DEAD TO ME
BY ELLE NASH
We bought a car. We bought a house. We bought a dog. A year later, we had a baby. Health insurance covered half the hospital bills. We paid the rest with a credit card, maxed out at twenty-one percent APR. The hospital charged forty dollars to place the baby on my chest.
The baby turned eight months old. He cried every night, after dinner until bed. It happened when I turned the faucet on to shower. It overwhelmed me every time. This time when the baby wailed, I waited for Logan’s voice from the living room. Instead, I heard only sobbing.
I raced into the living room, soaked in a towel, and kicked a wooden toy with my toe.
Logan sat on the couch playing a video game, something with wizards. The game cost forty dollars a month to play. Our boy, Ian, lay amidst his scattered toys. I pulled the towel up higher.
Logan watched wizards on the screen throw glowing balls, grunting. His eyes darted between the neon figures.
“Are you going to do anything?”
“No, I’m just going to sit here and let him scream,” he said.
I walked back into the bathroom and tried to ignore my guilt, but it clung. Water dropped from the ends of my hair. I pumped lotion into my hands and massaged it into my skin. I’d gotten some rash on my hands and hadn’t worn my wedding ring in months. My fingers acclimated to life without them, but every morning I woke up and reminded myself I should wear them around him.
The baby’s screams grew louder, more urgent, and I left the bathroom. My son looked like a radish, howling so hard his body hiccuped for air. He saw me and reached out his arms. When I laid in bed that night, I realized I’d left my rings on the counter again.
Three months into our marriage, Logan told me he felt suicidal. There was nothing wrong with Logan. He had never been to war. He had seen nothing terrible in his life, had killed nothing or anyone, not even on accident. No guilt hung over his head at night keeping him up. No nightmares terrorized him. He seemed to be a clean, white slate. But in him was an untouchable well of sadness, which made him distant and angry. The more I dug, the deeper the well became. I spent weeks on the internet researching how marriages end, the ones that last less than a year. I thought I had made a mistake, one that was perhaps inescapable.
I held his hand in the dark and said it would be okay.
Something else regarding the first night he confessed his inclination to die: I felt suicidal, too. So in our sadness we made a pact. To stay alive, to hang together, the way we vowed on our wedding day.
In our dispute about our son, he’d left the room. I thought, what if this is it? What if this time he kills himself and leaves me alone?
The morning after, I put the kettle on, swept and did the dishes while I waited for the water to boil. I put a load of laundry in the machine, took clean clothes out of the dryer. My days rolled out in a series of KonMari squares, forever folded and tucked into neat, repeating lines.
Logan finished his shower and walked into the kitchen, his hair wet and slicked back. He said nothing of our fight.
“Maybe we should go to therapy,” I said, but he shook his head.
“They can’t help us,” he said. “We suffer from psychological disturbances because our lives are unnatural.”
I handed him his lunch and gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek. I considered the implications of its chasteness. I imagined the young women in his office — women like I used to be. His shoulders slumped forward, as he crossed the lawn to the car.
The baby slept in his bed, breathy noises coming from the baby monitor. Every day the baby strewed colored pencils over the living room; crackers crumbed into the couch cracks; yogurt splotched on a newly mopped floor. On their own the offenses were minuscule, but together they loomed large and endless.
Standing at the sink, my vision softened. The fight from the day before entered my vision, and the one before that, and all the days in which my resentment of Logan grew. I imagined my suffering coming out of me like Play-Doh through a push-mold, delicate and exact and pleasant to look at. I imagined alternative universes; one in which Logan died, one in which I died, one in which I had the neighbor’s life, one in which we’d never met. A million viable paths, all which lead to suffering. If I had taken another path, I’d probably suffer from wanting the things I now had. Back in grad school, I’d taken a yoga class and one regular had gotten pregnant. My envy gripped me. She nannied and her husband was an electrical engineer and in a band. They moved from Portland and had a close family. I was burnt-out by my research and fantasized being around children all day while my husband worked. Now I had it. My breasts hurt, I hadn’t showered in six days and I had forgotten how to dress myself.
