Tamara was yelling at Peter to get in the car, but her mind was on the garden of the Malibu house, sensing that everything could begin or end there. As Peter shuffled down the stairs with a morose gait, she envisioned a pebbled entryway and bougainvillea everywhere. It was all in the sketch she had meticulously detailed the night before, the sketch she would present to the new clients today, and she hoped, as she always hoped, she would appear cool and collected. The key, she figured, was to appear immersed in the wildlife of her work, oblivious to the aridness of the recession that had infected everyone else.
“I didn’t have breakfast,” Peter said.
“Your loss, buddy. Get in the car. Now.”
They walked down the driveway to the Honda Civic that was parked under the hot morning sun. Peter shuffled to the backseat, his Spongebob backpack splayed out next to him, and Tamara, squinting into the rearview mirror, evaluated the state of her lipstick before pressing on the accelerator and driving off. She had to present her landscaping vision to Bradley and Julia Chapman, a cinematographer and his fashion model wife who were looking for the perfect landscape architect to complete their “rustic on the beach” utopia in Malibu. Tamara knew that to be that person she had to be prepared, and persuasive, had to imply that only by following the plans in her sketches would this couple be able to successfully pave their way towards beauty and truth.
“I really don’t want to go to school today,” Peter said.
Tamara squinted as she made a right onto Ventura Boulevard, shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare as she mentally reviewed how the hydrangeas and trellises would adorn the water fountain in the Chapman’s courtyard.
“Please don’t make me go,” Peter said.
Tamara sighed. “I thought you liked school, honey.”
“I don’t like Max Wilburn.”
What if they don’t like hydrangeas? Tamara thought. What if they think they’re overdone, tacky, and completely obvious? To Peter she said, “Who’s Max Wilburn?”
“This kid in the grade above me. We got in a fight yesterday at recess. He pushed me really hard.”
“What did you get in a fight about?”
“He said I was hogging the jungle gym, and when I was walking back to class he pushed me.”
Tamara sighed, turning left into the parking lot of John Burroughs Elementary School. “Well hon, you can’t hog the jungle gym. That’s for everyone to play on.”
“But that’s the thing, mom. Everyone does play on it. I was playing on it with everyone else, and he kept telling me I was hogging it, but I wasn’t.”
Tamara pulled up to the drop off curb and turned around to look at Peter. He was small boned just like her, and pale and wide eyed. His eyes were especially wide right now, in the telling of the story. And Tamara felt worried for her son, worried about the wide-eyed look that would inevitably make him seem too vulnerable, a “pansy,” a target for elementary school punks like Max Wilburn. Christ, she thought. Why couldn’t he inherit more of Raymond’s genes?
“Honey, don’t let anyone push you around,” Tamara said. “You’ve got to be strong.”
“But he’s bigger than me, mom.”
“Well stay away from him, then.”
Peter didn’t say anything. Tamara checked the time, fluttered her fingers against the steering wheel, and looked resolutely into the rearview mirror. “Peter, you need to tough this out. Stand your ground. Don’t let that jerk get to you.” When Peter sad nothing in return she said, “I have to go, buddy. I’ve got a big day ahead. But I’ll see you right after school. Try to have a good day, okay?”
Peter slung his backpack around his shoulder, and she could see him take a deep breath and close his eyes, as if mentally preparing himself.
“Just stay out of trouble. I’ll see you after school.”
“Bye,” Peter said. He shut the door and walked over to the blacktop driveway where all the kids were standing, backpacks swinging, walking to their classrooms. Driving away, Tamara saw from the corner of her eye that Peter was still standing on the pavement, as if waiting for her.
One hour and one freeway later, Tamara was over at the Malibu house, where Julia Chapman whipped up lattes on the espresso machine and listened attentively to the script that Tamara recited from memory about the potential of hydrangeas and bougainvillea.
“I really do believe that with all of these plants working in tandem you’re going to achieve your authentically rustic California garden,” Tamara said, her face flush with nerves. “But, as with any garden, it’s going to take time and care. You’re going to need to be watchful and attentive, especially of the Mexican evening primrose. The roots grow fast in the warmer months, and you don’t want it to overpower everything else in your lovely garden.”
