What is this about? Your voice is static over the bad phone connection. A gorilla?
She turned the wheel and made a left and could see the two-story shape of her parent’s house in the wintery haze of fog. The car’s engine revved, the belts making a grinding noise as it eased to the top of the road. An image of her brother David sledding down Barbara Drive when they were kids, so long ago but close enough of a memory that it felt that she could climb back and laugh with him, throw snowballs. Samantha’s parents watched her daughter Terra on days when Samantha worked, and when her ex-husband called, Samantha rolled her eyes thinking that he must want to change parenting time, again.
“What, Jackson?” she blurted back into her phone.
The respiratory infection had left her exhausted, her horsed voice that crackled. She did not mind being alone on New Year’s Eve: maybe play some light jazz from her wireless speakers, or read that new hardback book she had ordered online? She might blog, too, letting her thoughts go adrift, graceful as seagulls hugging the surface over inlets of water.
Terra would be at Jackson’s house. It was his weekend with her. At first, Samantha thought it had to be about him making sudden plans and he’d totally forgotten that he had Terra. He had done this before, often reneging, often having an excuse that his new wife Stacy was not feeling well.
He now spoke in such excitement, wild abandonment, that Samantha thought his tongue was caught between his lips and teeth—frantically saying something about a gorilla.
“You have what?” Samantha asked. “Gorilla?”
“Gorillas,” said Jackson. “Plural.”
The phone regained a better connection. Jackson had worked as a veterinarian for almost a decade. Samantha pictured he and his wife Stacy, in the truck, transporting two giant gorillas. How odd, how goofy.
Her ex-husband had that swarthy, awkward way about him, though a spitting resemblance of the musician Jackson Browne, one of Samantha’s favorite rock musicians that she remembered her mother listening to while growing up in Central Indiana.
She heard Stacy over the phone, her voice a distant tone of mumbles. Samantha smiled at the idea, that perhaps, one of the gorillas would break free and grab Stacy by the throat, and—
Stacy Wulfstein, a woman at forty years of age, who mildly intimidated Samantha with her broad shoulders and heavy-set physique. She’d always wanted to challenge Samantha, gripe at her about incongruous stuff, which had no real bearing, and never would.
But Samantha got over whatever it was that Stacy pursued, challenged her with that sharp piercing tone of voice as though there might be a speck of interest still left over from the divorce, with whom Stacy thought that Samantha had feelings for Jackson. But there weren’t any left-over feelings, frozen over the years. She started to mingle, date more and being less apprehensive wanting to be with a guy or someone to fill in the quietness of her life now. She focused on her job, her bland career in data support, logging in numbers and parsed columns of code, and when it was her time with her daughter, they ran errands and planned their week and months ahead.
This was not the way it was supposed to work for Samantha, and she antagonized with it: single mother, starting over at thirty-five. Not cool.
Somehow Jackson cut out on the phone and clicked back on and said, as if in mid-conversation with Stacy: “Two loving gorillas from the Cincinnati Zoo… Sam, you there?”
“Taking them to the Indianapolis facility. Something about a deadline before the new year.”
“That’s awesome,” said Samantha. “So, it’s just you and Stacy riding together?”
“Yep. Not sure why they contacted me. Most other vets are on vacation right now, out of town, I guess. Anyway, returning the vet truck from the Indy facility. Brandy and Bash, those are their names. Bash is, in fact, another female. If I get a chance, maybe I will take Terra to see them.”
“How exciting,” said Samantha. “Hey, I texted earlier to see what time you wanted me to bring Terra over. Any ETA?”
She sensed his mood drop, like the chill of air coming from an old windowpane. That’s right, I got her tonight. New Year’s Eve. Totally forgot. Spaced it.
He didn’t forget.
Dr. Rosen suggested to Samantha to keep their interactions brief. She told Samantha that she needed to be stern, even forceful and not let Jackson control the allotted time, and any abusive language and profane remarks had to stop. The only way it would is if Samantha stepped up and not seek his approval, or let Terra’s love leap from her over to his and that was the only love.
Stacy and Jackson together: how it felt like a layer of deception—a sinister plot—
to weed out annoying Sam!
You got this. You’re a grown woman and can make choices. He cannot control you and do whatever he wants anymore.
Any lustful or romantic feelings between them subsided, evaporated, but she still cared for Jackson, in a way when one rationalizes that the ex-spouse is the father of your only child.
“I might have plans,” declared Samantha. “It’s New Year’s Eve. Why wouldn’t I?”
She could hear Stacy’s voice again: “Lawrence and Carrie will be over soon.”
