It happens. A close relative dies. One who lives elsewhere. And then some time has to be set aside, even if no such thing is possible. Because of work, because of a lack of funds when it comes to traveling. And also because of one’s own dear family at home, a husband and two daughters, who need to be fed and petted and listened to and sympathized with and tolerated. Even just ignoring them or quietly loathing them takes its toll.
In this case the family member was my sister, Sarah. She was in for a routine surgery. And you have to wonder what surgery is ever “routine.” As you live your life, you will, on occasion, be cut open and explored. It is what life is, part of the routine. Perhaps we should not be surprised. A knife will slice you open and some wunderkind wearing gloves will reach into the wound, with corrective fingers, one expects, and grope around. This is what killed my sister. The wunderkind reached too deep, reached the wrong way, the body crashed, and everyone wore black.
My husband bought me flowers. The kids cried, although they hardly knew her. My own reaction was delayed—to this day, really. It may never come, at least not in my lifetime, which doesn’t mean I didn’t love the hell out of her. I was her sister and she was mine, always—or so we had said long ago. We’d sort of stopped saying it. We had our own lives to pound away at and flatten. In some small way I was stirred to action. I had just been so bored, and now someone had died and I was needed and maybe we’d all be knocked out of our habits into a better world.
I flew out to the so-called mountains where Sarah and her husband lived with their children. Two little boys who spent their lives in toy helmets, as far as I could tell. They were not allowed to wear them to bed, but this turned out to be a struggle, a bit of a battleground, and some nights, with a mother newly dead, they won this war with their father and went to bed all suited up, ready to survive a nighttime clobbering. They had a game they played, and it involved sticks—store-bought sticks with lights and triggers on them. The helmets kept their heads safe. Without them they’d have killed each other. When I was near them I almost felt like I should be wearing one myself. I’d met my nephews before, of course, but they seemed to regard me as an animal they could not ride. What was an aunt even for? What did I mean to them? I supplied presents that suffered too much from an educational vibe, and no goodies, and my fun factor was decidedly low. Where had my fun factor gone? Had I ever had one? Their world must have been filled with people like me: curious beasts lacking in magic, unable to entertain them. Could we be eaten? Could we be killed for pleasure? It seemed they had yet to decide.
I didn’t have boys myself, and I’d like to think that my profound indifference to them influenced the moment of conception of each of my two girls. It is not that boys are filthy, or brutish, or dumb and unoriginal. One might say that of anyone, of any age, of any gender. It is, as they say, a routine assessment of the human being. It’s just that little boys always seemed terribly expendable, a product of nature that was meant to exist in excess, so it could be endlessly culled by other forces. Boys themselves seem to know this. The so-called death wish is apparent in their behavior, which is often entertaining, but only from a distance. Some creatures have a low survival rate, and so the world produces far too many of them, and as they fight among each other to live they grow more savage, more base, more dull, and the winners, the survivors, are distinctly unappealing little beings. Which isn’t to say that some of them don’t turn out lovely, with smooth, unknowable bodies, and voices of debilitating power, and a kind of broad apathy to remote suffering that allows great historical changes to take place.
The first night, I sat with my sister’s husband. He’d always been a mystery to me, but perhaps no more so than anyone else. He used his moods as weapons, and you kept your distance. I don’t mean that he was angry or aggressive or mean. It was the opposite. He had an alarming level of good cheer, a machine-honed smile, and whenever you saw him you felt overwhelmed by it, rebuked that someone in the world could be so profoundly happy. He wanted to hug and hold you and beam at you. He wanted to shout with joy, even, which was always alarming. What did it say about the rest of us, who moped and shuffled and mumbled and were always on the verge of quiet tears, or had spent so long shielding our emotions from view that the emotions themselves had finally been snuffed out and could not be detected, even by the proprietors themselves? It was like he, Drew, was running for office, even though the government had shut down and no one was voting and very likely the entire world had gone cold and dark. His was a solitary campaign and there was no one to notice how insanely happy he was.
