Mary Kate considered herself impressively prepared for motherhood. But no one had warned her that it might physically hurt. Not childbirth, but the actual being-a-mother part. 

Her copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting was highlighted and dogeared. For months before Owen’s birth, she stalked Nipple Power and Tit’s the Shit, trending breastfeeding groups on social media dedicated to avoiding the endless array of nursing missteps. She stopped using fabric softener so her towels would be rough enough to rub across her nipples after every shower, prepping them for the job ahead. Barry was encouraged to use his teeth during foreplay. 

The nursery had been ready for months, a plus, since her mother clung to the superstition that baby showers were bad luck. Barry’s parents gifted them with car seats for Mary Kate’s car as well as their own, paying for the Car Seat Guru to install them and provide the most current car seat wisdom. Her in-laws were already veteran grands to Barry’s sister’s three kids, but Owen was her mother’s first. Although, to Mary Kate’s irritation, her mother’s excitement was lukewarm at best.

When Owen was six weeks old, Mary Kate was diagnosed with mastitis. But I was so careful. How is that even possible? she moaned in an email to the midwife. He must nurse 80 times a day.

Are you ingesting enough fluids? Changing positions each feeding? The questions pinged on her screen, bullets piercing the font of maternal guilt and fear entangled like lead in her gut.

Antibiotics and frequent feedings were the fastest way to cure mastitis. The midwife instructed her to have Owen latch onto the afflicted breast first, positioning his chin directly under the swollen, tender center of infection. Which required gymnastic maneuvers involving elbows, pillows, and Barry’s help to achieve. Ten to fourteen times a day, until the antibiotics kicked in, Mary Kate steeled herself for the exquisite pain that accompanied Owen’s first sucks. 

“It’s like he’s pulling my heart out through my boob. Literally,” she told Barry.

He shrugged. “Maybe we should switch to formula.” 

“Maybe you should shut the fuck up.” Mary Kate closed her eyes and bit her lip till her milk let down and the pain tapered off. “I’m sorry.” She felt terrible. Her temperature was 102. “We shouldn’t fight in front of him.”

“It’s fine, MK.” Barry balanced Owen practically upside down at a 60-degree angle against her boob. “It’s not like he even speaks English yet.”

“The lactation consultant says your emotions flow through the milk.” Mary Kate started to cry. Again. “I’m literally feeding him our anger.”

The infection passed. She and Owen commenced on their journey as a breastfeeding couple, memories of the mastitis, like those of childbirth, drifting cloudlike to that place of newborn ether. Certainly, it would all get easier from here.

At eight months, she held Owen on her lap, jangling a toy in front of him. He pounced at it like a kitten, and WHAM, out of nowhere he threw his huge bald baby head back and smashed her in the face. There was swelling, a lump, and later, bruising. Ice was indicated but there was no time to retrieve it, forget about holding it against her cheek. Her arms, like her days, were filled, occupied. Endlessly. Mary Kate wasn’t sure what disturbed her more, the fact that her baby had physically hurt her, or that her first instinct was to hurt him back, throw him across the room, make him pay for the suffering he’d so recklessly inflicted.

He had, technically, hurt her before, merely by being born and tearing her insides out, convincing her that body parts belonging strictly inside were being forever relocated in his unrelenting effort to exit her womb. But it wasn’t like he did it on purpose. That was childbirth. #WelcometoMomLife.

“You don’t get it,” Mary Kate told Barry. “I was so angry I wanted to hurt him.”

“But you didn’t.” Barry ran his thumb across her cheekbone. “You’re being way dramatic.” Mary Kate flinched. “That’s some shiner.” He said it appreciatively, like he was impressed with Owen for having a hard skull and knowing how to use it. 

“What mother wants to hurt their own child?” Mary Kate swayed gently back and forth.

“What are you doing?” Barry asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You were moving, bouncing.” Barry frowned. “It was weird.”

“No, I wasn’t.” But he was right. She’d been doing it for months. Standing in line at the grocery store, waiting at daycare to pick up Owen. She’d noticed other women doing it too, many not even holding babies. At the post office, the park, the library, on the street. Swaying like they were rocking invisible children.

Her older and wiser sister-in-law, Jessica, had reassured her weeks ago when she brought it up. “It just means you’re a good mom who knows how to comfort her child.”

“Maybe it started that way, rocking him when he cries,” Mary Kate admitted. “But now, half the time I do it, he’s not even in the room.”

Jessica had nodded. “My kids are in middle school and I still do it. It’s fine.”

