Three rings. A fourth. “Please leave a voice message after the beep.” Karen pressed the screen on her dashboard to cancel the call, turning the radio volume up with the same sweep of her hand. “I’ll let the her off when I get home,” Karen uttered to herself over the music.
Karen approached the house on the day reserved for meetings with clients; this one cancelled at the last minute. Rather than stay out having already paid the nanny, she returned home, the gap in the schedule left by the cancelled meeting opening several hours in her afternoon. The driveway came into view as she rounded the corner of the street on which their house was the last in a row of twelve. The nanny’s sedan, easily recognizable by its brilliant customized shade of cerulean, made no appearance in the driveway or the street adjacent to the house.
In the years that followed, Karen still worked mostly from her home office, a spare bedroom transformed with the ergonomic appointments of a professional space that maintained the touches of home with steel-toned gray walls offset by decorative white paneling. The home office originally came to be in anticipation of her short-lived career as the sole proprietor of a marketing firm, a career choice occasioned by the desire to be home with the fruits of her then-impending childbirth. Before her son Wayne would complete the passage of his second year, an offer to purchase her firm from a mid-market regional concern arrived via a politely worded e-mail. Karen’s suspicions of being scammed quelled by a pleasant phone call, the deal’s terms included office space at their headquarters, a twenty minute drive in light traffic.
Karen’s competence at professional negotiation gifted her an agreement in which she retained the ability to work from home, though by then, she saw Wayne only on the weekends, between weeks spent at his father’s. In their divorce, the court awarded James primary custody. Karen’s position, rehashed ad nauseum to the court that she worked from home, fell on the deaf ears of an unsympathetic judge persuaded by the counterpoints of her ex-husband. A consolation, far from a reasonable complement, gave Karen custody of the once-family home. Weekday child-rearing duties grasped from her clutches, the sanctity of remaining in the house compelled the delirious mindset that home was the only place granting freedom from distraction.
Traversing the dimensions of Karen’s office took little more than three average paces, Karen having sacrificed the smallest of upstairs bedrooms for her operation. Between her dustless desk on which she kept stacks of papers, none of which even slightly askew, and the adjacent, perpendicular wall lined with filing cabinets, stood the ironing board, glaringly in contrast to the sleek earth-hued furniture. The pinks, whites and greens of the floral-patterned pad clashed with the elegant monotone gray of the unblemished wall against which she unwaveringly left open the ironing board. Karen left the iron sitting exposed on the edge of the board when not in use, unplugging it only to refill the water container as it approached empty.
Within an hour of the alarm’s blare on Saturday mornings, Karen carted her accumulating load of dirty laundry to the garage downstairs. She rarely missed the deafening buzz indicating completion of the dryer cycle, pulling out items individually to fold on the table adjacent to the dryer, separating the wrinkled items in need of ironing. Others items returned to their designated closets, Karen transported the pile destined for the iron to a set of drawers hidden in the otherwise vacant closet of the office until the night immediately preceding the day on which Karen intended to wear the selected article.
At the close of business each night, between exiting the applications on her computer and cooking dinner, she poured a single serving of red wine, nearly always a varietal of Cabernet Sauvignon. Glass in hand, she returned to the office, pulling open the closet from the indentation in the door, revealing her options for the following day. By then, many of the wrinkles and creases, products of the dryer’s vicious spin cycle, had naturally fallen out from days of resting in place and the humid air seeping into the confined space of the closet.
Not a day passed without strict adherence to the established timeline, no matter to whether the subsequent day would or would not take her beyond the walls of home. Ironing a finely-tuned process, Karen spent no more than twenty dutiful minutes completing the task, consisting with little variation of a single shirt, one jacket and one bottom, skirt or pants. Standing above the board manipulating the iron spanned a fraction of the twenty minutes; the interim time passing to adjust its temperature from that required for suits to that of her cotton tops. Seated at her desk during business hours, Karen’s jacket hung from a hook on the back of the door. Following its slot in the rotation, the jacket wound up, often unblemished, in the dirty laundry pile, primed for ironing after the tumultuous drying cycle left pleating in its wake.
With dogmatic devotion to nurturing the home environment, Karen’s mother infrequently passed the threshold separating the living space from the outdoors. In her younger years, she had little design to abandon the outside world, her four years at college securing her a lucrative future free of the confines of home.
