teachers forget he has two parents. It’s not homophobia exactly, more like some brand of denial.
“You me and your wife.” Mr Bowles strode to the front of the room.
“I’d like to see what my son has to say.”
“Kids will say anything when they think they’re in trouble.” Puffed up and pigeon like, he took a perch on his desk.
“We teach Mitchell to stand up for himself.” From my angle, the teacher’s crotch was eye-level.
“When I confronted him, he implied I didn’t know my own subject matter. Respect for authority is paramount.”
“Self-respect’s right up there, too.”
“I’m here.” Meg shut the door behind her. She settled her sunglasses on top of her head. “What’s the punishment?”
“Hang on a second.” I turned to Mr. Boyles. “What makes you think he didn’t write it?”
“It’s simply too good for someone his age.”
“You’re punishing him for being a good writer?”
“I’ve taught kids for two decades.” His lip twitched, an accidental sneer.
“Did he copy from the internet or something?”
“I’ve developed a sixth sense for these things.”
“What exactly activated your Spidey sense?” I shifted, trying to get comfortable. Attached desks are made for people without ribs.
“For one thing, this word, ‘preternatural.’” He tapped a sheaf of papers. “When I asked him, he couldn’t define it.”
“That’s it?” I glanced at Meg.
“That’s the least of it.” He adjusted his cuffs. “Have you read Heart of Darkness?”
“I have.” Meg said.
“In class, I taught that Kurtz’s unchecked greed was the source of his descent into madness.” Mr Boyle watched us. “But your son attributed it to more complex psychological factors.”
“So you’re punishing him for coming up with something on his own.”
“When I asked him to take me through how he’s reached his conclusions, he said he couldn’t remember. Here’s all I could get out of him.” Mr Boyle read from one of his papers. “He said, and I quote ‘Something about madness and ownership? And, Kurtz is really alienated? So like, how you try to control things so you feel less alone?’” Mr Boyle’s voice lilted at each sentence’s end.
“This is all just one side of the story.” I extracted myself from the desk.
“I’m his teacher?” This time, the lilt seemed accidental.
“I’m his mother. We’re going home.”
“Why’d you read the book early?” I asked Mitchell later. I was washing dishes and he was drying.
“I get anxiety.” Mitchell ran a dishtowel around the mouth of a mug. “I worry I won’t finish. So it helps to work ahead.”
“Mr Boyle said they like students to stick to the syllabus.” Meg still wore her sunglasses. She looked poised to leave.
“If he turns his work in on time,” I said, “then who cares?”
“He’s not a special case. People can’t go through life expecting everyone to make exceptions.”
“Can they expect to have a chance to explain?”
“Guys.” Mitchell raised his hands like a suspect. “Mr Boyles did his dissertation on it. Probably I should just have been more respectful.”
“I’m exhausted.” Meg turned. “I’m going upstairs.”
“Where’d you get all that stuff about alienation?” I asked Mitchell.
“I related to Kurtz, kinda. Not really the part where he thought he could do what he wanted. That’s like, colonialism or whatever. But I don’t think the problem was greed, really. I think he was too isolated. He got swept up in his version of reality. He just spent too much time in his head.” Mitchell folded his dishtowel. “If you write a dissertation, doesn’t that mean you become a professor?”
“I guess so.” I turned off the faucet and squeezed out the sponge.
“Then how’d he end up teaching high school?”
“I’m sure he’s asking himself the same thing.”
The next day, when Meg arrives at the Marriott, Mitchell runs to her. Like when he was four and we left him with my family. Just for a weekend, so we could have some time to reconnect.
“You made it.” I take Meg’s bag.
“Finally. If this is December, I can’t imagine the rest of the winter.”
“Is that dog okay?” Mitchell asks.
“The cancer hadn’t metastasized.” Meg kisses his temple and releases him. “We got the bad spot on her lung.”
“So you saved her?” Mitchell presses the button for the elevator.
“I performed the surgery.” Meg’s the worst with compliments. When I first told her I loved her she said, “Okay.”
