I lower the bowl so the cowboy and ladybug can grab some Tootsie Rolls before raiding the next apartment. When Jess was their age I made a yellow daffodil with cardboard petals, her face beamed through an oval cutout. In sixth grade she wanted a princess costume in a plastic pouch. When I refused the French maid's outfit in ninth grade she pouted-for the next four years. Now she's living with her "Best Friends Forever" Tiffany and Kara, and I fear how she's covering (or uncovering) her nineteen-year-old body. Leering men invade my thoughts until the buzzer rings. I open the door and see a hip thrust out, a snug purple jacket with the zipper open to a line of cleavage. It's Jess. "Happy Halloween Mom."
I put the bowl down and embrace her. The return hug is a shrug of her shoulders. I hang her jacket, afraid she'll leave if I don't settle her quickly. Then the change hits me: hair dyed black, tweezed brows below thick bangs, eyes wrapped in dark kohl, sparkly green lids. I'm not sure if it's Halloween make-up or her new style. She drops a pink duffel bag on the floor and says Chuck—the first I've heard of him—will drive her stuff from Brooklyn tomorrow. She flops onto Frank's old recliner. I sit on the couch and pinch the knuckles on my left hand.
"Our place was cockroach infested, they hissed at night. Our douche bag landlord was too cheap to exterminate."
I'm secretly glad for the insect invasion. When Jess deferred college in May and left The Bronx, I never expected her back.
"Did I mention my job?" She says. "Full-time since August, receptionist at a cool downtown salon. You like?"
She flicks her bangs. I've never been to a salon. I always cut our hair; hers long, mine at the shoulders. I want to stroke her inky waves, tell her, no, she never mentioned it. Jess's moods are like a windy day-gray and overcast one second, breezy with sunshine the next. I want to wash her face, rinse out the hair dye, ask what else she forgot to mention.
In the morning I shower, remove gray hairs from the comb, peek in the closet; the purple sleeve reassures me she's back. I mix pancake batter, add sliced bananas, her favorite. As I squeeze an orange, Jess yells that she's meeting Chuck and the front door slams shut.
After they return, suitcases and boxes crowd the hallway. For dinner I serve meatloaf and Chuck piles the soggy croutons on the side of his plate. He has a tattoo across his neck: a rose in the center, two pistols pointing towards his ears. It's awful and mesmerizing, the vivid black lines and deep red, like ground rubies.
"So bold." I say.
Chuck's smile doesn't reach his eyes. He lifts his shirt to reveal a chest sheathed in engravings. He says, "You should see Jess's."
"Don't worry Mom," Jess frowns, "They're no place you'll see."
Jess unpacks what she can and thrift store purchases crowd her room, exiling toys and stuffed animals to hallway boxes. The next morning after she leaves for work, I can't concentrate on my Mickey Spillane novel because the real mystery is down the hallway.
Saturday morning the toilet flushes, Chuck walks out in boxers, mumbles "morning," and disappears back into Jess's room. His presence and the closed door remind me of Frank, the many times I used to pray our doors were thick enough to block sounds Jess wasn't meant to hear.
The abandoned toys in the hallway make me sad; they need to be stored. It's time to clear the hallway closet, to tackle a job delayed for years: sorting Frank's boxes into donations and garbage.
After Jess leaves for work on Monday, I drag nine boxes from the closet into the living room. My limbs pulse with adrenaline; I'll be sixty soon and can't remember feeling such energy and fatigue at once. The boxes sit like boulders, a quarry I need to blast through, forgotten since Frank's burial three years ago. Not forgotten-avoided. And I avoid them longer; I pour some coffee and sit on the couch.
Frank's business partner Stu had delivered the news to me on this same couch, biting his nails as he described the accident. I cried with shock and later Stu offered to buy Frank's half of the auto shop; with that payment and Frank's insurance, I didn't have to work again.
The week after the funeral Jess pierced her nose. A few months later she was caught with stolen lipstick in her backpack. Slight things set her off: suggesting no TV while doing homework or leggings under a mini skirt. She retreated to her room and later it was often empty. A call to Kara's mom in 16A or Tiffany's folks on Jerome Avenue assured me Jess was safe could spend the night.
