“It smells a little burned, babe.”
She sighs. It’s louder than she intended, but she can’t help it. He doesn’t seem to notice.
“It’s not burning.”
She hears the oven door open behind her, because of course he has to see for himself. She can feel the dry heat radiating throughout the small kitchen; buttery, smokey scents of rosemary and grease coming with it.
“It looks a little burned, babe.”
“It’s not. Please close the oven door.”
“She says it’s not burning, Ma!” She hears the distinct crack of the Coors can as he wanders back into the living room. His Ma says something that can’t quite be heard over the racket from the TV. A peal of laughter echoes down the hallway.
She busies herself with the potatoes and hums a nonsensical tune as she tries to ignore the little beads of sweat tickling her bare neck. It’s been hot all week, but today’s rain makes the kitchen air feel like bathwater. It’s still too early to put in the air conditioners, he says. There’s always the chance of an early April cold snap, he says. Screen doors ’ll do just fine, he says. He says it because that’s what his Pa used to say, and his Pa was right about those things. The screen door in the kitchen has always been slightly askew. She never could figure out how to properly fix it, even though she is the only one bothered by it. He doesn’t even seem to notice it now.
She slices the potatoes thin, careful to leave some traces of skin, exactly how his Ma likes them. She slices them with pride; they are the first that she’s ever grown herself. She used to dream of her growing things herself; having a big, green garden that smelled of tomatoes and rain and rich, dark soil. When they lived in the apartment, she tried to grow herbs in small terracotta pots on the terrace, but she was never able to get anything but little weeds and rot. She cried about it once; he laughed softly and stroked her hair, explaining that they just didn’t have enough sun. But she had used their last $20 to buy those little pots, so all that mattered was that she had messed up. He didn’t care; he said that they had plenty, and they surely weren’t going to starve. She used to believe him when he said those things. That was before she learned to read the clouds behind his eyes and the crevasses that line his forehead when he sits at the cluttered table with a meatloaf sandwich and the monthly bills.
Carrots next. The week before they were married, his Ma pulled her into the family kitchen and showed her how to cut them just right; the clip clip clip of her paring knife moving so quickly that it almost seemed like magic. And that’s what his Ma always was, even though no one ever voiced it; an elusive, magic creature that was to be unyieldingly revered and respected. He loved his Ma, so she loved his Ma. And she did. She does. She truly does, though sometimes his Ma doesn’t make things easy. You’ll never get it right, she said that day, shaking her head in disappointment while her eyes shone gleefully. You’ll never get the carrots right. And it was true. She’s tried for three years now and has never gotten it quite right.
She pauses to pour herself some water. The rain has picked up a bit, but now there’s a whisper of a breeze slipping through the screen. Probably a storm coming up from the south. There is a laugh track from the show he and his Ma are watching, and she wishes that they would turn it down so that she can properly hear the wind chimes that are now singing faintly from the back porch. She loves to hear the tinkle of the wind chimes. They were a gift from her own mother, so many years ago that she can barely remember. Her own mother had been lovely and died too young. She doesn’t like to think about it but sometimes, when she’s very frustrated or about to boil over, she goes to the bathroom and cries for her mother until she’s completely out of tears. She’s never told him about it. She’s not sure why; perhaps somewhere deep down she’s afraid that the grief might swallow her whole. Perhaps it’s just a part of her that she wants to keep for herself.
There isn’t much that she has that’s all hers anymore. Years ago when it was Her and Him they were two separate, thriving parts that coexisted in harmony. He spent Thursday nights at Harding’s Tavern with his Trivia team. She went to yoga on Tuesday mornings before work. When they met friends for dinner, sometimes they arrived separately. She went to bed early; he played online war games until the early morning hours. Then a ceremony and a piece of paper made them Them. Now it’s Their House. Their bills. Their cars. Their Issues. Their dishes. Their Sunday dinners with his Ma. She loves him, and she loves Them, but once in a while she gets sad when she remembers when things were solely hers.
She sets the table and knows that the roast is almost done, so she can breathe a bit. She takes off her apron-the one he bought her as a joke on the day they closed on the house-and slips quietly on to the back stoop. Their yard is small, but her garden is lush and green and smells like tomatoes in the summer. He says all the time that he’ll build a tree house if the oak tree that’s large enough is healthy. He’s been saying it every month for the past two years, and every month his face falls just a bit more and his voice grows a bit more hollow when he says it. She inhales the clean, muggy air as the wind picks up. It cools her neck and refreshes her. Dinner is ready now. She decides that she’ll tell him tonight, when his Ma has gone home, that it’s finally time to think about that tree house.
As she turns back into the house, she hums the tune again and imagines that the little bean growing inside her womb can hear her.