You schedule the U-Haul for a weekend when your husband plans to be in the woods. You do not repeat your argument that camping isn’t medication or therapy. That it cannot, in other words, fix him. You make him a sandwich for the drive to Mendocino. As his car pulls away, you know it’s the last time you’ll see him.
Choosing what to pack is much trickier than you thought. You decide against most of the wedding gifts. And while the coffee grinder seems important, and the toaster, you don’t care. You bring your leather ottoman, but leave the chair. You peel the bedspread from your king-size bed because you love it, and even though your next bed is just a futon in your sister’s New York apartment, you toss it in a bag and take it out to the truck.
You work steadily, wrapping what’s fragile, letting things go, moving room to room like housekeeping at a roadside motel. Once you’ve rounded up the stuff you want, it’s almost dark. You think of your husband, among the fir trees, pitching his tent. Then you picture him home again, back from the wild, livid at finding you gone. You lock the front door and slip your house key into the mailbox.
You drive most of the night, until the U-Haul needs gas. A few hours’ sleep at a rest stop in Southern Wyoming, then a plate of hash browns at a nearby Waffle House, hunched over your coffee like the cowboys at the counter. You drive on the rest of the day, and the next time you refuel you’re in Nebraska.
At the pump across from yours is an oversized blue pickup. There’s a lawn chair in the bed, and a lady in the chair with her feet propped up on a plastic cooler. Her face is tilted to the sky, and her cheeks and bare shoulders are sunburned. She catches you staring and she grins. Then a man comes out of the mini-mart and hands her an iced tea before climbing into the driver’s seat and starting up the truck. The lady swigs her tea and calls, Cheers! in your direction as the pickup speeds away.
It takes you another day and a half, but suddenly you’re sitting in Manhattan traffic and turning onto your sister’s block in the Lower East Side. You’ve visited once, before her carpenter boyfriend moved in, so you recognize the Flat Fix tire-shop sign on the ground floor of her building. When your sister comes down to let you in, her face is red and wet with tears. For a second you wonder if you might have it wrong, if you might actually be here for a crisis of hers, not for her to help you out of yours.
We’re eating hot peppers, she says. It’s competitive, she adds, laughing and wiping her eyes. She holds you in a long hug and then carries your duffel up four flights of stairs to her place. The carpenter, sweating from the peppers, stands to greet you. He shows you your room, which was formerly half of theirs before someone, likely him, put up a wall to make two smaller ones. Your sister has been using it as her studio.
Marcel? you ask, about the paintings all over the wall. They are portraits of your childhood dog, a French poodle with jet-black poofs of hair. In one he is scaling a rusty fence and has a roguish sneer. In another, he’s dressed as Napoleon. Your sister nods and sweeps a playful arm past his incarnations. May he rest in peace, she says. She leaves the room to get bedsheets, returns with a Xanax and big glass of milk, and swears she’ll call the police if your husband ever tries to find you here.
You sleep so late the next morning that there are two tickets on your U-Haul when you come down to move it. You shuttle some boxes to the apartment, rent a storage locker for the rest, return the truck. It puts you all the way downtown, so afterward you do a lap around Battery Park. On the walk home, you detour east to check out Tompkins Square. It’s warm out for September, all the benches filled, and you decide right then that until you have something better to do you’ll spend each one of your days in a different city park.
In Bryant Park you read an entire book on a blanket in the grass. In Union Square you buy a bag of cherries at a stand, and drop your pits in zigzag trails between the chessboards and the punks. Up in Riverside Park, you can’t escape the Lehman Brothers news. Old men in groups shake their heads in disbelief, while younger ones in suits stare out glumly over the Hudson.
In Washington Square you take off your sandals and sit at the edge of the fountain to dip your feet. Across the water there’s a guy who’s doing the same. He’s watching you, and when you don’t look away, he stands up and wades around the rim of the fountain, holding his shoes. Mind some company? he asks when he gets to you. You tell him you don’t, and he sits down.
The thing you recognize in each other is the sorrow. It feels familiar, and you take the whole afternoon to wander the city, trading stories. His mother’s gruesome cancer death, your husband’s total breakdown and decline. The two years he carried her, bathroom to bed, taking leave from his college degree. The months you were cursed at and threatened, put down, how you withdrew from family and friends. He tells you that he’s going back to student life, and you tell him you can’t envision life at all.
