The Children in the Floating House
By Kelly Piggott
My ex-husband is dead. I’ve been dead for twelve years.
Laurel’s birth was agony. She was an angry child from the moment she was born, even in the weeks before I went into labor. As soon as the thing inside of me started kicking, pushing on my bladder, my stomach, starving and hungry for the nutrients that were never enough no matter how much I ate, I knew that I wouldn’t like her. There was no glamor in it, being pregnant: it was not smooth as butter as the movies always showed, no cut to black midway through the groans and half-strangled shouts of pain. I felt every roll of my muscles, the squeezing, tightening and tear of my lower body as the mass of cells forced her way out. My ex-husband was to hold on to my hand and kiss my sweaty forehead as I tried to roll through the contractions. I forgot all about him as the pain settled in my skull. I grabbed his hand so tight that had I been any stronger, I could’ve broken his fingers. Labor with Laurel lasted nearly 48 hours and I didn’t hold her for nearly five while she was cleaned. My mind shut down as soon as I heard her scream for the first time, sinking into the numb tearing of my body. Her father was the first to hold her. He asked if he could name her Laurel and I mumbled a sure. I slept for those five hours and when I woke up, she was there next to me on the bassinet, sleeping, face wrinkled but free of the blood, mucus and sewage that spilled out of my body. Her hair was dark brown, a wisp along her much too large forehead, barely the length of the end of a paintbrush.
I wanted to push her to the floor.
I’m split in three, one fragment for each of my children. I’ve been with them since the moment I died, spread thin across the country. I only come close to feeling full when all three are together: it is a rare instance. They are rarely happy occasions. The birth of my grandson, Lucas, was the closest to togetherness amongst my children. They’ve been divided since the moment they were born. Their mother was a stranger to them in life: an alien in death. Death reaffirms again and again that I didn’t know my children at all. My children are pieces of a stained glass window that I’m scrambling to put together and paint. Now, I’m starved to know my children, who they were outside of me, how I saw them as strange little creatures who lived in my house, and how they prosper after I let them down in the worst way possible.
I think I disappointed Gabriel most of all. Valerie was the most heartbroken. Laurel already knew her place in the roster and was not surprised; but she was the angriest.
I don’t haunt my ex-husband.
My son, Gabriel, has taken up vaping. My youngest, Valerie, hates it.
Valerie wrinkles her nose at the smell of the vapor, a sticky watermelon flavor I imagine—Gabriel’s shirts were absolute hell to clean during the summertime, when the watermelon was at its sweetest, stained pink on white—she stares at the pen stuck between Gabe’s fingers and scowls. She moves her glass of wine out of the vicinity of the smoke.
“Can’t you do this outside?”
“Narc,” says Gabriel, blowing smoke out from between his lips. Athletic tape is wrapped around his fingers. So many of his sprained bones have I put back together. “What’re you gonna do? Whine to Daddy? He doesn’t care. I’ll just open a window before I leave, it’ll be gone in an hour.”
Valerie purses her lips, fingers tightening around the stem of her glass.
“Don’t be such a buzzkill, Val.” Gabriel sighs, lowering the pen. His tone is significantly softer, I notice: his Big Brother Voice he always put on whenever he realizes he’s upset Valerie. He’s had this voice since Valerie was born, the neediest of my three: her wails were agonized, painful, and Gabriel was the first to reach for her before even I could.
The wonder in his face as he held such a tiny hand in his own small fingers when he met her in the hospital.
The years between them are not such a wide gap and when his little sister was in pain, even if she didn’t know what that pain was, I could trust my little boy to take care of his sister. When Valerie couldn’t reach for me, she always reached for Gabriel.
“Lucas liked it, didn’t he? It’s perfectly safe, his feet are gonna be rooted to the board. Just take him out on the little hills and slopes first.”
“He’s going to try snowboarding down the stairs and he’ll break his arm, one of my vases, or something else. Because his uncle told him it would be fun. Because Uncle Gabe decided that making a slope out of our own staircase when we were eight was a good idea and that, no Val, we totally won’t get caught, Dad will never know, it’ll be great, Val!”
