Joyland

New York |

Little Hippo

by Miriam Cohen

Third Place, 2017 Open Border Fiction Prize

The academics’ children are all bizarre. Reading already at four; siblings who say, the one to the other, “Let’s do teamwork,” and clean up without being asked. They are all dressed in colors that don’t match. Elizabeth has moved to town only recently, with her son, Philip, and her husband, Andrew. Philip, her little puppet, immediately doesn’t fit in. They are right now at potluck, where the food is five-cheese macaroni and cheese, asparagus fresh from the Farmer’s Market. Stews of all sorts. Philip is standing before a family’s pet dog (a rescue; a mixed breed). He has pulled down his pants. “I have a tail, too,” he says, his button penis on delighted display.

“Philip!” Elizabeth says, but she can’t keep the laughter from her voice.

Andrew is very disappointed in her, he says, when they’re back home. He’s the academic. They’re living here because of him. She should try harder, he says. She could at least give it a chance. He thinks the people here are quite nice, actually.

Elizabeth’s title, while they are here, is “spouse.”

It’s not as though she does nothing with her time, though. She plays the piano. She reads books. She has Philip.

“Come on,” she says. “It was funny.”

“It was embarrassing,” he says. “Those people are my colleagues.”

“Not all of them are your colleagues,” Elizabeth says. “Some of them are spouses.”

“Terrific,” Andrew says. “That’s just great. Okay?”

“You used to think I was funny,” she says. “You used to think Philip was funny.”

“Well, that’s not baiting me at all.”

He thinks he’s being baited? Now Elizabeth can’t help herself.

“I guess it really is true,” she says, savoring the cliché she’s about to lob, “that a leopard never changes—”

“His diaper,” Philip finishes.

And Andrew does laugh. They both laugh. They’re so ridiculous. What are they doing, fighting? They’re on an adventure, the three of them. They’re in the middle of nowhere; isn’t it romantic.

***

Elizabeth joins a sewing class. There are only two other people in the class, both women, but the teacher is a man. He has long, elegant hands. Piano hands. Elizabeth asks him if he also knows how to play.

“To play?” he says.

“No, an instrument.” Elizabeth plays an imaginary piano and is so embarrassed. She hates it when she acts like this.

“Does a needle count as an instrument?” he says. His smile curls up like an old-fashioned mustache.

She just, she says. She didn’t mean.

He puts his hand on her shoulder, and it stays there, heavy as cement. She doesn’t need to be so worried, he says.

It’s just sewing, he says.

Their task, this first day, is to get to know each other. They sit in a tiny, awkward half-circle. The woman to Elizabeth’s right is a nun; the woman to her left has brought her infant in a snuggly. The baby is a little girl, with paper eyelids and small lips that make a heart. The nun’s name is Sister Josephine. The woman with the baby is Margaret. The baby is Violet.

“How old?” Elizabeth asks.

“Sixty-seven, if I am a day,” says Sister Josephine. Her hair is like albino cotton candy, wispy white.

“Fourteen weeks,” Margaret says.

Sister Josephine chuckles. “Now, we don’t see a whole lot of babies over at the nunnery.”

“I don’t imagine,” Margaret says. Her nose is elegantly pinched. It’s possible she’s had some work done.

“I’m out of the nunnery,” Sister Josephine says. “There comes a day in every nun’s life.”

“Does your husband work for the university?” Margaret says, smiling at Elizabeth as though she knows her.

“Oh, I don’t have a husband,” says Elizabeth, and immediately, it might be true. She’s a pioneer of a woman, here in this college town, anonymous and alone. “It’s just me.”

“You work for the university,” Margaret says. She is smiling and nodding.

“I work in maintenance,” Elizabeth says. “Janitorial division,” she says.

She knows she’s being awful. Sometimes she can help it, but sometimes she just can’t.

“Well, isn’t that something,” says Sister Josephine.

Margaret’s smile is only vaguely ugly. “There’s something for everyone,” she says. “Isn’t that right? Isn’t it, Violet? Oh yes, isn’t it?”

***

It’s almost time for Andrew to come home, and Elizabeth and Philip are playing with Play-Doh.

“Is there a right way to play Play-Doh?” Philip asks.

