Why this?

The occasional poem of my own and a generous helping of work by others that I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Conduit

Laura leaned over the kitchen table, the balls of her shoulders hitched up and pushed in towards her chest, pin-thin forearms bearing her weight. Her eyes were on the maples that framed the backyard. It was well into November, but these trees held onto some last leaves, leaves still obscenely pigmented. She mentally replayed a lesson she’d given her class recently—

During winter, there aren’t enough resources for photosynthesis. In fall, the trees begin shutting down their food-making factories and the chlorophyll—the stuff that makes them green, remember—goes away from the leaves. As the bright-green fades, colors like yellow and orange appear, and actually, traces of these colors have been in the leaves the whole time. We’re just not able to see them in the summer months, because they’re masked by the green chlorophyll.

“Made bright by the absence of something.” She spoke out loud, laughing in a particular way over how easily the words had come and wondering why she didn’t slip into this sort of thing more often.

Rolling an empty Coke can on its side and taking a seat at the table, Laura thought more about the trees, trees that predated her little family’s arrival to their Whidbey Island home by decades. They were old and fat, though not old and fat like the sugar maples of her Northeastern childhood. Those trees, thick and sticky and a hundred years strong, they were true kings. And whatever was going on around them, they were in all likelihood still there. Thinking this was a small comfort to her.

Squinting past the leaves, she saw anatomical maps, brain anatomy maps, in the branches, and she was back in the exam room with Mom—two weeks earlier; Lake Union stretching glassily below, the better portion of its body captured in the neat square of the top-floor window. But those maps, they’d been the primary objects of Laura’s attention—a show of twists and turns and folds with a blend of predictability and intricacy that stunned; her breath had caught momentarily, inexplicably (why now?)—trumping even the words of the doctor, which, considering it was the third time in, didn’t require a whole lot on the part of the listener. “I hate to break it to you, but.” Ritual words, she’d thought.

She spied a flash of color beyond a dense clutch of pines—there, gone. She guessed it was her husband Ben, or maybe just more leaves, stirred by the wind. Ben was out there somewhere, she knew, with Macy their retriever, chopping wood or clearing brush or something else. Something, somewhere she wasn’t.

She considered going out to see if it was him. She could bring him some coffee, or a beer. Two years before, she would’ve thought about putting together an entire meal to take him—fruit salad, squiggly straws, checkered tablecloth tucked into a picnic basket, everything.

But she stayed put, lacking the energy it would take for one such multi-step, non-required action. She decided to call her friend Stephanie instead. Steph, whose trademark curls were fresh in Laura’s mind following their joint visit to the hospital the day before.

As she waited for an answer, Laura saw that it was definitely Ben on the other side of the glass. He’d almost cleared the trees, and the sleeves of his bright flannel were streaked with dirt and bunched at the elbows. Evidence of work done; proof he knew how.

“Hey, Steph. So listen, I wanted to talk to you about my cousin. Steven. I know he’s not the type of guy you usually go for, but I talked to him on the way home from the hospital yesterday and he told me he’d really like the chance to do some city stuff with you. He mentioned meeting you in Seattle for art shows and concerts and interesting food and all the other things you like to do.”

Laura was talking fast. She was keenly aware of this, and the sped-up words sounded strange to her, tight. But she continued.

“And you know, he’d love to take you on hikes and scenic drives up the mountain. He even talked about teaching you to fish, if you’d just give him a chance. He said he had a really good time the other night.”

She struggled to contain her irritation as Steph protested this latest. “Fishing? He said that, that he wants to teach me to fish? Oh, Laura.”

“Steph, please, just give him a chance, let him take you out next weekend. Think about it—it’s not like you’re seeing anyone else right now. What’s there to lose? If you go out a few more times and decide it’s just not there, then you’re no worse off. If you just give it another date or two, I promise I’ll drop it. I wouldn’t be pushing this if I didn’t think you guys could really have something.”

A few minutes later Laura hung up. She was frustrated at Stephanie’s resistance. Steven was a good guy, and she didn’t want to have to turn around and tell him Steph wasn’t interested in a second date. Especially when she’d already suggested otherwise.

Then Ben was at the door, shaking off his gloves, preparing to join her inside. She thought again of trees. Trees as static, silent, unreadable.

Her husband kissed her on the forehead, gave her side a squeeze, and walked toward the fridge. Seconds later he’d be on the couch with a beer and the paper. As he had always done. As if nothing were different, everything well enough.

* * *

Where was his response? Stephanie stared at her phone, expecting a beep, a text from Clayton. He’d called off their relationship three months before but the texting marathons were still routine.

It rang instead. And it wasn’t Clayton.

“Hey, Kari.”

Kari, her best friend since grade school, when it had been Kari, Laura, and Stephanie—all the time, everywhere. Kari had left Seattle at the beginning of the year, following the boyfriend to Florida where he was soon to start school. The two of them, she and Kari, had done a decent job of staying in touch over the years. All three of them had, in fact, even with Laura’s straight-out-of-college domesticity: the husband, the house, the kids.

“I’m okay. You?”

Still nothing from Clayton. Stephanie thought about texting again.

“So, I visited Laura’s mom yesterday,” she said, falling back on her bed, hitting pillow. “The surgery went as well as they could’ve hoped, and Ruth actually looks better than I’d expected—more rested than Laura, who’s been at the hospital every hour she’s not at work or running the kids around. I told her she should take a day off.”

Even lying down as she was, Stephanie’s head felt tired and heavy, like a burden. Following words of agreement from Kari, she continued.

