Fault Lines

Fault Lines

“He was late for all the same reasons he was late each day, he was running for all the same reasons he ran each day. . .”

A short story.

“Ah, the vernacular of suburbia where we reserve our epithets … for politicians we imagine give a damn about our vote” (ehpien / Flickr)


She crosses the street, comes up to me, bold as a rabbit in predator-purged territory, ferret-like herself, well-trained suburban calling card on a leash beside her, and asks me, right in front of all the other mothers, if I’m looking for more work as a nanny.

The other women have already recoiled, not from her, so much, as from the response they now know to expect from me, their one (fill in your chosen blank) friend. Perhaps at some primeval level they feel more sorry for her than horrified for me. It’s too early, even for me. I choose clarity.

—Did you feel entitled to ask me that because I’m the only brown person standing here?

My daughters press against my body on either side, comprehending only its hardness, that chain mail that descends, the armor tossed as though from the hands of a benevolent deity all haste and consternation as he rushes through neighborhoods intuiting coming events casting shadows in each set of eyes that hood, each set of lips pursing its contents, that look that is turned inward asking: Is this it? Is this time for The Crazy Black Man/Woman or is there some mitigating element that must be considered? Time of day? Circumstance? A wrinkle or a smile? What other pressing duty calls that cannot now be derailed with a reaction or a rant? I feel their arms wrap, one higher, one lower, around my thighs, feel the pale strength of them, and do not move my own, crossed, waiting, face-off. Silence, and then the chug of the yellow bus coming up the road toward us, its sunshine color stippled by the old oaks that arch overhead and touch each other the way we neighbors will never do. She steps off the street and onto the pavement beside us, lingers there, lost in the shuffle of rituals in which she has no part, while we hustle our children inside and break into our directional cliques, leaving.

—I cannot believe

—What nerve

—Are you okay?

Ah, the vernacular of suburbia where we reserve our epithets for colleagues at workplaces where most of us are overpaid, for politicians we imagine give a damn about our vote, and for grouped people—the “those” of our stories—all the absent ones who need never feel nor fear our low-motility seeds of wrath. In the day-to-day, though, that’s a different kettle of gefilte, that’s a farce called civility, where the only people hurting are the ones who are hoping you might say fuck, just once, on their behalf. You’re the one wearing whiteface after all. Fuck you, fuck off, fucking moron, any of those would do. I don’t need the potluck or the block party, just give one flying fuck. Say it loud and clear.

I’m the last mother to reach her house, the farthest from the stop. The chatter of the Friedman toddlers catches up just as I reach my door, and I glance back for a moment to watch the double baby carriage making its vertiginous climb up the slope toward me. I make eye contact with the woman who shares no facial features with her four wards, but can only manage a commiserating grimace; I’ve got my own grievance to nurse today.


Iris Jones works down the street at the house with the sagging gutters and the haphazardly tended garden where the remains of the last tree felled are still being carted away, a few small logs at a time, by the neighbors who have begun to use their outdoor firepits as they watch the first bulbs bloom along the edges of their own flower beds. There are six children there to fill up the three bedrooms of the house, the fifth still swaddled and kept beside his mother who is pregnant with the last. Iris manages the older four, all girls, aged six, five, three, and two. They are well behaved and expectant of an excess of attention in all aspects of their lives from baths to play to reading to naps, which they take religiously from one to three each afternoon.

Iris arrives by six in the morning. She passes Geraldo’s Laundromat (where someone has pulled off various letters so it now read’s Geraldo’s Lat), two shops with wigs on display in colors that God never intended for human heads, and a salon with the “Nails” sign illuminated whether it is open or shut on her way to her transport. As she walks to the stop at Ridge and Susquehanna, she thinks about the fact that the prayers from four churches—Church of God of Prophesy, Jones Tabernacle AME Church, Bethel Presbyterian Church, and Faith Emanuel Baptist Church—always surround her as she stands within sight of her sons’ high school, waiting for the 61. Each morning, just before the bus arrives, she turns toward the school and bends her head as she mentally gathers the prayers of all four churches to help keep her children safe until she returns. She boards the bus and nods to the same eleven people who are already sitting in their preferred places—only one, a teenage girl, chooses the aisle—changes to the 65 at the Wissahickon Transportation Center, and tries not to fall asleep before her stop at Bryn Mawr and City Line, where she gets off. It takes her 572 steps from there to reach the house on Upland Terrace. She lets herself in and hangs up her coat on the metal rack near the ketubah, which, according to the translation offered to her by Chana, tells the world that Yitzak Friedman and Chana Salzburg were married on the twenty-fourth of July, 2009. Every morning Iris does the same math and shakes her head, then changes the motion to a nod because Yitzak is always watching her from the dining table where he is already sitting down, drinking coffee and reading the Holy Book. In the kitchen that she is allowed to use, she makes herself a cup of tea and a slice of toast, and sets out breakfast for the children, each according to their taste; melon and yogurt for Acimah, banana and yogurt for Arashel, soft buttered white bread with the lightest touch of peach jam for Astera, and oatmeal for Aaliyah.

