I am waiting for Phil to tape my eyes closed, to get it over with. I have already applied cloudy-white ointment to the right eye and shut both eyes for the night, so when I flinch, I don’t see the look he gives me. He says, “I’m a real doctor, you know.”
I make my face serene, let the anxiety go. You would never know how many ways there are to close your eyes until you know you must commit to that specific position—slightly squinting, lightly but tightly pinched—for a whole night with no adjustments.
If I strain against the adhesive or even doubt it at all, an unbearable, fuzzy tension forms that I can’t easily undo.
The injury happened when, in a moment of delight, then-infant Leah scratched my eye with her tiny razor fingernail. In the seven years since, the top layer of my right cornea has chronically split after sleep, when I open my eyes. The bedtime rituals, prescribed to prevent these erosions, are failing.
Phil expertly finishes the closure, places the roll on the bedside table, turns off my lamp. I lie quietly waiting for sleep and fight the urge to test the tape.
We are back living in Michigan after a one-year break for Phil’s fellowship in Miami. Michigan is where Phil did his orthopedics training, where I bailed from my art history PhD and swore I would never live again. I knew I was capable of loving a place but had failed to bond with this one. And yet after Miami, Phil moved us back to the neighborhood filled with faux Tudors and crumbling colonials abutting the university. Phil joined the faculty of the medical school. We both understood it was our best bet.
We are on the five-year, see-what-else-comes-up plan, like everyone else here.
“You mean the one where no one leaves after five years,” I’d said.
Phil said, “I hope not.”
This is year six.
The house we bought was advertised as “a gardener’s delight.” There is a big side yard where the previous owner planted elaborate gardens. Vegetable. Roses. Cutting. Beds radiating from a circular, tiered herb garden with a sprinkler in the center that shoots up at six o’clock every morning and whips around, sending droplets falling in gentle waves that pulse up and down, around and around for a whole hour. A birdbath. A pond with waterfall: lily pads, reeds, toads and ornery old goldfish. A pergola supporting persistently sour grapes. The garden looked like a place that would make any family happy, grateful. How had I not seen that this would be something we’d need to maintain? That I would need to be the one to do it? When we toured the house, we only discussed how great it would be to have the ortho residents over for a BBQ.
The first summer, I hired a fifteen-year-old boy and his friend to mow the lawn and weed for two hours. After, they charged me what they said was fair: one hundred and sixty dollars.
Don’t talk to me about the thistle. The smell of creeping Charlie knitting across the lawn to mount the magnolia trunks. Don’t talk to me about the established raspberries, the blooming chives and lemon basil. Not a word about the deer that would destroy the perennials, or the ornate concrete bench that was smashed when the bulldozer came through on my command. Two summers in, I paid good money to turn the vegetable garden into lawn.
It did help. Taking away all those weeds; taking the overgrown zucchini off my to-do.
We rented a big white tent for the BBQ. I had to shuttle things back and forth from the yard to the kitchen. There, the new intern, Dr. Allison Suh, caught me hunched over, loading more seltzer cans into the fridge.
“Phil probably told you Michigan wasn’t my first choice either,” she said. “But that’s couples match.”
Phil had not mentioned this. I knew as well as she did, on account of their specialties, that she and her partner been lucky to get spots together anywhere at all. She wore a crossbody purse with a thin, buckled leather strap across her chest. It gave her a look of being very prepared. She accepted a seltzer and said she’d hoped to be in North Carolina near her in-laws. I was in blank, polite-hostess mode, so I said, “Well, we’re glad you’re here.”
I felt embarrassed that Phil had shared my lack of graciousness, even with an intern. Phil walked in then with an empty platter, clear jus from the cooked burgers and chicken it had held running up against the ridges as he headed for the sink.
“That’s the deal: You sacrifice for him now,” she said to me. “And he sacrifices for you later.”
“Absolutely,” Phil said, convincingly earnest, as he turned on the faucet with his elbow.
Interns, I thought, which is what I knew Phil was thinking too. They get younger every year. Phil and I never talked about dividing our lives that way; this sense of fairness seemed almost childish. We never talked about sacrifice.