He was not so happy that first night. We drank wine and talked. I learned a great deal about his relationship with Sarah. She was the sweetest. She was the best. She took care of everything. She never complained. But sometimes she could be very quiet, Drew said. Days without noise as if she’d lost her voice. Was that so bad? I wondered. I mean, we don’t always need to disrupt the room’s tone, just because we can. Speech is so overused. The language will grow meaningless if we abuse it. Let’s leave words alone so they won’t erode. Maybe it’s already too late.
“You’re not quiet,” he said. “You never had that problem.”
Drew looked at me long and steady. This was the most we’d ever talked to each other since he started dating Sarah. We poured more wine. One of the boys came down, rubbing his eyes. He stood next to me and grabbed my arm, tugged at it, his thumb in his mouth perhaps to keep himself from shouting obscenities. I resisted, without wanting to provoke him, but I wasn’t prepared to be dragged out of my chair by this young beast, so I held my ground. Drew laughed, in his hearty, amplified way. A widower for five days and he sure had his chuckle back. How many people would have to die for him to stop laughing? “I think you have a friend,” he said.
Not that I know of, I thought.
“I think he wants you to go tuck him in.”
The boy looked up at me, wondering, perhaps, just what kind of toy I was. Could I be kicked from the window and would I still love him? I didn’t know the answer myself.
“Tuck you in? Well that I can do,” I said, and I took careful note of the level of wine still left in the bottle. I wasn’t sure how deep Drew’s stores were, and something in me wanted to fight for my share. I’d flown all the way out here and I wasn’t about to let him hog all the intoxicants while I played mommy to his kid, for Christ’s sake.
Over the next few days I helped Drew with the basics. I got the boys up in the morning, rolled them into their clothing, fed them clots of sugar that passed for cereal in their home, and ran with them to the school bus stop so I wouldn’t be stuck with them all day. Drew went to work. An office somewhere, with other people, presumably, and conveyor belts conveying crisp bricks of cash right into the mouths of his bosses. Some of this money must have come out the other end, and been gifted in a satchel back to Drew, because they—well, just him and the boys now—did okay. Nice house and two new-ish cars and furniture that didn’t look like it also served as a face towel for the young. It was a fine setup all around. They were sure doing better than we were.
I told my husband it would be just a few days. I mean I left that message on his voice mail. He quickly texted back a thumbs-up. It was good to be in touch with him. We were just that close. To the girls I texted that I missed them, I really did, and that it was so sad, sad and hard, but Uncle Drew needed me right now and the boys, the boys. Oh my god you couldn’t even imagine. The girls instantly fed all the right emojis back at me, covering all the possible ways that someone might feel about this.
When Drew came home we cooked dinner, at least for the first few days. The boys ate something Drew kept calling “cantebole.” An Italian dish, I thought at first, and I was impressed. This is how they do it in the mountains. Were the boys ready for their cantebole, Drew would ask them. Did they want a big portion of cantebole tonight, or a small one; warm, or piping hot? It turned out that cantebole simply meant, literally, “can to bowl.” Food that could be dumped, often in one gelatinous cylinder, from a can right into a bowl. Drew had made up the phrase himself, and he seemed proud. I suppose that not all of us can claim an original contribution to the language. Cantebole looked like little pillows swimming in fake blood, and the blood bubbled and spattered when it came out of the microwave. I’m sure it wasn’t repulsive, and sometimes I longed for a meal that simple. The boys would take their bowls over to the living room, where they sat on pillows and ate by themselves, wearing big, jug-like headphones over their helmets, watching their iPads, trying to spoon their food through their face masks.
“If you spill it, what?” Drew yelled at them during our first dinner together, maybe on my behalf, to show me how tough he was, how he hadn’t forgotten his obligations as a parent.
When the boys didn’t answer he yelled again. “What happens if you make a spill?”
“You’ll clean it up,” one of the boys said, and the two of them burst out laughing.
