Marcus and I agreed to share parenting equally, splitting our child in half like a Georgia watermelon. We flipped a coin for the first month: three out of five. I won. Tonight, my month alone with Lee is over; Marcus is scheduled to pick him up at seven.
Lee is tall for twelve, but as he opens the door to check the driveway again, he appears younger, and more vulnerable. He resembles his father, which bothers me at times though it’s a useless thing to worry about. Marcus is good-looking, or perhaps even handsome. I don’t know anymore. The two of them are freckled and lanky; even their noses are thin. Lee’s red-blond hair has grown longish, curling slightly at his neck. As he leans against the door frame, I’m reminded of how, as a toddler, he would climb onto the couch and stand at our picture window, waiting for Marcus to return home from work.
Marcus is now a half-hour late, which doesn’t surprise me; he’s never felt committed to a number. I consider reminding Lee of this, but I’m learning new ways in which things are better left unsaid.
The screen door slams as Lee steps out onto the porch. Through the window, I see him test the cold. He exhales, cheeks bellowed, and watches for the cloud of his breath. He kicks in the shriveled teeth of the Halloween pumpkin, then leans down to flick off the large pieces of soft orange shell that cling to the toe of his shoe.
“Want your jacket off?” I ask when he returns to the living room.
His eyebrows furrow, and a tight shrug informs me that he is in seventh grade and too old to help undress, even verbally. He unsnaps the jacket but leaves it on. He flips through a library book filled with color photographs of lizards.
“Science report due?”
“No, I’m thinking about buying an iguana.” It’s a challenge, not a request.
“Where would you keep it?”
In his bedroom, he tells me. Here at my house, not at his dad’s, because Marcus won’t let him buy one to begin with.
“I was thinking more in terms of a puppy,” I say, although I hadn’t thought about a pet at all until this moment.
“I don’t want a dog,” he says. His words come in staccato bursts, like television gunfire, but I’m just pleased that he’s talking. Since his raging outburst six months ago, when we told him about the divorce, Lee’s pulled inward, his demeanor chilly and controlled. This is the first exchange between us all day that’s approached a conversation.
“Think about it,” he says. “What happens to a dog? He stays here and becomes your pet when I’m not around.”
“Maybe the iguana would become my pet when you’re not around.”
“Fat chance,” he says, laughing. I record the way his laugh rises, its slight raspiness. I want to hug him, to throw my arms around him and squeeze. It is a recurring, physical craving that I risk giving in to only when I am strong enough to tolerate being pushed away.
We discuss the iguana’s diet, and whether I would have to feed it in Lee’s absence.
“Lizards live in the desert,” he informs me. “They eat and drink whenever it works out. I’ll feed it when I come on Wednesdays, and stop by on the weekends. Maybe you could give it some lettuce once in a while.”
The lettuce reminds me that I’m starving. Marcus and Lee are scheduled to go out for dinner. “Want a snack to hold you over?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” Lee says.
I spread Miracle Whip on two pieces of bread, cut some slices of cheese to lay on top, then microwave the combination to make cheese bread, a snack Lee loved in preschool. He helps himself to one slice, then the other, before heading to the kitchen to prepare more. I hear the hum of the microwave, then listen as he punches the buttons on the phone, pauses, hangs up the receiver.
“Did you call your dad?” I ask, venturing into the kitchen.
“He wasn’t home?”
“What do you think?”
I follow him into the living room like a pull toy. “Did you get your toothbrush from the bathroom?”
He flicks on the TV.
“Lee, your toothbrush.”
He settles into the couch. I sit in our only other chair, a large oak rocker. The living room feels cheap and foreign, with its fake, dark-stained beams and homemade knickknack shelves. The walls are painted a light apple green, like those in every other room, except Lee’s bedroom. We worked on his room last weekend, ripping out the flat green carpeting, painting his walls a pale gray, buying a new comforter for his bed, hanging hooks in his closet.
Lee is absorbed in MTV, his feet propped on the new, white-tiled coffee table I bought and assembled myself. I returned the first table after unpacking the shipping box only to discover a long, thin crack, like a strand of dark hair, stretched across the tile.
