Spring 2013, Volume 14

Nonfiction by Jennifer Noel


Before I could make it to the far bank, where I wanted to rest, I’d first have to perform violence on my young daughters. It was time to tell them I was moving out. Falling in love with another man had torn me from myself and my marriage, though the man didn’t love me back. This split, I couldn’t stop. I could not protect my children. Finally, it would earthquake-crack right through the center of their lives.

My husband, Philip, and I had agreed that on Sunday he would come home from his office for lunch and we’d tell the girls then. It was up to me to usher them through the morning. I felt like a brittle seashell, rolled in the waves and sand too many times. The job of entertaining the girls seemed beyond my capabilities. We needed something to do that would occupy them and take the focus off me – my misery could be exposed by one careful, searching look by either of them.

So we went to the pet store. It was a favorite place of theirs, and had helped seven-year-old Helen with her fear of dogs. This was a puppy mill supporter, I was sure, but we couldn’t stay away. They had rabbits and ferrets and a huge cage full of parrots and finches, and beautiful fish tanks in a darkened corner of the store; the tanks were lit from within and filled with colorful, waving coral and unreal-looking fish.

The real draw, of course, was the puppies. About twenty-five cages lined a wall, stacked two high, each behind a rounded display window. There were representatives of dozens of breeds, including Chihuahua, Akita, dachshund and pug. I imagined the puppy mills where they came from, the huge rumbling trucks they were transported in, the confusion and noise and exhaust and strange hands. Looking at the newly-bathed, bright-eyed creatures, it was hard to believe they had traversed such a hellish passage. I tried not to think about the industry that allowed dog-mothers to live trapped, neglected, filthy, folded in on themselves, asked only to give birth and then see those babies taken from them.

We walked along slowly and exclaimed at the puppies. Some were two to a cage and slept on top of each other or played cheerfully. The singletons mostly sat watching people pass by. Lucy, at age four, needed me to pick her up for the high cages; sometimes we got lucky when a puppy would come to the glass to sniff at us, though our scents were blank to her wet nose. And then we could request to hold a one. The worker would bring out the chosen creature, hunched in her arms, and lead us to a stall consisting of four-foot walls and a door. Inside was a bench for Lucy to sit on while she gathered courage. Helen, now quite cured of her old fears, would kneel on the linoleum and watch as the animal bounced around, tail wagging, sniffing the floor, peeing. If we were lucky, we had one that wanted to get on Helen’s lap and lick at her face. “I want to pet him!” Lucy would pipe up, and then we helped her settle on the floor to receive the free affection. It awed me that in the midst of such an uncertain journey, these puppies were almost always sweetly willing to kick-up and play.

On this day we spent a long time there. I said yes to every request, and I kept on following the girls as they clomped in their boots down the row of cages to examine each one. They chattered with each other happily. There was a black stone in my gut, large, heavy, weighing me down. I would have liked to be pulled into the ground itself, like the Wicked Witch of the West when she melted.

Yet I still looked throughout the store for Mitchell, the man with whom I was infatuated. This was a habit that bothered me. I’d do a double take on my own behavior about once every few minutes, this zany hope that Mitchell would show up wherever I was. I looked for him along the streets during my walks, in the playing fields when I strode past baseball games in progress, in the grocery store, and I looked for his car as I drove through town to work. Would he appear at this pet store on a Sunday? No. But that skinny baby bird part of me – the one who asked of the steam shovel, “are you my mother?” – searched anyway.

Around 11:30 I told the girls it was time to leave, and they were ready. Helen said to Lucy, “When we get home you wanna get out all our dogs and play pet store?”


Which is what they did. As soon as they’d allowed me to feed them yogurt and apple slices, they bustled to the toy box in the living room and got to work. They owned an awesome assortment of stuffed dogs: some cheap and ripping, bought at the dollar store, some given as Christmas and birthday presents, some ancient ones saved and passed down from Grandma. Webkinz toys were the craze, and Helen had collected several breeds. Whenever a gift had to be chosen for them, a stuffed dog was the safest bet for a happy reception.

A few toys were kept upstairs in their toy box, but Philip never liked there to be a profusion of kid stuff in our living space. So we had crates filled in the basement, too, and every few weeks I would make a swap, carrying a bag back and forth up and down the basement stairs. The girls asked me to go with them now, to help open the plastic bins and find every last dog. It was dark down there; the overhead light didn’t work anymore. I used a flashlight to root around in the boxes, marveling at the teething toys, blocks, plastic food and play dishes, and many dolls — unearthing the short history of the girls’ lives. It was shocking to me that they didn’t remember some of them. The long sock monkey that used to hang in Helen’s bouncy seat, her companion when she was learning to bat at things, was brand new to her now.

“Blue!” Helen squealed joyfully when we uncovered the dog character from the show, Blues Clues. She smacked it to her chest. “Remember this, Lucy?”

