Leaving Home

A SHORT STORY BY SUE MILLER

“GO FIND DADDY,” ANITA SAID IN THE KITCHEN. “Where did Daddy go?”

Leah was in the living-room closet, and Anita’s voice sounded muted and thickened to her. The closet smelled of mildew and camphor, and was full of old boots and boxes of clothing. Leah knelt among them and listened to Anita walk through the living room on her way from the kitchen to the foot of the stairs.

“The baby stinks, Greg.” Anita’s voice was closer, sharper. Silence from upstairs.

“Did you hear me, Greg? The baby stinks, and it’s my birthday. I’m not going to change her.” Anita walked back to the kitchen, past Sophie, who had followed her across the living room. Leah rose, and stepped out of the closet to watch her grandchild. The little girl had just learned to walk, and, amazed, she held her hands up in the air and waved them for balance with each exaggerated step, a miniature tightrope walker. A large wet stain ran down one leg of her overalls.

Greg lumbered down the stairs, and Sophie smiled up at him. Her bare feet curved inward at the toes. Greg squatted in front of her. “Soph, you did it again,” he said. Then he noticed his mother, standing in the closet doorway. “Isn’t that something?” he asked her, as though Sophie had just performed some prodigious musical or artistic feat. His face was deadpan.

Leah laughed, pushing her curly hair off her face.

“Do you stink, Soph?” he asked the child. “Are you, in fact, a . . . stinker?”

Sophie smiled, watching him with delight.

“Are you . . .” He paused again, and in anticipation, she made a small squealing noise. “ . . . a stinker?” She laughed and set her tiny hands on his face.

“Are you”—she had the game now, and was already laughing, but watched him rapturously until he had said it—“a stinker?” Her body gave itself up to laughter, and she suddenly lost her balance and sat down hard on the floor, still laughing.

“Look how smart she is, honey,” Leah said. “She just picks up anything so fast.”

“If she’s so smart, how come she isn’t toilet-trained?” He scooped her up and held her balanced horizontally across his hip. A strand of drool dangled from her mouth and was suddenly gone, a drop on the floor. Sophie watched it, fascinated.

“What were you doing in the closet, Mom?” Greg asked.

“Trying to find the damn picnic basket.”

“Don’t you keep it in the basement?”

“Yes, but we had a picnic just a week or so ago, and I thought I put it away up here.”

He stood looking at his mother for a moment. She was still pretty, in a slightly plump, worn way. She was wearing jeans and an old T-shirt that had his high school emblem on it.

“Who is this we that keeps cropping up?”

Leah blushed. “Just a man I’ve been seeing a little of.”

“Just a man?”

She nodded.

“Wasn’t there a movie called Just a Man?“ He shifted Sophie on his hip.

“No,” Leah said. “You’re thinking of Nothing But a Man.”

“No, I’m not, Mom. I’m thinking of this movie, Just a Man. It’s different from Nothing But a Man.”

“God, that was a good movie, that Nothing But a Man.” Leah’s hand strayed to her hair again. “And the sound track. I mean, it wasn’t a musical, but do you remember that song ‘Heat Wave’?”

“No, but you do.” Sophie began to make complaining noises, and wriggled. “Okay, Soph, here we go,” he said.

“I can’t believe it,” Leah said, as he turned to go up the stairs. “You don’t remember ‘Heat Wave.’ ”

He laughed. “That was your life, Mom.”

Leah stood a moment at the bottom of the stairs and watched him carry Sophie up, jouncing her on each step. “Hup, hup,” he said. Then she turned and crossed to the kitchen.

The kitchen was flooded with early-afternoon sunlight. Anita sat at the round wooden table by the windows, drinking coffee and reading the paper. The lunch dishes still littered the table. Anita had said she would do them. Leah had to will herself not to start picking up. She sat down at what had been her place, and sipped at the bit of cold, milky coffee left in her cup.

Anita lowered the paper. She was wearing her glasses, two clear, thick circles with steel-rimmed frames that perched delicately on her perfect nose. She was a law student. Most of the time Leah had trouble imagining her, delicate and frail as she seemed, in that competitive world. But now, wearing her glasses, she looked icy and determined. Leah didn’t know whether Greg had married Anita for her eggshell-frail beauty or for the steely competence that lay underneath it. Or both, of course. When he told her they were getting married, she asked him why. He seemed too young to Leah, hopelessly young. “Because, Mom,” he answered earnestly then, “she’s someone I know I can live with the rest of my life.” She was touched by his conviction and ashamed of the impulse she had to mock him for it. Now she looked at Anita. Why can’t I ever tell what she’s thinking? Leah wondered. Why does she make me feel like the younger of us two? She sighed.