The bottom of the coffee cup skews my reflection; long nose, tired eyes, limp hair. That must be what Frank saw, how Jess sees me. I avoid mirrors, but Jess loves dressing up, no wonder she's at a salon.
I sit on the floor and pick at a strip of translucent tape, melded to the cardboard like a second skin. The end curls, a sliver comes off and I start again. The top panels yawn open to a wrinkled shirt, yellowed from oil and age. I pinch the shoulders and shudder: the sleeves seem to swell, as though Frank's limbs are inside and might lunge at me. It's the first item in the garbage pile. Each familiar shirt and sweater emerges like a question: How did I end up with him?
A timid girl who sprouted into a stalk of a woman, dating always petrified me. At thirty-eight, after years altering hems in Macy's suit department, being alone seemed inevitable. The last thing I expected while kneeling on the floor chalking a pant leg was to be asked on a date; I almost swallowed a mouthful of pins. Frank was squat, a weight-lifting mechanic who wanted his own auto shop. His first wife didn't want kids and his second wife left him for a neighbor. My hair was gray by then and he called me a greyhound, made me blush. He liked my roast chicken and I liked his blunt kisses. Years later, his waist grew thick, he developed a map of veins around his nose, called me a hound dog. I didn't mind for me, I minded for Jess. People noted our resemblance and the more he insulted me the less he complimented her.
Underneath a navy sweater is the James Cagney mug. Frank got such a kick when I said he looked like Cagney, he started parting his hair in the middle. One night when Jess was in nursery school I learned there were similarities beyond appearance.
Jess was asleep and I was in the bedroom sewing curtains. Frank leaned over my shoulder; he had purple crescents under his eyes and beer breath. "You didn't bleach my shirts," he slurred. "I look like a slob at work." Then my head exploded-the world throbbed in my cheek. Before I registered that his palm had whacked my face, his arms circled my shoulders and apologies fell in my ear. In the morning I told Jess the swelling was a toothache. Soon after, The Public Enemy was on TV. I froze when Cagney smashed a grapefruit into his mistress's jaw, like the devil was in my home playing my life back to me. A doubt has haunted me since-I'd made the Cagney comparison, planted a seed that mutated against me. Over the years Frank's eyes often darkened from drink and bedroom eruptions followed. Sometimes a lamp or chair took the brunt, but most blows landed on me, followed by apologies and snores. There are no visible scars, but after that Cagney scene I never ate grapefruit again.
The mug falls to the floor and the handle breaks off. I sweep it to the garbage pile. There's something hard under a pair of pants; Frank's baseball trophy. I save it for Jess; they bonded over sports. Sometimes I'd knit on a bench while they shot basketballs. Frank imitated a sportscaster; "Jess has the ball, she's faking left, right, she scores!" He'd crack himself up, coax giggles from Jess. He treated her basketball team to ice cream whether they won or lost. He wasn't all bad; bought this apartment, gave me roses on anniversaries. I prayed God would calm him, but for Jess's sake never considered leaving.
By late afternoon the boxes are emptied, the discards thrown down the garbage chute. I put Frank's trophy by Jess's door and drag three bags outside to a taxi. The driver helps me unload at the Salvation Army on Burnside. The woman thanks me for the donation and hands over a flyer requesting soup kitchen volunteers. When Jess comes home we stack her boxes in the closet and she tucks Frank's trophy beside them. She says, "I'm spending Thanksgiving with Chuck's parents." The news keeps me awake until I remember the flyer and decide to volunteer on Thanksgiving.
When Thursday arrives I walk to Burnside and follow signs to a wide fluorescent cafeteria with a cluttered kitchen in back. Joe, a black man with a potbelly, asks me to peel potatoes. A slight brunette woman shows me my station and as diners file in I drop snowballs of mashed potatoes onto each plate.
"Mix? Or homemade?" A man with a navy cap and silver beard studies his plate.
"Homemade." I'm glad the peeling made a difference.
