Winner, 2020 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
Really, I have no complaints. I love my husband. Our life is good. Our little house, high up in the Avenues, suits us perfectly: nice kitchen, spare room for Declan’s study, built-in bookshelves in every room. We live there comfortably, Declan and I. Every week or so, his three grown sons join us for dinner. The easiest offspring, I have found, are the ones you inherit as adults. They come to your house, they drink your wine—sometimes they bring you wine—they engage in polite conversation. When they’ve gone, you sit on the couch with your sweetheart before the open window, through which the city lights below you, a great grid narrowing to a point at the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, shiver in the restless summer night. You tuck your bare feet beneath you. You drink a good-night glass together, and you are happy. I, that is, am happy.
Every summer some dry part of the mountains is burning. Potentially, I suppose, it could all burn right up. Potentially the flames could come down and swallow us, too, but so far it hasn’t happened. Most of the time the fires are nowhere near us. But at night, when darkness descends, it is as if it all comes closer. You’d think it was your neighbor’s house, or maybe even your own, starting to smoulder.
Your husband gets up dutifully and goes around feeling walls and floors, smelling everywhere, to calm you down.
“The smoke alarms are working, Vinnie,” he says to reassure you—if you’re me, that is, and Lavinia is your name. “If there were really anything wrong, they’d go off. Everything’s fine. It’s just a wildfire somewhere. Far away. Go back to sleep.”
You—I—lie back down. The nightmare you’ve been having is over. Chances are that it won’t ambush you a second time. The house is flooded with moonlight and quiet. Declan gets back into bed and turns so that I can lie spoon-wise with him, my cheek on his cool shoulder blade. The peace is blessed and unbroken. There’s no storm, no lightning, no flood, no telephone call, nothing to shatter the night. When your love’s made sure, you can go to sleep.
If sometimes I see Bernard, it’s by accident. I know people who maintain friendships with exes, but I’m not one of them. Until I met Declan, I was a bridge burner. In high school, I would like a boy for precisely as long as it took him to call me his girlfriend, and in my twenties I wasn’t much better. When Bernard and I parted, we did not part as friends.
But I can’t help seeing him sometimes. After all, Declan and I hold season tickets to the Nguyen Chamber Ensemble. We go because the music, by contemporary and experimental composers, is excellent. Anyway, that kind of seeing only partly counts. It’s only me seeing Bernard from a distance in the dark, when he doesn’t know I’m there. Most of the time I see his back, arms upraised to the expectant musicians. The stage lights shine on his long black hair. I used to run my hands through that hair.
When I first moved here as a student, knowing no one, I constantly mistook strangers for people I knew: people from back home, maybe, or from college, people whose names hung on the tip of my tongue, just out of reach. More than once, before my vision cleared, I almost cried out in surprise and delight. Sometimes people glanced at me oddly, reading the inexplicable recognition in my face.
Seeing Bernard these days, I have the opposite sensation. Once upon a time, I knew him. I knew him in the biblical sense, for which intimacy is only another euphemism. Watching him onstage, however, I behold a stranger. That I once made a life with this person: did I hallucinate the whole thing? Am I hallucinating now? Occasionally Declan and I will attend some arts function, a fundraising dinner, a silent auction. I’ll glimpse Bernard in the crowd, and he’ll glimpse me. Our eyes will meet for an instant, until one of us decides to pretend not to recognize the other.
Of course, just as I’ve got Declan, Bernard has a wife. I still remember the first time I saw her, at a children’s cancer benefit some years ago. In all that pressing intermission crowd, she stood with Bernard, her hand in his. She was small, silver-blonde, wearing red lipstick, a severe black dress, funky Mary-Jane-style heels. I observed all these details with fascination. I took in, also, that she was pregnant. The black dress fit the swell of her body like a boast.
There is a technique I use with clients in my counseling practice, as a way of rewiring how the brain reads its contents. An abused woman, for example, may remember the first terrifying moment when her husband’s face changed, when a stranger stepped into that familiar body and raised his hand to strike her. She may despise herself—almost certainly she despises herself—for having submitted to that blow.
What I have her do, in the safety and comfort of my office, is call up that moment in her mind, place herself in it again. I take her back to herself as she was right then, not as she thinks she should have been. Doubtless she has been tormenting herself: what she ought to have said and done, either to defy him or to escape him or to keep him from wanting to hit her in the first place. She is certain that whatever has happened, it’s her fault, and she deserves whatever suffering has come to her in consequence. No one, she thinks, can ever love her or forgive her. It’s my job to prove her wrong. I take her back to that moment, that woman who sobs or cowers, and I invite her to forgive that woman, and love her. Only thus can she set herself free.
