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Authors: Cornelia Read

valley of ashes

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For Frederick Harvey Read and Rick Dage
Requiescat in pace et in amore.


Spring 1995

Boulder, Colorado

[A]fter a child is born the lives of its mother and father diverge, so that where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other. A day spent at home caring for a child could not be more different from a day spent working in an office. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on opposite sides of the world.

—Rachel Cusk,
A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother


hen we first moved to Boulder, I was entirely too happy—a state of being so rare in my experience that I found it rather terrifying.

My twin daughters, Parrish and India, were beautiful, precocious, and brimming with good health. My husband, Dean, was happily successful at his new job and my best, most trusted friend. We lived at the eastern feet of the Rocky Mountains in a cozy old house on the loveliest street of a charming university town.

The air was fresh, the sky was blue—our yard a lush and maple-shaded green, our mellow brick front porch banked in the early spring with a cobalt-and-amethyst embarrassment of lilac, iris, and grape hyacinth.

Everything I’d ever wanted, not least the fleeting belief that Boulder might heal the halves of me, split since childhood between New York and California.


Sorrow is always your own, offering no temptation to fickle gods. Fucking joy, on the other hand? You might as well string your heart from the ceiling for use as a frat-party piñata.

We’d lived in Colorado for three months now, and somehow everything about my marriage had shifted. Not in a good way.

Dean traveled a great deal for work, and when he was home he no longer liked me very much.

I didn’t know why, exactly, but it was hard for me to blame him: Most days, I didn’t like me a whole hell of a lot, either.

I was exhausted. And lonely. And really shitty at the whole housewife thing. And just so fucking
, even though I loved my kids and Dean with great fierceness and should’ve been overjoyed with my fabulous luck, right?

It was just… well, I had this constant creeping terror that I didn’t deserve any of the good parts, that I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. That fear wafted across the bottom of everything, like dry-ice mist rippling along the floor of some cheesy horror-movie set.

And also I should’ve been eating nothing but salads and taking up jogging or something. Plus washing my hair more often.

But mostly I really, really wanted to be able to sleep for three straight days.

I often found myself thinking of this French kid, Pascal. We’d met one college summer while I was crashing in Eliot House at Harvard with some pals who were actually attending classes there.

Pascal gave himself an odd punky haircut in his dorm room one day with a razor trimmer before wandering around Boston Common for an afternoon, thereby enduring catcalls of derision from every last roving gang of blue-collar youth.

He used to be cool
, Pascal said of himself that night in dining hall,
but now they call him “Maggot Head.”

Lately, those words had echoed in my brain every time I looked in the mirror.

Snotty Parisian accent and all.

The Flatirons jut up at the western end of Colorado’s high plains. Boulder’s bookend: a crooked row of five-hundred-foot shark’s teeth, tipped vertical eighty million years ago by the cataclysmic upthrusts that had whelped the Rockies.

You really couldn’t miss them, from any vantage point in town.

I’d only ever lived away from the ocean once before, but this time I was determined not to bitch about it.

I pulled my daughters toward Pearl Street in their little red covered wagon, my throat dry in the thin mile-high air.

We were buffeted, as usual, by random clots of joggers, bikers, and Rollerbladers—obsessive jocks with an o’erweening sense of entitlement being as ubiquitous on the sidewalks of Boulder as those pompous blowhard leveraged-buyout guys and their calcium-deprived blond wives had been in the better restaurants of Manhattan.

I’d let my driver’s license lapse while we lived in New York, but hadn’t been in any great hurry to set up a DMV appointment out here to regain one. Joggers aside, Boulder had a terrific pedestrian culture, and we were only a couple of blocks’ walk from nearly everything one could want downtown. Plus it was sunny 330 days a year here, on average, and I figured having to walk instead of ride most of the time wasn’t going to do my ass any aesthetic harm.

Dean and I usually did big grocery runs on the weekend, and me not driving also meant that he had to pitch in on that front.

The only time it sucked was when he was out of town and I needed supplies in a hurry. I was fighting my way toward Pearl Street just then because my husband was at a sales conference in New Orleans and I’d ripped a giant hole in my very last extant vacuum bag while trying to empty it into the kitchen garbage so I could use it over again.

Not that I was addicted to vacuuming or anything, but my mother was due to arrive around lunchtime in the camper she was driving across the country and my house looked like a complete shithole.

Well, okay, my house
looked like a complete shithole. I just wanted my mother to think I’d made some progress, on that front at least.

Mom Lewis-and-Clarking from sea to shining sea at the wheel of her little beige secondhand Chinook meant that she and my father were both currently members of what Dad had long ago christened “the In-Car Nation.” As far as I knew, this was the first thing they’d had in common since their 1967 divorce.

For her it was a lark. Dad, meanwhile,
in his VW van. He was probably the only homeless guy in America to have voted for Reagan. Twice.

It was two days before Parrish and India’s first birthday, hence Mom’s imminence, and I also was expecting my bestest pal Ellis to show up with her own two children the following day.

