Then Skylar says that breastfeeding makes her horny. It is a mindless slip. They’ve been on the couch—she and Jack’s dad, Kevin, talking about monkey bars, carrot sticks, safe plastic; i.e., talking about nothing at all, baby Emma in her arms sucking away, the boys in the next room sucking thumbs on railroad-themed bunk beds. There is no reason for the confession, a provocation, for the sudden burst (she is nursing, she is always nursing), her words muscling from her lips as if on their own volition, like runaways, thumbing it to freedom; once out, there is no turning back.
Kevin places his beer on the side table. Skylar holds herself still, as if stillness were camouflage, as if, like sighted prey, immobility might stand in for erasure. If only she had one of those funny curtains other mothers wear: hooter, heifer, hiders—but not really. She is too late. She is already seen. She can hear Kevin’s breath quicken, his body inching closer to hers on the couch, she can smell the sautéed meat and onion rising off of him. Tacos, earlier. Skylar stares into the fire. The flames mellow to a slow burn while heat floods her, her body bathing in a fresh sweat, hormonal, her heart glugging away, her breasts on display like an offering, an obscene feast of veiny moons swelling up to her chin. It is inevitable. She sits there cross-legged, preposterous. Her post-partum frame bulges in leggings that cling too eagerly to her skin, the elastic cutting into her ankles, still thick, even though it’s been months since she’s given birth. (How did the joke go? What do babies, leggings and drunks have in common? They don’t lie.) She tries to smile. A dull ache courses through, her spine burrowing into the couch as if taking root, while the rest of her is loosening, she feels lightheaded, at once empty and full, tethered to child, so that even if she wants to flee there is no choice but to remain as she is, arms occupied, body alert yet exposed, motionless, culpable: a mother at her most mammalian.
Facts. Kevin is a good guy. She likes him. Skylar was happy to go away together. The entire weekend had been hatched by their spouses. She and Kevin should go. Do something. Melanie, Kevin’s wife, would be working, her husband, Doug as well. Melanie was a trial lawyer and Doug had a new start-up in a series of start-ups to launch. They had to work. They always had to work. Someone had to work—to cover the costs of raising mouths in New York, to pay for things like this fully-appointed log cabin style VRBO. They spoke as if Skylar and Kevin were employees, charges under adult care, requiring permission. This was the fate of stay-at-home parents. When their spouses snapped fingers, they obeyed. It was a long weekend, devoted to a dead president. Skylar and Kevin could head out of the city and breathe some country air, make vats of chili and teach the boys to ski. Why not? What were the alternatives? Sit around in the cold slips of their apartments and wait, wait—for what?
Before they left for Vermont, Kevin did the food shopping. He stocked up on firewood, packed extra bedding. He bought snacks and gummy worms and portable games for the drive. The last thing he wanted was to increase Skylar’s burden. He said this gallantly, in a tone that reminded Skylar of her own father, who went out of his way for her mother, bending himself backward without actually being helpful, until her death when Skylar was 13.
“Let me take care of you,” Kevin said. “Think of it as a vacation, a spin at the spa. You deserve it.”
Skylar didn’t know what she deserved, but Kevin had a minivan. On the drive the radio went in and out depending on range. Sometimes it was Buddy Holly or it was Taylor Swift, then Quiet Riot. Skylar felt lulled by the car’s easy movement. As soon as they hit the FDR Emma fell asleep, undisturbed by the boys making vehicle noises and knocking the front row with their feet. Skylar’s lids grew heavy but Kevin twisted the radio dial, shook out a bag of chips, insistent. Night came early on the road, switch-backing through the mountains, but he wanted to talk in the dark. He wanted company. He was driving, after all. It was only fair. She’d never told him the story. How did she and Doug meet?