“No, and I wanna hold him!”

“He’s mine. I got him for my birthday, right Mom?”

“Yes, he was a present for you. But you can share him with your sister.”

Lucy quietly deferred and turned back to the bin to keep looking.

Finally they had all the dogs. After several trips upstairs, they arranged a massive pile of them on the living room rug. Both were animated, thoroughly clicked-in to their play. I loved these moments, when I knew they would get along and keep each other busy for a good amount of time.

Except today I was going to have to interrupt them.

Philip walked in the door, his face clouded. He took off his coat and draped it over the newel post. Helen hopped up and ran over to him. “Daddy, we’re playing pet store! Lucy is the cashier for when people want to buy one. I’m the customer.”

She waited a couple of beats for his response, but he just nodded and said, “Uh huh.” She turned around to run back to the pile.

“We need you to take a little break from that, though, girls,” Philip said.

I sat on the couch and watched him as he moved to the chair and scooped the girls’ coats off of it. Then he sat down. His eyes met mine, briefly. Nausea swelled up through my body and I felt dizzy. I put my hands out on either side of myself, onto the couch.

“Yeah, we need to talk to you,” I said, hoping that speaking would cut through my horror.

I didn’t want to watch their faces switch from playing to concern. But I had to. They looked at us, both parents surrounding them and emanating Serious Business. Lucy went impassive. Helen went anxious.

“What?” she said.

I had hoped fervently that I would not cry, that I could breathe through this and just be strong for the girls. The notion of frightening them made me want to jump back in that wicked, witch hole and bury myself there.

Yet the tears appeared in an instant, and I even hiccupped a small sob. My face trembled. “I’m really sorry about this,” I said, panicking. I looked again at Philip, hoping for a helping hand, but he had his head down. He was waiting for the blow.

“Mommy?” Helen asked, alarmed.

“Well,” I went on, allowing tears to slide down my cheek, “we want to tell you about a new thing we’re doing. We got an apartment, and I’m going to start spending some time there. You will spend time there, too.”

“An apartment? Why?” Helen asked.

“Because I decided I needed, um — another place to be. A separate place. But I want you to come there, too, sometimes, and be with me.”

“Where is it?”

“It’s actually really nearby. You’ll see, we can walk there.”

“Can we go there right now? I want to see it.”

Philip spoke up. “Not right this minute, Honey.”

Helen looked at him, then back at me. “When did you do this?” she asked.

When did I do this? There would be no way to disguise the fact that I was doing it, not Philip. That I was the bad one.

“In the past week or so,” I said.

“But I don’t get it. How could you move away?”

This was the question that would stick in my mind the most. That burned the hottest. I had to jump to refute it.

“I’m not moving away from you. It’s going to be like a second place for you to live. You and Lucy will be there with me sometimes, and then you’ll come back here to be with Daddy.” I was ready to tell her the whole schedule that I’d worked out in my notebook, and I felt that eagerness building in my chest.

“Will Daddy stay at the apartment, too?”

“Probably not.”

“You don’t want to live here?”

I was a torture victim, poised to give up the whole story, but I held firm. “We’re just going to give this a try, okay?”

Helen continued to watch my face. Then she said, “When can we go see it?”


It was clear they needed to visit the apartment right away. Philip stood at a distance while I helped the girls with their coats and boots. I couldn’t look at him. A tide of excitement was rising in me. I knew the girls felt it, too: something new was happening. Now that they were a part of the project, I allowed myself a sliver of optimism.

“Mommy?” said Helen. “Can we take the dogs with us? They want to see the new place, too.”

“Yeah!” Lucy agreed.

I told them they could choose a few to keep at the apartment. I felt Philip’s eyes at my back while I held a plastic garbage bag open for the girls. They carefully sorted through the dogs, stopping to consult with each other about which ones they’d need. They filled the bag. Helen directed me to widen a small tear that was already present in the stretched-out bag, to make sure that the dogs could get air on their trip.

As we opened the door, Lucy turned toward Philip. “You coming, too, Daddy?”

I dared to look at him then, though I was afraid that in doing so I’d break some kind of spell. He might suddenly spew anger and danger, igniting an explosion of my utter wrongness right there in the foyer. Still, the girls were watching us, and I had to address him.

“Yeah, you should come,” I said. “You want to see it, right?”

Helen, ever vigilant, spoke up. “But I thought you and Daddy got the apartment together. Why hasn’t he seen it?”

Philip softened. “It’s okay, Honey. I just haven’t had a chance yet. Yes, I’ll go.”

It was a humid, cool mid-March afternoon. The sky was white; still-naked black branches passed over our heads as we walked through the slush. It could have been a leisurely family outing. Helen struggled with the bag and handed it to Philip, who took it unhappily. I felt the need to keep talking: “We’ll go to the end of this block, then turn left. And it’s only a couple of houses down that street. You’ll see, it’s close enough for you to ride your bike, Helen.”

