A Handbook for Single Mothers
By Jen Knox
The girls crash into each other and then the wall. A jumble of screams and giggles traverse the hallway as Cassandra’s neighbors, kids themselves, bang something blunt against their side of the wall. Concentrating to steady her hand, she squints, painting her nails a dark purple that is almost black; dark nails signify control over one’s domain, the willingness to fight. Red means an all-out battle for dominance, and she doesn’t want to go that far.
“Shut! Up!” The neighbors’ voices are muffled by thick plaster. Control today, Cassandra reminds herself. There is a brief moment of silence before another loud scream and another muffled yell.
“Stop it, girls! It’s too early for improv. If the Johns report us again we’ll be in deep shit.” The Johns are IT students, one from Nigeria and one from Southern Ohio, and they are especially intolerant of disruptive noise.
Endurance: A Handbook for Single Mothers, page 45, paragraph 2: “Crossed arms (alternately akimbo), wide legs and a close-mouthed smile create a power posture.” Power postures are particularly important when speaking to preteens. Cassandra tests the position as she stands in the doorway. The girls have scarves fastened around their necks with hair clips. Gretchen wears a gold bandana. She jumps on the futon, turns to her mother and lifts a detached broom handle—her scepter.
“You must understand, Mother, I cannot be stopped now. I have found my power. I seduced and murdered Celina’s husband, and now I will rule the kingdom.”
“You killed my husband?” Celina gasps.
“I smothered him with my giant breasts. Breasts the size of cantaloupes. I watched him wither.” She cups her imaginary cantaloupes.
“It was you? You murdered my husband? Well then, I will murder you. And I will deflate your cantaloupes with my dagger!” Celina lunges with an imaginary weapon in her hand. “And my army of giant earthworms will devour your soul.”
Gretchen falls to the ground, clutching her chest. She’s wearing Jacqui’s old boots. They come up to her calves. She kicks them in the air, back and forth, before going still.
Cassandra claps, fingers wide, then widens her stance. Sometimes she worries the girls will never grow up, that she stifled them in some way; other days she worries they’re too smart for their own good. “Brava! Chore time. Now!”
“We’re on it,” Gretchen says.
“We’ll get to work, Mom. We’re your perfect angels,” Celina adds with a curtsy.
If Jacqui were here, she would command them to freeze, and they would, like mannequins, until she decided to free them from her spell. The two straighten their backs and march out of the room.
Cassandra posted a spreadsheet near the fridge that she updates regularly (another trick she picked up from Endurance). She assigns the girls various tasks that they are to complete by Monday morning each week. The girls always need help to remember it’s there, but once they do, they make a game of it—finding pure enjoyment critiquing each other’s work with theatrical efficiency.
“I see a coffee stain left in the bottom of Mom’s mug. Mom’s mug is precious. Precious mugs are clean mugs.”
“That toilet needs to shine. I want to be able to make a peanut butter sandwich on that toilet and eat it without coming down with typhoid. I want to be able to see my reflection in that sink.”
“You call this a clean dish?”
“You call this a made bed?
“We breathe this dust! Look at this! Unacceptable. Do your job, or I’ll tell the queen.”
“The queen isn’t here. The queen is gone forever.”
Cassandra usually drinks ginger tea to settle her stomach these weekend mornings, hoping there won’t be a text from work. Sometimes she cries from sheer exhaustion. Sometimes she feels okay. She always feels the empty space where Jacqui and Greg used to be, if only for a passing moment. Today, she gathers her purse and phone and ventures out, pleading with the girls to be mindful of the Johns.
The North High Street Library, which connects to Stone Oak Park in North Columbus, used to be Cassandra’s favorite place. The park seemed brighter when she was a pudgy eight-year-old kid in a pale pink bathing suit. It also seemed busier, more romantic; and even though the public pool that once cost a quarter is now a vibrant sunken garden, lovely and fragrant, it doesn’t feel as glamorous.
Everything is too perfect now, a touched-up photograph. People book the newly built gazebo for marriages and reunions. Festivals are held here in early summer and late autumn. Cassandra remembers holding Jacqui’s hand and leading her into the library at least twice a week for story time, how she used to pull ahead, especially the days the event coordinator dressed up as a literary character. The days when there was still hope Greg would return, healthy and whole, and Cassandra’s family would be complete; he was salvageable then.