Gabe snorts, grin wry.
“Well, it was.”
“You broke one of the bannisters. Two of them. Dad was pissed.”
“Yeah, he was,” chirps Gabe.
He grins like a high school boy who smuggled his skateboard into school, to the anger of his teachers; not the thirty-six-year-old man he is. When I look at my son, I see a six-year-old whose hands were always sticky—paint, glue, tape to hang up all of his glow in the dark stars, my make-up he saw as more tools to draw with, streaks of lipstick on paper and the walls, on Laurel’s face—before I am uprooted to a present I can’t touch.
“The look on his face was hilarious.”
Gabriel smuggled his skateboard into school and, with the help of his friends, rode down the three-storey staircase of the old wing as part of his senior prank, one week before he graduated. I didn’t have the heart to scold him too much for it. There wasn’t much the school could do to him by that point: his grades were perfect, he was the captain of the hockey team, and well on his way to Boulder. His friends took pictures. Valerie was mortified and didn’t talk to Gabriel for a week. As the youngest, those same teachers Gabriel had would know her by her surname and remember the menace that slid down three flights of stairs on his last day of school. She forgave him after he bought her a pair of boots she’d wanted for months.
I asked for the pictures from Gabriel’s friends and sent them to Laurel over email.
When she finally started talking to me again, she told me, “He sent them to me after he did it. That idiot.”
“What’s your problem? You’ve been making snippy comments at Dad all night. You’re like this every time we come home. Why do you even bother coming at all if you hate it so much?”
Gabriel clicks his tongue. “I’m here because you, Nate and Lucas are. For some reason, you always insist on seeing Dad every Christmas. I’m not here for him.”
How I wish they wouldn’t fight. They never fought as fiercely and brutally as they do now. I can’t call on Laurel to break them up from their wrestling anymore. Their play fighting was always a tussle of love when they were children, before the divorce, before Laurel left. Now they want to hurt each other.
They are copying how their parents treated their eldest.
Valerie frowns. “He’s lonely. You should be here for him. He wants to see you.”
Gabe’s scoff was harsh. “Sure he fucking does. As far as he’s concerned, I’m the oldest, his little star, the second favorite—not as much as you, obviously. You get baby of the family privileges”
Oh, sweetheart. I was scared of you almost as much as I was scared of Laurel. I’m sorry. You weren’t as painful as Laurel, but you were a boy and your father loved you so much. I didn’t know how to talk to you until after Valerie was born and you could help take care of her.
Valerie’s face darkens.
“You sound like Laurel.”
The sun room grows quiet. The crackle of the fireplace and a Rankin and Bass Christmas special played over the speakers in the living room down the hall. Gabriel glances at his younger sister and raises the pen to his lips. He inhales, exhales, and swallows, leaning his head back.
“She wouldn’t come.”
“She never does.”
“I couldn’t make her come, anyway.”
Valerie laughs. “She hates us that much, huh?”
No, baby. It’s not you that she hated. The only one she could hate more than me is your father.
“How many kids do you want?”
I’d looked at my husband, hips and thighs thrumming with postcoital exhaustion. I squirmed when his fingers, coated by a towel, brushed the sides of my cunt to wipe the semen off of my inner thighs so the cum didn’t crust the hair. We’d been married for a month and I hadn’t even thought of children. I’d only just started getting used to not having my twin brother on the other side of the wall. We were miles away. I was basking in that freedom, of having it all be mine mine mine. I wasn’t ready to share, yet.
But my husband stared at me, olive eyes wide with hope, wiping me down so clean and so gently.
“As many as you want.”
He smiled, wiped back my sweaty hair, and kissed me hard.
When I was eighteen, I became a wife.