“You have enough time for a shower.” I say. “Have you eaten?”
“Does the room have an ironing board?” Inside the elevator, Meg sags against the wall.
“The meeting’s at two. I think so.”
“Mom, we’re on eight.”
“Shit. I was saying two, so I pressed it.” When the doors open on our floor, I squeeze Meg’s hand.
“I forgot my toothbrush.”
“Mitchell, can you run downstairs and see if they sell them? Here.” I pat my pants for my wallet.
Mitchell turns for the elevator. “I’ve got cash.”
“We used to have to lift him up to press the elevator buttons,” Meg says.
In the room, I set Meg’s bag on the bed. “Remember my trip to Redmond, and how I wound up with someone else’s suitcase?”
“That wasn’t Redmond, that was Los Angeles.” In front of the window, Meg stretches. Her arched back and the slope of her neck.
“Come here for a second.”
“Are you nuts?” Meg twists away.
“Apparently.” I’m left holding her cardigan.
“Your text was confusing. Why was the postponement good?”
“For one thing, he gets to have both his parents here.” I toss Meg’s cardigan on the bed.
“You said something about a lawyer?”
“Tabby. She’ll meet us there. Yesterday she was tied up in court.”
“How did you find out her name, exactly?” Meg unzips her bag.
“I’ve known Tabby since-”
“She’s allowed to come to the meeting and represent herself.”
“I thought her identity was protected.”
“Not from the board. And not from Mitchell, obviously.”
“What did she look like?”
“Why does that matter?”
Meg fishes through her suitcase.
“Like my sister, a little. Younger, of course.”
“Did she seem…off in any way?” Meg sets a pair of khakis and a grey sweater on the desk.
“It all happened so fast, I don’t know. Mitchell acted really scared of her. We went for dinner after that, and I got it out of him that they’d hung out, which I think means they dated.” I unfold the ironing board.
“Did he break up with her? Was she upset?”
“It’s nothing so formal with kids now. They ‘hook up,’ apparently. There was something about it on NPR. It seems like she’s the one who ended things. The allegations happened after. And I guess he tried messaging her on Facebook, but he wasn’t supposed to, he says he didn’t know that was part of the no contact order.”
“Shouldn’t that have been made clear to him?” Meg presses her finger to the iron.
“It seems kind of obvious. No contact is no contact, right?”
“But he couldn’t do anything to her in writing, so he may not have understood, and now there’s this whole other set of—what did they call them?”
“Interim restrictions. You’re
tired, I can do that.”
“This thing just seems stacked against him.” Meg’s bicep flexes as she irons.
“I know. She’s really protected.”
“Well. That’s what we get, I guess.”
“What does that mean?” I scoop up a pair of Meg’s underwear that’s slipped from her bag.
“That’s your whole raison d’être, right? Offering women protection, so they have a voice?”
She means Women UP. Over time, it’s evolved into something more slick and corporate-friendly. We’ve got fewer seminars directed at women’s groups. Mostly we teach HR departments how to create an environment safe for everyone. I figure more people benefit, even if the message is leavened. Ideally, that’s how movements function; the counter culture fighting so hard for mainstream acceptance, then the mainstream changing as a result.
“The work we do is important.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t.” Meg folds the ironing board.
“What are you saying then?”
“Can you put my underwear back in my bag?”
After the meeting, I take Tabby aside to thank her.
“My pleasure. I’m just sorry you’re going through this.” On the steps of the administrative building, Tabby touches my arm. “He seems like a nice kid.”
“He is. He’s really sensitive. His whole life, I worried we’d fuck up and traumatize him. With kids, it’s never the thing you expect.”
“I think it’s like that for everyone.” The wind tugs blond hair from her bun.
“We’ll get him back into talk therapy. His psychiatrist is really just there for his anti-anxiety meds. Do you think that will count against him? Make him look troubled?”
“Honestly, most of what he does now is meaningless. As long as he doesn’t try to contact her…”
Tabby looks so official with her slim briefcase. Last time I saw her she was shitfaced at Stargaze. We’d gone out drinking to celebrate my move the next day.
