Jessica Pishko

Before Izzi goes to sleep at night, she likes to leave a light on. Usually, it’s the bathroom light which she leaves on, and she closes the door halfway, as if there was somebody in there who might be coming out any minute. If not the bathroom light, she will turn on the television, quietly, as if there is someone watching it who will be done soon. Her memories of her mother are of the faint sounds of the television drifting down the hallways, of dishes rattling against each other in the sink as they are being washed, and of a faint light drifting down the hallway so that she does not need her night-light. She will go to sleep like that, with the light on all night, reminding her that there is nobody there.

She is so tired. Matt came back yesterday, and finally took his things. Now, half of the closet was empty, like a carcass, with hangers dangling. She had been too tired to take the space over with her own clothes. On the bookshelf, books were missing like it was losing its baby teeth.

When Matt said that he was leaving her, Izzi didn’t cry like she thinks he probably expected. Instead, she walked around the apartment and slammed all of the doors, one after another. The bathroom door, slam, and bits of plaster fell from the ceiling, finely coating the surface of the sink. The bedroom door, slam, and the ceiling light shook, and a print fell from the wall, but didn’t break because it was covered in plastic, not glass, purchased from a street vendor when both she and Matt were too poor to afford actual prints.

The front door wouldn’t slam. She tried twice, but the hinges were the kind that slow the door at the moment of impact, so that it was impossible to slam. In a fury, she punched it, but she couldn’t punch hard enough, so she kicked it and kicked it and kicked it. There was no effect on the door except for a black skid-mark from her shoe; also, there had been a faint metallic sound. It occurred to her then that the door was part metal, probably required to be fire retardant.

Izzi thought that Matt would be angrier, that she was slamming the doors, that she was kicking the front door in futility. It was really very melodramatic, since she knew that no one ever actually broke a door by slamming it. It was more like the temper tantrum of a child, the kind she had when she was thirteen. She didn’t want to talk to Matt. When she returned, she saw him looking sad, his eyes cast downward, also somewhat melodramatic, she thought.

“What?” she said to him. She felt graceless in naked feeling, as if she was stripped raw, and her voice cracked, her face was red.

He didn’t say anything, but shook his head.

She told him, “I am going to leave the apartment, and when I come back, I want you to be gone.”

He didn’t say anything.

“At least nod and tell me that you understand,” she said.

He nodded and got up from the couch.

She turned away but spoke to him anyway; he might not have heard her, her voice might have been trailing off as he walked in the bedroom and opened dresser drawers, “This isn’t my fault. You’re ending this, and I don’t see why it should be easy for you. It isn’t easy for me.” Izzi had a sense that she was restoring rightness and order to the situation. “I knew I should never have trusted you. Fuck.” She kicked the door again, but more to show herself that she was, in fact, helpless.

Izzi was never really afraid of the dark, although she told her mom that she was. She had a special night-light that plugged into a socket and cast a shadow through frosted plastic. When she went to bed at night, her mother would turn it on. Then she would close Izzi’s door, but not all the way. Izzi didn’t want it closed; she’d feel too isolated, trapped.

It was not the dark that she feared, but the noises in the night. Soft sounds of the television, canned laughter, were good noises—the bad ones were muffled shouts, her mother crying, and, later, the garage door opening and then closing. Izzi would look intently at the night-light then, since she knew it wouldn’t go out, even when the noises stopped and all the other lights in the house were off.

Izzi forgot that she had told Matt that she would leave the apartment while he was packing—he couldn’t have been packing much, because he came out of the bedroom with only a duffle bag.

“Thought you were going out,” he muttered to her.

She was looking out the window to the street, which wasn’t particularly busy that day. It was a grey March Saturday, and probably looked colder than it actually was. The people walking by outside, walking dogs, carrying bags from the deli, weren’t wearing hats and some had their coats unbuttoned.

