These New Francescas

Janelle Bassett

I had been dating Brandon for about four months when he stepped back from tending to his own kids and let me take over the brunt of the childcare. Before this baton-passing moment, he performed his parenting for me like a form of wooing. When he refilled his son’s glass of milk, he bent from the waist and poured slowly, making sure I was watching. When his daughter banged her shin on the coffee table and ran to be consoled, he patted her back but looked into my eyes when he said, “Are you okay? Did that table hurt you?”

I thought he did this to highlight his sensitive, nurturing side—showing me the skills he would use in our partnership. See how I could care for you. But it turns out the performances were more of an apprenticeship than a mating dance. Pat her back like this—pat pat pat. Not a flat palm, a slight cupping. Pour the glass two-thirds full of milk. Pay attention so I can stop paying attention.

Brandon had Danny, Alexandra, and Rhea every other weekend. When we didn’t have the kids, we functioned as a childfree couple—staying out late, wearing underwear in hallways, shouting obscenities at our phones. But when the kids came over he morphed into his papa-performance-mode. He wore flannel pajama pants, became slightly befuddled and prone to muttering, and would turn in by 10:30. I enjoyed it, really—it was like dating the star of a stage play and getting to sleep in his private dressing room.

Then one weekend, without formally announcing his retirement, he slumped back and made helpless eyes at me whenever the children needed anything. The first instance was when Rhea misplaced her sweater. After looking in the immediate vicinity of her body, she deemed it “totally nowhere.” Brandon made no move toward the coat closet, nor the hooks in her bedroom. He didn’t bend over to see if she’d left it balled up under the love seat. Instead, he hooked his elbow over the back of his chair, to show how committed he was to not getting up, and said, “Maybe Miss Melinda could help you?” in the gently suggestive tone that doctors use as they put you under anesthesia. Go down easy, let this take you, let your will fall out of my way.

I should have said, Does my agreeing to find this sweater free you from all of your parental obligations henceforth? And second of all, don’t call me Miss Melinda because she sounds like the lone human on a children’s show otherwise populated by puppets. But instead of saying anything, I walked into the living room, picked up Rhea’s sweater from the arm of the couch, and handed it to her.

Brandon made a big show of the gesture, as if I’d pulled the child from a well. “Wasn’t it incredibly kind of Miss Melinda to get you your sweater?” Didn’t she move swiftly? Has anyone ever picked up a sweater with such verve? Doesn’t she love doing for others and isn’t that ultimately her purpose and her calling? Don’t you think she’d like to make us dinner, possibly enchiladas?

Here’s why I didn’t huff or balk or leave: I did like the feeling of having warmed Rhea’s little shoulders. When she thanked me, she dipped her head toward her shoulder and her brown curls fell over her face, which hid the fact that she looked just like her mother, and I wanted to pull her to me and say idiotic things like, Everything happens for a reason. When a door closes there’s some corresponding deal with a window. Time and wounds are on the same track, sweet girl. Take it from me, take all of it.

I have a caretaking instinct, I can’t help it. As a girl I had at least nine baby dolls, all named Francesca. I’d bring the Francescas with me when I bathed. If I left them on my bed, I could feel how much they missed me, and I was completely unable to enjoy my bubbles.

Perhaps Brandon was banking on my having this instinct, which was socialized right into me. I’m sure some of it was inborn and then bolstered by certain hormones, but the point is that I didn’t install this instinct myself. I didn’t choose it.

This duty shift was nearly a year ago. Time blurs, contracts, and rushes when you’re taking care. Now Brandon needs taking care of too, even when we don’t have the kids. He’s forgotten how to do laundry or sweep the entryway, how to put cheese inside a tortilla and melt it in the microwave.

I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel holy and tidy to stuff my own needs down to make room for his, for theirs. I’m Miss Melinda, after all. Watch me do what you’ve asked. Look how I hold my shoulders without a hint of hunching resentment. See how I no longer have the energy to worry about my job, my savings account, my thyroid, my friend from college who reached out for help and never received my response, my check engine light.

Today we’re picking up the kids and taking them to the mall for roast beef sandwiches and quilted vests, then to the art museum for a children’s craft. Brandon is in what I call “drive mode,” which serves as his transitional state between semi-attentive boyfriend and underperforming co-parent. Earlier, after easy morning-breath sex, he replaced the sheets on the bed totally unprompted. He kissed the back of my neck as I locked the door. Now, driving, he’s a different Brandon. He’s wearing mirrored sunglasses and looks like he’s mad at the steering wheel. I’m attracted to his anger and determination—he’d use these to protect me if I were standing right behind him.

Brandon pulls the van up to the house he purchased with his ex-wife. It’s a two-story Victorian with white siding and a wrap-around porch. I always try to picture him mowing this lawn, cleaning these gutters, touching that wife. When he honks the horn, I jump.

“Honking is rude. Why don’t you knock on the door?”

“Making us wait is rude. If you want knocking, then go do it yourself. Knock yourself out.” He laughs at his joke. I see myself in his glasses and I do not look amused. Miss Melinda looks tired.

Before I can decide to go to the door, the children come running out with their weekend bags. She’s let Danny leave the house in shorts. I check the dash. It’s forty-six degrees. Danny should wear pants unless it hits sixty or he’s playing indoor sports. I don’t know how she can make a child and then send him out into the world with exposed shins. Now I’ll be worried about his legs all over the mall—top floor, bottom level, food court, escalator, fountain—and in the museum, too, surrounded by all manner of shins depicted inside giant gold frames.