“In the neighborhood,” Skylar said. Which was partly true. It certainly sounded better than, “he was a customer,” although that is what he was. When she worked at the gourmet knockoff in brownstone Brooklyn, Doug frequented her charcuterie. She sliced samples of prosciutto thin as stained glass. She handled logs of bresaola and homemade duck sausage and ham hocks and wedges of raw sheep’s milk. She paired them with little pickles. Back then Skylar was a dish herself. She was 25. Of course she didn’t live in the leafy neighborhood of her employment, but in a hip enclave beneath the underpass, where it was commonplace to hang out in a stranger’s loft with one man’s hands in her legs, another up her shirt, where possession was bourgeois and bodies ran together in a communal state of reckless glamour, where life was buzzing and beautiful and full of unknown and endless possibility—where she contemplated various gastronomy tattoos on the bowls of her ribs—until the novelty expired.
Everything came down to timing. Doug kept coming back so she kept serving him, holding up slices of meat on squares of wax paper. She had to rise onto her toes to feed him. Swaths of deli meat became teasing long tongues, then dental dams. They laughed across the counter. She never asked who he was entertaining with such fancy goods, or if he just ate this way. Never did he take a ticket counter number, even when the place was mobbed. Doug was not one to wait. He was a well-tucked man in a tailored suit and shiny shoes. She was pierced and aproned, a lattice of lines inked up her wrist that did not lead to anywhere. He said, “How do you keep a body like yours in a place like this?” Soon, they were fucking against the wall of the freezer.
That’s how they met. It was exhausting to think about now, much less recount.
Skylar said, “We had similar taste.”
Taste, as she understands it, can be split into two camps: People either worship the mirror—that is, they want to fuck themselves—or they’re after their inverse. On the surface Skylar and Doug could not be more different, but both relished the scent of strangers; found anonymity an undeniable thrill. In the shop they could be anyone. They did not discuss life goals. Sex was surprising and standard, erotic yet by the book, which is how Skylar liked it. For Doug, it was crazy. Skylar grabbed his tie and Doug said, “You’re crazy,” not because it was wild or inventive nor because of any questionable sanity on Skylar’s part, but because, like her, Doug fantasized the unfamiliar. Who isn’t a projection of someone else’s desire?
“Shut up,” she’d say, shoving her metal-balled tongue down his throat to get him to quit the play-by-play. He sounded like a sportscaster. Behind the deli counter, against the expansive walk-ins. Then in the park: damp floor of the boathouse and again in the open, atop a bed of dead magnolia blooms. In the elevator to his prewar apartment, beneath a shower head that pummeled from all sides like a car wash. They stood before each other naked on the roof under stars.
When Skylar got pregnant it was sexy, at first. She wore tight clothes to show off her shape and her animal nature, to show how successfully—how triumphantly—she’d been fucked. Then they were married and suddenly, she was a wife and a mother; adulthood catching up on her. Luke was born. Again she got pregnant, which was about as adult as rollerblading without a helmet. Who even rollerbladed anymore? Her first trimester with Emma, Doug’s breath smelled like horse in the rain, which made her wretch, she couldn’t bear the feel of his insistence in her mouth, his tongue swiping left then right, those big slimy teeth clanging against her, he was all piano keys, so she averted his gaze lest she throw up. Then the tables turned. When she grew fat and alive he grew gun-shy, afraid he’d somehow poke the unborn eyes out of the kid. But then, all men overestimated themselves, and all other mothers had opinions, which they foisted upon her unasked wherever she turned. Her panic rose. What was she doing? Ah but this was normal. There were mothers everywhere, mothers proselytizing like subway preachers: Pipe down. Ease in. Accommodate. To what? Expectations, self-sacrifice: the natural rhythms of life.
At thirty-two, Skylar has one at her breast and another down the hall, her years before Doug reduced to a distant memory, a onetime dream, a snippet she’d overheard third hand. Skylar looks into her arms. Her daughter’s breath rises and falls wetly alongside hers. Skin to skin. Her chest heaves. No. Her bosom.