“Of course not,” Julia said. “We just have to pay attention.” Julia nudged her husband, who looked increasingly perturbed by a recent text. “Honey, are you even listening?”
“What? Yes. We have to make sure that plant doesn’t grow like crazy,” Bradley said, looking up. “I’ve gotta run back to the studio. The post production people are having issues with some of the footage.”
“You just let Tamara take care of things, okay dear? You can trust her,” Bradley said, in a tone that Tamara thought was a more than a little condescending, the tone of someone who was used to used to jumping up at a moment’s notice and escaping from things.
“Men,” Julia said, sighing, loud enough for Bradley to hear as he walked over to the Porsche parked in the driveway, his car keys jingling with each step he took. Tamara smiled, for lack of knowing what else to do, and it struck her for the first time that perhaps she had been only one of many landscape architects that they had consulted with, and that Bradley’s abrupt departure had signified that she had somehow failed their screening test. In the quiet of the kitchen, Julia Chapman cradled her espresso and studied Tamara’s sketches, a neutral expression on her face, and Tamara, clinging to her own espresso cup, wished she could read Julia’s mind to such an extent that it embarrassed her, in the way that all of her feelings embarrassed her when she felt them too strongly. When her cell phone lit up and an unfamiliar number flashed across the screen, she sprang up instinctively, glad, at least, for a physical action to divert her from sitting at that table. “Excuse me for a moment,” Tamara said, stepping out of the French doors onto the terrace, before answering her phone. “Hello, this is Tamara.”
“Hello Tamara, this is Jeanne calling from John Burroughs Elementary School.”
“There’s been an incident on the playground concerning your son, Peter.”
“He was involved in a fight with another boy. We think he may have broken his arm. The paramedics are on their way. I just notified your husband, and he said that he would meet you at Providence Tarzana Medical Center.”
Tamara felt a surge of nausea rise up her throat. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said. She hung up and walked back into the kitchen, where Julia was still cradling her espresso and studying the plans. Tamara was momentarily glad that she could at least break this stretch of intolerable silence, that she had a mission that was completely independent of Julia’s aesthetic preferences. “I’m sorry, Julia,” she said. “I just got a call from my son’s school. They told me he may have broken his arm. I’ve got to go to the hospital. We’ll talk later.”
“Yes, of course,” Julia said, “I hope everything is alright.” Her furrowed eyebrows were in the pose of concern, and Tamara sprinted to the car, leaving behind a memo that emphasized what a difference a chrysanthemum bed could make.
I’m a stupid idiot, Tamara thought as she made a sharp left onto Malibu Canyon Road, a goddamn stupid idiot. Pieces of the conversation from the car ride that morning came back in fragments. Bully. Max. Pushed me. She had been indisputably distracted, yes, overwhelmed by her first major referral in God knows how long, but she had also been concerned about Peter’s meekness more than anything else, his vulnerability that made it so easy for him to get singled out and targeted by bullies. There had been that incident at Sam Stouffer’s eighth birthday party at the miniature golf course, where Peter repeatedly had trouble hitting the golf ball, swinging the club back only to come up with air. There had been those gaps of silence between the missed swings, followed by other boys’ laughter, and then Sam’s father’s gentle suggestion that it might be a good idea to get Peter’s hand-eye coordination looked at as they were leaving, party favors in hand.
Tamara had thanked him for the advice, but what she remembered more was her difficulty trying to read that night before bed, how the words seemed to swim around in a blur on the page. She remembered turning to Raymond and telling him that she was worried about Peter and his meekness, his lack of coordination and his inability to relate to other boys. But Raymond, of course, had managed to dismiss her anxiety with a cool detachment, his signature inability to get worked up about anything. “So he’s a little clumsy,” he said. “Maybe he’s not destined to be a neurosurgeon, but he’ll figure things out.” He turned off his light. “Christ, Tam,” he had said. “He’s only eight.”
It was easy for Raymond to say that Tamara thought, pressing on the accelerator as she snaked her way up the winding canyon. He had never been one to struggle with those sorts of things. Raymond was six foot two and raised in a family of meat and potato eating athletes. He had played varsity football and ran track in high school and now in his forties seemed to move with a relaxed and self-satisfied gait, as though he had nothing else, really, to prove.
