By the third time my brother was arrested, we were experts at posting bail. I was up late reading David Copperfield again and answered the phone. “We’ll be by soon,” I told Jono, then I finished the chapter and woke mum, who muttered beneath her breath, “Fuck me.” While she dressed, I bundled Aryana into a blanket, though it was a warm night and in the back seat of the car her skinny limbs quickly kicked free, pale in the sodium glow of the street lights. I was a careful driver, the needle hovering on the speed limit, and Mum fixed her makeup on the ride. Ever since she’d turned forty, she’d grown vain.
At the station, we marched straight to an Officer Keegan at the front desk. “Robbed a dairy,” Keegan said, glancing quickly at my loose breasts as though they were to blame. Not that if Jono tossed any of his proceeds my way, I’d spend the cash on lingerie. I hadn’t exactly planned on rocking across town bra-less and in my pajama pants, anyway. I jiggled my boobs and Keegan’s ears flushed red.
“Crap, I’m short,” mum said, searching through her wallet for cash.
“Don’t look at me.” My arms were full with Ary, who at seven weighed heavy on my hip. “Officer, could you…” I pouted.
“Fine. We’ll just take the $500.” Keegan had seen this act before.
Mum thanked him extravagantly even so when Jono arrived.
“Why aren’t we sleeping?” Ary asked as I snapped her into the car seat.
“Your uncle got lost,” I said. Jono smiled sheepishly at her and she cast him a peeled look.
In the greasy half-light on our way home, Mum hummed until I told her to shut up. I did not want to know the name of the booking clerk. I did not want to lie to my child. I did not want to feel proud that I could bail my brother from jail in ninety minutes flat.
I called my boyfriend, Tim. “You’re right,” I said. “It’s time we moved in.”
Mum wasn’t enamored with my plan. “This house isn’t good enough for you?” she said.
“Ary, teeth brushed now!” I called down the hall. Then I swallowed back the last of the powdered coffee. “Onehunga’s no St. Helier’s.”
She stubbed out her cigarette. “You reckon you can afford St. Helier’s rent? How’re you going to eat?” The single mother’s benefit I received was fine for the edges of the city, clogged with panel-beating shops and bottling factories. But even with my work at the Historical Society, my pay wouldn’t stretch to a flash postal code.
“Tim’ll chip in.”
“Tim doesn’t work.” Mum tossed the dirty dishes in the sink for later.
“Honors. You know that’s not even a degree?”
“Ary!” I could hear the cars already on the highway. We were late. “I don’t want to haul my daughter back and forth to jail. I don’t want her hanging around the same type of kids who knocked me up at sixteen. The type of boys who convinced dumb nuts over there to rob a dairy. No offense, Jono.”
“None taken.” He grinned, lifting the blanket he’d thrown over his head to keep out the bright, morning light. “I want her to go to school with posh children, who read books for nine not five-year-olds. I want her to think she’s good enough to have the same dreams as them.” Mum leaned against the counter and sneered. “Love, that wasn’t what held you back. Thighs as wide as your smile.”
Mum was right. I’d never struggled to dream. I’d dreamed my way beneath a beautiful boy, who understood juvenile detention, not the world. Then after he dumped me for growing fat with our baby, I’d dreamed my way through school certificate and several papers on New Zealand history at university. Lately, I’d dreamed me and Ary into Tim’s house, where they had wine every night from bottles not a box. Tim’s mum didn’t like me, but his step-dad didn’t mind looking down 99 my crop-tops and he paid for half our love shack, so. He even crawled on his knees to help me scrub clear the new apartment’s mold, while Ary helped Tim stencil Parisian landscapes on our walls.
“What’s for tea?” Tim hugged me from behind that first night as I searched the uninspiring contents of the fridge. Most of my money had gone to first and last month’s rent.
“It’s time we were vegetarians,” I declared.
“What’s a vegetarian?” Ary asked.
“Vegetarians don’t eat meat because they believe we shouldn’t kill animals. They believe all creatures deserve to live and not just as slaves to our appetites. Anyway, spaghetti and meatballs for dinner then?”
“Just spaghetti, I guess,” Ary sighed. This just one more sacrifice she had to make for me. She was turning into a regular martyr.
