Kristy posted a video with her daughter. Four-year-old Emmie was reading aloud as her mother wrote on a small chalkboard. Kristy put her finger to her mouth, pondered, and wrote kind. Emmie read it. “Good!” Kristy exclaimed. “Now — ” She erased kind and wrote book.
“Book,” said Emmie. Kristy clapped. “Okay, now we’ll do a harder one.” Finger went back to mouth, and then she wrote marker. The little girl sounded it out. “Em, ay, ar, k-k-kay, ar. Marker!” The video got fast and slidy as Kristy hugged her daughter.
Ugh, chalk dust, I thought. And then I thought, There’s no way Emmie is actually reading. I heard Teddy playing with some blocks, narrating some strange evolving inner monologue. Why aren’t you reading? I wondered. You’re smarter than her. I looked back at my phone and played the video again. “One second,” I called out to my child from the bathroom.
It was morning, time to be with Teddy and my husband. We ate breakfast. “Banana,” I said. “Buh, buh, buh.” I hoped my son would yell, “B!” but he didn’t. I persevered. “What letter makes the ‘buh’ sound?” I asked him. “B!” my husband said, brightly, and I glared. “I know you know,” I said. “What’s your schedule like today? It would be great if you could start the grocery delivery order.”
“Oh, you know, the usual,” he said.
“No, I don’t know; that’s why I asked.” He looked down at his phone as he rose from the table, carrying the plate that had held his breakfast taco. My own appetite was entirely gone.
“I was thinking of making salads for lunch,” I said.
“Mhm, okay,” he said as he walked toward our room. “I have meetings and then . . .” He trailed off and closed our door, signaling the start of his workday, and I looked at our boy, who had eaten one whole bite. I shut my eyes for thirty seconds. When I open them again, I thought, this child will have eaten another bite of banana.
That night, I was propped up in bed by three pillows, reading an article about teaching your four-year-old to read. The topmost pillow was a marigold shade. It was square and sturdy and new. I wondered if I should also replace the other two pillows as well. C is for capitalism.
Apparently, children should end kindergarten knowing how to read. I flushed with pride, having been a child who read before kindergarten. If only my son could understand that he would be an adult someday, one who could tell people he learned to read before kindergarten.
“What are you reading?” my husband asked as he got into bed. He reclined on only two pillows. It takes all kinds. I ignored him. He turned to his phone. He said something about how things were getting worse. I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. I finished my article and turned to him. “What?” I asked. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
He sighed. “What were you reading?”
“Oh, I was reading about teaching kids how to read.” He nodded. We both gradually and naturally turned back to our phones. Then he scoffed. I furrowed my brow. Supposedly, it was a good idea to try running your finger underneath words as you read aloud to your child. I transitioned to the news; my husband was right — things were getting worse.
“You know, it only took me twenty-one minutes to drive to Astoria to pick up that Chinese food,” he said.
“Oh my God,” I said. It would normally take at least forty-five; that had been the only Chinese restaurant taking orders.
Our intercom had a camera on it. If you pressed a certain combination of buttons, you could watch the atrium of our building through its screen. It was a strange portal. Some days, Teddy and I just watched it, pressing those buttons, spying on our neighbors. Seeing what they were up to.