"Nice. You new here?"
I nod. He tilts his head toward the tables, "Care to join me later?"
My cheeks warm, "No thanks."
Later Joe says help is needed every Tuesday and Thursday. Back home, exhaustion dulls the emptiness of the apartment and I decide to go back Tuesday.
At the next meal a familiar voice says, "How about lunch today?"
I fumble with the hot dog tray until the navy cap moves on.
On Thursday I leave the cafeteria and almost slide on the ice when I hear, "Mind some company?" He's on my right, shoulders hunched a few inches below mine
"I'm going to the Rite Aid," I lie.
He offers his hand, "I'm Henry."
His shake is vigorous, I'm grateful for my gloves. Outside Rite Aid he says goodbye. For several weeks he walks me to the drugstore. I don't buy anything; I stroll up the toothpaste aisle, down the shampoo aisle, then leave. One day Henry suggests having coffee. The lure of a warm diner and curiosity outweigh my surprise. "Okay, if we split the bill."
Feathers float up as Henry removes his down jacket and slips into the booth. Etched lines flow down his temples into his beard. His sweater is frayed, but his nails are clean. He drowns his coffee in sugar and Half and Half until it overflows onto the table.
"Got a degree in English lit," he says. "Drove a taxi, then got a job writing auto reviews."
"I never had a license," I say, "My husband had an auto shop and preferred driving."
"What kind of car does he have?"
"None, Frank passed away. A Stingray killed him."
Henry's brows arch up under his hat. "While scuba diving?"
The image of Frank's burly body in a scuba suit makes me stifle a smile. "A Corvette Stingray. It was hoisted on a rusted lift that collapsed."
"Ouch, that's bad."
Henry's eyes are light like walnut shells. He tells me of an engagement, drinking, a car accident, losing his job, apartment, fiancée. Staying with friends, in shelters.
His story reminds me of the boxes I stored for years, the things we avoid, the things we still carry with us.
"Had a woman friend," he says, "Tall like you, died of a heart attack right before starting a detox program. Scared me into detox. Been sober fifteen months, need a job though."
When we finish, plastic and paper soak in a pool of coffee. I leave a couple of extra dollars for the waitress.
The next time I see Henry he looks younger; his beard is shaved, his chin lighter than his forehead. As I serve corn he says he got a part-time janitor job at the Y. Later, on the sidewalk, Henry grabs my arm. "See that? A Studebaker President!" The sleek dual-tone car passes but all I notice is the pressure of his grip. Frank never discussed cars with me but Henry coos over them like babies.
At the diner I tell him how I was once entrusted to alter the famous Macy's Santa suit and now take in mending jobs for neighbors. I describe how grown up and responsible Jess is with her job, but still a teenager-blasting music like those cars cruising down the Grand Concourse on Saturday night, the bass so loud the windows rattle. I don't mention that yesterday she lowered the volume and said, "One day I'll have a soundproof place so no one suffers."
As I see more of Henry, I see less of Jess. The apartment feels lonelier with the tease of her presence than when she lived in Brooklyn. But she has Christmas dinner with me and Chuck brings chocolate cake and washes the dishes.
In the living-room I tell her, "He's nicer than my first impression."
"Like tattoos make someone bad." She says. "I'm getting more. I like expressing myself, deciding what happens to my body. You should try it sometime." She goes to help Chuck, leaving like I'm the scolded child.
On New Year's Eve I watch TV and remember Jess's New Year resolution at eight years old: to make her daddy proud. At nine it was to make me smile, and at ten it was to have fun. At eleven she stopped telling me her resolutions.
In the New Year I surprise Henry, and myself, by suggesting coffee at my apartment. My stomach turns along with the key in the lock, but once we're seated, it's as comfortable as the diner. When he says, "Thanks Millie," it feels like summertime.
On a late January afternoon, the scent of sun melted snow and hot oatmeal cookies fills the kitchen. Henry cradles his cup of creamy coffee. "It's tough finding a place. The shelter wears on you, y'know?"
I nod, although I don't know.
