In August the manhole covers began to seep. Summer had the same texture as the local Eyewitness news, thought Sonia. A section of highway had collapsed in the heat like a biscuit. A tragic fire in a condemned Woonsocket warehouse where a boy and girl, five and three, had been sleeping. In a reddish photo they were looking up like shelter puppies from a bare mattress. “It appears their parents had problems related to homelessness,” said the female newscaster, jaw thrust forth, the charred remains behind her. “There’s Lorenzo—” she waited out the wind in her mic. The girl filled the screen, “Her little name was Amy.”
The same wind raised a thin wing of the newscaster’s hair and she snarled, “What I’d like to see is an app that saves children.”
She took a breath, then went on at once brightly and gravely, “It’s VJ Day here in Rhode Island—”***
Sonia called upstairs, “Boys? Are you ready?”
She stepped outside ahead of them. The wind was conducting the giant manes of the trees, stirring them every which-way. Her husband had said that she should stay in the house; she loved the house, he told the mediator. All those years she had staunchly kept to herself her dismay at 748 Weymouth, and now, when she tried to protest, he copped concern, “You’ve always had a strange sense of yourself, Sonia.” How did men learn this trick? To make strange someone’s knowledge of herself in order to justify their failure to know her. He promptly installed himself in a condo with a view of the river.
The boys slid wordlessly into the car. The air conditioner blasted heat for the first five minutes.***
Outside the office supply store there was some nature so denatured it didn’t know how to ask for rain. The doors shuddered and parted. Right away there were specials on mini staplers and pencil pouches and caramel nut bars. Sonia’s sons drifted off and then popped up in the aisles of phones and touches, but mid-divorce they wouldn’t ask for anything, not even a gadget. They were like Diana’s sons, navy blue and blond and brass, mute, mysterious.
She filled the demi cart with three-ring binders. She put her hand out to stop the slack-bodied employee so white, under the glaring lights, he was lilac.
“Do you know where I’d find a graphing calculator?” She fell in step behind him. He gestured vaguely, then left her alone to study the clamshell packages.
The parking lot stuck to their shoes when they crossed the grid back to the car. Hot wind blew air into plastic shopping bags and lifted them into trees like cheap bamboo back-scratchers. Her sons spread out; it wouldn’t have been clear that the three of them were together.***
The specialty running store was on treeless thoroughfare with carwashes and night clubs. She parked on the street. The wind seemed intent on blowing the air off the face of the earth, she said in general.
Her older son had taught himself to raise an eyebrow.
There was a young soldier next to them on the padded bench trying on Adidas. They waited for their salesman to bring up the boxes. He was the same age as the soldier, only with long hair and the slight build of a doe. He paused to assess the gait of a bare-legged boy trotting down the section of track you could try your new shoes on.
“Busy this morning,” said Sonia mildly.
“VJ Day,” he snorted. She caught his darting glance at the soldier. Theirs was the only state that observed the holiday. “An excuse for slaughter,” he said, louder, flipping his hair out of his eyes to lace the shoes. He took a knee to help her son stick his foot in.
The soldier was quiet.***
Sonia’s paternal grandfather had been an ambulance driver in World War II; her mother’s father had been too old to serve and had stayed home with his daughters. White Protestant males were finally being de-centered. They also had a harder time with divorce, the shame of cans of food that tasted like ketchup. At least statistically, her friend Ruth had told her. Sonia understood that her husband was now more central to his own life than ever, but in his absence, she found herself considering all the things she’d never done, she said to Ruth, like be a Supreme Court justice, one of the finest jobs available to women.
Why was she so chippy? As if her inner life was one of those shouty re-runs, a manufactured, mean-girl mentality.
The mediator’s office was in the same metal building as the campaign headquarters of the woman candidate for governor. Spray-on carpet had been applied to the walls and the floors; you had to use a communal key for the restroom. With the mediator present, her husband had said that it was because he could no longer make her smile. For a moment, she was stunned by his sneakiness. Then she tried to smile and found that indeed she couldn’t.
