in the beginning
She wore her mantle of strength well, until she could come home and take it off, discarding it like a winter coat on a too-warm December day. She threw it down, not caring if it might be trampled underfoot by her careless, eager children. After this, she drank.
Sometimes she took her husband’s pain pills, because she adored the fuzzy way they made her feel. Each one had a different effect on her, but she liked them all. She wasn’t particular. The painkillers let her detach allowing her to watch herself with cool amusement, as if she was viewing a light dramedy in which she was the gracious and accepting star. She did not pop pills all day - god, she wasn’t addicted or anything. Only when she could feel her blood pressure rising to the point where it beat along the unforgiving curve of her jaw, then she would take one. But only one.
If she found herself taking too many over the course of a specific amount of time known only to her, then she would switch to beer. Like today – she did not have to drive anyone anywhere this afternoon, she reasoned. Anyway, it made her a better mother, she admitted to herself brightly, as she took another long pull on the bottle, watching her children through the dusty kitchen window. It framed the fenced-in backyard, which was locked up and secured, a fortress.
The boys were all towheads like her husband. Their bright hair, garish even in the dappled sun, illuminated their faces like spotlights. Her own hair was dark, fringed around the front with the first tinges of metallic silver. She was the Other, as in Which one of these things is not like the other? Which one of these things just doesn’t belong?...
“Me,” she said to herself out loud. The tightness in her head was pulling loose again, the edges of her brain feathering out like clouds after a summer storm. Magic.
Her husband called to her from the other room, the new downstairs “bedroom” they had created expressly for him.
“Hey hon, come here…. I wanna show you something….” His voice sounded far away and cool.
“Just a minute,” she called sweetly, draining the last of the bottle.
She glanced at the kids again. The oldest was in the hammock, reading a Superman comic under the giant maple tree that canopied most of the backyard. The younger two were fighting, as was their nature, almost coming to blows over sandbox toys. If she was a painter (she was not) she might create this scene on canvas, entitling it Still Life with Boys. She would sign her name with a flourish at the bottom and after she was finished, the paint drying into a soft crust on her fingers and smock, she would burn it. The smoke would be its eulogy. She turned her eyes away from the window and moved out of the kitchen and towards her broken husband.
He was laying propped up slightly with pillows that she herself had fluffed. Magazines and books were strewn about the bed like a buffet. He had muted the TV but was glancing at it anyway, the lure of what she disdainfully called the blinky box hard to ignore.
“Hey, check this out,” he said, with a sly grin, sliding back the covers. Her mouth was open, expectant, hoping through the beer and pills that he was going to show her something truly amazing. Maybe he could move his foot. Or, at the very least, a toe or two. Paralysis was not in the vocabulary of any youngish man. Most young men succumbed to the weight of this word, consumed with little else but the loss and sorrow that defined it.
But not her husband - no, he was the poster child for Neuro Rehab. He sweated and strained, pushed and preserved, but never cried or carried on (this was her job and she performed it admirably). He was, quite simply, heroic. He was even weaning himself off of his painkillers as well. What an inspiration! She had said as much to him this past Tuesday, but only in earshot of his physical therapist.
Now she was only confused, wondering what she had been called in here to admire. He looked at her expectantly. Noting her confusion, he pointed.
Just north of his withered legs, her husband’s white boxers were steepled by a very prominent erection. A victory flag or a flag of surrender? It didn’t matter. She breathed out forcefully, her breath both sweet and sour. She masked her revulsion with a tight smile.
“Isn’t it great?” he said, childlike and proud. She could not think of what to say; she turned to the muted television for help. A lovely blond woman was on, punctuating her political points with timely jabs of her well-manicured finger. Why on earth were all of the women on this channel gorgeous, plastic and perfect – even the ugly ones above average – while the male anchors all looked like they had been exhumed from shallow graves? She could not understand it.
Her husband looked at her eagerly. She twisted her fingers together, hoping he did not expect her to touch it. Tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. Quite possibly he mistook them for happy ones.
“Amazing, honey,” she said as she leaned over him, avoiding his eager mouth with her own, planting a sufficiently damp kiss on his jaw, just below his ear, so as to satisfy him. But he would not be satisfied, not ever, not until he had consumed all of her, even to her gray temples, until there was nothing left but a pile of stripped bones. This she knew to be true.
“The boys…” she murmured to him, with an apologetic smile.
She retreated back to the kitchen. She glanced reflexively out of the window.
The middle one was crying and walking towards the house. He held his arm straight out in front of him, a one-armed mummy. The youngest, her biter, trotted along behind him, preparing his defense. The oldest remained in the hammock, transfixed to his story. The drama of little brothers had long ago lost its luster for him.
Her sons, his sons, all our sons. They consumed her too. Sticky and salty like she imagined the ocean to be, they had swallowed her whole.
Her body hummed as she quickly reached for the smooth, amber colored bottles that bore her husband’s name. His name is my name too, she thought absurdly, as she struggled against the child-proof cap. She shook out a pill - it did not matter which one - and she swallowed it dry, as her middle born, indignant with righteous hurt, burst through the side door, his little brother following two steps behind.
She unwound her spine and turned toward them.
“What’s wrong, honey?” she said, the false concern rising in her voice to mask her ambivalence (or so she hoped). It didn’t mattered who answered or what they responded, only that the question itself had been asked, and then only for the sake of keeping the oblivious Earth spinning merrily on its course.