The Skins of Strange Animals
Of the two of them, Todd was more upset when the baby bled out. Beyond the physical pain, which was great, there was no innate strain of motherhood in Cora that ingratiated regret. When she held the plastic stick with the pink lines up to Todd’s face, she knew she did not particularly desire the change, but she supposed she would shoulder the child as one burdens all the milestones: the first menses, marriage, tax audits, and picking out the gravestone your mother might have wanted. Once, she had read that the brain released chemicals after a child is born so mothers, tired from the endless wailing, would be brainwashed into loving the fragile things and not smother them for one night of uninterrupted sleep. Evolution’s protective flip switch: it’s not screaming, it’s my little baby-love.
Cora was ten weeks along, give or take, when she began spotting red. Todd drove her to the hospital, murmuring about reading an article online that clinically explained it was not necessarily serious, this happens, but he knuckled the wheel and glanced at her belly at stop signs. The doctor ran a cold machine over her and looked at Cora’s neck when she said there was no heartbeat.
Did she want it taken out, or did she want it to slide out naturally? It might take several weeks on its own.
Todd gripped her hand while the doctor explained that it was a missed abortion, and the tissue—tissue, now—would have to slide out one way or another. It could not remain.
Around eleven that night her belly constricted and released. Cora sat on the toilet to piss, she thought she had to piss, and felt the pain wind up her abdomen. When she relaxed her muscles she felt the splash. There was so much blood, and a small sac.
Todd hovered in the doorway. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. “You don’t have to look.”
She’d already looked.
She waited in the hallway for the toilet to flush, holding a clump of toilet paper between her legs, fearing she would stain the carpet, not knowing how long it would take to fully empty out. She heard the faucet running and peeked in. Todd was gently, lovingly, washing off the sac. He must have plucked it out of the water. It was clear and gelatinous with a dark center.
It was an intimate moment she was not supposed to see, Todd holding that part of her, of him, that should have been kept inside. Cora supposed she ought to cry, but felt drained enough just from crying out between her legs, and that was enough wetness for one body.
She never knew what he did with it. She never asked.
Later, he bent down on one knee and gave her a golden band wrapped in diamonds.
“Why now?” she asked.
“It’s not the child,” he said.
That was the first secret moment with him, the one that made Cora think she might love him.
He only told this story to Cora once, but she remembered it and carefully cultivated it, like it was her own memory. When he was nine, Todd had fallen in mad love at a petting zoo. His parents had dragged him in an effort to show him that he was capable of making connections, even if it was just for a moment, even if it was with a dumb animal, bred to be gentle and accommodating. Todd found making friends with other children difficult, though he had trouble making enemies as well. The other children didn’t bully him or shove him into a locker or call him names. They acted as if he was not there at all and, if they were partnered with him for a craft project or asked to work together on spelling or addition in groups, they stared at him like they had never seen him before.
Todd liked the ducklings, their strange flat feet, and the way they would run from him but look behind to see if he was still chasing them. The quarters for the feed machine jangled in his pocket. A goat chewed on his shirt and he let it, too afraid to move, too afraid that it would walk away to any of the other children who made little piles of food around them and waited for the animals to clamor up.
There was another girl there with braided brown hair, shaking as she brought her hand up to pet the backside of a graying donkey. The animal was fat and old. The hair around its eyes and mouth were white. Some of its teeth were black and chipped, but it wiggled its shagged tail back and forth.
Todd must have made a noise, because the girl looked at him, really looked at him. She had dark eyes and a smudge of dirt on her cheek, gaps between her teeth. Todd shambled over to her. He didn’t know what to say to her, afraid that anything he did would wake her up and she would remember that he was invisible, and forget how to see him.
The other children were so odd to him, the way they moved and spoke without any sort of consideration for the angle of their bodies. During crafts, they snaked their hands into the crayon bins and were happy with whatever they grabbed. The lions in their coloring books were pink or green, whatever was the closest color at hand. They chose so easily. He tried to mimic them, closing his eyes and reaching into the bin and pressing whatever was in his hand onto the paper.
“That’s very nice, Tom,” his teacher murmured when she walked by. “But try coloring in the lines?”
Don’t think, he told himself, just act for this girl who could see him. Todd reached out and grabbed one of her braids: soft and wild, loose strands tickled his palm. She screamed, the wild yelp of a surprised and indignant child, and flailed her hands, hitting the donkey on its backside. It bellowed, a hoarse choking sound, and kicked its leg out, knocking Todd to the ground.