“Laura’s dad and brother were also there. We all grabbed lunch at the cafeteria: Laura and I and the two of them. And, um, Laura’s dad ate all my French fries. It was weird. I asked if he wanted some, and you know, I assumed he’d take two or three. But he grabbed a handful, put them on his plate, then when he was finished he started helping himself to more. He was eating straight off my plate. Sometimes that family’s so weird. I’m sorry, they just are.

Stephanie looked down at her stomach. Was it flatter than usual? She thought maybe it was.

“That reminds me, Laura’s trying to get me to go out with her cousin again. She refuses to let this go. But the thing is, I feel weird saying no, because of her mom. I just feel… bad.”

As she said goodbye to Kari, Stephanie continued to watch her stomach, to cautiously admire it. No Clayton-text, but at least there was this.

* * *

Laura pulled into the driveway of The Little Gym, where her four-year-old daughter had started tumbling classes a month earlier. Grant was at the kids’ daycare, so it was just the two of them, mother and daughter. Lila, decked out in her new purple leotard, jumped excitedly out of the car, anxious to greet the giant trampoline she’d been talking about nonstop. Once inside, Laura chose a comfortable-enough chair near the balance beam and pulled out a magazine.

Minutes later: “Mommy, look! Watch me!” Laura glanced up to see Lila poised on the long red mat for a cartwheel, right arm up and out, little brow intent. She looked like Ben when she made that face, Laura thought, smiling faintly.

After a while, the kids, about a dozen in all, retreated to the back of the gym, away from the beam and where Laura was sitting, where they watched as the instructor demonstrated the day’s routine. Heavy on the somersaults, Laura noted.

As she flipped through an issue of Child, her thoughts drifted back to Saturday morning, to the hospital, to her mom, her mom’s brain cancer—

The surgery, the latest of three, and all in the last two years, had gone reasonably well, Mom’s doctor had explained. They’d gotten all they could of the tumor given how close it was to the tissue required for speech comprehension. Next: looking at Mom, looking for a sign, a “this is it, no more fiddling, in the clear once and for all” indication. But Laura hadn’t found anything of the sort, receiving instead the impression of a woman—her goddamn point of origin—whose patchy hair and heavy eyelids mocked Laura’s memories of girthy, glossy ponytails and clear blue prisms. Her mother’s. Mom’s. She’d put on a happy face, of course, insisting she felt “worlds better” than she had after the last surgery—“just a run-of-the-mill headache, honey”—but the escalated dose of pain meds she’d furtively requested of a nurse told a different story.

At home later that same night, Laura had sat with Ben on the couch while two-year-old Grant, who on seeing his grandmother’s shaved head had burst into tears, which had given way to a complete meltdown in the hallway outside the hospital-room door, lay sleeping in front of the TV, his rosy little half-naked body draped across the family dog, also sleeping. How she wished for her son’s capacity to forget. Out of sight, out of mind. Not in any kind of lasting sense; just long enough to get a decent night’s sleep. To repair.

“Mom’s doctor sounds optimistic,” Laura had told Ben. “He says that if Mom can just stay dedicated through the rehab process, there’s no reason she can’t regain at least some of her agility. And I really do feel good about this new hospital.”

“Yeah. That sounds good.”

Ben had been rubbing her back, and the pleasant shivery feeling partially countered Laura’s annoyance at his choice of words. That sounds good?

“How did your dad seem?”

“You know Dad—he’s still keeping up the whole denial thing. Stephanie was there, and suddenly he starts talking to her about how much he’s looking forward to their trip to Ocean Shores next month. Next month! You’ve seen Mom—she can hardly swing a trip to the bathroom, let alone the goddamn coast. Unbelievable.”

“Yeah. I guess he just doesn’t want to think about it.”

And… silence.

At this point, the back rub had stopped feeling good. Or, more accurately, her husband’s hand firm on her low back had felt as good as her heart and head felt bad, which only confused Laura, and scared her even more.

Back in the moment, the gym: Why did he offer so little? So the man she’d fallen for back in college hadn’t come with a great degree of emotional transparency, but didn’t her mom’s situation warrant words with more heart than banalities like “that sounds good”? Still flipping pages, she reached “Inside a Colic Clinic: The new thinking on how to treat babies who cry (and cry and cry).” She was afraid that if Ben didn’t come through soon, her whole idea of him would irrevocably shift, completing the turn that had started around the time of her mom’s diagnosis. If this happened, she didn’t know what she would do. They had kids.

The oldest of whom had resumed screaming her name—”Mommy! Mommy!”—as she was launched repeatedly by her beloved trampoline into the air.

Such sweetness, Laura thought, clapping at, and vaguely jealous of, such easy happiness. Lila’s grinning face looked positively radiant, her cheeks a full pink, her forehead wet, shiny near her delicate hairline. The abundance Laura saw there on her daughter made her ache from somewhere deep.

Her phone was ringing. It was Kari.

“Hi, you. … The surgery? Yes, it went alright. Mom’s just resting up now. She’ll be in the hospital a couple more days before she’s moved back to the rehab facility.”

Kari started talking about a friend of hers, a friend whose dad had gone through “something similar” the year before. Laura, though, wanted out of this line. She cut in—

“Hey, Kari, so has Steph said anything to you about my cousin? You know I’ve been trying to get them together. They went out once and it sounded to me like it went well.”

Lila was still bouncing away, landing on her back, her side, rarely her feet. She was giggling, and it seemed to Laura like she’d never stop.