Way past dinnertime, you stop for dumplings and buy beers from a bodega. You find a stoop to sit and drink, and then, because it’s late and it turns out he lives in New Jersey, you take him to your sister’s, to your futon, just to sleep. His body smells lived in, sweet from the sun, and the rhythm of his steady breath is soothing. When you wake up, he is seated on the strip of floor between the moving boxes and your sister’s canvasses. He folds his long frame into a stretch, toward his toes, while you watch the perfect arch of his slim back.
For a while, the student—as your sister takes to calling him—comes into the city every weekend. You’re looking for work and trying to persuade your husband to sign the divorce papers you sent. Your sister is rarely home, so it’s nice to have someone to talk to, and sleep with, and keep your legs sometimes shaved for. He asks you several times to come see him on campus, and even though you’re not so long out of college yourself, you find you just can’t bring yourself to go. He visits in November and fills in the blanks, departing with the few things he’d been leaving at your place.
You only apply to jobs for which you’re plainly overqualified. Though you used to be a teacher, you just want something temporary, a way to pay rent. After a series of awkward interviews, you get hired at one of those paint-your-own pottery places. You spend a week at their Tribeca studio, wearing an apron and pouring paint. Then the guy they had working at the warehouse quits, and the owners propose that you take on his gig.
The job involves glazing all the painted knick-knacks, loading them into the kilns to be fired, and then boxing them up to send back to the studio. It’s pointless and dull, and you adore the routine. The warehouse is set up like a railroad apartment. And since the space next door is a recording studio, there’s a constant stream of musicians coming through, confused at where they find themselves, on their way to use the bathroom. Hi there, you say. Or, Welcome! you smile, as you pop up your head from inside the kiln, and wave with a glaze-covered hand.
In December, your sister has a show of all the Marcel paintings. She’s broken up with the carpenter, and your divorce has finally gone through. You let her dress you for the opening, a skirt that is teenager tight, and at the gallery you have more drinks than usual. You meet a fit-looking guy while you teeter in front of the poodle-as-Napoleon. He’s a tennis pro, he says, and he asks for your number as he leaves with his friends for the next party.
It turns out he’s terrific, and he treats you to sushi two dates in a row, referring only once, and only briefly, to his workout regimen. When he invites you to his apartment, you like the mid-century look of all his things. You mean to tell him so, but then you suddenly start to hysterically sneeze. A pair of gray Persians weaves into the room, and the tennis pro kneels down to pick them up. He burrows his face in their fur, and tucks a round cat under each of his sculpted arms. He doesn’t seem to notice the allergic reaction erupting behind him. Sorry, you say between sneezes. You genuinely wish you could stay. Instead, you give his cool couch one last glance, and then blow your nose all the way home.
For Christmas you take your sister to the Indian restaurant she likes on Second Avenue, walking back to your place arm in arm through the snow. You plug in the lights on the tabletop tree and spike two mugs of eggnog for a toast on the fire escape: Here’s to no looking back! A hymn floats up from a faint church choir while snowflakes coat your shoulders in white.
A metal band rents the recording studio for a whole two weeks in the new year. You see them on their bathroom breaks, or heading out to smoke, and the guitarist starts hanging around the kiln room to watch you work. He asks a lot of questions—about the pottery to start, but eventually he moves on to questions about you. He invites you to their next show, and says he’d really like it if you came.
The guitarist has a weakness for puns, and with banter he’s a total delight. Even though he’s one of those people who puts hot sauce on everything, you like cooking meals with him, and you start spending nights at his place. He’s aggressive in bed, which, having seen him play his instrument, does not surprise you. But he likes talking after, sometimes so late that you drift off mid-sentence, your cheek to his chest.
One night you have to un-entwine yourself from him once he’s asleep. He shifts without waking, and when he rolls to his side he unconsciously whispers, I love you. You freeze and lie there startled in the dark. You search yourself for any inclination you might have to ride a tour bus with his band, or spend a holiday with his Michigan family, or to maybe down the line be the one to bring a little guitarist into the world.
You decide you need a real job, back to teaching, and in spite of the odds you get offered fourth grade at a school uptown. You move into an apartment of your own, and go out with an architect who your dry cleaner sets you up with. You join a gym, and a book club, and then for a while you date a filmmaker you met at the post office. For winter break, you treat yourself to Panama, where you hike until you can’t bear the blisters from your stubborn new boots. You spend the rest of the week inventing backstories for the jumble of other tourists on the beach.
