Can I Go Now?
When Ollie came home Friday afternoon Rosie had everything packed, including several bottles of breast milk for four-month-old Sarah. He was finally over the nasty flu that for weeks had kept him from helping much with childcare and household chores. His cough had disrupted Rosie’s few hours of sleep, making her tired, cranky, resentful and, the worst, guilty because of course it wasn’t his fault. Now he was taking Sarah to his mother’s country house so Rosie could have the weekend off.
They’d met in their mid-thirties. She was teaching literature at Columbia, writing a book about Leonard Cohen’s novels, and had finally broken up with her married lover. Although she’d grown up in Manhattan in an upper middle class family, she’d begun to feel that she no longer belonged in the city where everyone seemed eager to get her job, apartment, and seat at Starbucks. Another woman already had the man she’d wanted to marry. Ollie, naturally pale, with thinning brown hair and gold-rimmed glasses, was the IT person at a small firm that specialized in estate law. They didn’t have a lot in common—he loved technology and shopping for gadgets and rarely read novels. But there was something about the undemanding and uncritical way he loved her that made her feel better about herself, especially after she didn’t get tenure.
As Rosie walked them to the car, she couldn’t stop looking at Sarah, with her big dark eyes and cloud of wispy dark hair. It was Halloween, and Rosie had bought her a sweater with smiling pumpkins all over it. Until the last minute, Rosie wasn’t sure that she’d be able to let her go.
But by the time she got back in her apartment, she was almost giddy at the prospect of two nights of uninterrupted sleep. When the friend she’d planned to have dinner with cancelled, Rosie looked up times for a few movies, then decided to go to a yoga class.
She changed into her exercise clothes, pleased that although her stomach wasn’t as flat as it had been, her pants were just a little tight. Her large breasts were even larger now that she was nursing, so she wore one of Ollie’s old tee shirts. Standing before the full-length mirror, she pulled her dark hair back into a ponytail, looked into her big dark eyes, and hoped that she was as attractive as she had been. On her way to class she kept seeing small children in costumes and missed Sarah so much that she almost called Ollie to tell him to come home.
The yoga studio was in a brownstone on the Upper West Side. Perhaps because it was Halloween, the class wasn’t crowded. There were mainly women Rosie’s age or younger, plus a young man with a ponytail and an older woman. Someone had already taken Rosie’s favorite spot, by the windowed back door that overlooked a rock garden. The big white high-ceilinged room was bare except for piles of yoga equipment along the walls, but when the lights were dimmed, it seemed almost cozy. Although many of the students were stretching, Rosie just lay on her back on her mat, her hands at her sides in corpse pose, her eyes open wide so she wouldn’t fall asleep. She hoped there wasn’t traffic and that Sarah was sleeping and that Ollie was okay—he tended to catch whatever flu or virus was going around. When they were first together she’d found this sort of appealing. She remembered an afternoon when he was getting over some cold or flu, and she’d come home to find him sitting up in her bed, propped up against pillows, her flowered duvet half-covering his surprisingly hairy chest. She’d thought that if she were a painter she’d paint his portrait. She’d use watercolors, and it would be charming, and she’d call it, “Ollie in Bed….” As if it were a mantra, Rosie kept thinking that Sarah would only be three hours away. She heard the soft, bell-like and tuneless music that Jill, her favorite instructor, always played as she dimmed the studio lights.
Rosie had taken Jill’s prenatal class, and she appreciated that unlike teachers who treated yoga as a series of stretching exercises, Jill—who used to be a lawyer—was at least somewhat spiritual. When at the end of class she’d say, “The light in me salutes the light in you, ” she’d sound as if she meant it. In her early forties, she was small and skinny, with small pointy breasts and short, grayish-blonde hair. There was a rumor that she was gay. She’d once mentioned she was a lapsed Catholic and came from someplace rural in the Midwest. Rosie, who was Jewish, found it amusing that Jill would talk about schlepping and noshing and kibitzing, and she always said mazel tov when a new mom would bring in her infant for the still-pregnant moms to ooh and aah over. Rosie wondered if she had a Jewish partner.
For the first half of class they lay on their backs in various poses. Although Rosie tried to concentrate on her breathing, she’d imagine Ollie, in the rocking chair his mother had put in his old room, giving Sarah a bottle. She hoped he’d be patient about burping her, and that he’d remember to use the ointment for her diaper rash.
Just thinking about Sarah made her breasts leak. Jill came over once to adjust Rosie’s position. Her touch was both gentle and firm. If she was aware of the wet spots on Rosie’s tee shirt, she gave no indication.
