In any new venture there is sacrifice: His belly sits like a bowling ball on top of his belt buckle; what little hair he has is always wet with grease. He smells like your father’s friends and acts like them too, the way they used to get too close, wink and smile when the other adults left the room. You met him right after tax returns, so you bought the tube top, the perfume, the heels. This is not frivolous spending but investment capital. You understand this because you studied economics briefly before your kids came along and the first husband left and the good boyfriend got cancer. If you pretend you don’t have them a little bit, loiter at bingo as if you’re in no hurry, maybe he’ll forget what he said about not wanting to take on someone else’s mess and invite you all to come live in his palace, with the hot water and full pantry, instead of the unheated apartment, where you pray that they fall seamlessly asleep behind the locked door, that the VHS tapes you use to entertain them in your absence, which skip and stutter in places from repeated play, don’t break. And finally, just like you planned, when you say you have to get back to them at a pivotal moment, he asks why don’t you just bring them here, there’s plenty of room. Then you’re all in the palace, and it’s as lovely as you imagined, especially when he’s at work and it’s all yours: a fairy tale of bright light and fabric softener and matching plates piled high, and in this new setting they are bathed and pink and fleshy and laughing, and you tuck them in like a sitcom. But when he’s home there’s a list of demands. You must service him, keep earning it. When he says it’s time they learned some discipline, especially the older girl with her defiant gaze that tells him she knows everything, you have a plan. He’s only home and awake for so many hours. He works 2nd shift, so in the summers you pack them a lunch and make them stay out all day. It’s an adventure, you tell them when you pull the covers from their sleeping bodies. While they’re gone, you give him what he has paid for, allow him to sweat over you while he makes you tell him how you’re all his. For the hundredth time, the bile rises in your throat, so you try to focus on a point in the distance to get through it, and as you always do, you run the cost benefit analysis. You realize you may already be in the stage of diminishing returns, consider if you can disinvest, if he’ll follow you, and even though you know about the sunk cost fallacy, you really feel you’ve already given up so much, how can you afford to stop now?
Erika Eckart is the author of the tyranny of heirlooms, a chapbook of interconnected prose poems (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Agni, Quarter After Eight, Quick Fiction, Passages North, The Tampa Review, and elsewhere. She is a high school English teacher in Oak Park, IL, where she lives with her husband and two children.