Stories & Novels

Sweet Toes

When I wasn’t at Caroline’s I spent most of my time hanging out at Debb’s place. Debb and I used to go places all the time before she starting seeing Michael and had Baby Mike and then got married. In junior high we mapped out our future: we were going to open up a cupcake shop together, we were going to learn instruments and start a band, we were going to travel to all the places that started with the letters of our names. We didn’t do any of that. What we did do is drop out of high school together, which is something we’d been talking about since junior high. Not because we were dumb, but because we could. For me, though, the thrill wore off and I went back for my GED so I could work See’s Candy over the holiday at the pop-up shop. Still, I graduated before anyone else.

Debb used to be thinner than me, but after the baby she added a muffin top streaked with silvery stretch marks that were pretty yuck. And not like a regular muffin top, but one from a fancy coffee place, like a five-dollar muffin with a hard, sugared crust that bakes completely over the edge of the paper. Which is a terrible thing to be saying about Debb, I know, considering what happened.

Debb’s son, Baby Mike, was a cute thing, which didn’t make much sense since Debb was only marginally more attractive than I was. On the other side, his dad Mike is plain and big and born for the military. In the science unit, when I was getting my GED, we reviewed genetics and all the crazy number of possible combinations that happen each time an egg gets fertilized. So I guess it was good luck for Baby Mike, and bad luck, too.

Baby Mike was almost a year old when all this I’m getting to happened. His dad was in the army and not at home a lot, so I watched Baby Mike on the evenings Debb went out for classes to get her GED. I didn’t mind watching Baby Mike, not even when I found out Debb was seeing some guy she met, that not all her evenings out were for her GED classes. Only once or twice, she said, for a drink. Sometimes she’d ask me if I thought Mike was cheating on her, getting it on with some Arab girl. But I didn’t think that was possible. They’ll bury you to your neck and stone you, I’ve heard. They don’t mess around.

The bad week started good. I was over at Debb’s and she asked if I could take Baby Mike and Deeohgee, their mutt dog, to the playground.

“Can I just take Baby Mike?” I said. “Deeohgee shits every ten feet. And they don’t allow dogs, anyway.”

“Here,” Debb said, handing me a leash. “Tie him to a tree.” As though that solved anything.

Debb was particularly helpful getting the stroller set up and getting a bag of Cheerios straight out of the carton and a bottle of milk and the diaper bag restocked. She wasn’t fooling me though. It was evening in Afghanistan and she was probably going to do a Skype call with Mike. I’d walked into the house and overheard her once. I think it’s why we’re losing wars. Our soldiers are fapping while their wives jiggle their bits, live, from thousands of American bedrooms. Meanwhile, all those terrorists are thinking only of the afterlife. No contest. Bet it’s why everything is going automated. Drones don’t have dicks.

Deeohgee shat in the alley, not five steps out. Debb’s place was part of a long row of narrow condos in housing across the street from the base. There was a playground not far away, but I always found it too depressing so instead I took Baby Mike and Deeohgee into a neighborhood about a mile away that’s more upscale and to a park there that has a new playground and a view of the hills which, then, were yellow with some kind of flower you never get close enough to pick or identify because they’re all on base land and probably full of mines and unexploded ordnances.

The grass at this park wasn’t weedy Bermuda, and the playground sand was cleaner, until Deeohgee took another shit. Debb forgot bags so I used one of the diapers. I put Baby Mike in the swing harness and pushed him. His little fingers went white clasping the rubber edge, the wind twirled his hair, and this pure glee came out between that mostly gummy smile. The look on his face. You don’t tell a kid that it’s all downhill from there, because you don’t want to dash your own chances that you’re wrong.

I got in some juggling practice—I was hoping to get a job at the Renaissance faire—until Deeohgee wanted to play with the tennis balls. After an hour and a feeding and lots of laps around the park, Baby Mike finally went down for a nap in the stroller. I sat on a bench next to a yoga mom and pulled the shade down over Baby Mike and watched the yoga mom’s kid, a boy a little older than Baby Mike, as he practiced walking.

