by Rachel Estrada Ryan
It has been seven days since we’ve run out of meat and vegetables in the freezer and most of the cans and boxes and jars in the pantry. My husband reminds me that we have not run out of money. He says this as he leans against our stainless steel refrigerator that matches the stainless steel stove and the stainless steel dishwasher and the stainless steel built-in microwave. Of course I know he’s right; I also know we probably never will. No, we will always have too much, and the people on the charity websites will never have enough, and frankly if I have to spend another afternoon hauling reluctant children and unforgiving paper-or-plastic bags I might just lose it once and for all. I’m not sure I can ever go to the supermarket again.
Instead I do my food shopping through the aisles of my crowded brain. I push the cart with the wobbling front wheel, and the metallic saliva glaze of its handle coats my palms. The refrigerated stink of raw fish hangs overhead. I push down the plastic child seat even when my daughter isn’t with me, so that a jar of tomato sauce sails through a leg hole and splatters at my feet.
Those shoes still smell like last week’s spaghetti night; I know I should just throw them out already. Which sucks, because I really liked those shoes.
The smallest one doesn’t talk much. She grunts and pulls her knees up under the tray of her highchair and scowls at her brothers. Her small feet are plump and dimpled, so how hungry can she be. Compared to those poor children in Myanmar, or Sierra Leone, I mean really. Some of them never even develop the strength to walk.
She begins to whine.
“Talk,” I say. “Use words.” She is two and she has to learn. Last month, her pediatrician raised her eyebrows and wrote down the name of a speech therapist.
“Hung-ee,” she says.
“Hungry,” I correct. I unstick the half-chewed piece of wheat bread from her tray. The crust has started to go stale, but the center is soft. “Bread. Eat.”
“No,” she says. She is shaking her head and her black curls bounce. She points to the kitchen stove. “Hung-ee.”
The boys, all three, kick their feet underneath the table and smile and eat. They know how to make the best of things. The middle one leans over to kiss my hand and transfers a small arc of crumbs.
“I don’t know what you want,” I say to my daughter, who has begun smacking her palms flat-clap-loud against her tray. I look at my husband. He is twisting the metal tie of the bread bag around his pinkie, forming a perfect spiral, half a strand of DNA. “Tell Daddy what you want. Go on.”
He doesn’t look up. “I think she wishes she had something else to eat, Leah.”
“I’ll go to the supermarket tomorrow,” I say. “I promise.”
We chew in silence for a little while longer and then the oldest one says, “But you always say that.”
I have noticed that my children say always quite a lot. I mean, consider their exaggeration. Perhaps one’s perspective is distorted to scale. This would certainly explain how my husband keeps so calm. He is six foot four and three hundred pounds, give or take. The man is downright unflappable.
Day twelve. The refrigerator is almost empty now, except for his beer. There’s only our Brita pitcher, a quart of milk, lemon juice, an abandoned pork chop, ricotta with blue-green spots, the remaining unsalted butter from the peach pie I baked over the summer. I don’t think I have replaced the box of baking soda since we moved in here. The refrigerator always smells the same.
I look at the clock. He’s going to be home any minute. I should run to the corner store to pick up a few cups of ramen at least. But the smallest is still in a T-shirt and diaper. Her hair is a mess. My hair is a mess. I am wearing a stained bathrobe that was new and perfect last Christmas and I have no idea where this day went.
When we spoke on the phone earlier today, he was almost angry. “Just pick up a few things,” he said. “Not a whole big trip. Just a few things. We need to eat a real meal tonight, Leah.”
I considered it and cried.
He softened and shushed me and cooed from his cubicle. “Just a few things. Chicken, maybe. Some broccoli.”
I suggested that he go instead.
He hung up, but not before he cursed quietly, then apologized, then said, “Honestly, I don’t have time for this. I love you. Goodbye.”
When he gets home, dinner is still not dinner—but oddly nobody, not even him, not even the smallest, complains this time. My husband is all white shirt and loosened tie and weary forehead. My big boys smell like playground sweat. I want to gather them all into my arms. I want to copy and paste this day into tomorrow. Even the sound of them chewing, usually so abrasive, is bearable tonight.
“Mommy,” the smallest one chirps, holding up her toast, the unsalted butter dripping down her wrist. “Ook. Eat.”
She is getting so much better at talking.
My husband says, “I see you vacuumed,” his eyes scanning the portion of the floor that is still crumbless. He smiles, and I do too. “Thank you for doing that.”
We finish our meal in silence. I lay down on the couch and rest my eyes while my husband puts the children to bed, and when he comes downstairs we finish the beer together and make love on that same crumbless part of the floor.