“Yeah, well, I’m not giving up. They’re both single and they’re lonely and it can work.”

Around her, a few parents had begun standing up and pulling on coats. It was almost time to go, though Lila, whose face had grown so bright as to evoke in Laura a strange, low-level nervousness, appeared nowhere near finished.

The next thing she knew, Laura, who wanted to get in a quick trip to the hospital on the way home, was feeling her chest constrict with a thick shot of panic. She sprung up and strode fast towards her daughter, not caring that her pronounced action had drawn the stares of several parents. The only thing she cared about, the only thing she was even really aware of besides Lila and the need to get going, was a word—two words as one, really—that had emerged low and chant-like behind her eyes. Timecap.

* * *

Later that evening, Ben and the kids in bed, Laura sat with a glass of wine in her favorite chair—a worn-out rocker from her own childhood. One of her earliest memories was of this chair, of her mom (“let’s pretend we’re in a little boat in the middle of the ocean, just the two of us”), her mom’s arms securely around her, a certain Johnny Mathis song crackling through the record player. Even today, she knew the composition less by its actual name than as, simply, “the Laura and Mommy song.”

Ben had disappeared into his workroom immediately after dinner, as he’d done most nights recently. He’d mentioned an especially busy week at the office—a field office of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife where he’d worked for three years as a biologist, researching and implementing habitat restoration policies. She could hear him typing in there, an irregular clacking of keys.

Tipping the chair gently back and forth, Laura thought about that old song and wondered how it would be to listen to it again, so many years later. Closing her eyes, she thought about—she felt—her mom’s hand in her own. Hours earlier. Quick trip, way home. Breathless on arrival, she’d found things as usual, as she’d last left them: Mom, Mom drained, mustered smiles. Laura had squeezed that hand for everything, immediately overcome with guilt at the sheer volume she’d extracted over the years. Feeling utterly exposed, she’d squeezed a second time, squeezed for everything in reverse, squeezed against premonition, against a daughter’s knowing.

Then, remembering the laundry, she stood up and left the chair to rock itself.

* * *

“Hey Kari. Listen, I need some advice.”

Stephanie was at the grocery store, phone wedged between ear and shoulder as she sifted through overripe bananas. The store was crowded and she wasn’t in the mood.

“Laura called me last night, and the only thing she wanted to talk about was her damn cousin. She just kept pushing, talking about how we should hang out as friends at least. I wanted to say I didn’t want to be his friend, but she sounded like she was getting choked up, and I sort of panicked and said I had to go.”

Narrowly dodging a cart manned by a person half its height, Stephanie wondered if she might get away with cracking open one of the nice chilled beers in her own cart.

“That wasn’t even the end of it. I got an email from her this morning, and she actually asked me to call Steven and tell him I don’t want to date. Because she doesn’t want to be the middle man. I mean, what the hell? This whole thing makes no sense. Should I just call him? For all I know, she could’ve told him I had the time of my life the other week.”

She grabbed the remaining items on her list and headed toward the checkout. Kari was saying something about displaced emotion—“mom so sick... frustration with Ben... setting you guys up... wanted to birth something successful and new”—and there was a moment of recognition before Stephanie’s attention was drawn back outward, to a familiar striped pattern on a shirt up ahead. Sure enough, it was Clayton, and his arm was slung casually around some girl’s waist.

“Oh, shit. Kari? I’ve gotta go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

* * *

The call came three days later, while Laura’s third graders were tracing around their hands in pursuit of paper turkeys.

It was her dad: her mom was dead.

He kept talking, but his voice was strange and wispy, and she had to step out of the classroom to be able to hear. Even then, she wasn’t getting it all. “Internal bleeding... complication of the surgery... too much, too fast...”

As she leaned against the wall of the empty hallway, phone at her ear, Laura closed her eyes. Timecap. Time, capped.

She felt a vacancy in her own looping hallways, her interior dim and scooped, nothing to land on. Next lesson, class: “Made dark by an absence of something.” What’s that, too easy?

She called Ben; she called the school principal. Then she got in her car and drove home.

She heard the music faintly from their front stoop as she fiddled with her keys. The water in her eyes was making everything slosh and it was hard to see what she was doing. But this was okay, because as if on cue, the door opened, the music clearly audible. Her purse was taken from her and she was led inside, the door closing behind her.

The tears had started running down her face and she still wasn’t seeing clearly, but it didn’t matter. The arms around her were warm and permanent, and the combination of this and the breaking feeling inside her and the song, wherever it was coming from, worked.

* * *

Predictable: the clock kept ticking. Minutes gave way to hours, hours to days, days to weeks. And one of these weeks, days, hours, minutes, Laura’s husband, whose compassion in the wake of her mother’s death had revealed itself quietly, cautiously, uniquely, led her into his workroom. There was something he wanted to show her, he said.

They stood in front of the old drafting table in the center of the far wall, where Ben would sit and replicate whole ecosystems, mapping vegetation, animal life, all kinds of ecological data… Though it was what he did for work, Laura had always found the results beautiful and she used to wander in routinely as he drew, commenting on the careful attention he’d given a particular eddy or sediment cross-sectional. It was art pure and simple, she’d told him; he could sell it if he wanted. And how full her heart would feel, looking at those detailed renderings, watching him at work, his hand as it slid across the faintly gridded paper.

But here now, what awaited her was different. Not replicated but created. New-world plans, she saw, Ben giving her a chance to survey his handiwork before starting in with an explanation.

There were trees—three of them, forming an obtuse triangle and recognizable as trees behind the woodshed in their backyard.

