Two years she had been there. She learned how to keep the sink empty, how to vacuum like the carpet was corn field rows, and how to trudge through the tedious task of folding and putting away underwear. She hated laundry. Sometimes she’d hurl his t-shirts and unpaired socks into the dresser but her wifely instinct went off and she’d retrieve it and put it away properly. He always encouraged her to take pride in their small two-bedroom apartment. He’d tell her people in mansions were in mansions because they knew how to take care of themselves and they deserved to take care of the expensive marble in their foyer. He’d say, “People in messy trailers belong there. Of course they’re not successful. They can’t even take care of a tiny little single-wide.” She was proud of the life they made. She was the first of all her sisters to have her own place, after all. She was the first of them to get married and conceive a child. She and her husband were defined “accomplished” because they were so young. She was happy on paper— grateful was the word. She had always longed for the kind of life she had. The apartment, it was her space, her sanctuary. She knew where everything was and where everything was supposed to be. Instead of a college dorm, the apartment was somewhat permanent and she was able to draw the blinds and lock the door and walk around buck naked if she wanted to. When she got stuck on the Garden State Parkway in the winter, she had butterflies anticipating being in their comfy bed because she knew she’d be uninterrupted until morningtime. She’d smell French roasted coffee lingering over the sheets and find a plate of some kind of half-eaten pastry with a note: Must be a factory defect.
It was their place. She hung photos of their relatives all over the paper-thin living room walls. She didn’t see the sense in purchasing other people’s artwork. She didn’t understand what made the overplayed black and white skyscraper triptych better than a candid shot of her graying parents flirting. They were getting so old. It made her sad. She went to the mall to thumb through other options but all she found were paintings composed of abstract, convivial bodies—Palmer Hayden kind of stuff. The kind of artwork that made Harlem Renaissance Jazz ring right through the frame. She liked jazz a lot but she wasn’t interested. It was too cheap or too expensive. She wouldn’t know the difference. All she knew was that her three hundred dollar smartphone worked perfectly fine next to these paintings whether they were painted with a golden brush or a piece of chalk. There was more meaning to something she made. She took pride in her decorations and always judged the artwork hung on her husband’s coworker’s walls—demonstrative lurching over a canvas with a paintbrush. That wasn’t individuality no matter what their quotables read.
She took pride in the apartment, nonetheless. She tried her best to keep more soap from scumming on the chrome shower door, she opened the windows occasionally to exchange their hot breath for breezy, fresh air, she never touched the dishwasher so they could save energy and money. She hated cleaning but she did it because she took what Lare had to say in mind. By the time they saved enough money to rent a two-storey, three bedroom duplex, she was enthusiastic about cleaning. Best of all, her decorations were instead decor. The guest bathroom had a theme, the guest bedroom had a bed, the den had heavy blackout curtains and a beautifully comfortable futon. She couldn’t believe she deserved all of it. She and her sisters spent so much time making wish lists and drawing dream homes and all of her wishes and dreams came true. She even had a craft closet for all of the suitcases she purchased over the years, stuffing stuff into Space Bags and side zippers. She never made room for anything new and regretted it as she prayed for just a couple pounds more to compress everything she accumulated into her luggage. She’d get bruises from the tiny rigid zipper slider cutting the circulation of her thumbs off. But it was all worth it. She stood before the craft closet and the linen closet and the bathroom cabinets satisfied that she and Lare had yet to buy so much as a bar of soap.
In the few weeks they settled into their home, she knew she’d never tire of it. She knew because everyday she returned home and smelled Lysol off the hardwood floors, the place felt new. She’d become anxious at work or at the supermarket or wherever she went because she just wanted to be in the comfort of whichever room she chose. The living room was her favorite for a while because she purchased a firm recliner and it relieved the extra thirty pounds of pressure off of her swollen ankles. They walked upstairs to go to bed, they sometimes entered the house through the garage. She felt so grown up. She was living her childhood out in the matriarch’s position wondering how her mother bore sharing things with three other girls. And how entitled was she growing up. Their parents would come home with some warm fast food and she and her sisters would resent them for not sharing. Their parents deserved that McDonald’s or whatever else for having to put up with them.
She had an appreciation for their couches and their kitchen table and their pots and pans. She was appalled by the cost of things—simple things like mattress covers and a baseball bat for their bedside. Lare wanted a better garbage can—they got a stainless steel step can from Target. It was close to sixty dollars. She was weary, with every use, about their things depreciating. She even asked Lare not to set his size twelve feet upon the coffee table because she noticed the beginning stages of the finish chipping.