“And you, comrade?” I said. “Ready to throw over the exploitation of nature?” We had met in a paper on Marx when Tim was a soft-cheeked first year. He had since grown a lush beard that he thought distracted from his receding hairline. I did not tell him it did not; I thought he was magnificent. And he did not tell me that he thought the art I’d bought looked cheap, that he’d been to Paris and the city looked nothing like they’d drawn. From the small kitchen, you could hear cicadas murmuring. I loved our home.
I sent Aryana to the first day of school in a second-hand uniform two sizes too large. Tim’s mum armed her with a Faber Castell set.
“Your sister?” a mother asked on the asphalt outside the classroom. Most of their lot were mum’s age.
“Daughter,” I said cheerfully, as though I didn’t care that they stared at my deep V-neck. I hadn’t received the memo that we were supposed to wear yoga clothes.
“Some of us are going out for coffee,” a downy-faced woman said with a smile. “Want to join?”
“Work calls,” I apologized. “The Historical Society.” I didn’t mention this was the one with fake villages and that my job consisted of entertaining throngs of sticky-fingered kids before they trashed the exhibits.
Still, I was pleased with the school. The parents of Aryana’s friends were doctors and lawyers and their trips were to foreign countries Ary could find on our Salvation Army globe—not police precincts. When I visited Jono, who had been sentenced to a year in prison, I didn’t take her along. She had a mouth on her, you see. Ary was now a proud vegetarian and had incited a small insurrection against meat amongst the girls in her class, while I still salivated at the smell of bacon wafting from cafés. Anyway, the teachers at St. Helier’s believed in exposing their charges to culture—and not through field trips to our cheap village replica, sinking in the mud. They went to museums, the symphony, ballet.
Ary returned determined to be a pink-tutu, pointe-shoe wearing ballerina one day.
“All the other girls go to dance class,” Ary said. “There’s a studio in Mission Bay.”
“I bet there is,” I said, thinking how much that would cost. I set aside Dickens, which I shouldn’t have been reading given my pile of university books. “Sweetie. Some things just aren’t for us.”
She did not argue, but she hid in her room. “Ballet,” I laughed to Tim, trying to make light of the sick feeling in my stomach. “How bourgeois.” When I brought her mashed potatoes for dinner, she was already asleep, the pretty Faber Castell pencils scattered across her room, all broken in half.
But who was I to tell my daughter what future she was allowed? Why shouldn’t she have the same chances as other girls? Instead of finishing my midterm essay for class I stayed up all night devising financial models that would allow Ary to dance. In the milky morning light, it seemed sensible to delay registering the car. I’d never once been pulled over by the cops and I still hadn’t fixed the rust under the front seats, so they’d probably fail me on my Warrant of Fitness, anyhow.
On my way home from work, I stopped at the studio. A Miss Restieux handed me a list of items Ary would need. “She’s only seven. She’ll grow out of the clothes in days,” I said. “Please.”
Miss Restieux sighed and led me along the polished, hardwood halls to a storage closet filled with hand-me-downs that still weren’t cheap. But they were beautiful. Exquisite spandex leotards in navy and peach, suede lined ballet slippers with ribbons of silk. I could imagine Ary in matching stockings, a satin bow in her hair. So I hardly felt a twang of pain when I pulled out the cash. I practically flung the money at the woman. Here, take my dollars, my registration, my rent, my plan to travel overseas on a holiday one day. Take it all. I survive on air.
“First St. Helier’s, now ballet.” Mum dunked her tea bag in her cup of hot water again. “What’s next?”
I scrounged in her fridge for leftovers and used my fingers to tear into a supermarket roast chicken. By this time, if I saw a cow I’d have murdered it with my bare hands. “At least her friend’s siblings aren’t taking drugs. They’re taking lessons in the trombone.”
“And how are you going to afford a trombone?” Good question. I had slipped out of the library that afternoon with several books without swiping my card.
“I’m getting a promotion.” This was not exactly a lie. My supervisor was retiring and who else knew the program so well? I could slide behind her desk and hire a new girl to dress up in itchy clothes. “So I’ll need you to take her to class twice a week. I don’t get off work in time.” Mum opened a window to smoke and rain splattered on the carpet. “What are you doing alone in this house anyway?” I said and grabbed my keys, “Oh, and try to dress a little less tarty. I don’t want Ary teased.” I slammed the door before she could throw her mug at me.
