Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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They’d made it through all the Michaels, Carrie and Dan believed. They’d made it through Michael J. Fox’s comeback and Michael Vick’s arrest and Michael Douglas’s cancer, made it through the terrible summer when Michael Phelps won all those gold medals in swimming, and then the next terrible summer when Michael Jackson died on every channel for days and days. They’d dodged a bullet when the Michaels crafts chain canceled plans to open a store in their town. (That would have been hell — Dan drove by that strip mall every day on his way to work.) Once, at a library program when their daughter, Chloe, was two, Carrie had been forced to sing along to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” but thankfully Dan was in the bathroom and missed the whole thing; by the time he returned, Carrie was mechanically rolling her fists around to “The Wheels on the Bus.” They hadn’t bumped into a big, noisy Michael in over a year, seemed to have found their footing, and when the occasional Michael was mentioned on television, or when their waiter at Chili’s wore the vulgar name on his name tag, their world did not lurch to an awkward halt, and the piece of them that had already perished a thousand times did not perish again. They, Carrie and Dan both, had pulled through. It had taken six years and one baby girl, but they’d made it, together. They’d weathered the storm of Michael, and they were going to be OK.
And then one day in late February, with no birthday or holiday in sight, no earthly reason for a gift, Dan’s mother sent Chloe a package with a stuffed armadillo puppet inside, and Chloe snatched the animal from the box and hugged it and exclaimed, “Michael! Michael!”
It was early evening, the best time of the day, work and preschool left behind, the familiar comfort of worn couch cushions and the rattle of the temperamental garbage disposal. They were in the kitchen, Chloe and Dan at the table (Chloe kneeling on her chair) and Carrie standing at the stove, stirring something in the pot — she couldn’t have said what it was in that moment.
“How do you know that’s his name?” Dan asked, in the most nonchalant tone he could muster.
“Michael! It’s Michael!” Chloe said joyfully, bouncing on her knees. She stuffed her hand into the hole in the armadillo’s belly, wiggled her fingers into its head, and thrust it toward her father’s face. “I’m Michael,” she said in her armadillo voice, which was the same voice she used for every animal: a low growl with a hint of a speech impediment.
“Is he on TV?” asked Carrie from the stove, a panicky, hopeful lilt to her voice, as if she were calling up the stairs in an empty house. Dan looked briefly in her direction, but his eyes were darting uncontrollably around the room. He was furious and humiliated to find this happening to him again now, in front of his daughter. Not that she’d notice. Not that she’d have any idea.
“What do you mean ‘on TV’?” Chloe asked. She tried to spin the armadillo around on her finger, and it flew off her hand and skittered across the floor to Carrie’s feet. Chloe leapt up to retrieve it.
“Does he have a TV show?” Dan asked. “Have you seen him on —”
“No,” Chloe said, smacking a kiss on her mother’s knee with the puppet’s fuzzy, twisted mouth. “He’s just here, in our house. He’s mine. He’s —”
Goddamn Michael the goddamn armadillo, Carrie thought, standing in the backyard, smoking a cigarette. An armadillo? Really? What a stupid animal! Who sent a child an armadillo? Who would even make a stuffed armadillo, ugly and scuttling, awkwardly prehistoric? She took a deep drag and let it out as slowly as she could. She allowed herself one cigarette in the backyard every night, once Chloe was asleep and Dan was watching TV or doing the dishes. She also allowed herself to eat a small baggie of gummy bears before lunch at her desk. She allowed herself to sleep late on Sundays. She allowed herself to be ten minutes late for work, as long as she was thinking about work on the way (and thus more or less working) on the ten-minute drive to her office. She allowed herself to buy the expensive toilet paper. She allowed herself to take showers that were environmentally irresponsible. She allowed herself to think about Michael, but only when she was stopped at a train crossing and alone (completely alone, not even Chloe in the car), the ca-clack, ca-clack, ca-clack her permission to disengage from her current situation — her family, her home, her life. And once the train had passed and her car was bumping over the tracks, she would stop thinking about Michael and allow herself to go on with her day.