He briefly remembered hearing the brown-haired girl crying, then the long shadows of his parents falling over him, putting their hands on his face.
“Breathe, honey,” his mother’s voice kept repeating. “Come on, just breathe, breathe for me, baby.”
He tried, he really did. Thought back to the times he’d puffed out his chest and held the air in when the kids in class ignored him and he thought if he just made himself a little bit larger, took up a bit more room, they would see him. Each time he tried it burned, each time he tried to move his chest ached.
They kept him in the hospital for a week, his parents alternatively holding his hand, talking to doctors who said things like cracked ribs and collapsed lung, and screaming over the phone at the owners of the petting zoo about lawyers and emotional damage.
He’d have that half-round scar on his chest for his whole life.
He asked what happened to the little girl with the short dark hair, but his parents couldn’t really say.
Later, he overheard his parents whispering that the beast had been put down.
After he had finished his story, his hand resting on her thigh, she knew that this was the moment she knew she could love him. Love, after all, was having secrets you only told one other person. Of course, she told her friends this story. But only so that they could know the fullness of his character and approve.
It was Marjorie who inadvertently convinced Cora to accept the proposal, a week after he had given her the ring and she told Todd she would consider it, “Let me think on it”, but wore the band on her finger. She asked Winter and Summer their opinion. They were children of overgrown hippies who met online in a support group for parents gone to seed, and stayed together because they both voted Republican for fiscal reasons but hated pearls.
“Well, of course you should,” Winter told her, holding Summer’s hand in his own. “He’s so good with kids.”
“Can’t knock a guy who is good with kids,” Summer repeated.
“Spends his weekends coaching field hockey?” Winter asked.
“Softball,” Cora said.
“Yeah. And doesn’t he co-lead that Girl Scout troup? You couldn’t pay me to pretend to enjoy gluing sticks together while someone’s crying because little Martha is being a bitch. Again.”
“Is that what they do,” Summer said, intently staring at Cora. “Glue shit for hours?”
“Christ,” said Summer. “What a saint.”
Cora remain unconvinced at this praise of Todd’s character. Summer and Winter had been aching for her to marry any of them men she had slept with for longer than a week. They were fond of throwing parties and claimed her single status made the married guests twitch away from her, like she was radioactive and bright.
Later, Cora went to Marjorie’s and sat in the old woman’s kitchenette. They talked together near the open window so Marjorie could smoke. The neighbor, a plump woman who went running every day but slogged back after an hour with a sack of fast food, fake-coughed whenever Marjorie was on the landing, lighting a cigarette with the dying ember of another. Marjorie was an odd choice for Cora’s godmother, particularly because she was an atheist, but she was Cora’s mother’s dearest friend and the only one who had never married. There was a part of Cora that suspected her mother really believed that all woman just wanted something to nurture, even if it didn’t come out of their own bodies.
“I thought I was crazy,” Marjarie said, “watching a documentary about penguins. You know there’s all those kids who don’t have enough to eat and here we are in Antarctica training our cameras on little waddlers, as if we’re somehow going to find some mystery about the human experience from birds. They can’t even fly.”
Marjorie was flinging herself around the kitchen in the way that only a woman who had no real idea what the space was for could do. She opened cabinets and closed them, opened the fridge door, moved condiments around, checked their dates, frowned, and put them back. She settled for boiling water on the stove, one of her few skills, and sat a tray of assorted teas – most likely swiped from one hotel’s continental breakfast or another – in front of Cora.
“It’s a six-part series. On penguins. Can you imagine?” Marjorie gestured at the diamond on Cora’s finger. “That’s a pretty thing,” she said. She did not sound excited.
“He’ll never leave me,” said Cora. “That’s a point in his favor, right?”
Marjorie cough-laughed. “There’s trouble right there. Thinking you can make a thing permanent just by wishing it.”
Yet Marjorie couldn’t understand that it had been six months before Todd had let Cora see the scar on his chest. They’d rolled together in the bed in complete darkness, and he undressed and redressed before she could see what was there. He held her hands above her head and laid heavy on her forearms when she tried to feel his skin, or turned her around and took her from behind. When she demanded he show her himself, all of him, he had stilled on the bed. Eyes up at the ceiling. Arms limp at his side. She dragged the shirt over his head like he was a child, pausing at the horseshoe scar. She touched it with her fingers and he shuddered. He looked so ashamed, and so grateful, when she ran her tongue over the smoothness that had stretched as his body expanded.
