When the percolator's light came on I poured a cup of coffee, sat down at the table. The cup was part of a big dinnerware set we got at McKelveys after our honeymoon in New York. Shiny, bone white cups, saucers, plates. A sugar bowl.
All pale white...like Roberta's skin. At the hospital she looked like a china doll. 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 breathe out 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 curly hair was damp and 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 that it would eventually go away, that feeling of drowning. I was in the cold choppy sea, and the water was freezing me, choking me, and nobody would throw me a life preserver. Nobody. Not even Mike.
Why in hell 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.
After Mike moved out in January I was like a zombie for a couple of weeks, but Daddy talked me into going back to work at the bank. He told me I needed something to occupy my thoughts. He was right, as usual. I'd put in my eight, nine hours then pick up a few things at the grocery store, make something to eat, listen to the radio or read the paper, then sleep. Or maybe Harriet or Lois would talk me into going with them for a couple of drinks. We'd always drive way over to the West side just to make sure we wouldn't run into Mike.
I heard Mike groaning and moving around in the bedroom. Then the familiar sounds. Him peeing into the toilet. A prolonged, noisy stream. Then a series of short streams. The medicine cabinet's door opening and closing. Running water. The clink of the glass. He was taking his morning Bromo. Which he'd leave right on the sink because it apparently was too much trouble to put back into the cabinet. Also I knew I'd have to wipe off the toilet seat so I wouldn't have to sit on the wetness he'd left. That was my job. Cleaning up after him.
Mike appeared at the kitchen door. He had on his tan slacks, no shirt, no socks. He put his hands on the sides of his head, thrust his fingers into that dark, shiny mass of hair. "Holy shit," he said, grinning. "Was that a Mack Truck that hit me last night, or was it the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe?"
I poured him a cup of coffee. "We need to talk," I said. I hadn't planned on it, the words just came out.
His grin vanished. He sat down, carefully raised the cup to his lips and looked at me with his glassy, bloodshot eyes.
"So okay," he said. "I got drunk last night. But you were belting them down right with me. I thought we were having a pretty good time."
"It's not about that."
"So what's it about?"
"It's about your moving back here. I don't think you should."
He didn't do anything for a few seconds. Then gave me that evil glare of his. I didn't move. I knew exactly what was coming from him. By that time I was used to it.
"So why didn't you tell me that last night, huh?"
"I should have."
"Jesus Christ!" he shouted. "Do you even remember last night?"
"Yes, I remember last night."
"I told you I was going to bring my stuff over today, and what did you say?"
"I didn't say anything."
"Goddamnit, you didn't say no."
"But I should have."
He stood up, turned his back to me. He moved his head back and forth, as if he couldn't get the idea into his brain.
"Goddamn fucking BULLSHIT!" he shouted.
In a quick motion he put his bare foot on the edge of the seat of the chair, and shoved, hard. It skidded across the linoleum and banged into the refrigerator.
"It's just never going to work out, Mike," I said quietly.
He turned. "So why did you have sex with me last night?"
"I don't know. I shouldn't have."
"Why are you jerking me around like this? Is that the way you get your kicks?"
Mike got the chair, sat down. Leaned toward me. "Listen. Make up your fucking mind. Okay?"
"I have. There's no future for us."
"So that's it?"
"God DAMN it!" he shouted, and slammed his fist on the table.
"We don't have anything in common," I said.
"No? We're both Irish, aren't we? Our folks came from the old country, didn't they?"
"I need somebody I can depend on."
"Oh, yeah? I supported you. Paid for everything--the rent, groceries, everything. What do you want from me, Betty? You want me to cut my fucking arm off for you? What would it take, huh? Tell me."
He got up again.
"Sorry. Right. You're fucking sorry."
He disappeared into the bedroom. In a couple of minutes he was back in the kitchen, buttoning his shirt.
"Let me tell you something," he said. "You're no prize, either."
"I know that."
"No, you don't. You're selfish! That's right, don't look so surprised. The only one you really give a shit about is yourself."
I didn't say anything. I just shook my head.
"You look down your nose at me. But we're exactly alike. You just love having a good time. You drink as much as I do. Why is it okay for you, Betty, but not for me?"
"You want me to answer that?"
He sat down, tied his shoes. "Fuck you," he said. He got up, walked toward the front door. I heard him undo the chain but then there was a silence. He came back into the kitchen.
"One last thing," he said, his face all screwed up in an ugly sneer. "You were a lousy mother, and a lousy housekeeper. And you're not worth a shit in bed, either. I've had better blow jobs from..."
He ducked back through the doorway when I grabbed a cup and hurled it at him.
"You fucking whore!" he shouted. "That's all you'll ever be."
Then he slammed the front door.
Six or seven weeks later my face tingled and burned in those first few seconds of realization. It was exactly like the first time. Exactly the same. I shook my head, no. No, no, no!
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 suddenly thought of the word "God," and I felt like puking. I despised the sound of that pathetic little word.
God. Fuck God. I hated God. There could be no God that perverse. I'd already paid dearly for all my mistakes, every one of them. And I was still paying. I thought of all those fucked-up nervous Jesuits walking around down at St. Xavier's, giving out advice to married couples, talking about sin and sacraments, especially sin. They all were experts on sin.
I'd paid. And now The Bastard wanted more.
I could hardly breathe. I looked around the kitchen, wide-eyed and trembling. In two quick steps I was at the cabinet. I started with the plates. Those bone-white, shining plates. I flung one 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 goddamned piece of that shiny, bone-white dinnerware.
Then I looked for something else to smash.