Autumn: A Short Story

There’s something wrong with my hands. Lately, I’ve taken to squeezing them into fists at the most peculiar times. When I’m checking out at the grocery store. Face timing my daughter who is away at college. Making love to my husband. My thumbs ache and I’ve noticed the knuckles on my right swell to the size of cumquats in the morning. When that happens, I hide my hand. From myself I suppose. In case I notice and make myself see a doctor.

 

The weather is dull, washed out, not yet fall but already finished with summer. That first circle of hell Dante called limbo. It pushes me down into the bed every morning burrowed like a mole, unwilling. Eventually, I emerge. Eyeballs first. Pushing back the too heavy duvet licking at my dry lips-nobody warns you that with age comes increasingly foul morning breath-and debate whether to make coffee before or after brushing my teeth. Sometimes, overwhelmed by ambivalence, I have to crawl back into bed. I’m careful to pull up only the sheet so that I’m not tempted to give in completely.

 

This morning when I get downstairs, my husband is already awake. A great big thick bear of a man, he is dressed and eating cereal which he prepared himself. He has not however made coffee. He does not do that, although he does drink coffee. He’s a man of strict routine although not obsessive. I like that about him. Quiet, confident, comfortable, consistent. I am none of those things. Morning he says. Morning I say. And he goes back to scrolling through emails on his smartphone and I open the cupboard where we keep the coffee. I fan the flame of my long-standing resentment over the fact that he never makes coffee, as I fill the carafe with filtered water from the fridge door and scoop grounds into the machine. I lean against the counter and wait for the brew cycle to finish, intentionally not sitting down. My husband ignores me.

 

I open the cupboard where we keep the coffee mugs and study them carefully before choosing the fat purple mug because it holds the most coffee and means I won’t need to make another trip downstairs for a while. I pour myself a cup. Have a good day, I say over my shoulder. You too I’ll see you later, he says without looking up from his phone.

 

I’m sitting perched on the edge of my bed, sipping at my coffee, careful not to slip back too far since that might result in a full retreat in which case I’d never be able to get up again.  I can see into the backyard. I can see my tomato plants are becoming overgrown and three of the iceberg bushes are badly in need of pruning. I’ll get out there today, I tell myself. The same thing I told myself yesterday. And likely the day before, although I cannot remember. I think about how much I used to enjoy a few hours in the sun with my pruning shears. The prickly sensation of sweat on my neck. The sweet young ache along my thighs; the result of repeatedly squatting and bending over at the waist, something I’m not sure I can do anymore. Nowadays I use a pruning bench despite all the yoga.

 

As I watch, a hummingbird buzzes forth. It’s unusual to see one this high but the bougainvillea has exploded up the side of the house, purple blossoms now fluttering and falling around the edges of the window obscuring my view. The little bird stops at the window, hovering, its wings moving so fast they’re invisible to my eye. I wonder how old it might be? You can’t tell with hummingbirds. I’ve never seen a slow one. An achy one. They’re not like dogs. Or people. I don’t think they’re hands hurt or they’re breath goes bad as they age. Do they just go and go like the devil and then drop dead?  I think maybe I’d like that. Or maybe not. Probably not. No, dropping dead would be terrible. Like the cops showing up in the middle of the year’s best party. Nothing worse.

 

The alarm on my phone splutters suddenly causing me to jump and I wonder for the millionth time why I do this to myself. I don’t set alarms to wake myself up. I’ve been an early riser for years. My brain switches to GO mode long before the sun comes up and it’s a rare day that I can turn it off, or even get it to pause again for more than a few minutes. Those days of lolling around in a dreamy half sleep disappeared not long after the days of waking up naked feeling sexy and gorgeous in spite of a hangover. Nowadays I set alarms for getting things done. Lately anyway. This particular alarm, which I’ve set to something called “circles” although it sounds more like “shopping mall doorbell” is supposed to remind me to get into the shower. I have another one that tells me to check the mail.