Our routine: Breakfast. Brush teeth. A chore. My son gets to watch something soothing and/or educational. In the living room, as far away as you can be in our apartment from our bedroom, which is the off-limits office during the day. Snacktime. Coloring. We work on letters or numbers. Then Teddy gets to play while I make lunch. We renovated our kitchen a year ago, so our freezer has a lot of space for hoarding. It’s very nice. Lunch is my favorite part of the day. My husband comes out of our room, and we all sit together. By the time lunch is ready, I’m hungry, and I eat it too quickly, then sit dumbly while my husband cajoles Teddy into finishing his lunch. From Teddy’s bed, lofted and Ikea rickety, we make video calls, going through a list of adults who like him until someone answers. He especially likes to tell made-up stories to a patient adult. Then naptime. During naptime, my husband works at the table in the dining room, open to the kitchen and living room. He’s near me, and I look at whatever it is we’re thinking about buying that week. I also google things like “chicken legs cast-iron skillet method” and “Bon App salad dressing list.” The end of naptime. My husband goes back down the hallway to the other side of the apartment. Then Teddy and I work on letters or numbers. Snacktime. I fill up the kitchen sink with bubbles and toys. Then I make dinner while he either plays or draws or watches something soothing or educational. My husband stops working, except on Mondays, when he has a 6:00 p.m. meeting with the other bosses at his company, and on Tuesdays, when he has a 6:00 p.m. meeting with all the people at his company. And then it’s bathtime, and then it’s storytime, and then it’s bedtime, and then I read my phone while we watch TV in bed. Usually, my husband gives our son his bath, in our not-renovated bathroom, while I frantically clean up the whole house. I hate clutter.
The routine is what it is, but what it is in aggregate is dull. The intercom’s screen sometimes shows us the old couple downstairs struggling with grocery orders and the blond woman upstairs looking at her phone.
Teddy happily scrawled over the elephant spread in his animal activity book. He loves animals, hates cars. I decided to make a little project. I made a cardboard sign, with a rainbow and glitter, that read “Word of the Day.” I pondered my handwriting. It was almost as good, as clear, as his preschool teacher’s. The image of his little cubby — the pencil-shaped card with his name spelled out on it, his teacher’s perfect handwriting — made me feel like crying. I looked up, hoping to avoid it. I almost managed, but some tears did well up. I turned my face away.
I stuck the sign on the wall. I looked over at my son and noticed he had colored all over the table.
When my son was gestating, I planned the books he would love, and where his bookshelf would stand. I bought a case of Dr. Seusses. I read articles about how to raise a reader. My husband and I had both kept one childhood book each, he Hop on Pop and I The Giving Tree. We placed them preciously on a Land of Nod shelf that a friend had bought off our registry; it looked as if it were leaning against the wall like a friend keeping you company while you cooked for them.
Teddy did love to be read to. He did love the bookstore. He did love characters, and stories. But when he turned four and I moved toward teaching him to read, he didn’t love that.
“Good,” I said. “Good. You know, we’re okay.”
My mom wrote to our family group chat: What is everyone making for dinner tonight? We’re doing coq au vin! My sister answered: Chicken noodle soup! I stared at my phone. They both lived not in New York City. I wished they’d asked if it was as bad as the news said so I could text back: No, it is much worse. I tried not to think of the hastily erected tents outside hospitals and the refrigerated trucks for storing dead bodies. Instead I typed: We are making chili! Good for leftovers . . . My mom replied with a photo of an industrial-sized square of toilet paper: Look what we got!!!!! I bought it wholesale.
I couldn’t believe it. Our grocery store capped toilet paper at one package per family, and often they were out. My husband had already bought a bidet, his idea to avoid the problem altogether; it was backordered.
I texted: Wow. Can we drive up to NJ and get some?
My mother responded: I don’t think that’s a good idea.
“I’m heading out,” my husband said.
I was startled. “Wait, what? Why?”
He sighed. “I already told you that me and Aaron have to go over some numbers together at the office.”
“In person?” I asked, confused.
He came over, kissed my head, and said, “It’ll be fine.” He shook the car keys in his palm. “I’ll be home for dinner; I’ll bring takeout. Text me where you want to support the most.”
A treat. Takeout from a different geographic area!
The Word of the Day was ice. I cracked a tray of it over the sink; Teddy played with it while it melted in the soapy water. “The ice floats,” he said and laughed.
I thought about what I wanted to eat but immediately felt guilty, so while Teddy chanted “I-c-e floats,” I went to my phone, searched “best restaurants to order takeout from in NYC right now,” and tapped a link. My favorite fried-chicken place let you order buckets to donate to hospitals, so I sent my husband the link to their menu. I texted him: Chicken biscuit for me and a side of brussels sprout salad, no bacon, and make sure you do the thing where you send the hospital a bucket of chicken.
