The modern marriage has two states, plateau and precipice, and in the winter of our recent crisis—with markets plummeting and even rich folks crying poor; with the dark reign of one tinsel president finally ending, and the promised hope of a new man about to start; yes, with hope rising like a cockamamie kite and fear more common than love—Charlie Pepper forgot his wife.
He didn’t mean to. That much Lena knew. She paused at the kitchen sink on New Year’s Eve morning, the last day of the lousiest year of their lives, and considered what she needed and what she knew. The crab needed to come out of the fridge, at some point. What about butter? She’d forgotten candles. She needed another bag of ice. It had been a year since they’d even thought about a dinner. Since then the world fell down one black hole and she and Charlie fell down another; as yet no one had come back. But Obama was taking over in twenty days and Lena had hope. She also had a sick baby and no lettuce. And if years ago Lena and Charlie promised that their hearts would always be in synch, well, it was a fool’s promise, wasn’t it? For now their hearts were a cacophony of chuffing and banging, with Charlie’s motor driving like a great battleship and hers a bubbling alchemist’s pot. Then there were the children’s hearts: Theo’s drum sounded like quick boots pounding up the stairs, while Willa’s was more skittish, the flap-flap of gossamer wings. And there was a third heart so silent it took away sound.
“Usted esta mutada en el burro, tiene que seguir,” Glo called, on her way out the door after tending Willa half the night so Lena could sleep. “You’re on the burro, you might as well go.”
“Entiendo que el burro es fuerte.” Lena replied, hoisting the baby onto her shoulder. “Ahora porque no puede el tener un par adicional de manos?” The burro is strong, now why can’t he have an extra pair of hands?
Glo chuckled, her girlish brown fingers covering her mouth. Seven years ago, Glo crossed the border at night led by a coyote, leaving her two kids and her mother behind in Guatemala. Every Sunday Glo called home, and sometimes her youngest, Rosella, refused to speak to her. Yet here she was talking of Lena’s burros. It was life, this crazy life, and if you didn’t laugh it broke you. It broke you anyway, but it was better if you laughed.
All day Lena made lists and as she carried Willa up the stairs she started a new one. Butter, candles, ice. If, while working feverishly, Charlie forgot her and the kids, it was never for long. He forgot them repeatedly, at moments, across days, in time. Lena, five years younger but dog-aged in matters of love, likewise misplaced Charlie, with the all worry and push she had to nudge up the road. I ought to write it down: butter, candles, ice, she thought, when Willa started coughing again. Lena ran. Charlie was forty-seven, she was forty-two. They had five years between them and eight years of marriage to their backs and to say they were committed was to say they were in deep.
Yet they missed each other.
And Lena wanted—oh, she wanted—to be pressed deep inside her bones. But Charlie was elsewhere—it might be Uganda, or Boston, or an hour south in the office, or asleep in the bed beside her. Dear Charlie, grinding his jaw.
“Theo,” Lena called, grabbing the newspaper as she pushed down the hall on her heels. “I’ll have the door closed. Come find me, honey. Don’t shout.”
She kicked the bathroom door shut and flipped on the shower. As it roared to life, Lena whispered into Willa’s tiny ear, “That’s it, breathe.”Willa, ten months old, weighed just eleven pounds. In her short life she had been to the hospital a dozen times. With pneumonia, seizures, surgeries, not to mention those four months at the start. The doctors talked gravely of cognitive delays, and worse. Cerebral palsy was a phrase sometimes used. Lena stopped her ears. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe, it was that believing only took her so far. What Willa needed, Lena felt sure, was time. Lena’s job was to seize time.
As the steam built, Lena first stripped Willa to her diaper then peeled off her sweats down to her panties. Making a bed of towels on the tiled floor, she sat—for the first time all morning—with her knees bent, her back against the wall, showing the cabinets her real face, the face she let no one seeLena Rusch was irreverent, good looking, plucky. She had a fine if exhausted brain. This meant she couldn’t always recall the lists she made, or the ends and even the middles of her sentences, but she always started out with a bang. She was romantic and, worse, an optimist. Fate had forced her to be practical and stolid, too. The two sides rubbed. She was crazy for her children, her friends, chocolate, and news of any kind. She might be crazy for Charlie, too, if she came across him in the daylight once in a while. In other words, Lena Rusch was extraordinarily ordinary: she worked and reared and hardly slept; she began each day prepared for a surprise.
Preemies did best skin to skin. Lena laid Willa’s bare chest like a cloth across her own, and making sure her baby was upright with the world, she gently drummed on the tiny back. Willa moaned, burrowing her face in the cave of Lena’s neck. “Sweetheart,” Lena murmured. “Come on, come on.”
“There you are!” Jesse cried, throwing open the door. They were sisters, and though Jesse was much, much younger, they entered rooms as their mother had taught them, like a storm. “I’ve been shouting a lung out downstairs. Theo finally—“
“Shut the door, you noodle! You’re letting out the steam!”
Jesse did as she was told. But between the blasting shower and the stifling heat, she wouldn’t stay long. “What? Is she sick again?” Jesse folded her arms. “Poor pup. Poor you.”
“Nah. We’re fine.”
Technically they were only half sisters. Jesse, sixteen years Lena’s junior, was the product of a love affair their mother had, one of many, after Lena’s father died. She was as long limbed and blonde as Lena was curvy and dark. Their mother told everyone that Jesse was helping out with the children until she found a job, but Jesse was a child herself.
“So. What are you wearing tonight?” she asked.
Lena tipped her head against the wall and laughed. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Wear your green dress,” Jesse advised seriously. “It’s about time. And how ‘bout I wear your black?”
“Oh, yes.” Lena smiled wistfully. It wasn’t so long ago (in truth, it felt like a minute) that Lena was the one flying out the door to get wasted at high school parties while little Jesse flapped her hands from her bouncy seat. And while that was long ago, Jesse still manipulated like a child—openly, as if she were the only one playing for keeps. Sighing, Lena rubbed circles in Willa’s back. “I gave the black dress to Glo.”
“You what? You gave it to the nanny?”
“Not nanny. Glo.”
Truthfully, Lena would have given Gloria Angelica Cardenas anything—anything—for Glo saved Lena’s sanity every single day. And besides, the rapture on Glo’s face when Lena handed her the box was worth a hundred, maybe a thousand black dresses. Lena looked up at Jesse, deciding if she should take the trouble to explain. But Jesse was looking at herself in the mirror, continuing that frank, daily conversation women have with their faces. “Ugh. New Year’s Eve and no guy. I hate my life!”
Jesse turned. “Okay, Miss Veteran. When. When is he going to show up?”
Lena’s grinned slyly. “They always do.” At last Willa coughed, good and wet. It was enough. Jesse escaped, slamming the door behind her, as Lena put Willa to her breast. They would be there an hour. With one arm hooked under the baby, Lena spread the newspaper across her knees, where the steamy ink would stain her black. She didn’t care. This was the moment she’d been waiting for—">her reward being four full pages in the Times on Bernie Madoff and his colossal Ponzi scheme. Lena was in awe of Madoff, who, by promising steady returns of eighteen percent, had perpetrated the largest stock fraud in history. He’d swindled at every level, from the Wall Street fat cats, to relatives, to Palm Beach society, to grieving Jewish widows, to the mistress who claimed he had a small penis, to Mort Zuckerman, the media titan, to Elie Wiesel, the Auschwitz survivor, to Zsa Zsa Gabor. Yet in the photo on the front page Madoff showed no remorse. He walked the streets, a Jew with a George Washington haircut; he smiled like a shark for the paparazzi.