A short story by Karen Di Prima
My husband fiddled with the lid on my coffee mug. Asked did I have my phone. Remembered something he forgot to tell me. Started to speak but in mid-sentence, eighteen month-old Valentina shrieked bloody murder from her high chair. He scattered a fistful of Cheerios on the tray.
I turned toward the stairs. “Okay, well, I’m going up.”
“Wait!” He blurted the word with a desperation that startled me.
It was eight o’clock Monday morning, the first day of the second week of our new arrangement. Overnight, his sixty-plus-hour work weeks had come to a screeching halt. Courtesy of the quarantine, he had shuttered his business temporarily. He’d applied for unemployment compensation for the first time in his life.
Overnight, the pandemic had forced me to ramp up my part-time work-at-home freelancing business into a career that could help stave the wolves from the door. I’d become the sole breadwinner, a prospect that both exhilarated and terrified me.
He brandished a box of rigatoni. “I just wondered what do you feel like for dinner? There’s chicken, or we could do pasta?”
“I don’t care, honey. Whatever’s easiest.”
Vivienne stomped in from the other room, moaning, shoulders drawn up to her ears, arms dangling, projecting angst from every pore like only a six-year-old can. She threw her head back and through slitted, tear-less eyes wailed, “Moooommmmy! Mommy, mommy, mommy!”
Raindrops clinked against the kitchen window. No outside playtime today.
My husband ran his hands through his hair. “Mommy has to go to work, but Daddy’s here.” He pecked my cheek, glanced at the clock. I knew what he was thinking: seven hours, fifty-five minutes to go.
I leaned close, whispered, “You’re doing a phenomenal job! The kids love being with you.”
“I love it, too. But – well, you know.” He offered me a crooked smile. Poured Vivienne’s apple juice. Valentina screeched again.
I escaped upstairs to my new office, the formerly unused space in the laundry area on the second floor, eager to re-enter the land of grown-ups.
Late morning, I leaned back in my chair and stretched, then got up for a bathroom break. In the hallway, the girls’ laughter floated up to me, interspersed with the deeper rumble of my husband’s voice. A twinge of – envy? guilt? – dinged in my chest. I pictured Valentina giggling, a rosy blush over velvet cheeks. I crossed the landing, set my foot on the top step. Just five minutes, what harm would it do? Then I squared my shoulders, turned back. Closed the office door.
When I emerged hours later, the aroma of oregano and basil filled the stairs, bringing me back to Tuscany, our anniversary trip two years and a lifetime ago. Surely we’d return, like we’d promised each other, wouldn’t we?
In the kitchen, I was greeted with all the fanfare of the conquering warrior. Vivienne hurled herself at me. Valentina hugged my knees. I scooped her up and planted a kiss on Vivienne’s head. “Family hug!” my husband shouted, smiling, wrapping his arms around us all.
I said, “Cavalry’s here. You’re off duty, Soldier.”
He shook his head. “Nope! I’ve got this.”
He’d made the chicken for dinner. A delicious, but unfamiliar recipe. When I complimented him, he beamed. “Cooking channel,” he said, passing me the potatoes.
“Umm,” I said, digging my fork in. “I could get used to this, having dinner ready and waiting after a long, hard day.”
He wiped Valentina’s mouth. Wearily reminded Vivienne to eat her peas.
Our eyes met. We were thinking the same thing: this can’t last forever. Can it?
Karen DiPalma is a novelist and short story writer. Her work has appeared in Dream Noir, Flash Fiction Magazine, Rock and a Hard Place, Crack the Spine, the Broad River Review, Image OutWrite, and Our Happy Hours: LGBT Voices from the Gay Bars. She has written also for The Philadelphia Business Journal, The Philadelphia Lawyer, NJ Lifestyles Magazine, and others.