“Ha ha,” said Drew. “I’m over here dying. You just killed me. Ha ha.”
I thought that perhaps he should not joke about dying just after their mother, and then there was the issue of his soft, guilt-based parenting style. The permissiveness followed by the false threats. But I cast no stones. Too tiring, first of all. And anyway, sometimes the window is already broken, it’s been broken for a long time, so why would you cast a stone into an empty, ruined house? Save your stones for a better target. One that’s still standing.
Drew liked to drink at night, and he liked to tell stories. One out of two, I guess. I’d survive. I found that his stories required little of me except for a crazed grin now and then. If you occasionally express disbelief and admiration to people, just through your face, you won’t be quizzed on what they are saying and they will gurgle on, engraving their message in the evening air all night long. If only it were a little simpler, though, and you could just flick a lighter and hold it up every now and then to keep the sounds coming.
I took over the kids’ bedtime. Drew felt that he sometimes couldn’t face the boys, didn’t know what to say. Sarah had done a lot of this, and when he stepped in, it made him think of her, and he got sad. He’d lose track of what he was doing and the boys would notice and then they would get sad, too. I didn’t really mind doing it. I needed a project, and it was like being a custodian for two hyper, slightly forlorn animals who’d forgotten precisely how to behave in the wild. I got the little guys on a tight schedule, and they knew not to try the helmet business with me, because I made up a story involving sleep and floods and helmets and drowning and lots and lots of dead people, and this seemed to momentarily convince them to keep their heads uncovered at night—strictly to survive. When the boys were brushed and bundled into their pajamas, their hair still wet from the bath, I tucked them in and dove in between them on their big, shared bed.
“I ate a horse’s face once,” the littler boy said one night.
“Oh? Did the horse cry, or was it already dead?”
“That’s not what you’re supposed to say. You’re supposed to say gross! Ew!”
“Well, in some cultures, the horse’s face is like candy. It’s a rare treat.”
“What’s a culture?”
“It’s a group of people who are stuck with each other.”
“Like a family?”
“Yes, but bigger. Without a house. Spread all over the place.”
“Is there a dad and mom?”
I snuffed out the conversation with some tickling. The two of them were ridiculously easy prey. I could gesture at them, a snatching motion with my hand, not even touching them, and they would weep with laughter, protecting their soft spots, which was pretty much every part of them. The tickling was foreshadowed, and I almost didn’t even need to be in the room. I could hold up a single finger and they trembled. They were mine. I owned them. As I was doing it, triggering the most helpless giggles from these two little guys, I couldn’t help thinking how much I’d love to be able to end an adult conversation this way. Just when things got fraught or tense or dull I’d slide my hand along an inner thigh or into an armpit, and poke into the sweetness to see what sort of explosive verbal helplessness came back. Except of course adults aren’t ticklish. Profoundly not. Parts of their bodies have died, the whole interior—a kind of early death of the nerves. Immune to sensation to a large degree. Dead person walking, et cetera. Being tickled, once you’re older, is simply like being dug at, as if your flesh was soft and would give way, as if it could be spooned out of you with a long finger.
We got into a little bit of a routine after the kids went to sleep. Drew drank too much at night, then pretended, I think, to need my help getting to bed. He would act sort of out of it, almost asleep. Bereaved, tired, drunk. He would murmur in some private dialogue with himself. The widower’s soliloquy, I guess. I heard Sarah’s name, but I tried not to listen too carefully—it was like eavesdropping on his thoughts, which I wanted no part of. I pretended that he was speaking a language that I didn’t know, and it sort of worked. I’d take his arm and escort him upstairs. Thank god he didn’t really need to lean on me, because he was huge and leaden and I am only as big as I need to be—that’s always been my size. We’d get upstairs and I’d help him strip down to his boxers and T-shirt. Beyond that I had no interest, or even tolerance, I don’t think. There was not a human being on Earth whose sleepwear concerned me, least of all Drew’s. Nor were there any nude bodies beyond those freely available on the internet that I felt I needed to see. Anywhere. And I must say that the human body, in this sort of man at this age, perhaps especially after the loss of a spouse, can cause some disturbing feelings. If I looked at him too closely I felt like I was at the morgue or the butcher or that the world had ended. Somehow I had started to associate Sarah’s death with him. Because she had died I started to think that so had Drew. That he was effectively dead and whatever he’d been doing these last few days only amounted to final spasms and twitches. Throes, I guess they’re called. Soon he’d stop seizing. Soon he’d go cold. I’d have to make a call and get him removed. I knew this wasn’t true, of course, but I also worried that it was. I was torn between worry and knowledge, and worry was always more persuasive. Worry had the upper hand. It was best to just get Drew under the covers so that I didn’t have to see. I could deal with his head, poking above the blankets. That was manageable.
