His keys land somewhere and the noise awakens her. As Mara works to keep her eyes open, she remembers that it is time. This is the moment, she is sure of it. She is certain that he will get himself ready for rest and mull over the script in his head. He’ll put the towel back on the rack, go to the kitchen and drink the orange juice she’s prepared for him. He’ll return to her bedside and nudge her to sit with those hands that never toil outside of a cubicle farm.
I need to tell you something, is what he’ll say. She will listen, as she does not want to miss any ambivalent word that may hang over the edge of his voice.
He will speak in a whisper and when he is finished, she will hear the white noise of silence and say, We must not tell anyone about this.
Mara is in chronic pain. She stretches a bit to hear the little bones in her neck snap and sneezes when she dusts the boxes laminated with chevron prints filled with photographs of bundled memories tied in raffia. She moves one slat of the window blinds over another to see the photo of herself as a child. Her hair is the shape of a bowl and her pants are pink, polyester, and high on the ankles. She’s wearing a cotton blouse with blue stripes and looks like a boy, doing a march of sorts, her right knee in a staircase pose, her hand pushing a wall. It is in monochrome and she is captured there in the frame of her home country, a place buried in history books she never reads.
She has tea brewing under an umbrella of light that hovers above her oven’s glass top burner. Earlier, she had overfilled the tea kettle as her mind wandered to the past, reveries marked as frontlets between her eyes. She is summoned to her kitchen by the scent of licorice, cardamom, and cinnamon and pours tea in her favorite cup: Minnie Mouse in her trademark polka-dot skirt and pantaloons.
It’s summer in the Tri Cities, where perpetual evening light marks the days, and the air is dense and suffocating, rising to the high ceilings of her apartment. It can only escape through her patio’s screen door, or the main entrance that opens only a few times throughout the day. This apartment—one of many on the grounds, resembling all the neighboring structures—is occupied at night by her and her husband, since the day persists in their absence as they are away at work. This place is the wavered result of their endeavoring for an affluent lifestyle that settled in their marriage of thirteen years.
After she drinks her tea accompanied by Gamesa cookies, she saunters to her bedroom. She’s lost a full night of sleep, the clock on her nightstand announcing a few minutes past five o’clock. Her husband isn’t stirred by her coming and going so she watches him. She playfully rubs his ear with her stuffed elephant, Feathers. After much of that, she pulls the shades of her window to let in the dawn. It is Saturday and they usually go out for breakfast at Mimi’s Café early enough to avoid crowds of families and elderlies, to preserve their morning as fresh and lucid as possible.
Is Ai finding sleep at this precise moment? Is Ai closing her day, or is she consumed with her own unnerving thoughts? Is she brewing fine tea harvested in her home country, sixteen hours ahead of Mara’s, that green tea so popular there? Mara has seen only two photos of Ai. One of them was the credit for a photograph she shot of the flying acrobats in Cozumel. In it, her hair is like a raven resting on a small frame, her shoulders too delicate, prone to break if burdened with too much. Her elbows point upward as her hands are tucked behind her head. She is wearing a cotton blouse with buttons around a scoop neckline.
This is the only half of Ai that Mara can see. The other half, she can only guess. Does she wear skinny pants and flats to keep herself comfortable as she carries her camera equipment wherever she’s dispatched? Or does she wear sneakers to relieve her tired soles?
Mara sits with her husband at their favourite table and takes a photo of her food when it arrives: a smoked ham and cheese omelette and coffee. She commemorates the kick-off to their weekend like this, a photo for every dish displayed in front of her, another clip to add to her social media stream, another trigger to keep her checking for admirers of all she documents. She must let people know where she has been and where she is with her agreeable husband, who succumbs to her habits, and smiles for the camera, exhibiting his own breakfast before piercing his quiche in two.
Because they arrived in separate cars, Mara finds it hard to split from her husband in the parking lot. They parked beside each other, a chance occasion this early in the stir of the morning. She tells him she’ll be home in a few hours and he waves to her. Okay, he says.