“Can you bring her by around ten-thirty? Make sure she’s fed. Bring her melatonin,” said Jackson.
“I thought nine?”
“Nine? No,” said Jackson.
“Nine!” blurted Stacy, as if that time was the worst possible thing that could happen.
“You know that I can hear her, right?” said Samantha. “Anyway, I don’t mind if Terra stays up past midnight. She’s okay. We did last year. Hold off giving the melatonin until later.”
“Fine,” said Jackson. “I don’t want to argue. It’s been a fun day and I will continue to have a fun evening. Will ring in the new year with optimism!”
“I wasn’t arguing,” said Samantha. “It’s all good.”
She did not have plans. She did not have any other friends except Lonnie, and her other co-worker Rachel, who was married and had a little boy almost three years old. Samantha had been dating off and on, but nothing grew from those dates, nor did she feel attracted to any of them. Lonnie was older, forty-seven, forty-eight maybe—a nice guy but not her type, said he was spending New Year’s Eve with his parents in Bloomington.
The curiousness, the pursuit for older men seemed inevitable for her. Forty would be here before Samantha knew it. Middle-aged guys seemed more composed and honest, experienced, held good jobs—were unafraid and were ready to settle; they appeared relaxed being themselves, held within their mind and eyes a curious wonder and no ounce of being judgmental or shallow. Jackson would be thirty-nine in a few months, in the new year, but was seemingly boyish; she presumed that he still played video games all the time, dressing down in sweat bottoms, wearing gym shorts and baseball caps in the dead of winter, using profanity when Terra was around (as well did Stacy). A few years after Samantha was married to him, his academic smarts had vanished while making good money at his vet practice, and he had gotten a decent trust fund after both his grandparents had passed away. Between them, however, his time was spent elsewhere, and Samantha realized that had been a red flag. In hindsight, she wanted to make their relationship and marriage work. In hindsight, all possibilities bloomed with good intentions.
His gregarious nature at the beginning enthralled her. She loved animals, particularly the hound breed of dogs (growing up, she and David enjoyed taking their bloodhound on long hikes in the woods behind their house). Samantha and Jackson had gone to the same high school, dated off and on, and after graduating, attended different colleges. Jackson attended Purdue, Samantha Indiana University. A few years had gone by and they hooked up again. They had always kept in touch via e-mail, text-messaging. She fell in love, that mysterious love spark between them activated, and his swoony brown hair that lie over his big forehead…
As a young woman, Samantha-Clevenger Milton, seemed to fall hard for guys. She accepted this as one of her basic flaws: Being naïve. If I give you my body, at least I want in return your undivided attention. Why is this so hard?
A burning sensation fumed in her chest—a hatred toward Stacy Wulfstein as she drove to get Terra, so sudden, like a panic attack taking over her nervous fists. A much bigger woman than Samantha, she was afraid that Stacy might instigate a fight. Having shoved Samantha into a wall at Terra’s karate class a few weeks ago, emphasized this. Dr. Rosen told her to ignore Stacy, to talk to Jackson only when it came to Terra’s extracurricular activities.
“I think Terra is too young for karate,” Samantha had said to Stacy.
“No, she’s not Samantha. Christ, you act like Terra is still a toddler.”
“Yes, you do. She’ll be ten, and you treat her like a toddler.”
I don’t think that I do.
She questioned her own judgments, her choices. If life had redoes, she would have avoided Jackson Milton as if he were carrying a deadly contagion. Of course, that meant no Terra, her little Terra with Jackson’s genes, and she loved her daughter so much that to imagine never having her, created a dreadful mask over her eyes, created a raw sense of inexplicable angst. What was it now that he and Stacy had called her? Ewok, from Star Wars?
“The Ewok is bugging the shit out of me!” texted Stacy to Jackson, after Terra grabbed Daddy’s phone and accidentally brought it with her in the car when Samantha picked her up last month, and she noticed a few text messages and saw the shrewdness, the cruel ways that he and Stacy poked fun at Terra. And Samantha said to Jackson, “You let that woman, your wife, talk about your own daughter like that?”
“It was not Terra,” said Jackson, who always corrected Samantha. “It was directed at you, Sam.”
Samantha pulled into her parent’s driveway and the glow of the porch light shown over the mound of snow along the sidewalk. She could see her mother gathering to the door with Terra. The noise of Samantha’s winter boots scraped over the salted driveway.
“Hi, Mommy,” said Terra, and she ran to the car.
“Thanks,” Samantha said to her mother.
