You Can’t Know What It’s Like
Big sobs carry down the stairwell of Renee’s building, the kind that take over your whole body, hold hostage your breath. They seem to enter me as I walk, with each step I believe this grief could be mine. By the time I reach the third floor, though, they have softened. The front door is open and Renee is on her knees, hugging Madeline tightly. She has her purse clutched in her hand.
“This has been the worst,” she says to me over her daughter’s stiff shoulder. “Day. Of. My. Life.”
This is a lot coming from Renee.
“Well come in, already.” She waves me over with her eyes. As I get close, I realize she’s also murmuring in Maddy’s ear, as if there are two Renees, one handling the conversation with me while the other stays in a different, protected space with her daughter. She stands and pivots the child toward me.
“Maddy, honey, do you remember Momma’s friend, Auntie Julie?”
Of course she doesn’t. The last time I saw her she was two days old, a lanky yellow raisin already angry at the world. She lay in a hospital incubator, sensors connected to her chest and scalp, a big mask covering her eyes. Now her face is red and wet from crying. She looks at me out of storm eyes. Even with her dark hair, she looks so much like James. I wonder how Ren can even look at her. I’m relieved when she turns away, this time pushing her face into her mother’s crotch.
Renee flicks her eyes down at her and back at me and mouths, “I’ll tell you later.”
I look at my watch. “I can’t stay long,” I say. “The conference ended late.” I have a three hour plus drive ahead of me.
“Don’t be silly. You just got here.” She points to where I should have removed my shoes by the door. “Besides, this is a real city. Traffic’s murder until at least 8:00.”
I go to protest but Renee’s already on to the next thing. She bends her head to get into Maddy’s line of vision. “Maddy, honey, how about some mac and cheese? Would that be good? Some yummy shells and cheese?”
I give in, of course. I’ve never been able to stand my ground with Renee, deep down have never really wanted to. She parks Maddy in front of the TV and sinks a corkscrew into a bottle of red. I’m about to say no. Last week, there had been an unfamiliar hunger like the bottom of my stomach had dropped out, and a tiredness that had surprised me with its force, like for the first time ever I needed to eat to live, to sleep to be able to stand, and I had let a little bud of hope swell inside me. But this morning, that familiar tightening in my belly and a smear of red when I wiped. I hold out my hand and Renee passes me a too-full glass.
I lean on the kitchen island and watch her fill a small pot with water, tear the top off the slim cardboard box.
I want her to tell me about her new life because that is what I do, listen so I won’t have to talk, but after she dumps the noodles in the pot she turns her bright blue eyes on me and they are warm.
“I’m really glad you’re here.” She takes my hand across the counter. “Tell me everything new and cool.”
This is what Renee does: makes you feel like you are the most important thing in the world.
“Me and Martin,” I say. “We’re trying.”
Renee’s eyes fill up with her thrill but, seeing something in my face maybe, she stops her smile.
“How’s it going?” she asks and I love that she can tell there is something wrong without me saying it. And I want to tell her everything.
“Slow,” I say. The timer dings.
“I want to hear more,” she says before she turns around.
The truth is, Martin and I aren’t trying, or Martin isn’t, anyway.
It’s been three months since I stopped taking the pill. I keep meaning to bring it up, but something always stops me. Night after night, we eat, clean up, watch our shows and go to bed without me saying a word. It’s not like Martin doesn’t like children. He just doesn’t know yet that he wants one. My friends have told me this is typical. Men can’t imagine what it’s like, they’ve said. But they fall in love with them when they’re born.
Maybe I will ask Renee about this when she comes back from giving Maddy her plate. Maybe I’ll ask her what it was really like for her and James. But she hands me an onion and a knife and we fall into that easy rhythm of washing and chopping and the moment passes.
It’s okay. Besides the mac and cheese, and the chortling of a yellow sponge on the TV, we could be back in one of our old kitchens in Portland and it’s not long before I get that sweet giddy rush that I only ever get with Renee. Because these things, drinking wine and cooking and somewhere a joint, used to mean a night that could go anywhere, become anything, and all I wanted was to be along for the ride.
The sizzling of onions is so loud that neither of us hears the door open and when I turn around and see a man standing behind us I scream and almost drop my glass. Renee starts laughing and even Maddy thinks it’s funny. The guy smiles big and spreads his arms as if to ask, What? He is all angles and lines, sharp points to his eyebrows, even his smile arches upward like a V. Like all of Renee’s boyfriends, if you can call them that, he’s super hot.