“Sometimes I pay for hand jobs,” he mumbled one night, as I was pulling down his shades.
I was hardly listening, and I didn’t think he was even fully awake, but I was curious. “How much?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, but he tossed and turned a little bit and issued a high-pitched cough.
“How much do hand jobs cost?” I asked again.
Drew rolled over and spoke into his pillow. “You have to pay for a massage, and then it’s extra for the hand job.” Maybe he was being shy or maybe he was just barely awake. “Sarah knew. It wasn’t like that. I mean, I never told her, but I know she knew. She was okay with it, but we never discussed it.”
“So you can’t go in and say, no massage, just a hand job. I’m in a hurry?”
“No, you can’t even say hand job. They’ll kick you out.”
It sounded like he was talking from experience. I pictured him getting kicked out of a massage parlor, emerging into the afternoon light of a strip mall, shielding his eyes, deciding if he should maybe just get some ice cream. “So how much then?” I asked.
“Two hundred dollars.”
The next morning I got the boys to their bus stop early and they begged me to wait with them. Of course I would never have left them alone there, but it was nice to be wanted, and I let them try to talk me into staying. Usually they’d just pull on my arms until I fell in the grass with them, and that was it, they’d made their case. I told them that they should both be lawyers, they were very persuasive young men. And I would tell them “just this once” as they sat on me and played with my hair, telling me that I was their favorite couch, the best couch ever.
The rule in the mornings was that the boys could wear their helmets to the bus stop, but when the bus came they had to take them off, and then I carried the helmets home, two stinking shells that clacked together and that I contemplated hurling into the woods, where I am sure they would serve as a cautionary tale to the animals, a dual beheading of some mythical beast. Except there were no woods in sight. Just lawn after lawn after lawn. For some reason, Drew had warned me not to use anyone else’s trash can. Like, ever. Or else I would have already ditched the helmets in one of them by now and then played dumb. He was very solemn in his warning. If you put even the littlest piece of trash in someone else’s can, they’d see you and they’d go nuts, apparently. It was worse than shitting on someone’s floor, I guess. Every house had a massive trash can, nearly the size of my bedroom in college. You could easily put a body in one. You could stuff blankets and pillows down into the bottom and have, I bet, an incredibly cozy and private nap. No one would think to look for you in there. It was sort of the ultimate panic room. Hidden in plain sight. With mountains in the distance, too, if you drilled yourself a little peephole.
The boys held my hands and together we leaned over the curb and looked down the street to see if the bus was coming. “No feet allowed in the street,” I always said. At times like this the boys were fond of interviewing me. Did I know how to swim? Did I like cheese? Who was my favorite superhero? How old was I? Why wasn’t I at my own house right now? Did I ride a school bus when I was a little girl? When was I leaving? Would I be gone when they got home from school today? How did I get to be an aunt? Is there a school for that? When did I meet their mom? Were we friends or enemies? Could I beat their dad in a fight?
“I have two girls at home, you know,” I told them. “You guys have met them, but you were little little little.”
I slipped into baby talk here, while holding my hand low to the ground to indicate how small they had been, and the boys suddenly looked alarmed.
“I’m sure you don’t remember them,” I said. “They are your cousins. They are very tall now. They are taller than me!”
