Savage Breast

Mrs. W liked to say that there was no shame in physical labor, and often mentioned that her father had driven a taxi. (According to my friend the cook, he had owned a fleet of taxis, but I was too polite to let on that I knew this.) She used to talk at me while I cleaned and honestly I didn’t mind her. I knew she was lonely and unhappy. I knew that many lives that seem smooth and sparkling on the surface are in fact cold and treacherous.

Birds and leaves became my theater, my pornography

Dinorá Justice, Madonna of the Woods. 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas. 38 × 52". Courtesy of the artist.

I got a job cleaning Mondays to Saturdays for the Winthrops, a local family. Mr. Winthrop—of course, with everyone on a first-name basis now, he told me to call him Geoff—was an executive at a company that sold things online. He lived in an ancestral country home, expanded many times over, in the hills west of Boston. There were no close neighbors; during the crash, he’d managed to buy up all the surrounding properties.

Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop—Leila, I mean—had one son, who had been born to them through a surrogate. The boy and my daughter were the same age, but it was clear even then that Nevaeh was brilliant and that the Winthrop child, Sebastian, was a wild, cruel dunce. Children under seven were still being kept at home, so Mrs. W encouraged me to bring my daughter when I came to clean. At first I was hesitant, because invariably at day’s end I’d discover that Sebastian had done some violent or mildly perverted thing to Nevaeh. But, as I said, she was smart, and it wasn’t long before she figured out how to make him behave.

On a late summer afternoon, I was cleaning the master bathroom, while Mrs. W lay in bed reading a novel. She was unusually tall, with a prominent collar bone and thin, elegant wrists, and when no one was watching, she often looked nervous, like someone deciding whether to take a call from an unknown number. My previous clients had been careful to keep out of the way when I worked, scurrying from room to room ahead of me as if I carried the plague. They’d been grossly solicitous and apologetic when we spoke; my service made them question, if only for a moment, whether all those deaths had meant as much as everyone claimed.

Mrs. W liked to say that there was no shame in physical labor, and often mentioned that her father had driven a taxi. (According to my friend the cook, he had owned a fleet of taxis, but I was too polite to let on that I knew this.) She used to talk at me while I cleaned and honestly I didn’t mind her. I knew she was lonely and unhappy. I knew that many lives that seem smooth and sparkling on the surface are in fact cold and treacherous.

But, yes, I was cleaning the bathroom, while she sat in bed. The children were playing in her room, at a window seat overlooking a sunken garden that had once been an ornamental cow pasture. The house always had beautiful light. “Joan!” Mrs. W called, “come see this!” I laid down my sponge and rinsed my hands, slowly.

Sebastian was lying on the window seat, beaming like a saint while Doctor Nevaeh examined his eyes and ears. “Oh, Mr. Winthrop,” my daughter said, forcing a plastic jar into his mouth, “this does not look good.” The scene did seem charming. One could almost forget the generations of ants Sebastian had polkaed out of existence, the times he’d deliberately tracked mud onto just-cleaned floors. “Very nice, Mrs. Winthrop,” I said. “Charms to soothe a savage beast.”

“Actually, it’s savage breast,” Mrs. W said, frowning. “Everyone thinks it’s Shakespeare, but it’s William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride. I wrote my thesis on it. The same play has, ‘Heaven has no rage, like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.’”

Along with her father’s vocation, Mrs. W also frequently mentioned the college she’d attended, a few towns eastward. On finding a book facedown, spine cracked, around the house, I could never resist a little dig if she was nearby, “Oh, I remember this one from high school,” whether it was true or not. There didn’t seem to be any point in saying that I had read The Mourning Bride at my state school, though as with many things in life, I only half remembered it. If my mother were still alive—Nevaeh is her namesake—she would be shocked at how much I’ve forgotten. She put such faith into my grades, my college scholarship offers.

Though I had something of a spiritual awakening during my time in isolation, I’m not a perfect person, by any means. With Mrs. W’s mention of “woman scorned” hanging above us, I asked, “And how is Geoff?”

Everyone knew—sometimes I discussed it with the cook, Ellen—that Mr. W had a mistress he kept in town, betraying not only his marriage bed but also creating unchecked avenues for disease. I risked this provocative question because I thought Mrs. W knew nothing of how my husband, Chris, had been gone for a year, seeking work in New York City, or of how he’d stopped communicating with me six months earlier.

So when Mrs. W flung off the blanket and said, “Oh, Geoff is fine. But you poor thing, have you heard from your husband?” I have to admit she got me. I even put a hand up to my cheek for a second, as if I’d been slapped.

