Light crept in through the space between the black out curtains hanging over the bedroom window. Ron, her husband, shifted in his sleep. His shoulder twitched slightly as if reacting to a breeze. Soon the alarm would go off and he would stretch and get out of bed, not bounding exactly, but with enough gusto that Leigh would feel guilty. She was always tired. So, so tired, ever since their son was born.
The trill went off and Ron immediately silenced it. He propped himself up on one elbow and leaned over her. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see the look of concern on his face.
“What are you going to do today?” he asked.
She grunted and rolled over, balling the covers in her fists. He walked into the bathroom. These were the same sheets they’d had since their son was born. He’d spat up on them, played on them, she’d heard his first laugh while he sat on them and grinned toothlessly at her, in love with his own newfound ability. Despite washing them every two weeks she felt like they never truly got clean.
Ron came back into their room after showering, naked and smelling of his anti-dandruff shampoo. Leigh pushed back the covers and got out of bed. As her feet hit the floor she stared at the pouch of hanging skin that was her belly. Damn mirrored closet doors. Should have replaced them like she’d wanted to. But there was never enough money, certainly not for “design” things as Ron called them. She wanted a bigger, better fridge, with unbroken shelves and an icemaker that worked. She wanted new light fixtures, new windows, and pretty flowers for the window boxes. There was enough money. They both made a lot. Or they used to, before she took maternity leave.
In the shower, the one place she still enjoyed, hot water pinged against her skin like a barrage of acupuncture needles. Her hangover started to recede. The coffee maker would be on downstairs. Ron didn’t drink coffee but he always turned the machine on for her. Today she was going to get a hair cut.
“Do something nice for yourself,” Ron had said earlier in the week. He’d said it kindly, but it had made her feel bad, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she didn’t need another reminder. Or maybe it was because she didn’t deserve it.
They were still young, so many people remarked at the funeral. A veiled statement that Leigh knew meant, you can have another. She turned off the shower and tried not to look at the empty hook where a third towel used to hang. They’d all used the same towels, eschewing the animal-hooded terry cloth ones so many of their friends had. At the time, she thought: why change her entire life because she’d had a baby. Towels were towels.
Now, it was one less item to pack up. Dealing with his room had been hard enough. What to do with all the things? Save them in a box? Give them to another family? Donate them to the Goodwill? She tried to outsource these decisions to her mother, who flew in from Oregon, only to spend the entire week sitting in the nursery. She left without touching a thing.
Leigh walked back to their room and picked out a respectable dress from the closet. Respectability was important, she’d learned. You had to at least try to look like you had it together. Otherwise you invited unwanted attention. This would be the first time she’d left the house in two weeks. The new salon was a few blocks away, near the fancy coffee shop and overpriced wine bar. To avoid temptation she’d decided to drive.
Downstairs, she placed a cup under the coffeemaker. Ron said goodbye on his way out the door.
“Send me a picture,” he said.
“Of what?” she asked.
“Right,” she said. “I will.” She nodded.
Ron gave her an extra long look, as if trying to ascertain if she’d be there when he returned. She wished he’d cared so much when their son was still alive. It would have been nice on those mornings when she felt like throwing the baby down the stairs. The shame of those thoughts left a stain on her memory. She’d never told anyone. At a company party in December one of Ron’s co-workers had cornered her to ask about the new baby.
“Any day you don’t drown them in the bath is a good one,” she’d said conspiratorially. Did she wink?
Leigh was shocked. That was early on, after only a few weeks without sleep. Later, when sleepless nights turned into sleepless days and the baby cried, and cried, and became heavier every day in her arms, she understood, even though she didn’t want to.
Hot coffee streamed into the cup. The first sip would burn, the next three would be amazing, and the last would be cold and she would throw it out and make a fresh cup. She’d drink three cups this way, and it would help the morning go by. Ron complained about the cost, but she didn’t care. Coffee was the only thing keeping her going, besides the wine.
