She wondered what she could do, to make it stop. She couldn’t seem to think or feel her way out of it. So she bought a bunch of canned food and perfectly arranged it in her cupboards by shape, color, and size, because she’d heard that’s what Brooke Shields had done when she was stricken with post-partum depression. But Susan did not have post-partum depression, or a nice eight-foot tall pantry like Brook Shields had shown to Oprah, or a need for so much canned food, or even a kid.
Well. She had access to a kid. She had to take care of a kid, sometimes. That was a few small letters away from having one, but it seemed a crucial distinction that robbed her of the right to have post-partum. But all of that was plenty depressing on its own.
The kid was from an Eastern European foster home, or maybe they still called it an orphanage over there, Susan wasn’t sure. She had seen the pictures of yellowed crack tile and backcountry, snowy woods, and she knew the hot water was spotty and there hadn’t been any internet, except in the head nurse’s office in a shed out back. The kid’s background and history and look was basically Eastern European too, but her name wasn’t: it was Maisey.
The kid’s birth name had been Katharina, with a last name Susan and her sister could only barely gargle from their mouths, which helped them to forget what it was. If she recollected right, Susan was pretty sure it had been pretty. Susan’s sister Isadore said it was far prettier on the native tongue.
But apparently, it was de rigeur for adoptive parents to strip their new daughters and sons of their old names while simultaneously peeling off the sticky, thin layers of language, comfort, familiarity, identity, family history, and everything else, all at once like an old bandage. What this left behind was something raw, unblemished, and white-pink, like a scar, like a baby. Or some kinds of scars and babies at least. Eastern European ones.
The whole process struck Susan as being like adopting a rare, illegal, smuggled pet. Lots of money changed hands, there was no guarantee of a swift delivery, or of any delivery at all; you got odd phone calls from overseas at odd hours; all at once and without notice you were summoned to report at some checkpoint or airport, bags packed, passport in hand, not at all certain of the status of your cargo, and with nothing to go on but a grainy cellphone photo taken in dim light.
And then one early morning in a strange place, the real call came, and you pulled on your sweatpants and parka, fell into the car, and ended up at some unfamiliar building with the smell of cleaning products you couldn’t purchase back home. There you received your little bundle in a terse but emotional hand-off. And then, then, you ignored the poor bundle’s country and climate of origin, dressed her up in little jean overalls with elastic ankles, shoved her in a car seat beside you, and forced past her lips a new name. And then some time later your own withered and entirely non-maternal sister was holding this baby, this baby that was “yours”, and cooing at her while feeling nothing at all, except maybe guilt, but that was because of the nothingness.
— — –
Susan’s sister Isadore hadn’t always been the baby type. As kids, both girls had favored animals, especially the ones that could be found in the swampy back yard of their uncle’s house. Susan was partial to the hard-backed creatures — tortoises and turtles, baby alligators and cockroaches. Isadore’s love ran a bit more hot-blooded. She would steal the rats away before they could be fed to their older cousin’s pet snake. She drew rabbits in notebooks with long, velvety ears colored mauve or pastel pink. The colors of softness, she said, whispering over the page as she laid on her belly and sketched.
It wasn’t until she was 19 and had a miscarriage that Isadore realized that babies, too, were soft, and sometimes pink and always very much in need of rescuing.
But theirs was not a fecund family. Their uncle was forty-two before their first cousin was born. Their own mother had delivered five or six not-quite babies after Susan, before Isadore had finally joined the party. Their whole childhood felt like a white-knuckled, wide-eyed held breath, then a gasp of surprise in adolescence at the shock that they had made it. They were all waiting for someone to be ended. Susan had picked up on it before she was even a toddler. And even as they grew, it seemed like sudden infant death could change its mind, reverse course, and come back to claim them.
It never did. Instead it lingered in their bellies and took away their own kids.
Susan didn’t much care that she couldn’t have children. She was intersex, and had known from early on that there was no possibility of her ever birthing a child. Her mother had mentioned this after the second or third of her miscarriages, when she was still emotionally recovering. They’d shared a long talk about the mechanics of it all, and five-year-old Susan had walked away almost comfortable with the closed-off possibility. She threw a baby doll out the window and looked intently at the non-privates of her Barbies.
So for Susan, the baby issue was a closed book. But after her own miscarriage, Isadore was incensed. She wanted revenge on her family’s genetics. She hadn’t even planned for or necessarily wanted the baby that she’d lost, but now that nature had challenged her, she wanted to be built to last.
— — –
Isadore was taking classes part-time at Florida State and temping in an office when it happened. She decided soon after that she wanted to be married. The family legend was that she’d been in the middle of filling out a reimbursement request form when a glazed expression took her over and pinned her in place. It might have been a minute seizure, the kind that doesn’t do too much damage.
For few seconds Isadore did nothing and thought nothing, but then she blinked to life, reached immediately for her filthy desktop phone, and dialed her quasi-boyfriend Alexei’s number from memory. He was at a construction job.
“Alexei,” Isadore yelled over the clatter of machines and breaking concrete.
He was silent for a moment. “…Yeah?”
“Will you marry me?”
The same length of pause ensued. “…Yeah?”