“Take your feet off the table.”
In the video, Phil Collins croons as he wanders around an expansive, half-empty apartment, all its furniture, including the grand piano, covered with white sheets.
Lee doesn’t remove his feet. Tiny bits of pumpkin pulp are wound around the treads of his tennis shoes.
I block the picture with my body. “What did I say?”
The doorbell rings, and Lee jumps up, brightening with relief. I realize that this will be our last exchange — an angry one.
“Hug,” I instruct, pulling his resistant body to me.
Marcus stands propped against a front-porch post, grinning and looking entirely too comfortable, as if he thinks he belongs here. I want him off my porch.
“Not a great start,” I say to him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re over an hour late. You could have called.”
Lee climbs into Marcus’s Jeep. “Mom,” he says, “drop it,” then slams the car door.
“What’s the matter, Rochelle?” says Marcus. “Did I upset your plans? Hot date?” He wiggles his eyebrows.
“Fuck you,” I whisper.
“Not anymore.” He takes his car keys out of his pocket, then picks up Lee’s suitcase, duffel bag, and plastic milk crate, and carries them to the car in one trip.
Once they’re gone, I begin trimming the overgrown shrubs. My small pruning shears can barely chew through the thick branches. Under the street lights, I fill every trash can with evergreen, then drag the excess behind the house. The hedgerow is — if possible — uglier than before, mostly stubble, with large, gaping holes between the branches.
Back inside, the living room appears to have grown greener in my absence. I hate everything about the room, especially the mirrored knickknack shelves. The time to remove them is now. I count fourteen screws per shelf, each thick with green paint. My newly purchased tool kit continues to please me, with its wire cutters, pliers, and — my favorite — the shiny set of screwdrivers, arrayed from small to large. I work screw by resistive screw, and as I pull the first shelf from the wall I discover yellow paint underneath, a better color.
The shelves are surprisingly heavy, and I drag them from the back door to the trash. As I lower the last one to the ground, I see my face reflected back at me, a surprise attack. My skin is pasty white, my hair a mess. The mirror records an expression I do not permit myself to wear as I comb my hair or put on my makeup. I look lonely. My son is not at camp, not staying at a friend’s, not temporarily missing. I used to be glad to have him away, to have a few hours to myself.
I consider attempting to remove the fake ceiling beams, but my body aches with exhaustion. I lie on the couch, surrounded by green walls with yellow patches and lines of chipped holes. The furnace clicks on in the basement; the hot air blows; the metal wall register buzzes lightly.
I stand in the shower until the hot water runs out. As I pull back the covers to my bed, ready to collapse, I notice something shiny against the sheet. A loose earring, I think at first. But it’s a straight pin, the point projected upward. I tug at the shaft, then discover after loosening the bedclothes that the pin has been planted, its large glass head inserted under the mattress pad, the shaft positioned to poke through the flannel sheets at hip level.
I recall a trip into the house to wash my hands and surprising Lee as he emerged from my bedroom. “Hello,” I said. “Hello,” he echoed before retreating to his room.
I dial his father’s number, my old number. Marcus answers the phone, his voice thick with sleep. “I must speak to Lee,” I say.
“He’s in bed, Rochelle. It’s after midnight.”
“Then get him up.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait.”
“It can’t wait,” I say. “You know I wouldn’t call at this time of night without good reason.”
I hear the phone clunk on the cherry night stand and the sound of flip-flops as Marcus pads down the hall to Lee’s room.
“About the pin,” I say when Lee comes on the phone.
He is silent.
“Tomorrow I will pick you up after work — at six — and we will talk this over from six to seven.”
“Tomorrow night is Dad’s night,” Lee says.
“You wish,” I tell him. “Six to seven is mine, and you’d better share the details with your dad before I do.”
“All right,” he says, and hangs up the phone.
I immediately call back, and fortunately, Lee answers.
“You may not hang up the phone without saying goodbye. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he says.
“All right, then,” I say. “Good night.”
“Goodbye,” he says.
