Family Leave

December 2, 2016

Like many people in the financial services industry, Mark had no savings; he agreed to buy life insurance only after Alexei’s adoption was complete. Because the policy had been so recently signed and the cause of death overdose, the insurance company refused to pay.

Therese climbed into bed and picked up the New Yorker she’d bought earlier along with more over-the-counter sleeping pills and a bag of Hershey’s kisses. In her thirty-eight years on the south shore of Long Island, the only person she could recall ever reading the New Yorker was her sister Lisa, a playwright.

Therese read the comics and poems and two long articles, one about the artist Andy Goldsworthy, the other about the writer Ayn Rand.

“I’m like Ayn Rand,” Therese remarked, though she was alone, and other than being generally thought of as a bitch, she was nothing like Ayn Rand: different politics, different preoccupations, different haircut.

Mark was the opposite of Andy Goldsworthy. Andy Goldsworthy revered life in all its forms, patiently standing for hours in the sun, melting two icicles to form one horn. Mark had been a stockbroker, a drug addict.

The carpet around the bed was scattered with bits of silver foil from the kisses. Therese got up to take a sleeping pill and turn on the television before climbing back into bed and pulling up the covers. She woke up several hours later, her T-shirt wet, the sheets clammy, unsure whether she was sweating or crying. There’s nothing worse than a wet T-shirt in bed, she thought, though she knew of many things worse. She put on Mark’s flannel pajamas, sat in a chair in the living room, and looked out the window at the darkness. Her feet grew cold, even though it was late June. She retrieved a blanket and pillow from the linen closet and moved to the couch. Mark had been dead for three months.

“How are you going to afford your mortgage if you don’t go back to work?” Therese was repeating out loud the question first asked by her boss, an abrasive defense attorney. In fact, on her salary alone she would not be able to pay the mortgage, but without a job she would not be able to even rent an apartment and would be forced to move back in with her parents.

After preschool the following afternoon, Adam, Mark’s father, was waiting on the sidewalk in front of Therese’s house in the shade, stooping beneath the branches of trees.

“Pop-pop’s here.” In the rearview mirror, Therese watched Alexei take his thumb out of his mouth. She had been his mother for only nine months. Prior to the adoption, he’d lived in a Russian orphanage.

“Pop-pop?” Alexei replaced his thumb.

“Yeah.” She got out of the car, opened the rear door, and unbuckled his car seat.

“Pop-pop! Pop-pop!” Alexei jumped out of the car, ran to Adam, and hugged him around the knees.

Adam’s face was Mark’s face, but thirty years older. Mark’s grin had been shifty. Adam’s smile was weighted with grief. Like Mark, Adam was tall and thin. His long arms wrapping around Therese’s shoulders felt as if Mark was reaching out from the land of the dead, which happened to smell like Pinaud Clubman aftershave.

“Miriam asked to see you,” said Adam. Miriam’s cancer had been making incremental progress for years. Chemo and radiation were no longer working. Mark died three months ago and his mother seemed determined to join him. His once-aloof father had begun to cling to Therese, often showing up, like today, unannounced.

“Okay, I’ll visit Miriam,” Therese said, whereupon Adam finally let go. “I’m going to make dinner.” She led the way inside the house.

“Pop-pop, play cars!” Alexei ran to a pile of matchbox cars on the living room rug. His orange shirt and blue shorts were the same colors of some of the vehicles.

Therese chopped onions in the kitchen. Typically she drank cold white wine while she cooked, but the habit seemed derelict with another adult in the vicinity. It was three-thirty in the afternoon. In the living room Alexei was singing, almost singing, while he played with his grandfather. Alexei’s hair was glossy and black. When content, he emitted a nonstop musical tale about whatever he was doing. At this moment his song concerned the cars on the rug, what they were like, what they could and could not do. In moments like these she derived her most intense pleasure from being a mother. She also enjoyed when Alexei looked at her directly, which happened only rarely. He seemed startled when he did, as if most of the time she belonged to his internal world.

