Years earlier, Margaret first imagined her escape. It started as a daydream, something she would think about when she kissed Jeff on his way out the door to the airport or when Sarah stayed late to work on the school newspaper. Most times the impulse to leave arrived just after lunch, when the beds had all been made and the supper planned out. Margaret would sit at the kitchen table, eating a sandwich on whole-wheat toast, and she would dream about being someone different. What if she were not a mother? What if she were single? What if she spent her days at a ski lodge or in a department store or on a boat that sailed around the Caribbean islands?
Margaret was not regretful; she had made the most of her choices. But from time to time she would look up from washing her face early in the morning, soapy water dripping off her chin, and she would find herself wishing for different truths. This feeling emerged more regularly and the dangerous rumblings of deep-seated unhappiness never failed to grow louder each time.
From the beginning, Jeff had proven himself a dependable partner. He rescued her from the small town where she was waitressing after graduation and moved her to New York State. She went from living in her parent's cramped house to what seemed like a palace, large and open and bright. It had been Margaret who suggested staying home to care for their new house. She loved the possibilities for all the rooms that needed decorating and painting. She loved trying out new recipes in their brand new kitchen and felt, at some moments, as though she would be happy to spend a lifetime perfecting their living spaces. True, she had been a bit lonely, but Jeff worked regular hours and anyway, she was pregnant within a year.
Her pregnancy came without warning. Suddenly, a missed period. Margaret was excited to shift her focus from the kitchen to the nursery. When she was born, Sarah was a light sleeper and Margaret took to sleeping in the guest room so she could wake up and rock her at a moment's notice. For two years, Margaret never slept more than an hour or two at a time. As sporadic as Sarah's sleeping schedule was, Margaret adjusted to it. Soon she was napping twice a day alongside her daughter and falling asleep just after dinner.
Though Sarah was bright and independent enough to go to full-day Preschool, Margaret held her back. They had been trying for a second child without much luck and Margaret could not imagine an empty house for half the day. Not yet. Sarah would have to be in Kindergarten for the full day and Margaret knew they would have a second child by then.
But Margaret was never pregnant again. And as Sarah passed through Elementary School, Margaret spun her wheels, redecorating the house for every season and only relaxing when the three of them were finally back together around the kitchen table for dinner. She had been out of work for ten years and though she thought about finding work outside their home, she couldn't imagine what type of job she could look for. All of the men took trains to the city in the morning and many of the women too. Once she thought about applying for a sales position at their favorite bakery, but it seemed like the kind of thing people would hear about and pity her for so she stopped thinking about it.
Sarah brought home essays and art projects; Jeff got raises and went on business trips. Margaret bought replacement soap for the dispenser in the powder room. They watched couple after couple from their church divorce tear apart the families and lives they'd worked so hard to landscape. She did not want this.
Instead, Margaret wanted "after." “After” was a powerful word that she liked to whisper to herself while she was driving. It signified that she was merely living a period of her life, that it would, at some point, come to an end. "After" was both necessary and impossible, a chance that her current life would someday expire and an opportunity to slip quietly and confidently into another adventure. She had tried to leave several times, but it wasn't until that spring afternoon just before her 50th birthday that she looked herself in the mirror and decided it was worth trying again. It took her less than an hour to pack a suitcase full of clothes and leave Jeff a note. Then, she was off.
I love my dad, but he depended on my mom so much that her leaving left him totally helpless. I decided to take a few days off of work that first week. He told his office that he had a family emergency without giving many details; I couldn't imagine leaving him there to wring his hands and wait for her alone.
"Dad, what's this huge mess on the dining room table?" I called. There was a pile of mail: alumni magazines and donation receipts and bills that had been paid but not filed.
He walked over to stand next to me and sighed. "I guess I should go through it, huh?"
"I mean, we might as well," I said. "Why don't you sit here and make some piles and I'll grab the recycling bin so you can just throw stuff in there that you don't want anymore."
He set himself up and started sorting. As I went to get the bin from the kitchen, it occurred to me that we were doing the things you do when someone dies. When my grandma died a few years earlier, my dad and his siblings had to go through her house and get rid of everything. There was so much clutter, unopened boxes of pasta bought in bulk from Costco, extra bags of birdseed on the porch and towers of half-read books on her nightstand. Suddenly the entire order of my grandparents' home was meaningless. Bookmarks were removed so that the books could be sold, wiped clean, their unread pages blending into what had been read in the quiet moments before sleep. The boxes of pasta were redistributed to the siblings that lived closest, though no one could really imagine eating the spaghetti that had been intended for their mother's consumption. It felt like we were undoing a life, room by room, piece by piece.
I brought my dad the recycling bin and left him to his work. I tried to go through the pantry and figure out what food we needed at the store. This was not a task that my dad was capable of. Every evening around six o'clock my dad would say "hey I'm getting kind of hungry" and I'd get out Mom's red and white cookbook and we'd flip the pages until something sounded good. Then we'd hit up the A&P and figure out how to make it. I'm not saying those were good or balanced meals. One night we had mashed potatoes and another night we had pancakes and another night we had some fancy salmon just to try it. And even though it wasn't her food, it was edible and it felt like fighting back.
I only let myself get upset after he went to bed. I didn't know what to think. It felt like being lost, like the woman who had given birth to you suddenly started hating you. And like your dad knew something about it that he wasn't sharing. It hurt in a weird way, like an insult, like she had been unhappy all this time and finally saved up the strength to leave us, her burdens.
Where was my mother? And was she coming home? Everything we did was in the shadow of the answer to that question. Either we were cleaning up things around the house so that she'd be pleased when she got back or we were evolving into what our home would be from now on. I hated that we couldn't put a solid foot in any direction. But anytime I brought up calling the police, my dad refused.
The thing is, I almost respected her for pulling it off. I can't believe she had it in her—my mom who stayed home to raise me and decorated the house for every season and whose favorite dish was angel hair pasta with sauce. It was just unbelievable, almost like a coincidence. It felt like it might have happened the same way somewhere else on some other planet.
From time to time, I looked through my mom's old emails to see if she had left warning clues, but there was nothing that stood out, nothing that suggested why this time was different. Even after I went back to the city, I tried calling her phone; it went to voicemail every time until the number was disconnected a few months later. Emails we sent eventually bounced back and even though I googled her name and license plate all the time, nothing ever came up. She really had disappeared.
I often wonder where she is, how far she got, what she's living on. Maybe she's tried sushi by now. Maybe she's got some boyfriend and a job and a condo somewhere. I started a blog a few months after she went missing and I think of her when I look at the analytics. Is she the reader from Colorado? The one in Florida? One of the dozens that make up the blob representing the city? It comforts me to know that she might be out there, reading about my life, looking at photos of me and Dad on Father's Day or my new boyfriend.
Sometimes I'm still mad, but mostly I'm curious about how far she got. I really am.
Jennifer Epting lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is a director at Arc90, a web design and development firm in midtown. She holds an M.A. in French literature from Middlebury College and a B.A. in English and French from Muhlenberg College. This is her first fiction publication, though she writes on her blog almost daily.
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