It's snowing again. Serena stands at the kitchen sink washing the breakfast dishes and trying not to trample Brian, who is lying at her feet with his legs in her way. "Why don't you go play in your room?" she very politely suggests.
"Too lonely," says Brian.
It's hard to be home with just a 3-year-old for company. In the winter especially, when the fields around the house are an unbroken expanse of white and Brian shadows her all day, whining his sing-song of complaints, Serena can feel the walls closing in. Squeezing all the air from the room.
"Why don't you get some toys and set them up on the table? It's all cleared off now. Get your little cars and have a race."
"Too boring." He slips his foot inside her slacks and creeps his toes up her calf. Serena flicks him off.
"Will you at least move out of the way? You don't want me to step on you." Whip-ping around, she waves a soapy spoon in his face. Suds dot his chest and shoulders and spatter the linoleum floor. "I said move it!"
Morosely, Brian crawls out from under her and disappears down the hall.
Nobody knows how close to the edge she comes, how narrowly she skirts the thin line between simply screaming at Brian and actually physically hurting him. Will, for one, has no idea. Will spends barely half an hour with Brian each morning before waltzing off to his important job running the cafeteria at the local college. Serena combs her fingers through her hair, getting it out of her face, and turns back to the dishes.
Will drives half an hour between home and work, and yet he begrudges her the measly five miles she travels to the Grand Union. "What's wrong with the IGA here in town? You go through gasoline the way a bear goes through berries." Will can turn a cute phrase, but when it comes to her life, he's clueless. "It's not as if you buy brands you can't get in town." He calls himself a chef, though the steam-table slop he serves could hardly be considered gourmet. "I could see the need if you were Julia Child," he says.
He doesn't understand that the food's not the point any more than the wide aisles or the free samples or the pleasant chit-chat with the cashiers and baggers -- as much as she appreciates all those things. The point is that there are times when Serena has no choice but to strap Brian in his car seat where he can't climb all over her and to crank up the radio so she won't have to hear his whining. The point is that there are days when she needs to get out and see something of the world.
Today is beginning to look like one of those days. But the driveway lies buried beneath the snow, and although Will's snowblower is in the garage, Serena has never learned to use it. Will is the one who's in charge of those things. And until this morning, he's always been home to take care of it.
Last night, Will called just as she was beginning to prepare dinner, saying something about a holiday party. It was the end of the semester and his student workers were throwing a big bash. How could he say no? He promised not to stay out too late. Putting the phone down a little harder than she'd intended, Serena shoved the uncooked pork chops back in the refrigerator and spooned herself a bowl of Brian's canned ravioli.
"Why are you eating with me?"
"Because I can't eat with Daddy."
"Why can't you?"
"Why do you think? You don't see him in this house, do you?"
At bath time -- Will's job -- Serena scrubbed Brian extra hard, washing his hair and going two and three times over his ears and his neck, places his father never remembered. Zipping him into two layers of pajamas, she tucked in his sheets as tight as a straitjacket and raced through his book at record speed. He didn't ask for a second bedtime story or call her back for one last good-night kiss. As his stifled whimpers followed her down the hall she raged at Will for making her so mean.
But when 11 o'clock came and Will was still out, Serena's thoughts turned to the long, icy road with its sharp curves and menacing trees crowding the shoulder. Pushing aside the heavy drape, she pressed her worried face to the glass. The pane was so cold it burned her skin. A pair of headlights dimly lit the road, sped past disappointingly, and disappeared in a dull red glow. Serena dropped the curtain and went to check on Brian.
The phone woke her just after midnight. She'd fallen asleep stretched out beside Brian. Staggering down the too-bright hall, her brain skipped ahead to the question of where Will kept the insurance papers and whether the one black dress in her closet still fit. But it was Will himself on the phone, alive and loquacious, with rap music raging in the background. He blathered disjointedly about having two or three too many and the snow coming down like a motherfucker.
"What it comes down to," he bellowed, "is crash here or crash the car! Friends don't let friends drive and drunk. I mean, drunk drive. See you tomorrow."
When she hung up the phone, the house felt way too quiet. Unsure and self-conscious, she locked the back door, set the heat down and turned out the lights, numbly stumbling through Will's nightly chores. It felt strange to be on her own. Lying in their bed without Will's warm back bolstering hers, Serena wasn't even sure of how to position her own limbs.