I arrived early to pick Aryana up from her first ballet class, excited to see her pirouette in her new pink costume.
“Just so you know,” a mother leaned in to whisper to me. “I had to give Aryana some of Jillian’s snacks because she didn’t have any. She’s not allergic to anything is she?”
“Snacks?” I said. I’d packed her a sandwich for lunch.
The pudding-faced mother came to my aid, “She must have eaten her afternoon tea at school.” I nodded, vigorously, but the other mothers pursed their lips and sniffed. Probably to check if I had alcohol on my breath. If only. That’s what their lot thought, though: there was no reason for children to go hungry when the government had welfare programs. Everyone had money to survive. They envisioned flash cars and drugs and booze—mums taking advantage of their uteruses for cocktails.
Ary did not notice the wood pigeons shaking loose from the trees or the children licking popsicles by the fountain beside the beach. She walked to the car carefully, toe first, as she’d learned. She refused to wash the smiley stamp she’d received from her hand.
“Well, she’s no Baryshnikov,” mum said when I called.
“Baryshnikov was a dude,” I said, juggling the saucepan, my book, and a packet of rice. “The other girls have been doing this since they were four.” Ary practiced for Tim in the living room, though Tim barely looked up from his Bruno Latour.
“Love, you’re not eating right. You need a new car. You don’t need Ary prancing around in tutus.”
“Shit.” I’d burnt the garlic. I turned down the electric element and flipped the page. “You sound like the mums there. They’re giving me hell about Ary not having snacks. Eyed my damn cell phone as though I starved the kid for that piece of junk.”
Mum took a long drag on her cigarette. Over the line, car doors slammed. “Fucking cunts.”
I didn’t expect the call then from the mother who was beginning to remind me of cream that had been whipped too long. “Jen,” she said. “Kerri’s mum.” She wanted to ask if I could look after Kerri the following day. “I need to see my doctor. My therapist. I’m going to a therapist. You understand?” I didn’t. There was nothing wrong with my life, thanks. I’d received an A on my last assignment and Tim had painted the living room. Still, I asked work for the afternoon off so I could walk the kids home from school.
At the flat, Kerri dumped her backpack by the door and sat at the table, expecting to be fed. Her mother in the making, I thought, uncharitably, because I had an empty pantry.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said. It was not. It was autumn and that morning there’d been frost on the grass. “Let’s explore. I thought I saw the ruins of an old Maori garden down at the reserve—with kumara beds!”
Tim raised an eyebrow but joined us climbing trees in the purple afternoon light. Then we stumbled on a playground with a flying fox and tire swing. We rocked back and forth until the cold metal burned our hands.
“I’m hungry,” Kerri said finally as we followed home the wooden posts bearing the city’s power lines.
“Chips?” I said. They were only a dollar a scoop at the dairy and I wouldn’t need to bother with dinner then. The kids screamed with joy. Tim would cook his own organic seitan later.
When Jen arrived, Kerri pleaded to return the next day. I pushed the books I’d borrowed from the library further in my bag.
Ary and I had curled up beneath her duvet on the couch and were watching a TV we’d bought from the Sallies when Tim came home the next day. We’d adjusted the bunnie ears as best we could and only sometimes had to raise our legs at a 45 degree angle to get signal again.
“Can I talk to you alone?” Tim asked. No, I supposed, was not a suitable answer.
In the bedroom, I considered my options. I could be aloof—say sayonara, adios, good day. Me and my girl were just fine alone, okay? No need to drag a man through our lives. But I wanted to yell. I wanted to scream and tear the house down because you couldn’t pack off after signing a year’s lease, after two damn years of love, after my daughter started calling you Dad.
But I curled on his lap and nibbled his earlobe and asked instead, What’s the matter, babe? You know I need you, right? Tim did not settle his thumb in the waistband of my pants. He kissed me back sorry-mouthed then sighed.
