I’m pretending to pay attention to the women speaking in group therapy, but really I’m playing with my rings instead, all three silver, all three presents from my daughter, Viviana. I sit in the corner like I always do (we’re supposed to be sitting in a circle, but usually we made a square instead) and pretend to listen. Viviana is coming for me later today, so I don’t have to pay attention. I twist the rings back and forth. They used to fall off if I wasn’t too careful, but now they’re too tight.
The center I’m in is Rosewood, which Viviana thinks is funny. “You’re Rose, and this is Rosewood,” she laughed when we checked in a year ago. “Ha-ha,” I said and rolled my eyes. She never laughs when we talk about these kinds of things, though, so I didn’t really mind.
I’m playing War with a binge-eater named Rhonda, a heavyset woman with red hair and with fake nails, in the common room when Viviana’s supposed to come. Today, her nails are turquoise with silver sparkles. “Draw,” I yell, and we both flip our cards over. “Damn it!” I have a queen, but Rhonda has a king. “You always win this game.”
“It’s all about luck,” Rhonda says, but I’m pretty sure she cheats, somehow. Her kings come up a lot more than they should.
“Mrs. Martinez?” I turn my head. One of the nurses stands there, but not with Viviana. “Your husband is here to check you out.”
“He’s not my husband anymore,” I say, but I leave with him all the same. I think I’ll almost miss the center. I couldn’t decide if I was going home or leaving it.
“You look good, Rose,” Manuel says on our way back. I know he’s lying because his mustache twitches, but also because he can’t possibly be telling the truth. While he’s come to get me in a blue cashmere sweater and kakis, my hair is a matted gray and brown mess and I’m wearing an oversized blue North Carolina Tar Heels sweatshirt that covers everything from the base of my neck to below my butt. What he means is I’ve gained weight.
“Where’s Viviana?” The seatbelt strains against my breasts and the headrest makes my neck stick out slightly. I haven’t been in a car since Viviana took me to Rosewood.
“She had a doctor’s appointment she forgot about, and it was too late to cancel.” He doesn’t look at me. Whether that’s because he’s driving or I make him feel uncomfortable, I don’t know. I don’t look at him either. I play with my rings instead.
“Is she okay?”
“Yes, yeah, she’s good.” And then, “She’s pregnant.”
“Pregnant. With who?”
“Marcus. They’re engaged.”
“Well, no one bothers to tell me anything.” We don’t speak again until we get to Viviana’s house. Viviana knocks on the car window before I have a chance to even unbuckle my seatbelt. The snow is half-melted on the lawn and there are the first few hints of buds. When I give Viviana a hug, I can feel her stomach, like a bubble under her blue sweater, almost the same shade as Manuel’s. She’s wearing black sweatpants and no shoes. I’m thinking back to the last time she came to visit two weeks ago. I don’t remember her like this, though I think she was wearing a sweatshirt.
“You don’t tell me anything,” I say.
“I’m sorry, this was all so all-of-a-sudden.” She gives her father a quick hug. She looks like a cross between Manuel and me. She has my light brown eyes (Manuel’s are green) and wide mouth. She has Manuel’s thick, dark hair and height. Both of them have at least six inches on me.
“The engagement, too?”
“Let’s play twenty questions inside, okay?” She leads me and Manuel inside. We pretend not to care, but I can feel the air between us tense.
“I didn’t even know you two were still together,” I say after Manuel leaves. She pours two drinks, hers tea with milk and sugar, mine black coffee.
“We’ve been together for years. You know Marcus.”
“Your house looks different.” I haven’t been here in a year. She’s painted the kitchen cream. It was white last time I was here, over a year ago, and still smells like chemicals. There are pictures of Viviana and Marcus on the piano in the living room.
“Yeah, we’ve been working on it. Marcus officially moved in last month.”