She drives to the Whole Foods Market outside of the Tri Cities where the people aren’t as recognizable. She pushes a cart and immediately goes through magazines, as these take little time to flip through. She finds a book about popular new-age beliefs, the power of the subconscious, intuition and first impressions, personality types and influencers, even the paranormal—that which dabbles in mind reading and clairvoyance. She knows she should stay away from this type of work, but flips through pages anyway, hoping to find an antidote that will help her make expert judgments and quick decisions. She takes it with her and moves on to add kale, carrots, asparagus, and lemons to her cart. The variety of ready-made meals look fresh so she buys the sandwich wraps that serve two. Her brown bags are heavy in her arms and after packing them into her trunk, she suddenly decides to visit the boutiques next door. The preprint inserts that arrived in the mail on Tuesday mark today as a time for discounts, but she relents because her food may need to get home sooner, and besides, the emerging heat is giving her a headache. To get to the curvy access road, she needs to pass the crowds that plague her nerves—those early lunch goers and mommies and daddies with bouncy children getting out of minivans.
Mara doesn’t wear make-up when she’s out like this—it irritates her sensitive skin—and she doesn’t worry about her black hair in a frizz because that is her preference. In her apartment, her husband is ensconced in front of his computer in the upstairs loft, his haven for all things required of him for work and for rest. She wipes the counters of her kitchen and washes a load of laundry before getting ready to leave again.
It is hot over here, her husband echoes from above. She knows it. She is wearing her favourite grey t-shirt with the Minions emblem, her underarms spotted in sweat. The fan in the air conditioner hasn’t churned out air like it’s supposed to for some days now and Mara doubts it will be fixed soon.
Mara leaves midday to her church for the baby shower she was asked to help coordinate, arriving an hour earlier of course, to set up tables, chairs, and trimmings. She receives food as it trickles in and is glad the sandwich wraps are at home for her husband to eat while she is here, keeping her hands busy, but at a full arms reach from the other ladies helping in other ways. She keeps clear from Concepción as long as she can because conversations with her get whipped over and over again like current affairs on television. Concepción has a son, William, who refuses to marry his girlfriend Nadine of ten years, and this topic gets beaten with the sour notes that give Mara a stomach ache.
Mara wanders beyond the landing steps of the church social hall and passes a potted bougainvillea, thorny, the colour of raspberry. Some weeks ago, the Austin boy pierced his arm with its thorns, and although the news arrived to the ears of the pastor’s wife, Mrs. Wynn, she opted to keep the plant anyway. It is pretty, and provides a colourful barrier to the parking lot, she had said. Mrs. Wynn is a sharp contrast to Concepción, as she is frosty and pugnacious and has a strong hold of where she sits in the auditorium. Whenever Mrs. Wynn is early for Sunday services, Mara is sure to sit far away, alone.
Someone is playing How Great Thou Art on a radio box in the social hall. Mara’s had her share of sittings in the recital room of the church, waiting for her husband to finish a piece of music he fails to grasp between his fingers.
Is Ai in her studio, a high rise of reinforced concrete, a place of contemporary design with a blue and white exterior—a flagship reminiscent of the Bay Area—with comfortable light glinting through the windows which exhibit a panoramic view of Tokyo? In the studio, Mara can almost smell the green tea brewing, and in one corner, a piano perhaps waits for a melodic sound to shatter the monotone between unbreakable walls. Maybe in her twenties, late or early, whichever, it doesn’t matter, because Ai is vibrant and in love for sure, and would be ready to mother the child of the man she adores.
Three years ago, Mara and her husband spent their milestone ten year anniversary in the Disneyland Hotel. She was delighted to spend it there, redeeming their unlimited world access passes, a full year of anticipation coming to fruition.
