Margot poured her second glass of cabernet. She sat in the screen porch room next to Brian’s room, as attuned to him and his breathing as she had been to her newborn babies, in those weeks when she convinced herself she couldn’t be trusted to keep them alive. She listened to Liz and Evy breathe in those weeks, waiting in a half-second of panic for each exhale. She breathed in their warm talc and milk heads, and breathed in and out to gather herself for a second when she want to scream at the ugly three-am wake-ups and the long, low cries of loneliness or hunger they let out, and she breathed in the smell of brewing coffee, the only thing that separated night from day.
Seventeen years after those babies, Margot listened to the labored letting-go of their dad, to the slight wheeze and little hum, the occasional sigh that signaled either temporary relief or awe at the constant dreams that were blurring into the end for him; she couldn’t tell which and he couldn’t tell her.
When Liz told Margot she was meeting her friend Kaylee tonight, Margot knew she was lying. She never hung out with Kaylee. But she did a quick risk-benefit analysis, taking into consideration her own depleted capacity for thinking ahead and the chances that Liz would give her that death-stare she had been perfecting lately that seemed to pierce every cell in Margot’s body if she said no. She had a feeling Liz was going to meet the guy she had been hanging around with from work, who she also knew about despite her daughter’s efforts to keep him a secret. Margot considered the inevitable, awful truth that Liz would eventually have sex with someone, someday, and the not-all-that-reassuring fact that she had at least gotten an A in her Sex Ed unit of health class. The blank, Lexapro-induced Zen state she had been operating in since May that dampened any panic took over, and she’d let her go. Evy was out too, and she realized she hadn’t even asked her where she was going.
It was this time each night when the cabernet really kicked in, the forty minutes when she worked on her second glass when the soft-focus feeling finally descended on her, when the edges of everything blurred and softened and she felt her pulse slowing, her worry receding like a low, warm tide.
She looked forward to this time of the evening all day, counting the hours until it arrived, coveting the place on the thick cushioned chair on the screen porch, the soft glow of the outside flood lights, the almost-quiet except for the strangers’ voices next door.
No one ever told you how much hosting dying involved, how much people expected you to usher them through it even when they acted like it was the other way around. Today it had been her parents, who meant well and loved her, though she was sure she would vomit if she had to eat another mushy stew or watch them guess the Wheel of Fortune words with their mouths full one more time.
Brian’s sister Eileen would come tomorrow. She always stayed three hours too long, talked about her cat’s medication, and finished off an entire block of cheese. Eileen was too much in the best of circumstances, the kind of narcissist who turns even the most mundane conversation into a story they think you’d probably like to hear about them.
Through the neighbors’ fence, Margot heard the crack of a beer, the crush of ice in a cooler, a blender. Let the neighbors at the rental house have their vacation drinks; cabernet was the drink of women with too much to think about, the drink for women who couldn’t stand anything too sweet, or bubbly, or bitter, for women who wanted smooth and room-temperature. Red wine at the end of the day felt like an ancient ritual, a way of easing away from another day and into the knitted sleeve of sleep. She poured a third glass, but only half full; she knew the exact amount she could consume and still avoid the head-pressed-between-two-walls feeling in the morning. She adhered to these self-imposed limits about half the time, and she already knew tonight wouldn’t be one of the nights she did.
She scrolled through all the emails in her inbox from summer renters asking about whether there was a grill, what time check-in was, whether they could adjust their arrival times. She was in severe catch-up mode with the business; she didn’t even try to attend to the things that were normally in her regular to-do-list. She knew weeds were creeping through the concrete, paint chipping, she knew some renters getting wilder than their rental agreement allowed. She put it all off and felt nothing: no worry, no mind-racing regarding financial fallout or consequences.
So what if no one ever came back, so what if they sold all the bungalows at a loss, so what if they all burned to the ground? It was only money, it was only supposed to have been a side hustle, all this expansion and all this overcomplicated expense.
When Brian died, their partnership would be dead too. Another thing to grieve, another thing to lose, another thing to fill out forms for and figure out. She put off all the emails again and returned to her GBM Wives message thread.
