This Place We’ve Never Been
Even before he looks, he knows where to find me. It’s too early to sleep and the sun is still out. The thick heat of a Louisiana summer beats unrelenting against the bedroom window. Yet, there is always solace in blankets. He’s learned this, my husband of nine years. I can almost see him. Shaking his head and grinning before he rips the sheets back to reveal me—a mass of blankets and tears crumpled on the bed, the last moments of a good sob still damp on my cheeks.
“The munchkins were running amuck again, huh?” James says, surveying the spectacular mess of toys, crushed crackers, stuffed animals, books, and other kid junk covering the floor.
From beneath my pillow, I watch as he tugs at his tie, then stoops to remove his shoes. First the left, then the right. A singular, fluid motion performed a thousand times before. Only today, it seems foreign. This doesn’t feel like our bedroom. This doesn’t feel like our home, or even our life. Had it been a month already? With one finger, I trace the tender scar below my navel and do the math in my head. I’d pulled into this driveway for the first time with stitches still angry and red. Three weeks ago, we’d moved across the country. A week before that, Tommy was born.
It seemed to happen all at once. A year ago, I’d left my job in public relations to stay home with our three-year-old, Adam. I was still adjusting, still struggling with this new role when James was suddenly offered his dream job in New Orleans. After the contracts were signed, we got the second surprise. My due date was one month before his start date.
“Today, all I wanted was a shower,” I tell James from under the blankets. “Tommy was asleep, and Adam was busy with a sticker book. Next thing I know—the toilet’s overflowing!” I scoot up in the bed then say, “Evidently, Adam made ‘stew.’ I guess the recipe called for a Number Two, Lincoln Logs, and a toothbrush.”
James groans, then hops in next to me. In the process, the wood floor underneath him squeaks, and we both wince. A few feet away, Tommy is napping, his temporary nursery set up in the tiny office adjoining our bedroom.
I lower my voice as I explain that to find the toilet plunger, I’d gone through mountains of unpacked boxes. That a rancid smell had come from one, and inside was my briefcase.
“My beautiful Coach briefcase,” I say. “It’s destroyed—someone filled it with sand.”
The bag had been a gift from James and the only designer item I’d ever owned. It was full of sandbox sand and curdled milk. An open sippy cup had overturned inside and white chunks of wet dirt filled it up to the zipper. Atop the pile lay a dead cockroach, belly up.
“The smell was so bad the bug couldn’t even take it,” I say, but, under the sarcasm, there’s a pressure, a struggle like Alice trying to ignore the rabbit hole. I hadn’t known whether to laugh or cry. I’d wanted to sit and stare at the briefcase, to contemplate this taunting personification of another life. But Adam was there instantly.
“He thought it was hilarious,” I say, tightness in my throat. “But the baby was screaming and hungry. It just hit me all at once.”
I open my mouth to explain that there, nursing Tommy, giddy from fatigue with the sound of Adam’s laughter floating all around me, the tears had come.
I just thought I’d be back. I almost say it. Part of me wants to shout it, to beat my fists against my chest and scream.
How a child can break you, rearrange the world, mangle your heart and mend it, all in the same breath. That I was broken. Altered. A million atoms split with the full force of the universe. That I’d given, and loved, and sacrificed, but one day, I just thought I’d be back. That once I’d recovered from the physical wounds, from the sleep deprivation, from the seesaw of hormones and emotions, that even now—in this new place—I would get to the other side. That my briefcase would still be there, I would still be there, waiting.
I want to describe it to him, to give it form—the smelly, ridiculous, beautiful moment when I knew: I will never be the same.
Turning to look at James, we are pillow to pillow. He is smiling, waiting eagerly for the punch line, the next story he will tell at cocktail parties. In the second it takes for me to see him: his zealous posture, his dense grin, his utter cluelessness—it all funnels into rage. I start to shake, so angry I don’t know what to do with my hands. I look down to see I’m wringing the sheets.
“What are you talking about?” James murmurs, a flash of surprise registering before he quickly composes himself. I watch as he steadies his manner, his expression—matching calmness to my anger. It’s a managerial technique I know he uses at work, which only infuriates me more.
“You don’t get it.” I growl, then roll over toward the window.
“What don’t I get?”
But I study the window instead. In a haze of humidity, I catch a hint of us in the glass, the vague reflection of bodies turned away from one another. I blink and they are gone.
“Babe, I’m sorry—I really am.”
“Sorry?—what are you sorry for?” I whip around to look at him, to glare at the predictable words leaving his lips. James was hardwired to avoid conflict. At any sign of engagement, he hurled apologies like grenades from a frightened soldier. They were bits of subterfuge wrapped in good intentions. Too often, our deficiency and our salvation.
“What do you want?” he says. “Let’s call your mom—whatever you need to—”
“I don’t need anything. Damn it. I—” I’m too loud this time and Tommy’s cry silences me mid-sentence.
The panic is palpable as we lunge toward the crib. James makes it first, picking him up and gently re-adjusting the pacifier. The baby’s gaze meets his for a second. Then his eyes roll back and he is asleep again instantly.
James eases Tommy into the crib, and we stare down at him in silence. Swaddled in a pale blue blanket, he is lost again in the heavy sleep that only a newborn knows. His tiny chest rises and falls in perfect rhythm. After a while, I feel my own breathing start to slow, my heart matching his, breath for breath.
“What can I do?” James whispers, his eyes meeting mine.
I start to speak, but stop. It feels too big to break into parts, too important. There’d never been anything between us before, not a secret nor an awkward silence around the dinner table. I take a deep breath, willing the knot of emotions to retreat, the strength to emerge from a fog of exhaustion. We stand in silence flanking the bassinet, between us the chasm of comprehension un-bridged.
Then from somewhere in the background, Dora the Explorer’s theme song enters the room. The refrain is a tiny alarm in my head. Any second, Adam will come bounding in. My mind goes blank. What was once there dangles indiscernible in front of me like a chalkboard hastily erased. So I close my eyes and sigh. One long exaggerated exhale. It is a familiar sound I suddenly recall from childhood, from my own mother’s lips.
“It’s nothing.” I hear myself say. “I just need a hug and a minute. Tomorrow, I’m going shopping. I need a new briefcase.”