He is the most fastidious of anyone she knows. He likes for things to go correctly, and at all costs avoids a mess. So: jelly just in the center of his bread, far from his fingertips. Craft projects that didn’t require glue. A carefully thought-out request for a birthday cake absent of frosting.

He might have yet-undiagnosed OCD.

Elizabeth says, nope, there’s not a right way. He nods. He’s waiting for her. She rolls the Play-Doh into a snail.

“Do you know snails are slugs inside shells?”

“Stop talking,” he says.

He isn’t afraid of the things she is. It never crosses his mind to be polite.

He takes the dough delicately between his fingers. “This is a truck,” he informs her.

She wants to inhale him. He’s her truest soul mate. “Do you remember being born?”

He wipes his hands on her lap.

“You had the longest fingers,” she says. “And the softest skin. Your eyes were blue as blue.”

“My hair was black as black,” he whispers. His shoulders meet his ears. She can remember what it was like to feel this way: as if happiness could kill you.

“Right as right,” she says.

He nods.

“But where do babies come out from?” he asks.

It’s this kind of question that will get him kicked out of nursery school.

Elizabeth knows she isn’t doing a very good job. He’s not your friend, Andrew often tells her.

It can be so hard to remember. She does think of him as her buddy, her sidekick. Her waltzing partner. She’s taught him to bow and hold out his hand. May I have this dance? she’s taught him to ask. And then she swoops him up, takes his hand in hers, and dips him, and swirls. On her hip, they’re almost the same height.

Andrew’s key announces itself in the doorknob. “Rattle, rattle,” Elizabeth tells Philip, her eyebrows all the way up. Philip zooms to the door, her little airplane, her gentle monster.

Andrew picks up Philip. “Mister Pip,” he says.

Philip is resplendent. His face, up until now, has been a moon, but now it’s slipped over with sun. Andrew sets Philip down. Philip wraps himself around Andrew’s legs.

Andrew pets Philip’s head and slumps into a chair, but with vigor. “My students don’t know their asses from their faces,” says Andrew. Elizabeth can see this is a line he’s held onto all day, like a hamster with cheeks full of hoarded food.

“Surely that’s not true,” Elizabeth says. “That would be a hard thing to mix up.”

She’s not sure how it’s happened that she’s unwilling to give him anything. It’s not his fault that he’s achieved this moderate success, and she has not. She needs to remember: She reads. She plays the piano. She has Philip. And now sewing.

“That’s funny, actually,” she says. “I didn’t get it at first.”

“One kid said he was taking my class because he wanted to take as many psychology classes as he could. Can you imagine? So I said, ‘Well, this is Sociology.’ And get this, he said, ‘That’s what I meant. Same difference.’ Same difference!” Andrew shakes his head, smiling.

“Stop talking,” Philip says, and they do.

***

Philip now spends his weekends with Andrew. It’s just a trial separation, just a some breathing room for them both. She sends Philip with a tiny knapsack on his back, a puff of parachute. In the knapsack is all his stuff: furry pajamas, but not the kinds with feet, his miniature toothbrush, and toothpaste that’s vanilla-flavored (he prefers vanilla to chocolate.) The spare diaper for sleeping—only for sleeping now. When she hugs him, his body is warm, as though fresh from the dryer.

“I’m going to miss you,” she says. “Are you going to miss me?”

He spreads his hands gigantically. “This much,” he says. But there’s already a look in his eyes, as though he’s otherwise engaged.

Elizabeth misses him too much. So she invites her youngest sister for a visit. Sophie is also Elizabeth’s baby. There are five years between them. Sophie was only seven when their mother died. And she was so cute. She’s still so cute.

“I’m thinking about getting an abortion,” Sophie says, when she arrives.

Elizabeth didn’t know Sophie was pregnant.

Elizabeth takes Sophie’s suitcase. Sophie’s hair is long now, but when she was little, she had a boy’s haircut. Her hair was a feathery cap Elizabeth would ruffle. I’m ruffling your feathers, she used to say.

“Oh, don’t have an abortion,” Elizabeth says. “That wouldn’t be any fun.”

She used to sit Sophie down in a rolling chair and pretend it was a baby carriage.

“Did you tell Lucille?” Elizabeth asks.