Upstairs, she wakes each one with soft words or stern, as required, and gets them washed, brushed, and dressed in time for them to kiss their father good-bye before he walks out of the house, still carrying the Holy Book, and, as far as Iris can tell, intending to do so all day long wherever he goes, as he does, each day, on foot. By the time their mother comes down, slowly, slowly, holding the banister with one hand, her baby clutched in her other arm, Iris has prepared breakfast for her and turns her back and does the dishes while Chana nurses her baby and feeds herself. Iris cleans and dresses the baby—and for the baby Iris has soft words and baby songs in unfamiliar yet melodious rhythms—while Chana gets dressed.

At around eight-thirty in the morning Iris pushes a double stroller down the middle of the street, the five- and the six-year-olds tagged on either side like long ribbons, and refuses to move for cars no matter how long and how hard they toot their horns, or how much their drivers yell out their windows. The ladies at the bus stop roll their eyes at her because Iris’s stroller, arriving on its unpredictable schedule, delays the departure of the school bus, though the Jamaican bus driver with the wild hair who drives both the kindergartners and the high schoolers—and who insists that the boys in both groups wait until the girls have finished boarding, and also that they stop and greet him before they proceed to take their seats, quirks that generate smiles from the younger and half smiles from the older—never seems to mind waiting and watching Iris’s progress down the road, which makes the mothers at the bus stop turn and gaze, like choreographed bit-part players in a drama where all of them tried and none of them made the leads, at Iris, and they cannot help but notice her stunning derriere, so they redo their ponytails and adjust their fitted baseball caps and blow extra-special kisses at their wee ones already distracted and otherwise engaged with the particular hierarchies arranged to terrify those consigned to riding public school buses. Only Mira smiles at Iris, though Iris remains oblivious to this virtual high-five as she wends her way toward the Bala Cynwyd Library, her thoughts on matters far more pertinent to her day‑to‑day than the shape of her arse or the politics of her audience.

By the time she is boarding the 65 for her return home, Iris has chalked up between twelve and sixteen thousand steps, which might have registered on her Fitbit or her iPhone if she possessed either one, but which register only on her veined calves, tight and raised like thin vagrant snakes. Iris also works until after dinner on Saturdays because on those days the Friedman family observes Shabbat and the laws of halacha, and would sit hungry in the darkness if not for her, and since she cannot leave until the ritual Havdalah is completed, Iris has come to associate the sour-sweet smell of wine and smoke and cinnamon with her long-awaited single day of freedom. On Saturdays the children are whiny and difficult because they are managed entirely by their parents in a routine neither side of the equation recognizes nor enjoys. (This does not make Iris feel special or loved.)

Before leaving her house in the Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, she wakes up her son, Diem, sixteen.

—Baby, it’s five I’ve got to go now. Wake your brothers at six. You be home right after school.

—Okay, Mom. Lock the door.

Then he goes back to sleep and doesn’t wake until six-thirty and has to scream his brothers awake and through their cornflakes and milk (if there is milk, dry if there isn’t), and race out of the door to their school, which is just far enough that they are tired by the time they reach it, but too close for them to qualify for busing, and if there are blues out they have to slow to a stroll, which makes them late and gets them face time with teachers and the vice principal but never the principal, who has too many fires to put out to be bothered with these four smoldering pieces of coal. No matter how frantic their morning becomes, or how late they are—not even that time that he had to piggyback his youngest brother, Ozzie, all the way to school because he tripped right outside their door and bloodied both knees, or even the time that his second youngest brother, Jayjo, refused to go to school because he had not studied for his English test and swore that Mr. Bomze hated him and Diem had to drag Jayjo out and cuff his head and force-march him until he was within sight of the first teacher—Diem never forgets to stop and lock the door.


