by Kara Moskowitz
“Ow!” Evie sits on a chair in the breakfast room facing into the window, hands pressed down on her thighs, leaning forward expectantly.
“Hold still then!” Tanya stands behind her, waging an assault on the tangles that have managed to take hold in the night during the energetic dreams of a seven-year-old. It is early, and winter, so they can use the breakfast room window as a mirror while the outside world is dark. Tanya turns on the TV in the living room without sound and angles it so they can see its reflection in the window too. She likes the company of the frenetic technicolor tumble of shapes; it makes the house feel warmer.
“You don’t have to brush so damn hard; you’re not doing it right.”
“Don’t say ‘damn.’”
“I’ll say ‘damn’ if I damn well please—ow! Jesus H. Christ, Tannie!”
Tanya tugs a little harder than necessary at Evie’s whines, weaving a tight French braid on the left side of Evie’s head.
Evie lifts her right arm, and Tanya peels the band from her sister’s wrist, worries her thumb over the red indentation it has left, and then wraps the band around and around the end of the braid.
“And don’t call me Tannie anymore, remember? It’s Tanya.”
“Tahhhhhhnya, fine.” Evie rolls her whole head along with her eyes as she stretches out the syllables of her sister’s name like taffy. It’s a recent change—Tanya seemed to have gotten up one morning and the sound of “Tannie” suddenly made her cringe, brought to mind one of Evie’s My Little Pony dolls or what you’d be liable to name a golden retriever. She’d outgrown it like an old sweatshirt, but the rest of the world hadn’t caught on.
Evie looks at herself in the window, frowns, and pulls on her braids. “They’re not even. The left side is too far back.”
In the kitchen, Tanya puts a bowl of instant oats and milk into the microwave. She takes a deep breath. “No, it’s not,” she says, though she knows Evie is right. She pads back into the breakfast room and stands over Evie, assessing her handiwork. “Whatever. They’re fine. Nobody will notice anyhow.”
They look at each other in the window. Evie’s round face and robin’s egg eyes are not the same features Tanya shares with their mother, an olive complexion and sharp-boned angles, muddy brown hair leaden straight to the small of her back. What Tanya recalls of her father is the feel of worn-soft Levi’s against her cheek and the bony lumps of his feet under the arches of her own, her arms gripped tight around his thick calves as he walked her across the den. She remembers him tucking hair behind his ears, constantly, and the way his chin would jerk up with each tuck. But Tanya cannot recall her father’s face; for the life of her, she cannot pull him into focus from the deep backwoods of her memory. And so she finds herself looking at Evie, teasing out contours and tones, crinkles and expressions, trying to reverse-engineer his image from the clues her sister might hold.
In these few seconds of space, Tanya thinks Evie just might let the braid debacle go. Instead, she has used these moments to craft her retort: “Well your boobs are uneven, and you better hope no one notices.” Evie pulls the rubber band off of the right braid and pushes her stubby fingers through her hair.
“Did you really just take that out? Redo it yourself, I don’t have time for this. And they’re not uneven, you little shit. See?” Tanya pulls her cream thermal top over her head and lets it drop to the floor in a heap. She gives her hair a shampoo-commercial flip for added flourish.
“Ew, Tannie, put your shirt back on. Come on, do this over.” Evie can’t help but stare at her sister’s breasts, how beautiful they are: their gentle slope down from her collarbone, the puckered, nickel-sized nipples. It’s as if they’re held up with invisible puppet strings, and they flounce free and easy as Tanya shakes her head. Tanya is a stranger now, in so many ways.
“Nope. You’re on your own kid.” Tanya gives Evie’s earlobe a pinch and goes back into the kitchen.
“Evie, enough with the mouth, okay? Here, eat this.” Tanya sets the bowl of oatmeal onto the breakfast table, then swings Evie around in her chair to face it.
“That looks like throw up.”
“It’s the same oatmeal you’ve had for breakfast every day for the last year.”
“It’s the same puked up oatmeal I’ve had for breakfast every day for the last year. Tannie, put on your shirt, okay? What if Leon comes down?” Tanya slides her thumb along a waxy sliver where her appendix was removed before Evie was even born—a thing she’s always done, as if to make sure she’s not coming apart at the seams.
