According to Daniel this dumb town was built in 1894 with the hopes of “keeping out the riffraff.” But all that means to me is that there are no streetlights and so sometimes I get lost on my way to the library.
“I think you’re going the wrong way,” Ethan says from the seat behind me.
“You’re a regular Christopher Columbus back there,” I say.
“I just mean,” he says, “that you passed the duck house and you usually turn there but you didn’t and I think the library’s the other way.”
“Would you like to drive instead, Magellan?” I ask.
“Sorry,” he says. He’s beginning to get a little bit of an adolescent edge to his voice lately and it makes me nervous. I turn around and make a face at him.
“Learn to take a joke,” I say, and he smiles.
We love the duck house because it has six ceramic ducks in front, one big and five little, and the owners change the outfits regularly so sometimes the ducks are wearing sweaters and sometimes it’s bathing suits or Santa hats or scarves. We both agree that it seems sad and ominous that the ducks appear to hail from a single-parent household but Ethan has proposed that maybe the father duck just works a lot and that’s why he’s never there when we drive past. I am skeptical of this and point out that having a single parent wouldn’t be such a bad thing, that not everyone has four parents like he does. I think the big duck at the duck house is a mom duck and I don’t think it’s a mistake that she’s alone.
* * *
Sometimes Ethan laughs so hard that he cries and sometimes I do too but usually because I’m laughing at his laugh; he has this great, scary laugh like a wind-up toy and when he really gets going we’re both goners and it’s the best feeling in the world.
Daniel is a clap-laugher, which is something I noticed when we met but chose to ignore. Now sometimes when I see him at parties, giving someone a big guffaw while he smacks his palms together, I hate it; I think that if you have to clap while you’re laughing to show someone you really mean it, you’re probably trying too hard.
If you ask me now I will say that being with Daniel is settling but I swear it didn’t feel like it at the time.
* * *
Daniel and I married when Ethan was three, young enough so that he doesn’t remember a life without me. On the weekends I snuggle with him in his bed even though he’s getting a little too old for it. He calls me Mommy in this kind of formal voice, because his real mother is either Mom or Mama.
“I came for the husband,” I say one night when I’m having drinks with my friend Margo. “But I’m staying for the stepson.”
“Put that on a t-shirt and smoke it,” Margo says, and we both laugh. “It’s nice to just be out,” she says, draining her third margarita. “When can we do this again?”
I tend to measure my weeks based on the proximity of the weekend, the proximity of Ethan’s visits; Tuesday afternoon is three days from Friday afternoon; if Daniel and I have sex on a Wednesday I can typically avoid him until the following Monday because we’ve agreed that we don’t want Ethan walking in on us; Thursday nights I go grocery shopping because Ethan eats large quantities of very specific brands of cereal; Fridays I scour the Internet for ideas of things we can do when he’s here, petting zoo days and DIY dreamcatchers and kid-friendly recipes for cookies and tacos.
“The next few weeks are a little crazy,” I say, and Margo just looks at me sadly; she doesn’t say Give it to me straight or This is not a life you’re living, Amy. Because of this I buy her a fourth margarita and ask about her grandchildren; it is because of this that she is my friend.
* * *
Next month we have three full weeks without Ethan because he’s going to Costa Rica with his mother and his stepdad and his baby sister Sara and their trip overlaps with two of our weekends.
“Who’s ever heard of a baby in Costa Rica,” I say. Sara is fourteen months and looks nothing like Ethan because her father is Korean.
“She’s just dicking us around,” Daniel says. We’re eating dinner on the back porch and I’ve poured us both glasses of wine the size of our faces. “If we ever tried to take him on a trip for three weeks she’d call the National Guard.”
He’s right about this; the longest vacation we’ve ever taken with Ethan was a long weekend in Milwaukee for one of Daniel’s alumni circuses. But I refuse to take his side on this both because I want Ethan to travel somewhere fun and exotic and because I like Daniel’s ex more than I’m allowed to admit. For the longest time I could never imagine how and why it was that Daniel left her; in the beginning it never occurred to me that it could have been the other way around; it took me two full years to realize that Carrie left Daniel because that’s how long it took me to notice that Daniel isn’t, strictly speaking, that much of a catch, that he works too much and says huge like uge and that he has the capacity to be really mean when he wants to be.