A distant piercing cry broke my spell, and the distance closed between me and the sound, and I found myself sitting at a dining room table where my son curled up in his chair, oatmeal smeared across his chin. I picked up a plastic spoon with soft edges. His hands waved up and down, banged on his chair. I stared at my cell phone, desperate for someone to speak with. I had not spoken with my friends in some time. I had learned not to trust other women’s opinions with my marriage, as they seemed ready to validate my feelings, making it hard to discern what was real and what was not.
I thought about calling my mother, but decided against it. My mother avoided talk about emotions, never even said “you’re welcome” if she was thanked. Lately, she never asked how I was doing; it was always, “How’s the baby? Got any pics?”
In grad school, I concerned myself with the expected worries of a woman approaching her thirties: Can I make money, can I have a career, how do I find fulfillment, am I going to have a baby.
What I hadn’t considered was life after a baby.
What I hadn’t considered was how it reminded me of my mother: the way I mothered. Impatient and detached.
I turned on the TV while the baby fished for oatmeal in his bowl. I couldn’t stop thinking of my argument with Logan. My level of anger didn’t seem justified, but it pulsed anyway, with pressure at the front of my head, the bridge of my nose, pushing at the space between my eyes. Like a plate sliding between my skull and skin. I wanted to live inside a TV commercial. How clean the narrator’s voice sounded, contained. No emotional baggage, just the perfect sell.
My phone vibrated; it was Logan. I hoped to hear an apology. Instead, he said he’d be home from work late. Then a peal of laughter echoed in the background.
“You continue to lie,” I said. “You continue to lie to me, and I just ask you to tell me the truth and it’s fine. It’s gone on a long time.”
“You’re mad,” Logan said. “You’re always mad for reasons I don’t understand.”
The baby shrieked and dropped his spoon. I bent down to get it.
“You come home from work and it’s like you’re off-duty,” I said. The baby dropped his spoon again and screamed. He tossed his bowl onto the floor with a clatter. I turned away from him.
“We could switch places,” said Logan.
“You don’t trust me,” I cried.
I hung up the phone.
A few days passed, and I forgot the fight. I had taken up stalking my ex online. He was a road comic based in Arizona and drove back and forth between the mid- and southwest for gigs. In my darkest moments, I fantasized about the life we could have had.
It’d been years since I’d seen him. One second I stood at the kitchen counter slicing watermelon and in another I scrolled through pictures of him doing stand-up, remembering the time he’d gently popped half a dozen heart-shaped anal beads out my asshole, one-by-one.
I knew he had a girlfriend; they were engaged. He made jokes about dating fat women, but that was for the stage, I thought. When I found her online, I discovered it wasn’t just for laughs. She had a blog, a photo-stream, and some small one-off sites with little updates about the upcoming wedding.
I scrolled through dozens of pictures of thin, bronzed women—she worked in fashion photography—until I came upon a few selfies. She had a symmetrical face but was at least a hundred and fifty pounds heavier than I. She had better skin than I. She’d dyed her hair a vibrant, cotton-candy blue. Worst of all, she looked happy.
Every evening when Logan arrived home, I got into the habit of tossing a frozen meal in the microwave and sat on the couch, ignoring Ian’s cries, staring into my phone at her photos. I searched for hashtags—his name, hers, their names combined as if they were a celebrity couple. I found out she had a younger sister who favored platform shoes and baggy, high-waisted jeans, sharp-angled sunglasses, and bobbed mousy hair. A few photos surfaced of the girlfriend and the comedian with her family over holidays. Dressed in suits and churchy dresses, standing in front of a piano in the lobby of some expensive-looking hotel. Another couple with the comedian’s father in the hometown he and I shared. In one of the girlfriend’s posts she wrote that their wedding was on the same day as Hitler’s birthday.