The mediator looked like clergy, his eggshell chin tucked into his collar. She suspected their sinless case bored him. He was white like they were but because he was gay he could go home to his partner and say, over his reading glasses, “White people problems.” She imagined a preening silence.
She was a middle school English teacher. 12% of her students met grade level expectations in literacy, 8% in math. There were schools in the district that did even worse. Her goal for them was that they fall in love with one book over the course of middle school, even Captain Underpants, and write one cool sentence. The last five minutes of every period she just covered her ears. “What you say, Miss???” they called out to her.
She insisted that she wasn’t depressed; she just lacked energy.
The clergyman pressed his lips together. Her husband said, “Come on, Sonia.” The two men stared at her.
Why, if he was divorcing her, was her husband still allowed to dislike her?
She wondered if the mediator rented his office by the hour. Not a single picture on the wall, not even a diploma from an online university.
“You got my best years,” said her husband.
A building like this could be folded flat and sold back for scrap metal. They could burn the carpet off with a blowtorch. The air was more chemical than oxygen. It was the same building where she’d once delivered an anonymous letter, crept down the same low-lit hallways, trying to figure out how she’d hand the hot evidence to his secretary. An older girl, a sophomore in high school, had convinced her then thirteen-year-old son to shoplift from a liquor store in exchange for a certain sexual favor. His soft face pumping heat before tears. He’d grabbed his hair in agony and pulled until Sonia could see his scalp stretching. “Am I going to go to jail?”
Did he not sense her boundaries? Did he have no respect for his mother’s innocence?
“Tell me the name of that girl,” she’d said finally.
Google divulged everything. The girl’s father was a low-rent CPA, also an organizer for the local 5K for breast cancer. Breast-a-thons, her husband called them.
“Dear Mr. Vitti. Writing an anonymous letter is by far one of the strangest things I’ve done as mother, but I wanted you to know that your daughter may have a drinking problem.”
It had felt so good to lash out, especially as she posed as fair-minded. “I’m writing because I would want to know if it was one of mine—”
But she had refrained from telling Mr. Vitti that her son had stolen a bottle of vodka.
Her husband had played it cool. She knew her shock had annoyed him. “There’s going to come a time when he’ll regret leaving that blowjob on the table.”***
Where was she?
She still hated driving off, leaving the boys home alone as if she were abandoning them.***
At lunch with Ruth and Elena—Elena worked for the State historical society and had the Monday holiday—Ruth said it was common for the estranged wife to want to rescue the husband.
“Oh I don’t know,” said Ruth, and they all laughed.
By which she meant, what was this day about, anyway?
She didn’t know if Ruth’s and Elena’s grandfathers had served. It wasn’t the kind of thing women asked each other. Imagine: they had six grandfathers between them. Half a dozen young men, a squad, a task force.
She confessed she was taking a little extra thyroid to brighten her personality, to prove she still cared, and Elena looked worried. Ruth rolled her eyes, “Try whiskey.” If only she were not herself but either one of them. Ruth had got her divorce out of the way ten years ago and was leaner and funnier because of it; Elena and Tim were inviolable, dear Tim, an honorary woman.***
She drove home through the poorer part of the city. There was a rattletrap Toyota angled onto the curb under an overpass, an uncertain array of matching Buddhist monks wandering around the casualty. Across the road under the low wing of the highway heroin ghouls eyed the men in yellow robes. She drove carefully between the factions.***
She pulled into the parking spot that the Realtor, long ago, had the balls to call a driveway. The back half of the car obstructed the sidewalk. No neighbor had ever complained, which she appreciated more than ever now that her husband was gone. She would have to remember to remind her royal sons to wheel out the trash. The house next door was owned by a Chinese family, and there was a fake flower cone, an autumnal cornucopia, on the front door. All the blinds stayed closed, but Sonia could see from her bedroom a pearly glow in an upstairs window like a beacon, or a live-feed Skype call.
Lately they’d put up a sign in front in Chinese, with a phone number. It had surprised her. “I guess they’re appealing to their countrymen,” she’d said drily to Princess Di’s younger son. He turned to his brother,
“Hey did you know Mom’s a racist?”
