Chapter One

Less than a minute after I’ve torn myself from the sacred womb of unconsciousness, Neil has taken over the bed, his pale form splayed like a puff-pastry Jesus on a sweat-soaked cotton cross. He snores softly, an escaped goose feather woven into his silvery stubble. In the bathroom I grab a pen from between the pages of his crossword puzzle book, pull an Us Weekly subscription card from the trash and scribble, Dissatisfied housewife dying slow death in suburbia. Swallows contaminated Xanax. Turns into giant stinkbug. 

Downstairs the Christmas tree greets me, still lit from the night before, threatening to ignite. In the dining room Neil’s cuckoo clock, salvaged from his boyhood, marks each moment with its faux wood maple leaf pendulum. When he first hung it I thought it looked hip. Now I just want it to shut the fuck up. My mother put it nicely. She waltzed in one evening, took one look at it and said, “Oh, so now you have a goyishe tchotchke to announce the passage of time. Aren’t the children enough for you?” I’d never thought about it like that before, but from then on, every time I looked at Sam, my oldest, I’d see in his tender years the amount of time that had passed since my life included a luxurious autonomy and freedom—a life devoted to finding myself, uncovering meaning and purpose, experimenting with creative career paths—actress, interior designer, slam poet—versus my life now, which is devoted to finding the time to make a phone call, take a shower, stare out a window and sit on the toilet without someone barging in to show me his latest ninja move.

The sinkful of crusty dishes spawns a kernel of anxiety in my gut that radiates until it throbs against my skull and the base of my spine—my soul groping for an escape hatch. On a napkin I scrawl, In a post-apocalyptic America, mid-life disillusionment cross-pollinates with stale gluten-free bread crumbs, mutating into parasitic virus, infecting millions of serotonin-depleted moms, creating race of killer housewife zombies.

Writing like this, on scraps of garbage has become my pet venture since remembering how much I used to love writing, and realizing with disturbing clarity that I hate cleaning, knitting, homeroom parenting, gardening and scrapbooking. I grew up in the city, was never a cheerleader, sorority girl, or joiner. I scowled more than I smiled. If you were a casting agent you’d see that I was a Wednesday Addams, or Winona Ryder circa Beetlejuice thrust into middle age.

Pondering my marketable type I notice something new outside the window staked in front of the neighbor’s house—a For Sale sign. Its owner died over the summer from lung cancer. I’d see her every now and then toting an oxygen tank in her driveway. There’s a rusty old swing set in her yard. No one ever touched it so one day we asked if we could have it for the kids. The old lady clutched her throat and shot her chin in the air. She said, I keep it for my grandchildren. But her grandchildren never came. No one did. The swing set just sat there. It’s sitting there still, home to a family of house wrens.

I grab the coffee, measure five scoops into the machine. I need all the help I can get since the days are endless. The year however, passes in a blur. I’ve Googled the expression but don’t know its origins. One of those universal truths—the days are long but the years are short. So as the days, weeks and months congeal into taffy ribbons, calendar pages flutter in my hand’s weary wake, and by the time my index finger depresses the start button on the coffee maker, it is January. Sprinkled around the house are scraps of paper scribbled with half-sentences, character sketches and aborted story ideas. The For Sale sign next door is still there. I’ve watched as various young couples and families have come to consider the little white cottage with the weathered aluminum siding.

Chloe is still lying in bed when I open her door in February. A handful of valentines from her kindergarten classmates litter the top of her Ikea cubbies. The snow outside has wizened like an old crone, glinting like flattened aluminum under the white sky. I pluck a pair of Sleeping Beauty underpants, a floral print dress I bought on clearance at Target, and a pair of striped leggings from the neighborhood consignment shop.

“Good morning,” I say, easing into the bottom bunk.

My daughter does not stir.

