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What Happens When You Stop Caring (A Life Without Betty)
It was one of those days, one-hundred degree days that slow a person down to the point of self-deprecation. Every bead of sweat was just another reminder of how unfit one was. “Jesus, it’s hot out,” she groaned. Normally, she would not dare curse, especially with her son nearby, but the fan was on. Boris skittered between the backyard and kitchen door, his shrill and broken laughter echoing off the steel siding of the house. Midge was alone. She pressed the spatula down on the grilled cheese sandwich, the smell of searing bread making her more nauseated than usual. It was weird to react this way to a food she had craved during her pregnancy. Having Boris had changed everything.
Midge tore the top off a cherry Kool-aid packet and pinched the pseudo-foil open. A thin, almost invisible spray of powder misted into the air. She dumped its contents into the etched-glass pitcher. It had once been reserved for iced tea, but over time, it became tie-dyed by the various juices that inhabited it. The pitcher was a wedding gift, but after so many years of abuse, Midge decided to pretend she had gotten it at a garage sale. “It was only a quarter,” she would say. After stirring, Midge absent-mindedly dragged the soaked wooden spoon across her white shirt. She watched in the pitcher’s reflection as a crimson, spotty line seeped its way through the fabric. She could’ve kicked herself. It was her last clean shirt.
Midge turned towards the fan sitting on the counter and weighed her options. The clinging shirt nagged at her profusely, and without another thought, she whipped it over her head. She then proceeded to lean on the counter, trying to breathe deeply. Through the window, she watched Boris swing outside. Even though he was alone, he continued to laugh. Midge could feel its staccato effect through the glass. Eventually the “ha-ha-ha’s” streamlined into the tempo of the fan. It created a calming, ticking noise, and soon Midge forgot where she was.
The sudden creaking of the screen door caught her off guard. She hurriedly covered herself with a dishtowel as she spun in the direction of the door. Emma stood there, scab ridden. She had what Sondra claimed to be severe allergies, but her skin appeared as if she suffered from a parasite. Midge had always been disgusted by the child; any impending hug from Emma was avoided like the plague itself. Midge bounced her eyes between the oozing patches on Emma’s face as she tried to pull her shirt back over her head.
Midge often thought of Emma and her family. She wondered how Sondra could let her daughter walk around, open sores exposed, and act as if it wasn’t a big deal. To Midge, it was a big deal, a great deal of lacking propriety. She could barely deal with what the doctors called “Boris’s physical spiritedness.” To Midge, the idea of a sick child was the fault of the parent. Fat children were fat because their parents fed them everything. Any future homosexual male was created by the allowance of dress up and Barbie dolls. “Your children are what you make them,” her mother had once said to a friend on the phone, “we all know what happens when you stop caring what other people think...” Those words stuck to Midge’s mind like a thumbtack to a wall. Yet the entire neighborhood of moms welcomed Sondra with open arms. Midge had only been invited to one party in the five years of living in the gated community of Briar Woods.
“Emma, what do you need?” Midge winced, hoping the child wouldn’t use her grubby hands to touch the door.
“Bo won’t stop cwwying.” Emma’s tongue hung limply out of her mouth while she talked. She proceeded to wipe the excess saliva across her face, and into her sores. Midge turned to look out the window. Boris was no longer on the swing set. She cautiously footed her way to the door, hoping with each step Emma would leap from the porch. She didn’t want to touch the girl. She would rather have chopped off a finger than touch that girl. Emma stayed put, her face glistening with spit.
“Go along...dear. Show me where Boris is,” she said gently while nudging the door open. Midge waited for her to jump off the porch and round the side of the house before deciding to follow her. Boris’s screaming surprised her at first. She quickly darted her eyes around to see if anyone was watching. “Bo! My darling.” She ran to him in the most dramatic way possible. Cradling him lovingly in her arms, she looked to the neighboring windows. Midge caught a glimpse of Mrs. Hink gandering from her kitchen. “There, there, let’s get you inside.” Boris’s screams echoed off the side of her head. He wormed around in her arms, screaming and pounding his clenched fists against her chest. She looked down at the red stain on her shirt and realized how stupid she must have looked. She imagined the Briar Woods’ Ladies Society sitting around Mary Fowler-White’s dining room table.