“Go ahead and ask them what the sign says,” she’d retorted.
At the same time, a Xeroxed Polaroid of a black cat with red highlights had appeared on every telephone pole in the neighborhood. “Lars” was beloved and missing, and a typewritten paragraph described a larger pattern of cats being stolen from these very sidewalks for use as bait in dog-fighting rings—in other neighborhoods. Keep cats indoors. Report suspicious persons.
She could hardly open the car door against the Chinese peoples’ fence, so narrow was the driveway. She angled out as if she were the two sides of an arrow.
A heterosexual couple with tiny clothes, mussed hair, and hosiery of tattoos paused before the sign with the Chinese characters.
Suddenly she wished she hadn’t wasted so much energy trying to fit in. It did her no good now to have been skinny long ago. Her brain was a chicken breast, her headache wrapped with cellophane. She had been listening to Leonard Cohen’s Hallejulah over and over.
The Chinese mother came around the side with a rake and a bucket. Sonia had not even officially introduced herself. Just some friendly little waves. Why was it easier to love strangers? Just the other day, in the hushed, lunchtime line at the post office, everyone resigned to wait their turn for the ageless witch with porcelain cheeks and horse hair behind the counter, Sonia had been an emissary from Planet Smile. Behind her a young university dad wore a Baby Bjorn, the straps crossed between his shoulder blades, and she smiled at the baby—Japanese dad, Japanese baby, Japanese address on the Manilla envelope in need of sending. She’d smiled at the Botox lady in beige wearing sculptural sunglasses; at the slabby hipster chasing green Martians up stairs and around corners on his phone. What would the Japanese baby remember from his first few years? What overheated ice age was he headed for? Wasn’t it the truth, as Ruth said, that Botox made white people look like aliens?
There was a weedy old shack-dweller with his back to the room filling out labels. Unwashed jeans, uncut gray hair. Suddenly he turned around and faced his flock, “Nobody talks to each other anymore! Unbelievable!”
Nobody looked at him.
“I was liking the silent camaraderie,” said Sonia.
He pretended he didn’t hear her and lurched toward the door, cutting through the line where she stood and tripping over her boxes. He had to put a hand on the dirty floor to catch himself. The Japanese dad bent instantly to right Sonia’s boxes, and the baby, suddenly lying on his back in a hammock, stared up at his father.***
The Chinese mother was inspecting the thorn tree that grew in the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. Its leaves were secondary to its thorns. In fact, thought Sonia, the whole tree must have been an accident, a weed that had escaped notice until it put wood on its bones.
The Chinese mother jerked her head at Sonia, and Sonia did her windshield-wiper wave. They were fifteen feet away from each other. Sonia could see her elbow fat. Calves cinched at the bottom by white socks, plastic shower sandals. A bruise like the Nike swoosh underneath one eye.
A bullet-proof Escalade rolled slowly up their narrow street. Sonia heard the deep, dusky honks of a fire truck on the busier cross-street.
What does your sign say? she imagined herself saying. How would she demonstrate that she respected the mystery of the Chinese characters?
The sirens were getting louder and wilder, and the hook-and-ladder rotated onto their street, got its footing, and hauled up behind the Escalade.
“Pull over!” cried Sonia. The hulking Escalade was impervious, crawling along at five miles an hour. There was so much injustice, so many brave firemen and soldiers! Her heart was pounding. The firetruck leaned into its horn now, and suddenly the SUV accelerated and roared off through the intersection.
“That makes me so mad!”
Sonia realized she was staring at her neighbor. The childlike nose. It wasn’t negative. Asian women had beautiful skin, black women had beautiful shoulders, and white women—not Sonia, unfortunately—had beautiful eyebrows. There was no deeper meaning.
“What does your sign say?” she asked before she could stop herself.
The Chinese mother rushed to lean her rake against the thorn tree. Then she stood perfectly still before Sonia except for her hands, which were thrown into a flying frenzy.
She didn’t speak English. How was that possible? How was she not living in terror, right next door?
Sonia climbed her wooden stairs and pushed open her front door. “Boys?” she called into the darkness. She whispered, “Princes?”