Authors: Katrina Onstad
But Ana couldn’t concentrate on the story. She had been pulled back to the meeting of the previous evening, and the blond, quivering woman in the Chinese slippers who had told them she would “set things in motion.” Uncharacteristically, James had arranged the meeting, calling people who knew people for recommendations and booking the appointment. Ana rushed to be on time after a long meeting and met him outside the agency doors. She was still red-faced from her sprint when she learned that, yes, they were good candidates for international adoption. The white woman in the Chinese slippers told them this while sitting beneath a giant oil painting of the Great Wall of China. Now they had to find a social worker who would come by the house and interview them. Several meetings for several thousand dollars. And then, if they passed, it was back to the agency, and a series of courses on cultural sensitivity, and several thousand more dollars. And then their names at the bottom of a long scroll that could take years to wash up on the shores of China.
Ana drank tea and ate her flavorless sushi, prying apart the upcoming invasion. “It’s bullshit,” James had said. “But we have to do it.” He was determined, and with James, that was significant. Still, it was Ana who had spent the years before being opened and scraped. Now she would have to do it again, but in her own house.
Ana had paid her bill and stepped outside.
As soon as she reentered the human stream on King Street, Ana recognized Ruth. She was smoking, walking slowly, her cardigan buttoned properly. If Ana walked as slowly as this girl, it would look like she was stalking her. She wanted to cross the street, to ignore her, to make her vanish, but it seemed impossible not to be found out. She walked at her normal pace and was quickly next to her. She said: “Hello, Ruth.”
“Oh!” said Ruth, putting her cigarette behind her back, as if her mother had snuck up behind her at school.
“Did you have lunch out?”
Ruth shook her head. “I can’t really afford it. I just went for a smoke.”
Ana recognized the phrasing as something rural and coarse. She sounded like Ana’s distant cousins, who said things like: “I’m going to the can.”
“It is a nice day,” said Ana. “How are you doing anyway? How do you find it in the office?” Ana had a flash of altruism, pictured herself as the kind of lawyer who might take the girl in, mentor her. She had been to a few of these events in the past, wearing a pink ribbon for charity and walking a few miles with other women lawyers. Everyone’s legs looked pale in their shorts, and they all seemed embarrassed. Ana had not been able to stop herself from beginning to jog, slowly at first, and then running. The walking women were far behind when Ana finished the course before anyone else and left quickly.
Another time, at a luncheon called “Women Lawyers: A Dialogue About Transformative Leadership,” she had sat at a table with a group of married associates, mother lawyers she had rarely seen on the fifteenth floor. They exchanged numbers about outsourcing: who delivers dry cleaning, emergency nanny agencies, car services that drive children to music
lessons. At one point, one of them looked up from typing into her phone and said: “Okay, who do I hire to screw my husband?” Everybody laughed.
One statistic lodged in Ana’s head from that afternoon: For every ten male lawyers at her firm, there was one-half a woman. Ana pictured that half-woman lawyer, sliming along the hallway on her stumpy torso.
On the street, Ana had asked again: “How’s work?”
The girl looked straight ahead, put her cigarette between her lips a little defiantly. “I don’t know. It’s okay. It’s not really what I want to do. I guess I’m not supposed to admit that to the boss.”
“I’m not the boss,” said Ana, so quickly that they both knew it to be false. “So what do you want to do, then?”
“I want to make movies. Maybe documentaries. About bands, maybe.” Before she even finished the statement, her defiance drained away, as if this were the most unrealistic dream a person could hold. Her voice turned into a mumble. “I don’t know.”
It struck Ana as unlikely that this limp girl had some affinity for rhythm in her, that she liked back rooms, electric guitars. Maybe she was one of those girls who gets used. Maybe she stood at the front of the crowd and stared upward, inserted herself backstage, became a joke between a drummer and a bassist the next morning.
“My husband makes documentaries,” said Ana. “For TV.”
“Really?” Ruth looked at Ana sideways. Ana felt something: They didn’t like each other. Ana tried to pull the girl back from the brink of this mutual realization, to distract her with kindness.