“Let me get that,” I said to Phil, lifting the platter from his hands.
When Phil said, “We should do this every year,” Allison agreed.
Every year since the BBQ, twice a year, I’ve seen a cornea specialist. At my last appointment, the surgeon referred to my problem as a “lifestyle choice.” The term itself sounded offensive, like a piece of ultraconservative legislation, though I knew what she was getting at. Thus far, I have refused what she has left to offer: abrading the entire surface of my eye. The brutal procedure, she says, would give the eye’s outermost layer its best chance to heal.
The erosions do not happen every morning. There will be a string of eight or even twenty days when I believe I have healed myself; that if I continue to be patient and good, those epithelial cells will stay in place. Still, Phil does not understand my reluctance to give the surgery a shot. He is confident that I’d have a good outcome—that the horror of blistering my eye with a grid of pinpoint dots would be worth it—but my instincts tell me otherwise. Phil trained with this doctor; he calls her by her first name, Toni. I can’t decide what that means to me. I wish the choice came with more of a guarantee, but Phil reminds me that so many of his patients have it so much worse.
I had never fainted before that discussion in Toni’s darkened office. Passing out is not something you can fight. Whoops, I thought. There I go.
In the night, I feel a muffled buzz. The children are asleep. Phil is asleep. Phil’s phone vibrates again where he has placed it between our mattress and the bed frame. I carefully remove the tape that Phil so faithfully sealed. I slither across the bottom of the duvet to see if there are any messages. The newest text is from his sister, who maintains an outsized influence over her brother. I unlock the phone and see that just below is a question Phil sent to his favorite now-sixth-year resident, Allison: hey, are you on-call?
And beneath it, the same unanswered question from the day before. hey are you on?
And the day before that: on? i miss you.
I answer his sister: ethan is growing into a size 3t and leah wears a 13 shoe now. how are my nephews?
Some nights, you must weigh risk against risk.
Sure enough, in the morning, I feel the most sickening pop.
Do you know the pain of an injury like this? The deep, guttural sting, when you know something has happened? Next: delusion that nothing is wrong. You will just open your eye. Ready, go! Your own face gives you no reply. You ask again, bad eye open, and when it does, there is barbaric pain.
When we first had the scratch seen, the emergency department nurse gestured at our baby and asked, “Is this the culprit?”
After, Phil went to the drugstore to pick up my antibiotics and bought a pirate eye-patch that did no good whatsoever. You can’t fake an intact cornea. I lay in agonizing darkness for two days and listened to Phil and baby Leah moving about our apartment. Phil had to cancel all of his cases; we didn’t know anyone in Miami who could help out. Antibiotics tainted my breast milk, so we bought a can of formula for the first time. We began to realize the vulnerabilities of our family.
A nurse told me that most often women self-inflict this injury with their mascara wands. If there is one saving grace here, it is that I am not the culprit.
Homemade ant poison is:
Wait until the children are in bed. Immerse a cotton ball. Put the cotton ball on a little tinfoil plate. Put poison ball by the kettle, next to the bananas. Put poison ball in the pantry and another under the range.
January, and our garden is a three-foot crust of white, wind chill is negative twenty, and the ants are still coming up and in from the basement. They look skittish, unwell. The ants of my childhood—coastal—came only in summer and marched in effective lines to the cat’s saucer. These ants have hard, jointed bodies. I am the adult who wipes them away with paper towels and swear words. I sweep crumbs before bed; I leave out sinister octagonal traps from the hardware store. But still, ants float across our kitchen floor in the most disorganized manner, like a jar of mercury, dropped.
Our babysitter, Janie, gave the poison recipe to me, but Phil goes first: picks up an ant between his thumb and index finger and plops it on the cotton. “There you go, bud.” Phil is always taking over the chores with which I don’t need help.
We turn off all the lights and head upstairs to shower before bed. We undress. Our two-year-old, Ethan, does not like to see us without clothes on. If he were awake he would say, “I don’t like bodies.”
When I am about to step into the water, Phil says, “I don’t like bawd-ees.”
When I step out, he hands me my towel. Then he steps behind the curtain.