She also had been listening. To Matt packing his things. She heard two drawers open and close, and she knew one of them was the one that sticks a little, because she heard the familiar rattle when Matt tried to get the drawer to run smoothly on the grooves. A few hangers moved in the closet, but not many, and she guessed that he would come back for his suits later. She then thought to herself that leaving was never that simple; you can never take everything away all at once. It takes time. Or else Matt thought that she would change her mind by Monday, so he wouldn’t need to pick his things up after all.

“I’m going to crash at Will’s apartment until I find a place.”


“I’ll probably have to come back tomorrow or something to get more of my stuff. For work, you know. I have a meeting, I need my suit.”


“You took it with your stuff to the dry cleaners yesterday, you know. I know I shouldn’t ask....”

“Forget it, I can pick it up. I’ll just leave it in the closet, just get your stuff when you feel like it.”

“You know, Izzi, it doesn’t have to be this hard… I mean… it’s not like we didn’t see this coming. I just felt bad telling you that I didn’t want you to move in.”

It is true that she had talked Matt into moving in together. It was economical, she’d said, with both of their salaries they could get a better apartment. It was practical, she’d said, since she was basically living at his place anyway. She had already disconnected her phone and internet at her old apartment.

But she knew it wasn’t really either of those reasons, although they weren’t bad reasons. She thinks that in reality she just wanted something that was wholly hers—she wanted something wholly hers to come home to. Matt was reliable; he liked to watch Fox news, even though she hated it, but at least this was a predictable sort of problem. He liked to complain about his back pain. He liked to get takeout and fall asleep watching TV. At the point they started dating, she believed that it was better to look for somone with minor problems rather than major ones. Let him crash at Will’s—it was her apartment now.

Izzi thinks about the phone call she had with her mother the previous month. The sky was heavy and leaden, Izzi had been unable to leave her apartment, her limbs were embedded in the sofa. Her mother was crying when she called Izzi.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

Her mother could not stop crying—she hiccuped.

“Mom, Mom, what is it? What’s going on? It everything OK?”

“I’m miserable,” she said.

“What are you talking about? What’s going on? What’s wrong?”

“I hate your father and I want to leave.”

“What? What happened, did you get in a fight?”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Well, what is it?”

“I can’t take it anymore.”

“Mom, what do you want? What do you want from me?”

“I just need you. I need you there because no one understands me.”

“Mom, what do you want? Do you want to come here? You can always stay with me.”

“No, no, no, I can’t leave. I just can’t take it. He is unbearable. He promised that he would change.”

Izzi wanted to ask her, What is wrong with you? Why don’t you just leave? It can’t be that hard to pick up a suitcase and leave. Izzi didn’t ask her that, though.

“You wouldn’t understand. I just can’t stand it anymore. I just can’t stand it! He drives me crazy, you have no idea what it’s like.”

“Well, I know he’s difficult.”

“You have no idea. You just don’t know. I can’t stand it.”

“What do you want? Do you want me to buy you a plane ticket? Do you want to come here?”

“No, no, no, I can’t do that.”

“Well, you can’t just stay there and be miserable. Just leave for a while. Maybe you need a break, think about things.”

“No.” Her mother had stopped crying. “It’s going to be OK. I’m just tired and upset.” She was always just tired, just upset.

When Izzi was a girl, she used to get so angry at her mother. She wrote her mother notes that said, “I hate you.” Izzi taped them on the refrigerator, in place of spelling tests or pictures that her mother might have posted there, but never did. She wrote them in crayon or marker, her artwork. “I hate you and I wish I was never born.” Then, later, Izzi would creep to the kitchen in the middle of the night. She’d take the notes down and replace them with ones that said, “I love you.” Sometimes she crossed “I hate you” out and wrote “I love you” on the same piece of paper. Then she’d rub her eyes until they were red, as if with tears, and she’d peek into the den, where her mother was sitting alone in the glow of the television. It was late, 2 or 3 in the morning. She’d go to the couch where her mother was sitting, and sit next to her, her head in her mother’s lap. Her mother would stroke her hair. “What’s wrong?”

“I had a bad dream,” Izzi would tell her, while a woman on television demonstrated how her new juicer would take any fruit and pulverize it into a pulpy drink. A happy man next to the woman would take a sip of the orangey-yellowy goo.

