I wash my hands, scrubbing them.
They still smell of shit.
Sophie went joyfully down the slide, straight into Danny’s waiting arms. When he
offered to help her climb back up, she said, “By myself.”
He clapped. “That’s my big girl!” and returned to sit beside me on the bench, his hand on my left thigh. To my right, Sophie’s travel potty, still unused in its package.
It had been three days since Sophie announced: no more diapers. Festive and excited, we also bought a pink home potty, a plastic ladder for climbing to the toilet, and twenty pairs of size-3 Frozen underwear.
“Should I check if the sitter’s available tonight?” he asked.
That first day, Danny understood my good intensions, but suggested that if I kept asking her if she needed to poop every two minutes, she’d think it was some big deal. Yesterday he was enraged when he heard me promising her a pizza if she went in the potty. Why offer rewards for a natural process?
Now, on the bench at the playground, I said, “She hasn’t pooped in three days,” not looking at him. Not at preschool, not at home. We shouldn’t go out.”
He took a deep breath, trying to hide his criticism, “You think she’s in pain?”
Sophie was spinning another girl on the merry-go-round.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I’ve been reading about toilet anxiety. It’s a fear kids develop during potty training. They hold it in, then they get constipated, and then when they finally let it out it hurts, and it becomes a traumatic exper-”
“What?” Danny laughed. “Toilet anxiety?”
“It can end with an enema or even surgery, Danny. The experts suggest giving a gentle laxative. Not that we’re there yet.”
Now the other girl was spinning Sophie.
“How about a break from Facebook?” he smiled. “It’s like diagnosing yourself with cancer on Google.”
“I wish we had friends with children.”
“If you’re so worried you should call Dr. Barak.”
“I will, but I want to learn from other mothers’ experiences first.”
“It’s sort of like looking for proble-”
“There is a problem.” I glared at him. “And you’re ignoring it. And me.”
He raised an eyebrow, then dialed on speakerphone.
“No cause for concern,” the doctor assured us.
Danny looked at me victoriously.
“A child can hold it in even for ten days without any health risks, and possibly without constipation-”
“But how can we even tell if she’s ready?” I blurted. “Maybe we should offer her a diaper only for pooping?”
“After your whole ‘big girl’ shtick?” Danny barked. “Are you nuts?”
“I don’t know,” I hissed. “At least I’m trying to figure this out.”
“But Dr. Barak just gave you another week’s worth of peace of mind!”
Dr. Barak coughed.
Danny smiled at the phone. “Turns out my wife can’t control everything.”
Dr. Barak laughed. “Well, that’s a problem for another doctor.”
That night, his hand searched in the dark for my breasts. I whispered that I was tired.
He moved my hair from my face. “She’s going to be fine,” he said, rubbing my stomach. I blocked his hand with mine.
“Okay, good night.” He turned over, disappointed.
When his breathing slowed I burrowed under the blanket, losing myself in my phone. Suddenly, he glanced over my shoulder, then recoiled with insult when he noticed my choice. I tried to appease him with an embrace.
He pulled away. “Go fuck your iPhone.”
Sophie had her second helping of Cornflakes. Six days. Where was all that food going? I pictured a dark, dense lump of food in her small stomach.
“Can I have chocolate milk?”
For a moment, I couldn’t remember if Danny was still home. We spoke so briefly. He was right across the room, stuck at his computer. I turned around and quickly stirred the powder into Sophie’s chocolate milk. I hid the bottle.
“Baby,” Danny kissed her forehead. “Let’s go to school.”
That night, Danny waited for me in the kitchen after Sophie finally fell asleep, his arms crossed.
“Ilana found Sophie crying in the bathroom, covered in poop,” he announced coldly. I gaped. “Diarrhea, to be exact. Surrounded by dirty wipes. A huge mess. She tried to clean it up—”
My heart was racing. I flushed with heat. “Why are you only telling me this now?” I cried. “Why didn’t Ilana call me?”
“Did you give her something?”
He fixed his eyes on me. My pulse pounded in my temples.
“Laxative? Gentle laxative? Like you mentioned the other day?”
“Of course not!”
He kept his eyes on me until I heard my trembling voice confessing.
“It was a natural remedy… just a stool softener..Tears filled my eyes.