She slid the knife under the chopped onions, transporting them to the olive oil in a pan on the stove. June wasn’t deep enough into summer to turn on the air conditioner; a small amount of perspiration didn’t bother her.

“So you’ll go see Miriam tomorrow?” Adam stood in the doorway to the kitchen, holding Alexei upside down by the ankles, Alexei red-faced, ecstatic, his hands scrabbling toward but not reaching the linoleum.

“Tomorrow I have an appointment.” Therese pushed the onions around the pan with a spoon. Neither Miriam’s terminal illness nor Mark’s death had changed the fact that her brain was rutted with resentment of her mother-in-law.

“Go the day after.” Adam lowered Alexei until Alexei walked his hands forward on the linoleum. “Don’t wait too long.”

When Adam let go of Alexei’s feet, Alexei continued across the kitchen floor on his hands and knees.

“Will you stay for dinner?” asked Therese. She pretended not to hear the undertones of her request-masked-as-invitation: neediness, loneliness, sexuality. A man and woman alone. Alexei meowed. Almost alone.

“I can’t,” said Adam. “Miriam’s nurse will be leaving soon for the evening.” He opened his arms for a good-bye hug. Therese, her head on Adam’s chest, began to sweat in earnest. She imagined Adam removing her clothes. Another fantasy was to punch and keep punching him. During his embrace, a few golden onions fell from her spatula onto the floor. Alexei crawled over, meowing, to eat them.

In the morning Therese took Alexei to preschool and then drove to the Lawnhurst Motel, a white two-storied building with external stairs and halls. Before entering the appointed room, she looked across Sunrise Highway to the trestle of the Long Island Rail Road. The day wasn’t hot yet, but as it wore on the heat would build.

Mark had taken the train on those tracks into the city every weekday morning. It took time to get from the village of Lawnhurst to Penn Station to Wall Street, or from Wall Street to Penn Station back to Lawnhurst. Most often the time was predictable, but sometimes the LIRR and all the roads and tunnels into and out of the city became more complicated than the typical rush hour.

When there was a train workers' strike.

When there was a heavy snowstorm.

When there was a hurricane.

When the towers were hit.

When there was a mechanical failure with the trains or the tracks.

When there was a blackout or brownout.

When there was a bomb threat.

“Therese?” Jude stood inside the room, holding the door open. He looked like he’d gained weight, maybe as much as twenty pounds. Had she knocked without realizing it? Everything in the room but the brown furniture and carpet was white and worn: the walls, the ceiling, the bedspread, the lampshades. Jude was neither as tall nor straightforwardly handsome as Mark had been, but he was wry, sensual. His lips were almost too big, his grey eyes too intelligent. He was Mark’s oldest friend. They had all known one another since high school. She hadn’t seen him since the funeral mass. He’d left before it was over; they hadn’t spoken until she’d called him a day ago and they’d made the plan to meet.

He pulled a pint of Jack Daniels from his blazer pocket and placed it on top of the television.

Therese went into the bathroom for two glasses, the tops covered in paper. She set the glasses next to the bottle and sat down next to Jude at the end of the bed, facing the mirror that hung over the low bureau.

In the mirror she examined Jude’s black T-shirt, his black blazer, his hair, greying at the temples and cut more severely than usual, as if to compensate for the extra pounds. Therese saw her curls beginning to frizz. Her knit dress clung to her breasts.

“We don’t have to come here anymore,” said Jude.

“It didn’t occur to me to meet you at my house,” said Therese. “But we could.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Jude’s palm slid down her spine.

The ancient air conditioner lodged in the window made a stuttering sound. Her anticipation felt muted, but the craving beneath it was as strong as ever. There had always been other men, but Jude was her original. Her affair with him ran alongside her marriage to Mark; now it would continue past it. She hadn’t had a sexual interaction of any kind, not in person, not by phone, not by e-mail, in the three months since Mark’s death. She stood up and turned to face Jude. He stood to remove her dress, her bra, her underwear, and sat back down at the end of the bed. She knelt in front of him, unzipped his pants. He was reliably hard, and she began to give him a desperately mechanical blow job.

