These Things Happen

“I’d like the striped shirt that jackass in the window is wearing,” I tell the salesperson.


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I’m giving the baby a bath in the white plastic tub that’s parked across the bathroom sink, looking like a small boat going nowhere.

“How do we raise our hand in school, Sara?” I ask, and tickle the baby under her arm as her hand shoots obediently upward. “Very good,” I say, tickling her some more. She tips her head back and laughs hard, as if she’s just heard something hilarious. Watching her, I savor a moment of deep pleasure before giving in to extravagant laughter that brings me to my knees. On the bright bathroom tile I rock back and forth, wheezing and snorting, until finally, inevitably, I retreat into silence, breathless and a little stunned at having lost control like that.

“Oh, Chuck,” I hear myself say. I’m busy with the baby now, soaping her perfectly straight back, her pot belly, -running the washcloth under her neck and down both plump shoulders. It’s been nearly a year since Chuck took off for Florida with his girlfriend. He left me on the hottest day of the year, one day before my 30th birthday. Although I had no intention of dying just then, when I awakened the next morning, I found myself fantasizing about what would be said at my funeral. I wanted to be remembered as someone who was never a complainer despite her losses. Closing my eyes, I could hear the minister praising my resourcefulness, my ability to get by in New York without a husband, a Roku box, or a walletful of credit cards. The minister didn’t know it, but I’d lost it all to Sherri Holloway, a gracious and sympathetic 20-year-old who would later send me postcards from Key West, wanting me to know that she was -thinking of me and wondering how I was doing. I never wrote back because that would clearly have been too much, but the postcards kept coming all the same, and every now and then it occurred to me that I was grateful for them.

“Out?” says Sara. She rises to her knees and thrusts both arms in the air.

“Out of the bathtub and into the fire,” I say as I lift her from the water.

“Nah,” says the baby, and smacks her palm against her forehead in a gesture of exasperation. She is 15 months old — a child of such sweetness and good humor that even strangers on the street find her irresistible and are drawn to her side without quite knowing why. Only Chuck was able to resist her; distracted, I guess, by Sherri’s delicately shaped hands, her quiet, high-pitched voice, her faintly apologetic manner, so much like my own. They fell in love shortly after the baby was born, when I was at my worst — exhausted, bewildered, my body soft as a down-filled pillow, my breasts leaking milk through my shirts. Chuck left just before the baby learned to smile. For a long time I thought that if only he hadn’t missed that — her very first blossoming — he would never have been able to leave. When I told this to him over the phone, he simply fell silent. “I can’t,” he said finally, and sighed. “I mean I can’t even begin to figure out where you come up with these things.”

“Mom,” the baby is saying now. “Mah mom.” Her legs are clamped around my waist, her moist cheek fastened devotedly to mine. We stay that way, in heaven, in love, for what feels like a long while, and then, without warning and without apology, she pees on me.


Pushing Sara in her stroller along the littered streets of upper Broadway, I slow to a stop in front of a store window where mannequins wearing the heads of donkeys, cows, rabbits, and sheep are dressed in the latest sportswear. “Pretty cool,” I say to my daughter and, sighing, wipe the perspiration from the back of my neck. I have to admit that the heat has gotten to me this summer, that all summer long I’ve moved slow as an old lady through the rooms of my apartment, ignoring most of the housekeeping, but frowning hard at the clutter, as if that were all that were needed to make it disappear.

“Hi,” the baby says shyly. “Hi there?”