On the flight back home, you’re assigned a middle seat. You’ve had a coffee and a water by the time you board the plane, so more than once you have to apologize for squeezing by the man on the aisle, who it turns out, though you don’t yet know it, is your next husband.
He’s older than you, and runs a company you’ve heard of. He’s indisputably handsome, and direct in a way that feels like a relief. His version of romance is to invite you along on adventures he planned to take anyway, himself. Apparently this suits you, and so you go along—to Nova Scotia, to Montana, and on spring break to Belize. In your summer off you plan a long one, to Sweden, to sail. It’s like living together, those weeks on the boat. Reapplying his sunscreen, taking turns at the wheel. You don’t overthink it, but you have to admit it’s much sweeter than you’d thought.
Your jet lag after the sailing trip won’t quit. You start waking up sick to your stomach, and after a few days you connect the dots. You surprise your next husband with the news and he’s delighted. He buys you a ring. You pick up flowers on the way downtown, and you make a happy day of it at City Hall. You break your lease, but keep your name. You shop online for wallpaper and turn one of the three bedrooms at his place, now your place, into a nursery.
Your students watch your belly grow and wager with each other, boy or girl. Either way, they want to know how old the kid will be before it gets candy, learns to swim, or rides a skateboard. In the evenings you read the baby-name book to your husband, but he falls asleep so quickly every night that none of your options come later in the alphabet than E.
Your daughter, when she arrives, is perfect. She is exhausting, predictably, but what surprises you is your willingness, all night, and every day, to care for her more, again and again. Your husband is thrilled by her too, but his days don’t get refigured by her needs. You memorize her baby books, you home-make her baby food, you stroll her to her baby class, and you sing to her in the bath. You do not, when the time comes, go back to your job.
She turns one on a Tuesday, and you duck out to a bakery to choose her first cake. You’re stooped down squinting at the options in the case when someone just over your shoulder says, Their buttercream will change your life. You look up and it’s the tennis pro, now a realtor. He gives you his card, and then gives you a hug. He says, because your daughter isn’t with you, that you haven’t changed a bit. You don’t consider calling him, not really. But you do keep his number in your wallet, behind the loyalty card for a nail salon you only went to once.
You have a son next, who looks just like you. Fussier than his sister, and hungrier. He clings to your bra straps when he falls asleep nursing, and it scoops your whole heart out to watch him squirm around to pass his gas. Your husband makes it home in time for dinner more often. He smiles contentedly as you spoon-feed your daughter and wipe her spills off the floor, bounce your son in one arm and try to shovel yourself bites without dropping any food on the baby. He gives your shoulders a squeeze on his way to watch TV, leaving you to fold tiny laundry and act out both sides of Hey, how was your day?
Your daughter stops sleeping unless both you and the baby are wedged in her small bed beside her. After a month of stiff necks, you order a mattress, a queen-size, which you set up, no box spring, on the floor. You apologize to your husband routinely for never turning up in bed.
It weighs on you, him sleeping alone, but you give up all your evenings to your post between the kids. You are a jukebox of lullabies, and you tell them run-on stories from under the tangle of their limbs, longer as the nights become years.
Eventually you buy bunk beds, and they suddenly don’t need you sleeping next to them. It turns out that your husband doesn’t either, which in truth you already knew. He never argued, those rare times you argued, that he missed you nights. You decide to put the old bedspread, the one that moved with you from California, on the guest bed. You gradually move your books in there, and your clothes, and before long the room becomes yours.
Your husband rents a summer house near the beach from May through Labor Day. He has to commute to the city most weeks, but you and the kids stay put. You fix up the bike you find in the shed and put a buggy on the back for the children. They’re both too big, it kills your knees, but they love to pile in together for rides to the farm stand down the road. One windy afternoon, while your son snacks on snap peas you’ve not purchased yet, the farmer comes off the field to introduce himself.
He has a nice open face, deeply tanned despite his sunhat. He’s easy with the kids, and when he sees your daughter eyeing his tractor he asks for her driver’s license please. She giggles at him while he tallies your veggies. The farmer says he hopes you’ll be back. The next time you bike there, you’re alone.
You pick tomatoes, and he puts a marigold behind your ear when you leave. You come back for watermelons, and he walks you down a tangled row with his hand on the small of your back. You accept his invitation to come get eggs from the chickens he keeps in the yard, at his house. And when he invites you in for tea, you accept again. You don’t know where to put yourself, given the total mess his house is in. Then he grabs you around the waist and you think Just this once as he pulls you onto the living-room rug.