At least, that was how Susan had come to picture it. She wasn’t sure anymore which details were from Isadore’s original tale, and which were additions from the years of self-telling.
Susan was the maid of honor. She wore a dark blue dress with an orange Swatch. Florida State colors. At the small, undeniably low-rent reception, Isadore pulled her in close, kissed her in the flat space where cheek met ear, and said, “The curse has been lifted,” in a quavering, faux-mystical voice, like she was speaking in italics.
“What?” Susan pulled away.
Her sister beamed until her lipstick cracked. “I’m pregnant again.”
Later, Isadore would blame herself for using that last word — again — for it brought with it the same bad luck as before. Three more times in the ensuing years she sat on public toilets crying into her cell phone, begging Susan for magic words that would make it all better.
“I’m sorry?” Susan guessed. Those were not the magic words.
“How can you do it?” Isadore sighed, tissues in her hands and pressed to her face. Someone in the Target bathroom flushed. “How can you just know it’s never gonna happen?”
“Oh,” Susan said. “We’re talking about me now.”
“Yes!” Isadore sobbed. “It’s like, it’s all the same! I’m just as bad as you — “
Susan could hear her sister barely restraining herself. She was keeping herself from saying that no, actually, for her things were even worse than they were for Susan. Susan had no womb at all to betray her. Isadore had losses that were real, manifest, dribbling down her legs.
“I’m sorry,” Isadore said suddenly, and Susan could breathe again. “I’m just really…shattered, you know?”
“I know,” Susan told her.
— — –
By their fourth anniversary, Isadore and Alexei were halfway to adopting Maisey, though of course they didn’t know her yet. They just knew that Isadore needed a kid, and so many poor foreign children need strapping American parents. And since Alexei was Russian and Ukrainian they decided to mine one of Eastern Europe’s most ravaged and overstuffed child welfare systems.
Susan was almost out of law school by then. On breaks, she flew down to Florida to help Isadore and Alexei file papers and get them notarized, visit courts and talk with social workers, file for grants and baby-proof their house. Susan was in hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, but she always threw in a few bucks when Isadore and Alexei held fundraisers.
Getting a kid was costly, and the couple did a lot of Kickstarters and peddled a lot of t-shirts to make it happen. It took for goddamned ever. It took longer and cost almost as much as Susan’s law degree. And it wouldn’t pay off the same way the JD might. In fact, once you got the child, it cost even more money! Nearly a million over the course of its life, Susan had read.
Isadore labored to remind Susan that “it” as not an ill-advised investment, she was a child.
“Yeah,” Susan said. “I know.”
Susan thought she saw Alexei rolling his eyes as he went to grab her a Budweiser. It gave her a dull feeling, but she pressed it down, forcibly mistook it for irritation at Isadore or at nature. When he came back into the room he was smiling.
— — –
Five weeks after Susan’s graduation, Maisey made it across the Atlantic and into Isadore and Alexei’s home. Isadore had spent two months in-country, meeting some residency requirements, navigating the adoption system, and taking many hi-resolution photographs of caribou. Alexei stayed home, building bridges for the city. Susan and Isadore’s mother took a trip to Europe too, and helped her youngest daughter make the trip home with the baby in tow. Nobody went to Susan’s graduation. Not that she had asked.
The first day back home, Isadore called her up and begged her to visit. It sounded like she’d been crying, Susan assumed from profound happiness.
Maisey (nee Katherina) was a three-foot-tall five-year-old with a short torso, daddy longlegs arms, and thick white-blonde peach fuzz covering her entire body. She had an overbite that could not be described as “slight” or “minor”, an astigmatism, and no English.
“I thought you were getting a baby,” Susan whispered.
Isadore drummed her ring finger on the counter. “Maisey’s been the one we wanted for over a year now, Suze. I told you. Alexei thought that maybe it would be easier not having to deal with a crying baby that keeps us awake all the time.”
Maisey was running back and forth through the kitchen, bare feet pattering and slapping on the tile. Isadore was blocking one exit; Susan took the other. The girl would work up a sprint and take off in one direction, stopping only to hurl her feathery body into one of their thighs. Then she’d pivot and do it again.
“They didn’t warn you about all…her needs?” Susan asked.
The next time Maisey flung herself at Isadore, she pulled the child close to her chest.
“We met her. But all the medical stuff…not really.”
“But if you aren’t ready to have a child with challenges, you aren’t ready to have a child at all,” Isadore explained.
“I guess,” said Susan. All the more reason not to have one, she thought. All kids were loaded guns, special needs or not. You could have baby that was the picture of health and beauty; it could learn to talk early, walk expertly, and make friends with ease. Then it might still turn out funny. Who knows why.
“And when you give birth to a child,” Isadore continued, patting Maisey rhythmically on the head, “You have no idea what you’re going to get. So, if anything, adopting a child with documented limitations is an advantage.”
Susan sipped her iced tea. Isadore used to make it from bags, but now it was instant, from crystals poured into water. “I’m with you all the way,” she said.
Isadore just nodded and looked down into the crown of Maisey’s head. The girl was working her mouth around a button furiously, eyes tight in concentration. Her whole body seemed like a trebuchet loaded and ready to fling outward at any time.