The relationship with the comedian wasn’t better. It was just different. A memory I could project onto, a time when someone obsessed over me because of who I was rather than the things I could do for them.
A couple months ago, Mandy and her husband Chaz invited us over for dinner. The weather turned humid and Logan and I bought cans of beer in a cooler we kept in the garage. We maintained a slight buzz for the entire day beforehand, drinking in the sun.
Both families paid for a babysitter and we walked the children up to her house. When we got back, Mandy and Chaz prepared a dinner of roast beef, potatoes, carrots and salad. It was very American. We sat down at the kitchen table in their small house. Mandy sipped white wine from a stemless glass and I spotted a small bottle of Goldschläger on top of the fridge.
We drank beers while I eyed the Goldschläger. Mandy filled our plates with second helpings of beef and potatoes and gravy. The salad sat untouched. Logan and Chaz discussed their jobs, and Chaz announced that he’d gotten fired from his last one. He fidgeted in his chair and didn’t say much, and I noticed he drank mineral water, not beer. Mandy wore her uniform from Family Dollar. The name tag pinned to her shirt said manager.
I complimented the dinner they’d made for us, and Mandy’s mouth split into a smile.
“It’s just the crock pot. It does all the work.”
We continued to drink, except for Chaz. He got up and put a hand on the back of Mandy’s head, stroking his fingers through her dark, curly hair. Chaz said he had to go to the unemployment office early in the morning. When he left for bed, Logan stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. I sat in the kitchen while Mandy cleared plates. I heard the faucet turn on.
She must have seen me eye the bottle on the fridge because she came back with the Goldshläger. I asked if it was difficult to work and parent at the same time.
“I don’t want Jacob to repeat my mistakes,” Mandy said. She grabbed two shot glasses from a cupboard near the stove with one hand and placed one in front of me and one in front of her.
“My mom tried to escape some dangerous habits. Even if she was selfish and coddled and neurotic,” Mandy said.
“Yeah,” I said. I thought about the word coddled and what it implied. My mother had never worked.
I moved the empty beer cans from in between us, a dozen and a half scattered on the table. Mandy opened the bottle of Goldschläger and poured some into my shot glass and then into hers. Gold flakes sparkled as they fell from the bottle.
“Thing is,” she said, “nobody wants to be their own mother when they have a terrible relationship with her. I could have abandoned Jacob or aborted, but I had to escape what I came from.”
She looked behind her towards the bedroom hallway. Then she took my arm and intertwined it with hers, each with our shot glass in our hands. Her breath was soft and sour on my face.
“It would be convenient and a lot easier if I just let myself slip into that,” she said. “But I have to fight against everything that’s encoded in me to be something else.”
“No, yeah, that makes sense,” I said.
Mandy raised her glass.
“To the death of our old selves,” she said.
“To the death of our old selves.”
We tipped our heads back together and sipped the shot down. Some dribbled out of the sides of my mouth, warm and tingling. She kept her arm intertwined with mine and an embarrassing urge grew for her to hug me. She pressed her body into mine and I tucked my head into the crook of her neck, beneath her chin. She stroked my hair for a second and then pulled away to look at me. I thought she might ask me about my mother, but she didn’t. Instead, she kissed me. After that, everything went black.
The day after the fight, I walked with the baby in the stroller. Two young boys played in a front yard as we headed back home, their mothers watching. Ian waved to them, and the older of the two boys, who looked to be four or five, waved back.
“Hey, Lyla!” one mother called. Mandy stood next to the woman. It had been months since I’d seen her. They stood at the edge of the woman’s yard, hips cocked, dressed in athleisure.
“Hey!” I said. Mandy introduced me to the woman, Brittney, and I introduced Brittney to the baby. They seemed friendly with each other.