You never think that things will turn out as badly or as well. When you turn sixteen and you have no boyfriend and you are not pregnant and everyone says—yes, even Abuela, who has had you pegged as a malparida since you were seven years old and lifted your dress in front of the whole school while singing the national anthem—that you’ve beaten the odds and broken the family tradition of being knocked up before your quinceañera, you want to believe it. You stroke your flat belly and then you go and get one of those diamond-dust studs put in your navel, the type that has the thin dangling gold chain that points toward your not-available cuca, because you want to show it off. How off-limits you are, how you are not like the rest of the Roman sisters, or your mother, or your aunts, particularly not Titi Maria who was pregnant at fourteen, fourteen! or even your grandmother. The thing is that you put a sweet chain like that, which cost all your quinceañera money, in your belly button, your sweet diving-pool belly button, and the only thing you want to do is show it off. So you stop listening to the family chorus and you wear nothing but crop tops and low-rise shorts and jeans, and skirts with the waist rolled down, and you are just like all the stupid girls with tats that you scorned because oh my god they carved the names of boyfriends and hearts between their breasts and on the skin over the angel-wing bones on their backs and could never after be seen in real clothes, only T‑back tops and V‑necked T‑shirts that were not T‑shirts, who were they kidding, they were whore-halters.

Ricardo said it was the jewelry in your middle that made him love you so much. That made him love you and bump into you in the hallways so he could see how the gold chain swung against your beautiful skin like a pendulum. So what if you had to spend junior year sitting sideways at your desk, and pretending you didn’t notice Mr. Bomze staring at your ballooning chest all through English class, and you had to take the diamond-dust stud and its gold chain out, and you didn’t get to graduate because whatever the hell that felt like, Luis is fifteen and Ricardo still treats you like you were already born a princesa before he made you his queen with all of that loving.

And now, after all these years, you might even get a nursing certificate or something in the medical field that you could use from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine which is around the corner from your job, so close that you could go there after work. That’s what Iris said when she handed you the brochure that she had brought home from the library near where she works. At first you had laughed because those brochures were not there at the library near where Ricardo works at the high school and where you have waited for him before on the evenings when he’s taken you to watch Luis run at the track meets—and you love watching Luis run because his feet move as though god himself has taught him how to walk on air, but you don’t mention this part to Iris because none of her boys can run—though both libraries belong to the same district and maybe, you joked, it was because that library was filled with morenos just like the community swimming pool near there, and maybe nobody wanted to encourage those people to go back to school. But Iris did not laugh. She just said, You got your GED, now give them a call. It’s time.

And you felt sorry and made a tray of asado de puerco for her to take home because even though her boy, Diem, had also applied for the same program, only Luis was accepted and now Luis lives at the ABC house, not too far from where you both work, and is learning to tread water, he says, at the private pools of his friends’ homes in the better neighborhoods because he goes to their school now, where he has a brand-new MacBook Pro computer for free like all the other students, and tutors and special attention because he is going to be A Success Story. That is what the program director had told you when you hugged him and cried when you had to leave him there and go home.

Of course Abuela scoffed. They want to take my boy (she calls Luis her boy even though you were the one who gave birth to him and she was so disappointed in you that she still only speaks indirectly to you), they want to take my boy and put him in the rich people’s school so they can show off how rich schools can help poor kids? Why not give some of that money to his school so all the kids in the school can have what they have?

And you want to explain to her, the way the program director had explained to you, that it was not just money in poor schools but the environment that made the difference, that your community and your family and your general trajectory was what was holding kids like Luis back, but you couldn’t get your tongue adjusted around all those words. So you don’t say anything, because you know she’d just say ¡Vete a la mierda! and make you feel stupid for having had the nerve to address her, but also because Ricardo is looking at you with that I told you so gleam and sucking his back teeth and so you just do the same and look away because you agree. You agree that there was nothing wrong with your community and your family and your trajectory. You got pregnant and you did the right thing and so did Ricardo and you got married and you had both always done the best you could for all your children. And if you were asked, you’d even say you were doing your best for theirs because how would Mira keep her job that takes her all over creation doing god knows what, and how would Ari (which is short for Aristides), keep his, that pays not only for his second family but also for his first, which comes with not one but two daughters in college on the other side of the country and a son and don’t even get you started on the first wife who drives the car with the top rolled down every time she pulls out of her double driveway two doors from her ex‑husband’s house, the one she bought—so Mira says—just to spite him.