Was it, though? Was it fine? Since Owen was born Mary Kate felt like all the rules of Life As She’d Known It had been tossed, shaken like dice, every day a different roll. But the numbers were unrecognizable, like they were written in Ancient Chinese or Sanskrit, some language she had no knowledge of.

“MK?” Barry looked at her with that schoolboy expression, the one that meant she wasn’t paying enough attention.

“What?” she barked. He had no idea about anything. It was infuriating. How had she married such a self-involved ignorant person?

Barry’s phone vibrated and he looked down at the screen. “I’ve gotta take this.” He smiled distractedly. “Stop beating yourself up. And put some ice on that. You don’t want it to scar.”

She didn’t want another baby, but it seemed like the thing to do. Being an only-child sucked, everyone said so.

Mary Kate had one sister, fifteen months younger. Sal was a train wreck, drawing Mary Kate and their mother into her perpetual drama, cutting them off for weeks when their responses weren’t adequately nurturing. Or maybe they were too nurturing, which in Sal’s fucked up mind translated to them mocking her independence, preferring she remain a child forever. She was thirty-two. Mary Kate couldn’t keep up.

When Sal’s number flashed across her phone, she felt anxious and angry and, occasionally, literally sick. Weeks before they got engaged, Barry secretly switched Mary Kate’s ringtone for her sister so that it played the Star Wars Darth Vader music whenever Sal called. The first time it happened, Mary Kate, delighted, started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Sal demanded when Mary Kate picked up.

“Nothing.” She’d been unable to stop giggling. “I’ll call you back.”

She went, found Barry playing Xbox, and dropped to her knees to give him a blow job on the spot. “You are the most awesome man in the entire world,” she said, taking his dick in her mouth.

“Yeah?” He’d leaned back against the couch, one hand on her head, the other cradling his Xbox controller.

Gestures like that only increased her incentive for marrying him. That and the fact that he was tall and pretty hot. And made decent money and she loved his family. Not to mention he gave excellent head, no small thing.

So yeah, the sibling dilemma was a crapshoot. Barry had a marvelous sister that he didn’t appreciate, and she’d been cursed with one that drove her fucking nuts. Yet she loved them both dearly. Didn’t Owen deserve to have another person in this world that understood the unique bullshit of growing up with her and Barry for parents?

It was the pregnancy from hell. So different than with Owen that she knew it must a girl. In what would come to be known as typical Edey fashion, the baby arrived seven weeks early by emergency C-section in full tantrum mode, her newborn skin blotchy from screaming her lungs out, indignant at being plucked from her neonatal jacuzzi before she was fully cooked.

When Edey was four weeks old, Owen watched Mary Kate give her a bath. “Take her back now,” he instructed soberly, Yoda-like. “I don’t want her anymore.”

“Oh bud, it doesn’t work that way.” Mary Kate knew how he felt. Everything was different since Edey’s birth. Maybe she was depressed. Wasn’t postpartum depression a thing?

She mourned for her firstborn, not yet three, and this complete upheaval in his life. Or was it her life? Before, she’d been adept at compartmentalizing the pieces of her world, the bulk of her time on weekdays spent as head reference librarian at the state university, her smaller, no less important role as wife and mother slid neatly into the evening hours and full-time weekends, when she had help from her in-laws or, less often, Barry. 

It wasn’t that Barry was a bad father. He just wasn’t a particularly good one, good translating in the millennial parenting vernacular to not merely involved, but enthusiastically so. She understood. Barry was busy, as he frequently reminded her. He gave the occasional bath and attended a Gymboree class once in a while. But he made the real money, and it was understood the rest was up to her, the laundry and grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, scheduling house repairs and paying the bills. She was the one who stayed home when Owen had a stomach bug or Edey had croup.

And Edey had croup a lot. It was terrifying, that first time. Being awakened at three am by what she was sure was a dog barking, yet turned out to be her baby, struggling for air. 

“Do we take her to the hospital?” Mary Kate held Edey on her lap, patting her back firmly, like that might help her breathe.

“She’s not blue or anything,” Barry observed. “Clearly she’s getting some air.”

From across the hall Owen called for Mary Kate. 

“Barry, can you please go?” 

“But he wants you.” 

She held out Edey for him to take.

“I’ll see what he wants.” Barry sprang up. “You’ve got your hands full.”

When the barking continued, Mary Kate hoisted Edey onto her shoulder and googled it. The trick seemed to be bringing the baby outside into the cold or running the shower till the bathroom steamed up. It was summer so Mary Kate turned on the shower and stood with Edey in front of the bathroom mirror, swaying, patting her back while she barked.