— — –
Isadore said she knew the risks with adopting from Eastern European orphanages. Susan reminded her anyway. Their father once had a coworker, Lyle, who adopted a pair of Russian twins. The boys tied Lyle up and tore apart his furniture, formed a bonfire in the attic and ritually sacrificed Lyle’s entire antique teddy bear collection in the blaze. That was the example Susan leaned on, all through the adoption process. Remember Lyle, remember Lyle. But there were many others.
Numerous kids had attachment problems, and would grow to either pathetically love or ferociously hate anyone who came near them. Others had conduct disorder or attention deficits. Sensory integration issues were common, as were math and reading problems. Some of the children had impoverish gastrointestinal tracts, from years of being fed nothing but porridge and watered-down maple syrup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Some had muscle wasting, from years of being left alone in a crib.
Isadore chided Susan, whenever she raised this point. None of these problems, after all, were the fault of the children. The orphanage system was overloaded and underfunded, and the nurses and care staff knew nothing of the latest research and best-practices in child rearing. The children were left alone for eight to ten hours per day, often in undersized cribs or strapped to highchairs with bedpans in them. The kids ran around nude, covered in bed sores with grumbling tummies.
These were the worse and most stereotypical images, ones that Susan had encountered in an old copy of National Geographic, but if it could be photographed it was at least partly true. Susan was nonplussed by it. The kids deserved better. They required a lot of care. Someone was going to have to bear the brunt of that responsibility.
At 24, Isadore was certain she had the energy and verve to do it. She got to thinking that maybe, after everything, she was meant to be barren. An empty womb, she said self-consciously, had allowed her to have an open heart.
At some point in this conversation, Alexei strode into the kitchen. Isadore tried to hand Maisey off to him. He was sweaty and caked in filth. So he put his hands up.
“No,” he said, pulling at his shirt. “You’ll have to bathe her again.”
“I didn’t give her a bath yet,” said Isadore. “I thought you were going to do it.”
Alexei was digging around in the cupboards. He took a mug and filled it with the morning’s old coffee. “I need a shower. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. We’ll see.”
“I can do it!” Susan offered. Both parents brightened.
Maisey was a ball of tension in her arms. But Susan put a smile on it and struggled against her thrashes, walked down the hall to the guest bathroom, flung the door shut behind her, turned the lock, and set the water running. The child hurled herself out of Susan’s arms and collided with the fuzzy rug surrounding the toilet. She moaned and growled as Susan beckoned her, then crawled around to the back and managed to shove herself in the space between the toilet tank and the floor.
Susan looked at herself in the mirror and laughed. She’d offered to help. She couldn’t take it back. That would be like swimming out to save a drowning woman, then losing control and clinging to the victim in order to save herself.
Maisey was banging her head against the floor.
— — –
Maisey was not as bad as Susan’s worst fears. With a lot of time and therapy, she became a child that Isadore could take outside, to the park or the movies. In short periods of interaction, Maisey blended in, and seemed like any other halfway-petulant five-year-old with a slight speech impediment. She could have been the fruits of Isadore’s own body. Except that Isadore was so young. All the other parents at the playgrounds assumed she was a nanny.
For two years, Isadore homeschooled Maisey. They worked on math and English every morning after breakfast, the TV draped with a tablecloth so it wouldn’t provoke demands. Then they’d have a lunch of cut vegetables and little slices of turkey, which was always a battle because Maisey didn’t like cold, wet textures. Sometimes it would turn into a chase or a wrestling match. From 1pm to 3pm, Maisey had play therapy at a little office next to Isadore’s dentist. On the weekends, Maisey did core exercises at a special gym where most of the other children were in wheelchairs.
Every night was a small battle of wits, a conflict over how many books would be read, how many crayons could be dragged over the walls of Maisey’s room, how long would Isadore be able to put off TV time before Alexei got irritated, how late would Maisey still be running around in circles in her room, making a strange wolfish noise.
There were very few real blowouts. As long as Alexei was able to eat dinner without Maisey flicking carrot bits onto his face, and as long as things were dead silent when he went to bed, he was satisfied.
Isadore would crawl in next to him, an hour or two later, lay her head on his chest, and think about all the things she’d meant to share with him and then forgot. Maisey was always learning new words, getting stronger, asking increasingly probing and bizarre questions. Isadore feared that by not sharing these discoveries with Alexei, he was missing out on the very best part of having the child. She wanted to tell him how skilled the girl was at math, how unique her use of color was in her drawings. But Alexei was always so tired, and Maisey was always so ill-behaved by the time he got home. She hoped one day they’d get to know each other.
— — -
With Susan, this was not a problem. Isadore called her at least once every day, to fill her in on the developmental milestones being met. At first, she’d started doing this to shame her sister, and to prove that the adoption had been a good choice. But Susan seemed genuinely interested. In fact, she was reading books on child development and parenting, too. Sometimes she’d offer up a new strategy when Isadore confessed she was having a problem.
“Maisey put toothpaste all over the TV screen,” she sighed.
