Laura allows herself this. Allows herself this first moment to stand under the stream of near-scalding water. Really it only feels this way. The water is nowhere near scalding because Laura, years ago and pregnant for the first time, extracted the flashlight from the utility drawer, made her way around the back of the house and reset the water heater from a sure-to-scald one-hundred-ninety degrees to a temperate one-twenty-five. Just as they caution in all the parenting magazines. So the water feels hot and Laura loves this first moment under the heat and the steam and the force of the water.
But the moment must end and hers has already exceeded its definition. The moment lapses to almost a minute, maybe more, one in which Laura finally promises to begin her ablutions at the count of ten and when ten becomes fourteen (fourteen being her favorite number, the fortuitous birth date of her middle child) she forces herself to count backwards, barring the possibility of negative numbers falling out the back side, of extending what she still thinks of as a moment.
She reaches for soap and there surfaces another moment. One that has been creeping about the edges, through the buttering of her children’s toast, the packing of lunch boxes, the debate as to ponytail versus braids. Through the respite of water surfaces a replay, sharp analysis of the intonation of her husband’s impatient early-morning, what? Laura was rooms away, far enough that he had had to yell, but she could tell from the flattened quality of his voice that his chin had been up-stretched, the shaving cream disappearing in long sweeps. She hasn’t watched him shave in years. She used to sit on the closed lid of the toilet or lean a hip against the counter to witness the deft experience of each neat stroke that always struck her as more befitting a father than a boyfriend.
Then he became a father, of her children. Laura was inevitably awake already with one of their kids by the time he was shaving and not she but one of them would be sitting pajamaed on the lid of the toilet and there were elaborate imitations of Santa Claus because he was that kind of father. Rooms away she heard the impatience in his what? and she called back, repeating whatever had been so urgent and indecipherable.
Just as Laura draws her own razor over the stubble of her left armpit and replays a newly nuanced version of Adam’s what? her youngest strays. Now Laura knows she sounds ridiculous answering twenty-two months when asked her toddler’s age, and does so only in certain circles. But while she acknowledges the absurdity, she is also aware that this is the last opportunity granted by playgroup and playground protocol to assign months to a child. To this, her last, this most tractable infant who slept through the night at a not-to-be-believed five weeks, napped predictably and ate heartily. The easy one who makes it that much more difficult for Laura to think this will be her last. But so the easy one, this morning, strays.
No logical explanation can be made for this departure. Call it a developmental milestone, a slightly early exercising of the independence that comes with turning two. The departure is illogical because Laura checked the diaper and heated the bottle, waited for the beloved Elmo segment of Sesame Street to take her shower. She ensured the most engulfing of the beanbag chairs, a blanket, the crucial lovey.
The lovey crucial in part because Laura had heard the story ad nauseum of her father’s cavalier tossing out of her lovey bunny. She herself had repeated the legendary tale, but even she, the victim, told it largely to absolve, to make light of what they recast as her father’s non-malicious, if obtuse, blunder. But not until her first son developed an intense attachment to a particular striped tiger did she fully realize the gravity of her father’s crime. So when her eldest began toting about the tiger, Laura laid in three identical models, safely cloistered on the top shelf of her own closet for the day when Tigg was forgotten at a rest stop or ripped apart by the latest puppy or tossed into the garbage by an oblivious grandfather. Such extensive preparation was, of course, unnecessary, because even as the other two children arrived and three copies of an unsightly purple blanket and then three weak-necked giraffes were added to the top shelf, never once did Laura leave a playdate or a birthday party before ensuring that any and all loveys were safely tucked under their corresponding arms.
