Second Chance

“Can I lick the spatula?” Suzy asked, pulling it out of the bowl, holding it close to her face, and pretending to go in for a huge lick.

I raised my eyebrow at her, confirming what we both knew: the sharing principle. It’s never been easy for me to reprimand her—ever since she was little, she’s been so goddamn funny. “Ask your brother—“

“Ask your brother about the sharing principle,” she said, laughing at the words I probably said twice a day. “Josh-u-a! Sharing principle!” she yelled. The phrase had come from a painfully dry PBS kids show Josh had watched before Suzy was born, and when it came down to teaching him to share with his new sister, it had always worked better as a joke.

“Huh?” he said, watching a hockey game with his dad in the living room. “Uh, yeah, I want some.” He always did that, processed a question slightly after he started responding. Pushing his red bangs out of his face, he rolled over the back of the couch, his lanky limbs sliding around freely. He got his legs under him on the other side of the couch and pushed his hair back again. He looked so much like Adam now, with his limbs exploding out of him like we’d always seen coming.

“You know, we could get you a haircut,” I said, but I knew what the answer would be. No, mom, it’s hockey flow season.

“Yeah, or some fresh legs, so you can actually walk around the couch,” said Suzy. 

Josh caught Suzy in his arms so she squealed. “You think I need new legs?” he asked, reaching around her to shove the spatula into his own mouth.

Suzy giggled and grabbed it back, and Josh let her. Their age difference, five years, turned out so well. They were just far enough apart that they didn’t compete for anything, and Suzy had idolized her older brother since she was a baby. Josh was trying, at twelve, to enter his sassy teenage years, but his best efforts hadn’t gotten him very far yet; I thought Suzy was holding him back somehow.

It was exactly what Jess had always wanted. I flashed back, after trying, but not very hard, to resist the memory, to sitting in my tiny single with Jess. I remembered that the floor space was too small for a couch, so we’d just sit on my bed, talking, hanging out. Jess was sometimes there for sex, sometimes there to escape her terrible roommate. She was usually drawing while they talked, her thick black hair pulled back in a messy bun that held her hair off her neck just enough. She drew what she called “dumb romance scenes,” and mythical creatures and, more than anything else, families. Pretty much exactly this was one of my favorite drawings of hers: a young boy ticking a young girl in pigtails while she held something away from him, just out of the frame. I remember that you could almost hear the girl laugh in that image.

Adam and I talked about Josh that night. He was such a sweet kid, and so, so bad at hockey. He wanted to try out for the travel team next week, and we weren’t about to stop him, but we didn’t think he would make it.

We could take him roller skating on Friday,” Adam said, his google calendar open on his phone. Always on damage control, even before there was any damage.

It was a good idea. “Yeah, okay.”

Adam turned away a little and swiped at his phone. “Sounds good,” he said, distracted.

I watched him for a second, watched his eyebrows come together under his gently receding hairline. He breathed hard once, like he was blowing something away.

I reached over and put my hand on his leg. “You okay?”

“No, yeah, it’s just Marcus,” he said, tapping the screen. Adam was a music teacher at the Pewaukee high school a couple blocks away, and Marcus was his accompanist.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing.” Adam didn’t look up from his phone. I knew better than to push, here. Adam was open with me when he needed me, and didn’t like being pushed when he didn’t.

As we fell asleep later, I thought, again, of Jess. Adam pulled his arm loosely around me, his forearm thick and hard from decades of playing the double bass. I thought of her arm around me, smaller than his, but always tighter. Where Adam held me loosely as a kindness to me, she held on hard, making sure I didn’t go anywhere.

“I’m sorry, babe,” Adam muttered into my hair. When he was tired, his Minnesotan accent came out a little, his vowels rounder. “It’s just that I’m worried about a kid in the boys choir. He’s a sophomore and I think he was just broken up with or something. It’s kind of silly.” Adam tapped his fingers against my chest. “Marcus doesn’t think anything’s wrong.”

I kissed his forearm gently. “You’re the best human.” I felt him squeeze me a little. “Is there anything else?” 

Adam’s silence filled the room.

“I love you,” I said. I closed my eyes and pushed down the lump in my chest. There was no reason to feel shitty. But still, I wished he would talk to me, open up like he did when we had just gotten together, tell me why this boy worried him so much.

“I love you, too.”

In the morning, Adam and I woke up together when his alarm went off, an hour earlier than the kids. He pulled a t-shirt and sweatpants on over his boxers and almost jogged to the basement. His hour of bass was his favorite time of day. 

I ambled over to the kitchen nook with my laptop and a notebook, and while it booted Illustrator, I poured myself a cup of cold brew from the pitcher in the fridge. Adam preferred French press, but he was so good at making coffee, so he always made me cold brew over the weekend. I loved working before the sun had risen all the way—this time always felt like free hours to me, checking things off my list before the day even started. Today, I was playing the fun, irregular game of “do I remember how to use Illustrator”? I worked as a kind of engineer-designer-human trying to do community-based work, and I had volunteered to try to make a poster for a community garden in downtown Milwaukee this week, one of those things that wasn’t really part of my job, but that I pretended I could do. This was my morning to figure it out. While dredging Illustrator knowledge from the depths of years-ago tutorial land was tricky, this was the time of day to do it. I started pulling inspiration from other community gardens, exploring the shapes of leaves and letters first on paper and then in Illustrator. Sometimes, on mornings like these, I’d chuckle a little, thinking back on classes like partial differential equations and fluid dynamics, since this is what I called engineering now.