“Our cousins? We heard they tried to beat us up.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“From our dad. He called them hitters. He said we were only babies and they tried to bounce us like basketballs. One of them kicked me in the face.”
“By mistake,” the little one added. “That’s what Mom said.”
I held the elder boy’s face in my hands and studied it closely. What a soft and sweet and smooth little face. I squinted. I pretended to think. “Yes, hmm,” I said. “I believe I do still see a footprint.”
He pulled away from me, giggling. “Liar!” he shrieked.
The little one wanted to look. “I want to see the footprint!” he shouted.
I thought back to the few times all of us had been together—morose, drunken, silent family time, with the exception of Drew’s explosive, alienating cheer, while the kids had squirted off to god knows where. All of this was possible, but if someone was truly kicked in the face, even a young boy, I’d like to think my daughter was provoked.
“Well, listen,” I said to the boys. “If they had tried to beat you up I’m sure they would have succeeded, because they were bigger than you, and stronger than you. Still are. So no funny stuff. Have you ever heard of a teenager? Have you ever seen one? I’m not sure if they have them around here.” I looked up and down the street. I pretended to be afraid.
“I’m your aunt. That’s how it is.”
“Girls are smarter and faster and better at everything than boys,” said the littler one.
“Oh? Who told you that.”
“Oh, yeah. Your mom. I really miss her a bunch. In fifth grade she wore a cape all year, and she wouldn’t answer to her real name.”
“But boys aren’t bad, are they?” the elder asked me.
“Oh, sweetie, no, they’re not. Not even close. And you know what your mom meant when she said that, right?”
No, they didn’t, neither of them. They looked up at me, waiting.
“That the two of you,” I said, poking each of them gently in the chest, “in your own ways, are going to be special and great and fantastic at brand new things, things no one has even heard of yet.”
When their bus came the little one hugged me and the big one ran off without saying goodbye.
When I got back to the house, Drew had already left for work. On the table was a neat stack of cash. I counted it. Two hundred dollars exactly. I left it there.
It took me a little while before I felt like I could masturbate in that house, but soon I had a good system set up, and I grew more comfortable with my visit. If you’re staying somewhere over an extended period of time and you cannot masturbate, not ever, then you start to plot your exit. It’s just untenable after a while. I have no trouble in hotel rooms, what few I’ve stayed in, but somehow it’s different in a home other than your own. It feels more obviously complicated, although I’m not sure why. We take shits in other people’s homes. That’s arguably far worse than touching oneself delicately in the shower. I’d taken a shit right under Drew’s nose the other day. We were making dinner, and suddenly I had to go, and I was gone for a while—ten minutes, maybe more. I read several op-eds on my phone while sitting on the toilet. I definitely wasn’t peeing that whole time. He knew for a fact that I’d taken a shit, or had tried to, and I’m sure he didn’t care. I guess I don’t know for sure. But still, I’d been nervous about masturbation, even though it was part of my routine at home, and that had made me less inclined to do it. I can’t succeed at it when I’m afraid or tense. But then I decided that if Drew wasn’t home, and the boys were at school, with hours before anyone was expected to return, I could add this to my schedule, in between sorting and storing my sister’s clothing, jewelry, and papers.
There was very little left to do with respect to Sarah. I organized her clothing according to type, then packed each group separately— sweaters, pants, socks. I boxed up her jewelry, leaving a few favorite pieces out for Drew, which he said he would keep in a dish on his dresser. I wasn’t sure if Drew had a special dish in mind, so I just dumped the jewelry there, a tangle of metal and colored stones. Drew also wondered if Sarah’s coats could be given away, and I took care of it, driving them down to a clothing donation center. I went through Sarah’s computer and dragged her files to a folder Drew had set up in the cloud. It was called “Sarah.” Would anyone ever open this folder? Would the boys grow up and one day decide to look through it, and would there even be computers by then? Instead of carefully going through her papers and everything else she filled her drawers with, I put most of it in boxes and tried to label things as accurately as I could. Holiday cards, pictures, letters. There were fabric swatches and catalogs stuffed with yellow Post-its. Big plans. These went into a box called Ideas. But soon her things were boxed away and that was that. I’d cruise through the house looking for objects that were explicitly hers, and eventually I found none. People either leave too much or too little when they die. Sarah was just a few boxes, and the boxes were moved out of sight.