To Midge it was all too clear as to what would be said, “I watched the Dunway boy play for hours without parental supervision. Then Midge came running out aaafter he fell. You should’ve seen her shirt! That woman takes less care of herself than her child. Now that’s saying something right there!”
Midge tried to stand up but the oppression of heat tiltered her balance. She looked at Emma while she whispered into Boris’s ear, “If you don’t stop crying, Boris...” she drew a blank. She noticed Mrs. Hink step onto her front porch, squinting through her designer frames towards the noise thirty feet in front of her. “God damn it, Boris, they’re watching,” she whispered. His crying didn’t stop, so Midge took a deep breath and swung him up, purposely knocking Emma with Boris’s feet. Emma tottered to the side, but persistently followed behind them. Midge carried Boris through the kitchen door and slammed it shut with her foot. She watched as the light from the outside disappeared, along with Emma’s scabbed and gaunt face.
Midge laid Boris on his bed, gently petting his head as she looked out the bedroom windows. She quickly twisted the blinds shut and left the room. Boris continued to roll around on his bed, the shrieks more readily leaving his mouth with each passing minute. Midge hustled to the kitchen and opened the cabinet above the sink. What used to hold expensive liquor and shot glasses, now held rows and rows of Nyquil cough syrup. She grabbed an unopened bottle and poured half of it into a “Thomas the Train Engine” cup. Midge, for the longest time, had associated the smell and color of cough syrup with blood. The sight of it on this hot day made her sway. She poured grape juice over the top of it and stirred without looking. She twisted the spill proof lid onto the cup, and clutched it to her chest as she walked down the hall. Upon entering his room, Midge locked eyes with her son. She was convinced he was screaming because he knew the neighbors would talk. “Bo, Bo-ris, I need you to drink this,” she said as she held up her son’s favorite cup. His eyes glazed over with fear. The screams became fiercer as Midge pinned down his shoulders, forcing the cup to his lips. “Drink,” she said. The syrup wouldn’t pass through the spill proof cup; it wasn’t as diluted as the previous times. Midge climbed onto Boris’s bed and wrangled her legs around his body. She tried to cover his mouth with one hand while unscrewing the lid with the other. A noise similar to a balloon filling with air escaped Boris’s mouth. He choked and sputtered as Midge forced the concoction down his throat. She set the cup on the nightstand and used both her arms to hold him tightly next to her body. The squeals faded into whimpers, and after ten minutes he stopped moving altogether.
Midge loosened her grip and let Boris fall slackly over her legs. An overcoming sense of peace filled her; the neighbors wouldn’t talk. She stood over her son and stared at his face. The other attempts had left his face pinched, the sign of struggle evident around his mouth and eyes; but this time he looked normal, as if he had fallen into slumber after a long, tiring day. Boris looked so much like his father. The dopey, sagging face paired with an overwhelming paleness made him the spitting image of Bill. Except for the eyes, his murky hazel eyes were hers.
Midge grabbed the hem of her shirt and leaned down to rub the excess syrup off his lips. For a second, she doubted herself. Her mind raced, “It’s so hot out. What if he doesn’t wake up? Relax, Midge, reelaaaax. What if Bill finds out?” She pressed her shirt against his lips, causing his head to flop to the side. “I need to stop this, Bill can’t find out. What will the neighbors say? God, relax, Midge. What would my family say?” Midge took the last clean spot on the front of her shirt and wiped the sweat of her face. She had never gotten so worked up about this before, but the look in Boris’s eyes seemed to stay with her.