I soak up her warmth, shove my nose between her lips and huff her morning breath like glue. Her hair explodes into a nest of tangles. “The elves were here again last night,” I whisper in her ear, peeling back the covers. I silently appraise my daughter’s body in her fairy nightgown—her long legs, innate elegance, perfectly round little bottom, grubby little feet and hands. I pray that when she is a teenager I will not be cruel to her for being more beautiful than I ever was. I hope instead that I will continue nearly worshipping her, without giving in to her every whim.

I reach for the hem of her nightgown.

“Mommy get off me!” She whines.

“Come on sweetie. Let’s get it over with.”

She cracks an eye, spies today’s outfit nestled in my lap. “I don’t want that dress,” she says.

“Then pick out one you want,” I say already gritting my teeth.

She yanks the covers over her head. I sigh at the ceiling and then survey the room. Her bookshelves ooze chewed board books that need to be culled, donated, recycled. The walls are graffitied with fluorescent pink highlighter. Stick-on earrings dot the floor—shiny bumps on the old pine planks, long forgotten. Is it a cruel joke that they refuse to stay on her ears, resulting in earsplitting heartbreak, yet I’ll have to use an X-acto to pry them off the floor? I cup her heel through the stained quilt and whisper nam myoho renge kyo—’I devote my life to the law of the Lotus Sutra.’ I don’t really, but the chant calms me. For a moment anyway.

Sam emerges from his room across the hall in March, a few days after his sixth birthday, his nostrils already flaring. Outside the snow has given way to mud and flattened yellow grass. Tender shoots get a thrashing from the wind that whips circles around our stone farm-house. Crocuses push their purple heads through the hard-packed soil, fearless leaders in springtime’s parade.

“I don’t want to go!” he wails and falls to the floor, still in his Star Wars pajamas. Sam’s teachers call him gifted—a perfectionist with a sensitive soul. I call him exhausting. Maybe his teachers could come over one day and witness his sensitivity—when it’s time to wake up, get his homework done, sit down to dinner, take a bath… They can drag him through his day, his sticky fingers gripping their ankles while I take a nap. I know I’m supposed to appreciate the miracle of my children and believe me these children were wanted and planned for. And there are times when I well up with a love so vast and fathomless that I could eat them. Usually those times are when they’re asleep, or when someone else is watching them. My sweet baby boy, it seems, has grown into a prickly porcupine.

Sam arches his back, balls his hands into fists and shrieks at the ceiling, emitting a sound that could annoy the dead. I stare at the wall above his writhing body where a cluster of framed baby photos mocks me, like the one where his infant socks are so big they look like little fuzzy sacks. Then I grab a ribbon of receipt from Bed, Bath & Beyond from the sideboard and scribble across it—Devil’s spawn possesses mother. Takes her to the underworld where he builds a boat and uses her femurs for oars. 

Chloe pipes up from her room. “Mommy, he’s hurting my ears!” she cries.

“Get dressed right now,” I hiss.

Sam’s keening shreds the morning. When he finally settles down to a bowl of Cheerios, blotch faced and snot glossed, I chase Chloe around the house with a brush. I give up on the fifth lap when she runs face-first into the guest room door. I hold her on my lap, soothing her while she wails so loudly I might go deaf in one ear. Fat silvery tears roll down her chapped cheeks and I kiss away every one.

By the time I open the front door the bruise on Chloe’s nose is turning green as April rain plummets outside. It muddies the stone pathway that leads to the driveway, pounding the tulips until they bow their fleshy heads and kiss the ground. We head out, suited up in plasticky rain gear. Beside the tree the For Sale sign boasts a jumbo SOLD sticker. I vaguely wonder who our new neighbors will be as I prod the kids into the minivan.

As the doors slide shut, the rain evaporates. Chloe’s bruise has faded. Her nose is almost as pink as the magnolia petals littering the sidewalks, heralding the arrival of May. The Scotch broom that abuts the side of our house accessorizes with tiny yellow flowers that shiver in the breeze.

I back out of the driveway, past the rusted container sitting in front of the house next door, overflowing with construction debris—great gray ribbons of aluminum siding, antique two-by-fours, frayed knob-and-tube wiring, the rusty old swing set. Tepid coffee spills down my chin. This jars my memory. I forgot to make sure the kids brushed their teeth. Chloe’s hair is still a knotty mess. Shit.

