My daughter Oxana will not stop calling me at work. From anywhere inside the rage room, I anticipate the ring, the tiny hairs on my forearms standing up while I’m sorting intake, when I’m scrubbing the floors, in the moment before I exit through the back door toward the dumpster to throw away battered planks and cushions. Since I left my husband almost a year ago, she has turned greedy, needing too much attention and comfort for a girl of fourteen. I feel it in my stomach, the wet-oatmeal weight of Oxana’s nervousness and my want to detach myself from her, in the lull of cleaning. Every day, inside the cavern of my chest, a rubber band pulls tighter, waiting for the giddy-electric right moment to let go.
Behind the heavy metallic door, a man’s dull scream escapes, accompanied by the faint sound of shattering, crystal skittering across the floor. I stand by with my cart, worry the chemical-dry skin around my nails, wait for the foghorn that announces when his time is up and when I can go inside and begin cleaning up the mess. I love the rage room, the gulf between the mess they make and the fixing I do, how the smashing bridges our separate lives together like thread. Company policy says that women aren’t allowed to rage inside the rage room, but we’re allowed to clean it, so of course I have settled with that.
The lobby telephone startles me with the same indulgence of my morning alarm, and I listen to Nika’s soft murmuring to see if it’s Oxana or a client checking up on their appointment. I have told my daughter a hundred times, Do not call me at work unless you want to go hungry, Do not call me at work if you love me, but she doesn’t listen, she rings any time she likes.
I look at the clock above the door, blinking down the seconds until the end of this man’s session. Down the hall, Nika calls to me, “Maggie, it’s for you.”
Our secretary, Nika, is a daft little thing, all elbows and skirts and how can I help you and watery-eyed smiles. During the day, I avoid her, but she catches me between my work to ask me, to beg that I let her see inside. The rage room only attracts a particular type of woman, a woman who yearns for more space than she’s allowed. It’s not nice of me, but I don’t tell her. I seal my lips up tight, I pretend I could never sneak her in, I could never tell her the secrets. I like how she quivers with want, how I have the power to decide how long it eats her up.
I leave my cleaning cart by the door where I’m folding rags still warm from the dryer into neat, little squares. I lean against the side of the desk, press the receiver to my ear—it smells a little like disinfectant. “What?” I say, firm but quiet because I know Nika is listening even though she bends her neck and scrolls up and down on the same too-bright page of her computer screen out of respect for my privacy. Sometimes, I think she’s embarrassed by my inability to control my daughter, the only thing in the world I should be able to control.
“Mama,” Oxana’s voice crinkles through the phone. She is in that awful place I remember, the chasm between child and adult and how awful it is to cross it with no safety nets underneath. “My stomach hurts.”
I shift on my warm ankles as Oxana relents the trials of her morning. I tell her not to call me at work, that I could lose my job, but I can’t help but feel a thin relief settle on my shoulders when I hear her gravelly voice, that she is alive, unhurt, and needy, that she calls me and not my ex-husband. Her call is long and winding, beginning with her stomach and concluding with some vague mentions of girls and their meanness, the sharpness of their tongues and their eyes. I twist the sticky cord on the phone until her voice grows distant and crackly, until I’m alone with Nika’s nervous breathing and the sound of the man smashing his way through the room.
When I let go, her voice bounces back sharp like the mewl of a kitten. “Oxana, you act like a child. I will be home in the evening. You must manage until then,” I say. Before I disconnect, I instruct her again how long to boil water for her favorite rhubarb tea.
Nika takes the phone from me and places it too gently behind the desk. I thank her just as the foghorn sounds, and she nods and looks towards the door. In the quiet, I know what she wants but is too meek to say: I must get back to work.
The man lets out one final wail, a siren on the shore mourning the thing she loved and then drowned. I walk quickly back to my closet, ready my cart, wait for the final click, the sound of the door releasing before I can enter the rage room and begin cleaning up the mess.
The door clicks. I pull on my gloves. I open the door and roll my cart inside.