As soon as Jill had them turn onto their stomachs, Rosie realized that her right breast was painful. Even through her shirt and bra, she could feel that it was hard and warmer than her left one. She felt hot, her skin prickled, and she began to sweat. The other students were on their hands and knees, hunching over and then arching their backs as they moved from cat to cow positions. Rosie sat up.
Jill came right over. “Are you okay?” she asked softly.
“I’m not feeling great.” Although she knew that nursing mothers could get infections from clogged milk ducts, she worried it was something more serious. She dreaded going back to her empty apartment, but she didn’t want Ollie to come back unnecessarily. She was almost afraid to call her doctor. “Can I stay here for a while?”
For the rest of the class Rosie sat on her mat without moving except to occasionally touch her sore breast. It was definitely warmer than the other one and a lot harder. She was grateful that the other students, focused on their own bodies, didn’t seem to notice that she was just sitting there.
After the final oms, Jill talked to a few students and then came over to Rosie. “This was the last class, so you’re welcome to stay here and call your doctor or husband or just rest. I have lots of paperwork I can do.”
“I guess I’ll call my doctor.” She started to get up to get her phone, but Jill insisted on bringing over her purse.
“I’ll be out in reception if you need me,” Jill said. She turned up the studio lights and closed the door.
Rosie’s doctor wasn’t there, but the doctor who called her back said it sounded like mastitis, wasn’t serious, and that he’d phone in a prescription for an antibiotic. “Don’t stop nursing!”
When Rosie, embarrassed, said that Sarah was away for the weekend, he asked if she had a breast pump. “Use it!”
Rosie sat there for a while, trying to decide whether to call Ollie.
Jill opened the door. “Is everything okay?”
“He said it happens to nursing mothers. He doesn’t want me to stop nursing, but Sarah—and my husband—are at my mother-in-law’s for the weekend.”
“Do you have one of those pumps?”
“I do, but I hate it.” Her eyes were filling with tears. “I feel like I’m being punished for letting them go.”
“Not your fault, Mommy! And it’s going to be okay,” Jill said softly. “I’ll tell you what. Lie down in corpse pose. I’ll get some blankets and then I’ll lie down too, and we’ll concentrate on our breathing.” She went over and dimmed the lights. “I could use a break.”
Rosie knew that she should go to the drugstore, pump her breasts and tell Ollie to come home in the morning. But she lay down again. Turning her head, she could see the moon above the rock garden.
Jill rolled up two blankets lengthwise, put a bolster under Rosie’s neck, and another under her knees. She lay on the floor next to her. “Let’s focus on our breath,” she said.
Rosie tried to concentrate. She’d never gone so long without nursing, though, and her nipples began to dribble milk again. “Shit!” she muttered. She couldn’t believe she’d said shit in the studio. It seemed like a desecration. She started crying.
“What is it?” Jill sat up.
Rosie pulled up her tee shirt. She unhooked her nursing bra, her breasts tumbled out, and milk trickled down to her belly.
“My breast is sick,” she said, lifting her right breast. “Feel it.”
Jill hesitated, then touched it lightly. “It’s warm…maybe a little hard.”
“Would you suck it?” Rosie’s heart was pounding.
Jill, on her knees, had been leaning toward Rosie, but she drew back a little.
“It doesn’t taste disgusting or anything. It’s sort of thin and almost sweet.” She saw the breast pump, her dark apartment. “Please,” she whispered.
Jill didn’t move.
“It would be…a mitzvah.” Reaching up, Rosie put her hand on Jill’s head and gently but firmly pushed it towards her breast.
Jill took Rosie’s big nipple into her mouth and sucked it gently.
It hurt a little. Rosie closed her eyes.
“Is this okay?” Jill asked.
When her milk first came in she’d offered Ollie her breast, but he worried that he was depriving Sarah and barely sucked it.
“Is this okay?” Jill kept asking.
“I’m fine.” Sarah sucked in a more focused way…she would have already emptied it…Rosie almost smiled. “I think you got most of it,” she said after a while.
Jill sat up—her lips and chin were wet—but Rosie didn’t move. Her other breast was dripping milk, and she wanted Jill to suck it. Occasionally she’d feel aroused when Sarah nursed, but that was nothing like this. Her phone buzzed. Worried that it was Ollie and that there was a problem with Sarah, Rosie sat up.
It was a text from one of her friends. Rosie put the phone back in her purse.
Jill was folding the blankets.
“I don’t know what to say,” Rosie murmured. “It seems so stupid to say, ‘Thank you.’”
“I hope it helped.” Jill sounded the way she did when students thanked her after class. Her tee shirt had damp spots on it.
Rosie felt a kind of love for her.