FLMom99 was schlepping to a clinical trial over at MD Anderson all the way from Tampa, bringing along a whole troop of in-laws who insisted on pulling out every stop and on making reservations at fancy restaurants even though her husband hated the noise and couldn’t read the menu.
FLMom99 went deep into the meds they were trying out down there: costs and side effects, insurance coverage and out of pocket, off-label and Canadian pharmacies and then a little rant on socialized healthcare, though it was unclear if she was for or against it. FLMom99 was younger than Margot, with three kids under ten and a spray tan and manicure Margot saw from her Facebook photos that she maintained even when things got the most chaotic. In fact, when her husband totally lost his speech and took meds that made him hulk out and punch through all the screens in their house, Margot noticed the tan and nails got fresher.
FLMom99 sent Margot text emojis and about seven invitations to buy some face lotion she sold on the side, which Margot didn’t mind, and posted long passages of scripture in the GBM Wives group, which Margot did mind; she didn’t care if people read the Bible to help them through hard times, but throwing it around and showing it off like that felt too much like a performance to her.
Margot’s faith was intensely private, and so full of contradictions and questions that she did not have the time or bandwidth to unpack; she hadn’t abandoned it completely, but she wasn’t calling on it or counting on it either. She’d become so hollowed out by the horrors and hypocrisy of the institution. It would be nice to have those rhythms of chapter and verse to lean on and learn from, but it didn’t feel right to cherry pick a beatitude or a psalm and ditch everything else, at least not now, or especially not right now.
Michelleruns5 was taking some Lexapro herself and from the sound of her post she was feeling, if not good, then pretty insulated from the bizarro way her husband pieced together words, slipping in broken-up mishmashes into half-thoughts she couldn’t understand. She was a real type-A lady too, that one, from what Margot could tell. She’d run three marathons since her husband’s diagnosis, started a 4013c charity for brain tumors, and earned a promotion at her corporate job. She name-dropped surgeons and oncologists and recommended a battery of holistic remedies she was imposing on her husband that she swore would beat the system. She sent the other women in the group actual care packages in the mail with samples of her remedies, which Margot threw in the trash. She was so generous and so full of energy that it was impossible to hate her.
Three GBM Wives responded to Margot’s latest messages, adding to a thread about the worst things their husbands had done to hurt them before they got sick, and how that was one way to help secretly ease the pain of losing them.
FLMom99’s husband had cheated on her twice on business trips. Michelleruns5’s husband was not thoughtful or considerate, and forgot every birthday and anniversary, insisting on eating dinner alone when he came home from work while Michelle fed the kids in the other room. Margot typed hers a few times to get the wording right before she posted her own story. Brian had hurt her right in the midst of their rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy, when everything was in flux and they’d been away from their home for months. She’d thought about whether it would have been easier if Brian had slept with someone on a business trip. Instead, he had reconnected with Claire, the girl he dated in college, on Facebook. They’d exchanged emails for months, and neither had mentioned these emails to their spouses; Claire had moved to Seattle, and she and Brian had never met in person during the exchange. Claire’s husband had found the emails in the midst of a divorce that hadn’t been caused by the emails, but sure hadn’t been helped by them either.
He’d forwarded them all to Margot: months of deep discussions about the mundane and the profane, pages-long emails on politics, real estate, child-rearing, and sci-fi novels (which Margot couldn’t stand). Of course, Brian had shared all his fears about his uncertainties about rebuilding after the hurricane, the frustrations of living in his in-laws’ basement, and his disappointment that he’d had to return to teaching. He never mentioned a bad word about Margot because he hardly mentioned her at all, which Margot took as a signal that this exchange was taking the place of something Brian had put on hiatus with her, some connection he was missing or neglecting with her during those months.
The emails were full of adoring compliments about each other’s intellect and creativity, long reminiscences about their time in college, and occasional PG-13 flirtations that made Margot’s throat close up as much as if she’d found them in bed together.
If it had happened at another time, Margot wrote in her post to the GBM Wives, she wondered whether she would have felt betrayed. But she simply had not had that option, not then. There was too much work to be done, too many complicated financial threads about to fray, too many things on her to-do list ahead of figuring out how much she cared about her husband spilling his guts to an old flame on Facebook.
Brian admitted the exchange had gotten too intense, and he agreed to stop talking with Claire, but he always insisted it was different from an affair and that she had overreacted. Margot had never agreed.
