Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Dream House

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Rachel’s birthmark was small when she was born, a pink crescent on her cheek, a C lying on its side. The doctors said to wait, that often they faded on their own. But Rachel's grew darker, redder, angrier. Linney hangs Rachel’s drawings on the fridge; in them, the taller stick figure with a circle head and frizzy hair is Linney, and the shorter stick figure with frizzy hair and a red crescent is Rachel. The doctors say it's good that Rachel has incorporated the birthmark into her identity, that it is less likely that she'll want to have it removed later. But Rachel is five; she will start kindergarten in a few months. Kids can be vicious to a girl who looks like she got punched in the face. Even girls who call themselves Rachel the Red and have dictated to Linney a letter to J. K. Rowling asking to be the next wizard in the Harry Potter franchise.

"Why don’t you tell me who’s in this picture?" Linney's hands shake. She holds Rachel's latest drawing while they are in the car outside of Bolton Hill Preschool in northwest Baltimore City.

"We drew our families today," Rachel answers. She's much more interested in her stuffed sloth, Samuel, which she got from the gift shop at the National Zoo.

"I see me and you." Linney points at the frizzy-mopped stick figures. "But who is this?"

"It's Uncle Charles." Rachel leans over and puts her finger on the figure with short dark hair and a tie that looks like a carnival arrow. She is breathing heavily through her nose, as if reflecting on the creation of this particular masterpiece. Then, she points to something that looks like a brown tumbleweed near the shorter stick figure, along with a brown-and-black blob. "And this is Samuel Sloth and Chester the Pug."

Linney examines the picture again. A tree with green leaves as jumbled as the stick figures' hair. A small, hard, yellow sun. Some blue clouds. She's tearing up again, something she had hoped not to do in front of Rachel anymore, who doesn't like it when she’s sad. But Mommy would be even sadder without you, Rachel the Red, Linney always assures her.

"Rachel." Linney bites her lip. "Where is your other mommy?"

Rachel moves away, back into the passenger seat. She holds Samuel Sloth by the arms and jiggles him.

"Samuel’s dancing," she explains. "You like his dance?"

 

There’s a witch, she explained to Linney. . . . She's going to take my hair, like she took Mommy's.

 

"I don’t think you need to take her to anyone." Charles leans over the deck, lighting a cigarette. He hands it to Linney and lights another one for himself. "She’s still too young to really process it. How old were you when your mother left?"

"Four." Linney takes a drag of the cigarette. She leans toward the glass door and glances inside, makes sure that Rachel is still on the sofa, watching the cartoon she likes about the fairies. She holds Samuel Sloth in a headlock as she rocks back and forth on her haunches. Chester, Charles's pug, lies beside her on his back, his bulbous eyes locked on a peanut butter cracker that Rachel, captivated by what's happening onscreen, holds near the vicinity of her mouth. "I guess I wasn't very sad about it. I didn't even really think about it, or understand. But I knew, at least, she was still alive somewhere."

"Well, maybe that's what Rachel thinks, too." Charles will be late for his evening class, Introduction to British Romantics, if he doesn't hurry. "And it was traumatic for her to see her like that. She didn't even believe it was her at the end."

In the final month, Rachel would not go to into Linney and Marti's bedroom. There’s a witch, she explained to Linney. Sometimes the witch would be in Rachel's bedroom, too, in the closet, or under the bed, but usually just in their bedroom. She's going to take my hairlike she took Mommy's.

Linney doesn't hang Rachel's picture on the refrigerator. She told her there wasn't enough room, and when Rachel grew upset, she told her she was going to buy a frame for it instead. When Rachel went to her room to put away her backpack, Linney put the drawing in her dresser, under a pile of old opera programs.

"That reminds me—can you pick up Rachel from school on Thursday?" Linney studies the cigarette. She wishes she hadn't started; she's 33, too old to have started a year ago. "I might have to stay late for Brenda’s retirement party."

"Brenda has been retiring for the last five years, at least." Charles looks at her, his smile light. "But yes."

~

She gets an email at work from the board of the San Francisco Opera. Our search for a new director will send us far and wide, I'm sure, but you're our first choice. Tell me you'll come out to interview, only a formality, of course! She looks up at the intern, Tara, who is standing by her desk.

