One Year Ago ONE YEAR AGO
Chapter 1 Chapter 1
A MESSAGE FROM NURSE PEACHES
Welcome back, PS 919 peeps!
Thanks for returning your pediatric examination forms. If your child has specific medical requirements, please give me a holler.
Moving on to nastier things: EIGHT students have been sent down to me with lice. These are cases that began over the summer and are still lingering. Don’t let them linger on your child’s head. Now’s the time to comb through your child’s hair with thick white conditioner such as Pantene. If lice are present, they will be visible in the white stuff. A cursory visual inspection of dry hair is not effective, and those lice treatment kits from the drugstore are full of poison and do not work! Instructions on how to perform a proper comb-through are all over YouTube. Come by my office for a good-quality $10 lice comb. Proceeds go to our PTA. There are also professional “lice ladies” who can remove the bugs and nits from your child’s hair for a fee. I have a list of names and numbers. Feel free to call or email me, or stop by my office with any questions or concerns. My main advice: check those heads.
Here’s to a totally un-lousy school year!
My very best,
Peaches Park, school nurse
The warning letter from the new school nurse had come home in Ted’s backpack. Stuart felt like the letter was speaking directly to him. And of course now he had lice. They were everywhere—on car seats, in his fellow riders’ hair on the crowded F train coming home from work last night, in Ted’s hair, on Ted’s pillow, in Ted’s towel, on the hood of Ted’s hoodie, on the leaves that drifted crisply down from the dried-out, summer-weary trees.
Stuart loved Nurse Peaches’ tone. Last week, on only the third day of school, she’d left a message on his cell: “You don’t know me, but I have your son. He seems fine now, but he puked his guts up after lunch. Better take him home before he pukes on my floor.”
When he went to pick up Ted from her office and first laid eyes on her, he could not stop smiling. Curvy, strawberry blond, merry but cool. Peaches. She was busy with a crying girl who’d scraped her knees pretty badly in the schoolyard, so she’d only glanced up and pointed to the sign-out sheet. Stuart hardly heard a word Ted said as he signed Ted out and led him home. Peaches—it was practically an invitation. Her black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off was an invitation too, or at least a suggestion: there was more to Peaches than met the eye.
“I can’t believe you still do that,” Mandy, his wife, commented now as he stood in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom. She was sitting up in bed, wearing the same old mustard-yellow Blind Mice T-shirt she’d been wearing for two weeks. It was his, a collector’s item, and he wanted it back.
“Still do what?” Stuart stopped scratching his head and put his hands in his back pockets. His black Levi’s were looser than ever, as if they belonged to someone else even though he’d been wearing them since his early twenties. Was he losing muscle now that he was approaching forty? He didn’t really exercise, just walked a lot. The jeans were still in pretty good shape too, no holes, zipper still functioning. When did you know you needed new jeans?
Mandy folded her arms over her boobs, which were still massive—even bigger than they’d been in high school—and smiled her foxy, pearly-toothed smile. She used teeth-whitening strips religiously, and they worked. But there was something embarrassing about her boobs and her smile, like they were saying something about him. His songs might be deep, but he himself was shallow, or he had been when he met and married Mandy. Who was even named Mandy anymore anyway?
“Aren’t you too old to be like, checking yourself out?”
Stuart looked at himself in the mirror again and then at her mocking reflection. She was the one in bed. Her incredibly shiny, silky black hair—she also gave herself a VO5 hot oil treatment every Friday—was matted flat in the back from lying down all the time. At least Stuart was up and dressed. Ted was up and dressed too, eating Cheerios and watching Cartoon Network. Mandy was just lying there.
“I’m thirty-six. So what? I can’t look at myself?”
“Just saying,” Mandy said.
She said a lot of things, from bed.
“I think you’re even cuter than when you were in the band,” she added, a little unconvincingly, Stuart thought.
Stuart’s band, the Blind Mice, had been in the top twenty on the Billboard Hot 100 list for three years running before they’d broken up ten years ago. Ever since, Stuart had been virtually silent, working quietly for a company that provided music and sound editing for advertisements.