“Good,” I say again because I don’t know what else to say. I’m saved by Marcus when he comes home from work. He’s even taller than Viviana and Manuel and has darker eyes than Viviana and me. His hair is short, shaved close to his head. He’s thin, but not without some muscle. Tonight, he wears a pink button up shirt and black pants with a brown belt. Viviana and I sit around the table. Her stomach is just big enough that she can’t pull her chair in all the way. Marcus makes dinner, chicken and rice. It smells rancid, but I don’t tell Marcus and Viviana that in case they think I need to go back to Rosewood. Viviana says she thinks it looks great. I tackle the rice first.
“You’ll be able to help us plan the wedding, Ms. Martinez,” Marcus grins. I swallow carefully and nod. “We have questions about everything.” I take another forkful of rice and chew it slowly. It tastes like sawdust. I can feel all the grains grinding against my tongue.
“I found your dress,” Viviana says. “Well, Dad did. If you’d be okay with me wearing it.”
“I’d love that,” I say. But Viviana’s bigger than I was when I got married, I don’t say.
I’m supposed to look for a job while Viviana and Marcus are at work, but I can’t focus, so I take walks instead. I learn that Viviana lives in a neighborhood with a lot of dogs. Viviana says that walking is fine as long as I eat. And I do. Just not in the way she wants me to.
“Five bites of an apple is not breakfast, Mom,” she says one day before she leaves for work. It’s been two months.
“I’m not hungry in the morning,” I say.
“Make yourself hungry in the morning,” she says. I twist the rings on my fingers. They slide off and on more easily now. “Maybe we should get you in to therapy outside of Rosewood.”
“Because I don’t eat breakfast? Viviana, there are like millions of Americans who don’t eat breakfast.”
“Those millions of Americans don’t all have an eating disorder.”
“You’re not allowed to speak with me that way,” I remind her. “I’m still your mother.”
“Yeah, well, my roof, my rules,” she says. “That’s what you always used to tell me.” I resolve to blame her attitude on the hormones and eat the whole apple for breakfast because I know I can just cut the calories out of lunch. Viviana resolves to put me in therapy anyway. I hear her on the phone the next day, making the appointment.
The door is open and I walk in. Viviana dropped me off on her way to work. I’m supposed to take the bus back, which I’ve never done before in her neighborhood. “You must be Rose,” the woman in the room says. She has curly brown hair and she’s wearing a grey suit. She has laugh lines around her mouth and lose skin around her face. “I’m Margaret.” She shakes my hand. She also wears rings, even tighter on her fingers than mine are. “Come on in.” I do. Her office is small and all furniture, a matching brown couch and chair, a desk, a lamp, and a bookcase. There’s a window behind the couch with a clock overhead. She asks me to sit on the couch.
“You should know I don’t need to be here,” I say, sitting on the scratchy cushion. The sun warms my back uncomfortably. “My daughter thinks I should be.”
“Okay,” she says. “Why is that?”
“I have an eating disorder,” I say. “But I was just in Rosewood for a year. Do you know what that is?”
“I do, but why don’t you tell me about it.”
“It was nice,” I say. “All the nurses were nice. I did a lot of group therapy and my friend Rhonda and I played card games. I gained ten pounds while I was there.”
“When your daughter called she said since you’ve been out, you’ve lost three pounds.”
“You know, it fluctuates.” Margaret nods and writes something on her yellow note pad. I turn to see the clock. It’s been one minute.
Viviana and I go to pick up my meds after work. I’ve been in therapy for a month. She’s pretty big now. She’s wearing a sunflower-patterned dress she found at the maternity section in Nordstrom’s. “She’s fine, I guess,” I say. “I don’t know if I like it enough to stick with it though, you know?”
“Well, my insurance covers therapy, so I’d say stick it out,” Viviana says. We move up a space in the line. A man brushes past us to get to the next isle. I step back. “Mom, get back in line,” Viviana says.
“I was making room for the man to pass,” I tell her.
“He should’ve gone around.”
“Name?” the pharmacist asks.