Midge paced the ten foot expanse of the hallway before she came to her senses. “What’s done is done,” she sighed, but in the back of her mind an incessant fear clung to her. She noticed upon entering the kitchen that cough syrup had dripped its way down the cabinets. Random spots of it led a path to Boris’s room. Midge felt a sickness, an unhealthy, almost shaking feeling enter her body. There was so much to do, an enormous amount of evidence to hide. She went to her room and put on an old t-shirt of Bill’s before going back to Boris’s room. Midge smoothed the sheets on his bed and tucked a stuffed animal into the crook of his arm. He looked unharmed, maybe even happy. Midge grabbed the cup on his nightstand and quickly began the ritual of cleansing. She washed everything, trying desperately to baptize the house. The sickness created by what she had done seemed to eat away at everything she touched. Midge madly scrubbed the kitchen floors, grinding her knuckles against the slate tiles. She tried to pretend she was washing the floor because it was her role as a loving wife. Their son was next door, playing with Derek Hink. Her husband loved her. Her husband was coming home early to spend time with her, so she was scrubbing the floor.
The sunlight was beginning to turn pink and somber as it always seemed to when Bill came home. Midge tried to keep herself busy. Whispering to herself, “Tomatoes. Yes. Tomatoes. BLTs.” She opened the fridge, “I cleaned all day. Boris? He just got tuckered out. He played all day with Derek. BLTs for dinner? Good.” Her heart stopped upon hearing the front door open.
“Midge,” Bill said in his flat voice. His heavy footsteps shook the house.
“BLTs. He played all day with Derek. Yes, the Hink’s son.” When Bill stood in the doorway, Midge took a deep breath. She couldn’t help but stare at him. The shirt he was wearing was tearing at the seams, much like the laugh lines around his eyes. Bill had once been a funny man, in her opinion. His attempts at laughter now were only depicted by what shirt he was wearing. Today’s shirt had Johannes Brahms on it, the phrase “Brahms the word” printed across the chest. After six years of marriage, Midge had decided she was young and stupid when she met him. “Starved for attention,” is what her mother had told the family, “young, restless and starved for attention.” Bill was her Russian Literature professor, and everything he said was brilliant. To be held in his good graces and bear-like arms was a prize sought after by most of the girls in his class. He was never good looking, but for some reason, the girls fawned over him. His balding head and glasses made him an adorable father figure.
“Bill! B... B-Ts,” she choked in her nervousness, “Boris is fine.” Bill looked at his young wife. She looked so worn, nothing like the perky student she used to be.
“Boris? Why shouldn’t he be?” Bill looked around the kitchen and slowly turned his attention to the table. “Did he not eat his lunch?”
“What? Oh. No, he didn’t. I forgot to clean that up. He. He, uh, played with Derek all day.” Midge took tomatoes out of the fridge and laid them on the cutting board. “BLTs ok?”
“Fine.” Bill watched as Midge began to wash and slice the tomatoes. Her face was abnormally red, almost swollen, as if she had been crying. “What’s going on Midge?” Bill looked at her eyes. Their murky and indefinable color used to be mysterious. Now, they seemed troubled. Her eyes were unreadable.
“Nothing. Everything’s fine.” He slowly diverted his gaze to the cabinet above the sink. Everything seemed to stop for a second.
“Midge,” he whispered as he stepped towards the cabinet.
He had been suspicious before. Last Tuesday he came home during lunch to surprise Boris. He’d noticed the cough syrup was out on the counter. When he asked Midge if Boris was sick, she became flustered, “I need to take a shower,” she said as she abandoned him in the kitchen.
Midge struggled to breathe as she watched her husband come towards her. The hot, stagnant air blanketed a heavy silence over the kitchen. Midge turned her back to Bill and hunched over the cutting board. The blade glimmered so quickly that it seemed invisible as it sped downward. The deadening thud of it entering the cutting board stopped Bill in his tracks. Midge kept perfectly still and glanced down to the tomatoes. Blood pooled around the halved ring finger of her left hand. It welled up under the slices. She couldn’t help but smile. “He’ll have no choice but to save me,” she thought. He grabbed Midge by the shoulders and swung her around. She was wearing one of his old Simon and Garfunkel concert shirts. Those were good times; he had been dating a great woman named Betty. Midge held her hand up and began to whimper. Her wedding ring held on by threads of skin. “Betty would’ve made a terrific wife,” he thought to himself, “she would’ve been a terrific mother.”