In an hour, like most mornings, Adam came upstairs to shower and wake up Suzy and I cut up some fruit and made toast for breakfast. Josh got himself up, and liked to do homework in the morning (such a weird 12 year old). He and Suzy, incredibly, really didn’t need much help getting ready most days. Adam drove them to school on his way to work in our beast of a Honda CRV, and I settled in to my work.

Around 10am, just as I was starting to fade into hating the poster I was working on, the doorbell rang.

Thinking back, I feel like I should remember getting up. I feel like I should remember wondering who was there or going to the door or opening it, but all I remember is her face.

Jess. Her hair was pulled back in just the same way, a bun holding her wiry black hair off her neck, but now with a couple gray hairs laced in. Her nose, God, I’d forgotten about her nose. It was big, too big at first, and so angular, but it pulled her face together, made her absolutely striking.

And there she was on my doorstep, 20 years after we last saw each other. I felt that flip in my stomach, the one I’d felt every time I’d seen her the last semester of college, after we split up. All I had to say was hi, but I always felt shaky as I walked away. What the fuck was she doing here now?

“Hey, uh, you look great,” she said. She smiled that half smile that showed off that one crooked tooth. It was a smile just for me back in college, one that no one else could see. She pulled her fingers apart from where she’d been fidgeting, starting for a hug, but when I held up my hand, she put them back down.

“What are you doing here—no, come in.” I wasn’t trying to be polite, I was trying to get her out of the street where all my neighbors could see her. Wisconsiners are great, but they’re also the nosiest people in the world, especially with strangers, especially with strangers that looked… like Jess. With her flannel and her Bluntstones, she didn’t look so different than them. But there was something that made her stand out here. Maybe it was the subtle undercut below her bun, maybe the fact that her jeans were black instead of blue, maybe that she looked too hipster, too far towards the fashionable side of Carhartt instead of the working side. Either way, I didn’t need rumors starting. I practically shoved her inside.

What are you doing here? How dare you come here? How did you find me? “How are you?” I asked, gesturing toward the kitchen nook for her to sit down.

“Yeah, good.” She sat down. “I mean, um, not great.” She smiled at the table.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, surprised at how harsh it came out. But there she was, right where Adam usually sat, the cloudy morning light highlighting her nose and jaw. I couldn’t help thinking that that’s right where she should have been sitting all along.

“Do you have something to say?”

“Do you want something to drink? We have cold brew, or I can make some tea.” What the fuck are you doing here? How are you sitting in my kitchen right now? No, I wasn’t going to give her that power, of showing her she got to me.

I stood across the table from her, gripping the heavy wooden chair. I glanced over at my laptop and notebook sitting open on the table, in front of the chair between us. I wanted to close them, or push them away so she wouldn’t be able to see them, but I couldn’t give in.

In college, Jess fell in love with another girl during January term of our senior year. We’d been dating for three years, but that winter, I’d decided to opt out of J-term in favor of taking the month off and going backcountry skiing and winter backpacking in Vancouver with some friends. She had taken a women’s poetry course that month, partly because she needed the credit to graduate in the spring and partly because she was absolutely in love with the poet teaching it, some young lesbian with a mohawk and a gorgeous sleeve of mango tattoos. In the course, she met a junior, a theater major with career goals, or, as she called them, life fulfillment plans, that looked a lot more interesting than mine. Jess was an artist selling prints by then, with a major in English studies; she could create from anywhere, and she’d rather have done it in the middle of a a boho scene than out here in Wisconsin. A week before I returned to campus, and just after I’d come back from a winter backpacking expedition, we Facetimed. I was in the backseat of my car, mooching Wifi from a McDonald’s parking lot. She broke up with me then, saying that she didn’t think we wanted the same things. I’d thought she wanted a family with me, but it turned out she wanted something more exciting.

“Erin, please,” Jess said now, gesturing for me to sit down next to her. She gently pushed my laptop and notebook towards the middle of the table, and I saw that the sides of her fingers were stained with charcoal.

I sat down. It felt like a rubber band was pulling me to her, like if we just touched, or maybe kissed, some great tension would be released. I tried to push away the feeling, to think about Adam, about Suzy and Josh. I looked at the notebook in front of me, and was suddenly aware of how stupid my designs must have looked to her, poorly drawn leaves and flowers growing into words.

“I’m so sorry,” Jess said. She put her hand on mine. I melted involuntarily, feeling my stomach flip back over, and then tensed my shoulder blades, not allowing myself to be comfortable, not after 20 years.

I bit my tongue, trying to distract my brain from her hand. “Why are you here?” I asked as calmly as I could.

“I had to talk to you.”

Obviously. “That’s a ridiculous answer.” When she could have texted or emailed? Or not come at all? It was so entitled—why should I have even let her in? Why did I? And yet, her hand on mine.

“No, yeah, it is. Um, I’ve thought about you every day.”

I held my breath, wanting more, wanting her to lean across the space between us and kiss me, wanting her to take it back. She’d always opened up like this, letting me in so much, all the time. I couldn’t tell her that I had thought of her, too, because then what else would I say? That I thought about her while I fell asleep, instead of my husband with his arm around me? That I missed how she opened up to me, even when I was guarded? That I wish my kids, my beautiful kids, were hers, too?

She picked her hand up off mine. “I mean, I’m sure you haven’t, of course.” She didn’t wait for me to respond. Instead, she pulled over my notebook. “These are very nice, these designs.”

I stood and backed up, toward the kitchen. “I’m going to make tea.”

I was losing it, losing my nerve, giving in to giving her everything.

In the kitchen, I turned the kettle on, giving myself until it boiled to recover. I had a family. I had kids. I was happy. She had no right to come here, out of nowhere. Why was she here right now? What did she think she was going to get?

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