Two hours later, my phone sent me the heart that meant he had read my text.
I was watching Daniel Tiger, and I was crying.
I had quit my job when my son came. My job now was to be with my son all day every day, and sometimes I wished that I also had a screen I was allowed to sink into. At least now we know what it will be like when the world ends, I thought. The schools will be closed.
It was part of my new job to keep our son away from my husband’s screens, from his meetings, from the people he saw. It was also my job to let my husband be alone while I made our house as comfortable as possible for us to live in through the apocalypse. That’s the way I thought of it — that our home would at least be the best place out of all the places to experience the end of the world.
That evening, we waited for my husband to come home, our eyes locked on the intercom screen, refreshing it, so we could spook him. We heard the door open, and he appeared, and Teddy pressed the “Talk” button. “Boo,” he screamed, and my husband jumped. We listened to him climb the stairs and giggled.
“I don’t want you doing that anymore,” he said to us as he entered our home. “That’s not nice,” he said, shoulders tensed, to Teddy.
At least when we were alone, my son and I could lie on the big bed with our books and stuffies and video calls.
Keep it together. All of it.
One afternoon, I made grilled cheese with garlic butter and brie. Every time I took a bite, I had to wipe the butter off my hands. I’d cut up brie, lightly toasted pieces of bread, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes for my son’s lunch. If we ran out of any of that, ever, it was an emergency. Thank God the store always had brie; thank God my son loved brie.
Eating with his eyes on his phone, my husband didn’t put his sandwich down once. I could hear his teeth pierce the crisp bread. I’d done such a good job on this meal, if I did say so myself. I did have to say so myself. He was handsome, but he had dark circles under his eyes, and his lips were chapped. He was getting thin. We’d bought a stationary bike, which he used every day, and his hair was overgrown and dark. So was his beard, and shadowy. He looked wild and wiry, which suited him, and for a moment I thought, How unfair.
“Everything okay?” I finally asked. He winced. His eyes crinkled the way they did when he smiled.
“No, actually,” he said. “Our numbers are down, and we’re not in line with our projections.”
“Doesn’t that . . . make sense?” I asked. He winced.
“Yeah, but, like, it’s still not good.”
“Okay, but I just think, considering, it shouldn’t be that big a deal.”
“I think I need to go into the office more,” he said. I nodded, thinking, Of course you do. Of course that’s not cataclysmic to me. I knew not to protest. I knew if he had to, he had to, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty for doing something he had to do.
He finished his sandwich and got up to go to the bathroom, his eyes still on his phone. My heart sank. Teddy looked at me and said, “More!” His appetite made me feel happy.
I’d asked my husband to please spend some time alone with Teddy on Saturdays. And he’d listened! But all they did was watch movies. I sighed.
From my bedroom, in bed, I could hear the Rock singing faintly as I scrolled through children’s phonics workbooks on Amazon. Yesterday, I’d sat with Teddy, moving my finger under the words as I read aloud. But he’d just memorized the book. He hadn’t been reading. I switched over to Instagram, where I scrolled through pictures of children, of food, of nature, of text. Birds were chirping outside. Maybe we should go somewhere, I thought. There was a cardinal sitting prettily on our patio planter. Its blinky movements transfixed me, and I watched until it flew away.
My phone vibrated in my hand, alerting me to a photo of the mountain of toilet paper my mom had purchased. She’d texted: We’ve barely made a dent, lol!
When I lay back down on my three cushions, I added birdseed and a birdfeeder to my Amazon cart, along with a dry-erase phonics workbook, and clicked “Proceed to Checkout.” My credit card information and delivery address autofilled.
I hadn’t gone outside in weeks. At first it had been cold, but it had gotten warmer, and I knew that if I didn’t leave my home now, I would never go outside again. I never even opened my front door. When my husband left, I hugged him on our welcome mat. This felt natural and easy. That was why I knew I had to fight it.