I was kind of hoping the pair of them could help me figure out what the hell had gone wrong with my marriage. Or, better yet, tell me everything was totally fine and I was just being weird and paranoid for no reason at all, and then maybe let me nap a lot.

The Radio Flyer’s metal handle bit into my palm. I peeked under its little white hooped-canvas roof to make sure the girls remained happily engrossed in their respective fistfuls of soggy Cheese Nips. They grinned up at me, laughing, rosy little cheeks bedizened with orange crumbs.

I had dressed them that morning in brightly contrasting turtlenecks, cotton jumpers, and striped tights—with blue jean jackets and miniature biker boots.

“Sweetness and light,” I said, reaching into the wagon to stroke India’s glossy dark hair and Parrish’s skimpy blond fuzz, then soldiered on across Spruce at Sixteenth.

The sky was a saturated Easter-egg turquoise and it was seventy degrees out even though the sidewalks were edged with snow.

Up here, the sunlight packed a wallop you never found at sea level. Everything looked sharper, cleaner, because there wasn’t as much atmosphere to buffer the rays.

I muscled the wagon up an awkwardly angled curb cut, past a row of newspaper racks. The
Daily Camera
’s headline praised local firefighters for their quick response when someone torched two cars out on Arapahoe.

I kind of hated the
, since I’d sent them my clips and résumé when we first moved here and got a curt and badly xeroxed form-rejection postcard in reply—not even the simple courtesy of “You suck so profoundly we wouldn’t employ your illiterate lack-talent ass if you were the lone hack to survive a pan-galactic nuclear apocalypse,
neener neener
,” on actual letterhead.

Pompous fuckers.

I reached into the next box and grabbed the
Boulder New Times
, a free weekly that hadn’t yet ruled me out.

Something to live for.

On the off chance I’d ever find employment with these guys, I’d taken to stockpiling issues in a downstairs broom closet.

Ten feet past the bollards demarcating Pearl Street’s pedestrianized stretch, a brand-new red Saab convertible’s tires squealed slowly against the curb: stoner parking. It still had paper dealer plates on, but there was already a
sticker affixed to the custom ski rack.

The car’s front doors popped open and two dreadlocked, PataGucci-fleeced white boys tumbled onto the sidewalk in a Lilith Fair billow of clove cigarette and patchouli.

The tall kid began torturing passersby with tuneless moans on a nose flute.

His diminutive Trustafarian friend shoved a limp crocheted rainbow skullcap in my face. “Spare change.”

A demand, not a question.

“Dividend checks late again?” I asked, dragging my wagon in a wide arc around his expensively sneakered feet.

, man,” said the nose flautist.

Parrish squealed with glee and threw two drool-sodden little orange squares onto the sidewalk.

“Cheese Nips,” I said, pointing down. “Enjoy.”

Yeah, so much for that whole not-being-a-bitch thing.


hen the girls had first figured out how to crawl in our Manhattan apartment, Dean built them a giant, beautifully constructed playpen “fence” out of dowels and two-by-fours. Out here we put it up around the dining room table and filled it with toys to keep them occupied so I could occasionally try to get grown-up stuff done, like cleaning the rest of the house before Mom arrived.

It was about eight feet square, a nice space for them to toddle around in, not least since the landlord must have gotten a deal on orange-shag wall-to-wall carpeting so there was a cushy landing whenever they wobbled and fell over.

I changed both their diapers, scrubbed off my hands and forearms, made two quesadillas and chopped up some raw broccoli, strapped the girls into their primary-colored plastic booster seats, filled two sippy cups with milk, and started on the piles of dishes in the sink.

When they were done eating, smearing each other with melted cheese, and shot-putting various bits of lunch around the kitchen, I gently sponged their faces, hosed off their drool-and-cheddar-and-banana-slice-decked bibs, picked chunks of greasy tortilla out of their hair, and set them loose in the playpen so I could start sweeping leftover chunks off the kitchen floor (also a disgusting “antique” shade of orange, to match the shag rug and rancid-rust Formica countertops).

I yearned to win some giant Powerball jackpot just so I could buy
the place and rip out every speck of orange in it, then pile it up in the dirt-road alley behind our backyard and set it all on fire.

Because the house itself was beautiful—probably built sometime in the teens. It had high ceilings and tall graceful windows and doorways.

There was a solidity to it, as well. This was a house built by people who wanted to stick around. People who’d headed west, maybe, thinking about California, but got to the foot of the Rockies and said to themselves, “You know, this is really pretty damn great right here. Let’s plant a whole lot of graceful shade trees and lay out some generously Euclidean streets and make a life. We’ll have wide porches and deep backyards, and we’ll plant gardens and talk to our neighbors over the side fence. Take our time with things. Maybe start a university.”

I looked through the door to the dining room to check on the girls. They’d both climbed into an empty Pampers carton and were grinning at each other, convulsed with laughter.

The sun was streaming in through the front windows, and as exhausted as I was, I had a sudden gut-shot of pure joy, watching them play together. I grabbed our video camera and recorded a minute of them giggling in the box.

After putting the camera back on its high shelf, I started hosing down the girls’ booster-chair trays in the kitchen sink, the drain of which then backed up and spilled over onto the floor when the washing machine’s rinse cycle emptied.