I breathe in the faint twirling of dust, glass shards, and spittle, the sweet earthy smell of sweat lingering in the air. I feel the heat, the coiling, ever-amounting disgust for my daughter, leave my body green in slivers alongside the particles, the asbestos-and-woodchip release of the last client’s pain.
I let the heavy metal door close behind me with a satisfying clip. I step over thin shards of glass that tinkle like snow beneath my shoes. I pick up my broom and sweep. I lose time in the cleaning, pick up shards of vases, planks of splintered wood, green and red cracked ceramic plates. I stuff broken canvas paintings and shreds of paper into a large stretchy trash bag. I admire the tender teeth marks in plastic fruit, heavy with the memory of a muffled scream. I spot-clean the floors, the walls, the blinking green digital clock that counts down the minutes before each forty-five minute session is up. It’s the only thing behind bulletproof glass—it had been shattered too many times. Inside the rage room, behind the thick steel door, I can’t hear the ring of the phone. I am utterly alive and alone.
I set up the new items, the rows of vases, ceramics, and wooden planks, stacks of papers, cushions, and fresh pencils to snap. I prop up the dummy woman—I named her Sylvie—and brush her sickly yellow hair behind her flat plastic ears. I pity the fleshy realness of her arms. How cold they are, but how alike Oxana’s. Her arms are still girlish and easy to pinch with my fingers when she is naughty, despite how fast she wiggles from my reach.
With twenty seconds to spare, I roll my cart out the door and back into my closet. I catch only a glimpse of the next man checking in at the counter, jitteriness in his shoulders shaking his carefully gelled hair. In his nervousness, he reminds me a little of my husband, my ex-husband, I suppose I should say. It has been nearly eleven months since I left him, but sometimes I still slip into old habits. Sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I can feel the weight of his hand on my thigh, his snoring just above my right ear.
I scratch the skin dry on my arms. The faint buzzer sounds, locking the man into the room. Before him, so much opportunity: what to choose first, holding them, testing the weight of an object and what it will sound like, what it will feel like to start and how much it will hurt to stop. Inside the supply closet, I snap on the light and get to work resetting my cart for the next cleaning. I have forty-five minutes to prepare.
Oxana has not forgiven me for leaving her father, though I tell her it was for the good of us both, our need for quiet and less violence, less drunken nights and strange women hiding underneath my bed. In his absence, her memory of him grows fonder, softer, the dry sting of scoldings replaced by warm afternoons eating sandwiches by the pond, the soft-lavender sweetness of flowers after a recital, dancing around the kitchen to music scratching through the radio. In his place, I grow monstrous, controlling, and ever-tired—I am the woman she will resist and become anyway.
She thinks I do not know what it is like to be a girl, the unfairness of the body and the need to curl up the little animal of yourself into a dark mossy ball, push it into the depths of your stomach. I remember fourteen easily, the frustration of watching the other girls lengthen into tall willowy bodies and perfect icicle wrists, how good they were at shifting into women, how eagerly they attracted the boys, while I felt uncomfortable in my misshapenness, too small and hungry for my own good.
I was embarrassed of my own mother and her weakness, the kitchen grease spotted across her skin and how she tended endlessly to my brothers with more care than she provided me. I stayed out later, in the woods, in my friends’ gardens, after school to avoid her like a mirror, the way she began to grow redder and more bent with work. My father, in contrast, was stoic; he never raised his voice at me or told me I was brutish and unremarkable. I watched as my brothers grew bigger and he guided them to the rage room to teach them all the ways to expel the unruliness of their bodies, while my mother slapped my hands for fidgeting, for uncrossing my legs.
Once I had Oxana, I thought often about how little I missed my mother. The only thing I could picture were her hands.
Oxana is so much like me. I think that is why we fight. In our apartment, I watch her play woman, roll the waistband of her skirt over to shorten it, cross her legs at the ankle, call me Mother instead of Mama, roll her eyes when she thinks I cannot see her in the reflection of the window above the sink. I love her the most in these moments where she falls short, where she slurps when she drinks a glass of juice and forgets not to cross her fingers when she says “I love you” at night. I want to keep her small and animal; I don’t want her to yet learn how to pretend to be something else for the rest of her life.