Jacqui stands by the tennis courts, walking as though a strong breeze is carrying her along, but the air is still around Cassandra and making her sweat. Her oldest girl, never afraid, never intimidated. Always angry. But maybe this isn’t entirely fair.
Jacqui’s hair is scarlet, an unnatural but flattering shade that sets off her hazel eyes. She is accompanied by a slender man who wears black pants that bunch around his ankles and look tight enough to render him infertile; his extreme side part is emphasized by too much hair gel. The two exhale vapors near an aged no smoking sign.
When she notices Cassandra, Jacqui’s eyes roll up and back. Cassandra is an annoyance to her, a small fly buzzing around her head, a stone in her shoe. Jacqui reaches for her partner’s hand, and the two swing their arms like a pendulum for a few seconds. He leans on the fence while she saunters toward her mother.
Unlike her sisters—who were just toddlers when Cassandra told Greg to never come back after he stumbled into the glass coffee table and fell, shattering her patience and causing yet another mess—Jacqui had understood the arguing, the sickness and crying from those early days.
The girl was self-sufficient, would have made a respectable Girl Scout, if only Cassandra could have afforded the time to enroll her then; Jacqui was always telling her mother how important it was to be prepared. She asked to learn how to change a tire and wanted to help in the kitchen or make her own dinners. She picked things up quickly, imitating the adults she met and often improving on their efforts. Sometimes she would close her eyes and walk around the townhome, feeling her way up and down the stairs and around the kitchen, retrieving a bottle of juice and then the glass without looking. She would sometimes cheat as she poured.
“What if I lose sight, Mom? I want to be ready.”
The day Greg came back the first time, Cassandra felt equal parts fear and relief. Celina and Gretchen had been wary to meet a father they barely remembered, but to Jacqui he could do no wrong. He arrived at the front porch with the pushiness of a stray walking into the place and claiming it as his own.
“Honey, I’m home!” As if he was never gone. He’d been a drunk, but also addicted to this and that, and he claimed to have bottomed out and was now ready to make amends. He looked good, with his dark hair—a little salt around the ears now—cut short and his beard trimmed; he was hardly the mountain man she remembered. “I’m ready now,” he said. He said it again. He said it till she believed him.
Cassandra still felt the weight of his deception all those years leading up to the end, his disregard, the mirage. Greg had bags and bags, but nowhere to be. He slept on the couch for the first week, and the girls tip-toed around him.
“He’s kind of strange, Mom. Are you sure he’s our real dad?”
“I bet he’s Gretchen’s dad, and not mine.”
“Are you kidding? He’s as skinny as you. You two look just alike. Two straight lines, a sideways equal sign,” Gretchen said.
“I’m here to make amends,” they both mocked behind his back. And though Cassandra dissuaded this behavior, she secretly relished it because it reminded her to be cautious.
Greg tiptoed around, gracefully, gratefully. Then, late one evening, the two stayed up talking. Before Cassandra knew it, he was unbuttoning her blouse, and she felt ten years younger. “We are one,” he whispered, his short beard brushing her earlobe. He poured her a glass of wine. “We are an entity, a partnership.”
Cassandra and Greg had wanted to be artists when they met in junior college, and Greg reminded her of these days. They recalled all the movies they always tried to watch and never finished. They tried so many times to watch a movie to its entirety, only to end up entangled on the couch. “Good thing we didn’t have the money to go out to movies back then,” Greg said.
He slung an arm across her chest the next morning. It was early, a few hours before she planned to wake up for work. “Let’s start a business,” he said with the same old exuberance. “Think about how successful we could be if we did something out of the box. Pet portraits.” She turned to him, and listened. “Think about it! Think about how much people gush over their pets. We’d be specialists. No one else is doing it.” Cassandra doubted this was true, but because he seemed to think it’d work, maybe it could. Greg was a new man, and Cassandra convinced herself that she was romanced all over again. It did seem her blood pumped a little faster when he was around, but it could be pure adrenaline. He got a part-time job at a gas station. He said he’d help more with the bills soon.