“Rose Martinez,” Viviana tells her. “M-A-R-T-I-N-E-Z.”
She checks the computer and nods. “It’s polite to move for people,” I remind Viviana while the pharmacist goes to get my meds.
“It’s also polite to go around them,” she tells me. “I’m allowed to take up space.” The pharmacist hands Viviana my meds.
“Whatever,” I say.
Sometimes, when Viviana thinks I’m asleep, I can hear her arguing with Marcus.
“You don’t want her here either,” she’s saying. They’re right outside my door. It’s dark, but I can see their shadows slip under my door from the light in the hallway. I’ve been living with them for four months already.
“She’s your family,” Marcus says.
“She can’t rely on me for everything,” Viviana says. “We have to get her full-time care or, you know, something.”
“With what money?”
“I’ll take out another loan.” I hear the floorboards creak and a thud as she leans against the wall. That’s what she does when she argues: she leans back and crosses her arms.
“That’s a terrible idea,” Marcus says.
Viviana scoffs. “Well, that’s rude.”
“We’re not even married and we’re already in debt.”
“She doesn’t eat. I can’t make her eat.”
“It’s not about making her eat,” Marcus says. “It’s about being there for her.”
“You’ve never done this before. You don’t know what it’s about.” I hear her stomping and him shuffling after that, her footsteps leading left, to the bedroom, and his leading right, to the couch.
“Viviana had another doctor’s appointment today,” I tell Margaret. I’ve been seeing her for almost three months. “It went well.”
“That’s great,” Margaret says. “Do you know the sex?”
“She doesn’t want to know. I hope it’s a boy.”
“Why is that?”
“I dunno. Boys are supposed to be easier to take care of, right? Less demanding.”
“Was Viviana very demanding?”
“No, not at all. But I think I was just lucky.” I twist around to check the time. Fifteen more minutes. “She’s getting big.”
“Do you worry about her?”
“What do you mean?”
“You told me last week that you started cutting back on food after you had Viviana, to get rid of the weight.”
“Sometimes. But that wasn’t the first time for me, so she probably won’t start now. And she has a good head on her shoulders.” I smile. “Manuel and I used to say that we have no idea who she gets it from.”
“Let’s talk about Manuel.”
“What about him? We split up when Viviana was twelve. I left him. After I had relapsed again.”
“Why was that?”
I shrug. “I still loved him, at the time. But he was always making me eat.”
“Can I show you how to cook something else one day?” I ask after we finish dinner, chicken and rice for the third time this week. It’s stopped being so gross, but I don’t know if that’s because Marcus is improving or if I’m just getting used to it.
“Mom, that’s so rude.”
I shrug. Marcus laughs. “No, it’s okay. The only reason I cook is because Viviana’s even worse than I am.” We both laugh when Viviana playfully swats his arm with one hand, keeping the other on her expansive stomach. She isn’t even mad, because I ate the whole thing, rancid-smelling chicken and all.
The doorbell rings and Marcus gets up to get it. I didn’t know they were expecting someone. “Who’s that?” I ask Viviana.
“Don’t be mad. I asked Dad to come over for desert.”
“We don’t have desert.”
“No, you don’t have desert. Marcus and I have desert every night.”
Manuel and Marcus walked into the kitchen laughing together. “My girl,” he says, giving Viviana a side-hug. He used to call both of us “my girls” when we were married. “It’s good to see you, Rose,” he says now. I nod.
“We have ice cream,” Viviana says. “Mom, do you want some?”
I can feel Manuel’s eyes on me. “That’s okay. You guys enjoy.”
“You don’t just want to try it?” Viviana asks.
“I ate all of dinner.” She rolls her eyes and takes out three bowls and three spoons.
“I found you a job.” Viviana and I are folding laundry in her room one weekend when she tells me about the groomers. “For dogs. They pay ten dollars an hour. My friend Chelsea works there. You’d be working ten to four.”
“I’ve never groomed dogs.” I fold a pair of pants.