By the time I’d mopped that up and joined my children in the dining room, lugging the country-blue vacuum cleaner my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas some years earlier, Parrish had taken another massive dump in her diapers, removed them, crawled smack-dab through the middle of the steaming pile of crap, and left a serpentine fecal Hansel-and-Gretel trail crisscrossing the carpet under and around the table.

I dropped the vacuum and ran to grab the kitchen garbage can, a clean diaper, a box of butt-wipes, a roll of paper towels, and the dish soap, then climbed into the playpen.

By this point, Parrish had liberated a fistful of bowel product from the back of her diaper and mashed it against the table’s edge.

“Dude,” I said, snaking an arm around her chubby little waist to pull her away from the burgeoning shit-mural, “contrary to popular opinion, your butt does
make Play-Doh.”

Parrish laughed up at me and tried to grab my hair with her
-encrusted fists. I captured her wrists in one hand and started the haz-mat remediation with a thick wad of wipes.

Ten minutes later, I had her swabbed down, re-diapered, re-dressed, and sweetly reeking of
Eau de
Johnson’s-Baby-Whatever, plus all the crap scraped up, the carpet and table sudsed and lathered and rinsed.

I plopped her back down in the playpen, kissed the top of her downy blond head, said, “Good thing you’re cute, sweetness,” and grabbed the vacuum cleaner.

I plugged the damn thing in and got down on my hands and knees to begin assaulting the rest of the ugly rug fronds.

This posture was necessary because our vacuum had about as much sucking power as a pair of asthmatic elves armed with defective crazy straws, so the only way to make it actually pick up dirt and detritus was to remove all accoutrements from the hose-end before scraping it rapidly back and forth across the orange fronds of shag.

The mind-numbing number of hours I’d devoted to this activity had worn down the hose’s plastic tip to a slanty point, like a giant black lipstick.

My mother-in-law vacuumed her entire house every day. And did all the accounting for the family farm. And was generally cheerful, but witty. Which is kind of tough to measure up to.

Especially since I was now lying stomach-down on the floor with both arms shoved on a blind mission into the murky depths beneath our sofa—having already raked out six desiccated baby carrots, two Popsicle sticks, half a sesame bagel, and our missing copy of
Velveteen Rabbit
(the pages of which appeared to be cemented shut with a thick mortar of hummus). I was just wondering how long it had actually been since I’d
vacuumed, considering the thick ruff of velveteenish
furry stuff growing along the edges of the petrified hummus, when the doorbell rang.

I caught sight of myself in the front-hall mirror as I stood up to answer it. My skin was gray, my dark blond hair was stringy, and there was a spit-lacquered floret of broccoli affixed to the center of my right eyebrow. Also, I was fatter than I’d ever been in my life by about twenty pounds—and I hadn’t exactly started out as a rail.


I had a second of wistfulness for my misspent youth, the years when all I worried about was scraping up a few bucks to go bar-hopping with my pal Ellis, and there were always drunk old guys mumbling about how I looked like Ingrid Bergman.

“Get a load of you now,” I said to the mirror. “You’d be lucky if they said Ing

She used to be cool, but now…

The living room behind me still resembled Bourbon Street at dawn on Ash Wednesday—minus the confetti and vomit, at least.

I took a halfhearted swipe at my verdantly cruciferous eyebrow and reached for the doorknob.

My beautiful dark-haired mother danced in off the porch and threw her arms around me. “Oh, Madeline, it’s so good to

I hugged back with gusto, burbling my gratitude that she was visiting against the side of her neck.

Mom pulled back half a step from our embrace. “Hold still a sec.”

She plucked something from my hair with her fingertips, then threw whatever it was back over her left shoulder toward the lawn.

“That was a lump of shit, I think,” she said. “Did you just change the girls’ diapers?”

Whereupon I nodded and burst into tears.


o you miss Dean when he’s away, or do you like having your own space?” asked Mom.

We were on our way to the pediatrician’s office with her at the wheel of Dean’s beat-up Mitsubishi Galant.

“It’s hard sometimes,” I said. “But then it always feels like we have new stuff to talk about when he gets home. We’re happy to see each other, you know?”

She nodded. “I think the hardest thing for me when you kids were little was never feeling like I could
anything… everything was always interrupted. And then your father would come home from the stock exchange and I was so hungry for what was going on in the
, and I wanted to be told I was doing things right after singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ all day. Just, ‘Goodness, you’ve painted the dining room table—how wonderful!’ But he wouldn’t say anything at all, he’d just read the paper and have a cocktail and grumble through dinner.”

“You guys were so young,” I said. “I mean,
. No wonder your entire generation got divorced. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to marry the first guy I slept with, just presuming it would all work out.”

“It never occurred to me that it wouldn’t. Mummie and Daddy always seemed fine. I thought all you had to do was get married and then that was it.”

“And cloth diapers,” I said. “I remember you rinsing them out in the toilet, when Trace was a baby.”