Lately, entertaining Ted had somehow brought out the urge to make noise again. Stuart had even thought of trying to get the band back together to make a kids’ album, but becoming that dad, that guy, that band, singing about bubble baths, marshmallows, cement trucks, and poop was not something he was ready for, and he was pretty damned sure the other two Mice weren’t ready for it either. Robbie, the charming, handsome guitarist, spent half his time on far-flung beaches in Australia and the other half in Nicaragua, surfing and growing pot. JoJo, the aloof beats genius and techno wizard, produced music in LA and lived in a hotel. Neither of them were married, and they certainly didn’t have any kids, or if they did, they didn’t know about them. Stuart Little, affable front man of the organization, chief lyricist and rhyme-smith, and not so little anymore, had been the only one to settle down.
“Any plans today?” Stuart asked, the same way he’d been asking for weeks.
“My plan is to do this,” Mandy said from bed. It was the same answer she always gave.
“Will you please call Dr. Goldberg?”
For over a month Mandy had been promising to go back to the doctor and get a referral for a specialist. Both times she’d “made an appointment” she’d come back smelling like toasted everything bagels and told Stuart the traffic was so bad she’d missed her appointment, but it didn’t matter because she was doing everything the doctor had told her to do back in July, and everything was fine. But she was not fine. She’d gotten much, much worse.
“Today?” he prompted.
“Okay,” Mandy yawned.
Stuart glanced at the time on the cable box beneath the large flat-screen TV he’d installed over the summer. “Ted’s going to be late again. I gotta go.”
Mandy slid back down under the covers. “I love you,” she called. “You’re totally hot.”
Ted was in fourth grade at the small public elementary school on Henry Street that was available only to families who lived within the designated district of Cobble Hill. Ted had turned nine in August and could definitely walk there on his own, but Stuart still took him to school every morning on his way to work, half out of habit and half because he enjoyed it. Three times a week Ted stayed at school for the after-school program, Hobby Horse, an extra two and a half hours of games in the schoolyard or gym, depending on the weather, before Stuart picked him up. Twice a week he went with a group of boys to the Brooklyn Strategizer, where they played complicated board games, like Settlers of Catan, until Stuart picked him up. Every day Stuart would text to see if Mandy was up and wanted to go get Ted herself, but Mandy was never up.
Stuart and Ted rolled their skateboards down Cheever Place and turned onto Kane Street. As usual, Roy Clarke, the famous author, was pacing slowly up the street ahead of them. Later on, he’d sit at the bar inside the Horn and Duck, the overpriced brasserie on the corner of Kane and Court Streets. Stuart had never spoken to the man, but he’d decided that Roy Clarke paced because, according to Google, he hadn’t published a book in six years. Stuart also knew that one of Roy Clarke’s books had been made into a TV show. Mandy had watched a few episodes and said it was “annoying.” Stuart hadn’t read the books or seen the show, but he’d always been aware that “the Roy Clarke Rainbow” existed. He knew the books were supposed to be good and that they were named after colors—Blue, Yellow, Green, Purple, and Orange. At some point he’d attempt to read one and see for himself.
Roy Clarke’s gray head bobbed as he paced slowly and deliberately away from Stuart and Ted, hands clasped behind his back, eyes on the sidewalk. Maybe he wasn’t thinking about his writing or anything at all. Maybe he was just counting his steps. It seemed like a lot of people in Cobble Hill were very busy doing not a lot.
“Morning,” Mr. Swiss Family Robinson greeted Stuart from his doorway. Mr. Swiss Family Robinson was Stuart’s nickname for the tall, thin, auburn-haired gentleman who every morning stood at the door of the beautiful brick house on Kane Street, directly across from the schoolyard, wearing a crisply ironed shirt and looking nervous, as if he didn’t quite trust the school to take care of his children. Stuart couldn’t even remember where the name Swiss Family Robinson came from, but it seemed to fit. The house had a bright blue door with a brass door knocker, matching blue shutters, and immaculately curated seasonal flower boxes in every window. Even the sidewalk was cleaner in front of the Swiss Family Robinson house. It was possible that Ted had gone to preschool at Little Mushrooms in the basement of the local church with one of the Swiss Family Robinson children, but Stuart had never encountered any children or even a wife on these morning walks to school, and he had absolutely no idea what Mr. Swiss Family Robinson’s real name was.