When I tap his phone, the lock screen reveals only the time and our two children’s faces.
I am surprised to feel a measure of tenderness for Phil—he hasn’t caught on yet that it’s over.
At first, the exchanges with Allison had been neat, organized and happy. The two had published a big research paper together, the biggest of Phil’s career. When Phil talked about Allison to me, he glowed. Allison’s little words and emojis and concern for their mutual data entered our house around the clock, carefully crafted, purposeful. But recently, the frequency of her messages has slowed. I do not know the extent of their relationship, though now I can feel her pulling away. I am surprised to feel a measure of tenderness for Phil—he hasn’t caught on yet that it’s over.
Phil was the one who first noticed me in a bar. Who saw that I loved art more than art history. Who said it would be just fine if we were Dr. & Ms. instead of Dr. & Dr. on all the invitations to come. He found the great rental in Miami Beach and rocked our baby to sleep with a warm ocean view. But I’m not sure anymore what he sees, or if what we see is the same.
Phil was injured once too. Our first summer in the house, he was concussed while trying to drive a stake into the garden—the wooden handle of his hammer snapped, jettisoning the steel head into his eyebrows. For weeks after, he’d float home early from the hospital. I would find him lying asleep on the patchy lawn by the sandbox, our workaholic Leah tunneling down and sculpting up around him. From the house, I could see the black soles of his dress shoes. Standing over him, I felt tall, light, powerful.
I have an insistent thought that Phil will drop this. He’ll suddenly wake up and realize what’s at stake. Not for him, not for the kids, but for me.
As soon as she walks in, I tell Janie the whole story of how her homemade poison recipe worked. When I came down that morning, the kitchen was completely still.
“Normal hours today?” I ask her.
“Just a normal day. Oh, except,” Janie says.
Except? Tomorrow is her son’s birthday. Eighteen. She says she needs time after work to buy a helium balloon to tie on his chair at the breakfast table.
When you find a really good—lifesaving—babysitter, you are beholden to their schedule. So I say that’s fine, I’ll come home early so she can get that balloon.
Janie is a decade and a half older than me, married to a hospital administrator. Her son, Ash, is an Eagle Scout and will join the ROTC at State next year—Janie is sitting to earn him extra tuition money. She taught me how to net our pond for the fall leaves, take out its pump and put in a deicer for the winter. She tightened the handle on our fridge. Before having kids young, Janie worked predawn mornings in a bakery. Once, she told me, as she hovered over our flour-dusted island, with my daughter aproned on a stepstool and my baby boy on her right hip, Leah turned to her and said, “Janie, you are my perfect helper.”
The balloon is a nice tradition, I think. Maybe I should do a balloon tradition. We are still learning how to take care of ourselves as a family.
Janie and I smile with teeth at each other, though we have both previously confessed that we each are not proud of our teeth. We both had braces as teenagers but we did not know enough to keep up with the retainers. For Janie, this is not a regret. It is hindsight.
I go out to the public library to do my work—a little bit of freelance design.
“Good to just keep your hand in it,” my own father has advised me. I find this career advice slightly icky, if not woefully vague, but I follow it all the same. Each week, I pay Janie more than I earn.
When I get home three and a half hours later, Janie has folded all the laundry and tided the art table. She hands me a drawing. “I got a kick out of this one,” Janie says.
At seven, Leah has shown a creeping tendency toward the visual arts. Though unspoken, I maintain a pleading faith that this will not be her only talent. Yesterday I saw her come straight home from school and get started at the art table but I didn’t think to ask what was in her head.
The horse on the page is brown and carries a rider, all done in profile. It is really very good. Leah has given the equestrian a shock of orange hair, a look of determination. She has done the earth in yellow-green highlighter. Leah is not particular about her materials.
After Janie leaves, I go back to the art table to take a photo to text to Phil, but before I do, I notice Leah’s other sketches, bleeding through the backs of flipped-over pages, facedown.
Page four: an ugly horse-head in pencil looking straight on. The eyes bug to the sides.
Page three: a neat block of marker where she has blacked out another attempt entirely.
Page two: the hesitant, light outline of the whole idea; tail, hooves, helmet.