“Men with scars are the kind you fuck, but they don’t stay put.”
“You’re being ridiculous,” Cora said, steeping her teabag and watching the water darken. Marjorie did not believe in spending time on beverages. A quick heat up and a quick swallow.
“They don’t. They’ve survived being opened up. So they’ll keep doing it, over and over. It’s a psychosis. It might not be another woman, or another man, but it will be something. Maybe he’ll spend hours taking pictures of his cock and slipping it into letters online. Or he’ll skydive, try to make new scars.”
That was what Marjorie could never understand about Todd: his grateful looks that she saw him and responded.
“Anyway,” said Marjorie, “a grown man afraid of donkeys? Don’t you find that a bit peculiar?”
Cora accepted his proposal that night.
It wasn’t that Cora was terribly afraid of being abandoned, or cheated on, by Todd. If he did, he did, and that was the way of people in long-term relationships. Their bodies wavered as their eyes wandered; the monotony of laundry and dishes and appointments dragged. Yet she couldn’t imagine him working up the courage to take off his shirt with anyone else, and so even if he fucked someone else, she was sure that only she would have had that intimate part of him on her lips.
It made her feel special, that only she knew that part of him.
Cora was pregnant again shortly after they married. She’d been careful with her birth control, same time every day, even though it was eight at night and sometimes she downed it with a cold beer. Then she forgot to be careful, and when the lines showed up on the plastic strip Todd called and made an appointment.
“I hope it’s a boy,” he told her. Cora was hurt by this, and not entirely sure why.
There were a range of exams to go through to make sure the child stayed in her as long as possible. Hormonal imbalances, genetic disorders, physicals. She was asked if she smoked or drank much. Neither, of course, not when she was carrying someone else, but Todd stared at her and mouthed “Marjorie,” but Cora knew that Marjorie would risk the ire of her neighbor for her and smoke outside.
Cora made sure that Todd got tested too, and sat nervously in the room as the doctor questioned him about his medical history. Was there anything wrong with his family’s blood or their chromosomes, those letters arranged in what looked to her like a random order, but must have meant something to those who knew how to read it. Were the kidneys alright, did his grandparents have diabetes? Did all their hearts beat like metronomes, or did they skip every once in awhile?
She imagined they must have been looking at that four letter code to find something that says how far the scars go, and what sort of scars were light enough to form something like a healthy child.
But what if whatever is wrong is written so intrinsically on the smallest part, that it cannot be seen, and we need a stranger to hold us up to the microscope and tell us what our true selves really look like?
All normal, of course. Both of them.
Cora could not say if the pregnancy was easier or harder than an average one. She scanned the books and the internet confessionals and mommy blogs and found the information overwhelming and competitive. Todd was ever attentive, and Winter and Summer coo’d at him and said how very much they were jealous, which Cora supposed she may have appreciated once, but now felt too tired to feel much of anything at all.
After they found out it would be a girl, even though Todd asked the doctor to be sure and wave the ultrasound all around Cora’s belly to find some sort of elusive penis that was not going to sprout between its legs, she put her hand on his and he settled.
“You’ll love her anyway, won’t you?” she said, annoyed at herself for being worried.
“Of course,” Todd said, squeezing her hand back. “That’s not what I’m afraid of. You know, it’s just… a man wants to see himself in a boy.”
Fiona was a beautiful child, carried to term, all six pounds and seven ounces of her. She came out with Todd’s face, except scrunched and bloody, and without any scars, except the one that all people would eventually share on their navel, when the last bit of Cora would wither and blacken and fall off. They put her in Cora’s arms and she was so depleted she didn’t love her daughter at first. Love seemed too much energy then. She wanted to sleep. Marjorie, who stumbled in between her many smoke breaks, nagged a nurse until they took the child to the nursery over Todd’s protests.
“Let mom have her rest,” Marjorie said in a voice which brooked no argument. She then slipped a wrapped package into Cora’s bed. It was soft, and Cora fell asleep on it.
Later, when Todd was looking over his child, tentatively touching her balled up fist, Cora knew that she did love her daughter.
