The first time I got my period, my mother drove us to an ice cream parlor—an old-fashioned establishment with pressed tin ceiling panels, a marble slab at the soda bar, and chairs with wire backs in the shape of hearts—to celebrate. We slid into the vinyl coolness of a booth and ordered a "Super-Scooper for Two," an elaborate banana split with four flavors of ice-cream, chocolate and strawberry syrups, nuts and whipped cream. Then between the pistachio and mocha chip, my mother, a high school science teacher, explained in dispassionate-sounding words the biological aspects of becoming a woman.
I was almost thirteen years old and many of my friends, having advanced to this stage of life already, had told me all I really needed to know. But I imagined my mother must have been looking forward to this occasion for some time now and so, to humor her, I didn't put up a fuss. Yet it was all so embarrassing—me sitting there, crampy and uncomfortable with a bulky rectangular cotton wad between my legs and my mother going on about Fallopian tubes and implantation. Although I wasn't hungry, I ate more than my share of the fudge sauce while she continued her monologue. I waited for the good part. My friend Cheryl, whose breasts were already the size of grapefruits and who, for a dollar, had let Arthur Bodinski touch them, confided in me that she'd wanted to grab him down there, but was afraid she'd have to give the money back. Another girl in my gym class had already kissed a boy, and told everyone in the locker room that he'd stuck his tongue in her mouth and it had the consistency of slimy seafood. So I'd hoped my mother would say something new, something that would explain why she and my father never had other children or why they didn't sleep in the same room anymore, but she didn't. She spoke about hygiene and making sure no one knew it was that time of the month. She said most people could sniff it out within five yards of a woman who didn't take care of herself.
"You're very quiet, Ilene. Any questions?" she said.
"Perfectly clear," I said.
The final punctuation to the conversation came with a gesture to the waiter to bring the check. Smiling at me in a way that was both proud and sad, she said, "One more thing before we go home."
She took my hand as we crossed the street and entered a stationery store where I often bought school supplies.
"Go choose a calendar," my mother said.
It was June and calendars for the current year were mostly gone. But behind a display of Father's Day cards I was able to find three: one with pictures of cars, another with owls, and still another with teddy bears. I opted for the owls although I really didn't like any of the selections.
When we got home, she handed me a red felt-tipped pen insisting that I draw a circle around the date, June 12.
"Mom," I said, trying, but not succeeding in holding back exasperation. "It's no big deal. You're making this into some kind of primitive ritual."
"No, this is important. Now you can keep track of your special days," she said. "You'll never want to get caught."
I knew what she was talking about. I remembered what happened to my friend Shayna who was called up to the blackboard this past semester. She'd worn a white skirt that day and the back had looked like the flag of Japan.
So I hung the calendar on my closet door and began to circle the dates each month. At first there was no regular rhythm to the marks, but eventually—in high school—the circles came in a predictable pattern. My calendars began changing, too. The cute animals gave way to rock bands, Sierra Club photos, political cartoons, and electron micrographs of cells. I could see myself evolving into the adult I would be by these calendar themes. But through all the metamorphosis, the blood red circles remained constant.
I was in my third year of college when I called my mother to say that the following fall I was moving out of the dorm and into an apartment with William—a boy in my genetics class, whom I was dating. The only reason I mentioned it months before the actual event was that I needed a co-signer for the lease.
"Please come home this weekend," she said. "We need to discuss this in person."
"There's really nothing to discuss," I said. "I love him and we want to be together."
"Have you told your father?" I hadn't.
My parents had divorced by then, my dad having fallen in love with another woman. It was an old story: a new hire in his advertising firm—young and eager. He tried to forget her and make a second go at it with my mother, but it came to nothing. The passion, if there ever was any, was not resurrectable.
"I don't believe in living together before marriage," she said.
I sighed into the phone, perhaps too loudly. "I know. You and Dad didn't." I stopped myself from adding and look how that turned out. "But you've got to know that everything is different now. Nice girls live with their boyfriends." I heard a click. My mother had hung up.
In the end, my father co-signed with hardly a word of advice, perhaps as a dig at my mother, who would, even several years after their break-up, talk to him only through a lawyer.
I still had a calendar—with pictures of atoms—on the inside of my closet door. Each month I drew another red circle, but now there were blue circles on the days I had sex. Since I met William, my calendar was loopy with circles.
