That weekend, I sleep past six. I lie up in bed as my husband makes the children breakfast, reminds them to use the bathroom, asks them if they want to help him knead the biscuits. I’m awake, but I pretend that I’m asleep so I can stay in bed a while longer and just listen. I climb down when he calls to me to say that breakfast is ready and we eat together before he leaves for work.
Don’t forget the birthday party, he says before he leaves, and I say, Oh, fuck before realizing the kids are right there watching and both of them look up and smile at me. The four-year-old whispers something to her sister and they laugh and run into their room.
We have no present for the birthday party and we have no time to buy one, so I have the children pick two books that they don’t like much and a toy they haven’t played with in a while and we make wrapping paper out of computer paper by drawing pictures on it and we wrap all of it up using a stapler because we don’t have tape.
As soon as we walk into the ground floor of the brownstone, the four-year-old says loudly to the mother of the child whose birthday we’re attending, My mom didn’t have time to get a gift so she made us wrap up our own toys.
I look down and smile and walk past this woman toward the back of the house while the kids head into the main room, where a TV that covers almost the whole wall plays a loud cartoon and children climb overtop piles of toys and squeal and scream.
There are bloody marys in the kitchen, says another mother. It’s eleven in the morning.
Great, I say.
In the kitchen sit seven other mothers and the father of the child whose party this is. He mixes bloody marys, all the ingredients set before him, half-empty jars of olives and tiny onions. He pours one out for each of us, taste-testing, dipping a finger in each glass and licking before handing us our drinks.
There’s this Korean place, though, says one of the women. I’ve come in midconversation and they seem to be comparing places where they go to seek self-care. They cover you in this thick, salty mud, then spray it off of you with this incredibly strong hose.
It doesn’t hurt, though?
It feels amazing. I mean, it sort of hurts, but, like, good hurts, she says. Like waterboarding the dead skin.
I go to the Russian baths in Queens, another woman says.
There’s a sensory deprivation tank in Carroll Gardens, says a woman who wears the softest-looking turtleneck I’ve ever seen. It’s, like, two hundred dollars for forty minutes, but you leave feeling like you’ve come fresh from someone’s womb.
Botox, says another woman, reddening a little. I’m almost forty, she says. I got this chemical peel a couple of weeks ago. She makes a high-pitched sound that might be meant to be a laugh and reaches her hand up to her cheek. I feel better when I like the way I look, she says.
This fucking world, though, says another woman. We have to do what we can.
Klonopin, says another woman. Xanax and weed.
What I really want, though, says the only woman who has not spoken up until now. She sits on a stool in the corner of the room and has already sucked down to just the ice of her bloody mary. She is very thin and wears a blue silk shirt and her dark hair is pulled back from her face. I don’t want to talk, she says, or think. I want to stay standing with my shirt and shoes on and my pants around my ankles and a curtain held in front of my face and I want a strange man that I have never met and never have to meet to fuck me hard and then I want to leave.
The next morning, which is the morning before we go to court to declare ourselves bankrupt, I wake up early, even though it’s still the weekend, and I run fifteen miles into Manhattan and back home over the bridge. The sidewalks are still covered in ice and I fall three times and scrape my palms through my gloves and when my husband sees them, bruised and bloody, as I peel off all my clothes and climb into the shower, I look at him and say, Self-care, and he laughs.
I dress up for bankruptcy court and then wonder if I shouldn’t wear something cheaper looking. Just before the magic credit card stopped working I went to the store I like the most in the West Village, a store I had never been inside of because it looked too expensive, and bought the shirt and pants I’m wearing now. We are, the lawyer told us, when we met with him the first time—when we finally had the two thousand dollars cash we had to pay him to declare officially that we had no money—great candidates for bankruptcy.
What is this supposed to feel like? I ask my husband.
Relief? he says.
He stands close to me in our bedroom, halfway beneath our bed, before we leave, and he is big and tall and I feel better.
Failure? he says. An end?
We drop the kids at school together for the first time in a long time. I feel grateful to get to do this. I kiss them, hold them. I let each of them lead me around the rooms where I have never been and where they spend every day.
We should go to court more often, I whisper to my husband.
He smiles at me, tired looking. He kisses each girl on the cheek.
It’s mostly mothers, waving, saying goodbye. My husband waves or nods to all the mothers; they smile at him, hands reaching for their hair or clothes or for their children if they’re close to them. They look at me warily.
While we wait for my husband to come back from the bathroom, on a bench outside the room that we will soon enter, where we will sit and wait again in different chairs, the bankruptcy lawyer mentions quietly to me that he majored in literature.
I wanted to be a writer, he says. An academic. He says this last word like it’s magic, like this is not really a thing a person is.
I smile, my thumb rubbing the soft corner of this shirt that I won’t ever pay for.
Dodged a bullet there, I say.
The first time I got pregnant it was an accident. I didn’t believe that it was real until I took a digital test, alone, in the bathroom of a coffee shop I used to go to when I was twenty-one. I didn’t believe it before I saw the word, but, though I’d imagined maybe I’d at least float the idea that we not have her, though I’d never before that been sure I wanted kids—I knew we were too broke to have her; I was still in grad school—I ached for her as soon as I saw that word form. I had an emergency C-section, and my student health insurance didn’t cover C-sections—or, it covered C-sections, but only partially. We owed the hospital thirty thousand dollars, and then I was up all night nursing and walking the baby up and down the hallway and eating handfuls of chocolate chips to stay awake and then never remembering to rebrush my teeth. I got two root canals and one of them abscessed and the tooth had to be removed and they said that if I didn’t get the tooth replaced my jaw would slowly collapse and I got a ten-thousand-dollar manmade tooth and another crown. We got too much takeout because we were both working and trying not to pay for childcare. My husband still owed more than a hundred grand in student loans from undergrad. I kept buying things: another breast pump because of the chafing with the first one, creams and ointments and sleep sacks and a noise machine and different types of swaddling blankets and a dehumidifier, in hopes that I could get the baby—the first baby, and then the second baby less than two years later—to finally go to sleep.
My body almost single-handedly bankrupted us. It also, with a little bit of help, made and then sustained the two best things in our lives. We were just privileged enough to think that we could live outside the systems and the structures and survive it, but we failed.
Excerpted from WANT: A Novel by Lynn Steger Strong. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2020 by Lynn Steger Strong. All rights reserved.
If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.