“You must be the Julie I have heard about. I’m Christian.”
He’s got a silky accent, too.
He kisses my hand and Renee pops her eyes and gives me a silly grin, her tongue poking out between her teeth. Her “I’m going to fuck his brains out” look. In the old days, it would be followed by the three of us running down the sidewalk, me, Ren, and the man she was bringing home.
Christian has brought a bottle of vodka and he sets himself to the task of making some kind of raspberry concoction. I am put on salad duty, washing and spinning lettuce, slicing carrots into thin-thin rounds. When Renee squeezes past him, he pats her ass.
I stand in front of the fridge pretending to study the pictures there so I don’t have to see them kissing. Maddy hugging a blur of fur, a cat that’s leaping from her arms. A sheet of printer paper scribbled orange. Renee and James at their old house in Portland. I took that one. They were having a party, their babymoon, James kept calling it, and Renee would roll her eyes and say she didn’t think he knew what that meant. Sometime after midnight, I stumbled into the living room. Everyone else was outside smoking.
“Julie.” Renee’s voice in the dark. “Help me.” She was on the couch. James was passed out, laying slantwise on top of her, humped awkwardly over the mound of her belly, his mouth open against her neck, like a vampire in mid-bite. I heaved his body off of her, so heavy for a bunch of used-up veins and bones.
“Get my camera,” she whispered. “In the kitchen, on the counter.”
When I came back, she’d arranged him next to her, his head on her shoulder, his palm carefully cupping the swell of their unborn child. As I lifted the camera, she let her head rest on his and closed her eyes.
“Maddy was playing with this new dolly her Nana sent.” Renee stretches to look over the back of the couch, to where Maddy lies with her eyes on the TV, orange smeared around her mouth. “It’s got eyelids that open and shut. She totally loves it. You would not believe how long she can sit there, tilting it back and forth. ‘Time get up! Time seep!’”
We sit at a tall square table in the space between the kitchen and living room. In front of us, steaming dishes of fettuccine with clams. Christian has poured the drink he made into tall glasses, cloudy with bright globs of raspberry. There’s one at my place.
“So I went out on the balcony to water the plants out there.” Have a cigarette more likely. “And then James called so I closed the door so she wouldn’t hear.”
At the mention of James, Christian puts a protective hand on her arm. I’m surprised by this. But I shouldn’t be. Renee always manages to draw her fuck-buddies into the drama of her life.
“You still talk to James?” I say.
Her eyes meet mine, first hard, then soft. “She’s his daughter,” she says. It’s pity, that look.
“I thought you had full custody.”
She lowers her eyes and her voice gets small. “It’s complicated.”
Christian pats her hand. “So what happened?”
“I didn’t want her to hear us talking. It’s never pleasant. You think they can’t understand at that age, but they can. She gets affected by things.”
Renee takes a drink and it reminds me to try mine. The vodka is cold and strong, not masked by the berries as I expected. I am repulsed by it. I drink more.
“So I closed the door. Not even all the way. Just almost.” She tilts back her glass and shakes a raspberry into her mouth. Christian watches her face carefully. “She was playing this doll game. Making her sleep and then waking her up. But she must have come over there. I didn’t even notice. She likes to play with the lever. The lock. I didn’t think she could actually do it.”
I try to make my eyes soft but they fight me. There’s something about this story. Something about Renee.
“But she must have. When I got off the phone, I was locked out and she was out of sight.” She lifts her glass, notices that it’s empty and puts it down. Her eyes are a little shiny, like she’s about to cry.
“Oh darling, that must have been terrifying.” Christian is squeezing her hand now, like he’s giving her strength to finish the story.
“You can’t even imagine. The thoughts that go through your head. I mean, there was a bottle of pills on the coffee table. I thought I was going to watch my baby die.” Her body shudders and she brings her hand to her mouth quickly, not quite hiding her quivering lips.
“How did you finally get in?” I say. It must come out a little too sharp because her head springs up and she narrows her eyes at me for a sec.
“I called the super. But he lives in another building so I had to wait. It took forever. He came through the apartment and let me in.” Eyes hard on mine. “Right before you got here.”
“You were on the balcony?”
One dying plant through the sliding glass door.
Maddy crying, Ren holding her tight, her purse on her arm.