Page one: a single, wrong line of permanent marker. Where she began.
I feel an unexpected swell of emotion. “Good girl,” I can’t help but think. She worked for it.
In bed that night, I ask Phil what kind of medical doctor I should have been. He replies, somewhat bewildered but affectionately, “No kind of doctor.”
“What did you think of Leah’s horse?” I counter.
“What horse?” he says. And I realize I never sent the photo.
That year in Miami with a new baby and no job, a bum eye, and the gnawing understanding that we’d likely go right back to Michigan, I began to have a recurring dream. In it I am a new doctor, training to be a surgeon. I am wearing green scrubs under my boxier, blue surgical gown. A cap is tied on my head. I hold a rectangular wooden box containing my loupes. Phil is there. I am tired but happy, exhilarated. I am about to perform spinal surgery. I know with complete certainty that I do not know how to do spinal surgery. I only know the accessory facts: where to be, what to wear, some of the language. I don’t feel panic or anxiety, only huge, continuous waves of relief. Thank God. Thank God, I think. I am something.
Each morning, the six deer graze through our garden. They treat our mishmash of antique iron and cedar fencing with nonchalance. Today, I watch our deer with intensity. I am lonely without those fucking ants.
A deer cull is slated for February. The homepage of the local news addresses the matter with an op-ed letter: deer are hoodlums, ruining enjoyment of leisure activities, property.
Crunch crunch crunch, the path used to say, companionably. Now when we try to mow that grass, tiny stones blast at the children’s ankles like buckshot.
We do not take any action against the cull, but we are against it in our minds. The previous owner of our house kept dogs, whose urine, flaking skin, and saliva must have warned the deer away. But the deer are part of what drove us to level the vegetable beds to lawn. The grass there is now peppered with pea gravel from what was once the garden path. Crunch crunch crunch, the path used to say, companionably. Now when we try to mow that grass, tiny stones blast at the children’s ankles like buckshot. Still, we are against deer families being snuffed out by a sharpshooter in the night.
Our children’s favorite yard belongs to our neighbors who have taken action against the cull. Their house is on an elbow-shaped street that intersects with ours. They have installed a family of life-sized plastic deer on their grass and a laminated poster that reads: stop the shoot.
This is where our children like to ride their scooters and coo through the hedges. There are also colorful, glass fish affixed to the fence and a glittery fountain, made of beads on wires. For weeks now, the plastic deer and all the fish have been wearing little caps of snow.
Saturday afternoon, Leah and I walk an extended loop. The boys stay home. We bring two paper bags: one for litter and one for nature. The litter near campus drives Leah bonkers.
The ground is frozen solid but Leah spots seedpods, dry heads of hydrangea, pine needles, frozen flat yellow leaves. I take care of the litter. At home, we will put her nature finds on a cookie sheet and leave them on top of the radiator to dry. The next day she will tape her findings to paper. Then, with oil pastels or watercolors or glitter pens, she will add a little something extra. Our art is not political. The action is our art.
On today’s walk, right in front of Delta Chi, Leah leaps suddenly into a snow bank. In her mittened hand: a slip of paper, a fortune.
“Well done, Leah!” I say, truly amazed. I take the paper and perform my father’s best joke: “It says: You are a fluke of the universe and you have no right to exist!”
“Okay, it really says: Expect good things next week.” I feel a burst of pure hope. I ask her, “Do you think it’s true?”
“Yes!” says Leah.
And then I realize, of course: this is not my fortune. This is Leah’s fortune, alone.
Leah tucks the slip into her pocket.
At night I wonder, how did she see it? That little white rectangle against the snow. The single line of faint red letters.
Phil texts me in the afternoon that he’s going to stay late to help out on a third case. Leah’s school is closed for the second day in a row because of the cold; the ninth closure this winter. Janie stays home too, worried about parking her car out in the cold. I’ve missed a work deadline. We are feeling extra cooped up.
The kids have piled every single cushion, blanket, and pillow from all the rooms of our house into a towering mound on the living room floor. They are profusely sweating from the effort.
“OK,” I text back to Phil. “Keep me posted.”
