My mother said Chester had some really annoying habits. Like, he used to hide his dirty underwear. Laundry day she had to go looking under the bed, or behind the bureau, or under a pile of shoes in the closet. They were always stained brown at the back and yellow at the front, and she wondered why he apparently didn’t bother to use toilet paper after he took a dump. Maybe he was deeply ashamed of himself. Well, she couldn’t understand any of that. That was just him.
Gradually I got the whole story from her in disconnected installments, a little here, a little there, every time I came to her house for a visit. She didn’t like talking about her life with that always angry drunk, but she did, once she found out that he always kept me in the dark, stubbornly refused to talk.
In those halting recollections of her troubled marriage she didn’t ever make excuses for herself. She said abandoning me was a terrible, unforgivable, unspeakable crime. HER crime. She said over and over and over again, “Johnny, you don’t know how much I’m sorry for what I did. It was wrong, it was the worst thing I could have ever done to you. I’ll regret it the rest of my life. And I know that God will never forgive me, no matter what I do or say. I deserve His punishment, I really do.”
Your sister Roberta, she said, was born on March 29, 1940. Doctor Tamarkin was off by only two days; he'd predicted March 27. They say that you don't have a good memory for pain, because otherwise nobody would ever have more than one kid. But I remember the pain. It was constant, and all consuming. I was in labor for seventeen hours. And then at the end of all that grunting and screaming and teeth-gnashing madness, I felt an oceanic rush, a glow, and I looked at Dr. Tamarkin down there between my legs, holding up my slimy, dripping little baby, that twisted cord running from her belly, and I felt a warm rushing sensation and I moved my head back and forth and I kept saying, "Oh Dr. Tamarkin, Oh, Dr. Tamarkin!" and it felt like nothing else in the world.
The nurse used a rubber syringe to clear my baby's nose and mouth of mucus, and pretty soon I heard her first sounds. They clipped off the cord, and sponged her off and wrapped her in a soft blanket and I took my daughter in my arms. My baby Roberta looked up at me with those enormous, intelligent eyes. Those eyes moved about the room, taking everything in. She saw it all: The big overhead light. The doctor and nurses in their scrubs and face masks and funny hats.. The clock on the wall, which said two in the morning. The shiny metal and glass incubator they eventually put her in. That's the most important thing I noticed about my daughter--how wide-awake and alert she was in the very first minutes. Those bright, beautiful brown eyes. You never forget something like that. Ever. Oh, and she weighed eight pounds, one ounce. Twenty-one and a half inches long.
Chet showed up around eight in the morning, red-eyed and shaking. He made a big show of how happy he was but I know he wanted a boy. He wasn't feeling too good, he said, because there had been a lot of celebrating going on most of the night at the Avalon Bar and Grill where he finally handed out the cigars and received the congratulations. He had two boxes of cigars, one with blue printing on the cellophane wrappings saying "It's a Boy!" and the other with pink. Just about everybody he knew bought rounds, and after a while he just lost count. And consciousness.
Chet’s mother Josephine and his sister Jane arrived in the afternoon. When my mother-in-law came into the room and saw me nursing Roberta she looked pleased. It was, I think, the very first time I saw that dour old woman smile. Jane was all right, too. She brought me some stuff she'd knitted--yellow booties and a cap and a cute little sweater with a narrow yellow ribbon intertwined in the collar. She'd picked yellow because she didn't know if it would be a girl or a boy, although she said she had a hunch it was a girl.
Somebody brought me a "Basket of Cheer," which was full of apples, oranges, grapes and a bottle of Guinness. The stout was to keep the breast milk flowing, they said. Josephine got a kick out of holding the baby. Jane looked like she had ants in her pants. When she poured herself a glass of water from a pitcher, she dropped the glass and had to go into the bathroom for some paper towels to sop up the mess. She didn't want to hold the baby, she said, because she was all thumbs. I found out later what had been worrying her. And it turned out to be funny as hell. Poetic justice, actually.
My friends Harriet and Lois made a big fuss over the baby, they took turns holding her and making all sorts of cooing and whistling sounds. They brought all sorts of stuff--diapers, little socks, a couple dressing gowns. Also a stack of magazines, a pound box of chocolate covered cherries. "Live a little," Harriet said.