Of course it’s a process. I don’t claim to be some kind of psychological miracle healer, only a wielder of tools. Because I wield them for myself, too, I know how limited they are, how long things take. But I’m good at it nonetheless.
As an exercise, to keep myself limber, I return to a particular moment.
I seat Bernard beside me on our cracked leather couch.
“Earth to Lavinia,” he says. “Come in, Lavinia.”
“Hello,” I make myself say.
He peers at me, solicitous. “How was your day?”
Outside, the day of my memory fades to a dry golden twilight. I remember that as well as anything else: the quality of the summer light, arid and pitiless, and the way the mountains, only a few streaks of snow still caught in their folds, stand harshly on the sky.
“I was thinking,” he says. “Do you feel like going out?”
He puts his arms around me. I sit stiffly in the circle they make, the child in the mush pot, waiting to be released.
Bernard, as everyone who reads the local arts section knows, is a Vietnamese adoptee, one of a sprawling Provo family of children from various continents. He has three sisters from the Ukraine, another from China, two brothers from Haiti, two more from Guatemala. When I met him, his parents were awaiting final approval to adopt a Tongan-American five-sibling group from foster care.
Bernard’s full legal name is Bernard Hyram Nguyen Christiansen. Professionally, and perhaps tellingly, these days he’s Bernard Nguyen. Musical Instrument, his Vietnamese name means, coincidentally enough, from a Chinese word for plucked string. It’s also said, less authoritatively, to mean original.
“Yeah,” he told me over beers, on what would become our first night together, “we all have these stuck-in ethnic names that mean stuff, supposedly. I have a Ukrainian sister whose name, I am not lying, is Abilene Bogdana. Bad Texas Town The Lord Has Rendered Christiansen. My parents look this shit up and slap it on whatever kid is coming through the door.”
Giddy in his presence, I believed him. Why not? I never met the parents or the siblings. In all the time Bernard and I were together, I knew his family only through the bitter filter of estrangement. Knowing nothing, I could laugh with him about them. After a time I felt I did know this Abilene Bogdana, and all the rest, who didn’t need to be on drugs, Bernard told me, because life itself was a psychedelic.
“Your parents seem like nice people,” I sometimes said. “They mean well. They’re doing the best they can—”
Bernard would laugh. “Yeah. People who go to the pound and take home all the dogs mean well. I’m sure people who do things like that are perfectly nice people. Divorced from reality, maybe. Abusive, maybe. But nice people.”
What did I know about it? Nothing. That was what he meant to say. Shut up, Vinnie, he meant, but was too politic or something to say. In those days I didn’t have, yet, anything like a professional opinion. These days I do have a professional opinion, and according to it, a vast gulf yawns between I think my parents were abusive-ish and my parents were actually abusive. I meet the fallout of actually abusive every day. It is, by and large, not doing well.
Of course, my professional opinion is also that all parenting leaves some kind of mark. Declan’s three sons are a case in point. They love Crazy Imelda, their mother. They don’t doubt that she loves them. They are flourishing young men: investment banker, sociologist, inventor of some new kind of rock-climbing harness. But when they mention their mother, it’s with words like tiptoe and eggshells. Her emotions are legendary and volcanic. There are wrong things to say, and she is always waiting for someone to say them, so that she can treasure them up in her heart and bring them out over dinner, when there’s a lull in the conversation. “It’s never boring at her house,” Brendan, the oldest, the banker, confided to me once. “Come to think of it, I like boredom.”
Most of the time, naturally, I don’t think about Bernard at all. My life is full, and my work consumes me. I have my private practice, seeing these patients, mostly women, with various forms of PTSD. This being Utah, I treat a lot of women coming out of the polygamist subculture, which seems unambiguously defined by trauma. Or maybe it’s just that I never meet the happy ones.
The unhappy ones get referred to me by a foundation that sponsors safe houses, clothes closets, job fairs, all the necessary resources to help these women integrate into the world of the fully human. It’s my job not to restore them to happiness, but to help them restore themselves to happiness. If your brain, in its default mode, tells you that you’re incompetent to manage your own money, that you can’t choose your own clothes, that beatings are what you asked for, that sex is a series of payments you make toward the privilege of existing, then I am here to help you change those messages. Change the message, change your life. This is my credo.
