Before she goes, she will find the strength to rise early. She will pack each of the boys a special lunch. She will boil an egg for Henry and peel it smooth. No chalky bits of film on it. No divots from the shell being pulled away too quick. She will cut Joey’s sandwich into four cheerful triangles, instead of lopping it in half. She will send him with a crunchy apple to help loosen up his baby teeth. The dentist says if they don’t come out soon, they will have to consider extraction. The word scrapes at her eardrums like a dental pick.
She will not yell at them to hurry up. She will tie their shoes for them, though they may wonder why. Nice and tight. Double knots. She will hug them, not too long, but long enough that the feel of her arms squeezing their shoulders will stay with them while they walk to the bus stop. She will bury her nose in their hair. It will still smell fresh from last night’s bath.
Before she goes, she will make a list. Two lists, actually. The first list, to help her keep her courage, will be a list of reasons that they will be better off without her. This list has lived in her head for a long time, although some days it speaks more loudly than others. Today she will say the reasons out loud. Today she will follow through. Hadn’t that always been one of her shortcomings? Following through?
The second list will be a list of things to do before she goes.
She will fold the laundry. She will put their underwear in neat little piles. Mate and bundle their socks. Any socks left mateless will be thrown in the trash.
She will strip the beds and wash the sheets on hot.
She will clean the toilets. Wipe away the droplets of little boy pee that circle the rim and drip down the sides and gather in tiny pools near the floor. She will aim the spray bottle at the base of the toilet and squeeze the trigger. The bleach solution will puff out in a sterile cloud, and the sound will remind her of an old-fashioned perfume bottle. The kind her grandmother used to keep on her bureau. Once the toilet is clean, she will grab a fresh rag and spray and wipe down the door knob, the faucet, the toilet handle.
She will go upstairs and put the sheets in the dryer.
She will assemble a casserole so that Rich and the kids will have something for dinner. It will occur to her that there will be lots of takeout in their future, so she will double the recipe to make enough for two nights. The metal rack will rattle as the brimming Pyrex lands with a thud in the oven. A better wife and mother would have filled the freezer with heat-and-eat meals. But a better wife and mother wouldn’t need to leave.
While she waits for the cheese to bubble, she will sweep the floor. Her mind will drift to the magical place it goes sometimes, when she is alone. She will imagine that the cleaner she can leave the house, the happier their lives will be. And because she does love them, after she sweeps the kitchen floor, she will pull out the mop. Rubbing the blue mop head back and forth over the most stubborn splotches, the words “elbow grease” will play in her mind. But the mop head—just a giant sponge, really—won’t lift the stains. She will drop to her knees and attack them with a scrub brush. She will not bother to wear cleaning gloves. She will inch along the floor, scouring. The tile will press into her knees and make them ache. She will scrub harder, determined to erase the dark marks.
She will reach the stove and notice that there is dust underneath it. She will grab a wooden spoon and a dishcloth from the counter and lie down on her stomach. She will use the spoon to push the cloth as far back as it can go, then pull it back out. Along with balls of dust, she will liberate a Matchbox car and some coarse black hairs that had belonged to their old Lab, Sadie. She will remember how, even near the end, Sadie’s tail would thump against the floor when she knew she was about to have her ears scratched. How she would groan as she pushed herself up from her dog bed when she heard the boys coming home from school.
She will look now at the mess she has made of her nice clean floor, and she will lift herself up and reach for the broom again.
She will glance at the clock and notice that it’s nearly three and she hasn’t started writing her note to Rich. She still needs to make the beds. Where do her days go? Henry and Joey will be home soon. She has forgotten to call Mrs. Snyder to ask her to meet the boys at the bus stop and keep them at her house until Rich gets home.
She will remove the casserole from the oven, set it on the counter. She can pull together a salad to go with this, she will think. And now that there’s at least a decent meal, she might as well stay another day. She will wonder whether this is a victory or a defeat. She will slump into an armchair and close her eyes for a few minutes.
She will wake to the sound of the boys clambering up the porch steps.
She will feel the thump thump of her heart as she pushes herself up to greet them.