“He works in public television. You should come over some
night to meet him. Maybe he could help you out.” Why had she said this? The thought of Ruth, in Ana’s house in her mis-buttoned sweater, mumbling at James’s feet. This was the type of girl who would love James, and James would be kind to her, would perform for her, tap dancing through his latest thought. It would be both excruciating and sweet, a combination that exhausted Ana.
She could not imagine this evening happening and knew they had entered a conversation that had no conclusion. Ruth would be checking in with her again and again, for months to come.
Inside the building, outside the door to her office, Ana did it first: “I’ll throw some dates at James and get back to you.”
Ruth looked up at her, and something surprising happened: Her face thawed. The blandness, the boredom, slid away. She was smiling, a huge, unyielding smile that revealed a heap of crooked teeth. The teeth made Ana remember the child’s game with the hands piling up, each person pulling the one from the bottom, slapping it down on the other.
The door to Sarah and Marcus’s house opened quickly, lightly, which surprised Ana. She had expected the creaking of Al Capone’s vaults to match her sense of invasion. She drew the scattering of mail and flyers to her body.
Straightening, a grim old-lady smell washed over her, spiked by something sour, foul. Ana put down her briefcase and an empty suitcase on wheels. She made two tidy stacks of mail—urgent and not—and took off her heels. She moved quickly, glancing at the clutter of toys in the living room, the clothes and shoes strewn. That giant bag of cat food was still there,
resting against the wall, though the cat was living next door now. Ana barely remembered the cat: black, maybe, and fat. Looking at the cat food, she regretted that she had never bothered to learn its name. She would take the bag to the neighbor later.
The kitchen was Pompeii: plates of half-eaten food, a booster chair covered in Cheerios and chunks of browned banana. She tracked down the smell to old milk gone solid in a blue plastic cup covered in cartoon bees, sitting on a counter.
Ana was filled by a rush of conquering energy. She marched into Sarah and Marcus’s room, pulling open drawers until she found jeans, a T-shirt, both too big, but clean and folded tidily, which surprised her. Ana placed her skirt and blouse on hangers that she put over the doorknob, careful not to let her clothes touch the ground, which was covered in a thin layer of dust. Gray balls of fluff made space for her as Ana moved around the room in Sarah’s clothes.
She rolled on a pair of Marcus’s sweat socks. In this uniform, she set to it, opening windows, gathering dirty laundry, and tossing toys into wicker baskets.
And she worked, yellow gloves filling garbage bags, scrubbing soldered food from plates, keeping the kitchen sink filled to the rim with soapy bubbles. Draining the fat swirls and food chunks and refilling, over and over.
After a couple of hours, Ana noticed the silence, the noise of her breathing. She hit Play on the stereo (and dusted it, too). A familiar CD, a lament; spare guitar, the kind of music James used to play for Ana, tears in his eyes: “Hear this part? It really starts here.…”
The music carried up to Finn’s little room, which was like wandering into Sarah’s force field, like hearing her calling:
This is how much I love him
. The white curtains were covered with tiny embroidered trains. Red bunnies repeated on his bedspread, and the throw rug was a scurry of cuddly bugs. All these crowds of miniatures, thought Ana, stripping the bed, throwing scattered toys into a toy box. She should take some toys home, too.
She looked through a stack of books:
Tell the Time with Pooh, Olivia Saves the Circus, Scaredy Squirrel
. Which ones were right for Finn? Which were his favorites? All the information was locked away, irretrievable. Most of Finn’s preferences resided elsewhere, with his parents, in the shadow world.
She pulled open Finn’s dresser drawers. The underwear was folded into little boxes; Ana felt strange packing the suitcase, wondering how it would look if she somehow got caught—pulled over by a police officer for speeding and revealed as a grown woman with a suitcase of boys’ underwear. She buried the pairs (Curious George; dinosaurs) under sweaters and socks. Then suddenly, she thought:
Does Finn wear underwear? If so, why were they using diapers?
She would have to ask James.
Ana looked around for a stuffed animal, anything she might remember Finn loving, but there were only block puzzles and flashlights, nothing huggable. As she turned out the light, Ana thought:
I’ll buy him a teddy bear, something that James will approve of
In the basement, Ana moved the laundry to the dryer, stepping over the detritus that ends up in basements, the remnants of Finn’s babyhood: pieces of a crib, a high chair. Skates. Did Marcus play hockey? He’d never mentioned it.