Outside the kitchen window, the red tongue of the thermometer holds at an even 20. The sky has a hard, solid look, gray as flatware, with a few scrappy snowflakes spinning like ashes from a smokestack. Her first hope this morning was that Will would ride over and take care of the driveway for her. She imagined him staying for coffee and a change of clothes -- maybe even a quick shower. She pictured Brian waiting outside the bathroom door, miraculously patient, while she slipped in and surprised Will with a lathery hug. It was an idiotic daydream, and she compounded her idiocy by calling Will at work and voicing her disappointment.
"Are you insane?" he'd shrieked. "For God's sake, Serena. What do you expect from me? If you're so incompetent you can't even run a fucking snowblower, call your friend Glenn! I'm sure he'd be glad to help you!"
But when she calls Glenn, the guy at the Getty station says it will be at least an hour before they can get to her with the plow.
Desperate to do something -- anything -- Serena grabs her coat. Brian is sprawled on the floor in his room surrounded by a herd of tiny horses. He mouth-breathes and mumbles, content and absorbed. It seems a crime to disturb such a rare moment. Serena calls out anyway, "I'll be back in a second. You can just go on playing."
But Brian is already on his feet and coming towards her, his horses scattered and forgotten. "Where are you going?"
"Just down the hill to check the mail."
"I want to go with you!"
"No, no. You stay here." Calmly and deliberately, she unpeels his fingers from her hem. "You'll be fine. Just keep playing."
"But I don't want to keep playing! I want to go with you!" Brian screams, tugging at her coat.
"All right, already! If you want it so badly, I'll take you with me! Whatever you say! You're the boss! You're the prince! I'm just your little slave!"
The air outside has a sharp, metallic bite. The wind stings Serena's ears and creeps under her collar. The whole world seems drained of details, reduced to a uniform blankness. The snow comes as high as Serena's knees and swamps Brian clear to the waist.
"It's cold, Mommy."
"Then go inside."
"I don't want to."
"Then stop complaining."
Brian takes one step, then raises his arms, his eyes wide with panic. "But the snow's too high!"
"Then I'll carry you, all right? Will that make you happy? Is that what you want? For me to carry you like a tiny little baby who's too small to even walk yet?"
Before he can answer, she brutally snatches the scruff of Brian's snowsuit and juggles his ungainly parts into her arms. His rigid little body makes a surprisingly effective windbreak. Impulsively, she kisses his bulky hood. Then, pulling him close enough to muffle his complaints, she carries him down the hill. Cold penetrates her jeans. Snow flies in her eyes, carried on the icy wind. The going is slow. By the time they reach the road Serena's knees are stiff, her arms exhausted. And the mailbox is still empty. But she thinks she hears the purr of a truck. Shifting Brian to one hip, she struggles up the snow bank, peers down the road -- and there, sure enough, is the miracle of Glenn's plow, an hour early.
Glenn is Serena's not-so-secret admirer. Every time she stops at the Getty station he says something friendly and flirtatious. "Here comes the Sunshine Girl," he'll call out. "When are you going to stop stringing me along and run away with me?" Glenn is long married and nearly twice her age. But he's plenty good-looking, and once, when he reached for her credit card and their fingers accidentally brushed, she felt herself blushing.
The truck pulls over and Glenn pushes the passenger door open. Smiling crookedly, he lets his pale eyes play over her. Serena doubts she's ever felt so glad to see anyone.
"Hey, Sunshine. You're not waiting for me?"
"Just killing time."
"Hop in and we'll kill it together. Ride along while I do your drive. Be a big thrill for the boy."
With gentlemanly grandeur, Glenn sweeps the seat clean, sending an avalanche of smudged invoices, ripped road maps and stained take-out-drink lids tumbling to the wet, metal floor. Serena gladly hands Brian over and eagerly scrambles up after him. "There now," he says. "Just like home."
It's hot inside the cab and the air is ripe with the smells of diesel fuel and old sweat. A faded Playboy air freshener dangles ineffectively below the rear-view mirror. The radio is playing "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
"So you got snowed in and had to call on old Glenn. Who usually does your drive?"
"Will. But he wasn't home this morning."
Glenn shakes his head. "No offense to your husband, but what kind of nut would leave you alone? Oh, well. At least you can count on old Glenn. We'll get you fixed up in no time." And, reaching across Brian's swaddled lap, he pats her knee reassuringly. He has big hands, with long, strong fingers.
