Daycare was alleged to give her time to not only work, but cook and clean, but she had lost a couple hours with her trip downtown. She put Linney in her bouncy chair and worked up some chicken and pasta while she threw newspapers and magazines into random baskets and clothes into closets and hampers and cranked through some laundry. Nils did at least half of everything, maybe more, and the free restaurant credits meant they didn’t have to eat at home much. But Malone still felt guilty because she didn’t make much money and thought she ought to do more than her share at home to make up for it. He’d grown up with women taking care of him, the adored baby brother, and had managed to shake it off pretty well, but feminist enlightenment only went so far.
She had things almost at an acceptable level when he got home. She was nursing Linney and then they’d eat, and then bath and bed. She waited until Linney was down for the night, about 11, and they were lying around reading, watching TV, and working on the computer—Nils doing all at once—to bring it up.
“I’m really worried about the Jackson situation,” she said.
He looked up from the computer. “Have they found out anything new?”
“No,” she said. “I’m just worried about how he’s doing. I mean, everyone has admitted that it was nothing and all a mistake, but this could be the kind of thing that makes it so he never gets back to where he was.”
“Just as well,” Nils said vaguely, reaching for the remote and changing to another sports news station before going back to the computer screen.
“What does that mean?” she said.
“I don’t know, just that it’s better if he keeps to himself for a while. Maybe for a long time. Look, I’m trying to finish up this email here.”
She waited a while, reading a two-month-old fanzine Bebe had sent her way. He finished up on the computer and started scanning channels again. Then she spoke up again: “I was thinking of trying to do something for him.”
“What, like a telethon?” he snorted. Then he looked up. “Wait. No. What are you talking about?”
“I mean line up some kind of interview, maybe with Bebe. Get quotes from people who know him, who know he’d never do anything like that. Maybe shots of his house, the art he collects. People just don’t know Jackson, he’s such a hermit. So they believe all that crazy shit. If they knew what he was really like…”
Nils sat down next to where she was curled up on the couch. He rubbed at his jaw and sighed. He was in what she thought of as the “bench position,” the one he folded his tall, lanky body into when he meant business, a forearm on his knees, neck craned up to look into the distance. Like he was watching the final minutes of a game he wasn’t in, but cared about desperately.
“Why don’t you let him do that himself?” he said.
“He can’t do it himself.”
Nils looked at her.
“He really can’t,” she said. “He’s a total idiot about everything but music. Or art, stuff like that. You know that. If he had any clue about how to look after himself he’d be way richer. Like Seth. You have no idea what an asshole he’s turned into.” She shook her head and almost started telling him what a waste Seth was lately, but thought better of it. He’d be pissed about her not telling him earlier, and he’d start questioning whether she should be involved in this book at all. It was too late to go back on that, and besides, there wasn’t any danger involved in going to the opening party at Seth’s. Unless maybe Seth got fucked up and tripped over her. She almost laughed. Or OD’ed that night. Not so funny. Maybe things might get a little sketchy. But it was only one night of her life, and there would plenty of handlers around to make sure Seth would be on good behavior.
“At least Seth isn’t a pedophile,” Nils said.
“Neither is Jackson, for god’s sake!” Malone said.
“You know what? I don’t care,” Nils said. “The appearance…that’s all it takes. That’s enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s enough for me. It should be enough for you. You know where we are now. Are you really, actually willing to take that kind of chance? With Linda Lee? I’m thinking about it, now, and I can’t believe you’d even be wondering about this!”
She stared at him. “But there’s nothing proven!”
“No,” Nils said. “No. This is something you have to stay away from.”
“But you know Jackson!”
“I don’t, and neither do you anymore. We have to cut him off. Shit, just cut yourself off—it’s not like he cares about you. When has he ever gotten in touch with you? When has he ever done anything for you, or anyone else?”
She thought about the email.
“He’s just a fucking flake who got lucky! There were plenty more talented than he is, who didn’t get the same breaks. And maybe he’s not so lucky now. Look at me! You know this. Stay away from him. Keep him away from you and Linney. You know it’s right. You know it.”
She was sniffling now. “You aren’t making any sense,” she said.
“I’m the only one making sense here. You have to draw a line.”
“In the sand?” she said, furiously. “What am I supposed to do? Bury myself in the house and never come out? I don’t see a danger! He didn’t do anything! What are you so afraid of?”
He was silent. Maybe she would win. Then he straightened out of bench position and looked straight at her. “Cut that shit out, Mal. I’m serious. Don’t even start with me.”
She pulled back, a little afraid.
“You’ve got nothing to stand on with this. This is our child, up against some kind of bullshit college radio fantasy of yours.”