“Well, now’s the time to start.” Viviana folds a towel and plops it on the bed. The corners don’t line up.
“I don’t have a car.” I unfold Viviana’s towel and fold it again.
“Take the bus.” When I don’t say anything, she says, “Oh, come on, Mom, you can’t just stay here doing nothing forever.”
“I’m not doing nothing.” I pick a loose thread off one of Manuel’s shirts. “I’m reading. I’m learning how to knit a blanket for your son.”
“You don’t know that it’ll be a boy.” She sits down on the bed beside the clothes and puts her hand on her stomach. She has maybe a week left, maybe less.
“I have a feeling.” I put the shirt on the bed.
“Well, you can knit after work.” I’m quiet still, and she asks, “Mom, what are you so afraid of?”
I shrug. She picks up the stack of towels and leaves to put them in the closet.
“And here’s where the magic happens.” Chelsea opens one side of the the double doors and lets me walk through. The back half of the room is lined with shelves of treats and toys. There are six tables, three on each side of the room, dogs on the first four. “That’s Pongo,” she says, pointing to the big dalmatian on the left. “Jack,” she says, pointing to the small, yapping brown terrier next to Pongo. “Spot.” She points to a slightly-larger-than-Jack-sized creme colored cocker spaniel who does not, in fact, have any spots. “And Nixon.” That’s the white standard poodle next to Spot and across from Jack with tufts of hair making its head, chest, and ankles appear bigger than the rest of his body. The hairdryers blare. As soon as one stops, another starts so that the room is constantly buzzing. Jack won’t stop yapping. “What do you think?” She looks down at me with big green eyes. Her hair is dyed blue with strawberry blonde roots, although I can’t tell if the roots are natural or also dyed. Viviana tells me she was friends with this girl in college, but I don’t remember ever seeing her in pictures.
“It’s very loud.”
Chelsea laughs. She’s letting me try it today, two days after Viviana told me about the job. If I don’t like it, Viviana says I don’t have to come back. She also says I better like it.
“You can take the one in the back,” she says. I follow her across the room, past Pongo and Jack and Spot and Nixon and the hot air of the buzzing hairdryers through another set of double doors. I haven’t been in this room yet. There are ten crates along the wall, five stacked on the bottom and another five stacked on top. There’s a small dog in the center of the top row.
“Who’s this?” The dog is small and mostly white with grey ears, a grey muzzle, and a grey spot on its right side. It’s shaking, but not yapping like Jack.
“This is Daisy,” Chelsea says, taking the dog from the crate. “She just comes in every once in a while. She’s a stray, but she seems to like being groomed.” She holds the dog out toward me. “Here.” I take Daisy in my arms. She’s still damp from being washed and smells like mildew. Her fur is thin. I can feel her rib cage and some small bumps on her back. She’s still shaking. “All you have to do for now is dry her.” I follow Chelsea back into the noisy room and set Daisy down on the table beside Nixon. Someone comes in to take Jack home. He’s remarkably quiet. Daisy is still vibrating like dice in your hands before you throw them.
I take the hairdryer and turn it on, pointing it at her back. Little tuffs of fur blow to the side, exposing pink skin. She doesn’t take very long to dry. I take a treat in the shape of a bone out of one of the boxes on the shelves and feed it to her. It’s almost as big as her muzzle, so it takes her a while to eat it. I stroke her back as she chews, crumbs all over the table.
I’ve never had frozen yogurt before, but Viviana’s cravings have brought us here at ten o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. The shop smells like sugar. “What are you going to get, Mom?” I’m still looking at the flavors. Viviana has strawberry and mango with sprinkles and gummy bears.
“What’s your favorite?” I ask.
“They’re all my favorite.” She laughs. I take some of the vanilla. “You have to try the toppings.”
“It’s the best part.” I take some of the chocolate sprinkles and put them on my yogurt. “Perfect.” We pay and sit down. She takes a bite yogurt. I do the same. It’s tart and the sprinkles are grainy, but I kind of like it.