But once we lived together, we drifted into a routine: classes, studying, grocery shopping, and cooking. At twenty-one, I was beginning to feel middle-aged. William worried about graduate schools, whether we'd both be accepted and whether we would end up in the same city. Despite these concerns, William insisted that we apply to different programs to minimize the competition. He made a list of the schools in the cities we were considering, writing a "W" or an "I" next to each. I watched him go through this process and didn't disagree, but sneaked off to the library to fill out my applications. William spent several evenings a week at Reilly's—the hangout off campus—and came home reeking of beer and smoke. "I need to unwind," he said. A few times I joined him at the bar, but I didn't want my grades to slip, so I mostly stayed in the apartment and studied. By mid-fall, we were making love once a week, if that.
It was late afternoon. The air smelled like snow. I hurried across the quadrangle to the genetics research building—a glass and steel structure lit up against the darkening sky. Dr. Redmond, my molecular biology teacher—someone I'd asked to write a recommendation—had called me to his office. Midterm exams had passed, but the bluebooks had not been returned yet. I'd thought I knew the material, but I might have blown it. My mind, lately, had been on William. He missed classes, slept during the day, and stayed up late watching old movies and drinking cheap scotch.
I found the office on the top floor and knocked. Dr. Redmond didn't answer, but I tried the door and it was open. He sat behind his desk, rummaging around as though searching for something lost. Then he looked up, and stood. He was young for a tenured professor—probably in his late thirties—with a reputation for brashness and brilliance. He was single, and somewhat of a curiosity among the students in our class. We often spotted him with women graduate students from other departments at campus events. He was very good looking and William hated him.
"Are you planning to blow off senior year spring semester, or do you want to work with me on a transgenic mouse model project?" he said.
I thought about the critical experience I would gain—even before I started graduate studies—and the chance to establish my own pedigree in the field. It didn't take more than a breath to say, "Yes."
"Which one?" he said. "Fun or research?" He glared at me. I understood that it was not appropriate to smile in response.
"I want to help you with your research," I said.
"Good," he said. "Now, something else: get rid of that boyfriend of yours. He isn't all that smart and he'll hold you back."
I wasn't sure if I should say something in William's defense, or if the silence that enveloped the room was enough of an answer. The truth—that William needed me and because of that, I needed him—was not Dr. Redmond's business.
He walked to the door, locked it and said, "You're so young. You've got a lot to learn about men."
I could hardly breathe. I blinked several times to clear my clouded eyes. It was as though my brain was stuck finding the right words; nothing came out of my mouth. He came close, reached down, unbuttoned and unzipped my jeans, and tugged them down, all the while staring into my face. We stood in the middle of the room: I, trembling in pink cotton underwear, he, fully dressed. In another second, he yanked my panties to my knees as well, and his hands were on my ass: caressing, circling, and kneading gently with his fingertips and palms.
"I knew you'd be soft," he said.
I could guess what was coming next. I could pull up my clothing, open the door, and leave. It was my choice. But then I thought about the graduate school recommendation and the research opportunity. There was so much I wanted.
His hands continued to explore. I began to relax. My skin felt fizzy. With the toe of one sneaker I wrenched off the other and freed my left leg from my jeans and panties. Dr. Redmond pushed me against the wall with one hand while he undid his pants and released himself with the other. After four hard thrusts it was over.
"Sorry," he said, with a nonchalance that might have been appropriate if he'd accidentally bumped into me in a crowded room. He quickly closed his pants and walked back to his desk. "It'll be better next time. Friday at five?"
I left. Snow was coming down in large, slippery flakes, making it difficult to walk. Even in the frigid wind, I could smell Dr. Redmond on me—a pungent, briny odor. The wetness seeping down my leg began to freeze, and I shivered all the way back to my apartment. William was not home yet. I found a green marker, added a circle to the calendar, and then took a long, hot shower.
Each Friday for several months I showed up at Dr. Redmond's office at five and without discussion or preliminaries, he locked the door and we had sex either on his rug or the scratchy sofa near his desk. He never undressed me more than was necessary to get the job done. He wasn't rough, but not tender either. He didn't kiss me or whisper words of affection. He hardly spoke at all. Once when I tried to caress him the way William loved, he said, "I prefer you lie still and let me do you." And when I wore black lacy panties underneath my jeans, he said, "Save it for your boyfriend. It doesn't turn me on." After that I gave up taking any initiative.