I looked down into the gardens, two acres that stretched back to ten acres of forest. Eight years earlier, when the troubles began and my parents and sister died, I’d gone into a place I pretended was a hollow tree and survived. There was a hole in the trunk, and if I stood on my tiptoes, I could gaze out into a thicket of maples and thorny shrubs. With all my books stranded in the dorms, birds and leaves became my theater, my pornography. I spent over a year of my fertile twenties as Mother Nature’s Peeping Tom.

When I reemerged from my parents’ basement, people said that the world had changed. Some argued for the better, some were dead. All I wanted to know was whether I was still pretty enough for Chris to want me. When I finally tracked him down, at his parents’ house, he said that things like that didn’t matter anymore. I told him I needed a family, and he proposed on the spot. Then, for many days, we rutted. On the first day of rest, I found my yoga pants and bra under the bed and went out into his backyard, which bordered a pond.

An April thunderstorm was brewing. The sky had turned the color of someone holding back vomit, while new blossoms cowered against the wind, too stupid to find shelter. The lawn, still brown from winter, stretched before me, and I lay face down in it, to see how long I could stand cold, sharp raindrops snapping against my back. I wanted to penetrate the soil, to fill my nose with it, to clog the space where my brain had once lived. For a while, the blades of grass and dirt shuddered with godly particles.

But soon, to my dismay, the sanctity drained from them. I was just a prostrate fool, with grass clippings up my nose. I washed my face in the pond as lightning flashed. “I am reborn,” I shouted, as if someone was watching, as if I were some deity’s sacred dirt.

Though the charge of that moment had faded over the years, I still drew strength from Mother Nature. She had my allegiance. After our wedding, Chris’s parents had given us the money to build a small house on a government-issued plot, and over the years, I’d nurtured a garden in the backyard. My bedroom closet was stuffed with jars of pickled vegetables. Visualizing them, I answered Mrs. W. “Chris is fine. Actually, he’ll be home in four weeks. He’ll probably want me to stop working then.” I thought the specificity of weeks made the lie more credible.

“Oh, really?” Mrs. W said.

“Really,” I said.

“That’s a shame. I know cleaning’s not what you wanted from life, but you’re good at it. Tactical.”

“Strategic,” I corrected, congratulating myself for staying calm. That evening, I got out of Nevaeh that Mrs. W had been pumping her for information about our family. I think she’d even tried to ascertain whether there was any mental illness, though how she phrased this to a six-year-old, I have no idea.

A few days later, Mrs. W received a large order of body-hugging clothing and lipstick in tropical shades. My question about her husband must have triggered some recognition that she had started to look frumpy and unkempt—not due to her age (she was almost two decades my senior) but rather because she had been one of those natural beauties who never needed to learn how to improve their appearance. Together we sorted through her old things, and she gifted me several trash bags of loose silk garments, practical but high-quality shoes, and slightly expired organic makeup. I believed we had come to an understanding: that I would allow her to play Lady Bountiful, as long as she knew my service was also a role, to be discarded at day’s end. At home, I too might wear unflattering clothes.

On my Sunday off, Nevaeh rooted through the bags and picked out a brown tunic and clunky heels. I put them on. She did my makeup slowly, her breath wet and hot upon my cheeks. When she was done I imitated my employer’s brisk, open-toed walk and said Nevaeh’s name in the peculiar, drawn-out way that Mrs. W said it.

“Stop, Mama. I don’t like that.”

I pinned a mauve kiss to her cheek. That night, reading on my phone in bed, I used the dim light to study my daughter’s breathing, wondering if I could risk a hand on the warm, small body beside me. I thought of my garden, the countless cans of food and pieces of scrap paper stashed around the house, and felt basically content. I was not full of fury but of love for Nevaeh, of strategies for survival.

Though Chris almost certainly had found a new woman and would never return, I was starting to get used to his absence, just as I had once gotten used to his garlicky breath. But I did picture my imaginary rival often enough that she had come to feel like someone you see on the street but can’t place—is she a celebrity, an old acquaintance, or is her face just similar to one you once studied? She probably needed my husband more than I did.

The next day I worked at the Winthrops’ as usual. It wasn’t too hot, so Nevaeh and Sebastian played house in a gothic folly built by Mr. W’s great-great-grandfather, making forays into the woods for berries, twigs, and other provisions. Mrs. W kept out of my way, and I supposed she was busy with some charity work. Her only other occupation, aside from reading, was watching the children on one of the many cameras set up throughout the property.