“Hi yourself,” I say as I wheel the stroller into the boutique. I go through racks of clothing impassively, without interest. I think of Sherri Holloway and Chuck standing together in my living room, the only time I ever saw them together, the two of them standing over the baby while she slept in her bassinet, her behind slightly raised in the air, arms stretched out in front of her. “What a little love,” murmured Sherri. She was there, she said, because she wanted me to see that she wasn’t someone awful, someone who went around wrecking other people’s lives without any thought at all. “I’m sure you gave it a lot of thought,” I said. “I want you to know how much I appreciate it.” Sherri looked unhappy at this, as if she suspected that I had been mocking her. “Honey?” she said, tapping my husband on the shoulder. “We’ve got to get a move on, honey.” In Sherri’s ear there were three earrings, one each of gold, diamond, and pearl. Fingering the diamond, she turned away from my husband and smiled at me. “Thank you for letting me come through the door,” she said. Still smiling, she told me that Chuck had said many good things about me, but I couldn’t imagine what they might have been. Only a few days earlier, Chuck had criticized me for not being “a real person,” which he defined as someone who could cook a decent dinner every night, drive a stick shift, and change a sleeping baby’s diaper in the dark without waking her. It was true that I couldn’t do any of those things, at least not with any confidence or expertise. I had a master’s degree in Comp Lit and could talk about books with insight and enthusiasm with my undergrads, but I could not change a sleeping baby in the dark. “So what?” I’d yelled at Chuck, hating him for making me feel ashamed. “Why does that make me any less of a person?” I hollered. “I’m just telling you the way things are,” he said, still keeping to himself all the rest of it — that somewhere in the city there was an impossibly young woman who called him honey, so gently, so expectantly, that tears would spring to my eyes at the sound of it.

“I’d like the striped shirt that jackass in the window is wearing,” I tell the salesperson approaching me now.

“You’ve lost me,” says the salesperson, who is very pale and very pretty and looks a lot like David Bowie. “I’m not following you at all.”

“The donkey in the pink-and-white striped shirt,” I say. “The one with his arm around the cow.”

“Ohhh,” says the woman, looking toward the display window. “And here I was thinking you’re on drugs or something. I’m thinking, this person is totally wasted, for sure.”

“First impressions,” I say, and shake my head.


Halfway down 107th Street, just before I reach home, my path is blocked by a street musician standing alongside the open case of his electric guitar. A handful of quarters gleams against the maroon velvet that lines the case. The musician is tall and emaciated-looking; there’s a bit of toilet paper stuck to his upper lip, at the point where he’d probably cut himself shaving this morning. The guy is in a daze, strumming the same minor chord over and over again. Impulsively, I empty all my change into his guitar case. And add a couple of dollar bills.

“I don’t know why I’m bothering to say this,” I tell him, “but please go get yourself something to eat, okay?”

The musician goes on with his playing. “All mothers are mothers from hell,” he sings in a monotone.

“Don’t!” I say, bending over to cover the baby’s ears with my palms. Sara pushes me away instantly, and jams her bare foot into her mouth. She sucks on it a while and then gives it up, her foot making a small popping sound as she pulls it out of her mouth. In the fierce sunlight, the tiny foot glistens with saliva.

At the entrance to my building, I put myself in reverse and pull the stroller backward up the pair of brick steps leading to the courtyard. The usual crowd of teenage boys is having its afternoon smoke, filling the courtyard with the sharp, sour smell of burning weed.

“Hey, how’s it going, how’re you doing?” one of them calls out to me.

“I’m not speaking to you, Curtis,” I tell him. “You know how I hate it when I see you with all those -potheads.”

Two women, both of them in their 20s, hold the door open as I struggle to lift the stroller over another set of steps and into the lobby.

“You aren’t going to carry that all the way upstairs, are you?” one of them asks. She is the smaller of the two, and ghostly pale; her short straight hair is bleached nearly white, and she is wearing a dark T-shirt with a rhinestone spider web radiating outward across the front.

“It’s only one long flight,” I say. “Sometimes, if I happen to be here at just the right moment, I can find a neighbor to help. Otherwise, I can manage by myself.”

The blonde and her pal insist on carrying the stroller up the stairs for me. They’re panting a little by the time we reach the apartment.

“This heat is killing me,” the blonde says.

“Would you like to come in and have something cold to drink before you go?” I ask. “There’s orange juice, Diet Coke, anything you’d like.”

“Water would be great.”

They stand quietly outside the kitchen as I fill their glasses from the tap.

