People said it didn’t rain like it used to, but it had rained every day. At midnight, Stephanie sat on an unopened moving box next to a black, rain-streaked window and tried calling Mike. He finally picked up at one-fifteen. “Just got back,” he said. “I have to be at a meeting in less than six hours. The pace is unbelievable.”
“Mike, you’re going out every night.”
“Goddamn it, Stephanie.”
“Okay, never mind. The kids are fine.” Stephanie’s head felt swollen with fatigue; she couldn’t think of a thing to talk about except phthalates – she’d read an article. “Mike, what do you know about phthalates?”
The binky Bradley had sucked on for ten months was composed of phthalate-laced plastics. Phthalates leached from plastic bowls and cups, bath toys, and from the film sticking to the cheese. Tiny rain coats and backpacks exuded a phthalate stink. Stephanie pried frozen food from disposable dishes lest phthalates bubble in the chicken tetrazzini. The chemicals permeated her make-up, deodorant, and the pink, sweet-smelling baby lotion she’d thrown out. Phthalates had been proven to wreak havoc on the reproductive systems of caged lab animals. Phthalates damaged and depleted human sperm. She imagined lonely sperm with two heads or two tails swimming confusedly in circles. “I’m not even computing what you’re saying to me. I’m trashed, Babe, got to go.”
Stephanie refrained from saying, “Don’t call me ‘Babe.’” That’s what he’d called his first wife, whom he hated. She agreed that it was time to go, pushed the button, and she was back again in a living room with fake wood-paneled walls and orange shag carpet. The carpet smelled faintly of cat pee, more strongly of perfumed chemicals, and was strewn with squeaky toys. Sophie crawled on the carpet. She probably chewed and sucked on the nap.
Stephanie walked through the dark house and looked in on the kids. Bradley was a small lump on the little kid bed; Sophie was squashed against the bars of her crib. The mattresses were discharging fumes, still off-gassing. They’d bought the mattresses at a suburban discount store the day before Mike left for Seattle. He’d been preoccupied with his impending trip, and bullied her through the shopping. The children’s room smelled of chemicals. She bent over Sophie and watched her rosy little mouth inhale the plastic gases.
Stephanie went into the kitchen, slid open the glass door, and stepped into the night. The sky was covered with cloud, no stars, no moon. The rain kept up its steady hiss.
But the plants unfolded; she almost heard them creaking. The plants bloomed, grew. She heard a whimper, a tiny yip. She walked across the wet grass to the small pen in the back of the neighbor’s yard.
The dog’s eyes glowed in the dark. With a groan, he heaved himself onto the wire fence.
Stephanie stroked his damp black head. His big flap of tongue hung from his mouth. He smiled with cones of dark yellow teeth. His breath was rancid. But in the glow of the alley light, the dog’s amber eyes were clear, unafraid, empty of anger, hostility, impatience. His claws were two inches long and encrusted with dog shit. Squashed piles of mildewed feces melted into the mud of the pen.
Dog’s pen was concealed behind a hedge covered in droopy orange blossoms. The hedge bordered a yard planted with native wildflowers. The neighbors’ bungalow had been artfully constructed out of weathered cedar. Stephanie sometimes saw the man and woman rushing to their car, both on their phones, the child trailing behind. She’d given up smiling and calling hello. But then, Stephanie lived in the ugliest house on the block – the rental.
Stephanie stroked Dog, scratched under his jaw, and whispered to him. Dog listened, propped up on his painful hips. She laid her cheek against his damp, doggy head. She was saturated with plasticizers. She was pliable. She bent and didn’t break.
Stephanie overslept. She rushed into the kids’ room. Bathed in the grey morning light, the children lay spread-eagled like little Cristos on their poisonous mattresses. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t wake them from their toxic baby sleep.
She emailed work: “The kids are extremely sick and Mike is in Seattle.” She received the reply: “You need to call and talk to Paula.”
Stephanie called and Paula said, “It is your responsibility to structure your life so that you have reliable child care.”
The computer screen flashed and went black. She punched Ruby’s number into her phone. “Hola,” Ruby said.
“Hola, Ruby. The kids are staying home today.”
“Tell them Senorita Ruby misses them!”
As the coffee machine bubbled and hissed, Stephanie opened the kitchen curtains an inch so that she could observe the couple from next door as they stood in the hovering mist before leaving for work. Dog’s people.
The man had thick black hair and a wonderful jaw line. The woman had straight Nordic hair, fine bones. Their son, a skinny hippie boy, had gold-streaked hair that hung to his elbows.