And even though she kind of resented his assuredness, about Peter’s well being, about everything else, she also envied it, because it was his confident ability to brush things away with a dismissive wave of the hand that she had never been able to master. All of the nights that Raymond had said, “Let it go,” and had fallen asleep the moment his head had hit the pillow, Tamara spent lying awake, involuntarily enabling thoughts to link up to other thoughts, as though she were constructing some sort of cerebral daisy chain.
She merged onto the 101 South, turning up the radio in an attempt to ignore her heart’s angry thud and the intrusive images of Peter recoiling in pain, his arm bloody, his bones protruding.
When she saw Raymond standing tall and composed in the waiting room of the orthopedics pediatric ward she burst into tears, all of that anxious energy and teeth grinding that had carried her through Malibu Canyon finally breaking down into untamed sobs.
“I came here as fast as I could,” she said. “As fast as I could.”
“Shh,” he said, running his hands over her back, her head nestled into the crook of his shoulder. She smelled the faint scent of his cologne, crisp and smooth, mingle with the staleness of the hospital.
“Where is he? How is he?”
“He’s sedated,” Raymond said. “They gave him morphine for the pain, and they’re about to operate. He fractured his arm.”
“Morphine?” Tamara said. She associated morphine with her father during his losing battle with cancer, his rattling breath thin like a whistle, as his EKG flattened and his breaths grew smaller, imprints of the ones before them.
“You need to sign some forms before they operate.”
Tamara started walking to the reception desk before she turned to face her husband, her sturdy husband with his cornflower hair and pale blue eyes, and said “Did you know that a bully did this to him?”
“The school mentioned that he got into a fight with someone.”
“It was some kid named Max Wilburn,” Tamara said. “Peter was telling me about the kid this morning, how he’s always giving him a hard time, and I was too busy thinking about flower arrangements for the new clients because I am a terrible mother.”
“No you’re not,” Raymond said. “Christ, you didn’t know this would happen.”
“I should have known. I should have done something when he told me.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I told him to tough it out. I’m such an idiot.”
“Just sign the forms, Tam,” he said. “We will talk about all of this later.”
So she went to the desk and signed the consent forms, and then they walked back to the waiting room, hand in hand. “We’re going to make the Wilburns cough up more than they’re worth,” Raymond said. “Those fuckers are going to pay.”
Tamara blinked at him. Everything he said was right, but his voice was too calm, too steady, his hand too cool and smooth against her hot, clammy one.
It was three AM, and she had just woken up from a nightmare where she was on a small boat with a bunch of people she didn’t recognize. There was a storm, and the boat was bobbing unsettlingly over waves. The captain was some kind of quiz show host, and he walked from one person to another asking trivia questions, and when a person didn’t know an answer he threw them overboard, tossing them into the choppy blue waves where the sheer weight of their exhaustion would drag them down, never to be seen again. In the dream Tamara kept thinking about how seasick she was, how her nausea would make focusing impossible, how she was bound to be tossed over any minute.
When she awoke her heart was racing, and her skin was cold. She was in a sleeping bag on the floor of Peter’s room, and when she abruptly sat up she could feel the coiled muscles in her neck stiffen from curling up on the floor. She stretched her legs and listened to the rhythm of her son’s breathing, which, to her relief, sounded deep and even, not the breathing of someone who had been drugged by morphine. She stood up, grimacing at the sound of the creaking floorboards, and looked at Peter for any signs of pain, but he appeared to be in the midst of a deep sleep. His left arm was thickly bandaged, and his right arm was outstretched, dangling off the pillow, as if looking for some comfort that the parameter of the bed could not provide.
Tamara sat next to him and combed her fingers through his hair, finally resting her hand on the bony crevice of his shoulder blade. She leaned against his bedpost and closed her eyes, trying to will herself to go back to sleep. But in that quiet moment in the dark she felt her mind carrying her back to a place she didn’t want to go, a window of time she had closed off and which, involuntary, she felt herself revisiting again.