Jill insisted on bringing Rosie her jacket and holding it for her to put on. She walked her to the door.
“Thank you.” Rosie made a face to show how the words were inadequate.
They hugged briefly, and then Jill went back inside.
By the time Rosie got to the drugstore, she was trembling. Like a lot of her teenage camp friends, she’d had occasional crushes on some of the female counselors—it was part of the camp culture. Before long, though, she began dating boys, and until she met Ollie, she usually had a boyfriend. Sometimes she worried that she didn’t love Ollie as much as she’d loved her married boyfriend, but their sex had always been good, and as soon as she got pregnant, she’d felt even more committed to him. Occasionally she’d be drawn to a pretty woman who was dressed up and smelled good and whose femininity was girlier than hers. But she’d never been tempted or come close to having sex with a woman.
By the time Ollie called, Rosie had taken an antibiotic, drunk half a beer, and calmed down.
Telling him about her mastitis, she emphasized that she felt better already. “See you Sunday,” she said. She thought about telling him what had happened with Jill. She didn’t think he’d be angry or upset, but since she was pretty sure that he wasn’t the type who’d get horny just hearing about it, she decided it would be her little secret.
The next morning, Rosie’s phone woke her.
“How are you?” Jill said.
Rosie touched her breast, which was no longer warm or as hard. She realized she’d slept through the night. “I’m definitely better.”
“I’m sort of in your neighborhood,” Jill said.
Rosie realized that Jill must have gone back to the studio for her number. She hoped Jill hadn’t been aware of how she’d wanted her to suck the other breast. She really hoped that Jill hadn’t been excited, too. She wished that Ollie and Sarah were there.
“I’d like to stop by. I won’t stay long.”
Rosie told herself that it wasn’t as if Jill were some big sex-crazed man she’d be letting into her apartment…and she owed her something. “Come on over,” she said heartily.
She pumped her breasts. Although her mother and closest friend had each kept her company while she pumped—they’d laughed because the machine not only seemed to be talking, but it said “Tina Fey”—she didn’t want to do it in front of Jill.
She’d just finished and was putting on one of Ollie’s sweatshirts when her doorbell rang.
“The doorman didn’t call up to announce you,” Rosie said brightly. “You must look trustworthy.” She thought that was a stupid thing to say. She remembered how she’d said “Shit!” in the studio.
Jill wouldn’t take off her leather jacket. She sat on the edge of the sofa. Rosie sat so there was a space between them.
“Can I give you some coffee? I’d offer you tea, but I don’t have any.”
Jill didn’t want anything.
She was wearing the faded black pants she wore to yoga and a tee shirt. Rosie had a feeling that when Jill was younger she’d been cute-cute, rather than pretty-cute. She was still sort of cute, but Rosie didn’t feel attracted to her. She tried not to think about how her shirt the night before had had milk stains. As she looked at a picture of Sarah on the bookcase, staring solemnly at the camera with her big dark eyes, her breasts started leaking. Next to Sarah was a picture of herself and Ollie, smiling for the camera on their wedding day. She waited for Jill to tell her what she wanted, but Jill just sat there looking uncomfortable.
“I really hate the commercialization of yoga,” Rosie finally said.
“I’m not as against it as you’d think,” Jill said quickly. “It gets a lot of people to exercise.”
“So you were a lawyer?”
“I was a lawyer,” Jill said grimly. “Everyone told me I’d hate it, and of course they were right. I don’t miss the money. I own my apartment and basically just go to cheaper restaurants. I’m much happier now.” She blew her nose into a big white handkerchief that reminded Rosie of the ones her father used to use.
“I feel uncomfortable about last night,” Jill said. “What concerns me is that I’m your teacher, and it happened in my place of work.”
Rosie was relieved. “I already forgot about it,” she said. “Also, it never happened.” She smiled.
Jill bit her lip.
“Listen,” Rosie said. “I’ll put whatever you want in writing. Just tell me what to say. We can go right out and get it notarized, if you want.” It was hard to believe she was suddenly free to come and go as she pleased.
“Actually, I’m a notary, too,” Jill said.
Rosie hesitated. “I can certainly go to another studio.”
Jill took a deep breath.
“You’ll never see me again. And I’ll never tell anyone!”
“I believe you.” Jill stood up. “I feel better.” She zipped up her jacket. “You don’t have to go to another studio, and you’re welcome in my class any time. I mean it.”
Rosie believed her. “We’ll see,” she said. But she’d already decided to try the new Pilates place or do karate or join a gym. It was the least she could do.
As soon as Jill left Rosie was tempted to call a friend and tell her all about what had happened, but remembering her promise to Jill, she went out for a mani-pedi instead.