What wasn’t familiar, what wasn’t possible to recognize, was the thing drawn within them. It was a house, and it had curved walls and a four-sided roof and two porthole-like windows like the kind seen on old ships. It had Dutch doors fastened with four hinges, and it had a circular deck and a rope ladder and a firemen’s pole. It was colored red. It was as pretty a house as any she’d seen.

“Remember how, just after Lila was born and we’d only been here a few months, we talked about a treehouse, about how perfect a spot those three old maples afforded?”

Ben was standing behind her, their clasped hands held tight at Laura’s sides. Her head was at his chest, and she liked the way his front felt against her back. She closed her eyes, opened them.

“I remember that.”

“Well, I figured, why not now? She’s old enough, and Grant’s not long away, and the neighbor kids…

“Anyway, I found this great website, and I picked up a few books on treehouse construction, and this is my first draft. Pretty preliminary; I’ll obviously need to sit down and hammer out the finer logistical points, but I think I can make it come out pretty close to what you’re looking at here. I was even thinking, you know Lila’s pirate obsession? Well, one of the books details a sort of trap door feature that looks easy enough to pull off.”

Laura heard the confidence in her husband’s voice and felt buoyed by it. Still amazed at what he’d created, and moved by the love behind it, she admired the acuity of the bark on the trees, in her head seeing him late at night—it was clearly what he’d been up to in recent past—hunched over his desk, with his mechanical pencil tracing the most negligible of lines, lines like veins. Next, a vision of Ben’s confidence as resin: tooth-strong and binding each of the five years they’d been together—life sap flowing, fixing, root to crown. Rhythmically, events spanning their relationship flashed through Laura’s mind, and they were events of no particular significance, just things that had happened. Markers. And as she stood there, looking, leaning, she let something go, and it was like nothing and everything at once.

Succession

“Honey, let’s do something unexpected. Like drive up to Snoqualmie Falls. December is always so pretty there, you know?”

Nothing. The silence embarrassed her.

“We can leave Charles with my mom. We’ll have the whole day.”

Tim, startled, appeared to backtrack in his head. “Oh. Sorry. But I just have too much going on. New client means new everything-that-comes-along-with-that.” She found it darkly funny the way her husband of five years addressed her, swinging his eyes from his computer toward the couch where she sat with their cat on her lap. Toward, not to. Because he never managed to complete the gesture, his attention coming to rest just shy, on the edge of the kitchen table.

Caroline, close to laughing (season of perpetual hope my ass), kicked absently at the ottoman, her bare foot just missing the cushy upholstery, connecting with the hard wood frame.

“Shit! Shit shit shit!” She grabbed her foot in her hands, squeezing the toes where they’d hit. She was whimpering, really hurting.

This caused Tim to look directly at her, even utter an “oh, ouch” once he realized what had happened. For a second she felt amazing, like a grand-prize winner, but this fast lapsed into irony as she recalled the last time she’d caught him really looking. She’d been brutally sick in bed, her face lit up with fever. He’d looked then, though she remembered feeling more like a museum artifact than his dearly cared-for wife. Like a peculiarity, something he was considering for the first time, but for its cold cultural significance only.

Still, he’d brought her fluids and food, remembered medicine, until she was well again.
The day-to-day pain, though, the stuff he would’ve had to look in her to see, not just at her, this went unobserved. And so she walked with it, laid with it, and as she was doing now, sat with it: a big scared hollow known only by herself and a few of her closest friends.

***

April 12, 2006. Caroline sits rigid in the salon chair, hands clenched beneath nylon cape as her stylist works through a knot in her hair. Pinching just above it, protecting Caroline from the slightest of tugs, Shelley eases her comb in and out, again, again. With the care of a surgeon, Caroline thinks, feeling the lump start to rise in her throat.

She settles on Shelley’s face, finding something almost desperate there, like mourning: the way her lips are pressed and her forehead is waving, and her eyes, her blue eyes that have gone dark with overemotion. “It’s okay, I’m okay! Go ahead and just yank right through it!” Caroline feels like shouting. At the same time she feels like swiveling in her chair and wrapping her arms around sweet, sweet Shelley. But she doesn’t, mostly for selfish reasons, mostly because she wants to horde the comfort.

Like always, she barely recovers in time—swallowing, suppressing. Shelley makes it through the knot, which lightens things a bit. But Caroline still feels the lingering weight of another’s compassion, and when Shelley grips her hair between two fingers and makes clean parallel snips, this adds a new dimension. It’s the same when she works product at the roots and down the length, tugging and scrunching with such intention, and also toward the end when she travels slowly around Caroline’s head, twirling the dark blonde strands around an aluminum brush, patient patient patient while she points the blowdryer, waiting a few seconds each time for the curl to set. It is the combination of precision, patience, and soft warm air hitting her neck and scalp that produces the effect: that makes Caroline feel excruciatingly important.

“Well, what do you think?”

As Shelley positions a hand mirror behind Caroline’s head so that she can see the back, Caroline smiles and swings her hair.

“I love it. It looks great—like always.”

Caroline follows Shelley’s eyes, which remain on the wall mirror as she unsnaps Caroline’s cape.

“Yes, it’s a good shape. The best for you I think.”

Yet Caroline thinks something about Shelley’s expression makes her look not quite satisfied, or like she knows she won’t be if she keeps on looking. She turns away from the mirror and gives Caroline’s shoulder a quick squeeze.

“See you in a few?”