Each time the baby quieted, Mary Kate sank down onto the closed toilet seat, but the screaming and barking would start up again within seconds, until she stood up once more. Sway, jiggle. Jiggle, sway. After what seemed like hours, the door opened and Barry stood there, Owen in his arms. For one brief shining moment, Mary Kate was sure he’d come to trade places. Gratefully, she extended her Edey-filled arms. 

Barry didn’t take her, but Owen patted his sister’s head. “Is the baby gonna die, Mama?” Was Mary Kate imagining it, or did his voice ring with the faintest trace of hope?

“The baby is fine.” 

“You good?” Barry adjusted Owen in his arms. “Carry on.” He shut the door.

Carry on? Mary Kate wiped the fog off the mirror to look at her reflection. Carry the fuck on? Her hair was plastered to her forehead from the steam, her boobs were leaking through her nightgown.

It took another half hour, the water running to ice, but Edey’s breathing improved. Mary Kate changed and nursed her before laying her back in her crib, pulling off her own wet, milky nightgown, and making her way toward her bed.

“You’re naked, Mama.” Owen lay against her pillow in the darkened room, Paw Patrol on TV, Barry snoring beside him. “I not spillin’.” Owen held up a juice box. “I bein’ berry careful.”

Mary Kate pulled on fresh nursing nightgown and climbed in beside him, kissing the top of his head. “Yes, you are.”

“Baby okay, Mama?”

She turned on her side, yawning. “Baby is fine, bud.”

Each round of croup was followed by an ear infection, like a whiskey chaser without the kick. Owen had never had an ear infection, so Mary Kate didn’t pick up on it right away. It was her sister-in-law, stopping by to check in, that suggested Edey see the pediatrician. 

“She screams every time you lay her down?” Jessica juggled Owen and Edey in her arms like beach balls while Mary Kate combed her hair and put on lip gloss. “Sounds like an ear infection.”

It turned out Edey had two. How did Jessica know? Mary Kate was a goddamned librarian for god sakes, for all the good it did. 

The ear infections lasted months. “All these antibiotics can’t be good for her,” Mary Kate worried.

“What does the doctor say?” Barry was having a rare Owen/Dad afternoon, the two of them kicking a toddler-sized soccer ball into a net in the yard. 

“She wants to wait before considering tubes. She thinks Edey might outgrow these infections.” Mary Kate was weeding, Edey sitting in her turtle sandbox pushing a large dump truck. She stuck her tongue between her lips and blew. “Look! She’s trying to make a truck noise.” Edey’s speech was way behind where Owen’s had been at that age. 

“Then we wait,” Barry said. “She’s the expert.” Owen scored a goal and they cheered. “He needs a real soccer ball.” Barry lifted Owen onto his shoulders. “This crap is bullshit.”

“Daddy said shit,” Owen chanted.

“Sorry.” Barry shrugged. “Daddy’s an idiot.”

Edey shoved a fistful of sand in her mouth and sat silent, chewing.

Edey was diagnosed with high frequency hearing loss by age two. Which meant she could hear some sounds and not others. She was fitted with hearing aids, outrageously expensive and not covered by insurance, like only rich kids deserved to hear. But as usual Barry’s parents stepped up. Every morning Mary Kate tested the aids on her phone app before inserting them in Edey’s tiny ears. The doctor claimed the hearing loss had nothing to do with ear infections, that she was probably born hearing-impaired, but if that was true Mary Kate didn’t understand why it hadn’t been picked up in the hospital.

There were special classes, early intervention, speech therapy. It became impossible to keep Edey in day care and drag her to all these different places. She took a leave from the library. Her mother-in-law drove Owen to school and picked him up when Mary Kate was with Edey. It was a lot.

A teacher from the speech school came by the house one evening to show Barry and Owen and Barry’s parents how the hearing aids worked. The school was big on family involvement. Edey was delighted to show off her brother and grandparents to the teacher. She ran around the living room like she was on a sugar high. Owen sat, leaning against the woman’s knees while Barry played around with the app.

“You can adjust for any environment,” the teacher explained.

“This technology is amazing,” Barry said.

Mary Kate smiled. She’d been trying to tell him. 

She was relieved he’d made it home. “I can’t promise,” he’d warned her. “Things are crazy at the office.” Yet here he was.

“I want a phone,” Owen announced.

“One day, bud.” Barry nudged him away from the teacher’s knees.

When everyone left, Edey ran to the front window. From the driveway, Barry’s parents blew their car horn. She knew they were honking it just for Edey. “I hear sum-tin,” Edey squealed. 

Scenes like this occurred daily ever since she got her hearing aids. The doorbell, the garbage truck, animals on TV. So many new sounds.