Day twenty. I promised.
After the older two left for school, I awoke to the smell of urine. The smaller two both wet their beds. There were great, seeping stains on their sheets, and I found them each resting in their own waste, wriggling, whining, their cheeks chapped and wet with it. I stripped their bodies and their beds and herded them naked into the bathroom. How they thrashed and soaked the floor today, rendered the bathmat dripping, a stray magazine warped. The smallest one still won’t let me rinse her hair without an angry, drowning protest. She jumps to her feet and gasps for air and rubs the soap into her eyes as if this does not happen almost every day, as if her hair has not been washed and rinsed almost seven hundred times and counting.
Every time, I tell her, “Put your head back and close your eyes.” The boy complies and I point to him and say, “See? What a big boy your brother is. Aren’t you a big girl?” She just stares up at me with red-rimmed eyes.
Today, I wrapped her in her old pink hooded towel and hugged her baby soap body to my chest. The boy stayed behind and splashed as I dressed her. He drained the tub to a mere puddle and laid flat on his back so that the water was just over his ears, and he shouted out over and again, unaware of how loud his voice carried above his personal sea. “Look at me, Mommy. I’m swimming!”
When he quieted I felt relief before anything else. I listened for the next splash to signal he was still among the living. I just needed five more minutes to do the smallest’s hair. She reached up to take the comb from my hand, and I wrestled it away and rapped her head with it. I worked the comb through the wet tangles that remained, doing my best to grab the hair at the root to avoid pulling against her scalp. She whimpered. I shushed.
“Oh stop,” I said. “I’m not hurting you. I’m almost done.”
Almost was not soon enough. The boy decided to get out of the tub on his own, and in so doing managed to sidestep the bathmat. There was the terrible thud of bone against ceramic, and then the pause, and then the wail.
I am still holding him on my lap now, nearly six hours later. He would not leave my embrace all day. His bottom lip is half bitten through, and as he dozes through his naptime hours I apply the bag of ice in careful intervals. The smallest one has refused to sleep at all. In her mad unreason she is impatient with the television, with her bowl of ancient cheese crackers, with her toys. Her dolls are all undressed, their skirts and barrettes and panties scattered across the living room floor, their hair mashed with yellow crumbs and drool.
I think I might have really gone today.
“Man cannot live on bread alone,” my oldest says on the first day of the second month. He is standing beside me in the kitchen, smiling and absently pinching the fat that hugs my hips just above the waistline of my jeans. He must have overheard this from my husband’s joking a few days earlier, and though I want to laugh I am overpowered by a tic of superiority.
“That doesn’t mean we need peanut butter and jelly on it, and then we’ll be fine,” I retort. “That’s from the Bible. You shouldn’t joke about the Bible.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he says. His smile disappears and he looks down at his socks, inside of which he is rubbing his big and second toes together. I want to hug him, but my arms won’t move.
“Man cannot live on bread alone,” I say, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
He nods his head, then stills. He asks, “Is the Lord saying anything now?”
There is a gaunt young woman from Haiti on the Internet. She is a girl, really, and there are all sorts of pictures of her and of the other people from her village. One is of her crying amidst a huddle of women and the story reads that her ten-month-old son is dead. He was the width of a small branch, and he withered away. In a full-length portrait, I see that she has twin newborns tied to her midsection with a large swath of fabric. Her four-year-old son is the size of my smallest, half of what he should be.
The white people from the charity are bringing metal bowls of water and mixing grains with it, and a group of mothers spoon indistinct mush into the children’s mouths. One of the bowls of water is tipped to the children’s lips. As they drink some of the water escapes and runs down their faces, making streams in their desert cheeks. In another picture the girl has knelt beside her four-year-old and the two stare into the camera. Neither of them smile, but the mother’s eyes are speaking. They are writing books that nobody will read.
I fold my laptop closed.
The corner store has a small shelf of groceries. Very few items among them are perishable. Nothing is ever on sale, but it is only one block from our house and it is small and warm and everything I want to buy I can carry with my hands. The children cannot get lost; I don’t even have to watch them. They walk to the newsstand and turn the pages of the magazines and Mr. Raj doesn’t mind at all. He gives them pretzel rods from a jar he keeps on the counter. I don’t know if he sells the pretzel rods or eats them or what and frankly I don’t care. They like Mr. Raj and they keep quiet, savoring the salt crystals and catching up on news about Kim Kardashian while I buy my expensive bread.
