By Kayle Nochomovitz-
The slender tips of my wife’s shoulders rose and fell as her breath settled into a rhythm, and she curled away from me in our bed. Her soft snores, the only sounds I would hear from her for a while, soothe me even when we have fought, like tonight. Sometimes, we don’t speak for hours after one of our battles. If our fight has been nasty, our silence can last for days.
This fight started because I got home from work and the recycling hadn’t been taken out. My commute home from the physical therapy office where I see patients takes at least an hour and a half. It can take two when the Belt Parkway gets backed up. Tonight, when I came through the back door into the kitchen, the recycling bins overflowed with seltzer cans, Gatorade bottles, and Chinese-food takeout containers dripping syrupy brown liquid to the floor. It was late, after eight-thirty pm, so I knew I would be the one to collect the whole mess and drag it to the curb. It was Liam’s job, but of course, he didn’t do it. Liam is my wife’s son.
“How come the recycling’s still here? Where’s Liam?” I asked her.
She was sitting in front of her computer at the dining room table. It looked like everybody had eaten. The table didn’t have any plates on it anymore, just a jagged brown stain that ran down one side of the pink tablecloth. Underneath the table, crumbs littered the floor. Would it have been a big deal for someone to vacuum after they had finished? Every night I end up vacuuming, no matter how beat I am. When I got close to MaryAnn, she closed her laptop like I was going to spy on what she was doing. The thing is, when she acts like that, I do want to know what she’s up to. She says she’s writing a book, but it seems to be taking a long time. I can’t help feeling like she’s writing about me because why else would she insist on closing the damn machine whenever I get near her? I’ve asked her if I can read what she’s working on, but she just says it’s not ready. It’s hard to believe that’s the real reason.
Anyway, she didn’t answer my question, which was my first hint that we would have trouble.
“Where’s Liam?” I said again.
“Leave him alone, Peter. He came home from school not feeling well.”
My hand flew to the back of my neck, and I started to rub. I didn’t even need to know the rest of the story. I could just see it: The kid comes home with a headache or maybe the touch of a fever, and already he’s setting himself up to get out of the work, and my wife—she’s a smart woman, believe me, but not in this case—she’s going along with the whole damn thing. I would never let my kids get away with that kind of shit. I tell them they have to pitch in, just like I do. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got a little something going on. Chin up and deal, I tell them. I always had to.
In the days when we had a kitchen that had a window, my mother would be sitting at the kitchen table staring outdoors when I came home from school. She’d barely lift her head when I came into the room. Sometimes I wondered whether she’d been sitting like that all day, ever since I left that morning. Even back then, when I was young, she complained that her body hurt her—her knees, her feet, her hands. I always thought, well, if you would get up and move more, you might not feel so awful. But she didn’t listen to me. Seeing her like that made the back of my neck hot and prickly. She had gotten so big that when she sat in that kitchen chair in her black housedress, the fabric-encased rolls of her belly covered the top of her thighs. Sometimes when I came through the kitchen door, she’d lift one finger like it was an effort to raise and point that finger at the refrigerator. Then I’d know that there was food in there I could eat.
The fridge was either full or empty. If my mother had been on a cooking binge, oval-shaped casserole containers covered with Corelle plates supported rusted pans that had come off the stovetop. Mugs of turbid gravy sat jammed in between open cans of Fanta and ketchup bottles encrusted with a snot-like residue, partially but not completely dried. To find something that I wanted to eat, I’d have to make my way through the mess, often spilling one substance or another over myself in the process. This was a far cry from how I imagined rich people’s fridges to look or from what I would see on television, where a sleek unit filled with matching glass containers fitting neatly into one another showcased all the food inside.
My mother cooked to forget about the ration lines of her childhood in Tel Aviv. But as quickly as she would prepare food, she would forget it was there. To figure out what I might want, I had to uncover things. Cauliflower turned fuzzy and green from neglect would sometimes greet me, or a rancid chartreuse sludge that coated a long-since-left mug of chicken broth. When odors became overwhelming, my brother and I would fight about who would empty the fridge, dump the offending dishes into the garbage, and wipe the vessels down with paper towels before soaking everything in hot water and soap.
Sometimes when I came home, my mother would speak.
“Ech Haya? (How was it?)” she would say in Hebrew, which wasn’t even her mother tongue but was the only language she and I had in common—although my own Hebrew was choppy and only accumulated from phrases I picked up when she was on the phone with her brothers.
She would nod and sniffle and fall silent again. She never taught me to speak German, her first language, and her English was poor. I never felt that she understood me when I spoke to her. So, to get attention, I stole old peanut butter jars from her kitchen and filled them with salamander eggs or tiny tree frogs. Or I would take apart the house telephone or the living room radio. At those times, and plenty of others, my mom came after me with a hairbrush. The upside of all this was that I ran away from her and got out of the house a lot. I spent hours climbing rocks in the Oakland hills, even when it was raining. I learned to whittle tree branches for tools and to tie good knots, to find food all over the neighborhood, mostly in my friends’ refrigerators, but occasionally in the dumpster behind El Agavero in Piedmont. Around age ten or eleven, I learned to hitchhike because I was scared to rely on my own two feet if the weather got rough or if there was talk of an earthquake. Somehow, I always managed to get myself safely to bed at the end of the day.