“Really, Evie? Have you seen Leon downstairs before noon ever in your entire life? Here, give me that rubber band.” Tanya takes up the hair that Evie has left hanging and weaves her fingers through like a game of Cat’s Cradle.
“He’s only been here for, like, two months. That’s hardly my entire life.”
“Well, then don’t act like it is.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means stop being such a baby. Okay, look. Even?”
Evie turns around in her chair and looks at her sister’s reflection. “Even. Thank you, Tanya.”
“You’re welcome, Evelyn.”
“What’s with all the yammering this morning?” It isn’t Leon they’ve woken but their mother. “Geez, Louise.” Delia pauses in the breakfast room doorway, wraps her pilled yellow bathrobe more tightly around her, and reties the belt. She leans against the doorframe as if she can’t make it to the table without stopping to rest, or maybe she hasn’t exactly committed to a new day yet. She smells faintly of cigar smoke and Pond’s cold cream and wears tortoise shell glasses instead of her blue-colored contacts. Evie is always jarred by her mother’s appearance in the morning; her face without makeup is muted and gray—like veal, she thinks. Her mom is nicer with brown eyes and tortoise shell glasses and veal-like skin.
“Mom, tell Tannie to put her shirt back on.”
Delia glances over at Tanya. “Tannie, put your shirt back on. And wear a bra for once, would you?” Delia shuffles past Tanya into the kitchen. “Is there coffee?”
“You smell like an ash tray. Nice of you to make it home last night, by the way. What was it, two a.m. when you came in?”
Delia fills a kettle and sets it on a burner. “Two-thirty as a matter of fact, Officer. Marty isn’t well, so I had to cover her late shift. Thank God Robyn came in early to relieve me.” She brings a fistful of hair to her nose and breathes in. “Do I really smell that bad? I was too brain-dead to shower when I got in.”
“Yes, you really do.”
Tanya watches as Delia continues with her instant coffee. She pulls the carton of Half-and-half from the refrigerator and holds it under her nose—at a distance as if she assumes it’s already gone bad—and pours a splash into her mug; she empties in three packets of Dunkin’ Donuts-pilfered Sweet n’ Low from the pilfered condiments drawer. Instant coffee is what’s wrong with Delia, Tanya considers: immediate gratification over quality. In the end you’re just left with shit.
“Well, we’ve given up on trying to get Abe to quit smoking. The man is eighty-three. If he wants his Romeo y Julietas, who are we to stand in his way? He’s the one with a medical degree, after all.”
“Well, I guess the sooner he keels over, the sooner you get to cash in, huh?”
Delia whips her head right and stares straight into Tanya’s eyes, a look that’s both a dare and a question. Tanya’s words reek of her father. Delia wonders if Tanya could possibly know that, if it’s calculated or merely inherited, and which of those would be worse.
Tanya keeps on looking at Delia, features unmoved, and just shrugs. It’s a dare and a question back, but Delia doesn’t have it in her. She will de-escalate the situation, drink her coffee.
“I hope Abe lives a good long time, as long as he’s got his wits about him. Once they’re gone, I’m under strict orders to hold a pillow over his face. Anyway, whatever he leaves me won’t be much. His children are vultures; they’ll be damned if a red cent of their inheritance goes to the help.”
Tanya was hoping for more of a rise out of Delia. “Whatever,” she says, turning on her heels. “Evie, eat the fucking oatmeal, or I’m not giving you lunch money.” Evie jabs her spoon into the congealed mass as if she’s planting a flag on the surface of the moon, sees how long it remains upright before hitting the rim of the bowl with a clang.
“There’s a spider in my pukey oatmeal.”
“No, there’s not,” Tanya and Delia both say.
“Yes, there is too!” Sure enough, Evie dangles a daddy longlegs by a spindly limb, millimeters from the tip of Tanya’s nose.
“Evie, ick!” Tanya backs her head away and bats at the spider. “Go flush that down the drain.”
“I will not! I’m not a cold-blooded killer.” Delia looks up: where on earth has she gotten that phrase? “I’m setting her free into the wild.” Evie cradles the thing in her palms and takes careful steps toward the back door. She peers into the cave of her hands. “Shh, it’s okay now,” she whispers.
“Fabulous. Just get it away from me. You want toast?”
“Yes, please,” Evie calls over her shoulder. “Purple jelly, no butter. And try not to burn it.”
