It's five thirty in the morning on a Thursday in June. Blair Parks sips her coffee and thinks about her husband spreading the thighs of another woman as wide as butterfly wings.
She imagines him smelling her. And then tasting her, his tongue circling, flicking.
Blair's hand covers her mouth. She puts her cup down.
She can't sleep. But she's been doing this in the morning now, indulging these obscene thoughts. Nothing feels good about starting her day like this, but it helps to satisfy her obsessive worrying so she can move on. Otherwise, she'll find herself consumed when she doesn't want to be. Staring at the shelf of stain removers at the store, the ones in commercials that desexualize middle-aged stay-at-home mothers like her, while she imagines a younger woman's mouth filled with her husband's semen.
She pours a second cup that won't taste as good as the first and thinks about how hungry she is for something more. Although what, she can't name. The problem isn't just boredom. Or a wistful longing. Not her sedate, ten-year marriage and the ticking clock to complete irrelevance. Is this normal? Is this how other women her age feel?
The idea of saying any of this aloud, to anybody, makes her diaphragm tighten. More than usual. It's better to lift her chin and quietly face whatever hour is ahead of her. And the next hour after that, lest anyone suspect she's this miserable. It's beneficial for everyone, she knows, if the indifference takes over. If she soldiers on, without the energy to care about what it is she really wants. Or how she really feels when her alarm goes off in the morning.
Vulnerability, she knows, is something she should work on, something women are now supposed to exercise like a muscle. The books and podcasts and motivational speakers have told them so. She tries to admire the ones who admit they've made choices they regret and resolve, loudly, to change. But that kind of upheaval is not for her. She cannot see any other life for herself. And she cannot separate the shame of having gotten it all so wrong.
Another cup later, her daughter's bedroom door squeaks on its hinges upstairs. Her footsteps tap down the hardwood in the hallway. The toilet flushes in their only bathroom, and the plumbing hisses through the house. Blair wipes her hand across her tired face.
Somewhere along the line, blaming Aiden for the way she felt about her life became convenient. He's been a reliable depository for her anger. She dumps and dumps and dumps, and he never seems to overflow. In her mind, there was little consequence to this-they are married, and separation isn't an option for Blair. The dismantling, the shape of everything changing. The perception. The impact on the daughter upstairs. She can't fathom it.
The water runs from the bathroom tap. She hears Chloe pop open the mirrored cabinet where their three toothbrushes share a cup. She puts a bagel in the toaster for her daughter's breakfast. She's already taken the cream cheese out of the fridge so it's room temperature, the way Chloe likes it.
Attributing her misery to an underperforming marriage had helped her cope well enough, until a week and a half ago, when she found a tiny piece of foil wrapper in the pocket of Aiden's jeans. Less than a square inch. Garbage, to any other person who was to pick it up from the laundry room floor after turning the pants inside out for the wash. But she recognized the texture of the ribs in the packaging. And the emerald jewel tone. It looked exactly like the condoms they used years ago. Every morning since she found it, she's opened the drawer where she keeps it and places it on her palm to wonder.
There are countless other things it could be from. A granola bar. A mint from a business lunch.
But more than any proof she has, is a feeling.
She'd once heard them described as the whispers-the moments that are trying to tell you something isn't right here. The problem is that some women aren't listening to what their lives are trying to tell them. They don't hear the whispers until they're looking back with hindsight. Feeling blindsided. Desperate to see the truth for what it is.
But maybe she's just paranoid. Too much time on her hands to think.
She hears Chloe's feet hit the stairs and spreads the cream cheese carefully. The wide-open thighs come back to her. Aiden's fingers opening the woman's tight, waxed lips. How nice he'd be to her afterward. Maybe she makes him laugh. The hair rises on Blair's arms. She thinks again of how Aiden didn't ejaculate during the only night they had sex last month. Of how he's been checking his phone more than usual.