Karen still years from birth, a routine drive home implemented an amendment to her selected course. Clumpy, wet snow from the morning, the onset of deep freeze and a setting sun stripped of sufficient heat to melt ice transformed roads into treacherous surfaces proving no match for the state of the art in braking. Crossing an intersection with the permission of a green glare of the traffic signal, she received no warning of screeching brakes from the car traveling on the bisecting street skidding intractably across the frozen surface, transferring the brunt of its kinetic energy precisely into the driver’s side door.
That she was alive offered little solace upon receipt of news of the aftermath, including the lost use of her left side and the permanent assistance of a cane to walk. To operate the cane in support her unstable left side, Karen’s mother passed it across her torso from her right arm, an adjustment necessitated by the lack of all sensation in the left.
The probability of returning to the job she received years earlier by virtue of upstanding qualifications diminished rapidly with the manifestation of psychological trauma upon her return home from the rehabilitation clinic. Anticipated money stemming from settlement of the litany of claims could amply fill the void while the family adjusted.
Incapacitation in her limbs failed to suppress the persistence of her running thoughts. Bouts of literature binges offered little distraction. Daily chores, once viewed as menial in the shadow of a mother who dealt with them to her exclusion, incrementally gifted the craved reprieve with each function added to the repertoire. By Karen’s infant years, the allocation of chores, laundry, cleaning, cooking and ironing, fell squarely on the mother of the household; assistance from Karen or her father unrequested and undesired. In the nascent stages of her educational years, Karen and her father learned through heated opposition to refrain entirely from querying of the need to help. A systematic approach guided the schedules for the household, deviation from which inescapably garnered hostility.
College, situated across the country from home, set Karen face to face, for the first instance of her life, with the task of tending to her laundering needs. In concept, the process of wash and dry cycles posed little difficulty with only brief reference to the printed instructions on the machines. Cleanliness alone did not complete the chore. Dressing in her laundered clothing fell short of an unidentifiable component, the view in the mirror failing to reflect something to which she was accustomed in her earlier years. Determination of the precise factor escaped Karen’s grasp while ensconced by the confines of her dormitory.
Her first departure from college took shape as a cross-country visit to her parents over a holiday break. The initial face to face encounter with her mother identified the root of Karen’s unease about the completeness of her laundering ability. Her mother’s aghast reaction spurred without hesitation the crux of Karen’s preoccupation, triggering nearly an hour devoted to the topic, concluding with Karen’s first attempt at rectification. Karen disrobed from the temporary pair of shorts and a t-shirt she wore in the process, returning to the dress in which she traveled. Entering the mirror’s reflecting surface from the left, poise returned to her face as she came into view of her entire body, a wrinkle-free dress the cure to her months-long fixation.
Karen and James, several years shared between them since meeting in their first weeks of college, reached agreement on the day of their wedding to prioritize above all else the conception of a child. Departing from the wisdom offered by friends and family, before the house, before the cars, before the retirement funds – the gifts held in the card box sat destined toward their mutually preeminent wish. Planning in the months preceding the wedding date presaged the formality of their accord. An austere honeymoon became more so upon the elevation in priority of a child over the lavish dinners and champagne synonymous with the event.
Within a year, regret, followed shortly thereafter by desperation, assumed precedence among their concerns, their inability to obtain what they dedicated significant effort toward frustrating attempts at harmonious co-existence. Abundant visits to doctors and clinics, between them inflicting a full spectrum of tests, failed to reveal a basis for their frustrated efforts. Youthful in age and bereft of ailments from which the inability to conceive often stems, little advice was forthcoming other than to continue trying.
The prospect of achieving their initial goal hastily waning, James and Karen faced a pot of growing savings wasted in the confines of a low-interest savings account, serving as little more than a poignant reminder of the deficiency existing among them. Thoughts of adoption as a solution entered discussions, but failed to gain traction with many years in the window of opportunity for childbirth still in their future. Home ownership, their idea of a prudent use of growing savings, offered the needed diversion from expanding angst, furthered with the acquisition of a decrepit structure primed for customization.
Construction began while James and Karen maintained refuge in an off-premises apartment, free from the dust and noise accompanying the renovation. Several months passing without a finished product, the growing dissatisfaction of shelling out for a mortgage on top of rent forged acquiescence to cohabiting among the ongoing work, keeping a dedicated eye toward the advancing design. Completion neared within one year of moving to the house.
