Before I can unlock the front door, Heather is there, beaming, her arms wide. “Oh my girls! I’ve missed my girls!”
“Mamie’s sleeping in the car,” I tell her, and she gives me a strange look but goes to carry in the car seat.
Later I hear her giving them a bath, singing something silly: “Hey Viva buddy, you are really sudsy. Hey Mamie Mopey, you don’t like being soapy.” She’s left the door open to invite me in. I’m tempted. I want to sit in the heated, steamy room and see Heather be the wet one, kneeling on the slippery tiles, tipping Mamie’s head to keep the shampoo out of her eyes.
But I stay in the bedroom.
My ears track Heather and the twins: out of the bath now, it’s reading time. Normally I’d help, but I let her do it all herself tonight. She’s had two days off. I listen to her read the board book they like best, the one about the nut-brown hare that ends with the father hare whispering to the sleeping kid hare, “I love you to the moon and back.” That book always makes me want to cry, especially tonight.
When she enters our room, I’m pretending to read.
Heather says, “What’s going on, crabby pants?”
“Did you seduce my brother?” I ask. Her mouth opens. “Because according to my mother…”
“Fucking Elizabeth,” Heather says.
“No, I absolutely did not ‘seduce’ Andrew,” Heather says. “We kissed once. Years ago.”
“When he was still a boy, right?”
“That’s absurd,” Heather says. But she doesn’t stop me when I get up. She just says, “Julie.”
“I’m going for a walk.” I start down our driveway with some notion of heading to Pirate’s for a beer, but walking to town feels too depressing. I’m afraid of crying in public.
So instead I circle to the back yard and climb on the old trampoline. It came with the house when Heather bought it: the sellers had gotten it for their grandchildren. It’s stained and has a wonky spring, but when Joe and Buffy asked if we wanted to keep it, Heather said, “You bet!” When I said, our first night here, “I would have preferred them leaving us the washing machine,” she said, “Oh Julie, stop being a bore.”
Fifteen minutes later that trampoline is where Heather finds me, lying on my back, trying to locate stars. She’s carrying the baby monitor in one hand and two beers by their necks in the other. She hands me a beer, then climbs up and places the monitor between us. I appreciate her understanding I need that space.
“Okay, listen,” she says, after I take a sip. “I’m not sure what that troll told you…”
“Do not call my mother a troll.”
“What lovely lady sunshine told you, but I certainly did not seduce Andrew. For one, he made the first move. I was drunk, so I don’t recall this with diamond precision, but I absolutely remember that. For two, he was no child. It was that party you had before leaving for your junior year abroad. Andrew was about to start Cornell, so he must have been eighteen.”
“Seventeen,” I correct. “His birthday is in October.”
Even in the dark, Heather looks crestfallen. “Well then. Seventeen. Which means I was all of twenty. Look—” she reaches for my hand, but when I retract it, she doesn’t push. “It was a stupid thing to do. You were about to go to Italy for an entire year. You were dating Nils, remember, and he was hanging all over you and making me feel like crap. And Andrew always had a crush on me. I know it was dumb. But I sure as hell did not have sex with him.”
“Right. You only kissed him.”
Heather’s voice is weary. “Okay. If kissing were San Francisco and screwing were Washington DC, what Andrew and I did would be somewhere around Reno on the spectrum. At most, Salt Lake City. Really, Julie: ‘seduce’ is a crazy exaggeration. Your mother is blowing it out of all proportion. Though why Andrew would tell her… I thought he was on our side.”
“Heather,” I say, through gritted teeth. “No one is on our side.”
“Our friends—” she starts.
“No one in my family, I mean.”
She says what she usually does: “Give it time.” But she says it dully, and I know she’s starting to feel as bleak about them as I do. I start to cry.
“I wish I could make this easier for you,” she says.
“Well, that would be nice, instead of harder. I feel like you keep handing my parents new ammunition.”
“Julie, I can’t erase my whole stupid life,” she says, exasperated. “Look, I’m the first to admit I’ve made mistake after mistake. You are my one exception: you are anything but a mistake.” She reaches for my hand again, and this time I let her take it.
“The fact is,” Heather says, “You and I both know that were I as pure as the driven snow, as pure as snow imported from some high-up place in Canada so barren that it doesn’t even have arctic wolf tracks on it: even so, your parents would still hate me, because I do not have a dick. And don’t suggest that I get an operation. That’s really not funny.”
“You’d make a beautiful man,” I tell her. “Remember when you were Viola in Twelfth Night? In those tights? You were hot.”