Her crying crossed into the place where she couldn’t control it. “I’m supposed to give up all my friends, all my life. I hate the people here. They talk to me like I’m the maid. I’m shooting bathrooms, and I ask for this one thing? I have to give up everything?”
He wasn’t hearing her. “Your whole world won’t go away if you drop one person, who’s not even your friend anyway.”
She kept crying.
“I’ve seen this happen before. You give everything over to some person or project or group. Everything you do goes to make them happy. You go all out to make them feel great, like they’re some kind of star. And then you come out of a project and they forget all about you. You should be glad you’re shooting bathrooms! At least you get paid for that, instead of treated like shit!”
She stopped crying, shocked. The last bit of her power had been erased. Her looks, her cool, her talent, her intellect, had gone, and now she felt the last prop slide out from under her. Whatever it had been that made her Malone, a person of substance and interest, was gone, and she was now a function, a wife, a mother, a daughter. Her jetties and sandbags couldn’t stand up to it. Her seawall had collapsed, she thought, and almost laughed.
And he kept on talking. “I’m asking for something completely reasonable. No, I’m telling you this is what you’re doing, because she’s my child, and I won’t let you put her in danger. You have to draw a line.”
Malone got up off the couch and walked upstairs to the bedroom. She came within a spare inch of punching a hole in the drywall or smashing the lamp. Her paranoia came to the rescue. Don’t give them any ammo, it said. They’ll take her away if they think you’re nuts. Don’t give them any reasons. This is the world you live in now. It’s not yours. You have to be smart. Hide. She breathed through it.
Nils came upstairs after her. He took her tears of rage for those of regret, and he held her and told her that of course she was a wonderful mother. He knew how careful she was about Linney, about everything she ate and drank and did with her, and even that she didn’t play with those soft plastic toys his crazy ass sisters were always sending him emails about. And that yeah, his sisters were crazy, but he’d prefer it if they didn’t go there right this minute, but if it would make her feel better, yes, they could be very annoying. She was just going to have to learn to ignore them, like he did.
“But what happens is…they’re the only people I see,” she said.
“You’ve been hanging out with your friends all the time,” he said.
That made her start crying again. “Lee will be back home soon. And Bebe might as well be just as far away. Everyone around in DC, the work people and all, they’re just like them. And it’s hard to ignore it if that’s the only thing you see and hear every day. Everyone talks to me like I’m an idiot. All I ever hear from anyone is how I’m doing it wrong. Or that I’m supposed to be afraid of everything. I need to be able to listen to my instincts. My instincts are good, too. But I’m getting so I can’t see things that are right in front of my face. I’m being drowned out.”
“Look,” Nils said. “We can try to find a way to get you more time to do some things you like to do. But you have to promise me it won’t be anything to do with Jackson.”
She sighed. Be smart, the voice said. Keep your secrets. “You said yourself I never see him anyway,” she said, by way of agreement.
He picked her up, which he could still easily do despite the 10 extra pounds she was carrying. “I know you don’t think you have a life anymore.”
As he put her down on the bed, she tried to protest that that wasn’t true, that she loved having Linney, that it was all the other people that—
“It’s OK,” he said. “I love you whether you have a life or not. I mean, look at me, I don’t have one either.”
He meant it as a joke, and they laughed, but she still felt like breaking something. Secret, she thought. Keep it to yourself.
The next day, Karen called asking if she wanted to join her and Kathy for a spa day. It was really helpful to pamper yourself when you had a high stress level, she said. Malone declined carefully, with a breezy smile in her voice—maybe in a few weeks when things calmed down at work, she said.
She went through the first two days of Linney’s daycare without talking to anyone apart from Nils and Linney. She spent every hour aching for her baby, worried, making plans for alternate routes across town if the city shut down, if the buildings exploded, if she were quarantined—byzantine spy thriller scenarios to try to fight off the reality she knew: If there were another attack, she would probably be buried in a building while waiting in an orderly line to exit and struggling to get a cell phone signal. No heroics permitted. She got up from the office computers only to pump; it was a close week for the magazine, the week of getting ready to go to press, and she had files of photos to correct, smooth, and prep for production.
She had started out being praised for her ability to capture reality; now she got paid to take away what was real and make what was left better looking. She had the patience to pick and pick away at an image until the corrections blended flawlessly. Her art-school training served her well, but she thought she might be happier if she didn’t understand the history and the theories. She could have simply made food look tastier and faces less distracting and taken a crafty pride in her work, instead of feeling like she was perpetrating a fraud.
But on Thursday, now officially her last working day of the week, she had gotten a PostIt, attached to an email about credentials.
Will you cover Dome Smokr? Harlin sz NO FREELANCER.