“Yes, maybe sooner than you think. I swear, it’s like my hair’s in the middle of a weird growth spurt or something. It just keeps...”

Caroline knows she needs out, needs to get outside. She hurries to the counter and pays, stuffing a generous tip into one of the miniature manila envelopes. Once outside she hugs herself, wishing to trap some of what lingers. After a while she touches her hair, moving a hand along the length, pausing at the bottom where it flips carefully. A good shape.

***

She pulls open the door of her apartment, greeted by the whir of the ceiling fan and the smell of last night’s takeout. A cat, her cat, slinks around her ankles, purring, instantly content.

It’s been just her and Alistair for almost a month, for as many days as have lapsed since her last trim. Looking down at him as she places her keys and purse on the side table where they belong, she feels an inkling of confusion creep in, settle. Her eyes land on Alistair’s empty food dish and the thought “what if I accidentally? ...” flickers in her mind, where it’s joined by a small amount of fear, and by recognition.

***

Five weeks earlier, she’d been going over sh- words with her second-graders. Shut, short, sharp… Three of them stood at the blackboard, backs to the class, arms and legs twitching impatiently as they awaited the next word. She focused on their hands, grubby little fingers wrapped around bright stubs of chalk. Billy kept drawing on himself, the elastic waist of his jeans by now caked with white grit. She thought about stopping him, or sending him out to the hallway as she’d done in the past, but it didn’t seem important enough this time. This time it seemed… funny. Suddenly it was all she could do not to laugh.

She collected herself. “Okay, ready? Next word is… ship.”

They, the contestants in this day’s round of “Spell or Die” (what could she say, kids respond to grand finales; they’d voted the name in), combined to make all the obvious gestures: clutching their small foreheads in pretend concentration, turning to gaze at her quizzically, spouting “ooh ooh, I know!”s… Peter, an earnest redhead and a personal favorite of hers, was the least demonstrative of the three, his self-assurance reflected in a quick nod. He stood waiting, as if for some cue other than the word itself. It made her slightly anxious. What are you waiting for, you’re losing your advantage. Write, quick, while they’re still wasting time.

He did, although not quickly at all. As she watched him eek out his curves and lines, she squeezed a fistful of loose cotton at her hip, her long teacher’s skirt pulled taut against her thighs. Meanwhile, the others—James and Forrest—had begun their own renderings, stabbing at the board with their ground-down chalk, dragging letters out with the same force that launched their wiry selves through the day. They went fast. Half a minute later Forrest was done, and not two seconds after that, James. Peter was the last to finish, closing up his p as her stopwatch hit a full minute. The outcome: s-h-i-p (James); s-h-i-t (Forrest); s-h-i-p (Peter). This made James the clear winner, being the first to spell the word correctly.

Forrest, though, had a different take. Because while going with a t over a p must have seemed like the greatest of great ideas at the time, sure to get him some nice loud laughs, Caroline guessed that losing to his halfway-buddy made her undervalued student (Forrest was the youngest of six; his dad and mom, both meth addicts, worked at the nearby Tulalip Casino) feel absolutely awful. She imagined no amount of laughter could have cancelled out the kind of awful he felt at the moment just before his little rocket-fist flew into action, the only action he could think of to take, the only action that would teach James that he, Forrest, was the best one. The best speller, the best person.

He hit him hard, connecting first with nose, next with cheek, before falling down with the force of it. Clearly audible: the clean pop of bone-on-bone, rattling teeth, a sort of hiccup. Forrest hopped back up and he kept going, pelting the bent-over James, who was clearly incapable of a rebuttal, with punch after punch after punch. The sounds kept going, too, though they dulled a little as Forrest became more frantic, less targeted in his blows. Then, after what struck Caroline as a period of ironic reverence, with not a single person in the class, herself included, responding physically to the event, everything erupted all at once.

It was amazing, she thought, the breadth of movement. The legs and feet kicking out and back; the arms shooting forward; hands waving, pointing, pumping... They, all boys of course, badly wanted a role, and here they were, launching their slim missile bodies up and down the aisles of her classroom, their success all but clinched in this grand fight against air. She turned to the cluster of teary girls that had gathered next to the door. They hardly moved at all—the only part that did was their faces, scrunched up and quivering. And it wasn’t only the girls who were crying. There was Jayson Wentworth, who had spoken maybe ten words on the year and was all-out wailing, switching his attention back and forth between the horrible cartoon (bam! bam! kapow!) front and center, to Caroline, to where she stood motionless behind her desk at the back of the classroom.

With Jayson’s attention came more attention. This was because Forrest was getting tired, his punches slowing down, with James crouched and curled in on himself like a threatened sea anemone. The mellowing created room for new thoughts. And as Caroline observed eye after scared eye swing toward and settle on her, no fight left in them, she saw the change of heart, the realignment, the confusion: They wanted her help now. So why wouldn’t she help? Why wasn’t she being like a teacher?

She’d think back on it later—during the drive home that afternoon, on the couch with her husband Tim the same evening, in a booth at Applebee’s the next day over lunch as the school principal awkwardly “dismissed” her. (“You must be aware, Caroline, yesterday’s incident was hardly the first of its kind. We think it’s best that you take some ‘you’ time. We spoke with your husband, and he mentioned getting you in to talk to someone, to a… professional.”)

She thought about how unconcerned she must’ve looked standing still like that as one of her kids beat up another one, and for kind of a long time; about how, to an audience of seven-year-olds, she must’ve looked terrible and uncaring.

