April 21. 6:30am. Susan looks down at Carla on the changing table. The girl is squeezing her eyes shut, concentrating. Something is going on under the stretchies and the fresh jumbo diaper, something too mysterious for any three-year old to understand. The girl looks wide eyed at Susan and pronounces, “Yuck.”
“That’s okay. Mommy is loose sometimes, Daddy is loose sometimes, everybody is loose,” Susan says, chucking the stretchies into the brimming laundry.
On the bed, Matthew, the baby, grasps his ears and tugs the way he did all night, whimpering and drooling from raw white gums.
Susan settles the children into the double carriage, moving Matthew forward so she can pile the laundry bag in the back. Luis, on his way out, gives her a commiserating look; he knows how much she hates the morning trek eight floors down to the basement, a full hour of her life lost each day, as predictable as Wednesday meatloaf. “One month left!” she says, but he is out ahead of her before she can see his response, the sleeve of his tan suit and the back of his rolling suitcase disappearing into the hall of Clearview Manor.
In the elevator, Carla smiles out of the carriage’s front seat at a man sharing the ride. “Carla’s a little loose today,” she reports, “But that’s okay. Mommy’s loose sometimes too.” Susan squints what she can manage of a smile and a couple of minutes later veers the carriage into the laundry room.
“Shi – I mean sugar,” Susan groans, bringing her palms up empty-handed from the carriage pocket. She always keeps a roll of quarters there. How could this happen? Reverse course.
She can’t wait to move. Next month, at this time, she thinks, with more longing than she can recall ever having. My own washer and dryer. I’ll never have to make this trip again.
While they wait for the elevator Matthew begins wailing so loudly Susan can barely hear herself dream about the new backyard for the children to play in; the school that doesn’t look like a prison, like the one here in this part of New York City. Caught in some kind of time warp, she still can’t believe she’s having these fantasies. She, who used to wear her hair in a buzz cut, live on cheap Polish soups, and hang out at the bookstore in Saint Mark’s Place. She who swore she’d never leave Manhattan. At the time, the outer borough of Queens, one step closer to suburbia, was unimaginable. Now they are going all the way back to Long Island, to North Hills, where she grew up.
Matthew’s cry is captured in the rising elevator, then released down the long narrow corridor that leads home: Teeth, give me teeth! Susan pushes the carriage, overflowing with the children’s soiled onesies and bibs and Luis’s wrinkled business shirts, past doors to other lives.
Behind one door is someone who often fills the hall with songs by the Talking Heads. Today it brings Susan to a halt. She is so full of longing for the eighties, when she fled the dullness of the North Shore for the city, started classes at Hunter, and met dreamy, foreign-sounding Luis Lopez over a darkroom tray in Portrait Photography in the last days before the digital camera took over. She had her small successes over the next decade. A career that was launched at a group show in a beauty parlor in the East Village — long before K-Mart moved in — had culminated in a solo show in Chelsea where the photography curator from MOMA had taken note of her romantic black and white cityscapes. Along the way she has supported herself shooting business conferences and weddings, though now only on weekends. Luis had his own business doing kids’ portraits for Spanish speaking customers, but jumped ship for a sales job with Canon when the realities of self-employment and a newborn sunk in. They moved from the Village to here. Here, to Clearview Manor.
Susan turns the corner of the hall now, coming to the short part of the L-shaped passage where they and some new families live, all Koreans. Matthew stops howling. Susan wonders if it’s the smell of last night’s cooking that does it. It clings to the itchy wallpaper: fish and garlic and something that smells like worn socks. Susan still isn’t used to it.
One of the husbands — Mr. Choi — waves hello. He’s wearing a polo shirt and totes a new golf bag, ready to hit the nearby courses off the Expressway. She often bumps into his stylish wife returning late from managing their nail salon. She and Mrs. Choi talk about housework and husbands, children who outgrow their clothes too fast and apartments that don’t have as much room as you think. They’ve got their act together, Susan thinks. They’ll be out of Queens soon, settled on the North Shore in a house, forget about a town house, which is all Susan and Luis can afford. She gives them two years in Clearview Manor. She and Luis are pushing three.