Lucille is their middle sister. Elizabeth has never had patience for her. She was too skinny as a child; her skin was too oily. She sat alone in the lunchroom at school and Elizabeth hated it that Lucille had to be her sister.

“Lucille thinks it’s a good idea,” Sophie says. “She had one.”

“She did not,” Elizabeth says. “She’s lying if she told you that.”

“You don’t know everything,” Sophie says.

Elizabeth holds up the suitcase and shakes it, as though it’s a present, tightly, mysteriously wrapped. “You have almost nothing in here,” she says. “We’ll have to take you shopping.”

Elizabeth gets some details. Sophie says the impregnator (the father?) is her boyfriend. She likes him okay. She doesn’t think she wants to be a mother. Elizabeth can’t bear the idea of a little Sophie vacuumed out of her sister.

“I’d raise the baby,” Elizabeth says. “You’d have nothing to do with it.”

“You don’t want to do that,” Sophie says.

But Elizabeth does. She really does.

“If it’s a girl, we could name her after Mommy.”

“You could,” Sophie says. “It would be yours.”

***

Their father calls with the real explanation. The baby isn’t Sophie’s at all. She’s carrying it for some couple. She’s what they call a surrogate. Their father asks if Elizabeth would please take care of Sophie, who’s been having such a hard time of it.

A stolen child. It’s exactly Elizabeth’s worst fear, come to find her.

Elizabeth tells her father she’ll take care of Sophie, of course.

“I guess we won’t be naming the baby after Mommy, after all,” she says to Sophie, who looks away.

“Lucille did get an abortion,” Sophie says. “She told me.”

“We need to get you some vitamins,” Elizabeth says. “And some doctor’s appointments.”

Sophie nods, and it’s so close to Philip’s little nod. Like she’s hearing and not hearing.

“Gosh, you’re cute,” Elizabeth says.

Sophie peels off a cuticle.

“I bet you’re wondering about Andrew,” Elizabeth says. “We’re just taking some time. It’s not something to worry about. Philip is only there every other weekend. Otherwise, he’s here.”

“Okay,” Sophie says. She looks up at the ceiling.

***

There’s nothing for Elizabeth to do but return to her sewing class. She invites Sophie, but Sophie says no thanks. She’ll just stay home, she tells Elizabeth. She’ll eat pickles and ice cream, like she’s supposed to.

Elizabeth laughs. It’s a bad joke—Elizabeth thinks it’s a joke, anyway—but it’s a good sign. She wants to encourage Sophie. Cute little Sophie.

Elizabeth decides she’ll sew the baby that’s not actually Sophie’s baby a blanket. She’ll make it yellow, to keep things neutral.

They go around the room and name their projects. “A baby blanket,” Elizabeth says.

“How lovely,” says Margaret. Baby Violet is asleep in her sling. Elizabeth doesn’t understand how Margaret has managed to have some a well-behaved infant. She wonders if there’s cough syrup involved.

“I wish the blanket were for me, but I’m barren,” Elizabeth says.

She likes this version of herself: a barren, non-married janitor. A woman in possession of a life that’s objectively shit from any angle. Classist and sexist—that’s what the group of idiots she met at the potluck would say about that thought. Who’s to say whose life is shit, they’d say. But they wouldn’t say “shit.” They’d say, probably, “rife with challenges.” Well, let them just lock her up.

Margaret puts her hand to her throat. “You mean you struggle with fertility,” she says. “We don’t use the word ‘barren’ anymore.”

Elizabeth would love to ask who this “we” is, but she knows, of course.

“They took my uterus out,” Elizabeth says. “The whole kit and caboodle.”

“You’re a cancer survivor,” Margaret says.

“Oh, it was preemptive,” says Elizabeth. “A just-in-case sort of thing.”

Margaret nods, hand still held to her throat. “You have a family history.”

Elizabeth isn’t sure what’s just happened, how it is she’s wound up telling this particular truth. “It was a more of a eugenics thing,” she says, in love with the rash of horror that’s seized Margaret’s face.

“Now, we don’t see a whole lot of babies in the nunnery,” says Sister Josephine.

So it turns out she’s definitely insane. It’s such a relief to know exactly who people are.

“I take it you’re telling a joke?” Margaret says to Elizabeth. “It’s very cruel.”

Elizabeth nods. “Very,” she says.

