Blame the Machine
Sara Lippmann

I knocked at Christine's after work. No answer but I could hear the TV, see light blinking through the blinds, her girls twisted up on the couch. My unit was adjacent to hers at the Coconut Club, a month-to-month. She'd just moved in. I'd been there for three years. Time sneaks up like that. If you stand on the landing you can smell the ocean—or shut your eyes and pretend. The door was unlocked so I went in.

"Where's your mother?"

"Not here," they said.

I stared at their fresh mouths. They didn't look up. I plopped down at their table to wait. A lamp bowed over me like an apparatus women screw their heads into for a brand new look. The place was filled with patio furniture: waterproof, portable. Temporary. Wicker dug into my back. Nothing was comfortable, but I had nowhere to be. My daughters are seven time zones across the Atlantic not that they'd come to the phone. They are champion sleepers.

In IT support you go wherever the idiots call you. Today this temp kept pushing her lip-gloss applicator in and out of the strawberry gel while I troubleshot her desktop, the sound of her wand a relentless, juicy fuck. She had a hundred windows open like a real slut. Tarantulas the size of small dogs. This is why systems crash. I told her: Be more careful. She blamed the machine. When she got up, I sank into her chair, the cushion warm and farty. Up close everyone stinks—but it's a meager comfort.

Babysitting was not on my agenda. Christine had these triangle tits, jangly as a teenager's, as if unsure of their potential. I didn't know what she did. Shredded nylons spread cobwebbed legs on the wall for decoration. Halloween was last week. I dipped into a bowl of leftover pumpkin seeds. They were greasy in the middle. I licked the salt. I tried to crack them with my teeth, but the shells broke apart, so I gave up and ate by the fistful. I could feel the shards scrape the inside of my throat and mouth, sloughing cheek cells for a better look at paternity, organ donor eligibility, prospects for greater good; depositing a crushed crosshatch of kindling in the pit of my stomach, but what the fuck—I was hungry.

There was a note stuck to the fridge. Do this. Buy that. In case of emergency call. Lists are typical of mothers; intended for whom? I poked around. A covered saucepan sat on the stove with rolled-out meatballs: pink, raw, round as falafel. I threw some oil on top and clicked the burner, but our homes differed in appliances. Her stove was electric. There was no bright halo of fire to signal success until the balls started to hiss and burn. I pushed them around with a spatula. They crumbled.

"Meat sauce tonight," I said.

On the couch the girls snuggled beneath a green blanket. I tried to gauge their ages. One had a stuffed dog on her nose; the other was plugged up with her thumb, eyes transfixed. A snowman sang about warm hugs.

"How can you be cold?"

85 degrees and a blanket bearding their chins. But I knew how: the entire building had central air so despite the outdoor heat we couldn't harvest or channel or control it.

I waved the meat pot under the tap and dumped in a box of noodles. We ate on monkey plates. The girls needed their sauce scooped over the melamine eyeballs, separate from the pasta. Milk, they demanded, in butterfly glasses, but when I smelled the carton it was sour. I gave them water instead.

"Don't you have homework?" I asked. I thought: when Christine comes home she will really owe me big. Even the best mothers can be shitbags. As a child, I spent years alone in waiting rooms with magazines wilted from touch, pages smeared in scabs, the deafening hum of silence. Look where that got me. It's been two years since I've seen my own kids. Blink, blink and they'll be in the army.

Sometimes in bed at night I'll imagine Fort Lauderdale is Tel Aviv and I am buying ice cream for Dalia and Ruth on the Tayelet. I swing their spaghetti limbs—1,2, free—as we cross the screaming lanes. We leave flip-flops on the stairs. Sand crunches between toes. Elderly couples hunch over chessboards. I tell myself the golden haunches roller-skating along the boardwalk belong to the bodies of the Mediterranean, and this weekend we'll eat jachnun in brushed metal tubs with all the other happy families. In beachfront cafes I hear the language of my wife and children, my borrowed tongue. Clucks and commands, the persistent shakes of a fist are familiar, the winking heft of a chain, but I am fooling myself. People here are not people there. They take in the sun with a different sort of purpose, as if to compensate for something critical they have lost or given up, something they are now missing.

Maybe I should have worried. Christine's girls were too young: for homework, to be left alone—even if the complex was connected by thin plaster and wraparound stairs, communal lawn chairs overlooking the cement pool and neighbors never far from reach. I checked my watch. What all was being saved by Daylight Savings? Their movie ended. The moral was bad guys front as good guys but sisters are forever. Afterwards, I carried the girls to bed, their bodies groggy, their skin petal-soft, their scalps half-sour, half-sweet. It is impossible not to breathe the possibilities. I took out their pajamas and shut the light.

When the girls call for me, I am locked in the bathroom. I close my eyes and pump my fist, I try hard and fast for love but I can't block anything out. It is late. This one has wet herself. That one is thirsty, and when can they have dessert.

Sara Lippmann lives in Brooklyn. She's the author of DOLL PALACE, a collection of stories.

Read more of her work in the archive.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of Brian Wolfe.

W i g l e a f               04-30-16                                [home]