Her husband had been picking up sundries that they failed to pack from the hotel lobby—mints, razors, nail clippers—when his work email notification vibrated on the mobile phone that he left lying on the nightstand. The email was in Japanese and Mara opened it. It had a salutation in English, a personal, Hello Ever, which carried with it a charm outside of professional manners. The rest of the text was in Japanese and the attachment caused Mara’s fingers to tremble with hesitation. It could be spam, or not, but everything looked authentic otherwise. She opened the email and found a black and white photograph of a woman walking arm in arm with a man, their backs to the camera. She was uncertain at first, as the intrigue became too alarming to see anything with exactness, but she knew. It was her husband and his other woman.
The ladies arrive and Mara blinks away the sting of her tears, drying her cheeks with a kitchen napkin she had folded in half and again. Several ladies see her and wave, carrying their gifts and edibles. She is fraught with agitation when she steps into the social hall because the seats she had arranged earlier have been shifted. All the tables are filled, so it seems, and her purse is not where she left it. The table against the wall is brimming with gifts, and the cake shaped like a baby carriage is covered to keep little fingers away. The mother-to-be exhibits the blue bow pinned over her belly and gives Mara a mirthless smile.
It’s absurd, I tell William, but he doesn’t listen to me, Concepción says. Concepción is wearing a shade of lip gloss too juvenile for her age, and keeps her pocket book between her table settings and Mara’s. Once in a while she will glance at her mobile phone, as Mara does. I don’t know why he keeps that poor girl tagging along.
Concepción has grown children that she has seen leave the church in mass exodus. Apostates, she once said. It is another reminder to Mara of the handiwork of the enemy, driving children away from the fold, scattering the flock over dead pastures. How much did she have a part in that, leading the youth group there alongside her husband, seeing the numbers decline, lives unregenerate, families broken and hurt? And there she remains with her husband, in the midst of it; obedient to God’s will as they both perceive it. After years of this devotion, Mara and her husband are already forgotten and rejected by the very people whom they spoiled with evenings of games, potlucks, and the occasional intervention between their parents, mitigating disasters.
A cacophony of laughter bursts in the air like a private joke was said that everyone got except Mara. Even Concepción joins the laughter, as she appears to have one ear in their conversation and another in the collective clamour of the rest.
What does a mother see when her child rebels? What seems so wrong about William delaying marriage? Is it the indecision of a proposal that is wrong, or is it the length of the courtship? That is what Mara and her husband can bear witness to. They courted each other for ten years, like William, who now walks down the same unsettling road. Same age as they were, like a fogged mirror only separated by one generation. But it is Concepción who answers the burning question in Mara’s mind at that moment, the answer that ends her bewilderment.
I want grandchildren, she says. I want William to give me nietos someday and he won’t if he lets Nadine wither to old age.
It was time. Time for Mara to stop popping those pills. Time to settle for a family, to grow a vine on their terms, without the hand of God—the author and finisher of life—to usher them into His heritage as was purposed from the beginning in that covenant between husband and wife. But Mara’s presumptions were vanity. What was the use of sabotaging what was found wanting? For that, Mara was irrevocable, and Ai—the young photographer on the world’s circuit—was able to anchor herself to Mara’s husband, who already had reconciled that his wife could not plant him any seed.
At the gift table, Mara offers the mother-to-be her gifts to open: packages that boast all shapes and sizes, pastel tissue paper pushed inside tight bags embellished with die cuts of milk bottles, storks, or diapers. Mara’s hand brushes over the mother-to-be’s lap and she’s electrified by those warm thighs, two strong pillars that will open like scissors to sever one life from another, just as they did when it was conceived.
