the cabal

Excerpt from “The Claustrophobes”

Though we admit this to no one, our daughter was an “accident.” Three months into marriage was far too soon, considering we dated for just over a year and skipped the engagement completely. Many of our friends waited years to bear children or still don’t have them. I often joke that Lizzy and I are on the “accelerated adulthood program,” but secretly mourn the loss of our youth and freedom, secretly feel deprived, like a boy who slept through Christmas.

Mara can be precious, though. Strong-willed and colicky, but growing out of that. As a baby, she had difficulty with feedings and digestion. She screamed for hours each day — sometimes to the point of choking herself, sometimes to the point of us choking each other. We could hardly go to the grocery store, let alone a restaurant, movie theater, or library, for fear of Mara’s blood-boiling yowls. To sleep for even an hour she needed breast milk, white noise, swaying motion, pacifier, and a swaddle tight enough to cut circulation. Lizzy and I fought about finances, about sleep, about wiping the high chair after use. When we reconciled, there was a mutual sadness in our eyes, an unspoken concession: the horrible creature in the onesie has ruined our lives.

At home, I find Lizzy folding laundry on the sofa.

Without looking up, she says, “Look what your daughter did today.”

On the wall beside our bookcase, streaks and circles of red marker are drawn in a kind of Cy Twombly pattern — some lucid, some smudged, and one that looks almost like a face. Dammit. I will have to paint over this.

Lizzy seems tired. Her hair is half in a bun, half falling down on the sides. She is wearing black tights, slippers, and one of my long sleeve T-shirts. Without makeup, her eyes have an unhealthy pink glow, which I assume is from crying, yelling, insomnia, or some combination of the three. Odd that raising a baby makes us more like babies ourselves. It is difficult to see the woman who used to jump naked from the bluffs at Nelson Ledges Quarry, who once fondled me on an elevator, slumped over a laundry basket on the couch like a caricature of the bedraggled housewife.

I ignore the marks on the wall and instead ask what she did today.

She shakes her head. “I dunno.”

“You don’t know? Was Mara bad?”

“She’s always bad.”

“Oh. Did she cry a lot?”

“I dunno. She was just bad. Sorry the house is a mess.” She gestures at the various toys strewn around the living room, the books that have been removed from the bookcase and stacked in spires, the raided Settlers of Catan hexagons, the pile of cereal crumbs on the side table.

“That’s okay. Not important,” I say without meaning it.

“She’ll wake up soon,” Lizzie says. “I put her down at 3:30.”

I push the laundry basket aside and sit down on the couch. We stare at Mara’s wall art together.

“I think it’s refreshing,” I say, squinting. “Indecipherable, but refreshing. That’s the challenge of the piece.”

Lizzie doesn’t laugh. “Remember when we climbed the fence at Cedar Point and almost got arrested?” she says.

“Sure.”

“And then we drove all the way around Lake Eerie in one night, just because.”

“What made you think of that?”

“I miss stuff like that.” She takes my hand, but not to hold it — just to look at it. “I miss us.”

To a comment like this, I would usually demur. I would tell Lizzy not to fret. Our life is good. We have each other and have intimacy. Romance is harder to distinguish, but still present in the small, insignificant moments that join our days together like spider silk between rafters. But for once I hesitate. Is that enough?

Mara calls from the top of the stairs. First, “Mumuh?” Then a moan. Soon she will unravel into a chorus of screams. She will scream and thrash her legs while I change her soiled diaper. She will try to grab her poop, which will make me yell, which will escalate her mood. She will whine and warble through dinner and refuse her food unless we trade it for banana and peanut butter. Lizzy and I will fight about this. We will turn on cartoons to distract Mara during kitchen cleanup, but this will fail. She will climb into the cabinet and remove our pots and pans. She will try to touch knives in the dishwasher. I will insist that maybe—just maybe—a spanking is in order, but this, too, will be a point of contention. Mara will calm down and play with her foam alphabet blocks and her kitchen set, but her conflated interest in things that are not toys will lead to a spill or an accident. Around seven thirty, Lizzy will say she needs a break and go upstairs to draw a bath, leaving me to brush teeth, change another diaper, locate “monkey” and “bear,” read a picture book with torn and retaped pages, and say goodnight to our mutual blessing, who will inevitably wake us at two, three, or four in the morning.

Lizzy will pass out on the couch midway through the first episode of Bloodline, her wet hair dampening my shoulder. Sleep, wake, work, and repeat.

“John?”

I grunt.

“Do you think we’re still in love?”

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