In the lab, Dr. Redmond spent time mentoring me, discussing how to set up and conduct experiments and then how to interpret outcomes. He was a different person there: patient, involved, and respectful of results. He was intense, but also full of humor. He treated me like a colleague. Seeing data emerge from my foray into genomics excited me more than having sex with him. He never alluded to our Friday afternoons except once, obliquely.
"I'll be back on Monday," he'd said on a Thursday morning. "I'm leaving for a conference in Boston."
I felt both relieved and cheated by his upcoming absence. It would have been thrilling if he'd asked me to go with him.
My work was going well, but I was fidgety because I hadn't received any acceptances to graduate school yet. William had heard quickly from his top choices: all were rejection letters. He spent a good deal of time on the phone with his parents and then right before Spring Break he announced he was going home to Baltimore for a visit.
"Let me come with you," I said. I sat on the bed watching him pull shirts and socks from the drawers.
For a moment he looked puzzled, as though I were speaking a foreign language, and then said, "Please, leave me alone."
"I don't understand," I said. I felt my face stinging with heat.
"Your future's all mapped out, isn't it? Well, I still have work to do on mine. Okay?"
"I thought our futures were supposed to be together," I said.
William was silent.
"Why won't you talk to me? I want to help."
"Stop patronizing me." He stuffed a pile of clothing into a backpack, and then slammed the door as he left the apartment.
I lay on the bed—the one we'd shared chastely the night before—and pulled William's pillow over my head. Breathing in his lemony shampoo scent made me sad. After a while, I picked up the phone and called my mother. Two minutes into the conversation, I knew I'd made a mistake.
"Call and apologize," she said. "You probably unmanned him. Try being sweet."
This was the same person whose venom toward men, spewing non-stop when my father left her, had evaporated once she started dating a successful thoracic surgeon. I could hardly even recognize her voice now; the edge had come off and a soft girlishness had taken its place. I wondered how long that would last. "Thanks Mom," I said.
Then I dialed my freshman roommate, Leanne, who lived too far away to travel home for the short recess, and suggested we get together that evening. She was surprised to hear from me. I'd badly neglected my girlfriends since I met William, but Leanne wasn't one to hold a grudge, and I was grateful.
Since everything on campus had closed down for the break, we took the bus into town and went to a little theater that played foreign films. Right before the lights went down, a wave of nausea washed over me—so fierce it stung my eyes. I ran to the ladies room and threw up. When I got back the film had already begun. "I've got to go. I'm sick," I whispered to Leanne, leaving her there with her enormous bag of buttered popcorn.
When I got back to the apartment, I continued vomiting for almost an hour. My body ached all over. After a glass of room temperature ginger ale my stomach calmed a bit and I walked down to the lobby to get the mail. The bulging envelope stuffed in the box was my acceptance notification from Johns Hopkins University. My eyes jumped all over the page, I was that excited, but when I settled down enough to get through the whole letter, I thought with dread about telling William. It was his first choice and I remembered the day he received his rejection.
"Fuck them," he'd said, flinging the letter together with his old course notebooks into the trash. "If they don't want me, they can all go to hell." He'd stormed out of the apartment and came back, with the help of one of his drinking buddies, at midnight, completely smashed. "Next to you, I'm just a nothing. A big zero," he'd cried in my arms that night.
With everything that was going on between us now, I thought this new revelation might trigger the end. I believed I still loved and needed him, but his erratic moods were pulling me into a deep, dark space where it was hard to know if he or I was the problem.
The phone rang. In a cheery voice, William said he'd be back the next weekend. On Friday, as usual, I showed up at Dr. Redmond's office. He was sitting at his desk, reading, when I entered the room and he didn't look up for almost a minute.
"What can I do for you, Ilene?" he said, finally, still holding the journal.
I stood staring at him, speechless, trying to understand the shift in reality. And then I did.
I swallowed and said, "I'm all set for graduate school. Thank you for the recommendation."
He smiled, waiting, I suppose, for me to leave. And I should have, but I had to push further.
"And I guess our time together here has ended?" I said.