My husband called, wanting to know what was up. When was I coming home? The girls missed me, he said, which was poorly encrypted code, and he should have known better. He didn’t say “we” miss you. And by saying the girls missed me—since they were not exactly capable of believing that either of their parents were fully human—he meant that the technical side of their upkeep, which mostly meant the coordination of schedules with the intolerable parents of their friends, people he often refused to even name, suffered during my absence. I was needed to receive and relay signals, mostly, to rehearse concern with other parents over the frequently uncertain whereabouts of our children, who would soon be gone, if they weren’t already. A signal tower might have served the same function, and wouldn’t need to eat. What was true was that I sort of missed the girls, but if I was home their doors would be closed, and I wouldn’t even be knocking. I’d stopped trying. I could miss them here, or I could miss them there. I wasn’t sure it mattered.
I asked my husband about homework and bedtimes and food and screen time, in relation to our fiercely willful children, and he gave short, empty answers, assuming each question was a veiled accusation, designed to expose his inattention, which perhaps it was.
“So is Drew just a mess?” my husband asked. “Is he a disaster?”
“You know, he’s okay. He’s either in shock and holding it all in, or this is the extent of his reaction. I don’t know him that well. It’s sort of hard to say.”
“I can’t imagine,” he said, which is often what we say when we obsessively imagine something all the time.
“The boys seem fine,” I said, and he said, “Oh, right, the boys. Holy fuck. The boys. Jesus. Are they just? Are they just so…?” And he wasn’t really able to finish the sentence. A silence bloomed on the phone. The boys. They were and they weren’t, I thought. That’s how I would answer that question. They were just the boys and that was all.
At dinner that night Drew explained that there would be a sum of money from the hospital. Wrongful death, is what they called it. No one wanted a lawsuit, Drew told me—which I’m sure wasn’t true. I’m sure there were lawyers living in the walls who pined with their pants down for any lawsuit, anywhere, ever. They named a number and he named a number, and those two numbers entered the sunless, dank bodies of a team of lawyers. Out came the shiny, fresh-smelling settlement, more than enough to keep the two young boys in bright new helmets long into their dotage. Mouth guards, helmets, visors, Doritos, and game consoles: a full, rich, satisfying life on this planet.
This was good, right? I asked. Of course it was no consolation whatsoever, and how could it be, but maybe having less financial pressure around the raising of the boys would help him somewhat, or help ensure a good life for the boys?
Drew shook his head. There was no financial pressure to begin with, he said. They were fine. The money didn’t really mean anything. But it was connected to an idea he had. A kind of plan. And it involved me. He looked at me pretty carefully. It was something he wanted to run by me.
Drew would turn these funds over to me. Along with the two boys. That’s what he wanted to talk about. There would be plenty of money to take care of them, to pay for clothing, food, and school. He didn’t know what to do with them, what to say to them. He couldn’t stand the thought of letting them go, and he couldn’t stand the thought of keeping them. He put his head in his hands and I felt that it would not be a good idea to touch him right then.
There was no use pretending I hadn’t seen this coming. He was such a hulking, sad figure. He thought his life would be easier without those two weird sweethearts running around bopping each other over the head.
“Just for a little while,” he said.
When I called my husband, he met the request with silence. It was one of the ways he responded to things. A long, thoughtful silence. Sometimes he’d leave the room. Days could go by. The conversation wasn’t over, you knew. It had just been suspended, time had stopped, and when he spoke again the world would start back up and life would continue. I admired this trait in him, except when it reared up in situations that did not warrant long, pensive silences, like at restaurants when he was asked what he would like to order. Or now.