Without Matt, Izzi’s days seem empty. When she wakes up in the morning, she doesn’t know what is supposed to happen next, and she has to talk herself through it—Wake up, Brush teeth, Shower, Put clothes on, Eat. And then she remembers, it’s been one day, two days, one week, one month.

She knows after break-ups, people lose appetites, they grow lean in grief, or else they consume, consume, consume, gaining the extra pounds that any magazine would tell you how to lose. This part she understands, and she can read books or ask friends all about this.

But what she does not understand is the loss of desire. It isn’t really that she doesn’t feel hungry, it’s that she can’t remember what she likes to eat. As if, along with her Krups coffee-maker and the wok pan that she and Matt had bought together, he had taken away part of her memory that contained this information—what she liked and what she wanted.

Which is strange to her, since she didn’t really think that she and Matt wanted the same things. It had been a long time since she had wanted to have sex with him, or at least at the same time that he did. When he reached for her, she didn’t resist, and she viewed objectively how he handled her body, her breasts, her thighs, her clitoris, but she felt no real pleasure in it, while at the same time not having figured out how to explain this without sounding cold. So she played along and acquiesced like the way you would politely invite someone to stay for dinner, although there wasn’t really enough to share.

Izzi definitely had her doubts, and she had tried calling once to tell her mother about it.

“Matt—how’s Matt?” her mother asked.

“He’s OK, I guess, I’m just not sure sometimes.”

“What, what do you mean?”

“Well, I just feel like he doesn’t understand me very well… I can’t explain it any better, I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“He just doesn’t understand me, I can just tell, it’s terrible, I’m sorry. I feel really bad about it, he means well.”

“Honey, who would understand you?”

Izzi picked up a framed photograph of her and her mother at Christmas; in it they were both wearing blue and have the same eyes. She threw it across the room and it shattered.

“What’s that?” her mother asked.

“Nothing, Mom, I just dropped a glass.”

Her mother sighed. “I knew something was wrong between you and Matt, but I didn’t know how to ask.” Her voice rose in panic. “I didn’t know what to say to you. I didn’t know what I had done to make you like you are.”

“You didn’t, you didn’t do anything wrong. There wasn’t anything you could have done, it had nothing to do with you.” It was youth, rebellion, an insecure girl, Izzi thinks. A girl who drank too much, smoked too much, had sex with the wrong people.

But then, Izzi thinks, that wasn’t it at all. She wanted her mother to care, like a protective momma bear—so many times, Izzi desperately wanted her to scream, grab a shotgun, run off into the night like an insane and angry mother, the kind that would be featured on CNN.

When Izzi was in high school, she and her father got into an argument. She left her laundry on the floor of the laundry room, or she stood in front of the open fridge, she can’t remember anymore. They were sitting in the kitchen, her mom, her dad, and herself. Each of them had assigned chairs at the kitchen table. She would never pick up her chair and put it in its place, she always dragged it out from under the table; there were grooves on the formica tiles on the floor where she insisted on scraping the chair across the floor.

“You are such trouble! I don’t understand you,” her father yelled. “I don’t understand you.” His anger shook the table, shook the tomatoes in the salad her mother had set out on the table. Izzi had not sat down yet. Her father slapped her across the face, and she tipped onto the table, slid to the floor. “How dare you disobey me. How dare you. You have no right. You live under my roof.”

“Leave me alone!” Izzi ran into her bedroom and slammed the door. She flung herself onto her bed, shoved her face into the pillow. She wanted to scream but she didn’t. Tears leaked out. She wanted to hit something, punch something, throw her furniture out of the window and into the yard that her dad mowed every other weekend, even in August, when it would be so hot he would come in cursing.

There was a knock on her door, and her mother opened it a crack, then came in. Izzi peeked out at her, but then put her face into her pillow again. Her mother sat down on the edge of the bed; she was crying. Her face was red and blotchy, her hair frizzy.

“He doesn’t mean it, Izzi, he doesn’t mean it.”

“I don’t care,” she said into the pillow.