She was not much older than eight of nine, and she had accompanied her parents to a Fourth of July party at their friends’ house, the Whitby’s. Her parents had gone to the Whitby’s every Fourth of July, and she had always stayed at home, preferring to feign sickness rather than watch her parents mingle with all of the other adults, who seemed stuffy just by virtue of being adults. But there had been something different about that year. Her parents told her that the Whitby’s daughter Sophie was in town, having postponed her annual summer trip up to her grandparents’ beachside cottage in Santa Barbara, and that she was Tamara’s age, and that Tamara should start going to these parties and developing social skills anyway. And Tamara had felt a change within herself, too: when that Fourth of July came around she felt a kind of emerging restlessness, and she didn’t want to spend another languid summer day by herself, hitting a handball against the screen door while her depressed babysitter ate bonbons and watched reruns on TV. So she had joined her parents in attending the party at the massive Beverly Hills estate, and after being introduced to Sophie, who was actually two years older than her and a big boned mare of a girl, they broke off from the crowd and jumped into the pool. Their conversation was brusque, fragmented. They made no effort to get to know one another, but rather, in that primal elementary school way, assumed they were already on the same wavelength. After revealing a mutual dislike of Marco Polo Sophie demanded they play her favorite pool game, Colors, where one person stands in the shallow end of the pool with their eyes closed while calling out the names of various colors in the rainbow. The other person stands on the same side of the pool as the color announcer, and upon hearing the name of their color called, has to dash underwater and paddle like a silent warrior to the other side, all in the hopes that the first player will not hear movement and tag her.
Tamara had played Colors before and had vehemently disliked it, having found the concept of being chased underwater far more frightening than being chased on land. But she wanted to get along with Sophie. And if nothing else, the game seemed a viable enough distraction from the world of the grown ups, who stood around talking about traffic and movie scripts, the husbands stuffing their faces with ribs while the wives daintily picked at their potato salad with patriotic toothpicks.
Before she had tried to submerge the memory altogether, Tamara used to blame herself for what had happened. But in that moment in the middle of the night, with her son’s arm wrapped in a cast next to her, the facts of that day returned to her, in their unbiased, unadulterated form. She had picked indigo as her color. Admittedly, she realized now, as she must have then, that that was probably considered cheating by anyone who adhered to the Colors handbook, as anything outside the typical rainbow spectrum was considered a “stretch” or “unfair.” But something about Sophie had unsettled her from the moment they met. Maybe it was her physical largeness or her loud, boorish voice, but when Sophie naturally assigned herself to the role of color announcer while subjugating Tamara to be the floundering color with the assigned task of swimming to the other side untagged, Tamara felt doubly terrified. And so in some kind of absurd and indirect form of self-protection she had picked the most obscure color she could think of, a color she had only seen once in a 64 set Crayola box.
“You cheated,” Sophie said at the end of the first round, after she looked over and saw that Tamara was still standing right where she started.
“You didn’t call out my color,” Tamara said. She wiped drops of water off her face and felt herself break into a triumphant flush. Her adrenaline rose and in the empowering haze of the moment Sophie didn’t look like a mare but a chipmunk, dumb with her overbite, and Tamara felt released from fear, soaking in the sensation of lightness.
“What are you talking about,” Sophie said. “I called out every color in the rainbow.” Her eyes squinted at Tamara, scrutinizing and cruel.
“Unless you picked emerald green.” She splashed Tamara.
“Or magenta red.” Another splash.
“No,” Tamara said, swallowing a mouthful of chlorinated water. “Cut it out, will you?”
“Or let me guess, turquoise blue.” Another splash.
“Cut it out,” Tamara said, and in a moment of fury so particular to an eight year old, she pulled a strand of Sophie’s dirty blonde hair, to which Sophie kicked her in the stomach and pushed her underwater, both of her hands clamping down on Tamara’s head, while Tamara’s eyes, opened wide, burned in the chlorinated depths of the pool.