“What’s up?” Anita asked.

“Oh, just nothing’s working today, and now I can’t find the damn picnic basket.”

“What’s it look like?”

Leah instantly felt annoyed. She didn’t want Anita’s help. She didn’t want Anita to find it for her.

“The way they look. A big, square, hampery kind of thing.”

“Oh. I might have seen it, I think.”

“Where?”

“The broom closet by the back door, maybe?”

Leah went to the broom closet and opened the door. The hamper sat on the top shelf, beyond her easy reach. Joe, so much taller, so much more domestic than she, must have put it away after their picnic. She stood on her toes, and, with the tips of her fingers, slid the basket forward on the shelf until it leaned suddenly toward her and she caught it.

She had thought about asking Joe over tonight. They were going to celebrate Anita’s birthday, her twenty-fifth, with a party in the back yard. Greg had invited Pete Slattery, his closest friend from high school, and his wife, Debby; Leah and Joe had talked about whether he should come, but they had decided no. Two of his children still lived at home, and Leah and Joe’s life at his house had a false air of almost marital stability. They both liked the sense of freedom, of abandon, they had at her house. Last Sunday they had made love in the kitchen after breakfast. Leah had sat in the bright summer light on the counter amid the egg-stained dishes and chipped coffee mugs, the sun warming her back and Joe warming her front; and she had cried out, “Oh. Oh. Oh,” as loudly as she wanted when she came. After all her years of negotiated privacy when Greg was young—of sneaking the occasional lover in and out of the house, as though she were the teenager, and he, heavily asleep in his room, which smelled of dirty socks and the sulfurous acne medication he wore to bed, were the parent—she was jealous of her long-awaited freedom, her claim to sexuality. They decided there was no hurry for Joe to meet her family.

But, a few hours before Anita and Greg were to arrive, he had turned up at her back door with a present, a loaf of zucchini bread he had made for the party. It was wrapped in aluminum foil, and it was still warm in Leah’s hands as she stood with him on the back stoop.

“It smells good. Is it supposed to be your version of a silver bullet, Joe? Who was that masked man, and all that?”

She blocked the kitchen doorway She was embarrassed to have Joe see how much neater the house was than usual. Even though he stood several steps below her, his head was level with hers.

“It’s supposed to make you remember me. You’re going to eat a piece of that bread and want me in the middle of the family doings.”

She held the present against her. The heat touched her breasts through her shirt. “If I had to pick something to remind you of me in my absence, it wouldn’t be zucchini bread,” she said, after a moment.

He shrugged and grinned at her. He was a skinny man, balding, with one eye that swiveled out as though to check on what was going on in the rest of the world. She realized, and had told him, that she would never have been attracted to him if not for the wild freedom of that eye. She had felt a positively erotic charge trying to meet his difficult gaze when they had been introduced, at a parentteacher night in the high school where his youngest child, a girl named Fiona, was Leah’s student. “Well,”he said, actually we just had too goddamn many zucchini in the garden. That’s the bald-faced truth of the situation.”

“Oh, don’t tell me the bald-faced truth,” she said. “I never want to hear that.” He kept grinning as he leaned forward to kiss her. His tongue came a little way into her mouth. Then he was gone, gone until this weekend of her being a mother again should be over.

Now, as Leah brought the hamper over to the kitchen table, Anita got up lazily and started to carry the lunch dishes to the sink. What had bothered her most about the scene at the foot of the stairs, Leah suddenly thought, watching her tall daughter-in-law move across the kitchen, graceful as a giraffe, was that Anita had called Sophie the baby. She ought to say her name.

AROUND THREE O’CLOCK, WITH THE HOUSE IN A profound, dazed silence because of the heat and Sophie’s nap, Leah went out to the back steps to shell peas. The sun had swung around, off the stairs, but the heat rose, still and stifling and smelling of dirt, from the earth in the back yard. Leah knew that the meal she had planned for this party was too elaborate, was taking too much of her time; but she knew, too, that she had organized it this way in part so that she could stay away from Anita and Greg and some feeling of anxiety they roused in her. She was glad to have this job to do, to be able to leave the house and come out here alone to sit.

