by Monica Cardenas
Josie was just about to sit in her recliner, her toast pooled with butter and raspberry jelly, coffee in hand, when there was a knock. Three quick raps. She looked first to the television, but saw only a mattress commercial – a woman sleeping peacefully in a softly lit room. Wouldn’t it be nice, to sleep that soundly?
She put down her cup and stepped forward, pushing the yellow curtains aside so she could see through the double pane glass. There was a woman there, a man stood slightly behind her. She removed her knit hat to reveal a mass of dark unruly curls. Josie’s used to bounce like that, before her hair went grey and wiry. The man had a salt and pepper beard and a very soft-looking matching swoop on his head.
There wasn’t one thing in particular that told Josie the woman was nervous. She just knew it.
Josie tightened her robe and opened the door. “Can I help you?”
“Hi,” the woman said, her voice familiar. She scratched her chin, quickly with a snatch of her hand. It was familiar, too. Smallish with big knuckles and fingernails that barely covered the beds, a little neater than they used to be.
Josie took a step back, not to admit her daughter and the man. But just to steady herself. Eleanor didn’t take the movement as a welcoming gesture. She remained planted on the stoop, between the two boxwoods Don had dug in just after the lockdown, when the nurseries reopened. Josie had teased him for being the first one there. “Eleanor. What are you doing here?”
“Well, um, this is my husband, Mark, and we’re visiting so I could show him where I grew up, and, well…” She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry it’s so early. It’s just that this is a road trip and we only arrived last night and we’re leaving today, so…”
Already she was making excuses. “So you just decided to drop in.”
“I’m sorry. If you want me to go, that’s fine.”
Of course it would be fine. It’s my house, Josie thought. She wasn’t obligated to let anyone in. Especially not before nine a.m.
Mark stepped forward and put out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Josie hesitated but didn’t want to be rude. She took it. “I’m sure you’ve heard nothing about me, right?” She paused as his hand pulled away. “Or lots of awful things.”
Mark laughed good-naturedly. “I’ve heard a lot about how good your cooking is.”
Was he asking her to cook him breakfast? Or just kissing her ass?
“Eleanor makes your lasagne,” he said, “and your fried courgettes. She always says it’s not quite right but I think it’s all amazing.”
“What the hell’s a courgette?”
“It’s zucchini,” Eleanor said. “They call them courgettes in England.”
“You live there, in London?”
“Yeah, we do.” Eleanor glanced at Mark, then at her shoes. Grey suede booties.
Josie sighed. “You want some coffee? We could sit on the patio.” She pointed around the side of the house, then thought of her toast getting cold. Oh well. She’d make some more when they left.
“That sounds great,” Mark said. “You’ve got a lovely view.”
Everyone said that, but it had been a while since someone new visited. The expansive view was the only reason Don picked this plot of land. It was why they built the house from the ground up, to have the perfect scene through their bedroom window, out over the patio. The Susquehanna River lazily flowed less than a mile away, through a wide swath of empty land. The Poconos loomed beyond, golden waves of corn fields lapping the green mountains. Most people wouldn’t bother skiing on them – they were too small to be exciting – but if you lived here, it was convenient. Josie used to take Eleanor snow tubing there.
A flash of Eleanor in her puffy green snow suit, those tiny goggles she insisted on wearing, even when they went inside for hot chocolate.
“My husband built this house,” Josie said. “We’d only been here a year before he passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mark said.
Eleanor said nothing about Don, but then she probably thought it unnecessary since she had sent her condolences in that generic sympathy card. And those flowers, an enormous bouquet of white calla lilies. Josie had told all the funeral guests they were from Don’s old college roommate who lived in Japan. She had made it up entirely, marveling at how easily the lie formed on her lips.
Josie and Mark stepped onto the patio, Eleanor trailing behind. Had she become one of those women who silently followed their husbands? Was that why they lived in England? Josie hadn’t raised her to be dependent, to need a man.
There were already four chairs on the patio. The two Adirondack chairs – Josie’s and Don’s – were always there. Josie had opened two folding chairs the other night when Steve and Marg came over with their daughter.
She gestured to the chairs. “How do you take your coffee?”
“With milk please,” Mark said.
“Just black. Do you need a hand?” Eleanor was standing beside a folding chair, not yet committing to it.
“No, I’ll manage,” Josie said. “Sit.”
She went inside and washed her hands – a new habit she couldn’t shake. She only realized it was happening when she was halfway through lathering up and at that point there was no going back anyway. The nurse who treated Don had showed her how to really scrub between her fingers, and never to forget her thumbs. A lot of good that had done. In the end it was only the nurse with him, anyway.