She nods. “I was hot. But if I were some tranny named Harold—”
“Ugh! Some tranny named Chip, your parents would still hate me.”
“You could pretend to be someone else. You could do your Yugoslavian accent.”
“I just wish I could make you not suffer over this. You can’t control them. Give it time.”
I snort at that tired-out line.
She says, “And if they never come round, well, then they don’t. You have me, we have the girls. Can’t we be our own family? Why is that not enough?”
“It’s different for you, Heather. You don’t like your mother, and your father—”
“Is dead. Right. Everything is just easy-peasy for me.” Her mouth is a hard line, but I won’t be stopped by the dead-father card this time.
“Whereas I was always close to my parents. Until—”
“Until I mucked it all up for you, yeah yeah,” she says, grimly.
For a minute we don’t talk. We lie there, looking at the stars.
“It’s not your fault,” I say. “Well, the Andrew thing doesn’t help, but in general it’s not your fault. But you need to let me be sad.”
“Okay, that’s reasonable.” After a minute, she says, “Seems like this visit went worse than usual.”
I wipe my eyes. “You could say that. My mother said—” I can’t finish. Heather waits. “My mother said, she hoped my daughters would never disgust me, because there’s nothing more painful.” Heather turns to face me. Her eyes burn. “And don’t call her a troll, Heather, it doesn’t help.”
“Okay,” she says, after a minute. “Not a troll. Can I call the comment cruel? Will you accept that as a characterization of the remark, not the person?”
I close my eyes. I’m picturing my mother when she said that. We were in the kitchen, the babies were upstairs napping, and she wouldn’t look at me. She was staring at their new back splash, the apple-green tiles.
“And part of why it’s cruel,” Heather continues, “Is that isn’t ‘disgust’ precisely what parenthood is supposed to remove, exceptionally, just for one’s kids? All these things that are objectively disgusting, like shit: they become the course of things. Wiping your child’s ass does not even make you blink. Or remember Jen?” This is a woman in our Moms’ group. “Remember when she was holding Olivia up and laughing and then Olivia threw up in her mouth? Right in her mouth, like she was shooting a bodily fluid basket?”
“Gross,” I say.
“My point is that your own children should be the one great exception to the condition of grossness. That’s what parenting confers. So it’s an awful thing to say, because your mother is retracting that essential parental provision where, because you’re one’s child, nothing about you can ever disgust.” She grips my hand. “The sad thing is it reminds me of something my mother said to me once. I worry, sometimes, that I have no capacity to be a good mother because my parents were so stupendously defective.”
“Well, look at me,” I tell her. “My parents were great, so I always knew I wanted kids. And now they have become awful, and I worry I’ll say and do terrible things to my children too.”
“But we’re doing okay, right?” Heather asks.
“Sorry about Andrew.”
“Okay,” I say.
I’m thinking of the night almost three years ago, when Heather and I first got together (“back together” she would say, but the timeline is so confusing it’s easier for me to begin it there). Afterwards I made her tell me every last detail about Porter, every time they had had sex, every way he had touched her. She cooperated at first and then said, “Julie, please, I honestly can’t remember. I was about to tell you something, and then I realized I don’t know if I did that with Porter or someone else. Why do you require all the details?”
“Because.” Because with details, maybe everything will make sense: like re-assembling the stones to a broken mosaic. I didn’t know how to explain it to her.
“You know I had sex with him not because of him, his intrinsic irresistibility, but because of a lot of fucked up stuff with you. I’ve explained it before as coherently as I can. Why can’t you understand that Porter, in and of himself, was simply not significant to me?”
And I try to understand, but every six months or so we end up rehashing the same conversation. As if the stones will slide in place this time.
Part of that is specific to Porter, but part is indicative of some deep-down different way of perceiving sex that Heather and I have always collided over. I’ve slept with nine people in my life: two in high school, three in college, three serious boyfriends after, all who proposed to me, and of course Heather. I can count them on two hands. Heather literally has no idea how many people she’s had sex with. I remember asking her once in high school, before we ever touched each other: why all the lovers? After a minute, she said, “Because I’m not dead.”
Of those nine people, I loved six. I used the actual words with all nine, but three I can retrospectively cross off as reaches.
Heather has only loved me.
“We’re going to be okay, right?” I say to her. She rolls over and kisses me. Our legs wind.
“Look at your teeny tiny feet,” she says. “How do you walk on feet that small? How come you don’t fall over? Tomorrow let me paint your toenails.”
“Okay,” I say. The baby monitor pokes my side.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department at Mills College. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, JMWW, Parcel, River City, Sixfold, SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot. She is working on a novel and a short story collection.