"I booked the hotels for the principals and cc'd you," Tara explains. "I just need you to sign the requisitions."

"You can leave them here." Linney's eyes fall back to her email. "Thanks."

"Also," Tara mouths. "I got Brenda’s cake."

"Thank you," Linney mouths back, and smiles. Her eye catches the photos on her desk. One of Rachel, when they went with Charles to Rehoboth Beach last summer, standing in front of an ambitious, but lopsided, sandcastle. Another of Rachel and Charles with Dora the Explorer when a musical revue came to the Lyric a few months ago. And one of Linney and Marti with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato backstage at the Met. Linney picks that one up. Brenda was the last to come around to her and Marti. But she brought lasagna and casseroles and pot roast when Marti could still eat, and then for Linney and Charles and Rachel afterwards, when cooking was the last thing on Linney's mind.

When she hears Tara turn on the radio in the outer office to that classic R&B station that Brenda likes, Linney puts the photo back on her desk and joins them.

"This is certainly bittersweet." Linney hugs Brenda. She holds a wrapped box with Tahitian pearl earrings inside in her hand. "It's like losing a member of the family."

"I know, child." Brenda doesn't let her go. "Both you and Marti—like my daughters."

~

When Marti started working from home, Linney met with the board of directors. She met with the banks, the sports teams, the hospitals, and the foundations to make sure the company's corporate funding didn't dry up. She went to opening nights and stood on the stage and talked about the vision of the Baltimore Opera Company and thanked patrons for their support. She wrote grant applications and prepared operating reports. She met with the media. Marti wrote down what she should say, how to say it, words that Marti knew by heart from years of being the company's director. Linney repeated them and then forgot them, knowing Marti would be there to say them the next time they needed to be said.

It was only temporary, she thought. She was not the company's director—she was only filling in until Marti came back. Marti had already come back to work once, before Linney had even started working for the company. It seemed logical to think she would come back again. Treatments were constantly evolving. She hadn't exhausted her options yet. She just needed a few more weeks, a few more months, to recover. And she enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom now that Linney was no longer nursing and Rachel still too young for daycare.

"They're your ideas." Linney sat on the edge of the bed. Marti's glasses reflected the light from her laptop, her eyes hidden by the glare of the screen. "I'm just the vehicle that delivers them."

"They're the same ideas as they've always been, before I was even director." Marti did not look up; her fingers slow, indecisive, on the keyboard. "People are buying into what you're selling. They're buying into you."

People asked about Marti at first, how she was, when she was returning, but after a while the questions tapered off. Emails and phone calls and letters to the company came directly to Linney.

"It doesn't matter." Linney smiled. "You'll be back."

"Here." Marti pushed the laptop across the bed to Linney. "I need you to check behind me on these budgets, okay?"

"I'm sure they're fine." Linney reached over and took Marti's hand instead of the laptop.

"Please." Marti closed her eyes. "I just worry."

"I need to check on Rachel first." Linney tucked the laptop under her arm. Later, after she put Rachel to bed and Marti had fallen asleep, she sat in the office with the laptop. The numbers were fine. Marti was being paranoid, but Linney felt more relief about this than she thought necessary. She closed the spreadsheet and saved it to the desktop so she could find it easily the next day. A folder she'd never seen before, titled "Rachel," sat in the bottom left corner of the desktop. Inside were video files. She opened one and turned down the sound to a whisper.

"Rachel." Marti sat in the chaise lounge by the bedroom window, dressed. She wore makeup. Her hair was brushed and curled. She almost looked healthy. "I worry that you won't remember, or what you will remember will be not what I want you to remember about me."

Linney closed the video and looked at the document history. It was recorded two months before.

~

When Linney's father died three years before, she tried to write everything down that came to her. And yet, every time she read what she had written over the course of a few months, the less of it she remembered. Yes, she had written it down so she wouldn't forget, but she hadn't realized that she would not actually remember, either. In a panic she began to re-read her words every week, burning her father, his mannerisms, his crazy stories, into her memory, but she was only remembering her words, not his. Not him.