The horn honked again. Edey ‘s face lit up. “Beep beep.”

Her language skills were exploding. Mary Kate swallowed hard, wiping her eyes. “What’s the matter?” Barry demanded. “She’s doing great.”

“I think of everything she didn’t hear. Before,” Mary Kate admitted. “How did we not know?”

“We figured it out,” Barry said. “Give yourself a break.”

She was too hard on herself. That had never been one of Barry’s problems.

At three, Edey started full day pre-k. A small bus picked her up in the morning and brought her home after school. For a week Mary Kate followed it, needing to see Edey’s face after the long ride. She ducked behind her steering wheel, watching the children file off. The first day Edey was already holding hands with a little boy, both their faces bright and expectant. Edey waved when she saw their car.

Now that Edey was in school, Mary Kate wallpapered her bedroom and painted the trim. She bought an antique bed frame at the flea market and paid someone to repair and deliver it. With new nightstands, a chair, and a small bookcase, the room went from looking like a cluttered college dorm room, books and toys shoved in milk crates, mattress on the floor, to an actual grownup bedroom. 

“Wait till you see.” Barry led his parents upstairs for a tour. “We should’ve done this years ago.”

“Beautiful,” her mother-in-law murmured. “I love the wallpaper.”

“You guys need a new mattress, a king.” Her father-in-law grabbed Barry by the shoulders. “My boy is a big man, no?”

Barry laughed, barely meeting Mary Kate’s eyes. He hadn’t slept in their bed in months. Instead, he worked late and played Xbox till after midnight, falling asleep on the basement couch. By the time she got the kids up for school each morning he was already gone, plaid afghan folded at the end of the worn sofa.

After the holidays, Mary Kate took a weekend job at the town library. She loved every part of it, even shelving endless carts of books. “Weekends are family time,” Barry objected. “It’s not like we need the money.”

They did need the money. Edey’s extra therapies were only partially covered by insurance. “I get out at four. We can do family stuff then,” she told him. “Your mom said she’d help.”

“Whatever.” Barry flung his jacket toward the hook at the bottom of the stairs and missed. Owen ran to pick it up. Barry continued up the stairs to shower before dinner.

At bedtime Mary Kate cuddled with Edey, reading a book Edey picked out at the library. “What’s dat?” Edey pointed to the picture on the last page. 

“That’s the mommy and daddy.”

“What they’re doin’?” Edey stroked the fringe of her blanket across her cheek.

“Holding hands.” Mary Kate yawned. She still had to make tomorrow’s lunches, help Owen with his homework, and clean up the dinner dishes. Not to mention the laundry.


Mary Kate had no energy left for the bottomless vortex of Why. “They love each other.”

“You and Daddy not hold hands.” Edey frowned. “You not love each other?”

Mary Kate shut the book. “Time for bed.” 

They went through their nightly routine, Edey removing her hearing aids, turning them off and storing them in the box next to her bed. Mary Kate kissed her and turned out the light.

It’s just a stupid book, she repeated over and over. I should have read it before we checked it out. She’d return it tomorrow, first thing.

One morning while the kids were in school, Mary Kate went through Barry’s side of the closet, folding his things neatly into cardboard boxes, taping the hangers in a pile on top. She removed his underwear, socks, and T shirts from their dresser drawers and shoved them into a separate box. It made sense, she rationalized. His stuff belonged in the basement; that’s where he mostly lived now anyway. 

In novels and on TV, women threw their husbands belongings out windows, littered front lawns. It didn’t matter if they were genuinely kicking them out or maybe just fighting. It felt radical, a compelling act of independence.

Mary Kate heaved the smallest box out the front door, setting it on the walkway. Mrs. Cooke, her ancient next-door neighbor, sat on her stoop in a rusted metal lawn chair, a towel covering her lap. She looked over and waved. “Moving out?” She tittered, like she’d made a joke, indicating the box at Mary Kate’s feet. Mary Kate picked it up and brought it back inside, down to the basement with the rest of Barry’s stuff.

The following week Edey’s school had a half day. The plan was to take Edey out for lunch before driving her to school. “I love you taking me, Mama.” Edey wrapped her skinny arms around Mary Kate’s neck as she strapped her into her booster seat, and Mary Kate felt like shit. Half the parents in Edey’s class drove their kids to school, either because they worked from home or else they had some irrational fear about their kid’s safety on a school bus. But Mary Kate loved the little bus, loved not having to do her hair and swipe on lip gloss, let alone be dressed and out the door before 8 am.