My ex-husband loved Laurel. She has the same dark hair as him, the same olive eyes, and his strong chin. He took time off work to spend as much time with her as he could, as I was horribly sick in the months after she was born. He bought her formula, made sure it was the right temperature, rubbed my ankles, brought me food and tea in bed, and brought her a bucket of toy animals to toss around the living room. I couldn’t breastfeed her. My nipples hardened as soon as she crawled towards me, mouth pink, open and eager as she giggled. Every time I looked at her, I thought of how much she hurt and it made me want to throw up. My husband divided his time giving me affection and Laurel his attention, but I wanted it more.
That first year was a fog. I was less alive than I am now. I couldn’t see anyone but myself and what I needed.
When she was eight months old, she stopped trying to come to me. I found it to be a relief. When she was put into daycare as soon as she could walk, I felt like myself again. I rarely held her and felt even less inclined to as she learned how to talk, to read, to use her own spoon and fork without help.
When Laurel was born, I was nineteen years old.
My husband knew our daughter was a lesbian by the time she was twelve. I don’t know what he saw, but there was something in her that made him suspicious. In her music? Her way of dressing herself? The girls she hung out with? I never saw any of it, I was so preoccupied with taking care of Gabriel and Valerie. He knew but she didn’t show it openly in front of us or anyone, and so she was allowed to stay. He watched her carefully, the way she interacted with other girls and boys. Who her friends were. Hoping it would pass. I didn’t know until my husband announced to the two children who were left that no dyke would be living under his roof.
My ex-husband disowned our daughter and he knew her more than I did.
Laurel was seventeen, and all trace of her was gone except for the leather jacket she’d given to Gabriel before my ex-husband kicked her out of the house. If she wouldn’t go to a therapist of his choice, she was no longer his daughter. I did nothing.
Gabriel never wears the jacket, but it hangs up on his wall in the apartment he shares with his boyfriend of five years along with his medals, diplomas, and all of the other items he considers to be prizes of accomplishment as well as sentiment.
My son never came out to me when I was alive.
Even in the stasis of death, regret spooled into me when I realized. The greatest sting was that I understood why.
When I am not with my daughters and son, I drift. Time and memory do not move in a linear trajectory and they bleed into each other as stains do on white fabric. The more I drift, the more my bitterness ferments. Sometimes, I wish I could haunt my ex-husband just so I could hurt him.
“Do you hate me? For not telling Dad?”
“I did, for a while.”
I am partially whole—two-thirds—and Laurel and Gabriel are celebrating the latter’s 30th birthday. Laurel’s wife and Gabriel’s boyfriend are the hosts of the party and managing the crowd to give the siblings space. My boy was born just before spring, when the winter still holds reign on the glass windows, and the party is warm as an orange fireplace. It’s cold, but my children still clanked cold bottles of beer together as cheers and drank on the balcony. They call each other almost every other day. When Gabriel left for college, he called me once a week.
In Apartment Three, I learned that they had been talking every day since my ex-husband threw out our eldest. It was only through Gabriel that my daughters managed to be in the same room as each other at all. Valerie had called him a traitor when she found out. In the one instance of Gabriel losing his temper at Valerie he’d screamed, she’s my sister, too.
“Do you still?”
Laurel taps the butt of her bottle against his shoulder. “No. You’re not obligated to tell him anything.”
He smiles, a weak little thing, and takes a drink. The party behind them continues on, deep guitar and drums vibrating through the walls.
“Actually,” said Laurel. “I’m glad you didn’t say anything. If what he did to me is anything— ”
She doesn’t finish. She smothers it with a drink. Gabriel’s smile is grim.
“Yeah. It’d have been worse.”
My ex-husband had expectations for our son and our eldest had already failed to meet the steps expected of her. He no longer attended church regularly, but it didn’t erase what he saw as truth. If my ex-husband knew our son was gay, I wonder if he would’ve killed him.
I don’t want to think about the answer.