Then my father Jack Joyce arrived. He looked at Roberta and wiped his tears with his knuckle. "Ah, what a darlin' child," he said, several times, holding Roberta out a bit and looking into her face. "And she's a bright one, that I can tell you," he said. "Just like her mother."
After everybody left they took Roberta away and I went into a deep sleep, and when I woke up I was very thirsty. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon and I thought that stout would really go down well. I rummaged through the basket, but the bottle was gone. I rang for the nurse and asked her if she knew anything about it, but she looked puzzled and said no. I shook my head and wondered, who would do a thing like that? Steal a Welcome Wagon's basket of cheer?
At two months Roberta was able to make her legs stiff when I held her in my lap, her first attempts to stand up straight. She'd sleep from about nine at night to six thirty in the morning. I could tell she loved to be held. When I fed her she put her little hand on the side of my breast. I hung a mobile over her crib, and she kept her big blue eyes locked on those little moving horses and stars. She liked holding onto things--either my finger or Chet's finger or soft things like the blanket. And she had a grip, that girl.
On her first visit to Dr. Tamarkin she eyeballed the pictures in the waiting room, and then when I took her into the examining room her eyes were darting all over the place and you should have heard how loud she howled when Dr. Tamarkin looked into her eyes, ears, nose and inspected her bottom. She screamed even louder when he gave her a shot. "Sounds like you've got an opera singer on your hands," he said. Which was a nice way of putting it, I thought.
When Roberta was three and a half months old, Chet decided we should take a weekend trip to Atlantic City. He wanted to show his daughter the ocean. We found an inexpensive, small rental house about six blocks from the beach. The sound of the waves and the salt air made Roberta sleepy, so Chet shoveled out a hole in the sand and put her in there, loosely wrapped in a light blanket, and she just slept until the tide started coming in. We took her out of the hole and moved up the beach a little and watched the water come in, a little bit at a time, until the foamy, lapping waves washed the hole away.
Women who don't have kids can't know what it's like. When I was pregnant I felt Roberta kicking really hard and so I thought it was a boy, and whenever I'd talk about the baby I'd say "he." But then it was okay that she was a girl. It wasn't that I wanted a boy more than a girl. I just couldn't call the baby "it." And it was a peculiar thing, trying to figure out our relationship. I was Roberta's mother but I didn't know what being a mother was supposed to feel like. Before I got pregnant I thought there would be an intense closeness between us because after all this baby had grown inside and was a part of me, but then I was surprised at how little of that I felt. We were more different than we were alike, if that makes any sense. What I mean is that from the very beginning she was herself more than she was a part of me. A distinct personality. Which was made up a lot of what her father was, and some of what I was. I thought love and closeness would be automatic and unconditional, but it wasn't.
When Roberta started teething she cried all the time and nothing I could do would make her feel better. I resented having to get up early to fix breakfast for Chet and when he left having to wash the dishes, and vacuum the rugs, and wash the windows, and change diapers, and everything else. I couldn't get enough rest, I was just exhausted all the time. Roberta was resisting taking her afternoon naps, either because of the discomfort she was feeling or maybe it was because she was starting to get sick. I don't know. It was hell. But after about a week or two of this, when I got totally fed up and was ready to scream, she calmed down and looked up at me with her beautiful brown eyes and gurgled and smiled.
About that time she started deliberately wrinkling her nose, which always made me laugh. She charmed everyone we ran into on our perambulator walks. Old men, old women, even young men who happened to look over. All she had to do was wrinkle her nose and gurgle and they'd lean over and say, Oh, aren't you the cutest little thing? Everyone said she was so bright, and alert. Those eyes. Always looking at things. She was precious.
I'd push that perambulator down to Crandall Park and sit on a bench and think a lot about the future, and how Roberta and I might relate to each other. I always thought we'd be more like friends than like mother and daughter, because I thought that mother-daughter stuff was...what? Too much. I wanted something more easy going, and less intense. I never liked the idea that a mother should just accept everything a kid ever did without question, or that a mother should give up absolutely everything for the sake of a child. I envisioned someday being able to sit down with Roberta and really talking like good friends. About life, about men. Like I could sit down with Lois, or Harriet. Especially Harriet. I felt closer to Harriet than I did to Chet, because I knew on a lot of important levels Chet didn't have a clue.