And when their eldest was six and had long disdained stuffed animals, Adam made the mistake of suggesting that they remove the tigers to make room for the sports equipment he was accumulating in what would amount to a rather tame mid-life crisis. He had actually suggested the removal of the purple blankets and the giraffes as well, but Laura was unable to accept the breadth of the suggestion and only heard the part about the tigers. What she failed to see was her husband’s dire late-thirties need for her to recognize how the recent hours in the gym had almost restored his adolescent physique. How the Tuesday evening hockey league allowed him a high decibel, fuck! at every missed goal. And though Adam failed to acknowledge, he obliquely understood that the removal of the tigers in favor of his gym bags was exactly the replacement his wife most feared. Because fewer tigers meant less of her in the closet. The tigers were Laura’s in the same way that her children were more hers than his, and there was much of Laura’s own long-discarded lovey bunny there on the top shelf. Besides, his hockey equipment smelled unbelievably bad.
So the toddler, despite the presence of the original weak-necked giraffe, leaves a manic Elmo chatting with his eerily sedate goldfish and pushes through the mostly closed door of the playroom.
What does not surface as Laura stands in the stream of warm water but undeniably colors her ultimate view of the imminent shower-toddler traumatization was what lay on the other side of a door that thirteen-year-old Laura, not unlike her toddler, once pushed through. A door across the vast night-time terracotta patio of her Calistoga childhood that led to a dim foyer and an even more dim barn-like living room, and this wide front door should not have been ajar. She wished then that she had not insisted that her carpool drop her at the end of the long gravel drive, that it was fine! she would be fine! that there was no need to wait for the flashing of the porch light that was their usual 4-H carpool signal that all was well. She crossed the patio and entered and this was worse even than suspected because of the immediate realization that she needed to call out. She lofted a tentative hello? To no response other than her mother’s sudden parrot screeching an awful, illogical: lettuce!
The toddler pushes through his door into the long hallway, turning away from the master suite where Laura is showering. The toddler heads toward the kitchen when suddenly there glints the captivating metallic belt around a green wasp-like Power Ranger waist! The errant action figure compels the toddler to crawl into the acute angle between the open door and the wall because this toy has somehow gotten lodged with one surprisingly large, laser-ready green fist in the small gap between the open door and its frame and no manner of tugging will set this super hero free.
Had Laura seen it all unraveling, she would have recognized the unyielding Power Ranger as the turning point. Conceivably her littlest one could have safely wandered the house alone for the duration of a shower because there were no cleaning supplies under any sink and all cabinets and drawers were appropriately locked and every single electrical outlet had its requisite plug. And maybe, hours later, Laura should focus on how all her doomsaying preparation meant that no physical harm befell her toddler, but in any retrospect Laura would have seized upon the debacle with the Power Ranger as the point in which things, for her youngest, became dreadful.
Decades before, the hazards of Laura’s childhood living room were far more daunting. She completed a quick inventory and found all three dogs lounging in their usual places. Each, with unnatural simultaneity, only lifted a lazy head to peer at her. No bounding, no greeting because there had been no conversation en media res, no telltale jangle of the bell on the inside of the front door, and so all immediately lay down, sides heaving, suspiciously nonplussed. Leading Laura to be sure in the indolent arc of the necks that these dogs had been drugged, that her entire family had been shot or stabbed or strangled and then tied up together, or left strewn about, or they had been possessed! She stood in front of the cavernous fireplace and tried to determine the least inauspicious, a move forward or a move back.
In the shower Laura counts another moment to its zero and thus has no choice but to keep moving forward. She is now onto the conditioner and knows she should be washing her face as it delivers on its promise of reconstruction with four amino acids and keratin, but indulges instead in a third moment of simply standing. She stands, rationalizing that she is actually combating the nefarious effects of stress as water is restorative and therapeutic and will benefit them all. She has no reason to think specifically of the toddler, because her youngest has created in her a sense of security that has yet to become false.