I have this sudden urge to go out there and see if the soil is even wet. What the fuck is wrong with me? I don’t know why this makes me so mad. A little voice in my head is crying, I don’t believe you, I don’t believe you, I don’t believe you.
“That must have been horrible.” I make my eyes go wider then squint them up. I can’t remember which way makes me look more sad.
Christian is washing and I am drying when he tells me he was one of Renee’s massage clients. “She has an amazing way with touch,” he says.
“Ew.” It comes out before I can stop it.
Christian laughs. “It’s not what you think. I nearly wept my first time on her table.”
I put down the plate, twist the towel in my hands. He does not look like a man with something to weep about.
Maddy’s chirpy voice drifts in from the bathroom, punctuated by Renee’s exasperated cajoling. I say my ABC! Don’t say your ABCs, just say ah so I can brush your teeth.
“You carry a lot of tension in your back, you know,” Christian says. “I lay down and right away she pushed a spot on my back. I told her I was coming in for my arm. But she pushed this spot on my back.” He reaches out with a foamy hand and touches me on the small of my back, near the left side. “And it hurt.”
I say nothing. What is there to say. I rub the towel around the plates in small circles as if I’m shining silver. I can still feel the wetness where he had his hand.
More vodka. We are all on the floor, sitting cross-legged and sharing stories of old times. Renee at my door, the first time we met. She didn’t even introduce herself, just said, “My dickhead boyfriend cheated on me last night.” Swinging a pink plastic bag full of dog shit from her finger. “Wanna help me get revenge?” An hour later, crouched down between cars in the hospital parking lot, passing her little cigarette-shaped one-hitter back and forth, waiting for his shift to end. How it seemed like forever as he walked to his car, how we could barely look as he slid his fingers under the handle. We buried our faces in each other’s shoulders, biting down on the fabric of each other’s shirts.
We are doubled over laughing now, while Christian watches us with curious eyes, a smirky mouth. He doesn’t see it, that this could happen to him. We are laughing so hard we can’t finish the story.
He’d been so outraged, that boyfriend. He paced and shouted at his hand as if it were to blame and then, without thinking, ran it through his hair. And then he just started screaming.
She sent me out there then, someone he’d never seen before, to offer help. When I got close he gave me that look, that one that hot guys do that makes you feel for an instant like all the lights have dimmed in the room and there is just one shine and it’s coming from you. He gave me that look, and even with the clumps of shit in his hair my heart sped up, and when he asked for help I gave him the packet of Kleenex Renee had stuffed in my purse, and wet them from my water bottle and when I got back to Renee, we looked hard into each other’s eyes for a long time. She was afraid, I could see, of what she’d done, and thrilled. She bit down on her lip and smiled.
“Come here, I want to show you something.” Renee’s bangs are plastered to her forehead, her face is flushed. She pulls me toward Maddy’s door.
“Won’t I wake her?” I say.
“No, she’s out like a light.”
Madeline doesn’t look so much like James now. Her face is serious and soft. Hair splayed out on the pillow. Hands clasped tight around a ratty rabbit.
“Ohhhh,” I say. It comes out before I can stop it.
“I know,” Renee says. “Sometimes I just stand here and watch her.”
Her eyes are shining and I want that. And I want to be happy that she’s found it. It all worked out for you, I want to say.
“You can’t imagine how much time I spend watching her,” she says. “She changed my whole life, Jules.” She turns those hard then soft eyes on me. “You can’t possibly know what it’s like until it happens to you.”
Four days after their “babymoon,” Ren went into labor and James went on a four- month bender. She didn’t wait for him to come back. As soon as Maddy could travel, she rented a U-haul, packed up her half of the house, and drove up to her parents’ place outside of Seattle.
To listen to her, you’d think that was the end of it.
But there was another time, too. When she’d left Maddy with her mom and come down to Portland, supposedly to sign those custody papers. I’d told her where to find the key to my apartment and when I came home from work that day the first thing I saw was James, framed in the kitchen doorway, shirtless, in a pair of ratty cutoffs, a carton of my milk tipped toward his slack mouth. He misjudged the distance and the milk dribbled down his stubbled chin.
The bathroom door opened and Ren came out wrapped in a towel. Her eyes flicked from James to me. “Oh,” she said. Her tooth biting her bottom lip.
And then, her eyes all sparkly: “Old habits die hard.”
I’m standing by the sliding glass door.
They are in the kitchen. Getting more drinks. More ass-patting and kissing so I finally have my chance. I am creeping ever so slowly, slithering toward the handle.
