It’s always the same; one parent starts to look a little tired, while the other appears normal. Fast forward a certain amount of time, and one of them looks like his or her best friend died, and the other looks like a beautifully well-trained circus seal: plump and sleek and shiny, all over.
Sometimes the seal is a woman and sometimes it’s a man. I haven’t seen any great differential gap between who does the hurting and who gets hurt – between the jellyfish and the seal.
“So you got another guinea pig?” I asked the children. They were eating applesauce and whispering amongst themselves. “You know what happened to the other guinea pig,” Lexie told me, eyes widening like we were sharing a secret. Yes, I knew. “Hopefully this guinea pig won’t leave,” Clary said, nodding for emphasis. “I love Red.”
“His name isn’t ‘Red’ Clary it’s Baxter!” hissed Lexie. “Don’t lie to Miss Lola!”
“I wasn’t lying! I changed my mind and now his name is Red.”
“He isn’t your guinea pig. You don’t get to name him. We had a, a . . . ”
“Vote?” I supplied. All such school decisions are settled by vote. She nodded. “A vote. His name is Baxter.”
I love my bed. It isn’t a big deal and can’t bear the weight of description but it is a bed and quite useful, chiefly for sleep but also for hiding. When I am in bed I inhabit a different state, like a principality inside a country – like the Vatican. My phone and laptop are turned off and there is quiet inside my own house even if the neighbors make an ungodly amount of noise.
But mostly it comes back to hiding, to the meaning of Easter break always including a parent who will show up at my doorstep with a frightened and confused child because the school, amazingly, was closed for the holidays that were announced a year in advance so obviously the next quite logical step was to hunt down any and all teachers at their private residences and assume one of them will care of a kid or two.
I can’t speak as to the exact circumstances of Havana’s youth, but she hides excellently. As if the entire species of cat were being hunted.
When I affirmed that you could crash on my couch for a night or two, it was implicitly understood on my part that you were not to turn it into a Jamaican dance hall. Also the game of what-is-in-this-cupboard? Amusing to none but yourself.
“So the guinea pig bit it?” I asked, looking at the empty cage. “Hmm?” asked the director, not really listening, looking over the month’s lesson plans. “Guinea pig,” I pointed to the cage. “The sad sot finally bit it, huh?” She gave me a look that implied I was heartless. “Oh come on,” I protested. “There aren’t any kids here right now and it’s like ‘guinea pig the 15th’ so one gets a little, you know, inured to small rodent death.” A new thought struck me. “Can you even remember its name?” She put the papers down. “Of course! It was . . . George?”
I shook my head. “No. Bonnie.”
“Oh yeah Bonnie of course I was thinking of the, um,”
“Hamster. George was the, well, hamsters.” I wonder if she noticed the plural. She didn’t seem to be in a very good mood.
“So what did you tell them happened to it?” I said, hoping I could steer the conversation away from the sudden chill. “Oh!” she smiled. “I told them he’d gone to see his grandma.”
“Grandma?! That’s novel.”
“Well you know how right now the parents are discussing whether it goes to Heaven or it just dies? I thought it would be best to just say something no one could argue over. So: grandma’s.”
“Did the kiddos buy it?” She brought the papers in front of her, stood them up and aligned the sides. “Not at first. They said they’d never heard of a guinea pig having a grandma. Then I told them ‘You know how all of you went on vacation for Christmas? So did the guinea pig. And you know how all of you came back to go to school? Well the guinea pig didn’t.”
It suddenly stuck me a little sad. “That guinea pig is a callous bastard, you know.”
“I covered that too,” she continued. “I said that ‘oh, the guinea pig doesn’t want you to be lonely, so he’s going to send his cousin,”
“Her cousin,” I corrected before I could stop myself. She glared at me momentarily. “The children corrected me as well. Anyway,” she sighed, “then they were all excited to meet the guinea pig’s cousin.”
“Great story,” I told her. “But where’s the guinea pig cousin?” She looked at me blankly, then quickly at her watch. “Shit! I have to buy a little furball don’t I?”
“Why would you do that Havana?” I asked, slumping beside the bathtub. She threw her long tail back and forth, made a noise like someone rolling her r’s. “Do you know how much mommy wanted to soak in Epsom salts tonight?” Her head cocked sideways. “Do you have any idea how tired I am?”
She actually looked kind of proud of the dried little turds she’d left in the tub. She continued to ‘rrr’ and flip her tail.
I looked down. Poor people don’t have the option to feel this queasy, I reminded myself. Nor do they – we, sorry – have the leeway necessary to declare ‘I shall never use this tub again, it has become soiled beyond comprehension.’
I saw his hand slide towards his seat belt buckle and I squeezed his arm, said goodbye and thanked him in quick succession. I’d opened the car door and gotten out and had my apartment door closed behind me before I’d exhaled fully. I looked down. “What the hell are you doing here, Molly?” I hissed at the dog. She wagged her stump and looked at me with significance. Maybe it wasn’t significance – maybe it was just the size of her eyes.
I’d had enough champagne to feel cheerful, sufficiently cheerful not to care that a French Bulldog had suddenly taken up residence in my house. I’d known there was a chance the director needed me to watch Molly but I’d assumed it meant I would stay in her house. How can I describe her house? Well-apportioned, I suppose.
“I couldn’t invite him in,” I told Molly as she whined and looked at the door. She loves John, she remembers when he used to bring his daughter to school. I slid down the door and sat on the ground while she sniffed my shoes. “Do you have any idea what people in this town say about me?” Her stump wagged. “Actually, is isn’t good at all. Stop wagging your stump. Ac-tually, it . . . ” I don’t know what he thought would come next, I thought. What if he thought – I mean – what if he just shrugged to himself and said ‘my turn’, you know? I hugged my knees. Molly snuffed at the hand that had touched his shoulder persistently, as if there were something still there.