“Well, on Long Island we had a diaper man, at least. He took the dirty dipes away and delivered a pile of clean ones every week.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “No Pampers, no Prozac? No fucking way.”

She nodded. “
no birth control. You and Pagan were both products of the rhythm method.”

“Jesus, Mom. I’d’ve had myself committed, just to catch up on sleep.”

She laughed and turned left, into the doctor’s office parking lot. As she looked for a spot, I thought about the end of her marriage to my father.

In 1967, Mom discovered that she was pregnant a third time, and wept, and told Dad she didn’t know how they could handle having another child. There wasn’t enough money, and they were both so exhausted already.

He asked around on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where he was an ill-paid fledgling broker at the time. Someone knew someone who knew where a woman could get an abortion—from a doctor in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for four hundred dollars cash.

So Mom drove herself to Kennedy airport in the dark one morning, racked with such bad morning sickness it took her the entire drive
four-hour flight to finish one jelly doughnut. She ate it in little tiny pieces, trying to keep something in her stomach, some sugar in her system, so she wouldn’t throw up.

When she arrived at the doctor’s office, the nurse told her the price had gone up to five hundred.

Mom put her four bills on the doctor’s desk. “This is all I have. Please help me.”

She drove herself from the airport back to our tiny rented house in Jericho, New York, arriving home around midnight—bleeding profusely, doubled over with cramps.

She got into bed carefully, not wanting to wake up my father.

He turned toward her in the darkness as she drew the covers up to her chin.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “If you don’t want to have my child, I don’t want to stay married to you. I’ve packed my bags and I’ll be leaving in the morning.”

I was four years old, my sister two and a half.

In my pediatrician’s parking lot, a gigantic Range Rover finally pulled out of a space.

“No, Mom, really,” I said. “I couldn’t have handled the shit you dealt with when we were little. You’re fucking amazing.”

We sat in the waiting room for twenty-five minutes, then the examining room for another ten before the doctor came in. Mom took the chair and settled Parrish in her lap. I sat up on the crinkly-papered exam table with India.

“Do the girls need shots this time?” she asked.

“Probably. It seems like they have to get a few more every time we come in. Hep B, DTaP, meningitis… endless.”

Mom shivered. “Poor little things.”

The doctor bustled in, clipboard in hand. “Mrs. Bauer?”

, I thought to myself, having kept my maiden name. But it seemed needlessly strident to correct her so I just nodded.

“We’re behind on the girls’ vaccination schedule,” she said. “I’d like to get them caught up today.”

Mom raised an eyebrow at me, having always been a proponent of the “I don’t think that really
stitches” school of parenting.

“Okay, I guess.” I mean, I didn’t want to leave my children vulnerable to typhoid, or whatever, right?

Parrish wailed in my lap as she got an injection in each arm. I closed my eyes and stroked her hair, whispering
in her ear. “It’s okay, sweetie… It’s okay. All done now.”

India screamed next, struggling in Mom’s lap.

I was just so damn tired. The pitiful sound of both children’s sobs made tears well up in my eyes.

“Now, we find these shots are usually tolerated really well,” said the
doctor, “but if the girls have any discomfort tonight, it’s all right to give them a little liquid Tylenol.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

The woman grabbed her clipboard and race-walked out of the room.

“What a
,” said Mom in a stage whisper the moment the exam room door had clicked shut.

I snickered despite myself and turned to look at her.

“Oh, Mom… you cried, too?” I said, handing her a wad of Kleenex from the doctor’s stash. “Your mascara’s running.”

“I couldn’t stand it,” she said, sniffling and dabbing at her eyes. “Getting a shot in each arm? Horrible.”

We carried the girls back out to the parking lot. India was asleep before Mom had finished fastening the straps on her car seat.

“Why don’t you go up and take a nap when we get home, Madeline?” said Mom. “You look exhausted.”

“That would be my idea of Nirvana,” I said, right before Parrish projectile-vomited all over me.

I was looking for clean clothes for Parrish once we’d gotten back to the house.

“I’ll do all that,” said Mom. “Don’t be silly.”

“But you shouldn’t have to—”

She took me gently by the shoulders and turned me toward the staircase.

“Go upstairs,” said my mother. “Wash your face. Put on a clean shirt.”

I just stood there for a minute, then glanced back over my shoulder.

Mom had already somehow stripped Parrish down to just a diaper and laid her gently on the sofa. “I think she’s finished throwing up, poor little thing.”

Even so, the cushions beneath her were now miraculously, tautly sheeted with several clean towels.

I shook my head. “How did you get—”

“Go upstairs,” said Mom, shaking a crook’d finger at me. “I’m the mother, and I say so.”

When I reached the landing, I heard her call my name from below.

“Yeah?” I said, peering back down over the banister.

“Turn your dirty clothes inside out and throw them down here once you’ve got them off. I’ll start a load of laundry.”

“Thank you.”

“And then I think you should run yourself a bath.”


She stepped into sight beneath me. “After that you can go to sleep.”

I bowed to her in gratitude, knocking my forehead three times against the banister.

I’d just gotten out of the bathtub and wrapped myself in a big towel when Mom came upstairs.