The couple negotiated: who would pick up the hippie boy from afterschool care, who would pick up groceries, who would “do” dinner, what they should “do” for dinner, who was supposed to have left a check for Renata, the cleaning lady. It was the man’s turn.
The man was head of a prominent non-profit. The one time he and Stephanie had talked across her overgrown grass, he’d told her the name of the organization with such vehemence that her mind had gone white with fright, and she’d not remembered it since.
Dog’s woman was a curator at the art museum. She’d been photographed for the cover of the museum’s brochure. Stephanie had picked up a free copy in the library foyer when she took the kids for a Saturday magic show.
After fierce dickering, during which the hippie boy crouched and yanked on the grass, the woman, furious, returned to the house to write the check. The man and the hippie boy zipped away in the Volvo. At ten o’clock, the cleaning lady walked through the yard with a plastic yogurt tub of dog food.
When the kids woke, Stephanie fed them more chocolate pudding. She scattered pots and pans across the kitchen floor and set the children amongst them to play – a tip she’d picked up from a natural mothering website. She shoved the unpacked boxes out of the living room. On her hands and knees, with a spaghetti pot full of water and an old dish towel, she tried to wash the chemicals out of the orange carpet. Every 15 minutes, she changed the water. It was a huge and hopeless task. A flowery chemical stench, intermingled with the odor of cat urine, billowed off the wet nap.
Bradley hit Sophie on the head with a lid and Stephanie lost an hour. She made them a tent using chairs and a sheet. The children, cheeks damp and red, fell asleep and drooled on the vinyl flooring. The landlord had replaced the floor and wallpaper just before they moved in. The house was filled with a miasma of cat pee, perfume, and newness.
At two, Mike called her cell. “I have a break in the action. Let’s talk.”
“I’m right in the middle of something. The kids are asleep and I’m trying to get chemicals out of the carpet.”
“Why aren’t you at work? Don’t blow that job, Stephanie. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
She listened for Mike, a Mike she recognized, in a nonstop stream of words about deadlines, projects, crunches, amazing opportunities and amazing people. He referred to the brilliant woman he’d worked with the night before.
“What’s her name?” said Stephanie.
“Tell me more about phthalates. I have three minutes,” Mike said.
Stephanie sipped the tea. Her face was hot and she couldn’t breathe, as if having a reaction to something in the water. How could she tell Mike about phthalates in three minutes? She’d also want to talk about the BPA in canned tomatoes, the organophosphates on the celery, chemicals sprayed on lawns, arsenic in the brown rice, flame retardants hidden in the chair and pillows they’d brought from Chicago, glyphosate in the corn flakes and apple sauce. Lead, mercury, dioxin, atrazine, the PFCs, triclosan, and the PBDEs. The everyday poisons they lived amongst could be the topic of a conversation that lasted a day, a week, a year, a lifelong marriage.
She opened the front door to get air, and found a notice. A neighborhood gathering. Sunday 2-4. At Dog’s house.
Stephanie walked into the office, smiled bravely, and glanced about for someone to whom she could say hello. Her colleagues swilled their espressos and stared into the light of their computer screens. Their fingertips fluttered over the plastic keyboards. A woman spoke from six feet away as if Stephanie was infected with a horrific virus. “Feeling better?” the woman asked.
“The kids were sick.” Stephanie smiled bravely. “A 24-hour bug.”
The woman had tiny bare legs in a skirt like an upside down tulip. She pointed at Stephanie’s iced coffee. “The cup goes in bin number two.”
The office’s carpet had been replaced over the weekend. Vapors from the new carpet still hovered in the cubicles. Stephanie found a clot of Dog’s fur on the sleeve of her shirt. She put the fur in an envelope and the envelope in her drawer. In the afternoon, after a particularly hideous meeting, she opened the envelope and smelled Dog.
After work, Stephanie whispered to Dog as he stared into her eyes. Dog stunk. The pads of his paws were smeared with filth. She stroked his head and whispered her fears.
“Oh, Dog.” She gave him an organic dog biscuit. On the way home, she’d gone to a co-op and spent 65 dollars on one bag of groceries. She carried the rice puffs and local organic vegetables inside and went back into the drizzle for the kids.
Thursday. Three days until the block party. Near the water cooler, colleagues stood together laughing. Their sharp shoulders, draped in organic cotton, dared her to come closer.
Stephanie overheard the name of Dog’s man. “He’s my next-door neighbor,” she said.
The circle, closed to her before, opened, fanned out. All eyes lit upon her with skeptical interest. “Really?”
“Yeah, I’m going to their house for a party on Sunday.”