“Did you go to soccer practice?” I ask Lee the next evening, the two of us huddled in the doorway to my bedroom. Like a character in a jungle movie hacking through thick underbrush, I fight for every inch: yes, he went to practice; no, he didn’t play goalie; no, he wasn’t disappointed.
“Well, then,” I say, “I guess we need to sort through this situation.” My fingers trembling, I locate the glass-headed pin on my bedside table, then work it up through the mattress pad and my bottom sheet, reconstructing the scene. Lee gazes out the window, disinterested.
“Did you put this pin in my bed?” I ask him. “Were you hoping that I would get poked? Were you hoping to draw blood?”
He shrugs, a quivering lift of his shoulders, then rushes to his room, shuts his door, and locks it behind him.
“Come out!” I pound on the door. “Are there other pins? If there are, you’d better come out of that room right now and find them. I want every pin put back in the sewing box!” I am a heartbeat away from shrieking hysteria.
The doorknob turns.
“How many others are there?”
“Only one,” he says. I shadow him as he walks to the couch, works a glass-headed pin out of a seam, and hands it to me.
To keep myself busy while Lee is gone, I decide to take on one green room a month. This first month I target the bathroom. Every night after work, except on Wednesdays, I complete one small task: scrape the bathroom ceiling; wash and prime; paint the first coat. I buy a book about hanging wallpaper. Although I mimic the instructions about trimming around windows, I am lousy at cutting right angles.
Each Wednesday, Lee checks my progress. Though he doesn’t say anything, I know he thinks the bathroom looks nice. I can tell he’s impressed that I installed the oak toilet seat myself. He lifts the lid, examining the brass screws.
“Sit down,” I say. “Try it out.”
He closes his eyes, as if to make me disappear.
Our third Wednesday together, Lee and I head to the pet shop twenty minutes before it closes. The front-window display is lush with plants. A waterfall cascades into a small pool; the glass is moist with steam. Opening the door, I hear the squawk of birds and another sound —a loud, rhythmic grunting. Two large tortoises are centered in a patch of indoor-outdoor carpeting strewn with scraps of lettuce, chopped banana, and a few strawberries. The male has mounted the female, his head up, his wrinkled front legs churning frantically against her shell. He makes noise for both of them, grunting with each thrust. His long, thin penis is glaringly pink in contrast to the shells, which are dark brown and burnished-looking, like English oak.
“Mom, come on,” Lee says, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me past stacked bird cages and through a tunnel of bubbling fish tanks. He pauses abruptly in front of a glass aquarium filled with snake. The sign reads, “Captive-Born Boa: $199.” The snake is thick and coiled, its muscles gently contracting. Its tongue flicks in and out. Lee points out the snake’s coloration, how a dark brown band begins at the nostrils and sweeps uninterrupted across the eyes to the sides of the head. The snake’s eyes are white, and a vertical slit runs through the center of each.
We move on to the lizard Lee has selected: a large bright green iguana. “He reminds me of a dragon,” Lee says.
The iguana is perched on a limb next to a heat lamp, and wears a stern, regal look. Tiny spines begin at its head and trail down its back. A clerk brings over a cardboard box, folds open the flaps, and reaches into the tank with both hands. The lizard’s tail whips back and forth as the clerk lifts him out. Once the cardboard flaps are folded shut and secured, we hear a series of hollow thumps and the sound of a lizard attempting to claw its way through cardboard.
Lee carries the box to the car, while I carry the rest of our purchases — a forty-gallon aquarium, screened lid, heat lamp, hot rock, a jar of Reptovite, and sweet-and-sour chicken from the Chinese restaurant next door to the pet shop.
In the back yard after supper, I hold the flashlight, shivering, while Lee pokes in the dark along the fence. He knocks wet clumps of leaves from fallen tree trunks as he searches for just the right branch for a lizard perch. Once he’s made sure the iguana feels at home, I drive Lee back to his dad’s.