Chloe is nearly at the bottom of the staircase. She closes the imaginary thighs and puts the halves of the bagel together. And then she turns around and forces herself to smile, so that like every other morning of her daughter's life, Blair's beaming face is the first thing Chloe sees.
The resident briefs her as they hustle through the double doors to the resuscitation bay, their sneakers squeaking on the resin floor. She feels the humid air from outside before she sees the paramedics push the gurney into the hands of her team. A ten-year-old male found unconscious at 11:50 p.m., suspected primary brain injury from a fall, no obvious signs of trauma. The nurse steps back as Rebecca snaps on the blue gloves and turns to lift the patient's eyelids.
Her hands pull back. The child's face. She looks up at the nurse on his other side.
"I know him. His name is Xavier. He lives across the street from me."
"Do you want to-"
"No." She shakes her legs to get the feeling back. The curtain is about to lift. "I'm okay, I'm fine. Vitals? Let's go, come on."
Her hands are firm on his small body as she calls the orders, and in seconds the choreography she's performed for years takes over. Tracheal intubation. Veins punctured. CT scan ordered stat. She is never with a child on the trauma table for long, but each minute is crucial and methodical, each second squeezed of its potential, and yet at the end, when everything that can be done is done, she only looks back on those minutes as a mass of time with either one outcome or the other.
"The parents, are they here? Where are they?" She peels off her gloves and pitches them in the garbage bin. She looks back to Xavier's gray face, his mouth gagged open with the tube she'd guided into him. She brushes back a strand of his damp hair. The ground where he landed would still be wet from yesterday's rain. She touches his cheek.
Hundreds of parents have sat waiting for her in the vinyl-covered hospital chairs. The ease with which she can form the words sometimes concerns her. But she has never known her patient before. She has never watched them wash the neighbors' cars in a mound of suds, or known that their bike is cobalt blue with neon-green handlebar grips. She's never had to tell a friend that her child may never recover.
Her adrenaline settles as she leaves the trauma room. She sees the reflection of fluorescent light on the hallway floor, and her senses start to return: the respiratory fellow being paged, the whine of a child in the waiting room, the antiseptic in the air. She takes her phone from her pocket. She wants to call Ben, to feel the calm of his voice, but he'll be asleep already. And Whitney is waiting for her.
Rebecca knocks on the open door of the small room where they've put her. She's sitting at a round table, staring at the box of rough tissues she's been given. She doesn't look up.
"Whitney, I'm so sorry."
Whitney moves her head slowly like a robot with a battery running down. She says nothing. Rebecca takes the seat beside her and puts her hand on Whitney. She does this, touches the parent on the arm or the shoulder, to make the words she says next feel more personal, less routine. This had been, years ago, a part of the emotional order set she created for herself. Empathy hadn't always come as easily to her as it does now. When she was younger, she'd been better at other parts of her job, things that were definitively measured, assessments of her competency. Things she could prove.
Whitney's eyes close as her mouth opens, but her voice is strained. The beginnings of words she has forgotten how to form.
"Can you tell me what happened?"
Rebecca waits for her to repeat what the first responders reported: that she checked on him before she went to sleep, and he was gone from his bed and the window was open. She looked down to see him on the grass below. That she has no idea what happened. Come on, Whitney, tell me exactly that.
She thinks of the backyard, the rectangle of manicured grass the paramedics would have lifted him from. Rebecca had last been there in September for the neighborhood party.
She doesn't want to think of Whitney's anger that afternoon. Of the child's cries from his room as she screamed at him.
"I want to talk to you about Xavier's condition."
Whitney covers her face with one hand. "Just tell me if he's going to die." Her voice squeaks in an octave barely audible.
Rebecca reaches for Whitney's other hand. Her fingers are cold and curled into a fist. Whitney pulls back, but Rebecca squeezes her firmly until she gives in. Rebecca isn't intimidated by much, but there was something about Whitney when they first met. Her verve, her polish, the astuteness of her words when she spoke.