Greg and Anita had had a small, quickly suppressed argument just before Sophie’s nap, and Leah frowned, thinking of it as her thumbnail slid along the seam of a brightgreen pea pod. She and Anita had been working in the kitchen, and Sophie had been standing on a stool by the sink, playing quietly with the soapy water Anita had run for her. She was wearing only her diaper, and she carefully poured water from one plastic container to another in the sink. Her protruding belly glistened with what she had spilled on it.

Greg came into the room and began to play with her. Leah stopped what she was doing for a moment to watch them. He was wearing cut-off shorts, and his brown body, with the big bones moving under the skin, gave her as much pleasure as Sophie’s translucent roundness did. She remembered how homely Greg had been just before he entered his teens. He had been a fat child, who wasn’t popular and who stammered in any new situation. Once he had used her razor to shave his eyebrows off. He hated the way he looked, he had said when she asked him why. “And this is better?” she countered in a tense, shrill voice.

He had looked at her as though he would like to kill her in some slow and painful way. “Y-y-y-y-yes,” he said, his eyes not blinking under his smooth, naked forehead.

Greg made a waterfall; he blew bubbles with a straw he found in a kitchen drawer. Leah watched his muscular, hard back, looked at Sophie’s compact and delicate body on the stool next to him.

“Why can’t you leave her alone for just a few minutes, Greg?” Anita said.

Leah looked away quickly, went back to peeling boiled potatoes for a salad.

“Why should I leave her alone?” Greg asked, standing straight. He shook the bubbly water from his fingers.

Anita’s voice strained to be casual, reasonable. “Because you never do. She’s perfectly content, playing by herself. And you always have to charm her with your game, your ...” There was silence for a moment. “I just don’t think it’s good for her,” Anita said finally.

Greg stood next to Sophie, looking at Anita. Leah looked at her too. Anita was staring over Sophie’s head at Leah’s son, with eyes that were free of love, free of any response to his beauty.

“Bupps, Daddy?” Sophie said. She had fished the soggy straw out of the water and held it up to Greg.

“Not now, honey,” Greg said. He walked toward the door, his sense of injury apparent in the way he held his shoulders.

“Bupps!” Sophie shrieked after him. “Bupps!” she wailed, and then she bent over and cried, loudly and dramatically, with her head touching the counter, her face hidden against her small fat hands.

“Whoo,” Anita said, moving toward her daughter and raising her eyebrows for Leah’s benefit. “Naptime for this kidlet.”

When Leah finished shelling the peas, she picked up the pot and the colander and went back into the kitchen. She glanced through the doorway into the living room. Greg lay on the floor, alone, reading an old issue of Sports Illustrated. Leah realized she hadn’t seen Greg and Anita touch each other since they had arrived.

LEAH’S HOUSE WAS LIKE ALL THE OTHERS AROUND it, only with a slightly different “porch treatment” in front. The house was part of a cheap suburban tract. She had bought it three years after she and Greg’s father were divorced, a year after she started teaching at the high school. The development was to have extended into the field and woods behind it, but by the time she and Greg moved in, the first group of eight houses was already having trouble with its septic tanks. Until the town extended its sewer lines out as far as the development, something it showed no signs of doing, no more houses could be built. Thus Leah had an unexpected park behind her. Deer sometimes wandered into her yard in the dusky mornings while she had her solitary breakfast; on winter nights she occasionally went outside and listened to the snow fall with a hissing sound into the woods.

Anita’s picnic was going to be at the bottom of the meadow, twenty or so feet before the woods started. They would be close enough to the house to hear Sophie if she cried, but far enough away that their noise wouldn’t bother her.

While Greg got Sophie ready for bed, and the steady pulse of the pump forcing water for Anita’s shower thrummed through the house, Leah carried quilts and pillows, candles, and load after load of food, wine, and beer down to the bottom of the lawn. She had changed into a dress and she had her shoes off and the grass felt cool and damp on her bare feet. Although it was still light outside, twilight had begun in the house, and she turned on the lamp in the kitchen as she assembled the final load in the hamper. Then she stayed outside, on her back on the faded and stained quilt, a glass of white wine within reach.

Greg called her and she answered half-heartedly, but she knew he couldn’t hear her and she didn’t get up. After a while the screen door smacked shut. She looked up and he walked across the grass to her. He wore a T-shirt over his cut-offs that said “Computer programmers do it Digitally.” He had worked for Digital since he had graduated, since he had married Anita.

