Even when we got married, all I had really asked Finn to do was stop fucking around with other girls and it wasn’t until I was drinking whiskey on the seven a.m. flight to Toledo that I realized how pathetic that was. I thanked the pilot as I left the plane, which Finn believed was good karma. Sandra’s car was waiting in a loading zone just outside the luggage carousel. The vents roared with cold air. I heaved my suitcase into the backseat and then took my seat up front as Sandra squealed just at the sight of me, smacking the steering wheel for emphasis. Once I pulled the passenger door closed, I turned to her and smiled. She held my face at arm’s length, her eyes flitting over mine, then put our faces close and kissed my cheek in a blush of wet warmth.
Hi Mom, I said, feeling shy in the usual high beams of her adoration. My baby girl, she murmured, teary. I’m so happy you’re okay, Mara. I’m so happy you’re here. Then she sniffed at my mouth like an animal. The whiskey had been an easy decision. You smell cheerful, she said, giving me the side-eye.
As we pulled out from the tangle of airport drives onto the open highway, Sandra asked about the flight, if I had to sit next to a fat person, a smelly person, a chatty person, if there were any crying babies on-board, if there was turbulence, if I chose peanuts or pretzels or crackers, if I got to sit next to the window, how lovely the Midwest must have looked from that high above the ground.
How I was feeling. If I was really okay. If I needed anything immediately that second, one of those cheeseburgers from Big Mike’s or any toiletries I forgot or some coffee or a real breakfast or, hell, some more whiskey maybe?
I fingered my way through the vinyl sleeves of Sandra’s travel CDs and put in a scratched Everly Brothers disc. I told her I just wanted to go home. Sandra was quiet until her cue to sing the long, low harmony: When will I be loved?
She put one hand on my knee and I didn’t shake it away.
The same bunches of wildflowers grew spindly and bright from the ground behind the house. I imagined they’d been blooming since I left. I pounded over the hollow back deck and unlatched the screen door, bounding ahead of my mother, wanting to stand alone in the house even for a moment. The screen door shut with a firecracker slam. The window above the kitchen table was propped open with a chipped chunk of wood; pale yellow curtains billowed in a summer wind hot as breath. I smelled dishwater in the sink and burned morning coffee in the pot. I kicked off my shoes at the heels and left them in a pile the way I’d never do at the apartment, and my feet stuck to the linoleum in the heat. Sandra offered me ice water that I declined, so the two of us stood with the same posture for a moment, smiling politely at each other like strangers in an elevator just waiting for the right floor. Sandra said again how glad she was to see me, and I said the same.
Well, of course, I have a million questions, but there’s no rush, Sandra said, nodding, assuring herself. I nodded with her. Kinda want to get my sea legs first, I think, I said, looking around the kitchen as if I’d see anything that surprised me. I love your hair short like that, sweetheart. That’s always been my favorite look on you. I felt my hands flutter to my head. I said thank you. Very Louise Brooks. Very elegant.
I snorted without meaning to. Sandra was the only one who might describe me as elegant in this moment, half-drunk and tear-stained, standing in my childhood kitchen with a suitcase of—I wasn’t even sure—underwear, my journal, some dresses, some socks, possibly shoes, an inexplicable novel, as if I were leaving on a beach vacation. I’d packed in the same hour that I’d charged the plane ticket to my credit card, moaning with grief, my eyes blank and flickering around the apartment, trying not to see the souvenir magnets holding up photos on the fridge, our books holding each other upright on the shelves, empty bottles of a beer we’d picked out together stacked in the recycling bin. My heart unsticking itself from the rooms. The place I lived, no longer my home.
Want to lay out on the trampoline? Sandra finally asked—the poor thing, once a circus of teenage legs and backflips and suntans, loomed unused in the backyard, unraveling into coarse threads at the edges. Glad to have a task, I changed into my bikini in the half-bathroom, losing my balance and knocking into the sink and walls. Walking back through the kitchen, I could see Sandra through the window, bracing herself on the trampoline, flicking a bath towel open in the wind. I unplugged the clock radio that sat above the phone and set it in the windowsill, facing out, then stooped to plug it in beneath the table. I twisted the tuning knob through the local stations lurking in my memory until I heard The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli! Sandra squealed from outside, like I knew she would, her arm slung over her eyes in the sunshine. Keep it here! And I laughed because I was halfway across the deck already, pulling my sunglasses down free from my hair.