“…the board is still judging what allegedly happened before.”
“How the fuck did we get here?”
Right away, Tabby gets it. “You ghosted me, and I got into UCLA.”
“Oh, wow. Bless your old, married soul.” Tabby touches my arm again. “They’re your type, both of them.” She means Meg and Mitchell. From the back they’re both whispy-blond and fine-boned, waiting for an Uber at the curb.
“People think she carried him.”
“She tried.” I glance at Meg. “Should we be doing something more active than waiting?”
“It’s good he offered them access to his Facebook messenger-”
“They didn’t even want it.”
“-but in the meantime, your best focus is to start thinking about next steps.”
“You mean prepare him for the formal hearing?” I fold my arms against the wind.
“We may not want to let it get that far.”
“I don’t understand. How would we stop it?”
“If they decide to expel him-”
“Can they just do that?”
“If they think it’s in their best interests.” Tabby shrugs. “Anyway, he’ll have a mark on his transcript.”
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“As I understand it, every school he applies to will see he’s guilty of sexual assault.”
“No one’s proven that.”
“Do you want to risk his future?”
“What are you advising?”
“I’m a tax attorney,” Tabby says, “but just be strategic. This girl can derail his future without ever calling the police.”
At the curb, I join Meg and Mitchell.
“That was nice of her, after everything.” Meg shivers.
“I guess I’m just that charming.”
“That’s the Uber.” Mitchell looks up from his phone.
When the it pulls up, I slid into the front seat. “The Marriott. Wait, you know that. I always forget.”
“S’all good.” The guy behind the wheel has ropy forearms. He’s somewhere between my age and Mitchell’s. At this point, people in their twenties all look like they’re twelve.
In the backseat, Mitchell says to Meg, “aren’t you going to ask if I did it?”
“I hadn’t planned on it.” Meg looks away when I try to catch her eye.
Mitchell was always big on experiments. He had one where he stood an egg on its end to see if it was rotten, and one about speed and acceleration, where he dropped a different egg from the roof of the house.
No eggs were harmed in his bus experiment.
“What’s the verdict?” I asked when I picked him up at the library. The Ghost Tour ends with a trip through its basement. That’s where they keep the microfiche, or at least they used to. On moonless nights they say the founder still walks the cold floors.
Mitchell leaned his forehead against the passenger-side window.
“Did you see me hopping up and down and waving?”
Mitchell dug in his backpack.
“Did you see Mama doing cartwheels?”
“She always said the bus came to see us.” He pulled a pack of gum from his bag.
“She didn’t want you scared until you were old enough.”
“But I still thought we were part of it.”
“What do you mean?” I turned down the volume on All Things Considered.
“I couldn’t see anything.” Mitchell mashed two sticks of gum into his mouth.
“Are our windows that dirty?” I held out my hand.
“It was the angle. The bus people don’t even know we’re inside.” He handed me the package. The gum was damp—whoever knew what was going on in that kid’s backpack—still, I popped a piece in my mouth.
“Did you see any ghosts at least?”
Mitchell shook his head.
“Well, now we can run relays in our underpants.”
Mitchell stared through the windshield.
“No? How about we all pretend to be monkeys? What would you do if no one could see?”
Mitchell shrugged and chewed harder. I checked out his profile. I guessed that was how my nose looked from the side.
“Will you shut up if I let you fuck me? Just shut the fuck up,” Meg said. She was drunk, and she didn’t want anything to do with me.
“But it’s our honeymoon.”
“It’s a hotel in fucking Schaumburg.” Meg tugged at the bedspread.
“So let’s make it feel special. Wait, they don’t wash those.” I slipped the spread from beneath her dead weight.
When we first got married, we agreed not to splurge on a vacation. We both had cars and bedroom sets and dish ware. Meg’s divorce had granted us the Door County house, plus we needed all our savings for IVF. After I had Mitchell, I got super busy pivoting Women Up’s focus, and Meg was building new her practice. Now that Mitchell was four, we’d finally taken some time away.