In front of the school entrance Sam almost forgets his backpack. When he retrieves it, he swings it into his sister’s head hard enough to elicit tears. I glance at his feet just in time to see that his shoelaces are already untied. Chloe wails. SHIT. 

“Have a good day, kids,” I say. “And Sam—try not to breathe on anyone.”

“What?” Sam says.

“Never mind.”

He reaches into the car one more time to grab a Pokemon card from the floor.

“Leave it!” I snap and he drops it, mercifully. Usually I don’t snap until Friday, but I can make an exception, just this once. I watch the kids trudge away, their backpacks sliding from their narrow shoulders. The car behind me honks. “Fuck off,” I mutter under my breath, and drive away, nice and slow.

Back at home it’s June. The morning glows chartreuse, edged with steel. The humidity has arrived and with it, the mosquitoes. The shadow over our little bungalow continues to spread, cast by the neighbor’s house.

In her driveway my new neighbor confers with a guy—the contractor I presume—who must be a foot taller than she is, wearing Timberland work boots and a chunky gold watch. He’s holding a scroll of blueprints and gesturing wildly at the house, punctuating his speech with sharky grins that indicate how much fun renovating must be for the wealthy. As she gestures back—I can almost her say, Make it bigger!—her shiny nails leave coral tracks in the air.

A shaggy-haired preschooler runs around them. A black Mercedes SUV—one of those boxy safari-looking ones—sits at the curb. I exit the van, feeling a stab of pain in my spine as I offer an unreturned wave. My neighbor is one of Those Main Line Women, so wealthy she glows, so entitled she takes up two parking spaces at Whole Foods, where the lot is already cramped and hostile. She’s so protected by her luxury goods that the filth and stink of the middle class cannot penetrate her designer fortress. I know I shouldn’t judge, but she’s standing next door to my house in a gauzy tunic and buttery soft-looking leather gladiator sandals, all skinny and laughing, with a hundred and thirty-thousand dollar pile of steel parked at the curb. It’s difficult to overlook such things.

The coffee is still at the same level in the pot so I know Neil hasn’t woken up, nor does he have to, since his work day doesn’t start until four. He works second shift, which ends at midnight. It was the only job he could get when we moved and it throws everything off—meals, weekends, his personality, sex. I pour myself a mug and sip the cold bitter stuff, reminding myself once again to breathe forgiveness into my cells because it still stings that my husband of more than a decade ran away for a long weekend last year, just after we signed the mortgage papers—his mid-life crisis off to a blistering start—in part thanks to an old bandmate who promised him the success he always longed for—in exchange for his soul.

The story is, Neil was a musician once upon a time. He played guitar and harmonized with a ruddy-faced, broad-shouldered girl named Cyndi Pruce. I’d always thought she was gay. Maybe it was a subconscious wish. Neil and Cyndi nearly broke through the household name barrier when their most popular song, Your Ass Don’t Look Fat in Those Jeans, sold to a reality show about a formerly skinny celeb working her way through the most popular diets while living with three of her ex-boyfriends, one of whom was going to train her for a figure model competition. It would be aired on TLC. The trouble was, the former starlet took up with a Vegas hotelier and dropped a ton of weight from the cocaine he introduced her to. The show aired twice and then got canceled. Now Celebrity Skinny Again hosts some other reality show about recovering addicts and Neil manages the word processing department of a mid-level law firm in Philadelphia.

We left Brooklyn to start over. To cash in on our Park Slope shoebox—we traded it for a four-bedroom stone farm-house in suburban Philadelphia with a yard, driveway, detached garage and vivid Japanese maple out front. Great schools, great shopping, and my mom lives nearby. She’s almost eighty, and has just endured a cascade of surgery—cataract operation, hip replacement, hysterectomy. She lives alone; my brother’s out in the sticks, my sister works fourteen-hour shifts and I’m a glutton for punishment.