Greg never drank, not once, and never showed any hints of going back to old ways. He volunteered to help out with his daughters as much as possible. He took Jacqui to her friends’ homes, to the mall, to school. He even bought a cap that he called his driver’s cap, and would open the back door for his daughter as though she were royalty. She was. That year, that single year in which Cassandra and Greg dated and got to know each other again, the three girls and two parents seemed a perfect family, a collective force, capable of anything.
There were exceptions, of course. After two pet portraits that turned out to be more costly than anything (“Are you kidding me? This isn’t Fluffy, there’s no white streak on her nose. How could you miss the white streak? It’s right there in the photo!”), Greg got a full-time job at the local hardware store and began contributing more financially. He asked Cassandra to make him an honest man.
“Will you?” he asked simply, offering a small solitaire.
Cassandra looked at the ring as though it was a crystal ball, and she saw struggle. She saw herself pawning it five years later when he would disappear again. She saw fights, the girls being caught. She felt the romance, a fire in her shoulders, burn away.
“No,” she said. “I’m sorry, but no.”
Women should stop apologizing for their feelings or decisions, Cassandra has since read. Never use the word sorry when you mean a thing.
“We understand why you didn’t, Mom.” Gretchen said.
“We do,” Celina agreed.
Jacqui said nothing at all when Cassandra told her that she and Greg had decided it was best he move out. The girl’s eyes, soft like her father’s, flattened, and she was gone soon after he moved. A note left behind stated she was old enough to make her own decisions, and she was going to live with her father.
The woman walking toward Cassandra today is far from the child who left a few months before. This woman intimidates her. Cassandra feels her hands curling into fists and catches herself, tells herself that her defensive thoughts are just neurons firing, electricity. She assumes her power stance. After all, Jacqui is just a girl, a girl in a woman’s body, who will one day understand.
“Cassandra,” Jacqui says, sticking her hand out formally.
“Come on, Jacqui. Really?”
“What? You want me to call you Mom? Fine, whatever. I’ll call you what you want. Mom. How are you, Mom?”
Cassandra tells herself to answer without defense. “I’m well. Your sisters are well. A little crazy, but really, really…” Jacqui’s face softens at the mention of her sisters. She has been calling from her father’s house from time to time, just not to speak to Cassandra. Celina was first to hear Greg was back to drinking and more.
“Celina is in theater with Gretch now, and she takes gymnastics at Thompson’s. The girl is made of rubber,” Cassandra says, noticing Jacqui’s rigidness ease. “She bounces and stretches like … like that little toy you used to play with, the green one. The guy with the angular head.”
“Gumby, Mom. Yeah. That’s good. Gretch?”
“Theater, theater and more theater. She lives and breathes it now. Good at math. Not sure where she gets that.”
“Math makes my eyeballs itch,” Jacqui says casually, forgetting her defenses for a moment. She catches herself, and her face hardens again. “Why did we have to meet? I haven’t changed my mind. I’m not coming home. I’m almost an adult, so there’s really no point.”
Cassandra pulls her long, blonde-gray braid over one shoulder and takes a moment before speaking again. How should she tackle this? What does Endurance say? Make the other person think it is her idea. Make it seem as though you don’t have as much at stake as you do. Be prepared to walk away disappointed. Don’t beg! “Please come home, Jacqui.”
“Mom. Black fingernails. Really?”
“You like them? They’re not quite black.”
“No! Not on you.”
“You find them intimidating?”
Jacqui laughs, and her strange friend walks up to join them. “Hey guys, sorry to interrupt, but there’s a bus we gotta catch.” He gives her a look.
“We’re going to a concert, Mom, and it’s a long bus ride.”
Had Jacqui read her book? Structure a time delay, elongate the discussion. If you want power of negotiation, you have to control time. Jacqui says, “So, Mom, I’m not coming back, but I think you should know that Daddy’s in that program again. He’s okay, just had a slip or something. He needs me to help out. We can’t all abandon him.”
“No, Jacqui, no, I don’t think we should. Come back, and we’ll go see him and support him together, but you’ll be safe.”