He got out of his chair and sat on the edge of the desk. The look on his face was almost regretful. "Well, yes," he said. "When you first offered yourself to me, you were so enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy our physical activities as much as I did. But lately, I've noticed a change. You've been completely passive, simply tolerating it. And I won't force myself on any woman. Ever. I hope that's clear."
I thought about all the spoken and unspoken contradictions, and although I could have given him my version of the events, I watched Dr. Redmond return to the journal he'd been reading and thought about something my mother had told me once when she disagreed with her school principal: "Never piss off a superior. You never know when you might need him." I said, "Thanks again," and left.
As I descended the stairs, a girl I knew headed toward me. She was a junior who'd taken the spring semester course with Dr. Redmond and was pulling an A not just in his class, but in every course she took. Once in a while, she came to chat with me in the lab, always when Dr. Redmond was there.
"Hi, Ilene. Is Dr. Redmond's office on this floor?" she asked. I noticed she wasn't wearing a bra under her t-shirt.
Well, of course, I thought. My replacement. It hurt, but I could see the logic.
I pointed to the door. "In there."
"He asked me to stop in to see him," she said. "I hope I'm not in trouble."
"I'm sure you're not," I said. "Good luck."
William arrived home the next day. He burst into the apartment and smothered me, manically, with hugs and kisses. Before he had a chance to talk, I said, "There's something you need to know. I've been accepted at Hopkins." I braced myself for the aftermath—the anger and frustration that I had seen from him for less inflammatory disclosures.
"That's wonderful," he said. "I'm so happy for you. I'm happy for both of us,"
I was stunned. He smoothed my hair back from my face.
"Listen," he said. "I'm going into my father's business. It's all decided. And now that you'll be in Baltimore we can still be together."
His father was in the kitchen and bath remodeling business. This surprise was too farfetched for me to say anything other than, "That's what you want to do?"
"Look, Dad's partner is retiring in the fall, so I can learn the business over the summer and then step in when I'm ready."
"What about graduate school?"
"I know this is something I can do well. I can't compete with you in science. And I don't want to." He took a breath. "Try to be happy for me. Can you?"
"Sure. If that's what you want."
He lifted me, carried me to the bedroom and for the first time in more than a month we made love. As he slept that night, I lay awake contemplating the future, feeling, not for the first time, as though I were falling into quicksand and it wouldn't matter if I struggled or just let it suck me down; the results would be the same. And then I began to wonder what William would have done if I were not going to a program in Baltimore.
In the morning, I could barely get out of bed. The smell of burnt toast wafted into the room and when I sat up I felt lightheaded and nauseated. William was in a cheerful mood and brought me coffee before heading off to the library. I let it sit on the nightstand.
"Got to make sure I graduate," he said. I heard him humming in the hallway. I realized that it had been a long time since I'd seen him completely sober or without a hangover. He probably hadn't had a drink all week.
Still dizzy, I opened the closet door. With my blue pen in hand, I pulled down the calendar and then sat on the bed to study it. The current month had only green circles every Friday except the last one. I flipped to the previous month and began to count backwards: I found one lone red circle at six weeks back and one blue one at five. Panic rose into my throat so that I couldn't swallow. An enormous weight pressed against my chest. How was this possible? I was vigilant about taking my pills. Except one weekend, I couldn't remember exactly when. But I doubled up afterwards. It should have been all right.
I paced around the room, hyperventilating, and finally grabbed the phone.
"Mom," I said, when she picked up. "I think I'm pregnant. I need your help."
"How wonderful!" she said. "My first grandchild."
I began to cry, and when I finally caught my breath said, "I don't want to have it."
"Nonsense! There's never a perfect time to have a baby, but you'll manage. I have no doubt." I held onto the receiver trying to think of the next words I needed to say, words that would spell out clearly the help I needed from her, but she stabbed the silence with "I'm sure William is thrilled. We'll have to see about a wedding. It's getting to the season where it could be a problem schedule-wise, but maybe your father would want to hold the reception at his..." and then she paused for the effect, "...mansion."
"William doesn't know."
"Well, for God's sake, what are you waiting for?"
I spent the next few hours calming down and trying to figure out a strategy. One lone blue circle in all that time. And yet all the blue circles in the world still wouldn't answer the question: who's the father? But all that was beside the point. I was going to graduate school. I had plans. I could not be pregnant.