It was all too clear now, like the blur of a window wiped with a rag. At the Disneyland Hotel, Mara had been burned with the brand of her barrenness, as the photo on her husband’s mobile phone displayed itself in front of her eyes, searing the disillusionment of her husband, announcing in that photograph that she had failed him. He’d never spoken it to her ears, but the digital evidence was too palpable and the dimension of their marriage had at once collapsed. They had considered adoption, but the words of her husband trudged in her mind for weeks and weeks. We don’t know what we’ll get, he was vehement, and she agreed to that decision, with no variance, since that path was sure to try them in a different form. She wanted no children when she married him, hence the pills, but suddenly it became her heart’s desire to make her husband a father, like those she’d seen in church or on the metro, or at the annual fairgrounds when she kept her husband’s eyes on her winning prizes, as she listened to him crow about his brother’s son feeding some lambs or forking through funnel cake, that brother of her husband multiplying his own family until there were three. Three children that Mara would not choose as her family, even now, after all these years. Bearing her own seed was what she coveted most, not a couple of nephews and a niece. She didn’t want someone else’s careless rejection, nor the rounds of injections her womb would be subject to. At the hotel, the opaque mirror of her existence turned limpid and became a clear distinction between water and oil.
I called the repairman, read the note from Mara’s husband. He left it there for her on the kitchen counter, next to the crumbs from the sandwich wraps, near the washed strawberries he set for her. She eats the sweet flesh of the unblemished strawberries, and forms a heart-shaped calyx on a napkin. The location manager on her mobile phone has her husband off the grid, as common as it is with the reception in their apartment. She is fidgety and pulls out her laptop to spend hours on the pin-boards, looking for dandies she could attribute to her husband, styles she finds dapper and sophisticated. Her dark rimmed glasses impose smallness on her otherwise large eyes. When she grows weary under the spell of words, and dulled by the plethora of images on her screen—pithy quotes, homilies typeset over landscape meadows or sandy beaches, inspiring edicts lifted from fortune cookies—she shuts her screen, but not after picking a new mantra to grace her desktop wallpaper. Her fingers are interlaced under her chin as she repeats the mantra.
In her craft room, the place where all her stationary, needles, yarn, and other incomplete projects fill a wicker basket, she sits on a pint-sized futon to stare at herself in the mirror doors of the closet, a collection of stuffed animals tucked behind her head. She drifts her index finger over children’s books she’s collected over the years. Most of them have become the shell of the voice she once had when she arrived to the United States, vanishing from the ravaged country she’s tried to rub off her skin. She flips through the pages of Winnie the Pooh, and reads about Rabbit on a quest to repress Tigger, censoring his bouncy spring, as it offends. Rabbit is ready to abandon this eccentric animal at all costs, leaving him in the forest to remain stuck on a tree, but his paranoia besets him. Mara closes the book to find the 100 Acre Wood, a map riddled with missing punctuation, bold yellow borders framing the woods like protective hedges, the characters enchanted with a skip in their step through pale grass. She brings her Pooh Bear close to her face and draws in the aroma of garden-fresh lavender.
Her husband’s child would be pale skinned with a tinge of yellow, with irises like Mexican black cherries, locked with the same darkness of Ai’s hair, fatty limbs and toes hanging from her slender hips.
In the other room, her wedding album lies on the coffee table by the fireplace they never use. It is a masterpiece as it entertains the youth of her church that come by to visit, inquisitive singles amazed by the feat of marriage, a token of accomplishment. He is the best man for you, her parents had said, relieved that the engagement became final, handing her over, the weight of a decade off their shoulders. Somehow, they thought, he could make her a better person. She was to be flour of another sack. Somehow, they thought, marriage would apprehend her insecurity; and all their concerted efforts to get her the help she required during those explosive seasons they’d borne with her had come to an end. The throes of this shipwreck had finally given them over to clemency and brought them to shore with one large cough out of the sea. Now, as it was before, her privacy was approached with a delicate hand, the finest way to remain conciliatory to her wishes.
Mara throws her Pooh Bear on the couch near the coffee table. The slick hair that she pinned back on her wedding day has lost its luster but she looks the same as she did before, that forceful smile twitching between nervous cheeks. Her eyes still appear tired, their lids droopy no matter the time of day. The attitude of her parents on her wedding day became a punchline in their respective churches because, as they stated, her husband was the best man for her. They had their careers, they went on vacations, they were present in church together and were a great example of marriage, some said, but for that womb that God wouldn’t open.
