Side Effects

In the beginning she’d make elaborate breakfasts – sweet potato pancakes, crepes with homemade cream cheese filling, omelets with spinach and brie, hand-rolled croissants stuffed with bittersweet chocolate. She’d wake the children up first and in the beginning, they were excited. She would put out all kinds of blankets and pillows for them to lay on. It didn’t feel like a living room but a room made only of cushy things, a room whose sharp edges had been removed. They’d watch cartoons and doze until it was time to get ready for school. Her husband, groggy, would join them; pour himself a cup of coffee, kiss each of his girls on the forehead before settling on the floor, his back against the couch. After about a month of that, they asked not to be woken up again. She guessed they wanted their cereal back, their daylight. She could not blame them.

She began going for runs but the medicine sucked the moisture out of her along with the disease and she spent most of the time doubled over, retching or dry heaving – depending on how much she’d eaten before – into neighbors’ bushes and lawns. Once, it came without warning and she threw up orange juice and toast onto the Jordans’ mailbox. She used her shirt to wipe up the mess and walked home in her sports bra, teeth chattering, the smell of her bile-soaked shirt making her sick. She stopped running after that.

With fall well on its way, she picked up knitting, but her hands were knotty from the injections and the knitting needles were long and unwieldy. Most of the time she ended up just plunging her hands into the basket of yarn she’d dug out of the basement, leftovers from the girls’ school projects. It wasn’t much of a loss, she knew; the colors of the yarn were bright and childlike and she would never have felt comfortable wearing scarves in those shades outside of the house. But there was still a sense of defeat as she replaced the basket with its mess of colors onto the basement floor.

While her husband was gone at work all day and the girls at school, she began to make her way through the library of books she’d been accumulating since college. Finally, she thought, I can finish all of the reading I’ve always planned to do.

She kept lists of the books and stories she was reading, at first to have a physical checklist of her accomplishments, and then to keep track of what she’d read and what she hadn’t. The way the medicine muddled some things, everything began to feel vaguely familiar, and she could never be sure what story was which. There were titles on her lists that, when she scanned the book, they seemed new and fresh and she assumed she’d simply jotted down the wrong name. Some days she’d get fifty pages into a book before realizing she’d read it already. She began adding synopses to the lists, full character sketches, family trees until it became a task all its own to read through the list to figure out what stories she knew and which she didn’t.

She took to dusting the books instead, reveling in not needing to make a list of which ones she’d dusted. Watching the specks fly in front of her, she’d race them to the next stack, brushing them away before they could settle. She got caught up in her game, laughing to herself and racing every which way until her breath was too far behind her to continue. Some days she was curled in a corner cradling the feather duster near her face when her husband and the girls returned home.

During one afternoon of dusting, she pulled out a cookbook boasting the best cookie recipes. She got to work at madeleines, peanut butter goodies, raspberry jam tartlets. The girls squealed to see the stack of sweets on the table when they got home.

Is this what we’re having for dinner? The youngest one stood at the table’s edge with her tongue to her lips, calculating which cookie was within reach.

Is this what we’re having for dinner? her husband asked without looking at her.

She stuffed a peanut butter goodie into her mouth and handed her daughters one of each kind. If you want it to be, was what she said, crumbs gathering at the corners of her mouth.

There were mice in the attic and in the walls. Each morning she lay awake, having given up her pre-day endeavors, and listened to the scratching above her, around her. The first morning she heard them, she’d made the mistake of waking her husband. Listen, she whispered.

Go back to sleep, he’d responded, not even trying to hide his frustration. She thought for a moment the windows had fogged against the winter air outside. The mice fell silent.

But the next morning they were at it again, scratching and squeaking, plotting and maneuvering around whatever walls and ceilings are made out of. She made plots of her own, mapping the house in her head, marking the weak spots in the walls and in the floorboards with black electrical tape. When she was sure she’d marked them all, she coated little cubes of cheese in rat poison. Sure, it was strong stuff, but she wanted to be sure the job got done. She barely slept anymore thinking about mice crawling through her daughters’ hair, around the cupboards amongst their food, on the other side of the wall where she rested her head ever so slightly during her morning showers.

She placed the cubes onto tiny pieces of napkin and lay them near each tape-marked spot. Then she dusted the bookshelves, though her heart wasn’t in it, her eyes darting to each memorized target. She left each room, taking her time in the others so she could return, hoping to find several unsuspecting mice dead around a nibbled bit of cheddar or mozzarella. No one can be sure whether it was the waiting or the medication or the faint traces of rat poison she’d ingested when absent-mindedly picking her lip in anticipation. Her husband, at least, was grateful to have walked into the house first, in time to see his wife lying stiff in the middle of the living room floor surrounded by splotches of tape and bits of cheese on what looked like doilies. A hundred little picnics. He backed out of the house before the girls were fully up the porch steps behind him, and closed the door.

He ushered them back to the car, too busy wondering what to tell them in the meantime to remind them to buckle up or to notice the bit of cheddar cheese stuck to the toe of his shoe.

2 responses to “Side Effects

  1. Amazing story. Well written, crisp with visuals.

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