Around midafternoon, I am slow cleaning the room—unacceptable to cut into some man’s time, but it is not always so easy. The man before made an awful mess, smashed everything into a fine, sparkling dust that coated furniture and the floor, so I had to take everything out and start again. He had jammed nails into poor Sylvie’s eyes and bit a whole chunk from her squidgy plastic arm that he must have swallowed, because I couldn’t find the other piece.
I exit a few minutes late. A man stands by the door, his thin body shifting in a too-large gray suit. He is short with his arms wide out holding the frame, trying to look commanding. I find his boyishness almost endearing.
“Take your time, sweetheart,” he says.
I look down at his dull shoes, hold my cart still and wait for him to move. I don’t speak with the clients unless necessary. I am not paid to grovel like Nika.
He makes a dry noise in his throat. “Better be good as new, then, or I’ll have a talk with your boss. I think you could use a good talking to.”
My organs itch, and I feel a prickling in my muscles. I push my cart closer, imagine shoving him, his tiny boy-body folding in the middle, dropping to the floor like a wet sack of laundry. Unconscious, blood tricking out the side of his thin, weepy lips.
He finally slides out of the way enough for me to push by. “Smile, it can’t be so bad,” he says, his hand moving along the sweaty small of my back, pinching the fleshy part of my hip.
Outside, I stand in the cold. I breathe heavily, so I start to feel light-headed. I swim through my rage. I throw everything, one by one, over my head and into the dumpster, the loud thumps of items slamming against the rusty metal sides, clinking beautifully against other broken things. The sounds please me, tickle sweet my eardrums like a cotton bud scratching the unreachable cavern of my skull, relief dancing down the length of my spine. I throw until my arms ache, until I feel quite like Sylvie, beat and battered, on my way out.
I toss eyeless Sylvie over last. I brush back her hair one final time, the yellow strands itchy and dry on my skin. I have often thought of Sylvie as a daughter, and I feel lucky that she can’t tell me how much it hurts.
I plant a tiny kiss on Sylvie’s forehead, and then I heave her over my head into the dumpster. She arcs beautifully, dives in like a swimmer to her unforgiving end. I will see her again in another form, fresh from the packaging. I am happy that for her I can start again, I can hold her clean and unknowing.
I retrieve a new Sylvie from the supply closet and carry her into the rage room. The door clicks; it’s my time to clean the awful man’s mess, and I find he left me a tiny heart, made of red ceramic plate shards, on the floor. Something dark squeezes my stomach like a fist, and I crunch the heart under my heel until it is dust.
The closet door opens a crack, and Nika’s face sticks through. “Oh, sorry, Maggie,” she says. Her eyes dart like jumping beans, like any part of my body is too awful to settle upon for more than a moment. At first, I fear she is going to say I have a phone call, and a little electric jolt of shame zips through my organs from my spine to my naval.
“I just had a question. Can I ask you a question?” she says. She slimes into the closet before I say yes, the door coming to rest on the precipice of her hip. I feel her breath, strawberry sweet, tickle the fuzz across my upper lip.
“What is it?” I ask, backing up a step. The edge of the wooden shelf presses sharply against my back, and I feel the sharp bite of a splinter wiggling its way in.
“Maggie, you know how important it is for me to be available for our clients during working hours,” she says. I watch a loose eyelash hang from the lid, cutting through the center of her pupil. “It’s not easy to be productive with so many distractions,” she says.
Nika holds her hands below her chest and twirls her fingers at the joints so methodically I wonder if she hopes they will pop clean off. When I think of Oxana as a woman, I hope that she is nothing like Nika. I would like Oxana to be like Sylvie, to be stoic and large, unyielding. I want her to be able to sit through everything that comes at her without flinching, without bending like a tree towards the ground.
Nika continues, “It can be very good to focus on work and leave everything else at the door.” She smiles wide, her little jagged teeth white and shining with the glow of the single bulb.