We are past the school district’s allotted snow-day threshold, and Leah will have to make up these days. I wonder how far her first-grade year will stretch into summer. I wonder what time we should start breaking down that pile. I wonder if Allison is also helping out on that third case.
Intern year, everyone called Allison by her last name, Suh. Everyone was still all excited to have a woman in the department. “Just make sure you all don’t treat her like your mom,” I said. And Phil looked at me like I was crazy.
I cleaned up the layout of their big paper before they submitted—made all the tables and graphs and headers look perfect. I was good at what I did, but Suh didn’t think much of it.
Phil said, “Allison asked me, ‘What was your wife going to do if you guys didn’t work out?’”
Work-wise, she meant. I remember Phil said he’d defended me. He told her that I’d had a real job when he met me. That I would have been fine.
“Right,” I said, wondering if Suh had a point. Instead I asked, “Since when do we call her Allison?”
Now I wonder: Was this the beginning of Phil’s doubt? Did he really not see that there had been no good plan? Suh was right. I hadn’t understood how squarely I was placing my life in his hands. There is no me as I am now without Phil. I didn’t know better, but Phil? He should have known.
As I am making dinner, there is a commotion upstairs and I head in that direction. The kids are in the master—our big bed stripped to the bare mattress for the benefit of the pile. Leah is restraining her little brother. When I say “Out” indiscriminately, Leah runs crying from the room, wailing, “It’s not fair!” Unmoved, Ethan drops a white plastic bottle cap and saunters out. When I pick the cap up, the ridges are still warm from his tight, sweaty hand.
They like to observe these objects: my dropper bottles, ointments, gauze, tape, fish oil capsules. Leah knows the story of my injury. The older she gets, the more guilt she feels. Of course, I’ve said, “It wasn’t your fault. You were just a baby. You weren’t even being fussy!” She’d been sitting on my lap, trying to share the joy of a good picture book. She turned to me. “Are you seeing this?” her fingers said in a flash, and her nail met my eye. At first, she’d laughed when I started screaming, and then she screamed, too.
The erosions feel exactly like a piece of glass is being dragged across my eyeball. A horrible unzipping. In darkness, I leap out of bed and stagger. I drench my face in synthetic tears. I calm down slowly, gradually owning the disappointment of another setback. The erosions only happen at night or early in the morning, when the epithelial cells dry and stick to the eyelid, pull away from the Bowman’s layer below. Sometimes I feel a rip from the depths of my sleep. Phil used to wake up but doesn’t anymore. I’m quieter than I used to be.
One year is what I am supposed to achieve. One year without an episode of erosion and only then can I be considered cured. The year, full of so many nights, has started over more times than I can remember.
After Ash’s birthday, Janie says she can give me more hours. I use the extra time to seek out other doctors that are not eye doctors at all. My first doctor is a woman, a dermatologist. She sees me only briefly and then her assistant begins to laser away the hair on my shins. I ask her exactly how many other women she is seeing that day, but she demurs. I wear steel goggles to protect my eyes. My butt-cheeks sweat through the paper table-liner. What this costs me in money and discomfort, I will make up in time.
The young female orthodontist is all booked up, so I see her elderly male colleague. When Dr. Hawthorne takes my impressions, his nurse overfills the trays. Thin, vibrant green putty oozes down the back of my throat, gagging me. I buck in the chair, my eyes water. I cough and the ooze-flap flips forward into my mouth and then falls back again against my tonsils. I stick my fingers down my throat and pull it out. Hawthorne continues to hold the steel tray against my upper palate through this whole episode.
“I’m glad you didn’t give up,” I tell him afterwards, breathless, holding my hands away from my prone body like they’re levitating. “I wouldn’t have wanted to start over again.”
He asks the nurse to bring a towel for my green fingers. “You wouldn’t want to ruin your pretty sweater,” he says.
Now my teeth are straightening twenty-two hours a day, entombed in clear plastic.
The psychotherapist has curly hair, cool boots, and is about the age of my older sister. Her name is Sienna. She does not take insurance. She exhales demonstratively when I exhale. Sometimes she has me sketch on a big paper pad sitting on the old carpeted floor. She says Phil has two choices, both of which are entirely up to him: To look into our family for happiness, or to look outside of it.
