Cathy started hiding from her mother and her daughter. She couldn’t sit in the back yard without fear that her mom was watching her from the window, and there was nowhere in the house she felt a sense of privacy. She might have gone off to sit in a coffee shop and write blog entries on her laptop, if she’d had a laptop. But she was seized by anxiety whenever she left the house these days. Something might happen. She was haunted by visions of Star in labor, of Mom calling the cops, of both of them descending on Gray with their endless requests. So she took to hiding down in Gray’s studio, sitting in the corner reading a book while he tinkered.
She was down in the workshop one evening after dinner. They’d had their dog walk and come back to the basement rather than go inside and face the music, Mom’s singsong “Cathy,” Star’s minor-key “Mom.”
It was peaceful in the workshop. The dogs nosed around every c orner, sniffing, maybe chancing a quiet pee in some corner to mark it. The only lights were high intensity workbench spots. It gave the place a warehouse look, with rows of stacked equipment fading from sight down the length of the room. Cathy looked around. There’d been vast changes, recently, but she couldn’t exactly tell what they were. Whole sections had been torn down and rebuilt, a nd yet everything had the dust of ages on it.
“This looks almost comfortable in the gloom.” She wandered about and noticed an old mattress roled up on its end beside the fireplace, tied with electrical cable and covered in sawdust.
Gray put his soldering iron down and came to investigate when she started swatting the dust off. “Whatcha doin?”
“I was just thinking we might be able to use this.” She coughed at the dust.
“Are you tired?”
“No, I was thinking of something else.”
“I see. Well…” He kicked a few things aside, walked over to the fireplace and untied a cord wrapped around the chimney, and a shower curtain unfurled across that part of the room. “How about if I get us a room?”
“Get a room,” she repeated. Uh oh. She panicked at the thought of getting naked in the basement. Mom might listen thru the floor. But he was clearly delighted. “Wow,” she said, finding something to be positive about. “A privacy screen. You’ve been thinking.”
“Yes, I have. I’ve been thinking we could do this. And this. And this.” Cathy laughed maniacly.
They laid out the futon behind the wall of monitors,.Gray couldn’t see what was going on around the house. The thought kept intruding at engrossing moments, and he made himself ignore the nagging suspicion that he was missing something. It was the first chance they’d had for ages, the first time they’d both been interested since Cathy’s mother arrived, and he wasn’t going to pass it up. Besides, he’d be able to rewind the tapes and see what happened later. He turned his attention back to Cathy’s flabby aging body and shut his ears off except to listen to her moans, while his subconscious had a field day with the stuff coming over the speakers.
Gray’s next conscious thought was about alarms. They were lying on the furon in the middle of the workshop, resting after a particularly exhausting quickie that had taken most of an hour. Cathy seemed to be asleep.
If he had a way of monitoring the monitors. He wouldn’t have to pay constant attention if he could figure out some sort of intelligence that would watch it all for him. Maybe the dogs? No, they didn’t like TV. A complex computer program he wasn’t capable of writing? Face and voice recognition software? Maybe, ah, a device that would interfere with some other device and squawk when Spike was around. Yeah. And something to plant in Star’s clothing, her shoes maybe, that would let him know when she left the house. Maybe he could adapt a house-arrest bracelet thingie like the cops use. And once he had alarms, by god he was going to use that new GPS device to notify him when the alarms went off no matter where he was. Waste not want not. He found himself whistling the dwarves’ work song as he got dressed.
Cathy noticed. He looked like he couldn’t be more eager to get rid of her.“You sound like you’ve got a new project,” she said, fishing. You sound like you’ve going to see a new girlfriend.
“Um.” He looked a little guilty. Oops, breaking husband’s rule number twenty-three. After sex, act smitten to disguise your impatience to get away; a dull loook of love assures her that you haven’t lost interest now that your pants are back on.
He didn’t want to discuss his idea because it was too fresh, and it might not be possible with his tools. She would ask a lot of questions and he’d lose valuable insights. He wanted to rush over to his bench and start drawing and figuring. He felt that it would be more than gracious if he went upstairs with Cathy and got a cup of coffee before starting. He had work to do, and he needed to get right to it. He tried to decide whether to take a few notes and go to bed, or stay up half the night working out his ideas.