“You’ve gotten so grown since last I saw you,” Mandy said to the baby. It was true. Ian had just been born when we’d gone over for dinner, his eyes hardly able to focus. We texted back and forth a few times after the dinner party, but nothing came of it. The last time I’d texted her, I asked how she was doing, and she replied, “Good.” And that was it. She never sent another text.
Brittney’s son, Branson, and Mandy’s son, Jacob, rode their bikes together.
“Can’t wait till he’s that age,” I said. “More independent.”
“You’ll miss it,” Brittney cooed. “My oldest is sixteen. I haven’t been around one this little in so long.” Brittney’s eyes were rimmed in black and her hair was pulled back into a sleek ponytail.
“May I?” she asked. I hesitated, but before I could stop her, she’d unbuckled his seat and picked him up out of the stroller. I cringed inside, his diaper sogged with piss. Food and snot had collected around the edges of his nose. She held him for a bit and made soft, cooing noises at him. I only noted how cute and lovable Ian was when around people I didn’t know.
The girlfriend posted videos of their honeymoon, but each time you viewed one, it would record your username. I created a dummy account and discovered they’d taken their honeymoon to Disneyland. Dozens of pictures showed her posing with her hands placed beneath her chin, her tongue tucked behind her teeth, wearing those characteristic mouse ears. I studied the comedian’s smiling face for any sense of false happiness. The rest were just pictures of rides and food—waffles, deep fried cheese, ice cream, hot dogs.
Ian laid down for a nap and I cleaned my floor on my hands and knees with a rag, doing mountain climbers across each portion of the floor. I broke out into a sweat and as I made each pass felt a heightened sense of satisfaction. I checked my phone, wondering if I should log into my throwaway account again, but saw that I had a text from Logan: be home late again. Boys shrieked outside, and I peeked through the blinds. Mandy walked up the street with Brittney, talking, and one woman from across the street had joined them. I checked my phone again. Other than Logan, the last text I’d received was from my mother, three days ago. I wondered if I should call her. It was fashionable to complain about motherhood and I didn’t want to complain. I wanted to be like my neighbors, whose love and affection looked effortless. And it was hard to determine what was the baby and what was just my life. I had never been happy. Every minor success was like, “That’s nice, but what’s next?”
I sat down at my laptop and checked the comedian’s accounts. He’d kept his own pages private since he’d started dating the girl, but on one account, he’d posted photos from the wedding set to public. There was a snapshot of him in his tux. Him smirking. Them smiling together. Sharing cake. I felt sick at the thought he knew I would look for him, that he’d left his page open for me to find.
I scooped the baby out of his crib, leaving a note to Logan telling him I’d be heading to my mother’s. Ian rested against my shoulder as I walked out to the car. I had nothing on my person except my keys, credit card and a cell phone. A case of water sat in the trunk. I buckled Ian into the car seat and drove to the end of the street. Mandy and Brittney waved and I turned right, rolling through the stop sign.
I drove for sixteen hours straight without stopping—except for gas and bathroom breaks.
Ian woke up crying in the backseat as though I’d betrayed him. I kept steady on the road, listened to stacks of CDs, and took an Adderall to keep me awake. My hands trembled when I got to Anaheim. I rolled off the first exit and checked into a hotel near the theme park. The morning sun cut sharp shadows into the parking lot from an enormous sign with plastic pastel colored flags that read:
THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH
I purchased a small bag of toiletries in the hotel lobby and got us settled into our room. I checked social media again to see if the girlfriend had posted any updates but got distracted by a post Logan made from his office. It was a photo of him and his coworkers, making a thumbs-up underneath a piece of graffiti on a wall that said “dicks.” I scrolled more, seeing status updates, photos, videos my friends had been sharing. A kaleidoscopic blur. My friends, even my mother, had been living here this whole time, sad and happy and together all at once without telling me a thing. Once I left their pages behind, they were dead to me. No one reached out, so it forced me to reach in.