A frigid gust infiltrates the kitchen as Evie opens the door and stoops down on the concrete step. The spider clings to her outstretched palm. “Run along now, bitsy spider,” she urges. She shakes her hand, tries blowing on it, but it won’t budge. Finally, she lowers her palm to the snow-flecked pavement and gently nudges it off with her fingers. The snowflakes are thick and heavy, waterlogged. A single one could down the spider. But in a moment, it takes staccato steps into a crack between the stoop and the side of the house, and Evie takes in a breath so sharply cold that it hits the back of her throat and makes her cough. For a second, it’s just the muffled quiet of the little backyard, her own gray island. She will be careful not to upset spider webs, especially down here around the stoop, for a good long time.
“Shut the door, Evie. It’s colder than a witch’s tit in here!” Tanya’s chest, torso, and arms are prickled with goosebumps. To Evie this makes her sister look exotic, reptilian, more enthralling still. She can feel snowflakes melting on her head as she traipses back through the kitchen, the water tickling a path behind her ears to the nape of her neck.
Delia has changed the channel on the TV to find the weather report and because the cartoon that was on made her head hurt. A newscaster stands on the side of a highway, and behind her, on the other side of the road, are mangled cars, flashing lights, an ambulance, firemen. Evie studies the woman on the screen: bony nose, slate blue eyes. Snow catches on perfectly sculpted blond hair. Her words come out in visible puffs. She motions behind her as a tarp-covered mound—a person, a body—is carried up the ditch on a stretcher. Delia looks over at Evie, whose eyes are wide.
“She’s pretty,” Evie says, turning back toward the table. She looks down at the plate of toast Tanya has just deposited in front of her, next to the now-congealed oatmeal to the side. “I said purple jelly.”
Tanya puts a hand on her hip. Her fingers are raw and red around the nails where she has tortured her cuticles. “There is no purple jelly. You mean grape anyway. You must learn to be precise.”
“This looks precisely like your period.”
“You’re disgusting. Eat the damn toast before I get really irate and shove a used tampon down your throat.”
“Jesus, girls, enough!” Delia pushes up her glasses and rubs her temples in little circles. “Can we have a solitary moment of peace in here? Is that in the realm of possibility, or am I being crazy?” She puts out a hand as if she’s holding an invisible remote control, aims it at each of her daughters, and presses down with her thumb. “I’m putting you both on mute, so zip it, okay?”
“Ooooookaaaaay,” Evie mouths. Tanya makes a play of skulking back into the kitchen; in the doorway she turns back to her mother and sister, back hunched, and puts a quieting finger to her lips. Evie joins the jellied sides of the toast together and eats it like a sandwich.
Tanya comes back with a mug of tea. She straddles a chair and sits with her forearms on the table, hands wrapped around the steaming cup. They sit for a while in the cottony quiet. Tanya goes so far as to feel a warming swell in her chest just to be here, having breakfast with her mom and her sister, and maybe this is how it can be.
“Tannie, put on your shirt, okay, hon?” Delia picks up the top and holds it out to Tanya. “I don’t want the Marstons thinking this is a house of ill repute.” She glances toward the window. It’s gotten light out by now; their reflections have given way to reveal the neighbors’ house not ten feet over.
“You’re hilarious,” Tanya snickers. “Like that’s the reason they’d think this is a house of ill repute.”
“What’s ill repute?”
“Quiet, Evie.” Delia holds a finger up to quiet Evie, her eyes still trained on Tanya. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Really? You don’t think the parade of men coming in and out of this place hasn’t already given them that impression?” She draws a line in the air to underscore “parade.”
Evie giggles because this makes her think of the balloons on TV on Thanksgiving morning, and she pictures Leon—and James and Derek and LeMoyne and the others—inflated to almost bursting and floating down the street between Snoopy and Spider-Man. But neither Tannie nor her mom is laughing; only Evie has missed the shift in mood. She pushes the plate of toast away from her and folds her arms across her chest.
Tanya continues: “And just because your tits are saggy and droopy and gross doesn’t mean I should have to hide mine if I don’t want to.”
Delia puts an elbow on the table and rests her head in the brace of her thumb and forefinger. It’s a stalling ploy; she can come out of it in resignation and surrender, or she can tighten the muscles of her stomach and steel herself. The split second in which she wavers is enough to add oxygen to the fire of Tanya’s vindictiveness.