They stopped at Target for pullups and a birthday party gift. The checkout lines were long, only two cashiers, but they had just enough time. Owen needed the gift for his best friend Jacey’s birthday party that Saturday. Mary Kate refused to use self-checkout. Every time she tried, something got fucked up and they had to wait for a manager. It stressed her out. There were two people ahead of them when Edey announced she had to go potty.

“You went before we left the restaurant,” Mary Kate reminded her. Like that ever made any difference. An older woman turned to stare. At four, Edey was only partially potty trained. Mary Kate preferred keeping her in diapers, but the school had some crunchy rule against them. So Edey wore pullups, which she soiled regularly. “Five minutes,” Mary Kate said. “After we check out.” 

The line moved forward and the woman in front of them placed her items on the check-out counter. “Gotta go potty.” Edey wiggled in the cart, clutching her crotch with both hands. “Gotta go now.”

“One minute,” Mary Kate pleaded.

The woman in front shook her head. Like Mary Kate was a monster. Edey writhed, hands between her legs, whining. Mary Kate checked the time on her phone.

“For god sakes, take the kid to pee.” The man behind them pulled his cart roughly to the side, giving her room to pass. It was non-negotiable. Mary Kate backed her cart out of line, pushing it toward the restrooms. 

“We’ll keep your spot,” a younger woman called out cheerfully. 

Mary Kate banged the cart to a stop outside the bathroom and set Edey soundly on the floor of the stall. She peeled off the damp pullup along with Edey’s leggings and held her on the toilet seat. Nothing came out.

“Finished,” Edey announced. 

“Let’s sit here a minute and make sure.”

Edey shook her head. “I finished.”

“Okay.” Mary Kate wiped Edey and stood up, bashing her elbow on the corner of the toilet paper holder. “Shit.”

“That’s a bad word, Mama.”

“Yup.” Mary Kate rubbed her elbow. “You’ll have to wear your leggings without a pullup.”

“I needs underpants.”

“They’re pullups, Edey,” Mary Kate reminded her sharply. “And they’re in the car.”

Edey refused to step into her leggings.

“Edey.” Mary Kate’s voice was a warning.

“No, no!” Edey shook her head back and forth, hair flying, eyes squeezed shut.


But Edey was full on screaming.

Smack. Mary Kate slapped the side of Edey’s head. 

Edey covered her hearing aids with both hands, chest heaving, eyes filling, silent. 

Ohmygod. Mary Kate crouched down in the stall and gathered her into her arms. “Mommy’s sorry, baby. Mommy lost her temper.”

What the fuck was wrong with her? She’d never hit either of her children. Ever. What kind of mother slapped her child—her hearing-impaired child—slamming her hearing aids into the sides of her head.

Tears rolled down Edey’s cheeks. She held on to Mary Kate’s shoulder and stepped into her leggings. “Sorry, Mama. I sorry.” She hiccupped, quickly covering her mouth, like that might invite more wrath. 

“No.” Mary Kate froze, wondering who else was in the bathroom. Had they heard? “Mommy’s the one that’s sorry.” 

She wanted to cry. But there was no time. She washed their hands and carried Edey to the car for a new pullup before taking her to school, abandoning their cart outside the bathroom door.

Monday night she told Barry he had to be out by Friday. 

“Where the hell am I supposed to go?” 

“I don’t care.” But she knew he’d go to his parents. They had a five-star guest room, complete with full bath, ten minutes closer to the train. His mother wouldn’t be happy, but she’d rise to the occasion, washing his clothes, ironing his shirts. It was a win-win.

Owen cried till Mary Kate told him he could help Daddy move his stuff to Nana’s. “How do you know that’s where I’m going?” Barry snapped.

“We have a sleepover, Daddy?” Edey thought the whole thing an exciting adventure. “Sleepover at Nana’s?”

“Yeah.” Barry’s face crumpled, and for a moment Mary Kate wanted to breathe back her words, beg him to stay. “A sleepover.”

Friday, she packed their pj’s and toothbrushes and strapped the two of them into Barry’s car. “It’ll work out,” she said to Barry before he slid into the driver’s seat. “You’ll see.” She gently brushed his sleeve.

He jerked his arm away, leaning over to whisper. “You. Are. Such a bitch. You’re ruining everything.”

“I know.”

He got in the car, and she waved to Owen and Edey before going back inside. Mrs. Cooke watched from her chair on her stoop. 

The house was empty and chilly and very quiet. It smelled like meatloaf. Mary Kate had insisted they all sit down together. The last supper. She lay on Owen’s bed in his room, waiting. But no tears came. Kicking Barry out or letting him stay both sucked. She felt tired and empty, defeated. Everything sucked. 