He felt like she wanted him to be close after making love, but this was a quickie, a break in the day, and the evening was still young. She seemed to want to curl up on the futon and stay there all night. But that wouldn’t happen until both Star and Cathy’s mom were gone. So a quickie was great, and now back to work.
Cathy stood there wondering why he was looking guilty. Why’s he so eager for me to leave? What’s he hiding? Gray was putting on his socks, and lost his balance, ending up on the futon. He looked a little dazed. Cathy thought it was funny for a moment.
“Are you alright?” she asked. She felt guilty. Maybe he’s ill and I haven’t noticed the signs. That might explain why he’s acting odd. She helped him up. The difference in their ages showed. He was getting frail, where she was still spreading out into middle-aged stolidity. It made her want to cling to him more. “I’m so glad we came down here and made love.” Touching him made her want to continue touching him.
“Me too.” He dodged aside and headed toward the door. “Right now I’ve got things to do.” He was beginng to lose the details already and it was going to take some effort to retain the rest. “How about we grab some coffee?”
“I was thinking about things,” she said as she trailed him up the steps. “While we were having sex.”
While they were having sex, she was being all insecure and does he still love me, despite his body’s frenzied response. She’d been distracted, running Mom things and Star things around in her head, then coming back to Gray’s ministrations for a short while, and enjoying them, but then concentrating on what she was doing to him and thinking about things and getting all distracted and forgetting to feel what was going on. Again. If I was conscious of a third of what Gray was doing to me, I’d think I’d faint. Thinking cuts off feeling. However. This was a great change from the new normal. I’ll treasure our moment always. She reached forward and pinched Gray’s baggy butt thru his jeans.
Later, lying in bed in the middle of the night, Cathy replayed certain things about their illicit adventure. His brusqueness. The way he didn’t meet her eyes afterward. How easy it was to read another woman into his enthusiasm for some new project. She was seeing rivals everywhere. If it weren’t laughable, she’d suspect Star of being after Gray. Why not? He’d give her anything she wanted. Take me, my mom’s too old, and I’m young and nubile. Cathy felt spiteful. What a golddigger. Then she just felt old.
Gray, meanwhile, was feverishly trying to design an alarm alarm from first principles. He immediately hit a series of walls. Engineering walls. Parts walls, How-to walls. His sense of urgency was notched up a couple of degrees when he found a listening device that Spike had placed at the entrance to his workshop. When he tested it, he found that he could hear right thru his windows and pick up what was coming out of the wall of speakers. His dilemma – leave it there and use it to feed Spike false information, or dismantle it and use it for parts. It wasn’t much of a dilemma, actually. Gray figured Spike had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Not easy to fool a guy who was parked on the sidewalk and in possession of a cellphone.
Gray did a quick inventory. He needed a few more things before he could do anything, so he did a mental search of what was in the house. He’d already taken Mom’s TV, but Star still had hers. There were various clock radios, Star’s smuggled-in cellphone, a couple of cameras, a blender, a toaster, two hair dryers, an electronic key finder, several old wrist watches, and an entire working computer with modem and router. Hmmm. He was still stuck with only an idea and no way to put it all together out of what he had to hand. He began a list of things to get from Radio Shack, and wish he was more up to date on microelectronics.
Cathy tossed and turned that night. She hadn’t written in her blog for some time. It made too much noise in Mom’s bedroom for Cathy to sit in the back room and type. She sometimes wished she’d left the television in there. She tried to get up in the middle of the night and write a post, but she would inevitably rouse Mom, who would then want to know what she was writing. Which by that time were mostly rants about her family, rather than the food industry. When she did get a minute, when Mom was marathoning in the bathroom, for instance, she found she couldn’t organize her thoughts, couldn’t get into the mood to write anything coherent or topical.
She was awake; it was two in the morning and she couldn’t get back to sleep. So she wrapped a housecoat around herself against the cold, and snuck back to her computer as quietly as possible. She had an idea in her head and figured she might as well write it out and post it. The title was going to be Relative Vampires: How Family Can Suck The Life Out Of You.