“Is Parrish okay?” I asked, reaching back into the tepid water to yank out the plug by its chain.

“I gave her some apple juice and she kept it down. She might go to sleep for a while.”

“Do you think I should take her temperature?”

“I think you should take a

I padded down the hallway toward Dean’s and my bedroom, my skin not even damp anymore.

“It’s so weird,” I said. “You barely even
towels at this altitude. It’s like going through the dryers at a car wash.”

I put on a bra and pulled a clean T-shirt over my head.

“The clasp broke on these pearls you got from Mummie?” asked Mom, lifting the string of cultured orbs from the jewelry box atop my bureau, my third of what had been her mother’s triple-strand necklace.

“The clasp is fine,” I said, rubbing my wet hair roughly with a towel. “The thread snapped, right near the end where it attaches.”

She nodded. “I’ll take the girls out for a walk later and let you nap. We’ll have a little adventure and find a jewelry store to fix these.”

“You sure Parrish is okay?”

“Just go to sleep for a while.”

I felt so refreshed after the bath I didn’t think I’d drift off, but I blinked my eyes a couple of times and the next time I opened them the bedroom walls were tinted blood orange, reflecting the sunset.

Downstairs, Mom had made dinner for all four of us.

Parrish woke up around three that night, weeping and screaming. She was hot and sweaty and crying as though she were in great pain—or being chased by rabid wolves.

I gave her liquid Tylenol and carried her downstairs and held her as I walked slowly back and forth across the moonlit living room floor. I buried my nose in her sweet, alfalfa-smelling hair as she shrieked in my ear, humming softly until she exhausted herself back to sleep once more.

Sitting with her cradled across my lap for another ten minutes, I gazed at her dear little face in the blue moonlight.

She made a fist and raised her thumb to her mouth, dark lashes grazing her cheeks—so beautiful it made me ache.

Lucky, lucky, lucky. Yes I am.


ost days I woke up brimming with a sudden terror—that I’d forgotten to do essential things, that I’d never make friends in Colorado, that my appearance as an adult in the world was only a thin candy shell hiding a tiny, rattling center of incompetent thirteen-year-old or, worse yet, nothing at all.

That morning I was too tired to care. I came downstairs in my underwear and my favorite black E
skull-and-crossbones T-shirt, toting a just-awakened child on each hip.

Mom was in the kitchen drinking Postum, having already put away last night’s dishes and started a second load of laundry for me.

“Does it bother you if I clean when I’m here?” she asked.

“Are you fucking kidding?” I said, buckling the girls into their seats. “You are the goddess of the world.”

“Daddy used to always straighten the pictures when he and Mummie came to visit. Then he’d polish the silver. Drove me crazy.”

kiss the hem of your garment.” I shook my head, starting to slice bananas for Parrish and India. “Besides which, your father was the most anal-retentive man who ever lived.”

Mom smiled.

I scooped up the bananas. “Whereas I am anal-
… I always mean to clean up, but never quite get around to it.”

I knelt down to pile bananas on the girls’ respective little yellow
plastic trays along with sturdy dry helpings of Life cereal, then tied on their bibs and let them have at it.

By the time I’d filled two sippy cups with milk, Parrish had half a slice of banana up her nose and was busy mashing the remainder against India’s chubby left cheek.

“Another fine day, my beauties,” I said, patting their silky heads.

Mom put a yellow receipt into my hand. “I forgot to give you this last night. Your pearls should be ready Tuesday. The people in the store were very sweet.”

“Didn’t your mother used to say that you should always make a jeweler restring them while you watch, so they can’t switch any of them out?”

“Only for natural pearls. Doesn’t really matter with cultured,” she said.

I boggled yet again at all the useless knowledge we’d accrued as a family since my four great-grandfathers left their childhood farms for robber-baron ascendancy in textiles, banking, bonds, and shipping, respectively.

We could arrange flowers, navigate deb-party receiving lines, replace divots in polo fields between chukkers, and write charming thank-you notes on good stationery. Fat lot of good any of that did us now, three generations down the pike with everyone broke as shit.

I mean, my poor mother got shoved into the 1960s wearing a hat and gloves and seamed stockings and a Bendel frock, having been educated to gracefully oversee a husband’s household’s staff. Preferably during the reign of Edward VII.

She’d ended up on the outskirts of Big Sur smoking dope in our living room with a lot of Black Panthers—gracefully.

So, okay, I
knew how to get food for striking AFL-CIO farmworkers through a Salinas police line, tie-dye T-shirts, wring every last dime out of any educational institution’s financial-aid office, sing the word-perfect entirety of “Alice’s Restaurant,” and fire off a deeply authentic, heartfelt black-power salute.

But I’d married an alpha farmboy with a fine head for business.

Go figure.

Does that make it sound as though I wanted to be rich again, ride on Dean’s coattails, put a yoke around his neck?

Wrong. I wanted to reboot everything back to scratch, start over, tabula rasa—yes, abso-goddamn-lutely. But the point was to shoot for kindness instead of glory and power and bloodthirsty bullshit this time around. Teamwork. Good talk and sharing books and time to laugh. Long fine dinners around a big table with all the people we loved. Maybe a little safety, comfort, and education for our children. Just enough to go around, to share, to live without being dogged by fear. Give peace a chance.