Our house is a duplex, with a large central unit where we live, and around the side, a smaller mother-in-law apartment, which contains my office. I have the best commute in Salt Lake. Every morning, rain or shine, snow or thermal inversion, I finish my first cup of coffee at my kitchen table, then I pour a second. I step into my work shoes, which I keep lined up beside the kitchen door. This year I bought six pairs of pumps in the same brand, in black, gray, nude, fuschia, cobalt, and blood-red. Every day, on my way to work, I choose my color. With my coffee I walk out the kitchen door, around the side of the house, and into my office, where in the little kitchenette I start a new pot to power me through the day. I plump the cushions on the green sofa, run the Bissell over the rug, glance at my notes, and I’m ready to go to work.
Through the magic of technology, my secretary, Marianne, is able to work remotely from home, taking appointments and typing up my notes while she cares for her new baby and her toddler. This suits her, and I am happy to have my office to myself. There’s no front desk cluttered up with someone else’s family photographs. I like to receive my patients at the door, as if they really were entering my home, to offer them coffee or herbal tea, and to settle them on the couch for a good long talk.
This is a safe space. I’ve given my whole life to making it happen. And when someone has spent an hour here, telling me things she’s never breathed aloud, ever in her life, then having a good hard ugly cathartic cry, and she steps out again with new resolve into the hard dry light of day, I feel the throb of pride and joy I imagine a woman must feel after giving birth, when the child is placed in her arms and she sees clearly for the first time that the thing she thought was part of her own body has become, or was always, a whole person whose life opens like a new door in a wall.
That summer, I shared an apartment with Bernard in an old building downtown: beautiful dark millwork, original art-deco bathroom tile in yellow, mint green, and black. Our decorating, sadly, didn’t do the place justice. In our life vision, the apartment occupied the level of the purely functional. That is to say, we had a relationship, or, as the kids say today, a situation. We lived together, but where we lived together wasn’t a home.
Bernard’s piano filled what would have been the dining room. Without the piano, we might have lived upstairs and had a view. By the window, looking into an overgrown foundation planting of junipers, I’d set a green plastic patio table, salvaged from the curb, to hold my books and papers in their disarray. In one bedroom stood our bed on its Hollywood frame, a confusion of stale sheets. The second bedroom was empty; we had talked about making it an office for me. In the narrow kitchen, the textured gold linoleum caught grime and kept it forever. Outside, the sun shone in its hard-edged way, though it never quite penetrated the junipers. The August heat wavered whitely on the sidewalks.
The building itself was a world of sorts, with familiar rhythms that marked the progress of its day. Because I was home most of the time, writing up my research, I was able to mark this progress. My own consciousness began to be shaped by the bang of the foyer door, for example, right outside our own front door, and the rattling that meant the mailman. It was a daily noise, the background to my dissertation notes. But it was also, always, an instance of interest and diversion.
The mailboxes, a bank of brass-fronted pigeonholes in the wall beneath the stairs, provided the one locus of community in our building, though it was a community more of evidence than of interaction. Just above us lived a group of LDS girl missionaries; how many there were, and whether they were always the same girls, or different ones who moved in and out, I was never sure. They wore black skirts, white blouses, nametags. They all worked as tour guides at Temple Square. In the mornings I heard them on the stairs, clattering and laughing, calling each other Sister like a bunch of religious postulants. By the letters they clipped to the front of their mailbox to be collected, I knew that one of them was dating an Elder Chad Sorenson, on a mission in Ecuador. All of them, in fact, seemed to be dating missionaries scattered across the world. Clearly they awaited the bright morning when those missionaries would return, and they themselves could hang up their nametags and put on wedding dresses. They wrote every day, I thought, to make sure the men on the other end remembered all that.
Bernard was scathing on the subject of the missionary girls. “That’s exactly what I got the hell out of, Vinnie. Two years in Bora Bora with a bicycle and some other twerp in a tie, asking strangers if they want to talk about family. Yeah, no thanks. And there’s nothing cute about those girls. They’re just pathetic. I can’t imagine why you’d even be curious about them.”
“I’m not curious about them,” I said. “I just think it’s interesting what you can infer about people’s lives—”
“Some people’s lives aren’t worth inferring anything about.”
I don’t meant to paint Bernard as an ass. He wasn’t. That is to say, even when we’re not casting off the shackles of our parents’ religion, we’re all like that in our twenties. Our own lives rivet us completely. Declan says that if I’d met him at any time before the age of thirty-five, I’d have hated him. And I know myself well enough. I wasn’t interested in those girls as people. I was interested in them as foils. I couldn’t help thinking that there but for the grace of whatever went I.