I’m glad Carrie has a rich Korean husband and an adorable new baby. I’m glad that she and Ethan get to go on a jungle adventure. I’m glad about all of these things even though I don’t know what I’m going to do with two whole weekends to myself.
“Bring me back something cool,” I say to Ethan as I’m tucking him into bed, and he promises that he will.
* * *
“You can’t do that,” Daniel says, because he caught me adding a few little flourishes to Ethan’s diorama of our neighborhood that I helped him make for his Where Am I? unit in social studies. I’ve made him a tiny version of the duck family so he’ll be surprised when he wakes up and also because I wanted an excuse to mess with some of the new modeling clay we got in at the store.
“I felt like doing an art project,” I say. “Sue me.”
“You’re almost forty, Amy; Jesus Christ.”
“I’m thirty-seven,” I say, because there’s a big difference.
“You’re a child,” Daniel tells me, and I pretend to be wounded so he’ll stop talking. He comes over behind me and pats me awkwardly on the head.
* * *
I pick up Ethan after school on the last Friday before his vacation and I’m a little early so I stand in the hall outside and look at the artwork from their unit on recycling and the environment. There are amateur crayon drawings accompanied by chilling sentences about the demise of Western civilization and one from a kid who didn’t understand the assignment.
The garbage is going into a lake.
The seasons are fighting.
This hamster is looking at the sun.
I’m traveling to Florida.
Kids are so fucking weird and terrifying and I love them for it. I scan around for Ethan’s and find it towards the bottom, a picture of a very small person with giant frightened eyes, leaning back before shaky pencil arcs of red and orange and yellow, a clean line of blue drawn with a marker.
The rainbow is falling on this human.
“What did you mean by that, buddy?” I ask him when he comes out of his classroom, and I kind of want him to give me a big lofty explanation, Well actually, Mommy, since you asked, it’s an artistic rendition of the crushing psychological unrest I feel as a child of both divorce and an apathetic Neanderthal father, but he just shrugs, looks at it as though he’s never seen it before.
“Oh I forgot about those. I don’t know. It’s about global warning.”
“Warming,” I correct him, and he turns sideways to hug me before we start walking to the car. I ruffle his hair and stoop to kiss the crown of his head but I feel something squishy against my leg through his raincoat. “Ugh, what is that?” Once he had diarrhea during recess and when I came to pick him up one of the sadistic classroom aides had shoved a Jewel bag of his soiled clothing into his backpack without telling me. I pull away from him and pat at his pockets, suspicious.
“Oh!” he says. “I have bananas in my pocket.” I frown at him. “I forgot to take them out,” he says, and sure enough I reach into his coat and find a ziplock full of squashed banana slices, a forgotten part of lunch from his mom.
I pitch the bag into the trash on our way out the door, throwing his plastic bag into a garbage bin whose contents will eventually find their way to a lake, according to his cynical classmate.
“Do you know what a non sequitur is?” I ask him.
* * *
“When you see me in your mailbox cut the string and let me out,” Ethan shouts, and it makes me laugh even though the song is essentially about a hostage who is kept in a box and force-fed retro foods.
“Fill me up with ice cream soda!” I accompany him on all of the creepiest lines while I make dinner and he pretends to help. We are making Thai because it’s both of our favorites; Daniel is generally indifferent. When he gets home neither of us hears because we’re singing so loud and when I finally notice him in the doorway I’m so disappointed I can hardly stand it. On the weekends I make these elaborate dinners because Ethan’s here but during the week when it’s just me and Daniel I typically beg off and say I ate a late lunch because I hate sitting at the table alone with him.
“You’re wasting away here,” he says to me, because I’m supposed to have at least two babies by now; I’m supposed to have planted a vegetable garden; I’m supposed to have a ridiculous job title with an even more ridiculous acronym like Corporate Operations Director, which was his, the last time I checked. My husband the cod.
* * *
I work at a luxury office goods store in town in part because it allows me early access to all the best art supplies, calligraphy markers and dust-fine glitter and breathtakingly intricate stencils that Ethan and I use on the weekends to make murals on big torn sheets of butcher paper. I think it must embarrass Daniel even though I like it and I’ve become kind of a fixture there, even though customers recognize me in the grocery and always seem happy to see me, even though my boss is fun-loving Grandma Margo of Margarita Mondays.