The woman and me started talking about kids. Elise was probably in her early thirties and super skinny. She had some kind of Australian or New Zealand accent, faint, but definitely there. I loved the way it sounded but didn’t want to make her conscious of it by complementing her on something she did naturally, or thought she could hide. She mistook Baby Mike as mine but I didn’t say anything to make her think otherwise. I was used to it. This was last year this happened, and I was only seventeen then, but talking about “our” kids made me feel tons older, something I liked. We had those mother conversations, like:

“Does Mike sleep through the night?”

“No.”

“Have you tried the Ferber Method?” Elise asked.

“Oh yeah,” I said, bluffing. “All of them.”

“It didn’t work?”

“He’s a night owl,” I said.

“What time do you put him down?”

“Seven?” I said.

“Be nice if they had off switches,” Elise said, sounding satisfied with my answer. “This sounds horrible, I know, but sometimes I wish I had some of that Michael Jackson drug, for myself, so I could sleep for a month.”

Elise took out a folder with some papers and was marking things up, but only for a few seconds because her kid got a mouthful of sand and she had to wash it out, and then he shat himself, and it was forever before she got back to her work, which I could see was some kind of business proposal or something.

“It’s not easy being a mother and still being you,” I said, which was a true thing I had come to appreciate in all my time with Baby Mike. She put her hand on mine and squeezed it and it wasn’t until she sighed that I realized she wasn’t comforting the pretend-me but agreeing. Like her life was a message on a foggy mirror that was evaporating before she could read all the words. That was actually a line from a TV show I’d watched the night before and I wanted to say it but didn’t because maybe Elise had seen it, too.

“I thought,” Elise began. “I thought you opened another room in your life. But sometimes…”

“I know,” I said. I think I made her cry a little. “You want to take a nap?” I offered. “I can look out for yours, too. Does he like the swings?”

She looked hard at me. “Just ten minutes,” she said. “Five.” And she went to the shade of a nearby tree and lay out on the grass and was out in a minute and that right there gave me a chill. That motherhood, real motherhood, was so exhausting you’d let a stranger watch your kid.

I pushed her boy in the swings for awhile but he wasn’t into it so I let him back down into the sand, which kept him occupied. Maybe his body was telling him he needed some grit for digestion, some minerals lacking in all that mashed sweet potatoes and carrots. Who was I to say?

I was practicing juggling when Elise woke. She thought my juggling was really great and she kept Deeohgee distracted, scratching his white belly as he lay on his back, legs bent like they were broken. Elise’s husband didn’t want them to get a dog, but Elise wanted one.

I saw Elise again the next day around the same time when I was out taking Baby Mike for a walk. She said I should come to her place for a class that was being held there on that coming Saturday. Her mommy group rotated houses and hers was next. It was a massage thing. I’d love it, she said. I wanted to confess then that Baby Mike was not my kid, that I wasn’t a mother, that I hadn’t even really had sex yet. But I said sure because it was the first time in ages someone had invited me to anything. She wrote down her phone number and address on the label of my packet of baby wipes. We used the same brand. She let Baby Mike keep the ball that was actually her son’s.

I didn’t tell Debb about Elise. And up until Saturday I could see more clearly that Debb, compared to Elise, was bossy and unkind. She cussed a lot, more than me even, and though I was glad I could relax around her—with Elise I felt like I had to watch what I said and still act natural, which was hard—I also didn’t want to veg in front of the TV and listen to her talk about Mike and go home knowing Debb was jiggling her bits for him or for someone else. Nothing ever happened with us, which was pretty much how things had always been, but that was because we’d been held back by age, by school, by looks and rumors. Now we were adults and it felt like we needed to become something. Or at least it had begun to feel that way to me, more and more.

At my cousin’s that Saturday I put on my newest jeans and a clean blouse and worked on my hair and put on too much makeup, then toned it down, then up again. I walked to Debb’s place and found it a mess. There was a mop and bucket in the kitchen, the hoover was out, and all the windows were open.

“Who’s the date?” Debb teased, seeing me dressed up a little.