It was a bit chilly out. Teddy and I had matching Carhartt beanies in neon yellow. I knelt to tie a scarf around his face. Mine was black with large purple flowers, and his was blue and green with a little fringe. I kissed him — noisily, sillily — to make it feel normal. He laughed and scrunched his head and neck into his shoulders. My son, my little twin, except his eyes. They were a glorious bluish green that made people stop us on the street.
“We’re leaving,” I called to the room where my husband worked. He didn’t reply. I felt the physical pull of tears in my eyes and throat because I imagined us getting hit by a car, dying in the middle of a crosswalk, and having left without kissing my husband goodbye.
We went down the stairs, through the lobby; there was no one. We went outside. It was bright, the sidewalk gray, the little tree fences still upright like before. We could hear birds, and we were going to walk. “Left or right?” I asked my son.
“Trees with faces!” my son said.
The air on my skin tingled, and my feet wanted to move. I was happy to be breathing.
Walking became part of our routine. We had landmark destinations for Teddy to choose from. Should we say hi to your preschool? To your face trees? Wave to the playground? But our walks always gave me anxiety. It was a question of the people outside. They got too close. There wasn’t enough space. When someone brushed past me, when their jacket touched my jacket, my body shivered.
Teddy and I played a game. I let him run ahead of me as long as he stopped when I yelled, “Stop!” He was such a good listener; I trusted him.
One night, after bedtime, my husband turned to me and touched my arm. I turned to him too, to look at him, and we kissed. He pulled away and smiled at me.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
“I’m looking for a place we can walk,” I responded. I felt his attention drifting, and though for a fleeting moment I wished he’d turn to me again, I also didn’t mind when he didn’t. “What are you reading?” I asked.
He frowned. “It’s getting bad,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I read an article that said two million people could die.” Even just then, I heard a siren, faint yet there, hushed in the scheme of things but more alarming for its quiet.
“No, I mean at work — it’s all hands on deck.”
I showed him my phone. “Did you know there’s a bird preserve in Queens? It’s not that far, and there’s a two-mile loop. The blogs say it’s super family friendly.”
“Let’s go on Saturday,” he said, but he was still facing his phone when he said it, grimacing.
“Queen,” I said. “Like Queens, where we go to see pretty birdies!” “Q-u,” I said, “e-e-e-n.” During Word of the Day, we always played with a wooden puzzle whose pieces were shaped like letters. I’d pull out a letter and prance it around while I made its sound. The Q-shaped piece had an illustration of a queen on it. At “e-e-e,” I danced the elephant piece up my son’s arm, and he giggled. Then I lined the letters up to make the word. But queen was a tough one because it had a double letter and the puzzle only had one of each. I augmented with alphabet Elmo.
My son loved the prolonged e sound and began singing it to himself. He stretched his mouth out wide to say, “Eeeee,” losing his breath and then laughing. “Like bee,” he said. “Beeeeee.”
“Yes, that’s right!” I said excitedly. “Eeeee.” I laughed back at him. “Bzzzz . . .” We clapped and sang and got up to dance. “Eee, bee, see, me,” Teddy sang.
My husband opened his door.
“Hey, could you guys keep it down? I’m on a call.”
I stared at my reflection in the mirror. I liked to linger in the bathroom, despite the loose tiles. I only saw my son’s face when I looked at my own. The angles in my cheeks, which he’d get when he got older, and the movable nub of our chins. I washed my hands slowly, allowing the water to get warm, then hot. I looked into my own eyes — brown, plain brown, not blue like my husband’s or green like my son’s — and kept my hands in the stream, my shoulders relaxing, the heat feeling good. I left my hands in the water until it was too hot to bear. I looked different. My hair, my bangs, both growing out, the ends dry and fraying; I couldn’t get them trimmed. I wiped water on my hair and tried to get my bangs to reach behind my ears so that I could see what I’d look like soon.
If I wanted to be transformed, all I had to do was wait. I didn’t need to run every day, now that I had “all this free time at home.” I didn’t need to go on Noom and restrict my diet. I didn’t need the Peloton. I could just wait. When I was done waiting, I’d be different.