She’d been with Michael six years before, very briefly — one week at a professional workshop in Boston. It had been a whirlwind: three days of friendship, two days of courting, and then two frantic days in her hotel room in Boston. She’d lain tangled in bed with him on the Sunday morning before they’d parted, and she’d thought, You will tell yourself that you did not feel like this. You will tell yourself that it wasn’t extraordinary. You will tell yourself this didn’t mean anything, but that will not be true.
And yet she had gotten over him. It had taken some time, but ultimately she had triumphed, and she really did not think about him, except during the ca-clack, ca-clack, ca-clack of the swiftly passing train, and not at any other time, not anymore. It was another life, six years that seemed like sixty, a life before Chloe, before she’d figured out what was important. It was a stupid mistake, a fit of recklessness. It was not who she was.
And yet she had written to him for seven months after those two days in Boston. Dan knew this. Dan knew everything. He had made it his business to find out everything, after she had admitted it. She told him one morning in their bedroom, while they were getting dressed for work. He never learned what it was that had finally compelled her to confess, but when she spilled it, she spilled it, standing there in her underwear beside the closet, trembling and nearly retching, weeping the ugliest tears he’d ever seen. She’d never kept a secret in their seven years of marriage, maybe not ever in her life, and watching it work itself out of her was like witnessing an exorcism. “I know you’ll want to leave me,” she said — no, she blubbered. “I’ll understand.” And then, the filthy cat out of the foul bag, she went to work with no makeup and wet hair, wearing two different shoes (he noticed this when he looked out the bedroom window and watched her get into the car), and then he went through the house like a goddamn DEA agent, ripping clothes off hangers, digging into every coat pocket, emptying entire desk drawers onto the floor. He would have slit open the couch cushions if he hadn’t suddenly looked at the computer, sitting there impassively on the desk in the living room, and sat down and typed what in a moment of desperate inspiration he absolutely knew was her e-mail password (the name of her childhood cat), and there was everything in a mailbox subfolder marked “ETC” — ETC! — not only the other man’s e-mails to her but, more damning and far more excruciating to read, hers to him.
By going to work, Carrie had given Dan a window, a large bay window, of time to gather his thoughts. The house was ransacked by 9:30, the e-mails read by 10:15, reread by 10:35, re-reread by 10:50. He’d called in sick (because you couldn’t call in “shit on”) and had the whole day ahead of him, brimming with possibility. He could pack his bags and leave, yes. He could be three states away — in any direction! He could go wherever he wanted! — by the time she pulled into the driveway. This was the first day of the rest of his life. He was only twenty-nine. He could begin again, reinvent himself. “I’ll understand,” she had said. But she had conspicuously not said, I’m leaving, had not said, The marriage is over. She had left that choice to him. She had probably thought he would leave her, probably wanted him to leave her, probably was sitting at her desk right then pricing flights to Phoenix (this was where the man lived, he’d learned from e-mails), preparing for the big romantic reunion with Michael the tax accountant, who had rocked her world in Boston. In the letters there had been phrases like When we’re finally together and I can’t wait until we, as if it were only a matter of time. But Carrie had not left him this morning, had not said she was leaving him, had instead, importantly, crucially, said, “I know you’ll want to leave me.” And now, he thought, she was at work, fully expecting him to be packing his things, getting his affairs in order, boxing up the marriage in her absence so she could be free (she’d used this word in one of the e-mails: free) to go to Phoenix and join Michael the tax accountant. She was leaving the ball in Dan’s court, lobbing up a big fat one over the net like she used to do when they played tennis in college, so he could have his overhead slam and feel like a big man. But guess what? Fuck her! He said this aloud at 11:13, standing among their lives dumped out on the floor. Fuck her! He’d show her, all right. No way was he going to leave her. He hated her, so he wasn’t going to leave her. And he loved her, so he wasn’t going to leave her. She wanted him to do the dirty work, make it easy for her, open the door to her new life? Ha!
