NOT THINKING, I MENTION the Year of Breaking Glass in front of Ben. His face tightens, but he doesn’t pretend he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, or doesn’t hear the faint yearning in my voice.
The year was more like two years, on and off. Glass exploded and covered my couch or kitchen sink, and Ben’s wife stood outside of my house with a shotgun. I lived outside city limits; we heard gunshots every day, but I’d never been shot at before. I’d hardly even been yelled at. I was aflame with guilt. It was thrilling, and so was the sex.
Shattered: two marriages, five childhoods, eleven windows, and one car. Ben and I picked our way across rubble every day. Eventually we made a path, and the sex settled down. Since he came home to me every day, I wasn’t thinking about him all the time. I was thinking about his wife.
After she cleaned out their savings accounts, she got a job at a Porsche dealership. Her father had been a touring-car racer and had taught her some moves. Sometimes I sit in the dealership parking lot and watch her demonstrate torque vectoring on the closed track. The car makes a U-turn so tight it almost retraces its tracks, as sexy as a hand resting on the curve of a back.
Like every divorced woman, she dropped ten pounds and dyed her hair. If Ben met her for the first time tomorrow, he’d find out her favorite song and be sure to get her number. I know his moves. I also know how much he’d love a perfectly designed, perfectly functioning car. He likes perfection, as he used to tell me on milky afternoons on the floor of his classroom, the door locked after the kids left. When I finally go over to the dealership, I’m just saving him time.
“Unless you want to buy a car, I’m not interested in talking to you. And I know Ben can’t afford this,” she says.
“I make money, too,” I say. Not much—I teach at the same school as Ben.
“The thing that puts Porsche ahead of its competitors is handling,” she says. Her shoes easily cost three hundred dollars. She doesn’t bother trying to pronounce the heavy German word correctly. When she eases into the driver’s seat to demonstrate the gearbox, her skirt rides up her thighs.
Ben comes home an hour after I do and pads around the kitchen, mixing us drinks while I boil ravioli. He kisses me and I tell him to brush his teeth. “That bad?” he says.
“Could use a little freshening.”
He pulls my head to his shoulder, using more force than he has to. “Love me?”
Zero to sixty in 4.3 seconds. I’ve been letting my hair go gray, and on the spot decide to start dyeing again. Ben comes back into the kitchen and breathes mint at me. I hold up sauce for him to taste, and he says, “Now it doesn’t taste good.” The gin does, though. It’s been a long time since we had gin for dinner, and when the room spins we fall to the couch, not the bed. “We’re getting old,” I say.
“That’s been happening.” I want to sleep on the couch, but he makes me come to bed with him.
When I return to the dealership, Ben’s wife shows me the 911, so beautiful I can barely speak in its presence. “How do you plan to explain this to Ben?” she says.
The driver’s seat is tilted back so that I feel cupped. It’s enough to make me feel as if I’ve never been held before. “I have no idea.”
“Well, that’s your MO.” She must use something to keep her skin dewy. The blood of ex-husbands, Ben would say. I have an ex-husband, too, but he is not part of this story. The monthly payments on a 911, even with my income, would cripple us.
That night is Ben’s night to cook, and he reheats the untouched ravioli sauce. I sit at the counter, swirling my wine. “I have something to tell you.”
“I want to buy you a car.”
Relief arcs across his face. “What if I don’t want a car?”
“You’ll let me buy it as a favor to you.”
“I’m constantly surprised at what I’ll do,” he says. He doesn’t care for ravioli, and tomato sauce sometimes inflames his delicate stomach. We are near the end of the month, and he is concerned about deposits getting made. The alimony is a substantial percentage of his teacher’s salary. He is convinced that his ex-wife is hiding income from the courts so that his payments remain high.
Through the bad time, through the broken glass, he told me that I showed him what forgiveness looked like. While I huddled alone, afraid to turn on the lights because they would show her where the windows were, I clutched the memory of those words. Now I sit up at night and watch TV in well-lit rooms.
The next time I go to the dealership I tell his ex-wife, “He and I drink too much.”
“No surprise there.”
“His blood pressure is high.”