I sign up with the University temp pool. I carefully mark my education and special skills. They make me come in for a computer test, for which I buy a new shirt and skirt. I tell Phil about it and he says, “Do you really want to temp?”
I say angrily, “Well, I don’t really want to.”
Phil looks confused by my tone.
That night on Twitter, Phil’s sister posts a link to a video lecture about the difference between innovators and implementers and how they are never the same person, but both are essential. She works in investments for a former VPOTUS. She has told me that the former VPOTUS believes that the world is headed toward a fundamental change. He says that we were made for times of great challenge, and that we have been preparing to meet these challenges our whole lives.
The lecturer gives his take on certain ant colonies: some ants are born leaders, natural foragers, while others are followers, experts in tracing pheromone trails to known food sources and then back home.
I comment that that’s funny because we just had a major ant situation in our kitchen. She replies that you can tell ants that you will kill them if they don’t go away and they will listen.
This morning I found a single ant sniffing around the breadboard and I crushed him with my thumb and washed him down the sink with hot water and ran the garbage disposal.
Before I dropped out of the art history program, I had a study carrel right in the middle of our department where I worked every day. The chair used to come out of her office to deposit the peel of her fruit in my wastebasket. Sometimes orange. Sometimes banana. Once she asked, “Is there anything worse than a grim orange?” I sat with the scent of her disappointing citrus for the rest of the day.
When you are young, you do not appreciate the effort that it takes to create something nice, the subtlety needed to piece it all together. The art on the walls of the eye hospital is incredible. Standing under the panels of fluorescent light, I want to ask someone, who acquired all of this? Unexpected landscapes and embroidered abstracts and delicate collage. How does a collection like this—art that speaks to each other—end up in Waiting Area D? Whoever brought this all here knew, really knew, what they were doing. They did an excellent job.
“I was wondering if I should not wear makeup,” I tell the cornea fellow when it’s my turn. “Is it irritating my eyes?”
The fellow today is very beautiful. She has thick dark hair and warm skin on her fingertips. She has come to see me between the residents and the attending, who will see me last.
“No! You must wear your makeup,” the fellow says forcefully. She touches her own cheekbones lightly, and closes her eyes at her touch. “Here is what you do: wear your makeup. And then, at the end of your day, you wash your eyelashes with baby shampoo.”
In the eye hospital, there are old people waiting alone and in pairs, everywhere. Good corneas do not necessarily last. In Waiting Area D, I felt watched and very pretty, bolstered by the benefit of my own apparent youth. The fellow’s resounding beauty adjusts my perspective, though I appreciate the way she is trying to help me along. Seemingly without judgment.
After, Phil meets me at the bagel place in the tunnel underground that connects the eye hospital to the Main. He swipes me a bagel with his hospital ID. They are getting OR 5 turned over for his next case.
“I liked the fellow,” I say to Phil.
“Then I like the fellow too,” says Phil. “And what did Toni say?”
Toni is the attending.
“You know what she said,” I say, shooting him a glare as we board an up elevator. She said I should have the surgery.
Phil says personal anecdote is the worst kind of science.
Online, there are horror stories about the procedure she has proposed. You don’t have to dig deep. Dark forums of desperation: worsened vision, ferocious dryness, increased erosions, bleats of regret, cries for mercy. Phil says personal anecdote is the worst kind of science. Though he does not insist, always when asked, he agrees with his colleagues. Phil won’t debate it with me though. He won’t labor over the pros and cons, entertain the pseudoscience I’d like to discuss.
At the little café tables set up in the breezeway of the Main, I pull my braces out and wrap them in a napkin and stuff them into my pocket.
I tell Phil about the incident the other night with the dropper cap and ask, “Do you think Leah seems stressed?”
“Nah,” he says as his pager begins to sound. “You made me solid kids.”
Phil’s idle kindness fills me with sadness. I need to pick a good, cleansing fight, a place to begin the talk we need to have. But instead I say, “You’re welcome.”
Phil leaves abruptly, the OR all set and ready now, the patient already pinned and asleep.