William arrived home late in the afternoon. I had pulled down the shades; it seemed wrong for the sun to be shining. He found me in my pajamas, sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at my feet.
"Ilene, what's wrong?" he said.
"I'm pregnant. I don't know what to do." I tried to control my trembling voice.
"Oh." The sound came out of his mouth as a long exhaled breath. He sat next to me and was quiet. We were both quiet. Then he put his arm around me and said, "I love you. Let's get married and have the baby."
"Are you crazy?" I said. "How could you not understand? I want to be a geneticist! It's my life's goal, what I've dreamed of since my first lab course."
And then he explained to me how we could have it all. It was so simple, he said. I would call the school and ask for a year's deferral. I would have time to have the baby and adjust to motherhood. In the meantime, he'd begin working with his dad and would support us. When a year was up, we'd get day care for the infant and I would return to my studies.
"Just think, this child could be the biggest genetics experiment of your life," he said.
I could pack my things, ask my father for a loan, terminate the pregnancy and the relationship with William, and go off to Baltimore on my own. That would be the simple way. I looked at William. His face was flushed with joy and anticipation.
"Please, please say yes," he said. "You're everything to me. You know that."
But was that really true? What was all the depression, anger, and drinking about if it wasn't at least indirectly about me? I sat for a few minutes, looking at the floor, and he let me think in silence.
"Are you so sure you're ready for this?" I said. It was the wrong thing to ask.
"No one is ever really ready," he said. "But we can do it."
He sounded like my mother.
And so we moved ahead as though everything had been fully discussed and decided. We went to the city clerk's office for a marriage license that week and returned the following day for a civil ceremony with Leanne as a witness. After that we each called our parents.
By the time graduation rolled around, I was resigned to the future laid out for me. My father came with his wife, and my mother, whose heart had been broken by her surgeon boyfriend, kept rolling her eyes in exasperation at everything my father said.
"Mom, please stop doing that."
"Doing what?" she said, but then laughed loudly.
William's parents, in contrast to mine, were reserved. They said almost nothing to me, and I gathered they hadn't known about my existence until our marriage.
During the ceremonial procession, I spotted Dr. Redmond walking in his cap and gown with the faculty. I was surprised that he would condescend to do something so traditional. Perhaps it was a requirement. As I watched him, it dawned on me that this would be the last time in my life I would see him. I vowed to put him and all the nagging doubts out of my mind and go on. I was married and having a baby and everything else was past tense.
I had gotten a one-year deferral to enter graduate school—a phone call and some paperwork was all it had taken—and we were moving to Baltimore to an apartment in the Mount Vernon neighborhood. It was walking distance to the business, allowing me to have use of the car. But I had no idea what I would do for the five months until the baby was born.
My nausea and loss of appetite persisted even after we settled into our place. William's parents were subsidizing us, and in exchange, although it was never stated bluntly, we were expected to visit them for dinner: a three-course vegetable soup, roast chicken, and chocolate pudding affair that never varied, every Sunday night. They were polite, but bland people, and showed animation only when talking about their son. They pulled out photographs almost every time we came over.
"Here's William at three. And here he is again the first day of kindergarten. Look how cute he looks," his mother said.
"Who's that?" I asked, pointing to a tall girl in one of the pictures.
"Oh, that's Bug," William's father said.
Bug, it turned out, was the bizarre name for William's older sister. Nothing more was said about her. When I asked William, on the way home, why he'd never mentioned Bug, he said, "We never really got along. I was always Mom's favorite and she was jealous." When Bug was finally asked over for dinner to meet me, I found out from her that she was single, living a few blocks away from us, and had a job with an insurance company. I also noticed that she had strange habits, such as playing with her eyebrows when her hands weren't otherwise busy and sticking her tongue inside her cheek so that it looked like she had squirreled away a large wad of gum. I wondered how Auntie Bug would behave toward the baby once I gave birth.
I quickly established a routine. Each morning, William would kiss me goodbye and as soon as I was sure he was gone for the day, I would grab my purse, get in the car, and hit the interstate, driving for hours with a bag of salted tortilla chips, the only food I could stomach, on the passenger seat. I explored central Pennsylvania and once, driving south, made it all the way to Richmond, Virginia before turning around and getting back to the apartment just in time to scramble up dinner for William. On the road, the white lines called to me, daring me to cross them; the exits seduced me, daring me to take them. I imagined that I was a different person with a whole set of different options living in York or Carlisle or Allentown. I conjured up a new name and tried saying it out loud. But then the baby would kick and I would come to my senses and drive the two of us home.