Enthusiasm for the impending departure of workmen from their space tapered upon the arrival of unfamiliar pains and discomfort, indicative of illness that persisted without ease in the passage of a week. Relenting to her condition the only viable option, despite her overwhelming workload, Karen broke the comfort of ignorance by a visit to the on-call doctor, the result of which involved no conclusion other than referral to a specialist. Accommodated in the minimal unmarked window of her calendar, Karen and James met nervously with the specialist, their hands intertwined seated across from her, her mahogany desk a barrier between them.
Blunt explanation escaped the doctor’s diagnosis, a recount of background symptoms prolonging discussion of her clinical assessment. Karen’s mind wandered to avoid consideration of the multitude of potentially nefarious causes of her ailment, noting that the frames on the doctor’s degrees and photos matched one another and complemented the rich finish of her desk. Distractions commanding grasp of her attention, Karen nearly missed the diagnosis, catching in isolation the words “you’re pregnant,” met by a pause to digest and firmer grips on their coupled hands.
Five years’ worth of attempts to conceive bearing no fruit, a vacant bedroom, once destined for a child, lingered unoccupied on the second story of their contemporary home. In the course of renovations, James and Karen elected to forgo adorning the walls with colors, leaving a blank palate of pristine white for eventual tailoring were its intended future resident to arrive. Returning home from the doctor, they crossed the room’s threshold, looked back at each other, then outward at the blank walls, which would soon encompass the life their pact obliged them to create.
“The room, our house, will finally be completed,” Karen said, slowly, tears dripping off her cheeks, falling to the newly-carpeted floor beneath her, a few drops landing instead on her foot. Her flushed face and shortness of breath reflected the hope of anticipation, as Karen conveyed to James her plans for the space, overcoming her tearful joy to exclaim, “we can start now!” James turned to her, holding tears back himself, releasing an exasperated sigh before finishing his thought, “yes, Karen, we can start, take it easy, we’ve got plenty of time.”
In the weeks subsequent to receipt of her news, Karen’s fastidious planning spurred lists and conclusions for each step and each milestone on the path from pregnancy to birth. On the couch after work, the stack of infant-rearing books starting to wane, Karen looked up and in James’ direction. “We were ready for this for so long, and now it seems we have nothing prepared,” she lamented to him, whose response took a simpler, calmer form, “it’s ok, we’ll take care of it.”
Time growing shorter until Wayne’s arrival and empty spots for tickmarks littering her lists, Karen resorted to the occasional abandonment of dedication to her demarcated path to birth. Whether to learn the gender, room colors and child care preparation, once decisions made years earlier in the abstract, arose in reality among the influx of concerns for which the solutions became ad hoc. In the corners near the arms and across the sections covering her back, small creases in Karen’s clothes appeared. An expanding stomach, increasingly swollen feet and a schedule compromised by her most immediate charge left little, often no, remaining time. Her nightly routine did not, and would not, include a glass of wine, nor would Karen’s aching feet permit her to stand by the ironing board for long enough to complete an entire outfit.
James offered assistance with reluctance, not that Karen failed to request it. “Can you help me, please?” her common refrain, to which James offered little sympathy. “Karen, you act as if you’re the first person to have a child” marked the opening of many a begrudged pledge of assistance. James arrived at Karen’s aid with little urgency, approaching Karen’s frequently hysteric moods with calmness unfitting of the tenor of their conversations.
Arguments ensued regularly, shouting abound, concluding with the shedding of tears, often by Karen, rarely by James. Windows on the house remained closed to seal in the noise attendant to their disagreements, opening again only with the arrival of a resolution; the room to be light blue, a name for their baby boy, Karen to take the leap of leaving her steady employment to open her own firm.
Time dwindling before Wayne’s arrival, James painted the room blue, as agreed upon, not without opening a debate with multiple suggestions of green. He assembled furniture for Wayne’s nursery with ease, a feat Karen did not witness in person, often departing the house in the morning and returning to a fully-furnished room not more than a few hours thereafter. James had never previously exhibited an adeptness at working with his hands. Walking into the blue room to a fully-assembled, pristine white crib, Karen quipped, “you sure got that together quickly, I’ve never seen you do that before.” James offered no response other than a glare, his raised eyebrows and grin conveying a condescension without the need for words.