“I can’t.” Jude pushed away, lay flat.

The lack of climax made the transaction feel worthless.

“I’m taking a shower,” said Therese, as if that could help.

“T,” said Jude when she emerged from the bathroom, one meager towel wrapped around her body and another around her hair, though her hair wasn’t wet; as she neared forty she found that if she washed it too often it grew brittle. Jude had moved both pillows to his side of the bed and tucked them behind his back. He was still fully clothed, his feet bare. He gestured toward the bureau, where one of the glasses was half-filled with amber liquor. The glass on his bedside table had been drained.

“Did you find us a movie?” asked Therese. They usually watched a black and white one before Jude took the train back into the city. He worked freelance and could come and go as he pleased, unlike Mark, who had gone in to work with numbing regularity.

“We’re not watching a movie!” Jude jumped off the bed, began to pace. “You’re acting like nothing has changed, Therese. How are you? How’s your little boy? We need to talk about Mark.”

Therese refilled Jude’s glass.

“Nothing has to change,” she said, knowing immediately how stupid and wishful she sounded.

“Mark was my best friend.”

“Everyone felt that way about Mark,” she snapped. It was true. Mark had had that effect on people; it’s what made him a good stockbroker, a good salesman. People trusted him. They felt Mark liked them. And they were right. Mark liked everyone but himself.

Jude was standing next to the bed with his hands on his hips. “We can’t keep doing this.” Jude indignant was completely unprecedented, borderline funny.

“Why? Because now I’m free and we could actually be together? Or are you punishing me for cheating on your friend?” Therese removed the towels from her hair and body. Jude finished his drink.

Did he see it too? No softness remained in the carpet they stood on, or in any aspect of the motel room; even the towels felt gritty. The place they had used on and off for almost twenty years was shabby and hard.

Sex had always been her attempt to feel more alive. Now she didn’t want to feel anything, but sex could fill that desire too.

“Please,” she said, sliding beneath the sheets, holding out her hand.

Jude squeezed her forearm. “You need this?” His voice hovered between benevolence and violence; he climbed on top of her, his extra weight pressing her down into the mattress. “This is what you need?” He tugged the sheet out from between them. He might think he was being rough, but they had been sleeping together for so long he was like another husband.

Later that afternoon Therese arrived home from preschool with Alexei to see her parents’ car parked in front of her house. Like Adam, her parents often dropped by unannounced to see if the widow was still intact. Unlike Adam, they did not wait out front. They’d kept the key she’d given them after Mark died, when for several days and nights they’d stayed with her. It felt ungrateful to ask them to return their key, but she could not help feeling invaded.

“Grandma and Grandpa are here.”

Alexei didn’t respond. He’d been quiet the entire way home.

Therese tried and failed to remember if he’d been silent the other afternoons she had spent with Jude, or another man who wasn’t Mark. She got out of the car, opened the back door, and unlatched the restraints on Alexei’s seat.

“Come on,” she prompted. “Let’s go.”

They walked up the steps to the house side by side. Alexei did not insist on opening the front door.

“We were wondering when you’d get here.” Therese’s mother, Alice, was sitting on the couch, the New Yorker on the cushion next to her.

Therese tried to remember if she’d brought the magazine into the living room. Had her mother been snooping around in her bedroom?

“Hello there.” Her father, Paul, was sitting in Mark’s chair, reading Newsday. Alexei walked over and stood at his knee while he pulled a roll of multicolored Life Savers from his pocket. Alexei peeled one off and put it in his mouth. “Let’s read the comics,” said Therese’s father, and Alexei crawled onto his lap.

“Doesn’t it make you crazy that your sister still doesn’t know about your husband?” asked her mother. “It’s unbelievable. It’s unacceptable. Lisa is doing nothing to help you.”

This was how they proceeded in her family: her mother waged war against the unfairness of life while her father remained close by, protecting no one but himself. A perpetual eye infection made the rim of his left lower lid red.