We sipped cranberry juice with melting ice and mint from the garden. Sandra didn’t ask about Finn, and the not-asking left silences she rushed to fill, local gossip and updates on the house: all the high school friends I didn’t keep up with had gotten married just like I had, it seemed, and there were mice in the pantry. I’d learned to live alongside ants while growing up, watching them weave along the windowsill while I washed the dinner dishes—but there had never been mice, never actual animals with fur and teeth and disease. Now they tunneled through the walls, chewing through paper sacks of sugar in the night.
I can’t keep food in my own house, Sandra said. I don’t know where they came from.
The desire to be able to talk about Finn, for my world to be easy and safe again, clinched me at every pause. On any other visit, Sandra would want to hear about my lovely dear Finn straight out of the gate, spread-eagle to the sun next to her happily married daughter. Sandra had always been in love with Finn’s broad confidence and his high regard for me. I rarely told her any stories to contradict her idea of him. In the normal world, I could have talked about the good: he sold another song to another movie production, he got to travel to Ontario last week and sent me grainy cellphone pictures of Niagara Falls. The two of us met at a sushi restaurant when he got home and I got drunk on chardonnay while Finn tossed back ceramic shots of hot sake and loosened his tie. The two of us went home and he pulled three two-dollar coins from behind my ear, fumbling at magic. Sandra could have hummed along to the radio with pleasure and her laughter would have shaken the trampoline as I told her about the bag of Canadian-only ketchup chips Finn smuggled home in his suitcase, crushed to salty tomato-scented crumbs in-flight, the drunken disappointment on his face.
There was the sushi restaurant and the adorable tries at beginner’s magic and his sharp sake breath when we kissed each other that night, and there was the other girl. Somehow both true at the same time.
I keep picturing you on top of me.
When I’d started to really snot and wail, Finn threw his hands up and turned to walk away, shaking his head. I tried not to cry in front of him usually.
I just don’t think I can be with someone who would talk like that to someone else, I said, my voice gone high-pitched and stupid. We were standing in the kitchen waiting for the delivery guy to ring the buzzer. Someone who isn’t your wife. The word “wife” doubled back, opened its wide mouth and consumed me—his wife because we got married. I was married to a man who'd betrayed his wife. There was no other perspective left.
Exactly. Talk, Mara, he said, like I’d just taken the words out of his mouth, pointing his finger at me. Just talk. Nothing that was ever gonna happen, he said.
My thoughts spun and wobbled like a top, feeling I should take the blame, aching to return to the planet where we were at home, having fun, about to eat mock duck stir-fry with plastic forks. When the buzzer sounded, Finn walked out of the kitchen and didn’t come back. I ventured toward the front door a few minutes later with my eyes aching and found the food still in its Styrofoam, knotted in plastic bags, fully-paid for and sitting on the living room floor.
I keep picturing you on top of me. I replayed the words the same way I’d scratch a mosquito bite until it tore open, leaking blood and poison. I had never left anyone before. I didn’t know how.
By the time Sandra and I slung the towels over our shoulders and carried the empty glasses inside, my skin glowed pink and I was hungry enough for a proper lunch. Sandra opened the pantry to show me the damage the mice have done and said God, dammit, separating the two words dramatically. Boxes of pasta were chewed open on the shelves, holes gone grey with cardboard dust. After looking over the survivors, Sandra offered to pick up the cheeseburgers she’d mentioned earlier. And beer, I said, rooting through drawers for a bottle opener. And ice cream, Sandra said, reaching for her keys. And cigarettes, I said. Sandra turned and looked at me over her sunglasses. It’s a joke, Ma! Sandra started to push the screen door, then spun around, opened her arms, and pressed me close. She smelled like sweat and wind. My sweet girl. Thank you for letting me come, I said again.
I watched Sandra’s car pull out of the driveway and disappear down the road, and then I crept through the house. It smelled the same as ever, that sweet warm smell of my childhood. Upstairs, Sandra had preserved my bedroom like a shrine—my teenage bean bag chair still slumped in the corner, its zipper exposed; rock show flyers and theater photos and cut-out magazine headlines fluttered on the walls, the poster gum slowly drying up. I discovered the framed wedding photo taken down and stashed behind the door. I picked it up and turned it around even though I knew it would make me sad. I knew the photo well, had studied it over and over—how happy Finn and I were laughing and reaching for one another in the backyard of the church, married fifteen minutes. I remembered feeling so happy to be someone’s wife. That someone had chosen me. The looks on our faces convinced me for years that I was still in love. I checked my phone, but I hadn’t missed any calls. I filled the tub in Sandra’s bathroom and drizzled in a little of every wash and fizz and bubble she had. I left the door open a crack so I could hear her car when it pulled in the drive, and then I got in and let my body float and cried my husband’s name over and over, like I was calling for help from the next room.
