Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Francesca

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That Saturday, Stephanie wasn't even supposed to have Tommy. Martin was working and he was supposed to take Tommy along as usual, giving Stephanie an afternoon off, some time to do what she liked. Martin has always been good about that kind of thing, considerate in small ways. But on Friday Tommy came home from school sick, and the next morning he was no better. He had to have a rest day.

"You'd better call Molly and let her know," Martin says, rinsing out his tea mug.

Stephanie says, "Maybe we can still get to the late matinee."

"Doubt it, Steph. Doubt I'll be back before tonight. I hope I'm not there till midnight, honestly."

She ignores this. She's decided to ignore his complaints about the new job; maybe it's not the most exciting work he's ever done but at least it pays. In any case, working weekends is something Martin has always had to do occasionally. It was a programming thing. Bug fixes to get in, builds to run. She remembers the days when they hated being separated for that long, when she would bundle up some work files or a book and come along to keep him company. There was one long-ago Saturday when they had sex in his office carrel. Now I can die, he had said afterwards, I've fulfilled my lifelong fantasy. They lay there side by side on the mouse-colored carpet, giggling.

She does some pro-forma complaining about getting stuck at home while Martin hunts in the closet for his raincoat. This is married life after all. She can score a brownie point by claiming to be gravely inconvenienced. But she doesn't really mind so much. For one thing, the weather isn't good, a blustery autumn day with showers forecast. The kind of day that people all over New York will spend holed up in their apartments, letting their kids watch too much TV. Secondly, Molly is her least favorite friend at the moment; all she talks about lately is her divorce. And lastly, Thomas, sick, is the easiest child in the world. This is a time when his autism is a plus. All right, he never gives her a hug without prompting, or tells her he loves her. But on the other hand he never complains; he never nags or whines. Put him on the sofa with a blanket and a straw cup of juice, keep the videos playing, and he dozes the hours away, presenting no problems to anyone. And, because Tommy is sick, Stephanie gets a pass on all the things they are supposed to do with him during an ordinary day. His oral-motor exercises. The ten minutes of PlayDoh for hand-strengthening, the body brushing and joint compressions ... She doesn't know how Martin can tell when she skips these things. To her, Tommy is the same whether they're done or not. Well, today it won't be an issue. Which is lucky, because Stephanie has things to accomplish.

The online grocery shopping. Bill paying. A few phone calls. The laundry. The shopping and bill paying are once a week, but the laundry is with them always. Martin used to do most of it, but he's working longer hours with the new job. What she dislikes most about laundry, she's decided, is how the same things show up again and again every week. Martin's laundry has always been that way. Like many men, he's worn a uniform for years: black jeans, polo shirts for work and T-shirts for the weekends. But when did she start doing this? When, for example, did she start wearing this brown wrap dress every week? So humdrum, so Land's End catalog. But it's practical. It washes well and she doesn't have to iron it. Put on a black cardigan and her old black boots and she's ready to go in five minutes, looking respectable. This next dress, in a deep raspberry color with bell sleeves--now, this one's good on her. She holds it up and looks at it, brushes lint from one sleeve. She wore it last week to Shara's anniversary party. For years it's been her standard for weddings, engagement parties, baptisms. Although there hasn't been a wedding among their friends for a long time. Even the baptisms and bris are getting rare. The talk has shifted from teething and potty-training to school fundraising and piano lessons. Her friends are saying they're done. Everyone is done with the baby making, except for Stephanie.

As usual, when she thinks about her age, she pops up to glance in a mirror, to catch the reassuring image of her unlined face, her slim arms and mop of dark curls. She's forty, but her eggs are still in good shape--she had her FSH levels tested last year. She eats well and exercises regularly. Still, as the ob/gyn warned her, she doesn't have time to waste, to fritter away arguing with Martin about family size. Two children is a perfectly reasonable expectation. It's not like she's asking for a dozen. Even so, she can't imagine--will not imagine--what Martin would say if he knew she had quit taking her birth control pills. She stopped them a year ago. She knows Martin. If he thought she "fell pregnant," to use his British expression, he would be happy. They would find a way to make it work, she's sure of it. But he has been straightforward, brutally straightforward, about his disinclination to try.

The laundry is sorted and she goes out to check on Tommy, who is asleep. She knows because he has stopped twisting the fringe on the sofa blanket. When Tommy is awake, his fingers are always busy, twisting, tapping, picking ... She shuts off the upbeat yammering of his video, and a grateful quiet falls over the apartment.