Still, every morning, Stuart always said, “Hey.”
“Who’s that?” Ted asked, right on cue. He asked the same question every day.
“I don’t know,” Stuart said, as usual. Then he added, “But we see him every day, so it’s polite to say hey.”
Ted giggled at the rhyme, and Stuart felt his dour mood lighten. Ted was a quiet boy who hadn’t made any close friends yet, but he was a good kid, a really good kid.
Stuart picked up Ted’s skateboard and followed him inside the school entrance. The skinny, dark-haired boy headed up the school stairs to his classroom on the fourth floor, his army-green Herschel backpack banging against his butt.
“See you later, skater. After a while, chile. Be real cool, fool. Eat your food, dude,” Stuart called after him.
He tucked both of their skateboards under his arm and turned away from the stairs toward the dimly lit cafeteria. The school had been built in the 1950s, a mixture of old-fashioned flourishes and uninspired practicality. A sweeping marble staircase greeted visitors just inside the entrance, but the rest of the schoolrooms were prisonlike and drab, with dingy gray linoleum floors, low ceilings, barred windows, and terrible fluorescent lighting. Mothers and fathers in a variety of costumes—business, exercise, Birkenstocks and pajama bottoms, breast milk– or beer-stained T-shirts—straggled by and out the main door. Inside the cafeteria, a mom was crying into a Styrofoam cup of coffee while Miss Patty, the school’s sinewy, sleep-deprived, overly made-up assistant principal who commuted there from Staten Island, tried to comfort her.
On the far wall of the cafeteria was a closed door marked with a yellow sign that read NURSE. Stuart knocked twice, turned the knob, and opened the door.
Peaches stiffened at the sound of someone knocking and opening her office door. She’d been totally engrossed with The Brookliner’s morning news. A headless female torso had been found in the water behind Ikea, in Red Hook. The torso had a tattoo of a rose on her upper arm.
“How can I help?” Peaches asked without turning around. Her early-morning visitors were most often pukers, kids whose parents had fed them multivitamins, orange juice, and eggs for breakfast.
“Hey,” a husky male voice greeted her. “Sorry to bother you. I was thinking of buying a lice comb? It’s for my son. Ted Little? He’s in fourth grade. In Mrs. Watson’s class?”
Stuart thought he detected a crimson flush around Nurse Peaches’ ears and jawline when he mentioned his last name, but her blue eyes remained glued to her computer screen. Without even a glance in his direction, she reached down and pulled open the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet.
“That’s ten dollars. I can’t give you change, so if you don’t have exact change now, just send the money in an envelope with your child and his teacher will get it to me.”
Her voice sounded stale, canned. Stuart was disappointed. “Sure. Okay.” He ran his hands through his wavy brown hair and then realized that she might think that was pretty gross of him, to go around rubbing his hands all over his lice. He stuffed his hands into his pockets.
Unable to resist any longer, Peaches released the scroll button on the computer mouse and swiveled her chair around. It was really him: Stuart Little, from the Blind Mice.
“Wow. Sorry. That was a bit brusque,” she gushed, her entire person transformed by shining, flirty exuberance. You’re a married woman, she warned herself, and a mother Plus, you’re pushing forty. “I try to maintain a professional veneer around parents, but I’m really just a former English major, college dropout mom. I have no idea how I became a school nurse.”
And now Stuart Little thinks you’re insane and stupid.
“Hey,” Stuart replied, hands still stuffed into his pockets. Whenever he was there, in Ted’s school, he felt like a thirteen-year-old kid again—awkward, confused, self-conscious, worried about his armpits smelling, stray boogers on his face, leaving his fly unzipped. He’d never been too awkward, but he’d never really outgrown what little middle school awkwardness he’d had.
“Sorry. That was way too much information,” Peaches said, trying to recover gracefully from her outburst. She tucked a few stray strands of strawberry blond hair behind her ears, wishing she’d come up with something sexier that morning than a ponytail. “Just the one lice comb then?”