They had so few pictures from the first few years. Even though Marti had told her about the cancer then, told her everything at the start, when they started dating they treated it as if it was in the past, an unfortunate ex-girlfriend, a crappy vacation, an isolated incident. There was no thought that they would not be together forever, that there would be time, no need to take pictures of weekends spent in bed, draped over each other, grudgingly getting up late Saturday afternoon only to get Marti’s suits to the drycleaner before they closed, to move Linney's things into Marti's apartment, to get takeout and eat before consuming each other again, their words, their touch, their lips, their bodies, pictures of a closeness that negated the concept of time, pressing it flat into a continual present.

~

It was not her idea to have Rachel, but Marti always wanted children. It did not seem fair for Marti to have Rachel in case she got sick again, so they decided Linney would. But she did not want to use a sperm donor.

She sat in Charles’s office in Krieger Hall, and nothing had changed except the amount of papers that had accumulated on his desk. His clothes smelled heavily of tobacco, even though smoking was no longer permitted on campus. She had wished he would quit, but now that his partner was not around to give him grief about it, she wondered if there was anyone around who did. She suspected there wasn't. She was surprised to see him wearing the same dark, blue sport coat, unbuttoned now across the little paunch underneath his sweater vest.

"I know this is awkward, Charles." She crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt.

"Six years is awkward, yes."

"I didn’t know whether you wanted to talk to me." He was still handsome, even if the bags under his eyes had noticeably deepened.

"Jude and I never got back together, in case you’re wondering." He leaned back in his office chair.

Outside, a student walked by, making a sound like he was about to hock a loogie. Linney closed the door.

"Charles, I am still as sorry now as I was then for what happened." She sat back down, leaning forward. "Maybe even more now."

"Well, you look very polished." He bit his fingernail absently. "I expect you're gainfully employed?"

She nodded. "Yes. And I have a partner. We want to have a baby."

"Splendid." He stood up and looked out the window of his office, jiggling his hands in his pockets. "So, did you only come to update me on your happy ending?"

"Actually, I have a big favor to ask," she said, and he turned to look at her.

~

When Linney pulls out her keys from her purse, it's gone, Marti's rabbit’s foot. She looks around her, as if it will just be there, as if it tried to escape and only got a few steps before realizing it was missing its other three legs. And its body. And its head. She opens her purse and dumps it out, picking through her wallet, her checkbook, the snack-size baggies of goldfish crackers for Rachel, the Gauloises to replace Charles's because she's smoked so many of his, her cell phone. She's always been so careful with it. Could she have left it at work? But no, she remembers. She remembers it being on the key ring when she came home. Her hand comes to her neck, tears come to her eyes.

Her phone rings. She looks at the caller ID: The San Francisco Opera. She lets it go into voicemail as she hears Charles and Rachel enter in the foyer.

"Look, Mommy's home after all." Charles holds Rachel's backpack, Rachel her sloth. Chester the pug does a little wiggle dance in front of them.

"Hi, sweetie." She leans down and hugs Rachel. She strokes Rachel's little face, her little red crescent. She sees so much of herself in her eyes, the color of robin's eggs, her corkscrewed, curly dark hair. Her upturned nose. She sometimes wishes Marti had carried their child. She longs to look into green, glass eyes, a heart-shaped face, and blond hair. But then there would be no Rachel, and she feels selfish for thinking it.

"Mommy, I counted all the way to 20 today," Rachel announces.

"Oh my goodness, sweetie, that's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful." Linney kisses her nose three times. "Will you count for me?"

"Not now, Mommy." Rachel pulls away and heads down the hall to the living room. "The Enchanted Fairies are on."

She looks up at Charles, who's now holding Chester like a baby.

"I got a job offer," she says. "I mean, it's not final, but—"

"San Francisco?" he asks, and she nods. "Well, you've known for a while that the director was retiring. It was only a matter of time before they called you."

"I haven’t been able to think that far ahead." She looks around the living room. Charles moved in a few years ago, when Marti went out of remission, and they fell into the deep groove of their old friendship, back when she lived with him and Jude in Mt. Vernon and she walked their pug, Noelle, and picked up their dry cleaning.

"San Francisco is beautiful—and expensive." He attaches Chester's leash. "The schools are probably good, though."

"Hey, and you would have a whole new dating pool." She smiles. There had been so many men from the dating sites—over 50, bald, bespectacled, chubby, eager, sweaty, wearing striped Oxford shirts. And whenever Charles went out to Central Station, he complained that his ex, Jude, was always there, holding court by the bar, looking fantastic.