I said Todd, some guy from See’s Candy. He was the one who’d told me the white apron I had to wear got him worked up but who never went past saying anything more suggestive than that. He would say things like, “You should come over and watch the game with Bull.” Or “Bull and you could have some fun.” It took me all of my first day at that job to figure out that he wasn’t talking about some other employee I hadn’t yet met, but about himself, in the third-person. It was a little disappointing. I’d been wondering who this Bull person was and why he was interested in me. Even after I figured it out I couldn’t tell if Todd was lusting after me or if he literally meant we should hang out and watch a game. I finally had to ask him if he called his dick Bull and he said no. He seemed offended and didn’t talk to me for all of an hour or two, then said he called his dick Mr. Magic. Worse, it took me until the next day to figure out he was slow in a way that wasn’t his fault, that he was mentally challenged, as they say, but it wasn’t something that you could tell from looking at him, like most. I called him Bull after that.

So that Saturday I told Debb I’d take Little Mike with me to meet Todd for lunch. Debb could finish cleaning without Little Mike around.

Little Mike?”

“Well he’s not a baby anymore.”

“Why would Todd want to see Baby Mike?”

I shrugged. I couldn’t think of a good reason either. I should have told her about Elise, but maybe she’d have said no then. “He has a kid about the same age,” I lied.

“Is he married? Careful,” she said, not letting me answer as she fluffed up the couch cushions.

“Why are you cleaning up like crazy?” I asked. “You have a date?”

“Mike’s coming home today,” she said.

I couldn’t tell if she was happy about being able to shake her jiggly bits for him in person or not. She didn’t seem thrilled. I put it down to all the cleaning ahead of her.

While Debb was upstairs vacuuming, I put Little Mike in the stroller with some diapers and wipes and left quietly. Debb hadn’t really said not to take Little Mike. I left a note, though, and said we’d be back in a few hours and not to worry (not that she ever did)—we were only going for a walk; I wasn’t seeing Todd really. I wrote that I was taking Deeohgee with me, too, so she could have the place to herself. I told her to pull down the shades in front as a sign if Mike came home. I’d take Little Mike for longer than just a couple of hours then. Wink, wink. I didn’t think, at the time, that maybe Mike would be dying to see his son, though in hindsight my actions were probably the right ones.

Elise’s house was a two-story, actually the whole neighborhood was, with a small circle of grass in front and a young tree in the middle, held upright by stakes and rubber cords. You could see where the tree had chafed against the cords, like it might gather up its roots and walk away otherwise. I tied Deeohgee to one of the tree stakes. The tree was so thin that Deeohgee’s piss missed the bark. Deeohgee lay down and let out a long yawn between panting, like he’d been here a hundred times before and couldn’t care less what I did. There was a balloon taped to the front door, which was open.

I said simple hellos to the women in the kitchen and introduced myself to a few more until I saw Elise, and by then I couldn’t remember any of the others’ names.

“Oh,” she said. “You brought Little Mike.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I couldn’t get…” It hadn’t dawned on me not to, though I had wondered where the other mothers’ kids were.

“No worries,” she said.

I figured she guessed Little Mike didn’t have a father in the picture, which was accurate in a roundabout way. “He’ll probably take a nap soon,” I offered.

“Oh, he’s already out,” Elise said. “You can put him in Jessie’s playroom.”

She led me through her kitchen and down a carpeted hallway with canned lights and buckets of new-house smell. We passed an untidy home office, then a bedroom with a matching crib and dresser and one of those expensive rockers with an ottoman. She delicately opened a door and gestured into a playroom. I was happy to see someone else had put a sleeping infant here, this one strapped to a car seat.

“Thanks,” I whispered, and let her go back to her guests.

I was a relieved that Little Mike had fallen asleep on the walk over, but at the same time I felt a greater fraud without him, without having to do any mothering kind of things, so much so that I hesitated to leave the room. Here, toys were pushed against all four walls, easily a thousand bucks in plastic. It made me feel sorry for Little Mike. He hardly had anything. Trains, but not a mile of track. His Teddy, but not an entire clan of stuffed bears. Little Mike had those rings that he liked to try and spin when he wasn’t chewing them. But I’d read that experts say simple toys are better for kids. I thought then that there was a good chance little Mike would grow up to be generous and not trapped by possessions, while Elise’s son might become a hoarder.

I was given some white wine in a ginormous glass when I made it back to the kitchen. I sipped it and went out onto the patio where there were a bunch of other women chatting. I felt like a spy that’s about to get revealed. Let alone motherhood, this was womanhood, a state I felt I still hadn’t achieved in any believable way. I spotted a baby monitor cackling on the patio table and was glad I hadn’t said anything unkind from the playroom.