“Both children, both boys?” he asked, finally.
“Both of them.”
“For how long?”
“It wasn’t discussed.”
“Which means forever.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But you didn’t ask.”
“You’re not here. You don’t understand.”
“I could say the exact same thing about you.”
“Okay, no one is anywhere. No one understands. No one, no one, no one. Is your answer no, then?” I asked him.
“Why would you say that? That’s not even remotely fair.”
“Well, I guess it just reflects the openness and enthusiasm you’re showing about the idea.”
I Skyped with the girls. They’d colored their hair. They were so lovely, so independent, so gone from me in every way. I told them what was going on, the idea that had come up. The boys might come back with me, live with us for a while. Go to school. Be their little brothers.
“Bring them here, bring them here!” they shrieked. “We will like totally put their diapers on!”
“They don’t wear diapers anymore. They are pretty grown-up for their age.”
They wanted this, they wanted this, they were sure that it would be fantastic. I couldn’t help thinking that they thought they’d be getting a couple of pets. For a little while, maybe, or for certain hours of the day, that might almost be true. To a small degree. It was just those other hours, when the pet was a person, and the person needed things, and the person wanted things, and the person couldn’t sleep, or the person was sad no matter what, just sad as a long-term unfixable way to be. That was what concerned me. The larger side effects of adding new human beings to a situation—of any age, blood relative or not.
“Talk to your father,” I told them. “If this is something you want, and if you understand what this really means, really, without assuming that this will all be fun, and knowing that I am going to need a lot of help from both of you, talk to your father.”
“Dad?” They laughed. “Dad has never said no to us ever once in all of our lives,” one said. “Has he?” They looked at each other in genuine puzzlement. Soon they were blowing kisses and begging to talk to the boys, or to just see them. But the boys, I said, were busy. They couldn’t come to the phone right now. Maybe next time.
I started to show up in Drew’s room before I went to bed. He’d pretend to be asleep, but he’d make the assignment easy for me, sometimes releasing himself from his underwear. Usually he was, if not hard, swollen enough for me to begin. It was like I was just taking over a craft project he’d already started. I sat at the edge of the bed and it never took very long. He wilted fast in my hand afterward. I wiped my hand on the sheet. Then I left. Cleanup wasn’t part of the deal. That was his problem. He could pay his own sister for that, or some street whore, for all I cared.
In the morning there’d be more money, and I’d tuck it into my bag. Soon my flight had been paid for and the missed days of work felt less impactful. I was getting into zero-sum territory, financially, and I had much more free time.
At the bus stop one morning, I mentioned to the boys that their dad would be bringing home their favorite pizza for dinner. The deep dish kind, and, who knows, maybe there would be a surprise for desert. This I didn’t know, but I’d be going shopping, so I could take care of it.
“Our dad doesn’t want us,” said the big one.
“Oh that’s not true.”
“It’s okay. He said.” They both nodded up at me, as if they’d discussed this together and decided that it was fine.
“No he did not. You are a big fibber.” I smacked him lightly on his helmet.
“But a girl at school said that to us when we said we were leaving.”
“Your dad loves you. My gosh. Are you kidding me?”
The boys were holding hands.
“He really loves you,” I went on. “And right now your dad and I think it might be better for you to come live with me and your uncle and your cousins.”
“Will our mom be there?” asked the little one.
“No, honey, she won’t.”
“Someone at the funeral tried to tell me where she is, but it was hard to picture.”
“I know. I can’t picture it either.”
“Does it have a name?”
“Some people call it heaven. But we could make up our own name for it.”
He made a face. “I don’t like to make up things. I’m not a baby.”
“I want to know the real name.”
“There is no real name,” the big one told the little one. “She’s just gone.” And the little one whispered that he knew that, he wasn’t stupid.
I kissed them both and they ran off toward the bus, and when they got on, they rushed to the back and waved as the bus drove away.