The following night, I pull up the old floor tile in the bathroom: green with black streaks, like smoke. The tile is so old it fractures. I’ve bought a special pry bar, which I slide under the tiles, snapping three or four loose at a time. After I’ve carried all the tiles to the trash, I chip away with a razor blade at the lumpy black adhesive underneath.
I stock romaine lettuce in the refrigerator because the clerk at the pet shop told us that iceberg gives iguanas diarrhea. I can judge by the iguana’s food plate and the crumbs on the kitchen counter whether Lee has stopped by the house after school.
The night before Lee is to return for his second month with me, I vacuum his room. It’s the first time I’ve cleaned with the iguana present. The lizard seems unperturbed by the noise, clinging to its tree branch near the warmth of the clip light. This seems to be how he spends most of its time.
The aquarium glass is flecked with small spots. As I spray cleaner and rub with a paper towel, the lizard flicks its long tail from side to side. He turns his head slightly but does not regard me, his small black eyes focused within the tank.
Exhausted, I lie down on Lee’s bed to rest. When I awaken it’s the middle of the night. I am conscious enough to be bothered that my teeth are unbrushed and that I have fallen asleep in my clothes, but not enough to get up.
In the morning, I hear my alarm clock going off in my bedroom and wonder when it will stop. The alarm continues beeping. I open my eyes. The iguana is scratching the glass as if trying to climb up it. I watch its bony green hands and long-toed feet claw furiously, as if desire alone could move him up the glass wall and out of the tank.
During our second month together, Lee selects two new lizards: African fat-tail geckos. Lee and the pet-shop clerk turn the lizards upside down and examine them with a magnifying glass to try to determine their sex. Lee wants a male and a female. I buy another tank, an aquarium stand, a light, and a heating element.
The geckos are tiny, almost delicate, with almond-shaped brown eyes. Lee constructs a rock shelter, and the pair immediately take refuge. He reaches under the shelter to remove a lizard from the tank, and it curls up in his palm. “Touch it,” he orders, stroking its head with one finger.
Gingerly, I touch the small body, beautifully banded with light and dark brown. The creature feels surprisingly soft.
“Watch,” he says. He returns the lizard to the tank and drops two crickets in after it. The geckos shake their thick tails as if there were rattles attached, then pounce.
Partly as a favor and partly in an attempt to introduce Lee to nonreptilian life forms, I volunteer to baby-sit a friend’s infant. Mariah is, in her mother’s words, “not an easy baby.” She screams as she is delivered to me. After her mother’s quick departure, I try a variety of approaches: rocking, crooning, carrying Mariah around the room over one shoulder, bouncing vigorously. The bouncing, while not entirely successful, appears at least to be a diversion. She wails, but does not engage in the piercing, angry cries she immediately resumes when I simply hold her.
“Lee,” I call.
“What?” he yells back from his room.
“How about holding Mariah?”
I force him to join us in the living room, and he studies the baby, her face purple, fingers curled, back arched.
“Are her parents divorced?” Lee asks.
I tell him they are married, quite happily.
Lee shrugs. “Give them time,” he says. Then he wedges himself in the door frame, his back lodged against one side, his feet planted on the other, his waist and knees bent. He climbs up the wood casing, foot over foot, until his feet are level with his head. Body braced, face flushed pink, he holds himself there.
I ’m baking chocolate-chip cookies, our first batch in this house. In the kitchen, the sound of Lee’s saxophone is surprisingly muffled. I can distinguish only the high notes and the occasional squeak, like a teenage boy’s voice when it’s changing. On a trip through the hallway a minute ago, I stood by his closed bedroom door to hear the deep, throaty runs of notes. Now I hear his door slam.
“I need to go to Dad’s,” he says. “I left my new reeds at his house.”
His house, he says, as if I never lived there.
Lee spoons blobs of dough onto a second cookie sheet while we wait for the batch of cookies to finish baking. He carries two warm cookies on a paper napkin to the car.
“By the way,” he says as we drive, “Dad wants me to call before I come over.”
“Then you’d better call.” I circle back to the pay phone in front of the pharmacy.
When Lee returns to the car, his expression is unreadable.
“So?” I ask.
“So I called.”
“So what’s the story?”