Before he could answer, she stole a glance at Stuart’s left hand, tucked halfway into his pocket. The knuckles on that hand were tattooed with realistically detailed, tiny mouse heads. Oh, the fantasies she’d had in college about Stuart Little’s tattooed hand, caressing her all over. Stuart Little. She used to devour everything she could find online about him and study it like it was homework. She was a couple of years older than he was, but so what? She’d taken Intro to Latin in college because of his song “Omnia Vincit!” She’d stopped wearing makeup because of his song “My Girlfriend Wakes Up Pretty.” She’d decided it’d be okay to drop out of college because of his song “Fuck College.” They’d both had their kids before they’d gotten married. Who’d have thought he’d send his kid to the very Brooklyn public school where she now worked as a nurse? Thank goodness her husband and parents had encouraged/forced her to stop pretending to write a short-story collection or play, take the required courses at Adelphi University, get her nursing degree, and seek out this fulfilling, practical job.
Nurse Peaches was wearing one of those old-fashioned long underwear tops—light blue, with big white snowflakes printed on it. It was tight, pulled over the softness of her upper arms and stomach. The open circle of her belly button was heartbreakingly visible beneath the shirt. She didn’t seem to mind. Stuart definitely didn’t mind.
He released his tattooed hand from his pocket and ran it through his hair again. “I don’t know how to handle the whole lice thing,” he began. “My son brought home your letter and I checked him. But I just can’t get it out of my head, so to speak. I feel like they’re all over me.”
“Would you like me to check you?” Peaches offered in the same indifferent, professional tone she’d used before.
“Could you?” Stuart asked, resisting the urge to hug her. “That would be great.”
Peaches pulled a LiceMeister comb out of her drawer and stood up. She pointed at her chair. “Have a seat.”
Stuart unzipped his gray hoodie, bundling it into his lap as he sat down. “I took a shower last night. Not that it makes any difference.”
“It’s easier with conditioner,” Peaches explained, placing a tentative hand on top of his head. His hair was soft. Strands of silvery gray were interspersed with the reds and browns. Thank you Mom and Dad, my dear husband Greg, and my son Liam, she thought as she combed, admiring the sinewy ridges of Stuart’s shoulders beneath his worn black T-shirt. Thank you for cheering me on through those impossibly humbling hours of nursing school.
Stuart reached behind him and lifted up the shaggy hair on the back of his neck. “Under here’s where it itches most,” he explained. “I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still. I just keep scratching. And the more I scratch, the more it itches.”
Rhymes with bitches, he thought to himself. Sandwiches.
Back in the day, the Blind Mice used to get in trouble all the time for using the word bitches in their lyrics. They heard the scoldings of their critics and agreed that perhaps bitches was insulting and degrading to women, but they kept on using it anyway because there really was no better word, except for chicks, which rhymed with dicks, which opened up doors way worse.
Peaches inhaled indulgently and dug in with the lice comb. His hair was so fine and wavy it was hard to part. He smelled vaguely of smoked meat. Of course he did. He and his kid’s mom—whose name was Mandy, Peaches remembered, and who’d once been a teen model—probably went out to those hip new barbecue bars every night and had a rockin’ roll of a time, doing shots and snorting lines in their leather jackets and perfectly worn jeans, while she and Greg and Liam stayed home and ate penne with jarred red sauce for the ten thousandth time and binge-watched whole seasons of long-forgotten TV shows like Fawlty Towers and Mork & Mindy.
“See anything?” Stuart asked with his eyes closed. Even when he’d been kind of a celebrity he hadn’t done any pampering, like getting a massage or a cuticle treatment or having the pores on his nose expunged. He took a hot shower once a day and went to the barber for a haircut a couple of times a year. Peaches’ comb-through felt awesome.
“So far so good,” Peaches said vaguely. “You have so much hair though. This could take hours.”
Stuart kept his eyes shut. “I tried to do the conditioner thing on myself, but I couldn’t really see what I was doing.”
Peaches pulled the top of his right ear out of the way so she could check behind it. There were half-closed holes all the way up his earlobes. She remembered the studs that used to fill them. They looked like screws.
“So, if you didn’t always want to be a school nurse, what did you want to be?” Stuart asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. A singer or a writer or a musician. Something totally useless.”
Idiot. She yanked hard on a hank of his hair to distract him from the fact that she’d just insulted him, but it was too late.
He chuckled. “Maybe I should become a nurse.” Nurse, purse. Rhymes with verse.