Mara doesn’t believe anyone would suspect her husband of infidelity, for he is a deacon at the church, and he wouldn’t want to expose a scandal that would embarrass her, that would shame and cause her to recluse herself, or prompt them to move to another church in order to avoid impending scorn. It wasn’t what they would want, all of it out in the open, making them notorious. Her husband hadn’t noticed anything different about her and there were no flaws in the deception then or now.
Mara carried her discovery like a veiled contaminant throughout her entire anniversary at the Disneyland Hotel. She walked the pool side of the hotel before stepping into it, and sat in the water for two hours, watching children cloak the necks of their fathers with their strong arms, bringing them back to the shallow edge. Mara was certain her husband would leave her once she confronted him. He would decide to leave her after a few weeks of quiet contemplation, since there was nothing left to hide anymore, the flood gates having opened, the bough snapped. He would listen to her sob and scream through spittle from her lips, losing her words amid escalating misery, trembling, stuttering. He would be languid, waiting for her to finish, as it was like that sometimes, him knowing her for over twenty years now, putting her back together again after she’d broken: broken relationships, broken nerves, broken things, a broken puzzle, pieces in a scatter. Sometimes he’d find the right piece, identifiable in the mess, and if he positioned it where it belonged, he could find another to join the former, a consolation crafted by his hand that would take moments to complete. He was good at this task.
He looked for her at the pool, a buoyant aqua sparkle littered with commotion and color. He found her drenched and motionless under the shade of a straw hut. The email with the photograph had already been marked as unread by Mara, to remove suspicion. Take a dive, she said to him before he takes off his shades. The water is perfect.
All other vital information, in Japanese, was undecipherable to her. The attachment, a JPEG file of that photograph, was the most comprehensible language she understood, a stark contrast of black and white that never changed its color. What were the words that were etched in the body, those characters too intricate for her to fathom? When did it all begin, and why did it continue? She could only figure that his business trip overseas had been the impetus. His patterns didn’t demonstrate any alteration, no intensity that seemed to unsettle his equilibrium, no evidence of a heart embezzled by another. But it wasn’t a surprise, any of it, since he was her grandest achievement and her trophy was sure to be on display wherever they went.
There was nothing to say to her husband, lest it dislodge all the plans she had devised for their monumental vacation, accustomed to the splurges of their inconsequential outings, the same old nearby entertainment and shopping—shallow filler inside tote bags left forgotten for days in the dark of their closet. At home, she hushed whenever her husband stepped out for a few hours.
Mara eats cookies as she waits for her husband to arrive. It’s getting late and soon he will return. She hadn’t discovered any more emails after that day in the Disneyland Hotel. It would have been a shock to her husband to think his wife knew, and how he would need to prepare for that continual drip that was sure to come. I didn’t think she would find out, he would say, and Ai would never doubt his sincerity.
Mara promises herself to stop eating and says, You need to wait and stop this cookie business, okay, or else there won’t be any left for you tomorrow. In the pantry there are some oatmeal raisins she bought yesterday on her way home from work. She pours milk into her favourite cup and takes a few more cookies with her to the dining table, phone in hand, sliding her thumb through the celebrity hot spots, places she’d like to visit on her next trip to southern California. When she is finished eating, another one is okay, and another is not so bad. The taste of the milk refreshes her. Another serving is perfect to wash away the taste of vanilla and salt and a movie is good to allay her tensions, because now the day is folding away like the pleats of a skirt, stitches lined in succession, a march that splits at the seams.