“Bravo,” he almost gloated, “Now she’s ripe for toilet anxiety.”
“Thanks a lot, Danny,” I said. “Maybe I should have lied to you.”
My hand shook as I stroked Sophie’s hair. The image of her in the bathroom flushing me, “I’m sorry” I whispered over and over into her sleeping face. I curled up in her little bed, staring up at the stars on the ceiling. My phone vibrated.
A Messenger alert.
It had been two years since we’d last met. Three days since my last visit to his Facebook page. Two days since I wrote him. The anticipation of a response had transformed into insult from his silence, then into the realization that I should never have written him, and a hope that he’d never answer. But now Ron had.
How long have I been on this bathroom floor? I had my regular spot and position.
Sophie towered above me on the toilet seat.
Ron said she wasn’t likely to go at preschool, so she’d better be in a safe space in case the poop came. Racked with guilt, I picked her up from school every day at one instead of four. Long days. Lunch, bathroom, television, bathroom, snack, bathroom, playground, bathroom. She never resisted it, nor did she ever do her business. We’d watched everything on YouTube. Read every book on the shelf. I’d come up with every dumb rhyme about how pooping was fun. “Mom, can I get off now?” “Let’s try a little longer.”
We were reading Olivia for the hundredth time. You’ll grow old on the bathroom floor. You’ll die here. But now, suddenly, Sophie flinched above me. I jumped. Her elbows squeezed against her stomach. “It hurts,” she whined, gasping. “It hurts.”
“Sure it hurts, sweetie,” I said, relieved. “You just need to poop.”
“I don’t.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“There’s poop in your stomach and it wants to come out. Come on, give a little push,” I said.
She began to get off the toilet.
I sat her back down, firmly. “You’re not getting off until you poop.”
She started to get off again, and I sat her back, again. “Let’s go, right now. Do it already! Now! Push! Come on!”
She squirmed with stubborn refusal in my arms, kicking me, then biting me as hard as she could, crying hysterically.
I sat her down, furious. “You’re doing it, end of discussion! If you don’t poop you’ll get a time-out!”
She screamed, “Daddy!”
But there he was. He picked her up over my head and pulled up her underwear and leggings.
“What are you doing?! Her stomach hurts, she’s got to poop!” I tried to rip her away from him, but he held her tight and fast, evading me.
“Go take a walk,” he said. “Calm down.” Then he turned away from me and asked Sophie, “Want to play with your dolls?”
“No, she wants to poop,” I moaned. But they’d already disappeared into her bedroom before my defeated eyes.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
That night as I read her a bedtime story, she began to writhe with pain again. I tensed up but continued to read, glossing faster and faster over the sweet, glittering prose. She fell asleep before we reached the happy ending. A cloud of pain rested on her face. Exhausted, I put my head in my hands.
Suddenly, I smelled something foul. When I noticed her expression—finally peaceful—I figured it out. I pulled off her underwear carefully and threw it in the garbage. I wiped her off. She didn’t even wake up.
I walked into the bedroom, wiping the sweat from my brow. “She pooped in her underwear,” I sighed.
Danny looked at me. “Is that good or bad?”
“At least she went.”
“But what does Ron have to say about it?”
I swallowed, recounting our correspondence, my deleted messages. What had he seen?
“Since when are you two back in touch?”
“Since when do you go through my phone?”
“Since I have a reason to.”
“How dare you?”
“You want to talk to me about morals?”
“There’s nothing going on. He’s a child psychologist.”
“For a therapy session, you’ve erased quite a bit of it.”
“Because I knew you’d get pissed off.”
“Sure. It’s my fault.”
“I wanted to get his opinion about Sophie. That’s all.”
“Does he call all his patients ‘babe’?”
“Jesus. It’s just a nickname… Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s over.”
He looked at me. “Hasn’t it been over for two years?”
“I meant the messaging.” I plopped down onto the bed. “I’m so tired.”
“You said you’d leave the studio to think things over, take some time off,” he said. “All you end up dealing with is poop. Or Ron.”
“How long has it been since we last fucked?” He punched the pillow. “A month? Longer?”
“I envy you for being able to think about sex.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Like you don’t think about sex when you talk to Ron.”