The door, the flimsy door that I’d wanted to replace, shook on its hinges. “Mama,” my son called. “I miss you! I want to show you something!”
Spring. My favorite season. The trees at our front windows slowly greening, then all of a sudden green. But spring meant there were more people at the bird preserve in Queens. When we parked, the lot was full. My husband and I made concerned eye contact. I got Teddy out of the car seat and knelt to put a mask on his face. I had bought our family masks from an Instagram ad: “Just Breathe and Keep Your Family Safe.” I looped mine around my ears.
As we started on the path, I had a bad anxious feeling. So far, it had been a quiet and deserted park; we’d only ever walked past a few people who were birdwatching with binoculars. Now it seemed that the word was out about the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Halfway through the loop, a large white man in his fifties bumped into me.
“Excuse you,” I said. My husband straightened, holding our son’s hand.
“Excuse me?” the man asked.
“When you bump into someone, it’s normal to apologize, or at least to say excuse me,” I said. He laughed.
“You’re weak,” he said. “You’re scared of the fuckin’ flu. Fuckin’ sheep.” I stared at him, then looked to the woman he was with. She appeared bedraggled, also white.
“I feel sorry for you, being with him,” I said to her. “I really do. Now get the fuck away from my family.”
We turned away. My husband reached for my hand, and the three of us went on until we had to walk in single file, passing a couple moving in the opposite direction. The path was too narrow.
When we got in the car, I said quietly, “We can’t come here anymore.”
“I wanted to fight him so bad,” my husband said. “I would have destroyed him.”
Our bidet came. I texted my husband a picture of the box while he was at the office: It came! He responded: OMG hell yeah I’ll install it tonight. When he came home, he seemed fired up. He kissed me and hugged our boy, making that growling noise dads sometimes make when they’re expressing love for their children. Then he disappeared into the bathroom, the Tushy installation video playing on his phone.
“They say this is only supposed to take five minutes!” he called out.
I made dinner. Mashed potatoes, chicken cutlets, roasted carrots. Teddy liked helping bread the cutlets. Flour, eggs, bread crumbs. Wrist-deep in breading, I heard my husband yell, “Shit!”
I ran to him, my hands up and elbows bent like a surgeon’s, bread crumbs trailing. “What is it?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He opened the door to the bathroom, and I saw water all over the floor. “A piece of our toilet was held together with glue, and it just snapped.” I stared at him. “Just let me know when you need to use it; I’ll turn the water back on, and we can keep a towel there to soak up the leak. I already messaged a plumber on Handy, so it should be fixed tomorrow.”
I went back to breading chicken cutlets, unable to blink.
I gripped my phone tightly, reading. Helicopters chopped the sky, replacing the sounds of birds and ambulances. I saw a burning McDonald’s, and I thought, Good. I saw masked faces marching, and I thought, Finally, this virus is good for something. I saw a burning police station, and I thought, Great.
My husband walked into the kitchen; I’d been standing at the counter, back to glopping polenta. He gave me a nice little kiss and said, “I’ve been hearing great things about Duolingo’s new reading app for kids; it’s called Duo ABC.” He stirred the polenta and lifted the lid on the sizzling Italian sausage and broccolini.
“Huh,” I said, distracted. I put my phone in my back pocket and began grating parmesan.
“So I ordered an iPad; it should be delivered soon.”
“Why?” I asked. He looked at me, trying to discern my density, I thought.
“For you and the kid! There are so many educational apps these days, babe.”
The plumber finally came while my husband was at the office; I’d learned, by then, how to turn on the water line to shit. I put on my mask and let the plumber in. He wore a bandanna. I closed Teddy in his room with some Cosmic Kids Yoga, the Very Hungry Caterpillar episode playing on my laptop. I could hear Jaime Amor’s miraculous voice. I opened all the windows, leaned against the kitchen counter, and took muffled breaths.
On my phone: pictures of protest signs, loaves of bread, links to bail funds. I clicked and donated. I scrolled through a Twitter account that listed actions. I saw a picture of a protester’s bleeding face.