“Just leave it like that,” Susan said. “Hold on, let me grab the book — there’s this book, it says you need to let kids see the consequences of what they’ve done, rather than punish them, you know? So if you just leave the TV all gunky like that…and then when Maisey wants to watch TV,”
“She’ll realize she effed it up,” Isadore finished.
“Yeah,” Isadore said. She leaned against the wall and looked at the mess. Maisey was off in the bathroom, unrolling the toilet paper. “Alexei will be pissed though.”
“Have him call me, if you don’t want to scream at him about it,” Susan said. “I’ll mail you guys the book.”
— — –
Susan had to admit she loved the kid. Her love for Maisey grew hungrily, like the fire in Lyle’s attic, eating away at the roof and burning the whole structure to the ground, leaving nothing but an open, boundless sky. The love grew Susan’s capacity for love itself. It threatened to surpass even Susan’s love for Isadore. Which seemed fair, Susan reflected. Surely Isadore loved her daughter more than her sister.
It all started when Alexei left. It didn’t even take six months. Whenever Susan came to visit, he was wearing the exact same filthy jeans, and one of four identical yellow-pitted white t-shirts. Susan would come over and find Alexei on the carpet, splayed out like a dying man, a warm beer jammed between his legs. Bits of cement and dust piled up in the entryway, a halo of filth around his work boots. His brow always looked puffy, almost hooded. Susan could barely find his eyes or guess where he was looking. If she asked whether he was sick, Alexei would just rub his swollen brows and say he was tired.
On some ordinary Tuesday night Alexei offered to put Maisey to bed. He told Isadore to take a bath, give herself a pedicure. Isadore had never even painted her nails, but she took him up on the offer. While she was in the bathroom, Alexei hoisted their daughter onto his hip, laid her into the bed, and instructed her to close her eyes and count to two-hundred.
Maisey didn’t know how to count that high, so he told her to count to a hundred, roll over in bed, and then count to a hundred again. The girl was so unaccustomed to him that she was stunned by the whole interaction, and complied. When she finished, the house was dark, the bathroom was locked, clothes were strewn around her parents’ bedroom, and Alexei was gone.
— — –
Susan offered to find him. She didn’t need to be asked. The question hung in the very facts of Isadore’s situation. She put in a request for a week of vacation, packed a small bag, and drove down. She was on the phone with Isadore nearly the whole time.
“All the cash is gone,” Isadore said.
“Have there been any bank transactions yet?”
“He has his own account.”
“Do you have access to it, though?”
She sniffed. Susan could hear Maisey running around in the background. “No. It was at his old bank. We never got around to merging all of it.”
“Have you called his work?”
“Yeah. They said,” Isadore paused. “They said his last job ended a week ago.”
Susan swallowed to keep herself from speaking. She just needed to let Isadore hear her breathing. There was no point in saying how red a flag all this was.
“Suze?” Isadore said.
“You think if I call his bank they can tell me what happened?”
“Yeah, Izz. Legally, they don’t really have an obligation..,” Susan paused to let Isadore blow her nose. “But if you’re pushy. Just…really be desperate.”
Her sister laughed. “I can do that.”
“Okay. Shh, it’s okay. Just, if you need to call in a sitter, I’ll pay for it when I get down there, okay? Just, just take it easy. We’ll figure it out.”
Isadore pulled the phone from her ear a moment. Susan could hear the child roaring like a dinosaur, followed by the clatter of wood blocks striking the ground.
— — –
The bank offered up information without much pressure: Alexei had been spending his days at a diner by the underpass. Susan went there and located a seasoned old waitress with weathered, over-tanned skin.
“He read the paper, did the crossword and the Sudokus, went out on the sidewalk and smoked a bunch,” the woman rattled off. “Lousy tipper, for somebody that was here four hours a day.”
“Alexei wasn’t a smoker,” Susan said. She held up her phone, showing the woman a photograph from Christmas. “Are you sure it was this guy?”
The waitress chewed her lips and nodded. The door dinged behind them, and a few thick-waisted men staggered in. “Yeah, that’s the guy. He was here every day for nearly a week, I remember him. Most customers I don’t remember, anymore; it’s not worth it. But he was acting weird, so of course I noticed.”
She took Susan’s phone into her hand. In the photo, Alexei was bouncing Maisey on his knee, and red wrapped present was in the girl’s grasp.
“This isn’t like a child abduction, custody battle thing is it?” The waitress asked.
“No,” Susan said.
— — -
Susan talked to one of the dishwashers, a guy named Miles, who she’d found outside smoking. He remembered Alexei, too.
“We talked a little,” Miles said. “I think he was going crazy about a divorce, or something like that?”
Susan nodded and made a note about this in her phone.
“Is he dodging child support payments or something?” Miles asked. He flicked a cigarette butt into the gravel beside the sidewalk.
“No,” Susan shook her head, “Not yet anyway. Why?”
Miles looked at the ground for a moment, then pointed across the highway. In a dirty lot, behind rows of cars, was the Amtrak station. “I saw him walking over there after breakfast this morning.”
“Wait, what?” Susan said. “He was here this morning?”
Miles nodded. “Yeah. Said his car broke down?”