Lucas, my grandson, doesn’t cry when my son-in-law hoists him in his arms to look at the comatose old man in the hospital cot. He’s only four and barely knows this man who comes to visit every holiday, each birthday, even as Valerie holds my ex-husband’s hand and mutters under her breath about having to possibly prepare for the funeral. My ex-husband is seventy and has been unconscious for three days from a heart attack. It’s only because of my attachment to Valerie that I ever see him. It’s Easter weekend, now, and the last time I saw that man, it was Christmas.
I cock my head at the wrinkles that sag into his face. “You’re so old, now.”
My ex-husband doesn’t reply. The heart monitor beeps softly next to him.
“Laurel is aging much better than you ever did.”
How stupid of a sixteen-year-old girl to ever think that this molting husk of flesh could’ve ever been attractive.
Lucas doesn’t understand that the body in front of him is dying and Nate, my son-in-law, is trying to explain to the four-year-old about the natural phenomenon of death. Valerie doesn’t contribute. The most perfectionist of my three children, I know she’s compartmentalizing between the logistics of having to cremate her father and her discomfort at being in a hospital again. She hates hospitals. The last time she’s been in a hospital was to give birth to Lucas.
The time before that.
Her husband Nate is careful not to talk about it. About the hospital in Grinnell. She’s only here for her father.
“Just leave him, Val,” I tell her. She doesn’t reply.
I met him when I was sixteen. He was twenty-five. He made me feel so grown up.
My eldest’s voice is split in two: a tinny imitation through Gabe’s cell phone and next to me, fluid and organic—more weathered now that she’s forty-two, but just as full and rich—as I am stretched between my two eldest children. I watch Laurel’s face as it changes from mirthful to slack, expressionless, and then the clench of her jaw.
“Heart attack,” says Gabriel. He tucks his hands underneath his armpits while he sits on his apartment balcony. I wish I could reach for his mittens, the ones he wore until his hands were too big to fit them, and put them on for him, as if he were my little boy again. He was easier to love once he could walk and talk, when I wasn’t so scared of the prospect of a baby boy after he was born. If I couldn’t feel that innate motherliness for Laurel, a baby girl, how could I feel it for a boy? I hadn’t been around young boys—boys my own age—since I met my ex-husband. I barely knew any men outside of my husband’s circle of colleagues. I knew their wives even less. My husband had been elated: a little boy he could talk to and speak in a language I could never understand. A little boy who could pass on the family name, introduce to all of the writers that laid the foundation for my husband, artists whom he considered geniuses: a child he could mold into a man of his own fashion who would grow up to be a genius and marry a beautiful girl-child. Gabriel had us both fooled on that front. When my breasts grew heavy with milk, I didn’t feel love, but relief. The affection came later. He was easier to love when his birth wasn’t as fraught on my body, when he started to talk and proved to be the chattiest little ferret of a child.
He was a child and I’d finally felt like a proper grown-up by the time he could talk.
Laurel grabs a bottle of dark gold whiskey from the top of her fridge and drinks straight from the bottle on her kitchen table. Her wife is asleep upstairs.
They have no children, but many nephews and nieces on her wife’s side. No children was the rule she made when it came to seriously dating in the long-term and held to it when she met her wife. I’ve heard my daughter whisper, “I don’t know how to be a mom. I can barely take care of myself, I’m scared of what I’d do to a kid. I don’t want it to be as fucked up in the head as me.”
While a third of me sits with Valerie in front of the hospital bed, the other two watch my son and my eldest daughter sit in silence, split over hundreds of miles across the country. My son in Denver, my eldest in St. Louis.
“Am I a bad person for not feeling sad? That I don’t care?”
She laughs. It’s brittle and my guilt tethers me to the earthly plane ever deeper.
“If you’re a bad person, then I must be psychopathic—I want it to hurt him more.”
My ex-husband does not die. He makes a full recovery and is let out of the hospital after two weeks. Valerie is ecstatic and Gabriel is terse. Over the phone, Valerie tells Gabriel of how they’re going to be visiting their father every Sunday for dinner so that she can keep a closer eye on his condition as he gets older. She has never left St. Paul. I know she resented me for leaving as soon as she was of college age and weeks from moving into her dorm, that she didn’t understand why I divorced her father so quietly and never showed the signs for her to see. She was the most attached to me and her father, trailing behind me like a duckling does its broad-winged mother.