A video call from my mother took up my screen, and I answered.
Immediately she asked, “Why are you wearing a mask in your house?”
“Oh,” I said. “A plumber is here.” She seemed to disapprove.
“How are the boys?” she asked.
“Oh, you know, we’re okay, but just okay,” I said. She nodded.
“I’ve been trying to get this kiddo to read. I figure, we’re home all day!” I showed her the “Word of the Day” sign: unicorn. That morning, we’d made unicorn horns out of toilet-paper tubes. Mine had gold glitter on it; his had silver, and the glue was still drying. “He liked the glitter better than the letter.”
“That’s great, but don’t stress too hard about an arbitrary milestone,” she said. She showed me bread she’d baked. “Look at this gorgeous sourdough.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Wish I could have some!” I almost added, “You know, there is still no flour in New York City,” but I didn’t.
“Please tell me you’re staying safe,” my mother said, “from those protesters.”
Just then, the plumber emerged from our bathroom to tell me we needed a new toilet.
We marched from Grand Army Plaza to Barclays Center. I stayed close to Teddy as anxiety bled into an unfamiliar form of happiness. It was a communal moment, which I recognized even as I experienced it, despite it being so long since I had experienced a communal moment. Holding Teddy’s little hand made me feel even more like I was where I belonged.
Teddy carried a sign that read “STOP! Police, Don’t Hurt My Friends.” He’d wanted it cut into the shape of a stop sign.
People shared hand sanitizer. There were drums, and everyone was chanting together, their faces hidden by masks. Teddy quickly memorized the words to the singsongy chants. He especially liked “No justice, no peace.” He was shouting it in his little voice that I knew would change so slowly I wouldn’t notice.
Eventually we broke off from the crowd, knowing it was time to go home. There were barriers everywhere and policemen laughing near them, guarding nothing ominously. Teddy pointed at them, rudely.
“They put people with chocolate skin in jail,” he told me.
I’d never heard him say the phrase before.
“And what kind of skin do you have?” I asked.
“Milk skin of course, Mama.”
I could never be the one to teach him everything.
Two uniformed men without masks were jeering at the crowds. They pointed a bullhorn and made it scream suddenly.
I was sitting on the toilet, shitting and scrolling through Maine Airbnbs in the quiet. The new toilet had been installed, as had the bidet. It was the end of a long saga. Already, the visceral feelings of anger I’d been repressing were fading. I was getting too used to the sudden disappearance of intense emotions.
I moved the map of Maine, looking for blue, and hit “Redo Search Here.” There were so many houses. Maine was allowing New Yorkers to travel without quarantining, and my husband had just gotten a quarterly bonus. I didn’t care that he didn’t want to spend it. It would be cooler, I would eat lobster, and we would swim and read and hike. Unfortunately, I wanted a water view, two bedrooms, Wi-Fi, and a good price. There were many mournfully beautiful but slightly flawed listings, and I had a fantasy of spending all of August in one of them.
“Look at it this way,” I’d said the night before, “we can either have the worst August of our lives or the best one.”
I texted him a link. There was a lake, a dock, a grill. “Comes with kayak!” it said. It was a small cabin, but I didn’t care. It was cheap, and I was already picturing myself looking for the largest pot in its kitchen. He responded: It’s perfect. Book it.
Excited, I read the listing once more to make sure it had everything we needed. FUCK, IT DOESN’T HAVE WIFI, I texted him. He responded with the death emoji, little x’s for eyes.
I grabbed some toilet paper before remembering to try the bidet. I turned the knob. Water squirted, hitting its target, and my eyes opened wide.
The box sat on the counter, futuristic, hermeneutic. It was shrink wrapped. I took a scissor to a crevice. My husband was at the office. My son had fallen asleep during quiet time. And I was setting up the iPad so that Teddy could learn to read from an app, because I had failed, because I wasn’t a teacher, and what Teddy needed was someone or something that knew how to teach a child to read. I opened the box. The shiny pressed cardboard slid against itself to reveal a reflective square. Our doorbell rang. I pressed the “Listen” button, and the mailman said, “Package for number three!”
