The drive-through teller gives you a choice. For a second you feel like a good mother for picking stickers instead of candy. In the backseat the girls peel away the waxy backing. What happened to the goddamn rule? Stickers go in sticker books. Not on your clothes, they ruin things in the wash. Not on the car because—just because! But the minivan’s windows are shingled with little squares of Dora and Sponge Bob and Hannah fucking Montana which you don’t even let them watch but they know all about her anyway and now she’s plastered all over your goddamn van. Paul—fuzzy, stalwart, guardian of all things good, DaddyDaddyDaddy—Paul. Paul would say/has said/always says: Just let it go. Like last month when that girl from his office went to rehab and he came home with her cat. You had to remind him you’re allergic. But the girls had already cocooned themselves around the little ball of fur like it’s the easiest, most natural thing—instant, unconditional love. You’re allergic, goddammit. Paul looks like he doesn’t believe you. Okay, fine. Maybe you’re not, in the medical sense, allergic. But they do cause a reaction in you that is undesirable because you’ll end up feeding the goddamn thing, cleaning the nasty litter box, taking it to the vet in the Hannah Montana fucking van. Paul sweetly takes your hands. Compromise, he says, it’ll be an outside cat. But every night the girls sneak it inside and every morning you throw it back out. You reprimand them for breaking the rules. And fuzzy Paul says: Just let it go.
But you want to know: When was the first sticker stuck? When was the exception made that led to the total disregard for the rule? And when it’s time to sell this van whose job will it be to scrape them all off? It will be yours. But you will fail. And Paul will do it, happily, he’ll make it a game—the girls will have a ball chipping away at stickers with him, fixing it up, good as new. They’ll come to you for your approval. For your thanks and praise. You will not be able to give it to them. You will look at them—beaming, Armor All and shammies at their feet—and you will withhold. You will bite your lip and try not to scream, because if everyone had followed the goddamn rule there would have been no job to do now.
The Odyssey trudges up the hill, grinding out this unsatisfied sound, like maybe it won’t make it. Every day it gets worse. Every day, by the time you’re inside the house, you forget to mention it. It happens that fast, from the garage to the kitchen, the thought escapes your head like a birthday balloon. Only one thought stays, unrelenting, it’s of him—taut, angled, pulling your hair. Harder and harder until you can feel something, anything, the pain you deserve.
You rinse raw chicken breasts, smother them in marinade, snap stalks of asparagus, preheat the oven. After dinner, Paul tucks the girls in, you say good night. The little one asks: Will you stay and snuggle with us, Mommy? The big one doesn’t ask anymore. Yes, you think, say yes. Instead you give them each a hard peck on the top of the head, a stiff-armed hair tousle. You escape, breathless. On the landing you open the linen closet, place your middle and ring fingers in the door jamb, next to the hinges, and push, your shoulder heaving your full-weight against the door, smashing your knuckles until the agony allows you to go on. Downstairs you grind tomorrow’s coffee beans, cross a few things off the to-do list, cinch and drag the Hefty bag outside. There, in the dark, you wrap your arms around the bundle of garbage and cradle it, hug it into your chest, nudge it with sweet, affectionate kisses. Untouched by the aroma of three-day-old salmon skin and soured blueberry yogurt. There, there, you whisper, petting the back of the bag, turning your head to press your cheek into a cushy spot. You feel your face giving way to tenderness. If they could see you now! Very gently, you lay the bag inside the garbage can, lower the lid, rest your hand on top. Tomorrow night, you promise yourself, tomorrow night you’ll say yes. You’ll stay. You’ll snuggle.
On Saturday you go to the movies as a family. Paul says: What’s with the van? You say: It’s been doing that. Next thing you know it’s in the shop. Paul gets shit done. Paul doesn’t forget from the driveway to the kitchen every single thing that needs to be remembered. Paul isn’t fucking around. You say: I’m sorry. I meant to tell you about the van. Paul says: It’s okay. With one daughter piggy-back, the other holding his hand, he aims to kiss your ducking forehead. Stop understanding me, you want to scream, You don’t, so don’t! But you are silent. The heat of need radiates from your core, the need to be slapped, to be slammed against the wall, to go to him and be punished. He’s got to make you cry, if you could just fucking cry then maybe—Can you drive a stick? asks Mrs. Brower from church. Her son is doing a semester abroad, you can borrow his car until your transmission is replaced. It’s a cherry red Japanese something, not a sports car per se—four doors, the booster seats will fit in it—but it’s small, low to the ground, leather interior. NPR is not programmed into the stereo. It fits you close and hard, you crank it, stomp the clutch, it all comes back to you. Outside the Brower’s gated community, you turn away from town, ripping down country roads, between cotton fields, windows down, radio blasting a classic rock station. You feel what the car needs. In your body, you feel it. Down shifting on curves, the shaft in your hand, loosely, softly, until you need it to do something, then umph, just the right amount of force shoves it into the groove of the H frame. You slide it all the way across, just outside the H, up into fifth. You’re wide open. Your hair slaps at your face in the wind. It’s that time of day that barely exists, just before dusk, the pink lemonade sun splashing all over the sky. You need him, to pin you down, tie you up, flip you over. But you have to get home. You speed into your neighborhood through the dappled honey fire—the dimming is close behind—windows down, Van Halen blaring, rocking the gear shift like a pro. You’re singing, screaming, Whoa, oh, oh, Jamie’s cryin’. The goddamn cat runs out in front of you. Freezes. You swerve, but it’s too late. In your rearview mirror the cat is writhing—her body broken but still alive—mewling in pain. Only one thing to do. Throw it into reverse, put her out of her misery, end the hurt. A crunch that sounds like nothing so much as exactly what it is: a tiny helpless body breaking into splintered pieces. Your chest tightens, your eyes burn. Is it happening? Something welling in your throat, prickling in your nose. You throw it back into first, screech up the driveway, into the garage. Roll up the windows, lock the doors, turn up the volume, Whoa, oh, oh, Jamie’s cryin’. Paul knocks on your window. Through the glass, his lips move: Just let it go.
A.K. Benninghofen’s stories have appeared in Evergreen Review, Connotation Press and Necessary Fiction. She lives in Asheville, NC with her family.