She swaddled the keyboard in a towel so the clicking keys wouldn’t make enough noise to wake Mom. The blog host servers were having a busy night, and autosaves took a lot of time, and Cathy kept getting colder and colder. The wind rattled the trees against the roof and sides of the house. Another thing for Gray to get to. Surely she’d mentioned it to him for months now.
Her fingers were getting cold. She feather-typed a few freshly inspired sentances and waited for the page to update, rubbing her fingers for warmth. They felt like celery stalks. There was still more to write, but she was starting to freeze. She’d tucked her feet up and sat crosslegged for awhile, but her feet went to sleep and she had to rest them on the cold tile floor while they tingled and burned and froze at the same time.
Enough. She got up and looked for the oil filled electric radiator she dragged out every year around this time. It was a life saver. She always set it up right in front of her knees and rested the keyboard on it. It kept her coffee warm when she pulled the keyboard into her lap to type. She looked in several places, but it wasn’t there. Finally she gave up and went back to bed to inflict her frigid hands and feet on Gray’s warm unsuspecting body. Morning would be soon enough to ask him if he’d moved it.
“I gave it to your mother yesterday.” They were lying under the covers with their morning coffee. The little dogs were snuggled together between them, oblivious.
“Excuse me?” She wasn’t expecting that. She was immediately affronted. How could you?
He was blithe. “She asked me if we had an extra heater, and you weren’t using it.”
“Yet.” I would have started last night. He shrugged. She thought he was thinking she was just making it up, and felt guilty, so she didn’t say it. It was true, but it didn’t sound like it. “What did you give it to her for?”
He took a sip of coffee. It was starting to get cold. “She asked for it.”
“But it’s mine. I need it.” She felt like stamping her feet – it isn’t fair. “What mad eyou think you could go giving away something I use every year without telling me, or asking me? I have to discover it in the freezing cold when I’ve got some actual time to write in my blog.” She kicked at the covers. Stumbles got up and moved to Gray’s side of the bed, offended.
Gray said nothing.
“You know shell never give it back. I won’t be able to write in my blog at all now because you’ve given away my heater.”
Gray thought about getting up. “We’ll get another one.”
Cathy made a face. “No we won’t. We’re already going broke with all the extra groceries these two are costing us. Not to mention the electric bill. Or the water bill. We’ve doubled our expenditures since t hey’ve been here.”
“It’s more like two and a half to three times,” he pointed out. He kept the books and they were spending way more than they were bringing in with Cathy’s daughter and mother living there.
Cathy was starting to steam. “Never mind. I’ll eat dirt and rocks because you gave Mom my heater. And you had to give it to Mom, didn’t you? I wouldn’t have minded if Star needed it, becaue she’s pregnant and I’m babying her. But Mom just takes and takes and never says thanks. She orders me around like she was Mom and I was still a kid. In my own house.” She turned to see how he was taking it. He wasn’t reacting, just lying calmly with his coffee cup on his belly, patting the dog with his free hand. Cathy felt hurt. He’s not patting me. “And you’re enabling her. You make her comfortable, you do things for her, you give her tables and fmake eyes at her all day long. She’ll never leave.”
Gray pulled the covers off and got out of bed. Better things to do than sit there and be yelled at.
“Go get it back.” Cathy felt abandoned. No, she wanted to whine, don’t get out of bed. Come back, I’ll do all the things you like. But there he was, putting on his pants. She got angry again. Fine, abandon me. “You go get it back. You gave it to her. Tell her I need it.” Damn independent husbands, always going off and doing something I won’t like. I’ll probably never write another word until she’s been gone and I’ve fully recovered, maybe six months. But I need it just for the principle of the thing. Mom’s got to learn she can’t get away with stealing other people’s property.
“You don’t listen,” she said resentfully, getting out of bed on her side. The floor was cold. “How many times have I told you to stop doing nice things for Mom? It’ll only give her the leverage to stay.” She’s only using you to win her battle with me. Just bow out, say no, be too busy. That shouldn’t be too hard. He wasn’t reacting much to anything she said. She wondered whether to provoke him.