So I sunk to my knees before he could speak and hoped like hell the door was locked and Ary wouldn’t see me beg. Wouldn’t see me go down on him, that is. Tim clutched the office chair arms, not my head, not my hands, which he could have lifted up, up from the cold floor, but did not. He moaned as though he were in pain.
After I was done, I wiped my mouth. Tim did not move from his seat, even to cover his soft cock. He stared at the ceiling. “I’m sorry,” he said.
He’d found someone else was what he meant. Someone who didn’t have a seven-year-old listening through every door. I gargled and spat out the Listerine and felt like a shoddy whore. Which stung. You might as well be good at what you do.
When Tim left, taking his books—and a few of mine I’d planned to return one day—I stayed in bed. Ary brought me a cup of tea she set on the nightstand. “You okay?” I turned away. I knew it wasn’t her fault I was alone again. Still.
At work the next day, I dressed in heavy gray skirts and wrapped a shawl around my shoulders. Then I marched between rows of children seated by dry ink wells and ignored how they shivered in the chill. The school room was drafty with gaps in the wood.
When I wiped the penciled-in wrinkles from my face later, the Director, who I suspected had only hired me because I wore short skirts, called me into her office. She wanted to discuss the open position. Only I’d forgotten everything Tim and I had planned I’d say. I mumbled something about the role, my interest, opportunity. “I need this,” I said.
I drove directly home that afternoon, only afterwards remembering that I had to pick Ary up from ballet. So I hauled the car around and charged to Mission Bay, where I double parked illegally.
“Where are your shoes?” I asked Ary, who had already pulled on her backpack. She shrugged. “Where did you put your shoes?” She thrust out her father’s chin. Before she could turn away, I dropped to my knees and grabbed her shoulders so I looked her in the eye. “I paid good money for those shoes, Ary. I worked for them. If you’re going to be careless, you’ll go barefoot.”
Then I walked to the car beneath the heavy clouds just beginning to spark. Ary followed, her bottom lip trembling.
The mothers looked at me as though I were a monster.
At the supermarket we marched through the aisles. With every can I picked from the shelves, I tasted metal on my tongue. “Jillian had a Kinder Surprise today. There was a dog inside,” Ary said.
I didn’t want to move back to Onehunga just because Tim had left. Sure, Aryana hadn’t realized what she lacked there, but that only displayed a fatal want of ambition I did not care to encourage. Besides, she was doing well in school. “And Chloe had mallowpuffs.”
I’d find a smaller place in St. Helier’s. We could share a room. It wasn’t as though I would have a love life now with a child who was old enough she wanted to be heard. Twenty-three and doomed to eleven years of celibacy. My loins ached.
I lay the peanut butter and bread and milk and eggs on the conveyer belt and tracked the prices on the screen, my mouth tightening. “Fifty-three dollars,” the cashier said, raising her voice over the sound of rain on the corrugated roof.
“You couldn’t make it forty-five?” The woman behind me sighed and the skin on my cheeks pricked. “No need for the apples and Mars bar then.”
“I just thought…” Ary said. “It’s your favorite sweet.” Then she slipped her small hand into mine. “I’m sorry, mum. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
But it was not her fault that strangers should eye my groceries as though I did not deserve these things, as though I should subsist on sunlight and oxygen. Never mind that I hadn’t bought the name brand toilet paper, the olive oil, or that I’d never tasted the pink flesh of smoked salmon once. The woman threw the glossy magazine she’d been paging through on the conveyer belt beside her six-bottle-special wine.
I paid for the lot with a credit card I should have canceled years ago.
“You want a milkshake, Ary? Order one. Order anything you want.” I veered the cart into a stand.
Ary’s eyes gleamed. She ordered the largest chocolate sundae with extra fudge topping and I had a latte in a cup the size of a bowl. Ary babbled about dancing and friends while she smeared the chocolate across her face and insisted on reciting her times tables. And I marveled at how perfect my daughter was. Shoppers weaved around our plastic tables, ignoring us, as though we, like them, belonged there.
When I told my mum that Tim had left, she did not say I told you so. She brought fish fingers around for tea—and a box of wine for me. “What about being vegetarian?” Ary whispered.
“Sometimes you have to put your principles aside to be polite,” I said. Ary nodded serious. Her belly growled at the smell of the baked breading.
