- This Is How It Always Is
And she was worth it. On the night that Claude became, she caught a pulmonary embolism masquerading as a sore back, a teenage pregnancy—or, if you prefer, severe denial and extreme delusion—masquerading as irritable bowel syndrome, a stroke masquerading as “probably nothing but my tongue feels kind of weird,” and a first-year resident masquerading as a knowledgeable surgical consult. This was another thing parenting boys had prepared her for: ferreting out. She also, that night, waited with a little girl who’d fallen down the stairs at a sleepover party. Her leg hurt and her arm hurt, but that wasn’t, Rosie knew, why she was crying. She was crying because she was alone and scared. Her parents had taken the opportunity to go away for a night, so they were a couple hours getting back, and the party hosts who brought her in had a house full of six-year-old girls they needed to return to. Crying little girls, even ones who were going to be fine and whose parents were on their way, broke Rosie in a way none of her other cases did. The terminal ones, the ones in pain she could not control, the ones she could do nothing for, the ones she had to let go, none of these felled her quite the way the little girls did. So when an hour after she’d called Transport, no one from Transport had come, she took the girl to X-ray herself. The tech let her stay with the patient so the child had a hand to hold, and though the wrist was just sprained, the tibia had a greenstick fracture. Once Rosie knew that, she knew what else to do for the girl, and she gave her pain meds and three oatmeal cookies and made her laugh. Those were the people Rosie was the night of Claude’s becoming: mom, wife, emergency-room doctor, mystery ferreter. But also little-girl comforter. And also X-ray tech.
She knew that wasn’t why. But she always wondered anyway if that was why.
That night that Claude became, while he and Rosie were being X-rayed, Penn was home putting children to bed. Bedtime was a study in chaos theory. Roo liked to soak, but a bath just riled up Orion, who thought all Ben’s stuffed animals might like to snorkel in the tub. Ben was mollified by a warm milk, but it came out Rigel’s nose when Roo ran through the kitchen wearing only a towel (and only around his shoulders), singing, “Penis Maaaaan! Able to leap tall buildings … owing mostly to his profound motivation not to get snagged on a lightning rod.”
Penn closed his eyes and took deep breaths, removed Rigel’s snot-milked pajamas, drained Orion’s bath with Orion still in it, dug clothespins out of the junk drawer and used them to set Ben’s stuffies to drip dry in the Proving Ground (the laundry room—Rosie felt it wanted a name more in keeping with its usual state). Three of his four children were naked, which, while one step closer to pajamas, was still a long way off from bed. Ben was wearing PJs, admittedly, but also rain boots, rain hat, raincoat, and an umbrella, singing à la Gene Kelly in the raindrops of his stuffed-animal storm.
For variety, Penn lined them up tallest to smallest and made a PJ bucket brigade, tops, bottoms, blankies, and sippy cups passed one boy to the next until each found a home. Yes, Orion ended up in Roo’s pajama top, which came down to the floor like a Victorian nightgown, and so Roo himself was topless, and so Rigel refused to wear pajama bottoms and therefore needed socks so that his underpants would not feel lonely. And yes, Roo snagged Ben’s blankie for a cape and ran up and down the stairs three times singing, “Penis Maaaaan! Able to slide down banisters … but not especially likely to do so all things considered.” But Penn thought it close enough and declared it a bedtime victory.
“Which room tonight?”
“Shark Cave!” four boys chorused. Roo, aged eight on the night Claude became, had named his room himself. Rigel and Orion, aged four and a half, were just next door in a room everyone called POH but which only Penn and Rosie knew to stand for Pit of Hell. Again, her christening. Ben, aged seven, lived in Ben’s Room. Ben was a literalist.
It was beyond imagining, even when Rosie wasn’t working and they were both home in the evenings, even when Rosie’s mom was staying with them to help out as she did for a couple months after each child was born, to consider reading to each son separately. Bedtime stories were a group activity. And because showing the pictures all around to everyone involved a great deal of squirming and shoving and pinching and pushing and get-outta-my-ways and he-farted-on-mes and you-got-to-look-longer-than-I-dids, Penn often resorted to telling stories rather than reading them. He had a magic book he read from. It was an empty spiral notebook. He showed the boys it was blank so that there was no clamoring to see. And then he read it to them. Like magic.
When he’d told it to Rosie, the suit of armor outside the prince’s bedroom had been full of roses. The prince had been stunned to find it brimming over with blooms, but Penn knew it was narratively inevitable when you woke up in bed next to an ER resident named Rosie who insisted she had no time for a boyfriend. Not just the first time but every time the prince peeked under the visor, ardent red and pink and yellow petals burst forth, and his hallways filled with their rosy perfume. But for the boys, the suit of armor was filled with something even better.
“So the prince lifted up the visor and looked inside, and there he saw … absolutely nothing.”
“Nothing?” shrieked Roo.
“Nothing,” Penn reported soberly.
“No fair,” said Rigel.
“‘No fair,’ said Grumwald. ‘I just realized this stupid hunk of metal has been outside my bedroom my whole life, and I expected there’d be a charmed knight inside or a mummy or at least a magic rodent of some kind.’”