Carla climbs out of the carriage and runs to the last door on the hall. “Ugh!” Susan rolls the enormous wheels the rest of the way, itching to be done with this place, to have next week’s closing behind them. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch with her not working full-time but Luis has assured her — and the bank, it seems — that with their combined income they can swing the mortgage; after all, it isn’t a real house, just a town house. She takes out the keys but the door is ajar. She looks over at Carla, confused, heart pounding. “Did Mommy forget to lock up?” This day is so unlike her.
Carla shakes her head, moving her whole body along with it.
Susan stares at the lock; no sign of foul play. “Luis?” she calls, quietly, so as not to startle the baby. She pokes the door open with her index finger.
Luis is sitting at the table in the alcove, looking out at her, surprised — as if to say, “That was quick.” She sees the Times is out, open to “Help Wanted.” He smiles back at her, guiltily.
7:15pm. Susan is mopping up the pureed chicken and sweet potato from the floor, trying to keep the place in decent shape for the super to show tomorrow, her breasts like Dolly Parton’s because Matthew has conked out from gum pain and skipped a feeding. Of course the business with Luis makes sense to her now that she has a moment to think about it. For the last month or so he had been making a lot of calls in private, and there had been an odd message on the machine from a Mr. Rhee with Careers Unlimited. Well, that was Luis for her, always the one to plan ahead, she thought. He must have seen the layoff coming.
She takes out a baby bottle, stuffs a plastic liner inside and begins milking to relieve the built-up pressure, listening to the spritzing, the sprays landing everywhere except in the bottle she’s trying to fill, stockpiling frozen milk for the next gig.
“Unbelievable, that they didn’t give you notice. Isn’t that illegal?” she calls to Luis, who is at the table taking a handful of peanuts. He still has the paper open — to the back, the S’s for Sales.
Since he doesn’t answer, she hooks the bra and goes into the alcove with a different tack. “What do you think happened?”
He finishes crunching peanuts in this mouth, peers at an ad that he’d circled earlier with yellow crayon, taking notes on a pad of paper. “Too many reps. Not enough business, I guess.”
She sniffs. The room — or is it her shirt? — smells of sour milk. “You’ll find something soon, I bet.”
“Mommy! I need help!” Carla calls from her room. Luis marks three more ads.
Susan goes in, snaps the pajama top to the bottoms for her. A moment later, Luis appears, wanting to give Carla a hug goodnight, maybe hoping for a bit of comfort, but she shrieks as if being attacked, the way Susan used to when her own father would do the same.
“Let Papi have just one,” Susan says, rubbing Luis on the back of his neck, where the hair is short and tickles her fingers. God, why does he have to get laid off now?
Carla grabs Bunny and hurls herself and the stuffed animal into bed. She turns away, unsnaps her pajama top, flings it up and holds the big tan rabbit with long floppy ears to her chest.
Luis leans over her, murmuring, “Buenas Noches.”
“Don’t distract me,” Carla scolds in just the way Susan does, having her father turn off the light.
Susan shares a chair with Luis in the small room in the dark, watching their firstborn until her breathing steadies into sleep. Because the room is so cramped, Carla is in an undersized bed that uses her old crib mattress. Susan wonders if Luis sees what she does: Carla’s legs, which have grown overnight, stick out over the end.
“Geez, it’s a good thing we already got the mortgage,” Susan says. She saw the paperwork at the beginning, but left the rest to Luis, who made a big thing about taking care of it. “Imagine if this happened before it came through. It came through, didn’t it?” she says, moving in the chair so they’re face to face. Luis turns away.
There are many things to revel in, she decides, still too shocked to cry while she does the dishes that night: the view, not from the kitchen where there is no window, but from their terrace that faces the parking lot, where the smog makes the sunsets look pretty; the fact that you’re not the old lady in the lobby with the home care aide, there every day sitting in mutual silence whether it’s a weekend or holiday, the days stretching on with no family get-togethers to look forward to. Susan tries to remember this.