Time for a break.

She never draws Martin's attention to the top of her closet, to the carton she keeps here, shoved well back on the shelf. This box is not an ordinary dull brown, but a pretty rose pink, with a purple print of giraffes and flowers. She taps its side gently, the way she might greet an old friend in passing, takes it down, and carries it into the bedroom.

Tommy is standing there, sucking his thumb.

"Oh," she says. "Did you wake up?" She picks up his empty juice cup from Martin's bedside table and wipes away the sticky ring. "Do you need more juice?" she asks her son.

"Juiceplease."

She settles him on the sofa with a full cup and restarts "Blues Clues." Have him pick another video out, Martin would say if he were here. Help him choose something. But she never seems to have any luck getting Tommy to do those things, the things Martin asks her to do, the things the therapists demonstrate. The last OT from Early Intervention, a stout little woman with a snub nose and wild gray hair, had been downright rude. Beth Smith she was called: a milk-and-water name for such a peppery person. She wouldn't let Stephanie off the hook for a moment, not even to make a phone call or get dinner started. For the entire hour it was Try again, Mommy, and Your turn, Mommy, and OK, Mommy, time to pay attention here. Stephanie detests therapists calling her Mommy, as if her real name isn't even important enough to remember.

She sits on the bed and enjoys some pleasurable anticipation before lifting the carton lid.

Then she laughs, really laughs. She'd forgotten this flimsy little T-shirt, her last purchase. Bought this past summer from one of those cheap clothing stores in the East Twenties that keep their bargains outside in huge bins. This shirt had been swaying from a hanger, GIRL POWER spelled out in sparkling rhinestones across its front. She holds it up and looks at it, smiling. It will fall apart the first time it's washed. But it had only been a few dollars, and everyone needs a little fun in their life. Most of the other clothes in the carton are much more serious, clothes for a Spanish infanta, one of those grave girls Velázquez painted. There's a black dress with a lace collar, a wine-red velvet top, the softest corduroy pants. No ordinary clothes. No scratchy, stiff fabric. None of that sickly Pepto-Bismol pink. Stephanie wouldn't wear that color, and her daughter won't either.

Her first purchase is still her favorite and she burrows down to the bottom of the box to inspect it. It's a smock dress in burnt orange, newborn size, and she holds it up, as she always does, to marvel at its tinyness. It's like a dress for a doll.

Tommy comes to the doorway again. If she didn't know better she would think he was looking at the exquisite little clothes spread over the bed. He says, "Bathroom."

"Well, go to the bathroom if you need to. You don't need Mommy's help for that."

He goes into the grown-ups' bathroom. Tommy is supposed to use his bathroom, next to his bedroom on the other side of the living room. She prefers the master bedroom and bathroom to be adult space, Tommy there only by special invitation. That's the way she grew up. I understand, Steph, Martin tells her with the heavy patience he's developed these last few years, but you grew up in a five-bedroom house, not a two-bedroom flat. Her son reappears, hitching up his sweatpants.

"Flush," she says. He disappears again. Just as she is heaving herself up to go and check on him (he loves to unwind the toilet paper), she hears the flush. "Wash your hands," she calls, and the water comes on. Only for a second, not long enough to do a decent job; he usually only puts his hand under the water before turning it off. Screw it, she'll help him wash up next time.

Maybe he's tired of "Blues Clues." She heaves herself up, comes out to the living room and puts on "Kipper," that gentle little dog who walks on his hind legs and speaks with a diffident English accent that reminds her of her husband's. She spreads her hand over Tommy's forehead. He is warm, so she gives him Tylenol. She gives him his straw cup and settles the blanket around his legs.

Back in her room, she sits on the bed and picks up the orange dress again. It is still crisp and perfect, just waiting its chance. It had been the first thing she bought during those blissful first months of pregnancy, when she had wandered the baby sections of department stores with a big clueless smile on her face. She had been so sure she was having a girl. Then, the ultrasound where they learned the baby's sex. She lay there, stomach sticky with ultrasound gel, while the male technician pointed out Tommy's penis on the computer screen and Martin laughed. Boys having fun. Stephanie was the only person in the room not completely delighted.

What's with this girl thing you've got? her cousin Daphne had asked. I can tell you boys are so much easier, and they're sweet. Stephanie had shrugged. I don't know, I just always pictured myself with a daughter. Well, you're such a girly-girl yourself, Daphne had said. Maybe it's that simple. Bet you next time you'll get lucky, Daffy had said, comfortingly.