“He misses you,” she would tell me.
“I know,” I’d say, brushing her hair back.
There was a plea in her voice. Hope. Childish and cloying for a lost dream in rose-tinted glass. She adores her father, his steady hands and how he would hoist her onto his shoulders to better see the fireworks in the summer. How he cried during her high school graduation, where she achieved the highest of honors, kissing her face and still called her his baby when she was fully grown. I think she liked it best when it was just her, her father, and myself. She calls him every day even though they’re only hours separated. She visited him every weekend. She could only manage to see me once a month.
I was still struggling to connect a man who both loved his youngest daughter and hated the elder with the man who promised to always be there for me, to protect me from any who would hurt me, who told me I was special, more special than any girl or woman he’d ever met, behind the locked door of a history classroom of a high school.
I still struggle to reconcile it.
I was living in Apartment Three in Grinnell. I grew herbs in my kitchen window and watched undergraduate students mill about the quiet college town. Valerie didn’t understand.
“Don’t you miss him, Mom?” she repeated, more desperate.
It was a struggle to come up with an answer.
She would not have understood. She still didn’t. She can’t see it plainly.
“Sometimes.” It wasn’t a complete lie. “But I’m not going back anytime soon.”
“It was a long time coming, Valerie. It’s better this way.”
Her look was skeptical, an elegant arch of her eyebrow. She reminded me painfully of my twin brother, Dean, who I had not seen since the day I left home to marry my husband. I’d lost all contact with him. I no longer had his number and had no means of finding him again, even if I could get past the shame. He’d make the exact same expressions.
My ex-husband said that he wouldn’t have understood. None of my family would’ve. I’d believed him. He made it feel so easy.
“Why here? In some college town? Is there even anything to do here?”
I nudged her ankle with my foot and she rolled her eyes like a teenager. “It’s because it’s quiet that I chose here.”
“It’s so far away, though.”
Valerie was the most like me and as a result, as all failed parents do, I lavished her with my attention and time, because her siblings were older, more independent—I thought at the time that they didn’t need me anymore. Valerie did.
She was the first child I’d wanted. That I was ready for. It wasn’t hard to love her, the wisp of blonde hair and gray eyes that collided into soft brown.
Of course she didn’t understand why I’d move so far away from her.
“Laurel lives in Des Moines,” I’d said. “Just an hour from here. I moved to be closer to her.”
I think she resents me the most.
Laurel didn’t come to my funeral after I killed myself in Apartment Three. I was buried in St. Paul, in my husband’s family lot, which I did not want, but I hadn’t thought to change my paperwork before killing myself. Valerie didn’t let Laurel come.
“Don’t bother. I’m not letting you come here just so you can start a scene again and make it all about yourself when it’s about Mom. You’re not fucking wanted. Fuck off.”
If Valerie had any less self-control, I’m sure she would’ve thrown the phone at the wall with the same ferocity that she did her door when she and Laurel got into fights. Split between St. Paul and Des Moines, I watched my daughters scream.
Valerie never had to fight for my love. Gabriel no longer trusted me enough to seek it out after Laurel had to leave. Laurel had always been hungry for it.
I knew about the other girls, distantly. He liked a certain kind of girl—light brown almost blonde hair, pale skin, young, lacking in the crow’s feet that adorned my face when I died. He was a history teacher, well-respected and liked by his peers, by his students. He managed to make the driest of textbooks about the Gilded Age enjoyable with wry humor and jokes that bordered on crass, but not crude enough to alarm. It’d been my favorite class and I sought his attention, raising my hand at any chance I could, interrupting other girls who weren’t as special as me, who didn’t get personalized notes on essays and exams. I was more mature than them, more wild and grown. I wasn’t a girl to him: I was a woman. In every class, there is a girl who’s more than a girl, he tells them just as he told me. He saw their potential, knew what they were capable of: made them feel as smart as they were, smarter.
