We sit in a semi-circle booth at Max’s Ultimate Sports Bar, nibbling out of obligation on hot poppers and fried mozzarella, silently absorbing the familiar comforts of a chain restaurant. Our eyes emptily follow unremarkable images on the muted, 52” plasma television. We wait. A commercial for a deceptively low mortgage rate segues into this segment of the evening’s national news: a brick and beige vinyl-sided 1986 raised ranch being sucked away by a violent body of water. The bulletin below: FLOOD WIPES OUT HUNDREDS OF HOMES IN IOWA. Then—a penetrating yowl, unmistakably that of my 14-year-old daughter Kelly, followed by a boy’s voice–“Isn’t that our house?”
I carefully examine the details of the house on the screen as they loop the footage. Two-car garage on the left. Brown shutters, one missing on the right side of the upper left window. Weathervane that always pointed south because it was never oiled. Large, listing pine tree at the end of the submerged driveway. Undoubtedly our house.
Kelly struggles to catch a breath. My husband Matt turns a pale marble color as he becomes utterly motionless, his eyeballs locked on the television, but his gaze focused far beyond it into either his past or his future. I look to our son Nick. He does not notice the ice cube falling from his agape mouth just before he utters, “Holy shit.”
Already, I only vaguely remember that house, the one we lived in until just three days ago. It was not our first. But, it may very well be our last. The kitchen was always sticky. The living room carpet was stained and embarrassing. The hot water heater struggled to make my showers tepid. I do not miss any of it. As I watch it wash away, the leaden weight of home ownership lifts from my aching body. I smirk and look off into nowhere, my eyes defocusing, and allow myself to envision a whitewashed condo with new bamboo floors– a rental in the city near a park.
“Yup,” I reply, stuffing my mouth with salty, yet flavorless fried food. Matt looks to me, jaw slightly dropped. It takes him a moment to move from shock to surprise to anger. I guess he expects me to cry; to show the children that I share their sorrow, to show him that I comprehend the gravity of our enormous loss. Perhaps I am expected to give a rousing speech about how God has a plan for us. God’s plans are hilarious. I want to laugh out loud they are so funny, but refrain so that Matt does not think I am laughing at him.
It briefly occurs to me– this could be the flood that saves our marriage. It could prove our mettle, unfurl our courage. It could be the only test we ever pass. But instead, the man I married cries. They all cry: father, daughter, son– immediately missing the minutiae of their lives in that cookie-cutter plywood box. I can see it all in extreme detail: dirty, abused dolls; broken skate boards; piles of game consoles; a new red lawnmower that he can ride like a cowboy; photos of those always over-remembered happier times. It’s sordid and unholy.
I order another beer. And a shot of Jim Beam. The news repeats that footage of our house being demolished over and over, sending my nuclear family into a state of inaudible terror. As we sit among the unaffected, dissolving like flesh in a bath of acid, I can feel the intact families nearby pick up the scent of our infection. No one wants to be near an unraveling person, no less four of them. A mother across the aisle looks to me with a mix of confusion and contempt. Keep it together, woman I can hear her say in my head. It’s a mean voice. A god-like voice.
I used to believe that a disaster was a large and public event. The Titanic. The Great Fire. A tornado. A flood, such as the one that just gutted my life. But, I have come to see that most disasters are aggregate and private. They are the product of slow erosion that no one else can see, like when you stand in the ocean and the sand washes away from under your feet, a little more with each retracting wave, until you cannot balance anymore. Eventually, if you stay in the same place long enough, you fall. The other people on the beach, reading their summer novels and slowly tanning? They don’t feel your panic. They don’t even realize there is a problem because it is not their problem. This is the way life works.
I want to tell them that it’s not worth crying over. That house wasn’t so great. Those things weren’t so great. We are free now. Now, we can be who we want to be. We can live in a tent. We can eat French fries every night and wash them down with beer and whiskey. Nothing really matters. I don’t have the heart to tell them this as they sob into their trivia-covered place mats, looking deep into the spiral maze meant to busy children so the adults can talk. I put back my shot and look one more time at our $284,599 house washing away before they cut to commercial.
