When they kick her and Ethan and baby Rose out of the hospital, Iris thinks how could they be so irresponsible? She has no idea how to care for a baby. Look at the fucked up way Ethan installed the car seat. First home, Rose vomits breast milk all over Iris, ejecting milk even through her nose. Rose cries, Iris cries, what a water-logged home. Though eight months later, when Ethan dies, Iris turns stone. She keeps replaying how Ethan banned her from his motorcycle once she got pregnant, and at first she resented his over-protectiveness and then, pregnancy turning her into a ball of fear, insisted he quit riding it too, and he wouldn’t, and she snapped, “Take care of yourself as well as me!” So now she has to do this all alone. The fog and fug. When Rose is twelve, she gets so thin Iris pictures her being lifted and carried kite-like by the wind. It’s some eating disorder Iris has never heard of. The good news is that Rose has no investment in being thin; the bad news is she hates all food. “You can’t do this to me, I can’t bear it,” Iris tells her; she’ll use anything, including guilt. Rose gains weight, gains crazed principles. In the bookstore, she chastises Iris for buying Obama’s book: “Mom, how can you buy a book by that war criminal?” Rose guards her privacy like a raptor with an egg, snaps at Iris: “Like you don’t have secrets.” Skulks around with her terrible boyfriend. Iris knows the first time she sees Jeremy, all flint and lava, that he’s wrong for Rose, the magnet drawing her metal filament. What’s the point of getting older and wiser, if Rose won’t listen?
His eyes snag Rose in the hallway, the boy who said something smart about velocity, so Jeremy has a brain as well as that pleated chin. Thursday, he offers Rose a ride home, and she accepts before she realizes it’s a motorcycle. She promised her mother she’d never mount one, not after what happened to her dad. But Jeremy is already handing Rose a helmet, so she wraps her arms around his lean, warm stomach, and her hair whips behind her, and her face hurts from smiling. That ride is a metaphor for the next three months, fast and wild, clutching Jeremy for dear life, as they say, since life is suddenly dear, precious and expensive. “This is all happening so fast,” her mother says, wistfully, her mother whom Rose unironically called her best friend because for fifteen years it’s been just the two of them. Now Rose smiles and waves and runs down the block to the corner where her life is waiting, with the helmet upon which Jeremy stuck a scratch n’ sniff sticker of a rose.
It’s so effortless, the slide and pitch of their bodies together, until it isn’t. Things burn and chafe, Jeremy’s stubble on Rose’s cheek, but even his body which seems all sharp bones: hips, jaw, knees. The things he says emit sparks: “You’re such a Mama’s girl.” Everything’s a competition, and he needs her always to choose him. Rose sees in her mother’s eyes her fear for Rose, the way she’s spun away. Once on a family camping trip, Rose’s two cousins were on either side of her, pulling her arms like she was a tug-of-war rope, Toby saying “My Rose,” Kaylie protesting “No, my Rose.” Being claimed felt intoxicating, but remember how her yanked arms hurt? She knows before it happens that Jeremy will find someone else, someone who hands over her whole self. The last time Rose has sex with him she cries, but his adhesive eyes are shut.
Sometimes Iris thinks parenting is a catalog of error, let’s count the ways she injures this not-fully-cooked creature, who eel-slips from her hand and nose-dives off the changing table when she’s six months old, the bump on Rose’s forehead a knotty peach pit, and Ethan kisses it and weeping Iris “to make it better,” but two months later Ethan’s gone and Iris has to do all this shit on her own: the pairing of socks, the buying of skates, the cooking of meals, Rose’s resistance to eating, the kind male nurse at the hospital who takes Iris aside and tells her that Rose should eat alone in her hospital room so she doesn’t imbibe lessons from the other girls in the ward, both anorexics, her slow recovery, her terrible boyfriend Iris hates, partly because when Iris was sixteen, he was exactly her type (it would creep Rose out if Iris let her know how much Jeremy reminds her of Ethan), finally, thank God, Jeremy’s gone, though Rose cries (the number of times they both have cried!), the happy tears when Rose gets into college, the presents they exchange, Iris gives her the Runaway Bunny book she always used to read to her and threatens to follow her to New York, Rose says “Mom, that bunny mother is a stalker!”, but she’s smiling, she gives Iris an “I <3 Obama” coffee mug, the poster shopping together in the Village for her dorm room, Rose picks a New Yorker cover with two brides holding blooming bouquets, Iris hopes this means she’s done with terrible men, but she keeps the hope to herself, “Don’t burden her with your loneliness,” her empty-nester sister warns her, so Iris forces herself to keep smiling, to catch and release her lovely daughter: Rose goes.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the English Department of Mills College at Northeastern University. She is the author of the short story collection How Far I’ve Come (2022), published by Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the short story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Colorado Review, Craft Literary, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf’s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com