“Are you listening to me? Why aren’t you responding?” She went on before he could say anything. Or else he waited until she went on by herself. He stopped listening. She went on.
Later Cathy was making dinner and Star was down from the attic, backseat cooking. She wanted macaroni and cheese, and Cathy had her way of making it, which was different than Star’s way, and different yet from Mom’s way, and both of them tended to bitch at her about the differences, but at this point Cathy was in a hurry to get dinner, and didn’t feel like doing anything anybody else’s way, so she ignored the bitching. “Make it yourself.” And since Star had no intention of getting up from the chair in the corner, and Mom was unhappily in bed, she got to make it her way.
Star was beginning to get panicky about the birth. She’d been looking over some of Cathy’s midwife texts and was filled with fear about all the unlikely things that could go wrong. “Mom, three day labor? What’s that all about?”
“Well, sometimes it takes a long time.” There were so many vairables.
“It says that the first birth usually takes the longet. Do I really have to be in pain for three days?”
“The part that hurts is the part at the end, sweetie.” Cathy tried to reassure her, but Star was skeptical. The movies she’d seen looked like the woman was in excruciating pain the whole time.
“I don’t think I want to do this,” Star said in a small voice.
Cathy was floored. “Well, it’s kinda too late for that. There’s no way not to go thru with it, I’m afraid. It’s not like you can undo being pregnant at this point.” Even if the baby were to die prebirth, god forbid, they’d stce labor in order to get it out of her. She didn’t want to mention it to Star, because she knew it would freak her out. Hopefully she wouldn’t have read tabout that eventuality.
“Well, I still want to go to the hospital. I don’t care if they lock me up and take the baby away. I’m not having you deliver it. It’s just too gross.”
“Shhh.” Cathy nodded toward the closed bedroom door. “You can be heard.”
Star snorted. What did she care if Grandma heard? Maybe she would take her side for once and force Cathy to do the right thing. “But Mom, I’m scared. So many things could go wrong, and you’re just not equipped to deal with it.” Her mind sought things to object to. “I don’t want you to see me naked.” Cathy snorted. “I could die. The baby could die. The cord could wrap around his neck and strangle him. You could drop him when he comes out.” She tried to think of all the horrible stuff she’d been reading.
Cathy started to tell her that she was being hormonal and suffering with the same fears every pregnant woman had to face. Star didn’t want to hear, didn’t want to be reassured. She wanted to panic. Cathy tried to talk sense into her while she made dinner. Star sat in the corner and twisted her hair into knots, and then started chewing on her fingernails. Cathy could see she was driving herself deeper into irrationality and fear. Soothing pregnant ladies with overactive imaginations was one of the things she liked the least about her time as an apprentice midwife.
“Mom, I’m not sure if I even want the baby. I don’t think Spike wants a baby, either. I just want to go off with Spike and start over?”
“Over, like in not having a baby? Like pretending you didn’t bring a life into this world? You want to stay a kid all your life and not face any responsibility? Just wander around the world having adventures?”
Star looked like she was happy that her mother understood her.
“You might have thought about that when you decided to get pregnant. I remember you telling me that you two made a baby on purpose, so that nobody could separate you. Now you have to deal with it.”
“But I’m not ready to have a baby.” Star was crying. She looked pitiful. Cathy pitied her.
“But you can’t just abandon your baby.”
Star looked up hopefully. “Will you take her if it’s a girl? Spike is dead set against having a girl.”
Cathy was appalled. “ No way. It’s your baby. You’re strong enough to raise a child.”
“But I’m not ready. You’re so much more experienced. You did a good job, really Mom, you can do it again. Please take it off my hands, I can’t do it.” Star had her head in her hands.
Panic. Talk sense into her. Make her do the right thing. Cathy searched for arguments to counter Star’s objections, but the objections were so silly and unrealistic. Take the baby off my hands. I don’t think so. “You’ll manage,” she snapped. “Women manage.”
“But I’m just a kid.”
“You’re old enough to live with the consequences of your actions, Star. I tried to tell you before, but you wouldnl’t listen. And now you’ve just got to deal.”
“But I can’t,” she wailed. Panic panic panic, maybe if she flailed enough someone would rescue her.