Cora forgot about Marjorie’s gift until they were at home. She went in first while Todd struggled with his unfamiliarity with car seats, leaving her to drag their hospital bag in the door and dropping it. She pulled out the gift and squeezed it between her hands.
Todd came in with Fiona a moment later. “What’s that?” he asked.
“It’s from Marjorie. I forgot to open it at the hospital.” Cora peeled away the tape as carefully as she could, being raised in a family that reused wrapping paper. She immediately regretted not doing so privately. It was a stuffed donkey.
“Is this her idea of a joke?” Todd asked, stiff and hard-lipped. Betrayed.
“You know how she is,” Cora said. “She doesn’t have family, so she has to poke the replacement.”
“Throw it out.”
“I can’t do that.”
“I don’t want that in the house.”
“It’s just a toy. We’ll put it in the nursery closet and trot it out when she’s over to make her happy. Okay?”
“That’s not funny.”
“What?” Cora said, honestly confused.
“Trot.” Todd said, as one would a curse word.
“Oh, come on. It was a slip of the tongue.”
When he was out of the room, Cora allowed herself to quietly laugh at the joke.
Cora did not expect him to be the perfect parent—it was, after all, hard for her to even love a ball of flesh that did little more than shit and cry and break the skin on her breasts—but she did think that he would be better at it than he was. He did not break any of his previous commitments to the daughters of other men, continuing to help out with the Girl Scouts and coaching softball. It was hard for her, the first few years, to not resent his face, wet with sweat and smiling, when he came home dragging the metal bat behind him, exhilarated and clammy. But then he would take her in his arms and kiss her, and Cora loved the smallness of the gesture. Winter and Summer were inclined towards grand ones, hundred rose bouquets that slowly rotted in their bedroom, or spontaneous trips to Europe, or hiring a quartet to sing songs to one another of a love long since dead, but renewed with each verse. No, Cora, believed, it was better to be happy with smaller things, like the way her daughter laughed when she was in the bath, or the way Todd would fall asleep on the recliner as he watched baseball, a bit of drool at the side of his lips, and smile at her when she woke him and told him it was time for bed.
She quit her job when Fiona was three-years-old. Only Marjorie had anything negative to say about it. Summer and Winter believed it was necessary for a mother to be with her child, which made Cora wonder if they had been judging her for not having quit sooner. Todd was equally supportive, though she suspected it was because he did little in terms of child care and this took the burden off of him. He refused to give up coaching softball or assisting with his local scout troop, which Cora took issue with as it often left her home along with her toddler, but no matter what argument she posed, Todd would not relent.
“What are you going to do with all that time?” Marjorie asked.
There were arguments to be made, but Cora did not voice them. Raising a child took up her entire day. Doctor’s appointments, feeding, cleaning, amusement, sneaking into the shower during naptime, fighting to enroll her in the best preschool they could afford and settling for the second best one, because the first best had a waiting list Cora had not been able to crack. Still, preschool was coming within a year, and that would open up her mornings.
“I’m teaching myself how to sew.”
“The domestic arts,” Marjorie said, her voice dry.
Cora shrugged. “Todd said I could darn his socks. But I want to make outfits for Fiona. Costumes. Halloween will be fun this year. I was thinking we could be themed. She can be Cinderella and I’ll be the fairy godmother.”
“And Todd as Prince Charming? If you say so,” Marjorie told her. “No man is a prince. Not even the royals.”
Fiona played on the floor between them with the stuffed donkey. She loved the damn thing, but because Todd felt so uneasy around it Cora only let her play with it at Marjorie’s. It made her dread visiting, because it meant when they left she’d have to take it away from Fiona and stick the stuffed beast in the trunk, which only resulted in sobs and wails the whole drive home, but she was not about to give up her chance to speak to a grown woman during the day.
“I don’t know why a man would be afraid of a toy,” Marjorie went on. Cora stayed silent, not willing to have this argument again. Marjorie didn’t understand the sort of sacrifices that went into a marriage, how most of it was choosing which arguments to have, and which to stay silent on, and which ones required you to sink into yourself until you barely recognized where you went, or what you wanted, and only comfortable dullness remained.
“You’re like that penguin,” Marjorie said, taking a long drag at the window.
“What penguin?” Cora asked. “Are you watching documentaries again?”