Lare was proud, too. He got up early to shovel the snow and dust their cars. He thought about his wife nuzzled comfortably in bed while doing so. The year they spent at the apartment felt like forever once it was emptied. She couldn’t stand the creaky terrace—she couldn’t even smoke cigarettes out there anymore. She watched Lare chuck his butts and play guitar from the inside. She was glued to the couch. She was confined there except for when she had to get up and plug the HDMI cord from the television to her computer or Google a different movie followed by the keyword “Putlocker.” They saved money getting rid of cable in the summertime. Lare also hoped that it would help them be more productive but that didn’t happen. There was nowhere else to go; nothing else to do.
She returned the main key and the mailbox key to their landlord with excitement. Her new home had a mail slot.
All of these things were just provided to her when she was a kid. She didn’t worry about what came in the mail or how much dust collected underneath the couch. Now, she had responsibility and two couches and a bathtub and a bookshelf should they decide to actually make themselves useful without cable.
She went into labor just weeks later and all of her motivation to keep things neat diminished. She grew frustrated realizing that she had gotten into the habit of tidying up after Lare. By nine o’clock, when it was time for them to turn in, her mental to-do lists would go awry. The throw pillows needed to be organized, throw blankets needed to be folded, dishwasher loaded, dreaded dryer clothing folded and put away. She didn’t even like going to bed that early. She did so the same reason she ate at the couch or at the counter or wherever Lare was—because she didn’t want to be alone. She had a spouse. There was no sense in doing things alone. She cleaned for Lare and waited for him on the couch while he smoked his cigarettes outside so he wouldn’t feel alone. By nine o’clock, Lare would plop into bed, read his phone for a minute, and then set it down when all of the lights were out to see if he had a chance in hell. He rarely ever did. His wife was much different than he was. She’d wash her face and her feet and clean her teeth before bed. He didn’t. He’d promise himself he would start the following night but he never did. And after rushing to clean up after him so she could meet him upstairs, she wanted to talk about their future, not sex. They’d turn over on their respective sides after disagreeing, Terry with her eyes wide open painfully forcing her active brain to sleep, Lare snoring within seconds.
During the overnight feedings, she realized she had forgotten how good it felt to be alone. Staying up was always liberating to her. Being awake while everyone was asleep made her feel independent. She missed the sound of her car quieting as she parked at the beach for no particular reason. She missed the smell of nighttime on the lukewarm sand and the cold ocean. She missed deciding, on a whim, that she needed a drink and then finding herself in a place pilsner glasses and beer mugs clanked and rumbled. She missed drunken conversation making the evening hazy, random outbursts of laughter, the front door swinging open and thudding close, the bartender blatantly ignoring loud storytellers sharing their last incredible hook-up account. She missed knowing where everything was just in case she wanted to quickly pack up and mosey onto somewhere else—hopping on a train, taking a flat rate taxi. The way it used to be.
Their home was way too big and they had been together too long. Things were getting all mixed up and being misplaced.
But the late night was her alone time. She stayed up so late sometimes the night became early and she’d hurry to get to bed if only for an hour. Going to sleep before the sun rose meant she slept the night before. She always had energy after exhausting herself with hours of middle-of-the-night “what if’s” and the draining, taxing task of breastfeeding. She became overwhelmed with sadness realizing their life was what she warned him it would be—it was it. Before their son was born, she wanted to leave every weekend. She wanted to go and enjoy life the way she used to but that didn’t make Lare comfortable. He had this idea that they’d end up in jail for urinating in public and she’d find it hilarious when it wasn’t. She threatened that she would go the bars by herself because he’d leave her no choice but she never did. He was her only friend. She couldn’t remember when she stopped feeling pathetic and started to actually be pathetic. Even when they weren’t arguing, she wanted to go with or without him because she knew that he’d never want to go out with her anyway and she wanted to become accustomed to being alone again. But she wasn’t alone—she had a spouse. He had some kind of hold on her. Meanwhile, he was anxious for the day she would. After their son was born, he still suspected she’d take off just to prove her point. But she couldn’t. She warned him that they couldn’t. That was the way it was.
She wanted to disconnect herself from him. She wanted to become one of those couples that woke up one day and realized they were sleeping in different rooms. In this way, they could mutually separate. But no, Lare had a hold on her. He didn’t have to do anything. He never had to hang out with her or talk to her or refresh the love they made—she’d just stay. He’d apologize here and there, have his presence to back him up, and she’d be smitten.
Two months passed and she told Lare that she was taking Titus to some car show downtown. She didn’t care much for cars and she couldn’t stand the kind of people that talked about them. But there was no cover, free food, other human beings she would possibly have adult conversations with, and it was the only thing that was going on in a long time. She buckled Titus into a carrier and perused the whitetented booths. Old white men in Ed Hardy attire was pretty much the scene. She left before it started, feeling defeated.