Through the rest of April, it is this Susan remembers: the attorney’s voice when she tells him that no, they won’t be rescheduling the closing date; the look that Mr. Hastuti, from the management office, gives her when she tells him to stop showing the apartment. The way Nathan the mailman looks up from stuffing their metal boxes with promos for checks with nature scenes and says, “Mrs. Lopez, you’re still here?” The feeling she gets when Mrs. Choi says, “What happened? Wrong Island no work out?”
Susan answers, “We decided we like Queens.”
May 1. 3:03pm. Susan calls Traveler’s and asks if, by some chance, the baby will be covered for the shots she needs. Yes, she knows about COBRA, but no, they’re not in it; they’re kind of short on funds.
The agent — a man with the kind of young, chirpy voice that annoys Susan — breaks the news gently, calling her ‘Ma’am’, which annoys her even more. He points out that Susan’s husband has been off the plan for quite a while; the policy was terminated over a month ago, on March 21.
“March? No. April. That’s when he was — ” she bites her lip, saying it out loud for the first time, to this stranger even before her own mother — “let go.”
The agent clears his throat. “Ma’am, the records state March 21.”
She puts the phone down. She thinks a while and remembers more funny business: one morning at the end of March when Luis slept in and, while washing off dried drool from Matthew’s toy keys, she called, “Honey, don’t you need to get going?”
He had rolled out of bed, snapping at her for waking him up.
On another morning he was more dressed up than usual — in a brand new starched white shirt and his good suit, his nice American-looking tasseled shoes smelling of polish. “Don’t you look spiffy,” she had teased, sneaking up behind him and patting what she noticed — from the short spikes — was freshly-cut hair. He had looked into the bathroom mirror, saw her and nicked himself over his lip.
When he comes home that evening, she has the notes from her conversation with Traveler’s in her pocket. After dinner she tells him what she found out. “That whole month — from March 21st to April 21st when I caught you — you were never working!”
“I was job hunting,” he replies, wiping lentils from his lips with the single-ply toilet tissue that now stands in for napkins, tissues, paper towels.
Susan sits down in the chair beside him, squinting her eyes. “You were deceiving me. You were pretending to go to work.” She scoots the chair closer. “If I hadn’t come back early from laundry, I’d still never know you were out of work!”
He stares back at her — sweet dark eyes she’s known for so long. Why had he risked it? Taking out the paper, sitting at the table while she was just a few flights down doing laundry? She realizes something: he’d wanted to get caught.
June 2. 11:05pm. Susan watches Luis trudge into the apartment — the last soul out of Barnes and Noble. She knows he has been reading books about how to get the job you want in less than ninety days, moving on to those that promise deliverance in sixty. Last month he found one filled with telemarketing scripts. Unlike the others that probably stayed stacked on the floor in the Career section, he brought this one home, covering it with a cutout brown bag so the book could be returned later for credit. He mutters something about the lines helping him not just to sell product better, but to sell himself better to employers.
Tonight Carla runs to greet him at the door, leaping over the wreckage of the day, still up because she has napped too late. Matthew is fussing, waking with a cry that grates like the buzzing of bees, nose running from the teething or is it a spring cold? The bedroom door shuts and then the computer is turned on, accompanied by a rising tone. Then the fight with Carla to keep her out of the room so she won’t stuff the “A” drive with pennies. The keys click as he types cover letters, from time to time calling out, asking, in complete earnestness, which sounds better. “‘I firmly believe’ or ‘I strongly believe'” or “‘with my experience’ or ‘with my background’,” seeming to think that by tweaking a phrase he will save himself and them.
Later, after Carla is asleep and Matthew put to bed in the swing in the living room distracted from the teething pain, Susan happens to hear Luis through the bedroom door. He’s reciting scripts in his usual stilted English into the tape recorder, enunciating especially hard to distinguish d’s and f’s, then playing it back and correcting himself. He is on “Overcoming Customer Objections” when she goes in to get a diaper for Matthew. Seeing her, he stops short, and from the way he avoids her eyes, she can tell practicing his English in front of her is humiliating.