And then the teacher comes around with his beautiful piano hands, asking does anyone need help.

***

The sewing teacher reminds Elizabeth of her final piano teacher before her mother’s death, Charles. The memory comes up suddenly and without warning, like a burp that turns out to be vomit to be swallowed: Elizabeth is eleven, meeting Bernadette Peters backstage after Annie Get Your Gun. Elizabeth’s mother went to conservatory with the pianist in the orchestra, and the pianist, after hugging Elizabeth’s mother, brings them right to Bernadette’s dressing room. He knocks and calls, “Whenever you’re ready, Bernadette.” And then there she is: tiny, porcelain- skinned, with hair that looks like it’s on fire. She smiles with her lips together, but generously.

She holds out her hand for Elizabeth to shake, and Elizabeth just about collapses. She does not know if she has ever been this happy, this capable of expansion. She feels herself become large. Bernadette’s hand in hers is cool and soft, a little powdery. She must use a special soap.

Elizabeth’s mother tells Bernadette and the pianist that today is Elizabeth’s birthday. She puts a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder. “Eleven today,” she says.

The pianist says, “My goodness, time passes.” He says to Bernadette, “The two of us came up together.”

“Where do you play?” Bernadette asks Elizabeth’s mother.

Elizabeth isn’t going to look at her mother. She tells herself, Don’t. Don’t. She doesn’t want to see her mother smile the way she does when people ask her about her music. It looks like just a regular smile, but there’s something in it, or near it, that’s mean. She feels her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

“Right now I’m doing the mom thing,” her mother says.

“Hardest job in the world,” says the pianist.

“Elizabeth plays the piano,” her mother says. Her hand is still on Elizabeth’s shoulder.

Elizabeth does play the piano. Every night, she practices three hours. Her sisters run wild around the house while she does, laughing and yelling and not doing their homework. They watch an incredible amount of TV. They try to distract her, but Elizabeth doesn’t let herself get distracted. She just plays.

Bernadette says, “I hope you enjoyed the performance,” in a way that means goodbye, and smiles, her lips in a bow. She smiles at everyone, but Elizabeth knows Bernadette’s smile is for her. Bernadette steps back into her dressing room, her movements soundless and so, so perfect.

Elizabeth can still smell her perfume even now that she’s gone.

The pianist asks Elizabeth’s mother if he can take her out to dinner—take them, Elizabeth too, of course—out to dinner. Elizabeth’s mother says it can’t hurt. She laughs in a way Elizabeth doesn’t recognize. It makes Elizabeth feel embarrassed, and guilty for being embarrassed. She kind of wishes Lucille was there. Lucille would know what to say. She’d say, Mommy, what the heck? Take us home already. But Elizabeth is her mother’s good daughter. She isn’t allowed to say the things Lucille is allowed to say. Lucille is the bad daughter. (Sophie, cute little Sophie, doesn’t have to worry about being good or bad. She’s just a baby. Even though she’s six.)

The pianist—call him Charles, he tells Elizabeth—takes them out to a fancy Italian restaurant where small, round candles live in glass cups, emitting satisfying heat when Elizabeth touches the glass, just quickly, with her pinky. Elizabeth orders fettuccine Alfredo, which comes dotted with Parmesan cheese and parsley. Ordinarily, Elizabeth will not eat anything with green on it, but tonight she feels sophisticated. She doesn’t complain. She wraps the fettuccine around her silver fork.

She listens to her mother tell Charles that they live in New Jersey. That she is married. That she has three daughters, of whom Elizabeth is the oldest. That she teaches.

Maybe Elizabeth would like to have piano lessons in New York City, Charles says. That way, she can also get in some more Broadway shows. He winks at Elizabeth. She winks back, ruins it.

“No way,” Elizabeth’s father says, when they return home. “No way am I letting that fag anywhere near my daughter.”

Elizabeth has heard the word on TV, but never actually live in her house. She hadn’t realized Charles was gay. She’s so stupid. She’d thought he used to be her mother’s boyfriend. That maybe he was the man who should have been her father.

“She’s getting the lessons,” her mother says, and that’s it. Once a week they go into the City, just the two of them.

And of course, Elizabeth understands now, she was right before about Charles. He might even have been the love of her mother’s short, shitty little life. Because just over a year from then, her mother would be dead.