 

By the time I come downstairs my husband has left for the day. The kitchen which, by design, is, unfortunately, large-I do not cook- is quiet except for the soft whir and whoosh of our new dishwasher which cost more than some people spend on their automobiles. My husband says it is state-of-the-art, a phrase I’ve always detested. I’m not sure how one dishwasher can be any more state-of-the-art than another.  They’re not rocket ships. But, my husband makes all the decisions about things like appliances. He spends hours, days even, reading Consumer Reports and whatever else people read when they want to know about things like dishwashers.  In the early days of our marriage he would share all of the carefully mined information with me; pamphlets and advertisements and reports and magazine articles. Spread out over the dining room table. He’d take my hand and lead me enthusiastically around the room, pointing out the various features, excitedly reciting the pros and cons of different models while I feigned interest. Sometimes we would go to the store together, me running a finger over the glossy white surface of five different Kenmore dryers and making obligatory noises of approval as he opened and closed each one’s steel door, smiled and pointed and spoke and laid out his chunks of knowledge for me like each bit was something he’d killed and dragged home to be placed bloody at my feet.  After the ritual, he always told me which one we should choose and that’s what we got. I’m not sure when it happened but, at some point, I just figured out it made sense to skip the part where I went along altogether. By then I think we both felt relieved.

 

I slip on my tall black rubber boots and head outside. In the shed, I find my tools and thick purple gardening gloves. They are sprinkled inside with old dust and beads of fertilizer and the occasional thorn. I could wash them, but I like the messiness. It’s familiar. I push open the gate that separates my garden from the rest of the property, with its well-tended lawns and swimming pool and neatly trimmed boxwoods. It’s easy to forget how much I love this little part of the world. It is thick with lavender and white roses and the smell is powerful even this time of year. The redwood planter boxes overflow with tomato vines and strawberry plants and green peppers.  The sun is almost always out back here, even when the rest of the world seems pale in comparison.

 

I work for two hours. Pulling weeds, trimming vines, moving plants that seem unhappy. I sweep and scoop and haul and water and wind up with a basket filled with at least twenty-five fat green tomatoes and a dozen bell peppers by the time I’m finished. I head back indoors, muddy and sticky and happily exhausted. The malaise of earlier nearly forgotten.

 

It’s noon when my daughter calls. Facetime which I hate. I fiddle with the phone trying to find a lens angle that doesn’t make the skin of my neck look loose and frightening. Finally, I give up and focus on her beautiful nineteen-year-old face. She’s calling to tell me about nothing and everything and she is infused with the glorious energy and desperation and immunity of her youth and she carries me so far away from myself I think for a minute everything is ok. She says oh Mom you should have seen it, the whole thing was crazy, and she says do you think I should get the red one or the redder one?  and she says so I’ve been kind of talking to this boy but don’t get all excited because it’s totally not like that and I can see by the way even her teeth are twinkling that it totally is like that. I’m so in love with her voice and her face and her words that it’s difficult to breathe as I listen. I change my mind and decide that I love face time and screw the fact that my neck makes me look like a dead chicken.

 

After we hang up I do the thing I should never do. I open up the photo ap on my phone and scroll back nearly twenty years, to see her baby pictures. Her teeny tiny baby pictures. She’s curled snail-like on her father’s bare, hairy chest, both asleep. At a wedding, I barely remember who’s, she’s two months old dressed in a ridiculous velvet get up-who picked that? -and soft ballet slippers no more than two inches long and my husband, so young holds her tight against him and stares at the camera, dark-haired, straight-faced and handsome as a movie star. Two years later, sitting up on my lap in the bed, smiling at her father who takes the picture. She is naked except for a diaper, and wild-haired and laughing.  A piece of raisin toast in her chubby fist. She’s grabbed it from the tray sitting next to us. I’m robed, in bed. On bedrest. My belly a bare half-cantaloupe protrusion beneath the terrycloth. I click the phone closed, suddenly nauseous.

 

We’d wanted more children, but it wasn’t meant to be. Incompetent cervix they’d called it. They hadn’t known they said. Not until it was too late. There were procedures. They could prevent it the next time, or at least reduce the risk. We’d had huge fights about it. I think the marriage would have ended over it if we hadn’t had my daughter. I couldn’t go through it again I told my husband. He didn’t understand. If at first, you don’t succeed and all that bullshit. He’s an engineer after all. But there was no way. For a long time, every time we made love all I thought about was dead babies. My resentment grew. He wasn’t the one who gave birth to a dead baby. It was me. He couldn’t know. But I thought he should. I still do.

 

I shoved my phone into the mail drawer in the kitchen. My girl said she’ll come for a visit at the end of the month. That makes me smile.