“God, you did everything. Mom.”

Leah propped herself up on an elbow. “I wanted to be able to just lie here without thinking about having to get up in a while to help.”

“But you should have called me.” He sat down on a pillow and reached into the cooler for a beer.

“Honey, you don’t have to help with everything.” And you shouldn’t, she wanted to say. You shouldn’t. She thought suddenly of all the years she had made him help her with the housework, even when she could have done it more efficiently herself; of all the times she had lectured him on his responsibility for their tiny household. She had a vague, apologetic sense now that it had all been wrong, wrongheaded.

“What do you think,” she asked, looking up at the first faint stars in the white sky, “was the thing that attracted you and Anita to each other in college?” She was embarrassed by the question as soon as she had asked it, and rushed to qualify it. “I mean, looking back,” she said.

He was saved from having to answer by the sound of a car in the driveway. “Ah. Guess who,” he said, and smiled. He got up and disappeared around the corner of the house, carrying his beer. She could hear voices raised in greeting, and, in a minute, they all appeared: Greg and Pete, and Pete’s wife, Debby. Debby had been a student of Leah’s years before. She was a sweet, stupid girl with enormous breasts. She had had to marry Pete before she finished her junior year of high school. At the party Greg had thrown for them a few weeks after the wedding, Leah had found Debby crying in the bathroom; had cleaned up the vomit that had missed the toilet; and had tucked the miserable sixteen-year-old bride into her own bed for the night while the noise of the party continued below.

They were cheerful now as they sat down and got beer and wine to drink. Pete told Leah how pretty she looked, and she pretended a schoolteacher’s cynical disbelief of flattery. It had been her defense ever since Greg’s friends began suddenly to turn into men, when she was alone and in her mid-thirties. It was like a joke they had all shared, especially she and Pete, the wildest of the friends, who had been sexually alert at an age when Greg still seemed to be sleepwalking through life.

When the screen door banged, and Anita, in a gauzy white dress, stood poised a moment and then floated down through the fading summer light to them, Leah glanced over at Pete and caught a look of openly sexual appraisal on his face.

“The birthday girl,” Leah said quickly. Anita smiled at them all and sank down in the swirl of her skirts next to Greg.

“Hello, hello, hello,” she said to each of them and leaned prettily, a frail reed, against Greg’s shoulder. “What is there for me to drink, sweetheart?”

Greg poured some wine for her, let her lean. But he didn’t look at her or respond to her. Even though Leah knew Anita was posturing slightly for the guests, she was moved by the younger woman’s beauty, and irritated—she attributed it to the wine she had drunk—by Greg’s passive, stubborn unresponsiveness to it. She had the sudden absolute conviction, as she reached over to light the picnic lanterns she had brought out earlier, that he would lose Anita and his marriage, and, of course, Sophie also. Her eyes momentarily filled with tears. She lighted the lamps and began to pass around the wicker picnic plates.

Leah drank too much during the meal. She poured herself glass after glass of white wine. The food she had spent all day preparing seemed tasteless and bland to her. She ate a few small bites of the first course and didn’t even cut herself a piece of Anita’s birthday cake.

After they had finished eating and were stretched out, drinking wine and beer, Pete lit a joint and passed it around. Leah remembered that she had heard from someone else, some other high school friend of Greg’s and Pete’s, that he was dealing in a small way. She wrinkled her nose at the smell and leaned out of the circle. She had tried grass once or twice, at Greg’s insistence, when he was in college, but it only made her sleepy and slightly nauseated. She thought it made Greg and his friends boring, and she had told him so. He had shrugged and said, “It’s just the same thing I feel about you and your friends when you’ve all been drinking.”

Now their voices grew slowly more subdued and intimate. Debby was hunched over her glass of wine, talking at length to Greg, who nodded and nodded. Anita and Pete, more relaxed, giggled. Leah was sorry she hadn’t invited Joe. She felt old and solitary, an observer. She wanted just to clean up and go to bed.

She stood and walked slowly to the house, carrying her wine. At the kitchen door she looked back. The scene was beautiful in the yellow lamplight, and at this distance their soft voices seemed like a part of nature, like the sound of leaves in the wind, or the liquid murmur of a stream.