***

Elizabeth tells the sewing teacher, yes, she does need help, and watches his beautiful fingers as he handles her needle and thread so effortlessly.

***

Andrew is waiting for her at the house. Philip rushes into her arms for a hug and she breathes in his soft skin like it’s air. She’s an animal around him. She loves him so much it’s all she can do to stop herself from eating him.

“I didn’t realize Sophie was here,” Andrew says. “She answered the door.”

“She’s having a hard time of it,” Elizabeth says. It takes her a second to realize she’s quoting her father.

“She told me she’s having a baby that’s not her baby?”

“She’s not making good choices.”

There’s also the mental hospital stay they’re not talking about. They hold the knowledge of it between them, though, carefully, like a plate of eggs.

“I didn’t have any idea,” Elizabeth says. “I just invited her, and.”

Philip is at her legs like a little cat. He’s at both of their legs, wandering between them like they’re a jungle created just for him.

“You were lonely,” Andrew says.

She’s so relieved it almost hurts. “Come home,” she says.

Andrew says he knows how hard things can be, with Sophie.

“I’ll stay the night,” he says.

Sophie isn’t having it.

While Elizabeth sets four places for dinner, Sophie sits at the table, berating her. “You said you two were getting divorced,” she says. “You’re such a stupid hypocrite.”

“I thought you liked Andrew,” Elizabeth says. “You’ve always liked Andrew.”

“So you’ll just stay unhappy? You hate it here. You told me you hated it here.”

“You’re just in a little hippo mood,” Elizabeth says. “It’ll pass.”

The little hippo mood is a holdover from their childhood. It’s what their mother used to say when they threw tantrums that didn’t upset her. Elizabeth can remember being so mad, the kind of mad that lived in her whole body, but mostly the stomach, spine and throat, saying, I hate you, Mommy. And her mother laughing, saying, There’s that little hippo mood.

“It’s not fair that nothing bad ever happens to you,” Sophie says.

Elizabeth touches Sophie’s hair. It’s as soft as Philip’s. “It’s so hard to be a little hippo.”

***

Elizabeth’s father calls her. He just wants to check in, he says. She doesn’t need to tell Sophie he’s calling. Maybe, actually, it’s better if Elizabeth doesn’t. But it’s important that she get Sophie out of the house, all right?

Elizabeth tells Sophie she’s coming to sewing class with her. “It’s non-negotiable,” she says.

Sophie fills up her cheeks with air, blows out a steady stream. “Fine,” she says.

Sophie wears a tight shirt, and it startles Elizabeth, though she knows it shouldn’t, to see that her baby sister is showing. She’s actually pregnant. Elizabeth is glad, sort of, that the baby isn’t Sophie’s. The idea of Sophie as someone’s mother is too much. Elizabeth a little bit hopes, even though it’s terrible, that Sophie never becomes anyone’s mother. How else can she stay Elizabeth’s baby?

Elizabeth had thought, when Philip was born, that she’d be able to let go of being Sophie’s mother. But having Philip only made her Sophie’s mother even more. Because the guilt had been impossible. Holding Philip, loving Philip, changing his endless diapers, all made her think of poor, abandoned, motherless baby Sophie. Sometimes she felt—feels— like she hates Sophie. And this only makes Elizabeth love her more. More even, maybe, than she loves Philip, her own, actual child. When he doesn’t listen, when he throws himself down on the floor and screams, and won’t stop screaming, or vomits in the middle of the night, she feels that hatred turn on him. And then, immediately, bounce back on her.

I love you, I love you, I love you, she tells Philip.

***

The class is emptier than ever. Sister Josephine seems to have had her fill of sewing, because she isn’t there. There’s only Margaret, in her usual seat with the perfect Violet.

“My sister,” Elizabeth says, touching Sophie’s shoulder. “I hope it’s okay that I brought her.”

“Of course,” says the sewing teacher. “The class is open to the community.”

He always looks like he’s worried about her. Like he thinks she’s just on the edge. But it’s not true at all. He’s mistaken, and it bothers her.

“How nice that you’ve brought your sister,” Margaret says.