Ten stories up, the glass hall overlooks the Arb. Even from this height, I can see the movement of cross-country skiers and snowshoers making their way in from the parking lot at the trailhead. When I was pregnant with Ethan, we used to joke that after I delivered, I would be expected to hike home from the hospital holding the baby.
I know soon there will come a time when Leah will not cry when I cry, or scream when I scream, or cry when I scream. My daughter will not want me to merely have hope or ask questions, but will expect me to act. The guilt that Leah feels about my injury is small and sheepish, wandering, but we have both observed and tended it too long.
I look down at the Arb now and though I can’t see our neighborhood on the other side, I know perfectly well it’s there. I think, you know what? No joke, I would’ve made it home.
No one is watching me. I choke down the whole bagel.
“You’re back early,” Janie says.
I try to look at her teeth but she is speaking in a way that I can’t get a clear view.
We sit in the sunroom while she finishes her coffee. I decline a cup because I don’t want to take out my aligners again. Leah is at school; Ethan naps. Janie has cleaned the inside of all our windows and glass doors with Windex. She is right to sit here in this spot where the warmth of the sun is amplifying the smell of her work.
It is not wrong to have given this other woman to my children.
I ask if she’s seen any deer in the garden today, and she says, come to think of it, no. I back off from mentioning the cull because I cannot have politics drive me from our best helper.
Janie confesses that she noticed the ants are back and I admit I had seen them too. I say I am going to have to call an exterminator and she doesn’t disagree.
“I need to have that eye surgery,” I tell her. I tell her that the doctor I visit most is our laissez-faire pediatrician and so it had felt jarring to have Toni tell me the truth directly: my recovery will be excruciating. Toni used that word. Excruciating.
Janie fills the space with ease: “I can take care of your kids.”
Two nights before the surgery, I tell Phil what I know. I begin the conversation with, “You must really hate me.”
The scale was tipped not by words he sent, but instead the stark white absence of those words. Tonight, in the text field with Allison I found: emptiness. Nothing at all. But that trail of messages he had left behind before—what had been written that provoked Phil to erase the conversation entirely?
That final empty space was all it took. I think of the farthest place I can think to go and know immediately I will not go alone. I scream that I will take the children to California, that he will never see us again. This threat—my new, vivid plan yanked from thin air, splattered all over that blankness hung between us—is an impossibility, but I watch it penetrate Phil like the truth.
“I’m sorry,” Phil says. “I didn’t do anything. I’m sorry.”
Phil starts to cry. I watch his eyes fill with heavy, wet tears. “Please,” he says. Please stop yelling. Please don’t say that. Please, you’ll wake the children. You don’t understand.
I do understand. Even in this frenzy, I don’t ask what was erased. I don’t want those words bashing around my brain. There would be no coming back.
Tears soak his cheeks and chin, and then the neckline of his shirt. There are more tears than I’ve ever seen. “Please, please,” he says. His wet eyes begging.
Oh, the relief of those soothing tears. In that most terrible moment, I feel jealous.
Phil brings me home from the eye hospital blind, raw, and woozy, but resolute in my disdain. After, he takes himself and our children to his sister’s.
An artist, I will tell Leah one day, can create any life she chooses. She can create the artifacts she needs to make the forgery real.
When Janie arrives, I call to her from the fog of my agony.
“I’m up here, Janie! It’s just me.”
Two weeks later, Janie lets herself in and calls up the stairs, “There are a lot of puddles!”
“Are there supposed to be puddles?”
“He said they’ll dry.”
“I guess they’ll dry then.”
She tells me he sprayed all around the kitchen, the pantry, the dining room, and the powder room, though she can’t imagine why he felt the need to spray in there but she didn’t want to interfere.
“But overall the bug guy was okay?”
“He was okay.”
“He was wearing a collared shirt and slacks. I don’t know. He was a bug guy.”
“Sorry to have stuck you with the bug guy.”
“That’s okay,” says Janie.
Janie calls her husband about the puddles who tells her to mop them up with paper towels and wash her hands.