And as much as Chet said he loved me--with all those love letters and copied-out poems in a notebook--I know he didn't know who I really was. He was in love with his idea of me, which was a sort of combination of the Virgin Mary and his mother with a little Mexican whore mixed in there for when he was looking for a good time. Mostly he wanted to be taken care of, that was number one on his list. He wanted me to make up for what he didn't get out of life. Poor baby, he always felt like he'd gotten short-changed somewhere.
Anyway, I grew to love Roberta not because she was my daughter, but because she was Roberta. I saw her personality emerge in those first nine, ten months. Her intensity. Her curiosity. Always giving things the once-over, examining everything she could get her hands on. I loved the way her chubby little hand would wave in the air or touch the side of my breast, or grasp onto the edge of the blanket or around my finger, and how she liked to sit up in my lap to get a better look at the world. Before I weaned her she played a game. She'd be sucking on my nipple until she was full, then she'd pop off, and look at me. Then she'd go back on the nipple, suck hard once or twice, then pop back off. And wrinkle her nose. She knew exactly what she was doing.
Roberta got her first teeth--two narrow little pearly whites on her bottom gum--at seven and a half months. A month and a half earlier she'd said her first word. "Da-da." That made Chet's day.
It was early January. Lots of cold rain. On the third, which was a Wednesday, the temperature dropped and the rain froze and put a sheen on the roads and covered the black tree branches and telephone wires with a thick crystal coating of ice. Early the next morning the gray clouds moved out and the bright sun sparkled on the ice. People were shuffling along the sidewalk, trying hard not to fall down and cars were spinning their tires and fishtailing on the road.
The apartment was chilly because something was wrong with the furnace, and we had to call the landlord a couple of times and complain. He said he'd get someone over as soon as he could, but it was hard because everyone was having problems that time of the year.
Roberta was unusually quiet, but I didn't pay much attention. I thought she probably wanted to catch up on some rest, as I most certainly wanted to do, so I left her in her crib. I remember that I spent most of the morning with the radio on. I sat at the kitchen table and read the paper, eating toast with cherry jelly, sipping from a cup of tea. Afterward I took a nap. Woke up in a dreamy mood, looked at the clock. Ten fifty-five. I stared at the ceiling. I heard just the slightest of sounds. The wind rattling the window just a bit. The quiet, warm hum of the electric clock.
I went to the bathroom, peed. I brushed my hair at my dresser, then put on a pair of slacks and a thick cable-knit sweater. I went over to Roberta's crib. She wasn't moving. I put my hand on her face and was startled at how warm she felt.
Three days later she was dead. Bronchial pneumonia, an extremely severe case. There was nothing they could do. She also had what they called a benign brain abscess, secondary to the pneumonia.
My baby was dead.
Chet couldn't stop crying. He'd be okay for a couple of minutes, then he'd sink down, hands on his face, bawling. Oh, God. Oh, God.
They started asking me questions. They wanted to know why the apartment was so cold. And when was the last time you fed that baby? Changed its diaper? Why was the apartment so cold? Didn't you think it was dangerous for the baby? Jane wasn't so bad, but Josephine made it pretty clear to me that she figured it was all MY fault.
She just couldn't stop saying how cold the apartment was when she showed up to take the baby to the hospital. All right, the apartment was cold. Yes. Cold. Okay? I should have done something. Yes, of course. I should have called the cops on the landlord, had him hauled off to jail because a cold apartment is dangerous for a baby. I can see how this is all my fault.
Josephine noticed all the dishes in the sink that I hadn't gotten around to, and she noticed the block of cheese in the fridge that had gotten dried and cracked, and the splotches of spaghetti sauce on the stove, and the film of grease on the cabinet above the stove. She noticed all those things. A hamper full of dirty clothes that I hadn't yet gotten around to washing. All the shoes in the closet jumbled up, not sorted out carefully by pairs and in a straight row. She didn't miss one single mistake. Not one.