He showed them just how grown up they were.
I didn’t even consider any other options. I’d felt trapped by my children into that marriage, even when I noticed he spent longer hours at his school sporadically over the years. I was the one he’d married. If I were younger, I’d have been resentful but triumphant that I was the one who won. On the few occasions I went to his school as a volunteer for functions while we were still married and our children were young, I looked at their faces and saw my daughters reflected on their skin.
I nearly threw up in the punch bowl. I felt my insides rot and mold over.
It was too late. I had to pretend not to see. Who was I without him?
I see all of my mistakes borne on the skin of my children who cannot be in the same room together without trying to hurt each other. I can’t think about the other girls.
Laurel doesn’t have children, but she adores her nephew, Lucas, who adores her back and always asks if his Auntie Laurie—Larry, when he was only just starting to talk—is coming for the holidays. He is the olive branch between Valerie and Laurel. Gabriel has given up on trying to be their mediator and fosters his relationship of mutual care, experience and understanding with Laurel, something that Valerie could never understand even if she tried. It was one of the few times all three of my children were in the same room together and I was not split three ways.
“Be gentle with him,” Valerie had said, more bite in her tone than necessary. I frowned at her. “He’s delicate. Soft bones, and all.”
“Val,” I murmured.
Laurel looked up from the crib, olive eyes just underneath the wisp of hair, then back at Lucas, who held her finger in a firm grip. “I know.”
“It’s been over twenty years,” I said. “It was an accident. She didn’t mean it, Val.”
Gabriel only sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He’d been keeping the peace for hours, as he’d done for years, and he was tired.
None of them could hear me.
There’s guilt in the gentle motions of Laurel’s fingers and fermented anger in the hard grip Valerie had on the rails of Lucas’ crib.
Laurel held Lucas’s head against her palm with the same hands that had dislocated Valerie’s right arm when Valerie was eight and Laurel was fourteen. I will never know why or how it happened. I only remember Valerie’s scream, her crying, my putting her arm back into its socket, and Laurel’s pale face. If Laurel had cried, had tried to apologize, I never heard it.
All of my attention had been on Valerie. I held her face and kissed her cheeks and my eldest daughter faded behind her door.
My eldest tried to move forward to help reset her sister’s arm and I shoved her back. She hit the floor.
I can no longer see my own body: there is no translucence, I do not appear in an imitation of flesh. I float, invisible to myself as I am to my own children. I am a part of the ether. I’m grateful for this, so I didn’t have to see what I did to my own body in that bathroom. When my children visit my grave, all I have to see is the headstone that was built for me, the name and dates etched into the stone. There is no body for me to look at.
Laurel comes to my grave in St. Paul only for me. Since she was barred from the funeral, despite Gabriel’s best efforts in trying to convince Valerie to allow their sister to come, she comes alone to lay down rosemary and lavender flowers.
“Hey, Mom,” Laurel murmurs.
It is late January. The cold of it was unforgiving, I remember.
Laurel smiles. I pretend that it’s because she can hear me.
“I finally got tenure.”
“I knew you would. You’re the only reason that the sociology department hasn’t fallen apart.”
How close we had been in our interests and focuses, and I hadn’t realized until after I’d died. I’d known, distantly, that my eldest had majored in psychology. I hadn’t known her focus: child development and social work.
I’d wanted to dig up bones and wonder, imagine, about their lives when they had flesh.
“And Gabe’s finally getting his shit together and is gonna propose to Joel, I think.”
I smile. I have no muscles anymore, nor a body, but I remember the echoes of what it was like to smile. It’s easier now.
“He’s got nothing to worry about. Joel looks at him like he hung up the sky.”
“It’d be nice to be invited to a wedding for a change.”
“Of course he’ll invite you.”