— — -
They found Alexei’s car in a Foodtown parking lot. The battery was dead but nothing else was wrong. It sent Isadore into a tailspin.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Susan said. “We know he was still around until yesterday. People saw him at the diner the morning after he walked out.”
She was rubbing Isadore’s back. At the phrase “walked out”, Isadore tightened up and grabbed her knees. Disappeared, Susan chided herself. Next time, say he disappeared.
“I need to get Maisey ready for her PT appointment,” Isadore mumbled.
“Okay,” Susan said. “I need to go follow a lead. I think he may have taken an Amtrak out of town. Okay?”
Her sister nodded, staring at the carpet. There was a huge, amoeba-shaped stain below them, something like grape juice or red wine.
“He likes trains,” Isadore admitted.
— — -
There were only two lines that passed through that Amtrak station on Wednesday mornings: The Silver Meteor, which ran north to New York City, and the Silver Star, which went down south to Miami. Susan had no reason to guess one or the other, but she imagined Alexei was heading north. Maybe it was because he was Russian. Maybe it was because there were more miles to go in that direction. She imagined that if she were the one trying to escape, that’s the direction she would go in. So she asked for a time table and a list of stops.
Alexei had probably gotten on the 12:42pm
Susan calculated, with the help of the woman behind the ticket counter, that by then Alexei’ train was probably close to Jesup, Georgia, making a slow trudge ahead to Savannah.
“There’s a forty minute smoke break in Savannah,” the ticket woman said. She was middle-aged, with a crown of spreading white roots in her hair, and purple rubber-banded braces on her teeth. Reba, her nametag said.
“Is there any way to get him a message?” Susan asked her, leaning hard into the counter. The plexiglass window separating them was flecked with dried remnants of spittle, snot, or some other effluvia.
Reba tounged her teeth. “Well, to be honest we don’t do that kinda thing anymore. It stopped a long time ago, that kind of customer service. When my great uncle worked here back in 1957, 1958, you could telegram somebody and have a baggage boy or a waiter or somebody hand-deliver the message and it didn’t even cost you anything extra — “
Susan slapped the counter. This silenced Reba, and immediately made both of them sheepish.
“Sorry,” Susan said. She hadn’t meant to hit it hard like that. It was meant to be a pressure valve, the slapping; a means to keep herself calm while letting the woman drone on. “That was really rude of me. I need to reach my sister’s husband and I’m sort of…at my wit’s end? I think he’s running out on them. My sister and the daughter they have together, I mean.”
Reba’s face softened. Susan didn’t feel any better about it. Forcing the woman quiet was an aggressive, even mannish thing to do, and Susan strived not to be mannish. It was an insecurity borne out of a lot of things, but her desire to not be like a man had blossomed over years of seeing what true men were like. Men looked away disinterestedly while their wives planned the whole course of their lives together. Men hauled heavy materials and left a mess at the door. Men left their wives and children. Susan was deeply afraid of getting any closer to that, in any way whatsoever.
“They always get into delays eventually,” Reba told her, straightening a stack of train schedules. “You have a car?”
“Your best move might be to chase it down. I can book you a ticket from Yemassee, you can get on and really give the dude hell.”
Reba’s eyes twinkled at the idea. Susan blinked and imagined a convertible rental, a highway unfurling behind her all day and night, maybe a scarf in her hair trailing in the wind as she rushed to Alexei’s side. She could slip into the seat beside him, pull her sunglasses off and scare hell into him.
“You think I could make it?” she asked.
Reba pushed her fuscia lips together and hummed her assent. Her curls bounced. “Train’s supposed to roll in tomorrow, 1:46 am. Bet you’ll be fine if you hit the ground running. Just keep checking the arrival times on your phone. You’ll get him red-handed.”
Susan nodded, a few times too many. “Okay. A ticket to Yemassee, then?” As she stepped out of the Amtrak office and shoved her ticket into a coat pocket, Susan heard the woman calling after her. “Good luck sweetheart! And remember to drive fast and don’t stop to sleep.”
— — –
So Susan didn’t sleep. She didn’t go home, she didn’t warn Isadore, she didn’t pack bags; she just pulled into the gas station, filled up, and then hauled ass on the highway. By the time she called Isadore it was getting late and the sun was disappearing behind the semis to the left of her.
“I’m sorry,” Susan whispered into the voicemail. “I think I’ll find him. I’ll try to do what you’d do.”
At that moment, Susan figured that Isadore was probably curled up like a waning half-moon in Maisey’s bed. Wet red eyes, silence with no sobs; Isadore would not let her daughter suffer for all their mistakes. Thinking about it caused Susan’s stomach to seize up, and she didn’t have time to stop and find a toilet, so she banished all images of her sister from her mind.
Whenever Susan’s route took her alongside train tracks, she caught herself staring at them. If a train actually passed, Susan fixed her gaze on the flickering windows, trying to lasso a good view of every face behind every short-lived pane of glass. It was useless. The trains were too fast. The heads were too far away. It was dangerous; the car would pitch and swerve as she tried to force her eyes inside. All that could consistently be detected was a golden or dark-brown head of blurry hair floating atop an expanse of blue upholstery, carpeting, and matching conductor’s uniforms.