Plunked underwater, she couldn’t see anything but the flailing of her own arms, and bubbles, tons of them, produced by her gasping mouth as she kicked and pushed and fought for air. The more she struggled upwards the stronger Sophie’s hands pushed her down, and she felt her lungs start to burn. For a frantic moment she wondered if she would die. The alternative afternoon option of staying home and playing handball, overcome with heat and the numbness of boredom, was a longing that seemed, the longer she was underwater, to grow increasingly distant, a moment in time so delicious in its blandness that she would never be able to appreciate again. But, then, just as she began to feel faint, Sophie’s hands let her go, and she surfaced up to the world, gobbling up mouthfuls of air in between coughing up water.
“What’s going on over there?” a woman with a large hat and sunglasses asked, a woman who Tamara didn’t recognize.
“We were just playing a game, weren’t we Tammy?” Sophie said, to which the woman shook her head as if to say, “Kids.” Tamara, seizing this as her moment of escape, glided over to the tip of the shallow end, ran up the steps of the pool, and still coughing up water, ran out of the pool and through the throngs of mingling adults and past the field of grass, the sun hitting her back, never wanting to look at another body of water again. That was her first and last Fourth of July at the Whitby’s, and when the next summer rolled around she resumed making excuses about why she couldn’t go. She never told her parents about what happened, but she had swam hundreds of time since then, was decidedly over it, as she had told herself many times before.
“Mommy?” Peter said.
She opened her eyes. Peter was looking at her in the dark.
“Hi, baby,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
“I don’t want to have any bad dreams,” he said.
“You won’t,” she said. “I’ll protect you.”
And he, taking that as sufficient enough proof, or too tired to say otherwise, closed his eyes and fell back asleep.
She could hear Raymond getting ready for work in the morning, fiddling in the kitchen, likely burning his toast, as she woke up and helped Peter out of bed. She walked him to the bathroom where she helped him brush his teeth and after, in an attempt to appease him, asked if he wanted to watch cartoons. He nodded, reaching over instinctively to change the channel, but the sudden movement caused him to wince, and when Tamara looked at him and asked, “How do you feel?” he only grimaced.
They sat watching the bright, animated characters flash across the TV screen, the curtains filtering out the haze of a smoggy morning, while Tamara braced herself to ask the question she didn’t want to ask.
“What exactly happened, honey?”
“Max did it,” he said. His voice was constrained, as if it pained him to move his lips.
“I know he did, but what happened?”
“I was doing a flip on the jungle gym, and he said I was hogging, and I told him to go away, and he pushed me off.”
“While you were in the middle of a flip?”
She looked away. The thought of Peter getting pushed off the jungle gym, when he wanted nothing more than to rise above the tumult of the playground and find a moment of peace, made her sick.
“Honey, I’m sorry I didn’t listen more carefully yesterday. I was really distracted. It was stupid of me.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now.”
They sat in silence, Peter absorbed in cartoons. Tamara grew increasingly upset by Peter’s frailness, how his cast overwhelmed his frame, how he seemed to almost disappear amongst the oversized pillows. She feared that already, at this young age, he was accepting the role of a victim, allowing defeatism to mingle with his blood.
From the other room, she heard the phone ring. Let Raymond get it, she thought. She sank into the pillows and watched cartoon vegetables dance across the screen, stroking Peter’s hair as he leaned against her shoulder.
Raymond picked up the phone on the third ring, answering with his typical, non-committal, “Hello.” She could hear him say, “He fractured his arm. How do you think he’s doing?” And then, “Honestly, what’s wrong with you people? Are budget cuts so bad that you can’t have a goddamn chaperone on the playground?” Peter seemed not to hear, out of either lethargy or pure absorption in the program, but Tamara, her fingers smoothing out Peter’s curls, felt her heart begin to pound as she strained to hear what was next.
“You bet your ass I’m angry—” He was cut off abruptly, undoubtedly tapping his foot on the ground, before jumping in and saying: “Good, well I guess that makes you the expert witness then. I’ll see you and the Wilburns in court.” He slammed the phone down, and moments later, burst through the door. He looked relaxed, enlightened really, as he leaned against the doorpost in all of his masculine glory.
“That was the Principal,” he said. “I gave her a piece of my mind.”
“Good,” Tamara said.
