Cory has been working late every night this week without overtime pay. That he’s arrived home a whole twelve minutes early is a bonus: dinner is still hot, I feel less like a single mother, and there will be someone to help me do the dinner dishes. My offering of steaming, iridescent rice sits on the table, and the bloated, shiny grains bug me. It’s overcooked. I’d throw it out and start over, but we’re all hungry, and my eyes are heavy.
I tell my husband over dinner, “I was thinking I could buy one dress to wear to Angie’s wedding, the ten-year reunion, and Greg’s wedding.” I say this as a way of bargaining, of convincing him that if I get one dress to serve three purposes, I will only need one dress. But what Cory hears is: I need to buy a dress.
He says, “We don’t have any money for that.” This is nothing unusual to me. He says this when he wants me to spend less — which is always. True, I have just finished a semester of teaching, leaving us without my paycheck during the three-month break. But I have always been able to provide for our son — I use our bank card for necessities (and the occasional gourmet coffee).
“We don’t have money for that or we don’t have any money? Like, seriously, are there zero dollars left in our bank account?” I wonder if it’s possible for this to happen. I shy away from our bank statements because I don’t want to see what I’ve spent, the dollar amounts of unnecessary items that rest comfortably in the corner of a shopping cart and, upon purchase, blend into our home.
“We might have a couple dollars in there, but that’s all,” he says.
The younger members in both of our families have fallen in love. They will all get married in the same humid summer and will moon over each other the same way Cory and I did a few years earlier. We will celebrate by giving them money the way they gave us money.
Cory is going to Texas this weekend for one of these weddings and has withdrawn most of our funds to tuck into the wedding card. He will stand up for his cousin in an expensive starched tux with a purple bow tie. I’ll tell Johnny that “Daddy went byebye” when he asks for him. I’ll handle his burning temper tantrums and shield myself from violently playful splashes during bath time. I’ll carry him when it’s too rainy for his little feet. I will barely catch my breath.
My teeth are clenched. “What if I hadn’t mentioned buying a dress?” I ask. “What if I had gone to fill up my tank and was declined? Were you going to tell me?” I feel the embarrassment as though I am at Kwik Fill right now, and the attendant has handed my card back to me because it is nothing but an overused piece of plastic.
Johnny picks up clumps of rice, shoves them in his plump mouth, and then returns his fingers to his plate, where he pulls the pieces of chicken and broccoli away and slops them on the table.
“I’ve been telling you we have no money,” Cory says.
“But you didn’t tell me we literally have nothing in our account.” I haven’t felt this way since my grad program, when I was lucky to open a cupboard and find Rice-a-Roni, Ramen, or cans of soup. “We have a child now. He needs things. What if, when you’re in Texas, something happens? I won’t be able to give him anything.”
Cory will be out of town for only two days, but it’s too late, I’ve already been dramatic. Still, what if I can’t afford a gallon of milk?
He sets his head in his hands, a gesture meant to make me feel guilty; but I’d felt guilty for my own ignorance about our spending before his forehead met his palms.
Johnny is still licking rice from his fingers.
“I need to get contact lens solution,” my husband says.
“How are you going to pay for that?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out. I have some change on my dresser.”
He goes to the store, and I clean up so we can put Johnny to bed when he comes back. I am tired. I haven’t been sleeping well lately — I fall asleep without thought, but wake when I hear, over the monitor, the sounds of Johnny rustling. Last night, after he cried “DaDa” without waking, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. I plucked my eyebrows at four a.m. and dug the ingrown toenail from my big toe, removing half the nail completely. I wonder if this was a strange form of self-mutilation.
I decide that when Cory comes home, I’ll check the receipt to see how he paid, the same way I click through his text messages like a teenager. Rice clings to Johnny’s upper lips, his hands, and the butt of his pants. Molly, our German Shepherd, has wandered over to eat it from the floor, and, while I don’t usually let her do this, I am tired, so I watch her tongue slick it from his fingers.
I wish I’d volunteered to go to the store for Cory. Rarely can I steal a moment out of the house alone. It is May in Western New York, the weather has drizzled down on us, and the college students have left town for the summer (or forever). Today, Johnny and I sang “Rain Rain Go Away” at our front window for what seemed like hours. Then, trying to say “outside,” he stumbled, “Oh side? Oh side?” as though there were nothing outside our house at all.
From the kitchen window, I see Cory pull in, and I continue washing dishes as though I trust him, as though I’m not going to check how he’s paid for his contact lens solution. It’s strange to think I’m responsible for a toddler when I feel so small, so petty, myself. This, what I’m obsessing over, is not a mortgage payment, or even something permanent, or expensive (like a video game) — it’s contact lens solution, a necessity. I know I should tell Cory that Johnny cried for him in his sleep, to make him feel good. But I don’t. I hold that moment inside me, something only Johnny and I know.
Cory is upstairs, already taking out his contacts and putting on his glasses. On the way up, he’s thrown the receipt in the kitchen garbage without tearing it or burying it beneath scraps of chicken or broccoli, where I wouldn’t want to touch it. His behavior seems transparent, and that makes me even more suspicious. The Wegmans receipt is so familiar, staring there from the heap of trash. I lift it up: Cash, ten dollars. Change, two dollars and seventy-one cents. It’s silly, I know, but my concerns are now justified, and I feel somehow triumphant.
“Cor, where did you get a ten dollar bill?”
“You looked at the receipt?”
“Obviously. How did you have cash?”
“I borrowed it from Johnny,” he says quickly, as though the more matter-of-fact he is, the less grave the offense. I hear the sadness in his throat. That money was not ours, but given to Johnny by a relative. I imagine Cory’s thick fingers struggling with the pastel polka dotted piggy bank and the sadness in his eyes. I picture this to keep from scolding him as though he’s a child himself.
Johnny climbs from his bench to the kitchen table.
“No,” I say, and take him down.
He shakes his head crazily, his chin lifted to the ceiling, and smiles. “No. No. No,” he says. I have never known love like this. For a second, I feel sad.
Johnny and I brush our teeth, and I’m too tired to make the silly noises I usually make for him. He stands in front of me on a wooden stool, his soft toes pressed hard to the wood for security.
We read an illustrated children’s version of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as a bedtime story. I read the note I’ve written on the first page and remember how I found the book while grocery shopping, how it hid nicely in our grocery cart, its cost absorbed into the receipt as though it were never there. How I’d written the note, and signed “love, Momma” as though it were only my money that paid for it.
Johnny folds into Cory’s lap, and Cory and I take turns reading. I hold the book, sitting in the rocking chair, turning the pages.
“Whose woods are these I think I know,” Cory says.
“No,” I say, “it’s ‘these are.’ ‘Whose woods these are I think I know.'”
He looks at me as if to ask if I’m kidding, if I’m really picking about this.
But I’m already thinking about something else, how dark this poem is — how its quiet solitude betrays the pictures Johnny stares at. Johnny might point and say, “Neigh,” when the page shows a cozy old man and his horse, or “tweet tweet,” when he sees the birds congregate on the beautiful, snow-lit branches, but already he’s witness to how we separate ourselves from each other, and he knows: his expression is solemn.