The Amtrak service number provided her some solace. Every hour Susan called it, told the robotic woman that she was seeking arrival times, and blindly punched in the route number and the stop. Yemassee.
“We’re sorry, but at present we anticipate a one-hour sixteen-minute delay in arrival,” the robot woman comforted her. “But trains may gain or lose time over the course of their trip. Please report to your station on time, to prevent a missed boarding. Thank you for riding Amtr-“
“No problem,” Susan answered. Everyone was so courteous, everyone was so sorry. The waitress, the dishwasher, the ticket-seller, the robot on the phone. Sorry for sorrows that were not their fault. Susan was sorry — for failing her sister and leaving on a quest of dubious usefulness just when Isadore needed her most, for trying in vain to keep Maisey tied to a man that clearly didn’t want her. And Susan’s doctors had been so sorry, so sorry to tell her mother that her beautiful eldest baby daughter was not so beautiful, and not so much a daughter in the sense that they’d expected. And Isadore’s doctors were so sorry that they could not fill their patient’s womb.
The only not-sorry person in all of this, it seemed, was Alexei. Or would he be? Susan hoped that it would only take a gaze to make him collapse and start crying. She imagined him sitting alone staring out the window and her reflection rising up beside him and shaking him to his core. Or maybe she would find him with his arm around the waist of a wide-hipped, big-mouthed lady with a globular pregnant belly. Then at least Susan could properly throttle him. Really bring the fury and the justice. She would love to have the excuse. Someone had to be responsible. Someone had to be punished.
As she passed Savannah, Susan dialed Amtrak again. Only a thirty-four minute delay remained. She pressed the ball of her foot to the floor and looked straight ahead. A train wailed in the distance. She could not tell whether it was behind her or off in some other direction. She tried not to look.
— — –
At 1:53 am, Susan ran from her car, up the cracked cement ramp, along the boarding platform, up the stepstool, and into the train.
“You’re lucky,” the conductor told her as he scanned the ticket. Thomas was his name, which seemed fitting and comforting, like a warm laundered sweater.
“I’ve always been a lucky woman,” Susan said to him, wincing her teeth.
He pointed her to the left, into a cabin filled with Amish people and sunburnt families in NFL and NASCAR regalia. Susan dropped her purse into a seat, mussed her hair, and rolled up her sleeves. She ran to the in-cabin bathroom, which gave off a putrid, fruity smell. Bowels evacuated, face smeared with oily-seeming water, Susan felt barely refreshed. She returned to the aisle and gave her seatmate a nudge.
“Mhuh?” He was a big man with a pair of exhausted red eyes.
“Hey,” Susan whispered. “Where are the seats for Jacksonville?”
He rubbed his neck and looked confused at her.
“Hello? I’m looking for a man who boarded at Jacksonville.”
The man made a few discrete gestures. Susan realized that he was deaf.
“Oh, sorry,” she said.
“I think you want to go to the back,” came a voice from across the aisle. A Latino man holding a sleeping toddler smiled pityingly at her.
“Go back?” said Susan.
“Yeah,” the guy told her. “For earlier riders, you have to go back.”
She stepped into the middle of the car.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, smoothing the child’s downy black locks. “I’ll watch your things.”
— — –
She made it all the way to the backmost car, the sleeper, and found no sign of him. Briefly, Susan contemplated banging on the doors to the private rooms but she knew there was no way Alexei had sprung for one of them. Unless he was banging some poor woman on one of those miniscule cots, he wouldn’t be in any of the silent white pods laid out before her.
In the coach seating, she found a few empty seats with Jacksonville tags hanging over them, so she decided to reverse course. He had to be on there somewhere.
As the cars passed by her, Susan imagined that Alexei wasn’t there at all. Maybe he’d gone south, and was sipping a beer in a trashy hotel beside a baby-blue pool. Perhaps he was in Pulaski, with his parents. Or maybe he’d gone farther — Puerto Rico, Cuba, Russia.
All of those options made a kind of sense. Years of knowing the guy and Susan barely understood a thing about him. She had facts, sure, but no essential truths about the dude. He never talked. How was she gonna find him, knowing only the blandest and most oft-repeated of biographical facts?
What did the man like? Why did he flee? Did the idea of children wake him up with the terrors of actuarial tables, student debt crises, tuition hikes, teen pregnancy rates, school shootings, lead-contaminated toys? Was it the brittle intensity of Isadore that had done it? What was it? What was it? Where did he go? What happened? Would this happen to Isadore one day, too? Did people just get sick of leaning into the winds of life, and just allowed themselves instead to go slack and be carried along by it?
Instead of having to conjure answers, Susan found him in the bar car, tearing into a paper plate of cheese fries and drinking a Rolling Rock. A Newsweek was laid open before him, which was odd, as Susan had never seen him read. As she advanced, Susan wondered whether he’d give chase. But his back was to her. It would be too late. And Christ, he was capable of some surprises, but would he really throttle her? Probably not. She hoped not.
Susan tapped him on the shoulder, daintily, like a lover. He didn’t start when he saw her. He just looked up, then quickly back down at the pool of orange, plasticy goo piled before him.
