April 28, 2013
Before I died the first time, my husband left me broke and alone with our two tiny children and it made me feel very depressed, etc. It’s the same old story: He went to buy cigarettes and never came home. Really. Wouldn’t you think you’d want to pack a bag or two, leave a forwarding address? Couldn’t he have at least taken the dog? These were the things I wondered in the beginning. Not: was he having an affair, or: was he mixed up in something nefarious, but: I can’t believe he wouldn’t bring his datebook, his favorite loafers; I can’t believe he didn’t change the lightbulb in the hallway before deserting us. He knew I couldn’t reach that lightbulb. The whole thing was unlike him. Then again, I was the one who died, which was unlike me, too.
I would be lying if I said his leaving wasn’t a tiny bit of a relief, at least at first. My initial thought—due mostly to sleep deprivation, the effects of which, as any mother or political prisoner knows, never entirely fade—was that once the girls were in bed, I could ignore the dishes to be done and laundry (still in a compact three-day-old brick from the Laundromat drop-off service) to be put away; I could take a bath and then sleep (until Rose’s next feeding) in a big empty bed with pillows mounded up on either side. I wouldn’t need to make a grown-up meal for Harry, who annoyingly preferred dishes seasoned with things other than butter, and who inconveniently favored dinner conversation consisting of topics other than whether or not mermaids existed and, if so, whether or not their mommies made them take baths. I would not need to stifle the yawns that he mistook for boredom as he dramatically recounted the undramatic details of his day. I would not need to come up with a compelling excuse to avoid sex and then feel guilt both at the refusal and at the unoriginality of the desire, the undesire.
I know this doesn’t make me sound like the nicest wife. But back then I only thought he was late coming home from work. I didn’t know he would be gone so very long, that it would take him months and months to battle his way home, as if he were returning from the Crusades and not the Ever So Fresh Candy Company headquarters in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It didn’t occur to me that nothing would ever be the same.
I forgot and didn’t remember for some time that I actually had spoken to him on the evening in question. My days had a habit of bleeding together, and it was often difficult for me to pinpoint whether we had indeed talked a few hours earlier or whether I was remembering the day before. But no, I think it was that night, that fateful night, when, believe it or not, it was raining ominously, a storm of Great Plains–style velocity, unleashed by restless nymphs polluting the city’s clouds, must have been, because there was such vindictiveness in the thunder rattling the kitchen window and spooking the imminently spookable baby so that she was wailing into my collarbone as I called Harry’s phone, wanting to know if (oh God, so typical) he could pick up some milk, a request that was met with irritation—he didn’t see why I couldn’t take care of these things without involving him. Betty sat on her booster seat, swinging her legs with a buoyancy that belied her scowl. I looked over just in time to see her open her mouth and hatch a mound of chewed grilled cheese onto the table.
“Jenny?” Harry answered, sounding confused. “Is everything okay?”
“Oh, sure. Just another day in paradise,” I said. Rose quieted, distracted by a hank of my hair.
“I miss you,” Harry said. “I miss the girls.” He sounded sad, or maybe just tired.
“Well, you’re in luck,” I said. “We’re all right here, and we’re taking visitors.”
“I wuv you, you wuv me,” Betty sang to her grilled cheese. The girl had a passion for dairy.
“Shh, baby, please,” I said to her, to Rose, to the thunder that grumbled a little farther in the distance now, to the world. “What, Harry? I’m losing you.”
“I’m going to stop for cigarettes on my way home,” it sounded like he said.
“So you’re not quitting, then,” I said, having forgotten all about the milk. I would remember only when I poured my dinner bowl of Cheerios at eleven p.m., which I ended up eating with water, as I’d done more times than I cared to admit. Then he was gone. He would stay that way for a while.
AMY SHEARN is the author of How Far Is the Ocean from Here. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Poets & Writers, The L Magazine, Opium, and Five Chapters, and she writes for Oprah.com and RedbookMag.com. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Visit her online at AmyShearnWrites.com.
Adapted from The Mermaid of Brooklyn by Amy Shearn. Copyright © 2013 by Amy Shearn. With the permission of the publisher, Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.