Nods and smiles all around. “Cool.”
A woman sidled up. Tattoos ran from her shoulder to her wrist. She had long shaggy bangs, and a nervous squint. She’d never spoken to Stephanie before. “Do you know his wife? What are they like?”
“Oh, they’re really nice. They have a little boy. They just seem normal to me.”
“Wow! You’d think….”
“The only weird thing,” Stephanie said, confidence blooming in her chest, “is that they have this dog. Super sweet dog….” the circle of faces, re-usable coffee cups held close to their chins, eyes avid with curiosity, was intoxicating, “….and they totally neglect it. They keep the dog locked up in this little pen that’s filled with dog shit. I mean, inches of dog shit! The dog can barely walk. They never, ever let it out….”
The colleagues raised their eyebrows and drifted off to their cubicles. “They’re lovely people,” Stephanie called to their departing backs.
Saturday, Stephanie peeked out blinds and curtains, looking for signs of party preparation. She saw none.
It was raining. The living room carpet was still damp and smelled of mold. She packed the kids into the car, drove to the co-op, and bought tangerines that cost five dollars a pound. Afterwards, on impulse, she stopped at the futon store around the corner from the co-op.
The organic cotton and wool crib mattress cost $395; Sophie would use it for six more months. The child-sized mattress was almost eight hundred dollars. The sales clerk had feathers woven into her long black hair and luminous eyes. She touched Stephanie’s arm as they walked through the store. Stephanie bought a mattress for both kids, feeling reckless, almost high, as she handed over the plastic credit card.
She wrapped the kids’ old mattresses in the plastic packaging from the futons, and put the mattresses on the curb in the drizzle, taped with a little sign: FREE. WARNING:TOXIC/OFF-GASSING. The mattresses were gone within 15 minutes.
The morning of the party, Stephanie woke at five am. The party did not start until two. She found a text Mike had sent an hour before. Crashing under pressure. Thank god u have that job. Call me
Stephanie removed the squishy plastic boats and little ducks and scrubbed out the tub with non-toxic powder. She filled the tub with steaming water. She climbed in and watched her legs, arms, breasts and stomach turn red as living coral. Her dark long hair floated on the surface. The shower curtain breathed on her.
She studied the black mildew that traced the tile’s grout, and remembered being a child dreaming of being a woman, and now she was a woman dreaming of the child she had been. Stephanie twisted the faucet’s handle and nearly boiling water, white with tiny bubbles, gushed out. She perhaps doubled her carbon footprint for the day.
The kids slept on and on, curled in baby slumber on their organic mattresses. Sophie had peed on hers in the first 15 minutes. Together they watched the baby urine infuse the cotton.
Stephanie let more water gush into the tub and considered the chlorine and other toxins being absorbed by her body. Oh well. She was no longer breastfeeding. When Stephanie had first learned how many toxins were in breast milk, she’d felt faint. Was milk still milk when it was laced with rocket fuel, dioxin, pesticides, and flame retardants? For four months, she pumped the toxin-suffused milk into little glass bottles she delivered to the daycare in an insulated nylon lunch box lined with frozen blue blocks.
After the bath, Stephanie wrapped her hair in a towel and put on Mike’s old robe. She sat in front of the computer to look at pictures of Mike’s revelries from the night before. In one photo, posted by a Bethany Walters, Mike tipped back in his chair. His arm was hooked around a woman’s head. His face was buried in her neck. Her face was hidden in his hair.
There was a thump in the children’s room. Sophie wailed. Stephanie returned to the computer with Sophie squalling in her arms. The picture had been deleted.
Stephanie dressed in black capris and a black t-shirt, an outfit she’d chosen a week before. She had a ring of tiny red tooth marks on her upper arm, and felt wan and headachey as if she’d been exposed to a toxin. She looked one last time at the invitation. Fine print: Potluck. We will be offering filtered spring water and organic locally brewed beer.
She grabbed the plastic bag of tangerines and armed herself with her kids. Sophie wore a chlorine-free co-op diaper.
Stephanie and the children crossed her weedy, overgrown grass and stepped onto the neighbor’s property. It was the first sunny day in nearly two months.
A table draped with a batik cloth had been set up in the side yard. Dog’s woman, in an ankle-length, fuchsia sundress, stood arranging the compostable cups. Her blonde hair lay flat against a back strewn with black freckles and moles. She turned around. “Hello,” she said ominously. “You must be here for the gathering.”
Up close, Dog’s woman was fragile, bony, spotted by the sun. Chemically-bleached hair framed a wary face etched with fine lines.