“You have a master’s degree,” he says to me, watching me with appraisal while I do receipts at the kitchen table.
I hate my master’s degree, the $65,000 piece of cardstock that deems me a competent scholar of Business Administration even though I repeatedly failed Econ and had to get Daniel to do my homework for me. If youd’ve asked me about getting a master’s degree in anything I would have said I wanted one at least in something fun like art history or world cinema. But no one asked me. Daniel said it was practical. He convinced me to go back to school after we got married so I wouldn’t get bored out in the suburbs, in our suburb with the duck house and the winding roads and the arcane parking ordinances and the place called Ye Olde Caramel Shoppe, a name that drives me crazy and that Daniel calls “quaint” because he grew up here and he’s protective of its elitism and its stubborn linguistic fallacy. I keep my master’s degree folded in half between the pages of Pippi Longstocking, which Ethan and I are going to read when he turns eight if I can last that long.
“Do you know how many places want that?”
“They can have it,” I say.
“I mean people with graduate degrees,” he says as though I’m a toddler.
“Watch your mouth,” I say. It’s what my mother used to say to me when I said Jesus Christ and it’s what I said to Ethan last week when he called his mentally unstable classmate Austin Terrio an asshat.
“Don’t you want something more, Amy?” he asks. “What do you even do all the time? What are you even doing?”
I recognize this as a segue into a discussion of job applications or fertility clinics or volunteer opportunities so I pretend to accidentally staple my hand and run off to the bathroom to tend to my imaginary wound.
* * *
“How old are you?” Ethan asked me when he was four and I said, “Thirty-four” and he asked “So when were you a baby?” and I said “Thirty-four years ago” and first he looked impressed and then he laughed.
Now I’m 37 and it really doesn’t feel so bad except when you compare it to being seven like Ethan; that’s where it starts to ache a little bit because isn’t it kind of weird to be so much older than your best friend?
* * *
I’ve miscarried three times since marrying Daniel, or possibly four as of last month, which isn’t something I love to talk about but Daniel wants to talk about it all the time; even when he’s not talking about it he’s talking about it so I’ve started to tune him out even when he’s just telling me about the water heater or his trip to the dentist. I assumed I would want more than Ethan but I’m starting to feel like he’s enough; Margo tells me I’m lucky to have gotten such a great kid as a stepson and I agree; it’s awful to say but when you stack Ethan against that gory row of almost-babies he wins every time; he’s one of those kids with big pool-blue eyes and a perfect haircut like a Playskool person and when you line that up next to those alarming unviable cell formations, tiny half-babies like museum models of just-hatched dinosaurs, it’s not any kind of contest at all.
“Someday you’re going to feel better,” Daniel says to me in bed, his breath hot on the back of my neck under my ponytail. “I don’t want that to happen and have you regret anything.”
“What does that mean?” I ask, even though I know. It means he wants to keep trying. It means that Ethan’s not enough for him. It means he’s wondering why he married me in the first place, which is a thing I am also wondering, but instead of talking about it I just let him kiss me for a while and then I pretend to fall asleep.
* * *
When he was five, Ethan asked me to be his Valentine.
“I’m marrying my mom,” he said, and I raised my eyebrows and nodded. “But she says I can give you this.” He’d created a giant purple heart and covered it in glue and glitter, wet and heavy as a diaper, and I took it gingerly and set it on the kitchen windowsill to dry.
“Would you?” he asked, nervous, and I wiped my glitter hands on a towel and swooped him into my arms and spun him around a few times.
“In a heartbeat,” I said.
* * *
“What are you going to call me when it starts being weird to call me Mommy?” I ask him. He’s leaving for Costa Rica in three days and I don’t want him to fall asleep yet. He screws up his face in thought and I pat idly at his hair, the hair he got from my husband, his dad, glossy and dark.
He looks concerned. I kiss his forehead.
“Forget it,” I say. “Call me whatever you want, kid.”
“What’s your actual name?” he asks, and I laugh.
“You don’t know?”
“And Mama’s Carrie.”
I envision him learning these things through the hundreds of hours of fights his parents have had. I don’t know how I could be any more clear than I’m being, Carrie. Ethan sleeping upstairs, before he knew me. Daniel, you sanctimonious fuck.