Cyndi Pruce nearly saved Neil from the suburban drudgery his life was fast becoming like a helicopter swooping in on a hiker about to be engulfed in a landslide. She told him there was another chance for another song on another show. The song was called Is it Cheatin’, about a guy who’s obsessed with another woman. The show was called, aptly enough, Cheaters. Neil approached me dancing for joy. We both danced for joy at the prospect of his success finally arriving after so many years he spent playing dive bars with sticky floors, and rehearsing most weekends. Then he threw up (from nerves), kissed the kids and got in the car.

The deal fell through before twenty-four hours had passed and he came crawling back—after he and Cyndi spent the weekend fucking in a motel room, scoring extra credit for demonstrating the song’s theme. He literally crawled up the steps to our house to confess his sins. He looked at me as if I was supposed to praise him for coming clean. “I can’t lie to you,” he’d said, clinging to my leg.

“But you can fuck your bandmate in a shitty motel?” I’d said. “You should be commended.” Then I left him with the kids and blew two hundred dollars on a massage and mani-pedi in the Wynnewood shopping center. I had the sweet Vietnamese girl with the face mask paint my nails black, in remembrance of my urban past when I was unchained. When I could have flown to Paris and disappeared there. Only Neil would be sad, and not for long. He was so pretty when he was young, with floppy blond hair and a flat stomach. He would have been fine, attached within months. And I’d be free. I spent the rest of that evening trying on three-hundred dollar dresses at Anthropologie in Wayne. I pocketed a beautiful hundred and eighteen dollar necklace, as if that would teach Neil a lesson. I put it on in the parking lot, no one the wiser. It was called a “Solemn Oath Strand,” and it was a tiny bird’s wing that looked to be carved of bone, with a blue string tied in a bow around it. It spoke to me. It inspired me to forget about the oath Neil and I made to each other and instead make a promise to myself—to always be true. Neil never says a thing when I wear it. And he knew enough to not mention my nails either, financial worrywart that he is.

My husband wept for days. He wrote me twenty apology poems, like this one—

If I could take it all back

If I could make it all gone

I’d unbreak the window

I’d rewind the dawn.

I’d be true to you always

I’d stay by your side

But I can’t, and I’m so very sorry baby!

It’s like we both died.

I thought about poisoning him. I could have used the seven-hundred fifty-thousand his insurance would have paid. But I fed him safe, nontoxic food, fearing jail. And I took him back, fearing single motherhood, because for one thing, I am devoted to not traveling in my mother’s maritally meandering footsteps. For another, I see what my divorced sister Jeannie goes through with her son Griffin on a daily basis—from child support, to a dick of an ex, to legal fees, and of course shuttling the kid back and forth between houses. It sends needles of terror through my veins. And this is saying nothing of what it would do to the kids. I happened to be happy when my parents divorced because it meant that I didn’t have to run screaming from my belt-wielding temperamental—emphasis on the mental—father anymore. But Neil is not like my dad. He’s good to the kids, and aside from his spectacular gaffe in sound judgment, he’s good to me. When he’s well rested anyway.

Neil and I slept in separate rooms for the first six months. Now we sleep in the same bed, but in separate universes. We have had sex once since the incident. It wasn’t even hot angry sex. It was dutiful sex. Mutual masturbation. I should get ASSHOLE tattooed across my forehead—backward—so I can read it when I look in the mirror, which is not often anymore.

A saw blazes to life next door, snapping me out of my noxious woolgathering. A nail gun erupts. A massive delivery truck rumbles to the curb. On the back of a receipt I scribble, Part-time single mother gets shiny new neighbor. Homicidal bloodbath ensues. I smile as I count the ways.

From the kitchen window I glance once more at my chic new neighbor, just in time to see the larger-than-life contractor smack her on the ass. She rubs her stinging rear with one delicate hand and joke punches the contractor with the other. Then she looks around, her mouth open, all white teeth and glossed lips. Nice Ray Bans, I think, as he dives in for a kiss.