But Cathy couldn’t rescue anyone. “If you take the easy road all your life, you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve got to deal with the hard stuff. You’ve got to face facts and learn to cope with the situation. A baby is a wonderful thing…”
“But I don’t want a baby,” Star interrupted. “I just want to be with Spike. I don’t want a life of pain and suffeirng just because I got pregnant. Maybe I’ll just leave when he’s born, and you can deal with it.”
“Are you threatening me?” Cathy wasn’t sure how to take Star’s panic. She was just saying anything that came into her head. She started talking sense to her again, how adversity and struggle built character. But Star was panicking, not listening to a word she said.
Gray walked into the kitchen to get more coffee and disappear back into the basement. Something about how Star was acting reminded her of Gray’s latest transgression. The process was the same. They both were up to something Cathy didn’t think was right, and she would try to talk sense into them, but no matter what logical arguments she made, no matter how much she appealed to their self interest and better instincts, they both just went on the way they were going, and she had no influence at all. Why did she bother? “You two are so annoying,” she said. They looked at each other with questions in their eyes. She passed around Gray to get something from the pantry, and leaned into his back, growling. She felt the growl reverberate thru his body. He was as thin and hollow as a shell. She told them what was happening and what they should do about it, and they persisted in thinking and feeling and doing what they wanted to. And it was wrong. And she couldn’t do anything to change their behavior. Grrrrr.
During the evening dog walk, they chanced past a neighbor who was taking groceries out of her car while talking on her cellphone. Stumbles stopped to take a dump a few feet away. Cathy would have wished she’d chosen to shit around the corner, and felt embarrassment having to stand there and watch the dog do her business. The woman scowled at her and said something into the phone. Cathy almost dragged the dogs around the corner, wanting to get away.
The next morning when they came up to the neighbor’s house, Cathy and Gray were surprised to see the ground cleared around Stumbles’ small pile of already decomposing shit. Someone had drawn a circle around it and written “bad neighbor” in the dirt.
Cathy fumed all the way around the block. She was used to getting away from stressful situations when they went on the dog walks. It was too much to be hounded by the neighbors as well. She encouraged Scootie to take a dump in front of the woman’s car. “Come on, right where she’ll step in it.” But Scootie declined; she had her favorite spot and was saving it.
Three days later, both the little dogs crapped on the bad neighbor’s sidewalk. Cathy stood there watching them, hoping the woman wouldn’t come out and catch them. She looked at the sidewalk, which was full of leaves. She looked at the garbage cans, which had trash piled up all around them. She looked at the recycle bins, full of beer and wine bottles, pizza boxes and empty vegetable cans. It was a place designed to attract rats. She snorted. Bad neighbor. Who’s the bad neighbor? Someone who walks their dogs regularly, or someone who trashes the neighborhood? She called to Gray to wait for her; he’d gone around the corner with Tabasco looking like a sailboat being propelled by high winds on rough seas.
The nieighbor came out of her house as Cathy was rounding the corner. She looked suspiciously at the fresh shit and called out after her, “I’ve got bags.”
Bags, Cathy thought. Why don’t you use them to contain your trash? The little dogs stopped to smell a plant Tabasco had just peed on. “Come on dogs,” she said, pulling savagely. The little things jumped, looking guilty. “We’re not out here so you can stop to smell and pee every three feet, we’ve got to get home. Gray, wait up,” she called. It was cold out, she wanted to hold his hand and warm up beside him. She scurried to catch up to him, walking fast, almost angrily. “The bad neighbor almost caught me,” she confided, wanting to share something with him.
Gray didn’t say anything, but jerked at Tabasco’s leash, pulling him out of the street where he’d spotted a flat squirrel. Nobody noticed the neighbor, who was stalking along behind them, talking on her phone.
After lunch, Cathy and Gray went out again with the dogs. There was a bulging plastic grocery bag hanging on their doorknob. It was full of plastic grocery bags. There was a note. Cathy fumed.
“I stepped in dog feces in front of my house recently. My daughter set her bookbag down in dog feces the other day, and spread it all over the back seat of the car. I’m not suggesting that your dogs are the ones who leave feces on my sidewalk, because there are many dogs in this neighborhood. But I want you to k now that it’s the law that you have to clean up after your dogs. Please help solve this important hygiene and sanitation problem.”