“You’re welcome, honey. One of these days, I’m sure you’ll be doing the same for Terra.”
They drove home, down the slope of Barbara Drive, and in the back of Samantha’s mind, she pretended to be sledding. Her brother hollering in excitement, his toboggan loose-fitted on the side of his head. She wished that she could go back being a child again. So simple, so clear and easy life had been.
Lonnie had IM’d her. He wanted to know if she was going out. Change of plans—he was not going to Bloomington. Samantha replied that she was staying home.
Samantha took a shower while Terra watched a kid’s DVD. In the mirror, she knew that she had lost weight. The digital scales displayed 123, and Samantha felt grateful and confident, and maybe it was because of the respiratory infection and being only on a liquid diet.
New goal: 115 pounds by February 1st.
The aroma of the bath lotion clung to her arms, her neck. She took in the smell and it made her smile. She undid her robe and stared at her naked body in the mirror. A cold chill went through her arms, a tingling sensation through her fingers, and she realized at that moment everything in life would be fine.
“I will not compromise anymore,” she said aloud, as if repeating a Dr. Rosen mantra. “I will stand up for myself, take life by the proverbial horns.”
She put on some jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, her maroon and white Skechers and looked at the microwave clock and noticed it was 10:21.
Jackson only lived five minutes away, but she hated to be late, even if it meant parenting time. She dreaded seeing or hearing “that woman” by the front door where she always seemed to push Jackson aside and butt in—to give Terra a hug as though she were the real mother and not Samantha.
“Let’s go, honey,” she said to Terra. They gathered their things and opened the car doors and drove to Jackson’s house. Samantha bumped the heated seat button on the driver’s side, her hair was no longer damp after her long shower.
At Jackson’s house, a two-story bungalow on Grayson Street, with green and blue Christmas lights still blinking in the windows…
Terra said from the backseat, “I bet Daddy takes me to see the gorillas.”
Samantha had mentioned the gorillas while driving home, after Terra had been at Mama’s and Papa’s place. She did not want her daughter to leave the house tonight; little kids should not be out on New Year’s Eve, where the chances of being involved in an auto accident were greatly increased. She had read that statistic, and that people were more likely to die between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The porch light flickered on by the motion of someone coming out of the front door. Terra was already running through the front yard. Jackson stepped outside and said, “Hi there little pumpkin!” He nodded at Samantha. She got out and sloshed ahead toward him, carefully avoiding any ice or melted snow that had hardened. She locked eyes with Jackson. He smiled. He had on an old gray sweatshirt with the Purdue emblem on the front, one that she remembered him wearing when they were married.
“Happy New Year,” he said. “You celebrating, with co-workers?”
“I’m not going out,” she said. “Still trying to get over this chest bug. Happy New Year to you guys.”
“Flu?” said Jackson. “Stacy had it right after Thanksgiving and just now recovered. Bad stuff.”
Samantha glanced past Jackson and looked through the storm door and did not see Stacy in the lurch wanting to make sure she had her stepdaughter in eyeshot, in the clasp of her claws.
“You are more than welcome to join us. Lawrence and Carrie just got here. We’re playing games all evening. Trivial Pursuit. Plenty of food. Snacks and Beer.”
She gave Terra a hug and watched her slide past the front doors.
“I don’t drink beer anymore,” she said. “Just wine now.”
“That’s right. Proud of you, Sam. You look good.”
“Thanks. Hey, you guys aren’t going anywhere tonight? I mean, of course, the police do those checkpoints and stuff.”
“Of course not! It’s our own little lock-in.”
“Good. Terra thought you might take her to see the gorillas tonight. I told her about your transport.”
“Maybe tomorrow. If she wants to. I have the keys, codes to check on them, if needed.”
“Okay,” said Samantha, and she walked to her car. “Happy New Year again.”
“I’ll bring Terra over on Sunday evening, Sam. Take care.”
She looked back and saw a shadow in the window. A big-headed shadow. It pivoted, creeping toward the foyer, and Samantha knew it was Stacy about to greet Terra.
At home, Samantha fixed microwave popcorn and dumped it into a big stainless-steel bowl, one that had become her default bowl for snacks. She hoped Stacy and Jackson were not ignoring Terra. Being single, Samantha had no other reason to do anything else but to be consumed by her daughter and to feel the importance of being a “good” mother, a woman who had nothing else to do or prove but to work, finally making decent money and able to pay down debts and save for a new car in the coming year.
Christ, you act like Terra is still a toddler.