“Do you want coffee?” asked Therese.

“No thank you,” said her father.

“It’s too late in the day for coffee,” said her mother.

“I’ll make decaf,” said Therese.

Her mother sighed impatiently.

The retreat to the kitchen felt cowardly and smart. Therese looked out the window while the coffee brewed; the forsythia had been in bloom when Mark died. Its yellow flowers were gone, the branches covered with green leaves. The leaves were oval-shaped, the edges jagged. She brought two cups of decaf into the living room.

“Obviously I failed with Lisa,” said her mother. “But what did I do exactly? Is her life my fault?”

Therese’s father continued reading the comics out loud to Alexei, saying “Ha ha ha,” at each unfunny ending.

“Doesn’t Lisa know we were all hurt as children? When I was a girl, the nuns hit our knuckles with rulers. We were told we were stupid. We were told not to speak. We were told we smelled. We were told we were ugly.” Her mother sipped the decaf, making a face at the taste. Like many excellent attorneys, her technique was oblique and unrelenting.

Therese imagined an apt closing statement for her mother’s bottom-line argument: In conclusion, Your Honor, we have all suffered, so no one can be blamed.

“How was preschool, Alexei?” Therese’s father wore a half-smile that almost acknowledged changing the subject.

Alexei stuck out his tongue to display his thinning lifesaver.

“Don’t do that,” said Therese. “You had fun at school today, didn’t you? Tomorrow is his last day for the year; it’s a short day. He goes for just a couple of hours for the end of the year party. And that’s it.”

“Did you decide when you’re going back to work?” Her mother put her cup down on the coffee table. “You know we’ll take care of Alexei for you. But a little notice would help us plan.”

“I know,” said Therese. All the years of effort it had taken to become independent from her parents had become meaningless the moment Mark died. Boom: she needed them.

“Lisa hasn’t contacted you, has she?” asked her mother.

“She has not.” Therese knew this visit was basically another errand on her mother’s list of things to do, like buying bread and returning library books. They all knew Lisa wasn’t truly missing. Her time at the arts center in Vermont, where she’d gone to write a new play, had indeed ended and she hadn’t yet returned to New York. True, the emails they’d sent to her had bounced back, and her cell phone had been disconnected. It was irritating and worrisome and, yes, the timing sucked, but it was not without precedent. Lisa had a history of secluding herself in order to write, as well as a history of drinking, and also a history of things never going as well as she wanted them to go. How could they? Lisa lived in what Therese thought of as La-La-Land. Lisa wanted total freedom. She wanted a man to love her for her quote unquote true self. She wanted artistic and financial fulfillment. It was more than wanted. Lisa felt she deserved these things. These things were her due.

“Lisa isn’t thinking about anyone but herself.” Her mother stood up.

“Ma, it takes time to write a play.” It felt very sister-like defending Lisa, even though Therese had been thinking essentially the same thing.

“Lisa could write in the city. She has her own apartment. She doesn’t have a real job. She doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t even have a boyfriend.”

“She’s going to feel bad enough when she finally comes home or gets in touch, and finds out what happened,” said Therese. At least Lisa wasn’t trying to fuck herself into existence, or obliterate herself that way. Lisa was trying to write herself into being, which seemed more constructive, more confident, at least less slutty. “You don’t need to rub it in.”

“I’m not rubbing it in.”

Therese knew that what galled their mother most was someone in the family missing out on family pain when the rest of them were forced to endure it.

“Your father and I just came by to see how you and Alexei were doing. And to see if you were any closer to making a decision about going back to work.”

“Did I tell you?” asked Therese. “Miriam isn’t well. There’s a hospice nurse.” This was the smartest way to respond to her mother: to answer pain with pain. Though her mother frowned, Therese could see that this news about Miriam had a soothing effect.

“Oh dear,” said her mother. “That is sad. Well, we’ve got to run.”

Her father lifted Alexei from his lap and placed the newspaper on the coffee table. Therese opened the front door. Outside, a robin trilled in one of the trees.

