Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Keeping House

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Her friend would spend the day trying to set things straight. He would hug an armful of dirty clothing against his chest and face, smell the slight dank stink of his toddler's urine. He would divide the whites from the darks, extract his wife's fragile sweater from the pile and finger its open knit. He would level off the powder in the bottle green scoop, pour the powder in the washer, pull the knob, and head upstairs.
Or so she liked to think. She liked to stare out from the park bench, considering nothing in her view. She liked to think of the detergent powder falling in a crystal drift and the small red sweat pants with the dinosaur appliqué that he placed in the water with the generous black bra.

Her friend would wipe the crumbs from his counter. She liked to call him her friend, though this description of him had become something of a lie. Not a lie, he would have corrected her, an omission.

He would straighten the cushions and sweep the floors and make a good dinner so maybe his wife wouldn't look as if she was going to cry, move her body to the edge of their bed, and pretend she didn't see him. What he was setting straight, though a mess, was nothing of a crime.

He and his wife would survive. They would grow together like tomatoes sometimes do in the garden -- two fruits become one just out of familiarity, unavoidable closeness. Each day would somehow lead its way into the next and the brushing of arms as they washed dishes together would turn to embracing, embracing to something again that felt like love.

She thought of him sweeping the kitchen floor. She imagined that as he swept he made a softshoe music, a dance sweet enough to sing to. She imagined the soft things he would sing.

She didn't bother setting her house straight this morning. She just pushed the stroller to the park and stared off into air, thinking of him, pushing out the little thump of pain she could feel as her boy played dumbly in the sand under the climber in the distance.

She liked to imagine her friend as he plunged his hands in the right side of the double sink and pulled out the dish he had placed before his wife at breakfast. No empty park, no black ants crawling over her sandaled feet, no heavy hanging air of a Midwest July, no child calling "Mama!" Nothing felt better to think about than him at home with a wet rag, a sink of dishes, trying to put things right again.

She imagined what he made his family for breakfast -- pancakes from scratch, with a small bit of vinegar in them, because, as he once told her in his soft voice, sometimes we need the sour to make the sweet. He would have woken up before his wife to brew her coffee to get her ready for work, and he would have made himself a cup of black tea to prepare himself for another day with the children. He drank the tea with no milk, no sugar, she was sure, and she was sure he wasn't thinking of her as he wrapped his lips around the warm edge of the cup. He was thinking only of the wife that sat before him, reading the paper, quietly pretending he didn't exist.

Her little boy buried a stick in the playground sand. "I don't want anyone else to find this," he said. "This is going to be my secret."

She imagined her friend's wife the night before, either angry or sad, either cold or hot, either dismissive or desperate. She thought of his wife this morning when the phone rang, and he was on the other end, telling her there can be no more of this. The thing they hadn't even given a name.

She imagined his children. The three little ones played loudly around Daddy, watched videos and ate fish sticks for lunch. Maybe he would be sharp with them if they made messes, or he might want to tell them to go outside and play because the sight of them wrenched him open, particularly when the oldest girl stared at him with her mother's eyes.

She hadn't told her friend what she knew about marriage, what she had survived. He would offer his wife butter he had softened before dinner. His wife's hand would brush his hand, and though nothing was yet forgotten everything was still familiar. The children would giggle over something, and the youngest would complain about the green beans, and they all would have to talk about who was going to take whom to what, and the pain would fade, finally, remembered only in the song of the broom, the smell of that detergent he used that day.

She would go home soon, too, pushing the stroller, singing nothing. She would not cook dinner, not keep house. And when her own husband came home from work she would sit at the table and stare through him. She would think of her friend and how he smiled gently as he served his family their meal.


Anne Boyer lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with her four-year-old daughter Hazel.


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