“You learn a lot from animals. There’s this one. In Antarctica. It started walking to the middle of the continent. There’s nothing there, you know. Just ice and mountains. Damn thing was going to die. The people filming it aren’t supposed to get involved, but they did with this one. They turned him around, towards the ocean, thinking he was just confused about which way had the food. But the damn thing just switched direction and walked off towards the center again. Walked off to die all alone out there.”
“And this penguin is me?” Cora asked.
“Stubborn,” Marjorie noted.
Cora watched Fiona trot the donkey across the floor, cooing. “You need to expand your viewing habits. But maybe that can be the backup idea. I’ll make penguin costumes for all of us.”
Fiona was five when Cora began to suspect. “I think Todd is having an affair,” she told Winter and Summer over drinks on a rare night out when she had convinced Todd on one of his non-coaching nights to babysit.
Summer and Winter exchanged looks. “Darling, are you sure?” Winter asked as Summer grasped her hands with an alacrity that made Cora wonder if they had been waiting for this moment and practiced a routine.
Summer hummed. “It’s not the end of everything if he is, of course. We believe you if you say so. Plenty of marriages survive a little in flagrante delicto.”
Winter nodded. “It’s true. Remember Ruben and Rachel? She was tipping every dark-haired man who came across her line of vision, but Ruben never left her. I think they were happier for it.”
“Oh yes, that’s true,” Summer agreed. “Though I always assumed Ruben was gay and that took the pressure off. But we shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions. Do you have any proof?”
Cora shook her head. “No, not really. Not like, in the traditional sense. He doesn’t seem to be bonding with Fiona. He rarely spends any time with her and when he does he says he can’t because of that damn donkey Marjorie bought her. So I hide it whenever he’s home. Which is damned difficult because Fiona just screams and screams for it. I have to slip it into her bed when he’s not looking. She loves the thing.”
“Oh, that’s not uncommon. You’re just going a bit mad because you’re home all the time. Stir crazy-baby.”
“That’s still a baby.”
Winter patted her hand. “You need to put your foot down and tell him that you want him to spend more time with Fiona. And you. You can’t just let him go out and have a life without you: you’re the mother of his daughter.”
“He seems like he’s scared of her whenever he’s with her. He looks terrified.”
“Men.” Winter and Summer nodded, with Winter seeming to take no offense. “They’re not good with kids.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Cora said. “He’s good with the softball girls. They love him. They write him cards. Hell, he received Valentine’s cards from a few of them last year. They’re on the fridge.”
“Ah, crushes,” Summer said, leaning her head on Winter’s shoulder. “Do you remember those?”
“No,” Winter said, laughing.
In September, the girls won their softball championship game. It also marked a year since Todd and Cora had been intimate. Todd insisted they celebrate at their own house with the girls, and so Cora planned to make a spread of healthy snacks: cucumber slices with dill sauce, homemade hummus and pita, glazed carrots and rolled up ham with cheese, but Fiona had been sleeping worse than usual and her teachers said she had been acting out at school—–raising her fist to the boys—and so Cora ordered pizza and picked up a few buckets of cheap ice cream at the store.
The girls danced and sang off-key karaoke along with the radio, scarfed pizza or played with Fiona. Todd sat in his armchair while two of the girls sat on either side of him, high-fiving him or begging him to speak to the high school coach about their skills for when they tried out next year. One of them, a brunette with freckles and blue eyes (they all looked fairly similar to Cora, and she struggled to remember their names) put her head on his shoulder and laughed when he said something which she must have found funny.
“Your daughter is so cute,” a blonde told her, and Cora smiled at the compliment. “Coach Tee said you make costumes for her?”
“Yeah,” Cora said. “She likes to dress up like animals. I’ve made a butterfly, a duck, and a penguin.”
“Oh wow!” said a different blonde, sidling up to them. “Can we see?”
“Oh, sure,” said Cora, bored out of her mind and more than willing to show off her handiwork, which she had, she believed, gotten quite good at. “Let me see if I can get her to wear one. Fiona,” she called. “Do you want to show everyone your duckie costume?”
Fiona ran over to Cora and nodded her head, which made the two girls clap their hands. Cora reached down and picked up and began to carry her up the stairs.
“Coach Tee,” she heard one of the girls say on her way up. “The downstairs bathroom is occupied and I gotta go. Do you have another one?”