The girl from Haiti is with me. I don’t think anyone else sees her, but she is standing right beside me. She is nursing one of her twins inside the wrap and watching as I pick over the varieties. Potato. Wheat. Wonder. I look over at the suckling baby and I remember when it was so easy to feed my children, and for a moment I am jealous. When my oldest was just a baby, I could sit in peace and be drained and filled all at once. Everything was simpler then; so much more time and energy. The baby could poop through three layers of clothing and onto his car seat in the middle of church, and we’d laugh about it for days. If we ate toast for dinner, it was silly and romantic. We shopped for our food with baskets, not monstrous metal carts. The baby drank from me and grew fatter every day. Hunger never crossed our minds.
The girl from Haiti interrupts my reverie and places a loaf of bread in my hands. I tuck it underneath my arm and we approach the children at the newsstand. The smallest one has fished out a women’s magazine and is holding it up for me; on the cover is a chocolate cake, frosted and garnished with berries, surrounded by Christmas ornaments and glitter. The large print reads, “Eat, Drink, and Be Skinny.”
“Hung-ee,” she says. I can see that she has licked the cover, and she screams when I take the magazine from her. The boy chimes in and their voices swirl around a single carrying note. I do not have the patience for this today. I give Mr. Raj the money for the bread and the milk and the magazine. The girl from Haiti smiles and shakes her head at my wailing children. I am too embarrassed to respond. She begins to walk home with us, but when she stops to burp one of the fussing twins we leave her lagging behind.
I reason with myself: if she will come with me, I’ll go. She is here now, nursing the twins on the couch, and I sit in the recliner. Her four-year-old plays the quiet game better than any of my children ever have. I don’t want to tell her this, but in my dream last night her baby visited me, not one of the twins but the twig baby, the dead baby. But he is not a twig anymore. This is the part I almost say out loud: that he is fat and happy with all the other babies in heaven. He is not hungry anymore, nor is he alone. There are so very many of them.
My husband calls and asks what I am doing and I tell him, “nothing,” because really what can I say. He sighs and murmurs and hangs up the phone. He has stopped asking the other question. He eats like a king at work, imports the remnants in greasy brown bags for the children, and maybe he thinks I don’t know this. I can smell his lunchtime haunts in his hair at night.
The girl from Haiti has turned the twins onto their stomachs, one atop each of her thighs. She is patting their backs and singing to them in Creole. The four-year-old sits beside her. They look up when my smallest comes toddling into the room, carrying pages from her magazine. She has taken to sleeping with them. She places a crumpled, glossy rendition of a roasted turkey on the couch beside our visitors. I think she sees the four-year-old, too, because she smiles at him and points to the magazine meal and says, “Eat.” He looks at the turkey and then up at his mother.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I blurt out. “I promise I’ll go, but only if you come with us.” Before she can answer, I jump up from the recliner. I take the stairs two at a time. I can’t look at her face; I call out over my shoulder instead. “I just have to go wake the boy from his nap first. I’ll be right back.”
I snap down the cart’s plastic child seat and ease the smallest into it. The girl from Haiti walks beside us, her boy and mine in between. The children are quiet as we browse. In the produce aisle I hand them each an apple; I know we shouldn’t, but we let them eat. They mash the crisp, white flesh into their mouths. My daughter holds hers out to me.
“Apple,” she says, I think, or maybe she said, “Happy.” She is holding out the fruit and waiting.
I lean forward to take a bite. The taste is a jolt, a brilliant red-green tang. I steal a second, and a third, and then she pulls the apple away.
As the children’s teeth approach the cores, I reach into my bag for a baby wipe to clean their hands and faces. I notice that someone has uncrumpled the pages from the magazine and tucked them into a zippered pocket. Turkey and stuffing, candied yams and green bean casserole. Even the chocolate cake from the cover.
I look at the girl from Haiti. She nods.
Our pace quickens. Up and down each aisle, it quickens. She walks with her arms open wide. I push the cart.
Together we buy all of it, every single ingredient from every single recipe. We toss the bags and jars and packages against the clanging metal, and the children clap and squeal. We cannot stop when we have enough for dinner. We work frantically, until we have emptied every shelf and every freezer and every bin. The girl from Haiti finally smiles, and I smile too. We look around at our handiwork, at the empty store, at the brilliant shining nothing. The abundance that surrounds us has found its way out. We have done our jobs and set it free. Not even the cart can contain us.
Rachel Estrada Ryan is a writer and graphic designer. Her freelance consulting firm, Both is Better LLC (www.bothisbetter.com), serves authors, nonprofits, the health care sector, and businesses large and small. Over the past decade, she’s written more than forty essays and articles for local, corporate, and national newsstand publications. This is her first published piece of fiction. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in New York with her husband and three children (and one more on the way).
Image credit: Cia de Foto on Flickr