Leah went upstairs and looked a long time at herself in the bright light of the bathroom. Her eye makeup had smeared slightly around her eyes. Her lipstick was gone. She pushed her hair back. Her face looked tired, weakened by age. She set down her wineglass and slowly washed her face, rinsing it over and over in the cool running water.

She went down the darkened hallway to Sophie’s room. She stood just outside the doorway, because Greg had told her that Sophie was a light sleeper. She listened to the child’s regular breathing as she had listened to her son thousands of times when he was small. The air was full of the perfumed smell of Sophie’s diapers.

The screen door slammed downstairs. Sophie stirred; the plastic diaper rustled gently. Voices whispered, there was soft laughter in the kitchen. Dishes clinked. Were they picking up? Leah should go down and help. Someone turned on the faucet and the pipes sang gently behind the cheap walls. She reached into the bedroom and slowly closed Sophie’s door.

Leah walked downstairs, and as she crossed the living room, she heard Anita’s voice, thick with wine and dope, from the kitchen. “No, it’s not that,” she said. “It’s just this endless Mommy-Daddy-Baby shit. The endless threesomeness of it all. We always have to be so damned responsible. It’s as though I don’t exist as a woman anymore.”

And Pete’s voice, slurred and soft. “I can’t imagine that with you. If I were with you. I mean, I’ve always thought of you as one of the sexiest ladies I know.”

Leah cleared her throat and then coughed, loudly enough, she hoped, to warn them she was about to intrude upon them. But when she stepped into the dimly lit kitchen in her bare feet, Pete was gently lifting Anita’s hair from her face in what was unmistakably the beginning of an embrace.

“I’m here,” Leah said stupidly. Pete jerked his hands back. Anita turned slowly, foggily, toward Leah and smiled. The orange light glowed behind her, and Leah could see that she wasn’t wearing a bra under the gauzy dress. Let her be drunk enough not to remember, Leah thought.

“Are you starting to clean up?” she asked brightly. “I’ll go outside and get some more.” She turned quickly away from them.

Outside it was cooler. She stood a moment by the back door. The air itself lifted her spirits slightly; but as she approached Greg she felt the return of her sense of helpless sorrow for him.

He and Debby sat on the quilt, talking like two earnest children. They didn’t notice Leah for a moment at the edge of the lantern light, and Debby went on talking, telling Greg how much trouble she’d had getting her youngest child to give up a pacifier.

Then Debby looked up and saw her. “Leah,” she said, smiling. “It’s Leah.”

There was a pause as they both looked at her. In the still evening air Leah could hear crickets, the clatter of dishes in the kitchen.

“Mom. Oh. You looked so weird to me.” Greg stared at her with amazed, stoned intensity, and Leah bent down to start loading the hamper. “For a minute I thought . . .”he said slowly. “I mean, I really thought, when I looked at you, that I was about ten years old again.”

LATER, AFTER PETE AND DEBBY HAD LEFT, LEAH sat on the edge of her bed upstairs and listened to Greg and Anita below in the living room. She heard the low metallic shriek that meant they were pulling out the foldaway bed, the lazy alternation of their voices. Then Anita’s took over, a pressured monologue, with an occasional sharply articulated word—never, or dammit—that floated up through the night air and the thin walls of the house. He didn’t answer. Leah wanted him to. She sat in her room and listened to the sound of her son’s marriage and wanted him to shout, to push, to hit. She thought of how he had sat, mute and resentful, when she had spoken just this way to him a hundred times, over the garbage not taken out, the bike not locked, the car dented, the curfew defied; thinking always that she was teaching him, teaching him the right way, the responsible way, to get through life.

When she tiptoed past the living room on her way out, she heard them making love. The bed squeaked to their rhythm, he cried out in bewildered, wild whispers, and there was a low, mournful keening from Anita. They still had that, then. Did it make the rest easier? Harder? Leah remembered that she and Greg’s father had also made love, weeping, the night before he moved out of her life and Greg’s, forever.

For a moment, as she walked silently across the kitchen, she worried about leaving the house, about what seemed like an abandonment of Greg, of them all. But she had no power anymore—had never had the power, although at one time she had thought she did—to stave off ruin, to guard her son against his share of pain. And for herself, right now, she wanted Joe. She wanted, just as Greg did, the illusion of wholeness, of repair, the broken parts fitting.

As she stepped outside and turned to shut the door, the porch light falling into the kitchen gleamed on the silver wrapping of the bread Joe had given her, the gift she had forgotten to take to the party. □