Then she returned to the living room to show her grandmother the newest dance they’d learned in class, which included a chassé and demi-plié. “All right, Nana. It’s your turn.”
“Come on, girlie.” Mum insisted I join in, too. So we skipped and twirled, with Ary directing us and patting our behinds, which had to be pulled in, our spines straight, chins up, shoulders back. “Ladies!” she cried, like a miniature Miss Restieux. We had to hold a smile between our forefinger and thumb. “Anyone’s smile?” I asked, with mismatched gaps between my hands, as though I were playing the castanets. “Mu-um!” Ary cried.
“Ary’s looking good,” Mum said as we washed dishes later. The kitchen window overlooked council property and strelitzias had raised their bright orange heads above the thick green ferns. “Not like that Kerri. Poor thing’s all slapping feet, like she’s trying to play drums.”
We laughed and knocked back our wine and cheered when Ary showed us her routine again.
Aryana had learned the dance for a competition. An esteiddfod that had cash prizes. “I could buy shoes,” she said, sly. Not that she cared about money. Ary wanted the trophy—her name engraved on a silver plaque that other girls would covet forever and ever amen. “How long do you think it takes to carve the name?” She was desperate with wanting.
I was made desperate at the entrance fees. We’d found a smaller flat—a studio—in the backyard of a house by pleading with Tim’s stepdad to ask around. It had a bathroom, fridge, stove, walls for Ary to decorate, this time without the help of stencils and Tim. We could fit twin beds side by side. At the Salvation Army, I picked up a screen to separate our sleeping quarters from the living room. The Japanese designs on the paper leant the room a bohemian air. This was my excuse for not connecting the electricity. It was romantic living by candlelight. And with the saved money, Ary could dance with the other girls. She built small sculptures from the wax and lined the beasts beside my growing library collection along our windowsill. We showered at the public pools.
At work, I dressed as a posh lady in a fancy silk dress I found in the costume cupboard. I pinned dried flowers to the bonnet and wore white kid gloves and no one could see my bit-down broken nails. The Director approved of the change.
“We’d like to offer you the job. You’ll start in a month, when Maureen leaves. But she’ll start training you now.”
I treated myself and left work early to watch Ary at ballet. The girls ran diagonally across the room, leaping in an approximation of a jeté—except Kerri, who bore down on the mums so, she looked about to tackle one. Then they took turns practicing the competition dance, Miss Restieux snapping out corrections with military control.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Jennifer said as the girls gathered their belongings. “About the shoes. Kerri had outgrown her pair.”
I had completely forgotten about Aryana’s lost shoes, but sure enough, she wore a pair of sneakers I did not recognize that lit up red when she walked. I had not asked for charity. I did not want pity. My tantrum had not been just another chance to beg.
Still, “Thank you,” I said. The sky had cleared to a hard blue and the pavement sparkled from the rain.
Since I’d forgotten to ask the Director about my raise, I went to a discount dance store in South Auckland with mum. “I need something special for Ary to wear at the eisteddfod.”
“What’s wrong with her leotard?” mum asked.
Nothing. But the other girls were stronger, more flexible. I wanted Ary to feel special when she didn’t bring home a silver trophy for our shelf.
The store had hundreds of costumes—black, white, red, blue, with furs and glitter and thousands of sequins—on small hangers, just waiting for a little girl to fill them out. I chose one with slashes of black across the stomach, an iron lattice like the Eiffel Tower girding each vertebrae.
At the counter, mum said, “Oh, shush, I’ll pay.”
I held up the costume for Jono to see at the prison. “Won’t she freeze?” The southerlies were blowing up from Antarctica. It had rained the past week.
“They heat the auditorium, I think.”
“I wish I could see,” he said and I promised I’d send him a video. “When’s she coming by?” He missed her, of course. For years he’d looked after her while I worked. I’d return home to find the two giggling beneath the kitchen table in their pajamas still.
“You’re not in jail long,” I said. We watched the mist rise off the wet concrete in the sun outside.
Tim dropped by to pick up the last of his clothes. “How are your papers coming?” I asked, trying to sound like I didn’t want to bash his skull against the faucet until the bone cracked.