Barry’s parents stopped speaking to her. His mom continued to help with the kids, but she preferred that Barry drove them over, or else she picked them up right from school. Otherwise, her in-laws waited outside in their car when Barry wasn’t around and they were forced to get the kids from Mary Kate. She tried approaching their car once in the driveway, kids in tow, but they sat, staring straight ahead, windows rolled up. Owen lowered his eyes and slid silently into the backseat, motioning Edey to follow. It was awkward. Her father-in-law glanced at her behind his wife’s back, his eyes filled with sympathy, but a line had been drawn in the sand and Mary Kate had crossed it. Trampled it. What did she expect?

“They need time.” Thank God, Jessica hadn’t abandoned her. “I get it. My brother’s a shit. But raising kids alone is hard. Maybe you could just hang on a few years?” She laughed, but Mary Kate knew she meant it. “Everyone will be divorced by then.” Like divorce was trendy and fun, a TikTok meme. 

Mary Kate couldn’t hang on. Barry was a shit. More than once, he called at five saying he had to work late and couldn’t take the kids. “Call my mother if you have an issue.” He knew she wasn’t calling his mother.

“It’s every Wednesday, Barry. You can’t leave one night free?” He was supposed to take the kids for dinner and keep them overnight. His mother drove them to school in the morning. 

“Look, I can’t control what happens. This is my career. ” He sounded bitter. “It’s not like you have anything important to do.”

But she was taking extra hours at the library. In case he got weird about child support. And she’d signed up for a cooking class at Edey’s school. Most evenings when the kids were with Barry, she lay on her bed on top of the covers, sometimes napping, mostly not moving. But that didn’t mean she had no life.

“It’s not my job to watch the kids just so you can work at the library.” Different night, same excuse. Not his job? “You never cared about being a mother.”

“Thanks for nothing.” She ended the call.

“I can watch Edey when you go out.” Owen. She hadn’t seen him standing there in his Spiderman pj’s. “I’m old enough.” He was eight.

“Aw, baby, you don’t need to worry about that.” She wrapped her arm around him, pulling him to her. “Mommy’s got it under control.”

But it didn’t feel like she had it under control.

“All you think about is yourself,” Barry told her, a week—two weeks—two months, later. Calling yet again to change the custody plan of the day. “Everything’s not about you.”

“I’m hanging up now.” It was her own fault. She allowed him to make her angry, and he knew it. He pushed her buttons too easily. It was like that was his mission in life now.

Five minutes later he texted:

I am a GREAT father. There’s No judge that wouldn’t grant me Full Custody
if I sued for it. Then You can have visitation.

What a fucking joke. Like he could handle the kids full time. She might have laughed if it wasn’t just that little bit threatening. She started to text, go for it, then stopped. Better not to have that in writing.

He wouldn’t do it, would he? They’d briefly discussed meeting with a mediator to keep costs down, but maybe that was naïve. What if his parents were talking in his ear, promising to help?

She called her sister-in-law, a recon mission. Jessica didn’t pick up. A half hour later, she texted:

Hey, I’m still here if you or the kids need me. But this whole thing’s
gotten so messy. I think we should just lay low for a while.

Lay low? What the fuck did that even mean?

“Men suck,” her sister said. “He’ll screw you any chance he gets.”

“Not Barry.” Her mother defended him endlessly. “Just tell him you’re sorry, you didn’t really want him to go. You can still fix this.” 

“I don’t want to fix it, Mom,” she told her yet again. “It’s over.”

“It’s not over.” Her mother’s voice was a brick wall, a mountain, an army. “It’s never over when you have children.”

There was no conceivable comeback to that.

She began keeping receipts for everything: Edey’s therapies, Owen’s Taekwondo and soccer fees, school supplies, clothes for the kids, household repairs. Barry’s paycheck still went directly into their joint account twice a month, but who knew when that might become the next battleground? A woman at the library recommended online separation and divorce sites, and Mary Kate stalked them, absorbing others’ uncoupling experiences like oxygen, squirrelling everything away for potential ammunition down the road. The websites had cheesy names like Friends for Life and Divorced Divas. Maybe she’d start her own blog when this was over and call it Fuck Divorce. She met with a lawyer.

Sunday night Barry brought the kids back two hours early. “Edey wanted to come home.” His face was flushed, his manner brusque but agreeable. “I’ll do bath and bed before I go.”

A shiver ran through her, barely noticeable, just lifting the tiny hairs at the back of her neck. “Sure.” She swallowed her doubt. Maybe they could morph into one of those civil couples, the kind that kept their shit packed away, getting along for the sake of the kids. She continued unpacking groceries, listening to Edey splash in the tub upstairs. Owen trudged down in his pj’s. 