The unexpected contact goes right through her. She has to remind herself that it is, after all, just her leg that he's touching and not some more intimate part of her body. Suddenly embarrassed, she looks away and sees her own house perched above them. From this perspective it looks precarious and insubstantial, as if one strong wind might send it spinning into space. The thought is strangely exhilarating, as if Serena herself were about to embark on a surprising journey to someplace wonderful.
Glenn turns in at the snow-blocked drive and lurches to a stop. Serena tightens her grip on Brian, using her free hand to brace herself against the dashboard. "All set?" he asks. The plow blade clanks down and Glenn shifts into gear. The truck presses into the packed snow bank with a low, laborious groan. The wall gives way gradually, slowly rolling over. Then it suddenly breaks down, tumbling and doubling over itself like surf. Leaving the pile at the edge of the field, Glenn jerks the truck back, tossing Serena and Brian forward. Then, with a quick turn of the wheel, he abruptly lunges forward again, slamming them against the seat.
Brian shrieks, wild-eyed and grinning, and Serena instinctively grunts. It's like slam dancing -- something she loved in the days before Will. Glenn shoots her a quick half-twist of a smile. "Having fun?"
"Stick with me, kid."
Back and forth they jerk and lunge until at last they reach the top of the hill and the plow's hard lip scrapes asphalt. Glenn shoves the transmission into neutral, yanks on the handbrake and kills the ignition. The engine shudders and dies. Serena frowns, sorry to see her day's one adventure already over. But Brian cheers and claps.
Glenn laughs. "That's one satisfied customer, at least."
"Two," Serena corrects him. "What do I owe you? I'll just run in for my wallet."
Glenn shrugs uncomfortably as he names the amount. Then he adds, somewhat shyly, "Mind if I step inside, too? Stretch the legs. Getting too old to spend so much time behind the wheel."
She can hear Brian clacking his toy trucks together, clearing pretend snow off his carpet. Revved up from his ride in Glenn's plow, he ran off right away, breaking the rule about leaving his boots by the door. No doubt he's dripping real snow on everything. But Serena, bending over the kitchen table to write out Glenn's check, is so distracted she can hardly form proper numbers.
The smell of him behind her, both intimate and foreign, fills the room with exotic possibility. When Will comes home tonight she supposes he'll smell like a student apartment. Beer and incense, with cat hairs from whatever half-collapsed couch he ended up on. If he did end up on a couch, and not in some drunk student's bed. Serena tries to push the thought away. But how can she, with Glenn right behind her?
"Should have known a lovely lady like you would have a nice place like this."
Her hand jumps, spoiling the signature. Is he giving her a line or just making small talk? She's afraid to look at him. She can still feel the place where his hand touched her knee. She imagines him touching her again, those fingers finding other parts of her. Is this how it happens? Five years of marriage have made her forget how to act with a man.
"Change your mind about paying me?" Glenn has moved in so close his breath stirs the hairs on the back of her neck.
She moved to the country because Will needed "breathing space." Quit her good job at the ice cream plant because Will doesn't believe in day-care centers. Cut her hair at his suggestion, even switched brands of skin lotion because the type she prefers reminded him of some long-ago girlfriend. And for what?
She's sweating like a 13-year-old. But Glenn is perfectly calm. "Not satisfied after all?" he teases. His voice is smooth and persuasive, without a glimmer of shame or a hint of derision. And he considers her lovely. The front of his parka is brushing her back. Is she reading him right? She leans against him, just a bit. He doesn't budge. Taking a deep breath, she turns to face him. He's given her this same intimate look dozens of times through the car window or across the counter. But this time, only a few charged inches separate them.
"Well?" he asks, raising an eyebrow.
Acting quickly, before she loses her nerve, she leans into the last remaining space and kisses his kindly mouth.
The move throws him off-balance, and she has to grab the slippery fabric of his sleeves to keep contact. She can feel his lips hesitating. Pressing more gently, she coaxes her tongue between his lips to find his teeth. The inside of his mouth tastes like cherry cough drops. A door has been flung wide open and she's crossing the threshold. His tongue is strangely rough. But just as she touches it, he shoves her away, jumping back as if he's been scalded.
"Whoa, girl, easy does it," he stammers, throwing his hands up in surrender. "You're barking up the wrong tree. Glenn's a married man. Not in your league. Square. Straight arrow. I would if I could, but honey, I can't. No offense, OK?" Scar-let to his temples, he shrinks towards the door, anxiously groping for the knob.