Yet she’d cared through the whole thing. She’d cared so much—connecting Forrest’s motivation with the act of violence with the flow of energy in the room with the indirect participation of her students with the shifting allegiances—she’d run out of time for the other parts. How to explain this? How to explain that it wasn’t a matter of not caring, or worse, of wishing harm on her students, but that it was as quantifiable, as universal, as physics? That she would’ve addressed the tending-to-James part of the sequence if she’d only had time.

The answer: There was no explaining. Not in a way that would get her understood.

The eyes, once they’d settled, never budged. Forrest and James had joined the silent plea, Forrest as distracted by his teacher’s complacence as much as he was his own exhaustion. Caroline saw on James’ face, a face blotchy and blood-streaked with a newly cockeyed front tooth, a reaction to her betrayal: hurt, shame. And on both their faces, anger. Why didn’t you stop me/him?

The door opened, and in walked the teacher of the other second grade class, Mrs. Mallory, or Kendra. She and Caroline were buddies, but work buddies only, so not close. Given the noise level, Caroline was vaguely surprised that it had taken her so long to appear.

Kendra was still for three seconds at most, long enough to scan the room, linger briefly on Caroline and connect the dots (for there had been prior things, slips smaller in scale yet worrisome enough). She flew into action—“okay, everyone, sit down,” “Caleb, go get the nurse,” “Caroline…” Caroline what? There was nothing to finish with—Caroline knew it and she knew Kendra did. So her name just hung there.

The last meaningful thing that occurred to her before Kendra helped her gather up her things and walked her silently across the parking lot to her car was how much Forrest’s deep blue t-shirt had been like the ocean, his fist approaching and receding like the tide.


The day of the fight was exactly one week before Tim left. In the course of the first six days, he tried with all the warmth of a mathematician to get at what was behind it—not only the fight, but various other events like leaving Charles at daycare until ten at night, failing to help her arthritic grandmother out of the car, neglecting to walk their beagle for days on end.

“I don’t understand. I just do not get it, get you. You were talking to your mom? You were on the phone, shooting the shit with Cecilia, and that’s what prevented you from picking our son up from daycare?”

Caroline felt the thickness in her head, and she couldn’t imagine what she was about to say. “I know. It’s just that I needed to finish up. Since you talked to Mom about me, about the school, she’s been worried. But it’ll get better, everything will. I just need, I think I’m tired.”

Tim leaned forward on the couch, elbows on knees. “Caroline, you clearly need to talk to someone. I’ll see about getting you an appointment with a doctor this week, okay? I’m sure there’s someone at that clinic up on 32nd.”

The way he was looking at her (weird weird weird—yet I’m obliged), she wanted to bring him down, collapse his skinny arms. She started to explain a ‘no’ answer, but Tim cut her off with an angular hug, his chest shrinking slightly with the effort, and this she wanted to make last. Because as she stood there with her head on his shoulder, she got to be close without having to find what to say. And it was what she needed.

***

The next morning, after Tim had left for work, Caroline sat watching her son, taking in the sweet sound of his babbling. He had about a ten-word vocabulary, but preferred to fall back on the more expansive gibberish he’d grown so comfortable with over the months. Because she’d collapsed the baby safety gates, Charles was free to roam about the usually off-limits room. At one and a half, he was as curious as the next toddler. He walked in uneasy circles, pausing occasionally to grab hold of the edge of anything that stuck out—refreshing his confidence, Caroline smiled in understanding, before he continued to toddle along unaided. His head bobbed around the whole time, seeking out anything worth more than a second of his time.

After about a minute, he’d found it. Just the thing: the Kosta Boda vase her grandmother had brought back from her last trip to Sweden. It was a substantial piece, thick and bottom-heavy, and it sat alone on the middle shelf of their antique bookcase.

Caroline sat casually: back against the couch, legs pulled loosely into her chest. She was enjoying herself, enjoying watching as Charles’ brown eyes, her brown eyes, grew big as he stared up at the nice shiny toy a foot above his head. He even appeared to cock his head slightly to the left, to consider. At the point his chubby arms went up, his fingers fully extended, reaching, reaching, she counted nine tick marks in her head—no gates, free to roam, compelled by curiosity, faltering, refreshing, faltering, refreshing, pulled in by the prize, going after the prize—which was at least as many as she recalled taking down the day of the fight, and certainly more than with any of the other times.

She was halfway to ten when she heard the door open, close. Tim stood there, in clear view of her and Charles. And with one dramatic whoosh, everything he’d been carrying dropped to the floor as he lurched toward the living room.

“WHAT IN THE FUCK ARE YOU—”

The pretty Swedish vase was airborne before he could finish. Just barely grazing Charles’ right shoulder on the way down, it hit the carpeted floor with a thud, making fifteen, and as dull a sound, she thought, as Tim’s entrance had been striking. Charles was crying now, his little body shaking with the effort. Tim swooped down, wrapping their son in his arms, hugging him. Her husband was crying. He was hugging so tight, she thought.

He looked at her then, and she brought her hands to her face. Feeling there the wetness of tears, of verifiable anguish, she realized it. That this time, she had a number, too.

He’d gone right after, pausing at the door and muttering something about getting her a doctor’s appointment. He took not only Charles, but the dog, with him. He left the cat behind, with her. He’d never liked their cat.