“You girls don’t give up,” was all he said. It made Susan want to spit.
“Oh,” she said, overloud. “Oh. Oh, this is about how we don’t quit. Move over, let me yell at you close up, so I don’t bother anybody.”
Heads were already turning. Alexei groaned and eased deeper into the booth and Susan shoved her tightly-wound, angry little body against him. The farther she scooted, the more he retreated toward the window, until they were both pinned there, tight and sweaty, again like lovers. Alexei’s elbow was propped on the window sill.
“Why do you have to touch me,” he grumbled. “Don’t be disgusting.”
She sneered. “I’m disgusting? You leave your wife and child — oh wait, I see. You think I’m disgusting? You think what I am is disgusting? You thought that the whole time? Isadore never even told me she told you. That explains it.”
“For God’s sake,” Alexei moaned. “Not that shit. That’s stuff,” he pointed down at the table, “Who cares. I’m not fucking you. It’s none of my business. What I mean is you smell like a gym bag and you look like you were raised from the crypt or something. What did you do, jog here from Florida?”
“Oh.” Susan said. “No, I drove. But I didn’t exactly have time to shower, you know, because I’ve been chasing you across the country.”
Alexei folded his arms and leaned his head against the condensation-soaked window. It gave the effect of a whole-body eyeroll. “You chose to do that. Don’t act like I made you do that.”
“My sister needed me. She needed you and you left her.”
Alexei sucked the cheese from a fry. The look on his face made Susan briefly doubt all of it. How could Isadore ever need him? Even he was aware of his superfluousness.
“Isadore could have done this herself,” he said. “But instead it’s you here yelling at me. I wonder why. Do you really think it’s any of your business, or that this is gonna help?”
Susan nearly said something self-righteous about how the family’s wellbeing was very much her business, thank you very much, but she stopped. The smug look on Alexei’s face was enough deterrent.
He swallowed and looked across the car. “So go ahead and give me whatever hell you’re here to give.”
If his look had been a puncture, Alexei’s words were a tight fist squeezing the last dregs of self-righteousness out of her. It made Susan fidgety, like she was being called on in class on her first year of law school.
“If you were unhappy, you should have talked to Isadore about it,” she said.
Alexei killed the last of his beer. He stared into the green glass. The train rocked a bit, and jostled them even closer together.
“And tell her what, it was too much already? She’d say, what, am I sure? She’d say, how could I know I couldn’t handle it? She could be certain she wanted a kid and that she was ready…but when a person is certain they don’t want it, what? They’re just scared. You’re not allowed to just quit. Why?”
He turned to her. “Because it’s irresponsible,” Susan guessed.
“I couldn’t be sure. She wouldn’t let me. If I went to her and said I wanted out, Isadore would tell me we needed to ‘work on us’. It’s always been like that — like, let’s not give up on us, let’s not give up on this, let’s work on it.” He took a breath. “This was the only way to really say no, no, I really don’t want this — and you shouldn’t want me, either.”
“She wants you,” Susan said.
Alexei’s thick, meaty hand met the table. The plate and bottle rattled. “So tell her what an idiot she’s being! You love her, don’t you want her to start making good decisions?”
Susan shrugged. A booth ahead of them, there was an old man in a burgundy sweater mumbling and spitting into a battered-looking flip phone. His neck craned and his hands shook.
“If you came back right now,” Susan said, “Isadore would forgive you. Maisey still doesn’t know! She — Isadore — would find a way to justify all of this to herself. Which is almost like forgiveness..,”
Her brother-in-law waved his hand at that. “And that’s Isadore. Nothing, ever, final. So many tries with the babies, all the paperwork, all the money, all the family therapy before we even had a family.”
Susan touched him on the hand. “Isn’t Maisey great?”
She was surprised by his body heat, how it radiated off of him. Her own hand began to sweat just from the moment of contact. Her touch and the exchange of warmth pleaded with him. Maisey was better than anyone could have anticipated, considering her age and where she came from. She was bright — not just smart, but beaming with love. She was well-adjusted. Her existence should have justified the whole mess, and made the struggle worth it.
“This has nothing to do with Maisey,” Alexei told her. The girl’s new American name was chalky in his mouth. It sounded even less real than usual.
Susan waited for him to explain. She slid out of the booth and went to the counter, bought two beers and slid across from him. They sat and she drank, but Alexei did not lift the fresh beer to his lips. Susan kept her chin lifted and her hands folded. From the back of the car, she heard tired laughter.
“Is it Isadore?” Susan ventured. “What did she do?”
Susan tried to make her eyes open, tolerant. A beacon of accepting love. Isadore could be difficult. She cried too much, especially during arguments, and apologized profusely for it, then cried with supposed guilty over the initial crying. She didn’t mean to be manipulative, she would said as tears shook their way up through her chest and out of her contorted face. Her emotions poured of her without relent, once it got started, becoming a downward-swirling whirlpool of slippery, all-consuming sadness and regret.
She was inflexible about food. She read nothing but pregnancy and childcare books, listened only to parenting podcasts and old female singer-songwriters. She cut her own hair, somewhat disastrously. She threw her clothes all over the furniture to let it dry, then never picked it up. She had a cork board in the kitchen decorated with cut-out images of babies and toddlers of all different nationalities, some with their heads coated in food they’d tried to feed themselves. Susan could imagine how all of this would get annoying. She’d certainly broken up with people for less.