“Summer is here,” said her mother. “I hope it doesn’t get too hot.” She picked up the New Yorker from the couch. “Are you finished with this? There’s a calendar in there. If you don’t need us to watch Alexei, your father and I are planning to go a museum in the city one day next week.”

“Take it,” said Therese. Neither words nor art would be her salvation. Religion was obviously out. Her power was grounded in the physical: hair, breasts, hipbones, stomach, butt, pussy, thighs. Unfortunately, in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door in the motel she had seen her knees growing ugly, her body beginning its betrayal.

“Maybe you and Alexei can come with us,” said her father, kissing Alexei.

“Probably not.” Her mother waved the magazine rolled in her fist. “Therese and Alexei are usually busy.”

“Alexei, say good-bye to Grandma Alice and Grandpa Paul,” said Therese. She didn’t want to go into the city to look at art with her parents. Nonetheless, the non-invitation stung. Though she locked the door behind them, her parents still had their key.

Alexei’s preschool was demarcated into a variety of spaces: sand and water tables, a pillowed reading nook, a cardboard block area, shelves of puzzles and magnets, a dress-up box, a kitchen, which also included dolls and cribs, and the snack table, where the three-to-four-year-olds were taught to smear cream cheese across bagels all by themselves using mini knives. Life was really like that, people moving from one place and activity to another, utilizing specialized tools and materials.

The preschoolers, however, thought Therese, bending down to give Alexei a kiss good-bye at the door, had an advantage. When one of them had a meltdown, which often occurred despite the age-appropriate toys and activities, the teacher would sit cross-legged on the floor, the distraught child in her lap, and rock and pat the child’s back until he or she was ready to rejoin the group. Grown-ups had to learn to self-soothe.

Therese drove to Mark’s parents’ house. On the way, she replayed one of many conversations she had had with Mark about his mother before they were married. In this particular conversation, Mark had told her that Miriam was upset because Therese wouldn’t convert to Judaism.

“Is she out of her mind?” Therese remembered yelling. She and Mark had been sitting in a booth at a diner, sharing a plate of onion rings. “I quit being Catholic! Why would I become Jewish? I don’t believe in any of that shit!”

“You don’t have to go crazy,” said Mark. “What I do is ignore her.” He bit into an onion ring. Part of the onion slithered out and landed in the puddle of ketchup on the plate. He fished the onion out and placed it into Therese’s mouth. “You take your mother and my mother way too seriously. My suggestion is, don’t.”

At the time, Therese did not know why she had found this advice so annoying, but now that her body was beginning to show signs of age, she knew: one day, she too would become an unattractive old woman everyone alternately resented and ignored.

She parked behind the landscaping truck in front of Miriam and Adam’s house. Mark had grown up in the old neighborhood in Lawnhurst, but as his parents grew richer they’d moved to a larger house in a wealthier section of town. Two stocky men were blowing grass clippings from the sidewalk. Adam’s car was not in the driveway. Therese knocked, rang the bell, waited, removed the key from under the mat, and unlocked the door.

“Miriam?” she called softly. “Hello?” She couldn’t remember the name of the hospice nurse. “It’s Therese.”

There was no answer. Perhaps the nurse was in the bathroom or on the phone. Perhaps it had been a difficult night and everyone was sleeping.

The front door opened directly into the living room. The objects here were not neutral. The television in the corner, the heavy drapes blocking the daylight, the couch where Therese had sat watching MTV with Mark when they had been in high school, her hands burrowing under his sweatshirt and jeans on the occasions when no one else was home.

Therese walked through the kitchen to get to Miriam’s hospital bed in a back room. The vibration of the old refrigerator filled the room with sound. The kitchen table, normally covered by various boxes of crackers, browning bananas, and cans of Ensure, was shiny and bare. Therese listened for the sound of a toilet flushing, for clothes being loaded into the washer in the basement, for pills being counted and sorted into a sectional container, but heard nothing.