During the next few weeks Rosie would think of something about that night —like the way she’d pushed Jill’s head toward her breast, the way a man would push her own head toward his penis—and she’d feel herself blushing. Sarah started to go longer between feedings. Ollie got a raise, and they hired a part-time nanny. One day Rosie went to a movie, another day she had a massage, and then, without planning to, she started working again on her book about Leonard Cohen. She and Sarah joined a group of moms and their babies at a nearby Starbucks. Hearing the women complain about their husbands, Rosie felt better about her marriage. Occasionally she’d see a pretty woman all dressed up as if she were going someplace exciting, and Rosie would enjoy looking at her, but that would be all.
On a sunny Saturday morning shortly after New Year’s, Rosie and Ollie took Sarah for a drive along the Hudson.
In the car Ollie asked Rosie to play Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Since she’d been turned down for tenure, his songs could make her feel bad about herself, but now she wanted to move on.
As Cohen sang, “And she feeds you tea and oranges/That come all the way from China,” Rosie thought about Jill and felt guilty she hadn’t tried any new classes or joined a gym.
Sarah woke up, and she seemed to like “Suzanne.”
Ollie stopped at a quaint-looking town. They put Sarah in her stroller and walked around a small park, and then ate lunch in a cozy coffee shop. Sipping hot mulled cider, they discussed summer plans and decided to stay in his mother’s country house.
Rosie breastfed Sarah, and Ollie flipped through a magazine. She thought about how he used to be embarrassed when she nursed in public, but now he didn’t even seem to notice. He hadn’t been sick since before Halloween. He was wearing one of his sweatshirts she’d wear when she first nursed Sarah. She took his hand.
He smiled almost shyly.
An older woman sitting a few tables away kept glancing at them. She thinks we’re a happy family. Rosie remembered how when she’d go out with her married lover, she’d see families she envied.
They took a more direct and less scenic route back to the city. She saw a mall that had a Best Buy and asked if he wanted to stop.
“You’re asking me to stop at a Best Buy?”
He looked at dishwashers and speakers. After a while Rosie wanted to say, as she always did, “Can we go now?” but she tried to be patient. Sarah was fascinated by the rows of enormous TVs.
Ollie ended up with a printer that was on sale. Standing with him on one of the long checkout lines Rosie noticed a pretty woman wearing patent leather heels, a red coat with a velvet collar and cuffs, and a fur hat with a ribbon in the back. Rosie kept sniffing the flowery perfume she assumed was hers.
“Do you think she’s attractive?” she whispered to Ollie.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s not worth explaining.”
He let it go.
A few days later he woke up with a cough that lingered and kept her up at night even when she slept on the sofa bed in the living room and turned up her new white noise machine. After a few days he seemed better, but in the middle of oral sex he had a coughing fit. When it was over he was ready to go back to their lovemaking.
“Sorry,” she said, “I’m not in the mood any more.”
She could tell he was annoyed.
He worked all week even though his cough persisted, but as soon as he got home, he’d go right to bed.
On Saturday he stayed in bed. Rosie had a dreary day with Sarah, who was getting her first tooth and cranky. In the late afternoon, Ollie finally came out of the bedroom. Rosie was surprised that he’d shaved and was dressed.
“I’m better. Why don’t you get out.” He took Sarah from her arms. “Do something for yourself. Go to yoga or something.”
Sarah burst into tears.
“Maybe I should stay….”
She looked at the clock. Jill had just begun her last class of the day, but if Rosie rushed, she could catch her before she left. Although Rosie thought less and less about that night, Jill was the only other person who knew what had happened and Rosie suddenly felt close to her. She wondered if they could be friends.
Rosie was half a block away from the studio when Jill came out. She wore a pea jacket and a dark knitted hat.
“I just finished, but if you hurry you can still make Mark’s class,” Jill told her.
“That’s not why I’m here.”
“Are you free, maybe we can have dinner.”
“I thought that maybe we could talk.”
Jill bit her lip. “Let’s go to my apartment,” she said. “It’s not too far.”
A few blocks from Jill’s building, Rosie saw a woman who looked like her mother-in-law and felt nervous, but it wasn’t her.
Jill lived in a one-bedroom in an anonymous-looking high-rise. Although her furniture was nondescript, a big chandelier shaped like a hot air balloon hung in the small entryway.
They sat on the sofa, not quite next to each other. Jill wore a tee shirt and yoga pants. Rosie looked down at her cashmere sweater that finally fit her again. She only nursed Sarah at bedtime now. She wondered if Jill noticed how much smaller her breasts were.