I’ve plumped the throw pillows on the couch and tweaked the vase of flowers—midsummer blooms, black-eyed Susans and coneflower with a little lavender—into a composition that pleases me. My first client of the day is a young woman, barely eighteen, who’s left an abusive polygamist marriage, and is now being steadily gaslighted by not only her husband, but her entire extended family, including the four other wives and her own mother. Just before she left, her husband took her up in the mountains to some secluded spot, to rape her and then beat the living shit out of her, as a punishment for some perceived infraction. Now they’re all united in trying to persuade her that it was for her own good.
She has two children already and is not allowed to see them. Meanwhile, despite the beating, she hasn’t yet miscarried the third. Her belly is just starting to swell inside her flowered prairie dress, one—I am certain—of a matched set of five. I’ve seen those wives, all of them dressed identically, like little girls in school uniform, superintending actual little girls in the same uniform. This girl still wears hers. She still has the straggling long hair, the large unfashionable eyeglasses, the hunted expression, that identify her former state in life. She’s late this morning, and I have to admit that this worries me. Has she gone back? Have they talked her into thinking that I’m an agent of evil, that the way for her to ensure her eternal exclusion from the celestial realm is to be convinced of her own personhood? Sure, honey, you can have your human dignity, but nobody you love will ever speak to you again, for time and all eternity.
Through the wall I can hear Declan singing as he washes the breakfast dishes.
If I rummage around in the past, there’s much to bring up that seems, on the face of it, inconsequential. What do I do with these shards of detail? What do I make of Miss Genevieve Macbeth, for example, who lived at the top of the building? She and I were the only people home all day, and we both listened for the mailman. Though she was in her eighties, Miss Macbeth could hear a dropped circular rustle to the floor, five stories down, and could be there to pick it up almost before it settled. We ran into each other often outside my door.
Miss Macbeth had occupied her apartment, she had told me, since 1949, when she had come up from Manti to work in the ZCMI department store. Her perfectly good stove was the same one she had had when she moved in. In the beginning she had made, and forever after had kept, a resolution to use it only on Sundays, to preserve it in excellent working order. Like new, she said. In those days the apartments had come fully furnished, with silverware and linens, even. She still possessed two blankets from those lost days of luxury. Whether she still had the furniture and silverware, too, or what had happened to it if she didn’t, I never found out.
Here are details: Miss Macbeth turns from the mailboxes. As always, her hair has been shellacked into a kind of double fold on top of her head, with a precise little snail-shell curl at each temple. Beneath her black cat-eye spectacles, her long nose and tiny, drawn-in mouth make her look like some exacting species of bird.
She sees me wavering in my doorway, still dressed in the t-shirt and pajama trousers I’ve been wearing for days. “Are you all right?” she asks abruptly.
“I’m okay, thanks. I’ve been kind of sick, but I’m better now.”
“Well.” A quick, birdlike movement of the head. “I hope that husband of yours has been taking care of you.” She pronounces the word husband as if it meant something like drain clog or dog vomit.
Miss Macbeth is an innocent. As usual, I let husband pass without comment. Generally when Miss Macbeth mentions my husband, it’s to complain about his piano. Even at times when he isn’t physically present, she hears it. If I must have such an appendage as a husband—which of course I do not—then hopefully, she seems to imply, I get something out of the arrangement besides earworms.
“Oh, he’s always good to me,” I murmur.
“Well.” She looks at me again, long and piercingly. Then she’s gone, up the stairs.
It’s a kind of friendliness we have. It pleases me far more than my few exchanges with the missionary girls, though you’d think we had much in common. “Hi!” they call, bouncing past me and out the door, turning to each other as if for protection against this scraggly woman, living in sin, who has stepped out braless in her boyfriend’s t-shirt to fetch the newspaper.
“Sister, did you check the mail? Well, later, then. We have to hurry . . .”
Always they were cheerful, in an impervious way that you wouldn’t mistake for a desire to get to know you. Maybe Bernard was right, and they weren’t cute. I still see girls like that downtown, clustered at the stoplight, waiting to cross over to Temple Square. I know exactly how they sound, those hard, bright voices that chip away at the air.
Miss Macbeth, I reflect, was the elderly version of those girls, the version whose missionary never came back. Or did come back, but married someone else. Or simply wasn’t. If he ever existed, I didn’t hear about him. If Miss Macbeth had hoped for anything besides perpetual blankets and kitchen drawers pre-filled with cutlery, she never told me. The friendliness we shared didn’t penetrate that deep. Still, the part of me that thought about her at all wanted her not to have had the missionary, or the hopes. How much less dreary it was to have meant to live alone.