He is thinking of Ai at this moment, perhaps. Somewhere, they are sharing time together. Ai devotes herself to him, being alone and preparing herself for the day, compiling her best work, beautiful photographs that only a foolish prospective client could deny. He doesn’t need to hide her away from his colleagues during the week, since he doesn’t need to explain anything to anyone, since nobody cares who he shares his time with. Nobody micromanages his whereabouts. He can go out to eat, can go anywhere at any time, and meet Ai when she is in town on assignment, somewhere near or far, it doesn’t make a difference. There are no appointments to keep, no children to shuttle to school or elsewhere. He places his hands over her eyes when he spots her, and startles her for a moment until she laughs. They are in the park and she invites him to sit with her under the eucalyptus, beside the pebbled drinking fountain near the playground.
I’ll be working late again, is what he’d texted Mara before he left his office.
They watch the playground children meander from one obstacle to another, squealing when they run after one another. It is a peaceful noise—the sound of children, a relief through the interstices of the arching trees, the golden shower of the cassia fistula blowing in a gentle calmness a few yards away. Ai’s blouse is short-sleeved, a marled knit, relaxed and boxy. They talk about her work, the photo assignment she is in the middle of, her next destination. Mara assumes that their escapades in the autumn months take place indoors, at a museum, where the heavy rain won’t impose upon them, where the wind doesn’t pull her tresses apart, where she can glean inspiration from the art of others.
The credits of the Toy Story sequel scroll between shots of characters dancing to flamenco applause. The volume is a low, white noise. It is already dusk, and Mara’s patio door is open. A breeze awakens her. It’s possible that he isn’t home yet because there’s too much to discuss, too many questions that require careful consideration. He might spill it all tonight, explain everything; no longer reticent, no longer withholding that Ai is the one to mother his child. His expression, once so open and guileless, will splinter and give her permission to be despondent.
Is it possible that Ai—with the heavy flight schedules of her photography assignments, journeying through the jungles of the Amazon, the Andes of Perú, the temples of Palenque—has time for a baby? Yes. Ai will treasure her precious child far more than any antiquity or relic, any heap of ruins that remains fixed through time on the sites she’s beheld with eyes wide open, sites bigger than herself. A baby from the man she loves is far more magnificent than any place that could stop her heart from beating, any work her hands could craft, any goal worth pursuing. The one and only destination worthy of all her toil.
But who will care for the child while she continues her exploits? Will she abdicate her child to a trusted nanny, a seed to be watered and bloomed by the hand of someone other than those who planted it? Mara knows and in her mind she can only come up with three words: what a waste. Her marriage brought to the ground and for what? For a child that will be left abandoned in a safe-house, bulldozed by those who carried its destruction.
It’s impossible because her husband won’t let it be that way. He will not let his baby become orphaned by parents who cannot be together. It’s impossible and for this reason he will leave Mara. He cannot exist fractured like this, so he will elect to complete the circle he’s drawn—two wedges shaded in grey fixed, next to an empty space for him to fill. That is his picture of completion, and he will gather all the parts with his hand to bring them together, rendering them indivisible.
Mara finishes what’s left of the raisin cookie on her coffee table, and knows this child is her husband’s, and thus, she will need to acquiesce; to keep her husband she must welcome his posterity, his new consecration who will cry for him if he’s ever gone, who will miss him if he leaves for a moment, whose love can outnumber the stars of heaven; this fledgling she once used to be to him long ago.
The hours have stretched into the morose stage of anxiety that was present at the Disneyland Hotel when Mara held her husband’s mobile phone. Between the stealth of her fingers and the dotted ellipses of sweat over her forehead, she’d turned off the power switch of the phone. It was only a matter of time for him to backslide, to abandon his barren wife, to cross over to another field outside the protective hedge she carefully manicured during dry and cold seasons. His child’s soul would be secure under the shade of forbidden love and twig, that branch, were things she couldn’t break.
But he will stay as he makes it a habit to finish what he’s started. Countless times he’s walked Mara through the odyssey of her worst fears, those outbursts of rage peppered with denial about the image she was forced to see in the mirror, excusing herself from conversation or coming home irritated by some petty offense, her pride a living reproach to her husband’s cowardice. In those moments, he would shake his head and bring her under his arms and lament the unlikelihood of wandering in the wilderness instead of dwelling in this house. Were the dependencies of his wife worth spending the remainder of his life mortified by the rottenness in his bones, cursed by Mara? No one was to be born to this house, no little hands would carry the family line, and no one would come forth out of his bowels: no heir, no progeny, and no star to number in the sky.