“Your problem, not mine.”
“I dream of you waiting outside of our house.”
“I’ve moved on.”
“Those are happy dreams.”
She revs the engine of today’s car, the Boxster, and says something I can’t hear. When the engine settles down again, she says, “I shot out the windows of a cheater, but she was passionate. Don’t just become a bitch.”
“It worked for you.”
She flashes some more thigh. “We have financing plans.”
When I get home, I stand in the middle of the kitchen and drop a potted fern onto the tile floor. Dirt and clay shards and leaves fly. I’m dropping wine glasses by the time Ben comes up from his study. He grabs my hand, not gently.
“You’re cleaning this up, not me,” he says.
“What if I say no?”
He’s thinking. My breath is ragged, my heart a frantic bird. “Christ,” he whispers, and walks away. I haven’t told him about the car in the garage.
WHEN FATHER TOM comes to a party, people look embarrassed, even the ones who invited him. At wedding and funeral receptions, he sits at the table with the great-aunts. He is the necessary conduit, but he frightens people who hear “priest” and imagine no house, no family, no sex. “You must have started so young!” a parishioner recently said to him. “I’m always surprised when young men….”
She faltered, and Father Tom was moved to pity. “Me, too,” he said.
He didn’t start especially young. He went to college, got a job as a loan officer, and tried to understand the misery that swept over him every morning when he cinched up his tie. He had a girlfriend and met his car payments. There was no reason for him to find himself standing in his apartment garage with a rope and instructions he’d downloaded for tying a noose.
“I’m glad you didn’t follow through,” said the priest Tom talked to later, because a priest was cheaper than a therapist.
“Bad at knots,” Tom said.
The priest thought Tom’s answer was God, of course, and Tom forgave him for that. It was the priest’s job to think that despair at life’s unsolvable monotony could be solved by God, and it was Tom’s job to listen politely, go home, and get any ropes or extension cords out of the house.
He was back at the church a week later. “Give me something to do,” Tom said, and the priest handed him a rake. Three hours later, when he had sweated through his flannel shirt and streaked his face with leaf dirt, he felt better than he had in months. “What else do you have?” he asked the priest, who told him to come back after he’d had a shower.
He tutored kids in math and washed forks after the parish potluck. He vacuumed the sacristy. He braced himself for the inevitable next talk about God, which came like clockwork. “How can you be so sure you’re not priest material?” the priest said.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” Tom said.
“You don’t have to be sure about God. You just have to believe in God’s work,” the priest said, words that Tom could not resist. The work—God’s work, whatever—was everywhere, the world bleeding from every orifice. “How can you stand it?” his girlfriend asked after he spent a weekend locked in with violent offenders.
“They’re people, too,” he said lamely. He felt coherent when he was with the killers and freaks. He felt alive. When he moved toward ordination and one examiner after another asked him whether he was sure he had a vocation, he told them, “I don’t think anyone can be sure. But I feel close to myself when I’m doing this work.” Once upon a time, the examiners would have pressed him about whether he felt close to God, but no one talked like that anymore.
Now that the vows are finished and the rest of his life is signed away and set out to collect dust, he’s tired of being close to himself. At the end of the day, after the meetings are finished and the computer shut off, the unanswerable questions return. When his mother was close to death, she caught at his sleeve and pulled until his ear was next to her mouth. “I’m afraid,” she whispered.
“I’m not supposed to be afraid. It means I don’t have faith.”
She shook her head. “I’m going to go to hell.”
She died two days later, and nothing the mortician did could erase the terror from her face.
He prays for her, of course. But there isn’t enough prayer in the world. Not for his mother, not for the hemophiliac girl he knew in grade school who got knocked down and bled out on the playground, not for continents full of children waking up with a stomach full of hungry and no food for miles. No one has answers, his confessor has told him. Is that supposed to make Father Tom feel better?
One night, maddened by his circling, ceaseless thoughts, he dropped to the worn carpet and forced himself through push-ups until his arms gave out. He hadn’t done push-ups since he was in high school, and his arms burned after twenty, but at least he quit thinking about the argument he’d had with his mother the night before he started college, the one that left her weeping in the bathroom after he told her that heaven was a fairy tale. In the morning he made himself pray the Daily Office, which he skipped so often he hardly remembered how to do it.