“Funny, I might’ve thought my daughter would want me to be happy, but I suppose that’s too much to ask.” Delia bristles at the words coming out of her own mouth: pathetic, these words.
“Oh, give me a break, will you? You do whatever the hell you feel like doing, and I sit around here like an ass letting you do it. I do everything; do you realize that? Who do you think does the laundry and cooks and puts Evie to bed and gets her up and does the shopping and changes your nasty-ass sheets? If I thought you were happy, fine. I wouldn’t say one word. I really wouldn’t. But these guys are idiots. You must know that, right? Please don’t tell me you actually like these pricks. That would be the saddest part of all.”
Tanya stops, breathes. She readies herself to continue pressing in the face of resistance, a counterattack or at the very least a defense, but nothing comes.
Delia sticks her hand under her robe and rubs the area just above her left pelvic bone. She can feel the knot protruding, and she pictures the dark blue becoming a sickly yellow-green, as if she can see the progression in continuous motion, like watching a sunset. Leon hadn’t exactly hit her. It was muddled. And it had all wound up in ravenous sex, so there was some hope that today might be okay. She feels her daughters’ eyes on her, like they can bore through the threadbare terrycloth and her hand and the thin cotton nightgown to the mark underneath. A marked woman.
Her daughters are expectant, waiting to see what she has to say for herself. She’s never been good at confrontation; it’s a skill and disposition that Tanya has gotten from her father. I work my ass off for a contrary and incontinent old man so that you can be better than me. Sometimes life just isn’t fucking fair, and you better learn to buck up and deal with it, Princess, because that’s just the way it is. You think this is the life I want? You think I haven’t sacrificed anything? I’m fucking tired. These are things she thinks but things that would be too soul crushing to say. What can she do? She could ground Tanya, but she knows her daughter sneaks out of the house most nights anyway—Delia’s either not home or too exhausted to stop her—and sneaking out while grounded would only be more satisfying. And the truth is, Delia needs Tanya.
Evie slides off her chair and slinks to the kitchen. A riot of cupboard doors opening and shutting, foil packaging crinkled and torn: these are the sounds of Pop-Tarts, and Evie returns, hamster-cheeked and dribbling crumbs. Delia seizes on this opportunity to delay or even obviate a need for a response to Tanya’s jabs.
“Evie, honey,” Delia says, “you just ate toast. If you’re still hungry how about some yogurt?”
Evie takes big bites, barely chewing before biting again. She doesn’t hear what Delia has said. Her sensory perception turns inward to the machinations of her own body: the click of her teeth as they breach the hard white frosting, the gurgle of harshly sweet saliva that springs from the back of her throat and catches at her windpipe, nearly choking her, the hot doughy ball of pastry molded against her tongue. All else is white noise and blurry. She works the mush down and bites into the next Pop-Tart.
“Evie!” The force of Tanya’s exclamation breaks Evie’s reverie. “You eat way too much junk. Do you want to stay chubby forever?”
“Tannie, for God’s sake. She’s seven.” But Delia is partly relieved that Tanya has broached this, in no uncertain terms, after her own months of roundabout suggestions for healthy food choices, her canned promotion of old Jazzercise tapes dug out of the basement, brisk walks after dinner, some sort of fitness regime that might possibly uproot Evie from her self-designated position, flat on her stomach in front of the TV.
“Exactly,” says Tanya. “That’s way too young to be a fatty.”
Evie’s throat constricts with the onset of tears, and she struggles to swallow the mass of food. It tunnels through her insides; she thinks of the snake she got to hold at the zoo last summer, the way it swallowed a mouse whole, the way she could see the lump protrude from the snake’s body. So she flings what she can at Tanya, hoping her disgust in herself will shoot back up and out of her mouth in words: “I’d rather be a fatty than look like you and let boys do all kinds of stuff to me, and say, ‘Oooh, Leon, I love your big cock. I love when you cum all over my tits. Oooh, aaaaah, smooch smooch.’”
Her words lie in a puddle on the table, like spilled juice, and the three of them can only sit there, silent, watching it expand out in all directions. Evie has a giddy feeling which is something like a mix of the night before her birthday, jumping on the trampoline in Ashley Harper’s backyard, and hearing a noise on the stairs in the middle of the night. She wonders if maybe she should turn it into a joke, but when she raises her eyes to gauge receptivity, she is met with icicle-stab stares. And then her giddiness shifts to straight panic.