Hot school nurse opens up her purse,
Gives me a Slim Jim for my sick verse!
The Blind Mice were known for their flippant virtuosity and total lack of reverence for one particular genre. Their songs were a tongue-in-cheek mixture of ska, punk rock, pop, and hip-hop, with a lot of New York City private schoolboy thrown in. All three Blind Mice had gone to Bay Ridge Country Day School, the only school in New York City with its own duck pond. The Mice’s songs ranged from the angry “I Hate My Art Teacher” and “Driver’s Ed,” to the sweetly romantic “My Girlfriend Wakes Up Pretty,” to the wildly danceable “Omnia Vincit!” in which the Mice shouted rhymes in grammatically correct Latin. The band used to get fan mail from Latin teachers and was featured in Romulus, a magazine devoted to ancient Rome. The cover was shot at the Coliseum. For the video, the Mice staged an entire concert with an audience of thousands all dressed in togas.
“What about your wife?” Peaches asked nosily. “She could comb through your hair.”
Stuart opened his eyes and then closed them again. “Mandy would help,” he said, “but she’s having a hard time right now.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Peaches bit her lip, her curiosity blossoming. Had Mandy gotten hugely fat after the birth of their child? Was she depressed about how fat she’d gotten? Was she too heavily medicated to leave the house? Did they have to raise the ceilings and open up walls to accommodate her?
Stop it, Peaches scolded herself.
“She just got diagnosed with MS,” Stuart said. “A couple months ago. It’s already worse though.”
“Jeez. That stinks,” Peaches said. So Mandy was a brave martyr, boldly facing a debilitating disease. And she, Peaches Park, was an asshole.
Peaches drew the comb sideways from Stuart’s right temple to the crown of his head. A minuscule brown spec tottered out of the follicles in the parting and skittered off toward the nape of his neck. “Oh!” she cried. “I think I saw one!”
Stuart swiveled around in the chair, yanking his hair out of her hands. “Are you sure?” He shuddered involuntarily, horrified that there were actual bugs in his hair and embarrassed that she’d been the one to find them. “Oh God. What do I do? Should I call a lice lady?”
Peaches wrinkled her nose. “Nah. They all live in like, Brighton Beach, and you have to go to them. Plus, they’re expensive and mean.”
She smiled her beneficent nurse’s smile, the smile she’d practiced in the mirror until Liam gave it his “not too creepy” blessing. “Don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for. I’ll take care of them.” She picked up her purse and her denim jacket. “I just have to run to Key Food for conditioner. And I’ll need to call your son down. And maybe even your wife.”
Stuart checked the time on his phone, unnecessarily. Mandy would be right where he left her—in bed, either sleeping or watching TV.
“Mandy’s pretty busy today. Doctors’ appointments and stuff.” He removed his battered canvas wallet from his back pocket. “But yes, let’s do it. Conditioner, check Ted, whatever it takes. I just want to get rid of them.” He pulled out two twenties and handed them to her. “Here. Thank you. Buy a whole bunch.”
“You don’t have to—” Peaches began, but took the money anyway. That was the first rule of working at a public school in a neighborhood like Cobble Hill: always take the money. The parents had plenty because they were educating their kids for free.
“Wait here,” she told Stuart. “I’ll be right back.”
This was how it started:
One weekday back in early July, after Stuart and Teddy had left for Little Mushrooms summer day camp, Mandy flipped aimlessly through the TV channels, just like she always did. She watched the end of a show in Spanish about some jungle in Colombia where the snakes were so slithery and disgusting, she couldn’t look away. Then she watched a show about strange addictions, featuring an elderly woman who was addicted to watching cheesy, sad movies about anorexics—Kate’s Secret, The Best Little Girl in the World, My Skinny Sister—which Mandy was pretty sure was going to get her addicted to anorexia movies. Then she watched Worst Cooks in America, Celebrity Edition, a show she always wished someone would nominate her for. When the show ended, she clicked off the TV and floundered around on the perpetually unmade bed, unsure of what to do with herself.