Stephanie thought about returning the girl clothes. She had kept her receipts, she's not an idiot. But somehow she couldn't bring herself to do it. Maybe there was some kind of mistake, she told herself, things like that did happen sometimes. And Daphne was right, the next child could just as easily be a girl. In those days there were still plenty of baby showers and baptisms. It was handy to have a quick gift ready. She gave away a few of the clothes that way, but she never gave away her favorites, and over time she began adding slowly again to the collection. All right, it's an eccentricity. But it's harmless. She's not spending the milk money.

Another dress. She takes it out, shakes it briskly, and lays it across her lap. Size four, polished cotton, plum-colored. This garment has a twin in Stephanie's size that hangs at the end of her closet, shrouded in plastic and waiting for its chance. "Oh, these are so sweet!" the saleswoman had said that day, wrapping up the two dresses. "Are they for you and your little girl?" "Yes, they are," Stephanie had said, without missing a beat. "Well, this is definitely your color; if your daughter takes after you, she'll be a stunner in it. Does she look like you?" Stephanie had nodded, smiling. "What's her name?" "Francesca," Stephanie had said, pulling the name out of thin air. "Francesca. I just love that name. It has so much dignity," the salesgirl had said, coming around the counter to hand Stephanie her bag, the way they do in good clothes shops in New York. "Well, she'll look adorable; you both will." Walking back uptown with her shopping bag that afternoon, Stephanie fantasized about picking up a daughter on her way home. A daughter hanging on her hand, curious about the contents of the big shopping bag, unlike Tommy, who was never curious about anything. A daughter unbearably excited about the idea that she and her mother were going to be dressed exactly alike--twins!

The pleasurable illusion had lasted Stephanie for days.

OK, that was a little weird.

But it helps her. It helps to imagine another life, a life with Francesca. In that life, they live in a three-bedroom apartment farther east, closer to Central Park and the subway. In that life, she worries about affording private school but decides to make the sacrifice because Francesca is so bright. In that life, Francesca has lots of friends and is a little too bossy on the playground. Francesca loves sushi. Francesca loves Coney Island. She doesn't freak out at the noise and crowds, the way Tommy did when they tried. As a matter of fact, Tommy no longer features in these fantasies. He used to, occasionally, and Francesca was understanding and kind about her older brother. But he never shows up anymore. And Martin has never appeared. Martin, who keeps on harping about an easier life in the suburbs. Martin, who falls asleep on the sofa at nine o'clock at night and who hasn't touched her in three months.

She looks up suddenly from the dress on her knee. The apartment is quiet. Tommy's video must have ended, and it occurs to her that it probably ended a while ago. "Tommy?" she says. She lays the dress on the bed and goes out into the living room. The Kipper theme music plays softly. Tommy's blanket is on the floor, and the apartment door is ajar. Her heart speeds up. She opens the door, looks up and down their dark hall. No Tommy. She races to Tommy's bedroom for a quick look. It's a small room, with nowhere to hide, and Tommy isn't there. She grabs her keys from the side table and is pushing her feet into some shoes when someone knocks on the apartment door. She yanks it open and then gasps with relief. Here is her son, and holding his hand is the building doorman, Chuck.

"Oh my God! Tommy!" She sinks to her knees and throws her arms around him. He tolerates this, but he doesn't hug her back; he rarely does. In a moment, he stiffens and draws away, and slides by into the apartment, stimming, his hand going up and down so it looks like he's chopping vegetables. That leaves her standing with Chuck.

"Thank you so much," she breathes.

"Stopped him going right out the front door," Chuck says in his melodic West Indian accent.

Chuck doesn't like her. He doesn't like any of them. There is never a smile from him as you come in, never a comment about the weather or the Yankees. However, among the tenants, he dislikes Martin the least, because they can discuss cricket. It's Stephanie's bad luck that Chuck is on the door today. Usually it would be Alvaro, the weekend doorman, who is working his way though John Jay College and took this job because he can study at the desk. Alvaro likes Stephanie. Sometimes he calls her, daringly, "Pretty Lady." But Alvaro's sister is getting married this weekend and Chuck is covering the shift.

"I have no idea how that could have happened. I'm so grateful that you saw him."

"Going right out the door," Chuck repeats, with no change in emphasis.