"You're assuming I want to find someone." He glances at her. "Or that I want to move."

"But you can't hold onto Jude forever. You'll find someone better." Certainly there had to be much better—free of drugs, not narcissistic, not acerbic. Not a playwright. But she had never warmed to any of the other men the way she had Jude. And she supposed Charles hadn't, either.

"My life is manageable here," he says. "I have tenure."

"You could finish your novel."

"I don’t want any more surprises."

"Charles." She grabs his arm. "You're her father."

"Maybe you two need a fresh start." He glances down the hall, toward the living room. "This house holds bad memories for both of you."

~

"It's time for Barbie and Teresa to go to the store." Rachel grabs her Barbie doll and hands the Teresa doll to Linney. "They have to get a cake for Ken's birthday."

"What kind of cake does Ken like?" Linney guesses it is probably strawberry shortcake, Charles's favorite.

"Maybe chocolate," Rachel says. "Maybe vanilla."

In Rachel's stories, Barbie and Teresa are always friends. Barbie and Teresa do everything together, and sometimes Ken comes over for dinner or to watch The Enchanted Fairies. Sometimes Ken is Barbie's boyfriend, although sometimes he is not. Linney wonders, if she buys Rachel another Ken doll, who he will be paired with.

"Remember when we went to San Francisco this year?" Linney sticks her finger in the base of Teresa's hair and tries to tug out a huge mat. "Where you saw the sea lions?"

"Are sea lions like sloths?" Rachel sticks Barbie in her hot pink Corvette. "Samuel Sloth wants to meet his mommy and daddy. He told me."

"Well, no, they're not." Her finger reaches an impasse in Teresa's hair. She sticks Teresa in the passenger seat of the Corvette. "But would you like to live in San Francisco and see the sea lions every day?"

"Will the witch come with us?" Rachel pushes the Corvette across the floor.

"What witch, Rachel?" Linney lays her palm flat on the rug, feeling the vibrations of the Corvette tires up her arm.

"The witch that took Mommy away." Rachel backs the car up with sudden violence. "If she isn't coming, we should go then. Can Samuel Sloth and Chester come?"

"What about Uncle Charles?" Linney feels a knot in her throat.

"If he wants." Rachel deliberates. "And maybe my friend Moira, too."

 

There will be ghosts, she realizes, lurking, waiting for her wherever she goes. The trick, maybe, is not to acknowledge them, to pretend to be asleep when they sit at the end of her bed, to keep brushing her teeth when they appear behind her in the mirror.

 

Linney swallows the Valium and lays still, her hands clasped on her midsection, on her side of the bed. She hears Charles tapping on his laptop in the library room. There will be ghosts, she realizes, lurking, waiting for her wherever she goes. The trick, maybe, is not to acknowledge them, to pretend to be asleep when they sit at the end of her bed, to keep brushing her teeth when they appear behind her in the mirror. To take her Valium until she's too tired to care about anything. And some ghosts, she thinks, will always want to haunt her. The ghost of Marti, in this bed, the last time she held her, kissed the hollow of her cheeks, held her hands, and told her it was okay to go. She wants to stay in this house forever, until she is also a ghost. Maybe, she thinks, she already is.

~

"I'm going to say no." Linney pours the boiling water into the French press. A little splashes upward onto her fingers. "I can't leave. There's too much here."

"What does Rachel want?" Charles spreads cream cheese on a bagel.

"She wants to leave, I think." Linney turns around, sucking her pinky. "I don't know. She's five years old. I don't want her to have to make new friends next year after starting kindergarten this fall. Besides, she thinks Samuel has a mother and father she can meet. And she acts like Marti doesn't even . . . I mean, I know you're her father and I'm her mother, technically, but—"

"Things are complicated." He puts down the knife. "I'm thinking of asking Jude out for a drink."

"Don't." She opens the cabinet and grabs two coffee mugs. "Don't you remember how many times he cheated on you?"

"Don't you remember how many times you could have told me?" He raises an eyebrow.

"You wouldn't have listened." She opens the refrigerator and fetches the creamer. "And Jude won't move out to San Francisco. You need to do what's best for Rachel."

"So do you." He stands and grabs the creamer from her as it begins to slip from her fingers. "Careful."