 

In my office, I sit down at my desk. It’s a wide wooden surface, smoothed from years of sliding books and papers across it but also scratched and dinged all over from use. I’m careful to clear it each night even if that means stacking my work off to the shelves that cover the walls surrounding it. I like to sit down to a clean desk each day. Earlier this year my husband helped me move it under the big picture window on the office’s south wall. For years I kept the desk against a windowless wall so that I could pin various articles and projects to a giant corkboard above. A writer friend suggested the change as a way of shaking something loose. I’m not sure it’s worked to loosen me up but I’m enjoying the dappled light coming through the pink-flowered Crape Myrtle trees. We have a small little-used brick courtyard off this side of the house and a gecko has taken up residence between the cushions of the patio furniture. Occasionally I see a flash in my peripheral vision and, if I’m quick, I’ll catch him scooting across the bricks from one chair to another.  If I tap at my window glass, he ignores me completely. I like his uncompromising autonomy. His independence. I’m trying to think up a name for him. My new pet.

 

I try and focus on the piece I am writing. I keep a small calendar in the drawer to my right and in it is marked the deadline for each assignment. This one is coming up sooner than I’d like to admit. I’ll get it done. I always do. But not without stressing at the last minute and creating anxiety for my editor. I stare at the computer screen. I’ve written not quite two hundred words. I am less than inspired. The piece is supposed to be a humorous look at fashion over fifty. Sort of tongue-in-cheek commentary on the industry. The thing is, after doing the research, and probably even before that, I don’t find anything funny about the industry’s cannibalizing the very people it claims to be courting. There was a time I bought into the idea of fashion as art or even fashion as an empty promise. It’s not. Fashion is fear. It’s a vicious, destructive, malignant conspiracy bent on terrifying middle-aged women into spending more than they can possibly afford. Nobody believes they’ll look like Elle Macpherson if they buy a piece of cloth. But everyone believes they’ll look like the Wicked Witch of the West if they don’t.  To write about it in a funny, even sharply, sarcastically funny way, makes me feel like Judas. I slam shut the computer and stand up. The gecko is frozen on my patio. Staring at me accusingly. I stick out my tongue and he skitters off. I don’t think he cares about my feelings.

 

In the afternoon I go out to meet a friend, Kate, for coffee.  The place is packed. My town is like that. Everyone feels the need to pay five dollars for coffee all the time. At first, I don’t see Kate in the crowd but then I spot her in the line near the front. She is spectacular looking even as she approaches fifty. More so in some ways. Tall, formidable figure with lovely pale skin and dark hair. Always dressed in a style I believe is termed casual hip although I’d never be able to define what that means. Nor would I be able to pull it off. Today she’s wearing jeans and boots and mirrored sunglasses and a black cashmere sweater that looks soft as butter. Her hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail and she wears little makeup. She waves at me over the crowd. I feel sort of flattered that she knows me. It’s like being flagged down by a celebrity.  Or a queen.

 

We juggle our coffees and oversized, overpriced, bags until an undersized table opens up. Then push past a shapely mother with three extremely attractive little children to grab the seats.  Kate and I talk a great deal about our children-the good stuff- and almost none at all about our husbands. I think that husband talk is off limits. The intimacy of it too enormous. The vulnerability. At a certain age, the weakness of it becomes suffocating. She makes me laugh with stories of her sons and their adventures in college.

 

I watch two well-dressed older men with laptop computers lean towards each other across a small table. They both wear wedding rings but their conversation seems soft and secretive. Suddenly I think perhaps they are married to each other and I feel impossibly dated for thinking otherwise.

 

Kate and I do not talk about ourselves. Except to laughingly complain about our weight and wrinkles, as if those are not really issues at all.  We do not acknowledge the other things that stress us out. Her daughter is sullen and angry, involved with the wrong kids, and all her impressive wealth will not alleviate the problem. She has four kids. I have two, but one is dead. We do not talk about it. But we both know. There is a comfort in the mutual avoidance of certain topics. A weird sort of honesty and I feel sad when it’s time to go. Kate and I have been friends a long time. Since our kids were small, in school together.  Perhaps, I think, our friendship is based mostly on what is not said rather than what is. But we both have places to be. We kiss kiss and bye bye and see you later and I feel a strange bittersweet nostalgia as I am leaving. Like I might not see her again.

 

I stop for gas on the way home and a homeless man approaches me at the pump with a story about running out of gas and needing a loan. He has no car. I give him money.