“Yes, it is good. These public schools are so inefficient. How about we sign you up for some karate lessons, Pete, so that something like this never happens again?”
“Raymond,” Tamara said, lowering her eyes. Typical Raymond. Peter was just out of surgery one day, and Raymond was already thinking about self-defense classes, preventative measures, always having to be the problem solver. She was surprisingly angered by the gleam in his eye, the sense of satisfaction he derived from commanding the family in this way, as if he were some kind of sergeant. And yet, she was also amazed, because she could tell when he said, “I’ve got to run to the office now,” that he genuinely felt better, lighter, as if by expressing his anger in a three minute conversation he had really made a difference. He was a simple man, Tamara thought, calm until he got angry, and when he got angry he let it all out, like a steam engine, before ambling on, completely back on track.
The little engine that could, she thought. She smiled a small, tight-lipped smile as she watched Raymond, briefcase in hand, whistle a tune as he climbed into his black Audi. Then she closed the blinds and turned back towards the television. Peter had changed the channel and an old Looney Tunes episode was playing, the Tasmanian Devil never ceasing in his quest to give Bugs Bunny some hell.
It wasn’t until later that afternoon, after Tamara had given Peter his afternoon dose of extra strength Tylenol, and he was napping on the couch, that the quietness of the day caught up to her. She thought, again, about her visit to the Chapman’s house the day before: frantically driving to Malibu, her overly rehearsed presentation about the garden’s potential, Bradley’s sudden departure, Julia’s enigmatic aura, the abrupt call from the school. It had all happened less than 24 hours ago, but already it seemed like some kind of foggy, half-conceived dream. The unresolved nature of the meeting gnawed at her, and Tamara, despite her best efforts, was overcome by the desire to hear some sort of verdict.
She called the Chapman’s at home, expecting that Julia might answer, which she did. She picked up on the third ring, her voice soft and almost musical. This time, Tamara’s speech came easily, no script required. “Hi, Julia, it’s Tamara. Listen, I’m really sorry about yesterday. My son fell on the playground and broke his arm, and I need to take a week or so off to take care of him. Can I check in with you next week?”
“Oh,” Julia said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. But I think we’re going to have to put the landscaping project on pause for at least a few weeks. Bradley has to go back to Rome to do some reshoots, and he won’t go ahead with any design plans until he approves it all first.”
Tamara paused for a moment, allowing that to sink in. “I see,” she said.
“I love your ideas,” Julia said. “But Bradley’s got all kinds of his own opinions, so we’ll just have to wait until he’s back in town to see what he wants to do.”
“I understand,” Tamara said.
“I’m sorry again to hear about your son. Take care,” Julia said, adding, “I’ll be in touch.” And then her soft lilt clicked off, and Tamara listened to the dial tone, wondering if this time, perhaps, Julia had been the one reciting a script.
That night, Raymond tucked Peter into bed, promising him plenty of ball games once he healed. Tamara figured that Peter’s enthusiasm was due to the fact that his father was talking to him and seemingly not preoccupied by the days work, even though Peter never really liked baseball and probably never would.
She pretended to be asleep when Raymond walked into the bedroom, but later in the night, after he was long asleep, and she had been staring at the ceiling for hours looking for answers to an unformulated question, she tiptoed downstairs to her study and powered up her laptop. She found herself typing Sophie Whitby into Google, just to see what would turn up. After scrolling through a few miscellaneous images, including a picture of what looked like a grandmother focused at her needlepoint, and a woman standing in front of a palm tree holding a huge pair of overalls with a caption underneath that read, “Look how much weight I lost,” she saw a picture of a woman with blondish, reddish hair and a smile with teeth that were too large for her mouth. Underneath was an ad that said, “Need to sell your home? Contact Sophie Whitby, connecting buyers and sellers in the Tucson area since 1994”. With a sense of familiarity that produced a kind of nausea, she saw in the eyes of the woman the same squinting cruelty of the girl who had held her down in the pool. Her hair had clearly been through the ringer of dye regiments, and was now a battered looking copper color. And what had been the butch, intimidating quality she had carried in childhood had now morphed into an ordinary adult homeliness. For a moment, Tamara was tempted to call her, wanted to leave a voicemail pretending to be a prospective buyer and have this woman show up at some random house, primly dressed and roasting in her arid desert city, only to be greeted by silence. But then Tamara sighed, knowing that she was too old for such pranks. So she powered off her computer and stared at the black screen, a tingling energy brewing through her veins.