Ai tells Ever she needs to return to her work. The playground has dwindled to a trickle of delirious children slumping over swings held by rusted chains. He hugs her and she leaves the scent of her hair between his fingers. As he makes his way back home, he doesn’t bother to look at his mobile phone left in the console. In the boarding house she shares with other traveling artists, Ai drinks a cup of tea, and nibbles on a scone left on the dining table; leftovers from a co-op dinner that could aid anyone through sleeplessness.
It was only a matter of time. When Mara sat over the edge of the pool, she made ripples with her feet, and there, at the pool, she decided not to reveal what she knew to her husband; why push him too hard when everything was intact? It cannot last forever, anyway. There comes a time when women like Ai will need to decide whether to linger on or to swim alone in the tempest. Ever will not let Ai weather the storm alone, will not let Ai wait at sea as long as his wife had. But Ai will usher in her pregnancy, no matter the cost, as she is mature and doesn’t need to compete with anyone, for she knows that jealousy is as cruel as the grave, and to her, love is thicker than faults, thick enough to welcome a child alone. Ever will look at his wife, cast-away, and tell her the truth. We were traveling together in Japan, he’ll say, and, I’m sorry; but Mara will refrain because she has prepared herself. Ai, unaware, will have drawn her closer to her husband, since all things work together for good, and all the rifts between them will at once be resolved by this devastating watershed.
Mara rinses the oranges she’s been saving in the refrigerator. One by one, she dries them with the terry cloth she bought in the Midwest when she paid a former colleague a visit. That was her idyllic picture—immaculate, American, the leaves of fall landing as fiery echoes stirring on every street corner, her colleague glad she was visiting. She traveled alone without Ever and stayed in her colleague’s craftsman home, in a spare bedroom with a window that overlooked a cottage garden, his new wife showing Mara some knitted scarves.
Mara squeezes the juice from the oranges until she fills her husband’s favourite tumbler, an opaque souvenir from Texas. How he likes it, with pulp, fresh and unsweetened. She eats the carpels of a few oranges and tosses the rest of the peels into the trash.
Her nails are yellow from the orange zest. In the bathroom, she performs a manicure and applies the frosty polish Concepción bought her for her birthday. On her side of the wash basin is her phone, notifying her that he is on his way. Just a while longer.
She takes her medication and drinks from the tap. She will be able to sleep off its initial effects, since she hasn’t missed a dose. Months ago, the antidotes she had tried morphed her into an unrecognizable person. With three fingers, she applies pressure on the tight space between her neck and shoulder. She rubs soap between her palms and looks into the mirror, muttering, Yes, I will forgive you.
When he enters the bedroom, Mara is awake. She blinks, gripping Feathers’ leg into a fist and whispers: for man without forgiveness of heart, living is a worse punishment than death. Over and over she mumbles. The cared-for books, even the few stuffed toys she keeps in the garage, will be made available for Ever’s child to enchant herself with. The child in a winter housecoat stamped with a Tinkerbell patch will sleep in the playroom futon and when she joins them for breakfast—eggs, home fries, yogurt with granola and blueberries—she will eat her food on a laminated mat she would have made in school, a picture of a sun and a rainbow, a cloud, and a bird on a tree. Mara will wipe the girl’s mouth and tell her everything is fine. Just fine.
Eréndira Ramírez-Ortega’s fiction appears in West Branch, Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Other Voices, Santa Clara Review, La Calaca Review, and forthcoming in West Branch. Her essays are featured in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Front Porch Commons: A Project of the [CLMP], and many others. Her poetry is featured in Mothers Always Write and The Sunlight Press. She is writing a novel.