It makes you happy-sad-angry to hear about all the wonderful teachers, most of whom are male, in the school that Luis goes to over past City Line Avenue, when neither Rosita nor Ricky Junior have teachers like that because they still go to the school that Diem and his brothers do on this side, and the only male is the principal who is a hijo de puta who always stares at your chest and tells you how pretty Rosita is. You stay silent and you think that maybe they, too, will get to go to the other school and live in a house with tutors and all you can do is pray that they’ll last, beautiful as they are—with Ricardo’s eyes and your mouth and color—without babies to be looked after before they have finished being yours.

Mrs. Petralia, who prefers to be called Mira, is happy to hear that you are going to try to go back to school, though she insists she cannot manage without you because she and Ari are so busy all the time and her children need you.

—Ephie and Athena are so used to you being here when they come home from school, Gabby. How will we manage without you?

—The girls are old enough now, they will be all right.

You say that and it sounds heartless, and you know that it is probably not true—the only person those girls see reliably is you—but what else can you say? You are hoping that Ricardo will be able to find you work in the cafeteria at the middle school which would pay you more than you make now taking care of the Petralia children and then you could look at all the classes you might need to finish if you want to take this osteopathic medicine business seriously. You’d prefer the high school because then, like Ricardo, you’d get to see Luis every now and again as he walks through the halls or goes to the locker rooms after school to change for track, even if, like Ricardo, you would not wave, or meet his eyes, or in any way acknowledge any relationship even though that would be almost impossible for you, you’d do it, you’re sure you would. Still, despite all that longing for what you really want, you know you will take what you can get because, as Iris says, it is time.

But it doesn’t work out that way. That’s the thing about things never being as bad or as good. Ephie breaks her foot so you have to keep working and now you have more hours, and enough money so you can call up the school and see what classes you might be able to take there, but too many late nights which means you obviously cannot enroll at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine which does not sound like the kind of place that would make allowances for students like you. And you tell yourself it’s all right. Because the middle school didn’t have a vacancy anyway. And you should be paying more attention to Rosita, she is that age, as Abuela keeps saying, and madre de dios you do not want Rosita to have to drop out of school, even the same subpar school you went to, and isn’t life like this anyway? And isn’t family like this? What does it matter if only one of your children gets to go to the rich people’s school, and if only one of you gets to watch your son in these last few years before he leaves home, and if only one of the females in your family finishes high school, when you put it all together aren’t you A Success Story too?


The next time I see her I cross the road at the last minute and then I occupy the whole pavement with my stride so that she has to step off, hound and all, her eyes darting away from my stare. For the next few weeks, whenever she sees me on the road, she turns around and scurries back the way she came, her backside all flab and sway in her hurry. It isn’t enough for me. Somehow she has crept under my skin and try as I might I cannot find the needlepoint tool with which to pry her out. The needlepoint tool with which to wound her in the precise measurement with which she wounded me.

Nanny. It’s not that I haven’t heard it before, or recognized it in the pass-over looks that I get from the mothers and fathers in this neighborhood. This neighborhood where every mother’s son on a bike appears to be training for the Tour de France, every runner hooked up to the breast milk of ever-present bottles of water, suckling like pigs, every new mother doubling as a yogini. At the high school pool I was asked by a woman all diamond tennis bracelet and straw hat if I, too, was from Jamaica like my friend’s nanny. I’d had afternoon sex, so I spoke upscale suburban and sailed on seemingly unscathed. But this one, this canine-led hussy and her words, just won’t let me be. I lie awake at night counting the ways. I wake up ragged. I walk to the bus stop rearing for battle.

Things take time, but if you remain alert, the moment arrives.

Pescatore is still too new for a liquor license, and the fish is foul, but the desserts are worth the price of admission. I know the moment I walk in that this is it. There she sits, paramour or husband beside her, friends and their possessives surrounding. Here I sit, my own man, my friends and their partners surrounding. Each of us couples brought a bottle—Ari and I, two, since this had been our idea—and we carried it back out in our bodies. We all howled with laughter on our way home, drunk in ways that alcohol alone cannot arrange.

We paid our check and then waited until she had returned from the bathroom to send the note on the napkin over to her with the dregs of each of our bottles of wine contained in a glass with a lipstick stain on it. Are you looking for more clients? My friend is also interested. Maybe after dessert? Definitely not a paramour with her, definitely a husband; only a husband in good standing would assume betrayal, not insult. So it wasn’t the fuck I so often want to hear from them, but it’ll do; solidarity speaks many dialects.