He picked up the scattered papers and clothes. Then he cleaned the whole house, vacuuming and dusting and scrubbing until his fingers ached so much that he couldn’t make fists. He defrosted the freezer, tightened the rickety porch railing, changed the light bulb in the garage that had been dark for two years. He showered and shaved and went to the grocery store and bought two slabs of tenderloin and russet potatoes and fresh corn on the cob. He made dinner and set the table and lit the candles, and when she walked in the front door, he put his arms around her and said, “We’re going to be OK.”
“We are?” she asked.
Now, six years later, Dan stood in his daughter’s room, watching her sleep. Chloe had saved them, softened his rage, centered Carrie’s world. And it wasn’t just that they loved her — of course they loved her, madly — but rather that their love for each other had been altered, irrevocably, by her squirming body lifted from Carrie’s belly and set stickily and miraculously into his trembling hands.
Chloe was clutching the armadillo, but she slept so soundly it was easy to slide it from her arms and insert in its place a red rabbit with a star for a nose. Dan knew that Chloe had little attachment to individual stuffed animals. She’d never had a best-loved bear or tattered dog she would pine for if it got left behind. They were mostly interchangeable to her, these animals, and it seemed she had hundreds of them, all of which she loved for a day or two until another in the room caught her eye. So he put the armadillo high on a crowded shelf and went down the hall to his bedroom and his sleeping wife.
In the morning Chloe came into the kitchen with the armadillo balanced on her head. Carrie was packing the lunchbox for preschool, and her stomach dropped at the sight of the puppet. First thing that morning she’d crept into Chloe’s room to hide it and found the deed already done, the armadillo tucked on the shelf, only a fraction of it visible.
“Look what Michael can do!” Chloe said.
Dan set down his coffee. “Where’d you get that?” he asked.
“Nana sent him,” Chloe said, spinning in circles.
“I know,” he said. “I mean —”
“Can I take Michael to school?” Chloe stopped spinning.
“No,” Carrie said, narrowly avoiding severing her thumb while slicing a pear. Maybe a lost digit would have been preferable, she thought. Things would have to be done: ambulances called, the thumb put on ice, bloody counters scoured. No one would think about an armadillo.
“How come?” Chloe asked.
“You don’t take toys to school.”
“Sometimes I do,” Chloe said. She sat down in front of her Cheerios, the armadillo still perched on her head. “For show and tell.”
“Not today, honey,” Carrie said.
“Chloe, the answer is —”
“If she wants to take him to school, let her take him to school,” Dan interrupted. “It’s her armadillo.”
“Yay!” Chloe said.
Carrie ran her tongue over her teeth. She’d just be quiet; that was best.
Dan solemnly crossed his arms and addressed the puppet on his daughter’s head. “Now, Michael,” he said, “this is a very serious matter. I have to ask you: do you want to be in show and tell?”
“He does!” Chloe shouted.
“It’s not for the faint of heart, Michael,” Dan said. “Everyone will be looking at you. You’ll be on display for all to see. Are you prepared for that?”
“Daddy, he wants to!”
OK, then, Carrie thought, pitching baggies into her daughter’s lunchbox. All right, then. This was how it was going to be. This was how he had chosen to play it. OK. Accept. Accept and adjust. This was the price. This was the price you paid. Once, during the months of e-mails, she had written his name all over her body with a big red marker. She’d done it on her lunch hour, in a bathroom stall, breathlessly, the tip of the pen like the tip of his finger. She had walked around for an entire day with him under her clothes, his name in thick letters on her stomach, her upper arms, her thighs. She’d lain in bed with the word still there, her heart pounding, knowing that if Dan turned to her and started something, that all might be revealed. She’d been out of her mind, sick with desire. This was the price you paid for something like that.
When she’d come home that day, that terrible day, and found dinner on the table, the house clean, and Dan still there, she’d realized her subconscious plan had gone awry. If only her plan had been a little less sub-, she would have seen the obvious holes. She had assumed Dan would leave — that was why (subconsciously, of course) she’d told him the truth. But he hadn’t left, apparently had no intention of leaving, and now her conscious self was left with the mess her subconscious had made. What was she supposed to do now?