But then Alexei said, “No, it’s not exactly Isadore. I do love her, I mean.”
He said this like he was expressing a food preference, like Isadore was Thai when he’d really prefer pizza. It was irksome.
“Is it sex, then?”
He swatted this away. “I’m not a pig.”
Another train roared past them. Susan startled. The car fell silent for a while until it had passed them completely. She stole looks at the passing faces and sleeping heads and then at the darkness they left behind. When she looked back, Alexei was taking a long breath and squeezing the space between his eyes.
“When the first miscarriage happened,” he said. “It was kind of a relief. She was so young. And the second: relief. Guilty, and sad for her, but. Relief.”
Susan clutched her beer. “And the third one too, then, huh.”
He nodded. “When she gave up trying, I thought — okay. We’ll be fine now. But two, three weeks later? Paperwork for the adoption.”
Susan remembered the frantic, desperately happy phone call Isadore had given her, begging for help with the forms. “Why didn’t you just tell her no then?”
“I couldn’t choose for her,” Alexei said. “It was like…nature told her she didn’t get to choose. Doctors told her she didn’t get to choose. I couldn’t tell her no, not your right. Not your choice.”
“You could have dumped her,” Susan spat.
Alexei shrugged, absorbed the insult. He was staring down into the table. “Divorced, no income, no husband, so young — no adoption for her, then. She would not have looked good on paper at all. You know that.”
“Dammit,” Susan said. “Yeah. I know.”
He drank half the beer in one quick sip. “I did try. But after a point, a man must admit his limits.”
Susan sighed and stood up. She pulled at the hem of her shirt and straightened herself. Gazing up at her, Alexei seemed suddenly small, even childlike. His eyes were unusually large for someone so square-jawed and quiet.
“I’m sure you realize that I’m gonna come down on you like a ton of bricks, legally speaking,” Susan told him. “Alimony, child support, limited visitation on Isadore’s terms..,”
“It’s not personal,” he said.
“Oh.” Susan breathed. “Okay. So.”
“I guess not. Not right now. You’ll hear from me. Don’t go missing again.”
Alexei handed Susan’s beer up to her. “I never did.”
Susan nodded briskly at him, tapped on the table and turned away. She ordered two more beers from the man behind the counter, placed one a few inches from Alexei’s massive fist, killed her first beer and pitched it in the trash.
“It makes a kind of sense,” Alexei said to her back. “You and Isadore are each half of a woman, half of something else. Maybe not a man, either, but…together I think you could be two good parents.”
“The fuck,” Susan said. She did not turn. She did not look at him. Before he could respond, she stiffly marched out into the cool metallic space that separated the bar car from the next. Once there, she pressed the bright yellow button that pushed open the next door, slunk into the darkened passenger cabin, and pressed on, from one thin straight dark passage to the next, swaying along with the motions of the train until she found her seat.
— — –
The year that Maisey turned eleven, a civil engineer from Miami got Isadore pregnant. They had been dating on and off for about a year; Isadore took bi-monthly trips to see him while Susan stayed at home and babysat. Susan didn’t really call it babysitting anymore, though. Out loud, she didn’t call it parenting either.
Susan did not have to feign surprise when Isadore told her that the engineer had proposed, and was moving to Jacksonville to be with them. The sisters hugged and sobbed for five long minutes before Susan thought to ask what would happen to her.
“You can stay as long as you want,” Isadore said, stroking her hair. The engagement ring was large and perfectly round. It looked heavy on her hand.
Living in Isadore’s house quickly became odd. Susan had occupied the guest room for years by then, and had gotten accustomed to moving about the house in her underwear or a robe. Maisey had never thought to ask or wonder about Susan’s nakedness, or how Susan’s body differed from Isadore’s, and Susan had secretly hoped the girl never would. Now the civil engineer was there. The doors to the master bedroom and the bathroom stayed shut. Susan wore pajamas so there would be no odd looks or questions.
Susan’s share of the rent dropped from 75% (proportionally) to 33%. Her weekends opened up. Now it was Isadore and the civil engineer who took Maisey on weekends, to the park or the zoo or putt-putt.
Two months before the wedding, Susan awoke with an undeniable, almost biological need to flee. She threw some jeans and a suit into a gym bag, gathered her toiletries and her framed law degree, and piled it all up in the car. She stripped her bed of its sheets. As she walked the tangled bedding into the laundry room she found Maisey standing in the hall.
Maisey was wearing a nightshirt that floated above her knees by several inches. She’d had a growth spurt recently but had refused to abandon the outfit because it had Princess Bubblegum and Marceline on it. She was an odd-looking but captivating child, with shining, big eyes, a monotone voice, and a haunting way of entering rooms silently without being noticed.
“Suze,” the girl said. She tugged down at her nightshirt. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Susan said, shaking her head and banishing negativity from her face. “I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about taking a drive. Would you like to come with me?”
— — -
Originally published at mikrokosmosjournal.com.