Her appointment wasn’t until noon. Outside it was hot already, August in the suburbs of northeast Los Angeles. Warm stuffy air leaked in around the splintered window frames and single panes she wanted to replace. Little rivulets of sweat gathered in the folds of her skin. The house was getting hot. By the outlet on the wall her hand went limp in the air, remembering. The switch for the air conditioner was right where the baby monitor used to be.
Their son had colic. He had to be held and walked constantly. He screamed unceasingly. He never slept, not in the day and not in the night. She was addicted to the baby monitor, just so she could put him down for a few moments. With the monitor on she could take a quick shower, or run to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, pay the utility bill, or make another cup of coffee. There was never enough time to do more than a five-minute task before his screaming got too intense and shattered her concentration.
So turning on the air conditioning was a mistake. Leigh went back to the kitchen table and sat down in front of her cup of coffee. Her phone buzzed. It was a text from Ron.
How R U?
Other messages popped up, from her mom, her best friend, her boss, and she started to read them, but the words blurred together. Her mind wandered. Inevitably her thoughts settled on the one night everything changed. It was imprinted in her mind like a date etched on a glass Christmas tree ornament. Somewhere in that maddening time snatch of midnight and two a.m. she’d been pacing the space in front of the crib bars, the baby in her arms. She was physically and mentally exhausted from months without sleep.
Ron had been asleep for hours. She couldn’t wake him; he had a big day of meetings. Leigh’s arms ached. Their son seemed to get heavier by the hour. Looking up at the gray ceiling, she begged God. Please let him go to sleep. Please let him go to sleep. PLEASE LET HIM GO TO SLEEP!
Desperately she racked her brain for what to do. She was not a good singer, but she decided to sing the first song that came into her head. Taps.
Taps is a difficult song to sing, so she hummed it, quietly at first. She’d learned it at Girl Scout Camp. Under the stars hundreds of little girls sang together. It was surprising how much she’d liked that feeling: of being alone and yet belonging to a group. All of their voices commingled underneath a sky vaster than the oceans.
Then: a miracle. A tiny slight smile, so quick she could have missed it. No, she wasn’t mistaken. He liked Taps! Or humming, or her, it didn’t matter. There was a smile, and for one shining instant Leigh knew she did something right.
At camp Taps was always the last song they sang, when all the girls, including her, were sleepy and restless, clutching stuffed animals and flashlights, itching the occasional mosquito bite. The last night of camp she’d wept. She didn’t want to go home. She wasn’t ready to leave the stars and the lake, the wooden cabin with its creaky beds, the other girls. Each day was an adventure! At home she was lonely. After school she ate the snack the housekeeper left out and watched TV for hours by herself.
This is why she’d wanted a baby so desperately. Ever since she was little she dreamed of having a big family. The idea of being surrounded with people, with all their noise and chaos seemed blissful compared to the silence and loneliness of her childhood.
Taps should have been her victory lap with Noah, but she’d felt sad then too, because she didn’t love her baby, and she wanted to. When he finally, finally, closed his eyes, she placed him gently on the mattress and slowly backed out of the room. In the hallway she turned on the monitor. All night she stayed glued to the screen, worried he’d wake at any moment. That night she didn’t get any rest, but compared to now, when the only relief was drinking into a dark coma, it seemed like heaven.
Her phone buzzed again with a message from her doctor. Staring at the screen gave her an idea. She left her coffee cup on the kitchen table and raced up the stairs. In the nursery, she opened the top drawer of the dresser. Nestled in between the ordered rows of white diapers, the baby monitor lay like a boiled egg in a nest of snaking wires. She clutched it in her hand. Lifting the lid of the toy basket she found the doll their neighbor had brought back from New Zealand. Wrapping the doll in one of the swaddle blankets their son had never liked she set it down in the crib, facing the wall. She flicked on the camera, still mounted to the ceiling.
Downstairs Leigh plugged in the monitor as if it were any other day. Then she made some toast. She ate it slowly, licking butter and crumbs off her fingertips, staring at it the whole time. At a quarter to noon she left for her appointment.
