The kitchen is quiet but destroyed. I flip on the coffee maker. I get a new roll of paper towels from the closet. I push the spilled Froot Loops into the sink, where they immediately bleed neon tributaries into a muddled, gray stream to the drain.
My husband hated sugary cereals.
Our twelve-year-old has always loved them, so I kept buying them, which came up in the divorce papers last month. Unhealthy dietary practices and a lack of commitment to behavioral support strategies. Studies linking hyperactive behaviors with food dyes, autistic dysregulation with too much sugar. Accusations of neglect. Setting himself up not for custody but for a settlement.
I hear thumping in the living room. Clapping, shouting, one bark, and then a hurricane of long legs and spastic fur and flesh races in from the dining room.
“MOM! OH NO, MOM!” My son trips over our black lab and her legs scramble wildly as his twist around each other. A cartoon in slow motion, he face-plants on the floor, his bowl of cereal spraying out around him.
The pup whimpers and army crawls behind my legs.
“You okay? You all right?” I help my son up, brushing off his pants and shirt with firm pushes that won’t feel like crawling bugs.
“THAT WAS CRAZY!” He shoves my hands away. “That feels weird.” Quiet now. “Thanks, mom.” A whisper.
I hold out a fist. He hops on one foot, bird-whistles, then fist bumps me back before taking off. The dog runs after him, the fall forgotten at the promise of scattered food. He shouts as he runs from room to room, “LEAVE ME ALONE, MISCHA. LEAVE ME ALONE!” Loud again.
I turn and his big sister is in the doorway.
“He okay?” she asks.
Her mascara is smeared to the side, a handprint lightly visible where she swiped away tears. She looks like she’s just come home from a rough night out, even though I saw her an hour earlier, freshly made-up and ready for school. Ready to fight.
It’s dizzying, seeing this almost-adult woman in my kitchen.
This is what she’ll look like in just a few years, in a different kitchen, her own place. She’ll walk in, make coffee in the dim light, finished crying about things she’ll never tell me.
“Yeah, he tripped. He’s fine.”
I go to the sink and wet a dish rag. My daughter scoots next to me and takes it. She kneels down and cleans up for me, just like I taught her when she was little, scraping the sugar dust into her hand, soaking up the milk, folding the rag over and repeating the steps until the floor is clean.
I want to apologize for yelling earlier. It won’t always be this way, I’ll explain. Instead I take her hand out from under the water as she rinses the rag, and I uncurl her fingers, dropping the cloth into the sink. I kiss her wet palm and remember little girl hands, sticky, always touching my face.
“I’ll drive you to school,” I say, instead of God I’m so sorry you’re just like me. Instead of Your fucking father really did a number on us, didn’t he? Instead of It’s really all my fault and my biggest fear is you leaving next year and never coming back.
She turns and calls out to her brother, who comes running in yelling, “MEG! DID YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENED? OH MY GOD WHAT’S ON YOUR FACE?”
She rushes out to the hall mirror and gasps. Heads to the bathroom as he shoots questions through the closed door. She answers every query with “Hold on, okay?” which he ignores.
“I like you better this way,” he says when she comes back out, clean and damp. “I like you better without makeup.”
She frowns, then sighs. Then hugs him hard.
“HEY!” he shouts and pushes her away.
She grins at me, a little girl smile for one slow-motion moment, then pokes him in the stomach and takes off for the dining room as he squeals and chases her.
I follow them in. Watch them put on their coats. He flops down on the dining room floor in a dramatic finish and she laughs loud and clear, which makes him so giddy that he repeats the fall two more times. She hauls him up by his long, skinny arms, and the two of them walk side by side out the front door, leaning in toward each other. She’s left her makeup pouch on the table.
The house is quiet, and the hole inside me swells immediately. I make a fist and smash the soft back side of it into the dining room wall. I hit the wall over and over until pain shoots down my pinkie finger and up to my elbow, my funny bone pulsing, pushing the burning in my chest back down to my stomach.
I look in the mirror at my unbrushed gray hair. The deep wrinkles that sank in overnight, tunneling. A tiny, green circle sticking to my right cheek. I peel it off and eat it.