As she stands, Laura becomes absorbed in eye-level fine print, in the natural spring water and the lauryl sulfate and the fact that this brand was manufactured with pride in Hallville, Illinois. Then a return to lauryl sulfate and lauryl sulfate again and why lauryl sulfate? And she realizes, is suddenly convinced that lauryl sulfate is the laboratory-proven carcinogen in her recently discarded antibacterial soaps. This agent was reason enough to abandon the neon plastic pumps, which she had clung to even with the prospect of producing ever-more resistant strains, because there was always a new baby in the house and the threat of bacteria grew exponentially. So Laura is suddenly, horribly aware that she has massaged lauryl sulfate into her scalp every other morning for months, anxiety that deepens with the thought of what this lauryl sulfate is undoubtedly doing to the fetus. Which eventually brings a modicum of relief as Laura remembers that she is not in fact pregnant, that for the first few months in slightly under a decade there is no chance of being pregnant because there was a vasectomy.
Decades before, young Laura grew cold in her indecision there in front of the empty fireplace and sought was retreat in another bathroom. She looked back through the front door that she had been afraid to close for fear of what she might contain. There patio was simply no possibility because surely there were legions, at least three or four, or worse, just one, crouching out there, or the back patio, or more likely in her bedroom, because he would know which room was hers. He would know that she was to arrive home by seven because her mother would have been forced to divulge, an arm twisted cinematically behind her back, that their eldest daughter would be home from 4-H by seven. Her mother would have offered then that Laura’s was the second room on the left.
Little consideration was necessary. Laura turned from the hallway that led to the girls’ bedrooms, turned away from both the front and back doors toward the one room with no exterior walls, the small downstairs guest bath. Laura forced herself to walk quickly but with studied nonchalance, knowing that the minute she broke into a run he would be real, and just behind her.
The toddler tugs and looks surprised when all at once the green super hero leaps up. But all is illusion and the Power Ranger is not free. He has simply risen quickly in the fat fist that pulled up once, allowing for momentary but thoroughly restricted ascent. All of which makes things infinitely worse. The toddler looks reflexively over a shoulder for the mother who should be there already to free this toy. But the mother is absorbed in the rising panic of lauryl sulfate and no one hears the initial frustrated cry. And Laura, had she been, say, reading to her middle child on the couch and reluctant to put the needs of the baby once again before this middle child, Laura would have let this incipient cry develop. As it escalated she would have grown tense with wanting to be both behind the door and on the couch — or maybe neither — but she would deny this last thought and she vow then to try harder. She would still, at this point, identify the toddler cries as simple frustration, but at the leaping up of the still stuck super hero, at the maternal absence there in the angle of the door, the crying borders upon something else.
Laura rinses the toxic conditioner, actually scrubs at her scalp, tortures herself by imagining that this very application contains the free radical that will have her, within months, in a hospital bed with her three children brave yet weeping around her. She teases out this familiar and somehow validatingly perverse scenario, reminding herself yet again of the worst of it: how someone else will read to them on her couch, how her children will fall in love, graduate, marry and have grandchildren that she will never know.
The poignancy of Laura’s children at her deathbed is somehow less complicated than the actual situation in the kitchen. For the toddler has migrated, abandoning the Power Ranger after adding volume and timbre to the wail, after looking over a shoulder into only a void. The toy is suddenly of little consequence and the new tone and depth of the crying would have brought Laura hurrying from even the most critical stage of any dinner preparation.
Despite her childhood coat, despite the warmth of the guest bath’s heat lamp, Laura was cold. She realized as she sank to sit on the plush white bathmat that she was freezing because her pants were wet from the knees down. In which she found strange comfort because Laura’s pants were not only wet but incredibly muddy and there were irregular but clearly identifiable splotches over a good portion of the bathmat and when her mother returned from whatever cocktail party they have doubtless gone to there would be hell to pay. Laura was immediately lost in increasingly elaborate repercussions because these were far easier to consider than how, with her recent locking of the interior bathroom door, the dismemberment of her family had become an actual possibility. Or maybe they had simply, the four of them, left her. So extra chores, grounding, her mother’s muddy wrath was preferable to abandonment, to the abyss outside the locked bathroom door.