“Just go,” he says.
When we arrive, there is an unfamiliar car — teal and sporty — in the driveway.
“I thought nobody was home,” Lee says, his hand on the gearshift, twirling the loose knob. “I left a message on his machine.”
“Do you want to leave?” I ask, letting it be his decision.
“No,” he says. “I need my reeds.” Slowly, he gets out. Halfway to the door, he stoops to pick up a flattened pop can in the driveway, and tosses it into a bag in the garage. On the stoop, he reaches for the doorknob, hesitates, then curls his fingers into a fist and knocks.
I wish a different life for him, one where he doesn’t have to knock on his own door. I consider ramming the teal sports car. After several minutes, his father answers, holds the door open a few inches while they talk, then disappears inside. Lee bats something invisible below the light fixture, a spider web, perhaps.
Finally, Marcus reappears, opening the door just enough to hand Lee his small plastic reed box.
As we turn onto our street, Lee slams the dashboard with his fist. “Next time I won’t call,” he says. “He can’t make me.” Then he covers his face with both hands. “I live there,” he says. I stop the car in front of the house, but he makes no move to climb out.
At the end of the month, Marcus arrives two hours early to pick Lee up. Lee has only just begun to assemble his belongings. He scurries to pack his suitcase, the duffel bag, the milk crate.
At bedtime, I flick off the front-porch light and yank my fingers back in pain, thinking I’ve been shocked. An electrical short, perhaps. Then a dot of red appears on my fingertip, enlarges, drips to the floor. Taped to the light switch are two glass-headed pins, their shafts carefully bent so that the points project outward.
On the back of a bill envelope, I collect the names and phone numbers of family therapists. Almost everybody I know is seeing a therapist, and I wonder how I have functioned this long without professional help. I make an appointment with the one psychologist who returns my phone call, sounds reasonable, and can schedule me within a week.
The walls of his office are thin. As I sit in the waiting room, I hear a deep, muffled male voice, then the peal of a woman’s laughter. The door opens, and a couple walks out smiling, as if leaving a funny movie. They must not have very many problems. The therapist — who insisted I call him by his first name, Monroe — appears next. He is a tall black man, his hair laced with gray, his eyes green and kind; good eyes, I decide, for a psychologist.
We exchange pleasantries, then cover the requisite background. Nine months divorced. No other children. Alternate-month parenting. Pin episode number one. Pin episode number two.
How close are Lee and I, Monroe wants to know. How did I discover the pins? Does Lee show his anger in other ways? He reminds me of my uncle searching for fishing worms. He would stop at a large rock, flip it over with his shovel, then run his fingers through the moist, flattened earth, digging deeper and deeper until he found the curled pink worms.
Monroe schedules an appointment for next Wednesday night. Marcus can come, too, if he likes. Although I can think of few things less productive than sitting for an hour in the same room with Marcus, I call him up and invite him anyway. He informs me that he sees no reason to come; he doesn’t have any problems with Lee, pins or otherwise. I hear the murmur of Marcus’s lowered voice, and the word therapy. The phone clunks onto the kitchen counter top. “I’m not going!” Lee yells in the background. “Pick up the phone and talk to your mother,” Marcus says.
“What?” Lee says to me.
I tell him I have made an appointment for us both for next Wednesday.
“You can’t make me.” He is sobbing. “Just try and make me go.” He slams down the receiver.
I don’t call back to make him say goodbye.
During the week, Lee leaves several messages on my machine, reminding me that he will not be visiting any “headshrinker.” So, the following Wednesday, I’m surprised to find Lee in his bedroom when I get home from work.
“Ten minutes,” I tell him sternly, though we both know I can’t force him: he’s too big for me to carry to the car.
But Lee is out the door before I’m even ready. I see him in the car, his head lowered. On the way to Monroe’s office we talk a little, not much. As I park the car, Lee grins, then opens his jacket to reveal his bicycle lock — a long, heavy-duty cable encased in red plastic — snaked around his thigh three times, then his waist, then through the handle of the car door.