Right at the fifteen-minute mark, my client calls.
“I’m sorry.” She’s crying. “I’m in the emergency room.”
“Are you all right?” Even as I ask, I know it’s a stupid question. People don’t go to the emergency room because they’re fine.
“I’m bleeding.” She cries harder.
“Is anyone there with you?”
A long pause.
“You’re not there alone?” I say.
“No.” I can hear her breathing. “My mom’s here. She just went out to the bathroom, so I thought I’d call and tell you.”
“Is that—are you okay with that? With your mom being there?”
I can hear her quick breathing. “Well, I had to call somebody. And, I don’t know. She’s my mom.”
Yeah. Your mom who’s one of seven wives, herself. Your mom who thought it would be just dandy to pull you out of school at fourteen and hand you off to her cousin, to be his fifth wife. Your mom who thinks you need beating for the good of your soul. Your mom who’s colluding to keep you away from your kids. Yeah: your mom.
“Anyway,” she says. “That’s why I’m not there. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I tell her. “It’s not your fault.” None of it is your fault. That’s what I keep trying to tell her, though it’s clear she doesn’t believe me. “Look, take care of yourself. That’s your priority. And just call me when you can. I’ll work you in, any time.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Maybe. I have to go now.”
Silence. Around the corner of the house, the door shuts. Declan’s key turns in the lock. A moment later, he passes beneath the window where I stand with the phone in my hand. The sun bears down on his crisp faded hair, his flushed face. In the hard light his pale summer jacket is so bright I can hardly look at him. Seeing me, he kisses his hand and waves. I kiss my hand and wave back as, cheerfully, on his way to Mass, he gets into his car and drives away.
In the space of half an hour I can send Bernard out for Chinese food and bring him back. He spreads our dinner out picnic-style on the floor.
“Ar lighty, now,” I’ll have him say. “You gotcher Genelar Tso’s Chicken. You gotcher veggie flied lice. You got, ret me see now—you got Vinnie’s Favolite Mu Shu Polk with the ritter pancakes and prum sauce. Aaaaaand two egg lor.”
It could almost be, but is not, our first night together. “Asians mocking Asians. Nothing racist about that, babe, yo.” Then, I laughed with delight and recklessness. I thought him the funniest, most interesting, most subversive, most attractive person alive. Now, maybe, he’s still funny. But for some reason I can’t laugh.
He sits cross-legged on the carpet and pats the place beside him. “Come sit. Have a picnic.”
His hands are small, neat, and plumpish. The way he spreads them out to play arpeggios reminds me, oddly, of a snake unhinging its jaw to swallow a tapir. Lately his hair has been growing out of its neat short cut. The straight black layers stand out raggedly from the sides of his head and straggle over his shirt collar. He’s not yet the sleek ponytailed artist you see in pictures, barefoot in a black suit so sharp you could cut your own hair with it, leaning on an instrument that you know without looking is a Bösendorfer. Here, he’s just a guy who plays studio sessions with the Osmond Brothers because money is money, and he and his girlfriend, who’s not yet a psychologist, have rent to pay somehow.
I don’t want to run my hands through that hair. I don’t like the way it looks, in its awkward growing-out stage. In this moment, I don’t find Bernard gorgeous. I don’t want to touch him. I’m tired of him. Or else I’m experiencing some other, more ambiguous emotion concerning him.
People say that you don’t stay in love forever, that you lose the feeling, that in the end love is a will, not an emotion. Well, then. I will myself to slide off the couch and onto the floor. I will myself to accept the egg roll he hands me. I will myself to bite into it, chew, and swallow without gagging. But I experience no hunger of any kind.
I’ve told everything to Declan. “You’re not that person anymore,” he’ll say, when the same old dreams return. “You’re not there. It’s not happening.” Nevertheless, in his arms I shake and pant, consumed with terror.
Of course it doesn’t happen that often. Things fade in your mind. I can, for example, these days, operate a vacuum cleaner without the support of alcohol or Zoloft. Still, it returns to me sometimes, and I need Declan to say that the past is not who I am. I don’t believe a word of it, of course. I don’t believe there’s anything healthy about severing yourself from your history, even if such a thing were possible. But when I wake up in a sweat, this is what I want to hear.
I’ve been keyed up to work, but now my first hour falls flat. That poor girl. Right now, for all I know, her baby’s bleeding away to nothing. Perhaps that’s a kindness. But for all I know, even as I think about her, her mother’s remarking that this is what happens to bad girls: not a kindness, to put it mildly.