“You can leave it; I’ll be right down!”
I skipped down the stairs and was confronted with a giant cardboard box, taped up, with a label that told me my mother had sent it. It wasn’t heavy. I struggled it upstairs and set it on the floor.
“What the fuck?” I mumbled.
I turned on the iPad and followed the set-up flow. I tapped, accepted whatever, input the Apple ID. “Sync?” it asked me. Yes. Then I waited. It was difficult to think of dinner in the August heat, but I had committed to thinking of Teddy’s dinner even on sweltering evenings the day he was born.
The iPad woke up. There were notifications in the text message square. I tapped unconsciously to clear the red circle. Messages were loading, and I noticed one, at the top, just a number, not a name. The visible message was: Do u like knowing I’d do anything to be inside u?
I tapped it. There were months of texts between my husband and a woman. There were pictures too, the most recent framed ribs down and reflected in our bedroom’s full-length mirror. I could see his skinny wildness, the new thigh muscles, his curly chest hair. I could see why he would appeal. He was a cute man, and so few exist. The picture before that was, I assumed, her asshole.
“Mama!” said Teddy as he ran into my legs. “I wanna watch,” he said. I quickly clicked the iPad dark and opened the PBS Kids app on the TV. “Dinosaur Train!” he yelled.
Once Teddy was singing along with the credits, I opened Apple’s Find My app, remembering years ago, when my husband had been sure he’d left his phone in an Uber, insisting that the Uber driver was lying to him about it not being in his car, only for us to see the little blue dot of his phone at our own address. He’d been sheepish, and I’d laughed.
The blue dot was at our address now too.
“What’s in that big box, Mama?” my son asked.
“I don’t know, honey, it’s from Gramma,” I answered. “Want to open it?” I grabbed the scissors again and sliced through the tape. He ran across the apartment. “Is it for me?” he asked. “I don’t know; it might be!” I said. “I hope it’s for me!” he said, then sighed.
When I lifted the flap, the inside was full of cardboard. Teddy reached his arm in, rustling. When he pulled it out, he was holding an empty toilet-paper roll. He threw tube after tube. They bounced hollow on the tile, rolling until they stopped, while I watched, numb. At the bottom of the empty box was an envelope.
I opened it. In my mom’s handwriting, there was a note: Thought you could use these for all your projects! Love, Gramma
I stood at our intercom, holding the iPad at my side, watching, pressing those buttons again and again when the screen timed out and faded. I’d watched my husband leave. Now I watched the blue dot of his phone moving through our neighborhood. A pause at my favorite Italian bakery and café, where people stood in line for bread. Only three people were permitted to shop at once. The iPad’s messages were silent. The blue dot was on the move. I imagined him driving, a fisted ham-and-cheese croissant perched above the steering wheel between bites. I imagined he’d ordered a macchiato and slammed it before getting back in the car.
Teddy was watching a movie I’d put on for him. I’d skipped Word of the Day. I didn’t want to choose a fucking word. Frozen pizza for lunch. My feet hurt from standing.
The blue dot moved back toward our apartment. I waited, refreshing the intercom camera over and over.
And then I could see them: his shadowiness, her blondness stark on the black-and-white screen like always. They walked past the camera. She must have met him there. They’d driven back together — she would have been in my seat, the passenger. They were laughing and he was behind her and he touched her ahead of him and she looked back at him and I only saw my neighbor’s blond hair moving and I felt cold. The screen faded to black, and I knew now what he’d been doing instead of letting me need him, instead of helping our son learn how to read (he’d outsourced that to an iPad, which had brought me to another evil little screen), instead of putting down his phone when I asked him to spend time with our son, instead of trying to get me to leave our apartment (he’d let me stay). And I knew now what he’d been doing instead of rubbing my shoulders, instead of cooking one lunch for himself, for us, instead of even just being inside our home with me.
“The end!” Teddy screamed. “The end!” Those were actually the words on the TV screen, and I smiled.