“Fucking Schaumburg,” Meg repeats things when she’s extra drunk.
“So let’s fuck.”
I touched her bare shoulder. “I want to feel close to you.”
After nine years of marriage, we were mired in our habits. Bedtime by nine-fifty-seven, Mitchell clutching his llama between us. Meg’s reading glasses and her Ipad. My stack of presentation notes. So much of marriage is parallel play.
“Fucking Schaumburg. This hotel doesn’t even have a pool.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not Tad Jeffrey Junior. I can’t afford five nights in the Bahamas. I’m sorry I didn’t graduate from Yale.”
Meg rolled to her stomach, her linen shift rising. I helped it along a little, exposing the tops of her thighs.
“What? You’re talking into the pillow.”
“I said you might as well be Tad if you’re not taking no for an answer. If you don’t care at all how I feel.”
“You’re my wife.” I never got tired of saying it. Despite Meg’s cold shoulder, I warmed.
“I care how you feel, absolutely. That’s the whole point, I want to make you feel good.”
Meg shook her head into the pillow, but she lifted her hips at my touch.
“Meg, come on. Turn over.”
Meg’s skin beneath her linen shift felt humid. Her exhales were pungent with wine.
“I want to sleep.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Meg.” I ran a finger under the elastic of her panties. Blue lace. Thin from years of wear.
“Leave me alone.”
It’s inevitable; you can’t both want each other equally forever. But sex is a need like any other. That’s what’s hard about relationships. If you’re hungry, you just open the refrigerator. But I’d been down this road with all my girlfriends. The one who stops wanting sex is the one who wins.
I eased her dress up around her hips. “I’m not like Tad is.” Her underwear was easy to tear.
I was still awake hours later when someone pulled the fire alarm. I got Meg to her feet and down eight flights of stairs.
The carolers aren’t like the Ghost Tour. They don’t keep a strict schedule. It’s almost seven when they arrive. In the kitchen, I’m stirring batter for cookies. My secret is fresh ginger. Last week I made latkes, only because my mother was visiting. Meg can’t stand how afterward the scent of oil haunts the house.
First thing mom asked was why Mitchell was home so early. Berkley runs on a trimester, was what we’d agreed to say.
“I told you,” I whispered to Meg in the kitchen, later.
“Relax. Your mom doesn’t know how to google.”
“How will we explain when he starts Whitewater next semester?”
Meg rubbed her temples. “I always forget how many questions your family asks.”
“What’s so wrong with asking questions?”
“Case in point.” Meg handed me a paper towel to pat the latkes dry.
“Would it kill you to answer?” I gripped the spatula.
“People need privacy.”
“What about intimacy?”
“The pan’s smoking.” Meg hugged herself.
“What they need is to know each other.” I turned down the heat.
“You know me. I’m right here.”
“I know more about all those girls I shacked up with in the nineties.”
Saying it made me feel like some kind of asshole. Who uses the phrase ‘shacked up?’ ‘Maybe you should go find one of them,’ was how Meg would have replied once, and I’d’ve said, ‘you’re who I want though,’ and we’d have fought until we built enough steam to fuck.
In the pan, the oil snapped and splattered.
“And you’re not with any of them.” Meg gestured for me to step out of range.
My mom pushed open the door to the kitchen. “Whew, it’s smoky.”
Meg passed me my ‘King of the Grill’ apron. “So, you got what you wanted with me.”
“Your sister texted.” My mom settled at the table.
“Meg, can you hit the fan above the stove?”
“She says she’s sorry she couldn’t make it.”
“Yeah, what happened?” I turned down the heat under the pan.
“She’s got some work commitment. She forgot Chanukah was early.”
“Why do Jewish holidays keep moving?” Mitchell asked from the doorway.
My mom shrugged. “They’re like us, they migrate. Maybe someone’s always kicking them out of their homes.”
Now, I check the timer on the oven. Still a while for the cookies. Most kids like bland foods, but when Mitchell was little, he’d come running to lick the bowl.
