Jean stood in the tub, still dripping from the shower. Through the steamy haze from the hot water she’d run to rinse off the disappointments of the day, she could make out her figure in the full-length mirror her once-husband Michael had hung on the door another Jean ago. Back when they were moving into their first house, three bedrooms with a yard and a cement slab off the back that could become a patio or screened-in porch or, as it happened, nothing at all. Back when Nate was a toddler and Jennifer was a secret wish they shared while huddled under layers of blankets in their Takoma Park duplex. Back when Michael studied life drawing at the community college, his eyes hooded as he sketched the outline of Jean’s body onto thick ivory paper with a charcoal stub.
She picked up the bottle of baby oil from the edge of the tub and as she smoothed oil onto the water-slicked skin of her right leg, she remembered how Michael would caress her thigh as they sat at the counter at Weile’s, sharing a cheeseburger and a milkshake—he always let her pick the flavor, and she always picked cherry—and how later, at his studio apartment off University Boulevard, he would kiss the spot just below her ear even as she protested about needing to be up for her nine a.m. physiology lecture. The oil pooled in her palm, the same palm that once struck Lynette Gilchrist, her roommate and best friend at nursing school, when she told Jean she’d seen Michael kissing someone in front of the movie theatre on Flower Avenue, the someone who turned out to be Bethany Cohen, the model from his Nude Studies class.
The steam began to clear from the glass, tiny concentric rings of lucidity forming around the mirror’s edge, sharpening where Jean’s body had softened. She rubbed her left hand, the dent from her wedding band long gone: the second ring, not the first. The first was one Michael made out of wire and a moss green bead stolen from the ceramics studio, the ring he’d gotten Eric Weile to put in the bottom of a celebratory Killer Diller ice cream sundae, after Jean’s graduation from nursing school at Catholic University. The ring with Rocky Road dripping off the copper wire and onto her finger as he promised to buy her a real ring, once the damn draft was over. The ring that Lynette shrugged over, insisting that Michael was seeing other women, claiming he’d made a pass at her while Jean skiied with her parents at Seven Springs over winter break.
She rubbed oil over the stretch marks on her belly, the signifier of 18 hours of labor with Nate, screaming obscenities at the nurses because Michael was not there to scream at, and he would not be there to scream at until Nate was a year old, because he’d given up on art and joined the Army, even though he said he wouldn’t, even though he said chances were good he wouldn’t get drafted. And later, with Jennifer—now demanding to be called Jen—the pains less and yet more, more because Michael was there and yet not, his hovering presence in the waiting room of Holy Cross’s maternity ward a reminder that he had been wading through swampland when she first marched into motherhood.
She ran her fingers over the thin white scar on her forearm, the one bestowed by the orange-and-cream-colored kitten Michael bought for Nate to atone for missing the fourth-grade play where Nate had the starring role as Abraham Lincoln. The kitten followed Jean around for its first few days, its loyalty eclipsed only by its tendency to mistake her arms and legs as toys. This was how Michael paid his growing debt to his wife and children, with kittens and the circus and dinners at Shakey’s Pizza, even as he spent long hours painting in his studio, even as other women swirled about him, misty sirens calling to him, asking to be his muse, his light.
As she poured one last dose of oil into her hand, Jean looked back in the mirror, her bosom a ripple in its surface. She stroked both breasts tenderly, her touch full of gratitude for every memory: all the long nights in the rocking chair, holding a colicky Nate, his pudgy hands kneading her neck. All the bedtime stories and songs in Jennifer’s room, wrapping her body around her daughter’s fevered one to soothe her. All the Saturday morning lovemaking with Michael, the bedroom door locked to discourage the children from interruption, their mouths and hands exploring each other, with wonder and delight. She patted the triangle of hair between her legs, whispering her thanks. And as she cupped her hand over her vagina, she felt the string holding her head to her spine all the way down to her navel slacken. Though she could not see it, not in that fog-gilded mirror with flecks of rust in its corners, where the metal screws holding it to the door had oxidized. Though she could not see what had shook itself loose inside of her, she could feel it, flowing through her like a soft summer rain.