“Well, there’s the insurance,” Matt blubbers, “But that probably won’t cover it. We were upside down…”
Kelly asks weakly, “What’s that mean?” I think that it is best not to explain.
“Matt, is your phone working?” I ask. He pulls out his cell phone, rubs it on his shirt and holds down a button. “Looks like it,” he says. “Three messages.” Matt pulls the phone to his ear, covering the free ear with a quivering, cupped hand. The kids look to nowhere, dejected. I need to act fast.
“At least Six Flags was spared. Bet it will be empty tomorrow.” They look to me with disgust. I stifle a giggle while hailing the waitress for another Beam.
Before the rain began four days ago, I’d already had a terrible morning. I had still not gotten my period and a wicked headache prevented me from getting out of bed until after 11. Just as the pain subsided, the mail came. Amidst a stack of credit card offers, I found a letter notifying us that we were behind on our property taxes and there would be a sheriff’s sale. Then the phone rang. I let it go to voicemail because I knew the caller would say, “Thank you for applying for the job. We have hired someone else. Good luck with your next endeavor.” At least they called. That was nice. I sat on the porch and watched the downpour. They said that it would be a lot of rain, that it might flood, and I hoped that I would be washed away.
We went to bed to the pounding sounds of a vindictive, unhinged sky. Matt fell into a deep sleep so suddenly, I wondered if he had overdosed. But I remained awake, rattled by the violent storm. I imagined it to be a woman like myself, wanting to destroy everything she touched, and riding high on the endorphin-soaked rush of doing just that. But I was not the storm. I was a middle-aged woman without a job. I was beaten and discarded, awash in indecision and panic. I would never be a storm. I would only ever be a house.
Sometime past two I drifted into a dream where I was floating down a slow, winding river on the roof of our mini-van. The kids’ stuffed toys were floating past, clinging to one another for dear life, groveling for help. Then something soft, like paws, grabbed my ankles and pulled me down into the murkiness. It was warm down below, in the muddy morass. Comforting. Silent. I wanted to stay there forever. But an alarming sound woke me up. The sound of water lapping. I was damp. The water had wicked up the sheets and I realized the flood was worse than they predicted. Our room was on the second floor.
The shot on TV, the one where our under-appraised house floats away with a silent rush, doesn’t show us being rescued by the man in the rowboat. No, at the moment when that lucky cameraman caught our lives dissolving like a sugar cube, we were in a gymnasium, fifty miles away, sipping instant coffee in other people’s dry clothes, listening to word-of-mouth reports, unaware that the destruction of which they spoke was our own. Now we know.
“They’re coming to pick us up. I’m gonna call and let them know where we are,” Matt relays. The kids perk up. Matt dials, and puts the phone back to his ear, looking at me with the grin of a man on the verge of control. He cups his hands again, burying his head almost under the table. The restaurant isn’t even that loud, but I try not to judge.
“When can we move back?” asks Nick. I ignore him. Matt argues with his mother, probably about directions. Kelly finally answers, “Dipshit—did you see our house? It’s gone.” I always admired her directness.
Nick looks at me, a selfish sadness draining the color from his pimply face. “Mom,” he begins, “Where are we going to live?” Kelly turns her attention to me now. She is waiting for me to fail to answer his question. Nick continues, “What’s going to happen now? We’re homeless. And you don’t even have a job.” This statement pushes me further down in the pleather banquette and a constriction of my throat makes it difficult to swallow my beer. It’s like I always suspected. They want me to drown with them.
Sabrina, our effervescent waitress, comes over to check on us. Her smile fades when she sees our long, wet, faces. “C-can I get you guys anything else?”
“I’ll have another beer,” I chime.
“No she won’t” Matt interjects.
I look into Sabrina’s hazel eyes, dipped in sparkly mascara and outlined in shadow the color of a perfect day. “ I would love a Budweiser this time,” I say with a broad, reassuring grin. “Sure,” she smiles back, “I’ll be right over with that.” And she is gone. I look back to the television. They have moved on to celebrity gossip. The tall one has left the blonde one for the brunette, who just shaved her head and is pregnant. I can relate.