She gets in their Olds to go grocery shopping and a tape comes on, the car filling with the sound of Luis’s voice: “I’m surprised to hear you say that, Mrs. Davis. Please share your reasons with me…” It makes Susan shiver.
She passes like a hobbled ghost through the aisles, fills her wagon with jars of peas and rice, the rest useless things, comes back, unpacks, then, from the couch, stares at the TV, too tired to turn it on. When Luis joins her to watch CNN, she wakes from a doze – why bother going to bed when Matthew’s only going to wake for another feeding anyhow? She sees clips of men — once babies like their own — setting abortion clinics on fire. She sees close-ups of young women — once three-year-olds like their Carla — who have joined Heaven’s Gate and chosen to end their lives even in a sunny place like California. Susan leans over Carla’s bed and peers into her face in the glow of the clown night lamp. She is looking for clues.
When Matthew does wake up startled, Susan nurses him, warming the cold tips of his ears with her hands and, through half-closed lids, watches the milk cling to his eyelashes in the light from the halogen lamp. Beside her is Bunny, staring longingly into her face. She imagines dozens more with identical buckteeth and poking whiskers, filling the couch, wanting her milk.
Luis clicks off the TV and she continues feeding Matthew alone on the couch in the dark. She thinks of a story she once heard about a couple who every night at eleven sit down for espresso, of all things, to be fully attentive to each other, and talk about all that has happened in each other’s day.
June 18. 11:23am. “Where’d you go last night?” Susan asks, spooning rice cereal into Matthew’s mouth. There’s a charred odor in the air — her own burnt toast.
Luis swallows the coffee, now tepid since he has slept in — much later than usual. “Nowhere.” He digs into his pancakes, perfectly stacked, though too cold for the butter to melt.
“What does that mean — ‘nowhere?'” She keeps her voice steady around the kids. They’ve been through this before, Susan trying to get him to talk about what they are going to do. They’ve got only half of next month’s rent in savings, and they’re already two months behind. Mr. Hastuti has started sending threatening notices; plus the timing belt on the Olds never got replaced; no way are they touching the down payment for any of it. All her clients have paid up, and even if she takes on more jobs she won’t see anything for sixty, maybe ninety days. Do they want to start looking for a cheaper place? That’s where they’d left off last night.
“Around.” His fork clicks against the plate.
She rephrases it for him to save him the trouble of moving his lips: “Just driving.”
“Had to get out. Saturday night.” Standing up, she finishes the toast — the scant part that’s digestible — wipes Matthew’s face gently with a wet cloth and lugs all eighteen pounds out of the chair, carrying him since he is groggy-eyed, his cry scolding: Bad mother! All the while she is feeding Carla silver dollar pancakes.
“One day maybe you’ll tell me where you go,” she says, clearing the dishes from the table with one free hand. She falls back onto the couch, puts Matthew to her breast in order to save all of them from the sound of the begging. Matthew latches on as if biting into a juicy apple, then looks up and – mouth still to her nipple — grins.
After, she runs the water over the dishes. She can hear Luis coming into the kitchen, feel his body too close as he reaches for the jar over the sink and takes a handful of peanuts.
July 2. 11:55pm. The door shuts. “Go on! Leave!” she shouts after him, hoping she’ll wake Carla in the process just so she can add to her misery, have both kids up and cranky from lack of sleep, while he’s away. Matthew nuzzling at a boob, Susan sinks back into the mattress, listening for Carla in the other room; no, she’s slept through.
Susan rolls onto her side, adjusting Matthew’s position, careful not to smother.
Actually, she does have some idea of where he goes and wonders why she’s making such a fuss. He isn’t out picking up women or drinking. She knows that. Once in a while his tee-shirt does smell of cigarettes — as last week it did — which probably means he stopped at a bar, to listen to the music or have a beer. But chances are, he’s just driving. She did it with him before Carla was born. They would get in the Olds and he’d head down the boulevard, past the signs in Korean, more indecipherable writing with each mile. Past the stretch of storefront churches and the hubcap stores. To the part of Queens where his mother lives, where the streets are crowded with dark-haired men in pressed jeans worn with athletic socks and the kind of roach killer shoes Luis still has in his closet, or short broad women in skirts and low heels pushing carriages, more people under the age of twenty in one space than she’d ever seen, where layettes and hiked up sequined dresses are sold but not books, where the restaurants are crowded on Sundays with parties of eleven and twelve, where Luis would let out a small sigh and they’d exchange smiles because she knew he was feeling comfortable again.