“Let me show you,” Todd said, followed by the sound of his body rising from the recliner. “It’s upstairs.”
Cora went into Fiona’s room and closed the door. Fiona asked for her donkey to hold, and Cora, after making her promise that they would leave it in the closet when they went back downstairs, grabbed it from the top shelf and handed it over. Fiona was often irritable when being undressed, and she figured giving in to the request might make it easier.
She managed to take off her shirt with little trouble, though Fiona fidgeted and argued when Cora went to take off her pants.
“You’re going to be too hot if you wear this and your duckie costume,” Cora told her, even though she had long since figured out that arguing with a child often got her nowhere.
It was a struggle, but Cora managed to get her pants off. There was a new bruise on her thigh, which when they first started to appear had sent Cora into an alarmed meeting with Fiona’s teachers, asking them what kind of rough housing they were doing at that school, as well as her doctors to be sure that nothing was medically wrong with the girl, but everyone, including Winter and Summer when she mentioned it, reminded her that kids fall, were rough with one another, and bruised all the time. She eventually let it go once she saw Fiona run around the house in a sugar-craze and bumped her forehead into a door. That bruise had been awkward to explain.
“You need to be more careful,” she reminded Fiona, who was hugging the donkey to her chest. “Do you want mommy to kiss it and make it better?”
“No,” Fiona said, rubbing her face against the toy.
“Okay,” Cora said, holding up the duckie costume. “One foot in at a time.”
When Fiona was fully costumed, she made a beeline for the door with the donkey in hand. Cora snatched it right before Fiona managed to make it out the door, and only kept Fiona from protesting by reminding her that she had guests who wanted to see her in all her duckie glory. Fiona ran out, and Cora put the donkey back on the top shelf of the closet, behind a pile of folded clothes. She heard the squeals of delight coming from downstairs. The duckie had been a triumph.
She stopped in the hallway when she saw Todd and the brunette. He was leaning over her and whispering, and Cora couldn’t make out what he was saying. When the girl saw her, her eyes went wide and she ran down the stairs, taking two at a time. Todd turned to look at her.
“What was that?” Cora asked, not sure if she was breathing anymore.
“Didn’t want her to get lost,” Todd said. “Kids, you know? They go through stuff if you’re not careful.”
“Yes,” Cora said, and watched him retreat back down to the girls.
How old were they, she wondered. Twelve? Eleven?
That night, after the girls were gone and everything cleaned, she did not say anything more to Todd about it. She did not know what to say, or what to think. It was nothing, certainly, though she stood longer in front of the fridge than normal, looking at the Valentines from the girls and wondering just how deeply they pressed their markers onto the paper to make those red hearts.
She went into Fiona’s room to tuck her into bed, making sure to give her the donkey.
“Everyone loved your duckie, darling,” she said.
Fiona smiled and cuddled the donkey to her chest.
“Donkey is getting a bit old,” Cora said. “Maybe we should get you a new one?”
“No mommy,” Fiona said. “Donkey keeps the dreams away.”
“I don’t know.”
Cora cajoled, but nothing would budge Fiona to say more.
That night, she had a hard time falling asleep. She wondered if that brunette had seen the scar on his chest, and what a young girl would think of it. A grown man, afraid of a dumb beast.
“What are you doing for Halloween this year?” Todd asked her, early in October.
“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “Maybe pigs? We can go as the three little pigs.”
“I’m not wearing a onesie,” Todd said to her.
“Maybe just pig ears for you then,” she said.
They had not spoken of the girl in the hallway, but Cora was desperate to say something. To have everything she suspected burst out of her, and to hear him laugh with incredulity, so that she could feel foolish and forget.
She remembered the fetus he had pulled from the toilet and held, like it was a precious thing. Before, she had always considered the act something special, one of those grand gestures she was not fond of, but because he had done it privately, it became one of the grandest. How he had lovingly touched it, this thing that was all potential of the two of them, how he must have mourned the loss in such a disgusting and kind way. Much like his scar which he said he showed to no one, save her and his doctor, it was something for them alone. A cornerstone of their marriage. A private thing.
“Mommy,” Fiona said, wandering into the living room. “Donkey’s ear is broke.”
Todd was on his feet faster than she was. “For God’s sake, Cora, why does she still have that fucking thing?”
