Carol brought the baby home and put him in the bassinet, then sat on the edge of the bed staring at him. He slept peacefully while she toyed with a loose thread on the floral quilt. She was young, but not foolish, and she, along with her husband, Dan, both wanted this baby. But what struck her that day, what she hadn’t really thought about until that very moment, was the permanence of this baby. How he wasn’t like the big new TV that overpowered their square Santa Monica apartment. He wasn’t just another possession. He wasn’t even theirs. He didn’t really belong to them at all.
This baby was a separate, brand new human being and they were responsible for him. For a while. They, in particular, Carol, had a new job for which she’d never filled out an application and which, frankly, her qualifications were questionable. What she did know, however, was from that point on her every thought and movement would be about this baby. Her life would never again be as important as his. It was the simple truth. And, it scared her plenty, feeling herself begin to disappear that very day. Well, too late for that.
Carol’s theory of parenting was mainly to keep him alive. Keep the monsters at bay, keep him safe, and always love him enough. So he could leave. That was the goal. She understood and accepted it and she thought parents who didn’t were crazy. Whining about the day the nest would be empty even while it was still full to the brim. They failed to understand that the great sadness of a child impaired or dependent was his inability to live on his own. To leave. She and Dan and their baby were the lucky ones.
Her son grew up just the way she’d hoped, strong and smart and capable. He went to college 3,000 miles away and she didn’t moan and cry though for sure he’d left an empty place in her as big as the Grand Canyon. A year later Dan left, too. With his secretary. A woman as old as Carol and not as pretty, by anyone’s yardstick. It was a story so banal Carol was embarrassed to tell it. So, she rarely did. Never much of a girl-talk girl, anyway. No one’s business and no one cared. She didn’t cry when Dan left, though she wasn’t sure why. It just seemed in the order of things that happened.
So here she was, on her own not exactly at the prime of her life, but not dead, either.
For the first few weeks she didn’t cook anything. Just sat on her bed and ate cereal. She watched Netflix series. Six months went by. Still, one bowl, one spoon. Twenty bucks at the market. She went to her job downtown where she was a pattern maker at a clothing manufacturer. It was a place where her talents were greatly valued and where they still did things the old-fashioned way and not just with computers. There was a time Carol had wanted to be an architect, but constructing clothes was the closest she ever got. A kind of building, she liked to think, where structure was important. She’d admired the designer, Norma Kamali, who named her company OMO, which stood for On My Own; this was after her divorce from her partner-husband and Carol thought it was a clever name, although she also thought those lumpy shoulder pads of Norma’s were a menace.
Her son rarely called, which was to be expected and she wasn’t surprised or hurt. What would be the point? Instead, she called him once a week. He always said he was fine. Fine being one of those words that said nothing at all. He liked college and didn’t mind the cold. And, oh, yes, he had a girlfriend named Polly. Why Carol immediately thought of polliwogs she didn’t know. She imagined a girl with braids who wore white collars, not at all sure if a girl like that was her son’s type. But then she didn’t know his type.
Egged on by her co-workers, Carol went on an internet dating service and met a guy named Gil who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Arizona. He picked her up in a turquoise truck bright as a beach ball. High up in the passenger seat, she felt like she was in a cartoon, half expecting balloons of words to come out of the top of her head.
“Nice dress,” Gil said.
It was a parrot green sundress she’d pulled from the back of her closet. A dress Dan had hated. Gil had on a yellow cowboy shirt with pearl buttons. The technicolor boldness of their combined ensembles, along with the truck, made her giggle. They drove to Malibu and Gil remarked on how spectacular the ocean was to him being from the desert. He had a wide-eyed appreciation that Carol found appealing.
They ate fried clams at Neptune’s Net on Pacific Coast Highway, then went back to her apartment and had sex in the bedroom where she’d once watched over her infant son, staring at the ceiling now with the same sense of confused detachment. Forever outside of herself, Carol feared that one day she’d wake up without any thoughts whatsoever.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Gil said, snapping the pearl buttons of his yellow shirt as he walked out the door.
He wouldn’t. But it didn’t matter. That button snapping would get on her nerves in no time. And, besides how long could they keep up the coloring book aspect of their relationship? Primary colors could only take you so far. Sooner or later you needed some black and white, some gray.
It was almost a year since her son left for school and her husband left forever and Carol was getting used to being alone. Whether by choice or not, it took time to reach a level of ease with aloneness and she knew now she wouldn’t give it up lightly.
Six months later, Dan called. He said Ivy had left him. Caught off guard, Carol thought he’d said something about poison ivy until she remembered his secretary’s name was Ivy. Ivy Shaw. And now she was gone and he was devastated because he’d lost a perfectly good secretary and mediocre fuck. Or so he said, although God knows Carol hadn’t asked.
“Why call me?”
He said he’d like to come back, give it another chance.
Carol wanted to laugh out loud, but she was trembling too much. “We’re divorced, she said. “Don’t call me again.” She hung up.
A week later on a rainy Friday night, he showed up at her door. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said.
“You don’t have here, either,” she said.
But she wouldn’t turn down a dog in the rain, so she opened the door to let him dry off, then looked past him as a car pulled up and her son got out. Taller, more robust, he had a girl on his arm, an obviously chic young woman who gazed adoringly at him. Carol kept the door ajar as the foyer filled with people dripping on the shined wood floors.
“This is a surprise,” Dan said. “All of us here at the same time.”
“That was what we hoped for, surprised, mom?”
“Completely,” she said.
Boxed in, overwhelmed. She was hot, a sudden fever perhaps. Her solitude interrupted, her one bowl, one spoon, her hard-fought comfort. The much needed rain, clean and fresh, brought with it a sense of renewal and in one quick move, Carol grabbed her coat and keys and ran past everyone and out the door to her car.
She felt a surge of power as she drove into the night. Wet hair stringing her face. Wet shoes, pooling. She held tight to the wheel and wondered why she’d left her own house, whether to turn left or right and where the hell was she going. She drove down the incline road and on to Pacific Coast Highway. Even on a rainy night, the lure of the ocean was intoxicating. She pulled into the parking lot of Duke’s where she remembered having Tuesday Tacos with Dan years ago when it seemed they were still in love. The rain let up. There were maybe fifteen cars in the lot. Everyone else snug at home. Rain being a cataclysmic event in L.A.
She was on her second martini when she dialed her home number. No answer. She let it ring a long time, hung up, then dialed again. Still, nothing. She listened to it ring for three full minutes, then ordered another drink, catching her reflection in the mirrored wall behind the bar.
Janet Clare has had short fiction and essays published online at Manifest Station, First Stop Fiction, among others, and anthologized in The Truth of Memoir and Spent. She studied at UC Berkeley and UCLA and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her first novel Time Is the Longest Distance will be published in 2018.