“Good, yeah. It’s been hard, aye. I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to do weights. Did you hear me on the radio?”
He did not ask me about the paper I was taking while working full-time and raising a child and not lifting weights. He leaned against the wall on which Ary had mapped the solar system and told me about this new political organization he’d joined that fought for subsidized housing I didn’t have and he wasn’t paying for. As though his hands weren’t full of items that had lived in my closet two years.
“Lydia, the president, she’s real smart, aye. I’m heading to hers now to work on our demands for next week’s strike.” He said Lydia’s name five more times before he left.
Later, I looked up pictures of her on my phone. She was pretty with white teeth and expensive, tattered clothes. In none of the pictures did she have a child.
Every day, before practicing, Ary inspected her new leotard. She pulled the costume on carefully and stood in first position before the mirror, studying herself. I insisted she change into regular clothes to practice though. I didn’t want the leotard ruined before the competition—and she practiced nonstop. I heard the damn dance music in my sleep.
The day before the show, mum and I plaited Ary’s hair and fixed her make up. Then we let her wear her costume and dance while we snapped videos we shared with mum’s friends. She was beautiful, skipping across the tight living room. Strong. On stage, she’d be glorious.
“Dance your heart out, love,” Mum said when she left. “And I’ll treat you to sundaes at Denny’s after.”
Ary could hardly sleep that night. Across the room, she tossed and sighed. Eventually, I cut an antihistamine in half for her. Exhausted, I swallowed two caplets myself.
That was a mistake.
“Mum? Mum?” Ary shook me awake. Tuis squawked in the gutters and outside the clouds had the color of cold porridge. “It’s ten.” We were late.
I threw myself out of bed and grabbed the bag we’d packed the night before. Her hair was sleep-matted still, but we could deal with that at the theater. She climbed into her car seat as I started the engine. Neither of us spoke. We were meant to check in by ten-thirty. We lived forty-five minutes away.
The car spluttered a little in the cold, then thunked to life. I swung out the drive and down the pretty residential street towards the highway, barely hesitating at stop signs. “Will we make it?” Ary asked.
“Of course,” I said and the needle on the speedometer crept over one ten. Ary was going to dance, goddammit. She was going to wear her fancy leotard on a shiny goddamn stage and dance. I raced across the overpass and we were almost to the bridge, which thankfully was clear, when the police siren keened. I did not think much of it at first— I’ve never been pulled over in my life—but when the sound didn’t subside, I realized with a sinking feeling that I was to blame and pulled aside.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My hand shook as I passed across my license. “My daughter has her first ballet competition, you see, and I overslept and it’s all my fault. We were going to miss it.”
“Your car isn’t registered,” he said, gently. Though he might as well have punched me in the chest. I’d forgotten about the registration. I’d only meant to be a month late.
“I had to pay her ballet fees.” Even I realized that was a pathetic excuse. “Is it… is it possible you could drop my daughter off at the competition first? Before you bring me in.”
The cop blinked, confused. Then he glanced at Aryana, her eyes shining like sequins with tears.
I stared at the telephone in the jail, dumb. I’d already called mum, whose voicemail was full. Perhaps her phone battery had died. Perhaps she’d left her purse at home. If I were sensible, I would have rung Tim; his stepdad was a lawyer. He could have removed the offense from my record easily. He’d forgotten to pay bills himself from time to time. But I didn’t want to call Tim, who was busy with Lydia. I did not want to admit that I was in jail and give his mum the pleasure of having her suspicions about me confirmed. There was Ary’s father, of course…
I called Kerri’s mum. “H, Jen—no, I had to work late today. Look, could you do me a favor? I can’t get hold of my mum. Could you look after Ary until she arrives?”
I closed my eyes and tried not to see Ary listing left beneath the weight of her bag of make-up and Mars bars and clothes.
She’d walked straight to the theater entrance, without even a backwards glance at the cop car or the woman in the back seat.
Lara Markstein is a South African born New Zealander, who has lived the past ten years in the United States. She graduated from Harvard University, where she studied English, and received her MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Agni, and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among others, and forthcoming in The Chicago Quarterly Review. She currently serves as the Program Officer at the UC Berkeley Center for New Media.