My next client drinks coffee, and she likes it black. Though she won’t be here for another half hour, I’ve got a good strong pot going for her. Of course this woman has her traumas, too, but there’s a lot about her that’s easy. She’s close to my age. She’s funny, in a dry, devastating way. If she couldn’t laugh things off, she tells me, she’d be dead. She mocks her own obsessive habit of checking and re-checking the locks on her car doors, whenever she gets in or out. I’ve seen her do this. In front of my house, she’ll clamber from the car and press the lock button on her key until the horn has bleated several times. Then she’ll walk around the car, testing the doors. Sometimes she does this three or four times before she can walk away.
It’s an obsessive-compulsive behavior, and she knows it, though what drives it is cold hard reason. One day her ex-husband will get out of prison and come to find her. I have my nightmares, and she has hers. In her nightmare, she’s driving, when he sits up in the seat behind her. His dead blue eyes meet hers in the mirror. “It’s time,” he tells her. He puts a gun to her temple and pulls the trigger. That’s what wakes her up, sweating.
I’ve come to love her a little, the way you do sometimes in my job. She’s one of the people whose names I’m glad to see on the appointment book, for now. When she’s done with me, someone else will take her place. I’ll forget about her, but she’ll still be there, somewhere in my mind. Everything always is. People are like plastic, which never totally biodegrades. Once you’ve used each other up, there’s nothing for it but the landfill, but it’s all still there, the people, the past. You’re not pretending it isn’t. Still, you cover it over, you build a park on top of it, and you move on.
“Look, Vin,” Bernard says. “Do me a favor. No, scratch that. Do you a favor.”
“What?” I’m too tired to be irritated.
“Number one: eat that food. You’ll feel better if you eat. No, really. You will.” He pushes the little carton of Mu Shu Pork at me, and the foil-wrapped pancakes. “Number two: go take a shower.”
“Do I smell?” I’m too tired to care.
He sniffs me. “Nope. But you’ll feel better.”
“Who says I don’t feel fine?” I pick at my food, which I’m too tired to eat.
“I’m not finished. Next I want you to put on something clean and fresh, and get into bed. Don’t worry about this mess. I’ll clean it up. And—”
“What?” I’m too tired, really, to want to know.
“Tomorrow we’ll do something.”
“Do something? Do what?” I’m too tired. I don’t care about tomorrow.
“I don’t know. Go up in the mountains. Hike a little. Have fun.”
“I’m still kind of bleeding.” And I’m tired. Good Lord, I’m tired.
“I’ll go buy you more pads.”
In truth, the bleeding has almost stopped. The heavy, clotty flow’s reduced now to a faint brown smear. Any day now the whole thing will be behind me. Over and done. And Bernard is not being an ass. He is being—though I’m too tired to realize it—heroic. It’s by no means every man who’ll offer to make a public purchase of feminine-hygiene items. But I don’t love him for it. I can’t even will to love him. I’m too tired.
The light is brilliant and dry on the stand of rosemary by our front walk. Yes, yes, I’ve seen Hamlet, and I know what rosemary is for. Maybe sometime today I’ll walk out and pick some, to add to my vase of summer flowers. Then my whole office will be full of its sharp, antiseptic smell; I’ll breathe it the rest of the day.
Even as I think about it, my second client’s out there already, parallel parking her beat-up Suburu. She’s early for her appointment, but that’s all right. She’ll sit for a while in the car, gathering her thoughts. Then, getting out, she’ll perform her ritual, walking twice, three times, four times, around the car, to be sure all her doors are locked. Surreptitiously, from behind my blinds, I watch her grip the steering wheel, steel herself to look in the rearview mirror one last time. Nobody there.
Late that summer, Bernard went away to play some concert gigs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The Cowboy Tour, he called it. Three weeks. While he was away, I found a garage studio, tucked away behind a Victorian house, several blocks up the hill on C Street. When Bernard came back, I was gone. The summer was ending. The nights, though they still smelled of smoke, had turned chilly. Often I sat up through the night, working. Though I was glad to be alone, I didn’t trust myself alone with sleep.