“How was it?” Lare asked, “I should’ve come, I know.”
The next morning, she stumbled upon a Facebook post about a winery across town and a special music guest. The event was between one and four. She looked at the time. It was two-thirty.
“I’m going over to Laurita’s!” she announced at the top of the stairs.
“What?” Lare asked.
She slipped into a maroon spring dress and did her makeup quickly. She was forging herself to be happy, forging herself to just do it. She smiled with Titus and danced with butterflies in her stomach—the kind of butterflies she got as a teenager when her parents allowed her to go to the mall for a few hours even though no one was going to be there and it was going to be a bust but she still wanted to go because she wasn’t sure when she’d be able to see the outside again. It was socially tormenting depending on a scarcity of events.
She took Titus down to his father trying to reject the thought of her heels getting caught on something and Titus’ head thumping to the ground. Lare looked impressed. All of her baby weight was gone and she was finally out of loose bras and shirts making it easy for her to nurse.
“I said I’m going over to the winery. They have something going on.”
He looked at her confused.
“I’ll be back one hour tops.”
“I really don’t think you should go.”
“Are you kidding me? I haven’t been out in a full year.”
She was offended and he wished there was a way he could convey that he was scared while preserving his manhood. Had she understood his feelings, she’d assure him that it was okay to be scared but treating her the way her parents did—sheltering her and limiting her—was not okay. But she didn’t. All she saw was a man trying to uphold his position of authority. She put some earrings on, kissed her son on the lips first and then her husband, and strutted to the door.
“Be careful!” he said, wanting to say more.
She did a tasting and decided on a bottle of Merlot mixed with cranberries and Chardonnay. A man three times her age snuck up behind her at the cash register and whispered with a crackling voice, “You have great legs.” She blushed. That’s when she knew she was drunk.
“Can I please have a cup of water?” she asked the bartender.
She fumbled for a moment trying to grab her pouch and the bottle of wine and her free wine glass and the plastic cup of water. She should’ve known her tolerance was out of practice.
“Do you need help?” the old man said loudly across the room.
She smiled. He helped her to her seat and said deeply, “I know you’re not drinking water. We don’t drink water around here.” He smiled widely and his chapped lips cracked. He pulled her seat back and said lowly and closely to her face, “I’m glad I could be of service.”
She would usually flirt back in an uncanny and fun nature but she had long become Lare in that she didn’t talk to anyone anymore, not even retailers asking how she was as a courtesy. So she sat in the white wooden chair he pulled out for her and responded to him not once. Her shoulder blades brushed his knuckles as she sat back and crossed her legs. He walked away, leaving her at the table alone. She flipped through photos in her phone as the musician wailed nineties hits into a slender microphone.
She texted an old friend: If the new rule is ‘if it’s safe to drive, it’s safe to nurse,’ what if I’m just a really good tipsy driver?
Her friend responded: Lol, I always pump and dump anyway.
She left once the musician started a “Hey Ya!” cover he probably thought was spunky. She knew for sure that her heel would catch on the rocky pavement and the bottle of wine would be splattered across her cream colored shoes by the time she’d get to her car. She was more concerned with staining her shoes because she they didn’t have the budget to buy more stuff. According to her anyway, they didn’t have the budget. She refrained from all money spending to maximize their credit. She was the kind of nonspender who felt guilty for losing a penny. But if she really wanted to be herself again despite Lare’s well-what-about-money’s and his well-what-if-things-get-out-of-hand’s and his you-love-purposely-putting-yourself-in-unnecessary-predicaments-that’s-just-you-we’re-different-in-that-way’s, she’d have to just do it.
She drove carefully in silence. For a moment, she really felt alone. She liked driving in the nature she was in. She saw the town they lived in through sobering eyes, not resentment and defensiveness. Her husband wouldn’t do anything with her but she had to explain why she wanted to find fun on her own especially in a place like the Township of Toms River. She didn’t have to explain herself to anyone when she was single. She was no one’s accountability and vice versa. When she was alone, she wasn’t fighting—she was just herself. When they married and she became a part of him and she felt more like a safety blanket than a partner. All she heard since they married was “I don’t” and “I can’t.” He didn’t value experiences—he just didn’t. She’d respond “so we’ll” and “we can” but they never actually did anything and she never just left like she wanted to. She hated that she was so selfless. She hated that she had this look about her that told people it was okay to take what they needed from her. She would never not be willing to give. She would be a unit with him like she promised through his mushing her face, saying, “You must love to see me bothered.” For a while, she felt loved by him and then she didn’t. Again, she was all alone.