At the new salon Leigh paused in front of the door. She was nervous. A small bell tinkled as she walked inside. The woman at the reception desk took her name and waved her over to a station at the far end of the room. Standing by the black leather chair was a girl in her mid-twenties with tattoos on both arms. The girl was picking a salad leaf out of her teeth. She looked Leigh up and down and Leigh almost wilted to the floor under her gaze. Leigh wasn’t used to interacting with people. What would she say? She felt words running out of her like rainwater quickening down a storm drain. She started to panic.
The girl motioned for her to sit in the chair.
“I’ve had the same haircut for ten years,” Leigh said. “I’ll be your easiest client of the day.”
The girl nodded, but it was clear from her expression she didn’t agree.
“Just straight across.”
The girl started to cut. Leigh closed her eyes. Leigh’s hair was long and thin, and as the girl bent near her she felt her concentrating very hard, and hesitating at the same time. It was an unlucky combination for her first haircut at this new place. She wished someone with confidence were working on her. The scissors made a noise like slippers on dry leaves. The girl stopped, as if considering her next move, and then, snip. This went on for a very long time. With each cut Leigh cringed. The feel of the blades against the ends of her hair made her feel unprepared, and ashamed.
A haircut is insignificant in the scheme of things. Leigh knew she should be able to handle it. Yet inside her baggy abdominal flesh, her stomach rested like a concrete tombstone. After it was over, she brought her fingers up to her face and felt the freeway-sized section of hair that was missing. She looked unbelievingly in the mirror. The shock and terror of it was like the morning they discovered Noah wasn’t breathing.
“Do you want to see the back?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” she said. It was brave of her. She even tipped the girl, because she was polite.
Afterwards, she sat outside on an uncomfortable wooden chair and called Ron.
“It’s awful,” she said. Tears streamed down her face. She didn’t care if anyone saw. She reached in her purse for a cigarette and lit it.
“I’m sorry,” Ron said. “You’ve had the same haircut for ten years, how could it go so wrong? Do you want to go to the old place and see if they can fix it?”
“No, that would only make it worse.”
She didn’t think she could handle trying again.
They hung up. Leigh walked around the street for a while, smoking. She wore dark sunglasses to cover up her red eyes and fudged mascara. It wasn’t her fault. They all said the same thing. The doctors, Ron, her mother, her friends, and the therapist they’d made her see after she tried to poison herself with pills. Sometimes it just happens, and no one knows why.
But she didn’t love him! She wanted to scream at them. If only she’d loved him, he wouldn’t have died. And then there was this: her secret hope that in time, she would have come to love him. Now that chance was gone and would not be returned to her.
She lingered outside the wine bar, looking in the darkened window with longing. A child of indeterminate age, somewhere between four and five, approached her, holding his mother’s hand. He stared at her as if he knew her. He came closer, dragging his mother like a dog pulling on a leash.
“What happened to your hair?” he asked.
Self-consciously Leigh fingered the raw, butchered ends of hair unevenly framing her head. The boy laughed. His mother’s expression turned to dread. She looked from Leigh to him, as if she didn’t know what to do. Then she chided him and nodded disapprovingly.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He doesn’t understand.”
As if Leigh had cancer, or there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for her horror of a haircut.
“It’s fine,” Leigh said. “It was a mistake. It will grow back.”
She wasn’t thinking about her hair anymore. She was thinking about how sometimes your children were monstrous and yet, you loved them anyway.
“Honey, say you’re sorry,” the child’s mother said. Leigh didn’t want to hear the boy’s apology. She could barely stand up. The boy looked away.
“Sorry,” he said. He refused to meet her eyes. Did his shame match her own?
The mother tugged on the boy’s hand and they made their way down the sidewalk. Leigh watched their backs for a moment. She’d been holding her breath for a long time without realizing it. Then she went into the wine bar, where it was dark, and no one would talk to her except the bartender, who knew she preferred to be left alone.
At the bar she ordered a glass of ginger ale. She sat down at her usual table, smoothing what was left of her hair behind her ears. Bubbles rose to the lip of the glass. She took out her phone and opened the baby monitor app. There he was, sleeping soundly. She called Ron. She wanted to tell him the good news from her doctor’s message earlier. They were pregnant, with twins.