***

Since that day, she’s heard from him four times, exactly once a week. Each time he asks if she’s called for an appointment with one of several psych docs he tracked down online, and each time she says not yet but she will… soon. He’s staying at his parents’ house in the next town over—he won’t be there long, he tells her, just long enough to “sort through things.” She knows what he means, he says. Yes she does, she says each time. What she leaves out is everything else: the satisfaction she’d felt at the moment it was clear he was leaving. Leaving because he was supposed to, because it was next. The next (last?) tick mark in the sequence, the logic of one through eighteen.

Part of it—all the orchestrated suffering of the last three months added together—is about consequence, she can finally admit. About one-thing-begets-another. It’s about if-a-then-b, about what the two of them had never had. Because up until now, all they had was a random assortment of points (his detachment, her availability, their endurance) where no one thing gave rise to a logical next.

The only glitch, the only disruption in the otherwise collectively smooth stream of events, she thinks, had been James’ refusal to run from Forrest’s onslaught that day. That should’ve been part of the sequence: he should’ve run. Or, she, Caroline, should’ve run, a long time ago. Maybe that was the glitch.

As she lies curled up on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, her tummy is sick with sadness. She misses her son. But she doesn’t miss her husband, at least not in any specific way. And because she can’t figure out a way to bring (a) back into succession while leaving (b) out, she thinks of her hair appointment instead. Closing her eyes, she feels Shelley’s comb slide through her damp hair, hears the slice of the shears, feels the shivery warmth of the dryer… She feels held like a baby. She feels important—again and again and again.

Hard to Say

“Honey, what do you say we act a little crazy, try something new tonight.”

Beth tucked a leg beneath her on the slick wood bench. It was Friday, dinnertime, which meant they were at O’Malley’s.

Tom thought his wife sounded excited, like something other than Friday dinner might be at stake here—a luxury vacation or a new car or something. Her right hand, pressed tight between the bench and the back of her thigh, was not visible to him, and this he found oddly disconcerting.

“Be sure to ask about the specials, okay?”

They looked briefly at each other and all Tom saw was prettiness.

“Will do,” he said, leaning in to examine the oversized menu he was holding. His head was down but he smiled, feeling it in the corners of his eyes. He loved the woman sitting across from him, had loved her thirty-two years straight through.

He was enjoying the feel of the room, the same as he’d enjoyed it every week for the last year or so. It was five o’clock: the after-work crowd had yet to push in, but with the bartenders and waitresses setting up for the night ahead, the perfect amount of noise was circulating. Their table, the same one they’d sat at the week before, smelled faintly of pine cleaner, and all around, the same reddish amber color: the paneled walls, the hardwoods, the bar, even the IPA he was working on. He felt completely unbothered, wrapping a big hand around his pint glass, closing up the spaces between his fingers.

He watched quietly as Beth rifled through her purse for something, the veins on the back of her hand rippling. Her fingernails were painted a light pink and he saw where the polish was starting to chip around the tips. Observing her hands moving hurriedly like this, a scene from the week before entered his head:

“Where the hell is it coming from?” Beth, crouching before their open fridge, had yanked the vegetable crisper from its track and was waving it behind her and in his general direction.

“Empty! There’s nothing in here, and it still smells completely foul!”

Her head was tilted at a funny angle, the back of it framed between two wire shelves as she continued to hunt for the source of the obnoxious smell that had invaded the fridge a few days earlier. It really was strange—even after removing every last item, the stench persisted.

“Maybe some baking soda? Isn’t that what they say to use for things like this?”

He’d wanted to help, but this clearly wasn’t the sort of input she valued. She stood up and turned around, facing him, visibly exasperated. Her hair was loose and curling in at the sides and for the briefest of moments he was confused: Did we just make love?

“Tom, no, that’d only mask the problem. What if it’s molding somewhere? Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a piece of food decaying in that vent in the back or something.”

The gravity she was giving the situation touched him in a particular way. He felt the same as he did on returning home from work to a well-made bed (she folded the sheet over just like they did in hotel rooms), the same as he did on pulling open his top dresser drawer to find three neatly aligned rows of socks. He felt moved by his wife’s concern for the state of their home, for their daily existence, for his wellbeing. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate the full range of qualities Beth brought to their relationship; certainly he valued her wit, her humor and imagination, everything else. It was just that—and he sometimes felt vaguely guilty about this—it felt supremely nice to be taken care of, looked after. Every so often, when he sensed that this particular feeling was crowding out other important feelings, he consoled himself with the recognition that he never took anything she did for him for granted.

Beth’s head was back in the fridge. “Seriously, I don’t understand what the problem is!” Even muffled by the sound of the fan, an edge in his wife’s voice alarmed Tom, making him mildly uneasy. But she’d relaxed soon after and his uneasiness had passed.

In the end, she’d gone the baking soda route; it had smelled fine since.

“So Tom, we should probably talk about it, you know.”

He tightened his hand around the glass.

“Yes, I suppose we should,” he said.

For a second he lost his position, thrown spinning into a world without warm walls and ponytail waitresses. It made him think of home again—about how it was at home sometimes, how bad it felt to talk about certain things there. Often at home, hearing the worst news made him feel like his entire body was expanding with the sourness of it, as though he were very literally fat. He’d last felt this way four days earlier when their son Patrick had called. Expecting the usual refresher conversation—school, work, the controversial White Sox trade—he was unprepared for words that reached through the phone to hang like toxic paint fumes in the air around him. Scott and I are getting married.

Their son had been openly gay for years now, talking about his “dating life” in a breezy manner and with just enough frequency so that Tom could feel like the all-accepting, Democratic father he’d always just assumed he was. But this—marriage—was a different ballgame, a real clincher, he’d realized as he stood on the porch, the fatness creeping down into fingers that seemed to swallow the phone at his ear. He’d looked inside at Beth who was leaning flimsily against the kitchen counter.