He’d criticize her if he knew her before and he criticized her then, “What wife do you see just hanging out by herself? What if some guy tries to take you home? What then? Guys have taken you home in the past and what did you do then?” No guy ever took her home. She valued personal, intimate, anti-social solitude too much to let some guy take her home. If she needed to release some tension, she would have taken them home but never she the guest. She was in the position of authority—she told them when it was time to leave. In their world, she gave him the power but she was not comfortable with leaving him be and then returning to him when he needed her. She wasn’t accustomed to the role reversal. And she didn’t need sex. She longed for his affection. If she needed to release tension, she’d just do it herself. They were both just looking to be mollycoddled in areas they hated to tend to.
She arrived home still feeling lightheaded and danced through the door. The sound of her heels clanking on the living room floor made her feel womanly. She smooched Lare on the cheek, laughing and drooling over his lap. He chuckled. Titus had recently started to focus in on Sprout cartoons so he jerked and cooed to some episode he couldn’t have possibly understood. She reworked the lyrics to an iccessant intro song making the lyrics inappropriate and her voice sound more putrid. Lare chuckled, his lips tight.
“You hate me,” she smiled.
“I don’t hate you,” he said, sorry.
“It feels like you do sometimes.”
She played with loose thread on the hem of her dress.
“I just wish you were like this all the time,” he said.
She wouldn’t normally say anything. She didn’t feel natural explaining things that were elementary— straightforward—plain and dry to him. When she did, with tears streaming down her face, and he admitted that he still didn’t get it, she promised herself she’d abide by her instincts and preserve her feelings from getting hurt when selflessness or alcohol didn’t get the best of her. She wondered how much her discomfort would decrease if she was inebriated all of the time. She was often baffled by his stoic and unmoving reasons. Suddenly, she became angry and tense and worried about everything around her. That’s when she knew she was sobering up.
Titus cried on her lap to be fed. Lare dressed himself, telling her he had to go into the office to review a two-way quote the receptionist forgot to mention to him. She fed Titus as the sun set, her eyes burning from the vibrant and slow-moving animations. She stayed there on the couch for an hour longer mentally preparing herself to get up. Her dress was open, her makeup was probably smeared. Her eyes teared when she laughed hysterically and she usually forgot she had mascara on and rubbed her eyes vigorously. She was a disheveled mess. She loved being a disheveled mess in college waking up at noon, the entire length of her throat dry. She’d steal a water bottle from her foreign roommate’s secret stash. Asians had an endless supply of resources anyway. Those were the types of mornings she chuckled at in hindsight. This time, however, she was just an object. She was less than human because she couldn’t even enjoy these things for herself. She was sacrificial.
Titus began to squirm, urging her to put him somewhere else. She gave him a bath, wrapped him in his swaddle, and popped the buttons of her dress open so she could breastfeed him. She undressed in a way like she was preparing herself to animalistically give her body to something else. She was basically saying, “Come and get it.” She was the go-getter, not the gotten. Some mornings, Titus would fuss for hours, dissatisfied with his feedings segmented into increments of forty-five minutes. He’d cry until she finally slipped her shirt off and unclamped the back of her bra. That was what he wanted—he wanted to remind her that she had one purpose, too. The discreet lifting of her shirt and convenient unclipping of the nursing flap just wasn’t enough. She had to be bare.
Titus was asleep so Terry threw her dress and bra into their dirty pile and headed back downstairs to tidy up. She Snapchatted a picture of herself from the shoulders up captioned: Pros of having own place.
She came around the recliner to shut the television and polish the coffee table Lare marked with moist cup rings. The Billboard Awards were on. She wanted to just glance at it but the camera moved swiftly from John Legend’s baby face to a band awaiting their queue and she found herself captivated. Dan Reynolds whined into the heavy microphone and she two-stepped right there, the hairs on her shoulders standing up. She held her stretch-marked stomach with her right hand and her left hand clutched the air. It felt like yesterday she saw her naked body after delivering Titus. She did this thing where she laughed in disbelief with tears mixing with the day’s sweat. She wasn’t sure if it was funny or pathetic, if she was hot or if she was cold. The gaping hole that was once her son the fetus moved involuntarily with every breath she took with her stomach. She began to cry. She dragged her feet across the living room floor until the song ended, shut the television off, wiped the coffee table, and went upstairs to bed.
About the AuthorSarah Estime is an Aircraft Mechanic in the Air Force. When she is not working her day job, she is composing works related to literary fiction. She been published by the "African American Review," "Burner Magazine" and "O-Dark-Thirty." She currently writes for Blogcritics and Litro Magazine.