She hadn’t always been this way. The obvious turning point had been when she’d gotten pregnant and had Teddy. She’d let herself go, which was such a cliché. In Cobble Hill, though, she was the anomaly, not the norm. Most of the moms in the neighborhood were super fit and looked good in skinny jeans even though they were fifty years old. It just made her hate them, which she knew was uncool. Still, she hated them.
That day in July, as she lay on her back in Stuart’s old yellow Blind Mice T-shirt and the same pair of black underwear she’d been wearing for two days straight, she tried to think of something good. Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream was good. Entenmann’s pecan ring was good. Something good about herself though. She turned over onto her stomach, her large chest flattening and oozing into her armpits and against her clavicle. There, that was something good about her. She had great tits. White teeth. Shiny hair. And she was only thirty-five. But somehow that didn’t make her feel any better.
The staying-in-bed thing had started the first warm day in May, when she’d put on a pair of old cutoffs and discovered that she couldn’t zip them. First, she’d complained of an upset stomach, then headaches, then just plain tiredness. She’d stayed tired into June and then taken to her bed permanently, like a woman in an old-fashioned novel. And whatever it was seemed to be getting worse. She was still tired in July, even more tired than she’d been in June.
Deep down, Mandy knew there was really nothing wrong. It was a fake sickness, all in her head. Nevertheless, that pivotal July day she flipped over onto her back and made the fake sickness real.
Her iPad lay on the bedside table for easy access to takeout menus and movies and TV. She slid it onto her chest and googled Always so tired, what’s wrong with me?!?
Thirty-seven pages of links came up. The first few were full of mundane tips about diet and exercise and anemia. Further down she found one that interested her: Signs You Have MS.
She clicked on it.
Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disorder that presents itself in a multitude of symptoms. It is more common in females age 20–50 and in temperate climates, such as the United States, Australia, Scandinavia, and Northern Europe. The most common symptoms are fatigue, double vision, a heaviness or tingling sensation in the legs, clumsiness or difficulty walking, slurred speech.
Goose bumps appeared on Mandy’s arms. She often felt a tingling sensation in her legs, especially when she got up to pee. Sometimes when she ordered food from Seamless it was hard for her to get to the door in time to buzz in the delivery guy because her legs and feet felt like they were disintegrating, like a sandcastle in the rain. She kept reading, feeling the exact same way she’d felt when she’d first heard Stuart and the Blind Mice play “My Girlfriend Wakes Up Pretty.” Like the words had been written expressly for her, because, of course, they had.
Around noon that day her phone buzzed and a text appeared alongside a cute picture of her and Stuart at an outdoor show eleven years ago, when the band was still in semi-existence. Mandy and Stuart weren’t even married then. They hadn’t gotten married until after Teddy—he sat in the sand while they said their vows. Mandy had never even thought about kids or marriage. They’d never even discussed it. But then her IUD had fallen out while they were surfing—or attempting to surf—in Montauk. She hadn’t even noticed until more than two months later when she suddenly craved strawberry shortcake ice cream bars and couldn’t stay awake any later than nine. Stuart had been very sweet about marrying her and embracing the whole daddy thing, which should have made it a lot easier, but nothing about their lives was the same or any kind of easy again.
That July day, still in bed, Mandy read Stuart’s text.
did you call dr. goldberg?
She found the doctor’s number in the list of contacts on her phone, stared at it for a moment, and then went back to Stuart’s text and typed a reply.
yup, news is not good
!!! calling u now!
A few seconds later her phone rang and the same picture of her and Stuart, looking tan and young and thin and happy, lit up the screen. She watched it ring and go to voice mail. A few seconds later it rang again.
can’t talk waiting for tests
She tossed the phone aside and slipped down under the covers, pulling them up to her eyes. It didn’t even feel that weird to lie. It didn’t even feel like a lie. She probably did have MS. All the symptoms matched up. She didn’t even need to go to the doctor.
She sat up, reached for the iPad again, and googled “treatment for MS.” There was a lot of information, stuff about vitamins and injections of hamster placentas and changes in diet. She clicked on a few links and ordered some massive jars of vitamins and green juice powder from Amazon, paying the extra $6.99 so it would arrive the next day.