“This is super,” says the blonde. “I mean, great water.” She introduces herself, saying her name is Dream. “And this is Metro,” she adds, gesturing toward her friend, who is staring at me and shaking her head so that the single star hanging from a chain in one earlobe swings from side to side.

“Never, ever wear a watch on your left hand,” Metro says. “And I mean never.”

“What?” I say.

“All the energy from your body flows through your left arm,” Metro explains. “The watch will just absorb it all and leave you with nothing. I thought that was a commonly known fact.”

“Maybe in some circles,” I say, and surprise myself by contemplating, for only a moment, a switch to my other wrist.

“It has something to do with physics,” Metro says. “Really.” She moves a hand stiffly over her dark crew cut.

Dream sneezes quietly, almost politely, three times in a row. “I’ve been fighting a cold all day,” she says. “Or maybe it’s allergies.”

“Yeah, well, everyone’s fighting something,” Metro says. “Colds, hay fever, personal demons, whatever.” She is staring at me again, looking at me sharply, as if she doesn’t like what she sees.

“Now what?” I say. “Don’t tell me I’m wearing my shoes on the wrong feet.”

“There are only two directions in life,” Metro announces. “Toward the heart and away from the heart.”

“Your baby’s out of the stroller and into the garbage,” Dream says. “I just thought I should point that out to you.”

I scoot over to the plastic garbage pail and fall to my knees next to Sara, who is rolling a cigarette butt between her fingers. “Drop it,” I say. She smiles at me lovingly, showing off all four of her teeth. Pitching the cigarette butt to the floor, she examines a peach pit carefully before putting it into her mouth.

“Cute baby!” Dream says. “I’d die for a baby like that.”

Metro shrugs. “Would you mind if I used your bathroom?”

Walking to the kitchen doorway, I point down the hall. Dream is behind me, I see now, her fingers laced around the middle of her water glass. Like a bracelet, a bolt of blue lightning is tattooed across one of her wrists.

“My husband has a tattoo,” I say. “A little flowery thing near his shoulder.” I remember my shock at discovering it the first time we undressed each other, so many years ago in his dormitory room. I love it that an accounting student at Wharton had gone to a tattoo parlor in some sordid part of Philadelphia and decorated himself with a single, tiny long-stemmed rose. Newly in love, I wanted to be amazed by him, to be taken by surprise. One night in bed, a few months after we were married, I drew a vase around his rose with a felt-tipped pen, added daisies and lilies and a droopy-looking morning glory. Chuck watched without a word as I drew, and there was something about his silence that made me realize he’d seen all of this before, that I was not the first who had claimed him for my own. I stopped what I was doing and went into the bathroom for a washcloth. I rubbed away every bit of my work, rubbed away at his skin so fiercely that Chuck cried out in pain. It was only when he seized my hand and I jerked it away from him that I finally gave up.

“Oh yeah?” Dream is saying. “So where is the lucky guy?”

I let out a long, noisy sigh that sounds like a whistle. “Gone,” I say.

“Bummer,” says Dream, “but most of the time friends are a whole lot better than family anyway. They love you and forgive you. Like Metro and myself. We fight but it’s not bad, not too serious.”

Looking downward, I see that the baby is negotiating her way between my legs and past me, heading up the hallway to the living room, grabbing onto anything that will make her passage easier — a door frame, the arm of a couch, the edge of a table. She lets out a squeal of happiness and races on her knees to the middle of the room, where a vast mountain of Chuck’s belongings is covered by an orange Indian print bedspread. Rising five feet from the floor, under the bedspread, are all the things he left behind last summer: cartons of books and record albums; a lamp he made out of spare parts from his Triumph GT6; a file cabinet full of tear sheets clipped from Motor Trend and Car and Driver; a porcelain sink attached to a white column that he’d been planning to make into a table; and a clay bust he had sculpted that failed as a self-portrait but turned out to bear a startling resemblance to Jesus Christ. God knows what else is under there — I haven’t had the heart to take inventory since the day Chuck left, and, like a whirlwind, I gathered up his things and carried them off. I only got as far as the living room when exhaustion set in, and for all these months the mountain has stood there, ignored and almost forgotten. I barely even see it anymore. I vacuum around it, occasionally dusting off its peaks when the mood strikes me. Once, in the middle of a winter night, I dreamed that the mountain had simply vanished; awakening, I came out into the living room, heart thumping, and approached it in the dark. I settled myself at its foot and drifted in and out of sleep, my head resting through the night on one of Chuck’s cartons.