Usually, when Emma goes at her like this, Skylar can detach and float up. It is easy to disconnect. Her body is no longer hers. Whatever pride she once felt—those squishy thigh rolls fed entirely from her milk supply—has dissipated. She nursed out of laziness, not righteousness. Lifting her shirt required less than getting up to fix a bottle. Doug’s mother disapproved. No one did it in her day. Breastfeeding, she thought, was reserved for peasants. It was bad enough Doug had married a peasant. Once Skylar peed with the door opened and Doug said he’d never seen a woman—much less a mother—on a toilet. So much for mystery. Now she was a human pacifier. Emma is already on solid food. Emma doesn’t need her. What she needs are oatmeal and bananas, sweet potatoes from the jar. Jars are just fine for Skylar. Emma will take whatever she gets.
But there is no escaping herself with Kevin there, eyeing Skylar like some new unknown fruit. He relights their joint, smoothing its creases with his fingers. Kevin has not witnessed her body turned out like the head of a plunger. Kevin sees only the curve of her shoulder, the beam of her collarbone in the lamplight. People see what they want. Skylar closes her eyes. Her muscles relax—and there it is, like a wave: life recklessly crashing through her thighs.
No one had told her about this.
No one had told her about sitz baths and Epsom salts, compression underwear either. The whole species would be extinct, if secrets of parenthood were ever to leach out to the not-yet-procreating set. It was a coup simply to be alive. No one told her about the hurt. Her mother’s pain she quite knew, but no one ever said she’d be dry where she’d once been wet, tender elsewhere, which mattered little; however lonely, she was never alone, there would be always someone attached and clawing, only no one told her: in private, the two were connected. She could fill her daughter’s desire and her own at the same time.
Kevin holds the joint to her lips and she pulls on it, nodding when her lungs are full. She exhales. Emma has fallen asleep. The slightest shift and her baby slips off, her mouth fishing away at the air, unaware of what is missing: Skylar’s nipple, slick and pronounced as a giant hemangioma, a birthmark to be iced and excised.
Kevin stubs out the roach.
“Mother may I?” he says, zeroing in.
She no longer looked Doug in the face. Every time (maybe 5 times) post-partum he nuzzled up to her, she’d turned, offering her back instead, her dimples for eyes, the arch and swell of her ass the most generous part of her, the only part not yet claimed—he took his pleasure briskly, for himself, and rolled, her body leaking afterward like a broken toy.
He has still not forgiven her for hacking off her hair a couple months ago. Emma’s grip, Skylar said, her daughter’s instinct to hold fast to anything. Earrings, chains. Streaky blonde locks. Since letting go, Skylar has felt ten pounds lighter.
“Feel,” she said, taking his hand to the clean buzz of her neck.
He recoiled. “How could you do this me?”
As if it were a personal affront, Doug retaliated with a whiskey fetish and an extensive back tattoo. “Midlife,” the mothers at the playground said. Beneath his shirt and tie his body exploded in swirls of color. Skylar pictured him bending over his office assistant, Katya. Katya was 23 and from Romania. Katya wore knee socks and pleated skirts. Katya said things like “In my country.” If Doug weren’t fucking her, Skylar would be almost disappointed. Who would pass up the opportunity?
With his big hands, Kevin reaches. One scoop and her daughter is his, Emma’s hand wound into a tiny fist, and Skylar is irrelevant. She watches Kevin carry Emma to her portable crib in the corner of the room, stooping to tuck the blanket, his jeans dipping low, revealing a stripe of back skin. If he were conventionally attractive, they would not be here together. Melanie would not have released him. But he wasn’t and she had and the weekend so far had been a holiday movie: fresh pine and maple, the cabin everything a getaway could be. In the morning, Kevin made pancakes and took the boys skiing and Skylar sat in the lodge watching families claim tables with heaps of wet mittens. Even if Emma weren’t crawling around the slushy floor, clapping spoons together, Skylar wouldn’t be skiing: she did not grow up spending this kind of money to freeze to death. It was fascinating, though, how these strangers bragged about their gear, battery-operated boots and fog free goggles; flapping open wilted maps smeared with ketchup and running their fingers along the trails. She burned her tongue on hot chocolate. Styrofoam squeaked.