“What time does Ellis get in?” asked Mom.

“Noon, I think.” I tucked the pearls receipt into my shorts’ pocket and staggered toward my hideously orange kitchen counter to stoke the espresso machine for my own much-needed sustenance.

“Are we picking her up at the airport?” she asked.

“Too many car seats to fit in the Galant, with Hadley and Peregrine. Ellis is renting a mini-van or something.”

A mini-van. Jesus. What the fuck happened to us?

“I can’t
her married,” said Mom.

“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “Neither can she.”

“Do you straighten up the house before Dean gets home?” asked Mom, taking another sip of Postum as she surveyed the five overflowing baskets of laundry still listing to starboard alongside the washing machine.

“Sure,” I lied. “Right before I greet him at the door in a freshly starched French maid’s costume and patent-leather thigh boots, bearing a monogrammed sterling shaker of chilled martinis.”

Mom tsk-tsked.

I yawned so hard that tears started leaking down my cheeks, then crossed my arms on the heinous autumnal Formica and slumped down to glare at the trickle of rocket-nectar leaking all too slowly from the espresso machine’s steel teat.

India squealed with glee and threw a piece of banana in my general
direction. I left it stuck to the side of my thigh, intent on pouring adequate sugar and milk into a pint glass with my now-finished double espresso.

The washing machine buzzed and Mom started moving wet clothes to the dryer.

“Thank you, dearest Mummie,” I said, toasting her with my flagon of Light Sweet Crude. “You are indeed the bestest ever.”

When Mom had shoved the dryer door closed and hit
, she glanced at my bombed-out living room.

“Madeline,” she said, head shaking slowly, “
me you’ll never have pets.”

,” I said some hours later, skipping down the porch steps as Ellis rolled her rented vanlet’s side door open. “
Bienvenue. Céad míle fáilte

My svelte gamine pal flashed me a wide wicked grin. “How’s tricks?”

“I’m fat, my marriage is tanking, and I want to run away with the circus,” I said. “Which is remarkable because I’ve always
circuses. You?”

She rolled her green eyes skyward. “I just want to be a widow. Is that so wrong?”

“Scorpio’s in the House of Suckbag again at your place, too?”

Our husbands had been born on the exact same day in 1962, and we’d long since discovered that their sine waves of biorhythmic testiness were perfectly synced.

She unlocked the straps on towheaded little Hadley’s car seat. “We married beneath us.”

“All women do,” I replied, making my way around to the car’s street-side door to release Peregrine.

He was four years old, the spitting image of Ellis, and immediately sank his teeth into the meatiest part of my forearm.

I yanked all appendages beyond reach of the kid’s fangs to check for blood and gore. He’d broken the skin, but only just.

“No worries,” said Ellis. “He’s had his shots for distemper.”

“Imagine my relief.”

She pointed at the back of Mom’s little Chinook camper. “Nice bumper sticker.”

The slogan was affixed beneath a window box brimming with road-weary plastic geraniums: P
, it read, T

“Perfect,” I said.

Hadley laughed, smacking her mother audibly upside the head with a Cookie Monster sippy cup.

Ellis sighed. “Now I know why tigers eat their young.”


e spent the morning of my daughters’ birthday driving north in the mini-van to Rocky Mountain National Park, an expedition cut short when Ellis reached into her diaper bag for a camera and Peregrine took the opportunity to bolt away across thin ice toward the thawed center of a pond.

The surface gave way when he was fifteen feet from shore, Ellis already sprinting toward him, smashing through the frozen surface up to her knees with each frantic stride.

The frigid water only came up to his waist, thank God.

“That child is a
,” said Mom once we’d exhaled our panic-stilled breath.

“No shit,” I replied, thankful once again that I’d had girls.

Ellis threw Perry over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry and slogged back toward shore.

“If we’d brought the camper,” said Mom, “I could have wrapped them both up in blankets.”

“The camper has nothing to hook the car seats to, though,” I said. “So we would of course have driven off a cliff on the way home.”

Mom shook her head. “A little time airborne might be just what that boy needs.”

Ellis stepped back onto dry land, Perry already blue-lipped and shaking in her arms.

She looked at me.

My eyes must have mirrored everything so plain in hers: exhaustion, self-recrimination, and the profound gratitude one always feels in the aftermath of sheer-adrenaline maternal terror.

considered calling the child-abuse hotline,” she said. “For tips.”

I gripped her shoulder. “On the bright side, he can’t drive yet.”

“Try telling
that. We’re on our third garage door.”

I opened the van and she bundled Perry into a spare set of warm clothes—claiming not to be a bit cold herself—then posed us all beside the shore for photos with the cracked ice clearly visible behind us.

,” she said, focusing in.

Mom and I smiled and the kids tried to pull away from us.

Ellis said, “Parrish, look at the camera, honey!”

I knelt down.

“Parrish, over here, pretty girl!” said Ellis.

