Afternoon Miniature 3.20.22

from the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Emmy’s mother had beseeched her to let him have just one more chance before giving up.

“Think of your daughter,” she urged. “Jules needs her daddy.”

It was an argument that fell flat, though, entreated by the voice of a generation who didn’t speak to her sensibilities. The generation who insisted every woman needed a knight on a steed as a measure of comfort to be sure, but also of self-worth. She was having none of it, even during vexing moments of self-doubt. And anyway, taking a firm stand against a lying philanderer was precisely the kind of role modeling her twelve-year-old girl needed just now, she reasoned.

Moving out was hellish. Picking apart a dozen years of lives intertwined was burdensome, like using those tiny, sharp scissors to pull minuscule machine stitching out of a hem. Sifting through boxes of photos, culling through shelves of books and record albums (this one is mine—or is it his? did we get it together on an outing downtown?), stirred up layers of dust and raw emotions. The artwork was more difficult still, because she knew even her most precious paintings and photos would no longer bring her joy, and so she left them behind like orphaned children. Jules’ room had been the easiest to pack, but inspired the deepest melancholy.

The rental she found seemed a perfect fit for a strong young woman and a twelve-year-old girl coming into her own but still so full of angst, a quaint 1940s two-bedroom cottage with a pair of dormers on the front elevation, hardwoods throughout, and a single bathroom that had not been touched since the house was built. It was the kind of space the glossy home reno personalities on television would take joy in smashing to bits on “demo day,” but she coveted the mosaic tile floor and the rosy walls with black trim, and the pink plumbing fixtures. If she owned this place, she wouldn’t change a thing. People driven purely by trends lack imagination, she concluded.

In front of the house was a sidewalk and a small, tidy lawn and in back, a generous, shaded yard with variegated light poking through the broad canopy of the mature hardwoods. The absence of sunlight in some areas rendered the grass a bit too thin. She would clean it up a little and put down some mulch, add a small patio of paving stones, and in short order transform it into a magical sanctuary.

Up and down the block were other homes of similar ilk, most of them lovingly maintained, but a few fallen to neglect, one of those situated just across the street. “Hey there, welcome to the neighborhood!” The young woman had waved a friendly greeting to her on a sunny afternoon, plucking her mail out of the box. She was called Divinity, which struck Emmy as a name more befitting of a drag queen. Divinity wore a tight tee shirt that revealed her sinewy upper body with no hint of a recent pregnancy, a pair of ‘fashionably’ ripped denims on her lower extremities, and dime store flip flops; her hair was swept into a messy pile behind her head, held in place precariously by a stretchy white band. She drove a new fire-engine red subcompact, in considerably better shape than the front lawn whose condition appeared not to bother her in the least, but it was a cheap car that would wind up on a junk lot too soon, there to wreak environmental havoc. Weeds grew up through an unruly hedgerow in front of the porch, and plastic toddler toys in the kitschy colors of early childhood had been abandoned in situ.

Emmy had urged her daughter to consider summer babysitting for extra pocket change, and her neighbor’s toddler seemed a safe bet for starters. But the first engagement had not gone well at all. Emmy walked Jules over in the early evening on a Saturday and exchanged chatter with Divinity, who promised she’d be home by 10. But there was no sign of her at 10, or 11, and so Emmy walked over and tapped on the door. Jules had long put the toddler down for the night and was herself fighting sleep on the sofa; she let her mom inside and sat down again, flipping through channels aimlessly with the remote.

“If you want to go home and sleep, I’ll stay here.” Jules spoke through her yawn, “No, I’m okay to wait.” She stretched out and laid her head in her mama’s lap, and soon after Emmy began absently stroking her hair, fell into a deep sleep.

At two am the red car pulled into the drive and Emmy could hear Divinity fumbling with her key in the front door. Emmy let her inside before she could turn the lock. She reeked of booze and stale ash and immediately began to apologize, fishing around inside her purse for a wallet. Stopping for just a moment, distracted, she reached down behind the fly of her jeans, fished out a lacy brassiere, and dropped it on the floor. “Goddammit, I know it’s here somewhere. Fuck!” Now she was emptying its entire contents on the dinette table.

Emmy waved off the cash, and led her sleepy daughter through the front door while Divinity protested behind them. All bets were off for Jules in this house, but still, she felt bad for the infant boy asleep down the hallway. If she deemed this woman worth one jot of her time, she’d explain the myth of the knight on the steed, and tell her how that one and others like it led women like Destiny, and Emmy, into the dire straits they found themselves navigating just now. But for a woman whose reality already seemed so bleak, shattering this myth somehow felt less like a kindness and more like malice.

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