Dream circles the mountain with her hands held behind her back. “Whoa,” she says respectfully. “Is this, like, you know, modern art or something?”

“Hardly,” I say, and swoop down over the baby, putting an end to her mountain-climbing. “It’s just some junk that belongs down in Florida with my ex.”

“Florida?” Emerging from the bathroom, Metro is rubbing her hands together, smoothing some of my cocoa butter across her knuckles. The sweet heavy scent of vanilla is overwhelming for a moment, almost sickening, and then it begins to fade.

“I was in Florida once,” Metro reports cheerfully. “The sun was so hot it burned a hole right through my pocket.”

I admire the slender fingers traveling soundlessly in circles along the back of Metro’s hand. I notice another bolt of blue lightning across her wrist as well, and wonder if Metro and Dream are lovers. For some reason this worries me, and I take a small step backward. But now Dream is leaning over me, bending to drop a tiny kiss high on my cheek.

“Thanks,” she says.

“For what, a glass of water?” I say, sounding a little cranky.

“I mean, like, for your company,” Dream says. “It was neat, wasn’t it, to hang out and talk. People don’t talk to each other enough. They go about their business and that’s that.”

I nod my head. I see the tall, slightly stooped figure of my husband leaning against the kitchen table, hear his announcement that he’s going off to Key West, going off to spend the rest of his life without me, but not alone. Why? I ask him, once, twice, and twice more. A few answers would be helpful, I say in a wobbly voice. And there is Chuck shrugging his shoulders, raising them almost to his ears and looking at me in surprise, as if he is just as surprised as I am, as if his astonishing betrayal is news to him, too. These things happen, he says, and strangely enough, in that moment he sounds like an ordinary man.

“Well, take it easy,” I say now, seizing Dream’s hands and then Metro’s, pressing firmly against the bone and flesh of their cool fingers before closing the door behind them. In the kitchen, I rinse out their water glasses, fill the baby’s bottle with apple juice, then take her with me into my steamy, sunlit bedroom, where I undress us both in slow motion. Sara yawns gently as I lay her down along the middle of my bed for a nap. She sucks on her bottle, strokes the soft corners of my mouth sleepily, her eyes half-closed.

Leaving her there, I stand in my underwear in front of a gleaming rosewood dresser. I undo the tortoise-shell clip at the back of my hair and watch as it falls in a deep-brown shawl past my shoulders. I reach into the dresser drawer for my silver-backed brush, an engagement gift from Chuck’s grandmother. The brush is gone from the drawer, along with everything else left over from my marriage, and I let out a thin, sharp cry of pain, as if I had sliced into my finger with a razor. Everything — three or four gold bracelets, a string of silver beads, my diamond wedding band. Gifts from another life, it seems, the one that slipped away from me so fast I didn’t even notice it was already, impossibly, out of reach.

Metro,” I say out loud. Senselessly, I look around for a note of apology or explanation.

These things happen, I hear Chuck saying, and I stare in disbelief as Metro helps herself to my gold and silver, her hands searching delicately through my things while Dream stands alongside me, close enough for a kiss.


Marian Thurm is the author of eight novels and five short story collections. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and many other magazines, and in numerous anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories. Her new novel, I Don’t Know How to Tell You This, will be published in 2025.

This article is featured in the July/August 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  1. Very enjoyable and unique story, Ms. Thurm. I like how you combine this woman’s thoughts telling us the back story of what’s happened to her, with what’s going on with her now because of it. She’s dealing with a lot all on her own that she shouldn’t have to, but is.


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