So he's going to be this way.

"You asleep, or something?" Chuck asks.

She glances down at herself, as if she might discover her own clothes wrinkled from a nap. "Well--I mean, no. I have no idea how it could have happened. I was in my bedroom working. He must have just walked out."

"Hmm. 'Cause he been downstairs with me for ten, fifteen minutes. I waited a while for you; I'm not supposed to leave the desk you know."

"Why didn't you just phone up?" she says.

That was the wrong thing to say. It comes across as arrogant, and Chuck stiffens immediately. He's always ready to take offense.

"I buzzed, but no one answer the intercom."

"I didn't hear anything."

He raises his eyebrows. A wave of his cologne comes over her, stale and sharp. All the women in the building complain about it. He must re-anoint himself at lunch, the smell is always stronger at the end of the day.

She suggests, "Maybe there's a problem with the buzzer again. You know these old buildings."

"That's true." He softens, a touch. This is one of Chuck's favorite gripes, what a pain in the ass their old building is, with things always going wrong and nothing ever staying fixed. She asks him to wait a second, goes into her bedroom for her purse, and gives him the two twenties she has in her wallet. Not a grand tip, by Manhattan standards, but hopefully enough so he won't call Social Services. He glances down at the bills, up again as if he's going to say something else; then, mercifully, he nods and steps back. She can thank him again and then shut the door firmly. She leans against it and takes deep breaths and listens to his footsteps retreating down the hall.

Tommy is sitting on the sofa. When she looks at him, he looks back--ordinarily, she would be pleased at this acknowledgement--and holds the remote control out.

"What the hell were you doing?" she says.

He blinks. He slowly lowers the remote control and then lets it drop. Tommy, for some reason, still can't put things down gently. Everything gets dropped or thrown. A motor control issue, Martin has told her. But--really--how difficult can it be, to put down a frigging remote control? Tommy eases his thumb into his mouth. The other hand gropes down until it finds the fringe on their sofa throw, and he starts to twiddle the strands.

"Stop that," Stephanie says. "Thomas. Look at me."

He looks at her, over his thumb. She crosses the room and takes his face in her hand. Squeezes his cheeks until she can feel his bones between her thumb and fingers. She realizes, not for the first time, how much pleasure it would give her to squeeze, just once, until she forced out some response. She turns his face to her. "I know you understand me. Don't you ever do that again. Don't you ever leave this apartment again without asking." She lets go and five white splotches on his cheeks mark where her fingers were. But the marks are already fading; they're gone. No one will ever know they were there.

"Now go to your room and stay there until I say you can come out."

He gets up quietly. Goes around her as if she's a chair or a standing lamp, some obstacle to avoid, and into his bedroom. That way Tommy has, of always making her feel ashamed.

She sits on the sofa and closes her eyes. She resolves to try again with Tommy, to try harder. To read him books. To let him finger paint, even though it takes her fifteen minutes to set up and he only paints for a minute. To take him on walks, to point out birds and chipmunks the way she used to. To take him to the playground even though she hates the way people look at him, and then her. She should go in there right now and talk to him. Apologize. Tell him she knows it's her fault, that she's a lousy mother.

But when she goes in, he's asleep.

She pulls down the window shade and then comes back out to put the deadbolt on their apartment door. On impulse, she toes off her shoes and lies down on the sofa. She shouldn't do that. She needs to get Francesca's clothes put away, and take a basket of laundry down to the basement where the washing machines are. But she gives into temptation instead and closes her eyes. The warmth of the room feels good, the rumbling of the traffic on Riverside Drive is soothing, and over everything is the cooing of a pigeon. The next thing she knows Martin is leaning over her, his hand on her shoulder.

"Steph," he says. "You had better wake up, or you won't sleep tonight."

The room is dark. What time is it? She swings her feet to the floor and sits there for a moment, shaking her head, waking up. Martin watches her from the dining table, where he is unpacking their takeout from a big billowing white bag.

"You were really out. You were drooling."

He's being unpleasant. He knows that she hates to be teased about drooling, or snoring. She's supposed to be responsible for what she does in her sleep, too? He might just be tired. The build may have gone badly. Or he might know what happened. It's unlikely, she assures herself, because that would involve Chuck going the extra mile, which he never does. But, if Chuck did tell Martin, it would be best for her to confess right now, say mea culpa and take full responsibility.

"How did your build go?" she asks him. "Did it finish?"

"Eventually. How were things here?"