Gray read the note without comment, and tossed the bags into the trashcan. Cathy fished them back out. “I’m going to collect dog shit for a couple of days and return the bags to her that way,” she said with a sneer. “See how she likes it.” Gray walked off down the street, being dragged by Tabasco. Cathy caught up. Gray was being silent all the time now. What was wrong? “What’s wrong?”
He made no answer. Was he holding his tongue so as not to say something to set her off? Because she was ready to be set off.
“I can’t believe the tone of her note. What a bitch. She’s the kind of angry liberal that gives the party a bad name. Unforgiving, rigid, coercive.” She was thwacking the dogs’ chains with every word. Gray walked faster.
“Important problem,” she continued. “She’s trying to make it our problem. Like we’re the bad guys for not solving it her way. She sounds like a Republican.”
“Well, we see the world differently than she does,” Gray said, mildly.
Cathy ignored him. “Making us responsible for her not watching where she’s stepping, and her daughter’s inattention,” she snorted. “Like dog shit hasn’t been around for millions of years. Like it’s a goal everyone should strive for – nothing of any kind on any street. How does that work? A consumer society with no waste. Hah.” She dragged the dogs over to the curb of the neighbor’s house. “Just look at their recycle bins.” She kicked the one with all the bottles in it and the dogs flinched at the noise.
Gray gravely continued to say nothing. Normally he would have had something remark about people’s standards being useful for them. Something that acknowledged all sides. But Cathy’s rant was beginning to annoy him. They walked on. Cathy composed a nastygram to leave with a bag of dog shit on the neighbor’s steps.
Cathy could tell that she was being agravating. But she couldn’t help herself. She had to rag about the bad neighbor. The impudence of the woman, her self-righteous assault, her insulting accusation. Having to endure it was sitting on top of having to listen to Star complain that she’s not ready to have a baby, and having to listen to Mom complain about how bad a mother she was being. She was tired of having to listen to all these emotional irrational people. It was affecting her sleep. She felt petty, impatient, and dissatisfied. Overwrought emotionally, ready to snap. She kicked at the dogs when they stopped to smell a phone pole.
And that’s not all that’s bothering me. The stress of Star getting ready to go into labor. The long arm of the law reaching up my ass. Mom being such a time bomb and pushing all my buttons. It’s wearing me down. It’s winding me up. I’m springing leaks. I can’t take much more of this.
For weeks Cathy had been gradually been sinking into self-doubt and insecurity. She was revealed as a failure even before the final test. Nobody knew it yet, but she was ready to admit it to herself. It felt awful. Hollow and achy, false and brittle. Maybe another serious quickie would ease the angst. She sidled up to him and took his arm. “You’re kind of cute.”
He brushed her off and made a joke. “It’s dangerous being the focus of your attention.”
“I don’t love you either,” she snapped, withdrawing his arm. This isn’t helping.
He made another joke. “At least I”m not on a leash.”
Cathy heard it as condemnation. Confirmation that she was a fraud. A simple reference that she took as badly as her mother did. She worked up a real paranoid ‘you really hate me and you’re doing things behind my back.’ There’s too much you’re not telling me. You don’t trust me anymore. You don’t love me anymore. You’re sorry you married me. You want me to go. You’ve found someone else. She didn’t say any of what she was thinking, but chose to break the silence as they neared the house. End on an honorable note. “If you want, you can move into the workshop, if you need some space or some time or…” She trailed off. He must hate me.
For the rest of the evening,whenever she got the chance, Cathy said some of what she was thinking. Not the stuff that sounded silly to her ears, like you want to sleep with Star of Mom. But all asorts of minor assertions that he didn’t respond to. He was ignoring her. She would ask him what he was thinking, because that always worked. But she was too impatient for assurances that he still loved her, and would finish the sentance for him. But she couldnl’t keep herself from coming back to the oil filled radiator and what it said about his respect for her. Digging at him. Showing him how emblematic it was. Always in a resentful tone, or with grrrs. And tho she never accused him of desiring someone else, she thought it constantly.