One day in the early fall, however, the apartment manager called; some package had arrived for me at that address, and could I come pick it up? It was easy enough to walk down in the afternoon, after I’d finished my day’s dissertation work. Walking in the brilliant air, sunny and cold all at once, with the aspen flaming gold on the mountainsides, I felt as if the summer hadn’t happened, or had been a bad dream. Whoever that woman had been, who couldn’t get dressed or leave her apartment, except to bring in the mail, she hadn’t exactly evaporated somewhere between my former and current addresses, but she had been transformed, or perhaps it’s better to say that she was restored to herself. This was the real me, the true, strong, smart me, striding along the cracked sidewalk with my parka unzipped. I was afraid of nothing, and though I didn’t sleep, I felt no longer tired. As if on a dare, then, before stopping in for the package, I gambled on Bernard’s being out. Stepping among the junipers outside our old living-room windows, I looked in to see what I could see.
The piano had disappeared: I noticed that first. I could see the dents its feet had made in the carpet. The rest of the apartment, what I could see of it, was empty. Well, then, I told myself. He’s moved on, too. Except for the dents in the carpet, I might have dreamed the whole thing.
As I stepped back onto the sidewalk, brushing off the juniper needles, a new idea seized me. I’d go down and collect my package in due time, but first I would walk up and visit Miss Macbeth. Why I wanted to see her I couldn’t have said. But I did want to see her.
Details: Five flights of red-carpeted stairs. The radiators on every landing, the familiar dry heat-smell mingling with the smell of walked-on carpet. Reaching the top floor short of breath. My heart crashing.
Knocking at the door. The building is silent except for a muffled radio talk show, twittering voices that emanate wordlessly from behind the door opposite. Who lives there? No idea. I never knew that anyone else was home during the day.
Knocking again, louder.
From the apartment opposite, with the radio, a man looks out: sixtyish, maybe, with little darting eyes and black hair combed greasily back from his forehead. His forearms blue with tattoos.
“You looking for Miss Genevieve?”
“Yes,” I say. “I used to live downstairs. I was just over this way and thought I’d say hello.”
“Yeah, well.” The man runs a meditative hand over his hair, as if to flatten it down more. His eyes rove over me, down the stairs, back over me again. “Yeah. You’re a little late.”
“Has something happened to her?”
“Same thing that happens to us all, honey.” He watches me, not quite catching my eye, to see if I understand. “Service was kind of small. I went. I’m not of that faith, if you know what I mean, but it seemed like the neighborly thing to do.”
He looks me full in the eye for an instant. Glances away again.
“I had no idea,” I say at last.
“Yeah. Well. Nice lady. Wound a little tight. Used to complain about my radio. But a nice lady.”
“Yes,” I say, “she was. I’m sorry to hear this. Thank you for telling me.”
“Yeah. You want to visit people. Visit people before you think about it.”
The door closing. Left alone to contemplate this paradox. Stifling heat of all the radiators in the building, risen and gathered there at the fifth-floor ceiling.
No, I don’t want to leave myself there, on that landing in the rising heat. Better, though not much, the steamy shower where Bernard has steered me. In the shower, I can’t lift my hands to wash my hair. I’m too tired to do anything but stand there.
Into bed, with its soft, cool percale. I spread my toes, finding pockets of greater coolness. The t-shirt I’m wearing smells like Bernard: one part fabric softener to two parts Dove body wash.
Through the bedroom door, the piano. Let me locate myself: I am there, in bed. I am this woman who has not yet left her boyfriend. She has not evaporated; I know this now; she will not evaporate. Outside the door, the boyfriend is playing the piano, in the desultory way that this woman used to love. He’s thinking aloud in music, drifting chords, soft and clashing all at once.
Detail: Miss Macbeth, five floors up, in her own bed, hands folded on her breast, her twin curls speared with bobby pins. I don’t see her, of course, but I know she’s there. Sleep, I command her. Sleep. You hear nothing. This woman who has not yet left her boyfriend is angry with him for waking the neighbors.
After a moment he comes in and opens the window above the bed. Fading blue of the summer evening, cool air bearing in smoke.
“What’s on fire?”
He turns. “It’s someplace up in the Uintas. I heard it on the news driving home. Miles away. You relax and go to sleep.”
He stands over me, stroking my hair until my eyes close. This woman still lets her boyfriend stroke her hair, though she cringes inwardly at his touch. Then he’s gone, shutting the door softly behind him. Getting out the vacuum cleaner.
It’s easy enough to fall asleep. There seems so little point in being awake that I welcome the drowning of each long day. Falling through the black depths into some lost undersea trench where things move about with little lights suspended at the ends of tentacles which waggle enticingly. Beyond that point of light, the toothed jaws opening.
Screaming. The voice belongs to this woman, who hears this noise that is not the vacuum cleaner. An overhead light, yellow in her eyes. In the stirrups, her bare cold feet. Her toes curl. She doesn’t know why she’s screaming. There’s nothing to scream about. Still, she’s screaming. She didn’t scream then, in fact, but she’s screaming now. This too is a detail.