That was just the beginning. Now it was September and faking it had become almost second nature. The fridge was stocked with green juices, Stuart had changed all the lightbulbs to ones that mimicked rays of real sunlight, and the bedside table was laden with self-help books about coping and parenting with MS. They’d replaced the couch in the open-plan kitchen-living room with a queen-size bed where Mandy spent all her time. Teddy had started playing and reading to himself on the bed so he could be near her. Stuart bought fancy organic frozen meals at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. The three of them ate dinner and watched movies in the bed. It was nice. But Stuart thought she was deteriorating. He was alarmed. He kept reminding her to call the doctor to set up “another round of tests,” maybe get a second opinion. Pretty soon Mandy was going to have to decide whether to continue faking it, or pretend to try some new vitamins or experimental drug and make a miraculous recovery.
The thing was, she’d already gotten so used to pretending, it had become real. The idea of attempting to do anything—walk to the corner deli for toilet paper, open the mail, pay the bills, attend to the Blind Mice fan page, shop online for new clothes for Teddy—just seemed exhausting. She had always been the “responsible adult” in their marriage, the one who made sure the bills and taxes were paid and filed, Teddy’s shots up-to-date, Stu’s fan mail in order. Now she used Post-its for toilet paper until Stu brought home more. The bills stacked up under the bed, unopened, and the late fees accumulated. The fans continued to post adoring stupid shit whether anyone responded or not. And when Stu took Ted for his checkup, even Dr. Goldberg said Ted’s short pants looked fine with long socks.
Besides, she liked it. She liked pretending to have MS and staying in bed. It didn’t feel like she was doing nothing. It felt like she was doing something earned and deserved. She was resting.
Breathless, Peaches returned from Key Food. “They didn’t have Pantene, but Suave is just as good.” She set down a plastic shopping bag containing three bottles of conditioner, a family-size box of Cheez-Its, and two cans of Dr Pepper. “I’m afraid you’re going to smell like coconuts for a while. Sorry, it was the only white conditioner they had.” She cracked open one of the cans and offered it to him. “I got us a snack too. I couldn’t resist.”
Stuart put the soda can down on top of her desk. He hadn’t moved from her swivel chair since she’d left. Knowing he was infested with lice had immobilized him. He watched her tear open the box of Cheez-Its.
“Love these things.” She stuffed a handful into her mouth and offered the box to him. “Please, take them away from me.”
“Sorry.” Stuart held up his hand. “Not to sound like a total asshole, but I’m trying to only eat greens and drink fruit juices today. Mandy and I are trying to eat healthier.” The greens and fruit juice cleanse had been his idea, after reading some WebMD article about how the body absorbs vitamins better after a detox. He wasn’t sure he could make it all day, and he was pretty sure Mandy would cheat, but right now he was kind of digging the hollow feeling in his gut.
Starve myself with fruits and veggies,
Pants hang large, don’t give me wedgies!
“Yours is a worthier soul than mine.” Peaches threw back another handful of Cheez-Its and tossed the box aside. “Okay.” She pushed her hair behind her ears, hoping the electric-orange Cheez-It residue stuck to her teeth wasn’t too unattractive. “This is going to be sort of messy.” She opened the door to the office closet. Mop. Bucket. Disposable thermometers. Tongue depressors. Ice packs. Paper towels. “I just wish I had some real towels.”
Stuart looked down at his T-shirt. He didn’t mind getting conditioner on it, but it might put the nurse at ease if he wasn’t wearing it. He pulled the shirt off over his head. “Does this help?”
Oh yes. Peaches tried not to stare, but it was useless. For someone with such a boyish face and skinny arms, Stuart Little had a very manly chest, with less hair on it than she would’ve thought, and no middle-aged paunch at all. His belly was concave.
“Good idea. So helpful. Thank you. That’s great. Let’s get started.”
Stuart swiveled around in the chair. Peaches retrieved a bottle of Suave Tropical Coconut conditioner and a stack of white paper towels. She tossed the paper towels on her desk and stood over him, holding the bottle of conditioner aloft.
“I’m going to squirt a whole bunch of this stuff onto your head and comb through it. I’ll wipe the excess off on a paper towel. Hopefully we’ll be able to see what we’re getting. And hopefully we’ll get them all.”
Stuart took a deep, shuddering breath. “Go for it.”