But over time, as their lives quietly orbited each other's, that effect wore off. There is a strong sense of familiarity about someone whose life shares such close physical proximity, given all the possible coordinates on the planet. She and Whitney breathe from the same tiny pocket of air. She sees her garbage cans on Wednesdays and knows they don't recycle everything they could. She knows she has a shopping habit, sees the stacks of packages teetering at the front door, nice department stores, courier bags left for the nanny to collect. She knows one of them-either Whitney or Jacob-doesn't sleep well. Rebecca sees the kitchen lights flick on when she comes home in the middle of the night. She sees the empty wine bottles in the transparent blue recycling bags.
The backyard party isn't the only time she's heard Whitney yell. Right through those towering panes of glass at the front of her home, the unmistakable pitch of a mother who has had enough. She'd felt unsettled every time, like she had at the barbecue, embarrassed to have heard her. What else happens in that house, she isn't sure, but that kind of speculation makes her uncomfortable. She is a doctor, and what she cares about are facts. She finds comfort in facts.
"Xavier has significant injury-we're worried about his head. He's in the ICU, in a medically induced coma to rest his brain. They're going to talk to you there about what to expect for the next little bit, okay? In situations like this, we learn a lot in the first seventy-two hours. I know this is hard to hear, Whitney, but I need you to understand there's a possibility he might not regain consciousness."
Whitney is unmoved.
Rebecca pauses to soften her voice. "Do you understand?"
She feels Whitney's hand begin to quiver and she looks closely at her striking face. The tight sheen of her forehead. Her microbladed eyebrows. Of the outward perfection.
"Is Jacob with the twins?"
Whitney closes her eyes and shakes her head. "London. For work. Our nanny came over right away, but I had to wait for her." Her voice curls. "I couldn't go with him in the ambulance."
Rebecca tells Whitney she'll take her to see him now, that he's intubated, and there is swelling. That this might frighten her, but he's not in any pain. Another doctor will have to take over from there. The door slides open behind them and Rebecca turns to see a nurse with two police officers.
They'll want to speak with Whitney; it's routine. Rebecca registers the discomfort of this, although the questions they'll need to ask don't concern her, not technically. Rebecca shakes her head in their direction-Please, not now, not yet-and the nurse guides the officers down the hallway instead.
"There are studies that show patients in this condition know when family members are with them. You can hold his hand and talk to him, like you would if he was awake. Okay?"
Whitney stands and gathers the hem of her sweatshirt in her hands. She lets Rebecca slip her strong, steadying arm under her as they walk down the hall. Until Whitney becomes rigid. She turns her face toward Rebecca and their eyes meet for the first time.
"Is this why you don't have children?"
Rebecca pauses. She doesn't know what to say. This job? This hospital? This constant fear of something going wrong, the unbearable pain if it does?
She thinks of the hours she has spent on the floor of her bathroom. The bloody orbs sinking to the bottom of toilet bowls, the dancing strings of mucus. The weight of the hand towel on her lap on the way to the hospital.
Why doesn't she have children? Because she cannot keep her own alive.
"Good morning, darling girl. How'd you sleep?"
Chloe slips her arms around Blair's soft middle and squeezes. She's a slate wiped clean each morning. Blair rips a banana from the fruit bowl and puts it on her plate, along with one of the muffins she made yesterday while it rained in the afternoon. Because it had been Wednesday, and that is what she does on Wednesdays. The muffins, the bedsheets, the rinsing of the washing machine drum with white vinegar and baking soda. Sometimes she feels embarrassingly unevolved.
Chloe licks the excess cream cheese from the side of the bagel and makes noises of approval.
She wonders if Aiden ever notices the list she works her way through every day. Or the schedule she writes in the squares of the kitchen calendar. She wonders if he knows an eleven-year-old washing-machine drum needs to be cleaned at all. Maybe she'll leave the soiled rags on his side of the bed tonight, so that at least he'll know what an eleven-year-old washing machine smells like.
Copyright © 2023 by Ashley Audrain. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.