When Ana emerged from the basement, darkness had
pulled up to the windows. She went to the empty fridge that she had already wiped clean and pulled out its one occupant, a half-drunk bottle of vodka. She poured a glass and drank it whole, a snake with a mouse, then turned up the music to hear it above the vacuum.
She remembered sitting in this living room with Sarah and Finn on several weekend afternoons in the wake of James’s firing.
When it happened, she realized that she had been waiting for it. She was prepared always for the great bad thing, and when she reached the porch that evening, James’s box of books on the porch confirmed exactly what had happened. Her heartbeat doubled. She assumed a neutral face.
She had opened the door and hung up her coat, and James’s, which lay in a heap in the foyer. James was in the kitchen, but he wasn’t cooking. He was drinking a beer, leaning on the island like he’d been looking for a place to rest. Ana laid the groceries on the counter.
“I got fired,” he said. Then: “You might want to sit down.”
“Why do you want me to sit down?”
James stared at her.
“Because I got fired. I thought you might want to brace yourself.”
“Oh. But you told me first and
you told me to sit down.”
James had drunk the beer from the bottle. Ana saw that she was making him furious, and she began to move around the kitchen quickly, trying to piece together a strategy. But there was still this twister touching down in her stomach. As
if looking in from the window, she saw the two of them with all their sensible choices, and all of it vanishing like an invisible man in a movie, top to bottom, just fading out. A rush of noise erupted in her skull. She concentrated, braced herself to do the right thing.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, and went to James, putting her arms around his body. He smelled her neck. He moved a hand down around her waist, grabbing for her ass, rubbing his groin against her. She broke away.
“You need to eat,” she said, rooting in the fridge. Then she returned, ruffled his hair, and retreated again to look through cupboards.
Over her shoulder, she asked: “What happened? Was it Sly?”
James told her the details, sitting on a barstool while she lined up vegetables, began chopping onions and leeks into her glass bowls. She said: “What an asshole,” and “Did you talk to HR about severance?” and “We can file for wrongful dismissal”—all the things James wanted her to say, each comment another application of balm until the wound was fairly covered, and James a little drunk.
“We should put the adoption thing on hold,” said Ana, tossing the salad. She thought James would fight her, but he didn’t say anything, his head down.
The two of them sat in front of their pasta at last, neither of them eating. Ana wondered if her husband was also feeling that they had lost their grasp. Something had been severed and set adrift; Ana was left feeling arid. But she suspected James’s sensation of loss, radiating off his curved back as he picked at his food, was something entirely different, bound to a manhood she could scarcely bring herself to imagine.
In Sarah’s living room, weeks later, Ana had told her friend: “James has a beard.”
“Is it sexy?” asked Sarah. Ana had never considered this possibility, as the beard was so clearly linked to his firing, to the strange new arrangement in their house. It was the opposite of sexy. It was impotent.
“No. He looks like a fisherman.”
“Fishermen can be sexy.”
Ana shook her head from side to side and raised her eyebrows, as if considering this possibility.
Finn was sitting with his legs out in front of him, staring up at the TV, where a cartoon someone named Peep and a cartoon someone named Chirp were running through a stream. Finn had a large red ball in his lap, ignored.
Sarah sipped her coffee. She was barefoot, like Finn, both of them optimistic of the spring. Ana wore tall, slim boots over her jeans. In Sarah’s house, she never felt the need to take off her shoes.
“Did Marcus ever have a beard?” asked Ana.
“Oh, God, yeah. He went through a whole proletarian thing in his mid-twenties. He was breaking from his parents for good. Bought a van and went west, worked in a national park.”
“You’re kidding.” Ana couldn’t see this, picturing Marcus in his plain black sweaters and wire-framed glasses that made her think of German architects. “Where were you during that time?”
Sarah stretched one arm over her head, groaned a little. “Probably backpacking, or screwing around or something. We weren’t so serious then,” she said. “Really, it was only a summer, when I think about it. I guess he hasn’t had too many beards, actually.”