Laura looks down in the shower at the way the warm water rushes in wide glossy rivulets over her breasts and this image melds with the dire understanding that if her children survive her Adam would remarry and that this stepmother would not be wicked, but adored. This stepmother would have sex with Adam every day. She would have the enormous pin-up breasts that Laura had failed to inherit and this stepmother would be effortlessly orgasmic and would arrive replete with an array of sex toys that would have him fabricating off-site meetings so that he could come home for the not infrequent nooner.
Because Laura prefers sex in the middle of the day. She catches herself driving the mid-day carpools imagining herself nude, in their bed, beckoning. Laura even masturbates on the occasional afternoon, only now with her older two in school and her toddler napping. But by the time Adam is home she is frustrated that he had said seven and it is eight and then he gets the kids all riled up and they don’t go down until almost ten, and then there is expectation in his proximity in their queen-sized bed. He has no idea. His dress shoes heaped in the living room, his dinner plate rinsed but ever failing the dishwasher, his inability to focus on the only question that she had asked all evening. It was true that the middle child was on his lap when she posed this single question and the middle child was voluble and needed his attention badly badly and Laura knew she was unfairly testing him and so she gave up. All this and his glob of toothpasty spit in the sink make sex improbable at best.
Young Laura had twisted to look over the edge of the guest bath tub and was considering the possibility of washing out the bathmat right there when she heard the familiar crunch of gravel. This was no ax murderer’s get-away car because it smacked of sedan and the slow crunch was growing louder as it continued up the drive and rubbered silently into the garage where there was a slamming of four doors. Laura was first relieved then alarmed at the reality of their arrival and the ruined bathmat and any other muddy wreckage she had unwittingly wrought.
The toddler enters the kitchen to the fleeting succor of the subtle cranking of the icemaker that means finally her mother has come, she must be there near the refrigerator, but the ensuing rumble and crash of ice cubes is disconcerting at best. The crying ratchets in continued absence, becoming all the more desperate as the toddler gambols on bowed legs into the bright mid-morning light of the dining room where the reflection of the sun on the dark hardwood proves overwhelming. She is confused, moves forward into the glare, finally finds some solace in the relative glow of a niche under the dining room table. She crouches with twin trails of clear snot running from nose to mouth and the wailing is now punctuated with silences that are miserable efforts to catch her breath. This rivals any crying this youngest child has ever done because at twenty-two months the awareness of the void is inflicting significantly more psychological damage than even six months ago when a trusted, smiling nurse firmly gripped an upper arm and punctured and pressed.
Just as Laura registered dismay at the bath mat, she was newly heated by sudden anger. She tried to imagine why they had left the door wide open. Why they had not even thought to write her a note. Maybe a split-open chin, an unlikely paternal heart attack, but under these floated the more probable cocktail party. She unlocked and emerged, standing in the hallway wanting to see a revealing cast, a telling bandage, but as they filed through the open front door Laura saw no stitches, no bandages, not a crutch. She realized not only that they were not maimed, not dismembered, but that her parents and her sisters looked relatively dressy, which pissed her off.
Laura’s mother, Marian, led them. She entered the living room through the now completely ordinary front door and in her stride toward the kitchen she almost ran into her eldest daughter who was standing just beyond the narrow circle of light the lamp threw over the wingback chair. Marian stopped suddenly, startled, and squinted into the darkness at her daughter with, Laura! Jesus, you scared me! She moved past, leaving her daughter in the irony of this accusation. She crossed the kitchen to the bar where she and began to wrestle the cork from a bottle of red wine.
What Laura wanted to say was, why were you not here when I got home? and why did you leave the front door wide open? and it was so scary when you were not here when I got home! but what came out was, where were you guys? And this was quiet, evincing neither anger nor fear despite the lingering image of her entire family strewn and bloody about the kitchen.