The trick is to drive away thoughts. No wonder the ancients believed in demons; as far as Father Tom can see, demonic possession is a perfectly reasonable way to interpret the memories that assail him. “Do you have trouble not thinking about sex?” his confessor asks in a confiding tone. Sex is the least of it. Father Tom remembers his girlfriend’s face, scrubbed of emotion, when he told her he was going to become a priest. “So I get dumped for Jesus,” she said.
Sometimes he prays, sometimes he does squats or jumping jacks, one week he drank a glass of water every half-hour, peed like a racehorse, and lost two pounds. These actions—mortifications, to use the old word—make him a better priest, a better person. If he’d discovered discipline a little sooner, he wouldn’t have made his mother cry and might never have entered the priesthood. Wearing his belt one notch too tight, he counseled a gay fourteen-year-old for three straight hours. The boy was cutting himself; he showed Father Tom the neat scars laddering up his leg. Father Tom shifted in his chair, feeling the belt sawing at his soft waist. “What would happen?” he said, leaning forward. “What would happen if you never cut yourself again? What if you made peace with the dryness in your heart?” The boy is in college now, and his mother thinks he’s happy.
A few weeks after that counseling session, Father Tom holds a blade against his thigh, bouncing it lightly. The razor blade makes a light pinging sensation on his skin; it’s keen and unexpectedly lighthearted. Father Tom is teasing himself; nothing will come of this. He has too much work to do. Just a week ago he agreed to spearhead a new outreach to troubled youth downtown, an agreement he made while knuckling a finger backward painfully under the desk. “I’m so glad,” said the social worker who had called the meeting, a brisk woman with a terrible haircut. “No one reaches people better than you do. Sometimes I think, when I look at you, that I’m seeing the face of Jesus.”
“Jesus is either horrified or laughing himself sick,” Father Tom said.
“You need to learn to accept a compliment, Father.”
“Thank you,” he said, forcing his finger back a millimeter further. The woman meant to be kind, and he was not ungrateful. She had no way to understand that Father Tom and Jesus have worked out their own understanding. Death, which Jesus treated so cavalierly, will eventually come to save Father Tom, and then Father Tom will believe. In the meantime, he will practice the little deaths, every day. It is a life. It makes him happy.
WHEN HER DAUGHTER is finished trying on clothes, Mrs. Bryant watches the young woman head out to the parking lot, then comes back to the dressing room and tries on every piece her daughter just discarded. She judges her arms in the silk tank, her butt in the Japanese denim, alert for sag or pull or dimpling. I make no comment when she cries. She’s probably forty-five, could pass for thirty-five, wants to be twenty-five.
The other sales clerks circle Mrs. Bryant, who is blood in the water. One day, when I wasn’t working, another clerk sold her two thousand dollars’ worth of denim she will never, ever wear. “We’re not running a charity here,” said the other clerk. Not at Barneys’ prices, we’re not.
Mrs. Bryant’s hair shines like ice over her shoulders. Her bras and panties match; when Mr. Bryant undresses her he finds a lovely little package. The wallet inside her handbag costs as much as my monthly rent. These are not reasons to hate her. When she comes into the store she looks as dazzled and lost as a child. This isn’t a reason to hate her, either.
I’m not normally a nice person. Once I sold a girl a pair of eighteen-hundred-dollar Manolos that were a full size too small; she was already limping when she posed in front of the mirror. “Look at how they lengthen your legs!” I said.
A customer looks at a pair of shoes and thinks about the night they would mean—the party they promise, the pictures, the life. I help her see that life, and then I embellish it, because it’s my job to see more than she does, and to increase her joy.
Mrs. Bryant doesn’t see a new life. She drags in her daughter, who flees after half an hour. Her daughter started college, then stopped, and now has started again. “I don’t know what she wants,” Mrs. Bryant says. Her daughter’s first major was something like economics, or maybe computers. The new major at the new college is foreign relations, which Mrs. Bryant can remember because her daughter keeps bringing foreigners home.
