Aria — Camryn Whaley

Scrubbing isn’t good enough. I silently curse whoever made this generic Lysol and sent it off to be stocked on shelves right next to the real deal. The temptation to save $1.79 won me over, and now here I am with this useless spray. The plastic laminate countertop resisted every effort I made to rid it of the stains that clung to it since we moved in. For three weeks, I had tried everything I could to make the shabby little house more inviting, but it fought me at every turn. If possible, it was only turning colder and more unfamiliar. I toss the damp washcloth into the sink and grab my phone from my back pocket. I tap the words ‘how to get stains out of countertop’ into Google, and I’m returned with a recipe for a baking soda paste that promises to lift blotches from any countertop. While I stare at my phone screen, I hear the pad of little feet coming through the living room.

“Ari?” I call out.

She peeks her head around the corner and then warily steps into the kitchen, wiping sleep from her eyes with the sleeve of her pajamas.

“I was just going to go to the bathroom,” she says with slight contempt.

I decide to test the waters with a friendly question.

“How are you feeling this morning, kiddo?”

She blinks hard at me as if I had just asked her to do a backflip. She stays quiet for a minute, and I think about just how small she looks, standing there in her button-down pajamas adorned with cartoon dogs and cats.

“Fine,” she offers half-heartedly as she heads in the direction of the bathroom.

I decide to let it slide for now and start fishing around in the aging cabinets for baking soda. Standing on my tiptoes, I retrieve the orange box from a top shelf, and I think about how much easier it would be if I didn’t have to do it myself. I picture Julian’s long, lanky frame, and I can nearly see him in the kitchen, putting on the coffee for us and pouring the juice for Aria, just like he had always done. I crouch and root around in a lower cabinet until I find a couple of blue plastic bowls and set them on the counter. It dawns on me as I rifle through a drawer that we still only have plastic utensils. I should go to the thrift store and try to find some silverware this weekend, I think to myself. Ari loved the thrift store when she was little. There were many times when we would let her loose in a Goodwill and she would run squealing to the ‘big girl’ clothes, which she loved to put on and play pretend in. She always had the biggest imagination. Once when she was 3, she put together an outfit consisting of a tutu, a tuxedo t-shirt, and Groucho Marx glasses. I thought Julian would laugh until he peed himself.

I set aside one of the bowls and a plastic spoon for Aria’s cereal. She was ‘grown’ now and liked to pour it herself. I reach for the half-empty box of Frosted Flakes on top of the fridge and place it next to her bowl. I take the other plastic bowl across the kitchen and fill it with a little water from the tap. I add a few spoonfuls of baking soda to the bowl and stir absentmindedly with the flimsy plastic spoon. Things here are so quiet in the morning, I think to myself. There’s a noticeable lack of car noise outside, since now we’re far from highways and main roads. Our old house was in a fancy-schmancy subdivision with a clubhouse and a community pool, the whole nine yards. Julian had always dreamt of a house like that, and after working an office job for seven years, which he so often referred to as ‘hell with cubicles’, it became our reality. I couldn’t stand the thought of selling it, on giving up everything we had worked so hard for. But I had no choice. I wonder what the new family is doing in our house. I imagine them sleeping in our beds, wearing our clothes, eating from our pantry, and once again, I start to get that strange feeling, like a stranger is crawling around in my skin. The world becomes fuzzy, and I take a seat at the kitchen bar that doubles as our dining table.

Aria comes back into the kitchen, now dressed for school and with her backpack in tow. She hoists herself onto the barstool farthest from me, leaving nothing but empty space between us.

“Milk?” she says inquisitively.

I stand again and open the fridge. We’re seriously lacking in groceries, but I try not to let Ari see my worry. I slide the 2% milk across the counter to her as she pours her cereal.

“Hey, wanna go to the thrift store today after school?” I ask her, trying to keep a chipper tone in my voice.

She shrugs in reply, mindlessly swirling cereal around her bowl. Her eyes flit to the copy of ‘Coping With Loss’ sitting on the edge of the counter, and then back at her bowl again. I grab the book and stuff it in a drawer filled with medical bills and other bureaucratic bullshit. Ari’s obviously not in the mood to talk, so I decide to stop pestering her. I spread the baking soda paste over the multitude of stains on the countertop and let it sit. The clock on the stove reads 7:25, and Aria walks her bowl over to the sink.

“I’m going out to the bus stop,” she tells me softly.

I follow her to the front door and kneel down to hug her.

“Have a great day sweetie,” I tell her as I kiss her on the forehead. “You can always call me if you need anything.”

“I know,” she replies, and then she’s out the door.

I watch her walk to the edge of the street and wait by the stop sign. Sighing, I make my way through the tiny living room back to the kitchen. The clock reads 7:31. With a wet towel, I wipe the baking soda from the countertop. I let my head fall into in my hands and sob. The stains are still there.