“He’s not dangerous, Mom.”
“But he is.When he’s drunk, he is.” A mistake. The discussion is now an argument, and all the rage in Jacqui’s face shows like a map of the future that doesn’t include Cassandra.
“Tell my sisters that I’ll call them when I can. Goodbye, Cassandra.”
Weeks devour days, then months. Jacqui rarely reaches out, and when she does it’s indirectly, through Gretchen and Celina, as before. Then, the inevitable day: Cassandra answers the phone and is told that Greg is in trouble.
“He just took off. All we can do is notify the emergency contact. He made it through the hardest days, a shame really,” the nurse says with a sigh. “Also, I think you should know… he was showing signs of liver failure. It is important that he self-correct quickly.”
Cassandra knocks on Greg’s apartment door, which is red and in-line with a series of other red apartment doors that look just like it. The red doors disturb her.
He lives in a balcony apartment that overlooks a basketball court with deep cracks in the asphalt. Cassandra imagines Jacqui coming home here after school, sleeping on the couch and getting propositioned by the young men in the neighborhood as she walks to the bus stop.
Cassandra calls so many times that the hollow sound of ringing echoes when she tries to sleep.
“Girls, talk to your sister if she calls. Tell her she needs to come home,” Cassandra says.
“We’ll do what we can,” they both say.
“Listen, girls, I need you to take this seriously. Be soldiers.” The two girls, all pre-teen determination and awkward physicality—one thin and one plump—stand straight and nod.
“Operation Jacqui Home,” Gretchen says.
“We need to work the angle of the odd boy,” Celina says.
“Are they dating,” Cassandra asks.
“They’re not dating. He’s gay,” Gretchen says.
“He’s androgynous,” Celina says. “His name is Michael, or Michele or something.”
“Let’s focus on the target herself, girls,” Cassandra says. “What are her soft spots?”
“Daddy. Saving people. Coffee with too much sugar. Boys. Being told she’s pretty.”
“She said she’s painting now, Mom. She said she wants to move to New York City.”
Cassandra wishes she knew this, wishes she knew anything about her daughter’s life. Together, they decide that when Jacqui reaches out, they’ll appeal to her sense of empathy. They’ll say there’s an emergency, so she feels compelled to help. It isn’t the most honorable plan, but it is for the greater good.
The first time Jacqui calls to say hi, however, Gretchen gets nervous and starts talking too fast. Summoning all her theatrics, she says, “We were trying to get a hold of you. Come home. Now. Celina’s—her foot is mangled—freak accident. It’s all infected now. We’re worried.” She fumbles the phone and hangs up. “Mom? Mom? I kind of messed up the plan.”
The smoke and fresh air feel necessary, a little too necessary. Cassandra keeps an emergency cigarette for times like this. Both Johns smoke, but it surprises her nonetheless when they both emerge wearing jeans and rivaling sports jerseys. They are vaping, the thing kids do, and Cassandra thinks she’ll try it. “Cool day,” John in the white jersey says.
“You guys nearing finals?” Cassandra asks absently.
“Not till May,” John in the blue jersey says. “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t. My daughter’s coming over. The oldest.”
“The mean one?”
“The oldest. The youngest told her a lie to get her over here. She’s going to flip.”
“You’re nothing like my mom,” Blue Jersey says. He examines her a moment, as though deciding whether to elaborate. “If I ran away like that, even to stay with any of my hillbilly relatives, she would have found me, grabbed me by the ear and made my ass come back home.”
“Your kids run you, yeah?” White Jersey says.
“What?” Were they really saying this, she wonders. She wants to retaliate, but the smoke hits her stomach the wrong way. She takes the power stance.
“Strong personalities, those girls. That’s got to come from somewhere. But no, they do not run me.”
Cassandra looks down at her red polish, another power color, which is chipping at the corner of each thumb. She takes a long drag on her cigarette, stale and rough on her throat, ignoring her desire to throw up, and examines the Johns. They’re just kids, but they seem to be right. Cassandra needs to take charge. She needs more than dark polish.