The noise outside the door stops. Bernard appears in the doorway, haggard. “Sorry. I’m sorry, babe.” Murmuring apologies and endearments. His hands, his arms, his voice are full of love. This woman accepts that love limply. “It was the vacuum. I thought you were asleep. Foltune cookie say: Crean up lice on calpet—”
Not so limp after all, she sits up. Details: her snarling face, her voice. “Stop talking like that. It’s not funny. It’s never been funny. Just stop. You’re not funny at all.”
I’m this woman. She hasn’t gone anywhere. Though she keeps quiet these days, she’s still right here with me.
“You’re not that person,” Declan says. I know better, but I let him say it anyway.
It’s important to him to think what he thinks. He’s not the same person, so he believes, as the man who was married to Crazy Imelda. That segment of his history has been proclaimed, officially, not to have happened, or at least to have no binding claim on him. The annulment declares that there was no marriage. There are, of course, these three boys who happen to turn up now and again. There are memories attached to them. Still, somehow, Declan has slipped free of it all. He is that happy person, a new creation.
Sometimes I go to Mass with him, if it’s not too early on Sunday morning. As, disinterestedly, I watch the priest lift the little white disk, a halo with no head to wear it, I think: Bread. God, if you exist, that’s what you are? That’s it?
Well. If it satisfies Declan, then I’m happy for him. I admire him for being faithful to this idea. But it’s not my idea. I can go to the cathedral, sit in the pew, surrounded by frescoes and the thin, accurate voices of the choir-school children. And when it’s over, I can walk out into the light of day, unchanged.
As I’ve told Declan, I have to go about things in my own way. I can’t separate the woman I am now—at the window, coffee in hand, watching my client confront her rearview mirror—from the woman who wakes up screaming, accepts the beer Bernard brings her, and falls heavily asleep again.
It is myself I find there, again, familiar and abiding, deep in the night.
Detail: wind through the open window, meandering, dry, cool, sharp with smoke from the distant wildfires, riffling the pages of a book left open on the moonlit floor. With a soft sound the pages lift and settle, are never quite turned.
I put out my hand to touch Bernard. His place beside me is empty, cool and dry as the wind. Tensing, I listen for him. He’s back at the piano, thinking in vague soft fragments of music, as he always does when he can’t settle. This woman, who is me, past, present, and always, lies listening to the murmuring open-ended phrases.
After a moment the fragments resolve into scales, up and down, down and up. But there’s something wrong about them. It’s a broken scale he’s playing, incomplete—do re mi fa sol la ti—the song of the brain-fever bird. Ti la sol fa mi re. Smaller and smaller. Then the brain-fever bird’s whole song again.
Five flights up, as I imagine, the bedsprings creak chastely. Miss Macbeth is disturbed, in her all-too-temporary sleep. As if he imagines her, too, Bernard plays louder. Fa sol la ti do, the brain-fever bird sings to her. Do re mi fa sol la ti.
Climb and fall short. Climb and fall short. Somewhere, far away, the wildfires burn on. Do re mi fa sol la ti. High above us, the barren moon burns in the sky. La sol fa mi.
Everywhere the darkness smells of smoke.
At last my client climbs from her car, pointing her key like a gun. Blat, goes the horn once, then twice, then again. Next she walks around the car, yanking at the handles. I can see her channeling the ferocious strength of her ex-husband’s rage. He would rip the doors off the car if he could. She’s trying to convince herself all over again that he can’t, and this entails trying to rip them off herself. What if she succeeds? Well, I guess we’ll laugh about that, too. We’ll agree that it’s good that she knows her own strength. Now she’s striding up the front walk. Her husband will get sprung someday, but not today. Her life is a gift she is always, every moment, until that moment, receiving.
I’m prepared to help her receive it a little more. Breathe in, breathe out. Lay the examined past away. It never changes, and will keep. Right now, in the present, I’m ready to go to work. I am happy and strong and whole. The fires may burn in the high elevations, the brain-fever bird may sing its nocturnal song of sorrow, but down here in the sunlit city we are fine.
Sally Thomas’s book of poems, Motherland, was a finalist for the 2018 Able Muse Book Award and is now available from Able Muse Press. Recently her poetry and fiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Agonist, Barren, First Things, Forma, Front Porch Republic, Measure Review, Mezzo Cammin: An Online Journal of Formalist Poetry by Women, North American Anglican, and The Windhover. She lives with her family in North Carolina.