“What are you doing?” Renee is coming toward me.
Leaning against it. I’ve got my hands behind me in an unsubtle way. I’ve got my hand on the latch.
“I said, what are you doing?”
They’re both close to me now. Too close.
“Is she doing what I think she’s doing?” Renee asks Christian. Her breath smells like raspberries. His like onions.
The lock is sticky. It’s not that easy to push.
“Oh my god,” she says. “You’re trying that lock.”
“Do you remember that time at Satyricon,” I say. “With the coke?” The two of us in a blacklit men’s room, looking for a pinch twisted up in plastic wrap.
She looks confused.
“Don’t you remember?” I say. Thick dripping paint on the walls. Sticky floor. “We bought it off that boy with the mohawk.” Renee’d slipped it into her bra, but then it was gone. We crawled around the bathroom floor. Unable to remember if we’d already done it or if someone on the dance floor had taken it or if we’d dropped it just then. Keep looking. When did you last have it? I don’t know. Knees stuck in who knows what. Swearing. Feeling around in the corners. The way she’d looked at me when we finally gave up, eyes stuck open like pinned-up butterflies.
“If you want to say something, just say it. I’m sick of your coded bullshit, Julie.” “The next morning, I was knocking on your door.” Banging my fist on Renee’s door, the cordless pinched between my ear and shoulder. Her voice on the machine, Hello? And then a long pause, I’m not here right now . . . The cat mewing on the other side of the wall. Wondering if she’d gone home with someone after all, or brought someone home. Wondering if she was dead in her bed. If she’d found the coke and choked on it. If she’d done the coke when I wasn’t looking, right there in the sticky drippy bathroom, while I crawled around on the floor.
It was the last of course, but it took me so many years to figure that out.
“You thought I would leave my daughter alone in the apartment?” Her eyes are right on mine. “My two year old? While I, while I what exactly?”
Down the hall, smoking a joint with a neighbor, like we used to do.
In the bedroom getting laid.
Whatever she wanted, who cares what it did to someone else.
Christian is looking at me like he wants to put my head through the glass, never mind that he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.
“I don’t know, Ren.”
“You don’t. You don’t even know.”
“No, I don’t know!” I’m shouting, but I can’t stop.
“You’re drunk,” she says.
“You’re not some angel,” I say.
“She’s totally drunk.” Her voice is thick with disgust. “What did you put in those drinks anyway? Vodka? Julie never could hold her vodka.”
“Just because you’re a mom now,” I say. “You’re not some fucking angel.”
“Are we doing this?” she says. “Because you’re not so pure. You pretend like that wasn’t your past, like it couldn’t have been you. It could have been either one of us.”
Renee in my bathroom, telling me about the pregnancy. Saying, “I don’t even know where I’ve been these past six weeks.” Saying, “I’ve done so many drugs I can’t count them all.” Poking her head out. Looking me in the eye. “I can’t have another abortion. I just can’t.” And later, on my couch: “I want kids, Jules.”
It couldn’t have been me. I’ve always been careful. Too careful. She’d had five, six abortions. One was just two months before. I never had one. No miscarriages. No near misses. No souls waiting to get in.
What she didn’t ask, what I didn’t give her, what she needed to hear: I can do this, right?
Christian’s hands on my shoulders. When did I get so fucking drunk? I fight him off. I have to get out of here. Pushing me down onto the couch. Fight. I thrash and kick, my boot connects with his shin. Fucking bitch! His knee against my shoulder, pinning me. Trying to grab my hand. Something cold scrapes across my face. Jangling. My keys, he’s got them. Puts them in his pocket. A boy in high school did this once. I’m supposed to fish them out. I reach in after them. His face close to mine, all those interesting angles twisted in disgust. He steps away. Tosses me the blanket.
I am on the floor near the couch, my head under the coffee table, hugging the blanket like a teddy. My head and belly are pounding. All the bedroom doors are closed. I stumble to the bathroom, sit on the toilet and let my period drip red in the bowl.
The coffee shop on the corner still has its closed sign out but the barista lets me in. She’s young, with spiky hair and a tattoo of Rosie the Riveter on the back of her neck.
Her eyes are puffy but when she hands me my latte her smile is full of light.
I wonder what she did last night. If she and her roommates went to a show or shared a joint and stayed up late crying about their lovers. I wonder where they’ll be in ten years, if they’ll have all the things they want.
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