Taxed with adapting the room adjacent to Wayne’s to her career shift, the preparation afforded Karen sufficient distraction from the discomforts of her pregnancy. She stood, facing the mirror James installed on the closet door, a task of drilling four screws into the wall but which managed to span several hours of James’ dedication. Her stomach extended, her maternity clothes stretching to their limits, the end of her pregnancy visible in the foreground. She cried. Behind the door, a pile of clothes, folded haphazardly in a basket, sat hidden, intentionally, from her view.
She withheld notifying her employer of her impending departure, electing not to resign until after benefiting from six weeks of paid maternity leave. With a blue pen, Karen marked the date three months post Wayne’s anticipated arrival as her first day of operation of her sole proprietorship. Karen raised a document from her desk, a template she prepared to serve as the announcement of her business venture, one of many she planned to release as part of marketing strategy.
Wayne’s arrival a memento of the past, six weeks of maternity leave passed with the hours dragging long between fits and spurts of sleep, rarely in sync with the rise and fall of daylight. Adjustment to the departure from her regimented days played havoc with Karen’s ability to rest, her sleep repeatedly interrupted through bouts of attending to Wayne. Karen recalled days long past of her pre-teen summer breaks from school, the last occasions she could recall in which her confinement to the home was quite as abundant. Tears enveloped her cheeks when the topic of adaptation to working from home took hold, readily abating when Wayne’s needs commanded her attention.
According to the plan derived from her discriminatingly consumed baby-raising literature, Karen’s intention was that when Wayne slept, she slept; when he awoke, she fed him; when he rested, she took care of the house. The amorphous succession of tasks unfolded at the whim of Wayne’s erratic schedule in the first several weeks after his birth. At the close of two months’ time with Wayne a resident of the house, the hereditary likeness of his mother emerged, his routine shifting from an eclectic mix of fancy to a subconscious regimen. He slept hours with minimal deviation, expressed hunger within expected positions of the clock hands and made waste of a predictable count of diapers each day.
Karen’s adaptation to function harmoniously within Wayne’s selected schedule transpired within a matter of days, her own cycle of activities falling into dedicated, unbending time slots. Laundry, reading, exercise bike and the addition of detail to her business website each received allocations of time and Karen’s unbending adherence. James took Wayne for long walks at night, relieving Karen of her supervisory duties, during which time, rather than returning to her dismissed habit of red wine, she vacuumed in the confines of an otherwise quiet home.
Days mirrored each other in a manner to Karen’s liking; the transition from the last three weeks at work with her firm into home-employment proceeding seamlessly. She recorded Tuesdays and Thursdays as the days on which she would leave the house for meetings with clients at their offices, while the remaining three days would be spent at home in Wayne’s gleeful company. Faithfulness to her schedule permitted the engagement of a nanny to keep watchful eye over Wayne on her days out, and James agreed to return home early from work to relieve the nanny and feed him. Quarrels that plagued Karen and James during her pregnancy abated as they eased into an understanding guiding a division of labor.
In the parking lot of her destination, the sun brightly reflected off the sky blue, all-glass facade of the office building, which bore a large “701” in red above the entrance. The short period of relative calm between discontinuing her running engine and preparing to exit her car ceased with the chime of an incoming message. “Sorry, we will have to cancel, apologies for the late notice, let’s reschedule for next week.” She quickly raised her right hand in anger upon completing the message, bemoaning the lost hour in transit.
Karen returned her keys to the ignition, the engine roaring back to life following mere seconds of rest. She gripped her phone, reviewing it to ensure that the ringer was off, and the phone able to connect calls to her car’s speaker system. In the wake of her mother’s accident, her father instilled in her a dedication to driving safety. In his day, phones were not yet available to serve as the sort of distraction with which he was concerned, yet upon their advent, Karen took heed of the potential danger through distraction, consistently ensuring that she would not be so afflicted. Initially, she kept the practice of turning her phone completely off when driving. Business needs overcame her adherence, altering her habit with the technologic advent of connectivity between the phone and her vehicle.
The car remaining in the “park” position, Karen pondered whether to pass the previously-dedicated three hours at home or at her office. An asterisk calling attention to a lingering deadline on a critical project functioned as intended, commanding Karen’s attention and rendering for her the decision to return to the home office, where she would be free from the distraction of colleagues. Karen backed the car out of the parking space, varying her focus between looking backward and the side mirrors, switched the gears to move forward, and started home. On the highway, she attempted to call the nanny, to no avail.