Just two days post-surgery, on an overcast Thursday afternoon, Peter’s classmates and their parents started dropping by with get well cards and cookies. There was Dan Persky and his chatty mother Myra, socially awkward Jimmy Leavitt and his apologetic mother Patricia, even Sam Stouffer and his good-natured father Eric stopped by. The kids signed Peter’s casts, and Tamara could tell, from the emphatic voices of the boys gabbing in Peter’s room after he told them stories about getting wheeled through the emergency room, that he was receiving the kind of all-encompassing, devoted attention from his peers he had never received before. During a quiet moment when Myra and Patricia were talking amongst themselves in the hallway, Eric Stouffer turned to Tamara in the kitchen.
“How are you doing?” he said.
Tamara shrugged. “Fine I guess. Thrown for a loop.”
“Sam tells me that kid Max is awful, a real bully. I hope they expel him.”
“Yes, well,” Tamara said, drumming her fingers against the counter. “Fingers crossed.”
Eric looked at her, as if really studying her. Tamara looked back into his big blue eyes, realizing, for the first time, that he looked a little bit like Raymond.
“Have they apologized?” he asked. “The Wilburns?”
“No,” she said. “Not yet.”
Eric shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “Makes me want to give them a piece of my mind.”
“Raymond and I are pursuing it,” Tamara said, her face flushed. “We are going to take them to small claims court.” And then she added, “That boy Jimmy saw the whole thing. Patricia said she’d be willing to have him testify in court as a witness.”
“Good,” Eric said. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small red book. John Burroughs Elementary School, it read. “All of the kids got this student directory at school today with everybody’s contact info, and I asked Sam to pick one up for you guys. Let us know if you need anything,” he said. “We’re just a phone call away.”
“Thank you,” Tamara said. She looked down at the book, and then back up at Eric. “That’s very kind of you.”
He shrugged. “Just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “For what that’s worth.”
On Sunday night Tamara was perched upright in bed, stuck on the same paragraph of an article for nearly twenty minutes, when Raymond turned to her and said, “I think Peter’s ready to go back to school this week. Maybe Tuesday.”
Tamara looked back into his unblinking eyes. He was serious. “Tuesday? You can’t be serious. He just broke his arm last Tuesday.”
“Exactly, it’ll have been nearly a week of recovery time. He’s got his cast and his sling. He’s got energy. He’s feeling well. Obviously he’ll stay away from the playground, but I think going back will be good for him, show him there’s nothing to be afraid of. We need to show him that he can bounce back from this.”
“Bouncing back is one thing, sending him back to school before he’s ready is another.”
“Come on, Tamara, it’s for the best. We can drop him off, and then I can take the morning off work, and we can go talk to my friend Geoffrey who works at the firm down the street from my office. I’m sure once he hears what we have to say and that there were witnesses who saw Max push Peter, he can give us some solid advice about when we can take the Wilburn’s to court. Plus, he already said he could meet with us that morning at ten.”
“You already asked for a time to meet with him?” Tamara said. “Why would you schedule a meeting without asking me first? Peter can’t go back to school on Tuesday, he’s not ready. This doesn’t feel right.”
“What doesn’t feel right?” Raymond put his hand on her leg, letting it graze up her thigh. “Come on, Tamara,” he said, whispering into her ear. “You need to relax.”“I can’t.”
“Just try.” He kissed her on the cheek, and then hard on the mouth, and as he climbed on top of her, his mouth traveling down to her neck, and then to her breasts, she felt her chest tighten.
“Not tonight,” she said. She turned to her other side.
“What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” she said. But knowing that that wasn’t enough, that there was a space growing between them, she added, “I feel like I can’t breathe.”
“Take a Valium,” he said, and turned off his light.