I wasn't gaining weight and the doctor was worried. Little of what I ate stayed down. Despite my feeling sick all the time, we began to have something resembling a social life—with William's high school buddies, big athletic guys, none of whom were married, but who had girlfriends I could imagine my mother calling common.
"Guys, this is the little woman," he said, introducing me.
As we drove home, I said, "Calling me the little woman makes me uncomfortable. It's like saying my old lady or my ball and chain. It's disrespectful."
"Jeez Ilene, this pregnancy has made you so damn touchy." We drove for a while in silence and then he said, "And another thing... you ought to do something about your hair. Maybe ask Gary's girlfriend where she had hers done."
Four weeks before my due date, I gave birth without much difficulty to a tiny baby girl we named Celeste. I called my mother from the hospital.
"Couldn't you wait until next month?" she said. "I'm about to leave on a Caribbean cruise with Tom. Well, never mind. I'll visit you when I get back." I had no idea who Tom was.
I was terrified about everything connected with mothering, but most of all, I worried why I wasn't bursting with maternal love.
"You're just exhausted. Take a deep breath and go with your instincts," Bug said. She had taken to popping by in the evening, washing the baby's laundry, and helping cook meals. She was a godsend, and I regretted my initial impression of her as a weirdo. She took my side when William blamed me because my milk wasn't adequate to nurse Celeste.
"What did you expect?" he said. "All you ever ate were chips and crackers."
"Shut the fuck up, Billy," Bug bellowed. "When you become a woman and have a kid, then you can have your say."
But by the winter, Celeste did not appear to be growing as rapidly as she should. Her pediatrician diagnosed an opening in the wall between the chambers of her heart. We took her to a specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital to confirm it.
"In many cases, the hole will close up by itself in time, but if not, we might have to go in and fix it surgically," he said.
I tried not to panic. After all, the cardiologist was calm, as though this were a routine matter. But my legs were shaking as I thought about a scalpel cutting into that tiny chest. Bug, who had taken off a day from work to come with us, put her arms around me and said, "Everything will be all right. Don't worry."
For each check-up, I returned to the hospital with Celeste. Pushing her stroller in the lobby one day, a man and woman, close to my age, wearing lab coats and holding the kind of bound notebooks that are used for data collection, crossed my path and entered a seminar room. A profound sadness wedged itself into my heart so sharply that I had to stop to catch my breath.
During the summer, the doctor told us it was time for Celeste's surgery and scheduled it for the first week in September, the week I was supposed to start graduate school. I called the dean and asked for another deferral, but was told it wouldn't be possible; I would lose my spot and would have to re-apply with all the other applicants this year if I didn't show up. William tried to be encouraging, telling me that I would surely be competitive at a later time, but I was certain that I would never have another opportunity.
And so I became a stay-at-home mother, while Celeste, her apricot-sized heart patched successfully, recovered from the operation. She was a beautiful little girl, growing well now and starting to crawl around the apartment. William was staying late at the store several nights a week and eating supper at his parents' house to discuss business away from the employees.
"The time between Labor Day and the holidays is a busy one for us," he said. "Our customers want a new kitchen before Thanksgiving or Christmas."
"It's just that it's lonely all day with no adults to speak to."
"I'm doing this for you—for Celeste. Please stop complaining all the time." And so I did.
When our daughter was finally walking and saying a few words, he said, "Celeste should be in day care now and you should find something productive to do."
"I just want to make sure she'll be all right," I said.
"Ilene, you've turned into such a neurotic. I hardly recognize you."
It was true. I wasn't anything like the person I was when we were in college. The metamorphosis was astounding; our roles had completely reversed: William was the self-assured, take-control manager, and I was the sniveling, diminished nobody.
I tried to talk with my mother when she finally decided to visit us.
"Get an education degree and teach science," she said. "It worked for me."
William agreed that it was a great idea. My summers would be free to spend time with Celeste. I said I'd think about it, but my heart was set on getting back to the lab. I hated the way my mother cozied up to William, listening to him with rapt attention, helping him shape my life. I wanted her to leave.