Karen and James’ house took the final lot on a block featuring a prominent curving road, impeding the view of the houses at the end beyond the bulge of the curve. Rounding the corner, their house coming into view, Karen could see that the nanny’s car was not parked in the driveway; in its expected place rested James’ red station wagon, which blocked Karen’s ability to access the garage. She instead located a substitute spot on the street in front of their house, walking around the front of the car to cross the sidewalk and onto the path leading to the front door.
Karen stood at the door searching for housekeys in the bag, which she did not keep readily accessible due to her routine of parking in the garage. Frustrated with the inability to locate the keys after several attempts, Karen reached out, grabbed the doorknob and turned it successfully, revealing an unlocked door. Proceeding into the foyer, Karen looked up to find James sitting on the living room couch, with Wayne in the bassinet and another child on his lap.
Before Karen had the opportunity to cease her approach deeper into the living room, a blonde woman, approximately two years her junior, appeared from the kitchen holding a bottle of warm milk. Karen gave the sight little concern initially, her instinct offering the assumption that James might have taken the initiative to set up a play date between the babies.
Within moments, before the woman approached the couch, Karen’s face twitched, her head thrusting back, keys dropping to the floor as her instinct gave way to the realization that the baby James was holding was not in fact a baby but an infant of at least three years old. James’ apparent shock at Karen’s arrival alongside the blonde woman’s aghast face and gaping show of horror as she nearly dropped the bottle to the floor, confirmed the reality that the gathering before her had little connection to innocuous playtime.
Karen had no words to give, prompting James to begin speaking to preempt what he knew would be coming. Karen stood, motionless, still in the foyer, James’ words escaping her attention. The striking resemblance between James and the child seated on his lap rendered his words superfluous, Karen’s gaze fixed on the child’s face to the exclusion of affording James the attention commanded by his oral confession. The anticlimactic conclusion of his five-minute narrative concluded with a contrite but still insincere, “I don’t know what more to say.” Karen heard James’ summation, taking three steps further into the house to sit on the couch. She did not cry, did not place her head in her hands; she instead looked to Wayne, directing her attention to the blue pacifier in his mouth.
The family court occupied a dedicated wing of the county courthouse. Contrasting with the classical architecture and sweeping ceilings of the traditional courtrooms, the small room in which their divorce hearing occurred possessed a mundane, entirely utilitarian aesthetic. Fluorescent lighting hung from the low ceilings to provide the only source of light into the space; the windows to the exterior facing directly to the brick wall of an adjacent building.
The presiding judge showed little affectation, his years of constant woe delivered from angered litigants tempering his ability to offer condolence. His ruling, delivered with the matter of fact elocution of a judicial employee, pushed Karen’s organs inward, stoking the nauseous rumbles she suffered giving birth to the very child for which she now had to fight for custody. Its conclusion exacerbated the brewing tempest in Karen’s stomach.
Karen’s face flushed into a rosy hue, unable to contain tears as the judge credited James’ prior experience raising a baby, brushing aside the sordid manner in which he obtained it, and the full-time availability of the baby’s mother, in awarding James primary custody. Within the confines of the poorly-lit courtroom, Karen’s heartbeat thumped loudly, her six years endured attempting to become a mother sending her plowing into a hurdle.
Her blonde counterpart sat in the row behind the gate separating observers of the proceedings from the parties, releasing a joyful yelp as the judge proclaimed the outcome. Karen watched from across the aisle as the child she had worked for so long to bear was snatched from her grasp and shuttered into the home of a man she thought she trusted and a woman that she did not know but who had given birth to a sibling of her son. The judge’s apparent compromise of awarding Karen the house did little to mitigate the loss of its intended occupant during the weekdays. Nor did the significant offer to purchase her self-made company following a mere year and a half of operation, the bulk of which with her distracted by a pending divorce.
With nobody occupying the passenger seat of her car, Karen rode home to the house, in which she would need to find a place of respite in a location that served as a cruel reminder of things come and gone. Upstairs, the door to the bedroom closet hid a mess to which Karen paid little attention in the preceding months. She slid the door on its track, a squealing uncovering the need for a lubricant, revealing the hamper, stacked with her clothes. Reaching inside the closet, she removed the ironing board from the wall anchor, opening and placing it against the wall. Completing one full set of clothes for the following day, she reached down for another shirt, pausing before grasping one. Karen grabbed the sides of the laundry basket holding her clothes, placing it back in the closet, closed the door, and hung her single pressed outfit, ready for wear the following day.