She pulled two mugs from the cupboard. Nice ones, from the set her aunt had given them as a wedding gift. They each featured a different type of butterfly. Don liked butterflies. These two had a dull firetip and a mangrove skipper. She guessed at how much milk Mark might like, a splash and then a little bit more, Brits liked their tea strong but she wasn’t sure about coffee. Had Eleanor always had her coffee black? Josie couldn’t even remember her drinking coffee. She must have picked up the habit in college. Or later.
She considered taking out the tin of Christmas cookies Marg had brought over, but it was probably too early for cookies. She carried both mugs in one hand and collected her own cup from the living room on her way back outside. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, because she wasn’t prepared for company, the couch still frumpy with her pillow and comforter.
Mark jumped up to open the sliding door for her, his ring glaring on his finger. He was a plain man, the type who must feel uncomfortable wearing jewelry. When had they met? When had they gotten married? Josie never expected to be invited to Eleanor’s wedding, whenever it happened, if it ever happened. She had made it a point not to even think about it. Part of surviving was not imagining all the things she didn’t know about Eleanor’s life. If she had wanted Josie to know things, she would have called again, or visited, or even wrote. But Eleanor had done none of those things in more than a decade. Before their last argument, she would always call, always be sure to make amends. Eleanor couldn’t abide conflict. But then she found a way, apparently. Those desperate voice messages trailed off and she just gave up.
Josie put the mugs down on the little tempered glass tabletop and took a seat, counting. Two decades. It had been two. Her feet were warm in her slippers, the grey flannel ones her sister sent for Christmas, just last week. Don’s chair remained empty.
“So, how was your holiday? I take it you were at your dad’s?”
“Yeah, we came over for Christmas. It’s Mark’s first one in the states. I’ve spent the last couple years in England.”
“I bet your family missed you,” Josie said to Mark.
He made a wave with his hand and smiled. “I don’t think they mind.”
He was not easily rattled. Maybe Eleanor married him because of this. The only boyfriend of Eleanor’s that Josie remembered was Larry, and they had dated in high school. He was married now to that blonde woman who worked in real estate and they had no children. Eleanor wouldn’t either, at this point, assuming she didn’t already. Josie let her eyes skim over Eleanor’s body. Her bulky jacket hid her shape; it was difficult to tell if her waist had spread in the way Josie’s had after pregnancy. Eleanor’s legs remained slim, her ankles showing in the gap between her jeans and shoes.
“We’ll see Mark’s family when we get back,” Eleanor said. “His parents’ll visit us for Mark’s birthday. It’s next week.”
“Oh a Christmas birthday. I always felt bad for people like that. Do you get combined gifts?”
He laughed, a sort of clipped unironic ho-ho-ho that startled Josie. “Sometimes. But I think they’re just far enough apart that everyone feels they have to give me two presents.”
“How was your holiday?” Eleanor sipped her coffee and her face relaxed. She seemed to actually like it black. Josie knew that feeling, the first sip of caffeine in the morning that seemed to melt away all the tension in her body.
“It was very nice,” Josie said. “Thank you for asking.” She didn’t want to offer any details, things that Eleanor would read into. Josie had been alone but it had been by choice. She went to see her sister in Florida for Thanksgiving and it seemed silly to travel again. Plus she didn’t want to leave her cat a second time. Noelle had a tendency to get depressed when Josie left for more than a few hours. It was sweet.
“So when did you get married?”
“In September,” Eleanor said. “It was very small, at this church where Mark’s parents got married in the middle of nowhere.” She cleared her throat again.
“Allergies?” Josie said.
“Yeah, I didn’t expect it to be an issue in the winter but it is.”
“Yep. It’s always something around here. I think it’s the moldy leaves. Gets me, too. I have some medicine if you want it?”
“Well, she’s been complaining about her allergies all week,” Mark said. “A sneezing machine.” He smiled at Eleanor, looking like he might clap her on the back, congratulate her for breathing.
“That would be great, if you don’t mind,” Eleanor said.
Josie went back into the house, down the little hallway that led to the bathroom. She passed her bedroom and glanced over the bed, the dresser, the empty jewelry box that had been her mother’s. It was progress. The door had remained closed until last week, and she hadn’t been in the bed since Don died. Preserving it was silly, she knew, but she couldn’t help it. He was there – he had been there, and a line had been blurred such that some part of her thought he could just as easily return if only she let things be.
She rummaged through the medicine cabinet. How many times in her life had she given Eleanor medicine? For allergies, nearly every day for years. For ear infections and strep throat. Eleanor had hated that pink antibiotic, made such a fuss over drinking it. Josie used to have to promise her a treat for taking her medicine, a glass of chocolate milk or a popsicle.
But now Eleanor would probably want to see the pill bottle for herself. Josie carried it outside.
When she was little and had a headache, Eleanor would ask for a head hug, and Josie would squeeze her daughter’s head tight against her body. Eleanor’s would go limp and she would say, that feels soo much better. How do you do that, mom?