You sneak off to see the farmer as often as you can manage. You visit one morning as the sun comes up, while your whole house is still asleep. When you pull up, he’s out by the chicken coop. He rushes to greet you, sets his bucket of eggs on the roof of your car, and presses you up against the driver-side door.
Back home, you go about your morning. Then you find a flock of crows swarming your Subaru. They’re swooping in and out of the bucket, spilling yolk across the windshield and all over the driveway. You lunge at them to shoo them off, closing your eyes against the squall of their wings as you madly swat your arms through the air. When they’re gone you sink down shaking, on all fours beside the car. You’d been careless. But lonely much longer, and stuck. You tell your husband you miss the city. You go back as a family before August is over.
You decide to go into business with your sister, who has pooled together her artist friends, all living in Brooklyn now. You open a gallery for their work up in your part of town. It gets some buzz, and you get sharper running it. Both kids now school age, you have energy again, which you throw at the gallery, making it great.
On a slow afternoon you close up early and take a taxi downtown. You do a loop of all the parks you used to visit, and on a whim you go get a tattoo, just a small one, in a spot no one sees, not with clothes on. The bandage comes off in the shower, and you stand in the full-length mirror to check it out. The tattoo, it turns out, holds your interest much less than all the other ways your body has changed since last you spent any time looking.
When your son is almost through first grade, you propose a new deal to your husband. More paying attention on his part, more in-it-together like you need, in exchange for whatever at all he may feel he’s not getting. But he can’t seem to grasp the terms, and eventually you tell him there’s no point anymore. You make an appointment with a mediator and start collecting wisdom from the several single mothers you know.
The first meeting is amicable, but the fight you have afterward is grim. He actually expects the children to live with him, fully half of the time till they’re grown. You sob and sob, you can’t help it, and you keep on shouting: Who the hell will make them lunch? It’s impossible to sleep afterward, so you find yourself watching the news until late. All the talk is of the illness, abroad, that’s been going around.
You meet the mediator again. That same day you hear there are people in Manhattan getting sick. You overhear a mom at school pick-up say she’s stocking up on weeks of groceries, and taking lots of cash out from the bank. The day you finally make plans to see apartments, your own place, you are asked with the rest of the city to stay home.
It looks at first like a short-term ask, and you find renewed affection for the family time you get. You go nowhere but the grocery store, see no one you know except online. You teleconference with the mediator in a separate room from your husband, negotiating holidays on school-year calendars that as the weeks go by are increasingly hard to even imagine. You make sight-word flashcards for your son, and you bake cakes in an effort to teach your daughter fractions.
You keep a list in your head of things you used to hate—fundraisers and playdates and airport security, waiters who love going on about the specials—all of which you’d happily submit to now if you were ever free to leave the house again. Your dreams, when you remember them, start taking place in concert halls and windowless bars, and in your waking hours you wish for subway rides, those long ones when you could get lost in a book. You miss your sister, and you crave a cup of coffee you yourself didn’t make.
When your husband needs a haircut, you set up a stool in the bathtub and give him a trim. It’s the most intimate thing you’ve done in ages, and the tenderness required feels brittle and strange. Brushing off his shoulders afterward, your hands rest on his skin for what you know is the last time. Better! he says when he looks in the mirror. You rack your brain for anything else so easy to improve. He starts to handle half the bedtimes while you stay in the next room and listen, a forecast of how life will be when you’re not there. You eavesdrop every word of the books they read aloud, blow kisses through their door like you’re just passing by on your way to bed.
The weather grows hot, and your building lets people on the rooftop for a change, one apartment at a time. Your turn comes on a breezy July day, and in the afternoon, you take the kids up for a picnic. While you’re spreading out the blanket, a stray bunch of party balloons shows up, just floating by, and it gets snagged by its strings on a brick jutting out from the edge of the roof. You all three gasp. You run to grab them, and incredibly you clutch the colored strings at the moment they blow loose.
Your kids jump up and down as you raise the bouquet of color in the air. You look up at the balloons, and then your son hugs your leg like he thinks you’ll lift off. For a moment, outstretched, it feels like you might. The balloons tug and tangle in the wind. You let yourself picture a gust floating all of you up, off the roof, across the street, over the park, whatever’s next.
You open your hand and let slip the strings. In an instant the balloons turn small in the sky. The children both yelp with dismay, then in wonder they cheer, and you kneel down to pull them in close, gaze fixed on that wide-open blue—still spanning, somehow, across it all.