Just before six, as I was putting the vacuum away, Mrs. W came and found me. She was smiling in a way that made me realize I’d never seen a real smile from her before, only tight-lipped imitation. “Geoff wants to speak to you in his office,” she said, and I could tell she was resisting an impulse to drag me there. I wondered if I was being given a raise or a bonus. Perhaps they wanted us to go on vacation with them, somewhere warm and cloistered.

Nevaeh and Sebastian were in the kitchen, I knew, having dinner with Ellen, the cook. I always stopped there at the end of the day, to eat dinner myself and indulge in a bit of gossip. Because of the children and the cameras, Ellen and I referred to our employers as Rabbit, Mrs. Rabbit, and Renard. We called the mistress Ruth. (I couldn’t remember the first name of the wife in the Updike novel when I came up with the aliases.) When it was time for me and Nevaeh to go home, Ellen would hand over a bag with dessert in it, and the children would dance around and shout, “APPLE PIE!” or whatever it was that day. It was a routine I looked forward to, from the time I arrived each morning, and I’d been thinking of it, yearning toward it really, when Mrs. W intercepted me.

We entered the study, where Mr. W was shuffling papers at the desk. Like his wife, he was very tall but much less good-looking. His manicured apocalypse beard couldn’t disguise a weak chin and ruddy drinker’s cheeks. “Hello, Joan,” he boomed. “How are you holding up?”

“Not bad,” I answered, and asked how he was.

Mrs. W laughed, as if I’d said something hilarious. “She’s amazing, isn’t she, Geoff? So strong.”

“Yeah, cleaning really builds muscle,” I joked. “I’m bench-pressing 150 these days.”

This time, both husband and wife laughed. “You have a resilient spirit, Joan,” Mr. W said. “We appreciate your help.” His desk was scattered with contracts and surveyor’s reports. Mrs. W had confided once, with an eye roll, that her husband’s real passion was trying to acquire the exact amount of town acreage his family had possessed in 1776.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Joan,” Mrs. W said. “And Nevaeh. Shall we sit?” Obviously, the study had leather chairs. We sat.

“We’re huge Nevaeh fans in this house,” Mr. W said. “From the moment I get home, there’s nothing else I hear about, from this one”—he snapped toward his wife—“and from our wild thing. Sebastian worships the ground your daughter walks on.” I wondered, idly, how many hours it had been since Mr. W last touched his mistress. As he settled into the leather, I imagined him cloaked and crowned with disease, wielding a scepter dipped in virus.

“Nevaeh’s so kind,” Mrs. W said. “You’re an incredible mother, Joan.”

“Thank you.” In the house, I was careful to never show what kind of mother I was, so this was pure flattery. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. “Is there something you wanted to tell me?

“Well, yes, actually.” Mrs. W went to hold Mr. W’s hand, but he didn’t notice. Or maybe he was sparing her from contamination. “This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but when I learned about your situation with your husband, I decided to talk to Geoff. And I was thrilled to find out that he agreed with me.”

“Happy wife, happy life,” Mr. W said.

Mrs. W’s brow wrinkled, as she decided whether he was teasing. “Geoff, we don’t want Joan to think that we’re the kind of people who decorate their homes with live laugh love signs.”

“Babe, Joan has seen every room of our house. No need to worry.”

“My mother had one of those signs,” I said.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean . . .”

“Kidding.” I was annoyed that Mrs. W hadn’t done me the courtesy of pretending to believe my story about Chris’s imminent return.

Mr. W gave a sharp, cruel snort, so when Mrs. W turned away from him and reached for my hand, I felt that I couldn’t refuse her. “Joan, Nevaeh is clearly a special girl. I know you must want things for her that you can’t give her in your situation.”

So they’re going to pay for her to go to private school with their idiot son, I thought. Maybe establish a college fund? I was grateful and prepared myself to show it.

“We all want what’s best for her,” she went on. “I know this is going to sound a little out there, but when you’ve had some time to consider it, I think you’ll agree it makes sense.”

“Yeah, sure.” I was already imagining myself opening a pile of college acceptance letters with my daughter.

“We could start with just a week of Nevaeh sleeping here, as a kind of trial run?”

“What do you mean?” I honestly couldn’t understand what she meant.

“We could tell the kids it’s a really long sleepover party! Something fun.”

“A week? I think she’d get homesick.” I still blush remembering this moment. I’m rarely so oblivious.

“You could still see her, of course. Though it might be strange for her, living here and seeing you come and go.”

“Are you suggesting that my daughter live with you full-time?” I asked.

“I’m suggesting adoption.” My face must have done something that conveyed horror because Mrs. W began to negotiate. “I suppose you could move in with us, though that might get confusing too.”