She decoded the note and wrote one of her own, leaving it stuck to the editor’s office chair. The Dome Smoker was an unintentionally—she was quite sure—homerotically named benefit event, one of the most popular and biggest benefits in the city. The foundation that Nils worked for always had a table—they could run about 25 grand—and some involvement. He spent months prepping for it, and he was only a small part of the picture. It was a bizarre throwback, a men’s-only night of steaks and Scotch and barely dressed waitresses and one star athlete per table, and it was that very weirdness for Washington that helped make it popular. They did allow women to cover and photograph it.
She actually wouldn’t mind taking the gig, because it would pay, and the event did raise a shit ton of money for all kinds of children’s programs. She had no idea what she was going to do about her own child, however. It wasn’t like she could bring her along. She thought of herself with Linney in the Snuggli, trying to take photos of some tech millionaire sandwiched between Redskins cheerleaders while Welcome to the Jungle blared over the sound system. At the same time, she couldn’t say no to a PostIt, especially one invoking the name of the publisher. She’d lose her job in no time.
“Call Kathy,” Nils said on the phone. “She owes us one.”
“But I don’t want to leave her with anyone at night. Maybe I could--“
“Call Kathy. You have to leave her at night sometime, with someone besides me.”
She was silent.
“Come on. It’ll be like a date night, sort of. She can come over to our place and leave the kids with Tom.”
“She hates coming into the city.”
“She bitches about it, but she likes it. I know this.”
He was right. Besides, with the extra money, she might actually end up netting about $50 dollars this week. Hitting the big time with the bathrooms, baby, she thought.
Friday after Achtung Baby! she almost caved in and got real coffee. She was going to have to slap herself in the face to stay awake through the Smoker. She settled for peppermint tea.
“This is supposed to help wake you up,” she said to Jessica, through a yawn, as they both sat, sipping at their lukewarm tea, with their babies latched on.
“Don’t count on it,” Jessica said. “You could maybe try getting some sleep sometime, umm?”
“I’m supposed to work tonight,” she said. “This is the first time I’m leaving Linney with someone at night.”
“Ohhhh. Have enough people told you not to worry and you’re making too big a thing out of it? Cause I won’t.”
“It’s my husband’s sister. I’m not really worried,” she lied. “But I really don’t want to get dressed up and go out. I’m taking photos at a dinner, a society kind of thing. Hey—I got the clear shower curtain. It worked, I couldn’t believe it.” Linney had taken to crying when Malone was in the shower, and Jessica had suggested she get a clear shower curtain and bring Linney in in her carrier and set her on the bathroom floor where the baby could see her.
“Oh, it’s awful, it’s just a bunch of old dudes smoking cigars,” Malone said. “We should go outside next week, now that it’s getting warmer.”
“There’s a really good park a block from here,” Jessica said. “I’ve been scoping them out. It’s funny how you don’t see things like that until you need them. I see temples, dance studios, and natural food stores, and now playgrounds. I never see liquor stores, or aquarium stores, or tennis courts. I truly do not see them. What makes it like that? Do you see everything? Like a musician, you know, they can tell if something’s out of tune. I mean, I can tell if something’s real dreck, but just a little out of tune, I can’t hear it.”
Malone smiled. “I see things, but I don’t always recognize them,” she said. “I mean, I get their shape, and how they relate to what’s around them, but their function is what I miss. Like, there was this pine forest, back where I went to school? In Florida, north Florida. And I was taking pictures there, and the trees were really thick, but in the center of this one grove there was an old car, some car from the 60s. I got some good photos, and they were really popular, everyone liked them and I sold a couple, but the thing is, people would always ask me: How did that car get out there? And What kind of car is that? And, Oh, I had one like that way back when!
“But it never occurred to me to think of it as a car, really. I sort of thought of it as a rock or something. A shape, I don’t know. And I wondered if I was stupid, or not curious enough, for not wondering about those kinds of things. I just get caught up in how things look and I don’t think about what they might mean to other people.”
Linney was done. Malone lifted her up to burp her. Hanging out talking like this, it was like being in college again. As if there were all the time in the world. “Time is all skewed now, too,” Malone said.
Jessica got it. “Lots of people with babies say that,” she said. “It seems endless while it’s going on. I can sit and watch him wave his hand around for an hour and it’s gone—but when I’m waiting for him to fall asleep, it’s an eternity.”
Malone began tucking Linney back into the carseat shell. “Why can’t we live in one of those damn places where you get a year off,” she said. “I have to get home and wash my hair. Thanks again about the shower curtain.”
She sighed as she drove home. She’d have to clean up a little. Kathy’s place always looked like a show house. She thought about taking half a Vicodin for the night, just to get through it, and saw right away where that kind of thing could lead, and put the thought aside. The whole sequence, desire and denial, went through her head as simply and quickly as a fragment of music, a song she used to know, inconsequential, a little nagging, and gone.