Margot finished with a thread where the ladies were making jokes about joining Match.com pre-emptively, and listing the ways they were coping this week, by watching four seasons straight of The West Wing, by eating entire boxes of Little Debbie zebra cakes, and filling a cart at Target in a fugue state and then returning it all immediately when they realized the total rang up at over four hundred dollars. All the acceptable escapes available to moms with other shit they had to take care of while their lives fell apart.
The screen door creaked open slowly and Liz came home, filled a water glass, and sat on the porch with Margot.
“How was the movie with Kaylee? Which one is Kaylee?” Margot asked, closing her laptop. It was good that Liz was here, sitting with Margot, good that she hadn’t said a hurried “I’m home” and headed straight to her room. There was no need for Margot to know everything, but she wanted to give her daughter the unspoken okay to tell her if something happened that she couldn’t handle.
“Oh, it was okay. We just watched Netflix at her house, so.” Liz looked at a place four feet above Margot’s head where a gnat hovered.
“Netflix, huh?” Margot asked.
In her teaching, Margot had mastered the art of wait time. If you gave a classroom three or four seconds after asking a question instead of calling on the first hand that shot up in the back, you would get four or five more students to volunteer answers. It was an especially good trick to get the shy, less certain kids who were the ones that had thought the most about the question, not the gold-star-addicted ones up front. But standing alone in front of a room of thirty eyes staring at you for four seconds took discipline. Four seconds of wait time was four whole beats of awkward silence. It never felt natural, no matter how much she did it.
Margot took a long sip of her wine, then left Liz alone on the screen porch. She adjusted Brian’s sheets, then went into the kitchen, grabbed a second wine glass, and set it down in front of Liz. She poured a half glass of the cabernet, and raised her own in the air as if she were going to make a toast.
She remembered her own first time, on a college dorm bottom bunk with a boyfriend she knew was going to dump her soon. Bass had pulsed through the walls from a party in the next room. Afterwards, she’d walked alone across campus in the snow to an empty dorm room, pulled on her pajamas, and watched Saturday Night Live alone with a cold slice of pizza. Ann Marie was away, her other friends were at another party, the rest of the hallway was asleep or giggling at movies behind closed dorm room doors.
It wasn’t traumatic, or ceremonious, or at all romantic. It was ordinary, but it was memorable: the smell of Right Guard tinged with sweat, the low static on his radio alarm clock in the background, the way he offered her a warm Busch Light after and then cracked the window. She remembered the mess of flyers tacked to his bulletin board about frisbee club, the way she could feel the eyes of the guys from the party next door on her while she waited for the elevator downstairs. It was lonely, the feeling she had done something important and you were supposed to be so casual about it.
Margot and Brian were faraway friends then, the kinds of friends who talked every week or so but never mentioned, even when they talked for an hour, whether they were dating anyone. Whenever she saw the green light on her answering machine, she hoped it was a message from him. There had been no green light when she came back to her dorm room after her first time.
“Is this for me?” Liz asked, raising her glass when Margot raised hers. Margot had never offered her a drink before and had in fact swiped a half glass of champagne out of her hand at her cousin’s wedding and told her to go and get a Shirley Temple if she wanted to be fancy. “When did you decide I could drink?”
Margot had always had to resist rushing in to make things safer and easier for her girls. She waited, willed herself not to break up a preschool fight they could figure out themselves, not to buy them a brand new version of a ruined toy, not to send an email to a teacher about a low grade. Brian would always talk her down, distract her, remind her of all the times she had screwed up or fought for herself, figured it out or failed, and of how much the girls needed to do the same, even if it was loud or a mess or fundamentally unfair.
She could cover the ceremony part of Liz’s evening with the wine, but the loneliness and discomfort of the next fifteen years, moving into adulthood one awkward, lonely night at a time, Liz would be on her own for those.
“Tonight,” Margot said. “I decided tonight.”
Katie Runde has had work published in Storyscape Journal, The Foundling Review, and Bello Collective, and has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She lives in Iowa City, where she’s finishing a novel when she’s not chasing around her maniac daughters. She also blogs about her obsession with podcasts at thepodcastmom.com.