 

Afterward, I text my husband although I’m not sure why.  I don’t say anything specific in the text. Just hello. He doesn’t respond which isn’t unusual. He says that during the workday he doesn’t get my texts, which I suppose I believe although sometimes I wonder. There was a time when I would have been frantic if he hadn’t returned my call. That was long ago. Before texting was a thing of course. I would have called repeatedly. I might have gone to his apartment and banged on the door. Curled up on the step like the Little Match Girl. But it’s different now. I look at my phone, in my lap. I’m texting while driving. I’m wishing for something although I’m not sure what. For him, I guess. There are times when I feel too light. Untethered, unmoored and he grounds me.  I suppose I resent him for that. For being the only one who can. I want to be able to do it for myself.

 

I push the radio button and the music comes out too loud and I swear and turn it off. Motherfucker. The next light turns red and I curse again. Motherfucker. Now I just want to get home. Then I remember my yoga class. I glance at my yoga bag sitting on the passenger seat. I look at my phone, mentally admonishing it for not reminding me about my class and at that exact moment it blip blips with an alarm called “bamboo.”

 

I make it to the yoga studio with ten minutes to spare and go into a stall to change clothes. I’ve never been one of those women comfortable in my nakedness-stepping out of the shower, towel in hand, covering nothing, wet and shining, cellulite bared to the world, post-baby belly shimmying as I cross the locker room. Not even when my body was young and relatively unblemished.  So, into the stall, I go, to change in the cramped, darkened space where only the toilet can judge.

 

Women come and go, unaware of my presence and I listen-eavesdrop really-to them chat about their lives, their children, their appliances. It amazes me what people find worthwhile to say. They are discussing laundry strategy and one woman, her voice young and loud and nasal and full of enthusiasm says I always wash my brights with my whites, and the second woman, softer, less confident, Asian accented, says oh no you wash whites with brights, and the first says yes I do I wash whites with brights, believe me, it’s the best way, and I already feel aswirl in too many words on the topic.  But, still, they go on. I hurry to finish changing and, in my rush, I bump an elbow hard against the stall door, causing significant discomfort. “Shit,” I splutter, without thought. The nasal-voiced one rushes the door making a string of startled noises and offering to help and I’m forced to open the door half-dressed and show her that I’m not having a seizure so that she’ll leave me alone. She’s actually a nice young woman, if not particularly bright, and I suspect I am becoming an unfriendly person.

 

When I arrive home, I decide to try writing a bit more. I sit at my desk, open my computer and check my email.  I often start writing by checking my email and surfing the web for a few hours. It’s extremely inefficient. There’s a group message from one of my classmates from graduate school. I haven’t heard from her in years. She wouldn’t have my cell phone number.  One of our colleagues-a woman I’ve not seen in over twenty years has passed away, she writes. Brain tumor. Came on quickly. She leaves behind a husband and three children, two are still in high school. The family, she says, is shattered. I’m taken aback by that word, shattered. Of course, I think, how could they not be. I lean back in my chair and stare at the screen. Breathing in and out, keenly aware of twilight enveloping the room. I stare at that word. Shattered. I say it out loud. “Shattered.”

 

Dead, I think. Gone, I think. It’s not the same as an empty space which is what you have when something has never been filled. Empty has potential. It can be full one day, fixed, repaired. That’s what my husband thought about having another baby. He thought we could fill her space. He thought I’d get better if we started again. He didn’t know, and I hated him for it.

 

But death is different. Death leaves a terrible, achy, gone place. Dark and cruel. Shattering in its stillness. My baby left that place inside of me. Now these children, this husband will know this place too. There is no photograph accompanying this email. I try to picture the woman’s face from long ago, but I can only remember a few details about her. A small woman with a halo of frizzy light brown hair and two rows of large overly white teeth. She smiled all the time. I remember that. The smiling. I didn’t know her well.

 

I look out the window at the Crape Myrtle which is beginning to drop tiny pink blossoms to the ground in preparation for the coming fall. In not too long it’s leaves will be bare, and the winter sun will stream through, no longer dappled by its leaves. I rub at my hands, which always ache a bit this time of day, close them into fists and squeeze at the knuckles of my right hand.  Tomorrow I’ll go ahead and make an appointment with Dr. Hensen. Tonight, I’ll get out one of my two cookbooks and make dinner for my husband. We will sit together at the table and I will tell him all about the things our daughter said today including the boy who totally is not like that, and he will smile.

 

In the kitchen, I’m running the tomatoes under cool water and I notice that hummingbird from this morning has come back, and I smile when I see him.  I pull two ripe fruits from the sink and pile the plump green ones with stems still attached, into a big blue bowl and set them by the window. The sunniest one in the kitchen. I think perhaps by the end of the month they’ll be ripe enough to eat.