Just as she’s about to ask them what she should do, exactly, what their moms would do, Jacqui appears at the end of the street, walking toward them as quickly as possible in chunky heels. She is in all black, with her hair piled on her head like a nest. Cassandra can see the overdone makeup from half a block away.
“You know what, guys? Thanks. Thank you. If there’s noise in the next hour, deal with it.” She puts out the cigarette and walks toward her daughter, meeting her at the step.
“Mom,” Jacqui starts running toward Cassandra. “Is she okay? Is she at the hospital? What the hell happened? Gretchen said little C was in an accident, that something crushed her foot and hand. They’re not broken, are they? Why aren’t we at the hospital? Was it one of those John idiots? Were you waiting for me? Is Gretchen there? How does that happen?”
Cassandra simply nods, back and forth, slowly. “There was no accident.”
“Really? Really, Mom?” Jacqui doesn’t breathe; her words are dry and fierce. “I’m going to kill them.” She rushes for the door, but Cassandra’s slender hands grab her daughter’s shoulders, squeezing and pulling back. “Ouch!”
The two Johns go inside, but open their blinds.
“Let’s walk, child.”
“Child? What the hell, Mom?” Cassandra notices she said mom. She gestures toward the sidewalk, which leads to a small park.
“I want you to come home, but your sisters want it as well. They didn’t go about it in the right way, I admit, but they were just trying to get your attention. They just miss your face. They miss your brooding and your dry humor and your attitude. Jacqui, they need you.”
“Dad needs me, too. Why don’t you understand that? He needs me more. No one gives two shits about him. You didn’t want him, and he fell apart. He’s sick, Mom. He needs me. He tells me he needs me.” Cassandra still has her by the arm, blood colored nails digging in her pale skin.
“You need to explain that to your sisters.” She pulls Jacqui, expecting her to break away and go running down the street. Instead, the girl wilts, offers a pleading look.
“He needs us, Mom. I’m not the one running away here.”
Cirrhosis is the villain that traps Greg in the hospital. The girls call it his dungeon. Only a few people from AA visit. His parents died in a car accident some years before, and he alienated most of his friends. Cassandra trades weak smiles with those few visitors. They are kind and supportive. A woman in a red sweater offers Cassandra her phone number and says to call anytime, day or night. “He always talked about you, you know. I’m good at helping people. And you don’t gotta be an addict to need a sponsor.”
Cassandra takes the girls to see him weekends, four weekends exactly, before his slender body deflates. Cassandra stays up nights and sits by the window. Jacqui feeds him spoonfuls of applesauce long after her sisters stop joking and begin to stare out the window or doze off while watching TV. Michele sometimes visits, too, and he turns out to be a nice kid, if painfully shy. He lets Gretchen and Celina braid his long hair or beat him in card games. He teaches Cassandra how to play chess, and she wins—or he lets her win—after a few games.
The girls take turns breaking down, sobbing and excusing themselves into the hall or curling up in the back seat of the car when they drive home. Jacqui walks him to the bathroom—the good days, when he can get up. She wipes bits of regurgitated applesauce off his chin. She salvages a few of his paintings from his apartment before the eviction and hangs them in the hospital room.
“She is the queen, our sister. Our sister the queen,” Celina and Gretchen say, trying to make her laugh the day she returns with her bags. They pile all the pillows in her room on top of one another and hoist their sister, an eighteen-year-old woman, beautiful and slight, to the top. “The queen has returned.”
The day the call comes, it is an hour before they are headed to the hospital. Cassandra searches for the little square of paper from the woman in the red sweater before she tells her daughters. The woman graciously absorbs her tears so that the girls won’t have to.
Greg would be cremated. Cassandra and the girls would drive his ashes to Virginia Beach, a stretch he once told Cassandra he’d been to as a kid. “It was the only family trip we’d ever been on that didn’t end in a war,” he’d said. “It was magic.”
The four of them sit on the beach, their bodies sinking into wet sand. Jacqui’s head is heavy on Cassandra’s shoulder. The girls are silently building shapes of unnamed things, waiting.
The waves and wind move together as the girls spread their father’s ashes. He is the ocean now. Jacqui, for the first time since her father left her so many years ago, needs her mother, and so Cassandra holds her. She holds them all. The water kisses her feet.