“I have a house,” I said. “Actually I have two.” When Nevaeh was four, there had been another large outbreak. My in-laws had died within days of each other, which is sort of how they would have wanted it. Their house had been on the market since then, but the neighborhood, once full of retirees, was half-empty now, overrun by gangs of aggressive geese. I hadn’t checked on the property since Chris left for New York, having pushed it, along with him, into the realm of half-forgotten things.

“We’d leave the management of the transition up to you,” Mrs. W said, speaking so quickly that I could barely understand her. “Whatever you think is best.” Her husband nodded but snuck a wistful glance at his phone, which he had made of show of leaving facedown on the desk.

I stood up. “She’s my daughter. What kind of person do you think I am?”

“Joan, just think! Nevaeh could have everything she deserves. And you’d be provided for too.” Mrs. W gestured around the room as if to imply I could pick up anything, the mantel clock, the chairs, and take it home.

“You think I would sell you my daughter?” An image appeared of Nevaeh locked in a high tower, with me at the base begging her to cast down her long hair. It wasn’t always useful or profound to be prone to fantasy.

“Whoa, ladies. Let’s calm down a sec.” Mr. W had a habit of grinning through unpleasant situations, as if to suggest that everything happening was only a prank.

I crooked a finger at him like a fairy casting a curse. “Why don’t you just get your girlfriend pregnant? Then you could have a baby for free!”

Mrs. W swallowed a shriek.

“Leila, get her out of here,” Mr. W said. “I told you this was a fucking stupid idea.”

“Joan, listen to me, please. I know we can make this work!” Mrs. W was in tears, but I was made of granite. She reached for me again, but I evaded and fled. In the kitchen, I picked up Nevaeh, and in one of those adrenaline-fueled feats of strength, I ran her out the back door and down the serpentine driveway. All the while, she was shrieking, “Mama, we haven’t had dessert yet!” She thrashed and made her body rigid, but there was nothing she could do. Gunpowder couldn’t have cleaved her from me.

I got to work. Wearing an interview outfit put together from Mrs. W’s hand-me-downs, within days I scored a receptionist job at an upscale medical clinic. A neighbor with twin girls a year younger than Nevaeh agreed to watch her while I was out. I met Ellen for a drink at her apartment, where she revealed that Mr. W (we still referred to him as Rabbit, having gotten used to the idea that someone might be listening) had moved his mistress into the maid’s quarters, and was calling her the housekeeper. Mrs. W seemed resigned to the arrangement and had begun studying for a real estate license.

On a Saturday morning, about a month after leaving the Winthrops, I decided that I was ready to face my in-laws’ ghosts. When Chris’s parents had died, we’d left their house mostly untouched, in case one of us ever needed to quarantine there. We probably should have just moved in ourselves—it was so much bigger than our place—but Chris had insisted it would be too weird.

Having deposited Nevaeh with my neighbor, I walked over to the house, pulling a utility cart filled with bottles of bleach and my good broom. Standing on the sidewalk, I tried to envision the property as if I were a realtor. Neat Dutch Colonial with detached garage, ample back lawn, water access. The first time I’d seen the yard, I’d had a vision of Chris and I drinking wine in Adirondack chairs while our children squealed on the grass.

When I opened the front door, my heart sank. Squatters! A pile of soiled clothes sat on the dining room floor and when I ventured further inside, I saw that the kitchen sink was full of dishes. I went back out and found a sharp hoe in the garage. Nudging open the front door again, I called, “If there’s anyone here, I suggest you leave right now!” I thought about saying I’d phoned the police, but I didn’t want to make anyone desperate. After five minutes, there was no movement, so I went back inside.

Dust motes floated in beams from the dirty windows. Starting downstairs, I searched each room methodically, like a SWAT team. The electricity had been shut off years earlier, so in places I had to rely on touch, poking my hoe around in the closets and under the furniture. Weapon outstretched, I ascended the stairs and entered my in-laws’ room. The surfaces were empty, but I knew that if I opened the drawers, I would see their reading glasses and pill boxes, pictures of Nevaeh as a baby.

“Clear!” I said out loud and moved on.

The guest room was clear too. Before Chris and I were married, my mother-in-law had made me sleep there. Because of the squeaky bed, Chris always insisted we have sex on the floor. I’m pretty sure Nevaeh was conceived down there. His mother never really warmed to me; she had reservations about my family, particularly my parents’ high-school educations and my father’s lack of job—he had once been a quarryman and she hadn’t liked that either. Chris told me he’d caught her looking up my parents’ rental on Zillow.