Susan stops thinking, distracted by Carla crying out in her sleep. There’s the creak of the floorboards, and Carla appears beside the bed holding Bunny by the ear. Susan helps her up. The girl falls back to sleep.
Susan lies awake. She remembers how, at first, they’d get out of the car, eat big plates of grilled meat, drink something sweet and green and tropical called lulo. After, buy salted mango slices in plastic Baggies that the vendors sold and watch the kids riding the horses out in front of the shops. Or they’d stop at a bar, the cheapest of the choices since they were broke. Split one six-dollar drink and fill up on peanuts. But after a while it hardly seemed worth the money. They’d stay in the car, ride past the couples lined up for clubs with singers from Bogotá or Tijuana, or watch the groups of young men hovering outside trucks that sold tacos. Luis would skip from one radio station to another until he came to a talk show. He’d smile listening to the callers — the teacher who had made the mistake of telling her new boyfriend about the one time years earlier when she’d taken money for sex, the high school honors student who was leaving home because both his parents regularly beat him. And Luis would shake his head and smile, say “Geez.” Add his commentary: “Believe anyone could be that stupid!” Or “What a life!” She knew he was feeling glad that his life was better.
Carla stirs, then climbs over the two of them, Matthew still latched to Susan, suckling whenever the mood strikes. Carla settles in on the other side, her cheek against Susan’s spare nipple.
July 12. 2:45pm. Luis’s mother is brilliantly deducing that Susan has lost too much weight, even though during the last two visits Susan’s jeans hung in an equally anorexic fashion. Lourdes wants to know is everything okay?
“Does he tell you anything?” Susan asks, not revealing that she has just come from the pediatrician and is now significantly poorer after $135 for Matthew’s DPT and Hepatitis vaccinations. Another $60 for Carla’s checkup. What was once inconceivable has happened: they are losing the apartment. Mr. Hastuti is giving them until the twentieth to get out. They are moving into a place Luis has found near his mother’s. Susan has seen it: a walk up over a vegetable stand; there are fist-sized holes in the wall.
“Oh, you know Luis.” His mother gives a little laugh, rubbing plum lip pencil off her teeth.
Susan switches Matthew to the other side of her lap, smoothing the scraggly hair that one day — years from now when Susan is no longer alive — will come full circle. “Did he tell you he lost his job?”
“No!” Lourdes leans closer. “Susan, I’m so sorry.”
Susan nods, looking directly at Lourdes. Why does she feel as though it’s Lourdes’s fault, that if Lourdes had only taught him to want more — to be greedy like a real American — she and Luis would have more? Tissues for tissues. Paper towels for paper towels. They would have, if not a house, their town house.
After a moment Lourdes muses, “So that’s why you never moved. All he said was you two, you change your mind.”
Susan fills her in. When she gets to the part about the new rental, she says, “It needs a little work,” editing out any use of the word “dump.”
Lourdes reaches for Matthew and Susan delivers him, watching her cradle him, rub her palm over his hair. “Ay, my little Luis!” she coos as she often does because the dark eyes and broad face are all him. “What has tu padre done?” She rocks him in the crook of her fleshy arm, and for a moment, Susan imagines a full-sized Luis in his tan business suit and leather shoes suckling on Lourdes’s breast.
“What is it?” Lourdes asks. “Why are you smiling?”
“He does look like Luis, doesn’t he?”
Lourdes smiles back, patting the baby’s bum, which fits perfectly in her palm, the way it does in Susan’s. Matthew squawks with pleasure, opening his mouth like a porpoise.