“Everything okay, bud?”

“It was scary at the hospital.” He climbed onto a stool and took a bite of the ginger muffin Mary Kate laid out on the kitchen island. “I was proud of Edey. She was really brave.”

“The hospital?” Mary Kate spilled the milk she was pouring. 

“Yeah.” Owen chewed. “But the doctor told Daddy she’s okay. She let Edey listen to her heart beating.”

Mary Kate wiped the mess and set Edey’s snack alongside Owen’s, ruffling his hair affectionately. She put the milk container back in the fridge and turned on the TV, her heart thumping like a motherfucker, fighting the urge to vomit. Edey rode downstairs on Barry’s shoulders, and Mary Kate lifted her onto the stool next to Owen. She combed Edey’s wispy wet curls and adjusted her hearing aids for the TV.

Barry slid his arms into his jacket.

“Can we talk?” She led him up to the bedroom. They’d only been married a year when they bought this house, Owen not yet growing in her belly, parenthood the capital X on a treasure map, a golden blur in their unimaginable future. 

“I was gonna tell you.” As soon as the bedroom door closed, Barry held up his hands like a shield. “She took a spill off the jungle gym at the park, and I panicked.”

“You couldn’t call? I would’ve been there in five minutes.”

“Here we go.” Barry smacked a throw pillow off the bed. “This isn’t about you. Everything was under control.”

Mary Kate inhaled deeply, closing her eyes, picturing herself surrounded by white light. 

“What the fuck are you doing?” 

She took another breath and opened her eyes. “Owen said something about needing to wake her up during the night?”

“Yeah, neuro check they called it.” Barry shrugged. “It’s basically bullshit. She’s fine.”

“Fine?” Barry visibly cringed at her tone, but Mary Kate kept going. “She has bruises on her arms from needles and steri-strips on her knees, not to mention a potential head injury? You call that fine?”

“Jesus Christ, this is why I didn’t call.” He pushed her away. “Get out of my face.”

“Oh, I’ll get in your face.” She knocked his hand from her arm. “Don’t push me.”

“Get. Away.” Barry pushed harder, his hand rough on her shoulder. “I’m warning you.”

“Fuck you.” Mary Kate hit his arm with the back of her open hand. Shit, that hurt. She’d have a bruise later.

Barry grabbed her wrist. “Hit me again, and I’ll fucking hit you back.”

“I’m so scared.” She pulled her wrist free and raised her arm.

It happened like that. One second Mary Kate saw his hand come at her face. The next, she turned, and he made contact with the side of her head. There was a distant, dull pop inside her skull, and she leaned against the wall, face stinging, hand covering her ear. She straightened, pulling her hand away to show him. “Are you happy?” Blood on her fingers. “You broke my eardrum.”

“Right.” But his voice was tight, his eyes darting from her hand to her face. He flung open the bedroom door and she heard him go down to the kids, tell them he couldn’t put them to bed. The front door slammed. She washed her hands and face. Changed into the camisole and sweatpants she wore to sleep. 

“Daddy’s gone.” Owen peeked into the room. “You wanna read some Redwall?”

“Sure.” She squared her shoulders. “Get the book. I’ll be right there.

She had a hole in her eardrum the size of a quarter that the doctor said would require surgical repair, no surprise to Mary Kate. When water got in there during a shower the vertigo was insane. The surgeon explained they’d peel a layer of skin off her scalp, above her ear, like a thin slice of Jarlsberg, and use that to cover the hole. After, she needed to keep her head still, do nothing for at least three weeks.

Her oblivious in-laws agreed to help Barry with the kids at their house the first week post-op. Jessica volunteered to swing them by Mary Kate’s one or two evenings so she would at least see them. Her mother was juggling sick time to cover the second and third weeks so the kids could come back home. “Although I really think this should be on Barry,” she told Mary Kate. “Considering it’s all his fault.”

She’d made the mistake of confiding what really happened to her mom. Like that might convince her to stop taking Barry’s side and pledge her motherly devotion to Mary Kate. Ha. But at least if Barry ever tried for full custody, this incident would be on record and her mom could vouch for her. Hopefully. 

Still, she felt bad. Like he’d only hit her because she pushed him. Figuratively and literally. Like she’d made him do it. She understood rationally that was misogynist bullshit, but it was a fact he’d never hit her before. He was an asshole, sure, but not the kind of asshole who beats his wife.