"Once slept like a drunk log, now everything wakes me."
A thought comes to mind. I tell myself it's a bad idea and nibble a raisin. Then I say, "You can stay on the couch tonight, get some sleep."
Henry puts down his cup, "I couldn't bother you. You sure?"
I'm not sure, but it's too late. "If Jess returns early you'll meet her. I'll make breakfast tomorrow."
And then it's not a mistake, it's just right—a gentle man in the house, three of us having bacon and eggs together. I refill Henry's coffee.
Jess doesn't pick up my calls and her voicemail is full. Henry devours three servings of spaghetti and meatballs. Later while he washes I put a pillow and blanket on the couch and tape a note to Jess's door: "We have a guest, I'll introduce you in the morning."
Henry comes from the bathroom and says, "Thanks Millie, I'll sleep now," like he's getting permission. He leans forward and kisses my cheek. His lips are warm, his skin stubbly. It dazes me. I'm too distracted to sew and by ten o'clock I turn off my light and fall asleep in my clothes.
I wake to a shriek.
It's Jess's voice. I fumble with the knob, turn on the hallway light and see two forms in the living-room. Jess yells, "Mom! Call the police!"
My heart beats in my throat; I freeze—grab the phone? Or help Jess?
"What happened?" I ask the darkness. A jumble emerges by the couch; arms in air, Jess's hand raised, Henry backing up, pushing Jess's wrist. I grab Jess's waist, try to get in front, between her and Henry. Her elbow bangs my ribs. I grab my side, panic. But I need to protect her. Fear shifts to rage: what has he done? He needs to back away. I push in front of Jess, press my palm against Henry's collar bone and shove. He doesn't resist, stumbles over the coffee table onto the carpet. There's a thud, a loud, "Shit!"
Jess turns on the light and Henry rubs his hip, grabs his shoes and wobbles to his feet.
"NO," I shriek, "What did you do to her?"
Henry flinches. "Nothing. She came at me."
My lips try to form words.
"Millie," Henry says, "I woke at something, forgot I was here, stood, next thing I'm getting knocked in the head."
Jess looks like she might vomit. "Mom, you know this guy?"
"Didn't you see the note?"
"What note?" She looks at his socks, at the rumpled blanket and pillow on the couch. I put my hands on her shoulder and feel her tremble. She shakes me off. "It was dark and I heard…I thought he broke in, was a burglar, or—"
"Jess, you're okay?"
"I'm not okay."
"Did he hurt you?"
She shakes her head no and hugs her arms across her chest. Henry kneels to tie his shoes but can't control the laces.
"It's a mistake," I say.
Jess pushes past me. I follow and she turns abruptly. "Who is he?"
"Henry. I called you," I tap her door, "left this note."
"That's fucking helpful. Since when have you invited a man over? Since never, that's when."
She plops on her bed and I sit beside her.
"Who is he?"
"Friend?" She says with air quotes. "Boyfriend?"
"A friend. I offered our couch, just for tonight. He was tired at the shelter and—"
"Lives in a shelter? You invited a homeless guy here?"
"But you're okay?"
"You know what that was like? The old days." She kneads her pink blanket, "Remember the good ol' days?"
I rub my knuckles and feel the ridges between the bones.
"You think I don't have ears? Couldn't see what he did to you?"
"Jess," I cover her hand with mine. "Let's not discuss this."
She pulls her hand out. "You don't need to discuss this. I do. Thank God for friends or I would've gone insane. You really thought I'd want his shitty trophy?"
"Let me introduce you to Henry."
"Why'd I come back?" She stands, glares at me, "I thought you wouldn't make a mistake like dad again."
"He's not a mistake. I mean Henry, you're not making sense."
"He lives in a SHELTER." Her eyeliner flakes like ash under her eyes, "Why didn't you divorce him?" Black rivulets start trickling down her cheeks. "I hated when Kara's parents split, I was so fucking jealous. Why didn't we leave him? Now you're free and you choose a bum."
There's no air in the room, I want to leave but she's blocking the doorway, spitting bombs. My cheeks burn, tears and anger boil up.