After the dinner party at Chaz and Mandy’s, I woke from my drunkenness next to Logan on their couch, and Mandy was standing there naked with a sand-colored towel wrapped around her dark hair. She whispered to Logan and me, something about how we had to leave. I rolled over to check the time on my phone. 4 A.M. I hadn’t remembered falling asleep. Logan was naked from the waist down. I was still drunk.
“You have to leave,” Mandy repeated, “or Chaz says he’s leaving me. Get out.” I tried to reach into my memory, but only broken images came back. I had an image of Logan walking back into the kitchen as Mandy released me from a kiss. Of me looking in surprise at Logan. Of Mandy on the kitchen table, her legs spread open, with my face in between them.
Later that morning we walked home from the babysitter’s and I held the baby in front of me as a kind of shield.
“You set me up,” I said to Logan. “You knew that I would like her, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t know any of that would happen,” he said. “I know them as well as you do.”
Another image came to me once we got home of Logan, standing at the kitchen table while Mandy lay spread-eagled, his taut ass muscles thrusting into her. I sat back in my chair, silent, as if I were watching someone masturbate.
In the hotel, I turned the TV on and prepared oatmeal for my son. Just an information channel that cycled through the various attractions in Anaheim: the restaurants in Downtown Disney, Adventure City, breweries, ballet. I spooned one last bit of oatmeal into Ian’s mouth, wiping up the rest on his chin. I left him on the bed and ran a bath.
The bathroom steamed by the time I got him undressed. The windows had fogged up, but outside it was a clear, blue day. Cicadas and birds sang outside, and the blurry fronds of palms moved in the wind. I tried to imagine what the comedian and his new wife would do at this moment. I pictured a photo of her hair catching in her smiling teeth from the breeze. Holding hands, taking a shuttle back to their hotel. I waited to hear the ring of my phone, but nothing happened. I then placed two white towels on the toilet-seat lid. When I slipped my pants off, something small and heavy fell out of my pocket and clanged against the floor like change. My wedding ring.
Ian splashed in the water as I opened the small bag of toiletries and pulled out a yellow shaving razor. The bright plastic cracked between my teeth and three thin blades fell into my hand like silver insects. I thought of Mandy, and the many lives I’d lived. If I had known that was the only night I’d spend with her, I might have acted different. I might not have slept with her. But maybe it didn’t matter, the way it didn’t matter how hard I tried to not be like my mother. I was cold like her, incapable of letting myself be vulnerable. It was inexcusable. Mandy was right. The only way to avoid becoming your mother is to not become a mother at all.
I got into the bath clothed, clutching the blades, and sat the baby on my lap. I cradled the back of his head with my free hand and held him close, his head underneath my neck. The baby laid his hand on my breast and, drugged by his touch, I thanked Logan, silently, for this special animal he had gifted me.
Ian lifted his head and squeezed his fingers and palm together to mimic waving. I closed my eyes and tried to remember Logan and I lying in bed the night we made our pact, his hand in mine like a protective, iron lock.
“Baba,” my son said.
“Bye-bye,” I said. I lay there a long time, skin pink and veins pulsing from the heat, until I could no longer distinguish the sound of his breathing from my own. A terrible noise erupted from my chest as I moved the blade through my skin. The edges of my vision throbbed into a wide blur and Ian crawled, crying, towards the dripping tap. I knew my actions would not free me. Were we not all living this life because we hoped to live another? I’d wind up here again, I was sure of it, having forgotten everything I’d learned.
Elle Nash is the author of Animals Eat Each Other, featured in O – The Oprah Magazine and hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “complex, impressive exploration of obsession and desire.” A small collection of stories, Nudes, is forthcoming from SF/LD in 2021. Her work appears in BOMB Magazine, Guernica, Lit Hub, Hazlitt, The Fanzine, New York Tyrant, and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine and a fiction editor at Hobart Pulp. She teaches a bi-annual writing workshop called Textures. Find out more at ellenash.net or twitter.com/saderotica.
Next (Jennifer Tseng) >
< Previous (Jenny Molberg)