But he noticed the familiar line of water pitchers on the counter behind his wife and the salt and pepper shakers square in the center of the table and he was sucked pleasantly back in. Then their waitress, Rachel, with the long hair that always looked slightly damp, came by with silverware and napkins, arranging everything, and it was as if he weighed nothing.

With this, he was ready for what he knew was coming. Sufficiently backed. They both were, he thought, meeting his wife’s eyes.

When he thought about it, as he did routinely (hard not to; it had become a verifiable phenomena), the significance of such complete and total preparedness was not lost on him. It was incredible, really, the effect these surroundings had on him, that he could be on the verge of another “difficult discussion” and at the same time in possession of an almost prayer-like sense of calm. It was this calm that had carried him through several such talks in the last year: the ones about their daughter’s inability to settle on a boyfriend who didn’t cheat, steal, or compound her credit card debt, the ones about the sickening toll the shit-economy was having on his painting business, and then the one, the hardest one of all, about the possibility of his wife’s illness returning.

“Yes, well to be honest, I don’t really know where to start,” said Beth, resting her elbows on the table so that her breasts pressed together, the cleavage just visible from beneath her thin shirt.

“Patrick did mention something about having the ceremony at our place, in the backyard, so we could maybe start there. I don’t know, we’ll need to tidy up—get the garden in order, the hedges trimmed, that sort of thing.”

“Yes, the hedges,” Tom heard himself say, his eyes lingering on the graceful dip at Beth’s neckline. Rachel returned with water glasses, setting them down carefully, almost daintily, as though they were raw eggs that might otherwise leak and spew all over.

“Are you two ready to order?” she said, looking at Beth, then at him. And she had really looked, not just glanced but looked, he thought, who knew he’d ultimately leave the ordering up to his wife. For, as long as they were here, Beth could do anything, beautifully.

“I believe we’re close,” he said. “But could you tell us, are there any specials today?”

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry I didn’t automatically—you always order off the menu, so I just assumed. Anyway, today for an entrĂ©e we have tortellini stuffed with Italian cheese and tossed in a gorgonzola cream sauce with mushrooms. That’s nine dollars and comes with a side salad and a complimentary pint. Oh, and you can add chicken to that for an additional three dollars,” said Rachel, and the escalating way Tom was feeling reminded him of those Internet videos where flowers bloomed in fast-motion, daisies and tulips rapidly loosening to Bach or Stravinsky or some other giant. “Then, our special salad includes mixed greens, grilled shrimp wrapped with pancetta and sage, roasted peppers, and gorgonzola dressing, and that’s twelve dollars. And for dessert, we have Key Lime Pie, made in-house with fresh key lime juice and a light graham cracker crust,” Rachel finished, standing there waiting with all the strength in the world. Tom felt this strength, felt it rise up from within this incredible amber forest, and he leaned into it.

He shifted his attention from Rachel back to his wife—the delicate creases around her eyes, her graying hair, her pale freckled arms—and he wanted to spread his strength, and the strength of his love, around: He wanted for Patrick the classiest ceremony. He wanted the tastiest food, the liveliest entertainment, the most beautiful flowers. He wanted the best photographer, the perfect weather.

“Ohh, let’s see. I think we’ll start with the onion rings, then have that delicious sounding tortellini and the pie for dessert,” said Beth. “Anything else Tom?”

“I think that sounds just fine.”

“Alrighty. Shouldn’t be long for those rings,” said Rachel, and Tom knew to trust.

Five minutes later, he was salivating at the smell of fried batter. Beth was talking about the guest list, rattling off names of relatives and friends, situating everyone in imagined chairs. As he watched her lips move, he wondered if being here made it easier for her too.

“That all sounds great, honey,” said Tom, thinking for a few moments about ways to compliment someone on everything at once.

He kept his eyes on Beth’s mouth as the steaming entree was set precisely between them. They each took a bite and Tom couldn’t believe how good it was. He helped himself to more, really shoveling it in but all the while staring at the mouth of his wife as it alternated between chewing and planning. Her lipstick had started to look strange to him—skeletal, with most of the color visible only around the edges of her lips.

He was several bites into the meal when something about the experience changed for him. Or stopped. The rich dinner was no longer filling his mouth with supremely good flavors but with a taste markedly less brilliant—the difference between “Red” and “Romantic Pink” on a Benjamin Moore paint swatch. The shift alarmed him, and he stared at the plate of pasta and took another bite, wanting to be sure. And as he broke the soft noodles with his teeth, the sharp kick of the sauce permeated, which, sure enough, produced the same “markedly less” sensation in his mouth. He looked up at Beth, who, still eating, seemed perfectly pleased, and with some effort he swallowed his food.

As the bolus snaked down his digestive tract, it carried with it all manner of terrible. Tom felt like his whole body, upper to lower, segment by segment, was going bad. Utterly, almost comically, rancid. And suddenly, just like that, he was seeing the woman seated across from him as he saw her at home sometimes, only worse: not just weak, but able. At the same time, his surroundings had become cold and foreign, no longer snug, protective. He tried to climb back in, but the flowers had already begun blooming in reverse and he only half succeeded. Still, it was enough to get him reasonably back on track, and since he needed to attribute something “not her” to the shift, he chose convenience—damnit Patrick, how did this happen?—which might have worked had he not looked again at his wife, whose sex had become so sprawling he knew it was no longer he alone containing it.