Sunset light poured through the open windows, followed by the buzz of cicadas in the weeds, the noise crackling to life like a dusty record. Sandra reclined into the fraying cushions of the old sofa while I recreated my summer auditions so far; after a few cold beers I stood to do impressions of directors while Sandra reeled and applauded like the audience of a late-night talk show. She reminded me of what a special actress I was and I collapsed into the sofa next to her, secretly pleased and ignoring her bias. In the relative silence that followed, nothing but the summer insects humming as I toyed with the label on my beer bottle, Sandra said So. I don’t think I want to talk about Finn, I said. Sandra looked at me. Her eyes were tired. I saw a text he sent to a girl, I said. Another girl. A girl I know, kind of. She had a wide mouth and a law degree. She had been a high school cheerleader. Her name was light as bedsprings. Sandra was quiet. Dammit, Finn, she said to the ground. You wanna know the worst thing? Sandra said she didn’t know if she did. I thought I wanted a baby with him.
But there were lots of worst things. The lost chance at a grandchild was just the one that would make Sandra hurt the same way I did. I still did want a baby with Finn. That was the worst thing. Another worst thing was that I looked through his phone because I knew I’d find something. And I wanted to lie on top of a stranger on the stranger’s couch and press my hand against his crotch through his jeans, and I wanted a baby, too, and I wanted to scream right in Finn’s face, could feel my throat raw and my ears echoing with just the thought of it. I wanted to hit him. Punch him until my knuckles bled. See him break down. Fuck someone. Have a baby. My husband’s baby. And more than anything, I wanted to go home to Finn.
Sandra sighed, then took my hand into her own, both of our palms wet with the cold sweat of the beer bottles. I pulled my hand away and wiped it on my shirt. I could feel Sandra looking at me but I didn’t look back. The night buzzed and chirped. I felt like I should apologize to Sandra but I didn’t know how. Finn and I never apologized. I kissed her on the cheek with my eyes closed and said it was probably time for bed. Sandra said she loved me more than anything. I promised the same, wondering if it was still true. And that cigarette thing really was a joke, honey, right?
From my childhood bed, I wondered where Finn was, if he was drunk somewhere, if he was in our bed at home. The thought of him being as lonely as I was devastated me once I was alone in the dark. I texted him—Are you okay?—and tucked the phone beneath my pillow, hoping the buzz of his reply would wake me. Then I rolled onto my side, the room unfamiliar in the darkness, pressed my palms to my face and fell asleep. In the morning my phone, still set on silent from the plane, held a text from Finn, sent at exactly 7:30am: Call me when you’re done throwing this fit. I threw the phone before I knew I was doing it. It hit the bedroom door with a loud crack and left a dent before dropping into a pile of Sandra’s laundry. I tried on a dress I found in the closet and it still fit.
Sandra asked if I wanted eggs and I begged for Starbucks instead, fell to my knees on the tile floor to make her laugh. She kissed the top of my head and combed her fingers through the short hair there. She said we might as well get breakfast in town anyway. I opened the cabinet doors to survey the night’s new damages and asked if Sandra had thought of getting a cat.
I have friends, Mara, she said. For the mice, Ma! I said with my eyes wide, and then we both cracked up.
Sandra said she hadn’t thought about getting a cat, no, but she smoothed her hair when she said it, as if she was already deciding how a person who owns a cat might look. She looked around the kitchen and says Wouldn’t I need to buy cat things?
Food, I said. A litter box. Some toys. I pictured a cat on the kitchen floor, pushing its cool nose against my calves. A companion trailing along next to Sandra once I left, if I left—when I left. To go where? Back to the apartment? It was too much to think about. A bed, I said. We should go to the shelter. Just to look.
Sandra looked at me like I was a little girl again and repeated Just to look, but she was already smiling.
In the car, I turned up the oldies station again before Sandra even buckled her seatbelt. I slid the window down and propped my bare feet on the dash, where they weren’t allowed in Finn’s convertible. At the drive-up, Sandra ordered two blueberry scones folded in waxed paper and strong iced coffees with cream, and soon the two of us were GLAD ALL OVER, howling with the Dave Clark Five, gliding down the grey highway with the wind rushing our heads, we were slapping our knees for percussion, we were both coming in too early on the chorus, catching ourselves and then muddling the words with laughter.