"Oh, quiet."

"Uneventful?"

"More or less. Should we wake Tommy up?"

"I tried. He's right out, I vote for leaving him alone."

They move the dishes and food to the coffee table, find a nature show about Arctic wildlife, and open their clamshell containers. They watch a polar bear and her cubs emerge from their winter den and go skidding down an icy slope.

"Chuck stopped me on the way up, by the way," Martin says, his eyes on the screen. This is the way he springs it on her. She is drinking from her water glass, and she puts it down and dabs her mouth with a napkin.

"Oh. Okay," she says.

"Were you planning on telling me about that?" Martin asks.

"Of course I was. Give me a break, Martin--I just woke up, I'm still half-asleep."

"Well, that's true," Martin says. After a moment, he says, "Sorry if I'm snappish. It's been a long day."

She shrugs.

"Beth warned me he would try that at some point."

"He was really quiet about it," Stephanie said. "I was in the bedroom sorting the laundry and I didn't hear a thing."

That much is true.

Martin says, "We should probably get another lock put on the door, up high, out of reach."

She promises to call the locksmith and he nods. Refills his wine glass. She's surprised to get off so easily. He must be tired. They watch the polar bears struggle for survival while they eat their vegetarian pad thai. They don't talk very much, but it's companionable, sitting there side by side.

"Look at those cubs," Stephanie says. "How cute are they."

She flicks a glance sideways. Martin is looking fixedly at the TV, chewing. He knows what's next.

"I think you know where I'm going with this," she says, somewhat daringly, and that gets a smile, which is more than she's gotten on this topic for a while. "Martin, we ought to try again."

Of course, they are already trying. But if Martin is aware that they're trying, they'll try more often and more systematically.

"Be fair about this," she says. "Everything can't be about Tommy, that's not good for him. A lot of people say that a sibling can actually be very positive. It's a built-in role model."

"All right. If you really want, we can talk it over again, but not tonight."

"Really?"

"I said we'll talk about it, mind you. I haven't agreed to anything."

Even talking is more than they've done for a long time. She sits smiling as he gets up and stretches. Then, for some reason he ambles off toward their bedroom, and she remembers what's left on the bed. She gets up and follows him in, but they almost collide in the bedroom doorway, where Martin has stopped. He stands there looking at the clothes from that distance. Stephanie can see they don't take him by surprise. He walks to the bed, and picks up Francesca's GIRL POWER T-shirt. He holds it out to look at it.

"Oh my God," he says, and it doesn't sound like a cliché, more like he's actually petitioning some almighty being. "So this is what you were doing this afternoon, Steph, when Tommy wandered off."

He bunches the shirt between his hands.

"Give me that," Stephanie tells him.

"You were in here playing with your dolly dresses."

"Give it to me."

"Don't I get to touch it even? What am I, then? Just the sperm donor?"

"Oh, right. Like you've been donating so much of that."

He stands motionless. Long enough for her to feel a twitch of unease, a worry she went too far. He throws her pink bundle onto the bed and leaves the room.

She picks up the T-shirt. Spreads it over her chest and smooths its wrinkles flat. Under her hand, a rhinestone pops off and skitters to the carpet. Then another one goes, and another, and when she holds up the shirt again, it reads GIRI POWER instead of GIRL POWER. There's one surviving rhinestone in the cross-stroke of the "L," but it's barely hanging on; you could brush it away, and she does. The shirt isn't cute anymore. It's cheap and ordinary, just something dragged out of a bargain bin. It still smells right. It still has the clean, starchy, infinitely-promising smell of brand-new clothing. She puts it to her nose and sniffs deeply. Then she folds the shirt--another rhinestone pattering down--and drops it into the wastebasket.

Out in their living room, Martin is sitting on the sofa, in front of the dirty dishes and empty takeout containers. His head is down, his hands slowly rotate Tommy's squeak-toy giraffe. She sits down across from him and looks at his gray-flecked hair, his rounded back. She remembers a time when she could twist this man around her finger, make him do anything she wanted. But maybe she imagined even that. Because she knows he's not going to do this thing. He's not going to give her what she needs the most. It seems to her that she would never ask for anything else, ever, if she could only have Francesca.


Cathy Carr’s “Francesca” is from a work in progress, a series of linked short stories about a couple in Manhattan, their autistic son, and their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Other stories written for the collection can be found online at Narrative Magazine and Quicksilver. Cathy lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.


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