The ball at Times Square finally dropped. Big deal, thought Samantha. Another year. Same old crap. Another car commercial aiming at the millennials for having “Wi-Fi” in the car, and aiming at financial data, how one could get a new car for six months “no payments or interest.”
Though her eyes were heavy she did not want to go to bed yet. The merlot made her sleepy, but she needed to drink another glass of water to avoid a dreadful wine headache in the morning. When she poured her water, in between the window blind, Samantha saw two headlights beaming in the driveway. Jackson? She thought. They had brought Terra back before, around Halloween, to get antibiotics or Terra’s inhaler. But the car idled, and Samantha strained to see who it was. She walked to the front door, expecting to see the car backing out. Maybe just a driver turning around?
The car didn’t back out.
She opened the door and peeked and recognized that Chrysler; the lights went out inside the car and the door cracked opened, a beeping sound that the keys were still in the ignition.
“Hey?” bellowed a voice. “Samantha, whatcha up to?”
“Lonnie? What are you doing?”
“Sorry, got bored. Was in the area and thought I would drop by. You don’t mind?”
She furrowed her brow, an unconscious thing Samantha did when annoyed. She hated when people just showed up without calling. She looked a mess; she hated for him to see her like this, and she dreaded this awkward moment but now had no choice.
She had no choice but to invite him inside, at least for a little while. After all, it was a New Year and she could lighten up and not worry about it. But something felt off: Had Lonnie been drinking too much? His voice sounded slurry, and hurried.
“I was about to go to bed,” she said. “But I guess I can stay up a little later.”
“Thanks,” he said, and staggered to her porch. He opened his arms wide, as if expecting Samantha to do the same, lean in for a hug. A New Year’s kiss.
Instead, Samantha nodded her head for Lonnie to follow her inside.
“Got any pale ale?” Lonnie asked. “It’s all I’ve been drinking, but—”
“No beer,” said Samantha. “Just a little merlot left. You want any?”
“Sure,” he said, taking off his coat. “Wow, you changed it up since the last time I was over. You moved your sofa and chair around. The television. I like it.”
“Yes,” said Samantha. “Got tired of how it was arranged.”
She poured the remainder of the wine, emptied the very last drop into a glass and took it to him. She had a little left in hers.
“So, what’s up?” she asked. “Why didn’t you go to Bloomington?”
“Oh, nothing. Nothing serious. I can go visit them another time. Didn’t feel like driving that far, where there are probably those sobriety checkpoints.”
He raised his glass. Samantha did not have hers within arm length and stood up to grab it at the table.
“Belated cheers!” Lonnie said.
“Cheers!” she said. “Happy New Year!”
They sat beside each other, watching the TV flicker from commercial and back to a live band playing on the New Year’s Eve show from Times Square. Lonnie told her that his father wasn’t doing well. His father turned seventy-six, had recently been diagnosed with early stages of dementia. His mother, too, had fallen on some ice last week and though she didn’t break anything, had to go to the emergency room. Samantha was surprised about this, how Lonnie never discussed or said anything about his parents at work. Lonnie was always the chatty type about sports, or how politics in our country was eroding the very fabric of our democracy and capitalism. He mentioned Trump would have us in a big war in a few years.
As he leaned into her face, his lips puckering to hers, she sat her glass down. He pushed up against Samantha’s breasts. She took in a deep breath and let him fall into her, and she slowly kissed him but it was not what she wanted, she did not want to lead him on or have him on her. He reeked of beer, greasy potato chip or fish breath, and Lonnie’s mouth steamy on her wine-stained lips. His stubble of whiskers pricked into Samantha’s cheek and nose.
“Hey, I don’t think so, Lonnie,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t—”
He paused. He stared at her, his face flushed a pinkish red, as if being rejected another time surprised him. Even by Samantha-Clevenger Milton! He squeezed his hands. She did not know if Lonnie was trying to warm his fingers or what, his worn and leathery hands twisting into a fist. He licked his lips.
“What do you mean, Samantha? I drove over, ya know? I drove over to see you. I thought we had a connection. Ah, a certain kind of bond, a synergy about us?”
Synergy? What the?
She tried to wrap her tired head around that word for a moment, her wine-splattered brain.
“No, no,” she said. “I’m sorry if you mistook me as if I was interested in you, Lonnie. I mean, I like you, I have a good time at work with you, but I am not interested, you know, romantically?”
“That’s too bad. I think if you got to know me that I’m a good guy. A catch. I’m a good guy. What, you think a prince is going to swoop down from the heavens and rescue you, Samantha? At your age now? At thirty-seven?”
“Well, okay. Still…”
“Lonnie, I don’t think this is right. I think you should go.”