“Gee, I seem to be locked to the car,” Lee says. “And, funniest thing, but I can’t remember my combination.”
I am silently furious. “We’ll sit here for five minutes,” I say. “Perhaps in that time the combination will occur to you.”
We both watch the car clock.
“I don’t remember a thing,” he says when time is up.
“Second floor,” I tell him. “End of the hall.” I walk slowly up the stairs to Monroe’s office, hoping to hear Lee’s footsteps behind me.
Monroe opens the door, smiling his pleasant smile. After I explain the situation, he picks up a chair.
“I’ll visit him in the car,” he says. “Do you think he’ll keep the windows rolled down?”
“They’re electric,” I say, dangling my keys. I follow Monroe and his chair down the stairs. When Lee sees us coming, he turns his head toward the dumpster. I climb into the car, lower his window, then take my keys out of the ignition. “I’m not going to spend my whole life looking for pins,” I tell him.
Monroe pulls his chair up to the car window, but not too near. “Bet you didn’t know I provide drive-through service,” he says, and then begins to talk, his voice low, soft, and resonant. I imagine Monroe leading the baritone section of his church choir. Lee looks down at his lap. When I see him blinking, fighting tears, I get out and walk to the other end of the parking lot.
I cut a deal with Lee: we visit Monroe every week for two months, but only two months. Sometimes all three of us meet together; sometimes Monroe talks to Lee alone. During the sessions, Lee refers to himself as a “tenant” in my home. He tells Monroe I could have stayed married if I’d really wanted to, if I weren’t so selfish.
He is, of course, right.
When the two months are almost up, Monroe asks Lee if he would consider extending the sessions for another month.
No thanks, Lee says.
After the last session, I take Lee to Dairy Queen for a sundae. As he spoons up the last of his hot fudge, I bring my thumb and index finger together as if pinching the head of an invisible pin and make a quick stab toward him. He pulls backward almost imperceptibly.
“You may be done with therapy,” I whisper, “but I’m done with pins.”
“All right,” he says, pushing his plastic ice-cream dish away, then looks down to hide his smile.
“Wipe that smirk off your face.” An elderly woman at a nearby table turns to glare at me. I glare back. “One more pin and we find another home for your lizards. Understand?”
“And I want an apology.”
But Lee doesn’t speak — not until we are almost home.
“I’m sorry,” he says in a small voice. “I hate it, that’s all. I just hate it.”
Once inside, he carries a lizard’s water dish to the bathroom, dumps the dirty water into the toilet, and cleans the dish. He walks back to his room, his elbows angled stiffly, his steps slow and even, careful not to spill the water.
While Lee is vacationing with his dad, he leaves me in charge of his lizards. One night after work, I discover a box on the front porch stamped FROZEN GOODS in bold red lettering. This is not anything Lee discussed with me before he left, nor is it noted on Lee’s carefully itemized lizard-care checklist. Tentatively, I pry open the cardboard flaps. Inside is a small styrofoam cooler labeled CAUTION: DRY ICE. As I lift the lid, I smell something fleshy. There is no dry ice inside, only a wad of newspaper, and beneath that a plastic bag filled with tiny pink-gray lumps. Examining it, I realize that I am looking at thawed infant mice — feeder mice, which Lee refers to as “pinkies.”
The thought occurs to me that there are limits to what a mother can be expected to do to encourage a child’s hobby. So far I have fed the meat-eating lizards only crickets and mealworms. Lee has explained, however, that they need progressively larger feed as they grow: first pinkies, then “fuzzies,” then “hoppers,” and finally mature mice.
I call the pet shop to ask if the pinkies are still safe for the lizards to eat.
“If they’re slightly cool, sure,” the clerk says. “Refreeze them on a cookie sheet and toss them into a zip-lock.”
I cover my cookie sheets with foil and arrange the tiny bits of curled flesh on top. Before placing the cookie sheet into the freezer, I remove one pinkie from it. I locate a shish-kebab stick in a kitchen drawer. Lee says the lizards need to think their food is alive.