"Please," I yell, "No more. I stayed for you, I don't understand. Please stop! I didn't teach you…this rudeness."
Jess steps aside. "Rude?" she mutters, "What's rude about the truth?"
I rush out. Henry's not in the living-room or the kitchen or bathroom. Before I can imagine what he heard, Jess is in her doorway stuffing clothes into the duffel, black hair matted to her cheeks. She walks out the front door and by the time I follow the hallway is empty.
I make coffee, pace, dial Jess ten, twenty times. When the sun rises I call Kara and Tiffany. They haven't seen her, don't have Chuck's number. I sleep, wake to evening, sick with the words we slung, how Henry left. I have to see him Tuesday—Jess is wrong about him. But Jess. I enter her room, breathe in the scent of vanilla and talcum, sit on her bed and pick up the small plaid teddy bear she won when I took her to Coney Island. She didn't exile all her toys after all. It's the first time I've sat on this bed without Jess, and I try to imagine how it felt for my child, sitting here, without soundproof walls.
On Saturday I take the subway to West 4th in Manhattan and arrive early; they don't open until ten. Music pumps through the glass door and the window is plastered in a graffiti collage of photos, a kaleidoscope of spiked hair with labels in a foreign language: choppy, edgy, emo, indie, punk. Jess is behind the counter-tall, dark eyes, pale skin; a striking presence, even against the bold backdrop. Her face flickers like a candle; first a stranger, then my daughter. She clicks a keyboard, looks at a screen, then up. She speaks to a woman with a Mohawk and walks outside.
"Why are you here?"
"You didn't answer my calls."
She looks down the street. "I'm fine."
"Jess, come home."
"I'm staying with Chuck."
"I'm sorry for what happened. I feel awful…I've failed you in many ways."
Her quick agreement unnerves me. "It's my birthday."
She twists her toe like she's stubbing out a cigarette. "Right. I forgot. Happy birthday."
"Have dinner with me."
Jess stares with the brown eyes that matched her once chestnut hair. "No."
"Shit. This is messed up." I can see in her eyes how old I've become. "Christ, wait a sec." She goes inside. People step around me on the sidewalk and I consider leaving, but Jess returns.
"I'll see about dinner, but come with me." She walks inside towards the back. "It's early so we can fit you in."
The mirrors reflect my dull gray hair. It takes a few seconds to register. I clutch my handbag and shake my head, "No, not me, not here."
But Jess is already introducing me to Stardust, a pixie man with a shock of hot pink hair and little silver stars at the outer corners of his eyes.
"Hello Jess's mom, I'm going to sprinkle my fairy dust on you."
He asks what I'd like, "Nothing. Nothing crazy."
I've never had someone wash my hair and almost slide off the seat as my back arches into the sink. After a few moments I find a comfortable position. I jump when cold, then hot water, flows against my scalp, and relax as it adjusts to a soothing warm flow. I stare at bright track lights, hear a squirt, something cool on my head, the smell of cantaloupes. Firm fingers massage, easing the lump in my stomach. I close my eyes. There's a rinse, another squirt, coconut. My hands relax the grip of the bag on my lap.
With a towel on my head, I see Jess greet a customer at the reception desk before I'm ushered to a chair in the corner and Stardust swivels me away from the mirror.
"It's going to be a surprise," he says.
He announces each step: dye, highlights, cut. His pink head bobs in and out of view as wet slivers fall down the tent over my arms. Jess comes over, looks silently and leaves. Customers trickle in. I turn my head to watch her answer the phone, type, welcome a customer. Her competence startles me and I grip the armrests.
When the blow dryer stops my ears ring. Stardust pinches some strands, fluffs my hair and pulls out a hand mirror. Before he turns me around Jess comes over.
"Ready?" she says, her black bangs shining under the lights.
I'm not ready. I'm terrified of the mirror.
Jess reaches for my hand and squeezes it. The last time she did that was years ago, to cross the street. The heat radiates from her palm. I can feel her strength. I can feel her waiting for me. I hold on tight. Then, I let go.