Juleen wants to punch Max in the face.
Max is twenty-two years old, a mountain bike dude.
Juleen is thirty-three, five-months out of rehab.
This morning, on the coffee table in the living room, Max left a bag of weed, two rolled joints, and six empty beer cans. This evening the daughter Juleen desperately wants back in her life is supposed to arrive at 6:00, dropped off by her father.
The father is straight and steady and holds a good job in accounting.
He never asks for child support.
He never mentions that Juleen lives in a college apartment with a roommate named Max who leaves drugs on the table and eats Powerbars, who drinks energy drinks and wears sporty clothes, who majors in film studies and carries his phone around like a third hand.
Juleen wears the same four outfits, sometimes washing them in the bathtub. She drinks water. She eats whatever, whenever. She majors in psychology because she does not know what else to major in. She does not smoke weed. When she did drugs, she did drugs. She never left her drugs on the table like loose change.
Max wants to make a movie on his phone, a documentary about mountain bike dudes, and première it at a coffeehouse.
Juleen owns a welfare phone filled with pictures of her daughter.
Juleen cut class to come home and redd-up, to wipe the sticky spots, to vacuum. The bathtub needs scrubbed and Juleen bought cleanser. She bought bubble bath because kids need baths, kids like bubbles. She bought a little lizard thing at the dollar store because lizard things are probably fun to play with in the bathtub and moms want their daughters to look at them and smile and squeeze plastic lizards filled with sudsy water and laugh.
The last time Juleen saw her daughter, they played at a park and some hippie girl let them throw her dog a Frisbee and Juleen wept in bed that night because her daughter loves dogs and Frisbees, because Juleen could not buy her daughter a dog, because she could not have a dog in her apartment, because she could maybe afford a Frisbee but maybe not.
After all these months of being sober Juleen is still Juleen and, of course, she had done these things to herself and, of course, these things made and make her pathetic as a mom, obviously, even as she only cares about the opposite now, please.
Juleen stands on the coffee table, palms flat against the ceiling, against the apartment above her, stretching her muscles from neck to toes. She says a prayer to whomever, to the ceiling. She doesn’t believe in god despite the god stuff in rehab but she hopes, always hopes, because hope is a god too, more generous than most.
She jumps down.
She walks the living room, searching for Max’s bike helmet, his backpack, his water bottle, anything to stomp into plastic dust and fabric, but he’s taken it all to wherever, class or his job at the sub shop or to some trail he’s pedaling on, sweating his boy sweat and not worrying.
Max always says, “Race the world. Don’t let the world race you.”
Juleen does not know what that means except Max does not have a child and his brain is a cloud of weed smoke and quotes from shitty Eastern philosophy books he pretends to read.
She steps back on the coffee table and places her palms flat on the ceiling.
Breathe motherfucker, she says, her mantra.
People—counselors, friends, even Max—think she wants to drink, to drug. They see the veins in her forehead and her neck muscles flexed and they think she will dive into a bottle or pop dope and fall into a couch, drooling. But she wants focus, not loss. She wants time and money so she can get happy the way people with time and money get happy, by playing with their daughters and taking their daughters to places that cost money, bounce houses and pizza parlors, the store at the mall where girls make their own teddy bears and kiss the plastic heart and place it in the bear’s furry chest before they fill the body with stuffing that smells like vanilla cake. Parenting makes being a drug addict look inexpensive.
Being here, present, is easy.
Getting there is the crush.
Yesterday, Juleen stood in a grocery store for ten minutes, trying to decide whether to buy Fruit Circles or Fruit Loops, whether to save two dollars and lose the vitamins they pump into the name brand or to spend the two dollars and not buy the lizard bath toy.
Juleen steps on the plastic bag of weed and wants to punch Max in the face.
Forgive Max, he’s a fucking kid.
Only one other person responded when Juleen was apartment hunting because fucking kids do not want to live with old ladies who are recovering from drugs and have a daughter and sometimes can’t make the rent.
Or, worse, they want to live with old ex-junkies because they are young and male and horny and one said, “You into orgies?” when Juleen showed up with her checkbook and said she was just out of rehab, trying to be honest, trying to imagine a dude in a Cleveland Cavaliers basketball jersey as a young adult.
“No, I am not into orgies,” Juleen said, “but thanks.”
“Me neither,” the boy said, “but I could be,” and winked.
Forgive all of them because they are young and terrible and Juleen was worse than all of them and she still wonders if she is better than anyone now.
Sometimes Max buys groceries and cooks Juleen dinner. He brings home subs for her and leaves them in the refrigerator with friendly notes. He bought her an alarm clock because her crappy phone does not have an alarm, because she did not know phones had alarms until Max showed her his Samsung one morning.
Do not punch Max in the face.