 

 

 

Birthday Girl

She stands naked before the full length mirror in the bathroom and sticks out her tongue at herself. Her body looks no different today. She looks like a bald, wet, cat, she thinks, and she runs her palms over her small breasts and down her hips, disappointed they have not changed overnight. She is, after all, thirteen today. She stands there another minute making ugly faces at herself and then shrugs and picks up the towel off the floor, wraps herself in it and opens the door into the other room.

She pads across the soft carpet to a vanity elaborately draped in chiffon and polyester (made to look like silk) scarves in all sorts of silly feminine colors like lavender and rosy pink. She sort of hates it now but doesn’t have the heart to say anything about it. It’s been that way such a long time. She sits on the stool and resumes making faces at herself for a while. She thinks perhaps if her nose was shorter or her face was a different shape. She read in a magazine that oval was the best shape. Her face is most definitely not oval. She’s not sure what shape she has but its’ not oval. Round maybe or square. Not oval. Too wide for oval. She likes her eyes though. Very blue. Everyone always says how blue they are. Especially with makeup. Lots of makeup. That reminds her.  Her watch is lying on a small decorated mirror on the vanity. She picks it up and checks the time. Her heart skips with anxious anticipation. She needs to hurry. This is an important night.

She picks up the earbuds connected to her iPod and plug them into her ears, switching on the electronic hip hop music she goes to work.

She finds a tube of make-up primer and carefully dabs it all over her face, blending it in just like she’s been taught. She tries to ignore how wrongly her face is shaped. She uses the special brush to apply face makeup and blush and then goes to work on her eyes. She’s really an expert at doing her eyes and she knows it.  She applies blue shadow and black liner all the way around on both lids then heavy layers of black mascara. She cannot help wondering what her mother would say. She smiles slightly embarrassed at the thought.  She applies pale pink lip gloss and two squirts of lightly floral scented perfume. She doesn’t know the name but thinks it smells like something happy.

She removes the earbuds, switches off the iPod and studies herself in the mirror, smacking her lips a few times. Yes, she thinks, she looks good. Maybe her face is still round or square or whatever but she’s pretty. So, that’s good. She feels another skip in her chest, anxious, nervous. A little nauseous maybe. She’s surprised by it. But then, again, she reminds herself, it’s a big night.

She goes to the closet and pulls out the dress she’s been planning to wear. A short, tight sequined affair all in blue, too match her eyes she’d thought. But looking at now, she’s unsure. It seems too much. She puts it back. Pulls out another dress, less garish, not as short, still blue. She puts it on, takes it off, puts it on, studies herself in the bathroom mirror and decides she’s satisfied.

She slips on high heeled shoes and picks up a purse that holds nothing but a lipstick.

She is not allowed money or a cellphone.

She is not allowed to carry identification.

The driver arrives to pick her up. The car will take her to the event.  That’s what today is called. An event. As she steps to the door, she checks back over her shoulder. The room remains dim but she can see he’s still asleep. He will be for a while. He’s old she thinks. He needs his sleep. He’s never told her how old but she guesses he’s over fifty.  Sometimes she wishes for a different life,  but he’s been good to her.  He doesn’t beat her. Not like the others. She’s never hungry. Never cold.  The other girls say how lucky she is that he’s chosen her as his special girl. The other girls all have to stay together in two rooms with three or four to a bed. She has it good, they say. Don’t mess it up they say. Besides, she thinks, where would she go? She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t know anyone.  What good is she to anyone, besides this? No, she thinks, looking at the man in the bed, she’ll stay, this is good. This is her life now. 

She turns back to the man at the door. She wishes she could remember his name. He’s new, but he has driven her at least once before. She decides that in her head she will call him Snowman for his terribly white skin. He says nothing but extends his arm, elbow first.  He does not smile. The gesture makes her feel childish. Lonely. She takes his arm and steps outside. She looks up into the night sky which is clear. It is so clear, it looks perfectly empty which is exactly how she feels inside.  She is still looking into the sky from the back of the car as it pulls out into the street. She is thinking about her own self drawn in pencil on a piece of white paper, then  all colored in perfectly white, so that the background and the colored in part match exactly.  She’s thinking about that pencil line being so hard to make out with all that whiteness around that it’s almost like it was never even there at all.