The first group of women were talking about day care, but farther out by the plastic playhouse, the women were talking about sex, and how much they weren’t into it anymore. I sat on the swing and sipped. One woman said she had a friend whose C-section ended her ability to orgasm.

“Join the club,” one of the other women said.

Another said she still had various pains every time she put out, no matter what lubricant she tried. She said her husband had joked they should try WD–40, which was funny as she told it, but, I could tell, not when her husband had made the quip. Everything the mothers were saying was pretty ick; it was what they don’t put in health-ed classes, where the message is: don’t have a kid when you’re young, but that when you have one eventually, well, it’ll all be peaches and cream. Maybe this was really the absolute worst advice. You should have them when you’re young. If you think about it, having kids late is selfish; your kids will have a mother for a lot less of their lives. As I was drinking my wine, another mom defended how helpful her husband was, and that softened half of the group and made the others drink more.

I could see a fruit platter in the kitchen and wanted a watermelon slice really badly, but Elise came out onto the patio then and clapped her hands and made an announcement and led us into her living room. She’d pushed all her furniture to the walls, like in her son’s playroom. The women took off their shoes and I grimaced when I saw how worn mine looked beside all the other neat pairs. Elise had us sit in a circle, like duck-duck goose, but with all of us turned to face the back of the mom to our right. That is, until someone said something about something Chinese and we all turned to face the other way. What we were supposed to do then was massage whoever’s shoulders were in front of us. I counted twenty-three in the circle. I thought it was pretty corny until the massage started. I lucked out and sat in front of a gym rat with strong hands. Elise put her phone in the middle of the circle and every time it chimed a new mom led the massage. Whatever massage I felt given to me I had to return to the mom in front. When it was my turn I went with a regular shoulder massage and there were a few brief moments where it felt almost magical. I’d dig in a little harder on the left and, a few seconds later, I’d feel the same emphasis in my shoulders. We all seemed so connected, so relaxed, so helpful, one to the other. This went on for about fifteen minutes and then we all faced outward and did some mindful meditation, which I didn’t know how to do so I sat there looking out through the French doors at Elise’s yard, at a glass of wine left on the chimney of the playhouse, at a Scrub Jay on the wall, cocking her head at something in the grass. Over the baby monitor I heard the other kid’s wake-up cries, followed by Little Mike, and after about twenty minutes of walking him around the yard trying to get him to fall back asleep I gave up. But I was only the third mom to leave, so I didn’t feel bad, even if I didn’t get any food and too much wine.

“I’m so glad you came,” Elise said, walking me to the door.

“Me, too,” I said. “Thanks for inviting me.” I untied Deeohgee and he was ready to go, as always.

I walked back feeling five years older, in a good way. I came up the alley and walked to Debb’s back door. It was open and there was an M.P. standing inside but when he saw me he closed the door like I had nothing to do with the house, like I was poking my nose where it didn’t belong. I saw my note on the glass and coming into view, a regular police officer inside. The shade came down hard and covered my view. I pulled on Deeohgee’s leash and jogged the length of the alley pushing the stroller, then came around the front, my stomach squirming. I knew from all the looky-loos and the ambulance that it wasn’t about, like, the weed or something. No, this was something more serious. What did me in was how the ambulance and the patrol cars and the two jeeps from the base all had their engines running. This was the part in movies where the person runs into a building yelling “No!” but I’ll never believe a scene like that again, because I couldn’t move. I shook like an animal that’s just been born.

An officer tapping on his phone was closest to me.

I asked him what happened.

“Domestic dispute,” he said, not looking up.

I couldn’t see anything at all in the house. I should have spoken up and said then and there who I was, that I practically lived there and that Little Mike did, but fits in my stomach stopped me. I felt sick and like I knew I was going to get sicker. And then a dark, silky sack came out riding a gurney. It could have held anything, but it didn’t hold just anything. You’ve had these moments, I’m sure. Where it feels like an axe goes into your life and splits you and now there’s only one way to keep growing, and not the way you wanted to. Well, up until then, I’d never felt that.

I tied Deeohgee to the base of a hydrant with shaking hands. And then, as I got up, I could see another police car parked on the other side of the ambulance, and in the back, with his head bowed…I took enough steps to see his ears, his neck, his cheek. I felt that if I went any further I’d fall off the edge of something. Even though, I did then. It was Mike sitting there. He didn’t see me. And then he did. Something came into his face, recognition, and he jerked his head like he wanted me to come closer. I was spooked so bad that I took Little Mike and pushed the stroller as far away as possible, toward Caroline’s, forgetting Deeohgee until I was halfway there. When I went back for him everything was gone. The people. The ambulance. The police. The shades were both drawn and there was something stapled to the front door. Even Deeohgee was gone.

“Who’s this?” Caroline said, when I got back, near dark, Little Mike crying the whole way. I said, “This is Little…” but I couldn’t say his name. I said, “Baby Michael.”

It came out in a rush. Caroline’s ex put on the news but there was nothing. Her ex went out for diapers and wipes and came back with three kinds. And then there she was, Debb, my best friend, unknown to the world like I was, now with her driver’s license picture on the TV, her name spoken by a newscaster I never, not in a million years, thought would ever say her name or anything about her. Dead. Stabbed with a kitchen knife by her husband. Probably one of the ones I’d used dozens of times to cut up some apples or carrots or slice a pizza or pie. There was no mention of Baby Michael. Not a single word. Like he didn’t exist. Like they didn’t know Debb was even a mother. Maybe I saved Baby Michael’s life by him not being there when it happened. Or maybe Mike wouldn’t have done it had Baby Michael been there, or I’d been there, like I usually was. I didn’t know then, I don’t know now. Maybe he would have killed me too I said aloud, all things that Caroline let me say while she held me like I was seven, and I let myself be seven, and blubbered even through the brightest, most colorful commercials. Young people having the time of their lives in a chain restaurant.

We didn’t have a car seat, so we took Baby Michael and his stroller by bus to the police station. It took over an hour and Caroline’s ex said we were crazy, we could’ve called the police, or put the tot in the back seat of his truck. But I couldn’t risk anything happening to Baby Michael, not now, and just the words back seat gave me chills. At the police station, when I explained that I’d been spooked when I was coming back from watching the baby, they didn’t make anything of it at all. I wasn’t in trouble. They gave me a coffee and that was it. Asked me a few questions. Like how well I knew Mike, how often I babysat. I tried to correct them, tried to let them know I was Debb’s friend, but it seemed an unnecessary distinction to them. They took Baby Michael. I let them, too, because I wasn’t expecting them to. Had I known, I would have petitioned to watch him for however long they needed me to, to do something to help. But they were all smiles, like they’d been gifted with a child, like Baby Michael was the best thing to have ever happened to any of them in the station. You’d think they were all his uncles and aunts, seeing him for the first time.

I didn’t get but one visit over all of it, a few days later. The detective couldn’t tell me anything about Baby Michael other than that he was fine and in good hands. Still, not being able to place him was the worst thing of all. Maybe he was with grandparents, but they wouldn’t even tell me that.

I said I didn’t know if Debb had been seeing someone else, which I believed as much as them. She held up the note I’d taped to the back door.

“Who’s Deeohgee?” the detective asked.

“D.O.G.,” I said. “Their dog.”

They asked me again if Debb was seeing anyone else, like they were reading a script and they’d lost their place and didn’t remember what they’d already asked. They were looking for a motive, the detective said. Crazy jealousy, jacked up revenge—something like that. You’d think their report was a Scantron test and they just wanted to fill in the right bubbles so they could move onto other cases. I hated them for making it seem like Debb had anything to do with what Mike did, that it was in any way her fault at all. I told them all the great things about Debb but they didn’t write much of it down. I wanted to make her sound like a saint, all she’d put up with, raising Baby Michael alone while Mike was overseas. But of course, that wasn’t completely true either. They told me Mike didn’t remember having done it, but I believed that least of all. They assured me that he had committed the crime, only that he didn’t remember having done it, like they were trying to preserve something between Mike and me that had never been there. I told them I hardly knew him at all, which was about true. The detective and the man with her were patient and paused a lot, like they were giving me time to cry if I felt like it, or bring something up, but I wasn’t going to cry in front of them and I didn’t know what to say. Mostly, I wondered if I didn’t say anything more, if this would be the end of any investigation. The file would stay closed until it got shredded a hundred years from now. But what could I say? I didn’t know anything. Nothing to undo anything. The only thing I cared about was that Baby Michael was safe and that Mike would never see him again. After they left, I realized I forgot to ask whether there was going to be a funeral or service for Debb, which just about killed me—my forgetting to ask.