She cupped the palm of her hand to her neck, felt her pulse beat under her fingers. She felt wobbly, dizzy. Her eyes felt heavy, and Samantha could only think about slamming the front door after this man left her alone. Her breathing felt forced, and her fingers began to shake. Lonnie did not get up from her sofa, the live band on the TV continuing to play on, another R&B singer singing about hope and love, and Samantha did not know who this young singer was. Not Jennifer Lopez, not Fergie, or Lady Gaga… a new girl. There was always a new face in the music industry, she thought, hoping it would distract Lonnie and she could enjoy the remainder of the new year, and she hoped he would leave and forget this incident ever happened.
Then Lonnie got up and turned his head slightly, looking at Samantha as if finding a lost puzzle piece.
“Alight. Alrighty, Samantha. I’ll see you at work in a few days.”
She felt relieved. Lonnie walked toward the front door, but as he turned the doorknob about to go, he sprang back toward Samantha as if he meant to reach for his phone or grab something, but instead, tightened his fist and delivered a punch, a sudden swing to her face where Samantha stood at the entry of the kitchen and the living room, and why he had done this was not only shocking but criminal—his fist hardened like a piece of granite going into her jaw.
Samantha fell into the kitchen wall. Unconscious, briefly, and to comprehend what had happened made her groggy, seeing tiny stars in front of her eyes, thinking she had heard little Terra say “Happy New Year, Mommy! Happy New Year!” And she was almost back in time, briefly—to Jackson’s porch a few hours ago, giving her daughter a hug before she went inside the house.
It had to be broken. Samantha tried to open her mouth, and a stream of blood oozed from her lips, a rivulet of burgundy saliva as she tried to spit in the kitchen sink, tried to make sense of what just happened.
Did Lonnie really do that? Punch me? For respite of rejection?
He had left and was not in the house. She wobbled to the door, his car was gone from her driveway. Across the street, she heard her neighbors, a balloon popping, music playing from inside the house. The cold winter air felt good to her heated face, but it was not below freezing, and even quite warm for the first of January. She could not catch her breath, find her phone to call the police, and her hands began to shake.
Did she not want to call the police, on all evenings, to come over and file a report? But not an ordinary police report—an assault and battery report.
Jaw was broken, it had to be broken.
She did not dial 911, but instead, found the number to the local police department. Before she called she went to the bathroom and rinsed her mouth out again, and she could feel the crunch and gristle, something out of socket. She grabbed a towel and went back to the kitchen, grabbed Lonnie’s glass and threw it into the sink and watched part of it shatter. She pictured his drunken face in the shards of glass.
“Okay, Mam, we’ll send an officer right over. You need an ambulance?”
“No,” said Samantha. “Well, yes, I do.” Her words came out as if she were talking with her teeth together. “Yes, an ambulance. Only an ambulance. No police, please. My jaw, think it could be broken. It was an accident, I fell.”
She could not imagine this or anticipate she an event. She picked up her phone and called Jackson. What was it now, almost one-thirty in the morning?
“Hello?” said a familiar, loving voice. A voice that she had longed for right now. “Milton residence.”
“You’re still up?”
“I’m having fun. Happy New Year!”
Samantha could hear music in the background, people talking, and then Jackson must’ve seen that Terra had the phone.
“Hello?” he said in whispery, slurry voice.
“Hey. It’s me. Something is up. Something happened tonight. An incident.”
“What? I can’t understand what you are saying, Sam.”
She paused for a minute. She decided to let it go. She did not need to tell him. She was tired of telling him everything that she did or incidents that had happened. She let it go, and after all, they would all find out later, after their party, after all their fun and excitement had subsided, drifted off into the unpredictable winter morning.
“Oh,” said Jackson. “I think we will take Terra to see Brandy and Bash tomorrow. The gorillas. That okay? Sam?”
“Yes,” she said. As best she could at replying, holding her other hand to her jaw. “That’s fine. Goodnight.”
As soon as she hung up, she saw the pulsing-dotted flash of ambulance lights coming down the street. No sound of the siren was blaring, and she was glad it was off. She grabbed her purse and headed out the door. She was numbed and flustered, angry at what had happened, and she could see her hawkish neighbors transfixed by the moment of surprise at the ambulance, almost walking toward the edge of the road and wanting to ask questions. She could feel their eyes; she knew that she didn’t owe them an explanation, or anyone. She didn’t have to explain anything, and Samantha thought that she just might keep all of this to herself. She would be proud if she could, and there was no doubt that she couldn’t.