Marian peered then at her daughter and thought, why is she standing there in the goddamn dark? She squinted into the darkness. She fumbled, stalled, filled her glass then forcing the cork into the bottle. It was beyond Marian why Laura had not been with them at the godforsaken Back-to-School Night. Marian hadn’t really thought about the fact that Laura hadn’t been with them. In part because Marian generally fared poorly at Back-to-School Nights. She once, long ago, forgot her annual roommother day and the teacher’s matronly reproach had soured any and all future parent-teacher interaction. She couldn’t stand the arts-and-craftsy sweatshirts that were some sort of elementary school teacher uniform and was especially put off this year by what she plainly identified as dandruff in the eyebrows of her youngest daughter’s adored Miss Moore. And when the offending dandruff was duly reported to her husband during the car ride home as undeniable evidence of the lacking personal hygiene of the women in whose hands they placed their girls daily, James had had the gall to defend Miss Moore. This defense solely for their youngest who had grown still in the back seat considering the small white flakes in Miss Moore’s eyebrows, wondering how this judgment, unnamed heretofore, would affect her adoration.
Marian had had several glasses of wine early in the evening in the hopes of making Back-to-School Night more palatable. These were unfashionably full, large globes and she was on yet another diet so the red wine had indeed succeeded in making the evening more bearable, had allowed her to drift, warm and a bit soft in the knees, through the curriculum presentation and the loose chit-chat with the other parents as she, guided by James, searched a long shelf for their youngest’s colonial diorama. It was actually shaping up to be one of her better Back-to-School Nights and Marian was just congratulating herself on her new strategy, but then the dandruff.
Upon return, her immediate goal had been another glass of wine and, this accomplished, Marian stared into the dark at the problem that was Laura. She focused and this took effort because Laura was speaking more softly than usual, which was irritating in the extreme. At the almost inaudible, where were you guys? the idiocy of elementary school teachers had infected her daughter and Marian scowled. She stalled, searching for the logical response to do away with this query. She focused on the wavering question when from behind Laura the parrot screeched lettuce! and Marian looked then to her beloved Griffin and thought of how she needed to add seed to the wide blue bowl on his massive iron perch.
Then it came to her and Marian looked at Laura and was convinced and she stated, with emphatic conviction, you said you were spending the night at Elizabeth’s! Which seemed the end of it. Laura fought tears as the progression of the evening’s events slipped. She considered what she could possibly have said about Elizabeth, her mother’s conviction creating the prospect of having mentioned a sleepover. Not until after Marian had pushed past toward the very bathroom in which Laura had just hidden from the intruders who had doubtless murdered her entire family did Laura remember the rule. She would never have even thought of spending the night in Elizabeth’s cozy house as this was Wednesday and mid-week spend-overs were strictly forbidden. Just as she swung from the sting of tears to the heat of anger at her mother’s obvious, self-serving lie, she remembered the bath mat.
Laura has worked herself into a sort of lauryl sulfate frenzy in the shower and now sees the long-legged stepmother in her kitchen baking cookies with her three children on a school-day afternoon. Yet there is something gratifyingly creepy in the elongation of these legs, in their taper, because these legs have an excessive taper and come to a crab-like point. These legs are so long that the stepmother is far too tall for her stepchildren and they, Laura’s children, are irredeemably put off by this too tall woman’s crab-like legs.
So the woman disappears and the children fade, but there is something of the stepmother’s breasts that lingers. Laura watches the water run over her own, nowhere near stepmother proportion but far more real and somehow more sensual with the slight sag of three pregnancies and years of nursing. Laura watches her tummy move softly in and out with her breath and she imagines herself nude, lying in wait on their bed. She feels the familiar pull and expansion in her groin. She elaborates upon herself naked on their bed. She will call him on the phone in what they have together decided is her sultry voice and she will arrange the long-awaited nooner. And if that fails, she will tonight, no matter the hour, move across their bed and straddle her unsuspecting husband.
She becomes increasingly invested in this image and wonders how much longer Sesame Street has to run. She considers the effect of lying down naked on their bed and masturbating and then calling him on the phone with a provocative, guess what I just did? She imagines calling him before she even starts and she sees him in his office with her actually moaning on their bed, into the phone. She tightens both faucets, wondering again how much more time she can buy from Elmo. Laura steps out onto the bathmat and hears, in the near distance, the wailing.