Last night, I found him in the kitchen, Sunday’s New York Times wrinkled in front of him, water boiling on the stove.
“It’s for cocoa,” he said. “You want some?”
“I think we have marshmallows somewhere, but they might be as old as you.” I turned to search the cupboards. “This is like that scene in A Wrinkle in Time. Remember that day we stayed in reading it? You weren’t sick or anything, but I had a sore throat when we were done.”
“How do you do that?”
I heard Mitchell turn a page in the paper.
“Read for hours? Wait till you’re a parent. Comes with the territory. They hand out the power at the hospital. They inject it along with the fertility drugs. How to read till your vocal cords fray.”
“I mean, how do you even get there? How did you guys both agree on each other at the same time?”
“Me and Mama?”
“You and Meg.”
“I guess some of it was timing. And you have to want to be with someone enough to get over all the downsides.”
I opened another cupboard. “Like, Meg’s allergic to flowers and I’d love to fill the house with them. Or I used to be obnoxiously jealous.”
“Probably because I was a cheater. Or maybe because she’d been straight.” I stood on my toes to feel for the marshmallows.
“I was going to go with Hayden to San Fransisco for Christmas.”
This was the first Mitchell had said about it.
“Then her texts back got shorter.”
Meg and I had agreed not to push.
“I wanted to be sure, so I graphed them. The length and the quantity were different since we started. When I said that, she asked if I had Aspergers.”
I teetered on my tiptoes. On the stove, the kettle began to hiss.
“I wish I had fucking Aspergers. I’d be too obsessed with like, exotic bug types to care. After that she stopped mentioning Christmas. She blocked my texts and her roommate kept telling me she was out.”
By then, I’d patted my way to the marshmallows, but I didn’t take them down, or turn.
“How could just texting and calling and meeting her out places make her feel like I was a rapist? We barely even had sex, just the one time I asked about her text patterns. She said she was just busy with school stuff. She said she was sorry she told me I had Aspergers. Then she got quiet in the middle, but she never told me to stop.”
When I finally turned, the kitchen was empty. I don’t know how long I’d stood there, just facing the cupboard, while the kettle screeched like a banshee on the stove.
Unlike the bus people, the carolers coordinate their outfits. They wear vibrant red cloaks and green hats. All the kids are apple-cheeked and invested. The old folks lean into each other. Like most weeks, today Gus is there with his flute. In the kitchen, the scent of ginger seems nearly physical. Vaporous, like an orange fog. When I crack the window, I catch the last of the figgy pudding song. ‘Piggy pudding,’ Mitchell used to say. For a while there, we worried he might have a speech impediment, but then instead he got that wheat allergy. It’s all misdirection. Raising kids is like slight of hand.
The oven buzzes.
“Mitchell,” I call toward the stairs, “come ruin your appetite.”
It’s only luck, the cookies are ready. Sometimes our neighbors bring the carolers eggnog, but we’re not always home when they arrive.
Outside now, the snow falls more thickly, but there’s Mitchell, in just a white T-shirt. Spindly arms, poky spine. He crosses the yard, dragging the garbage bag. Behind him, its weight indents the snow.
“I just don’t understand what happened,” he’d said last night while my back was turned. “The harder I tried the farther she went.”
Now he lingers, watching the carolers. “Fall on your knees,” Gus takes the flute from his lips to sing.
When Meg opens the garage door, it seems to release Mitchell. He dumps the bag in the trash bin. Meg says something, and together they step into the indent. They follow the accidental trail back to the house. Thanks to Mitchell’s experiment, I know they can’t see me. Still I half lift my hand, and I wave.
Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s work has appeared in literary magazines such as Diagram, Brevity, Third Coast, Underground Voices, Carve and The Boiler. She has written for sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, The Satirist, and Pop Matters. She was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. Most recently, Sarah was a runner-up for Prairie Schooner’s annual summer Creative Nonfiction Contest and her work was published in their Summer 2020 issue. Pushcart Prize nominated, Sarah holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a Creative Coach, and teaches creative writing at The University of Chicago Writer’s Studio. Her novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist.