Kelly Morris holds an MFA from Spalding University, and her work has appeared in various literary magazines. She is a co-founder and regular contributor to the blog Literary Labors (And the Occasional Cheese Dip). When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.
Even by California’s standards it’s been a warm winter, and the city is drooping, bursting at the seams with citrus. At work, the doctors bring in bags of fruit from the trees in their yards, and those of us in apartments end up taking all the oranges and limes and lemons home. So far I’ve made fresh lemonade, lemon bars, and lemon cookies; yesterday I baked an orange cake, even though I don’t like oranges or cake. And still my counters are cluttered with fruit I can’t bring myself to throw out. There are certain things about the way you’re raised that you can shed and other things that you cling to, or more specifically, that cling to you. My sister and I were never chastised for wasting food, we were never told there were starving children in Africa who would gladly eat our dinners but on the nights my mom cooked, she did it in such a precise way that we rarely had leftovers, and this imparted the message that you don’t waste what you have.
When Wade comes over I pour us glasses of sangria. Even though I scrubbed the skin of the oranges, they are still speckled with black dots.
I should not have put a little star on my calendar next to his wedding date. It’s less star, more heavy dot. I don’t remember making it, but it was probably two nights ago when I realized he was getting married in exactly thirty days. I think it’s understood that whatever it is we’re doing needs to stop. In certain, lucid moments, I recognize the mark as a stop sign.
We sit silently on my couch, not drinking our sangrias. We have a lot in common, Wade and I, but the silence that springs up on nights like this is too heavy to talk around.
Wade’s fiancée is at spin class; Jill spends a lot of time at the gym. Sometimes I try to imagine if Jill and I would be friends under different circumstances. As adults we are clearly dissimilar but maybe in elementary school we would have been friends, say we had been forced to spend time together because of proximity, say we lived on the same street and on the days her best friend and my best friend weren’t around, we would ride our bikes down to the beach. Sometimes I see this so clearly in my mind that it seems probable, it seems certain, in fact, that we were friends as kids.
One time Jill smiled at me by the mailboxes. “Hell-o,” she said. “Can you believe this weather we’re having?”
“I really can’t,” I said. We haven’t spoken since.
“Anything interesting happen at work?” Wade asks now. He’s wearing a dingy gray sweatshirt that makes him look heavier than he is.
“No.” I say this even though I think he’d enjoy the story of Megan demonstrating with a tongue depressor how tampons are inserted. Why do you have to shove it inside? asked Franklin, who is thirty and should know better. Isn’t there suction involved?
Wade would especially enjoy the story of the woman who came in claiming she was having a heart attack and who later delivered a six-pound boy. Wade loves that show I Didn’t Know I was Pregnant. He likes calling out to the people on the show, You’re not passing a kidney stone, you’re having a baby!
“Nothing interesting happened?” Wade asks, turning to me. Sometimes I can’t stand how much I like his face.
“I have a headache,” I say.
Once I’m alone I pick out all the fruit from the sangria and throw it away. Before I can talk myself out of it, I sweep all the fruit from the counter into the same garbage bag. Wade is sitting on his balcony, drinking a beer, and he watches me open the dumpster, waves as I walk past. I wave back. Sometimes we are just so neighborly with each other.
Wade spent the night for the first time last week, when Jill was in San Diego visiting her sister. He said he had a hard time falling asleep with all the noise outside.
But it’s the same noise outside your window, I reminded him.
We don’t sleep with the windows open, he said.
My younger sister Brynn and Jill’s older sister both had babies recently. My nephews are four days younger than Jill’s niece, who is named Annabel Michelle Emily Rosetti. This business of giving two middle names to a baby is a big thing in Jill’s family. When I want to feel depressed, a hangover kind of sad, I think about Wade holding a baby with Jill’s dark hair and saying, This is our daughter Daphne Elise Isabelle Pelino. Here’s a picture of my son Gregory Samuel Eugene Pelino. He looks like his mom. He looks just like me, don’t you think?
It’s a strange feeling to know all kinds of things about someone and also to know they don’t know anything about you. It gives you a lopsided feeling, as if Jill is a really self-absorbed person in my life who hasn’t even bothered to learn my name. Even though Wade doesn’t talk about her much I’ve still learned a few Jill facts: she hates pizza, she has strong feelings about the kind of car she drives, she’s terrified of becoming fat.
The women on her dad’s side of the family are all sort of…large, Wade said.
I think she’s trained him not to say fat.
Jill is small-boned and fair-complected. It would be smarter for her to worry about osteoporosis. If she were to come to the hospital, I think most of the doctors would want to run Vitamin D and bone density tests on her.
On my way into the hospital, I stop by the third floor to visit my sister. Brynn delivered her twins a week ago but she has not left yet because she had placenta percreta. Not only did her placenta fail to detach from the uterine wall, it decided to grow into her bladder. She had an emergency Caesarean followed by an emergency hysterectomy and then finally emergency bladder surgery. Placenta percreta occurs in about 1 in 2500 pregnancies and Brynn’s particular complication in only 5% of these. When she’s feeling better, I will tease her about always needing to do things the hard way. She was supposed to go home after the abdominal drain was removed, but then she developed a staph infection and now she is here until it clears up.
Brynn is not as upset about being in the hospital as you might expect. The other nurses assume this is because she is still trying to wrap her head around the idea that she now has four children. Not just four kids—two sets of twins. But I think it’s more that Brynn is someone who is able to look ahead to the long-term. She is fine living in the present but she is also okay living in the future. She once said there are worse things than having four kids in your life. It’s hard to believe people who say things like this, but Brynn has a blandly quiet voice and the kind of round face you have to believe. Brynn doesn’t look as if she’s physically capable of birthing one child, much less four. She’s built like our mom, with very small breasts and sharp hipbones. On the day she delivered this last set of twins when she was just going from surgery to surgery, I found myself thinking things about her husband Philip, like what kind of a person keeps impregnating someone with the body of a prepubescent girl anyway, was there something wrong with him, like something really and truly sick? But now that Brynn is fine, I am back to being okay with Philip.
Brynn and Philip were friends in kindergarten and then they bumped into each other six years ago while standing in line to buy tickets for a night tour of Alcatraz Island. Philip’s family is from Vietnam and when his family visits, he reminds them to speak in English, but someone always lapses. Brynn has learned how to say in Vietnamese, Please write it down, Help!, and My spaceship is full of llamas. When Philip’s family is staying with them, Brynn becomes very domestic. She used to try to join in their conversation in Vietnamese and laugh when they laughed but now she prefers to make homemade banana nut bread and stitch quilts out of her daughters’ baby clothes.
Brynn and I have spent a lot of her time in the hospital speculating about all the crazy things our mother is telling Philip to do with the babies. Our mom has always been crazy, crazy with a big C and a little c Brynn used to say. Now that she is a widowed grandmother who lives in the same city, we are more forgiving, we are able to look past large chunks of our childhood, which might be a result of therapy or time. I think it’s just the inevitability of life, that a certain point you have to move on and move past.
I tell Brynn that I dropped off dinner last night and Phillip spent the entire visit wearing one of the babies in a sling.
“I bet he looked ridiculous,” she says fondly. “Which one?”
“Which one are you guys dressing in green?”
“Alex,” she says.
She and Phillip did this with the girls when they were newborns; they dressed Layla in orange, Sasha in pink. Once the girls were a few months old it was easy to tell them apart, even though they were identical. It just takes your eye awhile to see what’s unique about someone who has the same genetic makeup as someone else.
“You look tired today,” I tell Brynn.
“I am tired,” she says. “I’m too tired to even sit up. I think it’s from the antibiotics.”
Brynn is being given vancomycin intravenously because her staph infection has so far been resistant to both cephalosporin and nafcillin.
We sit quietly for a minute and then she asks, “Do you want to talk about him?”
“No,” I say.
Brynn is the only one who knows about Wade. She knows everything, in the same way Jill knows nothing. Of course I want to talk about him, I want to show her the calendar and ask, How did this happen, how do I get out of this without profound psychological damage? But even I am not low enough to analyze my relationship with someone who almost died giving birth.
“I think you bought those scrubs on sale,” Brynn says. She yawns and then sneezes. She looks like a cat doing both.
My scrubs are pink and there are flowers on the pockets.
“Clearance,” I say. Brynn is overly warm when I hug her good-bye.
“When did your fever come back?” I ask.
This is getting ridiculous, I said the morning after he spent the night. We need to pull off the Band-Aid already.
In that moment I hated seeing Wade at my kitchen table, knowing I could easily spend all my days looking at his bedhead, fighting with him like a normal couple because we were not a normal couple and never would be.
The first time it happened we both pretended it was because we had been drunk, even though I remember us carefully folding our pants and placing them at the foot of my bed. We looked at each other and grinned. Ha! we might have said if we both suddenly weren’t wearing pants.
It’ll never work, I also said that morning.
Unless it did, he said. He addressed this to his coffee. He was drinking out of a mug that read Punch today in the face.
Your family would hate me, and my family would hate you. And that would be nothing to how Jill and her family felt about you.
Maybe I don’t care about that, he said.
It’s the word maybe that gets me every time.
When I drop by Brynn’s house on my way home, Philip has Ross, the one they dress in blue, in the sling. Alex is asleep in the baby swing in the front room. Philip holds a finger to his lips as I walk in even though the babies are still young enough to sleep through anything. But it’s clear that Philip, whose mother-in-law is living in his house, whose wife is in the hospital, who is suddenly the sole breadwinner for four children, needs to feel as if he has some control over something, so I tiptoe into the kitchen where my mom and Sasha are sitting at the table, a coloring book between them.
“Don’t use pink, Grams,” Sasha says.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” my mom says with a wink. An actual wink. She has become a sitcom grandmother. Her current hairstyle is a pageboy and she wears rubber-soled, neutral-colored shoes that match everything and nothing. She even smells like a grandmother, a mixture of cheap deodorant and White Rain. “Not after what happened with Layla.”
“What happened with Layla?” I ask.
“Grams used orange,” Sasha says.
“It was an honest mistake,” Philip says from the doorway. His tone of voice implies it was a malicious, possibly terroristic, act.
Everyone in this family has a favorite color and you’re not supposed to use someone else’s color without checking with them first. These are some other rules: The girls are not allowed to watch TV until they are five, they are not allowed to play with Barbies ever, and dessert is only allowed on Christmas, Easter, and their birthday. The rest of the time dessert is something Brynn calls special fruit, which is frozen fruit mixed with milk. To be honest, Wade and I are pretty big fans of special blueberries, especially with almond milk.
The girls have spent the night at my house and they have watched TV and eaten ice cream, the real stuff, and when they got home and tattled on me, Brynn said, Well, that’s how things should be at Aunt Callie’s house. She’s also been known to say, Probably all these rules mean they will grow up to be couch potatoes who eat loads of candy and who collect Barbie dolls in their original packaging. She is just self-aware enough not to be written off as a complete nutter. I think she knows that once the girls start school, the jig will be up.
“All these rules! I can’t keep them straight,” my mom says, smiling at Philip who retreats to the front room. She turns to me. “Weren’t you wearing those scrubs yesterday?” she asks.
“No,” I lie. I’ve gained weight recently, and I’ve been forced to wash and re-wash the same two pairs of scrubs.
“Just remember, Grams.” Sasha narrows her eyes at the rainbow she is coloring. “Don’t you use that pink.”
After dinner, I help Philip bathe the babies. Alex sleeps through his bath and wakes up briefly while I am changing his diaper. He opens one eye, studies me a moment, and then goes back to sleep.
I coax Layla out of her room and we play a game with her Little People figures. “These pandas are married, Aunt Callie,” she tells me. She is holding a giraffe and a polar bear. “They’re having a baby.”
“Your mom will be able to come home soon,” I say.
“Mommy had two babies in her tummy,” she says. “But this panda,” she holds up the polar bear, “only has one.”
At bedtime the girls want my mom to tell them stories about her childhood cat Blazes, but these stories always get the girls wound up and when Philip hands her The Poky Little Puppy, a brief staring contest ensues.
“I just never understood the point of this book,” my mom says when she finally takes it from him.
Philip sits at the kitchen table and watches me scrub at the lasagna dish. He makes a half-hearted offer to help, but he looks so tired, and there is something nice about waving my hand and saying no, no, you sit.
“She’s not going to die,” Philip says.
“Of course she isn’t,” I say. I use the same tone of voice I have used all evening with his daughters.
“Except the last two nights I’ve dreamed that she did.” He and Brynn have the same round face; it’s a wonder anyone takes these two seriously. “And I woke up furious with her.”
In the kindergarten class photo, my sister and Philip are standing next to each other, holding hands; Philip is smiling directly into her unsmiling face. People look at that photo and say, Awwww. Philip likes to say, You’ll notice she’s also holding hands with the kid next to her. In fact, Brynn is standing closer to that boy than to Philip. But no one comments on that, no one even remembers that kid’s name because he is not a part of the story. Brynn might just as easily have run into him in San Francisco. She might have gone on and had four kids and a happy life with him. The ifs and maybes, the mights and might nots—sometimes there is a more interesting story in the negative space of what goes unsaid. I don’t think, or know, if other people believe this.
“She’s going to be just fine,” I say to Philip, and I hand him a napkin because they don’t use Kleenex in their house.
When I was just a little older than Sasha and Layla, maybe five or six, my mom called Brynn and me into the bathroom. We crowded around the bathtub and watched her tie a dry cleaning bag to the shower rod. She knotted the bag from top to bottom before placing a bucket of water in the tub below.
Watch, she said, and then she lit the bottom knot with a lighter she pulled from her apron.
The flames scaled the plastic ladder, and the balls caught fire, crinkling before falling into the bucket below.
We squirmed from the smell, but we didn’t talk as we watched those plastic balls burn. Even at that age I knew our mom was different, and I knew it in the same way I knew she had blonde hair and brown eyes. Sometimes dinner was homemade soup and a salad; other nights she would lie on the sofa and tell us to make our own goddamn dinner, was she ever allowed a night off, could we not fend for ourselves just – this – one – time?
We ate cereal on those nights. I poured the milk because I was the oldest, and Brynn and I didn’t mind those cereal dinners all that much. Maybe we preferred them.
Well, our mom said with a disappointed sigh as the last of the dry cleaning bag fell with a silent whoosh into the bucket below. It really is something to see when you’re high.
Brynn and I remember this story differently. In her version she is terrified, crying. I don’t remember that at all. That it really was something to see, that it’s a memory I’ve stored separately from other memories, not necessarily one I want to revisit but one that I’ve stored carefully nonetheless—there’s a reason I don’t share this story with other people.
When I get home from Brynn and Philip’s house, Jill’s car is in my parking space. My parking space is 21 and hers is 12; apparently she has number dyslexia.
Sorry, Wade said the first time it happened. I’ll move her car. She’s at the gym right now, he said as we walked down to the parking garage. I decided during that walk that if I got a ticket for parking in the street without a permit, I was going to ask her to pay it. I remember thinking, I am not paying it.
She likes to jog there, Wade said. To the gym. Wade did not look like someone who would jog to the gym.
Later that week he’d say, Do you want a beer?
Later he’d say, sometimes at night I think about that face you make.
The one you’re making right now.
A lot of things happened in between these two conversations. Days and weeks and months where we played at being friends. The kind of friends who spend too much time together, who are too happy in each other’s company. But still. Friends.
You know, he said before that first time. We were sitting in my kitchen, both on our third beer. I was thinking that people like Jill, with thin arms, whose hands are always cold, the kind of person always ready to complain about some sort of physical discomfort—those people could not drink three beers in one sitting. Three beers would make someone like Jill too full or too sleepy or both.
There are people in this world who freak out when they find a hair in their food and there are people in this world who don’t, Wade said. And I suspect, no I predict, you are in the second group of people. Maybe he was a little drunk at this point.
I don’t exactly like finding hair in my food.
No, he agreed. No one does. But would you have some sort of fit, would you cause a hysterical scene if you found a hair in your food?
He pointed at me with his beer. Exactly.
A few weeks later, we went to the beach. We sat on a blanket and watched the marine layer recede, until the day was bright and warm and clear.
I love the beach, I said. I’ve lived here all my life and still, I love it. I looked out at the water because saying the word love while sitting next to him was harder than I’d thought it would be.
He’d turned to me, surprised. Don’t you think the water’s too cold?
How easily I could imagine Jill dipping her toes into the water and then racing away, squealing, It’s freezing! Some men go for that kind of thing in a big way.
It’s the Pacific Ocean, what do you expect? I said. I was ready to paint Jill as a hysterical fit thrower too.
He once said, If you asked me to leave her—
I’d never ask that.
I think that’s your big problem, that you never ask for what you want.
That’s definitely not my biggest problem.
I text him, She is parked in my spot. If we are going to get caught, it is not going to be from text messages. I have texted him three times in four months, and the other two messages were also, She is parked in my spot. This is not code for anything, it’s just Jill has these occasional dyslexia flare-ups. If she were my friend, I would probably understand the flare-ups better, whether they are stress-induced or hormone-related. Even though I would like to text Wade all kinds of things during the day, observations and inside jokes, I do not. When you cross an uncrossable line, the line doesn’t disappear; it simply wavers and shimmers before becoming something else altogether. In the same way children need rules and boundaries.
I park in the street and knock on Wade’s door. At some point the knocking becomes a pounding. He looks startled when he opens the door. I think you can tell how much you love someone based on how you feel when you see him in a moment of unexpected emotion: surprise, anger, fear.
I try to tell him that it’s Brynn and the fruit and the mark on my calendar. It’s the way Wade feels about Jill and the way he feels about me, the scales tipping first one way and then the other, and where are the scales now, Wade?
It was the only time I’d been in their apartment. Afterward it seemed important to clarify, during all the inevitable conversations about where and when and why and how could you. It was just the one time in their bed. It didn’t make anyone feel better to know this but it was said, and more than once.
“You didn’t answer the question,” our son Ainsley will say when he is eight. “How did you and Dad meet?” At this age his voice has a tinge of impatience if you are slow to answer him. I don’t know when this exasperation first appeared but it reminds me of being newly pregnant, how you don’t show for a long time and then one day there is something about you that other people notice.
“We met at a party,” I tell our son.
Ainsley writes this carefully on the paper from school titled All About My Family.
For years Ainsley will mix up his bs and ds, and whenever I see those letters facing the wrong way, my heart will jump, and it will feel like a ping, it will look like Jill’s white face as she stood there that day. I hope she has someone in her life who looks out for her, who reminds her to eat, because I think she’s one of those people who has a tendency to get too thin. Is it a nice problem to have, or is she always expecting to see someone else in the mirror, someone larger, more substantial? How unnerving that must be, for who you think you are and how you appear to others to not align.
“Can I use this picture of you and Dad for the family tree?” Ainsley asks.
It’s a photo we took of ourselves at the beach. I can’t believe how young we look, especially around the eyes and mouth. I remember feeling so old and tired and beat down by life that day, and yet it’s one of the best photos of us.
“Sure,” I say at the same time Wade says, “Go find a different one, buddy.”