As Celeste grew, maternal love and bonding finally kicked in, and it felt right. She showed signs of intelligence: she spoke early and was curious about everything. I loved watching her develop and looked forward to taking long walks with her and explaining how things worked. Even at her young age, she had the mind of a scientist. Celeste and Bug also developed a special relationship. Bug had taken to hanging out at our apartment whenever she was free, and brought her niece presents for any little occasion. One gift was a book of stickers. Celeste pulled off a picture of a spider, pasted it on her aunt's sweater and said, "Bug. You. I love." I, too, loved Bug; she was the best friend I'd had in years.
When William and I had been married almost three years, little clues began to seep into my consciousness that he was interested in another woman. It was like becoming aware of a disease where you ignore the symptoms at first, but then as they intensify, the reality hits you hard: you are sick. I asked Bug what she knew. At first she shrugged and said nothing, but when I began to cry, she said, "There is a woman, a salesperson at the showroom. I know he had dinner with her once. I was getting take-out and I saw them. Everything had looked proper, from what I could see. But still." She came over and put her arm around me.
"Billy was always an immature brat. My parents let him get away with everything," she said. "Perhaps even a little crazy, with his mood swings and drinking binges."
"He thinks I'm the unstable one," I said.
"Honey, you're a mighty oak compared with him."
That night I sent an email:
Dear Dr. Redmond,
I hope you remember that I worked in your lab several years ago on a transgenic mouse model. I never did get to graduate school because of a difficult family situation, but now I find I need a job and wonder if there might be an opening for a research technician in one of the genetics labs on campus—either yours or one of your colleagues. I would be grateful if you would find out for me. I am still passionate about science and want to get back into the field.
Your former student,
While I waited for a response, I began to pay more attention to William's comings and goings. One night, when he said he was having dinner with his parents in order to discuss business with his father, I called their home. I chatted for a while with his mother who never mentioned his visit. Late that night, he slid into bed and I detected a faint floral fragrance combined with the muskiness I always associated with his lovemaking. I turned on the light.
"If you're going to cheat, at least have the courtesy of showering so I don't have to smell it on you," I said.
"Well, maybe it's good that you know. You're a mess, Ilene. This is a wake-up call that there will be more of this if you don't shape up."
In what seemed like an eternity, I received a note from Dr. Redmond:
Ilene: I do remember you—a very bright young woman. We wrote a manuscript that included your work and you are one of the authors. The paper should be out next month. I am sorry to hear about your difficulties, but I did manage to find out about an opening in Dr. Sommer's lab doing analyses of tumor genomes. She has a grant and needs someone as soon as possible. Call her for details. Steven Redmond
I began to plan my escape. I called Dr. Sommer, who explained the project she had in mind, and, after hearing about my experience in Dr. Redmond's lab, hired me. I found a small furnished apartment near the campus and a babysitting cooperative a few blocks away. I was exuberant for the first time in three years. I was getting my energized life back. The only person I confided in was Bug.
"I'll drive you there," she said when I told her about what William had admitted to me. "Just get your things together. You and Celeste deserve better."
"But I'll miss you terribly, Bug," I said.
"I'll come to see you both whenever I can get away," she said. "You're my family now and always will be."
The night before I left I took the baby seat out of the car and brought it into the apartment.
"What's that doing in here," William asked when he came home at midnight, reeking of scotch. He had not yet seen the piles of clothing, books, and belongings I would cram into Bug's car the following morning.
"I'm leaving you. I'm taking Celeste and going," I said. "I no longer want to remain with a man who thinks he did me a huge favor by getting married, who's never here for us, and who has shattered our wedding vows by sneaking around with other women."
"Leaving? That's a laugh. Where would you go? And talk about sneaky. Tell me you didn't get yourself pregnant so I'd marry you."
"If you want to rewrite history, be my guest," I said.
In the morning, William took the car and was gone. When Bug arrived, I was ready, surprised at how little I had accumulated in three years, as though I had been in a temporary position. I opened the closet to do one last check. Inside the door my calendar swung on its hook. It was practically pristine: only a single red circle per page, just like when I was in high school. Well, that seemed fitting; I was starting over. I tossed the calendar into the garbage, clasped Celeste's hand, and walked out, closing the door behind us.
Title image "Calendar Palette" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2015.