“We’d all like to tie one on right now, Meg,” Matt spits. The kids look away, nowhere to go.
“I’ll buy them a beer. Put it in a paper cup-”
“This is no time to be like this,” he steams. I want to tell him that the liquor makes this situation tolerable while also mitigating the nausea. So, in fact, I do have to be like this. “Seriously. Grow the f—grow up, Meg. We just lost everything. Everything.”
I haven’t a retort. We have lost everything. I stand. “Don’t drink my beer kids. Mommy will be right back,” I say and then stumble to the bathroom.
I am relieved to find that it is one of those restrooms where you can lock yourself in, alone. Quiet. Privacy. I check for a window, but am disappointed. Can’t escape from here. Can’t escape. I start to sweat. The smell of the bathroom- urine mixed with bleach and a strawberry scented soap- makes me sick. I turn, bow, and vomit the unmistakable symptom. Now I know. I am drowning.
I wonder what it will be like. Will it have Down’s syndrome? I am 44. Will it be pale enough to pass? How much does an abortion cost? Do they take credit cards? A knock at the door. I rinse off my face. The woman on the other side of the door is large. Her hair is wet. She pushes past me without looking at me, saying only, “Jesus. It stinks in here.”
Now devoid of hot poppers and booze, I am disappointed to see that Sabrina has cleared the table and Matt has taken over my beer. He maintains a stern gaze over me as he puts it back. The kids try not to look.
“Grams will be here in an hour, mom,” Kelly informs me.
“If she doesn’t get lost,” Nick adds before blowing his bangs out of his face.
I wish I had my cell phone. I want to call him, to let him know what we have done. I wonder if he has tried to call me…if he worries about me. But that phone with his number washed away with all the other numbers, all the baby albums, all the symbols of normalcy and responsibility. They are in the Mississippi by now.
“Where will we go to school?” Kelly asks in a new round of tears.
“We’ll get an apartment in the same district. No disruptions,” Matt answers definitively.
“An apartment?” Kelly sneers, “I’m not living in an apartment. Poor people live in apartments.”
Matt and I look to one another. In those shallow green-grey eyes, eyes that the baby will not have, I see surrender. I see a grave of credit cards and back taxes. I see a fifteen hundred dollar lawnmower chewing up a lawn of cash. I see anti-freeze evaporating from ATMs on fatherless Friday nights. I see a family photo degrading in a pool of indifferent rain. I see waves of a silty ocean pulling me under, sucking me into a saline sac of fluid, keeping me safe until my momma welcomes me with single mother arms.
Mother. Mommy. Momma.
“Mom,” Nick pokes me.
“You’re spacing, dude.”
“You’re drunk,” Matt says.
“Dad, leave her alone,” Kelly snaps.
Dinner together at Max’s is exactly as I remember it was at home. Four different diners in four different spaces. At least I can say I tried. I tried AA, too. That’s where I met Charlie. I had gone for the kids’ sake. But, when they didn’t seem to notice the difference, I pursued something selfish. I found a man who was also looking for a reason to stop trying. We had fantastic sex a dozen or so times. Then, he stopped coming to the meetings. He stopped calling. Maybe his wife found out. I wonder if he has changed his number.
Sabrina slides the check toward Matt. When she is gone, he slides it toward me, saying, “This one is all you, champ.” It’s funny for obvious reasons. I pull out a credit card. He says, “Not the joint one. It’s frozen.” I glare, bothered, but not surprised, into that swollen middle management face and pull out another card. I apologize to the kids for all the adultness they have to witness.
Sabrina pauses before the television above us. The image is now of a highway awash with windswept water. “Shit!” she unwittingly utters, “How am I gonna get to my boyfriend’s?”
Matt, recognizing the stretch of road, also lets out a profanity. I laugh. I really am drunk. He whips out his cell phone and dials up Mother-in-Law. “Ma… ma… the Interstate is flooded. You can’t get through.”
News that Mother-in-Law will not be able to rescue us from one another is a huge relief. She’s a stupid woman with stupid convictions, though I would have loved to tell her. It would have killed her to hear that a black man knocked up her son’s wife. And it was consensual. She would not believe that.