Leave everything at the door. How wonderful, how easy that all would be, to reach my hands down deep into my lungs, my stomach, the depths of my pelvis, the aching parts around my toes, and pull out my burdens, leave them in a bloody heap by the door to be retrieved warm and buzzing after hours in the sun. How I wish my burdens hadn’t burrowed, like parasites or tumors braided into the fiber of my muscles.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I say. I press the plastic edge of the broom into my palm, feel the dull electric resistance of my nerves.
Nika resettles her shoulders, her eyes flicking back underneath her fringe, searching her eye sockets for the right way to tell me I am bothering her, I am not doing my work. This is not the first time Nika and I have had this talk—though she has only gotten more confident, before, she nearly cried when she asked me to stop letting my daughter call me at work. I can’t tell her I have little control over my daughter or maybe that I like to hear her voice.
“I spoke with Boss the other day about our jobs and how important they are. He agreed we shouldn’t be distracted.”
I feel a hot stone in my stomach, sending warm vibrations through my body, across the expanse of my back. I can feel it too, my hands clenching into aching fists by my sides and across my dim field of vision, flashes of another future where I can’t stuff it, I can’t swallow my pride. It’s fast, the feeling of violence in my throat and my hands and how easily they could collide with her warm rounded cheeks, how they’d redden with the sting of my palms.
I flatten my sticky hands against the front of my pale smock. I smile and thank her in a clear voice for reminding me of my place and what I’m good for and what I’m not.
“Oh, I’m so glad you understand,” she says, and she hugs me tightly over the shoulders. The foghorn sounds outside, releasing me from her grasp as she totters out to the lobby, pulling down the hem of her too-tight skirt.
I roll my cart out of the closet. I wait by the door until I hear the click, until I can go inside and begin cleaning up the mess. I imagine Oxana, her needs and how I cannot control her, how most days I don’t want to stop her from calling, from trying to tell me all that is crawling around inside her. She will understand one day, I know. I only wish it would all come sooner.
The door clicks. I roll my cart inside and close the door. The destruction unfurls before me. I bite into the squishy part of my hand to keep from kneeling down before it like an altar, to keep from crushing it into a fine powder with my palms.
I can’t be slow again. I pull out my dustpan and begin cleaning. Without the rage room, without this rage, Oxana and I would have nowhere to go.
With three seconds to spare, I roll the cart out. Before I have even cleared the doorway, Nika’s bob swings in my direction. “Maggie,” she says, “The phone.” I can feel it in my joints, an awful squeaking quelch, like I am turning to soup where I stand. I take the receiver and press it to my ear.
“Oxana, you must stop calling me at work,” I say.
“Maggie, it’s me.” My husband’s voice simmers through the line; so unlike Oxana’s gravelly voice, it’s warm, it’s wet, and I can feel it wrapped around my biceps, my throat.
“You must do something about Oxana,” he says, and I can imagine him, his curls and the way he twirls his tie around his finger, pulling tight, the blood pooling thick and brown in the pad of his thumb. “She cannot keep calling me at work.”
He continues, but I’m not listening. I can feel it, the energy, the little rubber band in my chest, pulling tight, fraying. I can’t stand it, Oxana and her neediness, him calling me after all this time, at work, digging his jagged nails into my skin. Why is it always my job to be the one in control, while he can follow the whims of his heart and his fists, and I need to keep Oxana and myself from stretching beyond the containers of our bodies, from snapping out of place. And all I want is the silence, the electric, stoic monotony of the rage room. I don’t want to clean up any other kind of mess.
Husband’s voice crinkles, “Oxana has asked to live with me. Is that what I must do?”