I don't remember much about the funeral, except that the coffin was so small. A white shoebox almost. A tiny white box lost in all those flowers. All those people talking to me, murmuring. At the cemetery the wind was blowing and the green canvas tent kept flapping. My dad, and Harriet and Lois were there. Harriet more or less took charge, which made Jane give her dirty looks.
All of it was a blur. Afterward we went back to the apartment and I wondered when I'd get around to packing up all that baby stuff and giving it to Goodwill. All those details that I'd have to take care of, since Chet certainly wasn't in any shape to do it. And I wasn't in the mood for Chet anymore. I told him, go away. Go live with your mother for a while. I need some time. Go. Please.
It was April, very warm. Lots of green everywhere. Chet wanted to talk. We sat on a bench in Crandall Park near a large bed of crocuses.
"We can't just throw away the marriage," he said.
"You don't have a clue," I said.
"I lost a daughter, too," he said.
"But your mother and sister didn't blame you. Did they?"
I don't know why I sat and listened to him that afternoon. I was sick of him, sick of his family. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted to leave town and never come back. But I sat there, listening to him. I don't know why.
"I'm sorry about that. I really am," he said.
"Right. You just stood there while they trashed me. You didn't say a goddamned word, Chet."
"I don't need that kind of pain, Chet. Not ever again. I won't forgive them. Ever."
Chet sighed. He had his hand on the back of the bench, behind me. He looked out over the big lawn, down toward the pond where all the Canada Geese and Mallards were swimming around.
"Forget my mother and sister," he said. "Forget them. This is between you and me. What I'm trying to tell you is that we had something together. Something important. And it would be a crime to just throw it away. Marriage is a holy sacrament..."
"Stop it," I shouted. "For Christ's sake please don't be such a fucking hypocrite! You don't believe that stuff. You never go to mass."
"Okay, okay! Wait a minute. All right, forget the sacrament. You're right. I don't go to mass and I don't believe in that stuff. But what I mean is that marriage is important, it's worth working on. It's gotta be, you know? You just don't throw it away when things get tough."
I turned. Looked at his earnest face, that mop of dark hair. Those puppy dog eyes. "You always find the words, don't you? You always say the right words. It's what you do that bothers me, Chet."
"But I mean the words, Betty. Honest to God."
"You may mean them now, but what about next week? Next month?"
"I can change."
"What's talking now, Chet? You're lonely, you're horny, that's all. You think I can do something for you, just like your mother always did something for you. But what about me? Did you ever think once that I might have needed some comfort? When your mother gave me that crap about what a lousy mother I was...you just stood there, saying nothing. You didn't' have the balls to face her down, to stick up for me, your own wife. You abandoned me, Chet. You were thinking only of the pain YOU were feeling. You didn't think of me."
I listened to that man all afternoon. And that night I made the second worst mistake of my life. I let him talk me into it, in the back seat of his car. He was so needy. He always was needy, he could never get enough. It was a mistake. I should have told him that it was over, permanently. And everything would have been different.
The faint light of dawn was in the window, a rosy glow between dark bands of clouds. I'd been awake, thinking, for a long time. I eased out of the bed, slowly disentangling myself from the twisted sheets, not wanting to disturb Chet. He was on his stomach, one hand under the pillow. His hair was a funny, tangled mess, and he needed a shave. His bare foot stuck out over the bottom of the bed. His pants, underwear, shirt and socks were in a pile on the floor.
I caught his scent. Underarm sweat. Stale booze. Vomit. I'd heard him in the middle of the night, in the bathroom, groaning and gagging. I wondered, what was it about this particular man that made me do so many things I didn't really want to do? Why had it been so easy for me to tell all the others to go take a hike when they annoyed me or I got tired of them?
They say you usually end up with a man who reminds you of your father. Well, Chet wasn't anything at all like my father. Daddy was strong, and kind, and thoughtful. Daddy usually thought of others before he thought of himself. Daddy had a real sense of humor, a smile on his face most of the time. Also he was very neat, picked up after himself. He could sing perfectly on key, too. Chet would turn on the car radio and sing along but he always was flat and it embarrassed me because he'd keep singing, full of himself, acting like he was Frank Sinatra, but he was flat and didn't even know it. And that's because Jack was right--Chet never listened carefully to the music. He heard only himself.