“I’ll take the job,” I say.
She swallows. “That’s sudden.”
“That way I can get an apartment.”
“Don’t do anything you’re not ready for.”
I laugh. “Viviana, you don’t want your fifty-year-old mother living with you and your fiancé forever.”
“Not for forever. Just until you’re ready to live on your own again. And you’re definitely older than fifty.”
I roll my eyes and take another bite. “Besides,” I say after I swallow, “it’s lucky I have this job at all.”
“Lucky my ass,” Viviana says, a drip of pink and orange yogurt hanging from her spoon. “Luck has nothing to do with it, Mom. You get to decide.” I’m almost finished with my yogurt when Viviana gets her first contraction.
Viviana’s breathing heavily, but she hasn’t screamed yet, even though the contractions are just seven minutes apart. Manuel and Marcus are both on their way.
“Mom. It’s too much.” There’s a nurse here, but there’s not much she can do for Viviana right now.
“What do you mean?”
“Hurts.” She’s hoarse. She whimpers and grabs my hand hard, and I know she’s having another contraction.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. It’ll be worth it. You were worth it.” She was, even though I can still remember how it hurt, clutching Manuel’s hand like a lifeline and trying to focus on anything other than the creature coming out of my grotesque and swollen stomach. It didn’t work.
She grimaces. “That’s nice and everything, but maybe I’ll care about the little person inside me more when it stops trying to kill me.” Marcus and Manuel come into the room then. Both of them wrinkle their noses at the sudden whiff of urine and chemicals. “And if this thing doesn’t kill me, I’m going to kill you for doing this to me,” she tells Marcus.
He walks to the other side of the bed and takes her other hand. “That bad, huh?”
She screams for the first time and squeezes both of our hands. I think she might break my fingers and my rings are making little cuts on my hand, but I squeeze back anyway. The nurse comes over and says, “I think it’s time. It’s coming.”
“C’mon, Viviana, you can do this,” I say. I stroke her hair and squeeze her hand back. She nods and pushes. I can see the thing that will be her child coming out from between her legs. I can hear Manuel next to me and Marcus on Viviana’s other side telling her to push, that she’s going to be okay, but they don’t know that. Only I do because I’ve done this before. Viviana took fifteen hours of labor, but I did it. I didn’t cry until she came out, until the doctor announced, “It’s a girl.” I’m so caught up in the memory that I don’t hear right away when the doctor tells Viviana that same thing, her daughter pastel pink and screeching like a banshee, tied to her by a scrunched-up chord.
“She’s going to be fine,” I tell Manuel. We’re at the hospital cafe. A BLT for Manuel and a croissant with coffee and a little bit of sugar for me.
“We’re lucky, with her. Good head on her shoulders,” Manuel says.
“I still don’t know where she gets it from,” I say. Manuel smiles. “It’s a girl.”
“You wanted a boy.” It’s not a question. I had always wanted a boy.
“I wanted a healthy grandchild.” I lean back in my chair. “Besides, I think there should be a few more girls in the world.”
“That’s absolutely fair.”
“Viviana says there should be. That we’re allowed to take up space.”
“That’s true.” He takes a bit of his sandwich and swallows. “I heard you got a job.”
“At a dog groomers. Not the dream.”
“No, but you’ll get your life back and then you can work somewhere else.”
“Yeah, I guess.” There’s silence for a moment until I ask, “Do you resent me? For leaving?”
“What? Where is this coming from?”
I shrug. “Probably therapy. Viviana has me doing it.”
“No, I, I mean, I was kind of relieved.” He averts his eyes again.
“I mean, I still loved you, Rose, but you were a lot.” He laughs. “Do you resent me for feeling that way?”
“No. I only resented you for making me eat.”
“You know why I did it though, right?”
I nod. “You loved me.” I take a sip of my coffee and rip off a piece of the croissant.