There was no one to take her to the hospital or stay and help the first couple of days post-op. “Try your sister,” her mother said. “She owes you.” But no way in hell would she do that to herself. Sal couldn’t take care of a houseplant, let alone a person.

In the end, an overly solicitous Barry agreed to drive her and then sleep in Owen’s room that first night. Mary Kate hated the idea, but she’d be down the hall in her own room, hyped up on pain meds, right? She wasn’t frightened of him physically. She was much more afraid of how bat shit-crazy she became when he was around. But anyone could survive forty-eight hours. It was her problem, she’d deal with it.

The morning of her surgery she kissed Owen and Edey goodbye, watching them drag the overnight bags she’d so carefully packed to their grandparents’ car. 

“You be brave, Mommy,” Edey instructed.

“I made you a card.” Owen slipped an envelope into her hand. “Open it tonight. It’ll be like I’m here.”

She was on a stretcher in pre-op, already in her bare-assed hospital gown, IV in her hand, when a man and woman in blue scrubs shuffled into the room. The man introduced them as her anesthesiologist and the OR scrub nurse. “We need to complete a history,” the nurse said.

“Didn’t we already do that at least three times?” Barry stood by the window holding his Starbucks cup. Iced caramel macchiato, venti. That, along with the danish he had in a bag, smelled delicious. Mary Kate wasn’t allowed to eat or drink until after her surgery, and the smell of Barry’s breakfast was torture.

“We have a few questions, sir,” the doctor explained. “But we’ll ask you to wait outside.”

Barry’s smile dissolved. The air in the room trembled, like it was a physical thing. Or maybe it was Mary Kate trembling. 

“Why does he have to leave?” She felt vulnerable, half naked on the stretcher, plastic tubing trapping her to a machine.

“Standard procedure,” the nurse said.

“No sweat.” Barry raised his cup in the air. 

The nurse closed the door behind him. Her hair was obscured by her surgical cap, one gray curl escaping down the nape of her neck.

“Your H and H are lower than we’d like,” the doctor said.

“Hemoglobin and Hematocrit,” the nurse added helpfully. 

“But you can do the surgery, right?” Mary Kate pictured the many plates she had spinning to make this procedure happen. She needed to close this freaking hole in her head so she could go swimming, take a shower without being so goddamned dizzy and nauseous.

The nurse pulled a chair close. “Has anyone hurt you? Physically?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“The nature of your injury.” The doctor looked over Mary Kate’s head at the wall. 

Should a surgeon be wearing glasses? Maybe it was okay because he was an anesthesiologist? Would they think she was stalling if she asked? Better just to shut up.

“Standard procedure,” the nurse repeated.

“Nobody. Is hurting me.” Mary Kate flashed them her friendly librarian smile.

“And this injury occurred how?” The doctor paged through papers on a clipboard. “There appears to be some confusion.”

“I told them.” Mary Kate kept her voice even, non-confrontational. “It was like this weird fall.”

“What does that mean, weird fall?” The nurse was writing.

“I lost my balance and fell. At this weird angle.” She needed to stop saying weird. “And when I caught myself—it—my head sort of snapped back.”

They didn’t believe her. They would call the cops, take their kids, arrest Barry. Put them both in jail for being liars and assholes.

“I’m not sure what happened, exactly.” She couldn’t stop talking. “I was crouched in the hallway and my son ran up. To hug me.”

“Your son?”

“Owen. He’s almost nine.” She sensed something loosen in the room when she said Owen’s name. “He banged into me, Owen did. I fell, and that’s when my head kind of snapped. My neck, I mean.” The nurse was still writing. “One of those freak things.”

The nurse looked at the anesthesiologist, who looked at Mary Kate. There was a beat. 

The nurse stood. “Thanks.” She opened the door. The paper shells covering their shoes made a quiet slapping noise against the floor. Barry was nowhere in sight.

“Wait,” Mary Kate called. The nurse turned. “Can someone find Barry? My husband?” The word sounded wrong, false on her tongue. Not yet a lie, but at the very least incomplete.

The nurse’s mouth twitched, and she swallowed a sigh. Mary Kate imagined her eyes rolling internally, invisible behind her professional façade.

Shove it, bitch. You don’t know me.

“Sure.” The nurse turned her back. “We’ll send him right in.”

About the Author:

Maureen D. Hall is a writer/poet, mother of three, and small-town librarian. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including, Paterson Literary ReviewJournal of New Jersey PoetsNursingAvalonAmerican Journal of NursingMotheringVineyard PoetsIsland QuintetHopscotch For Girls. Her poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in New England. 

Twitter: @Maureen_D_HallIG: mdhmv

*Featured image by Tobias Frick from Pixabay