I flushed the toilet, which Chet hadn't bothered to do after he'd thrown up. From the cabinet I took the bottle of Air Wick, pulled out that wet, green felt thing attached to a wire loop and set the bottle on the toilet tank. I pulled off my nightdress. Took a long, hot shower.
When the percolator's light came on I poured a cup of coffee, sat down at the table. The cup was part of a dinnerware set we got at McKelveys after our honeymoon in New York. Shiny, bone white. Cups, saucers, plates. A sugar bowl. Pale white...like Roberta's skin right after she died. She looked like a china doll. At the hospital she'd been struggling, trying to breathe. I sat by her bed and tried to soothe her but she coughed and gagged and I heard the rattle of phlegm in her throat. Then she got real quiet, and I thought she would finally get some rest. But then I heard her expel a long sigh...I guess I was dozing off at that point, and that sigh just jerked my head right up, and I looked at my baby and saw she wasn't moving at all, and I got up and pushed open the door of the room and yelled down the corridor for the nurse. A couple of them came in and looked at her, but they shook their heads. There was nothing they could do, they said. My baby's fine, curly hair was damp and was stuck to the side of her head, and her skin was perfectly white like a porcelain mask. So white. That sweet baby who smiled...wrinkled her nose at me, made me laugh so often.
I tried not to think of those things, but just about everything I ran into reminded me of my baby. Just the color white, which was the color of that tiny coffin they put her in. Or pink. Or anything knit. I'd be at McKelveys. There always was a young mother pushing a perambulator, or carrying a baby in her arms. Or I'd be at the grocery store, next to the canned soups, and see all the Gerber's baby food. Strained carrots. Reminders everywhere--at the magazine stand, walking on the sidewalk, riding a bus, or listening to the radio. No matter what I'd do or where I'd go I'd see something that would trigger the memories.
Awake or asleep, I saw images of my daughter. Her tiny hand resting warmly on the side of my breast as she suckled. Her shuddering little sigh when she finally had enough to drink and dozed off in my arms. The ribbon that intertwined the collar of her knitted nightshirt. The smell of talcum powder on her skin after a bath. The scent of sweetness.
They kept telling me the pain would go away in time. But the pain didn't diminish. And it seemed to me that it even got worse. Especially when Chet came back, telling me we just couldn't throw away the marriage
Why did I listen to him? We'd been apart, what? Three months. Time enough to decide that I needed to go in a different direction. During those three months alone I didn't miss him at all. I thought I would because he was my husband, the father of my daughter. But I didn't.
A month later my face tingled and burned in those first few seconds of realization. It was exactly like the first time, when I knew I was pregnant with Roberta. Exactly the same. I shook my head, no. No, no, no! Absolutely unbelievable. Chet and I had sex only once that night, in the back seat of his car. The night before I told him it was over.
Despite all that, I was pregnant again. With YOU Johnny! With you. But I thought I'd be absolutely sure. Made an appointment, went to Dr. Tamarkin. It didn't take long. He called me himself, personally, to give me the blessed news. "Congratulations, my dear," he said.
I put down the phone, and bit my lip. I just couldn't believe it. Why was this happening to me? Hadn't I already gone through hell? How much was I supposed to endure? I thought of the word "God," and I suddenly was filled with a powerful loathing. I despised the sound of the word.
God. Fuck God. I hated God. There could be no God who was that perverse. I'd already paid dearly for all my mistakes. I was still paying. I thought of all those fucked-up priests at St. Anne’s and St. Casimir’s, giving out advice to married couples, talking about sin and sacraments, especially sin. All about how God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.
I'd fucking paid. And now He wanted more.
I could hardly breathe. I looked around the kitchen, wide-eyed and trembling. In two quick steps I was at the cabinet, and I threw open the door. I started with the plates. Those bone-white, shining plates. The dinnerware set we'd gotten at McKelvey's after our honeymoon in New York. I flung a plate into the sink as hard as I could. It shattered. I took the next plate, threw it, hard. And I continued. One piece after another. Big plates, small plates. Saucers, cups. Sugar bowl. I continued until I smashed every single piece of that shiny, bone-white dinnerware. Then I looked for something else to smash.