“Pretty!” said India.

Ellis started waving her free hand. “Parrish, sweetie. Look look look.”

I put my arm around my little blond child, gently cupping her cheek with my hand to turn her face forward.

“Got it!” Ellis said, then set the timer and raced over to stand next to me for a full-cast shot.

She pressed her arm against mine, shivering.

lips are blue now,” I said, having a sudden flashback to Mom telling me that same thing when I was little and she thought it was time to come out of the water.

“I don’t mean to be a wuss, but would you guys mind if we went home?” Ellis asked.

“Not at all,” said Mom. “Want me to drive?”

Ellis shook her head. “Actually, I’d love to be up front. Closer to the heater.”

When the kids were locked down in the car, Ellis leaned in toward my ear. “Don’t tell Seamus, okay? I’m so sick of getting yelled at.”

The last time I’d stayed at the monstrous junior-executive house he’d insisted they have built in a soulless cookie-cutter development outside Cincinnati (“great rooms,” granite countertops, sad little fledgling trees held upright by guy wires), Ellis’s flabby, assless, nepotism-anointed corporate-cog lizard-princeling of a husband had spent twenty minutes shrieking at her for buying a bottle of Elmer’s Glue.

“You bought
?” he’d said, shaking his head. “Jesus Christ, Ellis, what kind of idiot
you? The kids’ll have that smeared into each other’s hair and all over our furniture in a heartbeat.”

She didn’t say a word as he continued berating her. Neither did I.

I’d endured enough spousal tantrums in my own household to know full well that if Ellis hadn’t bought glue, he would’ve attacked her for buying Brussels sprouts, or vitamins, or Scotch tape.

Seamus took my silence as complicity.

“Madeline, you gotta admit the bitch is
stupid,” the shithead said, lipless grin fueled with certainty that I’d consider his scathing, entirely baseless abuse of my dearest friend proof of swoon-inducing virility on his part.

Then he’d fucking winked at me.

I turned my back on the shattered Colorado pond and hooked elbows with Ellis. “Seamus

I made tortellini with a side of hummus for the kids’ lunch and peeled some apples to slice.

When Ellis had changed into dry clothes, she and I washed all four pairs of sticky little hands and got our offspring strapped into their respective mealtime restraint devices.

Mom had gone out to her camper to lie down for a bit, saying she’d be happy to take second shift.

As the kids dug in, Ellis and I leaned back against the orange Formica, winded.

“What would the grown-ups like for lunch?” I asked.


“I’d lapse into a coma.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

crying for an hour.”

Ellis punched me in the shoulder. “Pussy.”

I shrugged. “Could be worse.”


“Could be Mormons.”

“Twenty kids, no booze?” Ellis shuddered with horror.

caffeine,” I said, handing her a cold can of Diet Coke and opening one for myself. “Plus they’d make us refer to Jell-O as ‘salad.’ ”

“Fuck me gently with a chain saw,” she whispered, voice pitched only the slightest hair above inaudibility.

“Chain saw!” chortled India.

I raised my eyes heavenward. “Do we really have to give up
, on top of everything else? It’s the only vice I have left.”

“You forgot sloth,” said Ellis, eyeing my laundry pile.

Peregrine upended his tortellini bowl over Hadley’s head.

His sister took a deep breath and held it, her face amping brighter and brighter crimson as lukewarm butter-and-Parmesan trickled down toward her pale eyebrows.

Ellis gestured balletically toward this tableau with her soda can. “You ever notice how the longer they don’t breathe, the louder they end up screaming?”

“Daily,” I replied.

We knocked back bracing slugs of beverage.

Hadley’s blue eyes went wider, and then she shrieked like an entire mill-town’s worth of lunch-hour steam whistles—all playing at 78 rpm.

“That girl’s got a future in Chinese opera,” I said, when she paused to inhale.

“You’d think the asthma would slow her down.”

Hadley screamed again, louder this time. I figured the neighbors would be trying to remember whether Boulder had fallout shelters.

I swallowed more Diet Coke. “Please tell me your son still naps.”

“Of course he does. I brought duct tape.”

I clinked her soda can with my own. “There
a God.”

“Yeah.” Ellis laughed. “Too bad he’s such a vindictive asshole.”

We ran the kids around the backyard for another half hour so they’d be exhausted enough to sleep—worked like a charm.

Back down in the kitchen with Ellis, I held up two tablespoons and pointed them at the half-Cuisinart-ful of leftover hummus. “Sloppy seconds?”


“They always say we’re supposed to sleep when the kids do.” I said, handing her a spoon.

“Fuck that. My brain’s already atrophied beyond repair.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

We were scraping the sides of the bowl when Mom breezed in.

“I went for a little walk,” she said. “They’re having a graduation fair at the psychic academy. Ten bucks for fifteen minutes. Why don’t I watch the kids while you two go, my treat?”

“Constance,” said Ellis, hugging my mother, “have I told you lately that I love you?”


ree at last, free at last,” said Ellis, as we escaped at a lope toward Pearl Street.

I chimed in with a “Thank God Almighty.”