Josie crossed the patio and tried to look into Eleanor’s eyes as she handed the bottle over, but they were lowered, her lashes bare, her lips dry.
“Oh, do you need some water?” Josie paused before she sat back down. It had been so long but was so familiar, the hesitation to sit, the anticipation of the things needed by anyone but herself.
“Nah. They’re little. Plus I have the coffee.” Eleanor tilted a pill into her hand. “One?”
Josie nodded at her daughter, a small sputter of satisfaction at being trusted with the dosage. She expected to see the same face Eleanor would make when she had to take the pink stuff, like she was drinking gasoline.
But she swallowed the pill quickly, like it was nothing. “How’s Aunt Nancy?”
“Oh she’s fine,” Josie said. “You know Shawna had twins?”
“Yeah, I heard. How old are they now?”
She heard, from who? Maybe the same person who told her where Josie lives now, or that Don had died. Anyway Eleanor never sent any congratulations to her cousin. Just kept tabs on her, apparently, with no intention of ever making contact.
“They’re in the terrible twos. But my sister loves being a grandma,” Josie said. “And I’m a pretty good great aunt. Those babies are spoiled rotten.”
“I’m sure. You’ve always been a sucker for babies.”
Josie raised her eyebrows.
Eleanor leaned forward. “Do you remember you used to tell me that when I had children you would take them for the first three years and then I could have them back?”
That was ridiculous. “I never said that.”
“You did!” Eleanor laughed, the tiniest creases appearing on the outside corners of her eyes. She was so loud now, that meekness from earlier lifted off her and slipped away like those butterflies Don used to follow around the flowerbeds. It was easy for her, laughter.
“I used to think, why would I let you have my babies? Why wouldn’t I want them? But now I get it.” Eleanor sat back in her chair and rested the mug on her knee. “I mean, I don’t have any babies, but I could definitely see the appeal of letting someone else handle those first years. It looks exhausting.”
“It is.” Josie sipped her coffee. It needed a top up. She put the cup on the patio, next to her feet. At least she hadn’t been missing out on grandchildren, too. “I did always think three was the hardest age. Maybe I did say that.”
Eleanor nodded, a creep of surprise across her face. She used to complain that Josie never admitted to being wrong.
Mark looked back and forth between them.
“My dad does butterfly audits in his back garden,” he said, gesturing to his mug. It still looked very full. Maybe she had added too much milk.
“Don did the same,” Josie said to him. She sighed, a compulsion to be polite overtaking her. “So, Mark, what do you do?”
“I’m an illustrator, mostly graphic novels.”
“Oh, like comic books? Don’s son used to love them. Batman was the only thing he’d read for a long time. Not like this one” – she jerked her head toward Eleanor – “always with her head in some massive doorstopper.”
“Well I can attest nothing has changed,” Mark said, smirking.
Eleanor smiled at him and there was Josie’s little girl again, her trusting gaze. Don’s son was twelve by the time Josie met him; he’d never looked at her that way. But neither did Eleanor, now.
“You know why three is the critical age?” Josie said, not waiting for a reply. “Up until then, they need you. But then they get more independent. They don’t want to know what you think anymore. Everything you do is wrong, even though you’re only trying to protect them.”
Eleanor nodded and her face turned somber. Josie seized on a new wave of satisfaction.
“And then once they realize you’re human, that you can get things wrong sometimes, or you have feelings and weaknesses, suddenly you’re useless.” Josie picked up her cold coffee and tried not to wince as she swallowed. “Why is it that mothers need to be invincible? You can’t be a mother – have the love and empathy – and be invincible at the same time. Those things just don’t go together.”
“Kind of like superheroes,” Mark said. “The hero’s greatest weakness is always love, huh?”
He sounded like he was having a friendly conversation. What version of events had her daughter given him?
Eleanor was staring at her lap, then looked up, into the sky, before saying, “I guess those things tend to be mutually exclusive. Power and love. You have to sacrifice one for the other.”
Josie shrugged. “What I do know is that loving someone forces you to give up control.”
Finally Eleanor locked her eyes on Josie, waiting. But what for? Her face was expectant, hopeful.
Josie forced another gulp of her coffee, and Eleanor looked away, stared down at the patio.
Mark leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees. “We all want to feel in control of our lives, don’t we?”
“That we do,” Josie said.
Eleanor looked up again, someplace past Josie, past the house. “I guess we shouldn’t keep you.” There was a slight tremble in her jaw. Maybe she was shivering. But then she stood up, her chair scraping against the patio and leaving a grey streak near the left front leg. She held her own cup and Mark’s in her hand. “Would you like me to take these in?”
“Just leave them.”
The four chairs sat in a loose circle on the smooth, white patio. From inside, Josie gazed through the doors, her breath fogging the glass.
And on rainy days Josie would find them glowing on the windows of her station wagon, two halves, almost touching.