“I’m not very smart,” Mrs. Bryant confides. “So I have to look good.”
“You’re right,” I said. She’s already trying to see the future, making plans. That makes her smarter than most of our clients, who can’t imagine seeing past tomorrow.
Mrs. Bryant doesn’t know my name. After all this time, this embarrasses her. Every once in a while she takes a stab, murmuring Linda or Sharon. It’s Emma.
Yesterday, while admiring her in a cocktail dress with a back so low the fabric looked as if it would slip right off in a shining puddle, I said, “I have breast cancer.”
“This would be a good dress for you to wear. No one would be looking at your front.”
“But I don’t go anywhere I could wear that dress.”
“Wear it to work,” she said. She left without buying anything, but she’ll be back. I haven’t worked here for seventeen years for nothing.
None of the other sales clerks know that I’m sick. Treatments will start soon. I’ve bought a wig and told my oncologist that the most important thing is suppressing nausea. “I can’t go darting out of the dressing room during a fitting,” I said.
“You can’t expect to keep working,” she said. “Soon the fatigue will just be too great. You need to make plans.”
“You’re a size six, aren’t you? But such a lovely, long torso. You should come in. I have a blouse that will look like it was made for you.”
“You’re trying to change the subject.”
“Do you want me to hold the blouse for you?”
A different sales clerk would have flattered her and called her a four, but my way is better. Soon she will trust me, and then she will stop talking about me not going to work, where I can find clothes for her and hide them from the other clerks.
I’ll be able to lie down when I get home. There’s no one in my apartment who needs anything. The husband left when I told him to, with a minimum of fuss. The boyfriend proved stickier. He liked having an apartment with clean windows.
“No kids? Really?” We met at a cocktail party, which I thought meant that he often went to cocktail parties. I was still young, and dumber than Mrs. Bryant. I didn’t know that he was an electrician, a project of the hostess, and when I did find out, an electrician seemed exotic. He was handsome, of course. Projects are.
“Is that strange?”
“Don’t you want some of you to be in the world after you die?”
“I think the world has all of me it needs.”
Later he would agree, but first we had to get through the bagels in bed, and then the brittle texts, and then the money. “It’s easy for you,” he said. “You don’t have children.”
I had clean windows and a stocked refrigerator. A drawerful of plunging, painful bras that I bought thinking of him. Soon they will be useless.
“Do you have someone you can rely on, who will get groceries for you on days you can’t get them for yourself?” the doctor asked.
“I’ll need the phone number,” she said.
I gave her Mrs. Bryant’s number, the only one I have memorized. I call it twice a week with news of sales and new shipments. “Just ignore any calls from the hospital,” I’ll say, and she will.
She’s coming to the store this afternoon. I’ve brought rolling racks into the dressing room and arranged clothes as she does in her own closet, white to black, spring to winter. The clothes are youthful and for three hours I will have to think of nothing more than how they rest against her lovely skin.
Before she can touch a single blouse I will ask, “Would you care for a beverage?” This is what happiness is. I create it.
RAIN MAKES THE JOB HARDER. Roxie, the big Newf mix, would happily walk in a hurricane, but nervous Jackson won’t even let me put his collar on if there’s thunder within fifty miles. Every dog that gets wet has to be washed, meaning that I come home smelling like dog shampoo, a point Mom makes. She had different hopes for my life.
We used to fight—when high school didn’t work out, and then college. The office-skills training course. The paralegal training, the medical assistant’s degree, the New Attitudes section at Macy’s. “Is it drugs? Is that the problem?” she asked. “No,” I said, which wasn’t quite a lie. I would have flunked all of her intended careers no matter what, though I admit the weed helped. She looked at me and saw potential, which is a mother’s right. I looked at myself and saw a train that had already arrived at its station.
Every day has a specific order, to accommodate the owners’ schedules and the dogs’ needs. Within those stipulations, though, I have a little leeway, and I make sure my workday ends with Hairy and Chester. Hairy and I have been working on a new trick; I say, “Who’s Hairy?” and he rockets into my arms. At fifty pounds, he’s a substantial rocket, and more than once I’ve landed on my ass, the ecstatic dog licking my face. It’s like being licked by a mop. We both love it.