They were going to be OK, he told her. She was going to break that “thing” (thing!) off, and they were going to change and be better and happier and stronger people, and they belonged together, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
Now she would have to leave him. She had to do it. It was the only reasonable thing to do. That night she lay in bed beside him. I’ll do it tomorrow, she told herself. She couldn’t do it tonight, of course, because he’d cleaned the house and made dinner, but she loved someone else, and that wasn’t fair to Dan, or anyone, and so tomorrow she would leave.
The next night she lay in bed thinking how much she liked her bed, how much she liked her bedroom, how she would miss it, this room that she and Dan had painted together because they were too cheap to hire a painter, and so there were paint smudges on the ceiling, permanent evidence of their mutual sloppiness.
The next night she lay in bed thinking of how many books they had and how it would be hell dividing up all those books, how they’d have to sit down for hours, days even, side by side, going through everything. Was this One Hundred Years of Solitude his or hers? They’d taken a course on the contemporary novel together in college and would have to look through the notes in the book to determine its owner, and then they’d both remember what it had been like sitting beside each other in that sunny classroom with the big windows, twenty years old.
The next day the man in Phoenix sent her an e-mail to which she did not respond. Two days later he sent her another, which she deleted without reading. The next day he sent one with a subject line which read,
On Saturday one of Chloe’s preschool friends had a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Chloe, with Michael the armadillo tucked under her arm, galloped ahead of her parents into the family amusement center. After entrusting her to the adults in charge, who insisted they could keep an eye on all the guests, Carrie and Dan returned to the parking lot and sat in the car in silence.
“Promise me we’ll never have a party at Chuck E. Cheese,” Carrie finally said.
“I promise,” Dan said. He fake-grimaced. “I hate that mouse.”
“He’s creepy,” Carrie agreed. “More like a rat than a mouse.”
“So, what do you want to do?” he asked. Dropping Chloe off at a party was new for them. Dan couldn’t remember what they would have done on a Saturday afternoon before Chloe. How empty it must have been!
“We could go have lunch somewhere,” Carrie said.
“We could do that,” Dan said. “People do that.”
When they returned to Chuck E. Cheese an hour and a half later, all the children were in a state of anxious fascination because one of the boys had tumbled out of a plastic slide and was bleeding from the mouth. The birthday girl’s parents, mortified that blood had been spilled on their watch, rushed the guests off so the injured boy could be tended to without an audience of gaping kids and judging parents.
Halfway home Dan realized that the armadillo was not with them. It had been left behind in all the excitement. A few minutes later he saw Carrie realize this too. She turned suddenly to the back seat and then to him, started to say something but stopped. Chloe had fallen asleep, slumped awkwardly against her seat belt. When they arrived home, Dan carried his daughter into the house and laid her on the couch in the family room. Later, after she awoke, they all played Hi Ho! Cherry-O and watched The Little Mermaid, and then Chloe went to bed, still groggy from the festivities, still unaware of her loss.
Dan sat bolt upright in bed, heart pounding. A dream?
No. It was Chloe. Carrie stirred beside him as he swung his feet out of bed.
“Daddy?” Chloe called. He was happy it was him she wanted, his name on her lips, not Mommy’s.
“It’s OK, sweetie,” he said, entering her room. He sat down on the side of her bed and put his hand on her cheek. “You’re OK.”
“I can’t find Michael,” she said.
“Did you have him when you left the party?”
“I did,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “I think I did.”
“Maybe you left him at Chuck E. Cheese.”
She opened and closed her mouth slowly, always the preface to tears. “He’s lost forever,” she said.
Dan was aware of Carrie behind him in the doorway.
“You’ll be OK, sweetie,” he said. “Daddy’s here.”
“Maybe we can find another armadillo, honey,” Carrie said softly.
“I don’t want another armadillo!” Chloe shouted. “I want Michael!”