She fully expected Miriam’s room to be empty, the IV pole bare, the hospital bed stripped, the blankets folded and stacked on a chair. It made sense. The hospice nurse and Adam weren’t here. She was too late; Miriam was gone.

No, Miriam was in bed, hooked to an IV drip. Bottles of medicine cluttered her bedside table. She opened her eyes.

Therese sat down in the chair next to the bed, surprised to feel a rush of relief. “No one answered the door, so I used the spare key.”

“My nurse got a call,” said Miriam, her voice rough. “Her kid threw up at school. Too many cupcakes. Adam had to go somewhere. I don’t remember.”

“Alexei is having a party at school today too.” The leather purse Therese held on her lap had the weight and warmth of a baby, and she dreamed for a moment she was holding baby Alexei, which was impossible; he’d spent his first four years in Saint Petersburg. “How are you, Miriam?”

Miriam didn’t respond. She had never been interested in social niceties; it was one of the qualities they shared.

“I should have invited a rabbi to Mark’s wake,” said Therese. “I know you wanted me to.”

“It wouldn’t have killed you.”

“You’re right,” said Therese. At the wake Therese had stared at the light shining through Miriam’s white hair, but instead of compassion or sympathy, her heart was sealed in hate. “I’m sorry.”

“Now we’re going to get along?”

“Adam told me you wanted to see me.”

“My question is, why are people so boring? They all do the same dumb things. These high school kids who cut themselves. Who started that? One stupid kid with a knife and now they all do it. Or the girls who don’t eat.”

Usually Miriam was so tight-lipped. High on medication, she reminded Therese of Mark when he was stoned, or Lisa when she was drunk, when things trapped inside began leaping or dribbling out.

“You carried on with other men,” said Miriam. “Mark had his drugs.”

Do you want to know which came first? Therese thought, but didn’t say.

“You thought I hated you,” said Miriam. “You weren’t good for Mark. You didn’t help him. Being with you made him worse.”

Is this really necessary? Therese wanted to ask, but she knew it was.

“You have a boy now,” said Miriam. “Wait. This will happen to you. I’m dying. I’m joining my son. You won’t be there, but I don’t feel good about it.” Miriam shut her eyes and waved her pale hand as if to say, I’m done, now get out of here.

“God, Miriam,” said Therese. She told herself to stand up and go, but instead she sat in the chair next to Miriam’s bed and listened to her breathing until the hospice nurse returned.

When Therese woke to the sound of Alexei’s voice the next morning, she remembered preschool was over for the year. Later she would call her boss to discuss the details of returning to work, and then she would call her mother to ask about taking care of Alexei.

Alexei was in his room talking to his toys. Therese had arranged his bed so that when he wasn’t asleep he could look out the window, but on the occasions when she watched him from the doorway she usually saw him curled toward the wall, talking to the toy in his hand, a metal car, or wooden animal.

As she listened to Alexei’s voice, she heard something she knew she no longer had, nor could she pinpoint when she’d lost it. At some point Alexei would become aware of being hungry or thirsty, and this would break him out of his contentment, his engagement with his toy and his story-song, and make him get out of bed. He was young enough to believe that in this house food could only be obtained through her, though soon he would learn to go into the kitchen and find a bowl and spoon, the box of cereal. Soon he would be strong enough to pull open the refrigerator door and lift the milk.

She could hear him get out of bed and walk from his bedroom to hers. The house contained them. The walls and floors and ceilings gave them a place to be.

“Mom.” He stood leaning against her bed.

She had heard of other children running to their parents’ beds and jumping in, whether their parents were awake or welcoming, but Alexei never jumped.

“Come here.” She lifted the blanket.

Alexei stretched out next to her, his feet reaching just past her knees. He smelled like strawberry jam. One night Mark had brought home a bag of plastic men attached with string to flimsy plastic parachutes. One by one they’d been knotted or lost. Alexei clasped the only one left. He held the man above their heads until he could no longer stand it, until with a shriek he let him go.

This is an excerpt of Mary Rechner's work-in-progress, "Marrying Friends."