Juleen first banged her daughter’s father at a party one night when he was still in college and she was bartending at an afterhours club and sleeping all day. It was a fun thing, banging her daughter’s father, like getting drunk or eating a whole bag of potato chips or banging a cute guy who’d only slept with one other girl in his life. Her daughter’s father styled his hair with gel and wore shirts with collars. He asked questions, the right ones, he was interested, he cared. He was a sweetie, still is a sweetie. He loves his parents and his parents love him and they paid for his college and he thanked them profusely.
Now they help with the daughter and everything else, all of it.
They are good people.
Juleen can recognize good people.
She understands that she can be good people, but that she is not, but that she will be.
On the night they banged but before the banging, her daughter’s father said, “What about your parents?” in his inquisitive way and Juleen said, “You’re kidding?” and kissed him and took him by the hand to the back bedroom where they fucked on a pile of coats and he shivered and came in two minutes and apologized and offered to run out and buy them snacks.
When Juleen found out she was pregnant, she tracked him down and stopped by his apartment, embarrassed yet broke, planning to ask for money to pay for the abortion, half the abortion if he got weird, if he asked questions.
She said, “Sorry to track you down.”
He said, “I’m glad you did,” and invited her in.
She said, “I’m pregnant.”
He thought about that, not angrily, and said, “You’re sure it’s mine?”
Juleen said, “You’re my one and only.”
He sat down on his crummy college couch, which was nicer than the couch Juleen owns now, then slid to the floor and took a knee and asked her to marry him.
Juleen said, “Oh sweetie, get up,” and helped him to his feet.
Juleen couldn’t have gotten married because she still wanted to get fucked up. Getting fucked up was a lot of fun and it kept her from thinking about things like money and jobs and futures and dead parents.
But a baby could have helped with that too.
Why had she never considered a baby?
Juleen said, “You really want this kid?”
He said, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Juleen was glad she hadn’t mentioned the abortion.
It took time for her daughter’s father to understand they weren’t getting married.
It took a longer time for Juleen to quit getting fucked up, like most of her pregnancy, like her baby could have been born with three heads and two toes, something she never plans to admit to anyone, ever.
Her daughter likes to be called Edie, not Edith. She’s nine now. Juleen named her after a grandmother she’d imagined for herself when she was a child, when she was lonely, when she’d eaten all the peanut butter and the only can in the cabinet was sauerkraut and they barely had spoons, let alone a can opener.
In rehab, where they talked all the time, where she listened to people she couldn’t stand, where they asked her to create a metaphor for her childhood, she said, “It’s was big tire, a truck tire, and it was rolling downhill. I was the kid inside the tire. I don’t know where the truck was.” It was stupid, metaphors are, but her childhood was like that, spiraling, from birth until fourteen or fifteen, fun and scary and endless, one parent there, the other gone, then vice versa, then whoever her parents slept with, then foster care, then her mom, finally sober, who was lovely underneath the drugs. She managed to work two jobs and get Juleen through high school before breast cancer and fighting that and losing, no insurance, no money, being asked to leave the hospital then coming back the next day through the emergency-room doors where they had to treat her for another night, for at least a couple hours.
Juleen misses her mother every day, even the cokehead in the bathroom who chugged Nyquil to come down, but especially the loving mother, practical, sane, the mother who stacked small piles of cash on top of bills and a white envelope for groceries until everything was paid and the rest was their money to use for fun. Juleen wants to be fun. She learned fun from her mother. She learned sacrifice. Her mother white-knuckled sobriety and worked odd hours at terrible jobs—housecleaning, office cleaning, babysitting other people’s kids—and still took Juleen for pizza then didn’t eat any pizza so Juleen could take slices to school for lunch, pepperoni and cheese when they couldn’t afford pepperoni, when they couldn’t afford air.
At 3:10 Juleen decides she will punch Max if he shows up but she will immediately apologize and pretend like she hadn’t meant to do it.
When Juleen was fifteen, her mother said, “I could apologize every day for what I missed, and I’d be happy to say I’m sorry from morning until night if that’s what you want, but for now let’s push on, okay?” They stood in the kitchen, the refrigerator almost empty, the room dim and gray because they couldn’t afford lightbulbs for every socket. Her mother said, “Just me and you, pushing on? I see you’re wonderful and I hope a little bit rubs off on me.”
Her mom said things like this, greeting card stuff, but she meant it, desperately.
For weeks Juleen had spoken less or not at all while thinking deeply on hating her mom because hate might have felt good, might have been right, because this reunion had happened so fast, her new mom not drinking or drugging or banging strangers with tattoos. Hate might have reversed time or paid cash or erased memories. Her friends hated their parents and their parents had money and took their children to eat in restaurants and bought them nice clothes. Juleen never cared about those things but maybe she should start. Or not. Being fifteen was awful. The sun shining pissed Juleen off but so did the moon and so did the fluorescent lights at school. Living everywhere, down to the religious foster parents who wouldn’t let her shave her legs and their teenage son who walked around with his dick out, lurked inside Juleen’s head like creeps on the street and she couldn’t stop listening, no matter how happy she felt now, no matter how much she loved her mom, her mom off drugs and yammering like a self-help book.