Her mother stroked her hair. “He doesn’t mean it, Izzi. You have to apologize.”


“You have to, you have to.’ Her mother could barely talk, she was sobbing. “I need you to apologize. You have to make things right.’

Nothing is right—Izzi didn't say anything, but chewed the pillow.

“You have to make things OK with him. You can’t go to bed angry.”

He won’t apologize.”

“He will, he will. You have to understand he doesn’t mean it.”

Izzi shook her head into the pillow, but her mother was crying, sobbing, clutching her. “You have to make everything OK, you have to, you have to.”

She had no choice. She walked out to the kitchen. She sat down in her chair.

She looked at her father. Her mother said to him, “Tell her, tell her you are sorry.”

Her father looked down at his plate. He was already eating dinner. “I’m sorry,” he said to the salad.

“I’m sorry,” Izzi said, looking at her mother when she said it.

Sometimes when she was a child, Izzi would fantasize that she was sick. Not really sick, nothing that would kill her, but sick, nonetheless. Very ill, in the hospital. Her mother would be hovering over her head, and she would pretend to be asleep, in a twilight, half-in, half-out of sleep.

“What is wrong,” her mother would say, near tears, to the doctor.

“You daughter is very ill,” the doctor would say gravely. “She requires special care.”

Her mother would promise Izzi to always take care of her, always. She would promise Izzi that she would always be treated well, that she would never be yelled at again. Her mother would take her home, and, there, her mother and father were nice to her. A favorite child.

When her father was in a bad mood, there was a silence to the house. Izzi used to imagine that she walked from room to room as if wearing a kind of burka, an unseen presence, shrouded and impenetrable. Her father would sit in his study, the only sign that he was in there might be the light underneath the door. Her mother would put her finger to her lips as a signal to be quiet. They would sit silently in the kitchen, eating meals while trying not to bang forks against plates.

Izzi and her mother would not talk then. There was nothing that they could say to each other.

After a day or two, Izzi’s father would come out of the study, his hair rumpled, as if he had been sleeping. He would shuffle into their bedroom and close the door. Once, the following day, Izzi woke up and her father was in the kitchen with a bag of bagels on the counter, making coffee, spreading cream cheese on a bagel.

“Good morning,” Izzi said to him.

“Good morning.” Her father sat at the kitchen table with his bagel, opened the paper. He gestured to the bag without looking up. “Help yourself.”

Izzi’s mother came into the kitchen wearing a robe and slippers. “Good morning.”

Her mother pulled a bagel out of the bag and started to cut it. “Don’t you want one?” she said to Izzi.

“No,” Izzi said and started to walk out of the kitchen.

“Please come and sit down,” her mother said. Her eyes looked at Izzi and were brimming with tears.

Izzi was unable to hurt her. She knew that standing in the doorway, ready to leave, was to her mother as if she had pulled the knife from her mother’s hands and slashed her face. Izzi watched her mother’s hands shake. Izzi accepted the bagel from her mother.

When Matt had been asleep in the bed next to her, Izzi thought about being dead. She imagined herself lying, quietly, in the ground, where it was dark, and all she could hear was his breathing. He always breathed so loud, that, she thought, if they were somehow buried together, he would have sucked out all of the air and she would die.

Now, in the morning, the sun wakes her, slanting though the blinds that didn’t close tightly enough to keep it out. It had never woken Matt up. Izzi got up and went into the kitchen, started coffee, poured herself cereal.

Matt would never wake up for another hour at least. And she never would wake him up.

Now that Matt is gone, she likes to sleep with the blinds open. Matt would always tell her that it was unsafe, because someone could be looking inside the apartment. But Izzi figured such persons who worked that hard should be rewarded for their industry, and there wasn’t much to see, anyway. At night, Izzi sees the lights in the apartments across the street blink on and off as people move from room to room. She likes to watch them come on, and then suddenly go dim as if the people inside the apartment had decided they don’t need lights anymore.

Jessica Pishko lives, works, and writes in New York City. Her 2006 story, "Night," appears on "Izzy Accepts a Bagel from Her Mother" is a storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Story.

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