Peaches popped open the cap, turned the conditioner upside down, and squeezed, ignoring the embarrassing farting and sucking sounds the bottle made as the thick white stuff oozed all over Stuart Little’s head. She put the bottle down and began to rub the conditioner into his scalp with her fingertips.
“Run away, little fuckers,” she said as she picked up the lice comb. “Prepare to die.”
Stuart closed his eyes once more and shivered. “I just want them off me.”
Peaches dragged the comb through a section of hair. Conditioner piled up and oozed off the comb, dropping onto his shoulders in clumps, like wet snow. She swiped at them with a paper towel. “Sorry. Told you it was messy.”
“Probably should’ve gone with a professional lice lady,” Stuart joked.
Peaches snorted. Emboldened, she drew the comb through another section of hair, letting the excess conditioner ooze down the back of Stuart’s neck, over the slope of his bare shoulder blades, and onto the floor.
She frowned as she combed through another section. “I’m not finding anything. Maybe they’re all hiding in one spot, or maybe you only had the one. Or maybe I was just seeing things before and you never had any at all.”
“Keep going,” Stuart murmured. “It actually feels good.”
Peaches smiled and shook her head. Why had she not thought to prop her iPhone in the corner and video this? Not that she wanted to post it on social media or anything, but for her own personal use.
“You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?” she said. “Some kid is going to come down here with a fever, wanting to go home, and I’m going to be up to my elbows in conditioner.” And you with your shirt off, she almost added, but didn’t, because it had just occurred to her that maybe what they were doing was against school policy. It was very possible that she was breaking some code of staff conduct listed in a booklet she’d been given on her first day of work but had never read.
“It smells great.” Stuart rocked the swivel chair gently from side to side. He felt like he was on vacation.
The first sign of Mandy’s condition was back in late June. They were watching Saturday Night Live and she said, “My legs have felt weird all day, like my feet aren’t connected right. They keep falling asleep.” Stuart forgot all about it until the next weekend, when he’d planned to bike around Governors Island with Teddy on his new BMX bike. Mandy said she couldn’t because she was tired. Then on Monday she said she couldn’t walk Teddy to his first day at Little Mushrooms day camp. She went back to bed and stayed there. A week later she went to the doctor, and after that it was like she had a new job, but her job was taking vitamins and sleeping. Even when she was awake, she rarely got out of bed.
Realistically, though, it wasn’t that much of a change. Mandy had always been beautiful, but lazy. She had always preferred watching television in sweatpants to getting dressed and going out. Now she had the perfect excuse not to go anywhere or do anything. She was sick.
Back when they were in middle school, Mandy Marzulli had been the first one to develop. In tenth grade, her braces came off and she started modeling. At sixteen she made the cover of the “School’s Out” issue of Seventeen magazine, wearing a white bikini on a beach in Montauk. Mandy was a junior and Stuart was a senior. Getting together had seemed sort of obvious. Mandy just hung around after one of his concerts and handed him a beer. Stuart took the beer and kissed her, and from then on, they were a couple. They walked out of school every day holding hands. Mandy didn’t even finish high school. She went on the road with the Blind Mice, traveling everywhere, drinking a lot and not getting much sleep, taking exotic vacations. It was a whirlwind. Then, at twenty-five she got pregnant. A year after Teddy was born they got married and the band broke up. They were both Brooklyn-born, he from Windsor Terrace and she from Bay Ridge, but they’d bought a place in Cobble Hill because the elementary school was supposed to be good and it looked like a nice place to grow up. Stuart started the same job he had now, and Mandy hung out with Teddy and watched TV.
A photograph was taped messily to the wall behind Nurse Peaches’ desk. It was a picture of her playing the drums, her reddish-blond hair pulled up in a 1960s beehive hairdo, a giant grin on her red-lipsticked lips. She looked awesome.
“You play the drums?” Stuart demanded.
“Do I play the drums,” Peaches repeated. She dragged the comb through his hair with rapid, jerky strokes. “I do sometimes, yes. At this crazy bar no one ever goes into. I put on music and play along on the drums. It’s pretty lame, but also sort of fun.”
“I need to check it out.”
“No, you don’t.” Peaches hadn’t yet owned up to the fact that she knew who he was. Now was her chance. “You’re famous. And I’m really not that good.”