Elizabeth can see how Margaret glances at Sophie’s belly and then quickly away, calculating. She must think she understands Elizabeth. She’s probably revising her opinion from last week, making space for sympathy. Elizabeth, she must think, is a poor, childless woman made to endure the indignity and sorrow of a clearly-younger sister whose fertility cannot be denied. Who’s so clearly having a happy life.

“Sophie’s a surrogate,” Elizabeth says. “Isn’t that generous of her?”

When the teacher asks if anyone needs help, Elizabeth’s is the first hand raised.

“You have a crush on the teacher,” Sophie says, back at home. It’s the first thing she’s said all evening. She just sat there, the whole class. It was embarrassing, frankly.

“Is that what you think?” Elizabeth says. She laughs.

“I do think that,” Sophie says. “That’s why I said it.”

Her voice is very thin. It always gets this way right before Sophie cries. Elizabeth doesn’t want to see her cry. She hates to see Sophie cry.

“I only want you to be happy,” Elizabeth says.

“I’m not,” says Sophie. “It’s not fair.”

“I hate to see you sad,” Elizabeth says.

“I don’t think that’s true,” says Sophie. “I think you do like it.”

“It’s the hormones,” Elizabeth says. “I got like that too, with Philip.”

“So I’m hysterical? That’s you. You’re the one. All you ever do is just sit here in your dumb house all day. I feel sorry for you.”

“There’s that little hippo mood,” Elizabeth says.

“Shut up,” says Sophie. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”

Elizabeth looks up at the ceiling. The ceiling is unevenly painted. It reminds her of whipped frosting. She’ll tell this to Philip. We live in a gingerbread house, she’ll say.

“Say something,” Sophie says.

She steps closer to Elizabeth. They’re close enough now to kiss. Elizabeth used to have a game called Baby Bird where she’d feed Sophie food from her own mouth. Baby bird, take your worm! They played this game until Elizabeth left for college. Until Sophie was thirteen.

Sophie slaps her. First one cheek, and then the other. “Look at what you’re making me do,” she says. She punches Elizabeth in the stomach.

And this makes Elizabeth want to punch her back, also in the stomach. Let her miscarry. How about that? Let her go back to the couple who are expecting her to keep their baby safe and tell them sorry, she couldn’t do even that.

“Well, I love you,” Elizabeth says.

Sophie’s so angry now. Angry, she looks exactly like she did when she was a child. A little snorting bull.

“I fucking hate you,” Sophie says. She’s crying.

Elizabeth isn’t crying. “You don’t really mean that,” she says, and leaves the room.

***

Elizabeth calls Lucille. They never speak. Lucille just does her own thing. She always has, really. But Elizabeth needs to talk to her. Andrew is no use. He wasn’t there, in their house, when they were children together, when they were three sisters, a house full of girls.

“Sophie said you got an abortion?” Elizabeth asks. She has to know.

“Hello yourself,” Lucille says.

“The weather’s really something here. Is it really something there?” Elizabeth says.

“There you go,” says Lucille.

“So?”

“I did, yeah. But a while ago.”

“You didn’t want to tell me?”

“No, Elizabeth, I didn’t want to tell you. Isn’t that funny of me?”

“I wouldn’t have judged you,” Elizabeth says, but of course she’s lying, and of course Lucille knows she’s lying.

“I didn’t want it,” says Lucille. “Not everyone wants to be a mother.”

“I know that,” Elizabeth says.

“Right,” Lucille says.

“Lucille,” Elizabeth says. Their mother used to, sometimes, call her Lucy-Face, Lucy-Goosey, Lucky-Luce, but Elizabeth never has.

“I’m going to go,” Lucille says.

And then she’s gone. There’s just Elizabeth, holding a phone that’s started to beep. Now a woman’s voice comes on the line. Please hang up. There appears to be a receiver off the hook. The woman repeats herself until Elizabeth listens to her.

But Lucille is wrong about what Elizabeth knows.

She remembers being in the car with her mother on the way to Charles. They are crossing the bridge into the City, where the sky seems so much wider, where even the buildings sparkle. New Jersey, across the water, is squat and stupid, the houses all in rows like obedient, boring children. Later for all that, Elizabeth’s mother says. She opens the windows, turns on the radio. She wears sunglasses to drive. Elizabeth wants to say something, but her mother is untouchable in her happiness.


Illustration by Carolyn Tripp