Laurel bites her lip, a clench of her jaw, and I see the flash of a surly teenage girl who would throw fine china at the wall when we would fight and smoke cigarettes on the roof before sneaking out with a girlfriend I never knew about. Exhaling, Laurel lowers her head, hair falling against the hands that hold onto her knees.
I sigh. “Give her time, Laurel.”
“I hate him,” she whispers. “I hate him so fucking much. He should be here. He should be the one in the fucking ground. Not you.”
Even if I could talk to her, there’s nothing I could say to her.
“I wish you had called me, Ma. I was right there.”
Just one of my many mistakes. I was so tired, baby. How can I explain just how tired of it all I was? How methodic and easy it’d felt? How easy it was to fall into that dark, and how easy it was to let my mistakes, regrets and resentments eat me to the bone until there was only marrow left?
To look in the face of how much time I had wasted, how much had been stolen from me, all of myself that I could’ve been if I hadn’t been so gullible, stupid and desperate to be loved?
It was only in those last moments that I remembered my children.
It felt like there hadn’t been any other option.
“I was right there, Ma, you could’ve just called me and I would’ve come.”
For twelve years, this has been my greatest regret. I float around my grave and watch as my daughter turns red from crying and the sharp cold, cries like a child and not the grown woman with a full life that she is, and just as I did when I was alive—I do nothing.
I realized I truly loved my son when I saw him fall off his bike with training wheels and he got up, laughing despite the split skin on his knees. He was four. I knew I loved Valerie when she raised her hands to my chin, just days born, and tapped me with a gurgle.
So many times have I seen my children cry. So many times have I done nothing.
My ex-husband lives. He cried over my grave, called me his greatest love at my wake and funeral. He has watched his grandson grow and his two youngest children grow into the brilliant young people they are today. He has a photo album of myself and him when we first got married, one I once thought was sweet, romantic—a memento of our love before Laurel was born.
He’d begged me not to leave him the moment Valerie left for college, but there were no children to keep me rooted in that house anymore. I hadn’t made friends in the neighborhood we raised our children in. I went to school functions and parties, sometimes, but he’d kept his hand on my waist and did most of the talking while I drank cheap wine. The women were so much older than me and I didn’t know how to talk to them. They didn’t know how to talk to me. He would encourage me to try, but when we were home, he would sigh about how annoying his co-workers were, how rude and elitist our neighbors were, and dealt with the neighborhood association on his own. I barely knew the parents of my children’s friends. It was when my two eldest were gone that I realized how alone I was in a town I’d lived in for over twenty years. It was when Valerie turned sixteen and went to prom with her first boyfriend, the same age I was when I went into her father’s office the first time and spent two hours inside it, that I fully understood what my ex-husband was.
He continued to live in the house where he kept four children.
One child, he tethers to that house. One child, he only knows the superficial face of. One child, he threw away. One child, he married.
When she sleeps in her hotel room, I press my invisible hands to her face and my forehead against her own.
Darling, let me tell you everything.
I hadn’t seen a baby that was mine. I hadn’t seen myself as a mother. I was a child in a grown-up’s suit staring at the mass of flesh that had come out of me before I was ready, before I even knew if I wanted to be a mother.
Gabriel and Valerie sleep. I am almost whole.
“Under the pot,” I say, guiding my daughter’s arms.
Laurel lifts the white potted plant for the decorative flowers, and a silver house key sits, an outline of dust surrounding its edges. She takes it and lets herself in. She pauses at the click of the undone lock and presses her fingertips to the doorframe. The hinges don’t creak as she pushes it forward. The noise she makes is primal, her joints twitching, and she nearly staggers back.
“Easy, easy. You know your way.”
Into the dark of the threshold, Laurel takes off her boots and places them on the doormat. She flexes her gloved fingers and carefully goes up the stairs. I follow her as she makes each careful step, with the front heel of her feet she puts all of her weight on—practiced. She has done this before, I now realize, with the girls she tried to hide from her father’s view. I only smelled the cigarettes and pot that were left behind, lingering in the carpet fibers.