“Yeah, I’m next door. I’ve met your husband. I’m Stephanie. This is Sophie….” she jutted out her hip. “Bradley.” She raised his warm sticky hand.
“Ah,” Dog’s woman flourished her hand, then tucked it into her armpit, “you’re the rental.” There was a long pause that Dog’s woman seemed unwilling to fill.
“So….what’s your little boy’s name?”
Dog’s woman looked over at the hippie boy, who sat in the grass with his head dangling between his knees. Finally, she said, “His name is Nelson.”
Dog’s man burst out the side door of the house. He started with irritation at the sight of Stephanie and her children. He ignored them and addressed his wife. “Those avocados are absolutely unusable. They are hard as stones.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” said Dog’s woman through her teeth. They stared at each other as if having a contest. Dog’s man whipped around and returned to the house. Dog’s woman turned back to Stephanie and tapped her fingers against her ribs. “We thought we’d put out some guacamole. We intended this as a potluck. Perhaps that didn’t come through in the invitation.”
“Oh, it did! I got these organic tangerines at the co-op. They’re wonderful.”
Dog’s woman smiled icily and did not look at the tangerines. She gazed over Stephanie’s head and called to the house, “Tom, the neighborhood has arrived.” Dog’s man did not emerge.
Like a swarm of bees, a mob advanced down the walkway. The crowd consisted of a few single women, two lesbian couples, a male couple, the rest pairs of men and women. The men were all bearded and wore little fedoras; the women looked muscular and fit in slinky maxi dresses. Everyone was in their thirties, and white, still so odd after Chicago, and almost everyone was accompanied by at least one little kid.
Dog’s woman stepped away from Stephanie. She pressed her hands together, and bowed. “Welcome.”
A woman set a platter on the table. “I made organic eggplant caviar. Dairy and gluten free.” The eggplant mush looked terrible and intestinal and was covered with plastic wrap. The woman removed the wrap and licked eggplant off her thumb.
The crowd surged forward with their babies and brightly colored platters. The men and women popped open bottles of organic beer and exchanged toasts. “Here’s to long friendships and good neighbors!”
A woman with a buzz cut carried a fat blonde infant in a sling. “Who are you?” she asked Stephanie.
“I live next door.” Stephanie indicated the house with a shrug of her shoulder.
“Oh, you’re the rental! Sorry, I need to speak to someone. Lila!” The woman’s face lit up and she scampered off.
Sophie spit spelt pita onto Stephanie’s shoulder. A man, whose unbuttoned shirt revealed the sun tattoo on his chest, jostled past and splashed Bradley. He laughed and tried to brush the beer out of Bradley’s hair.
“It’s OK.” Stephanie smiled, but the man had already turned away. Her head buzzed as if a noisy fly bounced inside her skull.
She and the children were pulled by the crowd’s tide into the circle that surrounded Dog’s woman. Dog’s woman said, “I highly recommend the exhibition. It’s remarkable.”
“Heather, will you be giving any tours this week?”
“How long is the exhibition up?”
“Not everyone would appreciate it,” said Dog’s woman. Her gaze lingered on Stephanie and her children. She raised each beautiful finger in succession as if counting the seconds to an execution. “It’s abstraction taken to the extreme.” A man in a pork pie hat looked sideways at Stephanie, and took a step back.
Bradley pulled Stephanie’s arm and whined. Sophie coughed, rubbed her eyes, and wheezed into Stephanie’s ear. The plastic baggie of organic tangerines still dangled from her fist.
“I have guacamole!” Dog’s man came out the side door and kicked it shut. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and blue shorts, and carried a bowl in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other. He tripped on the last step, but caught the striped bowl. “Thank God I saved it! I swear upon my only child’s soul that you have never tasted guacamole before.”
The crowd turned and migrated to the table and the green dip. “It’s fabulous, Tom.”
“Tom, we didn’t think you were here. Fantastic to see you.”
Stephanie and her children were left alone with Dog’s woman. Dog’s woman stood with a face emptied of expression. Her small pink fingertips pressed together.
The drunken voice of Dog’s man rose above the party clamor. “No, I haven’t been to the museum in years. I prefer representational art and see quite enough of Heather at home.”
He shook back his boyish bangs, then leaned into the neck of a woman in a low-slung skirt, and growled. The woman’s tan belly was encircled by a silver chain strung with ornaments. Dog’s man ran a finger beneath the chain. “If I’m not mistaken, this came from Kerala….”
Dog’s woman gazed at Stephanie, but as if coated with plastic, her eyes did not shine.