My wife doesn’t seem to get what it all does to a person, how my throat starts to close, and I have to fight the urge to bolt when I come home to have my bare feet feel the sandy grittiness of breadcrumbs or the nauseating softness of cooked pasta that has dropped to the floor. Or how cardboard boxes thrown every which way become unbalanced and scatter at my feet, empty milk gallons bounce, and bean-encrusted tin cans clatter against each other like the roar of a landslide threatening to bury me.
“I’m hungry,” my stepson says when he comes home from school. He sits on the couch and waits for my wife to prepare him something. He will not eat leftovers.
Doesn’t she get how she’s creating kids who can’t take care of themselves, kids who are going to grow up to be just like the entitled jerks I went to school with, the ones who showed up wearing Guess jeans and Members Only jackets and whose mothers picked them up in tidy sedans after school? Mothers whom, if I got lucky, I might successfully beg for a ride?
My wife wants me to be perfect. She doesn’t cut me any slack.
It used to be that when I came home from work, she would get up from whatever she was doing and throw her body up against mine, and if I’d had a long day, she’d rub my head or the back of my neck. Tonight, her arms stayed pinned in place against her sides. Her lips barely opened as she spoke. It was like her whole body was encased in rock.
“Why do you give in to him?” I said. “He’s manipulating you.”
She leaned back against the kitchen counter and crossed her arms tighter against herself. With the tiniest flick of her chin, she moved a strand of dark hair away from her face, just like Liam. In her eyes, as I’ve seen happen in his a million times, the fiery flicker of rebellion and hatred gathered. I knew she was about to leave the room. Liam bolts whenever he thinks I'll come near him, and lately, she’s just the same. “You would think that,” she said.
And then, I’m not sure why exactly; maybe it was the extra-long commute tonight, or maybe just because I was so damn sick of all of this, I couldn’t help but get into it with her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She stuck her neck out and put her face right up against mine. Her nostrils flared, her eyes got glazed and dark, and her skin turned bright red one second and the next so pale it almost looked green. “You know exactly what it means,” she said. “You always assume the worst about him. About everyone, frankly.”
In retrospect, what I did then wasn’t the most brilliant move, but I couldn’t stand all the craziness around me a second longer. It was like I didn’t even exist. “I’m gonna end this bullshit,” I said. I grabbed a plate from an open kitchen cabinet and hurled it against the back window. We heard a smashing sound like a firecracker up close or a gunshot. Shards of ceramic fell and scattered into the pile of recycling so that anyone who picked any of it up after that would have to wear gardening gloves or get sliced open like a ripe melon.
That’s when she went ballistic. She squirmed out from under me and ran up the stairs to the boys’ room, and before I could stop her, she’d closed the door and locked it so that all the boys were inside there with her, my son too. I stood outside the door in the dark at the top of our narrow square landing and pounded on the door, but she didn’t answer. A couple of times, my son said, “Daddy? Daddy?” But then he was quiet after that. I could picture the other kids hovering around him and telling him to shut up and my wife holding her finger to her lips. By that point, my son was probably grinning because he’d just realized the scenario gave him access to a secret club he’d wanted to join since we all started living together six months ago.
I thought I’d bust right through their bedroom door.
Her boys started to cry and whimper the louder I banged. I yelled to my boy, but he didn’t answer, and there was nothing I could do. This brought tears to my eyes, but I forced them back deep. My wife only came out of there once all the kids were asleep, and I was in bed too. I heard her step into our room, probably checking to make sure I was sleeping. Then she took a shower. When she came to bed, I didn’t hear her at first because it must have been past one. Since I’m a light sleeper, though, it didn’t take me too long to wake up. My wife didn’t realize I was awake. She slipped a tank top on and a pair of pajama pants and climbed silently under the covers on her side.
I figured the upheaval had passed, especially because she had bathed, which usually calms her down. I wanted to say something to her, but I had no idea what to say, so I grunted so she’d know I was up. All I wanted was to be able to pull her close and feel her body against mine and let that be enough for both of us. But all I had in front of me was a view of the sloping peaks of her shoulders, letting me know that she was not ready. I lay there, knowing that it didn’t matter whether I was there at all. Maybe I really had disappeared deep under the earth, never to be seen again. I knew I had to climb out from under, but I couldn’t.
Dirt pressed hard against my limbs. Filth and stench filled my mouth and nostrils so that pain cracked my lips and burned the inside of my nose. I couldn’t breathe even a sip of breath because there was no space anywhere. I felt myself shrinking and shrinking until the boundaries of my body completely disappeared. Eventually, a burning, hollow pain in my core bore through the earth around me to create a tunnel. I reached through and out and touched my wife. The slightest trace of my fingertips on her skin made her shift and slide further from me to the bed’s precipice.
Kayle Nochomovitz is a writer and professor of Creative Writing and Composition at The City College of New York and Purchase College. In 2019, she won the Jerome Lowell Dejur Award in Fiction for an early draft of SHOREBIRD, her novel in progress. Her writing has also been published in Adelaide magazine. A graduate of Brown University, The New York Studio School, and The City College of New York, she resides in Riverdale, NY.