A white lie to begin with: this drawing is beautiful. In its whirling blues and nascent purples I see a star struggling into existence, its gaseous cloud and dark accretion disk collapsing on the paper, like a fist closing in the sky. Soon, its disk will gather the particles and dust into planets, and then the planets will find their orbits already drawn in thick black lines as rapid and elliptical as they’d be in nature. My son, Michael, the astrophysicist with a crayon—how many of these stars has he imagined? When I add this drawing to a smattering of others on the fridge, does he think, as I do, of a stellar nursery birthing galaxies here in the kitchen, or of cells growing, multiplying, and dividing in my uterus? Michael must know I’m pregnant by now—even baby Jean, just one and a half, has noted a slight paunch in my stomach and reached out with her palm, saying pat pat pat, as if giving this fetus a name. I’m afraid that they’ll be asking questions soon, and when that happens, I’m not sure how I’ll explain it.
And now my biggest lie, my heaviest one, because I want to get it off my chest: their father’s coming back. Jesse. His heart was pierced by a bolt when his motorcycle crashed into a semi on a breezy day in June when the sun was shining and the honeysuckle smelled so thick. I tell the kids that Jesse’s in Georgia taking care of Grandma, that she fell off a ladder and broke her hip, and now she needs him more than we do. He’s coming back soon, I promise, whenever Michael starts thinking about that morning, about the bowl of cereal he’d eaten and the stormclouds gathering in the sky—a summer storm, it came and went in fifteen minutes. Jesse didn’t have breakfast, which Michael remembers, and kissed baby Jean twice before patting Michael’s head and telling him be good, little man, like he always did. I would add that his smile was broad and handsome, and that when he headed to work that day he was wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt with Western snaps, which I tore open at the collar, just to tease him; but Michael doesn’t remember him like that, and the kids can’t help thinking of him as a hero—a fixer of cars and savior of small animals, because he once stopped in the middle of traffic to right a turtle stuck on its back. Jesse was a mechanic, a tinkerer at heart, with a dream of buying a big farm and raising chickens. It wasn’t too late to lead a different life, he said.
These days I tell the kids I’ve been working at a grocery store, and while this isn’t a lie, exactly, it isn’t the truth, either, because it’s part-time at the register and after that first four-hour shift I head straight to a second longer one at Bingo’s on Route 13 where I’m renamed Lila and strip behind a dirty glass partition for married men that often recognize me from the store. Sheila, baby the men hiss once they learn my real name in line. Don’t you remember me. Bingo’s is billed as a clean establishment, no handjobs, no sex of any kind that the managers admit to knowing about, but there are always favors to be had for a price—that’s what happened to me: a slipped condom and a man Jesse would’ve punched in the face. It’s nothing us girls at Bingo’s aren’t familiar with. One of the older women even offered me a ride, day of, but the weeks are flying by, and soon this decision will be made for me. If I can’t raise the money I’ll have to find a nice well-to-do couple to adopt the child and then lie to them about the father, tell them it’s Jesse’s after all, but I didn’t find out till after he died. It shouldn’t be too difficult: the John looked just like him—broad shouldered, clean-shaven. When his hips snapped it knocked the breath out of me, which reminded me of Jesse. His smooth skin, his firm mechanic’s grip. Jesse’s mother thinks I trapped him into getting married, and his older brother blames me for dragging him and our kids up here from Georgia. I’m alone up here. When my shift ends at Bingo’s, I head straight to the Food Bank, where I pile a shopping cart full of hot cereal and peanut butter, because baby Jean likes it and because I want the kids to think this food comes from the store. In their eyes, I still have my dignity.
There’s something else I haven’t told them: I’ve started seeing someone—a woman named Rain. I met her at the bar next to Bingo’s when she saw me walking by and said you’re limping with such concern, I leaned back against a wall and watched her run her fingers over my ankle. It’s my hip I said. It’s not uncommon for a John to work his frustrations out on me. Rain didn’t know what I do then. She frowned at the bruises and asked if I was in trouble. I said of course then smiled at the way she winced. I leaned on her pretty hard that night, telling her about Jean and Michael and how I tuck them in every night and tell them fanciful stories about a civilization inside a puddle and a fir tree that likes its branches pet like a cat. Rain walked with me to my car, and then she stood there and let me kiss her, too tipsy and kind and worried about my limp to say that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I’m not sure how long this’ll last or if she’s really in love, but I’m in no position to refuse her affections, and I don’t mind forgetting myself for a little while tonight. I’m scheduled for an abortion in the morning.