We were so goofy with liberty that we grabbed hands and started skipping down the sidewalk.

“Have you met anyone cool here yet?” she asked when we’d run out of breath and lapsed back into a walk.

“I’m pretty certain I will never have friends again,” I said. “I’ll just die alone, unknelled, uncoffined, and surrounded by twenty-seven cats.”

“Oh, please,” she said. “Our problem has never been
friends. The hard part’s

“You know, I actually enjoy moving—finding the new drugstore, figuring out where to get a decent baguette. But I kind of freeze up about people. It’s like the abyss opens up and I don’t know whether I’m going to be a complete reject geek like I was as a kid in California—”

“Or queen of the universe like you’ve been
fucking place you’ve lived since?”

“Thank you.”

“So, join a mothers’ group or something. Tiny children—the great equalizer. You’re never short of small talk.”

“Tried it,” I said.

“So what happened?”

“Well, I went in the first week—it was at this community center—and they had a facilitator chick. The kids are all bonking each other over the heads with plastic shovels and shit, and meanwhile she wants us to sit in a circle on the floor and have a ‘sharing’ session about some parenting question of the week, or whatever.”

“Not liking the sound of this so far…”

“No shit,” I said. “And the question that first week was, ‘What is your bedtime ritual,’ which, you know, right away—”


“Exactly, right? So they start going around the circle, and all these women are talking about how the kid picks out three storybooks, and then they have a warmed mug of soy milk, and then they sing lullabies in French and Mandarin, and then they all sleep ‘in the family bed’ and shit—on and fucking
—and I’m starting to freak out.”

“And then they get to
,” she said.

“And then they get to me.”

“So what’d you say?”

“I told the truth: I take my kids upstairs, tuck them into their cribs, say good night, and then shut the door most of the way and drink a goddamn beer in my kitchen.”

“Bet that went over like a lead balloon,” said Ellis.

“Plutonium, more like.” I hopped over a crack in the sidewalk. “I mean, there are some nice people here, but I don’t even know who
am anymore. I know who I used to be—a writer, a survivor, this chick who could think on her feet and stand up for people. I mean, shit…
know, better than anyone.”

“You saved my life,” she said.

“You saved mine.”

We weren’t speaking figuratively.

“So what the hell am I now?” I asked. “A failing housewife? A crappy mother? And we’re the fucking lucky ones—I
this is a life of goddamn privilege. I mean, we have health insurance, I don’t have to waitress at some all-night truckstop diner to feed my kids—”

“Good thing, too, because you were the suckiest waitress who ever lived.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said.

“You’re still you.”

“God help us all.”

“You’re going to make friends here, we’re both going to survive the toddler years. Hey, our marriages might even improve. And someday, we’ll get to become ourselves again.”

I closed my eyes. “That is just so hard for me to believe, right now.”

it’s true,” she said. “I mean, you’re smart, you’re funny, and you’re a total babe.”

“I’m fucking fat.”

“Which has
mattered,” she was kindly quick to say.

“Says the bitch with the body of a Parisian cheerleader. You’re like a twelve-year-old boy with a Mighty Rack, dude.”

“And you’re the only woman I know who still looks hot even when she’s twenty pounds over.”

“Thirty,” I said. “Probably. I’m too scared to get on a scale.”

“I fucking hate you. You could still crook your little finger in any bar in America and have three guys clamoring to fuck you—in a heartbeat.”

“Sure, right after the full-frontal plastic surgery.”

“So you’re a quart low on mojo. You need to get laid.”

I jumped into the air, tapping my hand against a high overhead branch, the way I used to when I was out walking in the woods as a kid. “I imagine that will happen when my Intrepid Spouse gets home. Not that our fucking’s been entirely mojo-building of late.”

“At least your husband doesn’t look like a lizard. Swear to God, I’m tempted to put a bag over my
head just so I don’t have to see Seamus’s reptilian countenance pulling closer at night.”

“So? Screw in the dark.”

“Doesn’t help his technique.”

“Technique,” I said. “I have vague memories of that… lost somewhere
back in the mists of prehistory, along with any pretense of foreplay.”

“That bad?” She shook her head in sympathy.

“We’re talking thirty seconds of ass-pawing on his part, max. The rest of it might as well be drive-through. I’m completely on my own in the getting-off department.”

“At least Dean knew how at
point. Swear to God, Lizard Boy is unteachable—not to mention he thinks cunnilingus is an Irish airline.”

“You need a nice thick Lanz nightie.”

“I need a
boy,” she said.

“Oh, come on, sturdy ramparts of flannel, rendered in a sickeningly twee calico? Nothing puts a man off like preppy sleepwear.”

“Yeah, that’d work. With a

“She’s holding out for the pool boy,” I said. “I
that look.”

“Preferably a well-hung seventeen-year-old to give me a good solid thrashing every afternoon, before I have to go cook dinner while watching my husband snatch flies from midair with the otherwise-useless tip of his tongue.”

“Remind me why you married Seamus, again?”

Ellis shrugged. “Health insurance. And dental.”

I burst out laughing.

She cracked up, too. “Thank God the kids look like me, right?”