Just Us Girls

By Elizabeth Broschart

The child had not napped and instead was waging war. She ran from room to room, naked, for she had with startling deftness removed her diaper, her plump white butt like a tiny moon, until she finally settled in the corner of the mother’s room, squatted, and peed. “Think it’s time we potty train her?” said the husband from his seat on the bed, of course meaning the mother. For it was the mother who was responsible for the child’s day to day upbringing, the father swooping in from time to time like a large bird of prey to bring the girl to almost hysterical giggles (usually just before bedtime), conducting the occasional diaper change (never the poopy ones). And so it was as she sat there, rubbing a damp paper towel in the pee corner, the child dancing around her, pulling the mother’s hair and stepping on her toes, forcing the mother to contemplate the horror of civilizing the child, making her sit on the potty chair, compelling her to “do her doodoos in it,” that the mother began to cry. Silent, salty tears dripped off her chin like the juice of the many popsicles the child consumed during that too hot Florida summer. No one noticed her tears, not the husband scrolling his phone on the bed, not the child, crying for her binky, even though she was far too old for a binky. The mother thought of something she’d heard on one of her many mommy podcasts, something a child psychologist had said: anyone can kill their child if presented with the right circumstances. And what circumstances were those, the mother wondered, if not these exact ones: the endless laundry full of tiny, mismatched socks, the grimy dirt on the kitchen floor her husband “simply didn’t notice,” the constant and never-ending physical contact, so suffocating the mother sometimes felt as if she’d inhaled water, her lungs screaming for air. And so it was decided: she simply must leave.

With that decision behind her, she immediately felt better. It was only a matter of time until she was free, doing crossword puzzles on a bus to God knows where, anywhere would do. Boise, Idaho, perhaps. She could be a potato farmer. She would relish the hard work, hands dirty and callused from pulling potatoes out of the ground, cleaning them. For surely that is what a potato farmer did? Would they hire her without experience? She would withhold the fact that she had a law degree, pretending instead she was a waitress looking for a change. Perhaps an elderly farmer and his wife would give her room and board in exchange for her potato farming work.

The mother was pulled from this reverie by a sharp slap. The child smiled, inches from the mother’s face, laughing, demonic. “Binky!” she demanded. “Get! My! Binky!” She laughed again, still naked, and began running in circles, naked victory laps. It was then that the mother felt a profound rumble in the pit of her stomach, a scream waiting to be released, and just as it made its way up her esophagus into her throat, just as she opened her mouth to let the wretched thing loose, the doorbell rang. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” the mother said, out loud and completely on accident, for she had forgotten about the visitor. The husband’s eyes grew wide, and then he smiled. “Help has arrived.”

The husband and his mother, Patty, had one of their strangely long and intimate hugs. Watching this exchange was tedious, but the mother said nothing, years of such behavior having somewhat numbed her to its weirdness.

Patty stretched out a clawed hand and gave the husband’s chin a little wag. “Really, Stanley. You’re so handsome.” She was wearing one of her signature cheeky biblical t-shirts, this one inscribed with the words Team Jesus in cursive lettering. A golden cross hung from the many folds around her throat. “Isn’t he handsome, Laura?” Patty often went one step further, stating that her son actually looked like Jesus. But perhaps sensing the tension in the house, she left this dictum out.

The mother waited for Patty to ask about the child. For isn’t that why she was there? To help with the child? But Patty didn’t ask, and soon the child was sprinting into the room, still naked.

Later the mother will sit with Patty at the dining room table. “Just us girls,” Patty will say, shooing the husband and child outside for a walk. The mother will make tea, and they will sit with their steaming cups as Patty finally says what she’s been longing to say since the day the child was born.

“You’re clearly having a good bit of trouble here.” Patty will take a sip of tea, and with her napkin, wipe a non-existent drop of liquid from her chin. “But it is so important to keep up your end of the bargain. Stanley needs a lot of support. He’s a doctor, you know. He doesn’t need to be coming home to a screaming, naked child.”  Patty will pause, think better of her statement, then add, “No one does.”  

At this point, the mother will actually and literally bite her tongue, taste copper in her mouth. For Stanley is indeed a doctor. But he is an ophthalmologist, she will want to scream. Not a curer of cancer, a treater of sick children.

“I raised four children. Four, my dear. And not a one ran naked. She’s like a little native!” Patty will pour sugar into her already too sweet tea and stir it, her long fingers like spider’s legs. “What she needs is discipline. Children love boundaries.”

The mother will keep her face expressionless, don her death mask and work to be a brick wall. “She’s two.”

The mother-in-law will laugh, a raspy cackle, not unlike a witch. “And I’m sixty-eight. Age, my dear, is just a number.”

The mother will swallow her words, pretend that there aren’t reams of research showing that a two-year-old simply doesn’t have the control to manage her impulses, that to expect otherwise is setting oneself up for disappointment, or worse, rage. She will picture herself throwing her cup of tea, still steaming, directly in Patty’s face, imagine her scalded pink skin melting. Instead, the mother will allow a crack in her death mask, a small smile, and say through gritted teeth, “I appreciate your viewpoint, of course, Patty.”

Patty will reach out an age-spotted hand and place it on top of the mother’s, her palm like ice, but soft, from years of Jergens. “You’re going to miss these days.”