“He’s a child psychologist.”
A Google Calendar alert from Danny: “Appointment with Dr. Shafir, early childhood psychologist. Number one in her field. She has a cancellation tomorrow.”
I texted back a thumb’s up emoji and returned to Messenger.
My body hurt from sleeping on the thin mattress in Sophie’s room, staking out her nighttime poop.
Dr. Shafir explained, “Poop is a source of control. It’s natural that she’s only going in her sleep.” Her beautiful face beamed at us. “What area of her life won’t you let go of?”
Danny pounced at the question. A familiar, foul smell attacked my nostrils. Distractedly, I brought my fingers to my nose. I’d washed my hands twice at home, and again when I got here. Still, I smelled like shit.
She said, “Stay out of her underwear. Her poop is none of your business.” Her eyes moved from Danny’s excited face to me.
I got a whiff of her shampoo and inhaled, but my stench wouldn’t let go. My fingertips, my palm, under my nails. They needed to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. “Stop saying poop,” I said. “It isn’t poop, it’s shit.”
They were silent. Then Danny turned to me, “Are you willing to try this or not?”
I stayed out of her underwear. But I recognized the moment. The flinching. The concentration. The effort. The fleeing to a hidden corner like an animal. I kept repeating, It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. I emptied her underwear. Boiling water. Bleach. Or the garbage. The bathroom became superfluous. The potty and the ladder were monuments. It only happened in the daytime now, so Danny was miraculously spared from dealing with it. It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. The smell didn’t leave me, even when I burned my hands in the hot water. It was in my blood.
One night, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Me carrying smelly underwear; he a toothbrush. I wanted to kiss and make up, but instead I shoved the underwear in his hands defiantly. “Here. You deal with this.”
He took it, expressionless, wrapped it up in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash.
I yelled, “Can’t you see this isn’t working?”
“We’ve made a commitment to try it, and it takes time,” he reminded and reprimanded me. “If we change course now we’ll drive Sophie crazy.”
“Same deal.” The lips that used to kiss me were now talking about shit. “You put her to bed when you know she’s tired, feed her when you know she’s hungry. She can’t get off the potty when you know she has to go. Five minutes. Time it. If she goes, great. If not—”
Ron had a beard now. I knew he grew it to hide old acne scars. Four years. What was he thinking now, looking at me but only discussing my daughter, Danny’s daughter?
The voice that used to call me ‘babe’ now emphasized the importance of consistency and patience. I rested my head in my hand. The smell flooded my airways again.
“Can you take some time off to devote to this?”
“I am taking time off,” I said. “I’ve left the studio.”
“Really? Where did you move to?” I recognized his instant regret at asking a personal question.
“Nowhere. I just wasn’t happy there.”
“Anyway,” he got back on track, “those five minutes are not about fun and games. No books, no phone. She’s supposed to get bored, so she’s motivated to—” “Ron.”
He looked at me tentatively.
“Do my hands smell like shit?”
I reached out my hands. He stared at me for a moment, hesitant, but finally took them in his, bringing them to his nose, sniffing from a safe distance. “They smell like patchouli. It’s from the hand soap in the bathroom. It’s nice.”
I grabbed his hands as they pulled away. Don’t go.
They covered my face.
I wept into them.
We couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in harmony, so that we never came face to face. Back to face. Face to back.
“I met with Ron,” I finally said.
The rustle of the sheets paused. The reading light went on. “Why?” In his voice I heard the anticipation of an excuse.
“Because I wanted to see him.”
His face paled. His eyes fell away from mine.
“I wrote to him because of Sophie, but I knew we’d end up meeting.”
He said nothing, but his eyes bounced around. Lots of questions.
“I don’t know if it’s about him, or just about feeling like a normal woman. Or tenderness. Something we don’t have.”
A paralyzing silence fell over us.
Suddenly, we heard footsteps. We watched the door vigilantly, expecting Sophie’s sleepy face and small body to climb into bed with us. Instead, we saw the bathroom light go on.
We heard the squeak of plastic against tile. Danny put his hand on my arm to keep me still. I looked at his skin touching mine. Silence. Then another plastic squeak, followed by her footsteps. Silence again.
We walked together to the bathroom and stared at the full potty.