"I lost Marti's rabbit's foot." The wave crashes over her like it hasn't for so many months. Charles grabs her by the arms and presses her head onto his shoulder. "I pulled out my keys yesterday, and it was gone."

~

"She's already in bed," Charles says when Linney comes home from the quarterly dinner with the board. "So how did it go?"

"I didn't tell them." She shakes her head, dropping her purse on the table. "I'm not sure I want to leave. How was your evening?"

"I called Jude," he says, and Linney waits, trailing her fingers across the dining room table. "We're having coffee Thursday."

"Well." She looks up. "I guess I'm happy for you."

"Thank you," he says.

~

By the time Marti died, Rachel hadn't entered their bedroom for more than a month. Sometimes she stood outside the door and called for Linney to get her a juice box, or change the television channel, or read her a story.

"I’m so sorry." Linney nestled her head in Marti's neck. It was so hard for Marti to breathe, even with the oxygen, and Linney could only hold her for a few seconds before her eyes widened and she began to gasp, pushing her away, her hands to her neck. "She doesn’t understand."

"Do any of us?" Between breaths, Marti fought out the words.

When Marti died, Rachel began to have nightmares about the witch.

"I saw her in the closet." She pointed from her bed. "She’s going to take my hair and my breaths and put a spell on me."

"It's okay, sweetie." Linney pulled back the covers and sat down on the bed. "Do you want me to sleep with you tonight?"

When Marti died, Charles brought home Chester.

"He’ll never be Noelle," he sighed, watching Chester dribble pee on the kitchen door.

"That’s because he’s Chester," Linney had laughed.

Now Chester sleeps with Rachel, and Linney and Charles sleep alone.

~

She slips into Rachel's bedroom to say goodnight. It's dark and she inches across the rug in her stocking feet. Rachel hasn't been putting her toys away lately. She no longer wants to eat her chicken nuggets. She got into a fight with Samuel Sloth this morning on the way to preschool.

"Mommy, are you coming to sleep with me?" Rachel whispers from the bed.

"Yes," Linney answers. She hears Rachel move toward the wall, and she slips into the sheets, pulling out Samuel Sloth from underneath her and nestling him between them. "Did you make up with Samuel?"

"He said he was sorry." Rachel's little hand takes hers. "I love you, Mommy."

"I love you, Rachel." Linney kisses her head. "Did you brush your teeth?"

"Yes."

"Good. I love you so much. I would do anything for you; you know that, don't you? I would do anything, anything, anything, for you, I love you so much."

"Will you buy me a sloth?"

"You have a sloth already," Linney laughs and turns over. Her eyes have adjusted to the darkness. She looks across the room at Rachel's Barbie Dream House. She can make out Barbie's bedroom, Barbie lying stiffly on her bed. She sees Teresa, still in the Corvette. Linney had not wanted to buy the dolls, had preferred for Rachel to have gender-neutral toys, but Marti thought Rachel should choose.

"This isn't a goddamn Montessori school," Linney had argued. But maybe she was mad about the letter from the lab with Marti's test results she’d found in her purse, the postmark on the envelope dated two weeks before. She remembers the day Rachel and Marti went to Toys"R"Us and brought home the Dream House, the Corvette. Ken. Barbie and Teresa.

"It's just like home," Marti had beamed. But it wasn't. It was plastic, with a red roof and yellow doors. Teresa slept in the Corvette. And Ken had chocolate, maybe vanilla cake. And Marti was gone, and Barbie and Teresa would be in a landfill, still smiling, long after Linney had gone, too.

She slips out of the bed and goes over to the Dream House, bending down and picking up Teresa, smoothing her hair with her palm. She holds her to her cheek, and then goes to put her in the bed. But then she sees it, Marti's pink rabbit’s foot, next to Barbie. She kneels in front of the Dream House, running her finger along the yellow latticework door. She can see every bit of it, the A-frame house with the red roof and patio, the swimming pool, the window box with flowers. She can see all of it, even though she is still in the dark.


Jen Michalski has edited an anthology and is the author of the three novels, two collections of fiction, and a collection of novellas. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, hosts the monthly reading series Starts Here! in Baltimore, and is a contributing editor at The Nervous Breakdown.


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nice, well crafted.
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