“Hush,” he says, putting Emma down. “Baby, baby.”
Kevin hops back on the couch, scooting along the length of cushions. Head cocked, his eyes twinkling, the watery hue of a boy Skylar once knew, who years ago taught her to skateboard in the parking lots of value stores. Kevin is not an average dad but an old dad, he must be pushing sixty, his nose pug-like, the shadows of his youth faintly visible in the contours of his otherwise round jaw. If Skylar is no longer working, Kevin is retired. His hair, white and thick, combed for the nightly news, yet there is a Christmas spirit about him. The buttons of his flannel strain at his torso. When he whisked Skylar’s daughter from her, Sklyar forgot to snap the folds of her nursing bra. Her breasts poke through the convenient holes.
“Where were we?” he says.
He and Melanie were an unlikely couple, too, Kevin volunteered on the long drive up from the city. Not that Skylar had asked. She wasn’t even listening. Her cheek against the frosted window, she welcomed the cold, murmured the minimal sounds of agreement. It was OK. Sometimes people needed to talk for themselves.
“To know her is to love her,” Kevin said. Skylar doubted that. But then, she barely knew Melanie.
“Some men get intimidated by her success. Others may not be secure enough with themselves. Not me. I live to serve: to cook and clean, run errands. I aim to please. However I can make her happy.” He said it boastful, without a shred of irony.
“Consider me the world’s greatest wife.”
Indeed, Skylar said. She called Melanie a lucky lady.
They’d met the previous fall on Luke’s curriculum night (the notion of “curriculum” for a bunch of four-year-olds dumbfounded her). The room was stale and hot. Pregnant with Emma, Skylar couldn’t squeeze into the mini chairs of primary colors and drink apple juice from wilted cups with the other parents, kneeing banging the desks, so she stood along the wall of the classroom beside Kevin, whose paunch also prevented him from fitting into classroom formation.
“We’re twins.” He held his belly. Skylar tugged at the stretch of her skirt. It was too short in the thigh. Her legs throbbed. Her skin felt itchy and tight.
Halfway through the presentation, Melanie walked in—pantsuit, tight bun, heels clipping the linoleum. The teacher paused. Kevin cleared space and eagerly waved like a child motioning to a parent from the stage of a school play.
Poor guy. Skylar arches her back, casts her shoulders toward him. Truth is, Melanie never would have farmed Kevin off if she thought someone else might want him. Sweat gathers in his brow. He presses Skylar’s nipple like an elevator button. Presses it again, with renewed curiosity, as if he’d never seen such a beastly thing. He takes it between his fingers and twists. Milk shoots him in the eye and they snort, they actually snort, with laughter. Her body hums. If Melanie radiated power, Skylar did fuckability. She is pure instinct. She can’t walk down the street without dogs trailing her, rising onto hindquarters to shove their noses into her legs, undeterred by strollers and slings; she is mounted and humped before the light changes, crossing the street and taken by surprise but she doesn’t mind, her face flushing in the knowing reflections of pet owners but otherwise she feels no shame. This is who she is—who we all are essentially—and she is obliged for the reminder. If nothing else, she is not yet dead.
“Are you Luke’s mom?” Kevin had said weeks after open school night at pick-up, explaining that Skylar’s son was all their Jack talked about. Luke and his magnetic tiles. Luke at the sensory table. Luke with his soon-to-be baby sister. They went for coffee. It was refreshing that Kevin wasn’t a mother. Playdates began. Kevin picked the boys up and took them to the park, the rock piles, for pizza. Sometimes Skylar tagged along but Kevin could handle it alone. He was a seasoned parent—Jack was his youngest, with another child in 5th grade and a pair of teens from a previous marriage, in college, rarely mentioned, Skylar assumed, for the sake of Melanie. Skylar was grateful for the break.
“How can I repay the favor?” she said, when Kevin brought home Luke, fed and bathed and sleepy, cheeks flushed from hours pumping the swings.
