Real Family

Fiction by Lenore Myka

2013 Booth Story Prize Winner

While she waits for the new psychiatrist to arrive, Ginger distracts herself with thoughts of a dinner she imagines would make that smug-smiling Cook’s Illustrated editor gnash his teeth and tear at his bow-tie. Whatever people might say about her as a parent, no one can accuse Ginger of a poorly-fed family. Butter roasted chicken stuffed with garlic, lemon and fresh thyme. Cream cheese and chive mashed potatoes seasoned with imported Hungarian paprika. Sautéed green beans and slivered almonds; chocolate mousse. Or perhaps something lighter. Heirloom tomato gazpacho; spinach, avocado, and grapefruit salad. Lately, she cannot get enough of her kitchen. The mountain-like assurance of the granite countertops, the welcoming mouth of her convection oven; the gentle rumbling hum of the refrigerator, some steady, distant train.

Beside her Ethan scratches his scalp, sighs. Morning sunlight bleaches the office of color, catching dust particles that sparkle like snow, creating a golden screen Ginger imagines hurtling through, disappearing. File folders are piled atop a laptop computer; diplomas, certifications, and licensures hang willy-nilly on the opposite wall. Clasping her hands, Ginger resists the urge to tidy things up.

The only personal touch in the office is a single framed photograph. It faces outward from the desk, directly across from Ginger so that she cannot escape its image: a spontaneous moment, slightly blurred, of father, mother, and daughter laughing and embracing, a puzzle of arms and elbows, fingers and hands.

Reading her mind, Ethan waves at the photo, mutters: “Imagine getting Robert to sit on your lap like that?”

“He has.”

Ethan laughs. “Oh really? And when exactly was that?”

“Why is it facing toward us anyway? Doesn’t she want to look at her own daughter?”

Ginger flips the photo around. Boston cream pie, she thinks. Blueberry muffins.

The psychiatrist’s name is Rita Blum. Looking at her, Ginger is reminded of posters a college roommate of hers had favored: toddlers dressed up as adults, doing adult things—handing each other roses, kissing under dimly lit streetlamps, wearing neckties and fedoras, feather boas; stethoscope, lab coat. When she offers her hand to Ginger it is soft and smooth, the skin not yet nuanced with age. Her bangs are pinned back close to her hairline with a flowered bobby pin. A dab of something, a remainder of breakfast, clings to her cheek.

Upon Dr. Blum’s arrival Ethan had changed his position and now sits tall with both feet planted on the floor, elbows on chair arms, his mouth twisted as if he’s on the verge of saying something clever. He gives Ginger a tight smile intended to be encouraging but that only makes her emotions bubble and belch against her insides. If only he were on board, she thinks, they wouldn’t be wasting time in this place. But Ethan is insistent. Every day when he comes home from work it seems he has added another business card of some doctor to the refrigerator; they cover the freezer door like quilt squares. She does not ask him where he’s gotten them from because the answer will only confirm her worst suspicions: he’s been talking to people about Robert. Ethan preaches to her of treatment, therapy, medication. “It’s all as American as apple pie,” quips Ginger when she’s feeling rebellious, running her fingers over those sharp rectangles of paper, tossing one or two of them away when Ethan isn’t looking. “Blame it on Robert!” she cries when she’s feeling desperate. “Blame it on our child!”

But inside she’s beginning to feel defenseless against her husband. He’s been lining up reasons like soldiers and has organized an impressive army. Blum is soon to become one member of the infantry; Ginger can just feel it in the space between her husband and the doctor, their collegial smiles and head nods, much like the ones Ethan shared with their pediatrician and the social worker and the teachers at two of Robert’s former schools.

Ethan doesn’t seem to notice that she is the only one maintaining order, protecting her family from the chaos that would inevitably ensue if she weren’t there. Ginger lives what she considers to be a normal life, cares for what she believes is a normal family. There’s no need to jump to conclusions, she tells an infuriated Ethan. Children go through stages. And it is her official position that this is what Robert is going through. He’s done nothing wrong. Not really. Not in Ginger’s opinion at least.

Dr. Blum has opened up a thin file, begun to read. Ginger tilts forward in her seat, squints to get a look at it but is too far away. She glances at Ethan’s watch. Nine thirty-five. They’ve wasted twenty minutes waiting for Dr. Blum to arrive and fifteen before that, sitting in reception. Ethan needs to get to work; Ginger needs to get back home, back to Robert.

“Doctor? I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m anxious to get on with my day.”

Ethan pinches the bridge of his nose. “Ginger.”

“Just a moment more…” says Dr. Blum, her eyes still moving back and forth, reading. She never bothers to look up from the file.

*

The second specialist said the same thing as the first. When the first specialist had said it, Ginger was mute, disbelieving, her vision going fuzzy so that for a moment she thought the electricity in his office had gone out. With the second specialist, she said: “So that’s really the term the medical establishment is using these days?” But it was, in fact, her official diagnosis. Bad eggs.

When she heard the words she could not help imagining her eggs as she had when she was a teenager in health class, watching a black and white animated movie entitled The Miracle of Life, except that in her mind the eggs had faces, were rogue-like bullies with muscled, tattooed arms and leather jackets, punching the clean-cut cardigan-wearing spermatozoa out of her fallopian tubes. In the doctor’s office, while Ethan had covered his trembling lower lip, cast his watery gaze at his empty lap, Ginger had laughed. Ethan and the doctor exchanged glances. Bad eggs, indeed.

“So what you’re saying is this is my fault?”

“No one’s fault,” the specialist insisted. “Just bad luck.”

Ginger stared at the palm of her left hand and with her index finger traced the shape of her love-line. She couldn’t shake the feeling that he was lying to her.

Ethan reached out, squeezed her hand. “We’ll figure it out, Gin. We’ll find a way.”

She thought this might be code; Ethan had on more than one occasion suggested they could live a childfree life. But Ginger had never believed two married adults constituted a family, at least not a real one.

They considered their savings, their retirement accounts. They sat late into the evening translating the fine print of healthcare plans and finally settled on a clinic. Ginger began treatments. The more time passed, the louder the rooms of their house vibrated with silence. When they spoke, their voices echoed out as if in a canyon. “The house is too big,” she told Ethan. He’d walked in on her trying to drag a sofa across the length of the living room. “It’s too much for me to manage.” But there was nothing she could do to change it, no matter how much she moved the furniture around.