I was proud to show them all how close it was to home. Almost like an annex to our real house, was how I thought of it. In the past days I had prepared the place in case the girls wanted to see it. I’d purchased two mattresses at Big Lots, stowed them in the station wagon — now solely Philip’s car — and hauled them into the girls new blue bedroom. I set them up on the floor, one on either side of the sunny window. They were still bare, but I knew the girls would have fun picking out bedspreads at Target. I put a package of Pepperidge Farms Orange Milanos in the kitchen cupboard. I hanged a shower curtain. A friend’s castoff couch and table were in the living/dining room, along with an inexpensive new area rug.

We walked in and I was again delighted with the space. I could not hide this from them, and the girls caught on. They instantly ran into the kitchen and back out. They asked where their bedroom was.

“Right here,” I said, leading them in. “Look how pretty it is with its blue walls — I gave you girls the biggest and brightest room.”

Helen exclaimed, “Lucy! We have new beds! I want this one,” and she rushed to the mattress on the right.

Lucy followed suit, saying, of course, that she wanted the other one. “Mommy, I wanna bounce on it.” She looked at me questioningly. Philip, standing just behind me now, would have said no. Too much commotion.

“Yes, if you both take off your boots you can bounce,” I said.


The proximity of the apartment was a great help, but finding the right bedroom for my daughters made everything possible. I remembered when I was eight months pregnant with Helen — Philip and I were forced to move from our beloved rented house in the suburbs. We looked at several apartments that made my heart sink. There was one that almost worked; Philip liked it and tried to jolly me. I looked around and around the place, considering, holding my hands protectively over my belly. There was something about the beige carpeting and the wiggly banister that concerned me. “I just can’t have my puppies here,” I told him. It was a deep mother-knowing that allowed me, then, to root out an acceptable home. The same was true now.

I grinned like a birthday kid as I watched them jump on their beds. The telling was over, and the girls had made it across the divide I’d been straddling. Having them with me, finally, soothed that wound better than anything else.

Then I remembered to turn around and look at Philip. He was leaning against the door frame. As soon as I met his eyes he said, “I’m gonna go, okay?”

“Oh. Right now?”

“Yeah.” He turned with purpose and strode through the living room toward the door. “Girls, I’ll see you back home,” he said over his shoulder.

The door made a loud chuffing sound when Philip pulled it closed. I watched his blurry figure through the door window. Then I looked back at the girls. Lucy was focusing on keeping her balance as she walked across the mattress in her tights. She appeared not to register Philip’s leaving. Helen glanced in the direction of the front door, then at me. I could see the anxiety in her face — Daddy was leaving us here?

“We’ll go back home a just a little bit, Honey,” I said.

“But I wanna sleep here. In my new bed.”

I hadn’t expected this. “You do?”

“Yeah. I want you and me and Lucy to stay here together tonight. Can we?”

I thought of how, in the past weeks and months, Helen had pricked her ears for anyone leaving the house. I would put her to bed at night, sing to her, rub her back. Then an hour later, if some unfamiliar sound happened to be knocking around, she’d appear on the stairs. “Who left?” she’d ask, her eyes wide with worry. She knew the split that was tearing me. She felt it, too.

I looked at Lucy, who had stopped to consider what Helen was proposing.

“Well, let’s think about it. And we’ll have to make sure it’s okay with Daddy.”

This satisfied them for the moment. They finished with their bouncing and then explored their closet and my bedroom. They exclaimed at the red walls in the bathroom. Lucy said she had to pee. Since the potty had been a difficult passage for her not long ago, her willingness to use this one seemed like a good sign. Then they were hungry, and I was able to magically produce cookies. They sat on the floor, quietly munching, taking in the new sights around them.

“Lucy,” Helen said through a mouthful, “you wanna set up our dog store game again?”

It was the first oxygen I had breathed in months. In a while we would go back to the house, eat an awkward, irritable dinner with Philip, and then stuff the car with pillows and comforters for the girls’ beds. I’d work to settle them here for the night; they would rev back up with questions. Why did you get this place? Why don’t you want to live in the house with Daddy? At 2:30 am I would wake to Lucy whimpering.

But for now I sat on the pilly couch while they set up the dogs on the floor. As I began to relax, I waited for the familiar tugging feeling in my solar plexus – that spot where I experienced the most intense surges of mother-love and mother-guilt. I waited to feel the two halves of myself pulling me apart.  But there was nothing but stillness.




BIO: I am a psychotherapist practicing in Maine, and I've been a writer of memoir, personal essays and fiction my whole life, but only recently have I begun to publish. My current project is a book–length memoir tentatively entitled: Let Me Rest in Your Lap — A Psychotherapist's Story of Infatuation.