The pink flesh resists the sharp point of the stick. I push harder until I skewer the meat. Then I dangle the pinkie in front of a Cuban anole, the ugliest of all Lee’s lizards, bumpy and prehistoric-looking. It can change color, and is now a deep, bracken green, like a large cucumber. I jiggle the stick to catch the lizard’s interest. I trail the meat along the floor of the tank, making the skewered pinkie hop, as if alive. The lizard eyes its prey, snaps, and works the flesh off the end of the stick.
It is Saturday night, and I am once again baby-sitting Mariah. Her mother tells me that, although she has had colic, she has mostly outgrown it, and now has more good nights than bad. This has not been one of her good nights.
I hear car doors slam, sounding suspiciously like the doors of a red Jeep. Marcus, home with Lee from vacation, has returned a day early. Clutching Mariah, I rush to the door to greet Lee as Marcus unloads the duffel bag and suitcases.
“Lee’s baby sister?” Marcus asks. “Fast work, Rochelle.”
“A friend’s baby. One I’ll be glad to hand back.”
Marcus pulls the blanket away from Mariah’s face to examine her more closely. “Six months?”
“You’re close. Seven.”
“Cute,” he says, “but not as cute as Lee was.”
“He was gorgeous.” Marcus and I smile at each other, pleased with the one good thing we produced as a couple. Then he leaves.
In the living room, Lee is pushing furniture back and forth, trying to catch crickets.
“What the heck happened?” he asks. “Why are the crickets loose in the house?”
I explain that, after I bought the crickets at the pet store, I left them unsupervised, and they chewed through the bag.
“Mom, geez.” He lifts the area rug and lunges for a cricket as it hops for cover.
“We’ll buy more. Right now,” I tell him. I pack Mariah into her car seat to make a dash to the pet shop, remembering, as I fish for her tiny fists down the sleeves of her knitted pink sweater, that there is no such thing as a fast trip with a baby. But for the first time this evening, she’s stopped fussing.
“She likes the car,” Lee says, turning around in his seat. I tilt the rearview mirror and see her happily studying a string on her sweater. As soon as I park, however, she begins to fuss.
“Make tracks,” I say to Lee.
After we return home, he spends most of the evening in his room, cleaning tanks, feeding lizards, unpacking his bags.
I bounce Mariah while swirling a frozen bottle of breast milk in warm water to thaw it. “Take in a movie after dinner,” I expansively offered my friend when she dropped Mariah off. “Don’t rush home.”
Lee joins me in the living room. He watches me rock Mariah, try to burp her, stick the bottle’s nipple in her mouth. As her screams become increasingly high-pitched, Lee says, “She knows you’re not her mother.”
“Not much I can do about that.” I struggle to flip her blanket open with one hand — I’ve lost my touch — then shift her from my shoulder to the carpet. “Maybe she’s wet.”
Mariah’s mother doesn’t believe in paper products. As I pull off her rubber pants and wet cloth diaper, Lee hands me a dry one from her bag. I fold it around her bottom, forcing the thick safety pin through the white cotton. I wonder if Lee notices the pin, and what he thinks about it.
“Always put your hand between the cloth and the baby so she won’t get poked,” I say. Lee nods, his face serious.
I take Mariah’s hands in mine to play patty-cake, but she continues to cry, stiffening with rage.
Lee says, “Let me try.”
He sits down in the rocker, and I pass the baby to him. She cries with renewed vigor. Lee tips the chair back and forth, and it makes a rhythmic creak with each push. He inserts the nipple into her mouth, pulling it in and out until she starts to suck. She stops drinking, shudders, then takes a few more sucks.
After she has quieted, he holds her small foot in his hand. He looks down at her, her lips relaxed in sleep around the nipple.
“She’s just a pinkie,” he says.
As he pulls the nipple out of her mouth, her face screws up as if she is preparing to cry, until he begins rocking again. He rocks her forward and back, forward and back. When she finally falls asleep, her face tucked into his chest, he stretches his heel forward to bring the chair to a gentle halt. Motionless, he sits with his long arms cradled around her. The room is hushed, without sound. From the darkness of the kitchen, a cricket trills, calling.