Gabby has fallen asleep on the couch by the time we get back and I’m exultant so I laugh her awake, pay her double, and offer her Ari—still smiling, but also shaking his head, he’s too drunk—to drive her home.

—No, it’s all right, gracias, Ricardo will come and pick me up. He doesn’t like me getting into another man’s car. Even Mr. Petralia.

—It’s a long way for him to drive. I can take you. Will he let me drive you home?

On the way back we talk about Ephie, and the injury. I ask her about the College of Osteopathic Medicine, whether she is still hoping to go. She says that she might think about it after her younger son and daughter are out of high school. For now, she’d like to stay close to home to make sure she can keep an eye on them. Her best friend’s son was accused of dealing and thrown out of school.

—He didn’t do anything. He’s like gold, that boy. He takes care of his brothers all day while his mother works at the Friedman house as a nanny. Bad things happen even to the good kids.

—Friedmans? They live down the street? Five kids and the mother is pregnant? That’s your friend who looks after those children?

—Iris, yes.

—Iris. I see her taking those children somewhere every morning.

—To the library. Iris likes the library.

—Maybe you should take Ephie and Athena there too?

—For what? Your house has books in every room! Maybe Iris should just bring the children there instead.

She doesn’t join me when I laugh. Ricardo opens the door as soon as we pull into the driveway leading to the flat ranch-style house with its aluminum siding, the tiny square footage of its front yard fenced as though to protect something precious. Gabby calls out that it was only I who drove her back, and he nods and holds the door open for her. I get out of the car to prove my gender, shake his hand. He mentions the time and I feel reprimanded. I tell her to take the day off, that I will stay home with Ephie. The door shuts softly behind them. I wait until the thin porch goes dark and back out without turning on my lights.

Ari is asleep when I get back, the dank smell of alcohol rising from his body. In the cooled stale air of the bedroom, I feel nauseous. I go through the mail downstairs, pick up a few things, make lists, waiting for fatigue to find me. It is nearly dawn by the time I lie down on the couch next to the boxes I’ve filled with books for Gabby’s family. I hope they are age appropriate. I fall asleep between figuring out how to ask the ages of her children and consternation that I do not know. Perhaps Ari does. If nothing else she could share them with her friend Lily, who must surely have a few children of her own.


He was late for all the same reasons he was late each day, he was running for all the same reasons he ran each day: he overslept, his brothers dallied, he had to make sure the door was locked.

When Iris got the call on her cell phone, it came from the principal. She dried her hands before she answered. She hung up the phone, finished getting the children dressed, set them at the dining table with coloring books and puzzles, changed the baby—though this morning she had no coos for her and her voice was low but not gentle—washed the dishes, and waited until Chana had finished breakfast to ask her for the rest of the day off.

—What’s the matter? Are you sick?


—Is it the flu? Hold on just a minute. Chana got up and poured four glasses of orange juice, then added Emergen‑C into each cup and handed them to her children before returning to the kitchen. Iris leaned against the fridge and waited.

—I feel dizzy and my chest hurts. I need to go home and lie down.

—You can lie down here.

Chana gestured to the living room couch. She looked both concerned and distracted, her mind elsewhere.

—No, I need to go home.

Inconvenience was mentioned, and poor timing. How would Chana get to her mothers’ meeting? There was a well-baby checkup later today too, and now she’d have to postpone it. Was she sure, Chana asked, was Iris certain it wasn’t just fatigue? Perhaps a cup of tea, a little sitting down, might help. Hypochondria was suggested. A previous lapse in duty just like this was brought up. That was an illness associated with the personal interview that had been requested by the school guidance counselor after Diem had applied for the ABC program; school conferences and domestic emergencies were never mentioned by Iris; as far as Chana knew—nothing asked, even less volunteered—Iris lived alone and had no family to speak of. Still, when Iris began to wheeze, Chana hurried her out of the house and assured her that she wouldn’t dock her a day’s pay after all. Whether that registered as a saving grace on Iris, Chana could not tell. (It did not.)

The younger boys were called in to testify that, yes, indeed, they had made their brother late. Additionally, they said, the were often guilty of this because though he woke them up with due diligence at six each morning, they dawdled. It was not his fault. Why had he been running away from school rather than toward it, the blue asked, his belt, buckles, holster, and badge all gleaming and potent.

—I had to lock the door.