“Mommy,” Fiona said, backing away from her father.
“It’s just a toy,” Cora said.
Todd threw his hands up. “Throw it out.”
“No!” Fiona screamed, clutching the donkey, one of its floppy ears loose and held together by thread. “No!”
Todd started towards Fiona, and Cora was on her feet immediately, prepared to do what she did not know she would do. Throw herself at him? Strike him if he went to strike their daughter? Fish the donkey out of the trash if he threw it out? But she was not quick enough, and Todd snatched at Fiona and ripped the donkey from the girl’s arms. Its ear, which had been hanging on by threads, tore off entirely. Fiona screamed and screamed, and when she made to go and take it back from him, he pushed her over and she landed with a hard thud, which only made her scream louder.
Cora held Fiona and shushed her, watching as Todd took the donkey outside. When he came back in without it, he looked at the two of them huddled on the floor, shook his head with disgust, and went upstairs.
Cora slept in Fiona’s bed that night. The girl was inconsolable for most of the evening, and Todd had not left their bedroom. Though she had searched the garbage can, she had not found the toy, and she wondered if that was how Todd felt when he pulled that part of her from the toilet: trying to search for something precious in the waste.
“Don’t cry,” Cora told Fiona. “I’ll keep the bad dreams away.”
Marjorie was livid when she was told of what happened to the donkey, but livid for Marjorie was rolling her eyes and smoking two cigarettes in a row.
“I never liked him,” she said.
“Marge,” Cora said. Stopped, then started again. “Have you ever been happy not knowing something?”
“What do you mean?” Marjorie asked, lighting up her third.
“Like, you suspect something. You suspect something awful, which might be the most awful thing in the world, and if it was true your whole world would be… different. Worse. Like everything would fall apart and every bet you placed would lose.”
Marjorie looked at her with such sadness, Cora thought she might break down.
“You remember those penguins?”
“God dammit,” Cora said, putting her head in her hands. “I’m so sick of hearing about those penguins.”
“Yes well, one more time, and then I won’t ever mention them again. Fair?” She took a long drag. “That penguin who went to the center of Antarctica, the one who would not turn around even though there was nothing for him in the center of it except death… that was the easier choice for him. To go into certainty. It would have been harder for him to turn around and go back to the ocean, where any number of things could have snatched his body and ripped him to shreds. Or perhaps he would have starved. Or gotten lost. Or any number of terrible things. Can you imagine what it would be like to have your little body torn apart by a seal? So he took the path where he was blind to everything but his own certain destruction.”
Cora closed her eyes. “So you can’t win.”
“Probably not,” Marjorie said with a chuckle. “But you shouldn’t go on the path where you know the ending. Where there is no potential for anything else.”
They were talking again, but politely, in a strained way that two people who love one another do when they were still angry, but were grounded in history. Small talk, mostly, about their days, how they were feeling after a sip of coffee, if they had a dream the night before (neither of them shared if they did). Fiona was discussed in only the most vague terms: how she was doing in school, if she was eating her vegetables. Cora would have to work a little harder reading with her, as Fiona was struggling to pronounce certain words. Todd made a vague promise about taking them to a kid’s movie that weekend, which neither of them cared to see.
Cora knew she should not bring it up, because it wasn’t really the thing that ached at her, but she was inclined towards dealing with the past hurts rather than the present ones.
“Remember when Fiona was small, in my belly?” she asked him.
He smiled at her, a genuine smile, one she had not seen for awhile, and she realized then the power she held in this moment. She could smile back at him, and they could work at peace, or work on another child, maybe at that moment, scrambling like teenagers to their bed to do it comfortably or even bend down on the floor of the kitchen and pretend at an exuberance their knees had long since stopped accommodating.
“You said you wished she was a boy,” Cora said, with a quiet viciousness.
Todd stared at her.
“Why did you say that?” she asked.
“No reason,” he said, turning back to his coffee. “It was a dumb thing to say.”
Later, when she was curled up with Fiona and reading alongside her, a book about dogs with simple sentences, patiently helping her to pronounce words with three or more syllables, she would be reminded that words, and how you say them, have a kind of power. When Fiona sniffled a little for her donkey, she was reminded that actions do too.
That night, she worked on their costumes.