I hardly slept for days, I felt so low about Debb. About Baby Michael. Even Deeohgee. I wanted to go back and tell Debb from the start that Mike was no good for her, even when she seemed so happy. Happy for that half a year or so when we lost touch while she was with Mike, our friendship not really brought back until she got married and needed a bridesmaid. If I could go back, I’d implore her to chose differently, even though that would erase Little Michael. But still, I couldn’t help but have this fantasy, and then feel bad about having it.

My cousin Caroline tried to get me out of my funk for the next couple of months. She went around telling me that it was horrible, what happened, that losing Debb was horrific, but that there was the rest of my life to live and that I’d find new friends, friends like Elise and her crowd, who were considerate and kind and welcoming, and that my future lay there, even though I hadn’t seen Elise or any of those mothers and probably never will again, now that I can’t even pretend to be one of them.

I floated out of reach of happiness for nearly a year. I can remember the moment I felt relaxed again, though. I was at the beach for the first time in forever, even though I lived so close. There was hardly anyone there. The cliffs were full of white and yellow wildflowers and the sunset made everything warm-colored. The tide was the lowest I’d ever seen it and though the water was freezing at first, it felt strangely warm as I walked out on the smooth, exposed reef. I had Deeohgee with me, who I’d found at a shelter a few weeks after it all happened. The reef was covered with sand farther out but the water covering it didn’t get any deeper and the waves that mattered were far out and lulled by the sunset. We were a football field away from the cliffs and still the ocean didn’t reach my rolled-up jeans. It felt like the ocean’s depth was a hoax, like it didn’t go down into blackness, didn’t have those blind writhing creatures in its deep, but was shallow instead, like where I stood. I kept walking out. I felt that if I kept walking I’d make it to Japan. I’d eventually reach some beach on that side of the Pacific, and I’d find myself in a little fishing village, maybe during a festival, and there’d be lanterns glowing in the trees and wooden chimes knocking out notes in the breeze. And I’d see everyone I’d wondered about. People I’d met and known or had hoped to know, or thought were out there for me. The reason I’d never found them was that they’d all been here, where I hadn’t thought to look. Deeohgee was ready to walk the whole way to Japan, too, but something moved in front of us in the shallow water. A stingray, maybe, so we turned around and shuffled within our shadows back to dry sand.

After dinner I took a shower and watched some of the Oscars—all that dazzle, all those shimmers, like crystals of sugar, sweet and completely soluble. Caroline’s ex came over and hung out and quizzed me on my chemistry terms for one of my CC classes. One thing led to another and he brought up the foot job I’d given him the last time the Oscars were on. But this time I let him sleep with me instead, maybe because I was overdue to do it, maybe because of the good feelings I’d had on the beach, maybe because of the generally good direction things seemed to be going with school, etc.

But sex sucked. It really did. Well, he said, afterwards, laughing. What did you expect?

I didn’t have an answer, because I didn’t know. Then he laughed again, unhurt at all by what I’d said. He told me I was cute when I pouted. But I didn’t believe what he said, even when he told me my toes were beautiful, too, and then began to suck them, one by one, like I possessed the greatest thing in the world. It was more intimate than the sex we’d just had. I tried to think of something in him that I could like at some long-term, base level, but nothing came to mind without pretending. He had nice eyes, but not to die for. I didn’t want to make any mistakes; he got my left foot, but not my right.

On the TV, someone on stage was giving a speech and shaking his Oscar. It was someone I didn’t recognize. Best Editor or Best Writer or Best Make-up Artist or a stand-in accepting on behalf of someone else. Whoever he was, his speech was short and when he stepped away from the podium he didn’t know which way to go and had to have one of the women walk him back and off the stage in a different direction.