When I thought about how I was spending my time, I realized that I was masturbating two people. Myself and Drew. For the sheer sake of efficiency, just following the logic and the math, I could reduce this workload by 100 percent, saving time and effort, without forfeiting our mutual outcomes, simply by having intercourse with Drew. Suddenly I wouldn’t have to masturbate anybody. I’d go from masturbating two separate people to masturbating nobody. A drastic reduction. But, in theory anyway, the amount of rendered climaxes would be the same, one for each of us, one per day. I was proud of this revelation but the shame was that I had no one to share it with. For some reason I thought of Sarah. This would have been something I could have shared with her. She of all people would have appreciated how efficient I was being. I would no longer have to masturbate her husband. I would no longer have to masturbate myself. It seemed like a clear win.
The plans were rolling into place. My husband texted me a picture, and it looked like he’d squeezed a bunk bed into the spare room and started to paint it. There were toys on the floor, old ones from when the girls were little. “Thank you,” I wrote back. I sent him a red heart emoji, and I held down the button, so there’d be more of them than he could handle.
There was so much to do. Schools and doctors to call, appointments to make. Paperwork to sort out with Drew. He was very organized. He had a binder. He’d given it all a lot of thought. There was a bank account, and he gave me the card and the pin. There was a caregiver’s contract that conferred authority on me. We would be in constant contact, he explained. He would Skype the boys every night. He wanted updates on every little thing. Pictures and videos and the whole deal.
“I don’t know what to say,” Drew said. I knew he didn’t, and I expected nothing to be said. It was strange to see him in the daylight. At night he was just a shape, hardly even that. He cried out and he wept and he came, and he hid his face in the sheets. He did not speak and I never saw his eyes. He’d bought this palace and it was already haunted, he was already spooked. I wondered if he was always like that. Sarah had never said. But when I thought about it, she hardly ever mentioned Drew. It was always the boys, and what they were up to. The boys the boys the boys.
The trip was upon us. The boys needed gear, so I took them shopping. I told them that they could pick out shirts and shoes and pants, even caps, along with socks and undies, but when I saw what they chose, I quietly put everything back and picked out a few things myself. They would never know the difference, and I’m sure they would have just as soon gone around naked. In the store they ran wild, their little helmets bouncing on their heads. When other shoppers glared at them in exaggerated shock I stared them down, ready for anything those fuckers wanted to bring.
We went for french fries and milkshakes for lunch. I told them they were being so grown-up. So brave. They were such good young men. My little young men. We were all going to be okay, just great. We had a big adventure waiting for us in their new town.
“Daddy said he will visit,” the big one said, and the little one nodded.
“Daddy will absolutely visit,” I said. “He can visit whenever he wants to. And we will visit him, too. Everyone will visit everyone.”
“Will we have friends there?”
“Yes and yes. And did I say yes?”
“What about our cousins?”
“They can’t wait to see you. It will be like having two great big sisters. A big sister is the best thing in the world. They will always protect you. Your mom was my big sister. Just like you”—I pointed to the big one—“are a big brother to you”—and I pointed at the little one.
“Why?” asked the little one.
“Because your mom was born first. She came into the world before me, and she looked around, she checked everything out, and then she whispered to me, wherever I was, that it was all clear. Everything was fine. I could come out.”
“And did you? Did you come out?”
“I did. One year after your mom.”
“Why did it take so long? Did you forget the way?”
“I was kind of slow. I was still sort of scared. But the whole time I was headed her way. I knew she was waiting for me and I was excited to see her. I just couldn’t wait to see her face.”
The boys looked at me and we all decided that it was probably time to go, because we still had to pack, and we had a plane trip tomorrow, and wasn’t that going to be fun, but we’d better get ready and we’d better get a really really good night’s sleep. At the curb to the parking lot the little one grabbed our hands and cried out for us to wait. “No feet in the street,” he said. He wanted to be the one to say all clear, so he held us back and looked one way, then the other. He took his time, and we waited for him to give the sign that it was okay to go, we could walk, it would be safe.