Cora invited Summer and Winter, along with Todd’s parents and his co-workers, their neighbors, and Marjorie over for a Halloween party. Fiona was upstairs in her room, having promised that she would be quiet and only come out if it was an emergency. Cora had spent the whole week getting ready, putting up decorations, ordering food, and picking up the expensive wine that cost over ten dollars a bottle from the store. She worked every night to finish sewing, measuring, and putting the final furry touches on their costumes. She had not returned to her bed with Todd in this time, but they had been making headway into being more pleasant with one another. She made him coffee in the morning before he went to work and brought it to him in bed. He gave her chaste kiss on her cheek when he returned home.
“You can’t smoke inside,” Todd was telling Marjorie, who looked like she wanted to tell him where he could smoke it, but she only nodded her head, which made her witch’s hat fall to the floor.
Summer and Winter, never ones to under-dress for any event, came as Harlequin clowns with Venetian masks, which they had picked up after a spontaneous weekend to New Orleans. They were delighting Todd’s parents, who had come dressed as pirates complete with stuffed birds on their shoulders and eye-patches, with a waltz. The neighbors and co-workers were a mix of nurses, skeletons, one notable couple who came as a priest and a sexy nun, and Todd who, having not been given a costume by Cora this year, had pasted a sign that said “Pedestrian” to his shirt, which everyone gave him grief over for being so lazy.
Todd pressed his lips to Cora’s cheek when she approached, eyeing his parents as he did. “This is a wonderful party,” he told her. “Thanks for putting it together.”
“I’ve always loved Halloween,” she told him. She took his glass from his hand and took a sip. When she handed it back, there was a smudge of pink from her lips on the rim.
“I’m surprised you didn’t dress up this year,” he said, then spoke quietly. “I know things haven’t been the best between us, lately. And I’m sorry about that. It’s childish of me, and I know it, but I can’t explain how it feels to remember that…” he put his hand over his chest, where the scar was.
“It’s alright,” she told him, and meant it. “I understand.”
He smiled at her, then, true and gorgeous as he could, that secret smile that was only for her when she made him happy. For a moment, she almost decided not to go through with it, to stay in her dress and keep looking at the center of the continent that was the love she had for him, and move forward without looking behind her, to an ending that she could keep her head down to and push ever onward.
But there were scars on her body, too, the kind where her skin stretched her breasts to store milk for her daughter. Todd was not the only one who bore such things.
“I did make a costume,” she said. “I didn’t want to wear it when I was putting out the food. I’ll go get changed.”
“Of course,” he said, then turned to the room. “Everyone, Cora is going to show you her latest creation.”
Everyone clapped, and she distinctly heard Winter or Summer say, “Finally!”
It was both not her best work, having been done in something of a hurry, and her favorite. She had learned, from the year of the bee when Todd was working late and she had to go out with Fiona trick-or-treating alone, that when you did full body costumes and had no one to zip you up, you had to put a zipper on the side, not the back. Fiona giggled as Cora zipped her into her miniature version.
“Do you like it?” she asked her daughter.
“Love it!” Fiona said, reaching out to touch her ears, which flopped down on her face.
“Careful with those,” Cora said. “They’re delicate.”
Gathering her daughter into her arms, she walked downstairs into the party. The room, boisterous before she got down there, was quiet now. Todd’s parents were exchanging glances with one another, and Summer and Winter looked at her with confusion, trying to mime their faces into politeness, but clearly struggling with the effort.
Todd’s arms hung loosely at his sides, and the wine he was holding slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor. It splattered, like a blood stain, on the carpet. She saw the whites of his eyes and in the quiet of the room, heard the breath he took into his lungs.
Marjorie jumped up from her seat, cackling like the witch she was dressed as, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. “Cora, it’s simply marvelous. Now what sort of animal would you two ladies be?”
Cora held her grinning daughter higher. “Fiona, tell our guests what we are.”
“Donkeys!” her daughter cried, her floppy ear, hanging on by only a few threads, falling on her face.
“That’s right,” Cora said, looking at Todd. “And what sound do donkeys make?”
Todd started to back away, to retreat into a corner, but he could only retreat so far before he backed into a wall. Cora moved forward towards him, her daughter in her hands, until his whole body was smashed flat.
“Hee-hah!” Cora shouted along with her daughter, raising her voice high and joyously. “Hee-hah, hee-hah, hee-hah!”
Photo courtesy of Ian McDowall. View more of his work on Flickr.