Michael thinks it’s a cold. He presses a hand flat against my forehead like he’s seen it done on television. His babysitter Mrs. Biddinger watches medical dramas and reality shows with him in the afternoons and he’s picked up the mannerisms—a studious pout, tender if inattentive. It’s difficult sitting up today, but Michael insists I drink a glass of juice and chew a gummy vitamin and I can’t resist when he’s worried and just wants to rest his little egg-shaped head against me and watch cartoons. I’m trapped lovingly in bed while Michael naps and Jean sits on the rug, spelling out nonsense words with her alphabet blocks: buxy hish misk gladiy fip swit. Rain’s texting me that it’s normal—when her sister had an abortion she bled for months and still describes this ache inside like a little piece of her is crushed and deflated. Rain asks do you want me to come over? and when I hesitate adds I have chocolate. She hasn’t met the kids, though she’s seen Michael waiting at my bedroom window and marveled at his patience. Rain’s a preschool teacher and knows children can’t always understand death, but I have a feeling that she wouldn’t approve of the lies I tell my children. In forty years, perhaps, I’ll tell them about this day when I watched cartoons and rinsed that cup out in the bathroom, and maybe then they’ll be struck by the ordinariness of it all and by this pain I still haven’t betrayed, but until then I don’t want them to know that our family can still be bigger and that, if I just tell Rain I’d like that, we’d be able to start over—just the four of us. I’m trying not to imagine it. It feels too indulgent.
Rain’s lies are the kindest: you’re not a selfish person; there’s no right answer. We’ve been seeing each other for a few months and have started thinking about labels: girlfriends, Significant Others; perhaps even exes. Rain isn’t happy—I can tell. In bed, sitting up in the moonlight, I hear her thinking to herself what this means. How much longer will she sneak around? I’ve taken to putting the kids to bed and then calling her, bringing her into their lives without them knowing it. Rain’s lips under the sheets feel gentler now, more hesitant, almost as if, in getting to know me and my senseless lies, her heart has withdrawn, protecting itself from this strange passion between us that pulls me closer even as it pulls her back. In the end, the four of us get ice cream, go to the park, where her smile is sweet and wistful, watching my children play. These will never be her children. This will have to be okay, and this seems to break her–a jagged crack in a mirror where she and I see her limits for the first time. Under the fir trees and the oaks, she tells me she can’t do this. And I nod, thinking, yes, of course.
I’m saving money now. I’m planning a trip to Georgia this Christmas: a winding, eight-hour drive from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to small-town Ellenwood in the heart of Raintree County. Michael thinks we’re going to visit his father and keeps asking little Jeanie what she knows about him–he saved that turtle once, his hair was brown, he says, though technically it was a dirty blonde like lion’s fur and flopped on his forehead. A real Southern boy. Jesse used to say he had peaches in the blood, because his family lived on an orchard and spent the summers at the Farmer’s Market. That means that you’re sweet, I’d say, and then he’d prove it in a clover field where he pressed his hand between my legs and stroked. I remember seeing clouds rolling out on the horizon and ripping petals as I came but never once thinking this feels like home. Ellenwood’s a different world and I’m just not a part of it anymore. I’m grit and ash and lube, and even in a car heading for Georgia, I still cannot come clean. I know now that this’ll be the last lie I ever tell my children: that living with their grandparents will only be temporary, that I’ll be back soon, baby, I promise. When I think of their faces, their chubby cheeks and the graham cracker crumbs on their lips, I see the warm, relaxing glow of their grandmother’s kitchen and the soft, fat raindrops on the windshield when Jesse and I first kissed. I want to give them this place of happiness. I want them to be safe when they finally learn the truth.