Maybe Juleen always was a puncher.
She remembers wanting to hit her mom, to knock her out with a fist, like a fist might revise a family, but instead Juleen invited her mom to a high school basketball game and they sat together, the two of them and not Juleen’s friends. They ate popcorn. They drank flat soda in waxy Pepsi cups. Juleen said, “I love you, Mom,” over the thump of boys in high-top sneakers and her mom said, “You’re prettier than all those cheerleaders,” and started to cry.
How sad to think Juleen’s daughter will never know her grandmother.
How sad Juleen’s mother disappeared from Juleen’s life for nine of her first fifteen years.
How sad to look at the moon and not believe in gravity, what some junky told Juleen one night before puking in her purse.
The way Juleen forgave and still loves her mother, she hopes so much for that.
Juleen buries the beer cans in the kitchen trash basket under an empty cereal box and stands over the toilet, ready to drop the bag of weed, but she can’t let go out of respect for people who struggle with respect, out of respect for other people’s things, their interests, respect for Max, respect for druggies, respect for the sober, respect for anyone, for everyone, for herself when she’d spent so many years disrespecting everything, on purpose too.
She stuffs the drugs in Max’s room, inside a wooden box he claims to have bought from a Navajo on a trip out west.
Juleen goes down for a nap. She’s exhausted but too tired to sleep. She still wants to punch Max, which troubles her.
She closes her eyes, thinking of Max’s face and her fist.
She sleeps anyway.
Max stands inside the Ye Olde Teddy Bear Shoppe in Irwin, looking at a wall of teddy bears. He’s late. They called him in to work this morning after he’d stayed up all night binge-watching the History Channel’s series on ancient Rome and smoking dope and sipping brews.
He’d planned to spend the whole day cleaning, helping Juleen get ready for her kid, because Juleen had classes, but they’d asked him to stay late at work, to slice the meat, then to cut potatoes into fries, then to clean one of the fryers, because the other guys at Tubby’s stand around and smoke dope and get the giggles but Max smokes dope and moves, he cleans and works and rides his bike and he studies, he studies hard.
Without the weed he’d be a nervous wreck.
The beer he could have probably done without.
An older lady, in a blue silky dress covered in roses, says, “Can I help you?”
Max says, “Yes.” He says, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and touches a teddy bear.
The older lady smiles and says, “Tell me her age, that’s a good place to start.”
Max says, “One is like eight or nine, and the other one is her mom. She’s like thirty-five or something but she’s been a total mess, only now she’s really cool.”
“Let me show you the matching bears,” the woman says, and takes Max gently by the elbow and turns him to another display, bears small and large, side-by-side, dressed in gowns, dressed in suits with bowties.
Juleen’s daughter’s father shows up in his Ford that looks like the luxury cars Juleen remembers people driving years ago, Lincolns and Cadillacs and Town Cars and all those big honkers she’d never been inside. Edie sits in the front seat, a first. It makes Juleen anxious. Juleen’s car is a Hyundai, tiny, almost a pretend car, destroyable.
Her daughter’s father steps out, shirt and tie, slacks, but disheveled, tired.
He says, “All ready?” smiling his dumb boy smile even though he’s thirty now, a man.
“All ready,” Juleen says. “When did she start riding in the front seat?”
“Blame the grandparents. My dad let her up there and there’s no going back.”
“She’s so big,” Juleen says and tries not to cry.
Edie reaches from the front seat to the backseat, gathering stuff, electronics and toys, her long blonde hair flopping over her head.
Juleen covers her eyes with her thumbs and rubs up.
Her daughter’s father says, “Bag,” and hands over Edie’s bag then takes Juleen’s hands and pulls her into a hug and holds her, the bag between them. He says, “Hey.”
“Why are you so kind?” Juleen says.
“Because you’re great,” he says. “Edie has been begging to sleep over here.”
Edie says, “Mom!” and sprints at Juleen, all the toys still in the car, Edie’s arms wide open like she’s measuring the apartment, her parents, the love. Juleen drops the bag and catches her daughter and lifts her and spins her, even though Edie is too big to spin, too big to keep off the ground, to keep in motion.
Juleen grabs again, lower, harder, the small of Edie’s back, squeezing.
Juleen holds on.
Dave Newman is the author of five books, including The Poem Factory (White Gorilla Press, 2015), the novels Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012) and Two Small Birds (Writers Tribe Books, 2014), and the collection The Slaughterhouse Poems (White Gorilla Press, 2013), named one of the best books of the year by L Magazine. He lives in Trafford, PA, the last town in the Electric Valley, with his wife, the writer Lori Jakiela, and their two children.