And Iris bowed her head, remembering. Once, just once, that door had been left unlocked. And as if he had been waiting all these years, watching the door for just that very day, Susa had come in, sat down, and waited for her to come home. Susa, whom she managed to forget each time she turned away from her boys and their milk-added coffee skin, but only then. Later, after he’d left, she had let her sons out of the room in which their father had locked them, and all night long Diem had tended her bruises. All night, without a single tear on either side, only the silence of alliance and resolve.

She asked, but only the science teacher—a new recruit already harried but clearly still hopeful of great undertakings—spoke on his behalf.

Gabby came with her some evenings to visit Diem. Some days she went alone, or Gabby sent Ricardo. Between the three of them, they did not miss a single day. At first, Iris’s younger sons set an alarm and walked slowly and on time to school, but eventually only Ozzie kept trying. He wanted to be able to say that his brother did not have to worry about him anymore. One day, when Diem was allowed to come home. One day.


Your son walks into the house where you work and you say nothing. How could you not have known that somehow this whole thing couldn’t work the way it was supposed to? You had done all the right things. You had not gone back after dropping him at the house, you never called him, you waited for him to call you, and when he visited you did not send him back with the kinds of gifts that you wanted to because you knew he had to cultivate different tastes now and you didn’t want to remind him of the things he loved and missed with all his might. You had praised Ricardo each time he came home and said he’d seen Luis and had managed to turn away from your son, giving nothing away. Instead, you had held him close, and pretended that it was not longing for Luis but desire for you that was weighing his body down, and you told him again and again that it was best, it was only four years and then you would both have your son back for good.

But then you come back from picking up the girls at the bus stop and you see him sitting at the dining table with Ari’s son, and you hear him talking in a way you don’t recognize but can’t help but admire, and it is not your mouth but your hands that betray you. You cannot help it. You reach out and you stroke his head, and Theo laughs.

And you wouldn’t have minded the laugh, you even smiled at the sound of it, withdrawing your hand, folding the memory of that silken hair into your palm as stealthy as a card shark, but then Luis turns and sees you and he swears. He swears at you in language you will never repeat to Ricardo because you cannot break Ricardo’s fierce, strong heart that has loved you so well for so long, right from the beginning, words that rise before your eyes and blur as you see them written in letters as big as the sign outside the Faith Emanuel Baptist Church that you go to each Sunday, the one with the glassed‑in sign that says in elegant font that Jesus Loves You and that It Is Not Too Late To Repent. And how is it that instead of lifting your hand and striking your son so he can never speak to you again, his shame would be so great, his remorse so bottomless, how is it that you remember to cover Ephie’s ears? How is it that you can even think about the fact that Ephie speaks Spanish almost as fluently as your own daughter, not because she has been born with your language ringing in her ears but because she listens to language tapes that come in shrink-wrapped yellow boxes, and spends her summers at camps where they only speak to her in Spanish? How is it that you forget that Theo, too, whose accomplishments were chosen and paid for by the same father, must once have attended those same camps?

You take the girls into the kitchen and you only half listen because what more is there to listen to?

—I can’t believe she touched you! My father is fucking crazy to have her around. C’mon man, let’s go over to my mom’s house.

And you think about that, about this business of having two houses and two sets of parents and two lives and you wonder if that is what makes people like Mira and Ari happy, the way they can separate what should be inseparable so easily and so neatly, like yolks from whites, and you wonder if Ephie and Athena ever think about that, about how their father once loved someone other than their mother, and whether that bothers them at all. You think about Theo and if he even thinks of Mira as a mother at all. You think about all kinds of things, but you don’t think about what Luis has said, or the way the brush of his hair has stained your palm with a feeling you cannot rub out, a feeling you neither want to remember nor forget.

At the library Iris picks up two sets of whatever brochures have been set out; for night classes, technical training, online colleges, language instruction, book groups, and summer programs for teenagers that combine sports, reading, and mathematics. She shares them with Gabby.

Iris keeps her set beside her bed and never opens them; they are a decoration.

Gabby flips through her brochures each night, and each night in rotation she pictures a new life that she might make, a life where nothing that should be together is ever pulled apart.

Across the line that divides the city, before turning out the lights for bed, Mira flips through catalogs for described clothing and other frivolities, dog-earing the pages that catch her eye.

Each woman dreams of purchases none of them will ever make. In their various beds, some hard, some soft, differently lonely, their children dream too.

Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan–born writer and activist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009), and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, 2013). The short story “Fault Lines” appears in Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation (OR Books, 2017).

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