The shelter reeked of pine shavings and piss. Cages full of kittens were stacked as tall as me, and inside the bars they were fuzzy and wriggling, flirty as Marilyn Monroe, but Sandra said she wanted an older cat, one that understands what the hell is going on. The grown cats mostly slept or stared, used to the ritual by now: people come, people go, but they stay.
I stopped in front of an orange tabby, and it moved toward me with a fluttering purr and rubbed its face on the back of my hand through the bars. I leaned down close, and it blinked very slowly at me in a way that probably meant I am the one you need. I blinked back.
This guy looks wise, Sandra said, crouching behind me. He looks like a killer of mice. I picked up the laminated tag attached to the bars and corrected her: the cat, sitting up and pawing at us, was a female. Ooh. Even better, Sandra said, and flagged down an employee.
The cat took a shit in the pet carrier on the drive home, and Sandra cooed with sympathy as she cleaned it up with paper towels and bleach. I poured dried food into a cereal bowl. The cat slunk around the kitchen, crouched low to the tile, her tail puffed. You don’t have to be scared, kitty, said Sandra, leaning down to stroke her back; it’s just us girls here. She told me to pick out a name. I watched the cat. I thought of names: Eleanor. Daisy. Ada. The mental list I’d been piecing together for a baby. I told her I’d need to think about it. Neither of us mentioned that the cat ignored the pantry, the legions of mice scrabbling in the walls.
After a frozen pizza dinner, a cheap kind Sandra had always bought and the kind I abandoned as soon as I left for college, we sat together on the back deck and ate dimpled strawberries from the garden, round in their ripeness. Sandra reminded me that it was the crops that made the air so wet. She worried a curl of hair with two fingers the same way I often found myself doing on the city bus. I wiped strawberry juice from my hands onto my dress. Finn emailed me, Sandra said. It was easier to pretend he didn’t exist. Okay, I said. He wanted to make sure you were here, Sandra said. I asked what she said. I didn’t know how much you wanted me to tell him. Jesus, Mom, I said, He’s still Finn. It’s not like I’m scared of him. If he wants to know I’m okay—relief spilled through my limbs. Sandra nodded, looking at the ground. Then she said, Well, Mara, he didn’t ask if you were okay. The cat yowled and Sandra and I turned. The kitchen window was only partly open, the lip of the pane raised two or three inches, but the cat pawed at the sill and ducked her head, trying to sneak through. She pressed her pink nose to the screen, closed her eyes, sniffed at the outside air. Kitty, kitty, kitty, I said, to keep from crying.
I woke up too early in my old bedroom, the dim blue light of morning barely covering the walls, and as soon as I hoisted myself onto my elbows to glimpse at the clock, the memory crashed down: where I was and why. Who I was, alone: a wife who left, a person with no home. When I remembered the cat downstairs, it was like thinking of an old friend, as if the cat was expecting me and I’d been keeping her waiting.
I toed my way through the house in the dim light, but I didn’t see the cat, and Sandra’s bedroom door was closed. I stooped to look beneath the table. I drummed my fingers beneath the sofa. In the kitchen, I tried the screen door and it pushed open easily, left unlatched from the afternoon. From the back deck, I called for the cat, which would have been easier if the cat had a name. I made smooching noises meant to sound like a mouse squeaking. I snapped my fingers. I patted my knees and clicked and snapped and smooched, glancing back at the house, not wanting to wake Sandra. I pled kitty, kitty, come here girl. Did cats have a homing instinct like dogs, an invisible compass? Come back, kitty. Kitty, please come back, please, I whispered, my throat crowded with tears. I should have named the cat. The cat deserved a name. I wondered where the cat’s internal compass was guiding her—maybe she left on purpose, trying to find her way back to the shelter. I studied the backyard landscape and willed her to appear. I stared at one spot and waited to see movement in my peripheral vision. The hunching shadows of cornstalks swayed together in a crowd. I waited, praying for the surprise of a small face.
I was standing on the deck eating strawberries with both sticky hands when Sandra pushed the door open and handed me a mug of coffee. The mice would be after the coffee beans soon, she said. She stood next to me in silence for a moment, squinting into the golden light of early morning. Then she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and rested her head against mine. I held my breath. I pressed my hands against the hot coffee mug until it burned my palms.
I told Sandra the cat was gone. I promised her the cat would come home.
About the Author: Lindsey Gates-Markel is a lifelong ham from the Midwest. http://lindseygatesmarkel.com
Story Song: "When Will I Be Loved" by The Everly Brothers