“I love your chandelier,” she said. She was tempted to ask where Jill had bought it, but she didn’t want to have that kind of conversation.
“It was Annie’s,” Jill said. “My ex’s.” Jill got her phone and showed Rosie a picture of a woman in her thirties with freckles and a lot of light brown hair. She was standing in front of a tree. It seemed to be a very sunny day.
“She lives in Brooklyn now. With the woman she left me for.”
“That must be hard.”
“In a few months, they’re going to have a baby.”
Rosie didn’t ask which woman was pregnant. “That must be really hard.”
Jill shrugged. “It’s easier than it was.”
Rosie thought that Jill seemed lonely. She wished she hadn’t come.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry,” Jill said brightly. “How about some soup?”
“Soup would be great.”
“I haven’t shopped in a while, but I’ll see what I can do.”
She didn’t want any help. Rosie went to the living room and looked at the bookcase. There didn’t seem to be many novels. On top was a picture of an older couple Rosie assumed were Jill’s parents. She texted Ollie that she was having dinner with Jill, then texted again that Jill was her yoga teacher. She felt a little sad that she wouldn’t be putting Sarah to bed.
Jill brought out mugs of what looked like tomato soup, and a basket of rice crackers. “It’s sort of soup. I only had V8 juice, the kind without salt? But I added some veggies, and it’s not bad. I can give you salt, if you want.”
It was bland and watery, but Rosie didn’t ask for salt. “Do you have any wine?”
“I stopped drinking when I stopped practicing law, but I’ll look.”
She came back with a bottle of Manischewitz.
Rosie laughed. “I haven’t had Manischewitz Concord Wine since the Seders of my childhood.”
“Annie was Jewish…we broke up before our Seder.”
“Maybe I’ll just have water,” Rosie said. She decided it was the worst meal she’d ever had. “Actually, I’ll have the wine.” It was as sickeningly sweet as she remembered.
Rosie was about to complain about the commercialization of yoga, but she had a feeling she’d brought it up when Jill came to her apartment. She finished her wine, poured herself more, and alternated a sip of soup with two sips of wine.
“Why did you want to see me?” Jill asked her.
Rosie didn’t know what to say. “Let’s go to the living room.” Although she hadn’t quite finished her soup, she started to clear.
“Leave the dishes,” Jill said.
Rosie sat on the edge of the sofa. Jill sat so there was a fairly big space between them.
Rosie talked about Cohen’s novels.
“I thought he only wrote songs.”
“Do you like his songs?”
“I don’t know a lot of them.”
“Do you like ‘Suzanne’? The one about the tea and oranges?”
“What do you want to talk to me about?”
Rosie looked at Jill’s tee shirt, then looked away. “Sometimes I think about that night in the studio.”
Jill looked uncomfortable.
“I wish I hadn’t said shit.”
“I really don’t remember.”
She tried to focus on her breathing. “That night…did you swallow it? Or spit it out.” She hadn’t planned to say it. She realized it was the kind of thing a man would want to know.
Jill looked relieved. “Your milk?” She smiled. “I can’t say for certain…maybe a little of both? It was thin, and almost sweet.”
Rosie was moved, but she decided not to ask if it had felt like a kind of love.
When she got home Ollie was sitting up in bed, reading a magazine.
“Are you feeling okay?” she asked him.
“I’m fine.” He put down his magazine. “Sarah’s fine. Her rash is almost gone.”
Usually Rosie would want to hear every little detail about what he and Sarah had done, but something was bothering her. Ollie in bed. She felt drunk. “It’s probably a good thing we’re going to your mom’s this summer,” she said.
“I mean, if you get sick, we won’t have to cancel any plane or hotel reservations.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said mildly.
“Well, you don’t have a very good track record.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said firmly. He picked up his magazine. “How was your dinner with your teacher?”
Rosie took off her blouse. “It was the worst meal I ever had.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Did I tell you that Jill is gay?”
He was flipping through the magazine. “That’s nice.”
As she sometimes did, Rosie undressed in stages, putting on her nightgown before taking off her jeans and boots. Although Ollie rarely criticized her appearance, for some reason this always seemed to annoy him.
“Are you coming or going?” he’d say.
“Are you coming or going?” he said.
“I’m not sure,” she said softly.
“Well then, good night.” He turned off his light.
In the dark, she took off the rest of her clothes. And then, right before getting into bed, she took off her nightgown, too.
Karen Wunsch’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Literary Review, the Beloit Fiction Journal, Hotel Amerika, Chautauqua, Willow Springs, catchandrelease.columbiajournal.org, and many other publications. A recent essay was selected as a Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays 2014.