I’m refilling my plastic cup with ginger ale in the hostess’s kitchen when a woman, the mother of the naked toddler with the obscenely long penis, says to another woman, “I’ve been in three fatal car accidents.”
She could have stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photograph: both hardy and soft at once. I’ll call her Biscuit.
The second woman says, “What do you mean fatal?” She’s more like an opera cake, intricate and linear.
Biscuit says, “Lethal. Deadly.” With her free hand, she makes a slicing motion across the front of her throat.
Opera Cake says, “Your fault?”
I almost knock over a bottle of Malbec as I set the ginger ale back onto the counter. I catch the bottle just in time.
Opera Cake says, “A spilled bottle of wine is a criminal act where I come from.”
I laugh nervously. The bottle is still in my hand, and I want to put it to my lips. Just a taste: what my toddler, Jack, says of every dessert within a ten-foot radius. He can sniff out sugar as well as a bloodhound tracks the scent of rotting flesh. It’s innate in humans, this sensitivity to sugar. I fall asleep on the floor of Jack’s bedroom on the mornings that he wakes before five a.m., and I wake again later to find him burrowed like a rodent beneath my shirt, binging on breast milk. That’s me with liquor, though before I went all-in on alcohol, I once tracked cannoli and eclairs. When my friend Jeannie and I traveled Europe by train in college, we made it a point to sample at least one pastry (and at least one boy) in every city we visited.
But since the DUI and my court-mandated AA, I’m drinking ginger ale.
Biscuit says, “No, not my fault. The first time was when I was a kid. Some maniac was driving the wrong way on the highway at night. My dad swerved just enough that we got side-swiped, but the other guy crashed into the median at like 90 miles an hour. His car contracted like a Slinky.”
Opera Cake says, “Whoa.”
Biscuit’s naked toddler enters the kitchen then and asks for more apple juice.
Biscuit says, “You’re cut off.”
I try not to stare at his penis, which dangles like Opera Cake’s oversized earrings as she laughs.
“Juice,” he repeats.
“Water,” Biscuit says.
He drops the empty cup on the tile and stomps out of the kitchen.
“I did that once when Will said I’d had enough wine,” Opera Cake says. “This was at his mother’s house. I mean is there such a thing as enough wine in that circumstance? The glass was hand-painted. Colorful shards all over the kitchen, like the entrails of a piñata. Of course, he covered for me. Didn’t want his mom thinking he’d married a raging alcoholic.”
She and Biscuit laugh.
I don’t make a sound.
My friend Jeannie says that it could have happened to anybody, that the state’s no-tolerance DUI law is ridiculous. “I mean a 0.05 blood alcohol level? That’s like a single drink. You weren’t drunk. You didn’t hurt anyone. Jack wasn’t in the car. Who hasn’t driven after having a drink or two?” But Jeannie doesn’t have a kid. She and I got drunk on margaritas one night when Jack was about five months old, and he cried when I handed him a bottle of untainted breastmilk from the fridge. Kept grabbing at my chest. I cried, too. Jeannie didn’t understand why I was upset.
Biscuit picks up the cup and puts it in the sink. “I actually sort of like my mother-in-law, but only for about an hour at a time.”
I consider pouring out the ginger ale and filling my cup with Malbec. Biscuit and Opera Cake are both drinking wine, and one glass is not a big deal as long as I wash it down with water before leaving the party. But then I think of Jack playing in the kiddie pool out back in his clothes. He’s modest, even in front of my parents. Although his modesty can’t possibly have anything to do with his penis, not at his age, I worry about his penis. It’s stubby like a pencil eraser. Maybe it’s normal, or maybe I did that to him drinking all that chocolate soy milk when I was pregnant. I was so proud of myself for not drinking more than a few sips of alcohol for nine whole months, especially given that I was scared and not sure how I was going to pull off this raising-a-kid thing alone. Jack’s father wanted nothing to do with us, had offered to pay for an abortion and then some. I didn’t learn until my last month of pregnancy that soy mimics estrogen, that it can decrease the size of male sexual organs in utero. Scientists are constantly discovering new mistakes it’s too late to undo.
Biscuit says, “So fatal accident #2 happened when I was in high school. I left a party at like one a.m. with some guy I’d just met, to go buy donuts.” She looks back and forth at both me and Opera Cake. “One minute he’s driving. The next we’re on the side of the road, and I see that a tree limb has punctured the windshield and punched through the guy’s skull like a fist.”
“Oh my god,” Opera Cake says. “How did he crash?”
“I don’t know,” Biscuit says. “I blacked out.”
Opera Cake says, “Remind me to never get into a car with you.”
Biscuit shrugs. “I don’t believe in curses.”
Jack enters the kitchen then. His clothes are soaked. He’s dripping on the floor. “Mama, I’m cold,” he says.
Biscuit is quick. Before I can think to put my ginger ale down, she’s opened a drawer and has wrapped my child’s shoulders in a red kitchen towel. He looks like he may fall asleep standing.
She says, “We need to get you out of those wet clothes.” She tugs at his shirt.
“I’ve got it,” I say.
I lead Jack to the bathroom, where I undress him and towel him off with a clean bath towel from the hostess’s linen closet. The smell of his skin reminds me of the aftermath of rainstorms when I was a kid. I spent hours collecting the animals that surfaced after heavy rains—frogs and crawdads and worms. Once: a baby bird whose nest fell to the earth. My mother said that the bird’s wing was broken. Then she said that because I’d handled the bird, the mother wouldn’t come back for it. I thought I’d rescued the animal, but it turned out that my human scent, something I couldn’t smell, had as good as marked the bird for death.
Years later, when I told my friend Jeannie that story, she said, “That’s a myth. Your scent didn’t kill that bird. The parents abandoned it because they knew there was nothing they could do to save it.”
I wrap Jack in the towel like a burrito. When I return to the kitchen, Jack in my arms, Opera Cake is saying, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” Her hand is on her throat.
On the drive home, I eye my sleeping child through the rearview mirror, his head slumped against his shoulder at what seems like an impossible angle, and I shiver. Whatever story Biscuit told, I think it can’t be as bad as the terrible things I imagine.
Jeannie says that the difference between me and everyone else is that I got caught, but there’s so much Jeannie doesn’t know. Like that time she and I got drunk on margaritas on my back porch, Jack developed a severe diaper rash because I spent the next morning vomiting into the toilet while my baby cried and cried from his crib. Like how once I bought wine from the grocery store on the way to pick up Jack from daycare after a particularly stressful day at work. A quick-change artist had swindled me during the purchase of a pair of socks, rendering my cash register fifty bucks short. My supervisor demoted me to linens. The wine was a two-serving carton, and I barely drank a quarter of it before retrieving Jack from the nursery floor, where he was flipping through a board book of smiling human faces. But that evening while he nursed, he studied me intently, as he always did when he nursed, and I thought about something I’d read: how newborns can distinguish their mother’s milk from other mothers’ milk by scent alone. I wondered what chemical markers Jack could smell on me. That he could taste. I don’t mean the wine exactly. I mean the way that an animal knows that an odor is human.
© Michelle Ross
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Michelle’s interview]