It happens before I’m ready, the spilling over. It starts somewhere fast and hot in my chest, right beneath the bones of my ribcage, then it comes down my arms, shoots through my legs, and then I’m grabbing the pamphlets on Nika’s desk, tearing, ripping through the thick stacks with my teeth. It tastes so good, the ripping, flakes of paper stick to my tongue, so I spit, I cough. Something deep and awful inside me tears out, a guttural howl, animal, I think, beast. I clear the desk with my arms, revel in the stinging pain in my elbows, the slaps of my hands as colored pens and perfect stacks of sticky notes stutter, tumble to the floor. I grab the cool lamp, smash it, and the glass bulb disintegrates in sparks of mercury over the tile—I breathe them in gladly like little stars.
I hear faint whimpering, Nika cowering by the door, and I don’t care. I kick the desk again and again, shocks of pain numbing my toes. Oh, that release of my body from myself: I float from the floor, I ring myself out like the kitchen sponge. I am unstoppable, I am strong. I stretch my fingers until the dry palms of my hands ache; I tear through fabric, smash through glass paintings on the wall. Shards stick in my knuckles; I push them in deeper, become one with the outside, boneandbloodandearth mixing. Primordial soup. I am running through the woods; I am howling and wild and endless and so so angry. Everything comes up and out like vomit, hot and painful, breathless but necessary. Husbandoxanamamagirlsgirlsgirls, all of it in my screaming, my tearing through the room. And I am running, I am completely, endlessly free.
Oxana sits across from me on visiting days in the hospital. She plays with her fingers, and I stare at her knees, too pale and dry. I ask her if she’s eating enough. She shrugs and pulls at the pleats in her skirt. They won’t lie flat, and I can tell her Papa’s new wife is not very skilled at ironing.
I have felt very dumb since I’ve been here, dull and embarrassed and ashamed, though that’s not enough to prove to the doctors I am capable of change, that I will be better. I’ve told them in our weekly sessions, between all the staring out the barred windows and doing impossible puzzles, that it was a mistake, that I snapped, but they frown and says that’s exactly what they’re concerned about. A bout of hysteria, they’ve decided, but they haven’t told me what I need to do to prove that I will keep it all tucked up inside this time. So, I stay quiet, I cross my ankles when I sit, and I smile all the time and bat my eyelids. I’m not sure how much longer I will last, tittering and apologizing, playing Nika twelve hours a day.
I do feel sorry for Nika. She is such a nervous girl, trying so hard to be exactly what everyone wants and expects but never getting it quite right. I wonder if she still works at the rage room or what new Maggie has rolled into my place, if she’s any good at sweeping and cleaning and if Nika likes her better, if she fits nicely into all of my spaces. I imagine that she looks just like me, this woman who slipped into my uniform and who sweeps and scrubs and cleans all the glorious mess, tucks it into a tight little trash bag, throws it away without a thought. They should make a monument, I think. A piece of modern art. The Man Unrestrained. Unraveled.
Oxana shifts uncomfortably across from me. I am not allowed to touch her, which I don’t think is right. It’s difficult to watch her collar, how it crinkles up on one side. “Are you happier now with your Papa?” I ask. “You always said all the things he would get for you.”
She shifts in her seat, nearly puts a finger in her mouth but reconsiders, tucks her palm under her thigh. “Yes,” she says. “I get all that I like.”
I know she is lying by the warm flush of her cheeks, the bugginess of her eyes that wander along the dirty grout of the floor. She is shifting from girl into woman more starkly each week—she has begun to think more deeply about others than herself.
I want to go home to my daughter. I want to fix it, mold the dirt with my fingers. But the doctors worry in whispers to my ex-husband when he comes to retrieve Oxana from the visits. We do not think she fully understands the gravity of her behaviors. She may never be the good wife and mother you once had.
I watch Oxana shift beside him, how she picks at a scab on her arm and sucks on her hair, the way his limp arm wraps around her shoulders, how he kisses her head and I’m not allowed to touch her, how I may never be her mother again.
My ex-husband is eager for me to be released so I can retrieve Oxana, so he can pay attention to his new, pregnant wife.
The problem is she is simply too fragile, the doctors say. But the problem is I’m enormous, I’m strong, I’m kinetic. I could tear more than rooms; I could tear whole worlds apart with my teeth.