The master bedroom is the furthest down the hall. The first bedroom that the staircase leads to is Valerie’s. Gabriel’s is to the right. In the room that overlooks the front yard through twin windows shaped like half-moons, is where Laurel’s childhood things remain. Untouched for twenty-five years.
He wanted to throw everything away. I told him no.
For years, I’d stood in that room and sat on that carpet, trying to put together the pieces of the daughter I hadn’t wanted nor truly known to come up with the shape of her, who she was.
How jealous I’d been of her, to be so loved by my ex-husband. How much she had hurt me, splitting me open and tearing me at the core. How I could not forget how painful it’d been to carry her for nine months, the forty-eight hours of labor, and the haze that’d lasted a year after she was born.
How young I was.
“Did you know?”
She’d grown so much taller than me in the years I hadn’t heard from her, but she curled inward, like a child being swaddled. She’d cupped her coffee mug so hard I thought it might shatter in her hands.
I was living in Apartment Three. Laurel was twenty-five.
“You know,” she said. “That I was gay.”
The coffee was cold.
“No,” I’d said. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
Laurel scoffed. “Checks out. You never did.”
I couldn’t reply.
There was a pause as cars drove below Apartment Three.
Her voice was brittle.
“Did you ever like me?”
I look at my ex-husband’s sleeping face through my eldest. His face is slack, relaxed. Despite the heart attack, his sleep is peaceful and languid. He still has the same sheets and bedding from when we were married. My pictures still stand on his nightstand. Pictures and portraits of Gabriel and Valerie are scattered throughout the room. Whatever pictures of Laurel I managed to save have been given to Gabriel before he could burn them.
As I look around the room through my daughter’s eyes, I see myself reflected through gloss and snapshot. There is only one picture of me over the age of thirty-five. My ex-husband sleeps. He still sleeps on his usual side of the bed: on the right, where the mattress dips just enough to fold into the concave of his back, resting his older bones. My pillows are still there.
Together, my daughter and I take one of my pillows and press it against his face.
The last day Laurel stood in the doorway of our home, she was seventeen, and her nose was broken from how hard her father had slapped her. Her face was red, mouth coated with the smear of blood, and she held a duffle bag in one hand.
Her arms weren't outstretched, but she reached for me. I could hear Gabriel and Valerie shuffling around upstairs, then the creak of the staircase as Valerie peered through the bannisters on the second floor and Gabriel tried to reason with my ex-husband. Their voices rose. I kept my eyes low.
I rummaged through my purse and gave her a hundred and fifty dollars in cash. She held it between her blood-smudged fingers. Her jaw straightened.
When I said nothing, I watched my daughter’s face shift between disbelief, hurt, resignation, and then anger. It was the most I had looked at her in the days since Sister Lucille caught her and another girl kissing under the bleachers.
She spat a puddle of blood at my feet. It hit my ankles. She took the money and I didn’t see her for seven years.
When he begins to struggle, Laurel and I press down harder until the edges of the pillow touch the comforter.
“I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know how to like someone I barely knew. And I didn’t try to.”
“What about now?”
If it could give me back my youth, if it could wake up the sixteen-year-old girl who thought she was so grown up and that her History teacher understood her far better than her own family, her friends, and herself, that she was in love with him and thought herself so mature, I would wrap my hands around his neck. I would claw him open. If it could give my children a mother who could’ve properly loved them, I would’ve never married this man. I would have split him in half at the spine.
But I listen to his dying breaths, feel his struggling body beneath our grip. I listen to this old man die in his sleep and free my daughter and I both.
“I like the person I see in front of me quite a lot. I would like to get to know her more.”
Kelly Piggott (she/her) is a lesbian writer and professor based in Atlanta, and holds an MFA in Fiction from Georgia College and State University. Her writing has been published with If There’s Anyone Left, Defunct, Eclectica Magazine, Exist Otherwise, and elsewhere. She can be found on twitter @kellbellhells and Instagram @kellbellhells.