Since my surgery, the children and Phil have come to visit just once. That was enough. The children lined up peacefully at my bedside and held my hand. “It is uncomfortable to grow a new eyeball,” I told them. “And it makes Mommy very tired.”
She brought me hot tea, tap water, stiff winter fruit, a quarter pounder, warm lentils with poached fish. Fresh pillowcases. Facial cleansing wipes and lip balm.
The pain had peaked days earlier, reached the limit of what I could describe. Worse still if I vomited or howled or cried. I’d tested those options and then pulled back, passed out, listened to the house. Janie pumped me with more meds than prescribed; brought a Ziploc of pills from her own cabinet, which did help. She brought me hot tea, tap water, stiff winter fruit, a quarter pounder, warm lentils with poached fish. Fresh pillowcases. Facial cleansing wipes and lip balm. And then, gradually, we tapered. Gradually, the agony began to lift.
Tomorrow Janie will drive me to the hospital and when the bandage is removed, the residents and the fellows, the attendings and the nurses will see what they see. But it feels right, I can just tell. I already know the new cells I’ve grown will take. Phil, Toni, the nurses, the fellow—they were right, and I am lucky. I am in excellent hands.
Janie has come up the stairs and is standing in my doorway. She says, “You really don’t need anything else?”
After she leaves, I make my face serene and tape the second eye myself. I should have said earlier how much easier it is sleep with both of my eyes matched and equal—the healing and the unscathed, suffering the same fate.
It is still pitch black when there is one colossal shattering downstairs. I trust what I can sense: there is no man here. No gun. No ghost. I am alone, but there is something to be dealt with. There it is again: a scramble of glass and then quiet. Then a scattering, shards skated across the floor. I am quiet. I peel open the good eye. With the heel of my palm, I cover the bandage of the other. Layer upon layer upon layer. I reach across the mattress, gather Phil’s big white pillow to my chest, and drop to the floor. Shake. I am the poison ball.
I call Phil. Phil answers whimsically, putting Ethan on.
“Whoops, can you hand me back to Daddy?”
Phil calls the police.
I expect a blur of lights and sirens but help never comes rushing up quite as quickly as you would think. The police don’t come and they don’t come and finally, after long minutes listening—eight minutes, nine—I think, “This is ridiculous. I will go myself.”
I see the white, upturned tail first, a giveaway in the moonlight. The thin face, black nose, on her next go round. A deer has come in from the garden.
I watch the doe while I wait. I feel a creep of cold blooming inside from the shattered door as I crouch at the top of the stairs.
It is only so often she passes by in a baritone clatter, from the living room, to the dining room, into the butler’s pantry, back down the hallway from the art table. She is a blur to me, though my one good eye tells me her gender, her form. You can’t hide in here, I tell her in my mind. Go! You go now, or else.
The local news item is mercifully short. Janie is an at-home subscriber and so she is the one to cut it out for our family to save. It reads:
Police helped remove a deer from a home on the morning of Thursday, March 4.
Police were called at 6:23 a. m. to the 2000 block of Hickory Way for a deer that broke through a sliding glass door.
Officers arrived and escorted the unwelcome guest out.
The last week in April, one red tulip grows at the top of the retaining wall. Our wall is made of river rocks set in concrete. It goes across the front of the property and then takes a left and continues, diminishing as it rises along the sloping driveway.
We are all living at home together, continuing to slowly heal, improve.
The red tulip comes up in front of the boxwoods through last year’s mulch. I have already seen other early plants eaten down in our backyard—flower buds snipped back at the stem, jagged paths of crooked teeth-lines across the smooth, hearty leaves, a steady green, cauterized by the sun and brittle along their torn edges.
Day after day, the tulip in front remains unbothered—out of April, into May—as I’d hoped that it might. That oval tulip, celebrating like a tethered balloon.
Did Phil notice the tulip? I ask him what he sees and he answers with a snap of recognition, “The red tulip.” I ask our children too, and though they have observed it, they do not see the spared tulip as any particular good fortune.
The wall in that corner is as high as my height, deep soil supported behind it. The tulip takes a whole two-week tenure before the petals open farther and fall away. When I stand on the sidewalk, this bed is not a place I can reach.
I can only look and look.