That Tuesday she got takeout Chinese for dinner, greasy noodles and orange chicken smothered in MSG, because she didn’t have the heart to stand in front of her kitchen and mix ingredients together. Somehow Raymond worked on her the past two days with the same hyper rationality that enabled his clients to trust him with managing their money. Tamara and Raymond had dropped Peter off at school that morning, his first day back, and then went to talk to Raymond’s friend Geoffrey, as scheduled, at ten AM. Geoffrey, who was composed and assured like Raymond, told them that, given they had all of the proper documentation and witness statements, they could have the Wilburns in small claims court within three to four months.
Tamara kept thinking that she should have felt better, should have felt that things were progressing, but instead she had spent the day in a kind of anxious daze, repeatedly opening her curtains out onto the smoggy morning. She was momentarily relieved when she picked Peter up from school and saw that he was smiling, and his cast, just as he wanted, was completely covered by designs, but that relief subsided quickly, giving away to a lingering, insatiable knot inside of her.
At dinner, she was nauseated by the sight of the greasy chow mein noodles that Raymond and Peter devoured, and she picked at her plate. She listened to Peter talk about how one of his classmates brought in cookies and ice cream for his welcome back party, how his teacher doted on him and let him sit on the cushioned couch instead of at his wooden desk, and she felt, under his falsely cheerful expression, that there must have been something darker, a burst of anger that would come bounding outward when they’d least expect it.
“You’re not hungry?” Raymond said.
“Not particularly,” Tamara said. “In fact, I don’t really feel very well at all.”
Raymond looked up at her, his earnest blue eyes showing concern. “What’s wrong?
Tamara struggled to explain what was wrong, racking her brain to try and think of the right word that would fit. “Nausea,” she said. “I think I’ll go to Walgreens and pick up some Advil.”
“Okay,” Raymond said.
She stood up and felt dizzy, pressing a hand to the table to steady herself. “Okay,” she said. She grabbed her car keys. “Be back soon.”
She was in the car, her right turn signal tick-ticking, waiting at a red light before turning onto Ventura Boulevard towards Walgreens. But it was while she was sitting there, waiting for cars to pass, that she realized ginger ale and Advil weren’t going to help that dark, queasy feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. Sighing, her breath shaky, she fished in her glove compartment, past her registration and insurance forms, past a Joni Mitchell CD covered in dust, past a PTA newsletter, until she found what she was looking for: the John Burroughs Elementary School student directory. Flipping past the s’s, the t’s, the u’s, and the v’s, she found the name that she was looking for, and on the green light she made a left turn instead of a right.
She told herself, as she drove over, that she wasn’t making a mistake. It had been a week since the incident and she had heard nothing, and she wanted to know why. She wanted face-to-face interaction, pure, not tainted by the formalities of court procedure, or by the second hand opinions of her husband and Eric Stouffer. She wanted to look Mrs. Wilburn in the eye and ask her how she could raise a boy who would think of pushing another boy off of a jungle gym, and then not even have the decency to call and apologize. Isn’t the point of child-rearing to raise your kid to be a decent person, she wanted to ask Mrs. Wilburn. Isn’t that what all of this is about?
The Wilburns lived further into the valley, deep into Woodland Hills. By the time she got there the half moon had risen higher in the smog filled sky, which had morphed from a washed out denim color to a darker, richer blue. They lived on a quiet side street with only a few modest one-story tract homes. The rest of the street was barren. A bunch of houses were likely waiting to be developed, but currently there was nothing to show for it but a vacant lot covered by a chain link fence, filled only with a giant dirt mound.
The addresses were hard to read, but she finally found their house, a crumbling stucco one story with peeling brown paint and shut blinds. She parked the car and was about to cross the street, but was jarred by the sight of a boy, around Peter’s age, emerging from the side door with a stuffed trash bag. Small, pale, head down and feet shuffling, he seemed almost pitiable. But as he hoisted the trash bag over his shoulder, his blank face morphed into a horrible grimace, and Tamara instinctively jumped back as the bag landed with a thud and the bin rattled, a plastic shout reverberating through the quiet dark.
Author Bio: Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. She has a forthcoming piece of fiction that will appear in the Winter 2014 edition of the online literary journal The Writing Disorder.
Artwork: Jessica Herrera