The lethargy around here is seeping into me. Since getting the kids off to school this morning, I’ve been drifting around, noting things that need attention without actually attending to them: crumbs on the counter from the morning’s toast, chairs askew around the kitchen table that would make the whole house feel better if only they were tucked in, Martin’s Ninja Turtles hat, the one he loved so intensely and then forgot existed, jammed in the cushions of the living room sofa. I should pull it out, reshape it, take it back to his room, hang it on a hook so it’s waiting for him on the day he remembers his favorite hat. Instead, I just stare at it, too tired to move.
I drink tea, each cup a chance at a new beginning. I’ll have some chamomile, and then I’ll sort out the kids’ closet. After this cup, I’ll do the beds. One more pot, and I’ll take a shower. Standing by the window, blowing, sipping, I stare out at the shady part of the lawn, still heavy with the night. It’ll take hours for the sun to reach that patch, dry the beads of water clinging to each blade, and free the grass to spring back to its usual posture. There’s no rushing some things.
By midday, I realize it’s not the sleepy collective heart rate around here that’s left me comatose. I’m sick.
My mom’s a pro with aches and ailments. Unlike funks and malaise, physical problems draw her near. The lure of the fix. If she were here, she’d stick a thermometer under my tongue, check my swollen glands, jot down my temperature, give me two aspirin, and make me gargle warm salt water, all the while talking in the sugary lilt of a nursery school teacher. Before leaving me to rest, she’d spray Lysol around the room to kill every last germ, slather Vicks VapoRub under my chin, and wrap my neck in a piece of Egyptian cotton about the size of a tea towel that she keeps for just such occasions. I miss her, or I miss that part of her. I always do when I’m sick.
After I’ve spent a couple of hours wincing through every swallow, Evan sends me to an office in Beecroft, where Dr. Hannah takes a look at my throat and orders a culture. She says she’s 99 percent sure it’s strep and that I should call tomorrow to confirm.
The next morning, it’s official. The nurse asks how many times I’ve been on antibiotics in the past couple years, and I’m not sure. “You don’t know?” she asks, like, How old are you? Twelve? My mother would know. She’s read all about antibiotic resistance. People are too damn quick to take drugs, and someday they’re going to be mighty sorry, and that’s not going to happen to her kids, not if she can help it. She writes all our prescriptions in a book that she keeps in her top desk drawer so she can put her finger on the information in two seconds. The nurse rephrases her question. “Do you recall taking any antibiotics in the past three years?” I say no.
After lugging myself home from the pharmacy, I come in the front door and Martin slides toward me on the floor like a seal at Sea World, his chest on a chair cushion. “Are you better?” he wants to know.
“No, but I will be,” I say, shaking the prescription bag.
His eyes widen. “I know what that is! Mummy had those!”
“Oh, Martin.” Tears come to my eyes.
Evan appears and sees me swallowing my emotion. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just strep, just a dumb cold,” I say, looking at Martin.
“You should rest, read your book.” Evan pats my arm, touching me for the first time since we shook hands two months ago.
“Yeah, tha— Wait, what’s Martin doing home?”
“Oh, God, right. Good thing you’re here.”
I slip into bed and fold my pillow in half behind me, just right for reading. Ántonia’s father has died. The new world was too much for him. His family is moving on, finding shelter in a place with “very little broken ground.” Work is their answer to the grief that keeps pounding to get in. No doubt that appealed to my mother, who considers action infinitely superior to analysis. Button up the kids, tidy the house, get dinner on and off the table by seven, that’s the ticket. Examine? Share? Feel? I’d rather do time at Montgomery County Correctional.
I nod off after a few pages and dream that I’m trying to tell my mom about Evan and the kids—explaining who is step, who is half, how each is holding up—until she finally understands, and I am so happy that we make sense to each other for once that I shower her with gifts, first a turtle and then a teapot.
At the end of my dream, Evan taps on my door. He has warm salt water. Martin follows behind him with pink construction paper. “I made you a card!”
“Thanks. Hey, Martin, before I forget, I saw your Ninja hat. It’s in the sofa, between the cushions.”
“Yeah, Keely!” Maybe he’s been missing it after all.
John comes home, and when Evan steps out into the hall to talk to him, I strain to hear the conversation. Their voices are low and soft. I’ve wanted to see them interact since the day I met Evan.
“I hear you’re sick,” John says, appearing in my doorway.
“Yeah, strep, but I started antibiotics, so I’ll be fine.”
“Let me get you some lozenges and ibuprofen,” John volunteers. “Ev will get you some more warm salt water.” Ev, he said. He called Evan Ev, like my dad calls me Kel.
“I still have some, thank you.”
“Very good. We’ll let you rest, then.”
Some families are at their best camping, others making lasagna or playing charades. Ántonia’s family blends together breaking land, driving cattle, harvesting crops. For my family, it was working the sidelines at lacrosse games and playing a card game called 99 that provided the ideal forum for trash talking. For the Tanners—and my mother—it’s managing illness. Filling prescriptions, treating symptoms and side effects, keeping the house quiet, these are things they’ve done together, and it shows. They know how to care-take, and in taking care they are able to do things they otherwise can’t: touch, collaborate, indulge. Even if, just like when I was young, all that gooey tenderness hardens as my temperature returns to normal, I saw it, I know it’s there.