There’s a sibling tussle over who will sit where—elbows are invoked, as well as the phrase “buttwad.” Brandon looks straight ahead through the windshield at where he wants to take us, so I turn around to end the argument by giving them seating assignments. I put Danny closest to the front, so he can feel the car’s heat on his legs. Brandon asks if we are ready to go, even though he’s already pulled away from the house, even though he’s nearly to the corner, even though his children have yet to click their buckles.

After finishing the roast beef and the two-inch pile of napkins, we tackle the mall in two groups. I take the girls vest shopping in stores that play pop anthems and honor online coupons, while Brandon takes Danny to the outdoor store, where he can get a vest with meaningful pockets in a print devoid of personal expression. The vests are for the professional family photo I have scheduled for tomorrow. I’m not going to be in the picture since I am not an official family member, but I’d like it to be nice enough to hang above the sofa I vacuum weekly.

Alexandra and Rhea fall in love with the first sequined sweaters they see, the kind that change color when you pet them like a cat.

“It’s not a sweater photo,” I tell them. “I signed up for the ‘vests on a bench’ package. The photographer did offer a sweater package, but that would involve all four of you climbing into a clawfoot bathtub in the backyard.”

In the end, I buy them the sweaters and the vests. Layers for my girls. After I pay, I sit them down in the chairs outside the dressing room and redo their hair using the brush I keep in my purse. If they’d stuck to trying on vests, their hair wouldn’t have gotten mussed.

Back in the van, Danny holds up his purchase. It’s camouflage with gaping pockets at the bottom and strappy suspenders at the top. “It’s a turkey vest!”

I look at Brandon. “You bought him a hunting vest for the family photo?”

He puts on his sunglasses. “It turns into a seat! Show her, Danny.”

Danny unbuckles the vest’s strap and pulls down on a piece of fabric. “For sitting in the woods!”

“But you don’t hunt. You don’t even like to play tag.”

He shrugs. “It was the coolest one.”

I reach behind my seat and pat his shin. “I’m sure it was, Danny.”

At the art museum, the craft of the week is “toothpick candelabras.” A large gallery room houses rows of tables offering marshmallows, toothpicks, and laminated pictures of candelabras to inspire the mini-artists. The children sit down and hand me their coats, which I hold on my lap like I am pregnant with their outer layers.

Alexandra, being the oldest, gets to work on her design without any need for approval or guidance. “I’m going to make a five-armed candelabra with a coiled base.”

As Alexandra works up a rough sketch of her design, I ask Danny and Rhea to please stop eating marshmallows by the fistful. “It’s about context,” I tell them. “In a home, marshmallows are food, but in a craft setting they are supplies. They are possibilities.”

Rhea spits her wad of marshmallow goo onto the table. When she registers my disapproval, she sticks a toothpick into the wad. “One arm!”

Brandon asks Danny what he’s going to make, pointing out the impressive creation of a child sitting behind us and telling him, “You can top that.”

Danny grabs a few toothpicks, eager to capitalize on this opportunity for paternal praise. He attaches two sticks together using a marshmallow and his father says, “What are you doing? Poke them on further. Tighter. You don’t want it to be flimsy.”

I’m considering the most effective way to distract Brandon from continuing this kind of pestering and belittling when Rhea says, “Miss Melinda?”

I suppose she’s calling her spitty one-pronged effort good-enough, because she is paying no attention to the craft at hand. Instead she’s standing up, taking in the massive paintings that surround the tables.

She points to one. “Who is that?”

The painting is of a nude woman in a small fishing boat. She is reaching over the side of the boat to reel what she’s hooked—a golden fish with breasts and a tongue. The fisherwoman is wide-eyed about her catch, perhaps because it’s not the meal she had in mind. Her stomach, in side-view, is an open wound—blood, organs, and eyeballs. She has one leg up on the boat’s edge to brace herself against the fish’s bosomy strength. Her toenails, curled over the rim, are painted red. I don’t like the way she’s pulling and bracing at the same time, how hungry she looks, how resigned. I don’t like how I relate to the image against my will.

“And why is she naked?” Rhea asks. She doesn’t ask why the woman’s organs are on display.

“How about you keep working on your candelabra?” I gesture at her wad. “That thing won’t be giving off much light.”

Rhea ignores my critique and asks about the painting to the right of the naked fisher. It’s of six children, wearing cut-off jean shorts, crouching in a circle to dig in the dirt with sticks. The children are all endeavoring toward the creation of one big hole. In the background, a panther watches them from a tree, and a mother watches from a porch. Under the ground, we see the pile of red bones they are getting closer and closer to unearthing.

Rhea wants to know what it means.

“I don’t know, honey. I think it has something to do with wanting. Or danger. Art is open to interpretation.”

She stares at the painting of the children and their efforts. “I think it’s about missing your mother.”

I exhale too quickly and lose my grip on the coats in my lap. One of them falls to the floor. I pick it up. I apologize. No one is listening.

Brandon has completely taken over Danny’s project—diligently making the candelabra himself, wearing his sunglasses on top of his head. Danny has gone back to eating marshmallows. Probably for warmth. Alexandra, having created exactly what she intended to create, is working on a second candelabra inspired by the gothic example on the sheet in front of her.

Rhea has a toothpick in her mouth. She’s tipping it up and down with her teeth, like a snake using its tongue to perceive new surroundings. “Miss Melinda, is that a painting of God?”

She’s pointing behind me. A rogue curl has fallen over her eye. I love all of her, even the part of her that will never miss me.

I don’t look back. I say, “Yes.”

Janelle Bassett headshot

Janelle Bassett‘s writing appears (or is forthcoming) in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, and Porter House Review. She lives in St. Louis and reads fiction for Split Lip Magazine.