But it wasn’t true, not really. The next day, Sunday, Carrie and Dan took Chloe to Toys“R”Us and told her she could pick out any animal she wanted. Any animal. She needed only a moment to choose a giraffe as tall as Carrie, with leather hooves and ears. Dan got winded carrying it to the car. It was the kind of thing a movie star would buy for his daughter, or that a child battling cancer would receive from a charitable organization, one of those toys that a regular child would never own. On the way home Chloe covered it with kisses and said, “You’re my best friend ever.”
That night they were in the kitchen eating ice cream when the phone rang. Dan picked up.
“Are you missing an armadillo?” a voice asked.
“I’m sorry?” Dan said.
“This is Lindsay’s mom.” Pause. “Lindsay. The birthday girl.”
Dan didn’t say anything.
“Lindsay, from preschool. You know, the birthday party?”
“Yes. Of course,” Dan said.
“We found an armadillo puppet when we were cleaning up, and Lindsay thought it was Chloe’s.”
Dan looked at the giraffe, standing resolutely — like a tower, a pillar of strength even — between his wife and daughter at the kitchen table. A giraffe! Now, there was an animal you could get behind. A giraffe was . . . well, Christ, let’s face it, pretty goddamn remarkable. Eating leaves off the top of trees? Are you kidding me?
Chloe lifted her spoonful of cookies-and-cream ice cream toward the giraffe’s smiling mouth.
“Hello?” said the voice on the phone.
“It’s not ours,” Dan said. “It must belong to someone else.”
The next afternoon at preschool Chloe burst out of the four-year-old room waving the armadillo. “Look what Lindsay found!” she shouted. “I left him at Chuck E. Cheese!” She jammed the puppet into Carrie’s stomach and began struggling into her puffy coat.
“Oh, my,” Carrie said. She turned the puppet over in her hands. Its eyes were black beads, and they glinted in the bright lights of the preschool hallway. “Wow. Look at that.”
“Is that yours?” Lindsay’s mother asked, extracting herself from the clot of waiting parents.
“Ours?” Carrie asked. She was aware of blinking too many times — her eyes felt like black beads too — as she looked at Lindsay’s mother. She couldn’t even remember the woman’s name. “It is ours, yes.” She nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“Mommy?” Chloe said.
“Well, Lindsay thought so,” the mother said, relieved, “but when we called last night, your husband said it wasn’t. My husband probably would have said the same thing. Can’t tell one toy from another, can they?”
“It’s hard for them to keep track,” Carrie said, remembering Dan answering the phone the night before. “Wrong number!” he’d said cheerfully.
“Mommy?” Chloe said again.
“There’s so much,” Carrie said. “So many things . . .”
Lindsay’s mom scoffed. “Like they even try!” she said conspiratorially, as if she and Carrie had an understanding, a shared history; as if she and her idiot husband were cut from precisely the same cloth as Carrie and Dan.
“Dan’s not like that,” Carrie said. “He tries. He —”
“Now, Mommy!” Chloe exclaimed. Carrie looked down at her daughter, who had both hands between her legs. “It’s an emergency,” she said.
They rushed to the bathroom.
“Lindsay’s having a baby,” Chloe said at dinner. They all sat at the kitchen table, Chloe flanked by the towering giraffe on her left and the armadillo on the table to her right, propped on its tail.
“I doubt that very much,” Dan said.
“She is! In the summer.”
“Maybe her mommy’s having a baby,” Carrie said.
“But Lindsay gets it,” Chloe said.
“Sure,” Carrie said. “OK. I see what you’re saying.”
“Can I have a baby?” Chloe asked.
Carrie looked at Dan. They had talked about it before, naturally. It had always seemed like something they would do when the time felt right. But the years had passed quickly — how could Chloe be almost five already? — and they were both so busy with work. It could be a good thing, though. Four. For a while three had seemed right. They’d gotten used to three. They’d gotten used to a lot. But four — four wasn’t that many. She could give up her cigarette.
“Someday,” she said.
“When?” Chloe asked.
“Sooner rather than later,” Carrie said.
Dan smiled. “Not quite that soon.”