He’s been calling me Mommy for so long that he doesn’t remember. This also means, I realize, sitting there in his bed in my house, that Daniel must not address me very often. This is either a sign of intimacy or of the opposite.
“Guess,” I say. He leans into me a little.
“Umm. Dorothy,” he says.
“I’m not a thousand years old,” I say.
“Cheryl,” he says.
“That’s your teacher’s name.”
“You really don’t know?”
He frowns, hugs Armand the Armadillo. He opens his mouth and stops, then nods a little to himself. “Emily,” he says.
“That,” I say, “was the name of your hamster.”
“I’ve never felt so betrayed,” I say, acting, embellishing, throwing out my free arm. “I’ve never felt more insulted in my entire history of living. If, after all these years, you can only associate me with a hamster, you ingrate, then I hardly know what to say.”
He goes still and quiet under my arm and I crane around to look at him. I have to be careful with this because I forget sometimes that he still doesn’t understand most jokes. His eyes are big and sad and he’s doing the thing with his mouth that Daniel does, the whitish pinched thing that means he’s trying not to emote.
“Hey,” I say. I squeeze him with my arm and tilt my head to rest against his. “Hey listen.” I lean to kiss Armand’s patterned back. “Mommy’s fine, silly.” I feel him relax. “My legal name is actually Mommy, as it were.” He smiles a little. “I got made fun of a lot when I was your age,” I say. “Can you even imagine? Mommy McGillicuddy, they called me on the playground.” He understands, on a basic level, that this is a joke, and he smiles. I flop back next to him, staring at the stars we painted on his ceiling.
“Call me Mommy until we’re both a hundred and seventy-five,” I say.
“Okay. Then what?”
I sigh and pull my knees to my chest.
“Then you can call me Amy.”
* * *
When he was six Ethan made a family tree with a drawing of me and Daniel and Scott his stepdad and Carrie and an arrow pointing to Carrie’s belly because Sara wasn’t born yet and Carrie and I both liked it so much that she made me a color copy and I hung it in a frame halfway up the stairs so you can’t miss it if you’re going up or down. If you ever go past it I’m the stick person on the far left wearing a red sweater.
* * *
Our three weeks without Ethan do not go specifically well and when he comes back and brings me a macramé friendship bracelet I hug him so hard that he squeaks a little bit.
“Tell me everything,” I say to him, and he does while we’re sitting at the kitchen table and he’s eating the peanut butter apples I made for him.
“How was your weeks?” he asks when he’s finished, and because I can’t tell him about the fight I had with his father, about how all I did in the evenings was drink too many drinks with Margo or alone, about how I tried to make a painting as a creative outlet and it ended up looking like something an incapacitated convict might make in an art therapy class, about how it’s been decided that if he gets another little brother or sister it’s definitely not coming from me, I just say “Fine.” Because I can’t tell him that when Daniel came to hug me I threw a bottle of wood glue at him and he took my wrists and said “You need help, Amy,” and I’m pretty sure that this morning he called this old friend of his who’s a shrink so I can’t stay here anymore; I’ve packed a bag and it’s waiting in the car and I smile at Ethan and say “Fine” again and then I suggest we go for a drive and we start snaking around town past all our favorite spots.
I can’t take him to Costa Rica but maybe the two of us can just get lost somewhere for awhile; maybe we can go somewhere until just before Carrie starts to panic and just after Daniel finally notices we’re gone and maybe during that time I’ll figure out how to say goodbye, how to tell my husband that he’s right, that I’m wasting away, that the only thing I’m good at anymore is being Ethan’s stepmom and that kids get wonky when they’re the complete center of someone’s universe, that I don’t want to screw him up because he’s my favorite person I’ve ever met.
Ethan starts singing in the backseat, starts humming what sounds like Weezer, and I turn to him, trying to smile but I’m too distracted; we’re going somewhere; we’re on a mission.
“Buddy,” I say. “Not now.”
“Where are we going, anyway?” he asks.
“Would it scare you if I said I didn’t know?”
He’s quiet for so long that I turn to look at him. He doesn’t look scared, though, just curious.
“I’m not sure,” he says.
I turn on the radio and drive, turn and turn and turn at the corners, right, right, left, a U-ie by the duck house, ignoring the signs, trying hard to get us lost.