Stephanie felt wrapped in plastic, yards and yards of filmy plastic stamped with warnings. She stood, weighted by her kids, by Dog’s woman. “You remind me of a song,” said Dog’s man, and he sang a few lines, while the neighbors sipped their beers. The young woman’s boyfriend pulled her away and the crowd dispersed.
Dog’s woman stared across the green grass. She tilted her head and her face broke into a thousand tiny cracks. “My marriage is shit.”
Dog’s woman said it so quietly that Stephanie wondered if she’d imagined it, just as, looking around at the bright sunny day, perhaps she’d dreamed up the endless rain. Maybe phthalates weren’t real either.
Stephanie touched Dog’s woman’s arm – it was cool and leathery. “Heather…”
Dog’s woman took one step back and held up her fine-boned hand. She lifted her trembling lip. “Don’t even.”
Stephanie shifted Sophie’s weight. She wiped her sweaty hand on her capris, then took Bradley’s hand again. For the first time in months, the sun blazed down and burned a line down the middle of her head, and burned the soft skin on her children’s arms and faces. She was glad, after all, to stay silent. In the silence, loneliness warmed her like a friend.
“What I need from you is an apology,” Dog’s woman said, but she was talking to herself. She took a deep breath and smiled ferociously. “Here we go.”
Dog’s woman drew her thin shoulders back and walked toward the nearest neighbors. Stephanie, once again, stood alone with her children. And the house, yard, people, the light itself seemed malleable with properties easily absorbed.
The hippie boy sat with his head between his bony white knees. He ripped up grass like he was pulling out the hair of someone he hated.
“What’s the dog’s name?” said Stephanie. The boy set his tiny teeth and flared his nostrils. Stephanie lowered Sophie onto the lawn. Sophie’s fat legs poked out from her bulky diaper. She squished grass between her fingers. Bradley crouched and squinted into the distance like an old cowboy.
The boy tore at the grass with both hands. He’d cleared a bare patch of dirt. He scratched at the dirt with his fingernails. Orange light glittered on leaves and grass. The adults roared at some quip.
Stephanie brushed his curled back with the tip of her finger. “Nelson, how come you guys never let the dog out of his cage?”
The boy raised his face. He had a little square chin like a matchbox. He rubbed a piece of grass between his finger and thumb and stared at it forebodingly. “His name is Caesar. We can’t let him out because he goes crazy.”
Nelson jumped up and stomped on the haystack of torn stems. He pulled his jacket up over his head and ran in crazy circles across the lawn, finally halting where his mother stood in her long pink gown. She pulled him against her body. Latin American music began to blare from tiny iPod speakers.
“Nelson, dance with me!” Dog’s woman said. The boy shook his head and ducked out from beneath her arms. The woman held out her hands. “Nelson, dance with me. Please?” Nelson bunched his fists against his eyes and hid beneath his hair.
Stephanie lifted Sophie off the grass. She walked with the children to the pen behind the hedge of orange flowers. Dog turned in a slow, excited circle in his fecal mush. The water in his crusty dish was slimy. Dog heaved himself up onto the fence. She stroked his head.
She handed Bradley the tangerines and unlatched the gate. With Sophie wedged against her hip, she led Dog from the pen. Dog had a huge, swollen body. His black fur was caked with dried mud. He limped. His long toe nails caught against the ground.
Hidden by the hedge, they slowly made their way around the back of the pen to her old Subaru station wagon. She set Sophie down. The kids, red-cheeked and lovely as children in a fairytale, stood watching.
She unlocked the back hatch, raised it, spread out the old blue baby blanket with satin trim. She took hold of Dog’s greasy collar and urged him up. He heaved his filthy front paws up into the car and trembled on his old legs. He panted, his tongue hanging over his teeth.
Oh Dog. Laughter like soap bubbles cascaded over the fence.
Stephanie crouched, propped her shoulder beneath his hind end, and hoisted the matted, stinking, shaking creature into the back of the car. Dog scrambled across the floor. She shut the hatch.
Dog rested his jaw on the seatback between the children. He baptized the children in his ancient dog breath. He touched Sophie’s cheek with his black nose. She laughed and rubbed her cheek against her shoulder, then lifted her cheek for Dog to touch again.
The tires sizzled down the graveled alley. The lush branches of trees scratched and banged the roof of the car. Stephanie hung onto the dimpled steering wheel. They had one plastic bag of organic tangerines. She had no idea where they were going. Maybe the co-op, maybe Ruby’s, or even Seattle. She, the children, and Dog would barge into Mike’s office and pile onto his lap. She’d bite his neck and taste his toxic blood.