Delia puts her palms flat on the table and looks from Tanya to Evie with a calm that’s more unnerving than anger. In a barely audible voice she asks, “Evie, sweetheart, where did you hear that?”
Evie frantically attempts to discern the correct response. She looks to her sister for guidance, but Tannie’s head is hidden in the waffled top she has finally decided to put back on. Evie shrugs.
“Nope. That’s not an answer. Tell me, in words of the English language, where you heard that.” Delia’s squinting eyes engrave lines at her temples.
Evie pulls the bowl of oatmeal back toward her and spoons a bite into her mouth. It is cold and sticks to the roof of her mouth; she works it over with her tongue until it’s softer and warmer. The bland oatiness is a welcome contrast to the sickly-sweet memory of the Pop-Tarts.
“For the love of God, Evie.” Delia’s words are louder now and quick. She turns to Tanya, once again with a question and a dare. “How long?”
Can her mother believe it might be true?
“How long what?”
“Don’t you feign innocence with me, T. I’m not an idiot. And you’re not an actress.”
Still, Tanya doesn’t betray a thing. She merely raises her palms up to register her confusion.
“You’re going to make me say it?” She tilts her head toward Evie.
“Well, I don’t know what you’re trying to say so—yes, I guess I am.”
“Shit, Tannie!” Delia purses her lips and takes a deep breath through her nose. “How long have you been sleeping with Leon?”
“Are you serious?” To hear it out loud is a white-hot poker to the gut.
“Just tell me. Tell me how long you’ve been fucking my boyfriend.”
Tanya gets up from her chair, and Delia grabs her tight by the wrist. The movement surprises both of them. Tanya jerks her arm to try to loosen Delia’s grip, but she can’t. So instead, she stops fighting and relents to her mother’s pressure. “Fine. You really want to know?”
Delia looks up at Tanya. The slight quiver at the side of her mouth strikes Tanya as both heart-breakingly and infuriatingly sad.
“The whole god-damned time. We fucked in your bed the day after you brought him home and basically every day after that, in the shower, on the kitchen floor. The back stoop, with the stupid Marstons looking on. And you know what else? Every time he sleeps with you, he thinks of me, so I’m pretty much fucking him then, too. Fucking both of you.”
Evie is going to be sick. She’s pulled the top off of one of those trick canisters, and the snake has sprung out, and she can’t for the life of her stuff it back in and close the lid again. She has some sense of the magnitude of the snake, of the venomous bite it will take of each of them. But she can’t go back and not have opened it in the first place.
Delia’s legs have hollowed out, and she grips the table as if she could fall through the chair and the floor and the very earth itself if she were to let go. “How could you let this happen?” she says in a small voice.
Tanya speaks softly now, too. “How could I let this happen? Last I checked there were two adults in this house, and I’m not one of them.”
“Oh spare me, would you? You walk around here like a hotshot, with your tits out, like you own the damn place. Don’t try and turn this around so that you’re the innocent party here. You make me so sick; do you know that? What should I have expected though, right? You always were your father’s daughter.”
Tanya sinks back into the wall, crumpled on the floor, her long hair curtaining her face. And it is this, this image: Tanya is immediately Evie’s age, back in the old house, sucking on a ruffled cuff of her flannel Strawberry Shortcake nightgown, her head lowered. She’s trying to block out the noise: shouts, thrown things. Maybe she’s done something, like magic-markered the wall or hidden Delia’s car keys. Maybe no one’s done anything at all. It’s that moment when she lifts her head, her hair clammy and stuck to her face, no tears in her eyes but a wavery look, as if to ask, “Is this the time when it all goes to pieces?” that would always get Delia. Such an earnest question, every time.
Delia looks at Evie, who is ashen and holding her stomach, and then back at Tanya. She sees the wound she’s inflicted as if it’s physical, as if blood oozes and guts spill out of a tear she’s clawed in Tanya’s side. She had thought her daughter harder and meaner than she really was; she had not known her own capacity to cause pain. And so—after everything—this is the time it all goes to pieces.
Kara Moskowitz is a New York City-based lawyer and writer. She received her MFA in creative writing from The New School in 2015. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Post Road Magazine, and The Citron Review and was awarded third place in the 2015 Fish Publishing Short Story Prize competition.