Kelly cries harder. I don’t see why. But, I wish she would stop. It’s beginning to annoy me. She’s got her whole life to buy more clothes and take more pictures and accumulate the trash of human existence. Why she is so attached to one poorly built raised ranch and a pile of scratched CDs, I don’t understand. There is so much about her that I don’t understand. I find myself staring at her, getting lost in her hair, so straight and pale that it seems like a wig put on for a fashion show. She notices, winces, says, “What? Like you’d understand.”
When they are babies, we know everything about them: every fold of skin, every wisp of hair, every budding tooth. We know what they like to eat, what they can’t eat, what could kill them. Now, I don’t know anything. I look at Kelly and I realize that I don’t know when she gets her period. I should. But, I don’t. I wonder if she’s ever been pregnant. She’s 14. It could happen. I start crying. I can’t help it. I look at my sad family, full of useless food and shattering into four sharp pieces, and I can’t stop. I don’t understand why we have children. All we do is ruin them.
Nick puts his arm around me and says, “We’ll build a new house, mom. Right where the old one was.” I laugh. That house was the only house. Those things were the only things. There is nothing more for them. There is no prom gown. There is no summer vacation. There is no college fund. They will hate us. They may never forgive us. They will think of me as stupid and selfish and they are right. When I am old, they will put me in a home and not visit me. They will not name their children after me.
I stand up, slightly off-balance. I look around the restaurant. People are eating quietly under smiling Mickey Mantles and slam-dunking Larry Birds. Parents and children, grandparents and babies, teenagers and elderly folks in wheelchairs- they don’t feel it. They don’t feel the sand being sucked from under my feet. They are still in their beach chairs, enjoying their sunny day.
I walk to the door and out into the misty night. I walk into the parking lot. Dozens of new cars silently wait for their contented owners, the mist collecting into heavy drops on the windshields. I look back. No one is coming for me. My gait quickens.
I move toward the truck stop next door. It is an island of brightness. Shiny cabs with chrome stacks beckon me. I jog. Behind me, the crackling call of my daughter, asking me where I am going. I run. Kelly, younger and fitter, catches up with me. She grabs my wrist and tries to drag me to a halt.
“Stop! Stop! Mom- where are you going? You can’t run away. You can’t just leave!” Tears mix with the mist on her young, flushed cheeks.
I turn to her, admiring her smooth face, devoid of wrinkles, puffy like a cherub. I look into her small brown eyes, perfect without makeup, and say, “Kelly. I’m pregnant.”
She is puzzled. “Oh. Okay.”
“It’s not okay. It’s not your father’s.”
She stands, stunned. She stops crying and wipes her cheeks with the cuff of her sweatshirt. “Whose is it?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes it does.”
“Some guy I met at AA. It’s going to be really obvious it’s not your father’s. I really fucked up.”
She takes a minute to collect, looking to the damp ground for some pattern of logic. “It’s okay,” she says, nodding, “We’ll take care of it. We’ll… my friends all go to Planned Parenthood. It’s like, three hundred bucks. I’ve got three fifty in my savings account. You can have it. I’ll make up some bullshit excuse for dad and we’ll go tomorrow. He’ll never have to know.” She looks dead into my eyes. “He doesn’t ever have to know. We can fix this.”
She slowly wraps her arms around me, laying her head in between my ear and my collarbone, and I realize suddenly how cold I had been. In her warm, soft stranglehold, I can tell that she knows that there is no prom dress. She knows that there is no Myrtle Beach. She knows that the iPod is gone. The television is gone. The dollhouse I made for her eighth birthday is gone. The pictures, the good times, all underwater.
Kristine Kennedy was recently named a semi-finalist for Ruminate Magazine’s Van Dyke Short Story Prize. She has won the Set in Philadelphia Regional Writer Award and been a quarterfinalist for the Academy of Motion Pictures’ Nicholls Fellowship. She has written for the Ritz Filmbill, Philebrity and WHYY’s arts and culture blog. Kristine lives in Philadelphia and works for an ad agency.