“Don’t mention it,” Kevin said, “My pleasure.”
He cups her. His weight upon her cumbersome as a coat of arms, he brings her to his mouth. Milk rushes from her. She is a faucet. She can’t stop. Her ducts release. The pressure lessens. This is relief. He drinks. There is so much Skylar can hear his Adam’s apple working.
“Yum,” he pops up and winks.
There is a white droplet by his eye, like a tear. Once Doug squeezed her into his coffee, just to taste, but he took it mostly black. Skylar knows there are pockets on the Internet devoted to adult breastfeeding—there are pockets devoted to everything—though she cannot picture Kevin and Melanie populating these rings. They aren’t for her to picture. She unpins her legs. Kevin dips low, his hair a tussled shock. She could come right there. She could come without any further touch, like that first time in high school science class, which took her by surprise, the coming like biting into a Chewel’s. She feels woozy, as if she is both drunk and high. Maybe she is a bit of both or neither. Kevin has been drinking since the slopes, at lunchtime, and has kept on steadily through evening. She’s noticed he is never completely blitzed but also never sober. A happy hour Claus. Skylar can taste tannin on her lips, or maybe that’s the pot—stronger than she remembered – tunneling inside of her, igniting her nerve endings, she is a live wire thanks to Kevin’s enthusiasm, his tongue in relentless pursuit, as if trying to recapture his own youth or cheat death, pressing through her like an impression, a moving brick of flat nails, a novelty sculpture sold at the mall, she is shoplifting, she takes the money and runs, she lifts her hips, she almost has it, it’s right there, she knows, she can feel it, it’s that simple, she is selfish and greedy with need, but wait, she must wait, how much longer can she hold on before she lets go.
Emma cries out from the crib. Skylar leaps to soothe her and there is Kevin behind her, his belly full, his pelvis pressing, lifting her in his apelike arms. Her legs beetle the air. He carries her to the couch and hovers. They stay like that, Skylar on her elbows until the baby stills and Kevin slides to his knees, his mouth lapping at the stream, catching her excess, what she cannot contain, she spills, he trembles like a dog beneath the torrent she has become: a pump a fountain an endless well there is nothing to hold on to anymore so she comes, the convulsions fast and long, a salt lick flushing her wounds.
He can’t squiggle his pants off fast enough.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” he says, staring into her with all the wonder of Peter Pan. What was there to believe?
“Oh sweet momma,” he moans. She shuts her eyes. Her stomach churns. Animals were lucky, spared of talk. Of mood lighting and consequences and lingerie. She palms his chest and eases out from under him, pushing her way in front. On all fours. She braces herself against the couch. His balls smack her ass. She breathes, he breathes. He is more or less the same as Doug. They settle into a rhythm and for a minute it’s so quiet she crawls right into it her focus is everything she thinks she could come again until he roars, “Timber!” and collapses over her back like shot meat.
With that, it’s over. Kevin sighs and rolls, immediately dreaming. His pants are bunched at his ankles. His manhood, a fraction of the size it once was, returned to its place. The fire is on its way out. Slowly, so as to not disturb, Skylar rises and pees then gets a glass of water and stands in front of the kitchen window drinking, catching the outline of her face, the window hissing its drafty disapproval. She wraps a blanket around her shoulders but it provides no help from the wind. There is poor insulation. She can feel it from the inside. Outside, snow falls beneath the lights, a silent, furious swarm. Kevin, Jack and Luke, Emma, all peaceful, sleeping. Skylar slips into her boots. Her phone pings. Her husband texts. How’s it going? She opens the door. The elements blow in. Before stepping out, she pulls a hood off the row of coat hooks. She remembers her father telling her mother all those years ago, “Heat escapes fastest through the head.” At the time, Skylar was barely a teen. This hood is lined in fur, soft and gray, her own private mammal. It’s amazing, how warm it is, what a luxury, how the covering muffles sound. She’ll hear nothing in the woods. Her phone vibrates again. She answers. Fine. Love u. Sleep well.