That night, after they’d put Chloe to bed, Dan sat down in the living room in front of a basketball game while Carrie went outside to smoke. He flipped through the paper and read all the bad news. He wanted her to return and sit next to him on the couch so they could laugh at something on TV, some idiotic commercial, some know-it-all sportscaster, something that could draw them together, remind them that they agreed in the little ways — and weren’t those the ways that mattered, anyway? He craned his neck to see out the window, thinking he might spot the glow from her cigarette brightening as she breathed in, but the yard was dark. Sometimes she went for a short walk if the weather was nice, but it was cold outside, and he couldn’t imagine she would have gone far.
At halftime Dan climbed the stairs and went into Chloe’s room. The giraffe lay beside her, filling a good two-thirds of the bed, its leather hooves overshooting the mattress by six inches. The armadillo was out of sight — underneath Chloe, he imagined — but when he rolled her warm torso over to peek, he found nothing. He surveyed her room (still no Michael), then went down to search the kitchen and the living room, checking all the usual spots: under the couch, behind the chair pillows, inside the DVD cabinet. No armadillo. He went back upstairs, put on his pajamas, and brushed his teeth. He slipped into Chloe’s room and looked out her window and down the street. His wife had been gone for almost an hour. A lot could happen in an hour.
But he heard the front door open and close. She ascended the stairs, tiptoed past Chloe’s room and into their dimly lit bedroom, the smell of cigarettes in her wake. He followed her and stood in the bedroom doorway, a hand on either side of the door frame, as if an earthquake were approaching. She was in the master bathroom, and he listened to the sounds of her preparing for bed. When she opened the door, she gasped to find him standing there, his shadow thrown into the dark room by the night light in the hall.
“What did you do with it?” he asked.
“Jesus,” she said. “You scared me.” She walked over to the bed and set her alarm for morning. When he didn’t move from his spot, she looked up at him. “You’re very ominous, looming in the doorway like that.”
“What did you do with it?”
“You know what.”
“It’s gone,” she said, slipping under the covers. “Just . . . gone.”
He shook his head. “She’s gonna cry.”
“Maybe for a day, but then she’ll be fine.”
“Where’d you put it?”
She sighed. “Dan, he’s gone, OK?”
“But where is he?”
She turned onto her stomach, slid her arms under her pillow. “He’s nowhere,” she said.
He gripped the doorjamb tightly. Where was ‘nowhere’? Had she buried him in cement at a construction site, tied a brick to his tail and thrown him in the river? Maybe she had cut him up into a million little pieces. He’d seen a movie once about a man who escaped from jail by digging a tunnel from his cell with crude tools, and every morning at daybreak he covered up the hole with a poster and put the rubble from the night’s work into his pockets. Then the convict went out into the yard and gently shook the debris, bit by bit, from the holes he’d cut in his pockets and out the bottom of his pant legs, scattering it across the jail yard, a few more pebbles among pebbles, so no one was the wiser.
He looked at Carrie lying there, pretending to sleep. He was no fool. She wanted to skip this conversation, wanted to wake up in the morning with the matter closed. But he would not let her win. He would stand here, his shadow covering her. He would stand here in this doorway until she was forced to say something.
But as her breathing evened out — could she really be asleep? — the bed began to look more and more appealing. He was tired. And he liked the bed, liked this whole bedroom, really, which he and Carrie had painted together years before because they were too cheap to hire a painter, and so there were paint smudges on the ceiling. He went and sat on the edge of the bed, his back to her. Tomorrow was Tuesday. Tuesdays were always crazy; he needed a good night’s sleep. He lay down and turned toward her, looked over her back and out the window. It was snowing. The snow was billowing instead of falling; it lifted and spun and sailed into the black sky. Watching the flakes whirl by the glass, he imagined tiny, indistinguishable bits of Michael the armadillo, puffs of fluff and pieces of brown fur spinning from Carrie’s pockets as she went throughout her day, covering the house, the yard, the world, so that instead of being gone, instead of being nowhere, he was everywhere.