Serena's blushing, too, her heart beating like crazy. She feels like the world's biggest moron. Now she won't even be able to go to the gas station. And what about his check? Turning in confusion, she smacks her shin on Brian's truck.
"I'm hot, Mommy."
As she whirls at the sound, Glenn slips out the door and she's alone with Brian once again.
"Of course you're hot! You're still wearing your snowsuit! You have your boots on! You're dripping snow on the floor!"
They both begin to cry, but Brian outdoes her. His mouth falls open, a string of silver saliva stretching between his lips for a moment before the drool spills over and pools in the fold of his chin. Serena swipes at the spit with the back of her hand and wipes it on his snowsuit. His noise is god-awful. She wants to hurl him through a window. She grips his tiny arms and shakes.
"Stop making all that noise!"
Brian howls louder.
"Didn't you hear what I said? Don't you speak English? Are you a moron or what? Don't you know anything? Go take your boots off!" She shakes him until his head flops and wobbles. She shoves the disgusting sight of him away, and, easy as an egg rolling off a counter, Brian tumbles backwards. His arms fly out. His eyes snap open. His head jerks back and cracks on the edge of his truck.
There's more than a little blood. It stains Serena's coat as she cautiously cradles him. It's hard to breathe normally. Blood is one more thing she's always left up to Will.
"You poor thing," she whispers, carrying him to the sink. "You poor, poor thing," she soothes, hugging and rocking him. Through the window, she sees Glenn's truck driving away.
"Here, sweet thing. Here, good
thing. Would you like to build a highway?" Serena empties the dominoes on the living room floor and shows Brian how to match the dots and connect the wooden pieces. "Good job, hon! Good building! What a good, good boy you are!" Serena hauls out puzzles. More blocks. An entire plastic barnyard, silo and all. And when they've gone through every one of them, she reads him book after book. She gives him free choice of lunch menus and lets him eat on the sofa. And when the last drop of ketchup has been smeared on the last Oreo, she lets him fall asleep with his head in her lap. His chest rattles wetly each time he exhales, and his Band-Aid has a strong, disturbing smell.
But how nice it is to sit peacefully together with the sun stretching blue shadows on the snow. Her driveway cuts a fresh sweep to the road, and Brian's little head is warm and soft. When he wakes up they'll take the car to the mall and mingle with the holiday shoppers. She'll buy him a nice toy. A plastic man with moving legs, maybe, or a construction worker's hat just his size. They'll go to the food court and eat sticky buns. They'll visit Santa, and this year Brian won't be afraid to sit on his lap.
On the way home they'll stop at the Grand Union and buy something special. Those fresh, fat shrimp Will loves so much, and a packet of Cajun seasoning. When Will comes home, she'll tell him Brian slipped on his own melted puddle. Brian will tell his daddy about the ride in Glenn's plow. But he won't say who he saw Mommy kissing. And she won't ask how Will spent the night.
And then, when Brian is safely tucked in bed and the dishes are done, she'll put on some sultry music and snuggle up with Will on the sofa. First she'll talk about his long commute and the unreliability of the weather. Then she'll tell him how much she misses her job, and how Brian will love the teachers and the kids at the preschool in town. Guilt and remorse will have softened Will's resolve, and if she just coaxes slowly, pressing her point very gently, he'll have no choice but to concede. His resistance will break down like snow under a plow, clearing the way for her family to walk, three abreast, to a place much better than this.
The sun slips away. More snow falls. Brian sleeps on and on. He sleeps away the hours when she would have driven to the mall and he sleeps into the time to start supper. Carefully easing her lap out from under him, she creeps to the kitchen and peers into the fridge. Half a head of iceberg lettuce, a bottle of seltzer and those pork chops she planned for last night. She's just pulling the meat out when the phone rings.
"I'm really sorry, hon," Will says, "but it looks like another late one. Got tied up with some stuff I can't get out of."
"Why can't you?" Serena asks, twisting the phone cord around her finger.
"Because I just can't. All right?"
"But when will you be home?"
"I'll be home when I get home. I can't tell for sure. You think I like working all these hours? God. I'm dog-tired."
"But what am I supposed to do?"
"I don't know, Serena. Jesus Christ. You're not a 3-year-old! Do what you always do. You'll be fine."
Serena hangs up the phone. Outside the window, her driveway is gone again, lost with the last of the light. And, now that it's too late to go anywhere at all, Brian is finally awake. She can hear the wooden clatter of the dominoes in his path as he comes to stand close beside her.