“Look!” Lourdes says, directing Susan’s attention to the inside of Matthew’s mouth. There it is, at the center of his bottom gum, a shard of white cutting through.
July 20. 4:53am. When Luis comes home, she is waiting. It is not 2:00 in the morning, like it is on some nights when he has gone out. It is nearly 5:00. But no big deal , she thinks, clenching her jaw, since Matthew has had her up three times already, fist stuffed in his mouth, the tooth obviously giving him trouble, and who needs sleep anyhow? In just a couple of hours she has to leave for work – a big church wedding out in East Hampton. Between feedings, she has been packing up Carla’s puzzles and blocks and dolls and taking books down from the shelves in the living room and packing these into more boxes. She hears the click of the door, then the sound of Luis trying to be quiet as he puts his wallet and keys down on the table not far from her.
“Oh, you’re up.” There is only the security light from the parking lot, a blinding light, poking in from the glass doors where the curtains don’t cover it no matter how hard you pull them shut. This is one thing about the apartment she won’t miss.
She stands up from packing books, and grabs his arm, squeezing too tightly. “I want to know–” her voice is shaking–“I want to know now. Where is it you go?”
She sees how he’s dressed: not in his usual tee-shirt and crinkled jeans and Nikes that look so American. He has on a silky dress shirt, his jeans are pressed, his shoes are the pointy ones worn with gym socks, perfect for a night out in his neighborhood.
“I’m thinking…about you and the kids.”
“Thinking where?” She squeezes harder. “Do you have a ‘friend’ who helps you with your thinking? Maybe you’ve got someone there?”
Luis is silent. It’s an I’ve-never-heard-anything-as-stupid-in-my-life kind of silence.
“Could be. Look at you, you’re all dressed up.”
He stares back at her. “I’m by myself. Okay–”
“About you and the kids.”
A part of her is relieved; still, she’s not done. “Until 5:00am? Enough thinking!”
“Tonight was different. I got stuck. I had to take the bus home.”
“Where’s the car?” She needs it for work in less than two hours.
“Keep your voice down. You’ll wake the kids.”
“Where — ” she lowers her voice, but doesn’t take her fingers from his arm — “is-the-car?”
“It’s okay. It’s not far from my mom’s.”
She stares at him. “I need the car to get to work.”
“We’ll figure something out.”
She lets go of his arm and hurls a book into the box.
“I think it needs a tune up,” he says.
“I think it needed a new timing belt.”
“May – be.”
She hefts an old college textbook with both hands.
“I know you want more, Susan.” He takes off his shoes. “But for God’s sake, I’m doing my best. You know I’ve been sending out resumes. It takes time. I’ve only been out –”
She reels around. ” — April, May, June, July.” She would tick off the months on her fingers for him if she wasn’t holding the book.
“I’m telling you, it’s all who you know. I go on these interviews and if it’s an Indian guy hiring– ”
“– they want to hire Indian. If it’s a Chinese guy, they want to hire Chinese.”
“You got it.”
“I got it from you.” He stops unbuttoning his shirt and lets it hang open. She faces him still holding the book. She pictures herself throwing it at him, the edge crashing into his smooth bare chest. “Doesn’t it bother you that we’re leaving here and we’re not going anywhere better?
Don’t you want more?”
He looks at her, then slips the shirt off his back.
How can he be so sure she’s not going to throw the book? she thinks as he takes it from her hands and places it in the box.
“The new place is nice.” He corrects himself: “We’ll make it nice.”
He is standing in his tee shirt and boxers, the socks with their second-rate elastic bagging at his ankles. If her camera wasn’t packed for the job, this is the picture she’d snap of him.
Why did I marry him? she thinks. Was I out of my mind? Latino. Cool, she’d thought. Portrait photographer. Wow.
She watches him pad into the kitchen and turn on the light, peering into the cabinet over the sink, shutting it when he finds no peanuts. “Honey, anything to eat?” he calls low enough not to wake the kids.
He peeks into empty pots on the stove, then munches from Matthew’s open box of Zwieback.
There he is, standing alone like she is, lost in thought by the sink.