If I like a dog, we work on tricks. The owner doesn’t need to know. Everybody wants me to spend time with their dog, not just blast through a ten-minute walk; part of the exclusiveness of my service is the guarantee that I’ll spend at least half an hour with every dog—no TV, no texting. I’ve taught dogs to walk on their hind legs, to clap their paws when the doorbell rings, to sit every time the refrigerator door opens. I taught Otis, a seventeen-year-old shepherd with glaucoma and hips that had turned to concrete, to wag every time I said his name. When he died, I cried all weekend.
“Sometimes animal trainers go to Hollywood. They work on movies and TV shows,” Mom said.
“I walk dogs. Nobody in Hollywood is going to care about that.”
“You could try. Ambition doesn’t cost anything.”
I used to draw. It was the one thing I was good at in high school, and the only class I could stay awake in. As soon as the teacher started talking, I was nodding along. Shape, line, negative space—I got it. At lunch I stayed in the art room, still drawing, still silk-screening, still doing whatever we were doing. The first teacher, Mrs. Ramos, told me I was good. The second one, Mr. Lennox, told me to enter a contest. “I’m not going to do it for you,” he said. “But this is where you belong.” So I sent six sketches to a statewide competition that would have given me a scholarship. Looking back, I wonder what I would have done with it, but the question didn’t come up. The sketches came back crumpled; someone had scrawled “Promising?” at the bottom of one.
“Who’s Hairy?” Boom.
Chester is amiable and lazy and has no interest in learning to sing on command or vault over the sofa. Neither does Duke, the fat papillon who still hasn’t, at age five, figured out the rudiments of saving his pee for outside. The dogs who are fun to train are the ones who know the sound of my car after they’ve heard it twice. They lie down and wait when my phone rings. As soon as they learn a trick, they start embellishing it, like the Doberman who bounced on the end of the diving board to get extra height, then turned around in mid-air before he hit the pool. He had to do it three times before I understood that he was showing off.
I would tell my mother about that Doberman, but the story would make her sad. Sad is where she has lived since her stroke. Her speech is still the same, but she can’t walk anymore, or lift her hand high enough to comb her hair. I do it for her, every morning and often at night, too. She says, “Do you think there’s a God?”
“I don’t know, Mom.”
“I do. And he hates me.”
I keep combing. Maybe if Dad were still home he could have found a way to soothe her, but he ran off years ago, when people at his church found out about the secretary and the missing money and the mission he wasn’t really funding in Uganda after all. Mom called that his pastoral trifecta, back when she was still making jokes.
Once, after he and Mom quarreled, he took me for a walk—nowhere in particular, just walking to be walking. We walked so far that my legs gave out, and he carried me home. I relived that memory until I wore it out, but sometimes it still comes back to me, his heavy hands gripping my legs. If I knew where he was, I would fly to him.
Mom knows that. Every once in a while she says, “When your father was still in Florida”—or the Caribbean, or Brazil. He bilks other parishes in her stories, and fathers other children. That might all be true. She tells me these stories with an expression of sorrow, but the stroke left her face twisted.
I do my best with her, though I can’t make her hair as pretty as it used to be, and she prefers Meals on Wheels food to mine. Once I was helping her out of the tub and she pushed my face away from hers. “You smell,” she said. “I’m glad your father isn’t here to see this.” No telling which of us she was talking about.
I help her with physical therapy in the evenings. The doctor is still hopeful that Mom might regain a little bit of movement, but only with exercise, which Mom hates. I stand beside her bed and say, “Lift your arm just a little, Mom. Just an inch.”
That’s a stumper. She’s never going to be able to comb her hair. She can eat only by dropping her mouth to the edge of the plate and pushing food in, which she prefers to being fed. “You must love this. I eat like a dog,” she said last night. I didn’t tell her that I loved her because she didn’t want to hear it.
Instead I said, “Just an inch.” When she managed it, I didn’t tell her how well she was doing or praise her progress. I know how training works. I said, “More.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.