During my year in isolation, I used to imagine different deaths for my family—intriguing, high-class deaths rather than the lonely, brutal ends they actually met. My sister drank poison at a hotel bar in Monte Carlo. She thought the bottle of homemade disinfectant was an avant-garde cocktail bought by an admirer. My mother was an adventuress who slipped on Alpine scree and fell a long way. She was being careless because the slope seemed gentle, but speed accumulated and there was nothing to hold on to. Debt collectors, hoping to send a message to the citizens of Worcester, put my father’s head on a pike above the town hall. Until I set up automatic payments for him, he had never paid a bill on time in his life. “Joan,” he used to tell me, “you’re a born scab.” When I survived, I knew it was true.

Chris’s room was the only closed door in the house. I had saved it for last because I didn’t really want to look at his model cars, the posters from movies he’d seen as a teenager, the quilt his grandmother had made as a graduation present. I used to tease him about it all—I called the room “The Shrine.” But I also didn’t like to think of some stranger dirtying the bed, scattering syringes across the floor. On the other hand, if a mother was squatting there, someone with a young child, I decided I would help her. Maybe I’d gift her the house.

I rapped the door with the hoe. “I’m coming in,” I called. “It’s really easy to sneak out the window; you can jump onto the porch roof and climb down the trellis.”

When I heard footsteps, I nearly fainted. Inside the room, the window opened and closed. More footsteps, then the bed hinges creaked.

“Come in,” a voice called, hoarse and unused.

I used the hoe to edge open the door. If the squatter was waiting to pounce, I could be down the stairs and out of the house before they reached the threshold.

“It’s me,” the voice said.

Chris was sitting on the bed. He was very thin and wore a dirty white undershirt, hugely baggy, that made him look like a child. His nightstand was cluttered with empty ramen cups and a mountain of candy bar wrappers. He raised a hand to shield his eyes, as if I’d turned on a spotlight.

“What the fuck?” I said.

“You look amazing,” he said.

I laughed in disbelief. I should have been furious but I was oddly calm. “How long have you been here?”

“What month is it?”


He wriggled beneath my gaze and did a slow calculation on his fingers. “Five months?”

I made a little jab at his feet with the hoe. I think I meant to test him for solidity, but he kept still and assumed the expression of someone steadying themselves for torment. Old feelings, mostly of worry, shot out new tendrils. “Must have been pretty hot this summer without an AC.”

“I slept outside, by the pond.” His arms were covered with half-healed mosquito bites.

“Why didn’t you come home?” Though I was asking questions, I could barely focus on the answers. It seemed so strange that this creature was the same man who had brought me breakfast in bed every day until he left for New York.

Chris flared his nostrils and squeezed his lips together. “I lost my job and couldn’t get a new one. I couldn’t face telling you.”

I realized suddenly that the Winthrops’ unhappiness had bewitched me into assuming that my husband had left me for another woman—that enigmatic rival who had kept me company so many nights. But this delusion had also saved me from the thing I should have been worrying about: that Chris was dead. A year’s worth of grief welled in my chest—who was it for? I felt like someone regaining consciousness inside a coffin. Also, I remembered that both of our property deeds were in Chris’s name.

“Come home,” I said. “This is your only chance.”

“Really?” he said. “Really?” He pushed himself up for a hug, but I shrugged him away and he fell at my feet.

“We’ll move in here, tomorrow,” I said, feeling as powerful and remote as a mountain. “You’ll keep the house clean and watch our daughter, or you’re out.”

“Nevaeh,” he whispered, widening his eyes as if only just remembering her existence.

I helped him to his feet and led him to the backyard, where a gang of beady-eyed geese paused their foraging to study us. Chris sat down on the patchy lawn at a safe distance from them, scratching his arms while I crawled around in search of three perfect stones. A wind picked up, and cattails on the edge of the pond began to revel, packed in clumps like slaughterhouse cows. Finally I found three rocks that met my standards. Muttering a prayer of forgetting, I cast them into the water.

On the hour-long walk back to our house—this time, Chris pulled the cart—I started to tell him everything that had happened to me over the last year. As words tumbled from me, faster and faster, I realized that the Winthrops had given me another gift: the story of how my daughter was almost taken from me and how afterward we thrived. I could picture a grown-up Nevaeh blushing as I told the familiar, probably embellished tale to a visiting boyfriend. “Stop, Mama. I don’t like that.”

In this optimistic frame of mind, I tried to think of other silver linings. True, I would probably never become a college professor or travel the world. And I would never grow so rich and secure as to not care whether Nevaeh got into a good school. But my daughter would have what I once had—the motivation of surpassing her parents. I was even able to conjure a moment of pity for poor Sebastian, who would be smothered beneath the weight of his mother and father. The blessings of Mother Nature were many and true.

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